Back | Next


Jethri Gobelyn ven’Deelin, second Trader on Elthoria, out of Solcintra, Liad, felt the gravity change and the pressure shift in the same step. Frenol was efficient about such matters, supplying no more air nor gravity than required to incoming ships without being miserly about it. The walk through the portal allowed ship over-pressure to be expended, while at the same time inviting wandering particles from onboard to settle quickly to the lightly charged grids ramping into the station side.

Jethri was not alone leaving Elthoria; crew mates bustled around him on the ramp, rushing off to market shifts or to scout for prizes and bargains. If they were quick, they might shop before all the merchants registered that a new ship was arrived and raised prices for the occasion. The bargain-hunters hit the decking first, followed not too closely by knots of two, four, six—comrades with joint pleasure in their plans, eager, but not hasty.

They, too, achieved Frenol’s deck before the second Trader, who was walking alone, as he often did on port. There was, after all, no need to rush. His legs were long, and, if Protocol Master ter’Ondor was to be believed, there was his dignity to preserve.

He gained the first air well speedily enough, a space tall and wide, more formal than the dock sides and more crowded. He paused for a moment just aside the arch, to consider the signage and the traffic, and to consult the map in his head.

Elthoria was fresh in from Seybol, on the heavily Liaden front rim, where the new fashions from the homeworld itself had only just arrived. Since a trader must be seen to be prosperous and current, Jethri had new clothes, in the first stare of fashion.

In fact, he noticed that he was the recipient of actual stares from more than one passing pedestrian—which was not unusual in the Liaden markets, where he stood at least half a head taller than nearly anybody. Here on Frenol, it was more likely the clothes than the height.

Though there was the height, too, he thought wryly. The fashion whimsy of the season was that all footwear be given a rigorously measured big-toe of extra height, and the Second Trader not been permitted to sidestep this.

So, with a plush purple stripe exactly the width of the tailor’s math stick across the right shoulder of his new yellow coat, and added height for all that he was not short even among Terrans, Jethri was noticeable as he stood in a designated rest circle, overlooking what seemed to be a market day crowd at full-tide.

His experienced trader’s eye noted this one and that moving casually toward himself, seeing a young, well-dressed, gormless, and inexperienced person just off a trade ship, who was likely full in the spending pocket as well. Time to get moving again, he thought.

But there, the map in his head matched the signs, and he swung away from the wall and into the crowd. His stride was long, and strong for a ship-born ex-Looper, and Jethri soon put the hopeful pickpockets behind, as he headed not for the joys and pressures of a bedding station or souvenir parlor but for the business-as-usual comfort of one of the Trade Bars. He’d not been to Frenol before but the formal Liaden Trade Bar was not, as might be assumed from his position as second trader on a Liaden ship, first on his list. Today he sought news of kin and, truth be told, kind. The Envidaria was more than a minor part of his life these days, and he might as well see what the word was on the docks.

* * *

Frenol wasn’t, exactly, a Liaden port, nor was it, exactly, a Terran port. It was closer to the big shipping lanes and farther from the usual routes of Loop ships. Loopers were for the most part Terran or equivalent mixed crew and their ships were, as Arin Gobelyn had known well, generally smaller and older than the Liaden tradeships dominating the main routes. And as the newer, larger Liaden ships needed the newer, larger berths, here on Frenol Elthoria was comfortably docked on the expansive New Market Wing of the station, while Practical Al’s Trade Bar was on the far side of the Grande Esplanade, down in what was called Old Main Line, since it hadn’t been main line for handfuls of decades.

The walk down-station did Jethri good, letting him stretch his legs with a will while seeing new sights—and the sights were worth seeing, though he doubted he’d be free to pursue any of them, given the fact that Master Trader Norn ven’Deelin, coincidentally his foster-mother, was to meet with Master Trader pin’Aker on the morrow. Given the general tendency of Master Trader ven’Deelin to orchestrate surprising situations, and use all of the pieces on her board—Jethri supposed he would be included—somehow.

He was approaching Frenol’s more Terran district. Not only were the store fronts gaudier, and the come-on music louder, but the scents were different. That made his spacer’s clean-air instincts leery—he’d spent far too much of his time on Gobelyn’s Market doing Stinks to have this much odor poured at him without imagining what the filters must look like after a shift! He didn’t doubt that the local merchants cheated on air exchange rules to flood the aisles and halls with the hints of oil and baked goods not usually found on the Liaden side, much less on long haul trade ships. Too, the under-scent near some locations openly hinted at vya, chocolate, and alcohol, all far too forward to be wafted about near the Grand Esplanade, where tender teas and fine pastries might be on offer.

