/ Language: English / Genre:sf_space, / Series: Man-Kzin Wars

Destinys ForgeA ManKzin War Novel

Paul Chafe

For fifty thousand years the Kzinti Patriarchy thrived on battle fought for conquest. Against all odds the humans stopped them, and for five wars kept on stopping them. With its violent expansion checked internal strains have built up within the Patriarchy, and now they threaten to tear it apart. When the ambitious Kchula-Tzaatz makes a bid for ultimate power the established order comes tumbling down, and the flames of war burn hot in Destiny's Forge. Hammered on that Forge are; Major Quacy Tskombe, battle hardened warrior turned diplomat. His life is duty, his mission takes him to the Citadel of the Patriarch in a last ditch effort to avert war. When it all falls apart he's forced to choose between love and loyalty, with the fate of humanity hanging in the balance. Captain Ayla Cherenkova, starship commander. As talented as she is beautiful, her hatred of the Kzinti has driven her to the top. Her space combat genius is unmatched, but when she's trapped alone in the jungles of Kzinhome her survival will depend on a whole new skillset. Pouncer, First-Son-of-Meerz-Rritt, heir apparent to the galaxy's most powerful empire, now a nameless fugitive with the collapse of his father's dynasty. Survival demands escape, but honor demands vengeance, and the price of his Name will be paid in the blood of worlds. Paul Chafe presents a masterpiece in the grand tradition of epic science fiction. No fan of Larry Niven's best-selling Known Space series can miss Destiny's Forge.

Destiny's Forge

Paul Chafe

For Maggie, my mom.

PROLOGUE

The Tyger

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies

Burnt the fire of thine eyes?

On what wings dare he aspire?

What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,

Could twist the sinews of thy heart?

When thy heart began to beat,

What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? What the chain?

In what furnace was thy brain?

What the anvil? What dread grasp

Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears

And water'd heaven with their tears,

Did He smile his work to see?

Did He who made the lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

— William Blake

The Roots Of Kzinti Culture, Language And History.

The kzinti culture is both more homogenous and richer than human culture. In a very real sense there are not one but many human cultures, since civilization arose not once but several times on Earth, each time in complete isolation and independence, separated by insurmountable geographic barriers. By contrast, both linguistic, historical and (where available) genetic evidence indicate that civilization arose on Kzinhome only once. In geocultural terms, this can be explained by Kzinhome's relatively small (~50%) percentage of water cover and proportionally larger contiguous continental area, combined with the smaller range of climatic conditions over the non-polar regions of the planet. This is caused by the denser atmosphere and the tropical wind belt phenomenon, which acts to pump heat from the equator to the mid-latitudes. This arrangement can be expected to have facilitated the movement of trade and technology over isoclimatic lines with relative rapidity. At some point relatively early in the civilization cycle the primary kzinti culture was established and thriving planetwide. On genetic evidence it is certain that the kzinti species passed through a population bottleneck approximately ten thousand generations ago for unknown reasons.

Given the evidence of a single start point for kzinti civilization, we can argue that an evolutionary stress caused the bottleneck and triggered runaway sexual selection of intelligence with resultant rapid and concurrent development of bi-quadrupedal posture, language, and tool use as species traits. It seems likely this stress was a massive climatic shift brought about by the slight eccentricity in Kzinhome's orbit caused by gravitational interactions with the gas giant Hgrall. This posited orbital shift, occurring approximately 200,000 years ago, would have increased average solar flux, in turn increasing the average surface temperature as much as 3 degrees Celsius, extending growing seasons and accelerating the rate of water circulation through the atmosphere and hydrosphere. The combination of these effects formed extensive rainforests throughout the tropical and temperate zones. Simultaneously large sections of the continental interiors were reduced to desert. The higher rate of photosynthesis has led directly to the high (~30%) oxygen levels seen in Kzinhome's atmosphere today. A general rule of planetary evolution states that the average mass of animal species increases with increased solar energy flux. This is due to both the greater availability of food through increased plant growth, which supports a heavier food chain, and the greater availability of oxygen due to increased photosynthesis, which allows the high metabolic rates necessary for large, active animals to exist.

Although humans are accustomed to seeing the two-meter kzinti as large predators, in their native ecosystems they are small in relation to most high order fauna in their ecological range, small with respect to their primary prey species and small with respect to other predators with which they compete. Typically, large land predators take prey no more than twice their weight, and usually less than their weight. By contrast, lone kzinti will stalk and kill zerkitz up to ten times their weight, and hunting parties will take a'kdzrow of up to twenty-five metric tons. In most cases where evolutionary forces lead to an increase in prey species size we expect to see the predator species increase along with them. However, in the case of the kzinti the large predator niches remained occupied by competitors such as the v'speel stalker and the pack hunting grlor.

This suggests that the kzinti were forced into the intelligence niche because their customary prey animals increased in size with the climate change but they themselves could not because the large predator niches were already occupied. As their prey grew larger the large predators flourished at the expense of the smaller early pre-kzin, driving them to the edge of extinction. This would have pushed the pre-kzin toward the cooperative hunter niche, which requires the development of complex signaling and a basic social structure. These developments set the stage for the evolution of intelligence. This picture is plausible but incomplete, and it is important to understand that while the individual links in this chain of reasoning have all been verified, to the extent possible through kzinti documentation, the actual proof of the cause and effect relationships asserted will have to await detailed research on Kzinhome itself.

Regardless of the root causes of the genetic bottleneck event, the effects on kzinti development are clear. The kzinti speak a single language, although there are many dialects, and extremely separated dialects have difficulty communicating. Given the limits imposed by speed-of-light communications in an interstellar empire, identical linguistic groups have had ample time to diverge but have not. It could be argued that this lack of linguistic flexibility is evidence of a more instinctive, less flexible language facility, hinting that kzinti are less intelligent than humans. However the Hero's Tongue is a fully combinatorial language in the sense of Gödel, i.e., a formal system capable of making statements of arbitrary complexity. There is therefore no thought that cannot be expressed in the Hero's Tongue. Further, kzinti are gifted mathematicians, which again requires thought processes capable of handling problems of arbitrary complexity. In addition, both the language areas and visual cortex in the kzin brain are highly developed and both larger and more finely structured than in humans.

This last fact may provide an answer to the puzzle of the Hero's Tongue's strange cohesion. It is known that the kzin population is richer in telepathic adepts than the human population, and it is known that the brain processes used in telepathy make extensive use of both language and visual circuits in humans. In the visual system this is known to correspond to the high demands of the active predator ecological niche. The low genetic diversity of the kzin race may have facilitated the emergence of a telempathic sense due to the high degree of correlation of thought and emotional processes between individuals. There is then a natural evolutionary pathway toward making use of the processing power of both visual and language brain circuits in order to extract increasingly detailed information from the telempathic sense. This development can in turn have locked in those brain circuits to the demands of telempathic processing. In the visual cortex these effects may not be noticeable, since the visual cortex is also locked into processing patterns that correspond to a verifiable external reality; however, there is no single “correct” combinatorial language system, which leaves the language centers of the brain free to select any of an infinite number of equally valid symbol systems.

This is the case in humans, and human languages drift and evolve rapidly. However, in kzinti we may conjecture that the telempathic sense has effectively locked in the language centers to its (still poorly understood) demands, which would go far toward explaining both kzin linguistic homogeneity and telepathic prowess. As a side note, hallucinatory experiences are common in human telepathic adepts, which may be due to the telempathic and other senses competing for the same brain processor resources. Kzinti telepaths also suffer from numerous cognitive difficulties, and this may explain why telepathy evolves rarely and is seldom a highly developed sense in any species despite its obvious evolutionary advantages: Its cognitive costs simply outweigh its survival benefits. The largest exceptions to this rule, the now extinct Slavers and the sessile Grogs, both show clearly the cognitive drawbacks of a highly developed telempathic sense.

Kzinti share with humans the ability to form hierarchical mass societies, but they are orders of magnitude less social. Any society can be seen as a series of opportunities to cooperate or compete, and in kzinti the balance falls more heavily on competition than in human society. This fact imposes strict limits on the forms of society that the kzinti can successfully use, and in fact we can see that kzinti culture shows much less variation than human culture does in terms of structure. The reasons for this are complex, but ultimately, for any evolved organism, the final measure of success is the number of offspring injected into future generations in relation to the number of offspring injected by competitors. There are two basic strategies available to achieve this, and we may categorize species as K (named because the population total is characterized by K, the carrying capacity of the environment) and r (named because the population total is characterized by r, the reproductive rate). K species are characterized by a small number of large offspring, long lifetimes with late maturity, and high levels of parental care. Type r species have a large number of small offspring, short lifetimes with early maturity, and low or no parental care.

In species with sexual reproduction we see two strategies, individuals who produce a small number of large gametes (females) and those who produce a large number of small gametes (males). This tendency usually generalizes so that we see females invest a large amount to ensure the success of a small number of offspring, and males invest a small amount in any given offspring in order to maximize the total number of offspring. Since the child-bearing capacity of females is the ultimate limit on the reproductive potential of any given generation, we usually see a situation in which males compete for females. In a species like the Wunderland gagrumpher, males invest no parental care in their offspring, and as a result we see a large sexual dimorphism, with males averaging five times the weight of a female and possessing specialized neck dewlaps, which serve both as an intimidation mechanism in male/male conflicts and as a sexually selected attractant to females. There are exceptions to this rule. In some bird species the male and female form long-term pair bonds and there is very little (although not zero) mate competition. As a result males and females are nearly identical in body plan and require an expert (or a con specific) to differentiate them. In a few fish species the technical details of reproduction dictate that males provide all or the bulk of parental care, and in these cases females compete aggressively for access to males, reversing the normal pattern.

In almost all mammalian species, males compete for females, but humans are an extreme case of the K strategy and this changes the equation. Due to the limitations of the female pelvis and the human specialization of large brain size, human infants are born almost completely helpless and require two decades to reach full maturity. This tremendous reproductive burden requires the dedicated assistance of the male to ensure the survival of the offspring in a primitive environment, and the males best able to provide this assistance then become objects of competition for females. Because of this almost unheard-of female competition, the degree of male competition is reduced. As a result male humans mass only about 50 percent more than females and females possess secondary sexual attractant displays that are almost universally confined to males in other mammals. Under these conditions cooperative, coalitional behaviors in both sexes are cost effective, and it is these behaviors that make human society possible. Through this process intelligence itself has become a sexually selected characteristic as well as a naturally selected characteristic. At this point in human evolutionary history it seems likely that sexual selection has become the dominant driving force behind the development of human intelligence, as witnessed by the tremendous costs involved in bearing large-brained infants (including a significant death-in-labor and infant mortality rate under primitive conditions) and rearing them to adulthood. Such high-cost evolutionary features, like peacock tails and moose antlers, are generally only seen in cases of runaway sexual selection, where a trait evolves until the evolutionary cost of displaying it counterbalances the tremendous reproductive advantage it confers.

The kzinti are even more extreme K strategists than humans. Kzinti kits are normally born as brother/sister twins from a single egg, although there are rare cases of quadruplets or single births, and are typically nursed for eight to twelve (standard) years, during which time the female remains infertile. A fertile female kzin may have only three or four estrus cycles in her lifetime. As a result kzin population growth is extremely slow and kzin males compete strenuously both for females and for the resources to support them. A high proportion of kzin male deaths are due to challenge duels resulting from this competition, and in the adult population females outnumber males in a ratio of between two to one and three to one. In other words, between 50 and 75 percent of male kzin kits can expect to die in combat. Of these, most can expect to die at the hands of older and more established kzin, although among those Great Prides involved directly in the Man/Kzin wars almost 50 percent are killed in combat with humans or other species. Combat death among males begins in late adolescence and rises to a peak in young adulthood, declining steadily thereafter. This single fact dominates the entire kzinti social structure, and in fact the entire Patriarchy is built around the requirement to redirect the aggression of young males outward to prevent them from completely destabilizing the hierarchy. It is this high death rate that allows the extended polygamous mating structure that is the core of kzinti social life. Paradoxically this system has given the kzinti 50,000 years of cultural stability and an interstellar empire unmatched in Known Space. Unfortunately these achievements are little comfort to any particular adolescent kzin who, regardless of station of birth, can only look forward to a lifetime of status-driven combat with a better than even chance of violent death.

Kefan Brasseur

Senior Fellow for Nonhuman Studies

Kardish University

Alpha Plateau

Plateau

THE ANVIL

We are Kzin-ti because we are wild, born of Savannah and Jungle. We are Kzin-ti because we are hunters swift and silent, cunning and strong. We are Kzin-ti because we are warriors, with honor won in battle and proved in blood. We are Kzin-ti, we are the hunters, we are Kzin-ti.

— Saga of the Fanged God

The zitragor paused, head coming up to scan the area, delicate nose sniffing inquisitively. The beast seemed nervous, as though it sensed something wrong, but after a long moment it lowered its head to the rivulet to drink.

Watching from his concealment on a rock behind a spreading burstflower bush, Pouncer twitched his tail unconsciously, eyes locked on his prey. It was a good four leaps away, drinking where the little stream narrowed and speeded up before disappearing around a bend in the canyon. It wasn't the easiest place for the zitragor to drink, but it was safer by far than the larger pool where Pouncer was waiting.

Had it scented him? No, the light breeze was still in his face, and it would not have stayed if it knew a predator was in the area. Its nervousness was just well applied caution. Would it come closer? The air smelled of ozone, alive with the promise of a gathering storm, but overhead the sun burned hot in clear blue sky flecked with a few white clouds. Somewhere nearby a charge suppressor was neutralizing high-altitude ions to prevent the clouds from building up to thunderheads. That allowed the wind to carry the uncondensed moisture over the high Long Range mountains to moisten the Plain of Stgrat beyond them, but the ground here in the foothills was parched as a result. The zitragor was feeling the effects of the drought, and it was thirsty, very thirsty. Pouncer settled lower on his rock, his hunt-cloak blending with the vegetation around him. He waited. It needed to come closer. A v'pren blurred past, its wings a high keening note. Pouncer looked up sharply, ready to run, but it was alone. A single v'pren bite was a trivial annoyance, but when they swarmed they were lethal.

The zitragor looked up again and seemed to hesitate. Had it heard the v'pren? Had it seen his motion? Four leaps was a long way to go if he wanted to ensure his kill. A zitragor could outrun a kzin with a four-leap head start, seven times in eight. It looked around, flicking its ears, then bent to drink again. Pouncer gathered himself for the leap and willed the beast to come closer. It swallowed in quick gulps, looked up, twisting its long neck around to scan behind it. A swiftwing rustled in the bushes behind it, and it started, half turning. This was it! But the zitragor didn't run and Pouncer didn't leap. It scanned the area again, scenting the air, then returned to drink again. It was agitated, but its thirst was stronger than its fear. Perhaps it had scented the rest of the hunting party on the plateau above the canyon. His father and brother and the others were hunting as a group, but Pouncer preferred his own company. He might not gain as many kills by himself, but they were his own, and that was important. Politics claimed more attention than prey when the Patriarch led a hunt, and Pouncer had little liver for the toadying of courtiers trying to gain his father's favor. In two days the Great Pride Circle of all the Patriarchy met, and Great-Pride-Patriarchs and double-named Emissaries had been arriving from beyond the singularity for the last Hunter's Moon. Many of them had never been to Kzinhome before, and they came with strange foods and stranger customs, retinues of retainers, trains of slaves, and any number of demands, pronouncements, propositions, and intrigues. And all of them wanted nothing more than to share a hunt with the Patriarch, or failing that, his oldest heir. When Younger-Brother mentioned this water-hole, Pouncer had leapt at the chance to lead himself on his own private hunt.

The zitragor looked up nervously, then went back to drinking. If only it would come closer! Unconsciously Pouncer's lips curled back from his fangs. Not that Younger-Brother's suggestion was free of intrigue itself. He knew Pouncer's preference for solitude, and with First-Son-of-Meerz-Rrit away by himself, the attention would fall to Second-Son. Pouncer licked his chops, concentrating on the zitragor. Let him play his palace games of strakh and precedence. Today was a day for the chase.

The zitragor turned and jumped into the bushes. Pouncer screamed and leapt. The kill scream was meant to paralyze prey, but this victim was simply galvanized into full flight. Four leaps later it had a five-leap lead, clearing a fallen tangletree and dodging sideways. Pouncer kept his eyes focused on its hindquarters, running on all fours, putting every sinew into every stride. He managed to close the distance to three leaps, gulping air in deep pants, and then his quarry dodged sideways and the distance widened as his claws dug into the dirt to make the turn. No! It would not get away! His muscles were already screaming with fatigue, but Pouncer drove his legs forward, gained back a leap when it half-stumbled over a boulder, gained another when he anticipated a dodge and cut the corner as it tried to shake him. It is tiring too, he told himself. He could almost taste it, fresh meat in his fangs, blood squirting warm and rich down his throat. His kill! A single leap in front of him. It would not get away. Half a leap!

The zitragor burst through a line of shrubs and Pouncer followed, fangs extended for the kill. A gray wall loomed in front of him, ivory tusks gleaming, huge bodies milling aimlessly as they grazed.

Tuskvor!

Pouncer skidded to a stop, nearly falling. The exhausted zitragor dodged between two of the hulking beasts. Agitated by its passage, one of the herd-mothers bellowed. Pouncer dropped to the ground, still as death, letting his hunt cloak settle over him. Tuskvor rarely came so high out of the jungle below, but it was late summer, fodder was scarce, and they would be migrating soon. Farther back in the herd another bellow answered the first, and the herd began to stir. Pouncer's heart pounded. If they charged he would die, it was that simple. A tuskvor's lumbering walk was not much slower than a kzin could run, and they could walk all day. A herd charge mowed down all before it. He slowly adjusted his hunt cloak around his body to conceal himself better.

In front of him a vast herd-grandmother turned ponderously, tossing the air with her tusks. She must have outweighed him eight-cubed to one, big as a scout craft from her long neck to her armored tail. The great beast turned slowly to face him, her huge eyes staring. The gentle breeze carried her heavy musk to his nostrils. She snorted, thrusting her tusks in threat display. Tuskvor had good vision, but hunt cloaks were nearly perfect camouflage. Had she seen him? Pouncer began to back slowly away, seeking the cover of the bushes behind him. A smaller herd-mother bellowed, and her young crowded close behind her for safety. The beasts stirred restlessly, and the grandmother angrily uprooted a bramblebush. She knew something was wrong, but she hadn't seen him. Not yet.

Slowly he raised himself to all fours and carefully, paw by paw, crawled backward, keeping low, using what cover he could. The grandmother flapped her ears and seemed to settle down. One of the young began to drink from its mother's teats, and Pouncer allowed himself to relax slightly. Behind him a swiftwing called as it launched itself into the air. It banked overhead, riding the rising air currents out of the mouth of the canyon. The clouds were piling up in the sky overhead, converging into pillars that climbed for the top of the atmosphere, and the scent of ozone was stronger now. Despite the charge suppressors there would be a storm in the afternoon, a big one. The swiftwing banked again as the wind changed, rippling through Pouncer's fur.

The wind! It would carry his scent… Even as he thought it, the herd grandmother snorted, head coming back around to peer at him. She snorted again at the rank scent of carnivore and bellowed, the booming cry echoing from the canyon walls. The others in the herd answered. Ponderously the beast started toward him, her momentum building. Others moved with it; the herd was charging. Pouncer turned and sprang into a run. Fire burned in his legs, already spent from the zitragor chase, but the growing rumble behind him was reason enough to ignore it. Bellow after bellow shook the air. He leapt over the same trunk the zitragor had in its flight, breath coming now in gasps. Behind him the rumble grew to thunder. He risked a glance backward and saw the herd bearing down on him like a living avalanche, half obscured in its own dust. He had enough of a lead to escape, perhaps, if he could run until the charge ran out of momentum. Ahead of him the canyon narrowed and the vegetation thickened. That would slow him down but not the herd. Exhaustion weighed on his legs, but he drove himself forward, angling toward a clearer corridor. Behind him the pounding feet drew nearer, the herd grandmother bellowing in rage. They had his scent, and they weren't going to stop until they overran him. At the head of the canyon large rocks had fallen from the cliffface, too big for a tuskvor to tumble, too high for them to gore him. If he could get on top of one of those he would be safe, if he reached them with enough strength to leap to the top.

He risked another look back, saw the herd-grandmother's narrowed eyes fixed on him. If he reached them at all… The herd had noticeably narrowed the gap. Saplings snapped like twigs as they came to the heavier vegetation, and thick bramblebushes were pounded into the dirt.

Nothing survived a herd charge, it was common knowledge. Nothing a kzin could carry could take down a tuskvor, save for a lucky head shot, and a herd held eight-cubed of the beasts.

The body follows where the mind leads. Guardmaster's training ran through his brain. Pouncer's legs were spent but he ran on, inexorably slowing. He came on the stream where he'd waited so patiently for the zitragor and leapt it without hesitation, putting everything he had into it. On the far side a rock rolled under his foot and he tumbled, slamming hard against the rocks as he fell, just as the herd-grandmother bellowed in rage. Pain flared in his hip as he came to his feet. They were almost on him and he could run no farther.

“Sire!”

His head snapped around at the shout. A gravcar! Guardmaster! It swooped down ten leaps ahead of him and he put every sinew into one last burst of speed, ignoring the pain, feeling the ground trembling under the herd behind him as they splashed into the stream. He leapt for the car's open back, Guardmaster's paws pulling him inboard even as the pilot lifted out. The car jolted sideways as the herd-grandmother's tusks slammed into it in a vain attempt to wrench her quarry from the sky. One paw slipped free and for a moment he dangled, not enough strength left to keep himself from falling into the churning mass of flesh below, then he was grabbed again, hauled bodily into the vehicle to lie panting on the floor. Concerned eyes looked down into his.

“Myowr-Guardmaster!” He could barely get the words out. “Thank the Fanged God!”

“Sire! Are you injured?” His mentor's worry was clear.

“Only my pride.” Pouncer panted, recovering himself. He ran a paw down his side to his hip. Pain flared again but nothing seemed broken.

“Only a fool stalks tuskvor.”

“It was a zitragor, but it knew where to run for safety.” Pouncer breathed in heavy gasps. “I owe you my life.”

“Meerz-Rrit would end my line if I let his eldest son be trampled.”

“Where is my father?”

“He made his kill. He's returning to the Citadel. I was coming to let you know that.”

“Fortune is with me in your presence.”

“You shouldn't hunt alone. Not even here, much less the jungle.”

“You know about that?” Pouncer had thought his private expeditions to the dangerous jungle verge were his own secret.

Guardmaster rippled his ears in amusement. “I know everything. I was once my father's eldest.”

“Hrrr.” Pouncer grimaced. “Then you know my thoughts on Patriarchal hunts.”

Guardmaster rippled his ears again. “Second-Son does not share your reticence.”

“Black-Stripe yearns for the strakh of the Patriarchy. If he felt the burden of its responsibility he would be less eager.”

“It would not hurt you to practice your diplomacy. Balancing the factions is vital.”

“When I am Patriarch I will outlaw factions. I want no one currying favor with me.”

Guardmaster's whiskers twitched, and he turned a paw over to contemplate his claws. “Some things even the Patriarch cannot command.”

The older kzin turned to give direction to the pilot, and Pouncer looked out over the side as the gravcar slid over the hills, south toward the Hrungn valley. The tuskvor herd had eaten a huge swath through the savannah and into the foothills where they had started their charge. From that point forward the ground was churned, vegetation and everything else crushed into the dirt. Pouncer looked away. It could have been him down there. It would have been him, save for blind luck. Some things not even the Patriarch could command.

The Great Prides require a great master.

— Si-Rrit

Stkaa-Emissary paced restlessly, impatient and nervous at once, waiting in the Patriarch's quarters for the Patriarch to get back from his hunt. Occasionally he stopped to take in the vista. He had never been to Kzinhome before, but everything about it, the smells, the colors, the very air, told him he was home, home in a way that even his native W'kkai had never been, much as he missed it. Still, the panorama gave him no pleasure. The Patriarch's Tower was the tallest structure in the Citadel by design and the tallest on the planet by decree. Its windows gave him a panoramic view of the vast fortress and the rolling countryside beyond it. Surrounding the Citadel were small groups of low buildings built of stone and stonewood, the homes and shops of smallholders and crafters who served those who served the Patriarch. Farther out he could see great expanses of ripening fields, hsahk and meeflri for the grazing meat beasts. The vista was broken up by the huge tracts of forestland that marked the hunt parks of the Lesser Prides of Kzin, whose smaller strongholds were scattered across the plain like children's toys. Everywhere the riding lights of gravcars sparkled like flashflits in the early dusk, shuttling between the splashes of light that marked communities and enterprises big and small. On the eastern horizon the last rays of the setting sun glinted from the steady stream of freighters shuttling to the spaceport called Sea-of-Stars from the orbital dockyards invisible overhead. At regular intervals sat the domes of space-defense weapons, firepower enough to rip a fleet from orbit. Eight-to-the-sixth kzinti and eight-to-the-seventh slaves occupied half a continent here, churning out products from wine to warships. The Plain of Stgrat was the single greatest concentration of military and economic power in the Patriarchy.

To Stkaa-Emissary it seemed insignificant. He had been to Earth.

The doors opened and he spun around, expecting the Patriarch's advance guard. There was only a single kzin, followed by a buzzing Whrloo slave and a floating servitorb.

“Where is…” He began, then caught sight of the crimson sash and the sigil on it. “Patriarch! I abase myself.”

Meerz-Rrit waved away his crouching obeisance. “Stkaa-Emissary, welcome to my home.”

Stkaa-Emissary studied Meerz-Rrit carefully. The Patriarch comes without guards, without retainers. Does this mean I have his trust, or is he simply that confident? The Patriarch was tall and very fit. The handle of his variable sword was well worn, its scabbard made for ease of use and not ostentation. His belt held no more than a pawful of ears. He does not need to duel often, Emissary decided, but when he does he wins.

“Clean kill I trust, Patriarch?”

There were half a dozen ornate prrstet in the room, set around a low obsidian table polished to a mirror gloss. Meerz-Rrit hopped on to one and reclined, inviting his guest into another with an open paw.

“Clean kill, Emissary. It was a satisfying one, a prime zitragor.” Four Kdatlyno filed into the room, carrying the still warm kill on a large platter, now cut into thick slices and seasoned. A pair of pointed skeceri blades skewered the meat so it could be handled and cut without bloodying the paws.

Stkaa-Emissary jumped up and settled himself carefully. “It is an honor to share it with you, Patriarch.” He began carefully, pausing to spear a section of haunch with his skeceri and tear at it, savoring the juices and spice. It was prime indeed, like nothing he had ever tasted on W'kkai.

“I trust you find your chambers comfortable.” Meerz-Rrit was solicitous, polite to a fault.

“The House of Victory is both spacious and lavish.”

“And your colleagues are congenial, I trust.”

“It is an honor to meet the leaders of the Great Prides, and fascinating to see how our species has adapted to life among the stars. There are more ways to be kzinti than I ever imagined.” He paused before getting down to business. “My goal here is simple, Patriarch. As you know, Stkaa Pride has borne the brunt of the campaign against the monkeys.”

“With honor, if not success.” The Patriarch beckoned to the Whrloo, which picked up a decanter and two flagons from the servitorb and buzzed to the table with them. “This is shasca.”

“Thank you, Patriarch.” Emissary lifted his flagon and sipped; the rich blending of fresh blood and fermented berry was exquisite on his palate. “It is excellent.” I am evolved for this world, he thought, and drank more deeply before continuing. “The kz'eerkti present us a unique problem. Not only have we been unable to conquer them, but we have lost entire worlds to their counterattacks. Now our base on Ch'Aakin has fallen, and W'kkai itself is suffering grievously under human embargo. Even this we retain only because they have not chosen to take it.”

“Hrrrr. In the time of my thrice-grandsire they besieged Kzinhome itself. Their forbearance is surprising.”

“It is not mercy that stops them.” Emissary paused for emphasis, drank again from the flagon. “The situation is not acceptable, not for Stkaa Pride, not for the Patriarchy, not for our species. We must finally subjugate them.”

“A worthy goal, and one I am surprised Stkaa Pride has not already accomplished.” Stkaa-Emissary flattened his ears at the implied criticism. “What will you ask of Rrit Pride in this regard?” Meerz-Rrit speared a hunk of zitragor haunch and wolfed it down.

“The humans represent a threat such as our species has never experienced before. I believe they now pose a threat not only to Stkaa Pride but to the entire Patriarchy. When the Great Pride Circle meets I intend to ask for the participation of all the Great Prides in an extended campaign to eliminate the monkey menace permanently.” Stkaa-Emissary made the open-pawed gesture of deference. “With your support, Patriarch, I am sure we will get it.”

“And your dispute with the Cvail Pride?”

“Cvail Pride presents a problem. Chmee-Cvail hopes to strangle us in order to gain for himself what we have lost.”

“With some considerable success, I understand.”

“Unfortunately true, Patriarch. A key factor in the loss of Ch'Aakin was our difficulty in moving supplies due to the intransigence of Cvail Pride.”

Meerz-Rrit turned a paw over in contemplation. “So perhaps Rrit Pride should throw itself behind Cvail Pride. Their success is a measure of a prowess that perhaps you lack.”

“No!” Emissary's ears snapped up and forward. “Patriarch, this is no longer a matter of gaining strakh enough for a world or a fleet. Great Pride rivalry weakens us, and we are in grave danger. This is a matter of species survival.”

“The monkeys possess only a pawful of worlds. Your pride's inability to defeat them speaks poorly of you, and now you inflate their prowess to excuse your incompetence.” Meerz-Rrit fixed his gaze on Emissary. We shall see how he defends himself.

“It is not the number of worlds that counts, Patriarch, but the number of sentients. Their homeworld numbers thrice-eight-to-the-eight-and-three individuals. Thrice-eight-to-the-eight-and-three! Their military potential is tremendous and their savagery unimaginable.”

“Savagery.” Meerz-Rrit flipped his tail dismissively. “How much ferocity does an herbivore need to catch a root?”

“As herbivores they do not understand the dangers of unrestrained aggression. These creatures do not fight wars like any other species. They fight without regard for spoils, they do not try to capture slaves, possess no concept of honor. They give no thought to the use of the land they acquire and thus use conversion weapons without restraint. Their single focus is the annihilation of their enemy, of us. They destroy utterly what they cannot possess, even what they simply do not care to possess.”

“Surely you exaggerate.”

“I wish I did, Patriarch. On Hssin they ruptured the domes from space; slaves and warriors alike drowned in their own blood. It was not a battle, not a conquest, just honorless slaughter; they did not even bother to scour the ruins for booty. It was the same on Ch'Aakin. I was there, and few enough of us escaped with our lives.”

“So you say. And yet time and again they have failed to follow up on their initial success. If they were as fearsome as you claim we would long ago be their slave race.”

“As herbivores they do not understand the folly of leaving wounded quarry alive. Believe me when I speak of their ferocity. They have no interest in slaves or booty. What does the tuskvor want with meat? But when the hunter draws close the herd will charge and trample all before it, not for gain but for safety.”

“Yet surely leading the entire Patriarchy in hunt-conquest cannot fail to enhance the strakh of Stkaa Pride at the expense of Cvail Pride.” Meerz-Rrit narrowed his eyes. “Perhaps even at my own expense.”

Strakh is no use to slaves, or to the dead. When we met the kz'eerkti we enjoyed tremendous advantages in technology and space warfare experience. We failed to conquer them. Each new attempt has been better organized and better equipped, and yet now we lose ground. Their technology has become fully the equal of our own.”

“It is not technology that wins wars, it is the courage of the warriors.”

“Only where the combatants meet with honor, Patriarch. The way the monkeys wage war, only raw industrial strength counts. Already on their few worlds they match the entire Patriarchy. They never duel among themselves, so nothing slows their growth rate but lack of space, and they are content, even eager, to crowd closer than a basketful of kits.”

“Hrrr. I have seen the images.” Not that I have quite believed them. Emissary had too much status to lie, but Meerz-Rrit had no doubt he was presenting the truth to his pride's best advantage.

“I have been there! I went to negotiate with their rulers on Earth, in a city called Nyewrrk. In a structure the size of this tower eight-cubed, even eight-to-the-fourth might live.” He gestured out the tower windows. “And from here to the horizon was nothing but more buildings larger still, immensely larger, dwellings stacked like pirtitz on a platter.”

Meerz-Rrit wrinkled his nostrils. “My nose is offended already.”

“You cannot understand, Patriarch!” Stkaa-Emissary fought down the urge to gag at the memory. “They wallow in their own filth. The sky is literally brown with pollutants, and their drinking water reeks of the chemicals they must use to strip their own sewage from it. I could not eat for days. But this is how they live. And from space you can see the lights at night, every continent is a solid mass of light! The entire planet is populated like this.”

“I am convinced of their decadence, Emissary. What is your point?” And what is his aim here? What is the deeper game?

“We are no longer the predators here, we can no longer scream and leap. They breed like vatach, so fast that on Earth they must have reproductive laws to prevent them drowning in the flesh of their offspring. On a colony the population doubles and redoubles as you watch! Unchecked they will inevitably expand into our sphere and overrun us as casually as the zitragor moves to fresh stands of grass. They have no liver for conquest, but their social system makes it inevitable.”

“As does ours.”

“Exactly, Patriarch. One species must be conquered by the other, there is no other way. I am naturally convinced that it should be ours that prevails.”

Meerz-Rrit extended his claws and contemplated them. “Your arguments are compelling, Emissary.”

“The facts speak for themselves, Patriarch.”

“They do. My question is, what facts aren't speaking now?”

“I don't understand.”

“Let me give you the scent. Stkaa Pride has fought this conquest war for generations now and has failed miserably. Cvail Pride seeks your ears.”

“Cvail Pride's ears will swing with ours on the monkey's belt.”

“I understand they have declared skalazaal.”

He knows! Stkaa-Emissary managed to control his reaction. Did the Patriarch know, or merely suspect? “The Honor-War is a pride matter. I cannot speak for my patriarch.”

“Of course not.” Meerz-Rrit quaffed his flagon, inhaling the rich taste of the shasca. The smell masked the subtle hint of fear that had crept into Stkaa-Emissary's scent, but that had already been enough to confirm his theory. Patriarch's Telepath had been correct, and Cvail Pride was at Stkaa Pride's throat. Skalazaal had returned to the Patriarchy. That had serious implications for Rrit Pride. He looked out the windows at the flitting lights in the darkening sky. And if half of what Emissary was saying about the monkeys was true, the Patriarchy faced a dangerous adversary even as its internal frictions rose. I must have Rrit-Conserver's counsel on this, and I must see the monkeys for myself. Soon enough he would meet a monkey, when his brother Yiao-Rrit returned from his own mission to the kz'eerkti patriarch in Nyewrrk, but there was no need for Stkaa-Emissary to know that. He raised his flagon to Emissary. “The shasca is excellent, is it not?”

All warfare is based on deception.

— Si-Rrit

Through the panoramic windows of Distant Trader's bridge the spidery gantries of the Patriarch's Dock loomed vast, scout ships and streamlined lighters gliding past transfer stations like swiftwings in a forest. Raarrgh-Captain and Lead-Pilot muttered back and forth to Docking Control as they slid into position. Behind them, Kchula-Tzaatz watched the scene spin slowly as the freighter gave way to a pair of Hunt class battleships, bulking huge as they cleared the docks, one behind the other. Their armored hulls slid past so close that Kchula could see the gunners in their turret blisters. He repressed the urge to duck; he could not allow himself to show fear in front of inferiors. Kzinhome itself backdropped the scene, a beautiful blue-white sphere looming overhead, new continents coming into view with the ponderous grace of its rotation. Kchula-Tzaatz raked his claws across the vista. Soon, very soon now, it will be mine.

The battleships floated clear of the docking area, hung there for a long, pregnant moment as their navigators confirmed their courses, then vanished to pinpricks, eight-squared gravities of acceleration taking them out of sight in an eyeblink. An instant later they had faded to invisibility, heading for the edge of the system, for hyperspace, for death or glory on some unknown mission at the Patriarch's behest.

Kchula-Tzaatz purred to himself in ill-concealed pleasure. Two less to deal with when the time came, not that it mattered. Ship-to-ship battle against the might of the Rrit fleet was not the way to victory. It was cunning, not strength, that would bring him to power.

And before that could happen, he had to face his enemy. His purr faded and his ears flattened unconsciously. Before he could secure power he would have to face the Patriarch in his own stronghold. Already parts of the scheme were in motion. If any of them failed he would be vulnerable.

“Our arrival is late, Raarrgh-Captain.” Not that it mattered, but upbraiding his subordinate served to relieve his worry.

“My apologies, sire. Traffic is heavy.” Raarrgh-Captain showed a disappointing lack of submission in his reply, concentrated as he was on the docking procedures.

Kchula twitched his tail in ill-suppressed agitation, unable to think of a reason to castigate Lead-Pilot as well. Finally he turned on his heel and strode from the navigation bridge to the command deck.

“Telepath!”

Kchula's Telepath lolled on a low prrstet in a corner, eyes partially unfocused and carrying the yellowish staining characteristic of his addiction to the sthondat lymph extract that brought his powers to life and chained him to a life of statusless servitude.

“Sire!” The bleary eyes struggled to focus.

“What is in the Patriarch's mind?”

The eyes unfocused, and Telepath drifted away long enough for Kchula to become impatient. Eventually he came back to awareness. “Apologies, sire. The range is far too great and my talents are not that strong.”

Kchula snarled. “Don't dishonor yourself with deception. I can tell when your mind is connected.”

“I sense only Patriarch's Telepath, sire. His presence is great even here.”

“Well, what is that sthondat thinking then?”

“I sense only his presence. His mind is too strong to penetrate. He blocks his thoughts from me, and the thoughts of those around him.”

Kchula kicked at the hapless addict. “What use are you?”

“I serve to the best of my abilities, sire.”

“Useless cur!” He aimed another kick at Telepath, who cringed backward.

Ftzaal-Tzaatz moved forward, black fur sleek over lean muscles. He raised a paw to intercede.

“Telepath may yet prove a valuable resource, brother.” His voice was a silky purr. “Perhaps patience is a valid approach here.”

Kchula-Tzaatz slashed the air in annoyance. “You would counsel patience to a stone.” Nevertheless he desisted in his assault on Telepath, who took the opportunity to infuse more sthondat extract. “I lack power. Why do I lack power? Because I am surrounded by incompetents. The Patriarch does not contend with such inadequacies.”

“It is inevitable that Meerz-Rrit's resources exceed yours. Were it not so you would not desire his station.”

“You give me empty philosophy, brother. You've spent too long with the Black Priest cult. I need information. I will be on that planet in his stronghold. I will be vulnerable, do you understand? What if we have been compromised?”

“We would know by now. The Patriarch would have acted and our informants would have passed on the information.”

“Your faith in your informants is touching.”

“I have no faith in any single source. But put together, yes, I am confident we would learn of anything important.”

“Perhaps the Patriarch has laid a trap.” Kchula's hind claws extended on their own, digging into the resilient flooring.

“Are you nervous, brother?” Ftzaal kept his voice carefully neutral.

“Nervous.” Kchula looked up sharply, searching the black kzin's face for any sign of impertinence. “Don't be ridiculous.”

“I and my Ftz'yeer will be your shield.” Ftzaal lifted the ornately carved pommel of his variable sword from his belt and hefted it.

“As skilled as you are, two-eights of Ftz'yeer will not stand against a fortress full of Rrit.”

“They will when the Rrit are busy defending the walls from our warriors. Great rewards demand great risks.”

“Great risks are managed through control of information.” Kchula snapped the words. “We lack any.”

“We have what we need.”

“Ktronaz-Commander's Heroes?” Kchula-Tzaatz changed the subject before it came any closer to his own fears.

“They will leap on your command.”

“The rapsari are prepared?”

“Rapsarmaster has been industrious. The beasts are thawed and ready, and the assassin is already in position.”

“You are certain of that?”

“As certain as possible. It was launched; I have had no word of its interception.”

“It is set then.” Kchula paused, realizing that he was now merely hesitating. “Curse the Fanged God, I wish I knew what was in the Patriarch's mind.” He spat at the now comatose Telepath.

“We have the traitor. If everything else fails the traitor will not.”

“Yes, we have the traitor.” Kchula breathed deep to calm himself. Ftzaal-Tzaatz's words were meant to soothe, and so he responded as if they had worked. There was no point letting his brother see concern turn to fear, but inwardly he remained unconvinced. There was always a balance to be struck between risk and reward. In this case the reward was tremendous, the risks… acceptable. In games of stealth you could never be sure who was the stalker and who the prey. The hidden blade was the deciding factor, but was the traitor really theirs?

There was no way to know, and no point in delaying. Kchula turned and strode back onto the navigation bridge. “Raarrgh-Captain, have my shuttle prepared!” His voice was harsher than it needed to be. Better they fear my wrath than sense my fear. Great rewards demand great risks, Kchula-Tzaatz well understood the dynamics of power. Usually he managed to arrange it so the reward fell to him while the risk fell to someone else. Not this time.

The warrior is known by the clarity of his thoughts and the purity of his purpose. To clear your mind you must rise above your emotions. Fear is death, for fear brings paralysis, leaving you helpless before your foe. Rage is death, for anger brings the kill fury, which slays first your own judgment. The warrior stands his ground with clarity of purpose, attacks without rage, defends without fear. The warrior can never be less than honorable, for the warrior chooses with clear mind a purpose higher than himself.

— Conserver's teaching

The arena floor was deep in sand — difficult footing. The smell of hot dust filled Pouncer's nose as he shifted his rear leg, the pommel of his variable sword in rest position. He thumbed its extend button and the almost invisible magnetically stiffened wire slid from the coil inside to its full length. He centered the weapon between his breastbone and groin and tilted his grip until the blue marker ball at its tip was aligned precisely on his opponent's nose: v'scree, the resting guard position of the single combat form.

A leap and a half away Myowr-Guardmaster's eyes narrowed to slits, ears flat on his skull as he changed stance to receive the attack.

“You're a coward.” he spat. “You don't deserve the name of Rrit.”

The insult stung, and Pouncer dropped to attack crouch and leapt to avenge it in a single, fluid motion. His weapon came back, kill scream echoing from the bare stone walls. He landed and let his momentum carry him forward, sweeping the sword at his adversary's throat where there was a gap in his mag armor, but Guardmaster was already dropping to a knee and his own sword was coming around to amputate Pouncer's legs. Pouncer leapt vertically, and the blow went under his feet. He swung again on his way down but the blade glanced off Guardmaster's mag armor. Guardmaster kicked up from his position on the ground and connected with Pouncer's wrist, sending his variable sword flying. Pouncer fell back, empty-handed as his opponent rolled to his feet and advanced on him, variable sword raised for the kill. Fear is death, he told himself, picturing the ground behind him as he moved backward, watching not his opponent's weapon but the shoulder of the arm that held it. Before the weapon could move the arm must move. Before the arm could move the shoulder must move.

“You don't deserve the name of sthondat!” Guardmaster spat the words in disgust.

And before the shoulder can move, the mind must move. Myowr-Guardmaster was confident, his stance solid. Pouncer could sense his developing attack…

There! He screamed and leapt before his opponent could, claws extended as though they could rip mag armor. Guardmaster pivoted out of the way and Pouncer went past, to roll and recover and attack again, but Guardmaster fell back and countered. As he did, Pouncer dropped sideways to the ground, kicked out, and connected with his opponent's ankle. Guardmaster tumbled forward, overbalanced with his forward momentum, and Pouncer rolled to one side to avoid the molecular blade coming down at his head. He flipped to his feet, only to be knocked backward as his opponent back-kicked from below and swung around. He found himself flat on his back with the tip of Guardmaster's variable sword a paw-span from his nose. Fear is death, he told himself again, but fear was not the only emotion that led to death, and he could see his own face snarled in kill rage in the perfect mirror of Guardmaster's breastplate.

“Your line ends here, sthondat.” Guardmaster's words were laced with contempt, and Pouncer knew he had lost.

“Hold!” By the wall First Trainer had his arms upraised, stopping the duel. “First positions.”

Panting hard, Pouncer retrieved his variable sword and made the chest-to-nose-to-chest gesture that acknowledged his opponent's victory. Guardmaster responded in kind. “Well fought, Pouncer. Well fought, but you leapt with anger again.”

“You taught me yourself, when in doubt, attack.”

“And were you unsure of what I was going to do?”

“I knew you were about to attack.”

“I know you knew, I saw it in your eyes. So you had no doubt, but you attacked anyway. When you are sure of your opponent's intent, anticipate it in order to defeat him. When you are unsure, attack to make him unsure also, but do not overcommit yourself.”

Pouncer moved back to his starting point. “You insulted me, Guardmaster.”

The battle scarred warrior rippled his ears. “Of course. I fight to win, and if I can cloud your mind with anger I will win. Insults will not kill you, but losing self-control is fatal. Rage is death. Anger makes you fight hard, but you cannot win if your mind is not clear.”

“It is easier to say than to exercise.”

“One day you will be Patriarch, Pouncer, and then you will have no one but yourself to keep your rage in check.”

“I will do better, Guardmaster.” Pouncer took a deep breath to ready himself for the next bout. “Again, First Trainer?” He moved to resting guard position in anticipation of the command.

“Again! V'scree!

“Wait!” All three of them looked up to the gallery that ran around the top of the arena. Second-Son-of-Meerz-Rrit was there watching them. Pouncer's younger brother had the same Rrit-characteristic orange/black coat as he did, but he was short and broad compared to Pouncer's lean form, with a distinctive series of black bands along his shoulders and back.

“Your training time is long over, Elder-Brother. This is my time for the Arena.”

A momentary annoyance washed over Pouncer. Second-Son was right, but as always his manner was unnecessarily hostile. He raised his ears and kept the irritation from his voice. “Of course, Black-Stripe, I am tired of looking up at Guardmaster's blade anyway.”

Second-Son's lips curled in a suppressed snarl at the sound of his hated familiar-name but he too kept his voice level. “Rrit-Conserver is expecting you.”

“My test is tomorrow, brother.”

Guardmaster watched the exchange in distaste, offended by Second-Son's antagonism. He trained First-Son because he enjoyed it and Second-Son because it was his duty. He hefted his variable sword and cocked an ear in not-quite-sincere invitation. “Would you care for a bout, Second-Son?”

“I will confine myself to the training drone.” Second-Son's voice held an arrogance he was entitled to by birth if not by ability. “Guardmaster, First Trainer, you are dismissed.”

Guardmaster swirled his tail in indifference. “As you wish.” Trainer gathered his training aids, turned to Guardmaster and Pouncer, and gave a claw-rake salute.

“Sires, until tomorrow.” He left through the training gate.

Guardmaster turned to Pouncer. “A quick hunt in the Darkmoon Park might make a meal.”

Pouncer depowered his mag armor, the perfect mirror surface reverting to lustrous copper, and tossed it aside for the pierin training slaves to collect. “The Hero's Square Market has easier prey for a tired student.” He rippled his ears in amusement.

Guardmaster twitched his tail as he depowered his own armor. “Hrrr. You know I disapprove of the risk.”

“What risk, with you as my sword and shield?”

“I'm too old to duel on some kzintzag's whim.” Guardmaster twitched his whiskers grumpily. “But I'd better come so you don't get yourself lost.”

On the gallery above them Second-Son watched them leave, his lips curling up over his fangs in distaste. He had been watching them for some time from the shadows of the gallery, his impatience growing steadily. First-Son used the arena as though it belonged to him, as he acted about all things in the Citadel of the Patriarch. The knowledge that one day it would belong to him, along with the Patriarchy and all that went with it galled Second-Son. The jotok beside him sensed his displeasure and tried to slip away, but a curt gesture stopped it. He ignored her, his thoughts occupied with his brother. It pleased him to see Guardmaster administer humiliation to his father's favored son, but there was no denying Pouncer's skill at single combat. Second-Son disdained the rigors of the formal combat form and its emphasis on self-restraint. Instead he preferred live meat. There was little danger in a duel between a hapless slave and a noble equipped with mag armor and a variable sword, but much excitement. Dueling slaves was forbidden, and First-Son lacked the liver to defy their father's edict, but simple obedience was not what it took to wield the power of the Patriarchy. For now there was little that Second-Son could do but bear his brother's unfounded arrogance and keep his trophies well hidden, but one day his moment would come. When Second-Son was Patriarch he would wear his ears with pride, and everyone who saw them would know he backed his rule with his own claws.

With a gesture he ordered the cowering slave onto the arena floor and then screamed and leapt from the balcony, his variable sword a blur of slash attacks as he channeled the rage he felt at his brother into his weapon.

Generosity gives a generous life.

— Wisdom of the Conservers

The sun was up and on its way down again, filtering soft light through the high canopy of sheetleaf trees in the Eastern Park, warm on Pouncer's fur as he and Guardmaster went over the burbling Quickwater at the River Gate bridge in the outer fortress wall. Once the Citadel had sat on an island in the river, but the fortress had long since outgrown its boundaries. Only at River Gate was the Citadel's outer wall still protected by water. Upstream the other fork flowed through an ornate portcullis in the Middle Rampart to form the centerpiece of several of the parks and gardens within. Around River Gate smallholdings were scattered, visible here and there between the huge, gray sheetleaf trunks, largely the homes of those who served at the Citadel. Pouncer threaded his way down the wide paths, enjoying the stretch of his muscles after the hard training session.

“One day you will be challenged here.” Guardmaster reemphasized his disapproval. The safety of the Patriarch's heir was his responsibility.

Pouncer rippled his ears. “I imagine myself equal to it with you by my side.” Guardmaster's deadly precision with a variable sword was legendary across all of Kzinhome.

“A wise warrior chooses his opponents, sire. He doesn't let his opponents choose him. You are the Patriarchy.”

Pouncer waved a dismissive paw. “My father is the Patriarchy. I am only his son, and he has many sons.”

“You are the oldest, and by far the most worthy to succeed him.”

Pouncer rippled his ears, understanding the implied comparison with his next-oldest brother. “Black-Stripe is young yet. I remember when you took another unruly and disobedient kitten into training.”

Guardmaster's irritation faded at Pouncer's humor. “That one has improved with the seasons.”

“And has some improving yet to do.”

“You are too hard on yourself, sire. You have mastered a great deal for your age.”

“My father cannot walk in the market.” Pouncer changed the subject, uncomfortable with praise for a performance he felt was substandard. “His leadership is too important to risk. But the kzintzag will see his son and know the Patriarchy doesn't hide behind the Citadel walls. It is important.”

Guardmaster was silent. He is right, he thought to himself. Which does not mean I have to like it.

It was some distance to the market, but the breeze was heavy with its scent, the urine marks of the stall holders, hot metal from a coppersmith's booth, leather from a cloak vendor's, frightened prey animals in display cages, ozone and oil from gravcars, fresh plasteel from component shops. Pouncer inhaled the scent, sampling each of its notes with pleasure. There were times, more and more frequently of late, when he thought it would be easier to live as a crafter did, his days bound by nothing more than the cycle of trade and tradition. It was a thought without honor, he knew, but he could not deny its attraction.

The Quickwater bent around into their path once more and the trail took them over an ancient bridge of mossy stone. Over the rise beyond it was a vast clearing in the canopy, Hero's Square, the ancient intersection of four great trackways. Once it had been a walled fortress itself, though unlike the Citadel's continually updated defenses the walls were now more tradition than protection, breached with walkways over and tunnels through. Workshops crowded tight along the concentric rings of stone, suntiles gleaming on the rooftops to power the machines inside. There was an audible buzz, machines and slaves and kzinti, working and bartering and gossiping among the bustling stalls. Gravcars hummed overhead, bringing goods from all over the plain, from all over the planet, from the edges of the Patriarchy and beyond. If you couldn't find what you wanted in Hero's Square you could always find someone who could get it for you.

Pouncer sniffed the air, licked his chops, delighted at the sight. “Come, I'm hungry. Let's go here.” He pointed to a grashi vendor's stall on the less fashionable side of the square.

Guardmaster rippled his lips in distaste. “We can find better than that farther along.”

“Hunger has no time or place.” Pouncer headed for his chosen booth.

“I serve the Rrit, sire.” Guardmaster's tone was smooth, but his annoyed tail flip made his feelings clear.

It was not the poorest stall in the market, but far from the most lavish. Heavy jars of thick, pungent sauces lined a polished stonewood countertop attended by an old kzin, his ears tattered and scarred and his fur faded. Behind the counter were stacked cages of grashi, sniffing and scrabbling behind the bars. Below them larger cages held eights of close-huddled vatach and a handful of some exotic off-world prey that Pouncer didn't recognize, dappled gray fur and long ears, whiffling noses. Pouncer leaned on the counter, inhaling the rich scents of the booth. It might not have been the most refined venue, but if his nose was any measure it served fine food.

The vendor moved to serve them, then made a startled claw-rake salute when he recognized the Sigil of the Patriarchy tattooed on Pouncer's ears.

Pouncer acknowledged the salute, waved a paw as the old kzin started to abase himself. “What have you today, Provider?”

“Sire, my humble offerings are surely not worthy of your palate.” The vendor continued to abase himself.

“Hunger exalts the simplest food.” Pouncer ran his eye over the sauces on display on the counter and the ranks of caged burrowers behind the vendor. “Are your grashi wild?”

“They are, sire. My son hunts beyond the Mooncatchers for them.” The vendor stood, somewhat hesitantly, and came to the counter.

“What sauce do you think best?”

Provider ladled a dish full of dark red sauce from one of the containers and slid it across the counter. “This is made with tunuska, very tangy but smooth. Please try it.” Expertly he fished a wriggling burrower from one of the cages, beheaded it, and drained its blood into the bowl. Pouncer took the offered bowl and dipped the still warm body into the sauce, then popped the burrower into his mouth, enjoying the fresh crunch.

“Your sauce is excellent!”

“I have new vatach as well, Patriarch, also wild-caught, if you care to sample them.” He was already pulling another jar of sauce forward. “This one is made with nyalzeri eggs.” Serving First-Son-of-Meerz-Rrit would bring him more strakh than a whole season of his usual custom. Now that his surprise was gone he was anxious to impress.

“They could not be better than your grashi. Two bowls of this tunuska, and twice-eight of grashi each.”

“Of course. You'll have my finest.” The aged kzin ran a practiced eye over his stock, choosing carefully. Finally satisfied, he expertly fished his quarry from their cages into two wriggling bags and slid them across the counter. He ladled another bowlful for Guardmaster. “I am honored by your patronage, sire.”

“I am honored by your hospitality, Provider.” Pouncer took the grashi bags and handed one to Guardmaster. They walked in silence for awhile. Toward the center of the square the market plaza opened into a park with low stone tables under widespread tangletrees. Pouncer disdained them, choosing instead to relax on a shaded hillock. He set his bowl down carefully, opened his bag and let a grashi run, pouncing on it like a kitten before dipping it in the bowl. The grashi had the deep, musky flavor that farmed grashi lacked, and the sauce accented it perfectly. His companion ate slowly, his eyes far away.

“Something is troubling you, Guardmaster.”

Guardmaster looked at Pouncer and concealed his surprise. He had not meant to express his concerns, even nonverbally. The heir is perceptive, more perceptive than I give him credit for. He weighed his answer carefully before speaking. “It is not fitting, sire, for the Patriarch's son to share honor with a streetvendor.”

Pouncer made a dismissive gesture. “Are the grashi not fresh enough for you?”

“The grashi are excellent, as are the sauces, but for the First-Son-of-Meerz-Rrit to eat from a market stall…” Guardmaster swept a paw to take in the vast expanse of the square. “There are many fine places here eager for the patronage of the Patriarch's line, vendors who have spent years building their reputations, even vendors with half-names. To squander the strakh of Rrit Pride on a stall merchant, this is not done.”

Pouncer rippled his ears. “You would rather spend the day reclining on a padded prrstet being hand fed by trained kzinretti, is that it?”

He knows better than this, thought Guardmaster. He is testing. Why? “The order of things is not lightly defied, sire. The Lesser Prides are very traditional and they compete keenly for the honor of the Patriarch. If Rrit strakh is casually dispensed to street rabble there will be talk, and Rrit strakh will be worth less. Your father needs their solid support now more than ever.”

“And the support of the kzintzag is not equally important? Provider's grashi are excellent, his sauces rich and finely spiced. Does he not also deserve a measure of the strakh so greedily hoarded by those fortunate enough to be born to a half-name? Today First-Son-of-Meerz-Rrit was his customer. By this evening the whole market will know. By tomorrow he will have not a stall but a house, and if his quality remains this high, his strakh will be no more than he deserves.”

“In three days your father sits with the Great Pride Circle, and he will be asked why his son gives honor to a stall vendor when he would be a welcome guest at any pride on the Plain of Stgrat. Degrade the honor of Rrit Pride and you degrade the honor of every pride that swears fealty to us.”

“And no doubt my father will say that the Patriarchy gives honor to any who deserve it, regardless of station. Perhaps the Lesser Prides will put more effort into earning their positions and less into parading what they already have.”

Guardmaster was silent, but he looked at Pouncer with new respect. He is impetuous perhaps but he is growing out of that, and his political sense is already keen. He did not do this casually. He calculated the effect this would have quite finely, and on every level. He is sending a message to his father and the Lesser Prides and the kzintzag as to the sort of leader he will be. And to me. Tomorrow he faces Rrit-Conserver's test. I wonder if he is ready?

Steel is no stronger than the sinew that wields it.

— Si-Rrit

It was twilight, and Third-Guard stood at his post by the River Gate, mag armor gleaming in the fading light, variable sword held at the ready. His post was mostly ceremonial; the Citadel's weapons systems reached into high orbit and its sensors extended across half-eight-squared octaves of the electromagnetic spectrum. He was the last line of defense before the walls of the Citadel itself, and the chance that he would stop an enemy who had somehow evaded the sophisticated layers of protection above him was vanishingly slight. Nevertheless he took his post seriously. He served the Rrit, one of the elite zitalyi of the Patriarch's personal guard. It was an honor, and he would prove himself worthy of it. His equipment was well maintained, his stance alert and ready.

“Sire! Myowr-Guardmaster!” Third-Guard leapt to attention and claw-raked. The Patriarch's Son and the leader of the zitalyi! It was well that he presented himself as a warrior should. The Rrit rewarded fealty and competence above all.

“Good watch, Third-Guard?” Guardmaster's critical eye took in his warrior's equipment and deportment at a glance, and finding nothing lacking, carried on without comment. Approving silence was high praise from the taciturn commander. Third-Guard was pleased with himself. He practiced his combat drills daily. He was lethal with anything from heavy beam weapons to his bare teeth and claws. It was his place to be that way, now more than ever that the Great Pride Circle was meeting. The leaders of the Great Prides could not see the gamma ray lasers and mag launchers that protected the Citadel. They could see Third-Guard, and it was important that what they saw impressed them. More than one had commented on the discipline and bearing of the Patriarch's Guard, wishing their own Heroes were at such a standard. That was heady talk, coming from the double-named rulers of worlds and star sectors.

And they impressed him! Kzinti whose ancestors had left Kzinhome eight-cubed generations ago! The white-pelted ice-warriors of Churrt Pride, their fur thicker than a tuskvor's, the tall and lean Vdar of Meerowsk, Dcrz Pride of ancient Kdat with their rarefied rituals. Some of the newcomers' dialects were barely understandable, their customs uniformly bizarre. The other day Chmee-Cvail himself had swept through, with a retinue of odd-faced Pierin slaves of a noticeably different breed than those who belonged to the Rrit, and just before watch he had traded stories with a retainer of Kchula-Tzaatz, heard tales of jungle hunts on steamy Jotok and the Puppeteer first contact. It was stuff to fire the imagination, and he had decided then and there to get on the next available ship headed anywhere. There was a universe out there to conquer, if he only had the liver for it. In the service of the Rrit he could not fail to win honor.

There was a splash from the Quickwater beneath the bridge. Was it just the play of the waves against the pilings? It was not repeated, and any other night he would have ignored it. Tonight… tonight it was worth investigating. He leapt easily to the riverbank, tapped his keypad, and brought up a spybot. A moment later one floated down from perimeter patrol, grav polarizer whining quietly. He beckoned it forward and gestured under the bridge. Its AI chirped its acknowledgment and the seeker tilted, slid sideways, and dropped over the rail, searching. A moment later it popped back up again.

All clear.

Good enough. The seeker hummed back up to its patrol circuit and Third-Guard relaxed, went back to his alert post, and allowed himself a little fantasy of a vast estate on some distant, yet unconquered world. He would have a name and his kits, yes, his many kits would have names too. End of watch soon, then back to the barracks and food, and tomorrow he'd see about getting signed on to an assault ship. He was zitalyi, and any seasoned commander would be glad to take his pledge.

Another splash — there was something down there. Third-Guard went to the rail and strained his eyes in the gathering gloom. The water burbled against the bridge supports. He saw tumbled rocks, the gray stone wall of the citadel rising vertically from the river shore, nothing else.

Something moved in his peripheral vision. He jerked his head up but there was nothing, just more rocks. He looked closer. Was that rock there before? Something was wrong. He didn't bother with the spybot, though its sensors were better than his eyes could hope to be; he just leapt the railing and dropped to attack crouch, beamer ready.

There was a flash of movement, something large and dark coming fast. He swung his weapon up and around, but too slow. Razor fangs dug into his neck and he felt burning pain and numbness. He tried to cry out but couldn't. Something dark and scaly filled his vision, its skin rough and rock textured, blending perfectly with the stone of the citadel wall, and then it faded into invisibility in the twilight as the world dimmed to blackness.

It is said that Telepath knew the minds of his enemies, and so became a great warrior. Because he also knew the minds of his Pride he became a great leader. None could stand against him, and so his strakh grew until he was Pride Patriarch, then Great Patriarch, and then finally Patriarch. And because he knew the minds of ally and foe alike he was a wise Patriarch, but Telepath's ambition outweighed even his great wisdom, and his yearning for power would not be stilled. He envied the Fanged God, who had dominion over the entire world and the moons and the stars, and so he tried to know the mind of the Fanged God that he could then challenge him and take his place. But no mortal Hero can know the mind of the Fanged God and retain his reason, and so when Telepath Saw what the Fanged God can See he was driven insane. The Fanged God could have killed him then, but he gives honor to those brave enough to challenge him, and so spared Telepath's life in the duel. His reason gone, Telepath was transformed from Patriarch to outcast czrav in a single day, with no strakh, with no Pride. Cjor became Patriarch, and Telepath was forgotten. He wandered eight times around the seasons, reduced to hunting sthondats just to survive. One day he wandered to the Temple of the Black Priests, who took him in and cared for him. Because he had been eating sthondats this is what they fed him, and when his reason returned they found a place for him at Cjor's side as his Telepath. And to this day it is the duty of the Black Priests to care for the telepaths, and to this day they take the lymph of the sthondat and sit by the Patriarch's side.

