Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 56
by E. Catherine Tobler
The Warrior and the Sage
by Shweta Sundararajan
The God in the Window
by Steven R. Stewart
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
A Choice of Weapons
by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
Bonus Material
The Gathering Edge
by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

(Note: A Choice of Weapons originally appeared in Absolute Magnitude #12, Winter 1999)

A Choice of Weapons
    by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

The number of High Houses is precisely fifty.

And then there is Korval.

-- From the Annual Census of Clans
On file with the Council of Clans, Solcintra, Liad

"I AM NOT worthy."

Daav yos'Phelium bowed low. When he straightened, it was not to his full height, but with carefully rounded shoulders and half-averted face: a lesser being, faint with terror at his own audacity.

His mother would have laughed aloud at such obvious mummery. His delm--Korval Herself, she who held the future and life of each clanmember in her sedately folded hands--merely lifted an elegant golden eyebrow.

Daav schooled himself to stillness--small challenge for one who was a scout--face yet averted. He did not quite bite his lip, though the inclination was strong. Not all of his present display was artifice; it was no inconsiderable thing to bring Korval's Own Eye upon oneself, true-son though he be.

A full Standard minute passed before Korval shifted slightly in her chair.

"In the one face," she said, reflectively, and in no higher mode than that of parent to child, "the question of how long you might stand there, cowed and silent, beguiles my closest interest. On the other face, it is Daav before me, and one cannot be certain but that this is a ploy engineered to rob us both of the pleasure of attending Etgora's certain-to-be-tedious evening gather." The mode shifted, and she was his delm once more, chin up and eyes no warmer than ice.

"Elucidate this sudden unworthiness. Briefly."

Mode required that a petitioner accept the Delm's Word with a bow. Daav did so, forehead brushing knees, and returned to the round-shouldered pose of inferiority.

"I have today received my quartershare accounting from dea'Gauss and with it certain documents needful of my attention. One of those documents was the Delm's Formal Declaration of Heir, in which I discover myself named Korval-in-future." He moved his shoulders, easing tension that was born not only of the unnatural posture.

"The information amazes?" Korval-in-present inquired. "Surely you are aware that you have been trained for the duty since you had sense of language."

Daav inclined his head. "But I was not trained alone. Er Thom has been at my side, schooled as I was, word and gesture. We studied the same diary entries. We learned our equations at the same board. All in accordance with Delm's Wisdom--that two be conceived and trained to the duty, to insure that Korval would have its delm, though yos'Phelium's genes twice proved inadequate."

He paused, daring a quick glance at his delm's face from beneath modestly lowered lashes. No sign--of irritation, impatience, boredom. Or humor. Chi yos'Phelium had been a Scout herself before duty called her to delmhood, forty Standard years ago. Her face would reveal whatever she wished to show.

"Er Thom," Daav murmured, "has a steady nature; his understanding of our history and our present necessities is entirely sound. Of course, he is a master pilot--indeed, his skill over-reaches my--"

Korval raised her hand.

"A discussion of your foster-brother's excellencies is extraneous to the topic." She lowered her hand. "Daav yos'Phelium professes himself unworthy to assume the duty he was bred and trained for, thus calling a Delm's Decision into question--that is your chosen theme. Speak to it."

Daav took a deep breath, bowed. She was correct--of course she was correct. A Delm could not be wrong, in matters of Clan. That the Delm had mis-chosen her heir was no fault of her judgement, but his own error, in withholding information she required. He had intended to speak ere she had chosen, but he had not expected her to have chosen so soon.

He came to his full height and met his delm's chill eyes squarely.

"Perhaps, then, I should have put it that I am unfit for the duty. While I am off Liad, performing even the most tedious of tasks required by Scout Headquarters, my temper is serene and my judgement sound. I am scarcely a day on the homeworld and I am awash in anger. People annoy me to the edge of endurance. Mode and measure grate my patience. I cannot say with any certainty that my judgement is sound. Indeed, I fear it is dangerously unsound." He bowed again, buying time, for this next was difficult, for all it needed to be said.

"I had been to the Healers, last leave, and asked that the distemper be mended."

"Ah," said Korval. "And was it so?"

Daav felt his lips twitch toward a smile--most inappropriate when one was in conversation with one's Delm--and straightened them with an effort..

"Master Healer Kestra," he said, "was pleased to inform me that many people find Liadens irritating."

