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starCode of Honorstar

This story exists because we were plotting a completely different story, and needed a character to . . . do something . . . for the main character. That secondary character came with an utterly fascinating back-story. So fascinating, in fact, that he got his own story, set in the aftermath of I Dare. And yes, we are still planning to write the story that spawned this one, so . . . watch the skies!


“You wanted to see me, ma’am?”

Tech Sergeant Tommy Lee saluted, and waited for the captain to acknowledge him.

She looked up from her screen, eyes shadowed, and Tommy felt a pang. Cardimin had been hard on her; had been hard on all of them. He’d gotten a scratch out of it; Captain Blake had gotten . . . more than a scratch. She ought not even be out of sick bay—that was Tommy’s opinion, and let the record show that he was not a medic.

“Sergeant.” She nodded in return to his salute, and used her chin to point at the chair by her desk. “Sit down, please.”


He sat, frowning up at her face. Drawn and looking older than she was. Dammit, she ought to be resting!

“Correspondence just come in regarding you,” she said, looking down at her screen. “You know a Jow Lit pen’Chapen?”

For a moment, he thought to deny it; after all, who could say they knew the Delm of Clan Severt? Certainly not the least-valued of his grandchildren. But, no; it wouldn’t do. She would have his record on her screen. Fifteen Standards he had served in her command, and Tommy Lee before he’d risen from the signing table; she’d need a reminder of his birth name.


“Jow Lit pen’Chapen is Delm Severt,” he said calmly. “My grandfather.”

Captain Blake nodded.

“He sent a pinbeam to Commander Wyatt, stating that you’re needed by your clan.”

Ice ran his veins. The words hadn’t quite made . . .

“I beg your pardon?”

She looked up then; looked right at him, and smiled, tiredly.

“Your grandda invoked the escape clause, Tommy. You’re free to go home. Wyatt’s already signed off on it.”

But I don’t want to go home! he thought, which might have been undutiful, had things been otherwise, between him and his clan. He did not say this to Susan Blake; it would do nothing but distress her.

She shifted, slightly, fretfully, behind her desk.

“Says here there’s a transport voucher in your mailbox. You’re to leave immediately, and travel with all haste. Apparently, there’s specific instructions in your box along with that voucher.” She sighed, and shook her head at the screen.

“Couple administrative things . . .” she murmured. “First is, you wanna close your account in the Merc Bank?”

Close his account? And what? Carry his entire savings in his pockets?

He shook his head.

“If it’s possible to leave the account as it is, I would prefer to do that,” he said. She nodded and touched a key.

“OK. What do you want us to do about mail? You can keep your box open. Be a fee—four-bit per Standard.”

Hardly a fee at all, and certainly cheaper than renting a civilian box and paying for transfers and forwarding.

“I’ll leave it open for now; the fee’s acceptable. When I know what . . . my clan . . . requires of me, I’ll be able to make a decision . . .”

Gods, it had been half a lifetime since he had thought like this . . . what my clan requires of me? He was accustomed to command; the merc culture suited him well. But merc culture—merc discipline—was a shallow and meaningless thing when measured against the absolute power that a delm held over the members of his clan. A delm could order a kinsman shot for no reason other than he had been found an irritant. No one would remonstrate with him, or demand that he explain himself, or call him to stand trial for violations against the reg book . . .

“Tommy? You OK?”

He took a deep breath and looked up to meet her eyes.

“Truthfully, I’m . . . shaken. Does he—Delm Severt— say what the clan requires of me?”

Even as he asked, a new fear iced his heart.

His mother.

Had his mother died? But surely he would not be called home merely to mourn her. A leave of absence, perhaps, but this . . .

“He’s a man of few words, your grandda. Just the bare phrase, to do the necessary.”

He shook his head.

“I don’t accept his invocation of the Liaden Personnel Release Clause,” he said, dragging the proper name of the provision from gods knew what pocket in his well-pocketed memory. “I’ll make inquiries. If necessary, I’ll arrange for a leave of absence. This is . . .”

The captain was shaking her head, and she was frowning the particularly fierce frown that meant she was unhappy, not angry.

“You don’t get a say,” she said. “Tommy, I checked. You bet I checked! Some old guy sitting on Liad’s gonna take away the best palaver and protocol sarge this unit’s ever had?” Another headshake. “It’s got a whole chapter to itself in the regs: Liadens belong to their clan; if-and-when their clan says, come home, the Merc’s gotta cut ’em loose. No delay. No return.”

No return.

He was speechless.

There was a small pause before Captain Blake sighed, and spoke again, her voice sounding infinitely weary.

“So, there’s some things for you to sign here, Tommy . . .”


He arrived at Chonselta Port in the early hours of the morning, which suited him, and his plans. He found a tea shop and ordered breakfast, talking with the bored clerk while he ate. He’d taken the precaution of brushing up on modes and forms during the long days of travel, which was prudent, but left his ears tuned to the Solcintran accent. The Chonselta burr was at first disconcerting, then oddly comforting. He’d spent the last half of his life so far getting around in the various dialects of Terran and in Merc pidgen, with sometimes intense forays into other languages, as required by his duties. Of course, he’d spoken Liaden occasionally during the past fifteen Standards, but he had by no means spoken it every day. Doubtless, his grandfather would find him inexcusably rough, but that would be no new thing, and he was no longer an unskilled and despised halfling, but a man grown and secure in his accomplishments.

He reached for his tea cup; paused to look at the ring on the smallest finger of his right hand. It was a utilitarian thing, as ornaments went, the stone set flush to the band so as not to foul in wires, or catch on combat gloves. A Liaden would scarcely call it a ring at all, but for the honor it denoted; and perhaps not even then. He had another ring in his kit—a broad-banded, heavily gemmed affair that he wore when attending official parties and meetings with planetary officials, and others who were impressed by such things. Perhaps he should have it on, when he presented himself at the house.

That reminded him of his agenda, and he put the question to the clerk, who smiled and nodded significantly toward the left wall of the shop.

“Faces Spa will put you in the current style,” she said. “Just three shops up, at the corner.”

“Will they be open, so early?”

“Be shifting over to the day crew right about now,” she answered, so he finished his tea, paid his tab, and walked up the street to have himself put into the current style.


