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by Paula Downing King
Category: Science Fiction
Description: With ORION'S DAGGER, Paula E. Downing presents the thrilling final installment of THE CLOUDSHIPS OF ORION trilogy, which Starlog magazine called "special...a thoroughly engrossing story." The trio was originally published under the penname P.K. McAllister. In the first novel, SIDURI'S NET, gypsy descendent Pov Janusz raced through space to find the rare molecules of tritium to save his people's mothership, which had been damaged by an errant comet. In his second adventure, MAIA'S VEIL, the Sailmaster and his cohort returned to the fleet, only be forced to choose between slavery and a risky escape to the Pleiades. Now he faces his toughest test yet: travel to the mysterious areas of the Orion Nebula and mine the untold fortunes waiting there while battling adversaries--some of which inhabit his own ship--who want nothing more than to see him fail. Orion's Dagger finds Pov ready to launch his newly constructed ship on its first mission. But he already faces a handful of challenges--members of his own crew are at odds, while the cloudship consortium is ready to crumble at any second. Plus the galaxy's most sought-after secret is his ship's drive, the key to entering the Nebula. Can Janusz lead his band of fellow sailors into the undiscovered depths of the Nebula to complete his nearly impossible task with the pressure mounting? Read the stunning conclusion to find out as E-Reads reunites the three adventures of THE CLOUDSHIPS OF ORION for the first time since 1996.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, 1996
eBookwise Release Date: May 2012
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [396 KB]
Reading time: 242-339 min.
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Pov Janusz woke early in TriPower's morning and heard one of the twins fretting in the nearby nursery, a baby's pleasant babble that meant matters weren't too serious yet but Da had better get up soon. He slid out of bed, taking care to not wake Avi, then padded on bare feet into the apartment living room and on into the small adjoining kitchen. Above the kitchen sink, an exterior window looked out onto a star-strewn sky and the drifting gas veils of the Pleiades, the view moving slowly sideways with the space station's rotation. The window filtered to deep violet as the local sun came into view, its slanting light filling the kitchen with dusky golden shadows.
He blinked sleepily and yawned, then leaned over the sink to look down at his cloudship in her construction cradle below TriPower Station. He always checked every morning and Siduri's Isle was always there, but it was an easy habit he had enjoyed during the new cloudship's five months of construction. The golden sunlight gleamed on Isle's triangular prow and sail structures, with long shadows aft of the holds and lab modules, residential pods, and the large engine assembly. Siduri's Isle would be larger than her mothership, Siduri's Net, and built for strength and speed, strong enough to challenge the Orion Nebula itself. And she was his as shipmaster. His.
During Isle's construction, he and Avi had transferred from Net to TriPower Station, joined by Pov's gypsy family and several of Isle's key staffpeople as TriPower's shipwrights built two cloudships, Siduri's Isle and Diana's Mirror, a new class of cloudship that blended the best of Arrow's ship designs and Net's new engine technology. Two other cloudships, Net herself and Ishtar's Jewel, would join the Nebula venture; TriPower had earlier refitted the two older cloudships, strengthening the hull shielding, rebuilding the engines, and modifying computer systems and sails. A few more days, perhaps another week, once Net and Diana's Arrow had returned from T Tauri with a new harvest of the superheavy particles that would make such a journey possible, and four cloudships would launch across the gulf to Orion's Great Nebula. It would be the first attempt by any cloudship to reach the Nebula, the first ever.
They would go in search of a new future. Net's new ship-drive had given her a windfall in consortium fees from her partners, paying the cost of Isle's building and Net's refit, with enough left over for a capital reserve. But the drive secret could not be kept forever, and Earth was doing her damnedest to shorten the wait--by every means the mother planet had in her formidable powers. It was an uneven war, one lone ship's stubborn insistence on her rights of discovery against the combined industrial, political, and popular forces of collective humanity.