"So they do," his Delm agreed gravely. "Most especially do yos'Pheliums who have not yet attained their thirtieth name-day find Liadens annoying. If you will accept the experience of one who is your elder, I will certify that the annoyance does ease, with time."

Daav bowed acceptance of an elder's wisdom. "I would welcome instruction on how not to do a murder in the interim."

Korval tipped her head, looking into his eyes with such intensity he thought she must see into his secret soul. It required effort, to neither flinch nor look away, but less effort--noticeably less effort--than had been required, even five years ago.

"As concerned as that," Korval murmured and looked down at her folded hands, releasing him. She was silent for a few moments, then looked back to his face.

"Very well. The Delm will take her Decision under review."

Daav felt his knees give, and covered the slight sag with a bow of gratitude.

"All very fine," said Korval. "But I will not start you in the habit of questioning Delm's Decision."

"Of course not." He bowed again, every line eloquent of respect.

"So very well-trained," Korval murmured, rising from her chair. "It's nothing short of marvelous."


It was not a pretty gun, in the way meant by those who admired jeweled grips and platinum-chased cylinders. It was a functional gun, made to his own specifications and tuned by Master Marksman Tey Dor himself. It was also small, and could be hidden with equal ease in Daav's sleeve or his palm.

Etgora's evening-gather, now. It might please his mother to dismiss this evening's affair as tedious, but the papers forwarded by dea'Gauss had shown that it was not so long ago that Clan Etgora and Clan Korval had come at odds--and when Balance was done, it was Korval who showed the profit.

Etgora had pretensions. A clan with its profit solidly in the star-trade, they had strained after High House status, and fell but a hand's breadth short before the loss to Korval set them a dozen Standard years further back from the goal. There was bitterness in the House on that count, Daav did not doubt.

However, if Etgora wished to secure its teetering position as a high-tier Mid House, they must show a smooth face to adversity. Of course they would place Korval upon the most-honored guest list. They could not do otherwise and survive.

By the same logic of survival, Etgora would take utmost care that no slight or insult befell Korval while she was in their care.

Which meant that Daav, chancy tempered as he knew himself to be, might safely leave his hideaway in its custom-fitted box.

And yet. . . .

"Might," he murmured, slipping the little gun into his sleeve, "is not ought."

He glanced to the mirror, smoothed the sleeve, twitched the lace at his throat, touched the sapphire in his right ear and made an ironic bow. His reflection--black-browed, lean and over-long--returned the salutation gracefully.

"Do try not to kill anyone tonight, Daav," he told himself. "Murder would only make the evening more tedious."

THEY WERE ADMITTED to Etgora's townhouse and relieved of their cloaks by a supernaturally efficient servant, who then bowed them into the care of a child of the House.

She had perhaps twelve Standards, hovering between child and halfling, and holding herself just a bit stiffly in her fine doorkeeper's silks.

"Kesa del'Fordan Clan Etgora," she said, bowing prettily in the mode of Child of the House to Honored Guests. She straightened, brown eyes solemn with duty, and waited for them to respond, according to Code and custom.

"Chi yos'Phelium," his mother murmured, bowing as Guest to House Child, "Korval."

The brown eyes widened slightly, but give her grace, Daav thought; she did not make the error of looking down to see Korval's ring of rank for herself. Instead, she inclined her head, with composure commendable in one of twice her years, and looked to Daav.

He likewise bowed, Guest to House Child, and straightened without flourish.

"Daav yos'Phelium Clan Korval."

Kesa inclined her head once more and completed the form.

"Ma'am and sir, be welcome in our house." She paused, perhaps a heartbeat too long, then bowed. "If you would care to walk with me, I will bring you to my father."

"Of your kindness," his mother murmured and followed the child out of the welcoming parlor, Daav walking at the rear, as befit one of lesser rank who was likewise his Delm's sole protection in a House not their own.

Kesa led them down a short, left-tending hallway, through an open gateway of carved sweetstone and out into an enclosed garden, and the full force of the evening gather.

Etgora, Daav observed, as he followed his mother and their guide down cunning, crowded walkways, was a Clan which addressed its projects with energy. Challenged to display a clean face to the world, it did not hesitate to bring the world together immediately for the purpose.

