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Jelaza Kazone


Tranza had the music playing on the open band again, Theo thought groggily. Not bad music, actually; something she almost recognized, cheerful and uncomplicated. She listened, drifting nearer to awake as she tried to place the—

“Pilot Waitley?” inquired a plummy male voice. Not Tranza, was her first thought. Her second was that there was an intruder on Primadonna and if that were so, Rig Tranza was either incapacitated or dead. She kept her eyes closed, though her heartbeat was suddenly loud in her ears.

“Pilot Waitley,” the voice said again. “The delm will see you now.”

She took a breath, remembered that she was on Liad at the house named Jelaza Kazone, waiting for the Delm of Korval to find time to solve her problems.

Which, according to the voice, they had.

Theo opened her eyes.

The room was just as she had seen it last, minus the grey cat, and the addition of a man-tall metal cylinder surmounted by an orange globe, with three articulated arms spaced eccentrically around the central cylinder.

“Good day, Pilot,” it said, the orange globe flickering. “I am Jeeves. Master Val Con asked me to escort you to him.”

“Thank you,” Theo said, rolling off the window seat. She danced a quick stretch, and nodded to the ’bot.

“I’m ready,” she said.

* * *

The ’bot’s wheels were astonishingly quiet; in fact, Theo noticed, the whole thing was considerably better constructed than its unsophisticated chassis would suggest. There was no rattling or clanking, like you might get out of a cargo ’bot, nor did it appear too large for its surroundings.

“Were you built to work here?” she asked. “Inside the house, I mean.”

You didn’t talk to a cargo ’bot, except to give simple orders, but a deeply programmed entity like the Concierge, back on Delgado, could hold up its end of a complicated conversation so well you’d think you were talking with a real person.

“I was built by Master Val Con and Master Shan to serve as the butler at Trealla Fantrol,” Jeeves said. “As Trealla Fantrol will not be making the transfer, I have been reassigned to Jelaza Kazone.”

The music was louder now. Jeeves paused and gestured with one of its arms, showing Theo an open doorway.

“Please enter,” it said.

She stepped into a library, but a library improbably wrapped and ready for transport. The shelves were sealed with cargo film; the furniture anchored to temp-clamps adhered to the wooden floor, the rug rolled and secured to the wall beneath the open windows at the bottom of the room.

Nearer at hand was a pleasant grouping of three chairs around a low table supporting three glasses and a stoppered blue bottle, beaded with condensation. To the right of that grouping her . . . brother Val Con stood at a tied-down desk, playing a portable omnichora.

The tantalizingly familiar music peaked, paused, and ended with a glissade of notes like a warm spring rain. Val Con stood for a moment, fingers just a whisker above the keys, head bent as if he was listening to the echo of the music. He turned, smooth and easy, coming toward her with one hand extended, fingers flashing the pilot’s sign for welcome.

“Thank you for your patience,” he murmured. “I trust you put your time to good use.”

Theo considered him, teased again by the sense of his looking like someone—she would have said that of course he looked like Father—except he didn’t, precisely. Father’s hair was dark brown sharpened by grey, his eyes were black, and his face—Theo had once heard Kamele say that Father’s face was interesting.

Val Con, on the other hand, was . . . pretty, with his vivid green eyes, and his smooth, high-cheeked face. Where Father kept his hair cut neat to the point of severity, Val Con’s was positively shaggy, and had a tendency to tumble into his eyes.

On Delgado, Miri would’ve had to have been tenured and hold a named chair to have any hope of keeping so comely and biddable a man. Theo appreciated manners herself, but he didn’t seem to have much in the way of spark.

He raised a slim hand on which a heavy ring glittered, and stroked his hair off his forehead. Theo started, remembering that she had been asked a question—sort of.

“I had a nap,” she said, “with the grey cat. I’ve been flying hard, and the chance to rest was welcome.”

She hesitated before adding, “Thank you,” then quickly nodded at the ’chora. “That was nice, what you played. My mother—Kamele—is a singer.”

