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Chapter 19

To her relief, Joseph returned the next day. With, for the first time since he began the raids, a prisoner.

That is easily the biggest gukuy I have ever seen, except a mother, thought Indira, gazing at the figure on the litter. Also, if I've learned to assess gukuy standards of beauty, the ugliest.

Then she noticed the small figure of the male inside the warrior's mantle cavity.

That's strange. The males usually don't associate closely with warriors. I wonder what happened to his mate?

The female gukuy was unconscious, and horribly injured. Her left eye was a ruin, and there were two great puncture wounds on her mantle.

Spear wounds.

Nor was the gukuy the only injured member of the returning expedition. Jens Knudsen had been hurt as well. But it was merely a flesh wound, Indira was relieved to see.

"Merely," she thought ruefully. God, how this life has changed us all.

Maria De Los Reyes was examining the wounded gukuy, with a fierce frown on her face.

"Why didn't you just dismember her completely, while you were at it?" she demanded crossly.

"Can you save her life?" asked Jens.

Somewhat hesitantly, Maria nodded. "I think so. Her mantle cavity's obviously infected, but those poultices you put on the wounds have probably kept her from dying. It'll be touch and go, but—if this warrior's as tough as she looks, she'll survive."

Joseph smiled. "She's even tougher. Judging, at least, from the damage she caused—four wounded, two of them with broken bones."

Indira stared at the unconscious gukuy on the litter.

"All those injuries were caused by her? Alone?" She was genuinely shocked. Since the very first fight with slavers, none of Joseph's expeditions had suffered more than minor wounds to one or two warriors.

"All. The other slavers died like papakoy. This one—was terrible."

Jens winced and held up his right arm, which was heavily bandaged. "That's where I got this. She damn near tore my arm off. Her name's Nukurren, by the way, and—"

"Why did you let her live, then?" demanded Indira. "You've never done that before with any slavers you caught."

For a moment, the faces of the young human warriors assumed an expression which Indira had not seen on them for a long time. Uncertainty, hesitation; almost childlike confusion.

"I'm—not sure," replied Joseph. "Partly it was because one of the owoc slaves insisted."


Ludmilla nodded vigorously. "It's true, Indira. We were astonished. Of course, the owoc are never—" She hesitated.

Bloodthirsty. Like we are.

"But still, I've never seen an owoc show any real concern for a slaver. As long as we bury the bodies. But the owoc was quite firm about it. She said this one was different."

Jens was frowning. "But that's not the only reason we let her live. It was also . . . I don't know. She was so incredibly brave."

Indira sighed. She understood, even if Jens didn't. The culture of the human colony was rapidly being shaped by its necessities.

A warrior culture. One of whose inevitable features is deep respect for courage, even the courage of the enemy.

It was an aspect of warrior cultures which many people admired, even in the 22nd century—including professional historians. Romantically seductive, unless you understood the corollary.

When the Mongols took Kiev they spared the life of the commander of the garrison, out of admiration for his courage. They did the same, later, at Aleppo.

Then they slaughtered everyone else.

Her musings were interrupted by the male in the wounded gukuy's mantle.

"Please. Do any of you—demons—speak my language?" The male was speaking Anshaku.

"Yes," replied Indira immediately. "I do."

Ochre and red rippled across the male's mantle, in the delicate, complex traceries of which only males were capable.

"Are you—are you the Mother of Demons?"

Indira sighed. It seemed she was doomed to that title.

"You may call me so, if you wish."

The male—a truemale, she now recognized—made the gesture of obedience. Then spoke again.

"Will Nukurren live?"

"She will live, according to our healer. Her recovery will be difficult, however. And—" A quick question to Maria. "—her eye cannot be saved."

"So long as she lives," said the truemale softly. To Indira's astonishment, the little male began stroking his companion's head. His mantle was flushed with that shade of green which, for gukuy, was the sign of romantic attachment.

Now this is something I've never seen. A romantic attachment between a female and a truemale?

She pondered the situation. Julius had long been puzzled by the active sex life enjoyed by the gukuy, the vast majority of whom were sterile females. Sex, he had explained to her, takes up a lot of biological energy, and he couldn't figure out why a species would evolve such an orientation when there was no possibility of reproduction between sterile females. Among the owoc, a cousin species, there was little sexual activity except between mothers and males. He had eventually developed an explanation which satisfied him. Though it was based on an elaborate (to Indira's mind, arcane) web of neurological reasoning and kin selection game theory, his hypothesis amounted to: "They're smart, sex is fun, and how are you gonna keep 'em down on the farm when they've been to gay Paree?"

Still, the sex life of gukuy followed definite rules. Sterile females coupled with other sterile females. Truemales with mothers. (Eumales with no one.) Indira had never observed a romantic relationship between a truemale and a sterile female. Even among the relatively tolerant barbarian tribes, such an attachment would be considered unnatural and perverted. And among the far less tolerant civilized cultures—such as the Ansha from which the truemale obviously came—such a coupling would be anathema, for which the priests would demand the death penalty.

There's a fascinating story here. I must learn it from him.

"What is your name?" she asked. To her surprise, the answer came from behind her. In the voice of Ushulubang.

"He is called Dhowifa."

She had not heard the sage coming. Ushulubang, she had already learned, was not given to ceremonious parades. At the moment, she was only accompanied by one of her pashoc—a young gukuy named Shurren, who, like Ushulubang, came from the Anshac capital of Shakutulubac.