The hall narrowed, narrowed again, kinked to the left, and opened into a space nearly as large as the Grande Esplanade, and three times as crowded. People were taller; their voices louder; their finery, while fine, tending more toward comfort than elegance.

Jethri kept moving in the crowd, squaring his shoulders so as to look bigger, which a Liaden would never do. Here, though, the trick worked; people stepped out of his way, when they could, and he was hardly jostled at all. He began to believe that his fancy new coat might survive this adventure.

Jethri had first heard about Practical Al’s as the youngest and least-wanted mainline Gobelyn on the Market. His father had been trying to convince Captain Iza to plot a course to Frenol, for some reason now lost to time. In the end, the captain had declined to deviate from the Loop, but before she had, Arin and Grig had plied her with data describing the station, and hinting at the profits to be made.

The file featuring Practical Al’s Trade Bar had caught Jethri’s young imagination, and he had promised himself right then that, when he was captain of his own ship, he’d take himself to Frenol and have a meal at Practical Al’s, the oldest continuously run station-based Trade Bar in the Raifling Sector. The file had included pictures of the place—several of the ornate clock set over the wide entrance, which counted the Terran seconds, minutes, hours, day, and years that had passed since the bar’s opening. The place itself—

Was right there; he recognized it immediately, though it was larger than he had imagined, reaching almost to the hall’s vaulted roof. It had apparently caught the imagination of many beyond Jethri Gobelyn. The approach was surging with people. Looking around, Jethri saw that there was a nerligig dancing on a raised platform at what might be the entrance to the bar’s business zone, which had drawn its own admiring crowd.

Practical Al’s, Open All Hours Three Centuries and Counting read the sign above the clock.

Jethri scouted out a path around the nerligig and its adherents, hoping against fading hope that there might actually be a quiet table within the bar itself, a place to get a near-beer or a quiet glass of wine. A place to order food that was more in the Terran way, which he’d lately found himself missing, though no one could fault the food provided to Elthoria’s crew.

There! His eye traced a path taken by a number of people, which swept around the margin of the nerligig’s crowd, and snaked back toward the front entrance. Jethri was soon one of their number.

The line moved reasonably well, and the entrance was in sight, when the crowd bunched, separated, and swirled, perhaps because among the taller Terrans was a golden-haired Liaden doing an excellent job of not being stepped on by gawkers.

Within the confusion an elegant bow was swept, fine-tuned with nuance. No offense taken, no offense meant, please choose your route with…

While the finesse of the bow was perhaps lost on the pair of Terrans now detouring around the display with nods and semi-smiles, Jethri was all admiration, the moreso when he felt a jolt of recognition—

The polite Liaden, deserted by his partners in chaos, made no ill-timed straightening that might have been misread by someone glancing back, but finished the bow in detail as if all eyes were still on him, paused for a breath and—

“An excellent summation of the melant’i of the situation, all in good will!” Jethri called out, his use of Comrade mode in Liaden likely to mask his own Terran identity to those around.

A bland face turned toward him, rapidly recast to an acceptably pleased public face as he was recognized in turn.

They rushed together, careful of the march of other necessities about them, producing a playful series of bows as they closed the distance and finally clasped hands.

“But Tan Sim, how are you here, my partner?”

“To surprise, naturally. And you? Was Elthoria not to arrive tomorrow?”

Jethri broke into his Terran Trader grin, pitching his voice lower as he leaned confidentially toward Tan Sim.

“That was the plan before it was decided that I should continue to amass board-time and the piloting of Elthoria was given to me. I got us here too quickly, and pleased everyone by arriving in one piece.” He produced an entirely false expression of wondering regret.

“Who knew that Elthoria is not meant to Jump like a Scout ship?”

Tan Sim sputtered, and Jethri saw the laughter in him.

Their clasped hands were a warmth between them, and they were an awkward impediment to the swirl of the crowd.

“We should move,” Tan Sim murmured.

“Before we’re trampled,” Jethri agreed.

Unclasping hands, they turned as one toward Practical Al’s. There were several doors to choose from, the largest at deck level, another at the top of a ramp, and a third, three steps below the deck.

“We seem to be one mind in two bodies!” Jethri said lightly. “You choose the portal and the floor. I will choose the table and—” He looked up to the large sign spelling out Terran foodstuffs—“ ‘the grub!’ ”

* * *

“I spoke in jest,” admitted Tan Sim, “when I said we meant to surprise. What we meant to do was earn a bonus, due to my shrewd trading contacts.” He smiled a nearly Terran smile. “Also, I wished to have a useful layover here. It happens that Frenol’s yards are superior to those at our previous port. So, we have earned our bonus, for delivering in good time the package entrusted to us by Master Trader pin’Aker. In the meanwhile, the ship undergoes scheduled maintenance, while the trader goes about looking for goods that will draw favorable attention at the South Axis Congress. For I tell you with no shame, Jethri, I am much more skilled at trade than I am at lift-shifting.”