Val Con smiled faintly. “My foster-mother was a musician by avocation,” he said in his soft voice; “it was she who taught me to play. My mother’s passion is mathematics.” He moved a hand, showing her the grouped chairs.

“Please, sit and be comfortable. Miri is delayed for a few moments. When she arrives, Korval will hear you. In anticipation of that, I wonder if I may ask you a question.”

“All right,” Theo said, eying the arrangement: one chair with its back to the door; one facing the bookshelves; the third with the shelves behind it. She looked to Val Con.

“I don’t want to offend,” she said carefully. “Is there an . . . intent . . . in the grouping that I might not understand?”

He smiled.

“In fact, there is not. With only three present, it is not possible to divide the delm, and no necessity for either of us to be at the right or left hand of the other. Please, sit where you will.”

Sitting with her back to the door would show that she felt absolutely safe in his house, and might gain her some points. Theo thought about it, but the truth was that she didn’t feel absolutely safe—and she had a feeling that Val Con might’ve inherited Father’s sharp eye for a lie. She moved to the chair that backed on the larger room. It was a compromise position: she could see both the door and the window, but was still slightly exposed to the rear. In case there was, oh, a secret panel in the room’s opposite wall, or an assassin hiding under the omnichora.

Val Con bowed slightly as she settled. He took the chair facing the windows for himself, leaving the most protected spot for Miri.

“Now, sister,” he said, briskly, “it is your turn to be gentle, should I inadvertently offend. Yes?”

She nodded, giving him her full attention.

“It is well,” he said. “I learn from our father that you were properly enculturated according to the customs of Delgado.”

Theo eyed him. “Father didn’t teach me Liaden custom, if that’s what you’re getting at. I did belong to the Culture Club at Anlingdin, and I’ve studied on my own since—since leaving school.”

“Ah. I must ask, then, if you are proficient in melant’i.”

Melant’i was a kind of social scorecard based on who you were when. It was like relational math, only with people.

Theo shook her head.

“Not proficient,” she admitted. “What I know of the theory is that—” She chewed her lip. “If I promised you something as a pilot, I wouldn’t necessarily be responsible for honoring that promise if you called it in while I was being something other than a pilot—say, being Father’s daughter.”

Val Con’s left eyebrow twitched upward, which was all too familiar.

“I’ve got it completely wrong?” She’d been pretty sure that couldn’t be how it worked. A social system predicated on which bit of a person you were talking to this time would be chaos.

He shook his head. “In some measure, you have it precisely. Allow me, however, to agree that you are not proficient. Since speaking with the delm will involve what Miri terms ‘mental somersaults,’ I propose that you allow me to sort such melant’i as will come into play.” He gave her an earnest look. “I am accustomed to it, you see, and my interest as your brother is that you prosper.”

Theo thought about that.

“You’re going to stop being my—my brother when Miri gets here, and Delm Korval is in the room?”

“In essence, but you needn’t care about it, if it will distract you from a clear recital of your case. I will also mention that time is short; our transport will engage in just under six hours, local, by which time you ought certainly to be away.”

On the one hand, it would be easier to just tell her story, which was complex enough without having to pay attention to custom she didn’t fully understand, too. On the other hand, it wasn’t exactly advertant to let a man she’d only just met mind both sides of the negotiation, even if he was her . . . brother.

“And, you know,” Val Con said, “our father would strongly disapprove of any attempt I might make to cheat you.”

Well, that was so, Theo admitted. Father was a stickler; he’d expect them to deal—in Balance, as he’d say.

“All right,” she said, and smiled to show she appreciated his efforts on her behalf. “Thanks.”

She looked around the room, again noting the books bound tight into their shelves, and the furniture secured to the floor. Ready for transport, yes, but—

“What kind of transport?”

“The Clutch ship—it will have scanned as an asteroid in stable orbit when you came in. The Council of Clans named the day and the hour by which we were to depart Liad; anything we left behind to be forfeit to the Council. The delm wished to leave nothing to the Council, and my brother Edger, whom you met, was instrumental in negotiating with the Clutch Elders for the loan of a ship large enough to transport the Tree and this house.”

It was said so reasonably that it took a heartbeat for the sense of the words to hit Theo.

