“Preferred Seating" by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
Say what you might about foolish valor—and Can Ith had said his share—the mission had provided an interesting piloting exercise, and fortunate it was that he had been home on leave, if one could conceive of such a thing.
They had made excellent time to this faraway port, three small tradeships, pod-stripped, one of Ixin's, showing the Moon and Rabbit with some reluctance—but what else could they do when Korval's two vessels flaunted the Tree-and-Dragon and never thought to do otherwise?
So, three small ships, as traders went, pelting through space as though pursued, which was only . . . somewhat . . . likely. Port was raised, and permission gained to offload the cargo, which was done, shuttle-load by shuttle-load, none of the captains being quite so gallant as to risk the big ships at dock.
Can Ith had drawn shuttle duty, which would not have been so ill, had he not drawn second seat, and his cousin Sin Jin first. Still, it wasn't as if they needed to speak to one another, and the off-loading went quickly.
It wasn't until the last of the cargo was down and off, that the mission acquired a complication, and red tape tied the shuttles to the dock.
It seemed that there were tests to be administered to the cargo, and those found to fall short were to be returned to the ships. The number of those failing was as of this port-morning had been three, which was not so high a percentage. Still, their contract had been to make delivery here, offloading Safely and fully before turning back to the homeworld.
Safely and fully had its own power, in contracts; and if it had not, even Sin Jin would have been hard-put to justify simply abandoning the culls at the dock.
It was decided in consultation between the captains that the Rabbit's ship was best placed to take up the rejected, as there was another port open to them, which would not necessarily welcome a Dragon. The shuttle Firsts were dispatched as a group to place this plan before the portmaster. Assuming it found favor, Korval's ships would be free to return to the homeworld. In theory. Can Ith's faith in theory was . . . not non-existent, and of no matter in any case. Scout captain he might be, but family, so the saying went, kept its own rank, and Sin Jin was his elder by two Standards, and was further favored by the delm, for the sake of his mother.
The Firsts had been away for some time. Rather longer, Can Ith considered, than they ought to have been, had the portmaster been inclined to the proposal. That was worrying, for personal reasons. Home-leave from the Scouts only seemed to last forever, and he was running close to time. Mission planning had not considered the possibility of a lengthy layover. If the proposal was accepted, and Korval's ships given leave to depart, and they flew home with the same vigor with which they had flown away . . .
. . . he would arrive on Liad in good time to make his bow to the delm, and report to Scout Headquarters.
If the proposal was not accepted, Can Ith would need to find his own way home, and that quickly.
He accessed starmaps and trade routes—which only proved his fears. If they did not leave this port, soon, he would not raise Liad before his leave was over.
He might, of course, pinbeam Scout Commander and his team second, to apprise them of his projected tardiness. Neither would be pleased, but—
The hatch-open light flashed on his board; the security screen at the bottom right of his array came live. Sin Jin was back and not seeming particularly buoyant.
Can Ith was on his feet when his cousin hit the bridge.
"Are we free to fly?" he asked.
That earned him two raised eyebrows—he and his cousin were not friends, and scarcely spoke.
Can Ith raised his eyebrows in answer, and received a small, malicious smile.
"So eager to raise Liad? Cousin."
"Truly, my need for Liad is temporary, merely I must pass through on the way to Scout Headquarters. My leave is running out, and I would prefer not to have to explain a tardy arrival to the commander."
"Oh, is that what distresses you! I am pleased to be able to do proper duty of kin and relieve you of anxiety. You will not be tasked to give an accounting of yourself to the Scout commander—ever again. The delm has sent that you are required by your clan, and has removed you from the roster of active Scouts."
The deck moved—Can Ith thought so, but his cousin stood steady, so it had merely been the force of the information—which was surely false. So he told himself. He knew his cousin's malice of old; it would be like him to lie for the simple pleasure of causing consternation.
"I see that you don't wish to believe me!" said Sin Jin. "I assure you, it is so. You no longer owe duty to any but to Korval. The delm has found Lezina yos'Phelium unfit for the more strenuous duties attending the second speaker. You will assume those, as Lezina's assistant."
