One obsessed cop. Two master thieves. A very small island in space. And The Greatest Treasure in the Empire.
Silverside Station is a small asteroid resort catering to the rich, the famous, and the celebrated— but is it big enough for both Drake Maijstral (the devious hero of The Crown Jewels) and Geoff Fu George (rated the galaxy's top burglar by the Imperial Sporting Commission)? Both have set their sights on the Eltdown Shard, a fabulous jewel that captures the light of a dying sun, a jewel that dangles around the comely throat of the Duchess Roberta, a beautiful and dashing heiress who clearly has plans of her own.
Mayhem and hilarity at the only possible result. House of Shards continues the droll adventures of Drake Maijstral— thief, devout coward, and reluctant hero— as he schemes his way to the top of the ratings.
When one star gobbles another, the universe may be forgiven if it pauses to take breath. Imagine the sight: the smaller star a bright-haloed emptiness, a nullity that draws into itself vast ruddy flares of stellar matter until it consumes the very heart of its companion. People might well stop and stare. Some may even pay for the privilege. Thus Silverside Station, a small asteroid held within view of the phenomenon by mighty anchors of self-generated gravitational energy. Small, hence exclusive. With exclusive rights to the view. And about to have its grand opening.
A private media globe hung inconspicuously over the console. Recording every word.
"Imagine it. Everyone on both sides of the border wanting to have a ticket. Salivating for one. Offering anything to get one. And the two of us, flying into Silverside on our own private racing yacht."
A doubtful frown. "I'm not certain of this rule banning the media. It seems extreme." A glance at the private globe. "I can't even record myself. That's a little absurd."
"The ban only applies to most of the media, Pearl. Some will be there. Kyoko Asperson, for one."
"That," the Pearl said, her ears flattening, "will guarantee catastrophe."
Pearl Woman was tall and dark-haired. Her shoulders and arms bulged with transplanted muscle: in her youth she hunted daffles from proughback, and that takes upper-body strength. Her hair shagged from her head like the mane of a lion. She wore a single pearl hanging from the left ear, an object balanced artfully by a duelling scar on her right cheek. Both were her trademarks within the Diadem, never duplicated by others of that exclusive organization, though they were often imitated by her admirers across the Constellation.
The enthusiasm of Pearl Woman's companion was un-dimmed. "Only three of the Diadem were invited. Three of the Three Hundred. You and the Marquess Kotani and Zoot. Imagine that."
Pearl Woman gave her a look. "Advert. I need to dock the ship."
Sulkily. "You could put it on auto."
"Not my way, Advert."
Advert, with a self-conscious glance at the media globe, fell silent. She was young and pale and willowy, with wavy brown hair that fell halfway down her back. She had dropped her second name, hoping the Human Diadem might notice and consider her for the next vacancy. She wore silver rings on every finger, including the thumbs, and fondly hoped they (and perhaps the hair) might one day become her own trademark. Pearl Woman knew better, but had not as yet disillusioned her.
Advert was new to this sort of existence and still felt a little uncertain. Her remaining illusions, Pearl Woman thought, made her charming, though in an unformed sort of way. One day Advert's particular brand of charm would cease to hold its attraction; but that day had not as yet arrived. Throughout their conversation, the awesome sight of one star consuming another had been splayed across the ship's viewscreens. Neither paid it the slightest attention.
The entry concourse was a long, low room, carpeted in dark green. Darker tapestries flashed winks of silver thread from the walls. The lighting was subdued, and a small orchestra played brisk tunes in the corner. People in uniforms stood behind desks; robots carried bags in efficient silence. Disembarking passengers took their time strolling toward the desks. It was not done to seem in a hurry.
"Pearl Woman. You are looking very dashing."
"Maijstral. It's been years."
"The matched swords are very elegant. What are they, small sabers?"
"Cutlasses. I thought they'd add a swashbuckling touch." Pearl Woman snicked one sword from its scabbard, performed a figure, returned it. Like the claws of a kitten, a touch of fear moved along Maijstral's nerves. Someone had tried to hack him to bits with a sword just recently, and the presence of edged weapons made him more than usually nervous.
He and Pearl Woman clasped hands (three fingers each) and sniffed one another's ears as, around them, the entry concourse bustled on. Maijstral was slightly taller than average, but he had to raise his head to reach the Pearl's neck.
