They were the mri—tall, secretive, bound by honor and the rigid dictates of their society. For aeons this golden-skinned, golden-eyed race had provided the universe mercenary soldiers of almost unimaginable ability.
But now the mri have faced an enemy unlike any other—an enemy whose only way of war is widespread destruction. These "humans" are mass fighters, creatures of the herb, and the mri have been slaughtered like animals. Now, in the aftermath of war, the mri face extinction.
It will be up to three individuals to save whatever remains of this devastated race: a warrior—one of the last survivors of his kind; a priestess of this honorable people; and a lone human—a man sworn to aid the enemy of his own kind. Can they retrace the galaxy-wide path of this nomadic race back through millennia to reclaim the ancient world that first gave them life?
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Wind-child, sun-child, what is Kath?
Child-bearers, laugh-bringers, that is Kath.
It was a game, shon’ai, the passing-game, Kel-style, in the dim round hall of the Kel, the middle tower of the House—black-robed men and a black-robed woman, a circle of ten. Warriors, they played the round not like children, with a pair of stones, but with the spinning blades of the as’ei, that could wound or kill. On the name-beat, the snap of fingers, the as’ei flew across the seated circle of players, and skilled hands seized the hilts in mid-turn, to beat the time and hurl the blades on in the next name-beat.
Fire-child, star-child, what is Kel?
Sword-bearers, song-weavers, that is Kel.
They played without words, with only the rhythm of their hands and the weapons, flesh and steel. The rhythm was as old as time and as familiar as childhood. The game had more meaning than the act, more than the simplicity of the words. The Game of the People, it was called.
Dawn-child, earth-child, what is Sen?
Rune-makers, home-leaders, that is Sen.
A kel’en who flinched, whose eye failed or whose wits wandered, had no value in the House. The boys and girls and women of the Kath played with stones to learn their skill. Those who became kel’ein played thereafter with edged steel. The Kel, like the mothers and children of the gentle Kath, laughed as they played. They of Kel-caste were brief and bright as moths. They enjoyed life, because they knew this.
Then-child, now-child, what are we?
Dream-seekers, life-bearers, we are—
A door opened, echoing, the sound rolling through the hollows and depths of the tower. Sen Sathell broke in upon them, suddenly and without warning or courtesies.
The rhythm ceased. The blades rested in the hands of Niun, the youngest kel’en. The Kel as a whole inclined their heads in respect to Sathell s’Delas, chief of Sen-caste, the scholars. Gold-robed he was, like light breaking into the dark hall of the martial Kel, and he was very old—the oldest man of all in the House.
“Kel’anth,” he said quietly, addressing Eddan, his counterpart in the Kel, “—kel’ein—news has come. The rumor is the war has ended. The regul have asked the humans for peace.”
There was utter silence.
An abrupt move. The as’ei whirred and buried points in the painted plaster of the far wall.
The youngest kel’en rose and veiled himself, and stalked from the gathering, leaving shock in his wake.
The sen’anth and the kel’anth looked at each other, old men and kinsmen, helpless in their distress.
And from the deepest shadows one of the dusei, a brown, slope-shouldered mass larger than a man, stirred and rose, ambling forth into the light in that mournful, abstracted manner of dusei. It pushed its way irreverently between the two elders, thrusting its massive head at the kel’anth, who was its master, seeking comfort.
Kel’anth Eddan patted the beast with age-smooth fingers and looked up at the old scholar who, outside the divisions of caste and duty, was his half-brother. “Is the news beyond any doubt?” he asked, the least trace of hope yet remaining in his voice.
“Yes. The source is regul official communications, no city rumor. It seems completely reliable.” Sathell gathered his robes about him and, tucking them between his knees, settled on the carpeted floor among the kel’ein, who eased aside to make room for him in their circle.
They were, these ten, the elders of the House, save one.
They were mri.
In their tongue, when they made this statement, they were merely saying that they were of the People. Their word for other species was tsi’mri, which meant not-people, and summed up mri philosophy, religion, and the personal attitudes of the elders at once.