Can Ith stared, still not wanting to believe. Assistant to the second speaker, who had served, all honor to her, for forty years, before she fell into dotage? It was a paired cruelty to force her to continue in a position she could no longer understand, and to name the new second-speaker-in-fact a mere assistant.
Yet, Can Ith admitted, there was a certain terrible logic to it, from the viewpoint of a delm. Korval was the author of this current folly, robbing the Council of Clans of its scapegoats.The clan could not show weak, or in any way vulnerable. To replace so notable a personage as the second speaker at such a time . . .
No, Can Ith thought.
Sin Jin was not lying.
It was true.
The only wonder was that his cousin had managed to contain himself thus long before delivering the blow.
And even that was scarcely a wonder. Why blurt the thing out, when a little waiting would eventually produce a situation where the payoff in dismay would be so very much higher?
Numbly, Can Ith reached for his jacket.
"Where are you going?" his cousin asked.
"Out," he replied. "I'm overdue leave."
Can Ith didn't stay to hear what first chair might say, or even looked at him at all. He turned on his heel and walked down the hall to the hatchway.
The port was scarcely three streets deep, and no more than four long. For all of that, it was divided into lawful and less-lawful sections, with the less-lawful including those things most of interest to a spacer on leave—drink, gambling, companionship, and rough entertainments. The lawful side encompassed a casino, a restaurant, a luxury hotel, and a theater, those being both overpriced and chancy for persons new on port. Also, the restaurant at least, where the captains and the pilots had dined with the portmaster and the receiving committee, was perhaps not so fine as the locals believed.
It was instinct to turn away from the lawful port, where proctors waited to discover the unwary spacer in violation of a law—and to approach the less-lawful side, where a pilot might drink in peace, with only the occasional threat of footpads. In his present state, the opportunity to lesson footpads would only be a relief.
He had taken a heavy blow, but he was not entirely lost to good sense. He did not seek the downright dangerous streets off of the port proper; indeed, he made for the bar his opposite number on the Rabbit shuttle had recommended as a decent and quiet place to have a glass or two of tolerable wine, and a tray of the local breads and cheeses, which she represented as excellent. She had warned him that there was live music, adding that it had been easy to ignore, and that apparent attention to the musicians had not been interpreted by the locals as a desire for company.
So it was that he turned into the well-lit doorway of an establishment styling itself the Dancing Colors, entering a room slightly less well-lit, and moderately full of patrons. There was music; he traced its source to a back corner, where two persons sat on a low dais, one holding a stringed instrument across her lap; the other playing a pipe.
The result of their efforts was moderately pleasing, certainly nothing that would intrude upon his thoughts.
He decided against a stool at the crowded bar. Rather, he took a table near the musicians and sat with his back against the wall, and most of the room before him—his preferred seating in such situations—and smiled up at the server.
The musicians left the stage for their break, and Can Ith was considering calling for a second glass of very tolerable wine. He had ordered the bread and cheese plate, which arrived with a separate small bowl of "akashi, sir," which he was given to know was a local fruit, and this its season.
He sampled the small loaf of crusty brown bread—still warm inside, and tasting of malt. It paired well with the hard yellow cheese, and he made a mental note to thank the Rabbit copilot for her information.
Despite the good flavor, it was not food—nor even wine—that he wanted. What he wanted was Sin Jin's throat between his hands—which, unhappily, was no new desire.
Can Ith sighed. It was not done, to murder one's cousin. Nor was it done to disobey the delm, though he was less rigorous on that point. He was, after all, a Scout, trained to think outside of Liad's customs and the strict clan hierarchies. No, he might easily disobey his delm—if he could realize a profit.
Can Ith accepted as truth that the Recall Clause had been invoked. Even if it were possible to manipulate Korval into declaring him dead, he could not return to the Scouts. Once recalled, a Scout was dead to the service.
He sighed, and looked down at his folded hands, the Jump Pilot's Ring a glittering chaos on his second finger.
Taking a deep breath, he cleared his mind, put aside distress and considered the future his delm had chosen for him.
Second speaker—that was a position of some consequence with the hierarchy of the clan. He was not to be second speaker, however; but assistant, and no guarantee that he would rise to her honors when she gave up her soul to the stars.
