***** CITY OF DIAMOND: Excerpt *****
(To set the scene: Tal is a half-alien genius sociopath who finds human displays of the warmer emotions either hypocritical or confusing. In fact, all children born with his particular half-breed genes are sociopaths; and although they have a hypothetical lifespan that’s just enormous, nearly every single one of them manages to get themselves killed well before their fortieth birthday by people they’ve mortally offended.
Tal is in the employ of Adrian, a rather charming prince-figure who puzzles Tal with his apparent friendship. The object of Adrian’s desire at present is an artifact called the “Sawyer Crown,” the possession of which would give him great political credibility. Adrian sends Tal to find the crown, saying, “Do whatever you have to do.” This is a dangerous thing to say to one of Tal’s people.
So it’s a time of bloody revolution, riots in the streets, and where is Tal? Breaking into a villa…)
Tal inched around the ledge on the second floor of the Arbriths’ villa. How did he let Adrian get him into these positions? Below him a floodlight showed one of the Arbriths’ personal guards walking the perimeter of the house. Tal glanced back toward the utility run he’d climbed over to pass the wall. Barely accessible, if none of the guards were looking when he came out. If he came out.
Most of the rooms he’d passed were bedrooms and sitting rooms. There was one large hall suitable for parties. Not surprising; humans tended to keep their vaults in better-protected locations, usually in the basement — some ancient digging instinct, perhaps. Unfortunately the bottom floor was too well defended. He’d have to go in here and make his way down.
The lock on the bedroom window was pitiful. In any case, if they were serious about not wanting guests, why use glass? He opened the sash and swung into the empty room. He moved soundlessly to the door, not needing a light, and listened.
Maybe the family had already made a run off-planet. Maybe the guards were just left behind to guard the property. –Maybe anything, it hardly mattered. Time was passing. He opened the door to an empty hallway.
The backstairs were at the end. He took them down as far as they went, not exiting at the first floor, and opened an old hinged door slowly at the bottom. It was a large, cold room. No lights were on. There was one window, high on the other side, with an open curtain; dangerous if anybody walked by and saw him. But from the other side, in this darkness, a human would be unlikely to make him out. There was a long table in the middle of the room, covered with papers, books, and general flotsam; a smaller table near the corner, with a chair; a cot by the wall, not made up; and, he would bet his life, a vault on the blank wall to his left. In matters like this humans fell into a statistical pre-destiny.
He moved across the room toward the wall. A light snapped on.
He blinked and turned, his pupils adjusting rapidly. Through the brightness he saw the bundle of blankets on the cot move. It wasn’t empty after all.
Sarah Jean Arbrith, Princess Casamara Tonnelly, sat up and swung her six-year-old feet to the floor. “Who are you?” she asked, eyes wide.
He went at once to the window and closed the curtain.
If she had screamed, he would have stopped her. However, she didn’t seem about to scream. He stared at her for a full ten seconds, then turned and surveyed the walls of the room.
“Are you going to hurt me?” she asked at last.
“I hadn’t planned on it,” said Tal, as he knocked on the left-hand wall.
She appeared a little nettled by his lack of interest. “Then why shouldn’t I scream?”
“Because if you do, twelve ferocious bears will follow me into this room and tear you limb from limb.”
She rocked for a moment, then recovered. “They will not. How can you tell such lies?”
There was no answer.
“What are you looking for?”
“I’ll bet I know,” she said. “I’m not stupid. In fact I’m a genius.”
“Really? So am I.” He ran a hand along the floorboards. There might be a control there.
“I’m not making it up!”
“I didn’t think you were. Ah!” He lifted a trapdoor, looked inside, pursed his lips delicately, and closed the door. He moved further down the room and squatted again. He tapped the floor with his knuckles.
“It’s the Sawyer Crown, isn’t it?”
He looked up, suddenly giving her his full attention. It was as though a row of spotlights had hit her face, and she stepped back. He said, “Where is it?”
Now that she had control of the conversation, she deliberately waited a minute before answering. “You could look all night and not find it.”