— Kitten's Tale: The Legend of Telepath

Pouncer woke early and splashed himself in his bathing pool before allowing his Kdatlyno groomer to dry and comb his pelt. He was uneasy about his upcoming meeting with Rrit-Conserver. Tests were not unusual in his life but this one was different, and not only because he had no idea of its nature. The Great Pride Circle was meeting in two days, Pride-Patriarchs and Emissaries from all the worlds of the Patriarchy gathered in his father's Great Hall. It was the first such meeting in his lifetime, only the second in his father's. The Patriarchy was changing; power structures as fixed as the constellations were now in flux. Even he could see that. What that meant wasn't clear, but he knew it would require him to be a strong and competent Patriarch, stronger and more competent perhaps than he was capable of being. His mood did not improve as he left his chambers and walked through the arching stone pillars in the Hall of Ancestors. The Hall was lined with portraits and statues of long-dead Patriarchs, and their eyes seemed to follow him as he walked. He felt history bearing on his shoulders like some vast weightstone. It was an increasingly common reaction in him, an acute instance of the inescapable effect of the imposing bulk of the Citadel of the Patriarch. The fortress was ancient beyond memory and huge beyond easy comprehension, a vast warren of towers, walls, courtyards, and passages. The Rrit Dynasty was thrice-eight-cubed generations old at least, and the Citadel had been their stronghold all that time. Its origins were long lost in the dim past but it certainly predated space travel. It had been extended and rebuilt and re-rebuilt so many times that it was doubtful any of the original construction remained. Even so, the stone floors of the Inner Fortress were worn deeply concave by the paw pads of countless Patriarchs. How many First-Sons had walked the Hall of Ancestors? They didn't bear counting.

Pouncer had grown up in the Citadel, explored its myriad corridors as a kitten, played in its secret spaces, dutifully learned its history from the stern Rrit-Conserver. At first the structure had been as pervasive and unnoticed as the air he breathed, but as he matured he had slowly come to understand what the vast fortress represented, and was increasingly unable to escape its implications.

It was about power, nothing more and nothing less. The Citadel was built to protect what belonged to its keepers and aid them in taking what belonged to others. Every detail of its construction, from the ancient stone battlements of the Inner Fortress to the mag field generators and laser cannon of the Outer Fortress, was aimed at that goal. Every tapestry, every holo, every sculpture in it told a part of that story of conquest. It was a nexus of control, its influence radiating from the Command Lair protected deep within its heart to the very borders of the Patriarchy, no less than fifty light-years in any direction you cared to point. That control stretched to vast fleets of warships, uncountable legions of Heroes, orbital dockyards, bases, colonies, entire star systems, eight sentient slave species, eight-squared Great Prides. All of them swore fealty to the Patriarch.

And it was certain that Meerz-Rrit deserved that fealty. He was a fearless warrior, cunning tactician, consummate diplomat. His honor was beyond question and his wisdom beyond measure. He was everything a Patriarch should, no, must be to exercise control over that vast empire. When he died there would be no lack of heroic deeds to immortalize in stone and steel, no shortage of tales of valor and victory to add to the eight-to-the-fourth stanzas of the Rrit Pride saga.

But when Meerz-Rrit died, Pouncer would become Patriarch. From his earliest realization of that fact he had applied himself diligently to master the skills he would need to rule his father's empire, but the more he learned the more he found he had yet to learn. He had long since despaired of achieving his father's greatness. Recently he had come to despair of reaching even minimal competence. He would have given a lot to have been born to a less demanding role. He rippled his ears at the irony, his mood lifting slightly. There were few in the Patriarchy, he knew, who would not have eagerly traded places with him, even, no especially Black-Stripe. His half-brother's ambition was clear, but Second-Son was young yet. A few more years trying to gain the skills required of a Patriarch would leave him happy to accept the role of trusted zar'ameer, the Patriarch's right hand, as his uncle Yiao-Rrit did for his father.

His steps brought him through the armory hall to the Puzzle Garden, a great courtyard within the walls of the Middle Fortress. An intricate hedge maze of manicured scentvine filled most of it, its configuration changed every High Hunter's Moon by means of clever gates that were themselves puzzles to open. You could lose a day, or several, trying to find your way through its convolutions to the amusing surprises the Jotoki tenders hid throughout it, but the maze itself was the least challenging puzzle in the garden. The best work of the Conundrum Priests came to the Puzzle Garden. Some of the sculptures were generations old, and some of them had never been solved.

Rrit-Conserver was waiting on a bench near the maze entrance. “You are late, First-Son-of-Meerz-Rrit.”

“I abase myself, Rrit-Conserver. I must confess no eagerness for today.”

“So I surmised. And how was yesterday's discipline with Guardmaster?”

“I have much to learn yet. Sometimes I fear I will never master the formal combat forms.”

Conserver nodded. “This is good. You are improving.”

“I don't understand, Conserver.”

“Single combat, like many disciplines, can never be fully mastered. You may only strive for continuous improvement. Knowledge of your limitations is the first step to maturity. From maturity comes self-discipline, which will allow you to excel at the warrior's art.”

Pouncer twitched his whiskers. “Your words don't fit my ears.”

“In time they will.”

“I am here for my test, Conserver. How may I prepare myself?”

“There is no preparation. You are going to visit Patriarch's Telepath.” Rrit-Conserver rose, the blue robe and sash of his station swirling as he led the way to the maze entrance.

A tremor of not-quite-fear ran through Pouncer as he followed. Like all of his kind, Patriarch's Telepath could hold no rank or status, crippled as he was by his addiction to the sthondat blood extract that enhanced his inborn talent. Unlike other telepaths he was treated respectfully, even deferentially. In the Patriarch's court it was whispered that his Gift could reach to other stars, that he could read the thoughts of the recently dead, that he could become the minds he probed. If the rumors were true it spoke volumes for his strength of will that his Gift hadn't claimed his sanity. Pouncer for one believed them. You had only to stand once in the presence of Patriarch's Telepath to know the truth of his power. It was a presence he systematically avoided.

Not today. A Whrloo slave was waiting at the maze entrance for them, no taller than Pouncer's knee, carapace iridescent in the afternoon sun. Conserver pointed. “This slave knows today's route to the center of the maze. Telepath is waiting for you there.”

“I will do my best.”

“I know you will.” For a moment Pouncer thought he detected a note of concern, even compassion, in his gruff mentor's manner. Rrit-Conserver's disquiet did nothing for his sense of equanimity. The Whrloo buzzed into the air. Wings blurring, it twirled on its axis and headed down the arching scentvine corridor. Pouncer hurried after it.

The route the Whrloo took led quickly into the heart of the maze, past intricate gardens whose flower arrangements hid route clues and carved game stones whose solutions coded hints to other mysteries. The puzzle gates had been set, Pouncer realized, to allow fast access to the maze center, if you happened to know the turnings. Another Whrloo buzzed heavily past and as Pouncer turned to watch its iridescent flight he saw a five-armed Jotok resetting one of the gates behind them. Anyone who happened to wander into the maze later would find his route impossible to follow and, he had no doubt, the center impossible to find. His test would be held not just in the inherent security of the Citadel, not in a closer privacy ensured by guards, but in subtle secrecy. Who might command zitalyi set by Rrit-Conserver to stand aside? Only his father, and his father was occupied preparing for the Great Pride Circle. So it was not just the test itself but the very fact that the test was occurring that was secret. It is serious, very serious, he thought to himself, and the knowledge was unsettling.

The slave led him quite quickly to the center of the maze. There was a larger garden there, shaded by tangle-trees, and a water-clock. A fountain at its top splashed streams through a bewildering array of troughs and basins, driving wheels and levers to move the gears that turned its bronze dials. The motion was ever changing and chaotic but the clock itself kept perfect time. Ordinarily Pouncer could have spent half the afternoon enjoying its motion. Today it didn't merit a glance.

Patriarch's Telepath lay curled in the sun beside the clock, lying on a polarizer-lofted prrstet and tended by two silent Kdatlyno. His body was wasted, muscles melted away and fur thinned by the toxic side effects of the sthondat drug. His eyes were huge in his shrunken face, seeming to stare at nothing as he lay there. Other telepaths entered the mind-trance only when the drug was on them, but Patriarch's Telepath seemed to never leave it. A thin strand of drool stretched from his lips to the prrstet and his breath came with obvious difficulty. To Pouncer he seemed to be dying, but he always seemed to be dying and perhaps death would have been a release from the strange and painful reality he inhabited.

“Approach me, First-Son-of-Meerz-Rrit.”

An involuntary shudder ran through Pouncer as the crippled kzin turned his vacant gaze on him. He stepped forward, not wanting his inward hesitancy to show. Not that I can hide it from him. Patriarch's Telepath was blind, Pouncer knew, but he didn't need eyes to see more than most could ever dream of.

“You will be Patriarch.” Telepath said it flatly, as if it were already fact. His voice was low and rasping.

“Yes, Telepath.”

“We are here to learn if you are worthy to assume that role. You will be tested.”

“Of course, Telepath.”

“Are you ready?”

“Yes.” No!

“You are far from ready.” Patriarch's Telepath examined him through blind eyes. “You may recall the Black Priest's test. This test is more difficult.”

“I was just a kitten then.” Pouncer remembered the huge black-furred figure, his mother's anxiety as he was taken away.

“You are a kitten now. Nevertheless events overtake us. There are tremendous forces at play. The future holds chaos.”

“What forces?” It could only have to do with the Great Pride Circle. There would be ample intrigue there, as the Prides jockeyed for position and status, but Telepath's words hinted at something weightier than the order of precedence. “Does my father know?”

“I am sworn to serve your father. Sometimes the best service is silence. I am doing all I can for him. Right now I will test you.”

“I am…” He stopped. It was said Patriarch's Telepath could not help knowing a mind in his presence if he tried. Why say anything at all? “Let us begin then.” Even as he wondered what form the test would take, the world disappeared and he was alone in a void that had not even the solidity of darkness. He was vaguely aware of his knees buckling beneath him, and then even that touchstone was gone. He flailed wildly, managed to knock his head, and pain flared momentarily, a beacon of reality in the endless nothing.

Panic gripped him and he struck himself again, deliberately and harder this time, but the pain was less and he felt himself drifting away, losing himself. He fought down the urge to slam his head against the ground. There was a limit to how much pain he could inflict on himself, and he knew it wouldn't be enough to save his sanity.

Fear is death.

He couldn't feel himself breathing, and the drowning terror gripped him.

Fear is death. He felt as if he were already dead. I must be calm, he told himself, but he had nothing on which to anchor his awareness and the raging animal at the back of his brain screamed in inarticulate terror.

Fear is death. He repeated the phrase like a prayer while panic savaged reason in his mind. He fought it like a physical thing. Rage is death. But it was all he had to fight the panic with. Rage and terror fought in his mind like wild beasts while his awareness cowered and struggled feebly to make itself felt.

His brain spun and there was no sight, no sound, no smell, no touch. His body was gone and he was dead. More than dead, he was—erased—his very being utterly obliterated; he had never been and never would be, and the universe was vast and empty and uncaring and the nameless horror that dwelled at its center reached out for him and plucked the fragile thread of his ego from his shriveled mind and cast it into that vastness to drift forever screaming, and he yearned for oblivion to end the infinite nothingingness. The warmth and intimacy of simple death would be welcome beside it.

And in that moment he realized he was free. The emotions at war within him were not him. He could not suppress them, but they did not control him. Death could not bring fear, could not bring rage. Death could only bring release, and it welcomed him into its close embrace, and consciousness faded to nothing.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of fellowship.

— Article 1 of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The UNSN battleship Crusader dropped out of hyperspace and drifted. Captain Ayla Cherenkova looked out into the star-dusted night, watching as the scene slowly rotated in the transpax. She was hoping to pick up 61 Ursae Majoris, Kzinhome's star. From this distance it would be a brilliant flare, powerful enough to cast shadows, easy to find. If she was on the command bridge she would have known whether Crusader's rotation would bring it into view, because she would have known Crusader's orientation.

But she was not on the command bridge, she was in the targeting control blister, observing over the shoulder of the gunnery officer as a passenger. Crusader's weapons systems were powered up, but if she was seriously expecting a fight Cherenkova would have been required to be in the crash position in her stateroom. It wasn't an arrangement she was comfortable with and it rankled, not for the first time on the voyage. Trying to find their destination star was just a distraction to quell her desire to be on the bridge. Crusader already had a captain. She didn't need two.

After half an hour of searching she gave up. If Kzinhome's star was in her field of view, she couldn't pick it out. She was just about to turn away from the window when a kzinti battleship appeared out of nowhere and halted, decelerating from who knew what velocity to zero relative in an eyeblink. The gunnery officer was strapped into his combat couch, but Cherenkova jumped backward reflexively, although if the maneuver had turned into a collision the reaction wouldn't have saved her from two million metric tons of warship coming through the transpax windows at some hundreds of meters per second. She picked herself up off the floor and looked at the alien warcraft. She was not five hundred meters away, bristling with weapons and absolutely stationary, velocity vector completely killed with respect to Crusader. The kzinti captain had tremendous faith in his navigation computer.

Cherenkova allowed herself a wry smile. It may be the ratcat has tremendous faith in his pilot. It wasn't beyond the kzinti to do a precision approach on manual. They might even see it as a point of honor.

“It's huge.” Major Quacy Tskombe had come up behind her, tall, broad shouldered, dark complexioned in an age where social mobility had blenderized most racial markers. He was intelligent and articulate as well; his refined surface made him well suited for a diplomatic mission, though his eyes hinted at dangerous depths to his character. She was used to military men, but war in space was not ground combat, and the difference showed in the way he moved, as lithe and powerful as a kzin, a lethal force restrained by will. He was undeniably attractive — more than that, he was intriguing—but Cherenkova carefully avoided showing even the slightest hint of interest. A liaison would be a pleasant diversion for the duration of their mission, but the mission itself was too important to muddy the interpersonal waters with sex.

She nodded, pointing. “See the paired launch tubes? That's a Hunt class battlewagon.” She paused to figure out the dots-and-commas script on the warship's prow. “Fanged Victory. She's got terawatt gamma ray laser turrets and a spinal mount meson cannon as primary weapons. She carries four wings of dual-role fighters, eight heavy assault landers, and a brigade of shock troops.”

“All kzin are shock troops.” Tskombe wore the Valor Cross for the defense of the Kirlinkon base on Vega IV. He would know. “Could we stand up to it in a fight?”

Crusader could. You and I might not survive it.”

He paused to examine the other ship more closely. The kzin warcraft had the beauty of raw power. She was watching his eyes, saw them widen. He pointed. “Could we stand up to two of them?”

She followed his finger. A second battleship had appeared, this one not quite so close. She shook her head. “We'd make them know they'd been in a fight, though.”

He nodded silently, his finger unconsciously tracing the long scar that ran across his cheek from ear to chin where a kzin he'd thought was dead had come within inches of decapitating him. Crusader was here in kzinti space by invitation, safe passage guaranteed. Nevertheless the display of firepower could not help but be intimidating, a physical reminder of the magnitude of the task they were undertaking.

Tskombe turned. “We should go. The ambassador is ready in the docking bay.”

“If we must.” Cherenkova was a line officer, command experienced, combat blooded, with more than enough success on her record to warrant command of a ship like Crusader. Her mistake had been learning to speak the Hero's Tongue, or rather in allowing that fact to be put on her personnel file. Now instead of a line command she was here as the naval attaché to the Special Mission to Kzinhome. It was, she had been told, a great honor to be among the first group ever formally invited to be in the Patriarch's presence under flag of truce. She would rather have been offered the battleship; her form of diplomacy worked better with seeker missiles. So far as she was concerned, it was the only kind that worked with kzinti at all.

The shuttle was waiting for them, and Lars Detringer was there to see them off.

“Good luck, Captain.” He offered his hand.

“Thank you, Captain.” Ayla shook it. Might as well be professional.

He didn't let her hand go, met her eyes. “I mean it, Ayla. Be careful down there.”

“I will.” She gave him a warmer smile than she'd intended to, squeezed his hand with feeling. She and Lars had walked the thin edge between friendship and rivalry since the Academy. His assignment to Crusader had stung, and the way he'd landed it hadn't made her happy. But that's the way the game is played, and he just recognized that earlier than I did.

She moved on as he gave more formal best wishes to Tskombe. They were the last ones into the passenger compartment. Kefan Brasseur was studiously reading last-minute reports on the diplomatic situation on W'kkai. He was the ambassador, an academic from Plateau of aristocratic Crew descent and the nominal leader of their group. His bearing bordered on arrogant but there was no disputing the tremendous knowledge he had accumulated in a lifetime of studying kzin culture. Across from him, large enough to make Tskombe look small, was Yiao-Rrit, the Patriarch's Voice, his fur the characteristic tiger-striped dark orange of the Patriarch's line. He was clearly cramped in the confines of the shuttle but seemed relaxed enough. He was wound far less tightly than she had expected him to be, being almost offhand with his offering and receipt of honorifics. She was not entirely comfortable dealing with kzinti on friendly terms, and she had consistently avoided being drawn into the poetry games he and Brasseur played to pass the time in hyperspace.

They waited in silence while the ramp was sealed and the pilots did their cross check. Then the bay doors slid open and the shuttle lifted and slid out into space. Cherenkova's stomach tightened. They had crossed the point of no return. She was walking straight into the stronghold of her enemies.

“I smell your anger, Cherenkova-Captain.” Yiao-Rrit's voice was a purring rumble.

She looked up sharply. “A great many lives have been lost…” She stopped before she said what she wanted to say. Her anger was more personal than that. “A great many more hang in the balance here.” I have learned to speak like a diplomat.

“I have no doubt you will perform as a warrior should.”

She nodded. “Perhaps too many of us have been performing too well as warriors.” Where did that come from? She wondered a little at her own thought processes. She had trained half her life for starship command, dreamed of it since she was a little girl. She had worked hard, very hard, to get where she was, and she took tremendous pride in herself as a combat commander.

But the job of a warrior was to destroy the enemy. In the end all I am is a hired killer for the state. She was by now worldly wise enough to know that the UN government was not as pure as it made itself out to be. The higher she rose, the more duplicity and corruption came into play. At the rank of senior captain, politics played as much role in assignment and promotion as ability, which was why Lars Detringer was standing on Crusader's command bridge instead of her. At the rank of admiral considerations of status and power began to take priority. At the level of the General Assembly… She didn't want to think about that. The holocasters uncovered scandal after scandal, nepotism, patronage, influence peddling, bribery, blackmail, theft in the millions, fraud in the trillions, and not infrequently murder to cover it all up, but nothing ever changed. Before the kzinti came the UN had used liberal applications of psychodrugs and extensive and intrusive surveillance to keep its citizens in line. After the kzinti a continuous alternation between war and the threat of war had been sufficient excuse to keep the rights of the populace from interfering with the prerogatives of power. The armed forces served to protect humanity from the kzinti, but they also served to protect the government from humanity, and Cherenkova was all too aware that frequently the second role was more important than the first.

Perhaps that's why I'm so uncomfortable around Yiao-Rrit. He was the Patriarch's brother, a major force in the rule of the Patriarchy, and he had pledged his honor to her safety as her escort. Yiao-Rrit lived by his honor code, and she was quite sure he would die by it if that became necessary, which was more than she could say of any politician and most of her command structure. She owed her loyalty to her race and her anger at kzinti aggression ran deep, but where did it leave the honor of her service when her enemy was more worthy of her respect than her own chain of command?

It took under a minute for the shuttle to cover the short distance between the two craft, another couple for the kzinti hangar to be sealed and pressurized. Yiao-Rrit took the opportunity to rummage in his travelbag. He handed them ornate crimson sashes with a heavy metal badge on front and back.

“You must wear these at all times.”

“What are they?”

“This symbol is the sigil of the Patriarch, demonstrating that you are under his protection. Without these you may be killed as game.”

Tskombe didn't look pleased, but said nothing. He too was accustoming himself to speak as a diplomat. Brasseur had been chosen because of his knowledge of kzinti culture, and Cherenkova was sure he was an intelligent choice for the role. She and Tskombe had been picked because it was felt the kzin would respect their considerable combat experience. The wisdom of that decision remained to be seen.

The ramp hissed and slid open, and Cherenkova looked out into a sea of predatory faces. I have nothing to be afraid of. Her hands were slick with sweat as she put the sigil over her head.

Yiao-Rrit sniffed the air and looked at her. “You are in no danger, Cherenkova-Captain. You are under the protection of the Patriarch.”

He was right, of course. That didn't stop the danger signals leaping from her hindbrain to her adrenal glands. The lead kzin came aboard and performed a ritual cringe before Yiao-Rrit.

“I abase myself, sire. I am Chmee-Captain. I trust your journey was successful.”

Yiao-Rrit returned the salute with a relaxed paw wave. “It was, Chmee-Captain.”

“We have quarters prepared for your guests, and entertainments for the in-fall.”

“Excellent.” Supple-armed Jotok slaves took the humans' baggage and led them into the depths of the ship.

Cherenkova found their quarters spacious. In fact everything aboard the alien warcraft was spacious by human standards, but the gravity was set too high and the lighting made everything orange. The kzinti had expected her to share accommodations with Tskombe. Brasseur had been given his own stateroom as leader of the mission. She felt a little thrill at that news, and the conflict in her heart between desire and duty rose a notch, but Brasseur chivalrously volunteered to trade his own. She hadn't expected that of him, but he was Plateau Crew. It was probably noblesse oblige. She couldn't protest, and though the move spared her from temptation she couldn't help but feel a twinge of disappointment.

Sleeping arrangements were a couch as big as a king-sized bed, covered in pillows and blankets. The washroom was a high-technology sandbox in an alcove paneled in scented wood; she'd figure that out when she had to. Food was waiting for her, thick slices of alien meat piled high on a platter, elaborately prepared and seasoned and absolutely raw, with a thin-bladed knife as the sole eating utensil. They'd given her a hydrogen torch to cook it with.

She considered it at some length. It can't be more alien than squid. She wasn't that hungry yet.

The door slid open and a kzin stood there, all fangs and claws, pupils contracted to narrow slits. What were kzin protocols about knocking and privacy? Brasseur had lectured them endlessly on kzin history and society, but it was the small details that mattered. She realized she had much to learn if she was going to do her job properly, and she was going to have to learn it in a hurry.

“You are the kz'eerkti Cherenkova-Captain?” Its words were slurred but intelligible. Kz'eerkti was the common semi-slang term for humans in the Hero's Tongue, the name of a tree-dwelling, vaguely monkeylike species on Kzinhome. It could be used as an insult, or simply descriptively.

“Yes.” She nodded, reflexively, not sure if the kzin would understand the gesture. Would Brasseur be as lost as she was? Academic knowledge was not practical experience, but he had lived twelve years on W'kkai.

“I am Second Officer. At the invitation of Chmee-Captain, there is a dance display in honor of Yiao-Rrit's return.”

A dance display? She tried to imagine the huge carnivore before her dancing and nearly laughed at the image. That would be bad. Laughing showed teeth, and showing teeth meant challenge; she knew that much at least. She considered, looked again at the bloody slabs of meat on the platter, looked at her beltcomp. It was more than twenty hours until planetfall on Kzinhome. Watching the display would give her something to do, and might give her some new understanding of kzin culture.

And it certainly would be an experience she'd never have again in her life. That decided her.

“Yes, I'll go.”

Second Officer gave her a claw-rake salute and left, and Cherenkova decided that he had meant kz'eerkti in its purely descriptive sense. He was probably as uncomfortable with interspecies protocols as she was. We call them ratcats anyway, because they look like naked-tailed tigers, and that's both descriptive and derogatory.

The display was held in a large room with wide tiers going down to a circular stage area in the center. The tiers were padded for reclining, too large to be easy steps for a human. She clambered down to where Brasseur and Tskombe were already waiting and exchanged greetings. A tier below them Chmee-Captain and Yiao-Rrit snarled amicably back and forth, their voices quasi-musical in the room's excellent acoustics. She had the déjà vu experience of a night out at the opera, waiting for the show to begin while the orchestra tuned up. She made herself comfortable, sitting back against the next tier. The padding material was resilient and warm and as she settled, the lights suddenly went down and a rhythmic beat began.

For several minutes that was all there was. The music built in tempo and volume, and then a spotlight came on and a kzin leapt onto the stage, pelt a uniform tawny gold and small, at least by kzin standards, with a distinctive dark tail-tuft. The dancer looked left, then right, pounced forward and then crawled, head low to the ground, tail twitching from side to side. Perhaps the dance simulated hunting.

Brasseur pointed excitedly. “I've heard of this; I've never seen it. This is a stylized version of the offering display where a female is gifted from pride to pride.”

Female? Cherenkova looked, saw for the first time the prominent teats. All of a sudden she saw the dancer's movements in a whole new light.

“Aren't the females non-sentient?”

Brasseur nodded. “In relative terms they are, but they're smarter than chimpanzees, just to put them in human perspective. They have language and tool use. These dances take months of training, and skilled trainers command considerable strakh.

“What's strakh?”

“Reputation or status, more or less. Kzinti have no currency; they trade based on strakh. If you have high strakh you will be offered fine goods by the best craftsman, invitations to high-profile hunts, even fealty by other kzinti. By accepting you enhance the strakh of the giver as well as your own. Only the finest crafters have their work accepted by the nobility. If you have lower strakh you wouldn't be made the offer in the first place.”

“How do they keep track of it?”

“How do you keep track of who owes you a favor? It's their culture, they just do.” He pointed at the stage. “Shh, it's the next sequence.”

Another kzinrette had joined the first and the dance became an intricate pairing of symbolisms, mother and kitten, hunter and prey, male and female in mating. Some of the meanings were unclear, but there was a sensuous, powerful beauty to the way the lithe females swayed and stretched in syncopy with the rhythm. A third leapt in and the movements became more complex, the three circling nose to tail, reversing, leaping outward. Again the movements clearly symbolized roles, maybe entire stories, but they were now too abstracted for Cherenkova to tell what they meant.

One of the dancers leapt upward and yowled, a long, earsplitting wail. Cherenkova clapped her hands over her ears. Brasseur's fascinated absorption with the display didn't waver, but beside him Tskombe grimaced. The intricately unfolding dance was beautiful, the steady percussion rhythm compelling. The wail cut across the experience like a rusty band saw. The kzinrette sounded like nothing more than a wildcat in desperate heat. The next dancer in the circle leapt upward and yowled, if anything louder and longer than her sister.

Cherenkova looked at Yiao-Rrit and Chmee-Captain in front of her, leaning forward, tails twitching with ill-concealed eagerness, and realization dawned. The kzinretti were wildcats in desperate heat. She was watching an alien strip show. The third dancer leapt and wailed. She looked at her beltcomp. They were still more than twenty hours from Kzinhome.

“Where does honor come from?” asked Conserver.

“It comes from skill,” said the first kit.

“Very good,” said Conserver. “You shall be Artisan,” and then again he asked, “Where does honor come from?”

“It comes from courage,” said the second kit.

“Very good,” said Conserver. “You shall be Warrior,” and then again he asked, “Where does honor come from?”

“It comes from integrity,” said the third kit.

“Very good,” said Conserver. “You shall be Patriarch.” And as he said it, so it was.

— Kitten's Tale: The Lesson of Honor

All at once the void was gone and Pouncer found himself lying on the ground in the Puzzle Garden maze. His throat hurt and he realized the scream echoing from the distant fortress walls was his own.

His throat was ragged, raw. How long had he been screaming? How long had been lying there? The shadows were long. Evening then, but as his vision swam into focus he realized that was wrong. The air was rich with dew scent. He found Forgotten Tower, high on the edge of the Middle Rampart, followed its shadow. It pointed west. It was morning.

He'd been there almost a full day? Was that possible? In his mind it had seemed an eternity. He became aware of a presence. Patriarch's Telepath was staring down at him.

“I was dead. My mind was gone…”

“You have passed your test.” Telepath's voice was flat and tired, exhaustion heavy on his wasted features.

“I felt as though I couldn't breathe.”

“Many times you did not breathe.”

Not breathing? That thought gave him pause. “Patriarch's Telepath.”

“Yes?”

“That place I was in… Could I… would I, have died there, had I not passed the test?”

“To survive is to pass the test, to die is to fail it.”

Anger came over Pouncer, but washed out, faded anger with no strength behind it. “That is too dangerous. You must not do that again. Not to me, not to anyone.” He tried to stand and failed.

“Not all necessary things are safe.”

“I nearly died. I wasn't ready.”

“I knew you would not fail.”

“Then why the test?” Pouncer would have screamed, if he had had the strength. “Why put me through that?”

“You also had to know you would not fail.” Telepath's head dipped to his couch and his eyes slid closed. “The maze path has been changed.” I already know this, thought Pouncer. I am more observant than he thinks. Patriarch's Telepath waved a paw wearily. “You are exactly as observant as I think. Your mind is oppressive. Leave me now. Events are beyond immediate control. I have much to do, and I need to rest.”

Pouncer started to say something, thought better of it, and stayed silent. With an effort he found his feet. The waiting Whrloo buzzed into the air and Pouncer followed it again. Unlike the route in, the route out past the changed gates was long and convoluted, and the sun was almost down before he made it back to the outer Puzzle Garden. Pouncer was not entirely surprised to find Rrit-Conserver still waiting for him at the maze entrance, for all he could see, in the exact same position he had been in when Pouncer left.

“You knew what was going to happen.” The anger Pouncer had been unable to muster at Telepath spilled over onto his mentor.

“I knew as much as Patriarch's Telepath would tell me.”

“What did he tell you? That he would gut my brain like a prey animal? That I might die in battle with my own mind?”

“He told me you would pass.”

“He told me that himself, afterward.” Pouncer shivered involuntarily. The blackness. “I am not convinced.”

“Rage is death.”

“Rage is…” Pouncer's lips twitched over his fangs and he felt the kill rage coming over him at the platitude, but regained self-control with an effort. He is right. I am acting from anger. I have passed, whether they knew in advance or not, whether I might have died or not, I have passed, I have survived. He breathed deeply and repeated the mantra. Rage is death Fear is death. Telepath's test had been more trying than simple annoyance with Conserver.

After a long moment he spoke, his voice level. “Have you been tested like that yourself, Conserver?”

“Telepaths will not share minds with Conservers.”

“Why is that?”

“It is against the traditions.”

“You taught me that no tradition exists without reason.”

“Hrrr.” Rrit-Conserver looked at First-Son with care. He is gaining wisdom. He will make a good Patriarch. He composed his answer carefully. “They have their reasons, I am sure. They are not well treated by our culture, and we Conservers hold the keys to that culture, we and the Priesthood. They work for the long term, as do we. It is not necessarily the same long term.”

“He said events were overtaking us. What events?” Why was I tested so early?

“The Great Pride Circle is meeting. The Patriarchy is at a turning point. Our growth has been checked by the monkey-humans. Worse, we have gained the hyperdrive…”

“Hyperdrive is not new.”

“Its use throughout the Patriarchy has reached a saturation point. Its reliability approaches absolute, and it is now the dominant means of transport. We cannot continue as we have before.”

“The humans have shown nothing but advantage in possessing it. We now communicate faster than light, mass forces in an instant. How can this fail to aid us?”

Conserver waved a paw hand down, this-does-not-follow. “This technology does not serve us as it serves them.”

“Technology is neutral. It is up to us to find its best application.”

“You must understand the difference between ourselves and humans. We feed at the top of the food chain, and it is very difficult for us to move lower. At the bottom of the chain are photosynthetic plants. They provide the totality of energy available to the system. Every layer above them represents a drop in available energy of nearly eight-squared times. When you eat a grashi burrower you are using energy only one-over-eight-to-the-sixth as efficiently as the plants eaten by the insects that the grashi eat.”

“I fail to see the connection.”

“Each kzin require a tremendous amount of resources. We are large, warm-blooded carnivores. We require a tremendous amount of energy, all of it filtered through several layers of food chain. The sheer physical space required to support that many plants is a major constraint on our population density. We are evolved to live in these low population densities, and so we respond poorly to crowded conditions. The amount of a planet's surface we can use is small compared to the amount humans can use.”

“This is irrelevant to the application of the hyperdrive.”

“It is key!” Conserver held up a paw. “As our population expands we must have more space, or fight each other for what we already have. We were fortunate to gain gravity polarization before population pressure forced us to repeated internal wars. Ever since, the Patriarchy has been stabilized by its ability to expand.”

“So hyperdrive can only aid us in that.”

“No, hyperdrive is tremendously destabilizing.”

“How so?”

“Before hyperdrive, speed-of-light placed serious constraints on communications. The head of a Great Pride bent on conquest had strictly limited information on potential adversaries. Imagine yourself in his position. Ahead of you is the unknown, unexplored worlds, unconquered species. Behind you is the might of the Patriarch, immense fleets patrolling worlds we have already fully populated. Where should you direct your Heroes?”

“Outward, of course.”

“Yes, outward. Our history shows us that we have always conquered as we expand. What fool would take the risk of turning against the Patriarch when external conquest is both easier and more profitable.”

“This is still true.”

“No. The kz'eerkti have shown us that our victory is not inevitable. And with hyperdrive communications the Patriarchy is no longer a vague but immense monolith of power at the backs of the Great Prides. Now the Pride-Patriarchs can gauge our strength with fine accuracy. Now they have the means to communicate among themselves. The Rrit remain more powerful than any single Great Pride, but if four or eight band together the equation changes radically.”

“Would any Pride-Patriarch worthy of his name contemplate such treason?”

“In matters of power honor becomes increasingly flexible. And the rules of skalazaal apply to the Rrit as much as to any Great Pride.”

Skalazaal! There hasn't been a War-of-Honor since Kzan-Rrit!”

“The tradition exists, the rules are defined. Cvail Pride is making ready to leap on Stkaa Pride.”

Pouncer's ears swung up and forward in surprise. “I haven't heard of this!”

“Stkaa doesn't care to advertise their weakness, nor does Cvail want their ambition made clear.”

“Conserver, this is too much to absorb.”

“Absorb it quickly. You have been tested far too early. Patriarch's Telepath was insistent it be done at once.”

Pouncer cocked an ear. So it was not Rrit-Conserver who had pushed him into the test. That was interesting news. “Why?”

“Hrrr…” Conserver waved a paw. “Many minds come together in Telepath's. With so much information he can judge how events will unfold far better than you or I. He felt it important. That was sufficient for me.”

“He didn't share his reasons?”

“Patriarch's Telepath seldom does.”

“I will sleep with this tonight.”

“Your father wants you at the Great Pride Circle tomorrow.”

“I am his son.” Pouncer made the gesture-of-abasement-to-the-Patriarch-in-his-absence and took his leave, intending to put the day out of his mind. Far too much had happened to deal with at once, but he found he could not push his disquiet away. The Patriarchy is reaching a turning point. Events are overtaking us. If Conserver and Telepath were this concerned he should be too, but he lacked information. That had to be fixed immediately. Tomorrow he would begin research.

The farmer labors long in the field and is bitten by gnats. Each day he bends his weary back to the mud to tend the crop. The builder strains to lift stones and breathes the dust of his hammer; his hands are dirty and cut. The soldier carries great loads slung around his neck, like that of an ass. He thirsts and hungers and is beset by enemies. Be therefore a scribe, and lift nothing heavier than a stylus. The Pharaoh shall seek your advice, and reward you with wealth and slaves.

— Egyptian inscription from the rule of Amenemhet IV of the Twelfth Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom

Kefan Brasseur smiled to himself. The House of Victory was huge and ancient, framed in black, dense-grained timbers a meter on a side with walls of cut and dressed boulders taller than he was. The furniture in the human delegation's apartment was exquisitely carved, the walls of their rooms covered in pelts and heads and weapons. Kdatlyno touch sculpture, vases from the dynasty of the mighty Si-Rrit, exquisite ply-murals crafted by the legendary Pkrr-Pkrr while humans were still scrawling on cave walls — the opulence was endless. At least ten thousand years of Patriarchal history was laid out on display. Their rooms were high up in the structure, the view through the huge windows showing all the varied architectures of the Middle and Outer Fortresses, and beyond them the sweeping vista of the Plain of Stgrat. He could spend the rest of his career in the House of Victory and never stop learning.

Even the normally impassive Tskombe was impressed, examining ancient weapons and suits of armor with fascination. Only Cherenkova seemed indifferent, her attention focused on her beltcomp. She had grown progressively more withdrawn on the voyage to Kzin, and now that their audience with the Patriarch was about to begin she had lapsed into brooding silence.

“You don't like being here, do you?”

She looked up. “Since you ask, no, this wasn't my choice of assignment.”

Brasseur raised an eyebrow. “Why not?”

“I don't believe there's any point to negotiating with the kzinti.”

“I have to ask again, why not?”

“You might as well negotiate with a polar bear. It isn't that they aren't intelligent, it isn't that they don't have a role to play in the arctic ecosystem. It's just in their nature. Polar bears are the top predator in the food chain. If one gets hungry, it'll eat you. That's what polar bears do.”

“You think that's what kzinti do?”

“I know it is. I've seen it.” Unbidden, the images burned into her brain at Midling research station came into her mind's eye and her jaw clenched as she looked away, not wanting him to see her expression.

“You hate them.”

“They think we're animals. I think they're animals.” Cherenkova spoke with more intensity than she'd meant to.

“Both views are correct. It's a human conceit that we're somehow better than anything else in the galaxy. The kzinti have had a spacefaring civilization for fifteen thousand years at least, maybe fifty thousand. We have a tremendous amount to learn from them. Just consider—”

Cherenkova cut him off. “Have you ever studied ruins, professor? Buried cities, anything like that?”

“Of course. I was an anthropologist before I switched to studying the kzinti.”

“Did you learn a lot from them?”

“Yes…” Brasseur's answer was hesitant; he was unsure where she was leading.

“Well, maybe their civilization needs ruining.” There was venom in her voice. “Just think what you could learn.”

The academic just looked at her and Ayla looked away. I've said too much, let my emotions interfere with my judgment. The silence dragged out to an awkward length. It was relieved by the heavy door swinging ponderously open. Yiao-Rrit came through, halted and gave a claw-rake salute. “I present my brother, Meerz-Rrit, Patriarch of Kzin.”

Behind him another kzin entered, this one wearing a deep blue cloak with a scarlet sash bearing the sigil of the Patriarchy. Yiao-Rrit stepped aside to allow his brother forward. Behind him was a third kzin, this one dressed in Conserver's robes. Brasseur came to attention and returned the salute. “I am Kefan Brasseur of Plateau, representative of humanity.”

Yiao-Rrit made a gesture and half a dozen slaves bustled into the room, carrying trays laden with delicacies. Brasseur recognized three Jotoki and two Kdatlyno, but the sixth was completely alien to him. It was a six-limbed cross between a turtle and a rhinoceros beetle, perhaps a meter high with long eyestalks, flying clumsily on buzzing, translucent wings. It seemed to be in charge, directing the other slaves in their tasks. It must be a Whrloo. He had heard them described in passing, but had never seen so much as a holo of one. He knew they were both rare and prized as slaves and nothing else about them. He watched its heavy, bumbling flight with fascination. It wore a gravbelt to help it fly; its homeworld had to have low gravity in order to allow a creature so heavy to hover, as it was clearly designed to do. Its delicate structure implied the same thing. The gravity was a third more than he was used to on Plateau, not an unbearable strain but enough to make his feet tired at the end of the day. It can't be happy here on Kzinhome. His distraction was short-lived. Meerz-Rrit padded to an immense skin rug by the room's enormous fireplace and reclined, completely relaxed. No human could be in the company of any kzin without being awed by their lethal grace and power, but the Patriarch stood out even among his peers. He had presence.

“Sire, I present the Emissaries of Earth.” Yiao-Rrit spoke in the formal tense, indicating each of the humans in turn. “Kefan-Brasseur-Leader-of-Negotiations, Cherenkova-Captain of the UNSN, and Tskombe-Major, representing the UNF.”

Brasseur went to a prrstet and tried to emulate the Patriarch's quiet, powerful confidence. He was less than successful; the room was too large and the interpersonal distances too great for human social comfort. He glanced at Tskombe and Cherenkova and saw they weren't completely at home either. They had all grown used to kzin-scale furnishings aboard Fanged Victory on the flight from the edge of the singularity, but those were cramped and utilitarian by kzinti standards. The House of Victory was built to be grandiose. I had forgotten this from my time on W'kkai. He would do well to remember quickly.

Meerz-Rrit spoke, his voice a calm rumble. “The situation our races face is dire, Kefan-Brasseur. Worlds may die if war occurs again.”

Brasseur collected himself, very aware he was representing all of humanity in these vital negotiations. “The decision to fight is not ours, Patriarch.”

The Patriarch made a dismissive gesture. “We do not besiege your planet as you besiege W'kkai.”

“Your incursions into our space continue. Ships destroyed. People kidnapped and enslaved.”

“The MacDonald-Rishshi treaty allows this.”

Across the room Cherenkova flushed. “It does not! It specifically states humans may not be enslaved by kzinti!” There was anger in her voice.

Brasseur looked up at her sharply. Clearly something had touched a nerve in her, but top-level diplomatic negotiations were not the place for personal emotions. “My colleague is correct. Kzin violations of the treaty have been constant. War is inevitable if these are not stopped immediately.”

“You question my honor…” The Patriarch's tone was halfway between question and statement. He was giving Brasseur the chance to back away from a breach in protocol.

Brasseur chose his words carefully. To insult the Patriarch would be diplomatically disastrous, if not personally lethal. At the same time, he had to convey the seriousness of the human position, or the negotiations would fail. “Your honor is beyond question, Patriarch. Unfortunately the incidents we have documented are also beyond question. We must find a way to prevent them from recurring.”

“The Passenger liner Freedom…” Cherenkova was reading from her beltcomp, ignoring the ongoing conversation. “…captured by the kzinti cruiser Long Leap. The Hercules deep space research base, raided by an unknown kzinti warship with its personnel enslaved on W'kkai. Belt Resources mining station on the asteroid Persephone at Farstar, raided and pillaged by forces from the attack carrier Chosen of the Fanged God…”

The Patriarch held up a paw and interrupted. “Rrit-Conserver, please clarify the relevant provisions of the MacDonald-Rishshi treaty.”

The robed kzin stood and spoke. “Provision twice-eight-and-five of the MacDonald-Rishshi treaty forbids the use of armed force between the forces of the Patriarch and those of the United Nations. Provision thrice-eight-and-one forbids the enslavement of any legal entity by the forces of the Patriarchy, legal entities defined as follows…”

The Patriarch made a gesture and Rrit-Conserver fell into silence. “As you can see there is no relationship between the provisions of the treaty and the incidents referred to here.”

Cherenkova stood up, anger in her voice. “All of these incidents are documented, Patriarch. We have statements from survivors, investigators' reports, damage assessments…”

“I am sure your research is thorough, Cherenkova-Captain.” Meerz-Rrit leaned forward, muscles unconsciously tensing to pounce. The time to back away from protocol breaches was rapidly passing.

“If you do not dispute the facts then you must admit your responsibility, Patriarch.”

“Hrrrr. You suggest I dishonor myself. That has no merit.” Meerz-Rrit's lips twitched over his fangs, and Brasseur felt his stomach muscles tightened. The Patriarch was angry, and these negotiations were too important to risk that outcome. He shot a warning glance at Cherenkova, but her own face was flushed, her expression grimly triumphant, and she wasn't looking at him. He held up a hand to speak.

“Perhaps if you could explain your understanding of the treaty, Patriarch.”

The big kzin's eyes bored into Brasseur's. “The intent of the treaty and its wording are both clear. My implementation of it, and that of my warriors, have been comprehensive. There is no meat in leveling these accusations at me.”

“And yet these incursions continue.” Tskombe broke in, his voice flat.

“These are Heroes on conquest, the name-seekers of Stkaa Pride, perhaps even Cvail Pride. They are not the forces of the Patriarchy.”

The tall soldier shrugged elaborately, a gesture almost certainly lost on the kzinti. “They scream and leap in your name.”

“Of course they do. I am Patriarch. This does not imply they act on my commands.”

“The distinction is lost on the UN, Patriarch.”

Meerz-Rrit waved a paw, palm down. “The treaty was forged at the insistence of the UN, and its provisions were written by humans to meet the requirements of humans. Now humans have come to quibble over the words that they wrote.” The Patriarch's tail twitched in annoyance. “Of what use are words written on paper? If you have faith in my honor you do not require written words. If you have no faith in my honor then no words will change that.”

“The issue is not your honor, Patriarch.” Again Brasseur chose his words carefully. “The issue is the prevention of another war. The words are simply a tool. Written or spoken, their purpose is to convey meaning and build understanding. If the words fail at their task they must be exchanged for words that succeed. That is the purpose of this conference.”

“Hrrr. I will overlook the insults implied by your presentation here today. I will not hear any further accusations.” The Patriarch's lips twitched over his fangs, and his claws extended of their own accord. He was deeply angered, Brasseur could tell. Best not to push him further.

“I abase myself, Patriarch.” Brasseur made the gesture. “No insult was intended.”

“We may now turn to the issue of human honor.” Meerz-Rrit's fanged smile relaxed, but his eyes remained fixed on Brasseur, making him feel like a prey animal. “The UN has taken the colony world Ch'Aakin, in flagrant violation of the treaty. There is no room for misinterpretation here. Military action against W'kkai and its subject worlds must cease immediately.”

Cherenkova answered before Brasseur could. “This action was taken because the Patriarchy has not acted to prevent Heroes from screaming and leaping in its name.” Her repressed anger came out as sarcasm. “Ch'Aakin was identified as the base for many of these attacks.”

“The treaty does not require the Patriarchy to do any such thing.” The Patriarch's tail lashed as he spoke. “However it does require the UN to respect kzinti worlds. The actions of the UN, Cherenkova-Captain, are contrary to both the letter and the spirit of the treaty. If humans value words so highly then humans should let their actions follow their voices.” The Patriarch's lips twitched over his fangs again. Brasseur felt a thrill of real fear go through him as he saw the negotiations foundering on the Patriarch's hair-trigger honor and Cherenkova's ill-repressed hostility.

“If I may interject.” Rrit-Conserver had raised a paw. “The issue is simple. War is imminent, it has in fact already begun in the destruction of Ch'Aakin and the siege of W'kkai, though we characterize these as skirmishes to avoid the larger implications. If we in this room cannot find a solution, the toll in death and destruction to both our species will be immeasurable. We cannot alter the past; we might yet alter the future.”

For long moment there was silence. Cherenkova looked down again, studying her beltcomp intently. Meerz-Rrit's eyes narrowed, and he leaned back in his prrstet. He looked over the humans dispassionately. Finally he spoke. “My adviser speaks wisely. This is a negotiation. What is it precisely the UN wishes to negotiate for?”

Brasseur took a deep breath. “Our position is simple, Patriarch. Kzinti raids against humanity must stop. It does not matter who is responsible, it only matters that they cease.”

Meerz-Rrit nodded slowly. “And what does the UN offer in return for this forbearance?”

Brasseur carefully kept himself from smiling. When a kzin asked for an offer there was room for bargaining. “What does the Patriarchy demand?” Let the Patriarch put something on the table.

“Hrrr. The return of all of our colony worlds from Ch'Aakin all the way back to Hssin, the cessation of the siege of W'kkai, an agreement limiting the sphere of expansion of human space, an agreement limiting the number of warships deployed by the UN, a program of reparations to redress the atrocities committed by human forces; these are the primary requirements. Yiao-Rrit will provide you with a detailed list.”

Tskombe's eyes widened. “I can tell you now, Patriarch, the UN will not the able to meet that list.”

Meerz-Rrit switched his gaze to Tskombe from Brasseur. “Why is that?”

Tskombe shrugged. “It will not be politically possible.”

The Patriarch growled, a deep rumbling sound. “It is necessary. What you are asking requires that I restrict the freedom of the Great Pride of Stkaa, and by extension of all the Great Prides. This they will not accept easily. Tomorrow the Great Pride Circle meets, and there are pressures building within the Patriarchy. If I cannot show them quarry wrested from the enemy they may not follow where I lead.”

Brasseur's eyebrows went up. The Patriarch was as good as admitting he did not have complete control over his Great Prides. The pressures must be great indeed. That meant danger. “If they do not follow you to peace, they will lead us all to destruction.”

“Then you must give me the tools to ensure they follow.”

“The UN will not do that. The populace will see it as paying ransom. If the General Assembly agrees, even against their own feelings, they will be voted out of office. The Secretary General will not countenance it, regardless of his personal views on the matter.”

“You must understand. My great-grandsire negotiated the MacDonald-Rishshi treaty with care to ensure he could keep the promises he made.” Meerz-Rrit leaned forward. “You are now asking me to overstep the traditional limits of Patriarchal power. I can in principle decree what I like. In practice” — the Patriarch twitched his tail—“space is vast. My Great Prides control worlds of their own, and they have their own imperatives to follow. To deny them hunt-conquest against your species I must offer them rich game elsewhere.”

“You say the Great Pride Circle convenes tomorrow?”

“It does. You were invited here so we could resolve these issues prior to its meeting.”

“Patriarch! It will take hours to get a message to our ship at the edge of the singularity. The meeting will be over before it can be relayed to Earth, let alone answered. And that answer will not come so quickly. It will take weeks, months of discussion before the General Assembly comes to any conclusion, let alone an agreement.”

“You're not empowered to speak on behalf of your race?” Meerz-Rrit's ears swiveled up and forward, his voice mingling anger and incredulity in equal measure. He turned to face Yiao-Rrit. “Brother, why is my time so wasted? If the monkey lords wish to insult me to war they are succeeding.”

“Sire!” Yiao-Rrit raked his own claws across his nose. “I abase myself, the fault is mine. Simply arranging with the UN for these representatives to accompany me took far longer than I anticipated. I specifically stated that those chosen be empowered to speak on behalf of their government. I should have verified this was true. It did not occur to me that the monkeys would not deign to comply.”

The Patriarch turned his gaze on Brasseur, tail lashing angrily. “Why then have my emissary's stated requirements not been met? Does Earth not consider the Patriarchy worthy of this respect?”

“There has been a miscommunication, Patriarch.” Brasseur felt himself sweating. The situation was spinning rapidly out of control. “We are empowered to speak, and to negotiate. We are not empowered to make binding decisions on behalf of our government. Not even the Secretary General can make that decision; he can only put forward his recommendation. The General Assembly reserves the prerogative of decision for itself.”

“Your masters expect me to negotiate with emasculated lackeys.” Meerz-Rrit slashed the air with his claws, and Brasseur prayed he would not choose to scream and leap.

“Patriarch, I assure there is no insult intended here. The General Assembly does not possess the power to delegate its decision-making in the kzinti style. I might add that Secretary General Desjardins is undertaking considerable political risk in undertaking negotiations at all. There are those in the General Assembly who see war as the only solution, and call negotiation appeasement. We must give them a better option.”

“A negotiator who cannot bind his government has no goods to trade.” Rrit-Conserver's tones were even, but even he showed annoyance.

Meerz-Rrit laid his ears flat and returned his attention to Brasseur. “Advise me then, human. What will you have me present to my Pride-Patriarchs tomorrow morning?”

“We must negotiate the terms under which our species can live in peace. Give them those terms and tell them the UN intends to ratify them. They need only accept them provisionally. The agreement can be formally accepted at the next Great Pride Circle.”

Brasseur was not prepared for what happened next. All three kzin rippled their ears, the kzinti equivalent of laughter. “And when do you think that will be, human?” Meerz-Rrit's anger seemed to have evaporated. “My son will be Patriarch before the Great Pride Circle convenes again.”

Brasseur felt himself flushing red. The kzinti were laughing at him, and both Cherenkova and Tskombe were looking at him intently. He was supposed to be the expert on kzin affairs, and this critical negotiation was about to fail because of his lack of understanding. At least the tension had dissolved.

“Does the Patriarchy desire peace with humanity?”

There was a long pause. Meerz-Rrit had not expected the question, and the answer circumstances required him to give was not the answer he felt in his liver. He lashed his tail unconsciously. “Of course.”

“Our species are on the way to war precisely because of the misunderstandings we are experiencing today. If you wish peace you must do whatever is necessary to prevent your Pride-Patriarchs from acting against humanity in any way. There may be nothing we can do here to support you in that, save assure you that our species also wants only peace.” Meerz-Rrit's ears moved to relaxed attention, and Brasseur spoke quickly, needing to get his point across before communication broke down again. “There are those on my world who do not believe the kzinti capable of peace and who therefore advocate preemptive conquest.” Brasseur took a deep breath. “I know you also have to contend with forces that drive your species to conflict. Any fool can run at the front of a mob following the road to war and justify every step as simple prudence. It takes a leader to take the risks required to obtain peace.”

Meerz-Rrit snarled. “Do you imply I am a fool, Kefan-Brasseur, or simply that I am not a leader?”

“I imply nothing. I merely state facts. I find no fault in principle with the Patriarchy's requirements. I will pledge my honor to do my utmost to see them adopted by the General Assembly. I cannot promise any result, but the most powerful tool you can give me is a cessation of kzin-initiated hostility. Peace requires the will for peace. If we do not have that here in this room then our races are doomed to war.”

The Patriarch growled deep in his throat. “What you ask is difficult. It will require drastic measures. It may in fact be impossible.” He paused, his eyes far away for a moment as he thought. “I will consider what can be done.”

Brasseur breathed out, only then realizing how tense he had been. “It is our only way back from the brink of oblivion.”

As skatosh tests the strength and skill of warriors, skalazaal tests the strength and skill of Prides. In skalazaal as in skatosh, no slave may carry weapons for its master, though it may otherwise serve the Pride in any way. As in skatosh, no warrior may use a weapon that does not strike with his own strength. As in skatosh, no Patriarch shall leap his pride without the challenge scream. As in skatosh, skalazaal must be declared and open for all to bear witness to the honorable combat of the contending prides. As in skatosh, skalazaal sees no victory without honor. As in skatosh, skalazaal is judged by the Conservers and their edict is final.

— The Dueling Traditions

Back in his chamber Pouncer splashed again through his bathing pool, then lay on his side on his prrstet while a Pierin combed out his fur. Was it the same one who had served him in the morning? He looked closely but couldn't tell. Slave Keeper would know of course, but to Pouncer the individuality of a slave was barely relevant, and yet this creature was a being as intelligent as himself. What did it think? Was it content to serve well, or did it live in fear of the hunting park?

He dismissed the slave with a paw wave, leaving his coat half brushed. The unchanging ritual of morning and evening was somehow wrong after the experience of his test. Everything was in flux, he could sense that now, though the ancient stones of the Citadel were indifferent. He closed his eyes but his mind would not quiet. Perhaps he should summon the slave again.

He rolled over and examined his pelt. It didn't need more grooming. The style among the young nobility was symbols dyed into the coat and emphasized with intricate braidings. The symbols signified prowess, accomplishment, or fealty. Pouncer preferred to keep his fur simply brushed out. It was more practical, and he disliked the naked boasting the symbols amounted to. Rrit-Conserver and Guardmaster administered too many lessons in humility for him to feel otherwise. And it was also true that he had done nothing heroic enough to be worthy of a future Patriarch, and thus preferred to keep his lesser accomplishments to himself.

Research! He must understand the Honor-War, kzin against kzin with nothing more than sinew and steel. Certainly it had happened in the histories, but so long ago. Yet Conserver felt there was a risk of it surfacing again. He needed understanding, more details! It couldn't be a threat to the Patriarchy now, could it? And the kz'eerkti with their Outsider-gifted stardrive, what role would they play? The Great Pride Circle would determine the shape of the power structure he would soon rule, and the details of the intrigue and conflict that would challenge that rule. He had to know more. He called up information on his wall and began to study, the Pride-Patriarchs and their advisors, their capabilities, their strengths and weaknesses, their goals, their traditional alliances and enmities. His eyelids grew heavy but he kept at it. He would be at the Circle in the morning, and much might depend on his awareness of a subtle detail and its import. There would be no second chance to get it right.

Something tugged at the edges of his awareness. Something was wrong; he was not alone in the room. He froze, ears up and swiveling slowly, nose twitching for a hint of the other. There was no sound, no scent, but there was a presence, cold, reptilian, and hostile. A nameless dread rose in him and he fought down the urge to turn and flee. Fear is death, he reminded himself. It's waiting, he thought, waiting for me to turn my back, waiting for me to drop my guard. At the same time another part of his brain wondered how he knew that it was there at all. Slowly he rolled from the prrstet and dropped to v'scree stance, moving only his eyes to search the room, his ears tracking his gaze automatically. His chamber had few places to hide and he shifted his attention to each in turn, his well padded prrstet and its cushions, the wall tapestries, the cabinet that held his ceremonial armor, his compsole and books, the few simple furnishings, the grooming stand. Nothing moved but the ripples in his bathing pool. He sniffed the air again, found nothing but the familiar odors of ancient stonewood and fabric.

There was nothing, and it made no sense that there would be anything here in the heart of the Citadel. He willed himself to relax, to push the awareness of the other out of his mind. I am tired, he thought. I am tired and unsettled and that has me jumping at shadows. He breathed deeply. Fear was death, not only in the paralysis it brought to crisis but in its unrelenting erosion of normal life. If he allowed every potential threat to so disturb his equanimity he was not fit to be Patriarch. Fears alone in the night were for kittens, not warriors.

With an effort he straightened himself. There was a flash in the corner of his eye and he pivoted to catch something exploding out of the bathing pool, had time only to register pasty gray flesh and razor fangs before it was on him, talons extended to rake his belly open. Off balance, he dropped to the floor and the thing flew over him, one long hind talon slicing into his arm to leave burning pain behind. He rolled awkwardly away as it landed a body length behind him and turned. He flipped to his feet and back into v'dak stance. His upper arm was numb where the thing had clawed him. He expected a second's respite while the thing recovered from its leap and reassessed its attack but it gave him none, launching itself from the wall, talons again reaching for him. He pivoted and spun sideways, allowing it to pass and using the energy of his pivot to drive a disemboweling kick. He connected with its side and was rewarded with a satisfying crunch as bones shattered under the impact. His claws dug in and flesh ripped. The thing landed and rolled, half its side torn away. It showed no hesitation as it turned to attack again but its injury slowed it and gave Pouncer an instant to assess his enemy.

It was a horror, built for killing and nothing else. It was half his size but powerfully muscled, moving on its hind legs alone, counterbalanced by a short, heavy tail. Its mouth gaped wide to expose its fangs but it seemed to have no tongue. The eyes were large, black and pupilless, staring from beneath heavy protective brow ridges in a bony domed skull over a short, wrinkled snout that drew long, hissing breaths. Its forelimbs were powerful with dagger-curved claws, and now that it was wounded Pouncer could smell the tangy metallic pungency of its blood.

The searing pain spread up his arm to his shoulder, leaving numbness behind it. He found he could barely move it. Paralytic poison on its talons, he realized. I must finish this now, while I still can. The thing's fangs were narrow and pointed, designed to penetrate rather than tear flesh. Every battle is to the death. Would they inject poison if it bit him? He couldn't allow that to happen.

It leapt for him again and again he pivoted aside, but the thing had anticipated the move this time and its foreclaws caught in his sash, yanking him over sideways, and then it was on top of him, fangs questing for his throat. Its breath in his nostrils stank of enzymatic poisons and he could see the oily droplets of venom dripping from the ends of its teeth. Pouncer grabbed at its throat to hold it away, but it sank both its foreclaws into his shoulders and held on. He roared in pain, willing his talons to close, but the strength was fading from his arms as the paralysis seeped through them. In desperation he kicked his legs up to its belly, claws seeking flesh but unable to strike home. His grip began to slip and the thing's jaws gaped wide, reaching for his throat.

He half rolled, feeling its claws rip from his shoulders, and kicked upward, his own claws finding its belly this time and sinking in. He pushed, digging them in, and it went flying backward. He finished his roll and dropped to attack crouch, streaming blood from both shoulders, both arms numbed and nearly useless. There was an ornamental spear on the wall, part of a display and more decorative than functional. He grabbed it down, tried to level it, but it was all he could do to keep it from simply falling from his unresponsive fingers. Across the room the thing had been disemboweled by his kick, and the landing had fractured a hind leg. It was breathing in bubbling gasps, entrails dragging, obviously dying, but its dark, staring eyes were locked on Pouncer, and incredibly it was staggering forward, lurching on its one good leg to come at him again. Training evaporated and the kill rage swept over him, stronger than fear, stronger than discipline. The rage brought enough strength back to his arms to use them and he screamed and leapt, raising the improvised weapon in midleap. The thing reared back on its good leg as Pouncer's feet smashed into its muzzle. It fell backward and raked at him but missed, and then Pouncer was on it, slamming its head to the ground and the spearhead down through the top of its brain case.

The blow was ill coordinated and weak, but it had the momentum of his leap behind it and he felt the blade strike the stonewood floor beneath and dig in, pinning the creature there. Even then it scrabbled and fought to free itself, rear limbs kicking in a fruitless attempt to rake him. Exhausted, he fell back as the room started spinning around him. An armspan away the thing tore its own skull apart in its struggle to get at him, but he couldn't summon the strength to either get away or finish it. The paralysis his rage had held at bay swept over him again, and he collapsed to the floor, losing the struggle to fight it off. How much poison had he received from the thing's talons? How much was lethal? He needed immediate medical attention. Gathering his will he crawled toward the door and collapsed, breathing heavily. Discipline is mind over body, Rrit-Conserver taught. He remembered when he was a kitten and his mother, M'ress, would groom him with her tongue. Move the mind and the body will follow. But his body would not follow his mind, and his mind would not stay focused. The stonewood was cold beneath him, but he remembered the softness of M'ress's fur and the comforting scent of her nipples as he suckled with T'suuz, his litter-sister. “K'vin veer ce aros zheer, marli?” he had asked. Will it always be this nice, Mother? “Always,” she had told him. “Always,” and the kittens had cuddled close to her, hoarding her body heat as the darkness fell, as it was falling now, and he felt her warmth engulfing him again as his breathing slowed and his awareness faded. Behind him the creature had finally died, and already its body was beginning to dissolve into foul-smelling slime.

Secretary General, my fellow assemblyists, I ask you, what are the kzinti? They are animals, nothing more. Their technology is produced by their slave races. Without them they would have no more culture than a chimpanzee. I will not hear arguments that they are sentient beings under the Declaration of Rights. I will not hear arguments that they are entitled to Charter protection. They are not only animals but dangerous animals. They are vermin, plague rats, and yet we question what we should do with them. I for one am tired of debating a question with only one answer. The time for words is over. Hear me now! The kzinti must be exterminated!

— Assemblyist Muro Ravalla before the UN General Assembly

“This system was adopted four generations ago. It no longer reflects the realities of today!” Graff-Kdar's voice echoed down the Great Hall of the Patriarch as Meerz-Rrit listened with half an ear. The Great Hall of the Patriarch was immense and ornate, the ceiling held up by carved marble pillars and the walls paneled with oiled stonewood, and it had heard far too many speeches just like Graff-Kdar's impassioned declamation against the ruinous and unfair allocation of hyperdrive engines his pride was receiving. The Patriarch scanned the hall again, seeking a familiar face. Where is First-Son? Second-Son was there, showing an uncharacteristic interest in the art of rulership, though the way he was toying idly with his w'tsai showed his obvious disinterest in its realities. And why is Second-Son carrying a w'tsai? The ceremonial blade was an honor that came with a name, and Second-Son had yet to earn his. I must speak to Rrit-Conserver. It was not the first time Second-Son had shown casual disregard for proper form.

“…there is no honor in this! It weakens us all…”

Today the hall was packed with Pride-Patriarchs from every star system in his empire, each with his own agenda, each with his own speech. The speeches were mere formality of course, the statement for the record of each Pride's position, what they wanted, what they offered. The real negotiations would take place in small groups behind closed doors far from the hall. Nevertheless, they had to be listened to and considered, or at least appear to be considered. The honor of the final word fell to Meerz-Rrit, and there was nothing Graff-Kdar could say about hyperdrive that could change what he was going to present to the assembly. Where was First-Son? He felt nervous despite himself. The human Kefan-Brasseur was correct of course. If another monkey war was to be avoided he needed to seize the Great Prides by the scruffs of their necks. That needed to be done anyway, before some upstart Pride-Patriarch decided to test his strength against that of the Rrit. Stkaa-Emissary's proposal was more appetizing. A monkey war would cost high in blood and treasure but, if he led the entire Patriarchy against them, the humans would be enslaved once and for all, and that leadership would secure the Rrit's position for generations to come. He, Rrit-Conserver, and Yiao-Rrit had spent the entire night in the Command Lair arguing strategy, and even now the best course was not clear. Balancing the present and future was not easy, and the greatest threat to his empire was not obvious. He was growing old for this kind of game, and Graff-Kdar's lengthy droning did nothing to keep him awake. He stretched to keep the circulation going to his limbs. The seasons would not go around many more times before First-Son would be ready to take his place as Patriarch.

