.two swords.

The girl entered the room slowly, staring at him with wary eyes. In her arms she held salvation -- clean bandages, towels and a bowl of water, needle and thread for stitching, a package that looked to be military rations -- and at her hip was belted death.

From the throbbing in his side it might have been only hours ago when that sword had been buried in his flesh, but he had no way of knowing how long he had been unconscious. Long enough for someone to tend to him, anyway. He felt sick, but from his brief and painful examination of the wound, it had been disinfected and half-heartedly staunched.

Blood loss, he told himself, and asked her in a voice hoarse with rest, "Is this your work?" He shifted his hand to rest over the heavy padding that absorbed the blood from his wound.

Her lips tightened unpleasantly. He took that as confirmation.

"Hard to believe," he managed, "that the hands that cut so finely could heal so well."

It was meant to be urbane but it failed; her tenseness turned to hostility in a scant heartbeat. "Then I'm sure you'll be pleased to have your own white hands do the mending," she said angrily. She dropped her burden to the floor by his feet, and then the girl ran away.

.

Hyuga came to realize early on that the motivational power of the corpses of loved ones was vastly underestimated.

Despite his scholarly bent he was healthy and active as a young boy, and so the plague touched first his other, less spirited siblings. Poor Lishan, who had always preferred sitting indoors and tinkering to taking care of himself or enjoying a nice day, was the first to take ill. It was as if death came from within, spreading from the poisoned heart of the home out into the world beyond.

He remembered his parents being sad when Lishan succumbed to the disease -- but not particularly mourning. They were, after all, very poor, and nine children was a great many hungry mouths to feed.

Then another sibling fell sick -- and another. By the time Mother caught the illness it was everywhere: in the faces of playmates, adults, slaves. It hardly made the news in the shining glittering urban marvel that was "real" Solaris. The government warned its citizens, condescendingly and via the holographic screens that surmounted the buildings, not to consort with filthy Third-Class folk, who could be carriers for this and who could say what other horrors.

It took one of the Gazel coming down with the plague before the government -- and the best doctors that Etrenank could buy -- understood that they were facing a threat beyond their abilities.

The panic spread like its own plague. People stopped coming by to collect the bodies. Lishan was gone, but Taing and Aska remained, twisted wide-eyed dead littering the shambles of the house. Their mother Lori was ill, and when she died she would be there too, Hyuga thought, a lifeless body that stared with empty eyes and a queer, hollow smile. A perfect parody of the way she'd always struggled to be in life.

He stopped going outside then -- he stopped going anywhere. He remembered spending all day at his desk, in front of the scraps that he had salvaged from schools and laboratories, searching, looking for anything. His hands were shaking and his lungs grew tight as death smothered them all in sweetness.

Every time he tried to stop, he would look up, and there would be his family, waiting to see what became of him.

His first attempt at a serum was a miserable failure; he gave it to Barek because there was no other way to test it, and the brother who had given him his first microscope died that same night. No use, he realized, without knowing the causes, without survivors. No one had survived.

Soon the shaking and the shallow breathing were symptoms of the plague. Hyuga almost didn't notice the way he was being eaten away, thin child's frame emaciated, a thing of sticks and hanging clothes. He couldn't turn away from trying -- after all, as long as he kept trying, he hadn't failed, and the bodies dead and dying would have no reason to stare at him in reproach. And he didn't want to die.

It wasn't until he stopped eating that he realized.

He found the right formula in the end, and marveled at the way he began to breathe again, the hazy spots in his vision clearing, the strength slowly returning to limbs that felt so fragile. His appetite returned, but with only the Soylent rations, he had nothing to eat.

"I will go and tell them," he said to no one in particular. He had done his best to clean the tube in which the remaining serum was stored; he clutched it in his hands. "Soon, I'll go and tell them -- it will save Solaris. Do you hear? I can save all of us."

He was so tired, the throbbing in his healing body threatening his consciousness, that he imagined his watching family was proud of him.


The girl came again the next day, just when Hyuga was beginning to think he had chased her off forever with ill-timed levity. He had tried to eat what she had brought him slowly, but packaged food never seemed to last as long as the real thing.

She had again provisions in her arms, the same as from the day before, and the katana; her expression was composed, serene. Her blonde hair spilled over her arms as she prepared to leave her burden beside him, but although she clearly meant to ignore him, her gaze flickered to the side, and she frowned.

