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CYRA HURRIED THROUGH the bustle of the pre-dawn, head down, and face hidden.

She traveled early, when the friendly shadows helped hide her deformity, allowing her to negotiate the eight chancy blocks from the anonymous apartments she kept in a nondescript building—where the floor numbering was in fresher paint in Terran numerals than in the older Liaden—to the streets she depended upon for her living.

Once on those streets no one remarked her, and few noticed her passing or her business, except those who had need to buy or sell this or that bauble of stone or made-stone or metal. The half-light suited her purpose, and even so she sometimes found herself automatically facing away from the odd passerby of Liaden gait and stature who would consider her worthless, or less.

On some worlds, Cyra would have been valued for her intelligence and her skills. On others, her demeanor and comeliness would surely have been remarked.

On others—but none of that mattered, for here on Liad she was marked for life by the knife of her Delm, and guaranteed a painful existence without the support of clan or kin for at least the remaining ten years of the dozen she'd been banned from clanhouse and the comforts of full-named society.

At one time, of course, she'd been Cyra chel'Vona, Clan Nosko. Now, on the streets where she was seen most, she was "that Cyra," if she was anything at all.

The marks high on her cheeks were distinctive, but hardly so disfiguring or repulsive in themselves to have people of good standing turn their heads or their backs on her until she passed. Yet, those of breeding did . . . .

This was scarcely a problem any longer, for she had long ago moved the shambles of her business from the streets of North Solcintra, where she had served the Fifty, to the netherworlds of Low Port, where her clientele were most frequently off-worlders, the clanless, outlaws, and the desperate.

Her own fortunes had fallen so far that she opened and closed her small shop by herself, working daily from east-glow to mid-day, and then again from the third hour until whatever time whimsey-driven traffic in the night faltered. Occasionally even these hours were insufficient to feed her, and she would work in the back-house at Ortega's—cleaning dishes, turning sheets, cooking, pushing unruly drunks out the back door—where her face would not be remarked—and thereby eating and sometimes earning an extra bit or two.

That was the final indignity. Very often her purse was so shrunken that she measured her worth not in cantra or twelfths but in bits—Terran bits!—and was pleased to have them. For that matter, being employed by a pure blood Terran was, by itself, enough to turn any of the polite society from her face, no matter that the Terran was a legal land-holder.

Things had been somewhat better of late; the new run of building on the east side of the port gave many of her regulars a chance at day labor and those of sentimental bent often returned in hope for the items they'd sold last week, or even last year.

This morning she was tired, having spent much of the evening at Ortega's, filling in for a cook gone missing. Shrugging her way into the store after touching the antiquated keypads she caught a glimpse of someone standing huddled against the corner of the used clothing store.

Closing the door behind her, leaving behind the sound of the morning shuttles lifting under the clouds, and the jitneys in the streets, she settled into the quiet of the thick-walled old building, checking the time to see that she was early enough to set tea to boil, and to warm and wolf the leftover rolls she carried from last night's work. She started those tasks, glancing through the scratched flex-glass of the door as she moved the few semi-valuable pieces from their hiding places to the case, and uncovered the special twirling display that held her choice Festival masks behind a clear plastic shield.

Cyra admired the green feathered mask as it twirled by, recalled the evening her aunt had brought her the ancient box and said, "This green does not become me, and I doubt I'll go again to Festival. This was my aunt's, after all, and is much out of style—but if you wish it, it is yours."

And so she'd worn it to her first Festival, finding delight in the games of walking and eyeing, the while looking for people she might know and seeking one who might not know her . . . .

Later, she'd been doubly glad of that Festival, for the marriage her uncle found for her was without joy or success, which had scandalized him despite the medic's assurance that she was healthy—and quashing her chance at full time study at the Art Institute.

Now, of course, she was denied the Festival at all.

She took her hand from beneath the plastic shield, where it had strayed, unbidden, and returned to routine, eyes drawn to the sudden flash of color outside the window, as the light began to rise with real daybreak.

He—at the distance the wildy abundant Terran beard was about all she could be sure of, aside from the bright blue skullcap he wore to hide his hair—he was dressed in what may have once been fine clothes, but which looked somewhat worse than they ought. She doubted he could see her, but his face and eyes seemed to spend about half their time watching her shop door and the other half watching chel'Venga's Pawnshop.

She sighed gently. The ones who had not the good sense to wait until the store was respectably open were the ones who were selling something. She wasn't sure which sort was worse—the ones who needed something they wouldn't be able to afford or the ones who couldn't afford to sell what they had to offer for a price she was able to give. At least he'd be out soon, no doubt, and she'd be able to keep the fantasy she held to heart from being overly tarnished yet again, the fantasy that Port Gem Exchange was yet a jewelry store and not yet a pawnshop in truth.

The clock stared back at her. Once upon a time she had slept until mid-day when she wished. Now she used each hour as if there was not a moment to waste. And for what this early morning? So that she might eat without being observed, and without companions. No need to rush—chel'Venga's Pawnshop rarely opened on time.

* * *

THE TERRAN STOOD at his corner across the way, left hand in pocket, watching across the way as the increasing jitney traffic blocked his view from time to time, his beard waving in the wind. He'd seen her work the door and had straightened; and was there when she went back inside to get the rope-web doormat that welcomed her visitors. The pawnshop had no such amenities as rugs or mats. Perhaps it made no difference to her customers, but such were among the few luxuries she had these days.

