Lee and Miller win Readers Choice Award

“Wise Child,” by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller was chosen from among fifteen stories collected in third annual Year’s Best Military and Adventure SF, edited by David Afsharirad, published by Baen Books.

The winner was announced at the Baen Traveling Roadshow at DragonCon, with Baen Executive Editor Jim Minz accepting for Lee and Miller.

The prize is a plaque and $500 cash.

Below is the text of Lee and Miller’s acceptance speech.

Wow!

Yes, you heard us.

Wow!

We probably ought to be a little more formal than that, so let’s try this:

To DragonCon attendees, science fiction fans, and readers everywhere: Hello! from the wilds of Central Maine.

We’re pleased to be here, at least metaphorically, at this particular Baen Traveling Roadshow, to stand as the proud parents of “Wise Child,” which readers have chosen – out of a very stiff field! — as the Best Military and Adventure SF of 2016.

We must admit to being startled – we have a history of being startled when we win awards! – when Jim Minz asked if we could be with you this afternoon, either electronically or in spirit, to accept this award for our novelette, the seventy-first Sharon Lee and Steve Miller collaboration.

Startled?

Well. . .yes.

We believe that the purpose of a story is to be an experience, a celebration, if you will, for readers – something that they’ll hopefully enjoy on reading, and recall, later, with pleasure.

Us. . .We make our living by writing stories, long and short and in-between. Our method is to write the best story we can write, this time; collect our fee – and move on to write another story for readers to experience and enjoy, sometime down the road.

Most short fiction is like that, for most writers: a kind of a fire-and-forget situation, if you will.

In this case, though – we won’t forget that, when “Wise Child” hit the Baen.com website last year, we got a lot of positive feedback from readers via email and Facebook. Then, the story was chosen for inclusion in Volume Three of the Year’s Best Military and Adventure SF!

This particular “fire-and-forget” story not only hit the original target but had two secondary hits, as well.

So – Thanks!

Thank you, DragonCon, for hosting the award presentation!

Thank you, Baen, for publishing and supporting the book, and the award!

Thank you, David Afsharirad – our editor – for selecting our story for publication!

. . .And. . .

Thank you, readers, for reading, and for voting, and for naming “Wise Child” as one of the best!

Here you see Jim Minz accepting, and David Afsharirad showing off, the plaque.

Photo by Christopher Ruocchio

 

Watch the Skies!

Due Diligence: Adventures in the Liaden Universe® Number 24 has been published to the Usual Suspects (including but not limited to: Baen ebooks, Kobo, BN, Apple, Amazon) and will be available for sale as the Various Ghods of Indie Publishing will.

Novella “Due Diligence” is Lee & Miller’s 81st fiction collaboration.

Here’s the teaser:

When Clan Korval knows your name. . .

Abandoned on a strange port by a scam gone bad, his license to pilot rescinded, and his pockets very much to let, Fer Gun pen’Uldra was teetering between trouble, more trouble, and bad trouble. Cornered in a cheap bar by a too-knowledgeable stranger with an unlikely offer, Fer Gun realized having no money and no license might be the least of his troubles. Clan Korval knew his name and that proposal was hard to refuse. . .

And, just to refresh your memory, the cover:

 

Lee and Miller’s Confluence Schedules Revealed!

AsyouknowBob, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller will be Writer Guests of Honor at Confluence, in Pittsburgh, August 4, 5, 6.

Here’s your link to Steve’s schedule.

Here’s your link to Sharon’s schedule.

Here’s your link to the Master Schedule.

Here’s your link to the con’s front page.

You will notice that there is a Friends of Liad breakfast scheduled for Sunday at 8:30 am in the hotel restaurant.  Despite being scheduled, this is not a convention-funded event.  It is what we called in my youth Dutch Treat, with every attendee (including Steve and me) ordering, and paying for, their own breakfast and tip.  Steve and I try to host a FoL breakfast at every con we go to, whether we GoHs, panelists, or convention members.  The Friends of Liad breakfast is. . .Well, it’s most like an extended family getting together to share a meal, and news, and memories.

The Teddy Bear Tea, now, scheduled for 4:30 pm on Saturday, is a convention event.  We try to have a Teddy Bear Tea at every convention where we’re GoHs, ever since it came to our attention that many fans (including Steve and me) travel with plush friends.  Sadly, though, the plushies often don’t get out to the larger convention.  So, the Teddy Bear Tea is event for the plushies to come out and socialize, while their human friends chat, and sip tea, and perhaps share the histories of their plushies.  The Teddy Bear Tea is open to all plushies and their friends.

Can we get a show of hands?  Who’s coming to Confluence?

*raises hand*

First Chapter Friday: Carpe Diem

After a book or two Sharon and I were surprised that we we’re getting noticed even if our books were coming out as original paperbacks rather than starting in the hardcover lists as we do now.It was fun, if not enriching, to see things like this in print:

“Val Con and Miri are the most romantic couple in SF!”
Susan Krinard, author of Touch of the Wolf

“You may never care about a cast of characters more or await their return with more anticipation.”
SF Site

“Full of action, exotic characters, plenty of plot, and even a touch of romance. OUTSTANDING.”
Booklist

As much fun as it was to see nice things written about our books, it was even more fun to write them. There’s a lot of playfulness in Carpe Diem, some in the repartee, some in the naming of places,  some in the challenging of tropes … but hey, see for yourself!

 

SECOND QUADRANT: Ramal Sector

The pilot stared at the readout in disbelief, upped the magnification, and checked the readings once more, cold dread in his heart.

“Commander. Pilot requests permission to speak.”

“Permission granted,” Khaliiz said.

“The vessel which we captured on our last pass through this system is moving under power, Commander. The scans read the life forces of two creatures.”

“Pilot’s report heard and acknowledged. Stand by for orders. Second!”

“Commander.”

“It was reported to me that none were left alive aboard yon vessel, Second. Discover the man who lied and bring him to me at once.”

His Second saluted. “At once, Commander.” He turned and marched from the bridge.

Khaliiz eyed the screen, perceived the ship-bounty slipping through his fingers, and was displeased.

“Pursue.”

 

Val Con cursed very softly, then snapped back to the board, slapped the page into its slot, and demanded data: coords, position, speed, and amount of power in the coils.

“Could we leave now?” asked a small voice to his left.

He turned his head. Miri was sitting rigidly in the copilot’s chair, her eyes frozen on the screen and the growing shape of the Yxtrang vessel. Her freckles stood out vividly in a face the color of milk.

“We must wait until the power has reached sufficient level and the coordinates are locked into the board,” he said, keeping his voice even. “We will leave in a few minutes.”

“They’ll be here in a few minutes.” She bit her lip, hard, and managed to drag her eyes from the screen to his face. “Val Con, I’m afraid of Yxtrang.”

Aware of the tightness of the muscles in his own face, he did not try to give her a smile. “I am also afraid of Yxtrang,” he said gently. His eyes flicked to the board, then to the screen. “Strap in.”

“What’re you gonna do?” Miri was watching him closely, some of the color back in her face, but still stiff in every muscle.

“There is a game Terrans sometimes play,” he murmured, dividing his attention between board and screen, fingers busy with his own straps, “called ‘chicken’…Strap in, cha’trez.”

He flipped a toggle. “I see you, Chrakec Yxtrang. Pass us by. We are unworthy to be your prey.”

There was a transmission pause—or did it last a bit longer?—then a voice, harsh as broken glass, replied in Trade. “Unworthy? Thieves are always worthy game! That ship is ours, Liaden. We have won it once.”

“Forgive us, Ckrakec Yxtrang, we are here by no fault of our own. We are not worthy of you. Pass by.”

“Release my prize, Liaden, or I shall wrest it from you, and you will die.”

Miri licked her lips, steadfastly refusing to look at the screen.

Val Con’s face was smooth and calm, his voice nearly gentle. “If I release your prize, I shall die in any case. Pass by, Hunter. There is only I, who am recently wounded.”

“My scans show two, Liaden.”

Miri closed her eyes. Val Con, measuring board against screen, eased the speed of the ship higher, toward the halfway point.

“Only a woman, Ckrakec Yxtrang. What proof is that of your skill?”

There was a pause, during which Val Con slipped the speed up another notch and pressed the sequence that locked in the coords.

“Will it please you, when you are captured, Liaden, to watch me while I take my pleasure from your woman? Afterward, I shall blind you and give you as a toy to my crew.”

“Alas, Ckrakec Yxtrang, these things would but cause me pain.” Coils up! And the Yxtrang were finally near enough, beginning the boarding maneuver, matching velocity, and direction…

“It would give you pain!” the Yxtrang cried. “All things give Liadens pain! They are a soft race, born to be the prey of the strong. In time, there will be no more Liadens. The cities of Liad will house the children of Yxtrang.”

“What then will you hunt, O Hunter?” He flipped a series of toggles, leaned back in the pilot’s chair, and held a hand out to Miri.

Slowly the ship began to spin.

There was a roar of laughter from the Yxtrang, horrible to hear. “Very good, Liaden. Never shall it be said, after you are dead, that you were an unworthy rabbit. A good maneuver. But not good enough.”

In the screen, the Yxtrang ship began to spin as well, matching velocity uncertainly.

Miri’s hand was cold in his. He squeezed it, gave her a quick smile, and released her, returning to the board.

More spin; a touch more acceleration. The Yxtrang moved to match both. Val Con added again to the spin but left the speed steady.

“Enough, Liaden! What do you hope to win? The ship is ours, and we will act to keep it. Do you imagine I will grow tired of the game and leave? Do you not know that even now I might fire upon you and lay you open to the cold of space?”

“There is no bounty on ruined ships, Ckrakec Yxtrang, nor any glory in reporting that a Liaden outwitted you. But,” he said, sighing deeply, “perhaps you are young and this your first hunt—”

There was a scream of rage over the comm, and the Yxtrang ship edged closer. Val Con added more spin. Ship’s gravity was increasing—lifting his arm above the board the few inches required to manipulate the keys was an effort. His lungs were laboring a little for air. He glanced over at Miri. She grinned raggedly at him.

“How much faster will you spin, Liaden? Until the gravity crushes you?”

“If necessary. I am determined that you will collect no bounty on this ship, Chrakec Yxtrang. It has become a matter of honor.” More spin. He paused with his hand on the throttle.

“Speak not to me of honor, animal! We have toyed long enough. We shall—”

Val Con shoved the velocity to the top, slammed on more spin, hesitated, counting, eyes on the board—

Jump!

LUFKIT: Neefra’s Tavern

The Terran creature’s name was Jefferson, and it was sweating; it talked jerkily, swigging warm beer down its gullet, moving its big, rough hands aimlessly about, occasionally plucking at its companion’s sleeve—and talking, always talking.

Much of what it said was of no value to the Liaden who stood beside it, delicately sipping at a glass of atrocious local wine; but Tyl Von sig’Alda was patient, by training if not by inclination, and the bits of useful information mixed in among the trash were jewels of very great price.

“Yxtrang,” the creature was saying, fingering its empty mug in agitation. “Well, it had to be Yxtrang, didn’t it? Stands to reason—the way the ship was cleaned out but not ruined. Coming back for it, Tanser said. Sure to come back for it. Yxtrang get a bounty for captured ships…” It faltered there, and its companion waved at the barkeeper for another beer. The creature took it absently, drank, and wiped its mouth with the back of a hand. It glanced furtively around the noisy bar and bent close enough for its listener to smell the beer on its breath, the stink of its sweat, and the reek of its fear. It was all sig’Alda could do not to recoil in disgust.

“Tanser knew it was Yxtrang,” Jefferson whispered, voice rasping. “Knew it. And he left ’em there. Alive. Could’ve put a pellet into ’em—something quick and clean. But the turtle’d said let ’em go and the boss said okay…”

Horror seemingly choked it, and it pulled back, eyes glistening, showing a plentitude of white all around the irises. The one beside him sipped wine and murmured soothingly that of course the ways of the Clutch were mysterious, but that he had understood them not to involve themselves so much with the affairs of—men.

