Authors: Viola Grace
Keeping calm was Meri’s life, making others feel it was her job. Loving a Negotiator was her destiny.
Meribeth has been the assistant to a few Alliance personnel, but Negotiator Kao is her latest boss. At his insistence, she had gills installed to enable her to accompany him on wet assignments, but his ulterior motive was not clear until he is out of the armour and his own body is finally exposed.
Vehn Kao has spent years encased in armour as a Negotiator, but the moment he comes out and sees Meribeth with his own eyes he knows that she is everything that he has ever wanted in a woman. She is intelligent, witty, attractive and has a tremendous passion just below the surface that he wants to bring out in an explosive release.
Meri wants to be good at her job and Vehn want to take her calm and shake her up.
The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.
Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage the electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2012 Viola Grace
Cover art by Martine Jardin
All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, is forbidden without the written permission of the publisher.
Published by eXtasy Books
Look for us online at:
A Terran Times Tale
To everyone who pursues calm and falls short. The pursuit of calm is the thing. Damn it! Where did my calm go?!
“Please rise for Negotiator Kao.” Meribeth Arkany stepped into the conference room ahead of her employer and moved aside once she had determined that no one other than the representatives of Zkin and Uast were present.
“Thank you, Meri.”
She nodded and took her place at the table, opposite her employer. She placed her hands on the table, palms down and sat alert while she listened to the proceedings.
Kao’s voice was low and calm as it emitted through the speakers on his armour. When Meri felt a change in the pitch of the two parties in for the negotiation, she did what she was paid to do, she spread calm.
Zkin and Uast were planets at war. Their worlds were side by side, which made attack easy and negotiation difficult. Neither side wanted to give in, but there was too much bad blood between them.
Negotiator Kao was a master at this sort of issue, and he worked tirelessly to get them to an agreement.
Meri used meditation and concentration to keep herself alert and ready to sooth the situation. If no one got too excited the talks would go faster.
When they agreed to break for dinner, Meri wanted to stretch, but she let them leave before she tried to stand.
The Negotiator sat and waited for her to move before he got to his feet. “Do you need help?”
She smiled and shook her head. Her body was reeling from the alterations she had undergone for their last assignment. Having gills in an oxygen-rich environment was awkward to say the least. “I will be fine. I haven’t had a chance to reverse the changes for Monareth.”
He came to her side and lifted her to her feet. “You wish to eradicate the gills?”
“Well, I have no use for them now, and you are about to retire, so it is doubtful that my next assignment will attach me to a Negotiator.” She swayed and breathed in through her mouth as spots swam in her vision.
“You skipped breakfast again, did you not?” He shook his head in dismay.
“I was in a hurry and took a shower instead. I will eat now.” She smiled brightly, but his hand was still on her arm.
“I will come with you.”
“You do not need to eat, Kao.” She tried to extricate herself, but he didn’t let go.
He turned and shifted her arm so that it appeared she was using him as her escort. He led her out of the council chamber, past the lining of Alliance guards and to the mess hall of the Alliance Warship Calluth.
Once she had gotten a tray and made her choices, she sat across from her boss and started to eat. She was halfway through and tired of staring at herself in the golden reflection of his armour. “You know, this penchant you have for watching me eat borders on creepy.”
He inclined his head. “It is something I miss with the nutrients forced into my systems. Food was an important part of my family life until I was tapped as Negotiator.”
Meri looked at him, captive in his gold armour and surrounded by long, black robes and a cloak. “I am sorry. I can’t imagine you out of that armour. I know it is impolite to ask your original species, and so, I have to use my imagination. My imagination isn’t that good.”
He made a sound she had grown to interpret as a laugh. “I will be able to show you what I am after our final assignment together. You will need those gills for our next planet fall.”
She made a face. “I see. Well, at least I will have my full suit ready for the day. The gill openings are built in, if a little risqué.”
“Do you mind the gills so much?”
“No. It is a change to my personal topography, and it will take some time to get used to them. If I do get used to them, I might even decide to keep them.” She finished her meal and sat back with a hot cup of tea.
“You think so? You are very optimistic for someone trained to stop violence.”
