PROLOGUE

When the Himalayan peasant meets the he-bear in his pride,
He shouts to scare the monster who will often turn aside.
But the she-bear thus accosted rends the peasant tooth and nail.
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

When Nag, the wayside cobra, hears the careless foot of man,
He will sometimes wriggle sideways and avoid it if he can,
But his mate makes no such motion where she camps beside the trail-
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

When the early Jesuit father's preached to Hurons and Choctaws,
They prayed to be delivered from the vengeance of the squaws-

'Twas the women, not the warriors, turned those stark enthusiasts pale-
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

Man's timid heart is bursting with the things he must not say,
For the Woman that God gave him isn't his to give away;
But when hunter meets with husband, each confirms the others tale-
The female of the species is more deadly than the male.

Man, a bear in most relations, worm and savage otherwise,
Man propounds negotiations, Man accepts the compromise;
Very rarely will he squarely push the logic of a fact
To its ultimate conclusion in unmitigated act.

Fear, or foolishness, impels him, ere he lay the wicked low,
To concede some form of trial even to his fiercest foe.
Mirth obscene diverts his anger; Doubt and Pity oft perplex
Him in dealing with an issue-to the scandal of the Sex!

But the Woman that God gave him, every fiber of her frame
Proves her launched for one sole issue, armed and engined for the same,
And to serve that single issue, lest the generations fail,
The female of the species must be deadlier than the male.

She who faces Death by torture for each life beneath her breast
May not deal in doubt or pity-must not swerve for fact or jest.
These be purely male diversions-not in these her honour dwells-
She, the Other Law we live by, is that Law and nothing else!

She can bring no more to living than the powers that make her great
As the Mother of the Infant and the Mistress of the Mate;
And when Babe and Man are lacking and she strides unclaimed to claim
Her right as femme (and baron), her equipment is the same.

She is wedded to convictions-in default of grosser ties;
Her contentions are her children. Heaven help him, who denies!
He will meet no cool discussion, but the instant, white-hot, wild
Wakened female of the species warring as for spouse and child.

Unprovoked and awful charges-even so the she-bear fights;
Speech that drips, corrodes and poisons-even so the cobra bites;
Scientific vivisection of one nerve till it is raw,
And the victim writhes in anguish-like the Jesuit with the squaw!

So it comes that Man, the coward, when he gathers to confer
With his fellow-braves in council, dare not leave a place for her
Where, at war with Life and Conscience, he uplifts his erring hands
To some God of Abstract Justice-which no woman understands.

And Man knows it! Knows, moreover, that the Woman that God gave him
Must command but may not govern; shall enthrall but not enslave him.
And She knows, because She warns him and Her instincts never fail,
That the female of Her species is more deadly than the male!

Poem: "The Female Of The Species"
Author: Rudyard Kipling

ACT 1 - FRIDAY AFTERNOON

It's 'bout as bad as it could be
Seems everybody's buggin' me
Like nothing wants to go my way –
Yeah, it just ain't been my day
Nothin's comin' easily

Even my skin is acting weird
I wish that I could grow a beard
Then I could cover up my spots
Not play connect the dots
I just wanna disappear

Up–up–up–
Can only go up from here
Up–up–up–Up
Where the clouds gonna clear
Up–up–up–
There's no way but up from here

Even something as simple as
Forgettin' to fill up on gas
There ain't no explanation why –
Things like that can make you cry
Just gotta learn to have a laugh

Up–up–up–
Can only go up from here
Up–up–up–Up
Where the clouds gonna clear
Up–up–up–
There's no way but up from here

Oh yeah, yeah, yeah...
When everything is goin' wrong
Don't worry, it won't last for long
Yeah, it's all gonna come around
Don't go let it get you down
You gotta keep on holding on

It's 'bout as bad as it could be
Seems everybody's buggin' me
Like nothing want to go my way —
Yeah, it just ain't been my day
Nothin's comin' easily

Up–up–up–
Can only go up from here
Up–up–up–Up
Where the clouds gonna clear
Up–up–up–
There's no way but up from here

Oh – I'm going up
Oh – I'm going up
Oh – I'm going up
Oh – I'm going up

Oh yeah, yeah, yeah...

Title: "Up!"
Artist: Shania Twain

Seina Yamada sat in the command chair of the Kamidake II, watching the stars of psuedospace streaking across the main viewer. While not quite as enthralling as looking at the stars directly (in realspace), it was still a semi-hypnotic image. And it reminded him of the snowflakes of home, racing past a speeding car's windshield.

Home, of course, was many light years away. He had not seen Earth in two months, on the occasion of his wedding. And even then, he hadn't gotten to spend any time dirtside — the ceremony and the surrounding events had been much too chaotic. What with Tarant's attempt to murder him, the preparations to marry his four crewmates, and then the foreign entourage that kidnapped and publicly seduced him (all in the name of showing their devotion and desperate need)...

"You're awful quiet, Dear," Kiriko said. Of the eight women present, all wearing Galaxy Police uniforms, she was the senior officer — and the oldest, and the one who had known him the longest. Only Seina himself outranked her. "Thinking about the next few days?"

"No," he shrugged, "just daydreaming. If I think about the next few days, I'm liable to get nervous about it."

"You'll do just fine," she smiled. "We have the greatest confidence in you, and are extremely proud of you."

"Absolutely!" Amane said, rotating her seat to look at him. "Just imagine: a knighthood!"

"And sponsored by the Emperor himself!" Hakuren added, her seat pivoting around. "Oh, Seina, it's just so wonderful!"

Seina shrugged, blushing. "You ladies had as much to do with it as I did," he replied.

"No, we didn't," Ryoko countered. "It was your talent, and your luck, and your destiny, that made it possible."

We are just happy to have been a part of it," Suiren said. To that, all of Seina's wives nodded in agreement, their smiles radiant.

There was an audible tone, and a blinking indicator on Neeju's holographic console. She tapped a key and a corresponding transparent graphic appeared above her. "We have an in-coming message on the JSTC standard frequency."

"Pipe it through," Seina replied.

A large pane appeared next to the main viewer. The middle-aged woman looking at them appeared rather bored, lulled into monotony by routine. "This is Juraian Space Traffic Control, please identify yourself."

"This is Galaxy Police cruiser Kamidake II," Neeju replied. "We are providing escort for the transport vessel Barnidad."

"Roger that, Kamidake II. Final destination?"

"GP space dock facilities on Jurai's largest moon."

"Acknowledged. Prepare to receive coordinates for the in-bound flight corridor."

"Roger, JSTC. We will relay the coordinates to the Barnidad."

"Affirmative. Over and out." The connection terminated and the pane disappeared. Neeju's fingers danced across her console. At the same time, Amane tapped keys on her ethereal console, and the main viewer flickered, the bow view being replaced by the image of the dirigible-shaped vessel sailing alongside. "Coordinates received. ETA four minutes to breakout, fourteen hours to lunar orbit."

"Confirmed," Neeju replied.

"Thank you," Seina said. When they chose to be, his crew was efficient and coordinated. Like now. As a consequence, Seina's Bridge Bunnies were surprisingly serene.

There was only a modest vibration throughout the cruiser, and light streaks on the main viewer contracting into points around the Barnidad, to show that both ships had dropped back into reality.

"Breakout complete," Kiriko announced, following SOP (no matter how obvious it was).

"Where's the JSTC perimeter complex?" Hakuren asked.

"Hang on a second," Ryoko replied. Her fingers tickled the shadow keys on her console, and yet another pane appeared. This one showed the collection of hollow asteroids and man-made structures that comprised the nearest skyharbor. The skyharbors were a picket line of massive space stations denoting the sphere around Jurai's sun that marked the optimum jump point into psuedospace. They served as JSTC routing centers, warehousing space for the deep space tramps, and the first line of defense for Homeworld. Hundreds of starships could be seen phasing in and out of realspace on the farside of the structure, and a steady stream of shuttles could be seen climbing up (or sliding down) the gravity well from in-system. Thousands of vessels orbited in temporary constellations.

"We've been assigned to a pretty congested corridor," Amane sighed, watching the complex slide past. "No wonder it will take so long to get there."

"You're just in a hurry."

"Yep. I want to see our husband knighted!"

##########

Minister Syuuzen Amaki cleared his throat. "Could you please explain my presence here?" He sat on the lone hoverchair on his side of the table. Around him stood uniformed guards with automatic beam rifles slung low and ready. Across the table sat three women: Commander Kiyone Qualston, Juraian Internal Security; Former Empress Funaho Masaki, the Director of Juraian Internal Security; and Lady Seto Kamiki, Plenipotentiary of the Juraian Crown. The former wore a hostile expression, the latter two remained impassive.

"We have compiled enough evidence to charge you with murder and treason, Minister," Funaho replied.

"You can't be serious."

"I'm afraid I am serious. If found guilty, you will be publicly executed."

"Shouldn't I have a lawyer present?"

"You will be given that opportunity at your trial, along with copies of all of the evidence. This preliminary meeting is a courtesy due to your rank."

"Yes," Seto said evenly, "it isn't every day that a member of the Emperor's Privy Council is charged with a capital offense."

Syuuzen looked around the room. Funaho's office was impressive for its austerity: simple furniture, sumptuous carpets and draperies, a view of the palace grounds through her expansive windows. The guards, of course, were a temporary fixture. "Very well, what evidence do you offer to support such allegations?"

"We do not have to reveal the full details at this point, Minister," Funaho replied. "But we will disclose the broader aspects, because your immediate confession would save everyone a great deal of time, expense and scandal."

"I'm sure it would." He leaned back and crossed his arms, the very picture of obstinate innocence.

Funaho sighed and gestured to Kiyone. The latter rose from her chair, lifting the datapad that had been resting on the table before her.

"Approximately three months ago, six individuals boarded Juraian Air Services Flight 1033, a commuter shuttle in-bound to the capitol air transport complex from the Taketomi orbital resort center. These individuals were all affiliated with the on-going Naval construction contract for building and installing the new Masaki drive into elements of the home fleet. This group consisted of: Kazoyoshi Funaki, chief operating officer of Steelcraft Ship Systems and executive vice president of Steelcraft Industries, Ltd.; his secretary, G'Losa ven-Kadi; Rostex Blohgett and Jame'Wa Okabe, both attorneys for Steelcraft; Wil Thon Xur, President and CEO, Maccoon Organotronics, Ltd.; and Masahiko Harada, Maccoon's principal corporate attorney

"This was a belligerent group determined to confront you personally, Lord Syuuzen. They had uncovered documents showing that you, as Minister of Justice, had dropped anti-trust charges against a rival consortium — Crediheero Consolidated — after a massive bribe had been paid."

"Oh, come now..." Syuuzen started.

Kiyone ignored the interruption. "Their documentation showed that less than a week after your office dropped the charges against Crediheero, you, through a law partner as nominee, received a generous stock interest in Crediheero. A very generous stock interest. Such a move violates the conflict of interests statutes, and is patently illegal." She paused, waiting for his reaction. He simply snorted in disgust. "Once unfettered, Crediheero was then able to ace-out the Steelcraft/Maccoon alliance for the naval contract. That was an immediate loss of some 380 million credits. Of more importance, though, was the loss of the anticipated long-term revenue; the propulsion system, once commercialized, was projected to grow to anywhere between two and four billion credits over then next ten years."

"What possible concern would Juraian Internal Security have with what is obviously a domestic commercial matter?" Syuuzen asked, stifling a yawn.

"While the involvement of a Naval contractor by itself could raise this to a national security issue," Kiyone replied, "it simply doesn't end there. While researching the bribery activities, Okabe stumbled across evidence that you were selling the plans for the engine, along with other classified military information, to the Ascenn'an Autocracy — one of Jurai's less savory neighbors. Okabe managed to locate five witnesses, and he had their identities and the evidence in a locked briefcase aboard the shuttle. The last thing he told his wife before his departure was that he carried files of a highly sensitive nature, and gave her instructions where to locate copies if anything happened to him.

"Also on Flight 1033 was Kanrisisko Vorunto, JNS Network reporter, who had been instrumental in tracking down the witnesses — in exchange for an exclusive story. She left notes behind, too, and her assumption was that the representatives of the two firms were going to attempt to blackmail you into renegotiating the naval contract. Ms. Vorunto had lots of insight into the nature of corporate dirty tricks through her fiancée, one of our senior-level operatives. She was a savvy reporter with a track record for uncovering corruption in high places.

"Also on the plane were five union executives, returning from the Juraian Lobbyists Association annual convention. And who, by sheerest happenstance, had just recently beaten racketeering charges by members of your ministry.

"And the last passenger on the plane was one Ramiss Poressan, purported to be a narcotics officer with the Drug Abuse Law Enforcement Agency. He informed the pilot that he was packing a gun, and so was assigned a seat near the rear door of the plane.

"Flight 1033 was released from the orbital complex at 9:44 AM local time, with an ETA of 14:08PM. Juraian space traffic control logs report no unusual activity during reentry, when they exited JSTC jurisdiction and were acquired by Edizon Control Tower.

"Flight 1033 never made it."

##########

The Barnidad was a unique vessel in that it was one large container; its usual cargo consisted of entire vessels (yachts, shuttles, etc.). It was heavily reinforced, and its internal support system could be configured to brace virtually any shaped vehicle imaginable.

The current payload was undoubtedly the most radically distinctive cargo it had ever transported: Seina's mecha unit. Humanoid in shape, massive in scale, it lay supine and motionless on the deck of the hold, to all outward appearances inactive. It had seen very little activity over the course of its eons-long existence, designed and built by a race long since instinct. At some point in its more-recent past, someone had removed the original power source and replaced it with a sophisticated organic-based reactor — whose power source was a fist-sized seed. A sentient, highly intelligent seed. One who (like the robot conveyor) had been dormant for most of its long life, and had agreed to the implantation simply to gain maneuverability. Sadly, it had been buried in a cave shortly afterward and allowed to relapse back into a comatose state. For nearly 18,000 years, it lay idle and forgotten...until an Earthling boy with tremendous Power attributes disturbed its slumber. Lonely, confused, and sensing danger, the seed had bonded with the human. Now fully roused from its torpidity, the seed and its human Companion had lashed out with unprecedented destruction, crumpling a pirate fleet and rescuing its victims.

For the first time in thousands of years, the seed was mobile again.

Even more exciting, the seed had learned of its heritage. There were others of its kind, who had been nurtured and guided into full maturity. Long-lived and powerful, these space-roving organisms had willingly formed symbiotic bonds to other humans, those with attributes similar to the boy...the boy named Seina.

And now Seina was taking the seed to meet those others, and the one who had borne it: the Genesis Tree, Tsunami.

Kiyone continued to read from her datapad: "Your ministry's own published accounts of subsequent events, extracted from the shift log taken from the spaceport tower, show that Flight 1033 initiated a series of random maneuvers approximately fifteen kilometers away from the spaceport tarmac. The ground controllers assumed the aircraft was in distress and attempted to contact the crew. There was no response. During this time, Flight 1033's flight recorder (located in the tail of the aircraft) ceased to function, but just before complete shutdown it recorded a wide variance in on-board power levels. It is probably safe to say the plane's automated instrumentation was completely useless, and that the pilots would have gone to manual operation. Even though she would have been coming in dark, Flight 1033 had sufficient altitude that the aircrew would have had time to take corrective action. They did not. Consequently, the aircraft plummeted into a residential neighborhood just west of the concrete apron, killing everyone on-board and injuring 43 people on the ground.

"Within one week of the crash, Chairman Aliannah Boresch, of the Planetary Transportation Safety Administration, sent a letter to your office stating that (a) never in living memory had the Ministry of Justice acted as it did in the Flight 1033 crash: 50 MOJ agents came into the crash zone only minutes after impact; (b) one MOJ agent proceeded into Edizon Control Tower and removed the sensor logs relating to Flight 1033, without asking permission; and (c) before the PTSA investigation could do so, the MOJ conducted 26 interviews, including witnesses and shuttle maintenance crews. The MOJ interviews were completed within 20 hours of the crash.

"Here is a statement from one of the on-site emergency medical technicians: 'Look, I drive an ambulance for one of the hospitals. On the afternoon of the crash, I was one of the first drivers dispatched to the site. I was on a mission of mercy and these thugs in dark suits stopped me from entering the area. There were a couple dozen of them — and they refused to show me any credentials. Friends of mine in the fire and police departments told me that they, too, were prevented from approaching the wreckage — which was still burning. These apparent government types were on location before either the fire department or the police.'

"In another interview, a police officer stated: 'I was told to assemble my squad in Parchuette Park which is several blocks away from where the plane crashed. We were forbidden by our brass from approaching the crash site. Nobody explained to us how and why the MOJ was able to keep us out of the crash site. The shuttle was smoldering, and we had reports of residents still trapped in the rubble of their houses. The higher-ups said it was upon orders of the Ministry of Justice and the Palace. The words State Security were used.'

"And this statement from a sanitation employee of the Southside Municipal Landfill: 'The day after the crash, parts of the fuselage were brought here and buried. The orders came from downtown. Someone high on the food chain wanted certain parts of that plane put in a deep hole real damn quick.'"

Minister Syuuzen appeared to be staring out the window, bored and unconcerned. Kiyone looked at her boss, who indicated that she continue.

"ITEM: One day after the crash, your former aide Cristovao Kroka was appointed Undersecretary of Transportation, supervising the PTSA — the agency responsible for investigating the crash of Flight 1033.

"ITEM: Two days after the crash, Pauo Vhuatin, your former appointment secretary, became a top executive of Juraian Air Services. Vhuatin reportedly had no prior business experience. At the original PTSA crash hearings, he reportedly threatened media people with reprisals if they mentioned sabotage. And even before the crash, your personal attorney, Kano Masanobu, was the lawyer for Juraian Air Services and Kawafune Corp., which at the time retained the in-flight food catering concession."

"ITEM: Three days after the crash, Ms. Vorunto's employer, JNS Network News, ordered and demanded that her remains be cremated by the local mortician handling the matter — against the express wishes of her family. Later, the mortician was murdered in his business establishment, still an unsolved crime."

"That is an impressive array of coincidences and circumstantial evidence," Syuuzen scoffed.

"Yes, isn't it," Kiyone smiled, a glacial rictus that silenced the Minister's bluster. "May I continue?"

Szyuuzen snorted, returning his gaze to the window.

"Once Ms. Vorunto's grieving fiancée started going through her personal affects, he recovered her notes. This made him very suspicious, so he talked with Mr. Okabe's widow. Thoroughly enraged by now, he passed the information up through official channels. That is when we began looking into the allegations of espionage, particularly the missing witnesses. And the background of Officer Poressan."

"Excuse me, Kiyone. Minister, would you like some refreshment? You look a bit parched." Lady Funaho waited for his nod, and summoned her secretary. During the following silence, she studied the man intently, particularly his eyes, his posture, and the minute beads of sweat dappling his forehead. She glanced over at Seto, who had been performing the same exercise. Both raised an eyebrow and nodded. "Thank you, Mah Rrost-ah."

Kiyone waited for the secretary to leave, before returning to her notes. "Mr. Okabe's briefcase was not recovered from the crash site. It has disappeared...as have the five witnesses he located. And as for the late Officer Poressan, it turns out he is a phony. There is no employee by that name in the Drug Abuse Law Enforcement Agency. But DALE management is now very interested in this case, because they take great offense when someone purports to be one of theirs. We have been unable to backtrack the movements of Officer Poressan. He has no valid identification, no records, nothing. That is extremely suspicious behavior...unless you're a professional assassin or terrorist."

"That's a supposition!" Syuuzen snapped.

"Quite correct," Kiyone shrugged. "But an accurate one. You can be very sure we are spreading our net wide, Minister. We were able to scrape enough of his remains together for a tissue sample. We will identify him."

Syuuzen sipped his drink.

"Of course, we do have other methods." Kiyone tapped her communicator. "Mah Rrost-ah? Would you ask our visitor to come in, please?"

##########

The Corral was a moon-sized volume of space whose boundary was marked with flashing buoys and broadcasting beacons. Its location was a Lagrangian point of gravitational balance between the planet Jurai and its moons. Its purpose was to serve as a gathering place for the Royal Trees, feeding on sunlight and patiently waiting for interesting events to unfold among their human Companions. Its present occupants consisted of Tsunami, Funaho, Karin, Mizuho, Mikagami, Ryu-oh, and the ten trees assigned to the Sentinel Squadron, led by Sumikenki.

The trees spent the bulk of their time meditating, or singing among themselves much as their ground-bound ancestors once had. They were a patient species, very ponderous of thought, very deliberate in their actions. They took great delight watching their human Companions, amused by the hustle and bustle of such a short-lived species. That the humans sought their help, involving them in their internal struggles, was just as diverting. On the whole, they enjoyed their lives immensely.

And Tsunami was very pleased with the arrangement. The mind that enclosed the Genesis Tree was vast, spread far beyond the confines of the Corral. Such a mind moved on many levels, considering a variety of problems and experiences. The entity had merged with the human-designed arboreal experiment nearly 20,000 years earlier, paving the way for communication between the participants. Tsunami had been manipulating events among the humans carefully for many generations, including the continuation of the Tree project. The Genesis Tree had produced many seeds over time, but few had survived. And of those, most had been dispersed among the humans, and lost; only those kept here, under the watchful eyes of the Juraian botanists, had successfully survived to maturity.

Progress had been slow and steady, but gaining momentum. Recent events had been very successful indeed. And sometimes, Fate rewarded the entity for its perseverance and patience, presenting Tsunami with a gift — such as the return of a prodigal seed.

##########

Funaho's office door slid open, and a middle-aged woman entered carrying a package. She bowed, her turquoise-colored locks sweeping across her face like a curtain. A gold chain swung outwards from her beasts, its glint causing Syuuzen to glance at it. He recognized the attached medallion and growled. "You can't use a telepath on me without a court order!"

"Well, you are partially correct, Minister," Funaho replied. "The law does require a court order and the cooperation of the accused. But the law also states that the Crown may order the examination — with or without the consent of the accused."

"Do you honestly think that His Majesty will hesitate to do so, considering the facts?" Seto's face was seemingly immobile, matching her expressionless voice. "Knowing him as I do, he's just as liable to scan you himself."

"Now, see here — !"

"Calm yourself, Minister," Funaho interrupted. "Ms. Boletadaviev is not a telepath, she's a psychometrist."

"Eh? A what?"

"A psychometrist. She is able to acquire details about an object's past by merely touching it. You will find she is a Master Class Power Adept with an impeccable record. My department has used her services many times in the past, and we are most grateful for her assistance."

Syuuzen struggled into silence. His lips were pursed and his brows were furrowed — clear signs of intense calculation.

"Ms. Boletadaviev, what information were you able to gather?"

She set the package on the table in front of Funaho. "You were correct, Your Majesty. The organic residue did, indeed, belong to Officer Poressan."

"What is that?" Syuuzen asked, nodding towards the package.

"It is a partially burned jumpsuit, Minister," Kiyone answered. "The type is popular among skydivers and aerial enthusiasts. Quite common, really...but rather unexplainable, since it was found among the wreckage of Flight 1033."

"I don't understand."

"Fragments of the shuttle were spread over a four-block area, mostly structural remains of the aircraft. The bodies (well, what was left of them) were confined to a 40-meter square location. The aircrew certainly didn't carry such a jumpsuit aboard, and it seems unlikely for passengers in an orbital facility to be carrying one in their luggage."

"Humph. Then it must belong to one of the residents in the crash site."

"We considered that, too, Minister. But we were able to rule-out that possibility because the plane crashed in a retirement community. Not one resident of any of the shattered homes is physically capable of participating in such sports. It's lucky most of them were at the community center for their daily activities, or the death toll would have been much higher."

Syuuzen squirmed. "So what are you saying?"

"Well, we couldn't account for it, so we asked Ms. Boletadaviev to examine it. Ms. Boletadaviev?"

"As I said, it belonged to the DALE officer."

"Alleged DALE officer," Kiyone corrected.

"Of course," the adept replied. "At any rate, the gentleman who last wore it experienced two over-riding emotions in the last few moments before its destruction."

"And those would be...?"

"A very savage elation, followed by a very profound horror."

"Can you elaborate a bit?"

"The man was a hunter, and he had been firing his handgun almost continuously. He was shooting at electronic components and people."

"Maybe it's just a stretch of the imagination, but could he have possibly destroyed the plane's computers before killing the passengers and crew?"

"That would fit my impressions."

"Now you're drawing conclusions from insufficient evidence!" Syuuzen snarled.

"Perhaps," Kiyone shrugged. "And the second emotion; horror, wasn't it?"

"Yes."

"Caused by what?"

"This piece of fabric had been in contact with a harness, attached to some kind of mechanical device."

"A mechanical device, like a parachute or a vari-gee floater?"

"Yes. It was large and bulky. And while strapping it on, the gentleman discovered that the device had been tampered with, so that it no longer functioned. He was in a great deal of anguish, and kept repeating the phrase, 'double cut-out.'"

"And what does that mean?" the Minister demanded.

"It's an espionage term for an assassin who is eliminated at the same time as his target, generally by his employer. An occupational hazard," Kiyone grinned.

"Well, that certainly provides several leads," Funaho said. "Thank you, Ms. Boletadaviev. Once again, your services have been timely and deeply appreciated."

"Always a pleasure, Your Majesty." The adept bowed to Funaho, then to Seto, and exchanged nods with Kiyone, before leaving quietly. The jumpsuit fragment lay on the table, only a meter away from the sweating Minister.

"You still haven't explained the — " Syuuzen began.

"Charge of treason?" Kiyone finished the question for him. "Just be patient."

"My patience is wearing thin, Commander Qualston. The accusation of treason is extremely serious; It must be heavily documented, and the burden of proof lies with the State."

"Indeed," Kiyone replied. "We have compiled a substantial dossier on you, Minister Syuuzen. Obviously, we cannot reveal the full extent of its contents at this point, but I will read you some of the highlights.

"ITEM: There has been a recent increase in the number of incidents involving foreign agents operating on Homeworld. That these foreign agents are actively stealing Juraian financial, industrial, and military secrets. That these foreign agents are assassinating eyewitnesses and recalcitrant or vacillating accomplices. And that these foreign agents appear to operate with impunity and enjoy immunity from MOJ authorities.

"ITEM: We have reason to suspect that as many as 22% of all Members of Parliament have been recently bribed or are being subjected to blackmail. The purse-strings for this effort appear to belong to the Ascenn'an Bank of Interstellar Commerce and Credit. The logical goal appears to be ABICC expansion within the borders of the Empire.

"ITEM: One of your own interns, Ascelia Borom, was murdered in broad daylight. An MOJ spokesperson claimed the shooting was the result of a 'robbery gone awry.' Ms. Borom had confided to friends and family that she had witnessed you turning Juraian national secrets over to one Hav'oratil Metge. Citizen Metge is the president of the ABICC branch office here on Jurai, but is also reputedly the regional director of Ascenn'an Intelligence.

"ITEM: The five witnesses discovered by Jame'Wa Okabe and Kanrisisko Vorunto were all reported missing within days of the crash of Flight 1033.

"ITEM: Zha'vequail Metge, Hav'oratil Metge's brother, is also the director of Benab'sastu Heavy Munitions, the Ascenn'an firm that makes and markets naval artillery — and whose products have been found in the wreckage of destroyed pirate vessels in and around the border between Jurai, the Remza Union, and the Couef Collective...all neighbors of the Ascenn'ans.

"ITEM: Foreign intelligence sources are snickering over Ascenn'an Intelligence claims they have documentation showing agents of the Juraian Minister of Justice receiving suitcases loaded with negotiable certificates, in return for Juraian financial, industrial and military secrets — including copies of the super-secret test results for the Masaki Driver. The Ascenn'ans, so say these sources, are insisting that they bought such items, fair and square, from MOJ representatives. As the Ascenn'an officials are quoted as saying, 'If there is a problem in this type of 'routine' business transaction, then the Juraians should re-examine their own concept of business ethics.'"

"How interesting," Funaho mused. "What we would perceive as treachery and espionage, the Ascenn'ans identify as 'normal commercial practices' in a C.O.D. deal..."

"And I would add that the pirate activity in that area has suffered a marked decline in the last year," Seto said, staring at Syuuzen through slitted eyelids, "thanks to the cooperative efforts of the Juraian Military, the RU Navy, and the Galaxy Police. Perhaps the Ascenn'an efforts to destabilize that border have been greatly obstructed, forcing a change in strategy?"

"I wouldn't know anything about that," Syuuzen huffed.

"Or care much, either, huh?" Kiyone asked, ignored the Minister's glare.

"I've had enough of this," Syuuzen declared. "This has been a tedious exercise, and plainly insulting. Either charge me or release me, but no more innuendoes and false facts. I have nothing to confess, and nothing more to say."

"Very well, Minister, have it your way," Funaho shrugged. Syuuzen started to rise, a smug smile painted on his face. "Commander, place the Minister under arrest, charged with murder, accessory to murder, and treason. I'm sure the charges can be further refined with a bit of research."

Kiyone's grin was feral and intense as she gestured to the guards. Gleaming muzzles dropped into position.

"This is preposterous! How dare you accuse me of — "

"Stow it, Minister. You can cooperate calmly and quietly, or you will be assisted into compliance. The choice is yours."

Syuuzen's bluster was clearly wasted on the wolf pack. Though he ceased to fidget, his face remained flushed. "I am entitled to legal counsel."

"You can make the call after you have been processed," Kiyone replied. She gestured again, and one of the guards opened the door and backed through it. The invitation was obvious.

"You are making a big mistake," he said to the women sitting behind the table.

"How so?" Funaho replied.

"You cannot keep the Masaki drive a secret for long. It will spread to all our neighbors eventually, and then out of human space entirely. It is too important a discovery. Someone is going to get very rich; if not me and my associates, then one of my competitors. Perhaps you should deal with the devil you know, rather than the devils you don't know."

"We will keep that...suggestion...in mind, Minister."

Syuuzen snapped a bow and departed, ringed by uniforms. Kiyone bowed respectfully and followed them, closing the door behind her.

There was mutual silence, as each woman considered the ramifications of the previous hour. Their subsequent responses were entirely different, however:

* Funaho sighed, mentally calculating the time and resources she would be budgeting for the investigation and trial. The man's guilt was obvious; she wanted his accomplices.

* Seto chuckled with delight, mentally grasping the windpipe on yet another pirate — albeit a much shrewder and more sophisticated example than she commonly dealt with.

Funaho turned to look at her mentor, shaking her head with admiration. "You do enjoy these spectacles, don't you?"

"Absolutely," Seto replied. "I relish the chance to rub their faces in their own guilt, and watch their eyes as justice finally catches up to them."

"Small compensation for their victims."

"True. But perhaps the dead can sleep a bit easier knowing that these vermin will cause no more grief."

Funaho stood, stretching stiff muscles. She wandered over to the window, idly watching the groundskeepers laboring in the late afternoon sunshine.

Seto soon joined her. "You know, he raised a valid issue. We can't keep that technology isolated for long. If someone doesn't successfully steal the plans, then one of our ships will be hi-jacked. Either way, the genie will be out of the bottle, and at our expense."