A more conservative Clan, Daav thought, his quick, Scout-trained eyes catching glimpses of an astonishing number of High Houselings among the crowd, would have invited Korval, of course, to this first gather since its failure, and perhaps one or two others of the High Houses, at most. Not so Etgora, who seemed to have formed the guest list almost entirely from the Fifty, with a few taken from the ranks of the higher Mid-Level Houses, for the purpose, Daav supposed, of filling out odd numbers.

Progress along the pathways was slow, what with so many acquaintances who must be acknowledged with a bow. Both Daav and his mother several times had to duck under gay strings of rainbow-colored streamers and the imported oddity of Terran-made balloons.

At long last, they achieved the center of the garden, where a man slightly younger and a good deal less elegant than his mother was speaking with apparent ease to no other than Lady yo'Lanna. Daav owned himself impressed. Lady yo'Lanna was his mother's oldest friend among her peers in the High Houses, and he held her in quite as much awe now as he had at six.

"Father," Kesa bent deeply, the full bow of clanmember to Delm, and straightened self-consciously, shoulders stiff beneath her finery.

"Your pardon, good ma'am," the gentleman murmured, and, receiving Lady yo'Lanna's half-bow of permission, turned to face them.

"Kesa, my child. Who have you brought me?"

"Father, here is Chi yos'Phelium, Korval, and Daav yos'Phelium Clan Korval," the child said in the very proper mode of Introduction. She turned and bowed, House-Child to Guests. "Honoreds, here is my father, Hin Ber del'Fordan, Etgora."

So Kesa's father was Etgora Himself. It explained much, Daav thought, from the unexpected youth of the door guardian to her stiff determination to observe every mode precisely.

"Korval, you do me honor!" Etgora swept the bow between equals--theoretically true, between Delms, Daav thought wryly--and augmented it with the trader's hand-sign for "master," a nice touch, drawing on the common trading background of both Houses while publicly acknowledging Korval's superiority.

His mother, Daav saw, was inclined to be amused by their host's little audacity. She bowed just short of full Equal, accepting the master status Etgora acknowledged.

"To be welcome in the house of an ally is joy," she said clearly into the sudden nearby silence. She straightened and extended a hand to touch Daav's sleeve.

"One's son, Etgora."

"Lord yos'Phelium." The bow this time was Delm to Child of an Ally's House: High Mode, indeed, but carried well, and necessitating, alas, the rather tricksy Child of a Delm to an Ally as the most precise response. He straightened in time to see his mother incline her head to Lady yo'Lanna.

"Ilthiria, I find you well?"

"As well as one can be in this crush. Etgora is proud of his achievement--and justly so!--but you and I know how to value an empty garden."

Had he been less well-trained, Daav would have winced in sympathy for Kesa's father. Lady yo'Lanna, it seemed, was not entirely at one with her host.

The pale eyes moved, pinning him. "Young Daav, newly at leave from the Scouts."

He bowed, lightly. "I have no secrets from you, ma'am."

"Do you not?" Her eyebrows rose. "Then come to me tomorrow and whisper in my ear the tale of how a certain mutual acquaintance came to break his arm in mid-Port evening before last."

Damn. He bowed again, aware of his mother's gaze on the side of his suddenly warm face.

"If that is your wish, then how can I deny you?"

"Very properly said," Etgora interjected. "And who better to know Port gossip than a Scout, who are said to have ears in every cranny?" He turned, spied his daughter, yet standing stiffly to one side.

"Kesa, my jewel. Lord yos'Phelium will wish to reacquaint himself with his age-mates, as he is just returned from the Scouts. Pray show him to the Sunset Garden--and then you may refresh yourself."

He turned to Daav.

"Card tables have been set out, sir, and other light amusements. Please, be easy in our House."

He flicked a glance at his mother, who inclined her head.

"Amuse yourself, Daav, do. Etgora will wish to walk Ilthiria and myself through his garden. I will require your arm in two hours."

"Ma'am." He bowed obedience to the Delm, then a general leave-taking to Lady yo'Lanna and Etgora. This done, he bowed once more, very gently, and offered his arm to Kesa del'Fordan, "Lady Kesa, will you walk with me?"

She hesitated fractionally, brown eyes lifting to his face in a child's straight look of assessment. Whatever she saw convinced her that he was not having fun at her expense, for she stepped forward and put her hand lightly on his sleeve.

"Certainly, I will walk with you," she said, unselfconsciously. "How else may I show you to the Sunset Garden?"

"Very true," Daav replied gravely. From the edge of his eye, he saw Etgora offer an arm and his mother take it. "In which direction shall we walk, then, Lady?"

