The Shongili twins gave almost simultaneous burps of repletion--the boy on his mother's shoulder and the girl on her father's--and were carefully laid on their backs on their fur-lined cots. Sean and Yanaba made no move to leave the nursery, unable to leave the sight of their offspring, safely delivered just a few hours earlier. The babies looked up at their parents, their dark pewter eyes as brightly focused as those of any bird. Each already wore a soft crown of deep brown downy hair, but Yana would have been hard pressed to decide whose nose or cheeks they had. Everything was still rounded and squashy, unformed and utterly adorable.
Even their contented gurgles sounded for all the world like the chortle of a small and active brook swirling among stones.
"Listen to them," Yana said fondly. "They sound as if they're laughing." Then, "I thought it took longer than that for babies to do things like laugh."
Sean shrugged. "Babies who are always and entirely human perhaps. But a selkie's development is a bit different. Faster in some ways. I don't recall when exactly I developed what, but I do recall being aware of my surroundings almost at once. But as to the details, well, too bad my parents aren't still around to advise us."
But Yana, lost in wonder at the perfection of her children, answered him only with a dreamy glance. "It's almost too much joy for one person to bear," she murmured, feeling tears come to her eyes.
Sean took her in his arms. "Then let's share it. I smell food, and you're still feeding two--one at a time." He gave her a hug and a cuddle and, one armdraped on her shoulders, propelled her gently toward the door of the cube they had hastily attached to one side of the cabin to serve as a nursery. It was spare and spartan except for the furred cots, for it was the custom in Kilcoole to refrain from giving expecting parents items for their unborn children. A superstition really, but since Yana, before conceiving, had thought herself well past childbearing age, it seemed wise to encourage every sort of good luck.
As Sean opened the door, Nanook, his black-and-white track cat, and Coaxtl, his niece Aoifa's snow leopard, slid into the nursery. Nanook took a place under the boy's cot, while Coaxtl, after one long look at her charge, flopped beside the girl's.
"The sentries are on the job," Sean said, and continued to push his wife to the door.
"I just never thought I'd have children," Yana said, looking back over her shoulder at her twins even as Sean closed the door behind her. He left it slightly ajar so they could hear the babies if they cried out or if one of the cats needed to go out or get their attention.
No smells had been able to penetrate the cube from the main part of the house, Yana's old one-room cabin. Now, however, delicious odors of pepper and snow onions, roasting fish and unidentifiable savory spices, wafted from the stove. Over it stood the substantial and comforting bulk of Clodagh, the village's shanachie, singer of songs, bearer of culture, rememberer of history, settler of disputes, healer of wounds, and dispenser of medicines. She had also served as Yana's midwife.
"It's about time," Clodagh said, closing the lid of the pot she had been seasoning. "I thought you'd never think of yourselves. Now, sit and eat. And Yana, use that longie thing," as she pointed a ladle at a chaise longue that had recently made its appearance in their home. There was no proscription against giving an expectant mother a gift for herself. The chaise, which took up a good half of the wall next to the woodstove, had seemed too large and in the way before, but now Yana found it inviting. "Get your feet up and relax. As much as you can, that is," she added in an affectionately derisive tone.
Major Yanaba Maddock-Shongili was quite willing to assume the seat and stretch her legs. Her overtaxed muscles carried her that far mostly because of Sean's support. He rearranged her feet a trifle and sat on the end, folding his arms over his chest and giving a sigh.
"Don't you dare look at your desk," Yana said sternly.
"Even from here I can see the pile of orange flimsies, and they mean urgent."
"Nothing is so urgent as feeding the pair of you up," Clodagh said staunchly, "and there really isn't anything that damned pressing that someone else can't handle or defer--preferably until next year."
"But those hydroelectric engineers were supposed to touch down today . . . and you know how eagerly Sister Igneous Rock is awaiting them." Sean referred to the planet's geological expert and its self-proclaimed acolyte. The woman and her fellow would-be Petaybean cult followers had surprised Petaybee's longer-term residents by turning out to be quite useful once they discovered they could be of more service to Petaybee practicing their hard-science specialties instead of their misguided attempts at theology.