After the spa, his braid shorn and the remainder of his pale hair arranged in soft curls over his ears, it was the tailor, who was pleased to serve Tom Lei pen’Chapen Clan Severt, and in very quick order produced a jacket, shirt, and trousers befitting the returning son of a mid-level House known to have ambitious tendencies. His good duty boots were changed out for a thinner, shinier pair, with a heel that would make marching painful. The tailor also produced evening clothes—“In the event that the House dresses for Prime”—and a second set of day clothes. In addition, he quick-cleaned Mr. pen’Chapen’s travel leathers, sweater, and boots while the gentleman was in the dressing room, and had them waiting neatly on the counter when he emerged.

“I thank you,” Tom Lei said, remembering to incline slightly from the waist—not quite a bow, but a modest genuflection to one who has performed an unexpected small service. He produced his purse, meaning to settle his account immediately, and was stopped by the tailor himself.

“By no means, sir! Clan Severt of course keeps an account here, and settles very promptly at the end of every relumma! I have no hesitation in appending today’s modest purchases to this relumma’s accountings.”

“I thank you,” Tom Lei said again, while, mentally, he sighed. Of course, Severt kept accounts with the local tailors. It was how things were done, on Liad. He, long-accustomed to drawing his uniforms from stores, and purchasing joy-clothes and civvies from his own funds, had simply assumed—but there! This was his uniform, now.

“I am happy to serve,” the tailor was assuring him. “If you should need to expand your wardrobe—reception wear, or intimate items—please do not hesitate to call upon me.”

“I will remember,” he promised, and reached for his kit, to stow cleaned leathers and boots.

“May I call a cab for you, sir?” the tailor asked.

He had intended to walk from the tailor to Severt’s Clanhouse, a matter of some several dozen blocks. Walking would have served two purposes: it would have consumed time, should that have been necessary, until an hour when the House could be expected to be awake; and it would have given him one last opportunity to prepare himself for the upcoming meeting with his grandfather.

Walking long blocks in these absurd new boots, however, was only likely to give him blisters and bad temper. And, too, the process of becoming presentable had taken rather longer than he had expected. The House would certainly be awake by this hour, and if they were still at breakfast, then he could await his grandfather’s pleasure in one of the small parlors.

“A cab would be most welcome,” he told the tailor. “I thank you again, for your care.”


Severt’s Clanhouse was situated on Omarine Street; not in Chonselta’s first neighborhood, but well enough. It was pleasantly tree-lined, and the houses sat back from the public walk, protected from the prying eyes of passersby by small gardens.

Tom Lei pen’Chapen paused at the gate, looking over the garden, and, if truth be told, the flagged walk that meandered from the gate through the flowers, to the stairway that ended at the front door.

In theory, his palm print was known to the security systems. Which, in theory, would open both gate and door to him.

Standing there, he knew a moment of hope, that the security system had forgotten him after all this time; that the gate would remain closed to him; so that he might have a reason to turn away, and resume his life . . .

But no.

His life as it had been was gone. His clan had need of him; his delm had called him home. Once more, he was merely a game piece, one among many interchangeable game pieces in his grandfather’s endless quest for advantage.

He put his hand on the gate.

It swung open on well-oiled hinges.

He sighed, then, and settled his kit more firmly over his shoulder, before stepping into the garden, and following the path to the stairs.


The front door was opened, not by one of the House’s children, but by a butler, unknown to him. He gave his name, and the information that the delm had called him home.

“I was told to expect you, sir,” the butler said imperturbably. “The House is at breakfast. Will you join them at table, or will you await the delm’s pleasure?”

He was a mercenary sergeant with sixteen world-falls to his account. On one memorable occasion, he and eight others of his squad had not only denied a prime target to a full platoon of the enemy, but routed them.

He was not by any means a coward.

But the thought of meeting his entire extended family at the breakfast table brought a cold sweat to his brow, and a decided uneasiness to his belly.

“Thank you,” he said to nameless butler. “I breakfasted at the port. I will await the delm’s pleasure.”

“This way, then, sir.”

He was led, not to the public receiving parlor, only a few steps from the door, but down into the house, until at last the butler opened the door to the delm’s very office, and bade him be comfortable.

“Shall I have that taken to your rooms, sir?” the butler asked, by which he meant the kit bag Tom Lei yet carried. He surrendered it with a pang, refused the offered glass of wine, and, after the door had closed, wandered restlessly over to the shelves.

He was perusing the titles there when the door opened again, much sooner than he had anticipated, and a sharp voice exclaimed behind him.

“Well, you took your time getting here!”

Between one breath and another, his nerves steadied.

“I traveled with all haste, as instructed,” he said, and turned to face his grandfather.

“It’s been an entire relumma since I sent for you, sir!”

The old man hasn’t changed a hair.

That was his first thought. His second was that his grandfather had altered: he was older, thinner, the hair that had still shown streaks of black when last they’d met was silver, now.

“It is the nature of space travel, sir,” he said, speaking in the mode of younger to elder—damned if he was going to hold a conversation in clan-member-to-delm. And if he was going to be chewed out . . .

But his grandfather had apparently thought better of whatever else he had been about to say. Instead, he inclined his head, and moved to the desk.

“Pour for us,” he said shortly.

With prompt obedience, Tom Lei moved over to the wine table, and paused, uncertain of his memory.

“Do you drink the red?” he asked, more or less at hazard.

“At this hour? Canary.”

He located the bottle, poured two glasses, carried them to the desk and placed one by his grandfather’s hand.

The old man picked up the glass, and glared up at him, dark eyes narrowed. They were not much alike, Tom Lei and his grandfather, which was the crux of the matter. Tom Lei was Festival-get, and the mark of his fair-haired, blue-eyed, pale-skinned sire was far too plain upon him. He had looked a veritable ghost among his numerous black-haired, ebon-eyed, golden-skinned kin, taller than the tallest of them by time he attained his twelfth name day.

Worse than all of that, he had the misfortune to be the child of grandfather’s least-favored daughter, who he was pleased to style an imbecile, though how a woman who brought the clan the considerable benefit of her salary as a freight expediter could be thought an imbecile . . .

“Do not loom,” his grandfather snapped. “Sit down.”

He did so without comment, and sat holding the glass in his right hand.

“You look well enough,” his grandfather said. “I had been concerned that you would require more polish. A word or two in the ear of your Aunt Manza should see you set up in the wardrobe. Jewels . . .”

He frowned, his gaze falling on Tom Lei’s all-but-naked hands, and he felt a pang, that he had not remembered to get the state ring out of his kit and put it on.

“What is that you have on your hand?”

The tone was more disgusted than curious, and a hot reply leapt to his tongue.

