Cover: Mara slamming the last three Imorē thugs with her ring?

The Imperial Guard

by Leo David Orionis

Dedicated to all overworked, underpaid, unappreciated,
hardworking, dedicated teachers everywhere.

Aboǹi starsun system,
pen Xidestô Jazao,
Year 10,040 (First History)

As she drifted up from an ocean of sleep, Mara felt a hand stroking her head. She sighed, and smiled.

"She should be awake soon," said a familiar female voice.

"She's awake now," Kara said. "Open your eyes, love. You have visitors, sleepyhead!"

"Visitors?" Mara said, amazed. "Me?"

The light made her eyes hurt. She rubbed at them with both hands, and tried to sit up.

"Don't sit up yet," said Ekirvao Kaθa. The anthropologist-psychologist placed a hand on Mara's chest to keep her still. Mara relaxed, feeling the purr of the ring being, curently supporting her as a bed of yellow light.

Then she saw that Ekirvao *Risu was also in the room. And so was Lord Ekirvai!

"My Lord, forgive me," she said, and raised her hands in salute before both eyes.

Ekirvai Kemto stepped forward and took her hands in ys, tugging them down and wrapping ys around them. Y wanted to sit down on the bed, but the bed was the ring creature, and y sensed it would refuse to support ym. Ys we're-all-friends-here pose took no note of Ekirvao Kara sitting on the bed at Mara's right shoulder, or Ekirvao Kaθa standing next to the bed on her other side. But y was very conscious of them.

"No, child, for what?" y said. "You did very well. You beat superior numbers and superior force all the way across Vol system, jumped through subspace to Ťir"—which we had no idea you could do, y thought—"and ended the exercise there in the face of overwhelming force. I'm very proud of you," y said, squeezing her hands.

"And then what?" Mara said, blushing. "I don't remember how I got here," she said faintly.

"You were attacked after you surrendered!" Kara said. The redhead tossed her curly hair, incensed for Mara's sake.

"Yes, it seems that the crew of one of the battle wagons thought your surrender was a trick, and you were actually attacking them," said Ekirvao Kaθa, more moderately.

"Indeed," agreed Lord Ekirvai. Y squeezed Mara's hands again, then let them go. "Some of Imorai's boys got a little excited, I'm afraid."

Kara sniffed disdainfully. "What can you expect of males?" she said.

Ekirvai Kemto nodded. "What, indeed? But you can rest assured I'll be having some words with Lord Imorai about ys people's disgraceful behavior, especially since they were in Kaitempē uniform, serving the Speaker and the race!"

"Thank you, my Lord," Mara said.

"No, thank you," y said. "And now, ladies, I think we need to leave our hero alone, so she can get more rest."

"Yes, my Lord," both women said. As she got up off the "bed", Kara added, "Get some sleep, love, and I'll see you later."

Lord Ekirvai smiled back at Mara just before y left the room, and she knew she'd see ym again, too. She smiled happily.

As soon as they were alone, Lord Ekirvai rounded on Ekirvao *Risu. "Why is she so soft?" y demanded.

"Soft, my Lord?"

"She didn't kill anybody! All those ships attacking her in greater and greater numbers, and constantly more powerful weapons, and not a single person in Kaitempē green and yellow died! Why was she destroying weapons and drives instead of killing people? What kind of warrior do you call that?"

"My Lord," said *Risu, "she can be trained to be a warrior, now that we know she has mastery of her weapon. This whole project was about finding out how to make use of the ring. From here we can mold her into a more effective fighter, however you wish to define that. But first we had to know whether she could even use that thing."

"That other thing, you mean," Ekirvai snarled. "Foul genetic abomination—pah!" Y spat on the corridor floor.

"I don't expect a battle-hardened veteran out of something that's hardly more than a child," y said. "But why is she such a puppy?!!"

"Some of the project personnel…" *Risu said slowly. "Those two women who were in there just now…"

"Do we need them?" Ekirvai Kemto demanded.

"That's for you to decide," *Risu said. "Consul Kaθa is a brilliant, insightful scientist, but perhaps it's time she went on to her next project. Ekirvao Kara is a warm, caring, nurturing person, as you'd expect in a female."

"And what else?" said the head of the Household.

"Nothing else, my Lord," said *Risu. Y shrugged minutely. "That's it."

"Remove their influence on the weapon wielder, and start toughening her up," ordered Ekirvai Kemto.

Aboǹi starsun system,
15 Galestô Karθao,
Year 10,040 (First History)

Four days after Ekirvai Kemto gave that order, Ihed́ao Juhao Jatai stood at the window behind ys desk and gazed eastward over Teřańa. Ten stories below ym lay the groves and lawns of the city, interrupted here and there by the homes of the lesser households, and the occasional palace of a great one. Ys Verē eyes could pick the stars out of the jade-green sky, even though Vol was still up. White fluffy clouds kept getting in front of them, blown by the prevailing west wind towards Moon-Tree Mountain, far away on the eastern part of Heki the great island; and huge swarms of wide-winged birds obscured the clouds, in turn, as they rushed by to reach some meadow full of bugs, or some lake or river full of fish.

It was an idyllic vista, and the Consul of the Imperial College of Psionics never tired of looking on it. Right now, however, y was just marking time until an appointment.

The door beeped, and Jatai called, "Come in." The door itself vanished as his caller stepped through the doorway, and stopped, staring at the Consul's desk. It was the usual static pressor field; the remarkable thing was that no one was using it, yet it remained, supporting an array of clutter as if by magic.

