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A Day at the Races

THE SKY WAS nearly Terran blue overhead, shading to a more proper Liaden green toward planetary east. Shadows were beginning their long evening stretch across the lawns, from the topiary maze to the house.

Up the drive came a slender young man in the leather vest and leggings of a spaceworker. Despite the peremptory summons from his sister, he had walked from Solcintra Spaceport, enjoying the taste of natural air.

He paused by the cumbersome landau parked messily across the drive. The crest of his aunt, the Right Noble Lady Kareen yos’Phelium, Patron of the Solcintra Poetry Society, Founder of the League to Preserve the Purity of the Tongue, and Chairperson Emeritus of the Embassy of Form, glittered in the fading light.

Scout Captain Val Con yos’Phelium sighed. Perhaps it was not too late to turn about, catch the evening shuttle to Chonselta City, and thus avoid any contact with his father’s sister, a course he had pursued whenever possible throughout his childhood and halfling years.

He sighed again. No, he decided, better to attend to the business at once and have done.

Thus virtuously armed, he continued up the drive and let himself into the house.

Standing in a small sidehall, he listened, marking the sound of two voices. The first was unmistakably Aunt Kareen, the measured tones of the High Tongue ringing in bell-like purity. The answering voice was lower in pitch and inflection: his fostersister, Nova yos’Galan.

Val Con sighed for yet a third time and slipped silently down the hall to the large parlor. He bowed to his aunt and kissed his pale sister lightly on the cheek.

“Summoned, I obey,” he murmured in her ear. Then, turning, “Will you drink, Aunt? I see you are unrefreshed.”

“Thank you,” said that lady austerely, “but no. I am unable to take a crumb of sustenance; nor even a thimbleful of wine.”

Val Con blinked and darted a look at his sister, who avoided his eyes. No enlightenment from that quarter. He moved silently to a chair near his aunt. Perching on the carved arm, he shook his head.

“That sounds very bad, I must say. Have you consulted a physician?”

The Right Noble sniffed. “I am quite well—physically. Thank you, my Lord. Your concern warms my heart.”

Score one for Aunt Kareen. Val Con hastily schooled his face to that expression of distant interest considered proper when speaking with other members of Society.

“Forgive me, Aunt; I meant no disrespect. The difficulty is that I have only recently returned to Liad. My sister’s message met me at Scout Headquarters, and I obeyed her instructions immediately. You will understand that this left me no time to discover the nature of your trouble.

“I am ready to hear,” he concluded, most properly, “and feel certain that all may quickly be resolved.”

“That is very good, then,” said Aunt Kareen, greatly mollified. “It grieves me that the cause of my distress is the First Speaker, your—kinsman—Shan yos’Galan. I am aware of the regard in which you hold him, my Lord; and on a minor matter I would not, of course, approach you. However, this case is such that I am certain it is no less than one’s duty to bring it to the attention of yourself, who will lead Korval next as Delm.” Her eyes sharpened. “If you will ever bestir yourself to take the Ring, of course.”

Val Con resisted the temptation to look at Nova again. With effort, he maintained the proper expression, though one eyebrow did slip upward, just a little.

“Has Shan slighted you, Aunt? It does not seem like him. He is very conscientious in his duty as First-Speaker-in-Trust. It is true that his manner is not quite . . . polished . . . but his heart is good and—”

“He is an outrageous rantipole and a disgrace to the Clan!” snapped his aunt. She took a bosom-lifting breath and dabbed at her temples with an orange silk kerchief.

“Forgive me. It was not my intention to speak thus of a kinsman you hold so dear, though I am certain my feelings on Lord yos’Galan’s past . . . adventures . . . have not escaped notice.”

“I am,” said Val Con dryly, “aware of your antipathy for my brother. You are obviously agitated. I make allowance.” He removed his eyes to the Clan sign above the fireplace: Korval’s Dragon hovering protectively over the Tree.

He looked back at the Right Noble, both brows up.

“You have not yet informed me what my brother has done to offend you—this—time, Aunt.”

She drew herself up. “He is—racing!”

Her nephew achieved a new peak of self-discipline and contrived not to laugh.

“Is he? Racing what, I wonder?”

“Skimmers,” said Nova unexpectedly, frowning slightly when he turned to face her. “A new thing off the Terran tracks . . .” She sighed. “They are dangerous, Val Con. Stick and throttle—no electronics, no safeties.”

“Ah.” He considered it; smiled at her. “But he’s not likely to hurt himself, is he? He’s quite an excellent pilot.”

“Whether or not he does himself some trifling injury is not the essence,” announced Lady Kareen. “Consider the scandal, my Lord! The First Speaker of Clan Korval—racing, like a common—” words failed her.

“Pilot? Individual? Rantipole?” He caught Nova’s Terran-style headshake and allowed the spurt of anger to subside.

