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The Hunt

Written by Shauna Roberts


Hamadar the merchant crouched against the doorpost of the Two Roosters, twisting the beaded fringe on his sash as he scanned the tavern's customers. The inn's missing roof tiles, mold-mottled paint, and decided cant toward the river had promised a seedy clientele, and it did not disappoint. These idlers and swindlers were well suited to his purposes.

He surveyed the room again more slowly. His eyes skipped past the woman in a jeweled Domeni hair circlet, then snapped back. Something about her was familiar. Of course! His legs wobbled with relief. Banwala be praised! She was the perfect choice to extricate him from his predicament.

He sailed grandly across the taproom to make the proper impression, his belly leaving a wake of spilled ale and curses behind him. The Domeni woman, holding a steaming mug, watched him.

Hamadar bowed. "Madam, please pardon the intrusion. I am Hamadar. I buy and sell fine goods from planets near and far, all tailored to the most discerning tastes," he began. "May I join you for a moment?"

Her tattooed hand gestured toward the stool opposite her.

Hamadar sat, then reached inside his jacket and withdrew a bulgy ball of black velvet. He placed it on the table and with a flourish unrolled it with his ruby-ringed left hand. The velvet opened into a long, narrow rectangle dotted with knobby blue spheroids.

The woman glanced at the remarkable pearls, then looked at Hamadar. Her expressionless demeanor in the face of such wealth surprised him. A drip of sweat wriggled through his moustache, and he resisted the urge to wipe his face. He rewrapped the pearls before anyone else could notice them.

"Madam, I offer you a business proposition. These pearls must be on Mala Than two weeks from today. They are to decorate the queen's ball gown. I had planned to deliver them myself, but alas"—he gave a well-rehearsed shrug—"business detains me in port. I offer you the chance to earn a fine commission by delivering the pearls. The Bold Falcon will leave in two days, and its first stop is Mala Than. From there, you could travel wherever you wished."

"Rimifar Station may be the most primitive port for lightyears, but it does have a courier service. I saw it in the Merchant's Quarter this morning," the woman said. "Yet you are trying to hire a stranger in a squalid tavern. There is more to your story, sir, than you let on."

"Ah, madam, you have the Domeni fine instinct for business. There is the small matter that the documentation for the pearls has been, er, lost. Mala Than's customs officials are quite strict about the importation of gems. As a Domeni, you would of course be subject to only minimal questioning."

The woman leaned toward him.

"And the commission?" she asked.

"Twenty maldi now, eighty maldi from the queen's chamberlain when you deliver."

The woman sniffed. "And why would I carry obviously stolen goods all the way to Mala Than, a most boring place if ever I saw one, for a measly hundred maldi?"

Hamadar smiled and played his trump card. "I know who you are. I saw your picture on the vids in the market square. You murdered both your husbands and are being sought on every planet, moon, and space station on the flight lines." I have her now, Hamadar thought smugly.

"Aren't you afraid that, being a double murderess and thus perhaps not the most trustworthy person, I might keep the pearls for myself?"

Hamadar was nonplussed by her bantering tone. He had the upper hand, yet she seemed to be toying with him. "Absconding would be quite—shall we say—unwise," he said. "I'll have an agent following you to ensure you follow instructions." In fact, he wouldn't. His sole concern was freeing himself of the pearls. He'd been a fool to agree to fence them for the now-transmuted Jarim; his time would have been better spent finalizing the lucrative and apparently legal deal he'd been offered by a potential client on the Bold Falcon.

"And if I decline?" the woman asked.

Hamadar put his face into an expression of regret. "Then I fear I must report your presence to the portreeve patrolling the alley outside."

"One hundred maldi now and another hundred on delivery."

Hamadar cringed. But he had to get rid of the pearls, and every moment he tarried to bargain increased his danger. "Madam, I carry little cash when I'm in Portside. Shall we say twenty maldi and my buckle? It's worth at least ninety maldi." Hamadar undid his sash to remove the buckle, then knotted the fabric. The buckle truly was worth ninety maldi, but was too out of style for a man of his refinement. He needed to replace it anyway.

The woman examined the buckle, then said, "I accept your offer." She covered his big hand with her little ones. "Do not worry—your pearls are in good hands."

Hamadar was surprised at her lack of anger, but a soft woman's hand was a soft woman's hand. He dared give one a little stroke as he set the velvet case before her and felt a twinge of regret for the trouble he was transferring to her. Then he reached into his pouch and pulled out four five-maldi coins and set them on top, daring to brush her hand again.

"Good journey," the merchant said. He took a quick glance around, then hastened toward the door. A movement in the shadows sent his heart racing, but a second look revealed only a Domeni man lounging against the wall.

Outside, Hamadar held his pomander to his nose and scurried down the wide road along the river, dodging fruit and seed bun vendors, maunders with burned-away faces or missing limbs, and filthy urchins playing with chicken bones salvaged from trashpits. Relieved of the accursed bundle, he nonetheless glanced behind him repeatedly and kept his hand on his purse. He relaxed only when he left the paved road for a dirt alley that offered a quieter and safer route back to the Merchants' Quarter.

He always felt uneasy in Portside, the roughest quarter of the settlement that hugged the west and south edges of Rimifar Station. Many of Portside's denizens had been thrown off ships because of insubordination or an incapacitating injury; others had lost their posts simply because a cargo had brought less than expected and the shippers could not keep a full staff on. Trapped on Rimifar, the ones with scruples often died. Some survivors took up new trades, but most scraped by through thievery and black-market trading. Hamadar clutched his purse more tightly and stole a quick look back.

With relief, he saw the alley was deserted. But he felt strangely edgy. He took another look, longer this time. Something flickered in the periphery of his vision. He patted his purse again and his ring—and gave a cry. The ruby was gone! The shadow behind him forgotten, Hamadar began turning in circles, kicking at papers and old rags, looking for the ring that surely must have just dropped off.

A sudden coldness in his back startled him. Tendrils of heat shot through his chest and clawed a groan from his throat. Hamadar fell, blood splattering the dust like raindrops.

* * *

The two Domeni slammed the door to their austere, but clean, room at the inn and collapsed into giggles. In the light from the large casement window, the "man" was revealed to be a boy on the verge of adulthood, and the woman's face had an unnatural rigidity.

