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Guaranteed Delivery




Those who have been reading the Liaden Universe® novels will recall that, in Mouse and Dragon, Aelliana Caylon had determined to start a courier service. This she did, with her lifemate as a partner in the venture. Sadly, Mouse and Dragon had as its theme something other than the various adventures Ride the Luck, the Caylon, and her rogue of a copilot encountered as couriers. Obviously, this meant that any such adventures would need to be detailed in short stories.

This is the story of Ride the Luck’s third courier run.


* * *


Light bloomed inside the treasure room.

Discreet and faintly blue, it kissed the alarm console, the pearly security keys blushing delft.

Long fingers touched the shy panels, pressing them in a precise, rapid sequence. More light bloomed, opening a path across the carpet to a wall well-hung with twodee art.

The owner of those long, sure fingers, one Dollance-Marie Chimra, upon whom the Feinik society news had bestowed the name Alabaster, kept scrupulously to the illuminated path. As she approached the wall, light began to glow in outline around a single piece of art—a painting of a woman in long skirts, the shawl draped over her head framing a face ferocious with love, one arm around the waist of a man in a tattered uniform, braced on a crude crutch.

“Treasure of the House” was the name of the painting; the original hung in the salon of Dollance-Marie’s mama, the Gransella of Hamptonshire, on Albion itself.

Dollance-Marie pressed her right thumb against a particular point in the painting’s unadorned wooden frame, counted to ten, then folded both hands at her waist, waiting.

Silent on stealth hinges, the painting swung away from the wall, revealing a door, and a simple tumbler lock.

It required only a moment for her to work the combination, pull the door open, and remove a velvet box slightly smaller than her palm.

She paused, long fingers curled into a cage around the box. Had it been someone other than Dollance-Marie Chimra, and had there been anyone else in the treasure room to see, that hidden watcher might have said that she . . . hesitated.

As it was Alabaster herself, whom the tabloids had in their genius named well, and no one else inside the tightly guarded room—she paused, only that, and took a deep, cleansing breath before she closed the safe and spun the tumblers. The painting swung back into place, light fading from its perimeter.

Raising her chin, Alabaster met the fierce eyes of the woman in the painting, and smiled.

* * * * * *

She had planned the evening carefully—first, drinks in Erabeck’s public parlor, to satisfy those who followed Alabaster; then befores with Smyth-Erin Nodmere and Dane Belnesky—Yin and Yang, according to the society news, in recognition of their long and complimentary partnership.

From Yin and Yang’s semi-public table, they proceeded to a private dining nook, said privacy Erabeck’s specific guarantee.

The door closed behind the security escort. Dollance-Marie put her palm against the plate. The room chimed, indicating that the privacy blanket was in force.

She turned with a smile that had no place on Alabaster’s face, and stepped forward to seat her guest.

“Please,” she said, moving the chair on its track, “be comfortable.”

John Vernon tipped his head, considering her from serious blue eyes.

“Must we be formal?” he asked, and she paused with her hand on the back of the chair.

Vernon was a good bloodline, if not so exalted as Chimra. The family elders had collected a following of note, which they managed with a subtlety even Chimra might with profit study.

This particular Vernon, whom the media had ignored until Alabaster had engaged him for a moment of conversation—this John Vernon, now code-named Galahad—had been raised out of society by his father’s people on Hascove, this having been stipulated in the Terms of Dissolution. He had returned, unRanked and with a scant base of Followers, to his mother’s house and business upon achieving his majority—also in accordance with the Terms. He possessed a lively wit and was quick to learn—so quick that one sometimes forgot that he was learning, until he asked just such a sweet, naive question.

“We are private,” Dollance-Marie said, matching him for seriousness, “and may be as informal as you wish.”

As soon as she had uttered the words, with their suggestion of more risque ventures, she wished to call them back. Others that she had favored with her notice would have immediately heard an invitation to sport, and acted accordingly.

