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