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Chapter One

“You want to send us to Manticore?”

Despite her best effort at adult composure, Stephanie Harrington’s voice rose in pleased astonishment. Beside her, she heard her good friend Karl Zivonik swallow a chuckle. Even Lionheart, the treecat, perched on the edge of Chief Ranger Shelton’s desk emitted a small “bleek” of amusement.

Only the Chief Ranger himself did not seem to notice the enthusiasm with which Stephanie had met his proposal. He continued his explanation without pause.

“That’s right. Two slots have opened up unexpectedly in a special accelerated training program for Forestry Service personnel on Manticore. The Sphinx Forestry Service has regularly sent its full-time members to the course. This year, given that we’re facing the aftermath of such an exceptionally bad fire season, I can’t spare any of my rangers. However, I can—just barely—spare my two provisional rangers.”

“Me and Stephanie,” Karl said, only the fact that he needed to make this unnecessary clarification showing how excited he was.

“You and Stephanie.” Chief Ranger Shelton motioned toward two chairs. “Sit down. Before you accept, I need to explain to you just what you’re getting into.”

The young people sat, although Stephanie had to fight back an impulse to perch on the edge of her chair. Lionheart made sitting back easier for her by flowing gracefully from the desk onto her lap. At around 140 centimeters, Stephanie was relatively small for her fifteen and a half years, petite, rather than just short. Holding Lionheart’s sixty-five centimeters took all of her lap and then some. Somehow, though the treecat’s face was gray tabby-striped and his eyes green, while the girl’s short hair and eyes were both brown there was something similar about the pair.

Karl, Stephanie’s senior by two and a half years, seemed to have no trouble keeping his composure, but then in many ways Karl was old beyond his years. Stephanie knew tragedy had shadowed his first real romance, a loss he had apparently gotten beyond but never over. Dark-haired, dark-eyed, already 185 centimeters tall, with a strong boned frame, Karl at eighteen was very much a young man.

Chief Ranger Shelton studied them thoughtfully for a moment before continuing. “I’m going to admit right off that there was some protest when I suggested we send you two to Manticore. The provisional ranger rank is new enough that some people still don’t accept it as real. Moreover, Stephanie in particular is quite young for the program.”

Stephanie swallowed an automatic protest. Chief Ranger Shelton knew better than most how much Stephanie was capable of doing. Indeed, he’d created the rank of provisional ranger as a way to acknowledge those achievements. She just had to trust that he was on her side.

A gentle mental “nudge” from Lionheart brought Stephanie out of her thoughts. She still wasn’t quite sure how Lionheart influenced her moods, but if there was one thing she was sure about regarding treecats it was that they were both telempathic and telepathic. Of course, the fact the treecats were telepathic was a closely guarded secret and would remain so until they’d been acknowledged as a fully sentient species with the rights and protections granted to such by law. For now, it was enough for Stephanie to know that what most people saw as a sort of long-bodied, long-tailed, furry, six-legged weasel-cat was as much a person as she was—and the sort of person who wasn’t above reminding her to pay attention, even if he used rather unconventional methods.

“You, Karl,” Chief Ranger Shelton was saying, “are a legal adult. Based on your achievements as a provisional ranger, if I’d wanted to push the matter, I could have promoted you to assistant ranger and avoided the entire question of eligibility. You, Stephanie, have shown by your actions that you’re not only competent but completely devoted to the well-being of our forests and their inhabitants. Let’s leave it at that, after considerable debate, I’ve garnered permission for you to attend the course if you choose.”

Stephanie wanted to say “I choose! I choose!” but she restrained herself to murmuring a polite, “Thank you, sir.”

In any case, something uncomfortable was niggling at the back of her thoughts, something that was making her wonder if she really did want to take up Chief Ranger Shelton’s offer. She shoved the doubt away and concentrated on listening.