“Aunt Kareen,” he began again, more smoothly. “I ask you to consider what you say. Consider what has made Korval great—” He pointed to the device above the mantle. “‘Flaran Cha’ment’i: I Dare’. My brother carries on an illustrious tradition—”

“Your cousin,” she snapped, “does not care a broken cantra for tradition! You speak of his concern for duty. I say it is wonderful we are not already the laughingstock we are doomed to become, unless you, my Lord, very soon take your place at the head of this clan and—”

“Is it so bad a thing,” Val Con overrode gently, “to laugh? Better to laugh—even be laughed at—and continue to strive, rather than run away . . .”

“Korval does not run away!’

“No?” He tipped his head. “And yet my father—your brother—abdicated his position, left the clan—ran away. Shan would far rather give over the duties of First Speaker. It would better suit him to return to the Passage and the trade route. But in fact he is First Speaker at this present, and thus remains upon Liad, taking what harmless amusement he may to ease his time here.” Val Con rested his eyes, bright green and very angry, on his aunt’s.

“Shan does not run away,” he concluded quietly.

“I see,” said the old lady, with brittle calm. “I infer that you will not speak with him. Therefore, since someone must speak to him, I shall dispatch your near-cousin, Pat Rin to—”

Val Con held up a slender hand. “I did not say that I would not speak with Shan, Aunt. Do not trouble my kinsman, your son.”

For a long moment they stared, old eyes measuring young. Lady Kareen rose.

“Very well, my Lord. I thank you for your condescension. No—do not trouble yourselves. No one need show me out.”

She bent her head briefly to the room at large and swept out. Nova went after, grimly intent upon courtesy.

Returning to the parlor several minutes later, she found Val Con slouched in a hearth chair, legs thrust out, winecup held loosely in his left hand. He appeared to be studying the toes of his boots.

Nova sat on the edge of the chair across from him.

“I apologize for calling you home so summarily, Brother, but the truth is I was at wit’s end . . .”

He glanced up, eyes still very bright, and pushed the dark hair from his forehead.

“How long has she been at you?”

Nova sighed. “She’s been here every day for the past three months, demanding that ‘something be done’ about Shan.” She shook her head. “Then she began threatening to send Pat Rin to bring him away—and you know that would never do, Val Con . . .”

“Pat Rin would say something pompous and Shan would ignore him,” Val Con murmured. “So of course Pat Rin would become more pointed in order to ensure that his thick-headed kinsman had the right of things—”

“And Shan would bloody his nose,” finished Nova.

“Imagine me, I implore you,” said Val Con, rediscovering his wine and sipping, “fining the First Speaker his quartershare for engaging in fisticuffs with another clan member.”

Nova frowned. “But you would not—unless . . . Do you mean to be delm now, Brother?”

He shook his head. “I most certainly would be able—my privilege and duty, as delm-to-be. The reference is Penlim’s Protocol. Very dusty reading. Best you check it though, Sister, since the trusteeship falls next to you.” An eyebrow slid upward. “How long do you think Shan can hold out?”

She set her lips primly. “I will go before the Council of Clans as First-Speaker-in-Trust at the end of the month and Shan will be free to return to the Passage.”

Val Con nodded. “None too soon, eh? And then skimmer racing may slide away into the past.” He tipped his head. “There is more, perhaps? You are still distressed.”

“It is a small thing . . .” She looked at him worriedly. “Yesterday she railed at me for nearly two hours—she even missed a session of the Poetry Society!” She sighed. “It is the Terran blood, you see, that makes Shan so wild and threatens to disgrace Korval forever.”

“It is fantastic, is it not,” said Val Con, “that my aunt holds such opinions? After all, she was offered the Trusteeship when my father abdicated—and refused it, even as she refused to care for his son, leaving all to yos’Galan. At this moment she could be First Speaker.”

“Gods forefend,” breathed Nova, bringing fingers to lips too late.

Val Con laughed. “So I think, as well.” He lifted an eyebrow. “She does well for one unable to take sustenance.”

“Ah, you haven’t spoken to her cook.”

“Nor have I any wish to do so.” He was on his feet, moving with Scout silence across the short distance that separated them. Bending, he kissed her cheek.

“I’ll speak with Shan, since I have said it. Will you tell me the location of the racing park?”

THE WIND SCREAMED and the skimmer bucked and slithered. Shan fed it more power, leaned right to correct the slide, kicked the throttle to the top and was over the finish line in a burst of breathless speed. He slewed in a half-arc for the joy of it and slashed the power, gliding to a halt by the timer-tower.

“Twelve minutes, forty-two seconds,” the mechanical voice informed him.

“Damn,” said Shan, heading sedately for the garage. Two minutes to shave at the very least, or he might as well leave Araceli home on Trilsday and watch the race from the stands.

Most skimmers carried a crew of two; he’d been foolish to think he could run singleton. He needed another pilot for second—and where was he to come up with one in so short a time? Worse, how to find time for proper training?

“Damn,” said Shan again, yanking off the goggled helmet and dropping it to the floor. He locked the board and jumped out.

Perched on the fence directly opposite was a young gallant: fine white shirt and soft dark trousers; a pilot’s leather jacket thrown negligently across the fence at his side. He held a glass of wine in his hand.