She shrugged and sipped at the rich taste of hot berries. “Stopping violence is beyond me. I can only cool it down in the beginning phases. I keep people calm, Negotiator.”
“Call me Kao when we are not actively involved in a negotiation. I know I have encouraged the formality for far too long, but my time in the armour is coming to a close.”
“Why the change?”
He inclined his shiny, unmarked faceplate. “I am about to resume a life I was not sure I would make it to. Being decanted out of a Negotiator uniform is a traumatic experience, and I will need a friend. There is no one closer to me than you.”
Meri sighed and sipped at her tea again. “Is this the reason for the evening workouts?”
“Yes. It will make the transition easier if I have some muscle tone before the suit comes off.”
Every night, after she removed his cloak and robes, Negotiator Kao engaged in a series of sit-ups, push-ups and yoga moves that were truly impressive given his less-than-flexible armour. The grunts told her that he was not on the hydraulic assist that moved his body day after day.
“How long will we be here?”
“Two days at the outside. Your help has been invaluable, Meribeth. I want you to know that. The last two years with you at my side has made the time slip by and has increased the effectiveness of my work dramatically. Thank you.”
Meri blinked. “Um, are you dying or something?”
The translator on his suit made a peculiar sound before he shook his head. “No. But I am going to change, and I am attempting to adapt my behaviour accordingly. My distance from those around me is about to cease and no one is closer to me than you are.”
It was the second time that he had said that, and though they had worked with each other for two years, she knew nothing about him. The true nature of a Negotiator was a highly guarded secret. He was supposed to be neutral in all negotiations, and therefore, he could not claim a home while he was in the armour. He was a man without a planet, or a woman. Meri couldn’t be sure.
“So, do you have an estimated date when I will need to contact the Alliance for a new assignment?”
To Meri’s surprise, Kao’s right fist clenched on the table where he had been resting his hand. “I will discuss that with the placement officer when I file the report on your service. There is no estimate until your final assignment is complete.”
She inclined her head. “I apologize, Negotiator. I forgot for a moment that I was your employee.”
His hand opened, and he placed his palm flat on the table. “I believe it is time to re-join our negotiation.”
Meri got to her feet, “As you wish, Negotiator.”
His hands clenched again, and she noted that the normal assisted-whirring sound was absent. He was operating on his own, and his body was carrying its own weight and that of the armour. Kao got to his feet and inclined his head.
He turned and left the mess hall, leading her back to the conference room where she would do her job and he would do his.
Whatever he was leading up to in his conversation was forgotten. Meri was tired of being put in her place. She may be the closest person to him, but she didn’t know him at all. Watching him walk ahead of her, she was sure of one thing, he was definitely a him.
Twelve hours of negotiation across two more days exhausted Meri, but when it was over and done with, she was grimly delighted. Kao had become foul tempered in the extreme, and it got worse whenever she tried to ask him about giving her a good reference for her next Alliance position.
Meribeth was sitting alone in the dining hall and poking at her salad. What had been a calm acquaintance had turned into a twisting morass of conflicting emotions. He was angry with her, curt, and she could swear that he was glaring at her behind the shield of his faceplate.
She didn’t know what to do. Meri was running out of time as his assistant, and he wasn’t helping her to look for her next position like her previous employers had. Her talent was so peculiar that it was hard to quantify. Keeping folks calm was usually a by-product of a projecting empath. Meri was a one-trick pony, and she knew it.
“You aren’t eating.” Kao sat next to her at the table.
“I don’t have much appetite when my mind is spinning.”
“You haven’t eaten for days.”
“You seem to enjoy it when I eat, so I have decided that it is a gift I will not offer you.” Meri pushed her food aside.
“Your colour is pale. Are you tired?”
His concern set off warm flutters in her belly, but she knew that his emotions could rotate without warning, so she said quietly, “I am fine.”
He shifted in his seat. “I…I mean would you…I am being decanted this afternoon and I wish for you to be there.”
Meri sat up and stared at him. “What?”
“I went in alone. I would like someone to be there when I come out. Will you?” He did something she had never heard him do. He cleared his throat, though the vocalization was translated by his suit’s systems.
