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Authors: Julie E. Czerneda

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Unless the Vyna found them—

Don't think about them.
Ruti hadn't turned; no need.
You'll scare the children.

As if they're
listening
to me,
he scoffed. They were too busy playing their new games, M'hiray games, like those he'd played as a child with his brother Kurr and their cousins. 'Port and seek while young and unaware; the more tantalizing Chooser/Loser once old enough to look ahead and wonder.

Outside games. Confined in a room, even a large one, the combination of laughs and squeals was close to deafening.

Could be worse. A mother stood, gesturing apology to her companions
,
shielding everyone else in range from the urgent inner
DEMAND
of her not-yet-verbal offspring.

“Risa.” Barac stepped aside to give her room, bowing as their eyes met.

She inclined her graceful head. “First Scout.” A weary but accepting smile. “Duty calls.”

“Our turn's coming,” he replied, earning a dimple. Risa hadn't known him before they'd met on Cersi, a lack of recognition for which Barac was grateful.

Council had arranged for him to be a Candidate for her Choice. By warning him of Risa's greater Power, Rael di Sarc had saved his life, however reluctantly he'd taken her advice.

After a Choice made elsewhere, Risa di Annk had Commenced into the fullness of her adult beauty. However, like too many M'hiray, her Joining with the Clan Healer, Jorn di Lorimar, now Jorn di Annk, was loveless. They'd met once more to do their Council-appointed duty, producing a son, and might never have occupied the same planet again if not for the Assemblers. Forced into proximity on the ship, they avoided one another—at least in public—civil in their mutual dislike. Jorn avoided their son, too, though Noson was a delight and favorite among the other children, with chubby cheeks and a sunny disposition.

His loss. Barac intended to spend every waking moment cuddling their daughter, once she was born. Except for those moments—

An elderly Om'ray shouted as two mischievous children
appeared in front of him, almost dropping his drink and packet. Before he could draw breath to scold them, they giggled and vanished. He gestured forgiveness to thin air, smiling himself.

Children's laughter. They'd come too close to never hearing it again. Anything joyous helped the mood on the ship. Gurutz wasn't the only one to stalk around with a grim face; each ship morning, Barac thought, more Clan, both M'hiray and Om'ray, shielded their emotions rather than share them. The weaker, like himself, could only be grateful.

For more than that. Lovelier than Risa, than the stars of any sky, Ruti di Bowart raised her eyes at his approach, her pleased smile finding his heart.
Love
soared between them, wiping away the
taste
, and Barac stepped forward eagerly.

Stopping short as his practical Chosen bent to lick her thumb, using the moistened digit to remove a smear from a small nose. “There you go.” The nose, and the smiling face it belonged to, disappeared with a giggle.

Barac snuck a kiss, then grinned down at his Chosen. “I owe Holl a report,” he reminded her. “What's this ‘situation' requiring my always-sage advice?”

If about the children? The Sarcs had hired tutors; he'd be useless. Ruti had grown up on Acranam, where children were combined in a crèche until unChosen. With matter-of-fact competence, she'd taken charge of the children before anyone else thought to, and would, he was certain, have swept up the younger unChosen had they let her. Her determination they be happy and protected was a kindness to their parents and, he'd been told frequently, a credit to his Chosen.

Other than the part where they hadn't had their chance in the Happy Place since arriving on the ship. He'd felt no guilt whatsoever at interrupting Sira and Morgan's private moment.

“You're not arguing with Dre's grandparents again, are you?” he asked. There'd been a spectacular disagreement between Ruti and the Amna Om'ray, Ghos and Worra di Eathem, the pair far from ready to have their descendant “play” in the M'hir.

“Of course not.”
Smug.
“They've come around.”

Who could resist her? “So?”

Her sweet round face turned grave, dashing any hope he'd had this would be easy. “It's Andi. I promised Sira I'd talk to her parents.”

Surely an easy conversation. Nik and Josa were friendly and kind, if absentminded; Nik tended to mutter numbers under her breath and when together, the pair would miss meals if not reminded, busy building unClan-like devices. As far as Barac could tell, they spent just as much time dismantling what they'd built.

“And?” he prodded patiently, knowing better than to rush his Chosen.

Unhappiness
leaked through. “I tried. They wouldn't listen to me.”

“Why not?”

“They didn't believe me. That something's wrong with Andi.”

