Revised April 11, 2007 Copyedited July 6, 2007
The cool light said that it was somewhat later than dawn. Cris kicked off his covers and looked at his anklet. It was nearly six. He yawned and stretched and thought of bracelets. Even Ivan, who resented bracelets, said that it was proper that the subject should occupy his mind. Ivan had said a lot of things. Yesterday he had not only tolerated, but answered, some very personal questions.
Cris couldn't lie here forever. It was past time for exercise. At the end of a joyfully strenuous fifth of an hour he was breathing fast and perspiring just enough to enjoy a quick shower in blood-warm water.
Ivan had once waxed eloquent over the forbidden pleasure of showering in hot water. It sounded painful to Cris, but it was such a fond memory for Ivan that Cris thought that if he ever got the chance, he would try it.
Cris opened the mirror to comb his hair and waste a little time admiring himself. He was indeed getting too tall and too well filled out to be seen without controls, and too pretty to hide himself in a boy's tunic. At Lissa's sixteen party some of the women had petted him with an attitude entirely different from the way people cuddled Laif and Clay. It must be soon.
Well, he had to cover himself with boy's clothes today. Dungarees or tunic? It had been only the day before yesterday that Lissa was taken off the schedule, and Cris wasn't sure that it was his turn to groom Buttercup and Daisy. He punched up his schedule:
Biochem class canceled
Report to Murphy Med immediately after breakfast
Class cancelled! Who had a right to cancel his biochem lesson with no notice and no explanation? Then he saw the third item. It had to be Mother.
Cris hurried into his dungarees and ran to the kitchen, where Daddy and Mammy were placidly sipping coriander tea and cuddling babies. With an effort, Cris muted his excitement. Meta was asleep.
"Dad, I was examined before my birthday. Why am I going in again so soon?"
"She didn't say."
"She's negotiating a sale, isn't she? The buyer wants a certificate that I'm in good condition."
"She fed the order into the household without speaking to me."
Daddy knew what was up, all right; he'd said "under the circumstances" without saying what circumstances when he let him see Ivan and his friend Gaio after they had gotten into the brandy during Lissa's party, and he'd said it again when he gave Cris permission to play with Ivan on the following day. What circumstances made it all right for a boy to speak to an import? Well, Cris knew a stone wall when he banged his head on one. Chances were Daddy was holding out until the agreement was signed, so Cris wouldn't get his hopes up and then see the deal fall through.
Who could it be? Madam Sorbonne had checked him over with great interest, and her daughter was pre-med, but the girl was only fourteen and Zenobians don't buy studs. Madam Hendry had said he was "just like dear Jimsie, nineteen years ago, only Cris has better manners," but even if she would part with "dear Jimsie" — Dr. Jim Shaksord, whose stud fee was as high as any on the planet — Mother had promised that Cris would be presented at a sixteen party the first time he was sold. Madam Kowalski had a daughter the right age, but she surely couldn't afford a promising son of Adam Kilbuk out of Su Steelcor. Tycoon Brynner probably planned to present a consort to the great-granddaughter she had chosen to inherit the Brynner holdings, and Cris had the genes for the job, but she planned to keep her own nursery and would want a trained daddy. Madame Tawasentha ...
What's the use? It was probably someone Cris had never heard of. Only one thing was certain. If the mother wasn't rich, the girl was a potential tycoon.
Cris gulped down a glass of milk, refused buttered toast, and went out to the barn to curry Buttercup and Daisy.
How dear, submissive, un-feminine little Mammy fussed over Cris at breakfast! One would have thought he was ill. Once, when she thought Cris couldn't hear, she said to Daddy, "It isn't fair. It's only two days since Lissa came of age and ... "
And now she thought she was going to lose another of her babies. Was she working from the same evidence Cris had, or did she know something? If Mother didn't tell her everything, surely Daddy did.
Cris found out soon enough why bio-chem had been cancelled. This was a much more time-consuming checkup than he was used to, and he hadn't gotten five minutes into it before he knew that he couldn't be expected to take this examination and study on the same day.
A tech met him at the transit, as usual, took him to an examining room, and stripped him down to his anklet. Nothing after that was normal. First she put rings on him, rings on an unused boy. Black anklets like Ivan's blued-steel anklets, arm bands, neck ring, little rings for his fingers — she even put bracelets on him.
Cris felt his face going pink. He said "What are these?" very calmly. He resisted the urge to hide his hands.
