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The Grand Progress


The fifth tollbooth was Hamilton Street, surrounded by what was now the familiar gaggle of well-wishers and thrill-seekers. There was also a car parked next to the ’booth, muddy and dinged up. At the front of the crowd, in the Boss’s place of honor, stood a slender figure in a blue jacket, brown hair rumpled by the wind, his back got by a man considerably larger, a stocky woman in a good warm coat at his right hand.

In the seat across from Miri, Penn Kalhoon visibly relaxed.

“My experience with the Boss is that he’s timely,” she commented. “Said he’d meet us, and here he is.”

Penn shot her a look, lenses flashing, and maybe a little extra color in his cheeks.

“Good to be back on my own turf,” he said, matching her tone for dryness. “Old habits.”

“It is always a relief,” Val Con murmured from beside her, “to raise a friendly port.”

Which was overstating the case, at least in the opinion of Miri’s own set of old habits. Every single one of her nerves was on end, and had been, since they got in the car, and drove two blocks to where the tollbooth for Boss Vine’s territory used to be.

Vine’d been sleek and welcoming, with just the one ’hand at his back, and the thrill-seekers held a little ways off by a strip of orange perimeter tape. He’d made a neighborly little speech about how the Port Road was good for everybody’s business and how he, with Boss Conrad, and Boss Korval and every Boss between, was eager to see business grow.

Nice as it was, it hadn’t done much to ease the itch between Miri’s shoulders, and she’d heaved an undiplomatic sigh of relief when they’d gotten themselves all three safe back in the car and it started moving toward the next territory in line. Surebleak taught you caution and carefulness, else you didn’t live long enough to pull damnfool stunts like coming back and setting up as a target.

“Boss Conrad looks as if he has had a difficult day,” Val Con observed.

Penn glanced over his shoulder, then back to Val Con with a nod.

“The freeholder up next to your turf’s more skittish than most, so I’ve heard from Boss Sherton. Your house coming down to settle like it did might’ve taken him wrong.”

“And thus the Boss would have had to exert his charm and his patience.”

Miri laughed. “There’s enough to tire him out right there.”

Penn grinned. “He prolly had to climb a tree on top of it all.” He shook his head. “I’m leaving you here,” he said. “When you get settled, the two of you come to the house for dinner. Thera—that’s her, next to Boss Conrad—she’s been wanting to meet Boss Korval since we had word you’d be coming.”

“We will be happy to visit,” Val Con said. “Indeed, we’re planning a small entertainment of our own, and hope that you and your lady will be able to attend.”

Oh, were they? Miri threw him a look.

“Once we’re settled,” she said, firmly.

He smiled. “Of course.”

Penn cleared his throat and tried to look like he wasn’t grinning. The driver set the brake, and Penn popped the door, getting out first and letting himself be seen, just like he had four times before.

“Only five more,” Miri said, sliding out after Penn. The place between her shoulders was starting to itch, again. Worse, her back was starting to hurt.

“Five more,” Val Con agreed behind her. “And then we will be home.”


Miri came out of the car, remembering to smile, and to wave at the crowd when she got to Penn’s side. A second later, she felt Val Con’s fingers slip through hers.

The black-haired woman in the warm coat came forward to take Penn’s hand, and the crowd applauded, amid some whistles and catcalling.

“Listen up!” Penn called over the uproar. He waved at them to stand forward, which they did.

“These here’re the Bosses Korval, Val Con yos’Phelium and Miri Robertson. They signed the Road Protection Agreement you read about in the newspaper, and they’ll be settling into the new house just in behind Boss Sherton’s turf. Take a good look at ’em, ’cause they tell me they don’t mean to be strangers here on Hamilton Street.

“There’s an extra reason for that, too. I don’t know how many of you remember, but Miri Robertson, she grew up on this turf, back when Boss Latimer held it. She worked pickup in my dad’s machine shop, before she went off-world for merc. I’m proud to welcome her back, with her partner. These folks’re gonna be good for business, people!”