Drake Maijstral's dark hair waved to his shoulders. He was dressed in grey. Lace floated casually at neck and wrists. He wore a large diamond on one finger, and leather buskins on his feet. His eyes were green and heavy-lidded; they gave an impression of laziness, or at least languor. He seemed to be in his mid-twenties.
Maijstral turned and indicated a restless young man dressed in violet plush. "My associate, Mr. Gregor Norman."
"Charmed, Mr. Norman," said Pearl Woman, "This is Advert, my companion."
Hands were clasped all around, but High Custom sniffing was avoided—the entry concourse was a little too common for High Custom unless rank and previous acquaintance demanded it. Maijstral and Advert offered one another two fingers, indicating a degree of intimacy through their common acquaintance with Pearl Woman. Pearl Woman and Advert each gave one finger for Gregor. Gregor gave two to Pearl Woman and three to Advert, the latter indicating a degree of hopefulness far above his station.
Advert sniffed and drew herself up. Gregor, who had greeted her in a provincial accent that could only be described as cheeky, declined to be properly abashed, and grinned.
The custom of hand-clasping, after an interval of several thousand years, was now a rage. It had been rediscovered by the Constellation Practices Authority, who recommended it as a "natural, human gesture," and suggested it replace the elegant ear-sniffing of Khosali High Custom.
Traditionalists and Imperialists denounced the revival as vulgar. Pro-Constellation partisans adopted it eagerly. Merely offering a greeting had now become a situation fraught with political import.
That, and the issue of how many fingers to fer, had all society dizzy with new possibilities.
Pearl Woman took Maijstral's arm. They strolled lazily toward the customs desks.
Behind them, Gregor offered Advert his arm. She ignored it and followed the Pearl, her head high. Gregor gave another cheeky grin and put a hi-stick in his mouth.
"Do you like the way Laurence is playing you in the vids?" Pearl Woman asked. "I didn't care for him at first, but I think he's growing into the part."
"I've not seen him," Maijstral said . Pearl Woman gave a disbelieving grin. "People never believe me," Maijstral said equably. "But it's true."
"Is Roman with you?" Pearl Woman asked.
"Yes. Taking care of the baggage."
"Please give him my compliments."
Maijstral nodded. "I will. He will be pleased that you remembered him."
"You are out of mourning, I see."
"It's been over a year."
"That long? I had no idea."
"Thank you, by the way, for your condolences. Very kind."
The Pearl gave him a mischievous look. "Are you His Grace of Dornier now? Should I be milording you?"
Amusement sparked behind Maijstral's lazy eyes. "Heavens no," he said. "I'd feel foolish being the Duke of This and the Viscount of That, considering the family's lost all the estates during the Rebellion and there's nothing to be his grace the duke of."
Pearl Woman smiled. "I understand."
"The most ridiculous title, of course, lis Hereditary Prince-Bishop of Nana. My father prevailed upon me to preach a sermon at my investiture, and I felt damned silly standing up in front of a packed cathedral. I'd just taken out my burglar's ticket, so I preached on tolerance." He cocked his head in remembrance. "It was well received, at least," he said. "And it entitled me to a small stipend, so it's not all bad."
The way ahead was clear, and they stepped to the customs counter. A Khosali female looked at them from behind the clean ebon surface. Eyes glittered from beneath the polished brim of a narrow cap tailored with notches to allow her pointed ears full movement.
"Mr. Maijstral," she said, pointing. "Your desk is over there."
The room glowed blue. Mr. Sun, sitting in his padded chair behind a U-shaped console, found it a soothing color.
He looked with satisfied eyes at his security monitors. Individual media globes had tagged everyone who had just disembarked, and images of each decked the walls. A hologram projector set into Mr. Sun's desk showed a file labelled Known Associates.
Gregor Norman, it said. Human male, age 20 yrs. The picture was an old one and showed Gregor wearing vulgar earrings and a grossly offensive hairstyle. A short arrest record was appended.
Next to Gregor floated the hologram of a Khosalikh wearing a subdued dark suit with a fashionable braided collar. Roman, it said. Khosali male, age 46 yrs. Bodyservant. No arrests or convictions.
Mr. Sun touched an ideogram on his console. Two of the video monitors flashed. Match, the console reported, and made a pleasant chirring sound.
Mr. Sun smiled. He touched another ideogram to transmit the pictures to Khamiss at the entry concourse. Acknowledged, flashed the response.
