As a party, it was low key to the point of boredom. Fine. Lai had avoided social functions since his father had died years before, leaving him the last survivor of the R'il'nai, and he had no desire to host a party in the usual sense. A casual gathering of a few of his and his partner Elyra's R'il'noid relatives, however, he could tolerate and even enjoy. He leaned back against the angle of the pool walls, letting his legs float while he sent his mind beyond the weather shielding over the enclosed patio. Good, his weather sense was accurate as usual; the clouds were lifting and the sunset should be magnificent.

Beside him, Elyra's half-brother Loki chuckled. "Sure no problem telling them apart when they're side by side." He nodded toward the two women examining one of the plants in the atrium, and Lai smiled slightly in agreement. The two, niece and aunt, shared the same delicate features and milk chocolate coloring—skin, eyes and hair. But Elyra, who'd shared his home and bed for the last year, would fit easily under his outstretched arm. He had to look up at her aunt Kaia when they were both standing

Lai's own half brothers, Derik and Nik, were racing the length of the pool, Nik slightly in the lead. Loki applauded. "Thought you were the athlete, Derry."

Nik grinned, shoving his red hair back from his freckled face. "Advantage of living on a tropical island. Derry spends his time on horses and gliders instead of swimming."

"Don't forget the sailing, diving and caving." Derik stretched out on his back in the water.

"Try dancing," Loki replied. "Believe me, that works every muscle in your body, and takes perfect coordination, too."

"No argument there!" Derik said. "Loki, you've got to come over and see this new dancing group I've bought. They're all athletes, but the leader is incredible. Don't think he ever saw a horse before I got him, and he's staying with me cross-country. First time I've had a rider good enough I can have him try out my obstacle course designs."

"But can he dance?" Loki challenged.

"Improvised a solo to one of Fisan's pieces. And he actually had me feeling the music's rhythm—I'd have sworn it didn't have any."

Lai hid a frown. It sounded to him as though Derik was falling in love again. Most R'il'noids had fairly short-term relationships, with neither party continuing the relationship much beyond pregnancy. Most of those few R'il'noid women who were fertile at all shifted their interest rather sharply from their partner to the unborn child—and they simply were not interested in men who could not give them children. Those of both sexes who were infertile varied between Nik's total disinterest in sex to total promiscuity. A few—a very few—had an interest in sex that went beyond the merely physical to the inner essence of the partner. This had been the R'il'nian pattern; an interest that lasted long enough to see any child of such a pairing reared to adulthood. Since a pure R'il'nian woman was fertile only about once a century, and the R'il'nai never aged, it made sense for them.

Derik had that desire for a long-term relationship, coupled with near-sterility. He was non-aging—still youthful at fifteen centuries of age—and no non-aging woman would agree to stay with him for the century or more he wanted, either because they wanted children, or because they wanted variety. His solution had been to buy Human slaves as lovers. Such a slave would have a long, full and luxurious life, but no choice. Lai supposed it was a better fate than most slaves could hope for, but it still bothered him, as did Elyra's purchase of slave nannies for her children. Granted, the nannies were well educated during their time of service, and freed when it was over, but he still didn't like slavery. Not that he had any say in what was legal on Central.

"Looks like it's clearing off," Elyra called from across the atrium. "Let's go out on the lawn and watch the sunset."

"Put some clothes on; it'll be cool outdoors after this rain," Lai warned as he levitated himself out of the pool, teleporting away the water that clung to his dark bronze skin and black hair almost without thinking. The atrium was large and open to the sky, but it was also weather-shielded and climate-controlled. When they walked through the entryway to the lawn beyond, the wind was cool against Lai's skin.

A line of light had opened along the western horizon, between cloud deck and sea, and the sun was a scarlet ball almost too bright to look at, its upper edge still hidden by the westernmost edge of the clouds. Slowly it dropped as the clouds lifted, and the flame color on the underside of the clouds brightened and flowed eastward. Then the eastward surge slowed and reversed, the color fleeing westward with the sinking sun, reflecting from the metallic eye veining of the watching R'il'noids.

His beloved Cloudy would have found inspiration in the sunset, Lai thought. She would have retreated for a few days to brood in her workroom, and come out of her seclusion triumphant, the beauty of the sky captured in tangible form. She might have carried a vase with the colors of the sunset in its glaze, or a delicate mobile of spun glass. More than fourteen years, and the pain of her desertion was as sharp as on that day he had returned from nearly a month off-planet to find her gone, and a note begging him not to try to find her. It seemed he missed her more with each passing year.

Colors were dimming to violet as the sunset faded, and the wash of autumn gold on the foothills to the east slipped away. The computer touched his mind, lightly. "Supper's ready," he said. "Shall we go in?" He herded the others to the foyer, pausing to admire the crystal bird among the fountains and flowering plants. He'd received it as a legacy from his great-aunt, but it was far older than that. Faran, one of the handful of R'il'nians with the spark of creativity in their souls, had carved it. Loki probably traced some of his talent to Faran, though most of it undoubtedly came from his Human ancestry. Was that what Jarn had seen in the primates he had encountered when he was stranded on Earth, over a hundred millennia ago? Certainly his crossbred descendents, both those who had followed him back to the stars and those who had stayed behind to become the planet-bound Humans of Earth, had far more creativity than the R'il'nai had. And Lai had more than a suspicion that was the reason the R'il'nai had welcomed the Humans among them, and agreed to guide and protect them.

Dinner was spread on small tables scattered through a corner of the atrium. Finger foods, mostly—seasoned meats on skewers or wrapped in tender pastry, crisp vegetables in bite-sized pieces, berries and cut fruits and small frozen confections in stasis. An assortment of dipping sauces was beside each lounge. Mental and physical conversation ceased briefly as the guests took the edge off their hunger, but Loki's eyes kept returning to Elyra's waist. Lyra, he finally broadcast, You aren't eating for two, are you?

