Since y’all have been so good — a Yule present. . .

. . .from Sharon and Steve, and from Toni Weisskopf at Baen, who agreed that this had to be done.

Here is your Very First Taste of Alliance of Equals, the 19th novel set in the Liaden Universe®, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller.

Chapter One
Dutiful Passage

He rushed her, a tall Terran male, overtopping and outmassing her. Padi dropped back one step, flat-footed and centered, knees flexed — and he was on her, keeping himself tight, seeking to overturn her with his speed, and flatten her under his weight. She ducked inside his reach, snatching at belt and elbow, twisting her upper body, letting him lift himself over her shoulder. Momentum, it was all his own momentum, and, in the last instant before she let him go, she straightened, adding her motion to his, throwing him with every ounce of strength she possessed before she released him — and continued the spin, completing the move and dissipating unused energy.

Her late opponent hit the floor some number of his own body lengths down the room. Hit, rolled, and leapt to his feet; turned. . .

. . .and bowed, vanquished to victor.

“Your follow, having thrown your attacker far away?” he inquired in Terran.

Padi’s bow was from student to teacher.

“I would have run, sir, and been many blocks distant before he regained his feet.”

“And if he had a partner at the top of the street?”

“I would have shot her,” she said coolly, “and run on.”

“I see.”

Arms Master Schneider looked around the practice room, as if he were seeing something other than the padded walls and floor.

Padi folded her hands and waited. Arms Master Schneider took time with his words, and there was no speeding the man up, no matter how much one might wish it. Padi supposed it another sort of practice, and did her best to recruit herself to patience.

“I wonder,” he said eventually, walking toward her, his posture soft, and his hands unthreatening. Padi remained at center, and allowed her hands to unfold into neutral positions at her sides.

Her instructor did not seem to notice; he continued to walk gently forward; his eyes on her face.

“It’s very natural,” he said, resuming speech without giving voice to what it was he had wondered; “to want to throw an enemy as far from yourself as possible, gaining the opportunity to run. But it seems to me, Padi, that your solution to a rush is invariably to throw.” He smiled, and added, “Even if you are able to throw impressively far.”

He paused, well inside Padi’s defense space, and settled deliberately, hooking his thumbs in his belt.

“We’re fortunate to have such ample practice space, but I wonder what you would do, if you were on-port, and had to counter an attack in, let’s say, a small space. An alley, a vestibule, even a ‘fresher? What, for instance, if the person standing peaceably next to you suddenly — lunged?”

He did so, far too close for mercy. There was only one imperative, here: survive to protect her pilot, and her passengers — a little boy with two infants in his charge.

She knew the answer; she had drilled the answer until it was reflex.

Ducking, she stepped into his lunge, raised a hand and snapped into a short, savage jump. The extended palm should have caught him under the chin, but Arms Master Schneider was far too canny for that. He arched into a backflip, using the space he had only just been scolding her for utilizing. Padi landed lightly in place, shaking her arms to release the energy she had withheld. Delivered with full force, the strike to the chin would have snapped her attacker’s head back and broken his neck.

It was of course very bad form to kill one’s instructor; besides, she liked Arms Master Schneider — and it was practice. Even if the blow had landed, he would have been in no danger, though he might have had a headache, after.

“Your reasoning?” he asked, from two body lengths away.

Padi bowed.

“You had posited cramped quarters and an assailant well within my space. The only sure answer in such a case is a kill. I cannot risk a deflection; I might find myself snatched and immobilized, unable even to call a warning. I cannot risk a prolonged engagement, if indeed, as you had also offered, the first attacker was one of a team. I am alone, and I must prevail quickly, if I am to survive.”

There was a long silence while Arms Master Schneider told over his store of words.

“Let’s try another scenario, in that same small space, in a confusion of wind and darkness, let’s say. A person is grabbing for you, and crying out. What’s your answer?”

Padi frowned, and paused to consider the question twice, suspecting a trick. But, a second examination revealed nothing that might change her answer.

“It is the same,” she said, calmly. “I must take definitive action.”

