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In the spacious, elegantly appointed quarters occupied by members of Naomi's family for three generations, that elderly but still sprightly widow rose at her usual time, to find that Sebastian, her nephew, chose on this day to join her for breakfast. After greeting him cordially, Naomi placed three premium breakfasts in the oven.
When Marianne, her Gaean boarder, emerged from her bedcabin and greeted the hostess warmly, the matron caught no hint of the ebullient joy suffusing the woman who just completed her second term at the University. Better able to see past the serene composure Marianne consciously maintained, Sebastian sensed the intensity of the emotion churning within her. His own hawk-profiled face no less serene, he let slip no hint that he shortly would announce news guaranteed to startle and perhaps perturb his aunt. Three people sat down to eat heartily, chatting volubly the while.
At the conclusion of the meal, Sebastian rose, and expressed his wish to speak privately to the Gaean. Marianne preceded him into her cabin. Having closed the door, he swept her into his arms for a long, lingering, lazy kiss.
When he freed her lips, he smiled at his fiancée, and remarked in an ironic drawl, "I didn't summon you for a private conference just to enjoy the taste of your tongue, Marianne. I intend to let Naomi make the mistaken assumption that I asked for your hand here and now, rather than arouse any suspicions as to where and when and what we've been doing. Naturally, that proposal would take a bit of time, so we'll stall a trifle longer." His mouth promptly closed once again over that of the woman soon to be hiswife.
Melting against him, Marianne equated her mental state with that of the captain of a ship settling onto a lock above its home port after making a long, dangerous transit through volumes of space no vessel had ever before penetrated. Happiness engulfed her. She felt safe, cherished. Her thoughts strayed to her brother, and the happiness dimmed. Fear swirled into a mind all at once befogged by sorrow, and by a sense of imminent loss. Unconsciously, the Gaean stiffened.
"I know," Sebastian murmured in her ear. "You'll call your brother right after we tell Naomi the news."
Marianne again developed the uncanny impression that this man had effortlessly read her mind.
When Sebastian released his breathless, flushed fiancée, she combed her hair, and sought to regain her initial serenity. "How long a contract do you choose to enter, Marianne?" he asked as his eyes bored into hers.
No hesitation, no overtone of anxiety shaded the response of the woman exquisitely conscious of exiling herself forever from her home world. "If I take a husband at all, I take him for life, Sebastian."
That unequivocal assertion engendered fierce satisfaction in the hearer. "Ahhh ... I'm glad you feel that degree of confidence in the suitability of our marriage, and in the certainty that love will come."
Will it? And if it does, will it last? Half an Earthcentury from now, will I still love this man whose complex personality generates as much wariness as fascination? the Gaean wondered uneasily. But there's no turning back now!
Exerting her full power of will, the Gaean forced all doubt from her mind. "I'll work at making it come," she declared firmly. "Happy marriages don't just happen. The partners strive hard--continuously--to make their union a happy one."
"I'll meet you half-way, Marianne."
Preceding her affianced husband through the door, conscious that her heart pounded, the woman braced to encounter new trauma heard him say briskly, "Naomi, sit down, please. We have something to tell you."
Fixing a quizzical eye on her nephew, the matron settled into her favorite seat, and waited expectantly. Sebastian, who stood with a hand resting on the shoulder of the woman who seated herself rather nervously on the edge of a chair, maintained his accustomed aplomb. "I've asked Marianne to become my wife, Naomi, and she has accepted me," he announced.
Shock leaped visibly into the handsome patrician face. "You've done what? Dust of my ancestors, lad! I never dreamed you'd display such heartening good sense! Oh, Sebastian--I'm so glad!" Springing to her feet, Naomi pulled Marianne to hers, and enfolded her boarder in an enthusiastic hug.
Taken utterly by surprise--she had expected wary appraisal, followed by coolly polite acceptance of what lay outside Naomi's power to change--Marianne returned the hug with affectionate warmth. "Naomi, I won't cause you any problems," she whispered, as tears misted her eyes. "My word on it!"
Holding the girl away, the matron regarded her with respect and affection. "You never have," she averred briskly. Turning to her nephew, she hugged him in turn. "I commend you on your choice, Sebastian," she declared with manifest sincerity.
"Naomi, let me make one fact abundantly clear," her nephew stated with adamant force. "For thirteen Earthyears, you've acted as my hostess when I entertained. You've invited the wives of my associates to tea, as well as your own friends. Given that Marianne will continue to work towards her degree, she won't be able to spare the time to assume that latter social burden. She's a foreigner here. Her customs differ markedly from ours. She suffers from deep disquiet at the thought of displacing you as my hostess, and of assuming that role herself.
"I therefore hope that the two of you will be able to form a mutually advantageous partnership, and that you, my dear aunt, will continue to do as you've always done. I've urged Marianne to follows her own customs, and tactfully blur the boundaries a bit, so that in our private entertaining, we strive to achieve conversations in which both the men and women participate. Will you do me the inestimable favor of acting as my co-hostess?"
Both observers caught the expression of profound relief evoked by that appeal. "Why, I'd be delighted! Marianne, you needn't fear that I'll strive to upstage you, or wage a continual battle to run things to suit myself. We'll work at developing a partnership other ladies will admire, and perhaps envy."
"You don't know what relief that assurance brings me, Naomi," the Gaean exclaimed, projecting transparent honesty.
"Well! And when do you plan to marry, Sebastian?"
"This afternoon, aunt. In the presence of yourself, Etienne and Louis."
"This afternoon! My soul and honor, once you decide, you waste no time! Well, I can understand that." As she tossed off that last observation, Naomi smiled provocatively at the delicately lovely Gaean soon to be part of her family. The bride blushed scarlet for a reason entirely different from the one the matron mentally assigned as the cause of that reaction. "Whom will you ask as a witness, Marianne?"
"Yourself, if you feel comfortable obliging a foreigner, Naomi," the Gaean responded hopefully.
"Why, I'll consider myself honored! Sebastian?"
"Etienne, Naomi. He's the elder, so that should suffice to soothe Louis' feelings, should they grow a bit ruffled."
"Etienne will have to hustle to get here, lad."
"The trip will take him ninety minutes, so I'd better call him at once. I'll set the time with him. Louis can make it in forty-five minutes, if he takes the autoexpress van."
"Best set about it, lad. Neither might be in his quarters."
Nodding, Sebastian retired to his aunt's office to make the calls. Naomi braced herself, and broached a delicate subject. "And what about your parents, Marianne?"
"My parents are dead, Naomi. Both fell fighting. My immediate family consists of one brother. Sebastian said he'd arrange for me to call Merrill. I ... I feel a need ... to tell Merrill before I do what likely will ... estrange us.
"Merrill's the head of my family. He arranged my first marriage, but so much has happened to me since then ... I've developed a most un-Gaean independence of mind regarding this sort of decision ... a determination to make this second choice for myself. I'm a bit apprehensive, but whatever happens, I won't change my mind."
"My perishing soul, child! Did your husband ask for a termination, when you got captured?"
"My husband fell fighting two Earthyears after I married him at twenty-seven, Naomi. He's dead."
"Oh ... Marianne..." Enfolding the emotionally scarred survivor of a long, bitter war in an embrace of surprising strength, the motherly Columbian frankly spoke her mind. "I wonder that you can find it in your heart to agree to make your home among the former enemies of your world. You've suffered such dreadful personal losses!"
"I've never thought of you as an enemy, Naomi. And Sebastian just did his duty, as I did mine. I owe him so much ... The war's over. I intend to think as Arlen and Signe both urged: thrust enmity ... bitterness ... behind me."
"And look ahead. We all need to do that. Well! I could use a cup of coffee, given that I'm still in a state of shock. I never dreamed that Sebastian ... My heart, you've bewitched him, Marianne!"
"I'm ... not what your friends will expect ... that's for sure." Bleakness shadowed the lovely face of the bride as she recalled overhearing a derogatory reference to herself tossed out by one of those visiting friends when Naomi chanced to be occupied in a different cabin.
"Well, they'll just have to revise their thinking," the socialite declared adamantly. "Sebastian's choice of wife forms no business of theirs. Dreadful gossips, some of them tend to be. Well! Sebastian, did you reach them?"
"It's all arranged, Naomi. We'll sign the contract at 1700, providing that Etienne and Louis experience no delays. We'll eat here, if that suits you. Afterwards, we newlyweds will depart, and you can catch up on visiting with our guests."
"Wonderful! It's been almost an Earthyear since I've seen either. Etienne's my son, Naomi, and Louis is a nephew Sebastian educated, after the boy's father fell in a duel, and his mother married the victor in that fatal encounter after a brief delay: one of a most unseemly short duration. That whole business caused a dreadful, permanent rift between the boy and his mother, whom we don't discuss. Louis is thirty-one, and Etienne's forty-six."
"Oh ... what a tragedy!" Shocked to her depths to hear that a woman could behave thus, the product of a far different culture let her horror show nakedly.
"Louis turned out better than one might have expected, given the way he was raised before you and I took him in hand, Naomi," Sebastian averred, his eyes glinting. "He takes after our side of the family. Well! Marianne, we'll strive now to contact your family-head."