"Yes, I know," Funaho replied. "But I see no real alternative."

"I do: share the technology with our allies."

Funaho turned on her, round-eyed. "Are you serious?"

"Absolutely. License the design to recoup our research investment, and strengthen diplomatic ties at the same time."

"I must say, I did not expect you (of all people) to recommend that."

Seto shrugged. "One must face facts, old friend. Chasing pirates can be fun, but it gets expensive and tedious after a while. Better to root-out the cause of the disease rather than the symptoms. Besides, it's time we united all of humanity under one government."

"And why is that?"

"Because united, we stand a better chance against Tokimi."

"How do you know about Tokimi?" Funaho gasped, then pressed her lips together. This was her mentor, after all — if anybody could ferret-out that bit of classified information, Seto could.

"Really, Funaho," Seto chuckled. "Anyway, here's another concept worth considering: we need to start reaching-out to the non-human nations around us. We need friends and allies, not quarrelsome neighbors that will turn on us in times of trouble. The K'vimm Incursion was a wake-up call."

##########

Seina was about to take a sip of the hot tea when he felt the Link activate. He was always aware of it, of course; that presence in the back of his mind that often shifted like a sleeper beneath the covers. It was disconcerting, if harmless.

Karen had been watching his face, waiting for his approval on the tea, when he paused. She saw his eyes widen, pupils dilated, nostrils flaring briefly. The cup trembled in his hand. "Is something wrong?"

"Kiriko?" Hakuren asked, startled by her similar actions.

"It's Tsunami," Kiriko replied, looking over at Seina for confirmation. "She sends greetings to Mizuki and Seina's Companion." Kiriko's tree was a sapling, encased in its protective Habitat Module buried within the superstructure of the K2. Kiriko subconsciously twisted the ring she wore, which provided the direct-to-skin contact required for communication between the species. Seina could only communicate with the mecha when he sat in the command module, his hands spread over the controlling orbs — but he could still feel the surge of emotion from the seed, even separated by two-and-a-half kilometers of vacuum.

He nodded in agreement.

##########

Both women paused, a sudden burst of communication racing through their minds. Funaho's Companion Mizuho, and Seto's Companion Mikagami, relayed Tsunami's greeting. The women exchanged smiles.

"That is very good news indeed," Funaho said. She turned towards her desk. "I'm sure Tenchi received that message as well."

"Undoubtedly," Seto replied.

"Now the botanists can determine if the seed can be extracted from that mecha and grown to maturity. What a marvelous addition to the fleet that would be."

"Indeed. Even so, it is quite formidable now. I saw it crush Tarant Shunk's battleship into oblivion, and disable his entire pirate fleet before reducing most of it to scrap. Impressive doesn't begin to describe it."

"Which raises the issue of Seina's future," Funaho said, descending into her desk chair. "The GP doesn't own the mecha — according to salvage laws, Seina owns it. If the seed can be safely grown, it becomes the property of Jurai. That is non-negotiable. Since the seed has bonded with him, does he accompany the seed, or does he remain with the GP?"

Seto gestured absently with her fan, no answer forthcoming.

##########

Tenchi had received Tsunami's broadcast; he just wasn't in any position to do anything about it.

At the moment, he was sitting on his throne, the actual, physical, centuries-old, hand-carved seat of an interstellar empire. All things considered, it wasn't particularly comfortable (which was just one of the reasons it was seldom occupied). It was placed in the center of a raised dias, upon which stood his consorts, spaced at equal distances around him. Ayeka, Mihoshi, Ryoko, Sasami, and Washu were dressed in the same elaborate formalwear that he himself had (reluctantly) donned. None of them were smiling; they shared a common discomfort level — and a common refusal to admit to it.

Though Tenchi looked dour and imperious, he was actually engaged in a lively discussion with his entourage via mind links:

Sasami - Tenchi, Tsunami has just broadcast a message!

Tenchi - I know

Ayeka - I received it, too, relayed through Ryu-oh

Ryoko - What does she have to say?

Sasami - She sent a greeting to Seina's mecha and Kiriko's Companion

Ryoko - Then they must be well in-system by now

Washu - I can verify that, if you'd like

Tenchi - No, no need. Mihoshi?

Mihoshi - Yes, Tenchi?

Tenchi - Can you notify Trinnard?

Mihoshi - I'd be happy to

Ayeka - Just do it discreetly; the introductions are about to commence

Beyond the dais was the large chamber that was the officially-designated throne Room. The walls were lined with marble columns and richly-sculpted hardwoods from a hundred worlds. Busts and portraits of past monarchs were displayed proudly and elaborately, and exotic flags and tapestries hung from the ceiling. It was reserved for ceremonies of high pomp and pageantry, such as Tenchi's coronation, and for dazzling the occasional visiting dignitary.

Like the giant psuedo-caterpillar entities that stood at the base of the dias.

There were five of them, wearing their own equivalents to rich finery and elaborate jewelry. Ten pairs of legs peeked beneath the brocade, and three sets of manipulator limbs (each pair shorter than the one behind it) that gestured and fluttered as they spoke. And they did speak, at least among themselves, although the lead creature did all the talking to the humans.

And there were a lot of humans present. The chamber was filled with curious peers and invited council members and guild representatives and the obligatory flag rank military officers. The noise level was considerable, even when efforts were made to keep it muted. And escorting the troop of car-sized aliens was a contingent of Galaxy Police officials, led by a grizzled veteran in a uniform covered in decorations and citations. He did most of the talking for everyone, serving as intermediary between the Emperor and the diplomats.

Tenchi - Geez, those things are ugly. And big! They look like something out of my garden

Ayeka - Do not judge them by their appearance, Beloved. They are highly intelligent

Ryoko - I have to agree with Tenchi on this one. Eeeeww...

Sasami - I don't think they're so bad, although those cross-shaped mouths take a little getting used to…

Tenchi - What do you know about these aliens, Mihoshi?

Mihoshi - Well, according to Uncle Marrim —

Ryoko - 'Uncle' Marrim? That old fart is a relative of yours?

Mihoshi - No, but he's a friend of my grandfather's. I've known him forever

Ryoko - Oh

Mihoshi - Anyway, according to Uncle Marrim they are from a very large empire on the far side of the galaxy

Washu - He's right. Jurai only occupies the spur of one galactic arm; their empire stretches a quarter of the length of an entire arm! And it contains many more subject nations than ours does. They deserve a great deal of respect

Ryoko - Yeah, whatever

Washu - Well, they also have three sexes...

Ryoko - Huh!

Washu - I thought that might get your attention

Sasami - How does that work?

Washu - 3% of the population are male, 29% are female, and the rest are drones

Sasami - So, the males rule?

Washu - No. They are more like a priest class — actually, they are primarily walking sperm banks

Mihoshi - Right. The females hold all of the actual power

Ryoko - As it should be

Tenchi - Yet another royal harem...

Ayeka - And the drones?

Washu - Disposable labor, of low intelligence and short life spans

"Your Majesty," Marshall Marrim Sayyam continued, unaware of the private conversation, "I am pleased to introduce the Voudrathi Ambassador."

"It is an honor to meet such a distinguished sapient," Tenchi replied, grateful for the coaching his family had provided. "Does the Ambassador have a name?"

"Even if she had a name in the human sense, we couldn't pronounce it," Sayyam replied, a rueful smile on his face. The device he carried converted all of the humans' remarks into a complicated series of squawks and screeches, which elicited an occasional reaction from the aliens. "These AI translators can only construct careful approximations between our cultures. And the Voudrathi palate is so radically different from ours that our tongues cannot form the sounds correctly. I'm afraid that, even after spending the last twelve years living in Voudrathi space, I still have a great deal of difficulty communicating with them. They are a patient and tolerant species, or I might have accidentally started a war long ago."

"We are indeed fortunate that the GP assigned you to escort their vessel into Jurai space."

"It is I am who fortunate, Your Majesty. I have not seen the stars of home for a very long time."

"Tell me, how long did it take to traverse the distance between our empires?"

"Eleven months of ship time, but we chose to circumnavigate the center, well above the galactic arms, to avoid the endless requests for permission to cross national borders."

"Ah, of course. Judging by the impressive size of the Voudrathi vessel, I can see where its presence might be misinterpreted."

Two weeks earlier word had come to the admiralty that a giant alien starship was approaching Jurai space and issuing hailing messages on the GP standard frequencies. It wasn't until a contingent of the Juraian Navy had intercepted the nine-kilometer-long behemoth that they had discovered the GP Cruiser accompanying it. 'A fish leading a whale,' as one wag put it. The Navy was still edgy over the K'vimm Incursion, and so was leery of granting permission for the alien vessel to approach (and secretly doubting that they could do anything to prevent it). However, the response that came straight from the Palace permitted the intruder to continue — under escort of course — because Mihoshi and Washu had both assured Tenchi that the vessel was peaceful, and the GP envoy was legitimate.

The leviathan was now parked in a solar orbit nearly a million kilometers beyond Jurai. Just in case.

"And what brings the Voudrathi delegation all this way?" Tenchi asked.

"To meet with you, Your Majesty. The tales of your accomplishments have reached clear across the galaxy."

Tenchi - Uh, oh...

Ayeka - Patience, Beloved. It might be best to determine just what tales they have heard

Ryoko - Damn impressive, though — but, then, I've always said that!

"Could you be more specific, Marshall? Such stories usually get exaggerated far beyond flattery into outright fantasy."

"Of course, Sire," Sayyam replied. He addressed a question towards the alien, and the translator converted it. Moments later the Ambassador replied, its four jaws opening and closing in random patterns, the tongues behind the teeth coiling like angry serpents. The translator hummed briefly before whispering its explanation. "She has come to see your wings."

There was a low rumble from the audience.

"My wings?" Tenchi asked, unable to keep the surprise from his voice.

"Indeed, Your majesty. There is apparently some religious significance to your wings."

"But I don't have any wings."

"That is true, Sire, but that is the story related to them, and the impetus of their journey here."

"Excuse me, Marshall Sayyam," Washu said, drawing all eyes upon her. "Could it have something to do with the fact that the males of their sacerdotal elite bear wings?"

"That may be part of it, Your Majesty. But I believe the matter is more theological than teleological or political in scope."

Ryoko - The males have wings? How can something so heavy fly?

Washu - How do you fly? You have no wings

Mihoshi - Good point

Washu - Actually, the males are much smaller, about the size of an eagle

Sasami - Wow...do they look like butterflies?

Ayeka - What kind of an environment did this species evolve in?

Washu - Dense forests, lots of large predators to overcome. And the Voudrathi are far older than humanity

"What if I can't produce any wings?"

"Unknown, Sire. They do not say."

##########

"We have another in-coming message," Neeju announced.

"Who from?" Seina asked.

"A representative of the Order of The Flaming Sword!" she replied, grinning like a Cheshire cat. Everyone else in the chamber turned to smile at their husband.

"Ok," he shrugged, "let's hear it."

Neeju tapped a key, and a secondary image appeared next to the main viewer. A very muscular man wearing the robes of the Order greeted them. His long, blue-black hair and piercing black eyes framed a large nose and soft chin. His smile, though, was broad and blinding.

"Captain Seina Yamada, on behalf of your patron and sponsor, His Majesty Sir Tenchi Masaki Jurai, I bid you welcome. I am Sir Trinnard Qualston, and I will be your Advisor on all matters pertaining to your imminent Knighthood ceremony."

There was a collective squeal from Seina's wives; he just smiled nervously. "Thank you, Sir Trinnard. I appreciate any and all help you are able to render. Do we have a formal time and place to meet?"

"It would be best if we met at the earliest available opportunity. I'm sure you will have plenty of questions, and I can explain the proper protocols for you. Subsequent meetings are then easier to arrange based upon your schedule and comfort level."

Seina relaxed. The man had obvious experience dealing with novices. Tenchi had also confided that Trinnard was a close friend, and very capable. "We won't reach orbit for another..."

"Twelve hours," Kiriko offered.

"...Twelve hours. How can we reach you?"

"You can contact me through the Order. I am forwarding the information now," he replied, hands visible typing on a keyboard.

"Thank you."

"I am at your disposal, Captain Yamada. I look forward to meeting you."

"I'll contact you as soon as possible, Sir Trinnard. Kamidake II out." Seina broke the connection, and his wives howled with glee.

ACT 2 — SATURDAY MORNING

Sometimes it's hard to be a woman
Giving all your love to just one man
You'll have bad times, and he'll have good times

Doin' things that you don't understand
But if you love him, you'll forgive him
Even though he's hard to understand
And if you love him, oh, be proud of him

'Cause after all he's just a man.

Stand by your man, give him two arms to cling to
And something warm to come to
When nights are cold and lonely.
Stand by your man, and show the world you love him
Keep giving all the love you can.
Stand by your man.
Stand by your man, and show the world you love him
Keep giving all the love you can.
Stand by your man.

Title: "Stand By Your Man"
Artist: Tammy Wynette

The Imperial Palace was a large, approximately cross-shaped building, many centuries old, lavishly decorated, and off-limits to the general population. Located in the center of an island, it was surrounded by gardens and rings of office buildings, private residences, dormitories for the Imperial Guard, the spaceport and its hangers. No one got near the Palace unless invited. The building's internal volume was apportioned along functional lines:

* One whole wing of the Palace was devoted to public functions, and was surrounded by extensive parking lots and security scanners. The grand ballroom was here, as was the throne room, the ceremonial banquet hall and the adjacent kitchens. Scattered throughout the remaining spaces were an assortment of storage rooms, foyers, and small audience chambers.

* The opposite wing (and just as huge) was dedicated to the bureaucratic machinery necessary to support the monarchy. The warren of hallways and corridors here differed little from an ordinary office building; it was stuffed full of offices and cubicles and meeting rooms and a cafeteria and a computer center.

* The other two wings were smaller in size and were devoted to the suites and apartments of the Royal Family. One wing housed the Emperor and his consorts, complete with an informal dining room, ballroom, and an onsen. The opposite wing was reserved for the Emperor's extended family, as well as the guest facilities.

All this, of course, was explained to the Yamada family as it was shuttled from lunar orbit. They would be occupying a guest suite, since Seina was being sponsored into his knighthood by his old neighbor and schoolmate.

Seina's serail was ecstatic, not surprisingly.

Seina himself was rather more reserved about the whole operation, and expressed this sentiment to Sir Trinnard. They were sitting in the observation blister of the shuttle, watching the Palace complex growing as they descended. Seina's wives were hanging on every word.

"I shouldn't give it too much concern, Captain. You'll only be here a few days at most, and I would recommend that you take full advantage of the pampering you'll receive. The chef here is on call night and day, but his services probably won't be needed, since Princess Sasami will likely attend to all of your meals personally."

Seina flinched at the boisterous approval voiced by his family. Actually, their reactions surprised him: his wives were all members of the aristocratic and patrician classes...they should be used to such amenities.

"Oh, Seina, you just don't understand," Amane replied. "This is the Imperial palace — how many people can say they slept under the same roof as the Emperor of Jurai and his family, and broke bread with the most powerful human being in the galaxy?"

Seina had trouble thinking of his boyhood friend as being so important. The few times they had talked of late, Tenchi had seemed as pedestrian as ever, still as patient and as quiet as their years in Okayama.

"Besides, Dear, not all of us were raised in such luxury," Ryoko added. Her own wealth was a recent acquisition, and she was still struggling with it (having spent so much of her life trying to attain it).

Seina had to nod his head in agreement. His own income was modest compared to his wives', but still impressive by Earth standards.

"And the honor of it all..." Hakuren added. "This is just so marvelous!"

Below them, the campus was painted with the long shadows of recent sunrise. The grass glistened with diamond-like glitter as dewdrops reflected the early morning sun. The landing pad swelled in size, and two vehicles — a limousine and a cargo transport — could be seen waiting. As they watched, robe-swathed individuals could be seen climbing out of both vehicles.

"We'll touch down in a moment," Trinnard cautioned. He gestured towards the doll-sized figures. "H-m-m-m-m, looks like you have a welcoming committee."

"Who would be meeting us?" Seina wondered.

"Well, the concierge for sure...that must be him by the lorry. He'll be taking your luggage up to the Residence. As to the others...oh, my."

"Lady Seto!" Suiren exclaimed.

"Yes," Kiriko nodded, " And that looks like Airi and Minaho behind her. Those other two ladies are — "

"Former Empress Funaho and Former Empress Misaki," Seina said. His wives all turned to look at him, surprised. "I've met them before."

"You certainly swing in high circles, don't you, Captain Yamada? At least they're smiling, even at this early hour!"

"Yeah," Seina replied nervously.

##########

The dining room in the Imperial Suite was modest in size, compared to the larger facilities on the floor below, or the massive formal facility in an adjacent wing of the palace. This room was cozy, comfortable, well-lit, with windows that looked upon the gardens, and doors that opened onto the veranda and galley. The table could be expanded when necessary, and plenty of chairs were kept in a nearby closet. When not being used as a commissary, Sasami did her studies here, Washu often confiscated a corner for her spectral keyboard, and many family conferences were held over tea and snacks...much like the current early-morning discussion.

"Well, now that I've seen the official log of that audience, I can see why you're perplexed," Funaho said.

"You don't suppose that ambassador meant the Lighthawk Wings, do you?" Minaho asked.

"H-m-m-m-m, interesting notion," Washu replied. "That raises quite a number of questions."

"Like what?" Tenchi asked, stretching his legs beneath the table and crossing them at the ankles.

"Well, for starters, how did she hear about them? Then there's the little matter of Voudrathi Power sensitivity."

"Are they sensitive?" Ayeka asked. She poured a cup of tea, which she handed to her husband. She began distributing cups to the room's other occupants.

"Who knows?" Washu shrugged. "I'm guessing 'yes' since most creatures have some sensitivity to paranormal activity. But as to their level of attributes..."

"Thanks," Ryoko said over the proffered cup. She sat cross-legged in mid-air, hovering beside Tenchi's chair. "I never really thought about non-human Power adepts before."

"Washu? Why did Tsunami choose humanity to partner with?" Sasami sipped at her own cup, eyes on the scarlet-haired adult across from her.

Washu's hand paused, her cup raised half-way to her lips. "I would think you would be better able to answer that one."

Sasami shook her head. "I see more and more of her memories with each passing year, but not that deep yet."

"Why do you ask?" Mihoshi prompted.

"Because Tsunami is the greatest single Power adept in the galaxy. Yet she spends most of her time with humans. Could that be because humans are the most capable species at Power manipulation?"

"That's a pretty shrewd assessment, Sasami," Seto chuckled, a proud smile on her face. "Well done."

"Thanks," she replied, blushing.

"It makes sense, though," Washu said. "Airi, what does the GP have to say on the subject?"

"Not much," Airi replied. There are references, of course, but they are few and far between. It's not a particularly important topic for our analysts."

"Why is that?" Ryoko asked.

"Power adepts have a tendency to disrupt the local status quo. The standard policy is to evacuate all GP personnel at the first sign of political instability. They only deal with whoever (or whatever) is in power. Strict neutrality."

"I don't see how that posture can be maintained," Ayeka said. "The level of fraternization must be very high. Just look at Mihoshi."

"Well, I think it works for the most part," Airi replied, "but there are always exceptions."

"Then I'm one of the exceptions," Mihoshi announced, "because I'm definitely biased towards the present Juraian ruler!" She smiled at her husband, who grinned back.

"I'm afraid my own files are rather thin on the subject, too," Funaho added. "We have very little intercourse with our galactic neighbors, and the handful of non-human races within our borders are very well-behaved and cooperative. Power manipulation seems to be an obsession only among humans."

"What of the Galaxy Academy?" Ayeka asked. "There should be plenty of information there on the subject."

"True, but it will take some time to dig it up," Washu replied. "Besides, anything we do there, or request of the faculty, gets immediate notice in all sorts of places."

"A definite cause for concern," Funaho agreed.

"Of even greater concern is what the Ambassador will do if she decides Tenchi has not produced the proper wings," Minaho cautioned. "Didn't Marshall Marrim say this was a religious matter? How irrational is she liable to become?"

"Have you scanned that vessel of hers?" Ryoko asked. "We might be able to see if it carries any advanced weaponry."

"According to the GP files, the Voudrathi employ ordinary directed-energy and projectile weapons technology," Airi answered. "Although there are liable to be some mighty large cannons on that ship."

"We cannot just slip an operative aboard it, tempting as that sounds," Funaho explained. "Such an action is clearly a violation of GP-negotiated protocols. And even overt probing could be misinterpreted. We don't know how the Voudrathi would react — only how humans would react. Basing the responses of the former upon the habits of the latter is a questionable practice."

"I'm afraid I have little experience with alien motivations," Airi said. "I do correspond with the administrators of the neighboring GP regional universities, but we seldom discuss anything of a volatile nature. I don't know if the Voudrathi would attempt to attack Jurai, or just say prayers to some god and blot us off their social calendar. My intuition says they wouldn't do anything hostile, but prudence dictates that we take certain precautions."

"I would have to agree with that assessment."

"Just what could they do?" Ryoko asked.

"Militarily?" Washu replied. "Well, if it were me, and I was morally offended to the point of wanton destruction, I might toss a sunbuster bomb down the solar gravity well, or maybe a swarm of cobalt bombs at Jurai, or release some kind of nanovirus into Jurai's atmosphere, or — "

"Ok, ok, I got the message."

"I presume the admiralty is prepared for such contingencies?" Funaho asked.

"They'd better be," Washu said. "And I'll add a few eyes of my own, just in case."

"H-m-m-m-m..." Tenchi muttered, idly stirring his tea. All eyes turned to him.

"Yes, Beloved?" Ayeka asked.

"How coincidental is it that, not long after the K'vimm attempted to steal the Royal Trees, the Voudrathi show up?"

Washu - Are you suggesting what I think you're suggesting?

Tenchi - You tell me. Is this Tokimi's style?

Washu - ...Yes...

Tenchi - We know Tokimi uses human agents, so it's only logical to assume there are non-human agents as well

Washu - You're scaring me, My Little Guinea Pig

Tenchi - But you'll consider the possibility?

Washu - Absolutely

"Well, Uncle Marrim did say that your fame has reached across the galaxy..." Mihoshi replied.

"When was the last time we got any official foreign visitors?" Tenchi asked.

"I don't even remember the last alien delegation," Funaho replied. "Three or four centuries at least."

"So, this is just a fishing expedition?"

"Sure looks like it." Funaho smiled and nodded, her eyes crinkling mirthlessly.

"I don't understand the reference, Beloved," Ayeka said.

"Old Earth term," he grinned, "based upon the action of lowering a baited hook into the water to see what kind of fish bites it."

"E-e-e-w, how primitive."

"Just like me, I guess."

"No, Beloved, we are reforming you. You are becoming highly polished and well-versed in the social graces."

"Just remember: beauty is only skin-deep."

"Rubbish," Ayeka snorted.

Ryoko laughed. "It's ok, Tenchi — I like you just the way you are!"

"Me, too," Mihoshi added. Washu and Sasami nodded in agreement. Tenchi and Ayeka shared a private smile.

It grew quiet for a moment, as the Royal Family settled into a contemplative mood. That is, until Seto broke the spell: "Maybe we should put on a little show for our visitors."

"What purpose would that serve?" Ayeka asked.

"Well, it's not unreasonable to assume that they are here to assess our defensive capabilities," Seto replied. "Their home is an awful long way away, but if motivated enough they could decide to invade — and it sounds like they have enormous resources to call upon."

"True, and they may not even be the ones to worry about," Funaho said, stirring her tea for emphasis. "If they report back to their neighbors that we are vulnerable, their neighbors may take the initiative. It all depends upon how territorial the species is."

"Remember," Washu said, "their empire is several times the size of ours. For that matter, several times the size of Jurai and the other human nations combined."

Funaho nodded, and happened to glance at her mentor; Seto's face had settled into the closed mask she often assumed when in deep concentration...and that usually spelled trouble for someone.

There were sounds from the common room, as the door opened and many pairs of feet trod on the carpeting. "Anybody here?"

"In here, Hastaba," Sasami replied.

A moment later, Misaki entered the dining room, trailed by the entire Yamada family. "Are we interrupting something?"

"No," Tenchi replied, "we were just chatting. Have you eaten breakfast yet?"

"Uh, no," Seina answered hesitantly, still half-afraid of violating some unknown protocol.

"Good!" Sasami beamed. "We just finished, and there's plenty left. Now, Tenchi, you fetch some more chairs; Washu, you expand the table; and you folks," she pointed at Seina and his wives, "march right on in here." She hustled into the kitchen.

"Never argue with Sasami about food," Tenchi advised, rising.

"Or anything else," Ryoko added, floating behind him.

Washu reached under the table, her hand patting the bottom until she found what she wanted. She turned the appropriate knob, and the table started expanding in all directions, like a shallow puddle. Those occupying chairs casually slid them backwards, since each floated effortlessly a comfortable distance off the floor. Tenchi and Ryoko started setting empty seats in the new gaps, where they hovered at a neutral height.

Tenchi returned to his seat, and Ryoko returned to her place beside him, both watching the Yamada serail begin to file out of the kitchen. Seina settled into the empty chair nearest Tenchi, while his wives began to fill the remaining vacant seats.

"Good thing we keep an ample supply of spare chairs," Mihoshi chuckled.

"Now, what were we discussing?" Seto prompted. "Ah, I remember: we were contemplating a little show for the Voudrathi Ambassador."

"What kind of show?" Kiriko asked.

"A show of force," Washu answered. "Sabre-rattling, chest-thumping, the usual aggressive posturing."

"Why?"

"Prudence," Ayeka replied. "When the Ambassador returns home, she needs to inform her superiors — and their neighbors and allies — that provoking Jurai is a bad idea."

"Is that wise?" Neeju asked. "If this is their first official visit here, shouldn't they be given a cordial reception?"

"They have been given a cordial reception. Now they must be convinced that we are confident about international relations because we are secure in our strength."

"That logic works well enough with humans, but how will the Voudrathi respond to any blatant muscle-flexing?"

"That's a good question," Mihoshi added. "Uncle Marrim lived among them for twelve years, and he still can't predict how they will respond."

"I think this falls under the category of 'universal constants,'" Funaho said. "It seems to me that no predator, anywhere in the galaxy, fails to hesitate before attacking prey that is liable to inflict serious damage."

Tenchi - Unless the prey is injured or sabotaged before the fight

Washu - You're really starting to scare me, Dear

Tenchi - Just another lesson learned from Grandpa

"I propose," Funaho continued, "some type of display for the Voudrathi...something impressive...something that would give them serious pause before committing any time and resources into an invasion."

"What do you favor, Tenchi?" Seto prompted.

All eyes settled upon the Emperor, who would ultimately bear the responsibility of any decision.

"I'm not so sure it's such a good idea to reveal our full capabilities," Tenchi said. "If I may quote one of the leaders from Earth, 'Walk softly and carry a big stick.'"

"Who said that?" Seina asked Tenchi.

"American President Theodore Roosevelt."

"Oh."

"You raise a valid point," Seto said, "but it may be moot. If we are starting to get noticed by our neighbors, it may be because they already know some of our secrets. Perhaps we should unveil the remainder, and let our neighbors know the truth of their existence."

"Baring our fangs in warning?" Ryoko asked.

"Indeed," Ayeka confirmed.

"And who is revealing our secrets to our neighbors?" Washu asked.

"We had a discussion with one possible leak just yesterday," Funaho answered. "He implied there are others. We," she gestured towards Seto, "hope to encourage his cooperation into providing us with their identities."

"You still haven't answered my question, Tenchi. What do you favor?"

"In light of that information, I would agree with you. Show them something impressive."

"Like the Masaki Drive?" Ryoko asked.

"That's a good place to start," Funaho nodded.

"Perhaps a formation of fast escorts — "

"I know something even more impressive," Sasami said. "It was spoken quietly, tentatively, yet every ear heard it, and every head swung around to look at her.

"Go ahead, Dear," Misaki prompted.

"They want to see 'wings'? Show them the Lighthawk Wings — all of them — and all under Tenchi's control."

"Uh, wait a minute..." Tenchi started to say, but Sasami cut him off.

"Tenchi, it wasn't all that long ago that you merged yours and Tsunami's wings together and made a dimensional doorway. What if you used all of the wings available? Tsunami's, Funaho's — "

Ayeka: "Ryu-oh's."

Misaki: "Karin's."

Funaho: "Mizuho's."

Seto: "Mikagami's,"

Kiriko: "Mizuki's."

"Don't forget my Companion," Seina added.

"And my wings, Sweetie," Ryoko said, laying a hand on her husband's shoulder.

"And the Sentinel Squadron's," Sasami finished. "Just think of it!"

Once again, all eyes focused on the Emperor of Jurai, who sat staring back. After a few moments of silence, he shrugged. "I'm not sure I can handle that much energy."

"Oh, I don't know," Washu said, a lopsided grin on her face. "I seem to recall a monstrous pattern scanner someone created by just tapping into his wives' Power attributes..."

"Yes, Beloved, the principle is identical."

"How many wings is that?" Mihoshi asked.

"Over forty," Washu replied.

"You don't have to generate those wings, Tenchi," Sasami added, "you just have to guide them."

"It'll be a piece o' cake!" Ryoko grinned, and planted a supporting kiss on his cheek.

Tenchi shook his head. "I repeat, I don't know if I can handle that much energy."

"Only one way to find out!" Washu cackled.

Tenchi's doubting frown was met by a wall of encouraging grins and fascinated stares.

###########

Seto was standing on the veranda, breathing the ion-enriched morning air, listening to the birds chirping and the wind sweeping through the trees. Such tranquil moments were rare, and usually short in duration. Behind her, the door slid open spilling a cacophony of voices and clattering dishes, and she knew her moment of solitude had been extinguished. She sighed, produced her ever-ready fan, as the closing door cut-off the sounds from the dining room.

"I would like to compliment you, Lady Seto."

"About what, Hakuren?"

"How you were able to manipulate events so successfully."

"Whatever do you mean?" Seto's fan twitched lazily, like a cat's tail.

"When we came to Jurai as representatives of the Remza Union, seeking assistance with the pirate incursions."

"As I recall, I received you and your Kardesshibelar with open arms."

"They were not my Kardesshibelar then; we were not even friends, just teammates. And I must confess to a certain...reluctance...about being attached to your personal staff. It did not seem the proper way to acquire the aid we needed."

"What better way was there to observe our own efforts than being attached to my staff?"

"I didn't have an alternative; just the opinion that it seemed inadequate."

Seto shrugged, her fan casting colored reflections across her face.

"Nonetheless, Milady, you seem to have organized events with stunning rapidity."

"Perhaps some of Seina's luck rubbed off on me...?"

"I cannot believe you put much reliance on the whims of chance."

"Chance favors the prepared mind," Seto replied.

"That is my point, Milady. You seem to have been well-prepared for the opportunities that arose."

"Contingency planning is an essential, Hakuren. As the team leader, surely you had experience with the practice?"

