Book: Liaden Unibus II



Liaden Unibus II

LIADEN UNIBUS II

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this novel are fiction or are used fictitiously. That means the author made it all up.



Liaden Unibus II: Adventures in the Liaden Universe® Vol 7-12: Copyright © 2007 by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller.



"A Matter of Dreams" © 1999, 2001 originally appeared in A Distant Soil #27 April 1999


"Naratha's Shadow" © 2000, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller


"Heirloom" © 2002, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller


"Naratha's Shadow" originally appeared in Such a Pretty Face, edited by Lee Martindale, Meisha Merlin Publishing, 2000


"Veil of The Dancer" originally appeared in Absolute Magnitude #19, Summer/Fall 2002


"This House" originally appeared in Stars, edited by Janis Ian and Mike Resnick August 2003


"Lord of the Dance" is Copyright (c) 2004 Sharon Lee and Steve Miller


"Necessary Evils" copyright 2005 by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller


"The Beggar King" copyright 2005 by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller


"Fighting Chance" copyright 2005 by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller first appeared in Women of War, edited by Tanya Huff and Alexander Potter, DAW Books, July 2005


"Prodigal Son" copyright 2006 by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller



All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from the author. Please remember that distributing an author's work without permission or payment is theft; and that the authors whose works sell best are those most likely to let us publish more of their works.



ISBN 1-58787-214-5



Baen Publishing Enterprises


P.O. Box 1403


Riverdale, NY 10471


www.baen.com



First Baen Ebook Published July 2007



Shield of Korval by Angela Gradillas.


LOOSE CANNON

Adventures in the Liaden Universe® Number Seven

First published in 2001 by SRM, Publisher.A Matter of Dreams © 1999, 2001 originally appeared in A Distant Soil #27 April 1999

 


Dedicated to:


Dorothea Neale


A Matter of Dreams


ON SINTIA, it's the dreaming that first marks a witch.

A child will dream the minutiae of life, relate the sending in the morning, all innocent and dewy-eyed; astonished when the dream events turn true next day—or next one.

She's watched then, for grandma will have contacted Temple, never doubt it; and after a time the child will dream the name of the one she had been Before. Then she'll be brought to Circle and trained to be one with the Dream.

I know the way because Jake used to talk about his Mam, my gran'mam, who'd Dreamed a Dream and had the training and then left the Temple and who she'd been—for love, Jake said, and for stars.

I've never dreamed the naming-Dream, being outworlder, even though witch-blood. I figure only the damned come to me—those who died unquiet or outside the love of the Holy; those who somehow lost their Name. I figure that, but I don't say it. I dream the dreams and I let them go. Sometimes they come back. Sometimes they come true.

The first time I saw Her was dreamsight.

She was in a port side bar—too coarse a place for Her to be—standing straight in her starry blue robe, with her breasts free and her face shining with power, black hair crackling lightning and spread around her like an aurora. Her eyes—her eyes were black, and in the dream she saw me. At her feet was broken glass; the shine of a knife.

She was young—not above fifteen—with the silver bangles hiding half of one slim arm. But for all that, I wanted to go down on my knees in front of her and lay my cheek against her mound from which had sprung the worlds and the stars and the deep places between. That's how it was, in the dream.

But then the dream ended, as they do, and there was Lil, yelling about orbit and was I conning or not, so it was out of the cot and let the dream go and get about the business of making a living.

I never talked to Lil about the dreams. They scared her, and there's nothing worth that. Still, she's witch-blood too and knows as sure I do when I've dreamt, though she never dreams at all.

"Well?" she spat at me, spiteful the way sisters are, within the protection of Us against Them. "Was it wet this time?"

"Keep it down and keep it clean," I answered, no more gentle, because there was the flutter in the nine-dial I didn't like, which meant relying on number eight, a thing that had been a bad idea since I was co-pilot and Mam on prime.

"Where's the passenger?" I asked, because there was a certain amount of care taken, when you'd been paid hard coin to deliver someone intact to a place.

"Webbed in gentle as a roolyet," Lil said and I gave a grin for the old adventure, though putting Mona Luki through the orbiting sequence was proving more of a problem than usual.

"Shit," muttered Lil, hands over her part of the business. "We gotta get that reset before we lift, Fiona."

"On Sintia?"

"Federated port," she answered, which was true. And, "Credit's good," which was not.

"Yeah," I said, not wanting to argue the point and have her start to worry. "We'll let our passenger off and see if we can't patch it. Bound to be junkyards."

"Flying a junkyard," she answered, which I should have known she would. "Mam'd have a fit, Fiona . . ."

And that was another line of thought better left alone.

"Mind your board," I growled, and she sighed, and looked rebellious, and turned her head away.

Tower came on in another few seconds, with an offer of escort, if we had equipment trouble. I turned down the escort, which was expensive, but requisitioned a repair pad, which came gratis, they having noted trouble, and we got her down without any bad glitches.

Our passenger, that was something else.

Cly Nelbern got her first sight of Sintia Port there in screen number one, looked sour and flung herself into prime pilot's chair like she had a right to it. Lil had her mouth half opened before she caught my headshake, but I doubt Nelbern would have heard a shout just then.

I finished making my coffee-toot and ambled over, leaned a hip against the chair-back and spoke over her head. "We can give you a hand with your baggage," I said; "or you can leave it stored. We'll be here a day or two. Repairs."

Nelbern gave one of those snorts we'd decided between us passed for her laughing and shook her head, real gentle, eyes still and always on that screen.

"So eager to lose me, Captain?"

"Not to say," I answered, calm, like Mam'd taught us to talk to dirtsiders. "It's just that you paid cash money for Jumps in a hurry. I figured you had an appointment."

"An appointment," she repeated and snorted. "An appointment." She licked her lips like the phrase tasted sweet and glanced up at me out of wide blue eyes.

"As it happens, Captain, I do have an—appointment. Yes." She smiled, which I had never liked in her, and nodded. "I wonder if I might impose upon the good natures of yourself and your sister just a bit further."

I gritted my teeth and brought the cup up to keep it from showing; feeling Lil tense up behind me. I was mortally sick of dirtside manners and a stranger on our ship, whether she carried an ambassador's ransom in Terran bits or no. It was on the tip of my tongue to say so, though not as blunt as that, when she turned full around to face me.

"I noticed a bit of a boggle on the way in, I thought," she said, in that conversational way officials use when it's bound to cost you plenty. I stared down at her and shrugged.

"Told you we'd be here a day or so."

"Indeed. Repairs, I think you said." She stared, sizing me up, maybe, though I was sure she'd done that long ago. "Repairs to the central mag coil don't come cheap, Captain; and it's hardly anything you'd like to trust to the junkyard and a gerryrig." She smiled. "If you had a choice."

I felt Lil behind me like a wound spring, and in my heart I cursed all dirtsiders—especially this one. I gritted my teeth and then bared them, not caring a whit for manners.

"So now I've got a choice, have I?"

"Certainly you have a choice." She brought her hand up, and I focused on the thing that gleamed there; did a double-stare and nearly dumped my drink in her lap.

She was holding a Liaden cantra piece.

I stared, not at the coin—enough money for several choices and maybe a luxury, too—but at her face—and read no more there than I ever had, save it was the first time I thought her eyes looked mad.

"What in starlight do you want ?" That was Lil, coming up like she was stalking tiger, bent at the waist, her eyes on the shine of the money.

Cly Nelbern looked up at me and she smiled before turning to face my sister and hold the coin up high.

"An escort," she said softly. "Just an escort, Ms. Betany, as I walk around the town. In case the natives are restless."

"An escort," I scoffed, around the cold dread in my belly. "On Sintia a woman needs no escort—unless you'll be breaking into the Temple?"

The mad eyes gleamed my way, though she forbore to smile again. "Not the Temple, Captain. Of course not." She did smile then, her eyes going back to Lil. "That would be foolish."

"Then us not being fools—" I began, short-tempered with something near terror.

But Lil shot a glance that silenced me long enough for her to gabble: "A cantra, Fiona! New parts, backups, a new 'doc, coffee . . ." Her eyes were back on Cly Nelbern and I knew right then I'd lost her.

"Lillian!" I snapped, as much like Mam as I could.

Too late. "I'll do it," she told the dirtsider. And held out her hand for the money.

I sat down slow on the arm of the co-pilot's chair and brought the tepid coffee-toot up to sip. There was nothing else to do, the word having been given. Nothing except:

"I'll be coming along as well, then. If that coin's so wide a treasure, I reckon it'll pay berth-cost while we escort this lady 'round town."

Nelbern laughed, a half-wild sound no more pleasant than her smile. "Think I won't pay, Captain?" She sent a brilliant glance into my face, and flicked the coin to Lil.

"Order your repairs," she said, standing up. "And you'll—both—be ready to come with me in one hour."

She sauntered off toward her cabin and I looked at my sister, standing there with her hand clenched 'round that money, and her cheeks flushed with lust of it and I sighed and hovered a second between sad and mad; figured neither would mend it and stood up myself.

"I'll take first shower," I said, tossing the cup into the unit as I went past.

At the door I looked back, but she was showing back to me, head half-tipped, like she hadn't even noticed that I'd gone.

* * *

WE WANDERED, that endless afternoon, visiting trade-bars, dives, and talking-booths on both sides of the river. Some places folk eyed us; some places they eyed our employer. Other places they ignored us entirely, and those I liked least of all.

The last was near the city-line, close enough to the Temple that the evening chant echoed off the dirty windows and the tawdry buildings, making even Cly Nelbern look up for a moment before turning down the short, ill-kept walk.

This place at least made some pretense of cleanliness: the window was clear enough to let the evening light come through; the bar was chipped but polished; the tender's tattered apron had recently been washed.

I was three steps into the room before I realized why it felt so comfortable. It reminded me of Mona Luki: desperately ship-shape and tidy; and showing the worn spots despite it.

It hadn't always been so. When Mam and Jake had run her, back when I was little enough to be strapped in a net slung between their seats, watching baby-eyed while they worked the Jumps between them—then Mona Luki'd gleamed, oiled and cared-for and prosperous as you like. Then there'd been coffee—yes, and chocolate—and repairs when they were needed and spare parts in third hold. Lil was too young to remember those days—too young, just, to remember Jake, killed in the same mishap that had taken Mam's leg.

I'd dreamed that accident; I'd even told Mam. They'd gone out to make the repair anyway, of course, as who, save on Sintia, would not? I'd climbed into the netting with the baby and held her til Mam started to scream.

Six years old, I was then, but it got me thinking hard about dreams.

"So!" That was Cly Nelbern and here was the present. I came alert to both, sending my gaze along hers to the man in Sintian town clothes—shabby, bright blue overshirt, bold with raveling embroidery, darker blue pants, worn wide and loose in respect of the heat, with matching fancy-work around the hems.

He had a tired face, used honestly, I thought, with eyes showing desperation far back. Likely I looked the same: respectability balanced on the knife-edge of despair, needing only one more disaster to send us all over into thieves.

He gulped, brown eyes darting from her face to mine, barely glancing from me to Lil before his face softened a touch and he bowed, gesturing toward the rear of the little room.

"I have a table, La—ma'am." His voice was agreeable, though it quavered. Nelbern shrugged and pushed forward.

"Delightful," she said, and the edge in her voice put the shine of fear in his eyes. "Lead on."

It was a small enough table in a snug, ill-lit corner, tight seating for four, but he'd clearly been expecting only her.

"My—companions," Cly Nelbern said to his startled glare. "Captain Fiona and Ms. Lillian Betany, of the Mona Luki."

It gave me a chill, being named there, and by the sudden dart of Lil's eyes, it chilled her, too. But she stayed tight where she was, perched on a chair crammed next to the man—and Cly Nelbern smiled.

"Well?" she said, and the icy edge was back in her voice. "Where is it?"

He gulped, sent a hunted glance around the room at my back and firmed his face to look at her.

"In the office at the Port House, Lady. And that's where it's going to stay."

Nelbern didn't frown, which was what I expected. She picked up her drink and had a sip, eyeing him over the chipped rim.

"Indeed." She set the glass aside. "That wasn't our agreement."

Mild as it sounded, it was evidently bad enough. The man stared at her dumbly, pale to the lips.

"Our agreement," she pursued, still in that mild-as-milk voice, "was that you provide me with a certain item, in return for which I provide you with a particular sum of money." She stared at him. "That was the agreement?"

He gulped. "Yes, Lady."

"'Yes, Lady'," she repeated softly, then leaned suddenly across Lil, to put her face right up to his and hiss: "Then what in the name of the Last Hell do you mean by telling me you don't have that file?"

"I-" he tried to pull back, but there was nowhere to go. He licked his lips. "There is a—a Maiden out of Circle House, come to study and catalog the files. She—Lady, I dare not! If Circle House finds me—"

"What I'll leave for the Temple to find if I don't have that file within the day will be far beyond worrying about witches," Cly Nelbern snarled. "Do you mark me, Pirro Velesz?"

If he hated the speaking of his name, in that place and in such company, he gave no sign other than the roll of an eye.

"The Maiden," he said, "is named Moonhawk."

Nelbern leaned back and reached for her glass. "What do I care for her name? If you can't match wits with a half-grown chit out of Circle House—"

"Moonhawk," the man interrupted, with an intensity that raised the hairs along the back of my neck, "is the oldest Name in Circle. Moonhawk is the most powerful servant of the Goddess—every life she lives is exceptional—historic . . ."

"Don't prate at me like an abo! So the girl had the wit to pick an elite name—she's still in school. Come to Port House to study the records, you said. Where's the danger—"

"The girl," Velesz interrupted again, "is Moonhawk's incarnation in this life, Lady. Fact. She is young, but the power abides within her. The danger is that she has not yet relearned control. The training her elders-in-world provide is to ensure that she will not—accidentally—use more force than might be necessary."

"Loose cannon." That was Lil, unexpected and great-eyed, but still well away from fright.

The man turned his head, eyes easier for looking at her again. "Loose cannon," he repeated and nodded, a smile coming and going in the second before he looked back to Cly Nelbern. "Power without guidance."

"Well, then we'll see to it that she has no need to expend her powers." Nelbern finished her drink and put the glass away. "I have a client, can you understand that? An—organization—that has paid me to—collect—a certain fact. The only place this fact has come to light is Sintia. My client has paid for proof. I will provide proof, whether you earn your fee or not." She looked closely at Velesz.

"My client is not easily thwarted, you see? Satisfaction earns reward. The wages of inefficiency are destruction and disgrace." She leaned forward, and I saw fear bloom at last in my sister's eyes and saw the sweat bead on the man's face.

"Disappoint me and be sure that your name will pass higher."

"Lady—" he began, but Cly Nelbern had pushed back her chair and turned away, carelessly flinging a handful of coin to the table.

"Tomorrow midday," she said softly. "At Diablo's, in the port. Have it." And she was gone.

I half-rose, but Lil stayed put, the fear like lunacy in her eyes. If she wasn't ship and blood I'd have left her but—

"Let's move," I said, gruff-like, so not to spook her, but she stared at me like she had when Mam died, and never moved a hair.

"Lil—"

"Lady Lillian," that was Pirro Velesz, leaning over to take her hand, oh so gently. His voice was soft, and I seemed to hear it, like a cat's burr, somewhere in the middle of my brain. "You cannot stay here, Lady Lillian. Go with your captain."

Incredibly, the fear subsided and she turned her eyes to him. "What're you gonna do?" she asked, matter-of-fact as if they were old shipmates and she had every right of an answer.

He smiled and pressed her hand, speaking as if to a child, "Why, I will go to the Port House and do what I may, and trust that the Goddess is good."

It seemed to satisfy her, who never had patience with my dream-tellings. She nodded and rose, Velesz with her, and he gave her hand into mine with a little bow, as if all were right and tight with him.

But the eyes he lifted to mine in the moment he gave Lil over were blighted with dread. His lips held the ghost of the smile he'd shown her, but his eyes were the eyes of a man looking at his death, or worse.

I hesitated, thinking to offer—what? I had no aid to give, trapped likewise by Cly Nelbern's coin. I nodded my thanks and went away, my sister's hand warm in mine.

* * *

IT'S A MARVEL how many repairs can be done to a ship, in the course of six short hours. A marvel, too, how much it all cost: enough to put a sizable dent in Cly Nelbern's cantra-piece. Though, truth told, the leavings of money would be enough to give Luki some semblance of credit again—enough, even, to claim a small amount of interest, if Lil would agree to forego real coffee for a time.

I had just thought that comfortable thought, musing among the itemizations on the screen, when I caught a sound behind me and spun the chair, fast.

Cly Nelbern smiled her ugly smile and came forward another step, to lean companionably against the co-pilot's chair and nod at the bill on the screen.

"Everything put to right now, Captain?"

"Everything'd take a deal more than a cantra," I said, reluctantly honest; "but we're set to fly."

"Good," she said, somewhat absent, and I asked the next question even more reluctantly.

"You'll be wanting our escort tomorrow?"

She looked up at that, alert as a dock-rat. "But of course—and a lift out, too. If we're up against the Temple—if that fool out there trips up . . ." The words faded and she focused on me again. "Have us moved to a hot-pad, Captain."

I looked at her hard. "We're ready to fly, I said. I didn't say we were champing on it. Plan to look around, take on cargo."

"You have a passenger." The voice was milk-mild and I felt my heart shudder, remembering her at the tavern.

I shook my head. "We're through with passengers. Trade's what we were born to; trade's what we'll stay with."

"Indeed." She pointed at the screen, at the invoice still visible, waiting for my thumbprint so the funds could leave Luki's account. "I demand return of my loan, Captain Betany."

I stared at her. "That was no loan, and you well know it. Payment for escort, was what you said."

"Really?" she purred and then I knew how far Lil had lost us. "Do you have a contract stating so, Captain?"

I held onto my glare with an effort. "No."

"No." She smiled. "But I have a contract stipulating that I offered a cantra in loan for needful repairs, payable upon demand, else the ship resolves to me."

My mouth dried and my heart took up thumping so hard I thought the scans might read it. "You have no such thing."

"Oh, I do," she assured me; "and so do you. Right there in the daily log." She leaned away from the chair and started back toward the companionway. "Do move us to a hot-pad, Captain; there's a good girl."

It took me a long time to move, after she was gone. The first thing I did was open the log and read the thing she'd put there, sealed with my own codes.

Ship and blood. Mam'd told me to save things in that order, always. Ship first, then blood. I'd never in life have signed such a thing, nor agreed for the sake of a cantra . . .

Ship and blood. I thumbprinted the invoice and put the call through for the ready-pad. I okay'd those charges, too, forgetful of the meaning of the numbers; and then I went to my bunk to lie down, sealing the door and detaching the bell.

After a time of lying there in cold terror, eyes screwed shut against the awful sight of the ceiling, I fell asleep and I dreamed.

The dream was a confusion of pointing fingers and harsh voices making accusations that echoed into meaninglessness. At the center of it all stood my goddess of the barroom, her hair quiescent, though her eyes were not; and the one word that echoed clearly from the finger-pointers was "Recant!"

The word that I woke with among pounding head was hers, shaping my mouth with Her will: "No."

* * *

THE SHIP WAS QUIET. World-clock showed midnight, straight up. Ship clock showed 0200.

I made myself a cup of 'toot and slid into the pilot's chair, worry gnawing at my gut. Cly Nelbern was surely mad, with more than grounder lunacy. No simple dockside bully, she; but a dangerous woman, and on more levels than gave me comfort.

The man? The man was desperate, and that carried its own brand of danger. But he seemed sane enough, and perhaps might be turned a card—made a pawn. Sacrificed for ship and blood.

It was snatching at starlight, of course, and madness in its own way, but I had to try something, there in the dark quiet; had to make some stab at saving my ship, my sister.

Curiously, it was Nelbern's money that bought me a way to make that stab, sorry as it might be. I set aside my cold drink and cycled the chair forward. I'd never had the credit to tap into a current planetary data bank before. We'd always bought old records—last week's cargo movements, yesterday's closing prices, and left it at that—but not this time.

I typed in Pirro Velesz' name. I tapped the dot for full database inspection. I offered up a prayer to whatever gods might be awake and listening, there in the deep heart of the night.

Then I went to sleep.

* * *

CLY NELBERN WOKE me by laughing, waving a hand at the screen where Velesz' information glittered like an unexplored star system.

"That's close to the way I found him, Captain, except that I didn't have a name—I just looked for a desperate person."

She laughed again, harder.

"That's how I found Mona Luki , too. Hard as you try to hide it, the information's there. I know how to read that spiral. Dreamers like you and that greengrocer—always thinking you'll find a way to beat the universe.

"I've seen it over and over again. You think you're something special. Think luck'll be with you. Well, you got lucky, Captain. I found you, thought you'd be useful and pulled you out of your downspin. I'm your luck, and if you're a smart girl, you'll ride easy with me, no arguments."

She waved at the screen again.

"But you want to know all about Senor Velesz—go ahead—read it. It's not a secret, is it?" Her words bit, deep and bitter, but I couldn't think of anything useful to say to a dirtsider who held mortgage to my ship and my kin, so I spun the chair back around and I read.

* * *

THE SHORT OF IT was that Pirro Velesz got himself suckered on a contract to supply some upcountry Temple with vittles for a year. When he couldn't make delivery the Temple took his business and put him to work at the rate of a standard year for each month the Temple had to buy its food from someplace else. He had the option of buying himself out, of course—but he'd rolled everything on that losing deal—and no one on Sintia would lend money to a Temple debtor.

I sagged back into the pilot's chair, yanked two ways: pity and despair. So much for the stab to save us. Pirro Velesz was in worse case than Mona Luki or either of her sorry crew.

* * *

MIDDAY AT DIABLO'S. Too far from the city to hear the Temple chanting. Too close to the port to see anything but outworlders, half of them drunk and the other half out of luck, hunched over the bar like their last hope of salvation, eyes blurred like the middle of Jump.

Not one of them took note of us at all.

Lil was jumping terrified—the move to the hot-pad in the middle of our night and the guilt that came with knowing she'd sold our ship, however unknowing, had her in a state already. The bar filled with chancy spacers wired her even higher.

Pirro Velesz was nowhere to be seen.

Cly Nelbern found us a ringside table, ordered up a round of drinks and leaned back. She sipped from her glass now and then, and her hands were steady when she did, but for all of that I thought she looked tense and I tried not to think what she'd do, if she were forced into hunting him out.

The crowd thinned soon enough, as my drink sat untouched on the table. Lil's was long swallowed and Nelbern had all but finished her own.

She had just waved her hand for the waiter when there was a flicker at the doorway and a ripple of city-clothes in the corner of my eye. Nelbern came to her feet in one smooth flow, moving through the knot of patrons.

Lil charged to her feet the next second, wailing something inarticulate under her breath.

"Lillian!" I cried as she went by, but her eyes were full of anguish and she never heard me at all.

A circle had opened around them—Cly Nelbern and Pirro Velesz—a circle of the dead-eyed incurious, who turned back to drinking after a glance determined the business was none of theirs.

"Well?" I heard her say, as Lil pushed a way to his side.

"Well." He looked tired, his shabby blue tunic draggled and dirty. He swayed where he stood and Lil put a hand under his elbow to steady him.

I saw a smile come and go on his face, like a whisper of might-have-been; then he reached in his sleeve and pulled out a thin white envelope of the kind used for dirtsider's mail and handed it to Cly Nelbern.

She shook her head toward a table and we moved that way, Lil bright in the reflection of the man's wan smile.

"So." A purr of satisfaction as Nelbern opened the folder and pulled out a strip of film. "The original?"

He nodded. "As agreed."

"Delightful. And I have payment for you." She patted her own sleeve. Something in the gesture chilled me, and I saw Lil clutch after the man's arm, her eyes showing white at the edges.

It was then that I saw Her, in life as in dreaming, walking into that place in Her cleanness and her power, as if nothing evil could ever touch Her.

"Witch!" screamed one of the drunks at the bar, and threw a glass, which fell, stone-heavy, and broke on the floor at Her feet.

She turned Her head and there was silence at the bar; raised a hand and drew a sign in the fetid air. The silence shimmered, then broke apart, as the one who had thrown the glass lay his head upon the bar top and wailed.

She turned back then, fixed us with those eyes, which saw us and saw through us.

"Pirro Velesz." Her voice was deep, not ungentle; I heard it in my heart.

He licked his lips. "Mercy, Lady."

"Return what you have stolen."

"Lady, I cannot."

The smooth brow creased; then those eyes moved again, pinning Cly Nelbern.

"Return what you have stolen."

The older woman smiled, and bowed a trifle, one hand over her heart. "Why certainly, child," she said agreeably, and reached into her sleeve.

Lil cried out—a single wild shriek of protest. The man flung out a hand, too late, to stop the throw. I jumped half-forward, not sure if my mark were Lil or Nelbern, and saw the knife arc silver-bright, straight for Moonhawk's breast.

It fell, as had the glass; there was a clatter of shards where it struck. Cly Nelbern was already moving, the shine of another blade in her hand, swinging for an undercut that would take the girl out as Nelbern charged on—

"STOP!"

The world rocked and the stars shook in their places. I froze where I was, unable to do otherwise, my muscles commanded by Her will, not mine. I saw Cly Nelbern fall, and Lil. I saw Pirro frozen upright like myself, and heard the silence; wondered if everyone in the bar were like froze . . .

Moonhawk lifted a hand, bangles tinkling like carnival, and pointed a slender finger at Pirro.

"Return what you have stolen."

He moved, wooden-like, and went to his knees at Nelbern's side. He pulled the envelope from her belt, but tarried, his fingers straying to her wrist. Slowly, he stood and bowed to the girl.

"Lady, this woman is dead."

The power shimmered, and I saw the girl through the goddess; frightened by what she had done, and saddened. She bent her head and when she raised it again, the girl was gone.



Pirro bowed, offered the envelope with its strip of film.

She took it and slipped it away, her eyes, black and brilliant, boring into his. In a moment, she had moved, turning like attention to me, so that I felt Her hovering over my soul; felt Her touch on my heart; felt, at last the loosening of Her will and blurted out: "My sister is dead!"

The black eyes seared into me. "Your sister is alive, Fiona Betany. Give thanks to the Goddess and honor your gifts. All of them."

She went to Lil then, and spoke two words which my ears somehow refused to hear. Then she reached down Her own hand to help my sister rise, and stepped back to survey the three of us.

"You will return to your ship and you will leave this world. You are forbidden to return, on pain of punishment from the Circle."

She motioned, drawing burning signs within the air. "Go now! Be prosperous and true." A tip of a hand toward what had been Cly Nelbern. "Leave that one here."

She paused, looking at us with those eyes, that saw us and saw through us and forgave everything they saw.

"Goddess bless," she said. "Now run!"

It might have been that easy, had the others not come just then: Temple robes of starry blue, cowls half-hiding faces that woke the echo of "Recant!" within me. There were three, or five, or eight of them. Their magics so shimmered air and truth that I could not count the number.

"HOLD!" demanded one of the group, and, perforce, we did.

One witch pointed at me; I heard the word "Talent!" and nothing else until a second witch pointed at Lil, and me, and Pirro and waved us all into a circle with the word "Conspiracy" binding us together like rope.

A third snatched open the envelope that Moonhawk had meekly given her and let out a smoking curse. "They would have stolen the secret of the catalyst molecule!"

There was charged silence, as if a great secret had been revealed; and the oldest among them laughed, all brittle.

"So, someone seeks to manufacture witches. Little enough success would have attended them! The Temple way is best. As all know—and believe."

She glanced about and took a brisker tone. "The wrong is that they dared to steal from us—the Temple! Retribution is demanded."

She gestured at us, and there was certainty in my heart: Ship and blood—and a good man, too . . .doomed.

The shortest witch raised a hand, began to trace a sign—and stopped because Moonhawk was abruptly there, meek no longer, slashing across the other's sorcery with a jangle of bracelets.

"Let be!" she snapped. "Moonhawk has looked and Moonhawk has forgiven. This was a dream-matter! Their way is clear, guaranteed by the Goddess!"

The shorter witch gaped, hand suspended in mid-sign. "Moonhawk has forgiven! Heresy, Maiden. By what right—"

The argument raged, words unsayable were said and then sign against sign was raised and the witches contended there—

But I found my limbs were my own again and I grabbed Lil's arm with one hand and Pirro's with the other and we took Moonhawk's last advice—we ran, and none chased after.

* * *

JUST AS WELL THAT Moonhawk banned us from her world, for Mona Luki's liftoff and out-travel that day is now legend among traders and Port Masters (who all too often add an extra watch-minder to our bill), and most likely we'd be shot down on approach for traffic violations alone. But Moonhawk had told us to run!

And we did what she told us—all of what she told us; and we're as prosperous as a three-crew ship can be.

Pirro calms Lil as none since Mam did; she has found the best truth possible. I have found Pirro practical, a man of his word, always.

We share shifts or switch about to cover the boards. It works well, two sisters and their husband—not an odd arrangement, among small traders. Two babies on the way, which will fill the ship nicely and give us all too much to do.

I take the dreaming seriously now, which accounts for some of our luck in trade—and in other things.

Now and again over the months I dreamt of her—Moonhawk. Not happy dreams. A burning. A hacking away of her long black hair. A mort of hard times among strangers, too much work, not enough food—things I remember all too well myself, so could be those dreams weren't true. Sometimes I'd wake and find myself with my arms pushed tight against the cabin's wall as if I'd tried to push those hard times away . . .

Just lately, though, I dreamed her again, after a long time of no dreams at all. It woke me and I lay there, listening to Pirro breathe and considering what I'd seen: Moonhawk, short hair all curly, dressed in prosperous trader clothes, bending to embrace a fair-haired boy while a tall man looked on, smiling.

The dream had felt true, I thought, and turned over, to nudge Pirro awake and tell him.

He smiled sleepily and hugged me, the motion of his hands a comfort.

"Will our daughter be a dream-witch too?" he asked and I had no quick answer, for of our daughter the dreams are just beginning.

-Standard Year 1375


Phoenix


CYRA HURRIED THROUGH the bustle of the pre-dawn, head down, and face hidden.

She traveled early, when the friendly shadows helped hide her deformity, allowing her to negotiate the eight chancy blocks from the anonymous apartments she kept in a nondescript building—where the floor numbering was in fresher paint in Terran numerals than in the older Liaden—to the streets she depended upon for her living.

Once on those streets no one remarked her, and few noticed her passing or her business, except those who had need to buy or sell this or that bauble of stone or made-stone or metal. The half-light suited her purpose, and even so she sometimes found herself automatically facing away from the odd passerby of Liaden gait and stature who would consider her worthless, or less.

On some worlds, Cyra would have been valued for her intelligence and her skills. On others, her demeanor and comeliness would surely have been remarked.

On others—but none of that mattered, for here on Liad she was marked for life by the knife of her Delm, and guaranteed a painful existence without the support of clan or kin for at least the remaining ten years of the dozen she'd been banned from clanhouse and the comforts of full-named society.

At one time, of course, she'd been Cyra chel'Vona, Clan Nosko. Now, on the streets where she was seen most, she was "that Cyra," if she was anything at all.

The marks high on her cheeks were distinctive, but hardly so disfiguring or repulsive in themselves to have people of good standing turn their heads or their backs on her until she passed. Yet, those of breeding did . . . .

This was scarcely a problem any longer, for she had long ago moved the shambles of her business from the streets of North Solcintra, where she had served the Fifty, to the netherworlds of Low Port, where her clientele were most frequently off-worlders, the clanless, outlaws, and the desperate.

Her own fortunes had fallen so far that she opened and closed her small shop by herself, working daily from east-glow to mid-day, and then again from the third hour until whatever time whimsey-driven traffic in the night faltered. Occasionally even these hours were insufficient to feed her, and she would work in the back-house at Ortega's—cleaning dishes, turning sheets, cooking, pushing unruly drunks out the back door—where her face would not be remarked—and thereby eating and sometimes earning an extra bit or two.

That was the final indignity. Very often her purse was so shrunken that she measured her worth not in cantra or twelfths but in bits—Terran bits!—and was pleased to have them. For that matter, being employed by a pure blood Terran was, by itself, enough to turn any of the polite society from her face, no matter that the Terran was a legal land-holder.

Things had been somewhat better of late; the new run of building on the east side of the port gave many of her regulars a chance at day labor and those of sentimental bent often returned in hope for the items they'd sold last week, or even last year.

This morning she was tired, having spent much of the evening at Ortega's, filling in for a cook gone missing. Shrugging her way into the store after touching the antiquated keypads she caught a glimpse of someone standing huddled against the corner of the used clothing store.

Closing the door behind her, leaving behind the sound of the morning shuttles lifting under the clouds, and the jitneys in the streets, she settled into the quiet of the thick-walled old building, checking the time to see that she was early enough to set tea to boil, and to warm and wolf the leftover rolls she carried from last night's work. She started those tasks, glancing through the scratched flex-glass of the door as she moved the few semi-valuable pieces from their hiding places to the case, and uncovered the special twirling display that held her choice Festival masks behind a clear plastic shield.

Cyra admired the green feathered mask as it twirled by, recalled the evening her aunt had brought her the ancient box and said, "This green does not become me, and I doubt I'll go again to Festival. This was my aunt's, after all, and is much out of style—but if you wish it, it is yours."

And so she'd worn it to her first Festival, finding delight in the games of walking and eyeing, the while looking for people she might know and seeking one who might not know her . . . .

Later, she'd been doubly glad of that Festival, for the marriage her uncle found for her was without joy or success, which had scandalized him despite the medic's assurance that she was healthy—and quashing her chance at full time study at the Art Institute.

Now, of course, she was denied the Festival at all.

She took her hand from beneath the plastic shield, where it had strayed, unbidden, and returned to routine, eyes drawn to the sudden flash of color outside the window, as the light began to rise with real daybreak.

He—at the distance the wildy abundant Terran beard was about all she could be sure of, aside from the bright blue skullcap he wore to hide his hair—he was dressed in what may have once been fine clothes, but which looked somewhat worse than they ought. She doubted he could see her, but his face and eyes seemed to spend about half their time watching her shop door and the other half watching chel'Venga's Pawnshop.

She sighed gently. The ones who had not the good sense to wait until the store was respectably open were the ones who were selling something. She wasn't sure which sort was worse—the ones who needed something they wouldn't be able to afford or the ones who couldn't afford to sell what they had to offer for a price she was able to give. At least he'd be out soon, no doubt, and she'd be able to keep the fantasy she held to heart from being overly tarnished yet again, the fantasy that Port Gem Exchange was yet a jewelry store and not yet a pawnshop in truth.

The clock stared back at her. Once upon a time she had slept until mid-day when she wished. Now she used each hour as if there was not a moment to waste. And for what this early morning? So that she might eat without being observed, and without companions. No need to rush—chel'Venga's Pawnshop rarely opened on time.

* * *

THE TERRAN STOOD at his corner across the way, left hand in pocket, watching across the way as the increasing jitney traffic blocked his view from time to time, his beard waving in the wind. He'd seen her work the door and had straightened; and was there when she went back inside to get the rope-web doormat that welcomed her visitors. The pawnshop had no such amenities as rugs or mats. Perhaps it made no difference to her customers, but such were among the few luxuries she had these days.

He was not on the corner when she straightened from placing the mat in doorway and a quick glance showed him nowhere on the street. The lights had gone on in the pawnshop. They'd likely stolen the man away. Now Cyra regretted not giving in to the impulse to beckon to him as she unlocked the door, no matter the poor manners of it. It was hard to keep good melant'i in this part of the city, after all.

And then he was back, this time carrying a large, flat blue package of some kind, and he was hurrying, fighting the wind and the traffic, threatening at one point to run into a jitney rather than risk his burden.

Then he was there, larger than she'd realized, his relative slenderness accentuating his height, the dense beard distorting and lengthening his already long face, and his plentiful dark brown hair, brushed straight back from the high forehead, making him seem that much taller now that he'd taken the hat respectfully off to enter her store.

He came in quietly, with the noise of a large transport lifting from the port masking not only his sounds but those of the door until it closed, leaving his breathing—and hers—loud in the room.

He glanced down at her, nodded Terran-style, and looked over the shop carefully. Somehow she felt he might be looking at the tops of the cases—it had been many days since she'd thought to dust them, for who ever climbs a stool to inspect them?

He smiled at her, his light brown eyes inspecting her face so quickly that she hadn't time to flinch at the unexpected attention; nodded again, and said in surprisingly mannered Liaden, "I regret it has taken me so long to find your operation. I suspect we are both the poorer for it. "

At that he pulled from his pocket a large handful of glittery objects, some jeweled, some enameled or overlaid; pins, rings, earrings, necklaces . . . .

And, she suspected quickly, all of them real.

"These are for sale," he said, "for a reasonable return. Since I am very close to crashing I will not haggle nor argue. I will simply accept or reject your offers on each. I would hope to get more than scrap value. You are a jeweler, however, and will know what you need."

His hands were the competent hands of an artisan, she decided as he turned the items out on her sales cloth. Despite the items he sold, he was ringless and despite the worn look of his clothes the marks on his hands were those of someone who worked with them regularly, not one who was careless or unemployed. Indeed, there were spatters, or patterns of colors on his skin, masked somewhat by the unusual amount of hair on his wrists, on the back of his hands, even down to his knuckles. Cyra was distracted, yes, even shocked: she had never seen a man with hair so thick it looked like fur!

"Indeed, we shall look," she managed, fretting at herself for the incivility of staring at someone's hands.

Quickly she sorted, finding far too many items of real interest. A dozen earrings—some of them paired and some not—all of quality. A strangely designed clasp pin, set with diamonds, starstones, and enamel work. A necklace, of platinum she thought, set with amethyst. Then the glass was in her hand, and the densitometer turned on, and the UV light, as well.

In a twelve day she would rarely expect to see so many fine pieces, much less at once.

"The pin," she said finally, "is obviously custom work. I suspect it of more value to the owner or designer than to me . . . ."

"My great-uncle designed that himself," said the man, "and he is always one for the gaudy. Set it aside and we can talk about it later. Else?"

Cyra looked up—way up—into those brown eyes. He looked at her without sign of distress, and so she continued, oddly comforted.

"I would offer to buy the lot if we were closer to Festival," she admitted, "even the pin. But these are all quality items, as you do know, and they are somewhat more—extravagant, let us say—than I might usually invest in at this season."

"That's not an offer," the Terran returned, his face suddenly strained. "And I will need something for later, too."

"Perhaps," she suggested, "you should choose those least dear to you and point them out to me. I will offer on them."

His hands carefully moved the earrings to a small pile, and the necklace, leaving the pin by itself, and retrieving deftly other pins and the two rings. He leaned his hands on the counter then, as if tired.

"An offer," he said, "with and without the pin. You know that it is platinum; know that it is platinum from the very Amity object—and the provenance can be proved . . . ."

Cyra grabbed up the pin, admiring its weight and the clasp design. Impulsively she touched his hand, the one that held the other retrieved objects, and turning it over, pressed the pin into it.

"In that case, this is better placed with someone among the High Houses. They fail to arrive here in sufficient number to make my purchase worthwhile . . . ."

And then she named a price which was far more of her available capital than she normally risked—but far less than the value she perceived before her—and was oddly annoyed by the man's rather curt, "That will do."

She was even more annoyed by the rapt attention he paid as she counted the cash out—as if each coin was in doubt. The she realized he was looking at her face. Involuntarily, she colored, which made her angry. Too long among the Terrans if she could blush so easily . . . .

"No," he said suddenly, his Liaden gone stiffly formal. " I did not mean to disturb you. I sought—I was trying to see if I might read or recognize the etchings or tattoos on your face."

Cyra felt her face heat even more. She covered the scars with close-held fingers, looking up.

"Our transaction is finished. You may go."

He reached his hand toward her face and she flinched.

"Ah," he said, wisely. "The rule is that you may reach and touch my hand, but I, I may not reach and touch yours. When the crash is coming I see things so clearly . . . ."

Startled, she stepped back.

"Forgive me," she managed, and paused, seeking the proper words. Indeed, she had overstepped before he had; it was folly to assume that one who was Terran had no measure of manners.

Then: "But why this crash? Crash? You do not seem to be on drugs or drink, and . . ."

Now she was truly flustered; more so when he laughed gently.

"In truth, I am very much on drugs right now. I have been drinking coffee constantly for the last three days. Starting last night, I have been drinking strong tea, as well. It has almost been enough, you see, but I could tell it would not continue to work, so I need to buy food—I should eat very soon—I need to write the notes, though, and look once more before the crash."

Cyra held her hands even closer to her face.

"You need not look at all. These are none—"

But he was shaking his head, Terran-wise.

"No, you misunderstand. I need to look at the art so I remember what comes next . . . sometimes it is not so obvious to me when I start moving again."

Cyra was sure she must be misunderstanding—but before she could reply he pocketed the coins from the counter top and hefted the fabric-covered blue case or portfolio he'd brought in, laying it across the counter and reaching quickly for the seals.

"You, you love beautiful things—you must see this!" he said, nearly running over his words in his haste. "This one is my best so far! This is the reason I have come to Liad . . . .this is where the Scouts are!"

Now he wasn't staring at Cyra at all, and she found the willpower to bring her hands down and come forward to see what might be revealed.

Some kind of tissue was swirled back from inside the case and before her was a photograph of a double star—with one redder and the other bluer—taken from the surface of an obviously wind-swept desert world with tendrils of high gray clouds just entering the photograph.

But sections were missing or else the photo-download had been incomplete or—

Now the odor came to her, eerily taking her back to the brief time she studied painting before turning to jewelry.

"You painted this? You are painting it now?" She looked up into his face and rapidly down to the work again. The detail was amazing, the composition near perfect, the—

"Yes," he was saying, "yes, it is my work. But I must not paint now, because now I am tired and spent and will only ruin what I have done. For now, the work is not safe near me!"

Cyra recalled working long and hard on her first real commission, so long and hard in fact that she'd finally fallen asleep in the midst, and woke to find the beaten metal scratched and chewed in the polishing machine, destroyed by the very process which should have perfected it.

She heard her voice before she realized she was speaking—

"If you need a place—I can keep it here. It will be safe! Then, when you are awake and ready, you can claim it."

He laughed, sudden and short, and with an odd twist of amusement pulling his grin into his beard.

"When I wake. Yes, that is a good way to put it. When I wake."

With a flourish he waved his hand over the tissue, swept it back over the painting, and sealed the portfolio.

"My name," he said quite formally, "is Harold Geneset Hsu Belansium. Among my family I am known as Little Gene. To the census people I am BelansiumHGH, 4113." He paused, smoothed his beard, and smiled wryly before continuing.

"When I'm lucky, the pretty ladies of the universe call me Bell. Please, lady, if I may have your name, I would appreciate it if you would call me Bell."

With that he handed the portfolio into her care.

She bowed. "Bell you wish? Then Bell it is. I am Cyra the Jeweler to the neighbors here, or simply Cyra. I will see you when you wake."

* * *

SOUND RUMBLED THROUGH the walls and rattled the room around Cyra, who involuntarily looked toward the ceiling. This one was an explosion then—more blasting, for the expansion— and not a re-routed transport flying low overhead. Rumor had it that several of the older houses two streets over were settling dangerously, but that was just rumor as far as she was concerned. Her store would be fine. It would.

She tried to tell herself it was just the noise that was making her skittish, but she knew it wasn't so. She had moved the stool behind the counter to gain a better vantage of the street, and had developed a nervous motion—nearly a shake of the head it was—when surveying the street.

The knowledge that she had a masterwork of art in her back room awaiting the return of the absent Bell frightened her deeply.

Suppose he didn't return? Suppose he had "crashed" in some fey Terran way and was now locked in a quiet back room at Healers Hall, or worse?

A smartly dressed businessman carrying a bag from the pastry shop strode by and Cyra found herself looking anxiously past him toward the corner where she'd first spotted Bell. It didn't help—the businessman had slowed, eyes caught by one of her displays, perhaps—and now was peering in and reaching for the door, carefully wiping feet, and bringing the brusque roar of a transport in with him as he entered. He closed the door and the sound faded. .

Cyra slid to her feet.

"Gentle sir." She bowed a shopkeeper's bow. "How may I assist you today?"

He bowed, and now that she did not have the advantage of the stool, she saw that he was very tall, with sideburns somewhat longer than fashionable and—no, it was a very thin Terran-style beard, neatly trimmed and barely covering chin.

"Cyra, I am here to bring you a snack and to collect my painting."

She gawked, matching the height, and the color of the beard, and the voice—

"Bell!"

He laughed, and said mysteriously "You, too?"

"Forgive me," she said after a moment. "You gave me great pause. I have been watching for you—but I did not . . ."

He put the bag on the counter and began rooting through it, glancing at her as if calculating her incomplete sentence to the centimeter.

"I clean up well, eh? But here—if you'll make some tea the lady at the pastry shop assures me you're partial to these . . ."

"Pastry shop? What does that have to do with anything?" She sputtered a moment, and— "Eleven days!" She got out finally, which was both more and less than she wished to say.

He lived very much in his face, the way Terrans do; his eyes were bright and his smile reached from the corners all the way to his bearded chin. He laughed gently, patting the counter, where there were now half-a-dozen pastries for her to choose from.

"Yes," he acknowledged. "Eleven. Not too bad. The worst was twenty-four, but that was before I knew enough to keep food by, and I'd been partying instead of painting."

"But what did you do for eleven days?"

He shook his head and the grin dissolved. He glanced down, then looked back to her, eyes and face serious.

"I crashed. I slept and I tried to sleep. I spent hours counting my failures, numbering my stupidities. I counted transports and the explosions and watched the crack in the wall get larger with each. Every so often I knew I'd never see my painting again, and I would know that I'd been taken and that you'd fled the city and I would never see you again, either."

He raised his hand before she could protest. "And then I would pull myself together and say 'Fool! Bewitched by beauty again!' And that way I'd recall your face and the painting, and try to sleep, knowing you'd be here, if only I could recall the shop name when I walked by. I nearly didn't, you know. I had to focus on that set of ear cuffs that match yours before I was sure."

She nearly reached for her ear, and then she laughed, somehow.

"Forgive me. I am without experience in this crashing you do. I was concerned for you, for your health, for your art!"

He smiled slowly. "We're both concerned for my health then, which I'm sure will be greatly improved if I can eat. My stomach has been growling louder than the shuttles! Please, join me! Afterward I will need to visit the port—it would be good if you could do me the favor of retaining my art until I return." The smile broadened. "I promise—I will not be gone eleven days, this time."

The noise of the street invaded their moment then, as two young and giggling girls entered. They stopped short, staring at the towering, bearded figure before them.

"Please," said Cyra to Bell. "If you will come back here we can let my patrons look about!"

He nodded, and moved without hesitation.

She opened the counter tray to let him pass, indicated a low stool for him (his knees seemed almost to touch his ears!) and moved the pastries to the work table, where they would both be able to reach them.

He smiled at her as she lifted a pastry to her lips. She felt almost giddy, as if she'd discovered some new gemstone or precious metal.

* * *

DEBBIE, THE HALF-TERRAN pastry maker from the shop four doors down was in, again, when Cyra returned from apartment hunting. It didn't improve her mood much; the girl hardly seemed as interested in the goods as in Bell, and her language was sprinkled with Terran phrases Cyra could just about decipher on the fly. Likewise the assistant office manager from the Port Transient Shelter. Didn't they realize that—she shushed her inner voice, nodding, Terran fashion, to Bell in his official spot behind the trade counter. He winked at her and she sighed. Were Terrans always so blatant?

The conversation continued unabated: and there on the counter were actual goods; an item she didn't recognize, so it was for sale to the shop.

"Now," Bell was saying carefully, "I've seen places that these might have been in the absolute top echelon."

The women gazed at him.

Drawn to the story and the voice despite the crowd, Cyra leaned in to hear.

"Of course, that would only be if the local priestess had purified the stone before it was cut, blessed the ore the silver had come from, sanctified the day the day the ring was assembled, and then prayed over the ring-giver and scried the proper hour for giving."

"In other corners of the universe," he went on, "as, say, on Liad or Terra, the flaws in the stone might mark it ordinary. If I were you, I would ask Cyra if she'll set a price, knowing it for a nubiath'a hastily given . . ."

Cyra moved behind the counter to take up the office of buyer, but the women had both apparently heard tall tales from Terrans in the past—

"Bell, now really, were you on that planet," asked the assistant office manager, "—or have you merely heard of it?"

He rolled his eyes and surprised Cyra with a discreet pat as she squeezed by him.

"What, am I a spaceman, or a Scout, to have all my stories disbelieved?"

They laughed, but he continued, assuming a serious air.

"Actually, it was almost all a disaster. The planet you should never go to is Djymbolay. I arrived just after I finished a painting on board the liner, and was pretty well spent. I had my luggage searched twice for contraband, and then they confiscated the painting as an unauthorized and unsanctified depiction of the world."

He shook his head, then tapped it with his finger. "They wanted to have me put away for blasphemy or something, I think. It took a Scout who happened by—all thanks to little John!—to let me keep my papers and my paint and my freedom. Off with my head or worse, I expect was the plan! But the Scout was there on another matter and interceded. The locals walked me across the port under armed guard, and the Scout came, too, to be sure that it was gently done—and they kept me confined to the spaceport exit-lounge for the twelve days the ship was there. If several kind ladies hadn't taken pity, and brought me meals and blankets, I might well have starved and froze."

Cyra bit back a comment half-way to her lips; after all she knew not where he'd slept before she met him, nor, for that matter, that he always returned to his own rooms on the afternoons and evenings he went to the lectures at Scout Academy. She only knew he returned to the store with sketches and ideas and full of hope that he might eventually be permitted to visit a new world, to be the first painter, the first interpreter . . . .



In a few moments more, the transaction was made; she paid a fairly low price for the emerald ring—the one suggested by the seller—and agreed to look at earrings that might be a match.

The two women gone. Bell looked at her carefully.

"You're tired—and you've been angry."

Exasperated by his grasp of the obvious, Cyra waved her hands in the air in a wild gesture, and snapped, "How else?"

"You might be pleased, after all. The emeralds were got at a decent price."

"Yes, a decent price. But if I'm going to afford you, my friend, we'll need to do better."

He looked at her with the same air of frankness he'd used when talking about the disaster that had cost him a painting, and shook his head.

"Yes, I know; I am hardly convenient for myself, much less for anyone else."

"That's not what I meant!" she protested. "I mean that—I mean that it is difficult to find a larger place to live hereabouts, and nearer to my apartment there are those who will not rent to someone who—"

"Someone who might bring a Terran home of a night," Bell finished, as she faltered. "Inconvenient I said, and I meant! " he insisted with heat. "I don't mind sleeping here in the store, after all, though the light is not always good. Perhaps you can offer to rent the corner place the next street over."

They had been over that before, too. Bell's situation was so changeable that neither knew how long they might find each other's company pleasant, useful, or convenient. He could hardly sign a lease, with his "transient alien" status in the port computers assuring that any who looked would laugh at his request. Even getting a room beyond the spaceport was difficult for him, except here in the Low Port area. Mid-port was too dear for his budget in any case.

He could hardly co-sign with her, either. The conditions her Delm had set were strict and might well bear on that—if she wished to ever return to the House, she would, during her time of exile, refrain from forming formal alliances; she must not buy real estate; she was forbidden to marry, or to have children . . . .

There could be no co-signing; she could speak for none other than herself. But to add a place where some of his paintings could be shown—this close to the port, they might gain a better clientele with such a gallery.

Truth told, though, Bell's sometime presence permitted Cyra to cut her dependence on Ortega's chancy employ; in fact, twice recently they'd been there as patrons.

He looked at her, snatched the ring to his hand and began tossing it furiously into the air. This, after three previous ragged forty-day cycles, she recognized. Any day, perhaps any moment, he would drag out the rough sketches and ideas, choose one, and then hardly see her, even should she stand naked before him, while he took plasboard and tegg-paint and the secret odds and ends from his duit box and transformed them by touch of skilled hand and concentration and willpower unmatched to art as fine as ever she'd seen. Days, he would be one with the art.

And then he would crash; folding into a hollow and dispirited being barely willing to feed himself, with a near-fear of sunlight and a monotone voice and no plans to speak of  . . . until the cycle came full and from the gray, desperate being emerged Bell, fresh and whole and new. Again.

He shook the ring, tossed it, glanced anxiously to his art kit where it was stashed near the door to the back room.

"I know," he said. "I know! It's almost time. I think we should close early, perhaps, and go someplace fine to eat—I'll pay!—and plan on a bottle of good wine and snacks—I've chosen them already—and a night, a glorious night, my beauty. And then, we can talk at breakfast, if the art's not here yet, and if it is, we'll talk in a few days."

In front of her then, the choice—and she knew already she'd take it, or most of it. Had she a clan to call on she would pledge her quartershare— to make this work, she'd—but what she would do if was no matter, now. Her quartershare would go—till the twelfth year, at least—into the account of a dead child, just as her invitations—large and small—would go to her Delm, and be returned with the information that she was in mourning and not permitted.

She recalled the discreet caress a few moments earlier, her blood warming . . .

Tonight she would forget the she was poor and outcast. Bell would take them somewhere with his stash of cash and they would spend as if he were a visiting ambassador instead of an itinerant artist, and then he would—

"Bell," she said gently, "perhaps we should stay until nearer closing. My friend. I followed your instructions last time, you know—there are three prepared boards waiting—and I have already an extra cannister of spacer's tea and you gave me enough for two tins of Genwin Kaffe last time, so we have that. That is, if you are certain that you won't talk to the Healers this time."

He looked at her then and his eyes were hungry; she doubted that hers were not.

"I'll check the boards, Cyra, and make sure that you have room to work this time, too."

* * *

CYRA TASTED THE SALT on her lips, and nearly wept as she relaxed against him. He was so inexhaustible and inventive a lover, she thought, that perhaps she should have invited the office manager to help out—and she laughed at the silliness, and he heard her, Bell with his hands still willing and eager, and his quirky Terran words dragged out of him in the midsts.

"Now I'm funny. Oh, woe, oh woe . . ."

She could see him in the half-light he preferred for lovemaking; just bright enough that the mirrors on the wall might tell an interesting tale to a glancing eye. She remembered that he'd brought beeswax candles, along with wine, flowers, that first evening after his very first return, when he'd somehow parlayed her concern—

She laughed again, this time finding his hair and beard wooly near her face, and she gently moved to brush them orderly. He had something more on his mind though, as her hands came in contact with his cheek; but she held him a moment and he was willing to be calmed.

Of course, she should not stroke his beard and his cheek; she should not kiss his nose, nor lay her palm on his face, this Terran who never knew the taboo of it . . . .

"Let's trade," he said, very gently. "A story for a story, a touch for a touch."

Then he laid his hand on her cheek, spreading his wide hand so that his thumb and his forefinger spanned her face.

It was late in the night, very nearly morning; the sounds from the road were not yet impinging on their lair. His breathing, and hers, and his touch.

"I," he said after a moment. " I cannot go to the Healers, because when someone in my family is cured, we loose the art. My father, my grandfather, my uncle—myself. I tried, there once—"

He paused, brushed her hair away from her eyes, kissed her on her nose, covered the marks on her face as if he would wipe them away. "After that painting was stolen from me I could have been locked up forever there, but for the good luck of a Scout's intercession. So, I thought I should get over the crash. I spoke to a doctor and he seemed to make sense, and they gave me a therapy and drugs and an implant . . . ."

"Here!"

He guided her hand and held it against that long scraggly scar on his leg. She'd found that scar before, but never dared question—there were things lovers were not to ask, after all; the Code was clear on that.

"Three months," he said very quietly. "Let me say about two of my usual cycles, though they change sometimes—be warned!—and I had not even the slightest twinge of being able to paint, and what I drew was stick figures and bad circles and patterns, and I spoke politely to people and one night I went home and picked up a cooking knife and thought that I would cut my throat."

He took her hand and placed it under his beard, where it was just above his throat, and let her feel the pulse of him, and the smaller, more ragged scar.

"I'd made a start, actually, when I realized that what I wanted was not my throat cut, but my art back. And so I took the knife and opened my leg and took the thirty-four months' worth of implant that was left out of me, and I washed it down the drain."

She stared at him, at once fascinated and horrified, not knowing what to say.

"My cousin," he went on, after a moment. "My cousin Darby. He took the cure and has stayed on it. He's married, he goes to work, comes home, goes to work, comes home—and I have the last piece of sculpture he did before the implant. He was brilliant. He made me look like a bumbling student. But it is gone. Five years and he can't draw a face much less model one; he can't see the images in the clouds!"

He brushed his lips over the mark under her left eye, then kissed the one under her right eye.

"You know," he said quietly, "you are beautiful. I have known beautiful ladies, my friend, and you are very beautiful."

The realization hit her—what he would ask, in exchange for this tale from his soul. Very nearly, she panicked, but he caught her mouth with his, and in a few moments she relaxed against him.

"My friend," she said, "you can be as cruel as you are wonderful. To cut yourself so—the pain! But I am not so brave as you. I took the cuts from my Delm, in punishment—cut with the blade my family keeps from the early days. Then I wept and cried, and was cast from the house . . ."

"Does this person yet live?" Not in his deepest despair had she heard his voice so cold.

Cyra looked into his face and saw he meant it—that he contemplated Balance or revenge or—

"No, Bell, you cannot. My Delm was doing duty. I was cut to remind me and to warn others."

He said nothing, but kissed her face again, gently, waiting.

"We are not as rich a house as some others, Clan Nosko; and my Delm, my uncle, is not so easy a spender as you or I. As I was youngest of the daughters of the house—and lived at the clan seat, it being close to my shop—it fell my duty sometimes to spend an afternoon and a night, or sometimes two, doing things needful. And so . . ."

Here she paused a moment, gently massaging Bell's neck under the beard, imagining all too well . . . .

"So it was," she went on very quietly, with the blood pounding in her ears, "that I was briefly in charge of the nursery, the nurse having been given a discharge for cost or cause, I know not. I had put the child Brendar to bed; a likely boy come to the clan through my sister's second marriage. I changed him once, but he was otherwise biddable. I was trying for my Master Jeweler's license, so I was at study with several books. I read, and read more, hearing no fuss. Then my sister came home, and the child was not asleep, but had died sometime in the night."

There was quiet then.

Finally, he kissed her again, each scar, very carefully.

"I'd thought there must be more, but I see the story now, and I am near speechless. The child died of an accident—

"My incompetence and negligence . . ."

He pressed a finger to her lips so hard it nearly hurt.

