When any Orion tried to envision a warrior, the image in front of their mind's eye was invariably that of a strikefighter pilot: dashing, courageous, and winning honor the only true way possible - in individual combat, risking his (or, nowadays, her) own life. It left the rest of the Khan'a'khanaaeee's subjects - warriors and civilians alike - always falling somewhat short of the ideal.
As a woman, Uaaria'salath-ahn was used to this. After all, Orion society was, even in this day and age, still strongly patriarchal, and her own family a traditional one with a warrior father and a mother who'd put all her considerable energy into raising her eight cubs. She had always known that her outlook on honor could not be the same as, say, her father's.
Yet she was still surprised how little difference it made, becoming a warrior herself. When Shaasaal'hirtalkin, centuries ago, had first formalized the Farshalah'kiah - the Warrior's Way, the honor code of the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee - he clearly hadn't had someone like her in mind.
Uaaria was the first daughter of Clan Salath to enter the Academy of the Khan on Valkha'zeeranda, at a time when women officers in the Khanate's navy, although a minority, were no longer a novelty. If she was unique - so far - within her clan, in the larger scheme of things she was hardly unprecedented. Therefore she'd heard all the stories about the difficulties facing women joining the military.
And yet, even her family's attitudes had not quite prepared her.
She had never before personally experienced the palpable uneasiness so many men felt about women in the KON - and not even only older men. In her first year at the Academy, more than once she'd slashed one-use towels and cushions in impotent fury, needing to drive her claws into something. She felt useless. Futile. Empty.
"There is no use to it," her roommate, Varnaatha'teeshik-ahn, said one night, just after lights-out. "They will never permit us to be taken seriously."
Uaaria couldn't see the flattened ears that would go with the tone, but she could imagine them too well. Over the last few weeks, Varnaatha's spirit had lagged, and she'd seen the expression too often. Never in front of any of the others, of course.
Not yet, Uaaria thought, and wondered how she could reassure her friend when she was feeling a decided lack of confidence on that front herself.
"Perhaps not. So what?" she said sharply. "What do you mean to do about it?"
"I don't know," came the listless reply. "What good are we doing here? What is the worth in staying, for more of this?"
And suddenly, she knew. "Ten years ago," Uaaria hissed in the dark, "a man might go all his career, never having to deal with a woman in his chain of command. Not every man, no - but many." Not so, any more, Uaaria thought with vicious satisfaction, the tips of her claws emerging for a moment with the sentiment. "We're changing that. It matters."
Varnaatha propped herself up on an elbow and smoothed her whiskers. "Does it matter enough?"
Uaaria smiled, her upper lip curling up enough to show an edge of tooth. And she quoted, "If nothing else - there is no honor in flight."
Service in the KON was a family tradition for Clan Salath, and Veeerza'salath was a typical example. A fighter pilot, farshathkhanaak - senior pilot - of his carrier group now, and the example of what a warrior should be. He was not the kind of man who expected his eldest daughter to follow in his footsteps.
Still, when Uaaria had chosen to apply to the Academy, he had not attempted to change her mind. When she had passed the admission tests, he had been proud - and he had, proudly, mapped out a career path for her. A very traditional one, starting - of course - as a strikefighter pilot.
The Academy of the Khan had first admitted women over an Orion century ago, but it had opened all its specialization tracks - particularly the much-coveted strikefighter track - to women only in the last decade. When Uaaria had been a child, "You can't do that - you're a girl!" had still been the simple truth.
She could have been among the first generation of female fighter pilots - she had shown the necessary aptitude. Instead, after her first two years at the Academy, she decided to pursue a specialization in intelligence.
Disappointing her father was surprisingly difficult, not because she'd never gone against him before, but because after she'd sworn her oath to the Khan, they'd finally, for the first time in her life, found some common ground.
Veeerza'salath was traditional to the point of being reactionary, and she was not at all certain how he would react. The disappointment would be real, she was certain - but underneath, would he be relieved that she'd chosen something marginally more feminine after all?
In the end, Uaaria didn't tell her father until she could present him with a done deal. She did not argue inclination; there would have been no point. Instead, she told him, "I swore to serve to the best of my abilities, and I will do no less. If I did, I would be shirnowmak, oath-breaker, contemptuous even in my own eyes."