“Patriarch! I appeal to you, as I do to all of my brothers assembled here, correct this injustice before it does irrevocable harm to the very fabric of our Patriarchy.”

Graff-Kdar sat down, obviously pleased with himself, although the roars of approval from the assembly were no more than polite.

It was time. Meerz-Rrit waited for the noise to die down, waited longer, until the silence stretched out to painful length. Whatever came of this Great Pride Circle, it was ultimately about power. Making the Pride-Patriarchs wait for his words was a palpable demonstration of the power of the Rrit, and it would remind them of their places. That was important. He scanned the assembly slowly, meeting each and every gaze with his own. Where is First-Son? He should be here to witness this, to see how power is exercised. All the fleets in the Patriarchy were insufficient to rule with if you lacked the liver to meet the gaze of your adversaries.

Too late to wait for Pouncer now. He stood, let the silence stretch further, looking down the vast hall. Heavy banners of fine woven hsahk dyed Patriarchal crimson hung down the cut stone walls from the point where the huge and ancient stonewood crossbeams held up the grandly arched ceiling. Gem-set chandeliers hung down over the audience, unnecessary now with the sunlight spilling through the immense windows, arrogantly wide with handcut ripple glass. The Hall itself demanded words strong enough to be worthy of its magnificence. He would not fail it.

It was time. “Honored Cousins!” He paused while the word echoed down the length of the hall. “All of you have spoken today. And all of you have listened. And while all of you have raised issues of tremendous importance to the Patriarchy” — he nodded to Graff-Kdar—“I am sure that nothing has seized your livers as strongly as noble Stkaa-Emissary's call to arms against the kz'eerkti.”

There were muted whispers from the floor, and he paused to make sure he had their attention. “Before this gathering I spoke at length with honored Stkaa-Emissary. The Great Pride of Stkaa has been on hunt-conquest against the monkeys since before my great-grandsire's time, and they have suffered serious reverses in that campaign, most recently the loss of Ch'Aakin. W'kkai itself may yet fall.”

He paused again to let that sink in, took in the faces looking at him, studied them. There was no doubt he had their attention now. There was no event in all the Patriarchy larger than the monkey wars.

“Honored Cousins! We are a race of warriors, of predators! Throughout our long history we have had setbacks and losses. Never before have we suffered so serious a defeat.” There was general snarling from the floor and the atmosphere thickened with fight-scent. “There are those who doubt the competence of Stkaa Pride. There are those who doubt their courage and honor, in their failure to subdue a race of herbivores.” He let his gaze fall on Chirr-Cvail, let it rest there a long moment. “I am not one of those. Let us not forget that it is Stkaa Pride who gave us the hyperdrive and opened the entire galaxy to us. Stkaa-Emissary has spoken of the unique danger the monkeys present, and I am convinced he is correct. He has asked me to lead the Great Prides as one against them. He is certain they cannot stand against the combined might of the Patriarchy. I am certain that he is correct.” Again he paused while snarls of agreement rose throughout the chamber. “With the combined might of the Patriarchy devoted to their conquest, the spoils of the monkey worlds are ours for the taking. Who here doubts this?”

There was silence from the assembly, but everywhere ears were up and swiveled forward, the Pride-Patriarchs hanging on Meerz-Rrit's words. He looked to the high, hidden gallery where the kz'eerkti delegation watched the assembly in secret. They would be afraid now, as they watched him speak of unrestricted war and saw the eagerness of the Pride-Patriarchs to follow him down that road. Their fear was a necessary thing, for they would carry it back their homeworld, and their overcomplex government would be convinced of kzinti resolve through it. He looked again to the assembled Pride-Patriarchs. I must deal with two audiences here. This would have to be played with both caution and boldness if he was to achieve the result he wanted.

“Who here would stand with me for such a hunt?”

Stkaa-Emissary leapt to his feet. “Stkaa Pride stands with the Patriarch!”

There was a long pause, and Meerz-Rrit held himself calm. Now is the time…

“Cvail Pride stands with the Patriarch!” Chirr-Cvail's need to demonstrate his loyalty showed in his eagerness.

“Tzaatz Pride stands with the Patriarch!” Kchula-Tzaatz, there was one to watch. The dam broke and tumult of voices filled as the assembly stood almost as one.

“Kreetsa Pride…”

“Prrrtz Pride…”

“Mroaw Pride…”

Meerz-Rrit raised his arms, pleased at the reaction but not allowing himself to relax. His first goal was accomplished; they were committed. The harder task came now. He waited for the commotion to settle, and when he spoke his voice was lower. “I am honored by your loyalty, brothers. I am pleased to see the warrior spirit is alive in the Great Prides.” He paused to meet all their gazes. This is the critical moment; my leadership turns on this instant. He raised his voice. “It is my decision to turn away from this path. It is my command to Stkaa Pride that they seek and maintain peace with the kz'eerkti.”

There was a stunned silence, then an undertone of snarls as the Pride-Patriarchs confirmed with each other what they had just heard. Stkaa-Emissary leapt onto his desk, challenge in his voice. “The warriors of Stkaa Pride will not stand for such cowardice, Patriarch! We have the obligation of vengeance to our dead. We have suffered grievously in the service of the Patriarchy. The Patriarchy cannot abandon us!”

“Do you doubt my honor, Emissary? Do you call me a coward in my own hall, before this assembly here?” Meerz-Rrit held Emissary's gaze, daring him to challenge leap.

“Your honor speaks for itself, Patriarch.” Well played, neither a challenge nor an insult that could invite challenge, but nevertheless making his position clear.

“As does your wisdom, Emissary.” And a worthy reply.

Kchula-Tzaatz stood up. “Stkaa Pride has enslaved this species, Patriarch, and to my knowledge they have paid their fealty in full measure. The humans are theirs to conquer as they will.” His voice was smooth in Meerz-Rrit's ears. What was his game?

“They are a spacefaring race with all the power that implies.” The Patriarch kept his voice even.

“With primitive technology and a pawful of worlds.” Kchula-Tzaatz twitched his tail dismissively.

Meerz-Rrit slammed his clenched paw on the podium, abandoning restraint. “They swarm those worlds at a density of thrice-eight-to-the-eight-and-three! Would you provoke the tuskvor where they can herd-charge the den? Stkaa-Emissary, tell him of the attack on K'Shai.”

Emissary was shaken, being called on to attack his own position. He had been swept up with Meerz-Rrit's initial proposal, thinking he had won his point. He stood to address the assembly “Patriarch, I stand with…”

“Tell him!”

“Patriarch, this is common knowledge…”

“Tell him!”

Reluctantly, Stkaa-Emissary spoke. “They used kinetic energy missiles from their home world.”

“Arriving at nearly light speed! Continents laid bare, oceans half vaporized. Only strenuous efforts prevented ecological collapse. Am I not correct?”

“The damage was contained…” Emissary's voice was plaintive.

“And K'Shai was lost! A fraction of their weapons struck home. Had they been more accurate they would have sterilized the planet. And remember, K'Shai was their colony world. Tell him of the attack on Hssin.”

“They ruptured the domes from space.” The defeat was clear in Emissary's voice.

“And Ch'Aakin?”

“Saturated with conversion weapons, Patriarch.”

Meerz-Rrit raised his paws to the assembly. “Conversion weapons! Used not on ships but on a world! Hear him, Honored Cousins! Hear him and hear the tuskvor thundering toward your kits.”

“W'kkai has not yet fallen.” The desperation was clear in Emissary's voice “We too possess the power to destroy planets, Meerz-Rrit.”

“Shall we become monkeys and trade conquest for extermination? Shall we abandon our warrior's honor and slaughter what we fear?”

Emissary raked the air with his claws. “Honor demands vengeance!”

“And when your honor is satisfied shall I grant you lands on the newly barren Earth? Or would you rather the greater honor of an estate here on Kzinhome? I will have many to give you when the humans have finished stripping the crust in their barbarity.”

“These are herbivores, Patriarch! Where is the honor of a warrior who accepts less than victory over a prey species? Stkaa Pride is loyal. We have suffered grievously. We ask only…”

Meerz-Rrit cut him off with a snarl. “I am not blind to your sacrifice, Stkaa-Emissary, nor to the obligations of fealty. I am stalking bigger game here.”

“Patriarch, I…” Emissary was tense, poised to leap. Perhaps he would challenge after all, but that would not aid the Patriarchy.

“Enough!” Meerz-Rrit's gaze was hard, his eyes narrowed. If it came to a fight, he had no doubt he would win. For a long moment the tableau held, then, trembling with barely restrained rage, Stkaa-Emissary slowly sank back to his seat. Meerz-Rrit turned back to the assembly, breathing deeply to keep his own anger under control. “Honored Cousins! There are those who will call me a coward behind my back.” And so branded themselves cowards, now that he had made the declaration. “The monkeys we can conquer, though the blood-price will be high. But the monkeys are not the greatest danger facing us. We have made contact now with the Puppeteers, whose technology is so far beyond ours that we have not even theories to explain it. We have met the Outsiders who gave that knowledge to the Puppeteers in the first place. We have learned of the Thrint, whose empire once encompassed the galaxy, and of the Tnuctipun war, which ended the line of every sentient race in all of that vastness.”

Kchula-Tzaatz stood again. “Patriarch, we have nothing to fear from races long extinct. The Outsiders want nothing that we do. As for the Puppeteers” — he snorted in disgust—“I have met a Puppeteer. Its cowardice knew no bounds.”

“Open your eyes! Courage is not power! The cowering Puppeteers could end our line to improve their sleep.”

“Kittens' fears! When the time comes we will take their technology and hunt them for sport. When have the children of the Fanged God failed to conquer?”

“The Q'ryamoi must have thought the same before the herbivores destroyed their world.”

“We have only the Puppeteers' word that the Q'ryamoi existed at all.”

“I bow to your wisdom, Kchula-Tzaatz.” The Patriarch's voice dripped sarcasm. “Tell me where the Puppeteer homeworld is, and I will launch a conquest fleet tomorrow.”

“Just because we haven't found it doesn't mean we never will.”

“And in the meantime? Even the monkeys can raze a world. Do you doubt those herd animals could do the same?”

Zraa-Churrt stood. “If I may speak for my honored cousins, Patriarch…”

“You may speak for yourself.”

“I have seven sons. My elder will inherit my name and my Pride. My second will advise him. The other five must command warships in hunt-conquest to justify their names. If that road is closed they will fight each other for my inheritance.”

Graff-Kdar stood up. “I stand with Zraa-Churrt. Eight-to-the-seventh Heroes pledge fealty to Kdar Pride. I could not deny them conquest if I wanted to.”

Meerz-Rrit flipped his ears. “This is a matter of leadership. You must lead your Prides as I lead you. You have heard my decree. Will any here challenge me?” He scanned the assembly again, meeting their gazes. None of them were happy, but none of them were willing to challenge his rule. Meerz-Rrit allowed himself to relax. The critical moment was past, and he had won. “So you must lead your Prides. We now possess the hyperdrive. You can send your fleets farther than ever before, find planets where no sapient will contest your claims. We have slave species enough as it is. If you want more slaves, breed them. Replace war prizes with construction. We shall not repeat the error of the Thrint. We shall not become so feared in the galaxy that we motivate other species to our extinction.” He paused to let his words sink in. “I want to make something very clear, Honored Cousins. There are those of you who will see opportunity here, opportunity to make gains at the expense of others in this circle, even at the expense of Rrit Pride.” He held up a paw as some of the assembly started to rise. “No, do not protest your loyalty. There are traditions that govern duels and those same traditions govern the Honor-War. The traditions will be followed in detail, and I stand behind them with fang and claw. Skalazaal will be declared and open for all to see and judge, and the traditions adhered to explicitly. The Patriarchy is made strong by conflict, but I will not see it destroyed by dishonor.” He paused for emphasis. “Mark my words, my Honored Cousins. I will command the full might of the Rrit against any who overstep those boundaries.” He had their attention now, and he met their gazes with his own narrowed eyes. “We are not monkeys, we are Heroes. We duel with sinew and steel, claim victory with honor. If any of you here today violate the traditions, I will end your line.”

Meerz-Rrit took in the assembly, looking at him now with stunned silence. It was the effect he needed to end on, and he turned and strode from his dais without another word. Behind him the Great Hall exploded into snarls as voices rose in argument. Let them debate it between themselves. He was Patriarch, and none would dispute his rule. Second-Son followed him out, looking sour for who knew what reason. He glanced again to the hidden gallery where Yiao-Rrit sat with the humans. Most important, the monkeys would know that he could have launched a war, and that he had chosen not to. They would know they need not strike at the kzinti out of fear, and they would also fear to strike themselves. It had been a good assembly. The results could not have been better. He should have felt pleased, but he didn't. Where was Pouncer?

Without honor there is no victory.

— Si-Rrit

Kchula-Tzaatz left the assembly immediately after the Patriarch, leaving the swelling storm of protest behind him. He went as rapidly as dignity allowed back to his retinue's quarters in the House of Victory. As soon as he arrived he ordered his guards into discreet defensive positions. Nothing must be obvious. They were all Ftzaal-Tzaatz's elite Ftz'yeer, disguised as retainers and diplomats though each wore Ftz'yeer red and gold somewhere, here a sash, there a brassard, to meet the demands of honor. Nevertheless they were far too few to stand long should Meerz-Rrit decide that he wanted Kchula's head.

That done, he retired to his private chambers. They were lavishly appointed; Meerz-Rrit treated his guests well. No sooner had he entered than a silent Kdatlyno brought in a spiced platter of fresh killed pirtitz, their blood rich in a decanter of shasca beside it. A pair of well trained prret curled on cushions by the window, swishing their tails suggestively and chrowling for his attentions — pleasant distractions to offset the stresses of the Great Pride Circle. He ignored them. Rage and fear alternated in his brain, and once he stopped moving, their scents mingled thick in the air around him. It was supposed to happen during the meeting of the Circle. He had been ready, and then nothing. Nothing! He had been reduced to some weak platitude about courage.

So close! He had delayed speaking as long as possible. The drop capsules should have been landing around the Citadel even as he made his declaration of skalazaal.

They had not, but the assassin would have struck by now, and the Rrit be alerted to danger. Now they would be looking for the guilty, and first suspicion would fall to him. He had to take immediate action, and for that he needed an ally. He pointed to one of his own Jotok attendants, waiting silently for orders. “You. Come.” Obedient and silent, the slave moved up beside him, its five multijointed limbs waving like tentacles to make it walk. He scribbled a note on his beltcomp and dumped the hardcopy, handed it to the slave. “Take that to Stkaa-Emissary, at once.”

The slave abased itself and left. He could have dumped the note direct to Emissary's beltcomp, but it would have to travel over the Citadel's datanet. Quantum cryptcom was secure, supposedly, but the mere transmission of the message was information, and he had to deny his enemy all the information he could. It was now his only advantage. A handwritten message was more private.

Of course the Kdatlyno slave who'd brought the food was Rrit as well, and who knew what it might be reporting to that execrable Rrit-Conserver even now. He was helpless, completely dependent upon his enemies. Rage got the better of him, and he kicked over the table, sending the sliced pirtitz flying across the room to stain the delicate tapestry. A servitorb floated over to the mess, ready with tools for a cleaning slave, but there was no cleaning slave, and Kchula kicked at it too. Fools! How could he attain greatness when all he had to work with were fools? That must be dealt with at once. He snapped open his beltcomp and punched up the command bridge on Distant Trader. Another piece of data for Rrit-Conserver's intelligence net, but one that couldn't be avoided.

“Raarrgh-Captain.” His subordinate's image floated over the belt-comp. There was two heartbeats delay for light speed, then his eyes widened as he saw Kchula's snarling rictus.

“Sire!”

Rage tightened Kchula's throat until he could barely get the words out. “Where… are… my… warriors?”

“Sire, I abase myself! The first rapsar capsule jammed in the launch tube. We're clearing it now…”

“On all the ships? You try my patience.” A new fear shot through Kchula. What if it were not incompetence but betrayal…?

“On Distant Trader only. I judged it best not to launch the Heroes without the beasts, sire.”

“You judged it best…?” Rage.

Raarrgh-Captain raked his claws over his face. “We stand ready to launch them on your command, sire.”

“Fix the launcher! Heroes can't take the Citadel alone. Get the rapsari on the ground.”

“We are working on it with all speed.”

“Work faster!” The assassin had struck by now, perhaps the traitor as well. How long before the Rrit connected it to him? Not long at all. “I am vulnerable here!”

Movement behind him. It was Ftzaal-Tzaatz. “You could return to orbit, brother.”

“And demonstrate my guilt by running! Are you a fool? There is nowhere to go from orbit. We can't outrun Rrit warships to the edge of the singularity.”

Ftzaal's voice stayed calm. “I make the suggestion merely to demonstrate the correctness of your current course of action.”

It was insulting to be reassured, but there was nothing he could do about it now. “Is there any word from the traitor?”

“None. There will be soon enough.”

“You heard the Patriarch's speech.”

“Of course.”

“I am opening negotiations with Stkaa Pride now. They have no love of the Rrit now that their conquest plans are thwarted. We need an ally here on the surface.”

There was a long pause from Ftzaal while he processed this. “I concur.”

Kchula returned his attention to the image on his beltcomp. “How long before the launchers are ready, Raarrgh-Captain?”

“Before your localtime nightfall, sire, at the latest.”

“Nightfall! That is far too long.”

“Shall I have the Heroes leap without their beasts?”

“Don't toy with me, Captain. Fix the problem.”

“As soon as possible, sire.”

Alarms began to sound throughout the Citadel, a deep, sonorous booming. Kchula-Tzaatz cringed involuntarily. At best they had found the assassin, at worst the traitor. In either case he was rapidly running out of time.

A spy is worth eight-to-the-fourth warriors, a traitor eight-to-the-fifth.

— Si-Rrit

Two warriors of the zitalyi in full battle armor crouched on one knee at the entrance to the Command Lair, weapons ready in their shoulders. Their faces were hidden beneath the blast shields of their helmets, but Second-Son knew that behind them their eyes were alert, searching out threats. Second-Son moved with neither haste nor delay and his manner was calm, as befitted a son of the Patriarch, but he found it difficult to quiet his mind beneath their watchful gaze. The alarms had been shut off, but the tension in the air was palpable. The inner sanctum had been breached, the heir apparent attacked in his own chamber, almost killed. The Patriarch's Guard was disgraced and Guardmaster humiliated. Second-Son rippled his ears at that thought at least. One of the guards noticed, shifted his attention slightly, and Second-Son's momentary pleasure evaporated. The guards could not, of course, know what was in his mind, but Patriarch's Telepath could, and if he had looked in Second-Son's mind then those same guards would need only a gesture from Myowr-Guardmaster to kill him on the spot. Would his father order it done? He shuddered. Meerz-Rrit was Patriarch; he would have no choice.

His skin crawled as he went up to them. They did not shoot, although their manner made it clear they would like to shoot something. They waved him into the antechamber. Beyond the inner door he heard voices raised to snarls, muffled but clear.

“They have harmed my son. I will spit their heads on pikes in Hero's Square!”

“He will recover, Patriarch.”

“That is not the point, Rrit-Conserver.”

“Hrrr. This is the most important point.”

There was a pause, then the Patriarch spoke again, slightly calmer. “You are right, of course. Nevertheless I do not intend to let the attempt go unavenged.”

Second-Son breathed deeply and entered the Command Lair. Things were not going as planned. He must be calm, remain flexible, wait for his moment. The Command Lair floor was knee deep in a holo of the Citadel, defenses highlighted in red, command units shown in green, combat units in orange, support units in blue. Guardmaster was at a command desk, snarling commands into his comlink. Meerz-Rrit stopped his pacing as Second-Son came in, lips twitching over his fangs, clearly still upset.

“Do you have suspects, Father?” Do you suspect me?

“It is not enough to suspect. I must have evidence.”

“Evidence. Who would stand to gain by First-Son's death?”

Conserver unfurled his ears. “On first inspection, only you, Black-Stripe.”

A thrill of fear ran through Second-Son. “Conserver, you insult me.” He knows!

“It is a simple fact, not an accusation.” Conserver noted Second-Son's carefully suppressed reaction. So he is involved. But he did not do this alone.

“Had I designs on my brother I would not require such a devious weapon.” Only the p'chert toxin on my w'tsai. Second-Son hoped he wouldn't have to use that weapon here and now. His father, Conserver, and Guardmaster were all consummate warriors. Surprise might gain him the first kill, and the toxin might gain him the second, but that was all he could hope for, and even if he won, the guards would come in… If First-Son had died and he slew his father he could claim their fealty and their obedience as Patriarch, but First-Son had not died. “Stkaa Pride.” He tried to keep his voice level. “Stkaa-Emissary expected your support and lost everything. He seeks vengeance.” Focus their attention elsewhere.

Meerz-Rrit turned his paw over. “No, that… that thing… This attempt took preparation, and Stkaa Pride has not had time.”

“If not them, then who else has cause for vengeance?”

Conserver narrowed his eyes. “It is not vengeance they seek, it is advantage.”

Meerz-Rrit's whiskers twitched. “Your wisdom shows, Conserver. The attack while the assembly was in session was designed to show Rrit Pride as vulnerable before the Great Pride Circle.”

“To what end, father?” Second-Son spread his ears. Confusion mimics innocence.

“Perhaps they were planning to declare open skalazaal before the assembly, and at the same instant claim first blood. To rob Rrit Pride of strakh with all the Great Prides at once, and claim the Citadel and the Patriarchy for themselves.” A thrill of fear shot through Second-Son. Did his father know, or was he guessing?

“No, the loss of First-Son would cost us strakh, but no more.” Rrit-Conserver's voice was sure.

“No pride has taken advantage.” Second-Son did his best to sound like he was puzzling out the problem.

Guardmaster stood from his console and turned. “They could not. First-Son did not die.”

“But they did not, and could not, know that. Even we did not know his condition until his slave found him.”

“The possibility frightens me.” Meerz-Rrit lashed his tail. “Skalazaal declared and the heir dead immediately afterward. Think of the strakh that would accumulate to such a bold stroke!”

“But they did not make the declaration.” Conserver stroked his whiskers. “Either some component of their plan was not in place, or the timing is coincidental and there is a deeper game here.”

“The game is deep enough already.”

Second-Son breathed deep before he spoke. “What game?” Divert their attention!

“This is the question.” Guardmaster turned his paw over. “Declaring skalazaal as the stroke falls is within the bounds of honor. Attack without declaration is not. To claim it now would bring shame and censure.”

Second-Son unfurled his ears. “Perhaps the perpetrators want to have someone else blamed for their crime.” Plant the seed of doubt before the evidence starts to grow!

“Guardmaster.” Meerz-Rrit's voice carried decision. “Have Patriarch's Telepath know the minds of our guests. We will find the guilty by the evidence of their own thoughts.”

“Most have brought their own Telepaths. Their minds will be shielded.”

“This is no obstacle for Patriarch's Telepath.”

“It will take considerable time, sire, and the results may be less than reliable.”

“Find me the guilty, Myowr-Guardmaster. Give me no more delays.”

“As you command, Patriarch.”

While they spoke, Rrit-Conserver had closed an ear to listen to his complaint, his eyes far away for an instant. “Patriarch, Ztal-Biologist has completed his investigation of the creature. His findings are ready.”

“Excellent. Guardmaster, you know what I want. Seal the Citadel until Telepath's investigation is complete. If the guilty are in my house they will not leave it. Rrit-Conserver, with me.”

“As you command.”

Outside the command lair the guards fell into formation ahead of the Patriarch, clearing the corridors and rooms ahead of him in deadly earnest. Ambush by a second assassin was not impossible, and they were determined the Patriarch not fall victim on their watch. Meerz-Rrit was impassive, the agitation he had displayed so freely in the Command Lair masterfully suppressed in the presence of inferiors. Second-Son excused himself since his father had given him no instructions. He needed time and space to think. The world was collapsing around his ears. He himself would not be subjected to Patriarch's Telepath, but Kchula-Tzaatz would be, sooner or later. When he was, Second-Son's part in the plot would be known at once, and then what? Exile, castration, death in the Arena. There were no positive outcomes.

Curse Kchula-Tzaatz! He had promised warriors, a fast coup, bloodless and simple, and the Patriarchy as his own! Had Second-Son refused the offer, reported it, he would have been a hero, at least seen as a dutiful and honorable son. Had the plot worked, this morning the Patriarchy would have been in his grasp, First-Son dead while the Great Pride Circle met, Kchula's heroes dropping from the sky even as Kchula himself declared the Honor-War. A simple slash with his toxin-edged w'tsai and his father would be out of the way, and an order sent, his first as Patriarch, for Guardmaster's defenders to stand down. With Kchula throwing his support to Second-Son as his warriors secured the Citadel, none of the Great Circle would dispute the new order. And all whom he ruled would know he was a ruler ready to enforce his edicts with his own claws.

But the Heroes had not fallen from the sky, and the assassin had given the game away without even managing to complete its task. Now what was he? A fugitive, soon to be an outcast. If he could disappear he might live as something more, if he could find a place, claim a name, or at least a function. Not on Kzinhome — no, his ear tattoos marked him — but on some far outpost. Tzaatz Pride could smuggle him to Jotok, perhaps. Kchula owed him that much!

His went straight to the Old Tower in the House of Victory, where the Pride-Patriarchs were quartered. He was not supposed to have contact with any of Tzaatz Pride; there was to be no connection between them. He went anyway, relying on his ear tattoos to take him past the guards of both Rrit and Tzaatz who stood outside the quarters. At the entrance to the area reserved for the Tzaatz delegation he found a closed door and a black-furred kzin lounging idly on a prrstet, idly carving ornate decorations on the silkwood handle of his variable sword. The other looked up casually, eyes calmly questioning. Second-Son found his pose insolent and unfurled his ears to display his tattoos.

“I must see Kchula-Tzaatz at once.”

“He is not available.” The other seemed unconcerned despite the urgency in Second-Son's tone.

“I am Second-Son-of-Meerz-Rrit, and I demand to see him at once.”

“I am Ftzaal-Tzaatz-Protector-of-Jotok. I abase myself, sire.” Ftzaal-Tzaatz made no such gesture. In other circumstances Second-Son might have insisted that his rank be recognized to the point of challenge. This time he did not. Ftzaal-Tzaatz's belt held no ears; he did not need to advertise his prowess. The Protector-of-Jotok was unmatched in single combat anywhere in the Patriarchy. “Kchula-Tzaatz is not available.”

“Where is he?”

“I cannot say.” Which meant either he didn't know or wouldn't reveal what he did.

“When will he return?”

“You are not to have contact with Kchula-Tzaatz, traitor. Leave now.” Ftzaal-Tzaatz kept carving, not even bothering to look up. Rage swept Second-Son at the insult, but he controlled himself. It was a short-lived fool who provoked points of honor with the Protector-of-Jotok. Instead he turned on his heel and left, tail lashing uncontrollably.

What was Kchula doing? Was he in his quarters after all with that lethal thug guarding the door? Negotiating with some other Great Pride? Fled already to his ship? Desperately gaining control of a badly botched assault landing?

Or was there never to be an assault landing? Was it all an elaborate trap? No, the rapsar assassin at least had been inserted. Some plan was in motion, but what it involved was no longer clear.

What was clear was, he had to get out. For now his part in the coup remained hidden. For now he had room to escape. He went directly to the main boost bay, running now. How long do I have?

He arrived out of breath, found the hangar doors shut and mag sealed, guards at the control panel. He ran up to them, ears unfurled, recognized the kzin in charge.

“Dispatcher! I require an orbit rated gravcar, at once.”

Dispatcher jumped to his feet and gave a claw-rake salute. That was gratifying, after Ftzaal-Tzaatz's grating arrogance. “I abase myself, sire. The hangar is sealed.”

“I can see that. I require the vehicle. Don't delay me.”

“Sire!” Dispatcher gave the ritual cringe. “The Citadel is sealed on the Patriarch's explicit order! I cannot in all honor submit!”

“The order does not apply to me.”

Relief flooded Dispatcher's features. “I will verify it at once, of course!” He practically dived to the comlink in order to absolve himself of responsibility.

“No!” Running would label him as guilty; to be caught running… “I will…” He breathed deep. “I will talk to my father myself.” Second-Son left the hangar, thinking furiously. There were deep tunnels to the space defense weapons, and more than once he had used them to sneak under the walls, but with the alert the tunnels would be sealed and the positions manned. With the Citadel at battle readiness there was no way out. He knew its secret passages and hideaways in intimate detail, but he had no doubt that Guardmaster knew them at least as well. There was nowhere to hide either.

There was only one answer, though it froze his liver to think of it. He had to stay close to his father, very close. That way, at least when the critical moment arrived he would be there. He breathed deeply, struggling to calm his mind, hoping that any who might scent his fear would assign it to the unknown danger they all faced.

The wise Patriarch keeps his claws sharp by keeping them sheathed till he needs them.

— Si-Rrit

Meerz-Rrit lashed his tail in impatience as he walked. Rrit-Conserver noticed his agitation but said nothing. Ahead of him two paws of zitalyi fanned out, securing each corner in the hallway along their path. The infirmary was in the heart of the oldest part of the Citadel, a curious blend of ancient stone and advanced medical technology. In a room not far away First-Son lay unconscious still, his very breath assisted by machines. Ztal-Biologist greeted them, an untidy-looking kzin with white stripes, noble born and with an incisive mind, but no true warrior. He led them to the dissection table where a pair of Whrloo were dissecting the half-melted remains of the creature in an open-topped nitrogen freezer.

“What is this thing?” Meerz-Rrit waved an angry paw at the mass of flesh.

Ztal-Biologist prodded the corpse with a long specimen probe. “It is a Jotoki rapsar, a single-purpose genetic construct. This one is an assassin.”

Rrit-Conserver raised his ears questioningly. “Rapsari have not been used for combat in eight-squared generations.”

Ztal-Biologist narrowed his eyes. “There has been no serious threat to the Line of the Patriarch in eight-squared generations.”

“Are you certain of your finding?”

“I abase myself before your knowledge, but within the bounds of my limited understanding there can be no doubt, sire.”

“State your evidence, Ztal-Biologist.” Meerz-Rrit had no time for questions.

“As you wish, Patriarch.” He made the ritual cringe. “With my assistants I have examined the specimen in detail, physically, biologically, and genetically. Physical evidence first. Observe…” He gestured at the frozen corpse with the probe. “These structures are hybrid gill/lungs. It can extract oxygen from both air and water. This capability and the water splashed in First-Son's chamber imply that it hid in his bathing pool while it waited for him. This also suggests that its entry path may have been through the Quickwater River Gate into the Central Garden, This is purely conjecture at this point, but there are three zitalyi unaccounted for. One has been missing since last night, and his post was on the Quickwater gate.” He paused, gestured again with the specimen probe. “Note here the suction disks on its soles and palms, for wall climbing.” He used the probe to peel open the shredded abdominal cavity. “Here you can see, it has no digestive system, just a large central organ filled with ready to-use ATP and proteins. Once activated the creature could live only eight to sixteen days, depending on its activity level.” He let the abdominal flaps fall closed again. “Beyond this, its body is clearly designed for swift and silent killing. Its venom is paralytic, and lethal in small doses, based on that produced by the p'chert lurker of our own South Continent, much more effective against a kzin than any alien toxin could be. Note the large, set-forward eyes and the aural sonar system based on these large external eardrums. Its skin contains Pierin chromatophores and Jotok scent-camouflage glands, allowing it to blend with its environment both visually and chemically. I believe it has conscious control of its metabolic rate, allowing it to match its infrared signature to its background as well.”

Rrit-Conserver nodded. “And the advanced state of decomposition?”

“This was a difficult puzzle to solve. Before its discovery the creature was more than half digested by its own body chemistry. This is no accident, and the mechanism is fascinating. Its cells produce a powerful digestive enzyme that is catalyzed by a second enzyme which in turn is neutralized by metabolic breakdown products and in fact binds to them so they can be excreted through its skin. When respiration or muscular activity ceases there are no more breakdown products. The catalyst builds up in the cells, triggering the enzyme which begins to digest the body. The creature is designed to self-destruct.”

“Hrrr. To what end?” Conserver fanned an ear up questioningly.

“Had it succeeded in killing First-Son and returning to the bathing pool, it would have dissolved there and left no evidence. If we take as a base assumption that it would accomplish its mission or die in the attempt, then in general it would leave little or no trace of its passing. Its toxin has also been modified to break down in the body of its victim, leaving only innocuous protein fragments behind. First-Son was fortunate he was discovered quickly.”

“We are all fortunate.” Some of the emotion had returned to Meerz-Rrit's voice.

“Continuing with the genetic evidence, I have had my techslaves sequence its genetic code, which does not correspond to any creature in the central genetic library. It shares sequences necessary for nucleated cells, bilateral body symmetry, and an internal skeletal structure. These are common to many species on many worlds. However, most of its genome has been tailored to meet its special requirements. In addition to the Jotoki and Pierin components it has features borrowed from…”

“Enough!” Meerz-Rrit cut him off. “What is your conclusion?”

“As stated, Patriarch, this is a Jotok-engineered rapsar, a biological war machine and in this case a purpose-built assassin. The evidence supports no other interpretation.”

“And who sent it?”

“Jotoki gene engineering technology is widespread throughout the Patriarchy. However, this construct displays an incredible degree of sophistication, fully equal, I believe, to those constructed in the Succession Wars when the art was at its peak. I would be surprised if this were made anywhere but Jotok itself.”

Meerz-Rrit's lips twitched over his fangs and his ears flattened. “Jotok is the homeworld of Tzaatz Pride.”

“Yes, Patriarch.”

“Kchula-Tzaatz! I'll see him flayed alive.”

Rrit-Conserver raised a paw. “Caution, Patriarch. This is not yet proof of guilt.”

Meerz-Rrit spun around to face his advisor, his tail lashing. “What more do you require?”

“This weapon points too clearly at Tzaatz Pride.”

“Who else then would use it?”

“Someone who stands to gain by seeing us attack them. We must be certain. Your vengeance is best directed at the guilty, Patriarch.”

“Enough!” The Patriarch's mouth relaxed into a fanged smile. “We shall find the guilty. You, slave!” He beckoned a Whrloo biotech.

The Whrloo buzzed into the air, eyestalks lowered in the largest gesture of submission it could make. “I am forrr yourrr serrrviccce, Patrrriarrrch.”

“Summon the Great Council to the Command lair immediately, make sure Patriarch's Telepath is there. Tightbeam Fleet-Commander to ready his ships for combat. I want an assault squadron boosting for Jotok immediately, ready for hyperspace at my command.”

“At onccce, Patrrriarrrch!” The Whrloo left, wings blurring.

“Guard-Leader!”

“Command me, Patriarch!” The senior guard raked his claws across his face.

“Extend an invitation for my cherished cousin Kchula-Tzaatz to attend my presence in the Command Lair. If he does not come voluntarily, compel him.”

“At once, Patriarch!”

Rrit-Conserver unfurled his ears. “It is a tremendous violation of the traditions to publicly put a Telepath on a Pride-Patriarch.” His tone was cautionary.

“It is a violation of protocol to attack my son, undeclared, unannounced. A coward like this deserves no consideration.”

“We do not yet know that Tzaatz Pride is the perpetrator, Patriarch. The repercussions in the Great Pride Circle…”

“The repercussions of allowing this attack to go unanswered are unacceptable. We will know soon enough who did this. If Kchula-Tzaatz is innocent I will give him a world in redress for our intrusion. If he is guilty, his pelt will hang in the Great Hall tonight.”

Adversity is the forge of courage.

— Kzin-Conserver-of-the-Reign-of-Vstari-Rrit

The assault rapsar was huge on Raarrgh-Captain's screen: a multi-legged beast plated with armored scales, a massive head with teeth that could bite through mag armor, and four long, pincer-equipped tentacles sprouting from its neck. A battlesteel troop compartment on its back was made to hold four swords of Heroes. Its reentry bubble bulged where the troop compartment was, and it was this bulge that had caught on a strut in Distant Trader's launch tube, tearing the transparent bubble and leaking oxygenated anti-acceleration fluid to boil and freeze in the vacuum, subliming away to nothingness. The beast had survived the accident, but it would die soon, as would the Heroes in the troop compartment. The only way back aboard Distant Trader for them was by way of the planet's surface. With the reentry bubble torn, they wouldn't survive the journey. In the screen Jotoki techslaves in vacskins could be seen swarming around with plasma torches, cutting away the snarled monofilament fabric to free the jam in the tight confines of the launch tube.

“How much longer?” It was not the first time he'd snapped the words into the comlink.

“Unknown, Captain. There was some damage to the launch coils. There is a circuit fault. We're tracing it now.” The screen view wobbled as Second-Engineer spoke. The display was being remoted from his helmet.

“Work with speed.” Raarrgh-Captain spit the words, as if his impatience could materially affect the outcome. “We have no time!”

“At your command, Raarrgh-Captain.” The screen flared for a moment as Second-Engineer's claws came in front of the camera in salute.

Raarrgh-Captain cut the connection, his own claws extending and retracting of their own accord. Time was passing quickly, and he was only too aware that the precision timing of the operation had been hopelessly compromised by the accident. There remained a window of opportunity to carry it out; how large that was depended on how much of the rest of the plan had already come into play, and how well Kchula-Tzaatz was able to hold things together in the Patriarch's Citadel. The failure was not his fault — the cargo ships had been modified too quickly into assault carriers; the tests with the reentry bubbles were inadequate and incomplete. Fixing it was his responsibility, however, and Kchula-Tzaatz was unlikely to remember too clearly that it was his own order for speed in the Jotok shipyards that had led to the problem.

The fur on the back of his neck bristled. Kchula might well kill him for his part in the failure, but if the plan did not succeed the Rrit certainly would kill him. As commander of the fleet element of the attack, the riches that would fall to him for a successful skalazaal against Rrit Pride were immeasurable. At the moment they also seemed poor compensation for the risk he was taking to earn them.

“Your status, Captain?” Ftzaal-Tzaatz's face was in the shipcom cube, looking as controlled as ever, but his gaze was intense. The Black Priests were never a calming influence, and Ftzaal's reputation as a killer did not help. He had a way of making one feel like a prey animal, and Raarrgh-Captain had never been comfortable in his presence.

“We are tracking down a wiring fault.”

“You understand time is of the essence.”

“Of course, sire.” He paused. “May I request a status report from the surface?”

“The Rrit have sealed the Citadel, which means my assassin has struck. The Ftz'yeer stand ready. Kchula-Tzaatz waits. I have no word on further developments.”

Raarrgh-Captain didn't ripple his ears. Kchula had no choice but to wait. “Has skalazaal been declared?”

“I will deliver the challenge scream when you launch. We must be certain it is declared, or the landers will die on the Citadel beam defenses. Pray to the Fanged God the Rrit communications are still functioning.”

“Why would they not be?”

“Consider. They must now suspect our landing is impending. If Myowr-Guardmaster were, for example, to stand down his communications center, the declaration might not reach the ears of the Citadel gunners until it was too late.”

Raarrgh-Captain laid his ears flat in shock. “Guardmaster is a kzin of substantiated honor! He would not knowingly breach the honor code.”

Ftzaal-Tzaatz considered him narrowly for a long moment. He does not understand the subtleties. It was wise to not inform him of the traitor. “Myowr-Guardmaster is honor bound to ensure his warriors know of the Honor-War once it has been declared, but that has not happened. The honor code does not expect prescience. He can act as he sees fit before the declaration without dishonor, and if, for example, he orders a communications systems check that renders him incapable of informing his warriors of our declaration until after the beam defenses have destroyed our attack at the atmospheric interface” — he flipped his tail—“this is merely unfortunate, for us. Myowr-Guardmaster will retain both his honor and the Citadel intact.”

Raarrgh-Captain's reply was cut off by the comlink. Second-Engineer's face appeared in the holoscreen. “The circuit is corrected, Raarrgh-Captain, and the obstruction is freed.”

Raarrgh-Captain snarled in satisfaction. “Clear the area, we launch immediately.”

“Yes, captain.”

The view on the screen panned and tilted as Second-Engineer recalled his slaves to the airlock. He was last through, Raarrgh-Captain was pleased to see, making sure everything was done and the area clear before he sealed the lock behind himself. He was a good leader; one day he'd command his own ship. He returned his attention to Ftzaal-Tzaatz.

“Ready to launch on your orders, sire.” The formalities must be observed.

“I will make the declaration. Launch immediately.”

“At your command.” Raarrgh-Captain made a gesture to the deck officer, who snarled something into his comlink. The deck shuddered and the assault rapsar's reentry bubble appeared in the screen and streaked away, heading around the curve of Kzinhome's globe, trailing an almost invisible mist of ice crystals from the tear in its side. Raarrgh-Captain roared the veaccrsarrr, the ancient salute to those about to die. The deck shuddered again and another reentry bubble appeared, glinting in the light of the Home Sun as it dropped toward the surface. He did not roar the krrsuk for victory. Barring grievous accident this one would see the landing, but the odds of them living to reboard Distant Trader were small indeed.

The hunter waits where he knows prey will come.

— Wisdom of the Conservers

“The Patriarch desires the attendance of Kchula-Tzaatz.” Guard-Leader stood with confidence before the black-furred noble, helmet visor raised. Behind him the armored figures of his section stood, relaxed and alert.

“My brother is not available.” Ftzaal-Tzaatz purred the words, watching Guard-Leader carefully for his reaction.

“My orders are to find him and present him to the Patriarch.”

Ftzaal shifted his stance slightly, preparing himself. “May the Fanged God guide you to success.”

“The Fanged God has guided me here.” Guard-Leader counted the odds. Eight armed zitalyi against three Tzaatz retainers and Ftzaal-Tzaatz. The retainers would be brushed aside if it came to a fight. The black killer's reputation was fearsome, but he was overmatched here, and even he was not immune to a beam pistol.

“And now he will guide you elsewhere.”

“With respect, honored guest, we must search the Tzaatz quarters before we can leave.” Guard-Leader's voice was steady, his eyes fixed on Ftzaal's, making it clear that he would observe the formalities, but that he was not leaving until his mission was complete.

“With respect, Guard-Leader, I cannot allow this violation of Tzaatz Pride sovereign domain.”

“I offer the Patriarch's apologies, but with the weight of his command, I must insist.” Guard-Leader put his hand to his sidearm.

Ftzaal-Tzaatz screamed and leapt, his variable sword suddenly in his hand. Guard-Leader jerked his beamer up to fire, but there was a sharp pain in his upper arm and nothing happened when he tried to pull the trigger. An instant later he was on the ground, staring up at the Black Priest's slice-wire. Behind Ftzaal he saw a zitalyi leap, and he started to roll clear so he could attack when the other went down. Ftzaal spun in place, his slice-wire blurring, and the zitalyi was cut in half, blood and viscera splashing. The black warrior completed his turn and Guard-Leader finished his roll still looking up at his blade. He realized the reason his beamer hadn't fired was that Ftzaal-Tzaatz had amputated his arm.

Ftzaal stood over the prostrate body looking down, his mouth a fanged smile. The battle had taken instants, and the other seven Rrit had died in utter silence. Not a shot had been fired to warn of their fate. “Zitalyi.” There was contempt in his voice as he toed the body. “I would have expected better.”

“Kill me then, black sthondat,” Guard-Leader snarled his defiance.

Ftzaal made a gesture, and one of his warriors knelt to bind the amputated stump where Guard-Leader's arm had been. “No, you have a job to do for me.” He kicked the beamer aside, and the severed arm went with it. “Tzaatz Pride claims this fortress and this world with it. This is skalazaal, fang and claw. Take that to Guardmaster.” He backed up, keeping his variable sword leveled, meeting the wounded kzin's gaze with his own. “Get up. Go quickly.” He gestured, and Guard-Leader backed out, then ran.

Ftzaal turned to his warriors. “Seal us off. Skalazaal has been declared. The landers are on the way.” He looked to the door to his brother's chambers. Kchula was a coward, unworthy of his name. Nevertheless, he would serve his purpose. And I am bound by my oath. Ftzaal let his mouth relax into a fanged smile. They were committed now. That was good. He was tired of waiting. He turned to the zitalyi he'd cut in half and knelt to pull off his helmet. Two quick cuts with the force-wire of his variable sword and he had two ears. He wouldn't wear them himself, but no one else would be able to claim his prize.

Courage is like love, it must have hope for nourishment.

— Napoleon Bonaparte

“What's that?” Kefan Brasseur pointed out the window at a series of brilliant streaks across the sky. Behind him Tskombe and Cherenkova were debating the implications of the Patriarch's speech. He had taken little heed of their conversation. They were military, obsessed with the military implications in which he had only passing interest. More importantly, they did not understand the kzinti, did not understand the cultural context the Patriarchy existed in, and that made their speculations mere noise.

Ayla Cherenkova looked up from the point she was making, then came to see herself. “Reentry tracks. Lots of them.”

Tskombe joined them. “It looks like an invasion.”

She shook her head. “It can't be. We're here to negotiate.”

“Who says it's us?”

She shrugged. “Who else could it be?”

“Slave race rebellion. Those have happened before.” Brasseur's eyes were big as he watched the lengthening streaks.

Tskombe nodded. “Or some species we've never heard of. The Patriarchy is big.”

“And maybe it's the UN and we're just here as an expendable diversion.”

Brasseur shook his head. “They wouldn't do that.”

Tskombe raised an eyebrow. “Wouldn't they?” Brasseur looked away, realizing he was now the one making judgments without a cultural context.

Cherenkova smiled a wry smile. “Ours is but to do or die.”

Alarms sounded in the distance and, segment by segment, the outer fortress wall and its turrets blinked from burnished copper to the silvery mirror of activated mag armor.

“It is an invasion.” Brasseur breathed the words, not quite willing to believe what he was watching.

Cherenkova nodded. “Whoever it is, is going to win.”

Brasseur looked at her. “How do you know?”

“There's no defensive fire. Those are all controlled reentries, all on the same trajectory. There's no fireballs, no ships falling out of orbit.”

The researcher shook his head. “Kzinhome is too well defended. The ratcats wouldn't give up without a fight.”

She shrugged. “You're watching it happen.”

Brasseur nodded. “This is what it must have been like at K'Shai, when the kzinti first came.”

“K'Shai?”

“Wunderland. It's what they call Alpha Centauri system.”

She nodded and stood silently, watching the glowing streaks reach out for them like long fingers, seeming to accelerate as they grew closer and the parallax changed. As they approached they separated into three groups, each clearly targeted to land close to the Citadel. The Citadel turrets were all operational now, blank mirror balls with only the exit apertures of heavy beamers showing. They traversed slowly as they tracked the incoming ships. Why aren't they firing?

“Perhaps it's an exercise, a demonstration for our benefit.” Tskombe voiced her thoughts.

“After the Patriarch's speech today? If it's a demonstration it isn't for us.”

“What should we do?” Brasseur was worried now. He had seen many duels, but he hadn't seen battle before.

Tskombe spread his broad hands. “What can we do? We wait, keep our heads down, stay out of the crossfire.”

They watched. With startling suddenness the closest streak resolved itself into a glowing silver cross streaming incandescent gases. The cross grew until it was distinguishable as an assault lander, the first in a formation of four, followed by a cluster of smaller objects that could only be infantry drop capsules.

And then they were overhead and gone. Tskombe had a brief glimpse of the blunt wedges, stub wings glowing white hot on their leading edges. They were decelerating hard but still supersonic a few hundred meters up. Instinctively he stuck his fingers in his ears, a fraction of a second before the distinctive wham wham of their shock waves shook the building. The inner fortress had no mag armor. Tskombe began to wish that it did, but the ancient stones had stood greater tests in their time, unshifted. Across the room Brasseur was holding his head in pain, but Ayla had got her ears covered in time — good reflexes. She was smart and capable, and he was quite sure she could be relied on in a pinch. She looked no older than thirty, and even if she were five years older that she must be an officer of some ability to have been promoted to command rank so early. Her fitted uniform showed off her lean figure to advantage, and the way her cheeks flushed when she was passionate, as they had in the interview with Meerz-Rrit, the way she pursed her lips when she was thinking, as she was doing now, made his body respond in a way it hadn't since he was a teenager. It was a reaction he concealed carefully. The middle of a mission was not the time to be thinking of seduction. There would be time afterward, perhaps, on the way home in Crusader, in the brief interlude before new assignments pulled them light-years apart. Maybe there would be more time, a few weeks perhaps, if they were delayed in debriefing. She raised her head to follow the drama playing out in the sky overhead, and the sun spun gold in a twist of hair sprung loose against the delicate curve of her neck. He resisted the urge to push it back into place, a gesture too intimate for their professional relationship. He hoped there would be even more time than a few weeks.

And still no defensive fire from the ground. He returned his attention to the window and a problem more pressing than repressed desire. In the courtyard far below a group of kzinti were wheeling out some huge wooden contraption, a heavy beam bent backward over a truss support, black torsion bands showing strain.

A catapult? He looked again, certain he was missing something. More kzinti were ripping heavy stones from the garden arrangement; the activity had the look of frantic improvisation. The catapult was literally a museum piece; he had seen it on display in the Hall of Weapons. It made no sense.

He was about to ask Brasseur about that when footsteps pounded in the hall. The humans wheeled as one to see Yiao-Rrit bound into the room, a brace of weapons clanking on his back, a pile of segmented ceramic armor in his arms.

He dumped the gear on the floor in a loud clatter. “We must leave at once. Arm yourselves.”

“What's happening?” Brasseur said it for all of them.

Skalazaal. Tzaatz Pride is attacking.” He dumped the pile of armor on the floor.

“Is there danger?”

“You have my guarantee of safe passage; you carry my brother's sigil. This may no longer be sufficient. My life is now your protection, but should that fail you will need to defend yourselves.”

He handed beam pistols to Brasseur and Ayla, a magrifle to Tskombe. The weapons were built to kzin scale, and even the sidearms were heavy and awkward. The magrifle was huge even in Tskombe's large hands, Ayla noticed. The drive coils along the meter-long barrel were fat and powerful. They would accelerate its crystal iron projectiles to transsonic speeds in that meter, and those projectiles were big if the size of the magazine was any measure. They'd probably penetrate just about anything, but she didn't want to think about the recoil.

Tskombe was evidently thinking along the same lines. He held the weapon back to Yiao-Rrit.

“This is better in your hands.”

The Patriarch's brother waved it away. “The traditions of skalazaal forbid me the use of energy weapons.”

“This is a projectile weapon.”

“The projectile is not launched by my own muscles. It is an energy weapon. Come, time is short.” He led them out of the room and down a spiral staircase to the main floor at a run. They trailed him, awkwardly carrying the heavy equipment. An explosion shook the ground and he held up a paw to guide them into another room, spacious and well decorated, but windowless.

“You will be safe here for a time at least. Wait here. Don your armor, learn your weapons. I must learn more; I will return when I have.” He bounded into the hallway beyond without waiting for a reply.

Ayla examined her beamer, identified the safety and the trigger. It had sights, but the eye relief was wrong. The grip was too large for her hands and the trigger was out of reach if she held it as it was designed to be held. The best compromise was to treat it as a short rifle, with one hand on the barrel and the other only half-holding the grip, her wrist swiveled far enough forward to activate the trigger. It wasn't a perfect solution, and the barrel would get too hot to hang on to if she had to do a lot of shooting, but it would serve. She considered firing a test shot, then decided against it. She didn't have enough information about the situation to risk it. Instead she helped Brasseur, showing him how to activate and fire his own weapon.

“What's skalazaal mean?” She showed him where to put his hands so he wouldn't snap the safety over by accident.

“The literal translation is 'Honor-War.'” He fumbled with the pistol, trying to find a comfortable grip. “It's a formally declared conflict between Great Prides.”

“And what's a Great Pride?” She put her armor on while he answered — heavy chestpieces and protective plates for shoulders and arms.

“The major political division of the Patriarchy is along clan lines, prides. Who belongs to a pride is a complex question, and any individual can usually legitimately claim to belong to one of several groups by reason of relatedness, skill set, or accomplishment.”

“I see…” She didn't. She had taken the smallest of the three armor sets. Even with the adjustment straps cinched all the way up it was loose and heavy, but it was better than nothing.

“A Great Pride is a pride of prides.” Brasseur was lecturing as though he were back in front of his class at the university. “Average genetic relatedness within a pride is about point one five to point two, somewhat closer than second cousins, although between any pair of individuals it can go anywhere from basically zero to point five, parent/child or full siblings, or higher with consanguinity. A Great Pride is a group of prides who share a set of common bloodlines and who traditionally exchange mates among themselves. Typically it has an average relatedness of point oh five to point one five.”

“So what does this have to do with what's happening?” Tskombe had struggled into his armor. The fit wasn't as bad as it might have been. It must have been built for small kzinti, maybe youngsters.

“It's essentially a feudal system based on bloodlines. Individual kzinti swear loyalty to their subcommander, who swears loyalty to his commander, who swears loyalty to his pride, which takes its identity from a Great Pride, and of course all the Great Prides owe fealty to the Patriarch.”

“And the Honor-War?” Ayla hung the Patriarch's sigil back over her chestplate by its blue ribbon. It might yet prove important to display it.

“At any level there can be conflict. Their social system recognizes this and controls it. Between individuals, there is skatosh, the challenge duel. Between Great Prides, it's skalazaal, and of course there are intermediate forms. There are strict rules of honor as to the forms of combat and the weapons which can be used, as expressed in their traditions.”

Ayla hefted her beamer. “I don't think I'll let tradition stop me from using every weapon I can get my hands on.”

“Tradition carries the force of law with the kzinti, or more. It doesn't apply to us; we're animals.”

“So what does that mean?” Cherenkova's voice carried an edge.

“It means we're caught in the middle of a war, Captain.” Tskombe interrupted as he chambered a round into the heavy mag rifle. “It means we're probably going to die.”

Tskombe in alien battle armor seemed transformed from man into iconic warrior, ready to fight and win or die trying, and his demeanor gave weight to his words. She tightened her jaw and said nothing. Brasseur's face showed fear as the reality sank in, and he looked awkward in his own protective gear. He had been looking at this as an academic exercise, she realized. For him the entire trip was a chance to get closer to his research subject. The thought that his studies might prove lethal had never occurred to him. How did he survive so long on W'kkai?

Time began to stretch and conversation lagged among them, the silence interrupted only by the occasional snarled command from the catapult team outside, as they winched down the arm and loaded it. Tskombe, impassive, lay down behind his weapon to cover the entrance. Brasseur paced. Ayla settled herself onto a huge suspended couch, a prrstet the kzinti called it, and watched, beamer at the ready. It was so large she had to climb onto it, feeling like Alice in Wonderland. The entire situation had a dreamlike quality to it. There was nothing to do but wait.

The dead are no one's ally.

— Si-Rrit

The Command Lair holo display showed Kzinhome from orbit. Blue trails tracked assault landers and drop troops along their insertion trajectories. Meerz-Rrit paced back and forth as he watched them advance. A yellow target icon glowed around the head of every trail, and around Kzinhome's globe green dots marked space defense systems, mass drivers, and gamma ray laser domes. Green flashed red as the targets came into the engagement horizon of each weapon, indicating it was locked on and ready to cut the attackers from the sky.

All of them useless in skalazaal. Meerz-Rrit cursed, and across the room Second-Son watched him warily. The invaders would touch down unhindered by anything but atmospheric friction. The battle would be decided hand to hand. Tzaatz Pride had made its declaration even as they launched their attack.

It was a bold stroke, and it had thrown the Citadel into chaos preparing to receive the coming assault. He had to grant daring to Kchula-Tzaatz, to make such a move while he himself was in the stronghold of the enemy. Kchula had earned himself a fighting death in the arena for that, at least.

Meerz-Rrit snarled under his breath. But it would be death, no question. Where was the sthondat? Guard-Leader should have returned with him by now. He was tempted to com Myowr-Guardmaster to find out, but the leader of the zitalyi had bigger things to worry about right now. A good leader gave his subordinates tasks and let them carry them out. Kchula himself was a distraction now anyway. He could not leave the citadel, and despite the boldness of his stroke, he would not win. The Citadel had been built to withstand siege long before energy weapons were invented.

“Second-Son! Citadel defenses, primary display.” He kept his voice calm. Second-Son positively stank of fear and needed steadying.

“Yes, sire!” Second-Son manipulated the command console and the display changed to an overhead view of the fortress. Meerz-Rrit had considered sending Second-Son out to lead a force of defenders with the rest of his inner circle, but his son's fear ruled that out.

And he did need someone to run the displays. Let him learn command by his father's side, gain confidence here. He was young yet for leadership, and if he was not all Meerz-Rrit might hope for, he was still blood.

“Zoom on the House of Victory.” Time to find out why Kchula was not yet in his presence. Patriarch's Telepath would take his battle plans right out of his mind. And where is Patriarch's Telepath?

Second-Son zoomed the display as directed, but his reply was interrupted by a buzzing from the door. A Whrloo flew in.

“Patrrriarrrch'sss Telepath doesss not commme, Patrrriarrch.” The Whrloo hovered in front of Meerz-Rrit, eyestalks lowered.

“What?”

“Parrrdon this onnne. He sssennndsss thisss messssage. Kchullla-Tzzzatzzz isss invadinnng and willll trrriummmph. The traitorrr is Sssecond-Ssson. He hasss donnne allll he cannn nnnowww forrr yourrr linnnne.”

It took a moment for the Whrloo's speech to register. “Second-Son!” Kchula-Tzaatz he knew about, but Second-Son! Meerz-Rrit whirled but Second-Son was already in midleap, his scream echoing from the walls of the Command Lair, w'tsai extended. Meerz-Rrit dropped to the floor, kicking out to disembowel. The surprise left him off balance and the kick merely ripped the skin on Second-Son's flank. It was enough to deflect the w'tsai though, and rather than plunging into his belly it sliced his thigh. He rolled to his feet, adopted the v'dak stance, and saw his opening, but fire burned from the wound up his leg and icy numbness followed it. His vision blurred and he couldn't leap.

Second-Son regained his feet, breathing hard, his father's blood on the edge of his blade. “Feel the sting of the p'chert, Meerz-Rrit.”

The leg collapsed and Meerz-Rrit fell to the floor, the room darkening before his eyes as the neurotoxin took hold.

“You dishonorable sthondat.”

“Patriarch now, father.”

“First-Son still lives.” Meerz-Rrit spat the words.

“Not for long.” Contempt.

Rage swept Meerz-Rrit, and it gave him the strength to leap one last time. Second-Son wasn't ready for it, and his father's impact sent him sprawling, a vicious slash across his chest. In a panic he stabbed out with the w'tsai but the blade skidded off Meerz-Rrit's own w'tsai, still on his belt, and then his father's fangs were at his throat. Unable to breathe, he slashed wildly, this time connecting, driving the weapon deep into the soft belly.

Meerz-Rrit gave a strangled cry and collapsed on top of him. With shaking fingers Second-Son pried his father's dead jaws from his throat and struggled from under the corpse. Panting, he stood over the body, exultation warring with horror and fear in his liver. He had done it, claimed his right as Patriarch with his own claws. His father lay dead at his feet, and whatever the future would bring, it was no longer the security he would have known as zar'ameer to First-Son. He trembled as the implications of what he had done came over him.

And his father! He knelt by the body, suddenly wishing for a sign of life. Memories of his kittenhood flooded back unbidden. Meerz-Rrit had always been a distant figure to him, burdened as he was by the responsibilities of his office, but he was a presence as constant as the very stones of the Inner Citadel. To have changed that fact of life was…

Enough! There was much to do and little time to do it in. But weren't those Meerz-Rrit's own words, when the time for thought gave way to the need for action? The sorrow would not leave his liver. He looked away from the body. First he must camouflage the crime, and then kill First-Son. A moment ago he would have exulted at the thought, driven by jealousy, but now he felt a strange reluctance. Meerz-Rrit's other sons were much younger, still spotted kits at their mother's teats. Only First-Son had always been there in his life, first a model for his behavior, then a foil for his thwarted ambition.

No, he no longer had the desire to see his brother dead, but now he had the need. If he wanted to live, Elder-Brother had to die. He flattened his ears. No time now for reflection. He had to act, before anyone discovered his crime and his dishonor. There were guards outside the Command Lair who could enter at any moment. He suddenly became aware that the Whrloo had left, fled during the fight. It was danger and opportunity, witness and scapegoat. He ran out to the corridor.

“Treachery! Meerz-Rrit is dead. Kill that Whrloo!” None of it was even a lie.

“Sire!” At once the zitalyi were bounding down the corridor after the hapless slave. Second-Son's mouth relaxed into a fanged smile, and he turned and loped toward the infirmary where First-Son lay.

…and his Patriarch commanded Chmee to hold the gate. And so when Vstari of the Wild Pride led eight-to-the-fifth Heroes to the fortress and demanded surrender, Chmee refused them.

— The Warlord Chmee at the Pillars

The herd grandmother bellowed in rage and Pouncer ran like a scalded kitten across the burning desert. Behind him the thundering tuskvor stretched from horizon to horizon, the dust of their passage rising to form a solid orange wall behind him. Ahead was nothing but sand as far as the eye could see, and it burned his pads as he ran. Fear drove his legs faster and faster but he wasn't gaining ground. The dry air burned thirst into his throat, and his eyes watered with the hot wind. The thunder grew inexorably closer, and though he seemed to float between each step, he was going to be trampled. The grandmother bellowed again and again, the booming cries deafening, coming in steady, urgent rhythm. He looked back and saw her tusks coming for him, and in that instant he tripped, sailing in slow motion over the sand as time seemed to contract, stretching the moment into infinity, and then he was tumbling, rolling, and the herd was overrunning him, tree trunk legs pounding down to crush him into the desert floor. He lay on his back, helplessly watching as the grandmother's boulder-sized foot blotted out the sky, coming down like a drop forge.

She bellowed. The alarms were going off. She bellowed. His eyes shot open.

He was in the infirmary, in a sleepfield, white walls, medical instruments, a spray infuser strapped to a shaved patch on his upper arm. How had he got there? The alarms kept blaring rhythmically. What was happening?

A vague orange shape in front of him. “Chief Medical Officer!” His head swam with the effort of speech.

“Sire! You're awake.”

“Why are the alarms going off?”

“It isn't clear. There's an attack, Heroes landing.”

“The tuskvor…”

“You've been unconscious. There was a creature, a rapsar, in your chamber.”

Gray skin, toxic fangs dripping, claws extended to kill… Had that been him? The memories flooded back murky and indistinct.

“Where is my father?”

“In the Command Lair.”

“Is it the kz'eerkti? I don't hear the lasers.” Was it sabotage? A monkey attack was far from the worst possibility. What was that thing that attacked me?

“They haven't fired. I don't know why.”

Pouncer rolled out of the sleepfield and stood. Immediately the world spun around and he nearly fell. Chief Medical Officer grabbed his arm to steady him and guided him back onto the sleepfield.

“Your body has been cleansed of the neurotoxin but you're still injured. You need rest.”