"Trilia, don't laugh! That mask is expensive," the boy said.

"Lateron, you've got to get it off me," Trilia complained. "It itches horribly." She plunked down on a bench at the battered wood table. Customs stamps and port stickers revealed it had been constructed from wood from discarded packing crates.

The boy took a large silk square from his duffel and spread it over the table, then bunched the edges up to create a bulwark. Lateron then retrieved a bottle and a handkerchief from his bag. He poured a liquid into a mug. "Cousin, lean over the table and close your eyes," he directed. He gently but meticulously wiped her face top to bottom with the liquid. As he worked, tiny flakes of iridescence drifted down onto the fabric.

"The vinegar smells awful," Trilia said.

"And it will taste awful if you don't keep your mouth shut." Trilia clamped her jaws together.

After several minutes' work, the woman wore a new face, one a good twenty years younger, and the cloth held a mound of glittering scales.

"All done." Lateron gathered the edges of the fabric together and poured the flakes into a bottle, then stoppered it.

With a sigh, the girl squinched her face and rubbed it with vigor. Then she looked at her cousin and broke into a grin.

"You've got to tell me what happened!" Lateron exclaimed. "You should have seen yourself—all serious and proper like your mother. I nearly burst my toggles trying to keep from laughing. Who was that man? What did he want with you?"

Instead of answering, Trilia pulled the buckle from a skirt pocket and set it on the table. She set the ruby ring next to it and laughed at Lateron's look of surprise and delight. Then she pulled out the velvet package and set it with the rest.

"What's this?"

"Chocolates and games and jewelry and anything else we could ever want! Go ahead, unroll it." Lateron's eyes grew wide as the pearls appeared one by one. He picked a pearl up and leaned toward the window to examine it as his father had taught him. "Unusually large; distinctive color. These should bring a good price." Then with a wicked look, he picked up two more pearls and began juggling them.

Trilia snatched them from the air. "Bonehead! What if you lost one?"

He rapped his knuckles on her head. "Bonehead yourself. You should be respectful of your elders."

"You're only two years older. Everyone knows girls mature faster than boys."

"If you're so mature, why am I the one planning our strategy for the hunt?"

"Oh, the hunt! Quick, get out the list!" Trilia said. "Let's see how we're doing."

Lateron reached into the voluminous silk trousers that identified him as the son of an upperclass Domeni woman. He pulled out his pocket secretaire and pressed a button. A second later, a small sheet of paper emerged from the end. He began reading from it.

"'Five points. Buy an apple that does not have a worm in it.' Not yet.

"'Five points. Snap an image of one team member kissing a maunder with only one eye.' Five points for us. It's a great image, too—look how your nose is wrinkled up so funny."

"He smelled bad," Trilia grumbled.

Lateron continued. "'Five points. Snap an image of a clean child wearing untorn clothes.' Not yet.

"'Ten points. Collect a Rimifar spitting beetle at least three imfers long.' Not yet.

"'Ten points. Collect one bottle of each of the three beers brewed legally at Rimifar Station.' We have two and just need a Galaxy's Best lager.

"'Fifteen points. Steal a prostitute's city badge.' Not yet.

"'Twenty-five points. Wear a festival mask programmed to mimic Hesia Truusdaughter or Lerado Geesson and spend at least an hour in a public place with at least twenty-five people present.' Twenty-five points for us.

"'Twenty-five points. Steal the sign from a tavern.' Not yet.

"'Seventy-five points. Steal something worth at least seventy-five maldi.' Seventy-five points, thanks to the buckle."

"Actually, the merchant gave me the buckle. I only stole the ring," Trilia said. Lateron raised his eyebrows, but continued.

"'One hundred points. Steal something worth at least one hundred maldi.' One hundred points for the ruby ring.

"'One hundred fifty points. Steal a cloak from a member of the Guild of Transmutors.' Not ever. That one's impossible.

"We've got one hundred thirty points. And two days left before we need to be back aboard the Foul Bacon."

"Better not let your father hear you call the Bold Falcon that," Trilia said. Lateron tossed a pearl at her, which hit her above the eye. "Ow! Stop that!" His reply was to toss more pearls as she pulled her overskirt up over her face for protection. Neither noticed that one of his lobs fell short, and a pearl landed in the mug of vinegar.

* * *

The guildhall of the Guild of Transmutors, like the guildmembers themselves, presented a camouflaged face to the world, a defense against the greedy and the jealous. Outside, the guildhall appeared a small, sagging structure cobbled together from rusted and battered discarded spaceliner parts, perfectly at home between a brothel and a fenced lot where the prostitutes kept their chickens and goat. But inside, down a flight of stairs, the guildhall transformed into a vast palace, its tapestries and carpets shown to advantage by many lights fueled by one of the few working generators in the settlement. In a room lined with burnished wood—not salvaged, but first-use maple burl—the Guildmaster sat behind his massive desk and scowled at Thadow the Transmutor. "Tell me again."

"I followed the merchant, as instructed. I transmuted the merchant, as instructed," he repeated, taken aback by his superior's unexpected anger. "The package is in the hands of the murderess Hesia Truusdaughter. I will retrieve it and transmute her."

"Thadow, if you were any other transferee applying for full status here, I would strip you of your cloak, ring, and dirk and exile you from the Guild right now."

True to his training, Thadow kept his face impassive, but his mind reeled. "Guildmaster, I don't understand."

"According to this," the Guildmaster said, pointing to his contraband vid screen with its wavering images of news bulletins, "Domen officials apprehended Hesia Truusdaughter yesterday and executed her."

"I saw her today, Guildmaster," Thadow said quietly but with certainty.

The Guildmaster spent a minute in thought, his eyes on Thadow. "Guildmaster Hekari praised your dedication, your eidetic memory, and your keen instincts," he finally said. "His honor is faultless, so I'll assume—for now—he's right about you." He drummed his fingers on the desk. "Have you heard much about the Domeni since you've been here?"

"People say they're ruthless in business and harsh to their workers and that they run their shipping empire with an iron hand."