Jethri grinned.

“I might have overstated my piloting skill,” he admitted. “Elthoria’s departure from Seybol was clear from break-dock to Jump-point. This put us well ahead of schedule, with an uncomfortably early arrival at Frenol forecast.

“The pilots therefore decreed that I ought, in fact, be given an opportunity to gain board-time, as it appears to be the intention of everyone save myself to make me into a pilot. So I was put at the board and told to bring us to Frenol.” He bestowed a droll glance upon Tan Sim.

“Come, Trader, you are ahead of me, are you not?”

“Not in the way of most business,” Tan Sim said dryly. “This time, however, I venture to guess that the pilot-in-training did not Jump Elthoria as if she had no more mass than a Scout ship. Rather he fumbled his math, missed the entry point, and had to re-frame his equations twice.”

“Three times,” Jethri corrected. “I would not have you think me greater than I am.”

They sat in a quiet corner—Practical Al’s was all quiet corners, the interior cunningly partitioned—and if the portal Tan Sim had opened gave into the largest and noisiest floor, neither cared about the noise level, nor of the interest their joint arrival had occasioned. Clearly one or the other of them, if not both, were remarkable to the habitues; the nods in their directions were not from people they recognized but clearly from those people recognizing their right to be where they were and who hoped the traders would recall seeing them.

That they’d found a favored place was obvious: within moments of their settling into the space that provided views of three situation boards—one carrying trade updates and the other two showing port traffic in addition to an overhead speaker with table-side volume control—two other parties arrived seeking the same spot. Finding it occupied, both groups had smiled, and waved, and left in search of a less-favored corner.

Tan Sim’s surprisingly animated face caught Jethri’s appraisal: this was a confident man, well pleased with his life, certainly much improved in situation compared to their very first meeting when both had been not only younger, but in peculiar peril from Tan Sim’s clan.

It was a confident man who waved Practical Al’s server to their table side, using his chin to point toward Jethri.

“This trader will order for both,” he said, in confident Terran. “We are entirely at your mercy as we have neither one eaten for a ten-day!”

The waiter looked them over and smiled with Terran ease.

“Yes, I see all the signs of incipient starvation! Put your faith in me, Traders; I’ve completed many successful rescues in my career. First, of course, you’ll be wanting drinks…”

Jethri ordered station-made ale for both, ran an eye down the menu, and, heeding the promptings of what might have equally been nostalgia and honest hunger, ordered long-missed delicacies.

These he brought to Tan Sim’s attention when the tray arrived—which it did with commendable speed.

“This,” he murmured, indicating the plate of crispy logs in the very center of the tray, “is eaten with the fingers, so.”

He reached for the condiment tray, and bestowed a generous amount of red paste onto his tray before reaching to the communal plate, plucking up a log in his naked fingers. He dipped it into the paste before conveying it to his mouth.

Flavor exploded in his mouth, and he sighed.

Tan Sim, however, was frowning. Liadens were fastidious eaters. A race that had produced a twenty-four piece formal setting as an improvement upon the work-a-day twelve piece, and which looked with horror, as he had been led to believe by Stafeli Maarilex, on the haphazard chaos of a six-piece setting that might serve at a working meeting between the traders on Elthoria—that race was in no way prepared for the informality of Terran dining.

“Is that grease?” Tan Sim asked, looking up, the frown more pronounced. “And eaten with one’s fingers? You would not be having me on, Jethri?”

“Not a bit of it,” Jethri assured him, dipping another log in the sauce.

Still Tan Sim hesitated, and Jethri felt that some encouragement was in order.

“A delicacy, on Elthoria’s honor.”

Tan Sim half-laughed.

“Who am I to disregard such weighty assurance?”

He placed red sauce on his plate as Jethri had done, reached to the diminishing plate of logs, chose one, dipped it, and brought it to his mouth.

He chewed, his eyes grew wide; again he dipped and again he ate.


“Tan Sim.”

“This is very good. You must tell me what it is called so that I may demand it at every meal for the remainder of my life.”

Jethri grinned and reached for another log.

“This is a taterlog,” he said. “The sauce is crushed pomidor with spices.” He dipped, ate, sighed.

