He woke before the birds, head buzzing with a scheme for sponsoring a junior course.
The number of secondary school scholars seeking to audit such subjects as traveler’s etiquette, language diversity, and other hands-on tertiary courses had grown significantly since he had first taken the Gallowglass Chair. He had been thinking for some time that there was not only room, but demand, for a team-level course in kinesics. Of course, Admin would never allow him to teach it, deeming it beneath the dignity of a Scholar Expert to instruct children. However, there was to hand Donet, one of his advanced students. He was concerned of Donet, who had the material more thoroughly than any other of his advisees, yet who continued to mistrust his instincts at every turn. Teaching those who were truly ignorant would cement his knowledge, and the gain in confidence —
Yes, he thought; it would do. He would bring it to the Registrar this very morning, and present the thing to Donet as an accomplished fact.
He was thoroughly awake now; energized, and not likely to go back to sleep. Best to rise, then, gently, so as not to rouse Kamele. . .
Daav yos’Phelium Clan Korval opened his eyes.
He was alone in the wide bed. The carved chest against the wall just there would have fit into the shared bedroom at Number Twelve Leafydale Place only with the sacrifice of the bed. Nor had Jen Sar Kiladi possessed a jewel-box, much less one as handsome as that sitting atop the chest.
The testimony of the furniture placed him at Jelaza Kazone. He glanced up to the skylight, wondering at the dullness of the light. Was it so early, then?
But no. The skylight framed a cloudscape in sullen grey, occasionally enlivened by a spiteful spit of snow.
Memory finally came fully functional.
Jelaza Kazone had been relocated to Surebleak, and he had been returned to his clan.
Daav closed his eyes, abruptly without any necessity to rise. There was no Registrar with whom to do battle; no brilliant uncertain student to nurture. . .
No long-time, well-loved companion asleep next to him, half-curled on her side, pale hair as fine as feathers framing a long, intelligent face.
I miss her, too, Aelliana said, her voice seeming the veriest whisper in his ear.
“And soon we will miss Theo, as well,” he said, grimly.
Theo will forgive us. His lifemate’s voice was firm.
“Ah. As Val Con has forgiven us? Or Er Thom. Did he forgive us, Aelliana, when his lady was killed, his heart shattered, and his brother, who might have held him to life, absent and uncaring?”
His answer was a profound silence, as weighty as it was brief.
I want to go for a walk.
He opened his eyes, so that she might observe the frowning sky.
Surely, we have walked in snow before. I wish to see the grounds, and what sort of country we have landed in.
There was, he admitted, something in what she said. One ought to know one’s lands, after all, and such roads and trails and hidey-holes as might be available, at need.
And a walk would do them both good.
He threw back the blankets, came to his feet, and crossed the room to the closet.
The formal gardens at the front of the house had survived the journey, though it remained to be seen if they would survive Surebleak.
It was chill enough that Daav turned up the collar of his jacket as he paused on the path to take his bearings.
In. . .other days, he would have walked to the right of the house, to the place where the formal gardens gave way to the working land. At that point, he would have turned to follow long rows of vegetables, soil monitors twinkling among the leaves like stars. Eventually, he would have entered a slender belt of trees and found a path tending uphill, which he would follow until the trees thinned and he stepped out onto Trealla Fantrol’s spacious lawns.
This morning, he turned to the left, and strode out briskly, hands tucked into his pockets, the sense of Aelliana’s presence so strong that it seemed he must certainly see her gamely keeping pace beside him, if he but turned his head a fraction.
He had long ago learnt that bitter lesson; and kept his eyes straight ahead.
“Aelliana,” he said, his breath frosting the chill air.
“I wonder if I might now prevail upon you to tell me why you felt it. . .necessary that we form an alliance with Kamele Waitley?”
It was an old question; and though he could — and had — guessed at her reasons, she had steadfastly refused to state them. He expected another refusal this morning; indeed, what matter did it make, now?
There was a long pause as he walked on, occasionally assaulted by a snowflake, before Aelliana spoke, surprisingly, and perhaps not quite as firmly as she might have wished.
Well, but that was only what any well-brought-up Liaden might say when confronted with a demand for an explanation she did not wish to give. He had his refusal, after all.
But — no. It seemed that, this morning, Aelliana had something more to say on his topic.
