tundra marshes, but Sheldons in their mid-thirties often also wore badges of Port Sanger’s corps of Guards, overseeing the city’s defense.

Long-fingered Poeskies were likewise well-suited to the tasks—deftly harvesting fragile stain glands from jked stellar snails. They were so good at the dye trade, vadet branches had set up in other towns along the Parthenia Sea, wherever fisherfolk caught the funnel-shaped shells.

Near cousins to that clan, Groeskies used their clever hands as premier mechanics. They were a young matriarchy, a summer-stock offshoot that had taken root but a few generations ago. Though still numbering but two score, the pudgy, nimble “Grossies” were already a clan to be reckoned with. Every one of them was clone- descended from a single, half-Poeskie summerling who had seized a niche by luck and talent, thereby winning a posterity. It was a dream all var-kids shared—to dig in, prosper, and establish a new line. Once in a thousand times, it happened.

Passing a Groeskie workshop, the twins looked on as ball bearings were slipped into axles by robust, contented redheads, each an inheritor of that clever forbear who won a place in Port Sanger’s tough social pyramid. Maia felt Leie nudge her elbow. Her sister grinned. “Don’t forget, we’ve got an edge.”

Maia nodded. “Yeah.” Under her breath, she added, “I hope.”

Below the market district, under the sign of a rearing tricorn, stood a shop selling sweets imported from faraway Vorthos. Chocolate was one vice the twins knew they must warn their daughter-heirs about, if ever they had any. The shopkeeper, a doe-eyed Mizora, stood hopefully, though she knew they weren’t buyers. The Mizora were in decline, reduced to selling once-rich holdings in order to host sailors in the manner of their foremothers. They still coiffed their hair in a style suited to a great clan, though most were now small merchants, less good at it than upstart Usisi or Oeshi. The Mizora shopkeeper sadly watched Maia and Leie turn away, continuing their stroll down a street of smaller clanholds.

Many establishments bore emblems and badges featuring extinct beasts such as firedrakes and tricorns— Stratoin creatures that long ago failed to adapt to the coming of Earth life. Lysos and the Founders had urged preservation of native forms, yet even now, centuries later, tele screens occasionally broadcast melancholy ceremonies from the Great Temple in far-off Caria City, enrolling another species on the list to be formally mourned each Far-sun Day.

Maia wondered if guilt caused so many clans to choose as symbols native beasts that were no more. Or was it a way of saying, “See? We continue. We wear emblems of the defeated past, and thrive.”

In a few generations, Mizora might be as common as tricorns.

Lysos never promised an end to change, only to slow it down to a bearable pace.

Rounding a corner, the twins nearly plowed into a tall Sheldon, hurrying downhill from the upper-class neighborhood. Her guard uniform was damp, open at the collar. “Excuse me,” the dark-skinned officer muttered, dodging by the two sisters. A few paces onward, however, she suddenly stopped, whirling to peer at them.

There you are. I almost didn’t recognize you!”

“Bright mornin’, Cap’n Jounine.” Leie greeted with a mocking half-salute. “You were looking for us?”

Jounine’s keen Sheldon features were softened by years of town life. The captain wiped her brow with a satin kerchief. “I was late catching you at Lamatia clanhold. Do you know you missed your leave-taking ceremony? Of course you know. Was that on purpose?”

Maia and Leie shared brief smiles. No slipping anything by Captain Jounine.

“Never mind.” The Sheldon waved a hand. “I just wanted to ask if you’d reconsidered…”

“Signing up for the Guard?” Leie interrupted. “You’ve got to be—”

“I’m sure we’re flattered by the offer, Captain,” Maia cut in. “But we have tickets—”

“You’ll not find anything out there”—Jounine waved toward the sea—“that’s more secure and steady —”

“And boring …” Leie muttered.

“—than a contract with the city of your birth. It’s a smart move, I tell you!”

Maia knew the arguments. Steady meals and a bed, plus slow advancement in hopes of saving enough for one child. A winter child—on a soldier’s salary? Mother Claire’s derision about “founding a microclan of one” seemed apropos. Some smart moves were little more than nicely padded traps.

“A myriad thanks for the offer,” Leie said, with wasted sarcasm. “If we’re ever desperate enough to come back to this frigid—”

“Yes, thanks,” Maia interrupted, taking her sister’s arm. “And Lysos keep you, Captain.”

“Well … at least stay away from the Pallas Isles, you two! There are reports of reavers …”

As soon as they turned a corner, Maia and Leie dropped their duffels and broke out laughing. Sheldons were an impressive clan in most ways, but they took things so seriously! Maia felt sure she would miss them.

“It’s odd, though,” she said after a minute, when they resumed walking. “Jounine really did look more anxious than usual.”

“Hmph. Not our problem if she can’t meet recruitment quotas. Let her buy lugars.”

“You know lugars can’t fight people.”

“Then hire summer stock down at the docks. Plenty of riffraff vars always hanging around. Dumb idea expanding the Guard anyway. Bunch of parasites, just like priestesses.”

“Mm,” Maia commented. “I guess.” But the look in the soldier’s eye had been like that of the Mizora sweets-merchant. There had been disappointment. A touch of bewilderment.

And more than a little fear.

* * *

A month ago wardens had stood watch at the getta gate, separating Port Sanger proper from the harbor.

Maia recalled how the care-mothers used to take Lamatia’s creche kids from the high precincts down steep, cobbled streets to ceremonies at the civic temple, passing near the getta gate along the way. Early one summer, she had bolted from the tidy queue of varlings, running toward the high barrier, hoping to glimpse the great freighters in drydock. Her brief dash had ended with a sound spanking. Afterward, between sobs, she distantly heard one matron explain that the wharves weren’t safe for kids that time of year. There were “rutting men” down there.

Later, when the aurorae were replaced in northern skies by autumn’s placid constellations, those same gates were flung back for children to scamper through at will, running along the docks where bearded males unloaded mysterious cargoes, or played spellbinding games with clockwork disks. Maia recalled wondering at the time—were these men different from the “rutting” kind? It must be so. Always ready with a smile or story, these seemed as gentle and harmless as the furry lugars they somewhat resembled.

“Harmless as a man, when stars glitter clear.” So went a nursery rhyme, which finished, But wary be you, woman, when Wengel Star is near.

Traversing the gate for the last time, Maia and Leie passed through a variegated throng. Unlike the uphill precincts, here males made up a substantial minority, contributing a rich mix of scents to the air, from the aromas of spice and exotic cargoes to their own piquant musk. It was the ideal and provocative locale for a Perkinite agitator to have set up shop, addressing the crowd from an upturned shipping crate as two clone-mates pushed handbills at passersby. Maia did not recognize the face type, so the trio of gaunt-cheeked women had to be missionaries, recently arrived.

“Sisters!” the speaker cried out. “You of lesser clans and houses! Together you outnumber the combined might of the Seventeen who control Port Sanger. If you join forces. If you join with us, you could break the lock great houses have on the town assembly, and yes, on the region, and even in Caria City itself! Together we can smash the conspiracy of silence and force a long-overdue revelation of the truth—”

What truth?” demanded an onlooker.

The Perkinite glanced to where a young sailor lounged against the fence with several of his colleagues, amused by the discomfiture his question provoked. True to her ideology, the agitator tried to ignore a mere male. So, for fun, Leie chimed in. “Yeah! What truth is that, Perkie?”

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