"I am a fool, Cyra, my beautiful friend. I thought it was your own anger, or your own desire, that placed those marks on your face; that you had rebelled against the rules of this world and even now wore them as badges. That they were inflicted by your family to humiliate and destroy you never came to mind . . ."

He brushed the hair out of her face again.

"I will paint your picture one day, I promise. Your face will be known as among the most beautiful of this world. And they will see that they have lost you, for I'll not let them have you back!"

She had no quick answer for this, and then he said, "Here!" and placed her hand again on the long leg scar.

She felt the welt there—he laughed, nibbled on her earlobe, and moved her hand a bit, murmuring, "Now, lady, here if you wish to be pleased!"

She did, and she was.

* * *

THREE DAYS LATER Cyra was not so very pleased.

To begin, Bell had become inspired sometime in the night of their pillow talk and when she awoke alone in the dawn she found him sketching like a madman on her couch, barely willing to drag himself away from his work long enough to share a breakfast with her.

He packed his sketches and walked with her to the shop, his eyes as elsewhere as his mind. Twice she had to repeat herself while she spoke with him, and then he disappeared into the back room to work as soon as they reached the store.

In the afternoon he had rushed out of the back room, complaining that she'd not told him the time, and stormed out, on his way to a lecture he particularly wanted to see. Worse, he stormed back, having left his sketchbook and wallet, and dashed off with nary a backward glance. When he didn't return by closing—he sometimes went to discussion groups after the lectures—she'd not expected him to come by her apartment, and he didn't, which grated mightily.

In the morning he wandered in very late, hung over and exhausted, explaining that he'd met a pack of Scouts at the lecture and talked with them until the barkeep announced shift-change at dawn. He was animated, nearly wildly so, explaining that he might "have a line on" the Scout who had helped him at Djymbolay; that his conversations of the evening had revealed that he owed Balance to that Scout; that he might have an idea for yet another painting; and that when he had more money there was a world he'd have to travel to and—

"I have an appointment, Bell," Cyra said abruptly. "Tell me later!"

She rushed out the door, barely confident—and barely caring—that he'd heed the advent of a customer.

Her appointment was with her tongue—had she stayed and heard more she surely would have said hurtful words.

So she walked, nearly oblivious to the sounds of transports—more this day than others since a portion of the port would be closed late in the afternoon for some final tricksy bit of work for the expansion—and found herself several blocks from her usual streets, in a very old section, where the buildings and the people were barely above tumbledown.

Surprisingly, she saw Debbie-the-pastry-girl hurrying from one of the least kept brick-fronts; Number 83 it was, a regrettable four-story affair sporting ungainly large windows and peeling paint. The peaked, slate roof suggested that the building was several hundred Standards old, and it looked like it had no repair since the day it was built.

Heart falling, she reached into her card case, and removed the slip of paper she had from Bell the day he'd agreed to share his direction with her: Number 83 Corner Four Ave, Room 15.

A shuttle's long rumble began then; she could feel the sidewalk atremble as she watched the pastry girl's blue-and-green hair disappear in the distance. Also on the paper was the pad combination, and with the whine of the shuttle rising behind her, and then over, she stood, and for a moment was tempted to enter Number 83 and find Room 15, open the door, and see if—if . . .

She turned and walked all the way home for lunch, grasping the paper tightly in her fist.

When she got back to the store, calmer, but heartsore, there was Bell's back vaguely visible in the back room. He heard her enter and yelled out over his shoulder "Any luck?"

"No," she said, quietly. "No luck, Bell."

She slept badly alone, and the rumble of the transports, joined with the not entirely foreign sounds of proctor-jitneys blaring horns as they answered a nighttime summons hadn't helped.

And now, on her store step across the road in the dawn light?

Debbie, cuddling Bell's good jacket in her arms.

* * *

"BELL'S OK," THE GIRL said quickly, shaking her absurd hair back from a remarkably grimy face. "He wasn't bleeding all that much and the medic said he'll do. The proctor, now, he'll be OK, too, other'n his pride's pretty well hurt by getting really whomped—I mean decked in front of all his buddies. But there's gonna be some fines to pay, I guess, and he's gotta have a place to live and—"

Cyra stood staring, hard put to sort this tumbled message, clinging at last to the simple, "Bell's OK . . ."

Debbie was looking at her with desperate eyes. "Cyra, you're a lucky girl, you know? But you're gonna have to get someone down to the jail to get him out. He's not the kind of guy that'll get along there, and hey—what it'll take is 'a citizen of known melant'i, moral character, and resources.' I sure don't qualify for the resources part, the melant'i I ain't got and I'm not sure if I qualify for the character part . . . ."

Cyra wasn't too sure about the character part either, though the fact that the girl was here with so many of Bell's belongings argued for her. Arrayed on the step was a ship bag with "Belansium" printed on a tag, four or five studies—paintings and sketches of a woman, who Cyra realized must be herself by the detail of the face—nude in different positions, some small odds and ends in boxes, a small paint kit, a picnic box . . . .

"Tell me again," Cyra demanded. "After we got these inside. From the beginning. I'll make tea."

* * *

DEBBIE RUSHED OFF while the tea was heating and returned with pastries, and a damp towel, which she was using on the dust and grime on her bare arms.

"I was having company over and wasn't much paying attention to other stuff when I heard one of the transports go over. Things started trembling and—well, wasn't at the stage I thought, then the next thing I know there was a big cherunk kind of noise and the front wall just fell out into the street. The whole place got shaky and we all got out. Bell come dashing out from his room carrying something big and square and rushing down the steps with it whiles bricks and roof-stuff falling all around.

"We was outside standing and staring—most everyone out by then, when the whole building kind of slanted over backwards and leaned into the alley. My guy, he's pretty smart, he'd grabbed a bottle of wine on the way out, and we all had a sip, and when it looked like there wasn't any more up to fall down we went in to see what we could save and to make sure no one was inside—and a bunch of snortheads showed up. One grabbed one of them sketches of you and yelled for some of the others—

"That Bell picked up part of a drainpipe and started hitting and bashing at them guys, and then my guy hit one of 'em with the empty bottle, and then the proctors showed up and Bell wasn't letting no one near his stuff. Proctor kind of waved something in his direction and Bell did this neat little dance step and brought his hand out and lifted the proctor right off his feet. Right quick they was all on him . . .and I had to explain— see it was my Ma's building, and all— but they still got Bell for drunk-and-disorderly, striking a proctor, and I don't know what else. And I can't speak for him!"

"Neither can I," Cyra admitted, staring down into her tea and trying not to think of Bell at the hottest part of his cycle, locked away from his paints and pens. "Neither can I."

* * *

"YOU HAVE ARRIVED," the receptionist told Cyra, "at a bad time. I have no one to spare to listen to your story, as interesting as it must be. The Scouts are not in the habit of interfering with the proctors on matters of Low Port drunk-and-disorderly  . . ."

Cyra glared. "He was not drunk—not at this time in the cycle. Disorderly—he did strike a proctor, but—" she stopped, suddenly struck by a thought, and came near to the counter again.

"Have you a Scout named Jon?" she asked.

"Only several," a female voice said from close behind her. Cyra spun, face heating. The Scout tipped her head, eyes bright and manic, as the eyes of Scout's so often were. "Would you wish us to know that it is a Scout named Jon whom the proctors discovered to be drunk and disorderly? I don't find that impossible. Why, I myself have been drunk and disorderly in Low Port. It is excellent practice for the dining situations found on several of the outworlds."

"Captain sig'Radia . . ." the receptionist began, but the Scout waved a hand.

"Peace. Someone has arrived with time to spare for a story about a drunk and disorderly in Low Port." She cocked a whimsical eyebrow in Cyra's direction, looking her full in the face, as if the disfiguring scars were invisible, or non-existent. "The acoustics of this hallway are quite amazing, but allow me to be certain—I did hear you say 'struck a proctor'?"

Cyra admitted it dejectedly. "But it is not the Scout Jon who did this," she continued, feeling an utter fool. "I had merely thought, since my friend—Bell—was known to the Scout . . ."

"Ah. And something more of your friend—Bell—if you please? For I do not believe, despite our abundance of Jons, that we have any Scouts named Bell."

Cyra bit her lip. "He is a Terran—an artist. Last night, the apartment house he lived in fell down, and—"

"Now I have the fellow!" Captain sig'Radia cried, and grinned with every appearance of delight. "What we heard on the Port is that he knocked down a prepared, on-duty proctor, barehanded. Quite an accomplishment, though I don't expect the proctors think so. No sense of humor, proctors."

"It must be unpleasant," Cyra murmured, "after all, to be knocked down."

"Oh, wonderfully unpleasant," the Scout agreed happily. "Especially with the rest of your team looking on."

"Yes," Cyra bit her lip, wondering how possibly to explain the cycles, and the tragedy of Bell being without his paints now. "If you please, Bell—it is very bad . . ." she stammered to a halt.

"Complicated, eh?" the Scout said sympathetically. "Come, let us be private."

She took Cyra's arm as if they were long friends, and escorted her out of the main room and down a hall.

"Ah, here we are," the Scout said, and put her palm against a door, which opened willingly, utterly silent.

The lights came up as they walked down the room to the table and chairs. Cyra looked about, marveling at the size of the chamber, her eye caught and held by a projection on the front wall—a planetscape, it was, showing a sun and a great-ringed planet in the distance and a close up portion of bluish-green atmosphere—

Cyra gasped, recognition going through her like a bolt, though she had never seen this painting, but the composition, the eloquence the work—it could only be—

"That is Djymbolay, is it not?" She asked the Scout captain, her voice shaking.

The woman looked at her in open wonder. "It is, indeed. How did you know?"

"My friend Bell painted the original of that." She used her chin to point.

The captain looked, face very serious now. "I see. You will then be comforted to know that the original is safe in the World Room." She looked back to Cyra, her smile crooked.

"And your friend Bell is by extrapolations no more nor no less than Jon dea'Cort's glorious madman. Allow me to see if the Scout is within our reach."

* * *

SUMMONED, JON DEA'CORT arrived quickly and heard the tale out with a grin almost as wide as Bell's could be, when he stood at the height of his powers. When all was said, he looked to Cyra, and inclined his head.

"Your Bell, he is at what stage in his continuing journey?"

She blinked against the rise of unexpected tears and made herself meet his eyes squarely. "He is painting. Please—"

He held up a hand. "Yes. You were right to come to us." He looked to Captain sig'Radia, who lifted an eyebrow.

"A change of custody, I think," he said to her. "Certainly, they will insist that he be heard, and fined, but he must be got out of the holding tank at once and allowed to paint before drunk-and-disorderly becomes cold murder."

Cyra sat up, horrified. "Bell would not—" A bright glance stopped her.

"Would he not? Perhaps you are correct. But let us not put him to the test, eh?" He grinned suddenly, Scout-manic. "Besides, I want to see what magic flows from his brush this time."

* * *

THEY GAVE HER A room, and a meal, and promised to fetch her, when Bell was arrived. She ate and laid down on the bed, meaning to close her eyes for a moment only . . .

"Cyra?" The voice was quiet, but unfamiliar. "It is I, Jon dea'Cort. Your Bell is safe."

She sat up, blinking, and found the Scout seated on the edge of her bed, face serious.

"Is he well?" she demanded. "Is he—"

He held up a hand. "Would you see him? He is painting."

"Yes!"

"Come then," he said, and he led her out and down the hall to a lift, then down, down, down, perhaps to the very core of the planet, before the doors opened, and there was another hall, which they walked until it intersected another. They turned right. Jon dea'Cort put his hand against a door, which slid, silently, open, and they stepped into a large and well-lit studio.

Bell at the farther end of the room, his easel in the best light and he was working with that focused, feverish look on his face that she had come to know well—and to treasure.

The Scout touched her hand, and tipped his head toward the door. Cyra followed him out.

"Thank you," she said, feeling conflicting desires to sing and weep. "He will crash—sometime. Often, he knows when, but in a strange place, with this interruption—I do not know. Someone—someone should pay attention to him."

"Surely," the Scout said amiably. "And that someone ought to be yourself, if you are able?"

She hesitated for a moment, thinking of the shop in Low Port, and then inclined her head. "I am able."

* * *

"CYRA?" SHE LOOKED UP from her work, smiling, and found Bell gazing seriously down at her.

Having gained her attention, he went to a knee, and raised his hand to her face. She nestled her cheek into the caress.

"Are you sorry, Cyra? To leave your home, to be rootless, companioned to inconvenient Bell, and in the sphere of Scouts . . ."

She laughed and turned her face, brushing her lips against his palm, and straightening.

"What is this? You will be painting tomorrow, my friend; do not try to tease me into believing that you are on the down-cycle!"

He smiled at that, and touched a fingertip to her nose before dropping his hand to his knee. "You know me too well. But, truly, Cyra . . ."

She put the pliers down and reached out, placing her hands on his shoulders and gazing seriously into his eyes.

"I am not sorry, Bell. Did you not say that you would take me away? You have done so, and I am not sorry at all."

He had kept the other part of that pillow-sworn vow, as well, and the portrait of herself that he had completed in Scout Headquarters remained there, on display in the reception area, with other works of art from many worlds.

"I have the original," he had said to Jon dea'Cort. "Take you the copy, and let us be in Balance."

And so it had been done, and now they were—attached to Scouts, spending time on this research station, or that surveillance ship, while Bell painted, and sketched, and fed his art. Cyra fed her own art, and her jewelry was sought after, when they came to a world where they might sell, or trade.

"We do well," she said, leaning forward to kiss his cheek. "I am pleased, Bell."

He laughed gently and leaned forward, sliding his arms around her and bringing her on to his knee.

"You're pleased, are you?" he murmured against her hair. "But could you not be—just a little—more pleased?"

She laughed and wrapped her arms closely around his neck, rubbing her cheek against the softness of his beard.

"Why, yes," she said, teasing him. "I might be—just a little—more pleased."

He laughed, and rose, bearing her with him, across their cabin to the bed.

—Standard Year 1293


SHADOWS AND SHADES

Adventures in the Liaden Universe® Number Eisght

First published in 2002 by SRM, Publisher.

"Naratha's Shadow" © 2000, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

"Heirloom" © 2002, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Naratha's Shadow originally appeared in Such a Pretty Face, edited by Lee Martindale, Meisha Merlin Publishing, 2000

 


Dedicated to


Andre Norton,


Grandmaster of Science Fiction


Naratha's Shadow


For every terror, a joy. For every sorrow, a pleasure. For every death, a life.This is Naratha's Law. —From, Creation Myths and Unmakings:


A Study of Beginninng and End

"Take it away!" The Healer's voice was shrill.

The Scout leapt forward, slamming the lid of the stasis box down and triggering the seal in one smooth motion.

"Away, it is," she said soothingly, as if she spoke to a child, instead of a woman old in her art.

"Away it is not," Master Healer Inomi snapped. Her face was pale. The Scout could hardly blame her. Even with the lid closed and the seal engaged, she could feel the emanation from her prize puzzle—a grating, sticky malevolence centered over and just above the eyes, like the beginnings of ferocious headache. If the affect was that strong for her, who tested only moderately empathic, as the Scouts rated such things, what must it feel like to the Healer, whose gift allowed her to experience another's emotions as her own?

The Scout bowed. "Master Healer, forgive me. Necessity exists. This  . . .object, whatever it may be, has engaged my closest study for—"

"Take. It. Away." The Healer's voice shook, and her hand, when she raised it to point at the door. "Drop it into a black hole. Throw it into a sun. Introduce it into a nova. But, for the gods' sweet love, take it away!"

The solution to her puzzle would not be found by driving a Master Healer mad. The Scout bent, grabbed the strap and swung the box onto her back. The grating nastiness over her eyes intensified, and for a moment the room blurred out of focus. She blinked, her sight cleared, and she was moving, quick and silent, back bent under the weight of the thing, across the room and out the door. She passed down a hallway peculiarly empty of Healers, apprentices and patrons, and stepped out into the mid-day glare of Solcintra.

Even then, she did not moderate her pace, but strode on until she came to the groundcar she had requisitioned from Headquarters. Biting her lip, feeling her own face wet with sweat, she worked the cargo compartment's latch one-handed, dumped her burden unceremoniously inside and slammed the hatch home.

She walked away some little distance, wobbling, and came to rest on a street-side bench. Even at this distance, she could feel it—the thing in the box, whatever it was—though the headache was bearable, now. She'd had the self-same headache for the six relumma since she'd made her find, and was no closer to solving its riddle.

The Scout leaned back on the bench. "Montet sig'Norba," she told herself loudly, "you're a fool."

Well, and who but a fool walked away from the luxury and soft-life of Liad to explore the dangerous galaxy as a Scout? Scouts very rarely lived out the full term of nature's allotted span—even those fortunate enough to never encounter a strange, impulse powered, triple-heavy something in the back end of nowhere and tempted the fates doubly by taking it aboard.

Montet rested her head against the bench's high back. She'd achieved precious little glory as a Scout, glory arising as it did from the discovery of odd or lost or hidden knowledge.

Which surely the something must carry, whatever its original makers had intended it to incept or avert.

Yet, six relumma after what should have been the greatest find of her career, Montet sig'Norba was still unable to ascertain exactly what the something was.

"It may have been crafted to drive Healers to distraction," she murmured, closing her eyes briefly against the ever-present infelicity in her head.

There was a certain charm to Master Healer Inomi's instruction to drop the box into a black hole and have done, but gods curse it, the thing was an artifact! It had to do something!

Didn't it?

Montet sighed. She had performed the routine tests; and then tests not quite so routine, branching out, with the help of an interested, if slightly demented, lab tech, into the bizarre. The tests stopped short of destruction—the tests, let it be known, had not so much as scratched the smooth black surface of the thing. Neither had they been any use in identifying the substance from which it was constructed. As to what it did, or did not do . . .

Montet had combed, scoured and sieved the Scouts' not-inconsiderable technical archives. She'd plumbed the depths of archeology, scaled the heights of astronomy, and read more history than she would have thought possible, looking for a description, an allusion, a hint. All in vain.

Meanwhile, the thing ate through stasis boxes like a mouse through cheese. The headache and disorienting effects were noticeably less when the thing was moved to a new box. Gradually, the effects worsened, until even the demented lab tech—no empath, he—complained of his head aching and his sight jittering. At which time it was only prudent to remove the thing to another box and start the cycle again.

It was this observation of the working of the thing's  . . .aura that had led her to investigate its possibilities as a carrier of disease. Her studies were—of course— inconclusive. If it carried disease, it was of a kind unknown to the Scouts' medical laboratory and to its library of case histories.

There are, however, other illnesses to which sentient beings may succumb. Which line of reasoning had immediately preceded her trip to Solcintra Healer Hall, stasis box in tow, to request an interview with Master Healer Inomi.

"And much profit you reaped from that adventure," Montet muttered, opening her eyes and straightening on the bench. Throw it into a sun, indeed!

For an instant, the headache flared, fragmenting her vision into a dazzle of too-bright color. Montet gasped, and that quickly the pain subsided, retreating to its familiar, wearisome ache.

She stood, fishing the car key out of her pocket. Now what? she asked herself. She'd exhausted all possible lines of research. No, check that. She'd exhausted all orderly and reasonable lines of research. There did remain one more place to look.

* * *

THE LIBRARY OF LEGEND was the largest of the several libraries maintained by the Liaden Scouts. The largest and the most ambiguous. Montet had never liked the place, even as a student Scout. Her antipathy had not escaped the notice of her teachers, who had found it wise to assign her long and tedious tracings of kernel-tales and seed-stories, so that she might become adequately acquainted with the Library's content.

Much as she had disliked those assignments, they achieved the desired goal. By the time she was pronounced ready to attempt her Solo, Montet was an agile and discerning researcher of legend, with an uncanny eye for the single true line buried in a page of obfusion.

After she passed her Solo, she opted for field duty, to the clear disappointment of at least one of her instructors, and forgot the Library of Legends in the freedom of the stars.

However, skills once learned are difficult to unlearn, especially for those who have survived Scout training. It took Montet all of three days to find the first hint of what her dubious treasure might be. A twelve-day after, she had the kernel-tale.

Then, it was cross-checking—triangulating, as it were, trying to match allegory to orbit; myth to historical fact. Detail work of the most demanding kind, requiring every nit of a Scout's attention for long hours at a time. Montet did not stint the task—that had never been her way—and the details absorbed her day after day, early to late.

Which would account for her forgetting to move the thing, whatever it was, from its old stasis-box into a new one.

* * *

"This is an alert! Situation Class One. Guards and emergency personnel to the main laboratory, caution extreme. Montet sig'Norba to the main laboratory. Repeat. This is an alert . . ."

Montet was already moving down the long aisle of the Legend Library, buckling her utility belt as she ran. The intercom repeated its message and began the third pass. Montet slapped the override button for the lift and jumped inside before the door was fully open.

Gods, the main lab. She'd left it, whatever it was, in the lab lock-box, which had become her custom when she and the tech had been doing their earnest best to crack the thing open and learn its inner workings. It should have been  . . .safe . . . in the lab.

The lift doors opened and she was running, down a hall full of security and catastrophe uniforms. She wove through the moving bodies of her comrades, not slackening speed, took a sharp right into the lab's hallway, twisted and dodged through an unexpectedly dense knot of people just standing there, got clear—and stumbled, hands over her eyes.

"Aiee!"

The headache was a knife, buried to the hilt in her forehead. Her knees hit the floor, the jar snapping her teeth shut on her tongue, but that pain was lost inside the greater agony in her head. She sobbed, fumbling for the simple mind-relaxing exercise that was the first thing taught anyone who aspired to be a Scout.

She crouched there for a lifetime, finding the pattern and losing it; and beginning again, with forced, frantic patience. Finally, she found the concentration necessary, ran the sequence from beginning to end, felt the agony recede—sufficiently.

Shaking, she pushed herself to her feet and faced the open door of the lab.

It was then she remembered the stasis box and the madcap young tech's inclination toward explosives.

"Gods, gods, gods . . ." She staggered, straightened and walked, knees rubbery, vision white at the edges—walked down the hall, through the open door.

The main room was trim as always, beakers and culture-plates washed and racked by size; tweezers, blades, droppers and other hand tools of a lab tech's trade hung neatly above each workbench. Montet went down the silent, orderly aisles, past the last workbench, where someone had started a flame on the burner and decanted some liquid into a beaker before discovering that everything was not quite as it should be and slipping out to call Security.

Montet paused to turn the flame down. Her head ached horribly, and her stomach was turning queasy. All praise to the gods of study, who had conspired to make her miss the mid-day meal.

The door to the secondary workroom was closed, and refused to open to her palmprint.

Montet reached into her utility belt, pulled out a flat thin square. The edges were firm enough to grip; the center viscous. Carefully, she pressed the jellified center over the lockplate's sensor, and waited.

For a moment—two—nothing happened, then there was a soft click and a space showed between the edge of the door and the frame.

Montet stepped aside, lay the spent jelly on the workbench behind her, got her fingers in the slender space and pushed. The door eased back, silent on well-maintained tracks. When the gap was wide enough, she slipped inside.

The room was dim, the air cool to the point of discomfort. Montet squinted, fighting her own chancy vision and the murkiness around her.

There: a dark blot near the center of the room, which could only be a stasis box. Montet moved forward, through air that seemed to thicken with each step. Automatically, her hand quested along her utility belt, locating the pin-light by touch. She slipped it out of its loop, touched the trigger—and swore.

The stasis box lay on its side in the beam, lid hanging open. Empty.

Montet swallowed another curse. In the silence, someone moaned.

Beam before her, she went toward the sound, and found the charmingly demented lab tech huddled on the floor next to the further wall, his arms folded over his head.

She started toward him, checked and swung the beam wide.

The thing, whatever it was, was barely a dozen steps away, banked by many small boxes of the kind used to contain the explosive trimplix. The detonation of a single container of trimplix could hole a spaceship, and here were twelves of twelves of them, stacked every-which-way against the thing . . .

"Kill it," the tech moaned behind her. "Trigger the trimplix. Make it stop."

Carefully, Montet put her light on the floor. Carefully, she went out to the main room, drew a fresh stasis box from stores and carried it back into the dimness. The tech had not moved, except perhaps to draw closer round himself.

It was nerve-wracking work to set the boxes of trimplix, gently, aside, until she could get in close enough to grab the thing and heave it into the box. It hit bottom with a thump, and she slammed the lid down as if it were a live thing and likely to come bounding back out at her.

That done, she leaned over, gagging, then forced herself up and went over to the intercom to sound the all-clear.

* * *

PANOPELE SETTLED HER feet in the cool, dewy grass; filled her lungs with sweet midnight air; felt the power coalesce and burn in her belly, waking the twins, Joy and Terror. Again, she drank the sweet, dark air, lungs expanding painfully; then raised her face to the firmament, opened her mouth—and sang.

Amplified by Naratha's Will, the song rose to the star-lanes, questing, questioning, challenging. Transported by the song, the essence of Panopele, Voice of Naratha, rose likewise to the star-lanes, broadening, blossoming, listening.

Attended by four of the elder novices, feet comforted by the cool, dewy grass, strong toes holding tight to the soil of Aelysia, the body of Panopele sang the Cycle down. Two of the attendant novices wept to hear her; two of the novices danced. The body of Panopele breathed and sang; sang and breathed. And sang.

Out among the star-lanes, enormous and a-quiver with every note of the song, Panopele listened, and heard no discord. Expanding even further, she opened what might be called her eyes, looked out along the scintillant fields of life and saw—a blot.

Faint it was, vastly distant from the planet where her body stood and sang, toes comfortably gripping the soil— and unmistakable in its menace. Panopele strained to see—to hear—more clearly, hearing—or imagining she heard—the faintest note of discord; the barest whisper of malice.

Far below and laboring, her body sang on, voice sweeping out in pure waves of passion. The two novices who danced spun like mad things, sweat soaking their robes. The two who wept fell to their knees and struck their heads against the earth.

Panopele strained, stretching toward the edge of the song, the limit of Naratha's Will. The blot shimmered, growing; the malice of its answering song all at once plain.

Far below, the body of Panopele gasped, interrupting the song. The scintillance of the star-lanes paled into a blur; there was a rush of sound, un-song-like, and Panopele was joltingly aware of cold feet, laboring lungs, the drumbeat of her heart. Her throat hurt, and she was thirsty.

A warm cloak was draped across her shoulders, clasped across her throat. Warm hands pressed her down into the wide seat of the ancient wooden Singer's Chair. In her left ear the novice Fanor murmured, "I have water, Voice. Will you drink?"

Drink she would and drink she did, the cool water a joy.

"Blessings on you," she rasped and lay her left hand over his heart in Naratha's full benediction. Fanor was one of the two who wept in the song.

"Voice." He looked away, as he always did, embarrassed by her notice.

"Will you rest here, Voice? Or return to temple?" That was Lietta, who danced, and was doubtless herself in need of rest.

Truth told, rest was what Panopele wanted. She was weary; drained, as the song sometimes drained one; and dismayed in her heart. She wanted to sleep, here and now among the dewy evening. To sleep and awake believing that the blot she had detected was no more than a woman's fallible imagining.

The Voice of Naratha is not allowed the luxury of self-deceit. And the blot had been growing larger.

Weary, Panopele placed her hands on the carven arms of the chair that dwarfed all present but herself and gathered her strength. Her eyes sought the blue star Alyedon: The blot approached from that direction. That knowledge fed her strength and resolve. Slowly she leaned forward and, as the chair creaked with her efforts, pushed herself onto her feet.

"Let us return," she said to those who served her.

Lietta bowed, and picked up the chair. Fanor bent to gather the remaining water jugs; Panopele stopped him with a gesture.

"One approaches," she told him. "You are swiftest. Run ahead, and be ready to offer welcome."

One glance he dared, full into her eyes, then passed the jug he held to Darl and ran away across the starlit grass.

"So." Panopele motioned and Zan stepped forward to offer an arm, her face still wet with tears.

"My willing support, Voice," she said, as ritual demanded, though her own voice was soft and troubled.

"Blessings on you," Panopele replied, and proceeded across the grass in Fanor's wake, leaning heavily upon the arm of her escort.

* * *

THERE WAS OF COURSE nothing resembling a spaceport on-world, and the only reason the place had escaped Interdiction, in Montet's opinion, was that no Scout had yet penetrated this far into the benighted outback of the galaxy.

That the gentle agrarian planet below her could not possibly contain the technology necessary to unravel the puzzle of the thing sealed and seething in its stasis box, failed to delight her. Even the knowledge that she had deciphered legend with such skill that she had actually raised a planet at the coordinates she had half-intuited did not warm her.

Frowning, omnipresent ache centered over her eyes, Montet brought the Scout ship down. Her orbital scans had identified two large clusters of life and industry—cities, perhaps—and a third, smaller, cluster, which nonetheless put forth more energy than either of its larger cousins.

Likely, it was a manufactory of some kind, Montet thought, and home of such technology as the planet might muster. She made it her first target, by no means inclined to believe it her last.

She came to ground in a gold and green field a short distance from her target. She tended her utility belt while the hull cooled, then rolled out into a crisp, clear morning.

The target was just ahead, on the far side of a slight rise. Montet swung into a walk, the grass parting silently before her. She drew a deep lungful of fragrant air, verifying her scan's description of an atmosphere slightly lower in oxygen than Liad's. Checking her stride, she bounced, verifying the scan's assertion of a gravity field somewhat lighter than that generated by the homeworld.

Topping the rise, she looked down at the target, which was not a manufactory at all, but only a large building, and various outbuildings, clustered companionably together. To her right hand, fields were laid out. To her left, the grassland continued until it met a line of silvery trees, brilliant in the brilliant day.

And of the source of the energy reported by her scans, there was no sign whatsoever.

Montet sighed, gustily. Legend.

She went down the hill. Eventually, she came upon a path; which she followed until it abandoned her on the threshold of the larger building.

Here she hesitated, every Scout nerve a-tingle, for this should be a Forbidden World, socially and technologically unprepared for the knowledge-stress that came riding in on the leather-clad shoulders of a Scout. She had no business walking up to the front door of the local hospital, library, temple or who-knew-what, no matter how desperate her difficulty. There was no one here who was the equal—who was the master— of the thing in her ship's hold. How could there be? She hovered on the edge of doing damage past counting. Better to return to her ship, quickly; rise to orbit and get about setting the warning beacons.

 . . .and yet, the legends, she thought—and then all indecision was swept away, for the plain white wall she faced showed a crack, then a doorway, framing a man. His pale robe was rumpled, wet and stained with grass. His hair was dark and braided below his shoulders; the skin of his face and his hands were brown. His feet, beneath the stained, wet hem, were bare.

He was taller than she, and strongly built. She could not guess his age, beyond placing him in that nebulous region called "adult".

He spoke; his voice was soft, his tone respectful. The language was tantalizingly close to a tongue she knew.

"God's day to you," she said, speaking slowly and plainly in that language. She showed her empty hands at waist level, palm up. "Has the house any comfort for a stranger?"

Surprise showed at the edges of the man's face. His hands rose, tracing a stylized pattern in the air at the height of his heart.

"May Naratha's song fill your heart," he said, spacing his words as she had hers. It was not quite, Montet heard, the tongue she knew, but 'twould suffice.

"Naratha foretold your coming," the man continued. "The Voice will speak with you." He paused, hands moving through another pattern. "Of comfort, I cannot promise, stranger. I hear a dark chanting upon the air."

Well he might hear just that, Montet thought grimly; especially if he were a Healer-analog. Carefully, she inclined her head to the doorkeeper.

"Gladly will I speak with the Voice of Naratha," she said.

The man turned and perforce she followed him, inside and across a wide, stone-floored hall to another plain white wall. He lay his hand against the wall and once again a door appeared. He stood aside, hands shaping the air.

"The Voice awaits you."

Montet squared her shoulders and walked forward.

The room, like the hall, was brightly lit, the shine of light along the white walls and floor adding to the misery of her headache. Deliberately, she used the Scout's mental relaxation drill and felt the headache inch, grudgingly, back. Montet sighed and blinked the room into focus.

"Be welcome into the House of Naratha." The voice was deep, resonant, and achingly melodic, the words spaced so that they were instantly intelligible.

Montet turned, finding the speaker standing near a niche in the left-most wall.

The lady was tall and on a scale to dwarf the sturdy doorkeeper; a woman of abundance, shoulders proud and face serene. Her robe was divided vertically in half—one side white, one side black—each side as wide as Montet entire. Her hair was black, showing gray like stars in the vasty deepness of space. Her face was like a moon, glowing; her eyes were dark and sightful. She raised a hand and sketched a sign before her, the motion given meaning by the weight of her palm against the air.

"I am the Voice of Naratha. Say your name, Seeker."

Instinctively, Montet bowed. One would bow, to such a lady as this—and one would not dare lie.

"I am Montet sig'Norba," she said, hearing her own voice thin and reedy in comparison with the other's rich tones.

"Come forward, Montet sig'Norba."

Forward she went, until she stood her own short arm's reach from the Voice. She looked up and met the gaze of far-seeing black eyes.

"Yes," the Voice said after a long pause. "You bear the wounds we have been taught to look for."

Montet blinked. "Wounds?"

"Here," said the Voice and lay her massive palm against Montet's forehead, directly on the spot centered just above her eyes, where the pain had lived for six long relumma.

The Voice's palm was warm and soft. Montet closed her eyes as heat spread up and over her scalp, soothing and—she opened her eyes in consternation.

The headache was gone.

The Voice was a Healer, then. Though the Healers on Liad had not been able to ease her pain.

"You have that which belongs to Naratha," the Voice said, removing her hand. "You may take me to it."

Montet bowed once more. "Lady, that which I carry is  . . ." she grappled briefly with the idiom of the language she spoke, hoping it approximated the Voice's nearly enough for sense, and not too nearly for insult.

"What I carry is  . . .accursed of God. It vibrates evil, and seeks destruction—even unto its own destruction. It is—I brought it before a  . . .priestess of my own kind and its vibrations all but overcame her skill."

The Voice snorted. "A minor priestess, I judge. Still, she did well, if you come to me at her word."

"Lady, her word was to make all haste to fling the monster into a sun."

"No!" The single syllable resonated deep in Montet's chest, informing, for a moment, the very rhythm of her heartbeat.

"No," repeated the Voice, quieter. "To follow such a course would be to grant its every desire. To the despair of all things living."

"What is it?" Montet heard herself blurt.

The Voice bowed her head. "It is the Shadow of Naratha. For every great good throws a shadow, which is, in its nature, great evil."

Raising her head, she took a breath and began, softly, to chant. "Of all who fought, it was Naratha who prevailed against the Enemy. Prevailed, and drove the Enemy into the back beyond of space, from whence it has never again ventured. The shadows of Naratha's triumph, as terrible as the Enemy's defeat was glorious, roam the firmament still, destroying, for that is what they do." The Voice paused. The chant vibrated against the pure white walls for a moment, then stopped.

This, Montet thought, was the language of legend—hyperbole. Yet the woman before her did not seem a fanatic, living in a smoky dream of reality. This woman was alive, intelligent—and infinitely sorrowful.

"Voices were trained," the Voice was now calmly factual, "to counteract the vibration of evil. We were chosen to sing, to hold against and—equalize— what slighter folk cannot encompass. We were many, once. Now I am one. Naratha grant that the equation is exact."

Montet stared. She was a Liaden and accustomed to the demands of Balance. But this—

"You will die? But by your own saying it wants just that!"

The Voice smiled. "I will not die, nor will it want destruction when the song is through." She tipped her massive head, hair rippling, black-and-gray, across her proud shoulders.

"Those who travel between the stars see many wonders. I am the last Voice of Naratha. I exact a price, star-stranger."

Balance, clear enough. Montet bowed her head. "Say on."

"You will stand with me while I sing this monster down. You will watch and you will remember. Perhaps you have devices that record sight and sound. If you do, use them. When it is done, bring the news to Lietta, First Novice, she who would have been Voice. Say to her that you are under geas to study in our library. When you have studied, I require you to return to the stars, to discover what has happened—to the rest of us." She paused.

"You will bring what you find to this outpost. You will also initiate your fellow star-travelers into the mysteries of Naratha's Discord." The wonderful voice faltered and Montet bent her head.

"In the event," she said, softly, "that the equation is not—entirely—precise." She straightened. "I accept your Balance."

"So," said the Voice. "Take me now to that which is mine."

* * *

THE VOICE STOOD, humming, while Montet dragged the stasis box out, unsealed it and flipped open the lid. At a sign from the other woman, she tipped the box sideways, and the thing, whatever it was, rolled out onto the grass, buzzing angrily.

"I hear you, Discord," the Voice murmured, and raised her hand to sign.

Montet dropped back, triggering the three recorders with a touch to her utility belt.

The Voice began to sing.

A phrase only, though the beauty of it pierced Montet heart and soul.

The phrase ended and the space where it had hung was filled with the familiar malice of the black thing's song.

Serene, the Voice heard the answer out, then sang again, passion flowing forth like flame.

Again, the thing answered, snarling in the space between Montet's ears. She gasped and looked to the Voice, but her face was as smooth and untroubled as glass.

Once more, the woman raised her voice, and it seemed to Montet that the air was richer, the grassland breeze fresher, than it had been a moment before.

This time, the thing did not allow her to finish, but vibrated in earnest. Montet shrieked at the agony in her joints and fell to knees, staring up at the Voice, who sang on, weaving around and through the malice; stretching, reshaping, reprogramming, Montet thought, just before her vision grayed and she could see no longer.

She could hear, though, even after the pain had flattened her face down in the grass. The song went on, never faltering, never heeding the heat that Montet felt rising from the brittling grass, never straining, despite the taint in the once clean air.

The Voice hit a note, high, true and sweet. Montet's vision cleared. The Voice stood, legs braced, face turned toward the sky, her mighty throat corded with effort. The note continued, impossibly pure, soaring, passionate, irrefutable. There was only that note, that truth—nothing more—in all the galaxy.

Montet took a breath and discovered that her lungs no longer burned. She moved an arm and discovered that she could rise.

The Voice sang on, and the day was brilliant, perfect, beyond perfect, into godlike, and the Voice herself was beauty incarnate, singing, singing, fading, becoming one with the sunlight, the grassland and the breeze.

Abruptly, there was silence, and Montet stood alone in the grass near her ship, hard by an empty stasis box.

Of the Voice of Naratha—of Naratha's Shadow—there was no sign at all.


Heirloom


HE WOKE, PANTING, out of a snare of dreams in which he over and over ran to succor a child, hideously suspended over a precipice, the slender branch clutched in terrified small fingers bending toward break beneath the slight weight—

While he ran—ran at the top of his speed. And arrived, over and over, full seconds after the branch gave way and the tiny body plummeted down . . . .

He opened his eyes—not too far—and swallowed as the dim light assaulted him. Lashes drooping, he took careful stock.

The dream—it had somehow become the dream of late it seemed—was both frequent and bothersome enough that he'd considered once or twice taking it to the Healers.

On other mornings, those not quite so fraught with physical complaints, his considerations had always led him to reject the notion that the dream was prophetic, for hadn't he been tested by the dramliz, several times over, at the order of the Delm-in-Keeping as well as at the order of his mother? And the dream never gave face to child, nor location to tree or cliff . . . .

The dramliz tests were remarkably similar to the piloting tests—somehow he always managed to fail without knowing exactly what it was expected of him. Of course the wizards claimed they weren't expecting anything of him, but neither his mother nor anyone else seemed pleased by the results—not fast enough for pilot, nor possessed of whatever something the dramliz probed for—

Well, and he had long ago understood that neither the Clan's ships nor the Clan's allies among the Healers or the dramliz would provide his sustenance, and he had begun casting about for what he could do to support himself, for he was a young man, holding in full measure all the stubborn pride of his House. He would take not a dex from the Clan that could not use him. His quartershares could accumulate in his account until the cantra overran the bank and flowed down the streets of Solcintra.

So he had cast about. He could shoot, of course, but one could scarcely make a living as a tournament shooter. Uncle Daav's happy experiment of giving him a gun and target practice at Tey Dor's had brought him close to the gaming set, who had no qualms about dealing with someone not a pilot, or not able to tell the future through true prophecy . . .

Early last evening, however, he had a moment of prophecy. It came when he overheard his mother speaking with Guayar Himself. It seemed that Guayar knew a certain house which had need of one well-placed, and well-taught, and well-versed in the Code, and able to travel with a group of children, teaching as well as protecting. She'd suggested that she knew of just such a person.

Travel with children?

He had been on his way out, intending to stop at the parlor only long enough to take graceful leave of his parent and exchange pleasantries with her guest. Rag-mannered though it was, he allowed himself to forgo these duties and instead left immediately by a discreet exit that did not require him to pass the occupied room.

Once outside, he had gone, not to Tey Dor's, which had been his first, and perhaps best, inclination, but to a minor establishment which catered to the aspiring gamester. There he had accepted most of the proffered beverages, which was not his habit.

Now, his head hurt abominably, of course, and his stomach was uneasy, though not quite in revolt. Mixed fortune, there. He supposed he should rise, shower and prepare himself to meet the dubious pleasures of the day. After all, it wasn't as if he had never been drunk before.

In truth, he was rarely drunk, being a young man of fastidious nature. Certainly, he was never drunk while gaming, and last night's losses at the piket table were ample illustration of his reasons, thank you.

Sighing, he raised his hands and scrubbed them, none-too-gently, over his face, relishing the friction.

Gods, what a performance! He was entirely disgusted with himself, and not the most for his losses at cards. At least he had retained sense enough not to enter the shooting contest proposed by pin'Weltir!

At least—he thought he had. His memory of the later evening was, he discovered to his chagrin, rather  . . .spotty.

His stomach clenched, and he took a deeper breath than he wanted—and another—forcing himself to lie calmly, to wait for the memories to rise . . . There.

He had turned pin'Weltir down, and when the man insisted, he had refused even more forcefully—by claiming his cloak and calling for a cab. He remembered that, yes. Too, he remembered entering the cab, and the driver asking for his direction. He remembered saying, "Home," an idiotic reply emblematic of his state, and the driver asking again, doggedly patient, as if she dealt with drunken lordlings every night—which, he thought now, in the discomfort of his bed, she might very well.

After that, he remembered nothing, though he supposed he must have managed to give her the direction of his mother's house—and if his mother had been late at her studies and had observed his return—

He wondered if people died of hangovers, and, if so, how he might manage it.

A spike of red pain shot through his head and he twisted in the bed, gagging, eyes snapping open to behold—

Not the formal bedchamber he occupied in his mother's house, but the badly shaped, sloped ceiling chamber where he had spent many peaceful childhood nights.

Despite the headache, Pat Rin smiled. Drunk into idiocy he may have been, but his heart had known the direction of home.

* * *

SOME WHILE LATER, showered and having taken an analgesic against the headache, he glanced at last night's bedraggled finery, flung helter-skelter on the simple, hand-tied rug. He bit his lip, ashamed of this further untidy evidence of his debauch, then gathered it all up and took it into the 'fresher, where he bundled the lot into the valet to be cleaned and pressed.

Returning to his bedroom, he paused at the old wooden wardrobe, coaxed open the sticky door and was very shortly thereafter dressed in a pair of sturdy work pants and a soft, shapeless shirt.

Closing the wardrobe, he considered himself in the thin mirror: A slender young man, dark of hair and eye, cheekbones high, brows straight, chin pointed, mouth stern. In his old clothes, he thought he looked a laborer, or a dock worker, or a pilot at leave—then he glanced down at his long, well-kept hands and sighed.

Looking back to the mirror, he frowned at the mass of wet hair snarled across his shoulders. The torentia was all the kick this season, and Pat Rin yos'Phelium Clan Korval, apprentice at play, naturally wore his hair so, spending as much as an hour a day combing and curling the thick, unruly stuff into the long, artful chaos fashion demanded.

But not today. Today, he turned 'round, snatched a comb up from the low bureau and dragged it ruthlessly through the tangled mass until it hung, sodden and straight. Putting the comb aside, he raised both hands, pulled his hair sharply back, holding the tail in one hand while he rummaged atop the bureau, finally bringing up a simple wooden hair ring, which he snapped into place.

The lad in the mirror presented a more austere face, now, without the fall of hair to soften it. Indeed, he might have been said to be quite fox-faced, were it not the general policy in the circles in which he lately moved that Pat Rin yos'Phelium was comely.

Poppycock, of course, and tiring, too. Almost as tiring as Cousin Er Thom insisting upon endless repetitions of tests taken and proved—

No.

He would not think of Cousin Er Thom—of Korval-pernard'i. And he assuredly would not think of tests. In fact, he would go downstairs to tell Luken that he was to house.

* * *

"Good morning, boy-dear!" Luken said, looking up with a smile. The manifest he had been studying lay on the tabletop amidst the genteel ruins of a frugal breakfast, the tree-and-dragon—Korval's seal—stamped in the top left corner of the page.

Despite everything, Pat Rin smiled, and bowed, gently, hand over his heart.

"Good morning, father," he replied, soft in the mode between kin. "I trust I find you well?"

"Well enough, well enough!" His foster father waved a ringless hand toward the sideboard. "There's tea, child, and the usual. Have what you will and then sit and tell me your news."

His news? Pat Rin thought bitterly. He turned to the sideboard, taking a deep breath. Luken, alone of all his relatives could be trusted to honestly care for Pat Rin's news, and to take no joy in his failures.

He poured himself a glass of tea, that being what he thought he might coax his stomach to accommodate, and returned to the table, taking his usual seat across from Luken, there in the windowed alcove. Outside, the sky shone brilliant, the sun fully risen. Odd to find Luken so late over breakfast, dawn-rising creature that he was.

"Are you quite well?" Pat Rin asked, around a prick of panic. "I had looked to find you in the warehouse . . . ."

Luken chuckled. "Had you arisen an hour earlier, you would have found me precisely in the warehouse," he said. "What you see here is a second cup of tea, to aid me in puzzling out just what it is that Er Thom means me to do with these." He picked up the manifest and rattled it gently before dropping it again to the table.

In addition to his melant'i as Korval-in-trust, Er Thom yos'Galan wore a master trader's ring. Interesting goods, therefore, had a way of coming into his hand, and it had long been his habit to send the more interesting and exotic textiles to Luken's attention.

Pat Rin assayed a tiny sip of tea, eyeing the manifest half-heartedly. "Sell them?" he murmured, that being the most common outcome of rugs sent by Er Thom, though two, to Pat Rin's knowledge, were on display in museums, and one covered the white stone floor of the Temple of Valiatra, at the edge of the Festival grounds.

"Not these, I think," Luken said picking up his tea glass. "It seems that the clan is divesting itself of the Southern House and the place is being emptied—including the back attics, which I daresay is where these were found."

Korval was selling the Southern House? Not a heartbeat too soon, in Pat Rin's opinion. He had been to the place once, and had found it dismal. Nor was he alone in his assessment. While most of Korval's houses enjoyed more-or-less steady tenancy, the Southern House most often sat empty, undisturbed by even the housekeeper, who had his own quarters in another building on the property.

"Perhaps Cousin Er Thom wants a catalog made?" Pat Rin offered, taking another cautious sip of tea. Though rugs Luken dismissed as back attic fare hardly seemed likely candidates for cataloging and preservation.

"He doesn't write. Only that the house is being cleared, and that these might interest me." Luken sipped his tea, and moved a dismissive hand. "But, enough of that. Your news, boy-dear—all of it! I haven't seen you this age. Catch me up, do."

It hadn't quite been an age, the two of them having dined together only a twelveday ago, though there was, after all, the news which was no news at all . . . .

Pat Rin looked down into his glass, then forced himself to raise his head and meet Luken's gentle gray eyes.

"Korval-pernard'i bade me take the test again, yesterday." He felt his face tighten and fought an impulse to look away from Luken's face. "I failed, of course."

"Of course," his foster father murmured, entirely without irony, his expression one of grave interest.

"I don't know why," Pat Rin said, after a moment, "I can't be left in peace. How many times must I fail before they will understand that I am not a pilot, nor ever will be?" He took a breath, and did glance down, his eye snagging on the manifest, the upside down tree-and-dragon, sigil of the clan in which he was second of two freaks, his mother being the first. "If I am asked to take the test again, I will not," he stated, and raised his glass decisively.

"Well," Luken said after a moment. "Certainly it must be tedious to be asked to take the same test repeatedly, especially when it is so distressful for you, boy-dear. But to speak of turning your face aside from the word of Korval-pernard'i—that won't do all. Husbanding the clan's pilots falls squarely within his duty—and determining who might be a pilot, as well. He doesn't send you to the testing chamber only to plague you, child. If you were feeling more the thing, you'd see that."

It was gently said, but Pat Rin felt the rebuke keenly. Yet Luken, as nearly all the rest of his kin, was a pilot. Granted, a mere third-class, and there had lately been a time when he would have given all of his most valued possessions, had he only been given in exchange a license admitting that Pat Rin yos'Phelium was a pilot, third class.

He told himself he didn't care; that five failures would teach him the lesson Cousin Er Thom refused to learn.

He told himself that.

"Child?" murmured Luken.

Pat Rin looked up and smiled, as best as he was able around the headache.

"I hope I didn't disturb your rest when I came in last night," he said softly.

Luken moved his shoulders. "In fact, I had been late in the showroom, and was just coming up myself when you were dispatched from your cab."

Blast. He didn't remember that. Not at all.

"I'm afraid that I was a trifle disguised, last night," he said, around a jolt of self-revulsion.

"A trifle," Luken allowed. "I guided you to your room, we said our sleepwells and I retired."

None of it. Pat Rin bit his lip.

"I made rather a fool of myself last night," he said. "Not only did I fall into my cups, but then I was idiot enough to play cards—and lost most wonderfully, as you might expect."

"Ah." Luken finished off his tea and put the glass aside. "You also told me last night, as we were negotiating the stairway, that you had come away early because a certain—pin'Weltir, I believe?—had become boorish in his insistence that you shoot against him, then and there. Which is not, perhaps, entirely idiot."

He had already determined that for himself, but a part of him was eased, that Luken thought so, too.

"Some things," he admitted, "I did correctly." He tipped his head, then, and shot a quick glance into Luken's face, where he found the gray eyes attentive

"Do you care, father? The trade I have set myself to learn, that is."

Luken spread his hands. "Why should I care? From all I understand, it's a difficult study you undertake in order to ascend the heights of a profession which is exhilarating and not without its moments of risk." He smiled. "I would expect, of course, that you will rise to become a master, if masters of the game there be."

"Not—by that name," Pat Rin said, thinking of those who had undertaken his education. "But, yes. There are masters."

"And you aspire to stand among them?"

Well of course he did. Who of Korval, present or past, had not sought to stand among the masters of whatever profession or avocation they embraced? Certainly not Luken.

"Yes," he said. "I do."

"It is well, then," his foster father judged. "That you will mind your melant'i and keep the honor of your House pure, I have no need to ask."

He paused for a moment, reaching absently to his empty glass, and letting his hand fall with a slight sigh. Pat Rin got up, bore the glass to the sideboard, refilled it and brought it back.

"Gently done," Luken murmured, his thoughts clearly somewhere else. "My thanks."

"It is my pleasure to serve you, father."

"Sweet lad." He had a sip from the refilled glass and looked up.

"I wonder if you've given thought to setting up your own establishment," he said. "It occurs to me that bin'Flora has a townhouse for lease in a location near the High Port."

Most of Solcintra's gambling houses were located at the High Port. There were several residential streets just beyond the gate, none of them unsavory, though one or two not as  . . .fashionable . . . as they might be.

bin'Flora traded in textile—bolt goods more usually than rugs—and the present master of the house, one Sisilli, and Luken had enjoyed a friendly rivalry for possibly more years than Pat Rin had been alive. Therefore, it was likely that the house in question was on—

"Nasingtale Alley," Luken murmured. "Third house on the right, as you walk out from the High Port."

Pat Rin sipped tea. "Rents on Nasingtale Alley are certainly above my touch," he said to Luken. "I am yet a student."

"Yet an able student, for that," Luken said. "And the rent may not be . . . quite ruinous."

"Ah." He considered the face across from him thoughtfully. "Shall I set up my own establishment, father?"

Luken sighed. "It's a prying old man, to be sure," he said. "But I will tell you what is in my heart, boy-dear.

"Firstly, and true enough, I worry about you, walking about the port with large amounts of coin on you." He raised a hand. "I know your reputation with the small arms, but it would be best not to employ them."

"I agree," Pat Rin murmured, and Luken inclined his head.

"Too, it makes sense to hold a base near your daily business, and this house bin'Flora offers is certainly that.

"And lastly . . ." His voice faded and he glanced aside.

Pat Rin felt his stomach clench.

"You know your mother and I have no love lost between us," Luken said slowly, "despite that which the Code tells us is due to kin. And you know that, as a youngling, you were moved from your mother's care into mine, by the word of the Delm."

The Delm. That would have been Daav yos'Phelium, his mother's brother, gone from the clan these years, on a mission of Balance. There had been no love lost between his mother and her brother, either, Pat Rin knew, though as a child he had adored his tall, easy uncle.

"I confess that I was a bit puzzled when you went to live with your mother, after your schooling was done." He raised a hand. "I don't ask your reasons, boy-dear, though I know you had them. Nor will I speak ill of your mother to you. I will say that, drawing on my knowledge of you—and of her—perhaps you might consider if you would be more  . . .relaxed in your own small establishment."

That he certainly would be, Pat Rin thought, for his mother was a high stickler and kept stringent Code. He supposed that was inevitable, given her reputation as Liad's foremost scholar of and expert on the Code. She also held rank among Solcintra's leading hosts, and it was for that reason that Pat Rin, returning home from university and fixed upon the trade that he would follow, had taken up residence with his parent, rather than moving back into his comfortable place with Luken.

Kareen yos'Phelium could—and did, for who knew better what was due the heir of a woman of her impeccable lineage and melant'i?—launch him into society. Luken cared little for society, though his clientele came largely from the High Houses. And Pat Rin had needed the final polish and the ties to the High which only his mother could give him.

He wondered, here and now, sitting in Luken's sunny alcove, if he would have chosen differently, had he known the cost beforehand. For life with his mother was not easy, or comfortable, though he was surrounded by every luxury. He was required to live to his mother's standard, and to study the Code until he was very nearly an expert himself. He studied other things, as well, so that he would have a store of graceful conversation available; he attended all the fashionable plays, patronized his mother's excellent tailor, wore gems of the first water, and was never seen at a stand.

The one  . . .relaxation he allowed himself was target practice every other morning, on the lifetime membership to Tey Dor's Club which Uncle Daav had given to him.

Of course, he saw now—had seen last evening with sudden clarity—that his mother had never believed his assertions that he intended to make his way without recourse to the funds of the Clan. She had heard him, for she was a courteous listener, precisely as the Code instructed—heard him, but did not believe. And he had never quite seen that there would need be an after to his plan.

"Pat Rin?" Luken murmured.

He blinked back into now, and inclined his head.

"You understand," he said slowly. "That I attempt to . . .produce a certain, and very specific, affect. Produce, and sustain it."

Luken smiled. "I am not quite an idiot, boy-dear."

"Of course not," he murmured, more than half caught in his calculations. "So, the question before me now is whether the affect will remain fixed, should I retire to my own establishment."

"I should think," Luken said, "that the key would be not to retire, but to continue as you have been, only from the comfort of a bachelor's dig."

A townhouse on Nasingtale Alley could scarcely be called a 'dig'—and Luken, as he so often was, despite one's mother's contention that the rug merchant was no more nor less than a block—Luken was right. Pat Rin had only to carry on as he was. The invitations would continue to arrive—and he might even host a small entertainment or two, himself. The gods knew, he had assisted with enough of his mother's entertainments to know how the thing was done.

"Please consider," Luken said carefully. "You are now well known among the Houses. Your melant'i is your own, no matter that it in some measure reflects your mother's, and your Clan's, as it must. But—it would hardly do for you to regularly best your mother's houseguests while you yourself sleep under her roof. Nor would it be best for you, seen among the elders of many a House as a biddable young man always at your mother's call, to have to rigorously make a point . . ."

Pat Rin grimaced at this description of himself, while allowing that, from the outside, it might appear thus.

" . . .as I say, if you need to press an honest advantage across a table, it might be best if you do it first among the lesser members of the Houses until Lord Pat Rin is more fully known as himself. If being Lady Kareen's son is not your occupation, my boy, then having your own place will afford you both more flexibility in your evenings and more company in the mornings. I say this as one who was, alas, once young myself."

Seated, Pat Rin bowed the bow of apprentice to master.

"It might do," he said, and glanced to Luken's face. "If bin'Flora's rate is possible."

Luken smiled. "Please, know that there are two partners in every trade. The place would have been rented anytime the last two relumma were the matter simply one of cash flow. Not all would-be renters are High House, my boy. Nor," he said with sudden emphasis—"are all High House equally acceptable. Whatever the Code may teach."

"I will mention your interest to Sisilli," Luken concluded, and drank off the rest of his tea.

"As much as I enjoy your company, child, I am afraid that I must leave you for an appointment."

Pat Rin inclined his head, his gaze snagging on the manifest, lying forgotten on the table. He extended a slender hand and plucked the page up, running an eye trained by Master Merchant Luken bel'Tarda down the list of items.

"Shall I inventory these, while you are gone?" he asked Luken. "That will have to be done, whatever else Cousin Er Thom intends."

"So it will," Luken said, coming to his feet. "If you have the leisure, boy-dear, the work would be appreciated. You'll find the lot of them in the old private showing room. And also, since you will wish to have clear sight if not a clear head, I suggest you make use of some of the tea you will find there. It will have Terran wording on it—McWhortle's Special Wake-Up Blend—and it should be taken just as the directions instruct. Shall we plan on dining at Ongit's this evening?"

"I would enjoy that," he said truthfully. "Very much."

"Then that is what we shall do," Luken declared. "Until soon, my son."

"Until soon, father," Pat Rin responded and rose to bow Luken to the door.

* * *

IT APPEARED THAT Luken had been correct in his assessment of the lot of rugs from the Southern House, as well as in his understanding of the utility of McWhortle's Special Wake-Up Blend.

The tea was surprisingly tasty for something avowedly of Terran extraction, and equally efficacious.

The rugs . . . He sighed. Not all of the pilots of Korval—put together!—knew what Luken did of rugs, and some had, alas, displayed an amazing lack of both color sense and fashion awareness. The first rug, indifferently rolled and protected by nothing more than a thin sheet of plastic, was synthetic. He threw it across the flat onto the show-zone, where the mass and size were automatically recorded—the overhead camera recorded detail, but really—there wasn't much to say for it. Machine stamped in a small, boring floral pattern, backed with nothing more than its own fibers, with a density on the low side, it might as well be sent as a donation to the Pilot's Fund used-goods outlet in Low Port.