He laughed, softly, in self-ridicule. Rise to her honors, indeed! he jeered inwardly. Will you give the rest of your life over to organizing seating charts?
He might, he thought, go eklykt'i—fade away into the city, or the outback. Everything he needed was in his jacket; he might go at once.
Despair lifted as he realized that choice existed. Indeed, a very generous choice existed. If Sin Jin had possessed anything like an imagination, he would have tried to keep Can Ith from leaving the ship. No; he was unjust; Sin Jin possessed a very fine imagination, else his mischiefs would not be half so effective.
But Sin Jin had not had the benefit of Scout training.
Sin Jin believed that one must—always—obey the delm.
So, Can Ith thought, finishing the last of his glass. He would call for the check and go.
Let Sin Jin search, if he cared to—and, here was a jest! Of course he would search! To return to the delm with news that he had exposed her plans to Can Ith beforetime, whereupon he was vanished?
Oh, Sin Jin would search.
Much good it might do him, Can Ith thought, suddenly feeling quite cheerful. It was trivial for a Scout to remain unfound. Sin Jin must at last go home and face Korval, while Can Ith would return to port the moment it was safe to do so, and search about him for a ship—Terran, by necessity—in need of a pilot, or a mechanic, or a cargo master.
Yes. It would do.
Having taken his decision, he looked up—and met the thoughtful dark gaze of a brown-haired Liaden woman. To Scout eyes, she looked worn with long care and too little food. At the same time, there was an excitement in her that drew him, who had only just taken an exhilarating decision of his own.
"Captain yos'Phelium," she said.
"No," he answered gently. "Merely Pilot yos'Phelium."
"But a yos'Phelium is never merely a pilot," she said.
He laughed, and intercepted her glance at the bread and cheese tray. Hungry, yes. And her jest suggested that she was one of the culls.
Well, he could afford to be generous.
"Sit," he invited her, "if you have a taste for chancy company. I was about to call for more wine. Will you join me?"
"Thank you," she said, and took the chair at his left, which put her back to the wall, the room open to her gaze.
He glanced 'round—and the server was there immediately, receiving his order and the coins that paid for all. There was a stir at the back of the room; an over-shoulder glance discovered the musicians mounting the small stage once again.
"If you were not here for the previous set, you may find the music of interest," he said, playing the host with what charm he could muster. It was the least he might do for his sudden guest. Gods knew what she had endured on Liad, and her good luck that she had made it to the relief ships.
There came a tootling from the pipe, and some plucking of the strings. He looked again, seeing the woman slowly winding pegs on her instrument's neck, plucking, twisting, plucking—until her face blossomed into a smile.
A shift of shadow warned him, and he turned back as their glasses were placed on the table, and more bread, too.
"Cook's gift," the server said to his uplifted brow. "Crowd's thinner than her baking tonight."
"Our thanks to the cook," his companion said with fervor.
The server nodded and swept away.
"The bread is very good," Can Ith said; "and the cheese even better. I did not much care for the akashi fruit, but you may find otherwise. Please, make yourself free."
She smiled at him then—fully, as would a comrade, or a friend, or a lover—and raised her glass.
"To the fullness of fortune," she said.
He raised his own glass, pleased to find a toast he could meet.
"To the luck," he answered.
They drank. His companion helped herself to cheese and bread, tasted of the fruits, head tipped consideringly to one side—and returned to bread and cheese.
The musicians began to play, quietly. He listened with half-an-ear, as he watched the room, and also his table mate.
Eventually, he spoke.
"You were looking for me—specifically, for me."
Dark eyes met his straightly.
"Yes," she said.
"Ah."He sipped wine. "I don't wish to be rude, but if there is something you wish to say, you must speak. I'm soon away."
"Yes," she said again, and then—"You have very strong shields."
"So I am told. I hope you will not ask me to lower them, for I haven't the least notion how to do so. The shields came with me into this life."
"My name is Kishara jit'Luso, Pilot. I am lucky, so my delm cast me out, in order that the clan take no damage from sheltering faulty genes."
Sipping his wine, he considered her.
"Forgive me if I am impertinent," he said, "but, being as I am I know little of those who are gifted.It is true that my entire clan is lucky—and risky. I wonder if you put yourself in danger by seeking me out."