Shan stretched his long legs, grinning in welcome.

“Well, this is a surprise,” he said in Terran. “How long have you been here?”

“I saw your run,” Val Con replied in the same tongue. “Wine?”

“Thanks.” Shan said and sighed. “I didn’t know you were a racing enthusiast.”

“I heard there was something new,” Val Con said. “A pilot likes to keep abreast . . .”

“Always nice to learn,” agreed Shan. “And an education can be had in the oddest places. Staying at the spaceport, are you, Val Con?”

The younger man lifted an eyebrow. “Do I pry into your affairs?”

“Well, now, that’s what’s odd. Normally you don’t. But here I am, where I have taken care not to announce myself, out of respect for our more proper relations; and now here you are—”

“For which I should be thanked,” Val Con interrupted. “Aunt Kareen is quite upset. She was on the brink of sending Pat Rin to fetch you home, and was persuaded to allow me to come instead. My aunt,” he added earnestly, “thinks you an outrageous rantipole.”

Shan snorted. “I’d rather be a rantipole than a pompous ass.”

“Yes,” soothed Val Con, “I know you would.”

“Cultivating an edge, Brother?”

“It is also to be recalled,” said Val Con dampingly, “that we are but cousins.”

“Dear me!” Shan cried. “I apprehend that Kareen was in the throes of a Mood!”

He sipped, sketched a bow. “Forgive the sermon, denubia. Better you than Pat Rin, whatever news.” He laughed. “Gods, only imagine the scene! And you would have had to fine me, too! Or I would have had to fine me—and very angry I’d have been at myself.” He raised his glass. “Brother, I salute you: you’ve saved me a rare chewing out!”

“No less than my fraternal duty.”

“But you didn’t come all this way,” pursued Shan, “just to report Kareen’s opinion of me? If so, a wasted journey.”

“My aunt’s health is in decline from worry over the scandal,” Val Con said. “Fear of the damage you do Korval’s reputation will allow her to neither eat nor drink. One understands the cure for her pitiful condition is for you to come home and behave yourself. She’s been at Nova for weeks—with variations upon the theme . . .”

“She’s what? At my sister? In my house? By what right? She’s not yos’Galan.”

“For the good of the clan,” Val Con said, lips twitching.

“Bah, what nonsense!” cried Shan, and fell silent, sipping. After a time he looked up, white brows drawn over light eyes. “And what does our sister say? Or you, for that matter? It seems I’ve heard too much of what Kareen thinks and nothing at all of what Nova and Val Con think.”

“Nova has given me a double-cantra to lay upon the race Trilsday-this—Shan yos’Galan to take any of the four highest honors.”

“Did she?” Shan grinned like a boy. “We’ll make a human being out of her yet, Val Con. And you?”

“I?” He lifted a brow. “I’d like a ride in your skimmer, please, Brother.”

WORDS SCROLLED across the screen set into the table. Nova read and sighed, breakfast forgotten before her.

Araceli,” the race report continued, “piloted and comanned by Shan yos’Galan and Val Con yos’Phelium, Clan Korval, earned distinction by turning in the slowest finishing time on the day. Neither team member is a professional racer and the time-loss taken when a nerf from first-placing Tolanda sent Araceli off the course was never regained. It is to the amateur team’s credit that Araceli remained upright during the mishap and, due to a bit of quick readjustment by the secondman, was able to return to the course . . .”

“It’s that stupid braking system,” Val Con said over her head. “All very well to have no electronics onship, but why the brakes must be the most primitive of hand-turned vents is a mystery.”

His voice was edged with wry irritation. Nova turned her head, but he was at the buffet, clattering covers and pouring tea.

“How’s your arm?” she asked.

He glanced over his shoulder, smiling. “Better a bruise than tumbling out of control. And not bad enough to bother with the ’doc.” He gathered up cup and plate and sat down across from her. “It’s an odd thing, Nova—the craft is so light that my hand on the ground was sufficient pivot-point. If there were a more efficient way of braking . . . As it’s arranged now, the pilot may either steer or brake. And he may not brake quickly.”

She glanced up at him. “Where is Shan, by the way?”

“At the park, seeing to Araceli’s packing. He plans to race at the Little Festival.”

“He does?” Dismay sounded clearly in her voice.

Val Con lifted a brow. “No faith, denubia? It’s not a bad little craft—and Shan is very good. If we could only resolve the braking—Ah, no! Before breakfast?”

Nova followed his gaze out the window and stifled a groan as she saw the too-familiar shape of Lady Kareen’s landau come to rest across the drive.

“Does my aunt read the racing papers, do you think?” Val Con asked, eyes glinting mischief over the rim of his cup.

“Now, Brother, have pity! Don’t make her any worse.”

He rounded his eyes, face etched in surprise. “Why, Lady Nova! As if my aunt were ever other than perfectly delightful!”

“Val Con—”

“The Right Noble Lady Kareen yos’Phelium,” announced the housebot from the doorway.