The tech said, "Medical rings. The meters are much more sensitive than the meters in a stud's controls, and there are more kinds of meters."
She kept adding rings. There were holmgrens as well as meters in the rings. They held Cris helpless while he was poked and prodded and stuck with needles and samples were taken of every fluid and tissue that could be sampled without causing permanent damage. Cris couldn't even complain because the last ring had been a gag. A tear escaped and the tech caught it with a sample container.
Then he was falling. He grabbed frantically, but even if the rings hadn't held him rigid, there would have been nothing to grab. After the first fright he saw that everything in the cubicle was normal; he not only wasn't falling, but was drifting gently upward. There must be a gravity generator built into the room, which had suddenly cancelled Anjela's field around him. But why? Just to scare him half to death?
Yes! In the eternity that had passed since he had been controlled, he had experienced a rich array of emotions for the psychiatric meters in these rings to measure. That was the real reason for the prodding and poking. The samples could have been obtained much more considerately — all but the tear.
And as soon as his calm was restored, so was his weight. All the rings except the anklets, bracelets, and brow-band floated away as the tech returned to take him into her lap and comfort him.
Cris pulled back from her. She had done it, for all that she was sorry. Not sorry, apologetic — like a mammy about to pull out a splinter. He was still controlled like a nervous import, and now he noticed that the gag had left a tooth-protector behind.
He said, "What more are you going to do to me?"
She tried to reassure him, saying "I'll stand by you this time, all the way."
Cris got off her lap and stood at his full height. He lacked several centimeters of his adult height and her shoes gave her two or three extra, yet he could look down at her. Against all logic, it was comforting to be taller than the tech. "I can take more than you can." That sulky, resentful voice ought not to come out of a boy who was worth more than he weighed.
The tech said "You'll be taking more than I'll ever have to."
"That's not right." Chris said. If Mammy had heard him resenting his mother's orders like that, she would have said that it was a mistake to let him spend all of yesterday afternoon with his imported papa. The tech laughed at him.
Then she kissed him on the ear and embedded him in a machine that gave him little electric shocks and measured his reactions.
He recognized some of the machines she used on him from his studies. For a time, he asked about the purposes of the others. He soon tired, and over half of them remained a mystery. No matter how uncomfortable a test was, he refused the tech's sympathy even as he wondered at the anger that made him do so. Was he beginning to act like Ivan?
Finally she said, "This is the last one, and the worst. If you want to yell or struggle, do it. It'll be over quicker if you go with your urges."
This was not reassuring.
Cris, still sullen, was determined to pretend that the test didn't bother him even though he knew that she would know how he really felt. He lay down in the proper spot and arranged his limbs so that the machine could strap him in. That, at least, wasn't an import-like thing to do. Assuming that he hadn't already knocked himself out, Ivan would have forced the tech to drag him by the controls. Cris wasn't going to risk wearing bruises to his own presentation just for a gesture of futile spite.
The machine left one of his hands free. The tech took it in both her own. Almost from the beginning, Cris was obliged to hold her hand tightly. Soon he was writhing under the gentle stimulation of the machine.
The tech muttered something of which Cris caught only the words "fiend" and "unused boy". It might have suggested to him that the tech was as helpless as Cris himself, had not that been about the time that he began to whimper.
After the convulsion, Cris found himself dripping with sweat. Tears had run into his ears and he was gasping. The tech wiped his face with a damp cloth, repeating "It's all over. I'm not going to hurt you any more. It's all over."
"Next ... next time you'll have to use control to get me into this thing."
"There won't be a next time. I promise."
"You can't promise. It isn't up to you."
"Nobody will ever want to put you through this again."
The machine ejected him into a bath and the tech washed him while warm swirling water soothed his battered psyche. He knew now what Ivan had meant by "too damned lonesome to resist." He still didn't like the tech, but he needed attention from somebody and she was the only one around. Would he feel this way toward his master when he'd put on bracelets and couldn't get comfort from anyone else? He couldn't go by Daddy's love for Mother and his different love for Mammy. At the moment, Cris felt more like his sullen papa than like his sturdy, loving daddy.
Amid soothing prattle, the tech dried Cris, laid him on a stretcher, covered him with a sheet, and took him into the garden to rest. The moment she was gone, he slipped down from the stretcher and sneaked through the shrubbery toward the window of the pediatrician's office. She was sure to talk about him when the test results were brought to her, and Cris had a good chance to get there before the tech did. Maybe he could learn who was planning to buy him.
