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Authors: Sharon Lee,Steve Miller

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TRADE SECRET - eARC

A New

Liaden Universe

Novel

SHARON LEE &

STEVE MILLER

Advanced Reader Copy

Unproofed

BAEN BOOKS
by Sharon Lee & Steve Miller

The Liaden Universe (r) Fledgling
Saltation

Mouse & Dragon Ghost Ship Dragon Ship

Necessity's Child Trade Secret

The Dragon Variation
(omnibus) The Agent Gambit (omnibus) Korval's Game (omnibus) The Crystal Variation (omnibus) A Liaden Universe(r) Constellation, volume 1

A Liaden Universe(r) Constellation, volume 2
(forthcoming)

The Fey Duology
Duainfey

Longeye

by Sharon Lee
Carousel Tides

Carousel Sun
(forthcoming)

TRADE SECRET

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

Copyright (c) 2013 by Sharon Lee & Steve Miller.

Liaden UniverseAE is a registered trademark.

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.

A Baen Books Original

Baen Publishing Enterprises P.O. Box 1403

Riverdale, NY 10471

www.baen.com

ISBN: 978-1-4516-3929-2

Limited Signed Edition ISBN: 978-1-4516-3930-8

Cover art by Sam Kennedy First Baen printing, November 2013

Distributed by Simon & Schuster

1230 Avenue of the Americas

New York, NY 10020

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data: t/k

Printed in the United States of America 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

In a Familiar Space-Time Continuum,

Consider the Young Gentlemen

Stateroom Number Two

Liaden Tradeship
Wynhael,
Outbound from Banth, a Backworld

The debt book was out and held before him, thirty-one prior pages covered in his cramped and careless hand. Although considered young by most of the society he ventured among, his debt book looked that of an old and garrulous fellow with multiple Balances in play. He'd learned early that Balance against those not properly of the society he walked among need not be counted, else the book might be full three times over, for he was never one to miss nor forgive a slight that might mean advantage for him, now or later. Still, if the book fell into nosy hands to be riffled--or through his untimely demise was passed on to one to complete--the pages already writ held among them the names of some of the cream of Liaden society, some in the person of individuals and others being named in line or clan as owing him. Of the Fifty High Houses of Liad, fully forty-one were directly represented, including, perhaps oddly, his own. This was not a book to be left idly about.

He brought the book to his table with the intent to write in it; then he'd placed it facedown, still sealed to his hand, while he'd allowed the ministrations of his lifelong lackey. Doubtless his man knew what the book was, doubtless he had some minor idea of what was to be written, and why.

He took stock. His nosebleed--acquired quite unexpectedly--had stopped. He'd removed his ruined overshirt. He was, if called upon by unfortunate circumstance, barely presentable to his mother after she'd already seen his bloodied condition once. The damage done his
melant'i
needed urgent remedy, for she'd always had a long memory.

His face hurt, the headache still not gone since he'd refused the pain-saver he'd been offered as well as the wine.

He'd soon enough have wine, as soon as he felt his stomach proof against that surge of adrenal rage and fear and the distant iron of the blood in his mouth. In the moment he shivered in the dim safety of his stateroom, the words of his man reverberating:

"I am not a fully trained warrior, but it appears that if you'll be among the Terrans and the thieves, my lord, it would be best should you wear at least the web armor for the torso, if not also a stranded sleeve jacket and vest, which would have made your stand more feasible. We have packed such, though I dare say they're last year's fashion."

That had been sufficient for him to send the valet off to bring him a complete change of wardrobe, and the wine, asking it for a quarter bell, so he'd have time to write in his debt book.

Yes indeed, debt book. This occasion needed Balance, and more Balance, for not only had . . .

The sight was in his mind again, as were the words. He'd offered the Terran woman the opportunity to buy her beast-brother of a Gobelyn out of the Balance--a tidy profit it would have been at 400 cantra!--and after a hint of consideration she'd snubbed him,
him
, Rinork-to-be! Turned her back with a smirk and some snide words in Trade, and walked away . . .

Bar Jan chel'Gaibin's shiver again threatened to disgorge his meal and more: who'd have thought he'd ever be so close to death at the hands of an alien?

He'd reached to prevent her escape and his hand had barely been on her shoulder when she'd turned impossibly fast and struck him. Not a mere push away, not a shake-off, but a fully realized jaw-snapping strike to the face. He'd been flung off his feet by the force of the blow, vision gone to stars and darkness, not quite senseless but certainly defenseless.

