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Stepwater

An Arbiter Tale

Prologue

The Duchy of Erne, on Newhome, is the seat of the Arbiter, who oversees a thousand inhabited worlds orbiting as many stars. On Newhome dwell members of all seven races of Man. It is said that the Arbiter observes the interactions among the human types on Newhome, and from his observations draws the requisite conclusions for the making of general rules and laws for the Stream. Thus it is claimed that Newhome mirrors, in microcosm, the fate of all the worlds of the Xarafielle Stream.

Kelosodill's Cosmographics
Newhome, Year 12,098 of the Rule of Law



John Minder, Arbiter, hammered his fist on the dark wood of his father's cofin. Then he rested his head on folded arms, and he wept. There he remained until the honor guard and the pallbearers arrived. Rober Minder, the Arbiter Rober VIII, was dead. Johnny Minder, his eyes brimming with tears that he only later, retrospectively, decided were incincere, followed the procesion on foot all the way from the Carnelian Hall to the family plot on the high end of the Fields of Man. Onlookers remarked what a dutiful and loyal son he was. A pity, they said, that he was not firstborn, and thus Rober's heir, instead of that wandering rascal Shems.

The incincerity of Johnny's tears resulted from something he knew that those onlookers did not know-that Shems was not coming home, and he, Johnny, entirely unprepared for the burden, was indeed the Arbiter's heir, and that he did not want to be.


Before the rich soil of Newhome had settled over the grave, young Minder made himself a promise: never would his own children be left so unprepared. He would teach them everything an Arbiter had to know, so that whichever of them took up the burden would be ready for it. But his first years in his office were hellishly difficult ones, and though he somehow found time to marry and to sire the three who now sat with him, he had hardly thought of that vow he had made, until now.

"Tell us, Daddy! Tell us what Uncle Shems did!" Parissa blurted.

Young Rober frowned at his littlest sister, a sharp rebuke for her ijmpetuosity forming on his lips -- but he did not voice it, which demonstrated to his father that the Minder genes still bred true; the Minder genes, cultivated, culled, and manipulated, encouraged their bearers to be easy and accomodating-however unnatural that was for a child, any child. The Minders were not power-hungry, testosterone-ruled, or inclined to dominate those about them. Given a choice, any one of them, male or female, would prefer a life spent in quiet academic pursuit to the hustle and confrontation that was an Arbiter's lot-though having a little sister was a burden that would try a saint's patience, the elder Minder suspected. "Parissa," John Minder asked, "do you remember the Vault of Worlds?"


Acting on instructions in his father's will, when Shems failed to return, Johnny sent certified messages to his archaeological camp on Fyobar, Xarafeille 903. None were acknowledged or accepted. A month after his father was interred, Johnny entered the Vault. If any human not of the Minder line had placed palm to door seal, the Vault would have remained locked, and alarms would have shaken the palace from the Vantation Turret to the deepest footing bonded to Newhome's most stable, ancient bedrock, but he iridescent alloy door swung open, then sighed shut again on Johnny' heels. The lights within remained low, and a laser holoimage formed in the dimness ahead of him. Rober Minder the Eighth, Johnny's father.

"I'm sorry, Johnny," the image said, shaking its head. "Since you're viewing this, it means Shems has not come home. I didn't really think he would; we Minders walk a delicate line between our engrained distaste for responsibility and our acquiescence to it. That you are here, and Shems isn't, is an example of one of the selective processes that make us what we are meant to be-Arbiters."

The holoimage informed Johnny of seven datablocks, sealed and ratified by the high councils of the seven human races, each one containing some-but not all-of the codes that would open the archives. There the decisions of Arbiters past were recorded -- the solutions to problems Johnny could expect to confront, as Arbiter himself. Within the databases were the secret location of the Arbiter's mothballed fleet of starships and the navigational instructions to certain worlds far off the starlanes; those worlds, without ships or the knowledge of making them, were home to a militaristic warlike race of Old Humans, Poletzai, who who would man his warships.

Fleet and Poletzai, Rober Minder's image remarked, had not attacked a world of the Stream in seven generations. Most often, their threat and their legend were enough. If not, the appearance of a thousand ships in orbit around an offending world sufficed. Rober's holoimage stated that it hoped Johnny would find no need of them during his own career, but they were there, and the knowledge would bolster his confidence that his own edicts would be obeyed.