He was not on the corner when she straightened from placing the mat in doorway and a quick glance showed him nowhere on the street. The lights had gone on in the pawnshop. They'd likely stolen the man away. Now Cyra regretted not giving in to the impulse to beckon to him as she unlocked the door, no matter the poor manners of it. It was hard to keep good melant'i in this part of the city, after all.

And then he was back, this time carrying a large, flat blue package of some kind, and he was hurrying, fighting the wind and the traffic, threatening at one point to run into a jitney rather than risk his burden.

Then he was there, larger than she'd realized, his relative slenderness accentuating his height, the dense beard distorting and lengthening his already long face, and his plentiful dark brown hair, brushed straight back from the high forehead, making him seem that much taller now that he'd taken the hat respectfully off to enter her store.

He came in quietly, with the noise of a large transport lifting from the port masking not only his sounds but those of the door until it closed, leaving his breathing—and hers—loud in the room.

He glanced down at her, nodded Terran-style, and looked over the shop carefully. Somehow she felt he might be looking at the tops of the cases—it had been many days since she'd thought to dust them, for who ever climbs a stool to inspect them?

He smiled at her, his light brown eyes inspecting her face so quickly that she hadn't time to flinch at the unexpected attention; nodded again, and said in surprisingly mannered Liaden, "I regret it has taken me so long to find your operation. I suspect we are both the poorer for it. "

At that he pulled from his pocket a large handful of glittery objects, some jeweled, some enameled or overlaid; pins, rings, earrings, necklaces . . . .

And, she suspected quickly, all of them real.

"These are for sale," he said, "for a reasonable return. Since I am very close to crashing I will not haggle nor argue. I will simply accept or reject your offers on each. I would hope to get more than scrap value. You are a jeweler, however, and will know what you need."

His hands were the competent hands of an artisan, she decided as he turned the items out on her sales cloth. Despite the items he sold, he was ringless and despite the worn look of his clothes the marks on his hands were those of someone who worked with them regularly, not one who was careless or unemployed. Indeed, there were spatters, or patterns of colors on his skin, masked somewhat by the unusual amount of hair on his wrists, on the back of his hands, even down to his knuckles. Cyra was distracted, yes, even shocked: she had never seen a man with hair so thick it looked like fur!

"Indeed, we shall look," she managed, fretting at herself for the incivility of staring at someone's hands.

Quickly she sorted, finding far too many items of real interest. A dozen earrings—some of them paired and some not—all of quality. A strangely designed clasp pin, set with diamonds, starstones, and enamel work. A necklace, of platinum she thought, set with amethyst. Then the glass was in her hand, and the densitometer turned on, and the UV light, as well.

In a twelve day she would rarely expect to see so many fine pieces, much less at once.

"The pin," she said finally, "is obviously custom work. I suspect it of more value to the owner or designer than to me . . . ."

"My great-uncle designed that himself," said the man, "and he is always one for the gaudy. Set it aside and we can talk about it later. Else?"

Cyra looked up—way up—into those brown eyes. He looked at her without sign of distress, and so she continued, oddly comforted.

"I would offer to buy the lot if we were closer to Festival," she admitted, "even the pin. But these are all quality items, as you do know, and they are somewhat more—extravagant, let us say—than I might usually invest in at this season."

"That's not an offer," the Terran returned, his face suddenly strained. "And I will need something for later, too."

"Perhaps," she suggested, "you should choose those least dear to you and point them out to me. I will offer on them."

His hands carefully moved the earrings to a small pile, and the necklace, leaving the pin by itself, and retrieving deftly other pins and the two rings. He leaned his hands on the counter then, as if tired.

"An offer," he said, "with and without the pin. You know that it is platinum; know that it is platinum from the very Amity object—and the provenance can be proved . . . ."

Cyra grabbed up the pin, admiring its weight and the clasp design. Impulsively she touched his hand, the one that held the other retrieved objects, and turning it over, pressed the pin into it.

"In that case, this is better placed with someone among the High Houses. They fail to arrive here in sufficient number to make my purchase worthwhile . . . ."

And then she named a price which was far more of her available capital than she normally risked—but far less than the value she perceived before her—and was oddly annoyed by the man's rather curt, "That will do."

She was even more annoyed by the rapt attention he paid as she counted the cash out—as if each coin was in doubt. The she realized he was looking at her face. Involuntarily, she colored, which made her angry. Too long among the Terrans if she could blush so easily . . . .

"No," he said suddenly, his Liaden gone stiffly formal. " I did not mean to disturb you. I sought—I was trying to see if I might read or recognize the etchings or tattoos on your face."

Cyra felt her face heat even more. She covered the scars with close-held fingers, looking up.

"Our transaction is finished. You may go."

He reached his hand toward her face and she flinched.

"Ah," he said, wisely. "The rule is that you may reach and touch my hand, but I, I may not reach and touch yours. When the crash is coming I see things so clearly . . . ."

Startled, she stepped back.

"Forgive me," she managed, and paused, seeking the proper words. Indeed, she had overstepped before he had; it was folly to assume that one who was Terran had no measure of manners.

Then: "But why this crash? Crash? You do not seem to be on drugs or drink, and . . ."

Now she was truly flustered; more so when he laughed gently.

"In truth, I am very much on drugs right now. I have been drinking coffee constantly for the last three days. Starting last night, I have been drinking strong tea, as well. It has almost been enough, you see, but I could tell it would not continue to work, so I need to buy food—I should eat very soon—I need to write the notes, though, and look once more before the crash."

Cyra held her hands even closer to her face.