"Hello," he said, the word cracking awkwardly. He smiled to make up for it.

When she spoke, her voice was deeper than he remembered, dusky like falling night. "What have you done to yourself?"

"Oh, this?" Hyuga propped himself up a bit more -- the girl slid back a step, smoothly -- to study the injury in his side. The bandage was sagging, heavy with blood, and needed to be changed; the stitches visible beneath were crooked. Sounding more like himself, he observed ruefully, "I am afraid I have never been much good at sewing up my own flesh."

The girl considered this for a moment. "Don't touch it. I'll get you an anesthetic."

He considered refusing, on principle if nothing else -- one did not let one's enemies inject one with unknown substances -- but if the girl could defeat him in single combat and had cared for him for more than a day, a defiant show would be hardly more than a show.

.

Sigurd was devoted to his excesses with an almost pitiful intensity, and everyone knew of Jesiah's drinking binges, which were the stuff of legends in Jugend; but what Hyuga had never told anyone was that of all their petty vices, the one who worried him the most was Kahr.

The pale boy was nowhere near Sig's debauchery or Jesse's alcoholism. He was a model of ambition and courage; they never spoke of it, but it was Kahr's brilliance to which they all gathered, a beacon in the cold night of Solaris.

Still, Hyuga was aware of the drugs, and not sure if he approved.

"Why do you do that?" he asked one day, unable to help himself. They were studying and Kahr had leaned away from the painfully dry nanotech text to wash back a pair of unmarked pills with water.

"Do what?" said Kahr, eyes clear and curious.

They had all taken drugs, of course; no one's hands were clean of that sin in Jugend. Always better to discover who would have a negative reaction to a military-use drug while they were training than when they were in the middle of dispatch to Ignas somewhere. Hyuga had known Sig for half a year with dozens of drugs coursing through his system as a result of the experiments they did on their captive Lambs, unbalancing his internal chemistry: drugs that Hyuga couldn't even name, couldn't even identify, drugs that sent the tall surface-dweller twisting out of bed at night, drugs that left him shuddering in the quiet hours on the balcony when he wanted to pretend he couldn't be seen.

"That." Hyuga nodded to the vial disappearing back into Kahr's coat.

"That-- Oh." Kahr smiled, a cool and unfamiliar expression. "It's harmless. Nothing to worry about."

Hyuga did not consider himself to be the sort of man who worried about things unnecessarily. A cautious man, a man who planned ahead and took all possibilities into account: those were qualities he would admit to, not without modesty. When he focused on a fact, it was because there was something about it to learn, or study, or reconsider.

The expression that had settled over the blond's refined features put a distance between them, and Hyuga thought it unlike him. Kahr was so possessive of his friends sometimes -- it seemed to hurt him even that he couldn't be with them when they went back to Jesse's home in the evenings. More than once Hyuga had awakened in the middle of the night to find that Kahr had at some point sprawled across Sigurd's mattress as if they were children at a slumber party, or leaving his room in the morning to find him tucked into a chair in the den. Raquel would smile and shrug and say, 'That's why we authorized his keycard for the front door.' She always seemed to know what other people needed to be comfortable.

"You say it is harmless, but you do keep taking them," Hyuga told him, amused.

"I'm not an addict, Hyu." Spilling off Kahr's tongue it sounded like a vile insult, which to him it probably was. Weakness -- a crucial flaw at the heart of a man, in his willpower.

Hyuga smiled. "Of course you aren't. I know better than that." There would be signs of such weakness and Kahr had none of them. He was strong and confident and clear-headed in public; he was like crystal on the battlefield, like ice before his superiors. Brilliant.

But when there was no one around, there were the pills.

"I was just wondering... why? I know how much you would normally hate weaknesses like that."

The air was cool in Hyuga's bedroom; the windows were open and a simulated breeze dusted over the room, stirring their hair.

"Because it doesn't feel like a weakness," Kahr said finally. "It's not to reach a euphoria or to escape from my troubles. It's... as if my body has a perfect tolerance for the drugs, and by maintaining that balance, I become more human, and less like whatever it is that I am."

It had the ring of perfect truth. "You are human, Kahr," Hyuga said, uneasy. The other young man's responding smile was sharp like a knife, drawing the world into focus.