Pouncer shook himself and struggled to stand again. “This is my father's Citadel, and mine. I'm going to defend it.”

“Sire, there's nothing you can do…”

“I can carry a beamer. I can hold a position.”

“Sire…”

Pouncer silenced him with a gesture, gathered his concentration and staggered out of the infirmary. He paused in the hallway, leaning against the wall and breathing heavily while his vision cleared. The wounds in his shoulders had been force-healed, but the new flesh still throbbed painfully. His first thought was to join his father in the Command Lair, but he paused. There was nothing useful he could add to the direction Rrit-Conserver and his father were giving the defenders. No, better to find Guardmaster and help him lead the close defense where the Heroes of the zitalyi could see him. He was not the warrior his father was, not the diplomat, not the strategist, but he could lead from the front.

Weapons first! He headed for the arena. By the time he reached it his head had cleared and his muscles were responding better. The alarms had shut off, but the citadel was eerily deserted and he saw only one Pierin slave, its exoskin blue with fear as it scuttled to cower beneath a stairwell. Once there it contracted into a ball, its skin roughening as its chromatophores turned gray to match the shadows it hid in. Slaves lacked the liver for battle; that was why they were slaves. Distant, heavy booms shook the structure's foundations, the sonic signature of assault landers, landing at Sea-of-Stars spaceport from the direction. There were no other sounds of battle. Why weren't the defense weapons firing? The arena was empty, but the weapons cabinet recognized him and opened. He grabbed up his mag armor and a beamer, headed for the Patriarch's Gate, putting it on as he ran.

The gate was open, the courtyard vacant. Outside twice-eight-cubed Heroes in Rrit colors were standing in massed rank and column as though on parade. That made no sense. Why weren't the perimeter weapons manned? He arrived panting, found Myowr-Guardmaster marshaling the zitalyi with frantic energy.

“Guardmaster! What is happening?”

His mentor turned as he came up, eyes widening. “Sire! No!”

“What is it?”

“Drop your beamer! It's skalazaal!”

“What?”

“Tzaatz Pride has declared skalazaal. You must use your own strength.”

As Guardmaster said it, Pouncer realized that the zitalyi were carrying variable swords only. That explained the close-ranked formation, the empty guardposts, the lack of defensive fire. Cursing, he threw the heavy beamer to the ground. He had not thought to bring a variable sword.

“Sire, take this.” Guardmaster tossed him his w'tsai. It was a casual enough gesture, nothing more than practical in face of imminent battle, but Pouncer did not miss the significance of the act. A w'tsai came with the earning of a name. That Guardmaster had chosen to give it to him now…

“I am honored, Myowr-Guardmaster, but I have not earned…”

“You will earn it today.” Guardmaster's snarl was grim.

A meteor streaked toward him, brilliant even in the daytime sky. Seconds later another followed it, simultaneous with the crack of the first one's sonic boom. In seconds the sky was full of flashes, and Pouncer stopped to watch the display. A flurry of drop troops fell out of the sky opposite the gate, scorched reentry bubbles cracking open as they touched down. They scrambled to secure a perimeter, and moments later an assault lander came in under maximum deceleration, still moving fast enough that its heavy skids dug long grooves in the soil. Its assault ramp blew down even as another came down beside it.

An arrow soared toward the attackers from the battlements behind them, falling far short. A few others followed.

“Hold your fire!” Myowr-Guardmaster's shout was harsh. “Wait till they close.”

Pouncer grabbed his arm and pointed. “What in the name of the Fanged God is that?”

Something was coming down the lander's assault ramp, huge and reptilian, ponderously armored, flanked by Tzaatz warriors in mag armor, variable swords held ready. Guardmaster's eyes widened and his lips curled away from his fangs. “More rapsari, like the thing that attacked you.”

“They violate the traditions!”

“Hunting sherreks are allowed, and trained metzrr, and siege weapons drawn by zitragor.” Guardmaster's voice was derisive beneath his tension. “Why not these?”

First-Son snorted in disgust. “Tzaatz Pride plays games with its honor before the Great Pride Circle.”

“Tomorrow the Great Pride Circle will sit in judgment on Kchula-Tzaatz. Today…” Guardmaster nodded toward the immense war beast. Its handlers had turned it to face the Citadel. Behind it a second beast was emerging from the assault lander. “…today we fight these.”

“This requires a judgment of the Circle immediately! The battle must be stopped.” Even as he said it Pouncer realized the gulf between what should be and what was.

“The battle will not be stopped, sire, and the way to ensure victory before the Pride-Patriarchs is to be victorious now.” He raised his voice to an angry snarl directed at the waiting zitalyi formation. “Hold your positions! Dress the line on the right! They'll come to us soon enough.”

As if on cue the beasts began to advance, each one flanked by a phalanx of Tzaatz warriors in battle armor. Smaller rapsari were formed up behind the leaders, each still twice the size of a full-grown kzin.

“By the Fanged God…” A zitalyi beside Pouncer tightened his grip on his variable sword as the enemy formation approached, his voice awed.

“Steady!” Guardmaster snarled the word.

“What are we waiting for?” Pouncer asked.

“We have a surprise for these honorless curs.” Guardmaster's voice was hushed. “Wait for it…”

The enemy advanced, a solid wall of muscle, armor, and blades. Pouncer could hear the crunch of their footsteps, hear the rapsari snarling.

“Wait for it…” the moment seemed drawn out forever. Pouncer's claws extended of their own accord as he fought down the urge to scream and leap against the oncoming horde. What was Guardmaster waiting for?

“Nets now!” Guardmaster's voice cut the air like a knife and the netgunners atop the Citadel battlements fired, filling the air with spin-stabilized monofilament nets to entangle the attackers. The salvo ended and Guardmaster paused for a beat, two beats, to let confusion grow in the attacking ranks. “Archers now!” A storm of arrows followed the nets to kill those too entangled to dodge out of the way. “Skirmishers forward!” He swung his variable sword overhead. From the Citadel's battlements leapt swarms of lightly armored zitalyi. Their collective scream drowned out the whine of their grav belts; their variable swords glinted as they swept to attack. The advancing Tzaatz ranks were thrown into disarray by the arrow storm, but the Tzaatz had their own archery, insectoid creatures with modified middle legs that cocked and fired the heavy ballistae and repeating crossbows mounted on their backs as fast as their kzinti handlers could feed the arrows into them. A counter-fusillade rose up against the leapers. Immediately behind it Tzaatz grav skirmishers leapt to intercept. The skirmishers were difficult targets in midair, and most of the missiles went wide or glanced off mag-reinforced crystal iron armor, but some struck home and not all the zitalyi were alive when the Tzaatz warriors ran into them in midair. There were screams of rage and agony, and the clash of metal on metal. Bodies and body parts fell from the flurry, but the zitalyi had leapt from a height and had the momentum advantage. The huge rapsari snapped at the closest ones as they landed. The skirmishers' casualties were heavy, but those who survived to land destroyed the cohesion of the attacker's front line in their attack.

Zitalyi! In battle line, advance!” The Patriarch's guard stepped off as one at Guardmaster's command, and Pouncer felt a thrill run through him at the sight of the disciplined ranks moving to battle.

“Now we have them!” There was grim satisfaction in Guardmaster's voice. “First-Son, stay by my side.”

“As you command, Guardmaster.” Pouncer tightened his grip on his w'tsai.

Ahead of them the first wave of zitalyi closed with the disordered Tzaatz at a steady lope. Guardmaster moved between the first and second waves, and Pouncer went with him. The close-ranked formation they were using was a ceremonial anachronism for a race that had practiced space warfare for more generations than could be remembered. A unit trained to use the accurate, lethal, and long-range weapons gifted by technology would have been hopelessly disorganized in the situation, but the Patriarch's Guard were as well drilled in close combat and close-order maneuver as they were in more advanced forms of force application. Pouncer had long thought the hopelessly obsolete parade-ground evolutions the zitalyi practiced a complete waste of time and effort in an age of conversion weapons. Now he realized the true worth of such training, and his liver thrilled as he watched his warriors move as a single body with a single purpose. Sunlight flashed from their mag armor as snarled commands shot back and forth. Ahead of them the Tzaatz officers tried desperately to reorient their shattered formations to receive the attack, but the surviving Rrit skirmishers were still fighting hard. As Pouncer watched, one of them leapt for a leashed trio of small, vicious rapsari. He dodged past their snapping jaws to slice at their handler and all five went down in a snarling pile of tangled limbs, adding to the confusion in the enemy ranks.

“First wave, Charge!” Guardmaster roared the words. The leading zitalyi leapt as one, their combined kill scream echoing from the Citadel walls and drowning out the sounds of battle. Eight-cubed warriors hit the Tzaatz battle line at once, carving their way forward with remorseless efficiency. Scream-snarls and the scent of blood filled the air, and Pouncer found himself thirsting for the kill. He became so caught up in the drama unfolding before him that he almost didn't notice the Tzaatz grav skirmisher who had leapt the struggling front ranks and touched down in front of him, variable sword raised for the killing stroke. The slicewire came down and Pouncer parried instinctively with his w'tsai, only to see it cut in half by the molecular-thin, magnetically stiffened blade. His instincts still saved his life, deflecting the stroke enough that the slicewire glanced off the mag armor on his shoulder instead of penetrating the articulation at his neck. He dropped to the ground and lashed out with a spin kick, connecting with his opponent's elbow. The variable sword went flying and his opponent spun helplessly, robbed of purchase by his still-activated grav belt. Pouncer rolled to his feet and followed up his advantage with a scream and a g'rrtz high kick. The Tzaatz warrior's head snapped back and lolled, and his body sagged limply, held up only by its grav belt.

A hand on his shoulder… Pouncer wheeled to find Guardmaster standing behind him. “Well done, he would have killed me.” All at once he realized the skirmisher had not been trying for him but for the force commander. The Tzaatz were not without courage themselves.

“I just reacted…”

“You did well. You have my blood-debt.” Guardmaster turned back to the battle before Pouncer could reply, snarling into his comlink. “Greow-Formation-Leader! Flank guards out now!”

On the right a formation of rapsari were moving to take the zitalyi in the flank. These were reptilian raiders, bipedal on powerful legs with a heavy counterbalancing tail, dagger teeth in well-muscled jaws, taller than a kzin, more heavily built, but still far faster than the lumbering assaulters with the main Tzaatz attack force. They were mag-armored themselves, and their talons were augmented with multiple slicewires. Their riders carried crossbows and in moments they would be enveloping the Rrit line. As Pouncer watched, Greow-Formation-Leader pivoted his unit to face the new threat. The zitalyi knelt to receive the charge, slicewires fully extended and canted forward to present the attackers with a fence of blades. The advancing rapsari stopped short: stalemate. For a long moment it looked like the flank attack had been countered, but then a flurry of arrows from the launcher rapsari in depth came raining in on the defenders. Zitalyi fell where they stood, and Greow himself was cut down by one of the crystal iron missiles. Already the launchers were preparing another salvo. The Tzaatz would destroy the blocking force from a distance, then the raiders would sweep in and wreak havoc with the main Rrit formation. Without thought Pouncer grabbed up his recent opponent's dropped variable sword and leapt to attack. Spinning around he spotted one of his father's commanders. He knew what had to be done.

“Kdar-Leader, Second Formation! With me! Kill the handlers!” Without hesitation he leapt toward the enemy. Attack screams rose behind him and he knew Kdar's Heroes were following. They would succeed, or they would all die in the effort.

His charge took him through the space between Greow-Formation-Leader's left and right forward sections. The Tzaatz couldn't use their ranged weapons when both sides were engaged at close quarters. A few leaps took him to the closest raider as a bolt from the rider's crossbow flashed past him. The beast snapped at him with jaws strong enough to crush him through his armor, but he dodged to one side and struck at the articulation on its knee. Behind him he could hear the attack screams as Greow-Formation-Leader's warriors leapt to attack with him. The rapsar's rider stabbed at him and he dodged again. His own blow had glanced off the beast's leg armor, and now it kicked at him with hind claws the length of his forearm. His belly armor saved him from disembowelment, but the force of the blow sent him flying backward, just as another raider's jaws closed on the space were his head had been. A Tzaatz net flew past and wrapped itself around the rapsar's leg. It tripped and fell, crushing its rider, who screamed in agony. The helpless rapsar snapped impotently and Pouncer found himself on his back, somehow now amongst the front rank of attacking Greow-Formation-Leader's zitalyi. A battle-scarred face in Rrit-liveried armor looked down at him as he rolled to his feet.

“First Sergeant!”

“Command me, sire!”

“Take your four-sword to the right flank. Make them turn, don't let them build momentum.”

“At once, sire!” First Sergeant started yelling commands as Pouncer rejoined the battle. The Tzaatz flankers had the advantage of momentum with their beasts, but if Pouncer's small force could keep them disorganized then they couldn't use it.

He was dimly aware of the clash of arms behind him. Myowr-Guardmaster's warriors were heavily engaged against the huge assault rapsari, but he could not spare the instant it would have taken to look. Immediately in front of him a raider rapsar snapped its jaws and a Rrit warrior died in gurgling agony. Pouncer stepped forward and brought his sword up. The beast crashed down, its severed aorta spraying him with hot blood. Its rider swung at him as he fell, but the blow went wide and on the backswing Pouncer caught him under the shoulder, cleanly amputating his sword arm. He moved to finish his victim, but a blow came out of nowhere and staggered him sideways. One of the reptilian raiders, wounded and out of control, had tripped on him and fallen, crushing him to the ground and pinning him beneath its bulk. He struggled to free himself, fighting to breathe under its crushing weight. A shadow fell across him and he looked up to see a Tzaatz warrior scream snarling in triumph, variable sword upraised to deliver the killing blow. Fear and rage spiked in his system and he lashed out with his one free arm in a desperate attempt to unbalance his attacker. He had no leverage and the variable sword came down. He would have been beheaded, but the Tzaatz's marker ball skidded off the rapsar's armored flank, and the slicewire just glanced off Pouncer's helmet. The Tzaatz screamed and swung again, only to die as a zitalyi leapt out of nowhere and ran him through his belly articulation. The body dropped, spilling blood and guts, and then the zitalyi was gone again, spinning away to engage another raider-mounted Tzaatz.

Pouncer struggled free of the encumbering body and rolled to his feet, adopting v'dak stance, instantly ready for another attack. There was none, and he realized that the flank attack had been stopped. The bodies of warriors and raider rapsari alike lay broken in the dirt, and a single wounded raider was running for the forest, shrieking in animal pain and dragging its dead rider in its tangled harness. Of the original twice-eight-squared of Greow-Formation-Leader's force, only a pawful remained standing, a bare half sword. The action had taken only heartbeats. There was no time to rest. Fear is death. Rage is death. Pouncer felt only exhaustion, but that too could be fatal.

A crystal iron ballista bolt thunked into the ground an armspan in front of him. He jumped and turned around, assessing the situation. The Tzaatz missile beasts were again finding the range. To his right Kdar-Leader was deploying his depth elements as flank guards. Farther away on the right flank a group of heavy-bloated, six-legged rapsari waddled toward the Citadel walls, guarded by a swarm of raiders and out of arrow range. The mounted flank attack had been meant to cover their advance. The function of the fat waddlers was unclear, but the way was now open to attack them. Pouncer looked around for more zitalyi to rally, but they were all fully engaged. The Rrit had nothing left to attack them with. Guardmaster would have to commit his depth formation from reserve or let the attackers reach the walls unchallenged.

A hail of steel balls as large as his head caromed through the remnants of his formation, one of them shattering the corpse of a rapsar raider directly in front of Pouncer. One thing was clear, they could not stand long where they were.

Zitalyi to me!” Panting hard, he ran back to where Guardmaster was directing the second wave in its attack against the Tzaatz main body. The Tzaatz had brought forward more of the heavy assault rapsari, and the leviathan beasts were simply crushing the opposition before them. The first zitalyi wave had made the Tzaatz pay heavily for their advance, and several of the creatures lay dead or mortally wounded, surrounded by the bodies of Tzaatz and Rrit alike, but there were too many of them for the light zitalyi forces to stop entirely.

“Guardmaster! Command me.”

“Sire!” Guardmaster's relief at seeing Pouncer was evident.

“We stopped their flank attack, but they have more beasts moving to the Citadel on that side.” Pouncer panted as he spoke.

“How many Heroes have you left?”

“Just five, including myself.”

“And Greow-Formation-Leader?” Guardmaster couldn't keep the concern from his voice.

“Dead in their first salvo. Kdar-Leader's flank guards are covering that side from farther back now, out of range of the Tzaatz arrows.”

Myowr-Guardmaster was silent for long moment, surveying the battlefield. When he looked at Pouncer, his face was determined. “You must fall back, sire. We cannot hold them here.”

“We will hold them or die.”

“We cannot hold them. We can only buy time with our lives.”

“A Rrit does not run.”

“You foolish kitten, what do you think we're buying time for, if not your escape? You are the Patriarch's son. Now go!” Guardmaster pushed him toward the inner gate, but still Pouncer hesitated. “Go! My duty is to die here. Yours is to live and avenge me.”

A lumbering assault rapsar came into range, and the outer rank of zitalyi leapt for its flanks, variable swords seeking the chinks in its armor. Tzaatz troops jumped from its back to engage them, and the beast reared back, seizing a Rrit in its jaws and crushing the life from him. It tossed its victim aside and snapped again. Another beast moved up behind it, this one smaller, but shooting gouts of sticky toxin from fleshy nozzles on its head to encumber the defenders. The second battle developed in front of them, and Guardmaster snarled combat codes into his comlink, then “Zitalyi! Quarter flank left… Attack!” The second-wave commanders screamed orders at their troops, and the last Rrit formations began to close with the oncoming Tzaatz. He turned to Pouncer once more, shoving him in the direction of the Citadel. “Go, curse you! I've just ordered the gate closed.” He didn't wait for a reply. “You four…” He pointed to the survivors of Greow's formation. “Assault line. With me, advance!” Ahead of them the leading zitalyi were slashing at the huge war beasts, trying to climb their flanks to kill the handlers who rode behind their serpentine necks.

Pouncer watched him for a long moment, then turned and ran back toward the Patriarch's Gate. To his left the huge waddling rapsari had reached the walls with their reptilian bodyguard. He could now see they had huge, suckerlike mouths and concentric rows of rasplike teeth. Several had attached themselves to the Citadel walls, and acrid fumes billowed from their nostrils. As Pouncer passed, the eye-watering scent of powerful acid reached his nose. The creatures were literally eating their way through the cerametal structure of the fortress. A crossbow bolt bounced off his armor and tore a gash in the back of his hand, but neither the warriors nor their creatures moved to intercept him. He looked behind him to see more rapsari charging for the gate, pushing through the defenders who were still hanging on behind him. Showers of arrows arced overhead to suppress the Rrit archers on the battlements, and behind them more Tzaatz grav skirmishers leapt to seize the heights. Guardmaster was buying him time with his life; it would not be much time. He turned to run again. A double-sword of zitalyi stood at the huge battlesteel gate, the last guards there. They urged him forward as it ground closed, Tzaatz bolts buzzing past too close for comfort. He flashed past them and through the gate just in time.

The ground vibrated as the gate came down and the seals engaged, and Pouncer paused to catch his breath. The courtyard was full of arrows stuck point first in the ground, overshoots aimed at the defenders on the battlements, and more salvoes fell as he watched, a steady, deadly rain. Close to the wall he was safe, but not for long. Snarls and the clash of weapons rose above him, and he looked up reflexively. Tzaatz leapers with grav belts had gained the battlements. A sundered body in zitalyi colors fell, hitting the ground with the nerve-jarring crack of bones breaking inside rigid armor. The rain of arrows would slow now. Pouncer took a chance and ran for the outer bastion that guarded the entrance to the Middle Citadel. To his right an eight-sword of Tzaatz warriors in mag armor and grav belts touched down in the courtyard and fanned out. He ducked into a doorway into the outer bastion wall. It led to a secondary sector gun position, abandoned now as unusable in a battle of skalazaal. He slapped a palm against the release, and the heavy battlesteel blast door slammed closed. It would take time for the attackers to breach the barrier. For a moment he considered the heavy laser cannon, positioned to sweep the walls. The position entirely controlled the approaches to the Middle Fortress. The targeting system was already up and running, the power banks fully charged. When the attackers came through the gate he could slaughter them with impunity; it would be simple…

He pushed the thought away. He was First-Son of the Patriarch. Rrit Pride would not be the ones who broke the traditions. There was a hatchway in the rear of the emplacement, and he ripped it open and dived through. Beyond it was the arterial corridor that ran through the heart of the Outer Fortress defenses. The tunnels to the space defense weapons would be sealed, but if the attackers were concentrating on the gates he might be able to escape over the river wall by jumping into the Quickwater below. He ran down the corridor at a fast lope, down a set of stairs to a tunnel that would take him beneath the outer courtyard and then up another set to the arterial corridor of the outer wall. He dashed down it to the New Tower and up the spiral stairs to the battlements along the top of the outer wall. The mag armor showed mirror silver along the walls. The Citadel's defenses were formidable, but denied the use of its high technology weapons it was vulnerable to envelopment.

A salvo of arrows snapped past his head as he ran onto the battlements. There was a Tzaatz archery unit concealed in the trees a bare bowshot away. He looked at the long drop to the Quickwater below. They wouldn't likely be able to hit him in midair if he leapt, but there was no chance they wouldn't notice. Once in the water he'd be helpless while they closed in on him. Farther down the wall a unit of zitalyi fired back with crossbows. Not all of the defenders were carrying the weapons. The first defense alert had been for ground attack, and they had brought heavy beam weapons. The skalazaal had taken them by surprise.

That's a lesson for Guardmaster. The next thought followed automatically. If he survives. The Tzaatz had used surprise to tremendous effect.

A fusillade of heavy steel balls flew up from below, some slamming hard against the magnetically reinforced cerametal walls, others hitting zitalyi defenders and hurling their crushed bodies into the outer courtyard behind them. Pouncer ducked behind a battlement instinctively. Where did that come from? He tracked the trajectory back, saw another specialized assault rapsar still swaying from the force of the launch, modified mid legs already cranking its back-mounted catapult down for another shot. A gravcar beside it was laden heavy with more of the balls. The traditions of the Honor-War denied all but muscle-driven weapons, and denied the use of slaves, but rapsari eluded both restrictions. Tzaatz Pride was treading narrowly on the edge of honor, but though the Conservers might later refine the code to prevent another upstart from toppling their regime with biostructs the way they were toppling the Rrit, no one would be able to dispute the fact of their victory.

No, not victory. The Rrit are not yet fallen. The Citadel defenses were strong, and the Tzaatz were a long way from their homeworld. The rapsari were beasts, powerful perhaps, but still only beasts. The battle would be decided claw to claw, and there were no better warriors in the Patriarchy than the zitalyi. A swarm of Tzaatz on grav belts leapt up as another catapult rapsar swept more defenders from the battlements. The remaining Rrit met them on the points of their variable swords; kill screams and the clash of weapons against armor rose in the air. Two of the enemy landed three leaps from Pouncer, facing him. He drew his own variable sword and extended it, ready to receive them. They leapt again as soon as they had touched down, aided by their gravbelts. Pouncer took v'dak stance, twisting sideways to strike as the first one's leap carried him past. The blow glanced off his opponent's back plate, and he pivoted to kick. His foot connected hard and the Tzaatz warrior slid over the ice-slick surface of the cerametal rampart, scrabbling for a purchase. The other attacker slammed into Pouncer from behind, knocking him flat. Pouncer twisted to escape, bringing his weapon up to block the blow he knew was coming. The variable swords connected, the shock hard enough to shatter bone. The other raised his weapon again and brought it down, aiming for Pouncer's vulnerable eyes. Fear and rage warred in Pouncer's liver as he struggled to free himself. Fear is death, some distant part of his brain told him. Time seemed to slow down, and he watched as the Tzaatz warrior raised the sword above his head. Pouncer slid his own sword into position, leaving himself open for the killing blow, but as the other brought his sword down he flipped his own blade up in between the gaps in the vulnerable shoulder joint of his opponent's armor. The Tzaatz screamed in agony as his amputated arm fell to the ground. Pouncer kicked himself up and over and drove his sword into the other's face. Without pausing he whirled around to face the first attacker, who had regained his footing a hairsbreadth before tumbling off the wall. Pouncer dropped to v'scree stance as two more Tzaatz moved up behind the first. He could not run; with their grav belts they would catch him before he had gone two leaps. Panting hard, he prepared to take them on. They closed in, snarling. He fell back a pace, and something hit his chestplate with a sharp crack, glancing off and staggering him backward. He twisted in midfall, kicked out blindly in case his attacker had leapt with his fall, but when he look up again the Tzaatz were gone. One of the catapult rapsari had fired wide. His attackers had been thrown off the wall by a barrage of the heavy steel balls. Had he not stepped backward he would have gone with them. A high-pitched whine rose, and he whirled to see a spybot whine past, still on its patrol circuit. The Command Lair should have those under active control. What is happening down there?

No time to worry about that now. Below him more Tzaatz troops were coming out of the forest, and along the wall the grav skirmishers were finishing the last of the defenders. It was too late now to escape by the river. Pouncer turned and ran back the way he had come, diving into the tower entrance and half running, half falling down the stairs. His only hope now was to hide in the Citadel until the attack was over. His honor didn't twinge at that course. He knew now that the Citadel was lost. His duty now lay to the Rrit dynasty, and the most important thing he could do was survive.

Where to run? For an instant he considered the House of Victory. Kchula-Tzaatz himself would be there, with just a handful of retainers to guard him. If I can get to him I can challenge him to skatosh. He is old and slow, and when he is dead his forces must surrender. I can end this before it has truly begun. But Kchula-Tzaatz would have planned for that, and his brother the Black Priest was there, the most accomplished single-combat expert in the Patriarchy. If Pouncer challenged for single combat, Ftzaal-Tzaatz would stand for Kchula, and while Pouncer was confident in his own skills, the Protector of Jotok was legendary.

No, if his duty was to survive he would survive. He headed for the Inner Fortress, aiming for his own chamber and the hidden shelter behind his bathing pool. Twice he crossed open courtyards under the noses of the invaders and their rapsari. Twice speed and surprise saw him clear. He gained the Hall of Ancestors without further pursuit, and thought he could hear the sounds of battle closing in around him. From the Hall a corridor led to the side. A dozen leaps down that was his chamber and safety.

He bounded the last length toward it, twisting in midair, touching down with hind claws extended to brake. He skidded sideways, already turned ninety degrees to face down the cross corridor, legs gathered to start running again with a leap as soon he cleared the archway. The water of his bathing pool would break his scent trail, and he would be safe there, for a time. Safe enough while the attack played itself out, safe long enough to plan an escape, to plan revenge for the betrayal Tzaatz Pride had visited upon his line.

The archway slid past and the corridor opened before him. In front of his chamber a full sword of Tzaatz warriors and a pair of rapsari raiders. No escape there! He let his momentum carry him past the opening, aborting the leap. There was a roar from one of the Tzaatz, and a high, keening cry from a rapsar. They had seen him. He twisted again, awkwardly, and leapt in the direction he had been going already, his mind calling up a map of the Citadel. Here in the ancient core of the fortress there were many twists and turns, many potential hiding places.

If only he could reach one of them. The sounds of pursuit grew behind him. He turned a corner and ran through a narrow light well in the second tier of the south curtain wall. On the other side he skidded to a stop, turned and ran out again, back to a doorway he'd already passed. Through the door he bounded up a circular staircase to another corridor. Hopefully that would confuse his scent trail enough to throw off the trackers.

He turned off his intended path again to avoid distant footsteps and ran blindly. Snarls and sounds of pursuit rose behind him and he chose the right-hand path at another intersection. Another corner and he found the corridor blocked by an ornate iron gate. He slammed into it painfully hard, using it to stop himself, and wrenched at it. It failed to open. He wrenched again, looking for the locking mechanism, then realized where he was. Beyond the iron gate was an open courtyard, exquisitely manicured hedges, ornate fountains, high stone walls with no windows. This was the Garden of Prret, and the gate would recognize only his father. Even if he could get it to open there was nothing beyond it but the kzinrette quarters. The only exit was the one he was standing in front of. Beyond the gate a couple of kzinretti were lounging on prrstet in the sun, not obviously disturbed by the fighting going on around them. Another, more skittish perhaps, was peering from the branches of a tangletree, nothing but her great, liquid eyes visible in the shadows between the leaves.

He wrenched at the gate again, though he knew it was pointless, feeling desperation flood through him as he realized he could go no further. Fear is death. The pursuit was growing closer. He turned around to face the oncoming hunters, drawing his captured variable sword and extending the slicewire. There was nowhere left to run, nowhere left to hide, and there were worse fates than to die defending his father's harem. Guardmaster's words came back to him: You will earn your name today. It would be a death of honor, and he would make sure the attackers paid in blood for their conquest. There was nothing else he could hope for.

The pursuing warriors caught up quickly, slowing and deploying as they realized their quarry was trapped. If they had netguns it would all be over. He scanned them and saw they had none, but… The second rapsar had fallen behind, but it came forward again to stand beside its twin. Its handler snapped commands and they moved forward, jaws hanging open to expose razor fangs. They were plated in mag armor themselves, mirror surfaces carefully articulated at the joints, lethal adversaries in close combat.

So they would use the beasts. Unless…

“You are cowards!” He spat the words. “You don't dare face me claw to claw.”

One of the Tzaatz took a step forward. “So claims the one who ran like a vatach!”

“I stand before you now at eight-to-one. Which of you has the liver to make it even odds?”

No doubt they were brave Heroes. Would they be so foolish as to take on a noble trained in single combat? He took up v'scree stance. They had not yet seen what he could do. He could take two at once, probably three, perhaps four. There were eight in the sword, plus the rapsari. If they all came at once he would die.

“Only because your hole is blocked, vatach.” The warrior took another pace forward. Pouncer took his measure: big and competent looking, hard muscles rippling under his fur. He wore rank tattoos on his ears, but Pouncer couldn't read the Tzaatz symbology. Was he the sword leader?

“At least I do not scavenge the carrion of beasts. Send on your reptiles so I can take a worthy challenge.”

The big kzin's jaws relaxed into a fanged smile. “You will die for your insults.”

“At eight to one. This vatach trembles to face your heroism.”

“I would face the Fanged God and win.” The other made a gesture, and the rest of the sword fell back a step. Yes, he was the leader, and his anger was going to lead him to a fatal mistake.

There was a clang behind him and Pouncer's ears jerked back even as he leapt sideways to face a new threat. A tawny flash sped by him: a kzinrette. The gate was standing open now. How had she got through the gate? Had it been unlocked after all? He cursed the lost opportunity under his breath. It was far too late now to run now. He spun back to face his enemy, bringing his sword up and over to block a leap, but the kzinrette had startled the Tzaatz too. For a moment she hesitated, and he recognized the eyes he'd seen peering from the tangletree. “T'suuz!” It was his litter sister, her back carrying the same distinctive stripe pattern that marked his own.

She didn't appear to recognize him, her attention focused on the alert warriors in front of her. They watched her, unsure what to do, and then she bolted through a gap between two of them and disappeared down the corridor and around the corner.

For a moment Pouncer considered bolting himself, through the now open gate. It would be chrowl for some of the kzinretti, and no doubt these warriors would find themselves distracted by the wealth of available females. They might even fall to fighting among themselves and give him a chance to escape. He abandoned the thought. If he had got through the gate before the standoff he might have had a slight hope. As it stood now, facing down the enemy a leap away, they would be on him before he could get eight leaps if he turned.

So he must fight, but on his terms. “You don't even deserve the death I would give you.” Let their anger be their counsel. Pouncer kept his eyes locked on the warrior, alert for the leap he knew would come. The other bared his fangs and gathered himself. Rage is death, and the other kzin was very angry. “Sthondat!” he spat, with contempt in his voice. His abdominal muscles tightened in anticipation. Fear is death. He steadied his grip, aligned the marker ball of his sword with his opponent's nose.

The warrior's scream of rage echoed down the corridor. His sword was drawn back, coming around as he leapt in a two-handed overhead swing that would cleave steel. Pouncer swept his own weapon up to block the blow, deflecting it down and to the side. His attacker's momentum carried him tumbling forward, and Pouncer brought his own sword down, aiming for the weak joint between the neck and carapace plates of the other kzin's armor. A subtle twist of his wrist at the last moment slid the monomolecular slicewire between the articulated grooves and thrust it home, decapitating his opponent. Motion blurred in the corner of his eye, and he yanked the weapon back up in time to block a second attacker whose leap had come a heartbeat behind the first one. The shock of the impact jarred his wrists, spattering the droplets of blood that surface tension stuck to the otherwise invisible wire. The other turned the parry into a spin, coming at him from the other direction and forcing a counterparry. Pouncer managed to get his blade into position to block again, but the force of the attack nearly slammed his own slicewire back into his face.

Again the Tzaatz warrior turned the block into an attack with a fluid twist. This one is better than the first. Pouncer fell back a pace to give himself room as he blocked and got in a counterstroke himself. The other blocked it effortlessly and followed up with a strike, feint, strike that pulled Pouncer's guard down. The second strike glanced off his shoulder but the angle wasn't quite right to slide through the gaps in his armor's articulation. Pouncer fell back another pace. This one is dangerous.

For a moment the dueling pair faced each other, breathing heavily through gaping fangs. The other's eyes bored into his, pupils dilated almost round. His ears were up and swiveled forward, but his stance was relaxed, and Pouncer realized the extent of his adversary's craft. He had not been goaded to attack by Pouncer's insults. He had expected his aggressive companion to leap, had readied himself and taken advantage of the first warrior's suicidal attack to catch Pouncer with his guard down.

“You are skilled.” The other's eyes were locked on his.

“You will not defeat me.” Pouncer's breathing was heavy, and he wished he felt the conviction he put into his words.

The other rippled his ears. “You are also alone.” He made a gesture to bring the rest of the sword forward.

Pouncer's gaze didn't waver. “You lack honor, sthondat.” If he could provoke the other to leap…

His adversary just rippled his ears again. “Perhaps, but I claim victory.” He repeated the gesture, and for the merest fraction of a second Pouncer's eyes flickered from his opponent's gaze to the rest of the sword. Fangs showing and variable swords extended they advanced. He tensed himself, ready to die with honor.

“Chrrrooowwwlll…” It was a low, warbling cry, primal in its need, and sexual desire rose in Pouncer. He knew it was death to let his gaze waver from his opponent, but he couldn't help flicking his eyes to the side a second time.

T'suuz! His sister hadn't fled, she had only let the warriors think she had. She was behind them now, crouched low in the mating posture, her invitingly tufted tail raised and flicking back and forth in open invitation. It was not her fertile time, her scent told him that much, but…

“Chrrroooowwlll…” The sound tugged at deep buried instincts in Pouncer's brain, and he fought to keep his eyes locked on his opponent. Some of the Tzaatz had turned to watch her, the battle forgotten. Again her tail flicked, and one of them took a step toward her. The warrior facing Pouncer didn't shift his gaze, but Pouncer's expression must have told him what was happening behind him. “Forward, you fools. There will be kzinretti for us all when this is done.”

The Tzaatz who had moved first took another step, and that was all it took. Another Tzaatz grabbed at him and he turned and slashed with his variable sword. Another screamed and leapt and in an instant the entire sword was slashing at one another, screams of rage and pain filling the corridor. And suddenly T'suuz had a variable sword and was slicing out the throat of one of the Tzaatz. Pouncer's opponent sensed the danger at his back and lunged forward. Pouncer stepped back to clear and counterstrike, but the move was only a feint, and the other pivoted to leap and strike at T'suuz. She had shifted her attack to one of the rapsari and had taken off its hind limbs. Before it hit the floor she was at the second rapsar, gutting it with her captured weapon. She had no armor and her back was turned. Pouncer's opponent's pivot-and-strike was going to slice her in half.

Pouncer screamed and leapt. Startled by the scream, the other aborted his pivot, but it was too late. Pouncer's foreclaws were at his face, followed an instant later by the variable sword, driving deep into the neck joints. The blade bit home, and the other died drowning in his own blood. For a moment Pouncer stood there, muscles straining against the sagged weight of his now dead opponent, and then he let the body fall. Breathing hard he screamed the zal'mchurrr to consign the spirit of a worthy warrior to the Fanged God's Pride-Circle.

“I've been watching for you. I thought you'd never arrive.”

He looked up. T'suuz was speaking, and the enormity of what had just occurred sank in. “You… you…” Pouncer could not articulate the words. Kzinretti did not fight Heroes, not with the finely trained reflexes she had just shown him, not with weapons, not with deception.

Not with success outnumbered six to one. But she had done it.

“How did you open the gate?”

She rippled her ears. “I can open that gate. I expected that you would come here. I was waiting for you. I had already unlocked it. You had only to pull the latch.”

He looked, saw the simple mechanism he had not seen in his earlier haste. He had allowed himself to be motivated by fear and felt ashamed. That was over with now. “How did you know I would come here?”

“Patriarch's Telepath exerted such influence as he could on the course of the battle.”

Pouncer's ears swiveled up and forward. What did that mean? “Patriarch's Telepath—”

“Everything will be made clear later. We have to move now.” She ran past him to the still open gate. “Come! This way!”

“But how—”

“There is not time. These will have reported finding you. Come!” Still he stared at her, his disbelief growing. Report was not a word of the Female Tongue nor even the Kitten's Tongue but the Hero's Tongue, and kzinretti could not speak the Hero's Tongue. Their brains were not advanced enough. It was a fact. He had learned it.

She grabbed his paw and yanked. “Come!”

He followed her into the Garden of Prret. She paused to close the gate behind them, sliding the heavy locking mechanism home with a solid thunk. She turned and ran through the garden and he followed her, past ornate carvings and inviting prrstet, heading for the Inner Quarters beyond the Garden. Pouncer found himself strangely uncomfortable. The architecture, stone, the smell, it was still the Citadel, but he hadn't been into the kzinretti's quarters since he had left his mother's teats. Penetrating his father's sanctum was a violation of the most severe dishonor. Only alien slaves were allowed past the gate, to tend the gardens and care for the kzinretti and their kits.

T'suuz led him to an archway that opened into the high-domed vault that was the entrance to the Inner Quarters. A fountain burbled in a pool surrounded by tapestries and cushions. Prret reclined, washing themselves, playing idly. Most of the kzinretti ignored them, but one young female flipped her ears up inquisitively at the sight of him. She was barely past kittenhood, with sleek fur and great, limpid eyes. She sidled toward them, tail flipping flirtatiously, chrowling deep in her throat. It was probably her first fertility, and Pouncer found himself suddenly flooded with the same desire T'suuz's trick had raised in him, only stronger, much stronger. The immediate danger of their position washed away in the urge to mate. Her ripe scent came to him and he took a step forward.

There was a snarling hiss and T'suuz bounded in front of him, facing down the kzinrette. “Mine!” she spat, raking her claws. The kzinrette startled, looking unsure. T'suuz snarled again and advanced on her, fur bristling. The kzinrette looked from T'suuz to Pouncer and back, looked again. T'suuz advanced again and the kzinrette bolted.

Pouncer growled in sudden frustration, found himself looking deep into his sister's eyes.

“Focus! We must not delay. Do you understand?”

“Yes…”

“This is your life! If we escape you will be Patriarch. You will have many prret. If we linger you will die. Focus!”

“Yes…” Pouncer shook himself, the prret's scent still rich in his nostrils, her inviting, chirruping chrowl still inciting his desire.

“Come!” He followed. She took him deeper into the Inner Quarters, past bright nurseries and quiet crèches and lavish couching suites. There were other prret in their time, other temptations, but Pouncer kept his focus narrowly on following his sister, some distant part of himself amazed at his body's response to fertile females.

A door in a cut stone wall led to a staircase down, another door to a service tunnel. The corridor was dusty, lined with conduits for power, air, water, vacuum, liquid nitrogen, and liquid hydrogen. Its walls were unadorned stone blocks, its floor worn smooth by the feet of generations of servitors. Machinery hummed in the background. It was low and narrow, part of the ancient fortress converted now to a modern purpose. How long since a kzin had trod this way? Maybe never; it was beneath the dignity of a warrior to visit the domain of slaves.

The corridor branched, and branched again, doors leading off to either side. Pouncer quickly lost his sense of direction but T'suuz took them unerringly forward, through a door into a storage room full of musty equipment of uncertain purpose. Behind a heavy rack a hole had been cut through the stonework to pass a set of conduits. Stones had been pulled from the wall to enlarge the hole just enough to squeeze through. T'suuz wriggled through with ease, her lithe body fitting snuggly through the gap. Pouncer had a harder time, breathing hard and struggling. His hip caught on a projection. She pulled hard and he felt fur ripping, then tumbled through, falling awkwardly to the gritty floor. The corridor he found himself in was of more recent construction, utilitarian sprayed fibercrete, filled with the distant hum of turning machinery. T'suuz led on again, and the hum grew to a roar as they passed through a chamber where the conduits were big enough to stand in. A control panel glowed against one wall. A maintenance hatch set low by the floor led onto a metal mesh catwalk high on the wall in a cavernous hall, too dimly lit for kzinti eyes to see with comfort. Far below, the bulking silvery domes of fusion generators marched in ranked pairs into the murk, and the air vibrated with the essence of their power. At the control wall Kdatlyno technicians were making obeisance to a full four-sword of Tzaatz warriors who were securing the area with snarled shouts, backed up by half a dozen rapsari. He did not need T'suuz's cautioning gesture to warn him to silence. They crept along the catwalk, hugging the wall to take the scant cover the shadows there provided.

The catwalk dead-ended, and for a moment Pouncer wondered where they were to go next. T'suuz climbed the railing, gathered herself and jumped. Involuntarily Pouncer reached out to grab her back but she was already gone. But when he looked to find her body shattered on the floor below he saw her just two leaps away and a leap down, balancing on a conduit barely large enough to stand on. She turned to beckon him on but he had already seen what he had to do and was climbing onto the teetering rail. He paused for a moment to gather himself, but he was twice her weight. The railing swayed and he overbalanced, falling forward. He grabbed wildly at nothing and then he was falling. Instinctively he turned the plunge into a leap, pushing out hard with his legs in a desperate attempt to save himself. The floor was a blur far below and he seemed to hang in midair. All of a sudden the conduit was in front of him and he twisted to grab at it.

His leap was far from perfect, and the conduit was too small for him. He landed heavily, sliding forward over the curved surface. The conduit rang like a gong when his armor hit it, the noise echoing from the rock walls of the chamber, and his variable sword fell to smash on the floor far below. For an endless time he dangled while the Tzaatz below snarled back and forth, alerted by the sudden noise. Spotbeams stabbed the darkness, came up to sweep the catwalk, but somehow missed him as he dangled there. The beams moved on and he breathed deep, then, paw by paw, he struggled back to the top. T'suuz watched him, unable to help from her precarious perch, her eyes shining green in the darkness. When she saw he was safe she turned silently and loped down the conduit. Pouncer followed, still shaking from his near miss. Their route took them along the conduit to another, then down the length of the power hall, where another dizzying, dangerous leap took them to a second catwalk and through another hatch.

She has done this before. The route was too complex and her movements too certain for her to be running blindly. Kzinretti could be clever escape artists, he knew, but this spoke of planning, and kzinretti were not supposed to be able to plan. Time to worry about that later.

He closed the hatch behind him, grateful to leave the searching Tzaatz warriors behind. They were in another corridor, more of a tunnel, made of old and crumbling bricks. It stank of damp and mildew, and clearly hadn't been used in a long time. Tritium glowlamps were set in the walls, but glowed so feebly as to barely illuminate themselves. How many half-lives had passed since they were installed?

He sniffed the stagnant air cautiously and recognition dawned. “I know this place. This is the Quickwater defense tunnel. It leads from the House of Victory to the old emplacements across the river.”

“It leads to freedom. We must hurry.” T'suuz started to lead him along the tunnel, then suddenly froze. A sound echoed, scurrying footfalls in the darkness behind them, fast and light. Pouncer froze, ears swiveling up and forward. Beside him his sister activated her variable sword. Something was coming, several somethings. The cadence was too rapid to be a kzin, and padded paws would be quieter. Rapsar seekers perhaps, sent to clear the tunnel. Weaponless, Pouncer dropped to attack crouch. When they came, he would be ready.

Execute every act of thy life as though it were thy last.

— Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome

It seemed like hours had gone by, but by Cherenkova's beltcomp it was just thirty minutes before Yiao-Rrit bounded back into the room, his lips pulled back over his fangs. “The battle is not decided, and it may yet be lost. My duty is now to your defense and safe return. We are leaving the Citadel for the spaceport. Follow me. If I am attacked do not hesitate to use your weapons. The sigil of the Patriarch will not protect you.”

He waved them into single file behind him and led them to a narrow side corridor. They moved out, Tskombe first behind the kzin, Cherenkova bringing up the rear. Instinctively she looked behind to cover their backs. The Patriarch's brother was not running but she found she had to trot to keep up to him. Brasseur was soon panting, but Yiao-Rrit did not slack his pace. The sounds of battle were far away, and Ayla began to believe that they were going to get away with it. That hope vanished as they rounded a corner to enter a courtyard through an arched gateway. There were two dozen enemy warriors in there, deployed in battle formation. Surprised and angry snarls greeted their appearance, and the enemy leapt to attack. Instinctively Ayla raised the beamer and opened fire. Her first shot caught a warrior in midleap, overloading the superconductors in his magnetic armor. The silver surface turned copper and she fired again, the second shot exploding the thin metal plate and vaporizing his chest cavity behind it. She dodged sideways and his body landed where she had been standing. If she hadn't been fast and accurate she would already be dead. There was no time to dwell on that now. She picked the next closest attacker, already launching himself at her, and again fired twice. Her shots went wide and she looked death in the face as his fangs came for her throat. His weight slammed into her, throwing her backward hard against wall, but his body slid lifeless to the floor, the decapitated head rolling away from her feet. She looked up and saw Yiao-Rrit, variable sword in midswing. Their eyes met for a split second in understanding: The humans would engage distant targets, the kzin would deal with any who got close. She picked another target and fired. To her left Tskombe was flat on the ground behind the heavy magrifle, pumping rounds into the massed attackers. The Tzaatz were brave, and even with only hand weapons they would have slaughtered the humans, but the few in the first wave who survived Tskombe's withering fire were cut down by Yiao-Rrit.

“Go, I'll cover.” Tskombe had slowed his rate of fire, now sending carefully aimed shots into potential Tzaatz hiding places. The heavy slugs tore through stonewood and stone with indifferent ease, making it clear to the enemy that exposure was suicidal. Yiao-Rrit went first, covering the length of the courtyard in three long bounds. Cherenkova ran after him and Brasseur, panting, followed. She arrived to find the kzin standing over two freshly dead creatures, reptilian predators like half-scale tyrannosaurs with heavy forelimbs. The beasts were plated in mag armor, and blood splattered red on Yiao-Rrit's muzzle. More blood seeped from the armor articulation near his waist, and she could see from the way he moved that he was badly wounded. No time for that now. She turned and fired into one of the opposite archways, spalling stone with her beam. Brasseur joined her and started firing too.

“What are those?” She gestured at the reptiles between shots.

Yiao-Rrit growled. “Rapsari, specialized genetic constructs. Tzaatz Pride holds Jotok.” She wasn't sure what that meant, but she recognized the contempt in the kzin's words.

“Will there be more of them?”

“They have trackers, assaulters, raiders, sniffers, assassins. There will be more.”

Across the courtyard Tskombe picked up his heavy weapon and ran. A Tzaatz warrior stood up leveling a huge crossbow. Cherenkova fired, her beam going wide, but close enough to spoil the enemy's aim. The crystal iron bolt embedded itself in the stone wall a handspan behind Tskombe. He turned around in the archway and sprayed rounds to slow the pursuit, and then Yiao-Rrit was bounding down the hall, the humans sprinting after him. Even with his wound he was faster than they were. Behind them snarled shouts rose as the Tzaatz regrouped to follow. On the run Cherenkova checked her weapon's charge: more than half gone. If there was much more fighting to be done they'd be in trouble.

Yiao-Rrit led them into a large room, thick wood beams arching up to the vaulted ceiling, heavy pelts hanging from the wall, dozens of huge swords and battle-axes arranged into elaborate rosettes and serpentines. The kzin went to the vast cut stone fireplace that occupied one end of the room. He stood there staring at it long enough that Cherenkova began to wonder if he'd snapped under the pressure, then he reached out and pulled on a carved projection. A lever cleverly built into the elaborate mantelwork moved, and the back of the fireplace slid open, revealing a dark square a meter on a side. Yiao-Rrit gestured them forward.

“Here — go in, go down. This will take you outside the Citadel. Avoid armed warriors and follow the trail to the west, toward the sunset. It will take you to the Hero's Square. There will be grav-service there. The sigil of the Patriarch will give you strakh enough to get to the Sea-of-Stars spaceport. Show the sigil to Chuut-Portmaster, and he will get you aboard a scout ship that can take you to Crusader at the edge of the singularity.”

“What about you?”

“We haven't got room to run enough to break your scent trail. It will not take the Tzaatz long to find this passage. I will gain you as much time as I can here.”

“But—” Brasseur seemed prepared to argue.

Sounds of pursuit rose behind them. “Go!” Yiao-Rrit grabbed the ambassador and tossed him through the dark opening as though he were a rag doll. Ayla knew a zero choice option when she saw it, and she dived through before the kzin could grab her. She found herself sprawled on uneven bricks, and Tskombe came piling in on top of her, whether thrown by Yiao-Rrit or simply motivated by the oncoming enemy was unknowable. For a moment they lay there, and she was suddenly acutely aware of his hard-muscled body against hers. The sudden scent of his sweat spoke directly to her hindbrain, triggering reactions that were entirely inappropriate under the circumstances. She swallowed hard and breathed deep to refocus her thinking, with little success. She was suddenly aware of the pounding of her heartbeat in her ears. The room they had been in was reduced to a square of light. Yiao-Rrit threw the lever back and the plate began to close again. She yanked her hands back instinctively, although they were nowhere near its path. She saw the huge kzin turn and draw his variable sword. Snarls rose in the air, and then the light was gone.

Tskombe picked himself up and she followed. They were at the top of an ancient and musty stairway made of eroded brick. The way down was dimly lit by faintly glowing green globes.

“Let's go.” He was already moving down the stairs, picking his way carefully in the barely adequate light. She followed him wordlessly. In other circumstances his summary adoption of command would have rankled. Right here, right now, he was the one who had the ground combat experience, and she wasn't about to argue. Brasseur came behind them. The heavy kzin beamer was an awkward burden on the narrow, uneven stairs, and she tripped twice, twisting an ankle the second time. Pain shot through it every time she put her foot down, but this wasn't the time to stop to nurse it. She gritted her teeth and carried on. The stairs led to a tunnel of the same crumbling brick, the footing still uneven and the damp, musty smell of long abandonment strong in their nostrils. Fortunately their pace down the tunnel was slow enough that her sprain wasn't a factor.

Fortunate so long as there was no pursuit. But the Tzaatz would track them; if kzin noses weren't up to the task, the rapsar sniffers would be, and she had no doubt both could move in the dark faster than humans could. How long was the tunnel? If they weren't out of it before the pursuit resumed… She didn't finish the thought.

Blood is the price of victory, brothers. Now let us make the enemy pay high.

— Second-Commander at the siege of the Last Fortress

Kdar-Leader stood at the front of his formation, more than three quarters gone now, but they stood shoulder to shoulder, five abreast in the tunnels before the Command Lair, six leaps behind a sealed battlesteel blast door. He breathed deep. It would be their last stand. The enemy would be stopped here or not at all. They had fallen back as the Tzaatz swept through the breaches in the Citadel walls that their beasts had dissolved for them. Their losses had been heavy, but not a single zitalyi had turned tail and run; each fallback was controlled, each new position defended until it was no longer tenable, and then abandoned under cover from those who had already taken up the next one. The surface of the Citadel was already in Tzaatz hands, but the tunnels were deep and there were stores there for seasons. If they could hold out, keep the Tzaatz at bay, then help might arrive; one of the other Great Prides would honor their oath of fealty to the Rrit.

If they could hold out. It shouldn't have been a question. The blast doors were designed to shrug off heavy energy weapons, but the Tzaatz had come prepared. Those things, rapsari Guardmaster had called them…

The battlesteel started to blacken and smoke in the center. In heartbeats the corridor was full of blinding acrid fumes, and the now familiar snouts of the rotund reptilian breachers appeared, oozing a thick, corrosive ichor that ate cerametal like water ate salt. It was imperative to hold fire until the beasts exposed a target…

“Crossbows now!” The front rank fired and knelt, the second rank fired over their heads and knelt, then the third and fourth ranks — and that was all the crossbows he had. With rigid self-discipline they turned and filed through the single space left for them between the sword ranks behind, to re-form and reload behind them. The lead swords braced for what they knew was to come. At the door the beast had suffered grievously. It was armored with some kind of plastic, not mag-armored cerametal like the others, lest it dissolve its own protection, and that material was unequal to the impact of thrice-eight crystal iron penetrators fired at point blank range. Its armor hung in tatters from its snout and foreparts, and the bolts had struck deeply. Ichor mixed with blood oozed from the wounds and ate holes in the stone of the corridor, but it was still alive when its handler, invisible behind it, drew it back from the breach it had created. Through the gaps came something small and fast, razor teeth snapping like a sherrek: the fast and vicious harrier rapsar. More poured through the gap after it, and they launched themselves at the defenders without hesitation. Rrit variable swords flashed and slicewires hit home, but the attackers were hard targets and some got through to the first, the second, even the third rank, and where the razor teeth clamped onto Rrit flesh they did not let go, not even when the creature's body was cut from its head. Defenders fell, and ahead of them Tzaatz crossbows advanced into the gap, their bolts killing those who had not been taken to the ground by the beasts.

Kdar-Leader waited, watching as the Tzaatz advanced, then keyed his com. “Ambush parties, move now, move now.” He waited another four heartbeats to give his element leaders time to start moving, then “Zitalyi, next position, fall back!”

The lead sword ranks, those who had survived the onslaught, knelt in place and the crossbows fired over their heads, four successive salvos that stopped the Tzaatz in their tracks. Again with commendable discipline the front swords fell back through the empty file in the crossbow ranks, and then the whole formation turned to run back to the next blast door. Behind them a Tzaatz screamed in triumph, rallying his Heroes to pursue, but the voice was cut off in gurgle and attack screams filled the corridor. Kdar-Leader's ambush parties were dropping from ventilator shafts overhead, wreaking havoc and buying him the time he needed to consolidate his defenses for the next engagement. It would cost them their lives, but their deaths would be honorable ones.

How many of the breaching rapsari did the Tzaatz possess? He had seen three killed that he was sure of, and this fourth one was surely too badly wounded to continue. It would take them time to bring forward another, but time was something the Tzaatz now had in abundance, and something the Rrit were rapidly running out of. If something drastic didn't happen soon, Kdar-Leader's own death of honor wasn't far away.

Kill them all and take what you want.

— Zirrow-Graff at Kdat

Sword-Sergeant loped efficiently down a high vaulted hall full of transparent display cases holding antique armor and weapons. He could not help mentally adding up the value and dividing out the booty that would fall to him. Kchula-Tzaatz would not fail to be generous in return for the great victory he was gaining here. Sword-Sergeant's share was not large, but this was Kzinhome, this was the Citadel of the Patriarch; the wealth here was beyond his wildest imaginings. He would gain a holding and females at least for this, and his home would be full of trophies from this vast storehouse of wealth. Behind him Third-Sword was evidently thinking the same thing, running his fingers over a silver-threaded tapestry of more strakh than he could ever hope to display.

“Watch your arc, clear that corner,” Sword-Sergeant snarled. He didn't have to repeat himself. All of his warriors knew he would follow the command with his claws if he had to. Third-Sword moved, checking behind the display cases for refugees. Finding none, he raised his tail and rocked the tip back and forth, no threats. The other kzinti of his blade moved past him toward the far end of the hall, where an arched gateway led into a courtyard. Sword-Sergeant watched, alert for any sign of danger. The farthest one reached the wall, gave the no-threats signal.

“Seventh area secure,” Sword-Sergeant snarled into his comlink. “Proceeding west.”

“Confirmed.” Even before the voice crackled in his ears he was giving tail signals to his warriors. Hind-Blade, cover the exit. Fore-Blade, prepare to clear-and-secure forward. The eight kzinti of his unit moved as one, half deploying to defend the archway, the other half lined up behind a pillar, out of the line of sight of the opening. Sword-Sergeant took the lead of Fore-Blade and glanced back to ensure everyone was in position. Crossbow trained on the entrance from behind a display table, Hind-Blade-Leader touched his paw to his forehead — ready.

Sword-Sergeant looked back to Rapsar-Trainer, still waiting at the end of the hall, tapped his nose, and gestured to the archway. Sniffer forward.

Rapsar-Trainer came up the hall, a squat reptilian sniffer waddling hard to keep up with him, eyestalks straining forward in eagerness. Sword-Sergeant wrinkled his nose in distaste. The sniffer looked like easy prey, but its scent told him the meat would be foul. He had little more affection for Rapsar-Trainer, who was clearly no warrior. Still, the rapsari were useful. They had started the day with four sniffers; three had died at the hands of Rrit defenders. Those deaths would have been his own Heroes if the sniffers hadn't been there to lead the way.

The sniffer waddled to the arch, proboscis wiggling for scent, eyestalks wrapping around the corner to check for danger. Color flowed across the chromatophores on its hindquarters, coding what it detected for Rapsar-Trainer.

Rapsar-Trainer gave a signal. Low threat left.

Sword-Sergeant acknowledged the signal with a tail flip. More meat for the glory of Tzaatz Pride. He leapt for the doorway, tail streaming behind him for balance, hind claws reaching forward to carry him into a roll as he landed, clearing the way for the rest of Fore-Blade, half a leap behind him. He caught a blur in the corner of his eye, pivoted and swung. His variable sword amputated the head of a statue before he realized his error. Embarrassing. He kicked the statue over to avenge that dishonor, and the intricate mechanism inside fell apart into randomly shaped components. Strange, but irrelevant. He turned his attention to the minor danger the sniffer had warned of.

He was in a courtyard garden, full of complicated sculptures and manicured hedges. A crippled kzin on a gravlifted prrstet lay by a bed of flowers, with a pair of silent Kdatlyno attendants. He twitched his tail in disgust. The ears of this pathetic specimen were barely worth putting on his belt. He turned to signal Hind-Blade through the arch, then paused to cuff Second-Sword, who was trying to detach a small statue from its base.

“Booty later,” he snarled. For a second it looked as though Second-Sword would challenge-leap, but then he looked down and performed the gesture of submission. “I obey, Sword-Sergeant.”

“See that you do.” He returned his attention to the motionless trio in front of him. “Hind-Blade-Leader, secure the perimeter. I will kill this sthondat myself.”

He advanced on his victim. Neither he nor the slaves made any move either to fight or to flee, which was somewhat disappointing. As he drew closer the wasted kzin seemed oblivious to his presence. All at once recognition dawned, and a thrill of exultation ran through Sword-Sergeant. “Hind-Blade-Leader! Stop!” This would win him a name! “Defensive formation! Here now!” He keyed his vocom. “Chruul-Commander, we have the telepath!” He couldn't keep the gloating from his voice. He gestured at the Kdatlyno with his weapon. “You slaves, stand aside. We will take him.”

The Kdatlyno didn't move, but the crippled figure on the prrstet shifted, turning his blank staring eyes to meet Sword-Sergeant's. In any other context Sword-Sergeant would already have screamed and leapt for such impertinence. Gutting one slave would ensure the other obeyed him in future, but something about the crippled telepath made him hesitate: those eyes, huge and infinitely empty, staring through him, paralyzing in their intensity…

He would have backed away, but that would never do in front of his warriors. Instead he repeated his threat. “Stand aside slaves, or I'll…” He didn't finish his sentence. The world vanished and he was falling in infinite blackness, his ears filled with his own screaming. Distantly he was aware of his body falling to the ground, but he could only think to end the darkness. Vainly he beat against his skull with his fists for relief, each flash of pain bringing some scrap of grounded reality to his sense-starved mind. It wasn't enough. In desperation he slammed his head against the ground, willing his awareness back to the here and now. The exploding pain of every impact gave just an instant's respite from the despairing emptiness. Not soon enough the quiet fell.

Third-Sword watched in fascinated horror as his screaming leader beat his own brains out on the flagstones of the Puzzle Garden path, unsure of what to do. The answer came an instant later as Telepath's huge, blank eyes focused on him, but by then it was too late to run. He was smarter than Sword-Sergeant, but it still took him several attempts before he managed to drive his w'tsai through his own braincase.

Don't speak to me of honor. Victory is everything.

— Vsar-Vsar, the Seven World Scourge

Kchula-Tzaatz looked down from his chamber in the House of Victory at the carnage in the Citadel's Old Courtyard, where the broken bodies of Tzaatz, Rrit and rapsari lay where they had fallen in twice-eights. It was truly a great day. The battle had never reached the House of Victory, though it had come close. Some of the Great Pride-Patriarchs had thrown their retinues into the defense of the Citadel, hoping no doubt to curry favor with Meerz-Rrit, but they had been swept aside with the zitalyi defenders. A far smaller number had offered their support to Kchula-Tzaatz, but he had refused them all; no need to take on obligations of honor when victory was sure. Stkaa-Emissary's guards stood as an outer cordon to Ftzaal-Tzaatz's elite killers, an obligation Kchula had accepted when he feared the entire plan would come apart. He now would rather not have given such strakh to Stkaa-Emissary, but what was done was done. All Stkaa Pride would want from the new ruler of the Patriarchy was support in their monkey war and against Cvail Pride. That was already part of Kchula's plan to unite the Great Prides under him, and since Chmee-Cvail had thrown his warriors in with the Rrit, the deal would simply allow him to use Stkaa Pride for his own vengeance. It was a triviality.

“Victory is ours, brother.” Kchula jumped and whirled. He had not heard Ftzaal-Tzaatz come in.

He fought down the urge to snarl in anger at being startled. My brother's stealth is my tool. “The Command Lair is taken then?”

“Ktronaz-Commander just vocommed me.”

“I must go there at once.”

Ftzaal led a formation of his guard to escort Kchula through secured areas. There was still fighting going on in isolated pockets of the Citadel, but the key points had been taken and the outcome was no longer in doubt. Still-warm bodies were strewn through the fortress, and once a pair of Rrit leapt from ambush, variable swords humming, only to be quickly dispatched by Ftzaal's elite warriors. Kchula took care to show no fear. Now was the time that he would cement his rule as the greatest conqueror in the history of the Patriarchy, but he was still relieved when they reached the base of the Patriarch's Tower and the tunnels leading down to the Command Lair. Aboveground the Tower was a well preserved piece of history, its stones eight-cubed generations old or more; belowground it was a very up-to-date fortress. The mag-armored blast doors at the tunnel entrance were proof against even conversion weapons, but the corrosive juices of the breaching rapsari had eaten large holes through the thick plates. Kchula wrinkled his nose at the harsh, acidic scent as they passed. The fighting had been hard, and carbonized beam scars marred the walls near a pile of dead warriors in Tzaatz livery. At the far end of the corridor a pair of AI-directed defense turrets had been hacked from the wall with slicewires. Someone had neglected to turn them off at the declaration of skalazaal, and the cost to the attackers had been heavy.

Kchula gestured to a retainer, Aide-de-Camp. “Document that.” The evidence will be useful later, if it becomes necessary to erode Rrit honor.