“The course is geared to teach you about more than just forestry. At least as applied to Sphinx, you could learn plenty about forestry right here—and in some instances, probably teach. Sadly, though, being a member of the SFS on Sphinx includes a lot more than simply caring for plants and animals. Because Sphinx has so much undeveloped land and so few people, we also have fewer police forces compared to Manticore. That means the law enforcement aspects of a ranger’s duty are at least as important as firefighting, search and rescue, and protecting the environment. That’s why part of what you’ll be learning will be law enforcement technology, forensic techniques, basic legal theory and content, and how to handle civilian relations.

“All of this is on top of taking tests to show your competency in basic, practical forestry knowledge. Since you, Karl, have spent your entire life in a single biosphere—here on Sphinx—you can expect some individual studies designed to plug the gaps in your knowledge base. Stephanie, I know you spent your first ten or so years on Meyerdahl, but don’t be surprised if your instructors come up with individual studies for you, too. If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my years in forestry service, it’s that you can’t know too much.”

The coursework did sound intense, but Stephanie had been at the top of her class for as long as she could remember. Some of her grades had slipped a little when she joined the SFS, but her parents weren’t the sort to complain about a few percentage points—especially when it was evident to the meanest intelligence what career path Stephanie planned to follow. Thinking of her parents reminded her….

“Chief Shelton, you mentioned I’m still a minor. Have you spoken with my parents yet?”

Chief Shelton’s lips shaped what, on anyone other than his dignified self, Stephanie would have thought a mischievous grin. “I have not. Consider convincing them you should take part in the program the first proof that you’re old enough to do so. They may, of course, contact me for details.”

Karl cleared his throat nervously.

“Chief Shelton, there’s the question of tuition. I have a bunch of brothers and sisters. Our family has a lot of land, but I’m not sure my parents could come up with interplanetary tickets and living expenses, especially on short notice. Even with my job with the SFS, I’ve been helping out at home, too, but I think they can work around that.”

“Tuition’s one thing you don’t need to worry about,” Chief Ranger Shelton assured him. “If you go, you’ll be going as a member of the SFS. Other than money for personal indulgences, we’ll be covering all the bills.”

“Thank you, sir!”

Stephanie thought of another complication.

“Chief Shelton, what about Lionheart? I can’t leave him. It’s not that I won’t; I can’t.”

She hoped the Chief Ranger understood. She suspected he did. Not everyone knew about the Stray and the lengths that ’cat had gone to avenge his murdered human partner, but, even with only the evidence of the few bonded human/treecat pairs that existed, it was apparent that being separated overly long caused a great deal of distress for both human and ’cat. They could be apart for days at a time but, as Stephanie had explained it to her parents, after a while she felt anxious, like one of her senses had been dampened or even cut off.

She’d talked about this negative aspect of being part of a partnership with a treecat with her friend Jessica Pheriss, the most recent adoptee. Despite the fact that she and her Valiant had only been together for about six months, Jessica felt the same way. Now just thinking about leaving Lionheart behind on Sphinx while she went to another planet made Stephanie feel prickly. Her palms grew damp, and she surreptitiously wiped them on the legs of her trousers.

“I’ve already considered the problem of Lionheart,” Chief Ranger Shelton assured her. “Dr. Hobbard was a great deal of help in convincing the appropriate authorities that it would be beneficial if Lionheart went with you. So if you choose to go to Manticore, Lionheart may travel with you.”

“Thank you!” Stephanie let out a breath she hadn’t known she was holding.

“You’re certain to find that there will be many places on Manticore where Lionheart won’t be permitted to go, however,” the Chief Ranger cautioned her. “Here on Sphinx, particularly near Twin Forks where both you and Jessica live, the tendency has been to let the treecats into whatever facilities their humans use. I already know the instructors for most of the courses you’ll be taking won’t wish Lionheart to be present. He’d be a distraction, you realize.”

Stephanie did realize. Even in Twin Forks, Lionheart continued to attract attention. Not only were treecats a relatively new discovery—Stephanie had “discovered” them when she had been only eleven—but with their thick, silky fur, enormous green eyes, and prick-eared heads, they were undeniably cute as well.

