WORSE, HE'S BORING

It's after midnight when Chur comes back. Geran has gone to bed already and is leafing through her astrogation notes, though she knows most of the content by heart. Chur's Aptituded for nav and scan, but Geran dreams of faraway stars too.

The wealthy low-landers send their best and brightest to space. Anify, a small clan and set in its ways, cannot afford to. Hunters and farmers live in the mountains, with no time or thoughts for starships; survival is hard enough. They go hungry often in winter, but no Anify starves while another eats. Through hardships or prosperity, their pride remains unbroken, their honour untainted.

Geran has always been proud to be Anify par Pyruun, to stand by Chur's side in their House colours, though the same colours adorn no ship, not even a shuttle. The schools on Anify land may be low-tech, the resources stretched thin, but both Geran and Chur's scored in the upper 99th percentile and the poverty overcome makes the accomplishment even sweeter.

Chur's test scores were published in the local paper, just before she was appointed to the Lord's Council, seat of Accounting and Agriculture. In Anify's rural economy, those two cannot be separated. Chur has other talents beside being a brilliant theoretical mathematician and she's been putting them to good use for the last two years; she never speaks of space anymore.

No one published Geran's scores anywhere, though they were as good as or better than Chur's. Of course, Geran had Chur to help her, notes and the occasional pointer at dinner or breakfast. Chur won't give away answers, but she knows the exact page Geran has to read to find the information and those she'll provide.

Geran wonders sometimes what her own talents are and how they can best serve Anify. She is pretty good with a knife. She can cook. She thinks she could be a crack scan tech if she got the chance. Most likely, she'll end up as Chur's proxy in the Council and the District. They are sisters, closest of bonds; when one of them gives the word, the other will cleave to it also.

==

The security system pings softly. Chur is on her way in. Geran gets up, throws on her robe and goes to the kitchen to heat up a dinner long gone cold. Neither of them had time for lunch today. By the time Chur opens the door, flings her coat at the couch and misses, swearing half-heartedly before she goes to hang it up, there's hot food and gfi. Geran pours herself a cup, but hands it to her sister when she appears in the doorway.

"Gods, Gery," Chur says, "this smells wonderful."

Geran nods, well pleased, and sits down with Chur at the table, to sip at her own gfi. Mealtime is sacred, no politics, no talk of recent events. There's enough going on in Anify to spoil the healthiest of appetites and no sense in wasting perfectly good food, especially so close to the winter. Waste not, want not, the old lord said and that's how he brought them through three successive years of failed crops.

Geran still thinks of na Herun as the old lord, rather than the former lord, the dead lord. He used to stop by the courtyard and watch the whelps play in the sun. He'd ask her: what's my quiet girl thinking? He always assumed she was thinking. The last time she saw him alive, he asked her the same question.

==

"You want Chur," she answered him, because everyone else did and he had more reason and right than any of them.

"I do," he said," but first a word with you, niece. In private."

He led the way to his suite, where she'd only been invited two or three times before. That part of the house was still secure, though for how long was anybody's guess.

"An early graduation present," he said, placing a small gold ring in her hand. "I won't be here for the actual event, I'm afraid."

Geran lowered her ears in deference and profound distress.

"M'lord."

"You'll do a fine job in Accounting, Geran" the old lord mused. "I'm sorry there won't be a ship."

Geran found her voice.

"You gave me five years to study for it, m'lord," she said, looking him straight in the eye. "I'll always have that."

"Not enough."

"It'll have to be, m'lord. I know you tried."

"I did, niece." He sighed, then said: "Now, I want Chur. Find her for me, will you?"

Chur was already outside, looking exhausted and dismayed. Geran frowned at her, this wasn't what the lord needed to see, and Chur pulled herself together. The ears came up. The ready smile lit her face, transforming what was already a considerable beauty into radiance. And before the door closed, Geran could hear her sister greet the old lord, sounding as bright and cheerful as if the odds were all in their favour.

==

Chur puts the plate aside.

