An Act of Conviction
The Language Mangler lies on the bed, his seed spent. Now is the time, but I must savor the moment, the smell of sex and the anticipation of imminent death, before I perform my calling, and enact judgment.
These Wirimgans from the stars are stubborn creatures, not meek as our Wirimgan slaves from the neighbor planet. Their leaders have declared us a forbidden world, and yet they come to Rakild, stupid as Edvika, walking into our traps like dumb animals. Or come with promises of wealth and new technology, like the five-fingered-fool slowly slipping into sleep beside me.
But while he is of the race of slaves, nearly incapable of strategic thought, this one’s face is not as flat and hairless, and he rose respectfully when we first met, locking his hands behind his back to prove he was not a threat. At least he could give me pleasure before it is his turn to die. Even if, as a Wirimgan, he cannot set me on the road to transformation with his seed.
I think I will not allow him to suffer.
I prop my naked ankle on my naked knee and regard my three toes, meditating on the power of three and the dagger in my bag next to the bed.
I am an old-fashioned praesti assassin.
There is a long sigh next to me. The Language Mangler drapes his arm across his forehead. “Shawa, that was incredible. We are so different, in so many ways, and yet we can still share this.”
“Yes,” I say, and reach down for my dagger.
The streets of Erster are full of men and women and changers as I make my way to the Ministry of Economics. I work as an Administrative Merchant for the Democratic Kingdom of Stengren when I am not carrying out an act of conviction for the Hall of Iron. The others here do not know I am praesti; if they did, it might make it more difficult for me to enact judgment when it is handed down.
When I enter the high-ceilinged room with its light grey walls and rows of workspaces for the minions of the Ministry, Alen looks up from his desk and smiles, crinkling the hair of his cheeks and making his long snout even more prominent.
He is not an excessively attractive Rakildian male, but his smell appeals to me, and I like the way the brown hair near his nose grows brighter across his cheeks to become almost a flaming red near his ears. He has a ready smile and a very fine way of biting the back of my neck when we mate.
Unfortunately, I cannot take advantage of that standing offer just now — I must wait for my next assignment from the Hall of Iron. Mating with Alen would change me to male within a threeday, and I would not be able to change back to female until the beginning of my next cycle.
“Did you have a pleasant threeday?” Alen asks.
I nod, smiling, thinking of sex and death. “And you?”
“Very.” A balmy breeze comes through an open window, stirring the utilitarian beige-green curtains. “I took a flight to the island of Kari to escape the summer heat of the city for a couple of days. You should have been there.”
I fantasize for a moment; the cool breezes of Kari stirring the hair of my belly while I lie with one of my favorite sexual partners, in the open, gazing at the three moons in the sky.
I sigh. “That does indeed sound tempting.”
On occasion, I have almost been tempted to suggest partnering to him — we get along well. But then I wonder if it would mean I would have to retain my female form most of the time, since he has never shown any inclination to have sex with me when I’m male.
Most praesti do not partner.
Alen raises his bushy eyebrows and gives me a friendly leer. “Perhaps a trip to Kari before the summer is over?”
That would not be too hard a promise — at some point, the Hall of Iron must needs give me a job for which I would have to take my male form again, and then I could use Alen for the purpose. The summer is only halfway through, after all, and would last nearly another ten ninedays.
“A very good idea, Alen,” I say, sitting down at my desk and pulling out the report on imports from the neighbor planets of Wirimga and Latil.
At the end of the sixday, I am summoned to the Hall of Iron again for my next act of conviction. The Judgment Chamber is full today; more of us have been called than usual, which means there must be many cases to be judged.
I enter the Judgment Chamber and take a seat next to Monus, whom I have known since we both took vows as praesti in the holy order of Kennart — our prophet, hir who spoke the magic of three. Before that, changers were victims of persecution, a minority hunted down and slaughtered, forced to take on the guise of male or female and never able to live out the glorious diversity of hirs sex.
Now it is only changers who may become praesti and carry out the judgment of the Hall of Iron, for only changers understand what it is to be all and none.