Her unconventional interpretation - truly, who could ever conceive of being a fighter pilot as less than the best? - did not seem to convince him, but it was not he who had to believe it.
And at any rate, disappointing him paled in comparison to the inner reaction she still had to fight - the sense that somehow, she was betraying her sister officers who had fought to open up that career track for women.
She was not. She was only doing what shirnask and honor demanded.
"Why do you keep speaking up?" Varnaatha asked her after a particularly frustrating debate session where several of Uaaria's contributions had been outright ignored until some male student had repeated them, at which point they had received the instructor's praise. "Didn't I tell you? They'll never take us seriously."
It was an old joke between them at that point, and they were both too stubborn to back down.
Uaaria smiled with an edge of tooth and combed her claws through her whiskers in a gesture suggestive of incipient violence. "You know me, Varnaatha," she said with a smirk. "I'm afraid I'm a lost cause - even now I have not yet learned silence."
Varnaatha laughed out loud, a deep purring cough of satisfaction. "Indeed, even the best our instructors could do to teach you has failed."
Uaaria didn't say, It doesn't matter whether they listen. She didn't say, Getting into the habit of silence is a coward's way out. She didn't say, This was nothing, though it had been worse when she'd disagreed with Son of the Khan Peerith. She was still sure she was correct about the Terran strategy at the First Battle of Kaleehk, and he was wrong. It had been worse because then she hadn't been ignored - she'd been remonstrated with for trying to bolster her own honor, trying to be right against her instructors.
Uaaria still rather wanted to challenge the stupid graaznaak to a duel. Let him face her claws, if he would not hear her words! But of course challenging one's instructor was not the way to make oneself heard at the Academy.
She didn't say, If I didn't speak, who would I be?
"I would not be called a droshkhoul, afraid of a fight," Uaaria did say, comically, making Varnaatha laugh again. Then she turned serious. "If they wish to hold me in contempt," she said, eyes narrowing, "well, there is no help to it - that is my risk to bear. And I shall bear it, rather than be guilty of theermish."
After all, theermish - risk-shirking, was one of the worst accusation one could make against a warrior. Without personal risk, there could be no honor at all.
"You're a fine analyst, Cub Uaaria," Small Claw Kaathaa'hiaath-ahn said, her sable-furred face stern, "but you know little of strategy."
Uaaria tried not to bristle. You're not really a warrior, she heard. You're only playing at it. She'd heard that before - spoken out loud or implied, it made little difference.
This was her first shipboard assignment, and Claw Theenish had entirely disregarded her analysis of the shipping routes in assembling his operation against the pirates in the Maaka system. Somehow she didn't think that was because of her lack of strategic ability. Being condescended to by her superior - and another woman at that - grated.
But then Small Claw Kaathaa's lips curved into a warm, tooth-hidden smile. "You still have much to learn. Come, let us open your report. I will show you where you went wrong."
And she did, brutally picking apart - not, as Uaaria might have feared, her own analysis, but the expectations Uaaria had built as to what actions should result from it. It was one of the most eye-opening experiences she'd ever had.
Even as she rose through the ranks, she never forgot what Small Claw Kaathaa had done for her that day. And she vowed to pay it forward, to the next woman along the line, once she was in any position to do so.
If my claws guard not your back, then whose claws shall guard mine?
"No, Daughter of the Khan Uaaria," her superior officer Small Claw Maarakh said, his mouth shaping the words like something distasteful. "I don't believe that's quite plausible."
The response to her latest analysis was nothing she wasn't used to, and his refusal of her interpretation didn't much faze her. But like many of his generation, Maarakh always looked like he had bitten into spoiled meat when he spoke her new rank, and that was a different matter.
When she'd been a child, the rank title had still been Son of the Khan, regardless of the officer's gender. It had taken decades of lobbying for reform, and even among those who were perfectly content with women in the KON, too many were displeased by the change. Still, at least Uaaria herself had never had to bear that particular indignity.
After her promotion, she walked around for weeks with her lip a fraction away from showing teeth. Too many of the older generation of the Khan's warriors could not seem to handle it.
Yet the Khan'a'khanaaeee himself had decided that his daughters were to be just as worthy as his sons, and it was their duty, an intrinsic part of hirikolus - the liege-vassal military oath that bound the KON's officers to the Khan - to accept it.
