Authors: Sharon Lee,Steve Miller
Tags: #Science Fiction
"I ain't up for this," she said suddenly, feeling the panic boiling in her stomach. "Look, boss, I'm a soldier, not an actor—and nobody down there's gonna believe for one minute that I'm Lady yos'Phelium. Let's see if we can't catch the old lady and tell her we made a mistake, OK? All the mercs in the city right now, there's bound to be somebody around who owes me dinner—"
"Miri—" That quick he was across the room, arms around her tight, cheek against hers. "It is not a masquerade, cha'trez. It is truth. We are lifemates. And a portion of our shared melant'i involves standing as lady and lord to Line yos'Phelium." He laughed softly. "For our sins."
She choked a half-laugh and pushed her face into his shoulder. "I'm gonna wreck your melant'i."
"No." He kissed her ear. "My lifemate is a lady of intelligence, wit, and courage. How else could it be, but that her melant'i supports and enhances my own? And together—" He slipped his hand under her chin and tipped her face so she could see the bright green eyes, awash in mischief. "
, cha'trez, we are—" he bent his head, put his mouth next to her ear and breathed "-
hell on wheels
"You—" She laughed and hugged him hard before stepping away and taking his hand. "All right, let's go meet the family."
She stopped him at the hall door, though, struck by one more detail.
"We gonna let on I don't know your family from sliced bread? I don't think even tel'Vosti'd like a lifemating where I ain't met your First Speaker, much less you got her permission."
"A valid point," Val Con murmured and tipped his head, staring hard at nothing, with his brows pulled slightly together.
"Line yos'Phelium," he said after a bit, "presently includes Kareen, my father's sister; her son Pat Rin, and his heir, Quin. My father is Daav yos'Phelium, who is eklykt'i. His lifemate, my mother, was Aelliana Caylon. She is dead. I was fostered into the household of my father's cha'leket, Er Thom yos'Galan, and his lifemate, Anne Davis. They, also, have died. Shan is Lord yos'Galan, Nova is First Speaker, Anthora is—Anthora." He paused.
"yos'Galan children are Padi, who is Shan's heir, and Syl Vor, who is Nova's. Korval's seat is Jelaza Kazone; yos'Galan's Line House is Trealla Fantrol. We are located to the north of Solcintra City. The ship of which Shan is captain and master trader is
Miri considered him. "That's it?"
"Nothing else?" she persisted. "I don't wanna trip up."
"This should be sufficient to see us through dinner," Val Con said softly. "It is scarcely to be expected that a new bride will have complete intimacy of her lifemate's clan."
"Great." She shook her head as he opened the door and bowed her through ahead of him. "All right, Liaden. Just remember—it's your neck we're gambling with."
She'd never seen so many redheads in one place.
The reception room was jammed with them, male and female; old, young and in-between, with hair shading from the lightest strawberry blonde through orange, mere-red, auburn and a particularly striking mahogany.
Hand resting on Val Con's arm, Miri considered the crowd, noting the eyes that slid toward them and slid away—and also something else.
!" she blurted, remembering at least to whisper, though there was no one directly beside them.
One eyebrow slid upward. "A little above middle height," Val Con acknowledged, lips twitching. "For a Liaden."
He glanced across the room to where Emrith Tiazan stood talking to tel'Vosti and a youngish woman with carroty hair piled high on her head. "We to the delm, now, cha'trez, to make our bows."
And to hear the results of the gene test. She sternly put down the rebellion in her stomach and walked head up at his side, fingers curled lightly around his wrist, trying to act like she didn't notice the way conversation ebbed at their approach and picked up again, once they were past.
"Is this a good idea?" she muttered out of the side of her mouth.
"No, of course not," Val Con muttered back and she almost laughed.
Emrith Tiazan's face saved her—half-relieved and half-approving, as if she'd expected them to show up for dinner in leathers. Miri felt a spurt of sympathy as she bowed respect for the host, Val Con bowing at the same instant.
"Ma'am," he said, soft voice pitched so that it carried across the still sea of redheads, "we offer thanks for the grace and care the House has shown us."
"It is the House's honor," the old woman said into the silence, "to guest its ancient ally and friend." She looked up across the room then, and raised her voice, though it wasn't necessary.
"Hear me, my children, for I tell you of wonder and joy. Come to us only today is Miri Robertson, who is of Erob by Tiazan, this without doubt." She looked hard at Miri out of stern gray eyes.