Pat Rin dutifully entered these deficiencies into his clipboard, slotted the stylus, and touched a key. The clipboard hummed for a moment, printing, and a yellow inventory tag slid out of the side slot. Pat Rin picked up the stitch gun and stapled the tag to the corner of the rug, before rolling it, bagging it in a bel'Tarda-logo light-proof wrapper, and dragging the sorry specimen over to the storage bin which he had marked with Cousin Er Thom's number and the additional legend, "Southern House."

Straightening, feeling somewhat better for the tea and in fact much more clear eyed—he looked suddenly to the shelf above the bin, where a long-haired white cat with excessively pink ears lounged, very much at her leisure. Likely she'd been there the while; that he hadn't noticed her was a further testament to his excesses of the evening before.

"Niki," Pat Rin murmured, extending a finger, but not quite touching the drowsing animal.

Her eyes slitted, then opened to full emerald glory. Yawning, she extended a pink-toed and frivolously befurred foot to wrap around his fingertip, her claws just pricking the surface of his skin.

Pat Rin smiled and used his free hand to rub the lady softly beneath her delicate chin. Niki's eyes went to slits again and her breathy purr filled the air between them. The claws withdrew from his captive finger and he let the freed member fall to his side, while moving his other hand to her ears. His exertions there were shortly rewarded with an increase in her audible pleasure, and he smiled again.

One's mother did not keep cats, or any other domestic creature, aside the occasional servant. It made for an oddly empty feel about the house, even when it was full with guests.

"Thank you," he whispered, giving her chin a last rub and stepping back. Niki squinted her eyes in a cat-smile, purring unabated.

Pat Rin turned back to his work.

The next rug was intriguingly and thickly wrapped in what must have been a local newspaper. He fussed the sheets off and found the rug rolled backing out, tied at intervals with what might have once been elegant hair-ribbons. He sat on his heels and smiled. This, he would examine last. It had good weight and somehow the smell of a proper rug—and would be his reward for doing a careful inventory of the rest of the obviously unsuitable specimens tumbled about them.

He used a utility blade to slit the plastic sealing the next rug, noting the ragged jute backing, and unrolled it onto the scale with a casual kick before bending to retrieve the clipboard.

The work was—comforting. Despite that Kareen yos'Phelium had declared that she would not have her heir made into a rug salesman—had in fact complained of him coming up with callused hands— Luken had trained him well, and he knew himself to be the master of the task he had set for himself. It could not be said that he completely shared his foster father's ecstatic enthusiasm for carpet, or his encyclopedic knowledge of their histories, but he owned to a fondness for the breed, and knew a certain pleasure in being once more among them.

The unrolled carpet was a geometric, hand-loomed in bronzes, browns and dark greens, with pale green fringe along the two short sides. It glistened in the light, inviting him to believe that it was silk. But he had seen the backing and was not taken-in.

As counterfeits went, it was rather a good one. The traditional Arkuba pattern had been faithfully reproduced, the measurements precisely those to which all Arkuba carpets adhered, to the very length of the pale fringe, and the vegetable-dyed thread. Alas, the luster which would, in the genuine article, be testimony to the silken threads that had gone into its manufacture, was in this case misleading. Rather than silk, the carpet before him had been woven with specially treated cotton thread.

A perfectly serviceable and attractive rug, really, setting aside for the moment those issues surrounding a counterfeit hall mark. Pat Rin merely hoped that the nameless ancestor who had purchased the thing had known it for what it was and had paid accordingly.

He entered his observations, tapped the stylus against the print button, and slid it into its slot while the clipboard hummed its tuneless tune and in the fullness of time extruded an inventory ticket which he stapled to the corner of the rug before bagging and dragging it over to the bin.

Niki was still on the shelf overhead, profoundly asleep. He smiled, but did not disturb her.

The protective plastic over the next carpet had been torn at some time—possibly as recently as the move from the Southern House to Luken's warehouses. Pat Rin slit what was left of the sheet, approving, as he did so, the plentitude of painstakingly tied knots along the carpet's underside, and the foundation of wool.

Once more, a kick sent the rug rolling out—and he sighed aloud. Insects had gotten in through the breached plastic. The wool in spots was eaten down to the backing, leaving the skeleton of a handsome rectilinear design he did not immediately recognize. No, this damage had not occurred in the warehouse, being both too extensive and too old.

Sighing yet again, he reached for the clipboard to record the loss—

"Cousin Luken?" The voice was clear and carrying—and unfortunately familiar.

Pat Rin closed his eyes, there where he rested on one knee beside the ruined rug, and wished fervently that she would overlook this room. There was little chance that she would, of course. His cousin Nova was nothing if not thorough. Unnaturally thorough, one might say.

"Cousin Luken!" she called again, her voice nearer this time.

Pat Rin opened his eyes, picked up the clipboard, fingered the stylus free and entered a description of the damage. The mechanism hummed and in due time a red tag emerged. He reached for the stitch gun—

"Oh, there you are, cousin!" Nova said from the doorway at his back.

Amidst the sound of approaching light footsteps, Pat Rin stapled the red tag to a corner of the ruined rug.

"Father sent me to help you catalog the rugs from the—" She stopped, aware, so Pat Rin thought, that she had made an error.

Gently, he placed the stitch gun on the floor next to the clipboard, and turned his head slightly so that she could see the side of his face.

"Cousin Pat Rin!" she exclaimed, with a measure of astonishment that he found not particularly flattering.

He inclined his head. "Cousin Nova," he stated, with deliberate coolness. "What a surprise to find you here."

The instant the words left his lips, he wished them back. He had spent the last year and more deliberately honing his wit and his tongue until they were weapons as formidable as the palm pistol he carried in his sleeve. Surely, it was ill-done of him to loose those weapons on a child.

"Is Cousin Luken to house?" she asked stiffly.

He rose carefully to his feet and turned to face her.

Nova's twelfth name day had been celebrated only a relumma past, and already she showed warning of the beauty she would become. Her hair was gilt, her eyes amethyst, her carriage erect and unstrained. She had, so he heard, passed the preliminary testing for pilot-candidate, an unsurprising fact which had nonetheless woken a twist of bitterness in him.

Today found her dressed in sturdy shirt and trousers, well-scuffed boots on her feet, passkey clenched in one hand, and a glare on her face for the ill-tempered elder cousin—for which he blamed her not at all.

"Alas, one's foster father is away on an appointment," he said, moderating his tone with an effort. "May I be of service, cousin?"

Her glare eased somewhat as she glanced about her.

"Father sends me to help Cousin Luken sort the carpets from the Southern House," she said tentatively. "However, I find you at that task."

It was not meant to be accusatory, he reminded himself forcefully. She was a child, with a child's grasp of nuance.

Though she had grasped the nuance of his greeting swiftly enough. He had the acquaintance of adults who would have not have taken his point so quickly—if at all.

So—"Cousin Er Thom had not written us to expect your arrival and assistance," he answered Nova, deliberately gentle. "I happened to be at liberty and took the work for my own."

She blinked at him, jewel-colored eyes frankly doubtful.

"You are aware, are you not," Pat Rin said, allowing himself an edge of irony, "that I am Luken's fosterling?"

"Ye-e-s-s," Nova agreed. "But Cousin Kareen—I heard her speaking with my father and she  . . ." Here she hesitated, perhaps nonplused to discover herself admitting to listening at doors.

Pat Rin inclined his head. "One's mother was adamant that I not be trained as a rug merchant," he said smoothly. "Alas, by the time she recognized the danger, the damage had long been done."

Nova's straight, pale mouth twitched a little, as if she had suppressed a smile.

"Will you come into Cousin Luken's business?" she asked, which was not an unreasonable question, from a daughter of the trade Line. Still, Pat Rin felt his temper tighten, spoiling the easier air that had been flowing between them.

"I've gone into another trade, thank you," he said shortly, and swept his hand out, showing her the pile of rolled rugs waiting to be inventoried. "For all that, I am competent enough in this one."

He sighed, recalling his mother's plans for him, and shook the memory away.

"If you like, you may assist me," he murmured, and that was no more than the Code taught was due from kin to kin: Elders taught those junior to them, freely sharing what knowledge and skill they had, so that the Clan continued, generation to generation, memory and talent intact.

Nova bowed, hastily. "I thank you, cousin. Indeed, I would be pleased to assist you."

"That is well, then. The sooner we address the task, the sooner it will be done. Attend me, now."

He moved over to the pile and kicked a smallish roll out into the work area. Dropping to knee, he slit the plastic, revealing a plain gauze backing. A push unrolled it onto the scale, and Pat Rin looked up at Nova, standing hesitant where he had left her.

"Please," he said, "honor me with your opinion of this."

Slowly, she came forward, and knelt across from him, frowning down at the riot of woolen flowers that comprised the rug's design. She rubbed her palm across the surface, gingerly.

"Wool," she said, which was no grand deduction, and flipped up the edge near her knee. The gauze backing disconcerted her for a moment, then she returned to the face, using her fingers to press into and about the design.

"Hand-hooked," she said then, and was very likely correct, Pat Rin thought, but as it stood it was no more than a guess. He held up a hand.

"Hooked, certainly," he murmured. "Where do you find the proof for 'handmade?'"

Eagerly, she flipped back the edge, and pointed to the row of tiny, uneven stitches set into the gauze.

"Ah." He inclined his head. "I see that your conclusion is not unreasonable. However, it is wise to bear in mind that carpets are sometimes adjusted—fringe is added, or removed, backings are sewn on—or removed—holes are rewoven. Therefore, despite the fact that someone has clearly sewn the backing on by hand, the rug itself might yet have been made by machine. The preferred proofs are . . ."

He extended a hand and smoothed the wool petal of a particularly extravagant yellow flower, displaying a stitching of darker thread beneath.

"Maker's mark."

Nova bit her lip.

"Or," Pat Rin continued, flipping the little rug entirely over with a practiced twist of his wrists. He put his palm flat on the backing and moved it slowly, as if he were stroking Niki. He motioned Nova to do the same—which she did, gingerly, and then somewhat firmer.

"What do you feel?" he asked.

"Knots," she replied. "So it is handmade—I was correct."

"It is handmade," he conceded, "and you were correct." He lifted a finger. "For the wrong reason."

She sighed, but— "I understand," was what she said.

"Good. If you will, of your goodness, hand me the clipboard, I will make that notation and then we may proceed with the rest of the inspection."

She picked up the clipboard in one hand and held it out to him over the rug. He took it, his thumb accidentally nudging the stylus out of its slot, sending it floorward in a glitter of silver—

Nova swept forward, her hand fairly blurring as she scooped the stylus out of the air, reversed it and held it out to him.

He blinked. A child, he thought, all of his bitterness rising . . . .

Some part of it must have shown on his face. Nova hesitated, hand drooping.

"I was too fast, wasn't I?" she said, sounding curiously humble. "I do beg your pardon, cousin. Father is trying to teach me better, but I fear I am sometimes forgetful."

"Teach you better?" Pat Rin repeated, and his voice was harsh in his own ears. "I thought speed was all, to those who would be pilots."

"Yes, but one mustn't be too fast," Nova said solemnly. "It won't do to frighten those who are not pilots—or to rush the instruments, when one is at the board."

He closed his eyes. Five times, since his eleventh name-day. Five times, he had tested for pilot and failed. Always, the tests found him too slow. Too slow—and this child, his cousin, must learn not to be too fast. He tried to decide if he most wished to laugh or to weep and in the end only opened his eyes again and took the stylus from her hand.

"My thanks," he murmured, and bent his head over the clipboard while he took his time making the initial entry.

"Now," he said when he could trust his voice for more than a few words. He looked over to Nova. "We must assess general condition, wear patterns, repairs, stains—that sort of thing. What say you?"

Seriously, she scrutinized the gauze backing, then turned the rug over, clumsily, to study the face, her hands chastely cupping her knees.

"Hands," Pat Rin murmured. "Use your hands."

He demonstrated, elegant fingers—ringless for this work—petting, gripping, pushing—his palms flowing about the top and bindings.

"Feel the nap. Is there a stiff spot which may be a stain invisible to the eye? Pull on the loops—do they hold or come loose? Smell the carpet—is it musty? Sour? All of these details are important."

She sent him one startled glance out of vivid purple eyes before bending forward, her right hand stroking and seeking. She bent her face closer—and sneezed.

"Dusty," she said.

He inclined his head.

She continued her inspection with that solemness which was characteristic of her, and at last sat back on her heels and looked at him across the rug.

"The threads are good, the stitches are firm. There is no staining visible to eye or to hand. The carpet is dusty, but fresh."

"Very good," he said, and plied the stylus once more.

When the yellow tag appeared, he handed it across to her.

"Use the stitch gun to staple the tag to the near corner."

He helped her wrestle the wrapper on it, and used his chin to point at the waiting carpets.

"Please choose our next subject and unroll it while I put this in its proper place."

She rose, a thing of pure, careless grace, and moved lithely to the pile. Pat Rin gritted his teeth and carried the little rug across to the bin.

Niki was sitting tall on the shelf. She blinked lazy green eyes at him as he stroked her breast.

Somewhat soothed, Pat Rin turned back to the work area, expecting to find the next specimen unrolled and awaiting inspection.

Indeed, a rug had been liberated from the pile, and he felt a momentary pang—she had chosen the one he had wanted to study himself. It displayed a promising underside, thick with knots. He sighed, then wondered about the delay.

Knife at her knee, Nova crouched over the roll, head bent above the single corner she had curled into the light. Her shoulders were rounded in an attitude of misery—or defiance.

"Unroll it!" he said, perhaps a little sharply, but Nova only knelt there.

Gods, what ailed the child? Pat Rin thought, irritably, and moved forward.

"Don't . . ." Nova moaned, "I know this rug!"

But that was nothing more than nonsense. Likely the thing had been away rolled in a dusty attic for a dozen dozen Standards . . . .

He moved down the cylinder, pulling the ribbon ties rapidly.

"Nova, help me roll this out."

She crouched lower, fingers gripping her corner . . .

Pat Rin delivered a smart kick and the thing unrolled with alacrity, as if the carpet had been yearning for its freedom.

Beside him, cowering now, head even closer to the floor and the corner of carpet she clung to, Nova gasped.

He looked down at the top of her bright head, frowning. Nothing he knew of Nova encouraged him to believe that she was a malingerer. Nor was it possible to imagine Cousin Er Thom or his lady wife, Cousin Anne, tolerating this sort of missish behavior for anything longer than a heartbeat.

"Are you ill?" he asked. "Cousin?"

She shuddered, and raised her head as if it were a very great weight.

"No," she said on a rising note, as though she questioned her answer even as she gave it. "I  . . .beg your pardon, cousin. A passing—a passing stupidity." She rose, slowly and with a quarter of her previous grace. "Pray . . . do not regard it."

He considered her. Carpets woven of certain esoteric materials did sometimes collect ill humors in storage. It was doubtful that this rug, which he had already tentatively classified as a Tantara of some considerable age, woven with vegetable dyed zeesa-wool thread that wore like ship-steel, had collected anything more than a little must, if that.

He glanced from her pale face to the rug. Yes—certainly it was an older Tantara, a geometric in the ivory-and-deep-green combination which had been retired for a dozen-dozen Standards, and in an absolutely enviable state of preservation, saving a stain on a wide section of the ivory-colored fringe.

Bending, he ran his hand over the nap near the stain—stiff fibers grazed his palm. Whatever the substance was, it had gotten into the rug, too, which meant that there would be more to repairing the damage than simply replacing the fringe. It was odd that the carpet had been rolled away without being cleaned—and unfortunate, too. Most stains could be eradicated, if treated when fresh. A stain which had set for dozens of years, perhaps—it might be impossible to entirely remove the mar.

"We will need the kit for this," he said briskly, straightening. "I'll fetch it while you do a preliminary inspection."

"Yes," she whispered, and he sent another frown into her pale face.

"Nova," he said, touching her hand. "Are you well?"

"Yes," she whispered again, and turned away to find the clipboard.

Irritated, he strode off to the supplies closet.

The diagnostic kit was hanging in its place on the peg-board wall. Despite this, Pat Rin did not immediately have it down and hurry back to the work area. The stained rug had languished for years without care. A few heartbeats more would do it no harm.

Leaning against the wall, he closed his eyes and took stock. The headache was the merest feeling of tightness behind his eyes, his stomach was empty, but unconcerned. In all, he had managed to come out of last evening's adventures in fairly good order. His present irritability was not, he knew, the result of overindulgence, but rather the presence of one of his pilot kin, innocent herself of any wrong-doing—and a poignant reminder of all that he was not. Nor ever would be.

"Be gentle with the child," he said to himself. "Did Luken show temper with you, thrust upon him unwarned and very likely unwanted?"

But, there. Luken was a gentle soul, and never showed temper, nor ever raised his voice, no matter how far he was provoked. He had other means of exacting Balance.

Pat Rin took another deep breath—and another. Opening his eyes, he could not say that he felt perfectly calm—but it would suffice. He hoped.

One more inhalation, for the luck. He had the kit off the peg and headed back to the workroom, and his assistant, and was brought up short on the threshold.

Nova stood in the center of the rug, shoulders and chin thrust forward in a distinctly truculent attitude, surveying the pattern.

"It is a beautiful rug, indeed," she said nastily, as if speaking to someone who stood next to her rather than one on the other side of the room.

"Indeed, show off the pattern. Tell us that it is an antique Quidian Tantara, unblemished, heirloom of a clan fallen on hard times, a clan of rug dealers who have kept this treasure until the last, until your wonderful trading skills brought its true glory to us! And how like you to bring it here as subterfuge, hiding the truth of it, magnifying yourself to the detriment of others, and to the Clan. Almost, you got away with it . . . ."

What was this? Was she speaking to him, after all? Had she discovered a pedigree card tucked into the end of the rug? In fact, from his view now, it might well be a Quidian, the rarest of  . . .

She turned and stared directly at him.

"How many times more will you fail?" she shouted.

Pat Rin froze, caught between astonishment and outrage. How dare

"One failure should certainly have been enough," he said, struggling to keep his tone merely courteous and his face smooth. "That there are more can be laid to your father's account."

"Kin will suffer for your lapses!" Nova snarled, moving forward one slow, threatening step.

"Yes, very likely!" he snapped, all out of patience. "But never fear, cousin. The clan will not suffer because of me. I will make my own way."

"You fail and fail again, always blaming others," ranted the girl on the rug, as if he hadn't spoken. "You will die dishonored and your kin will curse your name!"

Now that, Pat Rin thought, his anger abruptly gone, was coming rather too strong. It wasn't as if Korval had never produced a rogue. Rather too many, if truth were told—and most especially Line yos'Phelium. Taking up trade as a gamester was the merest bagatelle, set beside the accomplishments of some of the honored ancestors.

He came to the edge of the rug. Nova continued to stand at menace in the center, her attitude too—old, somehow. Too tense. And now that he brought his attention to it, he saw that her face was tight with an adult's deep and hopeless grief—and that her eyes were black, amethyst all but drowned in distended pupils.

Too, she stood in something very close to a fighter's stance . . . and was not quite looking at him

Pat Rin frowned. Something decidedly odd was going on. Perhaps she was acting out some part from a melant'i play? Though why she should do so, here and now, was beyond his understanding.

He held the diagnostic kit up before those pupil-drowned eyes.

"Come now!" He said, with brisk matter-of-factness. "We'll be at work into the next relumma if we stop every hour to play-act!"

The blind, grief-ridden face turned away from him.

"How many times will you fail?" she whispered—and the voice she spoke in was not her voice.

Pat Rin felt a frisson of horror. He cleared his throat.

"Nova?"

"Die dishonored," she mourned and sagged to her knees, palms flat against the carpet. "Cursed and forgotten."

He caught his breath. This was no play-acting. He couldn't, off-hand, think of any swift-striking disease that caused hallucination. There were recreational pharmaceuticals which produced vivid visions, but—

"Cursed," Nova moaned, in the voice of—The Other. And there was no drug that Pat Rin knew of which would produce that effect.

Come to that, it was not unknown for Korval to produce Healers, though such talents usually did not manifest until one came halfling. Not that this  . . .fit . . . bore any resemblance to his limited experience of Healer talent.

Dramliza?

But those talents, like Healing, usually came with puberty. And, surely, if one were dramliza . . . .

Crouched on the rug, Nova looked distinctly unwell. Her grief-locked face was pale, the black eyes screwed shut, now; and she was shivering, palms pressed hard against the carpet.

Clearly, whatever the problem was, she needed to be removed from the carpet, and brought away to a place where she might lie down while he called a medic to her—and her father.

Pat Rin put the diagnostic kit on the floor and went forward. When he reached the grieving girl, he knelt and put his hands, gently, on her shoulders.

"Nova."

No reply. Her shoulders were rigid under his fingers. He could see the pulse beating, much too fast, at the base of her slender throat.

Fear spiked Pat Rin—the child was ill! He made his decision, braced himself, slipped his arms around her waist and rose, lifting her with—

The quiescent, grieving child exploded into a fury of fists and feet and screams. He was pummeled, kicked, and punched—one fist landing with authority on his cheek.

Pat Rin staggered and went down on a knee. Nova broke free, rolled, and snapped to her feet, the carpet knife held in a blade-fighter's expert grip.

Blindingly fast, she thrust. Pat Rin threw himself flat, saw her boots dance past him and rolled, coming to his feet and spinning, body falling into the crouch his defense teacher had drilled him on, ready to take the charge that did not come.

Nova looked at him—perhaps she did look at him—and tossed the blade away, as if it were a stylus or some other harmless trifle, ignoring it as it bounced away, safely away, across the rug and onto the workroom floor. Niki, brought down from her comfort-spot by the noise, stalked it there, tail rigid, and smacked it smartly with a clawed paw.

Slowly, Pat Rin straightened, forcing himself to stand at his ease.

Something terrible was happening, and he was entirely out of his depth. He should, he thought, call the Healers now. And then he thought that he should—he must—get her off of the rug.

Perhaps persuasion would succeed where force had failed. He took a breath and shook the hair that had come loose from the tail out of his face. His cheek hurt and he would make odds that he would have a stunning bruise by evening. No matter.

He cleared his throat.

"Nova?"

No answer. Pat Rin sighed.

"Cousin?"

She raised her head, her eyes were pointed in his direction.

Ah, he thought. Now, how to parley this small advantage into a win?

He shifted, and looked down at the carpet. An old carpet, a treasure— a Quidian Tantara, the pattern as old as weaving itself. How Luken would love this rug.

Alas, he sorely missed Luken and his endless commonsense just now. What would he do in this eldritch moment? Cast a spell? Trap the offending spirit in a tea box?

Pat Rin looked up.

"Cousin," he said again, to Nova's black and sightless eyes. "I  . . .scarcely know you. If you must treat with me this way, at least show respect to our common Clan and tell me clearly which melant'i you use. "

He bowed flawlessly, the bow requesting instruction from kin.

Something changed in her face; he'd at least been seen, if not recognized.

"Melant'i games? You wish to play melant'i games with me? I see."

Chillingly, she swept a perfect bow: Head of line to child of another line.

"Lisha yos'Galan Clan Korval," she said in that strange voice, and bowed again, leading with her hand to display the ring it did not bear. "Master Trader. It is in this guise, Del Ben, that I became aware of your perfidy in dealing with bel'Tarda."

Del Ben? The name struck an uneasy memory. There had been a Del Ben yos'Phelium, many years back in the Line. Indeed, Pat Rin recalled, there had been three Del Ben yos'Pheliums—and then no more, which was  . . .peculiar . . . of itself. He remembered noticing that, during his studies of the Diaries and of lineage. And he remembered thinking it was odd that a yos'Phelium had died without issue, odder still that the death was not recorded, merely that Del Ban vanished from the log books between one page and the rest . . .

Nova's black eyes flashed. She laughed, not kindly. "Look at you! Hardly sense enough to see to your wounds! Well, bleed your precious yos'Phelium blood out on the damned rug if you will, and live with the mark of it. This—I am old. I am slow. I could never have touched the man you wish to be. But you—always, you do just enough to get by, just enough to cause trouble for others, just enough—"

"Bah," she said, interrupting herself with another bow: Cousin instructing cousin.

"This one? Well, cuz, I had thought myself well beyond the time of my life where I must marry at contract. But not only will I wed a bel'Tarda because of you, I will bring them into the Clan because of you."

Pat Rin froze—what was this?

She swept on, a child chillingly, absolutely convincing in the role of Clan elder.

"Ah, yes, smirk. I have seen the contracts. Tomorrow, I will sign them. Do you know that the dea'Gauss and bel'Tarda's man of business met this week? No—you might have, had you checked your weekly agendas, but when have you ever done so? Did you know that, between them, they decided that your life was insufficient to Balance the wrong done bel'Tarda?"

There was a laugh then, edgy and perhaps not quite sane. "Do you know that we are forbidden by Korval to kill you? But no matter, cuz, I am to both carry the bel'Tarda's heir, who will replace the man who suicided as a result of your extortion, and to oversee the rebuilding of their business—likely here on Liad!—since the heir and his heir died in the fire. The only proper Balance is to offer our protection, bring them into Korval, and insure that their Line lives on. For you—you nearly destroyed the whole of it! And you?"

Another frightening bow, this one so complex it took even Pat Rin's well-trained eye a moment to decode it: The bow of one who brings news of a death in the House.

Pat Rin, mesmerized, saw the play move on—

"You may see the Delm, if you dare, or you may choose a new name—one that lacks Korval, and one that lacks yos'Phelium. You may eat while you are in this house, you may sleep in this house, you may dress from the clothes you already own— but you will bring me your Clan rings, your insignia, your pass-keys. Bring them to me now. If you will speak to the Delm I will take you, else . . . .

"Hah, and so I thought, " she said, spitting on the rug.

"Remove this rug and bring me the items I named . . . Know that if you leave— if you go beyond the outside door— it will not readmit you."

With that the girl-woman kicked at the rug and stormed off of it, turning her back and crumpling into the pose Pat Rin had seen before . . . .

"I shall take the rug!" Pat Rin announced with sudden fervor, not certain that she'd heard.

He rolled it quickly, slung it manfully across his back in the carry he had learned so long ago from Luken, and hustled it out into the hall, where he dumped it hurriedly on the back stairs to his loft room, and clicked the mechanical lock forcefully.

He snatched the portable comm from its shelf and rushed back to the door of the display room, where he could see the girl huddled in sobs amid the ribbons that had once bound the cursed rug.

His fingers moved on the comm's keypad and he wondered who they had called. A faint chime came out of the speaker . . . .another—and a woman's voice, speaking crisply.

"Solcintra Healer Hall. Service?"

* * *

THE HEALERS—a plump, merry-faced man and a thin, stern woman—arrived. The woman went immediately to Nova where she crouched and wept against the floor. The man tarried by Pat Rin's side.

"Did you move anything?"

"I took the carpet away, as she commanded," he said. "I locked the carpet knife in a drawer."

The Healer inclined his head. "We will wish to see both, later." He glanced about him and used his chin to point at the ceiling camera. "Is that live?"

"Yes," Pat Rin murmured. "Shall I—?"

"We will want a copy of the recording, yes, sir," the Healer said. "If you could have that done while we are examining your kinswoman, it would be most helpful."

"Certainly," Pat Rin said, and the Healer patted his arm, as if they were kin, or old and comfortable comrades, and strolled away across the floor.

Glad of being given a specific task, Pat Rin moved to the control desk, keeping an eye on the huddled group. The Healers blocked his sight of Nova, but, still, he was her nearest kin present and the Code was explicit as to his duties—until her father arrived to take them over.

Behind the control desk, he touched keys, taking the current camera off-line and activating the back-up. He accessed the first's memory, and started the preliminary scan.

Murmurs came from across the room as he worked, but the thin, hopeless sobbing had at last ceased, and Pat Rin drew a deep breath of relief. The Healers were here; surely they would put all to rights—

The sound of rapid footsteps sounded in the hallway, a shadow flickered in the doorway, and Er Thom yos'Galan was in the room, face set and breathing as easily as if he had not all but run down the long hall—and quite possibly all the way from Port. He paused, scanning, discovered the Healers, kneeling together on the show room floor, took a step—and checked, turning slightly until he spied Pat Rin behind the desk.

His mouth tightened and he came forward. Pat Rin touched the 'pause' key and drew himself straight.

"Where is your cousin?" Er Thom asked, without greeting, in a voice so stringently calm that Pat Rin felt a small shiver of pity for stern and commonsense Cousin Er Thom.

He inclined his head. "The Healers have come. Already, I believe the situation improves."

Er Thom glanced over his shoulder. "Could you not have moved her from the floor?"

"She . . .did not know me," Pat Rin said carefully, and put light fingertips against the cheek Nova had punched. "I had tried to move her, earlier, and she fought like a lyr-cat protecting her litter." He took a breath. "It seemed best not to make a second attempt, with the Healers on the way."

"So." Er Thom drew a careful breath of his own. "What do you?"

"The Healers requested a copy of the tape."

"Tape?"

Pat Rin swept a hand out, encompassing the showroom. "We were making an inventory of the rugs you had sent from the Southern House," he murmured. "The camera was on, of course."

"Of course," Korval-pernard'i said politely, and cast one more look at the Healers. Pat Rin could all but see his longing to go to his child's side—and then saw discipline snap into place. A wise man—a man who wished the very best outcome for his wounded child—that man did not interrupt Healers at their work.

Er Thom took a hard breath and stepped 'round the corner of the desk.

"Show me the film," he ordered.

* * *

THE FEMALE HEALER had gone, taking Nova, Er Thom and the copy of the work session recording with her, leaving her partner to examine the carpet knife—which he proclaimed harmless—and the carpet.

"Ah, I see," he murmured, as for the second time that afternoon Pat Rin unrolled the thing on the showroom floor. The Healer stepped onto the carpet, and Pat Rin tensed, half-expecting to see his face twist into that expression of angry pain.

But whatever haunted the rug appeared to have no hold on the Healer. He knelt, carefully, at a corner and put his hands flat on the ivory-and-green pattern. Closing his eyes, he moved his hands over the rug, walking forward on his knees as he did so, as if he wished to stroke every fiber.

Pat Rin, relieved that there would apparently be no second playing of the tragedy, removed himself to the control desk once more, and began to shut down for the day. He would inventory the remaining carpets tomorrow, he told himself. Alone.

There was a small burble of sound and a flash of fly-away fur. Niki landed on silent pink toes by the control board. Pat Rin smiled and held out his hand; the cat rubbed her cheek against his fingers, then sat down, wrapped her tail neatly 'round her toes and squinted her eyes in a cat-smile, as if to assure him that all was well.

Yes, precisely.

He returned to his task, comforted by the routine and her silent presence—

"What were your plans for that rug?"

"Eh?" Pat Rin blinked, and looked up at the sudden Healer. "Truly, sir, it is not my place to have plans for it. I do not hide from you that it is an extremely valuable carpet, even if the stain cannot be removed, and that it belongs to Line yos'Galan."

"Stain?" murmured the Healer, tipping his head to one side. "There is no stain, young sir."

Pat Rin felt the hairs rise along the back of his neck.

"Most assuredly," he said, moving round the desk and marching toward the rug in question, "there is a stain."

"Here," he said, arriving. He swept a hand downward, his eyes on the Healer's face. "Only look here and you will see where the fringe has—"

The Healer was watching his face, calmly. Pat Rin looked down.

There was no brown stain marring the wave of ivory fringe. He bent, stroked the supple woolen nap which had scant hours before been stiff with—blood. Del Ban yos'Phelium's blood.

"I believe that the most excellent yos'Galan will not favor this rug, young sir," the Healer murmured. "Perhaps you might take charge of it." He raised his hand as if he had heard Pat Rin's unspoken protest. And perhaps, thought Pat Rin, he had.

"I will speak with your cousin on the matter, for it comes to me that such a rug, gotten at such cost, ought not to be destroyed, no matter the pain it has unwittingly brought to a daughter of the House." The Healer cocked his head. "Keep it by, do."

Pat Rin bowed.

"Very well," the other said, with a sigh. "I leave you now, sir. A pleasure to make your acquaintance."

"Wait—" Pat Rin put out a hand as if he would physically restrain the man.

The Healer paused. "Yes?"

"My cousin Nova—what ailed her? Will she mend? How shall— ?"

"Peace, peace," the Healer laughed. "The Masters must have their chance at diagnosis, but it seems to me that your cousin has a very rare talent in the dramliz spectrum."

Dramliza. Pat Rin closed his eyes. "What talent?" he asked, 'round the pain in his heart.

"Why, she remembers," the Healer said, as Pat Rin opened his eyes. "That's all." He gave the carpet one more long glance.

"I really must—ah, a moment, of your kindness!" He leaned forward, and before Pat Rin knew what he intended, had cupped the injured cheek in a warm and slightly moist palm.

There was a small tingle—and the pain flowed away, leaving only warmth.

The Healer stepped back, placed his hand over his heart and bowed.

"Peace unto you, Pat Rin yos'Phelium. Long life and fair profit."

"Healer—" Pat Rin began.

But the Healer was gone.

* * *

PIN'WELTIR HAD GONE some hours ahead of the rest, pleading another appointment, which seemed odd at that hour of the morning—but who was Pat Rin yos'Phelium to comment upon the arrangements of a mere acquaintance? He did note, privately, that pin'Weltir had not recalled this second appointment until Luken had roundly trounced him at piket, lightening his brash lordship's purse by a considerable number of coins.

Still, and excusing the early departure of a guest not much missed in his absence, Pat Rin counted this first party in his own establishment a success. He was quite sincerely exhausted by his hostly duties, yet exhilarated.

The last, late-staying guest bowed out, and the door locked, Pat Rin moved down the hall to the room he had made his study. There, as he expected, he found his foster father, seated in Pat Rin's reading chair, thoughtfully gazing at the ivory-and-green carpet.

Pat Rin hesitated in the doorway. Luken looked up, face roguish in the soft yellow light.

"Well, boy-dear! Well, indeed. A most glorious crush, hosted with grace and style! I daresay you will sleep the day through, now."

"Not quite now," Pat Rin murmured.

Luken smiled. "A bit in the upper key, is it? Never mind it—very shortly Lord Pat Rin will find hosting a party three times this to be a mere nothing!"

Pat Rin laughed. "Verily, Lord Pat Rin shall be nothing more nor less than a fidget-about-town. I wonder how you might bear with so slight a fellow."

"Now, there," Luken said, with sudden seriousness, "you touch near to a topic I wished to bring before you. I wonder—have you thought of entering the lists at Tey Dor's?"

Pat Rin blinked, and drifted into the room, across the Tantara, to prop a hip against the desk and looked down into his foster father's face.

"I had never thought of competing at Tey Dor's," he said then. "Should I have?"

"You might find that you will wish to do so," Luken said, "as you consider the . . . affect you wish to sustain. For I do not think, boy-dear, that you would do very well in a long-term role either as fidget or as mushroom."

"Ah." Pat Rin smiled. "Lord Pat Rin shall be flamboyant, shall he?"

Luken raised a finger. "Lord Pat Rin, if you will permit me, boy-dear, shall be accomplished."

"I'll grant that's a happier thought," his son said after a moment. He inclined his head. "Allow me to consider the matter, when my head is done spinning."

"Surely, surely." Luken paused before murmuring. "I wonder if you have heard that young Nova takes lessons at the dramliz school now—and has passed the preliminary for third-class pilot."

Pat Rin inclined his head. "She was by a three-day gone, with a gift for the house. We drank tea and she caught me up with her news."

"Ah?" Luken said. "And how do you find yourselves aligned, if an old man might ask it."

"We are—comfortable," Pat Rin said after a moment. "She—I do not know how such a thing might be, but—she remembers both sides of the  . . .incident, and we have, thereby, an understanding."

There was a small silence. "Good," Luken said, simply, and pushed himself out of the chair. Pat Rin leapt forward to offer him an arm.

"Must you leave?" he asked, and Luken laughed.

"I daresay the two of us might now repair to the Port for a game or six, were I thirty years younger!" He said, patting Pat Rin's hand. "But you must have pity on an old man and allow me to seek my bed."

"Certainly," Pat Rin replied, walking with him toward the hallway. "I will summon a cab."

"Assuredly you will, sir!" Luken turned suddenly, face serious. "Lord Pat Rin will have servants to attend to these small matters for him."

"I daresay he might," Pat Rin retorted, with spirit, "for those who are merely guests. But if Lord Pat Rin should ever fail of attending the father of his heart personally, I shall know him for a worthless dog, no matter his accomplishments."

Luken paused, then extended a hand to cup Pat Rin's cheek. "Sweet lad." He let the hand fall away and smiled, softly. "Call for the cab, then, and be welcome."

Quickly, Pat Rin stepped back into his study and made the call. Turning back, he saw Luken framed in the doorway, his eyes dreaming once more upon the Tantara.

"Father?" he said, abruptly.

Luken looked up, face mild. "Child?"

Pat Rin cleared his throat. "I—do you mind?" he blurted. "The carpet—it is yours; the treasure of your Line. It should—"

Luken held up a hand. "Peace." He glanced down at the ivory-and-green design, smiling slightly as he once again met Pat Rin's eyes.

"I allow it to be a gem, and everything that is graceful. Even, I allow it to be a family heirloom. Who best to have the keeping of such a treasure, than my son?"

Pat Rin's eyes filled. "Father—"

"Nay, I'll brook no argument, willful creature! Hark! Is that the cab?"

It was. Luken fastened his cloak and together they went down the steps to the walk. Pat Rin opened the door and saw his father comfortably disposed. That done, he handed the driver a coin.

"Good-night, boy-dear," Luken said from the back. "Sweet dreams to you."

"Good-night, father," he returned, stepping back from the curb. "Sweet dreaming."

The cab pulled away, accelerating smoothly down the long, dark street.


The Updated But Partial


Liaden Universe(r) Time Line


Updated November 16, 2002


Standard YearEvent/Story

1118"Balance of Trade"/Balance of Trade

1123"Naratha's Shadow"

1177"Sweet Waters"

1293"Phoenix"

1313Kareen yos'Phelium born

1320Dutiful Passage enters service

1325Er Thom yos'Galan born

1326Daav yos'Phelium born

1327Anne Davis born

1335Aelliana Caylon born

1339"Pilot of Korval"

1346"Choice of Weapons"

1351Pat Rin yos'Phelium born

1357Shan yos'Galan born

1359Priscilla Delacroix y Mendoza born

Early 1360Local Custom

Early 1361Scout's Progress

1362Val Con yos'Phelium born

1362Nova yos'Galan born

1365Miri Robertson born

1365Aelliana Caylon dies

1366Daav yos'Phelium leaves Liad

1366Anthora yos'Galan born

1369Ren Zel dea'Judan born

1373"Veil of The Dancer"

1374"Heirloom"

1375"Matter of Dreams", "Moonphase"

1380"To Cut An Edge"

1382Anne Davis dies

1383Er Thom yos'Galan dies

Early 1385"A Day at the Races"

Early 1385"Certain Symmetry"

Late 1385Conflict of Honors

Early 1386Conflict of Honors

1390"Changeling"

1392Agent of Change

1393Carpe Diem

1393Plan B/"Breath's Duty"

1393I Dare


Editor's Note: Most Lee & Miller Lute and Moonhawk stories remain undated in this list. Also not included or dated are several yet unpublished Liaden Universe stories scheduled for the next year.



QUIET KNIVES

Adventures in the Liaden Universe® Number Nine

First published in 2003 by SRM, Publisher.

Veil of The Dancer originally appeared in Absolute Magnitude #19, Summer/Fall 2002

 


Dedicated to


Lou and Beth


Veil of the Dancer


IN THE CITY OF Iravati on the world of Skardu, there lived a scholar who had three daughters, and they were the light and comfort of his elder years.

Greatly did the scholar rejoice in his two elder daughters—golden-haired Humaria; Shereen with her tresses of flame—both of these born of the wives his father had picked out for him when he was still a young man. Surely, they were beautiful and possessed of every womanly grace, the elder daughters of Scholar Reyman Bhar. Surely, he valued them, as a pious father should.

The third—ah, the third daughter. Small and dark and wise as a mouse was the daughter of his third, and last, wife. The girl was clever, and it had amused him to teach her to read, and to do sums, and to speak the various tongues of the unpious. Surely, these were not the natural studies of a daughter, even the daughter of so renowned a scholar as Reyman Bhar.

It began as duty; for a father must demonstrate to his daughters that, however much they are beloved, they are deficient in that acuity of thought by which the gods mark out males as the natural leaders of household, and world. But little Inas, bold mouse, did not fail to learn her letters, as her sisters had. Problems mathematic she relished as much as flame-haired Shereen did candied sventi leaves. Walks along the river way brought forth the proper names of birds and their kin; in the long neglected glade of Istat, with its ancient sundial and moon-marks she proved herself astute in the motions of the planets.

Higher languages rose as readily to her lips as the dialect of women; she read not only for knowledge, but for joy, treasuring especially the myths of her mother's now empty homeland.

Seeing the joy of learning in her, the teaching became experiment more than duty, as the scholar sought to discover the limits of his little one's mind.

On the eve of her fourteenth birthday, he had not yet found them.

* * *

WELL THOUGH THE SCHOLAR loved his daughters, yet it is a father's duty to see them profitably married. The man he had decided upon for his golden Humaria was one Safarez, eldest son of Merchant Gabir Majidi. It was a balanced match, as both the scholar and the merchant agreed. The Majidi son was a pious man of sober, studious nature, who bore his thirty years with dignity. Over the course of several interviews with the father and the son, Scholar Bhar had become certain that Safarez would value nineteen year old Humaria, gay and heedless as a flitterbee; more, that he would protect her and discipline her and be not behind in those duties which are a husband's joy and especial burden.

So, the price was set, and met; the priests consulted regarding the proper day and hour; the marriage garden rented; and, finally, Humaria informed of the upcoming blessed alteration in her circumstances.

Naturally enough, she wept, for she was a good girl and valued her father as she ought. Naturally enough, Shereen ran to cuddle her and murmur sweet, soothing nonsense into her pretty ears. The scholar left them to it, and sought his study, where he found his youngest, dark Inas, bent over a book in the lamplight.

She turned when he entered, and knelt, as befit both a daughter and a student, and bowed 'til her forehead touched the carpet. Scholar Bhar paused, admiring the graceful arc of her slim body within the silken pool of her robes. His mouse was growing, he thought. Soon, he would be about choosing a husband for her.

But not yet. Now, it was Humaria, and, at the change of season he would situate Shereen, who would surely pine for her sister's companionship. He had a likely match in mind, there, and the husband's property not so far distant from the Majidi. Then, next year, perhaps—or, more comfortably, the year after that—he would look about for a suitable husband for his precious, precocious mouse.

"Arise, daughter," he said now, and marked how she did so, swaying to her feet in a single, boneless move, the robes rustling, then falling silent, sheathing her poised and silent slenderness.

"So," he said, and met her dark eyes through the veil. "A momentous change approaches your life, my child. Your sister Humaria is to wed."

Inas bowed, dainty hands folded demurely before her.

"What?" he chided gently. "Do you not share your sister's joy?"

There was a small pause, not unusual; his mouse weighed her words like a miser weighed his gold.

"Certainly, if my sister is joyous, then it would be unworthy of me to weep," she said in her soft, soothing voice. "If it is permitted that I know—who has come forward as her husband?"

Reyman Bhar nodded, well-pleased to find proper womanly feeling, as well as a scholar's thirst for knowledge.

"You are allowed to know that Safarez, eldest son of Majidi the Merchant, has claimed the right to husband Humaria."

Inas the subtle stood silent, then bowed once more, as if an afterthought, which was not, the scholar thought, like her. He moved to his desk, giving her time to consider, for, surely, even his clever mouse was female, if not yet full woman, and might perhaps know a moment's envy for a sister's good fortune.

"They are very grand, the Majidi," she said softly. "Humaria will be pleased."

"Eventually, she will be so," he allowed, seating himself and pulling a notetaker forward. "Today, she weeps for the home she will lose. Tomorrow, she will sing for the home she is to gain."

"Yes," said Inas, and the scholar smiled into his beard.

"Your sisters will require your assistance with the wedding preparations," he said, opening the notetaker and beginning a list. "I will be going to Lahore-Gadani tomorrow, to purchase what is needful. Tell me what I shall bring you."

Mouse silence.

"I? I am not to be wed, Father."

"True. However, it has not escaped one's attention that tomorrow is the anniversary of your natal day. It amuses me to bring you a gift from the city, in celebration. What shall you have?"

"Why, only yourself, returned to us timely and in good health," Inas said, which was proper, and womanly, and dutiful.

The scholar smiled more widely into his beard, and said nothing else.

* * *

HUMARIA WEPT WELL INTO the night, rocking inside the circle of Shereen's arms. At last, her sobs quieted somewhat, and Shereen looked to Inas, who sat on a pillow across the room, as she had all evening, playing Humaria's favorite songs, softly, upon the lap-harp.

Obedient to the message in her sister's eyes, Inas put the harp aside, arose and moved silently to the cooking alcove. Deftly, she put the kettle on the heat-ring, rinsed the pot with warm water and measured peace tea into an infuser.

The kettle boiled. While the tea steeped, she placed Humaria's own blue cup on a tray, with a few sweet biscuits and some leaves of candied sventi. At the last, she added a pink candle, sacred to Amineh, the little god of women, and breathed a prayer for heart's ease. Then, she lifted the tray and carried it to her sister's couch.

Humaria lay against Shereen's breast, veils and hair disordered. Inas knelt by the end table, placed the tray, and poured tea.

"Here, sweet love," Shereen cooed, easing Humaria away from her shoulder. "Our dear sister Inas offers tea in your own pretty cup. Drink, and be at peace."

Shivering, Humaria accepted the cup. She bent her face and breathed of the sweet, narcotic steam, then sipped, eyes closed.

Shereen sat up, and put her head scarf to rights, though she left the ubaie—the facial veils—unhooked and dangling along her right jaw.

"Our young Inas is fortunate, is she not, sister?" Humaria murmured, her soft voice blurry with the combined effects of weeping and the tea.

"How so?" asked Shereen, watching her closely, in case she should suddenly droop into sleep.

"Why," said Humaria, sipping tea. "Because she will remain here in our home with our father, and need never marry. Indeed, I would wonder if a husband could be found for a woman who reads as well as a man. "

Shereen blinked, and bent her head, fussing with the fall of the hijab across her breast. Inas watched her, abruptly chilly, though the night was warm and no breeze came though the windows that stood open onto the garden.

"Certainly," Shereen said, after too long a pause. "Certainly, our father might wish to keep his youngest with him as long as may be, since he shows no disposition to take another wife, and she knows the ways of his books and his studies."

"And certainly," Humaria said, her eyes open now, and staring at Inas, where she knelt, feeling much like a mouse, and not so bold, so bold at all.

"Certainly, on that blessed day when the gods call our father to sit with them as a saint in Heaven, my husband will inherit all his worldly stuffs, including this, our clever sister Inas, to dispose of as he will."

At her father's direction, Inas had read many things, including the Holy Books and domestic law. She knew, with a scholar's detachment, that women were the lesser vessel and men the god-chosen administrators of the universe the gods had created, toyed with and tired of.

She knew that, in point of law, women were disbarred from holding property. Indeed, in point of law, women were themselves property, much the same as an ox or other working cattle, subject to a man's masterful oversight. A man might dispose of subject women, as he might dispose of an extra brood cow, or of an old and toothless dog.

She knew these things.

And, yet, until this moment, she had not considered the impact of these facts upon her own life and self.

What, indeed, she thought, would Safarez the merchant's son do with one Inas, youngest daughter of his wife's father? Inas, who read as well as a man—a sinful blot so dire that she could not but be grateful that the Holy Books also stated that the souls of women were small, withered things, of no interest to the gods.

Humaria finished the last of her tea, and sat cradling the blue cup in her plump, pretty hands, her eyes misty.

"There now, sweet, rest," Shereen murmured, capturing the cup and passing it to Inas. She put arm around Humaria's shoulders, urging her to lie down on the couch.

Inas arose and carried the tray back to the cooking alcove. She washed and dried the teapot and cup, and put the crackers back in their tin. The sventi she left out.

She was wise in this, for not many minutes later, Shereen slipped into the alcove, veils dangling and flame-colored hair rippling free. She sighed, and reached for the leaves, eating two, one after the other, before giving Inas a swift glance out of the sides of her eyes, as if Shereen were the youngest, and caught by her elder in some unwomanly bit of mischief.

"Our sister was distraught," she said softly. "She never meant to wound you."

"She did not wound me," Inas murmured. "She opened my eyes to the truth."

Shereen stared, sventi leaf halfway to her lips.

"You do not find the truth a fearsome thing, then, sister?" she asked, and it was Inas who looked away this time.

"The truth is merely a statement of what is," she said, repeating the most basic of her father's lessons, and wishing that her voice did not tremble so. "Once the truth is known, it can be accepted. Truth defines the order of the universe. By accepting truth, we accept the will of the gods."

Shereen ate her leaf in silence. "It must be a wonderful thing to be a scholar," she said then, "and have no reason to fear." She smiled, wearily.

"Give you sweet slumber, sister. The morrow will be upon us too soon."

She went away, robes rustling, leaving Inas alone with the truth.

* * *

THE TRUTH, BEING BRIGHT, held Inas from sleep, until at last she sat up within her chatrue, lit her fragrant lamp, and had the books of her own studies down from the shelf.

In the doubled brightness, she read until the astronomer on his distant column announced the sighting of the Trio of morning with his baleful song.

She read as a scholar would, from books to which her father, the elder scholar, had directed her, desiring her to put aside those he might wish to study.

The book she read in the lamplight was surely one which her father would find of interest. A volume of Kenazari mythology, it listed the gods and saints by their various praise names and detailed their honors.

Nawar caught her eye, "the one who guards." A warrior's name, surely. Yet, her mother had been named Nawar. A second aspect of the same god, Natesa—"blade dancer"—in the Kenazari heresy that held each person was a spirit reincarnated until perfected, alternatively took the form of male and female. The duty of the god in either aspect was to confound the gods of order and introduce random action into the universe, which was heresy, as well, for the priests taught that the purpose of the gods, enacted through mortal men, was to order and regulate the universe.

Inas leaned back against her pillows and considered what she knew of her father's third wife. Nawar had been one of the married women chosen as guardians of the three dozen maiden wives sent south from Kenazari as the peace tithe. Each maiden was to be wed to a wise man or scholar, and it had been the hope of the scholars who had negotiated it that these marriages would heal the rifts which had opened between those who had together tamed the wildlands.

Alas, it had been a peace worked out and implemented locally, as the Holy Books taught, and it had left the mountain generals unsatisfied.

Despite the agreement and the high hopes of wise men, the generals and their soldiers swept through Kenazari shortly after the rich caravan of dowries and oath-bound girls passed beyond the walls of the redoubt. Fueled by greed, bearing off-world weapons, they murdered and laid waste—and then dispersed, melting back into the mountains, leaving nothing of ancient, wealthy Kenazari, save stone and carrion.

The priests of the south found the married escorts to be widows and awarded them to worthy husbands. Reyman Bhar had lately performed a great service for the priests of Iravati, and stood in need of a wife. Nawar was thus bestowed upon him, and it had pleased the gods to allow them to find joy, each in the other, for she was a daughter of an old house of scholars, and could read, and write, and reason as well as any man. Her city was dead, but she made shift to preserve what could be found of its works, assisted gladly by her new husband.

So it was that numerous scrolls, books, and tomes written in the soon-to-be-forgotten language found their way into the house of Scholar Bhar, where eventually they came under the study of a girl child, in the tradition of her mother's house . . .

The astronomer on his tall, cold column called the Trio. Inas looked to her store of oil, seeing it sadly depleted, and turned the lamp back til the light fled and the smoky wick gave its ghost to the distant dawn.

She slept then, her head full of the myths of ancient Kenazari, marriage far removed from her dreams.

* * *

THEIR FATHER SENT WORD that he would be some days in the city of Lahore-Gadani, one day to west across the windswept ridges of the Marakwenti range that separated Iravati from the river Gadan. He had happened upon his most excellent friend and colleague, Scholar Baquar Hafeez, who begged him to shed the light of his intellect upon a problem of rare complexity.

This news was conveyed to them by Nasir, their father's servant, speaking through the screen in the guest door.

Humaria at once commenced to weep, her face buried in her hands as she rocked back and forth, moaning, "He has forgotten my wedding! I will go to my husband ragged and ashamed!"

Shereen rushed to embrace her, while Inas sighed, irritable with lack of sleep.

"I do not think our father has forgotten your wedding, sister," she said, softly, but Humaria only cried harder.

As it happened, their father had not forgotten his daughters, nor his mission in the city. The first parcels arrived shortly after Uncu's prayer was called, and were passed through the gate, one by one.

Bolts of saffron silk, from which Humaria's bridal robes would be sewn; yards of pearls; rings of gold and topaz; bracelets of gold; ubaie fragile as spider silk and as white as salt; hairpins, headcloths, and combs; sandals; needles; thread. More bolts, in brown and black, from which Humaria's new dayrobes would be made, and a hooded black cloak, lined in fleece.

Additional parcels arrived as the day wore on: A bolt each of good black silk for Shereen and Inas; headcloths, ubaie; silver bracelets, and silver rings set with onyx.

Humaria and Shereen fell upon each new arrival with cries of gladness. Shereen ran for her patterns; Humaria gave the saffron silk one last caress and scampered off for scissors and chalk.

Inas put her silk and rings and bracelets aside, and began to clear the worktable.

Across the room, the guest screen slid back and a small package wrapped in brown paper and tied with red string was placed on the ledge.

Inas went forward, wondering what else was here to adorn Humaria's wedding day, even as she recognized her father's hand and the lines that formed her own name.

Smiling, she caught the package up and hurried, light-footed, to her room. Once there, she broke the red string and unwrapped the brown paper, exposing not a book, as she had expected, from the weight and the size, but a box.

She put it aside, and searched the wrapping for any note from her father. There was none, and she turned her attention back to his gift.

It was an old box of leather-wrapped wood. Doubtless, it had been handsome in its day, but it seemed lately to have fallen on hard times. The leather was scuffed in places, cracked in others, the ornamental gilt work all but worn away. She turned it over in her hands, and rubbed her thumb along a tear in the leather where the wood showed through—gray, which would be ironwood, she thought, from her study of native product.

She turned the box again, set it on her knee, released the three ivory hooks and lifted the lid.

Inside were seven small volumes, each bound in leather much better preserved than that which sheathed the box.

Carefully, she removed the first volume on the right; carefully, she opened it—and all but laughed aloud, for here was treasure, indeed, and all honor to her father, for believing her worthy of so scholarly a gift. She had read of such things, but this was the first she had seen. A curiat—a diary kept of a journey, or a course of study, or a penance.

These . . . Quickly, she had the remaining six out and opened, sliding the ubaie away from her eyes, the better to see the handwritten words. Yes. These detailed a scholar's journey—one volume dealt with geography, another with plants, another with minerals, still another with animals. Volume five detailed temples and universities, while volume six seemed a list of expenditures. The seventh volume indexed the preceding six. All were written in a fine, clear hand, using the common, or trade, alphabet, rather than that of the scholars, which was odd, but not entirely outside of the scope of possibility. Perhaps the scholar in question had liked the resonances which had been evoked by writing in the common script. Scholars often indulged in thought experiments, and this seven volume curiat had a complexity, a layering, that suggested it had been conceived and executed by a scholar of the highest learning.

Carefully, she put volumes two through seven back in the box and opened the first, being careful not to crack the spine.

"Inas?" Shereen's voice startled her out of her reading. Quickly, she thrust the book into the box and silently shut the lid.

"Yes, sister?" she called.

"Wherever have you been?" her elder scolded from the other side of the curtain. "We need your needle out here, lazy girl. Will you send your sister to her husband in old dayrobes?"

"Of course not," Inas said. Silently, she stood, picked up the box, and slipped it beneath the mattress. Later, she would move it to the secure hidey hole, but, for now, the mattress would suffice.

"Well?" Shereen asked, acidic. "Are you going to sleep all day?"

"No, sister," Inas said meekly and pushed the curtain aside.

* * *

THE DAYS OF THEIR father's absence was a frenzy of needlework. At night, after her sisters had fallen, exhausted, into their beds, Inas read the curiat, and learned amazing things.

First, she learned that the geographical volume mislocated several key markers, such as the Ilam Mountains, and the Sea of Lukistan. Distrustful of her own knowledge in the face of a work of scholarship, she stole off to her father's study in the deep of night, and pulled down the atlas. She compared the latitudes and longitudes given in the curiat volume against those established by the Geographical College, verifying that the curiat was off in some areas by a league, and in others by a day's hard travel.

Next, she discovered that the habits of certain animals were misrepresented—these, too, she double-checked in the compendium of creatures issued by the Zoological College.

Within the volume of universities and temples were bits of myth, comparing those found in Lahore-Gadani to others, from Selikot. Several fragments dealt with the exploits of the disorderly Natesa; one such named the aspect Shiva, another Nawar; all set against yet a third mythic creature, the Coyote of the Nile.

Then, she discovered that the whole of volume five had been machine printed, in perfect reproduction of the fine hand of the scholar. So the curiat was not as ancient as it appeared, which gave her cause to marvel upon the scholar who had created it.

Minerals—well, but by the time she had found the discrepancies in the weights of certain ores, she had made the discovery which explained every error.

She had, as was her habit, waited until her sisters retired, then lit her lamp, pulled up the board under the carpet, and brought the box onto her chatrue. She released the three ivory hooks, opened the lid—the box overbalanced and spilled to the floor, books scattering every which way.

Inas slipped out of bed and tenderly gathered the little volumes up, biting her lip when she found several pages in the third book crumpled. Carefully, she smoothed the damaged sheets, and replaced the book with its brothers inside the box.

It was then that she noticed pieces of the box itself had come loose, leaving two neat, deep, holes in the wood, at opposite corners of the lid. Frowning, she scanned the carpet, spying one long spindle, tightly wrapped in cloth. The second had rolled beneath the chatrue, and by the time she reached and squirmed and had it out with the very tips of her fingers, the cloth covering had begun to unravel.

Daintily, she fingered it, wondering if perhaps the cloth held some herb for protection against demons, or perhaps salts, to insure the books kept dry, or—

There was writing on the inside of the cloth. Tiny and meticulous, it was immediately recognizable as the same hand which had penned the curiat.

