Book: The Dragon Variation



The Dragon Variation

The Dragon Variation


The Dragon Variation


by


Sharon Lee & Steve Miller

Table of Contents


THE DRAGON VARIATION


Sharon Lee & Steve Miller


This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed


in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents


is purely coincidental.



Local Custom copyright © 2000 by Sharon Lee & Steve Miller, Scout's Progress copyright © 2000 by Sharon Lee & Steve Miller, Conflict of Honors copyright © 1988 by Steve Miller & Sharon Lee



Liaden Universe® is a registered trademark




A Baen Book



Baen Publishing Enterprises


P.O. Box 1403


Riverdale, NY 10471


www.baen.com



ISBN: 978-1-4391-3369-9



Cover art by Alan Pollack



First Baen printing, June 2010



Distributed by Simon & Schuster


1230 Avenue of the Americas


New York, NY 10020




Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data


Lee, Sharon, 1952-


  The dragon variation / by Sharon Lee & Steve Miller.


    p. cm.


  ISBN 978-1-4391-3369-9 (trade pbk.)


  1. Science fiction, American. I. Miller, Steve, 1950 July 31- II. Lee, Sharon, 1952- Local custom. III. Lee, Sharon, 1952- Scout's progress. IV. Lee, Sharon, 1952- Conflict of honors. V. Title.


PS3562.E3629D73 2010


813'.54—dc22


                        2010011766



Printed in the United States of America


Baen Books by


Sharon Lee & Steve Miller

THE LIADEN UNIVERSE®


Fledgling


Saltation


Ghost Ship (forthcoming)


Mouse and Dragon (forthcoming)


The Dragon Variation (omnibus)



THE FEY DUOLOGY


Duainfey


Longeye


HERE, THERE BE DRAGONS . . .

Not, granted, the sort of Dragons you're probably thinking of—scaled treasure-hoarders of legend, or leather-winged devourers of Thread.

Not exactly, anyway.

Our Dragons are human. Oh, they fly—they're pilots, mostly—and they hoard treasure in the form of spaceships. They're charismatic and dangerous; good friends and bad, bad enemies.

The Dragons we're talking about are the members of Clan Korval, and "here" is the planet Liad.

Why Dragons? you ask.

Good question.

In Liaden culture, each clan has a sigil—a hallmark, if you will—which is part and parcel of the clan's identity. Each delm—head of clan—wears a ring bearing the Clan's mark, and is formally addressed by the clan's name. Korval's clan mark is an image of a dragon, wings half-furled, hovering protectively over a well-leafed tree. To Liadens, applying liberal social wit, members of Clan Korval become Dragons; its delm, Korval Him-or-Herself.

Liad . . .

Liaden society, you understand, is very formal, and is generally codified in a multi-volume work known as the Liaden Code of Proper Conduct. Being Dragons, Korval has . . . limited use for such stringent social confines. They are not dishonorable, generally, nor are their manners anything but nice.

But they do tend to consider the Code more on the order of guidelines, rather than law.

So, Dragons.

This omnibus is titled The Dragon Variation. A "variation" in chess is a new angle built on an established and well-studied line of attack. Variations are often the purview of a Romantic—the sort of chess player who sacrifices order for elegance; and plays from their heart. Such a line of play is not for the timid, since it depends upon flying in the face of custom—and on risking one's heart.

We need to stop here and explain ourselves a little.

One of the great joys that the Liaden Universe® holds for us, its authors, is its very size. Make no doubt about it, the universe is big.

How big, you might ask.

Big enough for love, to paraphrase Mr. Heinlein. Big enough for war, and for reconciliation. Big enough for multiple entrances and storylines that range from thrillers, to battle tales, to quiet love stories. Big enough for all of that—and big enough for fun.

We've mentioned fun before, in the prologue to another book. We're mentioning it again, now, because, to us, fun is serious.

When we were just getting started in the collaboration biz, we made a promise to each other. We promised that we would keep on writing as long as it was fun. That was in 1984, so you can see that we're easily amused. We also believe that readers have more fun with stories that are written by authors who are enjoying themselves. And, yes, we do think you're are smart enough to tell. And big-hearted enough to care.

Regarding world-building choices, we agreed straight off that—while the Liaden Universe® would be exciting and strange, with wars to fight, aliens to decipher, and wrongs to right—people would fall in love. That doesn't sound like so much of an artistic decision nowadays, but back in the early-to-mid 80s, it was something of a radical notion in science fiction.

Mind you, the idea of mixing romance into a genre plot wasn't original with us. Dorothy Sayers used romance to excellent effect in the exemplary Peter Wimsey mysteries, to which Sharon introduced Steve. Steve returned the favor by introducing Sharon to Georgette Heyer. Romance, after all, is part of being human—of being people.

And so it is with the Liaden Universe®; because the other thing we agreed on is that stories are about people.

That said, the three novels in this omnibus are, yes, romances. Local Custom and Scout's Progress are essentially Regency Romances set on an alien world—Space Regencies, if you will, and our bow to Georgette Heyer, acknowledging all that she taught us, as writers and as readers.

Conflict of Honors is our tribute to Peter Wimsey, who did what duty demanded, and was never afraid to cry.

The Dragon Variation also lays the groundwork of Liaden culture and the larger trading universe of which it is a part. Taken together, these three novels are an on-ramp to the Liaden Universe®, taking you in slowly, before . . . just before . . . the trouble begins.


Over the next several months, Baen will be releasing three more Liaden Universe® reprint omnibi: The Agent Gambit (including Agent of Change and Carpe Diem); Korval's Game (including Plan B and I Dare) and The Crystal Variation (including Crystal Soldier, Crystal Dragon, and Balance of Trade). The novels run the gamut from Space Regencies to Space Opera. All are character-driven; all were fun to write and, we hope, fun to read.

In addition to the reprints, Baen has-or-will-be publishing three more Liaden Universe® novels: Fledgling, and Saltation, the story of Theo Waitley; and Mouse and Dragon, the sequel to Scout's Progress, which appears in this omnibus.

If this is your first encounter with a Liaden Universe® book—welcome. If you're an old friend, stopping by for a revisit—we're very glad to see you.

Thank you.


Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Waterville, Maine

November 2009


LOCAL CUSTOM

Chapter One

 


Each person shall provide his clan of origin with a child of his blood, who will be raised by the clan and belong to the clan, despite whatever may later occur to place the parent beyond the clan's authority. And this shall be Law for every person of every clan.


 

—From the Charter of the Council of Clans


Made in the Sixth Year After Planetfall,


City of Solcintra, Liad


 


"NO?" HIS MOTHER echoed, light blue eyes opening wide.

Er Thom yos'Galan bowed hastily: Subordinate Person to Head of Line, seeking to recoup his error.

"Mother," he began, with all propriety, "I ask grace . . ."

She cut him off with a wave of her hand. "Let us return to 'no.' It has the charm of brevity."

Er Thom took a careful breath, keeping his face smooth, his breath even, his demeanor attentive. Everything that was proper in a son who had always been dutiful.

After a moment, his mother sighed, walked carefully past him and sat wearily in her special chair. She frowned up at him, eyes intent.

"Is it your desire, my son, to deny the clan your genes?"

"No," said Er Thom again, and bit his lip.

"Good. Good." Petrella, Thodelm yos'Galan, drummed her fingers lightly against the chair's wooden arm, and continued to gaze at him with that look of puzzled intensity.

"Yet," she said, "you have consistently refused every possible contract-alliance the head of your line has brought to your attention for the past three years. Permit me to wonder why."

Er Thom bowed slightly, granting permission to wonder, belatedly recognizing it as a response less conciliatory than it might be, given the gravity of circumstances. He glanced at his mother from beneath his lashes as he straightened, wondering if he would now receive tuition on manners.

But Petrella was entirely concentrated upon this other thing and allowed the small irony to pass uncriticized.

"You are," she said, "captain of your own vessel, master trader, pilot—a well-established melant'i. You are of good lineage, your manner is for the greater part, pleasing, you have reached your majority and capably taken up the governing of the various businesses which passed to you upon your thirty-fifth name day. It is time and past time for you to provide the clan with your child."

"Yes," murmured Er Thom, because there was nothing else to say. She told him no more than the Law: Every person must provide the clan with a child to become his heir and to eventually take his place within the clan.

His mother sighed again, concern in her eyes. "It is not so great a thing, my child," she offered with unlooked-for gentleness. "We have all done so."

When he remained speechless, she leaned forward, hand extended. "My son, I do not wish to burden you. Necessity exists, but necessity need not be oppressive. Is there one your heart has placed above others? Only tell me her name and her clan, negotiations will be initiated . . ." Slowly she sank back into the chair, hand falling to her knee. "Er Thom?"

"Mother," he murmured miserably, eyes swimming as he bowed. "I ask grace . . ."

* * *

GRACE, AFTER ALL, had not been forthcoming. He had scarcely expected it, with him tongue-tangled and kittenish as a halfling. His mother had no time to waste upon baseless sentiment, not with her illness so hard upon her. She had granted grace to one child already—and those genes lost to Clan Korval forever by reason of her leniency.

So there was to be no grace given Petrella's second child and the hope of Line yos'Galan. Er Thom wondered at himself, that he had dared even ask it.

Wondering still, he turned down the short hallway that led to his rooms and lay his hand against the lockplate. Late afternoon sun bathed the room beyond in thick yellow light, washing over the clutter of invoices and lading slips on his work table, the islands of computer screen, comm board and keypad. The message waiting light was a steady blue glow over the screen.

Er Thom sighed. That would be the file on his wife-to-be, transferred to him from his mother's station. Duty dictated that he open it at once and familiarize himself with the contents, that he might give formal acquiescence to his thodelm at Prime Meal this evening.

He went quietly across the hand-loomed imported rug, thoughts carefully on the minutiae he would need to attend to, so he might stay on Liad for the duration of his marriage, as custom, if not Law, demanded. Another master trader would have to be found for Dutiful Passage, though Kayzin Ne'Zame, his first mate, would do very well as captain. The upcoming trip would require re-routing and certain of their regular customers notified personally . . . He pushed the window wide, letting the mild afternoon breeze into the room.

Behind him, papers rustled like a startled rookery. Er Thom leaned out the window, hands gripping the sill, eyes slightly narrowed as he looked across the valley at the towering Tree.

Jelaza Kazone was the name of the Tree—Jela's Fulfillment—and it marked the site of Korval's clanhouse, where Er Thom had spent his childhood, constant companion and willing shadow of his cousin and foster-brother, Daav yos'Phelium.

Er Thom's eyes teared and the Tree broke into an hundred glittering shards of brown and green against a sky gone milky bright. The desire to speak to Daav, to bury his face in his brother's shoulder and cry out against the unfairness of the Law was nearly overmastering.

Compelling as it was, the desire was hardly fitting of one who kept adult melant'i. Er Thom tightened his grip on the sill, feeling the metal track score his palms, and closed his eyes. He would not go to Daav with this, he told himself sternly. After all, the younger man was facing much the same necessity as Er Thom—and Daav lacked even a parent's guidance, his own mother having died untimely some five Standard Years before.

Eventually the compulsion passed, leaving him dry-mouthed and with sternness at least awakened, if not full sense of duty.

Grimly, he pushed away from the window, marched across the room and touched the message-waiting stud.

The screen flickered and the lady's likeness appeared, his mother being no fool, to waste time fielding dry fact when fair face might easily carry the day.

And she was, Er Thom thought with detached coolness, very fair. Syntebra el'Kemin, Clan Nexon, was blessed with classic beauty: Slim brows arched over wide opal-blue eyes fringed with lashes long enough to sweep the luscious curve of her cheekbones. Her skin was smooth and flawlessly golden; her nose petite; her mouth red as clemetia buds. She looked at him coyly from the screen, dark hair pulled back and up, seductively displaying tiny, perfect ears.

Er Thom swallowed against a sudden cold surge of sickness and glanced away, toward the window and the Tree, towering into twilight.

"It is—not possible," he whispered and ground his teeth, forcing his eyes back.

Beautiful, serene and utterly Liaden—even as he was utterly Liaden—Syntebra el'Kemin beckoned from the depths of the screen.

That the rest of her person would be as guilesome as her face, he knew. Knew. He should in all honor seek out his mother and kneel at her feet in gratitude. Nothing in the Law said that the lady must be comely. Indeed, Korval's own law required merely that a contract-spouse be a pilot, and of vigorous Line—all else as the wind might bring it.

Lower lip caught tight between his teeth, Er Thom stared into the lovely face of his proposed wife, trying to imagine the weight of her hair in his hands, the taste of her small, rosy-gold breasts.

"No!"

The chair clattered back and he was moving, pilot-fast, through the adjoining kitchenette to his bedroom. Fingers shaking, he snatched open his jewel-box, spilling rubies, pearls and other dress-gems carelessly aside. His heart clenched for the instant he thought it gone—and then he found it, stuffed into a far corner, half-hidden by a platinum cloak pin.

A scrap of red silk no longer than his hand, that was all. That, and a length of tarnished, gold-colored ribbon, elaborately knotted into a fraying flower, through which the red silk had been lovingly threaded.

"It is not possible," he whispered again, and lay his cheek against the tarnished flower, blinking back tears that might stain the silk. He swallowed.

"I will not wed."

Fine words, the part of him that was master trader and a'thodelm and heir to the delm jeered. And what of duty to the Clan, not to mention the Law and, easing of one's mother's pain?

If there is one your heart has set above all others . . . his mother pleaded from memory and Er Thom's fingers clenched convulsively on the scrap of silk. She would never—he dared not—It was against everything: Code, custom, clan—duty.

He took a deep breath, trying to calm his racing thoughts. The clan required this thing of him, the clan's dutiful child, in balance for all the clan had thus far given him. It was just. The other—was some strange undutiful madness that should after so many years have passed off. That it remained in this unexpectedly virulent form told a tale of Er Thom yos'Galan's sad lack of discipline. He would put the madness aside once and forever, now. He would burn the silk and the tawdry ribbon, then he would read the file on Syntebra el'Kemin, bathe and dress himself for Prime Meal. He would tell his parent—

Tears overflowed and he bowed his head, fingers tenderly bracketing the red and gold token.

Tell his parent what? That for three years, steadfast in his refusal of all prospective spouses he had likewise taken no lover nor even shared a night of bed-pleasure? That new faces and old alike failed to stir him? That his body seemed to exist at some distance from where he himself lived and went about the work that the clan required of him? That food tasted of cobwebs and wine of vinegar and duty alone forced him to eat sufficient to fuel his cold, distant body?

Tell his mother that, Er Thom thought wretchedly, and she would have him to the Healers, quick as a blink.

And the Healers would make him forget all that stood in the way of duty.

He considered forgetfulness—such a little bit of time, really, to be erased from memory, and so very—long—ago.

The thought sickened him, nearly as much as the face of the woman his mother proposed to make his wife.

He blinked his eyes and straightened, slipping the rag of silk and the frazzled ribbon into his sleeve-pocket. Carefully, he put his jewelry back into the box and lowered the heavy carved lid.

In the office, he saved Syntebra el'Kemin's data to his pending file, and left a message for his mother, expressing regret that he would not be with her for Prime.

Then he quit the room, shrugging into the worn leather jacket that proclaimed him a pilot.

The papers on his worktable rustled irritably in the breeze from the open window and across the valley the first stars of evening glittered just above the Tree.


Chapter Two

The giving of nubiath'a, the parting-gift, by either partner signals the end of an affair of pleasure. The person of impeccable melant'i will offer and accept nubiath'a with gentleness and grace, thereafter referring to the affair by neither word nor deed.


 

—Excerpted from the Liaden Code of Proper Conduct


 


"I SURMISE THAT the lady is a two-headed ogre—and ill-tempered, besides?" Daav yos'Phelium splashed misravot into a crystal cup and handed it aside.

"Another face entirely," Er Thom murmured, accepting the cup and swirling the contents in counterfeit calm, while his pulses pounded, frenzied. "The lady is—very—beautiful."

"Hah." Daav poured himself a cup of the pale blue wine and assayed a sip, black eyes quizzing Er Thom over the crystal rim.

"Your mother, my aunt, exerts herself on your behalf. When shall I have the felicity of wishing you happy?"

"I have not—that is—" Er Thom stammered to a halt and raised his cup to taste the wine.

In general, he was not as fond of misravot as was his brother, finding the burnt cinnamon taste of the wine cloyed rather than refreshed. But this evening he had a second sip, dawdling over it, while his mind skipped in uncharacteristic confusion from this thought to that.

He sighed when at last he lowered the cup, and raised his head to meet his brother's clever eyes.

"Daav?"

"Yes, denubia. How may I serve you?"

Er Thom touched his tongue to his lips, tasting cinnamon. "I—am in need. Of a ship."

One dark eyebrow arched. "Is it ill-natured to recall," Daav wondered, "that you are captain of a rather—substantial—ship?"

"A quicker ship—smaller," Er Thom said swiftly, suddenly unable to control his agitation. He spun away and paced toward the game table, where he stood looking down at the counterchance board, dice and counters all laid to hand. Had things been otherwise, he and Daav might even now be sitting over the board, sharpening their wits and their daring, one against the other.

"There is a matter," he said, feeling his brother's eyes burning into his back. He turned, his face open and plain for this, the dearest of his kin, to read. He cleared his throat. "A matter I must resolve. Before I wed."

"I see," Daav said dryly, brows drawn. "A matter which requires your presence urgently off-world, eh? Do I learn from this that you will finally assay that which has darkened your heart these past several relumma?"

Er Thom froze, staring speechless at his brother, though he should, he told himself, barely wonder. Daav was delm, charged with the welfare of all within Clan Korval. Before duty had called him home, he had also been a Scout, with sensibilities fine-tuned by rigorous training. How could he not have noticed his brother's distress? It spoke volumes of his melant'i that he had not taxed Er Thom with the matter before now.

"Have you spoken to your thodelm of this?" Daav asked quietly.

Er Thom gave a flick of his fingers, signaling negative. "I—would prefer—not to have the Healers."

"And so you come on the eve of being affianced to demand the Delm's Own Ship, that you may go off-planet and reach resolution." He grinned, for such would appeal to his sense of mischief, where it only chilled Er Thom with horror, that necessity required him to fly in the face of propriety.

"You will swear," Daav said, in a surprising shift from the Low Tongue in which they most commonly conversed to the High Tongue, in the mode of Delm to Clanmember.

Er Thom bowed low: Willing Obedience to the Delm. "Korval."

"You will swear that, should you fail of resolution by the end of this relumma, you shall return to Liad and place yourself in the care of the Healers."

The current relumma was nearly half-done. Still, Er Thom assured himself around a surge of coldness, the thing ought take no longer. He bowed once more, acquiescence to the Delm's Word.

"Korval, I do swear."

"So." Daav reached into the pocket of his house-robe and brought out a silver key-ring clasped with an enameled dragon. "Quick passage, denubia. May the luck guide you to your heart's desire."

Er Thom took the ring, fingers closing tightly around it as his eyes filled with tears. He bowed gratitude and affection.

"My thanks—" he began, but Daav waved a casual hand, back in the Low Tongue.

"Yes, yes—I know. Consider that you have said everything proper. Go carefully, eh? Send word. And for the gods' love leave me something to tell your mother."


"GOOD-NIGHT, SHANNIE." Anne Davis bent and kissed her son's warm cheek. "Sleep tight."

He smiled sleepily, light blue eyes nearly closed. "'night, Ma," he muttered, nestling into the pillow. His breathing evened out almost at once and Anne experienced the vivid inner conviction that her child was truly asleep.

Still, she hung over the truckle-bed, watching him. She extended a hand to brush the silky white hair back from his forehead, used one careful finger to trace the winging eyebrows—his father's look there, she thought tenderly, though the rest of Shan's look seemed taken undiluted from herself, poor laddie. But there, she had never hankered after a pretty child. Only after her own.

She smiled softly and breathed a whisper-kiss against his hair, unnecessarily fussed over the quilt and finally left the tiny bedroom, pulling the door partly shut behind her.

In the great room, she settled at her desk, long, clever fingers dancing over the computer keyboard, calling up the student work queue. She stifled a sigh: Thirty final papers to be graded. An exam to be written and also graded. And then a whole semester of freedom.

More or less.

Shaking her head, she called up the first paper and took the light-pen firmly in hand.

She waded through eight with the utter concentration that so amused her friends and enraged her colleagues, coming back to reality only because a cramped muscle in her shoulder finally shouted protest loudly enough to penetrate the work-blur.

"Umm. Break-time, Annie Davis," she told herself, pulling her six-foot frame into a high, luxurious stretch. Middling-tall for a Terran, still her outstretched fingers brushed the room's ceiling. Bureaucratic penny-pinchers, she thought, as she always did. How much would it have cost to raise the ceiling two inches?

It was a puzzle without an answer and having asked it, she forgot it and padded into the kitchen for a glass of juice.

Shan was still asleep, she knew. She sipped her juice and leaned a hip against the counter top, closing her eyes to let her mind roam.

She had met him on Proziski, where she had been studying base-level language shift on a departmental grant. Port Master Brellick Gare himself, a friend of Richard's, had invited her to the gala open house, sugaring the bait with the intelligence that there would be "real, live Liadens" at the party.

Brellick knew her passion for Liaden lit—Liadens themselves were fabulously rare at the levels in which Terran professors commonly moved. Anne had taken the bait—and met her Liaden.

She had seen him first from across the room—a solemn, slender young man made fragile by Brellick Gare's bulk. The introduction had been typically Gare.

"Anne, this is Er Thom yos'Galan. Er Thom, be nice to Anne, okay? She's not used to parties." Brellick grinned into her frown. "I'd show you around myself, girl-o, but I'm host. You stick close to this one, though, he's got more manners than a load of orangutans." And with that he lumbered off, leaving Anne to glare daggers into his back before glancing in acute embarrassment toward her unfortunate partner.

Violet eyes awash with amusement looked up into hers from beneath winging golden brows. "What do you suppose," he asked in accented Terran, "an orangutan is?"

"Knowing Brellick, it's something horrible," Anne returned with feeling. "I apologize for my friend, Mr. yos'Galan. There's not the slightest need for you to—babysit me."

"At least allow me to find you a glass of wine," he said in his soft, sweet voice, slipping a slim golden hand under her elbow and effortlessly steering her into the depths of the crowd. "Your name is Anne? But there must be something more than that, eh? Anne what?"

So she had told him her surname, and her profession and what she hoped to discover on Proziski. She also let him find her not one but several glasses of wine, and go in with her to dinner and, later, out onto the dance floor. And by the time the party began to thin it had seemed not at all unnatural for Er Thom yos'Galan to see her home.

He accepted her invitation to come inside for a cup of coffee and an hour later gently accepted an invitation to spend the night in her bed.

She bent to kiss him then, and found him unexpectedly awkward. So she kissed him again, patiently, then teasingly, until he lost his awkwardness all at once and answered her with a passion that left them both shivering and breathless.

They hadn't gotten to the bed, not the first time. The rickety couch had been sturdy enough to bear them and Er Thom surprised again—an experienced and considerate lover, with hands, gods, with hands that knew every touch her body yearned for, and gave it, unstinting.

Time and again, he came back to her lips, as if to hone his skill. When at last she wrapped her legs around him and pulled him into her, he bent again and put his mouth over hers, using his tongue to echo each thrust until her climax triggered his and their lips were torn apart, freeing cries of wonder.

"Oh, dear." Anne set the juice glass aside, moving sharply away from the counter and wrapping her arms around herself in a tight hug. "Oh, dear."

He was gone, of course. She had known he would go when the trade mission had completed its task, even as she would go when her study time had elapsed.

But it had been glorious while it had lasted—a grand and golden three-month adventure in a life dedicated to a calm round of teaching and study and research.

Shan was the living reminder of that grand adventure—of her own will and desire. She had never told Er Thom her intention to bear his child, though it seemed she told him everything else about herself. Shan was hers.

She sighed and turned, half-blind, to put the glass properly in the rack to be washed. Then she went into the great room and shut the computer down, shaking her head over the double work to be done tomorrow.

Crossing the room, she made certain the door was locked. Then she turned off the light and slipped into the bedroom, to spend the rest of the night staring at the invisible ceiling, listening to her son breathe.


ER THOM had not come to Prime.

Oh, he had sent word, as a dutiful child should, and begged her pardon most charmingly. But that he should absent himself from Prime Meal on the day when he was to have agreed at last to wed could not fail to infuriate.

And Petrella was furious.

Furious, she had consigned the meal composed of her son's favorite dishes to the various devils of fifteen assorted hells, and supped on a spicy bowl of gelth, thin toast and strong red wine, after which she had stumped off to her office on the arm of Mr. pak'Ora, the butler, and composed a sizzling letter to her heir.

She was in the process of refining this document when the comm-line buzzed.

"Well?" she snapped, belatedly slapping the toggle that engaged the view-screen.

"Well, indeed." Her nephew, Daav yos'Phelium, inclined his head gravely. "How kind of you to ask. I hope I find you the same, Aunt Petrella?"

She glared at him. "I suppose you've finally stirred yourself to call and allow me to know your cha'leket my son has dined with you and that you are now both well into your cups and about to initiate a third round of counterchance?"

Daav lifted an eyebrow. "How delightful that would be! Alas, that I disturb your peace for an entirely different matter."

"So." She eyed him consideringly. "And what might that matter be?"

Daav shook his dark hair out of his eyes, the barbaric silver twist swinging in his right ear.

"I call to allow you to know that my cha'leket your son has gone off-world in the quest of resolving urgent business."

"Urgent business!" She nearly spat the words. "There is a contract-marriage dancing on the knife's edge and he goes off-planet?" She caught a hard breath against the starting of pain in her chest and finished somewhat more calmly. "I suppose you know nothing about the alliance about to be transacted with Clan Nexon?"



"On the contrary," Daav said gently, "I am entirely aware of the circumstance. Perhaps I have failed of making myself plain: The delm has allowed Er Thom yos'Galan the remainder of the relumma to resolve a matter he presents as urgent."

"What is urgent," Petrella told him, "is that he wed and provide the clan with his heir. This is a matter of Line, my Delm, and well you know it!"

"Well I know it," he agreed blandly. "Well I also know that any clan wishing to ally itself with Korval may easily accommodate half-a-relumma's delay. However, I suggest you begin inquiry among our cousins and affiliates, in order to identify others who may be available to wed the lady and cement the alliance with Clan Nexon."

"For that matter," Petrella said spitefully, "it happens that the delm is yet without issue."

Daav inclined his head. "I shall be honored to review the lady's file. But ask among the cousins, do." He smiled, sudden and charming. "Come, Aunt Petrella, every trader knows the value of a secondary plan!"

"And why should I have a secondary when the prime plan is all-important? You are meddling in matters of Line, my Delm, as I have already stated. Chapter six, paragraph twenty-seven of the Code clearly outlines—"

Daav held up a hand. "If you wish to quote chapter and page to me, Aunt, recall that I have the longest memory in the clan."

She grinned. "Could that be a threat, nephew?"

"Now, Aunt Petrella, would I threaten you?"

"Yes," she said with a certain grim relish, "you would."

"Hah." His eyes gleamed with appreciation, then he inclined his head. "In that wise, aunt, and all else being in balance—ask among the cousins—feel free to contact Mr. dea'Gauss, should the enterprise put you out of pocket. In the meanwhile, the delm is confident of the return of Er Thom yos'Galan by relumma's end. As you should be."

Petrella said nothing, though she wisely refrained from snorting.

Daav smiled. "Good-night, Aunt Petrella. Rest well."

"Good-night, child," she returned and cut the connection.


Chapter Three

"Of course you are my friend—my most dear, my beloved . . ." Shan el'Thrasin leaned close and cupped her face in his two hands, as if they were kin, or lifemates.



"I will love you always," he whispered, and saw the fear fade from her beautiful eyes. Achingly tender, he bent and kissed her.



"I will never forget . . ." she sighed, nestling her face into his shoulder.



"Nor will I," he promised, holding her close as he slipped the knife clear. No whisper of blade against sheath must warn her, he told himself sternly. No quiver of his own pain must reach her; she was his love, though she had killed his partner. He would rather die than cause her an instant's distress.



The knife was very sharp. She stirred a little as it slid between her ribs, and sighed, very softly, when it found her heart.

—From "The Trickster Across the Galaxy: A Retrospect"


 


"JERZY, YOU'RE A doll," Anne said gratefully.

Her friend grinned from the depths of the comm-screen and shook his head. "Wrongo. He's the doll. I love this kid. Name the price; I gotta have him."

Anne laughed. "Not for sale. But I'll let you watch him tonight. Purely as a favor to you, understand." She sobered. "How about letting me do a favor in return? We're getting a little top-heavy, here."

"What're you, Liaden? Take some advice and skip that meeting. Go home, eat something sexy, glass of wine, play yourself a lullaby and go to sleep. Tomorrow's your study day, right? Jerzy will deliver kid latish in the a.m. If I don't decide to steal him, instead."

"Jerzy—"

"Enough, already! Seeya tomorrow." The screen went blank.

Anne sighed, closed the line at her end and sat looking at the screen long after the glow had faded into dead gray.

There had to be a better way, she thought, not for the first time. Certainly, there were worse ways than the path she was pursuing—the Central University creche leapt forcibly to mind, with its sign-in sheets and its sign-out sheets and its tidy rows of tidy cribs and its tidy, meek babies all dressed in tidy, identical rompers. Horrible, antiseptic, unloving place—just like the other one had been.

She was doing all right, she assured herself, given the help of friends like Jerzy. But she hated to impose on her friends, good-natured as they were. Even more she hated the hours she was of necessity away from her son, so many hours a day, so many days a week. She was growing to resent her work, the demands of departmental meetings, class preparations. Her research was beginning to slack off—fatal in the publish-or-perish university system. Her allotted study days more and more often became "Shan days" while she tried to cram the work that needed to be done into late nights and early mornings, using her home terminal to the maximum, piling up user fees she could have easily avoided by using her assigned terminal at the Research Center.

Abruptly, she stood and began to gather her things together. Her own mother had been a pilot, gone six months of every local year, leaving her son and daughter in the care of various relatives and, one year, at the New Dublin Home for Children.

Anne shuddered, scattering a careful stack of data cards. That had been the worst year. She and Richard had been sequestered in separate dorms, allowed one comm call between them every ten days. They had found ways to sneak away after lights-out, to hold hands and talk family talk. But sneaking away was against the rules, punishable, when they were inevitably caught, by hard labor, by imposed silence, by ostracism. The year had seemed forever, with their mother's ship long overdue, and Anne certain it was lost . . .

She looked down at her clenched fists, puzzled. It had all been so long ago. Her mother had died three years ago, peacefully in her bed. Richard was a pilot in his own right, and his last letter had been full of someone named Rosie, whose parents he was soon to meet. And Anne was a professor of comparative linguistics, with several scholarly publications to her name, teaching a Liaden Lit seminar that was filled to capacity every session.

Anne shook her head and wearily bent to pick up the scattered cards. Jerzy was right; she was tired. She needed a good meal, a full night's sleep. She'd been pushing things a little too hard lately. She needed to remember to relax, that was all. Then, everything would be fine.


WEARILY, Er Thom climbed the curving marble staircase that led to the Administrative Center for University's Northern Campus. It was slightly warmer in the building than it had been outside, but still cool to one used to Liad's planetary springtime. He left his leather pilot's jacket sealed as he approached the round marble counter displaying the Terran graphic for "Information."

A Terran woman of indeterminate years came to the counter as he approached. She had a plenitude of dark hair, worn carelessly loose, as if fresh-tousled from bed, and her shirt was cut low across an ample bosom. She leaned her elbows on the pinkish marble and grinned at him.

"Hi, there. What can I do for you?" she asked, casually, and with emphasis on "you".

He bowed as between equals—a flattery—and offered a slight smile of his own.

"I am looking for a friend," he said, taking extreme care with the mode-less and rough Terran words. "Her name is Anne Davis. Her field is comparative linguistics. I regret that I do not know the name of the department in which she serves."

"Well, you're on the right campus, anyhow," the woman said cheerfully. "You got her ident number, retinal pattern, anything like that?"

"I regret," Er Thom repeated.

She shook her head so the tousled dark curls danced. "I'll see if it flies, friend, but it's not much to go on with the size of the faculty we've got . . ." She moved away, muttering things much like her counterparts in the East and West offices had muttered. A few meters down-counter she stopped and began to ply the keypad set there, frowning at the screen suspended level with her eyes. "Let's see . . . Davis, Davis, Anne . . ." She turned her head, calling out to him over her shoulder. "Is that 'Anne' with an 'e' or not?"

He stared at her, unable to force his weary mind to analyze and make sense of the question. "I—beg your pardon."

"Your friend," the clerk said, patiently. "Does she spell her name with an 'e' or without an 'e'?"

An "e" was the fifth letter of the Terran alphabet. Surely, he thought, half-panicked, surely he had at some time seen Anne's written name? He closed his eyes, saw the old-fashioned ink pen held firmly in long, graceful fingers, sweeping a signature onto the mauve pages of an ambassadorial guest book.

"A—" he spelled out of memory for the clerk's benefit. "n, n, e. D, a, v, i, s."

"Hokay." She turned back to her board as Er Thom opened his eyes, feeling oddly shaken.

The clerk muttered to herself—he paid her no mind. Terran naming systems, he thought distractedly, Terran alphabet, and, gods help him, a Terran woman, bold and brilliant—alien. But a woman still, with Terran blood in her and genes so far outside the Book of Clans that—

"Okay!"

Er Thom shook himself out of his reverie as the clerk's cry of jubilation penetrated, and stepped forward.

"Yes?"

She looked up at him, lashes fluttering, and he saw that she was not so young as he had thought. Cosmetics had been used to simulate the dewy blush of first youth across her cheek and her eyes were artfully painted, with silver sequins sprinkled across her lashes. Er Thom schooled his face to calm politeness. Local custom, he reminded himself sternly. As a trader he dealt with local custom in many guises on many worlds. So on this world faces were painted. Merely custom, and nothing to distress one.

"Don't know if this is your friend or not," the woman was saying, "but she's the only Davis in Comparative Ling. Wait a sec, here's the card." She frowned at it before handing it over. "Lives in Quad S-two-seven-squared. You know where that is?"

"No," he said, clutching the card tightly.

The woman stood, leaning over the counter to point. Her breasts flattened against the marble, and swelled toward the margin of the low-cut blouse. Er Thom turned to look along the line of her finger.

"Go back out the way you came," she told him, "turn right, walk about four hundred yards. You'll see a sign for the surrey. Go down the stairs and hit the summonplate. When the surrey comes, you sit down and code in this right here, see?" She ran her finger under a string of letters and numbers on the card he held.

"Yes, I see."

"Okay. Then you lean back and enjoy the ride. The surrey stops, you get out and go upstairs. You'll be in a big open space—Quad S. Best thing to do then is either ask one of the residents to help you find the address or go to the Quad infobooth, punch up your friend's code—that's right under the name, there—and tell her to come get you. Clear?"

"Thank you," said Er Thom, bowing thanks and remembering to give a smile. Terrans set great store by smiles, where a Liaden person would merely have kept his face neutral and allowed the bow to convey all that was necessary.

"That's Okay," said the woman, flashing her silvered lashes. "If your friend's not home, or if it turns out it's not your friend, come on back and I'll see if I can help you some more."

There was an unmistakable note of invitation there. Hastily, Er Thom reviewed his actions, trying to determine if he had inadvertently signaled a wish for her intimate companionship. As far as he could determine, he had indicated no such thing, unless the smile was to blame. Bland-faced, he bowed once more: gratitude for service well-given, nothing else.

"Thank you," he said, keeping his voice carefully neutral. He turned on his heel and walked away.

Behind him, the Information clerk watched him wistfully, twining her fingers in her hair.


THE SURREY RIDE was longer than he had expected from the clerk's explanation. Er Thom sat rigid in the slippery plastic chair, clutching the thin plastic card and occasionally looking down at it.

"Anne Davis," the Terran letters read. "ID: 7596277483ZQ." He committed the ID to memory, then the Quad code, department number and assignment berth. It did not take long; he had a good head for cargo stats, manifest numbers and piloting equations. After checking himself three times, he put the card in his belt-pocket with infinite care and tried to relax in the too-large, Terran-sized seat, hands tightly folded on his knee.

It had been a weary long trip from Liad to University—three Jumps, which he had taken, recklessly, one after the other, pushing the reactions and the stamina of a master pilot to their limits. And at the end of that reckless journey, this endless day of searching, campus to campus, through a bureaucracy that spanned an entire planet—

To this place. Very soon now he would see Anne—speak to her. He would—for the last time in his life—break with the Code and put his melant'i at peril.

He would speak to one to whom he had given nubiath'a. The heart recoiled, no matter that necessity existed. Necessity did exist—his own, and shame to him, that he use his necessity to disturb the peace of one who was not of his clan.

A tone sounded in the little cab, and a yellow light flashed on the board. "Approaching Quad S. Prepare to disembark," a man's pleasant voice instructed him.

Er Thom slid forward on the seat as the surrey slowed. He was on his feet the instant the door slid open and had run halfway up the automated stairs by the time it closed behind him.

The local sun was setting, bathing the tall buildings that enclosed the quad in pale orange light. Er Thom stopped and looked about him, spinning slowly on one heel, suddenly and acutely aware of his empty hands. It was improper of him to go giftless to an evening call; he had not thought.

There must be shops, he thought. Mustn't there?

A group of four tall persons was crossing the Quad a few yards to his right. He stretched his legs to catch them, fishing in his belt for the plastic card.

His dilemma produced a slight altercation among three of his potential aides. It seemed that there were several ways to arrive at the dwelling indicated; the question addressed was which of several was the "best" way. Er Thom stood to one side, having rescued his card from one gesticulating well-wisher, and tried to cultivate patience. He heard a low laugh and turned to look at the fourth member of the party, a shortish Terran male—though still a head taller than Er Thom—with merry dark eyes and a disreputable round face.

"Listen to that bunch and you'll get lost for sure," he said, dismissing his companions with a flutter of his fingers. "I live a couple halls down from your friend's place. I don't guarantee it's the best way, but if you follow me, I can get you there."

"Thank you," said Er Thom, with relief. "And—I regret the inconvenience—if there would be a shop selling wine?"

"Oh, sure," said his guide, turning left. "There's the Block Deli, right where we get the lift. Step this way, and keep an eye out for falling philosophers."


Chapter Four

Relations between Liad and Terra have never been cordial, though there have been periods of lesser and greater strain. Liad prefers to thrash Terra roundly in the field of galactic trade—a terrain it shaped—while Terra gives birth to this and that Terran-supremacist faction, whose mischief seems always to stop just short of actual warfare.

—From "The Struggle for Fair Trade,"


doctoral dissertation of Indrew Jorman,


published by Archive Press, University


 


THE SURREY'S ding woke her; she got a grip on her briefcase and went up the autostairs in a fog.

On the Quad, the sharp night breeze roused her and she stopped to stretch cramped leg and back muscles, staring up into a sky thick with stars. It was a very different night sky than Proziski's, with its gaggle of moons. She and Er Thom had counted those moons one night, lying naked next to each other on the roof of the unfinished Mercantile Building, the end of a bolt of trade-silk serving as coverlet and mattress. She liked to think Shan had come from that night.

She shook her head at the laden sky and took one last deep breath before turning toward the block that held her apartment.

She walked past the darkened deli and rode the lift to the seventh floor, trying to remember if she had eaten the last roll that morning for breakfast. She recalled a cup of coffee, gulped between feeding Shan and getting him ready for his trip to Jerzy's place. She remembered having to go back for her notes for the afternoon's lecture.

She didn't remember eating breakfast at all, and she had been too busy with a promising research line to break off for lunch . . .

Anne sighed. You need a keeper, she told herself severely. The lift door cycled and she stepped out into the hallway.

A slim figure turned from before her door and began to walk toward her, keeping scrupulously to the center of the hall, where the lights were brightest. Anne hesitated, cataloging bright hair, slender stature, leather jacket—

"Er Thom." She barely heard her own whisper, hardly knew that she had increased her stride, until she was almost running toward him.

He met her halfway, extending a slim golden hand on which his amethyst master trader's ring blazed. She caught his fingers in hers and stood looking down at him, wide mouth curved in a smile no dimmer than the one he had treasured, all this time.

"Er Thom," she said in her rich, lilting voice. "I'm so very happy to see you, my friend."

Happy. What a small word, to describe the dazzling, dizzying joy that threatened to engulf him. He hung onto her hand, though it would have been more proper to bow. "I am—happy—to see you, also," he managed, smiling up into her eyes. "They keep you working late . . ."

She laughed. "A departmental meeting—it dragged on and on! I can't imagine what they found to talk about." She sobered. "Have you been waiting long?"

"Not very long." Hours. He had despaired a dozen times; walked away and returned two dozen . . . three . . . He showed her the bag he held. "Are you hungry? I have food, wine."

"My thoughtful friend. Starved. Come in." She tugged on his hand, turning him back toward the anonymous door that marked her dwelling place. "How long are you stopping, Er Thom?"

He hesitated and she looked at him closely.

"More than just today? Don't tell me that stupid meeting has kept me away for half your visit!"

"No." He smiled up at her. "I do not know how long I am staying, you see. It depends upon—circumstances."

"Oh," she said wisely, "circumstances." She let go his hand and lay her palm against the door's lockplate. With a grand, meaningless flourish, she bowed him across the threshold.

Just within and to one side, he stopped to watch her cross the room, past the shrouded half-chora to the wall-desk, where she lay her briefcase down with a sigh. It struck him that she moved less gracefully than he recalled, and nearly gasped at the sharpness of his concern.

"Anne?" He was at her elbow in a flicker, searching her face. "Are you well?"

She smiled. "Just tired, my dear—that absurd meeting." She reached out, touching his cheek lightly with the tips of her fingers. "Er Thom, it's so good to see you."

He allowed the caress. Kin and lifemates alone touched thus: face-to-face, hand-to-face. He had never told her so; he did not tell her now. He turned his face into her palm and felt the icy misery in his chest begin to thaw.

"It is good to see you, also," he murmured, hearing the pounding of his heart, wanting—wanting . . . He shifted slightly away and held up the bag. "You are tired. I will pour you wine—is that proper?—and you will sit and rest. All right? Then I will bring you some of this to eat." He pointed to a dark alcove to the right. "That is the kitchen?"

She laughed, shaking her head. "That's the kitchen. But, my friend, it can't be proper to put a guest to work."

"It is no trouble," he told her earnestly. "Please, I wish to."

"All right," she said, astonished and bewildered at the way her eyes filled with tears. "Thank you. You're very kind."

"Rest," he murmured and disappeared into the kitchen corner. The light came on, adding to the dim illumination of the living area. Anne sighed. There were signs of neglect everywhere: dust, scattered books and papers, discarded pens. Under the easy chair a fugitive rubber block crouched, defiant.

She turned her back on it deliberately, pulled off her jacket and curled into a corner of the couch, long legs under her, head resting on the back cushions. She heard small sounds from the kitchen as Er Thom opened and closed cabinets. The air filtering unit thrummed into sluggish life . . .

"Anne?"

She gasped, head jerking up. Er Thom bit his lip, violet eyes flashing down to the glass he held and back to her face.

"I am inconvenient," he said solemnly, inclining his head. "Perhaps I may come again to see you. When you are less tired. Tell me."

"No." Her changeable face registered guilt, even panic. "Er Thom, I'm sorry to be a bad host. I'd like you to stay. Please. You're not inconvenient—never that, my dear. And if you leave now and your circumstances mesh, then you might not be able to come again. You could be gone again tomorrow."

He set the glass aside, caught the hand she half-extended and allowed himself to be drawn down to sit beside her.

"Anne . . ." Fascinated, he watched his fingers rise to her cheek, stroke lightly and ever-so-slowly down the square jaw line to the firm chin.

"All will be well," he said, soothing her with his voice as if she were a child instead of a woman grown. "I will be here tomorrow, Anne. Certainly tomorrow. And you—my friend, you are exhausted. It would be wrong—improper—to insist you entertain me in such a case. I will go and come back again. Tomorrow, if you like. Only tell me."

Her eyes closed and she bent her head, half-hiding her face from him. He held onto her hand and she did not withdraw it, though her free hand stole upward, fingers wrapping around the pendant at the base of her throat.

Er Thom's eyes widened. She wore the parting-gift, even now; touched it as if it were capable of giving comfort. And he, he here by her, touching her, speaking on terms that would lead any to assume them lovers, if not bound more closely still.

The magnitude of his error staggered; the cause that had brought him here suddenly showing the face of self-deception. He should never have given Anne nubiath'a.

He should never have sought her out again . . .

"Er Thom?" She was looking at him, dark brown eyes large in a face he thought paler than it might be.

"Yes, my friend?" he murmured and smiled for her. Whatever errors were found in this time and place were solely his own, he told himself sternly. Anne, at least, had behaved with utmost propriety.

"I—I know that I'm not very entertaining right now," she said with a tentativeness wholly unAnne-like, "but—unless you have somewhere else you need—would rather be—I'd like you to stay."

"There is no other place I wish to be," he said—and that was truth, gods pity him, though he could think of a dozen places he might otherwise be needed, not forgetting his mother's drawing room and the bridge of the trade ship orbiting Liad.

He picked up the wineglass and placed it in her hand as he rose. "Drink your wine, my friend. I will be back in a moment with food."


IT WAS SOME time later, after the odd sweet-spicy food was eaten and the wine, but for the little remaining in their glasses, was drunk, before she thought to ask him.

"But, Er Thom, what are you doing on University? Another trade mission? There isn't anything to trade for here, is there?"

"To trade for? No . . ." He took a sip of the sticky yellow wine, then, with sudden decision, finished the glass.

"I am not here to trade," he told her, watching as if from a distance as his traitor body slid closer to her on the sofa and his hand lifted to fondle her hair. "What I am doing is seeing you."

She laughed softly as she set aside her glass. "Of course you are," she murmured, gently mocking.

She did not believe him! Panic galvanized him. She must believe, or all he had meant to accomplish by this mad breaking with custom was gone for naught. The Healers would take him, and reft him of distress, and it would be forgot, unknown, lost in a swirl of blurry dreaming . . .

His fingers tightened in her hair, pulling her down as he tipped his face up to hers, hungrily, despairingly.

She came willingly, as she ever had, her mouth firm and sweet on his, calling forth the desire, the need, that had been touched by no other, before or since. The need that burned away names, clans and duty, leaving only she . . . and he.


LATER YET, and she asleep. Er Thom shifted onto an elbow, letting the light from the living area fall past his shoulder and onto her.

A Liaden would not count her beautiful. He believed that even among Terrans she was considered but moderately attractive. Certainly her face was too full for Liaden taste, her nose too long, her mouth too wide, her skin merely brown, not golden. And while chestnut was a very pretty color for hair, Anne wore hers with an eye to ease of care.

The rest of her was as strange to the standard of beauty he acknowledged: Her breasts, brown as her face and rosy brown at the very tips, were round and high, larger than his hand could encompass. She was saved from being top-heavy by the width of her hips, flaring unexpectedly from a narrow waist, and she moved with a pilot's smooth grace. Her hands were long-fingered and strong—musician's hands—and her voice was quite lovely.

He thought of the face of the latest proposed to him: Properly Liaden, well-mannered and golden. A person who understood duty, who would do as she was bid by her delm. And who would very properly rebuke Er Thom yos'Galan, should he but reach out a finger to trace the line of her cheek, or lay his lips against hers.

But I do not want her! he thought, plaintive, childish, undutiful—strange. As strange as lying here in this present, in a too-large bed, his arms about a woman not of his kind, who expected him to sleep next to her the night full through; to be there when she awoke . . .

Carefully, he slid down until his eyes were on a level with her closed eyes. For a long while, he stared into her unbeautiful, alien face, watching—guarding—her sleep. Finally, he moved his head to kiss her just-parted lips and said at last the thing he had come to tell her, the thing which must not be forgotten.

"I love you, Anne Davis."

His voice was soft and not quite steady, and he stumbled over the Terran words, but it hardly mattered. She was asleep and did not hear him.


Chapter Five

Melant'i—A Liaden word denoting the status of a person within a given situation. For instance, one person may fulfill several roles: Parent, spouse, child, mechanic, thodelm. The shifting winds of circumstance, or 'necessity,' dictate from which role the person will act this time. They will certainly always act honorably, as defined within a voluminous and painfully detailed code of behavior, referred to simply as 'The Code.'



To a Liaden, melant'i is more precious than rubies, a cumulative, ever-changing indicator of his place in the universal pecking order. A person of high honor, for instance, is referred to as "a person of melant'i," whereas a scoundrel—or a Terran—may be dismissed with "he has no melant'i."



Melant'i may be the single philosophical concept from which all troubles, large and small, between Liad and Terra spring.

—From A Terran's Guide to Liad



LATE IN THE morning, loved and showered and feeling positively decadent, Anne stood in front of the tiny built-in vanity. A few brush-strokes put her shower-dampened hair into order, and she smiled into her own eyes as her reflected fingers found and picked up her pendant.

"Anne?"

She turned, transferring her smile to him. An elfin prince, so Brellick had described him, enticing Anne to meet a real, live Liaden. And elfin he was: Slim and tawny and quick; hair glittering gold, purple eyes huge in a beardless pointed face; voice soft and seductively accented.

The eyes right now were very serious, moving from her hand to her face.

"Anne?" he said again.

"Yes, my dear. What can I do for you?"

"Please," he said slowly, gliding closer to her. "Do not wear that."

"Don't wear—" She blinked at him, looked down at the fine golden chain and pendant seed-pearls, artfully blended with gold-and-enamel leaves to look like a cluster of fantasy grapes.

This is a misunderstanding, she told herself carefully; a problem with the words chosen. Er Thom's command of Terran tended to be literal and uneasy of idiom—much like her careful, scholar's Liaden. It made for some interesting conversational tangles, now and then. But they had always been able to untangle themselves, eventually. She looked back into his eyes.

"You gave this to me," she said, holding it out so he might see it better. "Don't you remember, Er Thom? You gave it to me the day Dutiful Passage—"

"I remember," he said sharply, cutting her off without a glance at the pearls. He lay a hand lightly on her wrist.

"Anne? Please. It was—it was given to say good-bye. I would rather—may I?—give you another gift."

She laughed a little and lay her hand briefly over his.

"But you won't be here long, will you? And when you leave again, you'll have to give me another gift, for another good-bye . . ." She laughed more fully. "My dear, I'll look like a jewelry store."

The serious look in his eyes seemed to intensify and he swayed closer, so his hip grazed her thigh.

"No," he began, a little breathlessly. "I—there is a thing you must hear, Anne, and never forget—"



The doorbell chimed. Anne glanced up, mouth curving in a curious smile, and raised her fingers to touch his cheek.

"That's Jerzy," she said, laying the pendant back in its carved ivory box. She moved past him toward the living room. "Er Thom, there's someone I want you to meet."

He stood still for a moment, running through a pilot's calming exercise. Then, he went after her.

The man who was coming in from the hallway was not large as Terrans go; he was, in fact, a bit under standard height for that race, and a bit under standard weight, too. He had rough black hair chopped off at the point of his jaw and a pale face made memorable by the thick line of a single brow above a pair of iron-gray eyes. He was carrying a cloth sack over one shoulder and a child on the opposite hip. Both he and the child were wearing jackets; the child also wore a cap.

"Jerzy delivers kid latish in the a.m., as promised. Notice the nobility of spirit which would not allow me to steal him, though I was tempted, ma'am. Sore tempted."

"You're a saint, Jerzy," Anne said gravely, though Er Thom heard the ripple of laughter through her words.

"I'm a lunatic," the young man corrected, bending to set the child on his sturdy legs. He knelt and pulled off the cap, revealing a head of silky, frost-colored hair, and unsealed the little jacket, much hampered by small, busy hands.

"Knock it off, Scooter. This is hard enough without you helping," he muttered and the child gave a peal of laughter.

"Help Scooter!" he cried.

Jerzy snorted. "Regular comedian. Okay, let's get the arms out . . ."

"I can do that, you know," Anne said mildly, but Jerzy had finished his task and stood up, sliding the bag off his shoulder and stuffing the small garments inside.

"And have you think I don't know how to take care of him? I want him back, you know. Say, next week, same time?"

"Jerzy—"

But whatever Anne had meant to say to her friend was interrupted by a shriek of child-laughter as young Scooter flung himself hurly-burly down-room, hands flapping at the level of his ears. Er Thom saw the inexpert feet snag on the carpet and swooped forward, catching the little body as it lost control and swinging him up to straddle a hip.

The child laughed again and grabbed a handful of Er Thom's hair.

"Good catch!" Jerzy cried, clapping his palms together with enthusiasm. "You see this man move?" he asked of no one in particular and then snapped his fingers, coming forward. "You're a pilot, right?"

"Yes," Er Thom admitted, gently working the captured lock of hair loose of the child's fingers.

The young man stopped, head tipped to one side. Then he stuck out one of his big hands in the way that Terrans did when they wanted to initiate the behavior known as "shaking hands." Inwardly, Er Thom sighed. Local custom.

He was saved from this particular bout with custom by the perpetrator himself, who lowered his hand, looking self-conscious. "Never mind. Won't do to drop Scooter, will it? I'm Jerzy Entaglia. Theater Arts. Chairman of Theater Arts, which gives you an idea of the shape the department's in."

An introduction. Very good. Er Thom inclined his head, taking care that the child on his hip did not capture another handful of hair. "Er Thom yos'Galan Clan Korval."

Jerzy Entaglia froze, an arrested expression on his forgettable face. "yos'Galan?" he said, voice edging upward in an exaggerated question-mark.

Er Thom lifted his eyebrows. "Indeed."

"Well," said Jerzy, backing up so rapidly Er Thom thought he might take a tumble. "That's great! The two of you probably have a lot to talk about—get to know each other, that kind of stuff. Anne—seeya later. Gotta run. 'Bye, Scooter—Mr. yos'Galan—" He was gone, letting himself out the door a moment before Anne's hand fell on his shoulder.

"Bye, bye, bye!" the child sang, beating his heels against Er Thom's flank. He wriggled, imperatively. "Shan go."

"Very well." He bent and placed the child gently on his feet, offering an arm for support.

The boy looked up to smile, showing slanting frosty eyebrows to match the white hair, and eyes of so light a blue they seemed silver, huge in the small brown face. "Shank you," he said with a certain dignity and turned to go about his business.

He was restrained by a motherly hand, which caught him by a shoulder and brought him back to face Er Thom.

"This is someone very important," she said, but it was not clear if she was talking to the boy or to himself. She looked up, her eyes bright, face lit with such a depth of pride that he felt his own heart lift with it.

"Er Thom," she said, voice thrilling with joy, "this is Shan yos'Galan."

"yos'Galan?" He stared at her; looked down at the child, who gazed back at him out of alert silver eyes.

"yos'Galan?" he repeated, unable to believe that she would—without contract, without the Delm's Word, without—He took a breath, ran the pilot's calming sequence; looked back at Anne, the joy in her face beginning to show an edge of unease.

"This is—our—child?" he asked, trying to keep his voice steady, his face politely distant. Perhaps he had misunderstood. Local custom, after all—and who would so blatantly disregard proper behavior, melant'i, honor . . .

Relief showed in her eyes, and she nearly smiled. "Yes. Our child. Do you remember the night—that horrible formal dance and it was so hot, and the air conditioning was broken? Remember, we snuck out and went to the roof—"

The roof of the yet-unfinished Mercantile Building. He had landed the light-flyer there, spread the silk for them to sit on as they drank pilfered wine and snacked on delicacies filched from a hors d'ouevre tray . . .

"Fourteen moons," he whispered, remembering, then the outrage struck, for there was no misunderstanding here at all, and no local custom to excuse. "You named this child yos'Galan?" he demanded, and meant for her to hear his anger.

She dropped back half-a-step, eyes going wide, and her hands caught the boy's shoulders and pulled him close against her. She took a deep breath and let it sigh out.

"Of course I named him yos'Galan," she said, very quietly. "It is the custom, on my homeworld, to give a child his father's surname. I meant no—insult—to you, Er Thom. If I have insulted you, only tell me how, and I will mend it."

"It is improper to have named this child yos'Galan. How could you have thought it was anything else? There was no contract—"

Anne bowed her head, raised a hand to smooth the boy's bright hair. "I see." She looked up. "It's an easy matter to change a name. There's no reason why he shouldn't be Shan Davis. I'll make the application to—"

"No!" His vehemence surprised them both, and this time it was Er Thom who went back a step. "Anne—" He cut himself off, took a moment to concentrate, then tried again, schooling his voice to calmness. "Why did you not—you sent no word? You thought I had no reason to know that there was born a yos'Galan?"

She moved her hands; he was uncertain of the meaning, the purpose, of the gesture. The child stayed pressed against her legs, quiet as stone.

"I wanted a child," she said, slowly. "I had decided to have a child—entirely my own choice, made before I met you. And then, I did meet you, who became my friend and who I—" Again, that shapeless gesture. "I thought, 'why shouldn't I have the child of my friend, instead of the child of someone I don't know, who only happened to donate his seed to the clinic'?" She moved her head in a sharp shake.

"Er Thom, you were leaving! We had been so happy and—is it wrong, that I wanted something to remind me of joy and the friend who had shared it? I never thought I'd see you again—the universe is wide, my brother says. So many things can happen . . . It was only for my joy, my—comfort. Should I have pin-beamed a message to Liad? How many yos'Galans are there? I didn't think—I didn't think you'd care, Er Thom—or only enough to be happy you'd given me so—so fine a gift . . ." She bent her head, but not before he'd seen the tears spill over and shine down her cheeks.

Pity filled him, and remorse. He reached out. "Anne . . ."

She shook her head, refusing to look at him, and Shan gave a sudden gasp, which quickly became a wail as he turned to bury his face against her legs. She bent and picked him up, making soothing sounds and stroking his hair.

Er Thom came another step forward, close enough to touch her wet cheek, to lay his hand on the child's thin shoulder.

"Peace, my son," he murmured in Liaden while his mind was busy, trying to adjust to these new facts, to a trade that became entirely altered. He thought of the proposed contract-marriage that must somehow be put off until he had done duty by this child—his child—a half-bred child, gods—whatever would he say to his mother?

"No!" Anne jerked back, holding the sobbing child tightly against her. Her face was ashen, her eyes shadowed with some dire terror.

"Anne?"

"Er Thom, he is my son! He is a Terran citizen, registered on University. My son, of whom your clan was never told—for whom your clan doesn't care!"

Harsh words, almost enough to strike him to anger again. But there, Terrans knew nothing of clans.

"The clan knows," he said softly, telling her only the truth, "because I know; cares because I care. We are all children of the clan; ears, eyes and heart of the clan."

The fear in her eyes grew, he saw her arms tighten about Shan, who put out renewed cries.

Whirling, Anne carried him into the bedroom.


SHE STAYED IN the bedroom a long time, soothing Shan and convincing him to lie down in his little pull-out bed. She sat by him until he fell asleep, the tears dried to sticky tracks on his cheeks.

When she knew he was sleeping deeply, she rose and pulled the tangled blankets straight on her own bed. She strained her ears for a sound—any sound—from the next room. The apartment was filled with silence.

Go away! she thought fiercely and almost at once: Don't go! She shook her head. He would go, of course; it was the nature of things. They would resolve this misunderstanding; she would change her son's surname and he would be easy again. They would be friends. But sooner or later Er Thom would go, back to his round of worlds and trade-routes. She would take up again the rhythm of her hectic life . . .

There was no sound from the living room. Had he gone already? If he was still here, why hadn't he come to find her?

She glanced at the pull-out, stepped over to make sure the bed-bars were secure, then she took a deep breath and went into the living room.

He was sitting on the edge of the sofa, hands folded on his lap, bright head bent. At her approach he stood and came forward, eyes on her face.

"Anne? I ask pardon. It was not my intent to—to cause you pain. My temper is—not good. And it was a shock, I did not see . . . Of course you would not know that there are not so many yos'Galans; that a message sent to me by name, to Liad or to Dutiful Passage, would reach me. I am at fault. It had not occurred to me to leave you my beamcode . . ." And who leaves such, he asked himself, for one who has taken nubiath'a?

She tried a small smile; it felt odd on her face. "Maybe this time you can leave me the code, then. I'll contact you, if something—important—happens. All right?"

"No." He took her lifeless fingers in his, tried to massage warmth into them. "Anne, it cannot continue so—"

She snatched her hand away. "Because he's named yos'Galan? I'll change that—I've said I would! You have no right—Er Thom—" She raised her hand to her throat, fingers seeking the comfort that no longer hung there; she felt tears rising.

"Er Thom, don't you have somewhere else you need to be? You came here for a purpose, didn't you? Business?" Her voice was sharp and he nearly flinched. Instead, he reached up and took her face between his hands.

"I came to see you," he said, speaking very slowly, as clearly and as plainly as he knew how, so there could be no possible misunderstanding. "I came with no other purpose than to speak with you." Tears spilled over, soaking his fingertips, startling them both.

"Anne? Anne, no, only listen—"

She pulled away, dashing at her eyes.

"Er Thom, please go away."

He froze, staring at her. Would she send him away with all that lay, unresolved, between them? It was her right, certainly. He was none of her kin, to demand she open her door to him. But the child was named yos'Galan.

Anne wiped at her face, shook her head, mouth wobbling.

"Please, Er Thom. You're—my dear, we're still friends. But I don't think I can listen now. I'm—I need to be by myself for a little while . . ."

Reprieve. He licked his lips.

"I may come again? When?"

The tears wouldn't stop. They seemed to come from a hole in her chest that went on and on, forever. "When? I don't—this evening. After dinner." What was she saying? "Er Thom . . ."

"Yes." He moved, spinning away from her, plucking his jacket from the back of the easy chair and letting himself out the door.

For perhaps an entire minute, Anne stared at the place where he had been. Then the full force of her grief caught her and she bent double, sobbing.


Chapter Six

Any slight—no matter how small—requires balancing, lest the value of one's melant'i be lessened



Balance is an important, and intricate, part of Liaden culture, with the severity of rebuttal figured individually by each debt-partner, in accordance with his or her own melant'i. For instance, one Liaden might balance an insult by demanding you surrender your dessert to him at a society dinner, whereas another individual might calculate balance of that same insult to require a death.



Balance-death is, admittedly, rare. But it is best always to speak softly, bow low and never give a Liaden cause to think he has been slighted.

—From A Terran's Guide to Liad



IT WAS A CRISP, bright day of the kind that doubtless delighted the resident population. Er Thom shivered violently as he hit Quad S and belatedly dragged on his jacket, sealing the front and jerking the collar up.

Jamming his hands into the fur-lined pockets, he strode off, heedless both of his direction and the stares of those he passed, and only paused in his headlong flight when he found water barring his path.

He stopped and blinked over the glittering expanse before him, trying to steady his disordered thoughts.

The child's name was yos'Galan.

He shivered again, though he had walked far enough and hard enough for the exercise to warm him.

His melant'i was imperiled—though that hardly concerned him, so much had he already worked toward its ruination—and the melant'i of Clan Korval, as well. A yos'Galan born and the clan unaware? Korval was High House and known to be eccentric—society wags spoke of 'the Dragon's directive' and 'Korval madness'—but even so strong and varied a melant'i could scarcely hope to come away from such a debacle untainted.

Er Thom closed his eyes against the lake's liquid luster. Why? Why had she done this thing? What had he done that demanded such an answer from her? So stringent a Balancing argued an insult of such magnitude he must have been aware of his transgression—and he recalled nothing.

Abruptly he laughed. Whatever the cause, only see the beauty of the Balance! A yos'Galan, born and raised as Terran, growing to adulthood, building what melant'i he might, clan and line alike all in ignorance . . . If Er Thom yos'Galan had been a stronger man, one who knew enough of duty to embrace forgetfulness without once more seeking out the cause of his heart-illness . . . It was, in truth, an artwork of Balance.

But what coin of his had purchased it? If Anne had felt herself slighted, if he had belittled her or failed someway of giving her full honor—

"Hold." He opened his eyes, staring sightlessly across the lake.

"Anne is Terran," he told himself, as revelation began to dawn.

There were some who argued that Terrans possessed neither melant'i nor honor. It was a view largely popular with those who had never been beyond Liad or Liad's Outworlds. Traders and Scouts tended to espouse a less popular philosophy, based on actual observation.

He himself had traded with persons unLiaden. As with Liadens, there were those who were honorable and those who were, regrettably, otherwise. Local custom often dictated a system strange to Liaden thought, though, once grasped, it was seen to be honor, and consistent with what one knew to be right conduct.

Daav went further, arguing that melant'i existed independent of a person's consciousness, and might be deduced from careful observation. It was then the burden of a person of conscious melant'i to give all proper respect to the unawakened consciousness and guard its sleeping potential.

Er Thom had thought his brother's view extreme. Until he had met Anne Davis.

He knew Anne to be a person of honor. He had observed her melant'i first-hand and at length and he would place it, in its very different strengths, equal to his own. She was not one to start a debt-war from spite, nor to take extreme Balance as bolster for an unsteady sense of self.

Is it possible, he asked himself, slowly, that Anne named the boy so to honor me?

The lake dazzled his eyes as the paving stones seemed to move under his feet. He grappled with the notion, trying to accommodate the alien shape, and he grit his teeth against a desire to cry out that no one might reasonably think such a thing.

Facts: Anne was an honorable person. There had been nothing requiring Balance between them. The child's name was yos'Galan. Therefore, Anne had meant honor—or at the least no harm—to him by her actions.

He drew a deep breath of chill air, almost giddy with relief, that there was no balancing here that he must answer; that he need not bring harm to her whom he wished only to cherish and protect.

There remained only to decide what must properly be done about the child.


IT WAS MID AFTERNOON. Shan had eaten a hearty dinner, resisted any suggestion of sleep and fell easy prey to Mix-n-Match.

Anne shook her head. She'd had to upgrade the set three times already; Shan learned the simple patterns effortlessly, it seemed. He needed a tutor—more time than she could give him, to help him learn at his own rate, to be sure that he received balanced instruction, that he didn't grow bored . . .

"A tutor," she jeered to herself, not for the first time. "Sure, Annie Davis, an' where will ye be getting the means for that madness?"

It was a measure of her uneasiness that she sought comfort in the dialect of her childhood. She shook her head again and went over to the desk, resolutely switching on the terminal. "Get some work done," she told herself firmly.

But her mind would not stay on her work and after half-an-hour's fruitless searching through tangential lines, she canceled the rest of her time and went over to the omnichora.

She pulled the dust cover off and folded it carefully onto the easy chair, sat on the bench, flipped stops, set timings, tone, balance, and began, very softly, to play.

Er Thom was not coming back. Intellectually, she knew that this was so: The abruptness of his departure this morning told its own tale. It was no use trying to decide if this were a good thing or a bad one. She had been trying to resolve that precise point all morning and had failed utterly.

Her hands skittered on the keys, sowing discord. Irritably, Anne raised her hand and re-adjusted the timing, but she did not take up her playing. Instead, she sat and stared down at the worn plastic keys, fighting the terror that threatened to overwhelm her.

It cannot continue so, he insisted in memory and Anne bit her lip in the present. Er Thom was an honorable man. He had his melant'i—his status—to consider. Anne had, all unwitting, threatened that melant'i—and Er Thom did not think a mere change of Shan's surname would retire the threat.

Liaden literature was her passion. She had read the stories of Shan el'Thrasin compulsively, addictively, searching back along esoteric research lines for the oldest versions, sending for recordings of the famous Liaden prena'ma—the tellers of tales. She knew what happened to those foolish enough to threaten a Liaden's melant'i.

They were plunged into honor-feud, to their impoverishment, often enough. Sometimes, to their death.

It didn't matter that she loved Er Thom yos'Galan, or what his feelings might otherwise be for her. She had put his status at risk. The threat she posed must be nullified, her audacity answered, and his melant'i absolutely reestablished, no matter what hurt he must give her in the process.

He might even be sorry to hurt her, and grieve truly for her misfortune, as Shan el'Thrasin had grieved truly for his beloved Lyada ro'Menlin, who had killed his partner. She had paid fully and Shan had extracted the price, as honor demanded, and then mourned her the rest of his life . . .

She gasped and came off the bench in a rush to go across the room and sweep her son up in a hug.

"Ma no!" yelled that young gentleman, twisting in her embrace.

"Ma, yes!" she insisted and kissed him and rumbled his hair and cuddled him close, feeling his warmth and hearing the beat of his heart. "Ma loves you," she said, fiercely, for all that she whispered. Shan grabbed her hair.

"Ma?"

"Yes," she said and walked with him to the kitchen, back through the living room to the bedroom. "We'll go—someplace. To Richard." She stopped in the middle of the living room and took a deep breath, feeling beautifully, miraculously reprieved. She kissed Shan again and bent down to let him go.

"We'll go to Richard—home to New Dublin. We'll leave tonight . . ." Tonight? What about her classes, her contract? It would be academic suicide—and Er Thom would find her at her brother's house on New Dublin, she thought dejectedly. He would have to find her. Honor required it. Her shoulders sank and she felt the tears rise again.

"Oh, gods . . ."

The door chime sounded.

She spun, some primal instinct urging her to snatch up her son and run.

Shan was sitting on the floor amidst his rubber blocks, patiently trying to balance a rectangle atop a cube. And there was no place, really, to run.

The chime sounded again.

Slowly, she walked across the room and opened the door.

He bowed in spite of the parcels he held, and smiled when he looked up at her.

"Good evening," he said softly, as if this morning had never happened and he had never looked at her with fury in his eyes. "It is after dinner?"

Speechless, she looked down at him, torn between shutting the door in his face and hugging him as fiercely as she had hugged Shan.

"Anne?"

She started, and managed a wooden smile. "It's after Shan's dinner, anyway," she said, stepping back to let him in. "But he's being stubborn about going to bed."

Er Thom glanced over to the boy, absorbed in his blocks. "I see." He looked up at her. "I have brought a gift for our son. May I give it?"

She looked at him doubtfully. Surely he wouldn't harm a child. No matter what he might feel he owed her, surely his own son was safe? She swallowed. "All right . . ."

"Thank you." He offered the smaller of the two parcels. "I have also brought wine." He paused, violet eyes speculative. "Will you drink with me, Anne?"

She caught her breath against sudden, painful relief. It was going to be all right, she thought, dizzily. To drink with someone was a sign of goodwill. It would be dishonorable to ask a feud-partner to drink with one. And Er Thom was an honorable man.

The smile she gave him this time was real. "Of course I'll drink with you, Er Thom." She took the package. "I'll pour tonight. And provide dinner. Are you hungry?"

He smiled. "I will eat if you will eat."

"A bargain." Her laughed sounded giddy in her own ears, but Er Thom did not seem to notice. He was walking toward Shan.

The boy had succeeded in building a bridge of a rectangle across two cubes. Gracefully, Er Thom went to one knee, facing the child across the bridge, and laying down the large parcel.

"Good evening, Shan-son," he said in soft Liaden. Anne swallowed around the lump of dread in her throat, clutched the wine bottle and said nothing.

"Jiblish," Shan said, glancing up from his task with a smile. "Hi!"

"I've brought you a gift," Er Thom pursued, still in Liaden. "I hope that it will please you."

To Shan's intense interest, he removed the wrapping from the package and held out a stuffed animal. It was a friendly sort of animal, Anne thought, with large round ears and rounder blue eyes and a good-natured smile on its pointy face. Shan gave it thoughtful consideration, uttered a crow of laughter and fell upon its neck.

Er Thom echoed the laugh softly and reached out to touch the small brown face. Shan pulled his new friend closer and caught the man's finger in his free hand, crowing again.

Anne quietly turned and went into the kitchen for glasses and for food.


SHE BUSIED HERSELF in the kitchen rather longer than was necessary; cutting the cheese to nibble-size, and the fruit, too. She stood for a ridiculous amount of time, trying to decide which crackers to offer.

Throughout it all relief warred with lingering fear. It went against everything she knew to distrust Er Thom. He was her friend, the father of her son. This morning had been a regrettable misunderstanding—a conflict of custom—and she ought to thank all possible gods, that Er Thom had been able to forgive her assault on his melant'i. She would need to be very careful not to threaten him again. Even fondness for a lover could not be expected to stay a Liaden's hand twice . . .

When she finally returned to the living room, it was strangely quiet. Er Thom smiled up at her from his seat against the sofa. Shan was spread out across his lap, head on Er Thom's shoulder, one small hand gripping the stuffed animal's round ear. He was fast asleep.

"Oh, no!" Anne laughed, nearly upsetting the wine glasses on the tray. "My poor friend . . ." She sat the tray down and knelt on the floor next to them, holding out her arms. "I'll put him to bed."

The stuffed animal proved a stumbling block. Even in sleep her son's grip was trojan, but Er Thom patiently coaxed the sleeping fingers open, and offered the liberated toy to Anne. She took it and led the way as Er Thom carried Shan into the bedroom and lay him gently on the pull-out bed.

He waited quietly while she settled both friends comfortably and allowed her to proceed him back into the living room, pulling the door half-closed behind him.


Chapter Seven

The delm shall be face and voice of the clan, guarding the interests of the clan and treating with other delms in matters of wider interest. The delm is held to be responsible for the actions of all members of his clan and likewise holds ultimate authority over these members. The delm shall administer according to the internal laws of his clan, saving only that those laws do not circumvent the Laws agreed upon by all delms and set forth in this document.

—From the Charter of the Council of Clans


 


"GO TO LIAD?" Anne set her glass carefully aside. "I have no reason to go to Liad, Er Thom."

"Ah." He inclined his head, keeping his manner in all ways gentle. It had been ill-done to show her his anger; he had not missed the wariness in her face when he had asked entrance this evening. Nor did the continued tension in her shoulders and the unaccustomed care with which she addressed him escape notice. He met her eyes, as one did with a valued friend, and brushed the back of her hand with light fingertips.

"Our child must be Seen by the delm."

She took a slow, deep breath. "I believe," she said with that care which was so different from her usual way with him, "that the matter need not concern your delm. I said this morning that I will change Shan's surname to Davis, and I meant it. I have an early day tomorrow. I'll go to Central Admin and file the request through Terran Census. Three days, at the most, and—"

"No." He caught her hand in both of his, keeping his voice soft with an effort. "Anne, is Shan not the—the child of our bodies?"

She blinked, slipping her hand free. "Of course he is. I told you."

Irritation there, and rightly so. Who was Er Thom yos'Galan to question the word of an equal adult? He bowed his head.

"Forgive me, friend. Most certainly you did tell me. It is thus that the delm's concern is engaged. You have said that the child of our pleasure is yos'Galan. It is the delm's honor to keep the tale of yos'Galans and ensure that the clan—" here he stumbled, sorting among a myriad of words of Terran possibility, all the wrong size or shape to describe the clan's obligations in this matter.

"I've said," Anne stepped into the space his hesitation had created, "that his name will be changed to Davis. In three days, Er Thom, there will be no new yos'Galans for your delm to count."

"You have said he is yos'Galan. Will you unsay it and forswear yourself?" It was not his place to rebuke her, nor any of his concern, should she choose to tarnish her melant'i. But his heart ached, for he had taught her to fear him, and now fear forced her to dishonor. "Anne?"

She sighed. "Er Thom, he's the same child, whether his name is Davis or yos'Galan!"

"Yes!" Joy flooded him, so that he caught her hands, laughing with sheer relief, for she did not after all turn her face from honor. "Precisely so! And thus the delm must certainly See him—soon, as you will understand. I shall pilot—you need not be concerned—and the ship is entirely able. To Liad is—"

"Hold it." Her face held an odd mix of emotion—a frown twisted curiously about a smile—and she shook her head, a pet gesture that did not always signal negative, but sometimes also wonder, or impatience, or sadness. She took one of her hands from his and raised it to his face, running her knuckles whisper-soft down his right cheek. Once more, wonderingly, it seemed to him, she shook her head.

"It's really important for your delm to see Shan now?"

Important? It was vital. To be outside the clan was to be outside of life.

"Yes," he told her.

"All right. Then let your delm come here."

"Hah." She was within her right to ask it, though there were few so secure in their melant'i as to bid Korval come to them. Er Thom inclined his head.

"It is, you see, that—until his own children are of an age—I am the delm's designated heir. Wisdom dictates that we both not be off-planet at the same time. Your grace would be the clan's delight, could you instead go to Korval."

"You're the delm's heir?" Anne was frowning slightly. "I didn't know that."

There was no reason for her to know; such information was not commonly shared with pleasure-loves. Yet Anne knew much else about him, he realized suddenly. It was possible that only Daav knew more.

"Forgive me. I am a'thodelm—heir to my mother, who is thodelm of yos'Galan. And I am nadelm—named to take the place of the delm, should—necessity—dictate." He paused, biting his lip, and then made her a gift: "The delm is Daav yos'Phelium, who is also my cha'leket—you would say, my foster-brother."

"And master trader, and master pilot," Anne murmured, naming the two facets of his melant'i she had cause to know well. "That's quite a hat-rack."

His brows twitched together. "Your pardon?"

"I'm sorry," she said, laughing lightly. "An old Terran joke had to do with the number of duties a single person was assigned to perform. Each of the duties was referred to as a 'hat,' and the traditional question was: 'What hat are you wearing today?'"

He stared at her. A joke? But—

"That is melant'i," he said, around a sense of wondering bafflement.

"More or less," Anne agreed with a shrug. "It's pretty old—a scholar's joke, you know." She changed the subject abruptly. "If your delm needs to see Shannie now, the solution is for you to go home so he can come to University. I certainly can't leave now—exam week is just beginning—and I don't have any other reason to go to Liad, Er Thom. Though I'm certain," she added, with a return of that unnatural caution, "that I would want to accommodate your delm."

"Of course you would." True enough. Who sane deliberately thwarted Korval? Er Thom reached for his wine, eyes sweeping down the column of her throat, to where her breasts pushed tight against the fabric of her shirt.

"When," he asked softly, dragging his eyes away with an effort and trying to ignore his hammering pulse. "When might you be able to leave University, were you interested in a visit to—to Liad?"

Anne shook her head, sharply, he thought, and seemed to shift her eyes from his face all a-sudden. "I—three weeks. About that, with getting in final grades, and—" She took a hard breath. "Er Thom."

"Yes." He slid nearer to her on the sofa, setting his leg against hers, and raised a hand to stroke one delightful breast through her shirt—deliberately teasing—and felt the quiver of her desire.

Lightly, he smoothed his fingertips across her nipple, feeling it harden as his own passion mounted, hard and demanding. He shifted closer, urgent fingers at the fastening of her shirt.

"Shan—" she began.

"Is asleep," he whispered, and brought his gaze up to her face. "Isn't he?"

Her eyes seem to lose focus—an instant only and he half-swooning with a desire that seemed only to build, and build, until he must—"Anne?"

"Asleep." She was back with him fully, fingers busy with his own clothing. "Er Thom, I need you. Quickly."

"Quickly," he agreed, and the passion built to a wave, hesitated in a pain that became ecstasy as it crashed, engulfing them entirely.

* * *

"THE RIGHT HONORABLE Lady Kareen yos'Phelium," Mr. pel'Kana announced with unnerving formality, and bowed low.

The lady's brother bit back a curse, spun his chair to face the door and swept his hand across the computer keypad, banishing the files he had been reviewing. The last move was sheer instinct: Kareen never hesitated to busy herself about any bit of business within the clan, a right she claimed as Eldest of Line. That Daav did not agree with this assessment of her melant'i barely slowed her and had never, so far as he knew, stopped her.

"Young brother." Kareen paused on the threshold long enough to incline her head—Elder to Younger—and allowed Mr. pel'Kana to seat her.

Inwardly, Daav sighed. True enough, Kareen could give him ten years, but it wearied one that she must always be playing that point. A variation, he thought, would add piquancy to a game of spite and dislike that had become all too predictable. Alas, that Kareen was not imaginative. He moved his hand, catching the servant's attention.

"Wine for Lady Kareen," he murmured.

This done, Mr. pel'Kana quit the room, with, Daav thought, marked relief. The Council of Clans rated Kareen expert in the field of proper action and called upon her often to unravel this or that sticky point of Code. It was to be regretted that she demanded expert's understanding of all she met.

Expert's understanding required that he rise and make his bow, honoring the eldest of Line yos'Phelium, and bidding her graceful welcome.

Daav thrust his legs out before him and crossed them at the ankle. Lacing his fingers over his belt buckle, he grinned at her in counterfeit good-humor.

"Good-day, Kareen. Whatever can you want from me now?"

She allowed the merest twitch of a brow to convey her displeasure at being addressed in the Low Tongue, and lifted her glass, pointedly tasting the wine.

Setting the glass aside, she met his eyes.

"I have lately been," she murmured, still in the mode of Elder Sibling to Younger, "at the house of Luken bel'Tarda, in the cause of visiting my heir."

Kareen's heir was six-year-old Pat Rin, recently fostered into the house of bel'Tarda by the delm's command. An imperfect solution, as the delm had admitted to his cha'leket, and one that had enraged Kareen unseemly.

Daav inclined his head. "And how do you find our cousin Luken?"

"Shatterbrained to a fault," his sister replied with regrettable accuracy. "As I had said to you on another occasion, sirrah, Luken bel'Tarda is hardly fit guardian for one of the Line Direct. However," she said, interrupting herself, "that is a different bolt of cloth." She fixed him with a stern eye.

"Cousin bel'Tarda informs me that yos'Galan searches for one of the Clan to enter into contract-alliance with Clan Nexon, in the person of its daughter Syntebra el'Kemin."

"yos'Galan has the delm's leave for this search," Daav said lazily, moving his hand in a gesture of disinterest. Kareen's mouth tightened.

"Then perhaps the delm is also aware that Thodelm yos'Galan had intended Syntebra el'Kemin as contract-wife for the a'thodelm." It cut very near disrespect, phrased as it yet was in Elder-to-Younger. But Kareen was expert in mode, as well, and kept her tongue nimbly in place.

"The delm is aware of the thodelm's intentions in that regard, yes." He lifted an eyebrow. "Is there some point to this, Kareen?"

"A small one," she said, "but sharp enough to prick interest." She leaned forward slightly in her chair. "The a'thodelm is gone off-planet, not to return before the end of the relumma, fleeing, one must conclude, the proposed alliance. Think of the insult to Nexon, that one intended for the contract-room at Trealla Fantrol should be shunted off to make do with—forgive me!—the like of Luken bel'Tarda."

"Luken is an amiable fellow," Daav said calmly. "Though I give you score—thought is not his best endeavor. As for the insult to Nexon—the contract has not yet been written, much less signed. If the lady hoped for an a'thodelm and nets instead a country cousin, still her clan gains ties with Korval, to her honor. I note that she is young, and while Nexon is all very well, it is hardly High House."

"Which matters to Korval not at all," Kareen said, with a touch of acid. "I recall that your own father was—solidly—Low House."

"But a pilot to marvel at," Daav returned, very gently. "So our mother praised him."

Kareen, who was no pilot at all, took a deep breath, visibly seeking calm.

"This does not address," she said after a moment, "how best to deal with the scandal."

Daav straightened slowly in his chair. He met his sister's eyes sternly.

"There will be no scandal," he said, and the mode was Ranking- Person-to-Lesser. "Understand me, Kareen."

"I do not—"

"If I hear one whisper," Daav interrupted, eyes boring into hers, "one syllable, of scandal regarding this, I shall know who to speak with. Do I make myself plain?"

It was to her credit that she did not lower her eyes, though the pulse-beat in her throat was rather rapid. "You make yourself plain," she said after a moment.

"Good," he said with exquisite gentleness. "Is there something else to which you desire to direct your delm's attention?"

She touched her tongue to her lips. "Thank you, I—believe there is not."

"Then I bid you good-day," he said, and inclined his head.

There was a fraction of hesitation before she rose and bowed an entirely unexceptional farewell.

"Good-day."

Mr. pel'Kana met her at the edge of the hallway and guided her away.

Daav waited until he no longer heard her footsteps, then he got up and went across the room to the wine rack. Kareen's glass, full, except for the single sip she had taken, he left on the elbow table by her chair. Mr. pel'Kana would come back presently and take it away.

He poured himself a glass of misravot and had a sip, walking to the window and looking out into the center garden. Flowers and shrubs rioted against the backdrop of Jelaza Kazone's massive trunk, threaded with thin stone walkways. Daav closed his eyes against the familiar, beloved scene.

Alone of all the orders he had from his mother, who had been delm before him, the mandate to preserve Kareen's life stood, senseless. It was doubtless some failing of his own vision, that he could not see what use she was to the delm she continually worked to thwart. The best that could be said of her was that she was an assiduous guard of the clan's melant'i, but such vigilance paled beside a long history of despite. Daav sighed.

Perhaps, as he grew older and more accustomed to his duties, he would acquire the vaunted Delm's Vision and see what it was his mother had found worth preserving in Kareen.

In the meanwhile, her latest bit of spite was put to rest, at least. Now if only Er Thom would finish with his mysterious errand, return home and mold himself to duty!

Not such an arduous duty, Daav thought, who had lately reviewed Syntebra el'Kemin's file. True, the lady was very young, and her second class pilot's license nothing out-of-the-way. But she would by all accounts make an agreeable enough contract-wife, and like to quickly produce an infant pilot.

Once the new yos'Galan was born, and accepted, and named, then Syntebra el'Kemin was free to return to her clan, richer by the mating-fee and bonus, with her melant'i enhanced by having married one of Korval.

Er Thom would likewise be free, to seek out Dutiful Passage and pick up his rounds as Korval's master trader.

And Daav would have a new niece or nephew to wonder over and nurture and guide—and a contract-wife to find for himself.


Chapter Eight

Love is best given to kin and joy taken in duty well done.

Vilander's Proverbs, Seventh Edition



THE SOUND OF WATER, splashing and running, brought him from dream to drowse, where he recalled that he lay on Anne's spring-shot sofa, covered over with the blanket from her own bed.

She had left him sometime in the early morning, amid a comedy of untangling limbs and wayward clothing, murmuring that the child had stirred. The blanket she had brought a moment later, and spread carefully on the sofa before bending and kissing him, too quickly, too lightly, on the lips.

"Thank you," she whispered and flitted away.

And for what did she thank him? Er Thom wondered, as the drowse began to thin. For breaking her peace and teaching her fear? Or for being so lost to decency that he twice allowed passion to overrule right conduct and made fierce, almost savage, love to a woman who was neither pleasure-love, wife, nor lifemate?

He twisted in his uncomfortable nest and inhaled sharply, smelled Anne's scent mingled with the blanket's scratchy, synthetic odor, and felt a surge of longing.

It was to have been so simple. He had only planned to find her, to tell her of his love—that had seemed important. Vital. That done, knowing his truth held by one who treasured it, he thought he might have faced the Healers with calm. And he would have come away from them a fit husband for Nexon's daughter, no impossible might-have-beens shadowing his heart.

Instead, he found a child who must someway be brought to the clan, a woman who seemed etched into his bones, so deep was his desire for her—and no easy solutions at all.

"Hi!" Warm, milk-sweet breath washed his face.

Er Thom opened his eyes, finding them on a level with a serious silver pair, thickly fringed with black lashes.

"Tra'sia volecta," he replied, in Low Liaden, as one did with children.

The winging white brows pulled together in a frown.

"Hi!" Shan repeated, at slightly louder volume.

Er Thom smiled. "Good morning," he said in Terran. "Did you sleep well?"

The child—his child—gave it consideration, head tipped to one side.

"Okay," he conceded at last, and sighed. "Hungry."

"Ah." The water continued to flow, noisily, nearby: Anne was doubtless in the shower. Er Thom wriggled free of the clinging blanket and stood. "Then I shall find you something to eat," he said and held out a hand.

His son took it without hesitation and the two of them went together into the tiny kitchen.


HE FOUND INSTANT soy-oats and made porridge, sprinkling it with raisins from a jar on the cluttered counter. The cold-box yielded milk and juice: Er Thom poured both and stood sipping the juice while he watched his son assay breakfast.

Shan was an accomplished trencherman, wielding his spoon with precision. There were a few, of course unavoidable, spills and splashes, and Er Thom stepped forward at one juncture to help the young gentleman roll up the sleeves of his pajamas, but for the most part breakfast was neatly under way by the time Anne strode into the kitchen.

"Oh, no!" She paused on the edge of the tiny space, laughter filling her face so that it was all he could do not to rush over and kiss her.

"Hi, Ma," her son said, insouciant, barely glancing up from his meal.

Anne grinned. "Hi, Shannie." She looked at Er Thom and shook her head, grin fading into something softer.

"My poor friend. We impose on you shamefully."

He cleared his throat, glancing away on the excuse of finishing his juice.

"Not at all," he murmured, putting the glass into the washer. "The child was hungry—and I was able to solve the matter for him." He met her eyes suddenly. "What should a father do?"

Her gaze slid away. "Yes, well. What a mother should do is grab a quick cup of coffee and then get this young con artist ready to go see his friend Marilla."

"Rilly!" Shan crowed, losing a spoonful of cereal to the table top. "Oops."

"Oops is right," Anne told him, pulling a paper napkin from the wall dispenser and mopping up the mess. "Finish up, Okay? And try to get most of it in your mouth."

"Clumsy Scooter," the child commented matter-of-factly.

"Single-minded Scooter," Anne returned, maneuvering her large self through the small space with deft grace. "Leave eating and talking at the same time to the experts—like Jerzy."

Shan laughed and adjusted his grip on the spoon. "Yes, Ma."

Anne shook her head and pulled her mug out of the wall unit. The acrid smell of chicory-laden synthetic coffee substitute—'coffeetoot,' according to most Terrans—was nearly overpowering. Er Thom stifled a sigh. Anne loved real coffee. He could easily have brought her a tin—or a case of tins—had he any notion she was reduced to drinking synthetic.

"Done," Shan announced, laying his spoon down with a clatter.

"How about the rest of your milk?" His mother asked, sipping gingerly at her mug.

"There is no need," Er Thom said, quietly, "for you to—cheat yourself of a meal. I can easily tend our child today."

She looked down at him, brown eyes sharp, face tense with reawakened caution. Er Thom kept his own face turned up to hers and fought down the desire to stroke her cheek and smooth the tension away.

"That's very kind of you, Er Thom," she said carefully, "but Rilly—Marilla—is expecting Shan today."

"Then I will take him to her," he replied, all gentleness and reason, "and you may eat before you go to teach your class."

"Er Thom—" She stopped, and, heart-struck, he read dread in her eyes.

"Anne." He did touch her—he must—a laying of his hand on her wrist, only that—and nearly gasped at the electrical jolt of desire. "Am I a thief, to steal our son away from you? I am able to care for him today, if you wish it, or to take him to your friend. In either case, we will both be here when you come home." He looked up into her face, saw trust warring with fear.

"Trust me," he whispered, feeling tears prick the back of his eyes. "Anne?"

She drew a deep, shaking breath and sighed it out sharply, laying her hand briefly on his shoulder.

"All right," she said, and gave him a wobbling smile. "Thank you, Er Thom."

"There is no thanks due," he told her, and shifted away to allow her access to the meager cupboards and crowded counter. "Eat your breakfast and I will wash our son's face."


"NOT COMING TODAY?" Marilla looked grave. "He isn't sick, is he, sweetie? Pel said there's a horrific flu-thing going through the creche—half the kids down with it and a third of the staff." She sighed, theatrically. "Pel's working a double-shift. Naturally."

"Naturally." Anne grinned, Pel was always finding an excuse to work double-shifts. Marilla theorized—hopefully—a late-shift love-interest. Anne privately thought that Marilla's fits of drama probably grated on her quieter, less demonstrative daughter.

"Shan's in the pink of health," Anne said. "His father's visiting and the two of them are spending some time together."

There, she thought, it sounds perfectly reasonable.

Marilla fairly gawked. "His father," she repeated, voice swooping toward the heights. "Shan's father is visiting you?"

Anne frowned slightly. "Is that against the law?"

"Don't be silly, darling. It's only that—of course he's fabulously wealthy."

As a matter of fact, Er Thom never seemed at a loss for cash, and his clothes were clearly handmade—tailored to fit his slim frame to perfection. But the jacket he wore most often was well-used, even battered, the leather like silk to the touch.

"Why should he be?" she asked, hearing the sharpness in her voice. "Fabulously wealthy?"

Marilla eyed her and gave an elaborate shrug. "Well, you know—everyone assumes Liadens must be rich. All those cantra. And the trade routes. And the clans, too, of course. Terribly old money—lots of investments. Not," she finished, glancing off screen, "that it's any of my business."

That much was true, Anne thought tartly, and was immediately sorry. It's only Marilla, she told herself, doing her yenta routine.

"Rilly, I've got to go. Class."

"All right, sweetheart. Call and let me know your plans." The screen went dark.

My plans? Anne thought, gathering together the pieces of Comp Ling One's final. What plans?


DURING HER FREE period, she banged back into her office for an hour's respite, juggling a handful of mail, the remains of Liaden Lit's exam and a disposable plastic mug full of vending-machine soup.

Dumping the class work into the "Out" basket near the door, she sat down at her desk, pried the top off the plastic mug and began to go through her mail.

Notice of departmental meeting—another one? she thought, sighing. Registrar's announcement of deadline for grades. Research Center shutdown for first week of semester break. Request for syllabi for next semester. A card from the makers of Mix-n-Match, offering to upgrade Shan's model to something called an Edu-Board. A—

Her fingers tingled at the touch—a gritty beige envelope, with "Communications Center" stamped across it in red block letters that dwarfed her name, printed neatly in one corner.

A beam-letter. She smiled and snatched it up, eagerly breaking the seal. A beam-letter meant either a note from her brother Richard or a letter from Learned Doctor Jin Del yo'Kera, of the University of Liad, Solcintra.

The letter slid out of the envelope—one thin, crackling sheet. From Richard then, she decided, unfolding the page. Doctor yo'Kera's letters were long—page upon page of scholarly exploration, answers to questions Anne had posed, questions re-asked, re-examined, paths of thought illuminated . . .

It took her a moment to understand that the letter was not from Richard, after all.

It took rather longer to assimilate the message that was put down, line after line, in precise, orderly Terran, by—by Linguistic Specialist Drusil tel'Bana, who signed herself "colleague."

Scholar tel'Bana begged grace from Professor Davis for the intrusion into her affairs and the ill news which necessity demanded accompany this unseemly breaking of her peace.

Learned Doctor yo'Kera, Scholar tel'Bana's own mentor and friend, was dead, the notes for his latest work in disarray. Scholar tel'Bana understood that work to be based largely, if not entirely, on Professor Davis' elegant line of research, augmented by certain correspondence.

"It is for this reason, knowing the wealth of your thought, the depth of your scholarship, that I beg you most earnestly to come to Liad and aid me in reconstructing these notes. The work was to have been Jin Del's life-piece, so he had told me, and he likened your own work to an unflickering flame, lighting him a path without shadows."

Then the signature , and the date, painstakingly rendered in the common calendar: Day 23, Standard year 1360.

Anne sat back, the words misting out of sense.

Doctor yo'Kera, dead? It seemed impossible that the death of someone she had never physically met, who had existed only as machine-transcribed words on grainy yellow paper should leave her with this feeling of staggering loss.

In the hallway, a bell jangled, signaling class-change in ten minutes. She had an exam to give.

Awkwardly, she folded Drusil tel'Bana's letter and put in her pocket. She gathered up Comp Ling Two's exam booklets, automatically consulting the checklist. Right.

The five-minute bell sounded and she left the office, taking care to lock the door behind her, leaving the vending-machine soup to congeal in its flimsy plastic mug.


Chapter Nine

The delm of any given clan, when acting for the Clan, is commonly referred to by the clan's name: "Guayar has commanded thus and so . . ."



To make matters even more confusing, it is assumed all persons of melant'i will have a firm grounding in Liaden heraldry, thus opening up vast possibilities for double-entendre and other pleasantries. "A hutch of bunnies," will indicate, en masse, the members of Clan Ixin, whose clan-sign is a stylized rabbit against a rising moon. Korval, whose distinctive Tree-and-Dragon is perhaps the most well-known clan-sign among non-Liadens, is given the dubious distinction of dragonhood and a murmured, "The Dragon has lifted a wing," should be taken as a word to the wise.

—From A Terran's Guide to Liad



SHAN ACCEPTED THE surrey ride with the cheerful matter-of-factness that seemed his chiefest characteristic. He settled into the oversized seat next to Er Thom, pulled off his cap and announced, "Jerzy Quad C. C. Three. Seven. Five. Two. A. Four. Nine. C."

Fingers over the simple code-board, Er Thom flung a startled glance at the child, who continued, "Rilly Quad T. T. One. Eight. Seven. Eight. P. Three. Six. T."

"And home?" Er Thom murmured.

"Home Quad S," Shan said without hesitation. "S. Two. Four. Five. Seven. Z. One. Eight. S."

Correct to a digit. Er Thom inclined his head gravely. "Very good. But today we are going elsewhere. A moment, please." He tapped the appropriate code into the board and leaned back, pulling the single shock-strap across his lap and Shan's together and locking it into place.

The child snuggled against his side with a soft sigh and put a small brown hand on Er Thom's knee.

"Who?" he asked and Er Thom stiffened momentarily, wondering how best—

The child stirred under his arm, twisting about to look into his face with stern silver eyes. "Who are you?" he demanded. "Name."

Er Thom let out the breath he had been holding. "Mirada," he said, the Low Liaden word for "father." "My name is Er Thom yos'Galan, Clan Korval."

The white brows pulled together. "Mirada?" he said, hesitantly.

"Mirada," Er Thom replied firmly, settling his arm closer around the small body and leaning back into the awkward seat.

The boy curled once more against his side. "Where we go?"

Er Thom closed his eyes, feeling his son's warm body burning into his side, thinking of Anne, and of love, and the demands of melant'i.

"To the spaceport."


DRAGON'S WAY admitted them, hatch lifting silently. Beyond, the lights came up, the life-systems cycled to full, and the piloting board initiated primary self-check.

Shan hesitated on the edge of the piloting chamber, small hand tensing in Er Thom's larger one.

"Mirada?"

"Yes, my child?"

"Go home."

"Presently," Er Thom replied, taking half a step into the room.

"Go home now," the boy insisted, voice keying toward panic.

"Shan." Er Thom spun and went to his knees, one hand cupping a thin brown cheek. "Listen to me, denubia. We shall go home very soon, I promise. But you must first help me to do a thing, all right?"

"Do?" Doubtful silver eyes met his for an unnervingly long moment.

"All right," Shan said at last, adding, "sparkles."

He lifted a hand to touch Er Thom's cheek. "Soft." He grinned. "Jerzy prickles."

Er Thom bit his lip. Jerzy Entaglia would be bearded, Terran male that he was. But why should Er Thom yos'Galan's son be familiar with the feel of an outsider's face?

He sighed, and forced himself to think beyond the initial outrage. Jerzy Entaglia stood in some way the child's foster-father. The success of his efforts in that role was before Er Thom now: Alert, intelligent, good-natured and bold-hearted. What should Er Thom yos'Galan accord Jerzy Entaglia, save all honor, and thanks for a gift precious beyond price?

"Come," he said to his son, very gently. He rose and took the small hand again in his, leading the boy into the ship. This time, there was no resistance.


SHAN SAT ON A stool by the autodoc, watching curiously as Er Thom rolled up his sleeve and sprayed antiseptic on his hand and arm.

"Cold!"

"Only for a moment," Er Thom murmured, tapping the command sequence into the autodoc's panel. He looked down at his son and slipped a hand under the chin to tip the small face up. "This may hurt you, a little. Can you be very brave?"

Shan gave it consideration. "I'll try."

"Good." Er Thom went down on one knee by the stool and put his arm around Shan's waist. The other hand he used to guide the child's fingers into the 'doc's sampling unit. "Your hand in here—yes. Hold still now, denubia . . ."

He leaned his cheek against the soft hair, raising his free hand to toy with a delicate earlobe, eyes on the readout. When the needle hit the red line, he used his nails, quickly, deftly, to pinch Shan's ear, eliciting a surprised yelp.

"Mirada!"

The unit chimed completion of the routine; the readout estimated three minutes for analysis and match. Er Thom came up off the floor in a surge, sweeping Shan from the stool and whirling him around.

"Well done, bold-heart!" he cried in exuberant Low Liaden and heard his son squeal with laughter. He set him down on his feet and offered a hand, remembering to speak Terran. "Shall I show you a thing?"

"Yes!" his son said happily and took the offered hand for the short walk back to the piloting chamber.


BRONZE WINGS SPREAD wide, the mighty dragon hovered protectively above the Tree, head up and alert, emerald-bright eyes seeming to look directly into one's soul. Shan took a sharp breath and hung slightly back.

"It is Korval's shield," Er Thom murmured, though of course the child was too young to understand all that meant. He ran his palm down the image. "A picture, you see?"

The boy stepped forward and Er Thom lifted him, bringing him close enough to run his own hand down the smooth enameled surface. He touched the dragon's nose.

"Name?"

"Ah." Er Thom smiled and cuddled the small body closer. "Megelaar."

"Meg'lar," Shan mispronounced and touched the Tree. "Pretty."

"Jelaza Kazone," his father told him softly. "You may touch it in truth—soon. And when you are older, you may climb in it, as your uncle and I did, when we were boys."

Shan yawned and Er Thom felt a stab of remorse. A long and busy morning for a child, in truth!

"Would you like a nap?" he murmured, already starting down the hall toward the sleeping quarters.

"Umm," he son replied, body relaxing even as he was carried along.

He was more asleep than awake by the time Er Thom laid him down in the bed meant for the delm's use and covered him with a quilt smelling of sweetspice and mint.

"'Night, Mirada," he muttered, hand fisting in the rich fabric.

"Sleep well, my child," Er Thom returned softly, and bent to kiss the stark brown cheek.

On consideration, and recalling his own boyhood, he opened the intercom and locked the door behind him before going back to the autodoc.

"yos'Galan, indeed," he murmured a few moments later, carrying the 'doc's gene-map with him into the piloting chamber.

He sat in the pilot's chair, eyes tracing the intricate pattern revealed in the printout. yos'Galan, indeed. He glanced at the board, fingered the gene-map and looked, with distaste, down at his shirt. He was not accustomed to sleeping in his clothing, and then rousting about, rumpled and unshowered, for half-a-day afterwards.

The board beckoned. Duty was clear. Er Thom sighed sharply and lay the gene-map atop the prime piloting board.

He wanted a shower, clean clothes. What better time than now, with the child, for the moment, asleep?

A shower and clean clothes, he thought, removing his jacket and laying it across the chair's back. Duty could wait half-an-hour.


"ER THOM? . . . Shannie!"

Anne let her briefcase fall as she darted forward, flashing through the tiny apartment: Empty bedroom, dark bathroom, silent kitchen.

"Gone."

Pain hit in a hammer blow, driving the breath out of her in a keen that might have been his name.

Er Thom! Er Thom, you promised . . .

But what were promises, she thought dizzily, where there was melant'i to keep? Anne swallowed air, shook her head sharply.

Shan was well, of that she was absolutely certain. Er Thom would not harm a child. She knew it.

But he would take his child to Liad. Must take his child to Liad. He had asked her to go with him on that urgent mission—and she—she had thought there was an option of saying no.

"Annie Davis, it's a rare, foolish gel ye are," she muttered, and was suddenly moving.

Three of her long strides took her across the common room. She smacked the door open and burst into the hallway at a dead run, heading for the Quad, the surrey station.

And the spaceport.


SHE SHOULD NEVER have trusted him, Anne thought fiercely. She should have never let him back into her life. She should have never let him back into her bed. Gods, it had all been an act, put on to lull her fears, so that she would leave Shan with him—she saw it now. And she—she so starved for love, so besotted with a beautiful face and caressing ways, incapable of thinking that Er Thom would do her harm, willing herself to believe he would—or could—stop being Liaden . . .

She flashed down the stairs and out into the Quad, running as if her life depended upon it and, gods, what if he had already gone? Taken her son and lifted, gone into hyperspace, Jumping for Liad—how would she ever find him again? What Liaden would take the part of a Terran barbarian against one who was master trader, a'thodelm, and heir to his delm?