There was more racket after that, while the four of them smiled and waved.

After the noise died down some, Penn brought his wife around, and introduced her with a smile in which pride was plain.

“I am so happy to meet both of you,” she said, reaching out to touch their sleeves. “Penn remembered to invite you to dinner, didn’t he?”

“He did, indeed, and we are warmed by your hospitality,” Val Con said.

Thera blushed. “It’s just what neighbors should do. We forgot that, and we need to relearn it.” She looked to Miri. “We need to learn to be civilized again.”

Miri nodded, understanding her point. “The Road ain’t the only thing that needs to open up.”

“Exactly!” Thera smiled, then stepped back, giving way to Pat Rin. “We won’t keep you any longer. You must be looking forward to finishing up and having some time alone, and Boss Conrad looks like he could use a nap!”

“It has been a long day, but we are on the short side of it now,” Pat Rin said in his mannerly voice.

He shook Penn’s hand.

“Thank you for beginning,” he said softly. “I will see it finished.”

“No thanks needed,” Penn protested. “You warned me you were gonna put me to work, if I was fool enough to take up Second Boss in the Association.”

“So I did,” said Pat Rin, smiling slightly. “I am pleased to note that my word is good.”

* * *

Cheever McFarland took over the driver’s slot, as the three of them settled into the back, Pat Rin in the seat Penn had occupied.

“I fear we dismayed one of the dealers at the Emerald,” Val Con said, raising his hand to show off Korval’s Ring. “Villy did not realize that there were two in play.”

“Security stepped up right sprightly,” Miri added, in case that might be a point of worry.

Pat Rin sighed. “The child has quick eyes. I never thought to say that my kinsman would wear a like ring.” He sent Val Con a tired glance. “Indeed, I have said to . . . some . . . few . . . that we are kin, but to most, it appeared a—” He waggled his fingers, like he’d forgotten the word.

“Complication,” Miri offered.

“A needless complication.” Pat Rin shook his head. “Two rings, Cousin . . .”

“Will you give yours up, when all the world knows Boss Conrad’s ring?”

“No, of course not. Nor might Korval leave off their Ring, when all the galaxy beyond knows it. Yes, we had talked. Yet, still it seems madness. The whole affair seems madness.”

“Never stopped you before,” Cheever McFarland commented from the front of the car.

“Thank you, Mr. McFarland.”

“Wasn’t me decided to reform Surebleak, but now I’m in it, I don’t see any profit in quitting before we’re done.”

“No one,” Pat Rin pointed out testily, “said that we were quitting.”

“My mistake, sir. So you’ll just let out in the interview the news-rag’s bound to want from the Bosses Korval that them rings are family heirlooms or some such, that get worn by the boss. And since your family’s got two lines of business—on-world and outworld—there’s two rings.”

“That seems the best path through confusion,” Val Con said with a nod. “Thank you, Mr. McFarland.”

“No trouble. He’d’ve thought of it himself, but there was Mr. Shaper at the end of a short night, and beginning a long day.”

“Who’s Mr. Shaper?” Miri asked.

“Your nearest neighbor,” Pat Rin answered. “He freeholds the land directly adjacent to Jelaza Kazone’s new location. He is . . .” He paused. “It is possible that he would benefit from some time with a Healer, but I am not persuaded that he would allow it.”

“Penn said he was skittish.”

“Skittish. Perhaps that is the word.” Pat Rin closed his eyes, took a breath, and opened his eyes.

“The next turf we approach is under the administration of Boss Whitman. This should be a very brief stop, as the Boss is one of few words and less patience. We then come to my own turf, where there is a picnic basket awaiting us, courtesy of Ms. Audrey. Given Ms. Audrey, we will likely have a large crowd, and a speech will be expected.” He smiled, faintly. “I will do my best to be succinct.”

- - - - -

Boss Whitman met them at the tollbooth, alone but for two ’hands. A curt nod, a sharp glance, and a rough, “I see ’em,” was the sum of it and they were back in the car before they’d gotten properly chilled.