Cute, that is, Stephanie thought, until you learn how sharp their claws are and how good they are at using them. Then, I think, except for the dimmest of the dim, respect just has to temper the “cute.”

Even with modern technology, treecats were almost impossible to locate in the wild and, despite some pressure in that direction, none were on display in the zoos where people could see other Sphinxian creatures like hexapumas and peak bears.

Chief Ranger Shelton was continuing. “You may think that the more high-profile achievements each of you has racked up over these last few years are the reason I was finally able to convince my associates to permit you to to represent the SFS in this year’s training course. Certainly, it didn’t hurt that you both showed initiative and bravery during the recent wildfires. Moreover, it can’t be overlooked that Stephanie—and you, Karl—are among the most knowledgeable when it comes to the treecats. However, in the end, none of those things tipped the balance. Can you guess what did?”

Stephanie shook her head, but Karl said slowly, “If it isn’t the high-profile stuff, then it must be the rest, right? The time we put in as provisional rangers?”

Chief Shelton nodded emphatically. “That’s it. Your demonstrated willingness to do the non-glamorous and routine patrols that are part of a ranger’s daily job is what convinced the worst of the doubters. Stephanie, in particular, has a bit of a reputation for impulsive behavior.”

He paused, but Stephanie didn’t protest. She supposed some might see her as impulsive, but she preferred to think of what she did as taking necessary initiative. Chief Shelton gave her a sideways smile and continued.

“However, our computer logs don’t lie, and they show how faithfully you’ve done your shifts—even when those shifts have consisted of nothing more romantic and exciting than covering headquarters so someone with more experience or a wider range of skills could go out into the field. Remember that when you—if you—get to Manticore.

“I’m forwarding all the necessary information to your uni-links so you’ll be able to show it to your parents. I’m afraid I’m going to need to ask for a decision fairly quickly. Time was wasted while we went through our rosters looking to see who we could spare. Then more time was wasted while we convinced various people at various levels that our provisional rangers would fit the bill. Can you give me an answer within a week? We can stretch to ten days, but a week would be better. The class starts in two weeks.”

“A week?” Karl seemed momentarily astonished, then nodded and got to his feet as if he was prepared to start the trip back to Thunder River that very moment. “I can do it.”

“Me, too, Stephanie said, “but my folks will want a few days to make sure they’ve considered everything. Neither of them are impulsive.”

“Unlike you,” Karl said, grinning at her.

All too aware of Chief Ranger Shelton, Stephanie refrained from sticking her tongue out at Karl, but the rumble of Lionheart’s purr against her chest as she picked him up and got to her feet let her know that more than one of her friends was laughing at the joke. Immediately, the treecat flowed into approved “carry” position—his remaining front foot (his true-hand) on her shoulder, his rearmost set of feet (or true-feet) on a specially built brace she wore with all her clothing. This was a compromise her dad had recently agreed to, although Richard Harrington still preferred Stephanie let the treecat do most of his own walking.

“Good luck,” the Chief Ranger said, waving them toward the door. “I look forward to hearing from you both.”

Karl stopped in mid stride. “I suppose the information’s in our uni-links, but I forgot to ask. How long is this course, exactly?”

“Three T-months,” came the prompt reply. “As I said, there’s a lot that needs to be covered.”

Stephanie’s feet kept moving, but inside her something froze as the shapeless dread that had been haunting her for the last few minutes suddenly came into focus.

Three months! Anders! I want to go to Manticore, but can I bear to leave him for three whole months?

Despite her sudden emotional turmoil, Stephanie managed to talk naturally to Karl during the trip back to Twin Forks from Yawata Crossing. Thankfully, they had a lot to talk about. If Karl thought Stephanie was acting at all oddly, he probably put it down to her thinking about ways to convince her parents to let her go off-planet for three months.

“I’ll com you later,” he said, as she got out of his air car, “and let you know how it goes with my folks.”

“Me, too,” she replied. “Remember—don’t let your folks call mine until I get a chance to talk with them first. I need to figure out how best to let them know.”