There are not so—very many—yos'Galans, Er Thom murmured in memory, and Anne gasped, speeding toward the blue light that marked the surrey station.

She was halfway across the Quad when they emerged, the boy straddling the man's shoulders. The man was walking unhurried and smooth, as if the combined weight of the child and the duffel bag he also carried was just slightly less than nothing.

"I'lanta!" the child cried, and the man swung right.

"Dri'at!" the boy called out then and the man obediently went to the left.

Anne slammed to a halt, fist pressed tight against her mouth, watching them cross toward her.

Shan was exuberant, hanging onto the collar of Er Thom's battered leather jacket, Er Thom's hands braceleting his ankles.

"I'lanta!" Shan called again, heels beating an abbreviated tattoo against the man's chest.

But Er Thom had seen her. He increased his pace, marching in a straight line, ignoring it entirely when Shan grabbed a handful of bright golden hair and commanded, "I'lanta, Mirada!"

"Anne?" The violet eyes were worried. He reached up and swung the child down, retaining a firm hold on a small hand. His other hand lifted and stopped a bare inch from her face, while she stood there like a stump and stared at the two of them, afraid to move. Afraid to breathe . . .

"You're weeping," Er Thom murmured, hand hesitating, dropping, disappearing into a jacket pocket. "My friend, what is wrong?"

She drew a shaky breath, her first in some time, or so it felt, and found the courage to move her hand from before her mouth.

"I came home," she said, hearing how her voice wobbled, "and you were gone."

"Ah." Distress showed, clearly, for a heartbeat. Then Er Thom was bowing, graceful and low. "I am distraught to have caused you pain," he murmured, in Terran, though the inflection was all High Liaden. "Forgive me, that my thoughtlessness has brought you tears."

He straightened and moved Shan forward, relinquishing his hand. "Go to your mother, denubia."

"Ma?" The light blue eyes were worried; she felt his uncertainty as if it were her own.

Anne sank to her knees and pulled him close in a savage hug, her cheek against his.

"Hi, Shannie," she managed, though her voice still quavered. "You have a nice day?"

"Nice," he agreed, arms tight around her neck. "Saw Meg'lar. Saw—spaceport." He wriggled, proud of himself. "Saw ship and store and—and—"

He wriggled again, imperatively. Anne loosened her grip, found herself looking up into Er Thom's face.

Very solemn, that face, and the violet eyes shadowed so that she longed to reach out and touch him, to beg his pardon for having doubted—

Enough of that, Annie Davis, she told herself sternly. You touch the man and lose your sense—only see how it happened yestereve.

"It was necessary that I have clothes," Er Thom said gently, fingers brushing the bag at his hip. "Also, I have arranged that food be delivered to your dwelling—" His hand came up, fingers soothing the air between them. "It was seen that food was in shortage. I mean no offense, Anne."

"No, of course not," she whispered, and cleared her throat. She took Shan's hand and rose, looking down into her friend's beautiful, troubled face. "Er Thom—"

His fingers flickered again—indicating more information forthcoming.

"It is also necessary that I engage a—a room. This has not yet been done. If you desire to keep our son by you, I will complete this task." He hesitated, slanting a glance at her face from beneath thick golden lashes.

"I ask—may I visit you this evening? After supper?" He inclined his head. "It will be entirely as you wish, Anne, and nothing else. My word upon it."

"A room?" she repeated, looking at him in astonishment. She took a breath. "Er Thom, how long are you staying here?"

He glanced aside, then back to her face.

"Three weeks, you had said, until you might come to Liad."

"I said no such thing!" she protested, and felt Shan's hand tense in hers. She took another breath, deep and calming. "Er Thom, I am not going—" Then she remembered the letter in her sleeve and the unknown scholar's plea.

"Anne?"

She bit her lip. "I—perhaps—I will—need to go to Liad," she said, suddenly aware that it was cool on the Quad and that she had dashed out without snatching up a jacket. "A friend of mine—a colleague—has died, very suddenly, and I am asked to—" She shook her head sharply. "I haven't decided. The news just came this morning."

"Ah." He inclined his head and murmured the formal phrase of sorrow for a death outside one's own clan: "Al'bresh venat'i."

"Thank you," Anne said and hesitated. "You can stay with us, you know," she heard herself say. "I know that the couch isn't what you're used to . . ." She let the words die out, even as Er Thom's fingers flickered negative.

"I do not think that—would be wise," he said softly, though the glance he spared her was anything but soft. "May I visit you, Anne? This evening?"

"All right," she said, around a surprising tightening of her heart. "For a little while. I have—examinations to grade."

"Thank you." He bowed to her, touched his fingertips to Shan's cheek.

"This evening," he murmured and turned, boot heels clicking on the Quad-stones as he walked back toward the surrey station.

"'Bye, Mirada!" Shan called, waving energetically.

Er Thom glanced back over his shoulder and raised a hand, briefly.

"C'mon, Shannie," Anne murmured, looking at her son so she wouldn't have to watch her lover out of sight, as she had done once before. "Let's go home."


Chapter Ten

The most dangerous phrase in High Liaden is coab minshak'a: "Necessity exists."

—From A Terran's Guide to Liad



 . . . GUIDE THE DELM'S attention to the appended gene-profile for Shan yos'Galan, who has twenty-eight Standard Months.

"The mother of this child is Anne Davis, native of New Dublin, professor of comparative linguistics, Northern Campus, University Central, Terran Sector Paladin.

One regrets that a profile for Professor Davis is not at this time available. Although professional necessities have denied her the opportunity to pursue her own license, she is descended of a line of pilots. Her elder brother, Richard, holds first-class-pending-master; her mother, Elizabeth Murphy, had held first-class, light transport to trade class AAA. The records of these pilots is likewise appended, for the delm's information.

It is one's intention to bring the child with his mother before the delm's eyes on the second day of the next relumma, the earliest moment Professor Davis may be released from the necessities of her work. One implores the delm to See the child welcomed among Korval, to the present joy and future profit of the clan.

One also begs the delm's goodwill for Professor Davis. She is a person of melant'i who is owed Balance of Korval through the error of the clan's son Er Thom.

In respect to the delm,

Er Thom yos'Galan."

"Twenty-eight Standard Months?" Daav stared at the screen, torn between disbelief and a woeful desire to laugh. "I should allow that a matter to resolve, indeed!"

On the desk beside the pin-beam unit, Relchin lifted his head and stared daggers of outraged comfort, which tipped the scale firmly to laughter. Daav chucked the big cat under the chin and hit the advance key, calling up the appended gene-map.

"Well, and the child's out of yos'Galan," he admitted to Relchin a moment or two later. "But what's it to do with me if a Terran lady sees a way to combine profit with pleasure? Especially where there's young Syntebra so eager to wed an a'thodelm and do the thing by contract and Code, with no untoward scandals." He skritched the cat absently behind the ears.

"Er Thom wants to buy the Terran lady off, that seems the gist of the thing, don't you think? And he wants the boy for the clan, though as Aunt Petrella and my sister will no doubt both inform us, Shan is not a yos'Galan name." He frowned at the gene-map once more.

"Child might well be the devil of a pilot. Er Thom's very good, you know, Relchin. One needs make a push to stay abreast of him—though it won't do to let him know that, of course. The clan is always eager to welcome pilots . . . The matter comes down to the lady's price, as I see it—and the lady's price must be high, indeed, else why did he simply not pay it out of his private account?"

The cat vouchsafed no answer and after a moment Daav called up the records of the lady's brother and mother.

"Adequate, certainly, but the lady herself is no pilot. Who can say but she's no more than a bumble-fingered pretty-face and the child takes all from her? Only see how it is with Kareen, eh, Relchin? Though it must be recalled that yos'Galan, at least, has always bred true."

He was quiet for a time then, absently stroking the cat and staring not at the screen but at a point just above it.

"No, it won't do," he announced at last, snapping out of the chair and striding to the bar. He poured himself some misravot and wandered out into the middle of the room, holding the glass and glaring down at the rug.

"Has Er Thom run mad?" he inquired, perhaps of the cat, which was busily washing its back. "Implore the delm to See a child unacknowledged by yos'Galan? Put the clan into uproar, set thodelm against delm, open vistas untold to Kareen's despite and all for the sake of an untried child and some person named Anne—"

He stopped, dropping into a stillness so absolute the cat paused in its ablutions to stare at him out of wide yellow eyes.

"Anne Davis." He sipped wine, pensively, head cocked to a side. "Anne Davis, now." He sighed lightly. "It really is too bad, the things Scout candidates are required to read. But is it the identical Anne Davis, I wonder? And was it Anne Davis at all? Certainly it was linguistics—and rather startling in its way. My pitiful memory . . ."

Talking thus to himself, he went back to the desk, set aside the wine and opened a search program. In response to the command query he typed in a rapid half-dozen keywords, struck "go" and leaned back in his chair.

"Now—" he began, looking significantly at the cat.

He got no further. The first chime signaling a match had barely ceased when the second, third, fourth, fifth sounded. There was a pause of less than a heartbeat before the sixth and final match was announced and by that time Daav was blinking in bemusement at the screen-full of information his first keyword had produced.

"Ah yes," he murmured, touching the 'continue' key. "Exactly so."

Anne Davis' list of publications ran two full screens, including the compilation and cross-check of major Terran dialects Daav had half-recalled. He noted the work had been upgraded twice since; the version he had read had been her doctoral paper.

He also noted that the focus of her study had undergone a fascinating shift of direction, the seeds of which were certainly to be found in that earliest work. Yet the intellectual courage required to begin the painstaking sifting and matching of Liaden and base-Terran, not to forget the language of the enemy—Yxtrang—seeking commonality . . .

"A concept worthy of a Scout," Daav murmured, ordering the entire bibliography for his private library with a flash of quick golden fingers across the board. "Bold heart, Scholar. May the luck show you fair face."

The biography, accessed next, jibed very well with Er Thom's letter. Heidelberg Fellow Anne Davis, author of many scholarly papers (list appended) in the field of comparative linguistics, was indeed a native of New Dublin in the Terran Sector of Faerie. She possessed one sibling, Richard Davis, pilot; and was descended of Elizabeth Murphy, pilot, deceased, and Ian Davis, engineer, also deceased.

She was listed as the parent of one child, Shan yos'Galan, born Standard Year 1357.

"And a matter of very public record," Daav commented wryly. "One begins to comprehend Er Thom's feelings in the matter."

Eyes still on the bio, he reached out and spun the pin-beam screen around.

"A person of melant'i, forsooth," he murmured, frowning at the letter. "Is it possible he begs a solving for the lady? True enough, she will have no delm to solve for her, and if the child is to come to Korval . . ." He rescued his wine glass and leaned back in the chair, staring at the cloud-painted ceiling and sipping.

On the desk, the cat stirred, stretched and walked over the small gap to the man's lap, leisurely making itself comfortable.

"It may be alliance she wants," Daav murmured, toying with the cat's ear. "No bad thing, there, Relchin—and Professor Davis in pursuit of a notion likely to have found approval with Grandmother Cantra. There's University of Liad, after all, just over the valley wall—and all the lovely native speakers . . ."

The cat purred and moved its head so the man's fingers were tickling its chin.

"Simple for you to say so," Daav complained. "You're not asked to solve for one outside the clan! Nor is the coming of this child to Korval at all regular. What can Er Thom have been about?"

But the big cat only purred harder and kneaded Daav's thigh with well-clawed front feet.

"Stop that, brute, or I'll need a medic." Daav sighed. "Perhaps I should travel to University, see the lady and—no." He finished his wine and reached out a long arm to set the glass aside.

"Best to read the letter precisely as written, Relchin, eh? In which manner we must graciously respond to our erring a'thodelm and solicit details upon the nature of Korval's debt to Professor Davis."

So saying, and to the cat's disapproval, he spun the chair around to the pin-beam unit and began to compose his reply.


SHAN MADE A HEARTY dinner and went to bed without demur, a circumstance so unusual that Anne felt his forehead for signs of fever.

There was none, of course, which she had known in that secret pocket of her heart where she also knew if he slept or waked, was calm or distressed. The child was tired, that was all.

"Mirada wore you out, laddie, didn't he just?"

"Mirada?" Shan's lashes flickered and the slanting brows pulled together. "Mirada?

"Later, Shannie," Anne soothed, brushing the white hair back from the broad, brown forehead. "Go to sleep now."

But she had no need to coax; her inner sense told her sleep had already laid its spell.

Out in the great room a few minutes later, she shook her head at the parcels that had been delivered from the local grocer. Gods only knew where the man thought she was going to put all the various goodies he'd ordered, which included two tins of fabulously expensive, real-bean coffee.

"Well, and perhaps some of it will be for himself," she murmured, turning her back on the pile and resolutely picking up the first examination booklet.

She was very nearly half-way through the lot when the doorbell sounded, startling her into a curse.

"Ah, there, Annie Davis," she chided herself as she crossed the room, "always losing yourself inside the work . . ."

"Good evening." Er Thom bowed low as she opened the door—the Bow of Honored Esteem, she thought, frowning slightly. Most usually, he greeted her with the Bow Between Equals. She wondered, uneasily, what the deviation meant.

"Good evening," she returned, with as much calm as she could muster. She stepped aside, motioning him in with a wave of her hand. "Come in, please."

He did, offering the wine he carried with another slight bow. "A gift for the House."

Anne took the bottle, uneasiness growing toward alarm. Er Thom usually brought wine on his visits—a Liaden custom, she understood, which demonstrated the goodwill of the visitor. But he had never before been so formal—so alien—in his manner to her.

Clutching the symbol of his goodwill, Anne attempted her own bow—Gratitude Toward the Guest. "Thank you. Will you take a glass with me?"

"It would be welcome," he returned, nothing but stiff formality, with all of her friend and her lover hid down in the depths of his eyes. He moved a graceful hand, showing her the cluttered worktable and piles of exam booklets. "I would not, however, wish to interrupt your work."

"Oh." She stared at the desk, then at the clock on the shelf above it. "My work will take me another few hours," she said, hesitantly. "A break now, for a few moments, to drink wine with—with my friend . . ." She let it drift off, biting her lip in an agony of uncertainty.

"Ah." Something moved across his face—a flicker, nothing more. But she knew that he was in some way relieved. Almost, she thought he smiled, though in truth he did nothing more than incline his head.

"I suggest a compromise," he said softly. "You to your worktable and I to stow the groceries. The wine may wait until—friends—are able."

"Stow the groceries?" She blinked at him and then at the pile of boxes. "All that stuff won't fit in my kitchen, Er Thom. I'd hoped some was for you."

Surprisingly, he laughed—sweet, rare sound that it was—and she found herself smiling in response.

"A cargo-balancing exercise, no more." He reached out and slipped the bottle from her grasp. "I shall contrive. In the meanwhile, you to your examinations, eh?"

"I to my examinations," she agreed, still smiling like a fool, absurdly, astonishingly relieved. "Thank you, Er Thom."

"It is nothing," he murmured, moving off toward the pile.

He paused briefly to take off his jacket and drape it over the back of the easy chair before continuing on to the kitchen.

Ridiculously light of heart, Anne went back to her desk and opened the next blue book.


TRUE TO HIS WORD, Er Thom found room for every blessed thing in the boxes, then neatly folded the boxes and slid them into the thin space between the coldbox and the washer.

He used the few extra minutes Anne needed to finish grading her last paper to rustle up some of the freshly-foraged foodstuffs and carry the snack, with wine and glasses, into the great room.

"That looks wonderful!" Anne said, eyeing the tray of cheese and vegetables and sauce with real appreciation. She smiled at Er Thom and stretched high on her toes to work out the kinks, fingers brushing the ceiling, as always.

"Blasted low bridge," she muttered, as she always did. "How much could it cost to add an extra two inches of height?"

"Quite a bit, I should think," Er Thom replied seriously. "Two inches on such a scale of building very soon becomes miles." He moved his shoulders, studiously watching the wine he was pouring into the glasses, rather than the delightful spectacle of her stretching tall and taut above him. "And cantra."

Anne grinned. "I expect you're right, at that. But it's a nuisance to always be bumping my fingers on the ceiling tiles."

She sank down into a corner of the sofa and took the glass he offered her. "Thank you, my dear, for all your labors on my behalf."

For a moment he froze, panicked that she might somehow know of the plea he had made on her behalf to Daav—Then he shook himself, for of course she only meant the task this evening, which was in truth nothing to one accustomed to balancing the holding pods of a starship.

"You are welcome," he said, since she seemed to wish hear him say it, and was rewarded by her smile.

Carefully, he sat on the opposite end of the sofa, striving to ignore the way his blood heated with her nearness, the shameful desires that clamored for ascendancy over honor and melant'i . . . He sipped wine, set the glass gently aside and steeled himself to look up into her face.

"I regret," he said, clearing his throat because his voice had gone unexpectedly hoarse. "I regret very much to have caused you pain, Anne. It was not understood that you would arrive home at an early hour. I erred and I wish you will forgive me."

She blinked. So that was the reason for his earlier stiffness. Almost, she reached out to touch his cheek. It was only the memory of the searing, unreasoning passion that the least touch of him awoke that kept her hand resting lightly on her knee.

"I forgive you freely," she said instead, smiling at him warmly. "It was—foolish of me to have panicked that way. You had given me your word and I should have—" Dangerous ground here: Fatal to say that she had doubted his word. "—I should have remembered that."

"Ah." He gave her a slight smile in return. "You are kind."

He hesitated then, putting off the moment when he must, in honor, ask what melant'i trembled to conceive. And it was not, he admitted to himself, wryly, as he would admit it to Daav, honor's argument that most compelled him. Rather, it was happy circumstance that honor in this instance bent neatly 'round his heart's desire.

He sipped his wine and had a nibble of cheese, all but trembling with desiring her. Sternly, he pushed the passion aside. He had sworn that it would be precisely as Anne wished it, with none of Er Thom yos'Galan's unruly passions to disarm her. There were proposals to be considered here; trade to be engaged upon. He took a deep breath.

"Anne?"

"Yes, love?" The intensity of her gaze betrayed a passion as unruly as his own and almost in that instant of meeting her eyes he was lost again.

Gritting his teeth, he shifted his gaze and swallowed against the flood tide of desire.

"I have a—proposal," he managed, hearing his voice shiver with breathlessness. "If you will hear me."

"All right," she said. Her voice seemed odd, as well, though when he turned to look at her, she had her face averted, watching the wine glass she had set upon the table. "What proposal, Er Thom?"

"I propose—" Gods, his thodelm would berate him and his delm also—perhaps. She was outside the Book of Clans—Terran, Terran, Terran to the core of her. She was bread to nourish him, water to slake him—desire to torment him until he could do nothing else but have her, though it flew in the face of clan and Code and—yes—of kin.

"I propose," he repeated, forcing himself to meet her eyes with a calmness he did not feel, "that we two be wed."


Chapter Eleven

If fate decrees you'll be lost at sea, you'll live through many a train wreck.

—Terran Proverb


 


"WED?" Astonishment overrode exultation—barely. With the force of both emotions rocking her, she heard her own voice, stammering: "But—I'm not Liaden."

Er Thom smiled slightly, slender shoulders moving in a fluid not-shrug. "And neither am I Terran," he said, with a certain dryness. He half-extended a hand to her, thought better of it and reached instead for his wine glass.

"It would be proper," he murmured, with exquisite care, for who was he to instruct an equal adult in proper conduct? "Proper—and well-intended—for you and I to be bound by contract—wed—at the time our son is Seen by Korval."

Exultation died with an abruptness that was agony. No lover-like words from Er Thom, Anne thought with uncharacteristic bitterness—when had she had even an endearment from him? This was expedience, nothing more. Unthinkable that a man of Er Thom yos'Galan's melant'i came home to show his delm a doxy and a bastard when he might, with only a little expense, show instead a wife and legitimate heir. Anne blinked through a sudden glaze of tears and willed herself to believe that the pounding of her heart was caused by anger, not anguish.

"No, thank you," she said shortly, proud that her voice was sharp and even. She turned her head, refusing to look at him, and reached for her glass.

"Hah." His hand—slim golden fingers, one crowned by the carved amethyst ring of a master trader—his hand lay lightly on her wrist, restraining her, waking fire in her belly.

"I have given offense," he murmured, taking his hand away. "My intention was—far otherwise, Anne. Please. What must I do to bring us back into Balance?"

"I'm not offended," she lied, and managed to meet his eyes squarely. "I just don't want to marry you."

Winged golden brows lifted, eloquent of disbelief. "Forgive me," he said gently. "One recalls the joy shared just recently—as well as that which we knew—before . . ."

"Did I say I didn't want to go to bed with you?" Anne snapped, all out of patience with him—and with herself. "Far too much of that, my lad! But lust is less of a reason for marrying than, than because it's—proper—and I'm damned if I'll marry for either!" She took a hard breath, barely able to see his face through the dazzle of tears—angry tears.

"It's your own notion to be taking Shannie to show your delm, not mine. For all of me he can stay uncounted 'til the end of his days! He's a Terran citizen, which is good enough for quite a number of folk, who manage to have good, long, productive lives and—"

"Anne." He was very close, one knee on the sofa cushion while his hands caught her shoulders, kneading the tight muscles. "Anne."

She gasped, half-choked and lifted a hand to wipe at her eyes. Unaccustomed, she looked up into Er Thom's face, heart melting at the distress in his eyes even as passion flared and took fire at his nearness.

Achingly slow, he lifted a hand, ran light, trembling fingers down her damp cheek, over her lips, purple eyes wide and mesmerizing.

"I love you," he whispered, "Anne Davis."

"No." It was a battle to close her eyes, to deny her body the solace of him. Every thread of her ached to believe that whispered avowal, saving only one small bit of sanity that clamored it was nothing but expediency, still.

"No," she said again, eyes shuttered against him, trembling with need. "Er Thom, stop this. Please."

Instead, she felt warm breath stir the hairs at her temple an instant before his lips pressed there.

"I love you," he said again, wonderful, seductive voice shaking with passion. He stroked her hair back with tender fingers, kissed the edge of her ear. "Anne . . ."

"Er Thom." Her own voice was anything but steady. "Er Thom, you gave me your word . . ."

She could have sworn she felt the jolt go through him, the icy jag of sanity that broke the flaming fascination of desire for the instant he required to jerk back and away, coming to his feet in a blur of motion—and going entirely still, hands firmly behind his back.

"Oh, gods."

Anne shuddered, finding his abrupt absence less easement than added torment. What is this? she asked herself, for the dozenth time since yesterday. She had felt a rapport with Er Thom yos'Galan almost from the first. But this—compulsion—reminded her of the ancient stories of the Sidhe, the Faerie Lords of old Terra, and the enchantments they wove to ensnare mere mortals . . .

Except one sight of Er Thom's sweat-damp face and anguished eyes proved beyond human doubt that if this was enchantment, then he was netted as tightly as she.

She let out the breath she hadn't known she was holding and straightened against the cushions. "Er Thom . . ."

He bowed, effectively cutting her off. "Anne, only think," he said quickly, his accent more pronounced than she had ever heard it. "You say you will be traveling to Liad, that there is duty owed one who has died. What better than to travel with one who is your friend, to guest in the house of your son's kin for as long as you like? Everything shall be as you wish—" He bit his lip and glanced sharply away, then back.

"If you do not wish us to wed, why then, there is nothing more to be said. I—certainly I cannot know your necessities. However, you must know that my necessities require our son to show his face to the delm no later than the second day of the next relumma—three Standard weeks, as you had said." He moved his hands, showing her palms, fingers spread wide, concealing nothing.

"I tell you all," he said, the pace of his words slowing somewhat. "Anne. I do not wish to wound you, or to frighten you, or to steal our son away from you. But he must be brought to the delm. He is yos'Galan! Provision must be made—and yourself! Will you stand alone and without allies, having borne a child to Korval?"

Anne stared, breathless with hearing him out. "Is that—dangerous?" she asked.

"Dangerous?" Er Thom repeated, blankly. He moved a hand, a gesture of tossing aside. "Ah, bah! It is games of melant'i. Nothing to alarm one who is prudent." He tipped his head, bit his lip as if unsure how to continue.

"It is prudent to gather allies," he said at last and Anne heard the exquisite care he took now, lest he offend her. "Korval is not negligible, you understand. And the child is yos'Galan. None can deny basis for alliance. The marriage I—wished for—would have brought you immediately into a case of—of—intended alliance. You would have been seen to be under the Dragon's wing now, rather than waiting upon the trip to Liad and the drawing up of—other—contracts." He took a deep breath, and met her eyes, his own wide and guileless.

"It distresses me to see you in peril," he said, very softly, "when I have the means and the—desire—to give you protection."

"I—see," she managed, around the hammering of her heart. She shook her head in a futile effort to clear it and made a grab for common sense. This was University Central, after all: haven of scholars and students and other servants of odd knowledge and arcane thought.

"No one's likely to come after my head here," she told him, meaning it for comfort and an ease to the distress he showed her plainly, and added a phrase with a flavor of High Liaden: "Thank you for your care, Er Thom."

He hesitated, then bowed acceptance of her decision, or so she thought.

"In three Standard weeks," he said, straightening, "I shall pilot our son and yourself to Solcintra. We shall all three go to the delm and Shan shall be Seen. After, I shall take you to Trealla Fantrol—the house of yos'Galan—where you may guest until your duty to your friend has been completed."

It made sense, even if it was phrased rather autocratically. It solved her transportation and living problems. It solved Er Thom's pressing need to have the newly-discovered yos'Galan added to clan Korval's internal census.

It did not solve her disinclination for having the order of her life disrupted for as long as two months while she tried to sort out a colleague's private working notes.

And it certainly did not solve the fact that she would be staying those two months on Liad—in Solcintra, called "The City of Jewels" for the standard of wealth enjoyed by its citizens. At—Trealla Fantrol—she might well be Er Thom yos'Galan's honored guest and recipient of every grace the House could provide. But in Solcintra she would be a lone Terran in the company of Liadens, with their fierce competitiveness and Liad-centric ways—

 . . . in a society where the phrase, "Rag-mannered as a Terran," enjoyed current—and frequent—usage.

"I had thought perhaps of—not—going to Liad," Anne began, slowly. "It might be just as useful for me to copy my old letters to Jin Del—Scholar yo'Kera—and send them to his colleague. That way she—"

The doorbell chimed—and again, insistent.

"At this hour?" Anne was already moving, unaware that Er Thom had moved with her until he caught her hand, pulling her a step back from the widening door.

"Er Thom—"

"Anne!" Jerzy all but fell into her arms. "You're here! You're safe! Gods, gods—the whole damn pantheon! Down at the Quad S Tavern when the news came over—terrified you'd stayed late to grade exams—too stupid to find a call box—" He sagged against her shoulder and let a theatrical sigh shudder through him before he lifted his head to grin at Er Thom.

"Evening, Mr. yos'Galan."

Er Thom inclined his head. "Good evening, Jerzy Entaglia," he said gravely. "Is there a reason why Anne should—not—be safe?"

Jerzy blinked, straightening away from Anne's support and glancing from her to Er Thom. "You didn't hear?" he asked, eyes going back to Anne. "The bulletin, right in the middle of the—" He stared around the room, spied the dark screen. "Guess not. Well, all that exercise for nothing."

"Heard what?" Anne demanded. "Jerzy, it's past midnight! If this is one of your—"

"My jokes? No joke." He grabbed her hand, ugly face entirely serious. "Comp Ling's gone. The whole back corner of the Language Block blew sky-high, two hours ago."


PETRELLA YOS'GALAN eyed the child of her deceased twin with a noticeable lack of warmth.

"Felicitations, is it?" she said ill-temperedly. "And to what event does my delm desire me to attach felicity? The continued absence of my heir, perhaps? Or the visit from Delm Nexon this morning, inquiring of that same heir's health? Or shall I find joy in the empty nursery and the absence of a child to continue the Line?"

Daav had a sip of red wine. "Well, certainly you may rejoice in any such that may move you," he said agreeably. "I had only meant to bring tidings of my cha'leket's return on the second day of the next relumma."

"Three days later than the delm's deadline," she said with asperity. "As I am certain the delm recalls, having so—long—a memory."

He grinned. "Well-thrown, Aunt Petrella! But as it happens, your heir begged the delm's grace and received the extension, as insisting on the previous timeframe would have considerably inconvenienced the guest."

"Ah, the felicity not only of the return of one's son, but also the inestimable joy of a guest!" Petrella flung her hand high in mock jubilation. "How fortunate for the House, indeed. Is one to know more of the guest, I wonder? For the universe, you understand, is a-bursting with potential guests."

"Why, so it is!" Daav said, much struck by this viewpoint. "I had not considered it thus, but I believe you are correct, ma'am! How piquant, to be sure: An entire universe, panting to guest with Korval!"

"Yes, very good," she returned. "Play the fool, do, and amuse yourself at an old woman's expense. I note that details regarding the guest have not come forth."

He moved his shoulders. "The guest is a scholar of some repute."

"More delight," his aunt said acidly. "A scholar, to our honor! As if there were any more rag-mannered, saving only a—"

"A Terran scholar," Daav interrupted gently. He assayed another sip of the excellent red. "You may wish to remodel the Ambassadorial Suite."

Petrella was staring. "A Terran scholar?"

"Indeed, yes," her nephew said, and amplified: "A scholar who also happens—a mere accident of birth, I assure you!—to be Terran."

Petrella had closed her eyes and allowed herself to slump back into her chair. Daav watched her closely, seeking a sign by which he might know if this sudden sagging were an artifact of her illness or a ploy to divert him.

Petrella opened her eyes. "Er Thom is bringing a Terran scholar to guest in this house," she said, absolutely toneless.

"Correct," replied Er Thom's foster-brother and, when she still glared at him: "He being so scholarly himself, you see."

She snorted. "A master trader may not be an idiot, I allow. However, I confess that this scholarly aspect of my son's nature has heretofore escaped my notice." She waved a hand, and Daav saw sincere weariness in the gesture. "But there—a cha'leket will know what none other may guess."

"Exactly so," Daav murmured and finished his wine. Setting the glass aside, he rose and made his bow—affection and honored esteem. "If there is any way in which I may be of service, Aunt, do call. And if you would prefer not to meddle with the Ambassadorial Suite, the scholar may just as easily stay at Jelaza—"

"yos'Galan's guest," the old lady interrupted austerely, "stays in yos'Galan's house."

"Certainly," her nephew said and crossed over to bend and kiss her ravaged cheek and lay a light hand on the sparse, scorched hair. "Don't tire yourself. I am entirely able to assist you."

She smiled her slight, mocking smile and reached up to touch his cheek. "You're a good boy," she said softly, then waved an irritable hand. "Go away. I've work to do."

"Yes, aunt," he said gently and crossed the room with his silent, quick steps, melting down the hallway as if he had no more substance than a shadow.

Petrella sighed and slumped deep in her chair, concentrating on the breath that rasped, painful and hot, through her ruined lungs.

After a time, when she was certain she would not shame herself, she rang the bell for the butler.


Chapter Twelve

The thing to recall about Dragons is that it takes a special person to deal with them at all. If you lie to them they will steal from you. If you attack them without cause they will dismember you. If you run from them they will laugh at you.



It is thus best to deal calmly, openly and fairly with Dragons: Give them all they buy and no more or less, and they will do the same by you. Stand at their back and they will stand at yours. Always remember that a Dragon is first a Dragon and only then a friend, a partner, a lover.



Never assume that you have discovered a Dragon's weak point until it is dead and forgotten, for joy is fleeting and a Dragon's revenge is forever.


—From The Liaden Book of Dragons



ER THOM let himself into his stuffy rented quarters, took off his jacket and flung it over the arm of the doubtful sofa. Spacer that he was, he barely noticed the lack of windows, though the rattle of the ventilator grated on senses tuned to catch the barest whisper of life system malfunction.

Surefooted in the dimness, he went across the common room to the pantry and poured a glass of wine from one of the bottles appropriated from Dragon's Way.

Honest red wine and none of Daav's precious misravot! he thought, smiling softly. Leaning against the too-high counter, he closed his eyes and sipped.

He had almost lost her.

The thought horrified—and horrified again, for it transpired that on days when Marilla watched Shan, she most usually brought him to Anne's office in the evening, as Rilly went to teach a night class. Dependent upon the child's mood, Anne did sometimes stay late, grading papers, meeting with students, doing "housecleaning." If Er Thom had not had the tending of his son this day . . .

"An accident," Jerzy Entaglia had said, sitting on Anne's sofa and drinking a cup of real coffee. "Just one of those stupid damn things. That's what Admin's saying, anyway." He sighed, looking abruptly exhausted.

"'Course they haven't sorted the rubble yet, or counted the bodies—or even called up the folks who have back-wing offices, just to make sure they're all tucked up, safe and warm." He shook his head. "Likely they'll find huge chunks of a fusion bomb in the wreckage, when they get around to cleaning it up."

"Is there—forgive me," Er Thom had murmured at that point, though it was hardly his place to do so. "Has there been thought of—of a balancing . . . ?"

Jerzy blinked at him.

"An honor-feud, he means," Anne told her friend and shook her head. "It's not too likely, Er Thom. The whole wing went, remember? Not just one person's office. And anyway, how could there be a feud against a language department? We're just a bunch of fuzzy humanities-types. If it were a hard-science department, where they might possibly have gotten onto something someone didn't want them to have—but Languages? You might as well blow up Theater Arts!"

"A notion over-full with glamour," Jerzy announced, with the air of one quoting a passage of Code.

Anne laughed.

"Yah, well, I'm outta here," Jerzy said, levering himself up. "'Night, Anne—Mr. yos'Galan. Lucky thing you were here to take Scooter today." He stuck his big hand out.

Er Thom rose and offered his own, patiently enduring the stranger's touch and the up-and-down motion. Then he rescued his hand and bowed honor for his son's foster-father. "Keep you well, Jerzy Entaglia."

"Thanks," the other man had said. "Same to you."

He'd left then, and Er Thom soon after, to come back to these ragged apartments that were still slightly more spacious than Anne's normal living quarters. He pictured her in Trealla Fantrol, where the guesting suites boasted wide windows and fragrant plants and well-made, graceful furniture.

He pictured her walking the lawns with him, visiting the maze, and Jelaza Kazone—thought of showing her the Tree . . .

She had said she did not wish to wed.

Er Thom opened his eyes, frowning at the clock hung lopsided on the wall opposite.

She had said she did not wish to marry him, but that was not true. She burned for him as he for her and dreaded the day when they would part. He knew it. In his bones he knew it, irrevocably, absolutely, beyond doubt or even question of how he knew it.

So, Anne had lied. He was a master trader, after all. He knew prevarication in all its postures, tones and faces. Never before had he had a lie from Anne.

Why now? he wondered, and then recalled that he had taught her to fear him. Very likely the lie was credited to his account—and accurate balance it was.

Still, if she wished to wed and denied him out of fear, the matter might yet be managed. All his skill was in showing folk who had never seen an item why they must yearn to possess it. How much easier a trade, when the one he traded with already desired that which he had to offer—

"Wait."

He came sharply away from the counter and paced into the common room, reaching up to slap at the ill-placed light-switch.

He had offered contract-marriage, he thought agitatedly. It was everything that he could offer—though it was extremely irregular and would doubtless require him to fall on his face before his thodelm and cry mercy. Yet, contract-marriage to Anne—especially with the child already fact!—lay within the realm of what was very possible.

Only—contract-marriages very soon expired and the spouses separated—and Anne dreading their eventual separation as much as he.

"How," Er Thom asked the empty room, "if she wishes a lifemating?"

That became a matter for the delm. Giddy as the prospect of spending all his days with Anne Davis might render Er Thom yos'Galan, yet the delm was the keeper of the clan's genes, guardian of the lines' purity, arbiter of alliances. Korval was not as populous as once it had been and the delm might very well have use for Er Thom's genes elsewhere. A lifemating would put him beyond the possibility of future contract-marriages, which left the burden of such alliances to Kareen, which was laughable—and to Daav.

Korval might very well—and with all good cause—deny its son Er Thom the solace of a lifemating.

Or he might be allowed the lifemating—later. After he had done his full duty for the clan—however many years it might take.

"And I hardly able to keep myself from her for one night!" He finished his wine, ruefully. Still, it was out of his hands and firmly in the keeping of the delm, who would decide for the good of the clan and could do nothing at all until Er Thom laid the entire matter before him.

Thinking thus, though in no way comforted, and, indeed, with an unaccustomed dismay for the ways and necessities of the clan, he went back to the pantry for another glass of wine, which he carried with him to the wall desk.

"I shall put the thing before Daav," he said to himself. "He may best advise me of the clan's requirements, and what the delm might decide." And Daav at least, Scout as he had been, would not turn his face in horror from one who professed abiding love for a Terran . . .

Seated on the too-wide chair, booted feet just short of the floor, Er Thom opened the remote unit he had brought with him from the ship and touched the 'on' key.

The message-waiting light blinked in the top right corner, blue and insistent.

So, then. Besides his message to the delm he had also sent word to his first mate, though not—guilt twisted in his stomach—to his mother. Ever more unruly, he thought. Brother, only see what becomes of the one of us who had always been dutiful.

He touched the access key and a heartbeat later was staring at a brief note from his delm, requesting details of Korval's debt to Respected Scholar Anne Davis and the error which led to this balancing.

"Hah." Er Thom cleared the screen and had a sip of wine, wondering how best to comply with his delm's request. As he put the glass aside, he saw the message light still blinking and touched the access key once more.

Darling, what mad coil have you tangled yourself in? Almost, he could hear Daav's voice through the words on the screen—and smiled. Worse, how am I to do a brother's duty and aid you in ruining yourself unless I Know All? Worse still, I have informed your mother my aunt of your return date and the concomitant arrival of a guest, from which interview I barely escaped with my life. Please believe me willing to die for you, but may I at least know for what cause?

I look forward to making the acquaintance of my new nephew, and of his mother, a lady I have long admired from afar. In preparation for her visit I have ordered and am now reading her entire bibliography, so you see I don't mean to shame you. In the case that you had been unaware of the scope of the lady's work, I most highly commend Who's Who in Terran Scholars to you.

In the meanwhile, brother, do not hesitate to call upon me for whatever service I might render. Keep safe. Smooth journey. And may the luck ride your shoulder until we meet again.

All my love,

Daav."

"I love you, too, denubia," Er Thom murmured, then grinned. Who's Who in Terran Scholars, was it? As it happened, he was aware of the nature of Anne's work, though it would do no harm to read her published papers. His knowledge came from listening to her speak of her theories, her observations, more—he freely admitted!—because the sound of her voice soothed him in some profound, indescribable way than because her theories compelled him.

Still, it was the joke between his cha'leket and himself—that it was Daav who was bookish. What, after all, was a Scout, save a scholar placed in peril? Meantime, Master Trader yos'Galan, with his penchant for statistics and passion for new markets, could most often be found reading a manifest.

Smile fading, Er Thom leaned back, wondering anew how best to put a situation that grew daily more tangled into lines of orderly words, for either delm or cha'leket.

He required a plan of action, he thought, sipping his wine thoughtfully. Best perhaps to first soothe Anne's wariness of him, and bring her gently to see that she must of course travel to Liad. Duty to her dead friend was clear, as he was certain she knew. It was fear speaking, when she talked of staying on University and not venturing forth to Liad. And certainly, anyone must be distressed at first encountering Solcintra society, though a guest of Korval would naturally be given all honor due the House. Society was prudent, if not particularly intelligent.

So, then. Anne gentled into making the trip. Shan Seen by the delm and then, gods willing, by Thodelm yos'Galan. He expected his mother would need some gentling herself, but, presented with one already Seen by Korval, she could hardly be churlish enough to refuse to take the child to yos'Galan, mixed blood or pure.

As yos'Galan's guest, Anne could become accustomed to Liad—and Liad to Anne, he thought wryly—and fulfill her duty. In the meanwhile, Er Thom would take thought as to how best to present his desires to the delm—and would speak to his cha'leket of the matter, face-to-face, over a glass or two, with the warmth of brotherhood between them.

It would do, he decided. It was not precipitate, and it held some promise for success—if he was very careful and played each counter with all the craft and skill in him. He recalled that Daav was a counterchance player to behold, and smiled.

Well, and now that he thought of it, there was a service his brother could perform for him. Er Thom pulled the remote onto his lap. He would write a quick note and then to bed, for he was to rise early and go to mind Shan while Anne went to Central Administration and found what now was required of her, with her place of work destroyed.


Chapter Thirteen

There are several million Traders in the galaxy, but only 300 Master Traders registered with the Trade Commission on VanDyk. Until recently, all 300 were Liaden. This has been changing slowly, as Terrans become more successful in the trade arena and able to afford the costly and extensive certification tests.



Terran or Liaden, a Master Trader's work is exacting, requiring intimate knowledge of the regulations of a thousand ports of call, as well as a sure instinct for what will gain a profit at each. Master Traders often chart their ship's course as the trade develops, some running as long as five years between visits to the home port.



Less exalted Traders most usually ply an established route, which has most likely been researched and planned by a Master Trader.



The very best Master Traders are described as cool-headed, analytical, persuasive generalists who are filled with the passion to deal.

—From A Young Person's Book of Trade



ER THOM FROWNED at the remote's cramped screen and wondered just how much—and who—Jyl ven'Apon had paid for the privilege of being known as a Master of Trade.

"Lithium, by all gods," he muttered, reaching for the mug of tea set to hand. "An enterprise as substantial as moonbeams, and she begs my hundred cantra buy-in cool as if she has a right! What can she be about? And to claim she enjoys yo'Laney's support—and Ivrex!" He paused, sipping the horrible Terran tea and considering that so-blithe claim of support.

Neither yo'Laney nor Ivrex was master-class, but two solid, substantial traders from solid, substantial clans. By all rights, they should have smelled the overripeness of the scheme even as Er Thom had.

Was ven'Apon's claim of support false, upon which face she was even more foolish than he had suspected? Or was her claim true, and she out to lighten as many pouches as possible before she was called to face the Guild Masters and her license—

"Mirada!" The demand was punctuated by a bump on his elbow that barely missed sending the mug's contents into orbit.

Carefully, he put the tea aside and turned his chair so he faced his petitioner.

"Shan-son," he said in grave Low Liaden. "How may I serve you?"

The boy looked at him doubtfully, gripping the red plastic keyboard-and-screen unit with both hands.

Er Thom smiled and reached out to stroke the snow-white hair. Such an odd color, he thought. Doubtless it will darken, when he is older . . .

"My son," he murmured in his careful Terran, "what may I do for you?"

The small face relaxed into a smile and Shan swung the toy onto Er Thom's knees.

"All done," he said with the air of one making himself perfectly clear.

"Ah." Er Thom glanced down at the thing. Dirty white plastic letters spelled out Mix-n-Match, against the bright red case. The screen was narrow, and the keys overlarge—to accommodate those too young to possesses fine manipulative skills, Er Thom thought. He touched a key at random.

"This module has been satisfactorily completed," a woman's bright voice told him. "Please insert upgrade module number five to continue progression."

"All done," Shan amplified, leaning cozily against Er Thom's thigh and pointing at the blank screen. "Need new, Mirada."

"A moment, if you please," Er Thom replied, putting his left arm around the child's body in a loose hug and adjusting the tiny screen for less glare. "I would like to look at the old . . ."

In very short order he had located and accessed the toy's resident manual, from which he learned that Mix-n-Match aimed to teach pattern recognition, eye-hand coordination, improve memory and lay the foundation for understanding of cause and effect. Module four, which Shan had just completed, was rated for the use of children having from 36 to 40 months. Er Thom frowned.

A bit more searching uncovered the module's database, which revealed the fascinating information that Shan's scores were in the ninety-eighth achievement percentile of all those who had completed the module.

"Well done," Er Thom said, touching the power-off and putting the simple computer onto Anne's desk. He bent and gave Shan a hug, rubbing his cheek against the soft, odd-colored hair. "Ge'shada, Shan-son. You have done very well, indeed."

Shan wriggled in his embrace. "Gee-shad-a," he announced and laughed.

Er Thom echoed the sound, softly, and let the child go. "Where are the new modules, then, my bright one?"

He had forgotten himself—the question was asked in Low Liaden. But Shan barely hesitated an instant before catching Er Thom's hand and pulling on it.

"Come on, Mirada. Needs new."

"So I am told." He stood and allowed himself to be tugged across the room to where Anne's ancient and battered half-chora slept, plastic-shrouded, atop a table made of real wood.

"Here," Shan announced, dropping Er Thom's hand to bend down and paw fruitlessly at the table's single drawer. He sighed gustily and straightened, looking up at Er Thom out of guileless silver eyes. "Stuck."

"I see." He bent and pulled.

The drawer was a little sticky, but not to signify. Once opened, however, it proved to be—empty.

"All gone," Shan discovered, peering into the depths. He shook his head. "Oh, well."

Oh, well, indeed, Er Thom thought. And the child already outpacing the modules . . .

"Shall I show you how my computer works?" he asked, holding down a hand. Shan took it with his usual lack of hesitation and they went back to Anne's desk.

Er Thom sat in the big chair and lifted the child onto his lap. He filed Jyl ven'Apon's audacious letter away for the moment and pulled the remote closer, adjusting the screen height.

Bintell Products was the manufacturer of Mix-n-Match, according to the resident manual.

"It happens," Er Thom murmured to his son, fingers moving over the keys, "that Korval trades with subsidiaries of Bintell Products. We should be able to locate an entire set of modules with very little trouble."

It took a few minutes, with Shan sitting rapt astride his knees, eyes never moving from the screen and the data flickering across it.

"There." He froze the screen, highlighted his choices and called for fuller information.

"I think perhaps we will have this Edu-Board for you," he murmured, absently and in Low Liaden. "You find Mix-n-Match far too simple, eh? Edu-Board has complexity—self-programming, individually-structured learning—yes. I think you will like this extremely, denubia." He issued the order—to be delivered, alas, to Trealla Fantrol, as a special shipment to University would not arrive until several weeks after Shan was on Liad.

"So then." He shut down the goods list and called up his work screen. On his lap, Shan gave a sigh of utter satisfaction.

"Fast," he commented, hand moving toward the remote's keyboard.

Er Thom caught the small, questing fingers in his and squeezed them lightly. "This is mine," he said in firm Terran. "You may watch me do my work, if you like, or you may do something else."

"Watch," his son decided without hesitation, and snuggled his back into Er Thom's chest. "Say—tell—me your—work—Mirada."

"Ah." He touched keys, accessing the information for Mandrake, one of Korval's lesser trade ships. "We must consider how best to utilize Dil Ton sig'Erlan upon this route. He is young, you see, though not entirely untried. Indeed, he may have the ability to achieve master-rank. It is the duty of one already master to give him opportunity to expand himself and hone his talent—but not too quickly. We do not wish to ruin him with too much failure—or with too much success . . ."

He leaned back and Shan did also, so that his head was under Er Thom's chin. The man smiled and lay his arms about the child and closed his eyes, considering Dil Ton sig'Erlan.

There was not much scope for creativity on the Lytaxin run. It was a minor route at best, encompassing a total of seven Outworlds, existing by reason of Korval's ancient ties with Erob, Lytaxin's ascendant clan. Still, there ought to be some way to test sig'Erlan's mettle, to place him out of context and force him into unexpected—

"Hah!" Er Thom opened his eyes, having bethought himself of a certain very odd something that had reposed, undisturbed, these several years in a corner of Korval's third Solcintra warehouse. "I believe that will do nicely, yes." He leaned forward and added the item to Mandrake's manifest.

"What you do?" Shan demanded, grabbing at the man's sleeve.

"I have given young sig'Erlan a gift," Er Thom replied, touching the "send" key. "May he reap joy of it."

He smiled and stretched, eye snagging on the time-bar in the upper corner of the remote's screen.

"Are you hungry?" he asked Shan, and received an enthusiastic affirmative.

"Very well." He lifted the child to the floor and stood, offering a hand. "Let us then eat lunch."


THE SKY WAS OF A BLUE just tinged with green and the air was laden with flower-scents.

Daav yos'Phelium sent the sleek groundcar through the various twists and turns of Trealla Fantrol's drive with expert negligence. As he pulled into the carport, he saw Er Thom's mother sitting on the East Patio, taking the sun, a bound book unopened on her lap. He sighed, pushing aside the old sorrow as he walked across the grass toward her.

"Good morning, Aunt Petrella!"

She looked up, making no move to rise from her chair. A bad day, then.

"Good enough, I suppose, for those who have nothing better to do than fidget about in fancy cars."

He grinned. "Ah, but I have much more to do than fidget about! You behold me, in fact, atremble with busy-ness. I have this day received a pin-beam from my brother Er Thom, bidding me purchase in his name a concert-quality omnichora and have it delivered to this house immediately. In my brother's name I have done this thing. It should arrive this afternoon."

She glared at him. "An omnichora?"

"An omnichora," he agreed, with appropriate gravity.

"Er Thom does not play the omnichora," that gentleman's mother announced darkly.

"Ah. Then perhaps it is for the guest," Daav speculated, eyes wide with wholly counterfeit innocence. "It is our duty, you know, Aunt, to arrange all for the comfort and well-being of the guest."

"A lesson in Code, I apprehend," Petrella said scathingly. "Uncounted thanks to the instructor."

Bland-faced, Daav bowed, graciously acknowledging the offered thanks. Petrella sniffed.

"Awake upon all suits, are you? One supposes you know the name of the respected scholar who is to be our guest, but wonders when you will judge it proper to share that information."

"From you, Aunt Petrella, I have no secrets," her nephew told her audaciously. "The scholar's name is Anne Davis."

"Anne Davis," she repeated, mouth tightening. "And Anne Davis is—naturally!—a scholar of the omnichora. Met perhaps at some delightful musical soiree engineered by those who must delight in—"

"I believe," Daav interrupted gently, "that Anne Davis is a scholar of comparative linguistics, attached to the Languages Department based upon University. If you wish, I will forward copies of her publications to your screen—" he bowed, "in order that you may enjoy informed conversation with the guest."

"Yet another lesson in manners! I am quite overcome. In the meanwhile, what has a concert-quality omnichora to do with a scholar of language?"

"Perhaps," Daav offered, ever more gently, "it is an avocation."

Petrella hesitated, considering him out of narrowed eyes. Daav was notoriously—even foolishly—sweet-tempered. Yet that tone of caressing gentleness was clear warning to those who knew him well: Daav hovered on the edge of displeasure, in which state even his cha'leket was hard-put to deal with him sanely.

Accordingly, Petrella relented somewhat in her attack and inclined her head. "Perhaps it is, as you say, an avocation. Doubtless we shall learn more when the scholar is with us." She glanced up, moving both hands in the formal gesture of asking. "One cannot help but wonder why the scholar comes to us at all."

There was a small pause.

"My cha'leket allows me to know that Scholar Davis had been a friend of Scholar yo'Kera of Solcintra University. Scholar yo'Kera has recently died and duty of friendship calls Scholar Davis to Solcintra."

"I see." An entirely reasonable explanation, saving only that the mystery of Er Thom's acquaintanceship with Scholar Davis remained—deliberately, as Petrella strongly suspected—unresolved.

Still, another measuring glance at her nephew's face argued the best course was to leave the matter until she might have the entire tale, start to finish, from the lips of her heir.

Embracing thus the more prudent course, Petrella inclined her head. "My thanks. Is there anything else one should know beforehand of the guest, so all may be arranged for her comfort and well-being?"

Amusement gleamed in the depths of Daav's dark eyes. He bowed slightly.

"I believe not. Now, if you will excuse me, aunt, I must away. Duty calls."

"Certainly. Give you good day."

"Give you good day, Aunt Petrella." He was gone, noiseless across the blue-green grass.

An omnichora, she thought, watching Daav's car down the drive. To be delivered this afternoon, by all the gods. And if the guest is an expert in her avocation . . .

Grumbling to herself, she rang for Mr. pak'Ora.

"An omnichora will be arriving this afternoon. See it situated."

"Situated, Thodelm?"

She drew herself up in the chair, ignoring the pain the effort cost her. "Yes, situated. The Bronze Room is said to have good acoustics—put it there. We'll have a music room."

The butler bowed. "Very good, Thodelm," he said, careful of her mood, and left her.

Alone, she fingered her book, but did not open it. Eventually she nodded off in the warm sun and slept so soundly she did not hear either the arrival of the omnichora or of the technician hastily summoned to tend to the Bronze Room's acoustics.


Chapter Fourteen

The Guild Halls of so-called "Healers"—interactive empaths—can be found in every Liaden city.



Healers are charged with tending ills such as depression, addiction and other psychological difficulties and they are undoubtedly skilled therapists, with a high rate of success to their credit.



Healers are credited with the ability to wipe a memory from all layers of a client's consciousness. They are said to be able to directly—utilizing psychic ability—influence another's behavior; however, this activity is specifically banned by Guild regulations.

—From "The Case Against Telepathy"



THE MUSIC BUILT of its own will, weaving a tapestried wall of sound that shielded her from her weary thoughts.

Er Thom was giving Shan a bath, a project that had been under way when she arrived home, and also appeared to include laundering Er Thom's shirt. After a brief glance into the tiny bathroom and hurriedly exchanged hellos with father and son, Anne had retreated to the great room and, as she so often did in times of stress, to the omnichora.

The music changed direction and her fingers obediently followed, her mind beyond thought and into some entirely other place, where sound and texture and instinct were all.

Eyes closed, she became the music and stayed thus for time unmeasured, until her attention was pricked by a subtle inner-heard unsound: Her son was with her.

Reluctantly, she became apart from the music, lifted her fingers from the keyboard and opened her eyes.

Shan stood beside her in his pajamas, silver eyes wide in his thin brown face. "Beautiful sparkles," he breathed.

Anne smiled and reached down to lift him onto her lap. "Sparkles again, is it, my lad? Well, it's a pretty line of chat. All clean, I see. Did your da live, too?"

"Does he see them often?" That was Er Thom, solemn and soft-voiced as ever, though his dark blue shirt was soaked as thoroughly as his hair. He moved his hand in a measured gesture as she glanced over to him. "The—sparkles."

"Who can tell if he sees them now?" Anne replied, ruffling Shan's damp hair. "Ask him where the sparkles are and all you'll get is a stare and a point into blank air." She bent suddenly, enclosing the child in a hug. "Ma loves you, Shannie. Sparkles and all."

"Love you, Ma." This was followed by an enthusiastic kiss on her cheek and an imperative wriggle. "Shan go."

"Shan go to bed," his mother informed him, adjusting her grip expertly and standing with him cradled in her arms.

"Mirada!"

But if he was hoping for sympathy from that quarter, he got none.

"To bed, as your mother wishes," Er Thom said firmly. "We shall bid you good-night and you shall go to sleep."

Anne grinned at him. "A plan. Even a good plan. Let's see how it holds up to practical usage."

"By all means." He bowed, slightly and with amusement, before preceding her across the room and opening the door to the bedroom.

"Not sleepy!" Shan announced loudly and tried one more abortive twist for freedom.

"Shannie!" Anne stopped and frowned down into his face. "It's bedtime. Be a good boy."

For a moment, she thought he would insist: He stared mulishly into her face for two long heartbeats, then sighed and leaned his head against her shoulder.

"Bedtime," he allowed. "Good boy."

"Good boy," Anne repeated. She carried him into the bedroom and laid him down next to Mouse.

"Good-night, Shannie. Sleep tight." She kissed his cheek and fussed at the blanket before standing aside to let Er Thom by.

"Good-night, my son," he murmured in Terran, bending to kiss Shan gently on the lips. He straightened and added a phrase in Liaden: "Chiat'a bei kruzon"—dream sweetly.

"'Night, Ma. 'Night, Mirada."

"Sleep," Er Thom said, gesturing Anne to proceed him.

She did and he followed, closing the door half-way.

In the common room he smiled and bowed. "A plan proved by field conditions. Shall you have wine?"

"Wine would be wonderful," she said, abruptly aware of all her weariness again. She shook her head. "But I'll pour, Er Thom. You're soaked—"

"Not now," he interrupted softly, testing his sleeve between finger and thumb. "This fabric dries very quickly." He ran a quick hand through bright golden locks and made a wry face. "Hair, however—"

Anne laughed. "Adventures in bathing! You didn't need to take that on, my friend. I know Shan's a handful—"

"No more than Daav and I were at his age," Er Thom murmured, leading the way into the kitchenette. "Based on tales which have been told. Though the process by which one may get soup into one's ears seems to have escaped me over time—"

"It's a gift," Anne told him seriously, leaning a hip against the counter.

"As well it might be," he returned, back to her as he ferreted out glasses, corkscrew, and wine bottle.

Anne put her arms behind her, palms flat on the counter, watching his smooth, efficient movements. Her mind drifted somewhat, considering the slim golden body hidden now beneath the dark blue shirt and gray trousers. It was a delightful body: unexpectedly strong, enchantingly supple, entirely, warmly, deliciously male—Anne caught her breath against a throttling surge of desire.

Across the tiny kitchen, Er Thom dropped a glass.

It chimed on the edge of the counter, wine freed in a glistening ruby arc, and surrendered to gravity, heading toward the floor.

In that instant he was moving, hand sweeping down and under, snatching the glass from shattering destruction and bringing it smoothly to rest, upright on the wine-splashed counter.

"Forgive me," he said breathlessly, violet eyes wide and dazzled. "I am not ordinarily so clumsy."

"It could have—happened to anyone," Anne managed, breathless in her own right. "And you made a wonderful recover—I don't think the glass broke. Here—"

Glad of a reason to turn away from those brilliant, piercing eyes, she pulled paper towels out of the wall dispenser and went to the counter to mop up, avoiding his gaze.

"Just a bit of clean up and we're good as new. Though it is a shame about the wine."

"There is more wine," Er Thom replied, voice too near for her peace of mind. She straightened, found herself caught between counter and table and looked helplessly down into his face.

He raised his hands, showing her empty palms. "Anne—"

"Er Thom." She swallowed, mind stumbling. The man could not have heard her lustful thinking, she assured herself and in the next heartbeat heard her voice stammering:

"Er Thom, do you see sparkles?"

"Ah." He lowered his hands, slowly, keeping them in full view until they hung, open and unthreatening, at his sides. "I am no Healer," he said seriously. "However, you should know—Korval has given many Healers—and—and dramliz as well."

The dramliz, for lack of a saner way to bend the language, were wizards, infinitely more powerful than Healers. Dramliz talents embraced interactive empathy and took off from there: teleportation, translocation, telekinesis, pyrokinesis, telelocution—every item on the list of magical abilities attributed to any shaman, witch or wizard worth their salt during any epoch in history.

If you believed in such things.

And Shan, Anne thought, somewhat wildly, sees sparkles.

"I—see." She took a breath and managed a wobbling smile. "I suppose I should have inquired further into the—suitability of your genes."

It was a poor joke, and a dangerous one, but Er Thom's eyes gleamed with genuine amusement.

"So you should have. But done is done and no profit in weeping over spoiled wine." He stepped back, bowing gently. "Why not go into the other room and—be at ease? I will bring the wine in a moment."

"All right." She slipped past, assiduously avoiding even brushing his sleeve, and fled into the common room.


"OH, IT'S JUST a mess," she was saying some minutes later in answer to his query. "Admin's being as bitchy as possible. You'd think—oh, never mind." She sighed.

"The best news is that everyone seems to be accounted for—but the cost in terms of people's work! Professor Dilling just stood in a corner during the whole meeting and shook, poor thing. I went over to see if there was something I could do, but he just kept saying, 'Thirty years of research, gone. Gone.'" She sighed again, moving her big hands in a gesture eloquent of frustration, and sagged back into the corner of the sofa.

"But surely," Er Thom murmured, from his own corner, "the computer files—"

"Paper," Anne corrected him, wearily. "Old Terran musical notation—some original sheet music. I'd helped him sort things a couple of times. His office was a rat's nest. Papers, old instruments—wood, metal—all blown to bits. Little, tiny bits, as Jerzy would have it." She reached for her wine.

"And your own work?" Er Thom wondered softly.

Anne laughed, though not with her usual ration of humor. "Oh, I'm one of the lucky ones. I lost the latest draft of a monograph I'd been working on—but I've got the draft before that saved down in the belly of Central Comp—some student work, files, study plans—that's the worst of it. The important stuff—the recordings, notes, my letters—is in the storage room I share with Jerzy—all the way over in Theater Arts. I doubt if it even got shook up."

"You are fortunate."

This time her laugh held true amusement. "Paranoid, more likely. I didn't care to have my work sitting about where just anyone could pick it up and read it. As a rule, when I'm working on something, I keep the notes with me—in my briefcase—and I have a locked, triple-coded account in Central Comp." She smiled, wryly. "Welcome to the world of cutthroat academics. Publish or perish, gentlefolk, please state your preference."

"'Who masters counterchance masters the world'" Er Thom quoted in Liaden. He tipped his head. "Central Administration—there are new duties required of you, in the face of this emergency?"

"Not a bit of it!" Anne assured him. "All that is required of us is that we continue precisely as we would have done, had the Languages Department not been—redecorated—in this rather extreme fashion. Exams are to be given on schedule—Central Admin has located and assigned—alternative—classroom space! Grades are to be filed on time—no excuses." She threw her hands up in a gesture of disgust.

"Some of these people lost everything! The exams they've already given are buried under a couple of tons of rubble, alongside of the exams still to be given! It was just sheer, dumb luck that I brought my lot home with me last night, or else I'd be trying to issue final grades on the basis of guess-and-golly!"

"Hah." Er Thom sipped his wine. "The explosion—do they know the cause?"

"An accident," Anne said, rubbing her neck wearily. "Which means they don't know. Not," she added, "that they'd tell a bunch of mere professors if they did know."

She sipped her wine, eyes closed. Er Thom sat quietly, watching her shuttered face, noting the lines of weariness, hating the demands of necessity.

Tomorrow will be soon enough to speak of the journey to Liad, he told himself. She is exhausted—wrought.

He took a sip of wine, wondering if he might properly offer to fetch her a Healer. It struck him as outrageous, that those to whom she owed service had not provided this benefit. To barely miss being blown up with the building where one's work was housed—Healers should have been present at the meeting at Central Administration today, available to any who had need. Had one of his crew been subjected to such stress—

"This is wonderful wine," Anne murmured, opening her eyes. "You never bought this at the Block Deli!"

He smiled. "Alas. It is from the private store of Valcon Melad'a—the ship of my brother, which he—lent—to me for this journey."

"Is he going to be a little annoyed with you for drinking up all his good red wine?" she wondered, eyes curiously alert, though the question was nearly idle.

"Daav does not care overmuch for the red," Er Thom told her, with a smile for his absent kin. He moved his shoulders. "We are brothers, after all. How shall it be except that I own nothing that is not his, nor he something that is not also mine?"

"I—see." Anne blinked and had another appreciative sip of wine. "Is he much older than you are?"

"Eh? Ah, no, he is the younger—" He moved his hand, fingers flicking in dismissal. "A matter of a few relumma—nothing to signify. You will see, when you have come to be our guest."

It was little enough, and truly he meant to say no more than that, but Anne's mouth tightened and she straightened against the flat cushions.

"I have decided," she said, not quite looking at his face, "that I won't be going to Liad. And neither will Shan."

Without doubt, here was the opening of the trade, which must be answered, at once and fully.

"Ah." Er Thom sipped, delicately, tasting not so much the wine as sorrow, that she forced this now, with her less than able and he with necessity to his arm—and a Master of Trade, besides.

"It is, of course, your decision to make," he murmured, giving her full view of his face, "for yourself. For Shan, it is a different matter, as we have discussed. The delm must Know him. Necessity exists."

It was gentler answer than he would have given any other—by many degrees—and still it seemed to him that her face paled.

"Will you steal my son from me, Er Thom?" Nearly harsh, her voice, and her eyes glittered with the beginnings of anger.

"I am not a thief," he replied evenly. "The child's name is yos'Galan. You, yourself, named him. If there is question of—belonging—the law is clear." He tasted wine, deliberately drawing out the time until he looked back to her.

Her face had indeed paled, eyes bright with tears, mouth grooved in a line of pain so profound that he broke with the trade and leaned forward against all sense, to take her hand in his.

"Anne, there is nothing here for the Council of Clans—there is nothing between we two that must make one of us thief! Shan is our child. What better than we who are both his parents take him before the delm, as is proper and right? And as for declining the journey entire—what of your friend, who has died and left you duty? Surely you cannot ignore that necessity, aside from this other—" He was raving, he thought, hearing himself. What possible right had he to speak to her so? To demand that she embrace duty and turn her face to honor? What—

She snatched her hand away from him, curling it protectively against her breast.

"Er Thom," she said, and her voice shook, though her eyes were steady on his, "I am not Liaden."

"I know," he told her, his own voice barely more than a whisper. "Anne. I know."

For a long moment they sat thus, her eyes pinned to his, neither able to move.

"You're in trouble," she said slowly, and there was absolute conviction in her voice. "Er Thom, why did you come here?"

"To see you—once more," he said, with the utter truthfulness one owes none save kin—or a lifemate. "To say—I love you."

"Only that?"

"Yes."

"You've done those things," Anne said, and the tears were wet on her face, though she never moved her eyes from his. "You can go home now. Forget—"

"The child," he interrupted, hand rising in a sign of negation. "I cannot. Necessity exists." He flung out both hands, imploring, the trade in shambles around him. "Anne, I am Liaden."

"Yes," she said softly, putting her hands into his. "I know."

She closed her eyes, long fingers cool against his palms, and he watched her face and wished, urgently, for Daav to be here just now, to show them the safe path out of this desperate muddle that only became more confused with each attempt at repair . . .

"All right." Anne opened her eyes. He felt her withdraw her hands from his with an absurd sense of loss.

"All right," she said again, and inclined her head.

"At the end of the semester, Shan and I will come with you to Liad," she said, intonation formal—a recitation of the conditions of agreement. "Shan will be seen by your delm and we will be the guests of Clan Korval while I help Professor yo'Kera's colleague sort out his notes. When that—duty—is done, my son and I will come home. Agreed?"

He retained enough wit to know he could agree to no such thing. Who was he, to guess what the delm might require? And there was yet that other matter between he and Anne, which the delm must adjudicate . . .

She was watching him closely, eyes sharp, though showing weariness around the corners.

"I hear you," he murmured, matching her tone of formality. He bowed as fully as possible, seated as he was, and looked back up into her face. "Thank you, Anne."

She smiled, dimly, with her face still strained, and reached out toward him. Just shy of his cheek, her fingers hesitated—dropped.

"You're welcome," she said softly, and sighed, all her exhaustion and strain plain for him to see.

"I shall leave you now," he said gently, though he wanted nothing more than to take her in his arms and soothe her, to sit the night through, if need be, and watch that her sleep went undisturbed.

Fighting improper desires, he rose and made his bow.

"Sleep well," he said. "I shall come tomorrow, as I did today, and care for our child while you are away."

"All right." Anne made no move to rise, as if she did not trust herself to do so without stumble. She gave him the gift of another tired smile. "Thank you, Er Thom. Chiat'a bei kruzon."

He bowed, profoundly warmed. "Chiat'a bei kruzon, denubia," he replied and was so lost to propriety that the endearment passed his lips without awaking the least quiver of shame.


Chapter Fifteen

The Universe adorns


a flawless jewel.


Solcintra.

—From Collected Poems


Elabet pel'Ongin, Clan Diot


 


RELUCTANTLY, Daav lifted his cheek from the comfort of her breast.

"Olwen?"

"Mmm?" she murmured sleepily, raising a hand to push his head down. "Stop fidgeting."

"Yes, but I have to leave," he explained, shamelessly nuzzling into her softness.

"You have to leave now?" Olwen released him and actually opened her eyes.

"I have uses for you yet, my buck," she told him severely. "I was only just considering which to subject you to next."

He grinned. "You tempt me, never doubt it. But duty is a sterner mistress."

"A hint in my ear, forsooth! Next time you'll not find me so gentle."

"And I with a dozen new bruises to explain," Daav said mournfully. "Ah, well. Those who would seize joy must expect a tumble or two."

"Hah!" Her laugh was appreciative. Rising onto a elbow, she reached out to stroke the hair back from his face, laughter fading as she studied him.

"Old friend." She sighed, touched the silver twist hanging in his ear. "I recall how you earned that," she murmured, "our first time as team-mates. I wish—"

"I know," he said quickly, catching her hand and bringing it to his lips. He kissed her fingertips lightly. "I would still be a Scout, Olwen, if the universe were ordered to my liking. Necessity exists."

"Necessity," she repeated and grimaced—an entirely Scout-like reaction. "Does it occur to you that necessity has killed more Liadens than ever the Yxtrang have?"

"No, are you certain?" He gave her over-wide eyes and a face bright with innocence, winning another laugh.

"I shall formulate a data box and attempt to corroborate my statement, Captain." The laughter faded yet again, and she ran light fingers down his cheek. "Take good care, Daav. Until again."

"Until again, Olwen," he returned gently and slid out of her bed and left her, silently damning necessity.


TWO HOURS until the end of Jump, according to the trip scanner set in the wall.

And after that, Anne thought, maybe three hours through heavy traffic to setdown in the port.

Solcintra Port.

"Annie Davis," she told herself, ducking her head to pass through the low doorway connecting the 'fresher unit to the sleeping compartment, "this has not been one of your better ideas."

She did not want to go to Solcintra. Yet careful scrutiny of the events leading to her approaching that very place in this lavish, uncannily efficient space-yacht failed to show her how she might have arranged things otherwise.

The conviction that Er Thom was in some sort of trouble persisted. Pressed, he had admitted to "difficulties" at home—and then hastened to assure her that they were neither "of her making nor solving."

As if, Anne thought grumpily as she pulled on her shirt, that had any bearing on the matter.

In the next instant, she allowed that it had every bearing. She simply could not allow him to face his "difficulties" alone.

She paused in the act of sealing her shirt to look into her own eyes, reflected in the low-set mirror.

He came to find me.

That in itself was extraordinary, for surely a man of Er Thom yos'Galan's position might easily call upon powers far beyond those mustered by an untenured professor of linguistics, had he need of aid.

And yet he had come to find her—a Terran. Come, so he had it—and would not be pushed from that bald statement—for the sole purpose of saying that he loved her.

The sort of thing, Anne thought, threading her belt around her waist and doing up the buckle, a man comes to say when he's looked eye to eye at his death.

She sighed and sat on the edge of the too-short bed to pull on her boots, then stayed there, elbows on knees, staring down at the sumptuous carpet.

"Now, Annie Davis," she murmured, hearing Grandfather Murphy's voice echoing in memory's ear. "Tell the truth, and shame the devil."

And the truth was, she wryly admitted to herself, that she was head over ears in love with the man.

"And will not marry him for propriety's sake, willful, wicked gel that ye are!" the gaffer thundered from life-years and light-years away.

Anne grinned and in the back of her mind, the gaffer laughed. "Well, and who can blame ye? The man might stir himself to a bit of lovemaking, after all."

Though lovemaking was not precisely the problem—or not in the ordinary sense, Anne thought, shaking her head. It was as if the years of separation had multiplied their desire for each other until a touch, a shared glance, a word held the potential for conflagration.

The sheer power of the passion—the bone-deep, burning need for him was—frightening.

"So why not marry the man?" she asked herself. "You've agreed to everything else he's wanted. Take a bit for yourself and never mind he only asked because it was proper."

Except that he had offered contract-marriage, an arrangement very like a standard Terran cohabitation agreement, with each party going its separate way at the conclusion of the time-limit.

And the thought of letting him go again made her blood cold and her mouth dry and her stomach cramp in agony.

Just how she was going to manage herself upon quitting Liad at the end of semester break had not yet become clear.

I'll think of something, she assured herself, standing and heading for the door to the companionway. Everything will be all right.


SHE PAUSED BRIEFLY in the alcove to pay respect to Clan Korval's shield with its lifelike Tree-and-Dragon and to consider yet again the bold, almost arrogant, inscription: Flaran Cha'menthi. I Dare.

Not a very conciliatory motto, Anne thought and grinned. The history of Cantra yos'Phelium and her young co-pilot, Tor An yos'Galan, who had used an experimental space drive to bring the people who were now Liadens away from their besieged planet to a fair new world was the stuff of many stories and plays. Pilot yos'Phelium was characterized as a crusty sort who brooked no questioning of her authority. I Dare was probably an entirely accurate summation of her philosophy.

Still grinning, she bowed respect to the device and its motto, then reached out to stroke the dragon's muzzle and look into its bright green eyes.

"Keep good watch," she told it, surprised at how earnest her voice sounded. She stroked the dragon once more, fingers lingering on the cool enamel surface, then continued on in search of Er Thom.

* * *

THEY ENTERED the piloting chamber from opposite doors and Anne noted once more how well-suited he was to this ship. Each doorway that insisted she bend her head for entry framed Er Thom's slender figure like a benediction. The small chairs with their short backs that forced her to bundle her long legs into a ludicrous, adolescent tangle beneath the seat welcomed and enclosed Er Thom as if they had been made for him.

Which, Anne thought wryly, they very possibly had.

He bowed now, graceful and smooth, smiling as he straightened.

"Anne. Did you sleep well?"

"Very well," she said, returning his smile and feeling her doubts about the wisdom of this journey begin to slip away. "I missed you."

"Ah." He came closer, fingers stroking her arm, feather-light and enticing, beautiful face tipped up to hers. "The pilot must be vigilant."

"Of course," she murmured, half-tranced by his eyes. She took one careful step back and turned her head toward the board. "About ninety minutes to the end of Jump."

"And another two hours to Solcintra Port," he agreed. "We shall be at Jelaza Kazone by late afternoon." He tipped his head. "Are you troubled, Anne?"

"Nervous," she said and gave him a quick smile. "I don't know much about your cha'leket the delm except that he used to be a Scout and that the two of you were raised together. And your mother—"

Here she faltered. The little she had gleaned of Er Thom's mother seemed to indicate the old lady was a high stickler, with, perhaps, a gift for sarcasm. She strongly suspected that Thodelm yos'Galan was not going to find Terran Scholar Anne Davis, the rather irregular mother of her grandson, much to her liking.

"My mother." Er Thom slipped his hand gently under her elbow, as he had done on the occasion of their first meeting, so long ago, and guided her across the pilot's room and into the alcove that served as a kind of snack bar.

"My mother," he repeated, after he ordered them both a cup of tea from the menuboard and they were sitting across from each other at the pull-down table. "You must understand, she is—ill."

"Ill?" Anne blinked at him, teacup halfway to her lips. "Er Thom, if your mother isn't well, it would be—discourteous—of me to insist—"

"You are my guest," he interrupted her softly. "All is as it should be, and no discourtesy attached to you at all, who merely accepted invitation freely offered." He paused to sip tea.

"Several years ago," he said slowly, "a—tragedy—befell the clan. When all was accounted, we had lost the delm—Daav's mother, twin of my mother—and a'thodelm of yos'Galan, my elder brother, Sae Zar."

Anne lowered her cup, eyes wide on his face, but he was staring at some point just beyond his own cup, which was cradled in the net of his fingers.

"Such a blow to the Line Direct could not easily be withstood. Of course, Daav was called home immediately to take up the Ring—and there was myself to—absorb—a'thodelm's duty—but we were neither of us yet full adult and looked to the remaining elder of the Clan to guide us." He sighed.

"Which she was not at first able to do, so desperate was her illness. We feared—for relumma—that she would follow sister and son and leave us—a halfling delm, as Daav would have it, and an unschooled thodelm—alone to guide Korval."

"But she didn't die," Anne breathed, unable to take her eyes from his averted face.

"Indeed," he murmured, "she gained strength. To a point. A very specific point, alas, and that more by will than any skill the medics brought. Damage from the radiation had gone too far, taken too much. She is not well. In fact, she is dying. And all the medics and the autodocs can do is somewhat ease the pain of her determination to live." He lifted his cup and drank, eyes still cast aside.

"I'm so terribly sorry," Anne managed and his eyes flashed to hers, brilliantly violet.

"It is not of your blame," he said, softly.

"No," she agreed, "but I still grieve for your grief. Was it—was it an honor-feud?"

"There was nothing honorable in it!" he said sharply, then moved a hand, fingers tracing a formal sign in the air between them.

"Forgive me. It was lies and treachery and outworld conniving and the stupidity of it is the trap was not even set for us! She who told the first tale, the one who set the bait—she had only been awaiting a master trader. One would have done as well as any other. Only ill luck that it was Sae Zar yos'Galan who walked into the place where she waited and lay down his coin for a drink."

"I'm sorry," Anne said again, damning the inadequacy of the phrase. "Were you and your brother very—close?"

"Close?" He tipped his head, frowning. "Ah, I see. Not so—close. Sae Zar was eleven—twelve—Standard years my elder. He brought presents to Daav and me, and took us with him to Port a time or two . . . He was kind, but old, you know, and we but children." He paused.

"There was—vast difference in our estates, you must understand," he said and the impression she had was that he was choosing his words with the utmost care. "It became—necessary—for the delm to provide the clan with another child. The elder child of yos'Phelium had then ten Standard years and it was the delm's wisdom that the new child should have another of—near age—with whom to grow and learn. Thus she commanded her sister my mother to also wed, and then took the child of that union in fostering."

"Which is how you and Daav came to be cha'lekets," Anne murmured, shaking her head over this commanding to wed. "Er Thom—"

A tone sounded in the piloting chamber—one clear, bright note.

Er Thom stood. "Forgive me. We are about to re-enter normal space, and I must be at the board." He hesitated, flashing her a look from beneath golden lashes. "Would you care to sit with me there?"

A signal honor, Anne knew, to be asked by a master pilot to accompany him at the board. And honor beyond counting, that one who was not even a pilot should be offered that place.

Heart full, she inclined her head.

"I would be honored, Er Thom. Thank you."

"The honor is my own," he returned, which she knew was rote, and thereby sheer nonsense. He bowed and left the alcove then, Anne hard on his heels.


TRAFFIC WAS NOT so heavy as she had imagined—or Delm Korval's pleasure-yacht commanded a clear approach whenever it appeared.

Which, she allowed, upon consideration, might not be so fanciful a notion, after all.

She leaned forward in the acceleration chair that was built all wrong for her size, and watched his face as he worked the board, listening to his matter-of-fact exchange of information with Solcintra Tower. There was nothing hurried in the rapid dance of his fingers over the various keys, toggles and switches—no hurry and no hesitation. Only pure efficiency enveloped by a nearly transcendent concentration.

"You love this," she breathed, barely knowing that she spoke aloud. "Really love this."

Purple eyes flashed to her face. "This—yes. Every liftoff is a privilege. Every homecoming is—a joy."

She was about to answer—and then started, abruptly alert on an utterly different level.

"Shan's awake," she said, rising and moving away. "I'll go and make him presentable."

But Er Thom was fully back in the pilot's beautiful, unfathomable dance and gave no sign that he heard her.


Chapter Sixteen

Each one of a Line shall heed the voice of the thodelm, head of that Line, and give honor to the thodelm's word. Likewise, the thodelm shall heed the voice of the delm, head of the clan entire, and to the delm's word bow low.



Proper behavior is that thodelm decides for Line and delm decides for clan, cherishing between them the melant'i of all.

—Excerpted from the Liaden Code of Proper Conduct


 


ER THOM led the way down, Anne coming after, holding Shan's hand. At the edge of the ramp, they were met by a woman in mechanic's coveralls, the Tree-and-Dragon emblem stitched on her sleeve.

"Sir," she murmured, bowing low.

Er Thom barely inclined his head. "There is luggage in the smaller hold to be sent on immediately to Trealla Fantrol," he said in the mode, so Anne thought, of Employer to Employee. "The ship shall at once be inspected and made ready according to its standard bill of orders."

The mechanic bowed, indicating understanding of her orders. "Sir," she said again and stepped aside.

Without further ado, Er Thom moved on, Anne a step still behind him, slowed by the shortness of her son's stride, and her own desire to crane around like a tourist and stare at everything.

"Hi!" Shan announced as they passed the mechanic, which earned him a flash of startled gray eyes and a bow nearly as low as the one given his father.

"Young sir," the woman said swiftly. Her eyes lifted and barely touched Anne's face before she bowed yet again.

"Lady."

Anne blinked, cudgeling her brain for the proper response. Clearly, her melant'i in no way approached Er Thom's, whose clan employed the woman. Nor did she have any notion of the relative status of learned scholars to starship mechanics, though she was inclined to think that, on the basis of practical abilities, the mechanic stood several orders above a mere professor of linguistics.

She was saved the necessity of making any decision at all by the arrival of the rest of the woman's crew, to whom she turned with rapid-fire orders. Reprieved, Anne walked over to Er Thom, Shan in tow.

"I need a scorecard," she muttered in Terran, and saw the gleam of a smile in his eyes.

"A guest of the House outranks a hireling of the House," he said softly. "She expected no response. Indeed, it was forward of her to offer greeting, except she was forced to it by this young rogue." He reached down to ruffle Shan's hair.

Anne sighed. "Shannie," she said, without much hope, "don't talk to strangers." She met Er Thom's eyes, adding wryly: "Not that he's ever met a stranger."

He frowned briefly, brows pulling slightly together, then his face cleared. "'Happy the one who finds kin in every port.'"

"Close enough," she allowed. "Except if the other person counts differently there's Hobbs to pay."

"Who is Hobbs?" Er Thom wondered and Anne laughed, shaking her head.

"I'm sorry," she managed after a moment. "Hobbs isn't—anybody—really. A figure of speech, like his brother Hobson, who's generally seen offering a choice." She paused, suddenly taken. "Actually, you may know Mr. Hobson. His choice goes like this: Take my terms or take nothing."

"Hah!" The smile this time was nearer a grin. "We have met." He slid his hand under her elbow, guiding her away from the cold-pad and toward a low building some distance away painted with the Tree-and-Dragon.

"A car awaits us," he said, "and then we may to Daav. In any case, we should clear the field."

As was only prudent, Anne thought. The field was a-buzz with activity. Jitney traffic was heavy, racing between cold-pads and the distant bulk of the main garage. Added to the speedy jitneys were fuel trucks, repair rigs, forklifts and ground-tugs, some with ships in tow.

The Tree-and-Dragon sigil was displayed on every piece of equipment, on every jitney and on several of the ships they passed.

"All this belongs to—to your clan?" Anne asked around a mounting sense of dismay.

He glanced up at her. "This is Korval's primary yard in Solcintra," he murmured. "We maintain three others here, and in Chonselta, two."

It may have been the staggering information that Clan Korval owned no fewer than six spaceship maintenance and repair yards that caused the lapse in her usual vigilance. Or it may have been the realization that rich, the descriptor she had vaguely attached to Er Thom's financial status, so far understated the matter as to be actually misleading.

Six repair yards, she thought dazedly, allowing herself to be guided through the hurrying traffic. These were not the holdings of a mid-level mercantile clan with a couple near-mythological heroes and a tradeship or two to its credit. This was stupefyingly wealthy, not merely Old House, but High—

"Er Thom," she began, meaning to demand an exact accounting of Clan Korval's melant'i here and now, before she or her son set foot beyond the repair yard's gate. "Er Thom, just precisely where—"

"Sparkles!" Shan shouted, snatching his hand free.

She spun at once, grabbing for him, but he was gone, running as fast as his short legs could carry him, counter-cutting traffic, ignoring the lumbering repair rig entirely.

"Shannie!" She was moving—was caught, snatched aside with sudden, brusque strength—and a slim figure in a leather jacket was past her, running so quickly he seemed to skim the ground.

In the path of the rig, Shan stooped, fingers scrabbling at the blast-sealed tarmac. At the machine's crown, Anne saw the driver frantically slapping at his control board, saw the rig slow—not enough, not nearly enough—

Her terror made the rescue more dramatic than reality, or so Er Thom assured her afterward.

Truth or overheated imagination, she saw the enormous treads bearing the metal mountain inexorably toward her son, tiny and oblivious to his danger.

And she saw Er Thom, swift and unhesitating, flash between Shan and the mountain, catch the boy in his arms and roll away in a shoulder-bruising somersault.

The machine obscured her sight of them for a heart-searing minute, cleared her line of sight and ground, at last, to a halt.

Er Thom was standing, Shan held tightly in his arms, a new white scar showing on the shoulder of his battered brown jacket.

"Is he—?" The driver was shaking, braced against the side of his machine. He lifted eyes half-wild with horror in a face the color of yellow mud. "The child, Lady! By the gods, where is the child?"

"Here." Er Thom walked forward, Shan unnaturally still in his arms, silver eyes stretched wide.

"Compose yourself," Er Thom told the driver, coolly. "No hurt has been taken."

The man closed his eyes and leaned weakly back into the side of the machine. Anne saw his throat work, swallowing anguish.

"Thank gods," he rasped, and abruptly stiffened. Standing away from his support, he made a deep bow that was somewhat marred by his continued trembling.

"Your lordship."

"Yes," Er Thom said, in Employer to Employee, which did not, Anne thought, finally getting her legs to move, lend itself to warmth. "You are Dus Tin sig'Eva, are you not?"

"Yes, sir," the man said, standing stiffly upright.

Anne made it to Er Thom's side and held out her arms. Shan smiled at her, somewhat unsteadily.

"Hi, Ma," he whispered. Er Thom never turned his head.

"You will call for assistance," he was telling Dus Tin sig'Eva, still in the cool tones of Employer to Employee. "When assistance arrives, you will accept the role of passenger back to your station, where you will report this incident to your supervisor. If you feel need of a Healer, that service will be provided you. In any case, you will be given the rest of this shift and all of your next shift off, with pay. It may be advisable for you to retrain on this piece of equipment."

The man bowed. "Your Lordship," he said, with, Anne thought, staggered relief. Straightening, he turned and swarmed up the ladder into the driver's compartment, to radio for assistance.

At last, Er Thom turned his head.

"And now you, my swift one—" he began in Low Liaden.

Shan shifted sharply in his arms. "Sparkles, Mirada!"

Er Thom looked grim. "Sparkles, is it?" he said in ominous Terran.

He swung the child to his feet, keeping a firm grip on one small hand. Anne grabbed the other and held tight. "Show me these sparkles."

Obediently, Shan marched forward, mother and father in tow. Just two steps from the rear of the repair rig, he stopped and bent his head to point with his nose, since neither parent would relinquish a hand.

"There!"

Embedded in the tarmac was a faceted blue gem, sparkling in the brilliant Liaden sunlight.

"Hah. And are these your usual sparkles or something a bit different, I wonder?"

Shan blinked, expression doleful. "Sparkles," he repeated, and tried to yank his hand away from Er Thom. "Shan go," he demanded, stamping a foot.

"Shannie!" Anne said warningly, but Er Thom let the small hand free.

"Sparkles!" Shan cried, pointing down at the glittering gem. "More sparkles!" His finger stabbed at a point just over Er Thom's bright head. "Ma sparkles! Jerzy sparkles! Rilly! Everywhere sparkles, but not to touch! This sparkle to touch! Touch this, touch more?"

"Ah." Er Thom went to one knee on the tarmac and looked very earnestly into Shan's face. "Here," he said softly, and to Anne's amazement, pulled off his master trader's ring, the amethyst blazing gloriously purple. "Touch this sparkle, denubia."

Shan's fist closed greedily around the big gem. Enthralled, Anne knelt on his other side, letting his hand free, but keeping a firm grip on his shoulder.

"Can you now touch these other sparkles?" Er Thom asked.

There was a long, charged moment as Shan scanned the blank air above Er Thom's head, and extended a cautious, hungry hand.

"Nothing," he said, body losing all its unnatural tenseness at once. His eyes filled with tears, but he only shook his head. "Can't touch Mirada."

"Perhaps when you are older," Er Thom said gently, slipping the ring back onto his finger. "In the meanwhile, you see that there are—different sorts—of sparkles, eh? Those you can touch and those you can only see. Can you remember that?"

"Yes," Shan told him, utterly certain.

"Good. Then you must also remember never to run away from your mother again. It was ill-done and caused her pain. This is not how we use our kin, who deserve all of our love and all of our kindness. I am not pleased."

Shan swallowed hard, eyes filling again. "I'm sorry, Mirada."

"As is proper, for the fault is yours," Er Thom told him. "But you owe your mother some ease, do you not?"

Woefully, he turned to Anne. "I'm sorry, Ma."

"I'm sorry, too, Shannie," she said. "It was bad to run away like that, wasn't it?"

He nodded, then the tears escaped in a rush and he flung himself into her arms, burying his face against her neck. "I'm sorry, sorry!" he hiccuped, sobbing with such extravagance that Er Thom began to look alarmed.

Anne smiled at him and held up a finger.

"All right," she said, gently rubbing Shan's back, working loose the tight muscles. "I guess that's sorry enough. But you need to do something else for me."

"What?" Shan asked, raising his sodden face.

"Promise you won't run away again."

"I promise," he said and then sighed, tears gone as suddenly as they had appeared. "I won't run away."

"Good," Anne said and set him back so she could stand, remembering to keep a tight grip on his hand. She glanced over at Er Thom, who had also risen.

"Why does he cry like that?" he asked, trouble still showing in his eyes.

Anne grinned. "You can write a note and thank Jerzy. Shan had gotten cranky one day and started to whimper over something and Jerzy told him that if he wanted to be really convincing, he had to project—and proceeded to demonstrate. By the time I came in, the two of them were sitting on the floor in the middle of Jerzy's apartment, holding each other and sobbing their hearts out." She shook her head, suddenly serious.

"Are you Okay?" she asked, extending a tentative hand and touching his shoulder. "That was quite a tumble."

"I am fine," he assured her solemnly.

"Your jacket's gotten scarred," she said, fingering the leather briefly before prudence took her hand away.

He glanced negligently at the scrape, shoulders moving. "If that is the worst of the matter then we may make our bow to the luck." He reached down and took Shan's hand.

"In the meanwhile, our car awaits," he said, and led them around the stalled repair rig and away.


Chapter Seventeen

The number of High Houses is precisely fifty. And then there is Korval.

—From the Annual Census of Clans


 


THE LANDCAR was low and sleek and surprisingly roomy. Anne leaned back in a passenger's seat adjusted to accommodate her height, Shan dozing on her lap, and watched Solcintra Port flash by.

She gave an inward sigh of regret for the quickness of the tour as Er Thom guided the car through Port Gate One and into the city proper.

He glanced over at her, violet eyes serious. "Forgive me my necessity," he murmured, "and allow me to show you the Port another day—soon."

She blinked, then inclined her head. "Thank you, Er Thom. I'd like that."

"I, also," he answered and fell silent once more, driving the car with the same effortless efficiency he had demonstrated at the yacht's control board.

Anne settled against the back of her seat and watched him, content to let Solcintra City slip by with only a few cursory glances. Another day, and she would see it all, immerse herself—safely anchored by Er Thom's melant'i and knowledge—in all the wonder the City of Jewels could muster.

The car slid effortlessly around a flowered corner, under an ancient archway of shaped stone, negotiated a sweeping curve in a smooth uptake of speed and they were suddenly out of the city and moving through a landscape of plush lawns and wide gardens.

"Soon now," Er Thom said so softly she might have thought he was speaking to himself, except the words were in Terran.

The car accelerated once more, lawns and gardens flickering by—and changing. The houses became larger, set further back from the road, some hidden entirely, marked only by gates and driveways.

Er Thom sent the car right at an abrupt branching of ways. They climbed a sudden hill and a valley stretched before them. At the near end, Anne saw a cluster of trees, glimpsed roof top and chimneys through the leaves.

On the far side of the valley were more trees and, soaring high into the green-tinged, cloudless sky, a—Tree.

"What on—?" She sat forward in the seat, earning a sleepy grumble from Shan. "It can't be a tree!"

"And yet it is a tree," Er Thom said, as the car descended the hill to the valley floor. "Jelaza Kazone, Korval's Tree, which is at the house of my brother, also called Jelaza Kazone."

Jelaza Kazone, the professorial corner of her mind supplied helpfully, meant "Jela's Peace" or "Jela's Fulfillment." She stared at the impossible tallness of it, and licked lips suddenly gone dry.

"Who is Jela?" she murmured, barely knowing that she asked the question aloud, so absorbed she was by the Tree itself.

"Cantra yos'Phelium's partner, all honor to him, who died before the Exodus."

Anne managed to move her eyes from the Tree—from Jelaza Kazone—to Er Thom's profile. "But—'Jela's Fulfillment'? And he never made it to Liad?"

"Ah. But it had been Jela's Tree, you know, and he had made her swear to keep it safe."

"Oh." She eased back slowly, and several minutes passed in silence, until she said: "So the delm is the dragon who guards the Tree—the actual Tree. Your shield isn't an—allegory?"

"Ale—?" He frowned, puzzlement plain. "Your pardon. It—the delm's instruction, when we were children, was that each of us holds the burden of Cantra's promise, and—should there be but one of Korval alive, the life of that one was only to keep the Tree."

Anne sighed, slowly, and shook her head. "It's the Tree—Jela's original?"

"Yes," Er Thom murmured, slowing the car as they approached a cluster of low bushes.

"That makes it, what? Nine hundred years old?"

"Somewhat—older, perhaps," he said, flicking a glance at her as he turned into one of those long, mysterious driveways. "We arrive."

Jelaza Kazone, the house, was two stories high, overhung with a sloping roof. A porch girded the second story; chairs and loungers could be seen here and there.

It was, Anne thought in relief, a cozy sort of house, with nothing of the mansion about it, never mind that it was big enough to hold seventy apartments the size of her own on University. Perhaps the benign presence of Jelaza Kazone, the Tree, helped make it feel so comfortable.

For the Tree, pinnacle now lost to her sight, grew out of the center of the house.

Questioned, Er Thom told her that the house had been built piece-by-piece as the clan grew, until it now surrounded the Tree on all sides.

"My rooms are—were—on the second story, facing the inner court, where the Tree is." The car glided to a soundless stop and Er Thom made several quick adjustments, before turning in his seat to look at her.

"The delm will—very soon—See our child and the clan will rejoice," he said earnestly, taking her hand in his and looking up into her eyes. "Anne. If there is—a thing in your heart—you—are welcomed—to lay it before Korval for—for solving." The pressure of his fingers on hers was hard, nearly painful, and she had the impression he was striving to impart information of paramount importance.

"It is known—forgive me!—that you have none to speak on your behalf. We would not—wish to be—backward—in service to—to the guest." He drew a deep breath and released her hands, looking doubtfully into her eyes.

"I mean no insult, Anne."

"No, of course not," she said gently, while her mind raced. Traditionally, delms solved—spoke for—those of their own clan. For Delm Korval to be willing to speak for someone outside his clan—and a Terran besides!—was something rather extraordinary. Anne inclined her head deeply.

"I am—disarmed—by Korval's graciousness," she said carefully. "You do me great honor. I will not hesitate to bring any worthy matter to the delm's attention."

Er Thom's face relaxed into a smile.

"That is good, then," he said, and glanced down at Shan. "Now, we must wake this sleepy one and take him within."


MASTER DAAV, the stately individual who answered the door-summons informed Er Thom with precision, was in the Inner Court. If the lord and lady and young sir would follow, please?

They did, down a well-lit, wood-paneled hallway, footsteps muffled on bright, thick carpet, past closed doors with ancient china knobs set in the centers. Even Shan seemed awed, and kept close to Anne's side, his fingers clutching at hers.

Rounding a corner, they went down a slightly narrower hall that ended in a glass door. Their guide opened the door with a flourish and bowed them into the Inner Court.

Anne went three steps into the garden and stopped, blinking at the profusion of flowers and shrubs, the riot of bird song and the flutter of jewel-colored insects.

Er Thom continued across the silky grass, glancing this way and that among the unruly flowers.

"Well met, brother!" a cheery voice called from no particular direction.

Er Thom stopped, head tipped to one side. "Daav?"

"Who else? Had you a good trip?"

"Smooth and easy." Er Thom approached the monumental Tree, and lay his palm flat against the silvery trunk as he peered upward into the branches. "It is difficult to converse when I cannot see you."

"Easily solved. Climb yourself up."

"Might you not climb yourself down?" Er Thom inquired. "There are others present and matters that require your attention."

"Ah. You see how it is, brother: My manners have atrophied utterly in your absence."

"Will you climb down?" Er Thom demanded, a curious mix of laughter and frustration in his voice. Anne drifted closer, Shan silent and alert at her side.

"I will, indeed," said the Tree cheerfully. "Have a care, denubia, and stand away. It would not do for me to fall on you."

There was remarkably little movement among the silent broad leaves. When the lithe dark man dropped from the branches, it was as if he were part of a conjuror's trick: Now you see him . . .

"So then." He grinned at Er Thom and opened his arms, heedless of the twig caught in his hair and the smear of green across one wide, white sleeve.

Without hesitation, Er Thom went forward and the two embraced, cheek to cheek.

"Welcome home, darling," the dark-haired man said, his words in Low Liaden carrying clearly to Anne. "You were missed."

The embrace ended and Er Thom stepped back, though his cha'leket kept a light hand on his shoulder, thumb rubbing the new scar on the leather jacket.

"Perilous journey, Pilot?"

"A tumble at the Port," Er Thom returned calmly. "Nothing to signify."

"Hah. But there are others present and matters that require my attention—or so recent rumor sings me! Lead on, brother; I am entirely at your disposal."

"Then you must come this way and make your bow to the guest," Er Thom told him, leading him the way across the grass to Anne.

He extended a hand on which the master trader's ring blazed and laid it lightly on her sleeve. "Anne," he murmured, switching to his accented, careful Terran, "here is my brother, Daav yos'Phelium, Delm Korval."

She smiled at the dark-haired man and bowed acknowledgement of the introduction. "I am happy to meet you, Daav yos'Phelium."

"Korval," Er Thom continued. "This is Anne Davis, Professor of Linguistics."

From beneath a pair of well-marked brows, bright dark eyes met hers, disconcertingly direct before he made his own bow.

"Professor Davis, I am delighted to meet you at last." His Terran bore a lighter accent than Er Thom's; his voice was deeper, almost grainy. He was a fraction taller, wiry rather than slim, with a face more foxy than elfin. A curiously twisted silver loop swung from his right earlobe and his dark brown hair fell, unrelieved by a single curl, an inch below his shoulders.

"And this . . ." Er Thom bent, touching Shan on the cheek with light fingertips. "Korval, I Show you Shan yos'Galan."

"So." Daav yos'Phelium moved, dropping lightly to his knees before the wide-eyed child. He held out a hand on which a wide band glittered, lush with enamel-work. "Good-day to you, Shan yos'Galan."

Shan tipped his head, considering the man before him for a long moment.

"Hi," he said at last, his usual greeting, and brought his free hand up to meet the one the man still patiently offered.

Wiry golden fingers closed around the small hand and Daav smiled. "Did you have a good trip, nephew?"

"Okay," Shan told him, moving forward a half-step, his eyes on his uncle's face. Reluctantly, Anne relinquished her hold on his hand and he took another small step, so he was standing with his toes nearly touching the man's knees.

"Do you see sparkles?" he asked, abruptly.

"Alas," Daav answered, "I do not. Do you see sparkles?"

"Yes, but not the kind to touch. Mirada on hand has sparkles to touch." He bit his lip, looking earnestly into the man's face.

"You happen sparkles," he said plaintively. "Can't see sparkles?"

The well-marked brows pulled together. "Happen sparkles?" he murmured.

"He means 'make,'" Anne explained. "You make sparkles."

"Ah, do I? I had no notion. Have you brought me a nascent wizard, denubia?" This last was apparently to Er Thom.

"Perhaps," that gentleman replied. "Perhaps a Healer. Or perhaps only one who has the gift of knowing when another is happy."

"Not too bad a gift, eh?" He smiled at Shan and then sent his brilliant black gaze to Anne's face.

"If Korval Sees this child, he is of the clan," he said, voice and eyes intently serious. "You understand this?"

Anne nodded. "Er Thom explained that it was—vital—for the delm to—count—a new yos'Galan."

"So? And did Er Thom also explain that what Korval acquires Korval does not relinquish? You have seen our shield."

"The dragon over the tree—yes." She hesitated, looked from his intent face to Er Thom's, equally intent. "Shan yos'Galan is my son," she said to him, voice excruciatingly even. "Whether he is—of—Clan Korval or not."

"Yes," Er Thom said, meeting her gaze straightly, hand half-lifting toward her. "How could it be otherwise?"

"Scholar." Daav yos'Phelium's voice brought her eyes back to his face, which was no less serious than it had been. "Scholar, if you are at all unsure—stand away. There is no dishonor in taking time to be certain."

She stared down at him where he knelt in the grass, holding her son by the hand. Leaf-stained as he was, with his fox-face and bold eyes, lean and tough as a dock-worker—He was beyond her experience: Half-wild and unknown; utterly, bewilderingly different than Er Thom, who was her friend and who—she knew—wished her well—and wished to do well for their son.

"It's what we came to do," she said slowly, voice cracking slightly. She shook her head, as much from a need to break that compelling black gaze as from a desire to deny—anything.

"Shan was to be shown to Delm Korval and then Er Thom could be easy again, and the clan not be—embarrassed—by there being a—rogue yos'Galan loose in the galaxy—one the delm hadn't counted. It was—my error," she explained, looking back to his face. "I—custom on my homeworld is to name the child with the father's surname in—respect. In—acknowledgement. I hadn't understood that there would be—complications for Er Thom when I followed my—my world's custom. Having made the error, it is—fitting—that I do what I can to put the error into—context—and repair any harm I may have done."

"Hah." For two long heartbeats, the bold eyes held hers, then he inclined his head.

"So it is done." He extended the hand that bore the broad enameled band and cupped Shan's cheek.

"Korval Sees Shan yos'Galan, child of Er Thom yos'Galan and Anne Davis," he announced. The High Liaden words rang like so many bells across the garden, startling the birds into silence. He bent forward and kissed Shan on the lips before taking his hand away.

"Welcome, Shan yos'Galan. The clan rejoices."

And that, Anne thought, around a sudden and astonishing surge of joy, is that. I hope Er Thom thinks it was worth all that worry.

Shan laughed and reached forward on tiptoe to pluck the leaf from his uncle's hair and hold it up for inspection.

"Flower."

"Leaf, I believe," Daav corrected gently. "Quite a nice one." He rose in a single fluid motion, one hand still holding the child and the other sweeping up in a extravagantly wide gesture.

"Thus, matters requiring my attention! Let us go within and have wine—and luncheon, too! For I do not scruple to tell you, brother, that you behold a man who is famished."

"No new sight," Er Thom replied calmly, stepping across to offer an arm to Anne and smiling up into her eyes. "Will you take wine and food before we go on to Trealla Fantrol, friend?"

The sense of joy was dizzying, exhilarating beyond reason, so that it was all she could do not to bend and kiss him, with full measure passion, on the lips. Only the understanding that it would not do—not here—kept her emotion in check.

So instead of kissing him, she smiled at him and slid her arm through his.

"Wine and food sounds delightful," she said warmly and allowed him to lead her into the house.


Chapter Eighteen

In an ally, considerations of house, clan, planet, race are insignificant beside two prime questions, which are:



1. Can he shoot?


2. Will he aim at your enemy?


 

—Excerpted from Cantra yos'Phelium's Log Book


 


A LIGHT NUNCHEON had been called for, to be brought to the Small Parlor, to which they had repaired. Wine had been poured for each adult—Shan was given a small crystal cup half-filled with citrus punch—and tasted with all due ceremony.

Very shortly after, Er Thom excused himself to place a call to his parent, and left the room. Daav and Shan went to the window, where the man was apparently pointing out sections of shrubbery most likely to yield rabbits, if a boy were patient, and had sharp eyes.

Momentarily left to herself, Anne walked slowly around the room, sipping the slightly tart white wine and trying to absorb everything at once.

The rug—the rug was surely Kharsian wool, hand woven by a single family across several generations. She had seen a hologram of such a priceless treasure once and recognized the signature maroon and cobalt blue among the lesser colors, all skillfully blended to create a riotous garden of flowers, each bloom unique as a snowflake.

At one side of the room, the rug broke and flowed around a hearth of dark gray stone laid with white logs. The mantle that framed the fireplace was of a glossy reddish wood she could not identify, carved with a central medallion slightly larger than her fist. The design tantalized a moment before she named it—a Compass Rose, pure in the smooth red wood.

