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Val Con yos'Phelium leaned back in his chair and sighed.

It was his day to address such business as demanded attention from Delm Korval, while Miri his lifemate minded the Road Boss's office in Surebleak Port, answering what questions and concerns as citizens might have regarding the Port Road and its keeping.

The Surebleak Port Road having only recently acquired a boss, they were yet an object of curiosity, and the office on-port was busy enough. It might be, later, that the presence of the boss her-or-himself could be dispensed with, in favor of a proxy. He could find it in himself to hope so. His thoughts lately had been turning to ships, and lifts, the simplicity of Jump, and the charms of planets which were not Surebleak, Clan Korval's new home.

He was a pilot from a long line of pilots, trained as a scout, and far better suited to flying courier than administration. It would be. . .a pity if he were never to lift again.

Which was, of course, boredom speaking, or self-pity. Or, more likely, an aversion to duty. Courier pilot had never been his destiny; and he would fly again, soon enough. But first, Surebleak required finer sorting; and Korval needed to find its feet on their strange new homeworld.

Which meant, among other matters, revisioning Clan Korval.

The bonds of kinship were as strong as they had been in his lifetime, though the individual clan members numbered so few that it seemed they must, eventually, marry into another situation, in order to survive. In fact, such an offer had only recently been made to him, as the Delm Genetic. He had. . .not quite said no, which was only prudence. Now was not a time to close doors suddenly found open, nor for relying too heavily upon the wisdoms of the past.

More pressing than kin-ties at the moment, however, were the clan's finances.

Clan Korval did business under half-a-dozen trade names, and while it was true that they remained a force in the markets, it was also true that they were a lesser force. Formal banishment from Liad, their previous homeworld, had cost them trade partners, allies, and goodwill. It had been expensive to remove all of their goods, and themselves, to Surebleak; nor was their new home port nearly so conveniently situated as their former address.

Shan yos'Galan, the clan's master trader, was off-planet even now, seeking to establish a new main route, and coincidentally, reverse Korval's faltering finances. No small task — perhaps, indeed, an impossible task — but when Val Con had tried to express his regret at placing such a burden upon Shan's knees, his cha'leket had laughed aloud.

"You've asked me to develop new outlets, negotiate partnerships, build viable routes, and earn us a profit! Tell me, denubia, what is it that you think master traders do?"

So. Shan was off-planet even now, doing those things that master traders did, for the good of clan and kin.

In the meantime, Shan's delm wrestled with various knotty problems of their own, such as Korval's relationship with Liaden society; specifically, the Liaden Council of Clans.

As part of the Contract of Banishment, the Council, speaking for all Liaden clans, had agreed that expulsion from the planet would constitute full and complete Balance for Korval's crimes against the homeworld. The contract had stipulated that there would be no personal Balances launched against individual members of the clan, or against Korval Entire.

The Council of Clans had agreed to this; and each one of its member delms had signed the contract, which included a guarantee that they would educate the members of their clans regarding the contract, and its terms, and make it clear that no further Balance was appropriate.

Unfortunately, it seemed that the delms, or the Council, had not been as assiduous in education as they might have been. Balance had been brought against one of Korval, in violation of the terms of the contract. Young Quin had escaped harm, though the person who had sought to Balance the death of her heir had sustained a wound to her shoulder.

And all involved were fortunate that the attempt had not met with success.

Failure though it had been, it had also been against the terms of the contract, which stipulated that any breach, or seeming breach, be met with a formal inquiry.

Therefore, Korval's qe'andra, Ms. dea'Gauss, had contacted her firm's headquarters on Liad. The formal inquiry had been drafted by the senior partners there, and reviewed by the Accountants Guild's protocol committee. The qe'andra, and Korval, wished to know if the Council was aware of the violation, and, now that it had been informed, what its next step would be.

Instead of immediately taking up this rather straightforward matter, the Council had — not tabled it. No, the Council had not even entered the inquiry into the agenda.

That they would refuse to even discuss the matter; that they risked offending the Accountant's Guild, one of the most powerful on Liad. . .

These things were not comforting to the delm of a small clan seeking to establish itself upon a new homeworld.

Korval yet had friends on Liad; if they had not, those on the Council who had wished to see Korval Themselves executed for crimes against the homeworld, and Clan Korval's assets — including its surviving members — distributed among the remaining clans at Council, would have prevailed.