When the image faded and the light level rose, Johnny, following instructions, went to the case where the seven datacubes were kept. Seven, one for each of the races of man, no one sufficient to release all of the information he would need to perform his unwelcome duties.

The case was empty, except for a single sheet of slightly rumpled paper. "Johnny," he read. "If you're reading this, I can assume you're already the new Arbiter, John Minder XXIII. Congratulations, I suppose. I wondered what was on these cubes, but they're so old no terminal in the house can read them. They're dated thirteen centuries ago, and since anything that old is practically archaeology, and since there's a cybernetics museum on Fyobar that has a dozen old terminals, I'm taking them along with me. I'll send them back when I'm done. They're probably nothing but old arbitration records anyway.

"By the way, in case you haven't guessed yet, I'm not coming back. Don't even try to find me. I don't intend to spend my best years cooped up in that palace. Good luck with your new job. Shems."


"They weren't just old arbitashins, were they, Daddy?"

"We all know that, 'Priss," Rober grumbled.

"Parissa, dear," their sister Sarabet murmured, "Robby let you have your way, but now it's his turn. Let Daddy tell us about Stepwater now, and how he got the backup datablocks."

Parissa's mouth opened as she prepared to protest. She wanted to hear-again-how Daddy found out about the backup cubes, and where they were hidden. But genes will tell. Instead of demanding what she wanted, Parissa clamped her lips shut, and with meaningful silence, composed herself on Sarabet's lap to listen to the tale Rober wanted to hear...



PART ONE: INCEPTIONS


Margal Steep and Karbol City, on Stepwater,

Mirrim 4, Xarafeille 578


Chapter One

The star Mirrim, Xarafeille 578, has one inhabited planet, Stepwater, home to the city of Garloom, the interworld capitol of the Wendish race. The Wendish homeworld, Forest, lies outside the Xarafeille Stream, and the elfin Wends have forgotten its location.

Wends inhabit Stepwater's subtemperate woodlands and cool coastal rainforests, sharing their world with several other human variants. Trogloditic Bors occupy highlands except in the continental deserts, which are home to scattered tribal groups of nomadic Fards. Reclusive aquatic Mantees claim rivers and floodplains to a distance of fifty obels* from water's edge. Only on Newhome itself are more human types found living shoulder to shoulder. Racial conflicts are common, but are usually non-violent, involving conflicting land claims, and the tourist who does not stray from cities and main roads need not be overly concerned about becoming involved in them.


Parkoon's Guide to the Worlds of the Xarafeille Stream,

Parkoon and Parkoon, Newhome, 12,125 RL


Barc Doresh did not like mantees, though not because of anything the slippery water-men had done to him. He had simply acquired an attitude about them from listening to his Uncle Grast.

"Damned gypsy thieves, that's what they are," the elder Doresh had been heard to exclaim. "Make them pay in advance, you hear? In advance, or those circuit boards we sold them will corrode to uselessness before we see our shipment of scentweed. In advance, hear?"

Today, though, Grast Doresh expressed no such sentiments. The mantees were not here to trade, though their visit would theoretically facilitate trade in future. Traditionally, several times during the adolescence of a Doresh heir to the tiny principality of Margal Steep, such visits were arranged. When Barc, Grast's sister's son, ascended to the malachite dais beside his sister Blet, he would already know the names and faces of his mantee trading partners. Now the whole family cavern was suffused with the noises a large party makes, and the central hall's glow lights were turned to full brightness. Their gleam reflected from polished native rock walls, floor, and ceiling inlaid with slabs of select beauty-lapis lazuli, jasper, pink quartzite, and white quartz shot with veins of soft gold. A basalt table ran the length of the irregular chamber, draped with fine cloth from wendish looms, bright with polished metal tableware made by the best craftsmen on Stepwater: the bors of Margal Steep.

Barc knew his place at the feast table would be right beside Girelf, the mantee heir. This was not the first time he had met Girelf, heir to the Hammad River valley, but at least this time she would have clothes on, as befitted the formal occasion.