"All true. They are also a frivolous and amoral people." The Guildmaster stroked the control on his cloak, and it seemed to lose its substance as it mimicked the color and grain of the wood around it. "We use quadchromal bead technology to move unnoticed in the pursuit of justice. But the Domeni use it as a toy. The children paint their faces with the crystals at festival time and disguise themselves as dogs or clowns or flowers. I suspect the woman you saw was wearing one of these masks. Which means any woman on Rimifar could have the package."

Thadow shook his head. "Forgive me, Guildmaster, but I doubt it. Few in Rimifar Station could afford such a luxury. Fewer still could afford a jeweled circlet or an outfit of Domeni silks. I think we'll find a Domeni woman has the package."

"If so, you have but two days to figure out who and to retrieve it before their ship leaves," the Guildmaster said. "But I think your instincts mislead you."

"Nevertheless, I will look among the Domeni. And I will return the package to you within two days. I do not intend to let anything prevent me from passing your test and fulfilling my mission."

"Felicitous hunting," the Guildmaster invoked.

"Glory to the guild for aye," Thadow responded automatically and turned to leave. But the Guildmaster gestured him back. "Remember, more than your membership in the Rimifar guild is at stake. Our reputation and honor are in your hands."

* * *

Trilia opened her eyes to bright sunlight. It was early, but not too early to start. She jumped out of her bed and kicked Lateron, who was sleeping in a pile of blankets in the corner. Lateron groaned. "What time is it?"

"Time to get busy with the contest." She quickly rolled her hair up and jammed her circlet over it.

"Cousin, we've surely won."

"We can't be sure of that! Besides, what else are we going to do in this dull, dull, dull place all day?"

"We could check out the artisans. Maybe we can find someone whose work we could represent."

"That's so boring," Trilia pouted. "You sound like a grownup. Since when do you want to do things like that?"

"It's better than playing some dumb children's game. Besides, Mother's natalday is coming soon, and you know how she despises anything ordinary. The silversmiths here supposedly do remarkable work."

"We could catch an extra spitting beetle for her," Trilia teased. Lateron made a face at her. "Please, Lateron? Your mother will hate whatever you give her. And winning the hunt means more to me than anything. I just have to beat that smug Cillara. I think I'll have her clean my boots every day."

Lateron relented. "All right, all right. What if we get the last bottle of beer and find a clean child, then look for a present for my mother afterward? And speaking of beer, I'm thirsty. Is any of that horrible house ale left?"

Trilia looked in the jug and nodded. She started to pour the ale into mugs. Lateron picked up a beetle that was scuttling by his feet and flicked it at her. "Hey! Stop that!" Trilia scolded. She twisted out of the way, then squealed when her elbow knocked over the mug holding last night's vinegar wash. "Now look what you've done!"

The amber pool dissipated into rivulets that streamed over the table edges in tiny waterfalls. A wet pearl remained behind.

"I told you not to throw the pearls around." Trilia picked up the pearl and examined it, then said with disappointment, "Its insides are poking out."

"Pearls don't have 'insides,'" Lateron said condescendingly, coming to the table. He took the pearl from her, held it to the light, then sat with a thump. He pulled his dagger from his belt and chipped at the pearl. As ragged flakes fell, the point of a crystal emerged. Turning to Trilia with an intense look, Lateron asked, "How many pearls were there?"

"Ten. I think. Why?"

"Did you ever decide which boy you liked better, Manero or Naleri?"

Trilia blushed. "That's none of your business."

"Well, it doesn't matter anymore. You can have both. You can afford quarters for as many husbands as you like. If the other pearls contain the same 'insides,' you are now the richest Domeni woman ever. Because this is a diamond." And both cousins stared with awe at the sparkling stone known only from legend.

* * *

Thadow, disguised in the short green-and-white striped cape of a peddler, started his investigation at the tavern where Hamadar had met with the Domeni woman. The alewife claimed not to remember any such people, even after Thadow had bought two mugs of her foul ale and praised her brewing skills. The customers took their cue from the alewife. All denied having been there yesterday, although several faces matched those in Thadow's perfect memory.

Thadow then went door to door, offering embroidered pouches, cosmetics, bone buttons, and other small luxuries for sale and listening for news of a Domeni woman. Such came so rarely to Portside that the woman's presence should have excited gossip.

At the brothel several doors down, he was invited inside. Several women clustered around him as he pulled out silk ribbons in a rainbow of colors. "A woman as beautiful as you needs little adornment," he said to one, feeling guilty at the lie; the poor creature was missing a front tooth, and her badly dyed hair was thinning alarmingly. "A simple blue ribbon is all you need for perfection." The woman took the ribbon and stroked it longingly.

A woman with an air of authority walked in. "Jilla, give that back! No frivols until we pay for a new badge for Cariliana. Damned Dimmies!"

"You've had trouble with Dimmies, madam?" Thadow asked offhandedly.

A woman with rag-tied hair spoke up eagerly. "Cariliana and I were crossing the Copper Bridge to the Market Quarter yesterday. We needed some bread and cheese for supper, see, and it was our turn to shop. Of a sudden, four younglings smashed us against the railing. Two boys in baggy clothes, there were, and two girls with sparkly hair ornaments. One ripped Cariliana's badge from her dress. Now she can't work till she pays a new license fee! I put my hand over my badge and screamed and screamed. Two members of the carpenter's guild ran to help us. The coward Dimmies ran away. But look what they did!" The woman held her arm out, and Thadow saw purple imprints of fingers.

Three streets downstream, at a small brick inn, Thadow's inquiries again met with success. The innkeeper indignantly described how he had been awakened the night before by bangs and muffled laughs. He rushed to the window, only to see two figures in baggy pants scampering away with his sign. "And when so many here can't read, I can't just scribe the name on a board," he fumed. "It was but last year I paid an artist two maldi to paint the growling dog and cowering mouse. Now I have to do it again."

Thadow's continued inquiries found another prostitute whose badge had been taken and a tavernkeeper whose dogs had chased away two youths trying to cut down his sign.

Thadow left off peddling and walked to aid his thoughts, eventually crossing the river to the trees and sweeter air of the Market Quarter. Not one Domeni, but several, had taken part in illegal activities in Rimifar Station. But the youngsters' petty thievery and vandalism seemed a far cry from the organized smuggling operation of the woman he sought.