Turning from the fireplace, she nearly fell over the table and two comfortable-looking chairs. On top of the table was a board, margins painted with fanciful designs. The center of the board was marked into blue and brown squares, bounded by larger borders, like countries. There were twelve countries in all, Anne counted, each containing twelve small squares.

On the table outside the board were four twelve-sided ebony dice. Two shallow wooden bowls likewise sat to hand, each filled with oval pebbles. The pebbles in the right bowl were red; those in the left, yellow.

"Do you play, Professor Davis?" Daav yos'Phelium inquired suddenly from her side.

She glanced up with only a slight start and shook her head. "It's a counterchance board, isn't it?"

"Indeed it is. You must ask my brother to teach you—he's a fiend for the game, you know. And very good, besides." He flashed a smile up into her face, humor crinkling the corners of his eyes. "Although of course it wouldn't do for him to hear I've said so."

Anne laughed. "No, I can see that would be a—bad move."

"Precisely," he agreed, raising his glass. "I've left young Shan scouting for rabbits," he continued after a moment, gesturing toward the window and the child kneeling motionless before it, nose pressed to the glass.

"That should keep him busy until lunch," she said, grinning. "There's a shortage of rabbits on University."

"Ah. Well, there are more than enough here for him to enjoy, never fear it." He tipped his head slightly, black eyes quizzical.

Anne lifted her glass—and brought it down as a low move to the right caught her attention.

"What a beautiful cat!" she breathed.

Daav yos'Phelium turned his head. "Lady Dignity, how kind of you to join us! Come in, do, and give grace to the guest."

The cat paused in her progress across the carpet, considering him out of round blue eyes. After a moment, she sat down, brought up a paw and began to wash her face.

"Wanton," the man said calmly and Anne laughed.

"Lady Dignity?" she asked. "Is she very shy?"

"Merely shatterbrained, I fear, and a great deal set up in her own esteem. She does well in her role, however, so I don't like to complain."

"Her role?" She glanced expressively around her. "Tell me you have mice!"

He laughed—full and rich, a world apart from Er Thom's soft, infrequent laughter. "No, how could I? But she's useful, nonetheless."

Anne looked to where the cat had settled, chicken-fashion, onto the carpet, front paws tucked under creamy chest, blue eyes half-closed within the mask of darker fur.

"She frightens off unwanted guests," she suggested and Daav opened his black eyes wide.

"Isn't that why I keep a butler? No, I will tell you—" He sipped wine, glanced over at the cat, then back to Anne.

"My sister is very proper," he began earnestly, "and I am a great trial to her. She says I have no dignity and I fear she may be correct. Still, scolding will not create what the gods have not provided and I confess I grew tired of being reminded of my deficiency."

He used his chin to point at the drowsing cat. "So I have employed this lady, here, to act in my behalf. Now, whenever my sister demands to know where my dignity is, I can produce her upon the instant."

Anne stared at him, a smile growing slowly, curving her big mouth and lighting her eyes. The smile turned to a chuckle and she shook her head at him in mock severity.

"Your poor sister! I don't expect she was amused."

Daav sighed dolefully, eyes glinting. "Alas, the gods were behindhand in Kareen's sense of fun."

"Daav!" This from Shan, vigilant at the window. "Look, Daav! Cat!"

"Good gods, in my garden?" He was gone, moving across the carpet with a quick, silent stride to lean over the boy's shoulder.

Anne drifted over just in time to see an enormous orange-and-white cat slink into the bushes at the base of a small tree.

"Relchin," Daav said. "Doubtless gone birding." He glanced up at Anne. "He never catches any, you know, but the chase does amuse him."

"Exercise," she agreed, seriously.

"Indeed," he murmured and seemed about to say something else, when there was a step at the door.

"Ah, there you are, brother! We were only just wondering when you might return and free us all to dine!" He slid past Anne and crossed the room, blocking her view of Er Thom's face. "How do you find your mother my aunt?"

"A trifle—distressed—today." Er Thom's voice was soft and smooth as always, yet Anne felt apprehension shiver through her as she reached down to take Shan's hand.

"Er Thom, if your mother is not—able—to take on the burden of a guest—" she began, and that quickly he was before her, looking seriously up into her eyes.

"No such thing," he told her, softly, though she was cold with sudden dread. "She sends apology to the guest, that she will be unable to greet you instantly upon your arrival. She looks forward to the pleasure of your company at Prime Meal this evening."

She stared down into his eyes, feeling—knowing—that there was something wrong—badly wrong. Er Thom was lying to her. The thought—the surety—shocked her into still wordlessness.

"Anne?" He extended a hand and she caught it tightly, as if it were a thrown rope and she floundering far out of her depth.

"What's wrong?" she demanded, voice raspy and dry. "Er Thom—"

His fingers were firm, giving back pressure for pressure; his eyes never wavered from hers.

"My mother is—inconvenienced," he said patiently. "She is not able to meet you at once, but shall surely do so at Prime." His grip increased, painfully, but she made no move to withdraw her fingers. "You are welcome in my House, Anne. Please."

She held his eyes, his hand, for another heartbeat, trying desperately to plumb the wrongness, identify the ill. At last, defeated, she bowed her head and slid her fingers free.

"All right," she said softly, and raised her head in time to see Daav yos'Phelium's bold black eyes move slowly from her face to Er Thom's.


NUNCHEON PASSED IN a flurry of small-talk, of which Er Thom's brother apparently possessed an unending supply. It seemed absurd, Anne thought as she nibbled cheese, that she should have found him strange and formidable scarcely an hour ago. Now, he was merely an amusing young man with a flair for the dramatic and a penchant for telling the most ridiculous stories with an entirely straight face.

He's a bit like Jerzy, really, she thought around a stab of homesickness.

Er Thom's contributions to the conversation were slight: Set-ups for his cha'leket's absurd stories and tolerant corroborations of unlikely events. Mostly, he busied himself with feeding Shan bits of cheese and slices of fruit from the plate he had filled for himself.

Anne, watching surreptitiously, thought Shan accounted for nearly all of the plate's contents, and that Er Thom perhaps had a taste of cheese with his wine. Worried, she thought, and wondered how ill his mother was.

When at last nuncheon was over, Daav walked them down the long hall to the door and gave Er Thom another hug.

"Don't keep yourself far," he said and Er Thom smiled—wanly, Anne thought, and caught his brother's arm.

"Come to Prime, do."

Daav's eyes opened wide. "What, tonight?"

"Why not?"

"An excellent question. I shall come in all my finery. In the meanwhile, commend me to your mother."

Er Thom's smile this time was a little less tense. Daav bent to hug Shan and kiss his cheek.

"Nephew. Come and visit me often, eh? I think we shall deal famously."

Shan returned the embrace and the kiss with exuberance, then stood back to wave.

"'Bye, Daav."

The man bowed lightly—as between kin, Anne read. "Until soon, young Shan."

"Professor Davis." The bow he accorded her was of respect. "We shall speak again, I hope. I have read your work, you know, and would welcome a chance to discuss your ideas more fully, if you will grant it."

"That would be pleasant," she told him, returning his bow with one of Respect-to-a-Delm-Not-One's-Own. "I look forward to it."

"Good." His eyes were intent on hers and she felt again that he was utterly beyond her, more alien than she could fathom.

"In the meanwhile," he said, all gentle courtesy, "if there is any matter in which I may serve you, please know that I am entirely at your disposal."

"Thank you," she said, matching his inflection as precisely as possible. "You are gracious and—kind—to a stranger."

For one moment more, the black eyes seared into hers, then he was bowing them gracefully out the door.

"Until Prime," he called, lifting a hand as Er Thom started the landcar. "Keep well, all."


Chapter Nineteen

The best advice for any Terran with a yen to visit the beautiful planet of Liad is: Stay home.

—From A Terran's Guide to Liad



"THE NAME OF THE valley," Er Thom said, deliberately—Anne thought—to cut off any additional questions she might ask, "is Valcon Berant'a. Korval's Valley, they say in Solcintra. It was ceded by the passengers to Cantra yos'Phelium and Tor An yos'Galan, for the piloting fee. Jelaza Kazone was built first, of course, after the Tree was planted. Trealla Fantrol—the house of yos'Galan—that came later. It was built as a—sentinel post, you would say—to guard the inroad, to act as first deterrent—and to give warning to the delm."

Anne looked out the window at the lush landscape, turning this burst of information over in her mind. Valcon Berant'a? The Liaden name Er Thom had given did not mean "Korval's Valley." It meant, she decided after a moment of concentrated thought, 'Dragon's Price,' or perhaps 'Dragon Hoard.'

"A sentinel post," she asked as Er Thom slowed and made the turn into another drive. "Were there wars?"

"Ah, well, in the old times, you know, there were—disharmonies. Things did not always run smoothly and the Council of Clans did not always agree. Daav says civilized behavior is never to be depended upon." He laughed his soft laugh, so different from his cha'leket's. "Do not fear that I ask you to guest in a fortress, friend. Trealla Fantrol has—amenities. Very soon, now . . ."

It was, in fact, a matter of three more minutes and two more twists in the tree-lined drive. The car passed under an arch rich with yellow flowers and entered a sweeping curve.

Er Thom pulled up to the bottom of the stairway and turned the car off. Anne sat and tried not to stare, Shan completely still on her lap.

Trealla Fantrol was a mansion, with a marble stairway and towering granite facade. Windows glittered like diamonds among the gray stone and lawns like plush green velvet sloped away on both sides.

"This is the outpost?" she demanded in a voice that cracked. After the warm hominess of Daav's house . . .

"All of us would live at Jelaza Kazone," Er Thom said quietly, "if we could." He lay a light hand on her arm and immediately took it away.

"Come, allow me to show you and our son to your rooms. I will leave you for a time, so that you might refresh yourselves and rest. One has been engaged to care for our son—Mrs. Intassi, who had been our nurse when we were young. She will arrive before Prime. I shall instruct Mr. pak'Ora to conduct her to you immediately . . ."

Chattering, Anne thought, in no little wonder, as Er Thom came around to her side of car and lifted Shan to his feet. Er Thom is actually chattering.

Chattering, he brought them up the marble stairway, through the front door and across the echoing lobby, up the Grand Staircase—each riser hand-carved with a scene from the Great Migration—down an interminable hallway to her room.

"The house has your palmprint on file," he told her as the door slid open. "If you do not find all precisely as you would wish it, only tell me and the deficiency will be corrected." He looked up at her, chatter suddenly broken as his eyes took fire. He glanced away.

"I am sorry to leave you so abruptly, Anne. I—necessity. Later, if you like it, I shall show you the house—and the grounds." He lay a hand on her arm and this time did not remove it so quickly. "My private code is in your computer. If there is—any way—in which I may serve you, do not hesitate . . ."

"All right," she said soothingly and against all sense extended a hand to stroke his cheek, meaning only to ease his nervousness.

As soon as she touched him, she knew it was a mistake; she barely needed to hear the sharp intake of his breath, or see the blaze of his eyes, which echoed the re-awakened blaze of her desire.

Ensorcelled yet again, she looked helplessly into his eyes, her hand trembling against his cheek, unwilling—unable—to move.

It was Er Thom who moved.

A single step, backward, his eyes hot on hers. Her hand fell, lifeless, to her side and he bowed: Esteem and respect.

"I shall return," he said, very softly indeed. "Please. Be at ease in our House."

He turned on his heel and was gone, the door closing behind him with the barest whisper of sound.


HE CAME AS ORDERED to her private parlor, dressed in plain shirt and trousers, with the dust of the Port still on his boots, and made his bow, dutiful and low.

"Mother."

"My son."

Petrella surveyed him from her chair, meaning to make him writhe while she leisurely surveyed the wind-rumpled golden hair, the delicate wing of brow over eyes more purple than blue, the pleasing symmetry of face, and the firm, give-me-no-nonsense mouth. Er Thom, the son who was not her son. Chi's work, this one, returned at last to the mother who bore him on his twelfth name day, when he boarded Dutiful Passage as cabin boy.

He had Chi's look, Petrella allowed, which meant her own, since she and her twin had been as like as two seeds in a pod. She knew him to be mannerly and biddable, dutiful to a fault—far different than his volatile cha'leket, who looked more changeling than Korval.

"Are that woman and her child in this house?" she demanded abruptly, letting him hear the rasp of her displeasure.

He swayed a bow, discomfited not one whit. "The House is honored by the guesting of Professor Anne Davis," he said in his soft way, "mother of Shan yos'Galan, Seen by Korval."

"Oh, is it?" Petrella straightened to her full height in the chair, preparing to attack.

"Shan yos'Galan," Er Thom continued smoothly, "is the son of Er Thom yos'Galan, and grandson of Petrella yos'Galan." He lifted his head, purple eyes bland. "It would be—gracious—of the thodelm to complete what the delm has begun."

"You dare," she breathed, anger filling her with vivid energy. "Is your thodelm a counterchance token, Er Thom yos'Galan, to dance when you choose the tune? Your cha'leket the delm has Seen your bastard, has he? You provide an accomplished fact, and I—too weak to protest dishonor—make my bow meekly and am ruled by the whim of an upstarting boy. Think again—Master Trader. That child is none of mine."

The firm mouth had tightened somewhat, she noted with satisfaction; the bow he gave her was grave.

"Mrs. Intassi," he murmured, as if all she had said were mere pleasantry, "has been engaged to care for my son. She arrives this afternoon to take charge of the nursery."

For a heartbeat she could only gape at him, then she drew a careful breath, fingers tightening ominously on the arm rests.

"I see. And if your thodelm requires you to engage a house in town in which these delightful arrangements may continue as planned?"

Once again, courteous and grave, he bowed. "Then of course I will remove myself immediately."

And the so-proper contract marriage with Syntebra el'Kemin, Petrella understood from that, would never be consummated. She glared at him, considering her next move.

"Enlighten me," she ordered after a moment. "Precisely where did you meet this—person—who has the honor of being yos'Galan's guest?"

The winged brows twitched—smoothed.

"Professor Davis and I became acquainted on Proziski, at the time when Dutiful Passage had been transport for the Liaden contingent of the Federated Trade Mission. Professor Davis had been engaged in field research under a grant from University Central, where she teaches." He paused.

"We met at the port master's rout," he finished gently, "and contracted an alliance of pleasure."

"With so many Liadens by your side, you take a Terran as pleasure-love?" She stared at him in disbelief.

The purple eyes sparked—and were shielded immediately by the sweep of long golden lashes. Er Thom said nothing.

"Speak, sirrah! I will know how a son of this House came to so far forget himself as to—"

"It was myself I considered!" he interrupted sharply, and there was no shielding the anger in his eyes now. "She cared nothing for bedding an a'thodelm, or for the daring of coming so near to Korval! She barely cared of this—" He flung out his hand, the master trader's ring flashing violet lightnings, "save it said I was competent, and she a lady who admires competence."

"Indeed! You fascinate me. And what did she care for, pray, if not for any of what you are?"

He drew a hard breath, his mouth a tight, straight line. "She cared for who I was," he said quietly, passion seeming spent as quickly as it had been struck. He moved a hand, softening the statement.

"It may have been at first, that I was Liaden, and exotic, and of a form that pleased her. What reasons do Liaden lovers need? For me, it was that she gave friendship with no eye to profit, and opened her door and her heart as if I were no less than kin."

"And got your child, to her honor!" Petrella commented caustically. "A strange accident, for one who admires competence."

Er Thom inclined his head. "So I also thought, at first," he said surprisingly. "Anne—Professor Davis—is not, as we have discussed, Liaden. In spite of this, she is a person of honor and meticulous melant'i. That her necessity required her to bear my child without proper negotiation is—regrettable. Having bowed to necessity, however, she strove to place honor properly, after the custom of her homeworld, and thus the child is yos'Galan. To the increase and joy of the clan."

Petrella glared. "I will not be played, sirrah! Strive to bear it in mind."

"As you say." He bowed obedience and went into stillness, hands loose at his sides, face bland and attentive.

Almost, Petrella laughed, for that was a trick from Chi's bag, designed to unnerve an opponent and force a response—and very often a blunder. She let the silence stretch, teasing his patience. When she spoke at last, her voice was almost mild.

"So, Shan yos'Galan has been Seen by the delm. Tell me, do, what the delm has Seen."

"A child of a little less than three Standard Years," Er Thom said gently, "with pale hair and silver blue eyes, bold and alert. He successfully completes puzzles and match-problems designed to challenge children half again his age. He sees sparkles, as he calls them, from which he may interpret another's emotional state."

Petrella stared. "A Terran?" she demanded.

Er Thom was seen to sigh. "A yos'Galan," he said patiently, "which has given dozens to the Healers and the dramliz over the years since the Exodus. Why stare that another child of the Line shows these abilities?"

Petrella closed her eyes. A Terran—blast it all! At best, a half-blood yos'Galan. And already he showed sign of Healer talent? Rare to show so early, certainly. And coupled with the promise of pilot skills—Easy to see the attraction of this irregular child for Delm Korval. Very nearly understandable, that he would risk Thodelm yos'Galan's anger to gain such promise for the clan.

"Professor Davis," Er Thom murmured, "is a scholar of much acclaim in her field. You may wish to read of her work—"

Petrella opened her eyes.

"I have no interest in scholars," she said flatly. "Especially Terran scholars."

There was a moment of electric stillness before Er Thom bowed.

"In that wise," he said softly, "I shall after all engage a house in town. I will not have her shown any dishonor."

"You will not what?" Petrella demanded, disbelief in her voice.

"I spoke plainly," Er Thom replied, giving her all his eyes.

She met them, and saw determination—and thus the lines were drawn: Honor to the Terran scholar, or abandon all hope of a more legitimate heir to yos'Galan.

"It's my belief you've run mad," Petrella announced, trading him stare for stare.

He bowed, accepting her judgment with graceful irony.

"So." She moved her shoulders, feeling the edge of exhaustion.

"Very well," she told him crisply. "The Terran scholar is yos'Galan's guest. For a twelve-day. If her business on Liad holds her beyond that, she may guest elsewhere. In the meanwhile, all honor to her."

For a moment, she thought he would not be satisfied with the compromise. Then he bowed acceptance.

"It is heard."

"Good," Petrella snapped. "Let it also be remembered. Go now and leave me in peace. I shall see you and the guest of the House at Prime."

"Yes, Mother," he said, and added, "Daav will be with us, as well."

"Of course he will," she said tiredly. "Go away."

He did, though without alacrity. After all, Petrella thought, he was far too accomplished a player to give her the advantage of seeing him either relieved or dismayed by the outcome of their interview.

Petrella closed her eyes and allowed herself to go limp in the chair, concentrating on her breathing. Her mind wandered a bit, as it tended to do nowadays, rather than face the dreariness of continued pain, and she found herself remembering a long-ago interview with her twin.

"Daav is a forest creature, all eyes and teeth," Chi had murmured, sipping her wine. "He knows the forms, the protocols—but will he bide with them? There's the question." She smiled. "Ah, well. The Scouts will tame him, never fear it. As for your own . . ."

Petrella sipped her wine, waiting with accustomed ease while her twin tidied knowledge into words.

"Your own is—a marvel, considering his place in the Line Direct, son of the Delm's Own Twin—" They shared a glance of amusement for that, before Chi moved her hand and went on.

"He's a sweet-natured child, your Er Thom: mannerly, dutiful and calm. He knows the forms and applies them correctly, with neither rebellion nor irony. From time to time I see him hint Daav—the wonder is my wild thing takes such hinting with grace! But you mustn't fear he is dull—both of them are sharp enough to cut! It is only this attitude of dutiful sweetness that disturbs me, sister—so unlike Korval's more usual attributes . . ."

Petrella remembered that she had laughed, waving away her twin's misgivings.

"What cause to repine, that at last Korval has—through whatever accident!—got itself a biddable child?"

"Biddable—" Chi sipped wine, eyes gazing miles, perhaps worlds, away. She focussed abruptly and gave her wide, ironic smile. "I suspect he may surprise us one day, sister. And I know enough of history to worry how he might go about it. Though I allow when it comes it will doubtless be amusing."

Petrella had laughed again, and refilled her twin's cup with wine, and the talk had moved to other matters.

And now, Petrella thought, eyes opening onto the pain-racked present, Er Thom has at last surprised.

She wondered if Chi would have been amused, after all.


Chapter Twenty

If honor be your clothing, the suit will last a lifetime.

—William Arnot



IT WAS QUITE the nicest dress she had ever owned.

Indeed, Anne thought, as she opened the closet, it was the only formal dress she possessed, and, hopefully, formal enough for a Liaden dinner party comprised not only of the delm and the delm's heir, but of her lover's thodelm, grandmother of her son.

Until Er Thom yos'Galan, Anne would have laughed at the notion of owning a piece of clothing as extravagant as the luscious green confection she had purchased on Proziski. But—An ambassadorial affair, with dancing, Er Thom had said in his soft, sweet way. Would it amuse her to accompany him?

It would have amused her to accompany him to Hell, she recalled ruefully as she took the dress down. She had accepted his invitation with more joy than sense—then spent an entire day—and far too much of her meager personal funds—in pursuit of the green gown.

The delicious fabric swirled round her shoulders, fell and settled, water-smooth, against her skin as she slipped on the matching slippers and turned to face the mirror.

"Oh—my."

The gown still had magic to work, she thought, staring dazedly at the vision in the mirror. The regal lady caught there stared haughtily back, brown skin rich against the pure greenness, chestnut hair glowing, eyes all velvet seduction.

From slim waist to full bosom, the gown was laced with golden chains so delicate they might have been worked at a elf-lord's forge. She had a matching length, provided by the dressmaker, to wear around her throat.

On the occasion of the ambassadorial affair, she had also worn a gold ribbon, threaded through painstakingly-arranged hair. The ribbon was long-lost—and the hair soon woefully disarranged. For the dance had proved insipid and they had left early, smuggling out a napkin filled with delicacies pilfered from an hors d'oeuvre tray and a split of wine offered by a sympathetic waiter.

Dazzling in his own finery, Er Thom had driven them to the Mercantile Building, and pulled the sample bolt from the flitter's boot.

"You mustn't spoil your dress," he had murmured, shaking a prince's ransom worth of lace back from his beautiful hands and spreading the scarlet silk like a blanket . . .

Anne shook herself. "That will do," she informed her reflection sternly, and deliberately turned away.

The vanity had been arranged by the same invisible hands that had unpacked her clothing and carefully put it away.

To the right were her comb, brush and mirror, the black oak veneer battered, the silver-wrapped handles tarnished. To the left sat the chipped lacquer chest that contained her few pieces of jewelry.

Careful of stressed plastic hinges, she lifted the lid and propped it open. Along the back of the box, glowing like a candle in the shiny dark interior, was the carved ivory box that held the necklace Er Thom had given her—"to say good-bye." For a moment, she was tempted to wear that piece tonight, for it was inarguably the most beautiful of her paltry jewels.

He asked you not to wear it, she reminded herself as her fingers touched the exquisitely-carved ivory. With a sigh, she shook her head and fastened the dressmaker's golden chain around her throat instead.

She hung a simple pair of gold hoops in her ears and used plain gold combs to hold her hair back from her face.

The entire effect was a little more austere than she had hoped for, despite the green gown's magic.

Well, she thought wistfully, and maybe Er Thom's ma will pity you, Annie-gel, since it's plain you've no sort of melant'i to boast on.

Or, Er Thom's mother might just as easily take the plainness of her guest's adornment as a personal affront. Anne swallowed against a sudden uprising of butterflies inside her stomach.

"Maybe I'll have a cup of soup and some toast in my room," she said aloud, and with no conviction at all, for that would be an insult, and Er Thom's mother well within her rights to avenge it.

Just when she was beginning to think that would be no bad thing, the entrance-chime sounded.

Green dress swirling around her, she left the bedroom, went through the spacious kitchenette and luxurious common room. She paused a moment before laying her hand against the admittance plate, composing her face and trying to calm her racing heartbeat. It would never do for Mr. pak'Ora, come to do butler's duty and guide the guest to the dining room, to see her panting with fright.

Hoping that her face betrayed only serene expectation, she opened the door.

Er Thom bowed, low and eloquent, looked up and smiled into her eyes. "Good evening."

"Good evening," she managed, though her tongue suddenly seemed cleft to the roof of her mouth. She stepped back, motioning him inside with a sweep of her ringless hand. "Please come in."

"Thank you," he said gravely, as if the door weren't coded to his palm as well as hers. He stepped within and the portal in question slid shut behind him.

Er Thom wore the form-fitting dark trousers deemed appropriate formal wear for Liaden males. She knew from experience that the fabric was wonderfully soft to the touch. His wide-sleeved white shirt was silk, or something more precious; the lace frothing at his throat contained by an emerald stickpin. Emeralds glittered in his ears and on his slender hands, half-hidden by more lace.

"Anne?" His gaze warmed her face. "Is there something wrong?"

She shook herself, aware that she had been staring.

"I was just thinking how beautiful you are," she said and felt her face heat, for the man was here to take her to meet his mother

Er Thom laughed his soft laugh and bowed, slightly and with humor.

"And I," he murmured, "was trying most earnestly not to think the same of you."

Dear gods, a compliment. She very nearly blinked; rescued the moment with a bow of her own, accepting his admiration.

His eyes gleamed, but he turned a little aside, gesturing around the room.

"Everything is as you wish it? Is there anything else the House may provide for you?"

"Everything is perfectly delightful," she told him soberly. "I'll miss all this elegance, after we go back home." She did blink then, seeing him among the wide, comfortable chairs and high-set desk.

"Do you guest Terrans often?"

"Eh?" Winged brows drew together in puzzlement. "I believe you are the first."

"Oh." She bit her lip, then plunged ahead, waving her hand at the room.

"It's just that everything's—convenient—for someone who is—of Terran height. I assumed—"

"Ah." Enlightenment dawned in a smile. "My mother has redecorated," he murmured, running his eyes in rapid inventory around the parlor. He looked back to Anne, feeling his blood heat with desire for her even as he forced himself to make civil reply.

"She would have wished to have everything as it should be for the guest," he explained. "Why should you not be comfortable in our house?"

She looked at him doubtfully, then took a breath, the golden laces stretching tight across her delightful bosom.

"Your mother redecorated—rebuilt—this whole apartment just so I'd be comfortable for few weeks?"

"Of course," he said reasonably. "Why not?" He moved a hand, drawing her attention away from the subject.

"Mrs. Intassi came to speak with you?" he asked, though he had just come from an interview with that lady. "You have seen the nursery and find it acceptable?"

Anne laughed, head tipped gracefully back. "Your notions of—acceptable—" she said, and he heard her unease through the laughter even as she shook her head and made her face more serious.

"The nursery looks lovely. Mrs. Intassi seems—very competent." She hesitated. "It's going to be a little strange—for Shannie and for me, too—to have him sleeping so far away . . ."

"Not so far away," he said softly. "You may visit him whenever you like. The door has your code." Almost, he reached to take her hand; gamesmanship strangled the impulse before it went beyond a finger-twitch.

"Shan is your son," he said, repeating his comfort of the afternoon, and saw the tiny lines of tension around her eyes ease.

Smiling then, he bowed and offered his arm.

"May I escort you to the First Parlor, friend? My mother is eager to make your acquaintance." He slanted a mischievous look into her face, feeling irrationally gay. "Never fear," he told her lightly, "there will be wine close to hand."

She laughed at that and took his arm, resting her hand lightly over his, intertwining their fingers in the way he had taught her.

Just at the door, she checked and looked down into his eyes, her own shaded with trouble, so that he felt his gaiety fade.

"Don't let me make a mistake," she said, fingers tightening around his.

Astonishment held him for half a heartbeat, to be replaced by flaring joy. For here at last was the sign of her intention he had hoped for since she had turned her face from contract-marriage.

Don't let me make a mistake. She placed her melant'i in his hands for safekeeping, as if they were kin. Or lifemates.

"Er Thom?" Her eyes were still troubled, doubt beginning to show.

As if she could think that what she asked was any else than his own ardent wish—He stopped himself, recalling that she was Terran and unsure of custom.

Gently, and with extreme caution, he lifted his hand, barely brushing her lips with his fingertips.

"No," he said, solemn despite the burgeoning joy, "I will not let you make a mistake, Anne." A laugh burst free despite his best efforts.

"But if we are late for the Gathering Hour with my mother," he predicted, "nothing may succor either of us!"


HER SON and the guest were late—oh, a few minutes, merely, Petrella allowed, as she settled more comfortably into her chair—but late, nonetheless.

Almost, she had time in their tardiness to imagine herself the victor. To suppose that seeing his Terran tart here, in his very homeplace, surrounded by all that was elegant, proper and Liaden had awakened Er Thom's swooning senses to sanity.

Almost, she began to weigh the wisdom of accepting this child—this Shan—to yos'Galan. Not, most naturally, as Er Thom's heir—young Syntebra would doubtless serve them well enough there. But it could not be denied that the clan could ill afford to turn away one who was potentially pilot and Healer merely because tainted blood ran his veins.

Her hand moved, almost touching the button that would fetch Mr. pak'Ora—and paused.

There were voices in the hall.

Er Thom's murmur came first to her ears. She missed the words, but the cadence was of neither High Liaden nor Low.

The voice that answered him was all too clear; carrying without being shrill, with the hint of such control found in the speech of those trained as prena'ma.

"I've sent a message to Drusil tel'Bana," the carrying voice announced in perfectly intelligible Terran, "telling her I'm on-planet and hoping for an early meeting. I'll have to go to her, of course, which means renting a car, if you would give me the name of a—"

"The House," Er Thom's words were now clear, as well, "will provide you a car, friend. And a driver, should you wish."

Oh, and will it? Petrella thought, stiffening against the cushions—but that was only ill-temper, for surely Er Thom owned vehicles enough in his own right that the Terran scholar need never walk.

Honor to the guest, she reminded herself, composing her face into that look of courteous blandness with which one dealt with those not of one's clan.

Asked, she could not have precisely said what portrait imagination had painted of Anne Davis beforehand. Sufficient to its accuracy to say that the woman who crossed the threshold on Er Thom's arm surprised. Entirely.

To be sure, she was a giantess, looming above her tall and shapely escort, but she did not move ill. Indeed, there was that in her stride which seemed peculiarly pilot-like, and her shoulders sat level and easy, as with any person of pride.

Though she was large in all things, Petrella acknowledged her not out of proportion with her height, and of her form there was a pleasing—yet not overcommanding—symmetry.

Her gown suited her figure, and was not—to an old trader's eye—overexpensive. Her plain necklet and earrings, the lack of ostentation in the matter of rings—all this proclaimed her a person who knew her own worth and was neither ashamed of her station nor eager to show herself as more than she was.

The face, to which Petrella now raised her eyes, was large-featured: The nose was too prominent for beauty, the mouth too full, the eyes set a fraction too close, the willful jaw square, the forehead high and smooth. Not a beautiful face, but, rather, an interesting face—intelligent and humorous, enlivened by a pair of speaking brown eyes, with a sweetness about the mouth that did much toward balancing the stubborn jaw.

Had Anne Davis been Liaden, Petrella might at this juncture very well admitted to some small portion of interest in her.

But Anne Davis was unremittingly Terran; Er Thom, by guiding her here, was seen to be still in the throes of his madness; and their child, by all that meant winning, must remain a half-bred bastard, unacknowledged by yos'Galan.

With a determination that was surprisingly difficult to rally, Petrella turned a stone-like face toward her son.

"Good evening," she said, chilly and in all of the High Tongue, barely inclining her head.

"Good evening, Mother," he returned gently, bowing respect. He brought the Terran woman forward as if she were some outworld regina and bowed once more.

"I bring you Anne Davis, Professor of Linguistics, mother of my child, guest of the House." He put the woman's hand lingeringly aside, and turned to make his bow to her.

"Anne, here is Petrella, Thodelm yos'Galan, whose child I have the honor to be."

Pretty words, Petrella thought grumpily, from one who has not also the honor of being obedient. It surprised her that he gave the introductions in High Liaden, for surely a Terran, no matter how scholarly—

The woman before her bowed with an ease astonishing in one so large, in the mode of Adult to Person of Rank, a choice that charmed by its very lack of innuendo.

"Petrella yos'Galan," she said in her clear, storyteller's voice, "I am glad to meet you. Allow me to thank you at once for the generosity which has admitted me as a guest in your house."

Petrella very nearly blinked. That this graceful acknowledgement was made in High Liaden must amaze, though the delivery was necessarily marred by a rather heavy accent. Still, it was understood that not everyone spoke with the accent of Solcintra, and balancing this was the fact that the sentences had been spoken in proper cadence and with a thoughtfulness indicating the speaker understood her own words, rather than merely repeating what had been learned by rote.

It was necessary to answer grace with grace—her own melant'i demanded it, even had there not been this other matter between herself and her son. Petrella inclined her head with full ceremony.

"Anne Davis, I am glad to meet you, as well. Forgive me that I do not rise to greet you more properly."

"Please do not concern yourself," the guest replied. "Indeed, it is your kindness in having myself and my son here when you are so ill that has particularly touched my heart. I wish that we will not be a burden to you."

Petrella was still trying to gauge whether this astonishing speech carried any deliberate offense—given leave to be ill, forsooth!—when Mr. pak'Ora entered to announce the arrival of the delm.


Chapter Twenty-One

Liaden clans are primarily social organizations, amended by centuries of ever more exacting usage. Some Terran investigators compare them without amendment to military organizations, perhaps not realizing that the line of command is to some extent fluid, with variation due to considerations of melant'i. Though the delm is "supreme commander" and the thodelm his "second," an adroit junior with an agenda may at times be as much of an impediment to those commanders as any external enemy.

—From The Lectures of a Visiting Professor,Vol. 2


Wilhemenia Neville-Smythe, Unity House, Terra


 


"DAAV YOS'PHELIUM, Delm Korval," Mr. pak'Ora informed the room, and stepped aside so the gentleman might pass.

Unhurried and silent, he came across the rug, dressed in much the same way as Er Thom, his dark hair tied neatly at the nape with a length of silver ribbon. Deep and respectful, he made his bow before Petrella yos'Galan's chair.

"Aunt Petrella. Good evening to you."

"Good evening to you, Nephew," the old lady replied, with an inclination of her head, her tone nearly cordial. She lifted a thin, shaking hand, directing the man's attention aside. "I believe you have had the honor of making your bow to yos'Galan's guest."

He made another, nonetheless. "Professor Davis. How good it is to see you again!"

The words were High Liaden, the mode as between equal adults, which was about as friendly as the High Tongue got, Anne thought, returning his greeting with pleasure.

"You are kind," she said, meaning it. "I am glad to see you again, also, sir."

She thought she saw a smile glimmer at the back of his eyes, but before she could be certain, Petrella commanded his attention once more.

"I will also make you known to Er Thom, a'thodelm of yos'Galan, master trader and heir to the delm. I am persuaded you can never have seen his like before."

Her nephew considered her out of bright black eyes, head tipped a little to one side.

"You wrong me, Aunt Petrella," he said after a moment, and with utmost gentleness. "Though it is entirely true that I have never seen his like anywhere else." He turned his head, smiling at Er Thom with throat-tightening affection.

"Hello, darling."

Er Thom's smile was no less warm. "Daav. It's good of you to come."

"Yes, let us by all means extol my virtues," his cha'leket said with a grin. "Certainly the party has a moment or two at leisure!"

Anne laughed and Daav turned to her, one hand flung out, face comically earnest.

"What! You doubt me virtuous to even that extent?"

"On the contrary," she assured him, with matching earnestness. "I think it very good of you to round out the dinner party—especially when you clean up to such good advantage!"

In her chair, the old lady stiffened. Anne caught the movement from the corner of an eye and half-turned in that direction, worry overcoming fun, and found Daav someway before her.

"Well, you know," he said, still in that tone of bogus gravity, "my aunt has been saying the same of me any time these ten years—have you not, Aunt Petrella?"

"Indeed," the old lady agreed, with, Anne thought, a touch of acid, though her parched face remained as bland as formerly. "It only remains to discover how to influence you to behave in concert with your finery." She shifted abruptly, signaling Er Thom with a wavering fingertip.

"Doubtless, the guest would welcome a glass of wine. Daav, I want you, if you please."

"Certainly," he murmured as Er Thom and the guest walked downroom toward the wine table, "it must always please me to obey you, Aunt Petrella. In the face of such pleasure it does seem churlish to observe that I would welcome a glass of wine, as well."

She merely stared at him, face composed, until she judged the others sufficiently well-embarked on their own conversation to care little of what was being said behind them.

"So," she said at last, meeting his eyes fully. "It comes to my attention that the delm now decides for yos'Galan."

Daav lifted an eyebrow. "I am desolate to be the first before you with the news—the delm decides for Korval."

"And you see nothing that might offend, that the delm should decide—for Korval!—before ever the Line has made decision. I see."

Petrella drew a hard breath, eyes wandering, then stopping where Er Thom stood with his—with yos'Galan's guest—sipping wine and gazing up into her face with such a look of admiration as must give pause—if not actual pain. She brought her attention forcibly back to Daav.

"It is understood," she said, though without any effort to soften her tone, "that the clan must not at this point in its history turn away any who are—never care how irregularly!—of the Line. That the one now offered is likely pilot and perhaps Healer must make him doubly advantageous to the clan. That he is the child of beloved kin must make him more than acceptable to yourself. All this is crystalline." She paused, considering his face, which was merely attentive, black eyes shadowed by long dark lashes.

"However," Petrella continued after a moment, "yos'Galan at present is engaged in a disciplinary matter of no small moment. Respect for authority must be taught in such a way as to leave an indelible impression upon the a'thodelm. It is no less than my duty to the delm, who must at all times be certain his directives will be obeyed. I do not know how it is come about that the a'thodelm has become so careless of obedience, but as head of his Line, the fault is mine to correct."

Daav bowed, slightly and gravely. "And young Shan?"

She sighed, fingers tightening on the arms of her chair.

"You will say I am cruel, to use a child as the whip which will humble his parent. But I very much fear, my Delm, that you have Seen a child for Korval who has no other home than—Korval."

"Hah. And this is your last word upon the matter?"

She moved her shoulders, fretfully. "If he learns his lesson well," she said, meaning Er Thom, "perhaps the child may be admitted—eventually. Certainly, the thodelm will do as he pleases, when I am dead. In the meanwhile, however, I will trouble the delm to arrange a fostering for this—Shan. yos'Galan will not have him here."

"Removal of the child at this time will likely distress the guest," Daav commented. "Unless that is also your intention?"

"The guest remains for a twelve-day," Petrella answered calmly. "It is understood that a proper fostering may take even as long as that to arrange. Scholar Davis need experience no grief from an untimely parting."

"You are kind," he observed, in such a tone of bitterness that she raised her eyes in surprise to his face.

His countenance was hidden from her, however, by reason of his bow, which was low and full of respect as always.

"By your leave, Aunt Petrella, I am now in desperate need of wine."

"Go, then," she snapped, pleased to have an excuse to be annoyed with him. "And send my son to me, do."


"TURNABOUT, DARLING!" Daav cried as he approached the couple tête-â-tête at the wine table. "You to your mother and I at long last to drink and fashion pretty compliments for the delectation of the guest!"

Er Thom turned, showing a tolerably composed face in which the violet eyes were heated far beyond the prettiest compliment. Anne Davis, her own eyes bright, ventured another of her delightful laughs.

"We've already dealt with the dress and the hair and the hands," she told him gaily. "You shall have to be inventive, sir!"

He smiled at her in appreciation. "But you see, I may admire your abilities in the High Tongue, which are as new to me as our acquaintance, and if Er Thom has not already been delighted with your manner before my aunt, I can only call him a dullard."

"I have never found Anne's manner other than a delight," Er Thom said calmly, while his eyes betrayed him and his brother wondered more and more.

"Best answer the summons quickly, you know," Daav said when a moment had passed and Er Thom made no move to go to his parent. "Try to comport yourself well. Scream, should the pain go beyond you, and I swear to mount a rescue."

Er Thom laughed his soft laugh and bowed gently to his companion. "My mother desires my presence, friend. Allow Daav to bear you company, do. I engage for him that he will not be entirely shatterbrained."

"Bold promises!" Daav countered and Anne laughed. Er Thom smiled faintly and went at last to wait upon his mother.

"Wine is what I believe I shall have," Daav announced, moving toward the table. "May I refresh your glass?"

"Thank you." She came alongside him and held out a goblet half-full of his aunt's best canary.

He shook the lace back from his hand, refilled her glass and took a new one for himself, into which he poured misravot. He had just replaced the decanter when the woman beside him spoke, in a very quiet tone.

"Delm Korval?"

He spun, startled by such an address here, when more proper solving would call for privacy and time and—

Her face showed confusion at his alacrity; indeed, she dropped back a step, fine eyes going wide as her free hand lifted in a gesture meant, perhaps, to ward him.

"Hah." Understanding came, as it often did to him, on a level more intuitive than thoughtful: She meant courtesy, that was all, and called him by the only title she knew for him. He inclined his head, face relaxing into a smile.

"Please," he said, going into Terran for the proper feel of friendly informality. "Let me be Daav, if you will. Delm Korval is for—formalities." He allowed his smile to widen, showing candor. "Truth told, Delm Korval is a tiresome fellow, always about some bit of business or another. I would be just as glad to be shut of him for an evening."

She smiled, distress evaporating. "Daav, then," she allowed, following him into Terran with just a shade of relief in her voice. "And I will be Anne, and not stodgy Professor Davis."

"Agreed," he said, bowing gallantly. "Though I must hold that I have not yet found Professor Davis stodgy. Indeed, a number of her theories are exciting in the extreme."

She tipped her head. "You're a linguist?"

"Ah, no, merely a captain specialist of the Scouts—retired, alas." He sipped his wine and did not yield to the strong temptation to look aside and see how Er Thom got on.

"My area of speciality was cultural genetics," he told Anne Davis, "but Scouts are all of us generalists, you know—and linguists on the most primitive level. We are taught to learn quickly and to the broad rule of a thumb—" She laughed, softly. "And, truly, there are several languages which I speak well enough to make myself plain to a native of the tongue, yet still could not make available to yourself." He sighed. "My skill as a lexicographer falls short, I fear."

"As does mine," she said. "I've been working forever on a translation guide between High Liaden and Standard Terran." She shook her head, though not, Daav thought, in order to deny anything, unless it was a point made in her own mind. "I'm beginning to think I'm barking up the wrong tree."

Daav took note of the idiom for future exploration. "Perhaps your time on Liad will enlighten you," he suggested.

"Maybe," she allowed, though without observable conviction. "It's just frustrating. With the back-language so—" She started, flashing him a conscious look.

"You don't want to hear me rant for hours about my work," she said, smiling and taking a nervous sip of wine. "Professors can bore the ears off of the most sympathetic listener—as my brother often tells me! It would be much safer, if we were to talk about you."

But he was saved from that bit of fancy dancing by the advent of Mr. pak'Ora, come to say that Prime Meal awaited them in the dining room.


Chapter Twenty-Two

Wicked men obey from fear; good men, from love.

—Aristotle


 


PRIME WENT OFF without too much event, though Daav fancied he saw Er Thom once or twice hint Anne to the proper eating utensil. Still, there was no harm done, and the attention no more than a dutiful host might without offense offer to a guest of different manner.

Anne had apparently settled upon the more-or-less neutral mode of Adult-to-Adult for her conversation, a point of Code which Petrella was at first inclined to dispute. However, as neither of the remaining party found it beyond them to answer as they were addressed, Adult-to-Adult became the mode of the evening.

There were to have been cards afterwards, but as the guest had never used a Liaden deck, the play was a trifle ragged, and Petrella soon excused herself, pleading, so Daav thought, a not-entirely fictitious exhaustion.

As if this were her cue, Anne also announced an intention of retiring, turning aside Er Thom's offered escort by saying she wished to stop in the nursery for a few moments. Both ladies then quit the drawing room in the wake of Mr. pak'Ora.

And so the brothers were abruptly alone, trading bemused glances across the card table.

"Well," commented Daav, "and to think we shall live to tell the tale!"

Er Thom laughed. "Now I suppose you will make your excuses, as well."

"Nonsense, what would you do with yourself all the long evening if I were to be so craven?"

"There are several hundred invoices awaiting my attention," Er Thom replied with abrupt seriousness, "and a dozen memoranda from my first mate. The evening looks fair to overfull, never fear it."

"Hah. And I wishing to share a glass and a bit of chat . . ."

Er Thom smiled his slow, sweet smile. "As to that—a glass of wine and some talk would be very welcome, brother. The invoices quite terrify me."

"A confession, in fact! Very well—you see to the door, I shall see to the wine. I suppose you're drinking red?"

"Of your goodness." Er Thom was already across the room, pulling the door closed with a soft thud.

"None of my goodness at all, I assure you! The wine is from yos'Galan's cellars." He brought the two glasses back to the table and settled on the arm of a chair, watching as Er Thom gathered in the cards they had spread out for Anne's instruction.

Delm, Nadelm, Thodelm, A'thodelm, Master Trader, Ship, then the twelve common cards, until the three suits—red, blue and black—were all joined again. Absently, Er Thom tamped the deck and shuffled, fingers expert and quick among the gilded rectangles.

Daav sipped misravot. "Your mother my aunt appeared somewhat—fractious—this evening," he murmured, eyes on the lightning dance of the deck. "How did you find her earlier?"

The shuffle did not waver. "Less inclined to be courteous even than this evening," Er Thom said composedly. "She refused to acknowledge the child, which was not entirely unexpected, though—regrettable. I feel certain that, after she has had opportunity to meet Shan, she will—"

"Thodelm yos'Galan," Daav interrupted neutrally, "has requested that the delm arrange fostering for Shan yos'Galan, child of Korval alone."

The shuffle ended in a snap of golden fingers, imprisoning the deck entire. Daav looked up into his brother's face.

"He will come to me, of course," he said, and with utmost gentleness, for there was that in Er Thom's eyes which boded not much to the good.

"I am—grateful," Er Thom said, drawing a deep breath and putting the cards by. "I point out, however, that such an arrangement will most naturally—distress—Professor Davis."

"Yes, so I mentioned as well." Daav tipped his head slightly, eyes on his brother's set countenance. "Thodelm yos'Galan informs me that the guest remains for only a twelve-day."

"Thodelm yos'Galan is—alas—in error. There are—matters yet to be resolved—but I feel confident that Anne—Professor Davis—will be making a much longer stay."

"Oh, do you?" Daav blinked. "How much longer a stay, I wonder? And what is it to do with Anne—forgive me if I speak too plainly!—should Korval make what arrangements are deemed most suitable for one of its own?"

Er Thom glanced down, found his glass and picked it up. "It is not necessary," he told the sparkling red depths, "that my—our—child be—deprived—of association with his mother. They have been in the habit of spending many hours a day in each other's company. Even so small a separation as Shan's removal to the nursery has caused Anne—anxiety, though certainly he is old enough—" He seemed to catch himself, to shake himself, and brought his gaze up to meet Daav's fascinated eyes.

"My thodelm had suggested I might take a house in Solcintra," he said, with a calm that deceived his cha'leket not at all. "I believe that this course is, at present, wisest. Anne will be more at ease in—a smaller establishment—and may be free to pursue her business at the university. Mrs. Intassi shall continue to care for Shan—"

"And yourself?" Daav murmured.

"I? I should naturally live with my son and—and his mother. Anne is not—she is not up to line, you know, and depends upon me to advise her."

"Yes, certainly. What of young Syntebra? Shall she be added to your household?"

For a heartbeat Er Thom simply stared at him, eyes blank. Then recollection glimmered.

"Ah. Nexon's daughter." He glanced aside, perhaps to sip his wine. "That would be—entirely ineligible."

"So it would," Daav agreed. "Nearly as ineligible as setting up household with a lady with whom you share no legitimate relationship, save that she has borne you a child outside of contract!"

Er Thom gave him a solemn look. "You had never used to care for scandal."

"And if it were myself," Daav cried, mastering a unique urge to throttle his cha'leket, "I should not care now! But this is yourself, darling, on whom I have always depended to lend me credence among the High Houses and untangle me from all my ghastly scrapes! How shall we go on, if both are beyond the Code?"

Er Thom seemed to go suddenly limp; he sagged down onto the arm of the chair, eyes wide and very serious.

"I asked Anne," he said slowly, "to become my contract-wife."

"Did you?" Daav blinked, remembered to breathe. "And she said?"

"She refused me."

And all praise, Daav thought gratefully, to the Terran scholar!

"Surely then there is nothing more to be said. If she will not have you, she will not. To talk of sharing houses only ignores the lady's word and belittles her melant'i. Certainly, you owe her better—"

"It is my earnest belief," Er Thom interrupted gently, "that she wishes a lifemating. As do I."

It was Daav's turn to stare, and he did, full measure. When he at last spoke again, his voice was absolutely neutral, a mere recitation of the information he had just received.

"You wish a lifemating with Anne Davis."

Er Thom inclined his head. "With all my heart."

"Why?"

The violet eyes were steady as ever, holding his own.

"I love her."

"Hah." Well, and that was not impossible, Daav considered, though Er Thom's passions had not in the past run so very warm. He recalled his brother's eyes, hot on the scholar's face; the care he took to shield her from error during the meal and then after, going so far as to lay out the entire deck and painstakingly delineate each card. Love, perhaps, of a kind. And yet . . .

"It had been three Standard Years since you had seen her," he said evenly. "In all that time—"

"In all that time," Er Thom murmured, "I saw no face that compelled me, felt no desire stir me. In all that time, I was a dead man, lost to joy. Then I saw her again and it was as if—as if it were merely the evening after our last, and I expected, welcomed. Wished-for. Desired."

Oh, gods. It was all he could do to remain perched on his chair-arm, glass held loose while he met his brother's eyes. Within, jealousy had woke, snarling, for Er Thom was his, Er Thom's love his perquisite, not to be shared with any—

He drew a deep, careful breath, enforcing calm on his emotions. Er Thom was his brother, the being he loved best in all the worlds, his perfect opposite, his balancing point. To wound his brother was to wound himself, and what joy gained, should both be mortally struck?

"This is," he said, and heard how his voice grated. He cleared his throat. "This is the matter you would have brought before the delm?"

Er Thom inclined his head. "It is." His eyes showed some wariness as he looked up.

"I would have—spoken—some time—with my brother before arousing the delm."

"As who would not!" Daav extended a hand across the table, Korval's Ring flaring in the room's light, and felt an absurd sense of relief as Er Thom caught his fingers in a firm, warm grip.

"The delm does not yet take notice," he said earnestly, damning his melant'i and the defect of genes that made Kareen unable to take up the Ring. But Kareen would never have Seen young Shan at all and would likely have sent the Terran scholar briskly about her business, richer by neither cantra nor solving, while Er Thom became the victim of whatever punishment spite was capable of framing. He sighed sharply, fingers tight around his brother's hand.

"You must tell me," he said. "Brother—this bringing home of your child—and most especially his mother!—how does this make you ready to contract-wed in accordance with your thodelm's command?"

Er Thom's mouth tightened, though he did not relinquish Daav's hand. "You will think I am mad," he murmured, violet eyes showing a sparkle of tears.

"Darling, we are all of us mad," Daav returned, with no attempt, this once, to make light of the truth. "Ask anyone—they will say the same."

A small smile was seen—no more, really, than a softening of the corners of Er Thom's mouth, a glimmer that dried the sparkling tears.

"Yes," he said softly; "but, you see, I am not entirely in the way of seeming so to myself." He squeezed Daav's hand; relinquished it.

"When I left you, these few weeks ago, it was to accomplish one plan, which I felt must be accomplished, after which I—hoped—to be able to show the Healers a calm face and come away from them obedient."

Daav shifted on his chair-arm. "The Healers—that was not necessity, except as you had not accomplished your plan."

"Yes." Er Thom sighed. "And yet necessity did exist. It had been three years, as I said, since I had looked upon a face that pleased me. Three years of—mourning—for she to whom I had given nubiath'a. What right had I to bring such business to the contract-room? Nexon's daughter is young, this her first marriage. In all honor, her husband must be attentive, capable of—kindness. I had ought to have had the Healers time a-gone, myself, except I would not forget . . ." He drew a hard breath and took up his glass, though he did not drink.

"I went to Anne," he said softly, "to say only that I loved her. It was knowledge I knew she would treasure. Knowledge that I could not allow to be lost entirely to the Healers' arts. It was to have been—a small thing, simply done."

"And the child?" Daav murmured.

Er Thom lifted a hand to rake fingers through his bright hair, a habit denoting extreme distraction of thought, very little seen since he had put boyhood behind him.

"There was no child," he said, and his voice was distracted, as well. "There was no child nor mention of a child, three years ago."

"Hah." Daav glanced down, caught sight of the deck and took it up, then sat holding it in his hand, staring hard at nothing.

"You hunger yet for this lady?" he asked and heard Er Thom laugh, short and sharp.

"Hunger for her? I starve without her! I astonish myself with desire! There is no sound, save her voice; no sensation, save her touch."

Daav raised his head, staring in awe at his brother's face. After a moment, he touched his tongue to his lips.

"Yet she refuses a contract-marriage," he persisted, pitching his voice deliberately in the tone of calm reason. "Perhaps the—depth of your passion—may be—no dishonor to her!—inadequately returned."

"It is returned," Er Thom told him, with the absolute conviction of obsession, "in every particular."

Daav bit his lip. "Very well," he allowed, still calm and reasonable. "And yet unalloyed passion is not the foundation upon which we are taught to build a lifemating. You speak in such terms as make me believe you have indeed erred, by giving nubiath'a too soon, before your passions were slaked. In such case, a wiser solving is to go with the lady to the ocean house, indulge yourselves to the full extent of joy, to return home, when you have had your fill—"

"Fill!" Er Thom came to his feet in a flickering surge; instinct brought Daav up, as well, and he met his brother's eyes with something akin to dread.

Er Thom leaned forward, hands flat on the card-table, eyes vividly violet.

"There is no fill," he said, absolutely, utterly flat.

Scouts are taught many tricks in order to ensure the best chance of survival among potentially hostile peoples. Daav employed one such trick now, deliberately relaxing the muscles of his body, letting his mouth soften into a slight smile, his fingers curl half-open. After a moment or two, he had the satisfaction of seeing Er Thom relax, as well, shoulders loosening and eyes cooling even as he sighed and straightened, looking somewhat sheepish.

"Forgive me, denubia," he said softly. "I had never meant to contend against you."

"Certainly not," Daav said gently. "Though I will say it seems a sticky enough coil you plan to lay before the delm." He tipped his head. "Perhaps it would be—illuminating—were I to speak with Anne apart—" He raised a deliberately languid hand, stilling the other's start of protest. "Only to hear what she herself considers of the matter." He tipped his head, offering a smile.

"I shall have to hear it, soon or late, you know."

The smile was answered, faintly. "So you shall."

"Indeed—and tomorrow soon enough, for it is come time—alas!—to make my excuses and leave you to that dreadful pile of invoices." He tipped his head.

"In the meanwhile, promise you will engage no houses in the city—for at least tomorrow, eh?"

"Promised." Er Thom inclined his head and then came around the table to offer his arm.

Arm in arm, they went down the various hallways and across the moon-bathed East Patio. At the car, Er Thom embraced him, and Daav cursed his treacherous muscles, which stiffened, only slightly.

It was enough. Er Thom drew back, staring into his moonlit face.

"You are angry with me." He made some effort to keep his voice neutral, but Daav heard the pain beneath and flung himself into the embrace.

"Denubia, forgive me! My wretched moods. I am not angry—only tired, and such a muddle as you bring the delm must make my head spin!"

"Hah." Er Thom's arms tightened and when Daav asked for his kiss a moment later, he bestowed it with the alacrity of relief.


SHE HAD WANDERED through the beautiful, strange, suite for a time, but her pacing failed to tire her. Finally, she plucked a bound book at random from a shelf and, robe swirling around her, settled into a corner of the wheat-colored sofa, resolving to read until sleep overtook her.

An hour later she was still there, sleepless as ever, pursuing the Liaden words from page to page, resolutely not thinking of how lonely she was, or of how much she missed him, or of—

The door-chime sounded, once.

She was up in a flurry of blue skirts, across the room and hand on the admittance plate before she thought to tighten the sash at her waist—which was not really necessary, after all. The one who stood there had seen all she had to show, many times.

Er Thom bowed and straightened, looking up at her from eyes of molten violet.

"I had come," he said softly, "to make my good-night."

Throat tight, she reached out and took his hand, drawing him inside. The door closed, silent, behind him.


Chapter Twenty-Three

The guest is sacrosanct. The welfare and comfort of the guest will be first among the priorities of the House, for so long as the guest shall bide.

—Excerpted from the Liaden Code of Proper Conduct


 


DAAV YOS'PHELIUM, fourth of his Line to bear the name; master pilot; Scout captain, retired; expert of cultural genetics; Delm Korval, lay beneath the Hebert 81 DuoCycle, one shoulder braced against the cool stone floor as he worked to loosen a particularly troublesome gasket-seal. Oil dripped from the gasket and he was careful to keep his face stain-free, though neither the thick old shirt he wore nor the scarred leather leggings were so fortunate.

For a time he had worked with only the flutter of bird song from outside the garage for company, and the now-and-again rustle that was rabbits foraging through the dew-sheathed grass. Now, however, he became aware of something different—a deliberate, plodsome rhythm that vibrated through his braced shoulder and into his head.

Attention on the gasket, he wondered briefly if there was an elephant loose on the lawns. He was mildly disappointed, but not really surprised, when a few minutes later the plodding became the harsh click of boot heels striking stone flooring and a sound was vented in the sudden silence that his Scout sensibilities cataloged as a human sigh.

"What," demanded the voice of his sister, speaking in the mode of Elder-Sibling-to-Child, "are you doing under there?"

The gasket-seal at last heeded his promptings and fell free, releasing a minor downpour of oil. He flinched back from the splatter that liberally redecorated his shirt-front and peered around the Hebert's front wheel.

Creamy leather boots met his gaze, striped here and there with light blue grass-stains. The stiff silk trousers that belled over them, falling precisely to the instep, were of an identical cream color. Daav turned his attention back to the gasket.

"Good morning, Kareen," he called, mindful of his manners, and phrasing the reply in Adult Siblings.

The Right Noble Kareen yos'Phelium allowed herself a second sigh. "What are you doing under there?" she asked again, still in that tone of exasperated scolding.

"Replacing the winder-gasket and repairing the sync-motor," Daav said, carefully using a solvent-soaked towel to clean the gasket seat.

There was a short silence before his sister asked, with lamentable predictability, "And that is a task of such urgency you must attend it before you receive your own kin?"

"Well," Daav allowed judiciously, working the new gasket around to the proper orientation. "There is some urgency attached to it, yes. The final part required for the repair only arrived from Terra last evening and as soon as I have the sync-motor geared, the cycle will be in fine state for racing. I confess I have been wanting to race it anytime this last Standard, but it would not do, you know, to enlist an unsafe machine."

"Race!" Kareen's voice carried a wealth of loathing much more suited to the elder sibling mode she yet insisted upon than the mode he had offered. "One hopes you have more care for your duty than to endanger the person of Korval Himself in a race. Most especially as you have not yet seen fit to provide the clan with your heir."

"Oh, no!" Daav said, as the gasket clicked satisfyingly into place. "Please do not tease yourself on that account one moment longer! Of course I have designated an heir. Only this morning I re-initialed the document pertaining to the matter."

"Only this morning," Kareen repeated, voice suddenly silken with malice. "How very busy you are, younger brother. No doubt this re-initialing has much to do with yos'Galan's latest impropriety."

"yos'Galan's impropriety?" Daav demanded, letting go the gasket and staring wide-eyed at the boots. "Never tell me Aunt Petrella's been brawling in taverns again!"

"Yes, very good. The clan hovering on the brink of ruin and you in one of your distempers!" She stopped herself so sharply Daav fancied he had heard her mouth snap shut.

"On the brink of ruin?" he repeated, in accents of wonder. "Are we impoverished, then? Small wonder you disturb yourself to come to me here! I honor your sense of duty, that you brought the news yourself."

One of the boots lifted. Daav watched it with interest, wondering if he had so easily driven Kareen to the point of stamping her foot at him.

The boot hesitated, then sank, with only the faintest of heel-clicks, to the floor.

"Will it please you to come out?" she asked with astonishing mildness. "It would be best, could we discuss a certain matter face to face."

Beneath the cycle, Daav frowned. Kareen's conversation rarely descended into civility. She must want something from him very badly, indeed.

"Well," he said, by way of seeking a range, "I had hoped to effect the necessary repairs this morning . . ."

"I see." That, at least, was as acerbic as a brother might wish, but the sentence that followed was nothing short of alarming. "If you will name a time when it will be convenient to speak with me regarding a matter of utmost seriousness, I shall endeavor to wait upon you then."

Oh, dear, Daav thought. If this goes on we'll actually have her calling me by name.

He toyed with the notion of sending her away until the afternoon, but reluctantly gave it up. The interview with Anne Davis might well prove lengthy and he had no wish to crowd himself on a matter of such importance.

Sighing lightly, he turned onto his back and called out, "A moment! I shall attend you forthwith!"

He then scrambled out from beneath the Hebert, an operation not abundant of grace, and came 'round to lean a hip against the fender, stripping off his oily gloves as he considered his sister's face.

"All right, Kareen. What is it?"

She flinched at the state of his clothes, which was expectable in one who regarded dirt as a personal affront, but forbore from comment.

Instead, she bowed, if not respectfully then at least with that intent, and straightened to look him in the eye.

"It has come to one's attention," she said, mildly, "that the delm has Seen a child called yos'Galan, which yos'Galan has not likewise Seen. Such an irregular circumstance must, alas, awaken the liveliest speculations among those who move in the world. That the child exists outside of any recorded contract thickens the sauce, while the fact of mixed parentage adds piquancy for those whose favorite dish is scandal broth."

Herself chiefest among them, Daav thought uncharitably. He raised his eyebrows.

"I must say, it seems a very bad case, put thus."

"And yet not entirely hopeless," Kareen assured him. "Given one who is known in the world, who possesses the necessary skills, working with the clan's interest at heart—the broth may never gain the dining board." She inclined her head.

"It is thus that I may serve Korval."

"You offer to undertake damage control, do you?" He grit his teeth against a surge of anger at the effrontery of it. Kareen, to wash Er Thom's face for him? More likely the scheme of letting a house in Solcintra would find the delm's favor than—

"How much?" he snapped, barely resisting the temptation to address her in the mercantile mode.

Kareen stared. "I beg your pardon?"

"Oh, come, come!" He moved a hand in a sweeping, deliberately meaningless gesture. "Surely we know each other too well to pretend of coyness! You offer to perform a service. I desire to know your price. I will then decide if the price is fair or dear." He met her eyes, his own hard as black diamond.

"Tell me what you want, Kareen."

She touched her tongue to her lips, though she matched him, stare for stare.

"I want my heir returned me."

Of course. Daav reached up and fingered the silver twist hanging in his ear, souvenir of his Scouting days.

"Your heir," he mused, letting his gaze wander from hers and fix upon a point slightly above her head. He continued to play with the earring. "Enlighten me. Has your heir a name?"

"His name is Pat Rin, as you well know!"

Well, at least they had done with that unnatural civility. Daav very nearly smiled as he let the earring go.

"And have you seen Pat Rin of late?"

"I saw him not twelve-day gone," she answered, somewhat snappishly.

"So nearly as that. Then you will be able to tell me of his latest interest."

"His interest?" Kareen glanced aside. "Why, his studies interest him, naturally, though I must say that Luken bel'Tarda does not insist upon the level of achievement I consider—" She broke off, respiration slightly up, and fingered the brooch at her throat before continuing.

"He is forever rambling about outdoors, so I expect, as all boys, he is fond of falling in streams and—and climbing trees and fetching down bird's nests . . ."

"Guns," Daav said gently. Kareen's head jerked toward him as if he had pulled a wire.

"Guns?" she repeated blankly.

"He bids fair to become an expert on guns," Daav told her. "Everything about them interests him. How they work. Why one sort is superior to another sort. How they are put together. How they are taken apart. Relative benefits of velocities versus projectile size. The theory of marksmanship." He bowed slightly. "When I last visited, I took him a beginner's pistol and we had a bit of target practice. I would say, should his interest continue, that he holds potential as a marksman of some note."

"A marksman." Kareen did not even try to mask the loathing in her voice.

Daav raised an eyebrow. "Our mother belonged to Teydor's, did she not? And successfully defended her place as club champion for five years together. Why should Pat Rin not be as good—or better? Or at very least have the chance to explore his interest to its fullest?

"But you are not interested in such matters," he continued after a moment. "You are most naturally interested in knowing whether the service you offer will be accepted." He moved a hand in negation. "Your price is found too high."

"So." It was nearly a hiss. "Er Thom yos'Galan is to be allowed a bastard mongrel and not required to make so much as a bow to society! But I, who have done duty and desire only to serve the clan, must have my son fostered away without my consent, for no reason other than you had decided—"

"I will remind you that the delm decided," Daav cut in. "I shall also give you two pieces of advice: The first is to compose yourself. The second is that you drop the words 'bastard' and 'mongrel' from your vocabulary. The child's name is Shan yos'Galan. He is the son of Er Thom yos'Galan and Anne Davis, both of whom acknowledge him as their own, so you see that 'bastard' is inexact."

"'Mongrel' however is no more than plain truth!" Kareen cried, apparently choosing to ignore his first piece of advice.

"I find the word offensive," Daav said evenly, and sighed sharply. "Come, Kareen, have sense! Your concern is that those with nothing better to do than scrounge for trouble will scan back through The Gazette and find that there has been no contract between Er Thom yos'Galan and Anne Davis, with the child to come to Korval. Eh?"

"Yes, certainly—"

"And yet you choose to ignore the fact that persons of such mind will without difficulty find listed in that same Gazette the information that Pat Rin yos'Phelium has been taken from his fostering and returned to his mother. And that they will think to themselves, bribe."

"And you consider yourself equal to the task of cleaning Korval's melant'i among the High Houses—"

"I remind you again that I am delm," Daav interrupted with exquisite gentleness. "Should Korval's melant'i require repair, it is no less than my duty to see such repair done. However, there is nothing to be mended. The clan accepts who it will, and no explanations due any outside of the clan." He took a careful breath.

"I advise you to leave me, Kareen. Now."

Her lips parted but no words came and in a moment she had made her bow.

"Good-day," she stated, in a tone so absolutely neutral it might be said to be mode-less. She left him then, quickly, heavy steps rattling the paving stones.

Daav stood where he was until he heard a motor start up, far down the hill. Then and only then did he allow his shoulders to lose their level rigidness and, pulling the gloves back over his hands, went to put his tools away.


THEY WOKE EARLY, shared a glass of morning wine and a leisurely, sensual shower. Then, like children sneaking a holiday, they had gone to explore the house.

Anne was soon thoroughly lost, her head a muddle of Parlors, Public Rooms and Receiving Chambers, and at last stopped in the middle of an opulent hall, laughing.

"Don't leave me, love, for if you did I'd never find my rooms again!" She shook her head. "I can see I'll have to carry a sack of bread crumbs with me and remember to scatter them well!"

"Yes, but you know, the servants are very efficient," Er Thom murmured, swaying close and smiling up into her face. "Likely they would have the crumbs swept up far ahead of the time you wished to return."

"Then I'm lost! Unless you'll draw me a map, of course."

"If you wish," he replied and she looked down at him, exotic and achingly beautiful in the embroidered house-robe. He shook the full sleeves back and caught her hands in his.

"Shall I show you one more thing?" he murmured, eyes bright with the remains of his smile. "Then I swear I will allow you to eat breakfast."

"One more thing," she agreed, giving herself a sharp mental rebuke: Don't gawk at the man, Annie Davis!

"This way," Er Thom said, holding tight to one hand and keeping so close to her side that his robe bid fair to tangle in her legs.

They walked the hallway without mishap, however, and went midway down one slightly shorter.

"Here," he said, squeezing her hand lightly before he let it go.

Stepping forward, he twisted an edge-gilt china knob and stepped back with a fluid bow. "Enter, please."

Anne hesitated fractionally. The bow had been of honored esteem, but Er Thom's eyes showed an expectation that was nearly hunger. Smiling slightly, she went into the room.

The walls were covered in nubby bronze silk, the floor with a resilient grass-weave the color of Jelaza Kazone's leaves. A buffet along the back wall supported two small lamps and there were bronze sconces set at precise intervals around the walls. Three rows of twelve chairs each were arranged in a precise half-circle before a—

"It's beautiful," she breathed, going across the woven mat as if the omnichora had reached out a hand and pulled her forward. She stroked the satiny wood, pushed back the cover and ran her fingers reverently over the pristine ivory keys.

"It pleases you?" Er Thom asked from her side.

"Pleases me? It overwhelms me—an instrument like this . . ."

"Try it," he said softly and she shot him a quick look, shaking her head as she lifted her hand from the silent keys.

"Don't tempt me," she said, and he heard the longing in her voice. "Or we'll be here all day."

He caught her hand, lay it back on the keyboard, fingertips lazing over her knuckles.

"Turn it on," he murmured. "Play for me, Anne. Please."

It took no more encouragement than that, so hungry was she to hear the 'chora's voice, to test its spirit against her own.

She played him her favorite, Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, an ancient piece meant for the omnichora's predecessor, the organ. It was an ambitious choice, without the notation before her, but her fingers remembered everything and threw it into the perfect keyboard.

The music filled the room like an ocean, crashing back at her, bearing her up on a wave of sound and emotion until she thought she would die there, with the music so close there was no saying where it stopped and Anne Davis began.

Eventually, she found an end, let the notes die back, let herself come out of the glory, and looked at Er Thom through a haze of tears. She scraped her sweat-soaked hair back from her face and smiled at him.

"What a glorious instrument."

"You play it well," he said, his soft voice husky. He moved a step closer from his station at her side. It was then that she saw he was shivering.

"Er Thom—" Concern drove all else before it. She spun around on the bench, reaching out for him.

"Hush." He caught her questing hands, allowed himself to be pulled forward. "Anne." He lay his cheek against her hair, gently loosed a hand to stroke her shoulder.

"It is well," he murmured, feeling the way her muscles shivered with strain, in echo of his own. He stepped back and smiled for her, tugging lightly on her hand. "Let us go and eat breakfast. All right?"

"All right," she said after a moment, and turned to power-off the 'chora, and to cover the glistening keys.


THEY WERE IN THE dining room, rapt in each other, various dishes scattered near them on the table. Er Thom was wearing a house-robe, the Terran scholar a plain shirt and trousers.

Petrella glared at them for several minutes, her fingers gripping Mr. pak'Ora's arm. When she was convinced that neither her son nor the guest would soon turn a head and decently see her, she hit the floor a sturdy thump with her cane.

Both heads turned then, but it was Er Thom's eye she wanted.

"You, sir!" she snapped, "a word, of your goodness." She stumped off with no more than a inclination of the head as good-morning to the guest.

Er Thom sighed lightly and put his napkin aside.

"Excuse me, friend," he said softly, and went off in the wake of his mother.


Chapter Twenty-Four

A Dragon will in all things follow its own necessities, and either will or will not make its bow to Society. Nor shall the prudent dispute a Dragon's chosen path or seek to turn it from its course.

—From The Liaden Book of Dragons



"YOU WILL HAVE THE goodness to explain," Petrella announced as the patio door closed behind the butler, "why three messages to your personal screen have gone unanswered from the time of sending to this moment?"

Er Thom bowed. "Doubtless because I have not gone by my rooms since an hour before last evening's Prime Meal, nor have I collected messages from the house base."

Petrella took a deep breath, fingers tightening ominously around the head of her cane. A breeze played momentary tag with the flowers at the edge of the patio, gave up the sport to tease the sleeves of Er Thom's robe, then veered again, showering Petrella with flower-scent as it chased off.

"Mother, allow me to seat you," he murmured, slipping a solicitous hand beneath her elbow. "You will overtire yourself."

It was just such gentle courtesy as he was wont to offer. Tears filled Petrella's eyes as she accepted it, though she could not have said whether they were tears of rage or of love.

Love or rage, her voice shook when next she spoke.

"If you think that I will close my eyes to any impropriety you and that—person—chose to perform in this house—"

"Forgive me." He did not raise his voice, but some slight edge, immediately recognizable to those who were of Korval—and those who dealt with them—warned her to silence.

"Professor Davis is a guest of the House," he continued after a moment, voice unremittingly gentle. "The Code teaches us that the well-being of the guest is sacred. Professor Davis is—accustomed—to depending upon me for certain comforts; she felt herself adrift among strangers, alone on a world far different than her own. Shall I doom her to sleeplessness and worry from a concern for propriety? Or shall I offer accustomed and much-needed comfort, that she might rest easy in our House?"

"All from concern for the guest," Petrella said acidly. "I am enlightened! Who would have considered you possessed the genius to twist Code in such a wise, all with an eye to gain your own way! I had thought you a person of melant'i, but I see now that judgment—and the judgment of your foster mother—was in error. I see that what I have is a clever halfling, strutting his own consequence and flaunting his faulty understanding for all the world to see! Never fear that I am too ill to lesson a disobedient boy. Give me that ring!"

Er Thom froze, eyes wide in a face gone somewhat pale.

"Well, sir? Will you have me ask it twice?"

Slowly, then, he raised his hands; slowly, drew the master trader's amethyst from his finger. He stepped forward and bowed, and lay the ring gently in her palm.

"So. We have at least a base of obedience upon which to build. You relieve me." She clenched her fingers, feeling the edges of the gem cut into her palm. "With this ring you give me your pledge, Er Thom yos'Galan. You pledge you will withhold such—comforts—as you have been accustomed to provide the Terran scholar, beginning immediately. Carry through your pledge and in eleven day's time, when her guesting is done, you may ask me for your ring." She gripped the gem tighter as she spoke, grateful for the slight, simple pain.

"Fail of your pledge and I shall return this ring to the Trade Commission, and ask that your license be withdrawn."

There was little chance that the Trade Commission would revoke the license of Master Trader Er Thom yos'Galan. But a request for revocation would mean a review. And a review would suspend Er Thom's ability to trade for a minimum of two Standard Years.

Er Thom drew a deep breath. Perhaps he meant to speak. If so, he was rescued from that indiscretion by the cheery voice and sudden advent of his cha'leket.

"Good-morning, all! What a lovely day, to be sure!" Daav paused beside his foster-brother and made his bow, all grace and easy smiles.

"Aunt Petrella, how delightful to see you looking so rested! I am come to speak with the guest. Is she within?"

"In the dining hall," Petrella told him, with scant courtesy, "when last seen."

"I to the dining hall, then." He turned and caught Er Thom's hand. "Good-morning, darling! Have you been naughty?"

Er Thom laughed.

Daav smiled and raised the hand he held, bending his head to kiss the finger which the master trader's ring had lately adorned.

"Courage, beloved," he said gently. Then he loosed his brother's hand and vanished into the house.

"Another mannerless child!" Petrella snapped peevishly, flicking her hand in dismissal. "Leave me," she commanded her son. "Take care you recall your pledge."


ANNE LOWERED HER COFFEE CUP, glancing up eagerly as a shadow flickered across the dining room door.

Alas, the shadow was not Er Thom, returning from his interview with his mother, but Er Thom's foster-brother. She rose quickly and bowed good-morning, but some of her disappointment must have shown in her face.

"Ah, it is only Daav!" that gentleman cried, striking a pose eloquent of despair in the instant before he swept his own bow of greeting. "Good-day, Scholar."

It was a bit of incidental theater worthy of one of Jerzy's more manic days and she gave it the laughter it deserved.

"But I thought we'd agreed that I was to be Anne, not 'Scholar,'" she protested.

"My dreadful manners," he said mournfully and Anne grinned.

"If you're looking for Er Thom, his mother needed to speak with him for a—"

"Yes, I've seen them," Daav interrupted, leaving Adult-to-Adult and entering Terran. "But it's you I've come to speak with. Have you half-an-hour?" He tipped his head. "There's a room down the hall where we may be private."

"The whole house is full of rooms where people can be private," she told him, coming slowly around the table.

"Have you seen all of Trealla Fantrol? You must be entirely exhausted." He bowed her through the door ahead of him.

"Only a corner of it, I'm afraid." She sighed. "My head's in a muddle. I'm not even sure I can find the 'chora room again."

"So you have seen that," he murmured. "How did you find the omnichora?"

"It's magnificent," she said frankly. "The Academy of Music on Terra has none finer."

He sent her a glance from beneath his lashes, a trick he shared with Er Thom, else she would never have caught it.

"Have you been to the Academy of Music on Terra, I wonder?"

"I was there on scholarship for two years," she said evenly. "Funding slipped in the third year and there was no way my family could—" She shrugged, cutting herself off.

"I went home and finished out college, snared a fellowship and went on to advanced work."

In record time, she added silently. Driven by the grief of losing her first love, determined to make a success of her second, studying to the exclusion of everything, even—especially—friendship . . .

"I see," Daav said, guiding her into a small room and pulling the door closed. He waved toward a pair of overstuffed, almost shabby chairs.

"Please, sit. May I give you wine?"

"Thank you—white, please."

The chair she chose was delightfully comfortable, the seat wide enough for her hips, the tall back sweeping 'round her shoulders, and sufficiently high-set that she barely needed to fold her legs at all.

Daav sat opposite her, placing two glasses on the low table between them.

"So, now." He settled back into his chair. "I have questions which must be answered. Believe that I do not wish to distress you in any way." He smiled. "Er Thom would hand me my ears if I did, you know."

She laughed. "Yes, very likely!"

"Ah, you don't think so? But surely it's no more than duty to protect the peace of a proposed spouse?"

"A proposed—oh." She shook her head. "Er Thom told you that he asked me to sign a marriage contract. I turned him down, and if he didn't tell you that he should have."

"He did," Daav said gently.

"Then what—" She frowned, searching his thin, foxy face. "I don't understand."

"Hah." He tasted his wine, considering her over the edge of the glass.

"May I know," he said eventually, "your intentions toward my brother?"

She barely knew, herself. It was plain she would have to give the man up—soon. Unfortunately, it was equally plain that giving him up was like to rip the living heart out of her.

Anne reached for her glass, buying time with a sip of wine. When she had put the glass aside, she was no closer to an answer.

"Should we," she asked, flicking a glance at Daav's face, "be having this conversation in—the High Tongue?"

"Certainly, if you would feel more comfortable," he said agreeably. "But I find Terran so free, don't you? No need to sift through a dozen modes in search of one particular nuance . . ."

She grinned. "It's only that I thought, since I seem to be speaking with the delm—"

"Ah, my regrettable manners! The delm, stuffy fellow that he is, remains aloof for the moment. You are speaking to Daav yos'Phelium, on behalf of his brother, who asked that I talk with you."

"Regarding my intentions?" Drat the man, why couldn't he ask her himself, then?

"Or your feelings," Daav murmured. He tipped his head. "It's an impertinence, I know. Alas, I've always been a impertinent fellow—and my brother is very dear to me."

She glanced up, charmed by his candor.

"Well," she said wryly, "he's very dear to me, too. How I'm going to give him a tolerable good-bye at the end of semester break is more than I can see." She shook her head.

"I should never have come to Liad—I see that now. It was only that he—he came to find me. Me. He was in trouble—" she smiled, recalling Er Thom's way of it—"in difficulty. And I thought, foolishly enough, that I could help . . ." She glanced aside.

"Nothing foolish at all," Daav said gently, "in wishing to aid a friend."

"Yes, but I should have thought it through," she said, biting her lip. "Naturally, you, or his mother or—other friends—would be more able to help him than—than a Terran." She raised her eyes to meet Daav's black gaze.

"I'm a handicap to him here, whatever his trouble is. But he wanted the delm to count Shan—it was so important—and then I had word from Scholar yo'Kera's associate and—oh, it all seemed to fall into some sort of pattern! Shan would be counted—that was small enough—my friend's associate would get her assistance, and—" She faltered, swallowing against sudden tears.

"And you would help Er Thom extricate himself from his difficulty," Daav finished for her. There was a slight pause. "You didn't think of parting?"

She laughed ruefully. "At the beginning, I was braced—waiting for him to leave. Of course he would have to leave, I knew that. But he stayed and he kept insisting that we go to Liad and I kept insisting that Shan and I would stay on University—" She shook her head.

"Quite a donnybrook—and all wasted effort. Er Thom got his way, of course—that should teach me not to argue with a master trader! The more we were together, the less I thought of parting. He was with me and I loved him—more now—much more now—than—before." She glanced down, saw her fingers twisted around each other on her lap, sighed and looked up. "Is that what you wanted to know?"

Daav's eyes met hers with a curious intensity.

"You never thought of a lifemating?" he asked.

Anne frowned. "I'm Terran."

"And a Terran wife must necessarily be a burden," he commented dryly. "Yet, if he offered a lifemating—"

"No." She shook her head decisively. "No, I couldn't let him do that. It's not—necessary—that he make such a—I'll be able to—to show him a dry face, when it's time to leave."

"Will you?" His voice was very soft, one eyebrow well up.

Anne looked at him, feeling the tightness in her chest. "Yes, I will," she said with a certainty she was a long way from feeling. "I've done it before, after all."


"I MIGHT INDEED GIVE him his ring back," Petrella informed her nephew tersely. "He knows what he must do to earn it."

"Yes, but only consider the unnecessary speculation awakened in the minds of the idle," Daav urged, "does he but go into Solcintra thus."

"There is no reason for Er Thom to go into the city."

Daav stared. "Why, there is every reason for him to do so!" he cried. "The normal demands of his duty take him to Solcintra and the Port many times over a twelve-day." He checked his pacing. "Unless you've relieved him of those, as well?"

"Certainly not," she said, righteously. "Only the Trade Commission may relieve a master trader of his duties."

Daav clamped his jaw against a sharp return to that and mentally reviewed a Scout's relaxation exercise, deliberately bringing his anger under control.

"Aunt Petrella," he said after a moment, with credible, if fragile, calm. "If you believe Er Thom will keep from duty simply because you choose that he not wear mark of rank, you have a very odd view of his character."

"Thank you!" she snapped. "I choose to teach him obedience, sir, as I told you last evening. You will not interfere in this."

"You wish to shame the clan's master trader before the Port entire and claim it's none of mine? Aunt—"

She struck the floor with her cane. "I will not have him interpreting Code for his own benefit!"

Daav froze, staring at her out of wide eyes.

"Isn't that what it's for?"

Petrella glared, thin chest heaving with rage, hands gripped like talons about the head of her cane.

"I may die before your eyes this moment," she said grimly, "and leave you a wrongheaded, disobedient boy as thodelm. It's no less than you deserve."

"I don't want a dog broken to heel!" Daav shouted, control and gentle-speaking alike be damned. "I want intelligence, clear sight, strength of duty—as my mother did before me! And I tell you now, Chi's sister, if you break Er Thom yos'Galan, you break Korval!"

She straightened in her chair as if he had struck her, sucked in breath for she barely knew what reply—

Too late. Daav was gone.


Chapter Twenty-Five

The dramliz want young Tor An's genes. Farseers predict twins from the match and offer the girl-child to us—to Clan Korval—as settlement.



Jela would say that a wizard on board tips the scale to survival—which remains sound reasoning, though we're planet-bound now and in honorable estate, or so the boy will tell me . . .



As it transpires, Tor An met his proposed wife several days ago, through Dramliza Rool Tiazan's good graces, I make no doubt! The boy's smitten, of course, so the marriage is made.



Perhaps the girl-child will fail of being dramliz . . .

—Excerpted from Cantra yos'Phelium's Log Book


 


"MASTER MERCHANT BEL'TARDA," Mr. pak'Ora announced from the doorway. "Master Pat Rin yos'Phelium."

Petrella glanced up from her desk with ill-concealed irritation as Luken, looking every inch the rug merchant he was, crossed into the room, holding a dark-haired boy of about six Standard Years by the hand.

The man bowed greeting-between-kin, a certain trepidation marking the gesture. The boy's bow, of Child-to-Clan-Elder, was performed with solemn exactitude. He straightened, shifting the brightly-ribboned box he carried from the left hand to the right, and showed Petrella a sharp-featured face dominated by a pair of wary brown eyes.

"Good-day, Luken," Petrella said, inclining her head. For the boy, she added a smile. "Good-day, Pat Rin."

"Good-day, Grand-Aunt," Pat Rin responded politely, nothing so like a smile in either lips or eyes.

Stifling a sigh, she looked to the man, who gave the impression of fidgeting nervously, though he stood almost painfully still.

"Well, Luken? What circumstance do I praise for this opportunity to behold your face?"

The face in question—blunt, honest, and mostwise good-humored—darkened in embarrassment.

"Boy's come to bring a gift to his new cousin," he said, dropping a light hand to Pat Rin's thin shoulder and flinging Petrella a look of respectful terror. "Just as his mother would wish him to do, all by the Code and kindness to kin."

It was perhaps the piquancy of a point of view that could suppose Kareen yos'Phelium capable of wishing her heir to associate in any way with an irregularly-allied child of lamentable lineage that saved Luken the tongue-flaying he so obviously anticipated. Petrella contented herself with a sigh and the observation that news traveled quickly.

Luken moved his shoulders. "No trick to reading The Gazette," he commented. "Do so every morning, with my tea."

Petrella, who had failed of her own custom of The Gazette with breakfast only this morning, openly stared.

"You wish me to understand that there is an announcement of Shan yos'Galan's birth in this morning's Gazette?" she demanded.

Luken looked alarmed, but stuck to his guns.

"Right on the first page, under 'Accepted.'" He closed his eyes and recited in a slightly sing-song voice: "'Accepted of Korval, Shan yos'Galan, son of Er Thom yos'Galan, Clan Korval, and Anne Davis, University Central.'"

He opened his eyes. "That's all. Simple, I remember thinking."

"Indeed, a masterwork of simplicity," Petrella said through gritted teeth and was prevented of saying more by the unannounced arrival of her son, dressed at last in day-clothes.

"Luken. Well-met, Cousin." Er Thom's voice carried real warmth, as had his bow. He smiled and held out a ringless hand. "Hello, Pat Rin. I'm glad to see you."

The tense face relaxed minutely and Pat Rin left his foster-father's side to take the offered hand. "Hello, Cousin Er Thom." He held up the festive box. "We have a gift for Cousin Shan."

"That's very kind," Er Thom said, matching the child's seriousness. "Shall I take you to him, so that you may give it?"

Pat Rin hesitated, glancing over his shoulder at his foster-father.

"Of course you would welcome the opportunity to meet your new cousin," Luken coached gently and Pat Rin turned his serious eyes back to Er Thom.

"Thank you. I would like to meet my new cousin."

"Good. I will take you to him immediately. With my mother's permission . . ." He bowed respect in her direction, gathered Luken with a flicker of fingers and moved toward the hallway.

Petrella gripped her chair.

"Er Thom!"

He turned his head, violet eyes merely polite in a face still somewhat pale. "Mother?"

"An announcement of your child's acceptance," she said, with forced calm, "appears in this morning's Gazette."

"Ah," he said softly, and, seeing that she awaited more, added: "That would be the delm's hand."

"I see," Petrella said, and spun back to her desk, releasing him.


HE HAD JUST REVIEWED the last of the day's pressing business and was considering a climb up the Tree. Seated on the platform he and his brother had built as children, the world below reduced to proper insignificance, surrounded by the benign presence of the Tree—there he might profitably begin to consider Er Thom's tangle.

Indeed, he had pushed away from the desk and was half-way across the room when he heard his butler's familiar step in the hallway beyond and paused, head tipped to one side, wondering—

In another moment, wonder was rewarded by delight.

Mr. pel'Kana bowed in the doorway, "Scout Lieutenant sel'Iprith," he announced, standing aside to let her pass.

"Olwen."

Smiling, Daav went to meet her. Mr. pel'Kana discreetly withdrew, pulling the door shut behind him.

She was in leathers, as if new-come from space, and carried a small potted plant carefully in both hands. Looking up, she returned his smile, though somewhat less brightly than usual, and went past to put the pot on the desk.

Daav watched her, abruptly cold.

"Olwen?"

She spun away from the desk and flung against him, arms hard around his waist, cheek pressed to his chest.

She was sweet and familiar, warm where he was so suddenly chill. Daav hugged her close, rubbing his face in her hair.

They stood thus some time, neither speaking, then she stirred a little, muscles tensing as if she would move away.

He loosened his embrace, though he did not entirely free her. Olwen sighed and seemed to melt against him.

"Wonderful news, old friend," she said, so softly he could barely make out the words. "I'm recalled to active duty."

"Ah." He closed his eyes, acutely aware of the softness of her hair. He drew a careful breath.

"When do you leave?"

"This afternoon." Her arms tightened bruisingly; she released him and stepped back, one hand rising to brush his cheek. "Be well, Daav."

He caught her hand and kissed the cool fingertips. "Good lift, Olwen. Take care."

"As ever," she returned, which was the old joke between them.

He walked with her to the door, and watched as she went down the path and slipped into her car.

When the sound of the engine had gone beyond his hearing, he returned to his office, taking care that the door was well-closed behind him.

Nubiath'a sat upon the corner of the desk, where she had placed it. He shivered and bent his head, gasping, hands coming up to hide his face, though no one was there to see him cry.


"IT'S NONE OF MY BUSINESS," Luken muttered for Er Thom's ear alone as they strolled along the hall, Pat Rin well ahead, "and you needn't bother snatching my hair off if I'm expected to turn a blind eye. But I wonder what's happened to your ring."

Er Thom lifted an eyebrow. "My thodelm keeps it for me," he said mildly, and smiled. "More than that loses you hair, Cousin."

"Fairly warned," the older man said with the good-humor that won him friends in both the Port and the City.

"Announcement in The Gazette took me unaware—" he confided—"felicitations, by the way! But the last I knew of matters, yos'Galan was looking to Nexon to provide your heir—" He threw Er Thom a sudden look. "Not that it concerns me, of course!"

Er Thom laughed. "Poor Luken. Do we abuse you?"

"Well," the other replied candidly, "you and Daav cut up a trifle rash as cubs—and it's a certified wonder you weren't drowned as halflings. Though," he said hastily, as if recollecting himself, "I believe that to be the case with most halflings."

"And as adults we daily snatch you hairless," Er Thom murmured, "and do you no better good than setting Kareen at your throat."

"No," Luken said as they climbed the stairs. "No, I wouldn't have it that way. Daav visits often, you know—he and the boy are quite fond. I find him much easier now he's come back from the Scouts and taken up the Ring. You—you were always the sensible one, cousin, and if you have from time to time been sharp, why, it's doubtless no more than I deserved. I'm not a clever fellow, after all, and it must be a trial to you quick ones to always be bearing with us slow. Kareen, now—" Luken sighed, eyes on the child who went so solemn and un-childlike ahead of them.

"The boy makes gains," he said eventually. "No more nightmares—well, none to speak of." His mouth tightened. "My back's broad. Kareen yos'Phelium may do her worst to me, if it buys the child his peace."

Er Thom lay a hand on the other's arm, squeezing lightly.

"Thank you, Cousin."

"Eh?" Luken gave a startled smile. "No need for that, though you're very welcome, I'm sure." He moved his shoulders. "That's always been the difference between you lot and Kareen. Good-hearted, the both of you, and not dealing hurt for the joy of hurting." He raised his voice.

"Ho, there, boy-dear, you've gone past the door!"

Up ahead, Pat Rin turned and came slowly back, holding the gift between his two hands.

Er Thom lay his palm against the nursery door and bowed his cousins within.


"CATCH!" Anne tossed the bright pink sponge-ball in a lazy arc.

Shrieking with laughter, Shan grabbed, the ball skittered off his fingertips and he flung down the long room after it, giggling.

Anne shook her hair back from her face, clapping as he caught up with the ball and snatched it high.

"Now throw it back!" she called, holding her hands over her head.

"Catch, Ma!" her son cried and threw.

It wasn't too bad an effort, though it was going to fall short. Anne lunged forward on her knees, hand outstretched for the grasp—and turned her head, distracted from the game by the door-chime.

"Mirada!" Shan ran and threw himself with abandon into his father's arms, ignoring the other two visitors entirely. Anne came off her knees and went forward, ball forgotten.

Er Thom caught Shan and swung him up into an exuberant hug. "So, then, bold-heart!"

Beside them, the older of the two visitors—a sandy-haired man of perhaps forty-five, with a bluff, good-humored face—pursed his lips and lay a lightly-ringed hand on the thin shoulder of his companion. Anne smiled at the fox-faced little boy and received a solemn stare out of wide brown eyes.

"Play ball, Mirada!" Shan commanded as Er Thom set him down.

"Indeed not," he murmured. "You must make your bow to your cousins." He turned his head and caught Anne's eye, giving her a smile that jelled her knee-joints.

"Anne, here are my cousins Luken bel'Tarda and Pat Rin yos'Phelium. Cousins, I make you known to Scholar Anne Davis, mother of my child and guest of the House."

"Scholar." Luken bel'Tarda's bow puzzled for an instant, then she had it: Honor to One Providing a Clan-Child. "I'm glad to meet you."

"I'm glad to meet you also, Luken bel'Tarda." Honor-to-one-providing had no neat corollary, so Anne chose Adult-to-Adult, which was cordial without leaping to any unwarranted conclusions regarding Luken bel'Tarda's melant'i.

"Well, that's kind of you to say so," he said, with apparent pleasure. He squeezed the little boy's shoulder lightly. "Make your bow to the guest, child-dear."

Bow to the Guest it was, delivered with adult precision, and a quick, "Be happy in your guesting, Scholar Davis," delivered in a husking little voice, while the brown eyes continued, warily, to weigh her.

Anne bowed Honor to a Child of the House, adding a smile as she straightened. "You must be Daav's little boy," she said gently. Pat Rin ducked his head.

"Begging the lady's pardon," he said quickly, "I am the heir of Kareen yos'Phelium."

"But he has his uncle's look, certain enough," Luken added, rumpling the boy's dark hair with casual affection and sending Anne a glance from guileless gray eyes. "His mother's dark, as well. I don't doubt you'll be meeting her soon. Never one to allow a duty to languish, Lady Kareen."

"I look forward to the pleasure of meeting her," Anne told him, with was only proper, and wondered why he blinked.

"And here," Er Thom said gently, "is Shan yos'Galan. Shan-son, these are your cousins Luken and Pat Rin. Make your bow, please."

Shan hesitated, frowning after the Liaden words.

"Shannie," Anne prompted in Terran. "Bow to your cousins and tell them hello."

There was another momentary hesitation, followed by a bow of no particular mode. On straightening, he grinned and offered a cheery "Hi!"

Luken bel'Tarda sent a startled glance to Er Thom. "I'm afraid—oversight, of course!—I've never learnt—aah—Terran—"

"Hi!" Shan repeated, advancing on his cousins. Pat Rin tipped his head, brown eyes wide.

"Hel-lo?" he said uncertainly.

Shan nodded energetically. "Hello, yes. Hi!" He thrust out a hand. "Shake!"

Pat Rin flinched and stared. Then, lower lip caught between his teeth, he reached out and brushed Shan's fingers with his.

"Hel-lo," he repeated and snatched his hand back. "I am glad to meet you, Cousin Shan," he said in rapid Liaden and held out the package he carried. "We've brought you a gift."

Shan took the package without a blink. "Thanks. Play ball?"

"My son thanks you for your thoughtfulness," Er Thom said for Luken bel'Tarda's benefit. "He asks if his cousin might play."

"That's very kind." Luken looked gratified. "It happens the boy and I are promised in the City today, but I'd be delighted to bring him to visit again soon. He might spend the day, if you've no objection, cousin."

"Of course Pat Rin is always welcome," Er Thom said and Anne saw the tense little face relax, just a bit.

"That's fixed then," Luken said comfortably. He turned and bowed, giving Anne the full honor-to-one-providing treatment.

"Scholar Davis. A delight to meet you, ma'am."

"Luken bel'Tarda. I hope to meet you again."

Unprompted, Pat Rin made his bow, and then the two of them were ushered out by Er Thom, who turned his head to smile at her as he was departing.

"Well!" Anne sighed gustily and grinned at her son. "Do you want to open your present, Shannie?"


Chapter Twenty-Six

There is nobody who is not dangerous for someone.

—Marquise de Sevigne



THE CHIME RECALLED HIM, blinking, from the world of invoices, profit and cargo-measures. He rose, half-befogged, and keyed the door to open.

"Anne." The fog burned away in the next instant, and he put out a hand to catch hers and urge her within.

"Come in, please," he murmured, seeing his delight reflected in her face. "You must forgive me, you know, for thrusting Luken upon you, all unexpected. I had not known you would be with our son—"

"Nothing to forgive," she said, smiling. "I thought he was delightful." The smile dimmed a fraction. "Though Pat Rin is very—shy . . ."

Trust Anne to see through to the child's hurts, Er Thom thought, leading her past his cluttered worktable, to the double-chair near the fireplace.

"Pat Rin progresses," he murmured, which was only what Luken had told him. "I thought him quite bold in dealing with our rogue."

She laughed a little and allowed him to seat her. He stood before her, availing himself of both her hands, smiling into her face like a mooncalf.

Her fingers exerted pressure on his, and a frown shadowed her bright face. She bent her head; raised it quickly.

"You've taken off your ring." The tone was mild, but the eyes showed concern—perhaps even alarm.

"Well, and so I have," he said, as if it were the merest nothing. He raised the hand that should have borne the ornament, and silked her hair back from her ear, the short strands sliding through his fingers.

"How may I serve you, Anne?"

She moistened her lips, eyes lit with a certain self-mockery. "Keep that up, laddie, and neither of us will get to our work." She turned her head to brush a quick, pulse-stirring kiss along his wrist.

"And that?" he murmured.

She laughed and shook her head so that he reluctantly dropped his hand.

"It happens I'm going to need that car you offered," she said, in a shocking return to practicality; "and probably a driver, too. Drusil tel'Bana can see me this afternoon."

"Ah. Shall I drive you?"

"I'd like that," she said, with a regretful smile. "But I'm liable to be some time. If Doctor yo'Kera's notes are in as bad a way as she's led me to think—" She shook her head. "No use you kicking your heels for hours while a couple of scholars babble nonsense at each other. It's a shame to even force a driver . . ."

"Nonetheless," Er Thom said firmly, laying a daring finger across her lips. "You will have a driver. Agreed?"

"Bully." She laughed at him. "I'd like to see what would happen if I didn't agree—but as it happens, I do. I'm not at all certain of my directions, and if the work should keep me until after dark . . ."

"It is arranged," he said. "When shall you leave?"

"Is an hour too soon?"

"Not at all," he returned, around a stab of regret. He stepped back, reluctantly releasing her hand.

Anne stood. "Thank you, Er Thom."

"It is no trouble," he murmured and she sighed.

"Yes, you always say that." She touched his cheek lightly and smiled. "But thank you anyway. For everything." She lay a finger against his lips as he had to hers.

"I'll see you later, love," she whispered, then whirled and left him, as if it were too chancy a thing to stay.


"SCHOLAR DAVIS, how delightful to meet you at last!" Drusil tel'Bana's greeting was warmth itself, couched in the mode of Comrades.

Anne bowed and smiled. "I regret I was not able to come sooner."

"That you came at all is sufficient to the task," the other scholar assured her. "I had barely dared hope—But, there! When I wrote I had not known you were allied so nearly with Korval. I do not always read The Gazette, alas, and with Jin Del's death—" She gestured, sweeping the rest of that sentence away. "At least I did read today's issue! Allow me to offer felicitations."

"Thank you." Anne bowed again. "I will share your felicitations with my son and his father."

Drusil tel'Bana's eyes widened, but she merely murmured, "Yes, certainly," and abruptly turned aside, raising a hand to point.

"Let me show you Jin Del's office. His notes—what are remaining—have been kept just as they were found when—The state of disorder, I confide to you, Scholar, is not at all in his usual way. I thought, at first, you know, that—but it is foolishness, of course! What sense to steal the notes for a work that will perhaps excite the thought of two dozen scholars throughout the galaxy? No. No, it must only have been that he was ill—much more ill, I fear, than any of us had known."

Anne glanced down at the woman beside her, seeing the care-grooved cheeks, the drooping line of her thin shoulders, the jerky walk.

"Doctor yo'Kera's death has affected you deeply," she offered, cautiously feeling her way along the border of what the other would consider proper sympathy and what would be heard as insult. "I understand. When I received your letter, I could barely credit that he was gone—he had seemed so vital, so brilliant. And I had only known him through letters. What one such as yourself, who had the felicity of working with him daily, must feel I may only surmise."

Drusil tel'Bana threw her a look from tear-bright eyes and glanced quickly aside.

"You are kind," she said in a stifled voice. "He was—a jewel. I do not quite see how one shall—but that is for later. For now, there is Jin Del's work to be put into order, his book to be finished. Here—here is his office."

She turned aside, fumbled a moment at the lockplate and stepped back with a bow when the door at last swung open and the interior lights came on.

"Please."

Anne stepped into the room beyond—and smiled.

Overcrowded shelves held tapes, bound books, disks and unbound printouts. Two severe chairs were crowded together at the front of the computer-desk, a battered, rotating work chair sat behind it. A filing cabinet was jammed into one corner, a double row of books at its summit. Next to it was a plain table, bookless, for a wonder, though that lack was more than made up by the profusion of 'scriber sheets, file folders and note cards littering its surface.

The floor sported a dark red rug that had once very possibly been good. The walls were plain, except for a framed certificate which declared Jin Del yo'Kera, Clan Yedon, a Scholar Specialist in the field of Galactic Linguistics, and a flat-pic, also framed, of three tall Terran persons—two women and a man—standing before an island of trees in a sea of grasslands.

"He had gone—outworld—to study, as a young man," Drusil tel'Bana said from the doorway. "Those are Mildred Higgins and Sally Brunner with their husband, Jackson Roy. Terrans of the sort known as 'Aus.' Jin Del had stayed at their—station—one season. They taught him to—to shear sheep." Anne glanced over her shoulder in time to see the other woman give a wavering, unfocused smile.

"He had another picture, of a sheep. He said that they were—not clever."

Anne grinned. "My grandfather kept sheep," she said, "back on New Dublin. He contended that they were smarter than a radish—on a good day."

Drusil tel'Bana smiled and in that instant Anne saw the woman as she had been: Humorous, vivid, intelligent. Then the cloud of grief enfolded her again and she gestured toward the laden table.

"These are his notes. Please, Scholar, of your kindness . . ."

"It's what I came for," Anne said. She spun the desk chair around to the table, reached out a long arm and snagged one of the straight-backed "student's" chairs.

"Do you have time to sit with me?" she asked Drusil tel'Bana. "In case I should have questions as I go through?"

"My time is yours," the other woman said, sitting primly on the edge of the straight chair.

Anne, perforce, sat in the battered, too-small desk chair, and pulled the first stack of folders toward her.


HOURS LATER, she sat back and scraped the hair from her face, staring blankly at the blank wall before her. Her shoulder and back muscles were cramped and she didn't doubt her legs would stiffen up when she finally tried to stand—but none of that mattered.

Disordered as his notes undoubtedly were, it was plain to one who had corresponded with him and who tended in certain directions of thought herself, that Jin Del yo'Kera had found it. He had found what she herself had been looking for—the proof, the empirical, undeniable evidence of a common mother tongue, which had then given birth to its disparate, triplet children: Liaden, Terran, Yxtrang.

Jin Del had found it—his notations, his careful reasoning, his checks and double checks—all here, needing only to be re-ordered, culled and made ready for presentation.

All here, all ready.

All, except the central, conclusive fact.

Anne looked aside, to where Drusil tel'Bana still sat patiently in her hard chair, face grooved with grief, but otherwise composed, calm.

"Is there," Anne asked slowly. "Forgive me! I do not wish to ask—improperly, but I must know."

Drusil tel'Bana inclined her head. "There is no shame in an honest inquiry, Scholar. You know that is true."

Anne sighed. "Then I ask if there are—people—who would feel their—melant'i at—risk, should a fact be found that linked Terra to Liad?"

"There are many such," the other woman said, with matter-of-fact dreariness. "Even among your own folk, is there not the Terran Party, which would wish to deny Liad the trade routes?"

The Terran Party was a gaggle of cross-burning crackpots, but it did exist. And if the Terran Party existed, Anne thought wildly, why shouldn't there be a Liaden Party?