"Turn," she ordered, still loud enough for the whole room to hear, "Miri Robertson Tiazan, that your cousins may see your face and rejoice."
. She squared her shoulders and turned, looking out over the mob and seeing precious little rejoicing—unless you counted an orange-haired somebody around eight or ten—she wasn't too good at guessing ages that young—who was grinning fit to split her face.
"See also Val Con yos'Phelium," Emrith Tiazan continued behind her, "Thodelm and Second Speaker of Clan Korval, our oldest and most honored ally. It is through Korval that we rediscover our kinswoman." There was something of a stir at that and a bigger one when Val Con turned around to face them.
"It is further told the clan that Miri Robertson Tiazan and Val Con yos'Phelium have each seen the face of the other's heart and, having seen, joined hands and hearts and lives together."
Sleep-learning kept Miri from a gulp; years of dicing and playing cards for kynak and money kept her face straight.
, put that way it sounds all mystic and misty and stuff, when it's just him and me holding together and doing what needs doing. . .
The carrot-top who'd been talking to Emrith Tiazan and tel'Vosti came forward and bowed, thin face earnest.
"Line Tiazan acknowledges Miri Robertson Tiazan and welcomes her with joy."
Miri returned the bow, hand automatically signing recognition of kinship. "Lady Tiazan, I am honored."
tel'Vosti stepped up next, bowing all courtly over his cane. "Line tel'Vosti sees Miri Robertson Tiazan with delight, welcomes her with honesty and acknowledges her with anticipation."
She almost grinned at him, but sleep-learning kicked in, and pattern recognition with it, adding up all the things the Code didn't say, like that Liaden society was controlled, yeah, and formal, sure, and all those pretty words and modes and gestures were the weapons you used to survive in an unending, cut-throat competition. Melant'i and Balance. Face or no face. And here was tel'Vosti, who had lived a long lifetime immersed in well-bred in-fighting, giving her a non-standard greeting, there in front of delm and everybody. Tweaking her, he was. Trying her, to see what she'd do.
She bowed, timing it to centimeter and millisecond. "My Lord tel'Vosti." High Tongue Equal, that was the mode; it leaned on Val Con's melant'i, but that was fine, since he was thodelm just like tel'Vosti, and the whole room had just heard the delm say she was a thodelm's lifemate. "I see you with appreciation, hear you with understanding, and acknowledge you with trepidation."
The brown eyes gleamed; the rest of his face remained merely polite. No way to tell if she'd scored points. She didn't think she had. But she didn't think she'd lost any either. Even was OK; tel'Vosti'd said it himself, when he'd been talking about Val Con's uncle. Inside her head Val Con's pattern held steady, inscrutable as a mandala.
The delm stepped forward, indicating Thodelm Tiazan with a backhanded wave. "Your cousin Bendara, daughter of your late cousin Cel Met Tiazan."
The carrot-top gave a little bow, barely more than a heavy nod of the head. "Cousin Miri."
Miri gave the bow back, "Cousin Bendara," straightened and felt Val Con shift, oh-so-slightly, at her side. She directed Bendara's attention his way with a copy of the delm's backhanded gesture. "One's lifemate, Val Con yos'Phelium."
Bendara bowed again, a shade deeper than equality of rank demanded, as if maybe Val Con had more time in grade. "My Lord yos'Phelium."
"My Lady Tiazan." His voice was soft as always. She couldn't see his bow.
The delm waved for her attention again, this time for a man of late middle years, hair aggressively red, hazel eyes hooded.
"Your cousin Dil Nem, son of your late uncle Kern Tiazan."
Again the heavy nod, the exchange of names; the pass on to Val Con.
"Your cousin Ilvin, daughter of your cousin Jen Sar Tiazan, who is from clan at present."
"Your cousin Kol Vus. . ."
"Your cousin. . ."
Miri lost count, very likely lost names, after the first dozen or so. Her head was beginning to ache with all the cool, polite faces and she started to want a slug of kynak. She gritted her teeth and bowed kinship to tel'Vosti, damn him: "Your uncle, Win Den tel'Vosti, son of Randa Tiazan and Pel Jim tel'Vosti."
There was another blur of names and faces after him; the next she took clear note of was the last.
"Your cousin Alys, daughter of your cousin Makina Tiazan, who is from clan at this moment."
Alys, who would be "very well," but never a Kea Tiazan. Alys, who they were going to offer as a contract-wife to Val Con, when she came of age.