"You need not look at all. These are none—"

But he was shaking his head, Terran-wise.

"No, you misunderstand. I need to look at the art so I remember what comes next . . . sometimes it is not so obvious to me when I start moving again."

Cyra was sure she must be misunderstanding—but before she could reply he pocketed the coins from the counter top and hefted the fabric-covered blue case or portfolio he'd brought in, laying it across the counter and reaching quickly for the seals.

"You, you love beautiful things—you must see this!" he said, nearly running over his words in his haste. "This one is my best so far! This is the reason I have come to Liad . . . .this is where the Scouts are!"

Now he wasn't staring at Cyra at all, and she found the willpower to bring her hands down and come forward to see what might be revealed.

Some kind of tissue was swirled back from inside the case and before her was a photograph of a double star—with one redder and the other bluer—taken from the surface of an obviously wind-swept desert world with tendrils of high gray clouds just entering the photograph.

But sections were missing or else the photo-download had been incomplete or—

Now the odor came to her, eerily taking her back to the brief time she studied painting before turning to jewelry.

"You painted this? You are painting it now?" She looked up into his face and rapidly down to the work again. The detail was amazing, the composition near perfect, the—

"Yes," he was saying, "yes, it is my work. But I must not paint now, because now I am tired and spent and will only ruin what I have done. For now, the work is not safe near me!"

Cyra recalled working long and hard on her first real commission, so long and hard in fact that she'd finally fallen asleep in the midst, and woke to find the beaten metal scratched and chewed in the polishing machine, destroyed by the very process which should have perfected it.

She heard her voice before she realized she was speaking—

"If you need a place—I can keep it here. It will be safe! Then, when you are awake and ready, you can claim it."

He laughed, sudden and short, and with an odd twist of amusement pulling his grin into his beard.

"When I wake. Yes, that is a good way to put it. When I wake."

With a flourish he waved his hand over the tissue, swept it back over the painting, and sealed the portfolio.

"My name," he said quite formally, "is Harold Geneset Hsu Belansium. Among my family I am known as Little Gene. To the census people I am BelansiumHGH, 4113." He paused, smoothed his beard, and smiled wryly before continuing.

"When I'm lucky, the pretty ladies of the universe call me Bell. Please, lady, if I may have your name, I would appreciate it if you would call me Bell."

With that he handed the portfolio into her care.

She bowed. "Bell you wish? Then Bell it is. I am Cyra the Jeweler to the neighbors here, or simply Cyra. I will see you when you wake."

* * *

SOUND RUMBLED THROUGH the walls and rattled the room around Cyra, who involuntarily looked toward the ceiling. This one was an explosion then—more blasting, for the expansion— and not a re-routed transport flying low overhead. Rumor had it that several of the older houses two streets over were settling dangerously, but that was just rumor as far as she was concerned. Her store would be fine. It would.

She tried to tell herself it was just the noise that was making her skittish, but she knew it wasn't so. She had moved the stool behind the counter to gain a better vantage of the street, and had developed a nervous motion—nearly a shake of the head it was—when surveying the street.

The knowledge that she had a masterwork of art in her back room awaiting the return of the absent Bell frightened her deeply.

Suppose he didn't return? Suppose he had "crashed" in some fey Terran way and was now locked in a quiet back room at Healers Hall, or worse?

A smartly dressed businessman carrying a bag from the pastry shop strode by and Cyra found herself looking anxiously past him toward the corner where she'd first spotted Bell. It didn't help—the businessman had slowed, eyes caught by one of her displays, perhaps—and now was peering in and reaching for the door, carefully wiping feet, and bringing the brusque roar of a transport in with him as he entered. He closed the door and the sound faded. .

Cyra slid to her feet.

"Gentle sir." She bowed a shopkeeper's bow. "How may I assist you today?"

He bowed, and now that she did not have the advantage of the stool, she saw that he was very tall, with sideburns somewhat longer than fashionable and—no, it was a very thin Terran-style beard, neatly trimmed and barely covering chin.

"Cyra, I am here to bring you a snack and to collect my painting."

She gawked, matching the height, and the color of the beard, and the voice—


He laughed, and said mysteriously "You, too?"

"Forgive me," she said after a moment. "You gave me great pause. I have been watching for you—but I did not . . ."

He put the bag on the counter and began rooting through it, glancing at her as if calculating her incomplete sentence to the centimeter.

"I clean up well, eh? But here—if you'll make some tea the lady at the pastry shop assures me you're partial to these . . ."

"Pastry shop? What does that have to do with anything?" She sputtered a moment, and— "Eleven days!" She got out finally, which was both more and less than she wished to say.

He lived very much in his face, the way Terrans do; his eyes were bright and his smile reached from the corners all the way to his bearded chin. He laughed gently, patting the counter, where there were now half-a-dozen pastries for her to choose from.

"Yes," he acknowledged. "Eleven. Not too bad. The worst was twenty-four, but that was before I knew enough to keep food by, and I'd been partying instead of painting."

"But what did you do for eleven days?"

He shook his head and the grin dissolved. He glanced down, then looked back to her, eyes and face serious.

"I crashed. I slept and I tried to sleep. I spent hours counting my failures, numbering my stupidities. I counted transports and the explosions and watched the crack in the wall get larger with each. Every so often I knew I'd never see my painting again, and I would know that I'd been taken and that you'd fled the city and I would never see you again, either."