Seated at the terminal in her office, conscious that the man whom she had invited to remain after he completed the call stood motionless, taut, at her side, Marianne watched the face of her brother rise in the screen. "Merrill," she breathed, devouring the image with anxious eyes. "How are you?"
"Fully recovered, Marianne. Signe told me that you chose to stay on--that you accepted a scholarship. I've worried constantly--feared the worst, every day since I saw you last."
"I knew you would, but you worried needlessly, Merrill. I ... I've something to tell you. But before I do, I ask you to promise that you'll grant a favor to a woman who befriended me here. She's a student named Leda. Arlen chose her as the recipient of the scholarship Signe offered to a Columbian woman. Meet her when she arrives in Gaea, Merrill ... please. I assured her that you'd offer her hospitality, and help her to adjust to so novel an experience. I told her you'd be the friend to her that she has been to me."
"I'll be delighted to do that, Marianne. When do you plan to come home?"
"Merrill ... I said I had something to tell you. What I'm about to reveal will cause you pain, but I called to tell you before I did it, not after. Sebastian--the officer who retained me in his custody--not only shielded me from the worst imaginable horrors that threatened, he eventually paroled me, so that I was able to take two courses at the University of Columbia. When my academic achievement impressed him, he offered me a scholarship that allowed me to attend full-time.
"Sebastian has asked me to be his wife, Merrill, and I've accepted him. The war's over. Signe and Arlen set all of us a prime example when they went the ultimate length to put the bitterness--the hatred--behind them. They've urged that the citizens of both worlds do likewise.
"Well, Sebastian and I have done that. I intend to make my home here, gain the degree Arlen's scholarship allows, and then accept Sebastian's offer to pay the costs of my earning an advanced degree. He has invited me to co-author an historical commentary with him. I realize that I'm defying custom, but times ... and perhaps customs ... will likely change radically now. I love you dearly, Merrill, but I'm not coming home."
Sebastian watched shock, pain, outrage, anger, and potent dismay pass in succession across the face so uncannily reminiscent of Marianne's. For a span of seconds that stretched in the woman's mind like a millennium, Merrill sat rigidly still, tight-lipped and pale. Visibly struggling to master surging emotion before phrasing a reply, he stared into eyes that met his squarely. "And if I forbid you to marry this man, Marianne--what then?"
"You'll cast a long shadow over my wedding day, Merrill, but I won't change my mind."
"I see. Has the thought occurred to you that you may have succumbed to subtle psychological pressures exerted by a captor on a prisoner of war? That you may not be capable, after your ordeal, of making a wise choice?"
Anger now gripped the bride, causing two spots of color to redden her pale cheeks. She also took a few seconds to compose herself before replying in a tightly controlled tone. "Had I been incarcerated in some cramped cell all this time, Merrill--had I been subjected by my guards to indignities, if not cruel mistreatment--I could see where you might suspect that. But I was housed in the home of a warm-hearted, elderly, socially prominent lady--Naomi, Sebastian's aunt--from the day he caught me in the Complex. As soon as the exchange was completed, he paroled me. I took two jobs, rented quarters, and attended the University. I never saw Sebastian once, during that sixteen-week span of hard mental and physical work.
"At the end of that term, he offered me the scholarship, and persuaded his aunt to take her boarder back. I registered for six courses taught by men possessing towering reputations for scholarship, and worked hard all term. I saw Sebastian only four times a week, usually. I spent the bulk of my mental energy on my studies, and achieved a straight A average. He waited until the term ended to propose. I've never been more fitted to make a wise choice than I am right now. I feel that right here, and right now, I'm better able to decide this matter than you are, much as I honor you, love you, and respect you."
Merrill again paused. Pain now rose uppermost, to reflect starkly from the face he strove to keep expressionless. "Is Sebastian there, Marianne?"
"He is." Rising, the Gaean allowed her companion to seat himself in the chair.
"What have you to say for yourself?" the family-head grated, impaling his erstwhile enemy with a frigid glance.
"Merrill, I find your fear of my having unduly pressured Marianne understandable, but what she just told you is the truth. The war is over. You and I met as enemies, but none of us are that, any longer. As of tomorrow, I'll no longer be a member of the Columbian military establishment. I've ended that career, in order to accept a teaching and research fellowship at the University of Columbia, and a part-time job as consultant to the Ministry of Internal Security.
"I'm independently wealthy, but I find the thought of living in unproductive idleness repugnant. At the age of fifty, I'm embarking on a new and challenging career. I give you my word: I'll honor, cherish, and provide for Marianne. I'll assist and encourage her to gain an advanced degree, treat her as my intellectual equal, which she is, and strive to make her happy here. I love her, Merrill." The deep, incisive voice vibrated with emotion that the Gaean family-head could not mistake, and could not fault as insincere.