The girl's hands were cool against his inflamed flesh, the touch unbearably delicate; he could feel it even with the local anesthetic numbing the sensation. Hyuga laid back and tried to keep still for her, and more, tried to ignore her. They were both trying to ignore the other, as if even with his body open before her and her hands holding him together, there was no intimacy in the act.

It was, in fact, disturbingly intimate. It's been a long time, Hyu, he told himself. Don't think about it. His skin tingled where she had been, as if awakening.

Ignoring her wasn't working; the silence conspired against his wandering thoughts. He said, "You're quite skilled." They were neutral words, or so he hoped. Inoffensive. Words like 'gentle' might make her think that he was mocking her, ironically pointing out her role in creating the injury.

A moment of terse contemplation followed that, and then the set of her shoulders eased, and she admitted, "I've had practice."

She did not mention that his men had given her that opportunity to practice, and he did not mention that she had nearly sliced him in half a matter of days ago. Hyuga let himself be relieved at that; politics, as they say, made strange bedfellows, and the politics that lay between them were of the ugliest sort. As much as he served Solaris with all his heart, now was not the time to defend its many advances and accomplishments.

It was surely the moment, the intimacy and the relief, but he saw her head bent over his body, the rapt concentration that set her elegant features, and he couldn't remember seeing a more beautiful woman.

.

It was not at all atypical for Sigurd to bring home three or four different lovers in a week's time. Women or men seemed to make little difference to him. In the beginning it had felt politic for Hyuga to vacate their shared dorm when this occurred, but it had grown familiar enough that he hardly even noticed now; Sigurd would stagger into the room, perhaps backwards, with an eager companion tight against him, and they would drift into the room until the nearest bed interfered and sent them tumbling down.

Often he wouldn't even look up from his books. It was so many worlds away from everything he'd known as a child, really, he had so many resources and wonders at his fingertips! Once the strangers were gone he would tell Sig what he had read about and the dark-skinned man would listen. No one else seemed to listen quite as well as he did.

One time after such an encounter, when his companion had left, Hyuga was startled to hear his friend say, "Frankly, I'm amazed you haven't killed me yet."

Hyuga spun his chair around and tucked his legs up, trying to fight back a grin at the comment. "Beg pardon?"

Sigurd was sprawled over his bed, idly playing with a bit of fabric between his fingers. It looked like it had come off one of his uniforms -- he was always "tailoring" them. He liked the attention, Hyuga thought, or perhaps he liked the rebellion.

"I'm amazed you haven't killed me yet. Seriously, you have every motivation. No jury in the world would convict you. You have the patience of a saint, Hyu." He added after a beat, "And the hormone level."

Halfway through his mocking bow, Hyuga had to grip the chair to keep from falling as a laugh knocked him off balance. "I am no saint, Sig," he reminded. "I seem to recall outlasting you when we were out drinking over the weekend."

"That doesn't even count," Sigurd protested. "We both know Jesse was refilling my glass when I wasn't looking."

But the question was still there, and his roommate was still watching him, the strange gemlike depth of those blue eyes unwavering as he waited for an answer. Hyuga gave it the thought it deserved, trying to think of an answer that Sigurd would not think of as an excuse or a half-truth. Sigurd always knew.

Finally he shrugged. "I think that I just get very wrapped up in the things I do. It might be uncomfortable if I had to stare at you the whole time, but as I have books to read..." With his head bent over a book, facing away from the bed, well across the room, it was strangely easy to simply lose track of where he was.

Or perhaps not strangely easy. Having grown up where Hyuga had grown up, privacy was a luxury to scoff at, and one of the first things the truly poor learned to live without. It was more expensive than his family had ever been able to afford. Their dorm in Jugend was easily twice the size of the cubicle he had grown up in, with ten other family members.

"Unless you're a eunuch, you should be getting laid," the taller man said definitively. He did not react to Hyuga's chuckle. "I know you're not like me -- this wouldn't do it for you -- but hell, Hyu, even Kahr gets laid on a regular basis." The distaste in his voice was not for their friend, but for the woman who gave him that release. "You're not made out of steel. Let's go out tonight. There are plenty of girls who would come back here with you. You're crazy to keep turning them down."

Hyuga tucked his hair behind his ear and tried not to wonder if he was crazy.

He didn't have to take the kind of hedonistic thrill that Sigurd did in his liaisons. It could be just sex. He had been with women before, and although such occasions had been more than pleasant, it had lacked the compelling element that kept him coming back to intellectual pursuits. Science, medicine, strategy.