As much as he might deny it, there'd been no way to rise and strike back with his fellows, for by the time his breath allowed sight again, his fellows were held at bay by her knife and the silent approbation of a roomful of Terrans. Animals they all were, and armed, too, with hands eager and draw-ready.

No, there could be no proper Balance there and then. Had he risen then the chance was his throat would have been cut. And the speed!

The woman Gobelyn had been permitted to escape, followed by his ignominious return to
Wynhael
, still leaning on the shoulder of a pilot, nose dripping trail of his disgrace. Then had come his mother's tongue and censure before the co-conspirators.

But the Terran woman . . .

Four hundred cantra! By stars he'd first thought she was going to pay or offer to deal! He could have used the cash--the number
had
twice measured a pressing debt. And then, the violence, so quick and sure. That kind of animal response was a danger. Surely then the plans they were laying were going to make space safer for Liadens. Surely the Terrans would be better off staying around their own uncultured worlds, with most traffic carried to civilized worlds elsewhere by Liadens and only the local traffic carried by Terran shuttles and ferries. Yet that happy result was not enough of a full Balance for one who'd struck him in the face and made him appear a weak fool . . .

Now, yes, he would write the debts owed out of this, Terran and Liaden. To have
Therinfel
's own captain laugh at him, saying, "My lord, she's a pilot and you're not, and we could all see she's a bar fighter, which Rinork never allowed you. She had speed on you, and experience, and likely the muscle, too!"

There'd been amused agreement by the others as they'd hurried along, and then what he supposed now was actual advice and not a hidden slur:

"The only way for someone like
you
to take a chance like that with a pilot is from behind, and with a gun, and only a sure shot to the head. You pushed in front of other Terrans, and that's stupid--why that's full gravity fail, boy! Did no one ever explain to you that touching a Terran woman in public could cost you your throat? You're lucky she walked away and that no late lover took your kidneys out from behind."

*

In ordinary times Lord Rinork would have been sitting comfortable on Liad, overseeing the growing empire of ships and merchants amassed by his predecessors and especially by his mother, the delm. He should have been home on Liad, waiting
his turn
as delm, with perhaps the occasional off-world tour to show that he could in fact be a trader, and to enjoy the fruits of being one of the Fifty High Houses.

He'd already found being a lord among the Fifty convenient, for his mother or his
qe'andra
made sure his bills were paid if he happened to forget, and even when his bills were so very personal that they oughtn't be shared with others, he was never pushed or prodded by those he owed, for quartershare time came, and he always paid from the oldest to the newest--or loudest--first, eventually.

But in this time, being of the Fifty was not as convenient as it may have been, for the Terrans were encroaching on Liaden space lanes and trade zones, proving remarkably willing to take smaller profit and the worst of them
proud
to be planet-free. The most ambitious of them, though, were ambitious indeed, gathering together old technologies and hoping to leap far ahead of both Liad's fine ships and the combined might of the growing Combine. For all that their efforts were thought secret, they cost him money, unless of course such ships could be brought first to Rinork's hand.

On other fronts there was Korval, meddling as always, and then the constant bickering and begging of his mother's chosen partners and lackeys. Some were criminals if the news were out, and he supposed in passing that he need correct his man, for clearly when he'd warned of the need for armor among the "Terrans and the thieves" the thieves were the crew of the ships following his mother's plan, and his man Khana vo'Daran was in danger if anyone heard the clarity of his knowledge. His mother's plan, now, that he would not say was criminal, for the Terrans had no recognition among Liaden councils . . .

He sat now, thinking of luck and the fact that
he
was the Rinork heir and not that get of Quiptic . . . of the fact that the mines of Quiptic, which would be his soon enough and maybe sooner, and that he was far too old to be pleased to be called a boy, or have his shortcomings pointed out to him publicly, by anyone, pilot or not.

He had no misunderstanding: he was never, in fact, at his best in a fair fight unless that fight put him with dueling pistol in hand at a length of twenty or thirty paces. He was not fast, but that was not what dueling was about. Dueling took nerves--which he had--and accuracy, which he also had, especially given a chance to work with the house pistols, which would recognize his hand and engage auto-correction and target templating, the while passing for being old-fashioned. At no time would either pistol fire first for one not of proper blood.

This, of course, was not fair.

But he had no qualms about not being a fair fighter--the family history told the futility of "fair fights" as its shame ran through the rabbit's hutch! But who had understood that he'd personally have to right the wrongs foisted on him by an overconfident predecessor?