He found himself in the market square near his guildhall. The aroma of fresh buns and steamed rantha leaves made his stomach growl. Amid the cacophony, he heard Apple Ama's call and headed for it. After his morning's work, he'd relish a sweet, crispy apple—and Apple Ama was always a prime source of gossip.

"Sweetling! I almost didn't know you without your cloak," Ama said, squinting at him with her one sighted eye. "In trouble?"

"No, just in disguise," Thadow said. He gave her a coin and took a satisfying bite out of the apple she gave him. "Some Dimmies have been causing mischief."

"Banwala be praised, the merchants finally hired you. The reeves take reports and do nothing. Following Dimmie orders, no doubt," Ama huffed. "Those Dimmie younglings are terrors. It's bad enough when they strut around in their fancies and insult us. But it's a total misery when they play their game."

"What kind of game?"

"A collection game. They hunt things on a list. Each thing is worth a certain number of points. The team whose points sum highest wins," Ama said. "There was a time fruitsellers all wore blue hats—this was before you came to Rimifar, Sweetling—and everyone could spot us easily. Then one year, fruitseller hats were on the list. Mine was pulled right off my head four times while the Dimmies were in port! I spent more scratch on hats than I earned. No supper for my poor younglings that week.

"The next year, fruitseller hats were on their list again. We wear plain hats now and go home hoarse from crying our wares."

"And where are their parents?"

"Not in town. They don't sully their feet walking through the slum they created."

"If I wanted to find one of these hoodlums, where would I look?"

Ama shrugged her shoulders and batted spearflies away from her face. "Wherever their hunt takes them. Who knows what's on their list this year?"

Tavern signs and prostitute city badges, I wager, Thadow thought.

An elbow jabbed his hips. "Move aside." Startled, Thadow looked down to see two Domeni youngsters, their colorful silks and fleshed-out features a stark contrast to the utilitarian garb and leanness of the vendors and market patrons. He assessed the girl's circlet; it was simpler than the one he had seen in the Two Roosters and glittered with glass beads instead of gems. Despite their youth, Thadow's instincts warned him to be alert.

"Old bat, we need an apple, and it must not have any worms," the Domeni boy demanded. "If you give us a wormy one, you'll be sorry." The girl tittered.

Ama pressed her lips together and rummaged slowly through her basket. She finally pulled from the bottom a discolored and shriveled apple that must have been lost in there for weeks and studied it from various angles. "This one suits you," she said.

The boy struck her.

Thadow had his dirk to his throat in an instant.

Something pressed against his side. He looked down; the girl held a laserspray—like all weapons but blades, illegal on Rimifar—to his side. "You arrogant port scum!" she spit. "I'll scatter your guts all over the market."

Thadow smiled. "Then you'll have the entire membership of Guild of Transmutors after you and a price on your head so high that you'll not be safe in the farthest spaceport. Put the 'spray down, child."

She narrowed her eyes and kept the laserspray in place.

"Put it down!" the boy said, his voice shaking. "If he really is a transmutor, I'll be dead before your finger barely moves." The girl didn't stir. "Mother will kill you if he doesn't," the boy said desperately. His sister lowered her arm with obvious reluctance and slid the weapon into her blouse.

"Boy, apologize to this lady and pay her for the apple," Thadow said. The boy did so.

"I'm looking for a Domeni woman who was in Portside yesterday," Thadow said. "Who would that be?"

"I don't know," the boy said, trembling. Thadow pressed the dirk slightly; a drop of blood dribbled down the boy's throat. "Truly, I don't. I didn't even know that any grownups left the ship. I thought the only ones in town were those on the hunt."

"What hunt?"

"It's a game. We have a contest to collect things on a list—an apple without a worm, local beers, a beetle." The boy omitted items requiring thievery, Thadow noticed. "There's ten of us, five teams of two. The winners get to be queen and king until the next port. The losers do their chores, give them their desserts, things like that."

Thadow turned to the girl. "What about you? Do you know which woman from your ship was in town yesterday?"

"No one was here, I know that for sure." The girl looked at her brother with an air of superiority. "The children weren't supposed to know, but all part-owners of Bold Falcon were meeting yesterday to plan the children's festival. All the women were there, and some of the husbands."

"Only ship owners have a voice in planning parties?" asked Thadow, bemused.

"They were also going to discuss tariffs and what new cargo to take on, boring stuff like that."

Thadow lowered his dirk. "I won't kill you today. Go."

The boy trotted off as fast as his bulky pants let him. The girl, more mobile in her loose skirts, snatched Thadow's peddler's cape and pelted after her brother. "Transmutor's cloak, one hundred fifty points!" she called back.

"Nasty brat!" Ama muttered.

"She's in for a surprise when they sum points and she learns she has a peddler's cape," Thadow said. He put his hand to the elderly woman's chin and gently turned her face toward the sun. To his relief, she had only slight swelling where the boy had struck her. "Are you all right?"

"Yes. Especially after seeing you put the fear of Banwala in the boy," she said. She gave him a strange look. "Has your guild changed its rules? You threatened to kill them. But children have always been off limits."

"Don't worry, Ama; it was but a ruse," Thadow said. "Still, if a transmutor's cape is on this year's list, they're playing a dangerous game. A guildsman's duty not to lose one's cloak is equal to his duty to leave children unharmed. Forced to choose between these duties, some might prefer to retain their cloak and their honor."

He paid Ama for another apple and started back to the guildhall. He now knew what the young Domeni were up to, but the smuggler remained a mystery. She could have met privately with Hamadar on the ship and no one would have been the wiser. Yet they met in a seedy tavern far both from the Merchants' Quarter and the Bold Falcon at a time when the woman had obligations elsewhere. And she came in eye-catching Domeni dress disguised as a notorious criminal—not the usual way of avoiding attention while receiving stolen goods.

Thadow stopped abruptly, and a pushcart banged into him from behind. Perhaps she wasn't receiving the stolen package at all, but had legitimate business with Hamadar. If so, Hamadar still had the package on him when he was transmuted. Where was it now?

* * *

As Lateron and Trilia prepared to leave their room at the inn, Lateron grabbed the roll of velvet. "Here," he said, "Put this in your most secure pocket."

"I don't want to carry that bulky thing around all day."

"This port is crawling with thieves."