Amusement crossed her face, and he saw that she was younger than he had at first thought.
"As the moth is endangered by the candle flame?" she asked. "You are kind to regard it, but no. I think in this moment, our lucks reinforce each other, to the betterment of both."
"Ah?" he murmured politely.
"Yes," she said, taking up another slice bread with cheese. "You see, there's about to be a pirate raid."
He blinked at her.
"A pirate raid?" he repeated, as the front door smashed open.
Three bravos rushed in and split up, each overseeing a third of the room, weapons leveled, faces grim.
There was a brief hurrah from the clientele, voices raised, chairs and stools noisily overturned as people leapt to their feet. Can Ith stood silently, keeping his hand deliberately away from his weapon, and watched the scene unfold.
From the side of his eye, he saw that Kishara jit'Luso had risen as well, moving somewhat closer to his side. Possibly, she wished to partake of his luck, he thought, and snorted lightly.
From the center of the room, a chair came flying, and another. The barkeeper ducked beneath the bar, coming up with what looked to be a laser rifle left over from the AI wars.
She got off one shot, burning a gash into the floor a whisker's width from the boots of the nearest bravo, who spun, weapon dropping into line, finger tightening.
Can Ith twitched forward, felt his arm caught in a surprisingly tight grip, just as a shadow moved in the doorway, and one of the most astonishing figures Can Ith had ever seen, outside of a melant'i play, strolled into the bar.
He was, at a hazard, Liaden, wearing a space leather jacket over sweater and pants. His boots were new; a multitude of gleaming necklaces festooned him; his hands were a-glitter with rings. He held a halfling Terran girl negligently by her wrist. Her eyes were fixed and flat, and Can Ith wondered if she might be blind.
"Friends, friends!" the new arrival cried in an oddly resonant voice. He held his freehand up, showing it empty, and looked mildly around the room.
"There is no reason for dispute. We are here to pick up supplies and funds, and perhaps personnel. Please, all be calm."
Everyone froze. Can Ith took a breath, felt the hold on his arm tighten, and drop away.
The new arrival pointed a finger at the bartender.
"Put that down," he said chidingly; "you will do someone a hurt."
The bartender put the rifle on the bar.
"Very good," said the Liaden coolly. "Now, if you please—go to the storeroom, and pack up three cases of your best liquor and wine. Bring them here." He pointed at the near end of the bar.
Without a word, the bartender turned, and walked down the bar to a door that must lead to the stockroom.
The Liaden shook the halfling sharply.
"How is that weapon disarmed?"
"Push ... red ... button ... stock."
He pointed at the nearest patron, sitting blank-faced on her barstool.
"You—disarm the rifle."
The woman leaned forward, pushed the red button on the rifle's stock, and sat back.
He raised his voice.
"We will now accept donations," he said, his voice washing against the back of the room.
"You—you—you!" He pointed at three frozen patrons, one from each third of the room. "Take a plate or a bowl from the table. Empty it."
He waited while this order was obeyed, food and liquids dumped onto tabletops.
"Now, go to every person in your section. They will give you all their valuable items."
The three turned, and Can Ith watched as every person at every table reached into pockets and pouches, dropping rings, necklets, coins, arm-clasps and other precious things into the proffered container. No one protested. No one appeared to be aware that they were being robbed.
The collector for their section was approaching. Can Ith deliberately held himself still, and made his expression flat. It would appear that the entire room was ensorcelled, under some compulsion that left him, and, seemingly, his companion untouched. He assumed his natural shielding was the cause of his continued liberty. Perhaps Kishara's faulty genes granted her immunity.
The collector was before them. Kishara surrendered half-a-dozen small coins and a silver ring. Can Ith gave the money from his public pocket, and, with a pang he did not allow to inform his movements, pulled the Jump Pilot's Ring from his finger.
The collector passed on, face blank, movements precise and unnatural, pausing to take the stringed instrument, the flute, and the bowl of coins from the frozen musicians.
"Bring everything to the bar," said the compelling voice, and this, too, was done.
"Go back to your places," he told the collectors, and they did. He stepped to the bar, dragging the halfling with him, and ran his fingers through those things that had been gathered.
"Wait—what is this?"