She sighed. “Of course I would. When is it happening?”
He turned his head, and she saw the medical specialists gathered in the doorway to the dining hall.
“It is happening now. I made them wait to see if you would come with me.”
She smiled weakly. “Well, then, we had best not keep them waiting.”
Meri got to her feet, and Kao stood next to her. She heard his whisper as they walked and almost tripped over her own feet. For the next two hours she would wonder if she really heard what she thought she heard.
“Thank you, Meribeth.” The words out of his lips came the moment that the wires were removed from his skull. He had a tight grip on her hand, and he squeezed it as they eased him into an upright position.
His skin was pale blue, his irises were a dark and vivid purple in a sea of black. Meri called on her knowledge of the species that had gill slits along their collarbones and came up with only one that she could think of. He was a Lahash of Reepha.
“You are welcome, Kao.” She kept hold of his hand as the techs continued to remove the connections between his body and the armour. After the mental leads were removed, there were all the muscle triggers to take care of.
The techs worked quickly and quietly, sealing each hole as the leads were removed.
His skull was hairless and a paler shade than the rest of him.
“You could have told me sooner, Kao. I could have helped ease you to this moment instead of letting you rave on as the mood struck you.”
He blinked those lovely dark eyes at her. “You never tried to calm me.”
“No, it wasn’t my place. People have emotions for a reason. They work through their stimuli and find their true way. The only problem arises when rage or fear takes over and kills common sense. That is when I need to step in. My talent is useful for old feuds and ending wars, but aside from that, it’s pretty silly.”
He frowned, “Your talent has eased my negotiations for these past two years, calming those who were looking for an excuse to fly into a rage. It has comforted me to know that you were waiting to step in and keep things under control.”
“I am glad you think so. So when the reference comes up, it will be favourable?”
The ridges where his eyebrows should be were knit together. “Are you still on about that?”
“It is the next phase of my life, and a little help is needed to keep me going forward.”
“What if I offer you a job as my assistant?”
She blinked, “What?”
“I will be beginning a life at home as a mediator. Having a calming influence with me would be a distinct advantage.”
Meri frowned, “But the Lahash live underwater.”
“And you have a new set of gills.”
She opened and closed her mouth in shock. “You aren’t joking.”
Kao flinched as the techs worked on his lower spine. “No, I am not joking. I could use another qualified mediator at my side.”
Meri’s shock ratcheted up a notch. “How did you know I was qualified? That record was supposed to be sealed.”
His hand closed around hers. “It was. I watched your micro expressions while you were attending my negotiations. You twitched and bit your lip every time a matter of personal family issues occurred.”
“So, you didn’t actually know until…”
“You just told me. Now, I have need of a mediator in my own life on Reepha, and there is no one I trust to do a fair job more than I trust you.” He flinched and sighed as the last of the wires was removed from his muscles and the healing ran to its completion.
One of the team came to the side of Kao’s head and knelt so that he could look at his patient face to face. “We have withdrawn the leads, but you will need a few days in a tank to help.”
Kao didn’t let go of Meri’s hand. “Will you come to Reepha as assistant mediator?”
She looked into his pretty eyes, the pained set of his mouth. She couldn’t say no. “Of course I will.”
He pressed his lips to her skin, and she felt the tingle run from her knuckles through her torso. “Thank you. I will see you after I enter the tank. Will you visit me?”
A blush crept up beyond the neck of her black and gold bodysuit. She shivered slightly, and when he smiled, she mentally kicked herself. “I will visit you, but that is as far as it goes.”
“If you insist. I look forward to your visit.” He released her hand and she backed away from the bed where he had been laid out on his stomach. The techs placed monitor pods on him and lifted him to help him into the waiting tank.
Meri left the room while the techs checked the monitor tabs. Watching him get wet and naked at the same time pushed her self-control. His transformation from quasi-robot to living being in the course of a few hours was a strain on her nerves.
Sighing, she ran a hand over her neatly arranged hair and headed for the research centre. She had to look up the biology and sociology of the Lahash and anything else on Reepha. If she was heading into a situation as a mediator, she needed to know what she was dealing with.
