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Chapter One

The delm is the face and the voice of the clan, representing the interests of the clan to the world and solving those problems presented by the members of the clan. The clan's whole honor and melant'i reside with the delm.

—Excerpted from the Liaden Code of Proper Conduct

On balance, Daav yos'Phelium thought as he strode down the hall toward his office, it had not been one of his better solvings.

Oh, it had produced the desired result—he was free of a marriage that could only have ended in tragedy, and had preserved the sanity of a fine pilot in the bargain. Surely, on first glance, it were done well enough.

On second glance, however, it was a shambles of a solving, unworthy of one who had stood as Delm of Clan Korval for five heartbeats, let alone very nearly five Standard Years.

Clan Bindan held out to society's gossip, and himself to ridicule—those outcomes concerned him not at all. He did regret that he had not been able to entirely protect Samiv tel'Izak, who had until scant hours ago been his affianced wife. But his failure to shield Aelliana—his pilot!—from the eyes of the curious and the tongues of the malicious was clumsy beyond excuse.

"Really, Daav," he told himself, his voice muted by the wooden walls, "you might have had a better result from Shan."

Alas, that his small nephew had been abed just when his advice had most been needed.

He opened the door to his office with rather more force than was necessary and was nearly at his desk before he registered the presence of another person in the room.

Stride unchecked, he glanced over his shoulder, where Master Trader Er Thom yos'Galan sat before a card table fetched from the game closet, his port comm open, and a neat stack of papers resting on the rug at his side.

"Good morning, brother," Daav said, his voice brittle in his own ears. He moved 'round the desk and slapped the computer up. "Has your lifemate barred you from your own office?"

"My own office," Er Thom replied crisply, "would not inform me immediately you had arrived home."

Daav dropped into his chair, fingers flashing across the keys. "You might have left a message," he noted, his attention more than half on his screen. "I would have called."

"Would you? Is it ill-tempered to note that last evening you failed of calling—and this morning, as well."

Oh, Daav thought, hearing the thread of anger beneath the precise words.

"You will think it a poor enough excuse, but last evening there was no time to call. A life hung upon speed."

"Were you speedy enough?" Er Thom inquired.

"In fact, I was not," Daav answered, splitting his screen into quarters and assigning a task to each.

Er Thom was heard to sigh.

"Delm Guayar came to me this morning," he said.

Daav closed his eyes. Guayar had been his weapon of choice, whom he had primed with news of scandal, and aimed at Bindan. The other delm had done his work thoroughly, and had doubtless enjoyed the doing of it. It was not, however, to be expected that he would keep such a fine story in his vest pocket. Most especially not when Bindan could be expected to very soon shout the whole of it to the stars. Of course, he would next impart his news to Er Thom, who was, after all, Thodelm yos'Galan, heir to Delm Korval, and Daav's cha'leket. Not only would Guayar enjoy retelling the tale, but it would seem to him a kindness.

"All honor to him," he said, opening his eyes. Guessing his pilot's size, he ordered the jacket, and directed it to Chonselta Healer Hall, priority.

"All honor to him," Er Thom echoed, dryly. "Indeed, he did much to prepare me for The Gazette."

Daav's fingers stilled; he looked down at the keyboard. The Gazette. Yes, certainly. "Brother, I confess all: I am an idiot."

There was the sound of a chair being set back and a rustle of clothing as Er Thom stood.

"I would hardly say that," he commented, his steps soft as he came behind Daav's chair. "Surely it takes a certain genius to create quite so . . . comprehensive a muddle?"

Despite the fear roiling in his gut, Daav shouted a laugh. "Wretch." He returned his attention to the screen, fingers moving once more.

"What do you?" Er Thom asked, the chair shifting as he crossed his arms on the back. He leaned forward, his cheek next to Daav's, his attention likewise on the screen.

Terror wrenched Daav, so potent that his fingers stumbled.

"My pilot requires proper clothing," he said, voice tight. "Her own could not have survived the night."


There was silence while Daav ordered ready-mades: a robe, shirt, sweater, trousers, undergarments. As with the jacket, he must need guess her size, but he could hardly do worse than the clothes her own House had seen fit to give her. After a moment's hesitation, he admitted that the boots were beyond him. Well, he thought, and if he must carry her to the nearest cobbler, she was no great weight.

"Tell me, brother." Er Thom's breath was warm against his cheek. "Does Korval now speak for this pilot? Aelliana Caylon, I should mean."

