ithout difficulty, the stealth engines that had cost two human lives and a fortune to steal,concealed the star boat of the thief Larquin as he guided it through the cordon of detectors and alarms that surrounded the estate of the Primus of Touin; and he set it down on grass that grew at the very base of Touin's palace. Night was settled on this part of the planet Drein, and the hour was late. The sky was clear. A glittering sprinkling of stars could be seen overhead, the scant stars of the edge of the Orpheus Arm. Low on the horizon could be seen the thicker scattering that marked the Galaxy's Perseus Arm far across the local Rift.
There were no moons on this small planet, no nearby nebulas or other astronomical phenomena to cast light other than the stars. At night Drein was a thieves' world. Therefore Larquin felt at home.
The boat was fast, sleek and space worthy. Though no larger than a lifeboat from a star-range passenger ship, it was capable of flight at interplanetary distances. In normal space it could attain great speeds, and its life support system was but scant degrees less efficient than the finest in the Galaxy. Well equipped was Larquin, for his night-time vocation.
He unshipped the metal canopy from the airlock blister behind his control center, and slipped it back. The great stone palace loomed dark above him. At this time of the planet's year, the night air was heavy with fragrances both subtle and pungent, especially from blossoms that flowered in the nearby jungle, great vividly colored blooms that boasted petals the size of a man's head. The perfumes of Drein were sought after across the known Galaxy, though only the very wealthy could afford them. That is, the very wealthy and those who stole from the very wealthy, such as Larquin the thief.
Not that Larquin was after perfume on this visit to Drein. The home of the Primus held greater treasure than that. It held no less than jewels from lost and fabled Ithlata.
Now Larquin fixed a small pack to his back, and took a long thin cable from a container conveniently set into the airlock's inner hull. He gazed upward, studying the palace wall.
So confident was Touin of his alarms and anti-theft protection, and so pleasant the weather, that the windows were open to the night air. It was merely a matter of finding the one the thief wanted.
That was not difficult for one who had spent as much time studying the plans and drawings of this structure as Larquin had. To the end of the cable in Larquin's hand there was attached a small device little larger than the lead sinker on a fishing line, but possessed of gravitic properties. It was controlled by a dial worn on a strap fastened around Larquin's wrist. He adjusted the setting of that dial and gave the line a light quirk which sent it snaking straight up in a course parallel to the wall of the building, dragging a thin cable after it. When it had reached the desired height he jerked it again and its upward movement stopped.
It hung there like a charmed and obedient snake until he was confident it had not been detected. Then he again adjusted the dial, and the small weight assumed a right angle to its previous direction and stealthily slipped through the window, dragging the cable after it.
The thief waited a moment to assure himself the nocturnal invader had not been detected, even though it was unlikely that such would be the case at this hour, in that room. When all seemed safe, he tugged on the cable to make sure it was secure. Then he began his climb.
He climbed the wall with amazing rapidity considering the lack of any noise made by him. When his eyes came level with the window he paused and gazed inside. The room beyond was unlighted, a gathering of shadows in various degrees of darkness.
He saw a bed. The figure recumbent on it could not be made out in the darkness but he was reasonably confident it was the Demoiselle Ara, daughter of Touin, and if that was the case, he was in the correct room.
Still he watched for several long minutes, hanging there outside the window until the woman tossed and assumed a new position. By her movement and the tossing of her hair he confirmed it to be Ara, for only the family, a few servants and many guards lived here, and Ara was the only woman of appropriate age. Only when he was certain it was her did Larquin slip through the window and into the unlighted room.
The room was not unprotected by alarms, but it was occupied, which meant movement in and out of it would not be so uncommon that the defensive devices built into Larquin's clothing could not convince the alarms that all was normal. As a precaution, while still at the window he set a small noise dampening device for extra protection.
Quiet as a spider he moved closer to the bed. A line of faint, gray light ran from the window to the bed and touched the woman's face with scant illumination. Her thick dark hair tangled to one side obscured her appearance but enough of her face was faintly exposed to his night-adjusted view to tell him that Ara was more beautiful than the pictures he had seen of her suggested. She gave no sign of waking up.
The thief stood there a moment, gazing at the woman. His wife Buel was not anywhere near so beautiful as this. He should not compare Buel to other women, he realized, but he could not at this moment, help himself. Buel was the love of his life, he supposed sadly, and what did it matter that he expected a short life? For a moment longer he stood and gazed at Ara.
Larquin carried a sprayer filled with a paralytic liquid to deal with her, but he saw no need for it yet. Thanks to a noise dampening device he set in use, he moved without sound or seemingly even disturbance of the air, to the door and eased it open with care. It yielded no sound to disturb the sleeping girl. Larquin slipped into the corridor and closed the door as quietly as he had opened it, behind him.