All the windows had been retracted to let in the lilac-scented weather. The physician was practically out in the garden. Cris had no sooner settled into a spot from which he could see and hear without betraying himself than the tech came into the office with a thick bundle of hardcopy in her right hand and a heated glove on the hand she had given Cris to hold. Only then did he know just how tightly he had clung to her.
The physician shut off the display she'd been reading and frowned at the glove. "I told you to give him your wrist."
"I did, and I've got the fingerprints to prove it."
"Strong kid. Did you learn anything that will change Tycoon Steelcor's mind?"
"Nothing." The tech shook her head sadly.
The physician accepted the hardcopy and leafed through it. "Then I guess our little Cris is leaving this world."
"So young, and such a beautiful boy," the tech said. "It's a crime."
"We're going to have to put him away soon, too. There's already down on his lip; he'll be in misery before long if something isn't done. He certainly can't hold out for two years."
"Shall I tell him?"
"No. Tycoon Steelcor thinks this is something a boy should hear from his mother."
"She'd better hurry."
The physician shrugged. "She said she was having supper at the farm tonight. That's soon enough."
"I hope she makes an appointment for him right away, then. This isn't something a boy should be left to fret over. Well, I've left him to fret myself. I'd better get back before he gets restless."
The tech turned away. Cris backed away from the window. He had to get back to the stretcher before she did. He shut out the things he had learned by clinging to the need for hurry as tightly as he had clung to the tech's hand. With exaggerated care, he avoided bushes that might scratch him as he hurried through the garden.
The stretcher at last; now he must climb onto it — but his feet were dirty. He leaned against the stretcher and tried to think. Why was it important that his feet were dirty? Suddenly the tech was there, supporting him.
"Poor baby! You shouldn't have tried to get up so soon. It was heartless to put a little boy through more tests than a grown woman could take in one day." She lowered her voice, thinking he would not hear. "There is no telling what that last one did to him, and under the circumstances ... " She faded off. The phrase "under the circumstances" echoed in Cris's mind. It seemed to him that lately everyone was saying "under the circumstances" and granting his every whim.
When she had lifted him onto the stretcher, she said "There, now, just shut your eyes and rest a little while. You're in no shape for the transit."
"I'll feel better at home. Please let me go."
The tech hesitated, planning how to deny him. Cris said "Please," putting all his heart into it.
The tech said, "Well, I guess you aren't going to get any rest here," and took him inside. She washed his feet, dressed him, and packed him into a transit capsule.
Now that he was left alone and allowed to think over what he had heard, Cris felt almost as shaky as the tech thought he was. Mother wouldn't really kill a prime boy just because he was sick, would she? But Su Steelcor always got the best for her children, and "misery" wasn't the best. She had bought a defective fetus and had it aborted, once, because the mother was planning to sell him as a whore. She wouldn't do less for her own son.
Thanks to the stop at Montessori Station, it takes five full minutes to get from Murphy Med to Steelcor Kinderfarm. That was long enough for Cris to make up his mind. Whatever part of the next two years belonged to him, he was going to take it.
Cris stepped out of the transit into the strong arms of his daddy, and Daddy wasn't carrying even one baby. Of course the tech wouldn't send Cris off in such a state without calling the farm. Cris hadn't cried like this since he turned thirteen. He cried all the longer because it was the last time he would have the luxury of weeping in his daddy's arms. His daddy and his sire and ... it had been six years since Mother had tired of Daddy, but Cris had never learned to call Ivan "papa".
Cris wound down at last. Daddy said, "It's almost time for lunch. Do you want to eat with the rest of us, or shall I send yours to your room?"
Although it would be heavenly to be with the assembled family one last time, Cris could never hold himself together through the whole meal. "I'd like to eat in my room."
Daddy walked with Cris to his room. Ivan had taught Cris a word that they used on his home planet to mean "daddy" and "sire" and "papa" all at once. When they got to the door of his room, Cris impulsively hugged Daddy, and kissed him, and used that word. "Father, I love you."
Cris shut the door quickly, and gathered himself. The first thing to do was to call the library and order hiker's hardcopy maps for the entire timberfarm area. He ordered school supplies from them often enough that no one would notice until after he was missed, and Mother knew as well as he that there was no place but the timberfarms to hide in. Next was the problem of surviving the winter. If he took with him all the things he would need in the winter, he wouldn't live long enough to need them. He must seal the things up in waterproof bags, take them out on the Holmgren sled, and cache them in at least two places. The household would record where the sled had been and where it had stopped, but it would be months before Cris went near those spots. Even if they bothered to check the sled's weight record, they wouldn't be looking for inanimate objects.
