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Authors: Walter Jon Williams

House of Shards

House of Shards

Walter Jon Williams

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

eISBN: 978-1-62579-163-4

Copyright © 1988, 2011 by Walter Jon Williams.

Cover photo by: Samo Trebizan

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.

Electronic version by Baen Books

Originally published in 1988

To Françoise Auclaire le Vison

“The Chef”

And Baron le Vison of Milkwaukee

“The Waiter”

L’app
é
tit vient en mangeant

Special Thanks to Kathleen Hedges for her help in preparing this manuscript

…One false move and we could have a farce on our hands.

–– Tom Stoppard,
On the Razzle

CHAPTER 1

When one star gobbles another, the universe may be forgiven if it pauses to take breath. Imagine the sight: the smaller star a bright-haloed emptiness, a nullity that draws into itself vast ruddy flares of stellar matter until it consumes the very heart of its companion. People might well stop and stare. Some may even pay for the privilege. Thus Silverside Station, a small asteroid held within view of the phenomenon by mighty anchors of self-generated gravitational energy. Small, hence exclusive. With exclusive rights to the view. And about to have its grand opening.

*

A private media globe hung inconspicuously over the console. Recording every word.

“Imagine it. Everyone on both sides of the border wanting to have a ticket. Salivating for one. Offering
anything
to get one. And the two of us, flying into Silverside on our own private racing yacht.”

A doubtful frown. “I’m not certain of this rule banning the media. It seems extreme.” A glance at the private globe. “I can’t even record myself. That's a little absurd.”

“The ban only applies to
most
of the media, Pearl. Some will be there. Kyoko Asperson, for one.”

“That,”
the Pearl said, her ears flattening, “will guarantee catastrophe.”

Pearl Woman was tall and dark-haired. Her shoulders and arms bulged with transplanted muscle: in her youth she hunted daffles from proughback, and that takes upper-body strength. Her hair shagged from her head like the mane of a lion. She wore a single pearl hanging from the left ear, an object balanced artfully by a duelling scar on her right cheek. Both were her trademarks within the Diadem, never duplicated by others of that exclusive organization, though they were often imitated by her admirers across the Constellation.

The enthusiasm of Pearl Woman's companion was un-dimmed. “Only three of the Diadem were invited. Three of the Three Hundred. You and the Marquess Kotani and Zoot. Imagine that.”

Pearl Woman gave her a look. “Advert. I need to dock the ship.”

Sulkily. “You
could
put it on auto.”

“Not my way, Advert.”

Advert, with a self-conscious glance at the media globe, fell silent. She was young and pale and willowy, with wavy brown hair that fell halfway down her back. She had dropped her second name, hoping the Human Diadem might notice and consider her for the next vacancy. She wore silver rings on every finger, including the thumbs, and fondly hoped they (and perhaps the hair) might one day become her own trademark. Pearl Woman knew better, but had not as yet disillusioned her.

Advert was new to this sort of existence and still felt a little uncertain. Her remaining illusions, Pearl Woman thought, made her charming, though in an unformed sort of way. One day Advert's particular brand of charm would cease to hold its attraction; but that day had not as yet arrived. Throughout their conversation, the awesome sight of one star consuming another had been splayed across the ship's viewscreens. Neither paid it the slightest attention.

*

The entry concourse was a long, low room, carpeted in dark green. Darker tapestries flashed winks of silver thread from the walls. The lighting was subdued, and a small orchestra played brisk tunes in the corner. People in uniforms stood behind desks; robots carried bags in efficient silence. Disembarking passengers took their time strolling toward the desks. It was not done to seem in a hurry.

“Pearl Woman. You are looking very dashing.”

“Maijstral. It’s been years.”

“The matched swords are very elegant. What are they, small sabers?”

“Cutlasses. I thought they'd add a swashbuckling touch.” Pearl Woman snicked one sword from its scabbard, performed a figure, returned it. Like the claws of a kitten, a touch of fear moved along Maijstral’s nerves. Someone had tried to hack him to bits with a sword just recently, and the presence of edged weapons made him more than usually nervous.