John, raised in innocence, only smiled, his sweet countenance undisturbed by even a blush. He settled with casual elegance into the seat she held for him, touching one finger to the seal at his throat, loosening it somewhat.

Taking her own seat, Dollance-Marie smiled. John’s dislike of the current male fashion for tight collars and flowing tunics was his mother’s despair.

“Perhaps we ought to have you establish a fashion for neck scarves,” she said, pouring wine into painted palm-cups.

“And be choked twice?” he asked.

She leaned forward and offered him a cup, which he took with a frank smile.

“How if,” she mused, “the vogue was to drape the scarf loosely in order to call attention to a charming dishevelment?”

“My mother would murder me.”

She laughed, and brought her cup against his.

“To informality,” she said.

“To informality, and all its pleasures,” he answered, capping her, according to the latest mode.

Dollance-Marie gave him a sharp glance.

“Is something wrong?” he asked, alert, as ever, to her moods.

Alabaster would have answered that question with her cool, cutting laugh. Dollance-Marie smiled a small smile.

“You’ve been studying again,” she said. “That was quite fashionable.”

Such notice of his progress might have pleased any another country cousin striving to learn greatness. John . . . frowned, and put his cup aside, untasted.

“I have been studying,” he said slowly. “I must, for my mother has set me to learn so that I can take my place in the family business. But I am determined not to be fashionable with my true friends, Marie. I beg your pardon.”

True friends was a notion from backward Hascove. That it had survived John’s first year moving in the Leadership levels of Feinik society was a testament to its tenacity. Or, as certain of Alabaster’s acquaintence might say, John’s lack of motherwit.

Dollance-Marie knew that John’s wits lacked nothing. And she had admitted to her innermost self that she was charmed—no! that she was honored, to employ another word little-used by the Leaders—to be one of his true friends.

Her breath caught on that thought, and her heart took up the odd pounding that John’s presence had lately woken. It was, she thought, time. She had done her research; she had formally expressed her intentions to her mama, who had, depend upon it, done her research, and had raised no protest. John Vernon had captured her attention; he was comely, sweet, and modest. His father’s people had kept him close, so Dollance-Marie need not be concerned with paying off any of his wildoats, or placating a former liaison.

She would be his first—that was a thought that warmed her blood distractingly during her precious hours of privacy. She would teach him—so very many things.

Her hand shook; the wine in the palm-cup shivered.

“Marie?” He touched her wrist gently. “Is something wrong?”

It was time. Now. She must have him.

“Not wrong,” she said. Putting her cup aside, she reached out to take his hand between both of hers. “John, I—I propose that we two come to an agreement of partnership.”

He blinked. “Partnership?” he repeated. “Like Dane and Erin?”

Yin and Yang had renewed their agreement more times than Dollance-Marie could count. She shivered at the thought of entering into so long a partnership—but of course John hadn’t meant to imply such a thing; it was his innocence speaking again.

“Like Erin and Dane,” she agreed, therefore, and smiled at him, while her heart pounded against her ribs, and her breath came short.

“I know,” she said. “I know that it must seem very sudden to you. You mustn’t be frightened, or think that I will be angry if you want time to think, or—” But no; she was not going to put the unacceptable into his sweet, naive head. She was not going to lose him. And while she might be his true friend, she doubted not at all the necessity of what she did next. Hadn’t her grandmama taught her? Pay good value for what you want.

She kept hold of John with one hand; with the other, she reached into her pocket for the velvet box. Gently, she placed it on the table before him, and tapped it so that the lid rose, revealing a faceted ruby the size of her thumb, from nail to knuckle. The storied Hamptonshire Ruby. She felt a small tremor, looking at it—not exactly hers to give, but a treasure of the house. As John would be.

“That,” she said softly, “is yours.”

John glanced down, and blinked, likely dazzled, as were most when they first beheld the Ruby. He raised his head to look directly into her eyes.

“Marie, are you certain?”

She blinked in her turn.

