Chapter 1 Mueller

I was the last to know what was happening to me. Or at least, I was the last to know that I knew.

Saranna realized it when her hand glided up my chest and instead of smoothly cresting the pectorals made lean and hard by hours of sword and javelin and archery, her fingers snagged on a looser kind of flesh. Her hands remembered that same discovery on her own body not that many years before, and being a true daughter of Mueller, with a sharp eye and an uncompromising mind, she knew it all at once, knew all my future history, knew all that was now impossible between us. Yet, being a true daughter of Mueller, she said nothing, nor did she grieve; it simply happened that from then until I left Mueller, she never touched me, at least not as she had before, not with the promise of decades of passion in our future. She knew, but I did not yet know.

Dinte saw it, too. Watching me as he always does, the second son hoping for some accident to befall me so that he can delay any help that might come to me; searching for some hint of congenital idiocy so he can be named regent after father dies; noting any flaws or weaknesses in my fighting or my thinking, so that when, not if, he betrays me, he can gain some advantage over me-- watching me with that kind of eagerness, he had to see the way my shirt moved differently across my chest. Of all the ways that I could be rendered unfit to sit on Father's throne, this had to be the one that he would relish most.

Being a poor excuse for a son of Mueller, he immediately became cocky, not naming my affliction, but treating me with the arrogance that even cowards have the grace to display only toward the corpse of their enemy. He knew, but I did not yet know.

Father would not have seen it. There was always too much work for the Mueller to do; he had no time for watching me himself. But he had me watched, by all my tutors and half my friends; especially during the crucial time of puberty, when the greatest danger comes.

We in whom the Mueller blood runs true, our bodies have a great gift: to heal so quickly that scars form before the blood is dry, and to grow back any part of our body that is lost. It makes us very hard to kill.

Our enemies say that Muellers feel no pain, but it isn't true. To them it looks that way because in battle we willingly absorb a dangerous blow that any other man would have to parry to save his life, and while our enemy's sword is buried in our own flesh, we can cut the lifeblood out of him and then walk on to find another enemy to engage, our own wound already healing.

But we feel pain, just like anyone else. Our women faint in childbirth when the flesh is torn. When you put our hand into the fire, the agony burns as hot inside our brain as inside any other man's. We feel pain; what we don't feel is fear. Or rather, we've learned to separate pain and fear.

To other people, pain means that their life is in danger; to preserve themselves, they must have the reflex to avoid that pain by any means they can. But to a Mueller, pain means that the danger is small. Death comes to us only in ways that are beyond pain-- the crumbling of senility, the cold hard breath of drowning, the loss of all feeling when the body is severed from the head. A mere cut or burn or stab or broken bone means only that some vigor will be taken from us as our body quickly heals; it means well be fed on blood-rare steak and not on radishes when the battle ends.

And the worst fear that others feel-- the fear of dismemberment, of losing toes or fingers, hands or feet, ears or nose or eyes or genitals-- we laugh at that.

Why is it their worst fear? Because they've come to think of their present shape as their true self, and if they lose that shape, they lose their self, they become a monster even in their own eyes.

But we Muellers have long since learned that our present shape is not ourself at all. We can have many different shapes