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Donald Kingsbury


Chapter 1


(2435–6 A.D.)

He was a five-year-old human boy without membranous ears or fur, or even claws to defend himself, a boy severed from his family. For days in space he had been segregated, inspected, prodded, pricked, scanned, examined, and questioned by an unnerving assortment of kzin. He endured these strangers dumbly, fear having muted every word of his Hero's slave patois. Hushed, he recited his mother's name to himself again and again, as if the inner sound of it would force her to stay alive. He didn't want her to be dead. He called his mother by the kzin word for mommy, Prrt, the most comfortable word he knew—having forgotten that she had once told him fiercely never to forget her name, Nora. "Prrt!" he ordered her in his head like he sometimes did when she wasn't paying attention. Often she didn't pay attention.

But she only came to him in his dreams.

He was bewildered. Where had his colossal protector gone? Mellow Yellow would never desert them! Why had their master turned funny and started calling himself by the name of a lord, Grraf-Nig? Where had their mother gone? Where had the babies and his five-armed Jotoki friends gone? What kind of world was this W'kkai place? But finally an officious orange kzin corralled the whole family together, younger siblings and mother. The room was gray but it shone with relief because she was there. "Prrt!" he purred. Her children were excited to see each other again. He was excited to see them again. The babies wailed. Their kzin guardian glowered.

This enormous kzin with large nose and lips that never quite covered his fangs was not like their kzin. He was too tall and he was a deep hue of orange with disfiguring black spots. He was foppishly dressed in an unknown cut of garment with lace. And he was mean. The boy watched him with alert eyes. The boy had known only one kzin, the master, but he could read every kzin gesture, every expression, every throb of a kzin's hairless tail. This one was annoyed, a twitch of a grin on his lips. It was not his pleasure to deal with human slaves. Danger.

Without warning, the kzin cuffed Prrt for not controlling the squalling and squeals of her infants while he did his record-keeping. The boy flew to protect her . . . and bounced off a vicious backhand, thumping against the wall. Instantly, from the mother, an unspoken grimace of warning passed to her eldest son—freeze!—causing him to freeze into an unwanted posture of obeisance. The large-nosed kzin did not notice the exchange because he could not read human expressions. He merely noticed the monkey's sudden calm, which probably saved the boy's life in the minutes before Hssin's lord Grraf-Nig arrived in a rage to hiss and spit his offense at having his property maltreated by a mere Record-Keeper.

The slave name of the boy, given to him by master Grraf-Nig, was "Kz'eerkttt," said with a glottal gnashing at the end to distinguish it from "kz'eerkt." The tree-bound kz'eerkt, a quasi-primate native to distant Kzin, featured in kzinti mythology as an animal of trickery who will always best those who lack bravery and, afterwards, will raucously advertise his joke from the trees. Kz'eerkttt (with the glottal gnash) referred to the tricks themselves. The name is best translated as Monkeyshine. His twin sister was Furlessface.

Monkeyshine had no memory of the human name his mother once whispered so fondly in his ear when he was a baby. It seemed natural to him that females like his mother and sisters spoke with emotion and expressions and could not understand words, except the simplest words, even when spoken loudly, firmly, and slowly. Not like his brother, Fastanimal, who chattered with the agile Jotoki and teased old Mellow Yellow until he told them stories. The third brother, the baby, was still practicing his screams and growls with Monkeyshine's encouragement, but was not yet able to string them together to make sense.

Monkeyshine could chatter nonsense with the baby boy, he could make up words with Fastanimal, hisses and sibillated snarls—shared secret words for kzinshit and farts—that no kzin could comprehend. But his sisters never caught on. His twin, Furlessface, remained as silent as his mother. The girls made noises, especially if they were provoked or teased, or hungry or curious, but they never made much more sense than a baby.

Monkeyshine's younger self did hold on to three sacred human words which he repeated to himself like a mantra during both moments of peace and of danger, words from a past life of unremembered tenderness: "cookie," the name of a sweet food made in the stars; "Earth," the name of a planet bigger than Hssin with better air; "centipede," the name of a worm with 512 legs. Monkeyshine wasn't sure how big a centipede grew but he was sure that it towered at least big enough to eat a kzin in one bite.