The Clutch asteroid ship in orbit was going to pick up the entire house, Jelaza Kazone, with the enormous tree growing out of the house’s center, and transport them?

Not possible. She was opening her mouth—maybe to tell him so, when he cocked his head, as if he’d heard a sound so soft it had slipped past her own excellent ears.

“Miri will be with us very soon.”

“How do you know that?” Theo demanded, which might have been less rude than whatever she’d been going to say about his transport. Maybe.

Val Con gave her a bland look from bright green eyes.

“We are lifemates. We share thoughts, feelings and memories.”

Some of what she thought about that must’ve shown on her face because he smiled faintly.

“Yes,” he said, “but it does not seem so to us. In fact, nothing could be more natural. Now . . .” There was a slight pause. “Such bondings are not unusual in our clan.”

“Sorry to be late!” Miri swept into the room, dropped into the empty chair, and gave Theo a grin.

“You’re looking well rested, Pilot. Ready to tell out that complicated problem of yours?”

For all it was asked in easy Terran, Theo had a sense of—sharpening—as if the air in the room had suddenly taken on an edge. She looked at Val Con; he inclined his head, inviting her to start.

Theo took a breath.

“Actually,” she said, “it’s two problems.”

* * *

They were good listeners, the Delm of Korval, and in less time than Theo would have thought possible, she had laid the whole mess before them, from Win Ton’s unintentional, if not exactly accidental, waking of the ship Bechimo; his sending the second key—the Captain’s key, by chance—to her, without telling her what it was; his subsequent capture, torture and escape; their meeting on Volmer; the realization that Bechimo—which Win Ton, and the Uncle, too, considered an aware and emancipated AI—was looking for her. And her last, terrible sight of Win Ton, unconscious inside the autodoc on the Uncle’s ship; his prognosis certain death, unless Bechimo, with the last uncontaminated record of Win Ton’s DNA in her archives, found Theo, and accepted her as Captain.

“Scouts have a bias against Old Tech,” Val Con murmured, when finally she came to an end of it and slumped in her chair, exhausted with the telling. “An emancipated AI—one who has killed to protect her integrity, as might any other person.” He smiled, wryly, to Theo’s eye. “Yes, it is complicated, Theo Waitley. Congratulations. Truly, you are of the Line.”

She blinked at him. “What?”

“His idea of a joke,” Miri said. Leaning forward, she poured pale yellow liquid from the blue bottle into a glass. “Don’t dignify it.”

Theo nodded, took the glass offered, and cautiously sampled the contents. Lemon water.

“It seems to me that we are best served in the short term by doing nothing,” Val Con continued, accepting a glass from Miri in his turn.

The red-haired woman nodded, poured for herself, and leaned back in her chair.

As if in counterpoint, Theo leaned forward.

“Wait—nothing? Win Ton’s dying! And what if Bechimo does find me? What am I supposed to do with a ship the Scouts want to kill? Hide it under my pillow?”

Miri laughed. Val Con shook his head.

“Your friend is well enough for the short term,” he said, sounding startlingly like Father when he thought you were being exceptionally stupid. “Your employer’s healing units are everything he told you, and possibly more. There is nothing Korval can do at this moment that is not already being done by an expert who appears to believe he has a stake in the game.” He raised a slim hand as if to forestall her, but Theo hadn’t been going to say anything. “I grant that to be disturbing of itself, but it, too, can wait upon closer examination.

“What does merit our immediate attention . . .” He glanced toward the ceiling. “Jeeves? Have you a moment to consult with us?”

“I am on my way, Master Val Con,” the rich voice said—not, Theo thought, from the ceiling, but from the bookshelf to the left and slightly above Miri’s head.

In fact, the ’bot was with them so quickly that Theo thought it must have been lurking in the hallway.

“Excellent,” said Val Con as it rolled to a stop on the fourth side of the table, its “back” toward the window. “You will of course have heard Theo’s story. If not, please access it now.” He glanced to Theo. “You understand, Jeeves is his own person. As such, he has his own methods and resources.”