Exquisitely careful, breath caught, she unrolled the little scroll across the carpet, scanning the columns of text; heart hammering into overdrive as she realized that she had discovered her nameless scholar's key.

Teeth indenting her bottom lip, she unrolled the second scroll next to the first, and saw that she had the complete cipher.

Breathless, she groped behind her for the box, and extracted a book at random.

Slowly at first—then more quickly as her agile mind grew acquainted with the key—she began to read.

Illuminated by the cipher, it was found that the volume geographical did not concern itself with mountain ranges and rivers at all, but was instead a detailed report of a clandestine entry into the city of Selikot, and a blasphemous subterfuge.

I regret to inform you, oh, brother in arms, that our information regarding this hopeful world was much misleading. Women are not restricted; they are quarantined, cut off from society and commerce. They may only travel in the company of a male of their kin unit, and even then, heavily shielded in many layers of full body robes, their faces, eyes and hair hidden by veils. So it is that the first adjustment in our well-laid plans has been implemented. You will find that your partner Thelma Delance has ceded her route and her studies to a certain Scholar Umar Khan. And a damnable time I had finding a false beard in this blasted city, too. However, as you know to your sorrow, I'm a resourceful wench, and all is now made seemly. Scholar Khan is suitably odd, and elicits smiles and blessings wherever he walks. The project continues only slightly impeded by the beard, which itches. I will hold a copy of this letter in my field notes, in the interests of completeness. Farewell for now, brother Jamie. You owe me a drink and dinner when we are reunited.

* * *

INAS WAS SLOW WITH her needle next morning, her head full of wonders and blasphemies.

That there were other worlds, other peoples, variously named "Terran" and "Liaden"—that was known. Indeed, Selikot was the site of a "space-port" and bazaar, where such outworlders traded what goods they brought for those offered by the likes of Merchant Majidi. The outworlders were not permitted beyond the bazaar, for they were unpious; and the likes of Merchant Majidi must needs undergo purifications after their business in the bazaar was concluded.

Yet now it seemed that one—nay, a pair—of outworlders had moved beyond the bazaar to rove and study the wider world—and one of them a woman. A woman who had disguised herself as a man.

This was blasphemy, and yet the temples had not fallen; the crust of the world had not split open and swallowed cities; nor had fires rained from the heavens.

Perhaps Thelma Delance had repented her sin? Perhaps Amineh, the little god of women, had interceded with his brothers and bought mercy?

Perhaps the gods were not as all-seeing and as all-powerful as she had been taught?

Within the layers of her at-home robes, Inas shivered, but her scholar-trained mind continued its questions, and the answers which arose to retire those new and disturbing questions altered the measure of the world.

"Truth defines the order of the universe," she whispered, bending to her needlework. "When we accept the truth, we accept the will of the gods."

Yet, how if accepting the truth proved the absence of the gods? Why had her father given her such a gift? Had he read the curiat before sending it to her? Did he know of the hidden—

Across the room, from the other side of the guest screen, Nasir's voice intruded.

"The Esteemed and Blessed Scholar Reyman Bhar is returned home and bids his daughter Inas attend him in the study."

* * *

HER FATHER WAS AT his desk, several volumes open before him, his fingers nimble on the keypad of the notetaker. Inas waited, silent, her hands folded into her sleeves. The light of the study lamps was diffused into a golden glow by the ubaie, so that her father seemed surrounded by the light of heaven. He was a handsome man, dark, with a masterful beak of a nose and the high forehead of a scholar. His beard was as black and as glossy as that of a man half his age. He wore the house turban, by which she knew he had been home some hours before sending for her, and the loosened braid of his hair showed thick and gray.

He made a few more notes, turned a page of the topmost book, set the notetaker aside, and looked up.

Inas melted to her knees and bowed, forehead to the carpet.

"Arise, daughter," he said, kindly as always.

She did so and stood quiet once more, hands folded before her.

"Tell me, did my packet arrive timely?"

"Father," she said softly, "it did. I am grateful to you for so precious a gift."

He smiled, well-pleased with her. "It is a curiosity, is it not? Did you mark the pattern of the errors? Almost, it seems a farce—a plaything. What think you?"

"Perhaps," Inas said, her breath painfully short, "it is a test?"

He considered it, black brows knit, then nodded, judiciously. "It could be so. Yes, I believe you have the right of it, daughter. A test devised by a scholar of the higher orders, perhaps to teach discipline." He paused, thinking more deeply. Inas, waiting, felt ill, wondering if he knew of the hidden scholar's key and the blasphemies contained in the revealed text.

"Yes," he said again. "A test. How well the scholar must have loved the student for which it was devised!"

"Yes, Father," Inas whispered, and gathered together her courage, lips parting to ask it, for she must know . . .

"As you progress in scholarship, you will learn that the most precious gifts are those which are more than they appear," her father said, "and that hidden knowledge has power." He bowed, seated as he was, scholar to scholar, which was a small blasphemy of its own, face as austere as a saint's.

And so, Inas thought, she was instructed. She bowed. "Yes, Father."

"Hah." He leaned back in his chair, suddenly at ease, and waved her to the stool at his feet.

"Sit, child, and tell me how the arrangements for your sister's wedding progress."

* * *

THE CURIAT BOUYED HER, frightened her, intrigued her. She spent her nights with it, and every other moment she could steal. She stored it now in the long-forgot sand-wood drawer—the hidden pass-through where it stood long out of use—where she could, if she wished, reach it as easily from the garden or her room.

Thelma Delance—she heard the woman's voice in the few hours of sleep she allowed herself—a loud, good-natured, and unwomanly voice, honest as women could never be, and courageous.

Inas read, and learned. Thelma Delance had been a scholar of wide learning. There were recipes for medicines among her notes; recipes for poisons, for explosives, and other disasters, which Inas understood only mistily; and lessons of self-defense, which held echoes of her mother's name. There was other knowledge, too—plans for establishing a base.

And there was the appalling fact that the notes simply ended, and did not pick up again:

They're on me. I've got one more trick up my sleeve. You know me, Jamie Moore, always one more trick up Thelma's wide sleeve, eh? We'll see soon enough if it's worked. If it has, you owe me—that's my cue. They're shooting . . .

There was nothing more after that, only the box, and the wound it bore, which might, Inas thought, have been made by a pellet.

She wondered who had wished to kill Thelma Delance—and almost laughed. Surely, that list was long. The priests—of a certainty. The scholars—indeed. The port police, the merchant guild, the freelance vigilantes . . .

And Inas realized all at once that she was crying, the silent, secret tears that women were allowed, to mourn a sister, a mother, a friend.

* * *

THE DAY BEFORE HUMARIA was to wed, Inas once again attended her father in the study, where she was given the task of reshelving the volumes he had utilized in his last commissioned research. By chance their proper places were in the back corner of the room, where the convergence of walls and shelves made an alcove not easily seen from the greater room.

She had been at her task some time, her father deep in some new bit of study at his desk, when she heard the door open and Nasir announce, "The Esteemed and Honorable Scholar Baquar Hafeez begs the favor of an audience with the Glorious and Blessed Scholar Reyman Bhar."

"Old friend, enter and be welcome!" Her father's voice was cordial and kindly—and, to his daughter's ear, slightly startled. His chair skritched a little against the carpet as he pushed away from the desk, doubtless rising to embrace his friend.

"To what blessed event do I owe this visit?"

"Why, to none other than Janwai Himself!" Scholar Hafeez returned, his voice deeper and louder than her father's. "Or at the least, to his priests, who have commissioned me for research at the hill temple. There are certain etched stones in the meditation rooms, as I take it?"

"Ah, are there not!" Reyman Bhar exclaimed. "You are in for a course of study, my friend. Be advised, buy a pair of nightsight lenses before you ascend. The meditation rooms are ancient, indeed, and lit by oil."

"Do you say so?" Scholar Hafeez exclaimed, over certain creaks and groanings from the visitor's chair as it accepted his weight.

Inas, forgotten, huddled, soundless and scarcely moving in the alcove, listening as the talk moved from the meditation rooms to the wider history of the hill temple, to the progress of the report on which her father and Scholar Hafeez had collaborated, not so long since.

At some point, Nasir came in, bearing refreshments. The talk wandered on. In the alcove, Inas sank silently to her knees, drinking in the esoterica of scholarship as a thirsty man guzzles tea.

Finally, there came a break in the talk. Scholar Hafeez cleared his throat.

"I wonder, old friend—that curiat you bought in Hamid's store?"

"Yes?" her father murmured. "A peculiar piece, was it not? One would almost believe it had come from the old days, when Hamid's grandfather was said to buy from slavers and caravan thieves."

"Just so. An antique from the days of exploration, precious for its oddity. I have no secrets from you, my friend, so I will confess that it comes often into my mind. I wonder if you would consider parting with it. I will, of course, meet what price you name."

"Ah." Her father paused. Inas pictured him leaning back in his chair, fingers steepled before his chin, brows pulled together as he considered the matter. In the alcove, she hardly dared breathe, even to send a futile woman's prayer to the little god for mercy.

"As much as it saddens me to refuse a friend," Reyman Bhar said softly, "I must inform you that the curiat had been purchased as a gift for a promising young scholar of my acquaintance."

"A strange item to bestow upon a youth," murmured Baquar Hafeez, adding hastily, "But you will, of course, know your own student! It is only that—"

"I most sincerely regret," Scholar Bhar interrupted gently. "The gift has already been given."

There was a pause.

"Ah," said Scholar Hafeez. "Well, then, there is nothing more to be said."

"Just so," her father replied, and there was the sound of his chair being pushed back. "Come, my friend, you have not yet seen my garden. This is the hour of its glory. Walk with me and be refreshed."

Inas counted to fifty after the door closed, then she rose, reshelved the two remaining volumes, and ghosted out of the study, down the hall to the women's wing.

* * *

HUMARIA'S WEDDING WAS BLESSED and beautiful, the banquet very grand to behold, and even the women's portions fresh and unbroken, which spoke well for her new husband's generosity.

At the last moment, it was arranged between Reyman Bhar and Gabir Majidi that Shereen would stay with her sister for the first month of her new marriage, as the merchant's wife was ill and there were no daughters in his house to bear Humaria company.

So it was that Scholar Bhar came home with only his youngest daughter to companion him. Nasir pulled the sedan before the house and the scholar emerged, his daughter after him. He ascended the ramp to the door, fingering his keycard from his pocket—and froze, staring at a door which was neither latched nor locked.

Carefully, he put forth his hand, pushing the door with the tips of his fingers. It swung open onto a hallway as neat and as orderly as always. Cautiously, the scholar moved on, his daughter forgotten at his back.

There was some small disorder in the public room—a vase overturned and shattered, some display books tossed aside. The rugs and the news computer—items that would bring a goodly price at the thieves market—were in place, untouched. The scholar walked on, down the hall to—

His study.

Books had been ripped from their shelves and flung to the floor, where they lay, spine-broke and torn, ankle deep and desolate. His notepad lay in the center of the desk, shattered, as if it had been struck with a hammer. The loose pages of priceless manuscripts lay over all.

Behind him, Scholar Bhar heard a sound; a high keening, as if from the throat of a hunting hawk, or a lost soul.

He turned and beheld Inas, wilting against the door, her hand at her throat, falling silent in the instant he looked at her.

"Peace—" he began and stopped, for there was another sound, from the back of the house—but no. It would only be Nasir, coming in from putting the sedan away.

Yes, footsteps; he heard them clearly. And voices. The sudden, ghastly sound of a gun going off.

The scholar grabbed his daughter's shoulder, spinning her around.

"Quickly—to the front door!"

She ran, astonishingly fleet, despite the hindrance of her robes. Alas that she was not fleet enough.

Baquar Hafeez was waiting for them inside the front hallway, and there was a gun in his hand.

* * *

"Again," Scholar Hafeez said, and the large man he called Danyal lifted her father's right hand, bent the second finger back.

Reyman Bhar screamed. Inas, on her knees beside the chair in which Scholar Hafeez took his ease, stared, stone-faced, through her veil, memorizing the faces of these men, and the questions they asked.

It was the curiat they wanted. And it was the curiat which Reyman Bhar was peculiarly determined that they not have. And why was that? Inas wondered. Surely not because he had made it a gift to a daughter. He had only to order her to fetch it from its hiding place and hand it to Baquar Hafeez. What could a daughter do, but obey?

And yet—hidden knowledge has power.

"The curiat, old friend," Scholar Hafeez said again—patient, so patient. "Spare yourself any more pain. Only tell me who has the curiat, and I will leave you and your household in peace."

"Why?" her father asked—a scholar's question, despite his pain.

"There are those who believe it to be the work of infidels," Scholar Hafeez said smoothly, and yet again: "The curiat, Reyman. Where is it?"

"It is not for you to know," her father gasped, his voice hoarse from screaming, his left arm useless, dislocated by Danyal in the first round of questions.

Scholar Hafeez sighed, deeply, regretfully.

"I was afraid that you might prove obstinate. Perhaps something else might persuade you."

It happened so quickly, she had no time to understand—pain exploded in her face and she was flung sideways to the floor, brilliant color distorting her vision. Her wrist was seized and she was lifted. More pain. She tried to get her feet under her, but she was pulled inexorably upward, sandals dangling. Her vision spangled, stabilized—Danyal's face was bare inches from hers. He was smiling.

Somewhere, her father was shouting.

"Your pardon, old friend?" Scholar Hafeez was all solicitude. "I did not quite hear the location of the curiat?"

"Release my daughter!"

"Certainly. After you disclose the location of the curiat. Such a small thing, really, when weighed against a daughter's virtue."

"Inas—" her father began, and what followed was not in the common tongue, but in that of her mother, and they were uttered as a prayer.

"Opportunity comes, daughter, be stout and true. Honor your mother, in all her names."

Scholar Hafeez made a small sound of disappointment, and moved a hand. "The ubaie, Danyal."

Inas saw his hand move. He crumbled the fragile fabrics in his fist and tore them away, unseating her headcloth. Her hair spilled across her shoulders, rippling black.

Danyal licked his lips, his eyes now openly upon her chest.

There was a scream of rage, and from the corner of her eye she saw her father, on his knees, a bloody blade in his least-damaged hand, reaching again toward Hafeez.

Danyal still held her, his attention on his master; Inas brought both of her knees up, aiming to crush his man-parts, as Thelma Delance had described.

The villain gasped, eyes rolling up. His grip loosened, she fell to the floor, rolling, in order to confound the aim of the gun, and there was a confusion of noises, and her father shouting "Run!"—and run she did, her hair streaming and her face uncovered, never looking back, despite the sounds of gunfire behind her.

* * *

THE HOUSE WAS IN the merchant district of the city of Harap, a walk of many days from the prefecture Coratu, whose principal cities, Iravati and Lahore-Gadani, had lately suffered a sudden rash of explosions and fires and unexplained deaths. There were those who said it was a judgment from the gods; that Lahore-Gadani had become too assertive; and Iravati too complacent in its tranquility. The priests had ordered a cleansing, and a month long fast for the entire prefecture. Perhaps it would be enough.

In Harap, though.

In Harap, at that certain house, a boy crossed the street from out of the night-time shadows and made a ragged salaam to the doorman.

"Peace," he said, in a soft, girlish voice. "I am here to speak with Jamie Moore."

The doorman gave him one bored look. "Why?"

The boy hefted the sack he held in his left hand. "I have something for him."

"Huh." The doorman considered it, then swung sideways, rapping three times on the door. It opened and he said to the one who came forward, "Search him. I'll alert the boss."

* * *

THE SEARCH HAD DISCOVERED weapons, of course, and they had been confiscated. The bag, they scanned, discovering thereby the mass and material of its contents. Indeed, the search was notable in that which it did not discover—but perhaps, to off-worlders, such things mattered not.

The door to the searching chamber opened and the doorman looked in.

"You're fortunate," he said. "The boss is willing to play."

So, then, there was the escort, up to the top of the house, to another door, and the room beyond, where a man sat behind a desk, his books piled, open, one upon the other, a notetaker in his hand.

Tears rose. She swallowed them, and bowed the bow of peace.

"I'm Jamie Moore," the man behind the desk said. "Who are you?"

"I am Inas Bhar, youngest daughter of Scholar Reyman Bhar, who died the death to preserve what I bring you tonight."

The man looked at her, blue eyes—outworlder eyes—bland and uninterested.

"I don't have a lot of time or patience," he said. "Forget the theatrics and show me what you've got."

She swallowed, her throat suddenly dry. This—this was the part of all her careful plans that might yet go awry. She opened the bag, reached inside and pulled out the curiat.

"For you," she said, holding it up for him to see, "from Thelma Delance."

There was a long silence, while he looked between her and the box. Finally, he held out his hands.

"Let me see."

Reluctantly, she placed the curiat in his hands, watching as he flicked the ivory hooks, raised the lid, fished out a volume, and opened it at random.

He read a page, the next, riffled to the back of the book and read two pages more. He put the book back in the box and met her eyes.

"It's genuine," he said and gave her the honor of a seated bow. "The Juntavas owes you. What'll it be? Gold? A husband with position? I realize the options are limited on this world, but we'll do what we can to pay fair."

"I do not wish to marry. I want . . ." She stopped, took a breath, and met the bland, blue eyes. "My father was a scholar. He taught me to be a scholar—to read, to reason, to think. I want to continue—in my father's memory."

He shrugged. "Nice work, if you can get it."

Inas drew herself up. "I speak five dialects and three languages," she said. "I am adept with the higher maths and with astronomy. I read the mercantile, scholarly and holy scripts. I know how to mix the explosive skihi and—" The man behind the desk held up a hand.

"Hold up. You know how to mix skihi? Who taught you that?"

She pointed at the curiat. "Page thirty-seven, volume three."

He whistled. "You found the cipher, did you? Clever girl." He glanced thoughtfully down at the box.

"You wouldn't have used any of that formula, would you? Say, back home or in Lahore-Gadani?"

Inas bowed, scholar to scholar. "They killed my father. He had no sons to avenge him."

"Right."

More silence—enough that Inas began to worry about the reasoning going on behind those blue outworlder eyes. It would, after all, be a simple thing to shoot her—and far more merciful than the punishment the priests would inflict upon her, were she discovered dressed in a boy's tunic and trousers, her face uncovered, her hair cut and braided with green string.

"Your timing's good," Jamie Moore said abruptly. "We've got a sector chief checking in tomorrow. What I can do, I can show you to the chief, and the two of you can talk. This is sector chief business, understand me?"

Inas bowed. "I understand, Jamie Moore. Thank you."

"Better hold that until you meet the chief," he said, and the door opened behind her, though she had not seen him give a signal.

"We'll stand you a bath, a meal and a bed," he said, and jerked his head at the doorman. "Get her downstairs. Guard on the door."

He looked at her once more. "What happens next is up to you."

* * *

SHE SAT ON THE edge of the chatrue—well, no she didn't. Properly a chatrue, a female's bed, would be hidden by a curtain at a height so that even a tall man could not see over. This was hardly a bed meant for a woman . . . .

She sat on the edge of the bed then, with the daybreak meal in dishes spread around her, amazed and appreciative at the amount of food she was given to break her fast.

But, after all—she had come to the house in the clothes of a boy, admitted to taking a son's duty of retribution to herself; and agreed to meet with the sector chief. These were all deeds worthy of male necessities; hence they fed her as a male would be fed, with two kinds of meat, with porridge of proper sweetness and with extra honey on the side, with fresh juice of the gormel-berry—and brought her clean boy's clothes in the local style, that she might appear before the sector chief in proper order.

She had slept well, waking only once, at the sound of quiet feet in the stairway. Left behind when she woke then was a half-formed dream: In it she had lost her veils to Danyal, but rather than leer, he had screamed and run, terrified of what he had seen revealed in her face.

Too late now to run, she thought as she slipped back into sleep, both Danyal and her father's false friend had fallen to her vengence. And the curiat was in the hands of the infidel.

Inas ate all the breakfast, leaving but some honey. There had been too many days since her father's death when food had been scarce; too many nights when her stomach was empty, for her to stint now on sustenance.

"Hello, child!" A voice called from outside the door. There followed a brisk knock, with the sound of laughter running behind it. "Your appointment begins now!"

* * *

THE NAME OF JAMIE Moore's boss was Sarah Chang. She was small and round, with crisp black hair bristling all over her head, and slanting black eyes. Her clothing was simple—a long-sleeved shirt, open at the throat, a vest, trousers and boots. A wide belt held a pouch and a holster. Her face was naked, which Inas had expected. What she had not expected was the jolt of shock she felt.

Sarah Chang laughed.

"You're the one pretending to be a boy," she commented, and Inas bowed, wryly.

"I am an exception," she said. "I do not expect to meet myself."

"Here, you're an exception," the woman corrected, and pointed at one of the room's two chairs, taking the other for herself. "Sit. Tell me what happened. Don't leave anything out. But don't dawdle."

So, she had told it. The gift of the curiat; the visit of Scholar Hafeez to her father; Humaria's wedding; the violation of her father's study, and his brutal questioning; her escape into the night, and return to a house of the unjustly murdered—father, books and servant. Her revenge.

"You mixed a batch of skihi, blew up a couple buildings, disguised yourself as a boy and walked away from it," Sarah Chang said, by way of summing up. She shook her head. "Pretty cool. How'd you think of all that?"

Inas moved her hands. "I learned from Thelma Delance. The recipe for skihi was in her curiat. She disguised herself as a man in order to pursue her scholarship."

"So she did." The woman closed her eyes. "Any idea what I should do with you?"

Inas licked her lips. "I wish to be a scholar."

"Not the line of work women usually get into, hereabouts." Sarah Chang's eyes were open now, and watching carefully.

"Thelma Delance—"

"Thelma was an outworlder," the boss interrupted. "Like I am. Like Jamie is."

This woman possessed a man's hard purpose, Inas thought; she would do nothing for pity. She raised her chin.

"Surely, then, there is some place where I, too, would be an outworlder, and free to pursue my life as I wish?"

Sarah Chang laughed.

"How old are you?" She asked then.

"Fourteen winters."

The boss tipped her head. "Thirteen Standards, near enough. Regular old maid. And you've got a nice touch with an explosive.

"Skihi, for your information, is an extremely volatile mixture. Many explosive experts have the missing fingers to prove it." She bounced out of her chair and shook her head.

"All right, Inas, let's go."

She stayed in her chair, looking up into the slanting black eyes. "Go where?"

"Outworld," the boss said, and moved an impatient hand, pointing upward, toward the sky—and beyond.



Quiet Knives


THE TURTLES HAD CANCELED, the tidy kill-fee deposited to ship's funds before the message had hit her in box.

Just as well, thought Midj Rolanni, wearily. She sagged back into the pilot's chair and reached for the cup nestled in the armrest holder. She'd hadn't really wanted to reconfigure the flight deck for two turtles, anyway.

The 'toot wasn't exactly prime grade and being cold didn't improve it. She drank it anyway, her eyes on the screen, but seeing through it, into the past, and not much liking what she saw.

She finished the cold 'toot in a swallow, shuddered and threw the cup at the recycler. It hit the unit's rim, shimmied for a heartbeat, undecided, and fell in, for a wonder. Midj sighed and leaned to the board, saving the turtles' cancellation with a finger-tap, and accessing the stored message queue.

There wasn't much there besides the turtles' message—the transmittal, listing the cargo she'd paid Teyope to carry for her; the credit letter from the bank, guaranteeing the funds, half on cargo transmittal, half on delivery.

And the letter from Kore. Pretty thin letter, really, just a couple lines. Not what you'd call reason for off-shipping a perfectly profitable cargo onto a trader just a little gray—" . . . just a little gray," she repeated the thought under her breath—and Teyope did owe her, which even he acknowledged, damn his black heart, so the cargo was in a fine way to arriving as ordered, where ordered, and not a line of the guarantees found in violation.

She hoped.

Her hand moved on its own, fingers tapping the access, though she could have told the whole of Kore's note out from heart. Still, her eyes tracked the sentences, few as they were, as if she'd never read them before.

Or as if she hoped they'd say something different this time.

Her bad luck, the words formed the same sentences they had since the first, the sentences making up one spare paragraph, the message of which was—trouble.

Midj. You said, if I ever changed my mind, you'd come. Cessilee Port, Shaltren, on Saint Belamie's Day. I'll meet you. Kore.

"And for this," she said out loud, hearing her voice vibrate against the metal skin of her ship. "For this, you shed cargo and take your ship—your home and your livelihood—onto Juntavas headquarters?"

It wasn't the first time she'd asked the question since the letter's receipt. Sometimes, she'd whispered it, sometimes shouted. Skeedaddle, now. Her ship didn't tell her nothing, but that she needed to go. She'd promised, hadn't she?

And so she had—promised. Half her lifetime ago, and the hardest thing she'd done before or since was closing the hatch on him, knowing where he was going. She'd replayed their last conversation until her head ached and her eyes blurred, wondering what she could have said instead, that would have made him understand . . .

But he had understood. He'd chosen, eyes open, knowing her, knowing how she felt. He'd said as much, and say what you would about Korelan Zar, he was no liar, nor ever had been.

"You go, then," the memory of her voice, shaking, filled her ears. "If this job is so important you gotta take up the Juntavas, too—then go. I ain't gonna stop you. And I ain't gonna know you, either. Walk down that ramp, Korelan, and you're as good as dead to me, you hear?"

She remembered his face: troubled, but not anything like rethinking the plan. He'd thought it through—he'd told her so, and she believed him. Kore'd always been the thinker of the two of them.

"Midj," he said, and she remembered that his voice hadn't been precisely steady, either. "I've got to. I told you—"

"You told me," she'd interrupted, harsher maybe in memory than in truth. She remembered she'd been crying by then, with her hand against the open hatch, and the ramp run down to blastcrete, a car waiting, its windows opaqued and patient, just a few yards beyond.

"You told me," she'd said again, and she remembered that it had been hard to breathe. "And I told you. I ain't comin' with you. I ain't putting Skeedaddle into Juntavas service. You want to sell yourself, I guess you got the right. But this ship belongs to me."

His face had closed then, and he nodded, just once, slung his kit over his shoulder and headed down the ramp. Chest on fire, she'd watched him go, heard her own voice, barely above a whisper.

"Kore . . ."

He turned and looked up to where she stood, fists braced against her ship.

"You change your mind," she said, "you send. I'll come for you."

He smiled then, so slight she might've missed it, if she hadn't known him so well.

"Thanks, Midj. I'll remember that."

In the present, Midj Rolanni, captain-owner of the independent tradeship Skeedaddle, one of a dozen free traders elected as liaison to TerraTrade—respectable and respected—Midj Rolanni drew a hard breath.

Twenty Standards. And Kore had remembered.

* * *

SHE SET DOWN AS pre-arranged in Vashon's Yard and walked over to the office, jump-bag on her shoulder.

Vashon himself was on the counter, fiddling with the computer, fingers poking at the keys. He looked up and nodded, then put his attention back on the problem at hand. Midj leaned her elbows on the counter and frowned up at the ship board.

Rebella was in port—no good news, there—and BonniSu, which was better. In fact, she'd actively enjoy seeing Su Bonner, maybe buy her a beer and catch up on the news. Been a couple Standards since they'd been in port together, and Su had bought last time . . . .

"Sorry, Cap," Vashon said, breaking into this pleasant line of thought. "Emergency order, all good now. What'll it be?"

All spacers were "Cap" to Vashon, who despite it was one of the best all-around spaceship mechanics in the quadrant—and maybe the next.

"Ship's Skeedaddle, out of Dundalk," she said, turning from the board. "Got an appointment for a general systems check. Replace what's worn, lube the coils, and bring her up to spec—that's a Sanderson rebuild in there, now, so the spec's're—"

"Right, right . . ." He was poking at the keys again, bringing up the records. "Got it all right here, Cap. How're them pod-clamps we fitted working out for you?"

"Better'n the originals," she said honestly, which was no stretch, the originals having seen a decade of hard use before Skeedaddle ever came to her, never mind what she'd put on 'em.

"Good," he said absently, frowning down at his screen. "Now, that Sanderson—we have it on-file to tune at ninety percent spec, that being efficient enough for trade work, like we talked about. You're still wantin'—"

"Bring her up to true spec," Midj interrupted, which she'd decided already and, dammit, she wasn't going to second-guess herself at this hour. If she was a fool, then she was, and it wouldn't be the first time she'd made the wrong call.

Not even close.

Vashon was nodding, making quick notes on his keypad. "Bring her to true-spec, aye, Cap, will do." He looked up.

"You'll be wanting the upgraded vents, then, Cap? If you're going to be running at spec, I advise it."

She nodded. "Take a look at the mid-ship stabilizer, too, would you? Moving her just now, I thought I noticed a slide."

"'Cause you come in without cans," he said, making another note. "But, sure, we'll check it—ought to ride stable, cans or no cans." He looked up again.

"Anything else?"

"That's all I know about. If you find anything major that needs fixing, I'll be at the Haven."

"Haven it is," he said, entering that into the file, too. "Cash, card, or ship's credit?"

"Ship's credit."

"Right, then." He gave her a crabbed smile. "She ought to be good to go by the end of the week, barring we find anything unexpected. You can check progress on our stats channel, updated every two hours, local. Ship's name is your passcode."

"Thanks," she said, and shifted the bag into a more comfortable position on her shoulder. "I'll see you at the end of the week, barring the unexpected."

She nodded and he did and she let herself out the door that gave onto the open Port.

* * *

"Going where?" Su Bonner paused with her beer halfway to her mouth.

"Shaltren," Midj repeated, trying to sound matter of fact, and not at all reassured by the other woman's decisive headshake.

"Shaltren's not the place you want to be at this particular point in time, Captain Rolanni, me heart." Su put her beer down on the table with an audible thud. "Trust me on this one, like you never have before."

"I trust you plenty," Midj said, spinning her own beer 'round the various scars on the plastic tabletop, that being a handy way to not meet her friend's eyes. "You know I do."

"Then you've given over the idea of going to Shaltren." Su picked up her beer and had a hefty swallow. "Good."

Midj sighed, still navigating the bottle through the tabletop galaxy. "So, what's wrong with Shaltren? Besides the usual."

"The usual being that it's Juntavas Headquarters? That'd be bad enough, by your lights and by mine. Lately, though, there's more. Chairman Trogar, they say, is not well-loved."

Frowning, Midj glanced up. "Must break his heart."

"Not exactly, no." Su had another swallow of beer and shook two fingers at the bartender. "What I heard is, he means to keep it that way. Anybody who talks across him or who doesn't rise fast enough when he yells 'lift!'—they're dead right off. He's got himself an aggressive expansion plan in motion and he doesn't mind spending lives—that's anybody's but his own—to get what he wants."

Midj shrugged. "The Juntavas always grabbed what they could."

The new beers came, the 'keeper collected Su's empty, looked a question at Midj and was waved away.

"Not always." Su was taking her last comment as a debating point. "I'm not saying every decent spacer should sign up onto the Juntavas workforce, but I will say they've been getting carefuller in later years. They're still trading in all the stuff nobody ought, but they haven't been as gun-happy as they were back in the day . . ." She raised a hand, showing palm.

"Cold comfort to you and yours, I grant. The fact remains, there was a trend toward less of that and more  . . .circumspection—and now what rises to the top of the deck but Grom Trogar, who wants a return to the bad old days—and looks like getting them."

"Well." Midj finished her beer, set the bottle aside, and cracked the seal on the second.

"So," Su said into the lengthening silence. "You changed your mind about going to Shaltren, right? At least until somebody resets Mr. Trogar's clock?"

Midj sighed and met her friend's eyes. "Don't see my business waiting that long, frankly."

"What business is worth losing your ship, getting killed, or both?"

Trust Su to ask the good questions. Midj kept her eyes steady.

"You remember Korelan Zar," she not-asked, and Su frowned.

"Tall, thin fella; amber eyes and coffee-color skin," she said slowly. "I remember thinking that skin was so pretty-looking." She fingered her beer. "Your partner, right? He was the one that told you one day he take you to Panore for a vacation, right?"

Midj nodded, said nothing.

Su's sip was nearly a chug, then she continued into the silence.

"Right. Always wondered what happened to him. Never got around to asking. Must be—what? Fifteen, eighteen Standards?"

"Twenty." Her voice sounded tight in her own ears. "What happened to him was he figured he had to sign on with another crew—he had reasons, they seemed good to him, and that's all twenty Standards in the past. Thing is, I told him, if he ever needed to ship out—call, and I'd come get him."

Su was quiet. Midj had a swig of beer, and another.

"And where he is, is Shaltren," Su said eventually, after she enjoyed a couple of swigs, herself. "Midj—you don't owe him."

"I owe him—I promised." She closed her eyes, opened them. "He asked me to come."

"Shit." More quiet, then—"How soon?"

St. Belamie's Day had begun as a joke; at need, it had become a code—he'd remembered that, too, and trusted her to do the same. It was a moving target, calculated by finding the square root of the diameter of Skeedaddle, multiplying by the Standard day on which the message was sent and dividing by twelve. Accordingly, she had about twenty Standard Days on Kago before she lifted for Shaltren. She'd wanted to time it closer, but there was the ship to be brought up to spec, and she daren't gamble that Vashon would find nothing wrong. Likely he wouldn't, but it wasn't the way to bet, not with Kore waiting for her, with who knew what on his dance card.

"Couple weeks, local," she said to Su, and the other woman nodded.

"Let's do this again, before I ship out," she said, and finished off her beer in one long swallow. She thumped the bottle to the table. "For now, gotta lift. Business."

"I hear that," Midj said, dredging up a grin. "I'm at the Haven for the next while, then back on-ship. Gimme a holler when you know you got time for dinner. I'll stand the cost."

"Like hell you will," Su said amiably. She got her feet under her and was gone, leaving Midj alone with the rest of her beer and the tab.

* * *

HE WALKED DOWN THE ramp easy, not hurrying, a pilot on his way to his ship, that was all. He turned the corner and froze, there on the edge of the hallway, still out of range of the camera's wide eye—and the woman leaning against the wall, gun holstered, waiting.

Waiting for him, he had no doubt. He knew her—Sambra Reallen—who hadn't been anybody particular, and now ran in Grom Trogar's pack; high up in the pack, though not so high that calling attention to herself might get fatal. If she was here, calmly waiting for him go through the one door he had to go through—then he was too late.

He nodded, once, turned, and went back up the hall, walking no faster than he had going down, and with as little noise.

Too late, he thought, as he reached street-level. Damn.

* * *

THERE WERE TWO WAYS to play it from here, given that he'd sworn not to be a damn' fool. The strike for the ship, that might've been foolish, though he'd had reason to hope that the fiction of the Judge's continued residence would cover him. The Judge's absence would still serve as cover, since he was the Judge's courier. But the fact that one of Chairman Trogar's own had been waiting for him—that was bad. He wondered how bad, as he ran his keycard through the coder.

If they'd been waiting for him at the ship, then they likely knew some things. They probably knew that the Judge and most of the household was gone, scattered, along with all the rest of the Judges and staff who had managed to go missing before Grom Trogar thought to look for them. It was unlikely that they knew everything—and they'd figure that, too. Which meant he had a bad time ahead of him.

Nothing to help it now—if he ran anywhere on Shaltren, they'd catch him, and the inconvenience would only make his examination worse. If he waited for them, and went peaceably—it was going to be bad. Chairman Trogar would see to that.

If they'd been at the ship, they'd be here soon, if they weren't already.

The door to the house slid open.

He stepped inside, playing the part of a man with nothing to fear. His persona had long been established—a bit stolid, a bit slow, a steady pilot, been with the Judge since his itinerant days.

He flicked on the lights—public room empty. So far, so good. They'd take their time coming in—Judges and their crews, after all, had a reputation for being a bit chancy to mess with.

There was some urgency on him, now. He'd planned for back-up; it was second nature anymore to plan for back-up. At the time it had seemed prudent and, anyway, he'd meant to be gone before it came to that.

Meant to, he thought now, walking quick through the darkened rooms, heading for the comm room and the pinbeam. Meant to isn't 'will.'

He'd put a life in danger. Might have put a life in danger. If the first message had gotten through. If she hadn't just read it and laughed.

I'll come for you, she whispered from memory, the tears running her face and her eyes steady on his. He moved faster now, surefooted in the dark. She'd come. She'd promised. Unless something radical had happened in her life, altering her entirely from the woman he had known—Midj Rolanni kept her promises.

He'd had no right to pull her in on this. Especially this. Even as a contingency back-up that was never going to be called into play. No right at all.

He slapped the wall as he strode into the comm center. The lights came up, showing the room empty—but he was hearing things now. Noises on his back path. The sound, maybe, of a door being forced.

Fingers quick and steady, he called up the 'beam, fed in the ID of the receiver. The noises were closer now—heavy feet, somebody swearing. Somewhere in one of the outer rooms, glass shattered shrilly.

He typed, heard feet in the room beyond, hit send, cleared the log, and spun, hands up and palms showing empty.

"If you're looking for the High Judge," he said to man holding the gun in the doorway. "He's not home."

* * *

VASHON NOT FINDING anything about to blow down in Skeedaddle's innards, and the vent upgrade going more smoothly than the man himself had expected, Midj was back on-board in good order inside of eight local days.

She stowed her kit and initiated a systems check, easing into the pilot's chair with a sigh of relief. The ship was quiet, the only noises those she knew so well that they didn't register with her anymore, except as a general sense of everything operating as it should. Of all being right in her world, enclosed and constrained as it was.

When she ran with a 'hand—never with a partner, not after Kore—the noises necessarily generated by another person sharing the space would distract and disorient her at first, but pretty soon became just another voice in the overall song of the ship.

And whenever circumstances had her on-port for any length of time, she came back to the ship with relief her overriding emotion, only too eager to lower the hatch and shut out the din of voices, machinery and weather.

Hers. Safe. Comfortable. Familiar. Down to the ancient Vacation on Incomparable Panore holocard Kore'd given her as a promise after one particularly hard trade run.

She'd thought before now that maybe it was time to start charting the course of her retirement. Not that she was old, though some days she felt every Standard she'd lived had been two. But she did have a certain responsibility to her ship, which could be expected to outlive a mere human's span—hell, it had already outlived two captains, and there wasn't any reason it wouldn't outlast her.

She ought to take up a second—a couple of the cousins were hopeful, so she'd heard. The time to train her replacement was while she was still in her prime, so control could be eased over gradual, with her giving more of her attention to TerraTrade, while the captain-to-be took over ship duty, until one day the change was done, as painless as could be for everyone. That's how Berl took Skeedaddle over from Mam, who had gone back to the planet she'd been born to for her retired years, and near as Midj had ever seen on her infrequent visits, missed neither space nor ship.

Berl, now. Midj shook her head, her eyes watching the progress of the systems check across the board. In a universe without violence—in a universe without the Juntavas—Berl would've been standing captain yet, and his baby sister maybe trading off some other ship. Maybe she'd been running back-up on Skeedaddle, though that wasn't the likeliest scenario, her and her brother having gotten along about as well as opinionated and high-tempered sibs ever did.

Still and all, he hadn't deserved what had come to him; and she hadn't wanted the ship that bad, having found a post that suited her on the Zar family ship. Suited her for a number of reasons, truth told, only one of them being the younger son, who came on as her partner once she'd understood Berl was really dead, and Skeedaddle was hers.

Full circle.

The board beeped; systems checked out clean, which was nothing more than she'd expected. She had a cold pad spoke for at the public yard; some meetings set up across the next couple days—couple of independents on-port she still needed to get to regarding their views on TerraTrade's proposed "small trade" policies. She'd write that report before she lifted, send it on to Lezly, in case . . . .

In case.

Well.

She reached to the board, opened eyes and ears, began to tap in the code for the office at the public yard—and stopped, fingers frozen over the keypad.

In the top left corner of the board, away from everything else on the board, a yellow light glowed. Pinbeam message waiting, that was.

Most likely it was TerraTrade business, though she couldn't immediately call to mind anything urgent enough to require a 'beam. Still, it happened. That's why emergencies were called emergencies.

She tapped the button, the message screen lit, sender ID scrolled—not a code she recognized, off-hand—and then the message.

Situation's changed. Don't come. K

* * *

THE ROOM WAS SOFTLY lit, his chair comfortable. For the moment, there were no restraints, other than those imposed by the presence of the woman across the table from him.

"Where is the High Judge, Mr. Zar?"

Her voice was courteous, even gentle, despite having asked this selfsame question at least six times in the last few hours.

"Evaluation tour, is what he told me," he answered, letting some frustration show.

"An evaluation tour," his interlocutor repeated, a note of polite disbelief entering her cool voice. "What sort of evaluation?"

"Of the other judges," he said, and sighed hard, showing her his empty hands turned palm up on his knee. "He was going to visit them on the job, see how they were doing, talk to them. It's a regular thing he does, every couple Standards." That last at least was true.

"I see." She nodded. He didn't know her name—she hadn't told him one, and she wasn't somebody he knew. She had a high, smooth forehead, a short brush of pale hair and eyes hidden by dark glasses. One of Grom Trogar's own—his sister, for all Kore knew or cared.

What mattered was that she could make his life very unhappy, not to say short, unless he could convince her he was short on brains and info.

"It seems very odd to me," she said now, conversationally, "that the High Judge would embark on such a tour without his pilot."

They'd been over this ground, too.

"I'm a courier pilot," he said, keeping a visible lid on most of his frustration; "not a big ship pilot. I fly courier work, small traders, that kind of thing. I stay here, in case I'm needed."

She hesitated; he could almost taste her weighing the question of the rest of the household's whereabouts against his own actions. Questions regarding his actions won out.

"You went to the courier shed this afternoon, is that correct?"

"Yes," he said, a little snappish.

"Why?" Getting a little snappish, herself.

"I had a 'beam from the Judge, with instructions."

"Instructions to lift?"

"Yes."

"And yet you didn't lift, Mr. Zar. I wonder why not."

He shrugged, taking it careful here. "There was a guard on the door. It smelled wrong, so I went back to the house and sent a 'beam to the Judge."

"I see. Which guard?"

He had no reason to protect the woman who'd been waiting for him. On the other hand, he had no reason to tell this woman the truth.

"Nobody I'd seen before."

She shook her head, but let that line go, too. Time enough to ask the question again, later.

"Once more, Mr. Zar—where is the High Judge?"

"I told you—on evaluation tour."

"Where is Natesa the Assassin?"

She was trying to throw him off. He gave an irritable shrug. "How the hell do I know? You think a courier assigns Judges?"

"Hm. What was the destination of the lift you did not make?"

He shook his head. "High Judge's business, ma'am. I'm not to disclose that without his say. If you want to 'beam him and get his OK . . . ."

She laughed, very softly, and leaned back in her chair, sliding her dark glasses off and holding them lightly between the first and middle fingers of her right hand. Her eyes were large and pale gray, pupils shrinking to pinpoints in the dim light.

"You are good, Mr. Zar—my compliments. Unfortunately, I think you are not quite the dull fellow you play so well. We both know what happens next, I think? Unless there is something you wish to tell me?"

He waited, a beat, two . . . .

She shook her head—regretfully, he thought, and extended a long hand to touch a button on her side of the table. The door behind her slid open, admitting two men, one carrying a case, the other a gun.

The woman rose, languidly, and motioned them forward. Kore felt his stomach tighten.

"Mr. Zar has decided that a dose of the drug is required to aid his memory, gentlemen. I'll be back in ten minutes."

* * *

DON'T COME . . . .

Midj stared at the message, then laughed—the first real laugh she had in—gods, a Standard.

"Don't come," she snorted, leaning back in the chair in the aftermath of her laugh. "Tell me another one, Kore."

Shaking her head, she got up, went down the short hall to the galley and drew herself a cup of 'toot, black and sweet.

Sipping, she walked back to the pilot's chamber and stood behind the chair, looking down at the message on the screen.

"Now, of all the things he might've expected me to remember, wouldn't that have been one of 'em?" She asked her ship. There was no answer except for the smooth hum of the air filtering system. But, then, what other answer was needed? Skeedaddle knew Kore as well as she did.

As well as she had.

Twenty-six years ago, Midj Rolanni had been taken up as trader by Amin Zar, and working beside the least of Amin's sons, one Korelan, who also had a head for trade. Their eighth or ninth stop, they were set to meet with one of the Zar cousins, who was a merchant on the port. Taking orbit, they collected their messages, including one from the cousin: "Don't come."

Amin Zar, he took a look at that message, nodded, broke open the weapons locker and issued arms. They went down on schedule, whereupon Amin and the elder sibs disembarked, leaving Kore, Midj, and young Berta in care of the ship.

Several hours later, they were back, Amin carrying the cousin, and a few of the sibs bloodied—and Midj still had bad dreams about the lift outta there.

After it all calmed down, she'd asked Kore why they'd gone in, when they'd clearly been warned away.

And he'd laughed and told her that "Don't come," was Zar family code for "help."

She sipped some more 'toot, took the half-empty cup over to the chute and dumped it in.

The time, she thought, going back and sitting in her chair, had come to face down some truths.

Truth Number One: She was a damn fool.

Truth Number Two: So was the Korelan Zar she had known, twenty Standards ago. Who but a damn fool left the woman, the ship and the life that he loved for a long shot at changing the galaxy?

And who but a damn fool let him go alone?

What came into play now was those same twenty Standards and what they might have done to the man at his core.

She noted that he never had said he'd changed his mind, in that first, brief call for her to come get him. The Kore she knew had never been a liar, preferring misdirection to outright falsehoods. It looked like he'd kept that tendency, and its familiarity had been the one thing that had convinced her the letter was genuine; St. Belamie giving her a second.

And this—this was the third validation, and the most compelling reason to continue on the course she had charted, in case she was having any last minute doubts.

"You gonna die for twenty Standards ago?" She asked herself, and heard her voice echo off the metal walls of her ship.

You gonna turn your back on a friend when he needs your help? Her ship whispered in the silence that followed.

No, she thought. No; she'd done that once, and it had stuck in her craw ever since.

One good thing—she could go on her own time, now, since the way she saw it, "don't come" trumped St. Belamie.

Smiling, she reached to the board and opened a line.

"Tower, this is Skeedaddle, over at Vashon's Yard. How soon can I lift outta here?"

* * *

THERE WERE RESTRAINTS this time, uncomfortably tight, and a violent headache.

So, he thought, laboriously. You wanted to make the guy with the gun use it, and he did. Quitcherbitchin.

"He's back," a man's voice said breathlessly from somewhere to the left.

He'd managed to land some blows of his own, which didn't comfort him much, since he was still alive.

A man hove into view, his right cheek smeared with blood and a rising shiner on his left eye.

Good, he thought, and then saw the injector. Not good.

He tried to jerk away, but the cords only tightened, constricting his breathing—some kind of tangle-wire, then. He might be able to—

"No, you don't, fly-boy," the man with the injector snarled, and grabbed his chin in an iron grip, holding him immobile while the cold nozzle came against his neck.

There was a hiss, a sharp sting, and the injection was made. The man with the black eye released him and stepped back, grinning.

He closed his eyes. Fool, he thought.

The drug worked fast. The irritation of the wire was the first to fade from his perception, then the raging headache. He lost track of his feet, his fingers, his legs, his heartbeat, and, finally, his thoughts. He hung, limbless, without breath or heartbeat, a nameless clot of fog, without thought or volition.

"What is your name?" A voice pierced the fog.

"Korelan Zar," another voice answered, slowly. Inside the fog, something stirred, knew the voice and the name. Recognized, dimly, peril.

"Good," said the first voice. "Where is the High Judge?"

"I don't know," he heard himself say.

"I see. Why were you going to your ship?"

"Orders."

"What orders?"

He was listening in earnest now, interested in the answer; expecting to hear another, "I don't know . .  . . ."

"Orders to get out, if it looked like going to hell." Well, he thought, inside the thinning fog, that certainly makes sense.

"And things in your opinion were going to hell?"

He'd said so, hadn't he? "Yes."

"Ah," said the voice. That not being a question, he found himself speechless. Time passed; he felt the fog growing dense about him again.

"What," the voice said, sharp enough to shred the fog and cut him where he hung, defenseless. "What was the text of the last message you sent to the High Judge?"

"Situation stable," he heard himself answer.

"When was that?"

"Four weeks ago, local."

More silence; this time, he found he was able to concentrate and thin the fog further. He could feel the shadows of the tangle-wire binding him to the chair; a breath of headache . . . .

"You were at the comm when we located you earlier this evening. Who did you send to?"

A question had been asked; the drug compelled him to answer with the truth, but the truth had facets . . . .

"An old girlfriend."

"Indeed. What is your old girlfriend's name?"

The answer formed; he felt the words on his tongue, swelling, filling his mouth, his throat . . .

"Impressive," the voice didn't-ask, releasing him. Exhausted, he fell back into the fog, felt it close softly around him, hiding the restraints, the pain, the sense of his own self.

"What," the voice asked, soft now, almost as if it were part of the fog, "is the code of the last receiver to which you sent a pin-beam?"

Calmly, his voice told out the code, while he sank deeper into the fog and at last stopped listening.

* * *

SHE SET Skeedaddle down in the general port, calling some minor attention to herself by requesting a hot pad. Tower was so bland and courteous she might have been back on Kago, which didn't comfort her as much as it maybe should have.

Sighing, she levered out of the pilot's chair and stretched, careful of her back and shoulders, before moving down the hall.

She pulled a pellet pistol from the weapons locker, and a needle gun—nothing more than a trigger, a spring and the needle itself. Completely illegal on most worlds, of course, though she'd come by it legal enough: It had been with Berl's body, when it came back, with his ship, to his sister.

She slipped the needle gun into a hideaway pocket, and clipped the pistol to her belt. That done, she straightened her jacket, sealed the locker and went back to the galley for a cup of 'toot and a snack while the hull cooled.

* * *

THE FACT THAT THEY hadn't killed him was—worrisome. That they kept him here, imprisoned, but not particularly misused, indicated that they thought there was more he could tell them.

He'd had time to consider that; time to weigh whether he ought to file his last flight now and preserve what—and who—he could.

The end of that line of consideration was simply that he wanted to live. His one urge toward suicide had failed and he couldn't say, even considering present conditions, that he was sorry on that score. If it came down that he died in the line of doing something useful, then that was how it was. But to die uselessly, while there were still cards in play—no.

That decision left open the question of what he could do of use, confined and maybe being used as bait. Not that the Judge would fall for bait, but Grom Trogar might not know that. In fact, Chairman Trogar might well see the Judge's concern for his household and his courier as a weakness to be exploited. Big believer in exploiting other people's weaknesses, was Mr. Trogar.

Having the time, he thought about his life past, and what he might've done different, if he hadn't been your basic idealistic idiot. Put that way, he could see himself staying with Midj, leading a trader's prosperous life, raising up a couple of kids, maybe getting into politics. There were more ways to change the galaxy than the route he had chosen. And who was to say that change was the best thing?

He'd been so sure.

* * *

SHE HAD A PLAN, if you could call it that. Whoever had done the alias for the pinbeam Kore'd sent his last message from had been good, and if she'd started with no information, she'd right now be on a planet known as Soltier, somewhere over in the next quadrant. Knowing that Kore was on Shaltren made the exercise of tracking the 'beam something easier, and she thought she had a reasonable lock on his last location.

Nothing guaranteed that he'd still be at that location, of course, but it was really the only card she had, unless she wanted to go calling on the chairman, which she was holding in reserve as her Last Stupid Idea.

For her first trick, she needed a cab.

There was a cab stand at the end of the street, green-and-white glow-letters spelling out Robo Cab! Cheap! Quick! Reliable!

Right.

She leaned in, hit the call button, and walked out to the curb to wait.

Traffic wasn't in short supply this planet-noon, and the port looked prosperous enough. If you didn't know you were on galactic crime headquarters, in fact, it looked amazingly normal.

Up the street, a cab cut across three lanes of traffic, angling in toward her position, the green-and-white Robo Cab logo bright in the daylight. It pulled up in front of her, the door opened and she stepped in.

Mistake.

"Good afternoon, Captain Rolanni," said the woman pointing the gun at her. "Let's have lunch."

The door snapped shut and the cab accelerated into traffic.

* * *

IT WAS GOING TO take a bit to disable the camera, but he thought he had a workable notion, there. The hard part was going to be getting out the door. After that, he'd have to deal with the details: scoping out where, exactly, he was, and how, exactly, to get out.

He'd read somewhere that it was the duty of prisoners taken in war to attempt to escape, in order, so he guessed, to make the other side commit more resources to keeping their prisoners where they belonged. It had occurred to him at the time that the efficient answer to that might be to shoot all the troublemakers at hand, and institute a policy of taking no prisoners. On the other hand, Mr. Trogar having erred on the side of prisoner-taking, he supposed there was a certain usefulness to confounding the home guard.

Or, as the Judge was a little too fond of saying, "Let's throw a rock in the pond and see who we piss off."

* * *

SURPRISINGLY ENOUGH, it was lunch, and if there was a guard mounted outside the door of the private parlor, and her host was armed, nobody had gotten around to taking the gun that rode openly on her belt, much less searching her for any hidden surprises she might be carrying.

Lunch was simple—pre-made sandwiches, hand pastries, coffee, and some local fruit.

To hear her tell it, the host's name was Sambra Reallen, which was as good as any other name. She professed herself a not-friend of the current chairman, on which point Midj reserved judgment, considering the manner of their meeting. Since she also seemed to hold some interesting information, Midj was willing to listen to her for the space it took to eat a sandwich and savor a couple cups of the real bean.

"You're here for Korelan Zar," Sambra Reallen said, and it was disturbing to hear that fact stated so baldly, no "am-I-right?" about it.

There being no use playing games, Midj nodded slowly and sipped her coffee. "Man asked me to give him a ride off-world. That against the law?"

The other woman grinned, quick and feral. "At the moment, the law here is the chairman's whim. Given that—yes, I'm afraid it is."

"That's too bad," Midj said, hoping she sounded at least neutral.

"You could say that," Sambra Reallen agreed. She wasn't drinking coffee, and she hadn't even bothered to look at the sandwich in front of her. "Captain Rolanni, do you have any idea who Korelan Zar is?"

Well, that was a question, now, wasn't it? Midj shrugged. "Old friend. Called in a favor. I came. That's how we do things, out where the chairman's whim counts for spit."

Another quick grin. "I'll take that as a long 'no,'" she said. "Korelan Zar is the High Judge's courier."

Midj sipped coffee, considering. She decided that she didn't really care what the Juntavas had to do with judges or judging, and looked up to meet Sambra Reallen's sober gaze.

"Kore was a hell of a pilot," she said, which was nothing but the truth.

The Juntava snorted. "So he was and so he is. He's also been with the High Judge for twenty Standards—maybe more. The two of them came out of nowhere—the High Judge, he wasn't a Judge then; the closest we had to Judges were the Enforcers—and that wasn't close at all. He sold the Justice Department idea to the then-chairman—the chairman that the present whimsical guy we've got replaced, you understand. The two of them—Zar and the Judge—they set up the whole system, recruited Judges, trained 'em and set 'em loose. I don't know how many Judges there are now—the last number I heard was thirty, but I think that's low—very low. The High Judge isn't a man who shows you all the cards he's got in his hand—and Korelan Zar's just like him."

It was a fair description of Kore, all things weighed. And the project itself jibed with the one he'd tried to sell her on, sitting across from her in Skeedaddle's tiny galley, holding her hands so hard she felt the bones grinding together. Bunch of crazy talk, she'd thought then. Now . . . Well, say the years had given her a different understanding of what was necessarily crazy.

"Not that I'm disinterested in your problems," she said now to Sambra Reallen, "but I'm not quite grasping what this has to do with me."

The other woman nodded vigorously. "Thank you, yes. You do need to know what this has to do with you." She leaned forward, face intent, eyes hard.

"The High Judge, his household, all the Judges I know about and all those I don't—are gone. Say that they are not blessed with the chairman's favor. I don't doubt—I know—that the High Judge had a plan. He must have foreseen—if not the current situation, at least the possibility of the current situation. He would have planned for this. His very disappearance forces me to conclude that he does have a plan, and has only withdrawn for a time to marshal his forces and his allies."

Midj shrugged. "So?"

"So." Sambra Reallen leaned deliberately back in her chair. "About a month ago, local, the chairman realized the High Judge had not been seen in some while. That, indeed, the entire network of Judges, as far as they are known, had slipped through the hands of his seekers. He realized, indeed, that the sole member of the High Judge's household remaining upon Shaltren was—"

"The courier." Midj put her cup down, all her attention focused on the other woman.

Sambra Reallen nodded. "Precisely. The word went out that Korelan Zar should be brought to the chairman. How Zar heard of the order, I don't know, but I'm not surprised that he did. He made a strike for his ship, as I was sure he would, and I waited for him there, hoping to divert him to a safe place. Something must have spooked him; he returned to the High Judge's house—and was taken into custody shortly thereafter."

"Hm. How 'bout if it was you spooked him?" Midj asked. "I'm thinking that altruism isn't exactly your style. What'd you want from Kore in exchange for the safe berth?"

The other woman's face tightened. "Information! The High Judge must be planning something—I must know what it is! The chairman can't be allowed to continue—he's already lost us ground on three significant worlds and will loose Stelubia entirely, if he's not stopped. All of that would be reason enough, if there weren't Turtles in the mix, too!"

Midj blinked. "Turtles? Clutch Turtles?"

"There's another kind?"

"Not that I know of. These would be two, and asking after the health of a couple of humans they adopted, am I right?"

Sambra Reallen nodded, sighed.

"Indeed," she said finally, finding her pastry's icing a fascinating diversion from the discussion as she weighed some inner necessity.

"These things are too big to be secret," she continued, "no matter how hard any of us wish to hide them. Here you are, fresh in, and already the word is out. "

The pilot relaxed slightly, realizing that the Juntava was apparently too focused on her own set of woes to pursue Midj's familiarity with the doings of the Clutch.

"I've been reading history, Captain Rolanni. The vengeance that these two beings may visit upon the entire organization if their petition is mishandled—and there is no possibility that the chairman will not mishandle it—doesn't bear thinking about. I—Action needs to be taken. But I must know what the High Judge is planning."

"And you think Kore knows."

"Yes."

"But Kore's been taken by the chairman," Midj pointed out, trying to keep the thought—and its implications—from reaching real nerve endings. "If he's as ruthless as he say, he's already cracked Kore's head open and emptied out everything inside." Including my name, my ship's name, and the fact that I was coming for him. That did touch nerve, and she picked up her cup, swigging down the last of the cold coffee.