“Good morning, Aunt,” said Val Con, the Low Tongue all good cheer. “Will you take breakfast with us?’

“Thank you,” said the Right Noble, “but no.” The bell tones of the High Tongue were gelid. “And you, my Lord, might best wish to speak with me in the study. What I have to say is scarcely fit for a breakfast-table conversation.”

“I’m a-tremble,” said her nephew. “But I fear you will have a small wait, Aunt, if you must have the study. I am exceedingly hungry and feel I should finish my meal before embarking upon an exhaustive interview.” He picked up his tongs to readdress breakfast.

There was a pause, growing painfully longer. A glance from beneath sheltering lashes showed Nova that Lady Kareen’s face was rigid with anger. Val Con was proceeding with his meal.

“Very well,” said Lady Kareen presently. “If you will have it so.” She moved to the nearest chair and stood, eyes on her nephew’s bent head.

Horrified, Nova saw Val Con glance up, frown and raise his hand to the hovering robot.

“Jeeves, pray hold my aunt’s chair for her.”

“Certainly, Captain.” The ’bot glided forward and slid the chair smoothly from its place.

“Your Ladyship.”

There was a moment’s hesitation before she sat. Jeeves retired to a corner.

Val Con smiled. “Now then—ah, but first: are you certain you won’t take something, Aunt? Tea? Morning-wine?”

“Nothing, I thank you.” She glared at him. “Must you speak in that manner?”

He blinked. “In what—oh, in the Low Tongue! I do beg pardon, ma’am. I was speaking with my sister just now and it quite slipped my mind that I must use the High Tongue at this present, in deference to company.”

Nova bit her lip.

“Of yesterday’s fiasco,” the old lady said after a moment, “there is nothing to say. That you failed to bring your cousin away from the racing-track before he had made a fool of himself and his clan does not surprise. He is as tenacious as he is misguided. It grieves me that his hold over you, the heir and hope of Korval, is such that you were persuaded to lend your countenance to the spectacle. It is to be hoped that you will soon see the unsavory influence Shan yos’Galan exercises over you and will distance yourself from him.” She paused to glare at both of them. “On that head, no more.”

“Ah.” Val Con rose and refilled his cup. When he sat again, both brows were well up.

“You have something to say on another head?”

The Right Noble pressed her lips together. “It is perhaps not a subject you would care to discuss in the presence of your cousin.”

“You intrigue me.” He glanced at Nova, green eyes dancing.

He turned back to his aunt. “Speak on; we listen eagerly.”

“Very well,” said the old lady again, eyeing Nova dubiously, and drew herself taut. “It has come to my ears that my nephew, Val Con yos’Phelium, has been seen in a common tavern near the docks in Chonselta City. Has, indeed, been seen walking late and early about town wearing spaceleathers . . .” Lady Kareen faltered under her nephew’s steady gaze and had recourse to her kerchief.

Nova sipped tea.

“Spaceleathers,” Val Con repeated gently. “And what should one wear, I wonder, when visiting common taverns?”

His aunt bristled. “Spaceleather is very well for working in space. No doubt it serves you admirably in your scouting duties. But when upon Liad, one must dress according to one’s station. In the evening, one must always wear a cloak.” She took a deep breath. “That the delm-to-be should be so ill-mannered—”

But Val Con wasn’t listening.

“Cloak,” he murmured. “Of course a cloak . . .” He came to his feet, made his bow and was all but running past Nova’s chair, his fingers barely brushing her cheek.

“Aunt, I thank you—your instruction is superlative. Pray forgive my hastiness—Jeeves!” he cried as he passed from the room. “Bring your calculator! I must have a new cloak!”

The robot charged after in a thunder of wheels, orange head-ball flaring. “My calculator is ever at hand, Captain.”

Nova sat staring at the empty doorway. “A cloak? Oh, no . . .”

“But why not?” asked Lady Kareen, obviously gratified that her words had at last produced an effect. “What harm can it do him to have a new cloak?” She leaned forward to pat Nova’s hand. “Pray tell him to consider it my gift to him, Cousin; he must have the cloakmaker send the receipt to me.” She smiled. . . . “After all, an interest in one’s appearance is a beginning! I’ll deal with the racing later.”

SHAN SLAMMED THE skimmer’s bonnet, frowning. He’d gotten several offers from mechanics to enhance his engines beyond match regulations. He’d told them all no—a fair race and a fair win, that was what he wanted.

And now here was Val Con, insisting that Araceli be brought home for private testing. And if Val Con was willing to tempt fate in such ways . . .

“Practice? Practice how?” he’d demanded when he got the younger man’s call. “We need to be on the course to practice, youngling. Practicing on flat grass isn’t going to do us any good.”

“No, but it will. I think. Please, Brother, bring her home. If it puts you out of pocket, I’ll pay the shipping.”

So here was Shan, cooling his heels on the stream bank, and Val Con uncharacteristically late—

A flash of bright color caught the corner of his eye. He tracked it—and froze, staring.

“Good evening, Brother!” called Val Con cheerfully.

