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.

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