"The chairman tried to do exactly that," Sambra Reallen said. "Mr. Zar's defenses are formidable—also, as I discover from my study of the session transcript, he wasn't asked the right question."

"You got my name from the transcript, then."

"No." The Juntava shook her head. "I got your pinbeam receiver ID from the transcript. Mr. Zar could not be persuaded to part with your name, though he was obviously experiencing some  . . .discomfort for withholding the information."

The receiver ID was enough to sink her—present company being evidence—but she'd made it extra easier for them by coming on-world—and the joke was on her, if she'd taken an honest warn-away for code.

"So, what do you want from me?" Might as well ask it straight out, though she thought she had a good idea what it would be.

"I want you to pull him out of custody. I can provide you with his location, weapons if you need them, and a safe place to bring him to."

Yup, that was it. Midj shook her head.

"And what do I get?"

The Juntava pushed the untouched sandwich away and leaned her elbows on the table.

"What do you want?"

Just like that: Name a price and the Juntavas would meet it. No problem. She felt a hot flash of fury, felt the words, I want my brother back rising and kept them behind her teeth with an effort. Sat for a couple of heartbeats, breathing. Just that.

When she was sure she could trust her voice, she met the other woman's bland eyes.

"What I want is Kore, free and in shape to leave, if that's what he still wants. And I want us both to have safe passage out of here, and a guarantee that we won't either of us be pursued by the Juntavas after."

There was a pause.

"I could promise you these things," Sambra Reallen said eventually, "but until I hear what Korelan Zar has to tell me—if he will tell me anything—I can't know if my promise will hold air." She raised a hand, palm out. "I understand that you have no reason to love the Juntavas, Captain. The best I can promise at this point is that, if Chairman Trogar leaves the game, I will do my best to ensure that your conditions are met."

About what she'd figured; as good as she was going to get, and no time to negotiate anyway, with Kore's life on the line.

"Why hasn't the chairman killed him?" she asked.

The Juntava shrugged. "It could be that the chairman thinks Korelan Zar still retains some potential for amusement."

Right. Midj sighed.

"I'll need a diversion. If Kore's high-level, then there are high-level people interested in him who'll have to be drawn off."

Sambra Reallen nodded. "I'll call a department chair meeting."

Midj blinked. "You can do that?"

The Juntava smiled, letting a glimmer of genuine amusement show. "Oh, yes," she said. "I can do that."

* * *

GETTING OUT THE DOOR hadn't been so hard after all, though there was going to be hell to pay if—well, there was going to be hell to pay; it wasn't any use thinking there could be a different outcome to this.

He was sorry he wouldn't be on hand to see the finish of it, since he'd been in on the beginning. It had been a grand, beautiful scheme, so logical. So—simple. Introduce a justice system into Juntavas structure. Feed and nurture and protect it and its practitioners for twenty, thirty, fifty Standards—they hadn't been sure of the timing, but hoped to see results within their lifetimes—easily that. Lately, he thought they'd been optimistic—and not only of the timing.

Still, he had a gun, courtesy of a guard even stupider than he was, and he knew where he was, and where he was going, more or less right down to his final breath. It was . . . freeing in a way. He felt at peace with himself, and with his purpose. If he could kill Grom Trogar, then he could depart as happy as a man filled full of pellets could be, and the plan—his plan, that he'd given up his life of small happinesses to see through—would have a second chance at continuing.

It was convenient that his holding room was in the chairman's building. Convenient that he had committed the layout of that building, along with several others, to memory years ago. He knew where the secret stair was and the code that opened the hatch. He eased the panel shut behind him and began to climb.

He paused to catch his breath just below the fourteenth landing. Only one more landing, if his memory could be relied upon—and since he'd already decided that it could why worry about it now? The hatch opened in what used to be a supply closet in the chairman's suite. He steeled himself for the unpleasant truth that he might need to kill blameless people before he got to his target. He wasn't an assassin; even killing Mr. Trogar himself, much as it was needed, wasn't going to be a home joy. The important thing was not to freeze, not to hesitate. To acquire his target and shoot. He might only get one shot, and it was important to make it count.

Leaning against the wall, he once again went over his stolen gun. It was a good gun, loaded, well-oiled with an extra clip of pellets riding in the handle. The guard had taken good care of his weapon. Points for the—

Above him and to the left, where the ongoing flight angled off the landing, there was a noise. A very slight noise, not immediately repeated, as if someone had scuffed a boot against the edge of a step.

He went to one knee on the step, raised the gun in two hands, and waited, breathing slow. Easy . . .

Another scuff, and a dim shadow on the dim wall of the landing. His finger tightened on the trigger. Silence—

And a sudden appalling rush of sound, as a dark figure hurtled hit the landing, flat-footed, gun out and pointing at his head. He had a moment to feel anger, then—

"Kore!"

He blinked. Stared up into a pale face and dark brown eyes, short dark hair showing a blaze of gray going back from the temple.

"Midj?" Slowly, he lowered the gun. "What the hell are you doing here?"

"Back atcha." She lowered her own weapon and stood, a little stiffly, he thought. "But it's gonna hafta to wait. I'm supposed to be getting you out of here, to a safe place."

He frowned. "Safe by whose standards?"

"Woman by the name of Sambra Reallen."

He thought about it, shook his head. "Can't trust her."

"Can't not trust her," she countered. "She picked me up in port. Could've just as easy been the chairman, the way I hear it. She wants him gone and she don't want to jinx the High Judge's play, if he has a play. Which you're supposed to tell her."

He snorted. "She wouldn't believe me." He thought again. "How were you supposed to get me out of here?"

"Same way I came," she said, jerking her head up the stairs. We walk up to the roof. There's a monowing waiting to lift us out."

"OK," he said, and came to his feet. He smiled, then, and it felt like his soul was stretched so wide it might burst a seam.

"Midj. Thank you."

"No problem."

* * *

THEY WERE TWO STEPS below the fifteenth landing when the alarm went out. Kore threw himself onto landing, fingers moving rapidly on the code bar. The panel slid open as Midj came up beside him.

"What's going on?"

"Damned if I know. But the doors will seal in ten seconds—go!" He pushed her through and followed, into the dimness of the supply room.

"Where are we?"

Trust Midj to ask the question. "Chairman Trogar's office."

"Great."

"Could be worse. Let's see . . ."

Carefully, he eased open the closet door, the receptionist's desk was empty, he could hear voices, out in the hall, and slipped forward, barely hearing Midj's curse as she followed him.

He crept to the hall door and peered around—and abruptly gave up stealth.

In the center of the hall, surrounded by gaping humans, stood two large green—persons. On the floor beyond them, he could see a form, a shock of white hair, a widening pool of blood, a—weapon, though what sort of weapon he scarcely knew.

The largest of the two green persons—sang. There was a flash! of pinpoint light, a snap! of sound and the weapon was molten metal, mixing with liquid red.

There was a stifled scream from the crowd; a shifting of bodies, and then from the crowd, one stepped forward and bowed.

"I am called Sambra Reallen, Chairman Pro Tem," she said softly. "How may I serve you, Aged Ones?"

* * *

SKEEDADDLE WAS WELL AWAY, on course for Clarine, and a chat with Teyope, should he have actually happened to deliver the cargo as commissioned. At least, that's what Sambra Reallen knew. It was the least of what Sambra Reallen knew, and Midj hoped she had joy of her new status. Talk about being in a position to honor promises.

"She'll have to be certified by the department heads." Kore sat down on the edge of the co-pilot's chair and held out a steaming cup. "'toot?"

"Thanks." She took it, spinning her chair to face him. She drew a breath, thinking she might be about to say something, found her mouth dry, and drank some 'toot instead.

"I wanted to say." Kore was holding his cup between both palms, staring down as if the hot liquid were a navigation screen.

"I wanted to say—I'm sorry. I had no right to pull you into that, Midj, knowing what you—and knowing what it could become. My arrogance. I thought I was ahead of the trouble."

"Well," she said, softly. And then again, "Well."

He looked up, amber eyes wary. The black hair showed some shine of silver, his face marked with the lines of responsibility and worry.

"Your plan. I mean your old plan. Is that playing out the way you'd hoped?"

He tipped his head, considering. Had a sip of 'toot.

"Not exactly. There were compromises needed. Somehow, I hadn't thought of there needing to be compromises. Some good people died, and I never meant that. Justice . . ." The ghost of a laugh. "Justice isn't always easy to cipher. I didn't expect that at all." He sighed.

"That said—we've made progress. In some direction. We've introduced another player into the game, and another set of rules. Is that a good thing, a bad thing, or a null-value?" He shrugged. "Don't know."

Right.

Midj sipped her 'toot; used her chin to point at the board.

"Course is set for Clarine; it's easy to change, if you're expected somewhere. Or I can set you down where you say. Or you can stay on."

There, it was out in the open.

Kore was looking at her like he thought hard.

"Stay on?"

"If you want to." The cup of 'toot trembeled a bit in her hand, belying her attempt at a casual tone.

She cleared her throat and met his eyes square. "Thinking over it all—I had the idea we'd been a damn good team, Kore. Had the idea we might be again, if you're wantin' it."

She felt a moment of panic then—a moment brought on in part by twenty years of the voice in her head nagging at her in odd moments telling her He joined up with his eyes open, Midjthey'll never let him go—"That is, "she said with a challenge, "if you want it and if they'll let you . . ."

A pause, getting long while he—and she—sipped at their cups. Then . . . .

"There isn't anything I want more," Kore said slowly. "But I—Midj, maybe we need to do this in stages. First, I gotta get back to the Judge. I've got to let him know where I am, how it is with me. And—I'd like you to meet him. Talk with him."

Meet the Juntava who had stolen away Kore and twenty years of their life? She felt the anger rise—shook it off as he kept talking.

"Then, well, I got a couple standard years of vacation time coming. We could go somewhere . . . like maybe Panore."

He favored her suddenly with a grin that made her sway as she laughed.

"A couple years vacation? On Panore, is it? What did you do? Loot the strongbox?"

His grin faded; and Midj felt a chill. Suppose he had looted the joint?

"Nah," he admitted wryly, "I didn't. It's just that I never really took much time off. I mean the Judge project, it kept me pretty busy. And . . ."

"But Panore? I'd have thought you'd forgot that . . ."

He shook his head then, and snorted a quiet laugh, and kind of talked into his cup for a minute like he was afraid, or too shy, to look at her.

"Nah. I always did mean to get out to Panore, you know. And I always kept hoping there'd be some way I could maybe get you to go with me. So when I got a chance, I put some of my money into a condo-building out there . . . one unit's mine. "

He looked up, caught the look of amaze that had left her mouth half open. She felt the words spill out unbidden.

"What? Panore's for fatcats! Do you have any idea of what it costs to live on a place like that? I, I . . ."

He signed a quick yes in pilot's hand-talk as he finished his 'toot.

"So yeah, I do know. But now that you brought it up, why don't we find us a cargo or two that'll take us out that way, make sure we can still work together. Then, we can make sure we can still play together."

He put the cup down, unexpectedly reached his hand to hers. "Tell me it's a deal, and I'll sign the book as co-pilot right now, if you like. "

"Deal," she said, and squeezed his hand before pulling the logbook out on it's trip tray.


WITH STARS UNDERFOOT

Adventures in the Liaden Universe® Number Ten

First published in 2004 by SRM, Publisher.

This House originally appeared in Stars, edited by Janis Ian and Mike Resnick August 2003

Lord of the Dance is Copyright (c) 2004 Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

 


Dedicated to


J.J. Cale


for "Momma Don't"


and to


Janis Ian


for "This House"


many thanks!


This House


IT WAS SPRING AGAIN.

Mil Ton Intassi caught the first hint of it as he strolled through his early-morning garden—a bare flutter of warmth along the chill edge of mountain air, no more than that. Nonetheless, he sighed as he walked, and tucked his hands into the sleeves of his jacket.

At the end of the garden, he paused, looking out across the toothy horizon, dyed orange by the rising sun. Mist boiled up from the valley below him, making the trees into wraiths, obscuring the road and the airport entirely.

Spring, he thought again.

He had come here in the spring, retreating to the house he had built, to the constancy of the mountains.

Turning his back on the roiling fog, he strolled down the pale stone path, passing between banked rows of flowers.

At the center of the garden, the path forked—the left fork became a pleasant meander through the lower gardens, into the perimeter wood. It was cunning, with many delightful vistas, grassy knolls, and shady groves perfect for tête-à-têtes.

The right-hand path led straight to the house, and it was to the house that Mil Ton returned, slipping in through the terrace window, sliding it closed behind him.

He left his jacket on its peg and crossed to the stove, where he poured tea into a lopsided pottery mug before he moved on, his footsteps firm on the scrubbed wooden floor.

At the doorway to the great room, he paused. To his right, the fireplace, the full wall of native stone, which they had gathered and placed themselves. The grate wanted sweeping and new logs needed to be laid. He would see to it later.

Opposite the doorway was a wall of windows through which he could see the orange light unfurling like ribbons through the busy mist, and, nearer, a pleasant lawn, guarded on the far side by a band of cedar trees, their rough bark showing pink against the glossy green needles. Cedar was plentiful on this side of the mountain. So plentiful that he had used native cedar wood for beam, post, and floor.

Mil Ton turned his head, looking down the room to the letterbox. The panel light glowed cheerfully green, which meant there were messages in the bin. It was rare, now, that he received any messages beyond the commonplace—notices of quartershare payments, the occasional query from the clan's man of business. His sister—his delm—had at last given over scolding him, and would not command him; her letters were laconic, non-committal, and increasingly rare. The others—he moved his shoulders and walked forward to stand at the window, sipping tea from the lopsided mug and staring down into the thinning orange mist.

The green light tickled the edge of his vision. What could it be? he wondered—and sighed sharply, irritated with himself. The letterbox existed because his sister—or perhaps it had been his delm—asked that he not make himself entirely unavailable to the clan. Had she not, he would have had neither letterbox, nor telephone, nor newsnet access. Two of those he had managed, and missed neither. Nor would he mourn the letterbox, did it suddenly malfunction and die.

Oh, blast it all—what could it be?

He put the cup on the sill and went down the room, jerking open the drawer and snatching out two flimsies.

The first was, after all, an inquiry from his man of business on the subject of re-investing an unexpected payout of dividend. He set it aside.

The second message was from Master Tereza of Solcintra Healer Hall, and it was rather lengthy, outlining an exceptionally interesting and difficult case currently in the care of the Hall, and wondering if he might bring himself down to the city for a few days to lend his expertise.

Mil Ton made a sound halfway between a growl and a laugh; his fingers tightened, crumpling the sheet into an unreadable mess.

Go to Solcintra Hall, take up his role as a Healer once more. Yes, certainly. Tereza, of all of them, should know that he had no intention of ever—he had told her, quite plainly—and his had never been a true Healing talent, in any case. It was a farce. A bitter joke made at his expense.

He closed his eyes, deliberately initiating a basic relaxation exercise. Slowly, he brought his anger—his panic—under control. Slowly, cool sense returned.

Tereza had been his friend. Caustic, she could certainly be, but to taunt a wounded man for his pain? No. That was not Tereza.

The flimsy was a ruin of mangled fiber and smeared ink. No matter. He crossed the room and dropped it into the fire grate, and stood staring down into the cold ashes.

Return to Solcintra? Not likely.

He moved his shoulders, turned back to the window and picked up the lopsided cup; sipped tepid tea.

He should answer his man of business. He should, for the friendship that had been between them, answer Tereza. He should.

And he would—later. After he had finished his tea and sat for his dry, dutiful hours, trying to recapture that talent which had been his, and which seemed to have deserted him now. One of many desertions, and not the least hurtful.

* * *

SPRING CREPT ONWARD, kissing the flowers in the door garden into dewy wakefulness. Oppressed by cedar walls, Mil Ton escaped down the left-hand path, pacing restlessly past knolls and groves, until at last he came to a certain tree, and beneath the tree, a bench, where he sat down, and sighed, and raised his face to receive the benediction of the breeze.

In the warm sunlight, eventually he dozed. Certainly, the day bid well for dozing, sweet dreams and all manner of pleasant things. That he dozed, that was pleasant. That he did not dream, that was well. That he was awakened by a voice murmuring his name, that was—unexpected.

He straightened from his comfortable slouch against the tree, eyes snapping wide.

Before him, settled casually cross-legged on the new grass, heedless of stains on his town-tailored clothes, was a man somewhat younger than himself, dark of hair, gray of eye. Mil Ton stared, voice gone to dust in his throat.

"The house remembered me," the man in the grass said apologetically. "I hope you don't mind."

Mil Ton turned his face away. "When did it matter, what I minded?"

"Always," the other replied, softly. "Mil Ton. I told you how it was."

He took a deep breath, imposing calm with an exercise he had learned in Healer Hall, and faced about.

"Fen Ris," he said, low, but not soft. Then, "Yes. You told me how it was."

The gray eyes shadowed. "And in telling you, killed you twice." He raised a ringless and elegant hand, palm turned up. "Would that it were otherwise." The hand reversed, palm toward the grass. "Would that it were not."

Would that he had died of the pain of betrayal, Mil Ton thought, rather than live to endure this. He straightened further on the bench, frowning down at the other.

"Why do you break my peace?"

Fen Ris tipped his head slightly to one side in the old, familiar gesture. "Break?" he murmured, consideringly. "Yes, I suppose I deserve that. Indeed, I know that I deserve it. Did I not first appeal to Master Tereza and the Healers in the Hall at Solcintra, hoping that they might cure what our house Healer could not?" He paused, head bent, then looked up sharply, gray gaze like a blow.

"Master Tereza said she had sent for you," he stated, absolutely neutral. "She said, you would not come."

Mil Ton felt a chill, his fingers twitched, as if crumpling a flimsy into ruin.

"She did not say it was you."

"Ah. Would you have come, if she had said it was me?"

Yes, Mil Ton thought, looking aside so the other would not read it in his eyes.

"No," he said.

There was a small silence, followed by a sigh.

"Just as well, then," Fen Ris murmured. "For it was not I." He paused, and Mil Ton looked back to him, drawn despite his will.

"Who, then?" he asked, shortly.

The gray eyes were infinitely sorrowful, eternally determined.

"My lifemate."

Fury, pure as flame, seared him. "You dare!"

Fen Ris lifted his chin, defiant. "You, who taught me what it is to truly love—you ask if I dare?"

To truly love. Yes, he had taught that lesson—learned that lesson. And then he had learned the next lesson—that even love can betray.

He closed his eyes, groping for the rags of his dignity . . .

"Her name is Endele," Fen Ris said softly. "By profession, she is a gardener." A pause, a light laugh. "A rare blossom in our house of risk-takers and daredevils."

Eyes closed, Mil Ton said nothing.

"Well." Fen Ris said after a moment. "You live so secluded here that you may not have heard of the accident at the skimmer fields last relumma. Three drivers were killed upon the instant. One walked away unscathed. Two were sealed into crisis units. Of those, one died."

Mil Ton had once followed the skimmer races—how not?—he had seen how easily a miscalculated corner approach could become tragedy.

"You were ever Luck's darling," he whispered, his inner ear filled with the shrieks of torn metal and dying drivers; his inner eye watching carefully as Fen Ris climbed from his battered machine and—

"Aye," Fen Ris said. "That I was allowed to emerge whole and hale from the catastrophe unit—that was luck, indeed."

Abruptly it was cold, his mind's eye providing a different scene, as the emergency crew worked feverishly to cut through the twisted remains of a racing skimmer and extricate the shattered driver, the still face sheathed in blood—two alive, of six. Gods, he had almost lost Fen Ris—

No.

He had already lost Fen Ris.

"I might say," Fen Ris murmured, "that I was the most blessed of men, save for this one thing—that when I emerged from the unit, Endele—my lady, my heart . . ." His voice faded.

"She does not remember you."

Silence. Mil Ton opened his eyes and met the bleak gray stare.

"So," said Fen Ris, "you did read the file."

"I read the summary Tereza sent, to entice me back to the Hall," he corrected. "The case intrigued her—no physical impediment to the patient's memory, nor even a complete loss of memory. Only one person has been excised entirely from her past."

"Excised," Fen Ris repeated. "We have not so long a shared past, after all. A year—only that."

Mil Ton moved his shoulders. "Court her anew, then," he said, bitterly.

"When I did not court her before?" the other retorted. He sighed. "I have tried. She withdraws. She does not know me; she does not trust me." He paused, then said, so low Mil Ton could scarcely hear—

"She does not want me."

It should have given him pleasure, Mil Ton thought distantly, to see the one who had dealt him such anguish, in agony. And, yet, it was not pleasure he felt, beholding Fen Ris thus, but rather a sort of bleak inevitability.

"Why me?" he asked, which is not what he had meant to say.

Fen Ris lifted his face, allowing Mil Ton to plumb the depths of his eyes, sample the veracity of his face.

"Because you will know how to value my greatest treasure," he murmured. "Who would know better?"

Mil Ton closed his eyes, listening to his own heartbeat, to the breeze playing in the leaves over his head, and, eventually, to his own voice, low and uninflected.

"Bring her here, if she will come. If she will not, there's an end to it, for I will not go into the city."

"Mil Ton—"

"Hear me. If she refuses Healing, she is free to go when and where she will. If she accepts Healing, the same terms apply." He opened his eyes, and looked hard into the other's face.

"Bring your treasure here and you may lose it of its own will and desire."

This was warning, proper duty of a Healer, after all, and perhaps it was foretelling as well.

Seated, Fen Ris bowed, acknowledging that he'd heard, then came effortlessly to his feet. "The terms are acceptable. I will bring her tomorrow, if she will come."

Mil Ton stood. "Our business is concluded," he said flatly. "Pray, leave me."

Fen Ris stood, frozen—a heartbeat, no more than that; surely, not long enough to be certain—and thawed abruptly, sweeping a low bow, accepting a debt too deep to repay.

"I have not—" Mil Ton began, but the other turned as if he had not spoken, and went lightly across the grass, up the path, and away.

* * *

MIL TON HAD STAYED up late into the night, pacing and calling himself every sort of fool, retiring at last to toss and turn until he fell into uneasy sleep at dawn. Some hours later, a blade of sunlight sliced through the guardian cedars, through the casement and into his face.

The intrusion of light was enough to wake him. A glance at the clock brought a curse to his lips. Fen Ris would be arriving soon. If, indeed, he arrived at all.

Quickly, Mil Ton showered, dressed, and went on slippered feet down the hall toward the kitchen. As he passed the great room, he glanced within—and froze in his steps.

A woman sat on the edge of the hearth, a blue duffel bag at her feet, her hands neatly folded on her lap. She sat without any of the cushions or pillows she might have used to ease her rest, and her purpose seemed not to be repose, but alert waiting.

Her attention at this moment was directed outward, toward the window, beyond which the busy birds flickered among the cedar branches.

He took one step into the room.

The woman on the hearth turned her head, showing him a round, high-browed face, and a pair of wary brown eyes.

Mil Ton bowed in welcome of the guest. "Good day to you. I am Mil Ton Intassi, builder of this house."

"And Healer," she said, her voice deeper than he had expected.

"And Healer," he allowed, though with less confidence that he once might have. He glanced around the room. "You came alone?"

She glanced down at the blue duffel. "He drove me here, and opened the door to the house. There was no need for him to wait. He knew I did not want him. You did not want him either, he said."

Not entirely true, Mil Ton thought, face heating as he recalled the hours spent pacing. He inclined his head.

"May I know your name?"

"Bah! I have no manners," she cried and sprang to her feet. She bowed—a completely unadorned bow of introduction—and straightened.

"I am Endele per'Timbral, Clan—" her voice faded, a cloud of confusion passed briefly across her smooth face.

"I am Endele per'Timbral," she repeated, round chin thrust out defiantly.

Mil Ton inclined his head. "Be welcome in my house, Endele per'Timbral," he said, seriously. "I am in need of a cup of tea. May I offer you the same?"

"Thank you," she said promptly. "A cup of tea would be welcome."

She followed him down the hall to the kitchen and waited with quiet patience while he rummaged in the closet for a cup worthy of a guest. In the back, he located a confection of pearly porcelain. He poured tea and handed it off, recalling as she received it that the cup had belonged to Fen Ris, the sole survivor of a long-broken set.

Healers were taught to flow with their instincts. Mil Ton turned away to pour for himself, choosing the lopsided cup, as always, and damned both Healer training and himself, for agreeing to . . .

"He said that you can Heal me." Endele spoke from behind him, her speech as unadorned as her bow had been. "He means, you will make me remember him."

Mil Ton turned to look at her. She held the pearly cup daintily on the tips of her fingers, sipping tea as neatly as a cat. Certainly, she was not a beauty—her smooth forehead was too high, her face too round, her hair merely brown, caught back with a plain silver hair ring. Her person was compact and sturdy, and she had the gift of stillness.

"Do you, yourself, desire this Healing?" he asked, the words coming effortlessly to his lips, as if the year away were the merest blink of an eye. "I will not attempt a Healing, against your will."

She frowned slightly. "Did you tell him that?"

"Of course," said Mil Ton. "I also told him that, if you wish to leave here for your own destination, now or later, I will not impede you. He accepted the terms."

"Did he?" The frown did not disappear. "Why?"

Mil Ton sipped tea, deliberately savoring the citrus bite while he considered. It was taught that a Healer owed truth to those he would Heal. How much truth was left to the Healer's discretion.

"I believe," he said slowly, to Endele per'Timbral's wary brown eyes, "it is because he values you above all other things and wishes for you only that which will increase your joy."

Tears filled her eyes, glittering. She turned aside, embarrassed to weep before a stranger, as anyone would be, and walked over to the terrace door, her footsteps soft on the wooden floor.

Mil Ton sipped tea and watched her. She stood quite still, her shoulders stiff with tension, tea cup forgotten in one hand, staring out into the garden as if it were the most fascinating thoroughfare in Solcintra City.

Sipping tea, Mil Ton let his mind drift. He was not skilled at hearing another's emotions. But the Masters of the Hall in Solcintra had taught him somewhat of their craft, and sometimes, if he disengaged his mind, allowing himself to fall, as it were into a waking doze—well, sometimes, then, he could see . . .

Images.

Now he saw images and more than images. He saw intentions made visible.

Walls of stone, a window set flush and firm, tightly latched against the storm raging without. Hanging to the right of the window was a wreath woven of some blue-leaved plant, which gave off a sweet, springlike scent. Mil Ton breathed in. Breathed out.

He felt, without seeing, that the stone barrier was all around the woman, as if she walked in some great walled city, able to stay safe from some lurking, perhaps inimical presence . . .

A rustle of something and the stones and their meaning faded.

"Please," a breathless voice said nearby. He opened his eyes to his own wood-floored kitchen, and looked down into the round face of Endele per'Timbral.

"Please," she said again. "May I walk in your garden?"

"Certainly," he said, suddenly remembering her profession. "I am afraid you will find it inadequate in the extreme, however."

"I was charmed to see your house sitting so comfortably in the woods. I am certain I will be charmed by your garden," she said in turn, and turned to place her cup on the counter.

He unlocked the door and she slipped through, walking down the path without a look behind her. Mil Ton watched her out of sight, then left the door on the latch and poured himself a second cup of tea.

* * *

BY TRADE, HE WAS a storyteller. A storyteller whose stories sometimes went  . . . odd. Odd enough to pique the interest of the Masters, who had insisted that he was Healer, and taught him what they could of the craft.

He was, at best, a mediocre Healer, for he never had gained the necessary control over his rather peculiar talent to make it more than an uncertain tool. Sometimes, without warning, he would tell what Tereza was pleased to call a True Story, and that story would have—an effect. Neither story nor effect were predictable, and so he was most likely to be called upon as a last resort, after every other Healing art had failed.

As now.

Mil Ton thought about the woman—the woman Fen Ris had taken as lifemate. He remembered the impassioned speech on the subject of this same woman, on the night Fen Ris had come to tell him how it was.

He sighed then, filled for a moment with all the grief of that night, and recalled Fen Ris demanding, demanding that Mil Ton take no Balance against this woman, for she had not stolen Fen Ris but discovered him. Among tears and joy, Fen Ris insisted that they both had been snatched, unanticipated and unplanned, out of their ordinary lives.

And now, of course, there was no ordinary life for any of them.

He wondered—he very much wondered—if Endele per'Timbral would choose Healing.

Her blue bag still lay by the hearth, but it had been many hours since she had gone out into the garden. More than enough time for a sturdy woman in good health to have hiked down to the airport, engaged a pilot and a plane and been on her way to—anywhere at all.

Mil Ton sighed and looked back to his screen. When he found that he could no longer practice his profession, he had taught himself a new skill. Written stories never turned odd, and before his betrayal, he had achieved a modest success in his work.

The work was more difficult now; the stories that came so grudgingly off the tips of his fingers bleak and gray and hopeless. He had hoped for something better from this one, before Fen Ris had intruded into his life again. Now, he was distracted, his emotions in turmoil. He wondered again if Endele per'Timbral had departed for a destination of her own choosing. Fen Ris would suffer, if she had done so. He told himself he didn't care.

Unquiet, he put the keyboard aside and pulled a book from the table next to his chair. If he could not write, perhaps he could lose himself inside the story of another.

* * *

SHE RETURNED TO the house with sunset, her hair wind-combed, her shirt and leggings rumpled, dirt under her fingernails.

"Your garden is charming," she told him. "I took the liberty of weeding a few beds so that the younger flowers will have room to grow."

"Ah." said Mil Ton, turning from the freezer with a readimeal in one hand. "My thanks."

"No thanks needed," she assured him, eyeing the box. "I would welcome a similar meal, if the house is able," she said, voice almost shy.

"Certainly, the house is able," he said, snappish from a day of grudging, grayish work.

She inclined her head seriously. "I am in the house's debt." She held up her hands. "Is there a place where I may wash off your garden's good dirt?"

He told her where to find the 'fresher and she left him.

* * *

DINNER WAS ENLIVENED by a discussion of the garden. She was knowledgeable—more so than Mil Ton, who had planted piecemeal, with those things that appealed to him. He kept up his side only indifferently, his vision from time to time overlain with stone, and a storm raging, raging, raging, outside windows tight and sealed.

When the meal was done, she helped him clear the table, and, when the last dish was stacked in the cleaner, stood awkwardly, her strong, capable hands twisted into a knot before her.

Mil Ton considered her through a shimmer of stone walls.

"Have you decided," he said, careful to keep his voice neutral—for this was her choice, and hers alone, so the Master Healers taught— "whether you are in need of Healing?"

She looked aside, and it seemed that, for a moment, the phantom stones took on weight and substance. Then, the vision faded and it was only clean air between him and a woman undecided.

"They say—they say he is my lifemate," she said, low and stammering. "They say the life-price was negotiated with my clan, that he paid it out of his winnings on the field. They say, we were inseparable, greater together than apart. His kin—they say all this. And I say—if these things are so, why do I not remember him?"

Mil Ton drew a deep, careful breath. "Why should they tell you these things, if they were not so?"

She moved her shoulders, face averted. "Clearly, it is so," she whispered. "They—he—the facts are as they state them. I saw the announcement in the back issue of the Gazette. I spoke to my sister. I remember the rooms which are mine in his clan house. I remember the gardens, and the shopkeeper at the end of the street. I remember his sister, his brothers—all his kin! Saving him. Only him. My  . . . lifemate."

Her pain was evident. One needn't be an empath to feel it. Mil Ton drew a calming breath . . .

"I am not a monster," she continued. "He—of course, he is bewildered. He seems—kind, and, and concerned for my happiness. He looks at me . . . I do not know him!" she burst out passionately. "I owe him nothing!" She caught herself, teeth indenting lower lip. Mil Ton saw the slow slide of a tear down one round cheek.

She was sincere; he remembered Tereza's report all too well:

This is not merely some childish game of willfulness, but a true forgetting. And, yet, how has she forgotten? Her intellect is intact; she has suffered no trauma, taken no drugs, appealed to no Healer to rid her of the burden of her memories . . .

"And do you," Mil Ton asked once more, "wish to embrace Healing?"

She turned her head and looked at him, her cheeks wet and her eyes tragic.

"What will happen, if I am Healed?"

Ah, the question. The very question. And he owed her only truth.

"It is the wish of your lifemate that you would then recall him and the life you have embarked upon together. If you do not also wish for that outcome, deny me."

Her lips tightened, and again she turned away, walked a few steps down the room and turned back to face him.

"You built this house, he said—you alone." She looked around her, at the bare wooden floor, the cedar beam, the cabinets and counter in-between. "It must have taken a very long time."

So, there would be no Healing. Mil Ton sighed—Fen Ris. It was possible to feel pity for Fen Ris. He bought a moment to compose himself by repeating her inventory of the kitchen, then brought his eyes to her face and inclined his head.

"Indeed, it took much longer than needful, to build this house. I worked on it infrequently, with long stretches between."

"But, why build it at all?"

"Well." He hesitated, then moved his hand, indicating that she should walk with him.

"I began when I was still an apprentice. My mother had died and left the mountain to myself alone, as her father had once left it to her. There had been a house here, in the past; I discovered the foundation when I began to clear the land." He paused and gave her a sideline look.

"I had planned to have a garden here, you see—and what I did first was to clear the land and cut the pathways . . ."

"But you had uncovered the foundation," she said, preceding him into the great room. She sat on the edge of the hearth, where she had been before. Fen Ris had himself perched precisely there on any number of evenings or mornings. And here was this woman—

Mil Ton walked over to his chair and sat on the arm.

"I had uncovered the foundation," he repeated, "before I went away—back to the city and my craft. I was away—for many years, traveling in stories. I made a success of myself; my tales were sought after; halls were filled with those who hungered for my words.

"When I returned, I was ill with self-loathing. My stories had become  . . .weapons— horribly potent, uncontrollable. I drove a man mad in Chonselta City. In Teramis, a woman ran from the hall, screaming . . ."

On the hearth, Endele per'Timbral sat still as a stone, only her eyes alive.

"That I came here—I scarcely knew why. Except that I had discovered a foundation and it came to me that I could build a house, and keep the world safely away."

Oh, gods, he thought, feeling the shape of the words in his mouth, listening to his voice, spinning the tale he meant, and yet did not mean, to tell . . .

"I built the house of cedar, and laid the beams by hand; the windows I set tight against the walls. At the core, a fireplace—" He used his chin to point over her shoulder. "Before I finished that, the Healers came to me. News of my stories and the effects of my stories had reached the Masters of the Guild and they begged that I come to be trained, before I harmed anyone else." He looked down at his hand, fisted against his knee, and heard his voice continue the tale.

"So, I went and I trained, and then I worked as a Healer in the hall. I learned to write stories down and they did not cause madness, and so took up another craft for myself. I was content and solitary until I met a young man at the skimmer track." He paused; she sat like a woman hewn of ice.

"He was bold, and he was beautiful; intelligent and full of joy. We were friends, first, then lovers. I brought him here and he transformed my house with his presence; with his help, the fireplace went from pit to hearth."

He closed his eyes, heard the words fall from his lips. "One evening, he came to me—we had been days apart, but that was no unknown thing—he followed the races, of course. He came to me and he was weeping, he held me and he told me of the woman he had met, how their hearts beat together, how they must be united, or die."

Behind his closed eyes he saw image over image—Fen Ris before him, beseeching and explaining, and this woman's wall of stone, matching texture for texture the very hearth she sat on.

"Perhaps a true Healer might have understood. I did not. I cast him out, told him to go to his woman and leave me—leave me in peace. I fled—here, to the place which was built for safety . . ."

"How did you abide it?" Her voice was shrill, he opened his eyes to find her on her feet, her body bowed with tension, her eyes frantic. "How did you abide loving him? Knowing what he does? Knowing that they might one day bring his body to you? Couldn't you see that you needed to lock yourself away?"

His vision wavered, he saw stones, falling, felt wind tear his hair, lash rain into his face. In the midst of chaos, he reached out, and put his arms around her, and held her while she sobbed against his shoulder.

Eventually, the wind died, the woman in his arms quieted.

"I loved him for himself," he said softly, into her hair. "And he loved the races. He would not choose to stop racing, though he might have done, had I asked him. But he would have been unhappy, desperately so—and I loved him too well to ask it." He sighed.

"In the end, it came to my choice: Did I bide and share in our love, for as long as we both remained? Or turn my face aside, from the fear that, someday, he might be gone?"

In his arms Endele per'Timbral shuddered—and relaxed.

"As simple as that?" she whispered.

"As simple, and as complex." Words failed him for a moment—in his head now were images of Fen Ris laughing, and of the ocean waves crashing on stone beneath the pair of them, of arms reaching eagerly—

He sighed again. "I have perhaps done you no favor, child, in unmaking the choice you had made, if safety is what you need above all."

"Perhaps," she said, and straightened out of his embrace, showing him a wet face, and eyes as calm as dawn. "Perhaps not." She inclined her head. "All honor, Healer. With your permission, I will retire, and tend my garden of choices while I dream."

He showed her to the tiny guest room, with its thin bed and single window, giving out to the moonlit garden, then returned to the great room.

For a few heartbeats, he stood, staring down into the cold hearth. It came to him, as from a distance, that it wanted sweeping, and he knelt down on the stones and reached for the brush.

* * *

"Mil Ton." A woman's voice, near at hand. He stirred, irritable, muscles aching, as if he had slept on cold stone.

"Mil Ton," she said again, and he opened his eyes to Endele per'Timbral's pale and composed face. She extended a hand, and helped him to rise, and they walked in companionable silence to the kitchen for tea.

"Have you decided," he asked her, as they stood by the open door, inhaling the promise of the garden, "what you shall do?"

"Yes," she said softly. "Have you?"

"Yes," he answered—and it was so, though he had not until that moment understood that a decision had been necessary. He smiled, feeling his heart absurdly light in his breast.

"I will return to Solcintra. Tereza writes that there is work for me, at the Hall."

"I am glad," she said. "Perhaps you will come to us, when you are settled. He would like it, I think—and I would."

He looked over to her and met her smile.

"Thank you," he said softly. "I would like it, too."


Lord of the Dance


IT WAS SNOWING, of course.

The gentleman looked out the window as the groundcar moved quietly through the dark streets. His streets.

And really, he said to himself irritably, you ought to be able to hit upon some affordable way of lighting them.

"What are you thinking, Pat Rin?" His lady's voice was soft as the snow, her hand light on his knee. And he was a boor, to ignore her most welcome presence in worries over street lamps.

He leaned back in the seat, placed his hand over hers, and looked into her dark eyes.

"I was thinking how pretty the snow is," he murmured.

She laughed and he smiled as the car turned the corner—and abruptly there was light, spilling rich and yellow from all of the doors and windows of Audrey's whorehouse, warming the dark sidewalks and spinning the snowflakes into gold.

* * *

"Boss. Ms. Natesa." Villy bowed with grace, if without nuance, and pulled the door wide. "You honor our house."

Great gods. Pat Rin carefully did not look at his lady as he inclined his head.

"We are of course pleased to accept Ms. Audrey's invitation," he murmured. "It has been an age since I have danced."

The boy smiled brilliantly. "We hoped you'd be pleased, sir." He pointed to the left, blessedly returning to a more Terran mode. "You can leave your coats in the room, there, then join everybody in the big parlor."

"Thank you," Pat Rin said, and moved off as the bell chimed again, Natesa on his arm.

"Who," he murmured, for her ear alone, "do you suppose has been tutoring Villy in the Liaden mode?"

"Why shouldn't he be teaching himself?" she countered, slanting a quick, subtle look into his face. "He admires you greatly, master."

"Most assuredly he does," Pat Rin replied, with irony, and paused before the small room which served as a public closet for the clients of Ms. Audrey's house. Natesa removed her hand from his arm and turned, allowing him to slip the long fleece coat from her shoulders. The remains of snowflakes glittered on the dark green fabric like a spangle of tiny jewels. He shook it out and stepped into the closet.

The hooks and hangers were crowded with a variety of garments: oiled sweaters, thick woolen shirts, scarred spaceleather jackets, and two or three evening cloaks in the Liaden style.

Pat Rin removed his own cloak and hung it carefully over Natesa's coat. Shaking out his lace, he stepped back into the hallway, where his lady waited in her sun-yellow gown.

He paused, his heart suddenly constricted in his chest. Natesa's black eyebrows rose, just slightly, and he moved a hand in response to the question she did not voice.

"You overwhelm me with your beauty," he said.

She laughed softly and stepped forward to take his arm again.

"And you overwhelm me with yours," she answered in her lightly accented High Liaden. "Come, let us see if together we may not overwhelm the world."

* * *

THE DOORS BETWEEN the public parlor and the visitors' lounge had been opened and tied back; the furniture moved out of the public parlor and the serviceable beige rug rolled up, revealing a surprisingly wide expanse of plastic tile in a deep, mostly unscarred brown. A refreshment table was placed along the back wall, directly beneath—

Pat Rin blinked.

When not pressed into duty as a dance hall, the public parlor of Ms. Audrey's bordello displayed certain  . . .works of art . . . as might perhaps serve to beguile the mind away from the cares of the day and toward the mutual enjoyment of pleasure.

This evening, the walls had been—transformed.

The artwork was gone, or mayhap only hidden behind objects, which, had anyone dared challenge Pat Rin to describe twelve items belonging to Korval that he least expected to find on public display, he would certainly have placed within the top six.

Nursery rugs, they were—the design based upon a star map. Three rugs together formed the whole of the map, the original of which he had himself seen, preserved in Korval's log books.

One rug had lain on the floor of the nursery at Jelaza Kazone. The second, in the schoolroom at Trealla Fantrol. The third—the third had covered the floor in the small private parlor the boy Pat Rin had shared with his foster-father, Luken bel'Tarda.

And yet on the wall directly across from him—the rug, the very rug, from Trealla Fantrol. And on the wall to his right, the rug from Jelaza Kazone.

Carefully, Pat Rin turned his head, and—yes, there on the wall behind them was the rug from his childhood, looking just as it always had, close-looped and unworn, its colors as bright as—

"Pat Rin?" Natesa murmured. "Is something amiss?"

He shook himself, and turned his head to smile at her.

"Merely—unexpected, let us say." He waved a languorous hand. "What a crush, to be sure!"

This was not strictly the case. Still, the big parlor was comfortably crowded, the conversation level somewhat louder than one might perhaps have expected at a similar gathering in Solcintra. Bosses of several of the nearer territories were present, including Penn Calhoon, as well as the Portmaster, and a good mix of local merchants.

Across the room, white hair gleaming in the abundant light, his cousin Shan stood in deep conversation with Narly Jempkins, chairman of the nascent Surebleak Mercantile Union.

"We arrive among the last, as suits our station," Natesa said softly, which bait he ignored in favor of inclining his head to their hostess, who was approaching in a rustle of synthsilk, her pale hair intricately dressed, and an easy smile on her face.

"Boss. Natesa. I'm real glad you could come."

"Audrey." Natesa smiled and extended a hand, which the older woman clasped between both of hers.

"Winter has been too long," Natesa said. "How clever of you to think of a dance!"

Audrey laughed. "Wish I could say it was all my idea! Miri was the one put the seed in my head, if you want the truth. Said she had too much energy and no place to spend it, which I'll say between the three of us ain't the usual complaint of new-birthed mothers."

"Miri is an example to us all," Pat Rin murmured, which pleasantry Audrey greeted with another laugh.

"Ain't she just—and your brother's another one! When I invite a man to a dance and I don't expect him to bring his keyboard and set up with the band. That's just what he's done, though—take a look!" She pointed down the room, where was collected a fiddle, a guitar, a drum set, a portable omnichora—and several musicians wearing what passed for stage finery on Surebleak, clustered about a slender man in a ruffled white shirt and formal slacks that would have been unexceptional at any evening gather in Solcintra.

It had been  . . .disconcerting . . . to find that Audrey, with the rest of Pat Rin's acquaintance on Surebleak, assumed that Val Con, his cousin and his Delm, was in fact his younger brother, brought in to care for the transplanted family business while the Boss undertook the important task of putting the streets in order.

As the misapprehension only amused Miri, and Val Con's sole comment on the matter was a slightly elevated eyebrow, Pat Rin gave over attempting to explain their actual relationship and resigned himself to having at his advanced age acquired a sibling.

"For a time, he and Miri sang for their suppers," he said now to Audrey. "Perhaps he misses the work."

"Could be," she answered, as the sound of footsteps and voices grew louder in the hall behind them. She sent a look over his shoulder, extended a hand and patted his sleeve lightly.

"The two of you go on in and circulate. Dancing ought to be starting up soon."

Thus dismissed, Pat Rin followed Natesa deeper into the parlor.

* * *

MS. AUDREY'S BIG PARLOR, already crowded, grew more so. Deep in a discussion with Etienne Borden and Andy Mack, which involved free-standing solar batteries, and the benefits of light level meters over mechanical timers, Pat Rin still registered an abrupt lowering of the ambient noise and looked around, thinking that the promised music was at last about to begin. But no.

It was his mother entering the room, on the arm of no one less than Scout Commander ter'Meulen, dressed for the occasion in High House best, his face oh-so-politely bland, and his mustache positively non-committal.

Pat Rin, who had all his life known Scout ter'Meulen, could only wonder at the reasons behind such a display—not to mention the why and wherefore of Lady Kareen accepting his arm for anything at all. They were neither one a friend of the other, though it had always seemed to Pat Rin that the greater amusement was on Clonak's side and the greater dislike on his mother's. Surely—

Audrey bustled forward to welcome these newest arrivals, her high, sweet voice easily rising above the other conversations in the room.

"I knew you'd turn the trick, Mister Clonak!" she said gaily, patting him kindly on the shoulder. This was apparently a dismissal, as Clonak adroitly disengaged himself from the lady's arm, took two steps into the parlor and was lost in the general crush.

Audrey turned to face Kareen squarely, and Pat Rin's stomach tightened, as he contemplated disaster. Even had he not counted Audrey a friend, he thought, it was surely no more than his duty to stand between her and Lady Kareen yos'Phelium, in the same way that it was his duty as Boss to stand between the residents of his streets and mayhem.

He murmured something quick and doubtless unintelligible to the Colonel and the assistant portmaster, and slipped through the press of bodies, moving as quickly as he was able.

"Lady Kareen," Audrey said clearly. "Be welcome in my house."

It was the proper sentiment, properly expressed, thought Pat Rin, working his way forward. Though what—and from whom—his mother might exact as Balance for being made welcome at a whorehouse—

"Well met, cousin!" Val Con murmured, astonishingly slipping his arm through Pat Rin's. "Where to in such a rush?"

"If you would not see a murder done—or worse—" Pat Rin hissed into the frigid silence that followed Audrey's greeting—"let me tend to this!"

"Nay, I think you wrong both our host and your lady mother," Val Con said tranquilly, his grip on Pat Rin's arm tightening. "Besides, the hand is dealt."

"You know what my mother is capable—"

"Peace," his cousin interrupted. "My aunt is about to play her first card."

"Who speaks?" Lady Kareen's Terran was heavily accented, but perfectly intelligible; her tone as frigid as the wind in high winter.

It was of course quite mad to even consider that he might extricate himself from the brotherly embrace of one who was both a pilot and a Scout. Nonetheless, Pat Rin took a careful breath to camouflage his shift of weight—and felt warm fingers around his unencumbered hand. He looked down, equally dismayed and unsurprised to see Miri grinning up at him, grey eyes glinting.

"Take it easy, Boss," she whispered. "Audrey's good for this."

He began to answer, then closed his mouth tightly. The fact that this had been planned—that Audrey had been coached on form and manner . . .

"That's right," their host was saying equitably to his mother. "You won't know that. I'm Audrey Breckstone, boss of this house. I'm happy to see you."

Not for nothing did Lady Kareen stand foremost among the scholars of the Liaden Code of Proper Conduct. She not only knew her Code, but she practiced it, meticulously. Rather too meticulously, as some might think. But there was perhaps, Pat Rin thought now, an advantage—to Audrey, to the house, and to Kareen herself—in an extremely nice reading of Code in regard to this particular circumstance.

It was not for a mere son to say what weights and measures were called into consideration as his mother stood there, head tipped politely to one side, face smooth and emotionless, but surely the unworthy scholar who had studied Code at her feet might make certain shrewd and informed guesses.

Whether Audrey possessed the native genius to have added that guileless, "I'm happy to see you," to her introduction, or whether she had been coached in what she was to say mattered not at all. That she had uttered the phrase in apparent sincerity placed her melant'i somewhat in regard to the melant'i of Kareen yos'Phelium. Here was, in fact, a delm—at most—or a head of Line—at least—so secure in her own worth and the worth of her house that she not only welcomed, but was happy to receive, the burden of a visit from high stickler who might ruin her and hers with a word.

Or, to phrase the matter in the parlance of Surebleak, Audrey had in essence said to Kareen: I see that you're armed, and I'm your equal.

"I am pleased to accept the greeting of the house," Lady Kareen stated, and bowed—Expert to Expert—which allowed a certain limited equality between herself and her host, and placed a finer measuring into the future, after more data had been gathered and weighed.

To her credit—or that of her tutor—Audrey did not attempt to answer the bow. Instead, she smiled, and offered her arm.

"There's going to be music and dancing for the youngers in just a bit, now," she said. "But I'm betting that a woman of good sense would like to have a glass of wine in her hand."

There was a slight hesitation as Kareen performed the mental gymnastics necessary to untangle this, then she stepped forward and placed her hand lightly on Audrey's sleeve.

"Thank you," she said austerely. "A glass of wine would be most welcome."

The two ladies moved off toward the refreshment table as the rest of the guests shook themselves and returned to interrupted conversations.

Pat Rin remembered to breathe.

"See?" Miri gave his hand a companionable squeeze before releasing him, and sending another grin up into his face. "Piece o'cake."

"As an author of the joke you might well say so," he replied, with feeling. "But consider how it might seem to those who had no—"

"Indeed, it was ill-done of us," Val Con murmured, slipping his arm away. "We had not taken into account that your duty would place you between the two ladies."

Pat Rin turned to stare, and Val Con inclined his head, for all the worlds like a proper Liaden, and murmured the phrase in High Liaden—"Forgive us, cousin. We do not intend to distress you, but to attain clarity."

Sighing, Pat Rin also inclined his head, "It is forgotten," rising reflexively to his lips.

"Next time, we'll send you a clue ahead of time," Miri said.

He eyed her. "Must there be a next time?"

"Bound to be," she answered, not without a certain amount of sympathy. Her eyes moved, tracking something beyond his shoulder.

"Band's settin' up," she said to Val Con.

"Ah," he returned, and lifted an eyebrow. "Cousin, I am wanted at my 'chora."

"By all means, go," Pat Rin told him. "Perhaps Ms. Audrey will induce my mother to stand up with Andy Mack."

The band played surprisingly well, and in a rather wider range than Pat Rin had expected, fiddle and guitar at the fore, Val Con's omnichora weaving a light, almost insubstantial, background.

At Ms. Audrey's insistence, he and Natesa had stood up for the first dance—a lively circle dance not dissimilar to the nescolantz, which had been a staple at young people's balls when he had been considerably younger. He spied Ms. Audrey, with Lady Kareen and Luken bel'Tarda at her side, observing the pattern of the dance from the edge of the rug. Further on, Clonak ter'Meulen was in animated conversation with Uncle Daav and Cheever McFarland.

At the end of the first dance, he relinquished Natesa to Priscilla with a bow, and started for the refreshment table. He'd scarcely gone three steps before his hand was caught.

"Come," said his cousin Nova. "I claim you for the next dance!"

"Ah, do you?" He laughed, and allowed himself to be led back onto the floor. "Then let us hope the band pities me and produces a less spirited number!"

Alas, his wish had not reached the ears of the band leader, for the next dance was something akin to a jig, requiring intricate footwork which he learned from step to step by the simple expedient of observing Nova and reproducing her movement.

He'd done the same thing many times in the past, of course—a person of melant'i would naturally take care to acquire the movements of a variety of dances, so that he might do his proper duty as a guest; however, no one but a scholar of the form could hope to know the intricacies of all possible dances. A quick eye and a flair for mimicry were therefore skills that a young person who wished to move without offense through Solcintra's party season would do well to acquire.

Having survived the jig unbloodied, Pat Rin bowed to his fair partner, handed her off to his Uncle Daav, and turned, setting his sights on a glass of wine and perhaps more discussion of solar arrays with Andy Mack, who he could see speaking with Clonak to the left of the refreshment table.

This time, he was claimed by a smiling Villy, who led him back out onto the floor with something very like a skip in his step. At least, Pat Rin thought, the gods were at last kind: It was a square dance, with he and Villy facing off as sides one and two, while Shan and Priscilla taking up the third side and the fourth.

The slower pace was more than balanced by a complex, cumulative pattern of exchanges with one's partner, thus: step forward, touch right hands, step back/step forward, touch right hands, then left, step back—and so on, until the tune turned on itself and one began to subtract a gesture at the exchange, and each dancer was at last back in their place, having regained all that had been given.

The music stopped the instant the second partner pair fell back into place. There was a moment of tension, as if the dancers awaited another phrase from the musicians— then laughter, and light applause. Their little square evaporated, Pat Rin moving with determination toward the refreshment table, Shan and Priscilla amiably keeping pace. He was sincerely thirsty now, and thinking in terms of a glass of a cool glass of juice.

"Do you find the party agreeable?" he asked Priscilla.

"Perfectly agreeable," she said, with a seriousness that was belied by the glimmer of a smile in her eyes. "Ms. Audrey said that she meant to host the dance of the winter."

"Which we thought would be no great challenge." Shan continued. "There being so few dances held in the winter. Or the summer. Or the spring, come to belabor it."

Pat Rin considered him. "If you find a lack, cousin, you might host a ball or two yourself."

"Well, I might," Shan allowed. "If it weren't for the fact that the Delm has some foolish notion in his head about bringing Surebleak up to a mid-tier spaceport, with a timetable of roughly right now. Perhaps he's spoken to you on the subject?"

"He has," Pat Rin said, "and I must say that the Delm and I are as one on the matter."

"Well, then, what choice have I—a mere master trader!—commanded as I am by both the Delm of Korval and the Boss of Surebleak? Duty, as always, must bow before pleasure, and so it is that tomorrow I regretfully shake the snow of Surebleak from my boots and betake myself to Terran Trade Commission headquarters, there to enlist their aid in the Delm's necessity. There will be no dances held at yos'Galan's house—had we a house, which of course, we don't—until my task is done. Unless, Priscilla, you would care to host a ball or six while I'm gone?"

"I thought I'd go with you, instead," his lifemate replied in her calm deep voice. "To keep you and Padi out of trouble."

This was news. Pat Rin looked up. "Your heir accompanies you on this mission?"

Shan grinned, silver eyes glinting. "Now, pity me, truly. Bearding the Terran Guild is as nothing when measured against the prospect of introducing one's daughter to the intricacies—not to say the politics—of trade."

They had reached the refreshment table. Pat Rin poured wine for the two of them, and a glass of cider for himself. He then inclined his head as Shan moved off to answer a hail from Portmaster Liu—and again a moment later as Priscilla was called over to join Thera Calhoon, Penn's lady wife.

Momentarily alone, Pat Rin sighed, had another sip of cider, and closed his eyes. Now that he had extricated himself from dancing, the band was—of course!—playing smooth and undemanding strolling music, the voice of the omnichora somewhat stronger than it had been previously.

Opening his eyes, Pat Rin looked out over the crowded dance floor. Uncle Daav was dancing with Natesa, Nova with Clonak ter'Meulen, and Villy with Etienne Borden. He sipped more cider and reminded himself that it was a boon to be warm in the depths of Surebleak's winter.

"Hey, there, Boss." Miri's cheerful voice interrupted his reverie. "Feeling OK?"

He considered her gravely, one eyebrow up, which only widened her grin.

"You look like Daav when you do that," she said, reaching around him for the cider bottle.

"There's punch, if you'd rather," Pat Rin murmured, and Miri laughed as she poured cider into a cup.

"Think I don't know better'n Audrey's punch?" she asked.

"The wine, then," Pat Rin countered. "It's quite pleasant."

She sent a sparkling glance up into his face. "Oughta be, considering it came out of our cellar." She sipped. "That's good," she sighed, and gestured vaguely with the cup. "Only way we could get Shan to come was to promise there'd be something drinkable on the table."

"Doubtless," Pat Rin said dryly, and she laughed again.

"Cut a fine figure out on the floor," she commented, her eyes on the languid dancers. "Bet you could dance all night, if there was need."

It was his turn to laugh, softly. "I hope that I do not shame my host or my lady," he murmured. "But I have long since given over dancing until dawn."

"Not quite 'til dawn, I'm guessing," Miri said, as the music swept into a crescendo, the 'chora's voice suddenly and achingly clear. She knocked back the last of her cider and put the cup on the table.

Pat Rin glanced at his cup, finished the last swallow and thought about pouring another before he went in search of Andy Mack, and—

"Over here!" Miri called, and put her hand on his arm.

Pat Rin went still. "What?" he snapped.

"Easy. It ain't nothin' more than this special dance Audrey's has it in her head we all gotta do together. Family thing."

"I have already danced—"

"One more!" Villy cried, arriving in a swirl of exuberance. "You have to, sir! You're the Boss!"

"Ah." He considered the boy's flushed face. "How if I appoint Boss Calhoon to stand up in my place?"

"Won't work," Miri said. "Penn gets the least bit warm and his glasses fog up on him."

"Besides not being family?" he asked, but she only grinned, and nodded toward the floor, where stood surely all the members of Clan Korval present at the party, saving herself, Val Con, and Lady Kareen, who was at the edge of the rug, between Clonak ter'Meulen and Andy Mack, her face so perfectly bland that Pat Rin shivered.

"Miri . . ." He began, but she was gone, walking toward the group assembled in a loose circle at the center of the floor.

"Come on, sir!" Villy tugged his hand. "They're waiting for you!"

It was on the edge of his tongue to snap that they might wait for him until the snow melted. However, good manners overcame bad grace, and he allowed himself to be led out onto the floor. Hoots and whistles came from some of the spectators on the rug, and Lady Kareen's face grew blander still.

At the edge of the circle, Villy relinquished his hand, bowed his liquid, meaningless bow, and skipped back toward the refreshment table.

Pat Rin gave a sigh—and another as Natesa came forward to put her hand on his arm.

"A round dance, my love," she murmured, as she eased him into the circle. "Audrey has asked us most especially to honor her."

If one's host desired it, there was nothing more to be said. And certainly he was able for one more dance. Still . . . He looked into Natesa's eyes.