"We haven't seen any. Other than ourselves, that is."

"We're not thieves! Everything these people have is due to Domeni shipping. It's really as much ours as theirs," Lateron said. "Anyway, there are thieves here."

"Surely they would not rob Domeni!"

"I'm not supposed to tell anyone, but someone dared board after we landed and stole something from my father's safe. I don't know what it was, but he was furious." Lateron lowered his voice. "I think it may have been his funds to finish buying into the ship."

"Oh, no!" Trilia said. Uncle Par was Aunt Yamira's third, and obviously least favorite, husband. She had given her two favorites funds to establish themselves independently. One had bought into the Bold Falcon; the other started a luxury cloth business. But Yamira tolerated Par only for his family connections. The xenophobic jewel brokers and master designers on Sandow I never dealt with outsiders. Par was her entrée into the wealthy community. Now Par's dream was in danger.

Trilia slipped the bundle of pearls into her skirt and buttoned the pocket shut.

* * *

Thadow hurried to the guildhall and retrieved his cloak and ring. He reported to the Guildmaster's assistant what he had learned about the Domeni children and their game, then headed out to visit the immolator who serviced the area where Hamadar had been transmuted.

But as he passed the market he saw an agitated crowd and three reeves and went to investigate. Maron the flute player sat, head in hands, as a man in a tinker's tool apron patted his shoulder and women whispered to each other.

"What befalls?" Thadow asked.

The crowd turned toward him. As usual, several people lowered their eyes in respect—or fear, he was never quite sure—when they saw his cloak. One of the reeves answered. "It's none of your affair, transmutor."

Tyrri the clothseller cast a look of scorn at the reeve and agitatedly rubbed the fuel burn that slashed a trench across his face. "Maron's flute was stolen. The new one with silver bands. By younglings! You must do something, Thadow."

"Dimmie children?" Thadow asked grimly.

"Yes!" the clothseller said. "I'd know Domeni silk anywhere." Thadow fought a flash of rage. When he met Maron after first arriving in Rimifar Station, the musician had only a warped and muddy-toned flute. Finally Maron had saved enough to commission the sweet-voiced plumwood flute. The new instrument had tripled his tips, market gossip claimed. Whether it was true or not, Thadow himself saw Maron's children lose the gaunt faces and swollen bellies of the starved. Now a children's game had cost Maron his livelihood.

Thadow raised his voice to address the crowd. "I learned a few minutes ago that children from the Dimmie ship are playing a game. They have a list of items to steal while the Bold Falcon is in port. I advise all of you to guard your wares well."

Maron lifted his head. "Transmutor? I wish to hire your services. I must get my flute back."

"We'll handle this, Maron," a reeve said.

Thadow ignored him and crouched next to the distraught musician. "Maron, I grieve for your loss, but I fear you cannot afford our services." Thadow hesitated, then pulled a coin from his pouch and offered it to Maron. It meant skipping dinner—his pouch held nothing else but guildvouchers—but better his stomach empty than Maron's children's.

Maron waved it away angrily. "I don't want your charity, I want your help. And I can pay." He took a deep breath. "I can give you my youngest son. He will make an excellent transmutor. He's healthy and sharp as a nail."

Thadow studied the pincer ants scurrying to and fro in the dirt, collecting discarded bits of food. He had joined the guild in a similar way. For Maron now, as for his father then, there seemed no alternative. Finally Thadow said, "You must go to the guildhall and register your complaint and the price you will pay. Now tell me everything you can remember about the thieves."

Thadow listened carefully, then said, "I will do what I can. But I have another assignment, very urgent, that I must finish first."

Thadow resumed his course to the immolator's, which sat in Portside abutting the tall rubble wall around the port proper.

"What is it?" a small redhaired man snarled as Thadow walked into the workshop, which reeked of decay. The man's brass medallion bore an image of red flames, identifying him as a member of the Guild of Immolators. Then the man saw Thadow's cloak. "Excuse me, sir. May I help you, sir?"

"I need to see a body," Thadow said. "A fat merchant, dressed in rich clothes, who was transmuted yesterday."

The immolator turned pale. "I'm afraid, sir—well, you see—that is—well, the body has already been immolated. In this hot weather, sir, we burn them quick. The neighbors get upset if we don't. You can imagine."

"Do you still have his effects?"

"Oh, yes, sir. I gave his image to the vidmasters to display, but so far no one has come to claim his belongings." He gestured sharply to a bony girl scrubbing the stone floor, who hopped up and got a box from a wall of shelves. The immolator took it and gave it to Thadow. Thadow sat at the workbench and spread out Hamadar's clothes and accessories. He went through every item, then searched each piece for hidden pockets. A pouch of coins, a ring of keys, a Banwala medallion, a lady's sapphire ring, a half-eaten seed bun. Thadow slumped back. The Domeni woman must have the velvet package after all.

He stood up and turned to leave, then spun around. The ruby ring! His informants had told him Hamadar never took it off.

"Relatives sometimes hire a member of my guild to deal with a member of your guild who steals from a body," Thadow said conversationally. Indignation replaced fear on the immolator's face.

"I have never stolen from a body!" he said. "Have you ever transmuted someone without a legal contract to do so? Guilds have rules!" The man's face purpled. "Perhaps, sir, you should leave. Your manners do your guild no credit."

"My deepest apologies, master immolator," Thadow said. "This man always wore a gold ring with a navette-cut ruby. I was startled not to find it among his belongings."

The man looked surprised. "In twenty years as an immolator, I've never collected a transmuted body that had been robbed. Your guild is held in too high respect for that. And why would a thief leave other valuables? Sir, I respectfully suggest the man altered his habits on his last day."

"Perhaps so. I thank you for your time." But Thadow's memory told a different story. Hamadar had indeed worn the ruby ring at the Two Roosters. Thadow left the workshop and gulped fresh air. He was no closer to finding the package, and the meaning of the ring's disappearance eluded him.

* * *

"Stop moping," Lateron said, looking at the display on his secretaire as he sat on a battered stool in a dirty tavern. "We've got a spitting beetle—that's ten more points. We know where to get the third bottle of beer. And the silver bands on the flute I picked up in the market must be worth fifty maldi." He set the bottle with the beetle on the table and tapped the glass to make the beetle spit, but Trilia didn't even look, let alone laugh.

