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Each person shall provide his clan of origin with a child of his blood, who will be raised by the clan and belong to the clan, despite whatever may later occur to place the parent beyond the clan's authority. And this shall be Law for every person of every clan.

—From the Charter of the Council of Clans
Made in the Sixth Year After Planetfall
City of Solcintra, Liad

"LADY YOS'GALAN," the butler announced from the doorway.

The man at the desk looked up from his screen, rose and came forward, hands outstretched in welcome.

"Anne. You're up early." His Terran bore a Liaden accent, lighter than a year ago, and he smiled with genuine pleasure. "Are you well? My brother, your lifemate—and my most excellent nephew!—they enjoy their usual robust health?"

Tall Anne Davis grinned down at him, squeezing his hands affectionately before releasing him.

"You only saw us two days ago," she said. "What could go wrong so quickly?"

"Any number of things!" he assured her, striking a tragic pose that won a ripple of her ready laughter. "Only see how it comes about: This morning I am a free man—this evening, I am affianced!"

Trouble crossed her mobile face, as well it might, she being Terran and holding little patience with contract-marriage. Intellectually, she allowed the efficiency of custom; emotionally, she turned her face aside and would far rather speak of other matters.

"Is it going to be very dreadful for you, Daav?" There was sisterly sympathy in her voice, acceptable from the lifemate of his foster-brother. And indeed, Daav thought wryly, rather more than he had received from his own sister, who, upon hearing the news of his impending contract, had allowed herself an ironic congratulation on duty embraced—at long last.

"Ah, well. One must obey the Law, after all." He moved his shoulders, dismissing the subject, and moved toward the wine table.

"What may I give you to drink?"

"Is there tea?"

"As a matter of fact, there is," he said, and drew a cup for each from the silver urn. He carried both to the desk and resumed his seat, waving her to the chair at the corner.

"Now, tell me what takes you abroad so early in the day."

Anne sipped and set her cup aside with a tiny click, leveling a pair of very serious brown eyes.

"I am in need of Delm's Instruction," she stated in the High Tongue, in the very proper mode of Respect to the Delm.

Daav blinked. "Dear me."

Anne's mouth twitched along one corner, but she otherwise preserved her countenance.

Sighing lightly, he glanced down at his hands—long, clever hands, blunt-nailed, calloused along palms and fingertips. He did not care overmuch for ornamentation and wore but a single ring: A band that covered the third finger of his left hand from knuckle to knuckle, the lush enamel work depicting a tree in full leaf over which a dragon hovered on half-furled wings. Clan Korval's Ring, which marked him delm.

"Daav?" Anne's voice was carefully neutral.

He shook himself and looked back to her face, one eyebrow quirking in self-mockery.

"Perhaps you had best make me acquainted with the details of your requirement," he said, in the blessed casualness of Terran. "The delm may not be necessary, tiresome fellow that he is."

Once again, the mere twitch of a smile.

"All right," she said, following him obligingly into her own tongue.

Daav relaxed. It was not entirely clear how much this very unLiaden member of his Clan understood of melant'i. He had never known her to make a blunder in society, but that might well be put to the account of her lifemate, who would certainly never allow her to place herself in a position of jeopardy. Whether now moved by understanding or intuition, she was willing to allow him to put off for the moment the burden of his delmhood, and that suited Daav very well.

"In obedience to the Delm's Word," Anne said, after another sip of tea, "I've been studying the diaries of the past delms of Korval, as well as the log books kept by Cantra yos'Phelium, the—inceptor—of the clan."

Daav inclined his head. It was necessary for every member of the Line Direct to master the knowledge contained in Diaries and Log. Terran though she was, Anne stood but two lives from the Ring herself—another subject of which she held shy. Much of the Diaries had to do with politics—doubtless she had come across the record of an ancient Balancing and found herself—understandably!—fuddled.

Daav smiled, for here was no case for Delm's Instruction, but only that teaching which elder kin might gladly offer junior.

"There is a passage in the Diaries which is not perfectly plain?" He grinned. "You amaze me."

She returned the grin full measure, then sobered, eyes darkening, though she did not speak.

"So tell me," Daav invited, since it became clear that such prompting was required, "what have you found in Korval's lamentable history to disturb you?"

"Hardly—entirely—lamentable," Anne said softly, then, firmer: "The Contract."

"So?" He allowed both brows to rise. "You doubt the authenticity of Cantra's Contract with the Houses of Solcintra?"

"Oh, no," she said, with the blitheness of the scholar-expert she was, "it's authentic enough. What I doubt is Korval's assumption of continuance."

"Assumption. And it seems to me so plain-written a document! Quite refreshingly stark, in fact. But I must ask why my cha'leket has not been able to resolve this difficulty for you. We have had much the same instruction in these matters, as he stands the delm's heir."

She looked at him solemnly. "I didn't ask him. He's got quite enough to explain about the Tree."

"You question Jelaza Kazone? That is bold." He waved toward the windowed wall behind him, where the Tree's monumental trunk could be glimpsed through a tangle of flowers and shrubbery. "I would have been tempted to begin with something a bit less definite, I confess."

Anne chuckled. "Pig-headed," she agreed and moved on immediately, leaving him no time to contemplate the startling picture conjured by this metaphor. "Er Thom says the Tree—talks."

Well, and it did, Daav acknowledged, though he would not perhaps have phrased it so—or even yet—to her. However, the Tree did—communicate—to those of the Line Direct. Er Thom, that most unfanciful of men, knew this for fact and had thus informed his lifemate, against whom his heart held no secret.

"I see that he has his work cut out for him," Daav said gravely. "Balance therefore dictates my defense of the Contract. It is fitting. I make a clean breast at once: The Contract does not speak, other than what sense the written words convey."

