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

 


Don’t forget to visit our Patreon page for updates and advance access to unique Lee & Miller content! Help us reach our support goal so we can worry less and write more.
Visit the Lee & Miller Patreon page now


 

 

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *