There was snow on the streets of Salyphoretip, and quite a bit in the air above them. Some of it was falling sideways. Every pedestrian, and there weren't many, was bundled up so heavily that only their eyes and claws were showing. It was, in other words, not hatching season. And that was the main reason why Delcen got to mind the front desk.
She wasn't just relaxing. Delcen might be only sixteen, but she'd already taken the basic accountancy courses–for something to fall back on, Mama Selsk had said, in case you don't make university. And Delcen knew perfectly well that, new laws or no new laws, life was never going to be easy for an obviously handicapped Ilexureen, so she made a point of working hard at whatever she was assigned. At the moment, she was looking over the Family budget and trying to figure out where she'd added wrong.
The last thing she expected to walk through the door–the last thing she could have expected–was a trio of hominids.
For a moment, she just stared. She'd seen pictures, of course, but never come face to face with one. They didn't come to Salyphoretip; the city wasn't big enough, it didn't have a spaceport. The hominids really were waifishly thin, compared to a Raxicoricofallipatorian, and their eyes were bizarrely patterned, with concentric circles. Their faces were bony, without quite enough softness to them, and a bit elongated. One of them was wearing a heavy pink coat, and one of them was wearing a long grey one. The third, dressed without the slightest regard for the cold, was carrying something wrapped up in silvery blanket.
Grey-coat smiled, and for someone so different-looking, he–Delcen thought he was a he–had a rather cute smile. But any appreciation Delcen might have had for that was dispelled by what he said next. "Hello. Is this the Salyphoretip orphanage?"
Delcen stiffened. She adjusted the edge of her winter cloak with two claws–a nervous gesture, to make sure that her barely-developed left arm was hidden–and met his gaze. "This," she said coldly, "is the Ilexureen creche."
"Means 'family of everyone,'" Black-jacket noted, looking at his blanket-wrapped bundle.
"Exactly," Delcen said. "Regardless of our origins, we are a Family. Legal. In the Registry." She remembered, belatedly, that these people were aliens, even if Black-jacket's accent was pure Flint Downs. "Our society," she said, with rather less ice, "holds Family as very important. In my grandmother's time, it was officially illegal for one-names to breed, because without Family names nobody could know their bloodline. There was no school for them, no jobs better than day-labor–" She drew herself up proudly. "Our Head-of-Family, Selsk Ilexureen, changed all of that. Now, how may the Ilexureens assist you?"
Black-jacket twitched the silver blanket aside. He was carrying an egg. A ripe egg, only days from hatching.
"Left by our ship's hatch," he said, "with a note. Said, 'her name is Blon.' No signature. Sounds like a good person, this Selsk of yours."
"The best in the world," Delcen said. "She always hunts for what's right, she never gives up, and she's never met a person she couldn't see good in. Which doesn't mean she's weak. If she doesn't think you're doing your best, she'll let you have it–but she's not nasty, either. Just fierce."
Pink-coat smiled. "You wanna be her when you grow up."
"I don't want to be a social activist," Delcen admitted. She didn't have that sure touch with people; her talents lay in math and science. "I want to be a physicist. But I want to be like her." She tapped the large blue button on her keyboard. "I've summoned a family senior. It's all very strange . . ." Hatchling abandonment was quite illegal, but it happened, especially when the hatchling had some supposed defect. Egg abandonment usually pointed to adolescent parents and unsanctioned pairings, Family rivalries and abusive Heads-of-House–Drama Network stuff. But this wasn't an abandonment, not exactly. Blon's parents had named her. And left a note.
To leave one's egg with aliens–that was an act of desperation. Hominids weren't egg-layers, were they? How would they know to immerse the tendrils for the first two cycles, or keep the egg extra-warm for the last? This trio must be both conscientious and lucky just to have kept little Blon alive. But that paled in comparison to the strangeness of leaving her only one name. Delcen couldn't think of a single reason for a loving parent to do that. Unless–
Unless the parents had been from one of the Abhorrent Families. Unless the egg's name was, for instance, Blon Slitheen.
For older Abhorrent–well, there was no hope for them. Most of them had committed capital crimes by the time they were twelve. According to the stories (and stories, for the most part, was all anyone knew), the Abhorrent Families hunted sapient beings for their coming-of-age, or perhaps all their family rituals. And perverting the hunt carried even heavier penalties than mere murder. After all, murder could stem from desperation or insanity or inability to control one's rage; hunt-perversion was always an act of utter, calculated depravity.
Only what if an Abhorrent knew that they were inextricably trapped in a spiral of death and more death? What if they wanted something better for their daughter?
Delcen could see it. She could see it. A blood pact, between young parents in the night, spoken furtively so that their tyrannical kin couldn't hear: she will not grow up a killer. Subterfuge and distraction, and carrying an anonymous bag through some seedy spaceport, teeth clenched with nervousness. And then a note, a last whispered I love you, and goodbye forever.
This wasn't Drama Network stuff. This was classical high tragedy.
"But you are gonna take care of her, aren't you?" Pink-coat said. She looked worried, and Delcen realized she'd been staring at the egg for a long, silent moment.
"Of course we will! That's what Ilexureens are. She's my little sister from now on." And, Delcen vowed silently, she'd never betray Blon's secret. Not even to Blon, at least until her coming-of-age hunt. All the girl needed to know was that her birth-parents had loved her immeasurably.
Pink-coat laid her hand on the egg. "Be good, Blon. Be nice. An' eat your veggies, an' listen to your Mum, yeah?" She smiled brilliantly at Delcen. "An' your big sis."
Grey-coat echoed her gesture. "Remember," he told the egg. "Family are the people who care about you. That's what matters."
The hominid in the black jacket hesitated. He didn't look entirely friendly towards the egg, despite the fatherly way he'd been holding her when he came in. Delcen was oddly reminded of some old myths, when three Family spirits or three witches or three sages showed up on a child's naming day, to pronounce prophecy or grant two-edged gifts. In those stories, the third gift was always the most perilous, as well as the most powerful. Beginnings, middles, and endings, that was the symbolism, and the endings could end you–but they could also save everything, because destruction made way for creation.
"You're gonna be tough," Black-jacket said, and it didn't sound like a hopeful uncle's wish. It sounded like he knew. "Tough, and smart, and good with words–good at fightin' with them, if it comes to that. And you can use that for anythin'. Got nothin' but choice, now, a future exactly as big as you can imagine. You'll likely never work out what an incredible gift that is." He touched the egg's shell. "Don't waste it."
The three of them–they were from the same Family, whatever that meant in hominid terms; they moved together. They didn't even exchange a glance before making for the door, in unison.
"Wait!" Delcen said, starting out of her seat, for once not even bothering to adjust her cloak. "There's paperwork–you have to give us some idea where you found her–"
"Her name is Blon," Black-jacket said. "That's what's important."
And then they were gone.
If it hadn't been for the egg sitting on the desk in front of Delcen and the silver blanket they'd left with it, she could have thought she dreamed the whole encounter. She almost believed it anyway.
She tested the temperature of the egg on her cheek–it was warm enough, the blanket seemed to be electric–and tweaked one of the tendrils to make sure they were flexible. "Blon Ilexureen." Not a bad name. Certainly better than something like Blon Slitheen, even if she would have had all four grandparents' names and an honor-parent besides. "Come on. Let's take you to meet Mama."