Aide-de-Camp claw-raked and obeyed, and the remainder of the party continued. Tzaatz warriors had chalked battle codes on the walls as they advanced, indicating enemy positions, cleared rooms, and directions for follow-up forces. Following them they rode a drop tube down seven levels to the Command Lair. The carnage there was incredible, the halls literally slick with blood. The zitalyi had made a last stand and the Tzaatz had broken their resistance with swarms of harrier rapsari, small, fast and vicious. Twice-eights of the scaly bodies were strewn around the Command Lair, intermingled with the tangled dead of Rrit and Tzaatz. It had been a costly fight, but that was no matter. Victory is what counts, not the price.

He waved Aide-de-Camp forward. “See that the dead receive full honors, and that their conquest share goes to their sons and brothers.”

“Of course, sire.”

It was no more than honor demanded, and Ktronaz-Commander would have seen it done regardless. Issuing the order himself simply asserted his command and reaffirmed his loyalty to his warriors. The word would spread, Kchula-Tzaatz himself insisted the protocols be followed, and his strakh would rise with those who pledged their fealty to him. Few would stop to consider the price he would pay if he issued the opposite order. Greet necessity with enthusiasm. He would have preferred to accrue their shares to himself. The dead are no one's ally. He scowled slightly at the requirements of honor.

A moment later he was striding through the doors of the Command Lair, and elation washed away every other emotion. The legendary nexus of Rrit control! He looked around with triumphant glee, ran his hands over the control panels that would issue orders to swing the might of the entire Patriarchy wherever he desired it. This was power! How long had he dreamed of possessing it? The day was his. It remained only to consolidate his triumph.

Across the room Ktronaz-Commander's command group had a temporary command post set up until the more sophisticated Rrit system could be brought under control. Snarls in battle code rose from comsets as Ktronaz-Commander directed the mop-up. Pockets of Rrit zitalyi were still fighting fierce rearguard actions around the Citadel. Still, the House of Victory was secure, the nobles of the various Great Prides assured of their safety. More important, the crèches had been taken, the Rrit kittens already executed. There would be no upstart contestants to his rule.

He caught a snatch of transmission, “… Sea-of-Stars secure…” Ktronaz-Commander looked up, jumped to attention, and saluted.

“Sire, the spaceport is taken.” There was blood on Ktronaz-Commander's face. The fighting had been hard. “And we found a gift for you, cowering in a hole in the infirmary.” He made a contemptuous gesture to a corner. Kchula followed the motion, saw Second-Son-of-Meerz-Rrit, being watched by two Tzaatz guards.

“Kchula-Tzaatz.” Second-Son pushed forward. His escort moved to stop him, but fell back at a gesture from Ktronaz-Commander. “I have kept my end of the bargain, now it is time for you keep yours.”

Kchula looked Second-Son over, his lips curling. The scion of the Rrit did not impress in person. “Your father is dead then?”

“He is.” The image of his father's death rose unbidden in Second-Son, and he fought it down. I have killed before. Why does this haunt me so?

Kchula looked sharply to Ftzaal-Tzaatz. “Has this been confirmed?”

“His body lies there.” Second-Son spoke before Ftzaal could answer, pointed to one of the corpses Kchula had been ignoring. Kchula nudged it over with his toe, saw the Rrit ear tattoos, the distinctive black stripes. Even in death Meerz-Rrit looked regal, and Kchula kicked the body.

“And your brother?”

“Your assassin struck. He did not die at once, but he is surely dead now.”

“How do you know?”

“I went to the infirmary to confirm it myself. His body is gone.”

“Gone?” Anger flooded Kchula. “I need the ztrarr, the proof-before-the-pride-circle. An empty bed is no evidence.”

“My pledge was only to kill my father; your assassin was supposed to take care of First-Son. I claim my due.” There was arrogance in Second-Son's voice, though he avoided looking at his dead father.

“You would still be Patriarch, is that it?” There was amazement in Kchula's voice, replacing the rage. There is nothing to be gained by killing this wretch. Let us game with him instead.

“You pledged it on your honor.” Second-Son's hackles rose. He had taken humiliation enough for this day. The price he had paid was high, and he was not going to denied. His father… He could not help looking at the body, could not stand to look. What have I done?

“And so I did.” Kchula-Tzaatz let his fangs show, just a little, enjoying his game. “But if you were to die in challenge duel, perhaps the Patriarchy would fall to me.”

Fear shot through Second-Son, though he did his best not to show it. “You cannot rule. The Patriarchy belongs to the Rrit.”

Kchula looked at his captive, controlling the urge to have him executed on the spot. He is my tool, nothing more. His use is not yet ended. Still his voice was full of contempt when he spoke. This tool will be more useful wielded in a strong grip. “Power belongs to the powerful. Tzaatz troops control the Citadel.”

“No Great Pride would stand for it!” Second-Son spoke with a conviction he didn't feel, seeing the situation spinning out of control.

“But if the Rrit line is ended… Someone must rule, mustn't they? Who will gainsay me if I tell them I am Patriarch?” Kchula let his mouth gape into a fanged smile, enjoying the fear that blossomed in Second-Son's eyes.

He means to kill me. Second-Son twisted away from his guards and leapt for the door, but found himself tripped up, flat on his back with Ftzaal-Tzaatz's variable sword at his throat.

“In a hurry to leave, traitor?” Ftzaal's hard eyes locked on Second-Son's, his lips twitching over his fangs, inviting Second-Son to give him the pleasure of executing him.

“Stand down, Ftzaal.” Kchula's voice was firm. “I play with the coward. We shall stand by the honor of the Tzaatz Pride.” He looked at his warriors. “You see how the scion of the Rrit upholds the honor of his Pride.” Reluctantly the black-furred killer retracted his sword's slicewire and stepped back. Second-Son stayed where he was, his scent now so rank with fear he didn't bother to try to hide it, but daring to hope that he might live. Kchula raised a lip in contempt. “Stand up.” Second-Son obeyed and Kchula went on. “Tell me you deserve the position I am about to grant you, groveling coward.”

“You promised me…” The hope in Second-Son kindled.

“And I will not have it said that Tzaatz Pride does less than fulfill its bargains.” Kchula took a small case from his carry-cape, withdrew a metal disk from that. “Did you know my brother served the priesthood? Not a High Priest, but the Stalkers-in-the-Night — a priest of death and darkness. Perhaps it is fitting that he bestow you with the sigil of your new office.” He tossed the disk to Ftzaal. Second-Son turned to see, felt fear surge anew. It wasn't a sigil of office, it was a…

Ftzaal-Tzaatz moved in a blur too fast to see, the disk coming up to slap hard against Second-Son's back. Pain burned in his shoulder as its teeth embedded themselves deep in the muscle, and he fell to his knees as it spread to paralyzing numbness.

“The zzrou is filled with p'chert toxin.” Kchula's purred with satisfaction as he put an ornate medallion around his neck. “It is keyed to this transponder. Do not allow yourself to get too far from me, Patriarch.” His voice dripped sarcasm. “And since the transponder monitors my life signs, make yourself concerned with my well-being.”

“You sthondat!” Rage and humiliation swept over Second-Son as he realized what had been done. The zzrou listened constantly for its transponder's signal. If the signal grew too weak, it would start to leak poison into his system. Too much of that for too long and he would die, painfully. It was meant for controlling slaves; to have it used on him was too deep an insult to bear.

Kchula pressed a button on the transponder medallion and the burn intensified, sending Second-Son writhing to the ground in agony. “Respect! Please, Patriarch.” His voice was mocking. “We your humble servants deserve that at least!” He let his fangs show again, closed on Second-Son, knelt to whisper in his ear, stabbing the words like daggers. “Listen to me, coward and traitor. I am keeping my bargain in making you Patriarch. Once that is done, Tzaatz honor is satisfied. The Rrit name will be useful in taming the Great Prides. Very soon I will have my power consolidated. If you want to reign long after that, you will find ways to remain useful. Do you understand?”

Second-Son's eyes slid to the medallion around Kchula's neck. He remembered his father convulsing as he died, and he shuddered. His voice was weak as he stammered out a barely audible agreement. Kchula stood and cocked a leg, sending a spray of urine into Second-Son's fur. In other circumstances the gesture might have been protective; the scent mark meant to keep other warriors from challenging a ward of the Pride-Patriarch. Here it was meant purely to humiliate, to convey the message, You are my property.

Kchula finished and waved a paw. “Ftzaal, take this excrement from my sight. Summon the High Priests, and see that he's ready for the Naming Ceremony.”

“As you command, brother.” Ftzaal gestured to his warriors, who dragged Second-Son to his feet and hauled him away. Kchula watched with satisfaction. The Rrit line is weak, their strength rotted out. They could not have stood against me. His earlier fears were long vanished. Now to see to the Great Prides. “Aide-de-Camp!”

“Command me, sire!”

“We require a seating of the Great Pride Circle. See that it is arranged immediately. Ftzaal-Tzaatz will direct you.”

“At once, sire.”

“And see that he ensures the Rrit fleet knows a Rrit will hold the Patriarchy.” Aide-de-Camp left on the leap, and Kchula snarled in satisfaction to himself. That rumor will reach the Great Prides. For the next few days confusion will be my ally. He turned to survey the scene. “Ktronaz-Commander, report.”

“We have achieved all of our major objectives. There is still fighting at Long Reach, but the Rrit cannot stand against our rapsari.”

“And the Rrit fleet?”

“Fleet-Commander is known to be in orbit, and we have been jamming transmissions since the Heroes leapt. No Rrit ships have interfered with our operations.”

“Excellent…”

“You are Kchula-Tzaatz.” The voice was thin and weak, and it dared to interrupt him. Kchula whirled to face the speaker, saw a wasted body on a gravlifted prrstet, pushed by two impassive Kdatlyno. It bore Rrit ear tattoos. How had such a specimen got past the guards?

“I am Patriarch's Telepath.” The living corpse seemed to stare right through him, unseeing eyes huge in his wasted face as he answered the unspoken question. Kchula felt unsettled. The prize of prizes had come straight to his lair. He moved to assert his dominance. “I am Patriarch now.” It is true in all but the final fact. “Serve me well and you will be rewarded. Serve me poorly and…” Kchula let the threat hang in the air.

“I am sworn to serve Meerz-Rrit.”

“Meerz-Rrit is dead.” Kchula couldn't keep the exultation from his voice as he said it.

“I already know this. I am Patriarch's Telepath.”

The way he said it implied that there was no fact Patriarch's Telepath should not be expected to know, but Kchula refused to be impressed. “Then get out of my way until you're sent for.”

“I have knowledge for you, Kchula-Tzaatz.”

Kchula raised an ear. “Well, what is it then?” Impatience.

“Your line will end.”

“What?!” Kchula-Tzaatz rounded on the telepath, his killing leap prevented only by his disbelief at the possibility that such a specimen could offer such insolence.

“Your line will end.” Telepath's voice carried no inflection.

“You are Patriarch's Telepath. You will serve me.”

“You are not Patriarch.”

“I control the Patriarch, you fool.” Anger. “Second-Son has the teeth of my zzrou in his back.”

The unseeing eyes didn't blink. “Second-Son is nothing. Zree-Rrit is Patriarch.”

“There is no Zree-Rrit. Who are you talking about?”

“I choose not to tell you.”

“Insolent cur. I'll have you put to the Hot Needle.”

“You have not the ability to torture me.”

“Take him!” Kchula's voice was imperious, commanding, but the guards failed to respond. He looked sharply around the room, but his warriors, even Ktronaz-Commander, stood silently as if in suspended animation. Telepath's blind eyes bored into his, and he felt himself incapable of moving. For the first time he felt afraid.

“You have no power over me, Kchula-Tzaatz.”

Kchula-Tzaatz breathed deep. This one was dangerous, but he had controlled telepaths before. Even Patriarch's Telepath would fall into line when he understood the new realities. “Where is your sthondat extract, addict? How far away are the cravings?”

Patriarch's Telepath ignored him. “Hear me, Kchula-Tzaatz. Meerz-Rrit is dead, and my obligation is over. Your line will end.” The crippled kzin slumped forward on his polarizer bed and lay still.

“You impertinent sthondat! I'll…” Kchula stopped. My obligation is over? That couldn't mean… He looked at the immobile body. “Medical Officer! Medical Officer!” and a moment later a medium-sized, harried-looking kzin scurried in and prostrated himself.

“Sire! Patriarch!” Patriarch! Some of Kchula's anger left at the word. It would yet be true. His entourage were already responding to his new status, and that was good. He pointed at the polarizer bed.

“That's Patriarch's Telepath. Don't let him die.” The guards were standing silently watching the body, aware now as they had not been moments before. Ktronaz-Commander's voice rose again the background, issuing orders as if nothing had happened.

Medical Officer moved to the body, assessed the situation in a glance and yelled “Orderly! Stimpacks and the boost kit! Immediately!” He went to work on the body, pumping hard on Telepath's ribcage to stimulate his stopped heart.

Orderly came at the run, ignoring Kchula completely in his rush, dumping the heavy emergency gear and setting it up. Kchula-Tzaatz turned away, swept his gaze across the others in the room. Gradually the murmur of voices returned to the room. Ktronaz-Commander and his staff were directing the mop-up operation, the guards standing ready in the door. Nobody seemed to have noticed the strange interlude. That was good. It would not have done for his underlings to see the fear that Patriarch's Telepath had engendered in him. He raked his claws angrily in the air. Patriarch's Telepath had humiliated him, and then tried to cheat him of both dominance and the invaluable resource he represented. When he was recovered he would be well punished for his insolence. It might be necessary to have his own telepath constantly by his side to protect him from Patriarch's Telepath while still allowing proper use of the greatest mind in the Patriarchy. That thought brought another. Where was Rrit-Conserver? There was another resource worth preserving, but it too came with dangers. How best to exploit it while managing the risk?

He became aware of movement beside him. Medical Officer was on the ground in full prostration.

“Sire.” Medical Officer's voice was apologetic.

“Speak.” Already Kchula felt himself growing angry. The body on the prrstet lay still. Orderly was putting away his equipment.

“He's gone. Sire, I tried…”

Kchula cut him off. “Stand.”

Medical Officer stood and Kchula-Tzaatz screamed and raked his claws across his face, sending him reeling. “Leave my sight, you incompetent fool, and take that offal with you.” He kicked at the prrstet, sending it spinning. He looked sharply around the room in case anyone else challenged his position, but none met his eye. It was some time after the Kdatlyno slaves had pushed the body away that he realized he could have vented more of his anger by killing them. Unlike Medical Officer, they were completely expendable.

Alliance is born of necessity.

— Si-Rrit

Pouncer knelt in attack crouch, breathing silently through his mouth, muscles tense, ears up and swiveled forward, nostrils flared, eyes straining to see deeper into the gloom. The noises came nearer: footsteps irregular, heavy breathing, the occasional grunt. The musk of something living rose above wet dank. Beside and behind him T'suuz stood ready with her variable sword. She had wanted to lead the attack, wanted to give him the weapon when he insisted on leading himself, but he was twice her weight and she needed it more than he did.

Three figures emerged, bipedal shadows, not kzin. They must be rapsari. He screamed and leapt, taking the first in the chest, his weight slamming the creature back to the floor, and scattering the ones behind it. His claws skidded off ceramic armor, and he reached for the vulnerable throat with his fangs, thirsting for the kill. He was about to snap off the creature's life, when a glint on its chestplate blossomed into recognition. It wore his father's sigil! He jerked his head, and his jaws shut on empty air. In the same instant, he realized that T'suuz would be closing with her variable sword, would dishonor the Rrit name with murder before she saw that the creatures were protected. Without thought he rolled and leapt back at her, catching the edge of her sword against his shoulder carapace. She tumbled back, snarling, and leapt clear to face him, clearly taking him for a threat.

“T'suuz! Stop!”

A beamer bolt flashed overhead and chewed brick shards from the ceiling. Another hit him square in the back, overloading a segment of his mag armor. He felt the burn of the suddenly red hot plate, smelled charred fur. A second hit in the same place would kill him, and he threw himself forward, carrying T'suuz to the ground with him.

“T'suuz, they wear the sigil. They are allies!”

Another salvo of beamer fire went through space they had been standing in a second before, followed by the hypersonic whamwhamwham of a magrifle set for bursts, earsplitting in the confines of the corridor. He felt the shockwaves slap against the back of his head. If he had been still standing they'd have killed him. He wrestled with his sister. The kill rage was on her, and she struggled to leap from his grasp, though without the element of surprise, it would have been suicide against the creature's weapon.

“They wear the sigil! Don't strike them!” He fought to keep her down, yelled louder. “Cease fire! I serve the Patriarch.”

The firing stopped. “Who are you?” The voice was alien and deep, breathing hard, the words mushy and slurred.

“First-Son-of-Meerz-Rrit.” He paused a second. Kzinretti were not normally introduced in formal greeting, but T'suuz was no ordinary kzinrette. Would honoring her identity insult the watchers in the darkness? Which protocol took priority?

They were aliens; first honor must go to his blood. “I stand with the kzinrette T'suuz.” In fact he didn't stand, he stayed flat on the damp stones of the floor. He could barely make out the aliens in the dim glow of the tritium lamps. They couldn't see him or he'd already be dead, and he had no intention of silhouetting himself into a target.

“Stand up where we can see you.”

“First you must guarantee my safety.”

“You are in no position to bargain. We are armed and we will shoot to kill.”

“I am your ally and entitled to your trust.”

“You attacked us. What guarantee do we have you won't do it again? Stand up now or we shoot!”

“You wear my father's sigil. My honor is your guarantee.”

Facing into the blackness, Tskombe raised the magrifle to pump a warning burst into the darkness, wishing he could spot a target. The weapon had elaborate sights, doubtless including thermal imaging, but he didn't know how to use them. A hand pulled the muzzle out of line. Brasseur.

“Don't do it. Don't shoot.”

“Back off.” Tskombe's bit the words off short, adrenaline pumping through his system. He didn't need the civilian second guessing him.

“No! Trust me.”

“This is a military situation, Ambassador.” He underlined Brasseur's role. “You're just along for the ride here.”

“He is who he says he is. No kzin would lie about that.”

“They shave the truth.”

“He made a specific claim.”

“He nearly took my throat out.” Tskombe pumped the magrifle, pushing Brasseur back against the tunnel wall.

“Why didn't he finish the job?” The scholar was pleading as Tskombe raised the weapon again. “He saw your sigil! Listen to me! He's the Patriarch's son. His father just pledged peace between human and kzin. Kill him and you'll start a war.”

“There's already a war.” Tskombe bit off the words, then raised his voice, screamed challenge in the Hero's Tongue. “Stand now or I shoot!”

Listening, Pouncer considered his options. He could see the alien with its weapon raised, a shadow in the faded light of the tritium lamps. Clearly it could not see him in the darkness pooled on the floor or it would not be ordering him to stand. The only knowledge it had of him was that he had leapt. It didn't seem to know exactly where he was now. That suggested a tactical advantage he might take, but that was of limited use. He could not in honor act against those entitled to his protection, even aliens.

But the creature bore him no such obligation, and after his aborted attack it was ready for vengeance. He was not obligated to stand. He could run, perhaps, take the risk of being shot while doing so if the alien fired again, but in the midst of the Tzaatz attack that would be abandoning his responsibility to offer them protection.

Could the alien's persistent hostility be taken as a refusal to accept protection? He curled his tail in vexation. This was as tangled as one of Rrit-Conserver's ever so hypothetical tests of honorable action! The aliens could refuse protection, but the current misunderstanding was a direct result of his mistaken leap. His obligation would not be discharged until they refused with the full knowledge of the situation.

Silently he motioned for T'suuz to crawl away from him, in case they fired at his voice. He was also required to protect kzinretti in his care; how that applied to a kzinrette who acted like a kzintosh was a question he didn't even want to consider. “I am your ally and I stand above you on the ladder of honor. Climb it with me, give me your guarantee you will not shoot, and I will stand.”

There was a long pause, urgent mutterings from the darkness in some guttural, alien tongue, then, “I will fire only in self-defense.”

“Done.” Pouncer climbed to his feet, being careful to move slowly. Now the question was, would the alien stand by the honor of his pledge. His armor would protect him from the first round, if he were lucky. He stayed where he was, let the alien come closer.

“What are you doing here?” The tallest alien approached, mag rifle raised.

“Tzaatz pride has taken the Citadel. I am marked for death.”

“Have you seen Yiao-Rrit?”

“My uncle? No.”

Tskombe was silent.

“You must be my father's kz'eerkti ambassadors.”

Tskombe nodded and gestured to his companions. “We are. Major Quacy Tskombe, Captain Ayla Cherenkova, Ambassador Kefan Brasseur.”

“Do the Tzaatz pursue you?”

“Yes…” Tskombe hesitated. “Your uncle put us into this tunnel, and stayed to guard the entrance. He was outnumbered…” Tskombe stopped, not wanting to continue.

“I'm sure he was true to the honor of our line.” Pouncer kept the emotion from his voice. Yiao-Rrit would not yield while he lived, and the situation at Citadel was such that he would not live long. Yiao-Rrit, Myowr-Guardmaster, how many others had he lost this day? My father… The thought came unbidden and he pushed it away…

“I have no doubt he was. He was a true warrior.”

“You wear my father's sigil. You are entitled to my protection, as you were to my uncle's.”

Tskombe nodded. “I… we… appreciate that.” He breathed out, only then realizing how tightly he had been holding his weapon.

“Hrrr. You must agree to follow my instructions.”

Tskombe paused. “Within reason.”

“Acceptable. T'suuz, come forward.” His sister emerged warily from the darkness, her variable sword retracted but held ready in her hand.

The alien took a step back, raising the rifle. “You held out on us. She didn't step forward when you did.”

“T'suuz is my sister. Kzinretti are not bound by honor.”

There was a low growl from behind him, warning. T'suuz was insulted. He still didn't know what to make of her. The correct protocol to introduce her to aliens in the middle of an Honor-War would have eluded Rrit-Conserver. And she had remained hidden when honor would have brought her forward. The truth, however unpalatable, was never formal insult.

“What do you know of the situation?” Tskombe saved him from further awkwardness.

“Little. The Citadel is overrun by Tzaatz Pride. This morning I was First-Son-of-Meerz-Rrit. I am now…” He hesitated, wondering what new name fate had brought him to, and came up with nothing. “I am now a fugitive.” He paused. “What do you know?”

“There was an invasion.” Tskombe shrugged. “Yiao-Rrit got us here, told us how to get to the spaceport. We have a battleship waiting for us beyond the singularity.”

“I will ensure you get to the spaceport. The kzintzag and Lesser Prides will still be loyal to Rrit Pride. Once we are beyond the reach of Tzaatz warriors we will be safe.”

“What will you do after that?”

“My fealty is to my father. I will see the usurpers scoured from his Citadel.” Pouncer said it with a confidence he didn't feel. “We must go. Time is short.” He turned to move down the tunnel.

Brasseur held up a hand though in the dark no one saw him. “A moment, please, to speak to my companions.”

“Quickly then.” Pouncer was impatient to be moving.

Brasseur motioned Cherenkova and Tskombe closer, and switched to Interspeak. “Be careful. The situation has changed, but the rules of conduct remain the same. He is the Patriarch's son, so our behavior before him is as vital as it was before Yiao-Rrit. Any statement you make must be true, or at least unfalsifiable. Any commitment you make must be carried out regardless of personal cost. If you can't back it up, just don't make it. We represent Earth. If we want to avoid a war we have to show ourselves worthy of being considered equals.”

Cherenkova snorted. “I don't consider them my equals.”

Brasseur looked at her in annoyance. “Will you pay five billion lives to assert your superiority?”

She looked back at him, keeping the anger out of her voice. “I am sworn to uphold the UN Charter, regardless of personal cost.” She held his gaze for long moment in the dim light. “How about you? Are you willing to die to save five billion lives?”

There was a long silence. Tskombe broke it. “Let's go.”

T'suuz led. Brasseur noticed that, unable to suppress his fascination even in their dire straits. She seemed more intelligent than any kzinrette he had ever seen; she was certainly the first he had ever seen carry a weapon. There was new information here, knowledge undreamed of. This trip would secure his position as the preeminent kzinologist in Known Space.

A grinding crash echoed down the tunnel from behind them, followed by distant snarls, weirdly distorted by the length of the tunnel. The Tzaatz had found the secret entrance and were coming after them. He quickened his pace. He would become the preeminent kzinologist in Known Space, if he survived.

At the head of the little column, Pouncer caught up with T'suuz. “We must hurry.”

“It's not much farther.” The tunnel branched and she turned left.

They came quickly to the end of the tunnel. Rungs set in the wall led to a hatch overhead. It was scaled thick with rust, but the locking mechanism moved in smooth silence in T'suuz's hand. Someone had been maintaining it. Pouncer knew where they were now. As a kit he had often played in the long abandoned fibercrete bunkers that had once been the Citadel's outer defense ring and listened to the heroic stories of the zitalyi who guarded the path to Hero's Square. He even knew the hatch they were standing under, and he knew it to be welded shut. Evidently appearance did not match fact.

He touched her shoulder. “You have used this route before.” It wasn't a question.

“Many times.”

Pouncer narrowed his whiskers in disbelief. “There is a zitalyi guard post above here.”

“I know.”

“How did you evade them these many times?”

She flipped her ears and twitched her tail. “A kzinrette has means of persuading even the elite of the Patriarch's guard. You have much to learn, brother.” The hatch cover swung easily upward as she pushed and sunlight filtered down. She motioned him to silence and climbed up. He followed her cautiously, pausing to examine the long rusted welds on the other side of the hatch cover. They were intact; instead the entire frame had been cut out and the joints cleverly concealed. Someone had gone to a great deal of trouble to arrange for this secret exit. He started to speak, then thought better of it. His world had been turned upside down. He needed time to process the new information.

She crept through the overgrown moss that covered the bunker's floor toward the opening that had once been a blast door. Muted snarls rose outside and her tail shot up to signal silence. Pouncer froze. There were Tzaatz warriors just outside. The snarls grew closer, and he caught the scent of rapsar raiders. Their escape route was blocked. He started back down the hatch as the enemy drew closer and T'suuz crept hurriedly back.

“There are too many Tzaatz there to seduce. We will have to go back.” Seconds later they were back in the ancient tunnel with the hatch closed and locked overhead.

“What's going on?” It was the female human.

T'suuz snarled, frustration in her voice. “The enemy is outside. We must fight our pursuers here, then wait for darkness to get past the guards outside.”

“No.” Pouncer raised a paw. “There is another way out.”

“The other tunnel dead-ends.”

Pouncer rippled his ears, glad for once to be the one surprising T'suuz. “You have much to learn, sister.” He pushed his way past the humans and led them back down the tunnel at a steady trot. The scrabble of claws on brick echoed down the tunnel toward them, warning that the Tzaatz behind them were still actively hunting them. The tunnel's acoustics made it impossible to estimate how far away the enemy was, but it was certain they were rapidly running out of time. He moved as fast as he dared back to the junction and took the other fork. He was nearly running now, heedless of the sound, and the humans were having trouble keeping up.

Behind them the sounds of pursuit grew louder. Pouncer felt the fight juices building in his bloodstream in anticipation of combat. T'suuz grabbed his arm. “Where are we going?”

“There is an emergency exit.” He didn't stop moving. “I don't know when it was put in, many eights of generations ago. Do you know the Sundial Grove?”

“I know it.”

“These tunnels were built when siege was a real possibility. The exit is concealed in the root cone of a broadleaf tree in the grove, but it may not work. We must be prepared to fight.”

“You have not used it?”

“It can only be used once.”

Moments later he was bending over a heavy steel grate in the floor. “Help me move this. Don't fall in.” He bent, and T'suuz bent with him, straining as they hauled the heavy cover open as it ground noisily on its hinges. He folded his ears tight against the harsh noise. Not good to make noise. It couldn't be helped. The exposed vertical shaft vanished down into echoing darkness.

“Now stand back, cover your ears.” She did as she bade him, and saw that the kz'eerkti did too. He groped in the dark for the lever he knew was there, fought down panic when he didn't find it. There! He pulled down on it hard. At first it didn't move, then all off a sudden it lurched down. The locking bars pulled out of the overhead panel and the panel exploded downward. There was a tremendous roar and the tunnel filled with choking dust as tons of gravel poured from above into the shaft at their feet. Pouncer sprang backward, thinking for an instant that the tunnel had collapsed even though he knew better.

The roar stopped, replaced by the chink of a few pebbles on stone.

“Up! Quickly! There is little time.” He bodily pushed the manrette into the now empty overhead shaft. She began to climb, followed by the other two aliens and T'suuz. He went last, as befitted the only warrior in the little party. There were no glowlamps and the shaft was pitch dark, but halfway up he sensed another hatch in the wall. He groped, found another lever above it, climbed higher and pulled it, muscles straining against metal seized tight with age. It let go all at once and he slammed his knuckles painfully on the stone while tons more gravel cascaded down into the shaft below him. He cursed at the pain, but they were safe from direct pursuit now. Coughing and sneezing at the dust, he climbed higher. Above, the manrette was struggling with the heavy hatch above. For a moment he wondered if he'd miscalculated. It would be difficult, maybe impossible to switch positions in the narrow shaft. If the manrette couldn't open it they'd be entombed. He should have sent T'suuz up first, or at least one of the larger alien males. He could hear the manrette snarling in its strangely musical voice, and the other aliens answering in kind. A rhythmic banging echoed down the shaft, and he cringed, imagining Tzaatz warriors on the surface coming to investigate. The air was thick with dust and the walls were claustrophobically tight in the total darkness. Pouncer fought down hyperventilation. Fear is death. But of all deaths to face, entombment and slow suffocation had to be the worst.

No, he had faced the worst death: the absolute void Patriarch's Telepath had thrown him into. He put out his paw, felt the rough stone, listened to the aliens chattering above him. Deep breath in, deep breath out. Here was reality, and he would face what it brought with his mind placid.

Above him ancient hinges groaned and a thin bar of light appeared, vanished, reappeared and grew larger. The hatch fell backward with a thud, and a rush of cool, fresh air flowed into the shaft. Above him T'suuz climbed higher and he climbed after her, blinking in the fading light of sunset. He climbed out into the tangled root arch of an ancient broadleaf tree, big enough that all five of them could shelter beneath it. The humans were shaking themselves and coughing, his sister started grooming the dust from her pelt.

“What was that?” T'suuz gave up her task as he hauled himself out of the shaft. She needed a slave, a bath, and a thorough combing.

“There are two vertical shafts, one up and one down. They are the same length.” Pouncer pawed at his own coat, uncomfortably full of grit. “The upper shaft is filled with gravel, supported by the overhead panel. In a siege the attacker will control the ground around the Citadel. They might find the tunnel exit, but if they do they will see nothing but a shallow pit full of stones. They cannot use it to get into the Citadel. The first lever opens the panel that dumps the gravel from the shaft above to the shaft below, leaving it empty so we can climb free. The second lever dumps more gravel into the shaft after you have left, sealing it off from pursuit.”

The shorter human male seemed excited by this. “How long ago was that installed?”

Pouncer turned his paws up. “Long before my time.”

“Before space travel?”

“I don't think so. The Citadel is that old, but there is little left of what was built then.”

The shorter male was about to say something else when the taller one cut him off. “We need to plan our next move.”

“Hrrr…” Pouncer turned a paw over introspectively. “My first duty is to see you off-world.”

T'suuz cut him off, her tail lashing. “No, your first duty is to survive.”

“There is no survival without honor.” He turned to face his sister.

“We must go into the jungle.” T'suuz's voice was calm and sure.

“What will we find there?” Pouncer was dismissive.

“Where did you think I was leading you? I am of the czrav. They will shelter us far from Tzaatz searches.”

“You are my sister, the Patriarch's daughter. You are no outcast outlander.”

“You are my brother, and the son of my mother, herself a treaty gift to the Patriarch from Mrrsel Pride of the czrav. We both carry jungle blood.”

“The line of the pride descends through the male.”

“Blood descends from every ancestor. Listen, brother! A kzinrette speaks to you in the Hero's Tongue. Tell me what noble pride of Kzinhome carries this in their genes.”

Pouncer raised his ears. “How is it that a kzinrette comes to carry these genes at all?”

“These secrets are not mine to reveal. Come to the jungle and you will learn them for yourself.”

“What of the aliens?”

“We must leave them here. They will not survive with us.”

“They will not survive here.” Tension showed in Pouncer's voice. “They wear the sigil. Rrit Pride is sworn to their protection. With the fall of the Citadel they are simply prey, marked for death. We cannot leave them.”

“The jungle will be hard enough for kzin. We cannot herd these herbivores.”

Pouncer snarled. “Herbivores or not, we are bound by the honor of our pride to protect them.”

“May the herbivores have a word?” Kefan Brasseur cut T'suuz off before she could answer, snarling the words like a predator. That surprised Pouncer, who had assumed the larger human would naturally be Speaker for the small band.

“You may, but you must accept my decision without question. Here I speak for the Patriarchy.” Even as he said it Pouncer realized that it was probably no longer true.

Brasseur made a passable attempt at the gesture of respect-between-equals. “Your authority is unquestioned, but we do not answer to the Patriarchy. Nor are we slaves, and the MacDonald-Rishshi treaty forbids the hunting of humans save convicted criminals. We are free sentients entitled to the protection of the Patriarchy by the word of Yiao-Rrit. However, we are not required to accept that protection should we choose to forgo it.”

The fur bristled at the back of Pouncer's neck. He was not accustomed to having his word questioned by an inferior, let alone an alien herbivore who somehow considered itself his equal. Nevertheless he could see no counter to Brasseur's statement. “I will hear you, kz'eerkti.”

Brasseur nodded and continued. “We have no desire to become caught in your conflict. Our only goal was to observe the meeting of the Great Pride Circle at the invitation of the Patriarch, and to negotiate a permanent peace between our species. We have accomplished that, thanks to your father. Our mission now is to return that information to Earth, so that our species may initiate our half of the bargain.”

“I acknowledge your concerns, Kefan-Brasseur. However it is unlikely that my father continues to express the will of the Patriarchy. Kchula-Tzaatz will now take up leadership of the Great Pride Circle.” If the Great Prides do not now fall into civil war. Pouncer kept the thought unvoiced. “What his decree will be, I cannot say.” As he said it Pouncer realized what his words meant. The Tzaatz attack was successful and the Citadel had fallen. The thought he had pushed away earlier rushed back unbidden. His father was certainly dead, along with his uncle, his brothers, even Second-Son. He was alone now, without blood allies save T'suuz, and the realization weighed heavy on him.

“Whoever he is, he would be a fool if he did not recognize us as representatives of Earth.” The Brasseur alien was still speaking. “The consequences of any other course of action would be serious. We are not the enemies of anyone here. Unlike you, no one is hunting us. We will go to the spaceport under the protection of your father's sigil.”

Pouncer's lips curled away from his fangs. “I will not speak for the wisdom of the Tzaatz. But I cannot allow you to expose yourself to the risk that would entail.”

“You cannot forbid us.”

“You will become hostages for Tzaatz Pride.”

“They will gain nothing and lose much by doing so. This Kchula-Tzaatz will understand this.”

“Rrit Pride is sworn to protect your safety. If you insist on presenting yourself to Kchula-Tzaatz, I must go with you.”

“No!” T'suuz spat the word, cutting off Brasseur before he could answer. “You and I may be the last of the Rrit line now, and I am a female. You must survive.” There was a hidden pain in her words, and Pouncer understood she had come to the same realization he had.

“Then our line will end with honor.” Pouncer's snarl was flat, not quite masking the emotions he did not wish to show.

“Kchula-Tzaatz spoke of the conquest of humanity at the Great Pride Circle. I don't see him giving us free passage.” Tskombe's voice was calm.

“Our priority has to be to get off the planet.” Cherenkova spoke with conviction.

Tskombe shook his head. “That's impossible now. Our options are limited.”

Brasseur threw up his arms in frustration. “Sensibly we can only present ourselves to Kchula-Tzaatz, and insist that we be given a shuttle back to Crusader. His honor won't allow…”

Pouncer cut Brasseur off with a snarl. “Tzaatz Pride has no honor.”

Brasseur was about to answer but Tskombe held up a hand. “Are you willing to bet your life on that, Ambassador? Because that's exactly what you're doing.”

“Well…”

“I am not an expert on Kzin, Ambassador, but this kzin” — he indicated First-Son—“has demonstrated his trustworthiness to me, personally. This Kchula-Tzaatz has not. The power structure has been overturned. We can't take anything not proven for granted.”

“Enough!” Pouncer raised his arms for attention, willing himself to relax. “I agree with Major Tskombe.” Rrit-Conserver had spoken of the importance of balancing the factions. He was Patriarch here, of this tiny pride of one kzinrette and three aliens, but enforcing his position was proving more complex than he could have imagined. “We will go to Hero's Square and I will find transport to the spaceport. From there we will get you aboard a ship to the singularity. There will be no more talk of presentations to Kchula-Tzaatz.”

“Hero's Square is too dangerous.” T'suuz had her ears laid flat. “You will be recognized.”

“I intend to be. The kzintzag owe no fealty to Kchula-Tzaatz. Rrit strakh will get us a gravcar.”

“The risk is too large to take for herbivores.” There was contempt in T'suuz's voice.

“No risk is too large for honor. And we need a vehicle. We cannot walk to the jungle.”

Her reply was cut short by the quiet whir of a gravcar. Pouncer held up his paw for silence, looked out through a gap in the root arch, caught just a glimpse of the car through the spreading branches overhead. Another whirred past, flying wing on the first. The Tzaatz were securing the area, and they were still within a stone's throw of the Citadel. The arch of the broadleaf tree's root cone had covered them from the car's sensors, but soon the Tzaatz would come on foot, with sniffers. They needed to be moving, immediately. He looked back in to the suddenly silent group huddled behind him. “We must go. We can discuss strategy in a safer place.” Without looking back he slid through the tangled roots and onto the forest floor.

The others followed him and he found the path that would take them through the forest to Hero's Square. Darkness was falling, and the Sundial Grove was peaceful, just a few benches around a clearing in the forest, cushioned in moist grasses. In the center was the ancient stone sundial that gave the place its name. He knew the area like his ears knew his name. Its familiarity was an odd note of comfort in the devastation surrounding him. He stopped at the trail, turned around, looked long and hard at it. It would be a long time before he saw it again, if ever.

The courageous may choose the manner of their death; the cowardly have it chosen for them.

— Si-Rrit

The maintenance shaft was cramped and dirty, the domain of slaves not kzinti warriors, but warriors did not shirk at discomfort, and Kdar-Leader ignored the grime matted into his coat. It didn't matter; he would not live long enough to see it clean again. What did matter now was to find a death of honor, striking hard at the invaders, making them pay dearly for their victory. Behind him were the remnants of his unit, First Section Commander, a lean, tough and cagey fighter; Gunner, aggressive and smart; Demolitions Expert, stolid and reliable; and Communicator, not even a warrior but ready now to give his life to the honor of the Rrit.

That would happen soon, now that the Tzaatz held the Citadel entire. How many groups of zitalyi had escaped to the tunnels as he had was unknown. There had to be a few, because occasionally the sounds of combat still came through the ventilators, weirdly distant and distorted. Equally certain, there were only a few, because he had seen so many die. All of his little band were wounded. Kdar-Leader himself was bleeding badly from a gash where a slicewire had slipped through his armor articulation at the hip. That mattered only in that it would slow him in combat.

A noise echoed ahead of them and he dropped to a crouch, looping his tail to signal the others to silence. It would not be a Tzaatz, because they had shown no liver for the dangers involved in following the zitalyi into the very bowels of the Citadel of the Patriarch, but it could very well be one of their despicable creations. It was not Kdar-Leader's place to decide if their employ fell within the technical bounds of the rules of skalazaal—that was a question the Conservers would be debating for generations yet — but he knew the smell of cowardice, and the rapsari stank of it. They were nothing but mindless flesh machines, built to kill so their masters need not face their enemies claw to claw. Unconsciously his lips twitched away from his fangs in contempt. No true Hero feared death. Everything living died — even the universe would come to an end in some unthinkably distant future. You could only choose how you died, and Kdar-Leader intended to die well.

The noise was not repeated, and after a long, tense wait Kdar-Leader crept forward again. The maintenance tunnel ran lower even than the Command Lair, carrying all the power, data, air, and water that the underground complex needed. Near the Command Lair was a cramped machinery room, and from that room a vertical ventilation shaft that ran straight up to the computer core immediately above the Command Lair. The Tzaatz would have the computer core well protected, of course, but it was unlikely they knew the danger the shaft presented. It was not on the Citadel maps, and they would not know where to look. The tunnel itself was straight and level, but the power had been cut off in the fighting and the darkness was absolute. They had to feel their way along it a pace at a time, whiskers stretched out and quivering. Though he knew where he was going, the darkness was disorienting. That and the white noise coming from the air pumps ahead played tricks on his mind, and sometimes it seemed as if the tunnel was sloping steeply or twisting around on itself. It required iron self-discipline simply to keep moving forward, but he was the leader; he could show no fear.

He sensed the open space as they came to the machinery room, felt along the wall for the ladder that led up to the vent shaft. It got easier when he found it, the rungs providing the stable reference point that the floor had been unable to. Slowly he climbed, and his Heroes climbed after him. At the top a faint patch of light showed. Air flowed past in a quiet, steady rush. They need not fear making noise, so long as nobody spoke or fell. Their scent was a larger concern, but the Citadel had seen its share of blood, rage, and fear today; the Tzaatz shouldn't scent them until it was too late.

And then he was there, peering through a mesh grill into the computer core. Pierin slaves worked there, obedient to their new masters, showing five-armed Tzaatz-liveried Jotoki the workings of the system. A full sword of Tzaatz were on guard. The computer core was one of the most vital objectives in the Citadel and they knew it. But only two of them were truly alert, those at the door, and they were facing the wrong way.

He twitched hunt-signs with his tail to let the others know what he saw, unsure if Gunner behind him could see them in the dim light. It didn't matter; the plan had been set before they entered the maintenance tunnel. He, First Section Commander, and Gunner would take on the Tzaatz while Communicator and Demolitions Expert set the charges that would destroy the computer core and rob the Tzaatz of that invaluable prize. They had relied on stealth up to now, but once he burst through the grating that would be over. Then it would be up to him to spread chaos long enough for the others to clamber up and leap through.

He climbed higher, checking carefully to see how the grating was attached. If it were bolted in place it would be difficult, although he could cut his way in with his variable sword if he had to. Better, though, to leap right through the panel.

His paw pads moved carefully, found clips, tested them. He was in luck: a solid shove would take out the grating, and he would be leaping right behind it. Unconsciously his jaws gaped into a fanged smile and he breathed deeper, faster, priming his body for the combat to come. He twitched his tail again to prepare his comrades… four… three… two… one…

Leap! And the grating exploded outward as his killscream echoed from the walls. Tzaatz and slaves alike scattered in shock, and as he landed he had already cut in half a Tzaatz who had taken off his mag armor. A second drew his variable sword, but Kdar-Leader cut off his arm before he could bring it around, and his second stroke decapitated his enemy. A second scream and Gunner was beside him, disemboweling a third guard. The panicked slaves were running for the door, preventing the two Tzaatz there from entering the fray. The three still in the room were on their guard now, variable swords drawn and ready. Two of them advanced on Kdar and Gunner while the third circled to take Kdar from the flank. He fell back a pace to cover his side — where was Section Commander? The first swung, then the second and Kdar fell back again as he parried them both. Then another scream and Section Commander was beside him, sword blurring as he waded into the flanking Tzaatz. The other fell back, and Kdar gained back the ground he had given. They had momentum now, and the last Pierin was running out the door on its spidery limbs. The Tzaatz guards there had been pushed halfway down the access corridor by the exodus of slaves, but in heartbeats they would be back in the fray and tip the balance.

“Push them to the door!” Even as he said it Kdar took another pace forward, leading with a thrust, cut, thrust combination that forced his opponent back. At the door the battle would be two on two and the Tzaatz weight of numbers wouldn't matter, not for the time it would take to set the charges at least. Section Commander made a quick lunge and pushed his opponent back a pace, then two, then three. Kdar's opponent was forced to fall back as well or leave his vulnerable side exposed to Section Commander.

One of the guards who was blocked out in the corridor drew his w'tsai and threw it in one fluid motion. It spun past Kdar's ears in a whirling blur and thunked into something behind him. There was a gurgling scream. He risked a glance backward and saw Communicator go down, clawing at the blade lodged in his throat. Neither he nor Demolitions Expert had mag armor, which was why they were setting the charges rather than fighting. Motion flashed in the corner of his eye and he raised his arm to block a blow that would have cut him in half if he'd let himself be distracted an instant longer.

“Push!” He screamed the word and all three zitalyi stepped into the attack. The Tzaatz fell back, and then suddenly Section Commander was down, blood gushing from his severed sword arm. He was beyond saving, a few heartbeats from death as his dying heart spurted out his life's blood through the arteries in his shoulder, but he swung his other arm around to pull his opponent off his feet. The Tzaatz who had killed him jumped clear, then went down to finish the job. The move left him open to Gunner, who slid his slicewire between the other's articulated shoulder plates, killing him instantly. It was two on two now, and the surviving Tzaatz had been backed to the door. If Section Commander had died an instant earlier the Tzaatz now caught in the corridor would have been able to flank them and the battle would have been over already.

As it was, it was just a matter of time. The alarm must have been raised already; more Tzaatz would come. An image from his kittenhood flashed through his mind, he and his older brother standing off eight of the sons of Kdar-Zraft at once. But then they had been a team, and their adversaries individuals. The Tzaatz would not be so foolish. Those facing him had a coherent guard, matching their strokes and parries to expose neither of them to Kdar or Gunner. It was a standoff, one the Tzaatz thought they would win because they could count on reinforcement, but one that Kdar knew he would win, because he did not intend to survive the fight.

He had only to buy enough time for Demolitions Expert. That could not be long now, but even as he realized that, Gunner missed a stroke and overextended. The Tzaatz facing him might have jerked back at the thrust, but instead he slid his slicewire down and underneath, catching Gunner in the gaps of his breastplate articulation. The big warrior went down bubbling blood, and suddenly Kdar had to face two adversaries at once.

He knew how to do that, fall back a space and put his sword into a blurring series of combinations that kept both his opponents fully engaged. Thrust, parry, thrust, parry, thrust, parry. The Tzaatz could not break his guard, but he would tire rapidly — already fatigue was setting in, and when it did he would slow, and when he slowed he would die.

“Expert! Work quickly!” The words nearly cost him his life. The breath they took left an opening, and a slicewire glanced from the front of his breastplate. He fell back another pace, and that was where he had to stand. Any farther and the Tzaatz behind would be into the room and he would die at that instant. His arms felt like lead. The Tzaatz behind licked their chops, sensing his coming exhaustion. He got in a solid blow, felt his sword dig in, saw a chunk of metal flying away from his opponent's shoulder plate. The Tzaatz's mag armor had failed or had never been turned on. There was a weakness there he could exploit, if he could set up an opening…

Then suddenly a body filled the space beside him, the Rrit killscream deafening even through his laid-flat ears. It was Demolitions Expert, fresh and full of fight juices. That could only mean the fuses were set. The battle was over, if they could hold out heartbeats longer. The enemy fell back at the new attack, and there was the opening. Kdar swung his variable sword around and brought it down with all his strength, cleaving through the Tzaatz warrior's depowered mag armor as though it weren't there. The move left him open, as he knew it would. It didn't matter. One of the Tzaatz in the corridor had advanced over his comrade's body. Already Demolitions Expert had died, sliced in half by a blow that armor would easily have stopped. The Tzaatz in front of him kept his sword moving, forcing Kdar to stay engaged, while his companion leapt through the gap Expert had left to take him from the flank.

It didn't matter. They were too late and he knew it. “I serve the Rrit!” He screamed the words in triumph as the second Tzaatz moved in for the kill. The blast slammed Kdar-Leader into the wall. It was a death of honor.

It is easier to seize power than to wield it, easier to wield power than to hold it.

— Si-Rrit

Kchula-Tzaatz admired the view from the Patriarch's Tower, stretching out his arms to take in the whole of the plain of Stgrat. “It is mine, Ftzaal.” He couldn't keep the gloating from his voice. In the distance a continuous stream of cargo landers was falling into Sea-of-Stars spaceport, almost all of them ferrying in Tzaatz occupation forces. “All mine.”

“Now we must hold it, brother.” Behind him Ftzaal-Tzaatz was intently studying an intricate Kdatlyno touch-sculpture. He kept his voice carefully even.

Kchula whirled to face him. “Hold it? Who will take it from us?”

“We have shown that Kzinhome can be taken. What Pride-Patriarch does not now covet our success?”

Kchula twitched his tail. “None will dare stand against our rapsari.”

“Our losses in the attack were serious.” Ftzaal turned to face his brother. “We are tremendously vulnerable.”

“No! We are victorious!” Kchula-Tzaatz raked the air with his claws. “The Great Prides do not see the resources thrown into this conquest. They see only that the Patriarchy itself has fallen to the Tzaatz!”

“A development which is sure to raise their fears.”

“None are poised to leap. By the time any are, our position will be consolidated.”

“How do we know none are ready to leap? There could be a fleet falling in from the singularity this instant.”

“Your role is intelligence, zar'ameer.” Kchula turned to fix his gaze on his brother. “Have you failed me?”

Ftzaal waved a paw dismissively. “Our resources have been aimed almost exclusively at the Rrit. Any other pride considering such a leap would have concealed their preparations as carefully as we. The Fanged God would be favorable indeed if we were to learn what the Rrit so clearly have not.”

“Kitten's fears!”

“It is my function to consider the possible.”

“And it is mine to lead the Pride.” Kchula turned back to the window. “Today is a day of victory, and the Great Pride Circle is here to witness it. We shall not betray our weakness through overcaution.”

“As you wish, brother.”

Kchula let Ftzaal's acquiescence hang in the air for a while, watching the distant stream of landers as they decelerated for touchdown, considering how to broach a more delicate subject. His brother was useful, but required careful handling. “We have another matter to consider. Rrit-Conserver.”

“He must die.” Ftzaal-Tzaatz's voice was suddenly harsh.

Kchula turned to face him. “You are hasty to throw away the spoils of our victory. We have already lost Patriarch's Telepath. Rrit-Conserver possesses the finest strategic mind in the Patriarchy.”

“I remind you that mind is opposed to our own goals.”

Kchula raised his ears. “Do you doubt that it could be turned to support them?”

“I am certain it cannot.” Again Ftzaal's voice was harsh.

“Why is that?” And what is his real objection?

“His loyalty remains with the Rrit.” Ftzaal drew his variable sword and took up the resting guard stance, then moved to attack crouch and back, a standard drill of the single combat form.

“He owes fealty to Second-Son, and we control Second-Son.”

“He owes fealty to the Patriarchy, and First-Son is the rightful heir.”

“First-Son is dead.” Kchula snapped the words, as if that could make them true.

“We have not confirmed that, and until we do the question is enough to prevent Rrit-Conserver's honor from binding him to our puppet.” Ftzaal-Tzaatz's voice was again neutral and controlled. “Where the road of honor forks, a Hero may take either path with pride.”

“First-Son is dead. Dead or a fugitive unworthy of a name, fleeing in cowardice. We will let that be known, and Rrit-Conserver's fealty will fall to us.”

Ftzaal turned a paw over, considering. “Until we see his body First-Son is not dead. We may brand him a coward, but until that is proven our words will not suffice to command Rrit-Conserver's honor either.”

“Hrrr. Do not give me problems!” Kchula turned away angrily. He objects because he feels his position threatened. I must not allow this one to gain too much power, and Rrit-Conserver is an excellent tool for that task.

“Then do not seek problems out. Rrit-Conserver is a consummate strategist, but he is not the only strategist. Alive he is dangerous, no matter what holds we may put on him. The dead are no one's enemy.”

“Don't be a fool. The Great Prides will take taming. The name of Rrit-Conserver will go far to convince them of the legitimacy of our puppet.”

“Brother, I must say again, it is too dangerous.” Ftzaal changed his practice to left blocks and right blocks, his slicewire hissing as it cut the air.

“What steps must we take to control him?”

“None I can think of will be sufficient.”

Kchula's tail lashed unconsciously. “You lack imagination.”

“I serve Tzaatz Pride to the best of my ability, brother.”

“Do you? Perhaps Rrit-Conserver is more of a threat to your position than to my rule.”

Ftzaal-Tzaatz's eyes narrowed. “You mock my honor.”

“The enmity of the Black Priests and the Conservers is no secret. Prove me wrong.”

“Such proof is impossible.” Ftzaal's self-control reasserted itself. “Judge my actions. I am your blood, zar'ameer to your rule. My plan has delivered Kzinhome and the Patriarchy into your hands. Decide for yourself my honor and loyalty.”

Kchula's whiskers twitched. “And yet you do not wish to see Rrit-Conserver's mind applied in Battle Circle.”

“Any plan he gives us will contain a hidden trap. You can depend upon it.”

“By so doing he would betray his fealty to the Rrit.”

“Only if we can show him the body of First-Son.”

“So we will show him that body.”

Ftzaal's ears fanned up in concern and he retracted his slicewire, returning his variable sword pommel to his belt. “Such deception treads on the edge of honor, brother.”

“And the rest of this has not? I have heard enough!” Kchula raked the air with his claws. “This is not about honor. This is about power.”

“Without at least the appearance of honor there is no victory. The power will slip through your grasp.”

“Do not try my patience, Ftzaal.” Kchula turned and strode out of the room, slamming the heavy door open as he passed.

Ftzaal-Tzaatz watched him go, then after a long moment turned to look out the window as his brother had, watching the stream of landers in-falling to the spaceport. Sea-of-Stars had become the nexus from which Tzaatz power was spreading to seize control. Rarely had such power had been seen in the history of the Patriarchy. Not since Hrrahr-Chruul, eight-cubed generations ago, had a Rrit been overthrown, and Hrrahr-Chruul's dynasty had lasted just three inheritances before Kdar-Rrit rallied the Spinward Prides to reclaim Kzinhome. Three inheritances was just enough time for Kdar's sublight fleet to make the journey from the spinward edge of the Patriarchy to Kzinhome. Loyalty to the Rrit ran strong through the Patriarchy, so strong that if Ftzaal didn't know better he might have thought it etched in the very genes of the species. Not that there weren't already enough alleles that needed to be weeded from the genome. What price will the Patriarchy pay for the Black Priest secret? The Succession War had been long and bloodly, and the Dueling Traditions had not always been followed. Kdar-Rrit had ended Hrrahr-Chruul's line, and three other Great Prides had been destroyed in that conquest. Even today the descendants of the Spinward warriors held worlds that had once been another pride's, the spoils of conquest liberally dispensed by victorious Kdar. The Patriarchy had been seriously weakened by that conflict, but it had not mattered then; there had been no other species to pose the slightest threat to even the weakest border colony.

Only the slightest quiver of his whiskers betrayed Ftzaal's concern as his mind quite automatically ran over the forces at play, assessing potential strategies and calculating possible outcomes. The situation was drastically different today. The dangers that Meerz-Rrit had laid before the Great Pride Circle were no less real because it was a Rrit who brought them forward. The Patriarchy was at critical point in its history, and the ripples of the Tzaatz conquest would persist for generations to come. Quite certainly they would outlast the Tzaatz dynasty, however many inheritances that was. Unconsciously Ftzaal's tail twitched. Their position was far from solid; the loss of the Citadel's computer core to zitalyi holdouts just one in a chain of incidents that the Tzaatz had so far been unable to prevent. Much depended on the next few days. They had to consolidate their victory immediately, or the other Great Prides would sense weakness, and then… It was quite possible the Tzaatz dynasty would go down in the Pride Saga with no inheritances at all.

In the time-before-time Chraz-Rrit-First-Patriarch led his pride against that of Mror-Vdar, and Mror-Vdar commanded the magic of fire and so slew eight-to-the-fifth Rrit warriors in a single heartbeat, and Chraz-Rrit was left alone on the battlefield. He might have fled then, but instead he challenged Mror-Vdar to single combat, claw to claw, fang to fang, with the victor to claim everything and the vanquished to be czrav, to wander prideless forever. So Mror-Vdar laid aside w'tsai and w'tzal, but he did not lay aside his magic, for no one could see that he kept it. They dueled in the morning, and the Fanged God himself was watching to see who would triumph. And so it happened that Chraz-Rrit's fangs found Mror-Vdar's throat, and to save himself Mror-Vdar used his magic and Chraz-Rrit was burned deep and leapt away. The Fanged God stopped the fight then, and decreed that magic had no place in a duel of honor. Chraz-Rrit was ready to fight on, but Mror-Vdar refused to lay aside his power. Three times the Fanged God commanded him to, and three times he refused, so the Fanged God declared him honorless and czrav and banished Vdar to live in the jungle, and gave victory to Chraz-Rrit. And ever since then kzinti have dueled with their own strength and nothing more.

— The Legend of the Duel

It was usually a pleasant morning's walk down well-worn paths from the Sundial Grove through Darkmoon Park to Hero's Square for Pouncer. This time the journey had taken all night. The Tzaatz were out in force, and in the face of sophisticated sensors stealth meant getting behind thick, hard cover and staying there. Fortunately the forest was abundant in natural movement, from the broadleaf trees swaying and creaking in the wind to the scurrying of night scavengers small and large. Cover enough for desperate flight, if you were careful. The weak predawn light found Pouncer and his small pride in the shadow of the ancient stone wall that surrounded the Hero's Square. At one time the wall had been the outer defensive bastion of the fortress city that was ruled from the Citadel. Now it was surrounded by dens and shops, the wall itself used as a structural element for the buildings that found themselves next to it. Tzaatz gravcars whirred over the scene, and checkpoints had been set up at the main gates through the ancient fortifications, where Tzaatz guards checked every face passing through and vicious raider rapsari snarled and snorted, pulling hard on their harnesses, eager for a command to kill. They watched the activity from a distance, stood aside to allow a gravcarrier loaded with long planks of stonewood to set down beside a crafter's shop on the outside of the wall.

“Don't they ever sleep?” Cherenkova was clearly surprised at the amount of activity so early in the morning.

Brasseur shook his head. “Kzin are crepuscular predators, most active at dusk and dawn. They catnap at midnight and midday. The square will slow down as the sun gets higher.”

She nodded. “We have to be out of sight by then.”

He shrugged. “I'm sure our Hero there knows what he's doing.” Cherenkova gave him a look. Even now the scholar seemed more interested in the opportunity to observe kzinti cultural interactions up close than in the possibility that they might end the day as guests of honor at a Tzaatz hunt. It turned out to be easy to get into the square; there were simply too few of the invaders to cover every possible entrance. The wall was a tradition rather than a defense, and had been since the kzinti went to space. There were many stairs over it and arches through it, put there over the generations for the convenience of some long-forgotten merchant trader and maintained for the convenience of those who followed him. The little group slipped through a smaller arch, barely more than a tunnel, and quickly lost themselves in the bustle of commerce. As soon as they were in the market district Pouncer obtained several well-worn fur blankets from a wide-eyed trader, who abased himself and tried to convince them to take his best stock when he saw who his customer was. He tried to appear brave, worthy of the honor being bestowed upon him, but even Cherenkova could see his fear clearly.

Pouncer ripped holes in the blankets for vision and the humans wore them over their heads. The furs were hot, uncomfortable and musty, but they served to disguise the humans from casual recognition, and more important, masked their smell from both kzinti and rapsari sniffers. They were paid no particular attention. A young kzin with three fur-swaddled aliens and an unleashed kzinrette were far from the strangest thing to be seen in Hero's Square on even an average day, and this was not an average day. There was still the risk that Pouncer himself would be recognized, but it was still too dark for that at any distance.

They made their way in silence through the brightening dawn, twice turning away to avoid Tzaatz patrols with sniffer rapsari. As the sun rose, Cherenkova began to worry about the possibility of someone recognizing Pouncer, and a glance traded with Tskombe showed he had the same concern. There was nothing they could do but follow where the kzin led.

Ahead of them Pouncer had the same worry. He knew where he was going, he knew how to get there, but the Tzaatz patrols were making it difficult. Every time he grew close to his goal he was forced in another direction to avoid them. There was no doubt in his mind that he was the primary subject of the Tzaatz search. Kchula-Tzaatz's attack had been wildly successful, but it would be useless if he could not show the heads of all of the Rrit. Pouncer alive was more of a danger to him than the entire Rrit fleet. The rapsari sniffers were the primary danger; the smells of the market crowded too close for a kzinti nose to pick out any one scent at any distance at all, but one look at the long, questing proboscises of the sniffers had told him all he needed to know about the function of that particular breed of genetic construct. They would have his scent from the Citadel, from his chambers if nowhere else, and if they picked him up it would be the end of his run.

The sun was nearly over the horizon when he finally found his destination, and at first he didn't recognize it. What had been a poor stall had been markedly improved, the front rebuilt with fine flamewood, a new awning of oiled posrori skin, the stalls next door taken over to make room for an enclosed feeding area already half built. Provider had gained strakh indeed from the patronage of the Patriarch's son, and wasted no time taking advantage of it.

The old kzin was in the front of his stall, dispensing water to the vatach on display there. He took good care of his stock. He turned as Pouncer and his small band arrived at the counter, his eyes widening in instant recognition.

“Sire! Patriarch! You… We feared… They've been searching for you… You must come inside.” He glanced over their shoulders to see who might be watching, then beckoned them to the side of his stall, where a door led into a storage area behind the front cages. It was the response Pouncer had hoped for, and he went in, T'suuz and the humans behind him. It was cramped quarters for all of them. Vatach and grashi scrabbled in their cages, and a preparation board held a pungent array of chopped roots beside a large tub of half-stirred sauce. The air was heavy with animal scents.

“Not Patriarch yet, Provider, not while my father still lives.” And I pray to the Fanged God that he does. “I thank you for your hospitality. We will not stay long; you are endangering yourself in sheltering us.”

Provider made the gesture that meant irrelevant. “You will stay as long as you need.” He unfurled his ears to show the tattoos of the Rrit. “I commanded a grav tank in the Kdatlyno uprising, and led a full four-sword at Patriarch's Reach, and again at Avenari, where I was wounded.” He raised his arm to show a long white streak of fur that grew over a scar on his flank, evidence of some weapon that must have nearly cut him in half. “The Tzaatz will have to kill me to take you from beneath my roof.”

Pouncer made the gesture that meant I-am-in-your-debt. “I am honored by your fealty. You have the gratitude of the Rrit, for what that is worth now.”

“The thanks of Rrit are priceless in any circumstances. Think no more of it, sire.” He held up a paw before Pouncer could speak further. “Here, you must eat; you must be starved. We will make plans later.” Provider was already fishing a vatach from a cage. Pouncer was hungry enough to eat it whole, but it would not do to insult the prowess of their benefactor, so he carefully beheaded the runner and dipped its body in the sauce. T'suuz, dropping instantly into the part of the trained kzinrette, knelt beside him to be fed. It was a role, he suddenly realized, that she had played her entire life, and with that realization came the understanding of how galling that role must have been for a mind as quick and ambitious as hers. He had a bite of the vatach, so as to not insult his host, then gave her the rest. The next he offered to Kefan-Brasseur, who refused it, as did the other humans. Provider brought out some Jotoki popfruits, slave food for his Kdatlyno, and the kz'eerkti ambassadors found them more to their taste.

