Book: Two Tales of Korval
TWO TALES OF KORVAL
Adventures in the Liaden Universe®
Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this novel are fiction or are used fictitiously.
TWO TALES OF KORVAL
Copyright © 1995, 2000, 2011 by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from the author. Please remember that distributing an author's work without permission or payment is theft; and that the authors whose works sell best are those most likely to let us publish more of their works.
First published in 1995 by SRM, Publisher.
Published April 2011 by
PO Box 707
Waterville ME 04902
email [email protected]
Cover art copyright © 1995 by Angela Gradillas
TWO TALES OF KORVAL
To Cut An Edge
AS AGREED, he was lost.
He was, in fact, a good deal more lost than he wanted to be. It took him several seconds to realize that the continent overhead was not the one he'd secretly studied for—followed quickly by the realization that it was not even the world he'd expected.
He'd crammed for oceanic Talanar, a planet quite close to the studies he'd been urged to make by his elders. This world was...?
What world was it, after all?
Determining fall-rate overrode curiosity for this present. He located a magnetic pole and arranged to have the ship orient thus, then began a preliminary scan of—well, of wherever it was—as he slowed rotation smoothly and watched the screens.
Air good. Water probably drinkable. Gravity a bit heavier than the training planet: within ten percent of Liaden gravity. Preliminary scan established that this could be any of three or four hundred worlds.
His ship was moving in, as it must. It had been dropped by an orbiting mothership, a carefully timed burst of retros killing its orbital speed. If he worked very hard and was very careful, he could keep the tiny craft in orbit, but that meant immediate expulsion, no appeal, unless he could demonstrate equipment failure...
Instead, he nursed the strictly limited fuel supply by using only attitude jets, and hurried the computer a little to give him potential range.
Three hours before he hit serious atmosphere. After that, depending on his piloting skills and local weather conditions, he might be in the air for an hour. The world below would turn one and a half times before he landed. He wondered what Daria would have thought—
And quashed the thought immediately. Daria was dead, killed in the drop from the mothership, victim of a freakish solar storm. It had been stupid of them to be so involved, of course. Stupid and beautiful.
Daria was months dead now, and Val Con yos'Phelium would be a Scout. Not partnered, as they'd promised so hastily, protected against all unnamed and unbelieved disasters by the strength of each other's arms. Not partnered. But a Scout, nonetheless.
After he passed the test.
He considered the readouts. There were cities down there, yet not so closely huddled that there weren't plenty of places to land a quick, slender craft. His instructions: achieve planetfall; learn the language, customs, life-forms; survive for six Standard months and sound Recall. This was not the final test, after all, merely the preliminary. Pass this, then the true Solo and, behold! Scout. Simplicity itself.
He shook his head and began the second scan. Optimism, he chided himself half-seriously, is not a survival trait.
* * *
HE SET DOWN in the foothills above an amber valley where fields and possible houses lined a placid river.
Grounded, he initiated the final pre-scan, whistling indifferently. His instrument of choice was the omnichora. A portable—gift from his fostermother on the recent occasion of his seventeenth Name Day—was packed away with the rest of his gear.
It was remarkable the 'chora was there at all. Test tradition was that a cadet carried no tech-gear during prelims, except for that equipment found in a standard kit. However, those who had him under their eyes understood that to deprive Val Con yos'Phelium of the means of making his music for a period of six months, Standard, would be an act of wanton inhumanity. It had been debated hotly within the council of instructors, had he but known it. He knew only the end—that the 'chora was aboard the test ship; and that his immediate superior took care to comment that music was communication, too.
Sighing, Val Con studied the results of the scan: air a bit light on oxygen, but not enough to present problems. Microbes—nothing to worry him there. Scout inoculations are thorough. Soil samples showed levels of copper, iron; a shade too much sulfur. No harmful radiations. In fact, it was going to be rather dim outside.
Hull temp read orange: too hot for exit.
He stretched in the pilot's chair and released the web of shock straps. Asking the rationboard for a cup of hot tea, he stood sipping, trying to damp the surge of excitement that threatened, now he was really here.
Wherever it was.
He grinned suddenly. What did it matter? It was a Scout's task to discover such things, after all! This was what he had been trained for. More fool he, cramming for a world lightyears distant, when he could have been—could have been sleeping.
Resisting the urge to tell the temperature display precisely what he thought of its arbitrary limitations, he bent down, opened the crew locker and brought out two bundles.
The first was his 'chora, wrapped in oiled yellow silk. His fingers caressed it through the fabric as he set it aside.
The second bundle was wrapped in black leather and clanked when he hefted it. He settled back on the floor and twisted the clasps, pulling out a broad belt, also of black leather, hung about with objects.
A Scout must wear a complete belt kit at all times.
He looked at the heavy thing with deep resentment. Complete? If he came to require local currency, he need only open a hardware concession. Oh, some of them made sense: pellet gun, machete, rope. But a flaregun? Pitons? Surely, if there were mountains to climb, one would know in sufficient time to prepare oneself?
Ah well, regulations are regulations. And if any of the several things he judged useless were not on his belt, should a proctor turn up, he would flunk on the instant.
Sighing, he began the kit-check.
Pellet gun: OK.
Machete: What can go wrong with a machete? OK.
Stick-knife... He smiled and flipped it open to reveal the strong, dainty blade. The stick-knife was pleasing. He found knives in general pleasing, and had studied their construction during his so-called spare time, even attempting to craft a few. The most successful of these was a plain steel throwing blade, which, of course, was not with him at the moment. The stick-knife was not for throwing, but for surprise and efficiency in close, desperate situations. He flicked his wrist, vanishing blade into hilt.
A Scout's belt-kit is comprehensive. By the time Val Con finished his check the orange temperature light had gone out.
* * *
He rose and tidied the ship while drinking a mug of tea; checked the monitors; buckled on his kit and went out.
It was dim, like a day threatening downpours on his own bright world, and sultry. A breeze blowing from the south brought a medley of unfamiliar odors with it. He sniffed appreciatively and paused to pick an old reed from the side of the path.
Six days had seen many accomplishments. His eyes had adjusted to the lower light level, even as his body rhythms had reached an acceptable compromise with the overriding song of the world. Sensors had been set out and calibration programs begun. The log was up-to-date.
His failure lay in contacting the people.
Not that there weren't people. On the contrary, there were at least two hundred individuals living in the valley at the end of this path, though the count was necessarily approximate. He found it difficult to differentiate at distance between one large-shelled person and another. Given variation in shell size, person size, decoration and harness, individuality would eventually come through; but it would be a slow process. Worse, he had yet to find one single person who would speak with him—or even acknowledge his presence.
He'd tried all the approaches he'd been taught—and several he'd invented on the spur of the moment—angling for any response at all.
And had been roundly ignored.
Yesterday, he had boldly stepped in front of a group of three, bowed low, as he had seen those small-shelled or shell-less bow when addressing those more magnificent than themselves.
The group split and detoured around him, unhurriedly, but with determination.
The path wound around an outcropping of rock and sloped toward the caves and valley floor. Val Con stopped to survey his prospects, idly twirling the reed.
Across the valley, people were about what he now perceived as their daily business. Four individuals were in the fields along the river, working among the growing things with long-handled tools vaguely reminiscent of hoes. Toward the center, a cluster of eight? ten? large persons were engaged in a certain choreographed activity, which could have been dancing, game-playing or military drill. Across the river, large greenish shapes moved among the hulking rounded stones—dwelling places, so he thought: The town itself.
Just downhill from him now, though somewhat distant from the caverns and convenient to a nice flat rock, was a very large individual with sapphire glinting randomly from the tilework of its shell. With it were four small people, shell-less, and bumbling in a way that shouted children to him. The largest was scarcely taller than he was.
It is dangerous to approach the young of an isolate and perhaps xenophobic people—or, indeed, of any people. But Val Con's observations indicated that he could easily outrun the adult, should it attempt an attack, and children are often curious...
So thinking, he walked down into the valley and sat atop the flat rock.
The guardian glanced his way, but turned its back, making no move to herd the smaller ones away. Encouraged, he crossed his legs and settled in to watch.
They were definitely children. They played tag, fell on each other, crowed loudly and shouted shrill, unintelligible taunts. Entertaining, but not particularly productive. The guardian still ignored him, and he nurtured a small flame of optimism as he felt in the belt for the stick-knife.
Best to put waiting to work, he thought, quoting one of his uncle's favorite phrases. Slowly, attention mostly on the schoolroom party, he began to fashion the reed into a flute.
It was the first time he'd attempted such a thing, though he had read how it might be done, and he did not give it primary concentration. This may have accounted for the woefully off-key sound that emerged when he finally brought the flute to his lips and blew.
He winced, and blew again; moving his fingers over the holes to produce a ripple of ragged sound. His fourth attempt yielded something that could charitably have been called a tune, and he glanced up to see how the nursery was taking the diversion.
The guardian stood yet with its back to him, watching as three of the babies enjoyed a rough-and-tumble of wonderful ineptitude.
The fourth was looking at him.
Val Con brought the reed up and blew again, trying for the simple line of a rhyming game from his own childhood. The child took a step forward, away from its quarreling kin, toward the rock. Val Con repeated the rhyming song and began a hopeless rendition of the first ballad he had learned on the 'chora.
Fortunately, the baby was not critical. Val Con abandoned the attempt to wring structured music from his instrument and instead created ripples of notes, interlocking them as it occurred to him; playing with the sound.
The baby was right in front of him.
He let the music fade slowly; raised his head and looked into enormous golden eyes, pupils cat-slit black; let his lips curve into the slightest of smiles. And waited.
"D'neschopita," announced the child, extending a three-fingered hand.
"D'neschopita," repeated the Scout, copying inflection and pitch. He extended his own hand, many-fingered as it was.
A hand larger than either swooped out of nowhere, snatching the child from imminent contact, sparing for his abductor one withering glare from eyes the size of dinner plates. It dragged the protesting infant away, holding forth in a loud and extremely displeased voice.
Nurse, Val Con decided, shoulders drooping. Don't touch that, he translated freely, giving his imagination rein, you don't know where it's been! It could be sick! Whatever it is. And look how SOFT it is! Probably slimy, too. Yuck.
He raised the flute and blew a bleat of raucous wet sound.
The big one spun, moving rather more rapidly than he had previously observed in others of her race, dropping the baby's hand and raising her arms.
Val Con grinned at her. "D'neschopita," he said.
She hesitated; lowered her arms slowly—and spun again, reclaiming her charge roughly and driving the other three before, toward the safety of the center valley.
* * *
"TO CONCLUDE," intoned the Speaker for the Trader Clan, "White Marsh feels that the Knife Clan of Middle River owes in the form of information regarding routes of star-trade. This, because the Knife Clan neglected to locate the being known as Silver Mark Sweeney and deliver the knife he commissioned, thereby denying the Trader Clan its fee of information, for sending this business hither."
There was silence as the T'car digested the whole of the Trader Clan's message. Out of the silence, Eldest Speaker's dead-leaf voice: "Will you make answer, T'carais?"
The person so addressed stood away from the bench and inclined his head to the Elders in respect.
"It grieves me," he began, "that the Trader Clan of White Marsh would come before the T'car entire, citing wrongs, before they came to the Knife Clan and requested facts. However, it is done, and answer shall be made.
"It is fact that the Trader Clan brought Silver Mark Sweeney to the Knife Clan, from which he commissioned a blade appropriate to his size. We accepted the task, seeded the cavern and encouraged not one, but many knives of a size and shape that would be fitting to beings of Silver Mark Sweeney's order. In the fullness of time, the blades were ready and the Knife Clan caused a message to be sent as instructed by Silver Mark Sweeney, stating this.