“Certain?” she repeated, noticing only then that it was now her hand held with firm sweetness between his two palms.

“I can think of nothing better than . . . than a partnership with my true friend,” John said seriously. “But . . .” His lips twisted into a wry smile. “I have been learning, and I know that my view of the matter is not . . . current here on Feinik.”

“I can think of nothing that I want more than for us to be together, in public and in private,” Dollance-Marie said truthfully. Right now, she wanted John with her; she would, she thought, take ill if she could not have him.

John nodded. “Then I accept. I think that the traditional initial term is one Planetary Year?”

“Yes,” she said eagerly. “I’ll send my formal request to your mother this evening. And the Ruby—I’ll have it made into a ring for you, John. Will you like that?”

He frowned, almost as if he had forgotten all about the magnificent gem she had given him.

“If it pleases you,” he answered.

* * * * * *

The comm light was dark.

“Oh,” said Aelliana, leathered shoulders drooping. She put her hand on the back of the pilot’s chair, frowning at the board as if the application of raw will would produce a message in queue.

Daav, who had come onto the bridge in her wake, paused at her shoulder, and waited a decent count of twelve before clearing his throat.

“As eager to lift as that, Pilot?”

“Well . . .” She sighed and turned to him, her eyes wide and very green. “One does wish for work, after all. We have put our name and our credentials on the for-hire lists, and I had thought, that, surely . . .”

Her voice faded.

“You had thought that surely, Ride the Luck, with three successful contracts fulfilled, would speedily attract not one, but several job offers,” he finished for her.

“If you will have it,” Aelliana said steadily. “Ridiculous it may be, but a pilot has a certain pride in her ship, and in the abilities of herself and her copilot, sad rogue that he otherwise stands.”

That’s set me in place!”

“Yes; as it should.” She sighed, and continued more seriously. “Truly, Daav, if we are to continue this course we have chosen—and perhaps someday see profit from it!—we cannot lift empty.”

“Indeed, we cannot,” he agreed, serious himself. “A ship wants work; and pilots surely need work, or who knows what error they may fall into? But, if the pilot will allow—we have been on-port a scant six hours; the errand that brought us here has scarcely been tagged as satisfactorily completed.”

“I am, in fact, too eager?” Aelliana asked.

“Naturally so, but—yes.”

“What do you propose, then, Copilot?”

“Why, only that we allow the process to work, while good ship and pilots take a well-earned rest.”

“Rest!” She gave a small laugh and shook her tawny hair back. “I hardly suppose that I can rest, van’chela.”

“Well,” he said, with a laugh of his own. “Perhaps we can think of something else to do.”

•* * * * * *

Feinik’s lemon-washed dawn was rousting the night when Dollance-Marie returned to her residence. John had let his reserve down, and talked confidingly about what he hoped for their partnership. It had been exhilarating, strange, and made her desire him all the more, this exotic, innocent creature who with one breath agreed to stand publicly as Alabaster’s consort, and with the next expressed a wish to live retired. His wistfulness had sparked her genius, and she had offered travel to some less-mediad locales as something that they might undertake, to broaden their minds.

He had seized upon that, speaking of this world and that—on which subject he was astonishingly well-informed. She was entranced.

Erabeck’s security at last alerted them to the hour, and an additional fee brought them to a back door, and what appeared to be a common taxicab. It was in that humble conveyance that Alabaster brought Galahad to his mother’s house, and saw him safely inside.

She then directed the cab to her own residence, thereby denying the media news of her activities for more than five hours on the evening. Her ratings-coach would scold her on the morrow, not to mention her head of security, but for tonight—for this morning!—Dollance-Marie cared only for the future, when John would be hers to protect, and to tutor, and to shape into, oh! something that the world had never before seen!

So exalted was her mood that she did not notice the priority message lamp glowing discreetly pale lime on the console by her bed until she had come out of the refreshing room, loosely wrapped in a gossamgay robe, damp black hair flat against her head.