Oh, yes, he dare not take anything that used stored power or anything that had a tracer on it. To a great extent he would be limited to the few crude things that he had made himself. That was fun on short hikes, but for the rest of his life?
When he'd called the library and made a good start on sorting through his possessions, the door signaled that someone wanted in.
It was Neen, hand-delivering his lunch. "How kind of you," Cris said, "Or did Daddy want to know how I was getting on? Tell him I'm feeling good enough to clean out my closets and plan to go for a sled-ride after lunch. Aha! You wanted to see my face when I saw that you'd made this yourself. You did, didn't you?" What Neen would report would surely be that he was nattering like a fool.
"With these two little hands and all by myself."
"Mmm, a work of art. But aren't you missing your own lunch?
"I am. See you later."
When she had gone, Cris dropped his fork and fought dizziness. The very delicacy of the meal repelled him. Daddy was coddling him, had been coddling him for days. And now he knew why it wouldn't hurt him to associate with Ivan and grow dissatisfied with a life he was never to lead. He must eat, he would need the strength, but first ... first he would go through his collection of hardcopy books to see whether any were worth including with his winter supplies.
The kitchen was deserted after lunch, giving Cris unobserved access to the freezer. Most of the things in there were fresh fruits and vegetables, raw meat, and hot food ready to serve, but in a house that fed twenty-four, plus frequent visits from Mother and Ivan and assorted friends of the children, even the herbs were measured in kilos. He scraped together enough preserved food to last the first winter, with a little luck at hunting and gathering, and the second winter wasn't likely to concern him.
The sled flew low and slow all the way out and back again, as though he were sightseeing. As it passed over a certain shallow pond a small box containing half a dozen cylinders of combustible gas fell out and vanished in the murky water. Cris could carry only one cylinder with him, if he was to keep ahead of his pursuers, and he didn't like the thought of having to choose between risking a fire and eating his meat raw. The sled adjusted its lift so smoothly that he never noticed that he had made it six kilos lighter.
Tea was an ordeal. How do you say goodbye without letting anyone know that you plan to leave? Lissa was still feeding Frank in her suite. "Honeymooning," Ivan had called it. Ivan didn't say what he meant by it and probably didn't know. He hadn't been captured until he was in his twenties, so he had never been presented. It was just as well that Cris couldn't speak to his new brother. The temptation to confide in him would have been overwhelming, and there was no longer any point to asking him what it was like to be possessed by a woman.
It wasn't his turn to clear the table. Cris stayed after tea to help anyway. He met Laif and Clay on his way to the barn and hugged and kissed them. The intensity of his affection puzzled the little ones. Cris had to shoo them and hurry away. He was so tense that he wanted to cry just because Laif looked like Daddy and Clay looked like Ivan. If the littles had seen him weeping, they would have run to tell Daddy.
Cris summoned Daisy from her pasture. Sweet old Buttercup didn't have the speed and endurance he would need today. He saddled her, dug his knapsack out of the hay where he had hidden it, and tied it to the saddle. Then he took off her control collar and hung it on a nail, grateful that it wasn't connected to alarms that could detect whether or not she was wearing it.
When well out of sight from the house, he found a spot where the direction finder could use up five minutes in finding his anklet and he and Daisy could get out of sight in less than one. Taking a firm grip on the saddle horn with one hand, he reached down and slipped the jaws of of a pair of cutting pliers over his anklet. It felt like an obscene parody of a presentation ceremony; it was a moment before he could bring himself to squeeze the handles. As the anklet and the pliers fell to the ground he leaned over Daisy's neck and cried, "Now, Daisy, go!"
Daisy ran for his life until they were out of sight, then settled into the steady gait that she could keep up for hours.
Kilometers into the timberfarms he stopped Daisy, climbed down, and shouldered the knapsack. He patted her neck. "By now it has occurred to them that I don't want to be found. Go, girl, and lead them away from me." Cris slapped Daisy's rump. She moved off, then looked back inquiringly. "Shoo, Daisy. Pau hana!" Daisy knew what "pau hana" meant. Oats! She headed home. Cris wasted a few seconds looking after his last friend.