"Entirely sufficient to the discussion," Anne returned. "The written words convey, in paragraph eight, that—" She paused, flashing him a conscious look. "Maybe you'd like to call a copy up on the screen, so you can see what I'm talking about?"

"No need; the Contract is one of—several—documents my delm required I commit to memory during training." He sipped tea, set the cup aside and raised his eyes to hers. "I understand your trouble has root in the provision regarding the continuing duties of the Captain and her heirs. That seems the plainest-writ of all. Show me where I am wrong."

"It's very plainly written," Anne said calmly. "Of course it would be—they were making such a desperate gamble. The Captain's responsibilities are very carefully delineated, as is the chain of command. In a situation where assumption might kill people, nothing is assumed. I have no problem with the original intent of the document. My problem stems from the assumption held by Clan Korval that the Contract is still in force."

Oh, dear. But how delightfully Terran, after all. Daav inclined his head.

"There is no period of expiration put forth," he pointed out calmly. "Nor has the Council of Clans yet relieved Korval of its contractual duty. The Delm of Korval is, by the precise wording of that eighth paragraph, acknowledged to be Captain and sworn to act for the best benefit of the passengers." He smiled.

"Which has come to mean all Liadens—and I do acknowledge the elasticity of that interpretation. However, one could hardly limit oneself to merely overlooking the well-being of the descendants of the original Houses of Solcintra. Entirely aside from the fact that Grandmother Cantra would never have accepted a contract that delineated a lower class of passenger and a higher, the Council of Clans has become the administering body. And the Council of Clans, so it states in the Charter, speaks for all clans." He moved his shoulders, offering another smile.

"Thus, the Captain's duty increases."

"Daav, that Contract is a thousand years old!"

"Near enough," he allowed, nodding in the Terran way.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, perhaps to calm herself. Eyes still closed, she said, flatly, "Paragraph eight makes you the king of the world."

"No, only recall those very painstaking lists of duty! I'm very little more than a tightly-channeled—what is the phrase?—feral trump?"

"Wild card." She opened her eyes. "You do acknowledge the—the Captain's melant'i? You consider yourself the overseer of the whole world—of all the passengers?"

"I must," he said quietly. "The Contract is in force."

She expelled air in a pouf, half laugh, half exasperation. "A completely Liaden point of view!"

Daav lifted a brow. "My dear child, I'm no more Liaden than you are."

Her eyes came swiftly up, face tensing—and relaxing into a smile. "You mean that you've been a Scout. I grant you have more experience of the universe than I ever will. Which is why I find it so particularly odd—the Council of Clans must have forgotten the Contract even exists! A thousand years? Surely you're putting yourself—the clan—at risk by taking on such a duty now?"

"Argued very like a Liaden," Daav said with a grin, and raised a hand to touch the rough twist of silver hanging in his right ear. "It does not fall within the scope of Korval's melant'i to suppose what the Council may or may not have forgotten. The second copy of the Contract was seen in open Council three hundred years ago—at the time of the last call upon Captain's Justice."

"Three hundred years?"

He nodded, offering her the slip of a smile. "Not a very arduous duty, you see. I oversee the passengers' well-being as I was taught by my delm, guided by Diaries and Log—and anticipate no opportunity to take on the melant'i of king."

Silence. Anne's eyes were fixed on a point somewhat beyond his shoulder. A frown marred the smoothness of her brow.

"I have not satisfied you," Daav said gently. "And the pity is, you know, that the delm can do no better."

She fixed on his face, mouth curving ruefully. "I'll work on it," she said, sounding somewhat wistful. "Though I'm not sure I'm cut out for talking Trees and thousand-year Captains."

"It's an odd clan," Daav conceded with mock gravity. "Mad as moonbeams. Anyone will say so."

"Misspeak the High House of Korval? I think not." Anne grinned and stood, holding out her hand. "Thank you for your time. I'm sorry to be such a poor student."

"Nothing poor at all, in the scholar who asks why." He rose and took her hand. "Allow me to walk you to your car. Your lifemate still intends to bear me company tonight, does he not? I won't know how to go on if he denies me his support."

"As if he would," Anne said with a shake of her head. "And you'd go on exactly as you always do, whether he's with you or not."

"Ah, no, you wrong me! Er Thom is my entree into the High Houses. His manners open all doors."

"Whereas Korval Himself finds all doors barred against him," she said ironically.

"That must be the case, if there were more students of history among us. But, there, scholarship is a dying art! No one memorizes the great events anymore—gossip and triviality is all."

Halfway across the sun-washed patio, Anne paused, looking down at him from abruptly serious brown eyes.

"How many is 'several'?"

He lifted a brow. "I beg your pardon?"

"You said you'd had to memorize 'several' documents, besides the Contract. I wondered—"

"Ah." He bowed slightly. "I once calculated—in an idle moment, you know!—that it would require three-point-three relumma to transcribe the material I have memorized. You must understand that I have committed to memory only the most vital information, in case the resources of Jelaza Kazone's library be—unavailable—to me."

"Three-point-three. . ." Anne shook her head sharply. "Are you—all right?"

"I am Korval," Daav said, with an austerity that surprised him quite as much as her. "Sanity is a secondary consideration."

"And Er Thom—Er Thom has had the same training."

So that was what distressed her of a sudden. Daav smiled. "Much of the same training, yes. But you must remember that Er Thom memorizes entire manifests for the pleasure of it."

She laughed. "Too true!" She bent in a swoop and kissed his cheek—a gesture of sisterly affection that warmed him profoundly. "Take care, Daav."

"Take care, Anne. Until soon."

She crossed the patio with her long stride and slipped into the waiting car. Daav watched until the car went 'round the first curve in the drive, then reluctantly went back into the house, to his desk and the delm's work.

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