You will. . . perhaps think me deficient in the order of my duty, she continued, slowly. After all, the ship is the care of the pilot and the co-pilot’s care is the pilot. However, our order became reversed when we came into our present arrangement. Surely, you are the pilot of your own body, and the course lain in for Balance arose from your genuis.
That being so, I took up my care, and it came to my attention that my pilot. . .required. . .more stimulus than he was likely to gain in solitude, even a solitude leavened by students, and cats, and a voice only he could hear.
I therefore set out to provide my pilot with human contact. You may ask ‘why Kamele?’ — but that you may answer for yourself, van’chela. I saw that she interested you; that she was a scholar, and out of the common way. She had a strong, trained mind and a resolute spirit — both attributes required in a long-term companion. For it would not have done, you know, Daav, to have taken up with someone you could bully.
That surprised a laugh out of him, even as his eye snagged on an. . .irregularity in the land ahead.
Cautiously, he approached the ragged edge where the formal garden formed a uneasy border with what seemed to be a crack in the land.
The edge of the old mine pit? Aelliana wondered.
“So it would seem. We have not been an exact match, which should surprise no one.”
He felt the ripple of her laughter as he approached the irregularity, wary of sinkholes and disturbed rocks.
The space that separated the land that had accompanied Jelaza Kazone and native Surebleak dirt was not wide — even an elderly, desk-bound scholar might easily make the leap — nor was it particularly deep, perhaps extending to a depth matching Daav’s height. It had been Edger’s avowed intent to plant house and tree firmly, whereupon the Tree, so it had said, would see to the rooting of things.
In time, the gully between the worlds would fill, Daav thought, nor was the pit into which they had been settled a wound of Korval’s making. Still, it might be best to begin their tenure here with healing. And one would not like to think of a child, or an unwary adult, or a rabbit, tumbling into the crack and taking harm.
Daav raised his head.
The land across the divide had the look of being tended and worked, for all its lack of crisp lines and the busy flashings of monitors. His eye marked out rows, newly raked, and there, leaning against a wizened tree bearing some small, pink fruits along its twisted branches, the rake itself.
. . .beyond the rake, tucked not-quite-behind the trunk, obscured by the branches, was a man. A long, thin man, with a cap pulled low over a brown face. Dark blonde hair stuck out around the cap, like straw out of a hay-rick. An eye gleamed in the shadows; blinked.
Daav settled on his heels, bringing his attention — and Aelliana’s — once more to the study of the crack.
“The question is,” he said, conversationally, “what to fill it with. Gravel? ‘crete? Stumps?”
“Dirt,” a rough voice said from nearer than he would have thought likely. Their new neighbor moved on his own land like a scout. Daav hadn’t heard the disturbance of so much as a blade of grass.
Once again, he raised his head.
Across the gully, and somewhat further removed from it than Daav was on his side, a man squatted on his heels. His clothes were rough, but well-mended and clean. The brown eyes that watched him out of the shadow made by the cap’s peak were wary to the point of being feral.
“Good morning,” Daav said, pleasantly, but without any needless emphasis.
The man nodded, jerkily, bony fingers gripping his own ankles.
“Morning. Name’s Shaper — Yulian — Yulie Shaper. I hold the land here.” He looked down, as if to emphasize which land, exactly, he meant.
“I am glad to meet you, Yulie Shaper,” Daav said. “My name is Daav yos’Phelium.”
The man gave another one of his jerky nods. “You’re Boss Conrad’s Da.”
“I am Boss Conrad’s uncle,” Daav corrected, gently. He glanced to the gully. “So you think dirt alone will seal this?”
“Could put riprap — that’s your gravel. Take a might of it, though, and the likeliest gravel pit in these parts is underneath where you’re setting.”
“Ah. I see that we may have been hasty.”
Yulie Shaper frowned slightly and shook his head, as if levity were a pesky insect worrying at his ears.
“Problem with stumps is they rot and crumble up, so’s you gotta keep hauling in more. ‘crete. . .that might work, same as riprap — but, see, nothing grows in rock. You wanna match up the edges, fill with dirt, then the grass’ll grow the same on both sides. Hold it all together.”