After their journey from Hssin, the revival from the hibernation bin, the transfer from tiny ship to the bustling space station, the confusion and the reprieve from doom, life settled into an easier and more exciting routine. Mellow Yellow seemed, day by day, to be gaining in stature, and that was good because slaves rise with their masters. But it was a strange new place, different, excitingly dangerous. Monkeyshine was fluent in the slave language of the Jotoki but he knew enough of the Hero's Tongue to pick up pieces of the conversation around him. He wasn't sure he liked the implications. This was no minor kzin outpost! Their station was circling a major kzin world. Zillions of kzin down there! Surely not all of them were to have master status!

Once a splendidly dressed warrior had demanded an audience with Monkeyshine, inducing in Mellow Yellow an overwillingness to please. Such a deportment of his master amazed the young human. A master making slave gestures! Who was this Si-Kish? There was no time to contemplate such a behavioral wonder; Monkeyshine was hastily presented to the W'kkai Hero with a cautionary/threatening admonition to be respectful. Intently, the boy read the monster's emotions, his eyes scanning kzin ear posture, lip tremors, muscle tension, tail position, and the erectness of hairs around the neck.

"So here is the little man whose fleet blockades our star?" he said to the five-year-old boy.

This elaborately beclothed kzin didn't seem to want an answer. He was neither angry nor ready to attack. He just seemed to want to look, so Monkeyshine, who was warily afraid of the warrior, said nothing, letting him stare.

With a vague sense of unease, Monkeyshine had deduced that they—his mother and his brothers and sisters—were not only slaves of the kzin, but that they were enemy. The slave part seemed natural, but the enemy part was uncomfortable. In the following days his cautious questions about this were unproductive, limited as his inquiries were by an immature mind which had to twist around the grammar of a slave language that was ill-suited to questioning. Grraf-Nig's loyal Jotok, Long-Reach, hinted with several of his underarm mouths that the boy's monkeykind was a race of warriors, that his mother was a ferocious warrior—but that was absurd, a typically wild Jotok fantasy. Bonded slaves did not know how to make war. And his mother had neither the wits nor the sharp teeth to be a Hero. She had the grinding molars of a vegetarian.

Sometimes his Prrt seemed to sense his confused astonishment, and ambled over in the peculiar kind of gravity that the kzin maintained on their ships of space where feet were heavier than heads. She combed her fingers through his hair, then playfully bounced him in his sleeping constraints until he was having fun again. Once she pulled him past a kzin guard to the viewport to look out over the vast moving orb of night-shrouded W'kkai. He knew that she could stare at the lights of space with endless patience, never losing her fascination. He wondered what her simple mind could be thinking to hold her eyes so steady. The sight certainly didn't frighten her. Did she even suspect that there were zillions of kzin down there, each needing his ceremonial wtsai polished?

A crescent of light began to glow along the horizon. He'd never seen a sunrise from space before, only sanguine R'hshssira rising huge in the dusty atmosphere of Hssin. The viewport darkened in response to the new sun. It was small compared with immense R'hshssira! And bright! Even through the darkening viewport it was too bright to look at. Didn't they freeze with a sun that small? Well, they had fur and maybe their sun made up in dazzle what it lacked in size.

The dawn area of W'kkai grew as they watched, rolling like a surf of light beneath them. The mottled blue and green smoothness would be sea. Their massive space structure overtook a vessel that passed above them. He found himself as fascinated as his mother.

* * *

Another change. They were shipped to the planet's surface. While floating trucks bounced them through low hills to a distant destination, Monkeyshine had time to watch the sky and wonder where its supports were hidden. At the homestead site they were set up in military prefabs. It was worse than Hssin. There were bugs that crawled through the prefab doors and flew noisily. The small ones bit. Things changed too fast to resent the discomfort.

Little by little the troop of refugees, kzin and slaves, were taking up a new life. Mellow Yellow seemed to command vast wealth. Monkeyshine was awed to see construction crews build a mansion for the mighty Grraf-Nig, surrounded by an airy palazzo for his kzinrretti. Groomed, coy females came to the lord, offered by fathers who sought favor. At each of the numerous wedding feasts the boy competed with the ambling Jotoki to serve the live beasts, or run errands on the hunts, proud in his new livery. The elaborate celebration tents gave way to more formal affairs within the partially completed mansion. They had all risen to a level of importance. Once they had been servants of a grumpy kzin warrior who scrounged through the war ruins of Hssin for bolt and copper wire. Now they served his females milk in tooled platinum dishes within the corridors and feast halls of a palace!


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