Jatai studied the young man as he studied the desk. Bright green eyes, dark brown hair, sporting that rather unfortunate modern hair style that involved combing it forward and down the forehead. White shirt and pants, black boots, cuffs, belt, collar, and the emblem of a bor flower on his chest.

In the center of his chest, and large. Not Borao Lapo, then, despite what Jatai had thought, but Borai Lapo. The head of his house, strange as the phrase "his house" might sound.

Of course, Ihed́ai, Jatai's own household, also had a male lord; but it was the only Great House whose leader wasn't neuter.

"A power supply for the desk?" the young man surmised. "Drawing on broadcast power?"

"Standard for offices and laboratories," Jatai confirmed. Y was pleased; y much preferred dealing with observant students. Y walked around ys cluttered desk. "You are Borai Lapo?"

"By default," Lapo said. At Jatai's puzzled look, he said, "The rest of the House joined House Matai for refuge against the aggression of Ikotkai. If I'm the only remaining Borē, I must be the Borai, yes?"

"Certainly!" the consul laughed. "A household of one! And what can I do for you, Lord Borai?"

"I'd like to show you a few tricks, sir," Lapo smiled. He looked around. "Is there a bench…?"

"Over here," Jatai said. Y led the way to the south wall and touched it. A pressor-field bench appeared at waist level, and remained there when y stepped back.

"Thank you." Lapo opened a small blue tele on the wall and reached in. "Come on, you rascal, you, where are you—ea!" He pulled out something small and wiggly and put it on the bench, where it froze in place, hoping to go unnoticed.

"Meet my little friend Juho," Lapo said.

Jatai saw a small reptile in vivid red, yellow, and green. It sat there with the rear half of its body flat against the bench, while the front half was raised a little on the front legs. Head up, it watched ym watching it.

"It's a lizard, all right. It does tricks?"

"No, I do the tricks. Juho's my prop."

Suddenly the animal rose straight up in the air. Jatai stepped back, ys grey eyes widening. Then the lizard curled up impossibly tight. First its tail rolled up like a leather thong, all in a flat plane, then the body wrapped around it several times, until there was a coiled-up disk of lizard with the head sticking out the end, and the legs protruding on the sides. The tongue flicked in and out, rapidly.

"Look at his eyes," Lapo said breathlessly.

Jatai looked. Y hadn't noticed before, but they were faceted, and ringed with little wiggling tentacles.

"God the Powergiver, Lord of the Verē!" y swore. "What is that?"

Lapo grabbed the floating animal, and it uncoiled. For a moment it clung to his hand, its chest heaving as it took frantic breaths. Then its legs started clawing at his hand as it struggled desperately to get away.

"Ejao, you little bastard," Lapo said in a wheezing voice, as if he'd been running hard. He opened the tele again, put the animal back, and closed it, sucking at his thumb where his "prop" had broken the skin.

"Might we sit, sir?" he asked the consul.

The college administrator waved to chairs, and they sat. They were ordinary Verē furniture, using the psionics of the people sitting in them for power.

"Are you all right, young man?" Jatai asked.

"Just tired, sir. You saw how Juho's tongue kept flicking in and out? When he's coiled up tight like that, he can't breathe. If I kept him like that for too long, he'd pass out for lack of air. But," he grinned, "if I kept him like that for too long, I'd pass out, too!"

"I don't understand," Jatai said. "How can you coil him up like that without killing him? Why are you so tired? And how are you doing it, anyway? Some new psionics tool?"

"Those are the key points, all right," said Borai Lapo. "First, he's not a lizard but a pseudo-lizard, a native creature from Kantos that resembles a real lizard. You saw his coloring? The real lizards colored that way are extremely poisonous; the colors warn birds and other boned predators not to eat them, or they'll die. The pseudo-lizards are not poisonous, but because of the mimicry, predators leave them alone, anyway."

"Because he's a native animal," he went on, "related to the Tlâń and the rest of the native life, he doesn't have bones, so I can coil him up like that without hurting him. It makes a very dramatic demonstration, right?" His breathing was back to normal, now.

"But it takes a lot out of me, because I'm not using any kind of tøska device to do it. I'm doing it all with my own unamplified mind."

"Impossible!" said Jatai.

"You just saw it, sir," Lapo reminded ym.

"You mean to tell me that nowhere on your person—What are you doing?"

"Proving it," Lapo said, as he took off his clothes before the neuter consul. In short order his shirt, pants, belt, and boots were on the floor, and he stood there naked, hiding nothing.

"Now what?" asked the consul. "Going to fold another pseudo-lizard into a cube?"

"Not just now, thanks," Lapo answered, looking up. "How high is your ceiling?"

"Pretty high," said Jatai, playing along. "24 feet at the corners, maybe, 32 feet in the center of the dome? I quite like it."

"I like it, too," the student said. "Mind if I take a closer look?" Without crouching and leaping, he rose smoothly into the air. Circling around the edges of the ceiling, he looked at the room's corners, with his hands behind his back to show he wasn't touching anything, or hanging from anything. Then he took a close look at the center of the shallow domed ceiling, his nose almost pressed against it. He was acting nonchalant, but his face was turning blue, Jatai saw. Suddenly he gave a gasp and came down much faster than he'd gone up, landing with an audible thump.

"I hope that convinced you, sir, because that's all I've got for today."

"Are you hurt?" Jatai demanded.

"No, just really worn out," Lapo said from a crouch. "I weigh a lot more than a lizard!"

Jatai sat behind ys desk. "Put your clothes on, boy, and tell me what you think I just saw."