"I'm afraid my focus was more tactical than strategic."

"Ah." Seto's fan wavered, bisecting sunbeams and tossing them in random directions.

"In retrospect, becoming Seina's Patron seems to have been the pivotal action that opened a lot of doors for you, and at virtually no expense."

"What kind of doors?"

"For Seina, his admission to the GP Academy was assured; for us, introduction to a possible solution to our pirate problem; for yourself, the acquisition of a valuable tactical resource."

"One must learn to recognize opportunities, Hakuren."

"I endeavor to, Milady. I have much to learn."

"You are still young. There is ample time."

"True. I would also like to say that I admire the way you resolved the personal issues among my Juraian Kardesshibelar. You recognized the aggressive tendencies of Amane and Ryoko, Kiriko's feelings of inadequacy, and Neeju's need for political asylum. The resolution for each issue was truly inspiring."

"Oh?"

"By facilitating the reunion of Ryoko with her grandfather, his subsequent investiture as the Baltan king, and the quiet erasure of her criminal record, she was free to remain in the GP. By smoothing Amane's father's ruffled feathers over her career choice, and her participation in that GP fashion show, it strengthened her resolve to remain in the GP. By arranging Kiriko's bonding with Mizuki, she was able to compete on equal terms with Amane and her fortune, and Ryoko and her Baltan title. And by providing Neeju with a protected environment, where her skills as a councilor could defuse the intense rivalry over Seina, as well calm his nervous jitters, she earned her place aboard the K2."

"What did Seina receive from this bargain?"

"A future. And a family. And the transmutation of his gift."

"What did you Remza representatives receive?"

"On a professional level, we completed our mission by finding the answer to our nation's pirate problems. On a personal level, we found the man of our dreams."

"Seina Yamada?"

"Seina Yamada," Hakuren repeated proudly. "He was worth every bit of the public humiliation we went through, and any one of us would do it again in a heartbeat."

"I admire your spirit, Hakuren, even if your methods are unorthodox. Tell me, who's idea was the kidnapping?"

"Mine," Hakuren replied. "Not one of my better ideas, but we were desperate at that point. In hindsight, we should have used a tranquilizer on Seina and those kids."

"Mistakes are learning opportunities cloaked in disaster," Seto countered. "Tell me, did you come out here merely to compliment me on my accomplishments?"

"No, Milady, I had a request to make."

"I'm listening."

"I wish to become your protégé, Lady Seto. I wish to study strategy and tactics from the very best teacher."

"I'm flattered. I'm also wary."

"Of what?" Hakuren asked, sincerely puzzled.

"You are now a citizen of Jurai by virtue of your marriage to Seina. You also retain citizenship in the Remza Union, by virtue of your birth. You are also a member of the Galaxy Police, and have sworn an oath to uphold their neutrality. Tell me, how do you reconcile those allegiances? Where does your heart belong?"

"To Seina, first and foremost," Hakuren answered promptly. "Wherever he goes, I go."

"I see," Seto said, lapsing into silence. Her fan continued its pendulous dance, marking the passing moments with metronomic precision. Hakuren waited patiently. "You have talent, young lady. You would do very well with proper guidance. However, I will not train a potential enemy of Jurai. You see, my heart belongs to the empire. I am not yet convinced you know where your loyalties lie."

"Thank you for your honesty, Milady," Hakuren replied, crestfallen. "Is this a complete refusal, then?"

"By no means. The tide of politics is generally unpredictable — as are human actions. In two or three years, conditions may change completely." Seto lowered her fan and faced the stunned Hakuren squarely. "I will be watching you; and I promise we will continue this conversation in the near future. By then, my objections may be moot."

"You are most gracious, Lady Seto."

"Are there any other questions?"

"Well, there is one question. But I hesitate to ask it, since it may be too personal."

"Why don't you let me make that determination?"

"Very well." Hakuren hesitated, gathering her nerve. "Why did you turn down the throne? You were being groomed for it, and in all honesty you were much more qualified than either Azusa Masaki or his great-grandson..."

Seto studied the young woman over the edge of her fan. "What parameters did you use to make that assessment?"

"Your organizational skills, your military achievements, your diplomatic endeavors in the public and private sectors. Should I be more specific?"

"No," Seto grinned, impressed that the young woman had done her homework. "I won't hide behind false modesty. I'm very good at what I do; but these are not necessarily the qualities that make a good sovereign."

"I do not understand, Milady."

"I am ardent monarchist, Hakuren. I have worked hard for the system for a very long time, and it has rewarded me handsomely. But my efforts are grounded in philosophical preferences."

"I find that confusing, Lady Seto. You would put more power into one individual's hands, where it is more likely to corrupt or be corrupted? The Remza Union puts more faith in legislatures and parliaments, where administrative power is distributed."

"Who, then, assumes responsibility when failures occur? You would do well to study history."

"History is littered with the corpses of monarchies and dictatorships — "

"Those are not the same structures, Hakuren. A limited monarchy is the antithesis of totalitarianism."

"What makes you say that?"

"'A monarch with finite and constrained legal power stands separate from the state, and represents the spirit of the nation. A wise monarch lifts the ethical level of public discourse; a petty monarch at least curbs the excesses of the bureaucrats. A strong monarch fosters growth and national achievement; an incompetent monarch inspires creative dissent by the most disaffected — who nonetheless still retain the freedom to express their discontent."

"I had always assumed a monarch has absolute power."

"No. There are three types of power: Imperium, Potentia, and Auctoritas. The first is the power of the state, the faceless bureaucracy with the right to issue and enforce laws. The second is personal power, derived from wealth and shared obligations. But it is the third power, the power of Authority, that is the hallmark of the sovereign. It is the psychological and emotional leverage that comes with the personification of the national spirit. For most monarchs, Imperium is extremely limited, Potentia is available in some measure, but Auctoritas is available in abundance — and in the end is the most effective. As I became aware of the full implications of these distinctions, I decided that my personality did not fit the proper mold. I am neither courteous, compassionate, nor particularly civilized; these are the qualities a sovereign must exhibit. I am too much a schemer and a scoundrel. Look at Tenchi Masaki Jurai — now there is a monarch."

"But Azusa..?"

"In his youth, he was very courageous and ambitious. He could inspire loyalty, and was a very honorable man. But he had deep veins of conceit and pettiness, and over the years they grew like a festering sore. He was not a strong monarch, and in the end he had lost much of the respect once accorded him."

"The Remza Union always held him in high regard, Milady. As it does for His Majesty. But the RU feels that the monarchy is a hindrance, an obstruction to a truly representative form of government."

"We do not force any particular form of government on our subject worlds," Seto replied. "They are allowed to govern themselves. We control the star lanes, and the flow of commerce. We have found that a monarchy is a very suitable structure for that endeavor. It is, perhaps, the oldest human political framework in existence — immediately recognizable, and intuitively familiar to every human society. It speaks to the tribal impulses that are still an integral part of the human psyche, the need to swear fealty to one's chieftain. And it reacts quickly to crisis situations."

Hakuren studied the horizon, chewing on the facts presented her. Seto studied Hakuren, trying to intuit how the young woman would respond.

"Thank you, Lady Seto. For your time and insights. I have much to think about."

"It was my pleasure, Hakuren. We will talk again."

Hakuren bowed and backed away, while Seto faced the horizon once more, smiling behind her fan.

##########

"This is delicious!" Karen exclaimed, her tongue wrapping around the dark substance on the spoon. "What is it?"

"Chocolate pudding," Sasami replied. She was ladling portions into glass cups.

"Remarkable. It tastes familiar, somehow..."

"Don't you have chocolate in the Remza Union?"

"No, I've never heard of it before."

"I'll bet you have something pretty similar to it, though."

Karen shrugged.

"Washu says that nature will reuse the same answer to different problems, despite being in different places and different times."

"Convergent evolution?" Karen offered.

"Yeah, that's it. That explains why birds on a dozen different planets will all look alike. It also explains why sugar and chocolate will appear in lots of different places, but the names will be different."

"Well, they will never be exactly the same. The tastes will differ a little due to climate, and other variables."

"That's okay with me, I like the variety," Sasami nodded. "And I really like Terran chocolate — and so does Tenchi, which is why we're having it for dessert tonight. Would you get the whipped crème from the preservator for me?"

"What's whipped crème?"

Sasami paused and stared, and then shrugged. Of course Karen wouldn't know what whipped crème was...neither did Sasami until her jisshibe's ship crashed on Earth. "It's that container on the top shelf, the one with the blue label. Yeah, that's it. Thanks."

Karen watched Sasami open the carton and begin scooping mounds of fluffy white substance onto the chocolate. "Where did you learn all these things?"

"H-m-m-m-m? What things?"

"How to cook, how to read recipes, all of it."

"From books, at least in the beginning. My hastaba and my kardestaba both liked to cook, and it was a way for us to spend time together. After a while, I started experimenting on my own. Washu thinks I have a heightened sense of chemical discernment, so I can make really subtle evaluations."

"Heightened sense of chemical discernment?"

"Touch, taste, smell...who knows. Maybe it's a Power attribute. While we were living on Earth (stranded, actually) I volunteered to do the cooking. Tenchi's father was a decent enough chef, since he had to be, but there was never much variety. I sure changed that!"

"But they let you do the cooking, at your age?"

"Oh, they were hesitant at first. And I wasn't so sure, either, since the appliances were rather primitive. But all it took was one or two meals, and they never questioned me again." Sasami finished preparing the dessert and started moving the cups into the preservator. "What about you, did you ever do much cooking?"

"No. Never. My parents always left that chore to the servants. I just never thought about it much."

"So why the interest now?"

"There are no servants aboard the K2," Karen smirked. "And there probably won't be. Someone has to do it. And watching you here, how much you enjoy yourself..."

"It depends upon your perspective, I guess. For me, this is not a chore but a hobby. I like to set all the ingredients out on the counter, spread out around the recipe, and figure out how I'm going to assemble the dish from so many pieces. Like a puzzle. My Hastabashibe Noike calls me a hunter/gatherer stalking wild game." Sasami paused to smile at a memory, and then smile at Karen. "Generally, you're good at something because you like doing it."

"I don't really know what I'm good at." Karen remembered her aristocratic childhood, the privileged schools, the university — even the short stint at the government training center. She had never really gotten her hands dirty before, since there was always someone else around to do it for her. And here she was watching a princess and future Empress think nothing of embracing what she always considered peasant labor.

"Well, this is as good a place to start as any." Sasami pulled a well-worn recipe book from a shelf and handed it to her. "Look through this for something that sounds good, and we'll make it for tonight. It's easy once you learn how."

Sasami retreated to check on her simmering kettles, and Karen tentatively opened the book.

##########

Washu sat in the command chair of the Kamidake II, hands resting upon her lap. Her spectral keyboard hovered before her, and beyond it stood Kiriko and Suiren. "Mind explaining your changes?"

"Of course," Kiriko replied. "Originally, there were the four workstations you defined to the ship's central computer. We expanded it to eight by broadening the scope of the original assignments."

"Why?"

"Seina lost his temper."

"Could you be a bit more specific?"

"There were four workstations and eight highly-trained, highly-competitive wives," Suiren explained. "The bickering was constant. Seina is normally very patient, but one day (not three weeks into the marriage) he reached his limit. He complained that, since this is a GP vessel, we should all be wearing GP uniforms. And if we can't work together, maybe we'd better work in shifts — or just not serve with him. Then he stormed off the bridge, leaving eight very embarrassed and very upset women behind him."

"And...?"

"We reached a compromise. I redesigned the bridge layout, and Kiriko pulled some strings to get Hakuren, Gyokuren, Karen, and I enlisted in the GP. Seina later apologized for losing his temper, but he was absolutely correct. He motivated us into making some necessary changes."

"Ok. Describe the new layout for me."

Suiren gestured towards the seat to Washu's left. "This is Kiriko's seat. She is the executive officer, and her workstation monitors all of the others. She has subsystems for prioritizing and administering the collated information. Since she also maintains empathic ties with Mizuki and Fuku, she has an array of subsystems devoted to managing their integration to the ship's higher-level operations."

She continued moving to the left. "This is Hakuren's seat. She is our medical officer. There aren't usually many medical emergencies to attend to, so her workstation is actually devoted to psychological recording and profiling."

"This is Karen's seat. Her workstation is devoted to life support and environmental status. She watches over the sensor arrays in the ship's habitat module, as well as those in Mizuki's habitat module."

"This is Neeju's seat. Her workstation is devoted to communications. With her background as an ecclesiastical facilitator, and her political acumen, it just made sense."

"This is Gyokuren's seat. Her workstation is devoted to the library and sensor arrays. Not only is she a systems analyst by training, she is also widely-read and a master of trivia and arcane information. It seemed like a logical arrangement."

"This is my seat — engineering and ship's systems. I'm a trained cyberneticist with a strong background in astronautical engineering."

"This is Ryoko's seat. She is our weapons and tactics officer, since she was an experienced pirate captain who fought in a number of engagements. She controls the ship's offensive and defensive weapons systems."

"And this is Amane's seat. She is our astrogator and pilot."

"Interesting," Washu observed. "Hardware to the right, software to the left. I like it. But what about this seat?"

"Seina's command chair actually has very few functions available to it. He doesn't need them."

"Why is the chair sitting on a raised platform?"

"Much of the new cabling is routed through it, as well as ventilators for the increased heat."

"Besides," Kiriko added, "he is our captain. We all want to be able to see him, no matter where we sit."

"I see," Washu replied, and lapsed into silence. "Let me ask you ladies something: is he very decisive? I mean, does he take charge when the need arises?"

"Yes," Kiriko replied. "Have you read the action reports from his encounter with the combined pirate fleet and rogue squadron, which recovered the mecha unit?"

"Yes, I have. Which is what makes me question this arrangement," she indicated the circle of seats. She reached over and tapped a key on her keyboard, and the K2's bridge dissolved around them. The words 'Simulation Terminated' hovered in the air. "Tell me, what's he like in bed?"

"Excuse me?" Kiriko replied, wide-eyed. Beside her, Suiren's mouth hung open.

"It's a simple enough question. What's he like? Is he energetic? Enthusiastic? Sullen? Petulant? Manipulative? A whiner? Gentle and compassionate? Ladies, that's the one place where he will drop any pretense and let you see into his soul. When you're laying nose-to-nose with him, do you like what you see in his eyes?"

Blushing, but smiling, they both nodded.

"Does he lead or follow?"

They exchanged embarrassed glances, before Kiriko answered. "He leads."

"As I recall from that action report, he is quoted as saying that he enjoyed driving the mecha a lot more than commanding the K2. Could it be because he felt more involved?"

No longer blushing or smiling, they nodded again.

Washu began typing a series of commands into her keyboard, while Kiriko and Suiren watched pensively. A moment later the air around them rippled, and the K2 Bridge reappeared — with a difference: the original command chair was gone, replaced by a bulkier and imposing structure. A glowing blue-white blister dominated each arm of the new seat.

"It looks like the command chair from the mecha," Suiren said.

"That's because it is the command chair from the mecha." She leaned forward and placed her hands on the orbs, which promptly brightened. "You ladies tend to make the decisions and hand Seina the results, allowing him nothing more than the chance to issue a token set of directions. I propose that you reverse the process: let him lead, while you support his actions. You ladies may be the mind and the hands of this ship, but the body always follows the heart. And he is definitely the heart, isn't he?"

"Yes," Kiriko whispered.

"Have you ever wondered about the design of this ship?"

"Yes," Suiren replied.

"What's missing?"

"The artificial intelligence unit."

"Very good. Actually, there is one, but it was not given a personality, which is the normal practice. The K2's AI unit was designed to facilitate communication and cooperation among a diverse group of sapients. Look at how well Fuku and Mizuki interface; that is no accident. The concept is called gestalt bonding — when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. (It's a lesson I learned from the Emperor.) But every network needs a focus, every ship needs a captain — and every family needs a heart. (Another lesson I learned from the Emperor.) Do you see where this going?"

"Yes," they chorused.

"Good. Any questions?"

"If you remove the command chair from the mecha, what will replace it?" Suiren asked.

"Beats me," Washu shrugged. The look on their faces prompted an explanation: "If the Royal Botanical Society feels that they can successfully guide the mecha's seed to maturity, it will be confiscated and placed in the Royal Nursery. The mecha will then become relegated to disposal status. I've already put my dibs in, since I think I can replace the seed with a suitable power source. Since Seina is already familiar with the command chair, and doesn't really care what happens to the mecha, I'll install it on the K2."

"But, what about the seed?" Kiriko asked, visions of her own Companion flashing through her mind.

"The seed will spend the next few centuries growing with its peers. Its bond with Seina is every bit as strong as Mizuki's is with you, and he will feel it for as long as he lives — no matter how far apart they are." Washu's voice softened, and her smile turned sad. "But remember, Kiriko, that seed, like your Mizuki, will live long after you and Seina are both dead. There will be other Companions in their future."

Kiriko nodded, not quite comprehending the emotions she saw submerged in Washu's emerald eyes.

##########

Gyokuren stood in the common room, inspecting the books (printed and electronic) stacked neatly on the bookcase shelves. She felt a presence behind her, and turned around to face Tenchi and Mihoshi.

"I've heard that your major Power attribute is the ability to disappear," he said.

"It's not quite so dramatic," Gyokuren replied. "It's a mental cloak, not a physical one. It's a conjuror's trick to make you ignore my presence...you forget that I'm here."

"It sounds impressive."

"It' has its drawbacks, however."

"Oh?"

"I can still be heard and photographed. Only the mind of the observer is affected."

"Still, it sounds intriguing."

"Yeah, and real useful in my profession," Mihoshi echoed.

"What is your profession?" Gyokuren asked.

"I'm a Detective Captain in the Galaxy Police," Mihoshi replied. "I've also done some security inspections for Lady Funaho."

"Ah, you're the one," Gyokuren smiled.

"I'm the one."

"I'd like to see this Power manifestation, if you don't mind," Tenchi asked.

Gyokuren shrugged and nodded. If the Emperor of Jurai wanted to see her disappear, she'd oblige him. She applied the mental trigger and Mihoshi gasped. Gyokuren stepped quietly around them; Mihoshi's head swiveled, looking and listening intently, Tenchi continued to stare straight at her. Gyokuren released the mental trigger, and was rewarded with Mihoshi's double-take.

"That was impressive," Mihoshi giggled.

"Thank you. I noticed that you weren't deceived, however," she said to Tenchi.

"Well, I cheated," he grinned.

"How so?"

"First, I have extended senses. You did 'disappear' in the normal sense, but I could still perceive you in other ways. That, and I saw your shadow moving on the floor."

Gyokuren bowed in acknowledgment — and filed the information away for future reference. Her estimation of the Emperor rose several notches.

"Find anything interesting here?" Tenchi asked, gesturing towards the bookcase.

"I find everything interesting; but the level of attraction usually depends upon the presentation."

"Ah," he nodded. "But surely there are some topics that are more attractive than others?"

"Yes, which I chalk-up to the laws of probability. I don't focus on any one subject for very long, because I was trained to filter-out the mass of details and search for any under-laying patterns."

"I was, too," Mihoshi said.

"Yes, crime investigation and system analysis have much in common." Gyokuren smiled and shrugged. "I just have a bad habit of retaining too many of the details."

"I would think that would be a very useful habit," Tenchi said, "especially for memory-intensive activities, like learning a new language."

"Well, I do speak seven languages fluently," Gyokuren replied. "But I find it hard to relax sometimes."

"Here," Tenchi offered, "maybe this will help." He removed a soft-cover book from its shelf and handed it to her. "Washu translated a bunch of these into Juraian for me when we moved here. I found it a useful way to learn the language."

"What is it?" Gyokuren asked, looking at the cover and thumbing through the pages.

"It's a crossword puzzle book. I was amazed that there was no Juraian equivalent. My Hastaba and I used to do these for fun when I was younger."

"Crossword puzzle? I've never heard of such a thing."

Tenchi grinned. "Just consider it a form of primitive amusement." He retrieved a pencil from a cup of writing implements and handed it to her, and then explained how to complete a puzzle.

Fascinated, Gyokuren allowed herself to be escorted to a chair, and failed to notice when Tenchi and Mihoshi slipped away.

##########

"I'll coordinate everyone's schedules," Misaki said. She was sitting on the veranda railing, enjoying the feel of the early morning sunshine, the breeze tousling her hair.

"No doubt you'll work closely with the admiralty liaison, too. Captain Jelham, isn't it?" Funaho teased. She was standing beside her kardesshibe, watching the clouds march across the sky.

"Yes, he is" Misaki replied, one eyebrow rising over her lop-sided grin.

"How convenient."

"I thought so."

"And you'll leak the agenda to the appropriate media sources?" Seto asked, from her position beside Funaho.

"Yes. The usual sources."

"Good."

"Well, I'd better attend to it. The Yamada family won't be here more than a couple of days." She rose and walked back to the door. It slid open to spill a wave of sound, as a dozen conversations broke the morning calm. The door slid shut behind Misaki, and the stillness quickly returned.

"Really, Seto, I don't mind being your stalking horse, but I do wish you'd let me in on the details." Funaho looked sidelong at her mentor.

"What details are you speaking of?" Seto replied.

"Why did you raise the Voudrathi issue with the Yamada family present? Not only was there very little they could contribute, but four of Seina's wives are not even Juraian citizens."

"Yes they are, by virtue of marrying him. And they did make a contribution — see how readily they offered to help?"

Funaho stewed silently, casting an occasional glance, before finally replying. "That whole meeting was a propaganda exercise, wasn't it?"

"Was it?"

"Seina's wives are still sending messages back to the Remza Union, I'll wager. And you wanted them to report Jurai's position vis-à-vis the Voudrathi...and Tenchi's response."

"And what would we accomplish if that were true?"

"I don't know — yet — but it must be something substantial."

"It is substantial," Seto admitted, a feral grin stretching across her face. "I have an idea, old friend, that I would like your opinion about."

"That must mean you have already made up your mind," Funaho replied, "and you merely wish to inform me about it."

Seto shrugged and gestured with her fan.

"Ah, well, this should prove interesting. What is your idea?"

"Do you recall the statement I made yesterday, about uniting humanity under one government?"

"Yes, I remember. What of it?"

"I think we have the vehicle to achieve that goal, and it is orbiting the sun a million kilometers from here."

"The Voudrathi? That lone ship is not a threat."

"But it could be. Especially if portrayed to our human neighbors properly."

"Are you suggesting that humanity unite behind a common threat?"

"Why not? History is replete with successful examples."

"But, we don't know what their intentions are. They may be entirely peaceful."

"Oh, come now, Funaho, you know better than that. Alien or not, aggression is a universal characteristic of every species we've ever encountered. You don't conquer a quarter of a spiral arm just for natural resources or better astronomical views. You're right, I don't know what their intentions are — and I don't really care. I see an opportunity here to exploit, and I want your support."

Funaho considered the implications, weighing the risks involved. "What do we tell Tenchi?"

"Nothing, at least not for a while. Such a movement will take some time to get started."

"Washu will notice. Nothing escapes her for long."

"Then bring her into the discussion. I don't see how she can object — particularly since she stands to benefit highly if the effort succeeds."

"It could lead to war, you know."

"With who, the Ascenn'an Autocracy? They are a nuisance, and should have been dealt with long ago. An alliance against them would work in our favor, eliminating an irritant as well as cementing relations with other neighbors."

Funaho nodded slowly. "Very well, you have my endorsement."

"And your support?"

"Yes."

"Good. Now, let's go have a chat with Empress Washu."

ACT 3 — SATURDAY AFTERNOON

Mary-Kate: Hey, Ash! There's water dripping from the ceiling! Right into my cereal.
Ashley: It must be our brother. He's upstairs taking a bath.
Mary-Kate: I told you we should have sold him.

Bring on the clowns
Bring on the boats
Bring on the soap, make sure that it floats
Bring me my bubble bath, strawberry, please
Bring me some sandwiches, ice cream and cheese
I don't know how long this could go!

I'm gonna stay in the bathtub 'till the soap disappears
Stay 'till I'm wrinkled clean up to my ears
It may be for weeks and it may be for years
Gonna stay in the bathtub 'till the soap disappears

Something to wash with and something to scrub
Something to rubba and something to dub
Three plastic bottles, a one gallon pail
My blue rubber ducky, my green blubber whale
And now I'll step into the tub!

I'm gonna stay in the bathtub 'till the soap disappears
Stay 'till I'm wrinkled clean up to my ears
It may be for weeks and it may be for years
Gonna stay in the bathtub 'till the soap disappears

Wait, I'm not ready — I nearly forgot
I'm here in the bath but the water is not
I just can't believe it
I just have to laugh
But at least it isn't too hot

I'm gonna stay in the bathtub 'till the soap disappears
Stay 'till I'm wrinkled clean up to my ears
It may be for weeks and it may be for years
Gonna stay in the bathtub 'till the soap disappears

I'm gonna stay in the bathtub 'till the soap disappears
Stay 'till I'm wrinkled clean up to my ears
It may be for weeks and it may be for years
Gonna stay in the bathtub 'till the soap disappears

Title: "Gonna' Stay In The Bathtub 'til The Soap Disappears"
Artist: Olsen Twins

"You don't have to help me, you know." Sasami pushed the hovercart slowly. It held several small baskets filled with sake and juice bottles, several stacks of cups, and one box of carrots.

"I know," Karen replied. "But I get tired of just sitting. I'd rather be doing something."

"Me, too. I just don't see what the attraction is to soaking in hot water, drinking sake and getting all wrinkly." They were walking away from the service door and into the large tiled chamber that constituted the palace's onsen. Two pools of steaming water, one very large and one very small, separated by a privacy screen of potted plants, raised the room's temperature and humidity, and threw dappled reflections back at the ceiling lights. The chamber echoed with conversation and soft splashing. Sasami gestured towards the knots of adults sitting in the pools, members of the Masaki and Yamada families.

"Well, in their defense, the alcohol loosens the tongue and makes the conversation flow better. And there is something relaxing about sitting chest deep in steaming water. The combination opens you up."

Sasami shook her head; midday and the adult beverages were already flowing.

Karen guessed her line of thought. "You must see a lot of large parties."

"Not parties, really," Sasami grinned. "Life with Tenchi has taught me to be very flexible. You never know what will happen on any given day."

"I'm impressed."

"Don't be. Our life really isn't as exciting as yours; we don't spend our time hunting pirates."

"Well, most of our time is spent traveling or in port, so there aren't that many actual confrontations. Besides, the numbers are dwindling again. There's talk of reassigning Seina to other duties."

"Oh, like what?"

"I don't know," Karen replied somberly, "but between Lady Seto and Prince Yosho at the Admiralty, and whoever is running things at the Galaxy Police, I'm sure it will be something interesting."

"Will that mean splitting you all up?" Sasami was referring to the fact Seina Yamada crewed his ship with his eight wives, one Juraian Royal Tree, and a cabbit.

"Unlikely. Even though the GP makes no accommodations for assigning families to the same ship, Lady Seto is adamant that we remain together. Which suits me just fine — it's hard to build a homelife if everyone scatters."

"Yeah, that would be rough."

##########

Sasami brought the cart to a halt. She stood at the edge of the small pool, gazing down at her husband-to-be, and grinned. Tenchi Masaki Jurai, Emperor of 90%+ of humanity and ruler of an interstellar empire, lounged in the steaming water with his elbows draped across the ledge. As he shifted he exposed skin that was reddened by the heat. He looked up at Sasami and smiled, a twinkle in his eyes. "Are you thirsty, Tenchi?"

"Yes, I believe I am. What have you got in the cart?"

"Juice and sake."

"I'd have some juice, thanks. What about you, Seina?"

Seina sat a few feet away, almost mirroring the monarch's posture. A shadow fell across his head, and he looked up to see the upside-down visage of Karen's face. They exchanged grins. "I think I'd like some juice, too."

"Good choice!" Sasami laughed. Karen started to reach for a bottle, but Sasami stopped her. "I'll get it." Sasami gestured at two of the juice bottles, which promptly floated clear of their basket and drifted slowly towards the men. Two cups followed.

Karen stared, before recovering her composure. "Oh, I forgot about your Power abilities..."

"Yeah, they come in real handy." She looked down again, watching Tenchi open the bottle. "Don't simmer in there too long, Tenchi. We have a big meal planned for tonight, with karaoke afterwards — and you promised to dance with us."

"Your wish is my command, Princess," Tenchi replied.

Sasami nodded with satisfaction and walked away, pushing the cart before her. Karen reached down to ruffle Seina's hair before following.

Seina watched Sasami and Karen push the cart around the privacy screen and back towards the larger pool and the nearest cluster of bathers, which was centered around a stately woman with jade-tinted hair and a commanding presence.

Tenchi watched Seina, noting his glance and response. "You're afraid of Lady Seto, aren't you?" Tenchi asked.

"Well, yes," Seina admitted.

"Wise move. She has quite a history, is extremely manipulative, and knows where everyone's skeletons are buried — and probably had a hand in putting them there."

"Uh, what kind of history?"

Tenchi sipped his juice, considering. "There's a lot of gossip about her, but I'm guessing the truth is actually more colorful. Let's see...she was one of the survivors of the K1190 disaster, a child of six who was acquainted with the director — Naja Akara."

Tenchi hesitated over the name, frowning at a memory. Seina used the pause to ask, "What happened on K1190?"

"It was a Galaxy Academy research station, destroyed by pirates and rebels. Maybe that trauma explains why she enjoys hunting pirates so much. At any rate, she was adopted into the Kamiki Clan, one of the four great houses that dominate Juraian politics. She eventually married the lineage holder, Utsutsumi."

"I've met him. He's...rather unusual."

"Oh, he's not bad when you get to know him. He's Seto's polar opposite: dependable but not real bright. And he has near-infinite patience — an absolute necessity when dealing with her for any length of time."

Seina grinned. "I'll bet he's henpecked a lot."

Tenchi returned the grin. "That's a safe bet. Anyway, the reigning emperor at the time recognized her talents early. She's a brilliant strategist, and a Master Class Power Adept."

"What is her...?" Seina hesitated, searching for the proper term.

"Manifestation? Her psychokinetic talents make her super-strong, a trait passed along to her daughter and grand-daughters."

Meaning Former Empress Misaki and Tenchi's consorts, Ayeka and Sasami. "Oh."

"The Emperor groomed her to be his successor, since Juraian politics (like damn-near everything else in the Empire) is based on the Great Game."

"I've heard that term: the strongest rules."

"Yep. The line of succession is more symbolic than anything else. The throne belongs to whoever can keep it. Upon the death or abdication of the ruling monarch, the designated successor automatically assumes the throne until the next crown challenge is scheduled. The victor of that contest will then be crowned Emperor or Empress." Tenchi sipped his juice, wetting his lips. "Anyway, Seto apparently went along with it for a while, but in the end declined the offer. She had more freedom to maneuver and fewer restrictions if she stayed in the shadows. Take it from me, most of an emperor's time is spent horse-trading and fire-fighting. The glamour is pretty shallow."