"He did not come to claim his knife."
"It was the responsibility of the Knife Clan to search—" began the Trader Clan's Speaker, with lamentable haste.
The T'carais raised a hand, reminding that it was his time now to speak, and continued in the midst of the new silence.
"The Knife Clan searched. And, when it was found that our manner of search is not efficient among the stars, we employed a skilled tracker of the Clans of Men to perform this task for us." He paused to consider how best to proceed. The Elders, wise beyond saying, were old. They did not always recall that to those yet mobile, change was...
"You must remember," he said diplomatically, "how short-lived are the members of the Clans of Men. Where I engaged one to search, his heir reported failure to me, as his father had grown too feeble to travel. It was the belief of these trackers—and also myself—that while we encouraged and refined the blade, Silver Mark Sweeney achieved s'essellata and died.
"Thus, I commanded that the family of Silver Mark Sweeney be found, that the blade might be placed into the hands of his kin. Time passed, and when the first tracker's heir came to me again, he leaned heavily upon his own heir..."
The T'carais sighed gustily.
"It seems that Silver Mark Sweeney was both kinless and clanless, as is not uncommon among that family of the Clans of Men named 'Terran'." He paused; signed summation.
"And so the knife is undelivered and the Trader Clan is bereft of its fee. It is to be considered that the Knife Clan had also considerable investment in this venture. There is an entire room filled with blades refined, awaiting only handles and sheathes, all too small for our use."
He inclined his head to the Elders. "Thus does the Knife Clan answer."
There was a large quiet while the Elders conferred silently, after the manner of the very old. In time, Eldest Speaker's voice was heard.
"It is seen that the Trader Clan has come before the full T'car to state its concerns and to give notice of intention to make formal complaint, should there be no balance forthcoming from the Knife Clan.
"It is seen further that the Knife Clan erred in failing to teach the Trader Clan its attempt at solution.
"Thus, it is the decision and will of the T'car that the T'carais of the Knife Clan go to the T'carais of the Trader Clan and speak as egg-kin, seeking to resolve all equitably. If this is not done, then shall the T'car make disposal." She paused, and all awaited her further words.
"It puzzles the T'car that the Knife Clan so hastily encouraged an entire cavern of blades fit only for those of the Clans of Men. However, there has been no complaint made of this, and no judgment is made.
"The matter in this phase is ended. All may go."
* * *
HE WOKE SOBBING, the echo of his cry still shuddering the metal walls.
"Daria! Daria, untrue!"
But it was true.
Painfully, he pulled air into laboring lungs, stilled the sobs and straightened from his cramped coil of grief.
Local midnight, by the chronometer on the board. He slid out of bed; dressed deliberately; buckled the kit on and moved to the door. At the threshold, he bethought himself, turned back to the rationboard and withdrew several bars of concentrated food, which he stuffed into his pouch. His eye fell on the flute he'd made that afternoon and he picked that up, too, thrusting it into his belt as he went out into the night.
There were people abroad in the valley: farming, drilling and in general about their business under the wan light of the two pinkish moons as if it were full daylight.
Val Con paused to stare out over all this activity and finally proceeded, shrugging.
The path deserted him at the base of the hill and he paused once more, this time because he heard the sound of large persons approaching, talking among themselves.
He hid in the shadow of a sundered boulder and let them go by: a group of three, well-shelled and carrying large objects—containers of some sort, he thought.
They entered the caverns purposefully, the boom of their voices echoing back.
After a moment, Val Con followed.
* * *
THE BROODMOTHER STOOD away from the bench in the waiting chamber and inclined her head as he approached.
"T'carais. A word with you?"
Not now, he thought, still rankling from Eldest Speaker's criticism. Hasty, am I? When all with eyes must see that the Clans of Men will give us profit, perspective—
He became aware of the Broodmother still standing, head bent in respect; and put irritation aside.
"Of course. Come within."
He sat upon the bench of office and indicated that she should sit, as well.
But this, in her agitation, she did not do, merely standing and gazing mutely up at him.
"What concerns you?' he asked in some puzzlement. Whatever failings she possessed, nervousness was not counted among them. "Are the egglings unwell?"
"They are well, T'carais. At least—" She paused, marshalling words. "It is that—thing, T'carais. The little, black—soft—thing..."
He signed understanding. Reports of this one had reached him from other sources, all annoyed.
This could not continue. "Please tell the tale clearly, Broodmother. Do you say that the T'carais'amp is endangered?"
"I do!" she cried, knotting her fingers together. "It—the soft thing—came out of the hills today and sat upon the stone at the base of the L'apeleka field, a short distance from the egglings and I, and seemed busy with something or another in its—its hands." She paused to collect herself.
"Then, it began to make noises—horrible noises, T'carais, high-pitched and whining—just as the three youngest began a fight among themselves, which I of course had to attend to..."
"Of course," he agreed, since this seemed required.
"When I looked around, the T'carais'amp was—was at the rock, holding out his little hand. And that—thing held out its hand and was going to—going to touch him!" Again she took a time to return to composure.
"I snatched him away, T'carais, and was hurrying back to the others when—it hissed at me, T'carais!"
This was new. "Hissed at you? By all descriptions, this is but a member of the Clans of Men. I do not recall having heard one of this family hiss..."
"Well, perhaps it was not itself that hissed. It was—holding a reed, T'carais, and I believe that it somehow caused the reed to hiss at me. When I turned to protect the T'carais'amp, it bared its teeth and said 'D'neschopita!'"
This was apparently the awful whole, for she unknotted her fingers and stood with head bowed, awaiting his judgment.
It bared its teeth and cried 'Pretty'? Odd and odder.
The T'carais had travelled much and judged most of the members of the Clans of Men harmless, if hasty. Their music had a certain charm, their actions a touch of madness bordering on art. Certainly there seemed to be no lasting harm in this one.
"I judge," he said, using the formal intonation, "this individual to be rude and inconsiderate, yet not dangerous. If it frequents the area on the edge of the L'apeleka field, then take the egglings elsewhere for their outings. I will investigate it myself, to ensure it is not of that family called Yxtrang, though its behavior has not been consistent with the nature of that line. If it is not, then we must merely tolerate it for a shell or two. It will soon be gone."
He gentled his voice, "It is not worth troubling yourself over, Broodmother, I promise you," and signed dismissal.
With this she had to be content. She had asked and the T'carais had judged. Better she had slain the soft thing this daylight and endured words of reprisal than this—this empty assurance that something so repulsive was no danger to the children.
Unconvinced, she made obeisance and left the hearing chamber.
* * *
HE DID NOT understand how he came to be lost. The cavern was dark; but his ears were as sharp as his sense of direction. Those he followed made no pretense of stealth. There should have been no difficulty.
And yet there had. His guides were a little distance ahead, rounding a corner. Moments later, he rounded the same corner—or, as he thought now, not the same corner—and found himself alone in a dark his eyes were unequipped to penetrate.
He stopped, eyes half-closed in the blackness, listening.
Silence, in which his breath rasped.
His nose reported the dry, musky scent characteristic of shelled people, but not with an immediacy that encouraged him to believe any stood near.
Well and good. He pulled the lantern from his belt and thumbed the beam to low, careful of any dark-seeing eyes that might, in spite of his certainty, be watching.
He stood in a pocket of stone, high-roofed and smooth. It was well that he had stopped where he had: another half-dozen of his short strides would have run him nose-first into the endwall.
The wrong corner, indeed. He pivoted on a heel, playing the beam over the floor, but the dustless stone showed no tracks.
Well, there at least was the bend in the corridor. Best turnabout and walk out...
* * *
HE WALKED FOR twenty minutes by his inner clock, fully twice the time he had walked in behind his guides. Stopping, he played his light around the room in which he stood. It was so vast a place that the mid-beam did not even nibble at the dark along what he imagined must be the walls. The floor was littered with boulders and smitten columns of stone.
He spun slowly in place, running the beam about the room. This is absurd, he thought. I don't get lost.
Still, he had to admit that he did seem to be lost. It was clear that he would succeed only in becoming more lost if he continued on his guideless way.
It is possible, he told himself kindly, that you have done something just a bit foolish.
He sighed and pushed the hair off his forehead.
People did come into the caverns, though it was true that he did not know the schedule of these visitations. Food and water he had—even fresh water, he amended, ears catching a silvering cascade in the dark to his right—and the torch would provide light for months. The wait would no doubt be tedious, but hardly life-threatening, and if he got bored he could use his fishline and markers to map the caverns.
Shrugging philosophically, Val Con sat down and waited to be found.
* * *
THE DUTIES OF a T'carais are myriad; the duties of the senior-most Edger many. Happily, several overlapped, so that a visit to the caverns was both present joy and remembered bliss.
He crossed the threshold into First Upper Way, noting that three of his kin—Handler, Selector and Lader—had passed this way but recently.
Around their scents, and as recent, was the odor of something vaguely spicy and somewhat—furry? The T'carais puzzled as he went on. It was like and yet unlike a scent he knew, though not one usually found within the caverns.
An oddity. No doubt all would come clear in time.
Scent told him that his kinsmen had turned down the Second-Full Corridor. They were beginning the harvest of the Lower Ninth Room, then. Good. The T'carais had great plans for that particular crop.
He turned into Third New Way and shortly into Fifth Cavern but One.
The newest crop was good, he noted, well pleased. Only fourteen had been encouraged beyond the strength of the crystal to endure. If only half of those remaining harkened to his own tutelage, it would be a superior harvest, indeed. Seeder had done well. Nurturer had excelled herself. He would commend them.
It was then that he heard the sound.
And what a sound! Thready and fulsome by turns: abrading. Fascinating.
Music, the T'carais understood after a moment. Though of what sort he could not have said, since it bore little resemblance to any he had heard in all his long life.
But whatever kind of music it was, it was absolutely forbidden within the caverns.
With one more glance at the precious, fragile blades, the T'carais went in search of the sound.
* * *
ITS SOURCE WAS in the Seventh Old Storeroom, sitting in a glowing pool of energy, many-fingered hands holding something to its mouth.
The T'carais stopped in horror, mentally assessing the damage of so much energy on the infant blades, two levels above. Then he realized that part of what he beheld was merely harmless radiant energy. The force generated by the musician, while more substantial than one would expect from so small a being, was well below the danger level.
He approached the intruder.
Who glanced up, dropped its hands and rolled to its feet with amazing suppleness, whereupon it performed the bow of youngling to elder and straightened, awaiting his pleasure.
An eggling, thought the T'carais, astounded.
Of all who had complained, none had said that the intruder was but an eggling. He remembered, then, the disconcertment this particular eggling had caused members of the Knife Clan, not to mention unleashing harmful energies in the vicinity of growing blades, and stiffened his soul. Withholding any indication of regard for his petitioner, he studied it at his leisure.
It was somewhat smaller than those of the Clans of Men he had previously known, and ridiculously thin. Also, it had no fur on its lower face, though a profusion upon its head, dark brown in color. It was dressed in garments of black leather over another long-sleeved garment of some softer stuff: garb worn by many men, especially those that travelled between stars. Around this one's middle was a wide belt, hung with a confusion of objects.
The T'carais returned his attention to the face, seeing that it was small; looking as if one of his kin had taken a nugget of soft golden ore and used a knife to plane off five quick, angular lines, finishing the work by setting two crystals of the most vivid green possible well back among them, shadowed by long lashes and guarded by straight, dark brows.
The T'carais deigned to speak. "Egglings are not permitted here," he said sternly, and in Terran, so there should be no mistaking his meaning.