He and Pearl Woman clasped hands (three fingers each) and sniffed one another's ears as, around them, the entry concourse bustled on. Maijstral was slightly taller than average, but he had to raise his head to reach the Pearl’s neck.

Drake Maijstral’s dark hair waved to his shoulders. He was dressed in grey. Lace floated casually at neck and wrists. He wore a large diamond on one finger, and leather buskins on his feet. His eyes were green and heavy-lidded; they gave an impression of laziness, or at least languor. He seemed to be in his mid-twenties.

Maijstral turned and indicated a restless young man dressed in violet plush. “My associate, Mr. Gregor Norman.”

“Charmed, Mr. Norman,” said Pearl Woman, “This is Advert, my companion.”

Hands were clasped all around, but High Custom sniffing was avoided—the entry concourse was a little too common for High Custom unless rank and previous acquaintance demanded it. Maijstral and Advert offered one another two fingers, indicating a degree of intimacy through their common acquaintance with Pearl Woman. Pearl Woman and Advert each gave one finger for Gregor. Gregor gave two to Pearl Woman and three to Advert, the latter indicating a degree of hopefulness far above his station.

Advert sniffed and drew herself up. Gregor, who had greeted her in a provincial accent that could only be described as cheeky, declined to be properly abashed, and grinned.

The custom of hand-clasping, after an interval of several thousand years, was now a rage. It had been rediscovered by the Constellation Practices Authority, who recommended it as a “natural, human gesture,” and suggested it replace the elegant ear-sniffing of Khosali High Custom.

Traditionalists and Imperialists denounced the revival as vulgar. Pro-Constellation partisans adopted it eagerly. Merely offering a greeting had now become a situation fraught with political import.

That, and the issue of how many fingers to fer, had all society dizzy with new possibilities.

Pearl Woman took Maijstral’s arm. They strolled lazily toward the customs desks.

Behind them, Gregor offered Advert his arm. She ignored it and followed the Pearl, her head high. Gregor gave another cheeky grin and put a hi-stick in his mouth.

“Do you like the way Laurence is playing you in the vids?” Pearl Woman asked. “I didn’t care for him at first, but I think he’s growing into the part.”

“I’ve not seen him,” Maijstral said . Pearl Woman gave a disbelieving grin. “People never believe me,” Maijstral said equably. “But it’s true.”

“Is Roman with you?” Pearl Woman asked.

“Yes. Taking care of the baggage.”

“Please give him my compliments.”

Maijstral nodded. “I will. He will be pleased that you remembered him.”

“You are out of mourning, I see.”

“It’s been over a year.”

“That long? I had no idea.”

“Thank you, by the way, for your condolences. Very kind.”

The Pearl gave him a mischievous look. “Are you His Grace of Dornier now? Should I be milording you?”

Amusement sparked behind Maijstral’s lazy eyes. “Heavens no,” he said. “I’d feel foolish being the Duke of This and the Viscount of That, considering the family’s lost all the estates during the Rebellion and there’s nothing to be his grace the duke
of
.”

Pearl Woman smiled. “I understand.”

“The most ridiculous title, of course, lis Hereditary Prince-Bishop of Nana. My father prevailed upon me to preach a sermon at my investiture, and I felt damned silly standing up in front of a packed cathedral. I’d just taken out my burglar’s ticket, so I preached on tolerance.” He cocked his head in remembrance. “It was well received, at least,” he said. “And it entitled me to a small stipend, so it’s not all bad.”

The way ahead was clear, and they stepped to the customs counter. A Khosali female looked at them from behind the clean ebon surface. Eyes glittered from beneath the polished brim of a narrow cap tailored with notches to allow her pointed ears full movement.

“Mr. Maijstral,” she said, pointing. “Your desk is over
there.”