It had been quite hard for Barc to maintain his inculcated dislike of mantees all along. The year before last, she had taught him to swim-underwater, like a mantee, something few bors ever master. Then last year. . . It was impossible for him to forget what had occurred the last time he had met her.


Margal Steep is a range of mountains surrounding an uninhabitable desert valley. North and west of the Steep are desert playas, slightly less bleak, where the fardic tribe of Musal Bhjak roams, wresting meager sustenance from sand, rock, and occasional patches of thin, brown vegetation, and from the sale of crystals precipitated from the foul waters of their wells, whose varying flavors they cherish and give a thousand distinct names, and of muslins tinted a rare, bright crimson with a secret, unfading dye. West and south lie forests inhabited by the most primitive tribes of Stepwater's dominant wendish subspecies, who weave tree fibers and carve wood into unique multiharmonic flutes, and into Ouije figurines to sell in the tourest bazaars. Southeast and east of the Steep's bare, rocky massif runs the Hammad River, dividing Margal in two parts. South Margal is smaller and lower, its peaks covered with fine, tall trees to their summits. Though both are one principality, the single road between them, and the single bridge, cross the mantees' land and water, and the river-dwellers exact a toll on all traffic.

Equatorial Stepwater is a land of extremes. Desert pans abut forested, glacier-sculpted valleys in turn enclosed by bare granite, sandstone, limestone, and metamorphic ridges and peaks; the moist river valley exudes itself through Hammad Water Gap and wanders south through thick wendish forest and vast, grassy steppes to the garish, dashing, busy city of Karbol; snow and heat, moist and dry, lush and barren, all lie cheek to cheek, nowhere a week's walk apart.


Last year Barc and the bors entourage had visited Girelf's folk during the mantee summerthrong, when they all gathered ashore to enjoy the thick humid air of the season, to bask on sunlit rocks and to chatter about the long, lonely winter past. He had thought Girelf quite pretty, for a mantee. Of course her brown fur was short and slick, not black and fluffy like his own, and her short, pointed muzzle and large, childlike green eyes were unlike his broad, blockish face and his ice-blue irises, but Barc had been quite attracted to her. Of course all mantees seemed feminine to a burly bors, even the males.

Still considered children by mantees and bors alike, Barc and Girelf had been exempted from the most tedious ceremonials. It was more important to their elders that the young ones come to know each other. If they liked each other as well, that would be good. It might make the difference between successful trading and unprofitable misunderstanding in years to come.

"Can you swim?" Girelf asked him, sprawling gracefully on sun-warmed streamside gravels. "You didn't forget how, did you? Are you bors that dumb?"

"I didn't forget," Barc snapped. "I never forget. But swim? What for? Why would I want to do that? The spalk aren't running yet, and I'd get wet for nothing." I'd have to go to dinner all wet.

"There are no spalk here anyway. They're cold water fish. And who cares if you're wet? We're eating at the outdoor pavilion anyway, and it will be quite warm all night. You can't swim, can you?"

"I can! But not in this muddy trickle. There's no room."

"It's quite deep. And there's a cave, a secret cave, under that bellfruit tree over there. I keep all my treasures there."

"A cave?" Bors, troglodytic by nature, miners by tradition, were of course intrigued with new, unexplored caves. That a mantee should claim one only sharpened his interest. It was not natural or proper for a mantee to claim proprietary interest in a cave, Barc thought.

"Right over there. You'd have to swim, to get to it."

Two aspects of bors nature warred in him-curiosity, and dislike of being wet. His fur did not shed water like hers did, any more than hers would protect against abrasive rocks and icy mountainside blasts. But it was summer, and the worst he would suffer would be to take all night to dry out. Like all bors, he could slow his metabolism at will; he would not run out of breath for several minutes underwater. Curiosity won. Besides, there was another force driving Barc-one he had not quite identified yet.

The cave was a disappointment, little more than a rootbound burrow beneath the ancient tree. Barc rested just inside, catching his breath. Girelf, wondering if he was all right, knelt beside him and put a hand on his cheek; Barc, responding to that yet-unidentified motivation of his, put a hand around her slender, smooth-furred waist and curiously, incomprehendingly, drew her close to him. Her breath caught in her throat, and she wiggled to get away-but not nearly vigorously enough. Then, just as Barc felt a strange, hot sensation in his middle, as he tensed to pull the soft, wiggly mantee closer still, she jerked convulsively, and pulled away from him entirely. "No!" she said, firmly but not angrily. "No. Not yet."