Her first thought on observing the patient light was that here was her ratings-coach, up early, or late to bed, and already scolding, and she was of a mind to leave it until she had slept.

Her second thought was that her ratings-coach never called on the private line; indeed, that line was keyed only to her mama’s code.

A tiny tremor disturbed Dollance-Marie’s euphoria.

She sat on the edge of her bed and touched the lime-green panel.

“Good evening, Marie,” her mama’s voice was so crisp that it seemed she was standing in the room. “I see a steady trending increase in Followers; an increase which our house’s profits reflect. I am pleased. I am also pleased with your decision to form young Vernon’s initial partnership. He is an appealing boy—pleasantly original. Handle him well and you’ll not only please yourself and be the making of him, but you’ll have made a strong ally in Vernon.

“Now, if you will be so kind, I have a task for you. We have been approached by the Albion Historical Museum for a display detailing the illustrious history of our bloodline. This is an extremely prestigious opportunity, as I am certain you will immediately grasp, and one which I am pleased to accept.

“Of course, no display of our history would be complete without the inclusion of the Hamptonshire Ruby. I desire that you have it brought to me at once, by courier, and properly insured for guaranteed delivery.”

* * * * * *

As it happened, they had easily hit upon something mutually amusing to pass an hour, and eventually, limbs tangled and pillows in disarray, they drifted companionably into sleep.

Which was rudely interrupted by the persistent chime of the comm, growing louder even as Daav leapt to his feet, spilling yet more pillows, Aelliana diving sideways across the bed to slap the wall unit. She drew a breath and stated with admirable steadiness, “Caylon, Ride the Luck.”

“This is Gan Bok, security head for Chimra-on-Feinik. Query: Is Ride the Luck available to take a package to Albion, immediate and personal pick-up, guaranteed delivery.”

Ride the Luck is available at our usual rate,” Aelliana said composedly, while her fingers twisted the poor, abused blanket into yet another knot. “All of our deliveries are, of course, guaranteed.”

“And insured?” demanded Gan Bok.

Insured? Daav frowned, plucked his pants from the confusion of garments on the floor, and padded out of their quarters.

In the piloting chamber, he touched a toggle on the comm board, directing the ship to trace the call to its source, and brought up a research screen before he skinned into his pants and sat in the copilot’s chair.

“What size and weight is the packet?” Aelliana asked, clever woman that she was.

“Eight centimeters by eight centimeters by five centimeters,” the security woman said. “Point three-five-nine kilograms.”

A small thing; and the contact did, indeed, originate from an address said to be the residence of one Dollance-Marie Chimra. He tapped the name into the research screen.

“We will carry it,” Aelliana said, which of course she would, mad for work as she was. There followed from Gan Bok a brief direction for their arrival time, and the promise of a transmitted map. The connection was then closed.

Daav, bare back against the cool leather of the copilot’s chair, sighed lightly.

Aelliana’s step in the hall came simultaneous with the ping that announced receipt of the promised map. Her hand was cool on his shoulder, her breath warm against his ear, as she leaned in to see his board.

“Are we safe, Copilot?”

“It would seem so,” he said, waving at his screens. “Fair chance, Pilot.”

“Fair chance,” she repeated ruefully, “and yet I should have been more careful, so I learn, and run my checks before ever I said yes.”

“Perhaps.”

She laughed lightly, tickling his ear. “What would you have done, had the call proved bogus?”

“Cut it off,” he said, touching a fingertip to the appropriate toggle. “It is an unfortunate fact that comm systems sometimes fail to mesh.”

“Ah,” Aelliana said. “I will recall that. In the meanwhile, I have committed us, and the luck has smiled upon my foolishness Shall you come with me to collect this package?”

“With great pleasure,” he said gallantly.

“Meaning that you will in no wise allow me to go by myself. Well, then, if you will, you must have something more to wear, for I see that we are called to a High House.”

“As Feinik counts such things,” Daav acknowledged, and rose. He turned, and tipped his head.