So fascinating, so many layers. And sex was just sex.

"I'm not like you at all," he said, regretful. "But then, mere hormones are not why you've spent such a long and careful time establishing this wild reputation for yourself, is it?"

They understood one another, he and Sigurd.


The girl was named Yui, and careful observation of his surroundings had led him to believe that she was a blood relation to one of the Shevat sages -- Gaspar, perhaps, the only one who remained within the flying city. She already knew his name but he gave it to her anyway, because it was the friendly thing to do. When she came to tend his wounds they would trade idle chatter, which was far preferable to thinking of her hands on him.

He might say, "Have you done much medical study? I have something of an interest in the area."

She offered once, "My grandfather is an engineer, he'd be so pleased to meet a fellow enthusiast."

Somehow the topics grew detailed: "I have never actually found Kim's writings to be particularly motivational, but even the most brilliant of men can have a dry way with words..." "A splendid artist, though, or so I'm told."

When he made her laugh, Hyuga found himself smiling as well.

His bandages had been replaced but she lingered, feet tucked under her long skirt, fingers tracing patterns over her knees. He was sitting up against the headboard so he could see her better. The girl said, "When you're well, I'll introduce you to the man who saved your life."

"So he can interrogate me until I tell him all my secrets?" he joked. They still did not talk about the war, but they had learned to at least acknowledge one another's backgrounds.

Yui tilted her head. "No," she said seriously, "I believe you would keep your secrets."

.

He liked to joke about stealing Raquel away from Jesse when he inevitably got beaten to death by his many enemies, but the truth was that Hyuga had always been somewhat jealous of the relationship that the two shared. They were not always together, but when they were, it was as if they composed a seamless duet: Jesse would smirk and Raquel would lean over his shoulder, looking smug; or Jesse would fret and Raquel would curl her arms around his neck to comfort him; or Raquel would be griping to herself and Jesse might suddenly become fascinated with her hair. When the three of them were with Billy the whole world hushed, no matter how raucously Jesse laughed, or how irritably Raquel told him to smoke elsewhere.

It wasn't anything about Raquel herself, Hyuga thought, although she was a wonderful woman. It was simply the untouchable perfection of when they came together -- a rightness.

"Where can I get one of those?" Hyuga asked him, teasing one night. Sigurd and Kahr were making a number game out of statistical data, and Sig only chuckled without looking up from Kahr's bent head.

Jesiah stretched casually, a gesture that smoothed into a flex of muscle. "They don't grow on trees, you know. You gotta be loud, proud, and willing to knock a few heads together."

"Good advice," said Kahr insincerely. Jesse was always dropping hints such that he had done exactly that in order to win Raquel's favor, but by mutual agreement the other Elements never asked, and so stubborn Jesse never told them, no matter how obviously he wanted to.

The older man made a rude gesture at him, but his amusement turned to surprise when Hyuga said, "If that's what it takes, maybe we could all use some of that advice."

Kahr and Sig looked up now, one protesting, "Miang might object," and the other, "Who needs a wife?"

"You thinking about settling down now, Hyu?" Jesse chuckled. "I might still be living the free life if not for Billy, that brat. No sense of timing."

The free life in name only, Hyuga was sure of it. He belonged to Raquel as surely as the guns on the wall belonged to him; perhaps it was the birth of their child that had brought the two together in such a noteworthy way, more so than they may have been before, but there was that rightness to them. They were strongest together.

"I was only thinking," he excused himself with a smile. "Planning ahead, shall we say, for when she becomes a widow."

It was a late night that evening, up at Jesiah's house and talking dry politics, but Hyuga enjoyed himself, and it seemed like hardly any time had passed when the sky was dark below the city and the searing brilliance of neon lights created an artificial day for the Solarians. It was unmistakable as night even in the brightness; there was a quiet in the air that could not be replicated, nor drowned out by humming machines. Raquel walked past, yawning, as her guests shrugged into their coats, and waved idly as she headed upstairs, too tired to bother pretending to be the proper hostess. Jesse stopped Hyuga before he could leave, a hand gripping his elbow like steel while the other pair moved on, wrapped up in playful argument.

"Something the matter, Hyu?" he asked, gruff voice quiet. "I know you never like to let on what you're really thinking." His lopsided smile was inviting, like a whisper of a secret.