He raised his hand before she could protest. "And then I would pull myself together and say 'Fool! Bewitched by beauty again!' And that way I'd recall your face and the painting, and try to sleep, knowing you'd be here, if only I could recall the shop name when I walked by. I nearly didn't, you know. I had to focus on that set of ear cuffs that match yours before I was sure."

She nearly reached for her ear, and then she laughed, somehow.

"Forgive me. I am without experience in this crashing you do. I was concerned for you, for your health, for your art!"

He smiled slowly. "We're both concerned for my health then, which I'm sure will be greatly improved if I can eat. My stomach has been growling louder than the shuttles! Please, join me! Afterward I will need to visit the port—it would be good if you could do me the favor of retaining my art until I return." The smile broadened. "I promise—I will not be gone eleven days, this time."

The noise of the street invaded their moment then, as two young and giggling girls entered. They stopped short, staring at the towering, bearded figure before them.

"Please," said Cyra to Bell. "If you will come back here we can let my patrons look about!"

He nodded, and moved without hesitation.

She opened the counter tray to let him pass, indicated a low stool for him (his knees seemed almost to touch his ears!) and moved the pastries to the work table, where they would both be able to reach them.

He smiled at her as she lifted a pastry to her lips. She felt almost giddy, as if she'd discovered some new gemstone or precious metal.

* * *

DEBBIE, THE HALF-TERRAN pastry maker from the shop four doors down was in, again, when Cyra returned from apartment hunting. It didn't improve her mood much; the girl hardly seemed as interested in the goods as in Bell, and her language was sprinkled with Terran phrases Cyra could just about decipher on the fly. Likewise the assistant office manager from the Port Transient Shelter. Didn't they realize that—she shushed her inner voice, nodding, Terran fashion, to Bell in his official spot behind the trade counter. He winked at her and she sighed. Were Terrans always so blatant?

The conversation continued unabated: and there on the counter were actual goods; an item she didn't recognize, so it was for sale to the shop.

"Now," Bell was saying carefully, "I've seen places that these might have been in the absolute top echelon."

The women gazed at him.

Drawn to the story and the voice despite the crowd, Cyra leaned in to hear.

"Of course, that would only be if the local priestess had purified the stone before it was cut, blessed the ore the silver had come from, sanctified the day the day the ring was assembled, and then prayed over the ring-giver and scried the proper hour for giving."

"In other corners of the universe," he went on, "as, say, on Liad or Terra, the flaws in the stone might mark it ordinary. If I were you, I would ask Cyra if she'll set a price, knowing it for a nubiath'a hastily given . . ."

Cyra moved behind the counter to take up the office of buyer, but the women had both apparently heard tall tales from Terrans in the past—

"Bell, now really, were you on that planet," asked the assistant office manager, "—or have you merely heard of it?"

He rolled his eyes and surprised Cyra with a discreet pat as she squeezed by him.

"What, am I a spaceman, or a Scout, to have all my stories disbelieved?"

They laughed, but he continued, assuming a serious air.

"Actually, it was almost all a disaster. The planet you should never go to is Djymbolay. I arrived just after I finished a painting on board the liner, and was pretty well spent. I had my luggage searched twice for contraband, and then they confiscated the painting as an unauthorized and unsanctified depiction of the world."

He shook his head, then tapped it with his finger. "They wanted to have me put away for blasphemy or something, I think. It took a Scout who happened by—all thanks to little John!—to let me keep my papers and my paint and my freedom. Off with my head or worse, I expect was the plan! But the Scout was there on another matter and interceded. The locals walked me across the port under armed guard, and the Scout came, too, to be sure that it was gently done—and they kept me confined to the spaceport exit-lounge for the twelve days the ship was there. If several kind ladies hadn't taken pity, and brought me meals and blankets, I might well have starved and froze."

Cyra bit back a comment half-way to her lips; after all she knew not where he'd slept before she met him, nor, for that matter, that he always returned to his own rooms on the afternoons and evenings he went to the lectures at Scout Academy. She only knew he returned to the store with sketches and ideas and full of hope that he might eventually be permitted to visit a new world, to be the first painter, the first interpreter . . . .

In a few moments more, the transaction was made; she paid a fairly low price for the emerald ring—the one suggested by the seller—and agreed to look at earrings that might be a match.

The two women gone. Bell looked at her carefully.

"You're tired—and you've been angry."

Exasperated by his grasp of the obvious, Cyra waved her hands in the air in a wild gesture, and snapped, "How else?"

"You might be pleased, after all. The emeralds were got at a decent price."

"Yes, a decent price. But if I'm going to afford you, my friend, we'll need to do better."

He looked at her with the same air of frankness he'd used when talking about the disaster that had cost him a painting, and shook his head.

"Yes, I know; I am hardly convenient for myself, much less for anyone else."

"That's not what I meant!" she protested. "I mean that—I mean that it is difficult to find a larger place to live hereabouts, and nearer to my apartment there are those who will not rent to someone who—"

"Someone who might bring a Terran home of a night," Bell finished, as she faltered. "Inconvenient I said, and I meant! " he insisted with heat. "I don't mind sleeping here in the store, after all, though the light is not always good. Perhaps you can offer to rent the corner place the next street over."

They had been over that before, too. Bell's situation was so changeable that neither knew how long they might find each other's company pleasant, useful, or convenient. He could hardly sign a lease, with his "transient alien" status in the port computers assuring that any who looked would laugh at his request. Even getting a room beyond the spaceport was difficult for him, except here in the Low Port area. Mid-port was too dear for his budget in any case.