There were no windows here. The hall was as dark as a starless night. For a few moments Larquin waited for his eyes to adjust to the thicker darkness. Then he started on his search.
It was a brief search because of the months Larquin spent preparing for this night. He had gathered every piece of information he could on the jewels, their owner, the means of their protection, and the building and vault that housed them. The plans to the palace were supposedly destroyed but he uncovered the fact that there was a set of them that had survived and were kept in a secret location by the ruler of a near-by star system who had long eyed the jewels covetously though he had never yet moved to acquire them. It was child's play for one as skilled and clever as Larquin was to learn that secret location, how it was protected, and to secretly break into it and study and copy the plans. He had even broken into the domiciles of every living thief he ever heard of who had expressed even a mild interest in stealing the jewels, to read their secret notes and blueprints. When it came to theft, Larquin was a thorough and devoted student of his targets as well as his craft, but never more so than on this mission. That was because of the danger, but also because of Buel. She had been urging him to steal these jewels for many years and, as always, was oblivious to any difficulty he might face in doing so.
Therefore, he knew exactly where the palace vault was in relation to Ara's room, and he could find it in the dark.
He came at last to what looked like a simple closet door, but which was set with a series of baffling locks and alarms that might render a lesser thief insane with their complexity. Even he could not get past them in less than an hour, but when at last he had dealt with each in the proper turn, the door opened without Larquin being killed or anyone else within the palace awakening to loud alarms.
Almost, at that point, Larquin let himself savor his triumph. But it was too soon: he had spent much effort on this job, but well knew that wariness was still necessary. He listened a moment, he peered into the darkness, he waited. Finally, he moved down a curving stone staircase until he came to a lower level where a maze of tunnels waited to confound and baffle any thief who came this far.
This maze was the greatest secret that guarded the vault of the Jewels of Ithlata. A wrong turn would set off not only alarms, but deadly traps as well. It could only be safely traveled by someone in possession of a certain algorithmic formula that was more securely guarded than the military secrets of the Central Empire. To acquire a copy of that formula, Larquin had to cut the throat of a professor of mathematics at Meletenes University, who himself had stolen a portion of the formula decades earlier and spent the intervening years solving the puzzle that was the rest of it, merely for his amusement. Larquin found the formula written on the backs of envelopes among the mathematician's effects.
At the end of the maze, Larquin found a door. It was not even locked. He opened it and there upon a plain wood table sat a plain wood box, and when he opened the lid of the box he found what he was looking for.
Perhaps no more than a dozen people had gazed upon these jewels since the time they had been cut, polished and presented to their first owner, the Emperor of Kalos three centuries ago. Now Larquin the thief became, perhaps, the thirteenth.
The jewels were originally found on an obscure and now lost world near the utmost tip of the Galaxy's distant Cygnus Arm, and it was said they possessed clearly alien properties. In all the literature, public and secret which Larquin had read dealing with these jewels, there was little about the nature of those alien properties. Things like that, however, only added to the mystery surrounding them and to their value. For that reason it would not be necessary to have the jewels re-cut. There were many wealthy beings in the Galaxy who would willingly pay the fortune Larquin planned to ask for them as they were. What happened after that transaction was nothing that concerned Larquin -- so long as he was paid and Buel stayed, if not completely happy, at least sufficiently happy to not express her dissatisfaction.
When he opened the box, he found four stones. Each was about the size of a fig, and glowed like a dying, golden sun. He gazed on them for several moments and then slowly, raptly, reached for one.
Despite the fire with which the jewel glowed, it was cold to his touch. He held it at his fingertips, turned it slowly to watch the ebb and increase of the jewel's light.
Seeing it thusly he had little doubt about the willingness with which his price would be met. Its glow was almost hypnotic, through not so hypnotic as the idea of the wealth that would soon be his. It had even been pierced with a hole that would allow it to be strung on a necklace. The thief slipped the stone into a small leather bag he carried and then, one by one, slipped the other jewels in on top of it. He closed the bag and left the small room, returning up the winding stone staircase to the hallway above.
He opened and closed the door to Ara's room as silently as he had opened and shut it before. The quiet of the room was almost perfect, marred only by the light breathing of the Demoiselle in her slumber.
Light streamed in through the window from the cluster of stars that was the distant galactic arm and which now was rising above the treetops. It fell across the bed, faintly illuminating the face of Ara.