“And if it’s later found that the person who reached for you was asking for your assistance — or warning you of danger? Your answer would kill an innocent — even an ally — no differently than a villain.”

But this is play-acting! Padi thought irritably.

“The only intent I can be certain of is my own,” she said, which was straight from the training tapes they had Learned on the Rock. “Others depend upon me. I cannot risk myself.”

“What do you risk, by dancing an avoid before the kill?”

“Time,” she said promptly; “tempo. Opportunity.”

Arms Master Schneider pressed his lips together, which he did when he was considering something especially difficult.

“We have a few minutes left,” he said eventually. “Let’s practice some of the common avoids. Particularly, we should pay attention to how much time is lost to the move, and if tempo can be preserved — or even created. You will take the part of the attacker.”

He bowed, and she did. Both centered themselves.

“At will,” he said, and Padi launched into action.

* * *

There was no new correspondence in his mail queue.

There was, for instance, no letter from the Terran Trade Commission confirming the committee’s decision to upgrade Surebleak Port from Local to Regional. Such confirmation had been promised to him by the committee chair no later than the end of the relumma. Which was fast approaching.

Additionally, there was no letter from Lomar Fasholt, which he had been expecting daily, if not hourly, since Theo had reported that his former trade partner had broken with her Temple, and subsequently disappeared from her homeworld.

Nor, for that matter, was there a message from Theo, acknowledging receipt of his pinbeam, and reporting that she, her ship, and her crew were enroute to Surebleak and the safety of Korval’s clanhouse.

Shan glared at the empty in-box. It hardly seemed fair or fitting that a circumstance which ought to have afforded real, if fleeting, pleasure should instead generate strong feelings of frustration.

He felt his fingers moving in a soothing, familiar rhythm, glanced down and saw a chipped red gaming counter, its edges showing naked wood, moving across the knuckles of his left hand. The token crossed the last knuckle, his hand turned, palm up, to catch the thing before once again setting it on its journey.

He sighed.

He had acquired the gaming token, and the fingering exercise, elsewhere, and some little while ago. In fact, he had lately considered himself quit of both, having gone so many days undisturbed by either. Only to find them manifesting again, and with the Passage barely out of the homeport. Simple sleight-of-hand, that was all. Completely unremarkable, save for the manner of its. . .acquisition.

Three times, while he watched, the token walked across his knuckles. At the end of the fourth journey across the back of his hand, it did not fall into his waiting palm, but seemed instead to vanish into plain air. That would, perhaps, have been comforting, if he did not know with a certainty that had nothing to do with logic, or even understanding how the trick was done, that the token was, now, in his right front trouser pocket.

Blast the thing.

He took a deep breath to cool his irritation, and looked back to the screen.

Certainly he had other work to fill his idle hours, even if he had no mail.

The touch of a key banished his unsatisfying inbox and brought the sketch of the new trade route onto the screen.

It was, truth told, a malformed and unbalanced thing, hardly worthy of a novice trader, much less a master. He knew how to build routes, of course, but the sad truth was that most of his work as Korval’s master trader had been the maintenance and modification of long-established routes built by the master traders who had gone before him.

He hadn’t built a major new route since. . .well. Since the Bestwell-Kessel-La’Quontis Route, the year that Padi was born.

“Admit it, Shan,” he said aloud, “you’ve gotten soft.”

There being no argument forthcoming from himself, he reached for his wine glass and sipped, eyes on the inelegant shambles adorning his screen.

He might, he thought, putting the glass aside, be somewhat kinder to himself. The route as described revealed not so much a master trader whose skills had atrophied, as a master trader who was required to feel his way, combining discovery with design.

The first part of the route — that had been well enough, with six stops of light trade, all at ports known to Korval ships, if not to Dutiful Passage herself. At each of those six ports, in addition to the trade, he and Priscilla had met with allies and business partners, to strengthen old ties, and to build new ones, where necessary, the two of them empowered by the delm to speak with Their Voice.

They were now embarking upon the second phase, wherein they would be on the search for new trade partners, allies, and business associates. They would also, in this phase as in the former, be demonstrating to the universe that Clan Korval, doing business as Tree-and-Dragon Family, was doing business; that it was not afraid of its enemies; nor ashamed of its past actions. Miri had dubbed the plan playing chicken with the universe, but she had agreed with him, Priscilla, and with Val Con, that the demonstration was required.