"I am her copilot," Daav grated. "It is nothing less than my duty to see her properly clad." He closed his eyes. "At least that."

"Yet," his brother persisted, "the pilot has kin on-planet. Surely—"

"She will take nothing else from that House!" He gasped against the jolt of anger, and bowed his head, staring at his fist resting on the keyboard, and the shine of Korval's Ring on the third finger of his left hand.


"I am her copilot," he said harshly, "in a hostile port. Her kin—her brother!—did his utmost to murder her, and nothing to his credit, that he failed." He took a breath. "If he failed."

"Surely, he had done so," Er Thom said after a moment. "Else the lady would have no need of new clothes."

"He—she was brain-burned. The Healers . . . were with her, when—finally!—we found her. It is possible that Aelliana as she had been has not, after all, survived."

"I see." The chair moved as Er Thom stood away. Daav heard his steps, approaching the card table. He spun, watching as his cha'leket plucked a sheaf of hard copy from the pile on the rug and came back to the desk.

"There is something else in The Gazette that will interest you, I think," he said, placing the paper into Daav's hand. He hitched a hip onto the edge of the desk and used his chin to point. "Page eight."

Clan news, that would be; listings of marriage contracts signed and contracts fulfilled; deaths; adoptions—


Daav riffled the pages, scanning the lists. Near the bottom of the third column, he found it:

Mizel grieves for the death of its son, Ran Eld Caylon.

There were no kin names listed, no indication of Ran Eld Caylon's standing within Clan Mizel at the moment of his sad passing, nothing to identify the instrument of his will, or the crime for which he had died. Merely that stern, sad statement, letting all the world know that Ran Eld Caylon had been cast out from clan and kin and was a dead man, metaphorically, if he had, indeed, Daav thought, managed to live out the night.

Daav raised his head and met his brother's serious gaze. "At least, they had enough honor to do what was needful," he said, schooling his voice to something approaching temperance.

"Just so," Er Thom agreed. He tipped his bright head. "It was well done to rid yourself of the marriage contract with Bindan," he continued after a moment. "Shall I expect dea'Gauss?"

"I have already forewarned him of Bindan's interest." Daav tossed The Gazette onto the desk top and leaned back in his chair, suddenly weary beyond words.

"We are not out of it intact, you know," he said. "Doubtless, there will be penalties to pay. I have instructed Mr. dea'Gauss to scrutinize Bindan's every claim for the clan. For those things represented as being toward Samiv's good—there we shall be generous."

"Shall we?" Er Thom asked interestedly.

"We shall, indeed. She took harm from us twice, through no fault of hers and all of mine. I owe her much—more, perhaps, than I can hope to Balance, yet the attempt must be made."

"Indeed it must, but that, surely, is for later."

"Yes, it is for later," Daav agreed. "For the near term, I return immediately to Chonselta Healer Hall. Having seen me safe and scolded me well, you may now seek the comforts of your own office. I swear to you that I will call, when I am again in house."

"Is it wise, I wonder, to go immediately to Chonselta?"

Daav blinked. "Master Ethilen had said I might come today, after Aelliana had rested. I—they denied me last evening, and she is of such a mind—it would not be wonderful to her, that she had been abandoned, and I will not have her doubt me!"

"Indeed, indeed." Er Thom leaned forward, cupping Daav's cheek in a warm hand. "I only ask you to consider, denubia. You claim copilot's duty. I honor that—how can I not? But the copilot must also be competent in his service, must he not—and even more so in a case where his pilot may not be able?"

Warily, Daav nodded.

"Yes. Might Pilot Caylon's copilot then ask himself how best he might serve her: by returning immediately, exhausted and scarcely in command of himself, to Chonselta? Or by sleeping for an hour or two, knowing the pilot well guarded in Healer Hall, so that he returns to her fit and able to see to her safety?"

Daav smiled, feeling it waver on his lips.

"You argue like a trader, beloved," he said.

Er Thom laughed.

"Do I take that for a promise?" he asked.

Daav sighed. "A promise, yes."

"Good. Will you wish to have me with you, at Chonselta?"

"I think not. Best for you to stay and play nadelm. I fear there may be some calls today."

It was Er Thom who sighed then. "I was afraid of that," he said.