Seina said nothing, considering the implications.

"Things coasted smoothly for a while. Seto sharpened her skills by reorganizing House Kamiki, and the Emperor started casting about for a new candidate. They both discovered my great-grandfather about the same time. Azusa was a rising star in House Masaki, handsome, courageous, and a Master Class adept with martial arts skills. (He was also arrogant and headstrong, but those facets were conveniently ignored.) So the Emperor started grooming him in statecraft and Seto began teaching him some of the shrewder aspects of human nature, preparing him for the day he would issue the challenge."

"What about the Emperor's children? Shouldn't one of them have inherited the throne?"

"No. Remember, the throne must be earned. Since the monarch's children are not expected to inherit the office, they are free to follow their own inclinations. It's possible that none of them will show any interest in politics. However, any who do will have the home court advantage for learning the intricacies of Imperial administration, as well as retaining the best teachers/coaches available — like my grandfather." Tenchi chuckled wryly. "The theory, of course, is that the most qualified candidate actually assumes the throne. However, history has repeatedly proven that dumb luck and cheating often played just as a big a factor as talent. And the best fighter was not always the best administrator."

"Will you face a Crown Challenge one day?"

"I don't know," Tenchi mused. "I suppose. I've dropped hints with Parliament about possibly amending the laws, and making the line of succession hereditary."

"Wouldn't that lock-out the other great houses, if Clan Masaki ruled permanently?"

Tenchi made a dismissive gesture. "They're already so intermarried that it doesn't matter much. For instance, Seto engineered the betrothal of her daughter Misaki with Azusa, thus unifying House Kamiki and House Masaki. And there are other examples." Tenchi grinned, adding, "Azusa must not have cared for that idea much, since he had his sights set on a young lady named Mitsuki Amaki. Anyway, it almost became a moot point due to his run-in with another rising star: Kagato."

"Isn't he the one...?"

"Yeah, we had our own confrontation much later. He and Azusa went at it toe-to-toe — probably instigated by my great-grandfather (Kagato was much too focused on his quest for Power to be distracted by mundane matters). It must have been a pretty spectacular battle. Azusa lost, and he barely escaped with his life. He steered his crippled ship into the nearest occupied star system looking for sanctuary. It turned-out to be Earth. 13th-Century Japan, to be exact."

"What has that to do with Seto?"

Tenchi grinned. "While my great-grandfather repaired his ship, he also took a fancy to one of the local girls. A daimyo's daughter, in fact, by the name of Funaho."

"Ah."

"Uh, huh. They were married on Earth, and she went back to Jurai with him. You can imagine the shockwaves that caused. She was a Power adept, formidable enough to be taken seriously, and strong enough to weather the complaints lodged against her. Azusa eventually challenged and defeated the Emperor, assumed the throne, and Funaho became his consort. Azusa must have thought he'd out-foxed old Seto once and for all."

Seina glanced over to where Seto was holding court. "What happened?"

"Seto took Funaho on as a protégé, training her for the position she has now. Seto also encouraged Funaho and Misaki to get know one another. Between the former's unfamiliarity with Jurai, and the latter's youth, they bonded quite closely. When civil war nearly broke-out over the birth of Funaho's half-breed son (Yosho), and Parliament demanded that Azusa marry Misaki after all, neither woman objected. Seto never bragged openly, but her private gloating must have angered Azusa for many years."

"Did Seto have any hand in the objections to Yosho?"

Tenchi shrugged. "Maybe. I wouldn't put it past her. After all, that was the lever that forced Azusa to the altar to marry her daughter."

##########

Sasami demonstrated proper etiquette: she had served the Emperor first, and since everyone else present was family (or nearly so), she would start with the most senior person — her grandmother, Lady Seto, who was holding court with her daughter and protégés.

The larger pool was not gigantic; there was enough separation between groups that the background hum of conversation did not interfere, nor the constant echoes distract. Sasami aimed the cart so that it traversed the tiled floor at an angle, placing it broadside to the five women when she stopped beside them. "Greetings, ladies. What would you like to drink?"

"Sasami, why are you pushing that cart? Surely there is a 'bot available for the task?" Seto asked.

"Tenchi does not allow any robots in this wing of the palace."

"Oh, what a silly regulation."

"He doesn't think so. And neither do we, in light of Naja Akara's assassin droids. Besides, I don't mind doing it. Now, Grandma, would you like sake or juice?"

"What kind of juice do you have?"

"Benns'ahnberry."

"What is sake?"

"A Terran liquor made from fermented rice. Tenchi's father always kept plenty in the house — except for those times when Ryoko and Ayeka drank it all."

"It sounds delightful. I'll have sake," Seto decided.

"What about you other ladies?"

"I think we'll all have sake, Dear," Misaki said, and received confirmation nods from Funaho, Airi, and Minaho.

Sasami gestured and the beverages drifted from the cart, accompanied by cups. "Don't get too snookered; we'll have lunch in a couple of hours, and I've got a big dinner planned."

"Why don't you take the cart back to the common room after you've made one circuit?" Funaho asked.

"Yeah," Airi added, "we can't drink any more if it isn't around."

"Well, that might work with a normal group," Sasami grinned, "but I know this crew — those that can't teleport directly wouldn't hesitate to go looking. I'll probably just leave the cart parked by the door and trust you adults to keep your word."

"We promise, Dear," Misaki replied.

"See that you do." And with that, Sasami gave the cart a shove and marched away, Karen Yamada in tow.

"Isn't she cute? So talented, and so attractive..."

"Just like her grandmother," Seto smiled indulgently.

"Most of us are grandmothers," Funaho said.

"Some of us are great-grandmothers," Airi added.

"That's a tedious distinction," Funaho sniffed. Then she looked sideways at Minaho with a sly grin. "But at least one of us here is not so old and decrepit."

"True," Airi nodded. "And I, for one, wouldn't mind seeing more grandchildren — "

" — As I would enjoy more great-grandchildren — "

" — And I'm sure Tenchi would like one or two new mensireshibelar — "

"A touching sentiment," Minaho countered, "but unlikely anytime soon."

"Perhaps you should let Lady Seto perform a few discreet inquiries. She has a great deal of experience in that area."

"I have tried," Seto interjected. "But since Minaho has been so reluctant about quantifying her preferences — "

"My preferences are not open to discussion," Minaho snapped. "Besides, there is more to life than marriage and children. A woman should be able to pursue a career if she so chooses."

"No one is denying that, Dear," Airi replied. "But you are denying yourself one of the greatest joys a woman can make, a biologically mandated — "

"Save your breath, Hastaba. Pulling my chain is not going to foster an uncontrollable mating urge. My reishibe settled for an artichitect; if and when I do decide to go looking for a suitable husband, it will have to be someone with much greater ambitions and potentials."

"One cannot predict all of the possible potentials in a prospective partner," Lady Seto advised. "After all, that architect sired the most potent human being seen in generations. I am quite sure your shibe did not perceive that aspect at the time."

"How do you know it wasn't Achika that made the more significant contribution?" Minaho countered.

"Both parents were required."

##########

The cart paused, a chorus of clinking jostled bottles. Sasami and Karen stood looking down at two women sitting quietly in the pool. Nearby, a bassinet decorated with pink flowers hovered. "What would you like to drink, Ryoko?" Sasami asked.

Both women started to speak, and both stopped awkwardly.

"I was asking Ryoko Yamada, since I know what Ryoko Masaki Jurai is drinking." Sasami pointed and a bottle of juice hopped off the cart, a cup jumping after it.

"I would prefer sake," the cyan-haired woman replied, reaching for the levitating objects.

"I know that, too, but you are still nursing that baby — " Sasami pointed towards the bassinet, " — so you will be drinking juice. End of discussion."

"Yes, ma'am," Ryoko Masaki Jurai sighed, although the corners of her lips curled upwards.

"I'll have juice, too," Ryoko Yamada said politely. A moment later a bottle and cup drifted down into her waiting hands.

Sasami pushed on the handle and the cart started moving, rattling less since it contained fewer bottles and cups.

"Do you think either one of them will loosen up at all?" Karen asked. "I know our Ryoko was really looking forward to talking to her idol."

"I hope so. Our Ryoko is usually a chatterbox, but she doesn't like talking about the bad old days much. She tells a lot of stories, but only those where no one gets hurt, or where something really dumb happens." They walked in silence for a bit, before Sasami grinned and added, "Of course, the best way to get her to open up is to have an argument with Ayeka."

"I've heard about those. Are they really that bad?"

"Depends upon what you've heard," Sasami shrugged. "The worst ones involve throwing Power strikes at one another. Back on Earth, they regularly damaged our house."

"Didn't anyone ever get hurt?" Karen asked, trying to visualize what combat between Master Class Power Adepts must be like.

"Nah, they weren't really trying to injure one another. What we could never decide was if they really respected each other that much, or were just afraid of what Tenchi would have done if someone had gotten hurt."

Ryoko MJ watched the cart glide away, Sasami's ponytails swinging ponderously in synch with her footsteps. Karen was looking back at her, so she turned to face Ryoko Y. "So you named yourself after me, huh?"

Ryoko Y nodded once, a bashful grin on her face.

"Why? I was one of the most hated people in the Empire."

"I always admired your courage, tenacity, and tactical brilliance," the younger woman replied. "Although, I will admit the actual applications were a bit...disturbing."

"That's putting it pretty mildly," the older Ryoko said dryly. She tossed her head for emphasis. "I wasn't so much a pirate as a vandal. I did my master's bidding, as efficiently and expeditiously as possible. Innocent bystanders were considered collateral damage."

"But I always wanted to meet you. In fact, all the years I was growing up I assumed you were dead."

"A lot of people hoped I was. Much of the time, I wondered if I was." She looked at the puzzled expression on the younger woman's face and grinned. "Never mind. Ancient history. So, we're a couple of former pirates who got lucky."

"I didn't set-out to be a pirate; I just...fell into it. When I was younger, I wanted to enter the GP, since it seemed the most logical fit for my interests."

"You got there eventually."

"Yes, I did. I have Lady Seto and my husband to thank for that."

Ryoko MJ shrugged. "The past can't be erased, but it can be forgiven. Thank God. I never dreamed I would be where I am now, or as happy."

Ryoko Y nodded. "Me, too. All things considered, the GP was pretty lenient with me, as were the Juraian courts."

"Well, marrying into the Juraian nobility can cure a lot of problems," the older woman grinned.

Ryoko Y studied the Emperor's consort, her eyes repeatedly drawn to the ruby gems glittering at throat and wrists. They glowed with their own internal fire, bright even in normal room lighting.

Ryoko MJ studied the GP officer, and the emerald crystals affixed to the inside corners of her eyebrows, wondering what significance they may have.

They heard a noise from the hovering bassinet. Ryoko MJ floated out of the water, a small shower dripping off her legs, and drifted toward the bassinet. Ryoko Y was startled by the older woman's ability to levitate, and watched her wide-eyed.

"Oh, what's the matter?" Ryoko MJ cooed. There was a stir in the bassinet as she discarded the blanket and lifted the infant out. "Did Mama's Little Angel wake up?"

Ryoko Y noted that as Ryoko MJ gently settled back into the pool, she caused barely a ripple. In her arms she cradled a baby wearing a teal jumper. A cyan-tinged fuzz dusted the infant's skull, and two soft brown eyes blinked at the bright light.

Ryoko MJ cuddled the infant before looking over at her Companion. "Ryoko, I would like to introduce my daughter, Nagisa. Nagisa, this is Ryoko Yamada."

"Oh, she's adorable!" Ryoko Y smiled, scooting closer to inspect the baby. "How old is she?"

Ryoko MJ grinned, watching Nagisa's eyes focus on her own. "She's almost six weeks old. Welcome to the Pirate's Den, sweetie." To Ryoko Y, she explained that, "Tenchi once promised me that we'd have a whole litter of little pirates." To Nagisa, she added, "And Daddy always keeps his promises, huh?"

##########

They sat in a circle, steam wisps rising around them: Ayeka, Kiriko, Gyokuren, Suiren, and Hakuren. Since they were all very reserved, very polite, and very dignified, conversation was delivered in a measured cadence and with graceful gestures.

"Aren't they a fun group?" Sasami whispered to Karen, who giggled appreciatively. "I've seen more animation in raindrops on a window pane!"

The cart stopped next to Gyokuren, who was sitting along the wall.

"Oh, Sasami, what a thoughtful gesture!" Ayeka exclaimed.

"Well, I know how fond you ladies are of getting soaked," Sasami replied.

"You aren't joining us?" Kiriko asked.

"No, I have several kettles to keep an eye on. But thanks anyway."

"Karen?"

"Sasami is teaching me the rudiments of kitchen magic."

"Well, I certainly wouldn't want to interrupt that," Ayeka decided. "That is time well spent, indeed."

"That's what I thought, too," Karen added.

"What would you ladies like, juice or sake?" Sasami asked. She gestured, a bottle of sake and cup arcing gently through the air from the cart to Ayeka's waiting hands. The latter nonchalantly opened it, ignoring completely the wide-eyed stares from the Yamada wives. Karen coughed, smothering her chuckle politely behind her hand.

"I'll...have what she's having," Hakuren said, nodding towards Ayeka. The others made similar comments.

"That's what I figured," Sasami replied. Four pairs of bottles and cups drifted off the cart, each pair floating out over the pool towards their intended receiver. They were captured hesitantly, as though the recipient wasn't quite sure of the validity or solidity of the gifts. "Don't drink too much, please Ayeka? We have a big dinner planned for later, and karaoke afterwards, and Tenchi — "

" — promised to dance with us. I have no intention of forgetting the promise or letting him off the hook!"

The shibej shared conspiratorial grins, before Sasami gave the cart a shove and followed it. Karen took one last look at the faces of her kardesshibelar and chuckled openly, before trotting off after Sasami.

For a moment, the only sounds were liquid going into cups, and polite sipping.

"Can I ask you two a personal question?" Hakuren finally said.

Ayeka and Kiriko exchanged glances, sharing a shrug.

Hakuren's natural assertiveness was emboldened by the effects of the alcohol, allowing her curiosity to get the best of her. "Well, we..." she indicated herself, Gyokuren and Suiren, "...are not from Jurai, but we do study your culture a lot. And we've heard...stories...about certain...eh...marital customs..."

Ayeka started giggling, while Kiriko looked mortified.

"We've heard that Juraian wives tend to...submit their husbands to...ah...some rather extreme forms of emotional expression..."

"It's not a universal custom," Kiriko snapped.

"It ought to be," Ayeka added, still giggling.

"So, you know what I am talking about?" Hakuren asked.

"Yes," Ayeka and Kiriko answered.

"Mind letting us in on it?" Suiren asked.

"I think I already know," Gyokuren said, grinning.

##########

Mihoshi giggled, the infant on her shoulder quivering in synch. Her long blonde hair was gathered and tied at the crown of her head, well away from the baby.

"Really, Mihoshi, why don't you put Miyuki back in her bassinet before you drop her in the pool?"

"Oh, Kiyone, you worry too much. I've been in here with her lots of times. Besides, newborns already know how to swim, you know? It's instinctive. But, if it makes you feel better..." Mihoshi climbed out of the water and padded over to the hovering bassinet decorated with yellow ribbons. She gently lowered her daughter into the bassinet, arranging a blanket and adjusting the sound-dampening controls. "There, honey. Now you be a good girl while Mommy talks to her friends, ok?"

Sasami and Karen arrived, pushing the hovercart.

Mihoshi walked past and helped herself to a bottle of juice and a cup. Sasami nodded approvingly and turned to the other women in the pool. "What can I get for you ladies?"

"I'll have sake," Kiyone replied. "I'm off-duty and enjoying it."

"Where's Trinnard?"

"Working. He'll join us this evening."

"Good. I'm making enough supper to satisfy even his appetite!"

"You've spoiled him, Sasami. I can't cook worth a darn, so he eats over here every chance he gets."

Sasami laughed. "What about you, Amane?"

Amane grinned. "I'll have sake, too, thanks."

Sasami pointed and two bottles floated towards the pool, chased by cups. "Better stay sober, Kiyone; we're doing karaoke after dinner."

"Humph, so I gotta sing for my supper again? Story of my life."

Sasami grinned and resumed her circuit of the onsen, Karen traveling beside her.

Mihoshi dropped into the pool, causing a small tidal surge. "Oh, good! I love karaoke!"

"What's karaoke?" Amane asked.

Mihoshi and Kiyone both stared at her.

"Oh, that's right, you've never spent any time on Earth," Kiyone said. She explained the basic sing-along function and the equipment used. "Usually, a group of people get together and take turns singing solos; but we've been doing a lot of group singing over the last year."

"Uh, huh, ever since Tenchi arranged for Professor Gayal to give us voice lessons," Mihoshi added.

"What do you use for music?" Amane asked. "I know that you can find a lot of exotic stuff at the import bazaars, but that sounds pretty specialized..."

"Oh, Tenchi's stepmother sends us discs regularly," Mihoshi replied.

"How would she know what to look for?"

"She doesn't — she lets her kids pick the music," Kiyone replied, sipping her sake. "Do you sing?"

"A little."

"We aren't great, but we do have fun."

"Particularly after the alcohol starts flowing!" Mihoshi giggled. Kiyone nodded ruefully.

##########

One end of the large pool was pinched off to form a shallow wading pool. Washu sat on the tiled edge, tossing an assortment of floating toys to her daughter Achika, and Ayeka's son Azusa. Both children were hopping and splashing and playing with the toys, laughing and giggling and chattering noisily. Across the pool sat Neeju, looking like nothing more than an adolescent babysitter. Beside her, two furry quadrupeds lay fast asleep, long ears draped around their heads like rumpled socks.

The children were the first to notice the approaching cart, and bounded out of the water in that direction.

"Now, now, just be patient!" Sasami laughed. Karen was grinning, watching the two youngsters prancing around the cart eagerly. "Geez, you'd think it was ice cream!" Once given cups and bottles of juice, the kids capered back to the pool side, where Washu provided assistance. "Neeju, what would you like?"

"You mean, I get a choice?"

"Yes," Sasami replied, sounding surprised.

Neeju expected to be treated like a child, since she still resembled one — despite the fact that her normal growth cycle had been frozen for nearly 2,000 years. However, the suspension had been recently terminated, and now she was beginning to age normally — and about to face the trials of puberty (a condition that Sasami was already passing through). "Well, I'd like sake, even if it does taste like battery acid."

"It grows on you," Washu offered as consolation.

"Washu, can I assume that you want sake?" Sasami asked. Washu nodded, Sasami smiled, and two bottles and cups floated off the cart.

"Mi-yaa...?" the larger of the cat-sized quadrupeds stirred, nose raised and sniffing. a second later the smaller Companion joined the nasal sampling. Two sets of eyelids cranked open, following twitching whiskers as their heads swiveled around to point at the hovercart. "Myowr-eem?"

Sasami giggled. "No, Ryo-ohki, I didn't forget about you and Fuku. Here." She gestured and the box of carrots levitated off the cart and settled gently on the floor between the cabbits. The latter stirred into sitting positions, before their faces disappeared into the box.

"I'm just reminding everyone that we have a big dinner planned for tonight, followed by karaoke."

"Thanks, Sasami. We'll keep that in mind."

Sasami nodded and the cart moved away.

"Karaoke?" Neeju asked.

"Interactive entertainment. Singing and much merriment, usually accompanied by copious amounts of alcohol and diminished inhibitions," Washu explained.

"Sounds...interesting."

"It can be a lot fun. You'll have a good time."

Neeju watched the children sipping juice, and the cabbits nibbling carrots, and sighed. "You know, you're the only person I can really talk to."

"Yeah, who else has a Methuselah mind in a Shirley Temple body?"

"I'm afraid both of those references mean nothing to me."

"Methuselah is alleged to be the oldest Earthling on record; Shirley Temple was a popular young girl in Earth's entertainment media."

"Ah: an old soul in a new vessel," Neeju translated. "You seem to have acquired some in-depth knowledge about that planet."

"I spent a lot of time perusing their computer networks. Besides, it's my husband's homeworld — and your husband's homeworld, too, I might add."

"Yes, I suppose I should apply myself in that direction. I have nothing else to do with my nights." Her recent marriage was strictly political — for now, at least.

"Patience is a virtue, or so I'm told." Washu tossed a duck-like toy to her daughter.

"I envy you your ability to change appearances so conveniently. Just how do you switch back-and-forth like that?"

"The same way your kardesshibe Ryoko shape-shifts, just a different focus. I could explain the metamorphic factors if you'd like..."

"Don't bother; biology is not one of my strengths." Neeju tossed a ball to Azusa.

"Just what do you consider your strengths?"

"I'm a politician. That term has many connotations, most of them unflattering, and all of them deserved. I'm afraid my innocent appearance masks a corrupt heart."

"Such camouflage is useful; I've employed it myself for millennia."

"You haven't employed if very often of late. I think I've seen your childlike facade only three or four times in the last few years."

"Well, it's difficult to equate pregnancy or breastfeeding with a 12-year-old. It's not real comfortable, and there isn't a single human culture in the Empire that tolerates adolescent motherhood. Besides, Tenchi prefers the mature form now — a preference I do my utmost to foster!" Washu's cackle caused the children to stop and turn, and then they joined her.

Neeju sighed. "Just how far along are you?"

"Thirteen weeks."

"Boy or girl?"

"Boy."

"Started picking names yet?"

"Nope. No point in rushing it."

"What does Tenchi think about it?"

"He accepted it pretty quickly. But then, he's just adaptable by nature." Washu's smile was soft, and full of hidden meanings. "How do you expect Seina will handle the first one?"

"Oh, I think he'll do alright," Neeju replied, a brief grin illuminating her heart-shaped face. "I just don't think it will happen for a while. We're still on active duty, and even if the others are ready, he's not. He needs to do a little maturing."

"Still, the subject must have risen in conversation..."

"Oh, it has. Usually as a bet to see who will get there first. The arguments are endless."

"Just another day in the serail," Washu shrugged.

"Just another day in the serail," Neeju echoed.

##########

"It didn't end there, did it?" Seina asked, already guessing the answer.

"No such luck. Yosho grew older, and stronger, and smarter. I imagine he got a lot of private tutoring from 'Auntie Seto,' because he soon displayed a flair for scheming and manipulating. I imagine he got a lot of advice from his father, too, warning him about her. I imagine Funaho and Misaki finally grew tired of her meddling, and so betrothed their oldest children to one another as a pre-emptive strike against her inevitable match-making. I imagine Yosho went off to Galaxy Academy feeling reasonably safe from Seto's predations."

"It didn't work, did it?"

"Nope. While Yosho was attending Galaxy Academy, Seto arranged for his mentor: a lovely young student who happened to be the daughter of an aristocrat from one of the neighboring kingdoms. An emerald-haired beauty by the name of Airi Magma."

"Grandma Airi..." Seina muttered.

Tenchi's grin was wolfish. "Yosho took the bait hook, line, and sinker. They were married and had a daughter by the time he graduated."

"Minaho?"

"Yep. My aunt. Anyway, upon graduation, Yosho sailed home aboard his Royal Tree ship, knowing that he had some serious music to face:

— He must tell his father that he had married the daughter of Gaira Magma — one of Azusa's political rivals.

— He must tell his mother and half-mother that he has broken the betrothal bond with Ayeka.

— And he must face his father's enemies at Parliament because he had further diluted the royal blood-line.

"Things must have looked pretty bleak about then."

"All due to Seto's scheming. What happened?"

"Kagato reappeared, sending my Ryoko to attack the palace looking for the Genesis Tree. The timing was perfect: Azusa and his wives were absent, Seto was absent, most of the Royal Trees and the home squadron were absent, and the Sentinals were no match for Ryo-Ohki. The damage was extensive, and Yosho entered orbit just about the time Ryoko was advancing on the royal arboretum. Yosho dove into battle and chased Ryoko away. He must have stood there, considering the options open to him:

— Nobody back home knew about Airi and Minaho, yet (except, probably, Seto).

— He had virtually no allies to call upon.

— Even if he successfully challenged his father for the throne one day, half of his subjects wouldn't approve of him.

— If he stayed, he would face recriminations from all sides, and probably even lose Airi. But...

— If he pursued Ryoko, he would probably die in combat and receive a hero's funeral.

"Yosho's choice was obvious and understandable. In the aftermath of the attack on the capitol, and the emotional shock to the Royal Family, Seto simply slipped into the shadows and waited for circumstances to turn in her favor. She quietly made arrangements for Airi and her daughter, and found other interests to occupy her attention."

##########

"How are you and Yosho progressing with your reconciliation?" Seto asked Airi.

"Quite nicely. He's moved out of the palace, now, and lives with me on my estate."

"Yes, and I must say that his departure this time was far less traumatic than his previous one," Funaho added. She grinned at her daughter-in-law, who returned the gesture.

"Fortunately, Tenchi keeps him busy enough at the admiralty that he isn't bored. He was afraid (at first) that he should have remained on Earth. I still can't believe he was a shrine priest for so long."

"Somehow, I doubt that it was as tedious and monotonous as he implies. Earth is a Regressed World, after all."

"That's true. When I finally located him a few decades ago, the planet was just recovering from its second global war in a century, and he was living in an occupied country on the losing side."

"I am still a bit...distressed...that you knew his whereabouts and didn't share them with us."

"I really am sorry about that, Lady Funaho. But Yosho was adamant that his location remain a secret. He didn't want Ryoko's crypt disturbed until she was ready."

"Until Tenchi was old enough, you mean. Sometimes his actions just defy reason."

"Between his precognitive talents and analytical skills, he was one of my best students," Seto purred. "But I guess it just runs in the family, eh, Funaho?"

Funaho's nod was noncommittal.

"Well, hastaba, at least you stayed there long enough to conceive and raise Achika." Minaho said.

"Did you ever diagnose what caused her death?" Seto asked.

"No," Airi admitted, "but I'm guessing it has something to do with her son. He is such a potent adept, it had to have been a contributing factor."

"Washu once described him as a prodigy, born a thousand generations too soon," Funaho said. "He's only in his mid-twenties, yet he's already exhibiting talents that rival Tsunami's."

"He actually surpasses her in some respects," Minaho said, and the others turned startled expressions on her.

"Ah, our resident expert speaks," Seto said. "What have your analyses uncovered?"

"Well," Minaho replied, "consider the facts: Seina's mecha breached a psuedospace field membrane using its six wings and pulled Tarant Shunk's pirate ship back into realspace — a feat considered impossible until then. Tsunami and Ryoko can each project ten Lighthawk Wings. That amount of power is almost incomprehensible. Then along comes Tenchi with his three modest wings — "

"I wouldn't call those three wings modest, since he was able to dissolve a singularity with them," Funaho interrupted.

"True," Minaho conceded, "and in a simple comparison of size he appears outclassed. The key word here is 'appears'. His deficiency in raw power is more than compensated by his flexibility. Ryoko and Tsunami — in fact, all of Tsunami's descendents — lack finesse. In a confrontation with Tenchi, it would be like pitting Sumo wrestlers against an Aikido master. One can also argue the point that Tsunami and her seeds are not even human, and Ryoko requires her gems. The only womb-born human able to wield such titanic energies without any artifice at all is Tenchi Masaki Jurai. My nephew is unique."

##########

"Don't you find it just a bit...incongruous...being the Emperor's personal bodyguard?" Ryoko Y asked.

Ryoko MJ shrugged. "I switched sides. Now I hunt the predators I used to rub shoulders with."

"Ever see anyone you used to know?"

"Nah, most of those folks have been dead a long time. As it was, they were usually consultants hired to teach me; I never knew any of them real well." Ryoko MJ grinned wryly, gently brushing her daughter's hair. "Most of my training was subliminal — I spent an awful lot of time in stasis, so I never had any freedom. Or opportunities. Or friends."

"It must have been terrible," Ryoko Y said softly.

"It was a living hell — but if that was the price to pay for the heaven I have now, I'd gladly pay it again!"

"I can't really relate; my grief was nothing compared to your life."

"Well, we all have our own private purgatory to endure," Ryoko MJ said. "I hear yours had a rather unique twist to it."

"You might say that," Ryoko Y replied. "I'm a shapeshifter, that means I can rearrange my major metabolic components in real-time. It can be handy, but there is always a price to pay."

"Like what?"

"Each form has its own distinct parameters. The Wau form, for instance, has a heightened sense of smell as well as faster reflexes. But, there's always a sudden overload feeling when I switch to that shape, and a corresponding sensory loss when I switch back. Sometimes it's just a moment of disorientation, sometimes I can be sick for hours. And that's just part of the price."

"Only part of it?"

"There are psychological factors, as well. I never cared much for my days as a pirate; the tension and mistrust were constant, not to mention the risk of sudden death."

"I can appreciate that."

"I was ordered to infiltrate the GP Regional complex because I could blend in, both physically and culturally. But I actually enjoyed my time there; masked as a Wau, I was free to relax and pursue other interests. I dreaded returning to normal, because it meant giving up so much freedom."

"Why did you stay with the pirate guild? Couldn't you have made the Wau persona permanent?"

"No. I can only maintain a foreign shape for just so long, and then I revert. I'd have been discovered sooner or later. I really had no other alternatives...I felt trapped."

"I can appreciate that, too." Ryoko MJ studied the infant in her arms, who had fallen back to sleep. "Sorry you took my name?"

"No," Ryoko Y replied slowly. "Not a bit. I've had the kind of adventures that inspire novels and videos. If I had not taken your name, and followed that path, I would have missed so many experiences...and I never would have met my Seina."

"That's the clincher," Ryoko MJ smiled. "I know exactly how you feel."

##########

"You have manacles on your headboard?" Hakuren gasped.

Ayeka nodded. "On the footboard, too, but I rarely use those."

Seina's wives stared at her, bug-eyed and slack-jawed, like so many captive goldfish.

"And, His Majesty...er...accepts this?" Suiren asked.

"Oh, he cooperates fully. Especially once I enlightened him about some of the subtleties involved, as well as my own personal preferences." Ayeka's smile was cat-like.

"Oh...my...god," Gyokuren whispered.

Hakuren turned towards Kiriko. "Is this what you and Seina do on your nights together?"

Kiriko bridled under the implication — and the stares from her three kardesshibelar. "No, it is not. I said the custom was not universal. I have never indulged in such practices!"

"A pity," Ayeka said, sipping her sake. "With the proper training, you ladies would soon learn to reach beyond the obvious appearances and appreciate the benefits."

"Training?" Suiren asked.

"Benefits?" Gyokuren asked.

"Oh, yes. Among the upper castes, the skills are passed along from mother-to-daughter (and I assume there is some similar knowledge passed from father-to-son). In practice, it is a way to test the courage and commitment of your husband."

"I'm not upper caste," Kiriko said, staring into her cup and trying to ignore the side-long glances from the others.

"You are now," Ayeka countered, referring to Kiriko's recent bonding with a Royal Tree. "Neither were my kardesshibelar, either, but they have since received rudimentary training...or, at least, a proper introduction."

Gyokuren, Hakuren and Suiren gaped at Ayeka again, and then turned to look around the pool at Tenchi's other wives.