He straightened up. She said quickly, “And I could yell at the top of my lungs and have a dozen people in here in a second.”
“But you’re having too good a time to do that, I hope.” He walked toward her, and she backed up a few steps.
She touched the edge of the table as she moved away. Her hand ran over one of the gamepieces and her fingers picked it up without any conscious command. “Have you ever played Hotem?”
He glanced at the glass box on the table. There were marbles set in various places on the top side of the square. “I’ve heard about it. I’ve never actually played it.”
“I can teach you the rules.”
“I forgot to mention that I’m in a hurry. Perhaps some other time, Princess.”
“You know who I am! I knew you knew who I was. They sent you here to kill me, like the others, didn’t they! Hyram told me it might happen — ”
He said, “Shut up!” and she did, to both their surprise. “I’m here for the Sawyer Crown, madam, as you so cleverly realized. I don’t give a damn about you personally. So please be quiet, so I don’t have to kill you, all right?”
“I see.” She sat back down on the cot, looking distressed.
He said, “You implied you knew — ” But the Princess was crying. She pushed her stuffed animals off her cot with a fine disregard, and sobbed into the pillow.
Tal stood there, wondering what he was supposed to do. She raised a reddened, swollen, harelipped face, and said through tears, “Nobody cares. I’m here all alone, and nobody ever comes. Nobody even comes to kill me!”
He sat down next to her. “I’m sure you’re exaggerating,” he said. “I’m sure an assassin will be along any time now. In fact, if you don’t mind some advice, I would get off-planet if I were you. The Tonnellys are unpopular with the Republic, you know.”
“Hyram told me to wait,” she said into the pillow. “But he hasn’t come back, and neither has that bitch.”
Tal sensed she was not referring to her terrier with that last remark. He said, “Hyram told you to wait in here, because he thought this room would be safer.”
“Yes. I can go out through the little window if I have to. But it’s been two days — and he never came to see me before, anyway. They didn’t let me have any friends, and — ”
“All right, all right.” Would Adrian pat her head? Tal patted her head. “You know, he might be busy. He’s one of the chiefs of government, after all.”
“He just does what the Duke tells him.” Her pillow was getting damp.
Tal said, “You mentioned the Sawyer Crown — ”
She sat up abruptly. Tears and mucous were on her cheeks. She wiped them with the sleeves of her nightgown and walked over to the table. She raised one of the Hotem pieces and waved it. “You could play with me!”
“As I said, I’m in a hurry.”
The Princess was suddenly cold. “You could be here all night otherwise. Do you want this stupid Crown or not?”
Tal walked over and picked up one of the marbles, rolling it between his fingers thoughtfully. It was made of carnelian. “If I win — ”
“I’ll show you where the Crown is.”
“What if you win?”
She considered. “I should get something. Empty your pockets.” He did so. “Is that a real state-security hand-com? I’ll take it!”
“I’ll have a hard time getting home without it,” he pointed out.
“You haven’t got anything else worth taking,” said the Princess. She pulled over the chair from the desk, and motioned for him to take the stool. He sat on it awkwardly. “The red-and-black balls are mine. The green-and-black ones are yours. I go first.”
“I sense that going first is a good thing,” he said mildly. “Shouldn’t we draw lots?”
“Never mind about that,” said the Princess. “And, oh, listen. I know I’m just a kid, but I beat Hyram all the time, and he was planetary champion for eight years. I mean, in case you were worried about being fair.”
Tal bent over the square. “I wasn’t,” he said.
Keylinn and Spider were waiting in Tal’s office when Gabriel came in. “Hello,” he said, and he went straight to the pile of books he’d left behind the couch and began putting them in the sack he’d brought.
“What are you doing?” asked Spider.
Gabriel beamed. “The Lady Iolanthe advertised among the link-boys for someone who knew how to read and would be interested in helping her put together a tutorial library for herself. She wants to go through every history book we’ve got access to — anyway, she wants someone to scan them with her and figure out which ones to concentrate on.” He kept putting in books. “Isn’t it wonderful? I can spend all the time I want to in the records now — it’s part of my job.”