By long-established treaty, Net was entitled to a one percent franchise fee for her trade secrets, payable by every ship and colony that used the technology. When Net had suggested to Earth that Earth simply pay for the drive, Earth had added up one percent of the entire interstellar economy and sternly lectured Captain Andreos about Net's unseemly greed. Greed is good, Andreos had retorted, and one percent is one percent: read your laws. Ridiculous, Earth sputtered. One percent, Net replied, and so the assault had begun.
For months now, the Earth senate had tried to pass a law to force Net to reveal her secret, with its effort blocked only by EuroCom's shaky alliance with other interstellar corporations, each of which had its own secrets to protect but also lusted for the new drive. In the interim, half a dozen Earth ships had destroyed themselves at T Tauri while trying to repeat Net's discovery, an effort that would continue, ship after ship after ship, until it succeeded or Net handed over the drive. While the public and scientific assaults stalled, Earth opened another front in civil litigation, quietly encouraging public interest groups to file lawsuits against Net "in the interests of humanity," one lawsuit after another, each joining the dogged effort by Tania's Ring to bludgeon Net into submission, the more long-winded and expensive the legalities the better.
And all the while, egged on by government and corporations both, the News-Net on Earth had gone crazy, talking constantly about the drive and Net and cloudships and Pov the Gypsy and the dauntless Thaddeus Gray and the wise and canny Captain Andreos, breathless with excitement, open-mouthed with wonder, thrilled and awed and endlessly loud. Whenever another ship wasted itself at T Tauri, the News-Net gasped in horror and shock, blaming Net personally for each disaster, totting the names and numbers for each new death toll, lecturing, berating, pontificating, endlessly loud, loud, loud. The media frenzy simply would not stop, and indeed could not stop until Net surrendered and gave the drive to Earth for free. Earth would see to that.
Until then, Net chose to be stubborn, standing on contract and virtue and her property rights--in the hope that Net and her sister cloudships might find a better future at the Nebula, a venue that only cloudships could sail, a future that would last. If they could find it there, before time ran out on the secret. If.
If. Below his window, Siduri's Isle drifted in her cradle, gleaming brightly in the golden sunlight. You are lovely, Pov thought. No matter how often he looked at Isle these several months, his pleasure and joy and satisfaction in Isle remained ever fresh. Somehow his new cloudship made the other worries less demanding, just by the looking. Loving Avi was the same: they both seemed a part of each other, Isle and Avi, and all other things new.
I won't worry today, he decided firmly. I have work to do.
He washed his hands in the sink and yawned again, still trying to wake up properly, then got two small bottles of milk from the refrigerator and snapped the seals to let them warm. He waited, yawning, until the bottle caps beeped at him, then picked up the warm bottles and headed for the nursery.
In the nursery off the bedroom, he glanced into Anushka's small crib, but his baby daughter was still fast asleep, her dark eyelashes shadowing her plump cheeks. In the other crib, his son Garridan was wide awake, old enough at four mouths to smile in recognition when Pov bent over him.
"Hullo, son," Pov said in Romany. "It's morning and a good road ahead. The sun's up. So are you."
Garridan waved his arms happily, ready for anything.
"That's the spirit," Pov approved.
He checked his son's comforts and repositioned the soft blanket that Garridan had kicked off, then offered one of the bottles. Garridan opened wide and fastened his mouth contentedly, his dark eyes watching Pov's face as he drank. Pov leaned an elbow on the crib railing and fingered the ribboned gypsy token that dangled over the crib, making it bounce and spin. Garridan's eyes tried to track on the dancing movement, not very deftly. Garridan was still learning how to connect to his environment, with uneven results: it was a problem that would lessen with age.
"Pretty?" Pov asked. The silvery token spun brightly over the crib, catching the sun's gleam from the window. His son kicked joyously. "I think so, too." Garridan kicked harder at the blanket, his lips curving upward as he sucked on the nipple. "That's the man."