Then, he glanced at his right hand, and the small token he wore there, remembering faces he would never see again, comrades, lovers, and friends, and for their sake, he chose to answer moderately and do no dishonor to the ring.

“It signifies that I made sixteen world-falls as a mercenary, and saw action on each.”

His grandfather frowned.

“Is that an honor?”

“It is . . . an accomplishment,” Tom Lei said, and added, “among mercenary soldiers.”

His grandfather sat back in his chair, hands steepled before him. His eyes were on Tom Lei as if he studied the merits of an art work set before him.

“Excellent. You will wear that ring.” The frown returned. “Where is your clan necklace?”

“I had never had one,” Tom Lei said, and felt the slow burn of old anger. “When I came fourteen, you told my mother to find me a suitable employment that was out of your sight and cost you nothing.”

“Whereupon you joined the mercenaries,” said his grandfather.

Whereupon,” he corrected, though he might more wisely have allowed his grandfather’s history to stand, “we went first to the Healers, who tested me, and found that I might safely be trained as a servant in the Halls. That training would have required money, however.

“After the Healers, we went to the Scouts. I was tested and offered a scholarship to be trained in a specialty. The scholarship, however, was dependent upon a small donation from my House.

“With both of these options rejected by the delm—” and, he added to himself, my mother with a new bruise on her face—“then, yes, we went to the mercenaries, and I was enlisted as a ’prentice soldier. The results of the Scouts’ testing came with me, and I was trained in languages and protocol.” He did not say that the mercenaries had paid his mother a signing fee, of which she had given him half. He didn’t know what she might have done with that money, and even after so long he feared to betray her to her father.

“The mercenaries do not appear to have taught you to curb your insolence,” his grandfather observed, and continued with scarcely a pause. “Never mind. You will have a clan necklace; you will have everything that a son of Severt ought to have, and honor, too. You will be required to attend me. You will do as you are told, and you will say that which I give you to say. In this way you will bring benefit to your House, and increase our standing among the clans. Do you understand me?”

Well, no; he didn’t. But, when had he ever understood aught about his grandfather save that the old man hated the sight of him, and considered him a drain upon the resources of the House?

“Yes, sir,” he said, mildly.

His grandfather failed to look pleased. He stood, abruptly. Tom Lei came to his feet as well.

“Go and find Manza. Tell her that you’ll want good clothes; that I intend to take you about and show you to everyone. Can you do that?”

“I believe it may not be beyond me.”

Dammit, Tommy, hold your tongue!

He met his grandfather’s black eyes, and waited for the explosion.

It didn’t come.

“Leave me,” his grandfather said.

Tom Lei bowed and left the room.


His aunt Manza was in her own office at the back of the house; a small room the one charm of which was the tall narrow window that gave out onto the back garden. She heard his grandfather’s instructions with no expression on her face, reached into the middle drawer of the desk and withdrew a gold chain from which a golden icon in the shape of Severt’s shield twinkled. He received it from her hand and slipped it on over his head without looking at the shield.

“The clothes you are wearing were got in Chonselta,” she said then.

He nodded. “This morning, at bin’Dekel’s shop, on East Port Street,” he said. “I thought it best, were I not to show up in my traveling gear.”

His aunt smiled, faintly.

“You never were a fool,” she commented. “So, since Master bin’Dekel has your measurements, as of this very morning, and since his work is perfectly unexceptional, I will call him immediately and order in those things Severt desires you to have. They will be sent up to your rooms when they are delivered.” She turned to her screen, tapped a key.

“There is a small card party this evening to which I daresay you will accompany your grandfather, if you are to be shown to everyone.” She looked at him appraisingly. “What you are wearing now will do, though it should be freshened . . .”

“I bought a second suit, much like this,” he said, and she inclined her head in acknowledgement.

“Tomorrow night is pen’Valer’s reception, for which you will need something more, but we will have it by then.” She moved her shoulders. “You’re in the back hall, second floor; the middle suite.” Another glance, this one slightly softer. “It has much the same view as this room, and is quite the nicest suite on the hall.”

She turned back to her screen; he was dismissed to quarters.

He stood his ground.


She looked up, frowning.

“Where will I find my mother?”

The frown grew deeper and for an instant, he thought she would refuse to tell him.

Then she sighed, and shook her head.

“Your mother died six Standards ago,” she said.

His mouth dried, and he had to ask it—had to ask it, though it brought dishonor on the House even to think the question.

“By Grandfather’s hand?”

Aunt Manza came half out of her chair, her face richly flushed . . .

. . . and sank down again, with something that might have equally been a laugh or a sob.

“We had all feared that, at one time or another,” she said, as if to herself. “Why should Elza’s son not have feared for her, too?” She met his eyes.

“Be at peace, child. She was struck by a lorry as she crossed the street in the port, on her way to work, late she was, that morning, and likely failed to look. The lorry driver said she darted out from between delivery vans in front of the market; he barely saw her, and had no time to stop.”

He saw it, in his mind’s eye. Saw her crouching between the vans; saw her gauge her chances . . .

“It was deliberate.” It was a certainty, not a question. His grandfather might be a cipher to him, but he had known his mother well.

Aunt Manza’s mouth twisted with old pain.

“Between us—I think it was, yes. We don’t speak of it, here in the House. Most especially not to your grandfather.”

A warning. He bowed.

“Thank you. I know you were my mother’s friend.”

She sniffed.

“Not enough her friend,” she said quietly. She looked down at the screen and touched a series of keys.

“You will wish to inspect your room,” she said. “If you have particular requirements, in terms of furniture or ornaments, please speak to me.”

“Yes, Aunt,” he said, and left her to her work.


Card party, breakfast fancy, afternoon gather, another card party . . . Had he not been trained to endure tedious social gatherings, he might have gone into a decline.

Happily, there was other employment for him. Aunt Manza stood as Nadelm Severt, which meant that his grandfather had piled all of the clan’s administrative work upon her, thereby keeping himself free for intrigues and gambling with the clan’s fortunes. He offered his assistance, and, after a long, considering look, his aunt had accepted it. This was how he had learned the state of the clan’s finances.

“We ought to remove to the estate, and sell the town house,” Aunt Manza told him, “but the delm will not hear of it.”

No, of course not.

When he was not helping with the nadelm’s endless work, he walked. Fifteen Standards as a soldier had left him unfit for the sedentary life of an office clerk, or a Liaden gentleman.