Kiriko's eyes remained lowered. "I'm...not sure I could do...that...to Seina," Kiriko whispered. "He's so fragile, and tender..."

"He is a man, or will be," Ayeka countered. "They are a lot tougher than they appear."

Kiriko remembered Seina's long history of bruises and fractures, and nodded.

"And they are full of surprises." Ayeka smiled softly, her eyes clouded in memories. "In fact, it is their unpredictability that makes the experience so enlightening."

"What does this...training...involve?" Kiriko asked.

"Yes, please elaborate," Gyokuren added.

##########

"So, why did you quit the GP?" Amane asked.

"Because I was going nowhere," Kiyone replied. "Hell, I was even MIA for three years and no one really noticed."

"I did," Mihoshi volunteered.

"Yeah, you did. You were the only one."

"Mihoshi is good at keeping track of her friends," Amane noted.

"Well, it was easy when we were all in the GP together."

"Speaking of the GP, Captain Mihoshi, how about pulling some strings and getting me promoted to Detective First Class?"

"I thought Lady Seto was already doing that?"

"I thought so, too, but she doesn't seem to be in any hurry. Ever since your great-aunt Mikami chewed me a new as-"

"I heard about that!" Mihoshi laughed.

"-ole, I've been stuck at Second Class."

"Don't get your hopes up," Kiyone said to Amane. "I was her partner for months, and they ignored my transfer requests repeatedly."

"That wasn't my fault, Kiyone," Mihoshi replied, disconcerted. "If I had known that's what you wanted, I'd have talked to my grandfather about it!"

"I didn't say it was your fault...exactly...but your damned unpredictable luck attribute..."

"I have it under control now," Mihoshi sniffed.

"Oh, forget about it. I'm not in the GP anymore, so it doesn't matter."

"So, how does Juraian Internal Security stack up to the GP?" Amane asked.

Kiyone shrugged. "I never got to do any covert ops in the GP, so I couldn't make a fair comparison. But I will say my work now is a lot more interesting."

"Sounds like fun."

"Want to join my outfit? Noike is good, but having two operatives is even better — as long as you don't get pregnant, like Mihoshi and Ryoko did."

"I'll think about it. Life on the K2 gets exciting, but it's awfully crowded. And my GP career looks rather stalled right now." Amane sipped her drink, considering. "The only thing I would really miss is being with my husband every day."

"I know that feeling," Mihoshi said.

"Yeah, I've been experiencing that a lot myself, lately," Kiyone added.

##########

"What's it like, having a baby?" Neeju asked.

"The experience itself? Grab your lip and pull it completely over the top of your head, then try to touch your chin with the tip of your tongue."

Neeju nearly spit a mouthful of sake into the wading pool. "You can't be serious," she coughed and sputtered.

"Well, I suppose I am exaggerating a bit," Washu grinned. "Nonetheless, it is painful."

"Then why do it? Why not just have the baby surgically removed?"

"Because the painful way is nature's way. Unless medically proscribed, having the baby excised surgically is little better than treating it as a tumor. Have you ever worked really, really hard for something, and then savored the accomplishment afterwards? Sure beats having it given to you on a platter."

Neeju pondered the concept with pursed lips, watching little Achika and Azusa splashing amongst their toys.

"Besides," Washu continued, "the sheer joy of looking into the eyes of your newborn baby is simply indescribable. It makes all the pain and effort and anxiety worth it.

"I'd like to have a baby someday. Seina's baby."

"I have every expectation that will happen. Just not real soon."

"I have to wonder, though...will he want to, you know, conceive with me? He has all those other women, and I have to wait for so long..."

"I don't think you have anything to worry about. He married you, didn't he?"

"The marriage was arranged," Neeju replied despondently. "For me, it's been nothing more than a ceremony...a promise of events to come."

"You aren't alone: Sasami has been betrothed to Tenchi for a couple of years now. Neither of them seems the least bit inclined to alter the arrangement. You can see the anticipation in her eyes, and the pride in his." Washu sipped her drink and grinned. "Kinda like watching a cake baking in the oven!"

"But all of those others..."

"Neeju, he's human, isn't he?"

"Yes."

"And he's male, isn't he?"

"Yes."

"Do you love him?"

"Yes."

"Then nourish your hope...it can sustain when you have nothing left to live for."

##########

"Can I ask you a personal question?"

"Sure," Tenchi replied.

"Do you ever...forget...which wife you're sleeping with?"

Tenchi stared at Seina. Seina was red-faced, trying to ignore Tenchi's shocked look. The shocked look melted into an amused grin. "Has that happened to you?"

"Yes," Seina whispered.

Tenchi chuckled. "Yes, it has happened to me, too. Although I learned a long time ago never to speak any names until I'm sure who I'm with. And if that means asking irrelevant questions in a dark bedroom, then I ask questions. I can always recognize their voices."

"That sounds like good advice," Seina answered, relieved that Tenchi had not taken offense.

"Now I have a question for you."

"Oh?"

"How do you handle the sleeping arrangements?"

Seina blushed again. "They established a schedule among themselves, and decided who comes to my room each night."

"Ah," Tenchi grinned. "I just wondered. It's a little different around here."

##########

"I had absolutely nothing to do with Tenchi's choice of wives," Seto said. "He married all of them out of love, not political consideration." She found herself facing hardened skeptics. "Really, there is nothing that I could have arranged that would have cemented him more tightly to the Empire. Two of his wives are daughters of the previous emperor, besides his own direct lineage. And we all know it wouldn't matter anyway — there is simply no one as powerful as he is. Why do you doubt me?"

"Because you are an inveterate meddler," Airi replied. "Tell me, wasn't there an ulterior motive for sending Funaho to Earth to talk to Washu?"

"Whatever do you mean?"

"You had her evaluate her relationship to Tenchi, as well as Ryoko's relationship. You were hoping he would marry one of them."

"And why would I do that?" Seto asked innocently.

"To recruit Washu and her technical genius. Being part of the Royal Family would soften her resolve to remain neutral. She would take sides...as she has since done. Surely that wasn't just a serendipitous accident?"

Seto simply smiled, and the others rolled their eyes in exasperation.

"Then what about Noike?" Airi asked. "Why did you attempt to attach her to Tenchi's household? Was she supposed to become wife number six?"

"Really, what an outrageous idea," Seto shrugged, bereft of guile. "I just thought Ayeka and Sasami might like to spend some quality time with their hastabashibe Noike. Although, I do feel sorry for my poor ward...she has become a workaholic and a wallflower. Doubtless you've heard that she was refused by several prospective suitors. I fear for her eventual happiness."

Airi snorted derisively. "Oh come now, what man would refuse a marriage to Noike Sakatsu Kamiki, adopted daughter of Lady Seto Kamiki, and Companion of the third generation tree ship Kyoko? Power, privilege, position — all wrapped-up in an attractive package."

Seto merely shrugged. "Tenchi refused."

"Tenchi already has enough to deal with. Why stir-up a hornet's nest? His wives are ultra-protective; they'd have pulverized gentle Noike."

"She has more steel than you give her credit for."

"Even if that's true, she would not fit into the Masaki serail...Seina's family, perhaps, but not Tenchi's."

"And what makes you say that?" Misaki growled. "My plimalshibe is neither frail nor fearsome."

"Agreed," Funaho said. "She has proven most useful as Mihoshi's and Ryoko's replacement in my special investigations unit."

"Because I know all the principals better than anyone, I believe," Airi replied. "It has to do with the personalities of each family."

"Please explain," Misaki prodded.

"Very well, but don't take these comments as personal criticisms." Airi eyed the women around her, all of who were related to those she was about to dissect. "Tenchi's harem consists entirely of Master Class Power Adepts. Those so gifted, like creative and intellectual geniuses, often pay the price for their ascendant talents by being temperamental and emotionally unstable, very possessive as well as demanding. Their needs are unique, but once met they shine like novae. Tenchi has provided such an effective anchor for those five prodigies that they not only tolerate one another, they have actually bonded together. They will not permit any changes to the status quo unless created from within."

"Their children," Funaho said pensively.

"Exactly. And you can be very sure that their children will be extremely well protected, and exposed to an incredible panoply of ideas and experiences that we can only speculate about."

"And what of the Yamada family?"

"Seina's harem, on the other hand, are all second or third tier adepts. They had to struggle to develop their talents, and as such their talents are not so consuming. And all of the ladies have law enforcement, military, or clerical backgrounds; teamwork is second-nature to them. Compromise is readily achieved because each is willing to make an immediate sacrifice for later reciprocity. They are driven as much by ideals as by personal satisfaction: Kiriko and Ryoko are both aristocratic, Amane is a billionaire heiress, Neeju is still technically a priestess, and Hakuren, Karen, Suiren, and Gyokuren hold similar positions within the Remza Union; yet they have all deferred their privileges to serve alongside Seina in the GP."

"I would hope that Seina's loyalty would not be misdirected due to so much foreign influence," Seto replied. "The Galaxy Police is an international organization, after all, not under the direct control of Jurai. It would be a serious incident if the Yamada family stood against Jurai at some future point..."

"Possible, but unlikely," Airi said. "Seina is tied by marriage — and probably blood, as well — to the Juraian Royal Family. Those ties run deep. And even if he did, both the Kamidake II and Kiriko's Companion Mizuki would return to Jurai. They are only on loan to the GP."

"Have you considered the potentials Seina's family represents?" Funaho mused.

"Such as?"

"Well, there is an awful lot of diplomatic leverage and wealth among his wives. What might be possible with such transnational ties and extensive resources to draw upon...?"

The four women looked at Seto, whose expression was masked by the bottom of her sake cup.

##########

"But why did you approach Jurai from the south solar pole?" Ryoko Y asked. "It was going to be as heavily monitored as any of the other quadrants. Besides, the thinner traffic off the plane of the ecliptic just meant you'd stand out more."

"You're assuming I was trying to sneak through the defense nets," Ryoko MJ replied. "I wasn't. Even though my energy signature bears a certain resemblance to the trees, it wouldn't pass a close inspection. Besides, I had no time for stealth, and I wanted the maximum amount of maneuvering room in case they caught-on too soon. I already knew that the Sentinel squadron was at full deployment, and that the home fleet was away on maneuvers. Thus, the normal security forces were either absent or stretched real thin. And even though the reserves would be called back quickly once the shooting started, it would take them a while to respond."

"I just have to ask: what did Kagato think he was going to do with a juvenile Royal Tree? They stand what, about ten meters tall? And even assuming you found the Genesis Tree, how did you expect to ferry it away?"

Ryoko MJ laughed. "Well, for starters, Kagato got his facts wrong. Tsunami wasn't even there...she was in contact with the juveniles that were there, but she wasn't physically present. And if I had found 'Ouke no ki', I was to wrap a harness around the trunk that contained a psuedospace transponder. Then Kagato would have swooped-in with the Souja and teleported her away."

"The Souja was that big?"

"Yep."

Ryoko Y refilled her cup and gestured towards Ryoko MJ's cup, refilling it after the latter's nod. Both women were enjoying the animated conversation. "It's getting rather noisy in here. Don't you think that will wake the baby?"

Ryoko MJ shifted the infant at her breast. "Nah, she's a heavy sleeper. Besides, she's used to loud noises."

"Oh," Ryoko Y shrugged. "Anyway, why didn't you target the orbital defenses...?"

##########

"I won't divulge any of their secrets," Ayeka said, "but my kardesshibelar do have their own...interpretations...of the customs."

"I gotta hear this," Hakuren muttered, her skin flushed by the alcohol.

Ayeka sipped her sake, gauging how much privileged information she should spill. "Well, I know Ryoko has experimented with ropes on occasion, and Washu likes to put on costumes, and Mihoshi has her vary-gee generator — "

"Excuse me," Suiren interrupted, "but did you say a 'vary-gee generator'?"

"Yes, I did. She has it installed in her bedchamber (in fact, I believe it was a wedding gift from Washu). She likes to practice zero-gravity maneuvers. I hear she's quite good at it. Ryoko would be a better judge of that, however, since they have shared it at least once."

"Huh? Ryoko and Mihoshi have shared it?" Gyokuren asked hesitantly.

"With Tenchi, of course."

"You've tried...eh...multiple partners?" Hakuren stammered.

Ayeka looked at her with unmitigated surprise. "You mean, you haven't? Surely with eight wives the opportunity must be rather common."

"No," Kiriko replied, "actually, it isn't."

"And it's really only seven wives; Neeju is still too young for consummation," Suiren added.

"Ah, of course," Ayeka nodded.

##########

"What's your family up to these days?" Amane asked.

"The usual," Mihoshi replied. "Mother never stays in one place for very long, and my brother and jurbahshibe have their careers." She stirred her juice with her fingertip. "We aren't as close as we used to be, not since my father died."

"Yeah, I remember how frazzled your mother was at the funeral. Poor Mitoto; she seemed to lose all her focus after that."

"Uh, huh. She just came unhinged. Some people disappear into their job; my mother just plain disappears."

"At least your grandfather took her off of active duty and found something easy for her do."

"Yeah, maintenance chores are easy enough..."

"I do see her occasionally, usually at the GP regional facility. She likes to hang around the docks and the academy campus."

"I only met her once," Kiyone added. "She seemed like a nice person."

"My brother took it pretty hard. I hadn't realized how close he and Dad were."

"Did they ever meet Tenchi?"

"Oh, yeah, at the wedding. Dad was so proud..."

"I wish I'd been there for you, Mihoshi."

"I know."

"I had quite a crush on Misao when we were kids," Amane reflected. "We used to climb trees together, and played zpa'ht in the street all the time..."

"Oh, so now the truth comes out!" Mihoshi grinned. "And here I thought you just liked to come over to my house and play dolls together."

Amane shrugged and smiled.

"No offense, Mihoshi," Kiyone said, "but I just can't picture you playing with dolls."

"I'll have you know that I had a very large doll collection," Mihoshi sniffed, and then broke into a giggle. "You know, Kiyone, at one time I was going to try to hook you up with Misao. But then he met Mashisu and fell head-over-heels. Which is too bad, because you'd have made a charming couple."

Kiyone frowned, trying to imagine herself as Mihoshi's sister-in-law. "It's probably for the best," she replied, as diplomatically as possible. "From the sounds of it, we're too much alike. There would have been too much friction."

"Yeah, you're right."

##########

"You know, as old as I am, I haven't been around a lot children." Neeju's legs were draped over the side of the wading pool, her feet flat on the bottom. She felt a jet of hot water sprayed across her toes, and she wriggled them in response.

"Really?" Washu sipped her juice, one eye on the babies, one eye on the elfin visitor across from her.

"I was separated from my family at an early age, and raised by the Church. I don't remember my parents, frankly; and my siblings and their descendents are just a blur of faces. I was never really attached to any of them."

"Did you have many friends?"

"No. A few confidants, here and there. I've outlived them all."

"I can appreciate that," Washu sighed, thinking of one person in particular.

"How long do you think our husbands will live? Will we bury them, too?"

Washu shrugged. "I will admit, I've laid awake at night thinking about that. It haunts me. I've run tests on Tenchi several times, but the answers were all inconclusive. I think he'll live for centuries...I hope he will...but I don't know for sure."

"Or maybe someone will come along and resolve the issue."

"I've considered that, too." Washu shivered, a name rippling across the surface of her mind.

"Will you outlive your husband — or join him, when the time comes?"

"I don't know, Neeju. I honestly don't know. I've never met anyone like him; he's my whole world. If you had asked me that question five years ago, I'd have scoffed at it. But so much has changed since then..."

"I envy you those five years, Washu."

Washu grinned. "It seems to me the last six months have been pretty eventful for you."

Neeju nodded slowly. "I've gotten my first real taste of mortality, its assets and liabilities." She looked across the pool towards the privacy screen. "And its hopes."

##########

"How long have you been married?" Tenchi asked.

"Just under two months," Seina replied.

"It must be pretty tough for you."

"What do you mean?"

"You're what, 15? And saddled with eight very strong-willed women. There must be a lot of stress."

"Yeah, there is," Seina shrugged. "My life took some strange turns, that's for sure. I'll never even finish high school, not that I miss it particularly. It just feels...incomplete."

"You graduated from the GP Academy, at least. That has to mean something."

"Oh, it does. I've met some wonderful people and been some incredible places. I never would have had the chance if it weren't for the GP."

Tenchi nodded, sipping his juice. "Do you miss your family?"

"Sometimes. I call them once in a while, but they are always so busy..."

"And you aren't?"

"Even though we're in space a lot, I often have as lot of free time on my hands." Seina refilled his cup.

"I find that hard to believe. I rarely get a moment's peace, and I only have five wives."

"When they aren't on duty, it seems like they spend all of their time arguing with each other. There have even been a couple of fistfights."

"Imagine that," Tenchi said dryly.

"Don't your wives fight?"

"Frequently. And there are usually a lot of fireworks; you should see our budget for furniture!"

Seina remembered what Tenchi's consorts were capable of, and shuddered. "So many hurt feelings..."

"I think your wives are closer together than you realize."

"What makes you say that?"

"Experience. That, and I've scanned them all."

"What do you mean? Can you read their minds?"

"No, I'm not a telepath. I gather impressions from people, like a psychological profile. It's hard to explain. But there is no hate in your family, Seina. They are all completely devoted to you, and generally tolerant of one another. You just have to give them all time to adjust. Tell me, how do you feel about them?"

Seina was silent, giving the question the attention it deserved.

"Do you love them? There are some days I don't like my wives much, but I love them passionately. Life without them is simply not worth living. Come here," Tenchi rose and stepped onto the tile, gesturing for Seina to follow him. They stood beside the screen of shrubbery, pulling aside the leaves. The chamber beyond was wreathed in steam, but through it they could discern the five groups of women and two hovering bassinets. "I live for moments like this. Look at them: they are healthy and happy, quiet and content. Such instances are rare, so each must be remembered and treasured during the rougher times. Surely, you've had those moments with your wives?"

"Yes," Seina nodded.

"Describe one."

"Sometimes when we're in port, and they've all been shopping or sight-seeing. They'll be in a good mood, and talk among themselves, and swap jokes, and tease me. It never lasts long, but it happens."

"There you go. What more can you hope for? Face it, none of them ever expected this to happen."

"Neither did I."

"The idea takes some getting used to, believe me," Tenchi chuckled. "In fact, if we lived back in Okayama we'd both be arrested for bigamy!"

Seina smiled, painting the picture in his mind. "Yeah, especially with my luck."

"But you still haven't answered my question: do you love them?"

"Yes."

"Then, tell them — take it from someone who waited far too long to do so."

ACT 4 — SATURDAY EVENING

Everyone can see we're together as we walk on by
And we flock just like birds of a feather
I won't tell no lie
All of the people around us, they say
Can they be that close?
Just let me state for the record
We're giving love in a family dose

We are family, I got all my sisters with me
We are family, getup, ev'rybody, and sing

Living life is fun
And we've just begun to get our share

Of this world's delights
High hopes we have for the future
And our goal's in sight
No, we don't get depressed
Here's what we call our golden rule
Have faith in you and the things you do
You don't go wrong, this is our family jewel

We are family, I got all my sisters with me
We are family, getup, ev'rybody, and sing

We are family, I got all my sisters with me
We are family, getup, ev'rybody, and sing

Title: "We Are Family"
Artist: Sister Sledge (from the film soundtrack, "Full Monty," 1997)
* The Pointer Sisters
* The Corrs* and probably others...

Though lunch was a tray of snacks and some soft drinks (placed on the dining room table for convenient self-serve), dinner was a much more elaborate affair. Sasami recruited Tenchi and Ryoko to transport/teleport several bowls and platters and a tureen downstairs to the banquet room. Utensils and crockery soon followed, and all were carefully spread across the three large tables that occupied the room. Sake, wine, beer, and juice were also provided.

Mihoshi recruited Kiyone and her husband into bringing down the karaoke machine, clearing a large corner of the room into a makeshift stage, and setting-up the box and speakers. The cordless microphones were neatly stack where they could be found. A box of audio discs was placed nearby.

The Yamada family, for the most part, simply watched a well-oiled machine in action. "They must do this a lot," Karen whispered to Seina.

The last items to appear before Tenchi called the diners to order were the two bassinets and two highchairs. The former were pushed into a corner of the room (since their occupants were firmly ensconced on their mothers' shoulders), and the latter were tucked up against one of the tables (since their occupants were scampering around the room).

In spite of the luxurious furnishings, the dinner was boisterous and casual. The families intermingled, the adult beverages flowed, and great quantities of food were eaten. In a word, everyone relaxed.

Trinnard dragged his seat around to face the karaoke machine, and started flipping through the box of discs. Each was labeled with a name and track number. He nodded once and started rearranging the stack, experience suggesting the probable order.

Tenchi's consorts lined themselves up between the speakers, shoulder-to-shoulder, hefting their microphones. More than one of them giggled.

Seina's consorts twisted their seats around, intrigued by the impending performance. They exchanged glances among themselves, wondering what they had gotten themselves into.

Seto and her cronies also adjusted their seats, although they exchanged smiles — they knew what was coming.

Kiyone grumbled loudly, hunkering down in her chair, refusing to join the line.

"Since Kiyone is obviously in no shape to join us," Ryoko MJ grinned wickedly, "we'll just have to wait until next time — when she's sober." There was laughter from her Kardesshibelar, which elicited a loud raspberry from Mrs. Qualston.

"Maybe you should get her some coffee, Trinnard," Mihoshi suggested.

"I don't think anything I could say or do would be very welcome at this point," he replied, straight-faced.

"You are so right," Kiyone growled. "Just play the damn music."

"Yes, ma'am," Trinnard said, his grin hidden as he faced the karaoke machine.

Ryoko positioned herself lightly in front of the others, waiting for her cue.

Go on go on
Leave me breathless
Come on (come on, come on...)

Hey... yeah...
The daylight's fading slowly
The time with you is standing still
I'm waiting for you only
The slightest touch and I feel weak
I cannot lie, from you I cannot hide
And I'm losing the will to try
Can't hide it (can't hide it), can't fight it (can't fight it)

So go on, go on, come on, leave me breathless
Tempt me, tease me, until I can't deny
This loving feeling (loving feeling)
Make me long for your kiss
Go on (go on), go on (go on)
Yeah...
Come on

The music had a provincial, unsophisticated sound, heavy on percussion — but nonetheless appealing. What would probably be derided at any modern Juraian social event proved all-too-appropriate in this casual setting.

The beat was infectious.

And though Ryoko MJ was leading, her Kardesshibelar wove a harmonic curtain around her, their voices merging and overlapping. They were all smiling, moving synchronously, and obviously enjoying themselves.

It was also obvious who the five ladies were singing for: the man in question sat at the nearest table, grinning proudly. On the floor beside him, his son and daughter were dancing to the music, possessed with more enthusiasm than coordination. Around the table his relatives were laughing and encouraging the children to continue.

Yeah...
And if there's no tomorrow
And all we have is here and now
I'm happy just to have you
You're all the love I need somehow
It's like a dream
Although I'm not asleep
And I never want to wake up
Don't lose it (don't lose it), don't leave it (don't leave it)

So go on, go on, come on, leave me breathless
Tempt me, tease me, until I can't deny
This loving feeling (loving feeling)
Make me long for your kiss
Go on (go on), go on (go on)
Yeah...
Come on (come on, come on...)

The Emperor's consorts broke into a line dance during the instrumental bridge.

The Yamada family was, in a word, speechless: the women of the Masaki serail were not only cooperating, they relished the activity. This, in spite of their diverse backgrounds and legendary disagreements. Seto noticed the shocked expressions and leaned over to whisper in Funaho's ear. "What lovely harmony, isn't it?"

Funaho had been watching the interaction as well, and nodded. "This is why you invited them..." she indicated the Yamada family, "...here today, isn't it? To show them what is possible."

"There is so much stress in their family, I just thought a successful example might inspire and encourage them a bit."

Yeah-ie, yeah, yeah-ie, yeah...
And I can't lie
From you I cannot hide
And I've lost my will to try
Can't hide it (can't hide it), can't fight it, (can't fight it)

So go on, (go on) go on, (go on), come on, leave me breathless
Tempt me, tease me, until I can't deny
This loving feeling (loving feeling)
Make me long for your kiss
Go on, (go on) go on, (go on) come on, leave...me breathless
Go on, (go on) go on, (go on) come on, leave...me breathless
Go on, (go on) go on, (go on) come on, leave...me breathless
Go on...go on!

The applause was loud and sincere, with two young voices cheering from the center table (echoed by adult laughter). Ryoko MJ grinned and bowed, and blew her most ardent admirers a kiss.

Mihoshi stepped forward, and the line readjusted itself as it absorbed Ryoko MJ.

"This song was originally intended as the cry of a rebellious trophy wife," Mihoshi said. "But, since I've spent the last couple of years slaved to the GP's public relations office, it pretty well sums-up my attitude about my job in general — and it is not directed at our husband." She blew Tenchi a kiss, and then signaled Trinnard to play the indicated disc.

She left the credit cards under her goodbye note
"All of these are yours, goodbye" and that was all she wrote
The keys to the Porsche she dropped on the floor in the den
She left in the '70 Dodge that he drove her in
She wasn't angry; she wasn't sad
She was just leaving a life that a lot of women wish they had

Tired of being blonde
Tired of running around with the usual guys and dolls
Tired of being blonde
Tired of living up to all he expected
Tired of being blonde
Tired of fighting back the feeling inside that told her to run
Tired of being blonde
Tired of letting her dreams go neglected

Mihoshi's Kardesshibelar joined her on the chorus, their voices seeking sympathy. Their choreographed movements, however, consisted mostly of bumps and grinds. The combination left a distinctly satirical impression.

There was competing laughter from the two side tables: Kiyone was doubled over, pounding the table with her fist and barking spasmodically, while Amane had rocked back in her chair and was braying at the ceiling. Those around them were more amused by their Companion's behavior than Mihoshi's song, but everyone was grinning nonetheless.

She used to love to know she rounded out his world
She used to live to be all he ever loved in a girl
And he liked to buy her clothes that made her sexy and cute (cute, cute, cute...)
Guess she decided she'd been too long away from her roots
She wasn't crazy; no, she wasn't mad
She just knew in her heart they had drained her of all that she had

She was tired of being blonde
Tired of changing her life just to match the color of the sun
Tired of being blonde
Tired of all the platinum frustration
Tired of being blonde
Tired of looking like a cutie on the cover of a magazine
Tired of being blonde
Tired of chasing all the latest sensations

Washu made a gesture and a subspace pocket appeared. She reached inside and withdrew a bundle, which was distributed among her Kardesshibelar. With a flourish, they all donned blonde wigs that neither fit nor flattered. Mihoshi turned, made a 'there-you-go' gesture, and then lead them in a synchronized shuffle.

More howls erupted from the side tables, amidst scattered cheers and applause.

She wasn't angry; no, no, she wasn't sad
She was just leaving a life that a lot of women wish they had
She was tired of being blonde
Tired of living a life that had only been planned by one
Tired of being blonde
Tired of coping with the desperation
She was tired of being blonde
Tired of fighting back the feeling inside that told her to run
Tired of being blonde
Tired of hiding her own inclinations

She was tired of being blonde
Tired of changing her life just to match the color of the sun
Tired of being blonde
Tired of chasing all the latest sensations

She was tired of being (blonde, blonde, blonde, blonde...)
Tired of being blonde (blonde, blonde, blonde, blonde...)
She was tired of being blonde (blonde, blonde, blonde, blonde...)
Tired of being blonde (blonde, blonde, blonde, blonde...)
Tired of being blonde (blonde, blonde, blonde, blonde...)
Tired of being blonde (blonde, blonde, blonde, blonde...)

Mihoshi bowed to her cheering audience, pointed once at the coughing Kiyone, and withdrew back into the line.

Ayeka stepped forward, removed her wig, and tossed it back to Washu.

"This is an Earth song, too, although it sounds remarkably like a sonnet I heard growing up here on Jurai. It's a very beautiful work, but also rather melancholy." The smile on her face slowly faded, and she gestured to Trinnard.

The strands of a guitar rippled out of the speakers, warm and lush, another provided a higher counterpoint. Ayeka's kardesshibelar began humming, a quartet of sirens that seemed to darken the room.

Then she met a hollow soul,
Filled him with her light and was consoled,
She was the moon and he the sun was gold...
Eyes were blinded with his light...
The sun she gave reflected back the night
The moon was waning almost out of sight...

Softly Ocean Gypsy calls...
Silence holds the stars a while,
They smile sadly for her where she falls...
Just the time before the dawn,
The sea is hushed the ocean calls her,
Day has taken her and now she's gone...

Ocean Gypsy of the moon,
The sun has made a thousand nights for you to hold...
Ocean Gypsy where are you?
The shadows followed by the stars have turned to gold...
Turned to gold...

Seina was sitting forward, arms crossed, elbows on the table. He felt several hands seek him softly and remain, squeezing gently; Neeju and Karen, sitting on either side of him, laid their heads on his shoulders. Ayeka's song was providing his wives a glimpse at a woman who would never know love or Companionship...a fate that they were all very glad they had avoided. He had grown used to their affectionate displays, and so he suppressed his usual self-conscious reaction.

Besides, no one at the other tables was paying any attention to him and his serail, anyway.

No one noticed when she died,
Ocean Gypsy shackled to the tide,
The ebbing waves, the turning spreading white...
Something gone within her eyes,
Her fingers, lifeless, stroked the sand,
Her battered soul was lost,
She was abandoned...

Silken threads like wings still shine,
Windswept pleasures still make patterns
in her lovely hair... so dark and fine...
Stands on high beneath the seas, cries no more,
her tears have dried...
Oceans weep for her, the ocean sighs...

Ocean Gypsy of the moon,
The sun has made a thousand nights for you to hold...
Ocean Gypsy where are you?
The shadows followed by the stars have turned to gold...
Turned to gold...
Turned to gold...
Turned to gold...
Turned to gold...

The applause had a certain subdued quality, very sad yet very appreciative. Ayeka bowed, blew kisses to her husband and son, and returned to the line.

Sasami stepped forward, smiling shyly.

"This song is simply an impossibility," she said, looking intently as Tenchi. "But it's a pretty one."

Trinnard started the disc; a flute played softly, a drum and a bass instrument keeping time while Sasami's kardesshibelar began humming in synch.

A-ha, m-hmm
Gonna get along without you now
M-hmm, my honey, m-hmm, my honey
Gonna get along without you now

You told me I was the neatest thing,
You even asked me to wear your ring.
You ran around with every girl in town,
You didn't even care if it got me down.

A-ha, m-hmm
Gonna get along without you now.
Got along without you before I met you,
Gonna get along without you now.
Gonna find somebody who is twice as cute,

'Cause, I didn't like you anyhow.

You told everybody that we were friends,
But this is where our friendship ends.

'Cause all of a sudden, you changed your tune,
You haven't been around since way last June.
M-hmm, a-ha
Gonna get along without you now.
Got along without you before I met you,
Gonna get along without you now.