Was this what he'd
tasted
, a warning about the Birth Watcher? Which could only mean—Barac tensed.
Is something wrong with Sira's baby?

Why would you think that?
With sudden
alarm. What's WRONG?!

Wincing, Barac held up his hands. “I asked you first.”

Sorry.
Ruti stooped to toss back a fabric bag being used as a plaything. She took a breath, then looked up at him, eyes moist. “You know how I am when I'm upset.”

Ferocious.

Fragile. Those of Acranam had been more connected than other M'hiray. They'd died all at once, Ruti linked to that devastating loss. He'd almost lost her.

She'd pulled herself through it. Barac rested his chin atop Ruti's head, her hair winding around his neck, and folded her in his arms and Power. Let others underestimate her; in her way, his Chosen was as strong as Sira.

He let go, drawing her with him to sit on the nearest bench. “Start at the beginning, my love.” When she glanced anxiously at the clusters of children, he refrained from mentioning the other dozen or so capable adults.

Ruti sat, the ends of her hair twitching. “Andi told Sira she promised Rasa she'd find his grandmother.”

“His dead grandmother.” He knew Andi had the Om'ray Talent, to sense the physical location of other Clan, but this? “A cruel trick.”

Disapproval
. “You know Andi wouldn't do that. She believes she hears the dead. Sira—and Aryl—were worried enough to ask her to stop
listening
in the M'hir. I'm not certain she has, or can.” Ruti's lower lip trembled. “Barac, is it even possible?”

It wasn't.

He held in the words, thinking hard and fast. Kurr had read the works of Clan philosophers, the more obscure the better, and would, if provoked, happily quote passages at his lesser-read brother. Most had been over his head, but Barac tried to remember. Clan minds created the M'hir, or was it that the M'hir created part of the mind? Existence was mind more than flesh, or some weird blend of both. There'd been something about death being transformative—

But no less final. That was a point of rare agreement.

Because the dead became ghosts. Everyone knew it, because anyone could
hear
them. A ghost was the final trace of a mind before it dissolved in the M'hir. An incoherent ramble. A scream. A last cold
sense
of Power.

Ghosts were tied to a place, as much as the M'hir could be said to have location, and were uncomfortable to encounter at the best of times. The more powerful lingered; he'd met a few himself, serving as object lessons for those learning to 'port. This will be you, if you overestimate your strength.

They were a potentially fatal distraction, as if the M'hir needed more.

There'd have been hundreds of ghosts in Trade Pact space. Around Cersi. Reason enough to stay out of the M'hir in either location till they faded to nothing.

Nik and Josa traveled by starship, not the M'hir; they thought in terms of physical distance. They'd know
Sona
had left Clan-touched space behind.

No wonder they'd dismissed Ruti's concern. “It's not possible,” Barac said heavily. “We've moved too far. It has to be Andi's imagination.”

“That's what Josa said.” Ruti's little chin lifted, firmed. “They've told me to stop talking about it, but I must—someone must. I've been with Andi since we lifted, Barac. She's a kind child and
thoughtful. She isn't capable of making this up, not on purpose. I believe she
hears
something.”

“Not ghosts. Not here,” Barac began. “Not unless—” He stopped, mouth gone dry.

—unless they'd dragged the dead with them, hooked into the ship's engines with the M'hir—

Now whose imagination was out of control? He held in a shudder. “I'll take a look.”

Barac opened himself to that other space, anchored by his link to Ruti. Darkness boiled and dropped and heaved. He sensed but couldn't see the lines of light that connected the Clan—the living Clan—one to another. That wasn't within his Power.

He had heard a ghost before. He
listened,
but all he
heard
was a low, rising growl. His agitation come to life, building, being echoed back even louder—

Time to leave. He pulled out, reassured. “No ghosts, Ruti.”

She made a rude noise. “You think I didn't check right away? I don't
hear
them either.” Taking his hand, she worked her fingers between his and squeezed, hard. When she spoke, her voice was low and troubled. “There's worse. Andi doesn't understand the meaning of death. Or doesn't want to. She insists everyone is still—out there.”

Barac looked for the child, spotting her cross-legged on a table with her Om'ray friend Dre. They clapped a complicated rhythm, Andi laughing when she failed to keep up and their fingers tangled. Implausibly normal.

“I don't know what to say,” he admitted. “Other than it may take time—”

He felt Ruti tremble.
What if Andi's mind is failing? Like those of Luek and Nyso—like poor Eloe.