The exercise was at first the conscious part of his walking, but he found the ingrained habits of a soldier marking out the territory, and after day eight he knew short-cuts and potential danger points, knew the corner across from the park where he’d likely find a proctor leaning within view of the public comm station, the corner where the halfling fashionistas flirted with any who might notice them. He avoided the park’s mirror-pool, which reminded him only too much of Cardimin’s pond-pocked city and the ugly house-to-house fighting there.

Had he not been on duty for the House, he might well have enjoyed the walks, over time. But no. During his walks, he turned over the conversations he was included into, as Delm Severt’s grandson, as Delm Severt’s secret weapon.

His grandfather had, indeed, an odd set of acquaintances, and peculiarly interesting for someone who had a particular training . . .

. . . as, for instance, his own training: not only to endure, but to listen to the unspoken conversations, and deduce the hidden strategies.

Before the end of the first card party, it was perfectly plain to Tom Lei that his grandfather had managed to ingratiate himself with some members of Houses that could only be called High. During the breakfast fancy, it also became plain that there was a secret project with which those same High Houselings required assistance; a secret desperate enough that they could not afford to be choosy regarding such minor matters as social standing or melant’i.

By the time he and his grandfather had returned home from the second card party, Tom Lei was quite frightened.

His grandfather was ambitious, yes. His grandfather had always been ambitious; and as a result, he had always played at stakes somewhat above his reach. That he was good at the game was evidenced by the fact that Severt had not plummeted into obscurity, but had actually made some small gains in the clan’s social standing.

But this game—the game in which he, Tom Lei, was somehow a high-stakes pawn—this game was dangerous even beyond his grandfather’s understanding.

Korval was involved—and Korval was not—was never—to be considered anything less than dangerous, though they had been banished from Liad, and had only days remaining until their departure.

But there was more—something he couldn’t quite hear, in the whispers between the words said aloud, but which made him shiver, nonetheless.

It was also plain that he, himself, was being vetted and passed up a ladder of individuals who were increasingly important in this business of whispers and secrets.

What he would find at the top of the ladder, he dared not guess.


After he had been four weeks in the house, he was called into the presence of his grandfather and his delm before the midday meal, and there received from him his instructions for the coming evening’s entertainment.

“You will dress in your best. I will send rings; you will wear them on your left hand. On the right, only the honor-ring you have from the mercenaries. You will tonight be at my side; you will follow where I lead. Do you understand me?”

This is it, he thought; this is the big one; all the smaller hurdles have been conquered. Perhaps he ought to be proud of himself—of his skill—that he had been passed all the way to the top.

But what was he to do, he thought, alone in his rooms, after the rings had been sent up, and he had chosen three for his left hand. The course of honor, according to the Code, was to obey his delm. But if his delm was about to ruin the clan, by engaging in a game the stakes of which were higher than even the Highest Houses ought offer? Where was honor then?

On the few occasions when he had been required by his duty to operate at such rarefied heights, he had instructions; a goal; backup from a commander who had been bold, yes, but who did not gamble blindly, nor waste his counters.

No, he thought, staring down into the garden from his window. The goal must be to preserve the clan, if it came to that, tonight. He must prevent his grandfather from doing anything foolish. That must be his course. He was the only one of Severt able to stand against the delm; the rest had long ago been beaten down by his will.

Decision taken, he turned from the window and lay down on his bed, to nap and recruit his wits for the coming test.


“Lord ven’Astra, allow me to present my grandson, Tom Lei, newly returned to us after serving many years as a soldier in a Terran mercenary unit.”

Lord ven’Astra was a spoilt-looking man in middle years. He wore High House hauteur like a cloak about his elegant shoulders, and looked at grandfather with a slightly bored air.

Tom Lei made his bow.

“Lord ven’Astra, I am honored to meet you,” he said, once again grateful for the training that had taught him to lie with ease and conviction.

“Young pen’Chapen.” The lord returned a nod, and looked momentarily thoughtful. “Newly returned from the mercenaries, are you?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Has your grandfather discussed our little conundrum with you?”

Well, this might be easy, thought Tom Lei. Perhaps all I have to do is play the fool.

“I don’t believe that he has, sir,” he said politely.

Grandfather stepped in.

“Indeed, we have not spoken on the topic. I wished him to hear it first from you, my lord, and to give you his untutored opinion. Everyone here knows that I think we must make an example, or lose melant’i.”

“Quite,” said the lordship, and turned his full attention to Tom Lei.

“The situation is thus, young pen’Chapen. There remain in custody several mercenary soldiers—perhaps a half-dozen— hired by Korval to invade our homeworld and assist in the action against Solcintra. There are those among the Council who believe that we should release these . . . persons to their units. And there are those among the Council who believe that we should make, perhaps, not an example, but a statement. And that statement would be that Liad is not a paltry world that may be invaded at will by Terrans; and that consequences attend such outrages.”

Tom Lei felt cold, hearing the whisper behind the words.

Those others, which included this lord and his grandfather, wished to execute the mercenaries in the Council’s custody.

“The information that reached my unit regarding the strike against Liad,” Tom Lei said carefully, “was that the mercenary units which supported Korval’s action were properly hired by, and under contract to, Clan Korval. Was this not the case?”

“The contracts were produced as evidence,” Lord ven’Astra acknowledged. “Korval had hired them. That does not set aside the fact that they performed outrages against Liad and its citizens.”

“Indeed,” his grandfather said. “It must be made plain that we will not tolerate it.”

“Do you agree, young pen’Chapen?”

But this was absurd! The man went against . . .

“Law and custom have long held that mercenaries properly under contract are in the same class as weapons used in acts of lawlessness: blameless tools. The hiring body is seen by law as the motivating force—the finger that pulls the trigger, if you will—and is, therefore, the responsible party in all legal actions.”

“Tom Lei, you do not properly comprehend the case.” His grandfather was sounding somewhat breathless. “These . . . creatures dared to move against Liad.”

“Yes,” he said patiently, watching Lord ven’Astra’s eyes, “because the contract required them to do so. It was not what we—the mercenaries—call a blood war, in which there is no contract, nor client, and the units act upon their own recognizance.

“In this case, the Terran mercenaries took contract with Korval. They did not invade wantonly, but in good order, in support of Korval’s action, as required by the contract. If the Council of Clans must have more blood—” He made a small bow, as if embarrassed by his lapse, and spoke to Lord ven’Astra.

“Your pardon, sir; I fear that I may have been too long among the mercenaries. Allow me to say, instead, that if the Council of Clans feels that banishment is not Balance enough for the wrongs visited upon the homeworld, then the Council of Clans must reopen its case against the Dragon.”