He had no intention of showing any interest at all in this girl. Her room was but a key to helping him locate other places in the palace. But now he could not help but gaze at her. So peaceful did she look, so alluring. How beautiful she would look with the jewels strung into a necklace and nestled in the hollow of her throat. Would Buel look so lovely? Of course she would not.
The noise dampener he set when he entered through the Demoiselle's window suppressed the sigh he gave then and Ara continued her sound and peaceful sleeping. Larquin moved across the twilit room to the window and set his hands upon the sill, preparatory to climbing out. His fingers only lightly touched the noise dampener he had left before, but that was enough. The device fell out of the window and to the ground below. Larquin could not suppress a gasp.
He glanced back at the sleeping woman. To his horror he saw her stir. She sat up abruptly and he dove back across the room toward her. He reached her side before she could scream.
Larquin let the leather bag fall to the girl's bed and as she opened her mouth, he clamped his hand across it and fumbled for the spray device in his pocket.
He could feel the warmth of her breath, the struggle of her lips against his palm, see the flash of perfect limbs revealed by the thin material of her sleeping garment; but he gave no more thought than he could help to that. Her struggles might already have been loud enough to be heard by others in nearby rooms. It was essential for his own safety that Larquin flee this place as quickly as he could. The girl slipped free of his restraining hand and gathered breath into her lungs.
Her scream began just as he pointed the spray at the girl's face. There was a faint hiss and the girl's eyes widened, then closed abruptly. The scream died as quickly as it had begun. The spray had touched her skin and gone into her eyes and nostrils, and she relaxed almost at once. Her limp form fell back against the pillows.
She would be unconscious for just a few seconds, though it would be several minutes before she would regain the use of her limbs. He snatched up the leather bag he had dropped upon the bed.
As a precaution, he sprayed the air in front of the door before he started again for the window where the cable he had climbed into the palace waited to be climbed down on. The particles of the spray would hang in the air long enough to put one, possibly two of her guards to sleep should they be diligent in coming through the door quickly; and doubtlessly that would add to the confusion he would need to make his escape.
It was then he realized the bag was empty. The four jewels from the mysterious planet of Ithlata had somehow dropped out.
Dropped out? How could that be when he had been so careful? He looked back at the bed. He could not see the jewels. He ran his hands over the silk coverlet that provided Ara with warmth for the night. The jewels were nowhere to be seen.
Of course they had rolled off during the girl's struggles. The floor was covered with a thick rug which would have muffled the sound of their fall. Indeed he saw them then, rolling toward the door.
Rolling? As he looked at the stones he realized that they were moving in a way that did not suggest that they were rolling so much as that they were escaping.
They were fleeing toward the door. The door was shut, of course, and they could not get out that way, but even so it was so unexpected a thing that for a moment Larquin could only stand and gaze, unbelieving.
He heard a clatter in the hallway beyond the door and knew that the disturbance had aroused the other inhabitants of the palace. It would take them a moment or two to realize the noises that woke them came from this room, but no more than that. Aware now that time was running out for his escape, Larquin rushed to the door and snatched up the stones, stuffing them back into the leather bag, which he tied with a leather loop. Fortunately he had inoculated himself with an antidote against the paralytic spray or he would have fallen victim to his own trap.
On the bed, the girl already gave signs of regaining consciousness, if not mobility. Larquin stuffed the bag with the jewels into an inner pocket of his tunic. The girl tried to call out. Her effort at giving alarm was weak, but not as weak as he might have hoped. Larquin reached the window and dove through, grasping the cable as he did so. He started down and as he did, he heard the door splintering behind him.
Since he had not even bothered to lock it, the fact that the door was being battered down told him that his pursuers were most ardent about his capture. Hoping a residue of the paralytic spray still hung in the air before the door, he all but slid down the rope, and leaped into his waiting space boat, leaving the cable dangling in the air above him. A glance upward revealed figures at the window. He thought he saw the barrel of a weapon and indeed a burst of energy flared against the hull of his space boat. He fired the launching drive and felt himself shoved back against the cushion of his pilot's couch. The ship zoomed upward.
He had planned with the expectation that he would not be able to leave the palace long before his night's work was discovered. Still, his escape was narrower than he counted on. He had chosen this small, fleet space boat, however, with emergency in mind. It added maneuverability to speed and while it was definitely best that he leave this world as soon as possible, for the time he was on it he would have an advantage over most, if not all the ships likely to be pursuing him. But that advantage would not be his until he had gotten outside the range of the weapons being fired at him.
He kept the ship low, just skimming the tops of the trees of the forest that surrounded the estate of the Primus of Touin and zoomed toward a range of mountains where the terrain would not only offer him cover from pursuit, but some defense against the weapons that were sure to be brought to bear against him.