Mr. Sun looked down at his uniform, brushed away a speck of lint. A simple touch, he thought. A simple gesture like this, he thought, and like the lint, the thieves are brushed away.
In his view, this set of burglars had a lot to atone for, and he intended the atonement start now.
"I'd count those rings if I were you," Pearl Woman said.
Advert glanced in surprise at her fingers, and Pearl Woman smiled. Advert was so easy.
"Sometimes they'll take the jewelry right off you, right in public," Pearl Woman said. "It's vulgar, but sometimes Allowed Burglars like to show off."
"That Gregor person was vulgar enough, heaven knows." Advert looked dubiously at the trademark that dangled from the other woman's ear. "Aren't you worried, Pearl?"
Pearl Woman touched the matched silver hilts of her swords. "Not at all, Advert," she said. "It's for other people to worry, not me." She looked at Advert. "If Maijstral ever bothers you, there's something you can do to get rid of him."
"Ask him if his mother is well."
"It's always worked for me."
The orchestra had moved from the entry concourse to the main lounge, appropriately called the White Room. The music was muffled by dazzling white couches, chairs, and carpeting, but the music was also echoed pleasantly by a sixteen-foot length of natural impact diamond that hung overhead. The stone had been discovered during the excavation; it wasn't gem quality, but it resonated well, and added a lustre to the room.
Overhead was a window, its view fixed at the sight of one star devouring another. The shutters were resolutely closed, awaiting the grand unveiling.
Kotani and the Pearl stood on the white soft carpet, sniffed, and gave each other three fingers—Diadem members were de facto intimates.
"Have you met Advert?"
"I don't believe so." (Sniff. Three fingers. Sniff.) "Charmed."
"Pleased to meet you, my lord."
Kotani cast a glance over his shoulder. "I just made my escape from Miss Asperson."
The Pearl curled her lip. "I understood she was to be here."
"She is currently fashionable. Fashions pass, thankfully."
"One may hope her vogue will be of short duration."
"Have you seen Zoot?"
Pearl Woman shook her head. "Perhaps he's waiting to make a grand entrance."
"Perhaps," archly, "he's hiding from Asperson."
The orchestra came to the end of its piece. Those in the lounge tapped their feet in approval. The carpet absorbed the sound entirely.
Above, the diamond still rang.
"Shall we sit down, my lord?"
"Certainly." They found a settee and settled in. "Her grace Roberta is here," Kotani offered. "The Duchess of Benn."
"Ah. The racer."
"There will be a race tomorrow. Before the Duchess's coming-out ball."
"Perhaps I'll enter the race."
"She's very good."
"Perhaps I'll cheat." Smiling, a little too whitely.
"In that case," said Kotani, "I'll have to be very careful of my wager."
Mr. Sun looked with satisfaction at the piles of burglar equipment that had been confiscated from Maijstral's party. "That should serve to slow him down."
Kingston, his tall assistant, gave him a look. "You don't think it will stop him entirely?"
"I think he will have to steal something. After all, Geoff Fu George is here. Neither of them can afford to be shown up by the other."
"I suppose not."
"And there's another factor." Sun gave his assistant a significant look. "The Shard is here."
"We may hope the Virtues will prevail. And no swearing, Kingston."
" Sorry." He looked thoughtful. "Perhaps the rivalry will make them careless."
Sun's face split in a thin smile. "Yes. That's precisely what I'm counting on."
The woodwinds chortled away, laughing in their lower registers. Roberta passed them on her way out of the lounge. Behind her, Kyoko Asperson was interviewing one of the waiters.
"Mr. Fu George." Roberta's lips turned up in an amused smile. "I have always expected to meet you sooner or later. I'm relieved the suspense is over at last."
Geoff Fu George offered her two fingers and delicately sniffed her ears. He received two fingers in return.
A certain object of mutual interest assured them of a degree of intimacy before they had ever met.
"I suppose—" he smiled "—it would be pointless to ask whether you have the Shard with you."
Her violet eyes sparkled. "I suppose it would," she said.
He bowed easily, conceding the point. Geoff Fu George was a compact, assured man of forty. His long blond hair (some of it, by now, implanted) was held with diamond pins and trailed down his back. He had been on top of the burglars' ratings for six years, since the Affaire of the Mirrorglass BellBox had put him solidly on top. His hairstyle was almost trademarked. He had once been asked to join the Diadem, and he had declined. The resulting sensation had assured him more celebrity than he would have received had he accepted.