Six hours of research had taken the wind out of her sails. The Lahash were part of the society of Reepha, the Sivith were the other half, and the water and land folk were always at odds. It was no wonder that Kao was going back as a mediator. His people certainly needed one.
The Lahash enjoyed a peculiar symbiosis with the Sivith, but the Sivith could live quite happily without the Lahash, or so they believed. The Lahash could seduce with a touch and their children were almost entirely born by the Sivith. This strange arrangement led to hostilities, custody battles and general distrust of any of the water born.
A Lahash child needed to be raised on the land until they had reached the age of five and at that point their secondary breathing mechanisms were mature enough to join the underwater community. This meant that many Sivith mothers lost their children at that age and it was traditional for a large payment to be made for the raising of the Lahash children.
The arrangement was peculiar by Terran standards, but since it had been going on for thousands of years, Meri wasn’t in a position to judge, only mediate.
Her head pounded and she stretched. A medical tech approached her, and she was immediately on guard.
“Agent Arkany?” The Azon smiled gently at her and there was appreciation in his eyes.
She snapped her arms down and ceased her stretch, reversing the arch of her chest. “Yes?”
“Negotiator Kao has been asking for you. He is most insistent that you visit him.”
She got to her feet. “Is he unwell?”
“No, merely insistent.” He smiled and offered her his arm.
She took the offered arm and let him lead her back to medical. “Do you unhook many Negotiators?”
“It is a speciality. Working with the leads and the neuro science takes a special skill set.” He puffed his chest out with pride.
Meribeth looked over and had to admit that her current companion was very well put together. His leonine features were handsome and the glint in his eyes had a definitely flirtatious aspect to it. “You did a very good job.”
“Thank you. I have heard much about Kao’s skills as a Negotiator, so it was an honour to give him an easy transition back into the world of physical contact.” He stroked her fingers with his free hand.
She fought the urge to release his arm and move aside. Instead, she sent a wave of calm through him that had the effect of flattening whatever arousal was starting to zip around in his body. It was a technique she used frequently.
She felt a profound sense of relief when they entered medical. The tech led her straight to the tank where Kao was floating, and the scowl on her boss’s face showed some of that temper that she had run into over the past few days.
“Thank you for the escort.” She smiled and dismissed the tech.
“Anytime, Agent. My name is Jarvin if you wish to seek me out.” He took her hand and pressed a kiss to her knuckles, but the shiver of heat and recognition was absent. Despite the fit aspect of his body, hers was not interested.
She turned to face Kao, and his scowl was only slightly diminished. “Hello, Kao.”
He pressed his hand to the plexi between them and with an instinct born of her recent research she pressed her hand to match his.
Why did he kiss you?
He kissed my hand. He didn’t kiss me. Probably for the same reason you did.
Meri winced at the roar of anger that whipped through her mind. She didn’t pull her hand away from the glass, but it was tempting.
She watched as Kao got himself under control, and she waited.
I am sorry. I did not like seeing him touch you.
I was touching him as well. It was a casual contact as you are very well aware.
His mind was not casual.
She couldn’t answer that, so she asked,
Why did you want me here?
I want you with me at all times. There is much to tell you about Reepha, and who better than an inhabitant to bring you up to speed on it.
I have been doing my own research.
Yes, but I can tell you a bit about your first mediation. It is a custody dispute.
She blinked, there was emotion wrapped around his words.
It seems common on Reepha to have that sort of dispute.
Yes, but this is about my daughter.
Her blood went cold as she realised that he had a child and that child had a mother that he had been attached to. Jealously ran through her, and she jerked her hand away from the tank.
Meri’s thoughts spun wildly as she tried to get a handle on the situation. She ruthlessly throttled down her attraction to Kao, and when he tapped on his side of the tank, she put her hand back on the still-warm plexi.
I did not mean to upset you. It is the Lahash way. We have the urge to spawn and we go to the Sivith cities, find a partner and do as nature wills. We then return to the lakes and seas, waiting for our children to be old enough to join us.