He blessed himself for not stinting on his equipment when preparing for this simple theft. Fast though his escape craft was, he had taken it to a certain shipyard on Diontilo where experts he had called upon several times before, were pleased for a price to add several significant modifications to his engines. The ship was faster than it had been before, even more maneuverable, especially at the hands of an expert pilot such as he was. His pursuers fell behind.
He had plotted this escape course so that he would not have to worry about immediate interception from the pursuit ships of the local police. But he knew better than to waste any more time than he absolutely had to before leaving the planet's atmosphere. When he was just past the first peaks of the mountain range, he fired his thrusters and let them lift the ship upward into a bank of clouds and through it.
Within seeming minutes he was well beyond the atmosphere and on his way from Drein. He had seen no ship pursuing him that could operate outside the atmosphere for any great distance, and a few minutes' travel convinced him that pursuit was momentarily stymied.
Translating his vessel into subspace, Larquin set a course for distant Flad and congratulated himself on a job well done.
He hoped Buel would congratulate him also, but somehow he knew she would not.
t is wisdom itself to be prepared against future set-backs, thus Larquin had studied the way in which the apartments of Trista Sul were protected again a possible incursion by thieves. Not that he intended robbing her. That would be foolish. For one thing, his scrutiny had assured him the alarms and protective arrangements that guarded her were superior to any others he had ever seen or heard about. For another, the cold-blooded glee with which she pursued vengeance against those who double crossed her was legendary and brought an icy feeling to his spine.
And thirdly, she paid better than any other fence he knew.
Imagine, he told himself, what she would pay for the Jewels of Ithlata.
Though Larquin knew her to be well into her second century, Trista Sul looked as young as the Demoiselle Ara. Where the Demoiselle boasted dark hair and a near sultry beauty, Trista was golden with pale, clear skin, green eyes, and a slender, breathtakingly desirable body with long, well-formed legs which were generously displayed by slits in the skirts of her scanty silver and turquoise gown as she sprawled like a cat on her opulently cushioned couch. Larquin once had believed her vain about those legs, but he was now convinced that she flaunted them merely to distract such as him during negotiations over money. He thought them worth the occasional few thousand credits loss, which in any regard she probably spent on the medical advances which prolonged her so pleasing youthful appearance.
"The Jewels of Ithlata," she said, giving the words a purring slur and not for the first time. She let her blood red lips part in a seemingly loving smile. "Even for you, Larquin, that is ambitious."
"Then we are in agreement?"
She did not answer but gazed at him through slitted eyes.
In truth, Larquin could not be more eager to be rid of those four, faintly sun-bright golden stones. And in that moment he sensed that she was aware of his discomfiture. Almost, a smile flickered at the corner of her full, feral mouth.
"I notice you have not quibbled at the price I set for them," he said.
"It is a surprisingly low amount for those jewels," she said. "Show them to me."
"I have them right here," he said.
"Of course you do."
He sighed. It was worth taking them out one more time just to be rid of them. He reached into his tunic.
He untied the neck of the leather bag and spilled the four stones onto the table before the couch where Trista lay. With his free hand, he blocked the jewels from rolling too far.
Three times since fleeing the palace on Drein they had attempted to escape him. They were slow, fortunately, but they were persistent. And they possessed strength, not to mention a resourcefulness that constantly surprised him.
Carefully shifting her legs for maximum effect upon his senses, Trista moved with a magnificent feline grace from her reclining posture into a sitting one and leaned forward to study the stones. They lay there, glowing like dim golden innocent stones and Larquin waited for her to speak.
"They're beautiful," was all she said.
"I've never seen anything like them. I suspect you haven't either."
"And yet you sell them so cheaply." She said it archly, as if she knew more than she claimed to.
"Is four million cheap in today's market?"
"For these jewels, it is. A mere million per jewel. I'll be able to sell them for well over thirty."
"I like your dress. I was hoping you would wear a dress such as that, and I swore to myself that if you did --"
She laughed. "Don't change the subject, you thief. The price for those jewels is fabulous by any standards, even with just the four."
He looked up at her. "'Just the four'?"
"Do you have the fifth one? Not to mention the sixth?"
"I did not know there was a fifth one," he said. "Or a sixth." He was stunned. How could his research have missed that much? He sat up and his hand moved away from the jewels on the table.
Immediately the four stones began rolling in four different directions, toward the edges of the table.
Trista gave a yelp of surprise and Larquin tried to grab all four at the same time. But it was hopeless. The best he could manage was to snatch one before the other three rolled off onto the floor. They moved away in scattered directions.