“This one did,” Jefferson said fervently. “Claimed some kind of kinship with ’em both—brother and sister.” It swigged beer.

“Crazy alien.”

Most assuredly the victims were Val Con yos’Phelium and the female companion; though why an agent might be traveling with such a one was more than could be fathomed. Tyl Von sig’Alda assayed another sip of syrupy wine. The female…Headquarters had assumed a mischance during the journey home, assumed that the female had, perhaps, served for a time as camouflage. A sound enough theory.

Unless, sig’Alda thought, training was somehow broken? At once the Loop flickered to life, showing .999 against that possibility. He was aware of some dim, faraway feeling of relief. The Loop was the secret weapon of the Department of the Interior, an impartial mental computer implanted only in the best of its agents. Its guidance was essential to the Department’s ascendancy over the enemies of Liad. It was an essential part of training. Training could not be broken.

Jefferson leaned close, breathing its beery breath into sig’Alda’s face. “I have a son,” it said hoarsely.

“Do you?” he murmured. And then, because the creature seemed to await a fuller response, he said, “I myself have a daughter.”

It nodded its head in barbaric Terran agreement and withdrew slightly. “Then you know.”

“Know?”

“Know what it’s like,” the creature explained, a trifle loudly, though not loud enough to signify within the overall clamor of the tavern. “Know what it’s like to worry about ’em. My boy…And that turtle telling—bragging on himself, maybe. Maybe not even telling the truth. Who can tell what’s truth to a turtle?”

Was that relevant, or more of the creature’s ramblings? sig’Alda gave a mental shrug. Who could tell?

“But what did he say?” he inquired of Jefferson. “The turtle.”

“Talking about how his clan or family or egg or whatever it is will hunt down the first and the last of a family, if you don’t do what he says to do.” Jefferson gulped the last of the beer and set the mug aside with a thump, black despair filling its half-crazed eyes. “And Tanser put ’em right in Yxtrang’s path, after the turtle’d said let ’em go free. Gods.”

There was a long moment’s silence, while the Loop presented the chances of survival for Val Con yos’Phelium and his female, whomever and whatever she was, stranded in a ship marked for Yxtrang reclamation and deprived of coords and coils.

.001

So, then. He smiled at Jefferson. “Another beer, perhaps?”

“Naw…” The Terran was twitching, suddenly eager to be off, perhaps conscious all at once that it had been spilling secrets wholesale into the ear of a stranger.

sig’Alda laid a gentle hand on its sleeve. “Tell me, did anyone check to see if the ship was still there? Even the Yxtrang might make an error from time to time.”

The despairing eyes gazed back up at his face. “It was gone when we dropped back to look.” It swallowed harshly. “Tanser laughed.” Another painful working of the throat. “Tanser ain’t got any kids.”

It stood away from the bar abruptly and held out a horny hand. “Got to be going. Thanks for the beers.”

sig’Alda placed his hand into the large one, forcing himself to bear the pressure and the up-and-down motion. “Perhaps we will meet again.”

“Yeah,” Jefferson said, not very convincingly. “Maybe.” Its lips bent upward in a rictus that might have been meant as a smile. “G’night, now.” And it turned and strode away, leaving Tyl Von sig’Alda staring into the depths of his sticky glass.

 

Jefferson went rapidly through side streets and back alleys, cursing his tongue and his need and the horrible, ever-present fear in his belly.

The man had been Liaden—and maybe the woman, too. Yxtrang and Liaden had been enemies, blood and bone, for longer than Terrans had been on the scene. Jefferson swallowed against the fear’s abrupt nausea. Yxtrang would have special ways to treat a couple of representatives of their old, most-hated enemy…

Jefferson leaned against a convenient light post to get his breath and wait for the shaking to ease—but he only shook harder, gripping the post in misery and closing his eyes.

He never saw the slender shadow take aim in the empty street, never heard the gun’s discreet, genteel cough or felt the pellet enter his ear and rend his brain.

 

The Terran crumpled slowly, as if falling into a swoon, and lay still in the puddle of light. Tyl Von sig’Alda slid his weapon away, glanced up and down the street, then walked carefully over to the carcass. He made short work of stripping the pouch and pockets of anything remotely valuable—it was to appear a mere murder for gain, as might happen to anyone walking alone in the dark back streets of Lufkit.

Jefferson had given much information freely; its continued existence had been a threat to sig’Alda himself. More, its elimination was a minor balance for the act of putting a Liaden—any Liaden—in the way of the Yxtrang. That the Liaden had been a member of his own Department and one of its best was a sad fact. Tanser’s name had been duly noted; sig’Alda’s report would mention it, and another bit of balance would no doubt follow.

sig’Alda stepped back, noting that the Loop gave him excellent chances of attaining the shuttle to Prime Station and the deck of Raslain, his passage away. Yet he hesitated, nagged by a consideration that was by rights none of his, he who was assigned to determine what had become of Val Con yos’Phelium, lost en route to his debriefing. And still there was the damned female…No. He would leave tonight, information pertinent to the mission having been gathered on Lufkit. His report to the commander would reflect Jefferson’s certainty that yos’Phelium and the female had fallen to the Yxtrang bounty-crew, as well as the corroboration of the Loop. It was futile to spend time backtracking the female. He was not assigned to provide her a eulogy.

So thinking, he turned and faded into the shadows, leaving the street to the puddle of light and that which lay within it.

LIAD: Trealla Fantrol

“No! Absolutely not!”

“Shan…” Nova yos’Galan flung forward and caught her brother’s sleeve in one slim hand. Head tipped back, she stared up into his face, seeing the ice forming in the silver eyes and the lines of Korval stubbornness tightening around the big mouth. “Shan, by the gods!”

He made the effort—he took a deeper breath, then another. “You tell me that the First Speaker wishes me to contract-wed. Why now? Why not last week or next week? Have you some sweet offer for the stupidest of the Clan? This is arbitrary beyond sense, sister!”

She recoiled from the anger in both his words and his face. “It is Val Con! I—I must consider what is proper. He has been missing all this while…”

“Is he truly missing? I know I haven’t seen him for some time, but missing?”

Nova held up her hand, moved to the console, and touched several buttons, bringing the computer screen to life.

He moved closer as she scrolled the information there, finally settling on a spot.

“…the First Speaker’s point is, however, valid insofar as it concerns the necessity of the Nadelm’s education,” she read. “I shall undertake to make myself available as soon as practicable following my thirtieth anniversary Name Day for instruction on the proper administration of a Clan from both the First Speaker and Korval’s man of business. It is made extremely clear by the First Speaker, my sister, that I am expected to graduate to Delm very quickly.”

Shan sensed the underlying impatience in those few words as clearly as he felt the tension singing in Nova.

“His word, from the last letter I had of him, nearly three Standards gone. His Name Day is more than a relumma past, and I have heard nothing! I must prepare, for the benefit of Korval. yos’Galan must prepare, as well!”

“Is he dead, then?”

His query was quite calm. Had she been less wrought up herself, she might have mistrusted such calmness. As it was, she gasped and stared up at him, dimly aware that somehow during the course of the interview the lines of melant’i had shifted so that it was no longer Korval’s First Speaker, eldema-pernard’i, in conference with the Head of Line yos’Galan, but a younger sibling pleading with an elder.

“Dead?” she repeated, golden fingers snaking about each other in agitation. “How can I know? They answer no questions! The Scouts say he was placed on detached duty to the Department of the Interior these three years gone by. The Department of the Interior says he has been offered leave and refused it; that it is not their part to force a man to go where he would rather not. They refuse to relay the message that he come to his Clan, when next he is able…”

And that, Shan thought, was not as it should be. Even the Scouts, who had little patience with many things Liaden—even the Scouts, appealed to in need, had sent broadbeam across the stars that Scout Captain Val Con yos’Phelium was required immediately at home, on business of his Clan. So had Val Con come, too, in remarkably short time, shaky with too many Jumps made one after another, to stand and weep with the rest of them at his foster mother’s bier.

“If he will not come to us—” Nova was saying distractedly, “If he is so angry with me, even now…”

And there was the nub of it, Shan knew. When last he had been home on leave, Val Con had quarreled with his sister, the First Speaker, over her insistence that he take himself a contract-bride and provide the Clan with his heir. That quarrel had been running for several years, with subtle variations as each jockeyed for position. There was very little real pressure that Nova as Korval-in-Trust could bring upon Korval Himself, whether he chose at the moment to take up the Ring and his Delmhood, or remain mere Second Speaker. However, the Second Speaker was bound to obey the First, as was any Clanmember, and the Clan demanded of each member a child, by universal Clan Law. A pretty problem of melant’i and ethics, to be sure, and one Shan was glad to contemplate from a distance. Obviously even Val Con had bowed to at least part of melant’i’s necessity, as evidenced by that snappish letter. But still…

“That’s hardly like him, denubia. Val Con’s never held a grudge that long in all his life.”

His attempted comfort backfired. Nova’s violet eyes filled with tears, and her hands knotted convulsively.

“Then he is dead!”

“No.” He bent to cup her face in his big brown hands. “Sister, listen to me: Has Anthora said he is dead?”

She blinked, gulped, and shook her head so the blond hair snared his wrists.

“Have you asked her?”

Another headshake, fine hairs clinging to his skin like grade-A silk, and he read the two terrors within her.

“Anthora is dramliza,” he said patiently, beginning to pay out a Healer’s line of comfort as pity overtook him. “She holds each of us in her mind like a flame, she told me once. Best to ask and know for certain.”

Nova touched the tip of her tongue to her lips, hesitating.

“Ask,” he urged, seeing with satisfaction that her agitation quieted under his weaving of comfort and gentle hope. “If this Department of the Interior flouts Clan tradition, then we will search ourselves. Korval has some resources, after all.”

“Yes, of course,” she murmured, moving her cheek against his palm in a most un-Novalike demonstration of affection. Shan cautiously lowered his level of input and pulled his hands away. She would do, he judged. Korval’s First Speaker had a cool, level head. Even without his aid, she would have taken up her charge again very shortly and done all she perceived as necessary to keep the Clan in Trust for Korval’s Own Self.

Shan shook his head slightly. He had briefly held the post Nova now filled and did not envy her the necessity of running a Clan composed of such diverse and strong-willed persons. Dutiful Passage was more to his taste, more in keeping with his abilities; yet the trading life had bored Nova to distraction.

He smiled down at her—the only one of the three yos’Galans who had inherited all their Terran mother’s height. “Ask Anthora,” he advised again. “And tell me what I can do to help us find our brother.”

She returned his smile faintly, a bare upward curve of pale lips. “I will think upon it. In the meanwhile, do think upon what we discussed earlier…”

Anger flared, but he held it in check, unwilling to give her cause to fear the loss of another brother. “I will not contract-wed. I have done my duty, and the Clan has my daughter in its keeping. I have done more than my duty—I hear that the child Lazmeln got from me aspires to be a pilot. Leave it.”

“If Val Con is dead—if he is eklykt’i—then yos’Galan must be ready to assume its position as Korval’s First Line. You are Thodelm yos’Galan—head of our Line! You are A’nadelm, next to be Delm, if Val Con—”

“If Val Con!” The anger clawed loose for an instant before he enclosed it. “If Anthora claims our brother dead, I still demand to see the body: my right as kin, my right as cha’leket, my right as A’nadelm! You do not make me Korval so easily, sister. Nor do I contract-wed again, and so I do swear!”

Her face was stricken; he felt the grief roiling off her like bitter smoke and made his bow, utterly formal.

“With the First Speaker’s permission,” he said precisely, and left her before it was given.

 

Excerpt from Carpe Diem ©1989 Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
Available from Baen as an ebook: http://www.baen.com/carpe-diem.html
Also Available as an Audible audibook, MP3 CD, and Kindle edition.