"You feel," Drusil tel'Bana said hesitantly, "that there is something—missing—from Jin Del's work?"

"Yes," Anne told her. "Something very important—the centerpiece of his proof, in fact. Without it, we merely have speculation. And all his notes lead me to believe that what he had was proof!"

Beside her, the other woman sagged, tears overflowing all at once.

"Scholar!" Anne reached out—was restrained by a lifted hand as Drusil tel'Bana shielded her face.

"Please," she gasped. "I ask that you do not regard—I am not generally thus. I shall—seek the Healers, by and by. Only tell me if you are able, Scholar."

Anne blinked. "Able?"

"Able to take on Jin Del's work, to find his proof and finish his lifepiece. I cannot. I lack the spark. But you—you are like him for brilliance. It was your thought that started him on this path. It is only fitting that you are the one to complete what you caused to begin."

And there was, Anne admitted wryly, a certain justice to it. Jin Del yo'Kera had unstintingly given of his time and his knowledge to the young Terran scholar he had graciously addressed as 'colleague.' Together, the two of them had constructed the quest represented by the notes now spread, helter-skelter, before her. That one of the two was untimely called aside did not mean that the quest was done.

She sighed, trying not to think of the years it might take to recapture that one vital fact.

"I will need to take this away with me," she told Drusil tel'Bana, waving a hand at the littered table. "I will require permission to go through his files—the computer. The books."

"Such permissions are on file from the Scholar Chairman of the University. If you find it necessary to take anything else, only ask me, Scholar, and I shall arrange all." The Liaden scholar rose and went to the desk, pulled open a drawer and extracted a carry-case.

"What you have upon the table should fit in here, I think."


Chapter Twenty-Seven


Love: the delusion that one woman differs from another.

—H.L. Mencken


 


"SACRIFICE?"

Er Thom sagged to the edge of the desk, staring at Daav out of stunned purple eyes.

"Anne said it would be a sacrifice for me to become her lifemate?"

"She stopped short of the actual word," Daav acknowledged, "but I believe the sentence was walking in that direction, yes."

"I—" He glanced aside, moved a slender, ringless hand and rubbed Relchin's ears.

"There—must be an error," he said as the big cat began to purr. "She cannot have understood." He looked back to Daav.

"Anne is not always as—certain—of the High Tongue as—"

"We were speaking Terran," Daav interrupted and Er Thom blinked.

"I—do not understand."

"She said that, also." Daav sighed, relenting somewhat in the face of his brother's bewilderment. "She admits to being in love with you, darling—very frank, your Anne! However, she is sensible that a Terran lover makes you vulnerable, as she would have it, and that a Terran wife must make you doubly so." He smiled, wryly. "An astonishingly accurate summation, given that she does not play."

Er Thom chewed his lip.

"She asked me," he said, all his confusion plain for the other to read. "She asked me to guard her melant'i."

"She did?" Daav blinked. "In—traditional—manner?"

"We were speaking Terran," Er Thom said slowly. "Last evening, when I had gone to escort her to Prime. We were about to leave her apartment and she suddenly paused and looked at me with—with all of her heart in her face. And she said, Don't let me make a mistake . . ."

"And you accepted this burden on her behalf?"

"With joy. It was the avowal I had longed for, which she had not given, though there was certainly sufficient else between us—" He broke off, eyes wide. "It was plain," he said stubbornly. "There could have been no error."

"And yet," Daav said, "the lady spoke—plainly, I assure you!—of her intention to show you a dry face, when time had come for her to end her guesting and return to University."

"No." Er Thom's voice broke on the denial. He cleared his throat. "No. She cannot—"

Daav frowned. "Would you deny an adult person the right to her own necessities?"

"Certainly not! It is only that there must be some error, some nuance I am too stupid to see. Anne is honorable. To ask for the care of a lifemate and in the next breath speak of giving nubiath'a—it is not her way. Something has gone awry. Something—"

"And how," Daav cut in gently, hating what he must put forth. "if the lady asked not for lifemate's care, but for that of kin?"

"Kin?" Er Thom's face showed blank astonishment. "I am no kin of Anne."

"Yet her son is accepted of Korval," Daav murmured, "which might encourage her to believe herself in a manner—kin—to you."

A vivid image of Anne's body moving under him, a recollection of her kiss, her face transcendent with desire—Er Thom glanced up. "I am not persuaded she believes any such thing."

"Hah." Daav's lips twitched, straightened.

"Another way, then. Understand that I honor her abilities in the High Tongue. However, you, yourself, say her proficiency sometime wavers. How if her understanding of custom is likewise uncertain? How if she should consider that a guest of the House might ask this thing of a son of the House?" He moved his shoulders.

"She has already made one error of custom, has she not?" He asked his brother's stubborn eyes. "In the matter of naming the child?"

"Yes," Er Thom admitted after a moment. "But there is no—" He broke off, sighing sharply.

"I shall endeavor to arrive at plain speaking," he said slowly, "and show Anne—" He stopped, wariness showing in his face.

"Is it—possible—that the delm will allow a lifemating between myself and Anne Davis?"

"The delm . . ." Daav moved from his chair, took two steps toward the desk and his brother—and halted, hands flung, palm out, showing all.

"The delm is most likely to ask you to consider what this affair has thus far bought you," he said levelly. "He is likely to ask you to think on the anger of your thodelm, who refuses to See your child, and who is prepared to ring such a peal over you as the world has never witnessed! The delm may ask you to look on the disruption your actions have introduced into the clan entire." He took a gentle breath, meeting his brother's eyes.

"The delm is likely to ask you if another coin might spend to better profit, brother, and the Terran lady released to her necessities."

Er Thom was silent, eyes wide and waiting.

"The delm may well ask," Daav concluded, with utmost gentleness, "that you give this lady up."

"Ah." Er Thom closed his eyes and merely sat, hip on the desk, one foot braced against the carpet, hand quiet along Relchin's back.

"With all respect to the delm," he murmured eventually, and in the Low Tongue, so Daav understood that as yet the delm was safely outside the matter. "Might it be—permitted—to mention that one has striven for several years to put this lady from one's mind?" He opened his eyes, tear-bright as they were.

"Whatever the success of that enterprise, certainly she remained in one's heart." He moved his shoulders, almost a shudder. "The delm needs no reminder of one's—adherence to duty—saving this single thing. To give her up—that is to go now, tonight, to Solcintra, and give myself to the Healers."

And have Anne Davis ripped not only from his memory but from his daily mind, Daav thought, overriding his own shudder. Which commission the Healers certainly would refuse.

However, were Anne Davis to depart according to her stated intention, the Healers would very easily agree to assuage what measure of grief Er Thom might experience from the parting.

Daav stared at his brother's face, seeing the pain there, feeling his longing, and his need.

It's ill-done, he warned himself, though he already knew he would fail to heed his own warning. You set him up to fail; you bait the trap that will spring forgetfulness with that which he most desires to recall . . .

"Daav?"

He started, went forward and enclosed his brother in embrace. Laying his cheek against the warm, bright hair, he closed his eyes, and allowed himself a fantasy: They were boys again, the lie went, and nothing loomed to mar their love. They were one mind with two bodies, neither ascendant over the other. There was no dark power that one held which with a word would change the other, irrevocably and forever . . .

"A wager," Daav whispered, never caring that his voice trembled. It did not matter. Er Thom would take the bait. He must.

Daav stepped back and met his brother's eyes. "A wager, darling," he repeated softly.

"Tell me."

"Why, only this: Woo the lady while she is here. Win her—plainly, mind—and with full understanding between you! Win her aye, and win all. The delm shall overrule yos'Galan, the lady shall stand at your side, the child shall be your acknowledged heir. All." His mouth twisted wryly.

"Does your wooing fail to sway the lady from her necessities, then the day she leaves Liad is the day you make your bow to Master Healer Kestra."

"Hah." Er Thom's lips bent in a pale smile, eyes intent on Daav's face.

"Shall I lose, brother?" he asked softly.

"I will tell you," Daav said with the utter truth one owed to kin, "that I think you shall."

"So little faith!" Er Thom moved his shoulders. "It is only a continue of the throw made three years past. The game continues." He smiled more widely and gave a little half-bow from his perch against the desk. "We play on."

Daav returned the bow, speechless and grief-shot, in a fair way to hating delm and clan and homeworld and the necessities the weaving of all created—

"Never mind." Er Thom came off the desk and moved forward, raising a hand to cup Daav's cheek, to trace the line of a bold black brow.

"Never mind, beloved," he whispered, and touched the barbaric silver earring, sending it to trembling. "I shall not lose."


SOME HOURS LATER, Daav leaned far back in his work chair and stretched mightily, fisted hands high over his head.

"Well," he said, righting himself and glancing over to where Er Thom sat beside him, silently perusing the screen. "Does that cover everything, do you think?"

"I believe it is a solid beginning," Er Thom replied, picking up his glass and sipping. "A contract of formal alliance between Clan Korval and Anne Davis. Free passage on any Korval ship. Right of visit to our son . . ."

"And half your personal fortune," Daav finished, tasting his own wine. "Your mother will dislike that excessively, darling."

Er Thom shrugged, much as he had earlier when this point had been raised.

"Money is easy to come by," he murmured now, dismissing his parent's displeasure as the merest annoyance. "Why should Anne not have comfort in her life?"

"Why, indeed?" Daav sighed. "I do wonder—"

Er Thom flashed him a quick purple glance. "What is it you wonder?"

"Only if the lady's understanding of custom was equal to the knowledge that her child belongs to Korval. I had the distinct impression that she meant to take him away with her when she returned to University." He sipped wine. "Though I could be mistaken."

"I am certain that she understands that Shan is of Korval," Er Thom said. "We had discussed it—several times."

"Quite a donnybrook, as the lady described it," Daav agreed. "Still, I wonder if she does know."

"Since I am already embarked upon a mission of clarity, I shall undertake to be certain that she does." Er Thom frowned. "What is a donnybrook?"

"An argument," Daav murmured, "named in honor, or so I am told, of a possibly-mythic town on Terra where fisticuffs is the pastime of choice." He grinned. "A language to love, admit it!"

"I fear my proficiency falters daily," Er Thom said mournfully. Far down the hall, a clock could be heard striking the hour.

"Gods, only hear the time! And I expected early at Port tomorrow—"

Daav eyed him doubtfully. "Are you?"

"Yes, certainly. I must tend some matters on the Passage first, then there are orders to place, people to see . . ."

"Naturally enough, since you have been away for some time. However," Daav hesitated.

"Your thodelm expects there is no reason for you to go into Port. Or so she said."

Er Thom glanced down at his naked hands; back to Daav's face.

"My thodelm," he said levelly, "is—alas—mistaken."

"Yes," Daav agreed, "I thought that she might be." He waved a hand at the screen. "Get you home, then. I shall send this lot on to Mr. dea'Gauss. He should have the framed contracts to you within a two-day. You and I can then discuss any modifications that may be necessary before the final papers are presented to Anne."

"All right." Er Thom rose and smiled. "Thank you, Daav."

"Thank me, is it? Go home, darling, you're in your cups."


HE LET HIMSELF in through the door off the East Patio and went, surefooted and quiet, through halls illuminated by night-dims.

In the upper hallway, he lay his hand against a door-plate, and stepped gently into the darkened room beyond.

Anne lay in the long, wide bed, fast asleep in the wash of star shine from the open skylight. She looked vulnerable, thus, and incalculably precious: a jewel for which a man must gamble—and never think of losing.

He sighed as he stood over her, for he understood Daav's wager well enough, knew the dangers that dodged his steps and his brother's distress—who could have no less failed to offer the wager than Er Thom declined to take it. To be delm was an awesome and perilous duty. Daav had never wanted the Ring, which was Er Thom's certain knowledge. He had, indeed, begged his delm to pass him by, to place the Ring in abler hands—

In Er Thom's hands.

She had refused, which was wisdom, and Daav was thus Korval, gods pity him. Daav possessed full measure that trait which allowed him to offer such a thing as this twisty wager to his cha'leket, expecting him to fail—for the good of the clan.

It is a terrible thing, Er Thom thought, leaning above his sleeping love, for a delm to have a brother.

Beneath the star-glown blanket, Anne stirred and lifted a hand.

"Er Thom?" Sleep-drugged and beautiful, her voice. He caught her questing hand and bent to gently kiss the palm.

"Hush, sweeting," he murmured, soothing in the Low Tongue. "I had not meant to wake you. Sleep, now . . ."

"You, too," she insisted in Terran. "It's late."

"Indeed, and I am to go early to Port . . ."

"Tell the computer to wake you up," she mumbled, her hand going slack in his as she slid back toward sleep. "Come to bed . . ."

With exquisite care, he lay her hand back atop the coverlet, then stood still in the starlight, watching her and recalling what his thodelm had ordered.

Thinking on Daav's damned, labyrinthine wager.

Woo the lady. Win her aye and win all . . .

Anne feared that a lifemate's burden of shared melant'i put him at risk in the world. Such fear did her only honor, so he considered it, and proved—if it happened he required proof—the depth of her love.

To win her, he must cross custom one final time, show her his heart and his innermost mind—as if they were already lifemated many years.

There was nothing dishonorable in such a path, as he conceived it. Anne was the one his heart had chosen; his lifemate, in truth, whatever a new dawn might bring.

Decided, he crossed the room to the house console and tapped in instructions to wake him at dawn.

Back at the bed, he removed his clothing and slid under the covers, curled against Anne's warmth—and plummeted into sleep.


Chapter Twenty-Eight

A person of melant'i deceives by neither word nor deed and shall have no cause to hide his face from the world.

—Excerpted from the Liaden Code of Proper Conduct



HE ENTERED HIS OFFICE aboard Dutiful Passage, jacket collar still turned up against the rain in the port below. One moment he paused as the door shut behind him, eyes closed, breathing in the elusive taste of ship's air, listening to the myriad, usual sounds that meant the Passage was alive all around him.

Sighing with something like relief, he opened his eyes and crossed the room to his desk, spinning the screen around to face him.

Twenty minutes later, he was still standing there, quick fingers plying the keypad. He barely registered the whisper of the door opening at his back and very nearly started at his first mate's voice.

"Ah, you are here!" Kayzin Ne'Zame exclaimed in Comrade, the mode in which they usually conversed. "I might have known you'd come up ahead of the early shuttle. Felicitations, old friend, on Korval's acceptance of your child! When shall I be pleased to make his acquain—"

Er Thom took a careful breath and deliberately turned to face her, hands in plain sight.

She chopped off in mid-word, her eyes leaping to his.

"Old friend?" Very careful, that tone, even from Kayzin, who had known him from his twelfth name day. Almost, Er Thom sighed.

Instead, he gave her courtesy, and the gentleness due a friend.

"My rating is intact," he murmured, gesturing toward the computer. "You may call the Guild Hall to be certain, if you wish."

"Yes, naturally." She moved her shoulders. "Ken Rik is concerned of Number Eighteen Pod and requests the captain's earliest attention. The radio-tech sent by the Guild was—unable to meet our standards. I took the liberty of dispatching her Port-side. Shipment from Trellen's World will meet us at Arsdred, something about the trans-ship company's credit record. I will look into that, of course . . ."

Er Thom leaned a hip against the desk and Kayzin drifted over to perch on the edge of a chair, both caught in the business they knew best, no blame nor shadow of doubt between them.


THE AFTERNOON among the warehouses was slightly less felicitous than the morning on his ship. There were none who actually refused to take his requisitions, though there were enough glances askance to leave one's belly full down the length of a long lifetime.

One fellow did demand a cantra to "hold" the order, to the very visible horror of his second. Er Thom gave him a long stare, then flicked the coin from his pocket to land, spinning, on the counter.

"A receipt," he said, entirely bland. The merchantman swallowed.

"Of course, Master Trader," he stammered, fingers jamming at the keys.

Still bland, Er Thom took the offered paper and gave it leisurely perusal before folding it into his pocket and going his way, setting his boot heels deliberately against the worn stone floor.

Some while later, he was in the public room of the Trade Bar, having just concluded a trifle of business with Zar Kin pel'Odma. Wily old trader that he was, Zar Kin had not allowed himself even a glance at Master Trader yos'Galan's hands. Which, Er Thom thought, sipping a glass of cold, sweet wine, told as much about Trader pel'Odma's melant'i as it did about the speed at which news traveled, Port-side.

He touched the port-comm's power-off, sipped again at his wine and closed his eyes, wondering if it were worth walking to the Avenue of Jewels on the chance that Master Jeweler Moonel would be disposed to see him.

"Captain yos'Galan, how fortunate to find you here, sir!"

The voice was not immediately familiar, the accent unabashedly Chonselta.

Er Thom opened his eyes and looked up, encountering a pair of hard gray eyes in a determinedly merry face. Her hair was also gray and clipped close to her skull in the manner favored by Terran pilots. It was a style that showed her ears to advantage, and all the dozen earrings piercing each. On her hands she wore, not the expected hodgepodge jewelry of a Port-rat, but a single large amethyst, carved with the symbol of the Trader's Guild.

"Master Trader Jyl ven'Apon." So she introduced herself, clanless, bowing as between equals. She straightened and gave him a knowing look. "Captain."

Er Thom acknowledged her introduction with a bare nod of his head and fixed her with a gaze that would have given anyone of melant'i serious doubts regarding the wisdom of imposing further.

Jyl ven'Apon was far from entertaining any such doubts. Uninvited, she pulled out the chair Zar Kin pel'Odma had lately vacated and sat, arms folded on the table before her.

"One hears," she said, leaning forward with a show of candor, "that Er Thom yos'Galan has been seen about the port this day, devoid of his master trader's ring. Of course, this can but pain those of us who wish him well, of whom there are—most naturally!—dozens. It is indeed fortunate that one such well-wisher as myself should have the means to offer—easement in loss."

"Oh, indeed?" Er Thom raised his eyebrows. "You fascinate me. But you merely mean to sell me another ring, of course."

The gray eyes narrowed and the face lost a little of its merriness, though she did bend her lips slightly in the parody of a smile.

"The—captain—will have his joke," she allowed. "But the matter in which I can provide easement is in the area of trade." She sent a sharp glance into his face. "You perhaps did not receive my correspondence regarding a certain extremely lucrative business venture. Several traders have already seen the advantages of this—venture—not merely in terms of the cantra to be earned, but in the sense of winning greater rank. Indeed, I do not think any who assist in bringing the project to fruition can escape the notice of the Trade Commission. In the case of some, the prospect of gaining—or regaining—the rank of master trader must carry all other considerations before it."

So that was the bait that had snared yo'Laney and Ivrex. Er Thom stared at her coldly.

"I recall the correspondence," he said flatly. "I will tell you that I hold severe doubts regarding the viability of your enterprise and am distressed to find you still enjoy hopes of luring others into a scheme that must fail. I suggest—most strongly—that you re-evaluate your plan of business in this instance, else a review before the Guild must be inevitable."

"Oh, must it?" She laughed, and deliberately poured herself a cup of wine from the pitcher.

"Will you call me up for review, Captain? I wish you might try!" She drank deeply of her cup and grinned. "But of course if you no longer care for amethyst, there's nothing more to be said."

Er Thom put his wine cup aside, turned the port-comm's screen around and pushed the keyboard across the table.

"You might," he suggested gently. "Call up today's Guild list of master traders in Port." He leaned back in his chair, hands folded before him on the table, face and eyes composed.

Her startlement showed clearly for an instant, then she spared him another hard-edged grin, hit the power-on and typed in the request.

Still grinning, she finished the dregs of her wine, poured more and turned her eyes back to the screen.

The grin faded.

Er Thom inclined his head.

"I had been taught that a master trader was made by skill, and that the ring bestowed upon attaining that level of skill was an acknowledgement, not a license." He lifted an eyebrow. "Doubtless, other clans teach other wisdom."

Jyl ven'Apon touched her tongue to her lips. "As you say."

"Ah. Allow me to offer advice, from one who is master of trade to one who wears the ring. Let the lithium deal go. Return the buy-ins you have collected. This would be equitable and not likely of failure, nor notice to the Guild for review."

"You threaten me, in fact."

"I am of Korval," Er Thom said softly. "I merely tell you what is."

She managed another laugh at that, though not so convincingly as formerly, and threw the rest of the wine down her throat. She then rose to bow a seemly enough farewell—and went away down the room, swaggering like a Low Port bravo.


MOONEL HAD BEEN IN and willing, for a wonder, to talk, by which circumstance he did not arrive home until well after Prime, to find his mother at tea with Lady Kareen.

He made his bows from the doorway and, obedient to his mother's gesture, came forward to sit and take refreshment.

"I ask pardon," he murmured with all propriety, "that I show myself in all my dust. I am only this moment come from the Port."

His mother shot him a sharp glance. Kareen's was more leisurely—and, naturally, thorough.

"Why, Cousin Er Thom," said she, in tones of false concern, "I believe you may have misplaced your ring."

Bland-faced, he met her eyes. "You are mistaken, Cousin. I am well-aware of the location of my ring."

"But to go thus to the Port," Kareen insisted, eyes gleaming with spite, "where the lack of rank-ring must be noted and commented upon, is—surely—foolish?"

"Is adherence to duty foolish?" Er Thom wondered, sipping his tea. "I cannot agree with that."

Kareen's eyes narrowed, but before she could launch another attack, his mother introduced a change of topic and the rest of the visit passed almost agreeably.

He stood and bowed as Kareen took her leave and was on the point of departure himself, when his mother snapped, "Stay."

Eyebrows up, he resumed his seat, folded his naked hands upon his lap and assumed an attitude of dutiful attentiveness.

"To the port, is it?" Petrella snarled after a moment. "I bow to your sense of duty, sir. And where, one wonders, did duty dictate you sleep yestereve?"

Er Thom merely looked at her, eyes wide and guileless.

"I see," his mother said after a long minute. She closed her eyes. "In the time of the first Daav," she said eventually, "a certain Eba yos'Phelium was publicly flogged by her thodelm. The instrument employed was a weighted leather lash, from which Eba received six blows, laid crosswise, along her naked flesh. History tells us she carried the scars for the rest of her life." She opened her eyes and regarded her son's bland face.

"I bore you," she surmised. "Or perhaps you believe me too weak to wield the lash. Never mind—we shall speak of pleasanter things! Delm Nexon's delightful visit of this afternoon, for an instance."

Only silence from Er Thom, who kept his eyes and face turned toward her.

"Delm Nexon," Petrella said, "wonders—most naturally!—what Korval means by the announcement that appeared in yesterday's Gazette. She wonders if Korval has been toying with Nexon, by raising hopes of a match advantageous to both sides—she says!—and then withdrawing all hope in this churlish manner. Delm Nexon wonders, my son, if she has been insulted, though she does hope—very sincerely—that this will be found not to be the case."

When he still remained silent, she fixed him with a stern eye. "Well, sir? Have you anything to say, or will you sit there like a stump until dawn?"

Er Thom sighed. "Delm Nexon," he said softly, "is entirely aware that no insult has been given. No contract exists. Preliminary negotiations of contract-marriage flounder and fall awry every day. As to what Korval might mean by publishing notice of Shan's acceptance to the clan—that is entirely by the Code, and nothing to do with Nexon at all."

"Bold words," Petrella commented. "Bold words, indeed, A'thodelm. Especially as there is yet the matter of an heir to the Line—which is nothing to do with this Shan. I will have a proper heir out of you, sir, and I find in Nexon's daughter your suitable match." She held up a hand, stilling his move of protest.

"You will say that you do not know the lady—that we are no longer in the time of the first Daav. True enough. Nor do I wish to thrust you into the contract-room with a lady whose face you have not seen. You shall meet her beforehand."

"I will not—" Er Thom began and Petrella cut him off with a slash of her hand through the air.

"We have had quite enough of what you will and will not! What you will is what you are commanded by your thodelm. And you are commanded to attend the gathering that will be held in this house two evenings hence. At that time you will meet Syntebra el'Kemin, who I suggest you begin to think of as your contracted wife."

Er Thom's eyes were hot, though his voice remained cool. "Scholar Davis will yet be a guest in this house."

Petrella moved her shoulders. "The scholar is welcome to join the party, if she is so inclined. It may prove—instructive—for her."

"No!" He snapped to his feet, towering over her, slim and taut as a cutting cord. "Mother, I tell you now, I shall not—"

"Silence!" she shouted, pounding her cane on the floor. She lifted it, agonizingly slow, until the point was on a level with his nose.

"You do not raise your voice to me," she told him, Thodelm to Linemember. "Beg my pardon."

For a long moment he stood there, quivering with the fury that filled his eyes. Then, slowly, he bowed apology.

"I beg your pardon."

Eyes holding his, she lowered the cane-tip to the floor.

"Leave me," she said then. "If you are wise, you will go to your room and meditate upon the path of duty."

He hesitated a fraction of a heartbeat before he bowed Respect- to-the-Thodelm—and obediently quit the room.


Chapter Twenty-Nine

On average contract-marriages last eighteen Standard Months, and are negotiated between clan officials who decide, after painstaking perusal of gene maps, personality charts and intelligence grids, which of several possible nuptial arrangements are most advantageous to both clans.



In contrast, lifemating is a far more serious matter, encompassing the length of the partners' lives, even if one should die. One of the pair must leave his or her clan of origin and join the clan of the lifemate. At that time the adoptive clan pays a "life-price" based on the individual's profession, age and internal value to the former clan.



Tradition has it that lifemates share a "bond of heart and mind." In view of Liaden cultural acceptance of "wizards," some scholars have interpreted this to mean that lifemates are "psychically" connected. Or, alternatively, that the only true lifematings occur between wizards.



There is little to support this theory. True, lifematings among Liadens are rare. But so are life-long marriages among Terrans.

—From "Marriage Customs of Liad"



ANNE SIGHED AND PUSHED back from the computer. Standing, she stretched high on her toes, ceiling tiles an inch beyond her fingertips.

It takes going to Liad and living among folk half your own size to find a ceiling that's tall enough. She grinned and finished her stretch, glancing to Doctor yo'Kera's work table, where Shan sat, silky white head bent over his Edu-Board.

The Edu-Board was a self-paced, self-programmed wonder, sure enough, and it held Shan's attention like nothing before. Anne tipped her head, watching her son work, feeling a buzz of determined concentration somewhere in the behind of her mind.

Just like his ma, she thought, and felt her mouth twist into a smile. And his da, too, truth be told.

The smile grew a bit wistful. She had woken in the gray of dawn, to feel warm lips on her cheek and a light hand caressing her hair.

"Sleep again, darling," Er Thom whispered in the intimate, only-for-kin Low Tongue. "I shall see you this evening."

Drowsily obedient, she had nestled back into the quilt, waking again several hours later to full sunlight and the wonder of having two endearments from Er Thom within the space of a single night.

Gods love the man, she thought in exasperation. How am I ever to leave, if he turns up sweet now?

"Ma?" Shan looked up from his device. "Says play and rest."

"Module full?" She moved, bending over him to peer at the miniature screen.

EXERCISE TIME! The top line was in Terran, scribed in cheery blue letters. Below, in green letters, was the Liaden approximation: PLAY WITH THE BODY, REST THE MIND.

Anne blinked and looked down at the top of her son's bright head.

"What does this say?" she asked, pointing at the Terran letters.

"Time to exercise," Shan said, patient, if inaccurate.

Anne pointed at the Liaden line. "What does this say, Shannie?"

"I'ganin brath'a, vyan se'untor." He craned his head backward to look at her out of wide silver eyes. "Play in body, rest in mind. Mirada says. Mirada says, pilots run and think."

"Well, Mirada's certainly right there," Anne said wryly, recalling Er Thom's hair-raising dash between the lumbering big-rig and his son.

Planned that trajectory to a hair, laddie, she thought. And then called it nevermind. She sighed and reached down to touch her son's face.

"You like Mirada a lot, Shannie?"

"Love Mirada." He blinked solemnly. "Play now, Ma?"

She laughed and rumpled his hair. "Regular con artist." She shook her head ruefully.

"I expect I could use a rest, too. How's this meet your fancy, boy-o? We'll have us a race down to the snack shop at the end of the hall, nibble a bit, then come back for an hour more so I can finish my search line. Okay?"

"Okay!" he said energetically and popped out of his seat. "Last winner's a rotten egg!"

It was Jerzy who had taught Shan first winner and last winner, a philosophical concept that was about as alien to Liaden thought as you could get. Anne hesitated, turning to stare around Doctor yo'Kera's tiny, comforting office.

Liad.

Liadens.

An entire culture that counted coup, that held melant'i and the keeping of melant'i to be vital work. A culture cutthroat and competitive in every imaginable area, where people were divided into two camps—kin and opponents.

On Liad, there were never first winners and last winners.

On Liad, you won. Or you lost.

Anne shivered, remembering Drusil tel'Bana's grief-filled half-ravings. Had there been some esoteric balancing of social accounts which Doctor yo'Kera had lost, thus forfeiting the central proof of his life-work?

Forfeiting, as well, his life?

"Ma?" Shan tugged at her hand, bringing her out of her morbid dreamings. She smiled down at him.

"Ma's being a rare, foolish gel. Never mind." She opened the door, turned and made certain it was locked before she looked back to her son and dropped his hand with a flourish.

"Last winner's a rotten egg!" she cried and they were off.

* * *

IT HAD TAKEN MORE than an hour—or even two—to finish her systematic search of Doctor yo'Kera's private terminal. Somewhere in the midst of it, she roused herself to call Trealla Fantrol and leave two messages: One for the host, regretting that she would be unable to attend Prime meal.

And one for Er Thom—rather warmer—regretting the same and hoping to see him later in the evening.

You're shameless, she told herself. Why not practice leaving go of the man now?

But, after all, there would be plenty of time to practice life without Er Thom—later. Anne sighed and glanced over at Shan, who was curled up atop the work table, fast asleep in the nest of her jacket, white head resting on Mouse.

He woke on his own just as the data-core copy was completed. A disk sighed out of the side slot. She pulled it free and shut down the main system, shaking her head.

Fruitless.

She'd known it would be, of course, but hope had been there. The next task, she supposed, tucking the disk safely away into her case, was a search of the books—a daunting task, and one likely to take more time than remained of semester break.

She wondered if Er Thom might give her a special rate on shipping the things to University.

Books as ballast, she thought with a tired giggle. Why not?

"All right, now, laddie, it's home for us!"

Shan yawned and wriggled free of her jacket. She caught him under the arms and swung him to the floor.

"Gather your things and let's be off."

"Okay."

In very short order, the Edu-Board was stowed in her carry-all, Shan was in his jacket and Mouse was in his arms. Anne shrugged into her own jacket, glanced once more around the tiny office, got a grip on her case and nodded to her son.

"Stay by me, now."

She made sure of the door, checking the lock twice, turned—and nearly fell over a man hovering at her elbow.

"For goodness'—" She retreated a step, which put her back against the door, her hand rising toward her throat in a gesture of surprise.

The man—perhaps thirty, with a peculiarly blank face and curiously flat brown eyes, neat, forgettable clothing, neat, nondescript hair—also fell back a step, bowing profoundly.

"I beg your pardon," he said in expressionless Trade. "It seemed you were experiencing difficulty with the door and I had thought to offer aid."

Anne looked down at him—rather a way, as he was significantly shorter than Er Thom—and returned his bow of Stranger-to- Outworlder precisely.

"Thank you," she said, choosing the High Tongue mode of Nonkin, which was cool. Very cool. "I am experiencing no difficulty. I had merely wished to be certain the mechanism was engaged."

The man's eyes flickered. He bowed again—Respect-to- Scholarship, this time—and when he answered, it was in the High Tongue, Student to Teacher.

"You must forgive me if my use of Trade offended. I did not at first apprehend that of course you must be the Honored Scholar who shall complete Doctor yo'Kera's work." He lay his hand over his heart in a formal gesture. "I am Fil Tor Kinrae, Linguistic Technician, Student of Advanced Studies."

Anne inclined her head. "I am Anne Davis of University, Linguistics Scholar."

"Of course. But I keep you standing in the hallway! Please, allow me to carry your bag and walk with you to your—"

"Ma!" Shan's voice was sharp. She looked at him in surprise, saw him staring in—fright?—at the man before her.

"Go home, Ma! Go home now!"

"Oh, dear." She swooped down and gathered him up, felt him shivering against her, and threw a distracted, apologetic smile at the bland-faced grad student.

"I regret, sir. My child requires attention. Another time and we shall talk."

"Another time." Fil Tor Kinrae bowed precisely. "An honor to meet you, Scholar Davis."

"An honor to meet you, as well." Anne barely knew what she replied. Shan was never—never—afraid of strangers. Her stomach cramped in fear as she turned and walked rapidly down the hall, toward the carport.


THE PATIENT DRIVER settled them in the back of the car and wasted no time in putting the campus behind them. Gradually, Shan's shivering stilled. He sighed and snuggled into her arms.

"Okay now, Shannie?"

"Uh-huh."

Anne rubbed her cheek against his hair, feeling decidedly better herself. Really, she thought. Of all the foolish starts, Annie Davis . . .

"What happened?" she asked her son softly.

He pushed his face against her neck.

"No sparkles," he whispered—and shuddered.


SHE WAS LEAVING THE nursery, her thoughts on finding Er Thom, when she was intercepted by no less a personage than the yos'Galan butler.

"Scholar Davis." Stately and austere, he inclined his head. "Thodelm yos'Galan requests the pleasure of your company in the Small Parlor."

Which request, she thought wryly, had the force of command. She stifled a sigh and inclined her head.

"I shall be delighted to bear Thodelm yos'Galan company," she said, glad that the Mode of Acceptance leached any flavor of untruth from her words.

"Follow me, please," the butler replied, and turned briskly on his heel.


"WINE FOR SCHOLAR DAVIS," Petrella yos'Galan directed and wine there was.

Mr. pak'Ora also refreshed the cup on the table at the old woman's side, then left, the door snicking shut behind him.

Petrella took up her wine and sipped, her movements firm and formal. Anne followed suit—a solitary taste of wine, and the glass put gently aside.

"You are comfortable in our house, Scholar?" Petrella's choice of mode this evening was Host to Guest.

Anne inclined her head and responded in like mode. "I am extremely comfortable. Thank you for your care, ma'am."

"Hah." Petrella glanced down, made a minute adjustment to the enameled ring she wore on the second finger of her left hand. Abruptly, she looked up, faded blue eyes intense.

"Your command of the High Tongue is praiseworthy, if I may extend a compliment," she said with formal coolness. "It is perhaps not to be expected that your grasp of custom be so exact." She smiled, slightly, coolly. "Indeed, I know well how slippery custom becomes, world-to-world. One would require Scout's eyes, to never err. Few of us, alas, are able to achieve so wide an understanding."

Anne eyed her dubiously, wondering if the old lady were going to give her a tongue-lashing for missing dinner. She inclined her head carefully.

"One hears that Captain yos'Galan's cha'leket had been a Scout."

"So he had. The children of yos'Phelium are often sent to the Scouts; it's found the training tames them." She paused. "The Scouts teach that all custom is equally compelling, which may well be true in the wide galaxy. On Liad, matters are quite otherwise."

Anne kept silent, hands folded tightly in her lap, waiting for her host to come to the point.

A smile ghosted Petrella's pale lips and she inclined her head as if the younger woman had spoken.

"A word in your ear, Scholar Davis?"

"Certainly."

"You have," Petrella said after a moment, "borne my son a child. Understand that we are grateful. At such a time in the clan's history, when the Line Direct is become so few, every child, no matter how irregularly gotten, is a jewel. You must never doubt that the clan's gratitude shall show itself fitly, nor that the child shall receive all care, nuturance and tutelage."

She paused, eyes sharp, and Anne hoped fervently that her face was properly bland, giving away nothing of her bewilderment.

"Necessity, however, exists," Petrella continued slowly. "It existed before the advent of yourself and the child you give to Korval. It exists now, unchanged. As much as your son shall be a treasure to the clan, it cannot be denied that he is but half of the Book of Clans. Such a one cannot be accepted as the heir of he who will soon be Thodelm yos'Galan. The a'thodelm is aware of this. He is also aware that a contract-wife has been chosen for him and that he is required now to wed. Indeed, a gathering in honor of the to-be-signed contract shall be held in this house two evenings hence. You are welcome to attend the gather, should you care to wish the a'thodelm and his bride happy."

Care to wish him happy? Anne thought, around a jag of icy, incredulous grief. Could ye not have waited until I was gone? She wanted to scream the question at the woman across from her. Instead, she swallowed and remained silent, hands fisted on her lap, face determinedly smooth.

Once more, Petrella's faded eyes scrutinized. Once more, she inclined her head as if Anne had made some fitting reply.

"My son speaks highly of you, Scholar. I believe that such delight as you shared must long remain in fond memory. However, it is now time for the a'thodelm to do his duty. He will expect you to stand aside." She glanced down, rubbing her ring with an absent forefinger.

"Surely," she murmured, eyes coming back to Anne's face, "even among Terrans a pleasure-love must yield to a wife."

Sleep again, darling, Er Thom murmured tenderly in memory.

Confusion washed through her, threatening to tear away her fragile mask of calm; she thought she must be trembling. Fatal to call Thodelm yos'Galan's word into question. Even to ask for a clarification of Shan's status in Clan Korval would expose weakness, make her vulnerable . . .

Carefully, she inclined her head.

"I am grateful for the care of the House," she said, concentrating on keeping precisely to the mode of Guest-to-Host. "Naturally, one would not wish to be untoward . . ." It was all she could think of, but it seemed it was sufficient.

Petrella smiled her cool, ravaged smile and raised a hand on which the thodelm's enameled band spun loosely.

"Pray do not say more. It is the honor of the House to guide the guest."

"Yes, of course." Anne stood, desperately willing her trembling legs to support her, and made her bow to the host. "I am certain you will forgive me for leaving you so soon," she said, though she was certain of no such thing. "My day was long and somewhat arduous. I feel the need of rest."

"Certainly," Petrella said, moving her hand with a remnant of grace. "Good health to the guest."

"And to the host," Anne responded properly, and forced herself to walk, slow and steady, from the room.


Chapter Thirty

A Healer should be contracted to attend every birth for the purpose of keeping the mother's soul attached to her body and for easing the way through childbirth.



Such attention is doubly necessary in the case of one who has the honor to bear a child for an allied clan. In this instance, the child's clan must instruct the Healer in addition to blur memory and assuage any painful emotions the mother may otherwise experience.



A Healer should also be summoned before the one who gave the child-seed rejoins his own kin.

—From The Liaden Code of Proper Conduct


 


THE CHILD SHALL receive all care, nuturance and tutelage . . .

Sleep again, darling . . .

Even among Terrans, a pleasure-love must yield to a wife . . .

I am not a thief, to steal our son . . .

No sparkles!

The clan shall show its gratitude—

"Anne?"

Gasping, she spun, hands outflung, half-curled and protective.

Er Thom caught both, his fingers shockingly warm, reassuringly strong. Her friend, her love, her ally against Liad and the terrors of Liaden custom—

Who had lied, after all, and stolen her son; who came to bed with endearments in his mouth even as he planned to wed someone other—

"Anne!" His grip tightened; worried violet eyes looked up at her out of a face that showed clear consternation.

She made a supreme, racking effort. Fatal to antagonize Er Thom. Fatal to assume, to assume—

"You're hurting me." Her voice sounded flat, cold as iron. Cold iron, to bane an elf-prince . . .

His fingers eased, but he did not let her go. Face turned to hers, concern showing plain as if it were real, he bespoke her in the Low Tongue.

"What has happened, beloved? You tremble . . ."

"I've just come from your mother—" She blurted the truth in Terran before she considered what lie would best cover her agitation.

But it seemed the truth served her purpose very well. Anger darkened Er Thom's eyes, his mouth tightened ominously.

"I see. We must speak." He glanced around the hallway. "Here." He tugged on her hands. "Please, Anne. Come and sit with me."

She let him lead her down the unfamiliar hall, into a room shrouded in covers, illuminated by the dusty light from a center-hung chandelier.

Her mind was working now, smoothly and with preternatural efficiency, laying out plans in some place that was beyond pain and bewilderment, that was concerned only with necessity.

"Here," Er Thom said again, his Terran somewhat blurred—a certain sign of his own agitation. He left her to swirl a dust-sheet from the sofa before the dead hearth, rolled the cloth into a hasty bundle and cast it aside.

"Please, Anne. Sit."

She did, curling into the high-swept corner. Er Thom sat next to her, turned sideways, one knee crooked on the faded brocade seat, one elbow propped along the back cushion. He looked elegant, all grace and beauty in his wide-sleeved shirt and soft-napped trousers. Anne looked away.

"My mother has distressed you," Er Thom said gently. "I regret that. Will you tell me what she has said?"

She considered that, deliberately cold. First and foremost, she must have verification of her worst suspicions. Yet she must gain such verification without alerting Er Thom to her plan.

"Your mother—confused me—on a couple things. I thought I understood—" She hesitated, then forced herself to meet his eyes.

"Shan is accepted of Clan Korval, isn't he?"

Something flickered in Er Thom's eyes, gone too quickly for her to read.

"Yes, certainly."

"But your mother said that he wasn't—wasn't good enough to be your heir," Anne pursued, watching him closely.

Anger showed again, though she sensed it was for his mother and not for herself. He extended a slim, ringless hand. "Anne—"

"It's just—" She glanced at the dead hearth, feeling how rapidly her heart beat. Gods, gods, I'm no good at this . . .

"It's that—" she told the cold bricks, "if Shannie's going to be a burden on your clan, maybe it would be best if I just took him back to University—"

"Ah." His hand gripped her knee very briefly; her flesh tingled through the cloth of her trousers. "Of course Shan shall not be a burden upon the clan. The clan welcomes children—and doubly welcomes such a child as our son! To snatch him away from kin and homeplace, when the clan has just now embraced him as its own . . ." He smiled at her, tentatively.

"Try to understand, denubia. My mother is—old world. She has held always by the Book of Clans, by the Code—by Liad. To change now, when she is ill and has lost so much in service of the clan—" He moved his shoulders. "I do not think that she can. Nor, in respect, must we who hold her closest demand such change of her." He seemed for an instant to hesitate. One hand rose toward her cheek—and fell again to his knee.

"I regret—very much—that she found it necessary to speak to you in such terms of our son. If you will accept it, I ask that you take my apology as hers."

A rock seemed lodged in her throat, blocking words, nearly blocking breath. That he could plead so sweetly for a parent who showed him not an ounce of affection, who ordered him to her side as if he were her slave rather than her son . . . Anne managed at last to get a breath past the blockage in her throat.

Verification, announced the strange new part of her mind that was busily molding its plans. We proceed.

"I—of course I forgive her," she told the hearth-stones. "Change is difficult, even for those of us who aren't—old—and—and ill . . ." She cleared her throat sharply and closed her eyes, hearing her heartbeat pounding, crazy, in her ears.

"I find I'm to wish you happy," she whispered, and there was no iron in her voice now at all. "Your mother tells me you're going to be married—"

"No."

His hands were on her shoulders, his breath shivering the tiny hairs at her temple. Anne shrank back into the corner of the sofa, a sob catching her throat.

"Anne—no, denubia, hear me . . ." His hands left her shoulders and tenderly cupped her face, turning her, gently, inexorably, toward him. "Please, Anne, you must trust me."

Trust him? When he had just confessed to lying, to kidnapping, to using the trust she had borne him to—no.

On Liad, you won. Or you lost.

It was absolutely imperative that she win.

She allowed him to turn her face. She opened her eyes, looked into his and saw, incredibly, tenderness and care and longing in the purple depths.

Er Thom smiled, very gently, ran his thumbs in double caress along her cheekbones before taking his hands away.

"I love you, Anne. Never forget."

"I love you, too," she heard herself say, and it was true, true, gods pity her, and the man had stolen her son.

Never mind, the cold planner in the back of her mind told her. Disarm him with the truth, so much the better. Put any suspicions he may have fast asleep. Then the plan will work.

He sat back, reluctantly, to her eye, and folded his hands carefully on his knee. The face he showed her was earnest, his eyes tender and anxious.

"This marriage which my mother desires," he said softly. "It is old world, and as a dutiful son I should accept the match and give the clan my heir, which is duty long past fruition." He tipped his head, anxiety overriding tenderness for the moment. "You understand, this is the—manner in which things are done—and no slight to you is intended."

"I understand," she said, hearing the iron back in her voice.

Er Thom inclined his head. "So. But it happens that there is you and there is our son and we two—love. There is that bond between us which—after even such a time—remains unabated. Unfilled. That is true, Anne, is it not?"

"True." True . . .

"I had thought so," he said, very softly, and she saw the shine of tears in his eyes.

"Since we wish not to part—since we wish, indeed, to become lifemates—this marriage that my mother hopes for is—a nothing. I have taken counsel on the matter. A lifemating between us shall be allowed, does the delm hear from your lips that it is your desire as well as my own. Alas, that my mother has sought to—to force the play—striving to divide us and burst asunder the bond we share." He reached out and took her hand; her traitor fingers curled tight around his.

"If we stand together, if we hold now as the lifemates we shall soon become, she cannot win," Er Thom said earnestly. "It will be difficult, perhaps, but we shall carry the day. We need only give her what she desires—in certain measure. She desires to have the lady here to meet me. So we acquiesce, you see? The lady is a child. She does not want me. She wants the consequence of bedding an a'thodelm, of having borne a child to Korval.

"The—infelicity—of the proposed match can easily be shown her, gently and with all respect, in the course of such an affair as my mother plans." His fingers gripped hers painfully, though Anne made no demur.

"We need only stand together," he repeated earnestly. "You must not allow yourself to be frightened into leaving our house. To do so ensures my mother's victory. You must only attend the gather and show a calm face. Why should you not? When the gather is done, we shall go hand-in-hand before the delm and ask that he acknowledge what already in fact exists."

Lifemates? For a moment it seemed she spun, alone in void, the familiar markers of her life wiped clean away. For a moment, it seemed that here was a better plan, that kept her son at her side, and her lover, too, with no duplicity, no lies, no anguish. For a moment, she hovered on the edge of flinging herself into his arms and sobbing out the whole of her pain and confusion, to put everything into his hands for solving—

The moment passed. Cold reason returned. Er Thom had lied. From the very beginning, he had intended to steal Shan from her, though he swore he would do no such thing. There was no reason to believe this plea for lifemates was any truer than his other lies.

"Anne?"

She stared down at her lap, at her fingers, twisted like snakes each about the other, white-knuckled and cold.

"Your mother," she said, and barely recognized her own voice, "will be just as well served if I shame you."

"It is not possible," Er Thom said quietly, "that you will shame me, Anne."

She had thought herself beyond any greater agony, foolish gel. She stared fixedly down at her hands, jaw clenched until she heard bone crack.

"We may go tomorrow into Solcintra," Er Thom continued after a moment, "and arrange for proper dress."

"I—" What? she asked herself wildly. What will you say to the man, Annie Davis?

But she had no more to say, after all, than that bare syllable. Er Thom touched her knee lightly.

"Lifemates may offer such things," he murmured, "without insult. Without debt."

Oh, gods . . . From somewhere, she gleaned the courage to raise her head and meet his eyes levelly.

"Thank you, Er Thom. I—expect I will need a dress for—for the gather."

Joy lit his face, and pride. He smiled, widely, lovingly. "We play on," he said, and laughed lightly. His fingers grazed her cheek. "Courageous Anne."

She swallowed and tried for a smile. It was apparently not an entirely successful effort, for Er Thom rose and offered his arm, all solicitude.

"You are exhausted. Come, let me walk you to your rooms."

In the moment of rising, she froze and stared up into his eyes.

"Anne, what is wrong?"

"I—" Gods, she could not sleep with him. She wouldn't last through one kiss, much less through a night—she would tell him everything, lose everything . . .

"I was thinking," she heard her voice say, "that maybe we should—sleep apart—until the gather is over. Your mother—"

"Ah." He inclined his head gravely. "I understand. My mother shall see that all goes her way, eh? That the guest has heeded her word and behaves with honor regarding the House's wayward child." He smiled and it was all she could do not to cry aloud.

Instead, she rose and took his arm and allowed him to guide her through unfamiliar hallways to the door of her room.

Once there, she hesitated, and some demon prompted her to ask one last question.

"Your mother had said that the clan would be—grateful—for Shan's adoption. I didn't quite—"

"That would be the proposal of alliance," Er Thom said gently, "as well as other considerations. Daav and I had drafted the papers yesterday, and a trust fund has been created in your name." He smiled up at her, sweetly. "But these matters are moot, when we are lifemates."

Speechless, she stared down at him, wondering what—considerations—what possible sum of money—Clan Korval had thought sufficient to buy a child.

"You are tired," Er Thom murmured. "I say good-night. Sleep well, beloved." He raised one of her hands, kissed the palm lightly and released her.

Tear-blinded, Anne spun and fumbled her hand against the lock-plate, escaping at last into grief-shot solitude.


"WHY NOW?" Daav demanded.

Petrella regarded him calmly from the comm screen. "Why not now? He has been coddled long enough. Nexon calls Korval's melant'i into question. What better way to give such question rest than by proceeding as planned?"

"As you planned!" Daav snapped and sighed, reaching up to finger his earring.

"Aunt Petrella, be gracious. The guest will still be with you two nights hence. She holds Er Thom precious, whether you will see it or no. What can possibly be gained by wounding her in this manner? Such action does more harm to Korval's melant'i than all Nexon's petulance can accomplish!"

Petrella raised her hand. "I hope we are not rag-mannered, nor behind in our duty to the guest," she said austerely. "Certainly, there was instruction given. The guest cannot hope to know our custom. A word in her ear was sufficient, as it happens. I find Scholar Davis a very sensible woman."

"Oh, do you?" Daav closed his eyes briefly, running a Scout's calming exercise, trying not to think of Er Thom's desperate gamble and what must be made of his wooing now.

"Indeed I do," Petrella replied. "Shall I have the honor of seeing you at the gather, my delm?"

"Why certainly," he said, hearing the snap in his voice despite the exercise. "I can always be depended upon to dance for you, Aunt Petrella. Good-night." He swept the board clear with a violent palm and surged to his feet as if he would run immediately out into the night.

Instead, he walked very slowly over to the windowsill and reached down to stroke the leaves and white flowers of the plant Olwen had left with him. Nubiath'a.

"Ah, gods, brother," he whispered to the little plant, "what a coil we have knotted between us . . ."


Chapter Thirty-One

Accepted of Clan Korval: Identical twins, daughters of Kin Dal yos'Phelium and Larin yos'Galan.



Accepted of Line yos'Galan: Petrella, daughter of Larin.



Accepted of Line yos'Phelium: Chi, daughter of Kin Dal.

—From The Gazette for Banim Fourthday


in the Third Relumma of the Year Named Yergin


 


TWO DAYS AGO she had dreamed of such a visit to the City of Jewels. Then, Solcintra had gone past the car-window in a dazzle of possibility, and she had imagined walking the wide streets safe on Er Thom's arm, enclosed by his melant'i, guided by his care.

Today, she stared, sand-eyed, at a city gone gray, and listened to the cold, back-brain planner make its cold and necessary plans.

Tomorrow and today were her last on Liad. On the morning after Er Thom's betrothal party, she and her son would be gone. That was the plan.

The plan called for precise timing. It called for the ingenuity to forestall Er Thom immediately petitioning the delm to acknowledge lifemates. It called for pulling a few strands of wool across the eyes of an unsuspecting yos'Galan driver. It required the fortitude to leave everything—everything—behind, save her son and what could be carried in her briefcase.

Necessity existed. These things could be done.

It required sufficient funds to book passage for herself and her child on the first available ship.

Cash was the sticking point: She had a little, in Terran bits, which enjoyed an—unequal—exchange rate on Liad.

Of course, she would sell her jewelry, paltry stuff that it was. Er Thom's good-bye gift would fetch the most of the lot, but she was not fool enough to suppose it would cover even a tenth of the passage price to New Dublin.

For it was to New Dublin she had determined to go, where laws were sane and where she would have her brother's staunch and stubborn support.

From Liad to New Dublin the price will be dear, she told herself wearily, as she had told herself all last night, pacing, exhausted and shivering, through the luxurious, alien apartment.

She wondered if she dared ask Er Thom how to access the trust fund he had set up for her.

While she was weighing that question, the car pulled into a parking slot and stopped.

"We arrive," Er Thom said softly, and turned to look at her. "Are you well, Anne?"

He had asked her that once already, this morning at breakfast. Anne had a moment of despair, that a whole day in her company would reveal to him that she was sick with fright, bloated with deception. She would lose—

I will not lose, she thought firmly. Clan Korval does not own Shan. My son is not for sale.

Resolutely, she summoned the best smile stiff face muscles could provide.

"I'm fine," she lied. "Just—tired. I didn't sleep very well."

"Ah." He touched the back of her hand with light fingertips. "When we are lifemated, perhaps . . . The clan keeps a house by the southern sea. We might go there, if you like it, to rest and—grow closer."

Pain twisted, a mere flicker of agony in the larger pain of his betrayal. Anne smiled again.

"That sounds wonderful," she said, and it was true. "I'd like that very much, Er Thom."

If it all was different. If you hadn't lied. If you hadn't schemed and connived. If I could dare even pretend that this might be true . . .

"Then it is done." He smiled. "Come and let us put you into Eyla's hands."


EYLA DEA'LORN STOOD back, gray head cocked to a side, lined face impish.

"So, your lordship brings me a challenge," she said to Er Thom, and rubbed her clever hands together. "Good."

To Anne, she bowed slightly, eyes gleaming.

"Ah, but you will provide such opportunity, Lady—I give you thanks! Nothing usual for you, eh? Nothing the same as so-and-so had it at Lord Whomever's rout. Hah! No, for you, everything must be new, original!" She shot a gleaming glance aside to Er Thom.

"An original. There is no possible comparison between this lady and any other lady in the world. In this, the world has failed us, but the lady shall be accepted on the terms of her own possibility. I accurately reflect Your Lordship's thought?"

"As always," Er Thom told her, lips twitching, "you are a perfect mirror, Eyla."

"Flattery! Recall who made your first cloak, sir, and speak with respect!" She beckoned Anne. "Come with me if you please, Lady. I must have measurements—ah, she walks as a pilot! Good, good. Put yourself entirely in my hands. We shall send you off in a fashion the world has rarely seen! Such proportions! So tall! The bosom, so proud! The neck—Ah, you are a gift from the gods, Lady, and I about to expire of boredom, or strangle the next same-as who walked through my door!"

The little woman's eagerness pierced even the iron-gray dreariness that enclosed Anne. She smiled.

"I fear I may prove a little too far out of the common way for such a debut as that," she murmured as she was led back to the measuring room.

"Never think it!" Eyla told her energetically. "The world is a great coward. Merely keep a level gaze and a courteous face and the world will bow to you. Some will scoff, certainly, but you needn't mind those. An original is a Code unto herself. And you have the advantage of sponsorship by Korval, which has elevated originality to an art form." She rubbed her hands together, looking Anne up and down with eager appraisal.

"And now," she said, going over to a discreet console. "If I may ask you to disrobe . . ."


THE GOWN WOULD BE brought to Trealla Fantrol no later than mid-morning, tomorrow. The color was to be antique gold, to "show that delightful brown skin." Eyla gave Er Thom a patch of fabric, which he solemnly placed in his pocket.

"We shall be going along to Master Moonel presently," he murmured. "When the design is fixed, perhaps you might call and allow him to name a suitable jeweler."

"He'll want the work himself," Eyla predicted with a smile. "Only show her to him. The deadline will mean nothing to Moonel, with such a showcase for his craft." She clasped her hands together and bowed them out with energy.

"And to think that only last evening I was considering retirement!"


"YOU AND EYLA are good friends?" Anne asked, because it was necessary to say something. It was imperative that Er Thom think everything was just the same between them, and to put down any oddness in her behavior to the effects of a restless night.

"dea'Lorn and Korval are old allies," he murmured, guiding her along the flower-scented street with a gentle hand on her elbow. "Eyla will want to make your entire wardrobe."

"Would that be wrong?"

"Not—wrong. Indeed, it might well be prudent. Eyla has the gift of seeing exactly what is before her, rather than what she believes is there." He smiled up at her. "It has in the past been considered—expedient—to engage the services of several tailors, so Korval's patronage may not be used to undue advantage."

"But if your Houses are allied—"

"Not allied. Not—precisely—that. Doubtless my Terran falls short. It is—in the time of my fourth-great-grandfather—the youngest of dea'Lorn, who had just finished his apprenticeship, came with a proposal for trade. The dea'Lorn would undertake to make whatever clothes Korval required at cost, in return for materials at cost."

Anne frowned. "That sounds rather audacious."

"Indeed it was. But audacity amused my grandfather. He inspected those items the dea'Lorn offered as samples of his work, and made a counter-offer. He would provide shop space in one of Korval's Upper Port warehouses and a very favorable discount on materials, as well as options on certain—exotic—fabrics. These things would constitute his buy-in and make him one-half partner in the dea'Lorn's business, which would indeed make Korval's clothes. Free of charge."

"But in return he got free advertising," Anne said, "and the opportunity for his clothes to be seen at society functions . . ."

"And so he prospered," Er Thom concluded. "The dea'Lorn's daughter was able to move the shop to its present location and to retire Korval's partnership. The trade agreements remain in place—and dea'Lorn from time to time makes Korval's clothes. At cost." He sent her a glance from beneath his lashes.

"Anne?"

She drew a careful breath, willing her face to be neutral. "Yes?"

"I wish," Er Thom said, very softly, "that you will tell me what troubles you."

Oh, gods . . . She swallowed, glanced aside, groping for a lie—

"I—it's foolish, I know," she heard herself saying distractedly, "but I can't seem to get it out of my mind."

Annie Davis, she demanded in internal bewilderment, what are ye nattering about?

"Ah." The pressure of Er Thom's fingers on her elbow changed, guiding her to the edge of the sidewalk and a bench beneath a flowering tree.

"Tell me," he murmured.

The bench was not particularly roomy. Er Thom's thigh against hers woke a storm of emotion, of which lust and anguish were foremost. Anne bit her lip and almost cried out when he took her hand in his.

"Anne? Perhaps I may aid you, if I can but understand the difficulty."

Well, and what will you tell him? she asked herself with interest.

But the back-brain planner had been busy.

"It's probably nothing," she heard her voice say uncertainly. "But—I took Shannie with me yesterday to Doctor yo'Kera's office. I was doing an inventory of his research computer, and it took longer than I had expected—I sent you a note."

"Yes, so you did," Er Thom murmured, apparently not at all put out by this rather rattle-brained narrative.

"Yes. Well, it was late when we finally did leave—the night lamps had come on in the hallway. I made sure the office door was locked, and when I turned around there was—a man. He startled me rather badly, though of course—" She shook her head, half in wonderment at herself, half in remembered consternation.

"A Liaden man?" Er Thom wondered softly.

"Oh. Yes. Very ordinary-looking. He spoke to me in Trade at first—I'm afraid I was pretty sharp in setting him straight. He was polite after that—offered to carry my case—and of course he had a perfect right to be there, since he's a grad student . . ."

"Do you recall his name?"

"Fil Tor Kinrae," she recited out of memory, "Linguistic Technician and Student of Advanced Studies."

"Ah. And his clan?"

Anne frowned. "He didn't say."

"Did he not?" Er Thom's glance was sharp.

"No," she said defensively, "he didn't. Why should he? It was more important for me to know that he was a linguistics student with a perfectly legitimate right to be where he was."

"Yes, certainly." Er Thom squeezed her hand gently. "What disturbed you, then?"

"It was Shan," she said and shivered, recalling her son's fright. "He's never—you know he's never afraid of anyone! But he was afraid of Fil Tor Kinrae. Demanded to go home now." She looked down into Er Thom's eyes.

"In the car, I asked him what had happened. And he said—no sparkles—and hid his face . . ."

Er Thom's eyes darkened. "No sparkles?" He glanced aside, chewing his lip.

"There is—a thought," he said after a moment. "My grandmother had been a Healer, you know. I recall she once said that no one holds the key to all rooms. That those who are locked and dark to one Healer may be open and full of light to another." He looked up into her face.

"Shan is young. If this is the first person he has met who does not—broadcast on the same frequency, Daav would say—he may well have been frightened." His gaze sharpened, a little.

"It might be wise, were we to ask the delm to call a Healer to our child. He is very young to be experiencing these things. There is perhaps something that may be done to alleviate such distress as was occasioned last evening."

And only another Healer would know what to do, she thought, suddenly cold. Whatever are ye about, Annie Davis, to be taking the laddie away from such aid? How will he learn what to do with his sparkles, when there's no one who's Terran can teach him?

She snatched at his hand. "Er Thom!"

"Yes, denubia." His voice was soothing, his fingers firm. "What else troubles you?"

Almost, she told him. It hovered on the tip of her tongue, the rollygig of loss and love, hope, denial and confusion. She was a heartbeat away from burying her face in his shoulder and sobbing out the whole.

Down the walkway beyond the tree came a couple, very fine in their day-clothes and jewels. The woman turned her head and met Anne's eyes. Disgust washed over her perfect Liaden features; she clutched her companion's arm, leaning close to whisper.

He turned his head, face and eyes cold.

They walked on.

Anne cleared her throat.

"It's nothing," she said, and could not meet Er Thom's eyes. "I—Thank you, Er Thom—for listening."

There was a long silence, and still she could not bring herself to raise her face to his. Finally, she felt him move, coming smoothly to his feet, his hand still firmly holding hers.

"I shall listen whenever you wish," he said gently. "Will you come with me now to port?"

"Yes," she said numbly and stood, and let him lead her back to the car.


MASTER JEWELER MOONEL was as taciturn as Eyla dea'Lorn was voluble. He took the bit of fabric from Er Thom's hand and glared at it as if he suspected it held a flaw.

"Tomorrow?" he snapped and moved his eyes to Anne. "This the lady for whom the items are destined?"

"Scholar Anne Davis," Er Thom murmured, "guest of Korval. Please feel free to give Eyla another name, Master, if the deadline is too near."

"Yes, very likely." Moonel spun on his stool, showing them his back as he reached for his tools. "I'll send them 'round by mid-day. Good morning."

"Good morning, Master Moonel," Er Thom said, bowing to the older man's back. He smiled at Anne and held out his hand.

Hand-in-hand they came out into the narrow Avenue of Jewels.

"Would you care for luncheon?" Er Thom asked as they turned down a slightly wider side street.

"Good-day to you, Captain yos'Galan!" The passerby who gave the greeting had close-cropped gray hair and a multitude of earrings. She raised a hand from across the way and the sunlight gleamed on her master trader's ring.

"I've yet to hear from the Guild, sir!" the little woman added gaily. Her sharp eyes swept once over Anne's face and then she was gone, swallowed in the crowd.

Er Thom's face was stiff with anger, his mouth a tight line. Anne blinked in amazement.

"Who was that?"

He took a deep breath and sighed it out forcefully, then looked up into her face, violet eyes bland.

"No one," he said flatly. "Let us go to Ongit's for luncheon."


Chapter Thirty-Two

The last of those who had hand in Eba yos'Phelium's capture and shaming seven years ago is dead. Balance achieved.

—Daav yos'Phelium, Sixth Delm of Korval


Entry in the Delm's Diary for Trianna Seconday


in the Fourth Relumma of the Year named Sandir



"MORNING WINE OR RED?"

"Red, if you please," Er Thom answered absently, eyes on the counterchance board sitting ready before the hearth.

Daav filled the glass and put it into his brother's hand, added a splash of morning wine to his own cup and shot a shrewd glance at the other's abstracted face.

"What's amiss?"

"Hmm?" Er Thom had wandered over to the board. He picked up a pair of dice, idly shook and released them: Eighteen.

"Is it true," he murmured, perhaps to the dice, "that Eba yos'Phelium was publicly whipped by her thodelm?"

Daav's eyebrows rose. "Yes," he said matter-of-factly, "but you must understand that it was the means by which her life was preserved."

Violet eyes flashed to his face. "Ah, was it?"

"Certainly. Times were—unsettled. To make a complex tale simple, Eba fell into the hands of those who wished Korval ill. They then showed her, still bleeding from the abduction, knife along her throat, to her thodelm, who was also her cha'leket.

"The enemies of Korval were adamant that Eba be punished for some insult they had concocted. The one with the knife claimed the right to her life and professed herself willing to do the thing at once. However, there were cooler heads present, who saw that their ends would be met as well by a public shaming." Daav sipped his wine.

"The young thodelm judged Eba's odds of survival, not to say recovery, significantly better did he wield the lash himself, so he contended for, and won, the right."

Er Thom picked up the dice and made another cast: Six.

"And?"

Daav moved his shoulders. "And he laid the stripes, then ran, weeping, to cut her down, his back guarded by all of the clan who could hold a weapon. Balance commenced immediately she was safe at Jelaza Kazone and her wounds had been treated. Seven years were required for fruition, as there were several Houses involved." He lifted an eyebrow.

"Shall I show you the entries in the Diaries?"

"Thank you," Er Thom murmured, raising his glass and meeting Daav's eyes across the rim, "that will not be necessary."

"Ah." Daav lifted his own glass, but did not drink. "Has your thodelm threatened to flog you, darling?"

Er Thom grinned. "One is amazingly disobedient, after all."

"So I've heard. Does it occur to you to wonder whither Aunt Petrella has purchased these sudden notions of propriety?"

"Perhaps her illness . . ." her son offered, and sighed. "I miss our mother," he said, very softly.

"As I do." Daav drifted over to the table, picked up the dice and threw. Eleven.

"Our mother would have liked your Anne, I think," he murmured. "The devil's in it that I believe Aunt Petrella would like her well enough, were we only able to show her Line and House!"

Across from him, Er Thom shifted. Daav looked up, eyebrows high.

"You wonder that the delm would ask you to give her up, eh? But the lady's summation was unfortunately correct: Accepting a Terran makes the clan vulnerable. It can be managed, if it must be managed. But how very much easier, to go on as always we have. As for Daav—" he moved his shoulders and threw again: Seven.

"Daav likes her very well indeed and thinks it a great pity that Liad must be so overfull with Liadens."

Er Thom laughed. "Spoken like a Scout! But there. When have we ever gone on as proper Liadens? The Diaries tell us that is not our contract. Here are our mothers born aside the Delm's Own Word, simply because Kin Dal and Larin could not keep from each other!"

"And they send us to be Scouts and traders," Daav agreed. "Which makes us even odder." He tipped his head. "How does Anne take news of your betrothal?"

"Unhappily," Er Thom said, frowning. "For one who states she will not be played, my mother throws the dice with energy."

"Will Anne show her face at the gather, I wonder?"

"Certainly. We have settled it between us." He smiled. "I believe I may soon bring you proof of a win, brother, and ask the delm to See my lifemate."

"So? I will wish you joy gladly, darling. Is there reason the win must wait upon the gather?"

"Kindness for Nexon's daughter," Er Thom said softly. "At the gather I shall have opportunity to show her that we would not suit. Also, a matter of Balance, in part. It is ill-done to hold such an event at this moment. Add to that the manner in which my mother chose to speak to Anne regarding our son—I will tell you, brother, it has disturbed Anne greatly! She is distracted—anxious . . . It is a shame to the House, that a guest be treated so, never mind what punishment thodelm finds proper for a'thodelm!" He raised his glass and drank, showed a rueful smile.

"Still, she has agreed to attend the gather, bold heart that she has—and show a calm face to Nexon and her daughter, not to speak of Thodelm yos'Galan."

"Honor to the lady," Daav said, with sincerity. "She may yet learn to be a player to fear." He sipped.

"Should you bring a lifemate before the delm," he said after a moment, "certain things shall be required, for the good of the clan. You will be required to provide the clan several more children. Your lifemate shall be required to take pilot's training."

Er Thom inclined his head. "I shall discuss these things with Anne."

Daav eyed him with a touch of wonder. "Oh, and will you?"

"Of course," Er Thom said. "How else?"

"How else, indeed?" his brother replied politely.

"There is a matter which might be brought to the delm's attention, however," Er Thom continued, oblivious to—or ignoring—irony.

"Our son has recently met with one who frightened him—an unusual occurrence. The reason he gave his mother for this fright was that the person in question possessed 'no sparkles.' In view of his extreme youth and the apparent precocity of his talent, it may be wise to call a Healer, before he experiences another—perhaps needless—fright."

"Yes, I see." Daav frowned down at the counterchance board. "He is very young for this, is he not? Mostwise, talent shows when one comes halfling . . ." He shook himself and looked up.

"Certainly, a Healer must be summoned. The delm shall see it done."

Again, Er Thom inclined his head. "I shall inform Anne of the delm's care." He lifted his glass and drained it.

"I shall have to leave you now. Is there a commission I may discharge for you in Port?"

"Thank you, no. My steps are for the City this morning. The delm and Mr. dea'Gauss are called to renegotiate with Vintyr."

"Pah." Er Thom made a face. "Vintyr is never satisfied, brother."

"So I begin to notice. I believe I may mention it to Mr. dea'Gauss, in fact. It seems a change of course is indicated."

"Good lift to the delm, then," Er Thom said, with a lighthearted bow. "I shall see you at the gather, shan't I?"

"Indeed, how could I stay away, when Aunt Petrella was so gracious as to order my appearance?"

Er Thom lifted troubled eyes.

"Her illness weighs more heavily upon her, I think."

"I think so, as well," Daav said, and resolutely shook off his sudden chill. "I shall be there to support you this evening, never fear it. Until soon, darling."

"Until soon, Daav."


WELL, ANNIE DAVIS! And you preened in the green gown and thought yourself so fine.

The new gown, like the old, was cut low over her bosom, close in to her waist. There, all similarity was done.

A wide collar swept up to frame her throat, belling, flower-like, to cup her face. Long sleeves fell in graceful pleats, calling attention to her hands, and the floor-length skirt, deceptively slim, was slashed to permit all of her accustomed stride.

Eyla dea'Lorn twitched the skirt into more perfect order and smiled.

"Yes," she said, standing back and clasping her hands before her. "I believe his lordship will be pleased."

Before Anne could make answer to that, the little tailor held up a finger.

"Attend me, now, Lady. The dress is all very well, and Moonel's jewels will shame no one. However, if you are wise, you will take my advice in a few certain matters. First—hair. Sweep yours up—yes, I know it is not long! Up and back, nonetheless. The collar's work is to frame the face—a little daring, I admit, but not wanton. Of a sophistication, perhaps, that a master trader might encounter—and admire—far outside of Liad's orbit." She rubbed her hands together.

"You walk well, with a fine smooth stride. The dress is made to accommodate you. Your hands—so beautiful, your hands! Show them, thus—" She extended an arm and flicked her wrist. "Try."

Anne copied the other woman's gesture; the sleeve flipped smoothly back from her hand, revealing strong, slender fingers.

"Good," Eyla approved. "An original is a Code unto herself. There is not your like on all of Liad. The rules that bind you are not found within the world, but within yourself. Recall it and carry your head—so! Eh? There are those who must crane to admire you—that is their concern, not yours. There are those who will turn their face away and cry out that you are not as they." She lifted a hand to cover a bogus yawn.

"Boors, alas, are found in even the highest Houses."

Anne smiled, palely, and inclined her head. "You are kind to advise me."

"Bah!" Eyla swept thanks away with an energetic hand. "I will not have my work shamed, that is all." She smiled and bent to gather up her work-kit. "His lordship means to fire you off with flair, which is profit to me, does this gown please." She straightened.

"It will be amusing to see what the world makes of you, Lady. And what you will make of the world."


SHAN WAS FRACTIOUS and weepy. He jittered from one end of the nursery to the other; even the Edu-Board failed to hold his attention for more than a few seconds. All Anne's attempts to ease him into a less frenzied state were met with utter failure.

At last, feeling her own frazzled nerves about to go, she gathered him into her lap, thinking that a cuddle might do them both good.

"No!" He jerked back, body stiff, silver eyes wide.

"Shannie!"

"No!" he shouted again and smacked her hand aside, so un-Shan-like that she let him go in astonishment.

"Mirada!" He stamped his foot, glaring up at her. "I want Mirada! Go away! Go away, bad Ma!"

And with that he was gone, running pell-mell down the long playroom—and into the arms of Mrs. Intassi, who had just stepped through the door that led to the nursery's kitchen.

"Bad Ma!" Shan cried, hurling himself against the nurse's legs and hiding his face in her tunic. "I want Mirada!"

"That's all very well," Mrs. Intassi said in firm and unsympathetic Terran. "However, you are not very kind to your mother. You should beg her pardon."

"No," Shan said stubbornly, refusing to raise his head.

Sick to her stomach, shivering and weary, Anne rose, shaking her head at the tiny ex-Scout.

"Never mind," she said, hearing how her voice shook. "If he doesn't want me here, then I'll go." She turned toward the door, missing the concerned glance Mrs. Intassi flung her.

"Good-bye, Shannie," Anne called. "Maybe I'll see you tomorrow."

The nursery door slid closed behind her with a sound like doom.


SHE WAS LYING on her bed some while later, staring blankly through the overhead window. The Liaden sky was brilliant, blue-green and cloudless.

The brilliance pierced her, searing the tumbling thoughts from her mind, scalding emotions to ash.

Seared, scalded and gone to ash, she closed her eyes against the brilliance.

When she opened her eyes again, the brilliance had faded. She turned her head against the pillow. The clock on the bedside table told her there were two hours left to prepare for the gather.

Sighing, feeling not so much exhausted as drained—of thought, of emotion, of any purpose save the plan—she rolled out of the wide bed, glanced at the mirror across the room—and frowned.

On the vanity beneath the mirror, among her familiar belongings, were two unfamiliar boxes.

The large box was covered in lush scarlet velvet. Anne lifted the lid.

A rope braided of three gold strands: Pink, yellow and white, weeping drops of yellow diamond exactly matching her gown. Tiny yellow diamond drops to hug her earlobes, glittering allure. Woven gold combs and pins, dusted with yellow chips, to hold her hair, up and back.

Anne looked down at the velvet box's treasure, at jewels that cost more than she would likely earn in a lifetime, created to grace one dress, created in turn for one gathering . . .

His lordship means to fire you off with flair.

Anne sighed, feeling, perhaps, a distant relief.

Now she would have enough money to buy passage. Home.

The smaller box was wood, carved with vines and flowers, a center medallion inlaid with bits of ivory. She opened it, found a folded square of ivory-colored paper. Her name, written in uncertain Terran characters, adorned the outer fold.

Inside, the words were in Liaden, the letters true and bold.

For my love. To say hello, and never to say good-bye. Er Thom

Nestled in a satin pillow was a band of rosy gold. The gem set flush to the metal, simply cut and pure as pain, was precisely the color of his eyes.

For a long moment she simply stood there, wondering if her heart would take up its next beat, if her lungs would accept another breath.

When it seemed that she would, after all, live, she closed the little box and set it gently aside. The scrap of creamy paper she placed in her briefcase, sealed in the pocket with the disk from Jin Del yo'Kera's computer.

The velvet box she let stand open, giving its expensive glitter to the room while she began at last to ready herself for the gather.


Chapter Thirty-Three

Here we stand: An old woman, a halfling boy, two babes; a contract, a ship and a Tree.


Clan Korval.


How Jela would laugh.

—Excerpted from Cantra yos'Phelium's Log Book



A'THODELM YOS'GALAN, Syntebra reminded herself forcefully, is a person of melant'i, son of an old and respected House. It is a signal honor to be chosen as his wife.

To be sure, she thought, cold fingers twisted together beneath her cloak, to marry an a'thodelm of Korval would be a very great thing, indeed.

Except her heart—that traitor which had lifted so quickly upon hearing Korval had Seen a child of A'thodelm yos'Galan—her heart, now an ice-drenched stone pitted in her chest, did not seem to find it a great thing at all. She had said as much, tentatively, to her father.

"Not marry the yos'Galan?" Her father stared, as well he might, Syntebra allowed fairly. "Are you mad?"

Syntebra felt the easy tears rise to her eyes, and her father's face softened.

"Doubtless you're thinking now a child is Seen there's no cause for him to marry. Nothing could be farther from the case, I assure you. Korval is in sorry state of late—wretched luck for them, certainly, but golden fortune for us, do we throw the dice canny!" He leaned forward with the air of one offering a treat.

"Why, if the yos'Galan does not want you, there's Korval Himself still in need of an heir!"

But that was even worse, for Korval was a Scout, all the world knew that! And Syntebra was afraid of Scouts.

Tearfully, she had attempted to explain this to her parent. She met Scouts from time to time at the port, where she went—dutifully—to put in her hours of flying. Scouts possessed the oddest manners imaginable, and a bold, unnerving way of looking directly into one's eyes.

Scouts forever seemed to be enjoying some obscure joke, or secretly laughing at something. Syntebra rather thought that they were laughing at her.

"Oh, posh!" her father cried, all out of patience. "You'll do as you're told, and none of your vapors! Hearing you, one would think the yos'Galan scar-faced and Korval dissolute! You are very fortunate, my girl. I recommend you seek solitude and consider that aspect of the case."

Which is how Syntebra came to be at her delm's side in Trealla Fantrol's great formal entry hall, handing off her cloak to a servant and dutifully striving to recall that it would be a very great thing indeed, to wed A'thodelm yos'Galan.


"RAKINA LIRGAEL, Delm Nexon," Mr. pak'Ora announced. "Syntebra el'Kemin."

They came slowly down the long room, the elder lady leaning lightly upon the younger's arm. Neither was dressed in the first style of elegance, though the younger lady's gown was slightly more elaborate, designed to show a winsome shape to perfection.

Stationed beside his mother's chair, Er Thom watched their progress. Young Syntebra's plentiful hair had been pinned high, then allowed to tumble with calculated artlessness to kiss her bare shoulders. Here and there a diamond winked among the rioting dark ringlets. Diamonds glittered in each tiny ear and a solitaire suspended from a chain fragile as thought trembled at the base of her throat.

"Delm Nexon," Petrella said from her chair. "Be welcome in our House."

Nexon bowed, the glitter of her dress-jewels all but obscuring sight of the clan Ring.

"Your welcome is gracious," she stated. Straightening, she indicated the younger lady. "Allow me to make you known to Syntebra el'Kemin, a daughter of Nexon's secondary Line. Syntebra, here is Thodelm yos'Galan."

Syntebra's bow was charmingly done, though to Er Thom's eye a trifle ragged at the start.

Petrella inclined her head and raised a hand that trembled visibly. Er Thom felt a stab of concern. His mother was pushing her limit tonight. Gods willing, she would not push it too far.

"My son," his mother was telling the guests, "Er Thom, A'thodelm yos'Galan."

He made his bow to Nexon, receiving in return an inclined head and a civil, "Sir."

To Syntebra then he bowed, which was rather a trickier undertaking, for he must neither appear cool to the careful eye of his parent, nor so warm to the eye of the lady that impossible hopes were nourished.

Thereby: "Syntebra el'Kemin," he murmured, all propriety and very little else. "I am pleased at last to meet you, ma'am."

Wide, opal-blue eyes looked up at him from a tight little face, the luscious red mouth pinched pale.

Gods abound, the child's terrified! Er Thom thought, and felt a spate of anger at their respective parents, for insisting upon this farce.

Syntebra made her bow—not quite as pretty as her first.

"Sir," she returned in a breathless, husky voice. "A'thodelm yos'Galan. I am—very—pleased to make your acquaintance."

Well, Er Thom thought wryly, as he obeyed his mother's hand-sign and went 'round to pour wine for the guests, it should be no very great thing to show her that we shall not suit . . .


IT WAS ALL SYNTEBRA could do to keep the tears at bay. Certainly, she could not bring herself to look up at the tall gentleman beside her, nor could she think of one gay or witty or even sensible thing to say.

He would think she was a fool. He would—her delm would—

"Drink your wine, child."

The voice was very soft, the mode Adult-to-Adult. Syntebra looked up in startlement.

Violet eyes met her gaze straightly from beneath winged golden brows.

"You'll feel the better for it," he murmured, raising his own glass for a sip. When he lowered it, she saw he was smiling, just a little. "I won't eat you, you know."

Almost, the ever-ready tears escaped. She had not expected kindness. Indeed, she had expected nothing but scorn from so grand a gentleman. Of course, he was quite old, and it was perhaps not entirely flattering to be addressed as "child," when she had all of twenty Standards . . .

"One is informed," A'thodelm yos'Galan said in his soft voice, "that you have but recently attained your second-class license. Do you plan to pursue first class?"

First class? She wished she had never attained second! The sorriest day of her life thus far had been the day she tested well in the preliminaries. She hated piloting. She hated ships. She hated the port, with all its noise and rabble and bewildering to-and-fros—

But, of course, one could scarcely voice such sentiments to a man who was both master pilot and master trader. Syntebra took a hasty swallow of wine—and was saved from answering by the dismaying call of the butler:

"Daav yos'Phelium, Delm Korval!"


DELM KORVAL was more terrifying than she had anticipated.

He spent some time speaking with Nexon and Thodelm yos'Galan, as was only proper. However, after the introduction, in quick succession, of Mr. Luken bel'Tarda and Lady Kareen yos'Phelium, he had turned his silent Scout steps toward her tête-â-tête with A'thodelm yos'Galan.

Now, Syntebra had long been wishing for something like this to happen. It was only ill-chance that her rescuer should be more dreaded than he from whom she was rescued.

"Ma'am." He gave her the grace of a small bow, and such a look from his bold black eyes that she wished she might sink into the floor.

Happily, the bold eyes moved in the next instant as Korval addressed his kinsman.

"Good evening, darling. Shall the guest be with us, after all?"

"I believe so," A'thodelm yos'Galan said in his soft way. He turned to Syntebra. "Scholar Anne Davis, guest of the House, is to be present this evening, as well."

Syntebra very nearly blinked. Scholar Anne Davis? But surely—She became aware that she was the object of study of two very vivid pairs of eyes, and raised a hand to her throat.

"I—ah—the Terran lady?" she managed, trying to seem as if she were quite in the way of meeting Terrans.

A'thodelm's yos'Galan's golden brows rose slightly. "Indeed," he murmured politely, "the Terran lady."

"You needn't be nervous of her, you know," Korval added in his deep, coarse voice. "She's quite gentle."

She looked up at him, but his face was composed, without a hint of the laughter she suspected he harbored in his heart.

"It is merely that one does not speak Terran," she said, striving to recover her dignity. "And to converse in Trade would seem out of the way."

"Ah, no, acquit her as the cause of such inconvenience, I beg." Korval said. "Her grasp of the High Tongue is entirely adequate."

"Scholar Davis," A'thodelm yos'Galan murmured, "specializes in the study of linguistics."

At that moment Lord and Lady yo'Lana were announced, then Delm Guayar. Syntebra, looking aside from the progress of these luminaries, saw A'thodelm yos'Galan exchange a quick glance with his kinsman.

"Scholar Anne Davis," the butler announced, and Syntebra saw A'thodelm yos'Galan smile.

"Hah." He bowed gracefully to Syntebra, gave his delm a nod. "Pray excuse me."

In the next moment he was gone, crossing the room to meet the lady who had just entered.

Syntebra fairly gaped. She had considered A'thodelm yos'Galan and Delm Korval out-of-reason tall, but Scholar Davis revised that thought.

A'thodelm yos'Galan greeted her with the bow between equals and, looking warmly up into her face, offered his arm. The lady took it and they went down the room, pausing here and there to make proper introductions.

"There," Delm Korval said. "She doesn't look at all savage, does she?"

Undeniably, he was laughing at her. Of course the lady didn't look savage, though how such an immoderately tall, deep-bosomed creature could contrive to seem so regal went beyond Syntebra's understanding. She went 'round the room on A'thodelm yos'Galan's arm as if she were precisely High House, making her bows with grace, her clear voice carrying effortlessly to all corners of the suddenly quiet room.

"She bears an accent," Syntebra said to Delm Korval. The gentleman lifted one eyebrow.

"Well, and so do I," he said equably. "My Terran is quite marred by it, I fear."

She was spared any answer to this by the advent of the guest and A'thodelm yos'Galan.

"Daav." The Terran smiled, making free of Korval's personal name, as if, Syntebra thought, they were kin. She shrank into herself, anticipating the withering set-down to be delivered the lady for her audacity.

On the contrary.

"Anne," Korval returned with a smile that transformed his face into something approaching beauty. He bowed gently. "You look magnificent. Dance with me later, do."

The Terran actually chuckled, mischief lighting her eyes. "Do you only dance with magnificence, sir?"

"Ah, do not tease!" Korval returned in desperate tones. "If you won't have me there's nothing for it save I dance with my sister."

"A fate to be most ardently avoided." She smiled and inclined her head. "Count me your rescue, then." She turned her attention to Syntebra.

"Syntebra el'Kemin, Clan Nexon," A'thodelm yos'Galan said softly, "Scholar Anne Davis, guest of Korval."

Really, Syntebra thought, making her bow, that dress is entirely wanton.

However, there was no wantonness in the Terran lady's bow, or in her very correct, "Syntebra el'Kemin, I am pleased to meet you."

"Anne Davis, I am pleased to meet you," Syntebra replied, since she must.

She had to crane her neck to see the Terran's face. It was in no way a beautiful face, further marred by lines around the eyes and mouth. There was the suggestion of a smile in the grave brown eyes, and it was the outside of enough, Syntebra thought pettishly, to be laughed at by a Terran.

"Allow me to give you wine," A'thodelm yos'Galan said.

The Terran lady agreed to the suggestion and they went off, leaving Syntebra alone with Delm Korval.


"WILL YOU TELL ME," Er Thom said in soft Terran, "if the ring displeases?"

It was wrong to ask it; twice wrong to ask it here, now. But the sight of her naked hands had hurt—appallingly. It was as if he had leaned to kiss her and she turned her face aside.

"The ring is—lovely," Anne said, keeping her eyes steadfastly from his. "I—I chose not to wear it."

His breath was out of pace and he felt uncannily close to tears. Exercising stern control, he poured her wine and held the glass. She took it, looking down.

"Anne . . ." Gods, he was going to break and shame them both by weeping before all these gathered. He swayed a daring half-step closer, not caring who marked it.

"Anne, I beg you will tell me what is wrong!" The whispered plea came out with the force of a shout, and at last she raised her head.

Her eyes were desolate—determined. He saw the lie form in their depths, felt the price she paid for speaking it as if it were wrung from his own soul.

"There is nothing wrong," she said, and took a breath. "Shouldn't you be attending to that pretty child?"

"That pretty child," he said, hearing the edge on his voice, "is terrified of me. The best I might do for her is to arrange matters so we need never meet again."

Anne glanced around in time to see Luken bel'Tarda approach Syntebra and Daav.

"Then you won't mind if you lose her to Luken," she said, raising her glass to sip.

"If Luken can abide her, he's welcome." He turned away and poured himself a glass of the red.

"At least tell me," he said, looking back to her, "if you yet intend to allow me the honor of becoming your lifemate."

Agony. Boiling lye poured across the open wound of his heart. He gasped, clutching his glass as the room spun dizzily out of control—and steadied. Before him, Anne's face was stark, desolate eyes sparkling tears.

She will lie, he thought around the singing in his ears. Gods, I cannot bear it, if she lies to me again.

Anne turned her head sharply, breaking his gaze.

"I must ask Daav to make me known to his sister," she said abruptly, and with no more ceremony than that she left him, walking so smoothly the gown barely rustled.

Er Thom took a sip to calm himself—and another—and moved out into the room, meticulously taking up his duties as host.


Chapter Thirty-Four

The lower docks of Solcintra port are the sphere of thieves, murderers, rogues and criminals of every description. Clanless and desperate, they have nothing to lose, and are completely willing to relieve the unwary of their purses and, often enough, their lives.

—From A Terran's Guide to Liad



THE FINAL GUEST at long last bowed out, Er Thom leaned dizzily against the wall and raked his hands through his hair.

He'd lost track of Daav during in the evening; he supposed his cha'leket to have simply slipped away when the crush became too wearisome. He remembered that Anne had retired about mid-way through the dancing. Daav, her self-appointed cavalier, would have likely made his escape soon after.

The two dearest to him in someway accounted for, Er Thom closed his eyes, trying to ignore the roaring in his ears and consided what he could recall of the evening.

He had a vague notion that he had performed his hostly duties with competence, if not flair. Daav had attached himself to Anne, for which kindness his brother loved him all the more.

Luken had taken young Syntebra in to dinner, and danced with her several times. Duty had compelled Er Thom to claim the lady's hand for at least one dance, which he had done, and come away wondering how Luken could bear the chit hanging on his sleeve all evening.

But there, he thought, leaning his head back against the wall, Luken was a patient, good-hearted fellow. The child's apparent distress would be sufficient to assure her of his good offices.

Of the rest of the evening, he could recall nothing, save a feeling of bone-deep coldness, nausea, and the desire to break into tears at the most inopportune moments.

Ill, he thought, clawing his hair back from his face. I must be ill.

He'd been ill, once or twice, so long ago he could scarcely remember the occasions, much less the symptoms. He tried to recall when he had first felt poorly this evening—and gasped, coming up straight in the hallway.

Anne.

He'd been speaking with Anne. Anne who had not been her accustomed self for several days. Anne who had lied to him and who, reasonless, declined to wear his ring. Anne—

Gods, if Anne is ill—

He was on his way down the hall, half-running, shivering now with fear, lest she be lying in need and he unaware—

The door to the Smaller Salon opened. His mother came one step into the hallway and held up her hand.

"A word with you, sirrah. Now."

"Your pardon," he stammered, barely knowing what he said. "I must go to Anne immediately."

His mother's hand moved, flashing out with all her old speed, fingers locking around his wrist, crushing his lace, biting into his flesh.

"I think not," she said ominously.

For all her sudden strength, he could have easily broken the hold. But she was kin; she had borne him and given him aside, that he might be raised with Daav yos'Phelium, his beloved other self—and for that she was owed.

"Mother," he said gently, standing where she held him. "I have reason to believe the guest is ill."

"I see," she said, remotely polite. "A very grave affair, I agree. Mr. pak'Ora shall be dispatched to inquire into the guest's health. You will come with me."

For a heartbeat he thought he would not; thought he would break with clan entirely, rip away his arm and run abovestairs to his heart's own love.

But he felt the deep tremors in the hand that held him, saw the exhaustion in her face and the half-mad glitter in her eyes that said she kept her feet by will alone.

"Certainly," he murmured and they went together into the Smaller Salon, she leaning heavily on the arm of her supposed captive.

Er Thom seated her in a chair by the busy fire, then stood back, solemnly studying the table at her side.

Petrella's glittering eyes raked his face.

"Think I'm beyond keeping my word, do you?" she snapped and pulled the intercom to her.

The order to inquire into the state of the guest's health was given, brusquely, and the intercom shoved aside.

"Satisfied, A'thodelm?"

Er Thom bowed. "My thanks, Mother."

She made no answer to this, but simply sat for a time, staring into his face, fingers gripping the arms of the chair.

"The Terran scholar looked uncommonly fine this evening," she said at last, and in milder tone than he had anticipated. "Eyla dea'Lorn's work, I think?"

Er Thom said nothing. In spite of the fire he was cold—cold. He felt certain his mother could see him shiver.

"And the jewels," she pursued, after a moment. "Who but Moonel would think a yellow diamond rope? Allow me to offer my compliments, A'thodelm: You do handsomely by your light-loves." She paused, eyes burning into his.

"You will now have the goodness to name the day in this relumma on which you shall wed Syntebra el'Kemin."

Er Thom inclined his head. "I shall not marry Syntebra el'Kemin," he said steadily. "Not in this relumma or in any other."

"Ah, so?" His mother lifted her eyebrows in polite interest, her voice dangerously mild. "Pray, why not?"

"For the first part, because the child is frightened of me."

"A condition," Petrella pointed out, still in that tone of menacing mildness, "you did very little to alleviate this evening. But I interrupt! If there is a first part, then a second must be at hand! Enlighten me, I beg."

His hands were ice; he felt sweat gathering along his hairline; his stomach was cramped and there was a roaring in his ears that overrode the crackling of the fire. Er Thom grit his teeth and bowed.

"Scholar Davis and I are agreed to become lifemates," he said, around a strangling tightness in his throat. "We go to seek the delm tomorrow."

Silence. Petrella was seen to close her eyes—and open them.

"I forbid it."

"You cannot," he answered.

"Ah, can I not?" She leaned forward, fingers clawed into the carven arms of the chair. "I remind you that I am Thodelm yos'Galan. It is I who decides issues of Line and I have decided that it is not necessary to take a Terran into yos'Galan. Why should we do so? We are Liaden!"

"We are Korval!" Er Thom's shout startled him as much as his mother. "There is strength in diversity, weakness in samehood! You have read Cantra's logs—" He flung his hands out, showing her his empty palms.

"Mother, you have not even seen the child we made," he said, voice somewhat calmer. "Bright, bold-hearted and quick—as quick as any in the clan at his age—quicker than many! How is this ill-done? Why, the clan can use a dozen such!"

"And may have them yet, should I decide to breed you thus often!" Petrella pushed to her feet, face nearly white in the fire glow.

"Mother—"

"Silence!" The Command Mode: Thodelm-to-Line-Member. She pinned him with glare.

"You are forbidden," she stated, all in High Command. "You are forbidden from this moment forward to see, touch, speak to or think upon Anne Davis. She is not for you. You are commanded to name a day when you shall wed Syntebra el'Kemin. Now."

"Never!" he cried. "As for denying Anne, I shall not! We are lifemates, in all but word! Tomorrow morning, we shall be lifemates entirely! You cannot stop us from seeking the delm, you cannot—"

"I forbid this lifemating!" Petrella snarled. "Pursue it at your peril, A'thodelm, unless you wish to make a way for yourself and your lifemate on the Lower Docks!"

Er Thom froze, jaw tight. He met his mother's eyes straightly.

"There is no need for a master trader to seek the Low Port," he said, and the inflection of his voice was nearer Terran than any proper mode. "And if you will have my license called in question, then I remind you there is yet no reason for a master pilot to go further than the Guild House in the Upper Port." He bowed.

"If you will have it so, ma'am, then you will. I wish—with all my heart—that it were otherwise. As it is not, I shall take myself and mine—"

"Enough!" The Command Mode: Delm to Clanmember. Er Thom bit off his sentence as Daav came, quick and silent, across the room.

"You!" He flung a hand out to Petrella, black eyes bright in a face that might have been carved of gold. "We bar none from the clan tonight! You!" The hand flashed to Er Thom, Korval's Ring snagging the firelight. "We drag none unwilling into the clan. Ever!"

Er Thom started, was stilled by a flare of black eyes. "The lady has told me—tonight!—that she would have none of you. She swore it, and I believe her. The game is done."

"No!" Er Thom shook off his delm's gaze. "I will see her, speak with her! There is something gone ill and she—"

"Silence!" Korval commanded and Er Thom gasped, staring into black, black eyes. In the fireplace, a stick broke noisily, releasing a rain of sparkles.

"You will go to your rooms," Korval commanded then, "and await the Healer. Anne Davis is none of yours. I trust you will not trouble her further."

She had denied him. His mind logged the thought into a loop, that began at once to repeat, over and over: Anne had denied him. Anne had denied him. Anne . . . Anne.

His body moved, graceless and wooden—a bow to the delm's honor, followed by another, to the thodelm. His—legs—moved, carrying him past delm and thodelm, out of the room, into the hall, down corridors pitch black and bitter cold, until at last he came to an end of walking.

He stared around the place where he found himself: Stared at the laden worktable, the mantelpiece cluttered with bric-a-brac from an hundred worlds, the pleasant grouping of chair and doublechair before the laid and unlit hearth.

He walked toward the hearth, eyes caught by a flutter of red and gold among the mantel's clutter. Reaching, he had it down, and stood gazing at the thing.

A scrap of red silk no longer than his hand, that was all. That, and a length of tarnished, gold-colored ribbon, elaborately knotted into a fraying flower, through which the red silk had been lovingly threaded.

"Anne!" Her name was a keen, jagged with agony. He crashed to his knees, clutching the bit of silk as if it were a lifeline, bent his head and wept.


"WELL." Petrella sank into her chair, quivering in every muscle. She looked up into her nephew's set face. "Better late than never arrive, I suppose. It comforts me that at last you perceive the good of the clan."

"The good of the clan," Daav repeated tonelessly. He stared down at her, eyes black and remote. "Is Korval so wealthy, aunt, that we might cast aside a master pilot, and shrug away the cost? Or has your intention always been to end yos'Galan with yourself? Speak plainly, I beg you."

"End yos'Galan—Ah." Petrella closed her eyes and let her head fall against the chair's padding. "You heard me threaten him with the Lower Docks, did you? Then you also heard that he was raving. I spoke to frighten, and to shock him into sanity."

"And failed in both intents," Daav snapped. "He was on the edge of accepting your terms, ma'am, when the delm ordered him to cease!"

There was a small silence. Petrella opened her eyes.

"I believe you had mistaken the matter, nephew."

"Oh, had I?" Daav returned bitterly. "'I shall take myself and mine—' was what he said! Am I the only one of us who can clearly hear the end of that sentence?" He bowed, deeply and with irony. "My compliments, aunt—In one throw you make your son clanless and a thief."

In the depths of her chair, Petrella shivered, assailed by a pain far different than that which wracked her body.

"He—is ill," she achieved after a moment. "To turn his face from the clan and follow a Terran? It is—"

"Master Healer Kestra will be with him tomorrow. Would that she had been able to come tonight." Daav turned away to stare into the fire. Suddenly, he whirled.

"Damn you for a meddlesome old woman!" he cried. "Why could you not have let it be? The lady had said she would not have him! She loved him too well, for your interest, aunt—too well to allow him the sacrifice of aligning himself with a Terran. If only his mother loved him half so well! But you—you must needs demand and shame and assert your dominion, sowing pain with every throw!" He came forward, one step, and stopped himself, staring down at her as if she were prey.

"The lady would have gone!" he shouted. "Of her own will, she would have left us and sought what healing she might. My brother would have likewise sought the Healers, to ease the grief of her going. There would have been honor for both in this, and a minimum of pain." He paused and Petrella found she could breathe again, though she dared not take her eyes from his.

"All thanks to your wisdom," he finished with brutal calm, "we have now two bleeding from wounds which may never heal clean, and a child abovestairs, crying aloud for both."

He swept a low, mocking bow, his lace rustling in the utter silence of the room.

"Sleep well, Aunt Petrella. I shall return tomorrow."

She made him no answer; barely knew that he was gone. She watched the fire—and, later, the embers—letting her mind ride the waves of pain, until she was back in a time when her twin was alive and all of life stretched before them.


Chapter Thirty-Five

Er Thom fell from the Tree this morning.



I hasten to add that all is well, though of course he took damage. A matter of broken ribs and dislocated shoulder—that's the worst of it. Nothing beyond the auto-doc's capabilities.



I cannot for certain say how far he fell, for all Daav can tell me is that the pair of them had "never been so high." Er Thom was craning for a better sight of the Port when an end-branch broke under his weight.



He was caught, twig-lashed and unconscious, by the big by-branch about seven meters up—you know the one, sister. The luck is in the business twice: The child doesn't remember falling.



Daav saw the whole, and kept a cool head—far cooler than I should have kept at eight Standards, and so I swear! 'Twas he climbed down, fetched me out of a meeting with dea'Gauss, and showed me where Er Thom lay.



Nor would he be parted from his cha'leket, but kept vigil at 'doc-side and bed. I at last persuaded him to lie down whilst I kept watch, and he fell instantly asleep—to wake a quarter-hour later shrieking for Er Thom to come back, "Come back! The branch is breaking!"



I await the Healer as I write this . . .

—Excerpted from a private letter to


Petrella yos'Galan from Chi yos'Phelium


 


* * *

SHAN TOOK HER HAND listlessly and went without any of his usual chatter down the long hallway toward Doctor yo'Kera's office, Mouse clutched tight against his chest.

Anne eyed him worriedly. According to Mrs. Intassi, he had passed a restless night, his sleep broken by bad dreams and bouts of crying. It sounded remarkably like Anne's own night and she wondered, half-dazedly, if she had caused her son's unrest or he had caused hers.

She shook her head. Sure and there's plenty of pain for everyone to have their own share. Er Thom's night would have surely been no better; she recalled the look in his eyes, as he begged her to tell him what was wrong.

Annie Davis, I hope you know what you're doing.

But after all, she told herself, working the lock on Doctor yo'Kera's door, there was nothing else to do. By now, Daav would have told Er Thom that Anne had lied when she had agreed to be his lifemate. Er Thom could not possibly forgive such a lie, such a strike at his melant'i. Of course, he would come after her—but he would do so in any case, once he found Shan was gone. It was her intention to be firmly within Terran jurisdiction by the time Er Thom finally caught up with her.

"Ma?" Shan looked up at her from heavy-lidded silver eyes. "Where's Mirada?"

Oh, gods. She dropped her bulging briefcase and went to her knees, gathering her son's small body close.

"Mirada can't come, Shannie," she whispered, cheek tight against his hair. "His clan needs him."

He slipped his arms around her neck, she felt him sigh, then: "We stay here? With Mirada?"

"No, baby," she whispered and closed her eyes to hold back the tears. "We're going home—to visit Uncle Dickie. A nice, long visit."

She thought briefly of her post on University: Good-bye tenure track. Well, she could get a job on New Dublin, surely. She could be a translator at the port, or a teacher of Standard Terran in the private school.

Or she could raise sheep. Her arms tightened around her son.

"I love you, Shannie."

"Love you, Ma." He pushed back against her arms and lifted a hand to her face. His fingertips came away wet. "Sad."

"Sad," she repeated, voice cracking. She tried a smile; it felt wrong on her face. "We'll be happy again. I promise."

She stood and lifted him onto the table; plucked Mouse from the floor and laid it across Shan's knees.

"I'm going to call a cab," she told him. "Then we can go to the port."

It took a few minutes and some ingenuity to thread the university's comm system, but she finally got an outside line and placed her call. The cab was promised in fifteen minutes, at the secondary door, as directed. Anne nodded to herself and cut the connection, glancing around Doctor yo'Kera's cluttered, comfortable office for the last time.

In an ocean of hurt, the pain of leaving his work undone, of walking away from the mystery of missing corroboration, was imbued with special flavor. Jin Del yo'Kera had been her friend, steadfast down a dozen years. In a way, she had loved him. Gods knew, she owed him more than she could ever repay. To leave him this way, with his research in shambles, his brilliance dimmed in the memories of his colleagues . . .

She shook her head, denying the tears that made a glittering riot of the book-crammed shelves. Turning from the shelves, she found herself contemplating the flat-pic of three Aus at their sheep station: Mildred Higgins, Sally Brunner, Jackson Roy. Strong, straightforward people they seemed, smiling out of the battered frame. People who would see nothing odd in teaching a Liaden scholar to shear sheep.

The flat-pic was slightly wrinkled, as if someone had lately had it out of its frame and reseated it imperfectly. Or, Anne thought, perhaps the picture was so old the paper was beginning to dissolve. She had a moment's urge to take the thing off the wall and smooth the pic tidy. Shaking her head at the impulse, she turned back to Shan.

"Time to go, laddie," she said, swinging him to the floor. "Hold tight to Mouse, now."

She picked up her briefcase, took her son's hand and stepped out into the hall.

Shan uttered a sharp squeak and fell silent, his hand gone cold in hers.

Fil Tor Kinrae finished his bow and smiled, coldly, up into her eyes.

"Scholar. How fortunate that I meet you. We have much to speak about."

Anne inclined her head and allowed a note of irritation to be heard. "Alas, sir, I am unable to accommodate you today. I am bound for the port."

"Then I am twice fortunate," he said in his curiously flat voice. "I go to the port, as well. Allow me to drive you."

"Thank you, no. I have transport." She made to go past him down the hall, but he was abruptly before her.

The gun in his hand was quite steady. He was pointing it at Shan.

"You do not seem to grasp the situation, Scholar," he said, and the mode was Superior to Inferior. "You will allow me to drive you to the Port. You will continue to do precisely as I command. Fail, and I shall certainly harm—that." The gun moved minutely, indicating Shan.

"He's only a child," Anne said slowly. Fil Tor Kinrae inclined his head.

"So he is. Walk this way, if you please, and pray do not do anything foolish."


HE CAME TO HIMSELF in the gray of foredawn, face crushed into the hearth rug, one outflung hand clutching a tattered piece of red silk and a tawdry, fraying love knot.