The coin was a saint's protection against any jealous spirit of the night, part of the gypsy ritual that guarded Rom children in their earliest months, one that Avi had liked. Pov's Russki wife had found the other Rom rules for babies and new mothers less attractive, especially Avi's traditional seclusion from the other Rom during childbirth and the following six weeks. Avi had not expected Pov to be excluded from the twins' birth, and had wanted him there. Avi had wanted to show off the twins to Pov's gypsy family, proud and happy in her accomplishment, and a brief surreptitious visit by Pov's younger relatives had not satisfied her--nor the custom's implicit comment about new mothers and Avi's personal purity. Later, Avi had watched silently as Pov's mother threw away the possessions Avi had touched during her seclusion, including a silken baby blanket Avi had embroidered during the last few months of her pregnancy. Avi had forgotten and had touched the blanket and Patia had seen, and so the blanket was lost, "polluted" by Avi's ritual impurity. They were old rules dating back to the Rom's South Asian origins, and Avi found them hard to accept, however she had tried to adapt to a culture quite different from her own Russki heritage.
During those six weeks, Pov had taken her often to Isle and involved her in Tully Haralpos's work on Isle's Sail Deck--Avi would be Third Sail on Tully's staff--but Avi still felt she had missed something important, something more than a blanket or even Pov's sharing of the twins' birth. Likely she had, and it troubled Pov that Avi lost any wish because she had married him. He had given her his Rom family, a family connection she had always wanted, and he had given her the twins, a source of pride in herself that balanced much of her bleak life before she had joined Siduri's Net. It was something, but he always wanted everything, no exceptions, for Avi.
I should try harder, he thought. He scowled in frustration, worried for her. The same pressures that had created unexpected trouble for Net had affected the Siduri Rom as well, and his family could not currently be as flexible as it might have been for Avi's sake. For some unknown reason, the Earth News-Net had found itself utterly fascinated with Pov Janusz, Net's gypsy sailmaster, and had put his face and story across the airwaves for months. Gaje reporters had harassed Pov's relatives on Perikles, getting usually nowhere, and had published all kinds of nonsense about Pov and his family and their doings, most of which the Perikles Rom eventually heard. And so the family voivoide, the tribal chieftain, had sent a delegate to Tri-Power to inquire about the stories.
It had been a nasty visit, for the voivoide had sent Uncle Simen, his mother's sour and unpleasant elder brother who thought any digression from Rom law, however minor, disgraced the family and insulted the wider Rom as a race. He had scowled at Pov's Russki wife, large in her pregnancy, and then ignored Avi carefully, refusing to touch anything she had touched, refusing to eat anything she had helped prepare. Avi had fled to the other apartment in tears, and had refused to return until Simen left, a favor Margareta firmly granted. The second day of his visit, Simen had tried to persuade Karoly against accepting his ranking as Isle's Second Hold, and had advised Kate and Patia to give up their ship trades altogether, and had listened attentively to Bavol's whining complaints about the family's gaje attachments, and had disapproved, disapproved, disapproved.
Simen had looked especially hard at Kate's marriage to a gaje husband, a fact only rumored on Perikles and now unfortunately confirmed by himself. When he'd arrived, Simen had glanced once at Sergei, just once, then had never looked at him willingly again, an ostracism exceeding even his rudeness to Avi. Then, during the final loud argument, Simen had called Kate a whore in Margareta's hearing, and had threatened the entire family with explusion from the Rom if Margareta did not order immediate divorce-- not that divorce, he added snidely, could ever repair Kate's honor. She was tainted beyond any forgiving, he declared, and her daughter Chavi with her. No self-respecting Rom would ever marry Chavi, a polluted gaje half-breed girl--better to give her to the gaje to raise, if they'd take her, of course. Personally, Simen doubted it.
Margareta had thrown Simen bodily out of the apartment, and not a Rom soul had seen Uncle Simen off when he reboarded the Perikles freighter a few hours later. And so it sat, for now, with the ball in the voivoide's court.