"Do I know this dance, I wonder?" he murmured.

She smiled. "I believe you will find that you do," she answered, and guided him to a gap in the circle between Nova and Priscilla. Having seen him situated, she moved away, slipping into place between Luken and Daav, and smiling at him across the circle.

The drummer beat out a rapid tattoo, sticks flashing, and struck the cymbal a ringing blow, the sound quickly muffled by a cunning hand on the rim.

The room stilled admirably as Ms. Audrey walked out onto the floor, head high, back straight, as proud and as easy as any delm might be within the jewel of her own entertainment.

She raised her hands and spun slowly, showing herself to all gathered.

"You might be wondering," she said conversationally to the room at large, "why it is that I decided to throw a party in the middle of the winter. One reason is that Miri Robertson over here was getting the silly-stirs, her being a woman who had to go off-world to find enough going on to keep her busy—" She paused to let the general laughter die back, then tipped her head and smiled.

"There's two other reasons for this gathering, though. And I'm thinking they're both important enough to want some explaining.

"So, the next reason for the party is that we're in the middle of a special kinda winter. The first winter in my memory and in all of yours where there ain't a turf war going on, when the road to the spaceport stands open for its whole length, and where there are not less than five Bosses in this room right now."

Much shouting, stamping, and whistling erupted. At the edge of the rug, Andy Mack reached out, grabbed Penn Calhoon's arm and yanked it high into the air. Here and there around the room, the other Bosses were being given similar treatment. The applause ebbed, then swelled again, going on until the drummer rapped out a short, sharp rebuke.

Ms. Audrey waited while the room quieted, then held up her hands.

Silence fell, more or less immediately, and she grinned broadly.

"That's right. Now, you'll remember I said three reasons and here's the third—" She turned, bringing the room's attention to the circle of Korval, standing ready at the center of the dance floor.

"Boss Conrad and his organization are the reason we can have this party, now, in the middle of winter, without worrying we'll attract the attention of a rival fatcat." She looked around the room, spinning slowly on her heel.

"Remember this. Remember this night, this party. And remember who made it all happen."

The room was utterly quiet for the beat of three, then Andy Mack called out from Lady Kareen's side, "First of many nights just like it!"

"First of many!" The room took up the cry, hurled it against the ceiling, sustained it—

Once again, the drummer intervened. The shouting subsided slowly, and by the time quiet was more or less achieved, Ms. Audrey was making one of the little group about Lady Kareen, her arm tucked companionably through Clonak's, and Cheever McFarland had waded out of the rug-bound observers and onto the dance floor.

It was rare, Pat Rin thought, that one saw Cheever McFarland dressed in other than utilitarian clothing—tough sensible trousers and shirt in neutral colors, sturdy boots, and the inevitable jump pilot's jacket. Tonight, however—tonight, the big Terran positively turned heads as he moved toward their small circle.

The theme was black—a silk shirt so deep that it shone like onyx, with no ruffles or ballooning sleeves which might entangle a pilot, while the trousers were not so tight as to bind, should a pilot need to move quickly, nor the shiny black boots too snug, should a pilot need to run. Over the shirt was not the usual battered spaceleather jacket but a vest in opal-blue brocade, embroidered with silver rosebuds.

Someone from the group on the rug whistled; Pat Rin suspected Andy Mack. Cheever only grinned his easy grin and raised a big, unringed hand.

"Now, what we're going to be doing here is something like what's called a round dance in Boss Conrad's hometown, and what they called a cue dance back when I learned how, at pilot school. Either name makes sense—a round dance on account it moves 'round in a circle and a cue dance on account there's somebody stands outside the circle, who's got what you might call the big picture, and they're the one responsible for shouting out signals about what steps to dance." He put his hand on his chest, and the drummer executed a long, showy roll, which got a laugh from those watching, and a grin from Cheever himself.

"Boss Conrad and his kin, they learned round dancin' because where they come from it's what polite people learn to dance. Me, I learned in a piloting seminar because we was bored and needed some legal way to work it off. That being the case, the cues are a little different.

"So, what we're gonna do is show you a round dance like Boss Conrad learned it, and then a cue dance like I did."

"Where'd Miri learn how?" somebody—Pat Rin didn't recognize the voice—called from the back.

"From the Boss' brother," Miri sang back. "You?"

The drummer hit the block twice and struck the cymbal hard, to general laughter.

"Any more questions?" Cheever called, and continued without taking a breath. "Fine. We're ready whenever the band gets around to it."

Immediately, the omnichora launched six bright notes, like skyrockets, toward the hidden winter sky, the fiddle player spun clear around and enthusiastically put her bow across the strings, the guitarist plucked out a quick pattern of sound and the drummer beat the rim, counting out three, six, twelve.

The music shifted, twisted, slowed . . .

"Bow to your partner," Cheever directed, against the mannerly rising of "Tiordia's Stroll."

Pat Rin received Nova's bow, bowing to her in turn. At Cheever's instruction, they joined hands, crossed, turned, and slid two steps forward, two steps right, three steps backward, three left, crossed, turned, and changed partners. Pat Rin's left hand slipped out of Nova's as his right hand met Priscilla's. He and his new partner stepped together, then apart, changed sides and danced four steps left and five steps back, six steps forward, four steps right . . .

Relaxed and smiling, Pat Rin performed his part in the dance with ease, warmed and oddly comforted by the familiar movements. He did, in that portion of his mind neither attentive to nor lulled by the dance, own himself astonished to find Cheever McFarland so able a dance master. Truly, he thought, as he and Priscilla crossed and turned; there is no end to the good pilot's talents . . . .

The dance continued its pleasant course, until each dancer had partnered with every other dancer in the set. Perfectly on-cue, he left Luken's side, his hand finding Nova's precisely on the beat. They turned, crossed, and dropped hands to the caller's commands, and bowed, holding it for twelve beats, and straightening just as the last note from the 'chora trembled into silence.

The room was entirely quiet as they straightened, and in that moment, Pat Rin saw his mother, attended now by no one less than Portmaster Liu. Her face was calm, perhaps even relaxed, as if the dance had soothed her as well. She inclined her head slightly in his direction, then turned to address the Portmaster.

A wholly unexceptional procedure, Pat Rin thought, and not at all too much effort to expend for the pleasure of one's host. He was slightly warm, but nothing that another glass of cider couldn't put—

"All right," Cheever McFarland was saying, his big voice shattering the quiet. "That's what a round dance looks in Boss Conrad's old turf. Now we're gonna show you how I learned it. First thing you'll notice is different, is the cues. Pilots, they can't leave anything alone if there's a way to maybe tweak it. Next thing you'll notice is there's some extra bits added in, 'cause pilots tend toward boredom and makin' trouble if they don't have six things to do at the same time."

Pat Rin frowned and turned to cock an eyebrow at Nova, who replied with a bland glance that would have done justice to his mother.

"Last thing," Cheever was saying, "is that pilots? They're competitive. So this dance, it's a kind of a contest, too."

Contest? thought Pat Rin, feeling his stomach tighten. He looked across the circle for Natesa, but she was turned away, watching something in the room beyond.

"Just as soon as the band's ready," Cheever said.

The drummer snapped out a twelve-count, then the guitar came in, followed by the fiddle, the omnichora singing softly in support. The tune was somewhat brisker than "Tiordia's Stroll"—and completely unfamiliar.

"Acknowledge your co-pilot," Cheever instructed, and Pat Rin turned to exchange bows with Nova, who smiled at him.

"Comp—" he began, but—

"Check your board," Cheever called, which Pat Rin's feet somehow knew to be a glide and change sides.

"Bring up the screens!"

Warned by the set of Nova's hip, Pat Rin managed to spin as instructed, though raggedly.

"Strap in," Cheever instructed. Nova's hand moved, Pat Rin caught it in his; they turned, separated—

"Lift!"—each danced six steps to their right—"Establish orbit!"—a half-turn, so Pat Rin was looking over Nova's shoulder at the starry rug that had covered the floor in Luken's small private parlor in their quarters above the warehouse—

"Outer ring adjust," Cheever said. Pat Rin kept his place while Nova slid three steps to left. His view of the rug was now unimpeded.

"Lay in coords!" Cheever called.

Lay in—

But Cheever was giving the coordinates. Rapidly. Pat Rin focused on the rug—on the map— found the first coord, slid forward two steps, located the second, slipped to the left three steps, the third—the third? There!—and forward again, four steps.

"Roll starboard!" came the instruction, and Pat Rin spun to the right with the rest, noting in a sort of mental gasp that the music was moving quicker now, that the 'chora's voice was louder, and the fiddle's entirely gone.

"Lay in coords!"

This time, it wasn't a complete shock; Pat Rin had time to face the map—the less familiar rug that had graced the schoolroom floor at Trealla Fantrol—and focus before Cheever intoned the first coord, then another, and another—a set of six full coordinates this time, and Pat Rin slipped, spun, circled, and lunged as directed, finishing the sequence damp and limp, but oddly triumphant. He hadn't missed a step!

Luken, however, had not had the same good fortune. Pat Rin spied him walking away from the circle, Andy Mack leaving the crowd at the edge of the rug to meet him—then Cheever called them to roll once more and he was facing the map from Jelaza Kazone.

The music was much too quick now, Pat Rin thought, tucking up his lace, and shaking his hair out of his eyes. More a jig than a round dance, which the 'chora gave shape in a continuing twisty flow of brilliantine notes.

Val Con must be ready to drop, he thought—and there was another thought, linked to that—but it was lost in the need to accept the coordinates, and he plotted his course with his feet and his hips, barely registering when Miri dropped out at the eighth coord—and Priscilla, at the twelfth.

The next round came and as he glimpsed the nearest celestial rug, he all but felt the controls beneath his hands; in truth he missed the cabin of Fortune's Reward, as he missed the thrust against his back, and the comfort of sitting First Board. The rug was before him, and another as he danced, and the calculations went thus and so and turn and step, and by rights now there should be Jump glare and stars on the screens ahead, and stars behind, with stars underfoot, and a planet to find.

But the dance—

"Orient!" Cheever called, and the four remaining dancers came together in the center, joined hands, ran—too fast! Pat Rin thought, with a sudden spike of panic—'round, three times, six—

"Establish orbit!"

As one, they dropped hands, each spinning away from every, two-four-six revolutions, and came to rest, facing—the entranced spectators.

At the fore of them all stood his mother, considering him with a sort of distant interest, as one might inspect an insect.

"Check your board!" Cheever directed, and Pat Rin executed the required glide and change, aware of the weight of his limbs. It was hot, and his head ached, and, really, he had every reason to be tire—

The omnichora shouted, notes streaming like lift beacons, and there was Miri next to his mother, and Priscilla approaching—

"Lay in coords!"

There was no map this time. Pat Rin closed his eyes.

Cheever chanted the coordinates—a short set of three. Forward, back, turn left—

"Sign your co-pilot!"

Pat Rin extended a hand—and his eyes snapped open in astonishment as it was caught in a warm grip.

"Well done!" Uncle Daav whispered, under cover of the music, and—

"Clear your board!"

The two of them crossed, separated, and came back together.

"Lock it down!"

Natesa's fingers wove comfortably with his. Shan, on her other side, extended his hand and caught Daav's free hand.

"Dim the lights," Cheever said softly, and the four of them walked sedately widdershins, three times, the 'chora slowing, slowing, almost down to a proper round . . .

"Open hatch."

Obediently, they dropped hands.

"Go to town," Cheever all-but-whispered, and the four of them turned to face the rug and those watching, as the 'chora finished with a flurry and a flare—and the shouts and whistles began.

* * *

PAT RIN SHOOK HIS lace out and reached for his glass. With Natesa's connivance, he'd slipped through the crowd to the back room that had been set aside for the band's use. Finding a bottle of autumn wine before him, he poured and sipped, and sipped once again before making the attempt to make himself seemly.

The dance—the dance had been an odd thing, to be sure; in memory not nearly so harrowing as in actuality. Had it gone on much longer, he had no doubt but that he would have joined Luken, Miri, and Priscilla at his mother's side.

He paused, frowning, recalling the moment when he had met his mother's eyes . . .

"Ah, here he is, keeping the wine to himself!" Clonak ter'Meulen's voice overfilled the little room. Pat Rin sighed, and turned to face not only the portly Scout, but Luken and Daav, and Shan, Priscilla, Natesa, Andy Mack, Nova, Cheever, Miri—and Val Con, green eyes sparkling, the renegade lock of hair sticking damply to his forehead.

"Well met, cousin," he murmured, and Pat Rin held out his glass.

"I thought the 'chora was overextended," he said. "Drink."

"My thanks." Val Con took the glass and sipped; sighed. Pat Rin considered him, doing a different sort of calculation.

"More clarity?" he asked, but it was Miri who answered.

"No complaints, Boss. Sent you a clue, fair and square," she said.

He eyed her. "Hardly in advance."

"But in advance, nonetheless," Val Con said, with a note of finality in his quiet voice. "Come, let us not bicker. There is business to be done—and quickly, so that Clonak is not long kept from the wine."

"That's a touching regard for my well-being," Clonak said, and suddenly pulled himself up straight, looking not so pudgy, nor foolish at all.

"Pat Rin yos'Phelium Clan Korval," he intoned, the syllables of the High Tongue falling cool and sharp from his lips, "has stated in the hearing of pilots and of master pilots not once but several times that he holds a first class limited license under false pretenses. The pilot's solo rating flight was conducted in a Korval safe-ship, programmed to fly, should there be no pilot available. Pat Rin yos'Phelium has stated his belief that it was the ship which overcame the challenges of the pilot's solo, not the pilot." Clonak gave Pat Rin a level look.

"These are serious concerns and the pilot erred not in laying them before master pilots. Therefore, and after consultation, it was agreed that a retesting should be done. The testing is now completed, and I call upon the master pilots present to render their opinions: Is Pat Rin yos'Phelium Clan Korval a pilot or does he hold a license wrongly? Speak, masters!"

Daav stepped forward, black eyes serious.

"Though he is perhaps not as conversant with the basic coord book as might be desirable, it is my estimation as a master pilot that Pat Rin yos'Phelium is worthy of the license he carries." He fell back a step, cocking an eyebrow at Andy Mack, lounging against the wall. The lanky pilot shook his head, white hair moving softly across his shoulders, and took a sip of his beer.

"Been sayin' it, ain't I? Boy's a pilot. Tell by lookin' at him."

Shan stepped forward. "It is my estimation as a master pilot," he said seriously, "that Pat Rin yos'Phelium is worthy of the license he carries." He fell back a step, and Priscilla came forward, then Nova, Cheever and at last Natesa, who made her declaration with the cool, emotionless intonation of a Judge, then smiled at him and stepped forward to take his hand.

"You did well, Pat Rin," she murmured.

"In fact," said Clonak, "he did. I say this as one who doubted the damn' dance would work out at all, but young Shadow carried the day. So." He looked sharply at Pat Rin. "In my estimation as a master pilot, having observed the whole of the testing, Pat Rin yos'Phelium is worthy of the license he carries and I'll thank you to stop doubting yourself, you young whippersnapper! Between you and your lady mother, you're a devil's brew, make no mistake!"

Pat Rin blinked. "My mother?"

"It happens," Priscilla said surprisingly, "that Lady Kareen is, after all, of the dramliz. She appears to have only one talent, which is rare, but not unknown."

Pat Rin looked at her, foreknowing . . . "And that talent is?"

Priscilla smiled at him. "She may impose her will—to a very limited extent—upon the unwary." Her smiled deepened. "And now that you are warned, you are armed."

His mother a dramliza? It was only slightly mad, Pat Rin thought, considering the facts of Shan and Anthora in the present generation. But that one talent  . . .

"I think you are saying that it was my mother's influence that kept me from qualifying as pilot?"

"At first, boy dear," Luken said, gently. "By the time you had failed two or three times, you were quite able to fail all on your own." He smiled, sadly. "It was my sorrow, my boy, that I could never allow you to see anything other than your own unworthiness."

Pat Rin blinked against tears; Natesa's finger's tightened around his. "You did so much else, Father . . ."

A small pause, and then was Val Con abruptly before him, raising his hand so that Korval's ring gleamed.

Pat Rin lifted an eyebrow. "Korval?"

"You will," Korval stated, "arrange time to study with Clonak ter'Meulen. You will learn the core coordinates, and such protocols as Scout ter'Meulen finds worthy. You will come to your delm inside of one local year and submit to such verification as may be demanded."

"Ah. And my streets? My duties as boss?"

Val Con smiled, and put his hand on his lifemate's shoulder.

"You'll think of something," he said.

Pat Rin drew a breath—to say what he hardly knew, or perhaps he meant only to laugh. The opportunity for either, however, was snatched from him by Cheever McFarland.

"Right then," the big man said. "Time to finish it up."

* * *

THE FIDDLER PROVIDED a sprightly, skipping little melody as they filed into the parlor and took up position on a clear space on the rug, Val Con leaving them at the last to tend his 'chora once more.

Pat Rin stood in the first row of pilots, Natesa on his right, Luken on his left, Daav directly behind. The room was quiet, all eyes on them. Especially, Pat Rin saw, were Lady Kareen's eyes on them, from her position between Audrey and Penn Calhoon. His mother's face betrayed the faintest hint of boredom, as would perhaps be worthy of an adult who had been teased into attending a gathering of halflings.

The fiddler finished her tune as Cheever McFarland and Miri Robertson stepped up before the rest them, mercifully blocking Pat Rin's view of his mother's face. From behind, the 'chora began to whisper a faint line of a tantalizingly familiar song. Pat Rin strained his ears, trying to identify the music—then forgot about it as Cheever began to speak.

"I'm going to impose on your patience once more, here, if Ms. Audrey'll let me," he said.

In the first row, Audrey laughed, and called out, "It don't strain my eyes any looking at you, Mr. McFarland! Speak on!"

"Thank you, ma'am." The big man bent a little at the waist—a bow, Pat Rin thought, Cheever McFarland style— then raised his voice so that it carried to the far corners of the room—and likely the rooms abovestairs, as well.

"Now, I know you all heard me say that pilots is competitive, and you might've thought that just meant that them who missed their steps had to drop outta the dance. But there was a little more to it than that. We was also looking to judge who among the pilots dancing had danced best, according to their level, their flight time, and their training. Miri here—you all know Miri's partnered with the Boss' brother, right? And when there's a question comes before either of them, they got this arrangement where both are understood to answer? Makes the family business run smoother. Anyhow, Miri here's gonna announce the winner."

Whistles, hoots, and stamping filled the room. The drum tried to bring order, without success, until—

"PIPE DOWN!" Miri ordered, loud enough to make Pat Rin's ears ring—and silence fell like a knife.

"That's better," she said, in a more conversational tone. "I won't take long. Just want to say that it's the judgment of the master pilots we assembled here to watch that the winner of tonight's competition is—Boss Conrad!"

More noise erupted, shaking the rugs hung against the walls, and he walked forward to stand between Miri and Cheever. Smiling hugely, Villy danced forward with a bouquet of dried leaves tied with bright ribbons and presented it with a bow.

Pat Rin inclined his head, received the offering, and stood while the cheering went on, his eye inexorably drawn to the place where his mother stood, silent and bland-faced.

She met his eyes, her own as hard as stones—and turned her face away.

Pat Rin took a breath—sighed it out, and looked up with a smile as his lady came to his side.

"Shall we go home, love?" she asked, slipping her arm through his.

He looked into her face, and then around the room, heard the drummer begin his count—and looked back to her.

"I believe," he said, smiling. "That I would like to dance with my lifemate. There are still some hours until dawn."

—End—



NECESSARY EVILS

Adventures in the Liaden Universe® Number Eleven

First SRM Publisher, Ltd. edition: November 2005

Necessary Evils copyright 2005 by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller


The Beggar King copyright 2005 by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller


Necessary Evils


The House of vel'Albren


Jectova

"There is someone new among the vines," the eldest rasped, though the speaking cup was between Pinori's palms, and half-raised to her lips. Being no fool, the youngest paused before she drank, and sent a frown to their middle sister, Katauba.

She moved her fingers slightly, signing that Pinori should wait. It was rare enough this while that the Old One spoke at all, even with the cup in hand. That she spoke now, and out of turn, indicated a level of alarm that must engage her sisters' closest attention. Still, there was protocol and—

Unbidden, Pinori leaned forward and offered the cup. The Old One received it, her gnarled fingers caressing the worn ceramic, and raised it to her lips, drinking deeply.

"Someone new, Auntie?" Pinori asked, which was according to their custom, now the cup was in the proper hands. " 'mong our own vines?"

"If she were anywhere else, what care would I have for her or her doings?" the Old One snapped. "Deep in my own fief I saw her, snipping and thinning, as if she had the right and the duty of it!"

"Trimming!" Katauba stared, for that was a clear breach of the ancient agreement between themselves and the House. "How—"

"But who was it, Auntie?" Pinori interrupted ruthlessly. "One of the Family?"

"Do I know the face and name of every bland human with ties to the House?" the Old One asked peevishly, then sighed, turning the cup in brown fingers and staring down into its depths.

"Truly, child," she said, more temperately, "she appeared a stranger, with pale hair and quiet hands. It seemed to me that she had the heart of a gardener, for the vines balked and drew blood as I watched, but she made no complaint, nor handled them with aught but care. The row she worked was one I had myself marked to trim, so she has done no harm. Thus far. However, those vines are mine, to protect and to nourish, and I did not ask her aid. Nor do I wish for it."

"Well, then," Pinori said soothingly, " 'tis likely only some small oversight which has sent this gardener into the wrong quarter. We should speak to the House and remind them of our accord."

Katauba stirred. "It is perhaps not well to recall our presence to the House," she murmured.

The Old One inclined her head, and raised the cup in salute. "In these days and times, I agree. The vines are ours, the wine which the grapes produce is ours. We are charged with protection and nourishment. Therefore, the punishment of this intruder clearly falls to us."

"But, if we punish her, the House will surely take note of us!" Pinori objected.

"And it is possible," Katauba added, slipping the cup out of the Old One's hands "—even, as our sister says, likely—that there is honest error here, either on the side of the House or on that of the gardener, herself." She paused to sip, savoring the spicy red wine.

"Perhaps," she suggested, "our duty might extend to instruction."

"Instruction?" The Old One considered her out of port-red eyes. "And how shall we instruct her?"

"Why, we will ask our sweet sister Pinori to seek the stranger gardener out upon the morrow, whereupon she will make her known to those vines which fall within the House's honor—and warn her away from those which are in our care." Katauba extended the cup to the youngest of them all, with a smile and a lifted brow.

Sighing, Pinori took the cup, though she did not drink. "Why must it be me?" she asked, irritably.

"Because, of we three, it is you who look most like the Houselings," the Old One cackled.

"True," Katauba said briskly, seeing mutiny in the youngest's face. "And so you are less likely to cause alarm, if indeed this strange gardener is not of the House, but some mere employee who has misunderstood her orders."

"The plan our sister proposes is prudent," the Old One stated, leaning back into her bower, with a rustle and a wave of a hand. "Let it be done as she has said."

Pinori frowned, as if she might stamp her foot and allow her temper rein. After a moment, though, she only sighed again, drank, and inclined her head.

"Let it be done as my sisters suggest," she said, though more snappish than conciliatory. "Tomorrow, I shall seek out the stranger and speak with her."

* * *

The damned vines had a will of their own.

Seltin vos'Taber swallowed a curse as she considered her lacerated fingers. Anyone would think that the plants didn't want to be trimmed.

Sighing, Seltin took a firmer grip on her shears. Trim, was the order, and take the samples back to the lab, whereupon she was required to analyze vine, leaf, and fruit, keeping a log of her findings until—

Until, she thought, one hand rising involuntarily to her throat, unsteady fingertips caressing the ceramic threads woven into her skin . . . Until my master gives me other work.

She bit her lip, fingers curling into a fist. As a general rule of life, it was not well to look too far into the future. Certainly, it was beyond folly for a bond-slave to do so.

Indeed, it were best for such persons to cultivate a short memory indeed, and an indifference to all except her master's pleasure—especially those who found themselves bonded to a master whose pleasure derived chiefly from another's pain.

Well.

Once again she bent to the vines, taking a firm grip just below the node and bringing the shears to bear. She could swear that the plant writhed in her fingers, seeking escape. Not impossible, according to the stories whispered here and there. For though House vel'Albren had made its considerable fortune in wine and custom blends, it was whispered that in the not-so-recent past they, like others of the formerly Closed Houses, had also specialized in the production of . . . custom organisms. Given that her master's character seemed representative of the character of his House, it was not—unfortunately—impossible to imagine that the vines did object to being trimmed, and that such action gave them pain.

Which consideration, fact or fancy, had nothing, she thought sternly, to do with herself. Her sole concern was to avoid such personal pain as she might, and endure what she could not avoid. If trimming the vines gave them pain, well, then, it—it was the master's will. She was nothing more than a tool of the master's will, as devoid of choice as the shears in her hand.

The vine was severed with a snick, the sample dropped into the basket at her feet. Two more snips and she was done with the day's sampling. She slid the shears into their holster, lifted the basket, turned, and—

"Eeep!" Her voice quavered upward in surprise, and she jumped, feeling the vengeful talons of the vine she had just trimmed gouge her back through her thin shirt.

The woman before her tipped her head, pale eyes puzzled in a grave, pale face.

She extended a small, neat hand as if to offer assistance, and moved a step forward. Seltin stood her ground, feeling more than a little foolish.

"Oh!" the woman said, her voice so soft it scarcely made itself heard over the din of breeze through leaf. "I did not want to frighten you."

Seltin had her breath back now, and some measure of her wits. She threw herself to her knees and bent her head, keeping withal a firm grip on the basket.

"Mistress," she said, humbly, for everyone here—and elsewhere, for that matter—was her better. "Please forgive me."

"Ah!" The other clapped her hands, in irritation or in summons, Seltin knew not. She kept her head low, and her back bent, and tried not to think.

She felt pressure, then—light, not hurtful—on her head. It took a moment to realize that the other must have placed her hands so, as if in benediction.

"You show proper respect," the woman said, in her soft voice, and the pressure was gone as she took her hands away. "That is well. Truly, you are forgiven, child. But you must not come again to these vines which are under our care. We shall do what is needful here. And you shall turn your ministrations to those vines which are under the care of the humans of the House. Is it agreed?"

What?

Kneeling, Seltin blinked. Kneeling still, she dared to raise her head and look up into the other's face.

Pale she was, but not unnaturally so; her eyes of so light a green they appeared nearly colorless. Her hair was an extremely light brown, fine as cobwebs, silken strands rising and dancing in the small breeze. She wore, not the heavy purple robes which were the standard dress of the House, nor yet the crimson shirt and tights of a slave, but a drift of iridescent fabric from shoulders to mid-thigh. Her arms and legs and feet were bare, and she wore no rings or other ornaments. She was young, and comely, and in all ways desirable.

"Forgive me," Seltin said again, hearing her voice crack. "I am commanded to trim here and in other places specifically shown to me by my master." She moved an unsteady arm, meaning to indicate the vines among which she knelt, and beyond, to the east and the south.

"Not so," the other woman said, gently. "That is in violation of our accord. Go you and say to your master that the Kapoori yet tend what is theirs."

There was something—very compelling about those colorless eyes, that pale, emotionless face, and it was only with a major application of will that Seltin was able to look aside, her fingers rising of their own accord, to touch the marks of her slavery.

"Forgive me," she whispered, for a third time. "My master's instructions were extremely clear. If I say to him that the Kapoori warn him away from what is theirs, he will only—beat—me and have me back here tomorrow."

Silence, long enough for Seltin to reflect upon her status as a bond-slave—and wilt where she knelt in the dirt.

Cool fingers fingers slipped beneath her chin, turning her face, gently, but with unexpected strength, until she looked up once more into those still, peculiar eyes. The fingers moved, brushing the threads woven into her throat. Seltin shivered, and bit her tongue, lest she cry out.

"Your master is harsh, if he will beat you for carrying a message," the other commented. "What are you called, child?"

"Seltin," she whispered. "Seltin vos'Taber."

A frown marred the smoothness of the other woman's face. "That is no name from within the House," she said. "What is your craft?"

"I am—I was a chemist, with a specialty in exotic foodstuffs and—and inebriants."

The frown deepened. "One would believe that the House has an overabundance of chemists, and no need to add more." She moved her shapely shoulders, as if to cast off curiosity. "What is your master called, then?"

"Zanith vel'Albren," Seltin answered, hating even to speak the syllables.

"And that is a name from within the House, in truth, though he who bears it is unknown to me."

She stepped back, her hands falling to her side.

"This bears consideration," she said solemnly, and moved a hand toward the house. "Go thou, and trouble our vines no more this day."

That, at least, she was able to do. Seltin bowed until her forehead touched the ground and she breathed in the smell of humus and leaf.

"I will, lady," she stammered—and dared to look up. "Lady, what is your—" she began, but the words died in her mouth.

She was alone with her samples and the breeze in the living vines. There was not so much as the impression of a dainty bare foot in the spongy soil to bear witness to the fact of her visitor.

* * *

"She is hight Seltin vos'Taber," Pinori said from her seat on the old stone fence, keeping a respectful distance from Katauba and her work. "She is not of the House, though she serves one of the House. I found her both humble and mannerly."

"This is happy news," Katauba said, the vines she worked upon undulating in pleasure. "So, she will no longer interfere in our domain?"

Pinori bit her lip, looked down at her hands, and said nothing.

Katauba turned her head, amber eyes piercing. "Do you say that she defies your command? I would scarce hold that mannerly or humble."

"Nay, nay!" Pinori looked up hastily. "She is not mistress of her own life! She does as she is commanded by her master—and will, I warrant, whether or no she would, until the doom is drawn from her skin."

Her sister frowned, and straightened. The vines reached after her, twining about her hands, her wrists. "You say to me that this person is a mere kobold?"

"A natural human, as I judge her," Pinori stood, her own hands raised before her, fingers spread wide. "Here, I tell my tale badly. It would seem that Seltin vos'Taber, natural human though she be, is bound in service to one of the House, and his will she dares not cross, for cause of the threads woven into her throat." She paused, meeting her sister's stare with a lift of the chin. "I would have had her deliver to her master a message, that the Kapoori yet tend their tithe."

Katauba raised her brows. "That were bold, when we had agreed between us not to recall us to the House."

Pinori shrugged. "Bold or not, she would not carry my word. Her master would beat her, she said, and make no alterations in his course."

"Hah." Katauba pressed her lips together, and pulled her hands gently from the grip of the vines. "What is the name of this master?"

"Zanith vel'Albren, so she had it," Pinori said—and went forward a step as her sister thrust out a vine-sheathed hand.

"Do you know him?"

Silence, while Katauba stared, her pupils the merest black slits bisecting her wide golden eyes.

"Sister?" Pinori dared another step forward, though the vines coiled and reached, plucking at her.

"Of him," Katauba murmured, in a strained voice unlike her usual rich tones. "I know of him."

"And . . ." Pinori ventured when yet more silence had grown between them, "is it . . . an ill knowing, sister?"

"Ill?" Katauba's eyes suddenly sharpened, blazing bright. "It may be ill, certainly, from such a Houseling. Well it was, sister, that your respectful, humble human refused your order."

Pinori considered that. "Surely," she said at last, brushing her hands down her garment, and shooing the vines away. "It is of no matter if she would take my word or refuse it. This Houseling—this Zanith—deliberately sets her 'mong our honor and forbids her to trim elsewhere. I would judge that to mean that the House has recalled us well, and that therefore we may deliver our message personally."

"Ah," said Katauba, turning back to her vines. "Perhaps . . . perhaps that would be best. We shall speak of it at twilight, over the cup."

That was clear dismissal, and in truth, she was wanted among her own vines, yet Pinori hesitated. "I might go myself," she offered. "Now, and see the thing done. I—I fear me what might transpire, should the Old One should find Seltin in the vineyard."

"The Old One agreed that you would speak to the human today," Katauba said, her attention already focused on her work. "She will not act before the day has gone and the cup has passed between us."

This was true enough, Pinori owned; the Old One was almost too odd for her to comprehend, root and kin though they were, but she kept most scrupulously to the very least syllable of her word. Seltin would be safe, should she venture back into the vineyard before the day was done.

Pinori bowed. "Until day's end, sister," she said, and moved off through the wistful vines, to that portion of the vineyard which was particularly under her care.

* * *

Seltin saved her data and stretched, careful of her back. Her life before her arrest and conviction had been reasonably active, but the time she had spent in the tank, between sentencing and Zanith vel'Albren's purchase of her bond had robbed her muscles of tone. Happily her master saw fit to put her to hard labor immediately upon her revival, she thought wryly, so that soon she would be as muscle-bound as any kobold.

She stretched again, high on her toes this time, finding an obscure comfort in the movement of the long muscles, aches or no.

All about her was darkness, her little island of industry the only light in the cavernous lab. By rights—by reason—she should be gone herself within the next few moments. All that remained was to seal the file, log off and go—upstairs, where her master awaited her.

Even as she reached for the chording wand, she saw again the woman who had spoken to her in the vineyard that afternoon. The Kapoori, and before she had time to think, her fingers had moved along the wand, and the House library interface was opening in a subscreen.

The subscreen—that was clever, she thought, detached, as if her fingers belonged to someone other than herself. If he checked the log—and he would—the master would only see that her workspace was active, and that she had accessed the library, which was consistent both with the lateness of the hour and the as-yet-unsealed file.

Her fingers moved again on the wand, and across the subscreen there scrolled a list of open articles related to the House's past in Designed Sentients. She had, of course, reviewed this material prior to beginning the task assigned to her. It had—amused—her master, that she had been so thorough, and he had made her a sarcastic little bow.

"I had forgot," he'd said, his voice smooth and cultured. "When you were human, you had been an artist of excellence." He'd straightened and smiled at her, that smile that made her stomach clench and her breath grow short in anticipation of agony.

"Pity," he'd said, and left her to scan the data.

His pleasure that night had been cruel, by even his standards.

In the dark lab, protected by her small pool of light, Seltin sorted swiftly through the data. Of the Kapoori, there was no mention, though she found reference to a certain class of being which were dubbed "Mothers of the Vine." How many of those custom designs had been made, what their duties and skills were—the library did not yield those secrets to a quick and furtive search.

What did come forth, however, was the nugget she had half-remembered from her former search.

House Albren had moved out of custom biologics and more firmly into wines and specialty blends not simply because wine brought the House more profit. Indeed, if she read the doc aright, it would seem that several of the House's designs proved to be flawed, and fatally so. For the customers of the House.

As the two most catastrophic failures of design were demonstrated in those biologics the House had designed for its direct competitors in wine, it was at first speculated that the flaws had been deliberate. Indeed, those who had lost kin to Albren designs argued that point most vociferously before a Guild Judge.

In the end, however, nothing was proven. The accusing Houses each paid a fine to the court; House Albren paid a fine to the court and the case was dismissed. So was justice served in the Spiral Arm. By and by, House Albren quietly withdrew from the business of designing sentients, its standing among the Great Houses of the Vine having risen . . . considerably.

Which, Seltin thought, was interesting, but illuminated the Kapoori not at all. She glanced at the time in the corner of her screen and felt her throat tighten. Gods, the time! He would—

She picked up the wand, closed the subscreen, and sealed her notes, in a flurry of finger strokes.

"Quickly, quickly," she whispered to herself. "You must go . . ."

"Must you at once?" a sibilant voice asked from the darkness at her back. Gasping, Seltin dropped the wand, and spun, back pressed against her worktable, hands out before her.

"Who's there?" she called, voice quavering and high. "Show yourself!"

"No need to shout," the voice chided her. The darkness yielded a movement, and the movement became a woman—or a sort of woman. Her hair was long and vibrantly green, her skin brown. She was small, and rounded, a brief skirt her only garment. Tattoos in the pattern of grape vines twined up and down her forearms and across her heavy breasts. Her eyes were amber, and they glowed in the dimness, like cat eyes.

Seltin remembered to breathe.

"Who are you?" she whispered, then, not a question: "Another of the Kapoori."

"My sister speaks too freely," the woman murmured. "It is a failing of youth. Do you have the same failing?"

"I speak when I'm spoken to," Seltin said, and tasted bitterness along her tongue. "If you've come to ask me to bear a message to Zanith vel'Albren, I—"

"Indeed, indeed." The other raised her hands, smoothing the dim air with broad, calloused fingers. "Regain your peace, I beg you. I have come to be sure that you will not bear any message at all to Zanith vel'Albren, nor even whisper that you have seen us."

Seltin looked down, awash with humiliation.

"Unfortunately, I cannot promise that, either."

"Repine not. I can make that promise for you." The other woman drifted forward, silent on brown, naked feet.

Seltin considered her curiously. She should, she thought distantly, be afraid. Instead, she felt only curiosity, and a sort of anticipatory relief. If this tattooed woman should end her life, would it not also end the suffering, the degradation, and—

Out of the darkness came the hiss of a door opening, and a man's mild voice:

"Seltin?"

She spun, knees wobbling, hands rising uselessly before her, breath rattling in a throat already tight.

"Seltin?" the voice came again, faintly chiding. "What keeps you here so late?"

"Your work, master," she gasped, hating the high breathiness of fear she heard in her own voice. "Only your work. I—I was just now finished, and—"

"Just now finished?" He asked, and she heard him moving toward her through the dark. Even in her terror, she spared a thought, flung a look over her shoulder—but there was only darkness, all around. The tattooed Kapoori had, wisely, made an escape.

"The usage stats show you logged off whole minutes ago, and still I find you dallying here. Is it possible that you thought to shirk your evening duties, Seltin?"

No, she thought hopelessly. She had long since given up any pretext of resistance. And yet—knowing her danger, she had tarried, as if—

"You do not answer," her master said, softly, sadly—and the agony struck.

* * *

She roused to the sound of someone gasping painfully for breath, and scrabbled after unconsciousness, foreknowing the nightmare of waking.

Alas, the stupor continued to lighten, and she knew the gasping for her own, her abused throat working painfully; her muscles shivering with residual agony.

Gradually, she came to know that she was lying on her side on a cold, hard surface, which could be anywhere. Once, he had left her naked outside when he had done with his pleasure, and it was only her bad luck that she had woken before she froze.

This time . . .

Warm, rough fingers brushed sticky hair away from her cold forehead, then touched her cheek gently.

"Wake, Little Mother," the voice of the second Kapoori whispered. "He is gone, and here is one with the means to aid you."

Cautiously, she pried her eyes open, and stared into the strong, brown face.

"Will you kill me?" she whispered, the words fractured and desperate. She raised a trembling hand and gripped the Kapoori's strong wrist. "Please."

Hot amber eyes burned into hers. "If there is no other choice, I swear that I will grant you death. However, you must rely on my judgment when I say that today despair is not the victor. Today, I will give you ease and comfort, and some small tithe of strength. Trust me."

She bent forward and placed her lips against Seltin's in a firm kiss. Seltin lay, shivering, too tired to fight, too worn to care, even when the Kapoori's tongue slid into her mouth, and the kiss grew deeper, waking a—glow, an effervescence, a feeling of health and of joy . . .

Languidly, the Kapoori ended the kiss, sitting back with a smile on her wide mouth.

"To your good health, Little Mother," she murmured, and moved her hand, brushing the palm down across Seltin's eyes. "Sleep now."

* * *

"They should all be given to the vines," the Old One said coldly, "so that we may continue our work in peace."

"Nay!" Pinori cried, out of turn, and in apparent alarm. "Auntie, surely we should do no such thing!"

"Pah!" the Old One answered, a sentiment with which Katauba found herself in some accord. However—

"Our sister speaks truly," she said, forcing herself to calmness, forcing herself to consider calmly that which she had seen and heard in the course of the young mother's torture. "We must not act in haste." She extended a hand and slipped the cup from the Old One's hand. She took the ritual sip and closed her eyes, savoring the complex flavors, before opening her eyes once more.

"Nor," she said, "must we forget our purpose—the purpose for which the House saw us created."

"The vines!" the Old One cried, in a tone of curious triumph.

Katauba inclined her head. "Indeed. The House created us to tend the vines, and to coax from them the finest grapes that could be had, which the House then presses into wine, and sells abroad—"

"To the benefit of the House!" Pinori interrupted, passionately. "Thus, we are of value to the House, and to speak of, of—"

"Correct," Katauba said crisply. "Those of the House are necessary to us, as we are to the House. There should be respect and accord between us, as we all work toward and for the same goals."

"There ye have it aslant," the Old One said, interrupting in her turn. Katauba frowned at her.

"I don't understand."

"We care for the vines, and the fruit that comes to them," the Old One said. "Right enough ye are. The House, though, the House cares nothing for the vines, nor yet the grapes, excepting as those things are a means to amassing more for the House."

Katauba blinked. This was a long and unusually complex speech for the Old One, and as such bore thinking upon.

"More?" Pinori asked, who was apparently thinking rapidly, or not at all. "More what, Auntie?"

"Power," the Old One answered, and nodded wisely.

Katauba thought of the man standing in the pool of light, fingers stroking the gems set into his bracelet, smiling and aroused as the woman writhed and strangled at his feet. She shuddered, and took an unprecedented second sip from the cup.

"Sisters," she said, and marked the unsteadiness of her own voice. "Perhaps the time has come for us to reassess our position. Thinking upon our sister's words, it comes to me that we are at a disadvantage, for without the protection, the contacts and the supplies provided by the House, we are vulnerable in ways that the House is not, did we merely—" Her throat closed, but she forced the words out anyway. "Did we merely stop tending the vines."

There was silence, as the other two thought. Katauba put the cup down on the rock at her side, and in due time Pinori leaned over and picked it up.

"If we are in danger," she said slowly, "perhaps we should leave."

"Leave the vines!" cried the Old One. "That's not possible, younger!"

"It is possible," Pinori answered hotly. "I have done so!"

"Now, that is true," Katauba said, remembering. "You went with the Senior Seller on a trip to promote the House's wines, some many seasons ago." She turned and caught the Old One's eye. "You recall it, sister."

"I do." She shrugged one stick-like shoulder. "It was why they designed her to look as they do." She stood, shifting from one strong foot to another. "So, one of us might leave. If she wished to," she said. "Solves nothing."

 . . .and Katuaba had to admit that she was right.

* * *

"How goes the work?"

The one who asked it was Garad vel'Albren, the Master Vintner, and as usual he addressed Zanith, giving slightly less attention to Seltin, who was doing the actual work, as he might to a chair, or a crucible. Indeed, she thought, meticulously noting the latest sugar levels in the fruits she had harvested that morning, it seemed that the Master Vintner considered her not only blind and deaf, but dead.

"The work proceeds," Zanith murmured in answer behind her. "I do not believe that anything in the analysis has proven beyond our capability to duplicate—and so we establish that They are endowed with no special magic, such as the ignorant and the House-bound would have us believe. Would you like a copy of the log, yourself?"

Garad, predictably, hesitated, and Seltin bent closely over her table, making sure that her motions were slow and fumbling, as they should be after such a night as she had endured.

That she was not weakened, ill, clumsy and stupid was—interesting. Indeed, she felt not only well, but very well, a state so alien to her late situation that she had known a moment of alarm upon rising—and before she had recalled that the Kapoori had been with her when she had regained consciousness.

And if the Kapoori were able to reverse the damage of extended neural overload with a simple kiss, then perhaps they did partake somewhat of the "magic" her master so scorned.

"If Their techniques and abilities are only what may be reproduced in the laboratory," Garad was saying, in uncanny echo of her thought, "why were They created in the first place?"

"It were the vogue at one time to design creatures adept at one or two necessary and repetitive tasks, and thus free time for other, more complex pursuits," Zanith answered with the airy insolence that characterized him. "I believe me that the House encompassed less members in those days, and thus creating spare hands made a certain amount of sense.

"The sums of the past, however, are not those of the present. Now we have learned that such designed creatures may take distempers, and turn upon those who gave them life, and duty. Clearly, it is our own duty to rid the House of such a menace to itself, despite those who would have us cling to the old ways."

"Indeed, indeed," Garad said hastily. "It was not my intention to malign the work, or to withdraw my support . . ."

Idly, Seltin wondered what it was that Zanith held over the head of his cousin and co-conspirator, who was clearly of a timid nature, and none-too-adroit at any thinking that did not involve vines and vintages.

Garad took a breath. "I would very much like to have a copy of the log, cousin," he said, with uncharacteristic firmness. "I have a number of test vines, and it is none too soon, perhaps, to try your findings in the field."

Now, that, Seltin thought, startled, was actually sensible. Zanith believed in numbers, tests, and analyses, and tended to ignore the fact that the practical application of those results might be . . . difficult to effect. Extensive field testing of their findings—into several years—was only prudent before the system in place were declared obsolete.

Not that anyone had asked her. Nor were likely to do so.

"Very well then," Zanith said to his cousin. "I will transmit the log as soon as today's results are recorded. Test well—and you will find that what I have said is nothing more than truth. The universe is built on fact, cousin, not on magic."

* * *

The sunlight lay heavy on the vineyard. Despite herself, Seltin found her head drooping and her eyes slipping shut in the fragrant, friendly heat. The urge to lie down beneath the sample vine, curl up on the warm ground and go to sleep was—almost—overpowering.

Surety of what Zanith would do to her if she should succumb to the temptation to nap kept her upright, though she worked as a woman in a dream. She had not been abused since the night of the Kapoori's kiss—the longest such time since Zanith vel'Albren had bought her bond. She did not question why he withheld himself from his pleasures; she tried instead to enjoy the gift of even so limited an amount of freedom—and not look beyond the hour in which she found herself.

The two Kapoori had also been absent from her life since that night, though she dared to cuddle the promise the second had made her. Foolish it was, but it comforted her against the shadows of the future of which she dared not think.

Snip, went the shears, and she added another specimen to her pile. That was enough, she judged, from this particular section. She slipped the shears away, bent to the basket—

Perhaps the vines rustled. Perhaps, having been kissed, she had acquired an affinity for their presence. Either, both or neither—it really made no difference.

Seltin straightened, turned to the left, and met the light eyes of the Kapoori who had first spoken to her, here in this very section of vineyard.

"Good day," she said, surprised that her voice was calm, even cordial.

"Good day to you, Seltin vos'Taber," the other replied, her smile as soft as her voice. "I trust I find you well?"

"You do," Seltin said, and touched her tongue to lips suddenly dry before adding. "I am in the debt of—another of the Kapoori—I regret that I do not know her name. She succored me some nights ago. Please, if it does not offend, I ask that you carry my gratitude to her."

"She is my next eldest sister and her name is Katauba. I shall gladly carry your words to her."

Seltin inclined her head, then looked up. "There is something—" she blurted, and stopped, horrified.

The other tipped her head. "Yes? And that is?"

Seltin took a hard breath. "I—what are you called, lady?"

"I am Pinori. But that was not what you had been going to say, I think."

"It—was not . . ." She was shivering, her hand rose and she fingered the threads woven into her skin. She dared not, Zanith would kill her, by slow degrees, laughing all the while—

Honor, she thought.

She had been honorable, once. Before a frivolous accusation and a wrongful conviction had destroyed her faith in order and decency. Before she had been sold to a man who delighted in her degradation and pain. She was beyond honor now—or so she had told herself. Slaves cannot afford such things.

And, yet—

"It may be of interest," she said slowly, and her voice was by no means steady now. By no means whatsoever.

"It may interest yourself and . . . Katauba . . . to know that Zanith vel'Albren and Master Vintner Garad hope to learn the ways and means of your . . . care of the vines." She was trembling, her stomach roiling. She could not, she thought, in panic, do this!

She drew a hard breath. Yes, she told herself, I can.

"That is the work they have set me to—the purpose of my sampling here." Her voice failed entirely, and she simply stood there, panting in terror.

Pinori inclined her head. "We had deduced as much."

"Yes," Seltin whispered, shakily. "Yes, of course. But have you also deduced that they intend to, to—" To what, she thought wildly: Dismantle? Deactivate? Cancel?

". . . kill you when they feel confident that the vines can be tended by themselves alone?"

Pinori's light eyes changed, like dark wine swirling into a glass. Her fine features pulled tight, and of a sudden she did not seem so young, nor so comely—nor in any way human.

Seltin swallowed, and abruptly knelt in the dirt, her legs abruptly too weak to bear her weight. She forced herself to speak another sentence.

"Perhaps—forewarned—you may leave before this—before this terrible calamity comes to pass," she whispered.

"Perhaps we might," Pinori said, and her light voice was as cold as snow. She looked down and it seemed to Seltin that she made an effort to smooth the anger from her face. She extended a hand, and lay it lightly on Seltin's hair.

"You do the Kapoori a great service, Seltin vos'Taber. You will not be forgotten."

She lifted her hand, turned and was gone, one moment there, and the next not, as if the vines themselves had swallowed her.

* * *

The lab again, and hers the only light in a sea of darkness. The log was open, awaiting her final notations; notations she was not yet ready to make. Her findings of this day were—not impossible, clearly, but surely unanticipated. Unprecedented.

Yesterday, the sample vines had been healthy, heavy with fruit, their tannins and sugars quivering on the edge of maturity.

Today, the vines were drooping, the fruits wrinkled. Her analysis had shown the sugars dried, the tannins soured, the vines themselves ill as if from blight, though if it were blight, it was one unknown to her or to the encyclopedia of the vine.

This, she thought, is what the Kapoori can do, that we cannot. Lay waste to a vineyard in the course of one night, leaving no clue to either cause or cure? It was impossible. It was, Seltin thought, running her fingers through her already disordered hair—it was as if the thing had been done by magic—a pass of hands, a mutter of secret words, and hey, presto! the crop has failed.

She was a scientist. Every trained nerve rebelled against such a thought, and yet, if not magic, than what?

A breeze moved through the lab, ruffling her hair and bearing scents of growing things. She breathed in appreciatively, then spun, heart in her mouth, for she knew that the windows were sealed, the doors barred—

The lights came up, slowly, nibbling at the edges of the dark like dawn, until the room was dim and cozy, like a garden on a comfortably overcast morning.

Across the lab, now, came her master, though not as she had ever seen him.

Zanith vel'Albren was a decisive man; he strode, he spoke firmly, he etched himself into the very molecules of the air. Not for him the hesitant step, the faltering whisper, the shrinking posture.

The man who came down the room—he shuffled, and seemed not entirely in control of his movements. He had one arm thrown about the shoulders of—of a monster, plainly put: Tall, she was; her hair a brown and green tangle of leaf and twig; her fingers were long and gnarled like roots. Her face was sharp, and all covered in pale green down. She wore a short, sleeveless white shift, which revealed more than it hid of a corded brown body.

All at once, Zanith came to a halt. He grabbed the vine woman's shoulder and pulled her 'round against to him.

"More . . ." he moaned, and she laughed, rich and intoxicating. She raised her stick-fingered hand and slid it into his hair, disordering it.

"Greedy manling," she crooned. "You shall have more—and more than ever you would want."

Zanith moaned again, in pain or in urgency it was impossible to tell. The Kapoori pulled his head down, ungently, and kissed him, hard, deep, and deeper still—then let him go all at once, and caught his arm, pulling him with her.

"Come, the vines require such healing such as you alone may give them. Would you keep them waiting?"

"Never," Zanith slurred, docilely following his captor. "Never keep them waiting."

The Kapoori pulled him onward, straight to Seltin's table, and paused a moment, looking at her out of port-red eyes, set deep beneath wild brows.

"You may wish to follow, Little Mother. The vines have a gift for you, as well."

Seltin stared at her, and then at Zanith.

"What have you—what have you done to him?" she whispered.

The Kapoori laughed and Seltin felt her senses swim.

"Only kissed him, Little Mother. You saw." She shifted, and placed one brown hand on the worktable. "Come or not, as you alone will it. In either wise, bear the thanks of the Kapoori with you."

She inclined her wild head and passed on, guiding Zanith as if he were a child. Seltin stared after them until they passed down the row of tables and out through the door which should have been—which had been!—locked against the night.

She bit her lip and glanced down at her table, giving a gasp as she saw what the Kapoori had left for her.

A wide ceramic bracelet set with a number of gem-colored nodes. The controller, tuned to the threads woven into her skin, which Zanith vel'Albren had so delighted to use . . .

She snatched it up and thrust it into her pocket. Then, heart hammering, she went after the Kapoori.

* * *

At first, laughter guided her. She moved carefully, stalking it in the dimness, noting that the vines shifted and danced among the shadows, though there was neither wind nor breeze.

Perhaps, Seltin thought, they had merely been disturbed by the passage of the Kapoori and her captive. If that were so, then they were not so far ahead of her, she should catch them in a moment or two—

That was when she heard the first scream, hoarse and horrible.

Heedless of the danger, Seltin ran.

The vines seemed to writhe out of her way, no stick or stone tripped her. There came a second scream, so near she would have screamed herself, had she any breath to spare.

She was in an area of the vineyard where she had never been; the vines here were wild and unrestrained, heavy with fruit, the avenue thin and twisty.

A third scream came, the avenue widened, and Seltin fell to her knees, horrified. Ecstatic.

Zanith vel'Albren lay naked in the dirt, arms and legs spread wide, held by vines as thick as Seltin's forearm. The Kapoori who had led him to this place stood at his feet, her arms crossed beneath her breasts, her wild face merciless. At his head stood the one called Katauba, the vines Seltin had thought mere tattoo twisting and waving in the still air. Of the third Kapoori . . .

"I am here," the light voice murmured in her very ear. "Have a care, Seltin vos'Taber; the vines are not always discerning."

"What," Seltin whispered. "What will happen to him?"

"Watch," the other said, and moved a few steps forward, toward the undiscerning vines, the grim Kapoori and the man, screaming and begging in the dirt.

"Please, please!" he shouted in a hoarse and trembling voice. "Tell me what you want! Anything the House can give will be yours. Anything—"

"We wish only to nourish the vines, Child of Flesh," the wildest of the Kapoori told him, in her rich, intoxicating voice. "It is what we do."

"No!" Zanith shouted. "No, you cannot. . . ."

"You believe the old tales, then?" Katauba asked him. "I had heard otherwise."

"Please, I—I will give you a stay. I swear it! None will harm you or, or take you from your work while I—"

Pinori gestured, a ripple of the fingers only, yet it drew Seltin's eye, and she gasped, heart stuttering, as she saw the vines creeping across the ground. A tendril slid across his chest, leaving a thin line of blood in its wake. Another slipped over his hip, and wrapped itself around his straining manhood.

Zanith screamed again, wordless, and fought his bounds.

"Best accept it," the wild one advised. "It will go easier for you."

"Though it must be said," Katauba added, "that the vines treasure an exuberant spirit."

More tendrils, more blood, and now his face was covered, the screams muffled, and the creeping vines sliding delicate feelers into his ears.

Seltin gagged, and Pinori glanced back to her, her face showing nothing but friendly concern.

"Come," she said, and put her hand on Seltin's arm, drawing her away from the impossible.

***

On Balchiaport, in the Street of Epicures, a new sign hangs, crisp under the faintly blue light of midday: Kapoori Fine Wines and Custom Foodstuffs.

Inside, two walls hold racked bottles; while a third supports a stasis-case displaying a few of those advertised custom foodstuffs.

The proprietors are young women. Pinori specializes in the wines; her partner, Seltin, will produce any food you can imagine, and some beyond anyone's imagining. It is said that Seltin was once a slave; if you look closely at her throat, you will, indeed, see a rumpled scar, as if bond-threads had been removed.

No one believes that, of course. But it makes for an interesting story.


The Beggar King


The front office of Triplanetary Freight Forwarding was empty, which he'd expected, considering. He hadn't called ahead, and they'd only known he was on his way, not when he'd arrive. Which turned out to be just as well, because he hadn't done all that good a job coordinating his arrival with local downtime; the cabbie who'd brought him from the shipyard had spent no energy at all hiding his surprise that any Terran would wander here by himself at this sunless time.

The files . . . the front-office files were in order, up-to-date, and accessible to his code, which—given one thing and another—he hadn't expected. The boss' office, what he supposed he'd be calling his office for as long as might be, that was locked, which didn't mean anything except that staff was conscientious.

He used the key he'd been given and stood to one side, shoulder against the wall, hands in the pockets of his leather jacket, while the door slid open and the lights came up in the room beyond.

There not being any immediate hostilities initiated, he eased 'round the wall, hands still in his pockets, and stood just beyond the threshold, taking a long careful look at everything there was to see.

The office was pretty much like he remembered it from his last visit, excusing the lack of clutter obscuring the expensive red wood of the desk, and the sharp, infuriating presence of Lela Toonapple behind it.

"Well, now," he said conversationally, tarrying yet by the door. "Already you've outlasted Replacement Number Three. That ought to ease you."

In fact, it didn't ease him in the least, nor was he a man who usually talked to himself, despite that being a common trait of courier pilots. Replacement Number One had apparently bought his ticket out by congratulating himself aloud upon entering this very office. The sound waves had triggered a razorfall rigged into the ceiling and, hey, presto! Replacement Number One was so much freshly bleeding meat. He fancied he could see a stain of dried blood, dull against the gleaming crimson wood. Fancy only, he assured himself; staff here was efficient, having been trained by Herself, who would never have tolerated bad housekeeping.

According to the reports, Replacement Number Two had gotten herself done within ten planet days by a local bent on revenge, what they called Balance hereabouts. Occupational hazard, that was. Or not. He considered himself warned.

And, he acknowledged, finishing his visual scan and stepping into the office, the fact remained that each of the three replacements before him had gone their own road to meet death very soon after planetfall, the only obvious link between them that they'd struck Sector Boss Ailsworth as a threat to his position; enough of a threat that they'd been shuffled out of the high visibility zone and dropped in a place where, apparently, there was no advancement. Hard to know who to blame, there, if anyone—they'd all accepted the job, after all.

Same, he admitted wryly to himself, shrugging his shoulder pack off and putting it on the desk, as Number Four.

"Nice going, Clarence," he muttered, and pulled his left hand and the bug-finder out of its pocket. He scrutinized the read-out, with its cheery blue lights proclaiming safe-safe-safe, and set it down next to his pack. Sighing, he slipped the gun out of his right pocket, snapped the safety on and put it decently away into its holster.

The temp was set a little low for his liking, so he kept the jacket on as he pulled the chair into a comfortable spot before sitting, adjusted the armrests so he wouldn't bang his elbows too hard because he knew he was one that used his armrests— ergonomics be damned—and bent over to bring the comp on-line.

