Shan and Priscilla Ride Again
Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
Chapter the Tenth
Late. And there was work to be done — more than a little, with the Passage due to leave Liad in four local days. Shan flung his cloak across the carved wood arm of an antique hall chair. It was his own fault, of course. Seeing Priscilla home to Pelthraza Street should have taken no more than an hour. Yet the hour had grown somehow into two. . .three. . .approaching four.
You see her daily, he scolded himself. How can you have so much to talk about?
But Priscilla hadn’t seemed bored. Gods knew he’d be with her still, if the Universe were ordered exactly as Shan yos’Galan wished it. . .
Work, he reminded himself.
He ducked into the gather-room and poured himself a glass of misravot. The room, like the hall, was faintly illuminated by night-dims. The rest of the family must be abed, then. Sighing, Shan headed for the stairway and his rooms.
Paused, head cocked. Very faintly, he discerned music. Omnichora music.
Someone was awake.
Shan hesitated, the pile of invoices and last-minute emergencies seeming all at once soothing.
If it’s not tonight, it will have to be tomorrow, he told himself sternly. And Nova specifically asked you to speak with him.
He stood in the darkened hall a few moments longer, sipping his wine and listening to the faint, undistinguished notes. Then, with a sense of imminent dismay, he turned and followed the music.
Shan paused outside the door to the music room. The notes had altered somewhat during his stroll down the halls. They were stronger; balanced and precise, as if someone elses had taken the original player’s place at the ‘chora.
The sound faded.
Shan stepped forward and the door slid open just as the towering opening of “Tocata and Fugue in D Minor” crahsed into being.
Breath caught in his throat. This had been his mother’s favorite piece — he had not heard it since her death. Certainly, he had not heard it like this, as if she herself were playing. His vision blurred and it was not Val Con at the ‘chora, but Anne Davis, strong and controlled, and — alive — in the music. . .
Painfully, he forced air into tight lungs; ran a quick sequence to bring emotion under control, as if he were about to embark upon a particularly difficult Healing. Pulling out a handkerchief, he gently wiped his cheeks.
He found a chair near the omnichora and sat composed in the dimness, sipping wine and awaiting the end of the music.
It came, as it must, and Val Con turned, hitching one knee up on the bench. In the bluish glow of the keyboard, his face shone wet.
“Well played, Brother,” Shan said quietly, and bent forward, offering the glass. “Will you drink?”
“My thanks,” Val Con’s voice was husky with expended effort. He drank rather more deeply than misravot demanded and sighed.
“You’re up late,” he said, shaking his hair out of his eyes.
“I might say the same of you,” Shan pointed out. “However, the luck has served us both. Our sister asked me to speak with you and, since the Passage leaves orbit within the half-week, I was a bit puzzled as to how I was to get onto your busy calendar.”
“Oh, fluff!” Val Con laughed. “You know as well as I do that you’d only walk in on me some morning while I was still abed –“
“And run the risk of seeing gods-only-know-what? Or — worse! — whom? Hardly. Are you going to drink the whole glass or may I have a sip?”
“Forgive me,” Val Con murmured. He took another outrageous swallow and handed the glass back, wine much diminished. “I’d thought you’d be spending the night with Priscilla. . .”
“Priscilla and I are not pleasure-loves.”
“That much is obvious,” Val Con said irritably. “What I cannot for my heart understand, Brother, is why you are not!”
He leaned forward abruptly.
“By the gods — Shan, you are a Healer! Can you not see the woman loves you?”
“Enough!” The High Tongue, Elder to Junior. “I do not discuss this with you.”
“Your first mate,” his cha’leket swept on, as if he hadn’t spoken. “And you return the regard — do you think I don’t see? Who accompanies Elsa lo’Retha these past weeks? Traya Maandoln, though she buys the privilege dearly. Rumor is that Shan yos’Galan has given nubiath’a and is seen always with the Terran thodelm –“
“I have said –“
“That you do not discuss the matter with me — your word is good!” Val Con snapped. “Tell me — without discussion — what it is you do? The tension between you — how will you run the Passage when the captain is ill with wanting the first mate and the first mate desperate for the captain — and neither will aid the other! It’s madness.”
“Are you telling me how to run my ship?” Shan demanded.
“I’m telling you how to run your life!” Val Con cried.
“Of all –” Outrage and humor warred. Curiosity trumped both. “By what right?”
“By right of being nadelm — Korval-to-be. You endanger yourself and the Passage. I require an explanation.”
“Right of nadelm, is it? If you’re so anxious to throw your weight around, take the damned Ring and get it off my back!”
“Nova serves as eldema-pernardi, not you.”
“And who is your heir, in the event you’re hit by space-travelling rocks, or speared by unfriendly savages? Do you think I want to be Korval?”
“Brother. . .” Val Con was off the bench, fingertips brushing Shan’s cheek, jawline, brow. “Shan?”
He closed his eyes, seeking to marshal his rag-tag resources. Healer, indeed. Opening his eyes, he touched his brother’s thin golden cheek.
“Denubia, what are we quarreling about?”
“I am not certain,” Val Con’s face was troubled. “Can you tell me why you have not resolved the thing between you and Priscilla? I ask it, Brother.”
Shan sighed deeply.