He turned, Can Ith's ring in his hand. Frowning, he subjected it to a long moment of scrutiny before holding it high.
"Who gave this? Raise a hand!"
Teeth grit, Can Ith raised his hand.
The Liaden strolled down the room, pulling the halfling with him. He stopped before Can Ith, looking him up and down, his smile growing wide.
"Well! Pilot, is it? Jump pilot, in fact? You will be coming with me. And who is this—ah . . . lady? What is your relationship with this pilot? Speak true!"
"We are partners," Kishara lied, her voice flat.
"Very good. You also will take employment with me. What is your name?"
"What is your name, Pilot? Speak true!"
"Sin Jin Isfelm," Can Ith replied, keeping his face and his tone flat.
"They now belong to me, as you do. Follow."
There seemed to be no choice, here and now. Perhaps an opportunity would arise. Perhaps—well, thought Can Ith—perhaps he would get lucky. Though the reason that Kishara had tied herself to him—partners, indeed!—eluded him. He could wish for a private moment to find what her scheme was, but—
They had arrived at the bar. Their captor pulled a sack from an inside pocket and threw it into Kishara's face. She made no move to catch it, and it settled across her shoulder.
"Pelli! Gather all the donations into the sack."
She plucked the sack up, shook it open and did as she had been ordered, her movements wooden, her face blank. Can Ith observed her as he could—plainly, she was an expert at this game.
"Sin Jin!" his supposed master snapped. "Pick up that case from the bar and stand aside. You and you!" A finger indicated two patrons seated placidly at the bar. "Pick up the other cases, and stand aside."
This was done, and Pelli—Kishara—stood forward, holding the sack, and also the two instruments. Their captor frowned, grabbed the stringed instrument in his free hand, lifted it, and smashed it against the bar. Can Ith stiffened, expecting a scream from the musician, but none came. Grinning, the man dropped the pipe to the floor and slammed his boot heel down, the sound of splintering wood perfectly audible.
"Carry the sack," he told Kishara, and turned to face the room.
"We are done here," he said in coolly, and Can Ith saw the captive halfling shudder.
"All of you!" He pointed out over the room. "Forget our faces. Forget what happened."
He turned, striding to the door, the halfling stumbling in his wake, then turned, pointing deliberately at Can Ith, Kishara, and the two nameless patrons.
"Follow me!" he ordered, and perforce, they did.
They arrived at a shuttle. Those who had carried were dismissed with a command to forget. The Liaden looked at his bravos, and said a single word:"Go."
They went, taking their weapons with them.
Can Ith considered his options. If the man would release the halfling, he thought, and felt pressure against his side. Kishara, warning him to be still. He considered that. How if she were, herself, part of this pirate raid?He shifted slightly, centering himself—but the moment was past.
The Liaden jerked the halfling forward, pushing her palm flat against the plate, forcing her chin up with his other hand, so that the scanner got her face and eyes.
The hatch slid open. The Liaden snatched the halfling back against the shuttle's side and pointed at Can Ith and Kishara.
"Stow the goods."
Almost, Can Ith balked, but it came to him that the odds of his survival, Kishara's, and the halfling's, rose significantly, once he was aboard a ship. He carried the case within, as ordered, stowing it.
Kishara brought in the second box of alcohol, and he bent close to her ear.
"I'll want an explanation," he breathed.
"No time," came the answering breath. "Trust me."
Snorting, he turned and went back for the last case, reflecting ruefully on the unlikely fact that he did trust her.
The Liaden watched, leaning against the hull, the halfling in one hand, the sack in the other.
When Can Ith stepped back into the shuttle, the Liaden came after, shoving the halfling before him.
"Sin Jin will pilot. Pelli will take the jump-seat. I will have the copilot's chair. My carte blanche will kneel, so."
He shoved the halfling down to her knees on the decking, wasting no gentleness. It must have hurt her, yet she gave no cry, nor even blinked, her blind eyes staring.
Can Ith sat in First Seat, and glanced down at the board. The pilot had properly cleared and taken the key. He could, of course, fly the shuttle without a ship's key, though it would require him to do some work behind the board, which would take initiative. He was in receipt of the notion that their captor supposed him dead to initiative.