One of those straight brows twitched out of line with its brother, as the master of them both looked down at itself, and then back up.
"I am sure that to one of your own magnificence," it said softly, and with a lilt to the words that fell oddly on the ear, "it must appear that I have not yet achieved adulthood. However, I must insist that I am not an—eggling—but a man grown."
An absurd eggling. But not one of those called Terran, by testimony of the way he spoke that family's tongue. The T'carais took thought.
"What is your Clan?" he inquired, this time in the tongue called Trade, which was easier to form.
"Korval," returned the other, obediently following into that language. "And your own?"
And an impudent one. Then the T'carais recollected that, in his consternation, he had presumed to take a member of another Clan to task for misconduct—eggling or adult. And to do this without proper introduction was a far greater impudence than he had now been offered.
"I am called," he said austerely, "in the short form used by the Clans of Men on those things called visas: Eleventh Shell Fifth Hatched Knife Clan of Middle River's Spring Spawn of Farmer Greentrees of the Spearmakers Den: The Edger. Among those of men I have met," he added, "I am known as Edger."
The small one bowed, acknowledging, the T'carais supposed, the greatness of the name.
"I am called, in the longest form thus far available: Val Con yos'Phelium Scout." He glanced up, both brows out of true. "Among those of men I deal with, I am known as Val Con."
The T'carais was charmed. Merely an eggling, after all—he recollected again the damage the creature had done the peace and harmony of the Clan and strengthened his soul once more.
"This," he said sternly, deliberately neglecting the name he had been given, "is the place of the Knife Clan of Middle River. Egglings and adults of other Clans are not permitted here, save by special invitation, and with a member of the Clan. You are trespassing. Further, you have endangered the blades by the energies unleashed in playing your eggling music. You are fortunate, indeed, that you chose to do this in a section of the caverns that is at rest, for you might have ruined an entire crop, had you chosen to play in a room that was seeded.
"I am angry that you are here, but because I see you are ignorant, I will raise no complaint to the T'car. Now begone." He folded his arms over his armored chest and glared at the little creature.
Who sighed, and glanced down at the reed in his hand. He seemed markedly uncowed by Edger's avowed anger, and did not smell of fear. When he raised his face he was smiling, as men call it, though very slightly.
"I am sorry," he said slowly, "about the music. It is a new instrument for me and I am afraid I did mis-craft it. I did not know the playing was of such poor quality that it would ruin a crop of blades." He paused, vivid eyes intent. The T'carais kept his countenance unyielding, and said nothing.
"Where I am from," continued Val Con yos'Phelium Scout, "knives are made of iron and steel and light. I have made a few of the first two myself, though I am a novice. It would interest me greatly to learn how your knives are formed."
"You might have had the privilege," the T'carais said with deliberate cruelty, "but you chose to cast it away from you and enter without permission."
"And how was I to ask permission," wondered the impudent one, "when there is no person I have found in the valley who will speak to me?"
"Foolish eggling! Do you expect persons of consequence to speak to one to whom they have not been introduced?"
The small one took time to consider this, eyes on a rock at his feet. He looked up.
Had he been capable of it, the T'carais would have gaped. As it was, he merely moved his head from side to side, slowly, before speaking with great care. "This is a different matter. Your noise endangered the blades. I am T'carais. Of course I must speak, that I might command you to cease."
"Ah," said the other. "I understand."
Edger thought that perhaps he did and was not comforted. Sternly, he said, "I have ordered you to begone."
"Yes," Val Con agreed readily, "and I would like to comply. But I am lost. It's stupid of me, but my sense of direction seems to have gotten misplaced, and I can't find my way out." He slanted bright eyes upward. "I did try."
Absurd that a being so frail should have so much life in it.
"Very well," said the T'carais stiffly, "I shall escort you to the cavern door."
"Thank you," said the other with a bow. "I am grateful for your kindness." He bent to retrieve the lantern and straightened, face thoughtful.
"I have just considered...Will it be dangerous for the blades to encounter light? If so, I must ask if I might hold to your harness as we go. My eyes are too poor to see here..."
Edger was touched, both by the eggling's care and the grace with which he accepted his limitation.
"You may keep your light at that level," he said gruffly. "The blades will not suffer from it." He turned, heading back the way he had come. "Follow."
In keeping with his judgment, the T'carais led his charge by a route that avoided the growing rooms; and in due time they reached the cavern mouth.
Outside, he turned, meaning to leave wordless, as was proper.
"Edger," called the small one, who appeared to have no shame.
Reluctant, the T'carais turned back. "I hear."
He had clipped the lantern onto his belt and stood now, hands out, palms turned up. "You have been very kind and it's true that I am grateful. In spite of this, I feel I must ask for yet another kindness." He took a breath and plunged hastily on. "Would you please introduce me to some of your Clan members? I have come to learn about you—your language and your ways—and it would be much easier if someone would speak with me..."
Was he a scholar, then? The T'carais was uncertain of the word "scout."
"What you ask may be possible," he conceded. "I will consider it. However, a decision will not be made this moons' phase, for I leave tomorrow moontime for a visit to another Clan." He paused.
"Perhaps it would be wisest for you to go someplace else. Or, if you must stay here, to avoid the egglings. You frighten them."
Once again that ironic glance down at his soft self, the straight look into Edger's face.
"I think that, beside yourself, the egglings are the only people I have seen here who are not frightened of me."
This eggling was out of reason perceptive. Edger turned away, speaking the wellwish.
"K'mentopak, eggling. Be you well."
"K'mentopak, T'carais," came the soft reply. "My thanks to you."
* * *
VAL CON STRETCHED taut in the pilot's chair and relaxed, abruptly boneless. The log was once more up-to-date.
He considered the T'carais, grinning as it occurred to him to wonder if that person thought him Terran. There were those of that long, burly race who would not be best pleased by that. Though, to be fair, the general configuration was the same. And perhaps, from a height of nearly nine feet, a seven-foot person and a five-foot one are both merely small.
Knives. Growing knives? They had passed nothing that looked to his untutored eyes to be blades a-growing on their way out of the cavern last night. Of course, Edger had said he might not, as punishment. Possibly, the T'carais had chosen a route that by-passed such wonders.
But growing? And sensitive to—energies—created by music, but not the everyday radiant variety?
What sort of energy, he wondered, nourishes a sense of direction?
A senseless question, certainly: A sense of direction was nothing but itself.
Or was it?
He snapped to his feet; moved to the center of the ship.
Planetary north, he told himself; turned on his heel, pointing.
East. A smaller turn.
Home. Standing tall, arm raised, finger indicating that area in the Fourth Quadrant where turned the planet Liad.
Sense of direction back on duty, sir.
And where had it been last night? He lowered his arm slowly. Music, but not light. A man lost, who never misses the way. Blades growing out of ancient rock...
A sense of direction is a low-level psychic phenomenon.
Not psychic—a skill anyone might learn, subject to the physics of the universe...
Two strides to the storage locker and the 'chora within, still shrouded in yellow silk. He set it on the table and pulled the cloth away, exposing its smooth newness.
This was an expensive portable, far superior to the one he had owned formerly. He had lately had neither heart nor joy to play, but now he flipped the power on; hands flickering over the stops, setting values and intensities.
Lightly, fingers joking, he played the line of the rhyming game that had so charmed the eggling; drifted into the ballad that had defeated him upon the reed.
Gods, what a beautiful instrument.
What sort of energy is music?
He let his fingers slow; flipped off the power. Eyes still on the 'chora, he lifted the kit and belted it around his waist. Hefting the keyboard by its strap, he arranged it across his back—like a shell, he thought, half-smiling.
He left the ship, whistling.
* * *
SOUNDLESS, HE SLIPPED out of the vegetation at the path's end—blinked and nearly laughed. To his right, three egglings, running hard from a much larger individual. And walking toward him with infant nonchalance, his acquaintance of the previous afternoon.
"Good morning, youngling," he greeted it in soft Trade. "Will your nurse be angry with me again?"
"D'neschopita," the eggling told him, with emphasis. "T'carais'amp b'lenarkanarak'ab."
He lifted an eyebrow and walked forward. "Say you so?" he murmured, keeping his voice smooth. "Well, she is your kin and I must bow to your judgment in the matter."
At this, the eggling burst into a storm of volubility, emphasized by meaningful blinks of the huge eyes. Val Con shook his head. Too much, too fast, lacking structure...Perhaps. He pulled on the 'chora strap; brought the keyboard across his chest; flipped on the power.
The eggling paused for breath, eyes glowing. Val Con moved his fingers over keys, manipulated stops—playing back the rhythm and sound of the child's speaking, wondering what would happen...
A much larger sound interrupted the experiment. He looked up to see the nurse approaching, arms upraised for a strike.
The 'chora! Instinctively, he bent forward, shielding the instrument with his body; tensing his shoulders to take the blow...
Which did not fall. Instead, she stood over him and loosed an ear-ringing tirade, no doubt listing his faults and probable bad habits, annotated. Cautiously, he turned his head and looked at her out of the corner of an eye.
The abuse cut off in mid-annotation. Thin chest-armor heaving, she grabbed the eggling by the arm and dragged him away.
Val Con straightened slowly, watching them go. Nurse was in no mood for nonsense, it seemed. She jerked hard on the youngster's arm when he tried to hang back, roaring something the man felt must be unsuitable for delicate young ears. The youngling bleated and was borne away.
Bully, Val Con apostrophized her, just wait until he's grown.
Then reaction hit and he collapsed cross-legged to the ground, hugging the 'chora and shaking.
* * *
"T'CARAIS, I MUST insist—" the Broodmother's words proceeded her, reaching Edger as he walked with his brother Handler. He turned ponderously to face her.
"What is it you must insist, Broodmother?"
"That hideous thing must be slain—or banished—or—or—It is dangerous, T'carais—rabid! I cannot, in my duty as Broodmother—"
Edger lifted a hand and she subsided, though not willingly.
"There is new behavior? Something other than we spoke of past moontime?"
"T'carais, I used your counsel and moved the egglings to the other side of the L'apeleka field for this suntime. All was well, I thought, until I looked about—it was back! And alone with the T'carais'amp! Speaking with him!" She stopped a moment, clearly agitated. "I ran to them, T'carais, and I confess that my hand was raised to strike it..."
Strike him? The T'carais recalled the man's absurd frailness. One blow from an outraged Broodmother would shatter him beyond hope of repair. He tasted air.
"Yet you did not."
"I did not," she agreed. "For it looked up at my approach, bowed down and stayed thus, very meekly, while I berated it." She gathered her courage together. "It is evil, T'carais. A danger to the egglings and to the Clan. It must be destroyed."
"No," said the T'carais firmly; and his brother Handler looked at him consideringly. "This is a sentient being, Broodmother. Ignorant, yes. Young, also. But not malicious. The Knife Clan does not kill wantonly. I go now to speak with him, explaining your preference that he stay apart from the egglings. Though," he added, fixing her with an eye, "it is true that one hungers for children, when one is far from clan and kin." He gestured brusquely. She bowed and went.
Edger turned to his brother. "Will you come? If you are to judge in my place while I am absent, it is well you know all whom your words enclose."
Handler inclined his head. "I was about to beg the honor, Brother."
* * *
THE MUSIC LED them to his seat under the clemktos tree. Half-way across the valley it reached them, full of such force and structure—such power—that the T'carais gave silent thanks that the man had not chosen to use this instrument with the caverns.
He had been toying, past moontime, thought Edger. Indeed, what else might one do with music coaxed from a dead stick?
But this—this was in sophisticated earnest. He had not lied when he claimed maturity for himself...