Rom law was not as harsh as Simen wished, and Simen's threats far exceeded his authority as the voivoide's delegate, but the worry had lingered like a drifting odor after Simen's departure. Years ago the Perikles voivoide had approved Margareta's request to join Fan and had never complained since; the family had the value of the precedent. A Rom elder only reluctantly reversed a decision, and other Rom had made a few untraditional choices within Perikles society, though not as extreme. The matter was arguable, and even Kate's marriage was arguable. And the voivoide was a wiser and more tolerant man than Simen, very old now but still hale, and a man that his mother had known all her life and still trusted.
Even so, it was not a good time for the family to relax its traditions, not even for Avi. It was not a good time, yet it was a joyous time, an odd and uneasy blend of old and new, troubles and happiness. Ahead lay a bright possible future at the Nebula, if they could find it there, and a surer legacy for all of Net's children. He looked down at Garridan in his crib, healthy and vigorous and growing fast. His son. Pov the Gypsy. Fame. They could keep their fame, all of it.
By the time Garridan finished his bottle, Anushka was awake and wanted hers, a courtesy in timing that the twins had recently worked out somehow. Pov picked her up in her blanket and sat down in Avi's nursing chair by the window, then cradled his daughter as he fed her the other bottle of milk. Anushka watched his face solemnly with Avi's dark eyes, her tiny hand patting softly at his arm. In the nearby crib Garridan burbled to himself, kicking vigorously at his blanket, full and dry and warm with a parent nearby, a baby's paradise.
Da's paradise, too, Pov thought happily, now that the routine with the twins had settled down. He had thought he knew what to expect when the twins were born, a fine event, surely, and a fatherhood he had delayed overlong for a Rom male. He had expected Avi's joy, the late-night wails, the anxieties of new parents. He had not expected his feelings when he held his child's small weight and saw that first smile made not at random, but at him.
You're a dote, Avi had told him, and claimed she'd known all along he would be. Suits, he thought happily and smiled at his solemn little daughter. So I'm a dote. "Baby girl," he murmured. "Pretty girl."
Anushka patted his arm softly, content, and they sighed in unison. Pov laughed softly and leaned back in the chair, Anushka cradled snugly in his arms as she nursed, then looked out the window.
Most of TriPower's exterior windows were set into the floor instead of the walls, a natural result of the station's ring design and gravity by rotation, but Pov found walking across an apparent open pit unnerving, especially when half-asleep late at night. Most of the station inhabitants agreed, and so TriPower put different window arrangements in the residential quarters, building a long lower edge of apartments with a single window per apartment on an exterior wall. Pov's apartment had an extra window in the nursery, courtesy of its vantage on a projecting extension from the station's inner ring. It gave him a view to watch without sitting in the sink, which he appreciated. During the past five months, he had missed a cloudship's many windows more than he had expected, but not enough to disrupt TriPower's busy traffic patterns by moving Isle into visual range of his morning routine.
Even a shipmaster has his pinches, he thought cheerfully, not minding at all.
Beyond the strong polymer barrier of the window, Ishtar's Jewel drifted out of TriPower's detached ship-dock, her engine refit completed and her shipmaster obviously restless for action. Captain Janofsi had no good reason to undock today, and Pov suspected his reasons for doing so. When Earth's siege had begun in earnest, Captain Andreos had been forced to withhold certain essentials of the drive secret from his consortium partners, not from concern about their principals, but because a secret available to several hundred more people had several hundred more chances to leak away. It took only one person to forget loyalty and listen to the bribes or threats or promises for Net to lose it all. Sigrid Thorsen, TriPower's stationmaster, had accepted the decision with grace, and Thaddeus Gray of Diana's Arrow had shrugged, knowing he would get it all in time. Jewel had chosen to feel insulted, and had remained insulted, quarrelsome and sour.
As Pov watched, Arrow's daughter ship, Diana's Moon, undocked from the ship-bay too, and began drifting away to nowhere particular. A few minutes later, Arrow's other daughter, Diana's Hound, also undocked and floated randomly away, joining the display. The three cloudships migrated around local space for a while, touring slowly, until Jewel drifted back toward the ship dock, followed reluctantly by Moon herself. One by one, the cloudships redocked, their tall prows just visible above the large metal structure of the docking bays.