Aboǹi starsun system,
The moon Gron,
14 Galestô Karθao,
Year 10,040 (First History)

The following day, the seven survivors of Kranao Mota's cruiser squadron were released from duty to do honor to their friend. They sat in a lounge of the Kaitempē base on Gron, Eoverai's second moon, telling stories about the man they'd known. Tales of daring exploits against the Drē, accounts of fights he'd led against rebellious alien fleets, recollections of women whom he'd pursued, and who'd pursued him, were the order of the day. His friends recalled both jokes that had been played on him and pranks played by him; advice and orders he'd given, and those he'd received; all the measures of a man who accepted his responsibilities, did his duty, and used his authority well.

With them was a guest, Kranao Seiva, the highest-ranking male in Mota's House, and thus the appropriate representative of House Kranai at this gathering, since of course neither his neuter nor his female mate were members of the Kaitempē. In courtesy they had invited Kranai Koti; in equal courtesy y had thanked them, and ys husband had asked if he might come instead, and was made welcome.

Seiva was the oldest man in the room. Most of the squadron were around 24-32 years old, with basic training and some years of peacetime service in the home system behind them. Of Kranao Mota's former squadron, only Matao Vaiši, now its commander, had served in the last Imperial War, eight years before. The late Mota had fought in that war, commanding a heavy cruiser that had been part of the fleet that invaded the enemy's home system; and the last Drē War, thirteen years before that, battling Goliath-class super-saucers once the Verē Sundivers yanked them out of the Perilei sun.

Kranao Seiva, hale and hearty, with most of his life still before him, was 116 years old. He had fought in all four of the Drē Wars; in the last one, he had commanded the Sundivers that had stopped the enemy's attempt to sneak into the Aboǹi system by way of Řênai, normally far too hot for them. In the last Imperial War, he'd been the Executive Officer of the Planetkiller that had destroyed the Mańē home world, and accepted the surrender of the other inhabited worlds of that system.

So he had a lot to tell them about Kranao Mota's service that they hadn't known; for it wasn't customary for Verē veterans to brag about deeds in battle. Two Kaitempē who'd served in the same conflict might talk about their experiences, especially if they'd shared in the same battle, or on the same front; but bragging was self-glorification, and shameful. Likewise, a superior officer might share lessons he'd learned in wartime with his subordinates, especially if most of his subordinates had only seen peacetime duty; but the circumstances surrounding those lessons, particularly his own role, were only revealed if they were relevant to the point he was making.

Seiva rose, at last, from his seat, and picked up one of the elaborately-carved glass goblets from the matching glass tray on the round pressor-field table in their midst. There was one goblet for each of them. With his own hands, the man from Kranao Mota's house filled the goblet with sparkling water from the pitcher on the table, also glass, and carved the same as the goblets.

He passed the full goblet to Matao Vaiši on his left, who passed it to his left, and so around the table until it reached the man on Seiva's right. Six more times he did this, so that all the survivors had each a goblet; last, filled the remaining goblet for himself, set the empty pitcher down. He took care that not a drop remained in the pitcher, and all of them took care that not a drop was spilled.

"Tlēveryδ," said Matao Vaiši—Gentlemen. As he stood from his seat at Seiva's left, the rest of the squadron stood in unison.

The Verē of the First History never ate, and rarely drank; only water when they did, or fruit juice, for the taste. Now Nuhao Piva, on Seiva's right as the most junior of the squadron, held his goblet high, and shouted, "To Kranao Mota!"

"Honored be his name!" shouted the others, in reply. They drained their goblets, then threw them into a corner to shatter, so they could never be used for any lesser purpose. Kranao Seiva added the pitcher to the wreckage, and Matao Vaiši the tray.

House Ekirvai,
13 Galestô Karθao,
Year 10,040 (First History)

Six days after the head of her household had visited Mara, she had been examined by house doctors and pronounced fit, and completely recovered from "Operation Mara". These days, when she got up in the morning, instead of putting on the skirt, blouse, and slippers of an Ekirvao woman, she donned the Ekirvao man's boots, pants, and shirt that she'd worn for the weapon test, braided her hair the way Kara had shown her, and then put on the precious gift from Ekirvai Kemto, the dark red helmet with the gold battle axe over her forehead. She felt proud and exalted when she fastened the chin strap, and the scientists, lab technicians, trainers, and other members of the House were treating her with polite respect, following ys lead.

"And you know what the best, the very best thing about the whole exercise was?" Mara chattered to her ring. They were alone, and the ring didn't speak to her in words; but she spoke to it just the same, and out loud.

? said the ring.

"Lord Ekirvai! Did you see how kind y was? Holding my hands, and giving me this beautiful helmet!" Mara would have taken the helmet to bed with her, but Kara had said it was disrespectful to treat an honor from the Lord like a favorite toy. And Ekirvao Mrada, overseeing her new training as a soldier, was teaching her how to wear her uniform properly, how to behave and conduct herself as a soldier, and how to care for military equipment. That didn't include, he'd told her soberly, taking off her helmet so she could cuddle it.

"I think y likes me!" Mara said to the ring. "Oh, I'm so happy!"

The ring uttered something in her head that felt like a sniff of disdain, and an image of the vańe, the energy-absorbing loop, on a Verē head.

Hmff. Verē, it surely meant.

Mara laughed. "Don't tell me you're jealous, silly ring! I'm Verē too, culturally."

No, said the ring.

"But I am," Mara insisted. "Don't I have a Verē name? Am I not a member of a Verē household?"

Tlâń, said the ring.

"Oh, silly ring," Mara said, flattered. "I'm no Tlâń," she said, never for an instant realizing that if she convinced the ring of that, it might refuse to serve her. She was too sure of its love, for the thought to cross her mind.