His chances looked fairly good. Manhunts were rare on Anjela, and mostly confined to little girls who had lost their eyedees. The equipment used to search for him would be sophisticated, but it would tend to assume that the sought-after man hadn't gone far and would come when called. By the time it got cold enough to make his body heat conspicuous, he would be safely hidden in a cave. By the time they figured out which cave, he should be in another one twenty kilometers away. He was lucky in many ways. The timberfarms were in a karst region, with more caves than Mother could search, and feral animals were plentiful. The beasties would provide noise in the searching equipment, and he should be able to knock over enough small game to keep from starving when his dried food gave out. Even his crude little crossbow beat trying to outrun a rabbit, and he could shoot it almost as accurately as an untrained person could use a modern weapon.
The next morning, Cris half woke. It was still dark, so he rolled over. He wasn't lying between soft linen sheets, he was rolled up in a scratchy wool blanket and still wearing part of his clothes. It wasn't ever going to get light in this particular bedroom. His only chronometer had been in his anklet, so there was no way to tell whether it was daylight yet except to go out and look. He might as well assume that he had awakened at his usual time. He felt around for the coldlight he had left in his shoe. It had been a feeble glow when he came into the cave last night. After a night of total darkness, it lit up the whole room.
He picked a flat spot on the floor and stripped, shivering in the damp chill. The familiar exercises made the world seem normal. He did this same set before any active morning. Afterward, he removed the sweat with a small square of twill-woven linen. He would have a cold bath tonight when he camped in a cave with a stream. There would be no more blood-warm showers, ever. He treated himself to a clean pair of socks when he dressed. He would wash a pair of briefs and two of his three pairs of socks tonight. Tomorrow morning he would put on his last pair of socks and his other pair of briefs, and that would be the last time he would have the luxury of putting on a really clean garment until he picked up his winter supplies.
An Anjelan household washes and sterilizes every garment an occupant removes before he can put it on again. It speaks well for Daddy's training that Cris put on his muddy dungarees and shirt without flinching at all.
Since he'd had only a few kilometers to walk yesterday, he had packed a luxurious breakfast for this morning: fresh eggs, thin slices of smoked pork, Neen's home-baked bread, an orange. There was even some milk left from supper.
Water would have to do from here on out. There would still be a little bread with lunch and supper. There would be no tea at all. Breakfast would be a little sooner and lunch a little later and three meals a day would have to do.
On an evening two and a half weeks later, Cris stirred a squirrel stew over the last of his gas. He hadn't gone hungry as often as he had expected, and he hadn't seen any exercise equipment since the day before he left, yet somehow he felt leaner and tougher.
It was a good stew. Among jerusalem tubers that had sprouted and gone pithy, he had found enough sound tubers to make a good meal. The wild onions were fat and sweet, the squirrel was as prime as Cris himself, and he still had flour to dredge the meat and thicken the sauce.
Cris still felt prime, he still looked prime. If only he had had the household print him a list of hereditary diseases that didn't show until the boy was of saleable age.
Whatever the disease was, it was the best thing that could happen to him. Ivan was right; Cris was never meant to be some woman's plaything. Two years of running free was worth a lifetime spent wearing bracelets. Even if he died before the end of summer, it was better to catch rabbits in his own interest than to study medicine by his master's indulgence. A male would never have been allowed to study General Practice anyway.
He took the stew off the fire. It could finish cooking in its stored heat, and there might not be enough gas to cook the asparagus. There wasn't. At least the gas didn't give out until he had added the tender tips and brought it back to a simmer. The asparagus could finish cooking in its stored heat too.
The next morning, after a breakfast of cold squirrel and raw onion, Cris buried the spent cylinder and carefully put the earth and leaves back the way he had found them. The pond where he had hidden his spare cylinders was only five kilometers away. He could get there in time for lunch even though he would have to find the lunch on the way. High noon of what promised to be a sunny day was a good time to go poking around in murky water.
It was a vegetarian lunch that he had in his pack when he arrived at the pond. It would be reasonably filling when he had cooked it. After lunch, he would cache his pack and set a line of snares.
First things first. He put down his pack, stripped, and waded into the pond. It wasn't as hard to make himself squish through the swampy part as he had expected. He walked back and forth through the chest-deep water where the box had vanished and at length stepped on something hard and square. He took a deep breath and dived. The first time that he groped for the box, he merely loosened it and lost his footing. The second time down, he knew what he was doing; he came up with the box clutched to his chest. He freed a hand to push his dripping hair out of his face. He might as well enjoy a swim while lunch cooked. Pity there wasn't any clean water to wash in after his swim. He could have a proper shampoo tomorrow and, if it was sunny, he could warm the water a little.