First Chapter Friday: Local Custom

Local Custom and Scout’s Progress came out at the same time, in the same book — a book with yet a third title — Pilots Choice. The year was 2001 and Meisha Merlin’s publisher, Stephe Pagel, had decided that in order to keep Liaden Universe® publishing momentum going putting both novels in the same hardback would be the best way to satisfy the market. Scout’s Progress went on to win the Prism Award for Futuristic fiction, but only by a hair, over … Local Custom, which came in an extremely strong second. There’s more than a hint of romance, and more than a hint of the Georgette Heyer style regency, in both books.

Looking for a science fiction story with danger, wit, and romance? Here you go, have a sample!

Local Custom
by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Chapter One

Each person shall provide his clan of origin with a child of his blood, who will be raised by the clan and belong to the clan, despite whatever may later occur to place the parent beyond the clan’s authority. And this shall be Law for every person of every clan.
—From the Charter of the Council of Clans
Made in the Sixth Year After Planetfall,
City of Solcintra, Liad

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

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

“Mother,” he began, with all propriety, “I ask grace. . . ”

She cut him off with a wave of her hand. “Let us return to ‘no’. It has the charm of brevity.”

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

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

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

“No,” said Er Thom again, and bit his lip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When he remained speechless, she leaned forward, hand extended. “My son, I do not wish to burden you. Necessity exists, but necessity need not be oppressive. Is there one your heart has placed above others? Only tell me her name and her clan, negotiations will be initiated. . . ” Slowly she sank back into the chair, hand falling to her knee. “Er Thom?”
“Mother,” he murmured miserably, eyes swimming as he bowed. “I ask grace. . . ”
 
GRACE, AFTER ALL, had not been forthcoming. He had scarcely expected it, with him tongue-tangled and kittenish as a halfling. His mother had no time to waste upon baseless sentiment, not with her illness so hard upon her. She had granted grace to one child already—and those genes lost to Clan Korval forever by reason of her leniency.

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

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

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

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

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

Jelaza Kazone was the name of the Tree—Jela’s Fulfillment—and it marked the site of Korval’s clanhouse, where Er Thom had spent his childhood, constant companion and willing shadow of his cousin and foster-brother, Daav yos’Phelium.
Er Thom’s eyes teared and the Tree broke into an hundred glittering shards of brown and green against a sky gone milky bright. The desire to speak to Daav, to bury his face in his brother’s shoulder and cry out against the unfairness of the Law was nearly overmastering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No!”

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

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

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

“I will not wed!”

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

If there is one your heart has set above all others . . .  his mother pleaded from memory and Er Thom’s fingers clenched convulsively on the scrap of silk. She would never—he dared not—It was against everything: Code, custom, clan—duty.
He took a deep breath, trying to calm his racing thoughts. The clan required this thing of him, the clan’s dutiful child, in balance for all the clan had thus far given him. It was just. The other—was some strange undutiful madness that should after so many years have passed off. That it remained in this unexpectedly virulent form told a tale of Er Thom yos’Galan’s sad lack of discipline. He would put the madness aside once and forever, now. He would burn the silk and the tawdry ribbon, then he would read the file on Syntebra el’Kemin, bathe and dress himself for Prime meal. He would tell his parent—

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

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

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

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

He considered forgetfulness—such a little bit of time, really, to be erased from memory, and so very—long—ago.
The thought sickened him, nearly as much as the face of the woman his mother proposed to make his wife.
He blinked his eyes and straightened, slipping the rag of silk and the frazzled ribbon into his sleeve-pocket. Carefully, he put his jewelry back into the box and lowered the heavy carved lid.

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

Then he quit the room, shrugging into the worn leather jacket that proclaimed him a pilot.
The papers on his worktable rustled irritably in the breeze from the open window and across the valley the first stars of evening glittered just above the Tree.

Chapter Two
The giving of nubiath’a, the parting-gift, by either partner signals the end of an affair of pleasure. The person of impeccable melant’i will offer and accept nubiath’a with gentleness and grace, thereafter referring to the affair by neither word nor deed.
—Excerpted from the Liaden Code of Proper Conduct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Daav?”

“Yes, denubia. How may I serve you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Korval, I do swear.”

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

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

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

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

“GOOD-NIGHT, SHANNIE.” Anne Davis bent and kissed her son’s warm cheek. “Sleep tight.”

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

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

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

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

More or less.

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

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

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

It was a puzzle without an answer and having asked it, she forgot it and padded into the kitchen for a glass of juice.
Shan was still asleep, she knew. She sipped her juice and leaned a hip against the counter top, closing her eyes to let her mind roam.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She bent to kiss him then, and found him unexpectedly awkward. So she kissed him again, patiently, then teasingly, until he lost his awkwardness all at once and answered her with a passion that left them both shivering and breathless.
They hadn’t gotten to the bed, not the first time. The rickety couch had been sturdy enough to bear them and Er Thom surprised again—an experienced and considerate lover, with hands, gods, with hands that knew every touch her body yearned for, and gave it, unstinting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossing the room, she made certain the door was locked. Then she turned off the light and slipped into the bedroom, to spend the rest of the night staring at the invisible ceiling, listening to her son breathe.
 
ER THOM HAD not come to Prime.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“On the contrary,” Daav said gently, “I am entirely aware of the circumstance. Perhaps I have failed of making myself plain: The delm has allowed Er Thom yos’Galan the remainder of the relumma to resolve a matter he presents as urgent.”
“What is urgent,” Petrella told him, “is that he wed and provide the clan with his heir. This is a matter of Line, my Delm, and well you know it!”

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

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

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

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

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

She grinned. “Could that be a threat, nephew?”

“Now, Aunt Petrella, would I threaten you?”

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

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

Petrella said nothing, though she wisely refrained from snorting.

Daav smiled. “Good-night, Aunt Petrella. Rest well.”

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

Excerpt from Local Custom ©2001 Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
Available from Baen as an ebook: http://www.baen.com/local-custom.html
Also Available as an Audible audibook, MP3 CD, and Kindle edition.

First Chapter Friday: Balance of Trade

The end of the last century was a pretty good time for the Lee & Miller writing team. We had Liaden books on the way, we were being courted by anthologies, our story A Matter of Dreams was set for an illustrated guest appearance in Colleen Doran’s A Distant Soil (#27) and we were back in the groove of going to conventions. Our chapbooks were doing well… and then Absolute Magnitude’s editor Warren Lapine asked us for a story — specifically, a Liaden story.

That story happened to be the story of a crew member just coming to his majority on a small-time tradeship, one Jethri Gobelyn. Jethri had been bouncing and waving his hands and around in the character queue for awhile and we figured that once his story was told, he’d let us get back to the main line of things.  But the appearance of Balance of Trade as a short story turned out to be the start of something bigger, and a few years later that original short story had grown into the 2004 novel — Balance of Trade. Here’s the start.

Excerpt from Balance of Trade © 2004 Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Balance of Trade

Day 29
Standard Year 1118
Gobelyn’s Market
Opposite Shift

 

 

There are secrets in all families—

George Farquhar,
1678-1707

“DOWN ALL THAT LONG, weary shift, they kept after Byl,” Khat’s voice was low and eerie in the dimness of the common room. The knuckles of Jethri’s left hand ached with the grip he had on his cup while his right thumb and forefinger whirled ellipses on the endlessly cool surface of his lucky fractin. Beside him, he could hear Dyk breathing, fast and harsh.

“Once—twice—three times!—he broke for the outring, his ship, and his mates. Three times, the Liadens turned him back, pushing him toward the center core, where no space-going man has right nor reason to be.

“They pushed him, those Liadens, moving through the night-levels as swift and sure as if it were bright world-day. Byl ran, as fast as long legs and terror could speed him, but they were always ahead of him, the canny Liadens. They were always ahead—’round every corner, past every turning in the hall.”

Mel, on Jethri’s left, moaned softly. Jethri bit his lip.

* * *

“BUT THEN!” Khat’s voice glittered in the gloom. “Then, all at once, the luck changed. Or, say, the gods of spacers smiled. He reached a corridor that was empty, turned a corner where no Liaden crouched, gun aiming for his heart. He paused then, ears craned to the rear, but heard no stealthy movement, nor boot heels sounding quick along the steel floor.

“He ran then, light of heart and all but laughing, and the way stood clear before him, from downring admin all the way to the outring, where his ship was berthed; where his mates, and his love, lay awaiting his return.

“He came to the bay door—Bay Eight, that was where. Came to the bay door, used his card and slipped through as soon as the gap was wide enough to fit him. Grinning, he pushed off in the lighter grav, taking long bounds toward Dock Three. He took the curve like he’d grown wings, singing now, so glad to be near, so glad to be home. . .

“That was when he saw the crowd, and the flashing lights that meant ring cops—and the others, that meant worse.

“He shouted and ran, waving his arms as if it all made a difference. Which it didn’t. Those lifelines had been cut good hours ago, while he had been harried, hounded and kept away—and there was eight zipped bags laid out neat on the dockside, which was all that was left of his mates and his love.”

Silence, Jethri’s jaw was so tight he thought teeth might shatter. Mel gasped and Dyk groaned.

“So,” said Khat, her voice shockingly matter-of-fact. “Now you see what comes to someone who cheats a Liaden on cargo.”

“Except,” Jethri managed, his voice breathless with tension, though he knew far better than what had been told—Khat on a story was that good. “Excepting, they’d never done it that way—the Liadens. Might be they’d’ve rigged something with the docking fees—more like, they’d’ve set the word around, so five ports later Byl finds himself at a stand—full cans and no buyers, see? But they wouldn’t kill for cargo—that’s not how their Balancing works.”

“So speaks the senior ‘prentice!” Dyk intoned, pitching his voice so deep it rumbled inside the steel walls like a bad encounter with a grabber-hook.

“C’mon, Jeth,” Mel put in. “You was scared, too!”

“Khat tells a good story,” he muttered, and Dyk produced a laugh.

“She does that—and who’s to say she’s wrong? Sure, you been studying the tapes, but Khat’s been studying portside news since before you was allowed inside ship’s core!”

“Not that long,” Khat protested mildly, over the rustle and scrape that was her moving along the bench ’til she had her hand on the controls. Light flooded the cubby, showing four startlingly similar faces: broad across the cheekbones and square about the jaw. Khat’s eyes, and Jethri’s, were brown; Dyk and Mel had blue—hers paler than his. All four favored the spacer buzz, which left their scant hair looking like dark velvet caps snugged close ‘gainst their skulls. Mel was nearest to Jethri in age—nineteen Standards to his seventeen. Khat and Dyk were born close enough to argue minutes when questions of elder’s precedence rose—twenty Standard Years, both, and holding adult shares.

Their surname was Gobelyn. Their ship was Gobelyn’s Market, out of New Carpathia, which homeworld none of them had ever seen nor missed.

“Yah, well maybe Jethri could tell us a story,” said Dyk, on the approach of mischief, “since he knows so many.”

Jethri felt his ears heat, and looked down into his cup. Koka, it had been—meant to warm his way to slumber. It was cold, now, and Khat’s story was enough to keep a body awake through half his sleep-shift.

Even if he did know better.

“Let him be, Dyk,” Khat said, surprisingly. “Jethri’s doing good with his study—Uncle’s pleased. Says it shows well, us having a Liaden speaker ‘mong us.”

Dyk started to laugh, caught something in her face and shrugged instead. Jethri wisely did not mention that his “Liaden speaking” was barely more than pidgin.

Instead, he drank off the dregs of his cold koka, managing without much of a shudder, then got himself up and across the room, right hand still fingering the ancient tile in search of comfort. He put the cup in the washer, and nodded to his cousins before he left to find his bunk.

“Good shift,” he murmured.

“Good shift, Jethri,” Khat said warmly. “Wide dreaming.”

“Sleep tight, kid,” Dyk added and Mel fluttered her fingers, smiling. “Be good, Jeth.”

He slipped out of the cubby and paused, weighing the likelihood of sleep against the lure of a history search on the fate of Byl—and the length of Uncle Paitor’s lecture, if he was found reading through his sleep shift again.