The man glanced up as they approached, fingers slowing, stopping on the keys. He set the instrument aside, rolled gracefully to his feet and bowed low.
Edger inclined his head. "Val Con yos'Phelium Scout. I thank you for the gift of music you freely give our land." He paused. Surely, he was not mistaken? "Why did you not say your whole name to me, when last we spoke?"
The dark brows pulled together. "Forgive me. I meant no insult. It is possible that I do not know my—whole name." He tipped his head. "I would be pleased to learn it from you."
Handler blinked. Did the creature ask the T'carais to name it? Impudence.
But his brother took no offense. He merely raised a hand in the gesture that asked grace and told it, "I will think on this. I also consider that which you asked of me last speaking. These things wait upon my return."
"I understand," said the small one, folding his hands before him.
"I hear," then said the T'carais sternly, "that you have again come near the egglings, thus offending the Broodmother. It was my command that you refrain from these things. What say you?"
Handler blinked again. His brother would judge the thing as if it were a Clan member?
It is a thinking being, he told himself, laboriously tracing the thought of a T'carais. It has attached itself to the Clan, whatever its alien reason for doing so. Should it thus be slain? Or heard?
The small one sighed. "I tried to obey you, T'carais. I came here because, in all former days, the egglings and their Broodmother kept to the other side of this field. It was accident that I came into the midst of them. And when the tallest eggling came to me and spoke, I thought it would be—rude—if I refused to answer as well as I might..."
The T'carais waited.
Val Con shrugged. "As for irritating the Broodmother—T'carais, I must admit that she has irritated me. Twice she denied this eggling and I the joy of acquaintanceship. If she had his best interest in her heart, she would not teach him fear of what is unknown, but encourage his curiosity and interest!"
An opinionated egg—man. And not a word to say that he had been threatened. Did he not know? Or count it too small a thing to mention?
"I hear your answer, and find it holds some merit. I see how this accidental meeting has occurred. The fault is mine and I will make amends. The Broodmother and the egglings will return to their place near the L'apeleka field. You will not go there."
The small one bowed. "I hear you, T'carais."
"See that you obey me," Edger said, with asperity. "Broodmothers are not lightly angered. This one feels you are a threat and a danger. Annoy her further and she may strike you, thus greatly curtailing the span of your years." He studied the unconcerned green eyes. "Do you understand me, Val Con yos'Phelium Scout?"
"Yes, Edger. I understand you." He tipped his head. "The T'carais has further orders?"
An exhalation like a small tornado. "A question: You named your Clan Korval. I am not familiar with this line of the Clans of Men. I think you are not Yxtrang—"
Val Con tipped his head back, uttering that sound men call laughter. Glancing up, he raised a hand to push dark fur from bright eyes.
"Not Yxtrang," he murmured. "Nor Terran, though—" He paused. Trade did not hold an adequate word, so he settled at last for: "she-who-raised-me is. I am Liaden."
"Ah," said Edger. "I have met Liadens in the past, though not so many as I have Terrans. It is well. Were you Yxtrang, you would not be allowed to remain."
Oh, no? thought Val Con. A race that thinks it might order mighty Yxtrang and have it regarded more than mere senseless noise? Interesting.
"Now," continued Edger, "I have said to you that I will be away for a time. This," he gestured; Handler stood forward, inclining his head, "is my brother, the T'caraisiana'ab. He speaks with my voice in all things while I am gone. Though you are not of the Knife Clan, you infringe on our territory, and must be remembered in judgment. Also, your skill in music interests me—I make a study of the music of Men, for the joy of my spirit. You may continue your studies, excepting only that you will refrain from studying the egglings and that you are banned from the caverns. If any offer you insult or harm, you must say to them: 'T'caraisiana'ab e'amokenatek'. This means that you are to be heard and judged by the T'caraisiana'ab. Are you able to say to the words I have told you?"
"'T'caraisiana'ab e'amokenatek," murmured the man, the properly-spoken phrase sounding odd in so soft a voice. He turned to Handler and bowed. "T'caraisiana'ab, I am happy to meet you."
Handler blinked for a third time, considered as a T'carais might, and inclined his head.
"I am happy to meet you, Val Con yos'Phelium Scout. Please do nothing to endanger yourself while the eldest of my brothers is away."
Val Con grinned. "I'll do my best."
* * *
THE SCHEDULE SPECIFIED six ecological surveys of the area.
He took the last sighting from the hill over the valley, made the notation and stashed paper and stylus in his pouch. Stupid thing. They'd made sure he'd learned the tedious, mechanical ways to insure return to a starting point. This was the first time he'd been grateful for the training. There had been no further abandonments by his directional sense, but once burned, twice shy, as his fostermother would say. He would rather not be cut off from the ship in the middle of a wilderness simply because he couldn't at this present tell his head from his feet.
Stretching, he looked out over the valley—and looked again, more sharply.
A large figure was moving across the open area, using a tall something to walk with. Val Con leaned against a boulder to watch.
The tall something abruptly became a lance; point gathering the wan light of the moons and dispersing it in glittering ribbons. The figure was Edger, no doubt beginning his journey.
Val Con shifted, took two steps down the path to the valley—and stopped. The T'carais had business to be about, even as he did. Let be, he told himself sternly.
Yet he stood there, watching until the other reached the edge of the valley and the night hid that large person from feeble eyes.
"Safe journey, Edger," he murmured in Low Liaden, as one might to a friend. Then he turned sharply, snatched up the directionfinder and moved back down the trail toward the Scout ship. Time for rest, if he wanted an early start in the morning.
* * *
IT IS A SENTIENT being; one that obeys the words of the T'carais. If it is in need, it has the right to aid.
Thus had Handler reasoned before starting this small expedition. The man had not been seen for days, and though its absence took tension from the Clan it also added tension.
Handler was nervous. It was difficult to think with the thoughts of a T'carais, enclosing both Broodmothers and men. On his way to the hill path, he stopped to speak with the Broodmother.
"I give you good sun," he said politely.
"As I give you good sun, T'caraisiana'ab," she responded, taking the T'carais'amp by the arm and indicating that he should make his bow.
This was done and Handler murmured all things appropriate. Then, "Your pardon, Broodmother, for speaking of a subject I know is distasteful to you. But—the small, soft being... Have you seen i-him recently?"
"No," she snapped, "nor have I any wish to. It is to be hoped the horrible thing has gone away."
"D'neschopita," said the T'carais'amp sorrowfully. "Kanarak'ab."
The Broodmother was not best pleased by these sentiments. Handler left her trying to interest the T'carais'amp in a game of c'smerlaparek with his younger kin.
* * *
HANDLER WALKED AROUND the little ship—constructed, after the manner of the Clans of Men, from soft metal, rather than molded of durable rock. After a complete circuit, he tested the air.
The lingering hint of the human's spice-furry scent was days old, direction teased by the winds. He came closer to the ship, but the stink of metal masked any other scent that might have been there.
Finally, he lifted a hand and brought it down—gently—on the hull, making it to ring. He waited a time and repeated this, before circling the ship again.
If Val Con yos'Phelium Scout were inside, he was ignoring Handler's summons.
Well, then, thought Handler, all beings require space apart. Perhaps this is the human's time of quietude and meditation...
He backed away, not quite convinced, but unsure of what else, with propriety, might be done.
It must be for my brother to decide whether we will open the ship of another Clan.
An unsatisfactory solution, but he could think of none better. After a time, he left the quiet clearing and the stinking lump of metal and returned to his house.
* * *
THE THIRD MOON was risen; the first waning, when a small, swift figure left the safety of the dwelling-places and crossed the L'apeleka field, unerringly striking the hill path.
This was the way his friend came. The path his uncle the T'caraisiana'ab had taken only last suntime.
With the echo of the wonderful sounds the soft one made in his head, the T'carais'amp ran down the path, coming in time to the clearing and the ship.
He barely paused, only sniffing the air to find his friend's scent. The ship he ignored—it was far too small, even if it were possible that someone would live in something that smelled so. His friend's home must be further on.
So he continued—south, with but an occasional wishful hint of his soft friend—and sunrise found him well away from the place of the Knife Clan.
* * *
IN SPITE OF the yellow flowers, Val Con made camp in the clearing on the bluff. It was a good place, protected and spacious, with a pool of icy water off to one side, away from the flowers.
He stared at these, hand twitching toward the machete in his belt.
They really are quite beautiful, he offered diffidently; and it is true that Daria would have loved them. Will you spend your life destroying everything Daria might have loved? If so, best start with yourself and let the innocent universe be.
He pushed the hair from his eyes with a sigh and turned away, automatically choosing a place to build his fire. Kneeling, he began to cut a shallow pit, carefully thinking of nothing at all.
Tomorrow, he reminded himself some time later, as he went in search of rocks to line the pit, it's down the hill and into the flatlands.
Depending on how long it took to find a way around or through the bog he would be back at the ship tomorrow night or mid-morning the day after.
He spied a flat stone and bent to retrieve it—
Val Con dropped into a crouch, stone forgotten. He stayed utterly still, listening to the echoes of the roar. Nothing he had yet encountered could have produced that noise. Besides Edger's people, the indigenous life was small, skittish and, for the most part, silent. Even the handful of birds were near voiceless—
Well, he'd been wrong before. And he had the direction of the racket pegged now. He edged toward the bluff, wormed flat among the yellow flowers and peered down.
Closing his eyes, he called up the memory of Clan Korval's sigil: the full-leafed tree, its faithful winged guardian—Opened his eyes and looked again.
Three of them. All noisy. He winced in protest of this excess of sound and peered closer.
Supper was the point of contention. At least, Val Con supposed that the still lump in the center of the group had been intended as someone's dinner.
The smaller suddenly moved on the largest, swinging its paw, leading with its teeth. The largest turned a negligent armored shoulder to the attack, swung his own paw across the attacker's soft throat; used his teeth to thoughtful advantage.
The crunch was quite audible to the man on the bluff, and the littlest dragon slumped and lay still beside its late intended dinner. The largest gathered the disputed item into its jaws and waded off into the bogland, second largest following docilely.
Val Con dropped his chin onto his folded arms. No fire tonight. Perhaps, too, a camp in the rocks instead of the clearing.
Well, at least they don't breathe fire. I think. No wings. And they aren't very fast...
But they were right in the middle of his projected route home. Tomorrow was going to be an interesting day.
* * *
RAIN WOKE HIM before dawn. Shivering in the warm air, he rose and cleaned up the campsite. He pulled out a bar of concentrate to eat as he walked and left, heading for the flatlands.
Working with his mental map and sense of direction, he plotted a route that would take him in a long loop around the bogs. It would add half to a whole day to his journey, but that was acceptable, if it insured that he did not become a snack for an eighteen-foot dragon.
When he hit open ground, he stretched his short legs, hoping that the detour was safer than the original route. He was acutely aware of the lack of data concerning dragonish habits.
For all he knew, the things hunted right up to the valley of the Knife Clan. Into the valley; what did he know? Maybe there were virgin sacrifices. Maybe dragons sat on the Council of Clans. If there was a Council of Clans. Maybe dragons were pets of Edger's people. Maybe Edger's people were—
He pivoted slowly on a heel, looking for it. To the east, south, west—clear to the shadowy horizon. Immediately north, his view was cut off by a jumble of rose and grey rock.
Of course. So, then, another detour. He didn't really have to be back at the ship for another five months or so—
"P'elektekaba!" screamed a voice from beyond the rock.
Val Con ran.
He tore around the rockpile and skidded to a halt, spraying gravel. Directly before him, a squalling eggling, frozen mere feet from the safety of a rock-niche. Further—on treacherous sand—Edger, lance couched and ready, facing the dragon.