“Melant’i. Priscilla is a stranger to the Pasasge; new to the rank. I think — I am certain! — she will be an excellent officer. But it must be proved. By action. Over time. I would not have it. . .rumored. . .that she gained the post through the captain’s bed. I would not have Priscilla hear it and perhaps believe it — as she might. There must be no doubt of the first mate. We agreed to set pleasure aside until she had established her melant’i more fully.” He shrugged.
“And so you put yourself under this strain before even the ship leaves orbit –“
“Priscilla is a Healer, too. We can scan each other’s pattern for comfort and companionship. . .It’s difficult to explain, denubia. Suffice to say that it’s not as bad as it could be.”
“I take your word on it.” Val Con shifted slightly. “What was it Nova asked you to say to me?”
Oh, gods; after this? Still, it would not be more palatable in daylight. Shan swallowed misravot without tasting it, and set the glass aside.
“The First-Speaker-in-Trust asked me to say to you that she will be pleased to sanction a contract-marriage between yourself and any suitable lady of your choice. She –“
Utter rejection, slamming down so hard Shan’s outer ears rang with the force of it.
He extended a hand.
“Any lady you chose, Brother. Korval-in-Trust has said it. Surely, on all of Liad, there is one lady you find possible.”
Val Con retreated a step. . .two — and abruptly sat on the edge of the music bench, his eyes in shadow.
“You must provide the clan with your heir. It is your duty no less than the duty of us all. Why not get it over with quickly? One consolation is that you’re unlikely to be contracted to provide a child for another clan. . .”
Val Con said nothing.
“Is your heart engaged?”
He asked the question as gently as he could; then, more sharply, as the impossibility of such a match struck him: “You’re not in love with Nova, are you, denubia?”
Gods, he probably was. They were of an age; growing up in each other’s pockets. And the relationship was too close to risk a child; Petrella yos’Galan and Sella yos’Phelium had been twins. . .
“Nova is my sister,” Val Con said flatly, and Shan read affection and kin-love and a stirring of sorrow, but nothing more. He swallowed relief.
“Then there’s nothing to hold you back from seeking out a congenial lady –“
Val Con was on his feet, quiet voice rising shockingly.
“I will not! I — I cannot!”
“Can’t? What do you mean, can’t? You’ve had lovers; a contract-marriage is a little less and a little more than an affair of pleasure — but it’s certainly not a lifemating. A year — two at the longest — and you’re out of it –“
“No. Brother, I swear to you; it is not possible. I — Would I grieve my family — and risk Nova’s temper! — if it were possible to buy peace — so easily?” He flung his hands out, palms up in supplication.
“Shan, I cannot.”
He believed it; his pattern confirmed it. Shan bowed his head.
“So be it, then. But don’t expect the First Speaker to believe it.”
“She does not. Else why would she send you to speak with me when only this noon she and I spoke on the subject?”
“Now, that she did not tell me!”
Shan laughed in frustration, as down the hall a mechanical bird sang the very early morning hour.
“Ah, blast it all. No sleep tonight. Or do I mean last night?”
“Who can tell?” murmured Val Con, linking arms and turning him toward the door.
“Allow me to walk you to your rooms, Brother.”
They went down the hall and up the stairs; two slim shadows, one tall and silver-haired; the other small and dark and utterly silent. At Shan’s door, the smaller stretched to kiss the taller on the lips.
“Sleep well, Shan-brother.”
“Sleep well, denubia.”
He laid a light hand on the other’s arm.
“If you happen to find out why you ‘can’t,’ let me know, all right?”
“Yes,” Val Con agreed, and went silently down the hall toward his rooms.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
In Conflict of Honors, Er Thom has been dead for three Standards. Anne died about a Standard before that, in an unspecified “accident.” The survivors are clearly still adjusting to their losses, and to their various new melant’is. Granted, Val Con has been “nadelm” for his entire life — though, if I were writing this now, I’d probably be on the search for a Liaden word or phrase that means something like “Delm Intended,” or perhaps just the more recently-invented “Delm Genetic,” because he is very much more than the nadelm, i.e. the current delm’s eventual replacement. Val Con is Korval, he became so when the previous delm “died.” Had Daav died without issue, Er Thom would have become delm, as the previous delm’s heir. But Val Con exists, merely too young to take up his duties, which Er Thom takes up, in trust, and for the good of the clan.
But, now, Uncle Er Thom is gone, and the only two clanmembers of the older generation who are left are Kareen yos’Phelium, and Luken bel’Tarda. And the person holding the Ring in trust is of Val Con’s own generation.
No wonder the kids are a little tense.
That’s some very plain speaking, indeed, between the brothers, and Val Con’s assertion that he can’t marry, which is, by extension, a declaration that he cannot [at this time] give the clan his heir — which really would be the rational thing to do, not only given the dangers inherent in being a Scout, but the other thing Shan isn’t saying, which is that — as thin as Korval suddenly has become, and yos’Phelium down to a single pilot — Val Con may well wish to give the clan several children.
Going in, our conceit was that True Lifemates — those pared in what is sometimes called a “wizard’s match” — called to each other. That conceit is woven into the fabric of the universe, though the notion that this has been in part engineered by Korval’s Damned Meddling Tree has also been woven in. I don’t believe that Steve and I had definitively decided on the physical reality of the Tree at the time that Shan and Priscilla Ride Again was being written; certainly, we hadn’t formed any strong notion that it was sentient and actively working for its own best interests.
Interesting that only Petrella got to keep her name. I’m guessing that, when the twins were needed again — for Local Custom — Petrella and Sella just struck me as too cutesy.
June 27, 2015
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