That was the clincher, his uncle being a man who warmed to a scolding. Sighing, Jethri turned to the right. Behind him, in the cubby, he heard Dyk say, “So tell us a scary one, Khat; now that the kid’s away.”

* * *

HAVING FOUND SLEEP late, it was only natural that Jethri overslept the bell, meaning hard biscuit and the dregs of the pot for breakfast. Chewing, he flipped through the duty roster and discovered himself on Stinks.

“Mud!” he muttered, gulping bitter coffee. It wasn’t that he begrudged his cousins their own round of duty—which they had, right enough; he wasn’t callin’ slackers—just, he wished that he might progress somewhat above the messy labor and make-work that fell his lot all too often. He had his studies, which was work, of its kind; emergency drill with Cris; and engine lore with Khat. ‘Course, him being youngest, with none on the ladder ‘neath him—that did go into the equation. Somebody had to do the scutwork, and if not juniormost, then who?

Cramming the last of the biscuit into his mouth, he scanned down to dinner duty—and nearly cussed again. Dyk was on cook, which meant the meal would be something tasty, complicated and needful of mucho cleanup. Jethri himself being on clean up.

“That kind of shift,” he consoled himself, pouring the dregs of the dregs into the chute and setting the cup into the washer. “Next shift can only be better.”

Being as they were coming into Ynsolt’i Port next shift, barring the unexpected, that at least was a given. Which realization did lighten his mood a fraction, so he was able to bring up a thin, tuneless whistle to stand him company on his way down to the utility lockers.

* * *

HE WORKED HIS way up from quarters, stripping the sweet-sheets off sleeping pallets, rolling up the limp, sweat-flavored mats and stuffing them into the portable recycler. Zam, Seeli, and Grig were on Opposite; the doors to their quarters sealed, blue privacy lights lit. Jethri left new sheets rolled up and strapped outside their doors and moved on, not in any particular scramble, but not dallying, either. He had it from experience that doing Stinks consumed considerably less time than was contained inside a duty-shift. Even doing Stinks thoroughly and well—which he had better or the captain’d be down his throat with her spacesuit on—he’d have shift left at the end of his work. He was allowed to use leftover duty time for study. What had to be measured with a fine rule was how much time he could claim before either Uncle Paitor or the captain called slacker and pulled him down to the core on discipline.

Stinks being a duty short on brain work, the brain kept itself busy. Mostly, Jethri used the time to review his latest studies, or daydream about the future, when he would be a trader in his own right, free to cut deals and commit the ship, without having to submit everything to Uncle Paitor, and getting his numbers second-guessed and his research questioned.

Today, the brain having started on a grump, it continued, embroidering on the theme of scutwork. Replacing the sheets in his own cubby, he tried to interject some happy-think into what was threatening to become a major mood, and found himself on the losing side of an argument with himself.

He was juniormost, no disputing that—youngest of Captain Iza Gobelyn’s three children—unintended, and scheduled for abort until his father’s golden tongue changed her mind.

Despite unwelcome beginnings, though, he was of value to the ship. Uncle Paitor was teaching him the trade, and had even said that Jethri’s researches into the Liaden markets had the potential to be profitable for the ship. Well, Uncle Paitor had even backed a major buy Jethri had suggested, last port, and if that didn’t show a growing faith in the juniormost’s skill, then nothing did.

That’s all right, the half of himself determined to set into a mood countered. Uncle Paitor might allow you value to the ship, but can you say the same for your mother?

Which was hardly a fair question. Of course, he couldn’t say the same for his mother, who had put him into Seeli’s care as a babe and hadn’t much use for him as a kid. When his father died—and only owning the truth—captain’d had a lot of changes to go through, one of them being she’d lost the lover and listening post she’d had since her second voyage out of her homeship, Grenadine. She taken three days of wild-time to try to recover some balance—come back drunk and black and blue, proclaiming herself cured. But after that, any stock Jethri’d held with his mother had vanished along with everything that had anything to do with his father, from photocubes to study certificates to his and Jethri’s joint collection of antique fractins. It was almost as if she blamed him for Arin’s death, which was plain senseless, though Seeli did her best to explain that the human heart wasn’t notoriously sensible.

Quarters finished, and in a fair way to seeing that mood set in plate steel, Jethri went down to Ops.

The door whined in its track when it opened and Jethri winced, sending a quick glance inside to see if his entrance had disturbed anybody at their calcs.

Khat was sitting at the big board, the captain shadowing her from second. Cris, on data, glanced over his shoulder and gave Jethri a quick jerk of the chin. Khat didn’t turn, but she did look up and smile into the screen for him. The captain never stirred.

Dragging the recycler to the wall, he moored it, then went back to the door, fingering the greaser pen from his kit belt. He pulled open the panel and switched the automatic off. Kneeling, he carefully penned a beaded line of grease along the outer track. The door whined again—slightly softer—when he pushed it open, and he applied a second row of grease beads to the inner track.

He tucked the pen away and stood, pushing the door back and forth until it ran silent in its tracks, nodded, and switched on the automatics again.

That minor chore taken care of, he moved along the stations, backmost first, working quick and quiet, replacing the used sweet-sheets with new, strapping fresh sheets to the board at each occupied station.

“Thanks, Jeth,” Cris said in his slow, easy voice. “‘preciate the door, too. I shoud’ve got it myself, three shifts back.”

Thanks from Cris was coin worth having. Jethri ducked his head, feeling his ears heat.

“‘welcome,” he murmured, putting the new mat down at second and reaching for the strap.

The captain stood. “You can replace that,” she said, her cool brown eyes barely grazing Jethri before she turned to Khat. “Keep course, Pilot.”

“Aye, Cap’n.”

She nodded, crossed the room in two long strides and was gone, the door opening silently before her. Jethri bit his lip, spun the chair and stripped off the used sheet. Glancing up, he saw his cousins pass a glance between the two of them, but didn’t catch its meaning, being short of the code. He smoothed the new mat into place, stowed the old one with all the rest, unmoored the recycler and left.

Neither Khat nor Cris looked ’round to see him go.

* * *

STINKS WAS A play in two parts. Between them, Jethri took a break for a mug of ‘mite, which was thick and yellow and smelled like yeast—and if anyone beyond a spacer born and bred could stomach the stuff, the fact had yet to be noted.

One mug of ‘mite delivered a cargo can load of vitamins and power nutrients. In the old days, when star travel was a new and risky undertaking, crews had lived on ‘mite and not much else, launch to planetfall. Nowadays, when space was safe and a ship the size of Gobelyn’s Market carried enough foodstuffs to supply a body’s needed nutrients without sacrificing taste and variety, ‘mite lingered on as a comfort drink, and emergency ration.

Jethri dunked a couple whole grain crackers in his mug, chomped and swallowed them, then drank off what was left. Thus fortified, he ambled down to the utility lockers, signed the camera out, slotted the empties and a tray of new filters into the sled and headed out to the bounceway.

* * *

OPS RAN MARKET’S grav in a helix, which was standard for a ship of its size and age. Smaller vessels ran whole-ship light-, or even no-grav, and weight work was a part of every crew member’s daily duty roster. Market was big enough to generate the necessary power for a field. Admin core was damn’ near one gee, as was Ops itself. Sleeping quarters was lighter; you slept strapped in and anchored your possessions to the wall. The outer edges of the ship, where the cans hooked in, that was lighter still—as near to no grav as mattered. On the outermost edge of E Deck, there was the bounceway, a rectangular space marked out for rec, where crew might swoop, fly, bounce off the walls, play free-fall tag, and—just coincidentally—sharpen their reaction times and grav-free moves.

It being a rec area, there were air vents. It being the largest open atmosphere section on the ship, it also had the highest amount of ship air to sample for pollen, spores, loose dust, and other contaminants. Jethri’s job was to open each vent, use the camera to record the visual patterns, change the camera to super and flash for spectrographic details, remove the used filter, install a fresh, and reseal the vent. That record would go right to command for analysis as soon as he plugged the camera into the charge socket

Not quite as mindless as replacing sweet-sheets, but not particularly demanding of the thought processes, either.

Mooring the sled, he slid the camera into the right pocket of his utility vest, a new filter and an envelope into the left, squinted thoughtfully at the position of the toppest vent—and kicked off.

Strictly speaking, he could have gone straight-line, door to vent. In the unlikely circumstance that there’d been hurry involved, he would, he told himself, curling for the rebound off the far wall, have chosen the high leap. As it was, hands extended and body straight, he hit the corner opposite the vent, somersaulted, arcing downward, hit the third wall with his feet, rising again, slowing, slowing—until he was floating, gentle and easy, next to the target vent.

Bracing himself, he slid the door open, used the camera, then unsnapped the soiled filter, slipped it into the envelope and snapped in the replacement. Making sure his pockets were sealed, he treated himself to cross-room dive, shot back up to the opposite corner, dove again, twisted in mid-dive, bounced off the end wall, pinwheeled off the ceiling, hit the floor on his hand, flipped and came upright next to the sled.

Grinning like a certified fool, he unsealed his pocket, slotted the used filter, took on a clean one, turned and jumped for the next vent.

* * *

IT MIGHT’VE BEEN an hour later and him at the trickiest bit of his day. The filter for the aromatics locker was special—a double-locking, odor-blocking bit of business, badly set over the door, flush to the angle with the ceiling. Aromatics was light, but by no means as light as the bounceway, so it was necessary for anyone needing to measure and change the filter to use their third hand to chin themselves on the high snatch-rod, knees jammed at right angles to the ceiling, while simultaneously using their first and second hands to do the actual work.

Normal two-handers were known to lament the lack of that crucial third appendage with language appropriate to the case. Indeed, one of Jethri’s fondest memories was of long, easy-speaking Cris, bent double against the ceiling, hanging over the vent in question, swearing, constantly and conversationally, for the entire twenty minutes the job required, never once repeating a cuss word. It had been a virtuoso performance to which Jethri secretly aspired.

Unfortunately, experience had taught him that he could either hang and cuss, or hang and work. So it was that he wrestled in silence, teeth drilling into lower lip, forcing himself to go slow and easy, and make no false moves, because it would be a serious thing if an aromatics spill contaminated the ship’s common air.

He had just seated and locked the clean inner filter, when the hall echoed with a titanic clang, which meant that the cage had cycled onto his level.

Jethri closed his eyes and clenched into the corner, forcing himself to wait until the wall had stopped reverberating.

“It’s settled,” the captain’s voice echoed in the wake of the larger noise.

Might be settled.” That was Uncle Paitor, his voice a rumble, growing slightly fainter as the two of them walked outward, toward the cans. “I’m not convinced we’ve got the best trade for the ship in this, Iza. I’m thinking we might be underselling something—”

“We’ve got space issues, which aren’t leaving us,” the captain interrupted. “This one’s Captain’s Call, brother. It’s settled.”

“Space issues, yeah,” Paitor said, a whole lot more argumentative than he usually was when he was talkin’ to the captain, and like he thought things weren’t settled at all. “There’s space issues. In what case, sister o’mine, you’d best remember those couple o’seal-packs of extra you been carrying in your personal bin for damn’ near ten Standards. You been carrying extra a long time, and some of what’s there ought to get shared out so choices can be made—”

“No business of yours—none of it, Paitor.”

“You’s the one called kin just now. But I’m a trader, and what you got’s still worth something to somebody. You make this trade and that stuff ought to be gone, too!”

“We’ll chart that course when we got fuel for it. You done?”

Paitor answered that, but Jethri only caught the low sound of his voice, no words.

Cautiously, he unclenched, reached for the second filter and began to ease back the locks, forcing himself to attend to the work at hand, rather than wonder what sort of trade might be Captain’s Call. . .

* * *

LATER, IN THE galley, Dyk was in a creative frenzy.