In dragons, eighteen feet is small.
Val Con dove forward, hitting the eggling with a surprisingly hard shoulder. The squalling cut out abruptly as the baby sprawled half into the niche. He skittered in the rest of the way to avoid his soft friend, who threw a knapsack at him, yelling, "Stay there!" had he but known.
The rock-niche was comforting, calling up thoughts of home. He made himself as small as possible and stayed very still.
Val Con ran forward, yanking gun from belt; dropped to one knee and fired. The pellet whistled harmlessly off an armorplate side. The dragon did not even turn its head.
It swung at Edger with a long-taloned claw—withdrawn rapidly as the lance leapt to meet it.
Val Con returned the gun to its loop—worse than useless, not even a diversion, for Edger to move into the throat.
He ran, making a wide detour, fishing the machete from his kit. The tail was half as long as the dragon itself, wickedly armed with Val Con-high spikes.
He brought the machete down. Hard.
The dragon screamed. Encouraged, he swung his weapon again.
On the eighth blow, the blade shattered and the dragon screamed—close. He looked up, saw the descending jaws, double-toothed and gaping—
Reflex hurled the useless handle into the descending maw, as reflex snapped him into a backward somersault, away from certain death.
Teeth clicked as he rolled away and Edger cried out, "A'jliata!"—the rest of his words eaten by another dragonish shriek.
Val Con snapped tall, whirling back—
Edger was down.
Dodging whipped tail, ducking a sweeping paw, Val Con reached the T'carais, set his hands against the place where shell met shoulder—and pushed.
He was not strong enough. Edger tipped, tried to get his feet under him, holding to his lance—and the dragon was turning back, paw raised in a gesture the man had seen from its bogland kin.
It meant death, that gesture. It would sweep Edger over, exposing the softer shell across his chest...Val Con stepped back, hands dropping from horny shoulders, staring upward as fingers groped in his belt—
Touched—and had it out without fumble.The safety clicked off as the paw swept down, talons first, toward the struggling Edger.
Val Con fired the flaregun into the towering face, his cry echoing the beast's as the blue-white flash blinded both.
* * *
IT IS NOT difficult to dispatch a blinded dragon. One walks up to where it stands clawing at its ruined eyes and one cuts the soft throat. It is an act of mercy.
Sentient beings are not allowed this mercy, unless they ask for it, very specifically.
Edger hunkered down before the man called Val Con yos'Phelium Scout, in the fullest form thus far available. The smallness of him as he rocked back and forth, arms folded across his face, touched the spirit with ice.
"Tell me what I may do to aid you," he begged, feeling ignorant as an eggling.
The small one gave a shuddering sigh. "You are well? It is dead?"
How valiant a being was this! "Yes, brother," Edger assured him, "A'jliata is dead. I am uninjured, as is this foolish eggling, my heir." He paused, then asked again. "But you—tell me what I may do. You are damaged..."
Another sigh, less profound. "Only temporary. I think. The light was so bright..."
Truth. Edger had been turned away, shielded by his shell, yet the flash had stabbed his eyes.
Val Con dropped his protecting arms and raised his head. The bright eyes were squinted almost shut, and there was moisture running from them, but it appeared that they functioned.
"I'll be all right," he said slowly. "It may take a little time for me to be able to see—properly." He took a breath, moving his head from side to side. "I am sorry to trouble you, T'carais..."
Edger was conscious of a tightening of his spirit, in pride. "There is no trouble, brother. Ask what you might."
"I was returning to my ship," Val Con explained, "when I happened upon you. If you could guide me..." He shook his head, turning his many-fingered hands up, palm out. "I am sorry to trouble you," he said again, "but it may take my eyes some days to—to heal..."
"There is no trouble," Edger assured him again. "Are you strong enough to travel immediately? Shall I carry you—I will be careful," he added, conscious of how easily one might crush a being as small as this new brother.
Val Con smiled wanly. "I can walk," he said, "though I may need to hold onto—something—and be guided..."
"It shall be done," declared the T'carais, rising to full height. Gingerly, he extended a hand to the small person on the ground.
In a moment, that person also put forth a hand, curling many fingers about Edger's few, and allowed himself to be helped to his feet.
* * *
THEY REACHED HIS new brother's vessel in the near dark of the third moon. Edger led, leaning upon his lance; the T'carais'amp and Val Con followed, hand-in-hand. The eggling wore the man's knapsack on his back like a soft leather shell.
Voices carried on the night air: two, raised in disharmony. Edger straightened and lengthened his stride, entering the clearing as a T'carais should.
The Broodmother cut off in mid-lament; bowed as deeply as she was able. His brother inclined his head, reading the weariness in him, but saying nothing, as was his gentle way.
Edger stopped, motioning those behind to come forward.
Hand-in-hand, they did so; stopped before T'caraisiana'ab and Broodmother, waiting.
The Broodmother looked up and resumed her outcry.
"You see what I have told you! It made off with the T'carais'amp, the evil thing!" She turned to Edger, every line of her pleading justice. "Will you not slay it, T'carais? You have seen with your eyes how evil—"
"SILENCE!" bellowed Edger and the Broodmother subsided, blinking rapidly. Handler looked from his brother to the small intruder to the T'carais'amp.
Edger gestured and Handler brought his head up, listening, that he might later recall precisely.
"Let it be known," the T'carais began, regally, and in the tongue known as Trade, "that this man Val Con yos'Phelium Scout has this day saved the lives of both the T'carais of the Knife Clan and the T'carais'amp, placing his life into peril to do so, when he might have run and been safe.
"Armed with a blade of mere metal he came against A'jliata, suffering pain and possible permanent damage in the service of T'carais and Clan.
"Let it further be known," Edger continued, "that this person shall come into the Clan as my brother, which he has earned. His name in present fullness shall be stated at the ceremony of adoption."
He fixed the bewildered Broodmother with his eye, dropping into the only speech she understood. "This person is honored by me, as he will be honored by the Clan, for bravery and service. Know that he alone slew the eldest A'jliata, thereby preserving the line of the T'carais of the Knife Clan. I will hear no further words against him. Do you understand what I have said?"
She lowered her head. "I understand you, T'carais."
"It is good. Now, take the T'carais'amp and attend him. Later you shall tell me how he came to be in danger!"
The Broodmother came forward, hand extended for her charge, who set up a squall and clung to his soft friend.
Val Con shifted away, prying clutching fingers from his arm. "Gently, child," he murmured in Trade, "you'll break me..."
The Broodmother added a few quick words of her own on the subject and the T'carais'amp was borne away. Edger looked at his brother Handler.
"Find you our brother Selector and choose a worthy blade from the Room of Men."
Handler inclined his head; turned to the man.
"I am proud to have gained so valiant a brother, Val Con yos'Phelium Scout," he said formally. Then he, too, went away.
Val Con turned to Edger, brow up. "I do not understand, T'carais. You slew—A'jliata—not I. Why honor me?'
Edger blinked. "I hurried what you had contrived. A blind creature in the wild is already dead. I but showed it the mercy one accords a worthy foe. You gave it death with your light." He slumped, leaning on the lance: it was not necessary to feign tirelessness with this, his brother.
"Will you gather the objects of your name and subsistence, Brother? It is past time that we were home, and I understand men to require some time of sleeping every moontime."
Val Con stood for a long time, as men measure such things, squinting up at the T'carais. Then he smiled and turned toward the ship.
"I will not be long."
"So be it," said Edger, settling to wait. He considered the T'car and sighed gustily.
"Aaii, and they called me hasty anon!"
A Day at the Races
THE SKY WAS nearly Terran blue overhead, shading to a more proper Liaden green toward planetary east. Shadows were beginning their long evening stretch across the lawns, from the topiary maze to the house.
Up the drive came a slender young man in the leather vest and leggings of a spaceworker. Despite the peremptory summons from his sister, he had walked from Solcintra Spaceport, enjoying the taste of natural air.
He paused by the cumbersome landau parked messily across the drive. The crest of his aunt, the Right Noble Lady Kareen yos'Phelium, Patron of the Solcintra Poetry Society, Founder of the League to Preserve the Purity of the Tongue, and Chairperson Emeritus of the Embassy of Form, glittered in the fading light.
Scout Captain Val Con yos'Phelium sighed. Perhaps it was not too late to turn about, catch the evening shuttle to Chonselta City, and thus avoid any contact with his father's sister, a course he had pursued whenever possible throughout his childhood and halfling years.
He sighed again. No, he decided, better to attend to the business at once and have done.
Thus virtuously armed, he continued up the drive and let himself into the house.
Standing in a small sidehall, he listened, marking the sound of two voices. The first was unmistakably Aunt Kareen, the measured tones of the High Tongue ringing in bell-like purity. The answering voice was lower in pitch and inflection: his fostersister, Nova yos'Galan.
Val Con sighed for yet a third time and slipped silently down the hall to the large parlor. He bowed to his aunt and kissed his pale sister lightly on the cheek.
"Summoned, I obey," he murmured in her ear. Then, turning, "Will you drink, Aunt? I see you are unrefreshed."
"Thank you," said that lady austerely, "but no. I am unable to take a crumb of sustenance; nor even a thimbleful of wine."
Val Con blinked and darted a look at his sister, who avoided his eyes. No enlightenment from that quarter. He moved silently to a chair near his aunt. Perching on the carved arm, he shook his head.
"That sounds very bad, I must say. Have you consulted a physician?"
The Right Noble sniffed. "I am quite well—physically. Thank you, my Lord. Your concern warms my heart."
Score one for Aunt Kareen. Val Con hastily schooled his face to that expression of distant interest considered proper when speaking with other members of Society.
"Forgive me, Aunt; I meant no disrespect. The difficulty is that I have only recently returned to Liad. My sister's message met me at Scout Headquarters, and I obeyed her instructions immediately. You will understand that this left me no time to discover the nature of your trouble.
"I am ready to hear," he concluded, most properly, "and feel certain that all may quickly be resolved."
"That is very good, then," said Aunt Kareen, greatly mollified. "It grieves me that the cause of my distress is the First Speaker, your—kinsman—Shan yos'Galan. I am aware of the regard in which you hold him, my Lord; and on a minor matter I would not, of course, approach you. However, this case is such that I am certain it is no less than one's duty to bring it to the attention of yourself, who will lead Korval next as Delm." Her eyes sharpened. "If you will ever bestir yourself to take the Ring, of course."
Val Con resisted the temptation to look at Nova again. With effort, he maintained the proper expression, though one eyebrow did slip upward, just a little.
"Has Shan slighted you, Aunt? It does not seem like him. He is very conscientious in his duty as First-Speaker-in-Trust. It is true that his manner is not quite—polished—but his heart is good and—"
"He is an outrageous rantipole and a disgrace to the Clan!" snapped his aunt. She took a bosom-lifting breath and dabbed at her Temples with an orange silk kerchief.
"Forgive me. It was not my intention to speak thus of a kinsman you hold so dear, though I am certain my feelings on Lord yos'Galan's past—adventures—have not escaped notice."
"I am," said Val Con dryly, "aware of your antipathy for my brother. You are obviously agitated. I make allowance." He removed his eyes to the Clan sign above the fireplace: Korval's Dragon hovering protectively over the Tree.
He looked back at the Right Noble, both brows up.
"You have not yet informed me what my brother has done to offend you—this—time, Aunt."
She drew herself up. "He is—racing!"
Her nephew achieved a new peak of self-discipline and contrived not to laugh.
"Is he? Racing what, I wonder?"