"Catch them!" screamed Trista. "Don't let them get away!"
"How can they get away?" he yelped, diving for one. "They're just stones, inanimate stones!" But the one he dove for turned in another direction before he could get to it.
Trista had better luck. She sprawled on the floor and the jewel rolled against her naked stomach. It tried to leap away but she closed her hand on it.
One of the others rolled under the couch. Larquin dragged the couch away from the wall. Trista sprang and caught the jewel before it could get away.
"Where's the other one?" Larquin cried.
"There!" She pointed with her left hand and as she did so, the jewel she held managed to pop out of her grasp.
Larquin's reaction was automatic and he caught the delinquent gem in mid-air. He handed the two he had to Trista, and then sprang after the fourth one. He could not see it anywhere but it had moved toward the outside wall.
There was a window in that wall and it was open. By now Larquin was sufficiently familiar with the jewels, to guess its aim. Sure enough a golden glitter caught his eye. The jewel was somehow climbing up the wall toward the ledge of the window. He reached it in time, grabbing it just before it got away.
As he moved back toward the leather bag, he could feel the stone moving in his hands, scraping and cutting the flesh of his palm and fingers. He opened the bag just enough to allow him to cram the stone in, then tied the neck securely.
When he had his breath he said, "What did you mean, 'Just the four?'"
"The Primus of Touin owns five of them."
"But when I looked in the box I saw only four," Larquin moaned. "Where was the fifth one? Where is it now? And why is this the first I've heard of any fifth one?"
"Because you doubtlessly failed to do your research as well as you thought you did," she snapped at him. Her breathing came heavily and she seemed on the verge of screaming. "Do you even realize these are living creatures?"
"Stop it. Stop repeating me," she commanded. She brushed her hair back with her hand. "Of course they're living creatures. The native life of Ithlata."
"How do you know all this?" he asked.
"You mean how do I know more than you do? How would I not? I once held a private conversation with the man who polished and cut the stones for the Emperor of Kalos."
"Just after his arms were broken and before his throat was cut, I would imagine." Despite his offhanded tone, Larquin did not miss the point that those jewels had been cut and polished three centuries ago. If he recalled correctly, the gentleman in question had died a bit over a century and a half ago, his murderer never identified.
Trista said, "I could demonstrate if you like. The expedition that brought these creatures back to the emperor did not realize they were living. Nor did the emperor's gemologists. It was not until the gems had attempted three times to escape and two of the jewels were lost forever that the truth was even suspected. It took decades more to prove it!"
But Larquin had heard nothing past the words, "two of the jewels were lost." "You mean," he said, "there actually are six of the stones, all matched like this four? I thought you were exaggerating."
"You idiot," she replied, exasperation evident in her tone.
"And one of them successfully escaped?"
"Perhaps two of them if you didn't steal five from the Primus of Touin."
"And you would pay a million credits apiece for them?"
"I would pay five million apiece if you had all six," she said.
Larquin sighed. "And where are they now?"
She threw up her arms. "I just said they were lost!"
"And have not been seen since?"
"Of course not, you fool. That was decades ago and now --" She went suddenly silent and her jaw hung slack a moment.
"Do you not see?" he said.
"You just might not be the fool I took you for," she admitted. "If there are two others, then the entire set is obviously worth many more millions than these four."
"Indeed," the thief agreed.
"Yet, where are they?"
"Ah!" he said. "That is the question. And an interesting question, too."
"But after all these years no one has even come close --"
"That we know of," he corrected. "But in researching the history of these gems, I encountered a few strange stories. The Count of Zaralus supposedly had just acquired them when he fell from a high window. Bolavun the Assassin also supposedly owned them at the time of his death. He fell into quicksand while running in the wilderness on this very planet. No one knows what he was running after, but the jewels were not found among his effects."
"I see," said Trista, slowly.
"I suspect you do."
"How can we find them, then?"
Larquin thought for a moment, then said, "Have the other two been encountered since, so far as you know?"
She shook her head negatively.
"Then," said the thief, "as ambulatory as they appear to be, it is likely they have tried to make their way back to Ithlata."
"We would never find them there."
Larquin considered the facts. "But how would they get there? No one remembers any longer where the planet is located. I tried to learn but all I found out is that the records were destroyed. Apparently there are more sinister things on that world than these stones. There has never been any regular passage to it. Indeed, the expedition that brought back these stones is the only one known to have gone there. Or did I miss something else in my research?"
"No. So far as I know, there was only that one voyage. Each of the three pirates who were its crew met grizzly deaths within days of the jewel's escape."
"But they reached their destination before the jewels escaped from them, did they not?"