A full minute passed—two—while he wondered if he would betray his unensorcelled state if he asked—
Beside him, the Liaden made a little purring sound.
"You will want this," he said reaching to his belt. He held out a ship's key, recognizable, though coated with a brown substance that Can Ith greatly feared was blood.
"Take it," the Liaden snapped. "Dock us with the ship Merry Mushroom. Do not contact them."
Can Ith took the key and slotted it. It was sticky, and left red-brown smudges on his fingers.
The board came live. He located the Merry Mushroom, and filed intent to lift with the port. The ack came back as he was making sure of his webbing; and they were away.
The halfling spoke to the ship, her voice thin and expressionless. The shuttle docked, and they disembarked.
The Liaden went first, shoving the halfling ahead, and it seemed to Can Ith that she dragged her feet somewhat.He heard a definite whimper when she was pushed hard against the wall as the Liaden put her palm to the plate.
The door slid open to a common room. The Liaden threw the halfling in; she hit the floor with a cry, rolling, as crew started up, alarm dawning on their faces.
"Sit down and be calm!" the Liaden said, firmly, in just such a tone as had gotten results down below.
The crew hesitated, looking from one to the other, and from the floor, the halfling screamed, "Kill him! He killed Father and Sinda!"
After, Can Ith and Kishara sat with the crew, and the halfling Jaim Evrit, daughter of Trader Ban Evrit and Pilot Sinda Mark, and told over what had happened.
"The field is peculiar to the planet," Kishara said. "I felt it ebb, as we lifted."
She threw a conscious look at Can Ith.
"I was in the same test group. We had all felt the effects as soon as we hit planet, but he—" she waved toward the lock door, where the body rested—"he understood the possibilities more quickly than the rest of us, and did not hesitate to act for his own advantage."
Can Ith inclined his head.
"All well and good," said the first mate, a grey-haired woman called Vina Greiz. "My question is what we're to do now. Trader's gone, pilot, too. Young Jaim –" She threw a worried look at the halfling slumped in her chair.
"I'm not certified," Jaim said, her voice considerably stronger than Can Ith would have supposed. "Can't run the trade."
"We'll have to marry Shroom to the Mikancy Family," said another of the crew from the back.
"No." Young Jaim's face set.
"What else then?" came yet a third voice. "Sell out and stay downside?"
"Not that either." She took a hard breath and gave Can Ith the full force of her eyes—not blind, after all—determined.
"You're a Jump pilot."
He glanced down at the gaudy ring, rescued from the sack and back on his finger.
"That is so."
"Are you at liberty?"
"I am," he admitted.
"I," Kishara said from beside him, "was raised in a trading house. I can advise, as required, and you need not marry to your disadvantage."
Jaim's smile was grim.
"I'm family," she said. "I can offer contract."
Kishara bowed, and Can Ith did.
"I think we might manage," Jaim said to her crew. "And not impossible to borrow a Second Trader from one of our friendlies, if we gotta."
"We trust them?" asked the first mate.
"You'd rather the Mikancy? You know their style. We'll be lucky to be set down on a back world alive."
The crew was silent. The first mate threw up her hands.
"We trust 'em, then. What's next?"
"Gotta cover the route," Jaim said. "Need to get goin'."
"In that wise," Can Ith said slowly. "Let us first make up a pod, with the stolen goods, our late friend, and a locator. We will inform the port authority before we Jump out."
"Yes," said Jaim, and looked to the first mate.
"Vina, show Pilot Can Ith to his seat, please.
Copyright © 2020 Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
This Liaden Universe® story is set in the milieu of December series entry Trader’s Leap. Maine-based writers Sharon Lee and Steve Miller have written dozens of short stories and twenty plus novels, most set in their star-spanning Liaden Universe®. Before settling down to the serene and stable life of a science fiction and fantasy writer, Steve was a traveling poet, rock-band reviewer, reporter, and editor of a string of community newspapers. Sharon, less adventurous, has been an advertising copywriter, copy editor on night-side news at a small city newspaper, reporter, photographer, and book reviewer. Both credit their newspaper experiences with teaching them the finer points of collaboration. Sharon and Steve passionately believe that reading fiction ought to be fun, and that stories are entertainment. They maintain a web presence at korval.com.