"This," she said, moving a hand to the west, belatedly adding, "Of your goodness."

The pathways toward sunset were somewhat less crowded than those they had followed from the house. That was not to say, Daav thought, that the paths were empty or that the garden reposed in tranquility.

He bowed briefly to Lady pel'Nyan and moved on, Kesa del'Fordan silent on his arm. Etgora, he considered, had come a fair way to making a recover. Lady yo'Lanna's attendance had of course assured the attendance of several other Houses of rank. And if she were inclined to smile upon Etgora. . .

Or, Daav thought suddenly, if Ilthiria yo'Lanna attended at the request of her old friend Chi yos'Phelium, Delm of the ancient ally of her House? Oh, yes, that fit well. Especially when one heard one's mother declaring herself comforted in the presence of an ally. Korval had never taken allies easily, to the benefit, mostwise, of the more conservative Clans.

Daav made a mental note to review the Summary of Balance dea'Gauss had sent more closely. He had missed the reason that Etgora was thought necessary to the interests of Korval. Presumption had, of course, been answered, but it seemed that the upstart Clan could not be allowed entirely to sink. Thus, this gather, with its theme of courteous and charming commonsense, and everyone of consequence in attendance.

In consideration of which, Daav said to himself, you are in arrears of your duty.

He tipped his head, assessing his companion from beneath his lashes. She looked pale, he thought, and her jaw was definitely clenched too tightly for fashion. Her shoulders moved like boards beneath the pretty silk tunic and the hand that rested against his sleeve put no pressure on his arm at all.

He cleared his throat gently and smiled when she looked up, startled.

"I hope you will allow me to commend your performance as House Guard," he murmured. "I am persuaded that you stand the duty often."

Kesa blushed, lashes flickering. "Not," she said, somewhat faintly, "so very often." She paused, glancing aside, then looked back to his face.

"In fact," she said, rather breathlessly, "this evening is the first time I have stood between the House and the world. It is--it has been my brother's duty, you know--he is the elder--but, this evening, he. . . He asked our father for other work."

"Very proper in him," Daav murmured, noting her hesitation and drawing the conclusion that Kesa's brother's "ask" had very little of "if-you-please" about it. "So this was your first time a House Guard? I am all admiration. Well I remember my first time at the door--a mere dinner party, nothing like what we have here!--and I was wishing for nothing but my bed before even half the guests were arrived!"

She actually laughed, and Daav ducked as they passed beneath a string of balloons and streamers.

Kesa paused, frowning up at him and the balloons just behind his head.

"I do not--you are very tall, are you not? I recall my father said that Korval is a tall Clan. He--Jen Dal was to have made certain the lines were strung well above--but I am certain," she said in a sudden rush, "that he could not have realized that, that--"

"That the pickpocket who wishes to rob Korval must bring his own stepladder," Daav said lightly, rescuing her from what could only be an unfortunate culmination of her sentence.

Kesa frowned. "I do not entirely--"

"Ah, Daav! I had heard the Scouts had released you to us!"

The voice was lovely, as was the lady. Two years ago, he had been besotted with both. He was no longer besotted, but he was indebted to her for a lesson well-delivered and equally well-learned, and so he bowed, with courtesy.

"Bobrin, good evening to you."

She returned his bow, eyes teasing his face, then straightened, one hand rising to her flower-braided hair. Her eyes left his face, and found Kesa.

"It is Etgora's daughter, is it not?"

Kesa bowed low--Child of the House to Honored Guest. "Kesa del'Fordan, Lady del'Pemridj."

"Just so." Bobrin inclined her beflowered head, then shot Daav a glance of pure mischief. "Take advice and walk carefully with this one, House-daughter. Daav--" She paused, likely on the edge of more specific mischief. Daav met her eye squarely, and had the satisfaction of seeing her look aside.

"Daav," she said, "Good evening."

She swept down the path and Daav became aware that he was gritting his teeth. Deliberately, he relaxed his jaw and looked down at his companion.

Kesa was staring after Bobrin, brown eyes wide. After a moment, she sighed and glanced up at Daav.

"She is a very beautiful lady. I--do you think when I am grown I might wear flowers in my hair?"

When you are grown, Daav thought, my hope is that you will care more for other matters--even for what I deduce is your scapegrace brother--than for the dressing of your hair.