It was disconcerting, to be seen through so easily, and then confronted: Kahr and Sigurd were private enough to let his missteps slide, since he provided them the same courtesy. After an uncomfortable moment, Hyuga said only, "I wonder sometimes... I've never met a woman who I'd be content to be with the way you are with Raquel, to raise children with... Is it fate, inevitable, or can you go your whole life without meeting such a match? Perhaps I've only not made that connection, it could be something that cannot be recognized right away..."

His mind was whirling. Sciences were second nature to him, facts and elements that could be lined up and concluded from, but such human vagaries were the realm of philosophy, and fascinating to dwell on, but never truly to be learned. Ever out of reach, he thought in poetic moments, even when it seemed that you might be just about to touch them...

Jesse's smile was broader now. "Ahh, you still have a long way to go, boy. When you're older, we'll laugh at this conversation."

"But--" he protested, bristling slightly.

"You'll learn," Jesiah pronounced, from his infinite vantage of five years. "You're good at picking up on things, and this is something even an idiot like me can do right."


Yui was unsurprised when Hyuga insisted on going to meet the sage on his own feet, rather than having the man visit him in his infirm state. It was important to him that they meet as near-equals, and perhaps she sympathized.

Still, it did delay the meeting, and he had an uncomfortably long time to think about the idea while he recovered his mobility. Yui stayed in a corner of the room, seated, and watched him -- wary still, unwilling to put herself at a disadvantage, but her presence alone felt like a crutch to lean on. If she had truly been suspicious of him, she would not have been there, or would not have allowed him this freedom.

"It was actually my choice not to kill you then," she volunteered after he had lowered himself to the cot again. It was the first they had spoken of that battle.

Hyuga hesitated a moment, then said, "I am somewhat surprised. I can't imagine anyone would have criticized you for finishing the leader of the Solaris invasion." He knew that in Solaris there would have been parades in her honor if she had been their champion, single-handedly defeating the enemy commander. Medals would pile up on her mantle.

She tilted her head thoughtfully. It was a simple beauty that she had, not the light of ornaments and cosmetics that so many women in Solaris maintained. "No one," she agreed, "or perhaps not just anyone. I wonder what my grandfather would have said." Her green eyes met his on an odd angle. "He was the one who suggested that I tend you myself."

Ah, Hyuga thought. Then I owe him more than one thanks.

.

Somehow Hyuga had been left alone with Miang, and he couldn't help thinking that it was a mistake. She had a smug smile on her face that told him that she was all too aware of his private displeasure. He studied his paperwork and she sipped at her tea and the silence stretched from patient into predatory.

Miang might have noticed despite his efforts at behaving casually around her, but, inconveniently, Kahr had not noticed. With Jesse there was nothing to notice; he didn't seem to mind her one way or the other, and when the others had complained, would only chuckle to himself that she had attached herself to the right man if she hoped for power. Hyuga had always sought to mimic his composure, but the truth was that he more sympathized with Sigurd.

Kahr had noticed Sigurd's quiet but intense dislike, and had even once or twice tried to pry reasons out of him. But all that Sigurd had ever managed to express was that she didn't feel right. That was a pity, or so Hyuga had thought; Kahr's nature was such that if his close friend had offered him a solid reason, a tangible reason for opposing her, Hyuga suspected he would have left her. But "a feeling" was not real enough for Kahr, who had no such sensation, despite how powerfully it moved one of his close friends.

For his part, Hyuga agreed. Although she was pleasant and seemed sincere, he couldn't help thinking when they were alone that she knew and understood much more than she should have -- and knowing and understanding lends itself to planning. If Kahr did not realize the depth of her potential, she could make herself dangerous to him.

The silence erupted into quiet words. Miang said, "It's really a shame about Sigurd."

For a paranoid moment he wondered if she had chased him away somehow, the better to influence Kahr, but reason quickly reasserted itself: Sigurd was gone, and her lover broken-hearted by that perceived abandonment.

"I feel sorry for Kahr," he admitted. "But I think perhaps it's less of a shame... If even the brainwashing did not wipe away fully his memories of the world below, perhaps he has gone someplace where he would be happier than he ever could be here."

He didn't dare say too much, lest she suspect and relate back to Kahr that he knew more about the situation than he was telling.

Fortunately, Miang did not seem interested in pursuing the topic of Sigurd. "He's so loyal," she said, of Kahr. "I don't think there's anything he wouldn't do for his friends. But perhaps it is better this way, as you suggest. After all, now he no longer has to juggle a girlfriend with the disapproval of... his best friend."