Jethri, who knew his man, had arrived well before his scheduled time, and already there were piles of used bowls, cruets, mixers, forks, tongs, spoons and spice syringes littering every possible surface and the floor. It was nothing short of awesome. Shaking his head, he pulled on his gloves and started in on first clean up.

“Hey, Jeth! Unship that big flat pan for me, willya?”

Sighing, Jethri abandoned the dirties, climbed up on the counter and pulled open the toppest cabinet, where the equipment that was used least was stowed. Setting his feet careful among the welter of used tools, he reached for the requested pan.

The door to the galley banged open, Jethri turned his head and clutched the edge of the cabinet, keeping himself very still.

Iza Gobelyn stood in the doorway, her face so tight the lines around her mouth stood in stark relief. Dyk, lost in his dream of cookery, oblivious to clear danger, smiled over his shoulder at her, the while beating something in a bowl with a power spoon.

“Good shift, Captain!” he called merrily. “Have we got a surprise ordered in for you tonight!”

“No,” said Iza.

That got through.

Dyk blinked. “Ma’am?”

“I said, no,” the captain repeated, her voice crackling with static. “We’ll want a quick meal, no surprises.”

The spoon went quiet. Dyk put the bowl aside, real careful, and turned to face her. “Captain, I’ve got a meal planned and on course.”

“Jettison,” she said, flat and cold. “Quick meal, Dyk. Now.”

There was a moment—a long moment, when Jethri though Dyk would argue the point, but in the end, he just nodded.

“Yes’m,” he said, real quiet, and turned away toward the cabinet.

The captain left, the door swinging shut behind her.

Jethri let out the breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding, slid the flat pan back into its grips, closed the door, and carefully got himself down to the floor, where he started back in collecting dirties.

He was loading the washer when it came to him that Dyk was ‘way too quiet, and he looked up.

His cousin was staring down at the bowl, kinda swirling the contents with the power spoon turned off. Jethri moved a couple steps closer, until Dyk looked at him.

“What was you making?” Jethri asked.

“A cake,” Dyk said, and Jethri could believe it was tears he saw in the blue eyes. “I—” he cleared his throat and shook his head, pushing the bowl away. “It was a stupid idea, I guess. I’ll get the quick meal together and then help you with clean up, right?”

Dyk wasn’t a prize as a partner in clean up, and Jethri was about to decline the favor. And a cake—why would he have been after making a cake, just coming into port? Another one of those everybody-knows-but-me things, Jethri thought, frowning at his larger cousin.

Something about the set of his shoulders, or even the tears, Dyk not being one to often cry, counseled him to think better of refusing the offered aid. He nodded, trying to remake his frown into something approaching agreeable.

“Sure,” he said. “Be glad of the help.”

— — —

Don’t forget #1stChapterFriday is a shared twitter hashtag for Fantasy and Science Fiction writers

First Chapter Friday: Scout’s Progress

So, cast your mind back — ‘way back to the last decade of the 20th century, by which I mean late 1992 and continuing into late-ish 1993.  Our third novel, Carpe Diem, had been published in October 1989, and Del Rey had cut us lose for having “disappointing sales,” which was Del Rey’s Thing back in the day, though we didn’t have the internet then, so nobody really knew it until years later, when many hearts and careers had already been broken.  I believe that we were still trying to get the rights to Carpe Diem back (that also used to be A Thing, that publishers would revert books back to the author).

Anyhow, we’d pretty much given up on the whole writing thing.  Which is to say that we still wrote, but we hardly bothered sending stuff out anymore, since the rejection letters we received on just about everything made it clear that we weren’t writing what people wanted to read.  At that point, Sharon (this is Sharon’s fault) decided, Dernit, if we’re not writing what people want to read anyway, I’m gonna write whatevertheheck I wanna write.  And what I want to write are — Regencies!

Well, Regencies, except she didn’t want to have to do the considerable research involved in writing a real Regency.  Providentially, however, the Liaden Universe® has a Regency sensibility, despite the first couple novels being action-adventure, so Sharon went back a generation, and wrote. . .two Space Regencies, Local Custom and Scout’s Progress.  That’s the order they were written in, but really, you can read either one first, so just below this introduction is the first chapter of Scout’s Progress, which introduces Aelliana Caylon Clan Mizel.

If you like what you read here, but aren’t sure you want to commit, Baen generously provides the first nine chapters of Scout’s Progress and Local Custom for your — free! — reading pleasure. In paper, Scout and Custom are included, with Conflict of Honors, in omnibus edition The Dragon Variation.

In addition to Baen ebooks, Local Custom, Scout’s Progress, and the third book in that arc (written 17 years later), Mouse and Dragon, can be purchased from The Usual Suspects.

Excerpt from Scout’s Progress, © Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, 2001

CHAPTER ONE

 Typically, the clan which gains the child of a contract-marriage pays a marriage fee to the mating clan, as well as other material considerations. Upon consummation of contract, the departing spouse is often paid a bonus.

Contract-marriage is thus not merely a matter of obeying the Law, but an economic necessity to some of the Lower Houses, where a clanmember might be serially married for most of his or her adult life.

—From “Marriage Customs of Liad”

#

“Sinit, must you read at table?”

Voni’s voice was clear and carrying. It was counted a good feature, Aelliana had heard, though not so pleasing as her face.

At the moment, face and voice held a hint of boredom, as befitted an elder sister confronted with the wearisome necessity of disciplining a younger.

“No, I’m just at a good part,” Sinit returned without lifting her head from over the page. She put out a hand and groped for her teacup.

“Really,” Voni drawled as Aelliana chose a muffin from the center platter and broke it open. “Even Aelliana knows better than to bring a book to table!”

“It’s for anthropology,” Sinit mumbled, fingers still seeking her cup. “Truly, I am nearly done, if only you’ll stop plaguing me—”

“If you keep on like that,” Aelliana murmured, eyes on her plate, “your teacup will be overset, and Ran Eld will ring down a terrific scold. Put the book aside, Sinit, do. If you hurry your breakfast you can still finish reading before your tutor comes.”

The youngest of them sighed gustily, and closed the book with rather more force than necessary.

“I suppose,” she said reluctantly. “It is the sort of thing Ran Eld likes to go on about, isn’t it? And all the worse if I had spilt my tea. Still, it’s a monstrous interesting book—I had no idea what queer folk Terrans are! Well,” she amended, prudently sliding the book onto her lap, “I knew they were queer, of course—but only imagine marrying who you like, without even a word from your delm and—and kissing those who are not kin! And—”

“Sinit!” Voni put a half-eaten slice of toast hastily back onto her plate, her pretty face pale. She swallowed. “That’s disgusting.”

“No,” Sinit said eagerly, leaning over her plate, to the imminent peril of her shirt-ribbons. “No, it’s not disgusting at all, Voni. It’s only that they’re Terran and don’t know any better. How can they behave properly when there are no delms to discipline and no Council of Clans to keep order? And as for marrying whomever one pleases—why that’s exactly the same, isn’t it? If one lives clanless, with each individual needing to make whatever alliance seems best for oneself—without Code or Book of Clans to guide them, how else—”

“Sinit.” Aelliana thought it best to stem this impassioned explanation before Voni’s sensibilities moved her to banish their younger sister from the dining hall altogether. “You were going to eat quickly—were you not?—and go into the parlor to finish reading.”

“Oh.” Recalled to the plan, she picked up a muffin-half and coated it liberally with jam. “I think it would be very interesting to be married,” she said, which for Sinit passed as a change of topic.

“Well, I hardly think you shall find out soon,” Voni said, with a return of her usual asperity.
“Especially if you persist in discussing such—perverse—subjects at table.”

“Oh, pooh,” Sinit replied elegantly, cramming jam-smeared muffin into her mouth. “It’s only that you’ve been married an hundred times, and so find the whole matter a dead bore.”

Voni’s eyes glittered dangerously. “Not—quite—an hundred, dear sister. I flatter myself that the profit the clan has made from my contract-marriages is not despicable.”

Nor was it, Aelliana acknowledged, worrying her muffin into shreds. At thirty-one, Voni had been married five times—each to Mizel’s clear benefit. She was pretty, nice-mannered in company and knew her Code to a full-stop—a valuable daughter of the clan. Just yesterday, she had let drop that there was a sixth marriage in the delm’s eye, to young Lord pel’Rula—and that would be a coup, indeed, and send Voni’s quarter-share to dizzying height.

“Aelliana’s been married,” Sinit announced somewhat stickily. “Was it interesting and delightful?”

Aelliana stared fixedly at her plate, grateful for the shielding curtain of her hair. “No,” she whispered.

Voni laughed. “Aelliana,” she said, reaching into the High Tongue for the Mode of Instruction, “was pleased to allow the delm to know that she would never again accept contract.”

Round-eyed, Sinit turned to Aelliana, sitting still and stricken over her shredded breakfast. “But the—the parties, and all the new clothes, and—”

“Good-morning, daughters!” Birin Caylon, Delm Mizel, swept into the dining room on the regal arm of her son Ran Eld, the nadelm. She allowed him to seat her and fetch her a cup of tea as she surveyed the table.

“Sinit, you have jam on your face. Aelliana, I wish you will either eat or not, and in anywise leave over torturing your food. Voni, my dear, Lady pel’Rula calls tomorrow midday. I shall wish to have you by me.”

Voni simpered. “Yes, mother.”

Mizel turned to her son, who had taken his accustomed place beside her. “You and I are to meet in an hour, are we not? Be on your mettle, sir: I expect to be shown the benefits of keeping the bulk of our capital in Yerlind Shares.”

“There are none,” Aelliana told her plate, very quietly.

Alas, not quietly enough. Ran Eld paused with a glass of morning-wine half-way to his lips, eyebrows high in disbelief.

“I beg your pardon?”

I’ve gone mad, Aelliana thought, staring at the crumbled ruin of her untasted breakfast. Only a madwoman would call Ran Eld’s judgment thus into question, the nadelm being—disinclined—to support insolence from any of the long list of his inferiors. Woe for Aelliana that her name was written at the top of that list.

Beg his pardon, she told herself urgently, cold hands fisted on her lap. Bend the neck, take the jibe, be meek, be too poor a thing to provoke attack.

It was a strategy that had served a thousand times in the past. Yet this morning her head remained in its usual half-bowed attitude, face hidden by the silken shield of her hair, eyes fixed to her plate as if she intended to memorize the detail of each painted flower fading into the yellowing china.

“Aelliana.” Ran Eld’s voice was a purr of pure malice. Too late for begging pardons now, she thought, and clenched her hands the tighter.

“I believe you had an—opinion,” Ran Eld murmured, “in the matter of the clan’s investments. Come, I beg you not be backward in hinting us toward the proper mode. The good of the clan must carry all before it.”

Yes, certainly. Excepting only that the good of the clan had long ago come to mean the enlargement of Ran Eld Caylon’s hoard of power. Aelliana touched her tongue to her lips, unsurprised to find that she was trembling.

“Yerlind Shares,” she said, quite calmly, and in the Mode of Instruction, as if he were a recalcitrant student she was bound to put right, “pay two percent, which must be acknowledged a paltry return, when the other Funds offer from three to four-point-one. Neither is its liquidity superior, since Yerlind requires three full days to forward cantra equal to shares. Several of the other, higher-yield options require as little as twenty-eight hours for conversion.”

There was a small pause, then her mother’s voice, shockingly matter-of-fact: “I wish you will raise your head when you speak, Aelliana, and show attention to the person with whom you are conversing. One would suppose you to have less melant’i than a Terran, the way you are forever hiding your face. I can’t think how you came to be so rag-mannered.”

Voni tittered, which was expectable. From Ran Eld came only stony silence, in which Aelliana heard her ruin. Nothing would save her now—neither meekness nor apology would buy Ran Eld’s mercy when she had shamed him before his delm and his juniors.

Aelliana brought her head up with a smooth toss that cast her hair behind her shoulders and met her brother’s eyes.