He could hardly co-sign with her, either. The conditions her Delm had set were strict and might well bear on that—if she wished to ever return to the House, she would, during her time of exile, refrain from forming formal alliances; she must not buy real estate; she was forbidden to marry, or to have children . . . .

There could be no co-signing; she could speak for none other than herself. But to add a place where some of his paintings could be shown—this close to the port, they might gain a better clientele with such a gallery.

Truth told, though, Bell's sometime presence permitted Cyra to cut her dependence on Ortega's chancy employ; in fact, twice recently they'd been there as patrons.

He looked at her, snatched the ring to his hand and began tossing it furiously into the air. This, after three previous ragged forty-day cycles, she recognized. Any day, perhaps any moment, he would drag out the rough sketches and ideas, choose one, and then hardly see her, even should she stand naked before him, while he took plasboard and tegg-paint and the secret odds and ends from his duit box and transformed them by touch of skilled hand and concentration and willpower unmatched to art as fine as ever she'd seen. Days, he would be one with the art.

And then he would crash; folding into a hollow and dispirited being barely willing to feed himself, with a near-fear of sunlight and a monotone voice and no plans to speak of  . . . until the cycle came full and from the gray, desperate being emerged Bell, fresh and whole and new. Again.

He shook the ring, tossed it, glanced anxiously to his art kit where it was stashed near the door to the back room.

"I know," he said. "I know! It's almost time. I think we should close early, perhaps, and go someplace fine to eat—I'll pay!—and plan on a bottle of good wine and snacks—I've chosen them already—and a night, a glorious night, my beauty. And then, we can talk at breakfast, if the art's not here yet, and if it is, we'll talk in a few days."

In front of her then, the choice—and she knew already she'd take it, or most of it. Had she a clan to call on she would pledge her quartershare— to make this work, she'd—but what she would do if was no matter, now. Her quartershare would go—till the twelfth year, at least—into the account of a dead child, just as her invitations—large and small—would go to her Delm, and be returned with the information that she was in mourning and not permitted.

She recalled the discreet caress a few moments earlier, her blood warming . . .

Tonight she would forget the she was poor and outcast. Bell would take them somewhere with his stash of cash and they would spend as if he were a visiting ambassador instead of an itinerant artist, and then he would—

"Bell," she said gently, "perhaps we should stay until nearer closing. My friend. I followed your instructions last time, you know—there are three prepared boards waiting—and I have already an extra cannister of spacer's tea and you gave me enough for two tins of Genwin Kaffe last time, so we have that. That is, if you are certain that you won't talk to the Healers this time."

He looked at her then and his eyes were hungry; she doubted that hers were not.

"I'll check the boards, Cyra, and make sure that you have room to work this time, too."

* * *

CYRA TASTED THE SALT on her lips, and nearly wept as she relaxed against him. He was so inexhaustible and inventive a lover, she thought, that perhaps she should have invited the office manager to help out—and she laughed at the silliness, and he heard her, Bell with his hands still willing and eager, and his quirky Terran words dragged out of him in the midsts.

"Now I'm funny. Oh, woe, oh woe . . ."

She could see him in the half-light he preferred for lovemaking; just bright enough that the mirrors on the wall might tell an interesting tale to a glancing eye. She remembered that he'd brought beeswax candles, along with wine, flowers, that first evening after his very first return, when he'd somehow parlayed her concern—

She laughed again, this time finding his hair and beard wooly near her face, and she gently moved to brush them orderly. He had something more on his mind though, as her hands came in contact with his cheek; but she held him a moment and he was willing to be calmed.

Of course, she should not stroke his beard and his cheek; she should not kiss his nose, nor lay her palm on his face, this Terran who never knew the taboo of it . . . .

"Let's trade," he said, very gently. "A story for a story, a touch for a touch."

Then he laid his hand on her cheek, spreading his wide hand so that his thumb and his forefinger spanned her face.

It was late in the night, very nearly morning; the sounds from the road were not yet impinging on their lair. His breathing, and hers, and his touch.

"I," he said after a moment. " I cannot go to the Healers, because when someone in my family is cured, we loose the art. My father, my grandfather, my uncle—myself. I tried, there once—"

He paused, brushed her hair away from her eyes, kissed her on her nose, covered the marks on her face as if he would wipe them away. "After that painting was stolen from me I could have been locked up forever there, but for the good luck of a Scout's intercession. So, I thought I should get over the crash. I spoke to a doctor and he seemed to make sense, and they gave me a therapy and drugs and an implant . . . ."


He guided her hand and held it against that long scraggly scar on his leg. She'd found that scar before, but never dared question—there were things lovers were not to ask, after all; the Code was clear on that.

"Three months," he said very quietly. "Let me say about two of my usual cycles, though they change sometimes—be warned!—and I had not even the slightest twinge of being able to paint, and what I drew was stick figures and bad circles and patterns, and I spoke politely to people and one night I went home and picked up a cooking knife and thought that I would cut my throat."

He took her hand and placed it under his beard, where it was just above his throat, and let her feel the pulse of him, and the smaller, more ragged scar.

"I'd made a start, actually, when I realized that what I wanted was not my throat cut, but my art back. And so I took the knife and opened my leg and took the thirty-four months' worth of implant that was left out of me, and I washed it down the drain."

She stared at him, at once fascinated and horrified, not knowing what to say.

"My cousin," he went on, after a moment. "My cousin Darby. He took the cure and has stayed on it. He's married, he goes to work, comes home, goes to work, comes home—and I have the last piece of sculpture he did before the implant. He was brilliant. He made me look like a bumbling student. But it is gone. Five years and he can't draw a face much less model one; he can't see the images in the clouds!"