Her look, however, was appealing--and she was, after all, a child--so he swallowed his initial answer and instead looked about with wide amaze, flinging his arm out.

"Why, here we are in the very heart of a garden! What is to prevent you from having flowers in your hair this instant, if you wish it?"

"I--" She, too, stared about, as if she just now realized their setting, then looked back to his face.

"No one, that is, I have yet to learn the--the proper manner in which to place flowers in the hair."

"Ah, there you are fortunate," Daav said gaily. "I have some training in the placement of hair-ornaments. Perhaps you will allow me to be of service to you."

The brown eyes took fire. "Would you? I--I would be in your debt."

"Not a bit of it." Daav said stoutly. "It is a pleasure to share my skill. Now, which flowers will you have?"

She moved to the edge of the walk, staring at the orderly rows of blossom. "That, if you please," she said, pointing to a low, spike-leafed shrub. Its indigo blooms were flat and multi-petalled, noteworthy without being ostentatious, and a good match for the silk Doorkeeper's tunic.

"Excellent," Daav murmured approvingly and bent to pluck one. The stem was woody, but broke easily. "Yes, very good. Now, my Lady, if you will step over here, so that we do not impede traffic while this very delicate operation is performed. . ."

Kesa stepped to his side, Daav inclined his head to Lord Andresi--another of his mother's cronies--who smiled and passed on without comment.

"Now, then," Daav said. "I will wish you to stand very tall, but not at all stiffly. True beauty is never ill at ease. Very good. A moment, now, while I discover the perfect placement--yes, I believe so." He hesitated, flower poised. "Be easy, Lady Kesa, but as still as you may--"

He moved, Scout-quick, smoothing her thick brown hair with one hand while he slid the flower home just above her right ear.

"Let us be certain that it is well-anchored," Daav said, hands hovering. "Move your head now--look up at me. Ah--"

"Stand away from my sister!"

The voice was, of course, too loud. Had the phrase been whispered it would have been too loud, at this gather. Daav sighed and glanced up.

The young man bearing down on them had something of Etgora's look to him, albeit Etgora in an ugly pet. He had, Daav judged, about twenty Standard years.

"Calm yourself, sir," Daav said moderately. "I am doing your sister no harm."

"I will be the judge of that, sir!" the other snapped. "As kinsman, I--"

"Jen Dal, be still!" Kesa flung about--the flower stayed firmly in place, Daav saw with pleasure. "There's nothing amiss." She swallowed and glanced back to Daav. "Lord yos'Phelium, here is my brother Jen Dal del'Fordan. Jen Dal, here is Daav yos'Phelium Clan--"

"I know who he is," Jen Dal said awfully. "Sir, you have not yet put yourself at a decent distance from my sister." Kesa made a sound rather like a splutter, which Daav interpreted as outrage. Her brother spared her a single withering glance.

"Be still, Kesa. This is a matter of honor."

"If it's a matter of my honor," Kesa said, with spirit, "then I should judge the damage and the price, not you."

"Completely by Code," Daav said, uneasily aware that they were attracting a crowd.

The young gentleman stared at him, eyes hard with hatred. So, thought Daav, the balloons were not strung so low by accident. Here's one who has taken Etgora's fall as a blow to his heart, and cannot see 'round his anger to the greater good of the House.

"My sister is a child, sir. It is as ludicrous to expect her to know proper Code as it is to expect her to know all the faces of harm."

Daav drew a breath, trying to still the quick flare of anger. For Kesa's sake, for the sake of Etgora's value to Korval, he would not lose his temper. He would quell this self-important upstart and dismiss him, then disperse the growing crowd of the curious. He was Chi yos'Phelium's son. These things were not beyond him.

"Sir, your concern for your kin does you credit. However, I feel that you have allowed an elder sibling's natural partiality--"

Jen Dal del'Fordan turned his face away.

"Kesa," he said, as if Daav had finished speaking--no, as if Daav had never begun to speak!--"pray remove yourself from the proximity of this--person."

Tears filled the brown eyes. "Jen Dal, he is our guest! I am quite unharmed, Lord yos'Phelium was only placing a flower in my hair, as I asked him to do!" There was a ripple through those gathered at that, but Jen Dal was unmoved.

"This man is son of a House with a long history of predation among the lesser Houses. I will not see him attack my kin. He will--"

Oh, gods, Daav thought, suddenly seeing the destination of the farce. You fool! He leaned forward and touched Kesa lightly on the sleeve.