Brilliantly blue, bright as first-water sapphires, they considered her blandly from beneath arched golden brows. Ran Eld Caylon was a pretty man. Alas, he was also vain, and dressed more splendidly than his station, using a heavy hand in the matter of jewels.

Now, he set his wine glass aside and took a moment to adjust one of his many finger-rings.
“Naturally,” he murmured to the room at large, “Aelliana’s discourse holds me fascinated. I am astonished to find her so diligent a scholar of economics.”

“And yet,” Mizel Herself countered unexpectedly, “she makes a valid point. Why should we keep our capital at two percent when we might place it at four?”

“The Yerlind Shares are tested by time and found to be sound,” Ran Eld replied. “These—other options—my honored sister displays have been less rigorously tested.”

“Ormit is the youngest of the Funds I consider,” Aelliana heard herself state, still in the Mode of Instruction. “Surely fifty years is time enough to prove a flaw, should it exist?”

“And what do I know of the Ormit Fund?” Ran Eld actually frowned and there was a look at the back of his eyes that boded not so well for one Aelliana, once the delm was out of hearing.
She met his glare with a little thrill of terror, but answered calmly, nonetheless.

“A study of the Exchange for as little as a twelve-day will show you Ormit’s mettle upon the trading floor,” she replied, “Information on their investments and holdings can be had anytime through the data-net.”

The frown deepened, but his voice remained dulcet, as ever. “Enlighten me, sister—do you aspire to become the clan’s financial advisor?”

“She might do better,” Mizel commented, sipping her tea, “than the present one.”

Ran Eld turned his head so sharply his earrings jangled. “Mother—”

She held up a hand. “Peace. It seems Aelliana has given the subject thought. A test of her consideration against your own may be in order.” She looked across the table.

“What say you, daughter, to taking charge of your own quarter-share and seeing what you can make of it?”

Take charge of her own quarter-share? Four entire cantra to invest as she would? Aelliana clenched her fists until the nails scored her palms.

“Turn Aelliana loose upon the world with four cantra in her hand?” Ran Eld lifted an elegant shoulder. “And when the quarter is done and she has lost it?”

“I scarcely think she will be so inept as to lose her seed,” Mizel said with some asperity. “The worst that may happen, in my view, is that she will return us four cantra—at the end of a year.”

“A year?” That was Voni, as ever Ran Eld’s confederate. “To allow Aelliana such liberty for an entire year may not be to the best good, ma’am.”

“Oh?” Mizel put her cup down with a clatter, eyes seeking the face of her middle daughter. “Well, girl? Have you an opinion regarding the length of time the experiment shall encompass?”
“A quarter is too short,” Aelliana said composedly. “Two quarters might begin to show a significant deviation. However, it is my understanding that the delm desires proof of a trend to set against facts established and in-house. A year is not too long for such a proof.”

“A year it is then,” the delm announced and flicked a glance to her heir. “You will advance your sister her quarter-share no later than this evening. We shall see this tested on the floor of the Exchange itself.”

Sinit laughed at that, and Ran Eld looked black. Voni poured herself a fresh cup of tea.
Aelliana pushed carefully back from the table, rose and bowed to the delm.

“If I may be excused,” she murmured, scarcely attending what she said; “I must prepare for a class.”

Mizel waved a careless hand and Aelliana made her escape.

“But this is precisely the manner in which Terrans handle affairs of investment!” Sinit said excitedly. “Each person is responsible for his or her own fortune. I think such a system is very exciting, don’t you?”

“I think,” Voni’s clear voice followed Aelliana into the hallway, “that anthropology is not at all good for you, sister.”

First Chapter Friday: Crystal Soldier

Full disclosure:  Crystal Soldier is not the first book in the Liaden Universe®, mostly because, err, it takes place in a Whole ‘Nother Universe — a universe that is not only at war, but is losing the war.

It is the first book of a duology (the second book, despite Sharon’s insistence that she would not, no never, title a book Crystal Dragon, is — Crystal Dragon), which can be read independent of the Liaden Universe® novels.

Soldier was published in 2004 by Meisha Merlin, as a single title; Baen returned it to print as part of the omnibus edition The Crystal Variation, including Crystal Soldier, Crystal Dragon, and Balance of Trade, available everywhere.  Or it can be purchased as an ebook from Baen ebooks, and Amazon.

A detail we have neglected to mention in our previous First Chapter Friday posts (because the first two titles were available as free ebooks) is this — if you’re kinda, sorta hooked by what you read here, but you’re still not really certain you want to commit to a whole book, Baen has on its site the first nine chapters of this (and indeed,  all of their ebooks), free for the reading.

Excerpt from Crystal Soldier, © Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, 2004

PART ONE: SOLDIER
One
On the ground, Star 475A
Mission time: 3.5 planet days and counting

JELA CROUCHED IN the dubious shade of a boulder at the top of the rise he’d been climbing for half a day. Taller rock columns on either side glared light down at him, but at least helped keep the persistent drying wind and flying grit from his lips and face.

At the forward side of the boulder, down a considerably steeper slope than the one he’d just climbed, should be the river valley he’d been aiming to intersect ever since he’d piloted his damaged vessel to the desolate surface four days before.

Overhead and behind him the sky was going from day-blue to dusk-purple while—on that forward side of the boulder—the local sun was still a few degrees above the horizon, bright over what once had been a ragged coastline.

In theory he should be watching his back; in theory at least one of his guns should be in his hand. Instead, he used both hands to adjust his cap, and then to slip the sand-lenses off. He used them as a mirror, briefly, and confirmed that his face was not yet in danger of blistering from the sun’s rdiation or the wind’s caress.

Sighing, he replaced the lenses, and craned his head a bit to study the mica-flecked sandstone he sheltered against, and the scarring of centuries of unnatural winds and weather. The purpling sky remained clear, as it had been all day, and all the previous days—no clouds, no birds, no contrails, no aircraft, no threats save the featureless brilliance of the star; no friends, no enemy spiraling in for the kill, no sounds but the whisper of the dry, pitiless, planetary breeze.

So certain was he that he was in no danger that the rescue transponder in his pocket was broadcasting on three frequencies . . .
He sighed again. Without an enemy—or a friend—it would take a long time to die in the arid breeze.

Friends. Well, there was hope of friends, or comrades at least, for he’d drawn off the attacking enemy with a reflexive head-on counterattack that should not have worked—unless the attacking ship was actually crewed rather than autonomous. He’d fired, the enemy had fired, his mother ship had fired . . . and amid the brawl and the brangle his light-duty vessel had been holed multiple times, not with beams, but with fast moving debris.

Both the enemy and the Trident had taken high speed runs to the transition points, leaving Jela to nurse his wounded craft into orbit and then spiral down to the surface and attempt a landing, dutifully watching for the enemy he was certain was well fled.
There was no enemy here, no enemy other than a planet and a system succumbing to the same malaise that had overtaken a hundred other systems and a hundred dozen planets in this sector alone. Sheriekas!

Sheriekas. They’d been human once, at least as human as he was—and even if his genes had been selected and cultivated and arranged, he was arguably as human as anyone who didn’t bear a Batch tattoo on both arms—but they’d willfully broken away, continuing with their destructive experiments and their… constructs… while they offered up a grand promise of a future they had no intention of sharing.

They’d named themselves after their own dead planet, which they’d destroyed early on in their quest for transformation—for superiority. In their way, they were brilliant: Conquering disease after disease, adjusting body-types to planets, increasing life-spans . . . . They’d been driven to achieve perfection, he supposed, having once known a dancer who had destroyed herself in the same quest, though she hadn’t had the means to take entire star systems with her.

And the sheriekas—they achieved what his dancer had not. To hear them tell it, they were the evolved human; the perfected species. Along the way, they’d created other beings to accomplish their will and their whims. And then they’d turned their altered understanding back along the way they had come, looked on the imperfect species from which they had shaped themselves—and decided to give evolution a hand.
So they had returned from wherever it was they had gone, sowing world-eaters, robot armor, and destruction as they came . . . .

It had been a big war—the First Phase, they called it, fought well before his time—and the after-effects spread over generations. That those refusing the initial offer of sheriekas guidance had supposed they’d won the war rather than a battle meant… It meant that Jela was here, fighting a battle centuries later.. and that there was no pretense from the enemy, now, of benevolent oversight.

Jela blinked against the glare, pulling his mind back from its ramble. There was a real danger, with your Generalist, of feeding them so much info they got lost in their own thoughts, and never came out again.

He couldn’t afford that—not here. Not yet. He had time, he had duty. All he needed to do was get off this planet, back to a base and . . .
His timer shook silently against his wrist. Water.

He leaned into the warm boulder and dug into the left leg pouch, fingers counting over the sealed bulbs. Ten. That meant that there were still ten in the right leg pouch. He always drew first from the left, ever since the fight where he’d broken his right leg.

The leg ached in sympathy with the thought, as it sometimes did, and M. Jela Granthor’s Guard, Generalist, finished his water, uncurled himself, stretched, and danced several fight moves to bring up his attention level. Feeling considerably refreshed—his was a resilient Strain—he moved around the boulder, heading down.

Behind him, his shadow was flung back across a day’s walk or more as he strode across the ridge, but there was no one there to notice.

* * *

FROM ORBIT IT had seemed clear that something . . . unusual . . . had been at work on the world, and that a good deal of time and energy had been spent in this, the last of the river valleys likely to have retained life under the onslaught of meteor-storms and radiation bursts. After concluding that his vessel would not in fact leave the surface in its current state, there’d been little left to do but sit and hope—or explore the structures on either side of the river. Being a Generalist—and an M—he’d naturally opted for exploration.

Moments after stepping around the boulder and moving on his way, he realized that, somehow, he was not exactly where he thought he should be. He was not overlooking the valley that led to the tip of the former river delta, but was instead on the rim of a side valley.

Curiosity drove him to check his position against the satellite sensors—and he sighed. Gone, or down to three and all but one on the wrong side of the planet at the moment. They hadn’t had time to get the things into stationary orbits.

“Can’t triangulate without a triangle…”

The breeze took his voice along with it and rewarded him a moment later with an echo.

He laughed mirthlessly. Well, at least that ranging system worked. It was, alas, a system he’d never learned to use, though he’d been told that on certain worlds the experts could say a song across a snowy mountain range and tell, from the echoes, distance as well as the safety of an ice pack.

Ice pack. Now there was a dangerous thought! Truth was that this world used to have an ice pack, but what it had now for all its trouble were two meteor scarred polar regions and a star with so dangerously and preternaturally active a surface that it could be a candidate for a nova in a million years or so. His ship’s geologist had speculated that in the height of planetary winter—five hundred or so local days hence, when the planet was nearly a third more distant from its star—there might be enough cold to accumulate a water snow to some significant depth—say as deep as his boots—on the northern plains and cap.

Checking the magnetic compass for north he saw a nervously twittering display as the field fluctuated, and he wondered if there’d be another round of ghostly electric coronas lighting the night sky.

As he walked across the rocky ridge, anger built. Within historical record—perhaps as recently as two thousand Common Years—this world has been a candidate for open air colonization. In the meantime? In the meantime the sheriekas conceived and mounted a bombardment of the inner system, setting robots to work in the outer debris clouds and targeting both the star and this world.

Kill. Destroy. Make life, human, animal, any—already improbable enough—impossible…

The sheriekas did this wherever they could, as if life itself was anathema. Overt signs of sheriekas action were an indication that a planet or a system held something worthwhile…

And so here was Jela—perhaps the first human to set foot on the planet, perhaps the last—trying to understand what was here that so needed destroying, what was here that the sheriekas hated enough to focus their considerable destructive energies upon.

It wasn’t useful to be angry at the enemy when the enemy wasn’t to hand. He sighed, called to mind the breathing exercises and exercised, dutifully. Eventually, he was rewarded with calm, and his pace smoothed out of the inefficient angry stride to a proper soldier’s ground-eating lope.

Suddenly he walked in near darkness, then out again as the defile he’d entered widened. In time of snow or rain this would have been a dangerous place. It was as convenient a walkway as any, now that the plants were killed off or gone subsurface, now that the animals, if there had been any, were long extinct.