"Skimmers," said Nova unexpectedly, frowning slightly when he turned to face her. "A new thing off the Terran tracks..." She sighed. "They are dangerous, Val Con. Stick and throttle—no electronics, no safeties."
"Ah." He considered it; smiled at her. "But he's not likely to hurt himself, is he? He's quite an excellent pilot."
"Whether or not he does himself some trifling injury is not the essence," announced Lady Kareen. "Consider the scandal, my Lord! The First Speaker of Clan Korval—racing, like a common—" words failed her.
"Pilot? Individual? Rantipole?" He caught Nova's Terran-style headshake and allowed the spurt of anger to subside.
"Aunt Kareen," he began again, more smoothly. "I ask you to consider what you say. Consider what has made Korval great—" He pointed to the device above the mantle. "'Flaran Cha'ment'i: I Dare'. My brother carries on an illustrious tradition—"
"Your cousin," she snapped, "does not care a broken cantra for tradition! You speak of his concern for duty. I say it is wonderful we are not already the laughingstock we are doomed to become, unless you, my Lord, very soon take your place at the head of this Clan and—"
"Is it so bad a thing," Val Con overrode gently, "to laugh? Better to laugh—even be laughed at—and continue to strive, rather than run away..."
"Korval does not run away!'
"No?" He tipped his head. "And yet my father—your brother—abdicated his position, left the Clan—ran away. Shan would far rather give over the duties of First Speaker. It would better suit him to return to the Passage and the trade route. But in fact he is First Speaker at this present, and thus remains upon Liad, taking what harmless amusement he may to ease his time here." Val Con rested his eyes, bright green and very angry, on his aunt's.
"Shan does not run away," he concluded quietly.
"I see," said the old lady, with brittle calm. "I infer that you will not speak with him. Therefore, since someone must speak to him, I shall dispatch your near-cousin, Pat Rin to—"
Val Con held up a slender hand. "I did not say that I would not speak with Shan, Aunt. Do not trouble my kinsman, your son."
For a long moment they stared, old eyes measuring young. Lady Kareen rose.
"Very well, my Lord. I thank you for your condescension. No—do not trouble yourselves. No one need show me out."
She bent her head briefly to the room at large and swept out. Nova went after, grimly intent upon courtesy.
Returning to the parlor several minutes later, she found Val Con slouched in a hearth chair, legs thrust out, winecup held loosely in his left hand. He appeared to be studying the toes of his boots.
Nova sat on the edge of the chair across from him.
"I apologize for calling you home so summarily, brother, but the truth is I was at wit's end..."
He glanced up, eyes still very bright, and pushed the dark hair from his forehead.
"How long has she been at you?"
Nova sighed. "She's been here every day for the past three months, demanding that 'something be done' about Shan." She shook her head. "Then she began threatening to send Pat Rin to bring him away—and you know that would never do, Val Con..."
"Pat Rin would say something pompous and Shan would ignore him," Val Con murmured. "So of course Pat Rin would become more pointed in order to ensure that his thick-headed kinsman had the right of things—"
"And Shan would bloody his nose," finished Nova.
"Imagine me, I implore you," said Val Con, rediscovering his wine and sipping, "fining the First Speaker his quartershare for engaging in fisticuffs with another Clan member."
Nova frowned. "But you would not—unless... Do you mean to be Delm now, brother?"
He shook his head. "I most certainly would be able—my privilege and duty, as Delm-to-Be. The reference is Penlim's Protocol. Very dusty reading. Best you check it though, sister, since the trusteeship falls next to you." An eyebrow slid upward. "How long do you think Shan can hold out?"
She set her lips primly. "I will go before the Council of Clans as First-Speaker-in-Trust at the end of the month and Shan will be free to return to the Passage."
Val Con nodded. "None too soon, eh? And then skimmer racing may slide away into the past." He tipped his head.
"There is more, perhaps? You are still distressed."
"It is a small thing..." She looked at him worriedly. "Yesterday she railed at me for nearly two hours—she even missed a session of the Poetry Society!" She sighed. "It is the Terran blood, you see, that makes Shan so wild and threatens to disgrace Korval forever."
"It is fantastic, is it not," said Val Con "that my aunt holds such opinions? After all, she was offered the Trusteeship when my father abdicated—and refused it, even as she refused to care for his son, leaving all to yos'Galan. At this moment she could be First Speaker."
"Gods forefend," breathed Nova, bringing fingers to lips too late.
Val Con laughed. "So I think, as well." He lifted an eyebrow. "She does well for one unable to take sustenance."
"Ah, you haven't spoken to her cook."
"Nor have I any wish to do so." He was on his feet, moving with Scout silence across the short distance that separated them. Bending, he kissed her cheek.
"I'll speak with Shan, since I have said it. Will you tell me the location of the racing park?"
* * *
THE WIND SCREAMED and the skimmer bucked and slithered. Shan fed it more power, leaned right to correct the slide, kicked the throttle to the top and was over the finish line in a burst of breathless speed. He slewed in a half-arc for the joy of it and slashed the power, gliding to a halt by the timer-tower.
"Twelve minutes, forty-two seconds," the mechanical voice informed him.
"Damn," said Shan, heading sedately for the garage. Two minutes to shave at the very least, or he might as well leave Araceli home on Trilsday and watch the race from the stands.
Most skimmers carried a crew of two; he'd been foolish to think he could run singleton. He needed another pilot for second—and where was he to come up with one in so short a time? Worse, how to find time for proper training?
"Damn," said Shan again, yanking off the goggled helmet and dropping it to the floor. He locked the board and jumped out.
Perched on the fence directly opposite was a young gallant: fine white shirt and soft dark trousers; a pilot's leather jacket thrown negligently across the fence at his side. He held a glass of wine in his hand.
Shan stretched his long legs, grinning in welcome.
"Well, this is a surprise," he said in Terran. "How long have you been here?"
"I saw your run," Val Con replied in the same tongue. "Wine?"
"Thanks." Shan said and sighed. "I didn't know you were a racing enthusiast."
"I heard there was something new," Val Con said. "A pilot likes to keep abreast..."
"Always nice to learn,"agreed Shan. "And an education can be had in the oddest places. Staying at the spaceport, are you, Val Con?"
The younger man lifted an eyebrow. "Do I pry into your affairs?"
"Well, now, that's what's odd. Normally you don't. But here I am, where I have taken care not to announce myself, out of respect for our more proper relations; and now here you are—"
"For which I should be thanked," Val Con interrupted. "Aunt Kareen is quite upset. She was on the brink of sending Pat Rin to fetch you home, and was persuaded to allow me to come instead. My aunt," he added earnestly, "thinks you an outrageous rantipole."
Shan snorted. "I'd rather be a rantipole than a pompous ass."
"Yes," soothed Val Con, "I know you would."
"Cultivating an edge, brother?"
"It is also to be recalled," said Val Con dampingly, "that we are but cousins."
"Dear me!" Shan cried. "I apprehend that Kareen was in the throes of a Mood!"
He sipped, sketched a bow. "Forgive the sermon, denubia. Better you than Pat Rin, whatever news." He laughed. "Gods, only imagine the scene! And you would have had to fine me, too! Or I would have had to fine me—and very angry I'd have been at myself." He raised his glass. "Brother, I salute you: you've saved me a rare chewing out!"
"No less than my fraternal duty."
"But you didn't come all this way," pursued Shan, "just to report Kareen's opinion of me? If so, a wasted journey."
"My aunt's health is in decline from worry over the scandal," Val Con said. "Fear of the damage you do Korval's reputation will allow her to neither eat nor drink. One understands the cure for her pitiful condition is for you to come home and behave yourself. She's been at Nova for weeks—with variations upon the theme..."
"She's what? At my sister? In my house? By what right? She's not yos'Galan."
"For the good of the Clan," Val Con said, lips twitching.
"Bah, what nonsense!" cried Shan, and fell silent, sipping. After a time he looked up, white brows drawn over light eyes. "And what does our sister say? Or you, for that matter? It seems I've heard too much of what Kareen thinks and nothing at all of what Nova and Val Con think."
"Nova has given me a double-cantra to lay upon the race Trilsday-this—Shan yos'Galan to take any of the four highest honors."
"Did she?" Shan grinned like a boy. "We'll make a human being out of her yet, Val Con. And you?"
"I?" He lifted a brow. "I'd like a ride in your skimmer, please, brother."
* * *
WORDS SCROLLED across the screen set into the table. Nova read and sighed, breakfast forgotten before her.
"Araceli," the race report continued, "piloted and co-manned by Shan yos'Galan and Val Con yos'Phelium, Clan Korval, earned distinction by turning in the slowest finishing time on the day. Neither team member is a professional racer and the time-loss taken when a nerf from first-placing Tolanda sent Araceli off the course was never regained. It is to the amateur team's credit that Araceli remained upright during the mishap and, due to a bit of quick readjustment by the secondman, able to return to the course..."
"It's that stupid braking system," Val Con said over her head. "All very well to have no electronics onship, but why the brakes must be the most primitive of hand-turned vents is a mystery."
His voice was edged with wry irritation. Nova turned her head, but he was at the buffet, clattering covers and pouring tea.
"How's your arm?" she asked.
He glanced over his shoulder, smiling. "Better a bruise than tumbling out of control. And not bad enough to bother with the 'doc." He gathered up cup and plate and sat down across from her. "It's an odd thing, Nova—the craft is so light that my hand on the ground was sufficient pivot-point. If there were a more efficient way of braking... As it's arranged now, the pilot may either steer or brake. And he may not brake quickly."
She glanced up at him. "Where is Shan, by the way?"
"At the park, seeing to Araceli's packing. He plans to race at the Little Festival."
"He does?" Dismay sounded clearly in her voice.
Val Con lifted a brow. "No faith, denubia? It's not a bad little craft—and Shan is very good. If we could only resolve the braking—Ah, no! Before breakfast?"
Nova followed his gaze out the window and stifled a groan as she saw the too-familiar shape of Lady Kareen's landau come to rest across the drive.
"Does my aunt read the racing papers, do you think?" Val Con asked, eyes glinting mischief over the rim of his cup.
"Now, brother, have pity! Don't make her any worse."
He rounded his eyes, face etched in surprise. "Why, Lady Nova! As if my aunt were ever other than perfectly delightful!"
"The Right Noble Lady Kareen yos'Phelium," announced the housebot from the doorway.
"Good morning, Aunt," Val Con, the Low Tongue all good cheer. "Will you take breakfast with us?'
"Thank you," said the Right Noble, "but no." The bell-tones of the High Tongue were gelid. "And you, my Lord, might best wish to speak with me in the study. What I have to say is scarcely fit for a breakfast-table conversation."
"I'm a-tremble," said her nephew. "But I fear you will have a small wait, Aunt, if you must have the study. I am exceedingly hungry and feel I should finish my meal before embarking upon an exhaustive interview." He picked up his tongs to readdress breakfast.
There was a pause, growing painfully longer. A glance from beneath sheltering lashes showed Nova that Lady Kareen's face was rigid with anger. Val Con was proceeding with his meal.
"Very well," said Lady Kareen presently. "If you will have it so." She moved to the nearest chair and stood, eyes on her nephew's bent head.
Horrified, Nova saw Val Con glance up, frown and raise his hand to the hovering robot.
"Jeeves, pray hold my aunt's chair for her."
"Certainly, Captain." The 'bot glided forward and slid the chair smoothly from its place.
There was a moment's hesitation before she sat. Jeeves retired to a corner.
Val Con smiled. "Now then—ah, but first: Are you certain you won't take something, Aunt? Tea? Morning-wine?"
"Nothing, I thank you." She glared at him. "Must you speak in that manner?"