Many vatach later the feasting stopped, and a kzin younger than Pouncer brought water bowls to wash the blood from their paws and jowls. This is Provider's son, Pouncer realized, he who hunted beyond the Mooncatchers for wild-caught grashi, and no doubt larger game as well. The youngster was only in mid-adolescence, his fur still carrying the faint spot pattern of a kitten, but he carried himself with confidence and his movements had an economy and purposefulness that made him a presence. There is strength to be found in the lone hunt, strength that cannot be assigned by title or privilege. It was a truth he knew from his own hunts, but there was a difference between an occasional afternoon's pleasure chase and a lifetime of hunts on which livelihood and life depended. Pouncer, born to rule and trained to that role since birth, found himself in awe of this near-kitten.

And this I cannot express. To be Rrit was to rule. To doubt his own ability to carry out his birthright was impossible, at least publicly. The best I can do is strive to be worthy of the honor birth has given me.

“I hesitate to interrupt.” Kefan-Brasseur was speaking. “We have to resolve our current predicament as soon as possible.”

If Provider was surprised at the alien's speech he did not show it. Nevertheless he addressed his reply to Pouncer. “What are your intentions, sire?”

“These kz'eerkti are under my protection. I must see them safely to their ship at the singularity's edge.”

“Have they a ship at the spaceport?”

“No, but Chuut-Portmaster will grant me one.”

“The Tzaatz are heavy on the ground there. Sire, it is too dangerous for you to go.”

“May we borrow your gravcar?”

“All I have is at your disposal, sire.”

“We will go and look.” He raised a paw to forestall Provider's objection. “And I give you my word we will do nothing foolish.”

Provider's gravcar was old but serviceable. Pouncer flew because T'suuz could not. The humans sat in the rear, all three easily fitting in the space meant for two kzin. He lifted out and rotated for the spaceport. Treetops slid beneath them. Pouncer kept them low in order to evade possible detection by Tzaatz patrols, inasmuch as that was possible. It was not long before the spaceport came into view. Pouncer swung around to enter the local traffic landing pattern. T'suuz grabbed his shoulder and pointed. “Look.”

He followed her pointing, saw clustered assault rapsari on the stabilized turf of the boost field. A dozen or more assault shuttles were down on the field, as well as a pawful of Swiftwing couriers and a flight deck's worth of transatmospheric fighters. The glint of mag armor highlighted Tzaatz warriors. A steady stream of freight haulers was falling out of orbit to be marshaled on the ground by the Tzaatz, and around the perimeter of the spaceport, weapon carriers stood in defensive positions with others circling overhead to intercept incoming traffic. The route off-planet was very firmly in enemy hands. Pouncer guided the gravcar into a tight loop to take them out of the approach path, hoping they were too far out for the aborted approach to draw attention. There were a few tense moments when a Tzaatz patrol seemed to be following them, but it veered away without incident. Pouncer guided the car back to Hero's Square and they again took refuge in Provider's shop.

Inside Pouncer raked the air with his claws in frustration and turned to Tskombe. “If we could gain access to Chuut-Portmaster we would have a ship for you!”

The human stroked his chin. “Perhaps we could wait until he leaves. Do you know where he lives?”

Brasseur interrupted before Pouncer could answer. “I would be very surprised if he has not been removed from power.”

Pouncer turned to face the historian. “He is not of the Rrit; the declaration of skalazaal does not apply to him.”

Brasseur shrugged. “I know your traditions, but I also know the demands of power. The Tzaatz need control of the spaceport for its cargo handling facilities. They would not leave such an important asset in enemy hands. Tradition demands they leave him at his post, but you can be sure he's not alone in it, and he will not be free to do as you ask.”

“Hrrr.” Pouncer flicked his tail in annoyance. “You are probably right.”

Cherenkova pursed her lips, thinking. “The key question is, will the Tzaatz allow us to leave?”

“We cannot know this.”

“Sire, I can find out for you.” Provider's son had come in, bringing water. The group turned to the adolescent. “I can bring food to the guards on the perimeter; it will not be seen as unusual. They must have been given instructions. Perhaps they hunt these aliens as game; perhaps they have no interest in them. I will learn the truth.”

“No!” Provider snarled at his son, fangs exposed. “Have you no honor? We will not trade the strakh of the Rrit for that of the Tzaatz.”

The adolescent started to answer but Pouncer held up a hand to stop him. “Your son trades no strakh, Provider. His suggestion is clever, and brave. Let him go.”

There was a long pause, then Provider signaled his agreement. His son began loading cages of grashi, vatach, and other delicacies into the antiquated gravcar. Its rear, Pouncer now noticed, had been modified so it could serve as a mobile market stall, with indentations to hold jars of sauce without slopping. He began to help, carrying cages to speed the loading, and quite quickly the car was ready. The adolescent took the pilot's seat with casual confidence and powered up the polarizers. Pouncer stopped him before he could lift out. “How are you known, youngling?”

The adolescent claw-raked. “I am called Far Hunter, sire.”

“Because you travel far to find the best grashi, yes? Do you also hunt alone?”

“I do now, sire. When I was younger my father came with me, but his injuries no longer allow it.”

“You are young for a name, Far Hunter, but I can see you have earned it. Your father brings honor to your house, and you are well worthy of his inheritance.”

“Thank you, sire.”

Far Hunter left on his mission, and Pouncer, T'suuz, and the humans waited in Provider's storeroom. Provider himself was kept busy serving customers, and twice Tzaatz ground patrols came by asking after any of Rrit Pride. Provider quite truthfully told them that the Patriarch's heir had visited his shop just two days ago. He played the role masterfully, distracting the searchers with food while he cleverly shifted the conversation without the Tzaatz realizing that he had not quite answered the question they had asked. After the second patrol Provider closed his jars and came back to wait with the fugitives.

Pouncer got up in protest. “We must leave, Provider; we cost you strakh with your custom by forcing you to close.”

The old kzin gestured for him to sit down. “No, sire, you honor me with your faith in my loyalty. Those Tzaatz sthondat ask questions only as an excuse to wolf down my best vatach. We will wait here for my son to return.”

Tskombe's eyebrows went up. “You're just going to leave your stock unguarded in the front?”

Provider looked at him. “The Tzaatz have no honor, but not even the most craven would stoop to stealing from a public market stall in daylight.”

Tskombe nodded, absorbing this, and the little group lapsed into silence, listening to the bustle of the market die down as the sun grew higher. It was some hours later by his beltcomp that Far Hunter returned.

“I visited all the port entrances. It's tightly guarded by Tzaatz and their creatures, and shuttles are coming down to unload more all the time. There were gravtanks and combat cars as well, and Tzaatz warriors checked every vehicle allowed to enter. I asked after Chuut-Portmaster as though we shared strakh and was cuffed for my trouble, but I overheard that they search for the kz'eerkti, as well as any of Rrit Pride.”

“Then we cannot get the aliens off-planet.”

Far Hunter turned his paw over. “The Tzaatz are sloppy and ill disciplined. It would be possible to get in, perhaps.”

Pouncer's whiskers twitched. “It is one thing to gain access, but we need a ship, and a pilot.”

“I can fly a ship. Given an automanual I can learn to fly a kzinti ship,” said Cherenkova.

“Hrrr.” Pouncer turned a paw over, considering. “I cannot accompany you off-world. I would be unable to stand for your protection. I can turn that duty over to a loyal Rrit warrior, but not to you.”

Cherenkova turned to him. “With respect First-Son-of-Meerz-Rrit, as a passenger on a ship I was piloting there would be little you could do to protect us anyway. We greatly appreciate your loyalty to your uncle's oath, but at some point we must resume responsibility for our own fates. I suggest that point comes when our ship boosts for orbit.”

“Hrrr…” Pouncer considered this.

“You kz'eerkti wear the Patriarch's sigil,” Provider said. “You are welcome to stay in my home until the Tzaatz are gone. The population of kzin will not stand for their dishonor long.”

Cherenkova was about to answer, but Tskombe cut her off. “No.” The soldier spoke Interspeak to the other humans so the kzinti couldn't understand him. “We have to get back to human space. The Tzaatz are looking for our Hero there because he's the Patriarch's heir, and their victory won't be recognized until they kill him. So why are they also looking for us? Meerz-Rrit has agreed in principle to peace. The only reason Kchula-Tzaatz would want to prevent us from leaving is if he intended to change that. I would bet my career he is planning a war with humanity, at least a continuation of the conquest program. There's obviously pressure for that to happen, and his leadership isn't solid; he can't take the risks Meerz-Rrit was prepared to in the name of peace. Leading a war will help him consolidate his role. The UN needs to know this.”

Brasseur nodded. “I think you're right.”

“We thank you for your generosity, Provider,” Cherenkova answered in the Hero's Tongue, carrying on as though Tskombe's words had made no difference to what she was about to say. “But we must return to our own world as quickly as possible.”

“What ship would you fly, Cherenkova-Captain?” Pouncer asked.

“I saw some Swiftwing-class couriers on the field when we landed, fast and long ranged. One of those would be best. I need the documentation to learn to fly it.”

“My half brother is Cargo Pilot. I will see what I can do to get you an automanual,” Provider said. “Until then we will hide you at my home.”

T'suuz said nothing, but her tail lashed. Her disapproval was clear.

They took Provider's gravcar to his home, then he and his son left, the one to reopen their market stall, the other to find his half brother Pilot and perhaps obtain a Swiftwing automanual. Provider's home was spartan but comfortable, located in a forest clearing shared with a couple of similar structures ten or fifteen kilometers from Hero's Square. It was small by kzin standards, ample on a human scale. There were four rooms on one level, built around a central sand-floored den and backed against a layered sedimentary cliff face. The front two rooms were built of thick stonewood timbers; the rear two were actually hollowed out of the cliff. A fireplace in the middle of the den led to a chimney that went up through the rock, although there was no need for it with the approach of the dry season. A loft above the outer rooms provided storage, and it was here that the humans were quartered among anonymous boxes and dusty war trophies from the time when Provider had been Tank Leader. It reminded Cherenkova of her aunt's attic, where she had explored as a little girl and found all kinds of fascinating treasures long discarded by the adults in her life, a keyhole glimpse at her elders' history before she was born. There was something compellingly human about an attic full of forgotten memories, something probably common to any sentient that led a settled existence. She said as much to Brasseur and he smiled.

“Your paradigm is shifting. The UN would have you believe the Kzin are evil predators bent on nothing more than killing. That's just propaganda. They're bound by the rules of life, of evolution, and those are universal. They're built of DNA and amino acids because those are nature's preferred building blocks in a liquid water environment, and those blocks are formed into muscles and skeleton and organs because they are solving the same evolutionary problems we are. They have fears and desires, hopes and dreams just like we do. In those emotions they're closer to us than a dog is, probably closer even than a chimpanzee, because they operate on the same plane of intelligence that we do.”

Cherenkova shook her head. “I'm not sure I buy the universal-rules-of-life argument. The Outsiders aren't built of DNA and amino acids.”

“The Outsiders are a perfect example. Their biology is as far from ours as it's possible for a biology to be. Their environment is deep space, their blood is liquid helium, their evolutionary history is fundamentally different, and their civilization is eons older. We have almost no touchpoints with them — but they still trade for what they need, just like we do, just like Provider does. That's a fundamental constant in any civilization; in fact it's one of the defining characteristics of a civilization.”

“That doesn't mean they share our emotions. You can't tell me a kzin understands love in the human sense, just to take an example — much less an Outsider.”

“Yes, I can tell you that. They have eyes. You wouldn't argue they don't see the same things we do.”

“Eyes are physical structures, emotions aren't.”

“Eyes are evolutionary adaptations to an environment bathed in photons. Organisms that live in darkness do not evolve eyes, or lose them if they possess them. With sentient beings that live in groups, the most important part of the environment is the other intelligent sentient beings in the group. Emotions are how we deal with them, and emotions are manifested in the physical structure of our brains. They're no less adapted to our social environment than our eyes are to Sol's spectrum. Watch how Far Hunter takes care of his father, or watch the way he looks at T'suuz. Watch how fiercely loyal T'suuz is to her brother. Were they humans in the same situation their actions would be no different. Sexual attraction ensures that reproduction happens, and sexual love ensures the offspring get the support they need from their parents. Familial love ensures you put your best efforts into helping those who share your genes. That's no less adaptive than color vision or the ability to make tools.”

“Maybe so, but Pouncer is risking his life to help us. I appreciate it, but it hardly serves his genetic interests.”

“You're a military officer. Wouldn't you risk your life to uphold your honor?”

She nodded. “I've done as much.”

“Of course you have. And isn't that known to be a hallmark of a good officer? Look at human history. In cultures where legal authority was weak, distant, or absent entirely, a person's reputation was everything. If your word was not your bond, and not known to be your bond, you could not be transacted with. That would effectively isolate you from the community, and that could be lethal if you were ever in trouble. Keeping your word regardless of personal cost is adaptive. If your word is known to be conditional, in any circumstance, you can't be trusted. The same applies to having a reputation for standing up for yourself, regardless of cost; without it you can be bullied out of what's yours. The kzinti are just an extreme case of that dynamic. I can explain the biological reasons behind that if you like.”

Cherenkova shook her head. “I don't think I'm ready to believe my genes are pulling my strings quite so effectively.”

“Consider this. Would you run into a burning building to save a friend's child?”

“Any decent human would.”

“Notice how you place a positive value on a person's willingness to risk their life to save another.” Brasseur smiled, in his element as a lecturer before a class. “Now suppose there were two burning buildings, and you had to choose between running into one to save a single child or the other to save three children. Knowing you couldn't save them all, which do you choose?”

Cherenkova laughed. “Three, of course.”

“So three lives are more valuable than one?”

“Yes.”

“Now what if the single child were your own? Which would you save?”

She paused, considering the logical trap but unable to avoid it. “My own first, but these are highly artificial situations.”

“So three lives aren't more valuable than one when the one is your own child. Answer me this then. How many children would have to be in the second building before you chose not to save your own child first?”

And Cherenkova had no answer for that. Brasseur smiled, having won his point. “First-Son-of-Meerz-Rrit would make the same choice, because his emotions are based on the same social and evolutionary realities that yours are.” She looked uncomfortable. “Your paradigm is shifting. It's not a bad thing.”

On the other side of the loft Tskombe was hefting a wickedly curved scimitar that Pouncer called a kreera. It was a one-handed weapon for a kzin, big enough to be a broadsword for him. She watched him carefully as he took a stance and cut the air with the blade. Was he any less a warrior than Yiao-Rrit had been? Were the dynamics that drove his behavior as a leader and an officer, the dynamics that drove her own behavior as a leader and an officer, any different from those that drove a kzin to scream and leap to avenge an insult? She wanted to believe that there was some fundamental difference between them. Kzinti see us as slaves and prey animals. It had been thirteen years since the destroyer Astrel had arrived too late to save the Midling research expedition from a kzinti raider, and second officer Cherenkova had led the landing party that entered the stripped base camp to find the bloody evidence of kzinti atrocity. They had played games with their prey… She shook her head, unable after all this time to scour the unbidden images from her memory. But humans used other humans as slaves, either as explicit chattel as in ancient Rome or more subtly, woven into the social norms as on Plateau or Jinx, or even in the underground flesh markets on Earth, where those unlucky enough to have been born illegally struggled to live without UN registration. Humans had even used other humans as prey animals, and before the kzinti came the UN's restrictions on intra-species violence were enforced not with honor as in skalazaal and skatosh but through the wholesale drugging of the entire population, lesser measures having proved inadequate to the task.

She settled down on a pile of soft pelted furs made from an animal that Provider called a frrch, and thought about it. There was nothing else to do while they waited for Provider and Far Hunter to get back. From her position she could watch out the loft's window for the gravcar's return, Tskombe's mag rifle by her side in case the Tzaatz came first. Pouncer and T'suuz catnapped for most of the afternoon. Her eyes kept straying from her self-appointed task to watch Quacy at his practice, running over his lean, taut muscles as he ran through routines of attack and defense so well practiced they were reflexive. He was so male, and he made her very aware of her own femininity. The danger of their position only made the attraction stronger. She had promised herself not to act on it for the sake of the mission, but the mission had changed drastically. And we may be dead tomorrow. She realized she was licking her lips as she watched him, and quickly returned her attention to her vigil.

After awhile he came over to watch out the window with her. “I can take over.”

She smiled. “I'll stay. I like the view.”

He sat down on the furs, sweat glistening on his biceps.

“Why did you join?” He asked the question idly, some time later.

Ayla shrugged. “I always wanted to fly, to be a pilot, to command ships. I dreamed of it since I was little.” She paused. “You?”

He shrugged. “Half a sense of duty, half a sense of adventure, half no better plan for my life.”

“That's three halves.” She laughed.

“If I were smart enough to do math I wouldn't be in the infantry.” He smiled and she laughed again at the standard joke. Infantry officers had to be every bit as qualified as pilots just to operate the gear they carried; it was centuries since the complete desiderata for an infanteer were a strong back and a weak mind, but their traditions ran back to the centurions of Rome and beyond. Even today mud and blood, sinew and steel remained their stock in trade.

“Family?” She tried to sound casual.

“My parents and a brother, but…”

He trailed off and she nodded. Life among the stars wasn't compatible with close family ties. “I have my parents.”

“Siblings?” he asked.

“I had a sister, but she died. Valya was her name.”

“I'm sorry.”

“We weren't close. She married a wealthy man, permanent lockstep contract. I didn't hear much from her after that. They had a child, but I was based on Plateau by then with my first command. I never met her. They sent a few pictures when she was a baby.”

He nodded as well, and the conversation lagged again as they watched out the window. Ayla looked at him again. She could still smell the musk of his sweat and it did things to the back of her brain. Very, very male. She smiled to herself. And not lockstepped.

While the others were occupied with their private musings, Brasseur roamed Provider's home, even more fascinated by his surroundings than he been by the House of Victory. There was a fifth room to the side of the den—house somehow did not seem to be the right word. It was a kitchen of sorts, and two Kdatlyno slaves lived there, making batches of viand sauce according to Provider's recipes, as well as operating a large meat smoker, cleaning up after the game animals caged outside, and generally keeping house. The kitchen was well stocked and full of the smell of the pungent roots and herbs, the thick, leathery nyalzeri eggs and barrels of zitragor blood that made up the sauces. They must have understood the Hero's Tongue but they refused to be distracted from their work and Brasseur was loath to interfere. He watched them go silently and efficiently about their business, then turned instead to studying the dwelling itself. It was old, very old, but despite its age it was functionally equipped with the technologies of its era: There were power and lighting, data access, hot and cold water, solid-state refrigeration, shelved books bound in the kzin upside-down style, some kind of vidwall, and a datadesk. He examined the stonewood timbers, huge and stained with their age. It had been built, he speculated, over a thousand years ago, and from what he could see of the other dwellings in the clearing it was far from the oldest around. In a human house that would explain the complete absence of modern building materials, but the kzinti had had metals and composites for tens of thousands of years before Provider's home was built. They used natural materials because they preferred them, and that spoke volumes about their ability to sustain their planetary ecology in the face of the demands of their civilization. Part of that was their slow growth rate, part was that when their population density got too high they tended to fight each other or leave on conquests.

And that had larger implications. Millions, maybe billions of sentients had died over a timespan longer than human history, entire races brought into slavery in generations-long conquest wars in order to maintain this idyllic setting. What is adaptive for the individual is not always adaptive for the group. He settled down to watch the rain, feeling a familiar disquiet. Any research field that worked on the timescale and scope of entire civilizations was bound to give the researcher an acute sense of human mortality. Being trapped on a hostile and alien world made Brasseur acutely aware of the inescapable brevity of his own life.

In the loft Quacy Tskombe was doing another set of drills with the heavy scimitar while Ayla Cherenkova kept her vigil from the window. Eventually he tired and came to sit next to her on the frrch skins again. The setting sun threw red highlights into wayward strands of her hair, the same way it had in the window of the House of Victory, in a time that seemed a lifetime ago. Almost without thought he tucked it behind her ear. She turned toward him and their eyes met. Her lips were parted and he could see the rapid pulse in her neck. The house was silent. Pouncer was still napping, and Kefan was downstairs trying to engage T'suuz in some sort of conversation. He leaned toward her and she closed her eyes, and the whine of a gravcar rose in the clearing. He looked up, saw Far Hunter disembarking in the twilight below. He was willing to ignore that, but then Brasseur called them from below, and they had to go downstairs to find out what had happened. He had little enough to tell them beyond the bare fact that Provider was talking to Cargo Pilot and would not be home that evening. By then Pouncer was up and Brasseur started a poetry game with him that they were all drawn into.

Hours later Tskombe arranged his frrch blankets, and went to bed, exhausted. How many hours has it been since I slept? Far Hunter laid out their sleeping arrangements, and Ayla's own space was on the other side of the room, with Brasseur and two kzinti between them. He was acutely aware of the whole of that distance, as great as the gulf between desire and consummation. He breathed in and out slowly to calm his mind. It was the first time he had allowed himself to relax since the Tzaatz invasion ships had rocked the House of Victory with their sonic booms, some forty hours ago by his beltcomp. Exhaustion quickly pulled him into a deep and dreamless sleep.

Some timeless time later he jolted awake to moonlit darkness, suddenly aware of a presence beside him. His fight-or-flight reflex kicked in, but it was Ayla. She held a finger to her lips to warn him to silence, the curves of her body clear in the moonlight filtering through the windows. She slid beneath the fur blanket beside him, reaching out to touch his chest. No pretense of professional distance now. Her touch was electrifying and desire flooded him. She was soft and warm and he pulled her to him, inhaling her scent like a drug. They kissed with desperate urgency and she moved to straddle him, the heat of her body burning against his. This was not seduction, not courtship, but pure chemistry, catalyzed by the danger they had shared, by the knowledge that they might yet die on this hostile planet, four hundred million million kilometers from home. He entered her, saw her bite her lip against a gasp and they began moving in unison in a rhythm as old as the species. She was beautiful, more beautiful than any woman he had ever been with, and his hands found her breasts, swollen and bursting with her fertility and he found all of a sudden that he loved her and he would have wept with the realization but for the need to stay silent, and they climaxed together in a moment that went on and on, while the house slept around them.

Afterward Ayla lay with her cheek on his chest, listening to his heartbeat, her hair spilling softly down over his arm and felt warm and safe in his presence. She was unsure what had prompted her boldness, what had awakened her in the night to come to his bed, but it had been urgent, a desire as strong as her sense of rightness, of closeness, was now. She was in the fertile part of her cycle, she knew, or would have been had she not been on long-term contraception. It's only hormones, progesterone and estrogen flooding my system, overriding common sense with desire for the strongest male I can find. The stakes have gotten high, and now my brain is manipulating me into behaviors that are effective in propagating my genes to another generation because I might not get another chance. She breathed in his masculine scent, letting it flood her with warmth. This feeling now is just oxytocin and endorphins, more hormones released in orgasm to bind me to the alpha male once I've mated him. It was true, she knew, but the emotions were no less real for the knowledge. She cuddled close against him, allowing herself to feel small against his size. It was a luxury she rarely got in her profession.

She woke before he did and realized she was famished. Sunlight streamed in the window and something smelled excellent downstairs. She climbed down the loft's ladder on oversized rungs to find Brasseur cooking meat and nyalzeri eggs on skewers by a smoldering fire in the fireplace. One of the Kdatlyno brought in more firewood as she came up.

“Good morning.” The academic moved over to let the Kdatlyno stoke the flames.

“What's that?” She asked the question dubiously, but her mouth salivated at the smell. For a moment she feared having to explain the previous night, but Brasseur either hadn't noticed where she'd slept or was carefully not mentioning it.

Zianya. It's excellent with Provider's sauces.”

“Is it safe?”

“I've had it dozens of times. It's better than beef.”

“I'll have some.” Hunger overrode any other objections. He handed her a skewer, the meat still rare and dripping. The sauce was pungent and hot and she wolfed it down, feeling the nutrients flooding her body.

“God I needed that.” She had another skewerful at a slower pace. “Where's our Hero and the others?”

“They went out so they wouldn't have to smell me burning meat. Provider brought back a datacube for you.” He pointed to a table. “The Swiftwing automanual.”

Her heart surged and, hunger forgotten, she picked it up and plugged it in to her beltcomp. It was kzin standard format, as was the data on it. That would have represented an insurmountable obstacle, but the human's beltcomps had been fitted with both adaptors and software to read them specifically for this mission. She downloaded it to her comp's memory and scanned through it. The translation was uneven and many chunks of symbols and jargon were simply untranslatable, but all the information was there. She could fly this ship, given enough time to learn its systems. And she would fly this ship. For the first time since the attack she began to believe she would see Earth again.

Quacy Tskombe was awakened by the smell of fresh-cooked meat and looked up as Ayla plopped down beside him with a dish full of skewered zianya. While he ate she loaded the automanual cube into his beltcomp as well. “Here, learn this,” she said as he finished and handed it to him. There was a change in the way she moved around him, the way they interacted.

No, there was a change in everything. Why haven't I noticed how beautiful she is?

He took it and scanned it. “The automanual. It's good we have it, but why do I have to learn it?”

“Because you're going to be my copilot.”

“Can't you fly it yourself?”

“Sure, but if something goes wrong up there I'm going to need all the help I can get. You're rated on assault carriers, so you at least have some heavy polarizer experience. Kefan is only rated on personal fliers.”

Tskombe made a face. “If I were smart enough to be a pilot I wouldn't be in the infantry.”

Cherenkova laughed. “Flying is easy, it's landing that's hard.” She tabbed the screen of his beltcomp. “You can start on page one.” Her smile was radiant, and her manner was easy.

He scanned the page, puzzling out the untranslated chunks of the Hero's Tongue. “In an alien language no less.” He sat down heavily on the frrch skins. “This is going to be delightful.”

In truth Tskombe found the process of learning to maneuver in space an interesting challenge and spent the entire day on the automanual's simulator. He had a lot of hours on heavy-grav vehicles and, despite his self-deprecation, had not expected much of a learning curve. In fact the basics of reactionless thrusters close to a planet's surface were not difficult, but making the transition to orbit was another question entirely. Power straight up and the polarizers would run out of reaction as they climbed out of the gravity well. In theory it was possible to drive straight up until you reached escape velocity; in practice the power cost was prohibitive. Instead you had to angle the thrust, take advantage of the planet's rotational energy to get you into orbit. That became increasingly difficult as you moved away from the equator, and the rules for calculating boost angle in spheric coordinates were not simple. Once in space a whole other set of considerations came into play: thrust points, apoproximate, periproximate, intermediate and hybrid orbit adjustments, insertion angles, heat management, atmospheric skip, dealing with thruster failures, power failures, nav system failures. Everything had to be planned well in advance, and the art was a far cry from his experience of slamming assault vehicles down on attack positions, coming in so low the landing skids wound up full of tree branches. Energy management was another unfamiliar issue. More than once he wound up helplessly adrift on a simulation run through one small navigation error growing into a large power deficiency. A Swiftwing had tremendous acceleration and generous reserves for a ship its size, and it was easy to correct mistakes with thrust, but too much thoughtless maneuvering would get you stranded. The autopilot could do it all for you, of course, but in the kind of emergency Ayla would need him for there was no guarantee the autopilot would be operational.

If you even trusted the autopilot in the first place. What slave race did the kzin use to develop their flight control software? How could you trust a system like that to a slave? The opportunities for subtle sabotage were boundless. The penalties for a slave programmer being caught would be severe, of course, but the odds against being caught were long, if you did it right. You could, just for example, disable the hyperdrive in deepspace, or even more effective, have it stay on as a ship came into a stellar singularity…

Tskombe shuddered and set up another simulation run. If he learned the Swiftwing's systems well enough, Ayla wouldn't have to use the autopilot.

The Conserver serves the Traditions. The Traditions do not serve the Conserver.

— Kzin-Conserver

The early morning sun peeked anemically through the huge windows that stretched to the arched beams on the ceiling of the Great Hall of the Patriarch. Rrit-Conserver watched carefully from the hidden gallery that had hosted Meerz-Rrit's kz'eerkti envoys just days ago, a lifetime ago for many brave lives now extinguished. The hall was filling rapidly, the floor with the same Pride-Patriarchs who had listened to Meerz-Rrit's speech, the galleries with the nobility of Kzinhome itself, the Lesser Pride leaders whose fealty pledges to the Rrit stretched back to before space travel. This gathering was at Kchula-Tzaatz's direction, as was his attendance. Behind him four Tzaatz guards ensured his outward cooperation, but he ignored them as he watched the assembly carefully, noting who spoke to whom, the motions of the crowd, the expressions, the mood of the hall. The guards do not control me, because I fight not with my body but with my mind. Tzaatz Pride had already made a mistake in letting him live. Conservers were oath bound to act with impartiality to preserve the traditions, and perhaps they were counting on that. But here the traditions have been transgressed, and I am free to act as I see fit to redress that. Perhaps the Tzaatz would make further mistakes. Below him the burble of voices rose. He made his observations not because he expected to be surprised by what he observed but because at such a critical juncture no piece of information was unimportant. The situation is fluid. There may yet be advantage here.

His concentration was interrupted by footsteps at the door, and he turned, nodded in sardonic greeting to the black furred newcomer.

“Ftzaal-Tzaatz. It saddens me to see a warrior of your reputation stain his name in this honorless farce.”

“Honorless?” Ftzaal-Tzaatz rippled his ears in amusement. “Tzaatz Pride has observed the traditions. The rules of skalazaal apply.”

“The Great Pride Circle will not stand for the manner in which Tzaatz Pride has conducted it. Slaves may not be used in battle. Your dishonor is great.”

Ftzaal twitched his tail. “My brother has used not slaves but beasts in battle, a practice supported by the oldest traditions.”

Rrit-Conserver would not be dissuaded from his point. “And your assassin beast struck First-Son-of-Meerz-Rrit before you declared the Honor-War. The Great Pride Circle will banish your brother, and you beside him.”

“The Great Prides will wish to avoid the fate of the Rrit. None can stand in skalazaal against rapsari.Nor will they know the entire gene construct production capacity of Jotok has been committed to this conquest. It was the single secret Kchula-Tzaatz guarded most closely. It was at the moment of victory that the Tzaatz were most vulnerable. “They will be happy to find any reason to accept my brother's dominance, and so they will be willing to overlook trivial deviations from the formal standard.”

“And you? Why do you accept your brother's dominance?”

Ftzaal-Tzaatz's whiskers twitched. “It is not for the sword to question the paw that wields it.”

“There is no Great Pride that would not count itself fortunate to claim the fealty of the Protector of Jotok.”

Ftzaal moved to stand beside Rrit-Conserver, looking down on the gathering throng below. “I am bound by blood and honor to Tzaatz Pride. That is a loyalty claim no other pride can make.”

In the hall below voices quieted as the successional procession began in ponderous ceremony, first the fearsome Hunt Priests, masked and robed in red, the blades of their ceremonial w'tsai flashing as they slashed and lunged in ritual combat, symbolically slaying the Fanged God's enemies to make the way safe for the High Priests to follow. Conserver watched them advance, then looked to his captor. “Not even the priesthood?”

Unconsciously Ftzaal's lips twitched away from his fangs. When he spoke his voice was dangerously quiet. “What does a Conserver know of the Black Priests? We shall not speak of this.”

Rrit-Conserver kept his reaction under control. There is depth here, and danger. In the Patriarchy all black-furred kittens went to the Black Cult, and vanishingly few ever left it. There was more to Ftzaal-Tzaatz than the speed of his blade. Rrit-Conserver filed the point, and went on as if he hadn't noticed it. “Rrit Pride has held the Patriarchy for half-eight-cubed generations, Ftzaal-Tzaatz.” Rrit-Conserver's voice was calm, but the intensity of his words carried the emotion his training forbade him to express. “That cannot change. The Great Prides will not allow it. The Guild Prides will not allow it. The Conservers will not allow it.”

Below them the Practitioner Cult was advancing, each member laying down a rough-hewn board of sweet-scented mrooz, and then returning to the end of the line to collect another from the wood-bearers, their movements fast within the slow moving pageant. The higher cults followed on the ceremonial walkway, in groups of four and in a bewildering array of ceremonial dress, the Star Priests, the Beast Cult, many more than Rrit-Conserver could recognize. Chanting rose as they came, echoing from the stone walls.

“And Tzaatz Pride would not dream of violating such a strong tradition.” Ftzaal raised his voice slightly to be heard. “A Rrit shall rule the Patriarchy, and a Rrit shall inherit the Patriarchy.” Ftzaal rippled his ears and flipped his tail. “I owe my own fealty to the Rrit through the pledge of Tzaatz Pride. My brother is aware of the due he owes, skalazaal notwithstanding. The Tzaatz shall be content to serve as trusted adviser to the Patriarch.”

“No one will follow the nursing kitten Kchula-Tzaatz puts at the head of the Great Pride Circle.” Rrit-Conserver lashed his tail. “Nor the bastard son of a Rrit daughter he produces to follow him.”

“Wise as always, Rrit-Conserver, but we shall not insult the Great Pride Circle by giving them a kitten as leader.” There was a roar for silence down below, and the chanting stopped, leaving sudden silence in its wake. They both turned to watch the assembly, and Ftzaal continued with his voice lowered. “The ceremony is about to begin. You consider Tzaatz Pride honorless? Watch and learn the meaning of dishonor!”

The High Priests were advancing now, each borne on a litter carried by four of the black-furred Black Priests, the red sashes over white robes symbolizing the blood-purification rite that was the hallmark of their sect. A dull booming began in the hall — four huge conquest drums behind the dais, each supported a rhythmically dancing drummer. At first the movements were slow, the sound almost inaudible, but it built steadily, rising in tempo and intensity as the drummers moved faster and faster until they drowned out speech and even thought. The huge ceiling beams vibrated to the sound as the drummers worked themselves into a frenzy, each pounding all four paws on the tight-stretched drum skins in complex, ever changing cycles. Suddenly a drumhead ruptured, the high frequency bang making Rrit-Conserver's ears ring through the wall of sound. Almost immediately a second drum burst, then the third and the fourth. The drummers lay collapsed and exhausted in the ruined instruments. The silence was total as Kchula-Tzaatz ascended the dais.

“Brothers! Listen to me now!” His voice echoed from the walls. Rrit-Conserver kept his eyes on the crowd. I must watch the reactions of the Pride Circle. If the Rrit have any allies left I will find them there.

“Brothers! Yesterday in this hall you heard Meerz-Rrit stain the honor of our entire species. Yesterday our so called Patriarch commanded you all to turn away from the path of conquest which is rightfully yours.” Kchula-Tzaatz paused for effect. “Tzaatz Pride alone has not stood for this. The way of the kzinti is the way of conquest. The kz'eerkti cannot stand before the combined might of the Patriarchy. Tzaatz Pride alone has acted to preserve the honor of us all.” He held up his arms, tail held high in triumph. “The Honor-War has been declared, fought and won. See what dishonor has brought to Rrit Pride!”

At what was obviously a predetermined moment a Tzaatz guard stepped forward, and thrust a polearm high in the air. Impaled on its end was a messy sphere, tawny orange, stained rust red. Concentrated as he was on the Pride Circle's reactions it took Rrit-Conserver a moment to recognize it.

“Behold the head of Meerz-Rrit.” Kchula-Tzaatz was roaring in triumph. Another Tzaatz guard stepped forward, another polearm was raised toward the rafters. “Behold the head of First-Son-of-Meerz-Rrit.” Another polearm went up. “The head of Myowr-Guardmaster.” Another. “The head of Patriarch's Telepath.” Another. Rrit-Conserver turned away, his self-discipline unequal to the sight. The guards moved in front of the door as he stepped toward it. He looked over to his captor, still watching the display with detached interest.

“I would leave this sorry demonstration, Ftzaal-Tzaatz.”

The black-furred killer twitched his ears in amusement. “And miss the ascension of the next of the Rrit dynasty. Have you no curiosity?”

“It is Second-Son.” Rrit-Conserver's lips twitched. “He has betrayed his own blood. Spare me this shameful demonstration.”

Ftzaal fanned his ears halfway up, mildly interested. “You seem so sure.”

“Your brother would have raised his head after First-Son's had it not been so.” He wrinkled his nose, disgusted. “I would leave now, Black Priest.”

If the reference to his background stung, Ftzaal-Tzaatz gave no sign. “As you wish.” He waved a paw for the guards to stand away from the door. “Escort him to his chambers. He is not to leave them.”

The lead guard claw-raked. “As you command, sire.” Two of them opened the door and waited for Rrit-Conserver while the other two fell into step behind him. He ignored their presence. Escape was not on his mind. The second head Kchula-Tzaatz had held up had been bloody and mutilated, but he had recognized it. Ztal-Biologist. First-Son still lives, but they wish him thought dead. There may yet be salvation for the Rrit.

Back in his austere chamber Rrit-Conserver settled himself on his prrstet and began to run through the Eight Variations of honor in his mind. First variation. Honor flows from integrity, integrity from respect, respect from effort, effort from self-discipline… He felt his breathing slow as he focused himself on the mental exercise. He was well into the seventh variation when the door opened. He did not open his eyes, did not twitch his ears. Do not seek the information, let it flow to you. Time flowed without measure. Heavy footsteps sounded, the tang of sweat, the slight musk of female, a male of high dominance, recently mated. He spoke without moving.

“Kchula-Tzaatz.”

“You did not stay to see the ascension of the new Patriarch, Rrit-Conserver.” The conqueror was in a good mood, his voice purring with satisfaction.

Rrit-Conserver opened his eyes. “There was no need to watch you play with puppets, Kchula-Tzaatz.”

“Do I detect a note of disrespect toward our esteemed Patriarch?” Kchula flipped his ears and twitched his tail, amused by his game.

“Second-Son is a traitor to his blood.”

“Second-Son?” Kchula rippled his ears in amusement. “His name is Scrral-Rrit now. Have you the proof-before-the-pride-circle of his guilt?”

“I have proof enough for myself.” I saw him in the Command Lair; he was involved in the plot. His hand took his father's life.

“And this is enough for you to disavow your own sworn loyalties?”

Was it? “Perhaps.” What does honor demand of me now?

“Perhaps.” Kchula rippled his ears. “So seldom do I hear a Conserver unsure of the answer to a question of honor.”

“Today is an unusual day.”

“Today is a great day in the history of the Patriarchy.” Kchula licked his chops, gloating in his voice.

“What is it you wish of me?”

“I am your colleague now, Rrit-Conserver. I am a trusted advisor to our new and noble Patriarch Scrral-Rrit. I wish merely to share your mind in guiding our sire's hand as he assumes his command of the Patriarchy.”

Rrit-Conserver twitched his whiskers. “You wish your usurpation legitimized by the name of Rrit-Conserver.”

“You question my motives.” Kchula flipped his ears in amusement. “My dear Conserver, I am shocked.”

“I question your honor, Kchula-Tzaatz.”

Kchula's mouth relaxed into a fanged smile; his humor evaporated. “I have been advised to kill you.” His ears folded back and his eyes locked onto Rrit-Conserver.

Conserver met the conqueror's gaze with equanimity. “That is probably wise advice.”

“You begin to try my patience.”

“That holds no relevance to me. If you intend to kill me, leap. If not…” He flipped his ears. “I am in the middle of my meditation. I would have peace.”

“Tradition makes you immune to challenge.”

“You care no more about the Conserver Traditions than you do about the Dueling Traditions. Or any others.”

Conserver's voice held contempt and for a long moment Kchula looked as though he would leap. Conserver subtly shifted his position to receive the attack. Kchula was large and strong, but he was used to having others do his killing for him. If he leapt, Conserver's battle discipline would be enough to defeat him. It would be a simple solution — death for the usurper in a fair duel of his own choosing. But Kchula did not leap, precisely because he was used to having others do his killing for him. Conserver considered goading him further, but decided against it. Let the game play out, and see where it leads. Kchula needs something from me, and need is power.

“I would have your ears for that insult, Conserver, but you're more use to me alive.”

“If you would take my ears for it then it is not an insult but a statement of fact.” Conserver waited while Kchula followed the logic chain through. “And what use do you have for me?”

Does he know of the destruction of the computer core? Kchula unconsciously snapped his jaw at the tenacity of the zitalyi; even now he could not consider the Citadel cleared of opposition, and every day brought another strike from deep in the bowels of the fortress. He was losing strakh before the Great Pride Circle, and that was something he could ill afford. He considered his prisoner for long heartbeats, weighing options. Rrit-Conserver met his gaze with equanimity. I must be open enough that his mind can engage our problems, but not so open that he knows how truly vulnerable we are now. “As you point out, your support will be invaluable in bringing stability to the Patriarchy. The sooner the Prides accept the new realities the less damage we will suffer. Squabbling profits no one. We face larger dangers now, and your mind is an essential weapon if our species is to survive them.” Threats will not shift this Conserver; let us see what flattery can do.

Rrit-Conserver remained impassive. “I am nothing but dangerous to you alive. You cannot change that, Kchula.”

“And why is that?”

“You seek to convince me I owe my loyalty to Second-Son-of-Meerz-Rrit. Even if you succeed at this I will owe no loyalty to you. The mind you desire to put to your uses will be directed against your rule.”

Kchula lashed his tail, annoyed. “You would support a spineless coward over a warrior of proven skill.”

“I am sworn to the Rrit.”

“And if this last of the Rrit should die?”

“There are many who share the blood of the Rrit.”

“Including Tzaatz Pride.”

“Your claim is far from strongest, Kchula.”

“And far from weakest. But Second-Son will not die yet, and your fealty belongs to him regardless of your personal feelings.”

“Perhaps.”

Kchula turned and paced the room, tail lashing. “The question of your survival becomes one of control.”

“I am a Conserver. You cannot control me.”

“Then I should kill you after all.”

Conserver made the gesture that meant irrelevant. “I will not serve you, Kchula-Tzaatz. You possess no lever that could so compel me.”

“You will serve Scrral-Rrit.” Kchula's voice was harsh.

Rrit-Conserver turned a paw over and studied it. This was the critical moment. “So long as he proves to be worthy of the honor of the succession.” But Second-Son will not prove worthy.

Kchula lashed his tail. “That is enough for me. You have the freedom of the Citadel, as tradition demands. I will expect that you too will follow the traditions.” He turned and left.

Conserver resumed his meditative posture. Kchula-Tzaatz is a fool. He believes that I believe First-Son to be dead. Rrit-Conserver would serve Second-Son, which would satisfy the outward form of honor, and Kchula-Tzaatz would come to believe that he controlled Rrit-Conserver as he controlled Black-Stripe. But Pouncer would return, if he could, when he could. And on that day, Kchula-Tzaatz will learn that I do not serve him.

One must not judge everyone in the world by their qualities as a soldier, otherwise we should have no civilization.

— Field Marshal Erwin Rommel

Kefan Brasseur looked through Provider's loft window at a steady rainfall. Until an opportunity to get a ship arose they were effectively confined to Provider's home, and time had started to drag as the initial shock of the assault and their immediate fear of capture had worn off. Most days Brasseur spent his time practicing with his pistol and the magrifle, interspersed with attempts to get T'suuz to talk with him. They were consistent failures, this last attempt no more than the others. It was frustrating: A kzinrette with a behavior set like the one she had displayed during their escape was unheard-of, but now she showed no interest in anything but food, sleep, and baring her teeth at anyone who seemed to be bothering her brother.

He turned away from the window. Cherenkova and Tskombe were absorbed in their beltcomps. The military officers were almost as frustrating as T'suuz. True, their skills were important, but their single-minded obsession with getting off the planet was blinding them to the privilege they were enjoying as one of only a handful of humans to arrive on Kzinhome as anything other than a war trophy. They treated each other with exaggerated casualness. It was a courtesy they were paying him, perhaps, a cover for what was obviously a strong and growing sexual relationship. Brasseur sighed. He had long since grown bored of studying the games humans played with each other. The stakes were unvaryingly status, dominance, power, and sex, the strategies largely limited to blackmail, bribery, bluff, and betrayal. He had even less interest in playing them than in watching them. It was why he had chosen to study the kzinti. He could spend a lifetime here and never stop learning. T'suuz alone was fascinating.

“You saw her in the tunnel, on the way to Hero's Square.” He carried on his train of thought aloud, not really addressing the words to anyone. “She spoke fluently, she fought, she planned. Kzinretti don't do that.”

Tskombe looked up from a Swiftwing simulation run. “Well, she isn't doing it anymore.”

“No one's ever seen an intelligent kzinrette. This is revolutionary, and she won't talk to me. She's acting like a pet.”

Cherenkova looked up from her own simulation. “I'm sure she has her reasons.”

“If only I had more time…”

Their conversation was interrupted by a scream snarl from the central den: Pouncer's voice, distorted in rage. The humans looked up to watch him. “My brother has assumed the Patriarchy! My father and my uncle are dead and my own brother has betrayed their blood to the Tzaatz!” He screamed as though tortured, his claws rigidly extended, his mouth a smile of fangs. “They have tamed him with a zzrou like a slave animal! He is not Rrit!” There was an inarticulate howl, and then what sounded like a war of wildcats, as the other kzinti snarled words unintelligible through the din.

Brasseur looked at the other two, closed his mouth. The tension in the air was palpable. He started to speak again, stopped, started. “We need to be leaving,” he said. “This is going to get out of control.”

From that point forward Brasseur put all his spare time into learning the Swiftwing's systems as well. The courier only took two pilots, but getting into the spaceport would be risky, and they might not all make it. Every day Far Hunter, Provider, and — against everyone's strong objections — a well disguised Pouncer went out to gauge the enemy's strength and intentions. What they learned was not encouraging. The Tzaatz had firm control of the spaceport, and the space defense weapons were fully operational. All the knowledge they could bring on board would be hardly enough. He pored for hours over the details of hyperspace navigation and the mass reader. Hyperdrive had been traded to the inhabitants of the We Made It colony by the Outsiders and stolen from humanity by the kzinti. It was immediately apparent that there were serious gaps in the kzinti knowledge of the system. It required an aware mind to read the mass reader, the primary instrument, for some reason to do with the observer-collapse of quantum wave-functions that was glibly but incompletely explained in the automanual. It was suspected that this was related to the Blind Spot effect, which was a trance state induced by looking directly into hyperspace with the naked eye, another observer-collapse phenomenon. There were those who were immune to the Blind Spot, and those who could not make a mass reader work. The two were correlated, and there was an almost offhand remark that both effects were related to the Telepath's Gift, another thing that was poorly understood but seemed to do with the collapse of quantum wave functions in hyperspace. That was interesting, as was the status of telepaths in kzinti society; he'd already written papers on that subject. Now was not the time, but one day the connection would be worth following up.

“Have you seen the Blind Spot?” he asked Ayla during a break in his study.

“Every pilot tries it once.”

“What's it like?”

She shook her head. “You have to see it. Or not see it, which is the point. It can't be described.”

He asked her what she knew about hyperspace, and her answers were almost verbatim what the kzinti automanual said. Evidently humanity knew little more than the kzinti. Brasseur found that frustrating too. Whoever had paid the Outsiders for the hyperdrive technology should have paid a little more for the science behind it.

Tskombe himself had advanced to singleship tactics, and again the learning curve steepened as he studied intercept curves and evasive maneuvering. At the infantry ranges he was used to, lasers traveled in straight lines and instantaneously hit their target. The hit probabilities were controlled by turret slew rates and target track precision, and the main problem was dealing with camouflage and spoofing. In space lasers dipped into gravity wells, defocused with distance and could take long seconds to reach targets that, at fifty or more gees of acceleration, could significantly alter their velocity vector in that time. As relative velocities became a significant fraction of the speed of light, relativity began to play a part and the math became truly horrendous. The ship's artificial intelligence handled the details of predictive targeting, but it in turn had to be managed to give it the best chance of a successful shot. He began to learn the intricacies of the course funnel and thrust lines, and the simulations grew more complicated. Reactionless thrusters were not truly reactionless, of course, in strict obedience to the second law of thermodynamics, and the performance curves of different drives varied not only with the magnitude and relative direction of the local gravitational gradient but with the relative and absolute motion and rotational velocity of the mass that created the gradient, an effect known as frame dragging. The Swiftwing automanual gave scant coverage to those details, and Ayla downloaded a UNSN space combat text to his beltcomp from hers. The manual called the combined gradient total-spacetime-distortion or TSTD and described it with various derivatives and integrals of four-dimensional spacetime equations. Not only TSTD but its rate of change were important and the text referred to them frequently.

The entire subject began to give him headaches. The humans had decided to sleep and wake on Kzin's twenty-seven-hour-thirty-six-minute day, and the minutiae of space combat began to invade his dreams as he lay beside Ayla after sex. After the desperate urgency of the first night their touches had become gentler, more intimate as they learned each other's bodies. He found lying beside her afterward as rewarding as the act itself, a new experience for him. Despite the danger, Tskombe found he didn't want their time on Kzin to end. It had to, though, and that meant he had to master space combat. The key was to set up conditions where your performance was better than your opponent's, which required understanding not just TSTD and delta TSTD but the relative performance of your own ship and your adversary's as those variables changed. At first it had seemed that the tremendous amount of thrust and power available to a ship gave it almost limitless options in maneuver. As his understanding grew he realized that in any given situation there were at most a handful of possible options, sometimes only one, and any time your opponent had narrowed you down to a single option your course became absolutely predictable and you became an easy target. As he developed a feel for the subject the odds stacked against them became clearer and he began to develop misgivings about the planned escape.

“I don't see how we're going to get away.”

Ayla looked up from the simulation she was running and cocked an ear. “Why is that?”

“Kzinhome has twenty-four orbital battle stations, plus all the ground defenses, plus the fleet in orbit, carriers, destroyers, cruisers, battleships even. The Rrit fleet is divided: some of them have fled, some are waiting to see what happens. Maybe they won't shoot at a fleeing ship, or maybe they will. The Tzaatz fleet is up there too, and they'll certainly shoot a fleeing ship. There's a lot of firepower in the gauntlet we have to run.”

Cherenkova nodded. “Our Hero assures us we'll have a valid transponder code.”

“And if it doesn't turn out to be valid?”

“If we don't get into orbit, we're in trouble. If we do, it's simple.”

“Not so simple. I never made a combat landing without the whole fleet going in first to suppress the space defenses. Landers are sitting ducks in low orbit and reentry. The ground weapons will have us bull's-eyed from the spaceport perimeter to the transatmosphere, and from low orbit all the way to synchronous orbit those battle stations are going to have us in their sights.”

“My point exactly.”

“I don't follow.”

“We aren't making a combat landing, we're making an escape. The flight regime is entirely different.”

“How so?”

“Because we'll be accelerating the whole way out. Getting to the ground makes you a target because you have to slow down, get stable, slide into the atmosphere and decelerate for touchdown. Every step you become more and more predictable. Going the other way the search sphere gets bigger every second and you gain more freedom of maneuver. Once we're out of the atmosphere we'll have it made.”

“We're going to be in range for light-seconds. They'll send interceptors.”

“Maybe, maybe not. Far Hunter says a lot of the Rrit fleet has boosted out, gone privateer, basically. The Tzaatz have limited resources up there, and nobody knows who's on what side. Confusion is our ally.”

Tskombe nodded. “We have to get a ship first.”

“That's your department. You get me in the cockpit, I'll get us home.”

Tskombe nodded, though he was troubled by that problem too. His department was not going well. Far Hunter was now going every morning to the spaceport, bringing fresh vatach and grashi to the Tzaatz guards, building strakh with them. Late in the evening he would return and make additions to the crude model of the spaceport that was growing in the back room, and the group would discuss ways of getting access to a Swiftwing. The Tzaatz guards were sloppy, but there were lots of them, and their rapsar sniffers made up for their lack of attention. In terms of a ground combat plan there was really only one option. They had to wait until Provider's half brother Cargo Pilot told them a courier was prepped for launch, then Far Hunter would smuggle them in with a load of game. They would get to the edge of the parking apron, then the kzinti would cover the humans while the humans got on the ship, moving with deliberate stealth, but ready to kill anyone or anything that got in their way, slave or kzin or rapsar. They would key in the transponder code that Pilot gave them and take off. The kzin would come back out the way they had come in. Pouncer's obligation would be discharged, the humans would be on their way home, and quite possibly there would be an interstellar war. Tskombe couldn't devote time to that thought. There wasn't enough time to do what had to be done. He went over the basics of fire-and-movement with the others, modifying the tactics to account for the fact that the kzinti would be carrying crossbows. They did some simple drills in the forest, away from Provider's neighbors. There was little other preparation they could make, and the attempt would be a gamble when the time came.

At that, it would not be the first time Quacy Tskombe had gambled his life; but now that Ayla was sharing his bed and his thoughts the stakes had become much higher. How long had it been since that first night? His beltcomp would tell him, but the length of time was nothing; it was the emotions that counted. They had become, what? Lovers? Partners? The labels didn't really matter. They didn't talk about the future. If they survived the escape attempt the exigencies of military careers would part them as soon as they handed in final reports on their mission. That was nothing new, and they both had kept their previous relationships shallow for that very reason. Now, without either of them having planned it, it was different, and he realized he was falling in love with Captain Ayla Cherenkova. That was a strange thought for him, more than a little disturbing. Quacy Tskombe had led the life of a nomad. The son of an infantry officer himself, he had never spent more than a year in the same place, moving with his father's postings. He had gained entry to the academy at sixteen, and the four years he had spent there were the longest he had ever lived in one place. Sexual relationships for him were matters of convenience. He had learned not to get attached.

So what was different about Ayla Cherenkova, a woman even more focused on her career than he was? Perhaps it was their situation, stranded together on this hostile, alien world. Certainly that was what had brought them together, but she had trembled in his arms on the third day, allowed herself to be vulnerable with him, open the gates to the fear they had both been holding desperately inside. And after that things had changed. There was no awkwardness between them, no question but that they share the same chamber, the same frrch-skin bed, no question that they ended the day with sex, and Tskombe found to his amazement that it was not the rush of orgasm that drew him to her but the simple comfort of her touch, her voice, her scent.

He found himself watching her, thinking of their time together when they were home, making plans for their careers that would allow them to be together. In their current situation such thoughts were fragile, and dangerous. He hadn't shared them with her, though he imagined that she was thinking the same thing. Maybe it was how beautiful she looked as she straddled him, because she was beautiful, and grew more so to his eyes every day.

She was sitting cross legged beneath the glowlamps, working on her beltcomp. She looked up and smiled. “We are getting out of here.”

Maintenes vous bien loiaux franchois je vous en pry.

(Stand fast, loyal Frenchmen, I pray you)

— Joan of Arc to the citizens of Tournai, June 25, 1429

Captain Lars Detringer looked out through the bridge transpax at the distant, brilliant flare that was 61 Ursae Majoris, brighter than the full moon from Earth even at this distance. He bit his lip and considered his options. The diplomatic party had not uplinked a report in days. Accordingly he had sent a query to the kzinti defensive sphere commander. There had been no answer. Then his omnipresent escort of Hunt-class battleships had tightbeamed perfunctory apologies and then vanished into hyperspace. Now the entire kzinti command network seemed to have gone off the air, and what traffic his antennas had managed to snag out of the ether was fragmented. Ships had boosted out of orbit like hornets from a disturbed nest; other ships had appeared around the singularity's edge and fallen in under maximum thrust and in attack formations. If he didn't know better he would say there was a war underway. Except there were none of the sharp electromagnetic bursts that marked the discharge of gamma ray lasers, no sudden peaks in coded traffic that marked fleet-to-fleet engagements, no distress calls from damaged warships.

Detringer turned away from the view and paced. The bridge crew got out the way; they knew better than to disturb the captain in this kind of mood. His concern had grown to worry as the time since the group's last report had stretched out. That report had been very positive, and then… nothing. The worry hadn't gone away now that the unusual activity in the system seemed to have quieted down again. There was still no contact with his diplomatic party, and still no answer to his queries on the kzinti command net. He had considerable freedom of action in commanding a capital ship on detached duty, but there were few courses open to him. He couldn't leave and abandon the team on the ground. He couldn't boost into the kzinti singularity without provoking a diplomatic incident, and perhaps a fight against odds that even Crusader couldn't handle. He had hyperwaved a report to the UN, but it would be weeks yet before he would get an answer, and the answer was likely to leave the solution to his own discretion.

And the news coming in on hyperwave wasn't reassuring either. In the General Assembly Muro Ravalla's faction was mounting a hard press for power, and Secretary Desjardins was having trouble holding his coalition together in the face of it. Ravalla was a strident voice for preemptive war to “contain the Patriarchy while it was still containable,” in his own words, although the rest of his rhetoric left little doubt he would go far beyond containment if given a free hand. Wunderland was continuing its aggressive military buildup, and it wasn't entirely clear if it was aimed at the kzinti or at the UN. Jinx and We Made It and Plateau had formed a Colonial Coalition, and were encouraging other colonies to join as a counterweight to UN hegemony. War within Known Space wasn't impossible, and Detringer didn't want to make the choices that would inevitably force on him.

He spun around to look out at 61 Ursae Majoris again, squinting at it as though he could somehow pick up the invisible pinprick that was Kzinhome, and thereby discover what was going on down there. Ayla Cherenkova is smart and competent, and she's with a good team. Whatever is happening she'll get a message out somehow, or get here herself. He had to believe it was true, or there was no point in waiting as he had waited, as he would wait until he got explicit orders to leave. It was a course of action he was unwilling to follow, its only merit being that it was better than any other. He did have faith in her; he'd seen what she could do as their careers had paralleled each other over the years. Her colleagues had seemed equally competent, equally qualified. If anyone could handle the situation, whatever that situation was, they could, he was convinced. Except there are three of them against a world of predators, and something has gone drastically wrong. If he knew nothing else he knew that. Skill and competence could only take you so far in a situation like that, and then you needed luck, and a lot of it.

There was nothing to do but wait. He turned on his heel and started pacing once more.

Alea iacta est.

(The die is cast.)

— Julius Caesar at the Rubicon

Days later they made their attempt. It was stiflingly hot beneath the grashi cages in the back of Provider's gravcar, and the stagnant air mingled their musk with the gingery scent of kzin. Tskombe was lying flat on his back in the vehicle's cargo bed with the board that supported the cages a handspan from his nose, his magrifle digging uncomfortably into his chest, and crushed between T'suuz and Pouncer tight enough that breathing was difficult. The space had been built for just the three humans, and with the two kzinti packed in it was claustrophobic, to say the least. Far Hunter and Provider were flying the gravcar to the spaceport, just another meal run for the hungry Tzaatz who guarded it, or so they hoped. Cargo Pilot had identified a Swiftwing for them, fueled, serviced and now delayed on the ground while the V'rarr Pride delegates it was to take to hyperspace finished some convoluted negotiation with the Tzaatz. While they did that the humans were going to steal their ship. There was a final council of war around Provider's big table, debating the best strategy to get to the ship. Everyone had thought it was a bad idea to bring Pouncer; his presence increased the risk of detection, increased the danger if detection did occur, and did not materially improve their chances of success. Pouncer, of course, had insisted on coming. His honor demanded no less than his personal presence for those his pride was sworn to protect, and now Tskombe muttered subvocal curses at a species that held honor higher than common sense. The plan now was that Pouncer would escort them aboard the Swiftwing and see them away, at which point Provider would take him and T'suuz over the Mooncatcher Mountains to the jungle and whatever refuge they could find there. If any of them survived that long.

They bumped down, and he heard muted snarls from above, not quite loud enough for him to follow the conversation, though he recognized Far Hunter's voice. Then the clang of steel cage bars and the now familiar squeal of grashi about to be eaten as Far Hunter traded food for strakh with the Tzaatz perimeter guards. Tskombe tried not to breathe as the snarls came closer. Was there a sniffer? Several times he thought he heard something snuffling, questing after him. But after a time the thrusters whined and the gravcar lifted off, and very shortly touched down again. The plastic sheeting that had concealed them was stripped off and he found himself blinking in the sunlight.

“Quickly.” Provider's voice was a muted growl. “This is as close as we can get.”

Pouncer leapt out of the space, and Tskombe rolled over and followed him awkwardly. Pouncer and the other kzinti carried crossbows and variable swords; the humans had the weapons Yiao-Rrit had given them in the Citadel, a time that already seemed to belong to someone else's life. Tskombe's magrifle was in a fabric sheath that he carried on his back like a slave's packload. T'suuz and the humans were all on leashes, a move designed to reduce suspicion. Humans were almost unheard-of on Kzin, but the leashes implied they were under kzin control and thus not dangerous.

At least that was the theory. They had modified their collars to break away with a tug in an emergency, but Tskombe still found it galling to be led around by Provider. Cherenkova's face showed her discomfort plainly, but Brasseur seemed unfazed. Had he done this before on W'kkai for his research? Tskombe didn't want to ask. Far Hunter beckoned and they moved off.

The gravcar had landed in a yard full of freight containers next to the ship bay where the Swiftwing was grounded, and a couple of hundred meters away a group of Jotoki slaves were working to unload a careworn freighter. Further away a handful of kzinti discussed something with lashing tails, and the sounds of their snarling conversation occasionally rose above the thrum of machinery that pervaded the port. Nobody seemed to have noticed them, and they set off, Far Hunter leading. They traveled in two groups, Tskombe with Provider and Far Hunter, Cherenkova and Brasseur with Pouncer and T'suuz. The humans had communications through their beltcomps if they needed them. Again the goal was to reduce suspicion. Tzaatz patrols were heavy throughout the port, but Cargo Pilot's information was that the Swiftwing was empty. If they made it that far they were safe, or at least safer. If they were caught before then their odds of making it out alive were vanishingly slight.

Almost on cue a pair of rapsar raiders came around the corner of the terminal building. The Jotoki immediately prostrated themselves to the Tzaatz riders, and the arguing kzinti stopped to look up. The reptilian raiders sniffed the air while the Tzaatz scanned the area. Tskombe forced himself to relax and walk casually, not even looking in the guard's direction. How will kzinti know if a human is walking casually? They wouldn't, most especially not at two hundred meters. Still he couldn't suppress the reflex. They turned a corner, found themselves in a long alley between stacked containers, and he keyed his com.

“Cherenkova, Tskombe, are they following us?”

“Negative. They've moved off around the terminal. We're leaving the gravcar now, staying about a hundred meters behind you.”

“Acknowledged.” Even now her voice touches my soul.

“The Swiftwing is in the next ship bay,” Far Hunter said. “On the other side of this yard.”

“Let's just keep walking.”

They continued in silence past ranked cargo containers, each coded with the dots and commas of the kzinti script. Far Hunter walked just a little distance away — far enough to respond to any attack on Provider and Tskombe, not so far as to be obviously in a defensive posture. It seemed to take forever to thread their way through the storage yard, but then they passed the last container and a parked gravlifter. The Swiftwing was in the center of the ship bay, ramp closed.

And there were the Tzaatz guards again with their rapsari. They must have paralleled the group. The leader gestured peremptorily. “You! With the slaves. Come here.”

One of the Tzaatz beckoned imperiously and Tskombe felt his whole body tense, but Provider simply moved as the Tzaatz commanded. His voice was a muted snarl. “Their mag armor is off. They are suspicious, no more. No one can see us here. If there is a problem we will take them silently at close range.”

“As you command, Father.” Far Hunter's voice was calm.

Kz'eerkti, you are to cover the beasts with your weapon. Fire only if you have to.”

“Got it.” Tskombe could barely get the words out. Would the Tzaatz smell his fear? Of course they would, but a slave amongst kzinti would be expected to be afraid.

They drew close to the riders. Far Hunter claw-raked, Provider did not.

“How are you known?” The Tzaatz bore rank tattoos on his ears, but Tskombe didn't know how to read them.

“I am Provider, once Tank Leader of the M'nank Conquest to Avenari. This is my son, Far Hunter.”

“And what are you doing here?” There was suspicion in the guard's voice.

“I owe my half brother strakh, and will gain much shipping this slave off-world.”