“What in moon’s honor is that?”

“This,” announced the younger man, pulling himself stiffly erect and moving his shoulders so the orange micro-silk shimmered, “is the next fashion.”

“I’m terrified,” Shan said, carefully circling him. “But you’re probably right. It just might be ugly enough.” He shook his head in repulsed wonder. “You look like a pumpkin.”

“Oh, no, do you think so? The cloakmaker will be distressed; he was extremely proud of the work.” Val Con grinned. “I have a genius for design.”

“What you have a genius for is for driving me mad! Do you mean to say you actually designed this monstrosity? Why? You hate cloaks! You’ll never wear it. Unless it’s your idea of a joke on Society? Everyone will rush out to have a cloak like Korval’s—and you’ll have a grand time laughing up your sleeve. Delightful. Except you’ll be off-world for most of the time this new fashion of yours is the rage. I’ll have to look at the stupid things every time I go out for the next—”

Val Con was laughing.

Shan regarded him sourly. “OK; I bit, did I? Explain. Include,” he added after a moment, “why it had to be orange.”

“Ah, you see, orange doesn’t suit everyone. But with my lovely dark hair and pure golden skin tone . . .”

“Stop.” Shan took a breath. “Val Con, you’re my brother and I love you. Don’t make me kill you.”

“Orange is my aunt’s favorite color,” murmured the other. “I thought, since she so kindly bears the expense . . .”

“I see,” Shan said. “Paid good money to hide you, has she? So it’s orange and you’ll be hidden for everyone to see. Now: Why is it at all?”

“So that we will win the race at the Little Festival.”

Shan blinked. “Yes? Could you be more specific, please?”

“Certainly.” Val Con linked their arms and gently turned his brother back toward the trees. “If you will only walk with me to the skimmer and have the goodness to give me a ride . . .”

THEIR SISTERS comfortably established in the stands, Shan and Val Con walked leisurely toward the qualifying field. To the left, the jewel-colored pleasure pavilions rippled in the flower-scented breeze. To the right, Te’lesha Lake reflected the colors of the afternoon sky. Already there were people abroad with lovegarlands in their hands.

“Well,” said Shan, “at least we’ve managed to get everyone out of Kareen’s way today. Is she checkmated, do you think, Brother? Or will she pull rank on you?”

“She has none to pull.”

Shan opened his mouth—closed it, as memory rose:

The boy, Shan, entering the house by a side door and almost falling over his small cousin, Val Con, unexpectedly sitting on the cool stone floor, clutching a martyred orange cat in his arms.

Shan sat on the floor next to the child; extended a hand and ruffled the dark hair.

“Hello, denubia. What’re you doing here?”

A long pause during which Val Con studied him out of solemn green eyes. Then, with the terrible succinctness of the very young: “Aunt Kareen doesn’t want me.”

“Shan.” Val Con’s voice, here and now.

“Yes?” But even as he asked, he saw them; the Lady leaning on the arm of her elegant escort. “Aaaah, damn. Have they seen us?”

“Hello, kinsmen!” called Pat Rin across the Festival’s babble.

“Why must he always remind me of that?”

“Gently, Brother,” murmured Val Con. “Only think of the expense; weigh it against satisfaction gained . . .”

“You make it sound so simple . . .” he began. Then Lady Kareen and her son were with them and he chopped it off to make his bow.

Val Con also bowed, graceful and brief. “Aunt. Cousin.”

“Nephew,” she said icily and paused to draw a deep breath. Into this slight gap—unexpectedly—stepped Pat Rin.

“What an extraordinary cloak, young cousin. And worn at such an odd hour. Unless you wish to establish a—point—of some kind?”

Val Con considered him, eyebrow askance. “I wish to establish a new fashion in cloaks, kinsman. What better place to introduce it than the Little Festival, where hours are for a time banished?”

“Oh, very good!” said Pat Rin admiringly. “You have the touch of a poet, Cousin.” He gently disengaged his mother’s hand and ignored her glare as he circled Val Con thoughtfully.

After a few circuits, he shrugged. “There is a grain of something there, I allow. It might be possible to adapt it quite successfully. What do you call it?”

“A skimmer,” said Val Con gently.

“Indeed? Don’t you find that perhaps a bit—vulgar?”

“Ah, but you see, I find myself to be a vulgar person. Which I believe is the topic my aunt wishes to address. Let us allow her room, kinsman.” He turned his eyes to the outraged Lady. “Aunt? You have something to say?”

It took her a moment to find her voice. “I will speak with you in private, sir.”

Val Con inclined his head. “Lady, I regret. I am here. If you wish to speak—and since you came in search of me—you must perforce speak here.”

Pat Rin’s eyes sharpened with speculation and he stepped back to his mother’s side.

The Right Noble stared at her nephew. A moment stretched to two . . . neared three . . .

She moved her eyes first.

“Very well, sir. If you wish all the world to hear it . . .”