Could a child be stricken by madness—and no ordinary child, but Sira's Birth Watcher? He refused to think it.

Barac kissed his Chosen's cheek. “You asked for my advice.”

She nodded, eyes wide.

If this was what the
taste
warned of, there was only one option, Barac decided. If it wasn't, well, he refused to take that chance. “Stay with Andi and the other children. Have Jacqui come and
help you—” Jacqui was their Birth Watcher, who might sense what others couldn't, who at the very least would protect Ruti and her unborn. “I'll talk to Sira.” With what
confidence
he could muster.

And find Morgan, who understood the workings of the mind, even a Clan one.

They'd need him, if the worst were
true.

Chapter 6

S
ONA
'S COUNCIL GATHERED in the Star Chamber, members answering with a promptness that told me my mental
summons
had been expected.

The best shields couldn't stop rumor—or worry.

The day had started too soon and poorly, with Eloe's troubles. I'd a feeling it wouldn't end much better. Still, watching them arrive, gesturing respectful greetings Morgan and I returned, I allowed myself a moment's satisfaction. This group had come together our first shipday without me; met since, most often without me, although any one might have me
summon
the others. After all, I was the ship's Keeper, responsible for communication. They weren't the most powerful of select families—a couple of members could barely 'port—but I'd put this Council against any I remembered. Experience, compassion, skill. We'd do well, if these were the ones who guided us in our new home.

Five Om'ray represented the Clans of Cersi: Odon di Rihma'at and Teris di Uruus from Sona, by cruel fate now the most populous; Ghos di Eathem from Amna, a gifted Healer, though not of minds; from Tuana, Kunthea di Mendolar, and Rayna, Hap di Annk. All but Ghos had served on their respective Councils.

I'd heard Ruis di Nemat had been Rayna's first choice, as that
Clan's sole surviving Adept. She'd declined. Perhaps, like me, she'd been glad to relinquish authority.

As Morgan asked, I'd brought her to this meeting; she chose to sit down the curve, at some distance from the rest, her face set in tight lines. Hap went to her, offering a palm for private communion; Ruis refused with a Human shake of her head.

Being here for Morgan's purpose.

There were three M'hiray on Council: Degal di Sawnda'at, once Councilor in the Trade Pact, and Tle di Parth, the powerful Chooser who'd held the same post and was certain to show up, invited or not, plus one more.

Nik sud Prendolat, representing our four scientists, stood a little apart, not because the tall, brilliant Clanswoman was among the weaker here but because her nature was to observe, giving opinions when asked for them. I suspected she'd been Morgan's quiet suggestion, a good one.

Aryl di Sarc would have been mine—Om'ray as much as M'hiray, aware of our past and present—but I knew better than to suggest it. While she allowed these Clan to know of her, my great-grandmother refused to reveal herself to the ship's entire company. Her decision, but in this Aryl and I agreed. An adult consciousness within an unborn would affront the M'hiray and be a dark reminder, to the Om'ray, of the Vyna.

I trust I'll have your excellent advice, Great-grandmother,
I sent to her at a level no one else would sense. A benefit to my unusual pregnancy.

I may have none to offer. We've left the worlds I know.
A flash of
anticipation. I hope for wonders.

I hoped to arrive in one piece, but that I kept to myself.
Do you wish to look through my eyes?

A pause, then:
My thanks, but
I prefer not.

Was that
exhaustion
?

As to why—I felt my face grow hot.
Aryl—

I promise you, I wasn't
there,
Sira. You had your privacy.
A pause for which I was grateful, busy trying not to share my
relief
at that while keeping it from Morgan. The lives of Chosen could be complicated.

Then, the feel of her mindvoice oddly languid,
I dreamed.

As if this was a problem. Aryl slept; I'd assumed she dreamed. A mistake, obviously.
Are you all right?

Involuntarily, my fingers found the bracelet, traced a ripple like water along the metal, then stopped.
I will be.

A less than reassuring answer.
Rest,
I sent.
If I need you, I'll wake you.

Try not to need me.

My sense of her vanished, worrying me even more. I put my hand over my abdomen, pressed gently. We'd talk about this later, I promised myself, Aryl willing.

Meanwhile,
Sona
's Councilors were almost ready. I watched them take their seats. We'd brought with us a few robes of office, heavy with embroidery and tradition; by mutual consent, they'd been cleaned and packed away. Dressed to work, these Clan, arranging themselves along the first long bench.