"Let me have a look at your shoulder," she says.

"It's fine," Geran protests.

Chur doesn't answer, just pads over to stand behind Geran's chair. Waiting. Geran wrinkles her nose in exasperation.

"Not in the kitchen," she says and goes into the big room, where she strips to the waist.

Chur lifts the dressing gently and examines the wound. It's neither deep nor serious, as the knife slid off one of Geran's ribs instead of plunging into her chest. Amateur, Geran thinks.

"Looks good," Chur pronounces after sniffing the area for infection.

"Told you so."

Geran pulls her shirt back on.

"Gods rot it, I should have killed her when I had the chance," Chur says grimly.

Geran shrugs. By the time Chur had ripped off the would-be assassin's ears, it was too late to do it in the heat of the moment, not to mention there were witnesses.

"We expected them to try," she points out, wrapping the robe around her and tying the waist-knot a little harder than is needed.

"Should have stayed home," Chur mutters.

"Wouldn't have been any safer." Geran sits down on the couch. "They'd have come to the house."

"Could have gone down to the lowlands, you."

Geran snorts.

"And leave you here to deal with them? Hardly. Anyway, I would've been ambushed trying to get off the mountain."

Chur joins Geran on the couch.

"I suppose you would have been," she says wearily, raking a hand through her mane. "What remained of Anify honour went into the ground with na Herun."

==

Lowlanders might send off a fallen lord with pomp and glory. The highlanders would not. Less than a score of hani stood in the drizzle as na Herun nef Anify, was lowered into the ground. No words were spoken and as the undertaker began filling in the pit, the group started to break up.

Geran's head was reeling with painkillers and grief. The medic had wanted to keep her in hospital, but Chur had decided against it. Not safe for Geran to be alone, she had judged, not while the killing-rage still lingered in the air.

So Geran had been with Chur in the old stables, watching as her sister washed their lord clean of mud and blood and closed the staring eyes. Chur had put the throat, or most of it, back where it belonged.

There would be a plaque later to mark the site. Name and date only, as if na Herun had been no more than a surplus male out of Hermitage.

"Come away, Geran."

Chur tugged gently at Geran's good arm and Geran let herself be led.

"Did we kill him?" she asked after a few steps.

Chur stopped short, ears going flat against her skull.

"Gods and thunders, Gery, what did you just say?"

Geran made a helpless gesture skywards.

"The ship," she said.

Not only the ship, of course. The genetically modified crops, the farm automation, the uruus hunting restrictions. The education and health care program, which recruited teachers and doctors out of the lowlands. They had pushed those things hard in the Council, perhaps forcing na Herun's hand. Cold comfort to remember he had wanted the progress too, since he was the one who had ended up paying for it with his life. Such was the reward from a small clan, a rural clan, a clan set in its ways and scared to death of change.

"Yes," Chur said, mouth tight. "I'd say we did."

==

There is only one blanket and Geran pulls it over them both. Finest wool to be found on Anuurn and one of the strongest Anify trade-points, but in the mountains central heating is the luxury.

"The man's a fool," Chur says darkly.

She means the new Anify lord, na Gethun. Backed by the Naur, the Jimun and the Schunan, na Gethun seems intent on setting Anify back ten years, maybe more. Two weeks of his reign and already school prayer is mandatory, all hunting restrictions lifted and public libraries closed to males.

Chur is the last progressive in the council and hanging onto her seat by the tips of her claws. Without a doubt, a lowlander replacement will be brought in soon and taught how to deal with their fragile food-based economy. But not even na Gethun is fool enough to get rid of his head of Accounting and Agriculture before the next harvest comes around.

"Tell me."

Chur speaks for them both, deals for them both. Geran keeps track of the loose threads and the unfinished business and always, always watches Chur's back.

"The villagers up at Red Rock. He won't approve their endorsements."

Geran's claws sink into the upholstery. No food for Red Rock. Her breath comes short and for a moment hunter-vision sets in, narrow and acute.