“I promise,” Karl agreed. Then he shifted the car up to where he could pour on speed as soon as he was out of the city limits. The Zivoniks lived near Thunder River, a good many hours travel away even at top speeds, but Stephanie didn’t doubt Karl would have the car on autopilot and be on the com to his mother as soon as he was in clear airspace.

Her own mind swirled as she walked to her dad’s office. Of course, the fact that Richard Harrington had an office in Twin Forks didn’t mean he’d be in it. Stephanie’s father was a veterinarian, a job that, on Sphinx, embraced not only the care of the animals belonging to the colonists, but often of creatures native to Sphinx, as well. Add to that the numerous genetically altered creatures that were being tried out as the colonists looked for the best way to work with their environment and still have some of the meat and dairy products they were accustomed to, and one could argue that Richard Harrington was one of the most irreplaceable professionals on Sphinx. Certainly Richard’s interest in exotic creatures, combined with the fact that his wife was a plant biologist and geneticist, had assured the Harringtons of a warm welcome when they had immigrated to Sphinx back when Stephanie had been ten.

Six years later, Stephanie could hardly understand the girl she’d been then—a girl who’d been so overwhelmed by her changed environment and the loss of all her previous dreams and goals that she’d spent a lot of time sulking. Now Stephanie loved Sphinx with all her heart. She’d be happy to go visit Meyerdahl, but she knew she’d always come home to Sphinx.

Stephanie wasn’t surprised when she got to her dad’s office and found both him and the Vet Van missing, given how scattered Sphinx’s human settlers were. Besides, his recently hired assistant, Saleem Smythe, would be in shortly to cover the evening shift. Under the circumstances, she wasn’t unhappy to have the office to herself until Dr. Smythe’s arrival, though. There was celery in the fridge, and she gave Lionheart a big stalk as a thank you for his support during the meeting. Uncharacteristically, she didn’t feel very hungry, but she got herself a fruit and nut bar which she nibbled more from duty than desire. Next, she commed her parents to let them know where she was. She didn’t mention the meeting with Chief Ranger Shelton. She hadn’t been lying to Karl when she said she needed to figure out the best way to present the proposed trip to Manticore to them, but there was something else she needed to figure out first.


Anders Whitaker had come to Sphinx last year, not long before Stephanie’s fifteenth birthday, as part of an anthropological expedition from Urako University, headed by his father and formed for the express purpose of studying the treecats. From the first time Stephanie had seen Anders, she’d been overwhelmed. It wasn’t just that he was good-looking, although with his wheat-blonde hair and dark blue eyes he was undeniably handsome. Anders was also smart, smart enough that he didn’t feel a need to hide his enthusiasms—and one of his enthusiasms turned out to be treecats.

At nearly seventeen, Anders was quite a bit younger than the next older member of the Whitaker expedition, which meant he was happy to spend time with Stephanie. She’d found ways for the two of them to spend time together, although often enough Karl (who frequently boarded with the Harringtons, since Thunder River was so far from where he and Stephanie did their ranger work) made a third. In fact, for the first time since Stephanie met him—back when Stephanie had started learning how to use firearms—Karl had definitely become less than welcome company.

Things might have gotten uncomfortable, but then the Whitaker expedition’s air van had gone missing. In the intensity of search, rescue, and forest fire, somehow any uneasiness had vanished. Then after…

Stephanie felt her lips twist in an unwilling smile as she remembered the first time she’d kissed Anders. It hadn’t been much of a kiss, but it had been her first time kissing a boy. Later, Anders had reciprocated a lot more enthusiastically than her careful lips against his cheek.

Although nothing had been formally declared, they’d become more or less a couple. It helped that part of Stephanie’s and Karl’s job as provisional rangers had been to act as advisors to the Whitaker expedition. Then, too, although he could assist, Anders wasn’t a professional anthropologist. That meant he was free to ride along when Stephanie and Karl did their patrols. Before long, he was learning to hang-glide and becoming as much a part of Stephanie’s circle of friends as any of those who lived in Twin Forks.