“You have missed this food, from your former life,” Tan Sim said gently.

“I have. Understand, it’s not something we’d have every day, but when more than one family ship was together on port, or at shivary, for certain.” He shook his head, feeling his mouth bend in a wry smile. “I haven’t had the nerve to ask the kitchen on Elthoria to add it, even thought they’re perfectly capable, of course.”

“Of course,” Tan Sim said, without irony, which was really, Jethri thought, quite a trick. “There is the matter, too, of it being a true delicacy, meant to be served on premier occasions.”

“Yes,” Jethri admitted. He’d forgotten how perceptive Tan Sim was.

His partner helped himself to another taterlog, dunked it in the sauce like he’d been doing it all his life, and ate it with relish.

“Then there is the danger of this food spreading throughout the tradeships and coming at last to Liad. Only think of the horror.”

“I don’t see that,” Jethri countered, “once they got past deciding whether to eat it with tongs or the small two-pronged fork.” He cleaned his fingers on the napkin and leaned toward the tray.

“This, now, is a bun-burger.”

“Let me guess. It is also eaten from the hand?”

“You’re getting good at this,” Jethri told him.

Tan Sim laughed a soft Liaden laugh, took a draft of his ale, and said, “Show me.”

* * *

Their server had come by to collect the empty tray, supplied more ale at their request, and left without suggesting dessert.

“Though I suspect he will do,” said Tan Sim, “when he comes back again to see to the ale.”

Jethri nodded, sipped his ale, and leaned back, his body automatically adjusting itself into a more nuanced repose.

Across the table, Tan Sim noticed, and raised his eyebrows.

“It is fortunate that we met thus early,” Jethri said in Liaden, “as it gives me the opportunity to arrive at information the master trader particularly requested I obtain, and to also ask if you had received my last letter.”

Tan Sim sighed, had recourse to the ale, and likewise sat back. He had no need to realign his posture. Tan Sim’s achievements in spoken Terran were admirable, but his body language was nothing other than Liaden.

“In fact, I did receive your last letter, and—well, what would you, Jeth Ree? I thought that it must a jest.”

“How so?” Jethri asked, noting with some amusement that the styling of his name had changed language, as well.

“You asked, an you recall it, if, in the face of my brother’s death, Rinork was likely to name me nadelm, and, should that occur, what would be my answer.”

“That was,” Jethri admitted, “the information that the master trader requested I obtain for her.”

“I cannot—” Tan Sim sighed, and raised his hand, showing palms. “Well, and she is a master trader, after all. She will wish to be certain which and how many coins she has to her hand. So.”

He picked up his mug, and Jethri followed suit. When they were both refreshed, Tan Sim leaned forward.

“To be as clear as one might, saving the master trader’s honor: No, I have no expectations of being raised to nadelm, and if I did, I should recuse myself, or if necessary, propose myself as general crew on an ore boat. Bar Jan dead and I the next nadelm? Well, you saw how it was, Jeth Ree—and he was the favorite! Only consider how it might be for one she holds in complete contempt—but not for very long, I beg. No, it will be best and easiest to simply get herself a new heir and begin immediately to shape the infant mind until it produces an adequate reflection of her own.”

That was sobering, not to say horrifying. They both lifted mugs and drank what was left of their ales, each perhaps thinking of Infreya chel’Gaibin, who had thrown away two children.

“Another?” Jethri asked, when the empty mugs were back on the table.

“Of your kindness,” Tan Sim said, bending a sorrowful look on the empty mug, before glancing up with a proper Liaden smile.

“And another order of taterlogs, if you will, Trader.”

Jethri laughed.

“Well, I will!” he said, and raised a hand to summon their server, and placed the order.

“Now,” he said, when the drinks had arrived—darker ale this time, on the server’s suggestion. “Now, Trader, you will tell me everything about your schedule for the South Axis Congress. All my life, I’ve dreamed of attending an Axis Congress. I was too young for the East Axis Congress, and that set the route for Gobelyn’s Market for ten years.”

“Why weren’t you allowed to attend?” Tan Sim asked, following him back into Terran.

“Well, I was the reason someone else had to stay on-board.”

“As young as that! At least you have outgrown that excuse, Trader.” He paused to sip ale. “Excellent!” He sighed, eyes closed.

“The congress?” Jethri prompted, when it seemed Tan Sim had forgotten him.

“Ah, yes.” He opened his eyes. “As it happens, this young trader is bound for the South Axis Congress because Genchi is carrying three pods of set-up and specials for the trade fair and pre-conference.”

“Three pods.” Jethri leaned in close. “Say more, Trader, do.”

Back | Next