Barc did not understand her or himself. What had happened between them? Needless to say, after that intense moment, Girelf's treasures failed to impress him-a water-worn rock crystal, some azure mahkrat eggs, their shells blown dry, and an old wendish doll whose ceramic eyes opened and closed.

Barc's disappointment must have shown. After all, rock crystal was common in the honeycombed mountain that was Margal Town. There were blue ones, yellow-gold, smoky, even lavender amyethyst crystals. And someone, Barc remarked, had already sucked the mahkrat eggs. Dolls, even clever wendish ones with carved heads and eyes that responded to a counterweight, held no interest for him. "Maybe I can find an amethyst crystal for you," he offered, trying to undo his silent offense. "Maybe I can find a whole cluster of them."

"I don't want your stupid crystals," Girelf snapped, and plunged down through the dark water, and out of the cave.


"I'm sorry," Barc said later, after the visiting party had feasted on fresh curdles, rocksnapper, and steamed mussels. "The mahkrat shells were pretty. It's just that I was hungry then, and..."

"You bors! You can't think when your stomachs are empty, and you don't want to when they're full." It was an old joke among mantees. Girelf's smile robbed it of offense.

"I'm thinking now," Barc said, eying her slyly, sideways. For a mantee, she was very pretty. He had, he thought, missed a bet when they had been alone in the cave. He should have tickled her, or something. He had finally realized just what the intense feelings had been. He did not understand them well, because no one told young bors about such things, not until it was absolutely necessary that they know. Still, he felt himself a very dumb bors. Then, when he had seen the blue eggs, and was disappointed when he found they were empty. . . But he did not want to think about any of that, right then. It was true, what she said, he thought. Now that I'm full, I really don't want to think. But then, Barc was young, barely adolescent by bors standards.

They had no time to pursue what Girelf too might have considered an interesting line of thought, for Barc's uncle, Grast, approached, accompanied by the mantee throngmother.

That sight alone was enough to dissipate Barc's last libidinous thoughts. The throngmother, Shillemeh, was larger even than Uncle Grast, and so fat she must have preferred to slide though the lush riverine grass on all fours instead of walking properly upright. Like mother, like daughter. Was she really Girelf's mother? Mantee kinship seemed an impenetrable maze. Would Girelf look like that, someday?


The throngmother wisely chose not to accompany the mantee delegation to Margal Town. How would she have sat at the table to eat? Was there a chair wide enough for her? Girelf, however, had no difficulty mastering table and chair, or holding her meat knife properly. Barc wondered if the mantees had tutored her, as he had been tutored in the etiquette of mussel-cracking.

"I've changed my mind," Girelf said, eying him coyly across the glitter of soapstone platters, silver tureens, and candlesticks fabricated of gold beads and garnets.

"Huh?" Barc replied.

"An amethyst rock crystal! You said I could have one."

"Oh. I did. Now?" Barc's mouth was full.

"Why not now? You can show me where they come from." She sighed. "Barc, I was wrong to be offended, last year. My little 'cave' is nothing compared to this. Does Margal Town take up the whole mountain?"

"Aw, your cave was nice," Barc said. "I was just..."

"Hungry! And you bors..."

"I know, I know. Can't think, don't want to... It's true, I suppose."

"What about it?"

"What? I'm not hungry, now."

"Not that. The rock crystal."

"Oh. Of course. I know where there should be some good ones. Come on."

Margal Town did extend almost halfway to the top of Mendeb Peak, the southernmost mountain on this side of the river, and its deepest, oldest caves plunged well below mean sea level, too. Northward, an arm of the tunnels reached almost to the edge of the waterless central valley, Margal Steep's useless hub, a wasteland of sinkholes and dry, crumbling caverns created by meltwaters during the long-departed last glacial age. Girelf seemed properly impressed with "real" caves. Barc led her through Ambo Deep, where glow lights on a ceiling a hundred meters high flooded roofless shops, squares, streets, and a half-dozen busy marketplaces with bright, eerie light. He led her down narrowing passages lined with doors-working-class residences-ever deeper into the mountain.