First file up was addressed to him. A roster it was, listing names and contact numbers for staff, couriers, day labor and such. It also gave the address and contact codes for the round-the-clock office, whose work he'd seriously not wished to impinge upon as his first act on planet. The second file was something else. He frowned, scanned through, then went back to the top, one hand already reaching for the desk-comm.

He punched up the first number on the contact page; a woman answered, sounding surprised. Hers was, after all, a purposefully quiet office on a purposefully quiet planet.

"Tora Belle here."

"This is O'Berin," Clarence told her, firm and quiet. "Contact staff and let 'em know there's a meeting at headquarters when the port goes dayside. I want everybody here, sharp and ready to work."

"Yes, sir," Tora Belle said. "Day labor, too?"

"Everybody," Clarence confirmed, letting her hear a touch of impatience.

"Yes, sir," she answered. "Anything else?"

"Bring yourself here an hour before the others. I fancy I'll be having some questions for you."

She drew a breath, slow and not quite steady.

"Questions," he said to that minor sound of dread. "You can expect from me what you had from Herself, for the same cause and reasons. Fair?"

Out the breath came, stronger. "Yes, sir," she whispered.

"Tomorrow, then. O'Berin out." He cut the connection and turned back to the screen and its tangled skein of news. It was going to be a long night.

Sighing, he peeled out of his jacket and adjusted the gain on the screen. He checked to make sure the telltales would talk to him in case anyone unexpected—which was just about anyone at all—tested the defenses, and reached automatically for the cup still likely sitting on his desk at Landofar.

He should've asked Belle to bring along coffee tomorrow, he thought, ruefully, if there was coffee to be had. Well, and it would be inneresting to see, as Herself would have had it, what Belle might think of on her own.

* * *

"More tea, mother?" Daav asked, reaching for the pot.

"Of your considerable goodness." Chi yos'Phelium held out her cup with a smile.

He served her, and then himself, replacing the pot on the warmer. They shared a late breakfast on the patio overlooking the so-called wilderness. To Daav's eye, and no doubt to his mother's, the well-grown and cared for strip of trees looked rather overly domesticated. No matter, the view was pleasant, and if it were somewhat tame, at least they could be assured that no wild animals, nor wild men, for that matter, would come roaring down upon them to smash up the porcelain and make all untidy.

"Really, Daav," his mother murmured as she took her cup in hand, "you have become extremely useful. I wonder that I allow you to return to the Scouts."

He sipped his own tea, outwardly unperturbed. "Surely, ma'am, you must know that my usefulness is directly attributable to the knowledge that I am not long for Liad. Were you to deny me the Scouts, I make no doubt that I should soon revert to the surly fellow we both know me to be."

"It is true," Chi said, as if the thought had just occurred to her, "that you are far from sweet-tempered, my son. Doubtless you are correct, and I would tire of your company in a few days under such changed circumstance." She put her cup, gently, on the table. "Well, then, back to the Scouts you shall go, when your leave is done." She shot him a quick, mischievous glance from beneath thick golden lashes. "Now, own yourself relieved, sir!"

"Reprieved!" he exclaimed in obligingly melodramatic tones. "So near it was that my heart fair stuttered in my breast, and very nearly was I unmanned! Yet, Doom stayed her fair hand, and turned her face aside. Surely, I am the most fortunate of men!"

His mother laughed, and brought her hands together in a Terran clap of appreciation. "Well-played, sir! Truly, Daav, you should have sought the stage, rather than the Scouts."

"A traveling troupe, ma'am?" he asked her, and she sent him another glance, this one sharp and serious.

"You will need to come to terms at some point," she commented. "I will say no more, other than to note that the point grows nearer, not more distant."

That this was undoubtedly true did nothing to ease Daav's feelings regarding the matter of his recent ascent to nadelm, the heir in fact to the delm. His mother advised him that he would, in time, grow accustomed to his rank and, when duty required it of him, to a life lived primarily on Liad.

Daav took leave, privately, to doubt it.

"I wonder, my son," his mother said, selecting a fruit from the bowl between them, "if you might dispatch a small errand for me at the Low Port."

Daav blinked, and sent her a look, half-expecting to meet more mischief in her face, though her voice had been serious enough.

The glance he met was likewise serious.

"At the Low Port, ma'am?" he repeated, neutrally.

His mother considered him blandly. "Quite a small thing, really, Daav. If you would be so good."

"Of course you know I can deny you nothing," he replied. "I shall be . . . perhaps delighted is not precisely the word which expresses my state of mind, but don't have a care for that! What may I be honored to bring you from the Low Port, mother?"

"The answer to a riddle," she said composedly, and Daav felt his interest prick, despite himself. Riddles at the Low Port were often . . . compelling. And, sad to own, the Low Port itself was rather more to his liking than almost any other location on Liad, saving his clanhouse or at his brother's side.

"And the riddle?" he inquired, feigning boredom, which he was fairly certain deceived his parent not at all.

"Where do the pilots who visit Ilgay's Hell and Janif's Game Palace go after they depart the pleasures of the house?"

Daav considered her. "Surely, to their rightful berths, or to their clanhouses, the guildhall, or to the arms of a lover. Come, ma'am, this is not worthy of you! Hardly a riddle at all!"

"But if they do not arrive at their clanhouses, if their captains fill their berths from the will-call list, their lovers weep for their absence, and the guild assesses a fine against their licenses, and still they do not reappear? Does the riddle seem less tame then?"

Daav frowned. "Less tame and all but terrifying," he said slowly, considering the plural. "How many?"

"Eight, over the last two relumma," she replied. "The full particulars are on the computer in the study, if you find yourself interested."

"Interested," he allowed. "But is this not a matter, perhaps, for your acquaintance at mid-Port?"

"It would seem to be so. Alas, several relumma past, my acquaintance was kind enough to inform me that she was removing herself from her position—having achieved what she was pleased to term 'sufficient time in grade to make it stick'—and the last two replacements have not lasted even long enough for one to request a meeting upon neutral ground."

Daav frowned again. "If the balance is not firm at that juncture . . ." he murmured.

"Precisely!" his mother said, with a wide smile. "The thing wants examination from a number of angles, my child." She rose, waving a languid hand in the general direction of the study.

"Please, make yourself familiar with the particulars. I repose all faith in your ability to unravel this for me." Another brilliant smile and she was gone, dropping a light touch on his shoulder as she passed.

Daav sighed, and finished his tea, wishing he had as much confidence in his abilities as his parent pretended to. Still, he owned, it was an appealing problem—and not only for its locale. And pilots . . . pilots were the proper care of Korval, after all.

* * *

The start of it was easy enough, needing only a choice, and it was at Ilgay's Hell that he chose to begin his investigations.

Ilgay's was fortunately located hard by a port employment kiosk, at the center of a narrow street bracketed by food stalls and tea stands. There were folk enough about, and of various sort, so that the presence of an additional, and slightly ragged, pilot was nothing to turn heads.

First, he betook himself to the hiring kiosk, patiently waiting his turn in line for a chance at one of the three available terminals. He scrolled down the scanty offerings, frowning, then sighed, as would a man who had been disappointed not so much as vindicated, and left without even requesting a printout.

On the street again, he became one with the loose amble of those from the hiring hall, stopping at one stand to buy a rice ball and at another to purchase a paper cup of watery tea. Others, slightly plumper in pocket than the ragged pilot, bought synthasoy burgers, and sweet buns. All eventually moved down to the center of the street, to take up leans and crouches where they might study the door to Ilgay's Hell.

The number of patrons entering this establishment increased as the port-gate times cycled by; some were handlers or crew off-duty coming for the nearest respite, and some were those whose workday today had included only the need not to lie alone in a cheap room, watching the local free vid-feed.

Some few vehicles passed by, this being a roadable place, no matter that the way was thin and the populace not all that attentive to the needs of those well-off enough to go other than on foot.

Among the ragtag group of watchers among whom Daav had placed himself, there was a hierarchy. Some huddled together, passing small words and small containers between themselves, backs to the planet. Those were crew-folk left behind perhaps, or day labor never off-world, but they shared the chance that today might be better than yesterday.

Some, more desperate, attempted the occasional gambit and even the occasional offer to sell this or that item or service to those about to enter the Hell. Here, at least, dignity and melant'i was still in force. Here, if there was actual begging, it was done quietly and out of view of others.

The few pilots among the watchers, were, thankfully, none that Daav recognized. That worked both ways, for his face was long away from port, which he suspected now had weighed in his mother's decision to send him to accomplish this bit of work, rather than come herself. In any wise, it was not the face, then, but the jacket that kept the more unruly of the watchers from stretching melant'i enough to ask for a favor or a handout. These were port folk, after all, and they knew that a pilot staring into the distance was not to be disturbed, for he might be thinking, calculating, might in fact be doing something and not simply be as lost as he or she looked. You spoke to a pilot, here, if he spoke to you, or if you were his equal.

Eventually, as he had hoped, Daav was noticed by several people going into the club—seen to be a pilot, waiting—and by several more, some of whom eyed him speculatively before going in. He amused himself by determining which of the burly door-folk were basic security and which was the day shift bouncer.

He had determined to make his own entrance when the day shift bouncer ceded his post to the night shift. In fact, that event was imminent, and he was gathering his lanky form to move across the street and through the door, when he paused, head tipped in order to more clearly hear the approaching ruckus. About him, the other watchers stirred, straightened, shook themselves slightly. The very air changed—from waiting to anticipation.

From around several corners, then, came, noisily, an advance crew—obviously working together, obviously security of some kind, well-armed and well-fed. They settled themselves about the crowd, and the sense of anticipation grew, edged with something that Daav hesitated to name hope, but still as if the event bearing down upon them were the beginning of what they'd been waiting this past clock-count, be it day or year.

The ruckus came on, and 'round the corner by the tea shop came a large, even an opulent, vehicle, ostentatiously fan-lifted above the narrow street, its mirror finish reflecting sky, worn faces, and old boots in egalitarian elegance.

Daav drifted toward the back of the crowd, ears and eyes alert. Words moved around him, heard in snatches: "New boss . . . ," "free food, sometimes!" and "Possibly Juntavas, but work is work—" and not all the words were Liaden.

The car stopped and two of the traveling security force moved forward to open the door. A man alighted, moving with pilot grace, his body language eloquently alert. The clothes he uneasily wore were those of a prosperous merchant of no discernible clan. His copper-colored hair was slightly shorter than current fashion, and brushed severely back from a pale, round face. His eyes were very blue.

That electric blue glance swept the crowd and he bowed an encompassing bow, saying a few words to those closest. His hands moved subtly, coins and perhaps vouchers appearing between his fingers, vanishing as quickly, and the word moved through the crowd: "Day work tomorrow . . ."

Perhaps it was the jacket, though certainly his was not the only leather on the street. Perhaps it was merely his height, notable even in this mixed company. Whichever, those very blue eyes paused in their efficient scan of the crowd, lingering a moment, and a moment more, on Daav's face. He held his breath, hoping he hadn't been recognized—and the man turned away.

Security moved to enter the club, the man following, two more security at his back. The car swept away, spitting city-grit at the legs and faces of the unwary. Daav joined those who followed at a respectful distance; the night bouncer nodded at his jacket and let him enter the precincts of joy.

* * *

Within, there was some slight disarray, as the copper-haired man was ushered to a table hastily swept and settled for him near the center of the floor. Gravely, he sat, flanked by his security, as one of the staff ran for the bar and others came forward in ones and twos and made their bows, for all the worlds as if the delm of gaming hells had come to sit among them, and take their census.

Daav slipped to the right before those sharp eyes might find him again, and made his way to the back of the room, and the various wheels of fortune.

* * *

"Buy some luck, Pilot?"

The person who asked it was very nearly as tall as he was, with lush, if improbable, violet hair, and in such a state of expansive undress as must surely have put her health at risk, chilly as the house was kept.

Daav considered his small pile of chips wryly, and glanced back to her. He'd spent a good deal of energy over the last few hours carefully building the pile, and then making it dwindle.

"I'll be needing more than luck to turn this night around," he said gruffly, keeping to his character. "And nothing to spare for random results."

She smiled, to his eye honestly amused, and slid bonelessly between him and the next player.

"A bargain, then," she murmured, wrapping her hands around his arm. "If your luck changes for the better across the next three spins, you'll own I know my business and pay me double my usual fee."

He grunted, considered his small holdings once more, and snapped his fingers. "Done," he said. "See you do your work well, to mutual profit." He divided what remained of his holdings into thirds with over-careful fingers, and dropped the first third onto the ship symbol. The lady wrapped 'round him reached down a long, naked arm and hefted his empty glass.

"Wine for my pilot!" she called across to the smaller bar, and in a twinkling a fresh glass was by his hand.

"Do you pay for that out of your fee?" he asked, and she laughed, rubbing her cheek against his shoulder, violet hair ticking his chin.

"Winners drink free," she murmured.

"The stakes keep rising," he commented, and she laughed again, low in her throat.

"That's life."

"All bets frozen!" the croupier called and spun the wheel with a will.

Lights flashed merrily, the ebon ball dancing among them. His provisional luck extended her slender hand and picked up the wine glass, sipping languidly before raising it to his lips.

"To winning big," she murmured. Daav sipped, unsurprised to find the vintage much superior to that of his first glass, and she drank again before replacing the glass in its holder.

The wheel stopped; there was a moment of stillness—and then an eruption of chimes as the wheel and the square claimed by his small pile of chips began to flash a matching, exuberant green.

"We have," the croupier called, "a winner!"

His luck let loose with an ear-splitting whoop, and reached up to cuddle his cheek in her palm. Her fingers were, surprisingly, calloused; the same pattern of callouses his own hands bore.

The croupier paid out of the bank, two golds and a stack of silvers. Daav had tripled his wager on that run, and he had no doubt that the next two would be winners, as well. After which, if matters progressed along the usual pattern of such things, his luck would undertake to get him drunk or elsewise besotted, and then stand by as her confederates relieved him of the house's money.

It was usual in such cases, he knew, that the victim would then be left to wake up on his own and chart a no doubt unsteady course for home. There was no benefit to the house in murder, after all.

Unless, of course, one's luck was a freelancer. In which case, she might be . . . interested in his mother's riddle.

"Will you not wager again, Pilot?" his luck murmured from her affectionate nestle; one hand dropping from his arm to his thigh. "Our agreement was for profit over three spins." Her voice dropped. "Unless you have no need of the money . . ."

The lady, Daav conceded, knew her business, and certainly he had gone to some pains to appear a pilot in . . . unfortunate financial circumstances. His boots were perhaps a bit more than respectably worn, portions of his dark trousers showed as much shine as his boots.

Daav swept his palm on the worn fabric at his knee, just slightly lower than the spot on his leg his luck was gripping.

He glanced at her; nodded at the croupier.

"Let it ride," he growled, and his luck whooped. "My pilot knows how to play the game!" she shouted to the room at large.

"Have done," he said, sharp and surly under the racket of the wheel spinning. "Unless you want to be relieved of your earnings by those whose profit is taken from the pockets of others? I assure you, I have a better use for my portion than losing it to a wolf pack."

She laughed low in her throat. "Are you afraid of wolf packs, Pilot?"

"If I was afraid of losing my winnings to a wolf pack," he answered. "I wouldn't have come here."

He glanced about, hand negligently indicating the riff-and-the-raff about them, and carefully not including the semi-official head table where still sat the high-roller, done with receiving his subjects now, bereft of his security, but having acquired a companion of his own, to help him drink his wine.

"Mmm," his luck murmured, twining so nearly 'round him it seemed she would soon be inside his jacket with him. What else she might have said, if anything, was lost in a explosion of light and sound as the wheel and the square holding his second wager declared him again a winner.

"Excellent!" his luck shouted, and raised the wine glass to his lips. Drink he did, though not as deeply as she urged him, and she finished the last herself, before holding the glass high again.

"More wine for my pilot!" she called, and scarcely had the words rang out than the glass arrived, larger than the last, Daav saw at a glance, and filled to the top.

"Peace," his luck breathed into his ear, as she raised the glass for a sip. "I know you would be quiet, but I must advertise my skill for those others who might wish to employ me. I swear I will make only as much noise as will advance my own cause. Done?"

"Done," he answered, and obligingly sipped from the glass she held up to him. Again, he drank rather less than she would have had him, and was pleased to see her drink again, and deeply, before returning the glass to the table.

Himself—he considered his winnings, and of a sudden leaned forward, awkwardly, for being bound by his luck, and pushed the two-thirds of his original amount that he had held in reserve onto the ship square.

"Let it all ride," he said, slurring his words slightly.

His luck sighed so deeply her entire body quivered. The rest of the players pushed their wagers forward in silence. The croupier called the freeze and spun the wheel. Hard.

It seemed the entire house held its breath while the wheel danced 'round, and at last came to rest, winner flashing.

"A third win!" screamed his luck, forsaking his arm to propel herself into the air with a push on his shoulder, her fists beating the air. "Luck is where you find it!" she crowed.

Daav turned slightly and she came to rest with her breasts pressed against his chest, and her arms around his shoulders. She came up on her toes, pressing into him and whispered in his ear.

"Come over to my table, sweeting, and buy me a drink."

"My winnings . . ." he protested, and she laughed, turning her head to look at the croupier. "Bring the pilot's winnings to Zara Chance's table," she commanded.

"It shall be done at once!" The croupier swore, and turned to give orders to certain of the house's other employees, who were standing nearby. Zara Chance wove her fingers with Daav's and led him away from the wheel, passing through a wide and curious throng, some of whom made to touch her. She slapped those questing hands away, laughing her rich, lazy laugh.

"Free luck is worth what you paid for it! Let us pass! Make way for Zara Chance and her winner!"

* * *

If the surly, black-haired pilot wasn't alert at his board, his lady-luck was going to undress him right in the booth, Clarence thought. Not that he didn't seem an adroit lad, and not a quarter so drunk as he was letting it be seen. But if the lady was one with the rumor him and his crew'd been chasing all over Low and Mid-port this last while . . .

"You have a fancy for exotic hair, Boss O'Berin?" his own companion asked.

"Could be," he answered, giving her a straight look. He'd asked for somebody who knew the news, whereupon the floor boss had gone to the back and ushered her out, introducing her as, "Mistress Ilda, quarter-owner."

"Tell me about her," he said to Ilda now, angling his chin at the pair grappling in the booth.

"Her name is Zara Chance," Mistress Ilda said promptly. "She is not one of our regulars, and if it was in my power, I would ban her entirely."

"Shorts the house, does she?" Clarence asked.

"Not in the least," Ilda returned primly. "Very prompt in paying her percentage, is Zara Chance, and lays down extra for the good wine, too."

"But you don't like her," Clarence persisted, when she paused, his eyes on the couple in the booth. The pilot had managed to untangle himself from the lady, and was engaged in counting his winnings, which was not, Clarence thought, quite so adroit. He considered the man more closely, but he didn't have the look of either a port-cop or a bounty hunter.

"I don't like her," Ilda agreed. "Zara Chance's winners have a way of disappearing, once she has had her way with them. Losing customers is, as I'm sure you'd agree, Boss O'Berin, bad for business." She sighed, and shrugged, reaching for her glass. "But she does not overfish the waters, you see, and my partners are inclined to turn a blind eye, out of respect for her percentage." She sipped. "Zara Chance knows her business; and her winners always win big."

"Hm." Clarence picked up his own glass and had a sip, to be sociable. "Tell me about him."

"I've never seen him before," Ilda answered, sounding just a thought regretful. "And I doubt I'll see him again."

At the booth, the pilot had done fiddling with his coins. He pushed a sizable pile over to Zara Chance and slipped the balance away into various pockets. Where the lady put her share, Clarence couldn't have said, but she leaned over, her hand on the pilot's arm, and her lips against his ear.

The pilot moved his shoulders; Zara Chance threw back her head and laughed, then slid out of the booth, pulling him with her.

Out of the corner of his eye, Clarence saw Belle and Huang notice the pair of them, and ease into position.

"Thank you," he said to Ilda. "You've been very helpful. I'm doing a full review, just to acquaint myself with the local franchises—staff'll be contacting you about a time for a business meeting. Right now, though—"

Ilda nodded, leaning back in her chair. "My partners and I will be pleased to see you, Boss," she said formally. "And, speaking only for myself, if you can arrange it so that Zara Chance never comes to this Hell again, I'd be much obliged."

"I'll see what I can do," Clarence told her, and stood up.

The pilot and Zara Chance were out the door, Belle and Huang on their trail.

" 'Til next time," he said and moved toward the door, not hurrying, both hands in plain sight. At the door he exchanged nods with the bouncer and stepped out into the street.

He paused in the thin spill of light from Ilgay's sign and brought his arm up, a man checking the time, that was all. The tell-tales gave him Belle and Huang's position, some meters to the right, and on an intersecting course with the points occupied by Urel and Gounce.

"Gotcha," he breathed, and ambled down the dark street, hands in pockets, the fingers of the right curled 'round the butt of his gun, not that he expected to need it. Staff knew what to do, now that the quarry was in sight. And it had been Belle, after all, who'd put together the pattern of the freelance luck and overlaid it with the pattern of pilots gone missing.

By rights, Clarence acknowledged, he should have let staff handle the whole job. He'd weighed it, wondering if he'd be sending the message that there was a certain lack of trust in staff's abilities. In the end, though, he'd opted to take a personal interest, showing staff he wasn't afraid to put his gun where his orders were. Showing 'em that he was the Boss and that he took his port serious, just as serious as Herself had done. Pilots going missing on her watch? Not bloody likely.

From up ahead came the sudden sound of an scuffle. He heard Belle's voice, raised, and a shot.

Swearing, he leapt into a run, gun out, damn it all, and swung 'round the corner, dodging into the cover of a broken doorway.

* * *

"We're followed," Zara Chance said, low, and sent him a glance so hard he felt it strike the side of his face in the darkness. "Your backup, Pilot?"

If he had thought that tonight would have been anything other than a simple reconnoiter run, it might well have been his backup, Daav thought. Though his people might not have been quite so noisy.

Still, it was nice to be able to tell the lady the truth.

"None of mine. Most likely they're sent from the house to recover its loss."

A small pause while she gave that consideration. "It may be so," she allowed, eventually, "though Ilgay isn't known for bringing its business to the street."

"They might change policy," he offered. "For a stiff loss."

"Hm," she answered, and suddenly grabbed his arm, swinging him 'round to face back the way they'd come, and the silence between them was filled with a vibro-blade's grim promise.

Blast. Well, and it likely was a recovery crew from the house, or a wolf pack with its nose on cash. Either way, fighting at the lady's side could only increase her regard for him, which must be to his advantage. Daav slipped a slim dagger from his boot, the sound of hasty footsteps growing louder.

A man came briskly 'round the corner, stuttered to a halt, and then danced back as Zara Chance lunged, vibro-blade humming like a live thing. She pursued, and he swung to one side, missing the kick, slapping at his vest, and around the corner came his mate, shouting, gun out. A shot went over Daav's head and he swept forward, meaning to knock the gun away, when yet another person arrived, copper hair gleaming in the meager light, gun out and leveled.

"Put the knife down and stand away from the pilot, hands where I can see them," he said in calm, no-nonsense Trade. "Make me ask twice and it won't be so civil."

"Since we are being civil . . ." She thumbed her weapon off, crouched to place it on the ground, and flung herself sidewise, hitting Daav hard enough to send him staggering toward the man with the gun. Startled, he tucked and hit the ground rolling, heard a shot whine somewhere overhead and heard the red-haired man snap, "I'll mind him—don't lose her!"

There came the sound of boots against gritty tarmac, and Daav continued his roll, snapped to his feet, turned to pursue—and froze, the sound of a safety being disengaged ludicrously loud.

"I have," he said over his shoulder, "business with the lady."

"Mine comes first," the red-haired man answered. "Drop the knife, why not?"

Daav sighed and turned to face him. "Because I happen to be fond of it and don't want to risk nicking the edge, if you must know."

A grin flickered, ghostly, across the pale face. "Put it away, then. Tell me where."

"Left boot," Daav said obligingly, and bent to slip the blade home. He could no longer hear sounds of the chase, and silently cursed himself for losing his contact like an idiot.

"That lady's bad trouble," the man with the gun said, when he straightened. "You get on home or to the guildhall or wherever you're wanted and let us take care of her."

Daav felt his temper flicker, not to mention a lively spurt of curiosity about his solicitous captor.

"Perhaps you think I'm not bad trouble," he said, allowing his voice to take an edge. "That would be a mistake."

The other man cocked his head to one side, hair glinting like metal in the dim light. He shifted the gun, but notably did not snap the safety on. "What's your name, Trouble?"

"Daav," he said shortly, feeling the curiosity rise above his irritation. "And your own?"

"Clarence. Your lady-friend is a link to a bunch of pilots going missing on this port. That's my concern. I can't afford to lose pilots—it's expensive and it's bad for business, and it's going to stop."

"I agree with you upon every point. Stopping it is precisely the reason I am here; exactly the reason I agreed to go with Zara Chance to meet her 'recruiter'; and . . . "

"Where's your backup?" Clarence interrupted. Daav blinked, and said nothing.

"You came down here by yourself, without backup?" The safety went on with an emphatic snap and the gun disappeared into a pocket, as if Clarence no longer considered him a threat. Daav was inclined to feel insulted.

"I'll tell you what," Clarence said sharply; "that's stupid, hear me? I don't ever want to hear about you taking that kind of risk on my port again. I hear it and you're still alive, you'll wish you weren't. You reading me, Trouble?"

It seemed the red-haired man was genuinely angry. And the claim of it being his port nothing short of suicidal, when speaking with one of—

Oh, Daav thought, recalling his state of deliberate shabbiness.

"Let me be clear," he said, speaking with gentle care. "My name is Daav yos'Phelium Clan Korval. I am rather inclined to believe that this is my port, far more than it is yours."

He felt, rather than saw, the other man stiffen, heard the soft exhalation of breath that sounded peculiarly like "Fuck," before Clarence raised his hand, said, "Look . . ." and hesitated.

Daav, fair ablaze with curiosity, waited, posture conveying nothing other than polite interest.

Clarence sighed, and lowered his hand. "It was still stupid," he said, firmly.

"Since you put it like that," Daav said, feeling an unexpected jolt of relief, "I agree. It was stupid. In my defense, I hardly expected contact tonight. My information on the missing pilots indicates that they were patrons of two different establishments—"

"Five," Clarence interrupted. "We've got her charted. Seems to have only been the one woman, but she was careful not to—overfish the waters, like my friend back at Ilgay's has it." He paused. "We should probably merge info."

"Though perhaps," Daav murmured, "not on the open street."

"Point." Clarence sighed. "I'm the new Juntavas boss, by the way. Clarence O'Berin."

"I had thought you must be, as soon as I saw you dance in as Beggar King, though you seem young for the office," Daav said dryly, and around an unaccountable feeling of regret. He liked this Clarence, with his blunt good sense and competent planning. Which was, he acknowledged, just like his perversity. "You must be quite accomplished."

Clarence snorted. "No. Just the last in a set of people who let the sector boss get scared of 'em." He sighed. "So you see I know something about stupid."

"Ah," said Daav. "What . . . " Clarence held up a hand, and he swallowed the rest of his question as the other fished a comm out of his pocket and brought it to his lips.

"Go."

He listened, briefly, murmured, "Out," and stowed the unit with a nod.

"My team's got Zara Chance locked down. Innerested in hearing what she has to say for herself?"

"Very," Daav answered, and fell in beside his new . . . associate.

* * *

Daav yos'Phelium's long legs easily kept the pace Clarence set to Belle's coordinates. The lanky pilot made about as much noise as a shadow, which got Clarence to reviewing what he knew of the individuals who made up Clan Korval, while keeping a wary eye on the street.

Chi yos'Phelium, delm, was in Herself's deep notes, attached to a long list of warnings and qualifiers for the education of those who might come after. Near as he could figure, the delm was Herself's age, give or take five Standards. At a guess, Daav was right around Clarence's age, too young, and likely of too low a rank to be any of Herself's concern. Boss would, naturally, talk to Boss. On Liad even more than anywhere else.

Clarence looked at his companion, what could be seen of him in the general dimness.

"I'd have thought Chi'd come herself, since the issue was pilots," he said, more or less a shot at random.

Daav made a soft sound that might have been a laugh.

"My mother," he said, " would have been . . . conspicuous, let us say. Besides, she wishes to train me for my lifework, when she is through with being delm, and I am ever as much a pilot as she, in these days." There was a small pause before he continued.

"I would have thought Boss Toonapple would have left her port in better repair. Perhaps her . . . withdrawal . . . was hasty?"

"Herself, Boss Toonapple as you have her, she retired, all peaceful and legal, and left the business in good order. Last message I had from her said she was going someplace where she didn't have to look at a Liaden for a dozen years." He sent a quick glance at the other's profile. "Sorry."

"No need," his companion replied. "Indeed, I am much in sympathy with the Boss. I infer, then, that there was some lapse of time before you were appointed to take her place?"

"There were a couple others sent first, by that sector boss I was telling you about. They didn't manage to survive too long. Staff tried to hold line, but things started slipping with nobody at first board, if you take me. Most of what I've been doing since I got here is showing the flag to the locals and tightening up systems that slipped due to lack of repair. Like this one." The tracker shook against his wrist, and he reached out to put a hand on Daav's sleeve, stopping him.

"This is my gig, all right? You're here to witness and report back to your boss—delm."

"Agreed," Daav answered, and it might have been the truth. Clarence hoped so; he didn't warm to people much, but he found himself liking Daav yos'Phelium.

* * *

There were passed through to the room where Zara Chance was held by herself, secluded from the others Clarence's people had surprised and secured. She looked up as they came in, and smiled when she saw Daav.

"So, Pilot," she said, her voice husky and languid. "Want to buy some luck?"

"I believe you may wish to husband what you have," he answered. "But I thank you for your concern."

Her laugh was cut off as Clarence stepped forward, her expression shifting toward disgust.

"Terran." she spat.

"That's right," Clarence said, calmly. "Nice to meet you, too. I've got some questions for you, and I'm going to give you a chance to answer them on your own. If you don't want to play nice, then Mr. Urel here will be happy to introduce you to our particular brand of happy juice. I'm told it's sometimes unpleasant, but not fatal."

Zara Chance stared at him, but did not respond.

"Listen close: I've got a list of ten pilots gone missing out of five gambling houses; four were seen with you on the nights they vanished." Clarence jerked his head toward Daav. "This pilot here has similar data linking you to the disappearance of pilots. You're made, is what I'm saying. Now, what I want from you is the name and location of your boss, your access codes, and the details of what happened to those pilots, as far as you know them."

"Is that all?" she asked politely, and Daav saw her shudder, minutely. "Alas, I am not able to—"

"Poison!" He snapped and jumped forward, reaching for the kit that wasn't on his belt. He grabbed her shoulder. "What is it?"

She laughed again, breath suddenly short, and stared up at him in defiance. "Why it is fatal, Pilot. What . . . else . . . would you have of poison?" Her face was sheeted in sweat, and she was gasping in earnest now. "Soon, you will know your reliance on the Code for the culture . . . idiocy . . . it—"

She gurgled, eyes rolling up in her head. Daav caught her, and eased her body to the floor.

"Dammit!" Clarence swore behind him, and Daav reached out to close her eyes.

"Indeed."

* * *

"I . . . see," his mother said slowly. "So, my son, you tell me that your errand is unfulfilled?"

"It is the judgment of Mr. O'Berin and myself that we have but cut off one head of a hydra," he admitted.

"Thus warning the others to be more circumspect," his mother said tartly, and Daav inclined his head.

"Alas, that is also our conclusion." He sighed and reached for his cup. "Mr. O'Berin professes himself to be alert for new disappearances, though he believes—and I agree with him—that there will be a period of waiting, in the hopes that he will become busy with other of his business, and that Korval will turn its eye elsewhere."

"I see." She tapped the disk he had given her lightly against her knee. "And the contact information for the so-excellent Mr. O'Berin is made available to me. I assume that mine has likewise been made available to him."

"It seemed reasonable," Daav said, "especially as I am soon to return to the Scouts."

"Just so. Well, we do not always succeed at the first outing." Chi yos'Phelium sighed and slipped the disk into her pocket before picking up her cup and sipping her tea. "Your impression of Mr. O'Berin seems largely positive."

"I found him organized, level-headed, and committed to his duty," Daav agreed. "I could wish to find his like on my next team."

"Hah. Recall to what he owes his allegiance, my son, and tread warily. I will own to a certain—respect—for Mistress Toonapple, and I flatter myself that she returned my regard. Had our situations been otherwise, it is perhaps not too far afield to say that we might have been friends. Alas, the old agreement between Korval and the Juntavas must forever stand between such relationships."

"Of course," Daav said, and rose to make his bow. He dropped a kiss on her cheek as he passed her chair.

"Good-night, mother."

"Good-night, child."

* * *

Clarence came round his desk with his hand out and a smile on his face.

"Come in, sit down. Got a couple things to clean up, here, then we can go to lunch, if you've got time."

Daav returned the smile, and met the hand willingly, relishing the other's firm grip.

"Not this time, I think," Daav said seriously, "as some matters are pressing."

Clarence's smile dimmed thoughtfully.

"This because you can't be seen with a Terran? Can't be seen with the—what did you call me? The Beggar King?"

Daav laughed softly.

"Forgive me, please; it was not meant as an insult. I'm told that I am too harsh on Liadens and too lenient on the entirety of the Universe otherwise. And as it happens to call you the Beggar King was a lapse of accuracy, for on some worlds thieves and smugglers are guilded and acknowledged rather than hidden. Indeed, a city lacking a Beggar King is a poor one and likely more violent and dangerous as a result. If only the Council of Clans would give over its playacting . . . but there, you see—I am a Scout, after all, and far too aware that the Clan grandmother was a smuggler."

Daav mused on that a moment, continued.

"I, of course, do have that heritage, and the necessity to care for pilots; the others on Liad are . . . passengers, if you will. Almost wards. And until I am delm and able to make the clan's own direction closer to mine own, if I may, until then the city and the port will run as they do, with only the most minor meddling on my part. I do not despise smugglers and thieves as long as they are not bent on stealing my clan's goods and smuggling them away . . ."

"And thus it is not politics nor society standing in the way of lunch. I am, alas, on my way to my posting and only stopped by to give you this." He produced a disk from his vest pocket and held it out.

Clarence gave it due consideration before accepting it and stood weighing it in his hand. "More contacts?" he asked, and Daav inclined his head.

"Indeed. The Portmaster, the Scout Commander, the Master of the Pilots Guild. With Korval general house passwords. If you have need—use them."

Clarence tipped his head, and sent a blue glance as sharp as the edge of a knife into Daav's face.

"What's the Balance?"

Daav laughed, delightedly.

"Asked like a Liaden! The Balance is only this: Keep your ears and eyes open—which you and I both know you will do. If you hear or see anything that might have bearing on the . . . continued harmonious flow of business—more pilots disappearing, eh? A incipient riot; rumor of an Yxtrang invasion—let those contacts know, would you?"

"Yxtrang invasion," Clarence repeated. "You get those often?"

Daav moved his shoulders. "It's a rich world. The defense net ought to be sufficient, but—ought to isn't always is."

Another period of silence while Clarence communed with whatever loyalties and pressures of duty weighed upon him, then he nodded once, crisply, and moved over to the desk, slipping the disk into a drawer, and locking it with a thumbprint.

"I can do that," he said, straightening. "So, where are you off to that you can't stop for lunch with a friend?"

Daav hesitated, lifted his hand—let it fall.

"Clarence. Your duty and my own lie at odds. We cannot be friends."

"If you say so. Where I'm from, though, what I do on my own time is my business."

"Ah. I will meditate upon that during my next tour of duty. To answer your question, though—I am returning to the Scouts, and will be gone for—a few years, if the gods smile. Perhaps, in fact, you will have moved to a more convivial posting by the time I return."

Clarence snorted. "I think you'll find me right here," he said, and held out his hand again. "If you're on a deadline, don't let me keep you. Until again."

It was a farewell such as he might have had from one to whom he had ties. And, Daav thought suddenly, meeting that wiry hand again with a will, he and Clarence were tied, dark to light, each the mirror image of the other.

"Until again, Clarence," he said, and smiled.


ALLIES

Adventures in the Liaden Universe® Number Twelve

First SRM Publisher, Ltd. edition: November 2006

Fighting Chance copyright 2005 by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller first appeared in Women of War, edited by Tanya Huff and Alexander Potter, DAW Books, July 2005

Prodigal Son copyright 2006 by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller


Fighting Chance


"Try it now," Miri called, and folded her arms over her eyes.

There was a couple seconds of nothing more than the crunchy sound of shoes against gritty floor, which would be Penn moving over to get at the switch.

"Trying it now," he yelled, which was more warning than his dad was used to giving. There was an ominous sizzle, and a mechanical moan as the fans started in to work–picking up speed until they was humming fit to beat and nor yet there hadn't been a flare-out.

Miri lowered her arms carefully and squinted up into the workings. The damn' splice was gonna hold this time.

For awhile, anyhow.

"Pressure's heading for normal," Penn shouted over the building racket. "Come on outta there, Miri."

"Just gotta close up," she shouted back, and wrestled the hatch up, holding it with a knee while she used both hands to seat the locking pin.

That done, she rolled out. A grubby hand intersected her line of vision. Frowning, she looked up into Penn's wary, spectacled face; and relaxed. Penn was OK, she reminded herself, and took the offered assist.

Once on her feet, she dropped his hand and Penn took a step back, glasses flashing as he looked at the lift-bike.

"Guess that's it 'til the next time," he said.

Miri shrugged. The 'bike belonged to Jerim Snarth, who'd got it off a guy who worked at the spaceport, who'd got it from–don't ask don't tell. Miri's guess was that the 'bike's original owner had gotten fed up with it breaking down every third use and left it on a scrap pile.

On the other hand, Jerim was good for the repair money, most of the time, which meant Penn's dad paid Miri on time, so she supposed she oughta hope for more breakdowns.

"Must've wrapped every wire in that thing two or three times by now," she said to Penn, and walked over to the diagnostics board. Pressure and speed had come up to spec and were standing steady.

"My dad said let it run a quarter-hour and chart the pressures."

Miri nodded, saw that Penn'd already set the timer and turned around.

"What's to do next?" she asked.

Penn shrugged his shoulders. "The 'bike was everything on the schedule," he said, sounding apologetic. "Me, I'm supposed to get the place swept up."

Miri sighed to herself. "Nothing on tomorrow, either?"

"I don't think so," Penn muttered, feeling bad about it, though it wasn't no doing of his–nor his dad's either. Though some extra pay would've been welcome.

Extra pay was always welcome.

"I'll move on down to Trey's, then," she said, going over to the wall where the heavy wool shirt that served as her coat hung on a nail next to Penn's jacket. "See if there's anything needs done there."

She had to stretch high on her toes to reach her shirt–damn' nails were set too high. Or she was set too low, more like it.

Sighing, she pulled the shirt on and did up the buttons. If Trey didn't have anything–and it was likely he wouldn't–then she'd walk over to Dorik's bake shop. Dorik always needed small work done–trouble was, she only ever paid in goods, and it was money Miri was particularly interested in.

She turned 'round. Penn was already unlimbering the broom, moving stiff. Took a hiding, she guessed. Penn got some grief on the street–for the glasses, and for because of being so good with his figures and his reading and such which he had to be, his dad owning a mechanical repair shop and Penn expected to help out with the work, when there was work. Hell, even her father could read, and figure, too; though he was more likely to be doing the hiding than taking it.

"Seen your dad lately?" Penn asked, like he'd heard her thinking. He looked over his shoulder, glasses glinting. "My dad's got the port wanting somebody for a cargo crane repair, and your dad's the best there is for that."

If he could be found, if he was sober when found, if he could be sobered up before the customer got impatient and went with second best . . .

Miri shook her head.

"Ain't seen him since last month," she told Penn, and deliberately didn't add anything more.

"Well," he said after a second. "If you see him . . ."

"I'll let him know," she said, and raised a hand. "See you."

"Right." Penn turned back to the broom, and Miri moved toward the hatch that gave out onto the alley.

Outside, the air was pleasantly cool. It had rained recently, so the breeze was grit-free. On the other hand, the alley was slick and treacherous underfoot.

Miri walked briskly, absentmindedly surefooted, keeping a close eye on the various duck-ins and hiding spots. This close to Kalhoon's Repair, the street was usually OK, Penn's dad paying the local clean-up crew a percentage in order to make sure there wasn't no trouble. Still, sometimes the crew didn't come by, and sometimes they missed, and sometimes trouble herded outta one spot took up in another.

She sighed as she walked, wishing Penn hadn't mentioned her father. He never did come home no more except he was smoked or drunk. Or both. And last time–it'd been bad last time, the worst since the time he broke her arm and her mother–her tiny, sickly, soft-talking mother–had gone at him with a piece of the chair he'd busted to let 'em know he was in.

Beat him right across the apartment and out the door, she had, and after he was in the hall, screamed for all the neighbors to hear, "You're none of mine, Chock Robertson! I deny you!"

That'd been pretty good, that denying business, and for a while it looked like it was even gonna work.

Then Robertson, he'd come back in the middle of the night, drunk, smoked, and ugly, and started looking real loud for the rent money.

Miri'd come out of her bed in a hurry and run out in her shirt, legs bare, to find him ripping a cabinet off the wall. He'd dropped it when he seen her.

"Where's my money?" he roared, and took a swing.

She ducked back out of the way, and in that second her mother was there–and this time she had a knife.

"Leave us!" she said, and though she hadn't raised her voice, the way she said it'd sent a chill right through Miri's chest.

Chock Robertson, though, never'd had no sense.

He swung on her; she ducked and slashed, raising blood on his swinging arm. Roaring, he swung again, and this time he connected.

Her mother went across the room, hit the wall and slid, boneless, to the floor, the knife falling out of her hand.

Her father laughed and stepped forward.

Miri yelled, jumped, hit the floor rolling–and came up with the knife.

She crouched, the way she'd seen the street fighters do, and looked up–a fair ways up–into her father's face.

"You touch her," she hissed, "and I'll kill you."

The wonder of the moment being, she thought as she turned out of Mechanic Street and onto Grover, that she'd meant it.

It must've shown on her face, because her father didn't just keep on coming and beat her 'til all her bones were broke.

"Where's the money?" he asked, sounding almost sober.

"We paid the rent," she snarled, which was a lie, but he took it, for a second wonder, and–just walked away. Out of the apartment, down the hall and into the deepest pit of hell, as Miri had wished every day after.

Her mother . . .

That smack'd broke something, though Braken didn't find no busted ribs. The cough, though, that was worse–and she was spittin' up blood with it.

Her lungs, Braken'd said, and nothin' she could do, except maybe ask one of Torbin's girls for a line on some happyjuice.

The dope eased the cough, though it didn't stop the blood, and Boss Latimer's security wouldn't have her in the kitchen no more, which meant no wages, nor any leftovers from the fatcat's table.

Miri was walking past Grover's Tavern and it was a testament to how slim pickin's had been, that the smell of sour beer and hot grease made her mouth water.

She shook her head, tucked her hands in her pockets and stretched her legs. 'Nother couple blocks to Trey's, and maybe there would be something gone funny in the duct work he was too big to get into, but Miri could slide through just fine.

Even if there wasn't work, there'd be coffeetoot, thick and bitter from havin' been on the stove all day, and Trey was sure to give her a mug of the stuff, it bein' his idea of what was–

A shadow stepped out from behind the tavern's garbage bin. Miri dodged, but her father had already grabbed her arm and twisted it behind her back. Agony screamed through her shoulder, and she bit her tongue, hard. Damn' if she'd let him hear her yell. Damn' if she would.

"Here she is," Robertson shouted over her head. "Gimme the cash!"

Out of the tavern's doorway came another man, tall and fat, his coat embroidered with posies and his beard trimmed and combed. He smiled when he saw her, and gold teeth gleamed.

"Mornin', Miri."

"Torbin," she gasped–and bit her tongue again as her father twisted her arm.

"That's Mister Torbin, bitch."

Torbin shook his head. "I pay less for damaged goods," he said.

Robertson grunted. "You want my advice, keep her tied up and hungry. She's bad as her ol' lady for sneaking after a man and doin' him harm."

Torbin frowned. "I know how to train my girls, thanks. Let 'er go."

Miri heard her father snort a laugh.

"Gimme my money first. After she's yours, you can chase her through every rat hole on Latimer's turf."

"But she ain't gonna run away, are you, Miri?" Torbin pulled his hand out of a pocket and showed her a gun. Not a homemade one-shot, neither, but a real gun, like the Boss's security had.

"Because," Torbin was saying, "if you try an' run away, I'll shoot you in the leg. You don't gotta walk good to work for me."

"Don't wanna work for you," she said, which was stupid, and Robertson yanked her arm up to let her know it.

"That's too bad," said Torbin. "'Cause your dad here's gone to a lot a trouble an' thought for you, an' found you a steady job. But, hey, soon's you make enough to pay off the loan an' the interest, you can quit. I don't hold no girl 'gainst her wants."

He grinned. "An' you–you're some lucky girl. Got me a man who pays a big bonus for a redhead, an' other one likes the youngers. You're, what–'leven? Twelve, maybe?"

"Sixteen," Miri snarled. This time the pain caught her unawares, and a squeak got out before she ground her teeth together.

"She's thirteen," Robertson said, and Torbin nodded.

"That'll do. Let 'er go, Chock."

"M'money," her father said again, and her arm was gonna pop right outta the shoulder, if–

"Right." Torbin pulled his other hand out of its pocket, a fan of greasy bills between his fingers. "Twenty cash, like we agreed on."

Her father reached out a shaky hand and crumbled the notes in his fist.

"Good," said Torbin. "Miri, you 'member what I told you. Be a good girl and we'll get on. Let 'er go, Chock."

He pushed her hard and let go her arm. Expected her to fall, prolly, and truth to tell, she expected it herself, but she managed to stay up and keep moving, head down, straight at Torbin.

She rammed her head hard into his crotch, heard a high squeak. Torbin went down to his knees, got one arm around her; she twisted, dodged, was past, felt the grip on her shirt, and had time to yell before she was slammed into the side of the garbage bin. Her sight grayed, and out of the mist she saw a fist coming toward her. She dropped to the mud and rolled, sobbing, heard another shout and a hoarse cough, and above it all a third and unfamiliar voice, yelling–

"Put the gun down and stand where you are or by the gods I'll shoot your balls off, if you got any!"

Miri froze where she was, belly flat to the ground, and turned her face a little to see–

Chock Robertson standing still, hands up at belt level, fingers wide and empty.

Torbin standing kinda half-bent, hands hanging empty, his gun on the ground next to his shoe.

A rangy woman in neat gray shirt and neat gray trousers tucked tight into shiny black boots. She was holding a gun as shiny as the boots easy and business-like in her right hand. Her hair was brown and her eyes were hard and the expression on her face was of a woman who'd just found rats in the larder.

"Kick that over here," she said to Torbin.

He grunted, but gave the gun a kick that put it next to the woman's foot. She put her shiny boot on it and nodded slightly. "Obliged."

"You all right, girl?" she asked then, but not like it mattered much.

Miri swallowed. Her arm hurt, and her head did, and her back where she'd caught the metal side of the container. Near's she could tell, though, everything that ought to moved. And she was breathing.

"I'm OK," she said.

"Then let's see you stand up and walk over here," the woman said.

She pushed herself up onto her knees, keeping a wary eye on Robertson and Torbin, got her feet under her and walked up to the woman, making sure she kept outta the stare of her weapon.

The brown eyes flicked to her face, the hard mouth frowning.

"I know you?"

"Don't think so," Miri answered. "Ma'am."

One side of the mouth twisted up a little, then the eyes moved and the gun, too.

"Stay right there until I tell you otherwise," she snapped, and her father sank back flat on his feet, hands held away from his sides.

"Get behind me, girl," the woman said, and Miri ducked around and stood facing that straight, gray-clad back.

She oughta run, she thought; get to one of her hiding places before Torbin and her father figured out that the two of them together could take a single woman, but curiosity and some stupid idea that if it came down to it, she oughta help the person who'd helped her kept her there and watching.

"Now," the woman said briskly. "You gents can take yourselves peaceably off, or I can shoot the pair of you. It really don't matter to me which it is."

"The girl belongs to me!" Torbin said. "Her daddy pledged her for twenty cash."

"Nice of him," the woman with the gun said.

"Girl," she snapped over her shoulder. "If you're keen on going for whore, you go ahead with him. I won't stop you."

"I ain't," Miri said, and was ashamed to hear her voice shake.

"That's settled then." The woman moved her gun in a easy nod at Torbin. "Seems to me you oughta get your money back from her daddy and buy yourself another girl."

"She's mine to see settled!" roared Robertson, leaning forward–and then leaning back as the gun turned its stare on him.

"Girl says she ain't going for whore," the woman said lazily. "Girl's got a say in what she will and won't do to feed herself. Girl!"

Miri's shoulders jerked. "Ma'am?"

"You find yourself some work to do, you make sure your daddy gets his piece, hear?"

"No'm," Miri said, hotly. "When I find work I'll make sure my mother gets her piece. She threw him out and denied him. He's no lookout of ours."

There was a small pause, and Miri thought she saw a twitch along one level shoulder.

"That a fact?" the woman murmured, but didn't wait for any answer before rapping out, "You gents got places to be. Go there."

Amazingly, they went, Torbin not even askin' for his gun back.

"You still there, girl?"

Miri blinked at the straight back. "Yes'm."

The woman turned and looked down her.

"Now the question is, why?" she said. "You coulda been next turf over by now."

"Thought I might could help," Miri said, feeling stupid now for thinking it. "If things got ugly."

The hard eyes didn't change and the mouth didn't smile. "Ready to wade right in, were you?" she murmured, and just like before didn't wait for an answer.

"What's your name, girl?"

"Miri Robertson."

"Huh. What's your momma's name?"

Miri looked up into the woman's face, but there wasn't no reading it, one way or the other.

"Katy Tayzin," she said.

The face did change then, though Miri couldn't've said exactly how, and the level shoulders looked to lose a little of their starch.

"You're the spit of her," the woman said, and put her fingers against her neat gray chest. "Name's Lizardi. You call me Liz."

Miri blinked up at her. "You know my mother?"

"Used to," Liz said, sliding her gun away neat into its belt-holder. "Years ago that'd be. How's she fare?"

"She's sick," Miri said, and hesitated, then blurted. "You know anybody's got work–steady work? I can do some mechanical repair, and duct work and chimney clearing and–"

Liz held up a broad hand. Miri stopped, swallowing, and met the brown eyes steady as she could.

"Happens I have work," Liz said slowly. "It's hard and it's dangerous, but I'm proof it can be good to you. If you want to hear more, come on inside and take a sup with me. Grover does a decent stew, still."

Miri hesitated. "I don't–"

Liz shook her head. "Tradition. Recruiting officer always buys."

Whatever that meant, Miri thought, and then thought again about Torbin and her father being on the loose.

"Your momma all right where she is?" Liz asked and Miri nodded.

"Staying with Braken and Kale," she said. "Won't nobody get through Kale."

"Good. You come with me."

"Grew up here," Liz said in her lazy way, while Miri worked through her second bowl of stew. "Boss Peterman's territory it was then. Wasn't much by way of work then, neither. Me, I was little bit older'n you, workin' pick-up and on the side. Your momma, she was baker over–well, it ain't here now, but there used to be a big bake shop over on Light Street. It was that kept us, but we was looking to do better. One day, come Commander Feriola, recruitin', just like I'm doin' now. I signed up for to be a soldier. Your momma . . ." She paused, and took a couple minutes to kinda look around the room. Miri finished her stew and regretfully pushed the bowl away.

"Your momma," Liz said, "she wouldn't go off-world. Her momma had told her there was bad things waitin' for her if she did, and there wasn't nothin' I could say would move her. So I went myself, and learned my trade, and rose up through the rank, and now here I'm back, looking for a few bold ones to fill in my own command."

Miri bit her lip. "What's the pay?"

Liz shook her head. "That was my first question, too. It don't pay enough, some ways. It pays better'n whorin', pays better'n odd jobs. You stand a good chance of gettin' dead from it, but you'll have a fightin' chance. And if you come out on the livin' side of that chance, and you're smart, you'll have some money to retire on and not have to come back to Surebleak never again."

"And my pay," Miri persisted, thinking about the drug Braken thought might be had, over to Boss Abram's turf, that might stop the blood and heal her mother's lungs. "I can send that home?"

Liz's mouth tightened. "You can, if that's what you want. It's your pay, girl. And believe me, you'll earn it."

Braken and Kale, they'd look after her mother while she was gone. 'Specially if she was to promise them a piece. And it couldn't be no worse, off-world than here, she thought–could it?

"I'll do it," she said, sounded maybe too eager, because the woman laughed. Miri frowned.

"No, don't you spit at me," Liz said, raising a hand. "I seen temper."

"I thought–"

"No, you didn't," Liz snapped. "All you saw was the money. Happens I got some questions of my own. I ain't looking to take you off-world and get you killed for sure. If I want to see you dead, I can shoot you right here and now and save us both the fare.

"And that's my first question, a soldier's work being what it is. You think you can kill somebody?"

Miri blinked, remembering the feel of the gun in her hand–and blinked again, pushing the memory back away.

"I can," she said, slow, "because I have."

Liz pursed her lips, like she tasted something sour. "Have, huh? Mind sharing the particulars?"

Miri shrugged. "'Bout a year ago. They was kid slavers an' thought they'd take me. I got hold of one of their guns and–" she swallowed, remembering the smell and the woman's voice, not steady: Easy kid . . .

". . . and I shot both of 'em," she finished up, meeting Liz's eyes.

"Yeah? You like it?"

Like it? Miri shook her head. "Threw up."

"Huh. Would you do it again?"

"If I had to," Miri said, and meant it.

"Huh," Liz said again. "Your momma know about it?"

"No." She hesitated, then added. "I took their money. Told her I found the purse out behind the bar."

Liz nodded.

"I heard two different ages out there on the street. You want to own one of 'em?"

Miri opened her mouth – Liz held up her hand.

"It'd be good if it was your real age. I can see you're small. Remember I knew your momma. I seen what small can do."

Like whaling a man half again as tall as her and twice as heavy across a room and out into the hall . . .

"Almost fourteen."

"How close an almost?"

"Just shy a Standard Month."

Liz closed her eyes, and Miri froze.

"I can read," she said.

Liz laughed, soft and ghosty. "Can you, now?" she murmured, and opened her eyes, all business again.

"There's a signing bonus of fifty cash. You being on the light side of what the mercs consider legal age, we'll need your momma's hand on the papers."

Braken eyed Miri's tall companion, and stepped back from the door.

"She's in her chair," she said.

Miri nodded and led the way.

Braken's room had a window, and Katy Tayzin's chair was set square in front of it, so she'd get whatever sun could find its way through the grime.

She was sewing–mending a tear in one of Kale's shirts, Miri thought, and looked up slowly, gray eyes black with the 'juice.

"Ma–" Miri began, but Katy's eyes went past her, and she put her hands and the mending down flat on her lap.

"Angela," she said, and it was nothing like the tone she'd used to deny Robertson, but it gave Miri chills anyway.

"Katy," Liz said, in her lazy way, and stepped forward, 'til she stood lookin' down into the chair.

"I'm hoping that denial's wore off by now," she said, soft-like.

Katy Tayzin smiled faintly. "I think it has," she murmured. "You look fine, Angela. The soldiering treated you well."

"Just registered my own command with merc headquarters," Liz answered. "I'm recruiting."

"And my daughter brings you here." She moved her languid gaze. "Are you for a soldier, Miri?"

"Yes'm," she said and stood forward, marshalling her arguments: the money she'd send home, the signing cash, the–

"Good," her mother said, and smiled, slowly. "You'll do well."

Liz cleared her throat. "There's a paper you'll need to sign."

"Of course."

There was a pause then. Liz's shoulders rose–and fell.

"Katy. There's medics and drugs and transplants–off world. For old times–"

"My reasons remain," Katy said, and extended a frail, translucent hand. "Sit with me, Angela. Tell me everything. Miri–Kale needs you to help him in the boiler room."

Miri blinked, then nodded. "Yes'm," she said, and turned to go. She looked back before she got to the door, and saw Liz sitting on the floor next to her mother's chair, both broad, tan hands cupping one of her mother's thin hands, brown head bent above red.

Miri'd spent half her recruitment bonus on vacked coffee and tea, dry beans and vegetables for her mother, and some quality smokes for Braken and Kale. Half what was left after that went with Milt Boraneti into Boss Abram's territory, with a paper spelling out the name of the drug Braken'd thought would help Katy's lungs.

She'd gone 'round to Kalhoon's Repair, to say good-bye to Penn, and drop him off her hoard of paper and books, but he wasn't there. Using one of the smaller pieces of paper, she wrote him a laborious note, borrowed a piece of twine and left the tied-together package with his dad.

Liz'd told her she'd have a uniform when she got to merc headquarters, the cost to be deducted from her pay. For now, she wore her best clothes, and carried her new-signed papers in a bag over her shoulder. In the bag, too, wrapped up in a clean rag, was a smooth disk–intarsia work, her mother had murmured, barely able to hold the thing in her two hands.

It was your grandmother's, she whispered, and it came from off-world. It doesn't belong here, and neither do you.

"I'll send money," Miri said, looking into her mother's drugged eyes. "As much as I can."

Katy smiled. "You'll have expenses," she said. "Don't send all your money to me."

Miri bit her lip. "Will you come? Liz says–"

Katy shook her head. "I won't pass the physical at the port," she said, and coughed. She turned her head aside and used a rag to wipe her mouth.

She turned back with a smile, and reached out her thin hand to rest it on Miri's arm. "You, my daughter. You're about to begin the adventure of your life. Be bold, which I know you are. Be as honest as you can. Trust Angela. If you find love, embrace it."

The cough again, hard this time. Miri caught her shoulders and held her until it was done. Katy used the rag, and pushed it down beside her on the chair, but not before Miri saw it was dyed crimson.

Katy turned back with another smile, wider this time, and held out arms out. Miri bent and hugged her, feeling the bones. Her mother's lips brushed her cheek, and her voice whispered, "Go now."

And so she left, out the door and down the hall and into the street where Liz Lizardi was waiting, and the adventure of her life begun.


Prodigal Son


Miri, Val Con thought wryly as he moved silently down the pre-dawn hallway, is not going to like this.

He paused outside the door to the suite he shared with his lifemate, took a breath, and put his palm firmly against the plate.