That banishment had been the final Balance spoke directly to Korval's melant'i and its place in Liaden history.

In retrospect, had the Council indeed made a formal ruling against the Contract of Banishment, Val Con was certain that he would have had been in receipt of a dozen or more pinbeams warning that he and his were now targets.

No such pinbeams had arrived, which led one, rather inescapably, to the conclusion that there was something more subtle, and perhaps more deadly, underway.

He had written letters to a few staunch allies, and to his mother's sister, the delm of Mizel. His sister Nova had written to Korval's old friend and ally, Lady yo'Lanna.

Unsurprisingly, to those who knew her, Lady yo'Lanna had replied first, and Nova had only this morning forwarded that answer to him.

The news. . .was mixed.

The Administrative Board of the Council of Clans, wrote Lady yo'Lanna, recently published a Point of Order, directing the standing committee of qe'andra to study the question of whether the Contract of Banishment remains binding upon it, now that one of the parties has ceased to exist.

Well, of course, they're idiots, and so I said to Justus when he mentioned it to me. Even if the Delm of Korval has seen fit to dissolve the clan — which I trust they have not — the standard paragraph regarding heirs, assigns, and direct descendents is present in the Contract of Banishment.

In light of your letter, and the unfortunate attempt to Balance against Quin — one enters entirely into Pat Rin's feelings on that head, I assure you! — I can only suppose that the whole purpose of this so-called study is to open Korval to such mischief as may be brought against it by aggrieved persons. The longer the study goes on, the weaker the contract becomes, even if the committee eventually returns the opinion that both parties still exist.

One wonders, in fact, what keeps them so long at the matter? An hour, out of respect for the past melant'i of the Administrative Board, ought to have been enough to have produced the rational answer in the approved form.

Be assured that I shall make further inquiries, dear Lady Nova, and will write again when I have more information. In the meanwhile, please guard yourself closely. I really must travel to Surebleak some day soon. My grandson does not wish to move the clan's seat, nor do I think that he ought to do so, but a bored old woman who has outlived her lifemate and her nearest friends may perhaps be forgiven a bit of wistful wanderlust.

Please recall me to Korval Themselves, and to Kareen, as well as to your delightful siblings. Maelin and Wal Ter desire, also, to be recalled to Syl Vor, and to assure him of their continued regard. They ask, respectfully of course, that he be permitted to visit. If you think it wise, yo'Lanna would naturally care for him as one of our own.

I remain your friend and ally,

Ilthiria yo'Lanna Clan Justus

Val Con reached for the cup sitting by the screen; found it empty, and sighed. Had Korval still been seated upon Liad —

But, of course, matters would have fallen out very differently, after the strike which had neutralized the Department of Interior's headquarters under Liad's capital city, if Korval had remained unbanished.

In fact, they were exiles; Clan Korval had been written out of the Book of Clans kept by the Council.

However, contrary to what seemed to be a growing belief in larger Liaden society, and in direct opposition to what was set forth in the Code of Proper Conduct, being written out of the Book of Clans did not constitute the dissolution of a clan. The Book was an administrative tool, used by the Council to track its membership.

The formalized kin-group which was recognized as a clan could only be dissolved by the action of the delm — which he and Miri had, as Lady yo'Lanna had correctly supposed, not taken.

Clan Korval existed: it stood by its charter; it sheltered and protected its members; supplied itself; negotiated new contracts, and honored its existing agreements. Thus, the qe'andras' most basic definition of a viable clan was satisfied.

The business entity known as Clan Korval likewise kept its contracts, paid its bills, invoiced its clients, nurtured its partnerships, and supported its allies. Such was the complexity of trade, that it would require far more than the word of a mere delm to dissolve that web. It would require a team of qe'andra-specialists a dozen years and more, so he very much feared, to shut down the business of Korval.

Clearly then, Clan Korval existed, across several spectra of reality. To suggest otherwise was, as Lady yo'Lanna had so eloquently proposed, idiotic.

The Council of Clans — someone on the Council of Clans, or, indeed, someone from the Department of the Interior, which had appointed itself Korval's exterminator, and which was known to have infiltrated the Council — someone wished to place Korval in increased peril.

And, sadly, the one resource Korval was lately richest in —

Was enemies.

* * *

"I wish you wouldn't keep doing this," Miri said. "At least take back-up."