He looked up as he stepped from the swamp to firmer footing. Something not quite the same blue as the sky moved just above the treetops. It was a holmgren sled, coming fast.
He dropped the gas that had baited this trap; he abandoned his pack and his clothes. He wasn't going to need any of them again. He ran a few meters, dodged once, then there was something at his chest that all his strength could not push away. The cartridge had contained serpid: the same drug that had been used to capture and interrogate Ivan. Even as he recognized the label, his vision began to fade. He lay down to fight the drug for one last look at the beautiful blue sky embroidered with a lacework of branches and young leaves. When his eyes failed, he fought on for the rustle of dead leaves. The sound of disturbed leaves was coming toward him.
A pair of strong arms picked him up. This was not Daddy's flat, hard chest. The cheek that touched his was hairless and wet. He dreamed that he heard his mother's voice, betraying an agony that she would never express in real life. It said, "My baby, my poor, poor baby."
Then even his dreams were gone.
He became aware that it was later. It was careless of Mother to let him feel that. She should have given him an extra dose of the hypnotic to make sure it didn't wear off before the thanatic could take hold. Cris didn't mind. Even blind and paralyzed, a minute or two was worth living. He could hear again, several voices that all belonged to strangers. Their mood wasn't at all in keeping with the solemnity of the occasion. Cris liked that, too.
Someone kissed him right on the mouth, the way a master kisses her consort, and said "I think he's with us now."
A vaguely familiar voice replied, "The timing is beautiful."
"So is he," the first replied. The way she stroked Cris's face told him who it was that she thought beautiful.
Some sort of commotion arose, as if more people and more studs were coming into the room. The girl or young woman kissed Cris again. He tried to kiss back. She left him, and then Mother said, "Cris, open your eyes." That was a wonderful idea. Why hadn't he thought of it? It took longer than usual to focus. Mother was wearing a new cream-colored tux that wasn't as becoming as her red one. Ivan had on a dead-black dress tunic as dowdy as those that Daddy wore. What had happened to Mother's fashion sense, that she let him wear something like that? Ivan saw that Cris was looking at him, and smiled. Ivan, smiling?
Everyone was dressed up, studs and boys in dress tunics and party tunics, women in tuxedo, girls in dresses. There were no littles. There were a lot of women just past sixteen and girls who were almost women. One of the young women was watching Cris with interest. She looked exactly as Neen might look in two years. She might be one of Daddy's AI progeny, though Cris was pretty sure he didn't have any get older than Lissa. Daddy must have been an untried boy when this woman was conceived.
"Cris, look at me." Cris turned his eyes toward Mother. He couldn't turn his head. "When your physician said that you wouldn't be staying in this world long, she meant that you were going to Zenobia. When she talked about putting you away, she meant that she was going to store you in Murphy Med's freezer."
Mother seemed to think it was important, so he made a careful note. He was going to Zenobia, he had been in the freezer. Maybe he could find out how Zenobian studs were controlled without bracelets. He closed his eyes. For some reason, it seemed all right to rest and let the drug take him.
When he woke again, he knew that he wasn't paralyzed at all, just restrained. It felt as though he were wearing the same set of rings that had examined him so painfully, except that the bracelets and gag were missing. Whoever had immobilized him, she had been thoughtful enough to prop him up a little so that he could see. He was wearing a floor-sweeping peacock-blue tunic and no sandals. The ruffles on his tunic had gilt edges and there was a golden ribbon around his waist. Over half the other presents on the table had been unwrapped. The young woman unwrapping them wore a dark green tux of alien cut. The sleeves were so wide that they were gathered into cuffs, and the skirt must have had a stiff petticoat under it. There was no train at all. As one would expect, the neck was cut low to display a blood-red neckband. Oh, dear. Trying to buy tunics to harmonize with blood-red bracelets was going to be simply awful.