“If your topic causes you shame, madam, pray do not speak, but wait. Call on me at home and we will discuss the matter privately.” Val Con’s voice was unremittingly gentle. Shan winced and swept a quick glance around the gathering crowd.

Lady Kareen moistened her lips. “That Lord yos’Galan is so lost to propriety as to continue to race skimmers in the face of defeat and ridicule, I can readily believe. That you, of the line and blood of one of the oldest and most respected of the clans, should, after receiving the instruction of the eldest of your line, persist in this scandal is insupportable. Why should you race skimmers, sir? In all the generations since the clans came to Liad no one of Korval has ever raced skimmers!”

“And before Cantra yos’Phelium and Tor An yos’Galan landed the colony ship on this world, no one of Korval had done that, either,” Val Con said. Suddenly, his eyes were sharp; his voice ice-edged.

“Your argument, Lady, falls short.”

The Right Noble pulled herself up. Pat Rin gasped. Shan bit his tongue.

“As the eldest of Line yos’Phelium,” Lady Kareen stated formally, “I forbid you to race—this evening, tomorrow, or at any time in the future. Do I make myself plain, sir?”

A pause, very brief. Then, in the highest possible dialect, that used to address strangers or those barely acknowledged as kin: “You long ago declined the right to so command.” And added, in a voice so cold Shan barely recognized it as Val Con’s, “Madam, I repeat: Your argument falls short. You are of the line by name and blood, but never by authority.”

Incredibly, she opened her mouth to speak further—or perhaps she only gasped with shock. Whatever she intended, it was forestalled as Pat Rin stepped forward, sweeping a bow just this side of too-deep toward them both.

“Indeed,” he murmured quickly, “we are grateful for this valuable instruction.” He backed gracefully to his mother’s side; placed her hand upon his arm.

“A good evening to you both, kinsmen. My kindest regards to your sisters.”

Gently, he turned the Right Noble and guided her through the scattering onlookers.

Shan looked at his younger brother, standing stiff and hard-faced in his absurd cloak.

“Are you Balanced now, Val Con?” he asked softly.

Some of the stiffness fled and he turned, mouth wry.

“I think so,” he murmured and added, “yes.”

THE STANDS WERE packed and Nova stretched her legs carefully.

Next to her, Anthora and her fairlove were engaged in picking out acquaintances in the crowd—against all Festival propriety, of course. Nova sighed and leaned over.

“May I offer either of you wine?”

“Both,” said Anthora gaily. She smiled at her companion, who was clearly besotted already. “I’ll have red, please.”

“And I, canary, Lady. Thanking you . . .”

Anthora gripped Nova’s hand. “Two more,” she whispered urgently. “Is it red and red? Pat Rin and Lady Kareen are here.”

“What?” Nova turned, immediately locating the exquisite Pat Rin, painstakingly conducting his mother across the tiers.

“Damn,” Nova muttered and Anthora laughed.

Pat Rin’s bow, delivered moments later, was an intriguing concoction of restraint, kinship and tentative coolness.

“Cousins,” he said formally. “A good day to you both. My honored mother wishes to view the race and wonders if she might presume to the extent of begging two seats.”

What was this? Nova smiled graciously and inclined her head.

“Please do sit, both. There is wine. You prefer red, I think, kinsman? Cousin?”

This was acknowledged with cool thanks; seats were taken. Lady Kareen leaned to Nova.

“Will you have the goodness, Cousin, to point out Korval’s craft when it appears? One wishes to keep it in one’s eye.”

“Yes, certainly.” Nova sipped wine to cover her confusion. “You know, of course, Cousin, that there is no possibility of halting the race—or of withdrawing Korval’s entry, assuming it has qualified?”

“Of course,” said Lady Kareen placidly. “I have seen my nephew and his brother. My error has been shown me,” her lips twitched, “with meticulous correctness. One seeks to behave with propriety.” She sipped. “What is the name of the craft, please, Cousin?”

Araceli. It should be quite easy to mark. My youngest brother wears his cloak.”

“Most proper,” said Lady Kareen and turned to say a word to her son.

VAL CON PULLED on gloves as he surveyed the competition. Each craft hovered over its assigned colored oval; from the stands it looked as if eighteen frictionless pucks sat upon eighteen glass disks. The slightest gust of breeze could push a craft off-center, as might the careless lean of a copilot, though once underway the powerful force of the airblasts would nullify all but the strongest wind.

The razzing from the other crews subsided into grumbling and catcalls, though Val Con had had a bad few minutes just as Araceli took its place. Tolanda’s Terran pilot gave vent to an exquisite wolfwhistle while her Liaden partner called out reprovingly.

“Come now, Captain, you needn’t give up as easily as that! You’ve paid the entrance fee; why not try to race?”

Kelti had taken up the assault then: “That orange could blind somebody!”

And so on.

Through it all Shan sat silent in the pilot’s slot; and Araceli alone of the eighteen craft stayed precisely centered above her disk of color.

The starting cannon boomed, masking the whir and whine of the skimmers’ starting blasts. Wind whipped Val Con’s face as he leaned back into his niche, clinging to the molded handgrips. At Shan’s nod, he shifted left and Araceli veered sharply: now they were in the second row and building speed.