He brushed his lips over the mark under her left eye, then kissed the one under her right eye.

"You know," he said quietly, "you are beautiful. I have known beautiful ladies, my friend, and you are very beautiful."

The realization hit her—what he would ask, in exchange for this tale from his soul. Very nearly, she panicked, but he caught her mouth with his, and in a few moments she relaxed against him.

"My friend," she said, "you can be as cruel as you are wonderful. To cut yourself so—the pain! But I am not so brave as you. I took the cuts from my Delm, in punishment—cut with the blade my family keeps from the early days. Then I wept and cried, and was cast from the house . . ."

"Does this person yet live?" Not in his deepest despair had she heard his voice so cold.

Cyra looked into his face and saw he meant it—that he contemplated Balance or revenge or—

"No, Bell, you cannot. My Delm was doing duty. I was cut to remind me and to warn others."

He said nothing, but kissed her face again, gently, waiting.

"We are not as rich a house as some others, Clan Nosko; and my Delm, my uncle, is not so easy a spender as you or I. As I was youngest of the daughters of the house—and lived at the clan seat, it being close to my shop—it fell my duty sometimes to spend an afternoon and a night, or sometimes two, doing things needful. And so . . ."

Here she paused a moment, gently massaging Bell's neck under the beard, imagining all too well . . . .

"So it was," she went on very quietly, with the blood pounding in her ears, "that I was briefly in charge of the nursery, the nurse having been given a discharge for cost or cause, I know not. I had put the child Brendar to bed; a likely boy come to the clan through my sister's second marriage. I changed him once, but he was otherwise biddable. I was trying for my Master Jeweler's license, so I was at study with several books. I read, and read more, hearing no fuss. Then my sister came home, and the child was not asleep, but had died sometime in the night."

There was quiet then.

Finally, he kissed her again, each scar, very carefully.

"I'd thought there must be more, but I see the story now, and I am near speechless. The child died of an accident—

"My incompetence and negligence . . ."

He pressed a finger to her lips so hard it nearly hurt.

"I am a fool, Cyra, my beautiful friend. I thought it was your own anger, or your own desire, that placed those marks on your face; that you had rebelled against the rules of this world and even now wore them as badges. That they were inflicted by your family to humiliate and destroy you never came to mind . . ."

He brushed the hair out of her face again.

"I will paint your picture one day, I promise. Your face will be known as among the most beautiful of this world. And they will see that they have lost you, for I'll not let them have you back!"

She had no quick answer for this, and then he said, "Here!" and placed her hand again on the long leg scar.

She felt the welt there—he laughed, nibbled on her earlobe, and moved her hand a bit, murmuring, "Now, lady, here if you wish to be pleased!"

She did, and she was.

* * *

THREE DAYS LATER Cyra was not so very pleased.

To begin, Bell had become inspired sometime in the night of their pillow talk and when she awoke alone in the dawn she found him sketching like a madman on her couch, barely willing to drag himself away from his work long enough to share a breakfast with her.

He packed his sketches and walked with her to the shop, his eyes as elsewhere as his mind. Twice she had to repeat herself while she spoke with him, and then he disappeared into the back room to work as soon as they reached the store.

In the afternoon he had rushed out of the back room, complaining that she'd not told him the time, and stormed out, on his way to a lecture he particularly wanted to see. Worse, he stormed back, having left his sketchbook and wallet, and dashed off with nary a backward glance. When he didn't return by closing—he sometimes went to discussion groups after the lectures—she'd not expected him to come by her apartment, and he didn't, which grated mightily.

In the morning he wandered in very late, hung over and exhausted, explaining that he'd met a pack of Scouts at the lecture and talked with them until the barkeep announced shift-change at dawn. He was animated, nearly wildly so, explaining that he might "have a line on" the Scout who had helped him at Djymbolay; that his conversations of the evening had revealed that he owed Balance to that Scout; that he might have an idea for yet another painting; and that when he had more money there was a world he'd have to travel to and—

"I have an appointment, Bell," Cyra said abruptly. "Tell me later!"

She rushed out the door, barely confident—and barely caring—that he'd heed the advent of a customer.

Her appointment was with her tongue—had she stayed and heard more she surely would have said hurtful words.

So she walked, nearly oblivious to the sounds of transports—more this day than others since a portion of the port would be closed late in the afternoon for some final tricksy bit of work for the expansion—and found herself several blocks from her usual streets, in a very old section, where the buildings and the people were barely above tumbledown.

Surprisingly, she saw Debbie-the-pastry-girl hurrying from one of the least kept brick-fronts; Number 83 it was, a regrettable four-story affair sporting ungainly large windows and peeling paint. The peaked, slate roof suggested that the building was several hundred Standards old, and it looked like it had no repair since the day it was built.

Heart falling, she reached into her card case, and removed the slip of paper she had from Bell the day he'd agreed to share his direction with her: Number 83 Corner Four Ave, Room 15.

A shuttle's long rumble began then; she could feel the sidewalk atremble as she watched the pastry girl's blue-and-green hair disappear in the distance. Also on the paper was the pad combination, and with the whine of the shuttle rising behind her, and then over, she stood, and for a moment was tempted to enter Number 83 and find Room 15, open the door, and see if—if . . .

She turned and walked all the way home for lunch, grasping the paper tightly in her fist.