Though the actions that had seen Korval banished from Liad had been justified, not to say necessary, they had — people, rumor, and politics being what they were — their character to redeem, and the sooner they began that work, the sooner they would succeed.

Also, they labored under another piquant truth: the clan’s purse was. . .less than plump. Oh, they were by no means destitute, and Ms. dea’Gauss was hard at work establishing new income streams and researching new investments.

Still, there had been a cost in removing themselves, and their finances, from Liaden society, and Liaden economy. In the long term, Liad would pay the larger portion of that invoice, which, while satisfying to contemplate, did nothing to mitigate the necessity of Korval’s holding household while establishing a firm base of operations on a rather backward planet, and seeking to expand their resources.

Historically, the clan had expanded resources through trade. And it was his duty, as Korval’s master trader, to build new routes — strong, viable, profitable routes — and build them quickly.

Which adventure, he had best be about.

So. Their first new stop on the route they were simultaneously discovering and building was Andiree in the Kinsa Sector. According to the Guild Quick Guide, Andiree was a solid port, rated Safe, for whatever comfort that might lend to the naive, or those who made it their business to be unsafe. It declared itself Terran, yet had included in its colonizing population a small number of Liaden artisan clans.

That was of interest, being something like the situation in which Korval now discovered itself. The Liaden artists of Andiree, rather than forming an enclave from which the greater planetary society was excluded, as Liadens had done on other worlds where they were the minority population. . .the artists had embraced the local culture, first on the level of craft, as they joined with those who shared their passions for pottery, sculpture, painting, paper-making, carving, and weaving, and from that base spreading out, into, and finally joining with, the planetary society.

According to the anthropologists who had studied the place, what had occurred over time was not the assimilation of one population, with its customs, into the other, but a melding that had produced a separate-but-equal third society with entirely new customs. The primary unit of personal allegiance, for instance, was neither clan nor family, but guild. Contract marriage existed, but between guildmasters only, as a political tool, rather than for progeny. Balance existed, administered formally through the guilds, while Balance between individuals was socially unacceptable.

Shan sighed. Andiree was perhaps a glimpse of Korval’s future, though it was difficult to imagine Surebleak’s blunt and rugged culture allowing itself to accept anything of Liaden sensibilities — or even Korval House custom.

It was. . .profoundly disturbing, to think that they — that who they were, and had been since the Great Migration itself, would be lost within a generation, or two. . .

The door to his office hissed slightly as it opened and he spun from his screen, coming to his feet as his lifemate entered.

She paused, brows knit, as the door closed quietly behind her.

“Shan? What’s wrong?”

In addition to her melant’is as lifemate to the thodelm of yos’Galan, and captain of the Dutiful Passage, Priscilla Delacroix y Mendoza was a Witch — or, according to Liadens, a dramliza. She would have read his emotions even as he now read hers, thereby learning that she was tired, and slightly irritable. A meeting with the third mate, then, he thought, moving around the desk.

“Nothing so much as wrong,” he said, opening his arms. “I was only reflecting on Korval’s future, and how we will soon become strangers to ourselves.”

Priscilla stepped willingly into the offered hug, her arms going ’round his waist. She sighed, deeply, and dropped her head to his shoulder. He lay his cheek against her soft curls, and breathed in her fragrance.

“He’s a bit stiff in the honor, the third mate,” he murmured.

Priscilla hiccuped a small laugh.

“He is, isn’t he?”

She sighed again, and he tasted the particular tang of a relaxation exercise, even as her body softened against his.

“I ordered a tray brought to us here,” she said, straightening slowly out of the embrace. “I hope you’ll join me.”

“Breakfast or supper?” he asked, lightly.

“Both — or neither. Or perhaps a midnight snack, before I seek my bed.” She smiled at him, and added, “My lonely bed.”

He laughed.

“Underhanded play, Priscilla!”

“Nothing more than the truth.” She tipped her head. “The change in Korval’s estate worries you.”