Images streamed into her thoughts of being in the water with a tense pulse raging through her blood. The feelings were foreign, but as her sight focussed on nearby females, she noted the definite masculine tone of the thoughts. When he ceased transmitting the emotional mess, he had been approaching a group of females who were transfixed by his appearance.
We attract the females whether they will it or not. We find the ideal mate for that time and place, and we join to make the next generation. I engaged in this activity before I left and received word that my daughter had been born in my absence. My family has kept in contact with her, but it is time for me to take her on as my responsibility.
So, you want me to help you negotiate her custody?
No, the settlement that her mother requires. It is an emotional time for both of us and clearer heads must prevail. That means you.
So, what resources to you have to donate to the cause?
He sent her a list of his holdings, properties and credit accounts.
That should do.
You have a home on land?
I do, as well as one in the lake and one in the sea of Anutha.
So, if she wants it, visitation is possible.
No female wants that. Most are delighted to be free of their Lahash child.
I think you underestimate the strength of the bond. Some women are attached to their children.
The Sivith do not properly bond with Lahash children. That is why it is so important to have family who can visit and care for the child as it grows. It needs to know that it has a proper home when it can begin to breathe water.
That is a lot to put on a child. The waiting.
Our touch gives the child the information it needs. It is something that they learn as soon as they meet their first Lahash relative. My parents and sister were there when Niika was born. They have sent me dispatches for the last six years. She is ready to come home with me, but I have to be there to take custody. I have no idea how this will go, but I want you with me when it comes time to work out the details.
He was frazzled, there was no doubt of that, but he had yet to answer one question that she had no idea how to ask, so she just blurted it out, thought to thought.
What is your actual name?
Vehn. My name is Vehn Kao, of the Kao line.
Pleased to meet you, Vehn. Do you want me to call you Vehn or Kao?
Vehn in private, Kao in public until the custody matter is settled.
So, still all professional in our conduct?
She couldn’t stop her smile.
Until I can arrange it to be otherwise, I will say yes. Professional until Niika is home.
She smiled and pressed her forehead against the glass.
Fine, professional until Niika is home.
With a new daughter in his life, he would lose any growing interest in her in a matter of seconds, Meribeth was quite sure.
She would get her reference when he was otherwise occupied and then move on to the next world in her travelling adventure show. For a few short hours, she had imagined the possibility of Kao as a lover. The image of him as a father was rapidly overlaying it and doing wonders on flattening her hormones.
I will speak with you tomorrow, Kao.
I hope so, Meribeth.
He sent a wave of heat and affection toward her, but she held it off with her talent. Above all, she was going to keep her calm even if she couldn’t have her dignity.
Until she saw the sociology in action, she was not going to believe that a series of mothers could simply hand over their children at the appointed time. It defied everything that Meri had grown up with. Her mother didn’t easily part with any of her four children as her brothers and sisters-in-law had found out.
“Are you ready?” The Negotiator was dressed in similar clothing to her own, but on him, it was horribly impressive, as was his regenerated long navy blue hair.
“As ready as I can be. Where are we landing?”
Kao pointed to the large structures and large tarmacs. “The spaceport. My family will meet us there and take us to the site where the mediations will be held.”
“So, you will meet your daughter today?”
“I sincerely hope so. I have spoken with her on audio connections, but for obvious reasons, there has been no visual contact.”
“Right, the armour thing. All faceplate, no face.” Meri sighed and shifted nervously.
“Correct. Are you all right? You seem nervous.”
He reached for her hand, and she jerked her arm away.
“Meribeth, is something wrong?”
“No. It has been a while since I have walked free on a world with a species so similar to my own. I simply want to keep my wits about me.” She winced as she realised she may have gotten too close to the actual problem. When he touched her, her heartbeat galloped out of control, her body warmed and she stared at him like he was the last man in the universe. It was part of the Lahash survival mechanism. They could enthrall with a look and seduce with a touch. She despised the thought that she would just be one of dozens he had simply whispered into his arms.
He tried for her hand again, and she shifted. “No psychic contact, please, Mediator Kao.”
He frowned. “I am not used to being refused, Meribeth. This is not like you.”