Tlâń, it said again, and an image appeared in her mind's eye. It was her, yet it wasn't. It was her as a Tlâń, with blue skin, no hair, and faceted eyes; without bones, without joints in the supple arms and legs. The hands had two fingers and a thumb, the feet had two digits that pointed forward and one that pointed back. And still it looked like her, in an elaborate costume. Even the fleshy mask around the eyes, with the sensory tentacles around its edges and hanging down on either side of the nose, seemed like a costume mask attached to her face.

"Eio," she breathed in wonder, as she gazed at the ring's idea—ideal?—of her.

We can do better than that:

Meanwhile, Ekirvai Kemto entered the Speaker's private audience hall, and stopped in surprise.

Y'd been here many times before. This was the place, of all the rooms and galleries of the Blue House, where the man who Spoke for all the Verē met with people privately, whether they were Liberal like himself or Orthodox like Lord Ekirvai, whether they were heads of Great Households like Ihed́ai or Ekirvai, members of a lesser house like Matai or Kranai, or belonged to no household at all. It was rumored that, on occasion, the Speaker even met with aliens here—monstrous as the idea might seem to the Orthodox! The Speaker of the Verē should never abase himself to speak with aliens, but should appoint underlings to do so.

Of course, this Speaker was male, not neuter like all Speakers before him. This Speaker had begun an investigation into corruption, treason, and murder by the Kaitempē, and had established his own private guard and security force of super-powered aliens, which he called the Imperial Guard, while that investigation went on and on. So who could tell what he might do?

But the room itself was the same one that the previous Speakers had used, Ihed́ai Mrada, and Ihed́ai Mi*wu before ym. Forty feet wide and 32 feet deep, it had a mutable floor and a mutable ceiling, 24 feet high. At present the ceiling was showing the sky above the room, just as though the other floors above it didn't exist: Vol ascending the eastern sky, with Trânis, a few degrees ahead, weak by comparison; Řênai falling away from the zenith of the jade-green sky; masses of clouds scudding by on the western wind, and flocks of sail-winged birds everywhere. The floor was displaying an array of black tiles with white borders, each tile a foot across; some of the tiles had no borders, but had the characters of the alphabet in their centers, also in white. The walls of the room were also mutable; right now they looked like white plaster, inset with richly veined green marble panels, rounded at the top and a foot apart. One of those was the door, and had disappeared as Lord Ekirvai entered through it.

No, the surprise was that two people awaited ym.

The Speaker might have been any member of the Kaitempē, without his double crown and ceremonial axe, except that his shirt, instead of being solid green, had a yellow band down its front, and the three black interlocked rings of the People. Ihed́ai Vîd́a was an ordinary-looking Verē male with green eyes and dark brown hair, but his wife, Ihed́ao Kristu, was a stunningly beautiful female with long golden hair falling to her waist in back, and bright, almost blazing blue eyes. She was dressed in Ihed́ai colors, of course: skirt and blouse of deep, rich brown, with yellow collar, cuffs, belt, and slippers. House Ekirvai, an Orthodox household, allowed no one but its head to wear the golden axe in its arms; the axe on the helmet Lord Ekirvai gave to Mara had been an unprecedented honor. But Ihed́ai was Liberal, and permitted any of its numerous members to wear the yellow bindweed blossom above the leike, the left heart, as the Speaker's wife was doing now.

Kemto was momentarily thrown off balance. On the one hand, y had expected to talk only with the Speaker, with no lesser member of his House present. On the other hand, y believed that females were better than males, just as neuters were better than females. On still another hand, y believed that any household head, let alone the Speaker, should be neuter, not male. Faced with these conflicts, the Axe lord reverted to his defaults: formal speech and behavior, hiding an attitude of contempt.

"A good day to you, great sir! And to you as well, noble lady," y said.

"A very good day indeed, Lord Ekirvai!" said the Speaker, while his wife smiled and nodded. "Shall we sit?"

Ekirvai sat, the pressor field springing up to support him. The lady sank gracefully into another chair facing ym. then her husband kissed the top of her shining head before sitting down next to her. What a display! Ekirvai thought. Y hoped they weren't going to have sex in front of ym. If they began doing so, y would get up and walk out, Speaker or not!

Fortunately, after that they behaved more or less decently. After a little conversation on other matters, they came to the point of the meeting.

"Congratulations on your victory, Ihed́ai Vîd́a. The Kaitempē defeated the ring-bearer most deftly."

"Not at all," the Speaker replied. "I expected them to do so. I did not expect them to need to mass enough military force to defeat a full-fledged Drē invasion, or to lay waste to an alien starsun system, to make her surrender!"

"Truly," murmured Ihed́ao Kristu. "Just imagine if there had been four of her, working as a team!" She smiled at Ekirvai Kemto. After a puzzled moment—why did the prospect please her, rather than intimidate or worry her?—y smiled back at her.

"Please tell Ekirvao Mara that I'm most impressed that she got so far, and did so well, if you would be so kind," said the Speaker. "And also convey my thanks, as one soldier to another, that she kept her head under such great pressure, and didn't kill anyone, or use any more force than needed."

"I will certainly give her your gracious messages," said Ekirvai Kemto, thinking that y'd do nothing of the sort. It was no part of ys plans that Mara feel anything but disgust for a male Speaker, or a Liberal Speaker, or believe that he and his Household felt anything but contempt for her.

"And the ring itself?" asked Lord Ihed́ai.