And there was silence, Pov thought sourly.
Skyrider strut, Athena Mikelos called it. Pov hadn't decided if Janofsi's troublemaking was mere show, as Athena thought, or intentional politicking in the hope of nudging Net to Jewel's side of things. Whatever the truth of it, Athena had the perfect metaphor in her crew of rowdy skyrider pilots. Who needs adult behavior?
"Watch my jets," Pov murmured to Anushka. Anushka thought about it, and solemnly agreed.
When Anushka had drained the bottle empty, he set it on the table beside the chair. As he looked down at his daughter, Anushka curved her lips in one of her rare smiles, her dark eyes warming. Exuberant Garridan smiled at everyone who came near him, eager for contact with all the world and its parts, but Anushka's was the smile Pov always waited for. Avi's smile could be as shy, and perhaps Anushka would grow into the same quiet worries that Avi kept too much inside, her mother's daughter in several ways. For now, thankfully, Anushka's worries were few: Pov would see to that.
"Pretty girl," he murmured and got up from the chair, patted Anushka's back until she burped softly, then laid her down in her crib. He turned to the other crib and pulled Garridan's blanket back up again. His son went right back to kicking. Pov left him to it, but he moved the thermostat up a fraction as he left the nursery.
Avi was still sleeping, her long dark hair tumbled over her face and moving with each long slow breath. One slender foot poked out from the bottom of the bedcovers, showing which parent had handed Garridan that bit of heredity. Pov glanced at the wall clock and considered mercy, then decided not. He bent to tickle Avi's bare foot. She stirred and jerked her foot out of range under the covers, then rolled over on her back and sighed, still fast asleep. Pov took hold of the bottom edge of the bedcover and yanked.
Avi's eyes flew open. "Hey! Stop that!" she said, and grabbed at the sliding coverlet.
"No," he said and tussled with her for the covers. "Up!"
With another yank, he jerked the bedcovers out of her hands, then grandly tossed the covers into the far corner of the bedroom. Avi came swarming off the bed, intent on mayhem, and Pov ran into the living room with Avi in quick pursuit. As Avi grabbed at him, he dodged around a chair.
"Maybe if you move faster," he said smugly, "you might catch me."
"You just watch what happens when I do," Avi warned, her dark hair swinging as she grabbed again. She missed badly, giggling too hard to get efficient. Pov danced sideways across her path, taunting her, then dodged behind the chair when she lunged at him.
"Move it, Avi," he told her severely as she circled to cut him off. "You have to do better than this."
She grabbed again, and he darted past her into the bedroom, not quite fast enough. A well-timed shove in the back sent him flying, and he landed hard, nose-down on the bed. He was trying to right himself when Avi pounced on him, flipped him neatly on the rebound, and pinned him flat.
"Umph," Pov said in surprise, then relaxed bonelessly as Avi kissed him. She chuckled against his mouth, then lifted her head.
He smiled back at her. "Good morning," he said.
"You lost," she boasted.
"I did not. I woke you up, didn't I?"
"I won't comment on that." Avi yawned and craned her neck to look at the clock, then wrinkled her nose. "I think they've got the gravity set too high here," she said irritably. "I'm still sleeping longer than I should, then go dragging around all day, one foot after the other." She rolled on her back and yawned again. "How do you file a complaint? I think I'll complain."
"I fed the twins," Pov said.
Avi had closed her eyes and smiled vaguely.
He poked her hip. "We can do the bedcover bit again," he warned.
"Don't you dare."
"And maybe next time," he added, "I'll let you catch me."
Avi opened her eyes and turned her head to look at him. "What d'you mean, 'next time'? I caught you this time."
"Did not." Pov stretched out his legs comfortably and took her hand into his.