Keylinn said, “Does she know your history? Where you’re from?”
Gabriel’s smile went out. “I don’t think so. Why? Was I supposed to tell her?”
“No,” they said at once. Spider said, “Does Tal know about this?”
“I mentioned it to him when she was interviewing. Just before he went downhill. He seemed to think it was a good idea.”
“He would,” said Spider.
“Is something wrong?” asked Gabriel.
“No, no. Not a thing.”
Keylinn said, “He means that we congratulate you on your new job, and we’re sorry we won’t be seeing as much of you here. Isn’t that what you meant, Spider?”
“Yea, that’s what I meant. Good luck in your new post.”
“Thank you,” he said uncertainly. He swung the pack over his back and staggered under the load. “I’ll be back for the others.”
He left and the door slid shut behind him.
“Poor little thing,” said Spider sadly. “So young to be a spy.”
“Let’s hope he has a career to go to,” said Keylinn pointedly. The vault door hung open, a mute reminder of their problems.
“If anything happens to Tal,” said Spider, “I’ll be on line in Transport, finagling a ride to the closest station.”
“You’ll be second on line behind me,” said Keylinn. “And I’m sure nothing would please him more than to hear us admit it.”
“Good thing he’s not here.” Spider cast her a quick look, then looked away and said, “Key?”
“How long do you have to go on your contract?”
“Well, what are you going to do when your time’s up? What’s Tal going to do?”
A longer silence.
“You know, maybe we should call him on that hand-com. It’s been hours since you gave him the word. We’re just lucky nobody’s shown up from Pearl.”
“I don’t know. He might be busy.” Keylinn stretched her legs in the desk chair.
“He might be having trouble.”
“In which case a chat with us will be of dubious benefit.”
“You’ve been hanging around him too long.”
She stopped swinging in the chair, placed her fingertips on the desk and stared at them as though they were alien. “Sorry. I was trying to extrapolate. It’s hard to break in and out of pattern.”
Spider said, “You know, a couple of times in the last few weeks I’ve thought you were getting a little close to taberani. Isn’t that the word for it, the third level of Graykey mistake — ”
“Why, Spider, you can read after all,” she said coldly. He couldn’t know what a wounding thing that was to say to a Graykey.
He flushed. “That’s exactly what I mean.”
After a moment she said, “I beg your pardon, Spider. There may be some truth in what you say. I’ve done my best to walk the line, but the danger is always there. …The circumstances here are not what they are at home.” She inspected her hands, flexed them as though they belonged to someone else. “Let’s leave the topic alone, if you don’t mind. I would prefer it that way.”
He started to pace. “Well, I still think we should call him.”
Keylinn sighed. She activated the desk link and put through the greeting sequence to Baret Station’s communications path. In a moment she heard Tal’s voice.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
Spider moved over to join her. “Are you having any problems?”
“My so-called allies are interrupting me.”
“Oh,” said Spider. He switched off.
Keylinn leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes. “Spider? The other day in Schuyler Plaza? I’m surprised you hid under the car. What if the whole thing got sprayed?”
“Don’t think that wasn’t going through my mind.”
She pulled the chair up straight and let her feet down with a thump. “He’s been down there for hours. What can he be doing?”
“Your move,” said the Princess.
“Don’t rush me.” Tal studied the board. He’d already lost two sides’ worth of stones. This side he was taking his time between moves. Suddenly he smiled, reached over, and moved two green stones. “My set,” he said, and tilted the cube to the next side.
The Princess looked at him angrily.
“Not a bad sort of game,” said Tal, three sides later, as he took the Princess’s final defense stone. “I win.”
She got up quickly, scattering pieces on the floor. “Nobody beats me at Hotem! Nobody!”
“Maybe the loss will be good for your character.”
“Ha! Were you ever beaten? Was it good for your character?”