"Will you take my arm?" he asked. "I was about to head for the Casino."
"I noticed that the station network ran a history of the Eltdown Shard earlier this afternoon. I suppose that could be a coincidence."
"I daresay." Smiling.
Through his jacket, Roberta could feel the outline of his gun against her arm. The corridor to the Casino was covered in a deep carpet woven of Kharolton moth wings. The wallpaper was patterned on the Cerulean Corridor in the City of Seven Bright Rings. The molding was blanch-tree from Andover. Clearly Baron Silverside had spared no expense.
"I understand the customs people are unusually strict here on station," Roberta said. "I hope you haven't been inconvenienced."
"Only slightly. Still, I thought they were more officious than necessary. I shall speak to Baron Silverside when I see him."
A Cygnus robot passed them on its silent repellers. Its carapace gleamed in the subdued light.
"I understand you're racing tomorrow. I hope to watch, if circumstances permit."
Roberta gave him a sidelong look. "You don't want to take advantage of my being busy?"
He seemed off ended. "Your grace," he said. "I wouldn't dream of interfering with your debut."
"Thank you." Surprised. "That's a kind thought."
"Just because I steal," said Fu George stiffly, "doesn't mean I'm a cad."
Zoot paced back and forth in his room, then stopped and looked at himself in the mirror. His ears twitched uncomfortably. His diaphragm throbbed in resignation, and he resumed his pacing.
What the hell should he wear? That was the difficulty.
All the Diadem's advance people were humans, that was the problem. They didn't understand.
The advance people wanted him to wear his exploring togs. In the lounge! Before dinner!
His conservative Khosali soul was appalled by the idea. Wearing the environment suit seemed like an insult to Silverside and all it stood for: restraint, elegance, High Custom. But yet the Diadem people had seemed so certain that the suit was what his public expected from him.
A leaden distress settled in his soul. He looked at himself in the mirror again, seeing the trademark dark-grey environment suit with its pockets, its analyzers, its force-field repellers. His nostrils flared; his ears turned back.
"Room," he said. "What time is it?"
"Twenty-five thirteen Imperial Standard," said the room.
Zoot growled happily. Dinner would begin in just over an hour: there wasn't time to be seen in the lounge before he'd have to come back to the room to change. His hesitation had saved him.
"Room," he said. "Send a robot to help me dress."
He could have asked for one of the Diadem people, but they'd do nothing but set his nerves on edge.
The Casino featured the cool, respectful sound of money being lost. Not much money yet: the night was young and many guests had not yet arrived.
"Your grace," said Geoff Fu George, "may I present Pearl Woman and Mr. Drake Maijstral. Sir and madam, the Duchess of Benn."
"Your very obedient, your grace," said Maijstral. Roberta thought she could see a gleam of interest in Maijstral's hooded eyes before he sniffed her ears.
"Another man I've always expected to meet. My pleasure, sir."
"Your grace." Another set of sniffs. "May I present my companion, Advert."
"Your very obedient, your grace."
Pearl Woman gave Roberta a calculated look. "I understand you will be racing tomorrow."
"Yes. A small amateur field."
"Perhaps I will enter."
Roberta smiled inwardly. A Diadem member would attract more attention to the race, hence to herself. The whole point of being here, after all, was to be noticed.
"I hope you shall. The company will be all the more distinguished by your presence."
"Perhaps you might be interested in a small side wager?"
"If it wouldn't compromise my amateur standing."
"I'm sure it would not."
"In that case, yes. Five novae?"
"Let's make it twenty."
"If you like."
Pearl Woman showed delicate incisors that matched her earring. "Done," she said.
Maijstral and Geoff Fu George exchanged handclasps while Pearl Woman spoke with Roberta. Maijstral offered two fingers and got one in return. It was, he reflected, nothing more than what he had expected.
Both men smiled. Their smiles lacked warmth.
"Maijstral," said Fu George, "have you heard the rumors coming out of the Constellation Practices Authority?"
"Referring to Allowed Burglary."
"Yes. They're considering an outright condemnation."
"That," said Maijstral, "could be unfortunate."
"They could put us in prison. Just for practicing our profession. We'd all have to move to the Empire. And I don't know about you, Maijstral—" smiling, a bit more warmly "—but I like being a member of the majority species. Call me parochial if you like."
"The Constellation suits my temperament as well, Fu George."