He blinked. "In what—oh, in the Low Tongue! I do beg pardon, ma'am. I was speaking with my sister just now and it quite slipped my mind that I must use the High Tongue at this present, in deference to company."
Nova bit her lip.
"Of yesterday's fiasco," the old lady said after a moment, "there is nothing to say. That you failed to bring your cousin away from the racing-track before he had made a fool of himself and his Clan does not surprise. He is as tenacious as he is misguided. It grieves me that his hold over you, the heir and hope of Korval, is such that you were persuaded to lend your countenance to the spectacle. It is to be hoped that you will soon see the unsavory influence Shan yos'Galan exercises over you and will distance yourself from him." She paused to glare at both of them. "On that head, no more."
"Ah." Val Con rose and refilled his cup. When he sat again, both brows were well up.
"You have something to say on another head?"
The Right Noble pressed her lips together. "It is perhaps not a subject you would care to discuss in the presence of your cousin."
"You intrigue me." He glanced at Nova, green eyes dancing.
He turned back to his aunt. "Speak on; we listen eagerly."
"Very well," said the old lady again, eyeing Nova dubiously, and drew herself taut. "It has come to my ears that my nephew Val Con yos'Phelium has been seen in a common tavern near the docks in Chonselta City. Has, indeed, been seen walking late and early about town wearing spaceleathers..." Lady Kareen faltered under her nephew's steady gaze and had recourse to her kerchief.
Nova sipped tea.
"Spaceleathers," Val Con repeated gently. "And what should one wear, I wonder, when visiting common taverns?"
His aunt bristled. "Spaceleather is very well for working in space. No doubt it serves you admirably in your Scouting duties. But when upon Liad, one must dress according to one's station. In the evening, one must always wear a cloak." She took a deep breath. "That the Delm-to-be should be so ill-mannered—"
But Val Con wasn't listening.
"Cloak," he murmured. "Of course a cloak..." He came to his feet, made his bow and was all but running past Nova's chair; his fingers barely brushing her cheek.
"Aunt, I thank you—your instruction is superlative. Pray forgive my hastiness—Jeeves!" he cried as he passed from the room. "Bring your calculator! I must have a new cloak!"
The robot charged after in a thunder of wheels, orange head-ball flaring. "My calculator is ever at hand, Captain."
Nova sat staring at the empty doorway. "A cloak? Oh, no..."
"But why not?" asked Lady Kareen, obviously gratified that her words had at last produced an effect. "What harm can it do him to have a new cloak?" She leaned forward to pat Nova's hand. "Pray tell him to consider it my gift to him, cousin; he must have the cloakmaker send the receipt to me." She smiled.
"After all, an interest in one's appearance is a beginning! I'll deal with the racing later."
* * *
SHAN SLAMMED THE skimmer's bonnet, frowning. He'd gotten several offers from mechanics to enhance his engines beyond match regulations. He'd told them all no—a fair race and a fair win, that was what he wanted.
And now here was Val Con, insisting that Araceli be brought home for private testing. And if Val Con was willing to tempt fate in such ways...
"Practice? Practice how?" he'd demanded when he got the younger man's call. "We need to be on the course to practice, youngling. Practicing on flat grass isn't going to do us any good."
"No, but it will. I think. Please, brother, bring her home. If it puts you out of pocket, I'll pay the shipping."
So here was Shan, cooling his heels on the stream bank, and Val Con uncharacteristically late—
A flash of bright color caught the corner of his eye. He tracked it—and froze, staring.
"Good evening, brother!" called Val Con cheerfully.
"What in moon's honor is that?"
"This," announced the younger man, pulling himself stiffly erect and moving his shoulders so the orange micro-silk shimmered, "is the next fashion."
"I'm terrified," Shan said, carefully circling him. "But you're probably right. It just might be ugly enough." He shook his head in repulsed wonder. "You look like a pumpkin."
"Oh, no, do you think so? The cloakmaker will be distressed; he was extremely proud of the work." Val Con grinned. "I have a genius for design."
"What you have a genius for is for driving me mad! Do you mean to say you actually designed this monstrosity? Why? You hate cloaks! You'll never wear it. Unless it's your idea of a joke on Society? Everyone will rush out to have a cloak like Korval's—and you'll have a grand time laughing up your sleeve. Delightful. Except you'll be off-world for most of the time this new fashion of yours is the rage. I'll have to look at the stupid things every time I go out for the next—"
Val Con was laughing.
Shan regarded him sourly. "OK; I bit, did I? Explain. Include," he added after a moment, "why it had to be orange."
"Ah, you see, orange doesn't suit everyone. But with my lovely dark hair and pure golden skin tone..."
"Stop." Shan took a breath. "Val Con, you're my brother and I love you. Don't make me kill you."
"Orange is my aunt's favorite color," murmured the other. "I thought, since she so kindly bears the expense..."
"I see," Shan said. "Paid good money to hide you, has she? So it's orange and you'll be hidden for everyone to see. Now: Why is it at all?"
"So that we will win the race at the Little Festival."
Shan blinked. "Yes? Could you be more specific, please?"
"Certainly." Val Con linked their arms and gently turned his brother back toward the trees. "If you will only walk with me to the skimmer and have the goodness to give me a ride..."
* * *
THEIR SISTERS comfortably established in the stands, Shan and Val Con walked leisurely toward the qualifying field. To the left, the jewel-colored pleasure pavilions rippled in the flower-scented breeze. To the right, Te'lesha Lake reflected the colors of the afternoon sky. Already there were people abroad with lovegarlands in their hands.
"Well," said Shan, "at least we've managed to get everyone out of Kareen's way today. Is she checkmated, do you think, brother? Or will she pull rank on you?"
"She has none to pull."
Shan opened his mouth—closed it, as memory rose:
The boy Shan, entering the house by a side door and almost falling over his small cousin Val Con, unexpectedly sitting on the cool stone floor, clutching a martyred orange cat in his arms.
Shan sat on the floor next to the child; extended a hand and ruffled the dark hair.
"Hello, denubia. What're you doing here?"
A long pause during which Val Con studied him out of solemn green eyes. Then, with the terrible succinctness of the very young: "Aunt Kareen doesn't want me."
"Shan." Val Con's voice, here and now.
"Yes?" But even as he asked, he saw them; the Lady leaning on the arm of her elegant escort. "Aaaah, damn. Have they seen us?"
"Hello, kinsmen!" called Pat Rin across the Festival's babble.
"Why must he always remind me of that?"
"Gently, brother," murmured Val Con. "Only think of the expense; weigh it against satisfaction gained..."
"You make it sound so simple..." he began; then Lady Kareen and her son were with them and he chopped it off to make his bow.
Val Con also bowed, graceful and brief. "Aunt. Cousin."
"Nephew," she said icily and paused to draw a deep breath. Into this slight gap—unexpectedly—stepped Pat Rin.
"What an extraordinary cloak, young cousin. And worn at such an odd hour. Unless you wish to establish a—point—of some kind?"
Val Con considered him, eyebrow askance. "I wish to establish a new fashion in cloaks, kinsman. What better place to introduce it than the Little Festival, where hours are for a time banished?"
"Oh, very good!" said Pat Rin admiringly. "You have the touch of a poet, cousin." He gently disengaged his mother's hand and ignored her glare as he circled Val Con thoughtfully.
After a few circuits, he shrugged. "There is a grain of something there, I allow. It might be possible to adapt it quite successfully. What do you call it?"
"A skimmer," said Val Con gently.
"Indeed? Don't you find that perhaps a bit—vulgar?"
"Ah, but you see, I find myself to be a vulgar person. Which I believe is the topic my aunt wishes to address. Let us allow her room, kinsman." He turned his eyes to the outraged Lady. "Aunt? You have something to say?"
It took her a moment to find her voice. "I will speak with you in private, sir."
Val Con inclined his head. "Lady, I regret. I am here. If you wish to speak—and since you came in search of me—you must perforce speak here."
Pat Rin's eyes sharpened with speculation and he stepped back to his mother's side.
The Right Noble stared at her nephew. A moment stretched to two...neared three...
She moved her eyes first.
"Very well, sir. If you wish all the world to hear it..."
"If your topic causes you shame, madam, pray do not speak, but wait. Call on me at home and we will discuss the matter privately." Val Con's voice was unremittingly gentle. Shan winced and swept a quick glance around the gathering crowd.
Lady Kareen moistened her lips. "That Lord yos'Galan is so lost to propriety as to continue to race skimmers in the face of defeat and ridicule, I can readily believe. That you, of the Line and blood of one of the oldest and most respected of the Clans, should, after receiving the instruction of the eldest of your Line, persist in this scandal is insupportable. Why should you race skimmers, sir? In all the generations since the Clans came to Liad no one of Korval has ever raced skimmers!"
"And before Cantra yos'Phelium and Tor An yos'Galan landed the colony ship on this world, no one of Korval had done that, either," Val Con said. Suddenly, his eyes were sharp; his voice ice-edged.
"Your argument, Lady, falls short."
The Right Noble pulled herself up. Pat Rin gasped. Shan bit his tongue.
"As the eldest of Line yos'Phelium," Lady Kareen stated formally, "I forbid you to race—this evening, tomorrow, or at any time in the future. Do I make myself plain, sir?"
A pause, very brief. Then, in the highest possible dialect; that used to address strangers or those barely acknowledged as kin: "You long ago declined the right to so command." And added, in a voice so cold Shan barely recognized it as Val Con's, "Madam, I repeat: Your argument falls short. You are of the Line by name and blood, but never by authority."
Incredibly, she opened her mouth to speak further—or perhaps she only gasped with shock. Whatever she intended, it was forestalled as Pat Rin stepped forward, sweeping a bow just this side of too deep toward them both.
"Indeed," he murmured quickly, "we are grateful for this valuable instruction." He backed gracefully to his mother's side; placed her hand upon his arm.
"A good evening to you both, kinsmen. My kindest regards to your sisters."
Gently, he turned the Right Noble and guided her through the scattering onlookers.
Shan looked at his younger brother, standing stiff and hard-faced in his absurd cloak.
"Are you Balanced now, Val Con?" he asked softly.
Some of the stiffness fled and he turned, mouth wry.
"I think so," he murmured; and added, "yes."
* * *
THE STANDS WERE packed and Nova stretched her legs carefully.
Next to her, Anthora and her fairlove were engaged in picking out acquaintances in the crowd—against all Festival propriety, of course. Nova sighed and leaned over.
"May I offer either of you wine?"
"Both," said Anthora gaily. She smiled at her companion, who was clearly besotted already. "I'll have red, please."
"And I, canary, Lady. Thanking you..."
Anthora gripped Nova's hand. "Two more," she whispered urgently. "Is it red and red? Pat Rin and Lady Kareen are here."
"What?" Nova turned, immediately locating the exquisite Pat Rin, painstakingly conducting his mother across the tiers.
"Damn," Nova muttered and Anthora laughed.
Pat Rin's bow, delivered moments later, was an intriguing concoction of restraint, kinship and tentative coolness.
"Cousins," he said formally. "A good day to you both. My honored mother wishes to view the race and wonders if she might presume to the extent of begging two seats."
What was this? Nova smiled graciously and inclined her head.
"Please do sit, both. There is wine. You prefer red, I think, kinsman? Cousin?"
This was acknowledged with cool thanks; seats were taken. Lady Kareen leaned to Nova.
"Will you have the goodness, Cousin, to point out Korval's craft when it appears? One wishes to keep it in one's eye."
"Yes, certainly." Nova sipped wine to cover her confusion. "You know, of course, Cousin, that there is no possibility of halting the race—or of withdrawing Korval's entry, assuming it has qualified?"