"Iggierock has 'em and she's dealing with them." Clodagh gave a deep chuckle. "She's near as good as I am . . . at some things. But this stew will give you much-needed energy. And we've more urgent matters to consider, such as the babies' naming song and the latchkay. I'm thinking that tomorrow will be none too soon, if Yana can make it back to the lodge and the communion cave to properly introduce your young by name to their people and their world."
"She can and she will, if I must carry her," Sean said fondly.
"I can handle it," Yana said. Fortunately, those aching muscles of hers were well toned and trained from her years in the Company Corps. "It's the babies we'll need to be carrying."
"Good," Clodagh said. "All of Kilcoole has been waiting for these young ones, but there's a time and place for their gawking and well-wishing and filling your house up with doodads for the babbies. The sooner the better, though. Have you thought of what you'll call them at all?"
She dished up three huge bowls of her concoction, and after serving the new parents, she pulled up one of the new spare chairs to the new huge kitchen table they'd been given by friends who evidently thought they were going to have dozens of children instead of just two. Clodagh passed rolls just out of the oven, and steaming through the white napkin she had covered them with.
Yana chewed quickly but deliberately, thinking hard. "Of course we've thought about it, but now that they're here, no name seems special enough. Among my mother's ancestors, you know, babies weren't named right away. High infant mortality rate was one reason, but also, her people believed a child didn't get its soul until the first time it laughed."
She and Sean looked at each other over their full spoons and smiled. "Which they've already done, and them only a few hours old," Sean said. "I can tell they're going to be quick, but then, it's well-known that all of the children born to my side of the family are very precocious."
Yana made a face at him. "Oh, in my family too, but our babies are also taught to be modest."
"You two are too giddy by half!" Clodagh mock-scolded, shaking her spoon at them. "Naming is a serious business. It should fit the baby's bloodlines--perhaps we could have names from your mother's people, Yana. There'd be a bit of novelty. It should also tell the world what the child is all about."
"This world knows what the children are about," Yana said. "It's responsible for their selkie nature, after all--well, it and their father," she added with a roll of her dark eyes at her husband. "And how advisable it is to tell the rest of the universe about that is debatable."
"No debate about it," Sean said in a tone that brooked no argument. "The universe at large does not need to know that our children mutate into seals when they submerge themselves in water any more than it needs to know that the kids inherited that trait from me."
"Well, the names don't need to come right out and say, 'I'm a selkie,' " Clodagh said. "But they should, for instance, indicate that these children have an affinity for water."
"Born for Water," Yana said with a swallow of soup.
She gestured with a piece of roll. "I'm just thinking perhaps we should call them after the Hero Twins my mother's ancestors revered, Born for Water and Monster Slayer. Except at the moment they both seem to be Born for Water and it isn't yet clear who would be Monster Slayer."
"My money is on the wee lassie," Sean said. "She's got something of the look of you in the glint in her eyes and the set of her chin."
"She's barely got a chin," Yana said, shaking her head. "No, I think we'll have to go with the Irish side of my family this time. Here in Kilcoole where you're all Irish and Inuit, they'll blend in better with the other children that way anyway. Besides, among the Dine--my mother's people--girls all have war names like mine, and war is the last thing I want my daughter named for. Water's a bit difficult too. The sacred land of Mother's people had very little rain, or standing water either, and so they were extremely short even on fish, not to mention seals and selkies."
She stopped with her spoon halfway to her mouth. "I just had a thought. Will the babies be transforming every time they get into water? Any water? If so, I'm going to have a fine old time trying to bathe them and it won't be easy keeping their nature a family secret."
"I used to have the same problem," Sean grinned. "Until I taught myself not to fur up the moment a drop touched me. But I had no da to show me the way, and they do. Meanwhile, if you need help with the family secret, well, we've plenty of family here who know all about it. They'll help. And the four-foots will watch to make sure no outsiders come close enough to learn more than they should."