Obviously, the problems were many, and one of them that had now twice cost him dearly was lack of information. The other problems were proper Balances. So, the information situation could be dealt with by money spread wisely: this Gobelyn thing--the Jethri Gobelyn sucked into the rabbit's den for Balance, his kinswoman willing to slice a Liaden lord for him--this could not be left unsettled. Nor could the laughter of Liaden captains be left unanswered.

Bar Jan chel'Gaibin's debt book had fewer unused pages by the time valet Vo'daran returned with wine and new clothes. Given the views of the other conspirators, his mother the delm refused him another venture to the planet, and Rinork-to-be added plots to plots all night long.

Trade Hall, Cherdyan City, Verstal, on the Flinder-to-Liad Route

Trader ven'Sambra's departing bows performed, the squarely turned back was an indication that the session was acknowledged as complete. That worthy continued to pull wares and bundles together, and finally departed, while the properly jeweled and name-badged Jethri ven'Deelin, recently adopted of Clan Ixin, checked files and waited respectfully to place the
returning for trade after break
sign until the visiting trader was actually gone from in front of his booth.

The booth was much like a market stall, the counter having tall wings or walls so that the action and conversation of the next booth were not shared--and so that the sight lines made it difficult for those behind the wait-here line to see or hear as well. Beyond the wing walls traffic might go forth at a steady and crowded pace as it had earlier, or be near nonexistent as it was now, without meaningfully affecting one's ability to trade in quiet confidence.

As for Trader Jethri, the sweat was receding, finally, and he'd deduced that it was not the stress of trade that was at fault, it was the leftover heat of the short walk from their local quarters to the hall, and the hall itself, conditioned as it was for the locals. He'd fiddled with the broad flat ring on his trade finger--sweat was under it and the ring was long enough with him to leave an impression.

On duty, at least, he was to wear the ring, though it was far, far from the Master's trade ring he longed to wear one day. The key around his neck--the Terran trade key--would serve the same purpose on a Terran world, but here,
Elthoria
's trade budget had bought this modest ring of silver with four simple stone insets. He'd change the insets, one per trade world, until none were the current crystal quartz but were all changed to topaz, and from topaz, he'd move to garnet, and from garnet, to amethyst insets. The big move of course was the boldest: the large amethyst of the tested and confirmed Master Trader, in platinum or better. Today, though, he was the lowly floor trader, and he'd be glad to see the end of this day, and the packing to return to
Elthoria
's splendid climate.

There'd been a short enough line when he opened for the day, one that had gotten shorter suddenly when the fourth in line, a graying Liaden gentleman of very unquiet demeanor, departed the area hastily after a semisuppressed bout of coughing, which cough had apparently unnerved the third in line, who'd gone off in the opposite direction--leaving a curiosity seeker first and Trader ven'Sambra second.

The curiosity seeker came to exchange cards, and to test Jethri's bows, in effect, for his offer to assist Jethri in learning basic trade concepts fell just short of a Balance-worthy insult. Jethri thanked his visitor, allowed as how he was trading only in tangible real goods for
Elthoria
and Clan Ixin, and looked forward to meeting again on the next voyage, should the trader have such goods to offer at that time.

Trader ven'Sambra's failed attempt at Terran required some soothing, and made Jethri wish he'd been back on
Elthoria
's trade deck buying and selling bulk items and novelties from multirouted trade-sats and certified world-net screens instead of dealing with a slow man who sought to outwit the must-be-stupid Terran turned Ixin. What a world! He was beginning to hate it.

Sometimes, in truth, he hated being on any world. Despite all his time in the vineyards of Irikwae not a year before, Jethri couldn't admire the atmospherics here, where the water often hung so thick in the air that it obscured the vision, even at ground level. Yes, he'd seen rain and worse at Irikwae, but this morning it had taken him a full half-shift to get physically comfortable in his trading. The lunch chime's quiet vibration gave little joy and he decided that today he would pass on another visit to the famous restaurant row out of doors just two damp streets over in favor of a quiet lunch in the trade hall's own small but properly ventilated feedery.

The desk in front of him had been his for three days now, along with the chair, and at least that was comfortable, once adjusted. He'd gotten to think of the desk as much defense as a counter since this was the pushiest group of people he'd met at one place since he'd joined
Elthoria
's crew aside those of Rinork.

Wasn't much choice here, though, since the locals all insisted on trading face-to-face and they were all full of formal types who couldn't be bothered to do anything without top-notch bowing and the longest sentences this side of a
melant'i
play, and then they insisted in ways he thought were entirely un-Liaden, being unsubtle at best.

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