"It's no fun now," Trilia complained. "Those pearls ruined everything."

"How?" Lateron was astonished. "You can have anything you want."

"If I want to be a grown up," Trilia said. "You said it yourself—I can afford several husbands now. Do you think Mother will let things stay as they are? She'll parlay the gems into a transport ship for me, exclusive shipping rights to some boring planet, at least two husbands, and who knows what else. Instead of playing games and gambling with my friends, I'll be keeping account books and having babies and bribing customs officials and moderating fights between my husbands."

"Strange how the fates work," Lateron said, staring at the beetle. "I'm ready for a wife and responsibilities, but my tocher's too small to interest a high-status woman. So here I am wasting time on Rimifar hunting beetles and trinkets. Meanwhile, you want to play childish games, and a fortune falls in your lap."

Trilia cringed at his uncustomary sharpness, then grew indignant. "I'm the one who should be angry, not you. I'm the same person I've always been. You're the one turning into a stranger."

"I'm growing up," he said. "You should try it. My mother enjoys it. Your mother enjoys it."

"I don't want it. Not yet," she said, swirling her finger in the condensation surrounding her mug of ale. "Anyway, my mother was born middle-aged. Her idea of fun as a child was buying pinwheels and streamers in bulk and selling them to her friends at the next festival at quadruple the price."

"Don't tell me you didn't enjoy playing Hamadar, getting the pearls and his ring."

"That was different. It was a game. I didn't care about the result," she said. "Besides, I was just lucky."

"You fooled him into thinking you really were Hesia Truusdaughter."

Trilia waved her hand in dismissal. "He was so nervous, constantly looking over his shoulder as if expecting someone to sneak up behind him."

Lateron opened his mouth to answer, then froze for an instant as he looked beyond her shoulder. Then he gazed at her with a somber face. "Maybe he was. Who wouldn't be after the greatest treasure in the universe, if they knew about it?"

Trilia shrugged, unconcerned. "As far as anyone knows, Hesia Truusdaughter has it. No one knows about us."

"It doesn't seem possible that anyone could." Lateron leaned forward and rested his chin on his palms, hiding his mouth from view. "But there's a member of the Guild of Transmutors across the room watching us."

* * *

Thadow scrutinized the Domeni girl's circlet with satisfaction. He'd been in and out of taverns, gambling dens, and shops all day, following leads. Finally it had paid off. This girl's circlet was identical to that of the Domeni woman he sought. She must be a relative. And in a double stroke of luck, she and the boy matched Maron's description of the flute thieves. He might be able to fulfill two commissions at once.

Thadow sized up his prey. The Domeni boy had spotted him quickly. And for someone without transmutor training, he had done a good job of concealing his surprise. This one had more smarts and finesse than the boy who had assaulted Ama. Thadow did not yet have a feel for the girl. With her circlet askew over her plump face, she seemed childlike. Of course, so had the girl with the laserspray.

The Domeni girl turned and stared him full in the eyes. He gave her a little bow, and she colored and quickly turned back to the boy.

Now what would they do?

Several minutes later, the boy suddenly hurled his mug over the crowd toward Thadow. Curses and exclamations of surprise erupted as people splattered with ale stood to look for the culprit. Another burst of curses revealed that the girl's mug had met a similar fate. Impressed, Thadow pulled his hood up, slid his finger along the control strip on his cloak, and slipped toward the door, not bothering to look toward the Domeni's table. He knew they'd be gone.

He kept well behind them as they took a roundabout route toward the Merchants' Quarter. They ended up at a small, well-maintained inn on the district boundary only a few blocks from the Silver Bridge. When they did not reemerge, Thadow circled the inn, listening. Their room was on the second floor on the back; the window was open. He studied the property and its neighbors. No dogs, plenty of trees for cover. Satisfied, he left.

* * *

Trilia sat at the table in their room toying with the pearls and trying not to cry. As if the pearls weren't trouble enough, now she and Lateron were at odds. After their escape from the transmutor, they had barely spoken. And tomorrow they would be back on the Bold Falcon, having lessons and doing chores.

She sighed, then stole a glance sideways at Lateron. He sat on the hearth trimming his toenails with awkward strokes of his dagger. Her hand flew to her mouth as she tried to stifle a giggle.

Lateron glared. "What's your problem?"

Trilia pointed to his jagged nails. "That's what your body servant is for, Stupid."

Lateron bent over his toenails again, then dropped the knife and stared at the floor. "I have no body servant. Father let him go. It was either that or default on his share payment. He would have lost everything he had paid into the ship over fifteen years."

Embarrassed, Trilia looked away. She would not play favorites when she had husbands! If she ever had husbands. But of course, the treasure meant she would certainly have some, and soon. She knew she should be ecstatic over her fortune, but all she really wanted was to keep her life as it was.

Suddenly, the solution to everything came to her. She picked up the damaged pearl and walked over to sit next to her cousin. "I want you to have this pearl. Your father can pay off his balance and finally own a share of the ship. Or give it to your mother. For once, she'll get a gift from you she can't possibly dislike. Maybe she'll use part as a tocher to find you a wife."

Lateron looked at the pearl with longing, but shook his head. "We don't know for sure the others contain diamonds. If I take this one, you may end up with just pearls. They're valuable, but not enough to establish you."

"But that's perfect. I can give Mother the undamaged pearls and not tell her what the tenth contained. I'll keep my freedom and have fun a while longer. Everyone will be happy."

Lateron sat thinking through her logic. "Are you sure?" he finally asked. "Why not just hide them in your room? Save them till you have husbands to support and business ventures to finance?"

"The servants will find them. Or Mother will—when she doesn't like my outfit, she roots through everything trying to find something that pleases her better." She set the damaged pearl firmly in Lateron's hand. After a moment, his fingers closed around it.

* * *

After leaving the inn, Thadow headed toward the guard station at the only gate in the rubble wall between Portside and the port itself. He was pleased to find Lef on duty in the small cement room, eating a hunk of cheese. In five decades on the job, Lef had compiled a comprehensive list of bribes for every conceivable circumstance. Dealing with him could be counted on to be straightforward and quick.

"Lef! Haven't they retired you yet?"