Cris was distracted from his search for friends among the guests by the extraordinary appearance of an imported stud in his native costume. He was wearing a royal-blue suit something like a woman's office clothes. It had lots of gold trim, so Cris supposed that it was formal. The effect was handsome, in its own exotic way, even though the sleeves were an awkward length that neither exposed nor concealed his plain black bracelets. Cris wondered who would put her stud in bracelets that made him look as though he were still on the auction block — and didn't keep him out of the brandy punch, either! He wore his hair so short that it looked like the bristles of a brush, and he shaved off all his beard except the moustache. His pants were so long that Cris couldn't see whether he'd been let out without his anklets. An import sometimes was, but not at a formal occasion when his master would want to emphasize his expense.
Madam Sorbonne appeared and fed him a welcome glass of water. One box proved to contain multicolored spheres that expanded and floated away. While the guests were laughing and chasing the balloons, all his rings except the brow band removed themselves and Madam Sorbonne helped him down from the table. He held to her while the dizziness of his sudden change in position went away.
"Thank you, Madam Sorbonne. You aren't treating me like an import even though I acted like one."
"If you hadn't been capable of running away, I wouldn't have wanted you for Marie."
Only one way of looking at that statement came anywhere near making sense. When he got to Zenobia, he would be an imported stud.
While he had been recovering his wits, Marie had opened the last of the lesser gifts and now the studs were lined up for his last touch. These were all Marie's friends, naturally, and none of his own. It still saddened him to think that he would not only never touch, but never see these studs again. Perhaps they represented the already lost to him: Jef, Dan, Sine, Russ, Laif, Clay, ... "Frank! I didn't know you, you've grown so. What a fine full beard. Did you ever learn to choose your own food?"
"I'm still learning. Lissa's been wonderful. I'm an apprentice engineer now, and she's planning to start a baby — Mother Su has promised to let it grow up on Steelcor Kinderfarm."
"Daddy will love that. Oh, how I wish I could see it!"
Madam Sorbonne pulled him away to the next stud, whispering "You'll have hours after the presentation, and we'll let you use the telly tomorrow."
Cris shook hand after hand and the strange faces blurred together. He wondered whether he was missing other friends because they were two years older than they had been three weeks ago. His brothers were all too young to come. No, Jef would be thirteen by now. He hugged Ivan without words. It seemed cruel to be separated when they had barely started to get acquainted, but if he hadn't been leaving, he would never have been allowed to associate with an import.
Then Daddy took him by the wrists and gave him the last kiss. Cris said, "Dad, I'm sorry. I should have come to you. Even if I'd been right about what I heard."
Daddy said, "When it's your own life, you should trust yourself." Cris would think that over when he was alone and the serpid had worn off.
"I didn't do too well. I traded my life for a hot meal and never got to eat it."
"It almost worked. That's pretty good for a first try!" Daddy hugged him for a few seconds. "I don't teach my boys how to take care of themselves just because a good woman will want to see what kind of daughters they can sire. It's going to be hard work, and it's going to be rough, but you are going to make it."
Make what? Madam Sorbonne tore him away and presented him to her daughter. At least he would speak with his daddy again, even if he did have to do all his crying in Marie's arms now. They had given him a new eyedee so that he could cut it off like any boy. He tried to see whether Jef was in the crowd of boys who fought to catch it. They all seemed to be older than that: friends of Marie's.
His bracelets did not fly up and settle on his wrists after he had thrown the eyedee. Marie waited until he came down and fastened them exactly the way Daddy had installed his new eyedee every birthday. They felt dead. Why wasn't Marie testing her new neckband? It wasn't at all the way he expected wearing bracelets to be.
The dress tunic Marie put on him was dark green to match her tux. It was beautiful. Cris didn't care. His bracelets didn't make him feel any more grown up; it felt odd to think that he had wanted bracelets desperately less than three weeks ago.
While Cris stood dazed in his first adult outfit, Madame Sorbonne usurped the crowd's attention to make an announcement: "Before Marie can take her gift to Zenobia, he must be joined to her according to Zenobian custom. The master of the Inchon Maru, Captain Wilshaw, has consented to conduct the ceremony for us."
The male in the dressy suit stepped forward. Cris saw the reason for the ugly black bracelets now; the poor boy belonged to a spaceship instead of to a woman, and that was why nobody cared enough to keep him out of the brandy punch. Frank came with Captain. Marie whispered that Cris must have a friend to stand up with him and then sign a statement that he had witnessed the ceremony. A young woman and a tall girl "stood up" with Marie.
Captain read out of a little book: "Repeat after me. I, Cris Kilbuk, take this woman, Marie Sorbonne, to be my lawful wedded wife."
Cris repeated the words, confident that Marie would explain the meaning to him later.
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