"Well, yes," she said. "But how can that help us?"
"Possibly it can't," he said. "But on the other hand, this was the planet they were brought to, was it not?"
"Then I suspect they are both still somewhere on Flad."
"You have no evidence of that," she pointed out.
"No," he admitted. "But it is a working hypothesis and is more attractive than the alternative that at least one of them is still on Drein."
It was now the turn of Trista to sigh, though from her it seemed more like a snarl. She said, "How does it help us to know what planet they are on when they haven't been seen or heard of in a century?"
"I have a plan," he said.
"You've had plans before, Larquin. They are not famous for being very good plans."
He grimaced. "There is," he admitted, "some small morsel of truth in that. But the plans that have besmirched my reputation have always been rather grandiloquent, rather complicated, if you know what I mean. This plan, however, is simplicity itself. All that is required is a little diligence on our part, a glass jar, and --"
She looked at him as if she knew exactly what he was about to say, so he cleared his throat and said it. "Two million credits."
He expected her to throw him out, but instead she took a minute to think.
"Tell me this plan of yours," she said, at last. She said it without enthusiasm. But she went to a small cabinet and found a glass jar more than adequate to hold six jewels the size of the Jewels of Ithlata.
Larquin placed the four jewels they possessed into the jar and stoppered it, taking care to fasten the stopper down securely.
s one of the most accomplished thieves on the entire planet of Flad, Larquin was accustomed to handling, from time to time, large sums of money. But he had yet to acquire the skill of hanging onto it. Therefore the hovel he shared with Buel might best be described as "modest." It was a generous description.
By as generous a description, Buel might be described as "exotic," not that plain was all that uncommon on Flad, and not that once upon a time Larquin had not thought of her as unceasingly lovely. Now he could not imagine how he had been so foolish. As he came in, she glared at him from the stove where she was stirring something in a pot. Somehow, her meals smelled stale even as they were cooking. It occurred to him, not for the first time, that she was as narrow of mind as she was of feature, and her glare seemed suspicious. So he began his unavoidable conversation with her not with words, but by placing the money he had got from Trista on the table.
"A half million?" she said, glancing at it. "I suppose that's not bad."
"A whole million," he corrected. "And more to come once the item I just turned over to my agent is disposed of."
She came over to the table, picked up the money and began counting, which did not take long because the bills and coins were in large denominations. "And which 'agent' was so 'generous' as this?" she asked. She looked up, accusingly. "Is it Trista Sul, with her scant costumes and dishonest dealings?"
"What?" said Larquin. "Her? I deal only with the most reputable fences. Trista Sul, indeed! I disposed of my goods with, er, Casadi Rill," he improvised hastily.
Buel tossed the money back on the table. "There's only 800 thousand here," she said and moved back to the stove.
"What?" said Larquin, grabbing the money. Surely Trista had not shortchanged him again. "I, uh, had certain expenses to meet," he said.
Buel dipped a spoon into the pot, tasted the stew and grimaced with disgust. But she ladled some of it into a bowl and put it on the table for Larquin.
He sat down hungrily. "It doesn't matter how much money that is. There'll be more, and probably tonight. Much more. Is there a spoon somewhere?"
"What?" she said, dumbly.
"A spoon. So I don't have to slurp this stuff from the bowl."
Shrugging, she handed him the spoon from the stove and he began eating. "It's rumored the police are moving in on her, by the way."
"Moving in on who?"
Buel smiled a small, pale smile. "That Trista Sul you say you never deal with."
"And if I never deal with her, it means nothing to me that the police are moving in on her, does it? Besides, she's very successful. I'm sure she pays her bribes on schedule."
"It's politics. The police commissioner is under pressure to make an arrest, a big arrest, and soon. Since all the dealers in stolen items make their bribe payments on time, one's as good as another for their purposes, I suppose."
He continued to eat without enthusiasm. "I don't believe it," he said. The stew was even worse than usual, but he did not mean that. He gulped down one more spoonful, and then pushed himself away from the table.
"Are you finished?" she asked.
"Of course I am."
"I mean, are you leaving? I need to sweep the floor. I don't need you underfoot while I do it."
"Bah!" he said. "You could sweep tomorrow. For that matter you could have swept yesterday. Or last week. I haven't slept all night. I'm going to take a nap," he added.
"I won't disturb you," Buel remarked. Foolishly, Larquin believed her and went over to the bed where he lay down.
She began rattling pots and pans as she cleaned up after their meal.
After a while, he gave up trying to sleep and went back out. Smoke from the chimneys of nearby factories smudged the pale sky but somehow he could almost feel the hidden stars glaring down at him like malevolent eyes. He found himself wondering irrationally what else might be watching him. The police? If the police were closing in on Trista, could they not be watching him as well?