"Then you'll join in the Burglars' Association? We're going to try to head this off before it gets out of committee."
Maijstral sighed. "I suppose I must."
"This is no time to be a maverick, Maijstral. Personal style is one thing; survival is quite another. Aldiss is holding the treasury. I hope we can count on a generous contribution, " A thin smile. ' "The Sporting Commission has agreed to count it for points."
Another sigh, this one purely internal. "A generous contribution. Yes."
Geoff Fu George smiled again. Maijstral fancied he could feel its warmth on his skin. "I knew you would understand, once this was put to you in person. Aldiss told me he had the damndest time getting ahold of you by post. Even Very Private Letters seemed not to get through."
"My life has been irregular, of late."
Fu George glanced at Roberta. "I wonder if the Shard is on station?"
"I've no idea."
"I am very interested in the answer to that question, Maijstral. Very."
Maijstral gave him a look. His green eyes seemed less lazy than before. "Does that mean I am supposed to be uninterested?"
Fu George shook his head. "Not at all, old man. I was just talking to myself." He stood on tiptoe and craned his head across the Casino. "Ah. I believe I see Miss Runciter. Have you met her? Oh. I forget. Sorry, Maijstral. Tactless of me."
"No need to apologize."
"I should join her. You will excuse me?"
"Certainly." He offered Fu George his hand. One finger, as was no doubt proper.
Mr. Sun sat quietly in his blue heaven, awaiting information. He pictured himself as a spider in its lair, his fingers dancing on threads, each thread a monitor, a functionary.
The burglars were talking as if they were old friends. Sun felt a grim satisfaction. If he had anything to say about it, talking was all they'd ever do.
Sun was on a mission, he considered, from God. Since the Rebellion, humanity had been asserting itself in the reaches, and had also been rediscovering its own suppressed heritage. Along with other rediscoveries—Shakspere, Congo Veiling, Sherlock Holmes, and so on—ancient philosophies had been recovered. Mr. Sun had absorbed two of these. Besides becoming an ardent Holmes fan—the Manichean duality of Holmes and Moriarty appealed to him—Sun had become an adherent of a recently excavated creed called the New Puritanism.
Refined to its essence, the New Puritanism believed that every act had its cost, that everything had to be paid for. Sin was the occasion of a cosmic imbalance, and if the sinner didn't commit some act to compensate, the Almighty would do it for him; and the Almighty didn't care who got hurt in the process—God, according to the New Puritanism, didn't much care who got squashed when the Sin Balance was sufficiently out of alignment: He'd flatten anybody, sinner and nonsinner alike.
Mr. Sun hoped, in the small matter of Allowed Burglary, to be the Almighty's instrument in the business of flattening the wicked. Fu George and Maijstral had been sinning far too long; it was time, Sun was certain, they paid for it before some innocent party did the paying for them.
"You'll excuse me, ladies, I hope." Geoff Fu George gave his formal congé to Advert, the Duchess, and lastly to Pearl Woman. As he sniffed her left ear, his lips closed delicately over the dangling pearl and the sonic cutters in his white implanted incisors neatly severed the dangling link. He slipped the pearl under his tongue, smiled, and stepped across the Casino toward Miss Vanessa Runciter.
Vanessa looked up at him and gave a near-imperceptible nod. Fu George knew that she'd caught everything on the micromedia globe she was wearing in her hair.
Satisfaction welled in him like warm water from a volcanic spring. He had practiced the stunt for months, ever since he had conceived the idea of separating Pearl Woman from her trademark, in public, without her knowledge. He had been a bit clumsy at first: Vanessa had lost a part of her earlobe, and even after surgery restored her appearance Fu George had a difficult time persuading her to resume practice. But return she did, and now he could perform the trick flawlessly.
The most satisfying part of his maneuver was that, since both he and Maijstral were present at the time, Pearl Woman wouldn't know which had done it. Her temper was famous, but he doubted she'd challenge without proof.
Fu George would sell it back to her, of course, through the most discreet agent he could find, assuming of course that she bid higher than any of her fans. But he wouldn't sell the trinket before everyone in the Constellation had taken note that the Pearl had lost her trademark, and the speculation concerning who had done it reached its height. At that point the video would be released, and it would be obvious to whom should belong the credit, and the points.
The Ratings Authority gave a full ten points for style. Geoff Fu George had it in abundance.
He wasn't on top by accident. He was very good at his work.