The Judgment Chamber in the Hall of Iron is expansive; high and wide, it has doors on three sides, as befits its sacred character, and a large screen on the fourth wall. The commission which considers crimes and punishments is seated in front of the screen facing the tiered seats of the assassins. Of course, the members of the commission are all praesti as well, former assassins who have been promoted to the position of judgment makers. Instead of making the kill themselves, they hear accusations and question witnesses and evaluate surveillance materials in order to determine who is deserving of judgment.
We watch a case in which another of the visitors from the stars has insulted our ways and attempted to get forbidden information off the planet of Rakild and to his own people. He is condemned to die. The praesti given the act of conviction is also in hirs female form, as I am, since the Language Manglers are so much easier to kill that way. There are very few female star-traveling Wirimgans who come to our planet now. I have read that when they first came with their Ayaisee, there were as many women as men, but after the Ayaisee took their researchers away, the situation changed.
I am too young to remember that time well; the only female Wirimgans I have ever seen or fucked are those from Wirimga itself, our neighbor planet, the slaves we bring for work and pleasure.
“Shawa dar Mattil.”
When my name is called, I rise and make my way to the small platform in front of the commissioners. I kneel and place my hands on the Book of Kennart on the pedestal next to the platform, my head just lower than the book as it should be. “I hereby swear to carry out the act of conviction assigned to me with all the Magic of Three given to a Changer of Rakild.”
As I stand again, the huge screen flickers back to life, showing a scene of Wirimgan slaves with their smooth and almost hairless bodies and flat faces and five fingers.
But not only slaves, I see that now. In the middle of the masses stands a female Wirimgan, nearly a head taller than any of the rest — one of the original visitors from the stars, Maga Kinkada. Our government had been accused of murdering her, which they would have been happy to do if they had gotten their hands on her. But now here are images of her, herding slaves off a boat.
“This is from a news show from the country of Hagnus,” the chief commissioner says. “Unfortunately, the foreign terrorist Maga Kinkada is now organizing the theft of our slaves very prominently in the Hagnus capitol city of Peren, where we would not be able to assassinate her without causing an international incident.”
I wonder how many others here think an international incident would not be all bad. Hagnus supports the terrorists who bomb and murder and steal, all in the name of a race not even Rakildian. But since they possess the same weapons technology that we do, a war would be equivalent to suicide.
The image on the screen changes to the pleasant scene of a shady ocean resort. “The thieves and terrorists of Hagnus would be able to achieve little without help from traitors in Stengren itself,” the chief commissioner continues. “This was discovered this sixday in standard surveillance material and sent on to us for evaluation.”
A handsome female (or changer — it is of course impossible to tell) with a patterned pelt in striking shades of rust and gray is sitting at a table in the shade of a grevar tree when a brown-haired male joins her.
I realize I must be seeing images from his trip to Kari the threeday past. But what is the significance?
As if I had asked the question out loud, the commissioner stops the vid and points to the female. “This is Gemil hen Torii, a Hagnian female who is known to be active in the movement to steal Stengren slaves and take them to Hagnus where they enjoy almost the same status as a Rakildian.” The image on the screen changes back to the terrorist Language Mangler and the slaves disembarking from the ship.
One of those waiting on the shore is the female Alen met with on Kari.
I am not supposed to feel the way I am feeling now, doubting what I know must come, the assignment that will be mine, must not think the commission could have made a mistake, that Alen may only have met the Hagnian female by chance, a vacation fling, island sex.
The commissioner nods to me. “Your act of conviction this threeday is to assassinate the terrorist supporter Alen am Bayvir.”
Of course I know where Alen lives — it is all too easy.
If it were not for the fact that I do not want to kill him.
His apartment is in an old house only two train stops away from the Hall of Iron. Even as central as it is, the location is pleasant, with shady bushes of Ernus lining the streets. When I contacted him with my personal voice transmitter, he sounded happy to hear from me, even inviting me over for drinks before I could ask.
Much too easy.