The Ekirvai lord shrugged. "The ring belongs to the Verē people, having been captured by the Kaitempē in war. If you want it back, you have only to say so, of course."

"Of course," said Ihed́ao Kristu.

"But that would put us right back where we started," Lord Ekirvai continued, after a pause to see whether the Speaker's wife had anything else to say. "No one but Ekirvao Mara can use the ring, except true Tlâń. And surely you don't intend to return the ring to them?"

"Say that the Tlâń king demanded it, and I felt that I must honor that demand? What then?" said the Speaker.

"As you expect, I would first urge that you do not honor such a demand, no matter what he demands or threatens. We beat them before, and we can beat them again, as our little test just proved."

"Beat an inexperienced ring user in deep space, yes, where we could deploy any and all weapons. But if they have, perhaps, 16 rings, each in the hands of an experienced user, working together on the surface of our world?" The Speaker shook his head at the death and destruction that would ensue.

"You know for certain they have so many, great sir?"

"Almost certainly that many," said the Speaker. "And perhaps as many as 64."

Lord Ekirvai sagged in ys seat. "Then… Why are we still at peace? Why haven't they attacked us?"

"Perhaps," the lady Kristu suggested, "they can see, as well as we, what Tlân rings against Verē weapons would do to the whole world. Perhaps they know they could win on the surface, at the cost of rendering the planet unfit for life, but not in space."

"Perhaps they just don't hate us as much as we fear they do," Vîd́a said. "The present King has always seemed reasonable to me, with a lot of friendly good sense."

"Da, the present King," said Lord Ekirvai dubiously.

"Well, he is a young Tlâń, even younger than me, and the Tlâń are notoriously long-lived, perhaps even more than we are," said the Speaker. "But we stray from the point. You would advise, keep the ring at any cost?"

"Not at any cost. Yet I can't believe they would go to foolhardy lengths to recover it, especially if they have 16 to 64 others. If at all possible, we should keep the ring under Verē control, in the hands of Ekirvao Mara, the only one who can use it."

"Nor would I suggest a compromise," y added, "because we're not sure that she could live without it."

"What?" the Speaker said sharply. Ihed́ao Kristu thought, Now what have you done, Ekirvai?

Lord Ekirvai spread ys hands. "Recall that the being whom I permit to call herself Ekirvao Mara is basically a biological experiment, a chimera of Krahos genes, Tlâń genes, and genes the project designed. Putting the ring on her was merely an attempt to get more data before she died, as all her predecessors had died."

"The ring effected a wonderful cure," y said, "but we don't know whether it fixed what was wrong with her, or whether it's just fixing the symptoms every day."

"So if it's just keeping her healthy, but the flaws remain, she'll die if the ring is taken away," the Speaker said, slowly.

"Exactly," said Ekirvai Kemto, soberly.

Ihed́ao Kristu laughed. "Take away her ring? How, in the name of the Powergiver? All you've said is that we'd have to turn them both over to the Tlâń, because we can't separate them!"

"You're right, love," said the Speaker. He looked at Lord Ekirvai. "I would oppose turning over any Verē to the Tlâń as if she were a piece of property," he said, speaking the obscenity distinctly and deliberately, "no matter how 'experimental' she might be, or whence her genes."

Ekirvai Kemto held up both hands, palms out, in a placatory gesture that was almost, but not quite, a salute. "I'm glad to hear you say that. She's a member of my Household, don't forget. What shall we do with her, then? Put her in the Kaitempē?"

Kristu laughed again at the suggestion. "A woman in the Kaitempē, who are all male? A woman, moreover, who made them look foolish in front of the whole world?"

Vîd́a nodded. "Teach her to do everything the Kaitempē way? Train her to use Kaitempē weapons and Kaitempē equipment, when she already has that ring? She'd never fit in, and it would be a sheer waste of time to make her try."

"Oh no," he said. "We can do much better than that! She can join a group where every individual has different abilities, and uses those different abilities as a team. She's perfect for the Imperial Guard!"

House Ekirvai,
7 Galestô Karθao,
Year 10,040 (First History)

Four days later, on a bright morning, Mara stood outside Ekirvai Place in uniform, fastening the chin strap of her helmet, wondering where everyone was. An old song was running through her head: She's leaving home… Wasn't anyone going to see her off?

True, Lord Ekirvai had spent a long time, a couple of days ago, explaining why y felt y must let her join the Imperial Guard, and warning her to keep her guard up against the aliens she'd have around her, and their secret agendas. That had made her feel afraid, that y couldn't protect her from this duty, because of the political power of the Speaker with his Liberal intentions, and his shunning of all decent mores and right thinking.

"Lord, must I go?" she had pleaded. "Can't I stay here at home, with the Household?" It had taken all of her strength not to cry, not to sink to the floor and beg.

"I'd like nothing better, child," y'd said gently. "Truly, I want to keep you here with me. It breaks my hearts to think of you living outside these walls, among alien and Liberal trash, where I can't protect you from indecency and shame."

"Then—!" she'd breathed, looking up at ym; like all Verē, y towered above her. Her eyes had been blind with unshed tears. A Verē would have shut in the tears with her inner eyelids, but Mara didn't have them; the tears were going to start spilling down her face at any moment.

Hiding ys disgust at her weakness, and her lack of inner eyelids, Ekirvai Kemto had pulled her to ymself, so y didn't have to look at her ugly weeping, and she couldn't see ys face. "You have to be brave, child," y had said, rocking her in ys arms, as if she were a real person that y loved.

"Yes, Lord," she'd said forlornly, in a muffled voice.