His body ached amazingly, but that was no matter. His mind was clear.

He had dreamed.

Baffling, grief-laden dreams, they were, that robed the veriest commonplace in twisty, alien menace until his stomach churned with the strangeness of it and his head felt likely to burst asunder.

There were tolls demanded, now and again—he gave what was asked: His ring, his fortune, his peace. In return he was promised safe passage through the surrounding menace. He was promised love, melant'i and a return of peace.

The toll-man demanded his son.

"He's my son, Er Thom!" he cried out and felt as if his heart were broken anew. "He's a Terran citizen! Your clan doesn't know and your clan doesn't care!" He covered his face and wept aloud.

"I came home," he whispered distractedly, "and you were gone . . ."

Full awake, lucid and calm, he rolled to his back, careless alike of complaining muscles and ruined finery. He stared up at the gray-washed ceiling and considered his own folly.

Of course Anne did not care of Shan's place in Line—that would be to think as a Liaden. To think as a Terran—to think like Anne—one would weigh the answers to such questions and find in them proof that the man she had asked to guard her melant'i—the man she loved too well to allow his sacrifice—had willfully cheated her, stolen her child and placed him beyond her reach—forever.

Comes the same man pursuing his suit and Anne is flung headlong and frightened into a game so complex it might well give a seasoned player pause.

The man cries lifemates—does he lie? He had lied once, had he not? Assume he lies—necessity demands it. Lie to him in return, a little; better, allow him to deceive himself. Play for time, play for the single, slender moment of escape.

She had played well—brilliantly well, for one unused to the game. Yet she had been unable, even for necessity, to lie entirely. Honor would not allow her to wear the ring he had given.

He wondered, lying there, if she had known her confidence to Daav would end thus, with Er Thom safely out of the way, and her path clear from nursery to space port. It seemed likely.

He sighed and moved his head from side to side against the floor.

Anne's window of opportunity was today—this morning. She would take it—she must, or all play was for naught. He rather thought she would try to barter Moonel's jewelry for passage away, an enterprise she might find more difficult than she had supposed.

His course was clear. He spared a thought for his brother—but it seemed he was beyond feeling any new pain. The Healer would soon arrive; she must find an empty room when she did.

He came to his feet, wincing a little at the protest of his muscles, and went along to the shower, stripping off his formal clothes as he walked.


MUSCLES EASED BY A hot shower, Er Thom dressed in plain, serviceable trousers, plain shirt, comfortable boots. Each of the boots carried a cantra in the heel.

The belt he ran around his waist carried two dozen cantra between the layers of leather; the cunningly-made silver buckle could be traded either for melt-price or as an artwork.

From the lock-box he took other sorts of money: Terran bits, loops of pierced shell and malachite, rough-cut gems. These he disposed in several secret pockets about his person, and closed the safe on a dozen times the amount he had taken.

He shrugged into his leather pilot's jacket, feeling it settle heavily across his shoulders. Coins were sewn between the outer lining and the inner; more coins weighted the waist.

For a moment he fingered his jewel-box, frowning—and decided against. He pulled a second, smaller box toward him, lifted the lid and brought the gun out.

Quickly, he cracked it, checked it, reassembled it and slipped it into a jacket pocket. Extra pellets went into still other pockets. He closed the box and put it meticulously back in its place.

So. He looked around his room, reviewing his plan.

Anne's first object must be to leave Liad. Thus, he would find her at the Port. Necessity might dictate that she bear her son away, but she loved Er Thom yos'Galan. He knew that. She would allow him to come close enough to speak to her—close enough to touch her.

The gun weighed like a stone in his pocket. For a moment he hated it with an intensity that should have been shocking—then he shook the emotion away. He must make haste. Daav would be here with the Healer very soon.

Pilot quick, he went back to the parlor and opened the window wide. The door was unlocked; he didn't bother locking it or scrambling the access code. Such tactics would scarcely slow Daav. The best plan was to be gone, and quickly.

He spared a glance for Jelaza Kazone, stretching tall and true across the valley, visible sign of Cantra yos'Phelium's love for Jela, her partner, and the father of her child. Tears pricked his eyes; he dashed them away, swung over the sill and began the downward climb.


DAAV RAN ACROSS TO the open window, heart in his mouth. Gods, no, he would not—

But his brother's broken body did not lie on the path so far below. Indeed, a cooler perusal of the vine that grew along the window and below discovered disturbed leaves, torn runners, crushed flowers—damage one would expect a climber to inflict.

Daav swore, though with more relief than anger, for it was an appalling climb down a sheer rock wall and the vine very little aid, in case one should fall.

"However, he did not fall," Master Healer Kestra commented from behind him. "So you may lay that fear aside, if you please."

He turned back to her and bowed fully. "My apologies, Master Healer. It appears my brother had—business elsewhere."

"Urgent business," she agreed in her dry way. She paced to the hearth rug, bent to pick up a scrap of red fabric and a bit of gold ribbon.

"The room," she murmured, her face losing its accustomed sharpness as she reached for nuance beyond the mere physical.

"The room tells me of great distress, of two people—wounded, yet fighting for understanding—of—resolution . . ."

"Two?" Daav demanded, for surely Er Thom would not have been so disobedient as—A breeze from the window mocked the thought.

From the hearth-rug, Master Kestra frowned. "Two? Of course—No. No, I believe you are quite correct. Three people. But surely one is—a child? A rather exceptional child. I would be interested in making the child's acquaintance, I think."

"It had been intended," Daav said as his mind raced, placing piece against piece until he had the shape of how it must have been.

The lady would not leave without the child, he thought, with icy calm. Er Thom would not stay without the lady. The luck send I'm in time to catch them at the port!

"Master Healer, I am wanted urgently elsewhere."

She turned from her study of the mantelpiece and gave him a look of sleepy amusement, running the red-and-gold ornament absently through her slender fingers.

"Go along, then. I shall await your return."

Without even a bow he was gone, running at the top of his considerable speed.

A few moments later the sound of a landcar's engine came through the open window and faded rapidly into the distance.

The Healer sat cross-legged upon the hearth rug, dreamy-eyed and languorous. She smoothed the tattered little love token flat on her palm, closed her eyes, and prepared herself to listen.


Chapter Thirty-Six

To be outside of the clan is to be dead to the clan.

—Excerpted from the Liaden Code of Proper Conduct



SHE SPOKE ONCE on the ride to Solcintra Port, to offer their captor the jewels in her briefcase, in trade for their freedom.

"I am not a patient man, Scholar," Fil Tor Kinrae replied without sparing a glance at her face.

Anne sat back in the short, cramped seat, shoulder bumping the opaqued window, put her arms around her son and tried to think.

Marksmanship had been part of her required course of study at the Academy of Music. She had never been comfortable carrying a gun, though, and given the habit up on her return to New Dublin.

Of course, she attended the mandatory self-defense practice course for faculty every other semester. But the prospect of taking a gun away from an undoubted professional while ensuring he did not shoot her child iced her blood.

Perhaps a chance would present itself when they left the car. If she could keep between Shan and the gun—in her lap, Shan twisted to push his face against her breast.

He hadn't uttered a sound since his squeak of terror in the hallway, miles and minutes ago. Anne lay her cheek against his hair and stroked him silently, hearing the echo of his fright, feeling her own muscles tense in response.

Don't, she warned herself sharply. For the gods' sake, gel, don't set up a loop. The laddie's frightened enough—and you need your wits about you.

She closed her eyes and deliberately thought of Er Thom as he had been back on University, after it was settled that Shan would come to Liad—after they could be easy with each other again. She thought of his understated humor, his care and his thoughtfulness. She thought of him cross-legged on the floor, assisting in the design of a block tower; she thought of him holding Shan in his lap, telling a story in his soft, sweet voice . . .

In her lap, Shan relaxed, the hand that clutched her sleeve loosened. Anne resolutely thought of the good times, and it seemed that she could see him before her, his hair brighter than gold, his eyes purple and compelling beneath winged brows. The mind-image grew sharper until it seemed she need only extend a hand to feel the silked surface of his old leather jacket, to finger the new scar along the shoulder, to touch his cheek—once more . . .

The car stopped.

She sat up, Shan tensing against her. Now, perhaps . . .

The door popped open. Fil Tor Kinrae reached in, grabbed Shan by one arm and dragged him from Anne's lap.

"Ma!" he shouted, then gasped into silence. Anne flung out of the door—and froze, staring at the gun.

"Good," the man said without inflection. "Have the goodness to bring the case, Scholar. If the child makes another sound he will regret it. Impress that upon him, won't you?"

Anne licked her lips and looked down into her son's wide silver eyes. "Shannie," she said, keeping her voice firm and even, "you have to be very quiet, Okay?"

He swallowed and nodded, keeping his face turned away from the man who held him. Anne reached into the car and pulled out her briefcase.

"Good," Fil Tor Kinrae said again and moved the gun. "This way, Scholar."

They were in an alley, thin, dirty and deserted. Anne walked past two empty shop fronts and turned into a third, obeying the movement of the gun. The man pushed ahead and shouldered the door open, dragging Shan into a dank vestibule. He pointed the gun at a set of twisty, ill-set steps.

"Up."

Obediently, she went up, minding the shallow stairs and hearing, in the hidden pocket of her mind, the sound of her son's silent sobbing.

At the top of the flight was another door, this one slightly ajar.

"In."

Anne pushed the door wide and walked in. Behind her the door closed, tumblers falling loudly.

The woman at the console spun in her chair, snapping to her feet in such haste her many earrings jangled.

"Cold space, it's the yos'Galan's Terran!" The hard gray eyes went past Anne. "And the mongrel. Have you gone mad?"

Fil Tor Kinrae sent Shan reeling against Anne's legs with negligent brutality and walked within, moving his shoulders.

"What business of mine, if the yos'Galan keeps cows?"

"And is so very careless as to lose them," the woman agreed, running a hand on which a master trader's amethyst gleamed over her close-cropped head. "Well enough. But that child is Korval, my friend, and if you believe the Dragon will not tear the port to ground to find him, you have run mad!"

"But they're not at the port, Master ven'Apon," Kinrae explained in his flat voice. "They're at the university."

"Oh, are they?" The hard eyes flickered over Anne's face.

"That might serve," she allowed. "I trust no one saw you take them." Her face shifted. "And I trust you'll allow them to be found far away from here, as well. I need no trouble with Korval, thank you. The yos'Galan has already done me the favor of calling my name before the Guild, scar his face!"

Kinrae stared at her. "If I chose to leave them here, I hope to hear no word from you, Master."

"Leave your dirty linen to me, will you?" the little woman demanded hotly, putting her palms flat on the desktop. "Damn you, wash your own laundry."

The gunman looked at her blandly. "I believe you've had handsome payment."

"And worked handsome hard!" the woman retorted. "I've told you I'm called before the Guild! How if I scrub clean and show the gentles the way of buying a master trader's license?"

"Would you sing that song?" he wondered flatly. "But birds have such short lives, Master ven'Apon." He moved his gun, negligently.

"I shall be using the back room and I expect I shall not be disturbed." The gun was on Anne, who was holding Shan against her and stroking his hair.

"Touching. This way, Scholar." He reached out and pulled Shan away, fingers twisted in the back of the child's collar. "Bring the case."


SHE HAD NOT ATTEMPTED to sell the jewels back to Moonel, nor had she been seen in the Gem Exchange. He considered it unlikely that she knew of the less-savory establishments on the border of Mid Port. Besides, they would not give her near the sum she must have.

It could perhaps be judged an error of play, that she had not asked him for money. How simple a matter, after all, to point out that her purse was slimmer than she liked. He would have emptied his pockets at her word. It was thus, between lifemates.

But Anne, Er Thom thought, standing at the curb on Exchange Street—Anne would see such asking to be dishonorable, the coins themselves tainted, devalued by deceit.

Wondering where next to seek her, he stuck his hands into his pockets, shuddering when his fingers touched the gun.

Ah, gods, beloved, must it be this path?

But there: Anne had chosen their course; to unchoose it was not possible. Bound to her as he was, with spider-silk lines of love and lies, it was his part, now, to follow.

He stepped off the curb and crossed the busy street, walking back to his car, puzzling over where she might have gone. Frowning and abstracted, he lay his hand against the door, and spun around, certain he had heard someone call his name.

The street behind him was very nearly empty. No one stood near, hand raised in greeting.

He heard the call again—slightly louder. His name, certainly, the voice seeming to come from—the east. Toward Mid Port.

Holding his breath, he slipped into the car, started the engine—and sat waiting, stretching his ears, though of course that was foolish. When the call came again, he put the car into gear and followed the fading echoes through the noisy chatter of the outside world.


"YOU WILL HAVE THE GOODNESS to produce the piece of bogus evidence linking Liaden language to Terran."

Anne eyed Fil Tor Kinrae carefully. The gun was steady, but at least he had let Shan sit next to her on the hard wooden bench. The crying in the back of her mind had stopped, replaced by a kind of exhausted half-trance.

"If the evidence is bogus, why bother with it?" she asked the gunman.

He returned her scrutiny blandly. "I collect lies, Scholar; it is an avocation. Produce the material or pay the price. Please understand that I am able to extract whatever payment I will. Behold the destruction of the Languages Department on University and believe me." He moved the gun. "The proof, Scholar. Now."

"I don't have it," she said, meeting his disturbingly expressionless eyes and willing him to believe the truth.

"Jin Del yo'Kera had it," he returned.

"So I believe. However, the central argument is missing from his notes. I thought it might be in his research computer, but I was not able to find it." She nodded toward the briefcase leaning against the wall. "I copied the core. The disk is in my case. You're welcomed to take it."

"Am I? But how kind. However, I am not interested in negative results, Scholar. I give you one more opportunity to cooperate: Produce this central argument of Jin Del's, this masterpiece of error that attempts to link Liad and Terra to a common mother tongue."

Her son's body was a torch, scorching her side, his presence in her mind an alert somnolence. She met the gunman's eyes fully, and saw Jin Del yo'Kera's death in their depths.

"I have no such information."

"I see. It is my belief, Scholar, that you are not fully awake to the vulnerability of your position. Perhaps a demonstration is in order."


THE VOICE NO LONGER called his name.

Indeed, Er Thom thought, threading the narrowing streets toward Mid Port with rapid skill, that which guided him was no longer voice, but—compulsion. He followed it and in good time pulled over to the side of an alley, just behind another, nondescript and slightly battered, landcar.

He got out of the car and walked a short distance. It took less than a minute to persuade the street door to admit him, after which he lost no time in going up the rag-tag stairway.

Jyl ven'Apon spun round as he burst through the door, her hand flashing toward the weapon set ready on the desk—too late.

Er Thom's gun was already out and aimed, with regrettable accuracy, at a point in the precise center of her forehead.


ANNE TRIED TO BLOCK the man with her body and earned a fist against her shoulder for her efforts. He grabbed for Shan.

The child flung himself back against the wall, soft-booted feet flailing at the man's face.

"Mirada!" he screamed in piercing hysteria. "Mirada! Mirada!"

Fil Tor Kinrae swore and snatched again, clawed hand grabbing for fragile throat. Anne twisted, flung the man half backward and used her elbow in the way she had been taught.

One blow to crush a man's windpipe. Kinrae dropped like a stone. Before he hit the floor, Anne had the gun out of his hand and caught Shan to her.

"Hush, baby. Hush, Okay?"

Face against the side of her neck, he nodded. Anne held him, mind working feverishly. The woman in the other room: She would have to be prepared to kill her, as well. Anne swallowed, feeling the gun in her hand, the plastic still warm from Kinrae's grip.

"Shannie, listen to me. You listening?"

"Yes."

"Okay. I'm going out for a minute. You need to stay here (with a dead man on the floor, Annie Davis?). I'll be back in a minute and then we'll leave. (Gods willing.) Promise me you'll stay here until I come for you."

"Promise, Ma."

"Good." She hugged him tight. "I love you, Shannie."

The warning was little enough—a light step in the hall beyond. Anne came to her feet, thrusting her son behind her, gun held ready.

The door burst open.

"Mirada!"

Er Thom's eyes flashed over her face, took in Shan and what was left of Fil Tor Kinrae on the floor. He slipped his gun away and held out a hand.

"Come away now. Quickly."


ER THOM HAD THE briefcase, Anne was carrying Shan, uncertain if the shaking she felt was his or her own.

They went through the console-room. A glance revealed no body bleeding its life out on floor or desk. Anne swallowed around a mingled sense of nausea and relief, recalling what was left behind on the back room floor.

"How did you get here?" she asked Er Thom, voice sounding thin in her own ears.

He spared her a quick violet glance. "I heard you calling."

"Oh." She gulped, hugging Shan tight. "We're leaving Liad, Er Thom."

"Yes," he said, leading the way down the tricky stairs. "I know." At the bottom of the flight he turned to her.

"You and our child must be attended by a Healer as soon as possible. We should thus book passage on Chelda, which leaves this afternoon and has a Healer on-staff. After we are safe away, we may modify direction."

She stopped, blinking into his beautiful, beloved face. "We?"

He met her eyes, his own unguarded, his face fully open to her.

"If you will have me."

Have him? Anne drew a careful breath, aware of Shan, trembling in her arms. "We have to talk," she said.

Er Thom bowed slightly. "We do, indeed. Let us board Chelda. The Healers shall tend to you and to our son. We shall talk. Fully, I swear it. If you choose then that we must go separate paths, I shall trouble you no further." He held out a tentative hand.

"Can you trust me in these things, Anne?"

She touched his fingertips lightly with her own. "Yes."

"Good," he said gravely. "Let us go away from here."


Chapter Thirty-Seven

In the case of a clan's loss of an individual member through the actions of a person unrelated to the clan, Balance-payment is hereby set forth. Such payment weighs equally the occupation, age, and clan-standing of the individual who has been lost. The attached chart shall henceforth be the standard by which all clans shall compute such Balance-payment.

—From the Charter of the Council of Clans,


Fifth Amended Edition


 


"YES, I SEE." The Healer folded neat hands into his lap. "For the child, forgetfulness. And for yourself as well, if you wish it, Lady."

Anne found herself looking into a pair of bright brown eyes.

She frowned, fighting to think with a mind that seemed frozen and unwieldy. Er Thom had handled the arrangements at the reservation office, slicing through what Anne dimly perceived as a daunting mountain of red tape. He had bespoken them a suite aboard Chelda, she remembered that he had said so. But what else he might have told her, she could not presently call to mind.

On consideration, they might very well be on Chelda now, in the very suite Er Thom had rented, though the shuttle trip seemed likewise lost to recollection. The only thing she clearly remembered was the scene in the Mid Port back room, where she had killed a man and left him lying on the floor . . .

The Healer was looking at her, head tipped to one side, face alert and friendly.

"Forgetfulness," she managed. Her voice was shaking badly, she noted with detachment. "You can make Shan forget what happened?"

The Healer inclined his head. "Very easily, Lady. Shall I?"

"It would be best," she heard Er Thom murmur beside her.

She hugged Shan tight against her chest. "Yes," she said awkwardly, the dead man looming before her mind's eye. "If you please."

"Very well." He stood, a diminutive man with a quantity of curly gray-shot hair, and held out a hand. "We shall have to be alone, Shan and I. It will not take long."

On her lap, Shan stirred, looking up at the tiny man out of dull silver eyes. Abruptly, he wriggled upright and leaned forward in Anne's hold.

"Beautiful sparkles," he announced, and raised a hand toward the Healer. "Show me."

The Healer smiled. "Certainly."

Shan wriggled again, and Anne took her arms away. Her son slid from her lap and clasped the Healer's hand. Together they disappeared into an anteroom.

"Anne?" Er Thom's voice was worried. She turned to look at him. "Shall you take forgetfulness, as well?"

Forget . . . She wanted, desperately, to forget. Especially, she wanted to forget that last moment, when her body had taken over from her mind and—She had killed a man. She had intended to kill him. He had threatened her child, herself. He had murdered Jin Del yo'Kera, by his own word, he had destroyed the Language Arts building and only pure luck that no one had died of it—

"Anne!" Er Thom's hands were on her shoulders.

She realized she was trembling, looked wildly into his face.

"What happened—happened to the—master trader?"

His fingers were kneading her shoulders, setting up a rhythm in counter to her trembling. "She need not concern you."

"You killed her."

"No." He lifted a hand and tenderly cupped her cheek. "There was no need. She ran away." Gently, he bent and lay his lips against hers, whisper-light and warm.

Tears spilled over. She lurched forward, face buried in his shoulder, arms tight around his waist. The trembling turned to violent shaking, the tears to half-cries, gritted out past locked teeth.

Er Thom held her, one hand stroking her hair, the vulnerable back of her neck. He spoke in the Low Tongue, honoring her, loving her. Indeed, he barely knew what he said, except it came full from the heart. It seemed the sound of his voice soothed her.

The storm passed, quickly for all its passion. She lay shivering in his arms, her cheek pillowed against his shoulder.

"Remember something for me," she said huskily, her breath warm against the side of his neck.

He stroked her hair. "What shall I recall?"

"That—Fil Tor Kinrae. He wanted the central argument—the material that was missing from Doctor yo'Kera's proof. I know—I think I know where it is." She drew a shuddering breath. "It's behind the flat pic of—of the Aus sheep farmers. In his office. Remember that, Er Thom." Her arms tightened around him. "It's important."

"I will remember," he promised.

"Thank you." She sighed and nestled her cheek against him, seeming more peaceful, though she trembled still.

The door to the anteroom opened and the Healer spoke with the ease of one for whom there are few surprises in life.

"The child is asleep. If the lady will come with me, I shall see what might be wrought."

She stirred and moved her arms from his waist. Er Thom stepped back, took her hand and helped her to rise. Slipping her arm through his, he guided her to the doorway and gave her over to the Healer.

"I will be with you," he said, smiling up into her beloved and careworn face, "when you wake."

She gave him an uncertain smile in return. "All right," she mumbled, and allowed the Healer to lead her away.

* * *

THE HEALER'S EXHAUSTION showed clearly in his face. He accepted a glass of wine with unfeigned gratitude and slumped into the offered chair with a sigh.

Er Thom sat in the chair opposite, sipped his wine and put it aside.

"It is fortunate," the Healer said after a sip or two of his own, "that they were able to be seen so quickly after the event. I anticipate no complications for the child: The dream will be hazy when he wakes from trance and will continue to fade over the next two or three days.

"The lady I believe capable of recapturing the entire experience, did necessity exist. She has a disciplined mind and a very strong will. If she should find it difficult to concentrate, if her sleep is disturbed, if she is troubled in any way—only call. I shall be honored to assist her."

Er Thom inclined his head. "I thank you."

"It is joy to serve," the Healer replied formally. He had recourse once more to his glass.

"The child," he said then and met Er Thom's gaze. "Your lordship is perhaps not aware that the child is something out of the common way. It would be wisdom, were he to be shown—soon—to a Master Healer, or brought to a Hall."

Again, Er Thom inclined his head. "I shall discuss the matter with my lady."

"Certainly." The Healer finished his wine and rose to make his bow.

Er Thom rose, returned the man's salute with gravity, straightened and held out a hand in which a six-cantra gleamed.

"Please accept tangible evidence of my gratitude for the service you render my lady and our son."

"Your lordship is gracious." The coin disappeared. The Healer inclined his head.

"Good day, sir. Fair fortune to you and yours."

"And to you, Healer."

Er Thom walked the smaller man to the door and let him out into the wide, cruise-ship hallway. He closed the door and locked it—and went back through the parlor to the bedroom, there to keep watch at Anne's bedside until such time as she should wake.


COMING OUT OF SLEEP was like coming out of heavy cloud, into lighter cloud, to dense fog, to mist—to bright, unencumbered sun.

Anne stretched luxuriously. She felt wonderfully well, without care or grief; lucid and joyful for the first time in days.

She stretched again, knowing that they were booked on the cruise ship Chelda, bound for Lytaxin and points outward, scheduled to leave Liad orbit this very afternoon. Her son was safe and happy—deeply asleep at the moment, she knew. Er Thom was traveling with them—she forgot precisely how that had come about, for surely—

The thought slid away, vanishing into a warm glow of happiness.

"Hello, Anne." His voice, in gentle Terran. "Are you well?"

"Well?" She opened her eyes and smiled up into his, extended a languid hand and brushed his cheek with her fingertips, relishing the slow stir of passion. "I'm wonderful. I guess I needed a nap."

"I—guess," Er Thom agreed softly. He traced her eyebrows with a light fingertip. "You are beautiful."

She laughed. "No, laddie, there you're out. I am not beautiful."

"You really must allow me to disagree with you," he murmured, fingertips like moon-moths against her lips. He smiled, eyes smoky, fingers running the line of her jaw. "Beautiful Anne. Dar-ling Anne. Sweetheart."

She gasped, as much from surprise as from the tingle of pleasure his caresses evoked.

"You don't—You never say—things . . ." His fingers were tracing a line of fire along the curve of her throat.

"My dreadful manners," he murmured, bending his bright head as his clever fingers worked lose the fastening of her shirt. "Forgive me."

His mouth was hot over the pulse at the base of her throat. His fingers were teasing a nipple to erection.

"Teach me," he whispered, raising his head and kissing her cheek, her eyelids, her chin. "What else should I say, Anne?"

She laughed breathlessly, cupping his face in her two hands and holding him still.

"I don't think you need to say anything more at the moment," she murmured, and kissed him, very thoroughly, indeed.


SHE WOKE AGAIN, sated and a-tingle in every nerve, opened her eyes and saw him leaning above her, face suffused with tenderness. She shivered and reached for him.

"Er Thom, what's wrong?"

"Ah." He stroked her hair softly back from her forehead. "I shall—miss—my clan."

Coldness leached into her, riding confusion. Why was he here? The plan—hadn't the plan been to take Shan and herself away to New Dublin? Er Thom was to have stayed with his clan, wasn't that the plan? How—She groped after the precise memory. It eluded her, leaving her blinking up into his eyes, feeling half-ill with loneliness, vulnerable as she had never been vulnerable.

"You could—" Gods, she could scarcely breathe. She pushed her voice past the tight spot in her throat. "The ship's still in orbit, isn't it? You could—go home . . ."

"No, how could I?" He smiled gently and lay his finger along her lips. "You and our son are leaving Liad. How can I stay?" He kissed her cheek. "I shall learn, sweetheart. I depend upon you to teach me."

She stared at him, speechless—then blinked, attention diverted.

"Shan's waking up."

"I shall go to him," Er Thom said, slipping out of the wide bed and bending to retrieve his clothes. He smiled at her. "If you like, we three may go up to the observation deck and watch the ship break orbit."

He was going to stay with them, loneliness and vulnerability be damned. She felt his determination echo at the core of her. He was turning his back on his clan, on wealth and position; throwing his lot in with Linguistics Professor Anne Davis, untenured.

"Er Thom—"

"Hush." He bent quickly over her, stopping her protests with his lips. "I love you, Anne Davis, with all of my heart. If you will not have Liad, then you must lead me to another place, and teach me new customs. Only do not put me aside . . ." His voice broke, eyes bright. "Anne?"

"You lied," she said uncertainly, for that had suddenly come crystal clear. "You said you weren't a thief—"

"Nor am I." He sat on the edge of the bed and caught her hands in his. "Anne, listen. If there were a child who was Davis, and I caused him to brought into Korval, that is thievery. But a child named yos'Galan, brought into Korval—how may yos'Galan steal a yos'Galan?" His fingers were tight on hers; she felt the truth in him, like a flame, melting away old fears.

"I erred. That, yes. I mistook local custom and thought I had explained enough. I thought, having done honor in name, you now passed the full joy of another yos'Galan to the clan, as was right and proper. Liaden. I plead stupidity. I plead pride. But you must acquit me of lying to you, Anne. That, I never undertook."

"You'll come with us?" she said, wonderingly. "To New Dublin?"

"Is that where you are bound?" Er Thom moved his shoulders. "I shall stand at your side. It is what I wish." He tipped his head. "We may need to tarry upon Lytaxin. Our son should be seen in the Healer's Hall—unless there is such on New Dublin?"

She shook her head. "We'll need to talk," she said, and heard a vague, fog-shrouded echo. She let it fade away, uncurious.

Er Thom inclined his head. "So we shall. I will go to our son now."

"I'll sort out my clothes," Anne said, with wry humor, "and meet the two of you in the parlor very soon."


SHAN PRONOUNCED HIMSELF both hungry and thirsty. He submitted with a certain ill-grace to having his hair combed and a wet cloth passed over his face, but took Er Thom's hand willingly enough and went with him into the parlor.

One step into the room, Er Thom froze, staring at the man in the black leather jacket who lounged at his ease on the low-slung sofa, long legs thrust out before him and crossed neatly at the ankle. He lifted a glass of blood-red wine in salute and sipped, room lights running liquid off the enamel-work of his single ring.

"Daav!" Shan cried joyously.

"Hello, nephew," the man replied gently. His black eyes went to Er Thom. "Brother. I perceive I am in time."


Chapter Thirty-Eight

Take the course opposite to custom and you will almost always do well.

—Jean Jacques Rousseau


 


SHAN WAS SETTLED at a low table in the corner, a crystal glass of juice and some tidbits of cheese to hand. Er Thom came back to the center of the room and stood staring down at the man on the sofa.

"My family and I," he said eventually, and in Terran, "are bound for New Dublin."

Daav raised his glass, lips pursed in consideration.

"A pastoral location," he allowed in the same language. "Do you plan a long stay?"

"I believe Anne means us to settle there."

"Really?" Daav lifted an eyebrow. "I don't see you as a farmer, denubia."

"That has very little to say to the matter," Er Thom informed him flatly.

"Ah. Well, that is lowering, to be sure." He flourished the glass, switching to Low Liaden. "Drink with me, brother."

"I regret to inform you," Er Thom said, keeping stubbornly to Terran, "that your brother is dead."

"Oh, dear. But you are misinformed, you know," Daav said kindly, pursuing his end of the conversation now in Low Liaden. "My brother was seen not very many hours ago, booking passage for three upon Chelda. Unless the line's service has gone entirely awry, I believe we may assume he is enjoying his customary robust health."

"Mirada!" Shan called from across the room. "More juice. Please!"

"You will have to teach him to call you otherwise," Daav murmured, and lifted an eyebrow at Er Thom's start.

"Father," he suggested in soft Terran, meeting the determined violet eyes. "Papa. Da. Something of that nature."

"Mirada?" Shan called.

Er Thom went to him, refilled the glass and ruffled his frost-colored hair. Then he came back to stand and stare. Daav sipped wine, unperturbed.

"I repudiate the clan," Er Thom said, the High Tongue cold as hyperspace.

"Yes, but you see," Daav returned earnestly in the Low Tongue, "the clan doesn't repudiate you. If things were otherwise, I might very well wave you away. An off-shoot of the clan on New Dublin might be amusing. But things are not otherwise, darling. The clan needs you—you, yourself, not simply your genes. I cannot allow you to leave us. Necessity." He used his chin to point at Shan, engrossed in his snack.

"And if you think I shall allow that child beyond range of a Healer Hall any time before he has completed formal training, I beg that you think again." He cocked a whimsical eyebrow. "Come home, darling, do."

Er Thom's mouth tightened, his eyes wounded.

"My family and I," he repeated steadfastly, though his Terran had gone rather blurry, "are bound for New Dublin. The ship leaves within the hour."

Daav sighed. "No," he corrected gently. "It does not."

Er Thom drew a careful breath. "The schedule—"

"I see I have failed of making myself plain." He swirled what was left of his wine and glanced up, black eyes glinting.

"This ship goes nowhere until I leave it. And I shall not leave it without yourself and your son in my company." He raised his glass and finished the last of the wine.

"There is an important package due from Korval," he said, somewhat more gently. "The ship is being held for its arrival. It will make rather a hash out of traffic, of course, but that's the port master's problem, not mine." He put the glass aside.

"When I leave the ship, the package will be delivered and Chelda may be on its way." He moved his hand as if he cast dice. "It is now your throw, brother. How long shall we hang in orbit?"

There was a long silence.

"Anne and I are—tied together," Er Thom said eventually, and in, his brother heard with relief, the Low Tongue. "Understand me. I heard her call—from across the Port. I followed her thought to a place—" He moved his shoulders. "There is a dead man named Fil Tor Kinrae in the back room of a warehouse in Mid-Port."

"How delightful. Your work?"

"Anne's. In rescue of our son." He lifted a hand and ran it through his hair. "The Healer has been to both."

"Very good. I hesitate to mention that Master Healer Kestra awaits you at Trealla Fantrol."

Er Thom stiffened. "Anne and I are tied. I had just told you."

"My dreadful memory," Daav murmured. "I do however seem to recall that the lady swore she would have none of you. This leads me to the unfortunate conclusion that any—bonding—that exists is on your side alone."

Er Thom bowed with exquisite irony. "As you will. One-sided or not, it exists. I go with Anne, since choice is necessary. I cannot do otherwise."

"Ah, can you not?" Daav frowned; turned his head.

The door to the bedroom slid open and Anne came into the room. She advanced to Er Thom's side and looked down, her face tranquil, as the faces of those newly Healed tended to be. Daav inclined his head.

"Good-day, Anne."

"Daav," she returned gravely. "Have you come to take Shan away?"

"Worse than that," he said, watching her face with all a Scout's care. "I've come to take your son and your lover away."

Something moved in her eyes; he read it as anger.

"Er Thom makes his own choices," she said flatly. "My son comes with me."

"To New Dublin?" Daav asked, keeping his voice gentle, his posture unthreatening. "Anne, your child bodes to be a Healer of some note, if he does not come to halfling as one of dramliz. How shall New Dublin train him to use these abilities? Will you wait until he harms someone through ignorance—or until he begins to go mad—before you send him back to Liad to be taught?" He showed her his empty palms.

"How do I serve my cha'leket by denying his son the training he must have to survive? How does flinging talent into exile serve Korval?" He lowered his hands and gave her a rueful smile.

"For good or ill, Shan is of Korval. We are in Liaden space, subject to the law and customs of Liad. Shan's delm commands him to bide at home. The law will find no different."

She licked her lips. "Terran law—"

Daav inclined his head. "You are free to chart that course. However, for the years such litigation will doubtless encompass, the child bides with Clan Korval, his family of record." He shifted; came to his feet in one fluid move, hand out in a gesture of supplication.

"Anne, hear me. The luck was in it, that you brought your child to Liad. There is nowhere else in the galaxy where his talents are understood so well. I am not your enemy in this, but your friend. Only think and you will see that it is so!"

Her mouth was tight, fine eyes flashing. "You seem to have me over a barrel," she commented. "What do you propose I do, hang on as Clan Korval's guest until my son is come of age?"

Daav tipped his head, watching Er Thom's face out of the side of an eye.

"Why, as to that," he said calmly, "here is my brother says he can do nothing other than stand at your side, whatever ground you choose. He makes a rather compelling case for himself, casting aside his delm's word and escaping from his rooms down a vine. If things were otherwise, I might well give such devotion its just reward. But the devil's in it, you see—I need him. Korval needs him. He comes with me, if I must have him off this ship in chains."

"So the great House of Korval holds hostages, does it?" Anne flashed. "Is this honor?"

"We had been—wishing—to talk," Er Thom said, very softly, from her side. "Perhaps—we might find the proper compromise—on Liad."

Anne spun to look at him, eyes wide.

Er Thom met her gaze. "Is the intent of the trade to keep we three together?" he asked. "Or is it to keep us forever at—at—"

"Loggerheads," she supplied, almost absently. "You would burden yourself with a Terran on Liad?" There was a note of wistfulness beneath the disbelief. Daav relaxed, carefully. Er Thom took her hand and smiled up into her eyes.

"You would have burdened yourself with a Liaden," he murmured, "on New Dublin."

Daav felt a small hand slip into his and looked down into Shan's bright silver eyes.

"Hi, Daav," that young gentleman said comfortably. He smiled impartially at all three adults. "We go home now?"


"MAY I OFFER YOU more fruit, Master Healer?" Petrella yos'Galan asked from the head of the table, "Cheese?"

"Thank you, my needs have been well provided for." Master Healer Kestra inclined her head.

Thodelm yos'Galan's displeasure with her son was entirely audible to the Healer's inner ears. It was, of course, bad form to broach the subject of emotional turmoil with one who had not specifically requested aid, and Kestra had scrupulously kept to good form. Thus far. She could not help but admit, however, that her sympathies lay on the side of the abruptly absent a'thodelm and the lady his heart would not relinquish.

The shabby little love-knot had been compelling, as had the struggle she had perceived in the room's echoes. Two people who loved each other, each striving for right conduct. More the pity that the two were persons of melant'i and that right conduct shifted like moon shadow, world to world.

"I must offer apology," Petrella yos'Galan said ill-temperedly, "for my son's lack of manner. Of late he has come unruly, to the clan's distress."

"No need of apology," Kestra returned mildly. "Those of Korval are understood to be unruly." She smiled.

"I recall when the delm—Scout Cadet yos'Phelium he was at the time—applied for Healing, after his ship was disabled. Four Healers were required for the task of smoothing the memory—myself and another of Master rank, with two high adepts—and he wished to forget!" She sipped tepid tea and set the cup down with a tiny click.

"For all of that, we did not entirely accomplish our goal. We succeeded in blurring the experience, but he recalls it. I am certain that he does. I believe it to be a distant recollection, devoid of emotion, as if he had read of the incident in a book. But I am entirely certain he could tap the memory in all its horror, did he become convinced of necessity."

Her host said nothing to this and after a moment the Healer continued, in not so very good form:

"It has perhaps—forgive me!—escaped notice that your son's love for this lady and their child goes very deep."

"So?" Petrella said harshly. "We have all lost that which we loved, Healer. It is the nature of the game."

"True," Kestra allowed. "But it is not the purpose of the game."

"Enlighten me," the thodelm requested, with acid courtesy, "is it myself you have been requested to Heal?"

Kestra inclined her head. "Ma'am, it is not. You must forgive me and lay fault with my years. I find that old women are often impertinent."

"Not to say incorrigible," Petrella remarked, and Kestra smiled, feeling the tingle of the other's amusement.

"I had told Korval I should await his return," Kestra said. "If it does not inconvenience the House—"

But she got no further. There was a subdued clatter in the hallway, the door to the dining room swung open and Delm Korval entered with his long, silent stride, accompanied by a very tall lady and a fair-haired man carrying a child. The Healer came to her feet, inner eyes a-dazzle.

Fumbling like a novice, she Sorted the images. Thodelm yos'Galan she could now ignore; likewise Korval's vivid emotive pattern. The others . . .

The strongest was a dazzle of tumbling color and untamed light—rather as if one had fallen head-first into a kaleidoscope. With difficulty, the Healer traced the tumbling images to their source, bringing the pattern to overlay what was perceived by the outer eyes—gasped and automatically damped her own output.

"I am—honored—to meet Shan yos'Galan," she said, perhaps to the room at large. "I would welcome—indeed, require!—opportunity to spend more time with him. But if my primary concern is to be A'thodelm yos'Galan, I must ask that the child be removed. He is—enormously bright."

Korval was already at the wall-mounted intercom. A'thodelm yos'Galan also moved, leaving the tall lady standing alone near the door.

"Mother," he said, going gracefully to one knee by Petrella yos'Galan's chair. "I bring your grandson, Shan, to meet you."

The old lady's pattern, seen dimly through the rioting light show that was the child, registered yearning, even affection. However, the face she showed the one who knelt before her was bitterly hard. She did not so much as lift her eyes to the child.

"Sad sparkles," the child said suddenly and wriggled in the a'thodelm's grasp. Set upon his feet, he reached out and took one of Petrella's withered hands in his.

"Hi," he said in Terran, and then, in Low Liaden, "Tra'sia volecta, thawlana."

"Grandmother, is it?" Petrella glared into the small face, then sighed, suddenly and sharply. "Good-day to you as well, child. Go with your nurse now, before you blind the Healer."

"Come along, Shan-son," the a'thodelm said softly. He took the child's hand and led him to the nurse hovering at the door.

"Mrs. Intassi," Shan cried, flinging himself against her, "we went to the port!"

"Well, what an adventure, to be sure!" Mrs. Intassi returned and led him out, carefully closing the door behind her.

Master Healer Kestra let out a sigh of heartfelt relief, ran an exercise to calm her jangled nerves, and trained her inner sight on the a'thodelm.

It was a pleasing pattern: Sharp-edged and cunning; subtly humorous, with a deep, well-guarded core of passion. The Master Healer nearly sighed again: Here was one who loved deeply—or not at all. There were signs of stress on the overlay, which was expectable, and a tenuous, almost airy construct that—

The Healer frowned, focusing on that anomaly. There, yes, feeding straight to that core place where he kept himself so aloof. And it fed from—where?

Laboriously, she traced the airy little bridge—and encountered another pattern entirely.

This one was also orderly, well-shaped and passionate, overlain with the fragile skin of a recent Healing. The humor was broader, the heart-web less guarded, more expansive. The Healer lost the bridge in a twisting interjoin of passion and affection.

"Oh." Master Healer Kestra opened her outer eyes, seeking Korval's sparkling black gaze. "They're lifemates."


Chapter Thirty-Nine

There are those Scouts—and other misinformed persons—who urge that the Book of Clans be expanded to include certain non-Liaden persons.

I say to the Council now, the day the Book of Clans includes a Terran among its pages is the day Liad begins to fall!

—Excerpted from remarks made before the


Council of Clans by the chairperson of the


Coalition to Abolish the Liaden Scouts


 


"I BEG YOUR PARDON," Petrella said acidly, "they are certainly not lifemates."

The Master Healer turned to her. "Indeed they are," she said, striving for gentleness. "It is very nearly a textbook case—a shade tenuous, perhaps, but beyond mistake."

Petrella turned her head and glared at the tall a'thodelm and his taller lady, standing side-by-side at the door.

"I forbid it," she said, the Command mode crackling minor lightnings.

Kestra saw the flicker in the a'thodelm's pattern and acted to prevent a response which could only pain all.

"Forgive me," she said firmly to Petrella. "It is plain you have failed of grasping the fullness of the situation. I am not speaking of pleasant signatures on a contract and a formal announcement in The Gazette. I speak of a verifiable, physical fact which is not in any way subject to your commands."

"Lifemates?" Petrella flung back with pain-wracked scorn. "Which of them is a wizard, pray?"

"Well, now, the gaffer, he was a water-witch," the tall lady said in a peculiar, lilting voice, a glimmer of half-wild humor lighting her pattern.

The Healer frowned after the sense of the words, feeling a similarity to Terran, but unable to quite—

"A water-witch," Korval murmured in Adult-to-Adult, "is one who has the ability to locate water below ground without use of instrumentation." He flicked a glance at the Terran lady. "Correct?"

She moved her head up and down—Terran affirmative. "He found other things, too," she said in accented, though clear, Liaden. "Lost sheep. Jewelry, once or twice. A missing child. But mostly he stuck to water." She shrugged. "If you listen to the talk on New Dublin, all the ancestors were—fey, we say. It adds color to the family tree."

"You are yourself a wizard, then?" Petrella's voice was sharp.

The Terran lady shook her head. "No, a language professor."

"You know when the child wakes," the a'thodelm murmured from her side. "You know when I am troubled. I heard you calling me, from many miles away, and followed your voice."

"And yet neither are of the dramliz," the Master Healer said, firmly. "I recall when the a'thodelm was tested at Healer Hall as a child. We tested twice, for, after all, he is of Korval." She moved her shoulders and caught Korval's attentive eye.

"Plain meat and no sauce, the a'thodelm. Yourself—you have something, my Lord. If we are ever able to quantify it, I shall tell you."

He inclined his dark head. "You are gracious."

"You are dangerous—but, there. It is what one expects of Korval." She turned her attention once more to Petrella.

"Neither pretends to wizardhood, Thodelm. I suspect the only talent either ever held was the ability to recognize and meld with the other. That work has proceeded as it must—hindered, alas, by the demands of custom, melant'i—and kin. It may not be stopped, nor may it be undone." She showed her empty hands, palm up.

"You speak of wrapping the a'thodelm in forgetfulness, of sending the lady far away. To speak of these things is to be ill-informed. If they are separated by the length and breadth of the galaxy, still they will find each other. They are lifemates, Thodelm. If your pride cannot be thwarted, you must have the lady killed—and the child, as well. Then, the a'thodelm will be free of her."

"Yet history tells us that Master Wizard Rool Tiazan's lady lived in him after the death of her body," Korval commented from across the room.

Kestra hid her smile with a bow. "Indeed. You understand that the tie between these two may not be so potent—or it may well be potent enough. Certainly they are both strong-willed. Certainly they both love. It may be that the areas where the match is not entirely perfect are those which are not so—very—important. Who can say?"

There was a silence in the room. Korval shifted slightly, drawing all eyes to himself.

"Cry grace, Aunt Petrella," he said gently. "The game has gone to chance."

"Chance," the Terran lady murmured, a flutter of panic through her steady, beautiful pattern. "Chance without choice."

"Choice was made," A'thodelm yos'Galan said, "several times over." He took her hand, looking earnestly up into her face. "I love you, Anne Davis."

It thrilled along all the matrices of her pattern, resonating within his. She smiled. "I love you, Er Thom yos'Galan." The smile faded, and she spoke again with a certain sternness. "But we still have to talk."

"Certainly," he returned, smiling as if they were quite alone in the room. "Shall I show you the maze? We may be private there."

"All right . . ."

He turned back to the room, making his bows, pattern a dazzling, sensuous clatter.

"Master Healer," he murmured, with a propriety that belied the joy ringing through him. "Mother." He turned to face Korval and checked, the clamoring joy within him stuttering.

Carefully, silently, he bowed respect for the delm.

Straightening, he stepped back, opened the door and allowed his lady to proceed him into the hall.


"MASTER MERCHANT BEL'TARDA," Mr. pel'Kana announced from the doorway.

Daav looked wearily up from his work screen.

Luken had got a new jacket—an astonishing affair in bright blue with belled sleeves and citron buttons. The buttons flashed irritatingly when he made his bow.

"Wine for Master bel'Tarda," Daav instructed Mr. pel'Kana and waved a hand. "Sit, cousin, do, and tell me what brings you so far from the City."

"Well, it's not as far as that," Luken said seriously, disposing himself with unusual care in the leather chair across the desk. "Matter of an hour's travel, if you're unlucky in the route." He received his glass from Mr. pel'Kana and took the required sip, watching Daav trepidatiously over the rim.

Daav smiled, picked up his near-empty cup and also drank, setting the thing aside as Mr. pel'Kana closed the door.

"Well, Luken, you might as well make a clean breast, you know. I can hardly be expected to go before the Council of Clans on your behalf unless I know the awful whole."

"Council of Clans! Here now, it's nothing—" Luken sputtered, caught himself and sighed.

"It's no wonder the world finds us odd," he said severely, "when you go on giving rein to that sense of humor of yours."

"Horrid, isn't it?" Daav agreed. "Now you've vented your feelings, shall you tell me what is wrong? Pat Rin?"

"Eh? Oh, no—no. Ease your heart there—the boy's fine, though we had his mother yesterday. Why that woman insists on—Well." He glanced down and brushed an imaginary fleck of dust from one of his improbable sleeves.

"It's about young Syntebra," he said, and raised a hurried hand. "Now, I know she's intended for Er Thom, but the thing is—well, damn it, it just won't do!"

Daav lifted an eyebrow, momentarily diverted. "No, won't it?"

"Terrified of him," Luken said warmly. "Of you, too, if it comes to that. Nothing against her. But she's only a child, you see—and mid-House, beside. Hardly knows how to go on in that world, much less rubbing High House shoulders. I'm not saying she can't make a success of things—but she needs more work than Er Thom's likely to have time to give. He's a busy one, and he stands too close to the delm."

Daav looked sharply away, picked up his glass and drained it. "Does he?"

"Well, he's your heir, isn't he? And the pair of you as cutting quick and twisty bright as any would wish—I'll tell you what, it's tiring trying to keep abreast! The girl would be miserable, lost and uncertain of herself." He eyed Daav consideringly.

"You alarm me, cousin. I certainly would not wish one of Korval to be the agent of such distress. However, I feel sure you are about to offer me a solution to young Syntebra's troubles."

Luken grinned, rather shamefacedly. "See through me like glass, can you? Well, it's no matter—I know I'm not a clever fellow. Here it is: I'll engage to marry Syntebra. Another child is no hardship on me—the eldest is away at school more often than she's home now-days, and Pat Rin's no trouble at all. Nexon will be put to rest and a more equitable wife can be found for Er Thom."

"Undoubtedly, a more equitable wife can be found for Er Thom," Daav murmured, possibly to himself. He looked at Luken with a grin.

"I take it the lady does not find yourself—aah—terrifying, cousin?"

"Not a bit of it," Luken said comfortably and smiled. "I get on with most, after all."

"So you do." Daav closed his eyes and resisted rubbing his aching forehead. He opened his eyes.

"I shall speak with Thodelm yos'Galan tomorrow," he told Luken. "However, I feel certain that your solution will be adopted. Now there is an active nursery at Trealla Fantrol, Pat Rin may be relocated for the duration of your marriage." He cocked an eyebrow. "Unless you think that unwise?"

Luken pursed his lips. "I'll speak with the boy," he said eventually, "and let you know his wishes." He sent a sharp look at Daav. "Not that he isn't fond of his cousin Er Thom, nor that young Shan doesn't look a likely child. But I would dislike going against the boy's strong inclination, if he has one."

"Certainly." Daav inclined his head. "You do well by us, cousin," he said in sudden and sincere gratitude. "I find you honor and ornament the clan."

Luken blushed, dark gold spreading across his cheeks. He glanced aside and picked up his glass.

"Kind of you," he muttered, and drank.

It took two rather hefty swallows to recover his address. He glanced at Daav.

"I'll hear from you, then?" he said hopefully.

Daav inclined his head. "I expect you may hear from me as soon as tomorrow."

"Good," said Luken. "Good." He rose. "You're a busy man, so I'll be taking my leave. Thank you."

"No trouble," Daav said, rising also and coming 'round the desk. He forestalled Luken's bow by the simple maneuver of taking him by the arm and turning him toward the door.

"Allow me to see you to your car, cousin . . ."


IT WAS RATHER LATE.

Daav had no clear notion of precisely how late. He had put the lights out some time back, preferring the room in firelight while he drank a glass or two in solitude.

Firelight had become emberlight and the glass or two had become a bottle. Daav leaned his head against the back of his chair and thought of his brother's cold face and unwarm bow.

Gods, what have I done?

He closed his eyes against the emberlight and strove not to think at all.

"You're going to have a dreadful headache tomorrow," the sweet, beloved voice commented.

With exquisite care, Daav opened his eyes and lifted his head. Er Thom was perched on the arm of the chair across the counterchance board. Someone had thrown a fresh log on the fire. His hair gleamed in the renewed brightness like a heart's ransom.

"I have," Daav said with a certain finicking precision, "a dreadful headache now."

"Ah." Er Thom smiled. "I rather thought you might."

"Have you come to cut my gizzard out?" Daav asked, dropping his head back against the chair. "I believe there's an appropriately dull knife in the wine table."

"I don't know that I'm particularly skilled at gizzard-cutting," Er Thom said after a moment. "Shall you like some tea?"

"Gods, at this hour? Whichever it is—" He moved a hand in negation. "No, don't disturb the servants."

"All right," Er Thom said softly. He rose and vanished into the fringes of the firelight. A minor clatter was heard from the direction of the wine table. Daav wondered somewhat blearily if the other had decided upon the knife after all.

"Drink with me, brother."

Daav opened his eyes. Er Thom was before him, limned in the firelight, holding two cups.

"Thank you," Daav said around a sudden start of tears. He accepted a cup and drank—a full mouthful—swallowed—and laughed. "Water?"

"If you drink any more wine you're likely to fall into a snore," Er Thom commented, lifting his own glass. There was a gleam of purple on his hand.

"Reinstated, darling?"

"My mother attempts to accept the outcome equitably." He smiled. "She speaks of—perhaps—accepting the child."

"Gracious of her." Daav sighed. "Will your Anne be happy with us, do you think?"

The smile grew slightly wider. "I believe it may be contrived."

"Hah. So long as my work as delm is not entirely confined to scrambling planetary traffic and threatening my kin with chains—" He shuddered and looked up into bright violet eyes.

"The window was—distressing."

Er Thom inclined his head. "I apologize for the window," he murmured. "But there is no way to close it, you see, once you are climbed through."

Daav grinned. "I suppose that's true."

Er Thom tipped his head. "May I know what Balance the delm may require of me?"

"Balance." Daav closed his eyes; opened them. "How shall the delm require Balance, when it was he did not listen to what you would tell him?"

Er Thom frowned. "I do not believe that to be the case," he said in his soft, serious way. "How should any of us have expected such an extraordinary occurrence? Recall that I gave nubiath'a! Indeed, it may be that such—adversity—as we met with enlivened and strengthened our bond." He bowed, slightly and with whimsy.

"Delm's Wisdom."

"Amuse yourself, do." Daav tried for a look of severity, but his mouth would keep twitching in a most undignified manner. He gave it up and grinned openly.

"All's well that ends well," he quoted in Terran, "as your lady might agree. Tell her: Be fruitful and multiply."

Er Thom laughed. "Tell her yourself. We shall want the delm to See us tomorrow, after all."

"Whatever for? I distinctly recall Master Healer Kestra informing us that your arrangement is beyond the ken of command or Code."

"Ah, but, you see," Er Thom said earnestly. "There is local custom to be satisfied. I would not wish to be backward in any attention the world might deem necessary."

"Certainly not. Korval has its standards, after all."

Er Thom laughed.


Chapter Forty

The first attack was a hammer-blow at the Ringstars. A dozen worlds were lost at once, including that which was home to the dramliz and the place the Soldiers call Headquarters. There was rumor of a seed-ship—as high as a hundred seed-ships—sent out from Antori in the moment before it died. Much good it may do them.



Jela says The Enemy means to smash communications, then gobble up each isolated world in its own good time.



Jela says anyone with a ship is a smuggler, now. And every smuggler is a soldier.



I've never seen anything like this . . .

—Excerpted from Cantra yos'Phelium's Log Book


 


IT WAS EARLY, the halls yet empty of scholars, save the one who walked at Er Thom's side. When they came to a certain door, he stood away, and watched her bend over the lock, quick brown fingers making short work of the coding.

Straightening from her task, she flung him a smile and caught his hand, pulling him with her into a tiny, cluttered office smelling of book-dust and disuse.

Just within, he paused, holding her to his side while he scanned the shabby and book-crammed interior. Satisfied that they were alone, he allowed them another step into the room, then turned to lock the door.

Anne laughed.

"As if we were in any danger among a crowd of fusty professors!"

Er Thom bit his lip. Of course, she did not recall. He had not doubted the wisdom of immediately summoning a Healer to ease Anne's distress. To be abducted at gunpoint, to have one's child and one's own life threatened, to make one's bow to necessity and take a life—these things were certainly best quickly smoothed from memory and peace restored to a mind unsettled by violence.

Yet now it seemed that in doing her the best service he might, he had placed her in the way of future peril. One madman with a gun did not necessarily argue another, but it was only wise to be wary.

And difficult to be wary when the memory of past danger was washed clean away.

"Er Thom?" She was frowning down at him, concern showing in her eyes. "What is it?"

He caught her other hand in his and looked seriously into her face.

"Anne, I wish you will recall—I am in very earnest, denubia! I wish you will recall that Liad is not a—safe place. There are those who love Terrans not at all. There are those who actively hate—who may seek to do you harm for merely being Terran, or for the direction your work takes you . . . Liadens—there is pride, you understand. It pleases many to think Liad the center of the universe and all others—lower. With some, this pleasure becomes obsession. Korval's wing is broad, but it is far better to be vigilant, and avoid rousing the delm to Balance."

"Better to be safe than sorry," Anne murmured and inclined her head. "I understand, Er Thom. Thank you." She hesitated; met his eyes once more.

"I knew how to use a pistol, once. I'm willing to brush up and carry a gun."

He smiled in relief. "That would be wise. I shall teach you, if you like it."

"I like it." She grinned, squeezed his hands and let them go, crossing the room in three of her long strides and taking a framed flat-pic down from the wall between two reverent palms.

"Er Thom," she said, as she lay the frame face down and began to ease the back away. "Aren't you Liaden?"

He drifted over to the desk, watching her face, downturned and intent upon her task.

"We are Korval," he said, softly. "You understand, we are not originally from the Old World—Solcintra, it was called. Cantra came from the Rim, so it states in the logs, and her co-pilot in the endeavor which raised Liad—young Tor An had been from one of the Ringstars, sent to Solcintra for schooling. Poor child, by the time his schooling was done, the Ringstars were no fit place for return."

Anne had raised her head and was watching him intently. "Every other clan on Liad can trace its origins to—Solcintra?"

"Yes, certainly. But Solcintra was only one world in what had been a vast empire." He smiled into her eyes. "And not a particularly—forward—world, at that."

"You know this," she said, very carefully, "historically?"

He bowed. "It is of course necessary for one who will be Korval Himself—and for one who may be delm—to have studied the log books of Cantra yos'Phelium, as well as the diaries of the delms who had come before."

She bit her lip. He had a sense of—hunger?—and a realization that, for one who studied as Anne did, such information as he had just shared might be pearls of very great price.

"One empire," she murmured. "One—language?"

"An official tongue, and world-dialects. Or so the logs lead one to surmise." He showed her his empty palms. "The logs themselves are written in a language somewhat akin to Yxtrang—so you see they are not for everyone. Korval is counted odd enough, without the world deciding that we are spawn of the enemy."

"May I see them?" Anne's voice was restrained, intense. "The logs."

Er Thom smiled. "It is entirely likely that you will be required to see them, beloved."

Her face eased with humor. "Home study for the new Dragon," she quipped, and turned her attention once more to the task of easing the back from the rickety old frame.

This went slowly, for Anne seemed as intent on keeping the frame in one piece as the frame itself seemed determined to fail. Her patience won in the end, however, and the frayed backing was set aside.

Atop the pic-back lay one thin square of gray paper.

Anne picked it up, frowning at the single row of letters.

"What is it?" Er Thom wondered, softly, so not to shatter her concentration.

"A notation," she murmured. "I don't quite—" She handed him the paper, shaking her head in perplexity.

A notation, indeed, and one as familiar to him as his brother's face.

"Lower half of the second quadrant, tending toward eighty degrees." He read off the piloting symbols with ease and raised his eyes to Anne. "Alas, I lack board and screens."

She stared at him. He saw the idea bloom in her eyes in the instant before she caught his arm and turned him with her toward the overfull bookshelves.

"Lower half," she murmured, moving toward the shelves, her eyes on the books as if they might up and bolt if she shifted her gaze for a moment. " . . . of the second quadrant . . ." She knelt and lay her hand along a section of spines, eyes daring to flash a question to him.

He inclined his head. "Just so."

"Tending," Anne ran her fingers lightly, caressingly, down the spines. "Tending. Toward eighty de—Dear gods."

It was a small, slim volume her forefinger teased from between two of its hulking kinsmen, bound in scuffed and grit-dyed leather, looking for all the worlds like someone's personal debt-book that had been left out in the rain.

Anne opened it reverently, long fingers exquisitely gentle among the densely-noted leaves, her face rapt as she bent over this page and that.

Er Thom moved to kneel beside her. "Is this the thing you were seeking?"

"I think . . ." She closed it softly and held it cupped in her hand as if it were a live thing and likely to escape. "I'll have to study it—get an accurate dating. It looks—it looks . . ." Her voice died away and she bent her head sharply over the little book with a gasp.

"Anne?"

She shook her head, by which he understood he was to be still and allow her time for thought.

"Er Thom?" Very unsteady, her voice, and she did not raise her face to his.

"Yes."

"There was a man—a man with a gun. I—the grad student. He killed Doctor yo'Kera. For this. To suppress this." At last she raised her head, showing him a face drawn with sorrow and eyes that sparkled tears.

"He wanted the information from me—threatened Shan." She swallowed. "I killed him. Fil Tor Kinrae."

"Yes." He reached out and stroked her cheek, lay his fingers lightly along her brow. "I know."

She bit her lip and looked deep into his eyes, her own showing desperation. "They're going to come and demand balance," she said. "His clan."

Er Thom lifted an eyebrow. "More likely they will come and most abjectly beg Korval's pardon for the error of owning a child who would abduct and threaten yourself and our son." He moved his shoulders. "In any wise, it is a case for the delm."

"Is it?"

"Indeed it is," he returned firmly. "Shall I fetch you a Healer now, Anne?"

"You did that before." She bent her head and reached out to take his hand, weaving their fingers together with concentration, the ring he had given her scintillant against her skin.

"I think," she said softly. "I think I'll try it without—forgetting. It's not—it seems very—misty. As if it happened a long time ago . . ." She looked up with a smile. "If things start to slip, I'll let you know. Okay?"

"A bargain. And in the meanwhile you shall practice with your pistol, eh?"

"I'll practice with my pistol," she promised, and glanced down at the little book she held so protectively. She looked back to Er Thom's face. "Will—the delm—want to suppress—assuming it's real!—this information?"

"The last I had heard, the delm was advised by his grandmother in matters such as these," Er Thom said carefully. "That being, you understand, Grandmother Cantra. Her philosophy, as seen through the logs, leads me to believe that the delm will not wish to suppress anything of the sort, though he may very well have certain necessities with regard to the manner in which it is made available to the world." He inclined his head. "For the good of the clan."

"I—see." One more glance at the book, a brilliant look into his eyes and a warm squeeze of her hand. "Well, it's too valuable to stay here, so I guess I'll just drop it in the delm's lap before we go on our honey-trip." She grinned. "Which reminds me, if we don't move soon, we're going to be late for our own wedding."

"Now that," Er Thom said, "would be very improper. I suggest we leave immediately."

"I suggest," Anne murmured, swaying lightly toward him, "that we leave in just a minute."

"Much more appropriate," he agreed, and raised his face for her kiss.


SCOUT'S PROGRESS


For the binjali crew:


past, present and future


Chapter One

Typically, the clan which gains the child of a contract-marriage pays a marriage fee to the mating clan, as well as other material considerations. Upon consummation of contract, the departing spouse is often paid a bonus.



Contract-marriage is thus not merely a matter of obeying the Law, but an economic necessity to some of the Lower Houses, where a clanmember might be serially married for most of his or her adult life.

—From "Marriage Customs of Liad"


 


"SINIT, MUST YOU read at table?"

Voni's voice was clear and carrying. It was counted a good feature, Aelliana had heard, though not so pleasing as her face.

At the moment, face and voice held a hint of boredom, as befitted an elder sister confronted with the wearisome necessity of disciplining a younger.

"No, I'm just at a good part," Sinit returned without lifting her head from over the page. She put out a hand and groped for her teacup.

"Really," Voni drawled as Aelliana chose a muffin from the center platter and broke it open. "Even Aelliana knows better than to bring a book to table!"

"It's for anthropology," Sinit mumbled, fingers still seeking her cup. "Truly, I am nearly done, if only you'll stop plaguing me—"

"If you keep on like that," Aelliana murmured, eyes on her plate, "your teacup will be overset, and Ran Eld will ring down a terrific scold. Put the book aside, Sinit, do. If you hurry your breakfast you can still finish reading before your tutor comes."

The youngest of them sighed gustily, and closed the book with rather more force than necessary.

"I suppose," she said reluctantly. "It is the sort of thing Ran Eld likes to go on about, isn't it? And all the worse if I had spilt my tea. Still, it's a monstrous interesting book—I had no idea what queer folk Terrans are! Well," she amended, prudently sliding the book onto her lap, "I knew they were queer, of course—but only imagine marrying who you like, without even a word from your delm and—and kissing those who are not kin! And—"

"Sinit!" Voni put a half-eaten slice of toast hastily back onto her plate, her pretty face pale. She swallowed. "That's disgusting."

"No," Sinit said eagerly, leaning over her plate, to the imminent peril of her shirt-ribbons. "No, it's not disgusting at all, Voni. It's only that they're Terran and don't know any better. How can they behave properly when there are no delms to discipline and no Council of Clans to keep order? And as for marrying whomever one pleases—why that's exactly the same, isn't it? If one lives clanless, with each individual needing to make whatever alliance seems best for oneself—without Code or Book of Clans to guide them, how else—"

"Sinit." Aelliana thought it best to stem this impassioned explanation before Voni's sensibilities moved her to banish their younger sister from the dining hall altogether. "You were going to eat quickly—were you not?—and go into the parlor to finish reading."

"Oh." Recalled to the plan, she picked up a muffin-half and coated it liberally with jam. "I think it would be very interesting to be married," she said, which for Sinit passed as a change of topic.

"Well, I hardly think you shall find out soon," Voni said, with a return of her usual asperity. "Especially if you persist in discussing such—perverse—subjects at table."

"Oh, pooh," Sinit replied elegantly, cramming jam-smeared muffin into her mouth. "It's only that you've been married an hundred times, and so find the whole matter a dead bore."

Voni's eyes glittered dangerously. "Not—quite—an hundred, dear sister. I flatter myself that the profit the clan has made from my contract-marriages is not despicable."

Nor was it, Aelliana acknowledged, worrying her muffin into shreds. At thirty-one, Voni had been married five times—each to Mizel's clear benefit. She was pretty, nice-mannered in company and knew her Code to a full-stop—a valuable daughter of the clan. Just yesterday, she had let drop that there was a sixth marriage in the delm's eye, to young Lord pel'Rula—and that would be a coup, indeed, and send Voni's quarter-share to dizzying height.

"Aelliana's been married," Sinit announced somewhat stickily. "Was it interesting and delightful?"

Aelliana stared fixedly at her plate, grateful for the shielding curtain of her hair. "No," she whispered.

Voni laughed. "Aelliana," she said, reaching into the High Tongue for the Mode of Instruction, "was pleased to allow the delm to know that she would never again accept contract."

Round-eyed, Sinit turned to Aelliana, sitting still and stricken over her shredded breakfast. "But the—the parties, and all the new clothes, and—"

"Good-morning, daughters!" Birin Caylon, Delm Mizel, swept into the dining room on the regal arm of her son Ran Eld, the nadelm. She allowed him to seat her and fetch her a cup of tea as she surveyed the table.

"Sinit, you have jam on your face. Aelliana, I wish you will either eat or not, and in anywise leave over torturing your food. Voni, my dear, Lady pel'Rula calls tomorrow midday. I shall wish to have you by me."

Voni simpered. "Yes, Mother."

Mizel turned to her son, who had taken his accustomed place beside her. "You and I are to meet in an hour, are we not? Be on your mettle, sir: I expect to be shown the benefits of keeping the bulk of our capital in Yerlind Shares."

"There are none," Aelliana told her plate, very quietly.

Alas, not quietly enough. Ran Eld paused with a glass of morning-wine half-way to his lips, eyebrows high in disbelief.

"I beg your pardon?"

I've gone mad, Aelliana thought, staring at the crumbled ruin of her untasted breakfast. Only a madwoman would call Ran Eld's judgment thus into question, the nadelm being—disinclined—to support insolence from any of the long list of his inferiors. Woe for Aelliana that her name was written at the top of that list.

Beg his pardon, she told herself urgently, cold hands fisted on her lap. Bend the neck, take the jibe, be meek, be too poor a thing to provoke attack.

It was a strategy that had served a thousand times in the past. Yet this morning her head remained in its usual half-bowed attitude, face hidden by the silken shield of her hair, eyes fixed to her plate as if she intended to memorize the detail of each painted flower fading into the yellowing china.

"Aelliana." Ran Eld's voice was a purr of pure malice. Too late for begging pardons now, she thought, and clenched her hands the tighter.

"I believe you had an—opinion," Ran Eld murmured, "in the matter of the clan's investments. Come, I beg you not be backward in hinting us toward the proper mode. The good of the clan must carry all before it."

Yes, certainly. Excepting only that the good of the clan had long ago come to mean the enlargement of Ran Eld Caylon's hoard of power. Aelliana touched her tongue to her lips, unsurprised to find that she was trembling.

"Yerlind Shares," she said, quite calmly, and in the mode of Instruction, as if he were a recalcitrant student she was bound to put right, "pay two percent, which must be acknowledged a paltry return, when the other funds offer from three to four-point-one. Neither is its liquidity superior, since Yerlind requires three full days to forward cantra equal to shares. Several of the other, higher-yield options require as little as twenty-eight hours for conversion."

There was a small pause, then her mother's voice, shockingly matter-of-fact: "I wish you will raise your head when you speak, Aelliana, and show attention to the person with whom you are conversing. One would suppose you to have less melant'i than a Terran, the way you are forever hiding your face. I can't think how you came to be so rag-mannered."

Voni tittered, which was expectable. From Ran Eld came only stony silence, in which Aelliana heard her ruin. Nothing would save her now—neither meekness nor apology would buy Ran Eld's mercy when she had shamed him before his delm and his juniors.

Aelliana brought her head up with a smooth toss that cast her hair behind her shoulders and met her brother's eyes.

Brilliantly blue, bright as first-water sapphires, they considered her blandly from beneath arched golden brows. Ran Eld Caylon was a pretty man. Alas, he was also vain, and dressed more splendidly than his station, using a heavy hand in the matter of jewels.

Now, he set his wine glass aside and took a moment to adjust one of his many finger-rings.

"Naturally," he murmured to the room at large, "Aelliana's discourse holds me fascinated. I am astonished to find her so diligent a scholar of economics."

"And yet," Mizel Herself countered unexpectedly, "she makes a valid point. Why should we keep our capital at two percent when we might place it at four?"

"The Yerlind Shares are tested by time and found to be sound," Ran Eld replied. "These—other options—my honored sister displays have been less rigorously tested."

"Ormit is the youngest of the funds I consider," Aelliana heard herself state, still in the mode of Instruction. "Surely fifty years is time enough to prove a flaw, should it exist?"

"And what do I know of the Ormit Fund?" Ran Eld actually frowned and there was a look at the back of his eyes that boded not so well for one Aelliana, once the delm was out of hearing.

She met his glare with a little thrill of terror, but answered calmly, nonetheless.

"A study of the Exchange for as little as a twelve-day will show you Ormit's mettle upon the trading floor," she replied, "Information on their investments and holdings can be had anytime through the data-net."

The frown deepened, but his voice remained dulcet, as ever. "Enlighten me, sister—do you aspire to become the clan's financial advisor?"

"She might do better," Mizel commented, sipping her tea, "than the present one."

Ran Eld turned his head so sharply his earrings jangled. "Mother—"

She held up a hand. "Peace. It seems Aelliana has given the subject thought. A test of her consideration against your own may be in order." She looked across the table.

"What say you, daughter, to taking charge of your own quarter-share and seeing what you can make of it?"

Take charge of her own quarter-share? Four entire cantra to invest as she would? Aelliana clenched her fists until the nails scored her palms.

"Turn Aelliana loose upon the world with four cantra in her hand?" Ran Eld lifted an elegant shoulder. "And when the quarter is done and she has lost it?"

"I scarcely think she will be so inept as to lose her seed," Mizel said with some asperity. "The worst that may happen, in my view, is that she will return us four cantra—at the end of a year."

"A year?" That was Voni, as ever Ran Eld's confederate. "To allow Aelliana such liberty for an entire year may not be to the best good, ma'am."

"Oh?" Mizel put her cup down with a clatter, eyes seeking the face of her middle daughter. "Well, girl? Have you an opinion regarding the length of time the experiment shall encompass?"

"A quarter is too short," Aelliana said composedly. "Two quarters might begin to show a significant deviation. However, it is my understanding that the delm desires proof of a trend to set against facts established and in-house. A year is not too long for such a proof."

"A year it is then," the delm announced and flicked a glance to her heir. "You will advance your sister her quarter-share no later than this evening. We shall see this tested on the floor of the exchange itself."

Sinit laughed at that, and Ran Eld looked black. Voni poured herself a fresh cup of tea.

Aelliana pushed carefully back from the table, rose and bowed to the delm.

"If I may be excused," she murmured, scarcely attending what she said; "I must prepare for a class."

Mizel waved a careless hand and Aelliana made her escape.

"But this is precisely the manner in which Terrans handle affairs of investment!" Sinit said excitedly. "Each person is responsible for his or her own fortune. I think such a system is very exciting, don't you?"

"I think," Voni's clear voice followed Aelliana into the hallway, "that anthropology is not at all good for you, sister."


Chapter Two

Each person shall provide his clan of origin with a child of his blood, who will be raised by the clan and belong to the clan, despite whatever may later occur to place the parent beyond the clan's authority. And this shall be Law for every person of every clan.

—From the Charter of the Council of Clans


Made in the Sixth Year After Planetfall


City of Solcintra, Liad



"LADY YOS'GALAN," the butler announced from the doorway.

The man at the desk looked up from his screen, rose and came forward, hands outstretched in welcome.

"Anne. You're up early." His Terran bore a Liaden accent, lighter than a year ago, and he smiled with genuine pleasure. "Are you well? My brother, your lifemate—and my most excellent nephew!—they enjoy their usual robust health?"

Tall Anne Davis grinned down at him, squeezing his hands affectionately before releasing him.

"You only saw us two days ago," she said. "What could go wrong so quickly?"

"Any number of things!" he assured her, striking a tragic pose that won a ripple of her ready laughter. "Only see how it comes about: This morning I am a free man—this evening, I am affianced!"

Trouble crossed her mobile face, as well it might, she being Terran and holding little patience with contract-marriage. Intellectually, she allowed the efficiency of custom; emotionally, she turned her face aside and would far rather speak of other matters.

"Is it going to be very dreadful for you, Daav?" There was sisterly sympathy in her voice, acceptable from the lifemate of his foster-brother. And indeed, Daav thought wryly, rather more than he had received from his own sister, who, upon hearing the news of his impending contract, had allowed herself an ironic congratulation on duty embraced—at long last.

"Ah, well. One must obey the law, after all." He moved his shoulders, dismissing the subject, and moved toward the wine table.

"What may I give you to drink?"

"Is there tea?"

"As a matter of fact, there is," he said, and drew a cup for each from the silver urn. He carried both to the desk and resumed his seat, waving her to the chair at the corner.

"Now, tell me what takes you abroad so early in the day."

Anne sipped and set her cup aside with a tiny click, leveling a pair of very serious brown eyes.

"I am in need of Delm's Instruction," she stated in the High Tongue, in the very proper mode of Respect to the Delm.

Daav blinked. "Dear me."

Anne's mouth twitched along one corner, but she otherwise preserved her countenance.

Sighing lightly, he glanced down at his hands—long, clever hands, blunt-nailed, calloused along palms and fingertips. He did not care overmuch for ornamentation and wore but a single ring: A band that covered the third finger of his left hand from knuckle to knuckle, the lush enamel work depicting a tree in full leaf over which a dragon hovered on half-furled wings. Clan Korval's Ring, which marked him delm.

"Daav?" Anne's voice was carefully neutral.

He shook himself and looked back to her face, one eyebrow quirking in self-mockery.

"Perhaps you had best make me acquainted with the details of your requirement," he said, in the blessed casualness of Terran. "The delm may not be necessary, tiresome fellow that he is."

Once again, the mere twitch of a smile.

"All right," she said, following him obligingly into her own tongue.

Daav relaxed. It was not entirely clear how much this very unLiaden member of his clan understood of melant'i. He had never known her to make a blunder in society, but that might well be put to the account of her lifemate, who would certainly never allow her to place herself in a position of jeopardy. Whether now moved by understanding or intuition, she was willing to allow him to put off for the moment the burden of his delmhood, and that suited Daav very well.

"In obedience to the Delm's Word," Anne said, after another sip of tea, "I've been studying the diaries of the past delms of Korval, as well as the log books kept by Cantra yos'Phelium, the—inceptor—of the clan."

Daav inclined his head. It was necessary for every member of the Line Direct to master the knowledge contained in Diaries and Log. Terran though she was, Anne stood but two lives from the Ring herself—another subject of which she held shy. Much of the Diaries had to do with politics—doubtless she had come across the record of an ancient Balancing and found herself—understandably!—fuddled.

Daav smiled, for here was no case for Delm's Instruction, but only that teaching which elder kin might gladly offer junior.

"There is a passage in the Diaries which is not perfectly plain?" He grinned. "You amaze me."

She returned the grin full measure, then sobered, eyes darkening, though she did not speak.

"So tell me," Daav invited, since it became clear that such prompting was required, "what have you found in Korval's lamentable history to disturb you?"

"Hardly—entirely—lamentable," Anne said softly, then, firmer: "The Contract."

"So?" He allowed both brows to rise. "You doubt the authenticity of Cantra's Contract with the Houses of Solcintra?"

"Oh, no," she said, with the blitheness of the scholar-expert she was, "it's authentic enough. What I doubt is Korval's assumption of continuance."

"Assumption. And it seems to me so plain-written a document! Quite refreshingly stark, in fact. But I must ask why my cha'leket has not been able to resolve this difficulty for you. We have had much the same instruction in these matters, as he stands the delm's heir."

She looked at him solemnly. "I didn't ask him. He's got quite enough to explain about the Tree."

"You question Jelaza Kazone? That is bold." He waved toward the windowed wall behind him, where the Tree's monumental trunk could be glimpsed through a tangle of flowers and shrubbery. "I would have been tempted to begin with something a bit less definite, I confess."

Anne chuckled. "Pig-headed," she agreed and moved on immediately, leaving him no time to contemplate the startling picture conjured by this metaphor. "Er Thom says the Tree—talks."

Well, and it did, Daav acknowledged, though he would not perhaps have phrased it so—or even yet—to her. However, the Tree did—communicate—to those of the Line Direct. Er Thom, that most unfanciful of men, knew this for fact and had thus informed his lifemate, against whom his heart held no secret.

"I see that he has his work cut out for him," Daav said gravely. "Balance therefore dictates my defense of the Contract. It is fitting. I make a clean breast at once: The Contract does not speak, other than what sense the written words convey."

"Entirely sufficient to the discussion," Anne returned. "The written words convey, in paragraph eight, that—" She paused, flashing him a conscious look. "Maybe you'd like to call a copy up on the screen, so you can see what I'm talking about?"

"No need; the Contract is one of—several—documents my delm required I commit to memory during training." He sipped tea, set the cup aside and raised his eyes to hers. "I understand your trouble has root in the provision regarding the continuing duties of the Captain and her heirs. That seems the plainest-writ of all. Show me where I am wrong."

"It's very plainly written," Anne said calmly. "Of course it would be—they were making such a desperate gamble. The Captain's responsibilities are very carefully delineated, as is the chain of command. In a situation where assumption might kill people, nothing is assumed. I have no problem with the original intent of the document. My problem stems from the assumption held by Clan Korval that the Contract is still in force."

Oh, dear. But how delightfully Terran, after all. Daav inclined his head.

"There is no period of expiration put forth," he pointed out calmly. "Nor has the Council of Clans yet relieved Korval of its contractual duty. The delm of Korval is, by the precise wording of that eighth paragraph, acknowledged to be Captain and sworn to act for the best benefit of the passengers." He smiled.

"Which has come to mean all Liadens—and I do acknowledge the elasticity of that interpretation. However, one could hardly limit oneself to merely overlooking the well-being of the descendants of the original Houses of Solcintra. Entirely aside from the fact that Grandmother Cantra would never have accepted a contract that delineated a lower class of passenger and a higher, the Council of Clans has become the administering body. And the Council of Clans, so it states in the Charter, speaks for all clans." He moved his shoulders, offering another smile.

"Thus, the Captain's duty increases."

"Daav, that Contract is a thousand years old!"

"Near enough," he allowed, nodding in the Terran way.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, perhaps to calm herself. Eyes still closed, she said, flatly, "Paragraph eight makes you the king of the world."

"No, only recall those very painstaking lists of duty! I'm very little more than a tightly-channeled—what is the phrase?—feral trump?"

"Wild card." She opened her eyes. "You do acknowledge the—the Captain's melant'i? You consider yourself the overseer of the whole world—of all the passengers?"

"I must," he said quietly. "The Contract is in force."

She expelled air in a pouf, half laugh, half exasperation. "A completely Liaden point of view!"

Daav lifted a brow. "My dear child, I'm no more Liaden than you are."

Her eyes came swiftly up, face tensing—and relaxing into a smile. "You mean that you've been a Scout. I grant you have more experience of the universe than I ever will. Which is why I find it so particularly odd—the Council of Clans must have forgotten the Contract even exists! A thousand years? Surely you're putting yourself—the clan—at risk by taking on such a duty now?"

"Argued very like a Liaden," Daav said with a grin, and raised a hand to touch the rough twist of silver hanging in his right ear. "It does not fall within the scope of Korval's melant'i to suppose what the Council may or may not have forgotten. The second copy of the Contract was seen in open Council three hundred years ago—at the time of the last call upon Captain's Justice."

"Three hundred years?"

He nodded, offering her the slip of a smile. "Not a very arduous duty, you see. I oversee the passengers' well-being as I was taught by my delm, guided by Diaries and Log—and anticipate no opportunity to take on the melant'i of king."

Silence. Anne's eyes were fixed on a point somewhat beyond his shoulder. A frown marred the smoothness of her brow.

"I have not satisfied you," Daav said gently. "And the pity is, you know, that the delm can do no better."

She fixed on his face, mouth curving ruefully. "I'll work on it," she said, sounding somewhat wistful. "Though I'm not sure I'm cut out for talking Trees and thousand-year Captains."

"It's an odd clan," Daav conceded with mock gravity. "Mad as moonbeams. Anyone will say so."

"Misspeak the High House of Korval? I think not." Anne grinned and stood, holding out her hand. "Thank you for your time. I'm sorry to be such a poor student."

"Nothing poor at all, in the scholar who asks why." He rose and took her hand. "Allow me to walk you to your car. Your lifemate still intends to bear me company tonight, does he not? I won't know how to go on if he denies me his support."

"As if he would," Anne said with a shake of her head. "And you'd go on exactly as you always do, whether he's with you or not."

"Ah, no, you wrong me! Er Thom is my entree into the High Houses. His manners open all doors."

"Whereas Korval Himself finds all doors barred against him," she said ironically.

"That must be the case, if there were more students of history among us. But, there, scholarship is a dying art! No one memorizes the great events anymore—gossip and triviality are all."

Halfway across the sun-washed patio, Anne paused, looking down at him from abruptly serious brown eyes.

"How many is 'several'?"

He lifted a brow. "I beg your pardon?"

"You said you'd had to memorize 'several' documents, besides the Contract. I wondered—"

"Ah." He bowed slightly. "I once calculated—in an idle moment, you know!—that it would require three-point-three relumma to transcribe the material I have memorized. You must understand that I have committed to memory only the most vital information, in case the resources of Jelaza Kazone's library be—unavailable—to me."

"Three-point-three . . ." Anne shook her head sharply. "Are you—all right?"

"I am Korval," Daav said, with an austerity that surprised him quite as much as her. "Sanity is a secondary consideration."

"And Er Thom—Er Thom has had the same training."

So that was what distressed her of a sudden. Daav smiled. "Much of the same training, yes. But you must remember that Er Thom memorizes entire manifests for the pleasure of it."

She laughed. "Too true!" She bent in a swoop and kissed his cheek—a gesture of sisterly affection that warmed him profoundly. "Take care, Daav."

"Take care, Anne. Until soon."

She crossed the patio with her long stride and slipped into the waiting car. Daav watched until the car went 'round the first curve in the drive, then reluctantly went back into the house, to his desk and the delm's work.


Chapter Three

Those who enter Scout Academy emerge after rigorous training capable of treating equitably with societies unimaginably alien, some savage beyond belief



Scouts are by definition courageous, brilliant, supremely adaptable and endlessly resourceful.

—Excerpted from "All About the Liaden Scouts"


 


"THE QUESTION we address in this scenario," Aelliana replied sharply, "is not, 'am I able to perform this level of math without a computer lab to back me up?' but, 'shall I acknowledge the effort to be impossible, and give myself up to die'?"

The six students—five Scouts and a field engineer—exchanged glances, doubtless startled by her vehemence. So be it. If startlement bought them life, their instructor had served them well. She inclined her head and continued.

"I consider that any student still enrolled at this point in the course will possess sufficient memory and strength of will to win through to life, provided they also possess a ship with a functioning Jump unit."

Her students looked at her expectantly.

"Availability of the ven'Tura Tables is useful, but the full tables are not required if the following can be determined: Your initial mass within three percent. Your initial Jump charge to within twenty percent as long as it falls within the pel'Endra Ratio—which, as you know by now, may be derived using the local intrinsic electron counterspin and approximate mass-curve of the nearest large mass. If you are outside a major gravity well you may ignore the Ratio and proceed." She paused to consider six rapt faces, six pairs of avid eyes, before concluding the list of necessaries.

"You must, finally and most importantly, have lines one through twenty and one-ninety through one-ninety-nine of the basic table memorized."

Someone groaned. Aelliana suspected Var Mon, youngest and least repressible of the six, and fixed him with a stern eye.

"Recall the problem: You are stranded in an unexplored sector, coordinates lost, main comp and navigation computer destroyed or useless. Your goal must be to arrive within hailing distance of one or more space-going worlds. You will break many regulations by applying the approach I outline, but you will adhere to the highest regulation: Survive."

She paused.

"This approach requires thought before implementation: You must know the system-energy coordinates of the location you will be Jumping to before you arrive. There is opportunity for error here, as the Jump equation requires you to transform your current mass-energy ratio into one exactly equivalent to that of the rescue destination. Therefore, the initial definition, including the first assumption, must be exact to within several decimal places, to assure a match of both magnetic and temporal magnitudes."

Once more Aelliana surveyed their faces; saw several pair of doubtful eyes. Well for them to doubt. The danger was real: A mismatched equation meant implosion, translation into a mass, explosion—death, in a word. It was hers to demonstrate that such a situation as the problem described—all too common in the duty the Scouts took for themselves—was survivable. She raised a hand.

"A demonstration," she said. "Please provide the following: Rema—an existing system equation."

It came, a shade too glib. Aelliana 'scribed it to the autoboard behind her via the desk-remote, sparing a mental smile for Scout mischief. Every class thought they would catch her out with a bit of clever foolery. Every class learned its error—eventually.

"Var Mon—a reasonable mass and charge for your ship—" He supplied it and she called on the others, bringing the portions of the equation together and transcribing them to the autoboard. Now.

"Overlooking for the present that one marooned in Solcintra Port might just as easily call a taxi—this is a survivable situation. One could indeed Jump from Solcintra to the outer fringe of Terra system by deriving the spin rates from the tables—note line fourteen and its match in line one-ninety-seven, part three for the proof."

There was sheepish titter from the class, which Aelliana affected not to hear. Really, to assume she would fail of knowing the coords for the largest spaceport on the planet! She raised her hand, demanding serious attention.

"To our next meeting you will bring the proof just mentioned, with an illustration of derived figures. Also, an explanation of the most dangerous assumption made by the student supplying the Terran system equations."

She looked around the half-circle. Several students were still 'scribing into their notetakers. Scout Corporal Rema ven'Deelin, who had an eidetic memory, was staring with haze-eyed intensity at the autoboard.

"Questions?" Aelliana murmured as the chittering of note-keys faded into silence.

"Scholar Caylon, will you partner with me?" That was Var Mon, irrepressible as always.

"I fear you would find me entirely craven in the matter of fighting off savage beasts or in conversing with primitive peoples," she said, bending her head in bogus scrutiny of the desk-remote.

"Never should I risk losing such a piloting resource to savage beasts! You should stay snug in the ship, on my honor!"

Rema laughed. "Don't let him cozen you, Scholar—he only wants someone to do the brain work while he sleeps. Though it is true," she added thoughtfully, "that Var Mon is uniquely suited to—ahh—grunt-work—eh, Baan?"

Scout Pilot Baan yo'Nelon moved his shoulders expressively as Var Mon slid down in his chair, the picture of mortification.

"Never, never, never shall I overlive the tale," he groaned. "Scholar Caylon, have pity! Rescue me from these brutes who call themselves comrades!"

But this was only more of Var Mon's foolery, entirely safe to ignore. Aelliana did so, rising to signal the end of the session.

Her class rose as one student and bowed respect.

"Thanks to you, Scholar, for an astonishing lesson," said Field Technician Qiarta tel'Ozan, who, as eldest, was often spokesperson for the class. "It is, as always, a delight to behold the process of your thought."

Prettily enough said, but inaccurate—deadly inaccurate for any of these, whose lives depended upon the precision of their calculations. Aelliana brought her hand up sharply, commanding the group's attention.

"Beholding the process of my thought may delight," she said, shaking her hair away from her face and looking at them as they stood before her, one by solemn one. "But you must never forget that mathematics is reality, describing relationships of space, time, distance, velocity. Mathematics can keep you alive, or it can kill you. It is not for the weak-willed, or—" she glanced at Var Mon, to Rema's not-so-secret delight—"for the lazy. The equations elucidate what is. Knowing what is, you must act, quickly and without hesitation." Her hand had begun to shake. She lowered it to her side, surreptitiously curling cold fingers into a fist.

"I do not wish to hear that one of my students has died stupidly, for want of the boldness to grasp and use what the calculations have clearly shown."

There was a moment's silence before the field tech bowed again: Honor-to-the-Master. "We shall not shame you, Scholar."

Aelliana inclined her head; her hair slipped forward, curtaining her face. "I expect not. Good-day. We meet again Trilsday-noon."

"Good-day, Scholar," her students murmured respectfully and filed out, Rema and Var Mon already involved in some half-whispered debate.

Aelliana sank back into the instructor's slot, dawdling over the simple task of clearing the autoboard and forwarding copies of the lecture to her office comp and to Director Barq.

Chonselta Technical College employed Scholar of Subrational Mathematics Aelliana Caylon with pride, so the director often said. Certainly, it prided itself on her seminar in practical mathematics. What a coup for the college's melant'i, after all, that Scout Academy sent its most able cadets to Chonselta Tech for honing.

Such reputation for excellence earned her a bonus, most semesters, a fact she had never seen fit to mention to her brother. Ran Eld liked it best when she bowed low and gave him "sir" as she surrendered her wages. Indeed, he had once struck her for her infernal chattering, which action had, remarkably, earned him the delm's frown. But Aelliana took good care never to chatter to her brother again.

The copies were made and sent, the autoboard was clear. The hall beyond the open door was empty; she sensed no patient, silent Scout awaiting her. They learned quickly enough that she was tongue-tied and graceless outside of class. This far into the semester no one was likely to disturb her uneasy peace with an offer of escort.

Yet she sat there, head bent, eyes on her hands, folded into quiet on the desk. She bore no rank within Mizel; her single ring was a death-gift from her grandmother. Aelliana stared at the ancient weavings and interlockings until the scarred silver blurred into a smear of gray.

How could she have been so foolish? Her mind, released from the discipline of instruction, returned to its earlier worries. Whatever was she thinking, to challenge Ran Eld's authority, to call his judgment into question and shame him before the delm? The last half year had seen a decrease in her brother's vigilance over herself. She had dared to believe—and now this. A slight that held no hope of passing unavenged, born of three words, whispered in a lapse of that essential wariness . . . Aelliana bit her lip.

Peace lay in meekness, safety in invisibility. To care—about anything!—to lift up her face and challenge the dreary, daily what-is—that was to become visible. And in exposure to Ran Eld's eye lay an end to both safety and peace.

In the warm classroom, Aelliana shivered. Resolutely, she unfolded her hands, placed the remote precisely into its place and rose, going down the hall silent and unnoticed, head bowed and eyes fixed on the floor directly before her.


CRAVEN, she had tarried long in her office and returned home in the cool evening, ghosted across the dim foyer and up the front stairway, toward her rooms.

He burst from the shadows on the second floor landing, catching her hard around the wrist.

Aelliana froze, wordlessly enduring the touch. His fingers tightened, ring-bands cutting into her flesh.

"We missed you at Prime Meal, sister," he murmured and she could not quite damp her shudder. Ran Eld laughed.

"How you hate me, Aelliana. Eh?" He shook her wrist, rings biting deeper. "You were bold enough at breakfast, were you not? Raised your head and stared me in the eye. I fancied I saw a bit of the old wildness there, but mayhap it was a trick of the light. Best to be certain, however, so one knows how to proceed."

That quickly he moved, knotting her hair in his free hand and wrenching her head up.

She gasped—a whispered scream—and closed her eyes against a surge of sick panic. Thus had her husband handled her, time and again, until her body grew to loathe the touch of any hand, kindly or severe.

"Look at me!" Ran Eld snapped. Precisely thus had he commanded her. Twice, perhaps, in the very beginning, she had willfully kept her eyes closed. He very soon broke her of such nonsense.

Half-strangled with fright, she forced her eyes open.

For an age she hung suspended in the malice of her brother's glare, the mauling of her wrist and the misuse of scalp and neck muscles reduced by terror to the veriest nothings.

"So." He twisted her knotted hair more tightly, perhaps hoping for another outcry. When none came forth, he brought his face close to hers, eyes glittering in the dimness of the landing.

"It occurs to me, sister," he purred, breath breaking hot against her cheek, "that you give very little toward the upkeep of this clan. Such paltry wages as you bring me from your teaching are hardly more than might be made by one or two well-considered contracts."

Her heart lurched. She forced herself to swallow, to hang limp in his grasp and keep her eyes open against the sear of his anger.

"The delm," she whispered, voice trembling, "the delm gave me her Word. I am acquitted of more marriages."

"So you are," Ran Eld murmured, eyes glinting. "However, a new delm may very well hold a new understanding of the clan's necessities and the duty owed by—some." He smiled suddenly, eyes raking her face.

"Why, I do believe you had not thought of that! Poor Aelliana, did no one tell you that nadelms become delms?"

Her face must have shown the full measure of her dismay for he laughed then and released her with a shove that sent her reeling against the landing-rail.

"I am delighted we have had this opportunity for discussion," Ran Eld said, bowing with broad irony. "It would have been a dreadful thing, indeed, to allow you to continue on with no anticipation of the pleasant future to sustain you."

He laughed once more and shook his lace into order. Aelliana huddled where she had been flung, hands gripping the rail so tightly her fingers cramped.

Her brother turned to go; turned back.

"Ah, yes, there was something else," he said with studied negligence. One hand moved; four coins flashed in the dimness, falling. "Your quarter-share."

He smiled.

"Invest wisely, sister. And do remember to give me a written report on the progress of your portfolio every twelve-day. I would be behindhand in my duty if I did not closely oversee so chancy a venture." He bowed. "Good-night, Aelliana. Dream well."

He was gone. At last she shut her dry eyes, listening as his footsteps faded down the stairs and crossed the stone-floored foyer. A moment later she heard the door to the parlor creak on its ancient hinges, hesitate, and fall closed.

Aelliana sank to her knees on the thin carpet. Gods, how could she have been so stupid? How could she have forgotten, when from that single irrefutable fact came all that she was today: Nadelms became delms.

Of course they did.

And she, blind fool, to think Delm's Word would shield her forever; to believe that she had only to appease Ran Eld sufficiently, to show that she did not—had never—wanted it. To think that, eventually, matters would mend.

Ran Eld would be delm someday; gods willing, not soon.

But when he finally came into his rightful estate there was one task he would immediately set himself to accomplish: The annihilation of Aelliana Caylon, his old and bitter enemy.

He would kill her, she thought, shuddering. He would breed her until her body broke, choosing such husbands as would discover the first to be a paragon of gentle virtue. He would invite her to beg his mercy and glory in refusing it; he would slap her face in company and fling her into walls for the pleasure of hearing her cry.

Gods, why had she never seen that every time the current delm stayed Ran Eld's hand, two blows were banked for later delivery?

I must leave.

The thought was so shocking, so perfect, that she raised her head, shaking tangled hair away from her face, the better to stare into the dim air. Terrans lived clanless, did they not? And by all accounts prospered—or the clever ones did. One needed only be canny in one's investments, and—

Investments.

She flung forward, scrabbling among the frayed rug-loops. Her frantic fingers found them quickly; she cradled their coolness in her hot palm, breathing fast and hard.

Four cantra.

Not a fortune, certainly, though she approached seven, counting her hoarded bonuses. It might well be enough to buy her free of a future where Ran Eld was delm.

Clutching her meager treasure, she lurched to her feet. She would leave the clan, leave Liad, start anew among the free-living Terrans. She would go now. Tonight.

She stowed the four cantra in her right sleeve-pocket, sealing the opening with care.

Then she went, silent and breath-caught, down the stairs. She crossed the foyer like a waft of breeze and let herself out the front door and into the mist-laced night.


Chapter Four

As each individual strives to serve the clan, so shall the clan provide what is necessary for the best welfare of each. Within the clan shall be found, truth, kinship, affection and care. Outside of the clan shall be found danger and despite.



Those whom the clan, in sorrow, rejects, shall be Accepted of no other clan. They shall neither seek to return to their former kin nor shall they demand quarter-share, food or succor.



To be outside of the clan is to be dead to the clan.

—Excerpted from the Liaden Code of Proper Conduct


 


DAAV CAME INTO the Small Parlor, eyebrows up.

"Good evening, brother. Am I late?"

"Not at all," Er Thom yos'Galan replied, turning from the window with a smile. "I came before time, so that we might talk, if you would."

"Why would I not? Wine?"

"Thank you."

Er Thom preferred the red. Daav splashed a portion into a crystal cup and handed it aside, surveying his cha'leket's evening clothes with a smile.

"You look extremely, darling. Bindan shall have no hesitation in opening the door this evening."

"As they would certainly hesitate to admit Korval Himself," Er Thom said, in echo of his lifemate.

Daav grinned and poured himself a cup of pale blue misravot. "No, you are the beauty, after all. What could Bindan find for pleasure in such a fox-faced fellow as myself?" He sipped. "Discounting, of course, an alliance such as no one of sense will turn aside."

"So bitter, brother?" Er Thom's soft voice carried a note of sorrow.

Daav moved his shoulders. "Bitter? Say jaded, rather, and then pardon—as you always do!—my damnable moods." He raised his cup. "What had you wished to speak of?"

"We are on my subject," his brother said gently. "It had been in my mind that you did not—like—the match."

"Like the match," Daav repeated, staring in surprise. For Anne to question the validity of a contract-marriage was expectable. To hear such a query from Er Thom, who was Liaden to the core of him—that must give one pause.

"Have you information," he asked carefully, "which might—alter—the delm's decision in this?"

"I have nothing to bring before the delm. Indeed, lady and clan appear perfectly unexceptional, in terms of alliance and of genes. My concern is all for my cha'leket, who I—feel—may not be entirely reconciled to marriage."

"I am reconciled to necessity," Daav said, which did not answer his brother's concern, and held as its only virtue the fact that it was true.

Worry showed plain in Er Thom's eyes.

"Daav, if you do not like it, stand aside."

Plain speaking, indeed! Daav allowed astonishment to show.

"Darling, what would you have me do? The law is clear. Necessity is clearer. I must provide the clan with the heir of my body. Indeed, full nurseries at Jelaza Kazone and Trealla Fantrol must be the delm's goal, for we are grown thin—dangerously so."

He saw that point strike home, for it was true that the Line Direct had suffered severe losses in recent years. And yet—

"If you cannot like the lady," Er Thom insisted, with all the tenacity a master trader might bring to bear, "stand aside. Bid Mr. dea'Gauss find another—"

"As to that," Daav interrupted, with some asperity, "I like her as well as any other lady who has been thrown at my head these past six years."

"You have grown bitter. I had feared it." He turned aside; put his glass away from him. "I shall not accompany you this evening, I think."

Shock sent a tingle of ice down Daav's spine. In the aftermath of disbelief, he heard his own voice, dangerously mild.

"You refuse to assist your delm in a matter of such import to the clan?"

Er Thom's shoulders stiffened, his face yet turned aside.

"Will the delm order me to accompany him?" he inquired softly.

Yes, very likely! Daav thought, with a wry twist of humor. Order Er Thom to any thing like and Daav would gain as his evening's companion an exquisitely mannered mannequin in place of a willing, intelligent ally. It was no more Balance than he would himself exact, were their places changed.

Er Thom being quite as much Korval as Daav, persuasion alone was left open. He extended a hand and lay it gently upon his brother's arm.

"Come, why shall we disagree over what cannot be escaped? If not this lady, it must be some other. I am of a mind to have the matter done with, and the best course toward finish lies through begun."

Er Thom turned his head, raised troubled violet eyes. "Yet it is not—meet, when you do not care for her, when any is the same as one—"

"No," Daav interrupted gently. "No, darling, you have lost sight of custom. The Code tells us that a contract-spouse is chosen for lineage and such benefits of alliance and funding as must be found desirable by one's delm. It notes that resolution may be brought about more speedily, if both spouses are of generally like mind and neither is entirely repulsed by the other. You know your Code, own that I am correct."

"You are correct," Er Thom acknowledged, with an inclination of the head. "However, I submit that the Code is not—"

"I submit," Daav interrupted again, even more gently, "that you have been taught by a Terran wife."

A flash of violet eyes. "And that is an ill, I understand?"

"Not at all. Scouts learn that all custom is equally compelling, upon its own world. I point out that Korval is based—however regretfully—upon Liad."

Er Thom's eyes widened slightly. "So we are," he murmured after a moment. He grinned suddenly. "We might relocate."

"To New Dublin, I suppose," Daav said, naming Anne's homeworld with a smile. "The Contract is still in force."

"Alas." Er Thom recovered his wine glass and sipped, eyes roving the room.

The point was his, Daav considered with relief, and had recourse to his own glass.

"I do wish," Er Thom murmured, "that you might find one to care for—as Anne and I . . ."

Daav raised a brow. "I shall advertise in The Gazette," he said, meaning to offer an absurdity: "'Daav yos'Phelium seeks one who might love him for himself alone. Those qualified apply to Jelaza Kazone, Solcintra, Liad.'"

Er Thom frowned. "You do not believe such a one exists."

"I have met a great many people in the six years I have worn the Ring," Daav said with matching gravity. "If such a one exists, she has been—reticent."

Er Thom glanced away then, but not before Daav had seen the quick shine of tears in his eyes.

They finished their wine in a silence not so easy as usual.

"It is time, brother," Daav said at last. "Do you come with me?"

"Yes, certainly," Er Thom replied. "I had left my cloak in the hall."

"Mine is with it," Daav said, and arm-in-arm, they quit the room.


IT WAS LATE.

Aelliana had no very clear notion of precisely how late; her thoughts, fears, and discoveries muddled time past counting.

Less hasty consideration showed that her initial plan—to leave Clan Mizel and Liad immediately—required modification. She walked the misty streets for unheeded hours, working and reworking the steps, weighing necessity against certitude, honor against fear.

Fact: In due time, and barring unfortunate accidents, nadelms did, indeed, become delms.

Fact: Learned Scholar of Subrational Mathematics Aelliana Caylon, lately resolved to flee her homeworld for the comforts of a Terran settlement, spoke not one word of Standard Terran, nor any of the numerous Terran dialects. She did, of course, speak Trade, and understand somewhat of the Scout's finger-talk, but she could not, upon sober reflection, suppose this knowledge to balance her ignorance.

She might take sleep-learning to remedy her deficiency of language. But even sleep-learning takes time; and the skills thus gained must be exercised in waking mind, or else be lost like any other dream.

There were, of course, luxury liners which made such things as Learning Modules available to their passengers, but to book such passage was—

Fact: Beyond her meager means.

A visit to the ticketing office in mid-city had revealed that seven cantra would indeed buy passage to a Terran world, via tramp trader. If she wished to crew as part of her fare—and if the captain of the vessel agreed—she might reduce her cost to four cantra.

In either wise, she arrived at her destination—one Desolate—clanless, bankrupt; ignorant of language, custom and local conditions.

A badly flawed equation, in any light. She leaned against a damp pillar and closed her eyes, sickened by the magnitude of the things she did not know.

Ran Eld was right, she thought drearily: She was a fool. How could she have considered leaving Liad? She was no Scout, trained in the ways of countless odd customs, able to learn foreign tongues simply by hearing them said . . .

"Scholar Caylon?" The voice was familiar, light and young, the mode, of all things, Comrade, though she took pains to be no one's friend.

"Scholar Caylon?" the voice persisted, somewhat more urgently. She had the sense that there was a body very close to her own, though her interlocutor did not venture a touch. "It is Rema, Scholar. Do you require aid?"