It was impossible to disagree with anything she had said, but it brought the world into focus around Hyuga; it was a subtle dig at him, that with only a plural there she could have been closer to the truth, and now it was his to talk around. "I'm not surprised you feel that way," he said. "But Kahr has proven himself strong enough to deal with that weight. He never mistreated you."

"No, but a girl knows."

"I beg pardon?" he said politely. Hyuga had the utmost respect for women, but he wasn't sure he believed in 'feminine intuition'.

Miang smiled, just as if she knew his thoughts. "I know when someone's holding back from me. Kahr's concern for the opinions of his friends has been much on his mind lately," she said, with a gentle shrug. "Women can recognize when they're being lied to by the ones close to them."

"How romantic."

"It's no romanticism," she said, serious. But her eyes were laughing at him. "Every human being has the ability to see where their path in life is taking them, and react to it as they choose... We call that ability instinct."

"An instinct is a biological drive shaped by necessity that sets a behavior standard." He was himself amused by the conversation now. Perhaps if he had spoken to her like this, his worries would have been settled. He would never have imagined Miang to be so whimsical -- Kahr hated such meaningless talk.

"Or an impulse, originating from feeling and not logic." She tapped her fingers against the table. "That's why it's usually the domain of women and not men. Men need to have reasons for everything, they need that logic. Most women are not so afraid to do something they can't explain... if their emotions tell them it is right."

She was preying on him somehow, and he couldn't quite pinpoint it. He retaliated with a smooth, "Do your emotions tell you that it is right to offer Kahr your support so completely, when you must have realized from his reaction to Sigurd's departure that he doesn't know how to stand on his own?"

Miang smiled. Yes, he thought. She was on the hunt.


It was a mark of how far they'd come that when she came to him that day, she offered him his sword without any words.

The gesture stunned Hyuga into silence. Knowing that he was near fully-recovered, knowing that she would take him before one of Shevat's greatest minds and her own grandfather... Her expression was neutral, letting him make his own choice. For a moment he wished he knew her real motives, what response would be correct in her eyes, but he thought in the next moment that there didn't need to be a real motive.

It could just be that she wanted him to have the choice.

He shook his head, and gently pressed the weapon back into her arms. "Hold onto it for me," he told her. He would go to Gaspar as a warrior, but not a killer.

When he was alone with Gaspar he thought of all the many things that they could have discussed: the history that the sage had lived through, the politics that they both played so finely, the technical and scientific arts that they both sought to achieve mastery over. Only he kept thinking of Yui, sharp and elegant, a blade sheathed in velvet.

"I'm impressed," the old man said suddenly. "You've lasted weeks with no contact from your masters in Solaris. Yet you neither hold yourself our enemy nor seek to ingratiate yourself as an ally. One might almost think that you were improvising your own orders."

"I am not a puppet," said Hyuga. "I do not collapse when my strings are cut."

I am responsible for my own choices. He realized it scarcely a breath after telling Gaspar exactly that; it had never really meant anything before.

Without knowing, he had approached a choice.

.

Enough Solarians had advised him not to wear glasses on the invasion into Shevat that he had decided to humor them, at least on the surface. Your records indicate that you can see with functional clarity without them, they said, and weak eyes are such... Third-Class material. Try to represent us with a little more pride, if you're to lead this invasion.

He thought it might be pretty funny if word got back to the officers that he had dulled his sword attacking statues, so he very obediently left his glasses in a pocket of his uniform on the strike force.

Shevat was curiously bright, colors of cream and silver and vivid green blurring gently into each other in his vision. It had pleasant natural scents in the city center, Aphel Aura, that he had never associated with Etrenank except in the wealthiest of the First-Class zones. Somehow the Shevites had managed to incorporate grass and trees and running water into their floating city -- Hyuga wondered if the Solarians had willfully avoided such things, thinking them too base, too dirty, too unrefined for their populace.

Hyuga had always wanted a little potted plant for his desk, but he had never been allowed.

"Sir, your orders?"

"Torch what you can and disable all the hardware you can find," he said. "The army will be regrouping soon."

The red of fire and electrical sparks had begun to creep into his vision by the time the second wave of Shevat's army reached them, but this time their strategy was notably different from the first time. He saw the wave of soldiers crash into his lines and saw the dueling line of cream and gray waver in strange places, moving in strange ways, and he realized that they were manipulating his forces. For whatever reason, they wanted the Solarians not away from the city, but further within it.