"This isn't for ever," Kemto had said. "Right now, Ihed́ai is gloating over his victory, and he's putting you in his 'Imperial Guard' to rub my nose in our defeat. After a while, he'll grow tired of it, and he'll start to worry about whether you've accepted your place in their midst, or whether you're spying on them for me; and then he'll remove you from that post, and you can come home again."

"Really?" she'd said, in a hopeful voice. She had drawn back, to search ys face.

"I promise you," y'd said, and y'd produced a gold-colored handkerchief from one of the flaring sleeves of his red robe. "Wipe your face, that's my brave girl," y said. After y'd given it to her, y'd turned away to give her a moment of privacy.

While she'd snuffled and snorted into the handkerchief, and wiped her face and eyes, y had looked down at the front of ys robe, gingerly pulled it away from ys chest. Never do that again, y'd told ymself in disgust. This robe is ruined!

"Of course," y'd said then, turning back to her, "you're a soldier, and you'd never take a position of duty in order to be a spy, not even for me. I know that."

"No, Lord," she had said, uncertainly.

"But a soldier's duty includes reporting crimes and atrocities, to one's superiors. If you witness one, you must report it to the Speaker; and to me, in case the Speaker turns out to be complicit in it, or unwilling to take proper action against his 'Guard'."

"Yes, Lord!" She'd stood up straight then, and saluted ym.

Y had returned the salute. "Good girl! Now go see Ekirvao Mrada, and ask him if he has any advice for you."

"Yes, Lord, I'll make you proud, Lord!"

"I have no doubt of that at all, child," Ekirvai Kemto had said.

"Simradax, Ekirvao Mary," said a voice behind her, interrupting her thoughts: "Hello, Ekirvao Mara."

"Simradax, Ekirvao Kaθy," Mara said. "I'm glad to see you," she continued, smiling at the Verē woman, who was the equivalent of a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology and Psychology both. She was also an important member of the team that had designed and created Mara.

"I wanted to say goodbye," Ekirvao Kaθa said. She shook out her shoulder-length black hair, and looked around the area, the front of Ekirvai Place. She raised her thick dark brows in surprise. "Ekirvao Kara isn't here?"

"No," Mara said. "I haven't seen her since yesterday. I suppose she's very busy with some task she's been set. I know she'd be here if she could be." But her voice was uncertain.

The consul, or doctor, gave her a one-armed hug. "Never doubt it," she said. "As far as she's concerned, you're her daughter. She'd certainly be here if she wasn't being kept busy elsewhere."

"Thank you," Mara said, feeling better.

"In fact, I have a gift for you," Kaθa said. "It's from both of us." She opened a tele in the air next to her. Reaching into the shimmering blue square, she pulled out a pair of slippers in the Ekirvai red. Unlike the plain slippers Mara had worn up until "Operation Mara", when she began wearing a man's pants and boots, these slippers had diamond patterns all over their tops, embroidered in gold thread. She gave them to Mara. "For when you aren't on duty, and want to take off your boots and relax," Kaθa said.

"They're lovely!" Mara said, tracing a diamond shape with one forefinger. "I had no idea you knew embroidery."

Kaθa held up both hands is disclaimer. "No doubt I could learn, if I had the time," she said. "However, all I did was suggest the gift to Kara. The embroidery is all hers."

"Thank you so much," Mara said, and hugged the taller woman around the chest, since she couldn't reach her shoulders. Kaθa hugged her in return, and patted her back.

"And now I must go," she said. "There's a ship for me at the spaceport, and I mustn't keep it waiting."

"You're leaving, too?" Mara said. "Where are you going?"

"To an Imperial planet where we don't know nearly as much as we should about the inhabitants," Kaθa told her. "I'll be learning about their cultures, their languages, how they live, what they want out of life, everything about them, and how to keep them happy." She smiled at the prospect of working in her fields.

"It sounds important," Mara said politely.

"It's absolutely vital," Kaθa told her. "it's the difference between the Perilē, on the one hand, and the Mańē, on the other. If we learn all about them today, perhaps we won't have to destroy their planet in a hundred years from now."

"Will I see you again?" Mara said.

"Someday, somewhere, our paths will join again," Ekirvao Kaθa said. "Take care of yourself until that day, my dear."

"Goodbye. I'll miss you."

The consul smiled, and a full-height tele appeared next to her. She stepped into the robin's-egg blue of it, and was gone to the spaceport instantly. After a moment, the tele blinked out.

Mara sighed. Not being a Verē, she couldn't use a tele to stow her new slippers away, or to blink to the headquarters of the Imperial Guard. Her ring scanned her slippers and stored them in virtual form, to be recreated when she wanted them. And her ring let her fly, after a last look around.

Every palace of a great House was large, to house all its members under one roof, and grand, and unique. Ekirvai Place sat on a stone circle with a radius of 400 feet, which was the top of a dais of eight steps. The bottom floor was also round, and a colonnade ran all the way around the building, eight feet back from the edge of the steps. The outer wall of the building was eight feet inside the colonnade.

The floors above the first one were approximately square. The front of Ekirvai Place faced sixty degrees south of east, so that the Daystar, whose light was a symbol of God's grace, shone fully upon it as it climbed the sky. The building was dark red, and the House's golden double-bladed axe covered it from top to bottom, and from side to side, almost. That side of the building was rectangular, with straight sides and a flat top.

The side walls, at right angles to the front, had flat tops that were only half as wide as the front. Each floor, therefore, had a different depth, with the second floor almost as deep as the front wall was wide, while the top floor, the 64th one, was only half as deep as it was wide on the front side. The floors weren't stepped. The back wall, the same width as the front, fell away from the flat roof to a vertical wall on the second floor, in a smooth curve.