"Thadow! Not here to transmute me, I hope. At least, not until I finish my dinner."

"Not this time," Thadow said. "Today, I'm here for your help." The old man's face brightened.

"If it's information you want, you can have it, for the usual fee," he said. "But I can't get you onboard the Falcon. The guard's been tripled, and there are fancy doodads, heat sensors and such, everywhere. Even your guildmaster would not have reached the ship if he had not had a pass."

Thadow digested that for a moment. Was the extreme security and the guildmaster's visit part of his puzzle, or irrelevant?

"I need to know who's been on and off the ship. I'm most interested in a dark-haired Domeni woman, mid-thirties, with a knotted blue velvet circlet set with white pearls and opals. Do you know her?"

Lef raised an eyebrow. "The circlet belongs to Trilia Trinasdaughter. But Trilia's not in her thirties. Fifteen is more like it."

"The circlets are unique? I assumed different styles identified different families."

"Oh, no, they're not like the guilds' hats and badges. My granddaughter used to serve on a Domeni ship. She says the girls get their circlets when they turn thirteen, and none are alike."

Thadow considered that. Someone must have borrowed Trilia's circlet. "Well, can you tell me what women have been off the ship and when?"

Lef tapped his ledger, studied the screen, and shook his head. "No women have left. There have been a few visitors—your guildmaster, two customs administrators—but none of the owners have left the ship. They usually don't. If they need to talk to someone, they summon them."

"So someone has left."

"Yes, but just Wintan the messenger. And you wouldn't mistake him for a thirty-year-old woman." Lef grinned. "He's bald and has only one arm."

Thadow opened his pouch and pulled out a guildvoucher worth fifteen maldi. "Thank you, Lef."

"My pleasure, transmutor."

Thadow's mind whirled as he left, but only one conclusion seemed possible: His wrong assumptions had blinded him. The sophisticated woman of business at the Two Roosters and the childish Trilia were one and the same.

* * *

Trilia's stomach growled, and she tried harder to focus on her secretaire. She needed to memorize Mala Than's import regulations for agricultural products by next week. Now seemed as good a time as any to study, while she waited for Lateron to shop for a natalday present and get some supper.

Lateron had insisted she stay at the inn. He remained wary of the transmutor and had refused to leave until he heard her turn the locks and drag the stout wood bed across the door.

Trilia read the regulations out loud several times, then closed her eyes and stumbled through them. She peeked, then closed her eyes. This time she got them all and recited them again for good measure.

She set the secretaire down and opened her eyes. She gasped and jumped, nearly tipping her chair over backwards. The transmutor sat across the table from her, a giant with broad shoulders and cold dark eyes. Her heart pounded, but she put on her boldest look. She was Domeni. No one would dare harm her.

"I did not invite you. Leave at once."

"You have something I want. A bundle of black velvet about so big." He shaped the package with his hands.

"I don't know what you're talking about."

The man stood and strolled to the nearest duffel and began removing Lateron's clothes one by one, feeling each piece thoroughly before setting it aside and reaching for another.

"You can't do that!" Trilia cried. The transmutor ignored her.

"Aha!" he said softly. He sat back on his heels and turned a shirt pocket inside out. The ruby ring fell to the floor. "The merchant's ring. I had wondered where it was." He set it aside, finished searching the duffel, and then reached for another bag. Trilia saw with horror it was the one holding her underwear.

"Stop! Stop right now!" The arrogant transmutor spared her not even a glance. She fumbled with her pocket, got it unbuttoned, and yanked out the velvet bundle. She partially unrolled it and grabbed two pearls. "Here's what you want," she said, holding out the packet.

The transmutor turned toward her, saw the velvet, and poised to spring.

"Stay there!" Trilia ordered. "I'll swallow if you move." She shoved the two pearls in her mouth. The transmutor kept his eyes on her, alert but still. Minutes ticked by. As they watched each other, Trilia's concentration dulled and she feared she would swallow the pearls by accident.

When would Lateron get back? Trilia glanced at the barricaded door and realized it didn't matter. She had to end this stalemate herself.

Her mother always said that every interaction was, at its heart, commerce. The difference between a good businesswoman and a great one was the ability to see that heart.

I have something he wants, Trilia thought. Does he have something I want? She studied him carefully, then sighed with relief. She spit the pearls into her hand, but kept them close to her mouth in case the transmutor moved. "We can end this quickly with both of us happy. I'll trade you the velvet bundle for your cloak." That was worth one hundred fifty points. She and Lateron would win the competition for sure.

The man's equanimity vanished. His face showed pure horror. "A transmutor's cloak is his honor. Without it, I am disgraced."

"Domeni don't give up something valuable without getting something valuable in return."

Another fifteen minutes went by. The transmutor spoke. "Your packet for my cloak is not enough. I want the flute, too, the one with the silver rings."

Trilia shook her head decisively. "The silver bands are worth too much."

"You can have the silver. It's the flute I want."

"But it's just a piece of wood without the silver. It's worthless." Trilia wondered what the trick was.

"You're wrong. It's a man's livelihood. Because of you, three children will go hungry."

"You're not making sense."

"The musician supported his family on tips. When you stole his flute, you stole his way of earning a living." The transmutor spoke very slowly, as if she were a slow-witted child. Trilia felt her face flush, first with embarrassment at his contempt, then at her own naïveté. She had never imagined that their games actually harmed anyone seriously.

"Oh," she said quietly.

"Do you agree to the trade?"

Trilia nodded and set the bundle in front of him. Then she got the flute from Lateron's duffel. With her dagger, she sliced each silver band and slid it off the flute. She stashed the bands in her pocket and placed the flute on the velvet bundle of pearls.

The transmutor shed his cloak with obvious reluctance. He picked up the bundle and flute, climbed onto the window ledge, and jumped. She did not hear him land.

* * *

Unknown in Portside, Thadow made it to the Copper Bridge without attracting attention. But across the river in the Market Quarter, heads swiveled and mouths dropped open as he passed. His disgrace would be common knowledge within the hour, he suspected. He wished he could go straight to the guildhall, but detoured instead to Maron's house to deliver the flute and fetch the boy.