That, Daav suspected, was something of a burst of eloquence for Yulie Shaper. And a non-trivial effort it was; the man was breathing hard, as if he’d run a good, long distance.
“I think your advice is sound,” he said, soothingly. “I wonder, though, how we would arrive at a quantity of dirt sufficient to the task. Have you any that you might wish to sell — or barter?”
Yulie Shaper frowned down at his land, brow furrowed. Daav waited, arms crossed on his knees.
“Melina,” the man said abruptly.
He looked up at Daav and nodded once, decisively. “You want Melina Sherton. She’s been moving a lot of dirt lately, on account of the new road.” Another nod. “I got to go down her turf next day, two-day, for market. I could maybe let her know there’s an interest.”
“That would be. . .neighborly of you. I cannot commit Boss Korval, of course, but I will ask after intentions. When I have an answer, may I bring it to you — here? Or is there a place I might leave a note?”
“Gotta get the nod from the Boss, sure,” Yulie Shaper said, coming to his feet in a lurch. “If I ain’t obvious when you come ‘cross here, leave a note up the house, on the door. I’ll find it.” He took a hard breath, seeming about to say something more. Daav kept to his crouch, looking toward, but not directly at, the other man’s face.
“You don’t hurt the cats,” Yulie Shaper said finally.
“Indeed, no. I am very fond of cats; all of the family are.”
It seemed that some of the tension left the man with that assurance, though by no means all of it. He nodded again — “That’s good, then. Good cats, I got.” — and without further ado, he spun on his heel and marched off, grabbing the rake from its lean against the tree as he went by.
Daav counted to thirty-six before rising, grimacing slightly at the complaint of stiff muscles.
“Well,” he said lightly, to the grey sky, or to the spitting snow, or to his lifemate. “Perhaps we should go inside and find some tea.”
# # #
It was not, upon inspection, a very good road.
In point of fact, it was less a road and more a track the farther Yulie Shaper’s land fell behind him. Daav walked along slowly, compiling mental notes in order that he might offer the fullest report possible to his delm. He also, so it seemed, walked alone; Aelliana had withdrawn from his awareness almost the instant he had stepped into the morning parlor in search of tea, to find his son and his son’s lifemate at breakfast.
The children had been in spirits, and interested in news of their closest neighbor. Of the road a-building in Melina Sherton’s territory, they were sanguine; it would appear that Boss Sherton had confided to Boss Conrad her vision of forging a route to the sea, which Daav thought, recalling his Surebleak geography, was an undertaking of no small ambition.
It pleased the delm to accept Yulie Shaper’s neighborly offer to act as ambassador to Boss Sherton, and also to make Daav’s return trip into double-duty. So after breakfast, saving a moment to write a note, should there be reason to have one, Daav had once again set off into the sullen day.
Yulie Shaper had not been “obvious” when he returned to their rendezvous point of the early morning. He paused a moment before making the minor leap over the gully, walking toward the gnarled tree with hands in plain view, and held slightly away from his body.
While not precisely a boulevard, the route “up” to the house made by the farmer in his rounds was obvious enough even to the eyes of an old scout. The weeds by the side of the path quivered from time to time, as if he were being paced, and he twice saw the gleam of cat-eyes among the straggling stems. No one approached him, though, either feline or human, and at last he came to the house, a tidy dwelling built of hardened wood.
Three steps rising to the door were rough-cut stone; the topmost adorned by a well-furred grey cat with upstanding ears, front legs tucked beneath white breast, eyes closed. Those strong ears twitched when Daav put his foot on the first step, and mint green eyes opened when he achieved the top. Apparently, he resembled neither dinner nor a threat, for the eyes closed again, the cat sighed and re-entered its rest.
There was a peg on the right side of the door, just above the latch, where a man entering the house would have a hard time missing it. Daav fetched the note out of his pocket and stood for a moment, holding it in his hand, head tipped, the back of his neck prickling.
He was, he was certain, being watched, and by something other than a cat.
“Yulie Shaper, good-day to you once more,” he said, keeping his voice even. “Boss Korval thanks you for your care and accepts your offer. The note is here.” He pressed the unfolded note gently over the peg. The paper broke and he slid it down until it seemed secure, absent a vigorous wind. He brought his hands to his sides, straining his senses, without, yet, turning around.