“Not our estate so much as our future,” he said, moving toward the cabinet. “May I pour you a glass of wine?”

“Please.”

Priscilla preferred white wine. He poured generously.

“Val Con was pleased to leave Liad, though not,” she added thoughtfully, “necessarily with the manner of it.”

“Val Con is yos’Phelium, and a scout. He’s obliged to find the — former homeworld tiresome.” He sighed, and shook his head. “It may be that I refine too much. After all, if we’re to become something else, it was Father who began it, with his Terran lifemate. Only see what came of that!”

“Even more Terran lifemates?” Priscilla asked, taking the glass from his hand with a smile.

“Three, so far, in the following generation,” he agreed, turning toward the desk to retrieve his own glass. “The gods alone know what — or whom — Nova may embrace.”

“If anyone,” Priscilla said, and glanced toward the desk an instant before the incoming message chime sounded from the comm.

Shan stepped ’round the desk and tapped a key.

The letter in-queue was from James Abrofinda.

Shan smiled. He was fond of James Abrofinda, and met him too seldom. He’d been a Tree-and-Dragon contractor for at least twenty Standards, and —

Notice of Buy-Out

Shan blinked, and sat down, carefully, in his chair.

Immediately after Korval’s action against the Department of the Interior base beneath Liad’s surface, which had, regrettably, left a crater in Solcintra City — he had received quite a number of buy-out notices, most from Liadens, as would be expected. He had by this time rather thought he was done with buy-out notices. To receive one now, and from such a source — a Terran small trader running a long, stable route; open to trying new, or slightly outrageous, cargoes; quick to communicate what worked and what didn’t. . .

But, wait, there was a letter, too. Shan tapped a key, and felt a light hand settle on his shoulder.

“I thought we’d seen the last buy-out,” Priscilla said.

“As I did, but here — James has done us the kindness of explaining himself. . .”

A quick scan put him in possession of the facts. James had come in to Capenport, where he was not only well-known, but expected. Before the hull was cool, the port had slapped him with a fine equal to half his cargo —

“Because he’s our contractor?” Priscilla said, reading along with him.

“And because Capenport decided that Korval committed crimes against a planet and is therefore outlawed,” Shan read the next bit aloud.

I’d been hearing some muttering here and there about Tree-and-Dragon turning bad, but I put it down to the usual. This, though — I’m a small shipper; I can’t afford another fine like this one.

Outcome is that I dumped the cargo, next port up, and cleared the logos and call-signs off the hull and out of my landing packet. I never thought I’d do this, but there’s no other way; I’m buying the contract out. The deposit’s been made to my usual account. I’m sorry for it, there’s no acrimony in it, except for the pinheads at Capenport. You and me, and the Dragon, we’re in Balance, but we can’t do business.

Here’s my advice: Change the trade-name, if you want to keep on with the family business. I don’t like to think about what might have happened if Pale Wing or the Passage had come onto Capenport, considering what they felt was just punishment for a contractor.

Be careful, Shan.

He sighed, and leaned his head back into Priscilla’s hip.

“A rational man, James. Of course, change our name is just what we can’t do, the delm being adamant in their opinion that we have comported ourselves with impeccable melant’i and are in no way ashamed of our actions.”

“Korval revealed and weakened a hidden enemy of Liad and its people,” Priscilla said, her fingers quietly kneading his shoulders. “Not only have we done nothing wrong; Korval is a hero.”

“Not to hear the Council of Clans tell it. And various of the news sources. But I agree — Korval’s honor is unscathed, and our melant’i in the matter of the Department of the Interior is pure.” He sighed.

“Poor James. A two cantra buy-out on top of that fine? And he’ll have dumped the cargo at salvage rates.”

“Send the money back. Tell him it’s compensation for his loss; that Tree-and-Dragon doesn’t expect its contractors to bear the expense of false accusations.”

Shan laughed.

“Priscilla, that’s reasoned like a Liaden.”

“No,” she said, seriously; “it’s reasoned like an honorable person, who wants to do well by those who have done well for him.”

A chill froze him for a moment before he shook his head.