As they headed back to the guildhall, Thadow was forced to shorten his strides to match the pace of the boy stumbling and sobbing beside him. Finally, he squatted facing the child. "Belonging to the Guild of Transmutors is a great privilege," Thadow told him. The boy just looked at the ground. Thadow gentled his voice. "I was an oblate once, too," he said. "It's scary at first, but then you make friends with the other apprentices."

The boy turned red-rimmed eyes toward him. "I wanted to be a reeve!"

"Being a transmutor is better. The reeves serve law. We serve justice."

The boy looked confused.

"We transmutors answer to no one but our clients. The Guildmaster accepts only clients who have been wronged. But reeves have to answer to Dimmies and others, because Rimifar law was imposed by the space merchants. This is why a transmutor, not a reeve, got your father's flute back from the Dimmie thieves."

The boy wiped his nose on his sleeve, then slipped his small hand into Thadow's. Thadow, his mind whirling, led the boy toward the guildhall. Adding to his humiliation was his uncertainty about whether he had made the right choices. He had fulfilled his highest vow, the one to the Guildmaster. He had fulfilled his vow not to harm children. But he had betrayed his vow never to give up his cloak. In all his years with the Guild, no other guildsman had so disgraced himself. He'd likely be expelled.

He hesitated outside the guildhall, then strode in, eyes forward. No one greeted him; he knew they averted their eyes from his shame. He went to the Guildmaster's office. "Please tell the Guildmaster I have completed my assignment." The apprentice stared in shock, then rushed in to the office. After several minutes, the apprentice reappeared and held the door for him.

"Speak," the Guildmaster ordered, ignoring the boy clinging tightly to Thadow's hand.

"I made a vow to return this bundle to you within two days no matter the cost. I have fulfilled my vow. The cost you can see for yourself." Thadow handed the velvet roll to the Guildmaster. "I await your punishment, which I well deserve."

The Guildmaster studied him a long time. "Latrine duty for six months. Kitchen duty for six months. You will live in the apprentice's hall for six months and be subject to all their rules. Then you may try again for full status here. Oh, and is that the flute player's boy?" Thadow nodded. "I'd like you take charge of his training for now."

Thadow was astonished: a light punishment, a second chance, and the responsibility of an apprentice. "I don't understand," he admitted.

"Personal honor is everything to a guildsman. Yet you upheld the Guild's honor at the cost of both your own honor and your admittance to full status." The Guildmaster gave a rare smile. "You should know, Thadow, that the hard choices you made today only helped your future here. Similar choices once put me on the path to Guildmaster."

* * *

Late that evening aboard the Bold Falcon, Par sat at his desk with his head in his hands. The top of the desk contained a large data panel, whose display of his accounts revealed the massiveness of his failure. In six hours, the ship would depart Rimifar. Without a miracle, fifteen humiliating years of two-bit shady deals and outright smuggling to make his share payments were all for waste.

A light flashed on the panel. Par tapped it.

A synthesized voice answered. "Two await to see you: Lateron Yamirasson and the master of the Guild of Transmutors."

Par considered his choices. He longed to see the Guildmaster and learn his fate, but Lateron came first.

"Please send in my son."

In a few seconds, the door opened as the computer intoned, "Lateron Yamirasson."

The boy's eager expression dimmed when he saw Par. "Father, you look exhausted."

Par forced a smile. "Too many things on my mind. Nothing for you to worry about."

"Perhaps it is," Lateron said with an adult intensity, "and perhaps it is something I can help with." Lateron knelt and handed him a wadded-up, not-too-clean handkerchief.

"What's this? A souvenir of your little holiday in Rimifar Station?"

"Yes. But much more." Lateron's look of excitement returned. "This will let you finish your payments toward a share of the Bold Falcon. I want to show you that I'm ready to start helping you in your work now—not just running errands, but really being a part."

Par stared at the ludicrous crumpled cloth.

"Open it, Father," Lateron said gently. "I would not tease you about something so serious."

Par unwrapped the handkerchief and stared with astonishment at one of his stolen pearls. He had gone to much trouble to acquire them at his family's insistence, only to have them disappear before he could finalize arrangements to get them to Sandow I. His son reached forward and turned the pearl over. Par started, then grabbed his loupe. A diamond? This was the prize his family had entrusted him to find and acquire? He was torn between despair and elation. His family would be furious at the disappearance of the others; he had lost a fortune worth several planets. But his one-tenth share of this stone would still fulfill his dreams, and he could provide Lateron's tocher himself. Par impulsively leaned over and kissed his head. "I have a visitor waiting. We'll discuss this later." As Lateron left, Par said, "I look forward to your working beside me." Lateron's shoulders straightened.

Par took a moment to regain his composure before asking the computer to send in the Guildmaster, who had obviously come to report his failure. But the man strode in with an air of confidence and pride as his name was announced. Par sat straighter. This was not the manner of a man prepared to beg forgiveness.

The Guildmaster bowed.

"What have you to report?" Par asked.

"Lord, as promised, we return to you the package that was stolen." The Guildmaster handed Par the black velvet roll.

Par unrolled the packet close to his chest. He hardly dared hope—but there they were, the nine remaining pearls. He rolled them around and saw that all were still whole.

"Lord? Is something wrong?" the Guildmaster asked. "Your packet is whole, I trust?"

Par paused, then said, "I now have everything that was stolen, thank you. What about the thief and his confederates?"

"The thief was transmuted, as was his fence. But we could not carry out your instructions to transmute all involved. The others were children."

Par's skin goosebumped in horror as he realized that Lateron likely was alive only because he was seventeen and not eighteen. Trembling, he took a small ruby from a desk drawer and handed the Guildmaster his payment.

Later, after he had finally stopped shaking, Par reviewed the letter from his aunt again. To get the pearls to Sandow I as soon as possible, his aunt had instructed him to approach a merchant named Hamadar whom the family had worked with before. Hamadar could deliver them to Par's cousin on the Great Venture when it docked next month. Par frowned. Hamadar had seemed enthusiastic when Wintan first contacted him, but then had disappeared. With the Bold Falcon leaving in just a few hours, Par would have to come up with a new plan to get the treasure to his family. And find a way to pay for it, too—the ruby intended for Hamadar's services now belonged to the Transmutors.

He sighed. Riches should solve problems. Instead, Par realized, they just brought a different set.

* * *


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