Mara rose into the air from the grand front entrance of Ekirvai Place, and circled it three times. She'd rarely been outside before, and as a secret weapon, never with the leisure to view it from the air. It was magnificent! She felt tears of pride, which she brushed away with a finger.

Verē, sniffed her ring.

Mara laughed. "You bet it is! Right, then—to the Guard headquarters!" The ring had scanned a map of Teřańa, and it obediently turned north.

She took her time, savoring the trip. No one was timing her, and it was a lovely day. The jade-green sky arched above and around her, while mighty Vol beamed down upon her, warming her back. The western breeze, as it hustled the countless clouds along, caressed her left side, full of the scents of flowers and trees. Her braids flew out behind her, and she kept overtaking great flocks of long-winged birds, twittering and squawking, peeping and gronking among themselves. They were fearless, never having been molested, and used to Verē among them in personal flight harnesses. To her right, a line of air cars were headed north just as she was, likely going to the spaceport on the other side of her own destination.

The city itself was worth a long look. She passed Lake Tapa a couple of miles to her west. The Blue House rose in splendor on its southern shore, with Ihed́ai Place 60 degrees north and west of it in equal grandeur, facing the Blue House and the dawn alike.

If you drew a line from south to north through the Blue House and Lake Tapa on a map of the city, and marked the political alignments of the houses, both greater and lesser, you'd discover that those west of the line (usually colored green in such maps and charts) were Liberal, while the red dots in the east were Orthodox. That meant the population in the west was greater than in the east, since so many more people were Liberal than Orthodox; and some large buildings, resembling the palaces of great Houses, were actually apartment buildings, like the one in which Borai Lapo lived, or the residence of large Houses not considered great, despite their numbers and accomplishments, such as Matai and Kranai. It also meant that some resources were duplicated, such as the University of Teřańa in the west, and the University of the Powergiver's Will in the east.

Shortly after she passed House Imorai, oldest of the Orthodox Great Houses, Mara was startled by a shriek below her.

"Help! Help! Oh, someone help us, please!"

There was raucous laughter. "No one's going to help someone like you, końē bitch!" said a male voice.

Mara looked down on an ugly scene: three people in the white and black of a lesser House, and eight Ikotkē. The arms of Ikotkai, third in precedence among the eight Orthodox Great Houses, were a gold background with a puno eagle displayed upon it; ēkotkai is the word for "eagle". Just as Mara wore the reversed colors of the Ekirvai arms, the thugs below her wore the reversed Ikotkai colors: puno shirts and pants, with gold collars, cuffs, belts, and boots. Puno was the infra-red color that Verē eyes could see; to Mara's eyes, it was just black. They were also carrying feud weapons: knives mostly, though one of them wore a sword, and another one an axe; and they were terrorizing three unarmed members of a lesser House. Without thinking about Liberal or Orthodox, Mara, who'd been taught right and wrong, swooped down and landed.

The three victims were a neuter, being held by ys arms by two Ikotkai males, one with a knife at his belt, the other with an axe. There was a female, being held by an Ikotkai male on either arm, each one wearing a knife on his belt, while a third male fondled her breasts; he was the one with the sword. The third victim was male, lying on the ground and bleeding from a knife wound in his side; the remaining three Ikotkai males were laughing, and taking turns kicking him.

"What's going on here?" Mara cried. She hadn't realized how angry she was, until she heard her own voice. What she saw violated every standard of decent behavior she'd ever had preached to her by Orthodox priests.

"Who wants to know?" said the fondler, looking up; then the sneer left his face, and his mouth fell open, agape. The other aggressors stood gaping, as well. That was good; it meant they stopped kicking the man on the ground.

"My name is Ekirvao Mara." She took off her helmet to give the thug a good look at her non-Verē eyes, flashing with outrage, and her head that had no vańe upon it. "What is the meaning of this shameful behavior?"

"What shameful behavior?" he said. "These kamē crawled out from under their rock and insulted the honor of House Ikotkai. They deserve whatever we choose to do to them."

"My name is Ekirvao Mara. Has your House no manners, or is it a personal failing? To whom am I speaking?"

"By the Powergiver!" he said. "My name is Ikotkao Maino! What are you? What addresses me so?"

"My name is Ekirvao Mara. That's three times I've told you. Do you think you can remember it now, along with your manners? This helmet," she said, putting it back on and fastening the chin strap, without taking her eyes off him, "was given me by Lord Ekirvai himself. Why are you brutalizing these people, instead of treating them so they respect your Household and its ideals?"

"I don't have to take any shit from you! Go away and let us alone!"

"Do you want a fight?" Mara demanded. She was used to subtle disdain from people in her own House, but not this open contempt, especially since her accomplishments in the weapon test, and the kindness of Lord Ekirvai.

"What?!!" said the gang leader. Clearly, he wasn't accustomed to anyone treating him as he deserved.

"Mend your manners now, boy, or there will be trouble!" For the first time in her life, Mara spoke as a female to a male, superior to inferior, according to the way she'd been raised.

"Go to Hell, bitch!" he answered, and started to draw his sword.

She didn't quite kill him, but the boot to his balls was barely pulled, and the ring was armoring her in yellow light, and augmenting her speed and strength. A double fist strike, one to the face to the left of the girl, at the same time as her other fist struck the face to the right, eliminated them from the fight with concussions, broken noses, and cracked face bones.