When she got back to the store, calmer, but heartsore, there was Bell's back vaguely visible in the back room. He heard her enter and yelled out over his shoulder "Any luck?"

"No," she said, quietly. "No luck, Bell."

She slept badly alone, and the rumble of the transports, joined with the not entirely foreign sounds of proctor-jitneys blaring horns as they answered a nighttime summons hadn't helped.

And now, on her store step across the road in the dawn light?

Debbie, cuddling Bell's good jacket in her arms.

* * *

"BELL'S OK," THE GIRL said quickly, shaking her absurd hair back from a remarkably grimy face. "He wasn't bleeding all that much and the medic said he'll do. The proctor, now, he'll be OK, too, other'n his pride's pretty well hurt by getting really whomped—I mean decked in front of all his buddies. But there's gonna be some fines to pay, I guess, and he's gotta have a place to live and—"

Cyra stood staring, hard put to sort this tumbled message, clinging at last to the simple, "Bell's OK . . ."

Debbie was looking at her with desperate eyes. "Cyra, you're a lucky girl, you know? But you're gonna have to get someone down to the jail to get him out. He's not the kind of guy that'll get along there, and hey—what it'll take is 'a citizen of known melant'i, moral character, and resources.' I sure don't qualify for the resources part, the melant'i I ain't got and I'm not sure if I qualify for the character part . . . ."

Cyra wasn't too sure about the character part either, though the fact that the girl was here with so many of Bell's belongings argued for her. Arrayed on the step was a ship bag with "Belansium" printed on a tag, four or five studies—paintings and sketches of a woman, who Cyra realized must be herself by the detail of the face—nude in different positions, some small odds and ends in boxes, a small paint kit, a picnic box . . . .

"Tell me again," Cyra demanded. "After we got these inside. From the beginning. I'll make tea."

* * *

DEBBIE RUSHED OFF while the tea was heating and returned with pastries, and a damp towel, which she was using on the dust and grime on her bare arms.

"I was having company over and wasn't much paying attention to other stuff when I heard one of the transports go over. Things started trembling and—well, wasn't at the stage I thought, then the next thing I know there was a big cherunk kind of noise and the front wall just fell out into the street. The whole place got shaky and we all got out. Bell come dashing out from his room carrying something big and square and rushing down the steps with it whiles bricks and roof-stuff falling all around.

"We was outside standing and staring—most everyone out by then, when the whole building kind of slanted over backwards and leaned into the alley. My guy, he's pretty smart, he'd grabbed a bottle of wine on the way out, and we all had a sip, and when it looked like there wasn't any more up to fall down we went in to see what we could save and to make sure no one was inside—and a bunch of snortheads showed up. One grabbed one of them sketches of you and yelled for some of the others—

"That Bell picked up part of a drainpipe and started hitting and bashing at them guys, and then my guy hit one of 'em with the empty bottle, and then the proctors showed up and Bell wasn't letting no one near his stuff. Proctor kind of waved something in his direction and Bell did this neat little dance step and brought his hand out and lifted the proctor right off his feet. Right quick they was all on him . . .and I had to explain— see it was my Ma's building, and all— but they still got Bell for drunk-and-disorderly, striking a proctor, and I don't know what else. And I can't speak for him!"

"Neither can I," Cyra admitted, staring down into her tea and trying not to think of Bell at the hottest part of his cycle, locked away from his paints and pens. "Neither can I."

* * *

"YOU HAVE ARRIVED," the receptionist told Cyra, "at a bad time. I have no one to spare to listen to your story, as interesting as it must be. The Scouts are not in the habit of interfering with the proctors on matters of Low Port drunk-and-disorderly  . . ."

Cyra glared. "He was not drunk—not at this time in the cycle. Disorderly—he did strike a proctor, but—" she stopped, suddenly struck by a thought, and came near to the counter again.

"Have you a Scout named Jon?" she asked.

"Only several," a female voice said from close behind her. Cyra spun, face heating. The Scout tipped her head, eyes bright and manic, as the eyes of Scout's so often were. "Would you wish us to know that it is a Scout named Jon whom the proctors discovered to be drunk and disorderly? I don't find that impossible. Why, I myself have been drunk and disorderly in Low Port. It is excellent practice for the dining situations found on several of the outworlds."

"Captain sig'Radia . . ." the receptionist began, but the Scout waved a hand.

"Peace. Someone has arrived with time to spare for a story about a drunk and disorderly in Low Port." She cocked a whimsical eyebrow in Cyra's direction, looking her full in the face, as if the disfiguring scars were invisible, or non-existent. "The acoustics of this hallway are quite amazing, but allow me to be certain—I did hear you say 'struck a proctor'?"

Cyra admitted it dejectedly. "But it is not the Scout Jon who did this," she continued, feeling an utter fool. "I had merely thought, since my friend—Bell—was known to the Scout . . ."

"Ah. And something more of your friend—Bell—if you please? For I do not believe, despite our abundance of Jons, that we have any Scouts named Bell."

Cyra bit her lip. "He is a Terran—an artist. Last night, the apartment house he lived in fell down, and—"

"Now I have the fellow!" Captain sig'Radia cried, and grinned with every appearance of delight. "What we heard on the Port is that he knocked down a prepared, on-duty proctor, barehanded. Quite an accomplishment, though I don't expect the proctors think so. No sense of humor, proctors."

"It must be unpleasant," Cyra murmured, "after all, to be knocked down."

"Oh, wonderfully unpleasant," the Scout agreed happily. "Especially with the rest of your team looking on."