"You say that, Sean," Clodagh said, speaking quietly into her soup bowl, "but there are outsiders who've seen you change, and one of them may take it upon himself to wonder if the twins inherited the ability and need studying." She looked up, her moss green eyes fathomless and deep as one of Petaybee's many artesian springs, seeming troubled. She hated bringing up such worries on what should be a flawlessly happy day. "You know how much scrutiny this planet is under."
"Well, how the hell could they possibly interfere with my family peculiarity when Yana and I have the final say as governors of this planet?" Sean asked.
"As long as the four-foots are their guards, no one will get near them," Yana said with far more conviction than she felt. "And Nanook and Coaxtl will keep them from being seen, won't they?" A nervous tic started in her cheek. She rubbed it. "Will the cats follow them into the water?"
"Yes," Sean said positively. "If the little ones elude them long enough to get near water, Nanook and Coaxtl would follow them into the mouth of a volcano if necessary. The cats do converse. We just have to make it plain to them how dangerous it would be for the kids to be caught half in, half out. Like I was."
"We'll hope they don't take arrows in their anatomy to induce such a condition," Yana said, referring to what was nearly a mortal wound for him. "And I thought leading training troops on landing parties for the Company Corps was a heavy responsibility!" She shook her head as if to clear it. "We're borrowing trouble. It's not as if shape-changing is a viable occupation."
"Oh, selkies would be real useful on water worlds," Sean argued.
"Yana's right, Sean. There's trouble enough right here and now without borrowing any," Clodagh said in a cajoling tone. "Don't fall into that water until the ice breaks up. For now your biggest problem is to decide what these babes of yours are to be called. I will think on it, remember the stories of our peoples, see if there's some appropriate names there. You and Yana should sleep while you have the chance. The cats can't take care of all the needs those babes will have."
The drumming began shortly after sunrise. Inside the nursery cube, the twins opened their eyes to the brightness pouring in through the piece of sheeting that covered the cube's single small window. The babies whimpered and wiggled.
Nanook's ears were the first part of him to wake up. They pricked to attention. Coaxtl's tail lashed restlessly before the snow leopard stretched a sleepy paw. The kits had awakened. Both cats stretched and rose, poking their noses over the sides of the cots.
"Rrrow," Nanook told his friend. "I'd cry too if I smelled like that. Where are those humans when you need them?"
"These cubs leak," Coaxtl agreed. "And they've got these things tied around their haunches to hold the leakage in. One wonders how humans come up with such ideas. This arrangement keeps the nest clean but the cubs dirty."
"Sean would not want his kits to be dirty," Nanook said.
"Can one pull these haunch harnesses off so one can clean them?" Coaxtl inquired.
"Yes, they are meant to be removable. But take care with fang and claw. We want to remove the harnesses only, not the kits' pelts. Humans, lacking proper coats, have very sensitive hides."
Nanook's nose touched the kit's leg as he grasped a pinch of cloth in his teeth. The kit stopped whimpering. He looked at it anxiously lest it was merely saving its breath for a good howl, but it was staring at him, wide-eyed and curious. Disconcerting, these human younglings, born with their eyes all open and gawking.
"Hee," the kit said aloud, quite distinctly giggling.
"Hee," the female kit echoed, pumping a plump fist in the air.
Tickles, one of them--the female?--said.
Ma? the other inquired.
No, child, I am Nanook, your keeper. Your mother sleeps. And this one is Coaxtl, also your keeper.
'Nook. Nanook realized suddenly that the boy's more advanced utterances were mental and that it understood as well as transmitted thoughts.
Co'. The female kit was also transmitting thoughts.
Co-ax-tl, the snow leopard said with a dignified fluff of her tufted cheeks. You may as well get it right to begin with, youngling.
Nanook sat back on his haunches. The harness was too close to the tender skin. "Don't growl, leopard. They will learn. When I was their age, my mother had to lick me to teach me to do what they've already done in their harnesses."
Coaxtl sat back too. "This harness removal is for those with thumbs. The drums call. The time has come to wake the parents. They can cope with haunch harnesses."
From the Paperback edition.