Across the course, skimmers were setting up for the first sickle-shaped curve, and Araceli’s position on the outside was bad. Unexpectedly, speed helped them through the first bunch-up at the base of the turn; they slid away a half-second before the craft to their left lost control and broadsided the skimmer immediately behind.

A short straight and then—the hill.

Most of the field was slowing; pilots gauging the approach, waiting for the exact moment to gun the jets.

Out on the far side, running at a completely absurd angle, Araceli charged forward, upward—halfway up, in fact—and began to rotate.

Shan hit the jets; Araceli climbed, rotation unchecked. Val Con, ducking to give the pilot a clear view as they proceeded backwards, grinned at the confusion behind.

Several pilots, misreading Araceli’s rotation as unwanted spin in their own craft, corrected disastrously, slipping sideways—and downward.

Araceli gained ground, rotating gently to face forward again as the hill was crested—four places up in the running; only seven craft ahead.

But on the short straight the superior speed of the newer skimmers showed and Araceli dropped to tenth.

“Amateurs!” howled Scant’s pilot as that craft passed them. “Get off the course if you can’t drive!”

Shan waved politely and threw a quick grin at Val Con, motionless in the copilot’s seat, cloak tucked carefully around him.

Shan nodded a heartbeat later and Val Con threw his weight to the right as the craft spun sideways to descend the hill, setting up for the second curve. There was a bunch-up at the bottom and several skimmers overshot into a field of grain, releasing a storm of silvery pollen.

Val Con shifted to the left and Araceli skidded around, taking the corner raggedly, but in the running as they came into the second longest straight.

“Now!” yelled Shan.

Val Con knocked twice on the thin metal skin and curled himself into a tight ball behind his larger brother; ducking his head inside the silk of the cloak to create a smooth-backed fairing.

They neither gained nor lost on the straight and Val Con stayed hunched over. A gone feeling in his stomach warned him and he was instantly up, sitting far back; trying not to look at the ramp ahead, or at the gap they must jump.

The ramp edge was crossed and he lunged forward, grabbing for the kink at the base of the rollbar—

They went up with a craft slightly to their right and in front; another just behind. Val Con caught a glimpse of that one and winced: they’d entered the ramp wrong and the sharp front of the skimmer was too high. Not only did they lose time as the air flow caught the broad base, but almost flipped as the back sank.

Shan gunned the jets as Araceli made the receiving ramp. The shock of it, rather than conscious thought, brought Val Con back into running position.

Araceli was the second of three skimmers approaching together, making a bid to take the next corner sharply and enter the weaving tree-lined “tunnel.”

Shan nearly missed the proper moment for reversal of the jets; kicked them and leaned to fight rotation as Val Con jerked hard to the right, sending them into the tunnel between the two challengers.

Out of the trees and into the longest straight, with the start/finish line at its center, and the advantage of the other craft showed again, as three caught Araceli before the line and one after, until the frantic braking for the corner broke the flow and reshuffled the field.

By the fifth lap, several skimmers were out of the race. One flipped at the ramp, both crew members still strapped in. Shan had the measure of the course, but Araceli was losing precious seconds on each lap. Tolanda, in bright blue, was running a conservative third behind the two contenders for the lead.

Araceli was a steady eighth and there was no hope of catching the leaders on speed.

Out of the tunnel, they managed to pass a careless Kelti and got a good start on the long straightaway. Shan’s voice carried back over the rush of air.

“Now, Val Con!”

PAT RIN WAS annoyed. Worse, he was bored. Races were not among his favorite amusements and to be forced to sit and watch such a race when one might be ribbonfasted or—Well, and here they came again.

He dutifully kept his eyes on the black skimmer with the bright-orange copilot as it rushed past the stands, seventh in the field—gaining perhaps half-a-length on the number six position. Val Con was hunched down in back, using his cloak as a fairing—not too bad a notion, Pat Rin admitted, grudgingly.

Araceli passed number six and was gaining on the leaders, who were starting to bunch up into the braking zone for the curve. Pat Rin tensed. Korval’s entry was hurtling on—deeper and deeper into the braking zone! Madness to take the corner at that speed—

He came to his feet, Nova beside him, Anthora hanging on her arm, as a burst of orange exploded from the back of Araceli, which could only be Val Con, jumping—

The crowd’s groan turned to a cheer, under which Pat Rin heard Anthora’s voice, repeating urgently, “He’s all right, Sister. They’re both all right. Sit down. They’re—”

Pat Rin sat slowly, staring at Val Con, who was standing like an orange balloon in the back of the skimmer, his astonishing cloak hauling the craft’s speed down from the absurd to the reasonable.

And entering the sickle-curve Korval was fourth, approaching third.

TOLANDA’S PILOT glanced back, disbelief on her face; shouted to her teammate and fishtailed for the nerf—the intentional glancing collision which would push the upstarts off the course.