Things had appeared to be moving along very satisfactorily, but then, shortly after the fire, Dr. Whitaker had been sent back to their home world, Urako in the Kenichi System. His behavior on Sphinx had been…erratic, and the potential consequences could have ended his expedition to the Star Kingdom in academic disgrace. Stephanie knew Dr. Hobbard and Chief Ranger Shelton had both argued in favor of allowing the university’s expedition to remain on Sphinx, with a Sphinx Forestry Service ranger or two permanently assigned to it to keep it out of trouble. Unfortunately, the Manticoran government had been unwilling to go along. Neither Governor Donaldson nor Interior Minister Vásquez had been satisfied with Dr. Whitaker’s simple promise to behave himself. They wanted the same sort of guarantee from the university itself, and that meant sending him home to face a review of his actions by the chancellor of the university and the chairman of his department.

Dr. Whitaker hadn’t been at all happy about that, but he’d clearly realized that he had no choice. However, getting there was easier to say than to do because the Star Kingdom of Manticore was so small and so far from the core systems…like Kenichi. There was very little interstellar traffic into or out of the Star Kingdom, especially now that the assisted immigration following the Plague Years had almost entirely wound down. There was little cargo to attract freighters, passenger ships had become less frequent, and even mail couriers arrived only at intervals which were erratic, to say the least. Worse, Kenichi was 400 light-years from Manticore, so even one of the fast courier boats would take literally months to make a one-way trip between them. By the best passenger ship connection Dr. Whitaker could arrange, the trip home would have taken at least six months, which meant it could easily be well over a T-year before he returned—if he’d returned—so he’d intended to take Anders with him.

The thought of having Anders snatched away for at least an entire T-year had been devastating to Stephanie, and she’d spent more than a night or two railing to Lionheart about stupid, small-minded, chip-pushing bureaucrats. There’d been more than a few tears involved, as well, despite Lionheart’s comforting presence.

But then Dr. Whitaker’s plans had changed.

Anders’ mother was a cabinet minister in the Kenichi System government, and Kenichi turned out to have close trade ties—and treaty agreements—with the Beowulf System. Beowulf was one of the few core systems which maintained a full time consulate on Manticore, and Dr. Whitaker had appealed to the consul for assistance. As it turned out, a Beowulfan courier had been in orbit, there to collect the consul’s regular quarterly report to his home government, and Kenichi lay almost directly on the route between Manticore and Beowulf. The courier boat was scarcely a luxury liner, but it did have the capacity to carry a few passengers, and the consul had offered the available space to Dr. Whitaker.

Unfortunately (from Dr. Whitaker’s perspective; Stephanie had seen things a bit differently), there’d been room for only one additional passenger: him. There would be no place for Anders, if he took advantage of the courier boat, and he’d had only two days to make up his mind about accepting the consul’s offer, given the courier’s scheduled departure date.

In the end, he’d decided speed was of the essence, for several reasons, including the fear that some other anthropology team would be credentialed to study the treecats instead of his if the delay stretched out too long. So instead of taking Anders back to Urako, he’d left him in the Star Kingdom under the supervision of Dr. Emberly, the expedition’s xeno-biologist and botanist, and her mother, Dacey.

At first, Stephanie had been ecstatic over Dr. Whitaker’s decision, but her joy had been short-lived. Until Urako University responded with the required assurances, Governor Donaldson had barred the Whitaker Expedition’s team from further exploration. None of its members came from heavy-gravity worlds like Sphinx, and Sphinx, with a total population of less than two million, didn’t offer a great many attractions to people who were prohibited from doing the one thing they’d come to the Star Kingdom to accomplish. Dr. Emberly had certainly felt that way, at any rate, and she’d decided to withdraw the expedition’s personnel from Sphinx to Manticore, the Star Kingdom’s capital planet, whose lower gravity was far more comfortable and whose larger population provided a lot more in the way of “civilization.”