Merrill's eyes bored into those of polished obsidian, for a span of seconds that seemed to the woman an eon. At length, he replied levelly, "I see. Let me talk to my sister again, Sebastian."
Patently distraught, Marianne sat down, and said nothing. Having regarded her silently for a time, her family-head spoke decisively. "I give you my permission to marry Sebastian, Marianne."
A gasp escaped the woman defying old and hallowed custom. The intensity of her relief rendered her lightheaded. "Ohhh ... Merrill ... I'm so glad..." Tears brimmed, but Marianne dominated them. "I wish you could be here!"
Sebastian dropped to one knee behind her, so that his head appeared in the brother's view, over the sister's shoulder. "Merrill, at the end of the third term comes the annual academic holiday: Thirteenth Fourweek. If Marianne and I were to book passage on the passenger vessel, which will be in operation again by that time, would you welcome a visit by the two of us?"
Surprise melted into relief, and satisfaction. "I surely would, Sebastian. Marianne ... I've missed you ... dreadfully."
"You think I haven't missed you? Oh, Merrill ... I can't wait to get home to a world that's wholly, permanently free!"
"We'll celebrate that freedom in style--as a family."
"Good-bye for now, then. And be a good friend to Leda!"
"You know I will. Good-bye ... to both of you."
"We'll see you in sixteen weeks, Merrill," Sebastian promised. Hastily breaking the connection, Marianne turned, and buried her face in his chest.
When his bride once again managed to compose herself, the groom succumbed to potent curiosity. "Had you asked for his permission at the start, would he have given it?"
"No way, Sebastian. He'd have refused."
"Then why did he give it after you announced your intent to defy his authority--violate established custom?"
"I ... I think ... he wanted at all cost to avoid a permanent rift. I told you, we're extraordinarily close. And though I refrained from revealing that reasons existed that I could never confide to him, he knew beyond all doubt that I wouldn't be swayed. He can't read my random thoughts, but he senses my emotions, as I do his. And even through the screen ... he sensed pain ... sorrow ... fear ... and determination, but not brazen defiance."
"Mmm. Whatever, I'm glad he cast no long shadow over your wedding day."
"So am I. Oh, Sebastian, you can't know how glad!"
That potent anxiety off her mind, Marianne favored her fiancé with a radiant smile. For the remainder of the day, she wore her happiness like a stylish, revealing garment.
Having excused himself shortly afterwards, Sebastian departed, leaving Naomi and Marianne planning the dinner, ordering flowers, and chatting excitedly.
Bianca opened her door to admit the man she had not expected to see of a Sunday morning. "Come in," she invited, smiling warmly. "Would you join me in taking coffee?"
"Not today, Bianca. I've come to tell you what my other friends and associates won't learn until tomorrow. I'm exquisitely conscious that I owe you a debt I wish I could find a way to pay. Let me assure you that I value your friendship more than ever, since this news might come as a bit of a shock. I'm getting married this afternoon. I came to tell you in person, wanting to avoid your hearing the news second-hand."
"You're getting married, Sebastian? You, of all men?" Long-lashed, limpid blue-green eyes widened in stunned disbelief. Belatedly, the socialite achieved a smile only a shade forced. "My word and honor, first an end to the war, and now this! My nerves aren't what they used to be, I'm afraid. What a way to react! I'm ashamed of myself. Congratulations! I wish you total happiness."
Drawing the buxom woman against his chest, Sebastian held her there. "I thank you," he assured her softly. "Bianca, if there's ever anything I can do for you, just ask."
"I'll miss our outings, old friend. I was enjoying my stint as an actress. Well! We neither of us are getting any younger, and one does grow a bit wishful for comfortable, secure companionship, at some point. Or at least--a man does. He can expect all he wants of that out of marriage. I'm not sure I'll ever find myself able to face a repeat effort of selling myself into bondage--bear with sharp curtailment of my freedom and unending dreary boredom, in return for financial security, an occasional night out, and once in a great while, the company of my husband of an evening. Not even when I stare through the impending gloom to catch a glimpse of lonely old age."
"Marriage doesn't have to be what yours was, Bianca!"
"No, it could be even worse, but hardly better. What I want, women don't often find in Columbia, Sebastian. And thanks to your taking me in hand nine Earthyears ago and teaching me how to manage my dead husband's property--how to achieve and retain financial independence--I feel no need to put all I've gained to fearful risk. No, that's not the right word. I'd be tossing it all away--selling myself into bondage anew."