They were, as a species, golden-toned. Mri legends said that the People were born of the sun: skin, eyes, coarse shoulder-length manes, all were bronze or gold. Their hands and feet were narrow and long, and they were a tall, slender race. Their senses, even in great age, were very keen, their hearing in particular most sensitive. Their golden eyes were lid-folded, double-lidded as well, for a nictitating membrane acted on reflex to protect their vision against blowing dust.
They were, as outsiders believed, a species of warriors, of mercenaries—for outsiders saw the Kel, and rarely the Sen, and never the Kath. Mri served outsiders for hire—served the regul, the massive tsi’mri merchants native to Nurag of the star Mab. For many centuries, mri kel’ein had hired out to protect regul commerce between-worlds, generally hired by one regul company as defense against the ambitions and ruthlessness of some business rival, and mri had therefore fought against mri. Those years and that service had been good for the People, this trying of one kel’en of a certain service against the kel’en of another, in proper and traditional combat, as it had always been. Such trials-at-aims refined the strength of the People, eliminating the weak and unfit and giving honor to the strong. In those days the tsi’mri regul had recognized themselves to be incapable of fighting and unskilled in planning strategies, and sensibly left all matters of conflict to the mri Kel to settle in the mri fashion.
But for the last forty years, mri had served all regul combined against all humans, a bitter and ugly conflict, lacking honor and lacking any satisfactions from the enemy. The mri elders were old enough to remember the life before, and knew therefore what changes had been wrought by the war; and they were not pleased with them. Humans were mass-fighters, animals of the herd, and simply understood no other way of war. Mri, who fought singly, had early suspected this, tested it with their lives, found it bitterly true. Humans rejected a’ani, honorable combat, would not respect challenge, understood nothing but their own way, which was widespread destruction.
Mri had bent themselves to learn humanity, the way of the enemy, and had begun to adjust their operations and their manner of service to the regul accordingly. Mri were professionals when it came to combat. Innovation in the yin’ein, the ancient weapons that were used in a’ani, was dishonorable and unthinkable; but innovation in the zahen’ein, in modern arms, was a simple matter of retooling and adjusting methods, a matter of competency in the profession they followed for a livelihood.
Regul, unfortunately, were not as capable of adapting to new tactics. Regul had vast and accurate memories. They could not forget what had always occurred, but conversely they could hardly conceive at all of what had not yet happened, and did not make plans against it happening. Hitherto the regul had depended on mri entirely in the matter of their personal safety, and mri foresight—for mri could imagine—had shielded them and compensated for that regul blindness to the unexpected; but in latter days, when the war began to take regul lives and threaten regul properties, regul took matters into their own unskilled hands. Regul issued orders, prudent in their own estimation, for actions which were militarily impossible.
The mri had attempted to obey, for honor’s sake.
Mri had died in their thousands, for honor’s sake.
In the House, on this world, there lived only thirteen mri. Two were young. The rest were the makers of policy, a council of the old, the veteran. Long centuries ago the House had numbered more than two thousand in the Kel alone. In this present age all but these few had gone their way to the war, to die.
And their war had been lost, by regul, who asked the humans for peace.
Sathell looked about him and considered these old ones, kel’ein who had lived beyond their own years of service, whose memories gave them in some matters the perspective of sen’ein. They were Husbands to the she’pan, masters-of-arms while there had been Kath children to teach; and there was Pasev, the only surviving kel’e’en of the House, she most skilled in the yin’ein next Eddan himself. There were Dahacha and Sirain of Nisren; Palazi and Quaras and Lieth of Guragen, itself a dead House, taking refuge with the Mother of this one and adopted by her as Husbands. And from yet another dead House were Liran and Debas, truebrothers. These were part of an age that had already vanished, a time the People would not see again. Sathell felt their sadness, sensed it reflected in the beasts that huddled together in the shadows. Eddan’s dus, whose species was reputedly never friendly with any caste but the warrior Kel, sniffed critically at the scholar’s gold robes and suffered himself to be touched, then heaved his great bulk a little closer, wrinkled rolls of down-furred flesh, shamelessly accepting affection where it was offered.
“Eddan,” said Sathell, stroking the beast’s warm shoulder, “I must tell you also: it is very likely that the masters will cede this world if the humans should demand it as part of the peace.”