The decision had not met with unanimous approval. Unfortunately, the two people who’d most strongly objected—Anders and Stephanie—hadn’t gotten a vote. And, in her more reasonable moments, Stephanie actually understood Doctor Emberly’s thinking. Sphinx truly could be an uncomfortable planet for people who hadn’t been genetically engineered for heavy-gravity environments, like the Harringtons, or grown up on its surface, like the Zivoniks, and Dacey Emberly, Calida’s mother, wasn’t a young woman. Not only that, but Dr. Whitaker had been adamant that Anders keep up his studies, and it was hard to deny that the planet Manticore’s educational opportunities were better than Sphinx’s.

But none of that changed the fact that Manticore and Sphinx were almost ten light-minutes apart even at their closest approach and, at the moment, they were over twenty-five light-minutes from one another. That meant any real-time conversation between someone on Sphinx and someone on Manticore was impossible, since it took nearly a half hour for any lightspeed transmission to make the trip between them. Somehow, asking a question and then waiting an hour for an answer put a damper on lively discussions.

Twenty-five light-minutes was a lot better than 400 light-years, but the communication delay had still limited Stephanie and Anders to letters and recorded vids. True, they could be sent back and forth a lot more quickly than they could have been transmitted between Kenichi and the Star Kingdom, but it just wasn’t the same as face-to-face conversation…and Stephanie had discovered that even the warmest letter was a poor substitute for kisses and cuddling. There were things she just couldn’t say, or explain, even in a personal vid. Not when she couldn’t see his expression or hear his voice when she said them. It was a lot better than having him go all the way home with his father, but in some ways it was actually worse.

She’d been resigned to spending a whole half T-year pushing electronic mail back and forth, but she hadn’t counted on Dacey Emberly, the expedition’s painter and scientific illustrator. Dacey had decided that even if the entire team wasn’t permitted to study treecats, there was no reason she couldn’t be working on her portfolio of the rest of Sphinx. In addition, she’d discovered that Stephanie’s mother was also a painter, as well as at least as good a botanist as her daughter, Calida. Marjorie Harrington had cheerfully offered her services as tour guide and fellow artist and invited Calida to join them. The botanist in Calida had jumped at the chance to explore Sphinx’s plant life with a Sphinxian native who was not simply a fellow botanist but probably the planet’s best plant geneticist.

There were times when Stephanie thought it was just possible her mother had extended the invitation because she’d realized how miserable it was for Stephanie and Anders to be in the same star system but on different planets. There were other times when she wasn’t so sure about that, but the result had been wonderful. For the last two months, both Doctors Emberly had been back in Twin Forks…which meant that Anders had been back on Sphinx, too.

The day they’d returned from Manticore, her parents had invited them to a huge welcome back party, with all of Stephanie’s—and Anders’—friends in attendance. Stephanie would have preferred to have Anders to herself, but her parents did so love a party and, anyhow, she’d suddenly felt a little shy. They’d never actually declared themselves “a couple”—not like Chet and Christine—but even so, there was a lot of teasing.

Later, they’d gotten some time by themselves. Soon they were over being shy and everything had been great.

“Great,” Stephanie said to Lionheart, “except that now I’m going to be the one going away to Manticore! Three more entire months of nothing but letters…Can I do it? And even if Dr. Whitaker’s university lets him come back, it won’t let him stay here forever. I doubt Anders wants to give up his family. I mean, the only reason he’s here now is that his mom’s so busy with her position. What if it turns out Urako won’t let Dr. Whitaker come back? What if Anders finds out he has to go home before I even get back from Manticore?

The treecat evidently sensed her distress. He leapt lightly onto her lap and laid his true-hand—still damp and smelling of celery—on her cheek. His leaf-green eyes met hers, and he bleeked a gentle sound of comfort and inquiry.

“The problem is,” Stephanie told him, “I don’t know what I want. When Chief Ranger Shelton started telling us about the training program there was nothing in the world I wanted more than to go. Now…Now I find myself thinking that maybe it would be a good idea to let my parents talk me out of it for another year. I am only fifteen and a half—okay, fifteen and eight months. I could wait. A year won’t matter too much. It’s not likely the SFS will let me become an Assistant Ranger until I’m at least seventeen anyhow….”