Rema, Scout Corporal ven'Deelin. She of the eidetic memory. Aelliana pried open her eyes.

"I beg your pardon," she whispered, answering the warmth of Comrade mode with the coolth of Nonkin. Her glance skated past the Scout's face.

"Indeed, it is nothing. I had only stopped to rest for a—" Her gaze wandered beyond the Scout's shoulder and for the first time in many hours Aelliana's brain attended to the information her eyes reported.

"What place is this?" she demanded, staring at a wholly unfamiliar plaza, at a double rainbow of lights that blazed and flashed along a sidewalk like a ribbon of gold. Folk were about in distressing number, most in cloaks and evening dress, small constellations of jewels glittering about their elegant persons. Others were dressed more plainly, with here and there a glimpse of Scout leather, such as the girl before her wore.

"Chonselta Port," Rema said patiently, yet insisting upon Comrade. "It is the new gaming hall—Quenpalt's Casino. We've all come down to see it—and half Solcintra, as well, by the look of the crowd!"

Chonselta Port. Gods, she had walked the long angle through the city, entirely through the warehouse district, passed all unknowing between the gates and then walked half her original distance again. It must be . . . must be . . .

"The time," she said, suddenly urgent. "What is the time?"

"Local midnight, or close enough," Rema replied. She swayed half-a-step closer. "Forgive me, Scholar. It is plain that you are not well. Allow me to call your kin."

"No!" Her hand snapped up, imperative. Rema's eyes followed the motion, snagged—and slid away.

Startled, Aelliana glanced down. The bracelet of bruises circling her wrist was green and yellow, distressingly obvious in the extravagant light.

"Perhaps," the Scout suggested softly, "there is a place where you would prefer to spend the night. Perhaps there is a—friend—in whose care you might rest easy. I am your willing escort, Scholar, only tell me your destination."

She felt tears prick the back of her eyes, who had long ago learned not to weep.

"You are kind," she murmured, and meant it, though she dared not allow herself the mode of comrades. "There is no need for you to trouble yourself on my behalf. I have only walked further than I had supposed and the hour escaped my notice."

"I see," Rema said gravely. She hesitated and seemed about to say more.

"Well, for space sake," commented an irritated voice only too plainly belonging to Var Mon, "if your object was to stand out in the damned mist all night—" He blinked, coming up short just beyond Rema's shoulder.

"Scholar Caylon! Good evening, ma'am. Have you come to beat the house?"

"Beat the house?" she repeated stupidly, wondering how she might explain her late homecoming, when Ran Eld was already watching, eager for a chance to pain her.

"Certainly! Have you not taught us that there is no such thing as a game of chance? For every mode of play there is a pattern which, once recognized, may be manipulated according to the rules of mathematics. You recall the lecture, Rema, I know you do!"

"I do," his friend said shortly, and without sparing him a glance. "Scholar, please. You are plainly far from well. Allow one who holds you in highest respect to offer aid."

"Not well?" Var Mon sent a brilliant glance into Aelliana's face, then tapped Rema's shoulder with an authoritative forefinger. "She's wet, is all. Anyone would be, standing around in this stupid mist. I'm getting wet myself, if it comes to that. Glass of brandy will set her right." He pointed down the length of golden sidewalk to a cascade of gem-lit stairs crowned by wide ebon doors.

"Nearest source of brandy's right there—not to mention shelter from the weather. There's room at our table for the Scholar. After she's warmed herself she can give us some advice on winning against the random and we'll see her into a cab before we start back to Academy. Everything's binjali, hey?"

Binjali—a not-Liaden word enjoying currency only among Scouts, so far as Aelliana knew—meant "excellent" or "high-grade. " She forced her fuddled brain to work. Something must be done to disarm Rema's all-too-apparent concern. Scouts were observant, many were empathic, as well, though of a different skill level than an interactive empath, or Healer. Perhaps a glass or two of wine, and a lecture on practical math in relation to games of chance . . .

"That sounds a good plan," she said, looking past Rema's grave eyes to Var Mon's mischievous face. "I am damp and would welcome a chance to dry."

"Good enough," the boy returned with a grin. Without more discussion, he spun on his heel and moved away down the crowded sidewalk, obviously expecting that they would follow.

"Scholar?" murmured Rema, but Aelliana pretended not to hear and pushed away from the friendly wall, following Var Mon's leather-clad back through the glittering crowd.


Chapter Five

Remember who we are.


We are not Solcintran.


We are not derived from the Old Houses.


We are Korval


Keep the Contract, protect the Tree, gather ships, survive.


But never, never, never let them make you forget who you are.

—Val Con yos'Phelium,


Second Delm of Korval,


Entry in the Delm's Diary for Jeelum Twelfthday


in the Fourth Relumma of the Year Named Qin


 


THE LADY HAD EXPECTED a more costly jewel.

Not that she was so ill-bred as to actually say it, but Scouts are skilled in reading the language of muscle and posture: To Daav, her disappointment could scarcely have been plainer had she cried it aloud.

He was stung at first, for it was a pretty piece, and he had expended time and care in its choosing. However, his innate sense of the ridiculous soon laid salve upon injured feelings.

Come, Daav, he chided himself, where is the profit in contracting Korval, if not in having extravagant jewelry to flaunt in the face of the world? Being so little fond of jewels yourself, this aspect of the case doubtless escaped you.

He had a sip of tolerable red. No matter, he thought. The marriage-jewels shall be more fitly chosen, now her preference is known.

Beside him, Samiv tel'Izak gently replaced the troth-gift in its carved wooden box and set it on the table. Daav felt another twinge of regret. He had carved the little box himself—not, it must be admitted, with the lady at all in his thoughts, but rather as a means of calming mind and heart on a day some years past. Still, the feel of hand-carving must be unmistakable against her fingertips, odd enough to earn at least a second glance.

Samiv tel'Izak took up her glass and lifted grave eyes to his face.

"I thank your lordship for the grace of your gift."

It was said with complete propriety in the mode of Addressing-a Delm-Not-One's-Own. There were several other modes she might have chosen with equal propriety—and greater warmth: Addressing-a-Guest-of-the-House, Adult-to-Adult, or even Pilot-to-Pilot, though that approached the Low Tongue, and might be considered forward-coming.

Samiv tel'Izak was not forward-coming. A solid daughter of a solid mid-level House, Daav suspected that her delm's instruction held her to a loftier mode than she might have chosen on her own: Addressing a Delm Not One's Own was taking the High Tongue high, indeed.

In balance, Daav should make answer in Addressing One Not of His Clan, which came uncomfortably close to Nonkin. He chose instead to set an example of good fellowship in this, their first meeting alone, and hope well-bred manners would force her to follow his lead.

"To give the gift is joy," he told her in Adult-to-Adult, then offered a branch of active friendship: "Joy would be made greater, did you consider yourself free of my personal name."

Long, mahogany-colored lashes swept coyly down, while shoulder muscles shrieked aloud of triumph and some daring.

"Your lordship is gracious."

Daav's eyebrow twitched, which warning sign she did not see. He sipped his wine, blandly considering the studied curve of her neck.

So I'm to be smitten, am I? he thought sardonically—and then thought again. Perhaps, instead, he was punished for giving so paltry a gift? He wondered which would become annoying soonest, gloating or greed.

"One learns that your contract with Luda Soldare commences somewhat sooner than expected," he murmured, keeping stubbornly to Adult-to-Adult. "When do you lift?"

"The master trader was pleased to amend the route," she replied, keeping just as stubbornly to her own choice of mode. "We break orbit tomorrow, Solcintra dawn."

First Class Pilot tel'Izak had signed an employment contract with the captain of the newly commissioned trade ship Luda Soldare just prior to her delm's receiving notification of Korval's interest. This previous commitment was the reason that this evening Samiv and Daav signed a letter of intent rather than a contract of marriage.

Once signed, they were bound to each other by the terms of the letter, which further stipulated that the actual marriage commence not more than three full days after Luda Soldare released Pilot tel'Izak from her duty. There were the usual buy-out clauses on the side of Bindan. As the clan seeking the marriage, Korval waived right of termination.

"And has the master trader also been pleased to alter the tour?" Daav wondered, watching his soon-to-be-betrothed closely.

Her face remained properly grave, though the breath on which she answered was slightly deeper than the one before it.

"On the contrary, the master trader counseled one to plan the signing of one's marriage lines on the third day of the coming Standard Year."

Three Standard Months—a very prudent time for a new vessel's shakedown voyage. Daav inclined his head and, obedient to the promptings of his lamentable sense of humor, offered the lady a sardonic compliment:

"I shall count each day as three, until you are returned."

"Your Lordship is gracious," she murmured, and he detected neither irony nor pleasure in her voice.

He was saved the necessity of forming a reply to this rather uncommunicative statement by the entrance of the butler, come to summon them to the signing room, where Delm Bindan and Er Thom had been arranging things this age.

Samiv tel'Izak rose immediately and bowed, allowing him to precede her, which was the privilege of his rank. He stifled a sigh as he followed the butler down the hallway and decided that, before either greed or gloating did their work, propriety would drive him mad.


THE TABLE WAS LARGE, crowded and boisterous. A place was made for Aelliana between Rema and Var Mon, the shortage of chairs being remedied by a bit of deft piracy from neighboring tables.

Brandy was called for—"A double for the Scholar!" Var Mon ordered—and arrived amid a chef's ransom of food platters. At once, Rema snatched up a filigreed plate and began loading it with exotic savories.

Aelliana had a cautious sip of brandy and watched the Scout in awe. Her own appetite was never robust and it seemed such an amount of food would serve her needs for a week. Yet Rema clearly intended this laden plate to be a mere snack or late-night luncheon.

She assayed another sip of brandy, relishing the resulting sensation of warmth. Brandy was not her usual beverage—indeed, she rarely drank even wine—but she found it pleasing. She had a third sip, somewhat deeper than the first two.

"Of your grace, Scholar." Rema again. Aelliana lowered her glass and regarded the plate the Scout set firmly before her with a mixture of astonishment and dismay.

"The house brandy is potent," Rema murmured. "You will wish to eat something, and minimize the effects."

Having thus issued her instruction, the Scout turned away and leapt willy-nilly into a spirited discussion taking place at the opposite end of the table. As less than half the comments were rendered in Liaden—and none in Trade—Aelliana was very soon adrift and perforce turned her attention to that dismayingly over-full plate.

Mizel laid a simple table and Aelliana was not such a pretender to elegance as her elder brother, to be always dining at the first restaurants. Of the foodstuffs chosen for her, she could reliably identify cheese, fresh vegetables and a thin slice of fruit-bread. All else was mystery.

Well, she thought, brief moments ago brandy had likewise been a mystery, and only see how pleasant that encounter had been.

Indeed, the brandy was displaying ever more beguiling charms. She not only felt warmed, but rather delightfully—unconnected, as if the terrors that had driven her from Mizel's clanhouse only hours ago had someway ceased to exist. She sighed and reached for a flagrantly unfamiliar morsel, biting into it with a will.

It took very little time, really, to empty the plate of all its delightful mysteries. Sated, Aelliana leaned back in her chair, now and then sipping brandy, and drowsily watching her tablemates, paying no heed to their conversation, even when they happened to be speaking a language she understood.

It occurred to her that she felt relaxed, a state she dimly recalled from girlhood, when her grandmother had been alive, before Ran Eld Caylon had discovered the way to bring down the most dangerous of his siblings.

I believe, Aelliana thought, assaying another sip, that I could come to be quite fond of brandy.

"Warm now, Scholar?" That was Var Mon. She turned to look at him, shaking her hair back from her face and squarely meeting his eyes.

"Quite warm, I thank you," she said courteously, and saw his wide brown eyes go somewhat wider.

Before she had opportunity to wonder over that, he rose and stepped back with a light bow.

"Will you walk with me? A tour of a gaming house on your arm can only be instructive."

Well, and why not? Such opportunity to observe the laws of her study area operating under field conditions was not to be lightly set aside.

"Certainly."

Putting away her glass, she came easily to her feet, muscles moving sweetly, unencumbered by fear. Some unfamiliar, brandy-created sense told her that Rema had also risen, and she nearly smiled at the Scout's continuing concern.

She wondered if Rema knew about the healing effects of brandy. It seemed likely, Scouts being privy to just such odd knowledge. That being the case, Rema's continued vigilance suggested there was something in the nature of brandy-healing that was perhaps not entirely salubrious.

The thought should have disturbed, but Aelliana allowed it to flow away as she followed Var Mon through the restaurant and into the first of the playing rooms.


THE MOON WAS FULL, shedding more than enough silvery light for a Scout with excellent night vision to find his way through the familiar branches of the Tree.

A steady ten-minute climb brought him to a wooden platform firmly wedged between three great branches.

Daav sat with his back against one of the branchings, carefully folding his legs. Er Thom and he had built this sanctuary as children, a double-dozen years before—it had seemed a vast space indeed, then.

He leaned his head against the warm wood and sighed. As if in echo, a breeze stirred the branches around him. Something fell with a sharp thunk to the board by his hand. He picked it up: A seed-pod.

"Thank you," he said softly to the Tree and opened the pod, cracking the nuts in his fingers and solemnly eating the minty-sweet kernels.

"Oh, gods." He closed his eyes, allowing the tears to rise. Here, there was no one—no thing—save the Tree to know, if he wept.

His coming marriage—that was the smallest source of pain. If the lady were greedy and venal and held him no more than his rank, it was nothing other than he had expected. It was only required that she provide him a healthy child. Did she perform that one service, she might gladly have from him all the jewels and expensive gidgets her heart wished for.

His own child, held warm and safe in his arms—that image filled him with a longing so intense he felt nearly ill with wanting. His own child, upon whom he might lavish the love that threatened to sour, locked up as it was in the depth of his heart. His own child, who might replace the love Er Thom's lifemating had stolen away—

No.

Er Thom loved him no less, and to that mainstay of his life was added Anne's true affection, as well as the rambunctious regard of young Shan, Er Thom's heir. It was no drawing back on Er Thom's part—no slighting on the side of his lifemate—that fed Daav's loneliness. Truth was far more melancholy.

There, with his back against the Tree, Daav owned himself jealous of his brother's joy, and wept somewhat, that he should not be a better man and receive his beloved's joy as his own.

The tears soon spent themselves, for he was not a man who wept often, and he remained leaning against the Tree, his mind open and unfocused.

It was not meet that the new child bear the burden of all Daav's love. Did he discover himself so ill a parent, the child would be fostered into Er Thom's care immediately, there to be loved and disciplined in moderation.

Nor was it reasonable to expect Er Thom—with a lifemate, an heir, and the duties of master trader and thodelm to absorb him—to provide everything his more volatile cha'leket required of human contact. Another solution must be found, else Daav would grow bitter, indeed.

For the good of the clan, he thought, yawning suddenly in the cool, mint-tanged air.

He might have dozed—a few minutes, no more—and woke with the shape of an answer in his mind.

He smiled as he considered it, for, after all, it was an obvious step, and one he should have undertaken for himself ere this.

"Thank you," he said once more to the Tree and fancied the leaves moved in slight, ironic bow.

Then, he let himself over the platform's edge and began the climb down.


Chapter Six

Your ship is your life. Stake your air before you stake your ship—and your soul before you stake either.

—Excerpted from Cantra yos'Phelium's Log Book



PLAY WAS DEEP and as usual Vin Sin chel'Mara was in the deepest of it, pulling cantra from the pockets of the young fancies-about-town like a magnet pulling iron filings to itself.

He was a wizard with cards, was the chel'Mara, any of his cronies would say so. And it took either a god-kissed or an innocent to sit across from him at the pikit table and lay hand on deck to deal.

The universe being itself, there was no shortage of god-kissed for chel'Mara to fleece, innocents being something rare in the neighborhoods he frequented. Yet it seemed that tonight one had muddled into the depths of Quenpalt's Casino, and stood watching the play with wide, misty eyes.

She was utterly out of place in the jewel-glitter, silk-whisper crowd of players. Her quilted shirt was large and shapeless, fastened tight around her fragile throat. Her only adornment was an antique silver puzzle-ring.

Her hair, dark blonde or light brown, draggled too close around her face, and her eyes, thought yo'Vaade, who saw her first, were grey, or possibly a foggy green.

She stood quiet as a mouse at the side of the table, flanked by two halflings in Scout leather, foggy eyes intent in the thin, hair-shrouded face.

At first he thought it was chel'Mara she was after, so raptly did she watch his play. And why not? He was a well-looking man, and of good Line, though that would matter less to her than the cantra piled before him. The chel'Mara would never consider something so dowdy, yo'Vaade knew, but what harm to let the mouse dream?

Then he saw that it was the cards she was watching and frowned to himself. Fastidious as he was in bedmates, chel'Mara would play against any who sat to table. But surely, thought yo'Vaade, a ragged girl, with scarcely a cantra for her quarter-share, if he was any judge—

"You find the game amusing?"

chel'Mara's query hovered on the edge of Superior to Inferior—proper enough for a High House lordling out of Solcintra when addressing a mouse of unexalted birth. It would have been more gentle to bespeak her otherwise, he being a guest in her city, but the chel'Mara was not a gentle man. He gathered in his latest winnings and stacked the coins before him in careful towers of twelve, hardly sparing a glance at the mouse's thin face.

"I find the game interesting," she returned in an unexpectedly strong voice, and in the mode of Adult-to-Adult. "And I cannot for the life of me, sir, understand why you continue to win."

chel'Mara raised his eyebrows in elegant amusement. "I continue to win because my line of play is superior."

"Not so," she returned with such surety that yo'Vaade openly stared. "It is a badly flawed line, sir. Indeed, a solid loser, over time."

chel'Mara leaned back in his chair and gazed blandly up into her face.

"How very—interesting," he purred and moved a languid hand, showing table, cards and cantra. "We have before us the means to test your theory. "

She hesitated not at all, but came forward and sat in the chair sig'Andir had just vacated. Her guardian Scouts came forward, as well, and stood, one behind each shoulder. "Certainly, sir."

"Certainly," chel'Mara repeated. "But it's a valiant mouse, to sit with the cats!" He bowed, seated as he was, the gesture full with mockery. "What shall you stake, Lady Mouse?"

"My quarter-share," she stated, and produced it—four cantra, which was better than yo'Vaade had thought, but nothing near chel'Mara's more usual stake.

"Four cantra it is," he agreed, plucking a matching amount from his treasury—

"Oh, yes, very handsome!" cried sig'Andir, who was a bitter loser. "The poor lady stakes her entire quarter-share and you match it with four from your hoard! Where's honor in that? Stake something that will pain you as much, should you lose it, and make the play worth her while!"

chel'Mara raised his eyebrows. "I cannot imagine," he drawled, "what could possibly mean as much to me as four cantra does to this—lady."

sig'Andir grinned tightly. "Why not your ship, then?"

"My ship?" chel'Mara turned wondering eyes upon him as a crowd began to gather, drawn by the ruckle.

"It would be done thus," the male Scout said unexpectedly, "in Solcintra." He grinned, fresh-faced, and bowed to chel'Mara's rank. "My Lord need have no concern of pursuing a melant'i stake here. I am assured that Quenpalt's aspires to be the equal of any casino in Solcintra." He raised his voice. "The Stakes Book, if you please!"

There was a shifting of the crowd as the floor-master came panting up with Book and pens.

"A melant'i stake," someone of the crowding spectators whispered loudly. "Value for equal value, absolute. Ship against quarter-share."

"Ship against quarter-share!" The information ran the casino. Play stopped at other tables and in the main room, the wheel was seen to pause. yo'Vaade held his breath.

For a long moment, chel'Mara stared at the book the floor-master held ready. Then one elegant hand moved, fingers closing around the offered pen. He signed his name with a flourish.

The book was presented to the mouse, who took the pen and wrote, briefly. The floor-master made the House's notation and stepped back, reverently closing the gilded covers.

Lazily, almost lovingly, chel'Mara replaced his four coins on the proper stack. Likewise, he produced a set of ship keys strung together on a short jeweled chain and lay it gently beside the mouse's quarter-share in the center of the table.

"Ship against quarter-share," he murmured and inclined his head. "Your deal, Lady Mouse."


IT WAS A LONG GAME, and the mouse a better player than yo'Vaade would have guessed. Indeed, she won at first, made her four cantra into six—seven. Then chel'Mara found his stride and the mouse's cantra went back across the line, until only one remained her.

yo'Vaade thought it was ended then, but he had reckoned without the Scouts.

Indeed, he had quite forgotten about the Scouts, who had remained standing, silent and patient as leather-clad statues, behind the mouse's chair. It was doubly startling, then, to see the boy lean across the mouse's shoulder, ringless hand descending briefly to tabletop.

He straightened and yo'Vaade looked to the mouse's bank, richer now by three cantra.

chel'Mara frowned into the Scout's face.

"Do you buy in, sir? I had understood this a test of theory between the—lady—and myself."

"Payment of a long-standing debt, Your Lordship," the Scout returned blandly. A murmur ran the crowd.

There was no comment from the mouse. Indeed, there had been no comment from her since play began, she apparently being one who concentrated wholly upon her cards.

A moment longer the chel'Mara stared into the Scout's face.

"I have seen you," he remarked, in such a tone that said, Having seen you twice, I shall remember you long.

The Scout bowed. "Indeed. your lordship saw me but three nights ago, at the Stardust in Solcintra Port, where your lordship was pleased to win the quarter-share of Lyn Den Kochi and certain payments from three future quarter-shares."

chel'Mara lifted an ironic hand. "There are those who are not friends of the luck."

"As your lordship says." The Scout returned to stillness and chel'Mara went back to his cards.


"ARE YOU MAD?" Rema hissed into Var Mon's ear. "To set her against Vin Sin chel'Mara—"

"My dear comrade, I didn't set her against my lord, she set herself. Where's the harm?"

"You ask that, when you saw him ruin Lyn Den? What if she should lose, tipsy as she is?"

"She's winning and you know it. I can almost see where that line of play is going, and you're quicker than I am. Where is she going, Rema?"

"I—am not certain."

"But she's winning."

"Perhaps."

"No perhaps about it," Var Mon asserted, eyes on the fall of the cards. "You don't see it and I don't see it, but Scholar Caylon sees it—and it's her board." He paused as Aelliana took a trick, then continued, softly.

"As for being tipsy—look at her! She looks as she does when she lectures—I should be so cool when I sit to Jump!"

"If he should take exception . . ."

"The cameras are on it," Var Mon told her. "The Scholar's line is fair—she's got the pattern and she's got the break-key, even if her students are too stupid to see it. How can he take exception to a fair line? Stop fretting."


THE TEMPO CHANGED shortly after the Scout's three cantra entered the game.

It was as if, yo'Vaade thought, the mouse had at last found the path she had been seeking, though her previous play had in no way been marred by hesitation.

Now she played with a surety that was awesome to behold, calling the cards to her hand like kin. It took less than an hour for all the coins to cross back over the line, until it was seven on her side and the keys alone, and chel'Mara bidding a Clan Royale.

It was what all the rest had been building toward—this last hand, this locking of wills. The crowd held its breath, and yo'Vaade held his. chel'Mara's face was seen to be damp. The mouse sat cool as water ice, cards a smooth fan between quiet fingers, and called for her seconds.

"Scout's Progress," she announced in that surprisingly clear voice, which was esoteric enough, surely, but no match for a Clan Royale. One by one, she lay the cards out, face up for all to see, and looked over to chel'Mara.

"Ah." He sighed, and a great tension seemed to go out of him all at once, so that yo'Vaade began to feel sorry for the poor, valiant mouse.

chel'Mara's cards came down in a practiced sweep, face up for all to see: Delm, Nadelm, Thodelm, A'thodelm, Master Trader . . .

"Ship," the crowd whispered among itself. "He's missing the Ship. A broken run . . . The lady wins . . ."

"The lady wins," Vin Sin chel'Mara announced, loud enough to be heard in the far corners of the room. He snapped his fingers. "Bring a port-comm!"

"A port-comm!" the crowd babbled. "A port-comm for Lord chel'Mara!"

It came and he tapped in one sequence, then another, and looked over to his erstwhile opponent, who was staring down at her run as if she had never seen cards before.

"Your name?" he inquired neutrally and when she looked up with a start, explained with overdone patience: "In order to change the registration of the ship, I will need to file your name as new owner."

"Oh," she said, and picked up the keys to frown at before replying. "Aelliana Caylon Clan Mizel."

There was a flutter of something through the crowd at that, and yo'Vaade considered the taste of the name. It meant nothing to him: it obviously meant nothing to chel'Mara. Behind the mouse's chair, the Scouts preserved attitudes of silent attention.

chel'Mara had recourse to the port-comm's keyboard, finished his entry, tapped the send key and lay the comm aside. He came to his feet and stood gazing down at the mouse. The look in his eyes, thought yo'Vaade, was not good. Not at all good.

"The ship is called Ride the Luck," he said. "It is kept at Binjali Repair Shop, Solcintra Port. Ownership entire remits to you at Solcintra dawn. I shall require the hours between to remove my personal effects." He bowed, low and mocking. "I wish you joy of your winnings, Lady Mouse," he said softly.

He turned to go, his eye falling on sig'Andir, who was openly smiling. "Satisfied, sir?" he purred and waited until the smile died and all color drained from the boy's face before he swept away through the crowd, toward the lounge-room and the bar.


"GOOD EVENING, JON."

The man at the desk finished writing out his line before glancing up. As it happened, he needed to glance up quite a way, he being seated and his visitor being somewhat above the average height, for a Liaden male.

He was also dressed in work leathers, his hands innocent of rank ring, which meant High House gossip was not the purpose of this visit. The spirited dark hair was neatly confined in a tail that hung below his shoulders; from his right ear dangled the twisted silver loop he had earned from the headwoman of the Mun.

He bowed, Student to Master, and straightened; the glow off the desk lamp underlit his sharp-featured face, throwing the black eyes into shadow.

"I need work," he said, speaking in Comrade mode, which was how they always spoke at Binjali's.

"Hah." Jon rubbed his nose. "Happens we have work." He jerked his head at the window and the repair bays beyond. "Go on out and call yourself to Trilla's attention."

"Thank you."

Another bow and he was gone, walking with a Scout's silent stride, melting out of the light as if he had never been. A moment later, Jon saw him crossing the bay, lifting a hand toward Trilla on the platform. The office noise-proofing was top-grade, so he missed the shout that must have accompanied the gesture. But he saw Trilla wave back and the flicker of hand talk: come on up.

Needed work, did he? Jon thought, between a grin and a worry. He sighed and returned to his papers.


"MAY I WORK AGAIN tomorrow?"

Jon deliberately finished cleaning his hands, shook the rag and hung it back on its nail.

"We're open to casual labor. You know that."

"Yes. I only wanted to be certain I would not be—inconvenient."

"Inconvenient." Jon grinned, reached out and caught the younger man's elbow, turning him toward the so-called crew's lounge. "Let's have a cup of tea. I'll ask some nosy questions, you'll snatch what remains of my hair from over my ears and we'll part friends, eh?"

The other laughed, a rich, full sound that had pulled Jon dea'Cort's mouth into a grin from the very first time he'd heard it.

"A bargain," he cried and appeared to sober abruptly, glancing sideways from glinting black eyes. "How old is the tea, I wonder?"

"Must be six, seven hours old by now," Jon admitted without shame.

"Perfect."

A few moments later they were both seated on rickety stools. In addition to tea, Jon had helped himself to the last of the stale pastries and was busily dunking it into the depths of his mug.

"How is it, Master Jon, that the mugs never melt?"

"Had 'em made special out of blast glass," Jon returned and disposed of his soggy sweet in two bites. He took a scalding swallow of bad tea and threw his former student a stern look.

"They don't keep you busy enough out in Dragon's Valley, Captain?"

"Alas, they keep me out of reason busy," came the reply. "I swear to you, Master Jon, if I am required to speak to one more Liaden I shall either go mad or strangle him."

Jon laughed. "Spoken like a true Scout! But the fact of the matter is that you're too important a man to either go mad or take it upon yourself to strangle the bulk of the population. Not," he admitted around another gulp of tea, "that most of 'em wouldn't be better for a throttling. But it's out of Code, child: the natives are likely to take issue."

"Understood. And so I ask for work."

"I can give you work. But I'd like to know you're not turning your face from matters needing your attention. There are those things, as we all learn in Basic, that only you can do, Captain. Leave them aside and the world could be a lot worse."

"You terrify me."

"Some respect for your elder, if you please. I can give you work, but is work what you need?"

The other man sipped gingerly at his mug, screwing up his face in comic distaste. "Magnificent," he pronounced, and gave Jon dea'Cort all his black eyes.

"My brother," he murmured, "falls just short of suggesting we remove to New Dublin."

"It delights me to hear your honored kin has, however late in life, come into his heritage," Jon returned with a touch of acid. "Had he anything useful to suggest?"

"You are severe. Yes, something useful."

"But you'll see me damned before you tell me what it was," Jon said comfortably. He finished his tea and rose to transfer the dregs from the pot to his mug.

"All right," he said, resettling on his stool. "You need work, I've got work. Casual schedule; call if you're expected and something forestalls you. But if your self-healing hasn't earned out in a relumma, I will cease to have work, young Captain, and I would then strongly suggest—as a comrade—that you visit the Healers."

"A relumma should be more than sufficient to relocate center. I thank you." The younger man stood, poured his tea down the sink, washed out the mug and put it to drain.

"Until tomorrow, Master Jon."

"Until tomorrow, child. Be well."


Chapter Seven

The number of High Houses is precisely fifty. And then there is Korval.

—From the Annual Census of Clans


 


"WHAT LONG-STANDING debt?" Aelliana demanded of a grinning Var Mon as they left the card room.

"Why, only the honor of being allowed to sit at the feet of Aelliana Caylon for an entire semester and catch the jewels as they fell from her lips!" He stopped to bow, coincidentally disrupting the flow of traffic between the card room and the music lounge.

Aelliana frowned. "You are absurd."

"Not to say impertinent," Rema put in, adding a rider to her comrade in a flutter of finger-talk. To Aelliana's eyes, it seemed a list: Twelve variations on the sign for idiot. Var Mon laughed.

"You will be very well served if Scholar Caylon pockets your three cantra and says no more," Rema scolded audibly. "How will you come about then?"

"Indeed, no," Aelliana said hastily; "I do not wish to keep Var Mon's money. But it is ill-done to say you are repaying a debt when it is no such thing!"

There was a moment of complete silence, her companions staring at her from rounded eyes.

"Chastised," Var Mon murmured.

"Justly," returned his partner. "Local custom."

"Exactly so." He bowed once more, taking care not to discommode others nearby. "I ask your forgiveness, Scholar," he said in the mode of Lesser-to-Greater, which was the High Tongue and not a quiver of merriment to be heard. "You are gracious to illuminate my error."

Aelliana considered him, suspecting a joke. The boy's face showed nothing but serious courtesy, and perhaps a touch of anxiety. His three cantra were safe in her right hand, mingling with the jeweled chain and the keys to—the keys to her ship.

"You knew that lordship," she said abruptly.

Surprise showed at the corners of his face. "I know his name," he allowed, still in Lesser-to-Greater, "and his reputation."

"Vin Sin chel'Mara," Rema murmured, "Clan Aragon."

Aelliana sighed. She had learned, as any child, the rhymes for Clans and Sigils, Houses and Tasks. But childhood was many years gone and her general grasp of such matters fell far short of the knowledge held by one who moved in the world.

"High House?" was the best she could hazard now, looking at Rema.

The Scout blinked. "Not so high as Korval," she said slowly.

But this was merely a quibble. Who in all the world outranked the Dragon? Even Aelliana knew the answer was, none.

"I—see," she said, the keys hot in her hand.

"The play was clean." That was Var Mon. "We were surrounded by those who know their cards, and the house camera, beside." He grinned, irrepressible boy bursting free of the solemn gentleman he had been a moment before.

"Scholar Caylon, you don't say the game was false?"

"The game was entirely true," she said tartly. "Nor was it at all necessary for you to offer your cantra. His lordship's line was irretrievably flawed." She held out the coins in question. "I thank you for your aid, though it was in no way required."

"Ouch," said Var Mon mildly, and took his money with a bow.

* * *

AELLIANA SHIFTED IN the pulldown tucked between the pilots' stations and inner hatch, and considered her circumstances.

It would appear that she was, in unlikely truth, the owner of a spaceship, which she was even now on her way to inspect.

She closed her eyes, feeling how quick her heart beat. She owned a spaceship; possibilities proliferated.

If it was, as she suspected, a rich man's toy, she would contrive, discreetly, to sell, thus ensuring outpassage and a stake upon which to build her new life.

If, against all expectation, Ride the Luck was a working class ship, she would—

She would keep it.

A pilot-owner might find work anywhere, she was tied to no single world. A pilot-owner need owe none, was owned by no one.

A pilot-owner was—free. Alone, independent, autonomous, sovereign . . . Aelliana leaned back in the pulldown chair, stomach cramped with longing.

If Ride the Luck was a working ship . . .

Of course, pilot-owners held piloting licenses, which Aelliana Caylon did not. The life she so avidly envisioned required she be nothing less than a Jump pilot.

"Asleep, Scholar?" Var Mon's voice broke in upon these rather lowering considerations.

"Not entirely," she replied, and heard Rema, at first board, chuckle.

"Good," Var Mon said, unruffled. "We set down in three minutes, unless Rema forgets her protocols. I'll conduct you to Binjali's, if you wish, and make you known to Master dea'Cort."

Aelliana opened her eyes. "Thank you," she said, as a flutter of her stomach reported the ship was losing altitude. "I would welcome the introduction."


"MASTER JON! Joy to you, sir!" Var Mon strode into the center of the repair bay, head up and voice exuberant.

Aelliana, trailing by several steps, saw a stocky figure come to the edge of shadow cast by a work-lift, casually wiping its hands on a faded red rag.

"I'm not lending you another cantra, you scoundrel," the figure said sourly, for all the mode was Comrade. "What's more, you're due in Comparative Cultures in twenty minutes and I'll not have it said I was responsible for keeping you beyond time."

"Not a bit of it," Var Mon cried, apparently not at all put out by this rather surly welcome. He reached into his pouch and danced into the shadow. Grasping a newly-cleaned hand, he deposited two gleaming coins on the broad palm and closed the fingers tight.

"Debt paid!" he said gaily and spun, bowing with a flourish that called attention to Aelliana, hesitating yet between light and shadow.

"Master Jon, I bring you Aelliana Caylon, owner of Ride the Luck. Scholar Caylon, Master Jon dea'Cort, owner of Binjali Repair Shop."

"Caylon?" Master dea'Cort at last stepped forward into the light, revealing a man well past middle years, sturdy rather than stout, his hair a close-clipped strip of rusty gray about four of her slender fingers wide. Eyes the color of old amber looked into her face with the directness of a Scout.

"Scholar Aelliana Caylon," he asked, big voice pitched gently, though he still spoke in Comrade mode, "revisor of the ven'Tura Tables?"

She inclined her head, and answered in Adult-to-Adult. "It is kind of you to recall."

"Recall! How might I—or any pilot!—forget?" He bowed then, distressingly low—the bow of Esteem for a Master—and straightened with his hand over his heart.

"Scholar, you honor my establishment. How I may be allowed to serve you?"

Aelliana raised her hand to ward the reverence in the old man's voice. To know her as the revisor of one of the most important of a pilot's many tools—that was grace, though not entirely unexpected. Jon dea'Cort had undoubtedly been a Scout in former years and Aelliana strongly suspected his "master" derived from "master pilot."

"Please, sir," she said, hearing how breathless her voice sounded. "You do me overmuch honor. Indeed, it is not at all—" Here she hesitated, uncertain how she might proceed with her disclaimer, without calling the master's melant'i into question.

"Var Mon, are you here, you young rakehell?" the old man snarled over his shoulder.

"Aye, Master Jon!"

"Then jet, damn you—and mind you're on time for class!"

"Aye, Master Jon! Good-day to you, Scholar. Until Trilsday-noon!"

Var Mon was gone, running silently past Aelliana's shoulder. She heard nothing, then a whine and sigh as the crew door cycled.

"So." Jon dea'Cort smiled, waking wrinkles at eye-corners and mouth. "You were about to tell me that I do you too much honor. How much honor should I lay at the feet of the scholar responsible for preserving the lives of half-a-thousand pilots?"

"Half-a—oh, but that's averaged over the years since publication, of course." Aelliana looked down, tongue-tied and graceless as ever when dealing outside the familiar role of teacher-to-student.

"You must understand," she told her boot-toes. She cleared her throat. "The tables were in need of revision and I was able to undertake the project. To recall my name as the one who did the work—that is kind. But, you must understand, to offer such honor to one who merely—" She faltered, hands twisting about each other.

"I teach math," she finished, lamely.

There was a short silence, before Jon dea'Cort spoke, voice matter-of-fact in Comrade mode.

"Well, nothing wrong with that, is there? I taught piloting, myself, and to such a thankless pack of puppies as I hope you'll never see!"

Aelliana glanced up, hair swinging around her face. "You are a master pilot."

"Right enough. Most of us are, hereabout." He tipped his balding head to one side, offering another smile. "What might I do for you, math teacher?"

She lowered her eyes, refusing the smile as she refused Comrade mode.

"I had come to inspect Ride the Luck, of which I am owner."

"So my problem-child said," Jon dea'Cort said placidly. "I hadn't known Ride the Luck was for sale."

"I—it wasn't." She moved her shoulders. "I won it last evening from Lord Vin Sin chel'Mara—in a round of pikit."

"Beat him at his own game!" Jubilation was plain in Master dea'Cort's voice, from which Aelliana deduced that his lordship was not a favored patron. "Well done, math teacher! Here, let me fetch the jitney and I'll take you out myself. Beat the chel'Mara at pikit, by gods! I won't be a moment . . ."


"SHE'S A SWEET SHIP," Jon dea'Cort was saying some minutes later, sending the jitney full-speed down the yard's central avenue. "She's seen some hard times of late, but she's sound. Show her kindness and she'll do very well . . . Here we are."

The jitney shivered to a stop; Master dea'Cort slid out of the driver's slot and walked toward the ramp.

In the passenger's seat, Aelliana sat and stared, her hands cold and slick with sweat.

"Scholar Caylon?" There was worry in the big voice.

With an effort, Aelliana moved her eyes from the ship—hers, hers—to the face of the man standing beside her.

"It's a Jumpship," she told him, as if such a vital point of information could have someway escaped a master pilot's expert notice.

He glanced over his shoulder and up the ramp, then returned his amber gaze to her face. "Class A," he agreed gravely, and held out a companionable hand. "Care to see inside?"

She could remember wanting nothing else so much.

"Yes," she said hungrily and slipped out of the jitney, deftly avoiding Jon dea'Cort's touch.


AELLIANA BROUGHT THE board up and watched, rapt, as the ship ran its self-check. Each green go-light added to her wracking store of joy until she found herself clutching the back of the pilot's chair, wet fingers smearing the ivory leather.

The check ended on three chimed notes and she reluctantly touched the off-switch before allowing Jon dea'Cort to lead her further into the ship.

There was a dining alcove containing a gourmet automat, as well as a tiny dispensary housing a premium autodoc.

"Likes everything binjali, the chel'Mara," Master dea'Cort murmured and led her down a short companionway.

Aelliana followed him over the threshold of what should have been the pilot's quarters and stopped short, blinking at mountains of silks, sleeping furs, pillows of every hue and size. The floor was covered in a rug so fine she felt a pang of sorrow for having set her boots upon it. Tapestry gardens burgeoning with ripe fruits made the walls an oasis.

The illumination in the chamber was unusually firm and Aelliana glanced up, expecting to see a light fixture in keeping with the rest.

Instead, she looked up into the room she was standing in, Jon dea'Cort at the door, lined face carefully bland, while her own, reflected without distortion, showed slightly pale, with lips half-parted.

She glanced down, not quite able to stifle the sigh, and spoke over her shoulder.

"Everything binjali?"

"Understand," Master dea'Cort said earnestly, "the chel'Mara's no pilot. Happens he had other uses for a ship. And yon mirrors are top-grade."

"I see." She walked past him and into the room across the hall, which would have been the co-pilot's quarters in any other ship. In this ship, it was the twin of the orgy room. Aelliana sighed again and turned down the light.

"Guess you're ready to see the hold," Master dea'Cort said then, and showed her the way to the access door and how to punch in her code.

The door slid back and the lights came up and the first things she saw again were the damned mirrors. She had just enough time to wonder how anyone could be such a popinjay, when she saw the rest.

Some items she could name—silken cords and leather lashes, a few of the less arcane articles laid neatly in their cases, the swing suspended from the ceiling, the post with its built-in manacles.

Most, however, were unfamiliar: What, for instance, was the purpose of that oddly-shaped table, or the counterbalanced bench or—

Aelliana took a deep breath, turned carefully and lifted her face. Resolutely, she met Jon dea'Cort's eyes, and saw sympathy there.

"Master dea'Cort, I need your advice," she said, yet keeping to adult-to-adult.

"Math teacher, ask me."

With an effort, she kept her face up, her eyes steady; her hands were behind her back, twisting themselves into sweat-slicked knots.

"I had—thought," she said, "that I had acquired a working ship. It seems instead that I have acquired a—a bordello. What is your estimate of the time and expense required to restore this ship to its—original specifications?"

"Not a cantra," he said promptly, "and about a three-day—maybe four, depending on the crew I get." He grinned.

"No need to look like I'm pulling teeth," he told her. "I told you the chel'Mara liked everything binjali, eh? The toys are worth something, sold to the right party, and the mirrors—Math teacher, you could refit to spec on the profit from the mirrors alone! Had 'em set on gimbals, so they'd always be oriented, whatever G or spin the ship took on—made out of scanner-glass to withstand take-off stress and not flow—a rare wonder, these mirrors, and there are those who appreciate wonder."

Aelliana closed her eyes, trying to think, to work the steps.

"Do you know the proper—the proper buyers? I confess that I am not—"

"I can act as broker," he said easily. "My fee's ten percent off the top. We'll bring her back up to working weight, deduct labor and parts from what remains and put the profit into your ship's account. Deal?"

She opened her eyes. "Profit?"

"Bound to be a cantra or two left over," he said, looking around the gleaming playground. "Some of the toys are speciality items, and those mirrors haven't gotten any cheaper."

"Oh," Aelliana said, feeling rather adrift. She inclined her head formally. "Thank you, sir. I accept your deal."

"Well enough, then." He waved her out ahead of him.

"Will you be starting to work her at once?" he asked as they went back down the companionway.

"At once? I—I must take the piloting exam," Aelliana said, slowly. "And—flight time . . ."

There was a slight sound from behind her, as if Master dea'Cort had sneezed.

"You haven't—forgive me. I understand you to say that you have no piloting license."

"Not at the moment," she said, "but I shall be taking the exam—I have classes tomorrow . . . I shall take the exam on Banim. Second class is required to lift Class A locally, sir, is that correct?"

"Correct."

They had reached the dispensary. Aelliana paused, staring down into the 'doc's opaque hood.

"I shall acquire a second class, then," she said, feeling necessity like a stone in her gut. "I will work this ship."

"I don't doubt it," Jon dea'Cort said from beside her. "If you wish, I can test you, or one of my crew. We're all of us master class, as I said. Or you can call ahead to the Pilot's Guild in Chonselta and be sure they can accommodate you on Banim."

"I believe that will be best," she said, still staring down into the darkness.

"I'll call them now," he said, "while you use the unit here."

She turned sharply. "Use the unit?"

"No sense leaving that untreated when you've the means to mend it," he said, tapping his own wrist. "It's a rare wonder how those little things can eat away at your concentration." He moved down the hall. "I'll just get Chonselta Guild on the line . . ."

He was gone. Aelliana looked down at the bruises circling her wrist. They seemed more vivid now than they had, hours earlier, outside of Quenpalt's Casino. And, now that she was reminded of them, they did ache.

Well, she thought, with a flash of amused irritation, she was here and the autodoc was here. At the very least, mending the hurt would put a stop to all this rather embarrassing solicitude.

So thinking, she tapped the proper code into the 'doc, rolled back her sleeve and slid the wrist through the open hood.


Chapter Eight

What's in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.

—From Romeo and Juliet, Act ii,


Scene 2, William Shakespeare



VIN SIN CHEL'MARA was not a man accustomed to his delm's close attention. Most especially, he was unaccustomed to the felicity of receiving such attention during his rather belated breakfast.

"How pleasant it must be," Aragon murmured politely, as tea was poured and set before him, "to sleep so far into the day that one may dispose of noon meal and waking meal in one repast. I quite admire the efficiency of such an arrangement."

Since this particular arrangement had been in force for a number of years without awaking the delm's displeasure, his comment now was doubtless prologue to some other, less amiable, subject. chel'Mara inclined his head, as one acknowledging a pleasantry, and poured himself a second glass of wine.

"The single difficulty I detect in such a system," Aragon pursued, "is that it opens one to disadvantage in the matter of collecting rumor and anecdote—vital work, as I am certain you will agree. For an instance, I had today from Delm Guayar an entirely amusing anecdote out of Chonselta, of all places. Had I adopted your strategy of late sleeping, rather than rising early to attend Lady yo'Lanna's breakfast gather, I should have failed of harvesting this amusing—and instructive—tit-bit."

The chel'Mara schooled his face to calmness; deliberately raised his glass and sipped.

"You are behindhand, Vin Sin," his delm chided softly. "Good manners dictate you allow me the pleasure of imparting my news."

Vin Sin chel'Mara did not reign over Solcintra's deepest tables because he was a fool. Still, there was nothing for it but to allow this trick to fall to Aragon and accept whatever chastisement became his due. He was not in the habit of falling under his delm's displeasure, and he considered the odds favorable for a quick recover.

He inclined his head. "Forgive me, sir. I fear I am dreadfully stupid so early in the day. Whatever came out of Chonselta to amuse you?"

"Why, the drollest tale I've heard in many a breakfast gather," Aragon said composedly. "It seems a certain Quenpalt's Casino has opened in Chonselta Port and it is rumored to stand with the best Solcintra has to offer. Last evening, indeed, much of Solcintra undertook the journey to the far side of the world in order to see this wonder for themselves."

"And was reality as pleasing as rumor?"

Aragon pursed his lips in consideration.

"Rumor and reality appear to have agreed splendidly," he said after a moment. "Quenpalt's is, by all accounts, a casino in which one such as yourself, let us say, may be perfectly at ease."

He paused to sip tea. chel'Mara refrained from his wine.

"To make a long tale short," Aragon resumed gently, "it transpires that—again—one such as yourself was present at Quenpalt's last evening, and, having availed himself of certain monies thrown in his direction by a gentleman who has regrettably never mastered the art of pikit, set himself to contend against a walk-in." Aragon gazed pensively into chel'Mara's face.

"There were some oddities attending this walk-in. She was shabby-dressed, according to report, and plain-spoken, when she spoke at all; she did not offer her name, nor was she asked to give it. She was accompanied by two Scouts—one male, one female, both young.

"The shabby lady declared she would stake her quarter-share, some four cantra, according to my information. The gentleman so like yourself plucked four cantra from his bank—and was forestalled by the person he had just bested, who called to mind—quite properly!—certain delicate points of melant'i, in which he was seconded by the male Scout. The Stakes Book was called for and the wager recorded thus: Quarter-share against ship. It was the very first entry, you will be interested to learn, in Quenpalt's Stakes Book." He had recourse to his tea once more. chel'Mara sat like a stone, his hands quite cold.

"So. The shabby lady won her venture—aided once more by the male Scout, who chose, I am a told, an interesting point in the play to settle a debt he had long owed her. The ship of the gentleman so very like yourself changed hands. In the course of recording the win, the shabby lady at last gave her name: Aelliana Caylon."

It was time to have done with this charade. chel'Mara inclined his head with exquisite courtesy.

"So she did."

"So she did," his delm echoed gently. "And, having now heard it twice, the name yet awakes no interest. I fear, Vin Sin, that you have not been as close a student of the world as I had always supposed."

chel'Mara swallowed a sharp return, preserving a courteous countenance with—some—effort.

"Aelliana Caylon," Aragon continued, after a moment spent savoring the last of his tea, "is the third child of the four borne by Birin Caylon, who has the honor to be Mizel." He moved his shoulders. "Mizel totters on the edge of mid-House. It is my notion that it will tumble into Low House, when the present nadelm comes to his own. But that is not the card we must trump."

"Aelliana Caylon," the chel'Mara suggested, with delicate irony, "supports the tottering fortunes of her clan by performing—card tricks, shall we say?"

Aragon raised a considering brow. "It might do," he allowed gently, "although I believe the lady's range to be somewhat wider than mere—card tricks." His eyes sharpened. "Do the ven'Tura Tables wake recollection, Vin Sin?"

"Certainly."

"Ah, delightful. You will then be able to tell me the name of the author of the revision, dated, I believe, eight years ago?"

chel'Mara frowned. "The name? Truly, sir, it was merely this scholar or that. No one I've met."

"Until last evening. How unfortunate, that you were not able to give Honored Scholar of Subrational Mathematics Aelliana Caylon her full bow, upon introduction." Aragon leaned forward, hands flat on the pale cloth.

"The foremost mathematical mind on the planet," he said, very softly, indeed, "who makes the study of random event her speciality. Her thesis—a classic in the field, so Guayar assures me—was entitled, Chaotic Patterning in Pseudorandom Events. In it, the scholar demonstrates the manner in which one may predict card-fall, based upon an ordered diminishment of pooled possibility, as one might find when playing pikit." He leaned back, with a soft sigh.

"By happenstance—I place it no higher!—the pattern which gains the final prize in Scholar Caylon's illustration is Scout's Progress. This is the woman you thought to best at pikit, Vin Sin. Are you not diverted? I assure you that Guayar, who made it his business to be at my side throughout the gather, found the tale amusing in the extreme. Indeed, he repeated it to everyone."

The chel'Mara grit his teeth and met his delm's eye steadily.

"But you do not smile!" Aragon said, sitting back in sudden ease. "My tit-bit has not amused. Never mind, I have an addendum calculated to please. You recall the Scouts?"

"Indeed, sir, I recall them—specifically."

"Ah, then you will certainly know their names."

chel'Mara raised a brow. "Whatever for?"

His delm lifted an admonitory finger. "Now that was careless. One should always know the names of those with whom one is engaged in an affair of Balance. How fortunate it is that I am able to supply you with this vital information. The name of the female Scout is Rema ven'Deelin, Clan Ixin—High House, you perceive. The male is Var Mon pin'Aker, Clan Midys—solidly Mid-House. He and Corporal ven'Deelin are partnered. He likewise has the honor of standing cha'leket to one Lyn Den Kochi, whose quarter-share was tragically left behind at Sunrise House three—possibly four—nights ago."

There was silence. chel'Mara stared down into the dark depths of his wine, considering the trap and the skill with which it had been sprung.

Certainly, a cha'leket might undertake Balance on behalf of his foster-kin. That the trap had been set with skill and something of wit made it no easier to bear.

"A nameless lady attended by Scouts approaches your table and calls your play into question before all the world," Aragon said pensively. "Did it not occur to you, Vin Sin, that you might—just possibly—have been set up?"

"Alas, sir, it did not. An error, I admit."

"Do you? But how gracious you are!" The bite of irony in his delm's voice brought chel'Mara's eyes up.

Aragon held his gaze, allowing him to see anger.

"I shall say no more of your carelessness in this matter of last evening," Aragon said in clipped tones, "except that I find you well-rewarded in the loss of your vessel—and that I see no necessity for Aragon to Balance the Caylon's most valuable lesson to yourself. Of this other, however—you will tell me, Vin Sin, if you habitually prey upon halflings and innocents."

chel'Mara felt a flicker of his own anger and lowered his eyes, lest it be seen.

"As you say, sir, the lady was no innocent. For Master Kochi—I fear he forced the matter and then did not know when to bow away."

"And you, most naturally, gave him no hint, but continued to play until he had lost not merely this quarter's share but significant amounts from future shares. You waited, in fact, for his cha'leket to comprehend the situation and act to end it. After all, Master Kochi has the accumulated wisdom of seventeen entire Standards to support him. His cha'leket, I believe, is every day of eighteen."

"He was cleared to play," chel'Mara said flatly. "Am I to be held as nanny for every babe with the means to buy a deck?"

"I see. You consider that fleecing children adds to your melant'i. I am desolate to inform you that your delm considers otherwise. You will restore Master Kochi to his quarter-share and relieve him of the burden of future debt. You will accomplish these things before Prime Meal this evening. I do expect you to dine at home this evening, Vin Sin."

chel'Mara allowed surprise to show. "Certainly I shall undertake your orders regarding Master Kochi, sir. However, I am engaged to dine with—"

"Cancel it." Aragon held out his empty cup and chel'Mara, perforce, poured tea. His delm sipped. "Excellent. Yes." He set the cup aside and met chel'Mara's eyes with a cool smile.

"You think me harsh, but indeed my concern is solely for yourself, that you have opportunity to take proper leave of your close-kin."

"Leave-taking?" The chel'Mara fairly gaped. "I have no plans to travel, sir."

"Ah, I have been maladroit! Your delm, Vin Sin, requires you to travel on business of the clan. A bunk has been reserved in your name aboard Randall's Renegade, which breaks orbit an hour before Solcintra midnight. Prime has been set up an hour, to accommodate the necessity of your early departure."

chel'Mara sat still, the chill having moved from his hands to his belly.

"If I have indeed purchased so large a share of my delm's displeasure in the matters of Master Kochi and Scholar Caylon, I am of course desolate," he said, speaking gently, indeed. "But—sent off-world on a Terran trampship? Surely, sir—"

Aragon held up a hand. "You are about to say that such a measure is over-Balance, are you not? I repeat that the Caylon's instruction on her own behalf surpasses anything I might undertake for her. As for Master Kochi, I believe a return of his losses and relief from the specter of indebtedness shall settle his account fairly, with additional benefit accruing him through the vehicle of a very stern fright." He sipped tea. "Yes, I think we emerge a little to the good from your encounter with Master Kochi."

"Then this travel, this—ship . . ."

"Ah, yes." He leaned back in his chair, hands cradling his cup. "Guayar and I are well-known to each other," he said, at what one who did not know him might consider a tangent. "We are not comrades, you understand—the interests of our Houses but rarely intersect. And yet, I have known Guayar many years, since before ever the Ring was set upon his finger. His is a stringent melant'i, I do allow you that. But I have never known him spiteful, Vin Sin, nor inclined to go beyond verifiable certainties in discussion."

chel'Mara reached for his glass, downed the half of it in one swallow. It met the roil in his belly like oil poured on live flame.

"So," Aragon said softly. "I offered Guayar a ride to his next appointment as we left yo'Lanna's, which he was gracious enough to accept. His grace extended to a recitation of some of your past activities, and a candid avowal of concern."

chel'Mara cleared his throat. "Surely, sir, rumor and—"

"I spent the remainder of my morning verifying Guayar's information," Aragon continued, "which was—illuminating." He raised his eyes and chel'Mara could not look away.

"You may not be aware of certain inclinations of Aragon's fortunes—indeed, you concern yourself so little with the business of the House, that I am persuaded you cannot know!—but for the past several years we have been in a state of—mild, but worrisome—disadvantage. Interest rates rise by a point. Warranty periods are made shorter. Surcharges are added to the most commonplace of orders. Contract renewals are written so tightly one might almost suppose dea'Gauss himself had put his hand upon each. And I wondered, Vin Sin. I wondered, why. Guayar has shown me the answer, and I count myself in his debt."

"Sir—"

"No less than three delms of clans with which we do business regularly lost—catastrophically lost—to you at play—two of them when they were no older than Master Kochi. Four thodelms, an equal number of nadelms—and this does not begin to account for the favored youngers and cha'lekets who have been dealt public humiliation at your table since you reached your majority." He sighed, abruptly.

"I had known you were expensive. It is my error, that I failed to know how expensive. Now that I am informed, my duty is plain. It may be that the clan can yet recover something of value from you. The attempt must be made, else I am remiss in my duty to those others I hold in care."

The chel'Mara sat with his hands in his lap, thinking, this cannot be happening. And yet, incredibly, his delm continued, as if he were in verymost earnest.

"You will be aboard Randall's Renegade this evening, Vin Sin. My own car will bear you to the shuttle. In due time, you will be set down upon Aedryr, where you will be met by your aunt my sister Sofi pel'Tegin, who will conduct you to the family holding and instruct you in your responsibilities. I will tell you that I believe those responsibilities will at first have to do with mastering the recipes of various soil mixtures required to sustain the plants grown at the holding. The major portion of the holding's income derives from these same plants, so you will readily understand that a thorough knowledge of soil is of utmost importance."

chel'Mara licked his lips. "Uncle . . ."

Aragon reached into his sleeve and produced a card.

"Your identification card. I counsel you to guard it closely, as it is necessary to present it whenever you wish to travel beyond the land to which you are registered."

The card was extended toward him. chel'Mara raised an arm grown heavy with dread and forced nerveless fingers to grip the slick plastic. He took a rather ragged breath and looked into his delm's face.

"How long?"

Aragon sipped the last of his tea and put the cup down. "Your aunt appears confident that you will be able to master the intricacies of the House's business on Aedryr in five Standard Years. I leave it to her judgment, if you require a longer curriculum."

"Five Standards." On a farm? Mastering the mixtures of soils? It was a jest. It must be a—

Aragon rose. chel'Mara rose as well and made his bow, barely attending what he did.

"Until Prime, then," Aragon said, and turned. Halfway down the room, he checked, as if he had bethought himself of something else. chel'Mara sighed, feeling his heart lift, for now, surely, his delm would reveal the jest and—

"I had almost forgot, Vin Sin, the most diverting thing imaginable! Do you care to hear?"

He forced his lips into a smile and bowed lightly. "Why, certainly, sir."

"Ah, good. This planet—Aedryr. Gaming is unlawful by order of the planetary government. Anyone found with so little as a deck of cards in his possession is favored with a Standard of government labor, no appeal. Is it not amusing? Good day to you."

Aragon was gone.

chel'Mara sank down into his chair and closed his eyes, the thin plastic card gripped tight between his fingers.

He had never felt less like laughing.


IT WAS EARLY afternoon in Chonselta.

Aelliana began the walk from the train station to Mizel's Clanhouse with an absurdly light heart. The keys to her ship hung about her neck on a chain provided by Jon dea'Cort.

Using Binjali's comm, she had verified the transfer of ownership, opened a ship's account with the Port Master's Office and transferred her hoarded bonus money from Chonselta Tech's in-house bank.

She had perused Ride the Luck's regular maintenance records, finding also that the ship's berthing at Binjali Repair Shop was paid a full year ahead.

"Shall I refund that amount to Lord chel'Mara?" she had asked Jon dea'Cort doubtfully.

The old Scout snorted. "Ship paid the berthing fee out of its former account. The chel'Mara's arrangement was that he paid in advance without benefit of refund, should he decide to berth elsewhere. Your luck, math teacher."

"I suppose . . ."

She had been introduced to Master dea'Cort's apprentice, a compact and cheerful person who spoke with a marked Outworld accent.

"Trilla, give greeting to Aelliana Caylon, math teacher and owner of Ride the Luck."

"Aelliana Caylon." The bow was crisp and matter-of-fact, augmented by a smile and a flash of bright eyes. "Good lifting."

"Thank you," Aelliana said, returning the bow with relief. No embarrassing respect from Trilla, thank gods; merely a very Scout-like acceptance of what was.

Departing Binjali's, she had not forgotten to stop at the Ormit Fund's Office to make disposition of her quarter-share before catching the ferry to Chonselta.

Now, heading home lighthearted and not a bit weary, she re-assessed her position.

By her reckoning, she had one year to achieve a first class piloting license, learn Terran and garner what money she might. The delm had given her a year, after all, to prove her point regarding the investment of funds. Ran Eld would be held in check for precisely that long, saving Aelliana did nothing to provoke him or to arouse his suspicions.

So be it. She had ten years' practice of appeasing Ran Eld. For Ride the Luck—for freedom—she could endure one year more.

She walked up Raingleam Street, rapt and unseeing, so that her sister's voice gave her a severe start.

"Aelliana!" Sinit caught her sleeve and tugged her hurriedly up-street. "Come in the back way, do. Ran Eld's got his eye on the front door." She giggled. "Primed to ring down a terrifying scold!"

She turned stricken eyes to her sister's face. "What have I done now?"

"Well, you didn't come down to breakfast," Sinit said, turning into the back courtway, Aelliana firmly in tow. "That annoyed him. He sent Voni up to rouse you, but you weren't in your room. That annoyed him even more—you know what Ran Eld is. Then it transpired you weren't in the house at all!" She grinned and paused to work the latch on Mizel's gateway.

"Voni says your bed hadn't been slept in. She says you have a lover." She looked up, eyes brimming laughter. "Ran Eld's not about to stand for that!"

"A lover?" Aelliana stared, stone-still. "Voni thinks I have a lover?"

"Why not?" Sinit asked matter-of-factly. "Go in—quickly! Up the serving stairs and into your room—and mind you remember to come down to Prime!" She gave Aelliana a firm push and turned back to latch the gate.

For one long moment, Aelliana hesitated, heart pounding.

Then she turned and flew into the house, taking the thin back stairs two at a time.

Silent as a Scout, she negotiated the short hallway leading to her rooms, slipped inside and—futile gesture!—locked the door behind her.

She affected not to see the house comm's blinking message-waiting light, opaqued the windows and crossed to the narrow bed.

Fully clothed, she lay upon the coverlet, closed her eyes—and slept.


Chapter Nine

 . . . by this note convey said land and building to the Liaden Scouts for the purpose of establishing an academy and training center for future Scouts and those whom the Scouts deem it wise to train . . .

—Excerpted from a Contract of Gift


signed by Jeni yos'Phelium,


Ninth Delm of Korval


 


"WE MISSED YOU AT breakfast, sister." Ran Eld's voice was sweet and mild—a bad sign.

Aelliana set her teacup down and kept her eyes on her plate. They were four at table, the delm having sent word that she would join them later.

"Such an unusual happenstance," Ran Eld pursued. "Our sister was concerned for your health. Imagine her surprise when she entered your room and found you absent, the coverlet smooth atop the bed."

"I am grateful to my sister for her care," Aelliana told her plate, though the words felt like to choke her.

"Very proper, I am sure," Voni snapped from her place up-table. "But that does not address where you were all the night, Aelliana."

"Where would I be?" Aelliana wondered softly.

"Exactly what I wish to know!" her sister said sharply. "Really, Aelliana, I suppose you will deny that your bed had not been slept in!"

"Not at all. I—" she focused on a grayish square of vegetable pudding. "I was up much of the night, considering the wisest investment of my quarter-share. This morning I placed the funds as seemed best." She cleared her throat and reached for the teacup. "I did not wish to be behindhand in obeying the Delm's Word."

There was a charged pause, before Ran Eld's voice, very dry: "Commendable."

"Well, I think it is commendable," Sinit announced from her seat at the foot of the board. "Truly, Ran Eld, you make it seem a crime to heed the delm's wishes! The Code tells us plainly—"

"Thank you, little sister. I believe my comprehension of Code may be—somewhat—superior to your own."

"Oh, then you know you're making a stupid twitter over none of your concern," Sinit cried in a tone of broad enlightenment. "I, for one, am greatly relieved. You mustn't mind them, Aelliana—Ran Eld's in a temper and Voni's snipe-ish because Lady pel'Rula found fault with her dress."

"You were listening at the door!" Voni's voice shook in outrage. "I shall tell mother. Of all—"

Through the shield of her hair, Aelliana saw Sinit smile.

"Lady pel'Rula said Voni's dress was immodest, and not at all what one looked for in a lady of impeccable manner." The smile broadened to a grin. "It was, too."

"What do you know of the matter?" Voni snarled. "That design was copied from a gown created for yos'Galan! If Lady pel'Rula is so provincial that she turns her face from a look sanctioned by Korval—"

"Then she's well-rid of," Sinit suggested, eyes wide.

Voni frowned and extended a graceful hand for her wine glass. "Naturally not. Mother and I are to call upon her ladyship tomorrow after luncheon."

"And you'll wear a less dashing dress, won't you, Voni?"

Aelliana saw Voni's fingers tighten on the stem of her glass, knuckles paling. She answered in a voice rigid with fury.

"You need not concern yourself with my wardrobe, Sinit. I shall consider it an impertinence if you continue."

"Sinit, let be," Aelliana whispered urgently.

"Excellent advice." Ran Eld said, voice cloying as sugared tea. "How good of you to overwatch your sister, Aelliana, and drop these little hints in her ear. Allow me to perform the same service on behalf of yourself."

Aelliana reached for her teacup. It was empty. She swallowed hard in a dry throat and folded her hands onto her lap, eyes on her untasted dinner.

"Certainly," she said, hearing her voice tremble. "I welcome instruction from one so much my elder, and who is accustomed to going about in the world."

"Yes, you're not much used to the world, are you?" Ran Eld murmured, swirling his wine. "One tends to forget just how ill-suited you are to caring for even so small a portion of the clan's melant'i. But, there. If those who are wiser do not pause to instruct their inferiors, the wiser must share in the fault, when the inevitable disgrace occurs." He sipped, waiting.

Aelliana clenched her hands about each other. "As you say," she whispered.

Voni giggled and helped herself to another spoonful of baked melon.

"Precisely," Ran Eld said, lazily. "No, Sinit, don't speak, I pray you. Aelliana and I have quite agreed that she welcomes my tuition." He finished off his wine and set the glass aside, pushed plates, bowls and sauce-thimbles back and folded his arms atop the cloth.

"Look at me," he murmured, leaning forward.

Teeth-grit, she raised her head, met his eyes with a flinch.

"So." He smiled, not pleasantly. "Scouts, Aelliana."

She stared at him, speechless, saw his mouth tighten with impatience and blurted, "I teach Scouts."

"Precisely," he purred, mouth easing with satisfaction. "You teach Scouts, for which you receive a wage. A regrettable necessity. However, necessity ends with the ending of the school-day. There is no need for—and, indeed, very good reason to refrain from—association—with Scouts."

"Scouts are not our kind," Voni elucidated, perhaps for Sinit's benefit. "Scouts, pilots, mechanics—it all comes down to bad manners, oily fingers and dirty faces. I hope no one of Mizel is so foolish as to credit such disreputable persons with heroism and vast knowledge. Heroism is a great piece of nonsense. I infinitely prefer good manners."

A flicker of mind pictures: Jon dea'Cort tidily wiping his broad hands on a red rag; Rema's spotless leathers and courteous concern; Var Mon's scrubbed-til-it-shone, mischievous boy-face . . .

"I—"

Ran Eld raised a hand and leaned closer across the table, eyes leveled like lasers.

"Scouts are not fit companions for one of Mizel. For anyone of Mizel," he said, spacing his words as if her ears were defective—or her wits. "Do you understand me, Aelliana?"

Bow the head, she told herself, desperately. Be meek. Remember. Remember your ship.

"I understand you," she whispered, heartbeat pounding in her temples.

"Well, what have we here, a tableau?" Birin Caylon stood in the doorway. She raised a hand on which Mizel's Clan Ring gleamed and stabbed a finger toward her son.

"Ran Eld is the insatiable cat about to eat the unfortunate mouse, portrayed by Aelliana—so!" She dropped her hand and came into the room. "Did I guess correctly?"

Ran Eld laughed and eased back into his chair. "Correct as always, Mother!"

"Indeed, ma'am," Voni ventured, rising to hold the delm's chair, "we were merely striving to show Aelliana and Sinit the unsuitability of associating with Scouts and other such persons."

"A cup of wine, Ran Eld, if you please—and a saucer of soup, if any remains."

Provided with these, she tasted her wine before turning her attention to her middle daughter, who sat yet in her pose of mouse-about-to-be-devoured. Birin Caylon felt a stir of compassion. The child looked unwell, her thin face was pinched and there were great bruised circles under her misty eyes.

Abruptly, Birin wondered if a particular Scout might be the subject of this lesson in appropriate behavior. She had a spoonful of soup. Really, she thought, Ran Eld is too hard on the girl.

"No doubt but that Scouts are odd-tempered," she said, after another spoon of soup. "I recall your father, Aelliana. What that man was for questions! He would babble on concerning a certain mix of tea, or the practice of drinking morning-wine only in the morning, or whether cats told jokes. He found the most mundane affairs cause for high amusement. Very nearly he drove me to distraction—and he merely trained at Academy and not a true Scout at all!" She sighed.

"Your grandmother, who was of course delm at that time, found him unexceptional. For his part, he showed her great deference and spoke highly in her praise, so he was not lost to proper feeling at all, as some claim of Scouts."

"And yet you do not deny that he, as all Scouts, was odd in his manner," Ran Eld said.

"No," said Birin, frowning after her thoughts. "No, my son, I cannot deny that he was considerably out of the common way. At the time, I suspected him of laughing at me. However, I have come to see that much of his oddness must be laid to his training." She paused.

"It is necessary for those who would take up the chancy duties Scouts claim for themselves to undergo rigorous and specialized education, the better to survive in the wide universe. It is to be regretted that an effect of attaining excellence in this curriculum must also make one—different.

"I have heard it said that Scouts are other than Liaden—that of course is nonsense. What I believe is that Scouts are burdened with an understanding that takes into account not only Liad, but the universe entire." She reached for her wine. "I believe such understanding sets them apart forever from those who look no further than Liad."

"Then you credit Scouts with heroism, do you, ma'am?" Sinit's voice carried clear amusement and Birin turned to frown at her.

"I credit Scouts with other-ness," she said sternly, "and perhaps with loneliness. It is possible that there is something to be learned from them, should one have the ability to grasp it. Not all do—which is no shame. Nor is there shame in finding that one has that certain ability." She moved her gaze to Ran Eld, sitting attentive beside her.

"I find no disgrace in the companionship of Scouts."

He inclined his head politely. Satisfied, Birin returned to her soup.

The silence was broken by the scrape of a chair. Aelliana rose and made her bow.

"If you please, ma'am. I have student work to review."

Birin waved a hand. "Certainly. Good evening, daughter."

"Good evening," the girl whispered and pushed her chair to, leaving a full plate of food and an empty teacup behind.

At the door of the dining hall, she paused and spun, one hand outflung. The silver ring that had belonged to her grandmother caught the light; lost it.

"Please, ma'am," she said breathlessly. "What came of him?"

Birin glanced up with a frown. "Of whom?"

"My—my father."

"Child, however should I know what came of him? I last saw him twenty-seven years ago, when we signed the completion of contract."

"Oh." Her shoulders drooped inside the cocoon of her shirt. "Of course. Good evening, ma'am."

"Good evening, Aelliana," Ran Eld called dulcetly, but the doorway was empty.


"HE DID WHAT?" Var Mon stared at his cha'leket in patent disbelief. "Have you gone mad?"

"No, but my lord chel'Mara doubtless has!" Lyn Den crowed. He flung himself into his cha'leket's arms and kissed his cheek. "Come and rejoice, darling, I needn't join the Terran mercenaries, after all!"

"As if they'd have you," Var Mon retorted grumpily, "or as if you'd live a day in battle, if they did. And the office of informing your father doubtless falling to myself. Lyn Den, are you certain it was Vin Sin chel'Mara?"

"Am I likely to forget his face?" the other asked, spinning about in sheer exuberance. "Hello, Rema."

"Lyn Den." She inclined her head and came to stand at Var Mon's side, her face serious. "How do you go on?"

"Delightfully. Deliriously. I have had the best fortune imaginable, could I but convince this brute of a cha'leket that my mind is firm."

"Or as firm as ever it has been," Var Mon muttered. Rema smiled, briefly.

"What's come about? Has your father redeemed your debt?"

"Better—a dozen times better! Vin Sin chel'Mara himself met me after my early class—only imagine His Lordship cooling his heels in a university hallway! He met me, I say, and returned my entire loss, with a paper stating I owed him nothing in the future; that anything I might have come to owe him in the past is forgiven. Here—" He pulled a much-folded piece of vellum from his sleeve—"read it for yourself."

Var Mon snatched the paper free and unfolded it. Rema put her head against his and together they scanned the brief document.

"His signature, certain enough," she murmured, fingering the drop of orange wax and pendant silver ribbon. "Sealed up proper as you please."

"Well." Var Mon re-folded the page and thrust it back to his foster-brother, setting his face into a most un-Var Mon-like frown.

"I judge you've encountered an unreasonable bit of good luck. One only hopes that the fright you've had will be sufficient to keep you out of gaming-houses for the rest of your days."

"Oh, indeed. I intend to live retired and entertain but rarely, and that at home."

"Laugh do," Var Mon said, serverly. Rema and I are twelve day away from our solo examinations. Have the grace to grant me ease of mind where you are concerned. Or must I leave Academy and appoint myself your keeper?"

"There, old thing, don't take on!" Once more, Lyn Den flung into Var Mon's arms. He lay his cheek against the leather-clad shoulder. "I'll be good, darling, never fear it. Truly, I've learnt my lesson—if I never see a deck of cards again it will be some days too soon for my taste!"

"Well." Var Mon allowed himself a tender smile as he set his cha'leket back. "Mind you stay wary. You'd best get on, now. We're bound for piloting practice—and you have your afternoon classes to consider."

"Monster." Lyn Den grinned, sobered. "Shall I see you again, before you leave for your solo?"

"Of course," Var Mon said. "You know I daren't leave planet without making my bow to my mother your aunt."

"True enough," Lyn Den laughed and swept a bow. "Pilots. Good lifting."

"Take care, Lyn Den," Rema called, as he ran lightly down the Academy's front ramp. She glanced aside and met Var Mon's puzzled eyes.

"A peculiar course for His Lordship to plot," she commented.

Var Mon sighed. "Do you know, I was only just now thinking that exact thought."


Chapter Ten

There shall be four levels of pilot acknowledged by the Guild. The base level, or Third Class, shall be qualified for work within system and orbit, operating ships not above Class B.



Mid-level, or Second Class, shall be qualified to lift any ship to Class AA within system and orbit.



A pilot holding a First Class license shall be competent in accomplishing the Jump into and out of hyperspace.



Master Pilot is one able to perform all aspects of piloting with excellence. This grade may undertake to train and test any of the lower three levels.



For the purposes of these by-laws, Scout-trained pilots shall be understood to hold a license equal to Master Pilot.

—Excerpted from the By-laws of the Pilots Guild



THE TESTING CHAMBER was familiar, even comforting. In just such a cubicle had she taken her university placement tests, winning a full mathematics scholarship to the University of Liad.

Even the problems that flashed so quickly across the screen were comforting. There were no mysteries here; no danger. No doubt.

Aelliana's fingers flew across the keyboard, structuring and restructuring the piloting equations as required. She hesitated when the focus of testing shifted from practical application to law and regulation, blinked, shifted thought-mode and went on, speed building toward a crescendo.

The screen went blank. A chime sounded, startling in the sudden absence of key-clicks.

"Part One of your examination is completed," a mechanical voice announced from the general area of the cubicle's ceiling. "Please await your examiner with the results."

Aelliana sat back in the squeaky chair, hands folded sternly in her lap, head slightly bent, eyes on the quiet keys.

She felt no anxiety regarding this initial phase of testing. The piloting problems had been quite ordinary, almost bland. The abrupt change from math systems to regulatory language had startled her, but the questions themselves had been entirely straightforward.

She was less sanguine regarding her ability to perform satisfactorily at a live board. It was true that she had lifted and landed a Jump-ship. It was equally true that she had done so exactly thrice, each time monitored closely by Scout Lieutenant Lys Fidin, one of her most brilliant—and outrageous—students.

Within the shelter of her hair, Aelliana smiled. Lys had taken advanced training, gaining for herself the ultimate prize. When she left Liad it had been as a First-In, among the best the Scouts possessed, trained to go alone into uncharted space, to make initial contact with unknown cultures, to map unexplored worlds and star systems.

It had been Lys who attempted to convince her teacher to "go for Scout," and would hear nothing like 'no' when it came to Aelliana's lifting a live ship.

"Theory's all very well," the Scout insisted. "But, damn it, Aelli, you can't teach pilots survival math without ever having a ship in your hands!"

Lys won that effort, and lift a ship Aelliana did.

The next campaign had been for Aelliana's enlistment in a piloting course, which came to a draw: Ran Eld would certainly have denied such an expenditure from his sister's wages and might well have felt moved to make a retaliatory strike to remind her of his authority.

So, Aelliana audited Primary Piloting at Chonselta Tech, read the manuals from basic to expert, worked with the sim-boards in the piloting lab—and with that Lys had to be satisfied.

"Scholar Caylon." The door to the cubicle slid back with a rush, revealing Examination Officer Jarl. He bowed.

"I am pleased to report that you have flawlessly completed the initial testing. If you will accompany me to the simulation room, you may commence the second segment of the examination."


ONCE AGAIN SCENE and task were familiar, clear and comforting. Indeed, Aelliana found the sim sluggish, less sprightly than the board she still worked from time to time in the piloting lab.

The slow response threw her off-balance during the systems check and clearance operations. By the time it became necessary to engage the gyros and lift, she had largely adjusted to the slower pace, though the sluggard navcomp irritated. In the end, she simply ran the equations herself, feeding the numbers into the board and executing required maneuvers without bothering to wait for the comp's tardy verification.

She attained the prescribed orbit and, as before, the screen went abruptly blank. A chime sounded, the webbing retracted and the hood lifted. Aelliana stepped out into the larger room.

Examination Officer Jarl, who had been monitoring her progress in the master-sim, cleared his throat.

"Very quick—ah—Scholar. I note you were routinely ahead of the navcomp."

"The comp was slow," Aelliana said, hanging her head. "It was much more efficient to simply do the calculations myself and feed them in manually." She paused, gnawing her lip. "Shall I be penalized, sir?"

"Eh?" He coughed. "Oh, no. No, I don't believe so, Scholar. Though I must remind you that Port regs insist a ship's navcomp be engaged and online during lift and orbiting."

"Yes, sir," Aelliana whispered. "I will remember."

"Good," he said, rising and rubbing his hands together. He looked at her askance, as if she had suddenly grown a second head, then made his bow.

"As before, Scholar, a flawless—if slightly irregular—performance. I believe it is time for you and I to walk out to the field and see what you might make of the test-ship."

"Yes," Aelliana said and followed him out of the sim-room, head down and stomach churning.


AELLIANA INITIATED THE system checks and webbed into the pilot's chair, nervously double-checking the calibrations in her head. She brought the navcomp online and ran a test sequence, comparing the computer's results against her own.

Satisfied to six decimal places, and relieved to find this board more lightsome than the sim, she glanced over to the examination officer, who was webbed into the copilot's station.

"I am here as an observer, Scholar," he said, folding his hands deliberately onto his knee. "If difficulties ensue, or if it becomes obvious that ship's control is not firm, I shall override your board. If that should occur, it will be understood that you have failed the third phase of testing and may retest in twelve days. In the meanwhile, I am barred from answering any questions you may ask, or from offering any aid save override and return to berth. Is this clear?"

"Sir, it is."

"Good. Then I will tell you that I expect to arrive in Protocol Orbit Thirteen within the next local hour. Once stable orbit has been achieved, you will receive instruction for return to planet surface. You are cleared to proceed."

Aelliana took a deep breath, shook her hair back and opened a line to Chonselta Tower.


STABLE P-13 ORBIT was achieved in just under one local hour. The lift was without incident. Aelliana paid scrupulous attention to her navcomp and charted a course remarkable for its dignity.

It must be said that several times during this stately and undemanding progress Aelliana found herself computing quicker, less grandmotherly approaches. Once, indeed, her hand crept several finger-lengths in the direction of the communications toggle, while her mind was busy formulating the change of course she would file with the Tower.

She pulled back with a gasp and continued the course as filed.

"Protocol Orbit Thirteen achieved, Master Pilot," she murmured, tapping in the last sequence and relaxing against the webbing. "Locked and stable."

"So I see." Examination Officer Jarl spun his chair to face her. "You disappoint me, Scholar. After such a run at the simulation, I had expected a lift like no other."

She swallowed, forcing herself to meet his eyes. "This navcomp is more able, sir."

"That would account for it, naturally," he said with a certain dryness. He glanced at his board, then sent a sharp gaze into her face. "Tell me, Scholar, how much time could have been saved, had you filed that change of course mid-lift?"

"I—As much as five-point-five minutes, sir. Perhaps six, depending upon precise orientation with regard to orbit approach."

"I see," he said again. "Yet you chose to continue the course first filed, despite significant time variation. I wonder why."

Aelliana inclined her head. "The safety factor was slightly higher," she murmured, "as well as the chance of absolute success. It is—important—that I gain my license, sir. I dared risk nothing that might endanger a positive outcome."

"Dared not put your license on the line, eh? Forgive me, Scholar, but this is not promising news. Surely you know that a pilot's first concern is for passengers and for ship. If he loses his license preserving either, that is regrettable, but necessary."

Aelliana bit her lip, feeling sweat between her breasts, where The Luck's keys hung. Surely—surely he would not fail her because she had chosen a less-chancy approach. The regulations—

"I shall give you an opportunity to redeem yourself, Scholar, and to show me your mettle."

She caught her breath, hardly believing she heard the words.

"Sir?"

He inclined his head, lips curved slightly upward.

"I wish you to return us to our original location. I expect you to halve your lift time—or better."


IT WAS FRIGHTENING, exhilarating. It demanded every bit of her attention, so that she forgot to sweat or worry or take precious seconds to calculate some alternate, less rambunctious descent.

She abandoned the navcomp early on, letting it babble gently to itself while she ran and modified the necessary equations and plugged them into the board.

Local traffic presented no difficulty, though she caught an edge of chatter from a slow-moving barge: At least one pilot thought she was pushing the luck. She forgot it as soon as she heard it.

Numbers flickered, equations balanced, altered, formed and re-balanced; Aelliana dropped the test-ship through eleven protocols, skimmed along the twelfth and fell like a stone into atmosphere.

Lys had taught her to extend the wings and wait on the jets. It was a Scout trick, designed to conserve fuel in circumstances where fuel might very well be scarce.

"Fly her as long as you can," the Scout had told her. "You don't have to kick in those retros until you can see the street where you live."

Flying was somewhat more difficult than mere lifting or jet-aided descent. Flying meant manual defeat of local weather conditions. Local weather conditions had been milk-mild on Aelliana's three previous ventures.

They were not so today.

The ship bucked and twisted, nose going down despite her efforts at stabilization. Scan reported precipitation, turbulent winds. Maincomp reported hazard.

Aelliana hit the jets.

One short blast, as Lys would have done it—just enough to get the nose up and calm the bucking. They flew smoothly for a minute, two.

Aelliana hit the jets again.

And again.

And one more time, as she took up the approach to the Guild's field. This time she kept them on, letting them eat the remaining velocity, until the ship hesitated and touched down, light as a mote of dust, on the designated pad.

The jets killed themselves. Aelliana drew in the wings, ran the mandated systems check, reported her safe condition to Tower and began the shutdown. Beside her, Examination Officer Jarl was silent.

Check completed, Aelliana shut down the board, retracted the webbing and spun her chair, lifting her head and meeting the man's eyes.

"Arrived, sir. I believe the time is somewhat less than half the ascent time."

"Yes." He closed his eyes, sighed deeply, opened his eyes and retracted the webbing. "I apprehend you have trained with a Scout." He stood and looked down at her, his face damp with sweat.

"Such an approach is very effective—and entirely acceptable, should you be carrying Scouts or—inanimate cargo. For your general run of passenger, however, you will wish to go more gently."

Aelliana inclined her head. "Yes, Master Pilot."

Once again, he closed his eyes and sighed, somewhat less deeply. Apparently recovered by this exercise, he bowed as to a fellow Guild-member.

"If you will accompany me to the registry office, Pilot, I shall be pleased to issue a provisional second class license in your name."

Aelliana stared at him, gulped air and managed to stand on legs suddenly gone to rubber. She returned the bow, augmenting it with a hand-gesture conveying gratitude to the instructor.

"Yes, well." He cleared his throat. "You are required to complete certain hours of flight-time in order to gain regular status. Flight-time requirements must be met within a relumma of this date and certified by a master pilot. I note you are acquainted with Jon dea'Cort. He or any of his crew are qualified—I would say, peculiarly qualified—to assist you and in providing any further training you may wish to undertake."

Aelliana bowed her head. "Yes, Master Pilot. Thank you, sir."

"I believe there are no thanks due, Pilot. You have earned this prize with your own hands. Follow me, if you please."

Shivering with reaction, heart pounding in terror—or jubilation—Aelliana followed.


Chapter Eleven

I have today received Korval's Ring from the hand of Petrella, Thodelm yos'Galan, who had it from the hand of Korval Herself as she lay dying.



My first duty as Korval must be Balance with those who have deprived the clan of Chi yos'Phelium, beloved parent and delm; as well as Sae Zar yos'Galan, gentle cousin, a'thodelm, master trader. There is also Petrella yos'Galan, who I fear has taken her death-wound.



Sae Zar fell defending his delm. All honor to him.



Chi yos'Phelium died of a second treachery and in dying gave nourishment to her sister, my aunt, who alone of the three was able to win back to home.



The name of the world which has fashioned these losses for Korval is Ganjir, RP-7026-541-773, Tipra Sector, First Quadrant.



This shall be Korval's Balance: As of this hour, the ships of Korval and of Korval's allies do not stop at Ganjir. Korval goods do not go there; Korval cantra finds no investment there. And these conditions shall remain in force, though Ganjir starves for want of us.



 . . . I note that my mother is still dead.

—Daav yos'Phelium Eighty-Fifth Delm of Korval


Entry in the Delm's Diary for Finyal Eighthday in the


First Relumma of the Year Named Saro


 


* * *

DAAV FINGER-TIGHTENED THE last screw, reached over and swung the powertorque into position.

The repair had been tedious, badly located and generally ill-wished. His back ached from bending, his wrists tingled from the torque's vibration, his left leg had gone numb some minutes ago and sensation was now returning in a flood tide of needles.

He aligned the torque with the first screw, steadied it with his left hand and hit the go-stud with his right. Vibration rattled his hands, screamed through his head. He welcomed these minor pains as he had welcomed the others.

He hit the second, third and fourth screws, killed the power and allowed the torque rise to the height of its tether. Cautiously, he straightened.

Abused back muscles sued urgently for their guild rep. Daav raised his arms shoulder-high, then over his head, stretching high on his toes, pulling his entire body taut.

At the height of the stretch, muscles quivering and tense, he closed his eyes and ran a mental sequence he'd been taught as a Scout cadet. Colors whirled before his mind's eye, there was an abrupt click, loud in the inner ears. Daav brought his arms down to shoulder-height, then the rest of the way, tension and minor aches receding in a wave of delicious warmth.

By the time he had settled flat on his feet, he felt as if he'd had, if not quite an entire night's sleep, a very substantial nap.

"Well," he said to himself, or possibly to Patch, Binjali's resident cat, who had watched the repair from atop the tool cart. "That would seem to be that."

Patch yawned.

"Yes, very good. Denigrate my efforts. It won't do for me to go above myself. I do remind you, however, that I am merely casual labor, which must account for my clumsiness and ill-use of time. I make no doubt that Master dea'Cort—or, indeed, yourself!—would have managed the thing in high style and half the time. Perhaps someday very soon now I shall be privileged to see Master dea'Cort work."

That he had not lately been so privileged was not Jon's fault, but Daav's, as he would have been first to admit. Indeed, after pleading so urgently for access to Binjali's particular grace, he found the necessities of Clan Korval conspired to keep him away for four days together. He had returned only this morning, to be greeted with precious off-handedness by Jon, who had set him to the repair of the back-up jitney.

An hour or so later, Jon called that he was going over to Apel's for a glass, which Daav knew to be an undertaking of some hours. Trilla was due in the afternoon, Clonak, Syri, Al Bred and perhaps a few others would appear when they were seen. If trouble arose which Daav couldn't handle, Jon desired to be called from his wine so that he might marvel at it.

Now, the repair at last done, there was no sign of Trilla, Clonak or the other possibles. Daav moved Patch from the cart to his shoulder and stowed the tools. The cat arranged himself, stole-like, about the man's shoulders and stuck his nose into a vulnerable ear, purring.

"I suppose it's nothing to you that your nose is cold and damp? I thought not. Contrive to leave my hair rooted to my head, if you please. And if I detect so much as a paw-flick toward that earring, you, my fine sir, are mouse meat."

Tools neatly hung away, Daav closed the cart and moved silently toward the front of the garage, stripping off his work gloves as he walked. The sight of his naked hands gave him a momentary shock, and he lifted a finger to touch the chain about his neck. Korval's Ring hung, secret and safe, hidden below the lacing of his shirt.

"Do you know," he said to the cat riding his shoulders, "I believe I shall see if I can repair the tea-maker. It's my belief Jon has recalibrated the brewing sensor in order to save money on leaf."

Patch yawned. This was an old line of chat, after all. Dozens of Scout fingers had been inside the tea-maker over the years, seeking to correct its tragic fault—all, thus far, in vain.

"I might just buy a new unit," Daav mused, rounding the ladder that led to the cat-walk. "And install it one day while he's out courting Mistress Apel."

That idea appealed. Daav ducked under a guy-rope and came out into the minor open space of the crew's lounge. Sitting before the tea-maker on the scarred counter—indeed, entirely concealing that rather bulky object—was a box. Attached to the box was a paper, 'scribed in garish orange ink. Daav plucked the paper free.

Leave my teapot alone, you assassin. Jon dea'Cort's perpendicular hand was unmistakable. When you've done with that minor five-minute repair job up-bay, lift this to Outyard Eight. Gat expects delivery before Solcintra midnight.

Daav grinned. "Horrid old man," he said affectionately, reaching up to rub Patch's ear. The purring intensified, setting up a very pleasant vibration across his shoulders.

"So, my friend, shall you watch the shop until Trilla arrives? Or shall we go back to the office and see what sense can be made from the roster-sheet? There's a—" Patch shifted abruptly on his shoulder, claws skritching across the leather vest.

Daav turned as the crew door cycled, admitting a wedge of mid-morning sun and a bulky, hesitant shadow.

The shadow came two steps into the garage, walking with something near Scout silence, then paused, head moving from side to side while the door cycled closed behind.

Patch twisted to his feet and jumped from Daav's shoulder, landing noisily atop one of the ancient stools.

"Hello?" The voice was strong and even, an odd partner for that uncertain manner. She came forward, soft-footed on the hard floor.

"Master—oh." A tensing of her entire body, as if for a blow, and a jerky inclination of the head. "I—beg your pardon," she stammered in Adult-to-Adult. "I was—Is Master dea'Cort about?"

"Not just at the moment," Daav said, deliberately relaxing his muscles and letting his mouth curl slightly upward. "May I assist you? I am Daav—one of the crew here, you see." He used his chin to point at the black-and-white cat now perched, erect and dignified, atop a stool cushioned in dull green leather.

"Patch will vouch for me."

She turned her head, furtively, as if expecting a reprimand, and drifted forward another few steps, pausing with her hip against the farthest of the disordered semi-circle of stools.

"Patch?"

"Half-owner and resident cat," Daav returned, pitching his voice for foolery. "We've been known to each other any time these eight years. His word is quite as good as Jon's."

She turned back, head lifting sharply, giving him sight of a tense, fine-featured face dominated by a pair of shadowed green eyes.

"You—are—a Scout."

"Retired, alas," he replied, hoping serious gentleness might fare better than comradely joking. "Is there some way in which I might serve you?"

"I had come," she began, and then cut off with a gasp, not recoiling so much as freezing in place, head bent to stare—

At Patch, who was twisting this way and that, stropping himself against her hip and purring outrageously.

"What—" Her voice died as if breath had failed her. Daav stepped gently forward.

"He wants his chin rubbed, spoiled creature. Like this." He reached down, carefully unthreatening, and demonstrated. The purring reached an alarming level.

"I—see." She extended a thin hand adorned by an antique puzzle-ring and used two tentative fingers on the black-splotched chin.

"A bit more forcefully," Daav coached gently. "It's a hedonist, I fear."

Once again, that quick lift of the head and startled flash of eyes. Then her attention was back on the cat, her face hidden by a rippling fall of tawny hair.

Daav made himself restful, as Rockflower had labored to teach him, cleared his mind of judging thoughts and allowed the woman before him to elucidate herself.

Observed thus, she was not bulky, but desperately thin, disguised and armored in layers of overlarge clothing. Likewise, the feral tension and the quiet, uncertain movements were two wedges of the same shield, meant to hold the world away.

Look away, her tense shoulders seem to say. Look at anyone—at anything—else, but at me.

She was misused, whoever she was—a person urgently in need of the benediction of friendship.

One of Jon's stray kittens, Daav thought, but the notion sat not entirely balanced. He watched her fingers on the cat, more certain now, having moved from chin to ear in response to Patch's explicit direction.

Comrades she might need, and someone to ensure she was fed, yet he felt she was not entirely a stray. About the rigid shoulders sat a mantle of purpose and from beneath the imperfect, ill-confining armor roiled such a potent brew of energy that Daav shivered.

The woman's thin body registered his movement, countered it with an abrupt cessation of her own motion. He received the impression that green eyes had read his face through the curtain of her hair.

"I had come," she said, and the burr of a Chonselta accent tickled his ear, "to find if my ship was ready to lift. Master dea'Cort had said—perhaps it might be—today. Depending upon the crew."

"Ah. I am able to assist you, then. If you will walk with me to the office, we may check the roster."

"I am grateful," she said formally, and kept a wary step behind him down to Jon's office at the back of the bay, Patch walking, high-tailed, at her side.

Daav tipped the screen up and tapped the on-switch.

"May I know the name of your ship?" he murmured as she came forward, stopping with the solid mass of the desk between them. Patch jumped nimbly to the cluttered surface and leaned companionably against her side.

"Ride the Luck."

In the act of calling up the roster, he froze, and shot a glance at her shrouded face. Daav knew Vin Sin chel'Mara, as well as mutual dislike allowed, and knew somewhat of His Lordship's habits. He cleared his throat.

"Ma'am . . ."

"It is not complete," she interrupted, shoulders sagging within her large, shabby shirt. "I had hoped—but of course there was a great deal of work to be done. Might—might the roster indicate, sir, when she will be ready to lift?"

"Well," Daav murmured, "let us see." He tapped in the required information, then stood, blinking like an idiot, reading the name on the work order, over and over.

"Up to spec and ready to lift," he said after a moment, eyes yet stuck to the screen. A moment more and he managed to move, transferring his stare to the person before him.

"Forgive me. You are Aelliana Caylon?"

Green eyes met his amid a silken ripple of hair. "Yes, I—Of course, you will want identification! I do beg—" Her head was bent once more. She produced a thin metal card from a sleeve pocket and held it out, face averted.

He took it, automatically, noting the blurry likeness, and the date—two days gone. Provisional Second Class.

"Thank you," he murmured and gave himself a sharp mental shake, trying to align this tentative individual with the extraordinary mind that had reconstructed the ven'Tura Piloting Tables, the brilliant scholar who taught Practical Mathematics, or, as it was called in Scout Academy, Math for Survival.

"You are the revisor of the—"

"Of the ven'Tura Tables," she said breathlessly, all but snatching her license back from his hand. "I am. Please do not bow. I—I have explained to Master dea'Cort."

"Which is certainly enough for both of us," Daav said, grabbing for equilibrium. He smiled. "Your ship is ready and able to lift. You have, as I see, the skills necessary to the task. Good lift, pilot."

"I—That is." She floundered to a halt, took a shuddering breath and raised her head to squarely meet his eyes. "The fact is, I am in need of flight time. I've never lifted—you understand, I've never actually gone anywhere. And the regs—I had thought Master dea'Cort . . ."

"I see." Daav tipped his head, considering. "It happens there is a small errand left me by Jon. If you like it, I can serve as your second, and you may actually go somewhere. Outyard Eight to be precise."

The misty eyes took fire. "I would like that—extremely, sir."

"Then that is what we shall do. However, I must insist upon a condition."

Wariness cooled the fire, leaching color from her eyes. "Condition?"

"It is relatively painless," he said, offering her a smile. "The custom at Binjali's is to speak in Comrade. No one demands it, it is merely custom. In no case, however, am I 'sir.' I prefer to be addressed as Daav. If you find that too intimate, then 'pilot' is acceptable." He tipped his head. "Are you able to meet this condition?"

She inclined her head, very solemn. "I am—Pilot."

"Good," he said, and shut down Jon's computer. "Let us see if Trilla has come on-shift."


Chapter Twelve

The delm must be a smuggler-class pilot—take from yos'Galan if yos'Phelium fails, as it likely will. I'm a sport, child of a long line of random elements, and Jela—



Young Tor An's folk have been pilots since the first ships lifted beyond atmosphere, back among the dead Ringstars. yos'Galan will breed true.



The best pilot the clan possesses must be delm, regardless of bloodline. This will be taken as a clan law.



The delm's heir must be a pilot—of like class to the delm—and as many others of the clan as genes and the luck allow.



There must be ships, spaceworthy and ready to fly: As many ships as it is possible to acquire. Such a number will necessarily require funds for maintenance—whole yards devoted to their readiness. Therefore, Clan Korval must become wealthy as Jela and me only dreamed of wealth.



Serve the contract, as long as it's in force. The boy don't hold with oath-breaking.

—Excerpted from Cantra yos'Phelium's Log Book


 


"LIFTING TO OUTEIGHT?" Trilla grinned. "Convey my undying affection to Gat."

"Yes, very likely," Pilot Daav returned, shrugging into a worn leather jacket.

Aelliana looked at that battered item hungrily. "Pilot's jacket" most would say, because of the cut, and as if any third-class barge runner might have one. In truth, only those who mastered Jump held the right to wear a pilot's jacket.

Trilla laughed and winked at Aelliana. "Scholar, good day to you. What luck at Chonselta Guild Hall?"

"Second class provisional," she said, pulling her eyes away from Pilot Daav's jacket, and warily meeting the other woman's merry glance.

"Everything fulfilled but the flight time! Ge'shada, Pilot." Surprisingly, the Outworlder swept a bow of congratulation. When she straightened, her face was somewhat more serious.

"Daav's among the best you can have next to you at board, don't fret yourself there. Very good with ships—eh, Master Daav?"

"It humbles me to hear you say it, Master Trilla."

She laughed again, fingers shaping the sign for rogue. "Get your box, then, and haul out. I've work to do. Where's the Master?"

"Apel's."

"Think they'd just set up house—be cheaper, which ought to compel Jon."

"Yes, but Apel's not such a fool," the man said earnestly. "Besides, I expect she likes drinkable tea."

"Much more compelling, I allow. Heard news of crew?"

"Clonak, perhaps, and Syri. Al Bred this evening, if at all. The back-up jitney's on-line."

"Put you on that, did he?" She grinned and lifted a hand, turning toward the office with Patch at her heels. "Good lift, pilots."

"Thank you," Aelliana whispered, watching the man raise the bulky cargo box easily to his shoulder.

"After you, Pilot," he said courteously, black eyes level and calm. Scout's eyes, that saw everything, gave back little, and judged nothing.

"Of course," she stammered, and turned to lead the way to the crew door, feeling him, silent and solid, behind her.

Outside, he stowed the box in the jitney's boot, straightened and stood looking down at her from his height, head tipped to one side.

"Shall you drive, or shall I?"

Aelliana swallowed, trying without success to calm nerves set all a-jangle by the last few harrowing days. The acquisition of the precious piloting license had not eased her position within Mizel, but rather increased the necessity for Ran Eld's unquestioning acceptance of her subservience. It had been necessary to placate her brother not once but several times, each time bowing lower, until she could taste carpet dust on her tongue, mixed with the bile of impotent fury.

It had been a risk to steal away today, she thought with a heart-wrench of panic. In general her days off were spent in the tiny office at Chonselta Tech. Ran Eld knew that. What if he were to seek her there and find the door bearing her name locked? He would want to know where she had been—would demand to know—and what might she tell him, that would buy his belief, while preserving her limited independence? She had been mad—she was mad, gods help her. How could she have thought—

"Scholar Caylon." Calm, deep voice, warm sense of a body near—too near!—something, feather-light, against her sleeve—

She gasped, cringing back, shoulders jamming up around her ears. Through her hair, she saw alarm cross the tall Scout's face, replaced instantly with careful neutrality. His hand, for it was his hand, dropped from her sleeve and he stepped back, beyond the boundaries of isolation she had woven for herself.

If he had simply turned and gone, she would certainly have fled to the ferry, and spent the return trip to Chonselta pleading with a pantheon of uncaring godlings for the grace of undiscovery.

He did not leave. He spoke, in Adult-to-Adult mode, very precisely, so the accent of Solcintra rang sharp against her ear.

"I regret that my presence troubles you, Scholar. Allow me to bring Trilla, so that she may sit second board for you."

His presence did trouble her: Tall, slim and graceful, with his odd, twisty earring and neat, overlong hair, the black eyes bold in a sharp, compelling face—He troubled her as the cat had troubled her, and for the same reason.

The cat—so soft, so comforting. Once she had started to stroke it, she could not stop; the joy the creature received from her caresses had awakened some dangerous nameless need—

The cat had seen her.

Tall Daav, with his bright black eyes, had seen her as well and knew her to be—real.

"Scholar?"

"I—" She shook her hair away from her face, forcing herself to meet those sightful eyes. "I beg your pardon yet again, sir—Pilot. The last few days have been—uneasy. It would be best, I think, not to lift today."

"Hah." His mouth curved slightly—a gentle smile—though his eyes remained neutral. "Sky-nerves, we had used to call it at Academy," he said, in Comrade once again. "The best cure is to lift as planned."

Lift as planned. Aelliana felt the words strike somewhere at the nearly-forgotten core of her.

She took a deep, trembling breath and inclined her head.

"That is doubtless excellent advice," she said evenly and saw something move in the depths of the Scout's dark eyes. "I will ask that you pilot the jitney, however. It seems the surest course for arrival."

The smile became more pronounced. "I drive with delight," he said, and moved 'round the jitney to the driver's slot.


AELLIANA FILED A COURSE on the challenging side of the equation, scrupulously remembering to bring the navcomp on-line, and took the opportunity of the quarter-hour wait to tour Ride the Luck.

The refurbished hold was eminently satisfying, though the pilots' quarters remained in their previous state of lavish comfort, lacking only the ceiling mirrors.

Aelliana looked about the chamber, feeling the slight vibration of the ship's gyros, hearing the hum of the support system, the muted clamor of Port chatter feeding in over the mandatory open line, and sagged against the wall, the room blurring through a rush of unaccustomed tears.

Hers.

The fierceness of possession warmed her, terrified her. It was dangerous to want something this much. So many things might go wrong—and the clan . . . Until the day she cleared Liad orbit, heading for her Jump-point, she was an asset of Clan Mizel; her possessions no more her own than the clan's. Mizel could as easily dispose of Aelliana Caylon's ship as it was legally able to dispose of Aelliana.

"Pilot?" Daav's voice came quietly from the wall speaker at her shoulder. "We are cleared to lift in two minutes."

"Thank you," she said, pushing shakily away from the wall. Sky-nerves . . ."I am on my way."


THE LIFT TO OUTYARD Eight was almost—restful. Master pilot that he was, Daav kept a serene second board. He took communications to his side with a murmured, "By your leave, Pilot," and offered neither chatter nor any other assault upon her privacy.

Not so Yardkeeper Gat.

"What ship?" It was not so much query as demand, loud enough to pierce Aelliana's concentration on the approach path, so she shot a glance full of startlement to her co-pilot.

A wiry golden hand moved to flick the proper toggle. There was a band of lighter gold about the third finger, Aelliana noted, and a faint indentation, as if Pilot Daav had left off an accustomed ring.

"Ride the Luck," he answered the abrupt query. "Pilot Aelliana Caylon at first board. Daav from Binjali's on second. Yard comp downloaded ship's particulars two-point-four minutes gone, Keeper, and cleared us for Bay Thirty-Two."

"I don't care what her name is or how good she can add! I've got a second class provisional on a non-standard approach to my Yard. What does she know about docking? How do I know she won't hole the ring?"

Daav grinned, which did unexpectedly pleasant things to his foxy face. "Ah, the sweet anticipation!" he said gaily. "Never fear, sir, all shall be resolved in a very few minutes. Unless you would rather we simply jettison the cargo and leave?"