"Lady, your brother is correct. You cannot stay this."

For a heartbeat, the brown eyes searched his face, then she stepped back, bowed fully--House Child to Honored Guest--and turned. She walked away as sedately as one with years of negotiation behind her, and the crowd parted to let her through.

"You, sir," Jen Dal del'Fordan cried, "will satisfy the honor of my House!"

"Don't be absurd," Daav said, voice stringently calm, despite the anger trembling within. "The honor of your House is intact, as you well know."

"I know nothing of the sort. Korval destroys Clans as casually as I pluck a flower." The last was said with a sneer and Daav caught his breath at the sheer, blinding stupidity of the man. Did he not know that even now Korval and Etgora were mending the damage given his Clan? Did he not know that with Korval's patronage and the smiles of the High Houses, Etgora would recover its loss and reap new profits before Kesa signed her first Contract lines?

"You do your sister an injustice--you call her honor and her understanding into question before all these."

He threw an arm out, showing the so-quiet crowd damming the pathway. "Is this the path a brother treads, in the task of keeping his kin safely? Your understanding is at fault in this, sir. Neither Etgora nor Etgora's children has taken lasting harm from Korval. Have done and stand away."

Jen Dal del'Fordan smiled. "And I say," he returned, voice, without doubt, pitched to carry far into the gardens, "that Korval has tainted Etgora's honor. Everyone here has heard me. I will have satisfaction, sir!"

Fool! Daav raged, forcing himself to breathe deeply. He bowed, deliberately, in the mode of Master to Novice, taking a savage satisfaction in the gasp from the crowd.

"Call the House's dueling master," he said, and his voice was not--quite--steady. "I will satisfy you."

From the corner of his eye, he saw the crowd waver and reform with Etgora and his mother in the first rank. His mother's face was very calm.

THE CARD TABLES in the Sunset Glade had been hastily removed to make room for the combatants. Clan Etgora's dueling master bowed to Daav.

"My Lord yos'Phelium. As the one challenged, you may choose the weapons of the duel. The House can provide pistols, swords, knives, or Turing forks from its own arsenal. If you wish a weapon we do not own, the House will acquire a matched set of the weapon of your choice, within reason. If it appears, in the judgement of the Master of the Duel, that your weapon has been chosen with an eye to indefinitely postponing this duel, you will be required to choose another weapon. Is this understood, sir?"

"It is." Daav closed his eyes, briefly considering edges and explosives, bludgeons, the perfectly tuned gun in his sleeve, but--no. Such weapons were insufficiently potent; they limited one to the infliction of mere physical damage. He required--he would have--a fuller Balance.

Daav opened his eyes and pointed at the gaily colored balloons, strung on their strings at the edge of the glade.

"There is my weapon of choice, sir. If the House is able, let a dozen of those be filled with water and let both my opponent and I choose three. Can this be done?"

The dueling master bowed. "Indeed it can. And the distance?"

"Twelve paces, I believe," Daav said, counting the moves. "Yes, that will do."

"Very well," said the dueling master and went away to give instructions.

The balloons arrived in very short order and were placed, carefully, on the lawn. A murmur rose up from the crowd--and an outcry from Daav's opponent.

"What is this? Toys? Do you consider a challenge from Etgora a matter for mockery, sir? Dueling master! Take these insults away, sir, and bring us the matched set in the mahogany case!"

The dueling master bowed. "The rules of the duel state clearly that weapons are the choice of the challenged, sir. Lord yos'Phelium has chosen balloons filled with water, at twelve paces. He is within both his rights and the bounds of the duel."

"I will not--" began Jen Dal, but it was Etgora who spoke up from the sidelines.

"Do you know, my son, I think you will? Lord yos'Phelium has made his choice. Plainly, he is a man who stands by his decisions, no matter how foolish they may appear. I would counsel you to do the same."

"Lord yos'Phelium," said the Master of Duel, "choose your weapons."

Daav stepped forward, knelt in the grass and picked up the first balloon. It was not quite as firm as he wished and he set it aside. The second pleased him and he cradled that one in his arm. The third. . .

"Will you hurt him?" Kesa asked from his side. He glanced at her, unsmiling.

"I do not think these will hurt him, though that is always a danger, in a duel."

"But you will make him ridiculous," said Kesa. "Jen Dal hates to be laughed at."