“Forgive me, Pilot,” he said, “but you are wearing my shirt.”

“I couldn’t find mine,” she said composedly, and led the way back to their quarters. “Come, let us sort ourselves out.”

* * * * * *

Since it was so dainty a packet they were to pick up, he prepared the small satchel, making certain that the transport boxes were coded and functional. Satisfied on that score, he slipped the strap over his shoulder and went to join his pilot on the bridge.

* * * * * *

Dollance-Marie waited in the public parlor, fully visible to the media. She wore at-home dress that showed her pale skin to best advantage. Her hair was charmingly tousled, as artless as an hour with her stylist could produce.

She had arrived somewhat in advance of the courier pilot’s appointment, box in hand. Her mama would wish the whole world to see that the Ruby began its journey well, placed into the hands of a reputable courier, with delivery guaranteed.

She placed the velvet box on the glazed table next to her chair, and tapped the lid, a preemptive silencing of the inevitable wag who would look to increase his ratings by loudly doubting that the Ruby had ever been in the box.

Gemstone on display, Dollance-Marie touched the screen set into the glazed table. The courier articles—guarantee and insurance—had arrived. She perused them leisurely, and set her thumb to the screen in approval.

A gong sounded elsewhere in the house. Dollance-Marie tapped the screen off, closed the velvet box, and settled simultaneously into her chair, and into Alabaster’s attitude of cool indifference.

The door was directly across from her chair. It opened.

First through it came Bok, in crisp security grays; her face correctly impassive.

Following was a small, spare woman in an untailored leather jacket; her hair, an indeterminate color between brown and blond, caught into a tail that hung limply past her shoulders.

Behind the woman came a man somewhat taller than she, also in leather, his figure lean and his face appalling in its lack of finesse. His hair, black, was dressed like the woman’s, and he carried a satchel slung by a strap over his shoulder.

“Aelliana Caylon, pilot-owner of packet ship Ride the Luck,” the woman said, pausing just behind Bok’s position to bow, brief and neat. Her voice was admirably clear, and though she had a rather heavy accent, her words were perfectly intelligible.

“We have come,” she said, looking into Alabaster’s face with eyes that were a surprisingly attractive green, “to take up the package bound for Albion, which we guarantee to deliver.”

Alabaster inclined her head coolly, took up the velvet box and gave it to Bok, who in turn held it out to the woman.

“Daav,” she said, and the man stepped up, opening the satchel with one hand and extracting a dull brown cube.

“What is that?” Alabaster asked, sharply.

The man looked at her, eyes bright and black.

“We guarantee delivery, intact and on time,” he said, his voice deep, and his Terran quick. “While the item is in our care, it is protected as we see fit.” Perhaps he thumbed a catch. The cube snapped open, and he extended it to Bok, who, after a minute hesitation, placed the velvet box within.

The man snapped the cube shut, and slipped it back into the satchel.

“Thank you,” Alabaster said. Alabaster was always gracious to her social inferiors. “My mama wishes to have this item with her as soon as possible. Go now, and travel quickly.”

The woman bowed again. “Ms. Chimra,” she murmured, and turned so immediately that Bok had to do a rapid two-step to get in front and lead her properly out of the room, the man following both.

Alabaster nodded satisfaction for the media, rose, and left the public parlor by the inner door to the private prep room. It was there that Bok joined her several minutes later.

“Is all well?” Alabaster asked.

“It will go as planned,” Bok assured her.

* * * * * *

The taxi dropped them at the at the main port gate, despite Aelliana’s direction that they be left at the service gate, which was nearer to the Luck’s docking place.

“It’s worth my license to do that, Miss,” the cabbie said, sounding genuinely regretful. “Service gate’s for deliveries only. Main gate’s for taxi drop-off.”

Which of course made it convenient for those on-world who knew the rule.

And for those on-world who wished to relieve two unexceptional pilots of the plain bag casually slung over the shoulder of the taller of the pair.