At some point, when the doors they passed were no longer painted, where they hung loose on rusty hinges, and opened on dark emptiness, she became uneasy. "Where are you taking me? There are hardly any lights, and no people, and my feet are getting wet."

"You're a mantee. You should like wet feet," he said unsympathetically, remembering his own wet fur the last time he had been with Girelf, and a gray, furry fungus he had acquired in the water or her cave that had taken weeks of stinky medication to eradicate.

"I'm scared, Barc."

He relented, and explained. "We're in the oldest caverns now," he said. "These were the first ones bors settled in when we came to Stepwater and bought Margal from the wends. We're below the level of the river, now, and water seeps in. Don't worry, we're almost there. Look! There's a bunch of crystals now." Indeed, a cluster of hexagonal quartz filled a niche near the ground. They were not violet, only dark, like dirty glass. Girelf sniffed, unimpressed, though they were larger and shinier than her own treasure was. "Well, there are better ones," Barc said. "Come on."

Barc, caught up in his own enthusiasm, lulled by his own familiarity with the dark, damp caves, hardly noticed her hesitancy. He did, at their next stop, notice her diffidence. He thought the cluster of finger-thick smoke crystals was beautiful, even in the dim illumination of a single glow-light a hundred yards away. Individual crystals seemed to trap the green-white light and convert it to a red, emberous glow deep within. "Where are the amethysts?" Girelf asked him.

"There were some, the last time I was here," he mused. "Someone's been harvesting. We'll have to go deeper."

"Oh, no. I won't. I have decided that I'm really not interested in crystals after all. You can come back later, and find some. If you find amethysts, you can show them to me. But now, I want to go back."

"Aww... Honest, we're almost there. You'll see."

"Hah! I don't think there are any amethysts. You just wanted to tease me. All Margal's crystals are dirty and dull and brown, aren't they?"

"No! Why there's one that's..." Barc hesitated. He had never told anyone about that crystal.


As a cub, Barc had explored the oldest caves by himself. Even though he was heir to Margal Steep-or perhaps because of that-he was not a popular youngster, and early on he developed the internal resources of the estranged. Exploring was his fancy, his escape from surly cousins, Uncle Grast, and his mother, Sheb, who was always too busy for him. His father? A merchant in Karbol, he was told. Fathers were mere conveniences to the bors of Stepwater. Descent and inheritance were reckoned in the female line. Grast ruled the Steep, but at his sister's suffrance, and his sister's son-Barc-would inherit it. Barc's sister Blet-and female bors always gave birth to twins, one of each sex-would in turn rule him, and Blet's children would succeed her and Barc. His own offspring, inheriting from their own mother, whoever she might someday be, would not be in the line of succession.

In those lower caves, in an unlit corridor not far from where Barc and Girelf would later wander, a very young Barc had discovered an old door almost concealed behind thick, dark fungus. It was an iron door, not wood or bronze, a rarity indeed. Rarer still, it had been left to rust, but he was able to pull it outward until it crashed to the cavern floor with a painfully loud thud. Immediately, a trickle of water pooled behind it. There was always water in the deep caves. Barc was cautious, because he had encountered several participants in the deep caves unique ecology before; there were several species of slithers, which were innocuous, and fed on mold; there was a single type of mahkrat with tiny pink eyes and large, poisonous claws, that was not. It fed on slithers, other mahkrats, and anything else foolish enough to be caught unawares. He waved his small light globe, sheltering his eyes from its direct glow, and surveyed the chamber within. Blue-white light flashed back at him, and he froze in place.

A crystal. A blue crystal as big as his fist, wrist, and half his forearm. Its rectangular body facets returned much of the light from his globe, and he immediately noticed several unusual things about it. First, it had been cut or ground flat on both ends, against the ordinary cleavage planes. If that had not been enough to convince him that he was not the first to discover it, the glass case it resided within would have. The glass was hardly dirty; this far down in the caves, there was little air movement; even the mahkrats moved slowly, most of the time. The case was a domed top, with six rectangular panels forming the sides. The muntins that held all seven pieces of glass together were some dark metal, probably bronze.