The sound of her father’s air van settling into its space alongside the clinic brought her back to herself. Impulsively, she hugged Lionheart, feeling his fluffy tail curl around her in return. Then she took a deep breath and straightened up.

“Whatever I decide,” she said softly, I can’t let Dad see I’m upset. That would sway him before I’ve even made up my own mind. Shall we go see if Dad needs help with his gear or a patient?”

“Bleek,” Lionheart agreed, the sounds meaning far less than the enthusiastic flirt of his tail and the expectant prick of his ears as he led the way toward the door. “Bleek! Bleek! Bleek!”

* * *

Climbs Quickly didn’t know exactly what had happened to generate such a stew of mixed emotions in his two-leg. When they had been in the meeting with Old Authority (as the treecats had dubbed the male two-leg to whom so many of their two legged friends deferred) Death Fang’s Bane had begun by being excited and happy, her mind-glow overflowing with anticipation and delight. But then, somewhere in the midst of all the mouth noises, uneasiness had begun to tint the exuberance.

Climbs Quickly had not been concerned. For many season turnings, long before he had met Death Fang’s Bane, he had served his clan as a scout. He was accustomed to the excitement that came with a new assignment, and how that excitement could be muted when one began to consider the challenges that would be involved.

However, at the very end of the meeting, Death Fang’s Bane had experienced a surge of such intense emotional pain that it had been all Climbs Quickly could do not to wail aloud in response. One of the differences he’d discovered between two-legs and the People was that two-legs frequently attempted to conceal their feelings from one another. It had seemed bizarre, but then he had remembered the two-legs were mind-blind. They could not taste one another’s mind-glows even if they tried, and it actually seemed to embarrass them sometimes if they revealed their emotions too clearly.

Sensing that the youngling was doing her best to hide what she felt at that moment, Climbs Quickly had muted his response and instead offered her a touch of comfort. He might not truly understand two-legs’ odd attitude towards sharing their emotions, but he was proud to see that Death Fang’s Bane was strong and had managed to hide her distress with very little help from him.

Once they had left Old Authority’s place and Shadowed Sunlight had gotten into his flying thing and departed, Death Fang’s Bane had let her feelings have freer play. At that point, Climbs Quickly isolated the source of her distress more clearly. He recognized the emotional notes that meant his two-leg was absorbed in thoughts about Bleached Fur, the young male in whom she had invested so much energy since his arrival back in the early days of the fire season.

Climbs Quickly liked Bleached Fur. The young male was full of lively curiosity. His mind-glow might not be as brilliant as that of Death Fang’s Bane, but it had an enthusiasm that was very appealing, and Climbs Quickly had been happy to see his return from wherever he had vanished to. Despite this, there were times when Climbs Quickly was surprised by how intensely Death Fang’s Bane cared for this young male.

At that thought, Climbs Quickly bleeked to himself in quiet amusement. Even among the People, understanding why one Person chose to be attracted to another could be a mystery—and at least the People could speak mind-to-mind. He supposed that, even as deeply as he and Death Fang’s Bane were bonded, there would always be mysteries between them.

With her usual self-control, Death Fang’s Bane had moderated at least the outer appearance of distress when her sire, Healer, had returned. She had helped Healer to settle in his latest patients—a pair of medium-sized plant-eaters with what smelled like some sort of respiratory distress—and had waited while he made mouth noises at the male who was his chief assistant. However, as soon as they were alone in the big flying thing, Death Fang’s Bane started making mouth noises.

Soon the pair of two-legs were in animated discussion. Since Death Fang’s Bane did not seem unduly agitated, Climbs Quickly contented himself with sniffing the interesting odors carried to him from the forests below. He heard the mouth noises that he knew indicated himself a few times, as well as the single hard sound that indicated Shadowed Sunlight, but most of the time the sounds meant far less than the flow of his two-legs’s mind-glow.

He kept track of it, but Death Fang’s Bane seemed to be doing fine. Climbs Quickly relaxed into the moment, the better to be prepared if a crisis did arise.

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