I stayed on my feet at one end, facing what had been the entrance to the Star Chamber before
Sona
sealed the corridor beyond. Morgan stood before the blue panel as though guarding the nonexistent door. He'd tucked his pack out of sight after retrieving one item.

He wore it: his coat, the knee-length garment half armor and half armory, although those functions were well concealed. Today, I decided, the coat served a different purpose. Like the beard and vest, Morgan's coat reminded those here what he was and where he'd come from—that he'd knowledge the Clan did not.

I felt some anticipation of my own.

Two figures appeared: Destin di Anel, who gave her greeting before going to stand behind Teris di Uruus—answering who'd invited the Sona First Scout—and Barac.

Who'd no reason to be here as far as I knew, but such meetings were open to all, another difference from the past. After the courtesies, my cousin took a post beside Morgan, eyes ahead.

Human fingers flickered in a covert message, convenient in this place where sendings were, quite rightly, forbidden.
Trouble.

Something the tension in every line of Barac's slender frame shouted to anyone who knew him. Or was it more? Morgan could
taste
change, a Talent shared by my cousin and the now-sleeping Aryl. I made the tiny motion that meant, depending on context,
End the party?
or
Run for it?

Stay.

He'd had no warning, then; a relief. Morgan made another sign. This asked a question.
Defer?

Leave his plan in favor of hearing from Barac. Under the ruse of pushing back my hair, I bent a thumb.
No.
Whatever brought my cousin would be important; it wasn't urgent. He'd have broadcast news of a crisis at once.

No, I thought, permitting myself a touch of self-pity, he'd have told me first.

After a pause without further arrivals, Hap rose to her feet and moved into the open space. “The meeting is convened,” she announced in her hoarse whisper. Healers had restored her crushed throat; her full voice had been left on Cersi. “First on our agenda is the motion from Teris di Uruus, regarding the appropriate naming of children.” She returned to her seat.

Well aware this wasn't about children at all, I kept my tongue between my teeth. Teris and a couple of other Om'ray Adepts wanted the to-them meaningless “sud” removed from M'hiray names. It had been left behind in their history following the discovery that the “di” in the name of Adepts was the key to opening a Cloisters' outer door. Aryl, partly responsible for that discovery, had elected not to remind
Sona
's Council “sud” once simply denoted an Om'ray Chosen who'd assumed the last name of his or her partner.

I'd no objection to the change. The M'hiray'd used “sud” to designate those family lines of lesser Power. Useful in a list of dead ancestors—pointless among the living, for Clan instinctively measured theirs against others.

Mine being the greatest. It meant, among other things, that my dear cousin—and the rest—brought me bad news first, as if I'd know any better what to do.

It'd be easier excusing myself from breathing than such reports. I eyed Barac. My deepest wish was for no more occasion to lead. Ever. Not even to forestall what was bound to be a long and heated debate about nothing.

Vy. Ray. So. Gro. Ne. Tua. Ye. Pa. Am. Nor. Xro. Fa. Hoveny numbers. Add the “-na” and you had the Om'ray Clans, past and present, neatly identified for the experiment on Cersi. For all we knew, our names were just as contrived. If there was an answer, it lay ahead, wherever this ship,
So-na,
took us.

In the meantime, Council was welcome to debate the “sud.” Barac and Morgan best get comfortable.

Teris, about to rise, hesitated as Odon stood next, taking a step and then turning to face the rest. “Nomenclature can wait,” he declared. “We were summoned. By whom? Why?”

My turn. I beckoned my Chosen, who strode forward to stand near Odon. “By me, Council,” he said calmly. “I've a matter I believe warrants your attention. My thanks.” He made a small, courteous bow.

Shields up, but my kind had never learned to control their faces. Most, including Odon as he granted Morgan the floor, showed honest concern; reasonable, considering Morgan's expertise with the ship and its workings.

Teris looked to have swallowed something sour and Degal shifted as though uncomfortable. Neither objected. Wise, I thought, staring at each in turn.

Ruis rose and went to put herself beside Morgan. She bowed. “By me as well.”

Part of the plan. Change the equation, my Human would say, and I could see the result. Attention sharpened and not just the Councilors'. Barac leaned slightly forward, lips tight.

“Proceed, Healers,” Hap instructed.