* * *

Inviolate, she floated, at ease among pinpoints of memory. Her course was meandering, though some way in her control. If she focused on that point, there, why then, she would draw close enough to observe something like a playlet, save she knew the characters intimately.

Here was Ran Eld, his face twisted in anger, blood from the blow she had dealt him marring his cheek.

There were Frad and Clonak, urging her to accept an escort, rather than go home, to her delm, alone.

There again was the noisy table, the comfort of familiar faces, the weight of the first class license in her hand.

Here was Daav, his slim body warm as they danced—and Daav again, shoulders slumped, walking away from her in the dawnlight.

Each playlet she observed lent her weight, so that by the time she had reacquainted herself with the events of the past day, she was aware that she lay upon a mattress, blankets pinning her gently.

Aelliana opened her eyes.

The woman seated next to her bed was neither expected nor unexpected. Short, hull-grey hair waved back from a face softened by wrinkles. Her eyes were also grey, and not soft at all.

"Good morning," she said ironically, as if the commonplace were a joke. "How do you find yourself this day?"

Another commonplace, yet it seemed that this woman actually wished to hear the answer to her question. Aelliana considered. Doubtless, she had been bruised in the tussle with Ran Eld. She also remembered, as if it had happened some very long time ago, and to someone else, that she had been . . . ill. There had been—she had been too unsteady to walk, had fallen . . . several times. Then the taxi and the pilots at the Guild Hall . . .

"I find myself . . . at peace," Aelliana said slowly, "and less wounded than I believe I had been."

"Excellent on both counts. Peace is a gift of the house. I urge you to treasure it, for it will, I fear, too soon fade. As for the hurts that you recall—the autodoc made quick work of them."

Another memory rose, distant still, but with the power to alarm.

"My brother—the Learning Module . . . "

"Yes, exactly so," the woman interrupted briskly. She extended a hand and touched Aelliana's forehead. Warmth flowed from her fingertips, dissolving distress, introducing a pleasant languor . . .

"Of your kindness, I would keep you thus a short while longer. No harm will come to you—I, Kestra, Master of the Healing Art, attest this. It is merely that the examination I must now perform is best done in . . . peace."

"I . . . am at Healer Hall?" The warmth filled her head, flowed down her neck, her back, her arms.

"Healer Hall. Just so."

"But . . . " Aelliana snatched at her flagging will, and focused on the other woman's face. "Am I—damaged?"

"That is what I wish to determine, child. Now, rest, and let me in."

* * *

Aided by a Scout meditation technique, he slept for precisely two hours: dreamless, revitalizing sleep, from which he rose as fresh as if from a long and comfortable night. He showered, dressing in simple white shirt and tough trousers, with his pilot's jacket over all—a compromise between protocol and necessity. Aelliana knew him best in leathers, which simply would not do for this; nor would he discomfort her by appearing in delm's finery.

"Though she must straightaway know you for Korval," he scolded himself as he snatched his hair into a tail and snapped a ring 'round the thick, dark stuff to hold it tame. He looked at himself in the mirror, seeing sober eyes and a face tight with dread. "If she is able."

Brain-burn was a serious matter. To be subjected to the direct attention of a Learning Module at full intensity for five hours—she could not have escaped injury. How dire were her wounds, and in what manner they altered the Aelliana he knew . . .

His reflection blurred into a smear of black and gold and silver.

"Take your Jumps in order, Pilot," he whispered, blinking his vision clear. "First, to Chonselta, and the gathering of such facts as the Healers may feel inclined to impart."

He touched his pockets, making certain of such necessities as license, key, and cantra, before leaving the room.

In the lower hall, his cloak was still over the chair where he had thrown it, and where orange-and-white Relchin had found it and made it into a nest. The cat looked up and yawned as the man approached.

Daav sighed. "It's rare one beholds a creature so comfortable," he said resignedly. "However, there is a thing which belongs to Pilot Caylon in the pocket. Believe me, I would disturb you for nothing less."

So saying, he scooped the cat to the floor and plucked the cloak up. In a moment, he had the ring out and stowed safely away. The cloak, he dropped once again across the chair.

"Your forbearance is noted," he said, inclining his head. Relchin yawned again, and jumped up to the chair, where he began kneading, eyes slitted in pleasure.

Daav winced at the sound of claws piercing silk. "Perhaps the news has not yet reached you. The clan's fortunes are by no means assured. I may need to wear that cloak for some while."

Relchin continued to knead.


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