After some time he found himself more in the dark than otherwise, saw the start of a flickering glow in the sky to the north, and stopped his march to take stock. Underfoot was windblown silt. Soft enough to sleep on.

He ran through his ration list mentally, pulled out a night-pack, selected his water, and camped on the spot. Overhead the sky flickered green fire until well after he went to sleep.

* * *

THE FOOTING HAD become treacherous and Jela half-regretted his decision to travel with light-pack. The dangle-cord he carried was barely three times his height and it might have been easier to get through the more canyon-like terrain with the long rope. On the other hand, he was moving faster than he would have with the full pack, and he’d have had no more rations anyway…

Now that he was below the ridges rather than walking them he found the grit and breeze not quite so bad, though the occasional eddy of wind might still scour his face with its burden. Too, not being constantly in the direct rays of the local star helped, though that might be a problem again as it approached mid-day. For the moment, though, he was making time, and was in pretty good shape.

Rations now. Rations were becoming an issue. It was true that his rations were designed to let him work longer on less, and it was equally true that he’d been designed—or at least gene-selected—to get by on less food than most people ate, and to be more efficient in his use of water. Unfortunately, it was also true that he did require some food, some water, some sleep, and some shelter—or he, like most people in similarly deprived circumstances, would die.

Bad design, that dying bit, he thought—but no, that was what the sheriekas had thought to conquer—and perhaps had conquered. No one seemed to know that for sure. Meanwhile, he—Generalist Jela—had been designed with human care, and he approved of much of the design. He could see and hear better than average, for instance, his reaction times were fast and refined—and he was far stronger for his size than almost anyone.

It was this last bit of design work that had got his leg broken, despite it, too, being stronger than average. He just couldn’t hold the weight of six large men on it at once. He’d gone over that fight in his mind many times, and with several fighting instructors. He’d done everything right—just sometimes, no matter what, you were going to lose.

He was rambling again. Deliberately, he brought his attention back to the job at hand. The next moment or two would bring him to the mouth of the canyon and into the valley proper; soon he should have sight of the structures he’d spotted on his recon runs.
The possibility that they were flood control devices had been suggested by the ship’s geologists, as well as the idea that they were “cabinets” for some kind of energy generating stations that needed to be able to survive both flood and ice. Dams—for water conservation? Even the idea that they were the remains of housing had been suggested…

His stomach grumbled, protesting the lack of wake-up rations. He figured he’d be hungry for awhile. No reason to break that next pack open quite yet.

He slogged on, cap shading his eyes, watching for the first sign of the—

There! There was one!

It was silted in, of course, and beyond it another—but the form of it, the details of it, the stubs—
He ran—a hundred paces or so it was to the nearest—put his hand on it—

Laughed then, and shook his head.

And laughed some more, because he didn’t want to cry.

First Chapter Friday: Agent of Change

It’s Friday again, and you know what that means, right?  Right!  Time for another free first chapter to whet your appetite for more.  This week, we decided to bring you the first chapter — the very first chapter EVER, written in 1984, for the book titled Agent of Change, published in 1988 by Del Rey, as a paperback original

Once again — if you like this chapter and want to know what happens next, the whole book is available for free from the Baen Free Library, from Amazon, Kobo and the rest of the Usual Suspects.

If you like Agent, you have many more books ahead of you.  Here’s a list to get you started.

Excerpt from Agent of Change, © Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, 1988

 

Chapter One
Standard Year 1392

THE MAN WHO was not Terrence O’Grady had come quietly.

And that, Sam insisted, was clear proof. Terry had never done anything quietly in his life if there was a way to get a fight out of it.
Pete, walking at Sam’s left behind the prisoner, wasn’t so sure. To all appearances, the man they had taken was Terrence O’Grady. He had the curly, sandy hair, the pug nose, and the archaic black-framed glasses over pale blue eyes, and he walked with a limp of the left leg, which the dossier said was a souvenir of an accident way back when he’d been mining in the Belt of Terado.

They stopped at a door set deep into the brick wall of the alley. Up in front, Russ raised his fist and struck the heavy kreelwood twice.
They waited, listening to the noises of the night city beyond the alley. Then the door opened silently on well-oiled hinges, and they were staring down a long hallway.

As he stepped over the threshold, Pete gritted his teeth and concentrated on the back of the man before him. The man who was not Terrence O’Grady. Maybe.

It was in no way a remarkable back: slightly stoop-shouldered, not quite on a level with Pete’s own. Terrence O’Grady, the dossier noted, was short and slender for a Terran, a good six inches below the average. This made him a valuable partner for bulky Sam, who handled the massive mining equipment effortlessly, but was not so well suited to exploring the small gaps, craters, and crevices where a rich vein might hide.

Sam and Terry made money in the Belt. Then Terry quit mining, bought himself some land with atmosphere over it, and settled into farming, child raising, and even politics.

Eight years later Sam got a bouncecomm from Terry’s wife: Terrence O’Grady had disappeared.

Sam went to talk to wife and family, as an old friend should; he asked questions and nosed around. No corpse had been found, but Sam declared Terry dead. He’d been too stubborn a dreamer to run out on all of them at once. And, given Terry’s luck, someone would have had to kill him to make him dead before old age.

Sam said Terry had been murdered three years ago.

But recently there had been rumors, and then this person here—wearing a dead man’s face and calling himself by a dead man’s name.
Pete shook himself as they rounded a sharp corner and barely avoided stepping on the prisoner.

“Look sharp!” Sam whispered harshly.

They turned another corner and came into a brightly lit, abandoned office.

The man who was not Terrence O’Grady nearly smiled.

From this point on, he knew the layout of each of the fourteen suites in this building, the voltage of the lighting fixtures, the position of doors and windows, the ambient temperature, and even the style and color of the carpets.

Within his mental Loop, he saw a number shift from .7 to .85. The second figure changed a moment later from .5 to .7. The first percentage indicated Chance of Mission Success; the second, Chance of Personal Survival. CMS recently had been running significantly above CPS.
His escort halted before a lift, and both numbers rose by a point. When the lift opened onto an office on the third floor, the Loop flickered and withdrew—the more imminent the action, the less precise the calculations.

* * *

THE DESK WAS beautiful, made of inlaid teak and redwood imported from Earth.

The man behind the desk was also imported from Earth and he was not beautiful. He had a paunch and an aggressive black beard. Soft hands laced together on the gleaming wood, he surveyed the group with casual interest.

“Thank you, gentlemen. You may stand away from the prisoner.”

Russ and Skipper dropped back, leaving the man who was not O’Grady alone before Mr. Jaeger’s desk.

“Mr. O’Grady, I believe?” Jaeger purred.

The little man bowed slightly and straightened, hands loose at his sides.

In the depths of his beard, Jaeger frowned. He tapped the desktop with one well-manicured finger.

“You’re not Terrence O’Grady,” he said flatly. “This readout says you’re not even Terran.” He was on his feet with a suddenness surprising in so soft an individual, hands slamming wood. “You’re a damned geek spy, that’s what you are, Mr.—O’Grady!” he roared.

Pete winced and Sam hunched his shoulders. Russ swallowed hard.

The prisoner shrugged.

For a stunned minute, nobody moved. Then Jaeger straightened and strolled to the front of the desk. Leaning back, he hooked thumbs into belt loops and looked down at the prisoner.

“You know, Mr. …O’Grady,” he said conversationally. “There seems to be a conviction among you geeks—all geeks, not just humanoid ones—that we Terrans are pushovers. That the power of Earth and of true humans is some kind of joke.” He shook his head.

“The Yxtrang make war on our worlds and pirate our ships; the Liadens control the trade economy; the turtles ignore us. We’re required to pay exorbitant fees at the so-called federated ports. We’re required to pay in cantra, rather than good Terran bits. Our laws are broken. Our people are ridiculed. Or impersonated. Or murdered. And we’re tired of it, O’Grady. Real tired of it.”

The little man stood quietly, relaxed and still, face showing bland attention.

Jaeger nodded. “It’s time for you geeks to learn to take us Terrans seriously—maybe even treat us with a little respect. Respect is the first step toward justice and equality. And just to show you how much I believe in justice and equality, I’m going to do something for you, O’Grady.” He leaned forward sharply, his beard a quarter-inch from the prisoner’s smooth face. “I’m going to let you talk to me. Now. You’re going to tell me everything, Mr. O’Grady: your name, your home planet, who sent you, how many women you’ve had, what you had for dinner, why you’re here—everything.” He straightened and went back around the desk. Folding his hands atop the polished wood, he smiled.
“Do all that, Mr. O’Grady, and I might let you live.”

The little man laughed.

Jaeger snapped upright, hand slapping a hidden toggle.

Pete and Sam dove to the left, Russ and Skipper to the right. The prisoner hadn’t moved at all when the blast of high-pressure water struck, hurling him backward over and over until he slammed against the far wall. Pinned by the torrent, he tried to claw his way to the window.

Jaeger cut the water cannon and the prisoner collapsed, chest pounding, twisted glasses two feet from his outflung hand.

Russ yanked him up by a limp arm; the man staggered and straightened, peering about.

“He wants his glasses,” Pete said, bending over to retrieve the mangled antiques.

“He don’t need no glasses,” Russ protested, glaring down at the prisoner. The little man squinted up at him.

“Ah, what the hell—give ’em to him, then.” Russ pushed the prisoner toward the desk as Pete approached.

“Mr. Jaeger?” he ventured, struck by an idea.

“Well?”

“If this ain’t O’Grady, how come the water didn’t loose the makeup or whatever?” To illustrate, Pete grabbed a handful of sandy curls and yanked. The little man winced.

“Surgery?” Jaeger said. “Implants? Injections and skintuning? It’s not important. What’s important—to him and to us—is that the readout says he’s a geek. Terry O’Grady was no geek, that’s for sure.” He turned his attention to the prisoner, who was trying to dry his glasses with the tail of his saturated shirt.

“Well, Mr. O’Grady? What’s it going to be? A quick talk or a slow death?”

There was a silence in which Pete tried to ignore the pounding of his heart. This was a part of the job that he didn’t like at all.

The little man moved, diving sideways, twisting away from Russ and dodging Skipper and Sam. He hurled a chair into Pete’s shins and flung himself back toward the desk. Sam got a hand on him and was suddenly airborne as the little man threw his ruined glasses at Jaeger and jumped for the window.

Jaeger caught the glasses absently, standing behind his desk and roaring. The former prisoner danced between Russ and Skipper, then jumped aside, causing them to careen into each other. He was through the window before Pete caught the smell of acronite and spun toward the hallway.

The explosion killed Jaeger and flung Pete an extra dozen feet toward safety.

First Chapter Friday: Fledgling

So, there’s a new thing we’re taking part in, called First Chapter Friday, in which authors post the first chapter of one of their novels in a Clever Plot to get readers interested enough to buy the rest of the book.

Steve and I decided to post the first chapter of Fledgling as our first First Chapter Friday offering, for two reasons.

Reason ONE: If a reader is sufficiently captivated by this chapter and wishes to go on, they may do so immediately (so long as they don’t mind reading an ebook), and for free, by going to Amazon, or Baen eBooks, or any other of the Usual Suspects, and downloading it for free.  As in, for free.

Reason TWO:  Fledgling is the first book in the Theo Waitley story arc contained within the Liaden Universe®.  That means, if a reader likes Fledgling and wants to find out what happens to Theo, there are four more books awaiting them:  Saltation, Ghost Ship, Dragon Ship, and the just-released The Gathering Edge.

Excerpt from Fledging, © Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, 2009

One

Number Twelve Leafydale Place
Greensward-by-Efraim
Delgado

“Why do I have to go with her?” Theo demanded, and winced at the quaver in her voice. She’d meant to sound cool and remote and adult. Instead, she just sounded like a kid on the edge of a tantrum.