He wandered the streets until late afternoon, finally guiding himself toward the apartments of Trista Sul. If she truly were being watched by the police, he realized, it was foolish of him to return to her home. Yet thoughts of how much money those jewels could bring seduced him. She opened the door herself, favoring him with a sour expression but inviting him in.
"We're alone," she said. "I've dismissed my servants so that only you and I may know what transpires here tonight."
Us, and the police, thought Larquin. But he said nothing.
The glass jar still sat upon the small table in the middle of the room, and the four jewels lay unmoving in it. There was but a single low light in the apartment and the window was wide open. Trista's expression did not soften as she regarded him, which gave Larquin a feeling of nervousness and reminded him that all afternoon he felt as if he were being watched.
"Well," he said. "We are ready to spring our trap, are we not?"
"We shall see," said Trista. "Are you sure this trap will work? It doesn't seem to me well worked out."
"We can only wait. Our plan is based on speculation, let me remind you, not on certain knowledge. But time will tell, and not much time, either."
It was Larquin's belief that the jewels were somehow in communication with one another. That plus the discovery of the jewel's mobility suggested to him that the two gems that were not in the possession of Larquin and Trista, might attempt the rescue of the four that were. The idea was fantastic, but it was also one that he felt was absolutely certain.
Even more fantastic, he realized was the idea that the two missing jewels were on this planet. There was no proof. If one had freed itself on Drein, it was almost certain it was still on Drein. For he could not bring himself to believe that a mere jewel could be smart enough to stow away on his ship, the only conceivable way it might have of getting here.
Yet it seemed less likely, even with all their cunning and mobility that they could find their way back to their home world. The exact location of Ithlata was unknown to living humans and no ship would have traveled there from this world, or from Drein.
Yet, while the two of the jewels were free, the others were not, and Larquin had an uncomfortable feeling that if they could, the gems would help their fellows.
And all six of the jewels, matched and strung as a necklace, would be worth the ransom of an entire planet, and not just some wretched backwater world like this one.
So it was that as darkness descended on the city and Trista busied herself in some other part of the apartment, Larquin opened the window and sat in the shadows of a corner where he could watch the jar that contained the jewels, and waited with neither hope nor enthusiasm.
The light put off by the jewels was faint now; it was as if the jewels rested on the bottom of the jar in which they were imprisoned. They made no move. Distantly, sounds of the city drifted in through the window, but nothing else. Time passed.
With a start, the thief realized he had been dozing. Something -- some almost indiscernible sound -- roused him. He blinked and squinted against the dim light that came in through the window, but saw nothing. Then again he heard the sound: faint scraping. Very faint scraping. Something moved along the floor.
Then the scraping sound stopped. He wondered if whatever had caused it knew that he was now awake. Perhaps he had been snoring; perhaps the jewel -- he was certain it was one or both of the jewels he heard -- could discern the change in his breathing.
Or maybe it could read his mind. Even now it might be slowly, carefully retreating to the window.
But, remembering the speed with which the jewels had escaped him before, he decided to wait. Then he heard scraping again. The jewels trapped in the glass jar stirred. He saw a glow at the edge of the table as one of the jewels appeared there, followed quickly by the other. Larquin almost gasped as he realized both jewels had come. They were here, on Flad, together. They began a slow creep across the table top.
Slowly, carefully, Larquin rose to his feet.
He watched as the two glowing gems moved with almost supernatural silence across the table. They clinked against the glass of the jar. The amazed thief took one step forward, then another. His hand moved out.
Then very quickly, knocking over a chair in the process, he leaped to the table and snatched the jewels up.
The chair banged to the floor with a loud crash and moments later the door leading to the back opened and Trista stood there. She turned on the lights and looked at Larquin. After a moment she said, "I feared the police had joined us. I have reason to believe they may be watching me."
Smiling, Larquin said, "I would show you what I have in my hands, but I'm afraid they might escape."
"Don't tell me you have both of them!" Trista said, breathlessly, and Larquin nodded.
She rushed to the window and closed it. In his clutched hands, Larquin could feel the efforts of the jewels to escape. As Trista came back to the table he said, "Open the jar and be careful not to let any of them out."
"I have a better idea," she said. She produced a thin wire about the length of her forearm. She took one of the jewels from Larquin's hand. "I noticed that one of our gem's previous owners was generous enough to drill a hole in each one." Carefully she threaded the jewel onto the wire and let it drop, to be prevented from falling off the wire by a clasp secured to the end. She took the second jewel from the thief's hand and threaded it also.