“Yes, I am going to have to become accustomed, aren’t I?”

“It’ll come,” Priscilla said, and he felt the brush of her emotions — amusement and concern, with concern the greater part of the mixture.

“I suppose it will,” he said. “Padi’s generation will be the last, I think, to consider themselves Liaden. Those who follow will be Bleakers.” He sighed. “Who names a planet Surebleak?”

Priscilla laughed.

“It was descriptive, surely?”

“Oh, surely; and still is. Until Mr. Brunner gets those weather satellites up and tuned, and even then, I fear we’ll only have graduated to Halfbleak.”

“Our house will be there,” she murmured, which was perhaps an attempt to give his thoughts a more cheerful direction, in which she was partly successful.

“Our house will be there if ever Architect vin’Zeller will finish with the plans and send them to us! I’d hoped to break ground during the current year’s summer. If we need to wait through another winter –“

A chime sounded, sweet and high: the door annunciator.

“Your midnight snack arrives,” Shan said to Priscilla, and raised his voice slightly. “Come!”

The door whisked aside, and Arms Master Schneider brought his tall and muscled self into the office. He paused and inclined slightly from the waist, his compromise between a bow and a Terran nod.

“I hope I’m not inconvenient,” he said.

“Not in the least,” Shan assured him, considering the swirl of the man’s emotions. “What may I be honored to do for you, Jon?”

Jon came another step into the office, and gave them each a solemn glance, in turn.

“Well, sir — ma’am — I’d like to talk to you about Padi’s defense training.”

Alliance of Equals
A Liaden Universe® Adventure
©2015 Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
Publication Date: July 5, 2016, Baen Books

A preview of Necessity’s Child

Necessity’s Child

A Liaden Universe® Adventure

©2012 by

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Chapter One

Inside the duct, it was hot and wet — nothing new there, thought Kezzi, shifting her weight carefully. The metal snapped in complaint, and she made herself be still.

The space felt smaller than it had last time. Pulka would scoff if she said so, and ask if her shoulders yet touched the walls. They didn’t, but she had several times bumped her head as she’d crawled to the leaking seam, and scraped her elbows against the metal while she was applying the sealant.

Pulka said it was only her weak heart that made her clumsy. He would tousle her hair as if she were Very Small, and tell her to ask the luthia for a prayer and a potion.

After the last repair, when Pulka had laughed at her, Kezzi had done just that. The luthia, Grandmother Silain, made her sit at the fire, and poured tea from her kettle for them both. She asked many questions about the ducts, their purpose, and their importance to the kompani, sipping; listening with witch’s ears while Kezzi explained that the ducts were the path that the boiling water took along the bottom of the floor above their heads, that at once warmed the soil of the garden, and the kompani’s living space.

When she had finished, the luthia poured more tea into Kezzi’s cup, and bade her drink; that a strong head was not a weak heart.

Now, waiting on hands and knees in the damp heat, the little light in her work hat flickering like a flame in a draft, she tried to breathe slow and calm, like Silain had taught her. It was not a sin, that she disliked the ducts; she did not have to like them. All that was required of her was that she do her given-work well.

It was said of the kompani by the elders of the kompani that what Bedel hands built rarely needed repair.

The ducts, and the steam-plant — those had not been built by Bedel, but they had been rebuilt by those capable hands, and Kezzi’s trips inside were not frequent.

Still, she thought, taking another breath, and thinking, not of water so hot it would boil the skin from her bones in an eyeblink, but of Malda, waiting for her at the access point, sitting exactly where she had told him, quivering from pointed nose to skinny tail. She had promised him a run in the upper level, when this work for her elder was done.

What was Pulka doing? Kezzi wondered irritably. Had he fallen asleep?

As if he had heard her thought, Pulka spoke, his voice loud through the metal skin.

“Tolerances check. You may return to us, little sister.”

This was the worst part. She had long since grown too big to turn around in this small space, which meant she had to crawl backward to the nearest access point. As slow as it was to crawl in, it was twice as slow and slower to back out.

At last, though, she made it. A breeze cooled her sweaty cheeks, and she bit her lip, forcing herself to keep an even pace. If she went too fast, she risked another seam parting, which would mean she would have to go back inside. . .