The attack came within sight of the gate—three masked forms, all of them taller than Daav, rushed out of a side alley, crowding them back into the shadows.

Aelliana swung left under the awning of a vacant store, perilously close to the wall. One of the three followed her, a sharp gleam showing in his low-held hand, a terror that Daav could do nothing to resolve until he had settled the two who had fixed him in their attentions.

He kicked the first where it mattered most to him, spun and came ’round in a crouch, using the second attacker’s height against him.

That one was more canny than his mate, now moaning on the ground. He feinted left, vibroblade humming to wicked life in his right hand. Daav, in no mood for finesse, drove forward, swinging the satchel against the armed hand, and driving his head into the man’s solar plexus.

His opponent went down, the knife spilling from his hand. He slammed his heel down on it, to be certain; and spun toward Aelliana, incidentally clipping the first man in the head with the satchel, which took care of that problem for the moment.

Aelliana had engaged her opponent. Even as he spun, she came in under the man’s longer reach and twisted in a classic menfri’at disarm. His weapon arced away, she clasped his arm against hers and twisted, heart-stoppingly graceful.

The man screamed as his arm was dislocated at the shoulder, and a shadow moved in Daav’s peripheral vision.

He turned, saw the woman, and the gun rising, her attention all on Aelliana—on Aelliana’s back, as she let her man drop, and—

Too far to jump, but not too far to throw. He snatched open the satchel, the cube finding his hand, and he threw, with all his might.

His aim was true. The cube struck the woman’s arm; her finger tightened even as the gun jerked, and the pellet discharged into the awning.

She was quick-witted, though, give her that. She wasted no time on her hurt, or her missed target, but leapt for the box, snatching it up with alacrity, and racing away, down the alley.

“Stop, thief!” Aelliana cried, leaping in pursuit.

Daav caught her, hugging her to him with one arm as with the other he sealed the satchel. Peripheral vision showed that a crowd had gathered, watching with interest, doubtless believing the whole thing had been staged.

“You threw the client’s package to the person who was trying to rob us!” Aelliana’s voice was only somewhat muffled by his jacket, her words were, happily, in Liaden.

“I insist upon at,” he answered in the same language, keeping his voice low. “She had a bead on my pilot.”

Aelliana stilled. “She did?”

“Yes. She did.” He did not quite manage to control the shiver; terror rising now that the matter had been dealt with.

Against his side, Aelliana went still. Sighed.

“Well. In that case, it was very neatly done, Daav,” she said calmly. “What do you propose we do now?”

“I propose that we return to our ship, and that we do so quickly, before those who have watched this whole fiasco understand that it is not a bid on the part of one of the low-ranked Leaders for market points.”

She moved her shoulders and he released her, looking ’round at the three fallen bravos.

Aelliana’s was curled ‘round his arm, moaning; his two were still unconscious, though the one who had brought the knife to the game was showing signs of perhaps rousing.

“Pilot?” he murmured.

“Yes,” said Aelliana, looking about—at the three damaged, and the minor crowd that had gathered along the street to watch. “Let us go, if you please, Daav.”

* * * * * *

The media had followed the pilots of course, Dollance-Marie had depended upon it; had timed their arrival and departure for the slow hours of the early afternoon to insure that the whole transaction would be captured. It was to have been simple—a threat of harm, a relinquishing of the package—who would not relinquish a package that had no value to them, and which was, after all, insured?

No one was to have gotten hurt.

And yet, Dollance-Marie thought, staring at the screen, three people—three men, unknown to her in their masks—had attempted to importune the pilots. To their discomfort.

The pilots had moved quickly, decisively. Dollance-Marie had never seen people move so rapidly and with such focus. The three were disadvantaged before her own operator had achieved position. It was to that operator’s credit that she proceeded according to direction, and surely not her fault that the man had thrown so well.