The watcher was behind him and to the right. He thought it might, indeed, be their skittish neighbor. If not. . .
Well, there was but one way to learn.
Daav turned on the step, keeping a careful eye out for the cat, which continued to drowse, as if all were as it should be. That was, he decided, comforting, and perhaps also a stroke in his favor. He looked out over the yard, carefully showing no particular interest in the large bush at the near right corner of the house.
“Boss Korval has asked me to walk the road between your land and ours, to determine what repairs may be needed,” he told the yard pleasantly. “I will do my best to give you notice in advance of the arrival of work crews, so that you may gather the cats close in hand. The road work ought not to inconvenience you in any way.”
He waited then, briefly, but their neighbor seemed to have nothing to bring to the conversation. That being so, he bowed slightly and went down the steps. The map in his head located the road directly in front of him, at the end of the gravel path leading to the house. He therefore walked down the path, scout-trained senses still registering a hidden observer, who nonetheless, and happily, seemed inclined to let him go.
The path curved slightly ’round a portly shrub, and there before him was the road.
Daav sighed, the sense of being watched departing altogether, and turned his face toward Jelaza Kazone.
The road had dwindled until it was scarcely as wide as a single small vehicle, narrowed further by grasping branches, above, and an encroaching gully, below. There were also large rocks situated inconveniently, and the occasional pothole.
Daav consulted the map he had memorized. Not very far now, to the house. He anticipated a hot shower — and perhaps his lifemate would deign to join him for a nap.
. . .whether his lifemate found this offer attractive, he could not say, as she remained outside his ken, occupied with whatever it was that occupied her when she was not manifest.
He had of course from time to time reflected upon Aelliana’s state of existence. She had no substance of her own; no manifestation beyond a voice in his head. Occasionally, she claimed use of the body they co-habited — very seldom, really. Their adventures on the Clutch transport had improved her physical mastery; and he had expected, then, to find her more often in control of their route, yet she seemed content to be a passenger, observing their life through his eyes.
More than once, though not recently, he had asked her how she filled her time.
I fill my time as I have been accustomed to do. She’d answered his last inquiry with rather more tartness than he was accustomed to having from her; with thought and with work.
Which was all very well, but work wanted outlet, and thought the abrasion of other thoughts, to ignite insight. Locked inside his head, Aelliana had no opportunity to pursue her researches; she knew what he knew, though the conclusions she drew were often very different from his own. She had actively collaborated in the persona of Jen Sar Kiladi, as Kamele Waitley came to know him. Indeed, he had often thought that Kamele valued him most for those attributes which were peculiarly Aelliana.
Really, putting this road to rights was going to require not just the efforts of a grounds crew, but a forestry team, as well.
While they were rebuilding from the ground up, the delm might as well widen it, and straighten it, and possibly install a taxi-stand.
From behind him came the sound of a motor, accompanied by the occasional snap of a branch, and the crunch of gravel beneath wheels.
Daav stepped off the road and into a wide spot at the side, shouldering in among branches bearing hard, wrinkled berries, and last season’s brittle thorns. He breathed out and reposed himself to silence.
The car came closer. It was, to Daav’s ear, being driven with a respect for conditions that bespoke a pilot, or perhaps only someone who had dared to motor out this far before.
Eventually, it hove into view; largish, with a klaxon mounted on the roof. He glimpsed a dark face through the windscreen, then the vehicle was abreast of him, braking gently as the driver’s window descended.
He took a breath, feeling himself come sharply alert, his senses open to all options, should the situation become. . .unfortunate.
The back door opened, and a tall man in pilot’s leather stepped out onto the so-called road.
“Uncle Daav, what are doing here?”
He tipped his head, considering his nephew Shan gravely while still keeping half-an-eye or slightly more on the very dangerous person at the controls.
“I would say, waiting for a taxi, but I expect it will be some time before they are commonplace.”
Shan smiled. “Maybe not as long as you think,” he said walking forward.
A second person emerged from the back seat, a slender woman also in pilot leather, golden hair glimmering in the dull daylight.
“Nova,” Daav said stepping softly out of the embrace of his thorn bush; “I am pleased to see you, child. Do I understand that this car contains all of Korval which is come in from the port?”