He opens the door and hands me a drink, leading me to a shady balcony overlooking the central park area between this block of houses. “Dare I hope you are feeling inclined to switch back to your male form?” he asks, pressing his groin briefly against my flank before we sit down.
I flare my nostrils suggestively and take a sip of the drink, strong and sweet, just as I like it. “Wasn’t there enough action for you on Kari?”
“Certainly. But there is always room for more.” He leans over and nips me playfully just under the ear.
“What did you do while you were there?” I ask. I don’t know why I am digging this way, what I hope to hear — something to prove he is not a terrorist, something to prove he is? Perhaps I should just kill him and get it over with, quickly, before I lose my nerve.
Or perhaps I should tell him of the decision of the judgment makers.
Alen smiles. “The usual. Rested, swam, found a new partner every night. But sometimes an old partner is better.”
But if I give him a chance to flee, it would be the end of my career as praesti. I would have to flee as well.
To Hagnus, where changers are little better than Wirimgans.
He puts down his drink and reaches for me. “Come here, Shawa.”
I allow him to pull me onto his lap, to bite the back of my neck, to lift my hips and push his penis inside me. I grip the balcony railing and we are quiet for a few minutes except for our grunts. He comes, pumping his seed into me, and I follow, letting out a bark of pleasure.
He leans his forehead against my back. “Yes, this is much better than taking a female from the communal house. Or a stranger on Kari.”
“But soon now I will be male again,” I murmur.
“Perhaps we should try it that way too sometime, eh?”
I stand, trying to push the thoughts away. This is very close to offering partnership — sharing sex with me in both my forms. The elected king of Stengren, Tolvid am Eskolf, and his advisor, the changer Isti dar Jersten, partnered in such a way. No, I cannot think that. Partnering is not for me. I am praesti, with an act of conviction to carry out.
Which I could easily have completed as soon as I walked in the door.
Where is my resolve? I cannot have lost it for the sake of a scent or a bite on the neck. The Hall of Iron is convinced that this man I just fucked is in collusion with the terrorists from Hagnus, people who want to destroy our way of life.
Which means he is guilty. It has to. The Hall of Iron does not make mistakes.
Alen follows me and takes my arm. “Are you offended, Shawa? If so, forget I asked.”
I do not turn to look at him. “No, not offended.” Just confused.
I shake off his arm and down the strong, sweet drink. If I do not carry out my job, now, I will lose everything I ever believed in.
I stroll over to the bag I brought with me where it is lying on a table, pull out my dagger, and turn. Alen looks at me, eyes wide. The question there is replaced by dawning realization. His lips go thin and his eyes flat, and he glances quickly around the room. But I am the one with the weapon, and I stand between him and the door.
“The Hall of Iron found me out,” he says.
“So you truly are a traitor?” I am simultaneously relieved and disappointed.
He gives me a hint of a smile. “You would have carried out your act of conviction even if I had not been?”
“What else was I to have done?” I say. “I am praesti.”
“Yes, I noticed.” The way he says this is full of contempt, and suddenly I hate him, hate him as much as I hate the Hagnian terrorists who destroy our way of life, hate him more than I ever thought I could hate anyone I had mated with, man or woman or changer.
“The pleasure we shared meant nothing to you, did it?” he continues.
I grab him by the nape of the neck and yank his head back, placing my dagger at the base of his breastbone. “Why should it? It is of less importance than eating.”
He nods, unafraid, and that angers me even more. I plunge my dagger in, hard, and twist before yanking it down and spilling his guts. His eyes open wide, and a funny popping noise comes out of his mouth, but he does not cry out.
It does not matter — even with a brave death, he does not deserve my respect.
Not only Language Manglers are easy to kill.
I pull my dagger out and step back, watching him fall. The smell of Wirimgan blood, slaves and Language Manglers alike, is different than our own, which is salty and pungent, like intense sweat after love-making. I draw in a deep breath and wipe the dagger off on the pelt of my flank.
For a short time, I was in danger of forgetting who I am and why I am praesti, but that is over. Alen is no more than a piece of dead meat on the floor, his blood soaking the carpet.
Now I can return to the Hall of Iron and tell them the job is done.