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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.


"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.

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