Val Con settled into his seat, Miri’s hand on his knee. She had been on alert all day, for which he certainly did not blame her; his own inclination was to have her stay within the relative safety of the car, rather than repeatedly exposing herself and their child to danger. It would never do, of course, and he overrode the impulse—at the cost of his own fraying nerves.

A few hours more and the progress would be over. He could be alone, with his lifemate . . .

“Blair Road coming up,” Cheever McFarland said from the driver’s slot. “Looks like Audrey turned out the whole turf.”

Val Con stretched to see over Cheever’s shoulder, through the front windscreen. His stomach tightened, and he heard a discord in the melody of Miri that played always inside his head. There were too many people; it was too risky; it . . .

Pat Rin, perhaps reading something in his face, turned to look, also. His shoulders stiffened, then drooped, as he turned ’round again in his seat.

“Ms. Audrey,” he said quietly, “is a force of nature.”

* * *

They were scarcely out of the car when a pale-haired woman in a bright red jacket stepped forward, flanked by a portly, balding man carrying a basket, and a portlier, ginger-haired woman carrying two vacuum bottles.

“Ms. Audrey,” Pat Rin said, stepping forward to intercept her, “you have outdone yourself.”

“Wasn’t any trick to it; most of ’em wanted to see this outworld Boss—is this—”

She broke off, staring. Her eyes were blue; Val Con met them firmly.

That earned him a tiny smile, and a soft, “As like him as his brother,” before she turned to Miri.

“I’m real pleased to meet the Bosses Korval,” she said, and held a firm hand. “My name’s Audrey Breckstone. Folks on the turf just call me Ms. Audrey.”

Miri took the offered hand.

“Miri Robertson,” she said. “Boss Conrad told us how much he depends on you. Here—”

She turned and gave him a smile that leached some of the tension.

“This,” she said, still keeping Audrey’s hand in hers, “is my partner, and husband, Val Con yos’Phelium.”

Ms. Audrey bent her head, the motion so formal that it seemed she must have been studying Pat Rin.

“Val Con yos’Phelium, I’m glad to meet you,” she said, and gave him another tiny smile. “I hope you’ll both come visit me, after you’re settled. Be good for us to talk and get to know each other.”

“Thank you,” he said, keeping his voice soft and cordial. “We’ll look forward to knowing you better.”

“That’s pretty-said. Now, I’ll stop plucking your patience and let the Boss show you off.” She smiled and stepped back, clearing the way to Pat Rin’s side.

- - - - -

It was dark when Cheever pulled the car up to Jelaza Kazone’s front door.

Home. The word vibrated in the air, though nobody had spoken, and the sweep of longing she caught from Val Con was enough to bring tears to her eyes.

Not that it was precisely home—though it surely was the house. Maybe that was enough—familiar space, familiar things. Miri was still getting the whole home concept down.

“Cousin,” Val Con said to Pat Rin, “will you guest with us tonight?”

Guest? she thought, remembering the packed-and-sealed state of the interior. The house was just down on the ground; guesting would most likely be field rations and a comfy spot to sleep on the floor.

Apparently, Pat Rin thought so, too.

“If Mr. McFarland is able, I think that I’d best return to my own turf this evening. One does not expect trouble, but—one never does. And it will be quicker, now that there is no need to stop at every tollbooth.”

“I can drive all night,” Cheever said from the front.

“I understand,” Val Con answered. “Is there anything we can provide to ease your way?”

“Indeed,” Pat Rin said, with a wry look at the picnic basket still abundantly supplied with food. “I believe we are well provisioned.”

“Then we bid you good evening, and thank you, Cousin, for your care. I think this day’s work will prove to be . . . good for business.”

Pat Rin smiled faintly. “That is the prize for which we all dice. Until soon, Cousin—” He turned his head and smiled at Miri in the dark. “Cousin.”

“Keep safe; give Natesa our hellos.” Miri said and raised her voice a little for the front seat. “Drive careful, hey? That thing you’re calling a road ain’t just a little rugged.”