“That would be,” said Eddan, “a very large settlement.”
“Not according to what we have just heard. It is rumored that the humans have secured the whole front, that the regul lords are in complete withdrawal, that the humans are in such a position now that they can touch all the contested areas. They have taken Elag.”
There was silence. Elsewhere in the tower a door closed. At last Eddan shrugged, a move of his slender fingers. “Then the humans will surely demand this world. There is very little that they will miss in their desire for revenge. And the regul have left us open to it.”
“It is incredible,” said Pasev. “Gods! there was no need, no need at all for the regul to have abandoned Elag. The People could have held there—could have turned the humans, if they had been given the equipment.”
Sathell made a helpless gesture. “Perhaps. But held for whom? The regul withdrew, took everything that was needed there for the defense, pulled ships from under their control. Now we—Kesrith—have become the border. You are right. It is very likely that the regul will not resist here either; in fact, it is not reasonable for them to do so. So we have done all that we could do. We have advised, we have warned—and if our employers refused to take that advice, then there is little we can do but cover their retreat, since we cannot restrain them from it. They took the war into their own management against our advice. Now they have lost their war; we have not. The war ceased to be ours some years ago. Now you are guiltless, kel’ein. You may justly reckon so. There is simply nothing further that can be done.”
“There was something once that might have been done,” Pasev insisted.
“The Sen attempted many times to reason with the masters. We offered our services and our advice according to the ancient treaty. We could not—” Sathell heard the footsteps of the youth downstairs as he spoke, and the disturbance disrupted his train of thought. He glanced hallward involuntarily as the door downstairs slammed with great violence. The sound echoed throughout all the House. He cast the Kel a look of distress. “Should not one of you at least go speak with him?”
Eddan shrugged, embarrassed in his authority. Sathell knew it. He presumed on kinship and friendship and stepped far out of bounds with Eddan when he made that protest. He loved Niun; they all did. But the autonomy of the Kel, even misguided, was sacred regarding the discipline of its members. Only the Mother could interfere within Eddan’s province.
“Niun has some small cause, do you not think?” asked Eddan quietly. “He has trained all his life toward this war. He is not a child of the old way, as we are; and now he cannot enter into the new either. You have taken something from him. What do you expect him to do, sen Sathell?”
Sathell bowed his head, unable to dispute with Eddan in the matter, recognizing the truth in it, trying to see things as a young kel’en might see them. One could not explain to the Kel, could not refute them in debate nor expect foresight of them: children of a day, the kel’ein, brief and passionate, without yesterday and without tomorrow. Their ignorance was the price they paid for their freedom to leave the House and go among tsi’mri; and they knew their place. If a sen’en challenged them to reason, they must simply bow the head in their turn and retreat into silence: they had nothing with which to answer. And to destroy their peace of mind was unconscionable; knowledge without power was the most bitter condition of all.
“I think I have told you,” said Sathell at last, “all that I know to tell you at the moment. I will advise you immediately if there is any further news.” He arose in that silence and smoothed his robes into order, gingerly avoiding the reflexive grasp of the dus. The beast reached at his ankle, harmless in intent, but not in potential. The dusei were not to be treated with familiarity by any but a kel’en. He stopped and looked at Eddan, who with a touch rebuked the beast and freed him.
He edged round the massive paw, cast a final look at Eddan; but Eddan looked away, affecting not to be interested any further in his departure. Sathell was not willing to press the matter publicly. He knew his half-brother, and knew that the hurt was precisely because there was affection between them. There was a careful line drawn between them in public. When caste divided kinsmen, there had to be that, to save the pride of the lesser.
He gave a formal courtesy to the others and withdrew, and was glad to be out of that grim hall, heavy as the air was with the angers of frustrated men, and of the dusei, whose rage was slower but more violent. He was relieved, nonetheless, that they had listened to all that he had said. There would be no violence, no irrational action, which was the worst thing that needed be feared from the Kel. They were old. The old might reason together in groups, might consult together. The kel’en was, in youth, a solitary warrior and reckless, and without perspective.
He thought of going after Niun, and did not know what to say to him if he should find him. His duty was to report elsewhere.