"Many people do," Daav said, finding his third weapon in the seventh balloon. He tucked it neatly in the cradle of his left arm and rose to his feet. Stand clear of the firing range, Lady Kesa. Of your kindness."

She hesitated a moment longer, throwing one of her disconcertingly direct looks at his face. Then she bowed, simply, as between equals, and walked sedately to her father's side, in the first rank of spectators.

Daav waited while his opponent randomly picked his weapons, then stomped to the center of the field, the balloons wriggling and threatening to leap from his ineptly crossed arms.

The dueling master held his hands over his head.

"The contestants will count off six paces each, turn and stand steady. First shot to the challenged. A hit is counted only on a strike to the body of one's opponent. The affair is finished when each contestant has expended his ammunition. The win goes to the contestant who has taken the least hits, or to he who draws first blood. In case of tie, Lady yo'Lanna shall decide the victor." He lowered his hands and stepped back.

"Gentlemen, turn. Count off. One! Two! Three! Four! Five! Six! Turn! Lord yos'Phelium, fire at will."

Deftly, Daav plucked a balloon from the cradle of his arm, gauged its flow, probable spin and mass--and threw.

The balloon elongated, caught up with itself, tumbled once and hit Jen Dal's tunic, dead center, with a satisfying splat. Someone in the crowd laughed, and quickly stopped.

"This is a farce!" shouted Jen Dal.

"It is a duel," the master returned sternly. "Attend, if you please, sir. The shot is yours."

Jen Dal clumsily tipped his balloons onto his off-hand, snatched one free, holding it firmly--as it happened, a bit too firmly, for the sphere exploded, showering him with water.

Ignoring the resulting curses, the dueling master looked to Daav, who sent his next balloon high into Jen Dal's left shoulder.

The dueling master had scarcely given his sign before the sodden young man had snatched up his second balloon--somewhat less robustly--and hurled it in Daav's direction.

It was a good throw, only missing by twelve or fifteen inches.

Daav weighed his last balloon in his hand and considered deloping.

"A duel with toys and water," Jen Dal del'Fordan called from his position. "Korval takes good care that it spills no blood for honor."

The balloon was airborne before Daav had taken conscious thought. It sped, hard and true, and struck his opponent precisely in the nose.

Jen Dal howled, dropped his remaining balloon and bent double, both hands rising to his face. Med-techs rushed in from the sidelines and the dueling master raised his hands above his head.

"Lord yos'Phelium has drawn first blood! The duel is done!"

"HOWEVER DID YOU hit upon water balloons?" his mother inquired some time later, in the privacy of Jelaza Kazone's upstairs parlor.

"Something I read of Terran custom," Daav said hazily. "You know what Scouts are, ma'am!"

"Indeed I do," she replied, sipping wine and looking out into the peaceful night-time garden.

Abruptly, she turned from the window. "Daav, I am persuaded you did right to speak to the Delm about your worthiness to stand Korval."

He froze, heart rising into his throat. She had seen! Observing the duel with Korval's Own Eyes, she had seen his error. She understood that at the moment of decision he had not acted for the good of the Clan but from his own sense of injury, exacting a Balance--a Balance brutal of a halfling's dignity.

Worse, he had gained an enemy of his own rank--for he had heard, later, that Jen Dal was Etgora's heir--who hated him now, and would surely hate him when they both came Delm-high. All his mother's careful work, undone. Undone, because Daav could not put the good of all before his own bad temper.

It must be Er Thom, now, he thought. With Er Thom as Korval, Etgora may deal without malice, saving only I'm kept sanely out of sight. . .

Belatedly, he became aware of his mother's eyes upon him, and bowed. "Ma'am. . . ."

She raised her hand. "Speak not. I will tell you that the Delm has reviewed her Decision, based on what she has seen of your understanding and judgment this evening. You acted as well as inexperience might, preserving both Etgora's heir and the peace between our Houses. With age will come . . . tidier . . . solutions." She smiled faintly.

"You are na'delm, my son. Korval-to-be. I trust you will not feel it necessary to revisit the matter. I doubt you will find the Delm so accommodating again."

He stared, speechless. She had seen with Delm's Eyes, but she had not understood. Korval Herself had erred in a matter of Clan. He moved his head, trying to clear his vision, which was abruptly indistinct.

His mother moved forward, smile deepening. "Don't look so stricken, child," she said gently. "You'll do very well." She raised a hand to cup his cheek.

"Or at least as well as any of us have."

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