"All a good joke, is it?" the Yardkeeper snarled. "Bay Thirty-Two ready to accept Ride the Luck. You've got eight minutes to get in, unload that cargo and dump out."

"Unless, of course, we hole the ring," Daav murmured politely.

The in-line hummed empty.

Daav laughed, sending a bright glance toward Aelliana. She ducked her head, but did not entirely turn away.

"Non-standard approach?" she asked, voice breathless in her own ears.

"Dear Gat. He only means to say that, measured against other first approaches to ring-docking by provisional second class pilots he has seen in the past, this one is a bit too quick, a bit too flat—very nearly Scout-like, in fact." His fingers moved, swift and certain among the instruments. "Two-thirds local velocity must be dumped within forty-three seconds, Pilot, else we buy a bumpy docking and Gat's disapprobation."

"Good gods." Aelliana spun back to her board.


SEVEN-POINT-NINE MINUTES later, Ride the Luck tumbled out of Bay Thirty-Two, oriented, and commenced descent.

The boards worked sweetly under Daav's fingers; he was agreeably surprised in Ride the Luck, which seemed to sing with joy around them.

He was likewise surprised in Aelliana Caylon, who, for all her skittish, wary ways, knew what to do with a ship in her hands. From power-up to dump-out, there had been not one false move. The minor flutter of hesitation upon approach he assigned to Gat's account, for breaking the web of her concentration and recalling her to the chancy world of human interaction.

The course she had chosen to OutEight had been ambitious for a second class provisional, though well within her abilities. Daav had several times noted her pushing the navcomp, as if she found its entirely respectable response time almost too slow to bear. The filed descent was worthy of a Scout and Daav had no doubt she would execute it with aplomb.

Aelliana Caylon, he thought, watching her fragile hands flickering over prime board, might very well be that rarest of precious things: a natural pilot.

Guild law required a master pilot engaged in evaluating a junior to judge and implement appropriate training. Aelliana Caylon, in the judgment of Scout pilot/Master Daav yos'Phelium, was easily capable of achieving first class. It was likely that master pilot was within her grasp, did she care to leave her own work for a relumma or two and devote herself to study.

Thus, a variation from the simple meeting of second class flight-time requirements was mandated. Daav ran an experienced eye over his scans, double-checked the filed approach and addressed the pilot, pitching his voice soft out of care for her concentration.

"I wonder," he murmured, keeping his eyes scrupulously on his board, "if you might wish to attempt a sling landing."

"Now?" she asked, voice sharp with surprise.

"You will have to master the skill, soon or late," he said, all gentle reason. "Why not begin today?"

"To refile the course, to tie up the port's emergency sling . . ."

"The most minor readjustment of course," Daav soothed, "and no need to discommode port at all. Binjali's has a sling."

Hesitation. Daav consulted his scans and dared push his point a bit, before time became too short.

"I can call Jon, if you like it, and see if we have clearance. We will come in on automatic first time, of course." He paused. "Unless you have already trained on sling-shots?"

"No . . ."

"I'll call now," Daav said, flicking the line open.

"Good-noon, Captain darling!" Clonak ter'Meulen's voice filled the tiny cabin a moment later. "What service shall my humble self be delighted to perform for you?"

Daav's lips twitched. "Where's Jon?"

"Up to his neck in a gyro-fix. Service?"

"Sling-shot, automatics, current coords—" he reeled them off, confident of Clonak's abilities as of his own. "Flight plan downloaded—now. Cleared?"

"Cleared, oh Captain. You and the pilot can take a nap. Until soon."

"Until soon, Clonak." He cut the connection and turned his head to glance at Aelliana Caylon.

She was looking directly at him, green eyes wide, less misty than he recalled, and holding something akin to—amusement.

"It seems a sling-shot is mandated," she observed, and there was the barest thread of laughter, too, in the weave of the fine, strong voice. Daav grinned.

"Your pardon, Pilot. Of all people, you must know what Scouts are!"

"Bent on mischief," she agreed, astonishingly tranquil, "and decided entirely upon their own course." She turned back to her board and her hair shifted to conceal her. "I shall file an amended descent."


THEY WERE WELL INTO the amended descent when a certain subtle lack called Daav's attention to the upper left quadrant of his board. Apparently the navcomp's inefficiencies had become too burdensome to tolerate, for it was shut entirely down. He reached for the reset.

"That's wrong," Aelliana Caylon told him sharply.

"Wrong?"

"Off by two places." Her fingers were flying over the board, as well they should, he thought abruptly, with her running such a course on manual. He punched navcomp up.

Wrong, indeed, and off by nearly three places. Swearing silently, he called for the back-up. It came on-line with a suspicious stutter, accepted its office—and failed.


Chapter Thirteen

In the absence of clan, a partner, comrade or co-pilot may be permitted the burdens and joys of kin-duty. In the presence of kin, duty to partner, comrade or co-pilot must stand an honorable second.

—From the Liaden Code of Proper Conduct



"COMP TWO DOWN," Daav said, eyes raking the scans. It was too late by several minutes to change course now.

"We're committed to the sling. I'll call Jon and file the change. Begin sending your numbers to me for verification."

"Yes," she said, never looking away from her board. Daav hit the comm.

"Navcomp suspect," he told Clonak a heartbeat later, "back-up's dead."

"How lovely for you, darling."

Daav grinned. "Pilot Caylon will be bringing her to the sling on manual."

A short pause, then a cheery, "Right-o!" in what Clonak fondly considered an Aus accent.

"Ride the Luck out."

"Ta-ta."

Daav slapped the line off, dumped his holding bank and leapt into a river of numbers.

Ordered and swift, the equations flowed, through his bank, into the board and out, a continuous perfect stream of checkpoint and balance. He forgot about the navcomp, which should have been tested and cleared as standard procedure. He forgot the oddities of the woman beside him. He forgot Delm Korval.

There were the equations flowing to him, cold and pure, to be verified and fed in. There were the scans. There was the sense of the ship around him. There was the background chatter along the open line.

"When you feel the sling lock," he said, hardly hearing his own voice through the wall of his concentration, "you will cut the gyros. Immediately."

The small portion of his mind not urgently concerned with equations, scan and ship expected an outcry, for to cut the gyros was to be immediately and irrefutably within the talons of gravity. Cutting the gyros meant the ship would fall . . .

"Yes," said Aelliana Caylon and said no more.

He picked up the next sequence, noting that it was the set-up—the final equation. He scrutinized, verified and locked it, leaning back slightly in the web of safety straps.

"Twelve seconds. Mind the sling-lock, Pilot . . ."

It came, a distinct sensation of ship's progress halted, of plate metal and blast glass grasped tightly in the jaws of an inconceivable monster . . .

Aelliana cut the gyros.

The stomach twisted, the inner ear protested, the heart clutched as for an instant it seemed that the monster's jaw had slackened, and the ship sliding free to—

"Caught," Daav announced quietly. "And retained. A difficult task, executed well. Ge'shada, pilot."

"No need for congratulation," she said. "You were correct, after all. I shall need this skill." She threw him a glance, eyes brilliantly green in a pale golden face. "What is the procedure for clearing the sling?"

"Jon sends a workhorse and hauls the ship to its berthing—heading out now, your two-screen."

"I see. And the pilots?"

"In this case, I believe the pilots should make haste to Master dea'Cort. The luck was in it, you caught that error in time."

Once again, that brilliant green glance. "I know regs demand the navcomp be running—but I find it distracting. Doubtless it is my inexperience and I do expect to learn better, s—" She paused, lips tightening. "I cannot help but keep checking the equations, and when it started giving me bad numbers . . ."

"It was even more distracting," Daav concluded amiably. "Perfectly understandable. Point of information: Normal procedure in such circumstance includes engaging the secondary comp."

She looked abashed, the brilliancy of her eyes dimming a fraction. "I had no notion there was a back-up navcomp, sir."

"Daav. Ships of this class carry a primary navcomp and one back-up as standard. Most pilots will install a second back-up. Some prefer more. It is wise to check before dropping to manual, especially if you are running solo."

She bowed her head. "I will remember."

"Good," he said and retracted the webbing. "Lessons being done for the moment, I suggest we wait upon Jon."


"A BEAUTIFUL LANDING!" Jon dea'Cort announced, raising a large, heavy-looking tea mug. "Not at all like some I've seen, where the ship comes in upside down and backward, eh, Daav?"

Clonak, the pudgy Scout with hair on his face—"A mustache," Pilot Daav had murmured in Aelliana's ear, at her initial start of surprise—laughed aloud and made an ironic, seated bow. "You shall never outlive it, Captain."

"So it seems," Pilot Daav returned placidly and looked back to Master dea'Cort. "What about that navcomp, Jon?"

The older man took a hearty swig from his mug. "I'd say replace it."

"Replace—Oh. Oh, no." Aelliana slid off the stool Jon had insisted she take and stood, hands knotted before her. "Navcomps are—Master dea'Cort, Ride the Luck is not a wealthy ship. I intend to work her, but until work can be found, expenses must be held to a minimum. You have been very helpful—indeed, generous, in the refitting, but I—" She stumbled to a halt.

A pair of humorous amber eyes considered her. "Spit it out, math teacher. We're all comrades here."

She drew in a breath, trembling as she met that gaze. "I cannot afford to replace the navcomp."

"Well." Master dea'Cort took counsel of the ceiling.

"Regs are pretty clear," he said eventually. "Navcomp's got to be online while the ship is in use within Port-controlled space. Unless you can afford fines and temporary suspension easier than a replacement comp?"

"It—it needn't be off-line for an instant!" Aelliana cried, the plan taking shape even as she spoke. She leaned forward, cold hands twisted into a cramped knot, eyes on Jon dea'Cort's face.

"I'll engage the navcomp, sir, I swear it! It will be—I can learn to ignore it, use override and merely run manual, as I did today. Then, when there has been sufficient work—" Something moved in the man's face and she stopped, gulping.

Clonak broke the small silence, voice hushed.

"Daav, I'm in love."

"What, again?"

The sound of his calm, deep voice recalled her to a sense of duty left undone and she spun, not quite meeting his eyes.

"I am remiss. You did very well, Pilot, to keep the pace. I am—I am grateful for your assistance and the gift of your expertise."

Trilla, seated beside Clonak, gave a shout of laughter. Jon grinned. Clonak popped off his stool and bowed full honor.

"We shall make a pilot of you yet, oh Captain!"

Aelliana gasped in dismay. She had not meant to hold him up to ridicule before his comrades, but to thank him sincerely for his aid. She felt her cheeks heat.

"No, I—"

But Daav was already making an answering bow toward Clonak.

It was a pure marvel, this bow, swept as if the work leathers were the most costly of High House evening dress. One long arm curved aside and up, holding the imaginary cloak gracefully away as the sleek dark head brushed one elegant, out-thrust leg.

"You do me too much honor."

"Well, that's certainly likely," Jon declared, and shot a glance aside. "Clonak, sit down or go away. In either case, be quiet. Daav, descend from the high branches, if you please. Math teacher, pay attention."

She turned to face him, hands clasped tightly before her.

"Yes, sir," she said humbly.

"Huh." He glanced to the ceiling once more, then back, eyes and face serious.

"Nobody here says you can't run the board by hand forever without a mistake. But there's nobody here who hasn't at least once made a mistake, and been glad there was a double-check to save 'em. We're master class, each one of us." He used his chin to point: Trilla, Clonak, Daav, and tapped himself on the chest with a broad forefinger.

"Master class. The ship don't fly us, which is the case with the chel'Mara. We fly the ship. But blood and bone gets tired, math teacher—even Scouts have to sleep. Say you were hurt and needed time in the 'doc—do you leave the ship to a glitched comp, or do you sit that board and hope you don't pass out?"

She licked her lips. "Surely, in Solcintra. In local space—"

"The luck is everywhere—for good or for ill—and it's best not to spit in its face." Jon leaned forward on his stool, one arm across a powerful thigh.

"We're not talking regs, child. We all agree the regs are expendable—given sufficient cause. What we're talking is common sense. Survival. You understand survival."

"Yes," she whispered and swallowed hard in a tight throat. "Master dea'Cort, I cannot afford a replacement navcomp. I cannot afford to be grounded. Ride the Luck is a working ship and I intend that we—that we earn our way."

"That being the case," Daav said from behind her, "commission Binjali Repair Shop to replace the navcomp and drop in two back-ups. Jon holds the note and you pay as work becomes profit."

Jon looked at her seriously. "That's sound advice, math teacher."

"Daav has very sound judgment," Clonak chimed in, irrepressible as Var Mon, "though I grant you wouldn't think so, to look at him."

"I—I can't ask—hold a note for a replacement—for three replacements? Master—"

"No choice in the matter," Trilla said in her blunt, Outworld way. "Need a working comp to lift. Need work to finance the comp." She grinned. "You might take a loan against the ship, of—"

"No!"

"Huh." Jon again. "Sounds settled to me. I'll hold the note for my cost, plus labor. You'll pay me as able. In the meantime, if I have something to lift, you take it at your cost and we'll call that the interest. Agreed?"

There was, as Trilla said, no choice. Still, Aelliana struggled with necessity a moment longer. A debt of such magnitude would surely increase the time she must stay upon Liad, thus increasing the chance of discovery. And yet, it was required that the ship be able, if work was to be gained.

She inclined her head, vowing to pay this debt as quickly as she might.

"Agreed, Master dea'Cort."

"Good enough. When's your shift end, Daav?"

"Midnight."

"Glutton. Take Clonak and go pull that comp. I'll find the replacements." He smiled at Aelliana. "We'll have you up to spec by tomorrow mid-day, math teacher. I'll leave a complete accounting in your ship's in-bank."

"Thank you," she said, feeling tears prick her eyes. She ducked her head. "I am grateful."

Jon slid off his stool and stretched. "Same as we'd do for any of our own—no gratitude demanded."

"Clonak, old friend, your skills are in demand!" Daav had a tool belt over one shoulder and was holding out another.

"And I with a thought to dinner," the pudgy Scout sighed. He turned as he passed Aelliana and performed an absurdly ornate bow.

"For you, Goddess, I forgo even food!"

"Nor like to starve of it," Daav commented.

"Cruel, Captain."

"Merely honest. Come along, dear." Black eyes found hers, though she made an effort to avoid the glance.

"Pilot Caylon, it was a rare lift. I hope to sit second for you again."

"Thank you," she stammered and felt she should say more.

But Daav was gone.


"NAVCOMP PULLED, sealed and dispatched to the port master via Pilot ter'Meulen, who swears he's for a sup and a glass, lest he die of starvation."

"Well enough," Jon allowed, pouring the dregs from the pot to his mug. He glanced over his shoulder at the slender man perched on the green stool, Patch sitting tall on his knee.

"Pastry?"

"Thank you, no."

"Not stale enough for you?" Jon speared a iced dough-ring for himself and carried tea and snack over to his accustomed stool.

"Too stale, alas. My cha'leket insists upon fresh pastries for his table, and you see how his decadence affects me."

Jon snorted and had a bite, followed by a swallow of tea.

"I wonder," Daav said pensively, rubbing the cat's ears. "Who certified that navcomp at refitting?"

"Checked it myself," Jon said, somewhat indistinctly. "Sang sweet and true." He paused for more tea, and pointed a finger.

"Occur to you to wonder how it is the chel'Mara, who never piloted anything other than a groundcar on manual in all his life, isn't splattered from here to the inland sea, running automatic with an insane navcomp?"

"It did." Daav sighed. "I spent an hour looking for a meddle, but if it was there, it was very cleverly tucked away."

"Don't have to be there now," Jon pointed out. "I checked the log—suspicious old man that I am—and you looking to become another such, if I may say so." He finished off the dough-ring in two bites.

"Log says that on the night he played pikit with our math teacher and lost his ship by way of it, Vin Sin chel'Mara—that's Lord chel'Mara to you—stopped by the shop and entered his once-was ship, to clear out his personal effects. Didn't take him long. In fact, turns out he left quite a number of very expensive—and portable—items behind."

Daav said something impolite in a language native to a certain savage tribe some fourteen zig-zagged light-years out from Liad. Jon grinned.

"No proof. Not that I don't favor it myself, for personal reasons. The chel'Mara's very careful of his melant'i. Doesn't do a man's melant'i any good to lose his ship, true enough. But you might be able to recoup something from the debacle, if she were straightaway seen to crash it."

"Which she might have done," Daav said, so heatedly Patch jumped to the floor. "If she had been any second class provisional, making her first sling-shot when that comp went bad—" He took a hard breath. "Your pardon."

"Nothing to it." Jon grinned. "A rare wonder, our math teacher, eh?"

Daav moved his shoulders. "I'd like to know who beats her."

"I'd welcome news of that, myself. At least they didn't send her here battered and bruised-up today, small grace." He finished his tea and looked up into the younger man's eyes.

"Good idea of yours, me holding the note."

"I can guarantee the loan, if you like it," Daav returned quietly. "Or tell me the account and the price and I'll make the transfer now."

"Don't be an idiot. She intends to work that ship, and I'll tell you what I think. I think what our math teacher puts her mind to do is good as done. I'll hold her note."

"If it becomes a burden, old friend, only tell me. There's the Pilots Fund, after all."

"So there is. Well." He bounced to his feet and stretched with a mighty groan. Daav slid lightly from the stool and stood looking down at him, affection plain in his sharp, clever face.

"Hah." Jon smiled up at him. "You coming in tomorrow?"

"Perhaps the day after."

"All right, then. Glad you were to hand today. Matters could have gone ill, even if she is a wizard at the board."

"She wouldn't have attempted the sling if I hadn't suggested—demanded—it." He hesitated. "She's a natural, Jon."

"Is she?" the older man said, with vast unsurprise.

Daav laughed and bowed. "Good-night, Master."

"Good-night, lad. Convey my highest regards to your cha'leket."


Chapter Fourteen

A Dragon does not forget. Nor does it remember wrongly.

—From The Liaden Book of Dragons


 


"MASTER DEA'CORT sends you his best regards, brother." Daav and his cha'leket were strolling arm-in-arm across Trealla Fantrol's wide lawn, angling more-or-less toward the wild garden and the river.

Er Thom sighed sharply. "Whatever have I done, to earn Jon dea'Cort's notice? We have scarcely exchanged a greeting in twelve years, so seldom do our paths cross, yet I cannot be abroad these last few relumma without hearing news of his regard! Only yesterday, Clonak ter'Meulen crossed Exchange Street at the Port's busiest hour to bring me Master dea'Cort's wish for my good health!"

Daav laughed. "Why, I suppose you've won his admiration, darling. Is it burdensome?"

"Merely bewildering, since I go on quite as usual, with the exception of succeeding to yos'Galan's ring, and I cannot for my life see what that should have to do with Jon dea'Cort!"

"Nothing at all—and you are correct in supposing a man's coming into his intended estate would utterly fail to win Jon's interest, much less his admiration. No," Daav murmured, "I believe it is your lifemating which has bought his heart."

Er Thom stiffened and shot a brilliant violet glance into Daav's face. "My lifemating, is it? A subject which falls well outside his reasonable area of concern."

"You are severe," Daav said, stroking the stiff arm soothingly. "Recall that Jon is a Scout. He expresses the greatest admiration for Anne's work. For yourself, he admires your—moxie, as he would have it."

"Moxie?" Er Thom frowned after the Terran word.

"Courage," Daav translated, rather freely. "It is not every Liaden, after all, who might lifemate a Terran, flying in the face of custom and—some would say—good sense."

Er Thom laughed softly. "Indeed, there was hardly a choice!"

"Yes, but you mustn't let Jon know that!" Daav said earnestly. "Allow him, I beg, to continue believing you and Anne lifemated because love was stronger than custom!"

"Of course—" He caught himself with another slight laugh. "Let Jon dea'Cort believe what he likes, then! I only wish he will give over such lavish regard."

"You might send him a token in Balance, if you find his esteem a burden." Daav grinned. "In fact, I believe I know just the thing! Have you a tin of that particular morning tea Anne favors?"

"'Joyful Sunrise'? Certainly. I can easily part with a dozen, if you feel it might answer."

"One tin should suffice, I think, and a card inscribed by your lady, desiring Master dea'Cort to enjoy the beverage as she does."

"Hah. It shall be done this evening!" Er Thom smiled, then sobered. "What word from Pilot tel'Izak?"

Daav lifted an eyebrow. "Word? No, no, darling—you mistake the matter entirely! It is I who ought to be about sending word. The lady believes me at her feet." He sighed lightly as they passed through the gap in the hedge. "And means, I fear, to have me remain there."

On the other side of the hedge, Er Thom stopped, rounding with such a look of outrage that it was all Daav could do not to laugh aloud.

"You at Samiv tel'Izak's feet? She has audacity, I see."

"Merely self-consequence." He slanted a glance into Er Thom's indignant eyes and fetched up a doleful sigh. "You have taken her in dislike."

"Indeed, how might I take her in anything at all, when she kept High Mode the evening through and refused to give one sight into—" Er Thom's mouth tightened. "This is a joke."

"Ah." Daav caught the other's arm and turned him gently toward the wild garden. "Alas, it is not a joke, but plain observation. The pilot considers that Korval's solicitation of herself exposes vulnerability." He paused. Er Thom's eyes were still stormy; he stood on the knife's edge of taking the lady in extreme dislike, on Daav's account.

And that, Daav thought suddenly, was neither seemly nor kind. For a time Samiv tel'Izak would be his wife, bound by the terms of the contract to live apart from the comforts of clan and kin, surrounded by strangers upon whom she must depend for what day-to-day gentleness one human being might have from another. To enter thus unprotected into a House where so substantial a person as her husband's cha'leket held her in despite—no, it would not do.

"The assumption is doubtless original with the lady's delm, and is not altogether shatterbrained," he said, looking gravely into Er Thom's eyes. "Only think: All the world wishes to marry Korval—and Korval chooses Samiv tel'Izak. Those of Korval wed pilots—and she is a pilot. But there are other pilots, who are not Samiv tel'Izak, and who remain unchosen."

Er Thom's eyes were somewhat less stormy. "True enough," he allowed, though brusquely.

"True enough," Daav murmured and shaped his lips into a gentle smile. "Think again, brother. It was you urged me stand away, if I did not like the match. We are Scouts and traders—odd folk by any count. We might think of turning our face from custom—even at the risk of our delm's displeasure, eh?"

Er Thom laughed quietly.

"Yes." Daav allowed his smile to grow to a grin. "But consider one who is without our resources—to whom custom bears the weight of law—desired by her delm to come forth and take up duty. She must accept her delm's elucidation of circumstance: The Dragon offers for Samiv tel'Izak because none but herself will do." He moved his shoulders. "Shall we deny such a small comfort to one who will be so short a time among us?"

There was a pause.

"Certainly the lady is welcome to what comfort she may make for herself," Er Thom said softly. "I had been angered because it seemed she held you cheap."

"My lamentable sense of humor," Daav said ruefully and offered his arm. Er Thom took it and they continued their walk along the artful wilderness, talking of this and that, until Daav turned them, regretfully, back toward the house.

"The Council of Clans devours the remainder of my day," he said.

"Another meeting?" Er Thom frowned. "They proliferate."

"Geometrically," Daav agreed. "A land dispute has arisen between Mandor and Pyx. I think it a matter requiring the skills of two or three qe'andra, rather than a full Council."

"Why not offer Mr. dea'Gauss as arbiter?" Er Thom murmured, naming Korval's own man of business.

"Pyx has already taken up the melant'i of victim," Daav said, "and chose the Council as offering the widest scope for spite." He sighed sharply as they passed through the hedge.

"Had you heard that Vin Sin chel'Mara lost his ship in a game of pikit?"

"The port speaks of nothing else," Er Thom replied. "The detail that remains unclear in the reports I have heard is the name of the winner. Some say a pair of Scoutlings, some others say a professional sharp-player from Chonselta City."

"Ah? I had heard Aelliana Caylon."

Er Thom's winged brows pulled together. "The mathematician? Who had that tale?"

"Clonak. His father was present during the play."

"Well, then, there can hardly be doubt," Er Thom said, who knew Delm Guayar for a person of quite savage accuracy. "Good lift and safe landing to the scholar." He paused, his fingers exerting a mild pressure on Daav's arm.

"Do you know," he said softly, "I had heard something else. Talk is that the chel'Mara is sent off-world by his delm, in Balance for losing his ship." He flicked a quick violet glance to his brother's face. "Which is no more than he bargained for, no matter the winner. What fool stakes his ship at chance?"

"The chel'Mara's sort of fool, apparently," said Daav. "Well, and if Aragon is at last moved to apply discipline, then the world is twice indebted to Scholar Caylon."

Er Thom laughed lightly. "Thrice, you must mean, brother, else you cannot have ever seen the chel'Mara fly."

"Well," said Daav with a smile, "perhaps I do." And the talk turned to other things.


"THAT WAS A BINJALI sling-shot, Scholar Caylon!" Var Mon hit his seat with a grin. "We scanned the tape, then rode the sims 'til dawn, but no one came close to your run—not even Rema."

"Hardly until dawn," Rema said, entering the room with rather less energy and giving Aelliana a proper bow of greeting. "Good-day, Scholar Caylon."

"Good-day, Rema." Aelliana returned the bow with an inclination of the head, then shook her hair back to consider Var Mon.

"I thank you for your praise. However, it must be remembered that my co-pilot was most able. I doubt the landing would have been so adroit, had I made the attempt solo."

Var Mon's face went abruptly and entirely blank. He lowered his eyes and bustled noisily with his notetaker.

"No doubt but your co-pilot was exemplary," Rema murmured, over her comrade's sudden clatter. "However, the tape clearly shows it was your hand brought the ship in, Scholar. An astonishing run, our piloting instructor declared it."

"And you never saw one so tightfisted of praise!" Var Mon finished, returning to his usual mode as abruptly as he had departed. "Scholar Caylon, you must go for Scout!"

"Indeed, I must not," she replied firmly as Baan, Qiarta and Nerin arrived, made their bows and took their seats.

"Good-day. This is, as you all know, our last session together. I have given you everything that I know how to give, to insure you each hold the best possibility for survival. In spite of my best effort, it is conceivable that I have failed of being as clear as I might have been upon this point or that. This last session is yours. What is less than glass-clear and utterly certain in your minds? Review now what we have covered throughout the semester. No point is too insignificant to ask upon. I shall take the first question in six minutes."

That quick, notetakers were out and fingers were flying. Rema leaned back in her chair, eyes unfocused on a corner of the ceiling.

Aelliana bent her head over her console and felt her lips curve in the rarity of her smile.

A beautiful landing! Jon dea'Cort applauded from memory, while Daav's deep voice gave quieter praise: A difficult task, executed well. And now: A binjali sling-shot, Scholar! . . . An astonishing run . . .

Aelliana closed her eyes and felt something loosen, down close in her chest, so the next breath she took was a shade deeper, a fraction less hurried, as if she had taken one single sip of brandy.

The timer rang, and Aelliana raised her head, smiled at her class and lifted a hand, inviting the first question.


THE DISPUTE BETWEEN Pyx and Mandor was resolved with gratifying speediness. No more than six additional delms had found it necessary to rise and speak of matters in tenuous relationship to the subject and the vote, when taken, showed a clear majority in favor of Mandor's claim.

Daav shut down his tally screen, almost smiling with a surge of sheer exuberance. An entire afternoon open to his own expenditure, with no meetings and no duty pressing upon him. He considered going down to Binjali's, but that would mean returning home, to exchange his delm's finery for the comfort of his leathers. Perhaps—

"Hedrede is seen. Rise and state your business." Speaker for Council's voice contained a note of dryness that Daav registered as out of place even as he re-activated his tally screen.

Hedrede was old: The name was to be found on the passenger list of Quick Passage, 'scribed in Cantra yos'Phelium's strong, sharp hand. Indeed, one Vel Ter jo'Bern of House Hedrede had been co-signer of the contract between Cantra and the Solcintran Houses.

For all of these years and past glories, however, Hedrede was not High House. It stood for centuries within the top five percent of Mid Houses, and there it seemed content to remain, neither speaking out in Council nor concerning itself with matters outside of Liad's orbit.

There was a faint shuffle, then a figure rose along the tables of the fifth hub and made a perfunctory bow toward the Speaker.

"Hedrede calls upon Korval." The voice was strong, not young, female.

Swallowing surprise, Daav came to his feet, bowing toward the fifth hub. "Korval is here."

There was a slight pause to accommodate the rustling of amaze from among those gathered. Hedrede calls upon Korval before full Council? Two clans less likely to have aught to do with each other could scarce be found.

What could it be? the rustling delms asked each other, by eye and by whisper. Indeed, conjecture stretched so wide that Speaker for Council was moved to touch her chime and command them all to silence.

"Korval rises at Hedrede's word. Hedrede may speak."

"No one here," Hedrede announced to a chamber grown suddenly still, "need be reminded of the place Korval holds in history. More, perhaps, than any clan here-gathered may it be said of Korval, 'This clan is kin to Liad.'"

This, thought Daav, standing in the formal attitude of attention which custom demanded of him, is going to be bad.

"Having so illustrious an history," Hedrede continued, "and standing so close to Liad and Liadens, it must surely be mere—oversight—that a certain item which wrongs both homeworld and history has been lately published by Korval." She bowed, with lavish respect. "I call upon Korval to riddle this paradox."

Oh, thought Daav, as the chamber again erupted into murmuring speculation. Oh, damn.

Speaker for Council touched her chime, forcefully, and raised her voice to ride the hubbub.

"Korval may reply to Hedrede's query."

He bowed—to Speaker for Council, and to Hedrede. He turned slightly in his place, opening his hands in a gesture of gentle astonishment.

"It is assumed that honored Hedrede refers to a certain scholarly work compiled by one of Korval and recently published through University Press." He paused and bowed again, careful to avoid irony. "One wonders in what way this work is found to wrong the homeworld."

"The work in question," Hedrede replied, for the benefit of those observing this unexpected and delightful diversion, "purports to establish a link between Terra and Liad by demonstrating an ancient, common tongue." She bowed. "Korval will, naturally, correct any error in this summation."

"The summation is entirely accurate. One is yet unenlightened as to the wrong thus visited upon Liad."

There was a short pause, which carried the vinegar bite of irritation to Daav's sensitivities.

"The work," Hedrede continued, after a moment, "has been written by one of Korval who is by birth, Terran. To the untutored eye, this combination of fact would seem to spell one who has seen the value of a wide and varied melant'i and has determined to spend that value, for the betterment of her own kind."

Anger rocked him. How dare—

He closed his eyes, ran the calming sequence of the Scout's Rainbow; remembered to breathe. This was a direct attack upon Korval. To answer in anger would be to answer in error. Anne's melant'i was staked here—and Er Thom's—and his own. Kin to Liad, was he? He'd bloody well—

He snatched the thought, turned, searched—found the face he wished to find, high up in the ninth tier, and bowed.

"Korval calls upon Yedon."

She rose with an alacrity that led him to think she had been expecting the call.

"Yedon is here."

"Verification is sought of the initial scholarship of the work under discussion," Daav said, forcing his voice to calmness, though he could feel anger shivering in elbows and knees. "One recalls that the first discovery of a common tongue from which proceeded both Terran and Liaden was made by Learned Scholar Jin Del yo'Kera Clan Yedon."

"Korval's memory," said Yedon solemnly, "is accurate—and long."

A slight murmur stirred the chamber at that. Daav bowed.

"One also recalls that before his death Scholar yo'Kera had completed much of the work toward eventual publication."

"Correct," Yedon replied and turned to Hedrede in explanation. "Jin Del had considered this work to be the crown of his life. It was his intention to publish the results. That Scholar Davis was available to compile his notes and see them published in accordance with his express wish could only give joy to kin and colleagues."

Hedrede inclined her head. "You tell me that a Liaden had formulated this theory and had intended to publish it abroad?" She raised a hand. "But perhaps the theory which is published is not that which the Learned Scholar had at first put forth?"

The anger was less jarring this time; colder, more dangerous. Daav allowed himself a small sigh as Yedon made answer.

"Indeed, I had seen the work directly before publication, as had several of Jin Del's colleagues. It matches his intention in every particular. Scholar Davis was generous with the gift of her genius."

There was silence in the chamber. Eventually, Speaker for Council touched her chime.

"Has Hedrede further call upon Korval in this matter?"

Hedrede started, visibly collected herself, and bowed.

"Hedrede has no further call upon Korval within Council," she said formally and resumed her seat.

Daav bowed, in his turn releasing Yedon, and sat with exquisite care.

Soon after, Speaker for Council ended the session and touched the chime to release them. Daav fussed over gathering and regathering papers and by such schoolboy stratagems eventually left the chamber alone, and last.


Chapter Fifteen

"Liaden Scout" must now be seen as a misnomer, for to become a Scout is to become other than Liaden. It is to turn one's face from the homeworld and enter a state of philosophy where all custom, however alien, is accepted as equally just and fitting.



We are told by certain instructors that not everyone may aspire to—nor all who aspire, attain—that particular degree of philosophical contrariness required of those who are said to have "Scout's eyes."



For this we must rejoice, and allow the Scouts full honor for having in the past provided refuge for the disenfranchised, the adventurous and the odd.

—Excerpted from remarks made before the


Council of Clans by the chairperson of the


Coalition to Abolish the Liaden Scouts

 


THE WOMAN BEHIND the counter wore an embroidered badge on the shoulder of her leather jacket: A bronze-winged, green-eyed dragon hovering protectively over a tree in full, luxuriant leaf. Beneath the graphic was written, not the "I Dare" which would have completed the seal and identified the wearer as one of Clan Korval's Line Direct, but "Jazla pen'Edrik, Dispatcher."

She heard Aelliana out with grave courtesy, hands folded upon the counter.

"As it happens, we do from time to time require the services of freelance pilots," she said at the conclusion of Aelliana's rather breathless presentation. "May I see your license, please?"

She held it out, wishing bitterly that her hand did not tremble so, then folded both hands before her as the dispatcher turned and fed the card into the reader.

Korval was ships, everyone knew that. No clan owned so many; no other clan or company employed so many pilots. It had always been so—stretching back to the very ship, the very pilots, who had brought Liadens safely out of the horror of the Migration.

Clan Korval took pilots and piloting very seriously, indeed. Thus Aelliana had gone first to Korval's Solcintra Dispatch Office to request that her name be added to the list of pilots available to fly.

"Aelliana Caylon," the dispatcher said, eyes intent on the reader's screen. "Provisional second class—quite recent. One assignment completed on behalf of Binjali Repair Shop. Master Pilot dea'Cort lists himself as reference. So." She tapped a sequence into her keyboard, retrieved Aelliana's card and held it out with a grave smile.

"I shall be very pleased to add your name to our roster, Pilot Caylon. May I know the best means of contacting you?"

"Chonselta Technical College," Aelliana recited the number of her private office line, "or a message might be left at Binjali's—" She repeated the code Jon dea'Cort had given her. "You may wish to note that I am owner of a Class-A single-hold."

"So," the dispatcher said again, fingers dancing briefly across the keys. "Please contact this office immediately your certification changes, pilot." She glanced up. "I advise that the possibility of a second-class provisional attaining work from this office is not high. That you own a ship is of value; that you have already successfully completed one assignment is likewise of value," she smiled. "As is, of course, Master dea'Cort's word."

Aelliana swallowed, face stiff.

The dispatcher inclined her head. "If it is not amiss, Pilot, I offer advice."

"I should be grateful for advice," Aelliana returned sincerely, clutching her license in cold fingers.

"Register with the Guild Office on Navigation Street. Tell them that you fly your own ship and are willing to carry a hold-full or a courier pack. Ask to be placed on the Port Master's Roster." She tipped her head, birdlike. "They may not wish to do so until you have achieved solid second-class. But ask. And when you lose provisional, go back and ask again."

Aelliana bowed. "That seems sound advice. I thank you."

"No thanks due," the dispatcher assured her. "Good lift, Pilot."

"Safe landing," Aelliana returned, which proper response tasted oddly sweet along her tongue. She made her bow and exited Korval's office, making for the next dispatching station on her carefully-researched list.


"IS THIS YOUR IDEA of a joke?" Jon demanded, holding a gaily-painted tin high on one broad palm.

Daav gave the tin a moment of earnest perusal before turning a grave face to the older man.

"Alas, Master Jon, try as I will, I find nothing amusing within the object. It seems quite an ordinary tea-tin."

"Ordinary!" Jon roared, at such volume that Trilla leaned over the edge of the catwalk and Syri came out from behind the toolbox, head cocked inquisitively.

Jon thrust the tin in her direction. "Identify this."

"Joyful Sunrise morning blend," she returned promptly.

"In a stasis-sealed tin," Jon amended, and fixed Daav in an awful glare. "Do you know the price of this tin on the port?"

Daav opened his black eyes wide. "No, how could I?"

"Puppy. A cantra on a glut-day, for your interest."

"Ah, then I appreciate your concern!" Daav cried, much enlightened. "Such a leaf will do no justice to your teapot, Master! Best return it to the merchant who sold it you, and ask for less of something more noble."

High on the catwalk, Trilla laughed. Syri raised a hand to hide her smile and Patch the cat wandered over to strop against Daav's legs.

Jon's lips were seen to twitch. "I suppose it's nothing to do with you, that the yos'Galan chooses to send this particular gift?"

"The yos'Galan?" Daav repeated, with a fine show of bewilderment.

"Oho, you wish me to believe that the yos'Galan's lady conceived this, do you? It may be her hand, young Captain, but I know better than to suppose it her thought." Jon raised his face to shout.

"Trilla, bring your hammer!"

"Aye, Master Jon!" She snagged a guy-rope and rode it briskly down, alighting with a snappy salute.

"Come along," Jon directed, and turned toward the crew lounge, Trilla at his heels.

Syri sent Daav a wide stare. "He never means to break the seal with a hammer!"

"Perhaps he merely intends to deliver the coup to the teapot," Daav said, bending to scoop Patch to his shoulder before moving off in Jon's wake.

"Never," Syri returned, falling in beside him. "That teapot's like a child to him. He'd sooner use a hammer on Patch."

"Hah. In that wise, we had best put speculation aside, and consider the evidence of our senses."

She laughed, that being one of the basic precepts of Scouthood, and they continued like two shadows down the bay, Patch riding tall on the man's leather-clad shoulder.

"We'll have a shelf here," Jon was telling Trilla, tapping his finger on the wall next to the teapot. "Good, sturdy work, mind. We'll need a locking case, and a place to display the lady's card. You," he turned to glare at Daav. "Get 'round to Min Del's and tell him I need a case, so—" he shaped it roughly in the air, one hand still holding the tin—"quicktime. Mind you tell him it's to lock to my print and none other! I'm damned if I'll have you bunch of hooligans breaking into my tin and replacing this leaf with sage!"

"But, Master Jon," Syri protested, "don't you mean to drink it?"

"Drink it?" Jon stared. "Have you run mad? Drink Joyful Sunrise? Why, I'd as soon—"

The crew door cycled noisily and Patch leapt from Daav's shoulder, running tail-high and spring-footed to greet the new entry.

Aelliana Caylon bent and stroked the cat's back where it curved against her knee in exuberant hello. Straightening, she tried to walk on, but found herself forthwith entangled in cat. She paused once more, bent and stroked; straightened—and nearly fell as her feline admirer wove joyfully between her legs.

She hesitated a heartbeat—two—before bending again and inexpertly gathering the cat into her arms. Patch settled against her shapeless chest, eyes slitted in ecstasy, front paws kneading the sleeve of the thick shirt. Aelliana came forward.

"Afternoon, math teacher!" Jon called, raising the tin in salutation.

"Good afternoon, Master dea'Cort," she replied solemnly. She paused, Patch purring like a cat besotted in the basket of her arms. One-by-one she surveyed Trilla, busy with her measurements, Syri's open-faced concern, Jon's hand and the tea-tin. The question, when it came, was addressed to Daav.

"Forgive me. I wonder if there is something—gone awry."

"Not a bit of it," he returned cheerfully. "Jon is only building a shelf to house a newly-acquired treasure."

Aelliana's head turned back toward Jon, hair shimmering. "A tea-tin?" she asked, bemusement sounding clearly. Daav grinned.

"Damn me if you're not as bad as he is!" Jon cried, sweeping his unencumbered hand toward the taller man. "This isn't just any tea-tin, math teacher, this is a gift from Master Trader Er Thom yos'Galan, honored son of the exalted House of Korval! What've you to say now, eh?"

Aelliana cuddled Patch absently against her. "It's a very pretty tea-tin," she offered after a moment.

Trilla choked and nearly dropped her measuring-wand. Syri gulped and walked rather unsteadily over to inspect the contents of the pastry carton.

"Pretty," Jon repeated tonelessly. He reached into his vest pocket and reverently produced a folded card of the sort used to write notes of invitation. Gravely, he showed the front of the card—the Tree-and-Dragon, complete with the boldly embossed "Flaran Cha'menthi"—and thrust it at Aelliana.

"Read it, then."

Smoothly, she readjusted Patch's weight, took the card and opened it, one-handed. She frowned for a moment at the message within, then raised her head, hair falling away from her face as she offered the card back to Jon.

"I am ashamed to admit that I neither read nor speak Terran," she said quietly. "It is a deficiency I intend soon to remedy. For today, however, I am ignorant."

"Hah." Jon fingered the card open. "It says—this is from Lady yos'Galan, understand, Learned Scholar of Language Anne Davis, out of the Terran Community. It says: 'To Master Pilot Jon dea'Cort. Please accept this token of . . . regard . . . from myself and my—lord, would you say that rendered, Daav?"

Daav lifted an eyebrow. "How can I know?"

"Uncommonly awake," Jon commented and went back to his note. "' . . . lord. It is our . . . wish that you will . . . delight in . . . the gift, as we delight in the giving.' Then it is signed, you see, 'Anne Davis, Lady yos'Galan.'"

Aelliana's head was bent above Patch, her hair obscuring all of the cat but the blissfully kneading toes. "She sounds a—most gracious lady," she said after a moment. "Though I cannot help but wonder, sir, if she might have wished you to drink the tea."

"Truly, Jon," Syri said, turning from her study of petrifying pastries, "Lady yos'Galan cannot have meant you to imprison the gift in a lock-box. Where is joy in that?"

"Joy a-plenty," he returned promptly. "How many other garages have a gift from Korval to display, eh, Daav?"

"I have no notion, Master Jon. Shall I mount a survey?"

Jon grinned. "I thought you were sent to Min Del's on an errand."

"I can take that one," Syri offered. "My shift is done and it is a simple matter to chart a course past Min Del's on my way down-port."

"Simple enough," Jon agreed. "Are you here tomorrow?"

"Dawn to luncheon," Syri returned, "then I'm wanted back with my team." She bowed. "Pilot Caylon. Good health and fair flying."

"Fair flying." Aelliana tried to return the courtesy, but Patch took exception and the bow turned into a scramble to set him safely down. When she looked up again, Syri was gone and Trilla was walking toward the back of the bay.

"What've you been up to today, math teacher?"

Aelliana sighed and looked to Jon dea'Cort, who was carefully returning Korval's note to his vest pocket.

"I've been to the dispatch offices, and to the guild hall, requesting my name be added to the freelance rosters," she said. "The dispatcher at Korval's office advised me to put my name on the Port Master's list, but the guild rep ruled I must lose provisional status first."

"So you did go to Korval's offices." That was Daav, moving silently over to perch on a stool.

"Of course," she said, with a flicker of green eyes. "Korval is ships, after all."

"So it is," he agreed gravely. "Were you accepted for the roster there?"

"Readily—and asked to update my information, when I came full second-class." She turned to Jon dea'Cort.

"Your word of reference was in my favor, sir. I—am grateful—for your kindness."

"No kindness about it," he said gruffly. "If you'd done a bad job, there would have been no reference. Happens you did a binjali job and earned every word. How are you going about learning Terran?"

She sagged onto the edge of a stool, blinking at him. "I—hardly know," she said, somewhat abashed. "I had—thought—sleep tapes, you know. Chonselta Tech's library is not so well supplied . . ."

"Hah. No surprise. You might be able to get tapes copied from Scout Academy—your name's cantra there. Problem with tapes is you need to practice or the data just fades out again."

"Most of us are fluent," Daav said, offering her a smile. "What sort of Terran do you wish to learn?"

She blinked. "What—sort?"

"Indeed. You teach practical mathematics, do you not? So—do you wish to learn practical Terran, or theoretical?"

"Oh. Of course. I—I wish to understand and be understood under—under field conditions."

"Easy enough," Jon said, moving over to the teapot and pouring himself a mug full. "You get around all right in Trade?"

"I am comfortable conversing in Trade," Aelliana assured him in the mode-less monotone of that language.

"Even easier, then. We teach you from Trade, eh, Daav?"

"It would seem best," he replied. "Shall you arrange for the tapes?"

"Might be better for her to learn it in waking mind." Jon chose a pastry and ambled back to the stools. "You have a timetable?"

She swallowed, took a breath, and raised her eyes to his. "As soon as possible," she said, voice gone raspy and tight. "It would be—good—if I were—fluent—within the year."

The amber eyes held hers for a long moment, then Jon looked away and hoisted himself atop the green stool. "All right. We'll lay the basics, then supplement with tape as necessary. Daav's most fluent among the current crew. Trilla's good. Clonak's good, if he can be prevailed upon to speak something other than Aus-dialect. My ear is better than my accent, I fear, though I read well enough. Syri's about at my level—no, Syri's back to her team tomorrow . . ." He paused for a sip of tea. "This course of study suit you?"

"I—" She cleared her throat, looking from the old man to the young one. "Thank you—extremely. Balance must be—owing, however. I cannot—"

Jon sighed gustily. "First lesson in Terran, math teacher—pay attention."

She swallowed. "Yes, sir."

"Stop thinking like a Liaden." He grinned. "Thought it was going to be easy, did you? I told you we're all comrades here, eh? Happens that's true. What's owing is what's received: Comfort, safety and succor. Balance, right?"

The words vibrated in the air. She sat on the edge of the stool, listening to them, feeling them strike, one by one, at the core of her. What they offered was—clan. What they asked in return was that she strive for her most perfect self—to the betterment of them all.

And I tell you, Birin Caylon, it's Aelliana should be set upon the delm's road, and none of that vain, precious boy of yours! Hanelur Caylon's voice was as strong in memory as it had been a dozen Standards ago, when carelessness had left a study door ajar and two pair of ears heard what had far better been left unsaid.

Aelliana raised her head and met Jon dea'Cort's knowing amber gaze. "Balance," she said, solemnly. "I shall do my best."


Chapter Sixteen

The thing to recall about Dragons is that it takes a special person to deal with them at all. If you lie to them they will steal from you. If you attack them without cause they will dismember you. If you run from them they will laugh at you.



It is thus best to deal calmly, openly and fairly with Dragons: Give them all they buy and no more or less, and they will do the same by you. Stand at their back and they will stand at yours. Always remember that a Dragon is first a Dragon and only then a friend, a partner, a lover.



Never assume that you have discovered a Dragon's weak point until it is dead and forgotten, for joy is fleeting and a Dragon's revenge is forever.

—From The Liaden Book of Dragons


 


IT WAS WARM in this corner of the garden—warm and blessedly quiet. So quiet, indeed, that orange-and-white Relchin had given over birding to lounge in the shade of the old stone wall and watch Daav grub about in the dirt.

Korval employed several very able gardeners, whose task it was to tend the formal gardens and lawns. The most senior of these formidable individuals walked the Inner Court once each relumma, offering suggestions and advice—only that. The care of the Inner Court, from the moss garden to the Tree itself, was Daav's self-appointed and jealously-held privilege.

This morning, he was engaged in digging and dividing gladoli bulbs. Much of this bounty would be ceded to his gardeners, but he wished to hold out a dozen to present to Lady yo'Lanna, who had been his mother's stalwart friend, and would know how to value a gift of Chi yos'Phelium's favorite flowers.

He was roused from this agreeable work by the step, and then the person, of his butler.

"Delm Bindan is come, sir, on the matter of your lordship's pending nuptials."

Daav sat back on his heels, bulb in one hand, trowel in the other.

"Bindan is here?" he repeated stupidly.

Mr. pel'Kana inclined his head. "I have put her in the Small Parlor, sir."

Daav closed his eyes, swallowing a regrettable reply.

"Provide Delm Bindan with refreshment," he said instead. "I shall be with her, say, before next hour strikes."

Mr. pel'Kana bowed and departed, leaving Daav to stare down at his crusted gloves and grubby coveralls. For one mad instant he considered rising and going directly to the Small Parlor in all his dirt, which was surely no more than she had purchased by appearing thus, dispatching neither card nor call to warn him.

The instant passed. He sighed and lay aside his trowel, made certain the bulbs were damp in their nest of moss, and rose, stripping off his gloves.

"On the matter of your lordship's pending nuptials," he told Relchin, in wickedly accurate imitation of Mr. pel'Kana's stately tones. The big cat smiled up at him through slitted green eyes. Daav dropped his gloves beside the trowel and went, reluctantly, away.


IT LACKED A FEW minutes of the new hour when he arrived in the Small Parlor, freshly showered and dressed in a comfortable white shirt and soft blue trousers.

He bowed, Delm to Delm, and Bindan rose to do likewise, muscles stiff with outrage.

"I regret you were obliged to wait," he said, in response to that outrage. "Had word been sent ahead, I should have been immediately accessible."

Her eyes narrowed, though she otherwise preserved her countenance. "I shall bear the lesson in mind," she said, inclining her head. "In the meanwhile, Korval, there is a matter touching upon our contract which must be discussed."

"Ah. Then you must allow me first to refresh your wine, and provide myself with a glass."

She did allow it, though he had the impression she would have rather not, and took a single ritual sip before setting the cup aside.

In his turn, Daav drank and set aside, then leaned back in his chair.

"How may Korval serve Bindan?"

She considered him for a long moment before inclining her head. "It is known," she said, very carefully, "that Korval charts its own course and cares little for scandal. It is perhaps lesser known that Bindan holds itself aside from such matters as may lead to the shouting of its name in open council."

Daav lifted an eyebrow. "And yet the matter upon which Korval was called in yesterday's council was found to be no scandal at all."

"It was found," Bindan said tartly, "that Korval had sidestepped the question in favor of showing that initial discovery was made by a Liaden scholar from a clan of scholars, all of whom are quite mad enough to wish such a thing introduced to the world." She inclined her head, ironically. "Korval's greatness is no matter of luck."

He grit his teeth against irritation and inclined his head in calm acceptance of the jibe.

"I ask you plain, my lord: Shall you keep your Terran within propriety?"

There was a charged silence, long enough for Bindan to feel the full force of her error.

"Thodelmae yos'Galan," Daav said deliberately, "is an honored member of Korval. She has done nothing to incur her delm's censure and much to excite his pride. I remind you that a contract of alliance does not in any way surrender Korval's authority to Bindan."

Her mouth tightened, but, to her credit, her gaze did not falter. "I say again, we are a House unused to scandal. Korval shall soon have the care of one of Bindan's dearest treasures. If Korval cannot hold itself aloof from scandal for the duration of its alignment with Bindan, Korval might best seek contract elsewhere."

For a heartbeat, he thought he would accept the trade she offered and count himself well-rid of Clan Bindan and Samiv tel'Izak.

Then he recalled the weary round of searching to be undertaken once again—the grids to be scanned, the gene-maps to weigh, and there were none of them different at core from Samiv tel'Izak, and none of them less respectable and solid than Bindan. Korval was trouble and scandal and oddity. It had always been so: Descendants of a pirate, a soldier and a Houseless schoolboy, had could it be otherwise?

Gods, he thought, only let me soon hold my child.

He inclined his head into Bindan's glare.

"Korval shall make every effort to avoid scandal from this hour and until the conclusion of our association with Bindan," he said formally, and glanced up.

"Bindan must understand that Korval's necessities are—unique."

"Necessity does not trouble me," she replied. "Scandal is my concern."

She rose and made her bow, and Daav likewise. He touched the bell and Mr. pel'Kana came and escorted Delm Bindan out.


"CORRECT TO FIVE PLACES," Aelliana announced, leaning back in the pilot's chair with a sigh.

"At least while we're sitting safe and cold," Daav amended, concluding his own checks and releasing the second backup comp to slumber.

Aelliana turned to look at him, hair a silken shimmer in the glow of the board lights.

"You suspect a main system error?"

"Ah, no, nothing on that line!" He raised a quick hand, smile tinged with irony. "It is merely that Jon certified the former comp while the ship was quiet—and see what nearly came of us while we flew!" He moved his shoulders, sending a bright black glance sideways into her face.

"Jon predicts I shall grow into a suspicious old man."

"Better than to die a naive young man," she replied, tawny brows drawn above frowning green eyes. "You are correct. In light of previous failure, a prudent check must include lift and land."

"Hah." He grinned. "Shall you request clearance, pilot?"

She hesitated on the edge of an eager affirmative, looking away from his face to scan the board. The clock's message killed the yes before it passed her lips, and she glanced back to him with a sigh.

"I haven't time left me today for a proper test. What is your shift tomorrow?" She bit her lip, then, the darker gold of a blush kissing her cheeks as she looked aside. "Forgive me," she said, voice tight. "I meant no offense, Pilot."

"Nor was offense taken," Daav answered, still in the warmth of Comrade mode. "I had said it was an honor to sit board with you and wished to do so again. Gods know, it's an ill enough face, but does it seem to you deceitful?"

Her eyes flew up, startle-wide and brilliantly green. And then was Daav forced to sit quite still, face and eyes plain as for any comrade or clanmate, while she subjected each feature to minute study.

"Indeed," she said, eventually and quite seriously, "I find it neither ill nor dishonest. As for the other matter—It is my understanding that you are a master pilot employed by Master dea'Cort. Surely it is out of my place to order you?"

"But you had not ordered me," he pointed out. "You had merely asked my shift. To which the answer must be, as I am casual labor and Jon allows me woeful license—When shall you be ready to lift?"

"I—" Her eyes moved, taking in the board, lit and waiting to receive its office. Hunger, and a dizzying desire to spin her chair now, open the line to Solcintra Tower and file a course up—out and away . . .

"Tomorrow," she said to the man at her side and looked into his calm eyes. "I can be here in the first hour after Solcintra dawn." Better—much better—to be gone from Mizel's clanhouse before anyone was about to ask questions, or to forbid her going at all.

Daav inclined his head. "I shall meet you at the foot of the ramp," he said, "in the first hour after dawn, tomorrow." He grinned. "And then we shall give her a proper testing, eh?"

In the depths of her chest it seemed as if another knot loosened and relaxed toward uncoiling. Aelliana felt her lips curve upward as she met the sparkling black gaze.

"Indeed we will."

"Hah." Daav tipped his head slightly to one side. "I wonder, must you leave at once?"

She flicked another glance at the clock, wariness awake once more. "There are nearly three hours," she said slowly, "before the twilight ferry leaves."

"Plenty of time to inventory your emergency equipment," he returned briskly, "and to be certain your suits are functional."

She looked at him in patent dismay. "I—forgive me. I am afraid I don't even know where the suits are."

"I thought as much," Daav said, with an odd side-to-side movement of his head. He rose and beckoned with one long-fingered hand. "Come along, Pilot."


MASTER DAAV pronounced the emergency equipment adequate, though he frowned a long moment over the neat rack of four oxy-tanks, forefinger tapping the status dials.

"Keep close watch on these," he said, and Aelliana heard a tremor of something chill down near the root of his warm deep voice. "You don't want to run out of air. It might be wise to add another can or two, in case of malfunction."

"Is it likely," Aelliana wondered, "that life support will malfunction?"

"I had been on a ship that lost life support," he said, frowning down at the canisters. "While such a failure does not often occur, I submit that once is more than sufficient, should you carry inadequate air, an inferior emergency kit or a defective suit." He took a deep breath then and seemed to shake himself—flashed her a brief smile.

"There, I don't mean to alarm you. Merely be vigilant and watchful of your equipment, as any good captain must be. Extra cans will come a necessity, should you add a copilot. For the moment—" He turned a hand palm up. "Pilot's choice."

She blinked, inclined her head. "Thank you. I shall recall your advice."

"Well enough," he said briskly and turned to lay a hand on the suit rack. "Tell me, have you ever worn one of these?"


"GOOD EVENING, CAPTAIN, darling!" Clonak moved his arm sharply as Daav walked by, releasing a red ball about the size of Aelliana's two fists together.

The ball zagged a crazy course, dipping and wobbling until the eyes ached trying to track it.

Daav extended a negligent hand, barely checking his stride, snagged the ball and skated it back in one smooth, unhurried motion.

"Hello, Clonak."

The pudgy Scout skipped one step forward and two aside, captured the ball and threw again.

"Your servant, Goddess."

Aelliana blinked, panic rising—and saw her hand flick and snatch, felt the weird weight of the thing and threw, instinctively calculating a trajectory that would take it—

Clonak leapt up with a laugh, cradling the ball against his chest. His boot-toes barely brushed the floor before he threw again.

"Well tossed! I hereby issue challenge, the loser to drink a mug of Jon's tea!"

"Challenge?" Aelliana choked. "I can't—" But there was the ball hurtling not exactly toward her and before she had properly attended her body's doings she had danced into the place where it would be, scooped it out of the air and hurled it back with a will.

"Aha, she means to hurt me, Daav!" Clonak dove, rolled and tossed from the floor.

"No more than you've asked for," Daav returned, hoisting himself atop a tool-chest and crossing his long legs under him.

The ball's erratic course took it floorward and into an unlikely arc. Aelliana spun to catch it as it swerved behind her, reached—and stumbled, blinded by the swirl of hair across her eyes.

"A clear miss!" Clonak cried, bounding down-bay after the escaped toy. "I claim the win!"

On one knee, half-blinded by hair, Aelliana felt a bite of fury at her own incompetence, an acid wash of failure in the base of her gut. Slowly, she climbed to her feet, shoulders sagging even as she scraped the clinging strands out of her eyes.

"A win by default," Daav was saying in his deep voice; "Pilot Caylon was disadvantaged."

"A win, nonetheless," Clonak argued, coming back, tossing the ball from hand to hand.

"Always the lazy course," Daav said, then, slightly sharper. "Pilot."

Aelliana glanced up, eyes pulled by his tone. He smiled and reached behind his head, twisted—and threw.

"Don't let him win," he said. "Make him fight for it."

Aelliana's hand flashed out, snatching a plain silver hair-ring out of the air. She glanced back at Daav, sitting crosslegged atop the tool cart, his hair falling loose along his shoulder, one eyebrow up and his smile with an edge of—challenge?

Once again, her hands moved of their own will, sweeping her mass of hair back, twisting and clipping it tight. She turned to face Clonak and inclined her head. "I am ready to accept your challenge, sir."

"Right-o," he said. And threw.

It was more difficult this time. The universe narrowed to the ball and its antics, to the absolute necessity of catching and throwing and catching and—

There was no ball.

Disoriented, Aelliana spun, found Clonak, his hands hanging empty and a sheepish look on his round, mustached face. To the right Daav still sat atop the tool cart, his hair neatly braided. To the left was Jon dea'Cort, red ball held high in a hand.

"I win," Jon announced, fixing Clonak in his eye. "How long has this been going on?"

"About half-an-hour," Daav spoke up. "Indeed, Master Jon, I was about to call time, as Pilot Caylon must make the twilight ferry."

Jon moved his glare to Aelliana, who became aware that her heart was pumping hurriedly and she was warm and rather damp.

"If you have to catch the ferry, math teacher, now's the time to jet. Good evening."

She bowed, trying to bring her rapid breathing under control. "Good evening, Master dea'Cort. Clonak—"

"I'll deal with Clonak," Jon said awfully. "Move."

Aelliana blinked and flicked a glance to Daav. His fingers moved atop one knee, shaping a word in Scout finger-talk: jet.

In the back of the bay, the clock that kept official Port time sang the quarter hour.

Aelliana ran.

It wasn't until she left the ferry in Chonselta Port and was walking quickly toward the train station that she recalled the hair-ring and reached up to pull it free.

Her hair flowed forward, shielding her from the world. Slowly, almost reluctantly, she slipped the ring into her pocket.

Tomorrow, in the first hour after dawn, she thought and smiled within the fortress of her hair. Whatever pain Ran Eld might mete this evening, tomorrow she would fly.


Chapter Seventeen

Preserve your life, preserve your folk, preserve the Tree, no matter what the means. Grovel, if your enemy demands it; beg; swallow any insult. Stay alive, preserve you and yours.



Watch close, stay alert. And when your enemy turns his back, kill him and run free.

—Excerpted from Cantra yos'Phelium's Log Book



THE CREW DOOR CLOSED and Jon spun back to Clonak, red ball held out like a judgment.

"I shall be very interested to hear," he stated in a height of tone one very rarely had from Jon, "your reasons for engaging in a round of bowli ball with Pilot Caylon."

Clonak very nearly gaped. He did shoot a glance over his shoulder at Daav, but gained nothing from that quarter save a grave inclination of the head.

"Why not?" he asked, returning his full attention to Jon. "She gave good game."

"Good game!" Jon's glare grew blacker. He took a step forward, shaking the bowli ball until its internal gyro squealed. "Good game! Do you have any notion how long I stood there, watching you?"

"Well," Clonak allowed, leaning slightly back from the older man's approach, "there was the game to be concerned with, Master Jon, and my goddess out to knock my head off, if she could but manage it." He grinned. "I'm fond of my head, after all, so it seemed prudent to keep both eyes on the ball."

"You never had a prudent thought in your life, you heedless—" Jon cut himself off abruptly. "Fifteen minutes I stood there, watching as you—you, who visit the gym every day and follow a full exercise routine!—barely held your own against a desk-bound, half-starved scholar with her second-class license shiny-new in her hand! I've a good notion to tell your trainer that—"

"Second class!" Clonak yelped, going back a step and flinging a look of wild amazement over his shoulder. "Daav!"

"Second class provisional," that gentleman said calmly, "awarded barely ten days gone."

"What meat-brain granted her a provisional? She's as fast as any first class I've ever seen—faster than most!"

"Flight time, Master Clonak," Daav chided gently. "The regs are quite clear."

Clonak said something rude regarding the regs.

"Yes, dear. I showed her where her suits were stowed today, and helped her inventory the emergency kit."

"She's never so green as that!"

"She's every bit as green as that!" Jon shouted. "And if she had succeeded in knocking your useless block into the center of next twelve-day—which I swear is no more than she should have!—she'd have stuttered and stammered and blamed herself and we'd have never seen Aelliana Caylon at this yard again!" He took a mighty breath, and released it in a roar.

"Gods abound, I will tell your trainer!"

"It never happened!" Clonak cried. "Jon, for pity's—"

"And you!" Jon hurled the ball forcefully to the right and down. It twisted, hummed, skated and charted a rising course for the tool chest, speed increasing. Daav put out a long arm, captured the thing in a swoop and set it upon his knee, stroking it with firm fingers, as if it were a particularly frolicsome kitten.

"I?" He lifted an elegant eyebrow.

"Don't you come all High House with me! What the devil did you mean by letting that go on? Timing it, were you? I suppose it never occurred to you to interfere? It was easier to sit up there like a melant'i-choked dirt-scruffer—"

"Certainly not," Daav said, his calm voice cutting effortlessly across the other's tirade. "I hope I know my obligations, as trainer, as comrade and as copilot. In any of those faces I'd be blind not to see she needs to learn how to fight—quickly."

It could not be said that Jon's mouth actually hung open. However, there was a long moment of silence before a grudging, "Well, that's the first sensible thing I've heard said in the last ten minutes, all considered. Still, lad, she might have took damage. Clonak's got the edge."

"It's what I've been telling you!" Clonak cried plaintively. "My so-called edge was enough to keep the pace." He moved his shoulders. "I don't say I couldn't have worn her down, if it came to an endurance test. But the unvarnished truth is, Master Jon, she might very well have pegged me before it came to stamina—and I'd be in the 'doc even now, growing me a new head!" He set his hands on his hips and gave Jon back his glare. "Tell my trainer, then!"

"Hah." Jon flicked his glance aside. "Daav?"

"Not entirely unlike my own judgment, though I believe Clonak over-tender in regard to his head. I rather thought she was homing in on his nose."

"Smashed to a purple pulp," Clonak mourned. "Blood all sticky in my mustache."

"Brace up, darling, the 'doc would have put everything right."

"Yes, but you know," Clonak said earnestly, "it still hurts."

"One of life's inequities," Jon said, and sighed. "Why I ever let the pair of you pass piloting is a puzzle for my old age. How came you to be our math teacher's copilot, young Captain?"

"She asked me to accompany her on a thorough testing of the new navcomp and backups," Daav said, sliding silently to his feet. He tossed the bowli ball lightly to Clonak, who scooped it up in the instant before it touched his belt buckle.

"We're to lift in the first hour after dawn, tomorrow."

"If she keeps this pace, she'll lose provisional well ahead of spec," Jon said. "Good lift to you, then." He turned back toward his office.

"Fair flying, Master Jon," Daav returned softly, and cocked a meaningful eyebrow at Clonak.

"End of shift, old friend?"

The pudgy Scout sighed and used the tips of three fingers to smooth his mustache. "I suppose you're right," he said, walking at Daav's side toward the crew door. "Why are you always right, Captain?"

"Now, do you know, my perspective is that I'm often wrong."

"A terrifying statement! Do not, I pray, say it to anyone else! As for myself, consider my lips sealed—I shall carry your secret to the grave."

The crew door cycled and they stepped out into the twilight. Clonak drew in a noisy lungful of free air and grinned up at Daav. "Come 'round to Apel's and let me buy you a glass of wine."

A glass of wine with Clonak had a woeful tendency to become many glasses of wine, and a night so late it might just as easily be called tomorrow. Daav moved his shoulders and returned his friend's grin.

"Another time. I've an early lift."

"So you do! I'm reminded that I'm jealous." Clonak lifted a hand and moved away. "Until soon, darling."

"Take good care, Clonak." Daav stretched, drinking in the evening air, then turned toward Mechanic Street and his landcar. An early lift, he thought, and smiled.


RAN ELD STROLLED INTO her room without the courtesy of a ring to announce his presence. He had long ago possessed himself of an override to Aelliana's door-code and used it as his right. She suspected that he also kept an ear on her so-called private comm line, and thus routed all calls to her office at the college.

Aelliana blanked the reader and spun, coming quickly to her feet. She had as little desire for Ran Eld to discover her perusing a volume on Terran culture as she had for being trapped in her chair against the desk, her brother looming close above her.

As it was, her position was less than perfect, with her back to the L-shaped desk and a bookshelf cutting off escape to the right. Still, she was on her feet and that was something, she told herself as her brother came close—and then closer—a sheaf of printout in his ring-heavy hand.

"Good evening, Aelliana, how delightful to find you yet awake." His voice held its usual note of sweet malice, though with a certain undertone that said he would have been better pleased, if it been necessary for him to roust her from bed.

He moved the sheaf of papers carelessly, fanning her face with a cold, tiny breeze. Aelliana shivered.

Ran Eld smiled. "I have the report on the progress of your investment, sister. Allow me to congratulate you on the timeliness of your delivery. Alas, I find I am not entirely convinced of the superiority of your Fund; it seemed to run neck-and-neck with my own."

"A twelve-day is not sufficient time to test out," Aelliana said, hating the quaver in her voice. "You know that."

"Do I? But perhaps I had forgotten. Stupid of me." He moved the papers closer, laying the sharp edges against her cheek. Aelliana shrank back, the papers followed, edges beginning to bite. She froze.

"I hear," Ran Eld said conversationally, "that you have taken to frequenting gaming places. That you tend—after receiving tuition on the subject from your elders—toward the company of Scouts. Is what I hear true, sister?"

The paper edges burned against her skin. One quick move of her brother's hand and her cheek would be sliced, eye-edge to jaw. Aelliana took a deep breath and forced herself to meet his eyes.

"How could I frequent gaming houses?" she asked, keeping her voice humble, welcoming now the despicable, cowardly quaver. It sometimes happened that Ran Eld gave over punishment, if her groveling proved sufficiently amusing. "My wages are given entirely to yourself, brother—and you even now hold the proof of what befell my quarter-share."

There was a long pause, long enough for Aelliana to feel the breath begin to thicken in her throat.

"So I do." He lifted the papers away, glanced at them—and glanced up.

"I note a copy forwarded to the delm. Why is that?"

"I—Merely I had thought it proper," she gasped. "It was Delm's Word began the venture and I—I meant no offense, only right action."

Another pause, excruciating to her quivering nerves.

"Better to err on the part of right action than to fail of giving full honor," Ran Eld allowed at last, though not as if this judgment pleased him. "I advise that there is no need to send future reports to the delm. Do you understand me?"

She bowed her head cravenly, blessing the forward-falling shroud of hair. "I understand you, brother."

"Good. Of this other matter—you will look at me, Aelliana."

Swallowing against terror, she raised her head. Gods, what if one of Ran Eld's cronies had seen her in Quenpalt's Casino? What if the tale of her win had come after all to his ears? Her ship—Ran Eld must not, must not, be allowed—

"I ask you again, sister, if you have not been gambling in casinos. If perhaps you had not acquired—a spaceship—through playing a game of chance with a High House lord out of Solcintra?"

"A spaceship?" She stared at him, striving for a look of rankest stupidity. "What should I do with a spaceship?"

Ran Eld's eyes bored into hers. Somehow, she endured it, feeling the weight of Ride the Luck's keys, hanging cold between sweat-slicked breasts.

"I thought it a wine-tale," he said at last, moving his eyes from hers. It took every erg of will not to sag against the desk and sob aloud with relief, though she did dare bow her head, and draw the curtain of her hair once again across her face.

Above her, Ran Eld sighed. "Do you recall, Aelliana, your instruction regarding Scouts?"

"I am—am only to teach those Scouts registered to my courses," she said hoarsely, "and shun their company at all other times."

"Precisely. I warn you now, sister, that it will go extremely ill with you, do I find you have disregarded this instruction. Scouts are not fit company for one of Mizel—even if that one is only yourself. Do you understand?"

"I understand," she whispered around a sudden surging desire to behold at this moment any of Binjali's crew, with a special thanks to the gods if that any should chance to be Daav or burly Jon dea'Cort.

"Very good," Ran Eld said, out of the real and dismal present. "I give you good-night, sister. Sleep well."

She raised her head sufficiently to watch him cross the room and pass through the door. The closing of that portal was like a knife against the wires of fright that held her upright.

With a dry sob, she crashed to her knees, hands flying up to cover her face as she huddled against the desk-legs and shivered.


Chapter Eighteen

We signed the final draft of the contract tonight. Thought they'd choke on Captain's Justice. Stupid groundlings. How do we know the length of voyage, assuming we even break out? How do we know there's any worlds left to run to? Situation like this, there has to be one voice that's law, not some damn committee. And that law has got to be in favor of the ship, and the greatest good. There can only be one captain. One voice. One law. For the best survival of the ship.

—Excerpted from Cantra yos'Phelium's Log Book


 


IT WAS RAINING in Solcintra Port.

Aelliana ran through the downpour, less conscious of the wet than the joy that heated her blood, reducing Clan Mizel to a speck and Ran Eld Caylon to an infelicity born of a bad night's dreaming.

Here in the wakeful world, she would soon meet her co-pilot at the foot of her ship's ramp, and Liad itself would be left behind, reduced to a mathematical necessity, one of many factors supporting an equation of flight.

She reached The Luck's pad, raced 'round the curve to the end of the ramp—and all but cried aloud, her run shattered by dismay.

There was no tall graceful figure awaiting her at the base of the ramp, rain-jewels glittering along leathered shoulders. The gantry was empty, from tarmac to hatch. Aelliana swallowed, shivering in the dismal downpour, and walked the rest of the way forward on joy-dead feet.

To the left, a flicker of noiseless movement. Aelliana spun as Daav ducked out from beneath the ramp, leather collar turned up against the wet, long fingers dancing cheerfully.

Relief hit in a giddy wave, rocking her into laughter as she shook sodden hair away from her face.

"A very fine morning, to be sure!" She answered the silent greeting aloud. "I thought you had forgotten me!"

"No, but I have an excellent memory," he said earnestly. "Even Jon allows me that much." He sighed heavily, shoulders slumping in an attitude of exaggerated remorse. "My woeful decadence is to blame for your distress and I humbly ask pardon."

Giddy yet with the return of joy, Aelliana smiled and tipped her head, trying to read beyond the mischief in the black eyes and into the heart of the joke.

In a moment she had given it up, glancing away from a gaze that seemed to read her all too easily, while remaining a cipher to her closest study.

"Decadence?" she asked.

"Well, you see," he said, slipping past her and ghosting up the ramp, "I would much rather be dry than wet."

She choked on another laugh and followed him, pulling the keys up on their neck-chain and slipping it over her head. "I wonder that Master dea'Cort allows one so in love with comfort to work for him."

"How could you not, when Master dea'Cort wonders as much himself? Often. And loudly."

Almost she laughed again, but lost it in a tiny shiver of alarm. The landing was very thin and Daav, slim as he was, filled a significant percentage of the available space. She would need to practically lean against his chest to access the hatch panel.

As if he felt her hesitation in his own muscles, Daav pivoted sideways on the ramp, arms outstretched, one hand gripping the rail, the other resting against the hull. He grinned and inclined his head.

"Your shelter from the storm, pilot. Be quick, I beg you, else I will be wet!"

She slid by, feeling his nearness like sunlight on her back, raised the shield and fingered the first key into place. The ID board came alive. She fed in her code and seated the second key. There was a muted click and the hatch began to rise.

Aelliana pulled the keys free and turned carefully on the landing, inclining her head with a forced smile. "Quickly, before you are soaked."

"Pilot first." Daav stayed where he was, one eyebrow askance. "I've been well drilled in protocol."

Pilot first. Aelliana blinked as the words found home, then drew a deep breath and stepped into her ship, deliberately squaring her shoulders as she did.


DAAV ENTERED THE ship; the outer hatch cycled and locked behind him.

Before him, Aelliana hesitated on the edge of the inner hatch. He read in the set of her body an awareness that had nothing to do with wariness and saw, in one of the flashes of instinctive understanding characteristic of him, that Aelliana was poised on a precipice of change. Here and now, she was engaged in letting go of something past and potent and simultaneously reaching forth to grasp something other and infinitely precious.

He took a careful breath, and remanded himself to utter stillness, that he not distract her in the midst of this chanciest of undertakings.

That she reached toward claiming her own skills, her ship, her comrades, seemed likely. That his taking shelter beneath the ramp had precipitated this moment of change also seemed likely. Her dismay at discovering an empty ramp, and the giddy relief she showed at his appearance told the tale plainly. He wondered if she yet realized that she was speaking to him in Comrade.

Within the frame of the inner hatchway, Aelliana shifted—turned.

"Will you check the board while I go and dry myself?" she asked, as a comrade might well ask. She held out the ship keys on a link of short chain and long. Daav stepped forward and received them with a smile.

"Indeed I will."

"Thank you." She crossed the threshold into the pilot's chamber, moving left toward the companionway, wet garments clinging heavily, hinting at the shape they were meant to conceal. Daav went right, sorting the keys for the board—

"Daav?"

For the first time, his name: Intuition had not failed him. He turned, taking care to move gentle, and smiled.

"Aelliana?"

She came forward a few steps, hand outstretched, a silver gleam between the fingers.

"I had—taken your hair-ring—last evening . . ."

"Ah." He lifted a hand to touch his queue. "I have another, you see, and it seems you might put that one to good use. Keep it, of your kindness." He offered a grin. "Clonak may demand a rematch, you know."

Her eyes took fire and her mouth curved, fingers closing tight around the paltry gift.

"Thank you," she said again, and hesitated, head tipped to one side. "Clonak. Did Jon—"

"No mortal wounds," he said cheerfully. "Clonak has a gift for irritation against which even Jon is not immune."

Laughter sparkled across her face, gone in the next instant. She turned without another word and went down the companionway. After a moment, Daav went to the board and slid into the copilot's chair.


THE THICK OVERSHIRT refused to give up its moisture.

Aelliana, who had been simultaneously warmed and dried by the 'fresher in the pilot's cabin, fingered the sodden beige item uncertainly.

The valet had done admirably by the rest of her clothing, depositing them in the out-bin pressed and smelling softly of jazmin.

Liked everything binjali, the chel'Mara, she thought with a grudge of admiration as she pulled on black trousers, plain singlet and a white silk day-shirt trimmed with faded green ribbon. None of these garments was new, nor did they fit her well. Indeed, in the absence of the overshirt, the trousers required severe belt-pleating to keep them even indifferently moored by her waist. The shirt—a gift from Sinit on a name day long past—had wide sleeves pulled tight into green-trimmed cuffs, and a loose cut, though the silk would cling, here and there.

But the overshirt, that was the thing. It was her custom always to wear this article of clothing; it was her armor, her huddling place, her quilted coat of invisibility.

And it hung, like a dozen or so freshly caught fish, chilling her fingertips.

Aelliana bit her lip. Even her boots had dried under the valet's persuasion, and been returned to her gleaming with polish, worn heels evened. That the one most necessary item should—

"Tower gives us grace to lift, Pilot." Daav's voice flowed out of the wallspeaker. "Pending receipt of course."

Aelliana gasped and spun toward the speaker, her eye catching a flash of movement to her right.

"I shall be—another moment," she managed and barely waited to hear his "Right" before spinning back to the valet, snatching open the hatch and stuffing the soggy shirt within.

She chose "ultra-dry" from the option list, slammed the hatch, and turned again, confronting the mirror.

No lift-proof wonder, this, but a simple rectangle of polished metal, showing, at the moment, a painfully thin woman in baggy trousers and a shabby silk shirt, blast-dried hair snarled across her face.

Aelliana snatched at her pocket, finger-combed the static-charged mass back from her face and clipped it firmly with Daav's hair-ring.

The woman in the mirror hesitated a heartbeat longer, poised on the balls of her feet, thin body quivering, eyes wide and green in a gaunt, pale face.

She inclined her head. "Pilot," she said quietly, and was gone.

* * *

A MUG OF TEA STEAMED gently on the arm of her chair, keeping company with a cheese muffin. Daav, reclining in the copilot's place with his long legs thrust out before him, glanced up from finishing his own muffin, earring swinging.

"I hope you don't mind cheese," he said apologetically. "I meant only to order my own, you know, and what must my fingers do but stutter on the key and the automat give out two!"

Aelliana considered him thoughtfully.

"I should like to see your fingers stutter," she decided after a moment.

Daav grinned. "Alas, it happens all too often. Dreadfully clumsy."

"No doubt even Jon will say so," she agreed gravely, slipping into her place. She picked up the cup and frowned into the reddish depths.

"What is it about Scouts," she wondered, "that makes them so eager to feed one?"

"Well, you see, we're trained to respect efficiency and to mend those things which hinder efficient work. Observation has shown that a person carrying significantly less than optimum body-weight functions at lowered efficiency. Such persons are subject to exhaustion, muddled thinking, and bouts of terror, which are not merely inefficient, but active threats to survival."

Startled, she looked up and met a pair of sober black eyes.

"A pilot keeps herself fit," she said, quoting from the guild-book.

Daav inclined his head. "That," he agreed quietly. "Also it is the duty of the copilot to ensure the pilot's health—and the care of a comrade to answer need with aid."

"I see." She put the teacup back on the broad arm of the chair and reached for the muffin. "I have been—long aside—from the world," she said, breaking the cake open and breathing in the cheesy aroma. "While I eat, will you tell me if you have formed any notion of how best to test the navcomp?"

"Several," he said readily, "but you must tell me how much time you may spend."

Aelliana glanced at the board clock and back to her copilot. "Twelve hours."

"Ah," he said with a smile, "in that wise . . ."


Chapter Nineteen

A statistically significant number of Scouts are reported eklykt'i—unreturned—every Standard Year. While some undoubtedly fall prey to the omnipresent dangers of their duty, there is reason to believe that most have simply found a world that suits them better than the homeworld and have decided to stay.



There are those who argue that Scouts who are eklykt'i are the most successful Scouts of all.

—Excerpted from "All About the Liaden Scouts"



LIAD HUNG IN HER THIRD screen, a glowing wizard's-ball caught fast in a thick net of traffic. Outyards Four, Five and Three, moored to the edge of the net, also showed, gratifyingly distant. All that remained between Ride the Luck and the beginning of Jump space was the hailing beacon—and Scout Station.

Aelliana sighed.

"Tired, pilot?"

"Not at all," she returned, spinning in her chair to meet her copilot's smile. "I was merely thinking how—satisfying—it would be to continue our route out."

"Eminently satisfying," Daav said, his smile going a little crooked, "and very tempting. Liad does grate upon one, from time to time." He extended the hand which bore the mark of the ring he did not wear and locked his board.

Aelliana bit her lip, leaning over to lock her own board. "Have you been—retired—very long?" she asked, which was none of her concern at all.

"Six years," Daav answered, as if it had been an entirely appropriate question. "I had been active for ten."

"Clonak—Clonak calls you captain," she told him, as if this might have someway escaped his notice.

Daav laughed. "Well, and Clonak's an odd creature, as even those who love him must own. It happens I had been his team leader, though I barely had such courtesy from him then. And," he added kindly, "before you sprain your tongue in an attempt not to ask the next perfectly logical question: Scout Captain, with a specialty in Cultural Genetics."

Swiftly, she lifted her eyes to his. "I beg your pardon," she said, feeling heat wash along her cheeks. "I had been taught it impolite to inquire of—of—" She staggered to a halt, for "stranger," the word she had been about to utter, did not fit the cipher; nor did "non-kin," her other choice, strike closer. Indeed, she was more likely to receive care and accurate data from stranger-Daav than ever she might of Ran Eld.

"All by the Code and very proper in its place," Daav said, coming smoothly to his feet. "The so-called polite world being its place. You have every right to ask of me, Aelliana. I am your copilot and your comrade. It is imperative that you trust me, as I might well be required to make a decision in your name. If you cannot trust me to act as you would, you had best know it quickly."

She stared up at him for a long moment before rising with a sigh. "I venture to say that you would not in any case act as I would," she said slowly. "I would far rather trust your judgment than my own."

"Then you are no pilot."

She flinched, snapped straight, hands fisted at her sides. "I am a pilot!" she cried, as if it were wrenched from the core of her. "I will master Jump within the year!"

Daav lifted an eyebrow. "If you will," he said with a cool and distant courtesy that put her forcefully in mind of Lady pel'Rula. "I must allow, however, that I have never known a Jump pilot who would place another's judgment above her own in any matter of her ship."

She glared, her own voice echoing in memory's ear: I do not wish to hear that any of my students has died stupidly . . .

She drew a careful breath.

"Master Pilot," she said. Daav inclined his head.

"Pilot?"

"I strive to be an apt pupil," Aelliana said formally, and bowed as one of her students might bow to her: Respect and honor to the instructor. "I have been many years aside the world. This information is not offered to excuse ineptitude, but to aid the instructor's judgment. It may be I am unworthy of the instructor's notice. Certainly, I have much to learn."

"Though nothing to learn at all in the science of delivering a devastating setdown!" Both of Daav's eyebrows were up. He flung out that curiously unringed hand, fingers slightly curled. "Cry friends, Aelliana, do! I swear not to come the lordling."

She blinked at him, baffled. "But—you are entirely correct," she stammered. "I must learn all a pilot's melant'i, and that quickly. Else how shall it be when I am beyond Liaden space and none but myself to consult? I read of all manner of strange custom in out-space. When my ship and myself are ranged against such and the decision must always be first to preserve the ship—" She slammed to a stop, heart pounding.

"Your ship is your life," Daav said softly, and with the air of quoting someone.

"Yes." She let out a shaky breath. "Yes, exactly so."

"Which is why the chel'Mara is a fool." He smiled, tipping his head so the silver earring spun sparkling in the cabin's light. "Shall you cry friends, Aelliana, or am I in blackest disgrace?" The long fingers beckoned gently.

She hesitated, feeling the familiar clutch of fear in the pit of her belly. A test . . . And once again, she thought, clammy fingers twisting together as she stared at that beckoning hand, Daav was right. Who was she to claim for herself the courage necessary to leave clan, kin and homeworld—the boldness to survive among strange custom—when she dared not even reach out her hand to touch the hand of her comrade?

It was difficult. To her screaming, hard-won instincts, it required an entire day to step closer, a twelveday to raise her hand, another to hold it forth, a entire relumma to close her fingers around his and feel the warm, answering pressure, by the end of which quarter-year she was trembling in every muscle and her legs barely firm enough to hold her.

"Reprieved!" Daav's voice sounded gaily. He pivoted smoothly, drawing her with him as he moved across the chamber. "I expect you'd like some lunch before we proceed."

"Lunch?" Aelliana repeated. She shook herself and drew a ragged breath, noting with something like panic that she was clutching Daav's hand with a force that hurt her own. "Thank you, but I—don't believe I am hungry."

"Yes," he said placidly, "I know."

It was not until he had seated her in the tiny canteen and gently reclaimed his hand in order to ply the menuboard that a certain ominous thought struck her.

"Daav?"

He turned his head. "Yes."

"I—" she stared down at her tightly-folded hands, her eyes following the intricacies of the puzzle ring, round and round. She bit her lip. "Are you a Healer?"

"Ah." He left the board and leaned across the little table, laying one hand over both of hers. He smiled as her eyes leapt to meet his.

"My empathy rating is—high," he said softly, "but I am not a Healer." He looked closely into her eyes, his own serious. "Shall I fetch you a Healer, Aelliana?"

It was an appropriate offer, from a comrade. Aelliana blinked against tears, tore her gaze away.

"Thank you, no. It is—I believe it is—too late—by many—years. I had only wondered—it seemed you are so—"

"Meddlesome," Daav said lightly, standing away with a smile. "It's a sad case, but—Scouts, you know. Shall you have soup with your salad or merely a roll?"

She stared at his back, torn between frustration and laughter. "Only a roll, of your goodness."

There was, of course, no hope that she would merely receive a roll and a cup of tea, and it was with no real surprise that Aelliana sat some moments later considering a rather large salad, augmented by cheese and breadstick.

Daav, who was having soup with his own salad, dug in with a will. Aelliana picked up her tongs.

"How did you learn the silent tongue?"

Aelliana glanced up from her all-but-empty plate with a blink.

"I teach Scouts," she said, with a slight smile, "and Scout minds—as you must know!—are very often bent on mischief. I learned it for survival, through observation." She moved her shoulders, denying his look of admiration. "When I finally came to realize that the finger-flickers among the class must be a language of some kind, it was only a short step to reading it—which is the extent of my skill."

"You've never tried to speak so yourself?"

"Oh, no," she said, glancing down at her plate and fingering her tongs. "I would be hopelessly clumsy, you know."

"Having observed you at a piloting board, not to mention deep in a game of bowli ball," Daav said somewhat dryly, "I know nothing of the kind. It's a useful language—and staggeringly simple to learn. Much easier than Terran."

"Which I must also master." Aelliana sighed, shoulders slumping. To capture first class, to become proficient in Terran, to acquire tolerance of exotic custom, to earn both funds and recommendations, all the while keeping ship and comrades hidden safe from Ran Eld's eye—

"Have you only a year?" Daav asked and she started, so closely did he echo her thoughts, then relaxed, lips curving upward.

"Very high," she commented, and moved her shoulders. "A year it must be. It may be necessary to give over the seminar."

"Ah, no, that would be cruelty. If Liad is to lose you altogether, at least allow another class of Scouts the benefit of your knowledge."

Extremely high in the empathy range, Aelliana thought, with sudden understanding. And augmented by all a Scout's observational skills. Small wonder he finds the polite world grates on him. She raised her eyes.

"Do you know anything of a world called Desolate?"

"Yes, and none of it good," Daav said bluntly. "If that is your destination, and the hope of your study, you would do far better to remain on Liad."

"I had thought—some time ago—that I might go there," she said. "Before Ride the Luck. Plans have—altered. But I had wondered."

"Hah." Daav finished off his tea and set the cup aside. "The World Room at Scout Academy is what you want. Apply to the commander for use-time."

She hesitated. "Do you think—"

"Your name is cantra at Academy, Aelliana," Daav said, pushing back his chair and gathering up the remains of his meal. "Jon had told you so."

"So he had." She rose, gathered up her leavings and fed them to the disposer before turning back to her tall copilot.

"I wonder," that gentleman said with the easy air she was beginning to recognize with trepidation, "if you might wish to have a taste of Jump."

Her heart leaped, the calculations running, quicksilver, in her head. "The gravity well . . ."

"A serious problem, were we to attempt full Jump. I'm suggesting Little Jump, or Smuggler's Ace, as my piloting instructor was used to call it. We barely phase out, skim atop hyperspace and return. In such a venture, the gravity well—"

"The gravity well acts as anchor and catalyst—I see!" Aelliana interrupted, the figures flowing, bright and perfect, before her mind's eye. She looked hungrily into Daav's face.

"Can we . . ."

"Let us call Scout Station and clear it with them. However—no disgrace of your skill!—I will run first board."

"Yes, of course," said Aelliana, and almost ran back to the pilot's chamber.


SCOUT STATION GAVE ITS aye with cheery unsurprise, recommending them to "enjoy the bounce". Daav grinned and closed the outline—and then the mandatory open line.

"No open lines in Jump", he murmured, fingers dancing along his instruments. "Your board to me, if you please."

She assigned it with a pang, sighing as her screens went dark.

"Patience, child," he chided, and before Aelliana could protest such address, her screens were live again, board-lights winking bright.

"Your board is slaved to mine. Every toggle I trip, every bit of data I feed in—everything will be reflected there, for your interest. Well enough?"

For her most intense interest! "Well enough," she agreed, eyes hungry on the tell-tales.

Daav laughed. Across Aelliana's board lights brightened, darkened, flared, flicked; data strings like a river at thaw stormed across the pilot's net; navcomp held steady, steady, perfect to five digits. Scout Station passed from screen three to four to five, outline stretched by velocity, until it shot off the edge of screen seven and vanished as the warning beacon flowed into screen one, heading for two—

The ship flinched, the screens went gray. Navcomp beeped and took itself off-line.

"Jump achieved." Daav's voice was calm as always, but Aelliana thought she detected a thread of sheer, savage joy in that smooth weaving.

At the bottom right corner of prime screen, red digits ticked time. One-minute-six, one-minute-nine, one-minute-twelve—The lights jigged manic across the board, data hurtled—one-minute-fifteen—

Navcomp sang and came alive; ship's eyes opened, showing the diminished, ensnared globe of the homeworld. Aelliana bit back something woefully near a curse, hand moving to demand elucidation from maincomp. Nothing happened, of course, she was still slaved to the master board.

"But—"

"Smuggler's Ace, recall it?" He wasn't even trying to hide his exuberance. He grinned like a boy and opened the mandatory line with a flourish, letting in all the babble of the workaday universe.

"How can we be—be—" She slammed to a halt, aware that she was not entirely certain where they were, excepting beyond range of Port and Tower, beyond Scout Station, beyond the beacon—

"Ah, hyperspace!" Daav said gaily. "We don't go through, we go between. The gravity well gives a pretty boost, though brief."

She glared at him, suspicion gathering, now that it was too late. "Where are we?" she demanded awfully.

"My dreadful manners." His hands moved across his board, reassigning control to her.

She blinked, snatched at the board, read the numbers and found herself not much enlightened. Irritably, she slapped maincomp up, demanding the filed record of their outward course—

"I fear that won't be there," Daav said apologetically. "My cursed clumsiness."

"You wiped the comp?" She stared at him in patent disbelief, while she recalled his fingers moving across the board. So swift, so—very—certain.

He sighed dolefully. "Alas."

"Another lesson, Master Pilot?"

"You had," he pointed out, "indicated a need for accelerated study. Only consider, Aelliana, how rich this situation is in practical application."

"Is it indeed?"

"Oh, amazingly," he assured her, ignoring irony. "Why, by the time you've discovered where we are, calculated a return, and taken us home, you will be well on the way to losing provisional entirely."

She eyed him, suspicion flowering into dread—or perhaps, anticipation. "I'm to take us home? Unaided?"

Daav folded his arms elaborately across his chest. "Well, you don't think I'm taking us home, do you? I did my part. I got us here." He closed his eyes.

Aelliana took a breath. "You are—" Words deserted her.

"Despicable," Daav offered obligingly, not bothering to open his eyes.

She let her breath out in a puff that might have been exasperation or laughter. Sharply, she cycled her chair, opened the board and set about the task of discovering just where, precisely, they were.


Chapter Twenty

It must be the ambition of every person of melant'i to mold individual character to the clan's necessity. The person of impeccable melant'i will have no goal, nor undertake any task, upon which the clan might have reason to frown.

—Excerpted from the Liaden Code of Proper Conduct


 


"YOUR LORDSHIP IS ALL grace, to bestir yourself to meet me at this hour." The red-haired man bowed profoundly.

Ran Eld Caylon inclined his head haughtily and sat first, as befitted his rank. The red-haired man took the chair across.

"Wine, Your Lordship?"

"I thank you," Ran Eld said and took the glass of canary as it was poured, tasted it and sighed.

Ran Eld Caylon was fond of fine things: Fine wine, fine jewelry, fine comrades. The man across the table was one of the latter class—or had been. Recently, however, San bel'Fasin had become a dead bore.

"I trust Your Lordship enjoys his usual robust health?"

Once again, Ran Eld inclined his head. "I am quite fit."

"And Your Lordship's delightful sisters are likewise well?"

The red-haired man had never met Ran Eld's sisters, though it had been his policy from the first to find them delightful.

"My sisters are well," Ran Eld admitted, and assayed another sip.

"And your honored mother, the delm—she is—of course!—in the best of good health?"

"My mother blooms, I thank you."

"Excellent, excellent! Then there will be no difficulty in calling upon her with my little matter."

Ran Eld froze, wine glass halfway to his lips.

"I beg your pardon."

bel'Fasin moved his hands in gently. "Why, the insignificant matter of twenty cantra forwarded to your lordship last relumma. Certainly you recall it?"

"Twenty cantra?" Ran Eld treated the red-haired man to his coldest stare. "You are mistaken. The amount owed is four."

"Four cantra were originally lent," San bel'Fasin agreed urbanely. "At interest of twenty percent per twelve-day, plus penalties."

"Penalties? What penalties?"

"One hundred percent rolled over at the conclusion of each twelve-day unpaid," bel'Fasin said promptly, and met Ran Eld's glare with a glance so deathly chill the nadelm shivered. "Your Lordship signed a paper."

So he had, and Aelliana's quarter-share had been destined to retire this particular debt of honor. But what must occur, Ran Eld thought furiously, except the Delm's Own Word had forced him to hand the sum to Aelliana and no way to lose another four cantra from the House's meager funds . . .

"When might it be convenient for me to call upon your delm?" bel'Fasin asked courteously.

Ran Eld set aside his glass, of a sudden sick of wine. Twenty cantra, gods . . .

"There is no reason for you to call upon Mizel, friend bel'Fasin."

"Alas, your lordship, there is every reason. Unless . . ."

Ran Eld looked up, hope a painful crush of heart and lungs.

"Unless?"

"Perhaps Your Lordship would be willing to represent another case to your honored delm?"

"What case?"

bel'Fasin smiled and sipped his wine. Ran Eld grit his teeth and let the moment stretch, though it was torture to his screaming nerves.

"Mizel owns a certain—leather manufactory, I believe?"

Sood'ae Leather Works was the most profitable of Mizel's three manufactories. Alas, it was also the eldest of the clan's holdings and certain updates were sorely needed.

Ran Eld inclined his head. "True."

"Ah. Then I wonder if you might not be able to—bring your delm to see the—benefit—of a partner in that business."

Sood'ae was freeheld, Ran Eld thought. The delm would never . . . He caught San bel'Fasin's cold eyes on him and took a deep breath.

Twenty cantra, at twenty percent and one hundred percent penalty every . . .

"I shall speak to Mizel," Ran Eld told the red-haired man with formal coolness. He picked up his glass and threw the rest of his wine down his throat.


THEY WERE IN MID PORT, between Virtual Arcade and the zoological museum. It was mid-evening and the byways were crowded with jostling strangers—Liadens, mostly, but with a mixing of Terrans, tall and loud in their clusters of comrades. Aelliana and Daav were holding hands, that they should not lose each other in the press.

The problem set her up-space had, indeed, been rife with opportunity. Aelliana bested the problem, eventually, and earned not only her tutor's quiet praise, but a warm glow of pride in her own accomplishment. They were in Mid Port by way of celebration.

To Aelliana, whose knowledge of Solcintra Port encompassed the ferry station, the monorail and Mechanic Street to the door of Binjali's, mid-Port was an unrelieved marvel. She craned into shop windows, marveled at street-corner playlets, and stared at passersby, the jangle of a dozen languages like wine for her ears.

"Here." Daav tugged on her hand, charting a slantwise course from the edge of the walk inward, toward the shops lining the right. Perforce, Aelliana followed, trusting him to bring them to safe docking, then paused on the threshold of the shop he chose, her nose telling tales of exotic spices, hot bread and other delights.

"More food?" she cried, hauling back on his hand.

"Food!" His eyes sparkled like black diamonds, in-lit with delight. "You wrong me, Pilot, and so I swear. As if I would guide you here for mere food!"

It was so easy to laugh. Laughing, she let him tug her inside, to stand beside him in a long line until it was at last their turn at the counter.

Daav saluted the grizzled counterman with a grin. "Pecha, of your goodness, old friend—and a pitcher of the house's best! This my comrade has never partaken of your specialty."

The counterman grinned and rang in the order, though Aelliana saw no coin change hands.

"Enjoy!" he recommended in badly-accented Liaden and waved a big hand, giving Aelliana a wink before he turned to the customer behind.

"He's—" Aelliana began, as Daav guided across the crowded floor to a table against the rear wall.

"Paol Goyemon," Daav said. He slid onto the bench seat at her right and gave her a lifted eyebrow. "You find him repulsive?"

"Not at all. I hadn't known Terrans held shop in port."

"A cantra is a cantra, no matter who makes it—or pays it." He grinned. "A principle of economics that does much to sustain my faith in humankind."

She chuckled, then sobered, slanting a look into his face. "Is it burdensome, being—world-bound?"

Something flickered across his face, touched his eyes.

"It is," he said slowly, "somewhat of a burden. It is the training, you understand. In making us fit for the universe, we are made unfit for Liad." He smiled, wryly. "It does not help, of course, that the polite world labels Scouts odd and holds us in mingled trepidation and dismay. 'Scout's eyes' they say, as if it were something of magic, rather than merely learning to see what stands before one."

She frowned, groping after a certain thought . . ."There is Clonak, growing hair on his face—like a Terran. Liadens don't grow beards. Surely those who have never left Liad cannot be expected—"

"Liadens," Daav broke in, "live in danger of losing the game to complacency. They think themselves the ultimate in civilization and scorn what is not written in the Code. The Code is all very well, but courtesy to difference has not been named a virtue. If—" He caught himself on a half-laugh and raised his hand, gesturing apology.

"There, I promise not to rant."

Before she could assure him that he was not even approaching one of Ran Eld's lectures, let alone a rant, the pecha and pitcher arrived.

Pecha was flat round dough, spiced red sauce, vegetables, and cheese, baked until cheese and sauce bubbled, served on a hot stone. The dough was cut into six fat slices. One detached a slice from the circle of its fellows, balanced the treacherous wedge atop one's fingers—and ate.

Aelliana followed Daav's example, imperfectly at first, gaining confidence with each bite. The flavor was strong, spicy enough to raise tears—delicious. The wine—sweet, red, glacier-cold, with citrus smiles floating in it—cooled the mouth and sharpened the appetite.

"This is wonderful," Aelliana said, liberating her second slice. Daav smiled and raised his glass in silent salute.

Too quickly, it was done. They lingered over the wine, side by side and backs comfortably braced against the wall, watching the crowd of diners ebb and change.

"How did Clonak come to have a—mustache?" Aelliana wondered lazily.

"We all have our souvenirs." Daav's voice was equally lazy. He lifted a hand and touched his earring. "The tale of how Clonak came by his mustache is—alas!—not to be told for forty years, by order of the Scout Commander. What I can tell you is that he very badly wished to speak to someone who would not treat with a 'beardless boy,' as the phrase went. Clonak thus sought permission of his team-leader and then commended himself to the autodoc, rising much as you see him today." He paused, considering.

"Slightly more demented," he said at last, sipping his wine. "I do believe age has mellowed him."

"And yourself?" Aelliana wondered softly. Daav looked up, one brow askance.

"Ah, but I have always been precisely as demented as you see me today!"

She laughed and moved her head in the Terran negative he had taught her. "But I meant your earring," she said. "Surely that is a—a souvenir?"

"So it is." He touched it once again, smile going slightly askew.

"This certifies my place as a son in the tent of the Grandmother of the Tribe of Mun, whose name, we would say, is 'Rains-in-the-Desert,' though I rather think 'Rockflower' a closer fit." He paused for a sip of wine; reached 'round to finger his tail of hair.

"This signifies that I am unmarried."

Aelliana stirred, looking up into black eyes gone misty with remembering.

"And when you marry?" she asked, meaning it for lighthearted, though it sounded utterly serious to her own ears.

Daav smiled, wistfully, she thought. "A married hunter will wear his hair clipped close to his skull, of course. And he will have a second earring, that names his wife's tent. But until one has been chosen from among those who stand around the marriage fire and enters the tent of one's wife, the hair is worn thus."

"Marriage fire . . ." Aelliana sighed and sipped at the last of her wine. "Did you—But you said you were unmarried."

"Rockflower had determined I should stand around the fire at the next gathering of the tribes," he said, very softly. "My team came back for me before then."

She looked up into his face. "You're—sorry?" she asked, tentatively, because it did seem there was sorrow shadowing his bright eyes.

"Sorry?" He moved his shoulders. "I should have been a poor choice, for a woman of the Mun. Undergrown—and not—terribly—skilled with my spear. To choose such a one to provide for a new-made tent, where there likely would soon be children—" He shook his head, Terran-wise, drank off his wine and turned a full grin upon her.

"But, who can say? I might have been chosen by a woman of an established tent, secure enough to please herself, and then I might have had a life of ease!"

His grin was infectious. Aelliana smiled back and thought she had never felt so happy.

"Shall we walk?" Daav asked, and Aelliana put her hand unhesitatingly into his and allowed him to lead her once more into the bustling, exhilarating, magical evening.


THE VIRTUAL ARCADE WAS full of bodies and light in motion, and sound that ranged from racket to roar.

Aelliana and Daav waded through the uproar, stopping here and again to watch the play at the games. Aelliana, Daav noted, seemed particularly interested in the more sophisticated games of chance, and as they went further into the Arcade, her tendency was to stop for longer intervals, lips moving silently, as if forming the boundaries of an equation.

Another might have felt pique at this apparent desertion. But Daav neither hurried nor chivied her, finding himself well-content with watching the changes in her eyes and face as this thought or that caught at her. He did keep a firm hold on her hand, for in her present tranced state he considered it possible that she might wander away and lose herself, and used his body to shield her from the worst of the crowd's jostlings.

So it was, traveling in this stop-and-go, eventual way, that they came to Pilot to Prince. Aelliana watched the computer replay a space battle of epic proportions from memory: Battle gave way to an emergency docking, which evaporated into a trading session, which segued into—

Daav smiled at the attention she gave the game. It was popular among the shuttle-toughs and Port-crawlers and usually, he thought, had lively play. This evening, it stood empty.

Not quite empty, he amended, as two figures stirred in the dimness of the back corner and walked toward them: A girl and a boy—halflings, no more—identically dressed in tight clothing a parody of genuine spaceleathers, faces hard, hungry—desperate.

Daav tightened his hold on Aelliana, meaning to draw her away, but before he could do so, the boy raised his hand and the girl called out:

"Game, gentles? Sed Ric and me will stand the fee, if you care to play for something more tangible than fun."

Aelliana frowned. "You mean play for money?" she demanded, with very real sternness. "That would be terribly foolish of you, ma'am."

The girl smiled humorlessly. "Ah, the challenge is too heady for the lady! Let us play three-way with your partner, then—he looks a man game for—"

"Wait," said Aelliana, looking about her for the twelve-sided die in a wheel that was the symbol of a sanctioned betting station. "This game doesn't pay off," she told the girl seriously. "You would be risking your funds against strangers. That hardly seems fair."