These are hani who left their homesteads for a year to build the Red Rock dam. The power plant now supplies three mountains and the valleys between with electricity. But nothing has grown on those farms this year and the salaries won't see the workers through the winter. They'll have to eat their seed grain. Gods help them.

"What do I tell them," Chur says between her teeth. "They'll starve."

Chur negotiated the deal with the villagers, spoke to them and shared their food. Geran drew up the plans and oversaw the work at the powerplant. She knows their names, every one of them.

"The truth," Geran says. "You tell them the truth. The old lord fell and the new one does not honour Anify pledges."

"I can't," Chur says and she puts her head in her hands, red-gold mane falling forward to hide her face.

"You have to," Geran urges her. "They have a little time yet to make other arrangements. If we hurry, we can be there day after tomorrow."

Chur shakes her head no.

"I mean," she says and her voice is cracking, "I can't do this."

Meaning she cannot watch na Gethun and his cronies taint what's left of Anify honour and leave hani to starve, while they quibble over what a male may or may not do in public. And neither can Geran watch as Chur comes home looking more drained and defeated every night.

Gods-rot it, there's only so much a body can take.

"Then we won't," she says tersely. "Let's leave this place."

Chur looks up at her, eyes wide with shock.

"Leave!"

"Leave," Geran repeats. "Don't tell me you've never thought about it."

"I have...but you'd leave Anify?"

Most everyone considers Geran the homebody of the two, but strangely, it's Chur who loves their home the most. Chur, who should be going places and who will, if Geran has anything to say about it.

"Sister," Geran says softly, "is there anything here for us anymore?"

Only the memories of playing in the courtyard, the sun hot on their backs. Green foliage and dappled shade and the sound of running water from the springs and fountains. A deep voice asking for his quiet girl. His wild girl. All gone now, all things of the past.

"Where would you go?"

Chur is still saying "you", not "we".

"Down to the lowlands. The main sept. Mother would speak to Lord Chanur on our behalf and you still write to cousin Pyanfar, don't you?"

"I do, but...you're still in school, Gery."

"Only for a few more weeks. And Chanur is a space-faring clan, Chur!"

Chanur owns five starships and at least fifteen in-system haulers. There might be a chance even for a couple of exiles to go to space, if they're twice as good as the Chanur competition and Chur hesitates, torn.

"We can't," she says at last. "You know what kind of harvest we've had."

Geran flicks her ears. Get your mind in gear, sister. Think.

"Did I say now?" she says aloud. "We'll spend the rest of winter up here, while you're training your replacement. I'll help you, take some work and meetings off your hands. We'll be out of here by snow-melt, see if we won't."

Chur looks around the room as if seeing it for the first time. No luxuries, but what's there is well cared for.

"We'd have to start all over again," she says. "This house and everything in it belong to Anify."

So they leave it behind. It's the spacer way, coming and going with nothing but what can fit into a duffel bag. You own what you can carry, no more.

"We'll have to beg for domicile," Geran concedes, with an apologetic glance at Chur, who'll have to do the actual begging. "But someday we'll be crew, you and I. Someday, you'll sit scan one and I'll sit scan two, taking a Chanur ship through jump all the way to Meetpoint and back home again."

Through Kura and Urtur or Kita Point, Kirdu and Kshshti. They've run the sim boards together and separately. Anify could afford that much and did, for their pride.

Chur shakes her head at Geran with a rueful smile.

"Oh, Gery," she chides her. "Why don't you give us two earfuls of gold rings, while you're at it?"

"Was just getting to that part," Geran says, unperturbed. "Though if I ever earn the right to wear a ring, I have one I'd like to use."

She keeps it in her pocket, proof and reminder of the old lord's release.

"Got one, too," Chur says quietly. "Always wanted to wear it. Didn't figure I'd get the chance."

No subterfuge between the two of them. No lies. Chur's amber eyes are solemn.

"You want to try, Gery," she says, "I'm with you."

And the stars, Geran thinks, are already a little bit closer.

FIN