The assembly rested on a polished stone plinth, almost like an altar-though bors were not religious by nature, and the nebulous God they acknowledged demanded no artifactual manifestations of their faith. What was it? Or rather, as it was a crystal in a case, on a plinth, in an abandoned room that had obviously not been visited in generations, what was it for?" And who had placed it here?

Barc explored. The room had once been finely decorated in an austere style, its buff limestone walls carved geometrically, its ceiling a tessilated negative bulge shaped like the domed top on the crystal's case. The walls, all six, each had a bronze inset that looked like a door with no fittings or latch. There was writing on them, or so Barc thought, geometric characters like nothing in the oldest books. Bors, unlike wends, had no innate interest in old things, and considered the past dead and irrelevant.

Finding nothing else of note, he returned to the glass case, and lifted it aside. The blue crystal gleamed brighter still. It was cool to the touch, no heavier than a crystal of that amazing size should be, and his ring clacked against it with a sound much like any crystal might make, but still, Barc felt uneasy handling it. Perhaps it was the setting he had found it in-obviously, someone had once thought it important, and worthy of great respect. Though Barc could not explain his own feelings, he set the blue gem down gently, and replaced its cover. He was hungry and thirsty. The sodden feel of the surface underfoot reminded him that water ran from the room. Did it come from somewhere high enough to be clean, free of mahkrat feces and slither slime? He searched, holding his globe high and slightly behind. There! It was coming from behind one of the wall medallions, the "doors." Poking and prying, he pulled an edge of the heavy metal rectangle free. It was a door. It swung open without much effort, on a narrow passage.

The water on the floor was still suspicious, but the passage seemed to lead upward. Barc followed it. He followed it and continued to follow it, ever slightly upward. The trickle was undiminished. By now, he had forgotten his thirst, and was consumed with interest in the passageway. It seemed an entirely natural passageway, and it was unlike the wide, branching ways he was familiar with. Where did it lead?

A scent tickled his nostrils. It was nothing strange, but for a moment it surprised him. It smelled like rain, like the ground outside smelled after a shower, when soil bacteria freshened and bloomed. Barc pushed on. It was rain. When he muffled his globe in his shirt, he saw a glow not from his own lamp or another glow light, but from outside.

Barc's thoughts raced. Outside? Had he found a secret exit from Margal Town? One without gate guards to stop him and humiliate him by calling his mother for permission to let him out? One unknown to his nosy cousin, Dird, and even to Uncle Grast? The possibilities the discovery promised were limitless. "Barc, where were you?" he imagined his mother asking. "Just exploring the old caves," he imagined his reply. "Ah well," he imagined her say, sighing, "at least it's safe." Safe. Even the oldest caverns were stable. There had not been a cave-in in a century. They were safe, stable, and to Barc's dismay, they had begun to become ... boring. Today was different, of course, but in how many old rooms could he expect to find things like the blue crystal? The most exciting thing he had found before this was old bones, perhaps of an explorer less skilled or lucky than himself. The thought of death in the lower caves had spiced his wanderings for a while, but the more he looked at the bones, the more they resembled leftovers from some old-time barbecue.

The enticing, fresh glow inspired him to great effort. It was a very small glow, from a minute hole-the source of the water. He had to dig his way out. He had to claw past cobbles, to push past roots, then to scrabble over rubble and through dense brush but, finally, he got out.

He stood in cloudy daylight within a few paces of the river, just a few obels downstream of the South Margal bridge. He was outside. He was ... free. Glancing behind him, he could see no trace of his exit. Next time, he would have to bring something down from the upper caves with him, something unsuspicious to mark the spot.

Becoming aware of the time, of the low sun-glow behind the clouds, he realized it was already late. Barc pushed back through the brush, then scrambled over the rubble, and ran most of the way down the long, narrow passage. It was clean and clear; he had encountered nothing on the way up it that might have caused him to stumble, and he was comfortable in the dark, even more than most of his kind.

Exiting the crystal's shrine, he could not replace the fallen door-but then, no one but he had discovered the place in ages, anyway. It did not matter. Barc hurried back through familiar caverns and passageways. About halfway home he realized that, with the river so near, he had forgotten to assuage his thirst as had been his initial intent.


Girelf stood amazed. "Is it really a crystal, or some wondrous made thing, something ancient, even from Earth itself?"