Theo nodded slowly. An emancipated AI, constructed as a butler for a single house? That couldn’t be right, could it? The Concierge had the whole Wall to take care of, and it hadn’t been sentient. She’d studied machine history; it had been a core course. And history had shown that sentient machines were dangerous. The last deliberate use had been military; the Terran Fleet had constructed three Admirals—tactical AIs, each in charge of a battle squadron, but that had been . . . seven hundred years ago, or more . . .

“I have reviewed Pilot Waitley’s narrative,” Jeeves said.

“Very good,” Val Con answered. “I do not ask you to break a confidence, but I wonder if perhaps you are acquainted, or have been in communication, with Bechimo.”

There was for a long moment no answer, though the orange head-ball flickered like a tiny thunderstorm was going on inside of it.

Theo thought of the ship’s key, hung safe ’round her neck, and left it where it was. It had imprinted on her, by some action she didn’t understand, but which Win Ton insisted upon. Until she understood the process, it was probably not a good idea to be handing it around to strangers.

“I cannot with certainty state that I have spoken with Bechimo,” Jeeves said. “However, based on Pilot Waitley’s report of Scout yo’Vala’s actions and the fate of the boarding party that attempted to force entrance—I am concerned for Bechimo’s state of mind. This is an unsocialized person, with a justified distrust of humans, who is compelled, nonetheless, to find and be joined with her pilots. It would be well if Pilot Waitley contrived to be found as soon as is prudently possible, in a quiet location.”

“We’ve got some concern for Pilot Waitley’s safety and state of mind, too,” Miri said dryly. “If Bechimo’s unstable—”

“Not unstable,” Jeeves interrupted. “Merely . . . confused of purpose.”

“And that’s better, how?” Miri glanced to Val Con.

“Might be safer to set up the meet someplace reasonably busy, ’stead of a back alley. That way, if something goes bad, Theo’s got backup.”

“No.” Theo shook her head. “Uncle said the same thing—about trying to arrange the first meeting somewhere quiet. Because she was engineered from Old Tech and new, and it’s not just the Scouts who want her dead, or taken.”

“For a man known to advise most often for his own benefit, the Uncle has been remarkably frank with you,” Val Con said. “So far.” He sighed.

“Very well, then, for the ship, certain matters must and may be solved, here and now. Theo—is there a ship’s account?”

She frowned at him. “The Toss has its own—Bechimo? I don’t know. I’d guess her original people would have set something up, but, old as she is, who knows if the banks they drew on even exist anymore?”

“Registration’s likely to be funny, too,” Miri murmured.

“Precisely. These things can be mended, proactively. Theo, please pick a port.”

It took her a heartbeat to catch that he didn’t mean just any port, but a port to serve as Bechimo’s home of record.

“Waymart,” she said.

“What ship ain’t outta Waymart?” Miri asked.

“And who will find it wonderful, if there is suddenly one more?” Val Con replied. “Jeeves, will you please ask Ms. dea’Gauss to set up a standard ship drawing account for Bechimo, with a clean registration out of Waymart, Captain Theo Waitley. When that is accomplished, please give Theo a data key.”

“He can just beam the data over to Arin’s Toss,” Theo said, before the full impact of that smooth flow of instruction hit her.

She snapped forward, glaring into Val Con’s pretty face.

He lifted an eyebrow—deliberately like Father, that’s what she thought, and, thinking it, felt her temper warm.

“I didn’t ask you to lend me money!” she said, sharper than was probably polite.

“Indeed you did not,” Val Con answered coolly. “Nor would I insult you by simply assuming that you had need. My concern here is Bechimo. A ship has necessities. And a hunted ship may come to doubt even ports that have been long secure.”

Theo took a deep breath, and didn’t say anything while she counted backward from one hundred by threes.

“They got this thing they say here,” Miri said into the silence. “Korval is ships.”

Theo gave her a curt nod. “I’ve heard it.”

“Who ain’t? Point is, it don’t just mean that Clan Korval owns more ships than’s strictly reasonable, and has its finger in the shares of a couple dozen more. It means that Clan Korval, through every one of its members, holds the well-being of ships and of pilots as their legitimate concern. I don’t mean to be telling you other things that you’ve already heard, Pilot Theo; I’m just learning some of it, myself.”