"Of course," said Lady Kareen placidly. "I have seen my nephew and his brother. My error has been shown me," her lips twitched, "with meticulous correctness. One seeks to behave with propriety." She sipped. "What is the name of the craft, please, Cousin?"
"Araceli. It should be quite easy to mark. My youngest brother wears his cloak."
"Most proper," said Lady Kareen and turned to say a word to her son.
* * *
VAL CON PULLED on gloves as he surveyed the competition. Each craft hovered over its assigned colored oval; from the stands it looked as if eighteen frictionless pucks sat upon eighteen glass disks. The slightest gust of breeze could push a craft off-center, as might the careless lean of a copilot, though once underway the powerful force of the airblasts would nullify all but the strongest wind.
The razzing from the other crews subsided into grumbling and catcalls, though Val Con had had a bad few minutes just as Araceli took its place. Tolanda's Terran pilot gave vent to an exquisite wolfwhistle while her Liaden partner called out reprovingly.
"Come now, Captain, you needn't give up as easily as that! You've paid the entrance fee; why not try to race?"
Kelti had taken up the assault then: "That orange could blind somebody!"
And so on.
Through it all Shan sat silent in the pilot's slot; and Araceli alone of the eighteen craft stayed precisely centered above her disk of color.
The starting cannon boomed, masking the whir and whine of the skimmers' starting blasts. Wind whipped Val Con's face as he leaned back into his niche, clinging to the molded handgrips. At Shan's nod, he shifted left and Araceli veered sharply: now they were in the second row and building speed.
Across the course, skimmers were setting up for the first sickle-shaped curve, and Araceli's position on the outside was bad. Unexpectedly, speed helped them through the first bunch-up at the base of the turn; they slid away half-a-second before the craft to their left lost control and broadsided the skimmer immediately behind.
A short straight and then—the hill.
Most of the field was slowing; pilots gauging the approach, waiting for the exact moment to gun the jets.
Out on the far side, running at a completely absurd angle, Araceli charged forward, upward—halfway up, in fact—and began to rotate.
Shan hit the jets; Araceli climbed; rotation unchecked. Val Con, ducking to give the pilot a clear view as they proceeded backwards, grinned at the confusion behind.
Several pilots, misreading Araceli's rotation as unwanted spin in their own craft, corrected disastrously, slipping sideways—and downward.
Araceli gained ground, rotating gently to face forward again as the hill was crested—four places up in the running; only seven craft ahead.
But on the short straight the superior speed of the newer skimmers showed and Araceli dropped to tenth.
"Amateurs!" howled Scant's pilot as that craft passed them. "Get off the course if you can't drive!"
Shan waved politely and threw a quick grin at Val Con, motionless in the copilot's seat, cloak tucked carefully around him.
Shan nodded a heartbeat later and Val Con threw his weight to the right as the craft spun sideways to descend the hill, setting up for the second curve. There was a bunch-up at the bottom and several skimmers overshot into a field of grain, releasing a storm of silvery pollen.
Val Con shifted to the left and Araceli skidded around, taking the corner raggedly, but in the running as they came into the second longest straight.
"Now!" yelled Shan.
Val Con knocked twice on the thin metal skin and curled himself into a tight ball behind his larger brother; ducking his head inside the silk of the cloak to create a smooth-backed fairing.
They neither gained nor lost on the straight and Val Con stayed hunched over. A gone feeling in his stomach warned him and he was instantly up, sitting far back; trying not to look at the ramp ahead, or at the gap they must jump.
The ramp edge was crossed and he lunged forward, grabbing for the kink at the base of the rollbar—
They went up with a craft slightly to their right and in front; another just behind. Val Con caught a glimpse of that one and winced: they'd entered the ramp wrong and the sharp front of the skimmer was too high. Not only did they lose time as the air flow caught the broad base, but almost flipped as the back sank.
Shan gunned the jets as Araceli made the receiving ramp. The shock of it, rather than conscious thought, brought Val Con back into running position.
Araceli was the second of three skimmers approaching together, making a bid to take the next corner sharply and enter the weaving tree-lined "tunnel".
Shan nearly missed the proper moment for reversal of the jets; kicked them and leaned to fight rotation as Val Con jerked hard to the right, sending them into the tunnel between the two challengers.
Out of the trees and into the longest straight, with the start/finish line at its center; and the advantage of the other craft showed again, as three caught Araceli before the line and one after, until the frantic braking for the corner broke the flow and reshuffled the field.
By the fifth lap several skimmers were out of the race. One flipped at the ramp, both crew members still strapped in. Shan had the measure of the course, but Araceli was losing precious seconds each lap. Tolanda, in bright blue, was running a conservative third behind the two contenders for the lead.
Araceli was a steady eighth and there was no hope of catching the leaders on speed.
Out of the tunnel, they managed to pass a careless Kelti and got a good start on the long straightaway. Shan's voice carried back over the rush of air.
"Now, Val Con!"
* * *
PAT RIN WAS annoyed. Worse, he was bored. Races were not among his favorite amusements and to be forced to sit and watch such a race when one might be ribbonfasted or—Well, and here they came again.
He dutifully kept his eyes on the black skimmer with the bright-orange copilot as it rushed past the stands, seventh in the field—gaining perhaps half-a-length on the number six position. Val Con was hunched down in back, using his cloak as a fairing—not too bad a notion, Pat Rin admitted, grudgingly.
Araceli passed number six and was gaining on the leaders, who were starting to bunch up into the braking zone for the curve. Pat Rin tensed. Korval's entry was hurtling on—deeper and deeper into the braking zone! Madness to take the corner at that speed—
He came to his feet, Nova beside him, Anthora hanging on her arm, as a burst of orange exploded from the back of Araceli, which could only be Val Con, jumping—
The crowd's groan turned to a cheer, under which Pat Rin heard Anthora's voice, repeating urgently, "He's all right, sister. They're both all right. Sit down. They're—"
Pat Rin sat slowly, staring at Val Con, who was standing like an orange balloon in the back of the skimmer, his astonishing cloak hauling the craft's speed down from the absurd to the reasonable.
And entering the sickle-curve Korval was fourth, approaching third.
* * *
TOLANDA'S PILOT glanced back, disbelief on her face; shouted to her teammate and fishtailed for the nerf—the intentional glancing collision which would push the upstarts off the course.
Val Con snapped half-erect, cloak billowing over one arm, air-braking and tipping Araceli—and Tolanda was fourth, fighting rotation. Shan was laughing.
The hill loomed. Val Con ducked into his cocoon to preserve speed; snapped out at the crest, catching an over-the-shoulder grin from Shan. They charged downhill neck-and-neck with Tolanda; and left them in the dust as the Terran began braking for the corner.
Again Val Con stood, gripping the rollbar tightly; again the cloak went from a bright orange stream to an inflated airfoil.
Again Araceli picked up ground on the leaders.
Cries of "Foul! Foul!" hit them as they whipped past the pits.
Their opponents, faced with a common enemy, charged harder down the long straights, took more risks, tried—with some success—to emulate Korval's airbrake, using shirts and vests. But Araceli was a clear second, Tolanda third and the former second, fourth.
The lead changed hands several times on the tenth lap.
"Two more laps to win it!" Shan yelled.
Val Con nearly groaned. His arms ached; he was sweaty; his hands within the gloves were raw; his legs throbbed with strain. Two laps—an eternity!
They crossed the start/finish line, lapping several slower racers, and came even with the first place craft just before the braking zone.
Val Con leapt for the bar and blinked: the other skimmer was still even with them, trying to take the coming corner at exactly the proper angle.
Execution fell short. The other craft shivered; started to spin—Araceli was past, taking the lead by two skimmer-lengths.
They held that minor lead through the eleventh lap, but the second place craft was showing its speed and inching closer.
Korval threw everything into the turns, dove a little further into the corners, waited a little longer on the straights. Val Con concentrated on the pattern of his movements, grooved in after this hard hour, and ignored the ache in his arms and legs.
They skidded into the tree tunnel nearly two full lengths ahead—Shan yelled, but the words were ripped away by the rushing wind, and Val Con saw the green skimmer charging them from inside the corner, a would-be human airbrake frantically trying to regain control.
Shan choked the jets, trying to throw Araceli clear of the charge, fighting spin and time was too short—
Val Con leapt to the bar, arms wide: "Left, Shan! Left!"
Araceli snapped left as Val Con's cloak ballooned and the green skimmer missed them by a hair, the pilot struggling with the stick, trying to avoid the second place craft, just coming into the curve...
They were through; out into the straight, and Val Con folded himself into a fairing for the last time. Araceli roared as Shan opened the throttle for the long run and Val Con sweated inside the cloak, hearing sounds—sounds of many people, shouting; and, closer, the sound of another skimmer, gaining; a shout from Shan as they slewed sideways and—
"We won! Brother, we won!" Shan was pulling the cloak back from Val Con's head, grinning hugely. "It worked!"
"Of course it worked," said Val Con, somewhat crossly, as they began the victory lap, and sighed. Shan was steering one handed and waving at the crowd as wildly as they waved at Araceli. Val Con's arms felt too heavy to wave at anyone.
"Shan?" He called above the roar.
"Yes, my blueblood?"
"We're not going to make a habit of this, are we?"
Shan laughed. "No, denubia. Why push the luck?"
* * *
THE WINNER'S CIRCLE was crowded. Val Con and Shan managed to squeeze to their sisters' side; each accepting a glass of wine and a kiss.
The Right Noble Lady Kareen yos'Phelium approached and bowed to Shan—the bow of Clanmember to First Speaker.
"Well raced, my Lord," she said, quite audibly. "You and your brother are a credit to the Clan."
Shan blinked, inclined his head, murmuring a civil, "Thank you, Lady Kareen."
The old lady was bowing to Val Con now: Clanmember to Delm.
"You are precipitate, Aunt," he chided softly.
"I think not," she returned. "A ring does not make a Delm. You are Korval, whether you judge yourself ready or no. You will do as you deem wise and necessary. For the Clan. It is as it should be."
"Ah." He smiled. "Let us have peace between us then, Lady."
"Of course," said the Right Noble. "How else?"
Anthora's fairlove leaned over, whispering in her ear. She laughed softly and linked her arm in his; waving at her eldest brother as they moved off toward the pleasure-tents.
Shan raised his glass in salute; lowered it to drink—snapped his eyes to Val Con's face as he felt the younger man start.
"If the family will excuse me," Val Con murmured, sketching a bow toward all. "I am reminded of a previous appointment." He was gone, slipping through the crowd like an orange wraith.
Shan, watching from his tall vantage, saw a lady start forward—a blur of dark hair and bright eyes; hand outstretched in welcome. Val Con's arm slid around her waist and he began to turn her toward the pleasure-tents—then his cloak swirled suddenly wide, hiding both from Shan's view.
He glanced down to find Nova's eyes on him.
"The reason Lady Kareen heard of Val Con frequenting a tavern in spaceleathers?" she murmured. "Is he courting a barmaid, brother?"
He sipped. "She seems a very nice barmaid."
He sighed and tried to break her gaze, without success.
"All right," he said grumpily. "I'll talk to him." He raised his glass. "Later."
About the Authors
Sharon Lee and Steve Miller live near the banks of the Sebasticook River and the mountains of Central Maine. Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland in the fifties, they met when Sharon won the BaltiCon short story contest and have been a team since 1979. They moved to Maine with cats, books, records, and computers following the completion of Carpe Diem, their third collaborative novel.
In the years intervening, Sharon and Steve have written a number of novels, many set in the Liaden Universe®. For a full bibliography, see sharonleewriter.com