An axe-hand blow to either side of the neck of the man with the axe broke both his collar bones, forcing him to let go of the neuter victim. The other gangster there let go of ym to draw his knife, but Mara smashed his face with her right elbow before he could do anything with it.

The other three had drawn their knives and were rushing at her. Mara's anger was used up, and she didn't need any more exercise. She pointed her ring at them, and a pressor field slammed into them, like a flying stone wall. They fell straight down and lay still.

The lesser-house neuter and female ran around her and crouched over the bleeding male. "He needs medical attention," Mara said. "Where can I take you?"

"Take us?" said the neuter, looking around as if an air car were parked nearby.

Please, love? Mara thought, and the ring on her left hand, responding to the emergency, didn't grumble or hesitate. It formed a yellow disc under the three Verē in white and black, with raised sides to keep them from falling out.

Thanks, love, that's perfect, Mara told her ring. Out loud she repeated, "Where do you want to go?" as she stepped onto the platform and gripped the hand rail.

"The nearest Kaitempē station, please," said the neuter, controlling ys shock.

"Very good," Mara said, raising them straight into the air a hundred feet. "But you'll have to give me directions."

North of Teřańa the city, just south of the main spaceport of the planet Eoverai, the headquarters of the Imperial Guard stood at the western focus of an oval 2600 feet wide from west to east, and 1800 feet wide from south to north. The oval was paved with stone ovals the same shape as itself, but various sizes, from two feet long on their major axes, down to a couple of inches. They were packed together in a random fashion to provide a solid surface, while pleasing the eye. A fountain of sparkling clean water sprang a hundred feet into the air at the eastern focus of the plaza. Two elosadenai, pearapple trees twenty feet tall, stood in stone pots on either side of the main entrance, which was aligned along the major axis of the plaza, from one focus to the other. Other such trees, in matching pots, lined the edges of the plaza, every 16-20 feet.

It was the afternoon of the same day Mara had left Ekirvai Place. The fight with the Ikotkai gang, and the subsequent reporting to the Kaitempē, had eaten up hours and exhausted her patience. But here she was, at last.

How pretty! Mara thought, her braids flying up and back behind her as she descended to the plaza, feet first. She meant not only the plaza, but the headquarters building itself. The leader of the Imperial Guard was a martial artist and natural-born leader from the Perilei system, and the headquarters was all interlocking globes in the style of Perilei architecture. On the Perilei home planet, the globes would've been buried in the ground, with only a little of the top globe showing above the surface. Here, it loomed 2600 feet in the air. Only Verē construction methods and materials made the building possible, with no surrounding earth to support it, in the gravity of Eoverai, five times that of the world where the architecture came from.

Mara halted her descent as she passed the top globe, and flew around the headquarters of the Imperial Guard. From due west or east, it appeared to be a vertical stack of five spheres, each smaller than the one below it. The bottom globe was 1000 feet in diameter, though only the upper 600 feet of that showed above ground. It was colored pink. The second globe, 900 feet across, overlapped with the first, and was a pale blue. The third sphere, 800 feet in diameter, overlapped with the second, and was a light yellow in color. The fourth sphere was 500 feet across, and pastel green. The top sphere, with a diameter of 200 feet, was a very light brown.

But while the globes were centered above each other if viewed from east or west, a look from north or south told a different story. The second globe was offset to the east of the first one, so that its back wall was aligned with the center of the bottom globe, while the front of the second globe overhung the building entrance. The third globe was set back to the west, centered on neither of the first two spheres, but partway between them. The fourth globe and the third had their fronts directly above each other, which meant the fourth one was offset forward of the third, since it was smaller. The fifth and smallest sphere hung way back, so that a line through the center of the fourth to the center of the fifth would be 45 degrees from the vertical.

After she'd looked her fill, Mara descended to the plaza, alighting before the entrance. She noted two flags above the entrance, solid squares in the Verē fashion, rather than the cloth, attached to a pole, that the Krahos had used. The one on the left, in the place of honor, was that of the Verē Empire; a green field, with a yellow band across it, and three interlocked black rings, one on top and two on the bottom, partly on the green and partly on the yellow. The flag on the right she'd never seen before, though it had been described to her. The dark green field, with the Second Galaxy as seen from galactic north, showing its barred spiral structure in bright gold, was the flag of the Imperial Guard.

The creature standing in the entrance was recognizable the same way, by description. He was somewhat like a rabbit, but he stood on his two legs, his huge feet firmly placed below his center of balance, like a man; and he was as tall as she was. His arms were much skinnier than a man's, but longer; his hands were almost like a man's, with three fingers and a thumb. He had an almost-human face, rather than a rabbit's; the biggest difference was his nose, which was very big indeed for his face. Instead of a rabbit's ears, he had sensory organs on two long tendrils that rose in loose coils above his head. He was covered in black plush fur. For clothing he wore something like green briefs, with a belt, and a gold symbol on the belt that Mara had never seen before. His only other clothing was two shoulder belts the same color as his briefs, with something round and silver attached where they joined.

Fixing his eyes on her, he spoke. "You must be Ekirvao Mara," he said. His jaws moved oddly, but his enunciation was clear. His voice wasn't squeaky, as his rabbity appearance had led her to expect, but low; not a bass rumble, but definitely alto. "Welcome to the Imperial Guard. I'm Perial."

He held out his right hand. She'd never touched a non-human before, but she put her squeamishness aside and took his hand. It felt like a human hand, except that it was covered in the softest, plushest fur she'd ever felt. She smiled, and said words she never would've dreamed she'd say.

"Thank you, Perial," said Ekirvao Mara. "I'm pleased to meet you, and honored to be here."

Continued next issue!

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