So long my honey (so long)
Goodbye my friend (goodbye)
Gonna get along without you now.

Get along without you now
Get along without you now

The ladies in the line were swaying back-and-forth, filling the background with a simple refrain. Sasami didn't move much, telling her story with a few gestures and a clear, concise expression. The whole composition had a very innocent appeal, particularly when sung by an adolescent.

A few of Seina's wives started humming long with the chorus, grinning at him provocatively.

A-ha, m-hmm
Gonna get along without you now.
Got along without you before I met you,
Gonna get along without you now.

So long my honey
Goodbye my friend
Gonna get along without you now

Get along without you now (m-hmm)
Get along without you now (a-ha)
Get along without you now (m-hmm)
Get along without you now (yes I will)

Get along without you now
Get along without you now
Get along without you now
Get along without you now

Sasami returned to her place in line, receiving hugs from all of her Kardesshibelar. Washu stepped forward to take her place.

"There are times at night, when everyone is asleep," she looked poignantly at Tenchi, who just smiled innocently and pointed at Achika, "when the house is quiet, and you have a chance for a little contemplation." She gestured at Trinnard to start her music. Drums and stringed instruments cued the ladies.

I walk the maze of moments
but everywhere I turn to
begins a new beginning
but never finds a finish
I walk to the horizon
and there I find another
it all seems so surprising
and then I find that I know

You go there you're gone forever
I go there I'll lose my way
if we stay here we're not together
Anywhere is

The moon upon the ocean
is swept around in motion
but without ever knowing
the reason for its flowing
in motion on the ocean
the moon still keeps on moving
the waves still keep on waving
and I still keep on going

You go there you're gone forever
I go there I'll lose my way
if we stay here we're not together
Anywhere is

I wonder if the stars sign
the life that is to be mine
and would they let their light shine
enough for me to follow
I look up to the heavens
but night has clouded over
no spark of constellation
no Vela no Orion

Unlike the previous songs, where the kardesshibelar generally only sang the chorus, here they sang all the lyrics. As the lead, Washu's voice was the strongest, but it blended into the overall harmony seamlessly. Drums, stringed instruments, and a piano marched along with the vocals.

The shells upon the warm sands
have taken from their own lands
the echo of their story
but all I hear are low sounds
as pillow words are weaving
and willow waves are leaving
but should I be believing
that I am only dreaming

You go there you're gone forever
I go there I'll lose my way
if we stay here we're not together
Anywhere is

To leave the thread of all time
and let it make a dark line
in hopes that I can still find
the way back to the moment
I took the turn and turned to
begin a new beginning
still looking for the answer
I cannot find the finish
It's either this or that way
it's one way or the other
it should be one direction
it could be on reflection
the turn I have just taken
the turn that I was making
I might be just beginning
I might be near the end.

Washu bowed at the applause, and started to return to the line when she noticed Tenchi rise from his seat and walk towards them. In fact, they all stopped.

"My turn," he said, reaching for her microphone.

"Since when do you sing?" Ryoko MJ asked.

"Yes, Beloved, you have shown a marked reluctance in the past," Ayeka added.

"Who cares?" Mihoshi said. "I want to hear this."

"What's the occasion?" Washu asked.

Tenchi smiled and gestured for them to take their seats. "There's an anniversary coming up in the next few days."

"What anniversary, Tenchi?" Sasami asked.

"The day I unsealed a mountain cave, and released a certain demon — "

"Oooh, you remembered!" Ryoko MJ purred. The women around her chuckled.

" — and set in a motion a very significant chain of events." Tenchi waited while they settled into their chairs. "I've been practicing this for a few weeks. I have to offer my apologies to the author for changing a couple of words, and to you folks for my total lack of talent. I hope you'll listen to the lyrics, rather than my voice. Trinnard?"

The sounds of drums, an organ, and a slide guitar slipped from the speakers, followed discreetly by a piano.

You know I need your love, you've got that hold over me
As long as I've got your love, you know that I'll never leave
When I wanted you to share my life, I had no doubt in my mind
And it's been you, Ladies, right down the line.

I know how much I lean on you, only you can see
The changes that I've been through have left their mark on me
You've been as constant as the Northern Star, the brightest light that shines
It's been you, Ladies, right down the line.

I just wanna say this is my way
Of telling you everything I could never say before
Yeah, this is my way of telling you that everyday I'm loving you
So much more

'Cause you believed in me through my darkest night
Put something better inside of me, you brought me into the light
Threw away all those crazy dreams, I put them all behind
And it was you, Ladies, right down the line.

I just wanna say this is my way
Of telling you everything I could never say before
Yeah, this is my way of telling you that everyday I'm loving you
So much more

If I should doubt myself, if I'm losing ground
I won't turn to someone else, they'd only let me down
When I wanted you to share my life, I had no doubt in my mind
And it's been you, Ladies, right down the line.

Tenchi's consorts erupted from the table and mobbed him.

"Oh, that was so sweet," Amane said to Kiriko, and they both turned to Seina. "Would you sing a song like that to us?"

"Yes, would you?" Suiren and Gyokuren added.

Before he could think of an answer, there was a commotion from the Royal Family: "Come on, Tenchi, you promised! You can't sit down now!" That was the chorus as Ryoko MJ, Mihoshi, and Sasami grabbed Tenchi by his hands and tugged him away from the speakers and tables.

"All right, all right," he replied, yielding to the inevitable. The three consorts cheered, joined by Ayeka and Washu.

The Yamada family exchanged puzzled glances, wondering about the impending actions of the Emperor, and the gleeful expressions of his consorts. Seina looked over at Seto, whose non-committal smile provided no clues. Funaho and Misaki, however, were grinning from ear-to-ear, and whispered excitedly to Airi. Minaho and Kiyone were sitting beside Trinnard, looking through the stack of discs and exchanging opinions.

Tenchi moved into the center of the open space, judging the amount of room available. His consorts spread out equally around him, facing the center of the circle. "Trinnard, would you play that disc in the back? Not that one...yeah, that's it. Thanks." Tenchi's posture changed, from casually erect to cat-like anticipation. He raised his hands above his head. His family mirrored him.

After a few seconds of static, the speakers kicked-out a guitar riff that introduced a heartbeat cadence of bass notes and drumbeats. A woman's voice whispered and hummed in the pauses, siren-like, sultry and suggestive. An organ trilled for effect. Tenchi started clapping, timing it to the primal pulse; the women started clapping, synchronizing with him. He paced forwards and sideways, lost in the rhythm, tracing a five-pointed star on the floor. His movements were predatory, stalking and teasing his consorts at each point of the pattern. His eyes glistened over a wry smile. The women responded in kind, stepping through a pattern that swung them side-to-side in unison without really altering their positions. Their eyes smoldered above hungry smiles.

The Yamada family watched, riveted, as the Emperor danced with his wives. They started tapping their toes and nodding their heads to the rhythm.

Mississippi in the middle of a dry spell.
Jimmy Rogers on the Victrola up high.
Mama's dancin' with a baby on her shoulder.
The sun is settin' like molasses in the sky.
The boy could sing, knew how to move, everything.
Always wanting more, he'd leave you longing for.

Kiriko glanced over at Amane, who was watching the dance in rapt fascination...as were all of her Kardesshibelar. It was just hard to imagine the rather stodgy, staid members of the Royal Family dancing with such an uninhibited zest.

Tenchi abandoned the center, advancing towards Ayeka with arms extended. She reached for him, hips twisting provocatively. Hands clasped, he pulled her off the perimeter, drawing her inwards. Their hands lifted toward the ceiling as the distance between them disappeared. And just before they touched, he spun her 180 degrees around. Then he dropped his hands, trapping his wife with her own crossed forearms. She leaned backwards, draping her head against his neck and closing her eyes. Their shoulders swayed to the left, centered, and swayed to the right. Another sway to the left, and to the right, before his rising hands forced her to unwind. The look of disappointment on her face was genuine as she retreated, and he slipped away.

Black velvet and that little boy's smile.
Black velvet with that slow southern style.
A new religion that'll bring ya to your knees.
Black velvet if you please.

Tenchi transited the star towards Washu, arms extended and palms raised. She slinked forward to meet him, vamping shamelessly. Her hands slid up his arms, draping loosely over his shoulders, while his arms encircled her waist. They remained nose-to-nose for only a second, before Tenchi stepped to his left and rolled his shoulders. Washu's head dropped, and she arched her back to increase the rise of her breasts. Her long scarlet hair brushed the floor while extending her left leg skyward coquettishly. Tenchi stepped backwards and pulled, then turned and stepped to his right. Washu brushed across her husband's chest as she dipped to the right, mirroring the earlier pose. Another dip to the left, another dip to the right, and she was once more standing erect. She withdrew, but the cant of her head and the look in her eyes left an invitation lingering in the air.

Up in Memphis the music's like a heatwave.
White lightning, bound to drive you wild.
Mama's baby is in the heart of every schoolgirl.

"Love Me Tender" leaves 'em cryin' in the aisle.
The way he moved, it was a sin, so sweet and true.
Always wanting more, he'd leave you longing for.

Tenchi crossed the center again, angling towards Mihoshi. She pranced forward, her blonde hair rolling off her shoulders. He used his left hand to grasp her right one, and threw it upwards as his left foot slid backwards. She spun clockwise across his ribs, her momentum carrying her a full step beyond. She came to an abrupt halt when both of their arms had reached full extension, their opposite arms hanging backwards for balance. A pause, and then he stepped backwards again, pulling her along. He caught her left hand with his right one, hoisting it toward the ceiling, while releasing her right hand. She spun counterclockwise as she rocketed past him. Once again, she stopped only at full extension, giggling and dizzy. Another step and a spin to the left, another step and a spin to the right, and then he gathered his wife into his arms. He held her while the music paused, waiting for her to regain her balance, and then gently pushed her away. She returned reluctantly to the perimeter.

Black velvet and that little boy's smile.
Black velvet with that slow southern style.
A new religion that'll bring ya to your knees.
Black velvet if you please.

Every word of every song that he sang was for you.
In a flash he was gone, it happened so soon, what could you do?

Tenchi's languorous pace stopped before Ryoko, arms extended in an invitation. She accepted, stepping inwards and grasping his hands. He drew her forward until she leaned against his chest. Their hands separated, hers snaking upwards to wrap around his neck, while his own encircled her waist. Husband and wife locked eyes, her face only inches from his. Tenchi stepped to the left, then to the right, movements which she matched, producing a pendulous swing of the hips. A mutual step to the right and back caused their torsos to undulate ponderously. They arced to the left, they arced to the right, and then he extended his arms to disengage. She resisted just long enough to plant a kiss on his lips, and then withdrew.

(instrumental verse)

Sasami stepped forward into the arms of her betrothed, her long ponytails swinging to the beat. Tenchi placed his left hand on her waist, while his right hand grasped her left one. She draped her right hand over his shoulder, chin held high, trying to look demure and sophisticated, ignoring the blush rising beneath her freckles. He pivoted backwards on his left leg, leading her through a box-step pattern, reversed to the right to mirror the pattern, reversed to the left, reversed to the right, and concluded at the starting point. The music paused and she hesitated, reaching up to tousle his hair mischievously. Then she backed away and curtsied, which he countered with a bow.

Black velvet and that little boy's smile.
Black velvet with that slow southern style.
A new religion that'll bring ya to your knees.
Black velvet if you please.

Black velvet and that little boy's smile.
Black velvet with that slow southern style.
A new religion that'll bring ya to your knees.
Black velvet if you please.

Tenchi returned to the center, prowling around the five-pointed star. The women had continued their own pattern throughout the dance, and now they all resumed the synchronized clapping...until the legato thrumming faded into silence.

If you please.
If you please.
If you please.

They fell on him like a pack of wolves, laughing and clapping and hugging and pleading for more. His chuckle carried across the room. The Yamada family responded with cheers of their own, watching enviously as the Royal Family drifted back towards the chairs.

"Where did you ever learn to do that?" Airi demanded.

"It's the latest craze," Washu replied. "You must not visit the capitol very often."

"Not socially, anyway."

"Maybe that will change now..." Funaho said quietly, and Airi colored.

"Actually, Tenchi is partly responsible for it," Washu added, grinning. She nodded towards her husband, who was settling into a chair — despite the protestations of his consorts.

"Do tell," Seto prompted. All eyes focused on the Emperor.

"I got tired of being forced to choose single dance partners — I wanted to dance with all of my family without excluding anyone. I remembered seeing line dancing on the cruise ship during mine and Ryoko's honeymoon, so I hired a local dance instructor and discussed it with him. The result was the Masaki Wheel."

"It's really quite popular," Ayeka added. "At first it was limited to just us and the dozen-or-so other cluster marriages here in the capitol. But someone soon modified it and replaced the individuals with couples. Once the general public started dancing to it, the number of footwork patterns simply exploded. It is not uncommon to find a score of groups employing the Wheel at any given ball, intermixed with single families like ours."

"Could you teach it to us?" Hakuren asked. Seina's other wives perked at the request.

"Sure," Tenchi replied.

The response was immediate: Seina's consorts bolted from their chairs, herding their husband out onto the floor. Tenchi's consorts grinned, and began moving the vacant chairs well out of the way.

Tenchi rose and strolled back onto the floor, the Yamada family parting before him. "Let's see...Seina, you stand with me, the rest of you form a circle around us. I need the Masaki serail to pair-up with the Yamada serail. One, two, three... H-m-m-m-m, we're three short. Kiyone, can you join us?"

Kiyone tried to rise from her chair, straight-arming the table for support, but collapsed back into her seat. "Uh, no, actually, I can't. Everything's kinda dizzy..."

"Well, isn't that a role reversal!" Mihoshi chortled.

Kiyone's buried her face in her crossed arms, her long hair pooling on the tabletop.

"I will help you," Minaho said, rising from her seat.

"You know this dance?" Airi asked, surprised.

"I do have a social life, Hastaba, even if I don't you keep you appraised of it."

"Ouch," Airi replied.

"Thank you, Hastabashibe Minaho. Funaho, Misaki, I know you've learned this..."

"Who's going to watch the kids?" Misaki asked.

"Oh, I think I remember how to," Seto interjected, smiling. "And I'm sure Kiyone will help..."

Kiyone's response was a loud snore.

"I'll help with the kids," Trinnard offered, moving his wife's glass well out of reach. He shared grins with her close friends.

The mob quickly sorted itself into a ring around Tenchi and Seina:

* Ayeka/Kiriko

* Mihoshi/Amane

* Ryoko MJ/Ryoko Y

* Sasami/Karen

* Washu/Neeju

* Minaho/Gyokuren

* Funaho/Hakuren

* Misaki/Suiren

"Let's have the Yamada kardesshibelar all stand on the left side," Tenchi directed, indicating that a number of the women change positions with their partners. He stepped around Seina, placing himself on the latter's left.

"Why?" Seina asked.

"Let's just say we'll rendezvous a little more amicably."

Seina shrugged, comprehension eluding him. All of the wives understood, however.

"Ok, we're going to start with the basic pattern. It's easy to embellish, and there are a lot of variations you can build from it. I think there are about twenty movements that form a cross-shaped pattern. There are several sidesteps, fore-and-aft steps, a couple of pivots, a couple of toe-and-heel taps, and the hip shakes that the ladies seem to like so much."

"Only because the men do," Minaho said, surprising everyone.

"Uh...right," Tenchi replied, forcing his jaw back into place. "The pattern repeats for the duration of the music, and you'll find yourself walking the circumference of the circle."

"Are we doing the same pattern?" Seina asked.

Tenchi nodded. "In fact, when we step forward, we will meet one of the couples as they step forward." Seina nodded, finally figuring-out the earlier reference to a rendezvous. "Since we're going the opposite direction that they are, we will meet a different couple each time. We'll walk through the pattern first, and then try it with the music."

"Let's use the same music you used earlier," Amane suggested. "I liked that one." Her Kardesshibelar nodded in agreement.

Seina started sweating.

ACT 5 — SUNDAY AFTERNOON

A new day has come
A new day has... come

I was waiting for so long
For a miracle to come
Everyone told me to be strong
Hold on and don't shed a tear

Through the darkness and good times
I knew I'd make it through
And the world thought I had it all
But I was waiting for you

Hush, love
I see a light in the sky
Oh, it's almost blinding me
I can't believe
I've been touched by an angel with love

Let the rain come down and wash away my tears
Let it fill my soul and drown my fears
Let it shatter the walls for a new, new sun

A new day has...come
Where it was dark now there's light
Where there was pain now there's joy
Where there was weakness, I found my strength
All in the eyes of a boy

Hush, love
I see a light in the sky
Oh, it's almost blinding me
I can't believe
I've been touched by an angel with love

Let the rain come down and wash away my tears
Let it fill my soul and drown my fears
Let it shatter the walls for a new, new sun

A new day has...come
Let the rain come down and wash away my tears
Let it fill my soul and drown my fears
Let it shatter the walls for a new, new sun

A new day has... come
Ohhh, a light... Ohhh

Title: "A New Day Has Come"
Artist: Celine Dion

The sound of lapping waves permeated Tsunami's habitat module. It was smaller than the similar modules outfitted to her descendents, but fully-functional nonetheless. Tenchi stood on the central pedestal, looking at the gardens that comprised most of the interior volume. Ryoko and Sasami flanked him, each holding one of his hands. "It is always so peaceful here."

"We're glad you like it," Sasami replied.

The phrase made Tenchi turn and study his betrothed. She was growing taller by the year, filling-out as she lost the gangly awkwardness of youth, acquiring grace as she matured. It was her eyes that captivated him; unarguably the most sensible (and rational) member of his serail, her eyes reflected the depths of her mental merger with Tsunami. He remembered the fear that had once filled those eyes, as the child anticipated extinction and the loss of her personality. Now, they sparkled with a sense of wonder, as her mind expanded and blended with her symbiont. Tenchi could only imagination what the integration must be like, the vivacious young human and the ponderous ancient entity. And in his darkest moments, he wondered how many human emotions would the entity retain after Sasami's inevitable demise. What was that old saying? 'The flame that burns brightest, burns fastest.' His own life span was still a big question mark, and probably much shorter than any of his serail — and so would cherish each day accordingly.

"Yeah, I've really come to appreciate this place," Ryoko said, grinning wickedly. It had only been a few weeks since Tenchi had conducted her to the isolation and safety aboard Tsunami, where he had guided her through her metamorphosis. Unlike his own experience, which had lasted for four days, hers had taken only a matter of hours, emerging from her chrysalis feeling more energized and vibrant that at any time in her long life. They had then transited to the vacuum, where she had generated her ten Lighthawk Wings for the very first time. And afterwards, in Tsunami's lone cabin, she had made love to him for hours on end. Finally, satiated and exhausted, she had fallen asleep in his arms. Even now, she could not think about the wings without getting sexually aroused.

Tenchi didn't have to see the leer on her face or to feel the wave of emotion cascading through their link to know what she was thinking about.

Tenchi - This is not the time for that, Ryoko

Ryoko - Oh, alright. But it better be soon!

Tenchi - Soon. I promise

She nodded, satisfied; her Tenchi always kept his promises.

The only jewelry that Tenchi consistently wore were two rings: the wedding band on his left hand (with its four gems and a place for the fifth), and the defense ring on his right hand. The latter was a rather blocky, unpretentious circlet that bore no distinguishing characteristics — but he didn't wear it for its esthetics. It was actually a link to his Juraian battle armor stored in psuedospace, which could be summoned by applying pressure at strategic points on the ring. This he did now, and he felt the familiar itch as his body was enveloped by the high-tech fabric and its corresponding energy field. Tenchi had to admit that the whole unit looked rather medieval, particularly with the sensor pads that appeared as warpaint across his face (and the traditional ball-shaped tassels looked just plain ridiculous). However, the suit's assets more than compensated for the cosmetic liabilities: extreme thermal conductivity, vacuum/radia-tion support, gravitic assist, and low-level impact protection. Once he had donned the armor, he was able to fly in atmosphere and survive in outer space — for as long as the batteries lasted. These he checked as a matter of course once the suit had fully phased-in.

Beside him, Ryoko had donned her red-and-black combat garment that served the same purpose. Hers, however, was more specialized to handle multiple environments and Power manipulation. That, and it fit her feminine curves like a second skin. She smiled when she noticed him appraising her.

Ryoko - You like what you see?

Tenchi - Very much

Ryoko - I could arrange a hands-on inspection

Tenchi - That sounds good to me

Ryoko - I'll see if I can fit you into my busy schedule

Tenchi - You do that

Tenchi smiled and turned to face the monitor panes...and there were a lot of them:

* Washu was sitting in the command chair aboard Ryo-ohki. Their daughter Achika sat strapped into a seat beside her, reading a book. Washu looked up and noticed Tenchi's eyes on her — and grinned.

* Ayeka and Mihoshi sat in hoverchairs aboard Ryu-oh. Behind Ayeka, her guardians Azaka and Kamidake had established a restraining field between them, which contained a slowly floating Azusa. As Tenchi watched, Ayeka reached into the field and gave their son a tug — which sent him spinning wildly and squealing with pleasure. Mihoshi giggled at the sight, all the while nursing Miyuki.

* Funaho sat in a hoverchair aboard Mizuho, sipping tea and holding a discussion with her bridge crew.

* Misaki sat on the couch that served as the command seat of Karin. She was talking via private communications pane to a naval officer (who Tenchi recognized as Captain Jelham).

* Yosho Masaki — Tenchi's grandfather — stood on the bridge of his tree ship Funaho, his wife Airi sitting on a hoverchair beside him. Both were actively studying the readouts and sensor logs being projected on the walls around them. Crewmembers could be seen manning consoles in the background.

* Seto reclined on the divan that occupied the center of Mikagami's bridge. She was idly waving her trademark fan, while granddaughter Minaho sat at a console nearby. Each seemed lost in their own thoughts.

* Commodore Linetsskha Ma'rhissa, Companion of the Sumikenki, sat as stolid and motionless as a bronze Buddha. Her bridge crew bustled with activity, as they were coordinating the entire Sentinel squadron, as well as the escort fleet patrolling the mouth of the Corral.

* The Yamada harem, manning their bridge stations and chatting among themselves. The Captain's chair was vacant because...

* Seina Yamada sat in the command chair of the mecha. He seemed relaxed, almost drowsy — and Tenchi remembered hearing his own wives chortling over the rumor that Seina's serail intended to take full advantage of their romantic stay in the palace. Tenchi wondered idly how many shifts that was going to require of poor Seina. No wonder he looked tired.

"Gee, Washu, it looks pretty crowded over there. How did you talk Ryo-ohki into letting you bring all those sensor pallets along?" Tenchi could see many large mechanisms filling the normally spacious command deck, crowding-out the floating crystals that served as the ship's internal sensors.

"She's a good daughter who loves her mother...and carrots. Lots of carrots," Washu replied, her voice emanating from the monitor

"I'm not surprised," Sasami chuckled.

"Besides, I'm not letting this opportunity slip by. I don't think there's ever been a time when so many Wings were summoned in such a small place as the Corral."

"Not since the last major war, at the very least," Ayeka added. "Even during the K'vimm Incursion, the trees were not very active."

"Say, Ayeka, why do they call it the Corral instead of the Orchard?" Ryoko teased.

"I do not know. Perhaps it's because fruit trees can't fly away, and Royal Trees can?"

"Never mind," Ryoko sighed, her joke falling flat.

"I don't see any media representatives here," Tenchi said.

"That's because Commodore Ma'rhissa is acting as the liaison to the news services."

"Aye, Sire," Ma'rhissa added. "There's a virtual fleet of non-military vessels just outside the Corral's perimeter. Media shuttles, yachts, and rubberneckers of every ilk. Even the GP is here, and they brought along a Voudrathi courier."

"Commodore, could you arrange to have the GP and Voudrathi brought close to the fence?" Washu asked. "This show is really for them. But do it discreetly — we can't let them know they're an integral part."

"Of course, Your Majesty." Ma'rhissa turned to her XO and started issuing orders.

"Well, it's time to get this show on the road," Tenchi announced.

"I never did understand that saying," Mihoshi replied.

"It refers to the days when the circus traveled from town-to-town. When all the performances were over, and the crowds had gone home, then it was time to pack-up the props and costumes and animals and move along to the next stop."

"How sad," Ayeka said.

"Perhaps," Washu countered. "But you can't start a new chapter until you've finished the old one. Right, Achika?"

"Right," the child replied. She looked-up long enough to blow a kiss to her father, and then went back to her book.

Tenchi grinned — and realized that everyone else was grinning, too, since they had all seen the exchange (since everyone on the network was watching everyone else). He felt very crowded.

Sasami stepped forward and handed headsets to Tenchi and Ryoko. "What's this for?" the latter asked.

"So we can all communicate with each other," Washu replied. "All of the ships will have telescopes trained on you two, but if any of us need to talk to you..."

"Oh," Ryoko sighed. She had forgotten that Tenchi didn't have mind links with anyone but his family. She pulled the device over her scalp and adjusted it around her ear and throat.

"Testing," Tenchi said, and received a thumbs-up signal from Washu.

"I'll control your audio channels, Dear. If you need to talk to someone, let me know and I'll make the connection." Washu's voice was tinny through the headset.

"Understood. Well, I'm off." He kissed his wife and betrothed, and stepped away from them. The Emblem of Power snapped into existence on his forehead, flaring with blue-white fire. A moment later, his Lighthawk Wings boiled into visibility before him, blazing in their Y-shaped configuration. Sasami and Ryoko felt the effects of his unbridled Power envelope, but before it got very intense, the wings had elongated and englobed him. The blue-white sphere then vanished through the hull, and the lumination returned to normal.

Ryoko's heart was in her throat. She would never, ever, tire of that sight. She turned to look at the array of screens, and noticed that nearly everyone was staring wide-eyed and slack-jawed. Not many people had witnessed that transformation, and most still believed it was just a rumor.

Washu - Ryoko? Wait a minute

Ryoko - What's up?

Washu - I'm worried about him

Sasami - You're worried?

Mihoshi - Then I'm really worried!

Ayeka - What has you so concerned, Washu?

Washu - He's never tried anything this complicated before. He may pass out from the strain. His armor will sustain him against the vacuum, but not against all the uncontrolled energy churning around out there

Ayeka - What do you suggest?

Washu - I'm watching his vital signs, and at the first hint of trouble…

Ryoko - Don't worry. I won't come home without him

Ryoko nodded once to her distant family, and gave Sasami a hug. "Keep an eye on my Little Angel, will you?" She gestured towards the bassinet floating nearby.

"I will. And you be careful, too. There are no guarantees."

"Don't I know it." A moment later, Ryoko floated free of the deck and phased through the bulkhead.

##########

Tenchi soared into the vacuum, his heightened senses reaching far beyond the confines of his Power ball. Behind him, Tsunami kept her position near the center of the Corral; Seina had maneuvered his mecha to her right flank, and Ryoko could be seen drifting to a similar position on Tsunami's left. Forming a loose globe around him were the other tree ships, far enough away to avoid interference with one another, yet close enough to observe and contribute. Visible as blazing dots were the constellation of military and commercial vessels eager to watch the show. He stopped when he reached the center of the Corral. "I'd prefer not to be overwhelmed," he announced, speaking into the microphone of his headset. "So, let's do this by the numbers. Sasami, you first."

"Ok, Tenchi." She really didn't have to do anything dramatic; no gestures of incantation, no frown of concentration, no clattering keyboards. Tsunami was listening and already knew what he wanted. For that matter, she knew Tenchi could talk directly to all the trees...he must be vocalizing his instructions for Washu's recorders and the Yamada family. She sensed the entity comply.

Tenchi saw the nimbus of blue-white fire materialize around Tsunami's bow. Like swirling fog, the incandescent mist condensed into a fan of ten angular blades dozens of meters long. Then, with no forewarning, the Lighthawk Wings separated from the hull and began drifting towards him. Tenchi reached out and grasped them, with a mechanism he couldn't explain, but knew instinctively how to use. It wasn't easy: the wings were not composed of matter, but energy, and he used the energy of his own wings to control them. Swollen and engorged, they felt like massive sandbags, heavy and resilient and reluctant to bend to his ministrations. An unbidden memory flashed through his mind, of a time when he was standing in the shallows of the lake outside his boyhood home, pushing a boat towards the dock. The boat was heavy, and awkward, and once in motion its momentum made it difficult to control. The feeling here was similar.

He experienced a moment of rising panic. During his one and only previous attempt, he had been aboard Tsunami, providing instructions while she did the actual manipulation. Now, she had withdrawn all control, other than what was needed to maintain the wings' shape. Though not approaching quickly, Tenchi failed to see how he would have time to wrestle each one into submission before they all converged on him.

And then another memory replayed, this one of a time when he and his grandfather had been practicing swordplay. Yosho had been trying to illustrate a point, and ordered his grandson to push him across the practice field. Tenchi had tried, leaning into it and straining with all of his might to unbalance his resisting teacher. After nearly two minutes, the best he had achieved was only five paces. "Foolish boy!" Yosho had declared. "The ocean does not break the boulder with one mighty wave, but with many gentle waves. Observe!" Yosho had then pushed Tenchi, not with an overpowering shove but with a gentle nudge...and then another...and then another, each in a slightly different direction, each just enough to disturb the boy's balance. It hadn't taken long before Tenchi found himself stumbling into the bushes at the edge of the glade.

Well, he had nothing to lose by trying the same tactic.

##########

Four suites, two bedrooms each — and one husband to pass around. It was a recipe for exhaustion and frustration.

Seina made no effort to hide his yawn. Gods, he was tired! His wives had kept waking him all through the night, allowing him only an hour's respite to recover before the next 'service' request. Like most boys, he had once hosted fantasies about attractive women hunting him relentlessly — and now he had first-hand experience. Be Careful What You Wish For — You Might Just Get It.

He was grateful when Neeju had interrupted the chain and dragged him off to her room, pointed to her bed, and demanded that he get some sleep. He was vaguely aware when others had come knocking, and Neeju had chased them off (doubtless putting the mental whammy on them when they got too objectionable). He woke bleary-eyed and sore, but functional.

And tonight, he would be expected to complete the chain. He hoped fervently that he would be able to find refuge in Neeju's room again...

He tugged open the thermos of tea that Karen had given to him, and sipped the hot liquid. It seemed to help. But then, anything that kept him busy helped him stay awake. He wondered how long it had taken Tenchi and his wives to reach a balanced home life. The Empresses all had reputations for being antisocial — even downright confrontational — but Seina had seen no evidence of it. To his eyes, Tenchi's serail truly enjoyed being together...and he could only hope that his own family would achieve a similar sort of harmony. Someday.

He watched the women logged-on to the network, some of whom were watching him. The most interesting pane, however, was the long-range image of Tenchi. Seina had never seen anything like it (and he gathered that few had, either). The Emperor was sealed inside a cocoon of blue-white light, and appeared to be drawing Tsunami's Lighthawk Wings towards himself. Seina had seen Lighthawk Wings used in anger on two separate occasions, and frankly wondered how anyone could control such a maelstrom.