So well, and so wisely. Unbelievably, he hurled the very thing her operator had been sent to retrieve directly to her. She left the gun, grabbed the prize and ran—so the end was achieved, no matter what hash had been made from the means.

But it was peculiar, Dollance-Marie thought, as she turned from the screen, that the man had chosen that particular projectile. Of course, the item was insured.

And that gave one pause. Dollance-Marie began to wonder if she had perhaps, and unwittingly, employed a brace of rogues. But, no, their references had been clean, ship and pilots legitimately registered, no contracts on-file. She had inspected the records herself, knowing that her mama would do likewise.

Well. Perhaps the man’s wits had been addled by the attack, and he had not fully understood what he did. It was no matter. They had done their part; the insurance would cover their loss; her mama would see—as all the world had seen!—what had happened to the Ruby, and all else—

All else would be well.

* * * * * *

“Now, sir!” Aelliana spun to face him, poised on the balls of her feet in the center of the piloting chamber. “We guaranteed delivery of that packet; the fact that it was insured is quite beside the point!”

Daav eyed her. “Is it?” he inquired.

“Yes! Only think, van’chela, if it is said ’round port and in the places that pilots go that Ride the Luck loses what is entrusted to her for safekeeping, and fails of her guarantee. We will never work again! Now, we must find that woman, speedily, and buy the package back from her.”

“Do you think she will sell?” Daav asked, watching her face with interest.

“Do you think she will not?”

“I think that the point is moot,” he answered carefully.

“Moot? How so?”

“If the pilot will grant me a moment, I will explain. Should you not be satisfied at the end of what I say, then I will myself contact the client, the port proctors and the insurance writer.”

Aelliana frowned up at him and crossed her arms over her breast.

“Very well,” she said sternly. “Speak.”

* * * * * *

“Opportunists,” Gan Bok said, when she brought the transport capsule to the prep room. “Climbers with low ratings and few followers. No doubt that they saw the transaction between yourself and the pilots and thought they had found a way to improve themselves.”

“Well!” Dollance-Marie answered, “they very nearly ruined everything. Is Janida badly hurt?”

“She would have it no more than a bruise. I sent her to the medic.”

“Good.” Dollance-Marie took a deep breath and looked at the plain brown transport capsule.

“All’s well that ends well,” she said, which was what her mama said, when a plan had run too near to ruin. She pressed her thumb against the lock, coaxed the lid up—

“No!”

The capsule was empty.

“Call them—Ride the Luck!” she snapped at Bok, who snatched the comm from her belt, pressed a button, listened—and looked up with a small shake of her head.

“My apologies, Ms. Chimra. Ride the Luck has lifted, on a filed course for Albion.”

* * * * * *

John was in the private roomtheir room, as she had come to think of it—before her. Her favorite wine stood breathing on the table, with two glasses set ready. John himself was in dark blue slashed with silver, his collar open. The silver spiderweb scarf draped loosely ’round his shoulders called attention to his decolletage.

Dollance-Marie stopped just inside the door, her dolor momentarily forgotten as she took in the whole of it.

“I think you may be correct, that your mama will murder you,” she said, walking ’round him and affecting not to see the blush that so charmingly warmed his features. “But—if you do not falter, I believe it can be the next fashion.”

He looked earnestly into her face.

“Do you truly think so?”

“It will need to be managed, but I think we are the equal of the challenge,” she said, allowing her self another circuit to admire his person.

“Perhaps, when we’re partnered,” John said, sounding nervous—and that brought it all back, so strongly that Dollance-Marie made a small, involuntary gasp.

“Marie?” He turned, and, greatly daring, caught her hands. His eyes searched her face. “Is there something wrong?”

She swallowed and met his eyes, permitting him to hold her, though it would hurt all the more, when he let her go.

“Yes,” she said, calling on Alabaster’s cold courage so that she could meet his eyes. “My mama called for the Ruby to be sent home to her. I—I tried to keep it for you, John, but it was no use, and now—now I have nothing to give you—”

. . . to bind him, she thought, for some time, at least . . .