Indira looked back at the truemale. Dhowifa had withdrawn further into the mantle cavity. Stripes of ochre and orange rippled along his mantle.

"Hello, great-nephew," said Ushulubang softly.

A moment later, the truemale replied: "Hello, great-aunt Ushulubang."

How many more surprises are there going to be today? wondered Indira. The two gukuy were not actually "nephew" and "aunt," of course—not, at least, in the precise sense of the English words. But those were the nearest equivalents for the Anshac terms. Closely related members of the same clan, separated by sex and two generations.

Indira saw that the mantle of Ushulubang's companion was dappled blue and yellow.

"What is the pervert Dhowifa doing here?" demanded Shurren. The tone of her voice was extremely hostile.

Ushulubang eyed her companion, then said mildly: "I should imagine he and his lover have come to live among the demons. Where their—arrangement—would seem natural."

Shurren's mantle turned ochre.

"Or have you forgotten, Shurren, that among the demons the males couple with the females?"

Shurren's mantle turned bright pink.

Indira felt a sudden surge of affection for the old sage. And the tiny hope which she had found the day before grew brighter.

Perhaps. Perhaps . . .

"That is not the same," protested Shurren. "The demons are—different from gukuy."

Ushulubang made the gesture of respectful submission—the traditional salutation of a student to the master.

"Ah. I am enlightened. Before this moment, I had always thought gukuy were different from each other as well. But I see now that it is not so. Truly, the pervert Dhowifa possesses a monstrous soul. Why else would he have chosen the organs of Ansha's greatest warrior to those of the Paramount Mother Ilishito?"

"Ilishito?" exclaimed Indira. "The same—"

"Just so. The same Ilishito who tortured the Pilgrims and slew all my apashoc."

Indira was confused. "But—this truemale does not seem old enough—"

Ushulubang made the gesture of negation. "Dhowifa was born long after the persecution. Ilishito lived to a great age, Indira. A cruel but vigorous mother. And much given to replacing old husbands with young malebonds."

Dhowifa spoke.

"Have you—what has happened with my bondbrothers?"

"After you fled with Nukurren, they were disgraced. Almost executed, in fact, but their lives were spared in the end. I do not know what happened to them after. I am not myself in the good graces of the clan, as you know."

The truemale's mantle turned deep brown.

Ushulubang made the gesture of acceptance. "What did you expect, nephew?"

"I don't know. I—could only leave."

Indira understood, then. Dhowifa had not simply violated accepted standards of sexual morality and abandoned his lawful mate. He had also abandoned his malebond.

The anguish must have been incredible. She stared at the huge, scarred body of Nukurren. There must be something else inside that fearsome figure, to have won such love and devotion.

"Take good care of her," she said to Maria suddenly. The doctor gave her an unfriendly sidelong glance. As if I wouldn't?

At Maria's order, four of the warriors picked up the litter and began carrying it toward her "hospital," a large hut which the colonists had recently built next to the long houses. As the litter began to move away, Ushulubang called out:

"Have you continued to practice your dukuna?"

The truemale's voice came back:

"Yes, great-aunt. It has been a comfort these past eightyweeks. I thank you for instructing me."

Shurren's mantle flashed orange.

"You instructed him?"

"Just so, Shurren. He was perhaps my best student. Of the clan, at least. He might well have become my best student of all, except that I was unable to visit him often. I was not welcome in the Divine Shell, you know. My visits were infrequent and surreptitious."

"But—why? Even though he is of your clan, I do not understand why—"

"Why I would waste my time instructing a foolish male?"

Ushulubang made the gesture of abject apology.

"I have forgotten. Only females—and not even most of them; no, only those who follow the Way—feel sorrow at the evil of the world. The rest are dumb beasts."

Shurren's mantle rippled pinkish-brown. (A color frequently found upon Ushulubang's disciples, Indira noted—with great satisfaction.)

"I have offended you."

"Nonsense! To the contrary, Shurren, you have brought me sudden joy. Your words recall to my memory a long forgotten episode from the days I wandered the streets of Shakutulubac in the company of Goloku. Come, I will tell you about it."

Ushulubang and Shurren began moving away. Indira heard the sage's voice drifting back.

"It was a miserable night. The more so because Goloku had gotten drunk. Again." Indira smiled at the sound of Shurren's shocked hoot. "Oh, yes—it's quite true. Goloku was excessively fond of ashuweed. Often made a fool of herself. This night was no different. We encountered a small pack of eumales in one of the back alleys. Six or seven of the disgusting creatures. Beggars and thieves. Would you believe that drunken fool invited them to spend the night in her mantle?"

Shocked hoot.

"Oh, yes—it's quite true. I was appalled, of course—especially when it was discovered they couldn't all fit inside Goloku and she insisted that I accept half of them."

Shocked hoot.

"Oh, yes—it's quite true. Then, no sooner . . ."

The voices became indistinct. Indira was left alone with Joseph. Joseph was watching her, with the look he usually held in her presence. Reserve—no, deep anger, held in check.

Suddenly, as she had not done in a long time, Indira smiled at Joseph. Slowly, a hesitant smile came in return.

Maybe, thought Indira. Maybe.

It was still a faint hope, murky and uncertain. But for a woman who had felt no hope in years, it was as if a ray of sunshine had broken through the everlasting clouds of Ishtar.


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