She made her bow, very serious, and stood tall, all three and a half feet of her, curly, orange-y hair held down by the brute strength of three formidable-looking combs. The brown eyes shone with something past curiosity or even friendliness and Miri caught her breath. She'd seen that look on recruits, sometimes, the ones who fancied themselves "in love" with the commander.
"Cousin Miri," she piped up, "I'm happy to see you."
Oh, hell. Like she didn't have enough trouble without an elf hooking onto her. Miri returned the bow with matching dignity.
"Cousin Alys, I am happy to see you." She made the backhand wave toward Val Con and repeated the weary formula for the last time, moving the kid along. She wanted that drink bad, she thought, and looked up to find Emrith Tiazan watching her, something like approval in the lines of her face.
"Appropriately done," the old lady said. "We now go in to dinner. Win Den, attend me, by your grace."
tel'Vosti stepped forward and offered his arm, which she took, allowing him to lead her down the room toward the door at the opposite end. The mob of redheads made room for them to pass, but nobody followed.
"Us now, cha'trez." Val Con's voice was soft in her ear as he took her arm. "You did admirably."
"Easy for you to say," she muttered. "I'd rather sing for my supper, though. Any day."
"I need a drink."
Miri leaned against the wall just inside their private parlor, eyes closed against the scented darkness. Dinner had been horrible. Her place had been set with an arsenal of forks and tongs and spoons and knives, all of which, sleep-learning told her implacably, had a specific use. She'd fair busted her head while she'd waited for the first course, trying to remember the long list of foods that could and should be addressed with each implement.
Then the first course was served and she'd broken out in an ice-cold sweat as dish after unidentifiable dish went by. She'd snuck a look to see what Val Con was having; took a little of that and nibbled while she tried to do her conversational duty to the woman on her left. She'd left the wine strictly alone, terrified at getting even a little fuddled with all those new cousins watching and keeping score.
"A drink," she said firmly. "A
"Certainly," Val Con murmured in her ear. He slipped a hand beneath her elbow. "Come sit on the couch, cha'trez . . . There. Red wine? White? Jade? Canary? I believe—yes, there is misravot, if you would prefer. . ."
Miri sighed, leaned back in the cushions and finally opened her eyes. Val Con had lit the low-lights—the ceiling sparkled with starring pinpoints; the carpet glittered like new snow.
"What do I know about wine? You pick."
"All right," he said, and poured pale green wine into two crystal cups. He brought them to the couch and handed her one, raising his own in salute.
"To Lady yos'Phelium, my love."
She laughed and shook her head. "Why not to Lord yos'Phelium?"
"Lord yos'Phelium was not courageous, nor did he comport himself with anything but mediocrity." He touched her cheek. "Miri, you are a treasure."
"If you say so," she said dubiously and sipped her wine. "I think it's pretty brave, myself, to trust everything to somebody who don't even know what fork to use—" She shook her head. "Who knows what fork to use," she corrected herself, "if there'd been a clue to what the food was!"
"Ah, I had wondered why you ate so little. . ." He tipped his head. "You must not let it burden you," he said softly. "You imagine my melant'i is so fragile it will shatter at your slightest error. Instead, it has—resilience—and certainly strength enough to withstand my lifemate's mistaking a fork—or even using a fork instead of tongs!" He tasted his wine, suddenly serious.
"In all matters of importance—in your conduct toward your delm and the head of your line; in your answer to tel'Vosti—you were above reproach. If in less vital matters you err, or simply choose to disregard the Code, then it is—a nothing. People will say, if they say at all: 'Ah, she is an original.' Which is no bad thing."
"An original?" She frowned and shook her head.
Val Con sighed. "It is one of the reasons I insisted you learn the Code from the source, rather than from my tutoring," he said slowly. "Each individual takes the Code and—shapes it—according to his own character and necessity. Now, I have, perhaps, taken too much from my uncle's tutelage—or learned too young, as Shan would have it—so my manner tends toward coolness and extreme precision." He sipped wine, brows drawn.
"Shan is an original," he murmured: "his manners are appalling, but his
pleases. Anthora follows his style. Pat Rin is very correct, but easy, so the correctness seems joined to and flowing from his melant'i. Nova—" he shook his head, smiling with a touch of wistfulness. "I once overhead someone say he would rather meet an angry lyr-cat unarmed, than Nova and I in a reception line."