“Nothing to give me?” he repeated, his fingers tightening on hers. “But you had offered partnership—was that a joke?”

“A joke? No, never! I want you—”

“And I want you,” John interrupted, wantonly. “You are my true friend. We can teach each other. We’ll travel.” A glimmer of a smile touched his sweet mouth. “We’ll make new fashions. We’ll have fun!”

Fun.

Dollance-Marie stared at him.

Fun.

“I can’t remember,” she said, “the last time I had . . . fun.”

“I can teach you,” he said, smiling more widely. He raised her hands, and bent his head, his lips tasting the tips of her fingers.

“John!” She was scandalized; she was on fire. “What have you been learning?”

He laughed, lowering her hands, which she was not at all certain that she wanted.

“Dane has been tutoring me,” he said. “I told him I wanted to renew as often as he and Erin had done.”

“That amused him,” she said tartly.

“He seemed . . . intrigued. When will we partner, Marie? My mother told me that she has signed her approval.”

“Then—then at your leisure, sir!” she said, years of training coming to her rescue in this odd hour. “But, John—the Ruby. My promise—”

“You were very wrong to promise me something that belongs to your mother,” he said, looking adorably stern. “That is like stealing and it is wrong. You will never do it again, Marie. Promise.”

She stared at him, between delight and consternation. No one spoke to her—well. Her mama. And her ratings-coach. But she had never permitted any of her former liaisons to speak to her in such a tone.

But, she thought, he was right.

“Marie? If you steal again, I shall be very angry with you.”

Angry with her? A thrill ran through her.

“I promise,” she said.

“Excellent.”

He raised her hands again, but before he bent his head, she slipped free, and tucked both behind her back.

“Marie?” He asked, tentative.

“You had a task before you,” she told him. “To chose the date of our formal partnership.”

He tipped his head.

“You had said, I believe, at my ‘leisure?’”

“I had.”

“Then I must tell you that Dane and Erin offered themselves as witnesses and co-signatures, and stand at our service at any hour of the day or night.”

“They will be at dinner now,” she pointed out.

“Nonetheless,” John said, with sweet determination, “I will make the call.”

* * * * * *

The Gransella of Hamptonshire sent her own car for them, and two security persons, weapons very much in evidence.

When they were ushered into the lady’s presence, Aelliana bowed and thanked her for her condescension.

“You served me so well at Feinik that it is certainly only Balance that I guard you at Albion,” the lady said with a dismissive flutter of long fingers. “Leadership is a two-edged knife: On the one hand, we have a record of all that we do or say. On the other hand, we provide opportunity for those who neither Lead nor Follow to engage in unRated mischief.”

Another flutter of her fingers.

“That is the price that we pay; the price we expect to pay. To ask those who are not ranked, and who do not seek to lead—to ask yourselves, for instance—to pay our toll to society—that is not acceptable. Now, what have you brought me?”

Daav stepped forward, opened the satchel and placed the transport capsule in her hand. She opened it, removed the velvet box, and opened it, also.

“Ah . . .” A sigh, of satisfaction and of reverence. “Excellent.”

Raising the small box, she turned it so that they could see the contents—a single, large ruby, cut by a master, and flashing crimson lightnings at the room.

“This is what you have brought to me,” the Gransella said proudly. “One of the greater treasures of my house. Had it been lost . . .” She allowed the thought to fade with a small shudder, closed the box and looked to Aelliana.

“Such service demands a bonus in addition to your regular fee.”

Aelliana bowed, gently.

“If you please,” she said. “What will serve us more than a bonus is your reference. We are new upon the field, and . . . and, for this time, fame is as good as cantra.”

“It is better, for fame will bring you cantra!” the elder lady stated. “It is done. It happens now. Your fee has been released into your ship’s account. My car will take you back, and my people will see you to safety. Thank you. You have done a great service for my bloodline. And fame you shall assuredly have. I guarantee it!”




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Framed