They were in the breakfast parlor, sharing the morning meal before parting for the day – she to the delm's office, and he, first, to the city, thence to duty at the Road Boss' office.

"Taking back-up will invalidate the results," he answered. This was not a new argument – in fact, it was so well-worn it was no longer an argument at all, merely a restating of their relative positions.

"I take back-up when I go down to the city, and the port," Miri said, which was her usual second move; however, she then tipped her head and produced a vary.

"Guess you think I soft."

He grinned, and raised his tea cup in salute.

"Yes; it is entirely possible that a mercenary captain who is twice a hero is too soft for Surebleak's streets."

She shook her head, refusing to let him lighten the mood.

"Streets ain't as hard as they was, but that don't mean they're a walk in the park. One man, dressed up-scale, and walking by himself, is just asking to have his pocket picked, or his head broke. There's folks'll kill you for the jacket, never mind the boots."

"Am I clumsy?" he asked her, with interest.

She picked up a vegetable muffin, and glared at him, which gave pause. One wondered what had happened to bring heat back into the game.

"Anybody can make a mistake, Val Con," she said, sternly.

"That is very true; I have myself made a rather appalling number. But, Miri –"

"And," she interrupted; "it ain't no use bringing in how the delm of Korval had an obligation to walk the Low Port, back on Liad, because, in case you ain't noticed, we're not on Liad, anymore."

He put his cup down, and reached across the small table to put his hand over hers.

"I was going to say that, I am the sixth member of the strike team. My function is to remain in sight, thereby encouraging any watchers to believe that there will be no strike at all."

"You can be seen with back-up," she said; "and it's less easy to pick you up for a chat."

"True," he said, gently. "However, I don't think they'll risk that just yet, do you?"

She closed her eyes, and took a hard breath.

"Miri, I am careful," he said earnestly. "I will be careful."

He tasted her distress, and regretted that he was the cause. But, surely, she knew that he dared not risk Nelirikk or Tommy Lee or Diglon, or any other innocent to be taken up by –

She sighed.

"It's your nose to get broke," she said, withdrawing her hand and picking up her coffee cup.

"I just hope I ain't in your head when it happens. Pain hurts."

* * *

It was her turn to be delm-for-the-day, so she walked him out the side door, where the car and Nelirikk waited to take him into the city. Then, this being one of those days that seemed to him to be good for tempting the Luck, he'd be dropped off at Pat Rin's house for a catch-up meeting before walking down to the Port.


She might've hugged him harder than usual. He might've done the same.

"See you tonight, Boss," she said, stepping back.

"Until soon, cha'trez," he answered, and turned away.

She watched until the car disappeared around the curve in the drive, before going back inside.

In the delm's office, she drew herself a cup of coffee from the pot, sat behind the big desk, put the mug to one side, and tapped up the screen.

Plenty of mail in the delm's queue.

Miri took a deep breath and dove in.

* * *

The season, so he'd been told, was early autumn, which meant that winter was coming. The wind seemed to think that it had already arrived.

Val Con turned the collar of the leather jacket up around his ears, and tucked his hands into warm, fur-lined pockets.

Space leather turned the chill, as it would also turn a pellet, or a knife, or a stone. A pilot's second defense, her jacket, the first being her two strong legs, which were best used to run from trouble.

That, at least, was what young pilots were taught at the knees of their elders.

It was to be supposed, therefore, that elder pilots as a breed possessed a sense of humor. Or perhaps they merely hoped that one day a new sort of pilot would arise; a generation that was prudent, above being rash.

If the latter, their optimism had not yet been rewarded, as every pilot in Val Con's rather large acquaintanceship was reckless to a fault, though always with very good reason. It was to be most earnestly wished, then, that the elders found themselves fulfilled by their humor.

He had just left Pat Rin, who had been wonderfully plain on the subject of Val Con's wandering the city streets alone. It was not the first time he had expressed his opinion on this, though it had been, thus far, the most scathing. Plain speaking was of course permitted between kin, though one normally spoke with rather more restraint to one's delm.

Well, there. Pat Rin was a pilot.

The fact that both Miri and Pat Rin had chosen to be more than usually forceful on the topic of back-up, today, did give one pause. He was not a fool, after all, to discount good advice given by those who held his continued survival close to their hearts.