Lord ven’Astra pressed his lips together, his spoiled face grave.

“The qe’andra do not allow it,” he said, and it was anger Tom Lei heard beneath the words. “There were those of us who wished to see Korval themselves executed, the Dragon’s assets come to the Council, and those remaining set to work off the debt of repairing the damage. We argued for that, hotly. Alas, the Dragon had too many friends on the Council. Execution was made into banishment, and confiscation of assets became divestiture.

“Now, the qe’andra rule that, as Korval has been given the actions it must perform in order to enter into Balance, said actions having a strong deadline attached, to introduce a secondary Balance at this juncture would itself be out of Balance.”

“Even now, reduced as they are, Korval has the qe’andra in their pocket,” his grandfather put in. “Why, dea’Gauss is the chair of their council! The Terran mercenaries have no qe’andra.”

“Which does not make them guilty of war crimes, sir!”

Tom Lei felt ill. What did his grandfather hope to gain from this? ven’Astra’s patronage? A blind man could see what that would be worth, once his lordship had a piece upon which he could place the blame, if opinion and law went against him . . .

“You seem decided in your opinion, young pen’Chapen,” his lordship said, his voice decidedly cool. He looked aside.

“I suppose,” he said to Severt, “that we must expect youth to be idealistic. It is a failing they soon grow out of.”

“Precisely, my lord. I had been certain that Tom Lei was past such kittenish ways!”

“Obviously not.” Lord ven’Astra looked back to Tom Lei, his eyes cold. “I would say that you are correct, sir.”

Tom Lei bowed slightly.

“In what way, my lord?”

“You have been too long among the mercenaries. Severt, a good evening to you.”

Lord ven’Astra strolled away into the depths of the gather, and Tom Lei was left alone with his grandfather’s disbelieving stare.


“Tomorrow!” his grandfather shouted. “Tomorrow, you will go to Lord ven’Astra, and offer him your services!”

“My services?” Tom Lei looked at the old man in astonishment. “As an executioner, perhaps?”

“Do not be insolent, boy! This situation can be rescued—will be rescued. You need only do as you are told.

“You will go to his lordship and you will prostrate yourself. You will tell him that, upon talking the matter over with your elders, and thinking on it overnight, you understand that the insult carried to the homeworld by these Terrans must be Balanced. You will say that you are willing to testify, as a former mercenary familiar with law and custom in such matters, before the Council of Clans.”

“His lordship will scarcely want that!”

“Silence! You will of course testify that law and custom support the execution of barbarians who force an invasion upon Liad.”

Tom Lei stared.

“That,” he said, his voice perfectly flat, “I will never do.”

His grandfather spun around.

“You will do it, because that is what your delm requires of you!”

“No, sir. I will not dice with lives for your ambition.”

“Will you not?” The old man stalked across the rug, until they were toe-to-toe. He thrust his face up into Tom Lei’s.

“You will do as your delm requires, or you will find you have no delm at all!”

“That,” Tom Lei heard someone say in perfectly calm tones, “is acceptable.”

“Oh, is it?”

Tom Lei waited, feeling utterly calm. Severt would never bend before such a challenge, he thought. He must conclude the threat.

But, after a moment, his grandfather drew a breath, stepped back and walked across the room.

“A glass of wine will do us both some good,” he said, and poured with his own hands.

Tom Lei, caught between relief and dismay, crossed to the wine table and received his glass.

“So,” said Severt, when they had each sipped and lowered their glass. “I see it. You were accustomed to command, a little. You were, perhaps, accustomed to being given reasons for the actions you were commanded to perform, so that you might improvise, when and if necessary. Of course, it is difficult for you to drop such habits, which have, as I must surmise, since you stand here hale before me, served you well for many years.”

He paused.

Tom Lei inclined his head and murmured, “Yes, sir,” which seemed, by far, the safest course. It would seem that he was not to be cast out and declared dead to clan and kin. Or, at least, not immediately.

He mistrusted his grandfather in this eldritch mood. On the other hand, he entertained liveliest curiosity regarding what, in fact, the old man was about. Surely, surely, the reality was nothing so horrifying as his suspicions. Let him know, and perhaps he might sleep easier.

“Know, then, that the work which is underway, and to which I have recruited your assistance, will result in a great improvement the clan’s melant’i. Once the thing is done, we will rise into the circle of the High Mid-Clans. At least, we shall ascend to those ranks. It is not out of the question, that Severt may, as a result of this action, rise to High House.”

Tom Lei blinked.

“And who shall fall?” he asked, for it had been fixed for . . . a very long time, that there were but fifty High Houses.

“Fall? Ask, rather, who will rise!”

Tom Lei knew that he was not a fool. However, it took him more than a heartbeat to realize that his grandfather expected—no! Knew for a certainty!—that at least one clan would seek to rise into Korval’s place. For that was how it was said: There are precisely fifty High Houses. And then there is Korval.

“Korval occupied a . . . unique place because of their contract,” he pointed out.

Severt shrugged. “A contract may be trumped by contacts. And how refreshing to have a true Liaden clan, rather than a hireling, in that most unique position, eh?”

Tom Lei raised his glass, so that his failure to agree might pass unnoticed.

“So,” said his grandfather and his delm again, after he, too, had partaken of his glass. “I will tell you now that these Terran mercenaries whose fate is to become an example for all of Liad’s inferiors—they are hidden, of course.”

“Of course,” Tom Lei murmured.

“And, here is the point upon which our own ascension turns.” His grandfather leaned close, and lowered his voice so that Tom Lei needed to bend at the waist in order to hear.

“We, Clan Severt, hold the prisoners, in trust for ven’Astra.”

Shock jolted him. He had been a fool to hope that the truth was less terrible than his imaginings. He had been a fool to think that his grandfather would be content to gamble only with lives. No, like any gambler, he must ever increase his stakes.

And, now, he diced with Severt’s very existence.

“Does Aunt Manza know this?” he demanded.

“Am I a fool to share such a thing abroad? She knows nothing.”

Relief warred with horror. He took a breath, trying to recruit his thoughts.

“Peace, peace,” his grandfather said, perhaps reading distress on his face. “Whether the scheme is executed, or the mercenaries are returned to their officer, as the qe’andra have ruled, our safety—and thus our reward—are secure.

“Only think! If the matter falls out as ven’Astra wishes, then we are rewarded for our help. If the qe’andra prevail, ven’Astra will be grateful to us for keeping our knowledge to ourselves.” He smiled, and sipped wine.