"It's a crystal," Barc said. "Anyone can see, it's a crystal." He had intended to show her a crystal, and he had done so. No one, he was sure, would ever be able to show her a bigger, clearer, or prettier one. He was not pleased with her talk of "made things," as if his treasure were an artifact, thus duplicable. Had he been more introspective, more perceptive, Barc might have wondered if Girelf was merely revenging herself for his negative reception of her own treasures. She reached out to remove the cover.

"No!" Barc's vehemence surprised himself. "Don't touch it."

"Why not?" she asked, arching her brow. "It's only a..."

"Only a crystal? It's in a case for a reason, you know. It's not just a crystal." It's my crystal, he almost said, my discovery.

She hesitated. Of course it was not just a crystal. It was a... But she did not voice her thought. "Of course not," she replied. "It's very special." She glanced about her, and her eyes fell on the bronze panels. "Can you read that stuff?" she asked, indicating the patterns cast or carved in them.

Barc almost said "Read what?" Thinking quickly-for him-he stopped himself. As she believed the geometrics to be writing, his question would have sounded ignorant. If it were indeed writing, and she understood it... "Not well," he said. "How much of it can you understand?"

She eyed him queerly-suspiciously, almost. "Me? Not a word. Where would I learn ancient Universal?"

A name. She did know something of it. It was a language, then. He resolved to find out more about it. The only problem was that he would have to show it to someone else, wouldn't he? And he did not want to do that. "At least you know what it is," he said. "Most people don't." She smiled, seeming flattered.

"We have to get back soon," she said. "They'll be worrying, and I'm all dirty." It was true, he saw. Her fur's oils, that made it waterproof, also collected every bit of loose dust and cobweb she had brushed. Barc thought long and hard. "There is another way back," he said. "Today, if the city portal guards see us approach, they will say nothing. They'll wonder how we got out of Margal Town, but they won't dare say anything. They'll fear a reprimand, thinking they let us slip by, earlier. I've done that before."

"Whatever do you mean?" Girelf asked, not understanding. Barc showed her the panel that moved, and the passage beyond. "Then are these others doors also?" she asked. Barc, for all his explorations, had not given that much thought. Girelf examined the edge of the open panel. "See? That nubbin of rust used to be a latch, of a kind. As there are no handles, I think it opened with a push, in the right spot." Since the door swung outward, how could an inward push open it? Barc wisely kept that thought to himself. Girelf pushed on each door in turn, with no result, until the last one, which emitted a distinctive click, and then popped open enough for eager fingers to wiggle behind its edge. "See?" Girelf said. "What's in there?"

Barc lifted his glow light. He checked for mahkrat sign, then slipped inside. "Come in and see," he said, his emotions mixed; this whole place was his discovery, and he did not want to share it-except, as with the crystal itself, as a grandiose gesture, to impress her. He would rather have had time to explore this new room himself, before showing her.

"Someone lived here!" she exclaimed. Together, they peered at perfectly ordinary furnishings. Only the style was a bit odd. A sofa, and chairs. Small tables with long-dead reading lamps. And another door. Girelf darted toward it, and Barc, holding the glow light, followed. "See? A bed." She glided over a floor laid with thick carpet. Barc had at first glance thought it was merely darkmoss, but it was, he realized, quite dry. He followed. She patted the dark coverlet, which gave off only the slightest musty smell. Obviously, this room had remained dry.

He brushed past her to examine the fabric, and static from their shuffling over the carpet caused her fur and his to raise up where they brushed. "Ooo!" she exclaimed as they exchanged tiny crackling blue sparks, and she turned suddenly. Barc found himself holding her. He had only once held a female before-Girelf herself, the year before, but the immediate sensation was enticingly familiar. She was so small and delicate. She was warm. She wiggled, as if to escape his sudden, clutching grasp. Sudden, urgent, and ill-understood sensations flooded Barc's body. He felt hot, then cold. His hands moved of their own accord, big bors hands that covered Girelf's back and waist. The twin pressures of small, firm nipples fell just halfway between his belt and his shoulders. She made a small, strange sound deep in her throat.