Perhaps, he should reconsider his strategy. In fact, he would do so. For this morning, however, he was committed. Best to finish as he had begun.

The wind gusted, enclosing him in a brief swirl of grit. He put his head down, and heard a shout from the alley to his left.

* * *

The report from the Qe'andra Recruitment Committee, aka the Storefront Qe'andra Project, was encouraging, if you liked your encouragement laced with sheer terror.

One more 'prentice'd been accepted by the Liaden qe'andra who'd set up shop on Surebleak, bringing the total to four.

This newest one'd been a cornerman for Penn Kalhoon, back in the Bad Old Days, and Miri could see he was a good choice just by the quoted street cred: fast and fair fixer. Jorish Hufstead was used to thinking on his feet, he parsed complicated situations quickly, and he had the personal charisma necessary to make his solutions stick.

The Board of Advisors had been impressed with all that experience, like they should've been. What they didn't like so much was that Jorish couldn't read Terran, much less Liaden. Still, they'd agreed to a probation period, since Ms. kaz'Ineo, the Liaden pro, had a shipload of melant'i in her own right, and she was convinced he'd do fine, with a little work in the basics from the Liaden side of things.

Miri sighed and reached for her coffee mug. Change, and more change, and suddenly, everything'd be different.

All you could hope for, really, was that it'd be better, too.

* * *

The alley was less than a block long, ending in a noisome courtyard where two men were beating a third, with fists, feet and knees.

Val Con took cover behind a row of trash compactors, and surveyed the situation.

The third man had managed to stay out of the hands of his attackers, and seemed no stranger to fisticuffs. His problem lay in the fact that his two attackers were at least as skilled as he, and — they had him boxed against the wall.

Unless there was a diversion, or a rescue, it was only a matter of time before he would fall, and very likely be killed.

A diversion, thought Val Con, could easily be arranged.

He threw the compactor lid in a low, flat trajectory that struck the leg of the attacker on the right, knocking him sideways, off-balance, arms flailing. His partner spun, seeking the source of the threat — and fell as the victim lunged forward and landed a solid blow to the side of his head, before turning to deal with the one remaining.

Val Con waited no longer. It had not been his plan to become involved in the altercation itself, only to even the odds. Mission accomplished, he slipped out from his hiding place and ran, quick and silent, back up the alley. . .

. . .and very nearly into the arms of three persons blocking the way to the street. Two held pellet guns; the third showed a knife.

Val Con dove forward into a somersault, heard the sound of pellet-fire passing uncomfortably near, and snapped into a flip, boots striking the nearest gunman in the arm. There was a snap, a scream, a curse – and he was rolling again, pellets hitting the alley's 'crete surface. He twisted to his feet, reaching for the gun on his belt —

Someone shouted behind him, he half-turned, and saw the three late combatants surging forward, apparently now united in purpose. One was carrying the trash compactor's lid, which he skimmed across the alley's floor. Sparks jumped along its passage, but it was scarcely a threat.

A pellet whined, too close to his ear, he ducked, hopped over the thrown lid — and landed awkwardly, a stone rolling under the heel of his boot.

Several shots came from the front-guard, who were closing, now that reinforcements were to hand. He felt something strike the jacket, as he lost his footing entirely and hit the alley floor, rolling.

* * *

Miri was halfway across the office, mug in hand, when her ankle twisted, and she went down, rolling, gasping with the delayed realization that she'd taken a hit high in the chest. The familiar office space blurred, and for a split second she saw a crowded street, a confusion of bodies — and lost it even as she felt her fist connect with something that gave with a satisfying crack.

"Miri!" Jeeves' said sharply from the ceiling. "Do you require aid?"

"Not me," she lay flat on the rug, not trusting the ankle just yet. "Val Con — call McFarland, and the Watch. Six on one in Timber Alley, off Belair Road. Val Con's down, but he's still fighting."

* * *

His head hurt, and his chest; his hands, and his ankle. His pride — that hurt, too, possibly more than all the rest — though he hadn't bothered mentioning this to the medic.

Instead, Val Con had allowed himself to be treated; his hands wrapped, and the scalp wound staunched. The bruises on his chest each marked a pellet the jacket had stopped. His ankle, said the medic, wrapping it in a cold-pack, was possibly sprained, though it had not swollen so much that the boot had needed to be cut off.

That was fortunate; it was his favorite pair of boots.

* * *


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