"Did not. I fed the twins. Did you hear that before?"
"Oh, you did? Good." Avi yawned again, then closed her mouth with a snap and sat up, fluffing her hair with her other hand as she yawned again. She turned her head to smile as he squeezed her fingers.
"Did too," she said. "You didn't used to play as much before," she added, tipping her head as she looked at him. "Serious Pov, dutiful Pov, and all that. I think I'm good for you."
"I decided you were good for me a long time ago."
Avi leaned back on an elbow and moved her hand slowly down his chest, caressing him, then stilted her fingers down his abdomen toward his pajama trousers.
"And dutiful Pov has to go over to Isle for a meeting," he said as her hand sneaked inside. "So do you." He firmly shifted her hand back to his chest, then tugged on her hair to bring her mouth down to his again. "Sorry, love."
"Meetings, meetings." Avi swung her legs off the bed to sit on the edge, then sighed dramatically.
"Endless meetings," he agreed. "That's the way it was when Net was new." He sat up and kissed Avi's shoulder, then her neck. When she raised her hands to untangle her long hair, he slipped his hands around her and cupped her heavy breasts.
"Really?" she asked drolly. "You keep this going, and I could make you late." He shifted his hands suggestively, not minding at all if he was late, though he shouldn't be, not two days in a row. On the other hand, he was the shipmaster, wasn't he? He could be late if he wanted to. Sort of.
"Ouch," Avi said as he pressed too hard. "Careful with those."
"Sorry. You made me late yesterday, you'll remember, and I got comments from Tully and Athena both. Let's space this out."
"There's probably some reason, but I haven't a clue." He slid his legs over the edge of the bed and stood up, then held out his hand. "Come take a shower with me. You can grope and I can grope and then I can sigh dutifully and tell you no way."
"That's a deal. And we'll see about 'no way,' Povinko."
Avi took his hand and came into his arms. He kissed her lingeringly, her body pressed warmly against his. As the kiss went onward, Avi leaned slowly backward, and laughed as Pov cooperated in sinking back onto the bed. "Shower later, maybe?" she asked.
"I think I'm going to be late again."
"Too bad," Avi murmured, with no sympathy. "You had your chance."
As the water streamed down on them in the shower stall, Avi pressed close to Pov, her arms wrapped around his waist, and stepped them around in a slow circle dance. He kissed her wet face, then tangled his fingers in her long hair and arranged the curls on her shoulders, taking care with the arrangement. She caressed him, stepping them slowly around, then laughed softly as she looked up at him.
"I never knew," she said, "what joy really was. Until you. Then I knew."
"I want you to be happy, Avi."
"I am happy, Pov--of course I am. You worry too much about that. Take it from a Russki: we know everything that counts. What we don't know isn't worth knowing."
"That's a nice reality." He let his hands wander down her back, then up again.
"I think so." She sighed and laid her head on his shoulder.
"We're late," he reminded her. She chuckled low in her throat. "Don't gloat. One of these days I'm going to get some moral spine and fend you off when I should."
"Oh, sure you will," Avi scoffed. "Ho, ho. You are nicely accommodating, Povinko, and I'll gloat all I want. It's my privilege."
Avi turned off the water and clicked open the shower door, then looked back and smiled before stepping on out. It was a moment he wanted to remember forever, he knew suddenly, when Avi had turned and smiled at him over her shoulder, all her love in her eyes. He leaned against the shower wall, willing himself never to forget.
"Pov?" Avi said.
"I'm coming." He followed her out of the shower. Avi slipped on a robe and went out to check on the twins, then rejoined him in the bathroom.
"Your mother's talking at me again," she said. She nudged him sideways a step with her hip and ran water into the sink, then bent down to bathe her face. "Give up Sail Deck, be a proper mother, she says. Don't go to the Nebula with Pov, think of the children."
"Sergei says she's after Kate, too, same subject. I think she's been thinking about Uncle Simen and setting up a few preemptive moves."