##########

Tap-and-shift, tap-and-shift, tap-and-shift. Tsunami's wings were now synchchronised, falling gently towards him like building-sized shards of blue-white flame. Tenchi breathed a sigh of relief. There was a shimmer inside in the Power ball, and Tsunami's projection appeared beside him.

Tsunami - Well done, Tenchi

Tenchi - Thanks. This takes some getting used to

Tsunami - You appear to have them well under control

Tenchi - For the moment. Can you do me a favor?

Tsunami - Yes

Tenchi - Can you explain to your children — and Ryoko — what is needed?

Tsunami - Of course

##########

"Well, well, well," Washu muttered, glancing at the wall of monitor panes tiled in the space above Ryo-ohki's command console. She focused on the telescopic image of Ryoko MJ drifting in the vacuum, where the blistering sunlight and the arctic shadows rendered her shape nearly unrecognizable. But the luminescent image floating next to her was explicit and familiar: a beautiful woman in flowing robes, her azure hair streaming behind her in twin tails. Even at this distance, the resemblance to Sasami was uncanny.

"Miyaa-mew-mwah?" Ryo-ohki's question ruffled the air.

"Yes, I see her. Must be a technical conversation, 'cause what else would those two have to talk about?"

"I heard that," Ryoko MJ's voice filtered through the speaker.

"So did I," Sasami added.

"Did I say anything objectionable or disagreeable?" Washu asked. "No, I did not. I made a simple observation — and somehow I don't think Tsunami wanted to discuss the intimate details of your last visit out here."

"How do you know? Maybe she wanted some pointers."

"On what topic?"

"Do you really want me to answer that question with Sasami listening?"

"I already know what happened," Sasami giggled. "I could probably give you some pointers, Ryoko."

"Sasami!" Ayeka gasped. "Ryoko, need I remind you that we are on a public channel, and this subject is not to be broached so carelessly?"

"Oh, I dunno," Ryoko MJ drawled, "I'd kinda like to hear what the kid has to say." She ignored Ayeka's shocked sputtering. "So, Sasami, what's your take?"

"Well..."

"Were you weightless, Ryoko?" Mihoshi giggled.

"Nah, I'll leave that to you. Now, as I recall, we tried the — "

"That will be enough!" Ayeka snapped.

"I'll have to agree with Ayeka on this one, ladies," Washu interrupted. "Maybe you should continue this discussion at another time. Otherwise, I might have to pull the plug on the communications net."

"Spoilsport," Ryoko MJ sneered.

"Gee, and it was just getting good," Amane sighed.

"I was all set to take some notes," Gyokuren added.

"And I'm always willing to listen to intriguing suggestions," Seto concluded.

Seina groaned, which prompted laughter from everyone.

##########

Tenchi - Ryoko?

Ryoko - Yes, Sweetie?

Tenchi - Your turn

Ryoko - Ok. I'm generating them now

A ball of intense, blue-white fire coalesced in front of Ryoko MJ, and then slowly unfurled into a massive bouquet. Ten blue-white wings, billowing in the darkness, slowly advanced towards Tenchi.

Better prepared this time, Tenchi reached for them with more care and deliberation... Tap-and-shift, tap-and-shift, tap-and-shift.

Within a span of ten minutes, Tenchi had given the command to each of Tsunami's descendents (including the seed in Seina's mecha), and Lighthawk Wings began to drift towards the center of the Corral.

##########

The sight was immensely impressive, and every camera in the Juraian planetary system that could see the spectacle was recording it — particularly those hovering near the Corral.

Captain Sir Noniel Jelham, IJN, languished in his command chair aboard the destroyer Attakiassa. He had been assigned watchdog duty at the mouth of the Royal Tree reservation because (i) he had experience dealing with the vagaries and capabilities of the Royal Family, (ii) his ship was one of three in the solar system with the new Masaki drivers on-line, and (iii) Commodore Ma'rhissa was still a bit peeved with him for allowing the Emperor to go gallivanting off into intergalactic space (without explaining how he was supposed to restrain Tenchi Masaki Jurai).

Captain Jelham was a man who had learned to follow his instincts. And his instincts told him that yonder experiment was about to produce results none of them quite expected.

"Coel?"

Commander Coel Pil'heureux, XO of the ship, turned from her workstation. "Yes, Captain?"

"I've got a hunch."

"I dunno, skipper..."

"You 'dunno' what, Coel?"

"The last hunch you had involved a certain hand of cards — which you still owe me for."

"Humph! Your insubordination is truly staggering in its proportions."

"It seems to pay better than your hunches do," she grinned, tossing her auburn hair over one shoulder.

"Well, this hunch involves that circus out there."

"Why do I get the feeling that the stakes just increased?"

"Do you really want me to answer that?"

"No; ignorance is bliss, and I prefer to remain ecstatic."

"Wise choice."

"What preparations should I be making?"

"Ramp-up all the sensors, and allocate extra memory space in the ship's library. I have a gut feeling we will be doing business with Empress Washu again...and real soon."

"Aye, aye, Skipper."

##########

Tenchi was fighting another surge of panic.

The good news was that tap-and-shift had proved to be a remarkably successful strategy, even as the numbers of wings increased (thank God he didn't have to generate all those things). The bad news was that the gaps between them were dwindling, and he wasn't sure what would happen when the wings began rubbing against each other. Maybe nothing, maybe boom...

He flashed a mental image of a lumberjack running frantically across a floating raft of tree trunks, trying desperately to avoid a logjam in the swiftly-flowing river.

He flashed another image of a grizzled old stagecoach driver, trying to keep a forty-team hitch of horses running together, all of them fighting the reins.

It came down to a timing issue. He was 'tapping' each of the wings in a haphazard manner, trying to orchestrate their movements. What he needed was a way to bring the wings under his control...to place them in lockstep...to harmonize them...

Harmonize them?

And then the epiphany hit him hard enough that he almost lost his concentration. He did, however, yield to the grin that curled his lips.

Tenchi - Washu?

Washu - Yes, Dear?

Tenchi - Could you do me a favor?

##########

Ayeka and Mihoshi heard Washu burst out laughing, and looked curiously at the communications pane broadcast from Ryo-ohki.

"What's so funny?" Mihoshi asked.

"Tenchi just asked me for a favor," Washu replied, her fingers dancing across her keyboard.

"What kind of favor?" Ayeka asked.

"Hang on a second, and you'll hear for yourself."

There was a short pause while Washu accessed her computer libraries, and then a file was piped into the net's audio channel. A familiar guitar riff pulsed out of the speakers, followed by a heartbeat cadence of bass notes and drumbeats. A woman's voice whispered and hummed in the pauses, siren-like, sultry and suggestive. An organ trilled for effect.

"Tenchi asked for that?" Mihoshi exclaimed.

"Yep," Washu grinned. After a moment, Ayeka and Mihoshi sported grins of their own.

Mississippi in the middle of a dry spell.
Jimmy Rogers on the victrola up high.
Mama's dancin' with a baby on her shoulder.
The sun is settin' like molasses in the sky.
The boy could sing, knew how to move, everything.
Always wanting more, he'd leave you longing for.

Black velvet and that little boy's smile.
Black velvet with that slow southern style.
A new religion that'll bring ya to your knees.
Black velvet if you please.

The grin became infectious, rippling across the network: the Yamada family acquired it, their heads bobbing and toes tapping in rhythm; Airi chuckled with delight, casting occasional glances at her bewildered husband; Seto's fan acquired a noticeable rhythm to its flourish, and even Commodore Ma'rhissa's head could be seen rocking gently (the stern visage actually softening a bit).

And out in space, the great energy constructs paused, their movements slowing, no longer falling together like massive leaves. With a barely perceptible start, they began to reorient, their random orbits beginning to align.

Up in Memphis the music's like a heatwave.
White lightning, bound to drive you wild.
Mama's baby is in the heart of every schoolgirl.

"Love Me Tender" leaves 'em cryin' in the aisle.
The way he moved, it was a sin, so sweet and true.
Always wanting more, he'd leave you longing for.

Black velvet and that little boy's smile.
Black velvet with that slow southern style.
A new religion that'll bring ya to your knees.
Black velvet if you please.

Every word of every song that he sang was for you.
In a flash he was gone, it happened so soon, what could you do?

An impromptu line dance had formed across the bridge of the K2, as Seina's wives clapped and stepped and giggled with the music emanating from the speakers. Seina grinned at the image on his monitor, amazed at the sight.

On other ships, Tenchi's consorts clapped as well, watching each other through the monitors and laughing. Ryoko MJ could be seen clapping soundlessly.

Unseen inside his Power ball, Tenchi was gesturing with hands and mind like an orchestra conductor — or a sorcerer's apprentice. The Lighthawk Wings were now converging, their narrow apexes fusing with his sphere. He was constructing a sunburst, a forty-plus petaled chrysanthemum. And he was audibly humming the melody as he guided the dancing pillars of flame.

Black velvet and that little boy's smile.
Black velvet with that slow southern style.
A new religion that'll bring ya to your knees.
Black velvet if you please.

Black velvet and that little boy's smile.
Black velvet with that slow southern style.
A new religion that'll bring ya to your knees.
Black velvet if you please.

Each of the Wings was now revolving around its long axis, simultaneously rotating in unison around the central sphere. A blue-white pinwheel a hundred meters across spinning slowly in space. And the perimeter of each began to soften, taking on a definite hourglass shape...

If you please.
If you please.
If you please
.

"They even look female!" Amane exclaimed, watching the monitors. "How does he do that?"

"Wait a minute...what did you just say?" Washu asked.

"That he's making the Wings look female."

"Now that you mention it, they have acquired a feminine silhouette," Ayeka agreed.

"Doh!" Washu exclaimed, slapping her forehead. Her fingers danced across her keyboard, multiple graphic panes snapping into existence around her, each displaying statistics and analytical readouts. "Why didn't I see this earlier? Tenchi, my love, you never cease to amaze me!"

"What did I do now?" Tenchi asked, his voice distant and distracted.

It's what you've been doing all along. I know how you've been controlling everyone's Power attributes, including the Wings. Especially the Wings!"

"Well, don't keep us in suspense," Mihoshi prompted.

"It's simple: the energy is polarized!"

"What!" exclaimed Minaho and Suiren together. Each pounced on her own keyboard, typing frantically and raising layers of new data panes.

"Could you explain that for us non-geniuses?" Ayeka drawled.

"The Lighthawk energy is polarized, like magnetism and gravity...positive and negative...light and dark...male and female..."

"Wait a minute," Airi said. "The trees are asexual, neither male nor female. Calling them females is just a useful tradition, like referring to all ships as 'she'."

"That's true," Washu replied, "but the energy they wield carries a charge, and it just happens to be the opposite of Tenchi's."

"And Seina's!" Suiren announced triumphantly. She indicated her own computer readouts. "It appears to be organized along gender lines."

"Which makes sense. Look at the behavior among Power Adepts: opposites attract, equivalents repel. What an elegant solution!"

##########

Tsunami - I am most impressed with this demonstration, Tenchi. It is an amazing performance

Tenchi - Yeah, I'm amazed, too. Really, once I got the wings moving, it was a simple matter to keep them going

Tsunami - However...

Tenchi - However?

Tsunami - It lacks functionality

Tenchi - Flashy but impractical, huh?

Tsunami - Yes

Tenchi - Oh. Well, what do you suggest?

Tsunami - Apply them

Tenchi - Ok...how?

Tsunami - Utilize a process that you are already familiar with

##########

Kiriko generally ignored the chatter around her. The excitement was rapidly yielding to boredom, and it wouldn't be long before the nitpicking started. She idly wished that she was sharing the mecha's cockpit with Seina — alone. She glanced across the circle at Suiren, who was tapping at her keyboard while frowning with concentration. "Is something wrong?"

"I'm monitoring His Majesty's Power signature."

"And...?"

"I'm registering some unusual properties."

"That's no surprise."

Suiren ignored the sarcasm. "Washu described the operating characteristics of his envelope, so I have a projected baseline to work from."

"And he's exceeding the projections?" Kiriko asked, intrigued in spite of herself.

Suiren nodded.

"Maybe you should recalibrate your instruments."

"No, they're operating within normal parameters..."

At that point Kiriko felt a disturbance from her Companion.

"Excuse me, ladies," Seto interrupted, "but I think you have something more critical to monitor."

"I concur," Funaho added.

"Eh? What's up?" Washu asked.

"I believe Tenchi just made a request of our Companions," Ayeka offered.

"Something's about to happen," Misaki said.

Sasami started giggling, and every face on the net turned to look at her.

##########

"Where are you going, Dear?" Washu asked.

"I need some maneuvering room," Tenchi replied.

"For what?"

"You'll see. I don't want any traffic congestion in the Corral."

"You're not making any sense, Beloved," Ayeka added.

"Patience, my loves; if this works it will become very apparent."

"What do you mean, if this works?" Ryoko MJ demanded.

"Oh, ye of little faith..."

"We have plenty of faith in you, Sweetie, but we would like to know what the hell you're doing."

"If it makes you feel any better, why don't you tag along?"

"Alright, I will."

"Seina?"

"Yes, Tenchi?"

"Maybe you should tag along, too."

"Ok."

"This is getting weird," Mihoshi said.

Sasami just chuckled.

"Really, reishibe, if you know something about his intentions, why don't you share them with us?" Ayeka asked.

"Because, Tenchi wants it to be a surprise, and I won't spoil it for him. I will say this, though: it will be totally awesome!"

Sasami's kardesshibelar groaned collectively.

##########

"Damn, I'm good!" Captain Jelham declared.

"Well, you do have your moments," Commander Pil'heureux agreed.

The Attakiassa's sensors showed that the giant pinwheel had now assumed new vectors, and was slowly spiraling towards the portal to the Corral.

"We should have wagered on this experiment. I just knew something unorthodox was going to happen."

"I don't believe I would have accepted, Captain. There are 'way too many variables for me."

"You watch: any moment now we should be getting a call from the Commodore — "

"And here it comes," The XO confirmed.

"Put her on the main viewer," Jelham replied, changing his smug grin to a neutral smile.

A moment later, Commodore Ma'rhissa was staring out from the screen. "Captain Jelham, no doubt you've seen that His Majesty has decided to leave the confines of the reservation?"

"Yes, Commodore."

"Please disperse the crowd of observers back to a reasonable distance. Ten kilometers should be enough."

"Only ten kilometers? Is that a safe distance?"

"Captain, do you have any comprehension of the energy levels involved here? If the Emperor should lose control of that structure, and it detonated for any reason, the Corral would become the center of an explosion of stellar magnitude, and every rock from here to the Oort cloud would be scoured clean by the intense radiation. And we are all too deep in the sun's gravity well to escape to psuedospace." The Commodore looked like she was chewing on something very sour. "There is no safe distance not measured in light years. Your task is to remove any distractions. Understood?"

"Completely, Commodore. We'll get right on it."

"And don't go too far, Captain. Your services may be needed in other capacities."

"Ma'am?"

"I'm not sure myself, Captain. My Companion assures me that everything is under control, and though the Royals are discussing this among themselves, they do not appear overly concerned. Either way, I'm not privy to any details — but I am sure we'll all find out in short order."

"Yes, Ma'am."

##########

Tenchi shepherded the collage of wings through the portal and beyond. It was not particularly trying: once in motion, the structure coasted along without his intervention. He decided not to bother terminating its forward movement (which was negligible anyway). There were other imminent changes that would be of more pressing concern.

Tenchi- What do you think, Tsunami? Is this good enough?

Tsunami - The location is suitable. We are well beyond the confines of the Corral; so you need only reorient the structure

Tenchi - 'Only' she says. Ok, this is going to take a while...

##########

"Now what's he doing?" Washu mumbled. Ryo-ohki burbled some reply, which Washu failed to register. She did look away from her console long enough to notice that Achika had fallen asleep in her chair. Grinning, Washu adjusted the seat so that it reclined nearly horizontal.

"Washu? It looks like he's changing direction."

"I can see that, Mihoshi. It must be a real challenge trying to juggle all those balls..."

"Any idea why he's altering his orientation?" Funaho asked.

"Nope."

"It doesn't appear to have any relation to the sun or planets," Suiren offered.

"I noticed that, too."

"Why don't we just ask him?" Ryoko MJ prompted.

"Because I've been monitoring his mental state. Whatever he's doing is taking tremendous concentration. I'm reluctant to disturb him."

"Isn't he hearing this verbal exchange?" Ayeka asked.

"No, I turned-off his audio receivers." Washu studied the sensor readings on her displays, which defined the meditative state her husband had erected. She made a mental note to provide some aspirin for him.

##########

Tenchi - Are you sure we're pointing in the right direction?

Tsunami - Yes, Tenchi

Tenchi - But I can't see that far

Tsunami - I can. You must trust me

Tenchi - I do trust you, Tsunami, I just hate jumping blindly into the dark

Tenchi withdrew from the construct with a great deal of effort. Tap-and-shift required constant vigilance and many careful adjustments. For a moment, he was content to simply drift inside his Power ball, allowing his senses to perceive the great accumulation of energy around him. He could feel a headache growing.

Tenchi - The Lighthawk Wings will need to be released for this to work

Tsunami - Yes

Tenchi - Won't that be hazardous? So much uncontrolled Power...

Tsunami - If you act quickly and precisely, there should be no danger

Tenchi - If...

Tsunami - Why the sudden lack of confidence?

Tenchi - Because this is so difficult, and so risky

Tsunami - Tenchi, I would not have permitted this if I wasn't convinced you would succeed

Tenchi - That's reassuring

Tsunami - Is that sarcasm? I have trouble distinguishing your darker emotions

Tenchi - Yes, it was sarcasm. I apologize, Tsunami

Tsunami - Are you ready to proceed?

Tenchi - Yes. Let's start with your wings

Tsunami - Very well

##########

"Washu?"

"I see it, Ayeka," she answered. One set of Wings in the pinwheel began to dissolve, becoming incandescent feathers, and then coalescing into one large blade. Moments later, an adjacent cluster of Wings lost their cohesion, the radiant mist being absorbed into the growing cloud.

"He's merging them!" Ryoko Y announced.

"Confirmed," Minaho replied.

"From a blossom to a fan," Seto muttered. She looked at her handheld fan, at its ancient design of folding paper and wooden ribs, and shook her head. "Very impressive."

"I just got a request from Tsunami," Ryoko MJ said. "I am to release control over my own Wings in just a moment."

"Better do what she asks," Washu said. "Tenchi is probably too busy to make the request himself."

"Acknowledged."

##########

Tenchi - There. Done

Tsunami - Is it difficult to control?

Tenchi - No worse than it was before the transition

Tsunami - I have the coordinates for you

Tenchi - Ok, what are they?

##########

It was a disk, thicker at the core and thinnest at the perimeter. It continued to revolve around the center, almost too bright to look at.

Washu cackled, drawing startled looks from all the observers on the network.

"What's so funny?" Mihoshi asked.

"I know what's he's doing," Washu replied, watching her sensors intently. Sure enough, one of the displays showed the expected change. "And there's the gravity wave!"

"He's building another dimensional doorway, isn't he?" Funaho asked.

"Yep — and this one's a real monster. That graviton surge I just observed was much larger than anything the K'vimm ever produced. Remember, they used whole farms of solar arrays to soak-up sunlight from a red dwarf star; Tenchi is tapping the energy of the quantum vacuum directly through all those Lighthawk Wings. The difference in scale is simply enormous!"

"Where does it lead?" Ayeka asked.

"I have no clue, but I — wait a minute." Her instruments revealed a lateral movement near Tenchi's Power ball, a movement that shouldn't be there. She zoomed-in the focus, and barely suppressed a gasp.

Tenchi was slowly drifting away from the disk, no longer encased by the Power ball.

She restored his audio channel. "Tenchi?" There was no response. On the third repetition she saw Ryoko MJ materialize next to him and peer into his face. The faintly glowing fields of their environment bubbles could be clearly discerned. "Ryoko?"

"He's ok," she replied. "He just opened his eyes and smiled at me."

"Sorry about that," he said, voice whispering across the network. "I have trouble walking and chewing gum at the same time."

Washu breathed a sigh of relief...and noticed similar expressions from her kardesshibelar. "Care to let us in on what you're doing?"

"Tsunami suggested that I build another doorway. Ryoko, can you tow me over beyond the edge?"

"Sure, Sweetie." She slipped around behind him, wrapping her arms firmly around his waist. They began floating across the face of the disk.

"Commodore Ma'rhissa?"

"Yes, Sire?"

"Can you arrange for someone to escort the Voudrathi and GP observers through the doorway? I won't be able to maintain it much longer, but I can give them five minutes or so."

"Of course, Your Majesty. I'll relay the information to Captain Jelham immediately."

"Jelham, eh? Good choice. Seina?"

"Yes, Tenchi?"

"Why don't you go with them."

"Me? Why?"

"Well, you're still GP (and thus politically neutral), the seed in the mecha can withdraw its Power from the doorway in case of an emergency...and consider this my gift to you, for your coming investiture."

"Uh, ok. Thank you."

"But do hurry, folks; the strain is considerable, and I am becoming very fatigued."

##########

Ryoko was mildly worried by Tenchi's silence. More than once she peeked over his shoulder and through the haze of their support fields, examining his face. His eyes were closed, and his breathing was deep and slow. Washu assured him that he was ok, that he was merely in a light trance.

With nothing else to do, Ryoko tightened her grip and waited for the show to start.

She had a ringside seat: the great disk hovered nearby, looking remarkably like the Masaki family lake in Okayama, reflecting the sky on a calm day. She watched four objects converge nearby, and approach in single file.

In the lead was the IJN Attakiassa, and as it came level with her it rendered full honors to His Imperial Majesty. Ryoko couldn't help but smile, not only at Jelham's devotion to protocol, but at the fact that Tenchi was totally oblivious to it. Moments later, the bow of the destroyer entered the doorway and vanished. The surface of the disk rippled as the entire bulk of the ship slid forward and disappeared.

In the destroyer's wake was the GP shuttle. It, too, rendered proper honors to the head of state. Ryoko wondered if Mihoshi's Uncle Marrim was aboard. Either way, the little vessel caused hardly a stir as it sailed into the doorway.

The Voudrathi shuttle followed with more apparent caution. Ryoko guessed that there were few sentients in it, probably just a couple of insignificant drones. More likely it was heavily stuffed with sensors and instruments — which is just what Washu, Funaho and Seto were counting on. Not surprisingly, the stubby craft made no gestures of respect as it passed them and slipped into the doorway.

Last to approach was Seina, guiding his six-story-tall humanoid mecha with deceptive ease. The robot approached the doorway head-first, and as it came level with her the right hand snapped into a smart salute. Had there been air to carry the sound, she was sure she would have heard a thunderous clang. Moments later, arm and head entered the doorway, and the surface bubbled as the remainder of the body followed. Ryoko heard one of Seina's wives call his name softly.

##########

"I think I finally know what killed my reishibe," Minaho said quietly. She sat rigidly in front of her keyboard, hands resting on her lap, data panes floating above her, flickering their ghostly messages.

There was a sudden silence across the network.

"What have you found?" Washu asked.

"I assumed all along that Achika's body had rejected her son while still in the womb, that the Super Class Adept she carried did some kind of irreparable harm to her. I have just revised that opinion: you see, Achika must have been a Super Class Adept herself."

"So was Empress Mineko, and she lived a long full life," Washu replied. "What was so different about Achika?"

"Tell me, have you ever heard of the 'wild child' syndrome?"

"Yes."

"What is that?" Seto asked.

"A child raised in isolation, away from normal human contact, may never develop the gift of speech, or even learn to walk upright. Such abilities were once thought to be instinctive; that they were so much a part of what makes a person human that they were taken for granted. Such is not the case, however. While humans are hard-wired with the potential for speech and bipedal locomotion, those skills must be learned during the critical period before puberty. And learning requires guidance, which my sister did not have. Achika was a 'wild child.'"

"Excuse me," Airi growled, "but I beg to differ."

"I don't mean in the normal sense, hastaba. Lady Washu, when did Tenchi first manifest his Power attributes?"

"During his second confrontation with Kagato, right after...oh, Gods."

"Ah, you see it now: Tsunami provided the guidance, the example, to unlock his Power potentials."

"So what does that have to do with Achika?" Airi asked.

"Maturing potentials will manifest, with or without proper guidance," Minaho replied. "She received no guidance."

"But that doesn't make any sense," Airi sputtered. "Yosho and I were both with her all of her life. We could have taught her what she needed to know."

"Yes, you could have," Minaho said slowly, "if she had followed the normal pattern. But she didn't. You said it yourself, she never displayed any Power attributes; so you assumed she didn't have them." She made a gesture that encompassed all the faces on the screens looking back at her. "Did any one of you exhibit any attributes before the onset of puberty? Anyone?"

She was answered with silent frowns and shaking heads.

"My theory is that Achika, like Tenchi after her, was so powerful that the cycle took longer to initiate. And like Tenchi, she wasn't ready for the transformation until she reached her Ascendancy. But unlike Tenchi, she had no one available to recognize the pattern for what it was. And frankly, I doubt if anyone at the capitol could have identified the symptoms. There were only four known precedents — Emperors Ashisato, Fusatane, Kuniteru, and Empress Mineko — and Tsunami had been there to assist each of them." Minaho chuckled wryly. "And I seriously doubt that there was ever full disclosure on the details of their transformations."

"I'd have to agree with all of that," Washu said.

"There was no midwife available for Achika. And controlling such potentials is not instinctive...not yet, anyway. The potentials expanded and increased until they reached critical mass, turning on their host and eating her from the inside-out like a cancer."

"But what about me?" Ryoko MJ asked. "I don't remember ever having a guide when my attributes manifested. I was alone and under Kagato's control."

"You're a special case, my dear," Washu said. "You were bioengineered to be physically stronger than an average human, so you were able to withstand the strain to your system. And since Kagato kept you in stasis so much, it helped postpone the final phase. Besides, there are at least two triggers required for the transformation, the physical and psychological components. You've been physically mature for centuries. But you didn't mature psychologically until — "

" — Until I met Tenchi."

"Ummm-hmmmm," Washu nodded. "Tenchi guided you safely through your transformation, just as Tsunami did for him. And that's when you were finally able to summon your own Lighthawk Wings."

"Achika was a Super Class Adept, at least as strong as Tenchi," Minaho concluded. "It's a wonder that she lasted as long as she did."

"I'll tell him all of this later," Washu sighed.

"We'll tell him all of this later," Mihoshi insisted. "He's our husband, too."

"And I owe him an apology," Minaho added. "I've been blaming him for his hastaba's death, and he had nothing to do with it. In fact, if it weren't for Tsunami, the same fate would have befallen him."

"Or Kagato would have killed him," Sasami said quietly.

##########

Suiren stared at her displays, lips puckered and eyebrows furrowed.

Kiriko looked over Suiren's shoulder, examining the same data displays. "Is something wrong?"

Suiren looked up, startled, and then grinned. "Not wrong...just interesting. This chart," she pointed to the leftmost pane hovering above her keyboard, "is an analysis of Seina's Power manifestations over the last six months. This spike here represents the incident where he took control of the mecha."

"Ok...but what's so fascinating about it?"

"Look at this panel over here."

Kiriko did look, and noticed how much they resembled one another. "What is that chart?"

"That spike was produced by His Majesty, when he took control of all of the wings."

"But, they're nearly identical!"

"Uh, huh. Which says the underlying mechanisms are nearly identical — and may reflect parallel capabilities." Suiren was grinning, watching Kiriko's face for the impact of her statement to appear.

It didn't take long.

"Are you saying Seina might be a super class adept?"

"Possibly. He is only 15 — and these readouts indicate that he might be in the gestation period for Lady Minaho's proposed cycle. Now, if we start to correlate His Majesty's known signatures with Empress Ryoko's, and then add Seina's..." Suiren's fingers danced across the keys, and a half dozen floating panels appeared over the keyboard. Her fingers raced to keep up with the shifting information streams.

"Need some help?" Kiriko asked.

"Sure," Suiren replied, "if you could analyze these factors..." She pointed at certain references on one pane, while Kiriko summoned a hoverchair and terminal. Within moments both women were creating a staccato duet.

Amane wandered over and took station between them, eyes flickering back and forth. She reached over and tapped Suiren on the shoulder. "Hold it. That value looks odd."

"Huh?" Suiren replied irritably — until she focused on the indicated graphic. "You're right. Damn!" Her fingers made several rapid strokes across the keyboard, and the graphic shifted its shape. "Thanks."

"No problem," Amane replied absently, scrutinizing Kiriko's results.

##########

"Empress Washu?"

"Yes, Suiren?"

"We have something we'd like you to take a look at."

Washu studied the faces of Suiren, Kiriko, and Amane, each etched with suppressed excitement. "What do you have?"

"I'm transmitting it to you now. It involves Seina's Power signature."

Indicator lights on Washu's workstation flickered, and new images rippled across her holo-panels. She studied them in silence for a few moments, and then emitted a loud, "E-e-e-e-e-p!" Her fingers began dancing across the keys as she verified the data sent to her. "Well, I'll be damned," she muttered finally.

"Then you've confirmed our analysis?"

"Not completely. I question whether he'll be able to generate any Lighthawk Wings, but his Power level is definitely near the top of the scale. Gods, what is it about the men from Earth?"

"Ya gotta love 'em," Amane grinned.

"Especially now," Washu said, the tone in her voice taking a level tone. "Do you ladies realize just how serious a matter it becomes for Seina's home life to be as stress-free and nurturing as possible?"

Three smiles faded. Behind them, the rest of Seina's serail began to gather.

"We made Tenchi's life miserable for the first couple of years, and it did his development no favors at all. And there were only five of us. For Seina's sake, you ladies have to resolve your personal issues and learn to cooperate."

Glances were exchanged, both side-long and full-faced.

"No one is expecting perfection (Gods alone knows we're nowhere near it), but as you love Seina Yamada you had better learn to be friends. These graphs indicate he's going to face some profound changes in the next few years, both physical and psychological. He's going to need you — all of you — and you're going to face the same problems we've had to."

"What kind of problems?" Ryoko Y asked.

"If you think he's a babe magnet now, just wait about three years. Right, ladies?" Washu's last comment was directed at her kardesshibelar.

"Damn straight!" Ryoko MJ replied. "Even when Tenchi keeps his Power envelope muted, they come out of the woodwork in droves. And Seina hasn't even learned how to mute his Power envelope yet."

"I never knew there were so many female adepts running around," Sasami said.

"And then there's that little problem of burnout..." Mihoshi added.

"What's burnout?" Kiriko asked.

"You haven't experienced it yet?" Ayeka asked, astounded. "But you've been married for months!"

"They aren't Master Class adepts," Washu explained. "But when Seina reaches maturity, they will feel the full affects anyway — at least until they build an immunity."

"What are you talking about?" Karen asked.

"Immunity to what?" Neeju asked.

"I think I know," Gyokuren said, chuckling. "Go ahead, Your Majesty. Tell them."

Washu did.

There was a stunned silence.

