After three months they turned me out of the hospital. Nothing more they could do with me or for me. They gave me a supply of medication, not that I could admit such things in society, and sent me back to my parents' place. I carried a burden of grief that usually overwhelmed me and being at home did not help.
Everything was smaller than I remembered it. Much smaller and much emptier. My parents were excessively busy with an intended push against the Centauri and were rarely home. Na'Tol had a young family to look after. Worse, everywhere I looked were memories. Two bedslabs in our room. A box full of data crystal recordings of our messages. I watched some, including the last one we sent, then put them away. Had I been so happy then that I had to pay this terrible price now?
The jalwah tree still had the rope dangling from it. I remembered me and Na'Tal playing a practical joke. Na'Tal would pretend to be hanged when our parents got home. We thought it would be very funny. Unfortunately we had tied the knot wrong and Na'Tal really was choking. I remember screaming for help whilst trying to lift Na'Tal's weight off his neck so's he could breath. Na'Tol came to the rescue, which surprised us both. Na'Tol was good for nothing but picking on us and asserting his strength over us. But he saved Na'Tal. Later, he showed us how to tie a fake noose properly.
We never did use that knot, except as a foot hold for a rope swing.
Strange that Na'Tal really did die of asphyxiation. And that it was at least partly my fault that my beloved brother was dead.
I contemplated tying a real noose, but the rope was old and frayed, and would never hold under my weight. Instead I climbed the tree and remembered a promise. That promise was to take me away from all I knew, and I have occasionally regretted keeping it. However, it was something that I had promised Na'Tal, and I would keep that promise if it killed me.
I stayed for three days, then left. My parents protested but could not stop me. They simply did not know how to deal with me.
My discharge from the military had not yet come through and I was on half pay. This was enough for me to travel and wander around Narn. So travel I did. Wander, I did. I wanted to give the memory of Na'Tal something so that when we met again I could show him that I had remembered all our plans and dreams. I visited all the places we had planned to see and then some. I must have gotten drunk in every sleazy tavern halfway around Narn. I wouldn't know how many beds I slept in or whose. Nothing mattered except drowning the emptiness in me. Not even the idea of flying helped. Indeed, I became terrified of aircars and shuttles and took ground transport where ever possible. My discharge from the military came and went. My parents held the payout in trust. I soon cleaned out my savings but it didn't matter.
Every night and day blurred into the next. I would drink and get taken home by someone - I was still attractive, it seemed. I don't know what I did or where I went. I just did anything to avoid the hurt I carried with me, anything to fill the roaring whirling blankness within. I lost all purpose and intent in life. I was Outcast and unwanted by life.
One night no one wanted me. Not a single male cast their eye over me. When we were turned out of the tavern at closing time, I wandered randomly through the outskirts of the town, heading vaguely to the river. I stood, watching the turbid river roiling past its banks. Erosion was a terrible problem ever since the Centauri had destroyed our ecology, but I couldn't even find a spark of anger against our enemies. The land endured somehow despite the Centauri's efforts, and so did I, despite my own best efforts. It would be so easy just to fall in - I had already tried drowning myself, but my instinct for self-preservation made me swim to air and light.
I knew that someone had followed me down to the river. I didn't care if they killed me or robbed me - what had I to lose? Money? What money? My life? Better I had died with Na'Tal. I had hit rock bottom and no humiliation could hurt now. I collapsed into the pile of rubbish underneath a bridge. "Do your worst."
His voice was mild. "I don't want to. You need a better place than this. You deserve a better place."
I waved my knife at him. I was very, very drunk, but vaguely coherent. "Leave me alone. I deserve nuthin but what I got."
I don't remember how he did it, but suddenly I wasn't holding my knife any more. Nor was I lying on a bed of rubbish. He was lifting me on my feet. I mumbled something like, "Mmm... you're fast..." It seemed like I was going home with someone after all.
His lodgings were large and well appointed, from what I could see. He put me in a sleeping chamber, said something in a language I didn't understand and left the room. I slept.
It was dim and warm when I awoke. I found the ablutions room opening off my chamber. I washed and put on the robe that had been left in there, neatly folded. Then I wandered out into the house.
I found my host in the cook's room. He was reading a newsprint. It seemed to be much later than I had thought - not early morning but well into the afternoon. He looked up and smiled. "I had wondered when you'd awaken. Jala?"
I stood and stared at him. He reminded me of Nar'Bok, but the way he turned his head and his expression was so like Na'Tal that it took my breath away. I wobbled my way to a seat at the table as he poured some jala. I had to hold the cup in both hands to drink any of its contents. This male's appearance had hit me like a ppg shot.
"There is no need for you to fear me or worry, Na'Tiel."
I nearly dropped the mug. How did he know my name?
My consternation must have shown. He smiled that extraordinary smile again. "I've been watching you for days. What was such a female doing in such sleazy bars? So I asked around and found out some things about you, though most of what I got would be best left to some rather interesting vids. I dissuaded some of your more inappropriate suitors....Your id confirmed your name and origin.
"I simply could not let you sink into such degeneracy."
I wasn't thinking very straight. Normally I would have laughed at words such as these, but this male seemed so sincere. There had to be a catch, some honour debt, some repaying of favours, something. I challenged him. "I don't need any protection. I can look after myself! Someone's put you up to this."
"No, no, not at all!"
"You make a habit of rescuing Outcasts from the gutter and the places in between where no one respectable goes?"
"Not just any Outcasts. Only outstanding ones." He brought his fists together and tapped his chest with them, bowing his head as he did so. "I am So'Kath. At your service."
It was indeed extraordinary. I was welcome to stay. No catches, no honour debts, no repayments to be made. I didn't understand it at all. Everybody wants something, and So'Kath could not be different from the rest. Yet he asked for nothing but that I treat his home with respect. Indeed, So'Kath proved such an engaging host that soon I didn't visit any of my usual haunts. The last time I did, I ran into some trouble with a few males. So'Kath blew in out of nowhere and nearly killed four of them before they could even throw a punch. I got rid of the other two. I was very impressed with So'Kath's abilities. I had never seen such speed and I complimented him on it as he walked me home. His reply was strange.
"Only as much strength as needed should be used. Unnecessary force leads to grief. Remember that you have to contemplate the benefits of your actions, weighs the risks of inaction and decide what to do. Once you have decided, stick resolutely to your task and perform it with decisiveness. You should read the Book of G'Quan more often. I did what was necessary. They will not bother you again."
I think that it was at this moment that I realised what this striking male could mean to me. He treated me with respect, as if I was some form of treasure, something to be admired. There had been a time when I had been something wonderful, but now.... It had been so long since I had been anything but a plaything or a thing to be ignored that I didn't know how to respond.