Hyuga opened his mouth to call out his orders, and closed it again. There was a shadow in front of him, blocking the view of the raging forces. It was very still and did not move, and it was a person -- a woman, that voice that came to him out of the blended world.

"Raise your weapon," she said in his language.

He put on his glasses, and the world leapt into focus.

He had been expecting a woman like one of his instructors at Jugend, older and experienced, but was shocked to discover that the woman before him was of his own generation, and younger. She was little more than a girl, clad all in black, smothered by it -- the stark color made her seem waifish. Her hands and face were white, thick hair braided behind her.

"You're going to fight me?" Hyuga began, and then caught side of the blade in her hands, wielded with expert care and the familiarity of long practice. It brought him back oddly to his own childhood, when his grandfather had first shown him the way of the sword. "Are you a soldier?"

"No."

"Then don't do this. It's safer," he suggested gently, "if you don't get involved where you don't belong. Go to the palace. They are taking in civilians, aren't they?"

She said nothing, seemed to have no interest in talking. She was only waiting for him to lift his sword to her.

Not a soldier... but certainly no civilian. A quick glance around confirmed his suspicion; he had been isolated from his forces, with all the fighting in his surrounding area being Shevites driving his fellow Solarians further away.

A champion? This girl could be dangerous, if she has been appointed so young for the same reason he had been: sheer undeniable competence.

"If you do not raise your weapon," she began again, but he swept into movement, darting across the space between them and bringing his sword to bear before she could get out another word. With liquid grace she sank into a crouch and brought up her own blade to block him, the whole strength of her body brought to bear against the weight of his.

Dangerous. Her skill was undeniable even from that simple motion. Shevat's champion was not a part of the established plan. He would have to make the best of it.

Battle was not something that Hyuga delighted in the way he knew some others did, but as he stepped back warily and they both sank into ready positions, he began to look forward to seeing the girl in motion.


"Have you tried Yui's cooking?" Gaspar told him cheerfully before he left. "She's marvelous."

As if having anticipated the suggestion, she was already preparing dinner upstairs in the kitchen when Hyuga found her. She asked him how his visit had been and he made the appropriate comments, but he found that he didn't want to say too much. There had been a lot of talk about Solaris and Shevat, and he hated the steel that came into her eyes whenever she was reminded of his home country.

It would have been easy to leave -- there were no locks on the doors in Shevat, remnant of some more innocent time, and no guards stood watch over him. He was in Shevite clothes; no one would notice if he simply walked out. Yui was preoccupied with the finishing touches on her meal, and paid him no heed as he wandered through her grandfather's apartments.

The dining table was set with candles, unlit still, waiting for the meal. He touched one with hesitant fingers and thought about what Cain would want him to do, but he found no easy answer. He was not privy to the Emperor's thoughts, only his choices.

Hyuga turned instinctively when he sensed Yui's approach. The young woman stood in the archway and told him, "Dinner is ready. Can you help me bring in the meal?"

Gaspar did not join them, although they ate in his home. The glow of the candles gave a soft light to everything, and again they managed to avoid the topic of politics as they conversed. Hyuga discovered that the sage had been correct, and that he couldn't remember the last time he had eaten a more savory meal.

"I didn't know you could do something with carrots to make them interesting," he told her, "but I would like a third serving." Yui chuckled and gave him another helping, and the carrots melted with warm sweetness on his tongue.

The whole evening had a surreal sense of normalcy to it, as if it were something that he could have, should have gotten used to, but somehow he had never experienced it before. Maybe that was why it was so easy. He had recognized that he had a choice to make, and he had pretended to give a great deal of thought to it as he waited for this moment, but he had known all along what he would inevitably choose.

Hyuga offered mildly, "Although I couldn't imagine a dinner to top this one, and I can't in all honesty recommend my own cooking... I would love to take you to repay the favor sometime."

For a moment Yui devoted herself to straightening the silverware beside her plate. Then she sat straighter, and smiled at him, and said, "Please do."

That night when she took him back to his room, he kissed her, having been given tacit permission. She filled all his senses, layer upon layer, and for the first time in his life Hyuga thought that if he died without knowing everything he could know, he would still be content.

A year later they were married: he in black, and she in white, with two swords belted at her hips.