To make it clear I'd no part in this, I took the nearest seat, joining Tle di Parth. My hair slid to the opposite shoulder. Hers, though still lifeless, was caught up in a familiar metal net. She'd taken it from my mother's husk. I could hardly object; Tle had been more family to Mirim than any by blood.

On any other Chooser, the net would have been presumption, maybe pitied. In Tle, almost my equal, it was a warning. I will need this, the net proclaimed, more than any of you.

She leaned over, pitching her voice to my ears only. “You know what this is about.”

The unChosen believed many things about Choice, including that those Joined had no secrets, that we somehow blended together, the more powerful mind ruling both.

Not for me to educate Tle di Parth, even if I'd been inclined. I gave a noncommittal shrug.

Point being, I didn't know. Morgan had seen to that. Though I found myself leaning toward an idea.

“We ask the Council's guidance and support.” Confident yet respectful. Morgan paused to look at Ruis, who gestured him to continue. Establishing that they were of one mind. Clever, my Human. “My fellow Healer-of-minds and I have encountered a potentially serious problem.”

Ghos stood to speak. “We're aware of the M'hiray Chosen and that they are doing well. And how you helped the Tuana child, Eloe. Our thanks.”

Kunthea rose as well. “Thanks aren't enough. I was there. Morgan saved Eloe and eased the hearts of those closest to her.” Voice husky, pale eyes moist, the elder gestured beholdenness. “We're few. So few.”

Few indeed. We'd rescued twenty from Tuana and seventeen from Rayna. From Amna, Ghos' Clan, a pitiful nine, but the Healer echoed the gesture as he resumed his seat with the rest. “We owe you a great debt, Jason Morgan.”

Degal's eyebrows drew together until they tangled. “Saved the child from what?” he snapped, not bothering to rise. “What was wrong with her?”

“An ill of the mind.” Odon leaped up again. “That's why you're here, isn't it? It's spreading. I've heard. Did it start with those M'—?”

“Before you incite panic, Councilor,” Ruis interrupted in a tone to make even my back stiffen, “let my colleague finish.”

Odon's eyes narrowed, but he sketched a mute apology, sinking down.

“Nothing's spread,” Morgan stated, to more than my relief. “Our three patients weren't in contact. They've been healed.” He nodded to Ruis in acknowledgment. “But we have concerns. Their afflictions were similar enough we suspect they had the same cause. Not a contagion—” before the room could erupt at
that terrifying possibility, “—but it could become as serious. With your help, we will be able to confirm, or put aside, our suspicion.”

He'd confirmed mine. I kept my smile to myself. A test. It had to be. Of me as well as the rest. I admired his gall. To examine our ruling Council meant they'd see the results firsthand. If Morgan was right, and they showed the same inner stress, Council would want to act and, why then, he could present whatever he intended to do to “fix” the problem.

Too easy, I realized, the flicker of triumph gone. If I knew anything about Morgan, this was only the setup, the first offer on the table. The trick was yet to be played.

Hap rose, giving a small bow. “Our help is yours, of course. Whatever we can do. Which is?”

“Our thanks. Ruis?”

“We've identified what to look for in a mind.” The Rayna Healer-of-minds walked over to Hap and lifted her hands. “Allow us to scan you.”

She'd a decent amount of gall, too, I thought.

An instant's silence, then bedlam, everyone on their feet, more than one shouting.

My Human clasped his hands behind his back, his legs slightly apart. Ready to do this for hours, that told me.

Tle's laugh silenced the rest. “Ridiculous. No offense, Healers, but you would waste your effort and our time. I don't know about my fellows here, but I assure you I've no urge to rip my own skin or cower in a corner.”

“Then you should have no objection,” Nik di Prendolat stated. “I do not. We make a reasonable sample of our population diversity, other than age.” With a slide of her eyes to Morgan.

Who dipped his head, conceding the point.

The Chooser hesitated, then looked to me.

Of course she did. Before I could offer to go first, Ruis spoke up. “Sira's been scanned already, Tle.” She smiled. “To confirm our method.”

Play along, or object? Play, instinct told me. Morgan was too subtle for this to be my moment. I stood and moved a little distance, smiling at Ruis. “Painless,” I said, confirming the lie.

If it was a lie. Could my Chosen have scanned me without my knowledge? Or Ruis, while I watched them work with the di Kessa'ats? I found myself oddly flustered and checked my shields to be sure none of it came through.

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