The door slid aside, and he stepped into their private parlor, pausing just over the threshold.

Across the room the curtains had been drawn back from the wide window, admitting Surebleak's uncertain dawn. The rocking chair placed at an angle to the window moved quietly, back and forth, back and forth, its occupant silhouetted against the light.

"What ain't I gonna like?" she asked, apparently plucking the thought out of his head. Val Con shivered. The link they shared as lifemates made each aware of the other's emotions and general state of mind, and there had been instances of one of them suddenly acquiring a skill or a language which had previously belonged only to the other. This wholesale snatching of thoughts from his mind, though–that was new, and in one direction only. It seemed that Miri could read his mind perfectly well, while hers was as closed to him in detail as ever it had been. He wondered, not for the first time, if this was in some way linked to her pregnancy . . .

"Things looked kinda dicey there for a while," she went on. "From what I could tell."

"It was not without its moments," he allowed, moving toward the window. "Even the presence of Scout Commander ter'Meulen was insufficient to turn all to farce."

"If Clonak was half as stupid as he acts, something with lotsa teeth would've had him for lunch a long time ago."

"True," he murmured from the side of her chair. He reached down and slipped his fingers through the wealth of her unbound hair. "But you discount the joy of the masquerade."

"No I don't. I just wonder why he bothers."

"I believe we must diagnose an excess of energy."

She snorted. Next to her, he smiled into the dawn, then sighed.

"Wanna tell me about it?"

"In fact," he said, dropping lightly to the rug beside her and leaning his head against her thigh; "I do."

"Ready when you are." He felt her hand stroke his hair and sighed in contentment made more poignant by the knowledge that it was to be all too brief.

"The highly condensed version," he murmured, "is that one of the teams the Scouts sent to gather the severed blossoms of the Department of Interior . . ." She choked a laugh, and he paused, his eyes on the meager garden below them.

"That's gotta be Clonak," she said.

"Indeed, Commander ter'Meulen was pleased to style it thus," he said. "Allow it, with the understanding that the actual business was not nearly so poetical."

He felt her hair move as she shook her head. "'Course it wasn't."

"Yes, well." Her robe was fleece, soft and warm under his cheek. "This team of Scouts obtained news of a situation which . . . lies close to us, cha'trez."

Her hand stilled on his hair. "How close, exactly?"

"Close as kin," he answered. "It would seem that the Department deployed a field unit, and perhaps a tech team, to Vandar after Agent sig'Alda failed them."

He felt her grasp it, and the frisson of her horror. Her hand fell to his shoulder, fingers gripping.

"We gotta go in," she said, and he smiled at her quickness. "Zhena Trelu, Hakan, Kem–gods, what if they've already . . ."

"We have some hope that they have not already," Val Con murmured. "A field unit is by no means an Agent of Change. But we dare not tarry."

"We are going, then." There was satisfaction in her voice.

Val Con shook his head. "Alas, I am going. You, my lady, will stay here and mind Korval's concerns–and our daughter."

"Got a real hankering for a girl, doncha? What if the baby's a boy?"

"Then he will doubtless also be as intelligent and as beautiful as his mother."

Miri laughed, then sobered. "Who's your backup, then? If I'm staying home to mind the store."

"I thought to travel quickly," he murmured; "and leave within the hour. Clonak is gathering a contact team. He expects them to lift out no later than three days from–"

"What you're saying is that you're going in without any back-up." The rocker moved more strongly; inside his head, he heard the arpeggio of her irritation.

"Not," she said firmly, "on my watch."

"Cha'trez–"

"Quiet. I ain't gotta tell you how stupid it is to go into something like this by yourself, 'cause if you'd take a second think, you'd figure it out for yourself. What I am gonna tell you is you got two options: I go–or Beautiful goes."

He could not risk her–would not risk their child. His rejection was scarcely formed when he heard her sigh over his head.

"My feelings are hurt. But have it your way." Her hand left his shoulder. He rolled to his feet and helped her to rise, pulling her into an embrace.

"I will take Nelirikk with me," he whispered into her ear, and felt her laugh.

"That's a good idea," she murmured. "Glad you thought of it."

"Indeed." He hugged her tight, and stepped back. Slipping Korval's Ring from his finger, he handed it to her.

She shoved it onto her thumb and closed her fingers around it.

"Get your kit," she said. "I'll call down to the pilot and give him the good news."

* * *

It was a good thing, Hakan thought sourly, that he'd come to university to study guitar. The storm winds knew what they might have made him do, if he'd come to study walking. Lie on his stomach and march on his elbows, legs dragging in the dirt behind him, probably.

"Zamir Darnill," Zhena Teone, his music history professor, inquired crisply from the front of the classroom. "Is there a problem with your zamzorn?"

Besides it being the most useless instrument in the scope of creation? Hakan thought. A flute made from a full horn, with a range of only an octave, its point sharp enough to stab unwary fingers? No wonder the thing had been abandoned for the ocarina by the serious musicians of two hundred years ago. He sighed to himself and looked up.

"A little trouble with the fipple, Zhena," he said quietly. No matter his own feelings about flutes cut from ox horn, Zhena Teone doted on the thing; and if he'd learned nothing else at university thus far, he had learned that the wise student didn't provoke his professors.

"Zamir Darnill," his teacher said sadly. "The zamzorn represents an important part of our musical tradition. I fear you are giving it neither the respect nor the attention that it deserves."

"I'm sorry, Zhena," he muttered. "Flute isn't really my–"

"Flute? Flute indeed!"

Her pause was worth a fortune of concern, and when she spoke again it was obvious that she was keeping her voice level.

"Zamir, the king has seen fit to send you here, and you will have the goodness to learn. I suspect you have not been carrying the zamzorn on your person, as you have been told this last ten day, so that it stays at the proper temperature for playing at a moment's notice. In the past the only thing closer to a musical zamir than his zamzorn, was his zhena. So carry yours at all times, yes?"

She caressed the instrument in her hands, producing a subcurrent of stifled laughter in the room.

"You will have ample time to pursue your interest in stringed instruments–" she made it sound like a disease, or at least an unpleasant habit that shouldn't be mentioned in polite company– "after you have absorbed the lessons that history has to teach us. Now, then. Has your disagreement with the fipple been resolved?"

There was an outright titter from the front row, and Hakan felt his ears heat.

"Yes, Zhena."

"Good. I direct the class's attention once more to the jig on page forty-five . . ."

* * *

"A green and pleasant world," Nelirikk said, as they broke their march for the meal local time decreed as dinner. "Is it always so chill?"

"Never think it," Val Con answered. "In fact, I am persuaded there are those native to the world who would pronounce today balmy in the extreme, and perfect for turning the garden."

Nelirikk sipped from his canteen. He was, Val Con thought, a woodsman the like of which Gylles had rarely seen: bold in black-and-red plaid flannel, work pants, and sturdy boots, with a red knit cap pulled down over his ears in deference to the chill of dusk.

The big man finished his drink and resealed the jug. "This . . . error the captain sends us to correct," he began.

Val Con lifted an eyebrow. Nelirikk paused, and was seen to sigh.

"Scout, I do not say it was the captain's error."

"Nor should you," Val Con said, surprised by the edge he heard on his own words. He raised a hand, showing empty palm and relaxed fingers.

"The situation–which might, in truth, be said to be error–is of my crafting," he said, more mildly. "It was I who chose to land on an interdicted world. Saying that I did so in order to preserve the lives of the captain and myself does not change the decision or the act. Once here, we inevitably accrued debt, which must of course be Balanced. All of which is aside my decision to See Hakan Meltz. At the time, I stood as thodelm of yos'Phelium, so it was not a thing done lightly. And yos'Phelium abandons a brother even less readily than Korval relinquishes a child."

Nelirikk was sitting very still, canteen yet in hand, his eyes noncommittal. Likely he was astonished at such a rush of wordage. Val Con gave him a wry look.

"You see how my own stupidity rankles," he said. "I should at least have taken my boots off before leaping down your throat."

A smile, very slight, disturbed the careful blandness of Nelirikk's face.

"We have both made errors, I think," he said. "If ours are larger, or knottier, than the mistakes of the common troop, it is because our training has given us more scope."

Val Con grinned. "Anyone may break a glass," he quoted. "But it wants a master to break a dozen."

There was a small silence while Nelirikk stowed his canteen.

"What I wondered," he said eventually; "is if we will be able to remove these infiltrators without raising questions in the minds of the natives. There are, so I'm told by the Old Scout, certain protocols for operations on forbidden worlds. If we simply eliminate the enemy . . ."

"If we simply eliminate the enemy, Clonak will have both of our heads to hang on his office wall," Val Con said. "No, I fear it must be capture and remove."

Nelirikk frowned, doubtless annoyed by such inefficiency. "If they've established themselves, any removal will cause comment among the natives," he pointed out.

"Indeed it will–and the least of the sins I must bear for choosing survival." Val Con stood and stretched. "If you are rested, friend Nelirikk, let us go on. Our target is only a short stroll beyond those trees."

* * *

The presentation was already underway by the time Hakan arrived at the Explorers Club. He slid into a chair in the last row, wincing when the point of the zamzorn he'd crammed into the inner pocket of his jacket jabbed him in the chest.

"Wind take the thing," he muttered, shifting. His chair lodged noisy protest, and the zhena beside him hissed, "Shhhhhh."

Hakan sighed and subsided. It wasn't bad enough that he was late for the meeting because of having to attend remedial class on the stupid thing, but now it was outright trying to kill him.

He tried to ignore his irritation and focused his attention on the front of the room. Tonight's lecture was entitled "The Future of Aerodynamics," a subject which at first glance seemed more alien to the interests of a guitarist than even the wind-blasted zamzorn. Hakan, however, had acquired an obsession.

Every free hour found him in the library, perusing the latest industry magazines and manuals. That a good deal of the information he read was so much noise to his untutored mind deterred him not at all. To the contrary, the realization that he had much to learn inspired him to begin attending an entry level aeronautics course, as an observer. He soon found that the acquisition of even the most basic concepts unlocked the meaning of some of what he continued to read.

Unfortunately, this heady taste of knowledge only made him thirstier.

He began to audit an advanced math class on his lunch hours, neglecting guitar while he stretched to encompass this new way of describing the world.

At mid-semester, frustrated by the slow place of the basic aeronautics course, he considered dropping music altogether and applying to the technical college. It was only the realization that he would have to explain his reasons to Kem that had, so far, deterred him.

It was at mid-semester, too, that Zhena Cahn, the aeronautics instructor, called him to stay after class to talk with her–unprecedented for an observing student. And she had told him of the Explorers Club, and said that he might find the meetings of interest.

In fact, he had found them of interest. Even though he kept himself to the edges of the company during the social period, listening to the conversations of people much more learned than he; and even though almost half of the presentations were beyond him, he continued to go to the meetings, and to audit his extra classes.

Little by little, he began to understand, to grasp concepts, to extrapolate . . .

The zhena at the front of the room–he'd missed her name–was not a gifted speaker, but even her dry recitation could not close his mind to the marvels of jet-assisted flight, or heady imaginings of air speeds in excess of two hundred and fifty miles an hour.

All too soon, the zhena stepped down from the podium. The rest of the audience, held as rapt as Hakan, shifted, stood, and sorted out into separate human beings, each heading for the refreshment table.

As was his custom, Hakan took some cheese and a cup of cider–his dinner, this evening, thanks to the remedial session–and wandered the edges of the group, stopping now and then to listen, when an interesting phrase tantalized his ear.

He had almost completed his circuit, and was thinking, regretfully, that it really was time to be getting on home, when he caught the quick flicker of gold-toned fingers, deep toward the center of the crowded room.

His heart stuttered, then slammed into overtime. He put his cup and plate on the precarious edge of an overfull bookshelf, took a breath and dove into the crowd.

* * *

It was not quite full dark. Overhead, the few stars were dulled by a high mist. Val Con moved carefully, all-too-mindful of the guards–of the garrison!–nearby. His choice would have been to wait until the sluggish early hours for his infiltration. Alas, that he had no choice.

He'd left Nelirikk at the entry point, to stand as guard and watcher, under orders not to interfere with the soldiers' duty, unless their duty moved them to interfere with the captain's mission. His own progress was by necessity slow, as he wished to avoid not only discovery, but tripping over the odd spade, hoe, or burlap bag half full of manure. So far, he had managed well enough, but he could only guess at the perils which awaited him as he drew closer to the target.

The terrain had changed considerably since his last visit, and it was difficult to get his precise bearings. His internal map told him that he should be within a few steps of the scuppin house, though he neither saw–nor smelled–that structure. He did, however, blunder into the soft, treacherous footing of a newly turned garden patch.

He wobbled, and prudently dropped to one knee. It wouldn't do to call attention to himself, no–

But it appeared he had gained someone's attention after all.

Val Con kept himself very still as a shadow detached itself from the deeper shadows to his right, and moved toward him with deliberation.

* * *

"Borrill! Wind take the animal, where's he gone to now? Borrill!"

The old woman stood on the back step, staring out into the night. There were lights, of course, at the barracks and the guard stations, but she'd asked that her yard be kept more-or-less private, and they'd done as she'd asked.

With the result that it was black as pitch and her dog with his nose on a skevit trail, or, if she knew him, asleep in the newly turned garden patch.

"Borrill!" she shouted one more time, and listened to the echoes of her voice die away.

"All right, then, spend the night outside," she muttered and turned toward the door.

From the yard came the sound of old leaves crunching underfoot. She turned back, leaning her hands on the banister until, certain as winter, Borrill ambled into the spill of light from the kitchen door, his tail wagging sheepishly, a slim figure in a hooded green jacket walking at his side.

She straightened to ease the abrupt pain in her chest, and took a deep, steadying breath.

"Cory?" she whispered into the night, too soft for him to hear–but, there, his ears had always been keen.

He reached up and put the hood back, revealing rumpled dark hair and thin, angled face.

"Zhena Trelu," he said, stopping at the bottom of the stairs, and Borrill with him. "I'm sorry to come so late. We should talk, if you have time."

"Well, you can see I'm still up, thanks to that fool animal. Come along, the two of you and let an old woman go inside before she catches her death."

He smiled, and put his foot on the bottom stair. She stepped into the kitchen to put the kettle on.

"Where's Meri?" That was her first question after he'd closed the door and hung up his coat.

He turned to face her, green eyes bright. There was something . . . odd about him, that she couldn't put her finger quite on–not just the subtly prosperous clothes, or the relative neatness of his hair, something . . .

"Miri is at home, Zhena Trelu. She sends her love–and I am to tell you that we expect our first child, very soon."

She looked at him sharply. "You left her home by herself when there's a baby due? Cory Robersun, you put that coat right back on and–"

He laughed and held his hands up, like he could catch her words.

"No, no! She is surrounded by kin. My sisters, the zhena of my brother . . . Miri is well cared for." He grinned. "She would say, too well-cared-for."

Zhena Trelu snorted. "She would, too. Well, you tell her that I expect to have a visit from that baby, when she's old enough to travel."

Cory inclined his head. "I will tell her, Zhena Trelu."

The kettle sang and she turned to the stove, busy for the next few moments with the teapot. When she looked up, Cory was at the far side of the kitchen, inspecting the molding around the doorway.

He turned as if he felt her looking at him, and gave that strange heavy nod of his. "The King's carpenters, they have done well."

Zhena Trelu sighed and turned her back on him, pulling cups off the rack. "Put it back good as new," she said gruffly. Except the piano in the parlor wasn't the instrument Jerry had loved, Granic's books and old toys no longer littered the attic, the cup his zhena had made was smashed and gone forever . . .

"Sometimes," Cory said softly, "old is better."

The teapot blurred. She blinked, sniffed defiantly, and poured. He came to her side, picked up both cups, and carried them to the table. She turned, watching the slender back. New clothes were all very well, but the boy was still as thin as a stick.

"Hungry?" she asked. He glanced over his shoulder.

"I have eaten," he murmured, and pulled out a chair. "Please, Zhena Trelu, sit. There is something I must say to you, and some questions I should ask."

"Well, then." She sat. From the blanket by the corner of the stove came a long, heart-rending groan. Cory laughed, and sat across from her. He raised his cup solemnly, and took a sip. Zhena Trelu watched him, giving her own tea a chance to cool–and suddenly gasped.

"The scar's gone," she blurted, forgetting her manners in the excitement of finally putting her finger on that elusive difference.

Cory bowed his head gravely. "The scar is gone," he agreed. "I was . . . brought to a physician."

Hah, thought the old lady, lifting her cup for a cautious sip. She'd heard of skin grafting for burn victims; likely there was something similar for scars. New-fangled and expensive treatment, regardless. Well, maybe the hero money had paid for it. And none of that, judging from the level, patient look he was giving her, was what he wanted to talk to her about.

"All right," she said grumpily. "Out with it, if you've got something to say."

"You are well-guarded here," Cory began slowly. "That is good."

She opened her mouth, then closed it. Let the boy talk, Estra.

"It is good because there are some . . . people. Some people who are here, maybe, only because I– we–were here. It is possible that these people will wish to question those who gave us shelter. Who gave us friendship." He paused to sip some tea, then gave her a serious look.

"These people–they are not very careful. Sometimes, they hurt people, break things, when they ask questions." He tipped his head, apparently waiting for her to say something.

Zhena Trelu drank tea and reminded herself that, while Cory had always been a little odd, that had been due to his foreign ways. He wasn't crazy, or dangerous. Or at least, he hadn't been.

"I ask, Zhena Trelu," Cory murmured, apparently taking her silence for understanding. "Are there strangers in town? Who have perhaps come to Gylles for no apparent purpose, who have been–"

"There's Zhena Sandoval and her brother," she interrupted him. "Haven't talked to 'em myself, but–they'd fit your description. Both of 'em got more questions than a three-year-old, from what I've heard."

"Ah," Cory said softly. "And their questions are?"

She shrugged. "You'll want to see Athna Brigsbee for the complete rundown. She's talked with the boy–Bar, I think the name is. From what she told me, he was all over the map, wanting to know about the Winterfair and the music competition, Hakan Meltz and I forget whatall. Athna said she might've thought he was a reporter maybe out of Laxaco City, but turns out he didn't know anything about the invasion, or the King making half the town into Heroes."

Cory frowned slightly. "It is possible . . . I cannot be certain unless I speak to the zhena or her brother, myself."

Zhena Trelu considered him. "Are you going to do that? I thought you said they were dangerous."

He gave her a slight smile. "Bravo, Zhena Trelu," he murmured.

She glared. "What's that supposed to mean?"

He moved his shoulders, his smile more pronounced. "I said these people were . . . not careful. You make the leap to dangerous. Yes. These people are dangerous. The care you gave to us puts you in danger." He paused to finish his tea, and set the cup gently on the table.

"Another question, Zhena Trelu?"

"Why not?" she asked rhetorically. "There's plenty of tea in the pot."

That got her another smile. "The last one, I promise. Then I let you go to bed."

Behind them, Borrill gave up another groan. Cory laughed, and Zhena Trelu felt herself relax. She'd missed that laugh.

"So," she prompted him, grumpy in the face of that realization. "What's your last question?"

"I go by Hakan's house earlier, but it is locked; shutters closed."

"Tomas Meltz is at assembly–he's our alderman, remember?"

He nodded. "And Hakan?"

"Why, Kem and Hakan got married just after Winterfair," she said. "I'm surprised Kem didn't write to Meri about it. Very nice wedding. Hakan's aunt on his father's side stood up for him, since his mother's been gone these twenty years, poor thing. Kem was as proud as you can imagine, and the whole town was invited to the feast, after. Next morning, they got on the train to Laxaco."

"I see," Cory murmured. "Laxaco? This would be their . . . their . . . honey trip? That is good. So I should look for Hakan at Kem's house?" He pushed back from the table slightly.

"No." Zhena Trelu shook her head, and he stopped, eyes intent. "You should look for both of them in Laxaco City. They enrolled in university. Athna Brigsbee set it up for them. Got on the phone to the King's minister of something-or-other and came away with two scholarships. Kem is studying the teaching of dance, I think, and Hakan his music. Only thing Kem has to pay is their living expenses, same as she would here."

Cory frowned slightly, and she shivered, which might've been the breeze, except the new house was tight, and double insulated, too. The only breezes that got in nowadays were invited.

"Zhena Brigsbee," he said carefully. "She told the brother of Zhena Sandoval this? That she had arranged for Hakan and Kem–"

"Shouldn't be surprised," Zhena Trelu said drily. "You know Athna, Cory."

"Yes," he breathed, staring down into his empty cup.

"Yes," he said again, and looked up into her face. "Zhena Trelu, I thank you. Keep your guards close. I think Zhena Sandoval and her brother will soon be gone." He pushed his chair back and stood, she looked up at him. He looked serious, she thought. Serious and concerned.

"Going to Laxaco?" she asked.

"Soon," he answered, and came around the table, quick and light. "Keep safe," he murmured, and surprised her by slipping an arm around her shoulder. He gave her a quick hug, putting his cheek against hers briefly.

Then he was gone, walking light and rapid across the kitchen. He took his coat down from the peg and shrugged into it, bent to tug on Borrill's ears – "Good Borrill. You know me, eh?"

Zhena Trelu cleared her throat.

"Cory."

His hand on Borrill's head, he sighed, then straightened, slowly, and turned to face her.

"Zhena Trelu?"

"What's the sense of telling me to keep those guards close when you got 'round 'em like they were sound asleep? If these folks are as dangerous as you say, then they'll get in just as easy."

He drifted a step closer, bright green gaze focused on her face. "You make leaps and bounds, Zhena Trelu," he murmured. "It sits on my head, that you must learn these things."

Whatever that was about, she thought, and sent him as sharp a look as she knew how.

"That doesn't go one step toward answering my question," she pointed out.

Cory's eyebrow slipped up a notch. "No, it does not," he said seriously. "The answer is that I think these people will be gone . . . one day, two days. You will get a letter, when they are no longer a . . . threat."

"Is that so? And who's going to take them away, exactly?" She frowned, an idea striking her. "Cory, there's a whole mess of the King's Guard right out there. Why not point these folks out, and let 'em clean house? They're bored here, poor boys. It'll be good for them to have something more exciting to do than watch over an old woman and her dog."

Cory tipped his head. "I would do this," he said slowly. "Were these people already . . . breaking things. They are . . . polite, for now. Better that they are asked, politely, to leave."

The boy wasn't making sense, she thought. Or he was and she was too tired and too old to follow. She shook her head. "Have it your way."

"Thank you, Zhena Trelu." He paused. "It would be better, maybe, not to tell your guards that I have been here."

She snorted; he inclined his head.

"Yes. Zhena Trelu, I ask your forgiveness."

She blinked. "My forgiveness? For what?"

"For bringing change to Gylles–and to Vandar. I should not have come here, and put a whole world into danger. Choices have consequences. I know this–and still I chose life over death, for my zhena and for me."

The smooth golden face was somber; his shoulders not quite level.

Tears started; she blinked them back, and held her hand out. He came forward and took it, his fingers warm.

"You made a good choice, Cory. This world's been changing for a long time. Would you believe I remember a time when the nearest telephone was right downtown at Brillit's?"

He smiled, faintly. "I believe that, Zhena Trelu."

"Well, good, because it's true." She gave his fingers a squeeze and let him go.

He went light and quiet across the room, opened the door–and looked at her.

"Sleep well, Zhena Trelu. We will bring our child to see you–soon."

The door clicked shut behind him.

* * *

He'd never gotten near enough to talk to the zhena with the quick golden hands, though he had learned her name from another in the ring of her admirers: Karsin Pelnara. The zhena, according to Hakan's informant, was newly arrived in Laxaco; her precise field something of mystery, though she appeared well-informed in a broad range of scientific topics. The forward-coming zamir wasn't able to tell Hakan where the zhena had arrived from, precisely, though he did know that she had been sponsored in to the Club by Zamir Tang.

Seeing that he had little chance of approaching the zhena herself, Hakan had gone off in search of Zamir Tang, finding him in his usual place beside the punchbowl, engaged in a heated debate with two students Hakan recognized as seniors in the aeronautics college.

He'd hung on the edge of that conversation for a time, first waiting for Zamir Tang's attention, and then because he found himself caught up in the description of the challenges of building a proposed supersonic wind-tunnel, until a random remark recalled him to the hour.

Which was . . . late.

And later, still, by the time he had walked across the dark campus, only to find that the trolley to the married students' housing had stopped running hours before.

By the time he'd walked home, it was no longer late, but very early.

Kem, he thought, using his key on the street door, is not going to like this.

* * *

Nelirikk was not at his post

This was . . . worrisome.

Val Con stood very, very still, listening.

Breeze rattled branches overhead, and combed the moist grass with chilly fingers. Somewhere to the left, and not immediately nearby, a night bird muttered and subsided. From further away came the sound of measured steps along pavement–the garrison guard, pursuing his duty. Beyond that, there was silence.

"Ain't like him to just run off," Miri said quietly from just behind his right shoulder.

"Nor is it." His murmured agreement had been shredded by the chilly breeze before he remembered that Miri was not covering his offside, but minding the Clan's business on Surebleak.

He took a careful breath, and brought his attention back to the night around him.

From the right–a soft moan.

Cautiously he moved in that direction, slipping noiselessly through a scrubby hedge. He dropped to one knee and peered about. To the left a drift of last year's leaves, crackling slightly in the breeze.

To his right a shadow leaned over another, and then straightened to an impressive height.

"Scout?" Nelirikk said, softly. "Is it well with the old woman?"

"Well," Val Con said, exiting the shrubbery and moving toward the second shadow, which remained unmoving on the ground.

"A watcher," Nelirikk said, as Val Con knelt down. "And an uncommonly poor one."

Val Con slipped a dimlight from his inner pocket and thumbed it on. The unconscious watcher was unmistakably Liaden; a red welt marred the smooth, golden brow. His hat had fallen off, freeing static-filled golden hair badly cut in imitation of the local style.

"How hard," Val Con asked Nelirikk, thumbing the dim off and slipping it away, "did you hit him?"

"Scout, I only spoke to him."

"Oh?" He sent a glance in Nelirikk's direction, but the big man's face was shadowed. "What did you say to him, I wonder?"

"Dog of a Liaden, prepare to die," Nelirikk said calmly.

Val Con bit his lip. Inside his head, he heard the music of Miri's laughter.

"I see. And then?"

"And then he most foolishly tried to escape me, tangled his feet in a root and fell, striking his head. The guard was at the far end of his patrol, or he could not have missed hearing it."

"Ah." Val Con sat back on his heels. "And his pockets?"

"Empty now. According to those protocols the Old Scout taught me, this person is a criminal many times over."

"As we are. However, our hearts are pure."

The Captain's aide felt no need to reply to this truth, instead stuffing the downed man's contraband into a capacious rucksack.

Val Con reached again into his inner pocket, fingered out an ampule and snapped it under the unconscious man's nose.

A gasp, a frenzied fit of coughing. The blond man jackknifed into a sitting position, eyes snapping open. He blinked at Val Con, flicked a look beyond–and froze, his face a study in horrified disbelief.

"Galandaria," he whispered hoarsely, his eyes still riveted on Nelirikk. ". . . an Yxtrang . . ."

"Yes, I know," Val Con said calmly. "He is sworn to my service, which may be fortunate for you, for he will not undertake to pull your arms off without an order from me."

The Liaden swallowed, painfully.

"What is your name and mission?" Val Con asked.

The man closed his eyes. Val Con waited.

"Technician Ilbar ten'Ornold," the Liaden said at last. "We are attached to the Uplift Team, dispatched to the area in order to ascertain if Rogue Agent Val Con yos'Phelium . . ." He opened his eyes with a knowing start.

Gravely, Val Con inclined his head.

"Val Con yos'Phelium, Clan Korval," he murmured. "Pray forgive my omission of the courtesies."

Ilban ten'Ornold sighed.

"Field Agent san'Doval and yourself were sent to ascertain whether or not I had left anything of interest to the Department in Gylles," Val Con said, softly, in deference to the guard still walking his line.

"Yes."

Val Con paused, head to one side, studying the man's face.

"You will perhaps not have received recent news of the home world," he said. "The Department–"

"We had heard that headquarters had been destroyed. That does not mean the Department has been eliminated."

"Of course not," Val Con said politely, and stood, taking care to brush the leaves off the knees of his pants. "Nelirikk."

The Yxtrang stepped forward, flexing his fingers and shrugging the chill out of his shoulders.

Tech ten'Ornold jerked backward, feet scrambling for purchase in the dead leaves.

Val Con turned, as if to leave.

"No! For the– You cannot leave me to this! I–"

Val Con turned back.

"Lead us, quietly, to your base in Gylles," he said. "Or I will indeed leave you alone with this man."

Nelirikk paused, and gave the poor fellow a toothy predator's grin, perfectly discernable in the dark.

Ilbar ten'Ornold stared, as if he would keep him at bay with the force of his terror alone.

"I agree," he said hoarsely. "Now, for the love of the gods put me under your protection!"

Val Con looked to Nelirikk, who dropped back a step, with a wholly convincing show of reluctance.

"I accept your parole," Val Con told the tech. "Now, fulfill your part."

* * *

"The Explorers Club," Kem repeated, her voice calm and cold. Inwardly, Hakan cringed. He'd thought that telling the truth was the best thing to do, though the truth came perilously close to . . . the thing they didn't talk about. The very thing that Kem didn't want to talk about.

Now he thought that he should have lied; invented an impromptu jam session or something else more-or-less plausible that she could have pretended to believe.

"What," Kem asked coldly, "is the Explorers Club?"

He cleared his throat, looking around their cluttered parlor, brightly lit at this unhappy hour of the morning, and Kem sitting stiff and straight in the rocking chair they'd bought together at the campus jumble shop. She still wore the exercise clothes she favored when she practiced dance, and he wondered if she had worked at it all the time he was away, again.

"Would you like some tea, Kemmy?" he asked, which was cowardly, unworthy, and wouldn't work, anyway.

"I'm not thirsty, thank you."

Well, he'd known better.

"The Explorers Club, Hakan," she prompted, voice cold, eyes sparkling. She was, Hakan realized, on the edge of crying, and it was his fault. His fault, and Cory Robersun's.

He was, he thought, committed to the truth now. It seemed unfair that telling it was more likely to make her cry than the comfortable lie he'd been too stupid to tell.

"The Explorers Club," he said slowly, "is a group of people interested in technology and the . . . future. Of flight, mostly. But other things, too."

"Other things," came her over-composed voice, almost sweetly. "Like brewed tea coming out of a flat wall? Or a doctor machine?"

The things she hadn't believed, when he'd told her. The things Cory'd told him nobody would believe. He'd thought Kem would be different; that she'd believe him because she believed in him.

"Like those," he said calmly, his hands opening almost as if he gifted her with the information. "Tonight's presentation was on jet-assisted flight. We don't have it yet, but the zhena thought we will, in ten years or less, traveling at speeds three or four times faster than the aircraft we have today–do you see what that means, Kemmy? At those speeds, Basil would only be a day away; Porlint, maybe two. The world would get smaller, but in a good way, we could–"

He stopped because her tears had spilled over.

"Kem–" Hakan dropped to his knees next to the rocker, and put his arms around her, half-afraid she would pull away. To his relief, she bent into him, putting her forehead against his shoulder.

"Kem, I'm so sorry," he whispered, stroking her hair. "I–the time got away from me. I was waiting for a chance to speak with the new zhena–"

In his arms, Kem stiffened, and Hakan mentally kicked himself.

Why couldn't you just stick with guitar, Hakan Meltz? he asked himself bitterly.

"Which zhena was that, Hakan?" Kem's voice wasn't cold any longer; it sounded small and tired.

He closed his eyes, and put his check against her hair. Get this right, he advised himself. Or you'll regret it every day for the rest of your life.

"A new member of the club. . . " he said carefully. "She's from . . . away. Nobody seems to know where, exactly. I'm told she's very knowledgeable, and has a number of . . . creative ideas." Kem shivered, and he went on hastily. "I saw her tonight, and–Kem, she looks like Cory."

Kem pushed against him, and he let her go, though he stayed on his knees beside the rocker. She looked down into his face, hers white and wet and drawn.

"Is she Cory's sister, then?"

"I don't think so. When I say 'looks like,' I don't mean family resemblance–or I do, but not close family. More like a fifth or sixth cousin, maybe. She's got the same gold-tan skin–and she's just a tiny thing, not much taller than Miri, if at all. And when she talks, she moves her hands the way Cory and Miri did sometimes–you remember . . ." He moved his hands in a clumsy imitation of the crisp gestures their friends had used.

"I remember," Kem said quietly. "And you wanted to talk to this zhena."

"I wanted to ask her if she knew Cory," he said. "And I wanted to talk to her about–" he stumbled against the forbidden subject, took a breath and soldiered on. "I wanted to talk to her about that aircraft of his. If she's a countrywoman, and an engineer, she might know–it might . . . really exist," he finished, lamely.

There was a long silence during which Hakan found it hard to breathe, though he kept his eyes on hers.

When she finally, tentatively, raised her hand and smoothed his hair, he almost cried himself.

"Hakan," she whispered, "why are you . . . obsessed with these things? You're a musician, not an engineer."

"I think," he said unsteadily; "I think people can be more than one thing, Kemmy. Don't you?"

Another silence, with her hand resting on his shoulder. "I don't know. Maybe they can." She took a breath. "Hakan."

"Kem?"

"I would like to go to the next meeting of the Explorers Club with you."

He stared up at her, chest tight. "I–sure. But I thought you didn't–"

"I'd like to meet to this mystery zhena," Kem interrupted. "If she does know Cory Robersun, I have a few things I want to say to her about him."

* * *

"The captain will have me shot," Nelirikk said, stubbornly.

He's said that once already today, but Val Con had dismissed it out of hand and continued preparations. Now, it needed to be addressed more forcefully since it was actually delaying lift-off.

"Indeed, she will not have you shot. Because, as we have discussed, you will begin calling for aid along our private channels the moment you clear far orbit, and you will not stop calling until you have raised either the captain herself, the elder scout, or Commander ter'Meulen. Once you have done this, you will report that the situation is far more complex than we had believed. That, in addition to no less than six field teams and four technical teams, there is at least one Agent of Change stationed in Laxaco City, whose intention is to speedily bring Vandar's technology to the point required by the new headquarters.

"You will report on your prisoners and their condition, and you will say that I have gone to Laxaco on purpose to ensure that Kem and Hakan Darnill are out of harm's way. I will attempt to locate the Agent, but I do not intend to confront such a one until I have substantial back-up."

"Yay!" Miri cheered in his ear. He ignored her.

"Scout–"

Val Con sliced the air with his hand, a signal for attention; Nelirikk subsided, though he dared to frown.

"If the captain has you shot, you have my permission to bludgeon me to death."

Nelirikk snorted. "A soldier's gamble, indeed." He sighed. "I will send back-up soon, Scout. Try not to do anything the captain would deplore in the meantime."

"It is my sole desire to behave only as the captain would wish."

"Pffft!" Miri commented, and even Nelirikk looked dubious.

But– "Safe lift, Scout."

"Fair journey, Nelirikk."

* * *

"There she is," Hakan whispered into Kem's ear, mindful of the zhena in the seat behind him. "She's sitting next to Zamir Tang–the man with the rumpled gray hair–in front of the pudgy man with the wispy mustache."

Kem took a good long look, her head tipped to one side. Hakan reached inside his coat and tried to adjust the zamzorn so its sharp end didn't pierce him through pocket, sweater and shirt. Wind, but he was going to be glad when the semester ended and he could put the stupid thing away forever or have it mounted as a trophy to his fortitude.

"I see her," Kem murmured. "She does look like Cory, doesn't she? In fact . . ." Her voice drifted off, and she frowned.

"What?" Hakan asked, forgetful of his voice, which earned him an emphatic sssshhh! from the zhena behind.

"What?" he whispered.

"Do you remember after the invasion, when Cory went off his head?"

As if he'd forget it soon. Hakan nodded.

"Zhena Pelnara reminds me of him like that," Kem whispered. "I can't quite–"

"If the pair of you don't have any interest in this presentation," the zhena in back of them interrupted in a hoarse whisper, "there are those of us who are."

Hakan looked at Kem. She was biting her lip, her eyes dancing. He grinned and secretly reached down between their seats and slipped his fingers through hers. She squeezed his hand, and he settled back, happier than he had been in many a month. Not even the zamzorn's prick against his ribs cast a shadow on his mood.

* * *

Val Con relaxed into the shadows across from the slightly seedy shingled building, the legend Explorers Club blazoned in bright yellow letters over the door. He had done a quick check of the building, looking for alternate exits, of which there was only one, and that one locked tightly. Not that a lock would necessarily stop, or even slow an Agent of Change, but Val Con rather thought she would be exiting by the front door, doubtless on the arm of the untidy old gentleman who had escorted her inside.

The Agent, Karin pel'Nara, if the records he had copied were accurate, had been busy this last while, sowing her seeds of forbidden tech in the most fertile ground available to her: the inventors, visionaries and crackpots associated with the greatest university in Bentrill. That she appeared for the moment to be concentrating her efforts in Bentrill was a comfort, though a small one. At least Clonak and the hopefully substantial mop-up team would have a relatively small segment of the world's population to deal with.

On the other hand, the Agent had been thorough, to the point where Vandar might not be recoverable. Val Con sighed. The Department's philosophy regarding young societies had always been one of aggression and exploitation. The death of a few barbarians; the destruction of unique cultures; the upset of societies; or the death of entire worlds–none could be allowed to weigh against the Mission.

Well. It was hoped that Clonak arrived soon. A final determination of Vandar's status could certainly not be made until the pernicious influence was removed.

And, truth told, the Agent's influence was hardly any worse than his own in allowing a native of an interdicted world onto a spacecraft, in telling him things no man of his world and culture had need of.

Val Con sighed again, quietly.

He had tracked down both Hakan and Kem and assured himself of their continued good health. Indeed, it was the need to be certain that they had not fallen under the eye of Agent pel'Nara that had prompted him to infiltrate the Agent's base and copy those very revealing files.

Seeing that Kem and Hakan had not come into the Agent's circle, he had reconsidered his own plan to visit them and drop a word of warning in their ears. Better not to take the chance, in case the Agent were after all aware of his presence and interested in his movements.

The breeze freshened, rattling the handbills nailed to the post he leaned against. He wondered, idly, how long the Explorers Club would meet.

He was considering the advisability of moving closer when two figures came 'round the corner, moving quickly, their footsteps noisy on the cobbled walk. Latecomers to the meeting, Val Con thought–and then came up straight in his hiding place.

For the two latecomers were Hakan and Kem. As he watched they jogged up the sagging wooden stairs and disappeared into the depths of the Explorers Club.

Oh, Val Con thought. Damn.

* * *

The pattern of the last meeting held; after the presentation Zhena Pelnara was immediately surrounded, and there was no getting near her.

"She certainly is admired," Kem said, as they helped themselves to cider and cheese. "How long has she been a member?"

Hakan shrugged. "According to Zamir Fulmon, the zhena was sponsored into the club during the mid-course tests, and scarcely missed a meeting until she was called away on business. The last meeting was her first in some time. I didn't have time to attend meetings during the tests–which is why I'd never seen her before."

"Has she done a presentation?" Kem wondered. "What's her specialty?"

"I don't know," Hakan said. "We could check the event book."

"Maybe–no, look. She's leaving."

It did seem as if the zhena was taking leave of her friends. Zamir Fulmon, Hakan's informant of the last meeting, brought her coat and held it for her. The man with the odd mustache stood with two drinks in hand, as if he'd brought her one and been overlooked. Another zamir made an offer of escort, but she declined.

"No, it is kind of you, zamir, but I will meet my brother only a step down the walk. Stay, and continue this excellent conversation! Next meeting, I will want to hear how you have come to terms with this conundrum!"

She moved firmly toward the door, and the group stood aside to make way for her. Kem grabbed Hakan's arm and pulled him with her, heading for the door the long way, around the edge of the crowd.

"What–?" he managed, as they reached the vestibule, coats flapping open in their haste.

"Let's try to overtake her on the walk," Kem said. "It will be a perfect chance to ask her about Cory!"

* * *

Someone, Val Con was certain, was watching him–and had been for some time. There was no overt evidence to support this certainty, which only meant that whoever it was, they were very good. He didn't believe it was Agent pel'Nara, though it certainly could be one of her team, assigned as back-up.

He considered wandering away, to see whether the watcher would follow, but that would mean leaving Hakan and Kem in the Agent's orbit without back-up. Though what he might do if the three of them emerged arm-in-arm from the–

The door to the Explorers Club opened and Agent pel'Nara stepped out, alone, pulling on her gloves as she descended the tricky stairs. Apparently his friends had no need of his protection this evening. It galled him to let Agent pel'Nara go, but he judged that prudence would counsel him to walk away in a moment or two, and lose his watcher in the narrow streets to the west of the campus. He could always find the Agent again, tomorrow.

Agent pel'Nara was almost to the walkway. The door to the Explorers Club opened again, spilling Hakan and Kem into the night.

Val Con froze.

Agent pel'Nara, apparently oblivious, strode steadily down the walkway toward his position. Kem clattered down the last few steps and hit the walk very nearly at a run, Hakan lagging behind.

"Zhena Pelnara!" she called.

The Agent checked, then turned, head cocked to one side.

"Zhena?" she said politely, as Kem came, breathlessly, to her side. "I am not aware of your name, I think?"

"Kem Darnill. I was at the meeting. I'm sorry to chase you down like this, but it was impossible to get near you at the reception."

"Ah," Agent pel'Nara said indulgently. "You have an idea, perhaps? A theory? But you must return and share it with the others. It is with sadness that I must leave early, but–I have an appointment, zhena. Good-night."

She turned, and Val Con dared to hope that the encounter was over. Kem, however, was not to be put off.

"I don't have an idea," she said, "but a question. It will only take a moment, zhena."

Agent pel'Nara was seen to sigh. She turned back. "Very well," she said, her voice a little impatient now. "But quickly if you please, Zhena Darnill."

Kem smiled as Hakan came up next to her. "This is my zamir, Hakan," she said to the Agent. "We both noticed you in the meeting. You look very much like a friend of ours . . . from . . . away."

The Agent's stance changed; she was no longer poised to walk away. She was, Val Con saw, interested in this. As well she might be.

"I am intrigued, zhena," she said; "there are very few of my–of us in Laxaco City. What is your friend's name?"

"Corvill Robersun," Kem said.

Val Con closed his eyes, briefly.

"Corvill Robersun," the Agent repeated, caressingly. "Now, Zhena Darnill, I must tell you that I do not know Zamir Robersun, myself. His work, though–that I know well. Do you say that he is in Laxaco? I will ask you for an introduction."

"Cory and his zhena went back home," Kem said seriously. "We'd hoped that you might have word. Also–"

"Do you happen to know–" that was Hakan, speaking quickly, his words all but stumbling over each other. "You said you knew his work . . ." He stopped, apparently embarrassed at having broken into the zhena's discussion.

Agent pel'Nara turned her attention to him. "I do indeed know his work, Zamir Darnill. What is it you wish to ask?"

"He had an . . . an aircraft, he called it," Hakan said, more slowly now, as if he dreaded the answer his question might earn, now that he was committed to asking it. "It wasn't . . . it didn't have a propeller, and there were other things kind of odd about it. But the oddest thing was that it lifted straight up. I saw the snow, and there were–"

"Who's there?" Kem said sharply.

"I hear nothing," Agent pel'Nara said soothingly, but Val Con, at least, knew she was lying.

The watcher was moving, stealthy and almost silent. Moving toward the threesome on the walkway.

Almost unbidden, Val Con found himself falling back into agent training and called up the decision matrix he knew as The Loop. Yes, there it was, the question of what an agent should do in this situation . . . and the probability that the watcher was going into an attack mode was close to unity.

Val Con's reaction was just as certain. Necessity existed.

Carefully, he bent and slipped the knife out of his boot, pausing to listen to the watcher's progress. Then, moving with considerably less noise, he charted an interception course.

* * *

The zhena's face had gone frighteningly, familiarly blank, as if she read some inner dialog.

It seemed to Hakan as if time suddenly speeded up. He felt a surge of adrenalin.

There was a crashing, a shout, from the small dark park beyond them. Zhena Pelnara reacted by reaching out and grabbing Kem's arm, simultaneously reaching inside her coat.

Kem twisted, broke free, and Hakan leapt, spinning behind the zhena, and his left arm was around her upper arms, pinning them, while his right hand held the sharp point of the slick horn zamzorn firmly against her throat.

The zhena relaxed slightly, as if recognizing and submitting to peril, and Kem dodged in, snatching something from the zhena's hand, and dodged back, holding the odd-shaped object uncertainly.

"That is not a toy, zhena," Karsin Pelnara said, her voice perfectly matter-of-fact. "Please have your zamir release me."

Hakan saw Kem adjust what she held, as if determining what it was, how to use it . . . and then she held it, surely, as if it were a tiny gun.

"Kem," a familiar voice, slightly breathless said from the suddenly silent park. "Please be very careful. The zhena is correct; that thing is not a toy. Hakan–"

Cory stepped out onto the walk, hair rumpled and coat torn, the knife he used against the invasion force–or its twin–in his left hand. It looked quite as it had during the invasion, too, with its shine mottled with fresh blood.

"Hakan, I will ask you also to be very careful. You have not finished your training with that . . ."

The woman in his grip twisted suddenly, a move Hakan reacted to with his guardsman training. She redoubled her efforts, snarled, and bit at his hand holding the the instrument to her neck. He tried to pull away and the zamzorn slipped and clattered on the cobbles as it fell. Zhena Pelnara kicked, as the move required, but he'd moved and she missed, and spun her attention on Cory, who had dropped into a crouch, knife ready.

"Stop!" Kem shouted, and simultaneously there was a strange coughing sound, followed by the ring of metal on stone.

Zhena Pelnara stumbled–and collapsed to the cobbles at Cory's feet. He knelt down and turned her over, fingers against her throat a hands-breadth above a small stain on her blouse front.

"Did I kill her?" Kem asked, her voice unnaturally calm.

"No," Cory said shortly. "It is a . . . hypnotic . . . a sleep dose. She will rise eventually." He sighed then and said "The man in the woods, he was not armed with such a benign device, I think, and is not so lucky."

"Hakan, we will need something –a rope, a scarf, to tie her before–"

Very close, someone cleared his throat. Hakan jumped, and then relaxed as the pudgy man in a well-worn jacket smiled at him.

"Peace," he said, his words barely intelligible. "A friend of Cory, me."

Cory sat back on his heels and looked at the man over his shoulder. "You took your time," he said, crankily, to Hakan's ear. "Binders?"

"Right here," the pudgy man with the wispy mustache said, and knelt down beside him, adding, "Had you come inside, you might have found me an hour ago, you know, before I had to sip any of that treacly punch they expected us to drink . . . ."

* * *

Hakan was wide-eyed, and Kem no less so. Val Con leaned back in his chair and let them think it through. At the far end of the table, Clonak fiddled with his note taker, though Val Con was willing to bet there was nothing in the least wrong with it.

"Let me understand this," Hakan said finally. "You, and Clonak, and Zhena Pelnara, and–you're all from another world. And Zhena Pelnara broke some kind of law about leaving . . . worlds . . . like Vandar alone, and now there will be . . . mentors here to guide us . . . into the next phase. And you want me to be the go-between– between the mentors and the King, or the assembly or–whoever."

"That's right." Val Con smiled encouragingly. "I know we give you a lot of information, very quickly. If you agree, we can teach you–and you can teach us."

Hakan took a breath, eyes bright.

"He wants it," Miri commented.

"I–" Hakan started, glanced at Kem, then back to Val Con. "Why me?"

"Good question. Because already you have seen the impossible, already you . . . stretch and accept new ideas. Also, you act quick and with decision. Not many people could have surprised that zhena, or held her for so long." He, too, glanced at Kem, noting the tightness of her shoulders, the forcibly calm expression and the eyes bright with tears.

"Kem, you also make a quick decision–to take that weapon, to use it. It is well. This will not be so strange for you–already you are a teacher."

Her face relaxed slightly, though her eyes still swam.

"We'll have to talk it over," she said, sending a look to Hakan. He nodded.

"Yes," Val Con said. "But not too long. I am sorry, but work must start–soon." He rose, gathering Clonak with a glance. "We leave you for an hour. Then we come back and you tell us what you decide."

"Lunch," Clonak added, "comes to help thought." He left the room, presumably to order lunch, and Val Con turned to follow him.

"Cory."

He stopped, and turned toward her. "Kem?"

"That aircraft Hakan told me about, with the tea that's brewed inside the wall, and the doctor machine you slide people into?"

"Yes."

"Is that really true?"

"Yes," Val Con said gently. "It is really true. And if Hakan wishes it, he may be taught to fly–not that craft, but one like it. You both might, if you wish."

"Wants that, too," Miri observed.

Val Con smiled. "That is for the future. For now, you decide the future."

As Val Con turned, Hakan said something quiet to Kem that sounded like, "We may wish to be two things, I think . . ."

* * *

He paused outside the door to the suite he shared with his lifemate, took a breath, and put his palm firmly against the plate.

The door slid aside; he stepped into their private parlor–and stopped.

Across the room, the curtains had been drawn back from the wide window, admitting Surebleak's uncertain dawn. The rocking chair placed at an angle to the window moved quietly, back and forth, back and forth, its occupant silhouetted against the light.

"Took your time," Miri said.

He smiled and moved across the room, dropping to his knees by her chair and putting his head in her lap.

"I am glad to be home, too, cha'trez."

She laughed, her hand falling onto the back of his neck, fingers massaging gently.

"Emerging world, huh? Pretty slick way of doing things, Scout Commander."

"It was the only possible solution," Val Con murmured. "Hakan and Kem will do well, I think, as planetary liaisons."

"I think so, too."

"Also, we are to take our child to make her bow to Zhena Trelu, when she is old enough to travel safely."

"Be glad of the vacation," she said. "You don't mind my saying so, you could use some sleep. No need to rush back so fast."

"I did not wish to miss the birth of our daughter," he said, drowsy under her fingers.

"Not a worry. Priscilla says day after tomorrow."

"So soon?"

She laughed, and pushed him off her lap. He made a show of sprawling on the rug, and she laughed again, pushing against the arms of the chair.

Val Con leapt to his feet and helped her rise.

"I believe I will have a nap," he said. "Will you join me?"

"Wouldn't miss it for anything."


About the Authors


SHARON LEE AND STEVE MILLER live in the rolling hills of central Maine, where they repaired from Maryland—with cats, books, music, and computers—after selling the first three Liaden Universe(r) novels in the late 1980s.

Before moving to Maine, Steve and Sharon were active in the Baltimore science fiction community for years as fans, short story writers, editors, bookstore owners and art agents. In the mid seventies Clarion West graduate Steve (class of '73) was the founding Curator of the UMBC Science Fiction Research Collection as well as the Director of Information for the burgeoning Baltimore Science Fiction Society. A well known traveling fan, Steve participated in well over 100 conventions during this period.

Since moving they've continued to write in the Liaden Universe(r) and seven novels—Local Custom, Scout's Progress, Conflict of Honors, Agent of Change, Carpe Diem, and Plan B, and I Dare are in print, with Balance of Trade due in 2004, and two additional Liaden novels coming in the years after that.

The current novels are available individually in electronic format from WebScriptions as well as in Meisha Merlin trade paper editions; the omnibus Partners in Necessity—containing the first three novels—is also out in hardcover from the Science Fiction Book Club and mass market editions of all the novels are or will soon be available from Ace.

Along the way, Sharon and Steve were (and are) fortunate in having very supportive readers. In 1995 those readers requested—via an internet mailing list—something Liaden to tide them over. Steve's experience in chapbook publishing came to the fore and thus he began SRM Publisher. Two Tales of Korval was SRM's first book and its first print run was expected to be 60—but ended up at 200. Those rapidly sold out, as well, and now Two Tales is the SRM Publishing stable's best seller, with over 4500 copies in print.

As readers continued to ask for more short works, SRM brought out other chapbooks, including a reissue of pre-Liaden fantasy The Naming of Kinzel. Eventually Absolute Magnitude magazine got into the act with Liaden Universe(r) short stories. Editor Warren Lapine accepted the novelette "Balance of Trade" for issue 11 of Absolute Magnitude, snapped up "A Choice of Weapons" for issue number 12 and then took the very popular novella "Changeling" for issue 14. These stories were collected into the fifth and sixth Liaden Universe(r) chapbooks from SRM. "Changeling" has proved very popular and is also available as a WebScription electronic book. In 2002 the Liaden short story Veil of he Dancer appeared in Absolute Magnitude and Sweet Waters appeared in the premier issue of the new UK magazine, 3SF.

After a stint as Web Libriarian at a dot.com, SRM Publisher grew to be Steve's "day job"—in part because SRM Publisher took over the original Sharon Lee and Steve Miller "Authors of the Liaden Universe" website, expanding it to include an online catalog page as well as a list of congruent authors.

As SRM Publisher grew, Michael Capobianco, then President of SFWA—Science Fiction Writers of America—asked Sharon to become the organization's first Executive Director, a full time position she held for more than three years. With contracts for Liaden Universe(r) novels set through 2005, Sharon gave up that job last year, running for and winning the SFWA Vice Presidency, which she assumed July 1st of 2001, and then running for and winning the SFWA Presidency, a post she assumed in July 2002.

As fulltime writers Sharon and Steve frequently attend science fiction conventions and signings around the US and Canada. In the last few years they've been guests or participants at libraries, conventions and science fictional events in Schenectady, Chicago, San Jose, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Roanoke, Boston, Burlington, Bangor, and Fredericton (New Brunswick), Kansas City, San Jose, Baltimore, with upcoming travels to Minneapolis and Toronto, and a return to Baltimore as Guests of Honor for BaltiCon, an annual regional science fiction convention in May, 2003.

Note: If you're planning an event and would like the authors to attend you can contact them via email at


srm@korval.com



or



c/o SRM Publisher,


PO Box 179,


Unity, ME 04988-0179.


Read the internet news list at liadenuniversenews@yahoogroups.com or visit www.korval.com/liad.htm for the latest Liaden Universe(r) news. About the Liaden Universe(r)


" . . .the authors' craftsmanship is top-notch, recalling the work of Elizabeth Moon and Lois McMaster Bujold  . . ."—Publishers Weekly November 26, 2001

"The combination of wit, relationship, and space opera may appeal to readers of Lois McMaster Bujold."—Booklist December 15, 2001

"These authors consistently deliver stories with a rich, textured setting, intricate plotting, and vivid, interesting characters from fully-realized cultures, both human and alien—and each book gets better."— Elizabeth Moon, author of Speed of Dark

"Nobody else in the field combines space opera and comedy of manners with the same deftness and brio as these two."—Debra Doyle, co-author of the Mageworlds novels

"Sharon Lee and Steve Miller are so good it's scary."—S. L. Viehl, author of the Stardoc series



More about the authors

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller are co-authors of the best-selling Liaden Universe(r) series and have been writing together since the Kinzel stories for Fantasy Book in the early 80s. They began work on the first Liaden story in 1984 and have published 8 novels and several dozen short works in that series alone. They count Meisha Merlin, Ace Books, Buzzy Multimedia, and WebScriptions among their English language publishers and have several foreign language publishers as well.

Sharon and Steve have appeared as guests and panelists at numerous science fiction conventions in the US and Canada, including stints as Guests of Honor at SiliCon in San Jose, MarsCon in Minneapolis, BaltiCon in Baltimore, CONduit, in Salt lake City and Trinoc*con in Durham, NC, and Special Guests at AlbaCon, ShevaCon, and elsewhere.

Their short fiction, written both jointly and singly, has appeared in Absolute Magnitude, Catfantastic, Dreams of Decadence, Fantasy Book, Such a Pretty Face, 3SF, and several incarnations of Amazing, with more scheduled in 2005. Their work has enjoyed a number of award nominations, with Scout's Progress being selected for the Prism Award for Best Futuristic Romance of 2001 and Local Custom runner-up for the same award.

Low Port, an anthology they edited for Meisha Merlin, appeared in August, 2003. Balance of Trade, their most recent novel, appeared in hardcover in February 2004; their next scheduled hardcover novel is Crystal Soldier, due in February 2005 and out as an eBook as we go to press.

Sharon was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1952. She graduated from high school in 1970, attended University of Maryland Baltimore County as a mild-mannered night student while simultaneously cutting a fearsome swath through the secretarial field by day. Sharon's interest in science fiction manifested early in life and she won the BaltiCon 10 short story contest in 1976. Since her first pro sale, in 1980, Sharon's professional output has included reviews, features, short stories; TV, radio and print ads, as well as her contribution to the Liaden Universe(r). Sharon also worked as a freelance journalist and a night-side editor for the Central Maine Morning Sentinel.

In 1997, Sharon was hired to be the first full-time executive director of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), a position she held for three years. She also served terms as vice president and president of SFWA.

Steve was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1950, grandson of poet and radio personality Dorothea Neale. He graduated from high school in 1968 after learning how to make chapbooks as editor of the school's literary magazine.

Steve attended University of Maryland Baltimore County in the late 60s and 70s, where he was managing editor of the campus newspaper, and started the school's science fiction club. He was Founding Curator of the Albin O. Kuhn Library's science fiction research collection.

Steve is an independent publisher with an extensive background in SF fandom. He was Vice Chair of the Baltimore in 80 WorldCon bid and is a 1973 graduate of Clarion West writing workshop in Seattle. His first professional fiction appeared in the 70s in Amazing. Steve has accumulated credits in well over 100 newspapers, magazines and journals. In addition to reviews and poetry, Steve's professional output includes short stories, TV and radio commercials, greeting cards, as well as his contribution to the Liaden Universe®.


THE END


For more great books visit



http://www.webscription.net



Liaden Unibus II

Table of ContentsLOOSE CANNON


A Matter of Dreams



Phoenix



SHADOWS AND SHADES


Naratha's Shadow



Heirloom



The Updated But Partial Liaden Universe(r) Time Line



QUIET KNIVES


Veil of the Dancer



Quiet Knives



WITH STARS UNDERFOOT


This House



Lord of the Dance



NECESSARY EVILS


Necessary Evils



The Beggar King



ALLIES


Fighting Chance



Prodigal Son



ABOUT THE AUTHORS





home | my bookshelf | | Liaden Unibus II |     цвет текста   цвет фона   размер шрифта   сохранить книгу

Текст книги загружен, загружаются изображения
Всего проголосовало: 5
Средний рейтинг 2.8 из 5



Оцените эту книгу