She looked at his ridiculously handsome features and nodded tensely. “I know, but I think it should be until this mediation is done. I have to remain neutral for it to work.”
She could feel him seething next to her. Their shuttle dropped and levelled out.
“You have until this is concluded to straighten yourself out and be the Meribeth I am used to.”
Her mouth quirked up on one side. “This is the Meribeth you are used to, you are just not used to being on the receiving end of the calm.”
He sat grim and growling for the last hour of their journey. When the spaceport allowed them to land, Meri inhaled deeply, ignoring the scent of Kao as best she could.
He was out of his seat the moment that the lights indicated safety.
Meri unbuckled her harness and got to her feet, ignoring the hand he extended to her. She wasn’t going to take the risk of a contact reading. His ways were not her ways, and she was having a problem grappling with the methods of propagation of his species.
She grabbed her two bags from storage, slipping them over her shoulders. She followed the other passengers to the shuttle exit and was immediately smacked by the humidity of Reepha.
Her breathing was difficult, but her gills immediately began to flutter at her collarbone. She ruthlessly shut them and smiled blandly at the Sivith guards who were watching the debarkation. The Sivith were a handsome species—tall, elegant and graceful—they seemed to be in complete command of their bodies. Their uniforms were made of thin and nearly translucent material, but it seemed appropriate with the high humidity.
Meri kept her face calm as she sought out Kao in the crush of bodies, and she slowly migrated toward him, only to be stopped by a Sivith guard. “Air breathers must check in over here. Please allow me to escort you, miss.”
“Oh. Thank you. I am a little tired after the voyage.”
He extended his arm, and she hesitated but then curled her hand around it. “Are you here for business or pleasure?”
She smiled. “I believe I am here for business. I am to be one of the new mediators.”
“Excellent. We are always in need of mediation services. What is your name miss?”
“Meribeth Arkany of the Alliance Protectorate of Terra.”
He escorted her into a large glass-walled building, and she went through the same procedure she had engaged in on every world she landed on, and she stood in the body scanner, waiting for it to chirp authorization for her to walk through.
The noise it made wasn’t a chirp, but the guard who had attached to her on the tarmac took her hand and pulled her aside. “I thought you said you were an air breather.”
“I am. Born and raised. I have a recently installed gill set for work. Is that the problem?”
He frowned. “You installed gills?”
“Well, an Alliance surgeon did it for me, but yes. Mediators have to have flexible physiologies, we go where we are needed and switching a breathing system is not something we do lightly.”
She waited, knowing that they wouldn’t be able to refuse her entrance but curious to see how far he would take it.
“So, you are not a Lahash?”
“What did my scan tell you?”
“It said you were not, but I have to say, you are far more attractive than most of the water breathers I have met.”
She smiled and looked up into eyes that were a robin’s egg blue with a golden iris. The Sivith were just as pretty in their way as the Lahash were. It must be troublesome.
A few Sivith women were walking around, their clothing so barely there, it would have caused Earth law enforcement to begin measuring for decency. All the fabric was a loose weave and it hung strategically around the curves of every Sivith female in the building.
Her escort went and completed some document before handing her her bags. “I look forward to seeing you again, Mediator Arkany. My name is Captain Keel Nnar.”
“Thank you for your help, Captain. I am sure that you will be able to find me again if there are any issues regarding my work visa.” She smiled and took her bags to the main hall of the port station where Lahash and Sivith milled and mixed.
Kao saw her and relief crossed his features. “Where did you go?”
“I was run through dry-lander customs and immigration. My gills threw them off. Anyway, I am here now, so let’s get to work.”
He placed a hand on her back, and she tried not to flinch. “First, you will meet my family.” He steered her to a gathering of tall, elegant and blue Lahash.
“Meribeth, this is my mother, Mir Kao, my father, Hisk Kao, and my sister Ys Kao. Family, this is my assistant and full-fledged mediator, Meribeth Arkany. She will be staying in the town house.”
Ys had the same striking colouration as her brother, but on her--with the brief halter-top that exposed her gills and the low-slung skirt that clung to her hips by friction alone--that beauty changed into something deadly to women in her vicinity. No one would see them with this creature nearby.