Val Con snapped half-erect, cloak billowing over one arm, air-braking and tipping Araceli—and Tolanda was fourth, fighting rotation. Shan was laughing.

The hill loomed. Val Con ducked into his cocoon to preserve speed and snapped out at the crest, catching an over-the-shoulder grin from Shan. They charged downhill neck-and-neck with Tolanda; and left it in the dust as the Terran began braking for the corner.

Again Val Con stood, gripping the rollbar tightly; again the cloak went from a bright-orange stream to an inflated airfoil.

Again Araceli picked up ground on the leaders.

Cries of “Foul! Foul!” hit them as they whipped past the pits.

Their opponents, faced with a common enemy, charged harder down the long straights, took more risks, tried—with some success—to emulate Korval’s airbrake, using shirts and vests. But Araceli was a clear second, Tolanda third and the former second, fourth.

The lead changed hands several times on the tenth lap.

“Two more laps to win it!” Shan yelled.

Val Con nearly groaned. His arms ached, he was sweaty, his hands within the gloves were raw, his legs throbbed with strain. Two laps—an eternity!

They crossed the start/finish line, lapping several slower racers, and came even with the first place craft just before the braking zone.

Val Con leapt for the bar and blinked: the other skimmer was still even with them, trying to take the coming corner at exactly the proper angle.

Execution fell short. The other craft shivered; started to spin—Araceli was past, taking the lead by two skimmer-lengths.

They held that minor lead through the eleventh lap, but the second place craft was showing its speed and inching closer.

Korval threw everything into the turns, dove a little further into the corners, waited a little longer on the straights. Val Con concentrated on the pattern of his movements, grooved in after this hard hour, and ignored the ache in his arms and legs.

They skidded into the tree tunnel nearly two full lengths ahead—Shan yelled, but the words were ripped away by the rushing wind, and Val Con saw the green skimmer charging them from inside the corner, a would-be human airbrake frantically trying to regain control.

Shan choked the jets, trying to throw Araceli clear of the charge, fighting spin and time was too short—

Val Con leapt to the bar, arms wide: “Left, Shan! Left!”

Araceli snapped left as Val Con’s cloak ballooned and the green skimmer missed them by a hair, the pilot struggling with the stick, trying to avoid the second place craft, just coming into the curve . . .

They were through; out into the straight, and Val Con folded himself into a fairing for the last time. Araceli roared as Shan opened the throttle for the long run and Val Con sweated inside the cloak, hearing sounds—sounds of many people, shouting; and, closer, the sound of another skimmer, gaining; a shout from Shan as they slewed sideways and—

“We won! Brother, we won!” Shan was pulling the cloak back from Val Con’s head, grinning hugely. “It worked!”

“Of course it worked,” said Val Con, somewhat crossly, as they began the victory lap, and sighed. Shan was steering one handed and waving at the crowd as wildly as they waved at Araceli. Val Con’s arms felt too heavy to wave at anyone.

“Shan?” He called above the roar.

“Yes, my blueblood?”

“We’re not going to make a habit of this, are we?”

Shan laughed. “No, denubia. Why push the luck?”

THE WINNER’S CIRCLE was crowded. Val Con and Shan managed to squeeze to their sisters’ side; each accepting a glass of wine and a kiss.

The Right Noble Lady Kareen yos’Phelium approached and bowed to Shan—the bow of Clanmember to First Speaker.

“Well raced, my Lord,” she said, quite audibly. “You and your brother are a credit to the clan.”

Shan blinked, inclined his head, murmuring a civil, “Thank you, Lady Kareen.”

The old lady was bowing to Val Con now: clanmember to delm.

“You are precipitate, Aunt,” he chided softly.

“I think not,” she returned. “A ring does not make a delm. You are Korval, whether you judge yourself ready or no. You will do as you deem wise and necessary. For the clan. It is as it should be.”

“Ah.” He smiled. “Let us have peace between us then, Lady.”

“Of course,” said the Right Noble. “How else?”

Anthora’s fairlove leaned over, whispering in her ear. She laughed softly and linked her arm in his; waving at her eldest brother as they moved off toward the pleasure-tents.

Shan raised his glass in salute; lowered it to drink—and snapped his eyes to Val Con’s face as he felt the younger man start.

“If the family will excuse me,” Val Con murmured, sketching a bow toward all. “I am reminded of a previous appointment.” He was gone, slipping through the crowd like an orange wraith.

Shan, watching from his tall vantage, saw a lady start forward—a blur of dark hair and bright eyes; hand outstretched in welcome. Val Con’s arm slid around her waist and he began to turn her toward the pleasure-tents—then his cloak swirled suddenly wide, hiding both from Shan’s view.

He glanced down to find Nova’s eyes on him.

“The reason Lady Kareen heard of Val Con frequenting a tavern in spaceleathers?” she murmured. “Is he courting a barmaid, Brother?”

He sipped. “She seems a very nice barmaid.”


He sighed and tried to break her gaze, without success.

“All right,” he said grumpily. “I’ll talk to him.” He raised his glass. “Later.”

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