“Indeed, I am almost wishful that the qe’andra might take the point, for there is a limit to the rewards for good service, and none at all, as I have been able to find, to the amount that will be paid in order to preserve one’s honor.”

Tom Lei saw it in a flash, then. His grandfather was not merely foolish; he was a bad delm, actively dangerous to his clan and those who rested in his care. Indeed, when had Severt ever cared for those who resided under his hand? Only see Aunt Manza, ceaselessly at labor with neither thanks nor input into the clan’s business, her joy broken. Or his own mother, dead by her own choice, rather than endure any more abuse from this delm who was no delm at all! Or—yes!—himself, flung away as useless; his new life broken without a thought to his well-being, when he suddenly came to hold value as a game piece!

“Well?” said his grandfather, false delm. “Now you have the reasons, and the rewards laid down. What think you, now?”

He took a breath, meaning to say that his refusal stood, that he would welcome death rather than continue in such a clan, with such a delm . . .

. . . and he took another breath, thinking, indeed of his mother, and his aunt, and all those caught in the supposed care of this man. He thought of the Code, and the section dealing with those things that are owed, by an individual, to one’s clan; and those other things, which are owed, by a clan, to its members.

He looked down into his grandfather’s face, and he made answer, gently, in the mode of obedience to the delm.

“I would see these prisoners, that Severt holds in care for Lord ven’Astra. And I would see Lord ven’Astra, so that I may, indeed, place myself at service in the matter of their proper disposition.”

His grandfather smiled.

“Excellent! We will tomorrow pay a morning call to his lordship, after which we will together go to the farm—”

He dared to lift a hand. His grandfather paused, and gestured for him to speak.

“I wonder if it might not be profitable, for all of us to meet at the place the prisoners are being kept. Lord ven’Astra may have those things which he may wish to convey to those whose lives he holds, in order that they have a clear understanding of their situation. I am an expert in languages.”

His grandfather smiled again.

“And thus we demonstrate immediately your willingness to assist! Yes! It is well-thought. I shall arrange it!”

“Thank you,” Tom Lei said, and bowed, gods help him, honor to the delm. He straightened.

“If we are done, sir, I will leave you. The night is fine, and I have not yet had my walk.”

“Ah, the energy of youth!” His grandfather laughed. “When this matter is done, and we have our rewards, we must see you married—yes! To a proper daughter of the High! That will fix us well, indeed!”

He moved toward his desk, fluttering his fingers.

“Go, go; have your walk. Only take care that you are sharp for our meeting tomorrow!”

“Never fear, sir. I shall be as sharp as an Yxtrang’s grace blade.”


Lord ven’Astra was to meet them at the place—at Severt’s own estate. That suited Tom Lei, who drove the clan’s lumbering landau, less than half-listening to his grandfather’s instructions regarding his demeanor toward his lordship, and the tenor of his apology.

“Do not be afraid to be bold—a mercenary’s plain speaking will stand you well with him. You saw how it is with him, last evening, I think. He does not care to be gainsaid, but he likes a forthright manner. Only do whatever he asks you—and he will ask something, as a test against your changed opinion!—show yourself able and willing and all may be recovered.”

Yes, certainly, Tom Lei thought, and glanced at the map on the dashboard to see how far yet they had to go.

At last they arrived. His grandfather had him drive past the house, and his stomach tightened, for he knew then where they were going, and the riddle of how a group of seasoned mercenaries were held was answered.

Some generations in the past, the delm had traveled to some or another far outworld and there became introduced to the sport of hunting to the hounds. So enamored of this sport had she become that she imported her own pack, and keeper, and every relumma hosted a hunt throughout the neighboring fields.

The dogs—quite fierce dogs, who bonded to the pack, of which they considered their keeper, but no other human, a member—the dogs required kennels. And the kennel, given the temper of the dogs, was required to mete out stern discouragement of escape.

Once the dogs were kenneled, a switch was thrown, which electrified every floor, every wall, every surface, save those in the dog pens, proper. An escape from the den room into the main hall would be rewarded by a jolt of energy sufficient to stop the heart of a being far larger than a hunting dog.

The dogs were sold off by the delm’s successor, but the kennels had endured.

“Here,” his grandfather said from the seat next to him. “Stop here.”


He had scarcely stopped their vehicle, when Tom Lei spied the approach of another. Moments later, Lord ven’Astra emerged from the small car he had driven himself.

“Severt,” said his lordship. “Good morning to you.”

“A delightful morning, indeed, my lord,” his grandfather responded.

The cool eyes came to rest on Tom Lei, who bowed as one who has discovered oneself in error.

“Your delm tells me that you have undergone a change of ideology, young pen’Chapen. Is it so?”

“My lord, it is,” Tom Lei answered.

“It gratifies me to hear you say so. Let us by all means survey the prisoners, and you may do a small thing for me, if you will.”

“Certainly, my lord,” Tom Lei said calmly.

There were six mercs in the large den room. The water was running in the drinking pool; and a light on inside the basic sanitation unit that had been installed for the use of the hounds’ keeper on the not-infrequent nights when she slept with the pack.

The six prisoners—Terrans, all—looked well enough, though pale. They wore what appeared to be house robes, which were short in length and sleeve, leaving legs, and wrists, and bare feet on display.

“Well, if ain’t Mister Bully-for-Me and Uncle Me-too,” said a voice in Aus-dialect Terran.

Tom Lei glanced at his two companions. If either one understood the dialect, or the insults to themselves, they chose not to react, which seemed like neither of them.

Tom Lei felt his heart lift, slightly, and he turned again toward the former den, one hand against the plexglass window and the other at belt height, fingers dancing lightly in merc sign.

The man who had spoken—his robe so short as to be immodest, and his beard in need of a good trimming—lifted an eyebrow, and braced his feet wide.

“That one,” Lord ven’Astra said, “with the hair of his face almost touching his chest. He is a leader of some sort; the others listen to him. I would have you translate my words to him, young pen’Chapen; exactly my words. Will you do that?”

“Yes, sir,” he said, meeting the Aus’ eyes calmly. He winked, and saw the man’s other eyebrow rise.

“Excellent. First, tell him who I am.”

“Yes, sir,” he repeated, and spoke in the thickest, most incomprehensible Aus dialect he knew.

“Do you understand me?”

“Y’sound just like my old grandpaw.”

“Excellent. The man with the brown hair, beside me, is a lordship. He’s instrumental in keeping you here, and if he has his way you’ll die, on camera, as a warning to others who’d invade Liad.”