“Hero's Square is the place for trading, old one.”

“My half brother is not coming to the market.”

“Hrrr…” The Tzaatz paused, considering. “What type of slave is this?”

Kz'eerkti.”

“So I thought.” The Tzaatz paused, scrutinizing Tskombe. “Where did you get it?”

“It came to me from a noble who owed me strakh for saving his life.”

“We are searching for three kz'eerkti. Perhaps this is one of them. You must bring it before Chruul-Commander.”

Provider claw-raked. “With respect, I cannot.”

“You have no choice.” The Tzaatz drew his variable sword to emphasize his point, but before he could extend it Provider had drawn his own and decapitated him. Far Hunter screamed and leapt for the second Tzaatz, but the warrior had backpedaled his mount, and Provider's son found himself latched on to the reptilian creature's throat and underbelly with teeth and claws. The rapsar screamed in pain and ripped its assailant loose with its foreclaws. Far Hunter fell to the ground bleeding, and then the Tzaatz turned the raider and spurred it away.

As soon as Provider had moved Tskombe had ripped off the slave collar and backed up three paces, instinctively pulling the mag rifle over his shoulder and stripping the concealing sleeve off it. As the second Tzaatz fled he rolled to the ground and into firing position. Fire only in emergency. This certainly counted: if the Tzaatz got away their escape would be compromised. The butt of the weapon found his shoulder as his eye found the scope. Short bursts, he reminded himself; the kzin built weapon had a ferocious kick. Breathe out, breathe in and squeeze…

The magrifle roared and three crystal iron penetrators blasted through the back of the Tzaatz's unpowered mag armor like tissue paper. The warrior's body exploded in a mist of blood and shattered bone, and the penetrators, barely impeded by the impacts, carried on to decapitate the rapsar as well. Two kilometers away a spherical hydrogen storage bubble exploded into a ball of almost invisible blue flames. For long seconds the weapon's echoes reverberated over the noise of the port, and then the dull rumble of the tank's explosion reached them. For another second there was only silence, and then the alarms went off.

There was a paw on his shoulder, pulling him to his feet. His instincts told him to fire but the kzin's grip would not allow it, and then he recognized Provider. “Kz'eerkti! Get on the ship! My son and I will stay here to guide the others to you.”

And Tskombe realized he would never again see either of these two enemy aliens who had risked their lives to save him. What can I say at a moment like this? Words from his childhood floated back. “Salaam alychem” — go with peace, the ancient prayer of Mohammed in his father's rusty Arabic.

“Run!” Provider took the magrifle from him and pushed him toward the Swiftwing. In the distance he could see Tzaatz units responding to the emergency, though none knew yet what the emergency was. He had some time, not much. He ran, arriving forty seconds and three hundred meters later trembling and out of breath, then spent another panicked minute trying to open the cover that protected the ship's ramp release. Finally he got it open, punched the button and the ramp hissed down. He took two more seconds to look for Ayla and Brasseur before he ran in, and then he had to spend another thirty seconds getting the cockpit unsealed. Once inside Tskombe strapped himself in to the oversized acceleration couch fumbling to find the adjustments to bring it close enough to the controls for him to reach them. Start the checklist, get everything running. When Ayla got there she'd only have to strap in and boost.

He started running down the items he'd memorized in countless simulation runs. Primary power, on; check power cell level, it was orange which was good; light hydrogen tanks, purged; primary cooling, on and pressurized; tritium deuteride feed — on, wait for the fuel state to stabilize. He looked out the window, saw Provider open fire on a half a dozen rapsar-mounted Tzaatz who were moving into the launch bay. Was he allowed to do that? No time for the complexities of the honor code. The thirty seconds it took for the fusion reaction to heat up and stabilize seemed to last an eternity. Outside the window the fight was stalemated, both sides forced to cover behind cargo containers, but that would only last until the Tzaatz brought up reinforcements. Thruster power, on; thruster check, forward, rear, port, starboard — all on and all off, positive; transponder on; a glance to check the clearance code symbols scrawled on the back of his hand and too much time to get them entered, and then pray the space defense weapons recognized the code; autopilot — should be on but they wouldn't have time to load the course data, so off. Where are you, Ayla? Boarding ramp — leave it open, have to remember to close it when she got on. A crystal iron slug spanged off the transpax, leaving a gray smear and making his hands shake with adrenaline. Weren't the kzinti forbidden the use of such weapons? What were the rules? Stick with the checklist. Out-com — skip it. In-com — skip it. Navigation — skip that too. Life support — on. A warning light flashed — hull integrity breach, and the loading ramp whined shut to turn it off. It took him an eternal minute to find the override to re-extend it.

Come on, Ayla! He toggled his beltcomp, talked into the microphone. “Cherenkova, this is Tskombe, where the hell are you?”

“There's more Tzaatz in the container yard. We've had to pull back. I can't get to the ship.”

“Where are you?”

“Back at the other bay near the gravcar. We can't see Provider or Far Hunter.”

“Hang on, I'll bring the ship to you.”

Deep breath—you've done this a thousand times on the simulator. But this was no simulator, this was an alien starship and he was in the middle of a firefight and that wasn't a simulation either. His pilot, his partner, his lover was out there and he had to get her aboard. Ground combat is my job, Ayla, you should be flying the ship.

More slugs rang off the hull. Mag armor! He reached over, flipped the switch, saw the transpax view get dimmer as the high gauss field forced the molecules into some semblance of a polarizer. What else was he forgetting? Flight information displays to atmospheric, what else? No time for anything else. He put his hands on the controls, dialed in power and biased the polarizers backward. The Swiftwing shuddered, and he fed in power and bias together. The courier parted company with the landing apron and lurched into the air. The simulator had never lurched, and Tskombe cut power instinctively, causing the ship to drop like a rock from three meters. In desperation he shoved the power back on, preventing a complete crash, but the ship still hit the ground hard, the forward momentum it had picked up in the short hop sending it skidding over a repair trolley with a sickening crunch. No time to assess the damage; power back on, gently this time, shift thrusters back and swing. The principle was the same as a combat car, but the Swiftwing was tremendously cumbersome. And they call this a light ship. He'd always wondered why battleships maneuvered with such ponderous care. Now he knew.

A synthesized kzin voice snarled something in his ear about ground proximity — some warning mode that he could doubtless override if he knew how and had time to do it. For now it was just a distraction. The movement of the courier ship had drawn the attention of the Tzaatz, and now they shifted fire. More crystal iron slugs caromed off the transpax, aimed this time, not stray shots, and a couple of times the panes flickered black as they damped out a visible spectrum laser pulse. He could feel the heat coming off them despite the superconductor film that dumped it to the Swiftwing's frame. A couple more hits and he'd lose a pane, mag armor or not, and that would be the end of that.

So don't take hits, torque the thrusters around, spin the ship so its back is pointing at the enemy, thrusters to full rear, spike the power to emergency and down again. The courier shot forward as though from a mag launcher and he felt his weight surge sickeningly as the artificial gravity compensated. The spin was still on the ship and he quickly brought the thrust back to vertical and guided it higher as it spun toward the perimeter fence. As he came back facing the way he had come he could see the results of his efforts: a container stack sent flying like a giant had kicked it, broken crates strewn two hundred meters. He couldn't see if he'd managed to hit any of the Tzaatz, but the flying cargo must have at least distracted them. At least there was no incoming fire for the moment. He considered trying the trick again, but time was not on his side and the thrusters were an imprecise weapon even in skilled hands, which his most certainly were not.

So get Ayla, get her hands on the controls and get out of here. Wobbling and bouncing, he set a course for the control tower.

“Cherenkova, Tskombe, what's your status?”

“We're still here.” Her voice crackled on the com. “Incoming fire has stopped for now. You be careful with that thing.”

“I'm doing my best.”

“Just don't break it.”

Movement on the edge of the spaceport caught his eye. He keyed transmit. “You've got combat cars coming in from the southwest.”

“Acknowledged. We're moving farther south now, before the ratcats here get reorganized.”

Tskombe threw a worried glance at the incoming dots, four of them, getting big fast. The tower was coming closer, but he'd put a lot of distance between it and him when he'd pulsed the drive. He resisted the impulse to crank on more speed. He lacked the finesse to bring the courier down where he wanted to; he'd have to accept the slow approach if he was going to get close to Ayla.

He looked up. The cars were coming too fast — they'd be there before he was. Blue-white lines lanced across the sky at him, air ionized to plasma by their lasers. No choice then, but take it carefully. He edged up the power, felt the Swiftwing surge forward. His brief flight had taken him over a kilometer and a half across the spaceport. Below slaves and kzinti alike were watching, not yet understanding who was who in the battle now in progress.

Handle the combat cars first. The Swiftwing's AI had a self-defense mode. He hunted the control panel, flipped up a safety cover, slapped the toggle. A series of cannisters chugged into the air, arcing over his head toward the combat cars. Five hundred meters distant they blossomed into silver dust clouds, some of them hitting the ground first, leaving long silver streaks behind them. What was that about? Do the kzinti consider that a weapon? No, those were dusters, packed with aluminum microspheres designed to frustrate laser beams. The dust was too fine to disperse quickly in atmosphere; the defense systems were set for space. He slapped another toggle for ground mode and cursed an AI that could pick up threats just by tracking optical flow but couldn't tell if it was in space or on the ground unless you told it. Hydraulics hummed as the turrets swung into position, then incandescent lines stabbed at the incoming combat cars. One fireballed and fell, but the others ducked down, hugging the ground and getting below Tskombe's line of fire. The stricken vehicle hit a liquid oxygen bubble at speed, triggering a fire that splashed white hot, igniting whatever it touched to burn explosively. Below him the onlookers started running for cover, belatedly realizing the danger.

There was a plan. Target the bubbles and wreak absolute havoc. Some would be full of hydrogen, which burned hot but rose too quickly to do much damage, but almost anything would burn in contact with lox. A few ruptured oxygen bubbles would keep the Tzaatz well occupied. Except the AI didn't recognize the bubbles as threats and Tskombe was overloaded with piloting as it was. He had no chance at all of putting the weapons on manual, even if he could figure out how to do that, which was far from certain.

It occurred to him that the enemy were now Tzaatz and not kzinti. I have shifted my paradigm. Brasseur would be proud. He pushed the thought away. Just fly, get Ayla on board, get on the weapons and then the enemy would be anyone downrange. He refocused on the control tower, coming up now too quickly, and eased the power back. Not enough. He eased it more, scanned for her hiding place.

“Four hundred meters in front of you.” Her voice was clear. She was reading his mind. “Reference the loader bay. We're right there.”

He scanned the horizon, found the bay, nudged the controls slightly left to bring it down. The combat cars were still out of sight, down below buildings. They'd have to slow down to maneuver there, and the ship's guns were a match for them. Seconds to go now. He cut power, grounded the ship, skidding sideways into a parked loader and sending the wreckage careening into another one further down. Jotoki cargo slaves were fleeing in every direction, along with a few kzinti overseers who had no idea what was going on. He was a hundred meters from the bay where Ayla was, not great flying but close enough. Loading ramp down. He looked for the switch, remembered he'd already overridden life support to keep it extended.

“Okay, the ramp is down. Go!”

“Coming…” She was already running, her breathing heavy in the microphone. A hundred meters — ten seconds for an Olympic sprinter, maybe fifteen for Ayla. “Tanj!” She was panting, and she'd stopped.

“What?”

“We've got ground troops coming in.” A hail of crystal iron slugs rang off the hull to underline her words. Tskombe looked around, picked up a two-sword of Tzaatz in battle armor and grav belts, shooting at the ship with mag rifles from behind some cargo haulers.

“Where are you?”

“We're moving south to the control tower, out of the line of fire.”

The AI wasn't shooting back. Why not? Some mode somewhere was letting it ignore small targets. “Have they seen you?” He fumbled with the controls while he spoke, trying to change the AI settings.

“I don't think so. They're all focused on you.”

Tskombe breathed out. Ayla couldn't run through the firestorm to get on board, but as long as no one saw her she'd be safe. I should be worried about Kefan, too. He wasn't, not in the same way. She is my mate now. That simple fact made a tremendous difference. He assessed the situation. He was safe enough for a few seconds. The light weapons couldn't hurt the ship, unless the gunners got lucky. He keyed his beltcomp. “Hang tight, I'll take care of them.” Even as he said it a warning horn sounded and the damage control panel lit up. They'd hit something external and the computer snarled something about pitch sensors. No time to worry about that; forget the AI, get the guns under manual control and start taking names. It took more time than he had to figure out the command sequences, but he got the bottom turret responding and a targeting graticule on the viewscreen. There would be a way to change the spectral response, pick out moving targets, but there was no time to find it. He swung the graticule around until it intersected the leftmost hauler, fired, traversed to the next one, fired, traversed again, walking the fire through the enemy position, leaving a trail of burning wreckage behind him. The fire slackened, but more slugs rang off the hull. Another caution light came on and the computer snarled another warning.

Most of the two-sword must be dead by now, but the survivors were still shooting, though they stood no chance at all against a starship with mag armor engaged. His weapons were light for a ship, more than heavy for ground combat. Don't they give up?

The transpax flared white and went dark, the heat from the blocked laser bolt hitting him like a physical blow. If the mag armor hadn't been on the panes would have blown in and killed him. No hand-carried beamer would do that; the combat cars were on the scene. The AI traversed the top turret and fired at a threat it could understand, and an explosion blossomed two thousand meters away at the edge of the cargo area. This is getting out of hand. Another combat car popped up, fired and dropped down again before the AI could target it. While the top turret was still slewing to track it another popped up and down, this one closer. The only consolation was that the quick exposures were too short for the Tzaatz gunnery systems too, and their beams went wide.

That would change as they worked their way closer. The courier was a big target, and they were small and agile. The closer they got the more accurate they'd be, and the larger the angles his turrets would have to move through to engage them. He was running out of time. Another hail of crystal iron penetrators reminded him that there were still ground troops out there.

So, get the ship as close to Ayla as he dared, shield her with its mass from the small arms, get her on board, and get the hell out of there. He put another series of bolts into the troops around the haulers, slapped the bottom turret back to AI control, and grabbed the controls. The Swiftwing lurched into the air and slid toward the loading bay. He finessed it around, trying to get the ramp pointing toward Ayla and the nose pointing at the enemy. He almost had it when a terrific impact slammed the ship to the ground, the horizon jolting sideways and coming to rest lopsided. The AI snarled about thruster failure and Cherenkova was screaming in his ear. “Tanks! They've got tanks!” An explosion near the loading bay cut her off and when she came back on the air she was coughing. “Kefan just got hit. Go! Quacy! Take off!”

“Get aboard!”

“I can't get to the ship. Just go! They don't know we're here.”

He couldn't see the tanks, but another heavy impact rolled the little ship. If he was going to leave it had to be now.

He keyed the transmitter. “I'm not going without you.”

“Tanj it, Quacy, Kefan is dead! They're going to kill me shooting at you! Get out of here!”

Another explosion cut her off and he knew she was right. If she was going to survive he had to get the fire away from the immediate area. The Tzaatz had too many forces on the ground now. Still he hesitated a long second, long enough for another tank round to slam the Swiftwing sideways. The damage control panel flashed like a Christmas tree and the computer announced the destruction of the top turret. There was no other option. He slammed the thrust levers to emergency and the acceleration kicked him back hard. The courier spiraled upward, the horizon canting crazily sideways as he fought to compensate for the damaged thruster. His ears popped suddenly and painfully, blinding him with sudden agony. Somewhere there was a stability augmentation mode that would let the computer do it for him, but it was all he could do to keep the ship roughly level. All the training he'd done to learn how to fly an orbital insertion was out the window. This would be a power-wasting direct ascent launch.

The synthesized voice was saying something, distant through his throbbing, ringing ears. Probably important. He listened closer. Pressure warning? What pressure? He felt lightheaded, trying to understand what was going on. Hydraulics? Hydrogen feed? What other pressures were important on a Swiftwing? Coolant? He checked the indicators but they were level. Were they? He peered closer, trying to figure that out should be easy, just a glance, but his head was muzzy and his eyes wouldn't focus. Why was that? The sky outside was turning from blue to purple.

The pain in his ears suddenly made sense. Cabin pressure! He found the toggle for the boarding ramp override, stared at it for a long moment to make sure it was the right one, and flipped it closed. There was a whine behind him and the sudden hiss of air. His ears popped again and he breathed deep. A stupid mistake, and nearly fatal. How high was he? The instrument panel said three five-hundred-twelves and seven sixty-fours in whatever the kzinti units were, the eights and ones figures spinning up too fast to read. High enough that the sky was already fading from purple to black. He breathed deep, feeling better. Hypoxia gave you two minutes before unconsciousness at best.

Dammit, Ayla, you're the pilot. Kzinhome was invisible behind him but its defense systems hadn't chopped him out of the sky so at least the transponder codes must be correct. Outside the stars were bright and hard. He was out of the atmosphere, on his way out of orbit. A Swiftwing did over a hundred gravities reacting against Kzinhome's mass — less with one thruster out of action, but still far more than the four a combat car was capable of. The violent oscillations died down as Kzinhome's mass receded behind him. The TSTD integral was turning from a plane to a point. He breathed deep again and edged the nose down to pick up orbital speed, then started to slide the thrust vector around into line with Kzinhome's rotation vector. Despite the ragged takeoff his power profile wasn't too far out of line. He wasn't about to be stranded in deep space, as long as he didn't make any more mistakes. Skin heating had been right at maximum though. Thank Finagle he hadn't ripped the seals off the loading ramp. He dialed back thrust and called up the navigation screen to set up his boost profile to the singularity's edge. His beltcomp held Crusader's orbital data.

A chime chimed and the com screen lit up to show a kzin in space armor. “Swiftwing eight four two, I am Fourth-Flight Leader. Identify cargo and destination.” Fourth-Flight Leader sounded bored, a routine check, but when Tskombe looked at the screen the kzin's eyes widened. He snarled something unintelligible, reached for a control, and the screen went blank again. The kzin had seen an enemy alien in the cockpit, and that was all the identification he needed.

So much for his fears about the transponder codes. Now a fighter pilot somewhere knew who he was. So what to do about that? He looked out the transpax, but of course Fourth Flight was invisible against the hard black, even if they were inside his field of view. They would know where he was, though, and they'd be plotting their intercept this very instant, as well as informing the rest of the kzinti defenses about his location. It would take the fighters some time to close. They had no lasers, but an orbital battle station could vaporize just about anything it could see, and there had to be more than one that had a line of sight to him right now. Do the Rrit or the Tzaatz control them now? It didn't matter; either was liable to shoot at a fleeing human in a stolen ship. Adrenaline surged and he yanked the controls hard over, wasting power. There had to be an evasive action mode in the AI.

What was it Ayla had told him? It was hard to get close to a planet, much easier to get away. He hoped fervently that she was right. He shoved the thrusters to emergency again. He had no hope of navigating to rendezvous with Crusader, if Crusader was even still waiting at the singularity's edge. He had to simply get out of the system and get into hyperspace. He'd have time on the boost to figure out the hyperdrive, if he didn't get shot out of the sky first.

Keep the thrusters on full, and keep a wiggle on the control column to keep the battle stations off target. He didn't even bother trying to bring up the sensor systems to get his single surviving turret ready. Even if he could make predictive targeting work, his weapons lacked the power to be effective against an orbital fortress. Unfortunately the reverse was not true, and the only defense he had was hard maneuver and distance. He might get one of the fighters, if they got close enough, but the AI's close defense routines could do that for him, hopefully. Almost as an afterthought he flipped the defense environment toggle back to space.

A data window appeared, projected holographically on the transpax and covered in combat icons. The huge but visibly shrinking sphere must be Kzinhome; the rest were mysterious. One of the icons blinked, and at the same time he heard the now familiar chunk chunk chunk of dusters being launched. Moments later silver spheres blossomed in front of him, getting rapidly bigger as the Swiftwing overtook them. Suddenly one of them flared sun bright as an invisible laser beam blasted aluminum dust into energized ions. He had a single panicked second of adrenaline surge as it exploded past. They were shooting at him. Desperately he twitched the controls back and forth in what he hoped was a random and unpredictable pattern. At the same time hydraulics whined and the AI announced it was targeting something. Fourth Flight must be close behind, maybe already launching missiles.

So how far out were the battle stations? It didn't really matter; he had no idea where they were, no idea what tactics to employ if he did know where they were. There was a wide difference between theory and practice, and all he knew was that every second he kept accelerating put them farther behind. The fighters could chase him, might catch him yet with their superior acceleration, but they had limited power reserves. If he could run far enough fast enough they would have to give it up and go home. Then the worry would be warships, cruisers and destroyers on patrol high up in the gravity well. They'd have his course information and they had both the power and the drives to intercept him. If he got caught by as much as a scout ship he'd die; it was that simple.

But Ayla would have known about them, and she would have known how to deal with interception. There was a way to survive the situation.

Ayla… Is she even alive? He felt his stomach tighten. He didn't even want to consider the possibility that she might not be. She was with Pouncer, she had the protection of the Rrit, and he had now come to understand fully what that meant. She would not die while the Patriarch's son lived. But Pouncer remained a fugitive on his own world, and his body would only stop the first beam. It was the Tzaatz who were in control of the spaceport, and the operation had gone badly wrong. Had that last tank round killed her, or injured her so badly she couldn't avoid capture? The Tzaatz would search now, and if they caught her they would put her in the hunt park.

In combat all is chaos.

— Si-Rrit

Crystal iron penetrators stitched the ground around Provider, but none came dangerously close. Two full swords of Tzaatz had arrived almost immediately after the Tskombe-kz'eerkti's shots had alerted them, but too late to stop the sprinting alien from getting aboard the Swiftwing. The Tzaatz were firing at the ship now, not him, but their use of energy weapons justified his own. He aimed the magrifle and fired, controlled bursts that killed two immediately. The advance stopped as the enemy took cover, but now they knew there was another threat out there. Once they located him it was only a matter of time before he died; the numbers allowed no other result. The smart option would be to take advantage of the confusion and escape.

Honor had other demands. First-Son-of-Meerz-Rrit would have heard the shots and be on his way as quickly as possible. The other humans would need cover fire to get to the ship, and he was the only one who could provide it. He could not leave, but…

“Son, find the other humans, guide them here!”

Far Hunter had moved to cover behind a large shipping container, his crossbow leveled at the Tzaatz but far out of range. “I cannot leave you here!”

Provider half turned to face his son, feeling the kill rage swell in his liver. “By your name I command your obedience! Go!”

“Father—”

Provider locked eyes with his son. “Go!”

There was a final hesitation, then… “At once, sire!” Far Hunter left at a sprint and Provider returned to his weapon, sending a burst toward a half sword of Tzaatz skirmishing forward to better fire positions. Sending his son as a guide was a smart decision. Armed with only hand weapons he could not help here, and having him guide in the aliens would save time. It would also keep Far Hunter out of the line of fire, a consideration he did not admit to himself was more important to him even than his honor. Rounds stitched the area around him, none too close. It was still spec fire; they hadn't spotted him yet. That wouldn't last long.

Across the landing bay a Tzaatz showed his head from behind a gravloader. Provider pumped a round into the vehicle drive compartment. Its power cell shorted and the vehicle vanished in a blinding flash, throwing burning wreckage across the bay. One threat gone, regardless of his mag armor. His position wasn't bad: down on the ground, partially covered by the fibercrete footings of some unfinished structure. The sun was high, and thermal sensors would have trouble picking him out against the warm backdrop. How long till First-Son brought the humans? Far Hunter had only left moments ago, but the distance was not large. Far across the spaceport he saw movement and he took a second to sight on it through the magrifle's searchscope: a full sword of Tzaatz in gravbelts deploying in response to the alarms. He didn't waste his precious few rounds on such difficult targets. The enemy across the landing bay were the more immediate threat. More rounds slammed into the courier ship. If the human managed to get its weapons up and running that would make a tremendous difference, but could the alien do that? The courier's drives where whining as it powered up. At least it was wasting no time.

Provider fired again, this burst knocking a Tzaatz off his rapsar, but his target landed in a roll and bounded to his feet again. The Tzaatz had their mag armor powered up now, and the time of easy killing was over. He was sighted on another Tzaatz but his target dodged behind cover before he could stabilize the shot. The whine of the courier's thrusters spiked and vanished into the supersonic, and an instant later there was a violent crunch. He looked up to see the Swiftwing skidding across the bay, dragging crushed ground equipment in a shower of sparks, its loading ramp still extended. It lifted again, spun around and was suddenly gone in a blur. Across the bay containers, equipment and Tzaatz alike flew through the air in the wake of the thruster's reaction pulse.

Provider didn't hesitate. The human was gone. It hadn't seemed the type to embrace the shame of cowardice, but who could judge the rules of alien honor? Suffice that his own duty obligation was now discharged. Now he had to find his son. He emptied the remaining magrifle bolts at a formation of heavy assault rapsari moving across the field in the distance, then abandoned the weapon and ran into the forest of containers. Cover, for a time. Far Hunter would be there somewhere, hopefully with First-Son-of-Meerz-Rrit. It was time to go. He moved off at a lope, inhaling deeply to follow his son's familiar scent trail. He covered the ground easily, formulating a plan as he moved. They would meet up, return to the gravcar, leave the way they came, boosting high and fast, without stealth. The Tzaatz would be unlikely to stop a vehicle leaving the spaceport; their concern would be directed outward, but if he and his companions were stopped, then fleeing the firefight was all the excuse they needed. The preoccupied Tzaatz would not question that.

He rounded a stack of shipping containers and sniffed left, sniffed right, chose the righthand path. Far Hunter's scent was faint, for he had been moving fast; farther on it would be heavier as his exertion made him sweat. Where was he? Time was short. Another intersection, but before he could assess the scent trail the slap of air suddenly ionized by high-powered lasers sent him to cover. The Swiftwing was coming back, its turrets stabbing fire at something he couldn't see. A series of flashes blossomed on its hull and he had sudden knowledge of the nature of its targets, born of the beltful of campaigns he'd fought as Tank Leader. Medium laser hits — the Tzaatz were bringing up combat cars. That was a bad thing.

He heard movement and froze: footfalls, heading fast for the landing bay, enough for three kzin and two aliens. Why were they going in that direction? Surely they'd seen the Swiftwing take flight, and the humans had communications. Was Tskombe-kz'eerkti coming back to the landing bay?

No time for theories; he had to link up with them. He launched himself down the narrow corridor between the racked containers to intercept, came around a corner.

Found himself face to face with four Tzaatz and two harrier rapsari, managed to brake before he actually collided with them.

“Halt!” The lead Tzaatz snarled the command by reflex, as startled as Provider was. For a split second he considered running, but the Tzaatz carried beamrifles as well as hand weapons. Did the rules of honor apply with a heavy weapons firefight going on overhead? If he stood his ground the rules would apply, and he could fight. If he ran they would not, and the beamrifles would cut him in half before he'd gone two leaps.

“I halt for no Tzaatz.” He snarled the words defiantly, but he had halted. His crossbow was gone and so he drew his variable sword.

“You'll die for that insult, carrion eater.” The lead Tzaatz was big, well muscled, his fur laced with white lines that marked battle scars, his belt heavy with the ears of his enemies.

Provider adjusted his stance. “Leap if you dare, sthondat. I was a warrior before your father lost his spots.”

The Tzaatz flicked his tail. “You'd like me to leap, wouldn't you, old one? You'd like a quick death in combat and some honor for your name — not that you have a name.” The contempt in the officer's voice was as clear as it was casual, his voice rich in the guttural undertones of Jotok's counterspinward dialect. “It isn't going to be that easy for you.” He paused, sizing up Provider as though he were a game animal. “No, for you it's going to be very hard.” He made a gesture to one of the others. “Take him.” The Tzaatz warrior raised his weapon.

Provider screamed his challenge and leapt, but the Tzaatz had a netgun and fired before he was halfway to his target. He landed in a ball, tightly wrapped in carbon monofilament. Instinctively he slashed with the variable sword, the molecule-wide slicewire cutting through the tough fibers with ease — but it was awkward, it took time, and they were already on him, a foot smashing into his wrist to disarm him, a beamrifle butt slamming into his head, more blows against his ribcage. He defended himself as best he could but hampered by the net, outnumbered four to one, there was little he could do. The blows rained down unceasingly, stunning him, each impact reducing his ability to avoid the next. Pain flared as bones broke, but the Tzaatz continued their assault. The harrier rapsari scented blood, moved closer, long tongues licking over razor sharp triangular teeth, hungering for their piece of the kill. Rage flooded Provider and he grabbed up his fallen variable sword with his good hand, slashing awkwardly through the shredded net. He connected with one attacker, but the slicewire glanced off shiny mag armor without effect. Another blow from behind slammed him to his knees and he rolled painfully. He stabbed upward with the sword, and the low angle let him slide it under the Tzaatz officer's belly plate. The officer died, choking on his own blood, and all semblence of restraint vanished from the rest of the sword, devolved now into a screaming mob, punishing him with blows from all sides. Perhaps the intent had been to take him alive; now their only goal was to kill. A weapon slammed into the back of Provider's head and he pitched forward to lie motionless, still half covered by the net. One of the harrier rapsari sank its teeth into his ankle, sawing at it wildly, but Provider didn't move.

From the edge of the landing bay Far Hunter watched them beating his father as another sword of Tzaatz mounted on rapsari raiders arrived on the scene. He had given up searching for First-Son-of-Meerz-Rrit, had realized when the courier came over that the aliens and the Patriarch's heir would no longer be moving toward him. He had turned around to find his father, had spotted him just heartbeats before the Tzaatz had netted him. He had fought down the instant rage that demanded he attack at once; he was no good to his father dead. Honor demanded vengeance, but today was not the day he would have it. Instead he watched the fight, watched as they dragged the lifeless body away like a netted griltor, watched until the Tzaatz were out of sight, his claws rigidly extended, ears laid flat, fangs bared.

Only when they were gone did he stand. There was little time if he wanted to escape, but honor came first. Very deliberately he hooked one claw beneath the skin above his right eye, feeling it stab, fresh and sharp. He dragged it slowly, excruciatingly down and across the bridge of his nose, felt his other claws dig in as he did so, continued down to the opposite cheek, tearing the flesh deep enough that he felt bone beneath his claw. Blood welled up in the open wounds and he breathed hard against the pain. The wound would scar — visible evidence of the vengeance oath he swore in snarls through his clenched teeth. Blood dripped down into his right eye and he wiped it away. Neither his blood nor his pain mattered, would ever matter again. The only thing that mattered was that the day would come when he would swim in the blood of the Tzaatz. There would be a search now, and the blood might bring the sniffers, but the spaceport was large and had many places to hide, and he was used to covering his tracks in close country. His lips twitched over his fangs as he waited for the sun to slide to the horizon. Night would bring the first taste of his vengeance to the Tzaatz, but not the last. His tail lashed unconsciously as he laid his plans. No, not the last by far. Father, you have taught me well.

No plan survives enemy contact.

— Anonymous

The Swiftwing rocked as another tank round hit it, and a second tank penetrator slammed into the already wrecked storage building behind Ayla, spraying razor shards of fibercrete, knocking her to the ground. She looked up, momentarily dazed. Pouncer and T'suuz had vanished; Brasseur lay sprawled on his side where the concussion of the first impact had thrown him. He stirred feebly — not dead as she had thought, but certainly dying. No time to worry about that now; the kzinti couldn't be far, and they wouldn't leave without her. Kefan needed help, but Tskombe was more important right now. She reached up to key her comlink but the concussion had torn her lapel mike away. She cursed, willing him to do as she had told him, and she sighed in relief as the Swiftwing pitched up and then boosted skyward, shrinking to a silver dot in seconds, leaving behind the double bang of a sonic boom. Incandescent lines stabbed after it from the combat car's lasers, and she held her breath, fearing the sudden fireball that would signal the death of her lover. It didn't come, but she watched the empty patch of sky where the ship had vanished for long seconds after she knew it had to be safely out of range.

There was a momentary silence and a strange feeling came over her. Quacy was gone. Her ticket off-world was gone. She looked down and met Brasseur's gaze, glassy and unfocused. They were in serious trouble, trapped on this alien world and surrounded by heavily armed and now thoroughly enraged enemy carnivores. She shook herself. Time to succumb to that later; first she had to get the hell out of the spaceport. She looked around, spotted the two kzinti behind a cluster of storage drum. She looked around, saw no Tzaatz either, and beckoned them over.

“Where is…” Pouncer's voice trailed off. Brasseur looked bad, skin pasty, eyes now rolled up to show only whites, with blood trickling from his mouth and ears.

Pouncer's eyes met hers. “Your companion is dead.”

“Not yet he isn't.” The words came without thought as another part of her brain took over, running through the steps of combat first aid that she'd trained on a thousand times. Secure the area, assess the casualty, check airway, check breathing, check circulation. Already there was a problem because he wasn't breathing anymore and there was no pulse in his neck. And the area isn't secure either, so who cares? With head injury and an immobile casualty you have to be aware of spinal trauma. She found herself snarling orders to the others about how to hold him, how to roll him over in one smooth motion to avoid doing further damage, and she tried to hold him steady while she gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. That was a risk she'd have to take. And his tongue lolled limply, and you weren't supposed to use your own fingers to clear it in case the casualty bit them off in a sudden seizure, but she did anyway because there was no time and he was dead anyway. She knew it, knew it as soon as they'd rolled him over and she'd seen how the side of his skull was caved in, but she was trained to continue CPR until medical assistance arrived or there was no hope left, and it took a person half an hour to die completely, so she carried on, breath in to inflate his chest, then twelve quick pumps on his ribcage to restart his heart, at least to keep blood moving through his brain, breath, pump, and repeat and repeat and repeat. She knew it was useless because medical assistance wouldn't be arriving and he needed an autodoc immediately, if not a surgeon, and the nearest one of either was light-hours away at the edge of the singularity. She kept on because not to keep on would be to abandon the only other human on the planet and Tskombe had just boosted for Earth without her and she didn't want to think about that.

And he had to do it, and I told him to do it. The end result was that he was gone, and it would have been harder if she was the one on the ship and had been forced to leave him behind. So she kept on, with tears in her eyes though she wasn't crying and it seemed like hours before Pouncer interrupted her, though the alarms were still sounding and so it could only have been minutes.

“Cherenkova-Captain, we must leave now.”

When she wiped the tears away they came away red with Brasseur's blood, which was smeared all over her face. She looked down and saw where her pumping had spread the blood from his crushed temple, and she knew that even if she revived him he would need life support that was available nowhere on this alien planet. And she knew that thought was irrelevant because he was far beyond anyone's ability to revive; even if he'd suffered those injuries already inside a fully equipped autodoc he was gone. The living network of neurons that made up the person that was Kefan Brasseur was mangled beyond repair, and there was no power in the universe that could undo that.

And still she didn't want to give up on him for reasons she didn't even want to understand. She stared down at the body as though through a fog. “We can't leave him here.”

Pouncer put a heavy, soft paw on her shoulder, a surprisingly human gesture. “He is dead. May your gods find his spirit.”

She shook her head. “We can't leave him here.”

Pouncer didn't argue further, he just picked up Brasseur's body like he was a rag doll, all caution for spinal injuries forgotten. “The sniffers will follow us easily. We must get back to the gravcar.”

“No!” T'suuz spoke the Hero's Tongue for the first time since they'd entered Hero's Square, her snarled words urgent. “The Tzaatz will be there already. We must find another vehicle.”

“A combat car.”

“A transporter; they will miss a combat car immediately.”

“You are wise, sister.” Pouncer snarled his agreement. “Can you carry the other monkey?” For a moment Ayla didn't realize he was speaking of her, and then T'suuz was picking her up, putting her on her back, and both kzin were running at a steady lope. T'suuz didn't have the thick mane that Pouncer did, but she had enough fur for Ayla to hang on. So T'suuz can speak and fight after all. Kefan would have wanted to see that. She found the rhythm of the kzinrette's lope and let go with one hand to draw her oversized sidearm. Kefan would not see anything any longer. She had spent all the time she could on grief. Now she had to focus on survival, or she wouldn't live much longer herself.

The quality of the crate matters little. Success depends upon the man who sits in it.

— Manfred von Richthofen

Nothing had changed on the screens, but the situation was deteriorating. Despite the fact that his own survival hung in the balance Quacy Tskombe found it hard to concentrate. Unconsciously his jaw clenched, his stomach knotted tight. He had no choice but to take off. Ayla had said it herself, and she was right. She was an officer, a commander. She knew the risks, knew how to balance them, and there were larger things at stake than a man's love for a woman. The UN needed to know what was happening on Kzinhome, and the mission had to take priority. She was not the first friend he'd lost in combat, not even the first lover.

He pushed his feelings aside. There was no finagled time to lose focus. There were fighters back there, with pilots who knew the orbital combat game. He couldn't allow himself to be caught. First things first. He hauled out the automanual, punched keys desperately to find out how to read the combat display. He had practiced on it, but not enough to memorize the symbology. Fortunately he was used to the manual by now, if not the actual ship, and he found the relevant manpage quickly.

The triangular icons with the dot in the middle were the fighters, and the transparent green funnels attached to them showed how much they could have changed their velocity vector in the half-second delay speed of light lag imposed on the situation. The Swiftwing was simply the point at the center of the display where the three coordinate system lines met, and the little silver spheres were the battle stations. The huge orange sphere was obviously Kzinhome itself, the smaller orange sphere was a moon — the Hunter's Moon, by the dots-and-commas label floating above its surface; the Traveler's Moon was invisible on the other side of the planet. He touched some keys, and a series of transparent, curved surfaces in red and green appeared around his position: intercept planes. If nothing changed, the fighters would be in a position to shoot when he crossed them.

And they were coming rapidly closer. He didn't have a lot of time. He called up his own course funnel to see what his options were. For a few seconds he thought he might have hope. A slice of his course funnel was blue instead of orange and he thought that might indicate an escape route, but when he looked up the key in the automanual he discovered that it was simply a collision vector warning. If he chose a course in the light blue slice it would slam him into the moon if he didn't change course again before he entered the dark blue slice. Nothing he could do would move his delta vector out of the intercept plane. The best he could do was crash into the moon and cheat the hunters of their prey.

Unless — unless he could plot his course close to the moon, skim around it and use the gravitational slingshot to pick up velocity. TSTD would be sharper there, giving the advantage to the ship with more muscle. He could pick up a lot of velocity if he cut it fine enough. He'd get catapulted out of the system at some tremendous rate and the fighters would be left far, far behind. If he picked his course right even the warships up in the gravity well would have trouble laying on a vector to intercept. That was the trick he needed. Hope surged and he slid his finger through the air, drawing a new course line, watching his course funnel bend and extend as he set up the lunar pass. The results were astonishing, his velocity on exit getting up to a measurable fraction of light speed. The red shift would make a noticeable difference to the total power flux of any lasers from behind that happened to hit him, and it couldn't help but make things difficult for the gunners.

Except the fighters, of course, would be on his tail and they wouldn't be affected much by relativity. In fact if they followed him through the maneuver they would gain almost as much through the slingshot effect as he did. And when they got in missile range they would blow him out of the sky.

He put the automanual down feeling sick. He was helpless, with nothing to do but watch the end coming. It was a horrible feeling. Combat on the ground was messier than it was in space, physically demanding, mentally exhausting, lethal in the extreme. Death, when it came, came quickly, but there was always something you could do right up to the last instant; no matter how desperate the situation, how faint the hope, you could keep trying until you died. Unconsciously he touched the claw scars on his arm. During the mop-up on Vega IV a kzin had screamed and leapt. His battle armor had saved him from instant death, but the kzin would have killed him anyway if he hadn't fought back, kept on fighting back as it ripped his combat carapace off piece by piece to get at his vitals, kept on fighting against an enemy who was so clearly going to kill him with strength and reflexes and kill rage that he could not hope to match, kept fighting right up to the instant DeVries had blown its head off with a magrifle. They thought he'd need a new arm but he'd managed to keep the one he was born with. On the ground you could hide, you could run, you could ambush. Ground combat was as much art as science, and still a matter of force of will. Space combat was ruled entirely by cold equations, the remorseless variables of mass, thrust, acceleration, velocity and momentum. Know the initial conditions and you could predict the outcome with the certainty of an introductory physics experiment.

It was not his choice of arena, but here he was, and his only choice was death at the hands of superior pilots in superior craft with superior weapons or deliberate suicide by ramming the moon. He pounded his fist on the over-sized armrests of the crash couch in helpless frustration.

Unless…

He drew his finger through the display space, trailing the navigation cursor, dialing in acceleration. Unless he could turn this encounter into ground combat after all, or at least some close approximation. He was closing on the moon fast, and if he cut his course right in tight, right down on the deck where a combat car belonged, there might be a brief period when the curve of the moon hid him from his pursuer's view. He moved his finger, pulled the course funnel around until it was skimming the moon's surface and, yes, at maximum acceleration he'd have a quarter of the surface between him and the fighters. And if they thought he was doing the gravitational slingshot and he instead threw on the brakes…

I'll be on the surface and they'll go right on past at speed and wonder what happened to me.

It was worth a try. It was the only chance he had. The key would be to back off on the acceleration slowly while the fighters had him in view, then jam on deceleration once he was below the horizon. Too much too soon and they'd figure out the game. Too little too late and he wouldn't be able to stop and he'd be on the slingshot to oblivion.

Heart pounding, he set the problem up. For several long minutes it looked like there was no solution. The Swiftwing simply didn't have the thrust to stop the slingshot effect completely. On the first pass the best he could manage would be an elongated egg of an orbit, and when the accelerating fighters came around the curve of the moon behind him as he slowed down he'd actually be on his way up and away toward the apogee — or whatever the apogee was called for the Hunter's Moon. He'd be a sitting duck. His mind raced, he was running out of time and options.

The answer, when it came, was blindingly simple. He would brake hard on the curve in, right up to perigee, then flip the courier on her back, cant the thrusters up and use them to hold his orbit close to the surface. That wouldn't help him land. He'd whip around the moon at low altitude and some tremendous orbital velocity and stay below the horizon while the fighters accelerated past and out toward the edge of the gravity well. The thrusters would hold him in the low point of the orbit while the axis of his orbital egg rotated around the moon's center. Once he had come right the way around he'd put the thrust forward again and decelerate. He couldn't do that forever of course, but if he made a full orbit his pop up and subsequent deceleration would happen with Fourth Flight already past and boosting for the singularity's edge. A fighter's best sensors faced forward; with luck they wouldn't even pick him up. If they didn't they'd have to slow down and change course to catch up with him.

This is the pilot's art. Physics frames the rules, but the game is chess.

Except he was the only piece on his side of the board, and he wouldn't get to trade colors and start again if he lost.

And if I make an orbit and a half before braking I'll pop up with the fighters on the other side of the moon. They'd have one chance to pick him up as he came around behind them, but he'd be low and fast, hidden in the ground clutter from pulsed search beams, moving perpendicular to the beam line to render Doppler search useless. Turn off the mag armor and deep radar would see right through him, maybe. It was a chance, it was worth trying.

He set up the course. His inexperience made it take longer than it should have, and he wasn't entirely sure how much margin of error he needed for his high speed spin around the moon. Cut it close, his instincts told him, and he cut it as fine as he dared. Better to slam it in trying to get away then let himself be picked off as a Tzaatz pilot's trophy. He almost missed his first critical point trying to correct an error that cut it just too close, but he made it and, punched execute. The course icon flashed and the AI growled that it was entering the funnel gate just in time, but there was no discernible change to the progress of the icons. The Swiftwing was dialing back thrust by just over one percent per minute, if he was reading the kzinti panels correctly. Nothing to do now but wait, but no longer passive waiting. He was tempted to take command of his surviving turret and try to shoot down some of Fourth Flight, but decided against it. The AI was a far better gunner than he was, and it still thought the fighters were too far back to make it worth the shot.

So wait, and watch the moon grow larger, and larger, and larger, looming overhead until it filled the transpax and fell toward him at a horrific rate. And then the artificial gravity wrenched at his stomach with sickening force and the lunar surface was a gray blur and he was upside down and the gravity wrenched again as the thrusters shifted vector to keep him tight, tight, tight to the surface as he whipped around. And the dots on the plot board had disappeared and he was behind the moon and fought down the urge to vomit at the vertigo.

This too is the pilot's art. He had ridden assault landers through the atmospheric interface, felt the wrenching jolts and wondered which were maneuvers and which might be hits that would leave them a tumbling wreck, burning through the atmosphere toward a death they'd never feel, and then the final controlled crash of touchdown and the ramp slamming down and he had led his company out to take the control tower or the outer defense line or whatever the objective had been that time. Never had he been anything more than a passenger, and now that made all the difference in nerves and tension. But he had to be in control this time because he was flying below the moon's mountain tops and the AI knew nothing of topography. It was up to him to fly the contours, if there were any, and a miscalculation would leave nothing but another crater in the moon's well scarred surface. How high was he anyway? A thousand meters maybe; apo-whatever was three kilometers, peri-whatever under a hundred meters when the Swiftwing had flipped over to present her thrusters to the stars.

So he kept his eyes glued to the transpax for a bump of gray on the too close horizon that would grow to a mountain in the time it took him to blink, and then twitched the controls left just in time to see gray flash past on either side. And then he was through the crater rim wall and sailing over a vast expanse of emptiness that spoke of the impact of something bigger than Everest in a time before the Earth was born. And three heartbeats later he twitched the column again and he was out the other side. He flicked his eyes to the course funnel to see if he had to do it again and saw he was already more than halfway around. And the fighters must be in front of him by now. His muscles were rigid and aching but he didn't dare let go, didn't dare relax. He had to remind himself to breathe. It seemed to take forever for his ship icon to crawl around the tiny world. And it occurred to him that he hadn't shut down the transponder and that the fighters might have picked up his signal and be tracking him. They shouldn't be able to pick it up below the curve of the horizon but once he popped out behind them it would be a dead giveaway. He didn't dare look away from the gray/black horizon ahead. And then he was starting his second orbit and the enemy icons had vanished from display, though whether that was because they were lost in space ahead of him, accelerating after nothing or because they were tucked in behind him just waiting for him to pop up was unknowable.

A second time the vast crater wall loomed. An orbit and a half. This time he was ready for it, the tremendous speed of his passage seeming to slow down as he became accustomed to it. And then it was over and the thrust switched from below to behind as the courier spun on its axis and he was looking backward. He took his hands off the controls, flipped off the transponder, and the surface fell away as he arced high out above it, vulnerable now to detection, if the fighters hadn't been fooled by his trick. No way of knowing that either. At least he was no longer liable to drill a hole in the side of a mountain. He breathed out and waited again, this time for the apo-whatever so the thrusters could bring him into landing orbit. He breathed deep. What else could they pick up? Navigation radar? Data carrier? Mag armor? Shut it all down, then check the manual to see if there was anything else. And then very quickly the moon was coming up again, but this time he wouldn't be skimming the surface. He came in at a low angle, took control back from the AI as the Swiftwing skimmed in, braking hard. He picked out a boulder field, extended the skids and brought the ship down like a combat car. It was a harder landing than he intended and rocks bigger than he was sailed gracefully into the distance in the low gravity. The Swiftwing skidded to a stop. He was down. His heartbeat pounded in his ears and he realized he was shaking.

He took a deep breath, glanced at his beltcomp. It had taken three hours for the entire chase. It had seemed like minutes. Could they pick up his drive emissions? No time to waste figuring it out. He snapped the master power switch to off. The cockpit went dark and the whir of the lifesystem faded. He wouldn't boil or suffocate immediately, and now there would be no stray radiation from the drives or anything else giving him away. Not much he could do about his thermal signature, but in the full glare of 61 Ursae Majoris the boulder field would be a hot, noisy image to anyone searching for him. It would be easier to pick him up visually — a glint of that hard bright light from the transpax would be all it would take — but that meant Fourth Flight would have to search visually, and that would be difficult, at best.

And that meant Fourth Flight would have had to track him to the moon. They had to know something had happened. Ships didn't just vanish into the blackness of space, and experienced fighter pilots would know better than he how to exploit a gravity well. There was nothing he could do about that possibility now. He was a rabbit and he'd beaten the foxes to his hole. Now he had to simply wait and wonder if they'd given up and gone away. He watched the harsh gray landscape and the brilliant starscape for a while. For a while he thought he might catch a glimpse of his hunters, see a star moving steadily across the background that would be the sun reflecting from one of the fighters, but with the sun almost right overhead that wasn't going to happen.

He went to the food processor, found it gave out nothing but slabs of raw meat, flash heated to body temperature. It might be his last meal, but he wasn't that hungry yet. So he waited, once again, for a death that might come without warning at any instant. He had done what he could to survive, and waiting was now an active strategy, not a passive acceptance of a hopeless situation. He would stay where he was until he couldn't stay there any longer, until his life support threatened to give out, until the fighters had to give it up for lack of fuel.

Except, he realized, they could put themselves in orbit and use none. But a fighter only carried its pilot, and one kzin could only fly so long before he had to go back to the carrier. Would there be another relay of fighters? How many resources would they devote to searching him out? It was a question impossible to answer. The only solution was, wait as long as he could. How long that was depended on the lifesystem. At least with no active pursuit he could lay a course to rendezvous with Crusader. Captain Detringer would be getting worried by now, after two weeks with no contact with his diplomatic team. He would have monitored disturbing transmissions from Kzinhome. He'd know something had gone drastically wrong. His emergency orders were to wait for their return if there was a loss of contact, unless he was actually attacked by superior kzinti forces. There was no time frame specified for how long he was to wait. The captain of a capital ship had considerable latitude in cases like that. Lars Detringer had impressed him as a patient man, but he would have notified the UNSN by now, and perhaps gotten orders to leave. Was he still waiting?

The alternative was to attempt to navigate hyperspace by himself, in a damaged ship with low power reserves, not his first choice option. He got out the automanual to study rendezvous orbits, but found he couldn't concentrate on the words. Stress reaction. I left Ayla behind. The thought would not leave his mind, and already he knew he would be returning to Kzinhome to get her. There was simply no other option. He put the automanual down again, looked out at the bleak, lifeless vista through the transpax. He would have lots of time to learn now, if he had any time at all. It began to get warmer. Eventually he'd have to turn the power back on to run the lifesystem, but not yet.

WISDOM OF THE CONSERVERS

The mightiest river is made of raindrops.

Not even the Patriarch commands the sun.

Time makes bones of life as stlsi [carrion grubs] make bones of a carcass.

A wise enemy is better than a foolish friend.

Wisdom comes slowly even to the wise.

No slave comes willingly to anger.

All warriors must eat.

Ask the experienced, not the learned.

The Fanged God won't protect a fool.

The victor is not weary at the moment of victory.

Never give advice in a crowd.

Truth only hurts when it should.

Speak truly, but speak with care.

The Fanged God sells knowledge for labor and honor for risk.

Hunt in the cool season for the food you need in the hot.

Battle has no time for sorrow.

Wind comes to everyone, but meat only comes to the hunter.

It's not the kill, it's the thrill of the chase.

Good friends are worth the wealth of a world.

Ctervs hide in still water.

A fool will say what he can't understand.

Brothers fight harder than neighbors.

The Pride is no braver than the Patriarch, no wiser than the Conserver.

Ropes trap fools, puzzles trap the wise.

When a fool quotes proverbs the wise [sentient] listen.

The cunning hunter follows the wind to the sun and doubles his tracks.

The rain rains.

Strakh flows to the noble as the rain to the river.

Strong in cunning does not mean weak in courage.

The meat lies beneath the fur.

Swimmers [fish] never thirst.

Choose your name wisely, then bring it honor.

Greet necessity with enthusiasm.

Sheath pride and bare honor.

He who drinks the wind shall thirst, he who stalks the stream shall starve.

When honor and shame balance on a needle, who holds the needle?

Lead with action, follow with words.

THE HAMMER

A kzintosh is not stronger than a Kdatlyno, not wiser than a Jotok, no more skilled than a Pierin, no more adept than a Whrloo. The honor code is all that separates us from lower animals. To apply the honor code the Conserver must first understand its purpose, that he may serve its goals; second, comprehend its import, that he may well advise his Pride and Patriarch; and third, be without strakh, that he may render dispassionate judgment. There is no more difficult calling than Conserver, and none more worthy.

— Kzin-Conserver-of-the-rule-of-Zrarr-Rrit

In the Citadel's central courtyard a detachment of rapsar-raider mounted troops formed up to conduct a clearing patrol. The situation on Kzinhome was stable now, or stable enough at any rate. The Citadel itself was at last secure, or at least the Hunter's Moon had gone around twice since any of the haggard and starving zitalyi holdouts had launched a last suicidal attack from within its walls. Outside the walls… Kchula-Tzaatz paced, worried. Outside the walls there were still attacks. The majority of the kzintzag and all of Lesser Prides of Kzinhome had accepted his rule with the ascension of Scrral-Rrit to the Patriarchy, and the Pride-Patriarchs and Emissaries had all pledged their fealty to the newly ascended Scrral-Rrit; the cowering sthondat was useful to that end at least. The Rrit Fleet was largely gone, fled with the execrated Fleet Commander, perhaps to operate as privateers, perhaps to pledge fealty to some other Great Pride. If they chose to harry Tzaatz supply lines they could be a problem, but so far that problem had not yet arisen. Tzaatz Pride had much strakh right now, and he needed to take advantage of it while he could. The Rrit orbital fortresses were his and, more importantly, the Patriarchal shipyards, and already materials were flowing up-orbit to create his fleet, a fleet to outmatch anything in the Patriarchy. That would take time, but for now no other Great Pride was in a position to attack. His strakh now was such that he could demand much. Eventually that would wear thin, and he would have to bring pressure to bear to achieve his aims, squeeze the results he needed from the planet, but by then rapsar production on Jotok would have made up the horrific losses they'd suffered in the invasion. The zitalyi had fought hard, no question, not just at the Citadel but everywhere. Casualties had been high, among Tzaatz and rapsari alike.

Kchula-Tzaatz stopped pacing and looked back down into the courtyard where the patrol was heading out. No, the pacification of Kzinhome was going as well as could be expected. His anxiety was because of a message he had received that morning, short and to the point. The message was from the Circle of Conservers. Kzin-Conserver was coming.

Kzin-Conserver! A figure so powerful and so distant that he was nearly a legend throughout the Patriarchy. His status rivaled that of the High Priest's, but where the priesthood concerned themselves with rarefied ritual, the Circle of Conservers concerned themselves with the very practical application of tradition. Ritual could be followed and forgotten with no impact on life. Tradition had to be observed, or at least be seen to be observed, and here even Meerz-Rrit had bowed to Kzin-Conserver. Kchula-Tzaatz was under no illusions as to the traditions he had bent in mounting his attack, despite his care in maintaining at least the appearance of adherence. What if Kzin-Conserver decided that in fact the traditions had been violated? Unconsciously Kchula's ears laid themselves flat. The thought did not bear thinking.

Already he wondered if perhaps he should have planned the meeting for a venue other than the Patriarch's Tower. It was necessary to give the title of Patriarch to the cringing coward that Ftzaal-Tzaatz had so effectively turned into a traitor. It was not necessary to yield the perks of the station, and so he had taken over the Patriarch's quarters. Already he was making changes. Meerz-Rrit's taste had been surprisingly spartan for one of unlimited strakh, and, when time allowed, Kchula was expropriating choice furnishings and decorations from around the Citadel to adorn his new home. Now it appeared that might not have been a wise decision, at least not until his conquest was more secure. Kzin-Conserver might not appreciate Kchula's temerity in usurping the Patriarch's quarters. He was nervous, though he did his best to control it. His expected guest was late and there was nothing he could do about it.

There was a knock on the door and he almost fell over himself in his haste to open it. Kzin-Conserver was old even for a Conserver and grizzled, his ears too wrinkled to stand upright, his tail spotted and scaly with age, but he carried an unshakeable air of authority. Alone among every sentient on Kzinhome he had nothing whatsoever to fear from Kchula-Tzaatz. The High Priest's approval of Second-Son's ascension to the Patriarchy had been a mere formality. Kzin-Conserver's endorsement of the traditions followed by Tzaatz Pride in their attack was anything but, and there was nothing Kchula-Tzaatz could do if he chose to withhold it. A word from Kzin-Conserver and the Great Prides would turn against him as one, and then the Tzaatz line would end; there was no point in denying the possibility. Conservers were immune to challenge duels, and assassination at this point… No, the Great Prides would not swallow it. Indeed, if Kzin-Conserver were to simply die of old age it was likely the Great Prides would turn on him in vengeance for what they would assume was treachery. He had played too close to the edge of honor to get away with anything less than the full endorsement of the Circle of Conservers, and for matters of the Patriarchy that meant everything would stand and fall on Kzin-Conserver's judgment. Prior to the attack he had convinced himself that use of rapsari was simply an unconventional extension to the use of more conventional war beasts, a long-standing and accepted practice in the Honor-War. Now it remained to convince everyone else. One of the primary reasons he had spared Rrit-Conserver's life was to lend legitimacy to his conquest and Scrral-Rrit's attainment of the Patriarchy. Those measures seemed thin cover now. Kzin-Conserver had specified that their interview be conducted alone. That was a bad sign.

“You are well I hope, Kzin-Conserver?” Kchula performed a ritual claw-rake to show a respect he did not feel.

The old kzin looked Kchula over through eyes still sharp. “I am as well as can be expected for my age, which is not well at all. I did not choose to attend the Great Pride Circle, despite Meerz-Rrit's invitation. Now I am forced to journey to the Citadel anyway. Your conquest has caused me much distress.”

“I act to defend the honor of our race, Conserver.”

Kzin-Conserver wrinkled his nose. “You act in the interests of strakh and power, Kchula-Tzaatz, let us not pretend otherwise. Meerz-Rrit's decision and the Great Circle's reaction to it are merely convenient for you now. This attack took seasons to mount.” The old kzin moved into the room and took a prrstet. “You understand there are serious questions of tradition here.” His voice was deep and somber.

“I have the assurance of Tzaatz-Conserver that all our actions have been within the accepted interpretation of the traditions. The use of beasts in battle is common in the Tzaatz Pride saga, and well known in the Patriarchy.”

“And where is Tzaatz-Conserver?”

“On Jotok, where he belongs, applying the traditions to my own Lesser Prides.”

“He belongs by your side, the better to advise you against decisions as rash as this one.” Kzin-Conserver held up a paw to forestall Kchula's protest. “I know Tzaatz-Conserver, and I know how he advised you. If he had done otherwise you would not have left him behind.”

“We who serve Scrral-Rrit take the advice of Rrit-Conserver now.” Kchula tried to divert the conversation.

“You who serve…” Kzin-Conserver rippled his ears. “Repeat it often enough, Kchula, and perhaps eventually you will believe yourself. I'm sure what you meant to say is, you who control the Patriarch keep his Conserver far from your council, while you exploit his name for your own purposes.”

“Honored Kzin-Conserver…”

Kzin-Conserver slashed a paw through the air. “I will not be interrupted. Let me be very clear. The use of genetic constructs is against the Dueling Traditions.”

Kchula turned a paw over with exaggerated care. “It is a question of sea or sky.”

Kzin-Conserver lashed his tail. “On the contrary, it is a question firmly rooted in stone.”

Kchula looked up sharply. This is a dangerous development. “This is not what Tzaatz-Conserver has assured me.”

“You tread the edge of dishonor, Kchula-Tzaatz. Shall I order Tzaatz-Conserver here and ask him?” Kzin-Conserver watched Kchula stiffen in ill-suppressed fear. “I'll spare you the humiliation. Do you know K'traio-Tzaatz?”

“I do not.” Kchula bit the words off short.

“You are more ambitious than scholarly, Kchula-Tzaatz. You would do well to spend more time in your father's Hall of Ancestors. The story of Myceer-Rawr is most enlightening.”

“If I may ask you to summarize, honored Conserver?” Conservers value politeness.

“I will spare you the details, Kchula, and show you the shape of this little-known story. Ancient Rawr Pride sought the blood of Krowl Pride for an insult three generations old. Myceer-Rawr traded all the strakh he commanded for rapsari shipped from Jotok by your ancestor, K'traio-Tzaatz. The growth vats have always been a Jotoki specialization. He then invaded, and Krowl Pride retreated, fled into their mountain strongholds on Ktzaa'Whrloo and lured the Rawr after them. The Krowl are born mountain warriors, and they and Myceer-Rawr both knew they could not be defeated in their high fortresses. The rapsari were Rawr's answer to that problem, and it was a cunning and innovative one. Rawr sent in the constructs to hunt them out, but those first rapsari were modified from work-beasts made for the jungles of Jotok, and they fared badly in the mountains where the air was thin, dry, and cold.”

“And so…?”

“Impatience will be your downfall, Kchula-Tzaatz.” Kzin-Conserver paused, letting the point sink in. “And so Rawr Pride was defeated, and Krowl Pride gained much of their strakh. The question of the use of rapsari arose, of course, for while battle beasts are strong in the traditions, these constructs were something else again, undreamt of when the traditions were established. No Great Circle could be convened; in a time long before hyperdrive existed they occurred once in a generation or less. Emissaries might travel half their lives to attend a Circle, and spend the remaining half to bring its rulings back to their worlds. A Patriarch's Voice might never set eyes on the Patriarch in whose name he ruled. Eventually word came here to Kzinhome of what had happened, and Kzin-Conserver of the dynasty of Veascry-Rrit then ruled that the use of rapsari by Myceer had followed the Dueling Traditions, because the traditions did not outlaw rapsari, but that the traditions must be changed, or genetic constructs would take the place of energy weapons and the Honor-War would become lethal to entire prides, perhaps our entire species.” Kzin-Conserver locked eyes with Kchula and stopped. “Do you understand what this means, Kchula?”

“I have never heard of this ruling.”

“Hmmph.” Kzin-Conserver twitched his whiskers. “It made no change to the outcome of the duel, and so is less well known than others with more dramatic results. Nevertheless it exists, and you will not convince me that Tzaatz-Conserver left you ignorant of it.”

He means to judge the Traditions against me! Kchula-Tzaatz stared, watching the disaster unfold in front of him, unable to speak. Could I kill him? The certain wrath of the Great Prides would descend on him no less certainly than if Kzin-Conserver announced formal proscription against Tzaatz Pride. Perhaps somehow he could change the presentation, convince them it was accidental, but Kzin-Conserver was still waiting.

“Do you understand what this means, Kchula-Tzaatz?”

“You will judge against the honor of Tzaatz Pride, you cannot…” Kchula-Tzaatz was prepared to beg, if he had to.

“What is the responsibility of the Conservers?” Kzin-Conserver cut him off.

“To judge the Traditions.”

“No, it is our function to judge the Traditions.” Conserver's voice hardened. “What is our responsibility?”

The hair at the back of Kchula's neck bristled. He is questioning me like a kitten. It was insulting, but there was nothing he could do about it. “To ensure the continuity of the kzinti line.”

Kzin-Conserver rippled his ears, satisfied. “I see that Tzaatz-Conserver has been less than completely lax in his guidance. Allow me to shape another story for you.” The old kzin lashed his tail. “Why should tradition require that the Patriarchy flow through the Rrit line? The priests tell us the Rrit are the Chosen of the Fanged God, but that bears no meat in a universe where the Fanged God can play only with virtual quantum particles and live only behind an event horizon. Why then? What makes them worthy of the honor?”

What answer does he require of me? There was only one safe reply. “I do not know, Kzin-Conserver.”

“Is not heroism and conquest enough for you? You long to take the Patriarchy for yourself, yet you do not know what restrains you from what you desire most.” Kchula started to object and Kzin-Conserver waved him down. “No, do not bother to deny it.” He gestured to take in their surroundings. “Here in the Patriarch's quarters your ambition is abundantly clear. You have taken all but the name. Why then install this weak puppet Second-Son and call him Scrral-Rrit?”