“Only Natesa, Shan, and myself,” she said composedly. “The rest will come later, by whichever route suits them best.” She moved her shoulders. “Pat Rin’s house is busy enough, and we were becoming objects of interest. It seemed prudent, to come ahead.”
“This,” Shan continued, putting his hand over the track of the driver’s window, “is Natesa, Pat Rin’s lifemate. Natesa, this is our Uncle Daav. He makes a habit of skulking in the shrubbery, I fear.”
Resignation and amusement reflected each other subtly in the driver’s face.
“Good-day to you, Daav yos’Phelium. May I say that your son resembles you?”
“I would have said that he resembles his mother, but that is doubtless my own bias. It pleases me to make your acquaintance, Natesa, and I thank you for staying your hand.”
She smiled. “You were in no danger from me, sir. Not only have I seen pictures, but just yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking with your son and his lifemate.”
“Did you, indeed? I trust that they displayed their manners prettily, and were not the least bit of trouble to you.”
This time she laughed. “They were everything that was gracious.”
“It gratifies me to hear you say so.”
“Uncle Daav,” Nova said, interrupting this pleasant exchange. “May we give you a ride in the rest of the way? There’s quite a lot of room in the back of this car.”
“Thank you, but I believe that I must continue a-foot. Please do not hold yourselves back on my account. I do ask that the pilot,” he bowed gently to Natesa, “continue her careful course. There are cats about which are connected to our neighbor’s estate, and I have promised him that no harm will come to them through us.”
“Yes,” Natesa said composedly. “That provision is also in the contract.”
“Ah, I had thought that Mr. Shaper was a man of sense! It is good to have my judgment vindicated.” He stepped back off the road, and moved his hand, indicating that they should pass on.
“I’ll walk with Uncle Daav,” Shan said suddenly. “No slight to Natesa’s driving, but I believe I could do with a little less lurching.”
“Understood,” said the driver, solemnly. “If it would not inconvenience those who come after, I might be tempted to abandon the car here and have us all walk in.”
“And so you make the sacrifice for the greater good!” Shan gave her a grin, before turning to the rear of the car. Nova had already reentered, the door shutting behind her.
Shan raised a hand. “Until soon.”
The car moved off.
“There is, you know, not the slightest need to stand my guard,” Daav said, as they watched the dust sift through the chilly air. “I am quite capable of defending myself.”
“I never doubted it. But, Uncle Daav, you make such a good excuse for getting out of that car!”
He laughed. “So that was candid, was it? Come along, then, but I’ll warn you that this is no pleasure-walk.”
“It isn’t?” Shan considered him, slanted brows slightly raised. “Are we hunting rabbit?”
“Indeed we are not. The delm wished to have eyeballs on this road — an image I counsel you not to contemplate too closely — and saw no reason not to make one errand into two.”
“That sounds like Miri.” He looked around, shaking his head. “They call this a road?”
“That,” Daav said, “also bears a remarkable similarity to Miri’s remarks on the matter. I am to report on conditions, and present suggestions.”
“The conditions are dreadful,” Shan said, “and the solution is to bring in a work crew or six to widen, level, and fill. A little paving wouldn’t go amiss, either.”
“I agree,” Daav said, stepping out on the road and taking up his stroll. “And you have given up your soft seat for nought.”
Shan grinned and fell in beside him. “I need to stretch my legs.”
“I wouldn’t have thought that. What difficulty did Val Con and Miri occasion Natesa, I wonder?”
“For once, it wasn’t their fault. Somebody noticed the Ring, knew it for Boss Conrad’s and called security. Security called Natesa, who straightened it out in time for the two of them to get into the car and be introduced to the world.” Shan paused, as if considering. “Pat Rin said that the trip out could have been more fraught.”
“Poor children. But they, at least, seemed to have recovered their good humor with a night’s rest. I trust that the same was true for their cousin.”
“I’m don’t think Pat Rin slept,” Shan said. “What Nova said about his office not being half busy was an understatement.”
“It would seem that he requires staff.”
“Mr. pel’Tolian — Pat Rin’s butler — came in with us. The last I saw him, he was directing a rather large and decidedly annoyed person to the guest parlor, with assurances that he would be called in his turn, and not one moment sooner.”
“It’s a good start,” Shan agreed.