Ys stepped forward and extended her hand, palm out. “I am happy to greet you on behalf of our family.”
Meri buttoned down her mind and kept it all business as she pressed her palm to Ys’s.
It took effort to keep her expression bland. “Pleased to meet you, all of you. Thank you for your hospitality.”
Ys pressed against Meri’s mind, but Meri politely forced her back and disengaged her hand. “Now, I would like to see some of your city. Can you show me where I am staying and let me know when and where I am to begin the mediation?”
She addressed her questions to Kao, and he looked like he wanted to read her the riot act once again but instead his mother moved forward. “I will show you to the house, dear. It is overlooking the water but near to downtown. A perfectly lovely location.”
Meri was swept away by Mir. There was no other term for it. The older woman had her hair swept up in a green cascade that made its way down to her ribs. Her thin clothing was designed for a bit more support than her daughter’s, but the perfect blue of her skin was as unblemished as the younger woman’s.
“Now, Meribeth, call me Mir. I was wondering how long you have known my son. I have never seen him in this type of temper.” Mir hailed a skimmer and bustled Meri inside.
“I have been his assistant for two years. The temper is new. He has been in a foul mood since he announced his decanting.” She watched the city fly by. Every area of the city was meticulously planned.
Mir’s lips were twisted sharply in amusement. “What has triggered his mood?”
“Usually it was my asking for a reference for my next assignment. I won’t get assigned until I have a reference from Kao, so I was pressing him on the matter.”
“Ah, that does explain it. He does not like having things he loves taken from him.”
Meri let that slide. “Why did he leave to become a Negotiator?”
“Reepha needed to put a foot into the Alliance, and Vehn was suited to it. He had no objection to the isolation, but he didn’t know that the spawning had taken. Nina hid it from everyone until Vehn was gone.”
This brought the focus to the case she was about to mediate. “Why did she hide the pregnancy?”
Mir smiled, “She was engaged to be wed and didn’t want her fiancé to find out. The Nnar are a proud and extensive family. Nina did not want to disappoint her husband-to-be with her lack of control.”
“How does the spawning work, do the males just raid the seaside villages or something?”
“Oh, my dear, no. The women line up when the moons are full, and they try to be chosen. The women who carry for the Lahash are well compensated and enjoy the pleasure. They rear the children while allowing the Lahash full visitation, and when the child is mature enough to breathe water, they become members of Lahash society.”
“Can they visit their mothers?”
“Of course. It is encouraged to maintain connections on all sides of the family for the child’s wellbeing.”
“How is your granddaughter taking this?”
“The same way that Vehn took it when he moved away from the land and into the sea. She is anticipating homesickness, but she is excited by the idea of living under the sea with other children who can do the same.”
Meribeth froze in place. “Vehn was conceived on land?”
“Certainly, two years before I even met Hisk. When we married, I became his mother and eventually bore Ys. We hired a Sivith nanny to take care of her on land and visited her every day.”
“So, having your children raised on dry land isn’t an accident, it isn’t a choice?”
“No, it is a biological necessity. It takes strong gills to push water through and the little ones just cannot manage. We have tried to raise them in our underwater cities, but children are children, they want to go outside with the others and can’t understand that one year makes all the difference.” There was sorrow in Mir’s voice.
The idea of a child who could not survive playing outside with others made Meri shudder with the horror of the situation. “I think that raising them on the land is definitely a good idea in that case.”
“Well, I am hoping that Niika’s transition goes smoothly. The finances can often be the sticking point.” Mir grimaced.
“I will do what I can to keep things calm. Now, what constitutes a good settlement?” Meribeth picked Mir’s brain on the ins and outs of the finances of the Lahash and what a Sivith woman could and might demand. It was quite the list.
The Kao townhouse was lovely and had three servants who kept the place ready for any and all guests.
“The negotiations will be done in the dining room. Witnesses for both parties will be present, and we will begin immediately after your meal. Vehn just let me know you have not been eating well. We will soon fix that.” Mir smiled and showed sharp white teeth.