“Our first task,” Val Con said, popping the door on his side. “Tomorrow.”

- - - - -

There was a kind of flowering bush that glowed in the dark along the pathway—beacon-bloom, according to Daav, who was the last person Miri’d’ve taken for a gardener. Now that her eyes were adjusted, it seemed almost too bright, intruding on the garden’s peace.

She went hand in hand with Val Con, brushing against the overgrowth, stepping lightly on the path, then off of it, crossing the grass at the garden’s dark center, to the greater blackness that was the Tree’s monumental bulk.

Val Con put his free hand out, palm flat against the trunk, Miri following suit.

She had expected—lethargy, maybe terror. Edger’d spent some time in communion with the Tree, describing what it might experience in flight. Even supposing that a Clutch Turtle’s perceptions found any agreement points with the experience of an ancient vegetation—what might space travel be like for something that knew rooted as a normal condition?

What she felt was acute awareness, excitement, amazement. Memories washed over her—of being carried, roots cuddled tight inside a pot. Lashings held it oriented, space flowed, strange energies informed her leaves.


The sound of her own wild laughter brought her out of memories—the Tree’s memories. She snatched her hand away. Val Con was whooping, his body bowed backward, his hands pressed hard against the trunk. She grabbed him, hauling him back, breaking contact.

He cut into silence, chest heaving, eyes dazzled when he looked down to her.

“All right?” she gasped.

He nodded tentatively, she thought.

“All right,” he said then, voice firm, eyebrow quirking. “And so, I gather, is the Tree. I suggest, cha’trez, that we have fulfilled enough duty for this day. Let us go inside, seek our dinner and our bed.”

And that, she thought, sounded beyond perfect, stipulating they could share the same patch of floor.

- - - - -

They let themselves in the kitchen door, finding it lit by night-dims, and a tray of cheeses, bread and fruit awaiting them on the counter, with a pitcher, glasses and a knife.

Staff has arrived, then, Val Con thought. Excellent. He turned to Miri, who had stopped some steps prior.

“Will this satisfy, cha’trez? If not, we might see what else—”

“I’d figured field rations, myself,” she said, and he could feel her seriousness. “So we already got ’way better’n I’d imagined for myself.” She moved a hand. “Who did this?”

As if in answer, the door to the cook’s room opened, and Mr. pel’Kana—the young Mr. pel’Kana, following his Line’s tradition of service to Korval—emerged. His shirt sleeves were rolled and he was wearing a pair of heavy work pants—not his normal attire. Despite the hour, his eyes were sparkling and his color high; clearly, he was enjoying the current adventure nearly as much as the Tree.

“Your lordship,” he said, “your ladyship. Welcome. It was not known precisely when you would arrive, and Lord Daav suggested that you might find a simple meal most welcome after the events of your day.”

“Lord Daav is prescient,” Val Con murmured. “This is exactly what we require, Mr. pel’Kana, thank you. We will serve ourselves.”

“Very good, sir.” The butler bowed.

“Who else is to house,” Val Con asked, “aside from one’s father?”

“He alone, sir; his ship is set down at the back field. We anticipate the arrival of the balance of the clan over the next two-day.” He paused, then added. “Your apartment is ready, as we knew to expect you this evening. Aside that, Ms. ana’Tak and I have bent our efforts in the direction of a functioning kitchen. Jeeves asked that you be assured that he concentrates on . . . security.”

“Again, our thanks, Mr. pel’Kana,” Val Con said, “and to Ms. ana’Tak, as well. Please, do not stint yourselves of rest.”

“Of course not, sir.” The other man bowed once more, honor to the captain. An odd choice, but, then—perhaps not. “May I say, it is good that Korval is in residence.”

He heard Miri’s intention and turned slightly, drawing the butler’s eyes to her smile, and the regal incline of her head.

“Thank you, Mr. pel’Kana,” she said, speaking properly in the mode of lord-to-servant. “It is good to be home.”

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