Elyra managed to suppress her laughter long enough to swallow the bite she'd just taken. Told you one of my relatives would figure it out, she thought at Lai. Then, more generally, Yes, we're expecting. Close to the south solstice. Lai thinks a girl, healthy, and probably R'il'noid.

Too early to tell for sure she's R'il'noid, Lai added. But most of the genetic material the embryo's shed is Human-derived.

Nik swallowed a bite and looked accusingly at Elyra. "The Genetics Board ..."

"I'm the head geneticist," Elyra replied. "Are you arguing that Lai and I aren't compatible?"

"Of course not. But you never came in for the Çeren procedure." He looked bewildered.

"We did it the old fashioned way," Lai replied. "And yes, I know the statistics. One child a century per R'il'nian father. Jarn was stranded on Earth for three millennia, and he had just twenty-seven children to proto-human mothers. Twenty-three of those were fertile, and the modern Human race is descended from them. And when I checked his Journals, I found something else. Those twenty-seven had just seven mothers, and they were the seven women he really loved. I think he wanted those children. And without even realizing it, he did something with esper that was similar to the Çeren lab procedure. I think I've figured it out, but it'll be another seven months before I'm sure. And if I'm right, it'll do some things the Çeren procedure doesn't."

"How?" Derik demanded eagerly. "Can any of the rest of us use it?"

"Ask me again in seven months," Lai replied. "For right now, I'm hoping it'll stop the birth of more like Colo."

"And Zhaim," someone muttered almost inaudibly.

"Lots of decent R'il'noids start out wild," Lai protested. "Look at Derry."

Derik winced, but made no attempt at denial. Elyra sighed. "Derry was irresponsible, yes. But not cruel. Zhaim was, and I'm not positive he's changed. Sorry, Lai. I know he's your son and you love him. But I think he's very careful that some things don't get to your ears. The rest of us—well, we worry about him being your heir."

Why couldn't they get off his back about Zhaim? Yes, he'd had to slap Zhaim down pretty sharply a couple of centuries ago—but that was over with now. He'd seen nothing since then to suggest the problem had not been taken care of, and much to be proud of in his heir. Look at the genetic engineering he was doing. No one else had done as much to make borderline planets habitable, but some people could not forget Zhaim's early years, even as they could not forget Derry's. Of course Derry's wild years had been before Lai was born, but still ...

"How long are you going to stay with Lai, Lyra?" Loki blurted into the awkward silence.

"Until our child is weaned, at least." Given Elyra's firm commitment to the idea that a woman should not have more than one child by the same father, that was actually more than he should have expected, but Lai still wished she would commit to staying longer. Cloudy would have. But Cloudy could never have borne him a child. Healthy herself, she had carried the gene for the Coven syndrome, and one in four of her children would have had the dominant Coven gene but lacked the other dominant that suppressed the neurological effects. Coven itself was bad enough, but Coven combined with projective telepathy ... No, he couldn't argue with the Genetics Board's refusal even to consider Cloudy for the cross-breeding project. But how much part had the Genetics Board's attitude played in her eventual decision to leave him?

They had certainly reinforced the idea that no woman should have more than one child by the same father. They claimed to be following the R'il'nai in that practice, but how much did he really know about R'il'nian society? The only women left alive by the time he had been born were his mother and his great-aunt. He knew that R'il'nian women were physically incapable of more than a child a century, and his own desire for a lasting relationship, together with the records his ancestors had left, suggested that in his species the parents had stayed together to rear that child. Certainly that was what he wanted. He looked at the others. Elyra, her aunt and her half brother were discussing her child to be, Nik was angled toward them and occasionally offering a suggestion, and Derik was sampling the various sauces—no doubt hoping to find something new to his gourmet palate. All R'il'noids by Çeren index, all well over half a millennium old, and five of his closest friends. He'd have included Zhaim as well, but Elyra did not get along well with Lai's son, so he'd timed the announcement party for a time when Zhaim was off planet.

The stars came out overhead, and he dimmed the atrium lighting to a soft glow over the food. Nik was obviously fighting sleep—he lived eight time zones away, and was the only non-teleport present. "Want a 'port home?" Derry asked him.

"I'd appreciate it," Nik mumbled around a yawn, and the two made their farewells to Lai and left. Kaia and Loki followed, leaving Lai and Elyra alone.

"Well, they know now," Lai said.

Elyra chuckled. "Only thing that really surprised them was that we did it so fast. Even the Çeren procedure can take a couple of years. We did it in what? Six tries?"

"Four. First couple I was trying to figure out what to do." He instructed the computer to clean up, then walked with Elyra towards his private quarters. His eyes went automatically to the tri-dee of Cloudy in the niche above his wall screen. She hadn't been a great beauty—washed out, even, with her pale skin, white hair and light brown eyes. But the love and caring that shone out of those eyes had captivated Lai, and the tri-dee somehow captured that aspect of her personality. If only she hadn't taken the Genetics Board evaluation so personally!

Beside him, Elyra caught her breath sharply, and he realized he hadn't been shielding his emotions that strongly. "Lai, we never meant to hurt her. Even less to drive her away. She was good for you. We were so worried about you, when your father died ..."

"You had reason to be—I didn't want to live until Cloudy pulled me back from the edge." He forced down the tightness in his throat and looked questioningly at Elyra, not trusting himself to try more direct contact.

She w as no longer driven as she had been before her pregnancy began, but she clearly felt his need. "Come," she said softly as she led him into her sleeping room.