Kchula's lips curled over his fangs at the reminder that he was still technically subordinate to his puppet. “Tradition demands it.”

“Tradition demands it, yes. And more specifically, you know that if you usurped the Rrit line I would pronounce proscription against you, and every Great Pride in the Patriarchy would be at your throat. Even if I do not pronounce proscription the Great Prides may yet take that leap. But while you tread heavily on tradition in the pursuit of your ambitions you realize that you cannot act with impunity. There are some rules even you will not break, not because you revere them but because you fear the consequences if you are not seen to revere them. It is not just tradition, but tradition backed by force which compels you to do what you would rather not do, yes?”

“Yes.” There was no point in denying it.

“So what gives legitimacy to your own position as leader of the mighty Tzaatz Pride? How did you come by this honor?”

Kchula snorted. “I am First-Son-of-Vraat-Tzaatz. I was born to it.”

“Honor must be earned, must it not? Why confer great strakh on a mewling newborn?” Kzin-Conserver didn't accept the safe answer.

“A Conserver doesn't have to ask such a question. This too is tradition.”

“Yes, and where does the legitimacy of the Tzaatz rule on Jotok come from?”

Kchula looked away, not wanting to answer. “Our oath of fealty to the Rrit.” Why else preserve the odious Scrral-Rrit as figurehead? Is this triviality what he is driving at?

“And so your own position springs from adherence to the same traditions that bind your Pride's fealty to the Rrit.”

“What has this to do with the use of rapsari?” Despite his delicate position Kchula could not conceal his impatience.

“You do not yet see, Kchula-Tzaatz, though it is in front of your nose. Tradition does not exist by itself. We Conservers do not enforce obedience to it for no reason. Tradition serves to make predictable what would otherwise be unpredictable. Predictability leads to stability. If tradition did not demand that the First-Son of each generation take leadership of his Great Pride, then all a Pride-Patriarch's sons, and perhaps fealty-pledged warriors, would fight to claim it on his death. Would you rule Tzaatz Pride if Ftzaal-Tzaatz claimed it from you?” Kzin-Conserver waved a dismissive paw. “Your ears would be on his belt, if he bothered to wear them. It would be thus at every succession, and the prize which is Jotok would be destroyed in a pawful of generations. If the traditions did not decree that a Rrit become Patriarch, then the Great Prides would war upon each other constantly. These traditions serve to stabilize our species for the benefit of all. The Dueling Traditions serve to limit the damage of inevitable conflict. Skatosh sets the limits on a challenge duel, and prevents the brother of a slain warrior from claiming vengeance if the fight was fair, which also prevents a squabble from becoming a pride-war. Skalazaal exists so that when pride-wars occur worlds are not sterilized as Pride-Patriarchs contend for what they might wrest from each other. Every tradition exists for a reason, and the reason is always stability.”

“And what does that mean here?”

“You have violated the Dueling Traditions! Tzaatz Pride has used rapsari in battle. Think what you have unleashed! Pride-war fought with battle beasts as the wealth of worlds is squandered on their creation, generations of conflict ending inevitably in the destruction of the Patriarchy and the fragmentation of our race. Tradition demands that I pronounce your conduct and your pride honorless, and your conquest without validity, for where tradition is violated other traditions exist to restore stability. Not all the Pride-Patriarchs have left Kzinhome yet; there are enough to form a Great Pride Circle to sit in judgment on you.” Kzin-Conserver's tail lashed. “The least penalty the Great Circle will impose upon you will be to pay the blood-price of Meerz-Rrit.” Fear shot through Kchula at the words as Kzin-Conserver continued remorselessly. “Blood price for the Patriarch! Do you realize what that will mean? Jotok will be forfeit to the Rrit! And perhaps there will be more. The Great Circle may well choose to end your line. And then, Kchula-Tzaatz, then you should pray to the Fanged God that you die in battle for as much honor as you can trade your life for. If they take you alive you will be given the Ceremonial Death, and it will last for the Traveler's Moon.”

Fear froze Kchula-Tzaatz's liver as Kzin-Conserver stared him down. It cannot come to the Ceremonial Death. I can flee and hide, find another name. I can bribe him… “Honored Kzin-Conserver, do not do this…”

“Stop!” Kzin-Conserver slashed his talons through the air, surprisingly fast for one so old. “Do not beg and lower your esteem with me even further than you already have. You are a coward and a bully and unworthy of this house. Your great victory is built on the bodies of warriors whose urine you are unworthy of licking. You fill my nose with the stench of your fear, mighty conqueror. I have told you what might happen. Now I will tell you what will happen.”

“Please…” Kchula felt his heart pounding. Anything but the Ceremonial Death. I could have him killed… But he could not have Kzin-Conserver killed without bringing down the very fate he was so desperate to avoid, and so he forced himself to stay still, to listen, to gain any advantage he might.

“What will happen. The future is open, there are many possibilities.” Some of the contempt had faded from the old kzin's voice, but his eyes bored into Kchula's, demanding attention. “Consider first if I act as my own traditions would have me do. Yes, the Great Prides will leap at your throat if I judge against you, and I myself would find the finest traditions to guide the Hunt Priests in the preparation of your Ceremonial Death. There are exquisite variations long lost to all but those of us who study the ancient ballads. What will happen then? Will the weak and vacillating Scrral-Rrit then seize the Patriarchy by the scruff?” Kzin-Conserver lashed his tail contemptuously. “He is less worthy than you for the position he holds. No. What will happen is that the other Great Prides will become restive. Meerz-Rrit was wise when he spoke of an end to the conquest hunts. The Patriarchy can expand only at great risk now, and the Pride-Patriarchs know it. You have shown them that it is possible to triumph in skalazaal even over the Rrit. There will be more Honor-Wars, and they will come soon. Scrral-Rrit will die because no one will follow him, and with the Rrit line ended the Great Prides will war over the spoils of Kzinhome. The Patriarchy will fall, Kchula-Tzaatz.”

“There must be another way, esteemed sire.” A way that will see me retain my spoils.

“Esteemed sire, now?” Kzin-Conserver rippled his ears without humor. “I stand amazed to see humility in the great Kchula-Tzaatz. Yes, there is another way. I can choose to overlook the precedent of Rawr Pride. I can stand before the Great Pride Circle and declare that your conquest was within the boundary of tradition, though barely. I can legitimize your illegitimate, your cowardly, your carrion-sniffing attack.” He lashed his tail angrily. “You were clever in putting your zzrou-tamed Rrit puppet above you, clever in preserving Rrit-Conserver to legitimize his rule, clever in making virtue of your ambition by claiming only loyalty to the honor of our race. You have given me that much to work with. And I will work with it, because while it is my function to maintain the traditions, it is my duty to preserve my species, and it is my judgment that to give you the end that you deserve would cause the total collapse of the Patriarchy. Where tradition collides with duty, it is tradition that must change, as it did with Myceer-Rawr. Skalazaal may now be conducted with rapsari, but Jotok is the source for genetic constructs in the Patriarchy, and I doubt you will be eager to supply your rivals with the means of your overthrow. It will take time for the other Great Prides to develop their own capabilities. The damage is contained for now. May the High Priests beseech the Fanged God that it gets no worse.”

“Kzin-Conserver…!”

“Enough!” Again Kzin-Conserver lashed his tail and bared his fangs. “I will hear no more from you. You say you take Rrit-Conserver's advice? He will sit on your councils, and so will Scrral-Rrit. I may yet have your pelt, Kchula. Do not test me.”

“I shall see it done, honored sire.”

Kzin-Conserver waved a paw dismissively. “Now leave my sight before I change my mind for the pleasure of watching the Hunt Priests take you. I would be alone with the view.”

Kchula's lips twitched over his fangs, but he turned and left in silence. Kzin-Conserver had thrown him out of his own quarters. He insults me deliberately, because he has no other option to sate his desire to see me fall. It had been a humiliating interview, and a frightening one by turns, but the fact was, Kzin-Conserver was reacting exactly as Ftzaal had said he would. I will live, and my place in the sagas is now secure. As he realized it, Kzin-Conserver's contempt suddenly meant nothing, and exultation swelled in his liver. Neither the Conservers nor the Priests nor the Great Prides could dare challenge Kchula's victory. He had won, and if he must suffer the gratuitous insults of the old fool as the price of victory, it was cheap enough at that.

He went to the Command Lair. No need to let anyone else know of the indignity he had suffered. Kzin-Conserver would leave on his own time, and in the meantime the pacification of Kzinhome required all his attention. The zitalyi were a diminishing problem, and the Lesser Prides could be cowed, but the kzintzag weren't granting his Heroes the strakh they deserved, and that lack of respect could be fatal if left unchecked. Public duels would fix that problem, public duels carefully arranged for Tzaatz victory, with the heads displayed in the center of Hero's Square. His brother and his cadre of killers would be useful for that. Few would challenge the Protector of Jotok deliberately, but with provocation and deception such duels could be arranged. He needed to find Ftzaal to craft a strategy to ensure their victory did not slip through their grasp at the lowest level now that it was secure at the highest.

As he crossed the courtyard beneath the Patriarch's Tower, Ktronaz-Commander intercepted him.

“Sire! We have a problem.”

Kchula snarled. Problems are becoming too common. “Your warriors' efforts are inadequate, Commander. What have the zitalyi curs done this time?”

“It is not the zitalyi, it is the kzintzag.”

“And…?”

“There has been an incident. A patrol commander in Hero's Square demanded his due strakh from a trader. The trader leapt in challenge and was slain, cut in half by the commander's variable sword.”

“Good.” Kchula let his fangs show, grimly satisfied. “The commoners need to learn their place.”

“Sire! The trader was popular. The whole market leapt as one upon our patrol! They inflicted heavy losses but they were outnumbered eight-cubed to one. They were torn to pieces, rapsari and all.”

“Torn to pieces…” Kchula's tail lashed. Mass violence was the first step on the road to rebellion. Public duels would not suffice to solve this problem. “I want those involved hunted down and put in the Arena.”

“It was the whole market, sire, and none of our Heroes survived! We have no way of identifying the guilty.”

“Hrrr… The Lesser Prides are responsible for their fealty-bound. Make examples of their Patriarchs.”

“Sire! The Great Prides will not allow us. The traditions…”

“There is a new tradition.” Kchula cut him off. “Most of the Great-Pride-Patriarchs have left already; the rest will not remain long. Our freedom of action can only increase. In the meantime, if you cannot take the Lesser Patriarchs take their sons. The Lesser Prides will serve as an example to both kzintzag and the Great Prides. We cannot allow defiance.” Kchula's eyes narrowed. “The conquest of Kzinhome is only the first stage, Ktronaz-Commander. It remains to secure the victory.”

“At once, sire.”

Ktronaz-Commander knew better than to argue. He left at the bound, and Kchula went down to the Command Lair. The corridors had been cleaned of blood and bodies, but the scars of the battle still remained: walls carved with slicewires and embedded with crystal iron ballista bolts. Ftzaal-Tzaatz was already there, and Kchula beckoned him into the privacy field at the back of the room and updated him on the situation.

When he had finished, Ftzaal-Tzaatz furled his ears thoughtfully. “There is more.”

“What now?”

“The reason there is defiance among the kzintzag. There are rumors that First-Son-of-Meerz-Rrit still lives.”

“Tell me.”

“We have largely pacified the populace. The Great Prides find it expedient to accept your rule; the Lesser Prides of Kzinhome are afraid to object, openly. The kzintzag have less to lose. Resistance is scattered, but it is there. The assaults on our Heroes grow bolder and more frequent. Did Ktronaz-Commander mention that the attackers screamed the name of First-Son-of-Meerz-Rrit as they leapt?”

“He did not.”

“He has not developed the information sources that I have. None of his warriors survived to report, but it is true nonetheless. There are those among the kzintzag who believe him to be alive.”

“Is there truth to them?”

“Who can know? We have not found his body. A courier was stolen from the spaceport. Was he on it?”

Kchula lashed his tail. “It was those cursed kz'eerkti fleeing for their homeworld.” Or so Ktronaz-Commander informs me, but is he correct? Ktronaz-Commander's rigid worldview made him reliable and predictable, both important traits in a subordinate. It did not make him particularly insightful.

“Yes, but there is a connection. We know the kz'eerkti escaped through a long-abandoned defense tunnel. The scent trail included a kzinrette and a kzintosh, and the eldest Rrit daughter is missing. First-Son is the only member of the Rrit inner circle we haven't accounted for. Perhaps he was with them.”

“Perhaps he was not. It could have been any of the zitalyi; the Fanged God knows there are enough of them. This fortress has more tunnels than a grashi burrow. First-Son might still be in these walls, and the Forbidden Gate wasn't sealed when we found it. Anyone might have been at the palace kzinretti.”

“Seals are unnecessary where honor rules.” Ftzaal twitched his whiskers. Not that you understand honor, brother.

“And a full sword of our Heroes was slain in front of it, and two rapsari raiders. Perhaps they got it open before they died.”

“And who killed them?”

Zitalyi, who else?”

Ftzaal turned a paw over. “No zitalyi would take a kzinrette from the Citadel. Only the Patriarch's brother would do that, or his son. No, the monkeys escaped with First-Son, of this we can be sure. We know also that the kz'eerkti fled to orbit in that stolen ship. Fighters of the Rrit still in orbit pursued them, but the courier escaped. The human battleship has left the singularity's edge. Did the courier make it there, or did it escape to hyperspace itself? We cannot know, but Meerz-Rrit swore peace with them. They owe him counterfealty. How better to demonstrate it than by saving his son? We must consider the possibility that the monkeys now give him sanctuary on one of their worlds.”

“What do animals know of honor? And why would First-Son allow a monkey to fly a ship he was better qualified to fly himself?”

“I merely offer possibilities. There are more rumors: that he is in the mountains, that he leads the zitalyi holdouts in raids against us, that he is even now raising support for a counterinvasion with V'ax Pride, or with Churrt Pride, or any number of others. Obviously at most one of these can be true, but it is not the veracity of these rumors that is important but that they exist at all. The kzintzag here on Kzinhome will not accept our rule while they believe he lives.”

“These rumors will fade, only fools can entertain them. By the Fanged God, we showed them his head!” Kchula snarled.

“We showed them a head, and we know it was not his. This too is rumored among the kzintzag.”

“Someone has broken fealty.” Kchula's lips twitched over his fangs. “I want every warrior and every slave involved in that deception killed.”

Ftzaal made a dismissive gesture. “There are no such slaves, nor kzinti. I took care of the deception personally, brother, and alone. To do otherwise on such a matter would be to invite obvious and tremendous risk. It is not impossible that I was observed by a slave, but unlikely.”

“Then where has this rumor sprung from?”

Ftzaal turned a paw over. “Sheer necessity. Meerz-Rrit was a popular Patriarch, and First-Son well favored to succeed him. This was the expected path of history, the path of tradition and stability. We have upset that, and even those who may yet gain from our conquest fear instead what they might lose. The hope that the status quo might return drives the rumors that First-Son fights us to regain his birthright. Yet for any of these to be true, he must be alive. We showed his head at Second-Son's ascension, and so the first question anyone hearing that he is alive must ask is, 'Did not the Tzaatz spike his head at the Patriarch's Gate?' The rumor that we showed another head must exist, for it supports every other rumor, and that in turn supports the hope that is all that stands between the kzintzag and their well justified fear that Tzaatz Pride now controls the Patriarchy. It would have existed no matter what the truth. The critical point is, true or not, we do not want these rumors to reach the ears of Kzin-Conserver. He would be motivated to investigate further.”

“He's little threat now that he recognizes the necessity of our dominance.”

“If kzintzag rebellion continues, our dominance will fall into question. Soon the entire planet will know that the head we claimed as First-Son's is not his. We will be accused of our deception, and Kzin-Conserver has latitude enough to pronounce ruling against us even then. You say he supports us because he sees Second-Son as too weak to rule. I doubt he feels the same about First-Son. A genetic scan of the head we posted is evidence enough, and our deception may yet be revealed.”

Kchula growled in frustration. The situation was getting too complex. “We will destroy the heads and let the evidence fade. If we're caught we'll assign it to a mistake made in the confusion of battle. We will lose no strakh, and if Kzin-Conserver suspects the truth is otherwise, his suspicions are no more than that.” He looked at Ftzaal-Tzaatz. “Your estimation of Kzin-Conserver's power of restraint was accurate, if not your estimate of Rrit-Conserver's danger.”

Ftzaal made the gesture of obeisance-to-a-compliment. My brother will yet learn of Rrit-Conserver's danger, but now is not the time to remind him. “The approach we take to the question of deception is irrelevant, as is the reality that the accusations will in fact be true. The critical point is, there are those will stand to gain by seeing our honor called into question. This accusation will have power, and combined with the rumors already in existence it will give strength to those who oppose us. Kzin-Conserver does not support us, he supports our puppet, Second-Son. Second-Son is the ascended Patriarch now; First-Son has no claim to the Patriarchy but challenge-claim, and we will not allow that to happen. This isn't clear to the kzintzag, and as long as they believe otherwise, as long as they choose to believe otherwise, our opposition will again gain strength. Did you know that Zraa-Churrt has delayed his departure? Perhaps this is why they say First-Son treats with him for respite. Kdori-Dcrz has also stayed longer than he planned, and there are others. The Great Circle are watching and waiting, and if they sense weakness they will leap. If they sense strength they will rally to our side. These are powerful prides, and we need their support. If we cannot hold Kzinhome we cannot hold the Patriarchy.”

“These rumors must be stopped at any cost. The Great Pride Circle must not end with our grip on power in question.”

Ftzaal turned a paw over. “The only answer is time. I will see what I can do.”

“Unless First-Son reappears. That must not happen.”

“The only way to be sure of that is to find his body. If he has fled to the kz'eerkti worlds he is far beyond our reach.” Ftzaal-Tzaatz paused, enjoying his brother's growing anxiety. “There is another possibility. A grav transporter was taken during the incident at the spaceport. Its wreckage was found yesterday where the Long Range meets the Mooncatchers. I suggest we send tracker teams.”

“Show me.”

Ftzaal made a gesture to command the AI, and a spinning globe map of Kzinhome appeared in midair. He stabbed it with a foreclaw and it ballooned around his finger, zooming in to show the North Continent, the Great Desert, and the Plain of Stgrat, and the thick chain of mountains separating them. The zoom continued in stages until Ftzaal had a narrow canyon centered in the view. Another gesture and the map graphics were overlaid with satellite imagery. Ftzaal spun the view, zoomed again, and there, skidded onto a scree slope and half crumpled, was a grav transporter, as yet unworn by the elements.

Kchula-Tzaatz keyed his comlink for Ktronaz-Commander, and made the command gesture that would dump the display data to his subordinate's beltcomp.

“Command me, sire!” Not imaginative, but reliable. Ktronaz was a good choice for his role.

“Search from these coordinates. First-Son-of-Meerz-Rrit has been there.” Kchula spat the words angrily. “Find him, kill him, bring me his head.” He broke the link without waiting for an answer and looked at his brother, tail lashing. “We shall correct this mistake before I have to explain it to Kzin-Conserver.” He turned on his heel and left.

When his brother was gone Ftzaal twitched his whiskers and keyed his own com. “Ktronaz-Commander.”

“Sire.”

“First-Son will have a kzinrette with him. I want her brought to me, alive at any cost.” And if what I suspect is true, the Black Cult will regret the day they expelled me. Unconsciously Ftzaal lashed his tail.

I do not advocate war for its own sake, I do not hold stock in munitions companies. I am not doing this for any personal ambition. I am doing this because it needs to be done. We need a final solution to the kzin problem.

— Assemblyist Muro Ravalla to the press

Most of Earth was in darkness as Tskombe's shuttle fell out of Crusader's belly and toward the planet. The aurora borealis drew a brilliant, shimmering circle around the sixtieth parallel, barely visible from space against the perpetual daylight of the arctic midsummer. Farther south it was night, with just the faintest hint of sunlight showing over the planet's eastern limb. The pilots had the cabin gravity turned off and Tskombe floated easily between them, delighting in the rare privilege of being in the cockpit for reentry as they chatted jargon back and forth with approach control. There were cities up there beneath the aurora — Whitehorse, Reykjavik, Igloolik, Oslo — but it was impossible to pick them out. To the south it was easier to identify the geography. The continental coastlines of North and South America were thick luminous bands, the interior landmasses densely frosted with light, but individual cities were harder to find; even the sprawling superglomerate of New York was lost in the larger glow. Darker patches marked the Rockies, the Great Lakes, the Andes, and the Amazon Basin as they slid below, and then they were over the Atlantic, the globe looming noticeably larger as they spiraled down a great circle twisted into a reentry helix by their own motion and the Earth's rotation. He understood the maneuver in theory at least — Ayla had taught him that — but as he watched the pilots perform the delicate orchestration he was glad he didn't have to conduct it. The sun rose as they came around the planet's curve, the solar terminator slicing Europe and Africa in half. Like the Americas, their night sides were brilliantly outlined in cities, but on the sunlit side the planet seemed uninhabited, no sign of civilization visible to the naked eye from his altitude. Ironic that the planet seemed most alive when most of its inhabitants were asleep. The town he was born in was down there, lost somewhere in the sea of light. He tried to spot it, tracing south from the prominent boot of Italy, but there were too many lights, and not enough time. The only clues to their streaking passage through the edge of the atmosphere were a few gentle accelerations and the steady return of weight. Their path would take them over the southern tip of Africa, and then back up over Southeast Asia to cross the wide Pacific, but the shuttle nosed up to take the reentry friction on her belly and Tskombe strapped into the jump seat behind the pilots with nothing to watch but the flashes of incandescent gas streaming past, shock-heated to thousands of degrees in a fraction of a second by the ship's passage. An hour later they were back in darkness and in the atmosphere, back over land, nose down again, lining up on Long Island's MacArthur Field, though they were still far back over the American desert, empty enough that the cities there formed only a glowing filigree on a black backdrop. Ahead the tracery blended back into the sea of light that made up the east coast superglomerate.

New York, New York! The city-nation, the world capital. How many years had it been since he'd left it behind to discover the stars? They fell lower and the luminous smear broke up into individual lights, buildings and the riding lights of gravcars, locked into endless streams by traffic control. He strained forward, and sooner than he expected the unmistakable skyline of the vast city appeared, gravcars flitting between islands of sculpted office towers reaching for the sky. He wasn't sure what made the City special in the face of the vast, urban sameness that covered the continent. Perhaps it was the port, its piers extending far out to sea, where a thousand bulk carriers a day arrived from around the world, disgorging their myriad cargos to feed the insatiable maw of the four billion humans crowded close on the continent. More likely it was the dense concentration of government and corporate power housed in the core of the city, home to the UN since it began, center of world financial power since a century before that. Part of it was certainly the people, energized with a purpose that seemed to be bestowed simply by living there.

And I left Ayla behind. The thought constricted his throat and ruined the elation of the view. It was the primary credo of the infantry that no one was ever left behind. Regardless of personal risk you brought home your own, alive or dead or in pieces. He had lived it when he held the dropship down on the raid that failed to retake Vega IV until every last soldier in his scattered unit ran, crawled or was dragged back through the perimeter. He had lived that rule when he carried Lieutenant Nikorki out of the disaster at Chara B on his back with her blood soaking his battle vest. She had died, and he'd known she would die, and he took her out anyway, because she was one of his own. But I didn't live it on Kzinhome, when I left Ayla Cherenkova a hundred meters away and boosted. It didn't make it better that he'd had to do it to save her life, but it made it worse that she was his lover. I left her there, but I'll bring her back. His throat was so tight it was hard to breathe. Tskombe clenched his fists, his fingernails digging into his palms hard enough to draw blood. The pain was good, punishment and reminder at once. I will bring her back or die trying.

There was a UNF colonel waiting for him when they grounded, and a completely unnecessary armed escort. Captain Detringer had transmitted his report ahead to UNF Command, but his arrival in person was highly anticipated. The colonel returned his salute and shook his hand as he introduced himself, a name Tskombe promptly forgot, and then they bustled him through the throngs at MacArthur arrivals. A flash of the colonel's ident took them through customs without stopping, and on to a tube car. The ride was under an hour, their destination an anonymous station connected to some anonymous building in midtown Manhattan, a nondescript standard issue government office complex with tattered decor and faded lightpanels. He was given rooms in it, comfortable and more spacious than those he'd had on Crusader, but the elevator had a thumb-pad and it wouldn't open for him. He was used to confined quarters, having spent much of his life on ships, but here he found the lack of freedom oppressive. The colonel shook his hand again and left his life forever. An orderly brought food and explained the room controls. Another came to look after the formalities that were a staple of military life, in clearance, medical clearance, transfer acknowledgment, net address update, next-of-kin forms. He was a hero, everyone kept telling him, but they treated him more like a prisoner.

He was thirty or forty floors up, he reckoned, certainly in the government district that surrounded the UN complex. The window gave an uninspiring view of a parking pad full of gravcars and an array of featureless windows on the building across the way. After a while a civilian came to interview him; he too had a name, but in his mind Tskombe just referred to him as the civilian, and he was as nondescript as it was possible to be. He was neither heavy nor light, tall nor thin, middle-aged with slightly thinning hair, his face the typical nondescript racial blend of the Flatlander. His jumpsuit was conservative but not expensive, his manner was tense but somehow ineffectual, and Tskombe found his very presence annoying.

“So tell me again what caused the attack?” The civilian's voice was flat and wheedling, asking a question he'd asked before. The interview was hours old, and going nowhere.

Tskombe shrugged. “I haven't told you what caused it. I've told you it's a civil war, I know that much, what they call an Honor-War. Dr. Brasseur could tell you more, much more. We need to get my team back.”

“Your report mentioned that Ambassador Brasseur was killed.”

“Yes, it did.”

“So when you say 'your team' you're referring to Captain Cherenkova only.”

Tskombe spoke stiffly. “In the military we recover the bodies of our fallen comrades, if it's at all possible. Perhaps you're unaware of that tradition.”

The civilian ignored Tskombe's suggestion. It had become a bit of a game. Tskombe would suggest that they mount a rescue and the civilian would pretend he hadn't heard him do it.

“And you say the Patriarch has been deposed.”

Tskombe sighed, resigned to one more time around the circle. “The Patriarch is dead, so far as I know.” He laughed mirthlessly. “Long live the Patriarch. We had the beginnings of a peace treaty, a dialogue at least, and he made a speech to the Great Pride Circle forbidding them to attempt conquest against us. Against any race, in fact.”

“And you believed him?”

“He's Patriarch. Of course I believed him. Lying to an herbivore would be beneath him. He staked his honor on that speech, in front of every Great Pride in the Patriarchy.”

“Perhaps this whole civil war thing was simply staged to lull you into a false sense of security. Something to get our guard down before they attack.” The civilian questions trod the thin line between due diligence and actual paranoia.

“Why would our guard go down? I just told you, they're having a civil war. The important thing is we have to get Captain Cherenkova back.”

“I'm afraid we have bigger things on our minds at the moment, Major.” At least the civilian didn't outright ignore the point this time. “What's your estimate of the size of the attacking force?”

Tskombe controlled the reflex to break the man's nose, breathed deep to keep himself calm. “I've told you already, I have no idea. I saw perhaps a dozen landers go over, with a lot of drop troops coming in. I wasn't everywhere on the planet.”

“You're a military man, a commander. You must have a better idea than that.”

Tskombe let annoyance creep into his voice. “If I had one, why wouldn't I be giving it to you? Isn't that what I'm paid for? I was a fugitive; do you understand what that means? I spent most of the attack either hiding or running for my life. I didn't have a lot of time to take notes.”

“There's no need to display that attitude, Major.”

“That's where you're wrong.”

“What?”

“There is a need to display this attitude.” Tskombe leaned forward, meeting the interrogator's gaze. “There may well be a need to display an attitude that's a lot more problematic. I am not a hostile witness, I am not a prisoner of war, I am an officer of the United Nations Forces and there is absolutely no need for this cross-interrogation. Everything you've asked me today is answered in my written report. They're the same answers I provided in my verbal report to Captain Detringer aboard Crusader, and both of those report were hyperwaved here when we cleared the singularity at 61 Ursae Majoris.” He pointed to the civilian's datapad. “I'm sure you know what they say, and if there's anything you don't understand, I suggest you read it again. The answers will be the same tomorrow, unless I think of something important between now and then, in which case I will be certain to volunteer it, because that is my job to do so.”

“It's my job to help you remember. That's what this interview is about.” The civilian sounded defensive.

“Look.” Tskombe smiled, trying to defuse the situation. “I appreciate you're doing what you have to, but my colleagues are still on Kzinhome. I need to talk to General Tobin as soon as possible.”

“That's not my…”

“… decision. I know. It's his. Just tell him I need to talk to him, and only him. And in the meantime, I would like it if you would get my data into the database, so that I can thumb for the elevator and actually leave this floor and get some fresh air. I am making the assumption that this oversight is simply due to bureaucratic incompetence and not actual malice.”

“I'll see what I can do.” The civilian's manner was stiff.

Tskombe smiled again, not really meaning it. “I would appreciate that.”

The civilian left and Tskombe waited, keyed up and bored at the same time. He took out the Sigil of the Patriarch that Yiao-Rrit had given him, turning it over in his hands. It was heavy, deeply embossed with a figure that might have symbolized a spiral galaxy, or perhaps a multi-bladed weapon. The reverse side was covered in the dots and commas of kzinti script, but not in a style he could read. Probably the Patriarchal Script. The Hero's Tongue was a hard language to learn, and one of the hardest parts was the many variations of address, one for superior to inferior, another for inferior to superior, another for conversation between equals, between brothers, between father and son, between more distant relatives, the Patriarchal Form, the Noble Form, the slave command imperatives, and a dozen more subtle variations he had never learned. There were at least twelve scripts, the most common four of which he knew well enough to read. Kefan could read this. Except Brasseur was dead on Kzinhome. I'll bring him back too, if I can. The Tzaatz had probably eaten him by now, and Tskombe's fists clenched again. They're wasting my time here with bureaucracy.

He didn't hear anything further from the civilian, but the next morning the elevator opened to his thumb. He took it to the ground floor, went into the street. He was, as he had suspected, in the UN district. It was hot and humid, high summer in New York, and he took a slidewalk down to the waterfront. It had been a long time since he'd left Earth, with the ink on his commission scroll still damp and a galaxy in front of him to discover. He found a quiet coffee shop and sat down to scan the newsfeeds. If the UN needed him they could get him on his beltcomp. Most of the news was local — crime, sportvents, and scandal in equal measure — but he eventually found a hard news channel. There had been more skirmishes between UNSN ships and kzinti raiders around W'kkai, and Secretary Desjardins was trying to balance factions in the General Assembly arguing for everything from ignoring the incursions as a colony problem to outright extermination of the kzinti for the continued safety of humanity. Public opinion on the matter was split, a result Tskombe found surprising, until he gave up on the newsfeeds and flipped through the entertainment feeds. Perhaps a quarter of the holos were war stories, where heroic UNF soldiers held off hordes of rapacious kzinti against desperate odds. The remainder were divided between fluffy and humorless comedies, steamy semi-erotica, and the bizarre and confusing productions of the new sensationalist school.

Public opinion was divided on the kzinti, he realized, because the vast majority of Earth's twenty billion had never seen a live kzin. Their impressions were formed by cheap cubies where the kzinti were cardboard cutout villains. It had been centuries since they'd posed any serious threat to Earth, and the opinion any particular individual was likely to express in a poll was built on equal measures of misinformation and indifference and hence little better than a coin flip, which explained the split results. Even the debates by the representatives in the General Assembly had more to do with who would gain from military spending than with any reasonable assessment of the threat the kzinti actually posed.

He looked up from the holocube and watched the crowds streaming by. How many years had it been since he'd last left Earth, last walked Central Park? Enough that he had grown into a soldier and a commander — and Earth, he now realized, had not grown with him. The vibrancy he had remembered seemed nothing more than self-indulgent decadence now, what had seemed sophisticated now looked simply pretentious. The real energy was in the colonies, where people were carving out new worlds for themselves. There was corruption there, fear and greed, deceit and treachery, but at least people still strove for something more. They hadn't allowed themselves to sink into self-satisfied and unquestioning complacency.

A 'caster was bleating on about a dog in Kuala Lumpur who'd gotten stuck in a storm drain. Intercontinental news. He flipped the cube off in disgust and went back to watching out the window, running over the problem of getting Ayla off of Kzinhome. Getting into 61 Ursae Majoris' space would be difficult, actually locating Ayla harder still. If she's still alive. The fear wouldn't leave the back of his mind, but he couldn't allow himself to make any other assumption. She is alive until I find her body. The situation on Kzinhome would dictate the tactics they would use to find her. Kzinti would be essential on the rescue team, as interpreters, as guides, even as spies, if they had to operate secretly. They would have to be recruited on Wunderland; there were enough of them there, descendants of those left behind when the UN undid the original kzinti conquest. What is happening there now? Kchula-Tzaatz was dangerous, but was he still in power? The situation was too fluid to make predictions, and so they would have to go in ready for any eventuality. Two ships at a minimum, disguised as traders with kzinti pilots. Four would be better, plus another diplomatic mission, if the Great Pride Circle would accept one. What would the best approach be? Tanjit! He needed Brasseur to help him with this, to outline the best way to handle the kzinti. There was no point in pursuing that line of thought.

He went back to his quarters, slept fitfully, and spent the next day waiting for a promised interview with the civilian that never materialized. By twenty-one o'clock he gave up, took the elevator down to slidewalk level, and let the passing strip take him wherever it was going. He crossed to the high-speed center strip and looked down to the pedestrian level below. Around the UN district the area was pleasant, manicured lawns and gardens, tall and graceful towers built around green courtyards. Even at this hour the slidewalk was crowded, mostly government functionaries in somber jumpsuits with the occasional military uniform standing out of the crowd. Overhead gravcars streamed in nine levels, one for traffic heading to each of the eight prime compass points and one held clear for emergency services. Here and there a hoverbot patrolled, cameras swiveling. He took junctions at random and the neighborhood changed, the buildings becoming older and less well maintained. Garish advertisements floated in the air, cajoling him to eat, to drink, to buy or sell, either from the storefronts he was passing or from well-known global chains pushing well-known global brands.

He came to a junction and got off the slidewalk, went down to the pedestrian level. The setting midsummer sun still glinted off the building tops, but it was already twilight on the ground. He walked south, beyond the slidewalk, and character of the area changed again. He was in the midtown gray zone, crowded close against the south Manhattan seawall — one of the semi-official chunks that festered in every city where the ARM's near perfect record of crime suppression failed. Every city had its gray zones, pockets of crime and poverty occupied by the human detritus of the well ordered world machine the UN ran. Sometimes, as in Kowloon, the gray zone borders were knife sharp, and you could get your throat cut just by crossing the wrong street. In New York the borders were vaguer. By some estimates half of Manhattan outside the government district was gray zone. According to the government there were none in the city at all. Here by the seawall the neighborhood wasn't pleasant, but it was reasonably safe while the sun was still up. Shabby vendors' stalls hawking cheap consumer goods occupied the central strip, separating pedways where rickshaws, rollers, and bikes competed with foot traffic for maneuvering room. The half-burned smells of a dozen cuisines cooked on open grills mingled with the sweaty tang of too many people on a too hot day. Here and there taspers sat slumped against the building walls, staring with stupid, vacant grins at the passersby, their souls lost to the wire. Most were gaunt, a few skeletal, in the last stages of current addiction. Once you knew the incandescent bliss brought on by direct electrical stimulation of your pleasure center nothing else mattered, not even food or water. Only the most extreme hunger would penetrate a tasper's mind to motivate eating, and they never ate enough to sustain life. It was a form of suicide, slow, horrific, and all too often public. The surgery that sank the electrodes into the brain had long been outlawed, but that only created a black market fed by unlicensed meat surgeons and purveyors of hacked autodoc codes. The tasp was too easy a solution for anyone looking for a way out.

“Want something different, soldier?” A heavyset man beckoned him into a doorway while holos of naked women performed lewdly overhead. “Anything you can imagine and a whole lot more you can't.”

Tskombe waved him away, moved to the center median, away from the flesh hucksters lining the street. In the intersection a crowd of bounce kids had a grav-grid set up, taking turns to leap and twirl in the reduced gravity to the heavy, pounding beat pouring out of their sound system. The holoshow in the middle was showing a tornado and the kids jumped and spun in it as though it were carrying them away. But I'm not in Kansas anymore, Toto, and the lions I'm dealing with are anything but cowardly. The thought came unbidden with the irony of his mood. Surely nothing Dorothy saw in Oz was as strange as the reality Tskombe was looking at now. A couple of the kids had managed to disable a hoverbot and were stripping it for parts, probably for barter. The fertility laws had gone a long way to create the gray zones; the refusal to register unlicensed births created an underclass of non-persons whose very existence was illegal. Unregs were denied official identity, and with it health care, education, jobs, services, police protection, even access to the monetary system, since no ident meant no bank account, which meant you couldn't make a transaction. Perhaps the government thought that if it ignored them they'd disappear, but the unregs persisted in trying to live their lives anyway. Most of them wound up in the gray zones, where they could trade goods to survive. As Tskombe watched, the bounce kids dissected the bot with surgical precision; they'd obviously done it before. Maybe they just wanted its polarizers to expand their grav-grid. Zoners were good at converting junk into tools.

On an impulse he went to a call booth, only to find it stripped as well. He used his beltcomp instead, thumbed for an old friend's directory listing. The name came up, and a once familiar dial string. He paused before he punched it. The last he'd heard from Freeman Salsilik was a wedding invitation; that had been just before the raid on Harfax, his first combat command. He'd gotten the invitation com right before they'd boosted out. The screen flashed dial now? at him. He'd meant to send a letter, even a present, when he got back, but he'd had to send so many letters then, to the families of his soldiers who'd died, who'd been maimed and crippled, it hadn't seemed the right time. He looked at the blinking words. It had been fifteen years since he'd left Earth, fifteen years soldiering on alien worlds, four campaigns and a dozen assault landings, and it had never been the right time. Freeman had stayed on Earth, got married, had children, worked at… wherever it was he'd worked. Was he still married? If he'd had children they'd be nearly grown now. The address by the dial string was on Central Park West. Freeman had done well for himself, at least.

And Quacy Tskombe? He was a major now, qualified to be a colonel. The mission to Kzinhome had been a cherry for his record, Marcus Tobin's seal of approval that would confirm his promotion and pave the way to general, expedited. Tobin had graduated from Strike Command to System Defense, and Tskombe, despite being two ranks too low, was on the short list to succeed him. He had twelve medals too, but what was it Napoleon had said about medals? Men will die for a handful of ribbon. What he didn't have was a family, and what he no longer had was anything in common with Freeman Salsilik. He thumbed cancel and the dial string vanished. No need for the warm handshake followed by the awkward silence, conversation across a gulf neither of them could hope to cross, reminiscence over events that had long lost meaning to either one. He left the call booth and walked again, past a child urinating in the street while its father pretended to be looking the other way. Fifteen years gone, and what would he have in another fifteen? More, he hoped, than he had now. Will I have Ayla? It was a question mark as sharp and painful as a knife blade. New York had nothing to offer anymore. He had to get back to Kzinhome, and the only way to do that was to motivate the UNF bureaucracy to mount a rescue. He turned back the way he had come, ignoring the crowds around him, almost welcoming the anonymous sterility of the UN building's lobby when he reached it. When he got back to his rooms his beltcomp chimed, and he answered it. It was the civilian. General Tobin was arriving from system defense headquarters on the Moon in the morning. He had a half an hour meeting with him before noon. Tskombe spent an hour pressing his uniform, not because the razor creases would make any difference to the course of the interview. He could have thumbed for the night orderly and had it done for him; a major's rank came with privileges. He didn't do that. The orderly would get it autopressed, and autopressers never got it quite right. He pressed it himself, as he always had, by hand. He was a soldier, and that was how it was done.

The sun was oppressive the next day, the air heavy and humid. He had felt it only long enough to walk from the tenth-floor skyport to the military gravcar that was waiting for him there, but there was a heat bulletin on the local newsfeed, warning people to stay inside and avoid the sun as much as possible. There would be deaths today, withered struldbrugs and young children in rooms with no climate control, probably some of the taspers he'd seen last night, fried in direct sunlight because they didn't care enough to move to the shade. The urban heat bubble of the East coast megalopolis raised the local temperature as much as ten degrees. On Earth it didn't matter how many problems you solved, how efficient you made your processes, how completely you recycled. The inexorable crush of population guaranteed there would always be another crisis. The fertility laws helped, but the Fertility Board itself was corrupt, and despite the promises made every election to clean it up, somehow each census came in higher than the last one.

It was just a three-minute flight to UNF headquarters. General Tobin had an office there, though he was rarely at it. Tobin was a field commander, stocky and with his broad chest full of medals, iron gray hair cropped close. System defense was the largest and best funded command, and for that reason a highly political post. As a result he preferred to command from the Moon, where the only politicians who could interfere with him were those willing to get on a shuttle. It did little to decrease the frequency of political visitors, he admitted, but he maintained that it improved their quality considerably.

After the pleasantries he got right to the point. “You're not in my chain of command anymore, Major. What's this meeting about?”

Tskombe nodded. “My mission is complete, my report is filed. I'm asking to be returned to your command.”

“That's not my decision.”

“But your request wouldn't be denied.”

“True.” Tobin leaned back. “So tell me why you're so eager to get out from under the Security Council.”

Tskombe shrugged. “There's nothing more I can do for them. There won't be another diplomatic mission to Kzinhome anytime soon.”

“I read your report. It's disturbing. It could mean war. All-out war.”

“I hope that can be averted, sir.”

“You've heard what Assemblyist Ravalla is saying.” It wasn't a question.

“I saw a little on the newsfeeds.”

“He's been pounding the war drums hard. It's an election trick, appealing to emotion and making Secretary Desjardins's policies seem weak. Desjardins was relying on the success of your mission more than you might imagine.”

“All the more reason for me to get back to active service.”

“Quacy.” Tobin leaned forward. “I've known you long enough to know that you don't do anything without a plan. What is it you want?”

“Sir, there is another issue…”

“I'm listening.”

“Sir, Captain Cherenkova is still down on Kzinhome, trapped in the middle of a civil war. We have to get her out of there.”

Tobin nodded. “I understand your concern for your comrade, Major, but there are larger things to consider here. I understand from your report that you allied yourself with the son of the deposed Patriarch.”

“Yes sir, I did. We did.”

“Did you ever stop to consider that you put yourself, and by extension the United Nations and all of the human race, in a very bad position with respect to the new Patriarch?”

“The new Patriarch is also the son of the deposed Patriarch, sir.”

“Don't dodge the question, Major.”

“I'm not, sir. My point is that we had no basis or ability to make a long-term judgment. It was a tactical situation and our lives were at stake. We had an understanding formed with Meerz-Rrit, with whom we were empowered to negotiate. I should add that that occurred through some very difficult negotiations, and that Captain Cherenkova, Dr. Brasseur, and myself pledged our personal words to cement the bargain. Meerz-Rrit took that understanding and acted to make it happen on the kzinti side based on nothing more than our word that we would do our utmost to see the UN implement its half of the deal. He took considerable personal risk to do that, and in fact that risk, while not a contributing factor in the invasion, has been used by his usurpers to justify his overthrow. We learned all this later. At the time we had no idea who would win, or even who was fighting, and allying ourselves with First-Son-of-Meerz-Rrit was purely a matter of survival. We did not at any time have the opportunity to ally ourselves with the invaders, or with Second-Son-of-Meerz-Rrit, who I assure you is only a figurehead Patriarch. Even if we had had options, to break faith with Meerz-Rrit's heir would have destroyed the credibility we had worked very hard to build up with the Rrit, and I emphasize it would not have bought us any new credibility with the Tzaatz. To switch sides would confirm our role as herbivores, without honor, untrustworthy and existing only to be conquered. At least now when we negotiate with Kchula-Tzaatz we can start at the table as warriors who can be relied upon to keep their word at any cost.”

“Your arguments are persuasive, Major.”

“They are the simple truth sir.”

“Nevertheless, you understand, that in purely human terms, your actions have caused quite a disturbance. The General Assembly is already split down the middle on the issue of what to do about the kzinti. The civil war and your alliance with the losing side have brought the issue to a pitch.”

“How do you mean?”

“Muro Ravalla is vying to be the next Secretary General. He's riding on the wave of fear this has brought on, and his position is that we need to exterminate the kzinti, once and for all. Immediately.”

“He's a fringer, he'll never get in.”

“He controls the largest single faction on the floor right now. This crisis over the kzinti has put him dangerously close to a majority. Desjardins is on his way out.”

“How?”

“Your little announcement has caused quite a bombshell. Right now it's still under secret discussion in the Security Council, but that's only because Ravalla is waiting for the right moment to leak it to the 'casters. Once it gets out, all hell is going to break loose, mark my words. There will be a confidence vote, and Desjardins is on record saying he'll retire if he doesn't win the next one. When he goes I wouldn't bet against Ravalla winning Secretary General, with a majority behind him as well.”

“Sir, I recognize that, but with all respect, we still need to go and get Captain Cherenkova back. We simply can't leave her there; it's not an option.”

“It isn't an option I like taking, but that is exactly what we're going to do.” He held up a hand to forstall Tskombe's protest. “We aren't going to abandon her. We are going to go through channels to this Kchula-Tzaatz and ask for them back, very firmly I might add.”

“Sir, with respect, that is simply going to fail. The Patriarch is dead, the Patriarchy is in civil war, or might as well be! Who are you going to go through? The Patriarch's Voice on Wunderland? His influence is gone, dissolved; it died with Meerz-Rrit. Are you going to send another diplomatic mission? They'll be eaten! The only hope we have of stopping it is to throw our weight behind First-Son-of-Meerz-Rrit, and the way to do that is get down on Kzinhome and find Ayla Cherenkova.” His voice carried the passion of his feeling. And how much of my interpretation of the right course of action is based on my desire to get her back? Almost all of it.

Tobin leaned back, looked Tskombe over. “Quacy, are you personally involved with this woman?”

“She's a fellow officer, sir.”

“Skillfully evaded. I'll take that as a confirmation.” He leaned forward again. “So you are recommending what, that we send in a squadron, just show up in kzin space in violation of treaty and stage an assault landing?”

“No sir, we go in a freighter, or several, carrying a handpicked team, with Wunderlander kzinti as guides and interpreters. I'll go myself. Just give me the ship.”

“You are seriously advocating dropping a group like that, uninvited by any of the factions involved, into the middle of an alien civil war to find Captain Cherenkova and this deposed maybe-Patriarch? Who you left, I might add, in the middle of a firefight. I hate to break it to you son, but she and First-Son-of-Meerz-Rrit are probably dead.”

“Sir, it was you who taught me the UNF didn't leave people behind.”

“So your primary goal here is the recovery of Captain Cherenkova.”

“Yes sir.”

Tobin's expression hardened “Your personal feelings are getting in the way of your judgment.”

“We can't abandon her, sir.”

“We aren't abandoning her. Neither are we creating a major diplomatic incident at an extremely delicate time for both the kzinti and ourselves. Am I clear?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good.” Tobin leaned forward. “I understand it's hard, Quacy. I don't like it any more than you do. You've done a good job in difficult circumstances. I'm putting you down for a citation and recommending your expedited promotion to full colonel. My request to have you transferred back to my command will go out this afternoon and it will be complete before you get back to quarters. In the meantime, you've got four weeks' leave, starting now. Tell the orderly to put the paperwork through when you go out.”

“Thank you, sir.” There was nothing else to say.

“And Quacy?”

“Yes sir.”

The general leaned forward, putting force into his words. “There will be no unauthorized missions here, understood? I want your feet to stay firmly on this little green Earth. Not Kzinhome, not Wunderland, not even a weekend on the Moon, do I make myself clear?” Tobin's gaze was level and unblinking.

“Absolutely, sir.”

The general's expression softened. “I understand how hard it is for you, but I have to keep my eye on the bigger picture. There's a very good chance that she's already dead, and if we don't handle this properly a lot more people are going to die as well. We're going to do our best, Quacy. Going in commando style is just too risky.”

“I understand, sir.” Tskombe saluted and left, keeping his face expressionless.

The gravcar was waiting to carry him back to quarters. Tobin was right, of course, and his decision was the only viable one. There was no hope that Ayla was still alive, and no hope that a rescue mission would be able to locate her even if she was. He had been denying that reality, denying it from the moment the Tzaatz tanks had shown up and he'd been forced to boost with her and Brasseur still on the ground. He put his head in his hands. Ayla was gone.

In the time before time, Ftz'rawr, Patriarch of the Stone Lands, coveted the daughter of Kzall Shraft. Kzall thought Ftz'rawr weak and would not give his daughter, for though Ftz'rawr offered all the iron in the Stone Lands, he had not enough strakh to command a daughter of Shraft Pride. He sought then to win her by challenge, but Zree Shraft fought as her champion, and Ftz'rawr was defeated. Finally Ftz'rawr declared the Honor-War, and eight-to-the-fourth warriors of the Stone Lands descended and slew all of Shraft Pride save Zree Shraft, son of Kzall, who escaped and swore vengeance. Twice-eight times around the seasons Zree Shraft wandered, and no Pride would take him in, for he was death-marked by Ftz'rawr, who had threatened to end the line of any who aided him. And Zree became Zree-Shraft-Who-Walked-Alone and lived his life to fulfill his blood-vow. Ftz'rawr heard of this and was afraid despite his armies and his walls, and so sent Egg-Stealer the grashi to whisper in Zree's ear. Egg-Stealer told Zree Shraft that if he would foreswear kin-vengeance Ftz'rawr would renounce the death-mark, and Zree could claim a place at another Pride's circle. Zree Shraft was cold and tired and hungry and alone, but he took Egg Stealer and told him fiercely, “Tell Ftz'rawr that I will only find warmth in the den he has stolen from me. Tell him that only his blood will slake my thirst and only his death will sate my hunger. Tell that I will not sleep until his ears are on my belt, and tell him I am coming.” And Egg-Stealer scurried to Ftz'rawr and told him so, but Ftz'rawr flipped his tail at the news, for he was Great Patriarch now, and had nothing to fear from an outcast. But the Fanged God had seen Zree's pledge, and wanted to see if it was true. So he sent Zree Shraft four tests, of strength, of courage, of wisdom, and of honor, and each of these tests is a tale to itself, which I have no time to tell here. There was one test for each season, and Zree Shraft passed each one in turn, so the Fanged God rewarded him with an army. Zree Shraft led his warriors against Ftz'rawr and the Pride of the Stone Lands was defeated. Zree slew Ftz'rawr to avenge his father and became Great Patriarch, and when he died the Fanged God put him by his side to lead his army, for there was no other general to equal him.

— Kitten's Tale: The Legend of Zree-Shraft-Who-Walked-Alone

The yearling zianya looked around nervously as Ayla Cherenkova watched through a pair of kzinti binoptics, holding one lens to her eye and using it as a telescope because they were too large for her to use both at once. The cluster of new shoots the graceful creature had found was tasty and rich, a rare bonus of nutrition and energy in an area where herd competition made sure that the best of the vegetation was consumed as soon as it appeared. It cropped them eagerly, but the prize didn't come without risk. It was over a hundred meters from the rest of the herd, a dangerous distance from the protection afforded by fifty sets of eyes, ears, and noses. Every few bites it looked up and peered around nervously, fear not quite winning out over hunger in whatever calculus of survival its small brain used to determine the best balance between risk and reward. Evolution had shaped it to make the tradeoff well. It was alive because every single one of its ancestors had made that calculation correctly long enough to reproduce at least once. On average its behavior was exactly optimized for its environment.

Optimal on average, but in this particular instance it had made a disastrously wrong decision. Its genes would not see another generation. Cherenkova could not see Pouncer, but she knew he was there, creeping paw by paw through the long grass. Closer to the herd the odds were long that he would be spotted before he could leap. Out here the zianya's chances were much slimmer.

There! The long grass rippled and the zianya must have heard the rustle. It looked up sharply, wide set eyes scanning for the threat. Pouncer remained invisible, but the prey animal's survival calculations suddenly switched in favor of safety. It turned abruptly and started to trot back to the herd.

Pouncer screamed and leapt, and even at a distance of two hundred meters Cherenkova's blood froze at the sound. The zianya startled and froze as well, its head whipping around to see two hundred and fifty kilograms of predator bearing down on it in midleap. Pouncer hadn't been as close as he might have liked, and the herbivore launched itself into a run for its life, bounding so high and fast it seemed to be literally flying, skimming the grass. Like its behavior, its body was optimized for a lifestyle dominated by inexorable predation, with long, powerful legs for instantaneous acceleration and a streamlined rib cage built around a tremendous set of lungs for sustained speed. Pouncer tore after it, his body sinuous and muscular, a streak of orange and black through the long, sunburnt grasses. In the distance the rest of the herd turned as one and took flight. He was no more than ten meters behind the animal, but he was slowly losing ground. A healthy adult zianya could run both faster and farther than a kzin could, and with the lead it had started with there was no way Pouncer could catch it. It beelined for its rapidly receding herdmates, and it began to look like it had gotten away with its gamble. Pouncer was running flat out, but visibly losing the race.

There was a second blood-curdling scream and T'suuz burst from cover, almost directly in front of the fleeing animal. She had positioned herself between the prey and the herd while her brother stalked it, and now the evolutionary value of cooperative hunting showed itself. The panicked zianya skidded in a desperate effort to turn and spoil her attack, but it must having been moving twenty meters a second and was unable to overcome its momentum. Hunter and prey collided with an audible thump. T'suuz tumbled free of the collision and the zianya fell in a cloud of dust, skidding. It was up again and running almost instantly, but one leg dragged. T'suuz's claws had found their mark. The skid and the fall had cost it time, and the injury slowed it. It accelerated away again, no doubt oblivious to the pain and straining every sinew to save its life, but Pouncer was hard on its heels now. In desperation it tried to veer away from him but T'suuz had recovered from her tumble and was cutting across the chord of its escape circle in anticipation of just that move. It caught sight of her and dodged back in the other direction, out of options. As it came in front of him again Pouncer leapt, his claws catching it across the hindquarters, knocking it off balance. It staggered and that was all it took; another leap and his talons dug into its flanks as he dragged it down. A high-pitched squeal of agony tore the air, cut off a second later as T'suuz caught up and sank her fangs into its throat.

Cherenkova breathed out, suddenly aware of her heart pounding with adrenaline over the chase, and ran to join them, suppressing the urge to cheer. It was long over when she got there, the zianya bloodly and lifeless. Evolution had made humans into omnivores, efficient hunters who still had to be cautious of the large carnivores who stood at the very top of the food web, and she was overcome by a surge of pity for the poor creature. She looked away as Pouncer began to butcher it with a flaked stone knife to preserve the battery in their single variable sword. T'suuz watched him and licked her bloody muzzle clean. Ayla kept her feelings to herself. There would be meat tonight, the first in four days, and that was what was important.

They saved her the haunches and she roasted them in a fire started with dry grass and sparks struck from a battery pack salvaged from the wreck of the grav transporter they'd stolen at the spaceport. She called it grass, but it wasn't really, just as the glorious plants the kzinti called burstflowers weren't really flowers. Both were excellent examples of parallel evolution. Grass and flowers were latecomers to Earth's biosphere, she knew, but they were good evolutionary answers to the problem of making a living through photosynthesis and had analogs on many worlds. Here the grasses were multi-stranded, like feather dusters, and the flowers had lobes instead of petals, but they still filled the same ecological niche. The grasses burned well enough that she had to be careful not to start a brushfire when she cooked, and they put their own delicate flavor into her meat.

She'd been there long enough to learn how to cook primitive. T'suuz had promised she could lead them to the czrav, the primitive Prides who lived in the deep jungle, out of contact with the Patriarchy. How long ago had that been? Long enough that the mountains where they'd abandoned the grav loader were now long out of sight behind them. Now even the wide savannah was ending, sloping down into the river valley that was the entrance to the vast rainforest jungle that stretched south and west a thousand kilometers or more. Long enough that hunger and exposure were becoming routine, long enough for her clothes to stiffen with sweat and dirt and her nose to become used to her own stench. The savannah was infested with gnat-like creatures that swarmed in clouds. They were almost invisible, but gave a tiny, nasty bite that took a long time to heal. As well there was a bigger, buzzing flyer the kzinti called a v'pren. V'pren got to be as big as her thumb, with jaws to shame an army ant. Their bite took out a sizable chunk of flesh, and between the v'pren and the gnats her skin had grown raw and sore. Pouncer had warned her that v'pren could kill when they swarmed, and she believed it. There were other dangers too, venomous lizard-things called mzail mzail, and the nomadic kzinti hunter prides that Pouncer called the cvari. It had surprised Ayla that fifty thousand years after the kzinti had gone to space there were still pockets on Kzinhome that lived wild, hunting with hand-crafted weapons and following the ancient migrations of the savannah's fauna. It had taken only five hundred years from the invention of the steam engine until the last of Earth's aboriginal tribes gave up the hunter-gatherer way of life for the temptations of technology, but it seemed the cvari would maintain their lifestyle until the end of time. They carefully avoided the nomads, and Pouncer made her choose hidden locations for her cook fires so they wouldn't be spotted.

Neither of the kzinti seemed to mind her smell too much, although they both made a point of sitting upwind while she cooked. It can't be more alien than squid. She'd been living on a diet that alternated zianya with hunger and was getting tired of it. Her skin and scalp were dry and itching. That could be just a lack of hygiene or… What vitamins am I missing here? Her beltcomp told her that a pure protein diet could do that anyway, something to do with the natural acids in the meat, but it didn't tell her what plants on Kzinhome were safe to eat. Of course even zianya was not guaranteed to be safe; perhaps the itching was symptomatic of something else, some subtle toxin building up in her system. The v'pren seemed to die after biting her; whether the gnat-fliers did as well she couldn't tell. Presumably something in her blood was fundamentally incompatible with their system. But kzinti eat people. That was a strangely reassuring thought; it meant eating zianya wasn't going to kill her immediately.

Brasseur had said he'd eaten it dozens of times, but that didn't mean it was a survivable diet. How did he live so long among kzinti? She had regarded him as an ivory tower academic, not at all well suited to the realities of a dangerous universe, certainly not when compared to combat veterans like herself and Quacy Tskombe. Now she was having to revise that estimate. Wherever she had gone, whatever she had faced, she had the might of the UNSN backing her up. All those years Kefan had spent in the Patriarchy he had only himself. It won him new respect in her eyes. But it doesn't bring him back to life.

Nor did that thought help with her own survival. She looked at her zianya. Best to stick with what wasn't immediately dangerous, and accept the long-term risks. How long she could survive alone on Kzinhome was an open question, but she wasn't ready to die of acute poisoning just yet. Starvation wasn't an option either, and that thought reminded her of just how hungry she was; four days was a long time with no food. She took a half roasted section of haunch from its improvised spit over the fire and tore into it, the juices running down her chin. The meat was tough but rich and she swallowed hungrily, as much a carnivore as any kzin. Closer to the bone the meat grew too raw and she put it back over the fire to cook further. While she waited she piled a few rocks into a rough inukshuk, the ancient trail markers of the high Arctic Inuit. Now the people will know I was here. She'd left one at each night's campsite since they'd left the grav loader in the mountain foothills, a small gesture that somehow affirmed her humanity in her ultimately alien environment.

Pouncer watched her eat for a while, wondering at the monkey alien's food rituals. He appreciated prepared meat, heated meat, spiced meat, even seared meat, skewered and sizzled on red hot plates at a fine house, to be served still steaming while the aromas rose and enriched the air. The preparation of food there was as much a part of the show as the trained dancers on the stage, but this Cherenkova-Captain, she charred the zianya like she was trying to sterilize it, and he couldn't understand the purpose of the strange little stone piles she built each evening. Aliens were so… alien.

Their camp was concealed in a natural hollow beneath a small, sandy hillock topped by a lone, wide spreading grove tree. Pouncer stood and leapt to the top to watch the sunset between the younger trunks on its edge. After a time T'suuz came to join him. They lay in silence together, while Pouncer contemplated her. He knew little of kzinretti, but nothing she was corresponded to anything he knew. There was no doubt she was as intelligent as he was, and there was no doubt she deliberately concealed that fact from every other kzintosh but him. That her experience went far beyond the garden of prret was obvious, but how she had obtained it was another mystery. There was much to be learned, but so far she had volunteered almost nothing to satisfy his curiosity. The sheer exigencies of escape had precluded any further inquiry since they had crashed the stolen grav loader in some nameless canyon in the Long Range mountains. Survival had become their next concern, and remained their major one, but now there was time. He looked back to the fire where Cherenkova-Captain was slicing the zianya haunch into thin strips to preserve it. She would be busy until well after nightfall. He turned to T'suuz.

“So tell me your secrets, sister.”

“What secrets?”

“How a kzinrette comes to know of more than food, mating, and kits.”

She turned to look at him. “My reason is the equal of yours. Why should I not know as much as you?”

“Hrrr.” Pouncer considered that, watching the sky turn velvet black as the stars came out. He turned his palm over to contemplate his talons. “There is more here than raw ability. You are educated and experienced. I am sure it was not Rrit-Conserver who bent your brain every day from dawn to dusk, nor Myowr-Guardmaster who took you into the world to learn sea-sky-and-stone. How did you manage this?”

T'suuz rolled her ears in amusement. “What has a kzinrette in the Forbidden Garden got but curiosity to satisfy and time to satisfy it with? We are cared for by slaves trained to obey the Hero's Tongue; all are sentients, most of them technical experts in one or more fields. They have access to the entire Citadel and its resources, they can travel anywhere on the planet, beneath the notice of any kzintosh but with the unquestioned authority of the Patriarch's livery. I have walked Hero's Square on a Kdatlyno's leash, traveled South Continent with Pierin slaves as guides. What kzintzag or noble would dare question the destination of a slave delivering the Patriarch's daughter? The Female Tongue is enough to control the slave walking me, and even if I must use the Hero's Tongue on occasion, what kzintosh would believe what he'd heard?”

“And how is it that you have reason at all?”

“Do you remember the Test of the Black Priest?”

“Only vaguely. I was very young.” Pouncer leaned back, remembering. “I remember being frightened because he was so large. It was the first time I was away from mother, but he was gentle.”

“And what was the test?”

“He asked questions, but I don't remember what questions. I do remember I didn't know the answers and had to guess. I don't know how I passed, or how anyone passes at that age.”

“You pass by not knowing the answers. For males the test assesses telepathic ability. Those who show latent talent are taken to become telepaths. That's what happened to Elder Brother.”

“I am…” Pouncer caught himself. “We are the eldest of Meerz-Rrit, sister.”

“No, Patriarch's Telepath was eldest, M'ress's first litter. He failed the test and the Black Priests took him and gave him the sthondat drug. His litter-sister failed too. For females the tests assess reasoning skills, and again you must not know the answers. Those who reason too well are abandoned at the jungle verge to die. I would have failed myself, but M'ress taught me how to respond, coached me carefully while you slept. It was a tremendous risk for her to train her second daughter, and against the edicts. Had I been caught she might have been given the Hot Needle of Inquiry, and perhaps ruined a plan generations long in the execution.”

Pouncer twitched his whiskers in puzzlement. “Who would put a kzinrette to the Hot Needle?”

“The Black Priests would, if they suspected the truth.”

“Why?”

“That isn't my secret to tell.”

“Then tell me why our mother took the risk.”