At a few quiet commands, the maid had Meribeth’s bag and took it upstairs while Mir led her into the dining room where another servant was preparing a tea set.
“I feel it best if you get used to the feel of this room as you are going to be running the festivities.” Mir ushered her to the head of the table.
Mir took her seat and stared at Meri. “You must be very hot in all that fabric.”
Meribeth smiled. “No, I can manage just fine. The suit is conditioned to respond to my body and heat or cool me accordingly.”
“It looks horribly warm.” Mir frowned.
“It is fine. I am used to it and have been in far heavier suits over the years. This one lets my skin breathe a little.”
The maid brought the tea. Meri took it with a smile. Her brows rose in surprise when she tasted her favourite herb blend. “Where did this come from?”
Mir smiled, “Vehn called ahead and had us stock this place with your favourites so that you would feel at home. I believe my son is smitten with you.”
Meri got a little nervous and then spoke her mind. “He has other matters on his plate for now. He will soon grow out of any interest he has in me.”
“You don’t know him as well as you think then. My son makes up his mind, and he pursues his decision with everything in him. Today, he will gain custody of his daughter, and from then on, his path will be clear.”
Meri swallowed. “Well, I suppose I shall stay out of his path then. I am sure that he will want to situate Niika in one of his underwater homes.”
Mir drank her tea. “Well, he will, once he is wed. While many children are raised in a single-parent home, that will not always be the case. Vehn has decided on you, Meribeth. You had better get used to the idea.”
Meri’s hand clenched around the delicate cup, and she felt it give. She put it down immediately. “What he wants is immaterial. I have not been consulted on this matter, nor will I simply hand myself over to a man I do not know.”
A smile crossed the older woman’s features. “He does not enthrall you?”
“He does, but I fight it. My will wins over my instincts and that is what I believe to be spurring his foul temper.”
“Excellent. Vehn has had too easy a life when it comes to ladies falling into his arms. A little fight will be good for him.”
Meri lifted her cup once again and didn’t say anything. There would be time enough to speak when she was mediating. For now, she was simply trying to keep her calm.
Meri was sitting at the dressing table, putting the last touches on her appearance when the maid came to the door. “Miss, they are here and gathered in the dining room.”
“Thank you, Hala. I will be down presently.” Meribeth got to her feet in a rush of fabric. Her mediator robes had not wrinkled at all in storage, and the sombre grey of them brought a small smile to her lips. It had been too long since she had worn them, and she had missed the feeling of belonging that the robes brought to her.
She had managed three assignments as mediator before her nerves had cracked. Calming and counselling at the same time was more than she could manage.
Her robes had a special addition. The peak of the cowl had a gem set on it that fastened to her forehead and glowed when she used her calming talent. It was considered fair warning for her clients that they were getting out of control.
Meribeth took one last look in the mirror and sighed. One assignment and off to wherever the Alliance sent her. It was time to get to work.
She had been situated in a lovely guest suite, and it was a few seconds until she reached the stairs and made her way to the dining hall where everyone was waiting.
The men got to their feet when she entered and the women remained seated. Nina was pale and lovely, and the two men with her looked uncomfortable with the situation. Meribeth recognized one of them. “Captain Nnar. How nice to see you again so soon.”
He jerked and stared. “Miss Arkany. You really are here for work.”
She inclined her head and took her seat at the head of the table, gesturing for everyone to sit. “We are here to engage in the transfer of custody of Niika. Nina Volar Nnar, what are your requests for the compensation of Niika’s first few years?”
Nina lifted her head and looked shyly at Vehn while the man next to her—her husband—glared at the Lahash who had gotten to his bride first.
“The compensation offered by the Kao family has been enough. The house, the land, everything is more than enough for the joy of raising Niika. Can she come visit me?”
Nina’s husband shifted and the waves of anger coming off him were palpable, so Meri quashed them under a wave of calm. She did the same to the Kaos.
Meri broke up the glaring contest between the two sides. “While this is a custody transfer, bear in mind that it is all about a little girl who had no choice in how she came into this world. There was no force, no subterfuge, merely a mating that resulted in another Lahash being born. It is about her, not the families.”