The boy—Sed Ric—laughed this time. "So what is fair, ma'am? We all risk our money with every purchase. We'll pay the game fee—dex a player at hazard—if you care to see what kind of pilot you might be."

Aelliana glanced at the replay in progress beyond the boy's shoulder: A holed ship careered about the screen until a barrage of rockets sent it slamming into a nearby asteroid.

"You will lose your money," she said flatly. The boy jerked a shoulder.

"Maybe so," the girl said. "We're not afraid to bet."

Aelliana hesitated, her hand tightening—indeed, Daav thought she would turn and walk off . . .

Her eyes wandered back to the screen, flicked to the posted game-regs.

"We can win," she murmured, perhaps to herself.

"Can we?" Daav asked, just as softly, and with one eye on the halflings. Tension whined off the pair of them; Daav's teeth ached with the intensity of their desperation.

They bore themselves as if they knew kin and clan—not ordinary Port rats. Though marred by fear, there was a certain smooth efficiency in their movements which spoke of potential pilots—If they don't skid off the edge of Mid Port, Daav amended silently, and land themselves in a Low Port bordello.

"Daav?" Aelliana murmured. He glanced down into shadowed green eyes. "Tell me what is wrong," she whispered.

"Wrong . . ." He sent one more glance at the halflings: Hungry, afraid and too proud to ask aid. Too young to be here, hustling strangers for two dex the game . . . He sighed sharply and smiled into Aelliana's eyes.

"I think we should play," he said softly, "since these young gentles ask so nicely."

She hesitated, her eyes scanning his. He saw the decision cross her face, then she turned away, fingers dipping into a pocket. Two coins flashed toward two halflings.

"Done," she said with professorial sternness. "We shall take the merchanter."

The start of joy from their opponents was regrettably obvious.

"After you, Pilot," Daav said, and followed her to their station.


Chapter Twenty-One

After the safety of the ship, the well-being of the passengers is the captain's greatest care.

—Excerpted from Cantra yos'Phelium's Log Book


THE SITUATION WAS NOT quite untenable, but it was far from good. They were down on fuel, having chosen to run from the last attack rather than pit the merchanter's light weapons against the pirates' superior firepower.

The pirates had followed, of course, and were now lurking just off-station, waiting for the hapless merchanter to set forth.

Daav's suggestion—faking a refuel and coming around the planet to attack—was refuted by Aelliana: "Suppose they go for a LaGrange Point rather than a simple orbit? They'd have all the advantage and we would be in a difficult orbit."

Her suggestion of dropping all cargo pods but one in favor of a high-value freight and top acceleration had merit, though it relied heavily on the skill of the pilots in eluding the pirates and gaining the Jump point first. Meanwhile, the longer they sat at station, the more points they lost.

Instinctively, Daav glanced over the instruments, checking ship's stats. The board was authentic, the image surrounding them utterly convincing. The bits of station-chatter filtering across the open line had apparently been lifted from tapes of the real thing.

The station master's messages had been rather too courteous to a ship which had come in trailing pirates and debris, but there were limitations, Daav thought wryly, to even the best of games. He sighed and put his attention back on the cargo board.

"How if we drop five pods," he suggested softly. "We trade in the cargo with known destinations for cargo the pirates can't suspect."

"It would give us an edge in gaining a Jump point," Aelliana agreed, fingers flying across the board. "Carador," she said, echoing his thought as if they were partners of many years. "We'd have close to a stern chase to Jump. If the timing favors us, and if we buy all the Greenable listed, we should turn a profit."

"Agreed. What of the synthfish—high intrinsic value and rare on Carador, according to the chart."

"But badly affected by high acceleration. We'd need an eighty-nine percent survival rate to make our margin and we could hit—" She paused, briefly. "Six gee is not out of reach—"

Not quite out of reach, Daav thought with a mixture of amusement and respect. Aelliana Caylon expected a great deal of her ship—and of herself.

"All right," he said, watching her fingers work the keypad to prove the results her head had already produced. "We load Greenable. But I want to buy pod-lot 47—distress merchandise listing. It won't slow us too much and it's cheap."

"Surplus material from Losiar's Survey? But—"

"Trust me," he murmured, and her fingers danced, approving the purchase while she sang out orbit and range figures for him to check.

Daav felt better now, though the run was still risky. The creator of this game had a wonderful mind for trivia, and with a very small corner of luck he hadn't just bought fifteen thousand Terran tons of survey rods. The density levels on that pod were extremely close to something his lamentable pack-rat of a memory thought it recalled . . .

The ship readied: He pulled in the fuel figures, calculating times in his head and running trajectories as if they really were about to launch.

"They'll fire to capture, won't they, Daav?" Aelliana's voice was serious.

"Or at least to get the goods. Likely a capture, though, since they score extra for that."

"Yes. I'm arming the long-range weapons as soon as we break seal, and hit the meteor shield to full—"

Her face was earnest, snared in the seeming reality of the game. Daav lifted an eyebrow. "Station will scream—not to mention the fine."

"Only if we come back," she returned and Daav nearly laughed with joy of her, speaking as bold as if she broke a dozen rules every morning, and he—what was he but the grandchild of a pirate, himself?

The sequence ran down to go. The ship tumbled away from its dock and Aelliana slapped up weapons and shield.

In the real universe, taking arms off safety so close to a station would cost the pilot her license. In this universe, station, as predicted, screamed, though with nothing approaching the verve of any actual station master of Daav's acquaintance.

"They see us," Daav said as the pirate ship hove into view around the curve of the nearer moon. "I'll take the guns, you fly her."

The virtual ship shuddered and acceleration pressed him into his seat as the couches tilted to simulate motion. He watched the cross-hairs converge, his hands moving toward the fire button—

"Fancy-Freight we've got a fine on you unless you cut those weapons now! You have your warning—cut those weapons—" The simulated station master blared his accusations.

"Trap!" Aelliana cried. "They broadcast everything we do to the pirates!"

"Hah. So that's why the children think they have a fixed game."

His hands moved, slapping fire buttons. Virtual rockets crossed virtual space, arcing away toward the suddenly retreating pirates.

The explosion was a bright flare across his screen. It drew howls of protest from the station master and unsubtle curses from the pirates, who immediately returned fire.

A waste of energy, Daav thought, holding his own meager weapons in reserve: Fancy Freight was still in the shadow of the station, protected by its defenses.

That situation changed as Aelliana kicked the ship into a lurching high-gee skid toward the proper Jump point. Even on game time they'd need all of the luck to make the distance and score.

Daav watched his boards carefully, saw the pirate ship taking a leisurely tumble toward—

"They're targeting the wrong Jump point," he said quietly. "They thought we were heading out with the flegetets on board for Terra."

Aelliana sighed. "I regret those—But the math didn't work. Four hundred percent profit and three hundred percent dead . . ." Her eyes narrowed.

"They aren't coming on with as much acceleration as they did before, Daav."

He looked to his screens, touched a knob to increase magnification.

"Took some damage, poor children—running on eight tubes instead of ten. Pegged to the intercept course, though—you have that stern chase you wanted—"

"I didn't want a stern—Ah, no . . ."

The distress in her voice caught him. He looked up sharply, saw real pain in her face.

"Aelliana! What has happened?"

"I—" She looked over to him, eyes wide and stunned. "I—miscalculated. The fuel reserves on the pirate ship—they have the edge. I forgot—Forgot! They'll catch us before Jump."

Daav blinked, recalled the reserves the pirates had taken on from a peripheral kill early in the game. Something moved in the corner of his eye; he turned to track it—and saw six missiles drop out and leave the pirate's ship.

"Recalculate," he said, automatically calling up interceptors, slapping dead plastic where the defense beam toggle would be on a real ship—"based on losing the lot of non-Greenable."

The screen flared as one of Daav's interceptors took out a missile; half a second later another did the same.

"Aelliana?" he asked gravely, glancing up at her again.

"Yes. I had forgotten that you are a Scout. That was a difficult interception there . . ." She lapsed into silence, flying and calculating at once, then shook herself.

"We may win, but the margin is small—one percent, perhaps one-point-five, depending on when and how we lose that pod." Her voice was somber.

"Shall we surrender, then?" Daav asked quietly.

There was a moment's hesitation, too short for him to be certain that the struggle he sensed was anything other than his imagination. Her eyes lifted to his, green and wide.

"No."

"Good," he said, letting her see the pride he felt in her, and turned back to his board.

The play got tighter as the pirate ship's greater power-to-mass ratio began to tell. The pattern of attack changed though: Now the goal was interception. No fancy flying for extra points, no capture option, just interception.

"Daav. We have one hundred seventy-six seconds until Jump. They'll intercept in one hundred forty."

"I see. When they're thirty seconds behind, jettison Lot 47. That should give us—"

"The added acceleration will help, but they'll still catch us by fourteen seconds—"

"But we'll be throwing things at them. They'll have to avoid."

"That's random—I can't calculate—".

"No surrender," Daav said earnestly.

"No surrender."

They were quiet then, each watching their screens. Daav fended off several more missile attacks. The pirates were being more careful with their weapons now, and so was Daav. By his count they had thirteen to launch and he had three . . .

"On my mark," Aelliana said calmly, "it's five. Mark. Four, three, two, one . . ."

The ship lurched as the pod fell away, looming huge in the simulated view screen. It tumbled behind them, directly into the path of the oncoming pirates.

Daav counted to three and launched his last missiles.

"Oh," said Aelliana, "that's more mass away . . . I still don't think it's going to be—Daav, a bad trajectory. You've targeted the—"

Two missiles skimmed the edge of the tumbling pod, dodged by and went on toward the pirate ship, which was beginning evasion. The missiles followed, and the pirate launched four interceptors.

Daav's third missile hit the tumbling pod full center. The flare of explosion grew, brightened, grew still more, expanding into a glowing rainbow cloud.

The Jump warning went off: twelve seconds.

"What was it?" cried Aelliana.

"In a moment. They'll be firing the last of their—yes. Avoidance pattern, please."

Through the glowing cloud came two missiles, though only one was on course for them. Aelliana used the maneuvering rockets to spin the ship, hit acceleration, kept accelerating until the red warning light came on.

They saw the simulated explosion fade into green nothingness behind them in the instant before the virtual ship Jumped away.

Aelliana cheered.

The piloting chamber melted, the shock webbing retracted. Daav rose, looked about—and sighed.

The pirates were gone.


"THIS WAY, SED RIC," Yolan hissed, groping ahead in the thick darkness of the service corridor.

There! Her questing hand found the emptiness that meant the cross-hall. Another few minutes in this stifling darkness and they would be free of the Virtual Arcade and the two undoubtedly angry marks they had deserted at Pilot to Prince.

Yolan sighed. She hated the service corridors; the hot dark gave her horrors, calling forth ghosts and hobgoblins from childhood stories. There were no ghosts or goblins, of course. She knew that. The world held far more terrible things than mere monsters. Cops, for instance. Port proctors, for another. Not to mention angry marks who had won a game they had no business to win and were now cheated of their cash.

"Here." Sed Ric's voice rasped in her ear.

"Right. Stay close." She found his hand and held it—to lead him, she told herself fiercely—and groped her way toward the cross-hall.

Slowly, she moved forward, free hand extended, fingers touching the wall. The wall ended, her fingers stroked emptiness—

Something grabbed her hand.

Yolan screamed.

"Well," an amused masculine voice said. "What a noise." Light snapped on and Yolan blinked, gasping into silence.

Before them stood the very marks she and Sed Ric had just rooked of their rightful winnings. The man, with his sharp, foxy face and his worn leathers, looked infuriatingly amused, though his fingers, now around Yolan's arm, were surprisingly strong.

The pale-haired woman held a portable light, and she looked angry, her eyes cat-green in the sudden brightness.

"What clans own you?" she demanded as Sed Ric stepped up to Yolan's side.

Yolan moved her shoulders. "We own ourselves."

The green eyes widened. Shocked her, Yolan thought, with a twist of bitter satisfaction.

"You're clanless?" the woman asked, casting a look at her tall friend.

"More profit to ourselves," Sed Ric said, "than the clan ever showed."

"Playing tourists for two dex a round?" the man drawled, dark eyes showing something Yolan thought uneasily was not amusement. "And running when it's time to pay?"

"We usually play for higher stakes," Sed Ric said, as Yolan snapped, "We don't often lose!"

"Hah." The man looked from one to the other, moved his shoulders and glanced at his partner. "Well, Pilot? You had wanted them."

"If you want your four dex," Sed Ric, with a calm Yolan knew he was a long way from feeling, "we'll pay now."

"After we've chased you and shaken it out of you," the pale-haired woman said ironically. "How kind." Her bright eyes moved from Yolan's face to Sed Ric's. "In truth, you are clanless?"

"Yes," Yolan hissed, and felt the man's fingers tighten around her arm.

"Grace to the pilot, Clanless," he said softly, and Yolan swallowed, abruptly cold.

"Where do you live, then?" the pale-haired pilot demanded.

Yolan clenched her jaw.

"I expect that they had been sleeping in a wayroom," the fox-faced man said. "I also expect the rent on the cot came due today, and that the money they stole from you, Pilot, was meant to buy it tonight." He sounded bored.

"Is that true?" the woman asked.

It was Sed Ric who answered. "True," he said, trying to sound as bored as the man. He didn't quite succeed.

There was silence, stretching long. Yolan tensed against the man's hand; froze at his lifted brow.

"What shall you do, if we let you go?" the woman asked quietly.

Yolan looked away. On the Port tonight, she thought dismally, clenching her jaw tight. No place to sleep and nothing to eat, unless the luck smiled. They could always walk a bit further south, slip over the line into the Low Port. There might be something to gain there. But Low Port was dangerous . . .

"Low Port, is it, Clanless?" If anything, the man sounded more bored than previously. He looked at Sed Ric. "Will you sell your lady here to the first bidder, or were you planning to sell yourself and leave her without a partner?"

Sed Ric's jaw tightened. "We don't have to cross the line."

"No? Well, it's your life, free as you are of the restrictions of House and, apparently, honor." He said carelessly, though his grip on Yolan's arm never slackened.

The pilot stirred. "Will you play an honest game?" she demanded, her eyes wide and half-wild in the glow of her torch. "Or are you thieves, and craven?"

"We'll play," Yolan snarled and Sed Ric said, "What's the game?"

"Take the four dex and buy a bed," the pilot said sharply. "Tomorrow dawn show yourselves to Master dea'Cort at Binjali Repair Shop in Mechanic Street, Upper Port. Tell him that Aelliana Caylon thought you might be of use. You tell him, too, to keep four dex out of whatever wages he might care to grant you and put it aside, to repay a debt of honor." She fixed them both with a stern eye. "You're still game?"

Yolan hesitated, looking for the trap; it was Sed Ric who said, "Still game."

"Good." The pilot stepped back, dimming the torch. Her mate released Yolan's arm and likewise went back, clearing the way to the exit hatch.

"That's it?" demanded Sed Ric. "That's the whole game?"

"Something more," the man said, taking the pilot's hand and flicking a quick smile down into her thin face. "Over on Scorn Street there's a grab-a-bite called Varl's. You know it?"

"Yes," said Yolan.

"Go over now and order yourselves a meal—high-quality protein, and solid carbohydrate, mind me! Tell the counter help to add it to Daav's chit."

"But, why?" demanded Yolan, horrified to find herself close to tears. She hadn't cried in—in—Sed Ric's hand came up to grip her shoulder; she bit her lip and blinked.

"Why not?" returned the man, amusement back in the foxy face.

"At least work long enough to pay back what you owe," the woman said. "If you've no delm to look to, how much more closely must you mind your own melant'i?"

Yolan stared at her, torn between a desire to laugh and to fling herself into the thin arms and wail.

In the end, she did neither, merely took Sed Ric's hand and inclined her head gravely.

"Good evening, gentles."

"Good evening," the man returned, and "Take good care," said the woman.

They walked away, scarcely comprehending what had happened, triggered the hatch at the end of the hallway and slipped out into the night.

After a moment, Daav and Aelliana followed.


SHE SHIVERED as they came out into the street and Daav looked at her in concern. "You're cold."

"A little," she admitted, handing him the torch and watching him stow it in his belt pouch. She shivered again. "I left my overshirt on the—Dear gods."

He turned, following the direction of her eyes, seeing the crowd, the clutter of kiosks, the ship-board, the clock—

"The time," she whispered urgently. "Daav, I must go home."

He flicked another look at the clock and did a rapid calculation. "We can make the next ferry. Can you run?"

"Yes!" she answered and they wasted no more words. Hand in hand they crossed the plaza, running quick and pilot smooth, and hurtled down a side street.


Chapter Twenty-Two

Each clan is independent and each delm law within his House. Thus, one goes gently into the House of another clan. One speaks soft and bows low. It is not amiss to bear a gift.

—Excerpted from the Liaden Code of Proper Conduct



"DAAV, there is not the slightest necessity for you to escort me. I am quite accustomed to riding the ferry."

"Ah," he said, neither perturbed nor persuaded by this argument. He maintained his position at her side, fingers laced in hers, waiting for the gate to slide away and admit them into the Chonselta Ferry.

The holding platform was crowded, nor were all who waited perfectly sober. Daav had detected at least two pickpockets, discreetly working the edge of the crowd. He nudged Aelliana closer to the gate, deliberately adopting the stance of a man prepared to argue right of place with his fists. The crowd shifted, grumbled—and let them by.

Beside him, she shivered. He glanced down, frowning at the thin silk shirt.

"Let me give you my jacket, Aelliana, you're cold." He moved—stopped in something very near awe when she lay a quick hand against his chest, looking up at him with a laugh, her eyes outdazzling the platform's spotlight.

"I'll soon be in the ferry, and warm. My friend, you cannot have considered. To give me escort to Chonselta means four hours gone from a night already far advanced. I shall be perfectly fine."

Behind them, a mutter of conversation, the ugly edge of drunkenness clear to a trained ear.

"My company wearies you?" he asked, meaning it for a joke. Aelliana-like, however, she chose to hear it as serious and honor him with an answer.

"Your company is—a joy," she said, with her nearly Scout-like frankness. "I—Daav, I—cannot—offer you hospitality of the house. To have you journey so far in my behalf and be constrained to return without even a cup of tea—It shows poorly on the clan, yet I dare not—"

She was beginning to tense, the foggy misery moving into the edges of her eyes. Damn them, he thought, with concise, futile fury. Aelliana shrank back as if she had heard the thought, hand falling from his chest, eyes widening in alarm.

Gods, he must be sliding into idiot ineptitude, that his anger at her clan showed plain enough to frighten her! He conjured a smile, quirked an eyebrow.

"And an ill-mannered fellow I'd look, indeed, rousing the house to do the pretty at this hour of the day! My desire to escort you is utterly selfish, Aelliana—I could not sleep a moment, without knowing you were safe at home." He let the smile widen to a grin. "Indulge me."

Her alarm faded in a sigh that was also a laugh; her fingers tightening, unconsciously, he thought, about his.

"Indeed, I am—glad—of your escort," she said, tipping her head toward the rising discussion behind.

"Then the matter is settled," he said, at which moment the gate slid wide and all his thought went to shielding her from rude jostlings and locating well-placed seats.


"DO YOU THINK they're really clanless?"

Daav retracted the shock webbing and turned in his seat. Aelliana looked up at him from her place against the bulkhead, worry plain in her face.

"Something is certainly—wrong," he said carefully, wishing neither to influence her to a chancy course, now she had time for cooler reflection, nor lose the children her friendship, was she yet disposed to grant it.

"Possibly something is very wrong. Whether they are in fact clanless . . ." He moved his shoulders. "I had been trying to recall. It seems to me that there have not been any casting-outs listed in The Gazette this relumma, and I don't think they can have been on the port longer—even granting them extraordinary luck."

She sighed, settling her shoulders against the metal wall. "They're no older than Sinit," she murmured. "And to be without kin on Liad, and no hope of going elsewhere . . ." Her mouth tightened. "Will Jon be angry? I hardly know how I dared, except that Binjali's is so—safe—and I had thought . . . But to put Jon's melant'i at peril—that was ill-done."

"If Jon considers you've put his melant'i at peril, he shall not be shy of explaining the matter to you. In the meanwhile, if they go to him and present you as their patron, he's certain to keep them by until you can explain the matter to him."

"If they go," she repeated. "You think they will not?"

"They may," Daav said gently. "Or they may not. That rides upon their melant'i."

She was silent for a moment, her eyes on his, before reaching out and taking his hand.

"It is the custom," she said, as much perhaps for her own benefit as for his, "to shun the clanless and withhold any aid."

"Merely custom and not law," he returned calmly. "The Code, not the Council."

"Ah," she smiled, very slightly. "Yet another concept to master." She squeezed his fingers. "It was kind in you to feed them."

He returned both her smile and the pressure of her fingers. "Little enough to do—and not the first time Varl has had the feeding of my stray puppies. Scouts, you know . . ."

Aelliana chuckled; raised her free hand to cover a sudden yawn.

"Your pardon," she murmured, and then, more strongly: "Now, tell me what was in that pod, if you please!"

He laughed softly and settled back in his seat. "Why, only a comet."

"A comet!"

He smiled at her disbelief. "You've heard of Losiar's Survey? Not many have—it's ancient history, and Terran history, at that." He shook his head.

"Mr. Losiar, you see, was wealthy, of scientific bent, and quite, quite mad. Over time, he became convinced that the—how did he have it?—that the 'building blocks of the universe' might be discovered in the hearts of comets. Convinced, he acted, and outfitted hundreds of drone ships to go forth and capture all the comets in the galaxy, or near enough, and bring them back for study." He sighed.

"Alas, Mr. Losiar died testing an anti-gravity machine he had invented soon after the last drone left Terran space. His ships full of comets are still found, now and again. Most use them for target practice."

"So there was ice and particles in that pod," Aelliana said slowly, "and when you blew it open—"

"The children found themselves flying through the center of a comet. Disconcerting."

Her laugh turned into a second yawn, and that yawn became a third, belatedly covered with a languid hand.

"I do beg your pardon. I cannot think why I should be so tired."

"After all," Daav said ironically, "you have only been flying since Solcintra dawn, not to mention a port walk and an engagement with pirates."

She grinned, eyelids heavy. "True. I had—" another yawn interrupted her.

"Sleep, if you like," Daav said, knowing it was scandalous and out-of-Code. Yet why should she struggle to stay awake when she was so tired and there was her copilot at hand to guard her?

"I think I shall," said Aelliana, rather muzzily, and without further ado released his hand and settled herself closer into the chair.

* * *

SNUG AGAINST THE bulkhead, with himself between her and the aisle, Aelliana slept.

Seen thus, without the great green eyes sparking fire, she seemed astonishingly frail—a mere bundle of bone shrouded in the golden velvet of her skin, carelessly wrapped in rusty black and shabby silk. Daav knew a desire to gather her up and hold her against him, head tucked under his chin, as if she were one of his small nephews. He shook the feeling aside: Aelliana was no child, but a woman grown, and none of Korval, beside.

He wondered anew at her clan, who seemingly placed her value so low it cared nothing if she ate or starved, went clothed or naked.

Not permitted to grant a comrade courtesy of the house, is it? he thought with a recurrence of anger, and sighed. Well, and perhaps her kin misliked Scouts. There were those, in sufficient plenitude, though his darker side noted sardonically that Delm Korval would likely command slavish welcome, whatever hour he might call.

In her sleep, Aelliana stirred, shivered, nestled deeper into the cool plastic seat.

Daav sat up, moving with exquisite care. He slipped off his jacket and tucked it around her, turning the soft leather collar up to shield her face from the eyes of the curious.

Settling back, he thrust his legs out before him and folded his hands over his belt buckle. Eyes half-closed, he reviewed a linked series of exercises, assigning one segment of his mind to keep watch while the most of him dozed.


SHE TRIED TO LEAVE him in Chonselta Port, arguing that there was no call for him to endure a train ride halfway across the city only to be obliged to return immediately to the port.

"No, but I shan't be returning immediately to Port," Daav said, sliding his coin into the box and requesting two tickets. "Unless you live in the station?" He handed her a ticket.

Aelliana stared up into his face, trying valiantly for a glare. "You are quite stubborn enough!"

He sighed, taking her elbow and guiding her toward the platform. "My cha'leket tells me exactly the same. It's a burdensome nature, I agree, and far too late to correct it. I am on my knees before the gift of your forbearance."

"Yes, very likely. Daav, nothing ill is going to befall me between here and Raingleam Street."

He looked down at her, eyes wide. "A foretelling, dramliza?"

"I am not a wizard! You, however, are entirely ridiculous!"

"Yes, yes, as much as you like," he assured her over the hiss of the train's stopping. "Is this our shuttle?"

She gave it over then with a laugh and marched before him into the compartment.

That was the last laugh he had from her—and very nearly the last word. The closer the train brought them to her clanhouse, the quieter she became, sitting stiffly beside him on the bench, steadfastly staring at nothing.

The train stopped four times to discharge and admit passengers. As it slowed for the fifth time, Aelliana raised her face. Daav bit back a cry of protest: The bright green eyes were shrouded in fog, wary and chill in a face etched with tension.

"Aelliana—"

She raised a hand, forestalling he hardly knew what mad speech.

"This is my stop," she said, and the warmth was at least still in her voice. "I suppose it's useless to ask that you spare yourself a walk and a return alone through an unknown city?"

He smiled for her, keeping his voice light. "I'm a Scout, my friend. Unknown cities are something of a specialty with me."

Her lips quirked a smile. "I suppose they are," she said and stood, moving toward the door.

She made no protest when he took her hand, though the station was hardly crowded. Indeed, her fingers tightened about his as she guided him out to the street.

As urgently as she had cried her need to go home, it seemed that now, with home near to hand, her urgency had deserted her. She led him sedately down thin streets lined with yard-enclosed houses. The further they walked, the smaller the yards became, the more closely the houses crouched, shoulders all but rubbing their neighbors.

Raingleam Street was meager, the public walk crumbling and weed-pocked, the houses brooding over scanty squares of grass held captive by rusting, lance-tipped fences.

"Here." Aelliana stopped before a fence near the top of the way. The grass beyond the lances looked unkempt in the light from the street lamp, a flowering vine softened the brooding facade of the house.

In the puddle of lamplight, Aelliana spun to face him, catching up his other hand in hers.

"Daav—thank you, my friend. For the escort, for the lessons, for—for your care. I cannot—I don't believe I recall when last I spent a pleasanter day."

"Well, as to that," he said gently, feeling her hands trembling in his, "the pleasure has been mutual." He hesitated, glanced over her head to the forbidding house, looked down into a face from which all joy had retreated.

"Aelliana?"

"Yes?"

"I—may I give you my comm number, Aelliana? Call me, if there is need."

She did not laugh, nor ask what need she could possibly have of him, now she was delivered safe back to her kin.

She sighed, seemed to sag—and caught herself, looking up.

"Thank you. You're very kind."

"Not at all." He recited the code for his private line, saw her memorize the digits as she heard them. "There is an answering machine," he told her softly, "if I am not—immediately—to hand."

"Thank you," she said again and stepped back, her hands slipping away with a reluctance he could taste.

"Good lift, pilot," she said from the shadow aside the lamplight. "Have a care, going home."

"Safe docking, Aelliana."

He tarried in the light-splash, watched her cross the walk and open the sagging gate. Her footsteps were light on the flagstones, her figure no more than a thin shadow. The footsteps changed, climbed three wooden stairs; he lost her shape in the larger shadow of the vine.

The porch creaked, a door opened on faintly whining hinges, hesitated, soundless—and shut with a clatter of tumblers falling home.

Abruptly, Daav shivered, though the night was barely cool and his jacket very warm. Almost, he went forward, through the gate and down the path—Some pretext—some bit of piloting lore you forgot 'til now to tell her . . .

"Do be sensible, Daav," he chided himself, voice loud in the still street. He turned his back on his inner urgings, on the gate to Mizel's Clanhouse, and retraced the route to the station, walking with determined speed.


"GOOD MORNING, AELLIANA, how pleasant to have you thus returned to us."

Two steps into the foyer, Aelliana froze, staring into her brother's eyes, recalling all at once the overshirt left behind on The Luck, and her hair, drawn back and caught with the ring Daav had given her. Voni erupted from the parlor to her right—where the large window enjoyed an unimpaired view of the street.

"I saw him!" she squealed. "Great, lank-limbed creature flaunting his leather in a respectable street! A Scout or a grease-ape, brother, and Aelliana with no more shame than to be clutching his filthy hands!"

"Gently, sister." Ran Eld was gliding closer, savoring his moment. "I feel certain Aelliana will tell us everything we wish to know about the fellow." He raised a hand heavy with rings and smiled lazily at her. "Won't you, Aelliana?"

She swallowed, mind gone to putty. He meant to strike her, she read that plain in his eyes: He meant to hurt her . . .

"Whatever is the reason for so early a racket?" Birin Caylon peered over the rail, blinking sleepily down at the three in the foyer.

"Ran Eld? Voni? Aelliana, then! Someone explain this untimely commotion!"

It was Voni who recovered her wits first. She bowed and flirted her eyes as their mother came stubbornly down the stairs.

"Aelliana was so late coming home, ma'am, we had quite despaired of her!"

"I see," the delm said in a dry tone that indicated she found this explanation wanting. She reached the foyer floor and paused, subjecting first her son and then her eldest daughter to an uncharacteristically penetrating stare. This done, she continued forward and took Aelliana's arm.

"Just come home, have you?" she said pleasantly, turning back toward the stairs, middle daughter in tow. "How delightful it is to be young and able to roister with friends until dawn! I recall my own youth—why, there were twelve-days together when I was scarcely home at all! I was a sad scamp in those days, though I daresay you would hardly credit it—" Talking thus, she mounted the stairs, and Aelliana with her, barely able to believe in her rescue.

At the top of the stairs, Mizel changed her subject, lowering her voice to a level not meant to reach the two left below.

"So, had you a fine, bold day, Daughter?"

"In—Indeed I did, ma'am," Aelliana took a hard breath. "I had meant to be home for Prime, but the time—the time quite got away from us."

"And your friend, I apprehend, was good enough to escort you to our gate. Could you not have offered the house's hospitality, child?"

"Ran Eld—" she swallowed. "Ran Eld has no liking for Scouts, ma'am. And, indeed, my—friend said himself he would seem a rag-mannered fellow, rousing the house at such an hour."

"Very nice of him," Birin Caylon said approvingly. "You must, however, invite him to tea soon so that I may thank him for his care of you." She frowned at Aelliana's start. "It need not trouble you—or your friend—what private opinion Ran Eld chooses to hold of Scouts."

Oh, gods, and if Mizel rebukes Ran Eld for this evening's work—She swallowed and inclined her head. "Thank you, ma'am."

They had reached Aelliana's door. Birin Caylon smiled and patted her daughter's arm before relinquishing it. "Never mind, child. What is your friend's name, I wonder?"

"Daav," Aelliana whispered, voice catching. She cleared her throat and looked straight into her mother's eyes. "His name is Daav."

If Mizel found anything odd in the lack of surname or clan, she chose not to mention it.

"I see. A well-enough name. Gentle dreams, daughter." She turned and went back up the hall, toward her own apartments.

Trembling in every muscle, Aelliana escaped into her room.


Chapter Twenty-Three

Feed a cat, gain a cat.

—Proverb



"WELL, AND WHERE HAVE you been?" Jon's voice carried an edge of amused irritation.

Daav continued to the counter and poured himself a cup of pitiless black tea.

"Chonselta," he said and threw the murderous brew down his throat with a shudder.

"Chonselta, is it? I suppose that answers for the whereabouts of Pilot Caylon." Jon came forward to perch on the green stool. "I reviewed that tape."

Daav manfully swallowed the rest of his tea and set the mug in the sink. "Did you? And your recommendation?"

"She pilots solid second class—which we'd all known. On the basis of yesterday's adventure—setting aside that I believe the master in charge to be moving matters along rather swiftly—I'd be tempted to write a provisional first."

"If it were board-skill alone, I would agree with you," Daav said, sitting down and bracing a heel on a stool-rung. "However, there are those things of which she knows very little."

"And of which she ought to know much, bound as she is for the wide universe." Jon sighed. "All too true. Second class it is, then. Will you sign it?"

"Yourself, if you will."

"Hah. She know who you are yet?"

Daav lifted an eyebrow. "She does not know my surname, or my clan."

"Quibbled like a Liaden! I'll play that game to the extent it does her no harm."

"And how shall I harm her, I wonder?" Dangerously soft, that question.

"Gently." Jon raised both hands in the age-old gesture of surrender. "Gently, child—I meant no disrespect. Forgive an old man his meddlesome ways."

Abruptly, Daav became aware of tense muscles, of a hand curled closed along his thigh. He shut his eyes, ran the Scout's Rainbow, and felt the tension flow away. Opening his eyes, he offered Jon a smile.

"It is you, rather, who must forgive a young man his equally meddlesome ways—and his weariness." He showed an empty palm. "I mean her only well. If she learns the workings of comradeship through Daav, who flies out of Binjali's, where's harm in that?"

"Well enough," Jon said, lowering his hands. "Seek your bed and we'll say no more about it."

"In a moment." Daav shifted on the stool, sent a quick glance into Jon's face. "Dawn-time brings you rare joy, Master."

Jon sighed. "Now what?"

"A brace of halflings, boy and girl. They claim to be clanless."

"Sending me your lame kittens, Captain?"

"Not at all," Daav said austerely. "They belong to Pilot Caylon."

"Oh, do they? And what does Pilot Caylon want me to do with them?"

"Put them to work, if you think they might be useful."

Jon considered him blandly. "Are they likely to be useful?"

"Possibly. I believe them to be pilot-grade; the girl at least has had some training. They're able-bodied and quick, though not as quick as they think themselves. Cocky, but well-spoken enough when forced to the point."

"A pair of delightful children, I see. All right. I'll hold them, pending Pilot Caylon's pleasure."

"Thank you," said Daav and came to his feet. He tipped his head, looking down into Jon's seamed face. "Find out who they are, if you can manage it."

Grizzled brows rose over amused amber eyes. "I thought they belonged to Pilot Caylon."

"My lamentable curiosity," Daav murmured, moving a languid hand.

Jon laughed. "Sleep well, lad."

"Good evening, Master. I have no shift this three-day."

"All right," Jon said and watched him walk, graceful and tall, across the bay and out the door.


SHE WOKE FROM A DREAM of rich, easy safety, her mouth still curved with pleasure.

Sunlight bleached the thin blue curtains to gray; the clock on her desk told of an hour approaching mid-day.

The first thought that occurred was tinged with wonder: Ran Eld had allowed her to sleep through breakfast.

Her second thought was that it was late, and she would be wanted in Solcintra.

She flung the blanket back with energy, came to her feet and slipped on her ragged robe. The house beyond her door was quiet, the hall empty; there was no Voni barricaded in the bathroom they shared. More and more curious. Aelliana locked the door behind her and took a rapid shower.

Back in her own room, she stared into her tiny closet with dismay, seeing the meager rack of shabby shirts and shapeless trousers as if for the first time. Exploration did uncover an orange day shirt laced with black cord, of a slightly more recent vintage than the rest, and a pair of tough indigo trousers that required only minimal pleating with a wide black belt. In the very back of the closet, she found the blue jacket her grandmother had given her on the occasion of her fifteenth name day.

The bold blue had faded somewhat, but the lining was whole, the outer shell water-resistant. She shrugged it on.

That she not outgrow so expensive an item before she had used it fully, the jacket had been bought too large. It settled over her shoulders now as if it had been made for her. Aelliana smiled.

Then it was time to leave.

Cautiously, she stepped out into the empty hall. From below, she heard the sound of a door opening, and the waspish echo of Ran Eld's voice.

There was no time to be lost. Heart in mouth, she ghosted down the hall to the back stairs, thence out into the world.


"MORNING, MATH TEACHER."

"Good morning, Jon," Aelliana said, stopping to stroke Patch. She straightened and looked around her. The garage was unusually quiet; neither Trilla nor any other of Binjali's changeable crew in sight. She turned back to Jon.

"I wonder—did—did the pirates come to you?"

He raised his eyebrows. "Pirates? I wouldn't rate 'em much higher than Port rats, myself." He used his chin to point at the crew door. "They're here. Trilla's got them doing clean-up on Number Six Pad."

"Oh." Tension eased out of her, though a wrinkle of worry remained around the bright green eyes.

She was in looks today, Jon thought with approval, and dressed like she'd paid some attention to the matter instead just draping herself in whatever outsized bits of clothing came to hand. The tawny hair was combed neatly back over her ears and caught into a tail, showing the world a face at once ethereal and intelligent.

Some fitting clothes and a sprinkle of jewels and no one in the room would deny her a beauty, Jon thought, and said aloud, "Well?"

The worry intensified. "I was afraid you would care, though Daav—" She cleared her throat. "I meant no assault upon your melant'i, Jon."

"Take more than a gaggle of halflings to do that," he said gruffly. "You sent them to work off a debt, according to their tale. I've enough unskilled labor to keep them a day or two, and welcome they are to all of it. But what will you do with them after that? Turn them back onto the Port?"

She stared at him, eyes wide. "They're clanless."

"So they said."

"To turn them back onto the Port, after having taught them to hope—" She caught herself, teeth indenting her lower lip.

"I do not consider," she began anew, after a moment. "I do not consider that they are stupid, or even without honor. They were frightened and in despair, which condition might make a thief of anyone. They are very quick, and—and pilot-like. Surely, they can be trained—"

"Might be," Jon agreed, "if they had clan. Them claiming no one, that gets tricky. Though," he amended, seeing she was disposed to take it hard, "if they're real good, or found a patron, they might gain the Academy. The Scouts don't care who's clanless."

Hope showed in her thin face, tempered with wariness. "Are they—real good?"

"Too soon to tell. They're sharp enough—and quick, as you say. Whether they're quick enough, or sharp—that wants testing. Also—" He eyed her consideringly. "Might be only one will make it. I think the girl's some faster."

"And the boy seems somewhat sharper," Aelliana returned, chewing on her lower lip. "And the Scouts do train others, who are never meant to be fully Scouts." She raised her eyes. "My name was cantra, you said, at Academy."

"That's right."

"Then there may be a way, though I doubt two days is long enough to find who they are themselves. Perhaps—"

"I'll find work," Jon interrupted. "We'll keep them by long enough to test them fairly."

She smiled, and there was no need for jewels or fine clothes to make her beautiful, Jon thought.

"Thank you," she said. "You are very kind."

"I'm an interfering old man," he corrected her, and swept a hand toward the back and his office. "Daav left you a thing, if you'd care to claim it."

Eagerness made the bright eyes brighter. "Yes."

They went side-by-side, Aelliana carrying Patch.

"You'll spoil him so he'll always want a ride," Jon grumbled and almost gasped to hear her laugh.

"I must carry him or I cannot walk," she said. "Which is worse: To stand for hours stroking him, or to carry him where I wish to go?"

"I'll put a team on it," he said and bowed her into the office ahead of him.

She paused at the near side of his desk to put Patch down; Jon went 'round to the terminal side and fingered a stack of hardcopy.

"Here we are." He held it out; watched her take the thin metal card, disbelief warring with joy across her face.

"Second class." Wonder gleamed along her voice.

"Daav left me a tape of yesterday's little adventure, along with his recommendation that you be relieved of provisional. Asked me to get the card to you, if I agreed." He grinned then, in simple pride of her. "If I agreed! How I could do other than agree is what I'd like to know!" He held out his hand. "Binjali flying, pilot."

She blinked at the outstretched hand, extended her own and met his firmly.

Jon grinned again, gave her fingers a little squeeze and released her.

"I'll have to speak to Master Daav about his methods," he said. "To expose a new pilot to that level of stress—"

"Indeed," Aelliana said earnestly, clutching the precious card tightly. "Indeed, I had asked him to—to try me fully. My need is for working first class in no more than a year."

"If he keeps you at this pace, you'll be working master in two relumma," Jon told her, with very little exaggeration.

She smiled briefly. "I shall need to update my registration with the guild," she said. "And with Korval." She looked up, suddenly hesitant.

"Is Daav working today? Or—possibly—tomorrow?"

"Left word not to expect him for a day or three," Jon said, and marked how her shoulders drooped inside the blue jacket.

"I—see." Another hesitation, then a deliberate squaring of those thin shoulders. "I wonder—is there someone willing to sit second for me tomorrow? I wish to lift—early."

A second class pilot lifting in local space did not require a copilot, according to regs. However, Daav, damn him for a pirate, had shown her Little Jump and Jon dea'Cort was too wily an old piloting instructor to think that one brief taste of hyperspace would suffice her. Indeed, it was to her honor, that she asked for second board.

"Clonak's due early tomorrow," he said. "Or I could spare Trilla, if you'd rather. You'd best chose who, otherwise you'll have them fighting for the honor."

She smiled and moved her shoulders, disbelieving him. "Is Clonak never serious?"

"Clonak's a damn' fine pilot," Jon said soberly. "Daav came up drinking coil fluid instead of tea—they haven't built the ship he can't fly. Got the master's easy as breathing. It wasn't that way with Clonak. He sweated for every equation, bled for every coord. He learned his piloting piece by piece and he earned that license. You can learn from him, if you care to."

Aelliana inclined her head. "I care to learn all I can about piloting," she said. "If Clonak will fly with me, I will have him with joy."

"I'll tell him," Jon said. "When do you lift?"

Something flickered over her face: Jon read it as mingled exhilaration and terror.

"An hour after Solcintra dawn," she said firmly.

"I'll tell him," Jon repeated and she inclined her head.

From the main garage came the sound of exuberant voices.

"Trilla's back," Jon said, moving around the desk. "Care to have a word with your rescues?"

Aelliana hung back a instant after Jon left, looking quickly down at the card in her hand: Second class, dated this very day. Fingers none too steady, she turned it over, found the name of the master pilot certifying grade . . .

Jon dea'Cort.

She sighed, then, and put the card safely into her pocket before going to make the re-acquaintance of the pirates.


"PARDON US, PILOT, but are you Aelliana-Caylon-who-rewrote-the-ven'Tura Tables?" The boy's face was earnest.

She inclined her head. "I am."

"I told you so!" he rounded on his mate, who had the grace to look abashed. He turned back to Aelliana. "Yolan thought you weren't old enough. In fact," he added, flicking another glance at the girl, "she thought the tables had been revised fifty or sixty years ago!"

"Well, what does it matter when they were revised," the girl snapped, "as long as they're correct?"

"Very true," Aelliana said gravely and Yolan sent her a quick glance before ducking her head.

"Indeed, Pilot, Sed Ric and me are grateful for your—patronage—to Master dea'Cort. We'd looked for work, but no one would have us . . ." She looked to her partner, who promptly took up his part.

"We're also grateful to the fox-face—to your partner—for putting us in the way of a meal. We don't intend that he be out of pocket for . . ."

Aelliana frowned and the boy stumbled to a halt, stricken. She sighed, releasing the irritation she felt on Daav's account—fox-face, indeed!—and moved her hands in the gesture for peace.

"You may give him his rank, which is captain," she said, with a measure of austerity she had not intended.

Yolan flicked a mischievous look aside. "Captain Fox," she told her partner, soto voce.

Aelliana turned toward her, but before she could deliver the blistering set-down rising to her tongue, Jon dea'Cort spoke up.

"In point of fact," he said, considering the pirates impartially over the rim of his mug, "Scout Captain Fox."

"Scout!" The boy sagged—laughed, short and sharp. "Of all the marks to pick up—a Scout and the Caylon! Our luck, Yolan!"

"Seems exactly like," she agreed wryly and looked back to Aelliana.

"We meant no disrespect to the captain, Pilot. It's only we didn't know what to call him, isn't it Sed Ric?"

"That's right," he said eagerly. "We'll speak him fair, Pilot—you needn't blush that you know us!"

"Very well," Aelliana said, after a short silence. "Master dea'Cort has said that you may work for him until—until such work as he has is complete. I expect you will comport yourselves honorably and give honest work for honest wages. If Master dea'Cort should find it necessary to turn you off, you needn't look for grace a second time."

"No, Pilot," the boy said, bowing low; and: "Yes, Pilot," said the girl, bowing equally low.

Aelliana looked over their bent heads to where Jon leaned against the counter, sipping his tea. He grinned at her and one hand came up to shape the word, binjali.


Chapter Twenty-Four

Be aware of those actions undertaken in your name . . .

—From the Liaden Code of Proper Conduct


 


FOUR HOURS' SLEEP and a shower did much toward restoring one's perspective. Robed, damp hair loose along his shoulders, Daav poured himself a glass of morning wine and padded out to his private study.

He had barely crossed the threshold into this rather cluttered chamber when the comm chimed.

Six people had the number to Daav's private line: Er Thom; Clonak ter'Meulen; Scout Lieutenant Olwen sel'Iprith, former lover, former team-mate, currently off-planet; Frad Jinmaer, another team-mate; Fer Gun pen'Uldra, his father, also off-planet—and Aelliana Caylon.

The chime sounded again; Daav had crossed the room and struck the connect key before the note was done.

"Yes."

Er Thom's image was serious, even for Er Thom; the inclination of the head stiffly formal.

"The delm is hereby made aware of yos'Galan's Balance to an insult received of Clan Sykun."

Balance . . . Daav sank to the arm of his desk chair, staring into Er Thom's eyes. He read anger; he read resolution; worry—and an utter absence of grief. Anne and the child were safe, then.

"The delm hears," he said, the High Tongue chill along his tongue. He moved a hand in query and dropped into the Low Tongue.

"What's amiss, darling?"

Er Thom took a hard breath. "Delm Sykun found it fitting to turn her back upon Thodelmae yos'Galan at a public gather this morning." He paused. "You haven't heard?"

"I've just risen," Daav said, reaching for the keypad. "You know how slugabed I am." Three keystrokes accessed the house computer and his mail.

"My, my. A letter of apology from Ixin. An apology from Asta. A letter from Lady yo'Lanna, promising to strike Sykun from her guest list—" He glanced over to Er Thom, still and solemn in the comm screen.

"There's a good come out of whatever it is. Lady yo'Lanna does so love to strike people from her guest list."

Er Thom did not smile. "As you say. Mr. dea'Gauss has been instructed to sell any stock yos'Galan may hold in Sykun's concerns—at a loss, if necessary, and noisily. Letters of cancellation have been issued on all contracts yos'Galan holds with Sykun. Mr. dea'Gauss has advised that he will also be selling his private holdings of Sykun business."

"Hah." Daav tapped more keys, mind racing. A public cut was a serious matter, demanding swift and unhesitant answer. Such a cut to Anne Davis, Lady yos'Galan, author of a text which linked Terra to Liad in a manner not likely to find acceptance among many Liadens—It could not be said that Er Thom's answer was too harsh.

That Korval's man of business also chose to enter Balance was eloquent of the magnitude of the insult. In Mr. dea'Gauss were mated pure melant'i and an exacting sense of honor.

"Aha. I have Mr. dea'Gauss' analysis," he said to Er Thom. "The Pilots Fund holds four hundred of Sykun's shares." He touched a key, scanning the file rapidly, and grinned.

"Mr. dea'Gauss indicates that the Fund shall realize sufficient cash from the sale of these four hundred shares to buy a block of stock in Vonlet's instrumentation venture." He flicked another glance to Er Thom's face, finding it marginally less angry.

"In fact, Mr. dea'Gauss is in a fair way to considering the incident fortuitous."

A smile showed unwillingly at the corner of Er Thom's mouth. "Hardly that, though one readily comprehends Mr. dea'Gauss' thoughts upon the subject."

"Just so," Daav agreed, keying in instructions for his man of business to sell any and all Sykun shares held by Korval or, privately, by Daav yos'Phelium.

"Shall the delm take further action?" Er Thom asked, very softly.

Daav shook his head. "Korval takes no public action, other than divesting itself entirely of Sykun stocks. Of course, the delm shall not find it possible to attend any function where Sykun is also a guest, but I rather think the world will have decided that already. I fancy I hear the match programs running as we speak."

Still Er Thom would not be tempted to a laugh, nor even to the fullness of his smile.

"I wish you will come to us," he said suddenly. "Anne—She is not in agreement with Balance. She feels—she says that it is—a joy—to have found Sykun so rude, for now she is relieved of the necessity of courtesy when they meet."

"Which is true enough," Daav pointed out. "Excepting that they shall—very likely!—not meet again."

"Yes, but—" Er Thom bit his lip, looked away. "She says," he continued, very low, "that to answer insult with Balance is to bring all eyes upon it—upon her—us. She—I feel she—is angry." He looked up. "She is gone to play the 'chora."

"Hah." Daav stood, shaking his hair back. He smiled into his cha'leket's worried face. "I'll come. Until very soon."

"Until soon, Daav."


"WHAT DO YOU THINK of these oxy tanks?"

Clonak gave them consideration, fingering his mustache with absent affection.

"They're very nice oxy tanks," he offered after a minute's critical study. "Symmetrical—and of a pleasing color. Full, too. I like that in an oxy tank."

Aelliana sighed. "Forgive me. I had meant to ask if you thought four sufficient, or if these four should be replaced with four of larger capacity."

"Four's the regulation number, Beautiful Goddess, but no one's going to howl if you want to carry more. If the hold's empty you can indulge your whim to the limit."

"Yes, but it's not my whim," she said with a fair semblance of patience. "Daav had seemed to think that four was not enough, and I—"

Clonak's face changed, and she suddenly knew she had his serious and entire attention.

"What precisely did Daav say, Goddess?" Very careful, that tone, with the taffy eyes gone solemn as stone.

Aelliana blinked. "Why, that he had been on a ship which had lost life support, and that one need only be in such a situation once, with a too-short supply."

"So-ho. I shouldn't have thought he remembered that." His voice was quiet, as if he spoke to himself. He made no other comment.

"Why shouldn't he remember?" Aelliana demanded and almost flinched at the sharpness of her own voice.

"Because he had the Healers," Clonak said, and grinned his crazy grin. "And the Healers had the devil's own time, as I heard it. They swore he'd forgot. Gods know, he wanted to forget."

"He—ran out of air?" But that's absurd, she thought distractedly. People who ran out of air were far beyond giving advice of any kind . . .

"Not quite," Clonak assured her. "Not—entirely—quite." He shifted, opened the suit closet, slid the rack free.

"You understand, his ship was holed—comps blown to bits, shielding in rags. He kept patching the hole, the patching kept cracking—an outside job, but he'd had the bad luck to Jump into the middle of a rock storm—a matter of a place error in the unrevised Tables, as it happens.

"However that was, it was certainly suicide to go out. Daav's no suicide—he stayed in. Loosed his beacons. Blew what was left of the coils trying to send Mayday along the pin-beam. Did what he could, you see? Then all there was to do was wait—and use up oxy."

"But you came—" Aelliana said, without knowing how she knew it.

"I came," the pudgy Scout agreed, bending to check the seams on suit number one. "I came in thirty-six Standard Days." He looked up, showing her eyes bleak as rain.

"I Jumped in, caught the beacons, hit the comm—" He took a hard breath. "He didn't answer—for a—a long time." He moved his shoulders.

"Took some talk before he'd believe I was there—he's always been stubborn. I finally latched on and crossed. He was on his last canister—three-quarters down, I guess. Maybe more. He was building a gadget—planned to separate the hydrogen atom and the oxy atoms in the reservoir—make his own air. Last I heard, they were still studying that one, down Academy lab . . ." He glanced aside, mouth twisting.

"Convinced him to come over to my ship. Convinced him to leave the gadget behind. Even convinced him to crack the suit—to conserve the air in the canister, you see. But damn me if he didn't sit there in the copilot's slot and keep turning the air down from the board! Had to threaten to sprain his head for him and stuff him in the 'doc before he stopped." He fingered his mustache. "Wouldn't have liked to try that. Daav's strong—and scary quick. Even then. Especially then." He shook his head, Terran-wise.

"He started to shake when we hit Headquarters. Olwen and Frad got their arms around him and just hung on 'til the Healers came through."

"And the Healers made him forget," Aelliana whispered.

"That's what I've always thought." Clonak frowned.

"I'll tell you what," he burst out suddenly. "I was ready for the Healers myself. Daav—Daav's the best pilot you're going to find—and one idiot math error left him hanging in a holed tin can, waiting to die! I thought I was too late, when it took him so long to open his line. Then I knew he was alive and I thought everything was binjali—until I saw him sitting his board calm as you like, turning the air down and talking in that reasonable way of his—And if that could happen to Daav, who's the best there is, then what might happen to clumsy Clonak? It scared me. I thought about quitting Academy. I talked to Jon. I talked to the commander—to Olwen—Frad. The more I talked, the more I determined to quit. Had my kit packed, in fact." He shook his head, hard.

Aelliana licked her lips, forced herself to extend a hand. "But you didn't quit."

Clonak stared, stepped forward and took her hand gently between his palms.

"I didn't quit," he said, "because I stopped to say good-bye to Daav. He asked why I was leaving and I told him, 'Because it's dangerous. Because people die, doing what we're trained to do.' And he said . . ." He grinned, lopsided.

"He said, 'That's life, you know.'" Clonak moved his shoulders. "So, I stayed."

"Are you glad?" Aelliana asked. Clonak snorted.

"Glad? I'm doing the only work worth doing. Does that make me glad? Or mad as any other Scout?" He stepped back, releasing her hand, and gestured toward the suits. "Have you done any practice with these?"

"I've had one on and tested the circuits."

"Well, I see we've got our work cut out for us! Why don't you file for something upper-level and out of the way? Outyard One has a nice quiet little lagoon where we can park us and do a bit of walkabout outside."

"All right," Aelliana said, pushing away from the wall and heading for the companionway. She paused. "What is walkabout?" she asked, pronouncing the non-Liaden word with care.

"Aha!" Clonak said with a laugh. "Odd that you should ask . . ."


"IT'S THAT DAMN BOOK!" Anne snapped. "Of all the foolishness I never heard—it was meant for scholars! Who else minds about the dead, dusty past?"

The dialect was the one she had spoken in her childhood, which was, Daav thought, indication enough of her upset. He perched on the arm of a parlor chair and lifted an eyebrow.

"Very true," he said, calm in Standard Terran. "What would you have had us do instead of what has been done?"

"Ignore it," Anne cried, rounding on him swiftly. "Let it go. Turn the other cheek. Act as if the great House of Korval were above children's games and found such goings-ons just—faintly—ridiculous."

"Ah. And what would that accomplish, I wonder?"

She glared as if she suspected him of laughing at her. He showed her his palms, fingers spread wide and empty.

"Anne, I ask because I don't know. You say there is a better way to answer Sykun's insolence. Teach it to me."

"You're not a fool."

A complimentary manner, indeed, in which to address one's delm. Daav grinned. "I have my moments. As do we all. What is gained by allowing Sykun license to abuse you?"

She sank to the edge of the chair opposite his, fingers tightly gripped together. "Forgetfulness."

He waited, head tipped and face attentive.

"She—cut me—because she wanted to show that the book—the proof of the common back-tongue—was a lie. She wanted to make a stir, don't you see? And by rising to the bait, you've given force to her argument. You've said, in effect, that Korval has something to apologize for. People will notice. People will talk. Instead of the whole thing dying down, like an eight-day wonder . . ." She shook her head.

"If you had just ignored it, then people would have shrugged and said that Sykun was making a mountain out of a molehill—She would have looked ridiculous—and people would have talked about something else."

"Ah." He closed his eyes, weighing it, tasting it, feeling the shape of it and the outline of the culture which would make such action sensible.

"I see," he said eventually, "that this might, indeed, be the appropriate response." He opened his eyes to Anne's hopeful face. "Elsewhere."

Hope died. "Daav—"

He raised a hand. "Given a society based upon the communal effort of unallied individuals, each of whom cooperates with the others solely for individual gain, this response has obvious merit. To shake off an insult is to conserve energy for the more important work of individual advancement. However, such a society does not exist upon Liad and the answer you suggest will not work. Worse," he said, deliberately softening his voice, "it may do active harm."

"I don't—"

"Recall that we are predators, enclosed in kin-groups, held in check by the laws of Clan and Council. Precedence is guarded as jealously as children. Melant'i opens more doors than cantra, as a rich man who has sullied his name may tell you. Insult must be Balanced, immediately and stringently, else the other predators see that you are weak."

"But—"

"Hear me out. I do not say that your answer is wrong. I merely say that Er Thom's is better. On Liad. To preserve our melant'i, our precedence—and our right to peace—Sykun must be lessoned. Did we ignore this morning's insult, the world would talk, and wonder—and plan. The next insult must in such a case be more daring—and we reach a point very soon where we play with lives."

Anne stared.

"This way," Daav said gently, "Sykun looses a few cantra and the pleasure of a few parties. Korval must make some adaptation of trade and contract. It is done. The world is satisfied and the matter falls away, as you wish it to do, in a twelve-day or so. To follow your plan—" He leaned forward and took her hands in his.

"We are too few. I cannot risk one life on the chance of a Balance done badly. It is Korval's duty to protect its own. Which duty I take most seriously."

She was silent a moment or two, eyes searching his face.

"What are the odds," she asked then, "of this getting—dangerous?"

Dangerous. He paused a moment, considering what that might mean to her. Surely, he decided, in this case her danger and his were the same—physical harm befalling lifemate, child, herself, or other kin.

"Less this afternoon than this morning," he told her, with the utter truth one owed to kin. "Two moves have so far been made upon the theme and we have answered appropriately. It may be some shall try a third time. Vigilant response to that must establish our position without doubt."

She sighed, and took her hands away, though pensively, and not in anger.

"Your lifemate," he said softly, "will protect you with all of his skill. And your delm shall protect you, with all of his."

"Yes." She sighed, then, and rose, tall and graceful and Terran. "Thank you," she said, which—Liaden—kin should have no cause to say, one to another. "I'll speak to Er Thom."

He smiled and rose also. "Rest easy," he told her. "All will be well."


Chapter Twenty-Five

In an ally, considerations of house, clan, planet, race are insignificant beside two prime questions, which are:



1. Can he shoot?


2. Will he aim at your enemy?


 

—From Cantra yos'Phelium's Log Book


 


"YOUR ANALYSIS IS ELOQUENT, my son. Allow me to hold it for a day or three, that I may give it the study it merits."

Ran Eld bowed, fighting to conceal his dismay. He had sweated over that analysis, striving to illuminate every benefit to be gained by adopting San bel'Fasin as a partner in Sood'ae Leather Works. Indeed, he had written so compellingly of the advantages of upgraded facilities and increased production he had quite convinced himself that selling bel'Fasin as much as half the enterprise would be all Mizel's gain. Surely even cursory study must make these advantages plain to the delm's eye?

And the twelve-day was winding to a close.

"The gentleman who makes the offer of partnership," he said, careful to keep his voice even, his face calm, "did seem desirous of a speedy resolution."

"Ah, did he?" Mizel glanced up. "It is well to recall that the gentleman approached us, we did not seek him. If he cannot wait upon rational consideration, he is free to offer his partnership elsewhere."

Ran Eld went cold. "Mother, perhaps—"

She raised a hand. "My son, I see that you are convinced of the benefits of the scheme. You are perhaps too young to understand that no scheme brings unalloyed profit. I must consider what it is this San bel'Fasin thinks he will gain in the venture, and whether Mizel can afford to indulge him." She smiled. "We learn something of value, should it transpire that San bel'Fasin cannot afford to wait. Nor do I think a man who is unable to adopt a temperate course will be a suitable partner for Mizel. Slow, steady and careful are the cards to play, when we decide for the clan's future. I shall give your analysis due thought, never doubt it."

There was finality in her voice and, perforce, Ran Eld bowed.

"Good-day, Mother."

"Go in joy, my child."

He gained the safety of his rooms and shut the door firmly behind him. Gods, what should he do, if the delm refused the scheme? Twenty cantra—soon to be doubled! But there, he assured himself, splashing brandy into a cup, she would not refuse. Further study could only show the plan's excellencies to fuller advantage. His mother was not stupid, merely conservative. Caution must bow to good sense.

Soon.


IT WAS A SMALL, neat house on a small, neat street handy to Solcintra's business district. Daav worked the gate-latch and followed the stone path through the meticulously-kept front-garden, mounted six shallow stairs to the porch and pulled the bell.

He had not sent ahead, nor was he dressed in the formal style mandated by the Code, when a delm went calling upon a delm. Indeed, he might almost be a solicitor who had wandered a few blocks north of his usual preserve, excepting, of course, that not many solicitors were adopted of the Mun.

The plain blue door opened wide and Daav found himself looking down into the serious face of a boy no older than eight Standards.

"Good-day," the child said, eyeing the leather jacket with interest even as he lisped the doorman's traditional challenge. "Who calls and upon what business?"

"Daav yos'Phelium calls," he returned, in Visitor-to-Child-of-the-House, "upon business of the House."

The child frowned. Line yos'Phelium belonged to Korval, as he assuredly knew. The precise place held by Daav of Line yos'Phelium was likely at the root of the frown, as the personal names of delms tended to become lost outside the circle of their own kin.

"Line yos'Phelium does not belong to Reptor," the boy said, with certainty. "I shall need to know your business, sir."

"Very proper," Daav murmured, bringing his hand slightly forward, so that Korval's Ring glinted in the afternoon sun. "My business is with Delm Reptor."

The boy's eyes moved, tracking the glint—widened and came up.

"Sir," he said and stepped back from the door, bowing as Child- of-the-House-to-Honored-Guest. "Be welcome in our House."

"Thank you," Daav said gently and stepped into the dim entrance hall.

He stood aside while the child shoved the door to and engaged the lock, then followed him down a short hall to a room overlooking the back garden.

"Refreshment will be brought," the boy said, with all the gravity due his House's honor. "I go to fetch the delm, sir."

"Thank you," Daav said again, and the boy ducked back into the hall, leaving the door open.

Daav glanced around at the book-lined walls and comfortably shabby chairs. This was no state chamber, as called for by the Code, preserved in soulless perfection for the edification of formal visitors. This was a room lived in, enjoyed and enjoyable. Daav moved toward those temptingly overfull shelves.

A step in the hall beyond brought him around in time to see a girl perhaps a year the doorman's senior cross the threshold, bearing a tray.

This she carried to the stone table before the window; rapidly set out a sweat-studded carafe, two plain crystal cups and a painted plate piled high with cookies. Turning, she made a hasty bow, "Sir," and was gone, all but running out into the hall. The door swung gently on its hinges as she passed.

Refreshment, as promised, and which courtesy required that he sample. Daav poured clear liquid from the carafe to the cup and sipped: Simmin wine, icy cold and tart enough to take one's breath. He looked wryly at the hopeful plate of sweet things and carried his cup with him to the shelves.

He had barely grazed the contents of the first shelf when a new tread was heard down the hall. Daav turned and moved to the center of the room, wine cup in one hand, Korval's Ring in plain view.

The man who stepped firmly into the chamber was soft-bodied and sandy-haired, not old, though some years older, Daav thought, than himself. He was dressed in rumpled day-clothes and scuffed houseboots, and had extraordinarily quick brown eyes, set wide in a weary, clever face.

Those quick eyes flicked to Daav's hand and back to his face, betraying puzzlement without alarm. He raised his own hand to show Reptor's Ring and bowed, Delm-to-Delm.

"How may Reptor serve Korval?"

"By forgiving this disruption of your peace," Daav said in Adult-to-Adult. "And by granting Daav yos'Phelium the gift of a few minutes of your time."

"Well." Reptor took a moment to consider Daav's face, eyes bright with intelligence. He moved a hand, as if he threw dice, and inclined his head.

"Daav yos'Phelium is welcome to my time," he said at last, and in Adult-to-Adult. He went to the stone table, poured wine into the remaining cup, sighed lightly at the plate of cookies and turned back to Daav.

"I am Zan Der pel'Kirmin." He waved at the two comfortable chairs. "Sit, do."

"I thank you." Daav sank into the nearer of the two, sipped his wine and set the cup on the elbow table. Zan Der pel'Kirmin followed suit and sat back, eyes showing curiosity, now, and somewhat of speculation.

"What brings Daav yos'Phelium to my house?"

"A rumor," Daav said gently. "I am fairly confident of my information, but I ask, for certainty's sake: Has Reptor lately—mislain—two of its own?"

The clever face went still, brown eyes glancing aside. "Mislain," he murmured, as if to himself. "Gently phrased." He looked back to Daav's face.

"Their names are Yolan pel'Kirmin and Sed Ric bin'Ala," he said, and his voice was not entirely steady. Pain and hope warred in the quick eyes. "Have you—you do have—news?"

"They are safe," Daav told him, and saw relief leach some of the pain. "Just now, they are under the protection of Pilot Aelliana Caylon, who flies out of Binjali's Yard in Upper Port." He paused, looked square into the other man's eyes. "They claim to be clanless."

Color drained from the round face; the brown eyes shone tears.

"Clanless." He might have said dead with the same inflection. "I—" He turned his head away, biting his lip. "Forgive me," he managed after a moment. He groped for his cup, lifted it, drank.

"I had inquired," he said, low and rapid, eyes yet averted. "I made certain they would seek the Port, ship-mad as they both are—" He glanced to Daav, pale lips tight. "Your pardon."

"No need. I believe many halflings are so."

"As you say. Be it so, my inquiries came to dust. They—I recruited myself to wait, but they did not return home, and I began to fear—offworld . . ." He sighed. "Clanless. Gods." He sagged back into his chair, showing Daav a face at once bewildered and relieved. "They are not clanless."

"And yet they have said that they are. Several times."

"A word, spoken in anger and no more meant than—" He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and opened his eyes.

"Their—patron. Aelliana Caylon, I believe you had said. That is the same Caylon? Of the ven'Tura Revision?"

"It is."

"I am in her debt. To extend her melant'i in such a wise, and care for those who claim no kin—that is—extraordinary. I am in her debt," he repeated and moved a hand. "And in your own."

Daav smiled, deliberately rueful. "No debt on my account, if you please. I am meddling, if you will have the truth, and must ask you to fail of mentioning this visit to Pilot Caylon, should you speak to her."

"Of course I shall speak to her!" Zan Der pel'Kirmin cried, eyes opening wide. "I must speak to her—and at once! They cannot be left a burden upon her grace, when they have kin eager to welcome them home . . ." He paused, brows drawing together.

"What had the pilot—I mean no disrespect!—I only wonder what Pilot Caylon had thought she might do for them, crying clanless and so little trained . . ."

"Ah." Daav reached to his glass and sipped the cool, tart wine. "I believe she had meant to sponsor them into Scout Academy."

"Scout Academy," the other repeated blankly.

"Pilot Caylon's name is cantra, among Scouts," Daav explained gently. "As she has very little, herself, in the way of other currency, and as your pair seemed quick enough, and clever . . ."

"Gods smile upon her, a great and wide-hearted lady," Reptor said reverently. "They—Yolan and Sed Ric have had some small training on the boards; their piloting instructors do not despair of first class. If it had not been for this other matter—but I shall go to her, to Pilot Caylon, immediately, and relieve her of Reptor's troubles."

"Immediately," Daav said delicately, "may not be possible, as Pilot Caylon resides in Chonselta. She does, however, fly—"

"Out of Binjali's Yard," the other interrupted, with a pale smile. "I understand. You are very good."

"No, only meddlesome, as I've said." Daav stood and made his bow to the host. "Having meddled sufficiently for one day, I shall restore you to your peace. Be well, and thank you for the gift of your time."

"The gift was well-given." Zan Der pel'Kirmin said, standing and bowing in reply. "My name is yours, to use in need."

Daav smiled, profoundly warmed, for it was no light thing given, but a man's whole melant'i, for Daav to use as he would.

"You do me too much honor," he said, and meant it.

"Not at all," the other man said firmly and offered his arm. "Allow me to guide you to our door."


"FIGHT?" Aelliana looked from Jon to Trilla to Clonak. "Why shall I need to know how to fight?"

"Because ports and docks and Outworlds in general are chancy places, Beautiful Goddess."

"Because a captain must protect herself, her ship, her cargo," said Jon, "and her partner, should she take one."

"All true," Trilla finished in her casual, Outworld way. "Ability to frame a clear 'no' never stood a pilot ill."

Aelliana stared at the three of them and hoisted herself to a stool. Patch immediately jumped from the floor to her lap.

"I don't know the first thing about fighting," she said, as the cat rammed his head into her shoulder, rumbling like an infant earthquake.

"That's why you have to learn," Clonak said patiently. "If you already knew, it would be a waste of our time to teach you."

"We learned self-defense as part of pilot training," Yolan observed, looking up from the parts bin she and her mate were sorting.

"It wasn't enough, though," Sed Ric added. "We had to make adjustments." He stood and Yolan with him, and they stepped toward the stools in their usual formation: Yolan on Sed Ric's right.

"See?" the boy said and his right hand moved, jerking something bright and lethal from his belt. It jingled, hissed and fell still as Clonak came forward, hand outstretched.

"Jang-wire," he said, holding it up for the rest to see. Aelliana blinked.

It looked like nothing more than a length of thin chain, looped and hooked into a leather grip.

"Illegal, of course," Clonak finished and tossed the loop back to Sed Ric, who snagged it out of mid-air and hung back on his belt.

"Works," he said, and Yolan added. "We keep it on the right because I'm left-handed. I walk at Sed Ric's right. If he goes down—"

"There's one of you still weaponed and able," Jon concluded. "Partner-work, right enough." He turned to Aelliana. "Those who don't fight die, math teacher."

She met his eyes squarely. "I am craven, Master Jon. Only raise a hand and see me cringe."

"All the more reason to learn, fast and well," Trilla said. "If you get real good, no one'll touch you." She slid off her stool, shaking a shower of finger-talk at Clonak.

"Couple different styles of fighting," she said, pointing out a spot for him to stand. "Clonak here likes Port rules, which is to say, no rules."

"See a head," Clonak said gleefully, "punch it."

"This way," said Trilla and moved.

Aelliana leapt from her stool, dumping Patch floorward. Jon caught her wrist and she cried out sharply, then stood, aghast and enthralled, watching as Clonak countered Trilla's attack with a kick toward the Outworld woman's midsection, except Trilla had sidestepped and aimed her own kick at Clonak's knee and he went down, rolling, and she jumped forward, kicking at his head, except Clonak had jackknifed and it was Trilla down, one arm bent high behind her back and her cheek against the concrete floor.

"Yield!"

Clonak was up before the word's echo died, bending and offering a hand for her to rise.

"Well played, old friend."

She grinned and moved her shoulders, looking over to Aelliana. "So, I'm not real good."

"Trilla likes the dance," Clonak said, reaching into his belt and withdrawing a wickedly curved finger.

"Pretend a knife!" he shouted, and lunged.

Trilla melted away from the attack, spun, kicked, wove. The knife followed, desperate for a hit, growing increasingly heedless—and Trilla swept forward with no more force than a dance move, her hand connected sharply with Clonak's wrist, his hand snapped upward—

"Disarmed!" he cried, and collapsed cross-legged to the floor, grinning up at Aelliana. "Bow to necessity, divine. The universe is dangerous."

"First lesson tomorrow," Jon decreed, at last loosing her wrist. "Trilla will teach you to dance."


Chapter Twenty-Six

Jela spent his whole off-shift rigging guy-wires and safety nets to hold his tree in what it thinks is proper position. He was going to run an orientation plate off the main engine, but I canceled that project.

If that tree's got to be in the pilot's tower, it can damn' well take the same risks the pilots take.

—Excerpted from Cantra yos'Phelium's Log Book


 


DAAV KNOTTED THE silver ribbon and let the beaded ends fall. Glancing into the mirror, he straightened his lace and pulled his collar into more perfect order. The beaded ribbon trailed an elegant tendril across a shoulder, counterpoint to the rough twist swinging in his ear.

He paused in his toilette, hand rising to touch the earring, seeing again the morning Rockflower had led him out of the tent; dew soaking his boots, on the edge of the plain, on the edge of the dawn.

She faced him to the rising sun and shouted his name—Estrelin—Starchild—which was not the most fortunate the Mun might bestow, who considered the stars brought madness—and bade him stand fearless. He saw the knife flash in the corner of his eye, felt it bite his earlobe, heard Rockflower grunt with approval.

"Blood and blade, Estrelin, child of the grandmother's tent."

It was back to the autumn camp then, and the silver worker's tent. Rockflower herself twisted the heated metal into the proper design, the hot wire went through the gash in his ear, cauterizing the minor wound, and the ends sealed into a continuous loop. As nothing could break the silver loop, she told him, so nothing would break his bond to her tent.

At Jelaza Kazone, in the hour before a formal meal, Daav smiled wryly at his own reflection. The silver loop could, of course, be broken all too easily: A snip of wire cutters, a careful withdrawal, a minute or two in the autodoc to erase the tiny scar . . . He had not done it. He would not do it. Captive among Liadens, there yet remained a fragment of Estrelin, child of the grandmother's tent.

He broke his own reflected gaze, looked down and opened his ornament case. Among the guests tonight would be his betrothed, home between test-Jumps, and who would expect to see him jeweled as befit his station. He chose a sapphire-headed pin and seated it carefully in the lace at his throat, wondering idly if Estrelin of the grandmother's tent would follow custom and cut his hair when he was wed.

Actually, he thought, slipping a sapphire ring onto the first finger of his right hand, Mun custom dictated that one's wife perform this service on the morning following the consummation of their vow. He tried to imagine dainty Samiv tel'Izak bowing to such a custom, but very soon abandoned the effort. A Mun marriage was a lifemating, within its peculiar laws; and, come to consideration, it was much easier to picture Anne cutting Er Thom's hair. Not, he assured himself, with an amused glance at his reflection, that one's cha'leket was ever less than impeccably barbered.

"Very fine, your lordship," he told himself, gesturing fluidly with a hand that glittered silver-and-blue. He moved his head, sending the earring swinging and felt the weight of his hair slide across his shoulder.

"I don't think I shall cut it," he said, giving his reflection serious attention. He shook the lace cuffs out, brushed a possibly imaginary speck of dust from the soft black trousers and stepped back, making his bow with a bite of irony.

"Have a pleasant evening, sir. And do try to value Pilot tel'Izak as you ought."


MASTER DEA'CORT had said they might sleep in the pilot's dorm off the aux supply room. Accordingly, they had pushed two cots together, arranged blankets and pillows—and discovered that they were neither sleepy nor in the mood for sport.

"Walk?" Yolan asked, running her hands through her hair and standing it all on end, so she looked like a Yolan-sized dandyweed. "I'm all over twitches."

"Me, too," Sed Ric admitted. He dug around in his pouch and brought out their carefully hoarded wages. Master dea'Cort paid generous for grunt-work, though not quite enough to make a four-dex loss into a nothing. Sed Ric counted the ready and looked up with a sidewise grin.

"Buy us an ice?"

Yolan laughed. "Why not?"

They went out through the main garage, cutting past Master dea'Cort's office.

The old Scout was sitting at his desk, head bent over a bound book, seemingly oblivious to his surroundings. Sed Ric looked at Yolan. Yolan cleared her throat.

"Out Port-running, is it?" Jon asked, without bothering to lift his head. "Give Pilot Caylon joy, to find the two of you turned up dead."

Yolan bit her lip. "We're only gone for an ice, Master. If you think the pilot won't like it—"

He did lift his head, then, and considered them out of bland amber eyes. "Young things," he said after a moment, and waved a broad hand. "Go on and have your sweet. Watch yourselves, that's all. I don't want to be the one to explain a tragedy to the pilot."

"No, Master," Sed Ric said, jerking his head at Yolan. "We just thought to step around to the East Selling."

"We'll be careful," Yolan put in. "Of course we will."

"All right," said Jon, and went back to his book.

Yolan and Sed Ric faded back out of the office and made their way across the garage, through the crew door. Outside, they went left, aiming to cut a diagonal course across Binjali's Yard and use the utility gate at the eastern corner. From the gate to the East Selling was a matter of two short blocks, and an ice vendor was among the first of the kiosks encountered.

"Think the pilot will be needing crew, when she takes herself off-world?" Yolan voice was too casual, as it was when she wanted to pretend that a burning question was of no moment.

Sed Ric sighed. "Not much crew room on a Class A Jump," he commented. "Her and the captain'll run things snug between 'em."

"Likely," Yolan allowed and they walked silent awhile, down the long corridor of ships asleep on their cold-pads in the Port's early evening.

"Maybe they'll take us," Yolan said and it was desperation in her voice.

Sed Ric stopped and looked at her. "Take us where?"

"Offworld," she said and reached for his hand. "Someplace where they don't mind what's our family—or how close we stand cousins. They might take us—the pilot would, I'll wager."

"Yes, and her partner's cut from whip-leather."

"Maybe not," she said, clutching his hand feverishly. "Maybe not—so much. Who fed us, after all? And the counter help never blinked, did they, Sed Ric? Runs a chit there, does Captain Daav—for all we know, he feeds the port."

"All of which argues him stupid enough to lift dead weight when cargo is what keeps his ship able. Air dreams, Yolan. You know it."

Her shoulders sagged. "What will we do, then? Master dea'Cort won't keep us forever—he paid us for make-work today! Who else will have us? Walking the dim side, that's not—you heard him: Who will we sell first, you or me? If it comes to that—"

"It won't," Sed Ric said firmly. He chewed his lip, looking into her face. "I've been thinking," he said, slow and careful, because he had been thinking—and because she wasn't going to like hearing what his thoughts had taught him.

"I've been thinking," he said again, "that we might go and—talk—to Uncle Zan Der."

"Talk to Father? We talked to Father—and more use talking to hullplate! We showed him the chart and how the genes scanned—did he even look? Did he even care that it's only been us for each other since we were in nursery together? Did he even—"

She was working herself into a state, which he might have known she would. He gathered her close, pushing her head down to his shoulder and rubbing his cheek against her hair. "Easy. Easy. I was just thinking, that's all."

And thought still showed that port-running was increasingly risky. Yolan was in peril, whether she would face it or no. Uncle Zan Der would see she got the rest of her training—went for Jump-pilot. He thought—he thought he could make a case for himself being 'prenticed to Cousin Peri, who kept warehouse on Mordra. They would be separated and the reason they had left clan was that they would not be separated.

But he couldn't keep her safe.

"Let's get that ice," he said, husky into her hair.

She stirred, lifted her head and stepped back. "Sure."

Hand-in-hand they walked on, down the row and across, nearing Ride the Luck, snug on her ready-pad.

Yolan froze, her hand tensing in his. "What's that?"

"What's—" He saw it, a shadow, moving stealthy near the bottom of The Luck's ramp.

"Maybe Captain Fox?" Yolan sounded uncertain.

"Why would he sneak around in the dark?" The figure moved and he frowned. "Not tall enough."

The figure set foot on the ramp, boot heel hitting metal with a sharp clang.

"Let's go!" Yolan urged and was gone, running full tilt toward the ramp.

Heart in mouth, Sed Ric ran after.


DAAV HAD EXERTED SOME care in the matter of the guest list. It would not, on one hand, be considerate of Bindan's rank among the mid-level clans to invite exclusively from the Fifty, however much it might gratify Delm Bindan's ambition. And to have only Er Thom, Anne and cousin Luken bel'Tarda in addition to his affianced wife and her delm—the scheme he favored most—would surely be seen as an insult by Bindan, and justly so. Such intimate gatherings belonged to the days preceding a formal offer of contract.

The number of guests for a gathering such as this, falling between offer and final signing, might with perfect propriety be kept to a dozen, but very few of those dozen had best be Korval's kin or Bindan's.

Korval's allies, that was something else.

In the end, he had Er Thom and Anne, for his own comfort; Guayar and Lady yo'Lanna, for the comfort of Bindan's ambition. To leaven the loaf, he called upon Thodelms Hae Den pen'Evrit Clan Yron and Dema Wespail Clan Chad, pilots both, and keepers of secondary lines in mid-level Houses long tied to Korval with the threads of trade and ships.

Dutiful Passage being at the moment in port, he invited sensible Kayzin ne'Zame—Er Thom's first mate, and another with long ties to Korval—finishing the list with two representatives of port merchant families—Gus Tav bel'Urik and Len Sar Anaba, clans Shelart and Gabrian, respectively.

The gather had begun well. The guests had arrived and been made known to each other. Wine had been served, conversations had begun and then Guayar had prettily—not to say, audibly—complimented Anne on the process of her thought and begged that she do him the favor of endorsing his copy of her book.

"I should certainly be delighted to do so, sir," Anne said properly, and Guayar bowed, hand over heart.

"I am in your debt." He turned to Bindan. "Have you yet had the opportunity to read Lady yos'Galan's work?" he inquired, which was, Daav thought, really too bad of him. He had put his coin on Lady yo'Lanna, Guayar's sister, that she would be equal to stemming just such a start, but she was across the room, speaking with Kayzin ne'Zame and Merchant bel'Urik.

Bindan bowed with only a trace of stiffness. "Alas, sir, circumstance has not yet permitted me this pleasure."

"It is an excellent work," Guayar said. "I cannot praise it too highly. You must assuredly obtain a copy and read it."

"Indeed, ma'am, you must not encourage him to prate on about books!" Lady yo'Lanna reproved with mock severity, swooping into the conversation amid an aggression of scented draperies. "He will have you here all night and well past tomorrow morning's meal if you give him the least excuse! Do you admire flowers at all? I confess to a passion. Walk with me to the window, do. There is the most exquisite bank of gloan-roses! I was only just now saying to Master pel'Urik . . ."

Chattering, she bore Bindan off. Er Thom moved over to engage Guayar's attention and Daav allowed himself an internal sigh of relief before returning his attention to the discussion nearer at hand.

The topic was the most efficient coil-to-mass configuration in Class C Jump ships and his conversational partners—pilots tel'Izak and pen'Evrit—were so absorbed by it that neither had noted his momentary lapse of attention, or, he fervently hoped, Guayar's bit of mischief.

"And I tell you, sirs," Samiv tel'Izak was saying, with rather more spirit than Daav had heretofore observed in her, "had we not that autonomous tertiary system, we might yet be in Jump this evening. The matter ran that near the edge of irrecoverable."

"Yes, but, ma'am, you speak only to one case," pen'Evrit objected. "How often, in truth, is the third—never say the fourth!—system called into use? Certainly, in the case of a liner, where the mass to be translated is already vast, dropping a redundant and statistically underused system can only—"

"Endanger the passengers," Daav said, reentering the lists with a vengeance.

"Precisely!" Samiv tel'Izak flashed him a look of approval. pen'Evrit raised his eyebrows.

"Yes, but it is Korval, ma'am, and he is bound to say so. Are you not, Pilot?"

"Not at all," Daav said courteously. "I would merely point out that a line which is forever losing passengers and ships will likely be ruined in a very short time. How much better to err on the side of a tertiary safeguard—the translation mass of which is already figured into the cost of the voyage—and continue to reap profit?"

pen'Evrit inclined his head. "Indeed, who among us can argue against profit?"

"And cantra is so much more compelling than lives," Daav returned, smoothly deflecting what was surely a thrust devised to test the strength of Samiv tel'Izak's armor.

pen'Evrit's mouth quirked and he inclined his head just slightly, conceding the point, and was prevented from making another foray by the chime of the hour bell.

Er Thom offered his arm to his lifemate and flicked a quick violet glance over one shoulder. Daav lifted an eyebrow and his cha'leket, thus instructed, led the company from the formal parlor, down the hall to the dining room. From the edge of his eye, Daav saw Guayar accept Kayzin ne'Zame's arm, a meal-pairing that would, he thought, serve very well indeed.

pen'Evrit made his bow, "Your pardons, Korval—ma'am," and escaped precisely three steps before his right arm was commandeered by Lady yo'Lanna on behalf of Delm Bindan, the Lady herself having appropriated the corresponding limb attached to Len Sar Anaba, who was one of her particular favorites.

Daav turned to his betrothed—and paused in the midst of his bow, arrested by the tension of the muscles around her eyes.

"Have I offended you?" He asked impulsively, before weighing the question's propriety, which was certainly wanting. Worse, he asked in the mode between pilots, which they had been speaking with pen'Evrit, which was as close to Comrade as the High Tongue allowed, when she had not given him use of her name . . .

She drew a breath and it was puzzlement he saw in her face, more than anger.

"No offense," she answered, at least allowing him Pilot-to-Pilot. "Surely you knew that stroke was meant for me. I wonder why you took it to yourself."

Daav lifted an eyebrow. "Should I allow my proposed wife to be abused?"

Her face cleared, as if, disturbingly, his answer had verified some opinion about himself that she held close. "I am instructed," she murmured, still in the mode between pilots. "One currently holds place among the Dragon's possessions."

He had thought himself as well-armored as any other player on the fields of Liaden society, but the cut was cunning and actually struck flesh. Daav drew a breath, and saw Samiv tel'Izak raise a quick hand, her eyes wide with something very like fear.

"Forgive me. I meant no disrespect, merely an understanding of motive and what shall be required of me, beyond the lines of contract."

They were alone in the parlor. If they did not gain the dining room soon, the timing of the evening would be cast into disarray and the guests would be supping scandal stew.

"My motive," he said, speaking as gently as he was able, "was to keep you from distress. You are a guest in my house and it was in my power to shield you from pen'Evrit's boorishness. As for what may be required of you—only the contract lines, if you will, Lady. But I should be honored, if we were to be friends."

"Friends." He might have been speaking the tongue of the Grandmother's tent for all the comprehension he saw in her eyes. She glanced about her, apparently only just now aware that they were alone. "We are behind."

"So we are." He drew a careful breath. "Samiv."

She looked up at him, startled.

"My name is Daav," he told her, and offered his arm. After a moment, head slightly bent, she lay her hand on his sleeve.

"One is not—accustomed," she murmured, "to considering friendship a factor of marriage. Friendship is for—crewmates, Pilot. You understand me, I am certain."

"Indeed I do," he assured her, moving them toward the door. "But perhaps we might consider ourselves crewmates, even—copilots."

She was silent as they went down the hall. On the edge of the dining room, she raised her head and gave him a straight glance.

"It seems the sort of thing a Scout might perfectly well consider," she said slowly, "but which comes—uneasy—into less—encompassing—minds."

She did not say she would attempt it, which of course she would not, having survived thus long in a society where the slightest weakness invited attack.

Still, she sat next to him at table and conversed easily during the meal, with much less than her previous restraint, and Daav was encouraged to believe that she might, after all, try to consider him more pilot and less Dragon.


THERE REMAINED ONE MORE tradition to satisfy, and Samiv had not been adverse to a suggestion of a walk in Korval's famous garden.

So, while the other guests retired to the card tables in the parlor, Daav led his betrothed down a side hall and let them both through a door, into the Inner Court.

The path grew dim as they strolled away from the house, and he offered an arm. She lay her hand atop his sleeve, allowing him to guide her down the old stone path.

"What a delightful spot, to be sure," she murmured. "Our gardens are not a half so—full."

The Inner Court did tend toward profusion, as even Daav would admit. He loved the wild, half-magical feel of the place, with its riots of flowers and congregations of shrubs, its unexpected glades and secret pools. The hours he spent caring for it were among the happiest of his present wing-clipped life.

"I would like to show you to Jelaza Kazone, if you will walk just a bit further," he murmured.

It was Korval's custom to present proposed spouses to the Tree—a courtesy, so Daav considered it, though his mother had taught such presentation was made to gain the Tree's approval.

"I shall be honored to see Korval's tree," Samiv tel'Izak said courteously.

"I warn you that it is rather large," he said, negotiating the path's penultimate and largely overgrown twist. "And somewhat—unexpected."

The path twisted once more, and ended in a smooth carpet of silvery grass.

The Tree gleamed in the clearing, casting the pale blue phosphorescence of moonvines into banks of fog. Daav paused at the edge of the glade and looked down into Samiv's face.

"Of your kindness—it is our custom to ask spouses-to-be to come forth and lay a hand against the Tree and speak their name. It would gladden my heart, if you consented to do this."

She hesitated a heartbeat, but what, after all, was the harm in touching a plant, no matter how large, and speaking one's name in the moonlit quiet of a garden?

"I am honored," she said once more and walked by his side across the grass to the Tree. A low wind rustled the moonvines and Samiv shivered in the sudden chill.

"A moment only," Daav said, slipping his arm free. "In this manner, you see, Pilot." He placed his hand, palm flat against the massive trunk, feeling it warm immediately with the Tree's accustomed greeting. "Daav yos'Phelium."

Samiv stepped forward, placed her right hand against the trunk and said, very plain, "Samiv tel'Izak."

It happened in a heartbeat. Daav's hand went ice-cold. The wind, which had been playing among the moonvines, roared, rushed across the clearing and hurtled into to the branches above their heads, showering them with leaves, twiglets and bark.

Samiv tel'Izak cried out, wordless and high, and raised both arms to shield her head. Daav flung forward, caught her up amid a hail of twigs and urged her toward the entrance of the clearing.

The wind stopped the moment Samiv's feet touched the pathway.

"How can you abide it?" she demanded, whirling to face him in the dimness, left hand cradling right. "Cold, horrid, looming thing—how can you live here, knowing it might fall at any time and crush the house entire!"

He stared at her, his own hand just beginning to warm into flesh.

"The Tree is Korval's charge," he managed, keeping his voice level in the mode between pilots, while his mind replayed the wind, the chill, the rain of arboreal trash. "As best we know, it is in the prime of its life, pilot, and not likely to fall for many, many years."

Samiv tel'Izak drew herself up, face stiff.

"If that is all which is required, my lord," she said, and it was all the way back to Addressing-a-Delm-Not-One's-Own, "I wish to be returned indoors."

"Certainly," Daav said, and offered his arm, hardly noticing that the touch of her fingers on his sleeve was slight and shrinking. He guided her down the pathway absently, remembering the hail of Tree-bits shaken loose by that puppyish wind—leaves, wood bits, twists of ancient birds nests.

But not one seedpod.

They reached an overgrown portion of the path and he stood back to allow Samiv tel'Izak to precede him. That she did so without demur, though his rank gave him precedence, spoke eloquently of her distress. Daav shook himself, for it was no more than his duty to soothe her fear.

"Samiv," he began and felt her fingers twitch.

"Please," she said, her voice tight, "I do not wish to speak."

"Very well," he said and guided her silently back down the Inner Court, all the while wracking his memory to recall if the Diaries told of any previous time when a spouse was spurned by the Tree.


Chapter Twenty-Seven

Pen vel'Kazik comes into the Pilot's Tower only when forced by her fellow Counselors, and stands as near the ladder as she may, sweating and wringing her foolish hands until the others declare their business done. The boy swears it's Jela's tree that frightens her. I say, if it is, may the gods soon afflict them all likewise.

—Excerpted from Cantra yos'Phelium's Log Book


 


"MORNING, MATH TEACHER." Jon was leaning against the counter, tea mug in one hand, attention centered on a bound book held precariously open in the other.

"Good morning, Jon. Is Trilla on-shift?"

"Haven't seen her yet," he answered, trying to turn a page with his thumb. The book wavered and slipped, leaves fluttering helplessly.

Aelliana swept forward, captured the slim volume in the instant before it hit cement and straightened, holding it out.

Amused amber eyes met hers. "Quick," Jon commented and turned to set his mug aside.

A test, Aelliana thought, feeling the weight of the book in her hand. Of course it had been a test. Master Pilot Jon dea'Cort would never be so clumsy as to drop—She glanced down, frowning at the silver-gilt lettering.

In Support of the Commonality of Language, the glittery title read. The Lifework of Learned Scholar Jin Del yo'Kera Clan Yedon, Compiled by Learned Scholar Anne Davis Clan Korval.

"Book worthy of study," Jon said as Aelliana glanced up. "You can have the loan of it when I'm done, if you like."

"Thank you, I would like it, very much," she said, surrendering the book. "The last issue of Scholarship Review was given to discussion of this work."

"Ah? And what did the host of learned Liadens think of the proof of a common back-tongue linking Terra and Liad?"

"That I cannot tell you," she answered seriously. "Most wished only to say that such a notion was entirely ridiculous, without addressing the proofs at all. The single reviewer attempting to face the work on its own merit was Scout Linguist pel'Odyare. In her estimation the scholarship had been impeccable throughout and the conclusion logically drawn. She wrote that she would implement a search of certain Scout records, to find if independent corroboration of the conclusion could be established."

"Master pel'Odyare does binjali work," Jon said, smoothing the gilt letters with absent fingers. "If proof is there, she'll find it." He sighed, and slid the book away next to the tea-tin trophy box. "Bold heart, Scholar," he said softly.

He looked back to Aelliana with a wry smile.

"Your pirates came in last evening with a tale of someone hanging about your ship," he said. "Gave chase, but lost the quarry—which is a smile from the luck, though they won't see it. Seem to think they're quick enough to dodge a pellet, if the sneaker had held a gun. Anywise, I did a check and nothing seemed amiss. You might want to do the same, for certainty's sake."

"Yes, of course . . ." She blinked. Someone had been hanging about The Luck? Her heart stuttered, animal instinct shrieking that it had been Ran Eld, that she was discovered, hovering on the brink of lost . . . She took a hard breath and met Jon's eyes.

"I shall do an inspection immediately. Are the pirates—Sed Ric and Yolan—available to attend me?"

"Hah." Jon grinned. "They're here." He raised his voice to a bellow. "Pirates!"

There was a clatter and two rapid shadows flung into the lounge.

"Aye, Master Jon!"

They spied Aelliana then and made their bows, low and respectful.

"Pilot."

"I am told that you surprised a lurker about my ship last evening. Your assistance is required now on a cold-inspection, during which you will give me the round tale."

"Yes, Pilot." More bows, and attentive waiting, Yolan at Sed Ric's right hand.

Aelliana inclined her head and looked to Jon. "If Trilla should arrive, sir, will you assure her that I am eager to learn the dance and shall engage to do so, directly I return?"

Jon grinned. "I'll do that, never fear."

Her lips twitched, but she otherwise preserved her countenance. "I thank you."

She gathered the pirates with a gesture, turned and marched them out. Jon watched until the crew door cycled, then reached up and pulled down his book.


"SHE IS AFRAID OF the Tree?" Er Thom sank to the stone wall enclosing Trealla Fantrol's patio and stared at Daav out of wide purple eyes.

"Worse," Daav said ruefully. "I apprehend that the Tree holds her in severe dislike."

Er Thom digested this in silence as Daav paced from the wall to the ornamental falls and stood looking down into the tiny, frothing torrent.

His search through Korval's Diaries had been fruitless. None of the delms before him had discovered the Tree in disliking anyone, much less an all-but-signed spouse. The single hint toward the possibility of such a thing came from Grandmother Cantra's log, and even there it was writ so vague . . .

"What will you do?" Er Thom asked quietly from the wall.

Daav sighed.

"I thought," he said, coming back to sit next his brother on the warm stones. "I thought perhaps—my wife—and I—might live at the ocean house. If the ocean pales before the matter is done, there is the chalet, or even—"

"Daav."

He stopped. It took an active application of will to raise his eyes to Er Thom's.

"Hear yourself," his brother said. "Will you actually get a child upon a woman whom the Tree dislikes? What then? Shall you live at the ocean house for the rest of your days? Or only until the child is of an age to be sent off-world? How can you—"

"How can you assume that the Tree will likewise disdain the child?" Daav demanded, voice rising above Er Thom's arguments—true, just and sane, gods—" The child will be yos'Phelium, and yos'Phelium guards the Tree! There is no proof—" His voice squeezed out and he remembered, all too vividly, his hand, held there against the Tree, and how cold, how inhumanly cold . . .

"You chart a chancy course, darling," he said, sounding sullen as a halfling in his own ears. "Whenever did you ask the Tree's aye of Anne?"

"And yet we both know," Er Thom said after a moment, "that the Tree approves Anne. Your point is moot."

Daav closed his eyes; opened them and held out a hand. "It is, and ill-natured, besides. I—"

"What's wrong?" Anne was halfway across the patio, and moving fast, her face etched in worry, her eyes on Er Thom.

Her lifemate came to his feet in a fluid rush, went forward and caught her hands in his. "Anne—"

She allowed herself to be stopped, though the look she threw Daav was anything but calm.

"What's wrong?" she demanded once more, staring down into Er Thom's face.

"It is—" But here Er Thom faltered and flung a helpless glance to Daav, who slid to his feet, showing empty palms.

"It is nothing," he said, pitching his voice for gentleness. "My brother and I have had one of our rare disagreements. There is no cause—"

"Don't lie to me." Standard Terran, her voice absolutely flat.

He drew a deep breath and bowed, very slightly. "And yet there is nothing you can do, should I tell you the truth."

"Then there's no harm in my hearing it," she returned, "and knowing what frightens Er Thom."

Frightens. Daav looked to his brother. Purple eyes met his unflinchingly, showing all.

"Hah." He resumed his seat upon the wall and in a moment Er Thom did likewise, leaving Anne standing alone, hands on hips and her face filled with waiting.

"Well?"

"Well," Daav replied, looking up. He sighed. "Are you able to believe that the Tree can—make its wishes known—to those of the Line Direct?"

She stood quiet for a long moment, then went to sit beside her lifemate and placed her hand upon his knee.

"For the purposes of this discussion," she said, like the scholar she was, "it is stipulated that Jelaza Kazone the Tree is able to communicate with those of Korval's Line Direct."

"Then you may know that my brother's trouble springs from the knowledge that Jelaza Kazone the Tree has expressed a—distaste—for Samiv tel'Izak. A distaste of which she is—alas—very aware."

"Oh." She blinked, turned her head to gaze across the valley, where Jelaza Kazone could be plainly seen, stretching high into the morning sky. "That wouldn't be good, would it?"

"Not—very—good," murmured Er Thom. "No."

"Well," she said, turning back to Daav. "You have other houses. There's no need to make her uncom—"

"There must not be a child born unsanctioned by the Tree!" Er Thom cried.

"Yes, but, love, Shan wasn't sanctioned by the Tree," Anne pointed out with shocking calm. "I don't—" She stopped abruptly, staring from one pair of serious eyes to the other.

"I think," she said finally, and a bit breath-short, "that I have to draw the line at a galaxy-wide telepathy."

Daav inclined his head. "Say then that Er Thom, who as a child was used to climb all over the Tree, had been far too well-trained to choose other than one who would meet approval."

"Then," Anne asked reasonably, "what happened to you?"

Daav lifted a brow. "I beg your pardon?"

"What happened to you?" She repeated, and used a long forefinger to point, one to the other. "You were raised side-by-side, learned the same things, ate the same things, memorized the same things. Interchangeable parts, made by the delm's wisdom, so Korval could go on, if one of you happened to die!" Her voice was keying upward. Er Thom stirred, raising a hand toward her cheek.

"Interchangeable," Daav said. "Not exact."

She glared, though it seemed to him her eyes were not—precisely—focused. "Call it off."

So simple. It struck at the core of him and he came upright before he knew what he did, shaking with—with—"I must have a child!" He heard raw anguish in his voice and swallowed, closing his eyes and seeking after the Rainbow.

"But not this child," Anne pursued relentlessly. "You and Er Thom are the sons of identical twins, so close there's no choosing between you. Er Thom and I are lifemates, hooked by the soul, so I can feel his touch halfway across the house—and more!" She paused and Daav opened his eyes, meeting her fey gaze with fascination.

"Where is your lifemate, Daav yos'Phelium?"

"Anne!" Er Thom snapped to his feet, his hands on her shoulders, his body between her and his delm. "Have done."

"I repeat." He was breathless, voice squeezed out of a chest gone achy and cramped. "We may be interchangeable. We are certainly not identical. And even if what you suggest is true—that we were both formed for lifematings—there is yet no guarantee that—my—lifemate has been born." He took a hard breath. "Or that she has survived."

"Oh," she said, and of a sudden sighed, reaching up to rub at her eyes like a child. "Well," she murmured, almost too softly for him to hear, "I guess you'd better ask the Tree."

"I guess I had better," he returned, just as softly, and smiled sadly into Er Thom's eyes.


RIDE THE LUCK tested clean.

Aelliana heard Sed Ric and Yolan's account of their adventure and read them a stern lecture on the stupidity of charging unknown and potentially deadly lurkers. They both looked rather sheepish and assured her most earnestly that they would never again undertake so shatterbrained an enterprise.

All thus in accord, they exited The Luck and walked back toward the garage, Yolan speculating on this ship and that, with Sed Ric occasionally amending her IDs.

They turned out of the avenue of sleeping ships just as a landcar pulled up before Binjali's and a light-haired man got out, heading for the crew door.

"Father!" Yolan hissed, braking hard and flinging an arm across her partner's chest.

"Uncle Zan Der!" Sed Ric gulped at the same moment—and in the next, they were gone, flying back down the row of cold pads, heading for the eastern gate.

Aelliana had gone three steps after them before common sense reasserted itself. It was useless for her to chase them, port-wise as they were. They knew the way back—and the odds were they would return, once they reckoned "Uncle Zan Der" gone.

So thinking, Aelliana turned back to discover what it was about a mere light-haired man that sent two Port-runners to flight.


" . . . PILOT CAYLON?" the stranger was asking as Aelliana stepped through the door.

Jon used his chin to point over the man's shoulder. "There she comes now."

He turned, brown eyes flicking across her face in the moment before he bowed respect.

"Pilot Caylon, I am Zan Der pel'Kirmin Clan Reptor," he said, as if he were but a clansman, and the delm's Ring he wore merely an ornament. "I ask pardon for this disruption of your peace. My excuse can only be that I have had news of two over whom you have spread your protection."

She considered him, and he bore it, patient as if he treated with Scouts every hour. Besides patience, she saw worry, and weariness and a wary sort of hope. Behind those cares, she saw also humor and a glimmer of indefinable something that reminded her, forcibly, of Yolan.

"I have recently—commended—two halflings to Master dea'Cort's attention," Aelliana said carefully, watching the man's weary, wary eyes. "He is kind enough to provide them day-work. But I must tell you, sir, that this pair of children claim—most strongly—to have no kin."

Hope flared beyond wariness for an instant; the mouth bent into a tired smile. "I had heard that they claimed themselves clanless. To you, I take oath that this is not so, though they may themselves believe otherwise. If I might be granted an opportunity to speak with them—" He raised a quick hand, Ring glinting. "They are under your protection. I honor that. There is nothing I wish to say to them that I would be ashamed to have you hear as well."

And that, Aelliana thought, was extraordinarily courageous, for a man who had all but lost two of his clan through what he represented as a misunderstanding. She had thought Yolan and Sed Ric might have had reason, such as she had, to embrace the clanless state. Indeed, it might be that their reasons were just. Yet this man here seemed no one like Ran Eld, only exhausted with worry and eager to amend a wrong.

"If you might—produce them . . . ?" he said, delicately.

Aelliana smiled wryly, thinking of two swift figures, racing down the row of cold pads. "I think it unlikely—" she began—and heard the crew door cycle behind her.


DAAV SET HIS HANDS along the trunk, took a breath and swung up into the branches. At the first major cross-branch, he ended his climb, sitting astride the big limb, feet swinging in air, leaves rustling and whispering around him.

"If you have anything to say," he stated, rather crossly, "you might as well say it to me."

There was neither a cessation nor an increase of leaf-rustle. Not, Daav thought, that he had expected it.

"I hope you're proud of yourself," he continued aloud. "Terrifying a guest of the House—and one's wife-elect. I should think an ancient hulking brute like yourself might find more seemly amusements. Forgive me if I speak too plainly."

The leaves directly above him flittered. Daav frowned.

"Laugh, by all means. I suppose it's nothing to you if yos'Phelium dies with me? No, I do an injustice. yos'Phelium shall die with Pat Rin—but before that, young Shan will be delm."

A breeze kissed his cheek, and the smaller branches nearby danced. Daav closed his eyes, feeling the warm bark beneath his fingers, the age-old solidity of wood between his thighs. "I shall marry Samiv tel'Izak," he said, forming each word with precision, "and the child of that union shall come to Korval."

The wood beneath his hands cooled. Perceptibly. Daav sighed.

"May I then solicit your further guidance? Or do we return to placing an advertisement in The Gazette? Notice, I do not ask how I shall extricate Korval solvent from a contract most binding. I am fully alive to the fact that details do not interest you."

The leaves had stilled all about. The branch he stradd