*

Disembarking from second class, a nondescript, portly man named Dolfuss picked up two heavy suitcases from the robot baggage carrier and began moving toward customs.

“Excuse me, sir,” the robot said. “I will be happy to carry those.”

Dolfuss ignored the robot and moved on.

*

The room glowed blue. Mr. Sun, sitting in his padded chair behind a U-shaped console, found it a soothing color.

He looked with satisfied eyes at his security monitors. Individual media globes had tagged everyone who had just disembarked, and images of each decked the walls. A hologram projector set into Mr. Sun's desk showed a file labelled
Known Associates.

Gregor Norman,
it said.
Human male, age 20 yrs.
The picture was an old one and showed Gregor wearing vulgar earrings and a grossly offensive hairstyle. A short arrest record was appended.

Next to Gregor floated the hologram of a Khosalikh wearing a subdued dark suit with a fashionable braided collar.
Roman,
it said.
Khosali male, age 46 yrs. Bodyservant. No arrests or convictions.

Mr. Sun touched an ideogram on his console. Two of the video monitors flashed.
Match,
the console reported, and made a pleasant chirring sound.

Mr. Sun smiled. He touched another ideogram to transmit the pictures to Khamiss at the entry concourse.
Acknowledged,
flashed the response.

Mr. Sun looked down at his uniform, brushed away a speck of lint. A simple touch, he thought. A simple gesture like
this,
he thought, and like the lint, the thieves are brushed away.

In his view, this set of burglars had a lot to atone for, and he intended the atonement start now.

*

“Mr. Norman,” said Khamiss. “Your line is over there.”

*

“I'd count those rings if I were you,” Pearl Woman said.

Advert glanced in surprise at her fingers, and Pearl Woman smiled. Advert was so
easy.

“Sometimes they'll take the jewelry right off you, right in public,” Pearl Woman said. “It’s vulgar, but sometimes Allowed Burglars like to show off.”

“That Gregor person was vulgar enough, heaven knows.” Advert looked dubiously at the trademark that dangled from the other woman's ear. “Aren’t you worried, Pearl?”

Pearl Woman touched the matched silver hilts of her swords. “Not at all, Advert,” she said. “It’s for other people to worry, not me.” She looked at Advert. “If Maijstral ever bothers you, there's something you can do to get rid of him.”

“Yes?”

“Ask him if his mother is well.”

“That's all?”

“It’s always worked for me.”

*

Dolfuss waited in a queue with the other second-class passengers. (Second-class passengers weren’t expected to mind waiting in line.) The others were either servants of the first-class passengers or people who actually worked at Silver-side, late arrivals come to take up their new jobs. Dolfuss was the only guest. Dolfuss didn’t care. He was enjoying himself.

*

Annoyance flickered across Maijstral’s face. A tall, thin, grimly satisfied sort of person was looting his luggage. Gregor, a step back, gazed on in astonished dismay.

“Darksuit,” said the man, a human named Kingston. His ears fluttered in disapproval. He lifted the object from Maijstral’s trunk, and handed it to a robot. “Illegal onstation. It will be returned to you on your departure.”

“The point of a darksuit,” said Maijstral’s servant, Roman, “is to blend in with the darkness. There is no darkness on this station. The suit would be useless.”

Roman was a tall Khosalikh, erect, dignified, his ears folded in an expression of cold fury. He spoke Human Standard without accent and, considering the circumstances, with admirable restraint.

“You may complain to Mr. Sun if you wish,” Kingston said. “He's head of security. I only enforce the regulations.”

Roman’s nostrils palpitated in anger. Maijstral gazed in cool annoyance at the sight of his belongings strewn over the concourse. He frowned.

“I see no need to appeal to underlings,” he said. “I will complain to Baron Silverside in person.”

“Nothing, sir, would give me greater pleasure,” Kingston said, radiating grim happiness. He looked down at Gregor’s trunk, then reached into it. He picked up a small gadget and held it up to the light.

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