Arguably, it was her own duty under hirikolus to demonstrate it. And it gave her a vicious pleasure to watch these old men choke on it.
Her new commanding officer, Great Claw Zhaarnak'diaano, greatly puzzled Uaaria.
He was a friend of her father's, and in his attitudes evidently just as reactionary and bigoted. His contempt for Terrans was palpable every time their recent battles against the alien Bahgs came up in conversations, which - considering they were in the middle of a war, even if Zhaarnak's battlegroup was far from the frontlines - was often. And she could tell he looked at her and saw, first of all, wide golden eyes, delicately arched whiskers, tufted ears - a cute young woman. It made her want to bristle under his eyes, and unsheathe her claws.
Even so, his behavior had been impeccable as of yet, and he had specifically requested her as his intelligence officer. Perhaps that meant he looked further than her looks. Perhaps, too, her reputation as a maavairahk had not counted against her in his eyes. Small Claw Maarakh, at her last posting, had found her analyses useful often enough, but like many before him, he'd regarded her with suspicion. That she had made for herself a reputation as a maverick, in his eyes, seemed to mean self-importance, as if craving attention could be the only reason for daring to voice unconventional theories. Zhaarnak had, so far, given no indication he shared that view.
Already Uaaria felt herself slide into her place in this new battlegroup, as if she might actually fit here - as if they might fit with her. Her last posting had been a constant struggle with Maarakh's attitude, and she had found it a long way from that ideal of warriors working together as the fingers of a single fist. There had been no true farshatok there. Might there be here?
She had not known how much she craved that ideal until she'd thought she might find it.
"I wonder," she said in her weekly vid letter to Varnaatha, "if it's possible after all to be true farshatok with men."
On the other hand, Zhaarnak was her father's friend, and quite possibly he'd requested her for no other reason than to do Veeerza'salath a favor.
Honor comes to those who act with honor, she quoted wryly to herself. It remained to be seen what, when, the time came, Zhaarnak'diaano's actions would be.
A Terran writer had once claimed that, given enough time, any oaths of the form death before dishonor would eventually leave only two sorts of people - the dead, and the forsworn.
Uaaria had smiled when she'd read the witticism, imagining her father's reaction to it. She'd thought she understood the Terran viewpoint well enough. But, she realized, I did not understand then the real truth in it.
Kliean had changed everything.
As the famous quote said: There is no dishonor in death - and no honor in flight. That understanding underlay a warrior's honor, and Great Claw Zhaarnak'diaano, in the face of the enemy, had acted against it.
Zhaarnak had withdrawn from a battle in defense of two inhabited worlds - had left billions of civilians to their deaths. He had gone against Farshalah'kiah, against everything a Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee warrior believed in, in surviving. In that sense, he was forsworn, was he not? Yet he had done the right thing, Uaaria thought, without doubt. He had looked reality - stark, ugly, horrifying reality - in the eye, and he'd done what he'd had to, personal honor be damned.
Not dead. Forsworn. Uaaria looked into Zhaarnak's haunted face, and understood how he must feel. And yet, in his way, what he'd done was more in the true spirit of Farshalah'kiah than anything Uaaria had ever seen.
Giving his life in a battle he had no hope of winning, even to preserve his own honor, would have been selfish, even cowardly, when that very life might yet make a difference elsewhere.
My claws are yours, and your cause is just, she quoted to herself. Let anyone dare say a word against Claw Zhaarnak's honor in her hearing!
This, right here, was her farshatok.
When any Orion tried to envision a warrior, the image in front of his or her mind's eye was invariably that of a strikefighter pilot. Yet Uaaria'salath-ahn, for too many reasons, would never meet that prototypical image of Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee honor.
In the end, at every turn, she'd had to redefine the Warrior's Way for herself. And Uaaria knew she was hardly the only one. Which woman hadn't?
Honor came in many forms that, by those going strictly by the written word, could not - would not - be recognized.
Perhaps some day, someone - not her; perhaps not an officer of the KON; perhaps a civilian, even - would write a new, a different code, to speak for the honor of those who'd been left out by the traditional Warrior's Way. A Farshalah'kiah for the modern woman.
Somehow, despite the centuries separating them, she thought Shaasaal'hirtalkin might have understood.