Within moments, all six jewels were threaded onto the wire, and the open end was secured to the clasp. Trista held up the jewels for Larquin to see. "They make a fine necklace," she said, laughing. "And a very expensive one."
Larquin sat back down. "You have no doubt you can get thirty?"
She held them to the light and said, "Forty, easily. Probably fifty. Our futures are assured, my fine thief. You and that unpleasant wife of yours shall live out your lives in luxury."
She slipped the necklace over her head and let it drop around her neck.
Beautiful was the neck of Trista Sul, slender and pale, rather swanlike on the whole. At least so Larquin always thought of it, when not preoccupied by her legs. It was certainly more beautiful than Buel's neck, and the perfect setting for the gems of Ithlata; Larquin could not decide if the jewels looked the better for being around the woman's neck, or the woman looked the better for wearing them.
She stood before a mirror that hung on the wall, and admired her reflection. "I almost hate to part with them," she said. "If I could own them, I'd never take them off."
"Pay me my part of what you expect them to bring and you'll never have to," Larquin said, managing a smile.
Trista laughed and turned to him. "Don't worry. The money they'll bring makes it easy to part with them."
Then the jewels moved.
It was by no means a sudden, nor even a threatening move. They simply moved. They separated with a graceful ease until they were arranged evenly around her neck. It was like the movement of a dance. Trista raised her fingers to touch the gems that moved so amazingly about her neck.
"What are they doing?" she asked in puzzlement.
Then, abruptly they twisted the wire on which they were strung and tightened it around the woman's throat. Trista Sul's eyes widened in astonishment, then fear, then pain as the wire bit into her flesh and blood flowed to her shoulders and breasts and she tried to cry out but could only issue a pathetic croak.
Larquin leaped to her aid but by now the wire was too tight, cutting into her throat which, like the jewels themselves, was slippery with blood. He clawed at the necklace but could gain no purchase. Trista Sul attempted once again to speak but could only make a fearful croaking sound. She fell to her knees, vainly attempting to claw away the wire. And Larquin was no more successful than she was. She slumped to the floor and lay still.
Now the necklace hung slack around her, but Larquin knew that made no difference. Blood had poured from her wounds and all across her breasts and shoulders. It was on the necklace and it was on his hands and hers. Her open eyes were grotesque with their expression of fear and agony. He reached out to feel her pulse and was terrified that there was none. Trista Sul was dead.
For a time his thoughts were jumbled and uncertain. Then slowly the realization came to him that eventually her body would be discovered and he did not want to be here when that happened. Were not the police watching even now? He got up and moved toward the door to leave, then hesitated and turned back.
Very carefully he took the necklace from her throat and wiped the blood from it and his hands with a piece of her skirt. Putting the necklace in his pocket, he started toward the door.
Before he could reach it, someone was pounding on it and shouting "Police! Let us in! Police!"
He muttered a curse under his breath and turned back toward the window. But no, the police would be watching the window. He was trapped.
Then he remembered a way out, a secret door Trista Sul once revealed to him. It was in another room and it opened on a secret stairway that led both up and down. Down led to the catacombs underneath the city. Surely the police knew about the catacomb exit, but the stairway led up to a narrow passage that ran to a trap door that opened on the roof. The police would eventually find it but that would require time, time in which Larquin would be able to reach the roof and leap to an adjacent building and cross other roofs to freedom.
Thus he made his way homeward and when he was there, sat down heavily in his chair without turning on the light. How long did he have? How long before the police were at his door, pounding and demanding that they be let inside?
The police certainly would know he had been with Trista, and they would blame him for her death, wouldn't they?
After a time Buel's voice came to him. "Why are you sitting there in the dark?" she asked.
"I'm tired," he said.
"Then you should go to bed. Or have you been in bed?"
"What does that mean?" he asked.
"Have you been with that Trista Sul woman?"
At the sound of her name he shut his eyes in pain. "I have been negotiating for these," he said.
He took the necklace from his pocket and held it out to her. The light came on and she lifted the necklace from his hand.
A speck of blood still marred the surface of one stone. Larquin rubbed it off with his thumb before she could see it.
"How amazing they are," she said quietly. "I've never seen anything like them."
"They are unique," he said. "Oh, they are unique."
uel went to a mirror and held the necklace up to her throat so that she might study them. Larquin watched her with eyes that were full of pain.
"I've never seen anything as beautiful as these," she said.
She slipped them over her head and examined how they looked on her in the mirror.
Larquin said, "It is my fervent dream, dear wife, that you should never, ever take them off."
And not long after, there was pounding on the door.