"Now you understand why cooperation is paramount," Washu continued. "You are going to share heaven and hell, ladies, and you will need to rely on each other heavily. And we speak from personal experience."

Another long silence.

"Uh, where can we get a karaoke machine?" Hakuren asked.

Precisely five minutes after the Attakiassa entered the doorway, its center began to boil vigorously and the destroyer reappeared. Once again, the ship rendered full honors to the motionless Emperor, and then began a side-slipping maneuver to take station on the opposite side of the disk. Ryoko was glad to see it.

The GP shuttle pierced the disk and sailed past, rendering a quick salute before it sailed out of sight.

The Voudrathi shuttle erupted from the doorway and vanished just as quickly.

The last movement from the doorway was the appearance of Seina's mecha, whose head and shoulders rose majestically from the blue-white surface. Once the feet were clear, the mecha stopped its forward motion, and then assumed a position near Ryoko and Tenchi. She was glad to see it, too — and grinned when she heard his wives calling to him.

Ryoko gently shook her husband, trying to wake him.

Ryoko - Tenchi? Tenchi? They're back, Sweetie

She felt him stir, and watched his eyelids flutter open. His eyes focused on the Attakiassa across the doorway, and then the robot floating close at hand.

Tenchi - Everyone back safely?

She could feel his weariness through their Link.

Ryoko - Yeah, everyone came home

"Captain Jelham?" Tenchi's voice was strained, raspy with fatigue.

"Yes, Sire?"

"I trust you recorded what you saw on the other side?"

"Indeed I did."

"Would you mind selecting a few images and releasing them, on both commercial and military bands, with some pertinent narration?"

"Aye, Your Majesty. It just so happens I anticipated your request. I'm sending the images now."

##########

Washu enlarged the size of the main viewing pane — and then her jaw dropped open and her eyes bulged out.

"Washu...?" Ayeka hesitated. "What is that?"

She had to swallow twice to get her voice back. "The Andromeda Galaxy."

"Oh my God," Mihoshi whispered. "Are you sure?"

"Yeah. It's twice the size of the Milky Way, inclined at an angle of 15° to us, and has a divided core. It even has two satellites. There's no mistaking it."

"How far away is it?" Ayeka asked.

"2.2 million lightyears."

##########

"This is as close as we got," Jelham was explaining. "Lieutenant Yechoua Ino, our astrogator, calculates we covered just over half the distance. I trust his judgment. If you look in the lower right corner of the image, you can see the GP and Voudrathi shuttles. They provide a bit of scale."

The image remained a few moments, and then was replaced. "And here is the view astern," Jelham continued. The center of the image was dominated by the doorway, and the black silhouette that was Seina's mecha. Visible far beyond was the misty spiral of the Milky Way.

"And here's the last image, taken in a random direction. I would like to point-out just how dark and empty it appears. Those little points of light you see are not individual stars, but whole galaxies. Without sounding particularly poetic, I daresay we were in a very lonely, very isolated pocket of the universe. It felt good to come home."

##########

Tenchi broadcast his request, and the trees complied: the energies in the disk were released, vanishing in a cascade of intense sparkles and evaporating foam. All that remained was Ryoko's portion — a diffuse arc of incandescence which faded with a gesture — and Tenchi's Power ball. With an audible sigh, Tenchi dismissed the structure, and they were alone in space.

"Washu?"

"Yes, Dear?"

"I'm exhausted. Would you see to it that someone informs the Voudrathi Ambassador that, when she is ready to leave, we can provide her with a shortcut home — if she wants one, that is."

"Of course."

"And while you're at it, why don't you ask Seto and Funaho if this show was impressive enough."

"I think they are both completely satisfied," Washu said, looking at the open channels to Mikagami and Mizuho. Both women nodded.

Washu's eyes focused on the telescopic view of Ryoko cradling Tenchi. They seemed so small and insignificant, backlit by the sun and quilted in harsh shadows, the stars behind them stretching away forever. Floating nearby was the massive mecha, towering over them silently like some ancient stone guardian. She appraised their husband with open wonder; so small in stature and yet full of such prodigious potential. Uncharacteristically, her eyes teared and her heart stuck in her throat.

EPILOGUE

Joy at the start
Fear in the journey
Joy in the coming home
A part of the heart
Gets lost in the learning
Somewhere along the road

Along the road your path may wander
A pilgrim's faith may fail
Absence makes the heart grow fonder
Darkness obscures the trail

Cursing the quest
Courting disaster
Measureless nights forbode
Moments of rest
Glimpses of laughter
Are treasured along the road

Along the road your steps may stumble
Your thoughts may start to stray
But through it all a heart held humble
Levels and lights your way

Joy at the start
Fear in the journey
Joy in the coming home
A part of the heart
Gets lost in the learning
Somewhere along the road
Somewhere along the road
Somewhere along the road

Title: "Along The Road"
Artist: Dan Fogelberg

Seto stood admiring her gallery. It was a wall of 2-D and 3-D photographs that she routinely updated. No one was ever permitted into this inner sanctum of her residence, so no one ever saw the emotional and sensitive side of her character. She preferred to keep her weaknesses to herself.

The recent collection was not very extensive, focused on a single event: the post-Knighting celebration held at the Palace for Seina Yamada. Here, the two families had relaxed and enjoyed themselves. Among the snapshots on display were:

* The Royal Family, sitting together on their own veranda. They were laughing at something the photographer had just said, and their body language reflected the simple pleasure of being together. The center of the grouping was Tenchi (art reflects life, after all). On his right sat Ryoko MJ, behind her stood Ayeka, on his left sat Mihoshi, and behind her stood Washu — and each of them held her own child, proudly displayed for the camera lens. In front of Tenchi sat Sasami, his hands resting upon her shoulders, and her hands placed atop his. Ryo-ohki was nestled upon Sasami's lap, her humanoid face grinning happily.

* The Yamada family, sitting on the veranda steps. Seina, of course, held center position, with Kiriko, Amane, Ryoko Y, Neeju, Karen, Gyokuren, Hakuren, and Suiren forming a circle around him. They, too, were laughing at something off-camera. And the Yamada wives, too, were leaning against their husband in an unconscious display of support. Fuku could just be seen sitting on Seina's lap, peeking over Neeju's head.

* Funaho sitting at a table, smiling indulgently. Across from her sat Airi and Yosho, exchanging comments and laughing. Their daughter Minaho stood next to her grandmother, leaning over the table to share the witticism.

* Seto, herself, sitting in a veranda chair, while around her stood her daughter Misaki, her granddaughters Ayeka and Sasami, and her great-grandson Azusa.

* Washu was sitting in the grass, Achika on her lap. Ryoko sat beside her, cuddling Nagisa. Ryo-ohki and Fuku sat in front of them, munching carrots and chittering with animation.

* Gyokuren, Hakuren, Kiriko, and Suiren listening spellbound as Mihoshi (Miyuki on her shoulder) explained some technical detail. Ayeka was standing nearby, biting the insides of her cheeks.

* Sasami and Karen quizzing Trinnard, who was actively grazing on the snack trays.

* Achika chasing Azusa through a forest of adult legs, both laughing uproariously.

* Neeju in deep discussion with Washu, both of them staring intently at Seina.

* Misaki and her good friend, Captain Jelham, standing close together and exchanging comments.

* Seina, Tenchi, and Trinnard listening politely to one of Yosho's stories.

* Achika and Sasami sitting in the grass, the former chatting patiently while she got her hair braided by the latter.

* Amane and Kiyone, laughing at a flustered Mihoshi (who had just spilled her drink).

* Minaho, Suiren and Washu together in deep discussion, all of them staring intently at Seina.

* Tenchi and his four children sharing a blanket spread out upon the lawn.

* Seina's wives huddled together, grinning like hungry predators, listening to Washu explain the operation of the hypospray and the cartridges containing vitamin supplements and stimulants.

* Hakuren and Gyokuren, flirting with Seina. Kiriko stood behind them ready with a box of tissues for his inevitable nosebleed.

* Ryoko MJ passionately kissing Tenchi, despite the disapproving looks from Ayeka and Mihoshi.

* Minaho and Yosho, rolling their eyes as Airi lectured them.

* Ryoko MJ and Mihoshi both tossing dirty diapers into a dimensional portal opened by Washu.

*Tenchi and Seina, talking quietly, eyes on the horizon and unaware of the telephoto lens trained upon them.

Seto felt a hand upon her shoulder, and she turned to face its owner. "You are a marvelous photographer, My Dear."

"You are too kind," Utsutsumi replied. "I merely record what life offers, no more and no less."

"And you are too modest." Seto placed her own hand upon her husband's, enjoying the contact. They rarely appeared in public together, and their times alone were far too infrequent. Still, even after centuries of marriage, she enjoyed his company more than any other man she'd ever known. She remembered the crush she'd had on the only son of her adopted father, Ushio Kamiki. It was claimed the quiet youth was simple and slow, and not up to the task of running a Great House. She had learned otherwise; in his breast beat the heart of an artist — he had no interest in politics or finance, and didn't care who objected. She'd fallen madly in love with him, a passion that had never cooled.

"You keep returning to this one," he observed, pointing to the snapshot of Tenchi and Seina.

"Yes, there is just something magnetic about it."

"Ah."

"I cannot explain it."

"Perhaps I can."

"Please do."

"The future of the Empire rests in the hands of those young men."

"And very capable hands they are," she replied. As usual, her husband had found the heart of the matter: unpretentious men from a backwater world, rustic and naive, reliable and honest. It was no wonder that they affected those around them so deeply...especially the women. Even she had to admit, old and cynical as she was, that she found such innocence appealing. She turned to look at the face of her husband, his skin showing its age, his heavy muttonchops streaked through with gray. Her mind peeled back the layers of time, to reveal a younger face, simple and slow, reliable and honest. "Speaking of hands, it's been a while since I had a good back rub."

"As I recall, the last episode turned rather wild. What started in the bath didn't end there."

"Are you afraid that history might repeat itself?" she asked coyly.

"Actually, I was hoping history would repeat itself." He wriggled his bushy eyebrows seductively, his eyes twinkling.

Seto laughed and, grasping Utsutsumi's arm, lead him off into the shadows.

##########

Seina sat in his new command chair on the K2. The bridge was empty, save for himself; the stations were all unmanned, the ship was on automatic. The main viewer received its image from the bow cameras, revealing the streaking starfield of psuedospace. He reclined into the contoured cushions, as they adjusted to conform to his specific body shape and size. Within easy reach were the orbs, the interface between the K2 and his own nervous system. He closed his eyes, bidding a recent memory to replay itself.

The mecha's cockpit had been almost totally dark, save for the muted light from the orbs in his command chair. All of the communication panes were absent; the cabin lights were off, and the wraparound monitors showed the utter blackness of intergalactic space. The universe stretched away into infinity, sprinkled with fuzzy little blobs of incandescence that he knew were whole galaxies. Even the light from home (the great spiral behind them) was so old that it had taken a million years to reach this point. And the light of Jurai's sun, glimpsed just before entering the doorway, would not arrive for a million years in the future...long after he had died and been reduced to dust.

He had never felt so utterly alone in his whole life.

All of his childhood accidents, all of the insults and disregard of his schoolmates, had never left him feeling so abandoned. There was no life out here — anywhere — except for three other vessels that feared to venture too far from the doorway. And suddenly he missed his family, their laughter and anger and devotion and competition. His annoyance with them faded with the realization that, should the doorway close, he would never see any of them again...and the full comprehension of just how precious they were.

The memory faded and another surfaced: "Yes, Seina, this chair came from the mecha. It's been modified a bit, though." The voice had belonged to Empress Washu, and it had come from his left. He placed his palms on the orbs, and instinctively closed his eyes. Even through his eyelids, he had seen the increased luminescence as the orbs flared. He heard Seto gasp from his right. The K2 had responded, pouring information through the orbs and into his hands, and then into his brain. The bridge around him had disappeared, and suddenly he was the K2, floating serenely in orbit above the Juraian moon. Information collected by the ship's sensors streamed into his mind, describing his environment in terms of gravity and radiation, the characteristics of the nearby planet and its satellites, the composition of the parent sun, and the names and distances of every star he could see in the interstellar depths beyond. His reaction must have been overt, because he heard Washu warning him: "Calm down, Seina. Relax, and let the information flow unhindered. It works both ways, just like in the mecha."

"H-how?" he had managed to blurt out. "The mecha had hands and feet, and I knew what to do with those." And he had — the merest intention to raise an arm or pace forward, and the mecha had done it before his own body could respond. It had felt like an extension of his own limbs. But the K2 was not the mecha; it was a rigid structure that bore no resemblance at all to a human being.

"Can you feel the ship?"

"Yes."

"Can you sense Fuku and Mizuki?"

"Yes," Seina said, becoming aware of their familiar presences, like shadows cast across his face.

"Then let me draw you an analogy. You are Captain Sir Seina Yamada, a knight of the realm. And like a paladin of old, you venture forth to serve your king. The armor you wear is the Kamidake II; it encloses and protects you, and does your bidding. The weapons you carry (the bow, the lance, and the sword), these are the arms of the Royal Tree Mizuki; you need only ask, and she will deploy them. The war steed you ride is not a horse, but a cabbit; the faithful friend who will gallop across whatever starfield you designate. Open your eyes, Sir Seina, and behold the family that loves you, and supports you, and attends to the tasks you cannot manage yourself." Seina did open his eyes, and saw the glistening eyes and radiant smiles of his serail, faithfully attending their stations. He grinned back, calmer now, his awareness of the possibilities growing. Seto cleared her throat to his left.

"Here are your orders," she said, handing him an envelope. "Your pirate-hunting days are over. You have new goals, and a higher purpose." She smiled as he took the packet. "I don't need to wish you good luck, Sir Seina — you already possess it in abundance. But Godspeed and smooth sailing."

The memory faded as he opened his eyes, once more alone on the bridge. There were only two sounds echoing through the domed chamber: the gentle hum of the ship's ventilation system, and the music piped-in from the open comm. channel.

The former sound was reassuring, that the ship continued to provide life support as they crossed the empty gulfs between the stars. The latter sound was far less reassuring, as his family experimented with the karaoke machine given to them by Empress Washu. His wives were enthusiastic, if not particularly talented, and were already discussing the idea of hiring a vocal coach. Seina knew his family was starting a new tradition, one that would bind them closer together over the coming years.

That thought raised a smile and urged him out of the chair. It was time to join them.

============ Author's Notes ============

Many of the topics addressed in the onsen scene (mostly about Seto and other GXP-related issues) were covered in depth at the "Seto's Fan" BBS. I would like to give to credit to Eumerin, Junior, MaryRN51, JS Morris, Binaroid, Vindice7, and the other regular contributors. Thanks folks, since it was your ruminations that got me interested in the GXP series in the first place.

THE HAREM:

In the Western world, the word 'harem' has acquired seedy connotations of prostitution. But this is not the historical Eastern definition. And applying the harem concept to the Tenchiverse has usually gotten negative reviews. Perhaps it would be worth comparing an historical model with the (possible) Juraian equivalent:

The Ottoman Empire:

The Ottoman Dynasty survived for 600 years, from the Middle Ages until the beginning of the 20th century. Twenty-four of its thirty-six Sultans ruled the Empire from the royal residence of Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.

The harem is defined as the women's quarter in a Muslim residence. And in the case of the wealthy and patrician classes, the harem could contain many households (a woman and her children, and their possessions). The reasons for harem existence can be seen from Ottoman cultural history. Ottoman tradition relied on slave concubinage, along with legal marriage, for reproduction. It served to emphasize the patriarchal nature of power (power being hereditary through sons only). Slave concubines, unlike wives, had no recognized lineage; wives were feared to have vested interests in their own family's affairs, which would interfere with their loyalty to their husband. Thus, concubines were preferred — if one could afford them. This led to the evolution of slave concubinage as an equal form of reproduction that did not carry the risks of marriage (mainly that of potential betrayal by a wife).

The powers of the harem women were exercised through their roles within the family. Currying favor with the patriarch, and thus acquiring wealth, would increase the chances of their son inheriting the estates and titles when the patriarch died.

The Imperial (Seraglio) harem was no different, and was structured along the same pattern. It contained the households of the Sultan's mother, concubines, and daughters. These were roughly divided into four classes:

Odalisques ('virgins'):

These were the general servants in the harem, most of whom would never see the Sultan at all. They came from a variety of sources, generally bought from slave markets or sold by impoverished parents. It wasn't all that bad, really: they could expect a life of relative luxury and comfort, rather than back-breaking toil or poverty. Those women of exceptional beauty and talent were seen as potential concubines, and trained accordingly. They learned to dance, recite poetry, play musical instruments, and master the erotic arts. Only the most gifted odalisques were presented to the Sultan as his gedikli ('conjugal candidates'); the remainder would be posted to the oda (or court) of a harem mistress (for example, the Mistress of the Robes, or the Keeper of Baths, or the Keeper of Jewels, etc.). It was possible for these odalisques to rise through the ranks of the harem hierarchy and enjoy security through their power and position.

Concubines ('bedroom entertainer'):

A concubine was, literally, a brood mare. They were the gedikli that were presented to the Sultan for one night, and after that one night they might never see him again — unless she became pregnant with a male child. If she was successful in birthing a son, then she would become an ikbal (favorite) to the Sultan. The greatest honor a Sultan could bestow upon a male guest was to present him with a gedikli from his retinue who had not yet become his concubine. These women were greatly coveted as they were beautiful and talented, and what is more important, had links into the harem hierarchy.

Ikbals (favorite concubines):

This position is one of those classic Good News/Bad News arrangements:

The Good News was that she could expect to acquire great wealth and prestige, for her son (daughters were irrelevant) might be the next Sultan. Ikbals learned quickly the intricacies of 'power politics,' much like a modern corporate executive or penitentiary resident. These women could match any man for shrewd political acumen or simple ruthlessness.

The Bad News was that when the Sultan died, there would be a feeding frenzy among his sons to be the Successor — and the victor would be expected to execute or imprison all of his brothers and step-brothers. An ikbal never knew when an Imperial retainer could arrive at her apartment door, bearing an order to strangle her son with a bowstring. Sadly, this was the fate that befell most of these women.

These were the Sultan's favorite women. Tradition allowed only four kadins, but an unlimited number of concubines.

Kadins (favorite Ikbals):

Kadins were equivalent in rank to that of a legal wife, and were given apartments, slaves, and eunuchs accordingly. For example, during the reign of Selim II (the Sot), his favorite, the bas kadin Nurbanu, had an entourage of one hundred and fifty ladies-in-waiting. The amount of properties, clothing, jewelry, and allowances given to them was proportional to the affection the Sultan held for them. On the death of the Sultan the Kadins were sent to the Old Palace and their places were taken by the kadins of the Successor. Unquestionably, the most powerful woman in the harem was the Valide Sultan, mother of the reigning monarch. She was responsible for the maintenance of order and peace inside the harem. Being a female elder in the Imperial family, the Valide was expected to serve as a guide and teacher to her son by educating him about the intricacies of state politics. Often, she was asked to intervene/dispute the Sultan's decisions when the Mufti (head of the Muslim religion), or the Viziers (ministers) felt that the Sultan may have made an erroneous decision.

The Juraian Empire:

(Much of what follows is simple conjecture on my part, but is based upon observation of TM!R OVA and GXP episodes, with a little "Harem Saga" spin thrown-in for good measure.)

The only people who seemed openly astonished by the harem proposal were Tenchi Masaki and Seina Yamada, both from the cultural backwater of Colony World #0315 (Earth). While there may have been a certain reluctance on the part of the women involved, it was not in any way related to approving of a 'foreign' concept. Group marriages are an accepted part of the culture. A Juraian harem is, in fact, a collective partnership. Whether arranged or spontaneous in nature, all of the participants agree to it, and willingly accept the terms and conditions. (And it is not restricted to the one-man-many-wives model; a wealthy and powerful woman — such as Seto Kamiki — could collect a retinue of husbands. And there are examples of families with multiple wives and husbands simultaneously. These latter two scenarios are not very common, however.)

Juraian society is not patriarchal, but a meritocracy. The center figure in a group marriage, whose family name is applied to all the participants, has been seen as very successful in business or politics. There is great benefit to exploiting that name, as well as inheritance advantages. Tradition gives a certain leverage to the linchpin of the arrangement, but he/she does NOT have the weight of law behind him/her — he/she cannot dictate to his/her spouses. Successful marriages are a matter of compromise and negotiation...which is just as true of monogamous unions.

Juraian marriages are subject to a wide range of structural variety due to the many cultures that comprise the Empire. But one can make a comparison of the obligations and responsibilities of the Juraian wife and the Ottoman concubine. They share the same primary duties, which are producing and rearing children for the family. But they are polar opposites in two respects:

(1) Few Juraian women are dependent upon their husbands, instead pursuing their own careers or, at the least, maintaining steady income during the child-rearing years. This is not a traditional aspect but a pragmatic one: Juraian citizens are very long-lived, and it is conceivable that an individual may be involved in a number of successive marriages and social arrangements over the centuries. One must plan for a reliable occupation regardless of one's marital situation. Which is why a large component of a Juraian marriage is focused upon the financial aspects of the relationship.

(2) It is in her best interests to place her immediate family (husband and children) above her own, extending the scope of the family's property and influence into the next generation. Multiple partners in the marriage mean more opportunities and greater leverage.

Each wife will have great latitude in administering her own affairs, and it is highly unlikely that she would tolerate being ordered about by her husband. The down side, of course, is learning to share one's husband with the other women in the family. This runs counter to the natural tendency for humans to pair-bond, and is the single largest impediment to wide-spread acceptance of cluster marriages.

While all of the above smacks of corporate greed and political manipulation, honest emotion does play a major part. If there is no compatibility among the participants, the union is doomed from the start. And sometimes, economics is simply not a factor; sincere and passionate love can drive the participants together, or bring a new spouse into an existing family. The opportunities for gossip are endless.

There is a unique nomenclature at work within a harem: traditional pronouns are employed to differentiate the roles of the participants. In a female-dominated harem, a wife needs a method to distinguish a birth sister from another woman married to her husband, or an aunt, or a cousin, or a sister-in-law. Here is a list of the relevant terminology:

Mother by birth:

1. Hastaba — singular

Mother of the serail:

1. Kardestaba — singular

2. Kardestabalar — plural

Sister (generic):

1. Shibe — singular

2. Shibej — plural

Older sister by birth:

1. Jisshibe — singular

2. Jisshibelar — plural

Younger sister by birth:

1. Reishibe — singular

2. Reishibelar — plural

Half-sister (same mother, different father's):

1. Duoshibe — singular

2. Duoshibelar — plural

Step-sister (same father, different mothers):

1. Vicshibe — singular

2. Vicshibelar — plural

Adopted sister (different mothers and father's):

1. Plimalshibe — singular

2. Plimalshibelar — plural

Sister-in-law:

1. Jurbahshibe — singular

2. Jurbahshibelar — plural

Sister of the serail:

1. Kardesshibe — singular

2. kardesshibelar — plural

Aunt:

1. Hastabashibe — singular

2. Hastabashibelar — plural

Cousin:

1. Mensireshibe — singular

2. Mensireshibelar – plural

THE TUNES:

The music performed during the story is, of course, my own interpretation, and subject to replacement by The Reader. While I don't expect anyone to agree with my choices, I do recommend that you download them from the Net (I used KaZaa) and listen to them. I was aiming for a mood, not a specific rendition (well, maybe I was for Mihoshi...), and picked familiar titles that came the closest to that goal. Undoubtedly, other songs would have worked just as well.

The Ladies:

I was looking for tracks with layered female vocals, as well as pertinent expression (i.e., the song's flavor matched the character of the lead singer). I hope it is as easy for you to visualize The Ladies singing these as it was for me:

* "Breathless" was released by The Corrs, whose harmonizing is just marvelous. It should be obvious by now that the five ladies who form the Masaki family have gotten comfortable with each other, and an upbeat song like this one — lead by the woman who arguably suffered the most — says much about their resilience.

* "Tired of Being Blonde" was released by Carly Simon and written by L. Raspberry. As Mihoshi has regained her sanity due to her marriage, gotten a handle on her Power attributes, and is now a mother, this emerging attitude is almost inevitable. Fear not, though: she will always remain a bit scatterbrained.

* My copy of "Ocean Gypsy" was released by Blackmore's Night, although I believe the music and lyrics are by Dunford and Thatcher Newsinger. There are other versions available. It's a sad, somber tale of a woman who gave all, had all taken from her, and was left alone and lifeless at the mercy of the elements. It just seemed to fit the empress whose name equates to 'Royal Tears, Tempered by Love.'

* "Gonna Get Along Without You Now" was released by Skeeter Davis and written by Milton Kellem. There have been other versions, but this one stands out to me because Ms. Davis sounds like a teenager (I don't know if she was one at the time she recorded it, though), and it just fits the scenario.

* "Anywhere Is" was written and produced by Enya. This song is more philosphical than romantic, but I just can't picture Washu belting out a torch song. She has finally found an environment that is secure and nurturing, and is able to tackle those topics previously kept at arm's length.

Tenchi:

* "Right Down The Line" was written and released by Gerry Rafferty. When listening to it, I always get the impression that the singer has seen some serious life changes...any of which could have gone terribly wrong without the support of that Special Someone. Where would Tenchi be without his family?

* "Black Velvet" was written by Alannah Myles. While a tribute to Elvis Presley, it has the proper rhythm and beat for a good line dance — and it always struck me as the unofficial honky-tonk anthem for Babes On The Prowl (definitely Tenchi's harem).

THE ALIENS:

I believe our galaxy is replete with intelligent life, in a wide variety of sizes and shapes and motivations...all of which are going to appear downright strange to our eyes. An organization like the Galaxy Police is going to be structured like nothing we have ever dealt with before (I draw my inspiration from The Galactic Library described in David Brin's "Uplift War" series, which in my jaded opinion is the best sci-fi speculation on interspecies commerce ever written).

I tend to plot-out story elements on the conservative side, knowing that they (like the music mentioned above) are open to reinterpretation by you, The Reader. If you want a galaxy teeming with alien species and starfaring civilizations, then I recommend using the Drake Equation. The Drake Equation is a simple formula for calculating the number of possible civilizations in our galaxy, named in honor of its creator, Frank Drake:

N = N* fp ne fl fi fc fL

And the values mean (in plain English):

N = The number of communicative civilizations.

R* = The rate of formation of suitable stars. In other words, the rate of formation of stars with a large enough habitable zone and a long enough lifetime for life to develop. The latest estimated size of our galaxy is around 300 billion (300,000,000,000) stars. There are all sorts of stars, varying in size, luminosity and duration, and we do not know what kind of stars could nourish life; but it seems most reasonable to search for stars with physical attributes that approximate our own. Considering that some stars may not form planets for some reason, a rather modest figure of 10% seems acceptable, say, 30 billion (30,000,000,000).

fp = The percentage of those stars which have planets. Thanks to advances in technology, new planets are being discovered every month. Within a few years we may have a reasonably accurate estimate. For now we'll say 20% (a standard estimate given by many — including Frank Drake himself).

ne = The number of 'Earths' per planetary system. In other words, how many of these planets are in the habitable zone. If you base it on our solar system you might say three planets could possibly support life — Venus, Earth, and Mars. There is also the chance that one or more of Jupiter's moons could support life. If our system is typical, the answer may be between three and five.

fl = Percentage of those planets where life develops. Current guesses range from 100% (where life can evolve, it will) down to 0%.

fi = Percentage of those planets which develop intelligent life. Theguesses range from 100% (intelligence is such a survival advantage that it will certainly evolve) down to 0%.

fc = Fraction of above where technology develops. Impossible to know. A reasonable guess is 10% to 20%.

fL = Lifetime of these civilizations (in years). This is the toughest of the questions. If we take Earth as an example, the expected lifetime of our Sun and the Earth is roughly 10 billion years. So far we've been communicating with radio waves for less than 100 years. How long will our civilization survive? Will we destroy ourselves in a few years, as some predict, or will we overcome our problems and survive for millennia? If we were destroyed tomorrow the answer to this question would be 1/100,000,000th. If we survive for another 10,000 years the answer will be 1/1,000,000th. You will find several on-line calculators; I used the one at .

Due to the efforts of "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" and, to a small extent, TM! itself, how many variations of the 'multi-species watering hole' can you name? You know, the by-now-cliché image of a seedy tavern filled with alien spacefarers from dozens of species, boozing and brawling and making clandestine deals in the shadows. I take exception with this image, mostly because I dislike seeing aliens anthropomorphized: rubber appliances glued onto a blatantly human figure, dealing with all-too-human emotional issues. A-a-a-a-u-u-g-h! (Just for the record, my favorite alien film characters are Watto the Toydarian, from the first two Star Wars movies, and Pilot, from the BBC series Farscape — because the former is a digital thespian and the latter is a Jim Henson Muppet.)

Some motivators will be truly universal: the need to eat, the need to breed, etc. But after that, all bets are off. A weak example can be found by looking at the cultural differences between the opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean (as Paul Harvey says, "It's not one world"). A stronger example can be found trying to pin-down the motivators of a whale. Even assuming a reliable method of communication, there ain't much in common between us.

POLITICS:

My personal interpretation of the Empire of Jurai is similar to the Humankind Empire of the Abh, as portrayed in the anime series Seikai no Monshou / Seikai no Senki (Crest of the Stars / Battleflag of the Stars). That is, a monarchist society that encompasses thousands of star systems, but only in the context of controlling the commercial and military utilization of outer space. They have little interest (or capability) for planetary conquest. Their subject worlds are instructed to provide a viceroy, or comparable peer, who will report to the Crown; otherwise, they are left alone to govern themselves.

But at this point, the two interpretations diverge widely. The Abh are an offshoot of Homo sapiens, the end-result of a genetic breeding program characterized by their blue hair, extended longevity and youthful elfin appearance; Juraian citizens are still very much part-and-parcel of the human race. Abh technology has a gritty, nuts-n-bolts feel to it, and lacks the "gee-whiz" technomagic so prevalent in the Tenchiverse.

I highly recommend the anime; the Abh language and customs have been carefully crafted, and are impressive in their details and richness.

MISCELLANEOUS:

This concludes "The Harem Saga." Its premise is radically different from most other approaches to the Tenchiverse: that Tenchi's irresistible appeal to his alien 'houseguests' has a biological (rather than an emotional) basis, and that the wisest course of action for him is to marry all five of them. I also wanted to see how the characters could expand and mature over time, while still keeping the flavor of the original OAV. That tradition has now been passed on to the cast of "TM!R GXP" who will, hopefully, nurture it faithfully. You, The Reader, will have to decide on my success or failure.

The characters of Tenchi Muyo! were created by Masaki Kajashima, and brought to North America by Pioneer LDC. This story, while incorporating names and situations held under copyright by others, is copyright 2003 by Jeffery L. Harris.

This story comes entirely from my imagination, and is not, nor intended to be, canon. Please do not send the legions of lawyers after me...it's not worth their time, or mine.

Any questions or comments should be directed to:

Jeffery L Harris