Housefather Kiladi looked up from his work screen and regarded her just a shade too seriously. Theo bit her lip.

“Because,” he said in his deep, calm voice, “in the culture predominant upon Delgado, children—by which I mean those persons who have not attained what that same culture deems as their majority—are understood to be submissive to, and the responsibility of, their biological mother.” He raised a strong eyebrow. “Surely you are aware of these things, Theo.”

Well, she was. But that didn’t mean she had to like them. Or live with them.

“You’re the one who taught me that accepting cultural mores is a choice,” she said, pleased that her voice was steady now, if still more heated than she would have liked. “I don’t choose to accept these particular conditions.”

“Ah.” He leaned back in his chair, hands folded on the edge of his desk, considering her out of thoughtful black eyes. “But a decision to rebel against predominant standards is only half a decision. What will you do instead?”

“I’ll stay here. With you.” There. She’d said it.

Both eyebrows rose, and he tipped his head to one side, consideringly. Theo felt a brush against her knee, and a moment later black-and-white Mandrin leapt to the top of the desk and sat down primly next to the keyboard.

“A bold and straightforward plan,” Father said eventually. “My congratulations.” He reached out to scratch Mandrin’s ears. “I must ask, however, if you have considered all the ramifications of this choice.”

Theo eyed him. “What do you mean?”

“Decisions have consequences,” he murmured, his attention seemingly centered on the cat, though she knew better. Jen Sar Kiladi had been her mother’s onagrata for as long as Theo could remember. She knew him every bit as well as she knew her mother—and I like him better, too, she thought rebelliously.

“For instance,” he told Mandrin. “Your mother will certainly be both shocked and saddened by this decision. She may exert her influence. Ethics and law are, as you know, on her side. How will you respond? To what extent are you willing to fund this choice? How much sorrow are you willing to cause? How much disdain are you willing to bear? Surely, your friends must recoil as you step beyond that which they feel and know to be proper. Your mentor may consider it incumbent upon her to alert the Safety Office, and the Safeties deem it their duty to intervene.”

Mandrin shook her head vigorously, as if these possibilities were too awful to contemplate. Professor Kiladi smiled slightly and refolded his hands, gaze settling on the untidy stack of hard copy on the desk-side table.

“In fact,” he told the papers gravely, “such deviance from the norm might come to the attention of the Chapelia, who would perhaps feel Moved to send a Simple to you, to ascertain if your rebellion might Teach.”

He glanced up and pinned her in a sharp glance.

“If you were to ask me—which I note that you have not—I would say the price seems excessive for what may be at most a few months’ inconvenience.” He inclined his head. “You must, of course, please yourself.”

Theo swallowed. “You don’t know that it’s only for a few months,” she said, her voice unsteady again.

“Do I not?” he murmured in that over-polite voice he used when he thought you were being especially stupid. “How inept of me.”

Theo looked down at the floor and the blaze of galaxies dancing there. Father’s study floor usually projected the star fields; he said they helped to put his work into perspective. Theo’s mother said they made her dizzy.

“Do you,” she said, raising her head and meeting his eyes. “Do you know for certain that it’s only going to be a couple months?”

“Child . . .” He came out of his chair in one of his boneless, catlike moves, flowing toward her across the pirouetting stars, silent in his soft, embroidered slippers. “Nothing in life is certain. Your mother tells me that she requires a few months to concentrate on her own affairs. She is, I believe, at a delicate point with regard to her career, and wishes to do all that she may to advance herself.”

He paused, head cocked to one side. “Who am I to argue with such excellent reasons? Kamele is scrupulous in these matters, and I, at least, admire her determination. For I don’t hide from you, Theo, that I am a lazy fellow. Indeed, if I did not already enjoy tenure and a position I would surely be too indolent to seek them.”

“You’re not lazy,” she said sullenly, and took a deep breath. “And the fact is, you don’t know when—or if!—she’ll decide to come back here. She might decide to, to . . .”

. . . to choose another onagrata, which was—unthinkable. Theo took a hard breath. I won’t cry, she thought. I won’t!

“She may decide to remain separate from me,” Father said, completing her thought smoothly, like it didn’t matter. “She may decide to seek another arrangement for herself and for you. These things fall within her rights as an adult in this society. However, if you will give the matter only a little consideration, I believe you will discover that you have some rights, as well. For how long have we enjoyed our private dinner on Oktavi evening?”

She blinked at him. “Ever since Kamele started teaching the late seminar,” she said. “Years and years.”

“So, it is a long-standing arrangement to which your mother has given her consent. There is therefore no reason to discontinue our pleasant habit, unless you wish to do so.”

“I don’t!”

“Then there is no more to be said.” He tipped his head, consideringly. “This is not, I think, something for Delm Korval.”

He wanted her to laugh, Theo thought. Treating her like a kid. Well . . . she wouldn’t laugh, that was all.

But she did feel, just a little, relief, knowing that the just-them Oktavi dinner would stand, no matter where Kamele—

The ancient mechanical clock wall mounted over Father’s desk struck its two notes just then—one for the hour, and one for the eighth, which was seven—and a muted thweep from her pocket registered her mumu’s agreement.

Professor Kiladi moved his shoulders in his familiar, supple shrug, and reached out to tousle her hair, like she was six instead of fourteen.

“The hour advances, child. Go finish packing. Your mother will wish to leave for the Wall before night opens its eyes.”

“I—” She cleared her throat. “I’ll come by your office on Oktavi, at the usual time.”

“Indeed,” he said solemnly. “I anticipate the occasion with pleasure.” He smiled, then, gently. “Take good care, Theo. We need not be strangers, you know.”

“I know,” she said. Mustering her dignity, she turned to go, only to find her body overruling her mind, as it so often did. She spun, flinging herself against him in a hug, squeezing tight, feeling strong arms hugging her in return.

“You take care,” she muttered fiercely into his shoulder. “Promise me, Father.”

“I promise, child,” he murmured, his deep voice a comfort. He released her, stepping back out of the embrace.

“Go, now. Be on time for your mother.”

#

Theo dropped the case containing her music slips into the packing cube, narrowly missing Coyster’s inquisitive pink nose.

“Keep out of there!” she told him, turning back toward the desk. “You don’t want to get packed, do you?”

Coyster didn’t answer. Theo swept up her biblioslips, the extra thread and her back-up hooks, and went back to the cube, walking so hard that the simulated koi swimming in the floor mosaic dashed away to hide under the simulated lily pads.

Bending, she put her things carefully into the cube and sighed, staring down into the half-empty interior. Beside her, Coyster sighed in sympathy and settled onto the rippling blue waters, white paws tucked neatly under orange chest, amber eyes serious.

“Hey.” Theo knelt and tickled him under the chin. “I’m going to miss you, cat,” she whispered, blinking hard. “Don’t play with Father’s lures, ‘k? You’ll get in trouble if I’m not around to untangle them for you.”

Coyster squeezed his eyes shut in a cat-smile, and Theo blinked again before giving him one last chuck under the chin and rising to her feet.

Her bed was stripped and folded away; the desk was clear. The desk itself, and the bed, were staying right here; all the faculty apartments in the Wall were furnished, Kamele had told her, adding that one desk was as good as another.

Theo doubted that, but Kamele had made it clear that the discussion period was closed, so she’d kept the thought to herself.

She took a deep breath. Really, she was almost done. All that was left was to take the pictures down, fold up the closet, and decide about her old books—and the mobile.

The mobile—that was hard. She’d made it herself for an art project, back when she’d been a kid. It was the Delgado System, with its space station and twin ringed ice giants, built to micro-scale. With Father’s help, she’d hung it up where the air from the vent would move it. Coyster had discovered it as a kitten, and had hatched all kinds of plans to reach it—from leaping straight up from the floor, to taking a running leap off the top shelf over the desk—but the mobile remained uncaptured.

Lately, he’d gotten above trying to capture it, but Coyster still harbored a fascination for the flying, spinning thing. Theo would entertain him—and herself—by changing the speed or direction of the air flow from the vent, to make the mobile twirl wildly, or spin verrrrry slowly. She turned her head. Yes, he was watching it now from his tuck-up next to the cube, ears set at a calculating angle.

Theo grinned, then nodded. That settled it. The mobile stayed; it would give Coyster something to do besides stalking Mandrin and playing with Father’s fishing gear.

The books . . . She wandered over to the shelf, koi beneath her shoes, and fingered the worn spines. Mr. Winter and the Mother of Snows; The Shy Kitten; I Can Find It!—stories for littlies, that Kamele and Father had read to her until she could read them herself, and did until she’d memorized them. Her fingers moved on, tarrying on Sam Tim’s Ugly Day, and a smile tugged at the corner of her unwilling mouth. “Is it worth taking to Delm Korval?” she whispered, and shook her head, eyes blurring again.

“Well.” She turned away from the shelf and looked down at the koi making lazy circles inside the floor. “No sense cluttering up my new room with books I never read anymore,” she said, maybe to the simulated fish, or maybe to the cat drowsing by the cube. She sniffled a little, and turned on her heel.

Her clothes hung orderly in the closet: dark green school coveralls with Team Three’s red stripes on shoulder and cuff; sweaters, jerseys, and slacks. She pulled her favorite sweater off its hanger, and slipped it on, her fingers stroking the border of bluebells ’round the cuff. It was too early for bluebells in the garden, of course, but—

She swallowed, blinking hard to clear her vision, and slapped the side of the closet harder than was really needed. It began to compress, hissing a little as the air squeezed out of her clothes.

Next stop was the control unit over the desk. She put her fingers against the keys, eyes closed so she didn’t have to see the picture of Delgado from the space station’s observation tower snap out of existence, or the picture of Zolanj, who had been Father’s cat before Mandrin, and who had sometimes agreed to sit on Theo’s lap, but never on Kamele’s. Or the picture of the river camp where Father went to fish, or . . .

Her fingers moved across the keypad with cold deliberation, like they belonged to someone else, while Theo bit her lip and reminded herself that they were stored in the house bank, and that she could easily retrieve them when she came . . . back.

Her fingers touched one last button; she took a deep breath and opened her eyes, to look ’round at her denuded room.

It looked . . . peculiar . . . with blank walls and floor, without all of her things spread around—like a stay-over room on the station. She blinked again, reminding herself for the hundredth time that she was not going to cry.

“Is this move really necessary?” she asked Coyster, but he was absorbed in watching the mobile and didn’t answer.

Theo shook her head. Something was wrong—really wrong—and whatever it was, the adults weren’t talking to her about it.

“Pack up, Theo, we’re moving to the Wall,” she said, in a wicked—and deadly accurate—imitation of Kamele in her I-am-the-mother voice.

And Father—Theo sniffed. She’d been sure he would understand her position. But he was just as bad as Kamele—Don’t be late for your mother! Treating her like she was a kid—

And that was wrong on a whole ‘nother level, Theo thought, as she leaned over the ambiset again, turning off the aromatics, white noise and breeze. Father never treated her like a kid—even when she acted like one. Especially when she acted like one.

She chewed her lip, staring down into the blank floor. Kamele wasn’t stupid—and neither was Housefather Kiladi, despite his frequent claims to the contrary. If whatever was going on was so twisty that they couldn’t untwist it . . .

“Maybe we ought to take it to Delm Korval, after all,” she said over her shoulder in Coyster’s general direction. He sneezed, and she grinned, reluctantly.

Behind her came the snap of the closet’s magnetic locks meeting and sealing. At that instant, her mumu thweeped its reminder—her mother would be waiting downstairs, with new keys in hand, and a determination to leave the house on Leafydale Place, where Theo had lived her whole life. ‘Til now.

“Chaos!” Theo muttered. She grabbed the closet’s handle and dashed back to the cube, sealing it with one hand while she dragged her bag over a shoulder with the other.

One last look then around the blank, bleak room. Then she took a firm grip on closet and cube and hurried out. Behind her, in the empty room, the left-behind storybooks trembled on their shelf, and one tumbled to the featureless floor.