“We had a contract,” the Aus said.

“He chooses to ignore that. He’s going to give me words to say to you, now. Remember that they’re his words, and reflect only his opinion.”

The Aus nodded, and Tom Lei turned to his lordship.

“I have explained to him who you are, my lord.”

“Excellent. Now, say this to him, and tell him to tell the others.” He took a deep breath, and began to speak, rather too rapidly for a translator.

“Tell him that their officers no longer seek them; their names have been written out of the rolls of their companies and their families have been notified of their deaths,” said Lord ven’Astra. “Tell them that their only remaining hope of honor is to confess before the Council of Clans that they are captured invaders of Liad, and pay the price named.”

Tom Lei repeated it, as near as he was able, in that thick Aus accent. When he was done, the man before him asked a question.

“Is he nuts?”

“Might be,” Tom Lei said. “What’s important now is that his clan’s powerful, and he wants all of you dead, publicly, to demonstrate his power and Liad’s might.”

The Aus glanced behind him, where the rest of his comrades stood silent.

“Two medics, two newbies, and a couple grunts,” he said. “Some invasion force.”

“Your lives are precious,” Tom Lei said, which was something of a risk, but he would think of something to tell him, if ven’Astra asked to know what he said. “I won’t let him harm you.”

“You got point, brother,” the Aus said. “I’ll tell ’em now, unless there’s something more. Any on your side speak Merc pidgin?”

“I think not.”

“Have to risk it.”

The Aus turned his back and approached the little knot of his comrades.

Tom Lei turned to Lord ven’Astra.

“If one may ask, my lord, how do you intend to execute them?”

Ven’Astra was staring into the den, at the prisoners, a look of revulsion plain upon his face.

“I had expected that the Council of Clans would, eventually, be willing to see the deed done, but I learn only this morning that the Council will not even hear us. Other arrangements are being made, even as we speak. These will know full Balance within the next relumma, and all the galaxy will know what it is to trifle with Liad.”

“Stand where you are, and place your hands on your heads,” an authoritative female voice commanded. This was followed by a definite snap, as if of a safety being thumbed off.

ven’Astra half-turned; the voice told him to stop or accept the consequences, and a form stepped out of the hall behind them.

She was dressed in the neat business attire of a qe’andra. Her bow was crisp and unafraid. Her weapon was military-grade, and held with confidence.

“I am Fantile dea’Starn,” she said, calmly. “In this matter, I represent the planetary council of qe’andra. You will come with me.”

“Where would you take us?” demanded Severt.

She considered him calmly.

“I would take you to our council chambers, where you will present evidence. There will of course be Healers present, to ensure that your evidence is presented in good faith.”

“Thank you, madam,” said ven’Astra. “You will only need these men here—” He nodded at Severt and Tom Lei. “These poor creatures are, as you see, imprisoned on the property of Clan Severt.”

“Mine, is it!” shouted Severt. He swung out, his hand diving into his pocket.

Tom Lei lunged, snatched the arm up, brought the wrist sharply against his own forearm, and watched the gun fly from suddenly senseless fingers as he continued moving the arm, up behind the old man’s back, heedless of his scream, and stood holding him.

“My thanks,” said Fantile dea’Starn, and looked to her left. “Proctors, please, do your duty.”

Lord ven’Astra lunged then, too late. One of the proctors swung something against his knee, and calmly caught his shoulder and snapped on binders as the afflicted knee buckled.

Tom Lei relinquished his grandfather to the second proctor, who likewise bound his wrists. He waited with the qe’andra, and the third and fourth proctors while the prisoners were escorted out.

“Thank you for your information,” Fantile dea’Starn said, with a small bow. “The qe’andra, and also Korval, are in your debt.”

She turned toward the den, where six pairs of eyes were watching the proceedings with very evident interest.

“Please,” said Fantile dea’Starn, “tell them who I am and what has transpired. Tell them, too, that Liaison Officer Oshiamo is on his way to them even now from the port. He was delayed in traffic.”

She used her chin to point at the comm on the third proctor’s belt.

“If they wish it, we may call him; I have his code.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Tom Lei said, and turned to address the mercs.


Aunt Manza was Severt now; the qe’andra had quietly overseen the transfer, and duly recorded it. Grandfather was confined to his rooms.

“When we return to the estate,” Severt said, “then he may find occupation that will risk no one.”

“But you, Tom Lei—advise me, what shall I do?”

They were sitting together in the evening in her office, the same office overlooking the back garden, for, as she said, it was no use to move all of her work to grandfather’s old office when she would only have to move it again, when the house was sold and the clan removed entirely to the country house.

“I ask,” he said slowly, “that the delm kill me.”

She blinked.

“That is hardly the Balance I should have suggested for such a service to your clan.”

He shook his head.

“Aunt, consider: Lord ven’Astra is High House. There are others of his opinion who know me. Any one of them may decide that my betrayal of his lordship deserves the true death. It is not wise to have a target living among the clan, for sometimes even skilled assassins miss and the innocent are harmed.” He gave her a wry half-smile.

“Notice that I do not dare speculate what terrors Grandfather would attempt to visit upon me!”

She chuckled, but protested anew.

“And, yet, for us, your kin, your clan—you have largely done good,” she said, and again he shook his head.

“I presumed to judge the delm, and I found him wanting. I laid a trap and caught him.” He leaned forward and touched her arm lightly.

“I am not safe for you, Aunt. How can either of us know that I will not do the like again?”

She laughed, and sat a moment, sipping her tea and thinking.

Finally, she sighed, and put the tea cup aside.

“You are determined that we mourn your loss, and I find that I must agree.” She paused. “Very well, I will do it. But, first, you will tell me how long it will take you to be safely off-planet.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You, who have thought of so much, did you not think of this? If you are correct, and Lord ven’Astra’s co-conspirators wish Balance, I will not give them a clanless man as a target. Once you are off-planet, then will Severt publish its sorrow abroad.”

He inclined his head, chastised, and pleased. Aunt Manza would be a good delm. She might even recover the clan’s fortunes.

“I can be off-planet within the next day,” he told her.

“Tell me when your plans are complete, and the time when your ship will lift. Now,” she said, briskly. “You will take all that is yours, naturally, including the clothes the clan provided to you. There is no one here who they will fit, and you will need clothes, wherever you go, and whatever you may become. You will, in fact, take anything that is in your room which catches your fancy. In addition, you will take the rings that your grandfather gave to you—”

“But—” He began the protest, and swallowed it as she fixed him in her eye.