For a moment he seemed to be actually casting about for a response. Then he said, “You were going to show me the Crown.”
She stalked coldly out of the room. Tal waited. He stationed himself near the window, not that that would do a lot of good if a dozen guards started pouring in.
In a moment she was back. She was carrying another stuffed toy — a teddy bear. She handed it to Tal.
It was ice-cold. He said, “Thanks, but I’d prefer the Crown.”
She put a finger on the bear’s stomach. “It’s in there.”
“The space isn’t big enough.”
“You don’t know anything about it,” she stated, and there was truth in that. “It’s in his tummy. Hyram put it there.”
“Why would Hyram put the Sawyer Crown in a teddy bear?”
She looked disgusted with his stupidity, rolled her eyes and stamped a foot. “Listen. I said for him to put my bear Totie in the freeze. And he said he would, because that could do two things at once. Nobody’d ever believe there was anything valuable in it.”
This story seemed to be veering off into unreality. “Why would you want to put your bear into a freezer?”
“Because he’d get old and messed up, of course, if I didn’t. Everything does.”
Yes. Of course it does. She said, “I saw other dolls get all dirty and old, and Hyram said it was because of entropy. And I told him entropy wouldn’t get Totie for a long, long time if we put him in the freezer. So I gave him all my best animals — the giraffe and the dragon and the pouncer — and my other two bears — and he put them in the freeze for me. See?”
“But you can’t play with them anymore if they’re in the freezer.”
She stated, “You have to make sacrifices in this world.”
Yes, a six-year-old was explaining this to him. “I see,” he said.
She looked around at the pile of animals she’d pushed onto the floor earlier. “I only keep the ones out here I don’t like.” She made a face at them. “For the rest of my life, I’ll know that my bears and things are safe in the freeze. Except for him,” she pointed at Totie. “He’ll get old and die now, but I promised if you won.”
Tal examined the stuffed toy in his arms. “Actually, he won’t get old.”
“That’s right, I forgot. You’ll have to rip him up.”
There was a note of relish in her voice. She seemed to be dealing with the idea without any difficulty, so he said, “Would it bother you if I cut him open here?”
“You don’t believe me!”
“Well, I’d like to open him here.”
“Huh! Go ahead. But it hurts the Crown if you get it warm, that’s why it was in the freeze.”
He considered that. The bear would continue to provide cool insulation, providing he didn’t disembowel it here and now. He took out his knife, made a rift along the belly, and stuck in one finger.
He touched something hard, cold, and metallic. Whatever it was, it didn’t belong in a toy. It would be interesting if this were a bomb, set to go off when the temperature had risen sufficiently — say when he was a certain distance from the house — He imagined a succession of bears, given to presumptuous thieves. He peered through the rift in the bear’s fur and made out a kind of prong. He drew it out slightly. It was marked with a Curosa symbol. He pushed it back into the bear’s belly and pulled the skin closed.
“Very well, Princess, I’ll accept your bear.”
He went to the window and drew the curtain aside slightly. Three guards had met beside a tree nearby for a smoke and a talk. Very lax, these people were. “You might get your Crown back after all, Princess. It looks relatively crowded out there.”
She said, “It wouldn’t be fair to take it away from you. You won the game.”
“I don’t think they’ll care about that.”
“It’s true,” she said, “they’re not very understanding.” Then she smiled. “How about this? It’s been ages since I’ve thrown a tantrum. I’ll go out on the balcony upstairs and start screaming. You have no idea the attention it gets. People come running from all around.”
“I think a balcony on the other side of the house would be even better.”
“Oh. Yes, I guess it would. All right.” She moved for the door, then stopped short. “I forgot,” she said contritely. “I’m Princess Casamara Tonnelly.” She held out her hand in the correct Imperial manner for a formal introduction.
Tal took it, and hesitated. “Tayel Shuan,” he said, and kissed it.
She flew through the door. He heard running footsteps, and very shortly thereafter, the sound of screams rising on the night air. You would think she was being murdered.
He waited another moment, then let himself out the window.