Theo sighed, and inclined her head. “I’ve got a quick temper,” she said, remembering that saying I’m sorry to a Liaden was—not exactly rude, more like stupid, because it exposed a weakness.

Val Con laughed.

“Not alone there, either,” Miri commented.

“By no means,” he agreed, and gave Theo a nod. “Forgive me, I had thought it implicit, when clearly it is not. I propose to establish a trigger account, attached to the new registration. Should Bechimo tap that fund, then I will indeed have lent money—to Bechimo, who is her own person. The debt will thus be settled between us, in a manner and time that we find mutually agreeable. Should the fund remain untapped for six Standards, it will return to Korval’s general ship fund, no harm done, nor insult taken.” He tipped his head. “If it transpires that this arrangement is found to offend Bechimo, I hope that you will, as my sister, plead the purity of my intent.”

Theo snorted, and sipped lemon water while she thought.

“If Bechimo is her own person,” she said slowly, “then she can’t be owned. That’d be slavery.”

For some reason, Val Con smiled.

“That is correct,” he said. “However, a ship must have a captain—which I understand to be the reason behind Bechimo’s pursuit of yourself. The registration will be for the ship Bechimo, out of Waymart, Captain Theo Waitley. If, after you have had the opportunity to discuss the matter with your ship, it seems good to incorporate Bechimo, and thus gain her the mantle of corporate personhood . . .”

Miri laughed. Theo blinked—and then saw the joke.

“A tautology,” she said. “The paperwork would be a nightmare.”

“It can become as complex as you like,” Val Con said. “But let us begin modestly. A new registration, and a drawing fund, should it be needed. I believe that we may trust to Bechimo’s discretion. Jeeves?”

“I concur. Bechimo appears to possess discretion, and a good deal of common sense.”

“That is well, then.” Val Con looked to Theo. “A data key to Pilot Waitley when all is set in train, please, Jeeves.” He raised a hand. “I ask the pilot’s forbearance. It is not her ship or herself that I doubt, but the breadth of her employer’s goodwill.”

Theo sighed, nodded, and sipped her drink.

“Thank you. Now, regarding those other strands to your puzzle. Understand that we do not refuse a solving. However, we cannot undertake so complex a set of issues now, on the eve of our relocation. Come to us as your schedule allows, on Surebleak, and we will revisit these matters at greater leisure. Now, alas, we must take our leave. One more thing—”

As if that was a cue, Miri reached into her pocket and brought out something small that winked in the light from the windows.

“This says you’re under Korval’s protection,” she said, taking up where Val Con had left off. “I’d tell you to wear it wherever you go, but right now being under Korval’s protection is what you’d call double-edged—just as likely to make you a target as get you some help. Take it, though, and keep it by. Never know when it might be handy.”

“It” was a pin, Theo saw, receiving it. The face showed Korval’s trade sigil—a dragon hovering on half-furled wings over a full-leafed tree.

“Thank you,” she said, and slipped it into an interior pocket of Rig’s—of her—jacket, hearing a tiny clink as pin struck coin.

“You should return to your ship now,” Val Con said, “and lift beyond Outyard Eight. It would be best if you are not seen to move in our orbit. That you came to Korval is interesting, but not of interest. Many pilots have come to us since the Council’s judgment; one more is not worthy of note.” He smiled. “Much as one more ship to Waymart. We have already moved a number of vessels, but there are still dozens that must lift before the Council’s hour is upon us. It would be better for you to be away from the most of it, should your employer contact you with your next assignment.”

Theo nodded, and stood.

“Thank you,” she said again, and swallowed. “I wanted to talk to Father again—”

“Of course. As it happens, his is one of the ships scheduled to lift soon. There is no reason why the two of you cannot drive to the port together.” Val Con rose and held his hands out. Theo hesitated, then put hers in his.

“Thank you,” he said seriously. “I hope you can accommodate yourself to a brother, Theo. I think I am going to quite enjoy having you as a sister.”

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