“You will take the rings your grandfather gave to you. Rings can be sold or bartered, and if your delm is to do as you command, my child, she cannot send you off with your pockets full of cantra pieces. In the meanwhile . . .”

She rose and bowed gratitude, as he scrambled to his feet.

“Severt thanks you for your service, Tom Lei pen’Chapen,” she said, and straightened before he could return her courtesy.

She smiled then and opened her arms.

“Come now, child, and give your aunt your kiss.”

This he did, willingly, and hugged her until she gasped a laugh and called him a great lout, and reached up to touch his cheek, tears in her eyes.

“Go and pack,” she said softly. “I know you are eager to be away.”


He dressed in his leathers and sweater, packing his new clothes, though they were far too fine for a merc. He touched his vest then, and heard the crackle of paper from the inside pocket, and smiled. The print out of the letter from the qe’andra, detailing his part in the rescue of the captive mercs, and another, from Liaison Officer Oshiamo, which had also been forwarded to Headquarters, to be appended to his file.

Yes, he was eager to be away. Away to Headquarters, where he intended to sue for re-enlistment with these letters, and the proof that he would never be called home by his delm again.

He wanted none of the ornaments in the room; he packed the rings, promising himself that he would sell them at the earliest opportunity. Then he straightened and looked about him, for anything else that was his.

There, on the bureau, was . . .

He approached, and found three cantra pieces in a neat stack before a folder of holograms. A chill ran up his spine; he picked the folder up, flipped it open, and . . .

. . . there was his mother, younger than ever he had known her, a progression of images, a few with Aunt Manza, a few more with him, and more, now older than he had known her, looking weary and thin . . . and another of them together. She was smiling, and he was, and she was holding an untidy bouquet of wildflowers that he had picked for her.

He flipped to the next page, but there were no more pictures, after.

Swallowing around the tears lodged in his throat, he slipped the little folder into an inside pocket of his vest and sealed it up. He picked up the cantra pieces as an afterthought, and dropped them into his public pocket.


Miri Robertson Tiazan Clan Korval, aka the Road Boss, on alternate business days, sat in her designated booth in the back of the Emerald Casino in Surebleak Port and tried not to be bored.

It was tough. Bidness was so slow, she’d even read all the outstanding reports and bulletins, and answered a couple of not-exactly-burning inquiries.

She wished that she dared take a nap; she was tired, and her back hurt, though not enough to make her swear that she was going to find whoever’d thought it would be a good idea to get pregnant and dislocate their jaw.

She sighed. Maybe just a quick nap, with her head on the table. Couldn’t hurt, could it, and Nelirikk, leaning against the wall by the booth like he could do it all day—which, he prolly could—he’d tell her if there was company—

A step sounded in the little hallway just beyond her booth.

Miri turned her head.

Nelirikk straightened away from the wall, and put his hand on his sidearm.

A shadow cleared the hall, resolving into a fair-haired man on the short side of tall for a Terran, and on the tall side of tall for a Liaden. He was a bit paler in the face than your usual Liaden, the fair hair pulled back into a tail. Dressed in merc leathers and good marching boots. He looked tired.

He took note of Nelirikk real quick, and stopped where he was.

“I am,” he said, addressing both or either of them, “here to see Delm Korval.”

“Well,” said Miri, giving Nelirikk the hand-sign that meant let the boy come closer, “you found half of Delm Korval, though this is the Road Boss’ office.”

A Terran would get impatient with what would sound to him like plain and fancy nonsense; a Liaden would parse the information she’d just given him.

He inclined slightly from the waist.

“I beg your pardon. Is there a more appropriate time and venue to speak with Delm Korval?”

And that answered that.

Miri smiled.

“Happens things is slow this afternoon, so I’ll do us both a favor and switch hats,” she told him. “What’s your name?”

“Tommy Lee,” he said.

Well, so much for having him figured.

“You a merc?” she asked.

Former merc,” he answered, and there was some bitterness there.

“What makes you former?”

He sighed, all of a sudden just looking weary of everything, but he gave her a clean enough answer.

“My delm called me home.”

“That’ll do it,” she acknowledged. “Whatcha been doin’ lately?”

That got a faint smile.

Most lately, I have been suing for re-enlistment,” he said.

“In my day, there wasn’t any re-enlisting from the escape clause.”

“Yes, but you see, I’m dead, and no longer subject to being called . . . anywhere.” He smiled again, a little brighter. “It did go all the way to an All-Commanders Tribunal before it got denied.”

“Well, that’s something, yeah. So, what do you think I can do for you, Tommy Lee?”

He straightened into attention.

“I wish to offer my gun to Korval,” he said formally.

Like a thousand others. Miri didn’t sigh.

She opened the portable computer and tapped a key.

“What’s your name?” she asked, her eyes on the screen.

“Tommy Lee.”

She raised her head to glare at him.

“What’s the name you enlisted under?” she asked with exaggerated patience. “Or maybe you got an ID number?”

He gave her the number; she entered it, and . . . blinked at the screen.

“Tommy Lee, sit down.”

He did so, settling his pack neatly next to the chair.

Miri finished reading the file, then met his eyes over the edge of the screen.

“Been wondering for a while now what happened to the guy who pulled mercs out of a hat for us. We offered what help we could when they went missing, but by that point our help was worse than none, if you take my meaning. The mercs and the qe’andra took it and ran with it, but it was pretty much a dead end until some guy called up Ms. dea’Starn and told her he was going to be able to lead her to the prisoners.”

She shook her head, glanced down at the screen, and back to him.

“Looks like we owe you, Tommy Lee.”

“I came,” he reminded her gently, “to offer Korval my gun. If you’ll have it.”

“We might. Have to talk it over with my partner, naturally. Tell you what. I got another couple hours on-duty here. When’s the last time you ate something wasn’t bar rations?”

He blinked.

“It’s been a . . . while.”

“Thought so.” She looked at her aide. “Beautiful, take this man down to the kitchen and see him fed, then take him over to Audrey’s for a nap. Bring him back here at quitting time.”

“Yes, Captain. I will call House Security for your back-up here.”

“Good idea.”

She returned to Tommy Lee, sitting quiet and maybe a little wide-eyed in his chair.

“You’ll come up to the house with me; have a little talk with us and with our head of House Security, see if there’s a way we can do each other some good. That OK by you?”

He swallowed, his eyes a little damp, maybe, but the grin this time was good and firm.

“Yes, Captain,” he said. “That’s OK by me.”

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