Girelf's hands were busy too-and she was not trying to push him away. He felt the pressure of each of her slim fingers individually, five in the small of his back, and five more burrowing into the fur of his left buttock, beneath the loose trousers he wore for cave explorations

Neither mantees nor bors are ordinarily clothing conscious. Bors wear garments on formal occasions, denoting status, position, or wealth. They wear, as Barc did, loose utilitarian smocks and trousers to perform possibly dirty tasks, to protect their lush, soft fur. Mantees wear clothing even less often, perhaps only as a relic of ancient human tradition. Nonetheless, as Girelf pulled loose the drawstring that held Barc's trousers, and as he slid her silky smock up over her head, the motions were sensual, the acts suggestive and arousing-if further arousal was possible for either of them. The mustiness of the bed did not bother them at all, when they tumbled together upon it. That the coverlet, dry with age, tore under their combined weight and their intense activity went without notice.


"Now we really have to go," Girelf murmured, her face buried in the soft darkness of Barc's chest. Barc's big hands pulled her tightly against him. "No, I mean it," she said. The metenkheh will be furious with me." Metenkheh, Barc knew, meant something like "assistant throngmother," the mantee in charge of the delegation. Girelf wriggled away from him. Through his fur, he felt the damp cold that had entered the room through the newly-opened door.

His hands reached for her. "Again?" he almost whined.

"The third time would get me pregnant!" she replied, sounding shocked. Barc knew little of mantee reproduction, but the thought of pregnancy frightened him. Was it so? He was not really all that sure of what it took to get a female bors pregnant, let alone a mantee. But he did know that if Girelf got pregnant, it would be a total disaster for both of them. Such a child would be horrible. He shuddered to contemplate it, and his ardor dampened immediately. He pulled away as if she exuded slime like a slither. "I'm not pregnant," she said, indignant now. "I would not let that happen. Everyone knows what happens to crossbreed babies." Everyone knew, indeed, and it was not a subject either wished to dwell on.

"I need a swim," she said. "I'm all dusty."

"There's a bathtub in there, I think," Barc responded, gesturing. "I saw a toilet, anyway."

"None of the plumbing works," she said, shaking her head. "I tried to get a drink while you were sleeping. Besides, that's stagnant water. I need to swim to get clean." Barc remembered then: mantees considered water that was not running to be dirty, even if it was not. He explained that the passage out led right to the riverbank. Girelf immediately brightened at the prospect of a quick plunge in the river. He had noticed the year before that her fur, unlike his own, did not stay wet and soggy after immersion, just as his did not collect sticky cobwebs or the dust of crumbling bedclothes

"Come on," he said

His earlier work clearing the adit-which he had used many times in the years since its discovery, on secretive expeditions outside the underground town-allowed them to slip out without getting his own fur muddy. A good shake and a quick combing with his fingernails sufficed for him, while Girelf swam. Shortly later, they mingled with residents and visiting mantees, and passed back into the town unnoticed by the guards.


"How come, Daddy?" Parissa queried insistantly. "How come they don't want to make a baby?"

"Because babies are ugly, and they grow into noisy little beasts like you," Rober muttered, too low for Parissa to hear-but not too softly for Sarabet, who jabbed him in the ribs with her elbow. "I'm going outside," he said, rising. "You can tell Pariss about that. I already know."

"Daddy?" Parissa said again.

"I have work to do, dear," he said apologetically. "I think Sarabet can explain it to you." He always had work; fleet or no fleet, with or without deadly poletzai, that never changed-but this time, he really just had to get away, to think...

There were always plans to be made, ends to be furthered. Just as Barc and Girelf seemed unlikely individuals to merit the attention of an Arbiter, there were others, too: small, insignificant folk in far and seemingly unimportant places upon whose petty and self-centered actions the fates of planets, stars, and the Xarafeille Stream sometimes hinged. It was an Arbiter's job to find them, to seek out just those little folk who were in the right place at the right time, people whose personal flawS and selfish desires-if not their loyalties, politics, or ideals-coincided with an Arbiter's needs, or could be turned to his advantage ... and mankind's.


Sarabet could explain, and did. "There are several kinds of humans," she said to Parissa. "Old humans like us Minders and then all the rest. Once there were only old humans, but when they went out to many different worlds, they could not live on all of them. Some were too cold, or too dry, or too wet..."
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