They walked on for a few dozen paces in companionable silence, Daav noting a trace of mud in a gully that ran across the road, that might speak of a seasonal stream.
“I regret,” Shan said, much more formally than he was wont, “that I missed meeting your daughter, my cousin, during her visit. Will she come to us again soon?”
Daav caught his breath against a twitch of pain, and kept his pace even.
“I believe that she must do so. There is unfinished business between herself and her brother.”
There was a small pause.
“Uncle Daav,” Shan said carefully, “are you quite well?”
Daav sighed. Shan was a Healer. To lie to a Healer was. . .difficult. Still, they were bound not to force themselves even upon those they considered to be in need, and they were, after all, merely human. Which meant that they could be distracted.
“I am a trifle tired, child,” he said evenly, and turned his head to meet opaque silver eyes. “Our neighbor, the excellent Mr. Shaper, tells me that Boss Sherton undertakes to build a road to the sea. The delm was unsurprised.”
“She must have been working on it for years,” Shan said, obligingly following him into the new subject. “Considering what she has to work with and how far along it is. I’m going to propose to the delm that we offer to assist her –” He kicked at an embedded boulder, artfully missing — “since we’ll be doing work of our own.”
“That would,” Daav said, “be neighborly, and a road to the sea must benefit all.”
“It may benefit Korval more than most. I’ve been looking about Surebleak for a place to site yos’Galan’s new house.”
“Surely there’s room at Jelaza Kazone for us all? And no need for a fortress to protect our valley, here. All we need do in order to remain inviolate is to fail to fix the road.”
Shan grinned. “As you point out, it’s hardly prudent for all of us to travel in the same car.”
Daav inclined his head, acknowledging the point. “Yet, in terms of a strike from space, two houses as near as this location and the seacoast –“
“I have my eye on the archipelago that lies east and north of here.”
“Yes, it seems lunatic. However, according to Weatherman Brunner, once the mirrors are deployed in orbit, and tuned correctly, we should see some climatic benefit very quickly — and the situation I have in mind is only a few degrees nearer the pole.” He sighed.
“The records of the founding company being what they are — or, more accurately, what they aren’t — it becomes a challenge to know who, if anyone, may have a prior claim. Also, one would want to take a proper look around, and invite the scouts to do likewise. If they find the situation pleasing, then we might ease the pressure cooking of culture in the capital city.”
“Do so many scouts follow the Dragon?” Daav asked, startled.
“Ms. dea’Gauss’ database will be definitive, of course. My impression is that there is an. . .ideological divide between those who consider themselves to be scouts and those who consider themselves Liaden scouts.”
“Yes, so Clonak had said. I had not understood the rift was so wide.”
“Becoming wider, as I hear it –” Shan raised an arm to point. “That tree will have to come down, if we do nothing else.”
“It is rather precarious, isn’t it?”
“Speaking of precarious. . .Uncle Daav, are you well?”
Drat the child; he was as tenacious as his father had been.
He kept his voice cool. “As I had said, I am somewhat tired.”
“I imagine that you would be, carrying Aunt Aelli all this while.”
He sent a quelling glance into the boy’s face.
“Does she weigh so much?”
“Who can tell the weight of a soul?” Shan mused, with the air of quoting something. “I wonder, too — forgive a nephew his natural concern for a favorite uncle! — if there might be another burden. One cannot help but see –“
“Can one not?” Daav interrupted, tartly. “I had thought Healers were given training.”
“And so we are. However, having observed a certain flavor of melancholy, I can hardly unobserve it, now can I?”
“I suppose not.” Daav sighed, and turned his face aside, ostensibly scanning the edge of the track for other perilous trees.
Shan walked beside him, his patience almost tangible.
“If you will have it, the burden of my past necessities oppresses me this morning. Doubtless, the mood will pass.”
The track curved; broken twigs littered the ground — a sign, perhaps of the car’s recent passing. He looked ahead, where Surebleak’s scraggly road, aided by a pair of planks, joined a wide, smooth drive, the sere plants and grudging weeds giving way to a plush blue-green grass. From ahead — and up — came a whine, growing steadily louder, and a flash above the tree.
Daav raised his hand to shield his eyes from the sullen sun, discerning the shape of a ship’s shuttle.
“There,” Shan said cheerfully. “That will be some more of us.”