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Day 276
Standard Year 1392
Master Jenn's Workshop

THEY HAD DOUBTED his skill. Laughed at him, by Erlady! Took leave to believe him a once-was—a ten-thumbed, aging Terran, half-blind; incapable of bringing the table silver to luster, never mind to copy a ring.

That had been before the Liadens.

They were Liadens, right enough, with the pretty cantra pieces dandled like candies 'tween their slender elvish fingers and sweet words of flattery in their mouths.

Truth owed Erlady, it were the cantra pieces spoke loudest. A man and his grandson, with three cantra pieces to draw against, lived well, for a year or six, here on backworld Neglit.

And they promised him three cantra more, when they came to collect the ring.

The ring. Now, there was a beautiful piece of work. In his young days, he would have snatched the job up for the challenge of it, no thought of payment in his head.

He'd aged out of that nonsense—paid he would be. Well-paid. And still he had the delicate, brutal trial of the work, the result of which, polished and re-polished until the intarsia-work gleamed like water in the beam of his work-light, proved he was yet a master of his craft.

They'd sought him out, the canny Liadens. Him, Jen of Neglit Center, though they surely had all the fabled master jewelers of Solcintra to choose from. Yet they traveled to an outworld, sought out an old and fading Terran master, commissioned him to make—to remake—their ring. And why was that?

The tale they'd spun for Terran wits was simple enough. The original ring, a family heirloom, had gone missing, and must be replaced before certain elders of the house noticed its lack.

Such things happened, drain pipes and gambling games being universally hazardous to jewelry. And mayhap the jewel-masters of Solcintra gossiped 'mong themselves, and a whispered word might waft to the ear of the stern elder, to the dismay of his pretty patrons.


He was canny enough not to question them too nearly. He had no ambition to risk his six cantra, though he might have balked, if they had wanted paste or light-gold or glass.

But they were keen in their instructions: he was to use only pure-gem, true-gold and emerald. A replacement, that's what they insisted on: full duplication of the ring that was lost.

A replacement, exact in every detail, is what he had made for them.

He picked the ring up, turning it this way and that, admiring the simple power of the design. Caught in fluid perfection, a bronze dragon hovered, wide-winged, above a tree in full green leaf. Smiling, he set it against the holopic they had given him of the original.

"I witness ye'd deceive the master who made yon," he told the copy fondly.

"Indeed, it is remarkable work," said a strongly accented voice at his elbow.

The master jeweler started badly and jerked around on his stool, frowning down at the pale-haired Liaden in his costly leather jacket. "Enough to give a body his death, sneak-footing behind one!" He caught himself up, looked from his visitor to the workroom door, with the bell hung above it, that jangled when one of his rare customers came in from the street.

He looked back to the Liaden's smooth, emotionless face. "How came ye?"

The Liaden gestured behind him, to where the inner door stood ajar. "Through the house."

Fear—the tiniest spark of fear—flickered in the master jeweler's heart. The boy was his last treasure. He did not think these were child-thieves, yet—

"I have distressed you," the Liaden said gently. "It was not my intention."

"Well." Mindful of the three cantra yet to come, the master jeweler moved his hand, smoothing the fear out of the air, and spoke moderately. "Understand ye, it's late. The boy needs his rest."

"Of course," said the Liaden and a shadow moved at his shoulder. The master jeweler looked up, meeting the still eyes of the female Liaden.

"The child was asleep," she said in her soft, emotionless voice. "We did not wake him."

He ducked his head, relieved to look away from her eyes. "Thank'ee."

"Surely," she said, then moved forward. Her partner stepped aside, giving her clear view of the worktable. She paused, face as ungiving as ever, studying holo and reality, sitting side by side in the work-light.

"Excellent," she said at last, no faintest lilt of appreciation in her voice. She raised her cold eyes to his face, and went toward the table, her path forcing him to turn somewhat on the stool. The male Liaden had vanished into the shadows of the shop.

"You are indeed a master jeweler," the woman said. She extended a hand and plucked the ring up, turning it under the light, then lowering it to compare against the holopic. Trapped on his stool, the master jeweler watched her, seeing neither pleasure nor relief on her cold, comely face.

"Yes," she said finally, and dropped the ring as if it were a common trinket into the pocket of her jacket. The holopic went to the other pocket, from out of which came three cantra coins, shining across her palm like moons.

"You have earned your fee, Master Jen," she said, extending her hand, the coins glowing, murmuring comfort and ease and schooling for the boy. He leaned forward, felt a sharp pain at the base of his skull.

The Liaden woman stepped back and let the body fall to the floor. Her companion took the polishing rag up from the worktable and used it to clean the gore from the wire-blade before slipping it away into an inner pocket. From another pocket he drew forth a vial, and anointed the corpse with its contents. Then he recapped the container, and wiped it, too, with the polishing rag before returning it to its place.

The woman raised her hand and turned, walking unhurriedly down the dim, cluttered room. He followed her back into the house, past the still figure in the small bed, through the forced door and out into the night.

They were five minutes gone when the first flames licked to life, feeding on the lines of accelerant left to nourish them. Five minutes more found house and workshop both engulfed in fire so fierce the water from the firefighter's cannon sizzled and evaporated before it ever touched flame.

Five hours from the start, the fire was out, having consumed house, shop and contents, leaving not so much as an ash on the scoured stone floor of the basement.

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