"Good luck on that," Avi snorted. "Kate told me she's thmking of moving out again after the family moves aboard Isle. Patia keeps interfering with how she's raising Chavi, and asks these snide questions about why Chavi's a blond, as if that's all a mystery."
Pov sighed. "Patia is hardly an example of perfect wife."
"Oh, she thinks she is, and Bavol backs her up all the way. He's insufferable now, preening himself about how he's been right all along, blah, blah, blah. Pov darling, I have trouble liking one or two of my new relatives." Avi splashed her face vigorously.
"I can't promise it'll get better, Avi. It could get worse." He grimaced. "That's not a new comment, is it?"
"It's okay. I'll survive it, whatever it is."
"Want to move over to Isle today?" Pov asked. "Tawnie's been waiting for you to say the word."
Avi thought about it. "Yes, I think I would." Then she shrugged, looking tired, too wan. "Running away won't solve anything."
"Nuts to that. It's all going to follow you to Isle, right?"
Avi made a face. "I suppose." She sighed.
Pov opened the over-sink cabinet and rummaged for his beard depilatory, then started taking off his stubble, wondering if his Rom family would ever settle down into any real peace. Probably not. After the three-year fight about Kate's choice of a gaje outsider as husband and then Pov's own marriage to Avi, his family wanted a reprieve from the troubles that had plagued them for too long. Margareta Janusz had discovered limits to her power as puri dai, and now sometimes chose, instead of dehvering direct commands, to drift a few ideas and watch the family's reactions: it helped. For a similar reason, he and Avi had delayed moving aboard Isle, as they could have done by now, to give his family the extra time together on TriPower.
But Simen's visit had not helped; it had stirred up the old conflicts again that his mother had recently tried to settle, then added a new worry that the Perikles Rom, pressured by gaje reporters and newly alarmed by the gaje threat to the temptable young, might force the voivoide to make an example of Pov's family. It was not likely, not at all, but until now it hadn't even been a possibility.
Why are people so difficult? Pov thought in frustration as he toweled his face dry. It'd be much easier if I could say "do it" and they do, even Uncle Simen. I think I need to be a king, he decided. King Pov.
"She also wants us to move in with the other Rom on Isle," Avi was saying. "It's about the seventeenth time she's brought that up. She says I need training to be a proper bori. What's a bori, Pov?"
"Bottom-ranked daughter-in-law," Pov said. "You get to do all the housework while the other women loll on cushions."
"Indeed?" Avi turned her head and raised an eyebrow.
"That's the theory. Later, when the bori is older and has four or five kids, she can be more of an equal, do only most of the housework."
Avi straightened abruptly. "Are you suggesting we--?"
"Not at all." He clucked, chiding her gently. "There's a reason for Rom bori, Avi. Back when Rom girls married at twelve, that young a girl still had to learn almost everything about keeping a house and caring for her children, so her mother-in-law did the teaching. It's the same for youngest daughter. Tawnie genuinely likes keeping house for Damek and Narilla; ask her. It's her gift to them, younger to older: it's one of the strengths of the Rom, why we have the strong family ties that we have. So stop wiggling your eyebrows and thinking it's all social domination."
Avi pursed her lips and looked dubious. "Your balance again, I suppose."
"True. Somehow I don't think I'm persuading you."
"But why give up Sail Deck?" Avi said, frowning. "Why is that a rule? I can be a good mother and a sail officer."
"Of course you can. And it's not a rule, never has been. It's just my mother's idea of things she'd like-- or Bavol's niggling. Just watch: Bavol will make Patia give up her ship job and stay at home as Judit does. Three down, you and Kate to go, Bavol thinks, though Tawnie won't stay stuck as he thinks she will. But, still, they've got Kate at home; now they're after you, I think."
"For sitting duck? Avi around all the time to criticize?" Avi was scowling seriously now. Ordinarily, Avi tried to hide her irritation with his family's not-so-subtle pressures, not wanting to worry him. He wondered what Patia had said the other morning to set this off, and could guess at a suitable comment or two.