Strong hands grabbed her around the waist, pulled her free of the last inches of the duct. Pulka swung her around high over his head, like she was a baby, then set gently on her feet.

“Well, done, little sister. I am grateful for your assistance, and now I give you leave to go.” Pulka pulled the work hat from her head, and gave her a swat on the rump.

“By all means, do go! And take your blessed servant with you.”

He meant Malda, who sat as she had pictured him, quivering with joy at her return, his pointed snout wrinkled in a smile. Pulka, Kezzi thought, didn’t much like Malda, but, then, Malda didn’t much like Pulka.

She pulled off her gloves and hung them on the loop of her belt.

“Malda,” she said, snapping her fingers. “Come.”

The little dog leapt up and ran to her, made one tight, wriggling turn around her ankles, and looked up into her face expectantly, as if he was afraid she’d forgotten her promise.

As if she could. Kezzi took a deep breath of cooler air, and another, hearing the clatters and clanks Pulka made, as he sealed up the hatch. As soon as that was done, he would go to the wheel and turn it, flooding the place she had just been with scalding water.

Kezzi swallowed, and turned hastily toward the ramp, snapping her fingers at Malda to follow.

They were hardly three steps into freedom when a bell sounded, high enough to pierce the ear, soft enough that it would not be heard — outside.

Kezzi groaned. She thought, fleetingly, of running on; of pretending that she hadn’t heard.

. . .but she had heard. And even if she hadn’t, Pulka had, and he was calling her.

“Little sister, come! The Bedel are rung together!”

#

They gathered ’round the common fire, all who had been in-kompani, and heard the call. Nearest the fire sat Alosha, the headman, and Silain, the luthia. At Silain’s right hand was Torv, whose given-work took him often among those outside, to repair what had not been built by Bedel hands, to watch, and to listen.

Kezzi slipped into her place between Vylet and Droi, and gathered Malda onto her lap, hoping that Torv would speak quickly, so that she and Malda could get their run, before dreamwork took her.

The bell rang again, and all the talk and chatter and laughter among the kompani quietened.

Alosha the headman rose and looked around at them all, gathered in the half-circle before the fire. Such was the strength of his soul, that Kezzi felt his gaze touch her face, and move on, until he had seen them all.

“Torv of our kompani has news from the City Above,” he said then. “Listen well, Bedel. After, we will talk.”

Kezzi wilted where she sat. Talk. Talk could go on for hours. Malda would have no run today.

And neither would she.

The headman stepped back from the fire and sat on his rug. Torv rose to his lanky, considerable height, and looked out over them as the headman had done, though his soul was not so strong that Kezzi felt him see her.

“I come,” he said, “just now from the City Above, where there is unrest among the gadje — Those Others.”

Kezzi dropped her chin onto the top of Malda’s head and sighed loudly enough to win Vylet’s frown. Unrest in the City Above was a common thing. Why had the headman gathered them to talk about a fact of life?

“Some kompani of Those Others have entered into dispute,” Torv continued. “They break each the tools of the other, and dismantle those things built and valued by the rival kompani.”

Again, Kezzi sighed, though this time not so loudly that Vylet heard. Who cared if gadje disputed with each other, or broke each other’s workings? So far as Kezzi knew, gadje existed to break things. Had they not broken even Malda, leaving him for her to bring back to the kompani so that he might be repaired by Silain, the most potent pair of hands among the Bedel?

“There is more,” Torv said, as if someone among them had voiced what Kezzi thought. “A blood feud has been opened against The Folk of the Tree. An attempt was made on the life of the headwoman. An answer is expected — is, I will say, brothers and sisters, feared. The gadje are in a time of turmoil, and nothing is safe from them.” He took a breath, and looked to the headman, who moved his hand in assent.

“Yes. Having seen what I have seen, and heard what I have heard, I advise the kompani, most strongly, to remove for a time from the City Above, in order that we not be caught by or made victim of the gadje’s madness.” He held his arms out as if he would embrace them all.

“Brothers and sisters, ask what you will. I will answer as best I might.”