"Yes," Cyra bit her lip, wondering how possibly to explain the cycles, and the tragedy of Bell being without his paints now. "If you please, Bell—it is very bad . . ." she stammered to a halt.

"Complicated, eh?" the Scout said sympathetically. "Come, let us be private."

She took Cyra's arm as if they were long friends, and escorted her out of the main room and down a hall.

"Ah, here we are," the Scout said, and put her palm against a door, which opened willingly, utterly silent.

The lights came up as they walked down the room to the table and chairs. Cyra looked about, marveling at the size of the chamber, her eye caught and held by a projection on the front wall—a planetscape, it was, showing a sun and a great-ringed planet in the distance and a close up portion of bluish-green atmosphere—

Cyra gasped, recognition going through her like a bolt, though she had never seen this painting, but the composition, the eloquence the work—it could only be—

"That is Djymbolay, is it not?" She asked the Scout captain, her voice shaking.

The woman looked at her in open wonder. "It is, indeed. How did you know?"

"My friend Bell painted the original of that." She used her chin to point.

The captain looked, face very serious now. "I see. You will then be comforted to know that the original is safe in the World Room." She looked back to Cyra, her smile crooked.

"And your friend Bell is by extrapolations no more nor no less than Jon dea'Cort's glorious madman. Allow me to see if the Scout is within our reach."

* * *

SUMMONED, JON DEA'CORT arrived quickly and heard the tale out with a grin almost as wide as Bell's could be, when he stood at the height of his powers. When all was said, he looked to Cyra, and inclined his head.

"Your Bell, he is at what stage in his continuing journey?"

She blinked against the rise of unexpected tears and made herself meet his eyes squarely. "He is painting. Please—"

He held up a hand. "Yes. You were right to come to us." He looked to Captain sig'Radia, who lifted an eyebrow.

"A change of custody, I think," he said to her. "Certainly, they will insist that he be heard, and fined, but he must be got out of the holding tank at once and allowed to paint before drunk-and-disorderly becomes cold murder."

Cyra sat up, horrified. "Bell would not—" A bright glance stopped her.

"Would he not? Perhaps you are correct. But let us not put him to the test, eh?" He grinned suddenly, Scout-manic. "Besides, I want to see what magic flows from his brush this time."

* * *

THEY GAVE HER A room, and a meal, and promised to fetch her, when Bell was arrived. She ate and laid down on the bed, meaning to close her eyes for a moment only . . .

"Cyra?" The voice was quiet, but unfamiliar. "It is I, Jon dea'Cort. Your Bell is safe."

She sat up, blinking, and found the Scout seated on the edge of her bed, face serious.

"Is he well?" she demanded. "Is he—"

He held up a hand. "Would you see him? He is painting."


"Come then," he said, and he led her out and down the hall to a lift, then down, down, down, perhaps to the very core of the planet, before the doors opened, and there was another hall, which they walked until it intersected another. They turned right. Jon dea'Cort put his hand against a door, which slid, silently, open, and they stepped into a large and well-lit studio.

Bell at the farther end of the room, his easel in the best light and he was working with that focused, feverish look on his face that she had come to know well—and to treasure.

The Scout touched her hand, and tipped his head toward the door. Cyra followed him out.

"Thank you," she said, feeling conflicting desires to sing and weep. "He will crash—sometime. Often, he knows when, but in a strange place, with this interruption—I do not know. Someone—someone should pay attention to him."

"Surely," the Scout said amiably. "And that someone ought to be yourself, if you are able?"

She hesitated for a moment, thinking of the shop in Low Port, and then inclined her head. "I am able."

* * *

"CYRA?" SHE LOOKED UP from her work, smiling, and found Bell gazing seriously down at her.

Having gained her attention, he went to a knee, and raised his hand to her face. She nestled her cheek into the caress.

"Are you sorry, Cyra? To leave your home, to be rootless, companioned to inconvenient Bell, and in the sphere of Scouts . . ."

She laughed and turned her face, brushing her lips against his palm, and straightening.

"What is this? You will be painting tomorrow, my friend; do not try to tease me into believing that you are on the down-cycle!"

He smiled at that, and touched a fingertip to her nose before dropping his hand to his knee. "You know me too well. But, truly, Cyra . . ."

She put the pliers down and reached out, placing her hands on his shoulders and gazing seriously into his eyes.

"I am not sorry, Bell. Did you not say that you would take me away? You have done so, and I am not sorry at all."

He had kept the other part of that pillow-sworn vow, as well, and the portrait of herself that he had completed in Scout Headquarters remained there, on display in the reception area, with other works of art from many worlds.

"I have the original," he had said to Jon dea'Cort. "Take you the copy, and let us be in Balance."

And so it had been done, and now they were—attached to Scouts, spending time on this research station, or that surveillance ship, while Bell painted, and sketched, and fed his art. Cyra fed her own art, and her jewelry was sought after, when they came to a world where they might sell, or trade.

"We do well," she said, leaning forward to kiss his cheek. "I am pleased, Bell."

He laughed gently and leaned forward, sliding his arms around her and bringing her on to his knee.

"You're pleased, are you?" he murmured against her hair. "But could you not be—just a little—more pleased?"

She laughed and wrapped her arms closely around his neck, rubbing her cheek against the softness of his beard.

"Why, yes," she said, teasing him. "I might be—just a little—more pleased."

He laughed, and rose, bearing her with him, across their cabin to the bed.

—Standard Year 1293

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