"I admit the opportunity," he said dryly, "all those mistakes you can make, the raised eyebrows, the aghast comments when you goof on the purity rules. Don't listen to them. Rom women have always worked, just like the men, though at different things. And just because Mother says things doesn't mean she ought to get what she wants, elder or not." He frowned back at her distractedly.
"Should we take the twins to the Nebula?" Avi asked softly, voicing the worry that had troubled them both.
Pov sighed. "No, we probably shouldn't." He looked at her bleakly. "Infants are too vulnerable to x-ray radiation, and we're bound to catch some hard x-rays, especially if we attempt the Core. You know that. Kate should leave Chavi behind, too." His sister's baby daughter had just started to walk, getting into everything.
"Is Tully taking his kids?"
"Yes. So is Athena--but they're older, Avi, old enough to be safe in the shielded sections. A baby isn't. And that means the twins will have to stay here."
"With your mother, I suppose." Avi wrinkled her nose.
"Or Aunt Narilla. Somebody would have to stay behind. But I doubt either could turn their hearts and minds before we get back, true?" Pov found a comb in the cabinet for other straightening.
"True." Avi hesitated, watching his face. "Do you want me to give up Sail Deck?"
"No. How can you even ask that?" Pov turned to Avi and studied her expression. Avi hid so much from him, wanting to spare him, that sometimes he lacked a database on how hard she had to try. He saw his beloved's unhappy face and wished he had a magic wand, wished lots of things he somehow couldn't manage to give her. "Listen," he said softly, "anytime you want to back off on the culture adapting, it's okay. You want to be Russki, I'll love you as Russki. You want to keep trying to turn into Rom, I'll love you as Rom. It doesn't change what you are--and even if you do decide to change what you are, I'll still love you. Call it a constant, right?"
"So tell me what you want on this bori item."
"Why is what I want the main factor?" he asked her. "Why should you make all the changes? Why should you give up what feels comfortable to you, just so I can feel comfortable?"
"I want you to 'feel comfortable,'" Avi said stubbornly.
"We have a problem, I think. I want you to have everything, and you want me to have everything, and so we go toe-dancing around every time we have another of our culture-shock discussions. There's got to be a better way. How about trading off each time? First the Rom wins, then the Russki, then turnabout again. It'll average out."
"I don't want to move in with your family," Avi said. "Not with Bavol and Patia there."
"Neither do I."
"And I don't want to leave the twins behind."
Pov sighed. "But--"
"It's part of being a cloudship, taking the twins wherever we go," Avi said in a low voice. "It's part of being a family, too, both Rom and cloudship. Kate says Rom children always travel with their parents, whatever the dangers. So it's part of our road together, Russki and Rom, of not being separated, ever. And it's part of me, never leaving my children." She firmed her jaw and looked at him squarely.
"They could be hurt, Avi," he protested. "It's too dangerous, especially at their age."
"You or I could be hurt at the Nebula. Everybody could be hurt. But that's part of our road, the road I want the twins to have and never to lose, not even now. So I'm telling you what I want, part of the everything." She quirked her mouth and looked away. "God, what a hard choice this is. But I don't think it's just my selfishness, wanting them by me. I think it's important for other reasons. Can you understand?"
"Yes, I do," he said slowly. "And I think you're right."
"Well, we still have a few days to decide."
"Haven't we decided already?" He saw her lift her chin, and she took a shaky breath.
"Yes," she said. They both gusted their breath at the same moment, then laughed softly at each other. "Love you," Avi said.
He leaned to kiss her. "Thank you for being patient, Avi," he said. "Thank you for trying."
"Surely, Pov. Though I'd thought it'd be easier by now."
"Bavol and Patia aren't helping, I agree. I suppose it's not much comfort to tell you my mother is actually being quite moderate, compared to what she could do."
"You're right. It's not." Avi plucked a towel from the rack and covered her head, then walked out of the bathroom, drying her hair.