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Authors: Walter Jon Williams

Rock of Ages

ROCK OF AGES

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: 978-1-62579-164-1

Copyright © 1995, 2011 by Walter Jon Williams. 

Cover photo by: Dash

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

Electronic version by Baen Books

Originally published in 1995

For Rebecca, with thanks

With special thanks to

KAREN LOFSTROM,

For her admirable dedication in proofreading

A very dodgy scan.

“Tyrawley and I have been dead these two years; but we don't choose to have it known.”

Boswell's
Johnson
, 3 April 1773

CHAPTER ONE

It was a strange way to treat an Object of Desire.

The third wife of Francesco di Bartolommeo di Zanobi del Giocondo was centuries old but had lost none of her appeal. Admirers still came to extol her fine forehead and delicate hands—to offer her worship, to pay court, to covet. With Lombardy poplar stiffening her spine, she received them all with the same temperate brown gaze, the same equable expression, the same intriguing smile.

Perhaps the smile was difficult on occasion to maintain, as some of her admirers were more extreme than others. More than once she had been abducted from her home; more than once she'd been rescued or ransomed or snatched from oblivion at the last second.

Today maintaining the smile must have been a struggle. In a semicircle around her were a squad of policemen, all in battle gear, all, with unforgivable rudeness, facing outward, their backs to her. She was surrounded by the invisible globe of a cold-field. Layered defenses, arrays of screamers and leapers, studded the floor, ceiling, and the walls to either side of her throne.

Facing her were two men. One was tall, white-haired, and gaunt. The other was of medium height—though, even facing the squad of police in battle array, he seemed taller. He wore his hair long, had buskins on his feet, a large diamond ring on one finger, and looked on the world with heavy-lidded green eyes that gave his face an indolent expression. He was in his late twenties.

“How do you like our La Gioconda?” the white-haired man asked. His voice was loud. Perhaps it was rude of him to say it within her earshot, but that was his way—he affected to be hard-of hearing, and had a tendency to shout.

“I would like her better, Lord Huyghe, if I could get a little closer.”

“Perhaps, Maijstral, if you asked
politely
.”

The line of police stiffened. Gloved fingers edged closer to weapons.

Drake Maijstral moved forward on silent feet and raised his hands. The guardians' trigger fingers vibrated with tension . . . and then Maijstral made a simple gesture as if to part waters.

“If you please—?” he said.

Reluctantly the line of guards parted and shuffled aside. An official—the lady's chief attendant, a Tanquer named Horving—seemed about to strangle himself with his own tail. Maijstral's lazy eyes, glowing with amusement, looked La Gioconda up and down. His ears twitched forward.

“I like her
sfumato
,” he said. “And it’s a pleasant face, that should wear well. One could have it on one’s wall and not tire of it easily.”

At this ominous news Horving's breath began to wheeze through a constricted windpipe. It was difficult to tell if his pop eyes were a result of outrage or strangulation. Lord Huyghe—he was an art historian—ambled forward and bent to peer at the lady’s features.

“Mona Lisa is an old friend,” he said. “We're on first- name terms.”

“I congratulate you on the acquaintance. I know only her cousin—the
Lady with an Ermine
.”

“Ah. I don’t believe I've had the pleasure.”

Maijstral once had six days to make the acquaintance of
Lady with an Ermine
, the period between his theft of the painting and the day he sold it back to the owner’s insurance company.

“In Prince Chan's collection, on Nana,” he said. “The
Lady
, like Mona Lisa, is celebrated for the elusive quality of her smile. It makes one wonder if the artist had a way of amusing women.”

“I believe history is silent on the matter,” Huyghe said.

Horving, anoxic, collapsed to the floor with a hollow wooden boom. One of the policemen growled. Maijstral looked up.

“Don’t look at
me
,” he said. “I didn't do it.”

He gave La Gioconda a final, searching look, then withdrew. Huyghe followed and took his arm.

“Shall we go on to the Venetians, Maijstral?”

“Let’s jump ahead to the Flemish. There's a Vermeer I have my eye on.”

The two left the room and turned down the corridor. A squad of police anxiously trotted after. The guards had been expecting Maijstral to view the collection in order, Italians followed by Flemish. Maijstral’s jumping about had destroyed their operational plan, and their officers were forced to improvise.

While flustered security men dashed from one place to another, Maijstral walked with perfect ease next to the historian. If one must view famous art treasures through a picket fence of policemen, he considered, the least one could do is tweak them from time to time.

“I heard from your father, incidentally,” Huyghe said. His booming voice echoed in the corridor.

Maijstral frowned. “Recently?”

“Only a few days ago, through VPL. He asked me to look after you and make certain that you weren't associating with any—” He smiled. “Rude or unsuitable companions.”

Maijstral sighed. No sooner had Gustav Maijstral been pronounced dead and laid to rest in his tomb on Nana than he took up a large correspondence, usually through the expensive Very Private Letter service—either complaints to his son about Maijstral’s habits, demands for money to honor some old debt that he'd forgotten about for twenty years, notes to friends complaining about Maijstral’s neglect, or suggestions to old creditors that they approach Maijstral and demand he pay up.

“Gustav said he hoped to see me soon,” Huyghe boomed. “I don't suppose you permit him the funds to travel—?”

“He’s quite safe in his tomb,” Maijstral said. “He’d only get into trouble if he traveled.” He looked at the older man. “I'm afraid his mind was wandering, Lord Huyghe. It happens so easily to the dead, you know.”

“I quite understand,” Huyghe said.

Maijstral found Vermeer’s
Lacemaker
as splendid as advertised, and he enjoyed the other Flemish works, although he wondered aloud why so many still lifes were the remnants of meals—dirty forks and smeared dishes hardly seemed the most cultivated subjects for fine art.

“If you” were a starving artist,” Huyghe asked, “would you let a meal stand for the amount of time it took to paint it?”

“Ah,” Maijstral said. “I entirely take your point.”

*

After viewing the collection, Huyghe and Maijstral strolled out of the Louvre toward where Huyghe’s red Sportsman flyer waited on the old vintage concrete drive. Media globes, circling in a holding pattern over the car, spotted their quarry and zoomed in, jostling for the better shots, Maijstral framed by the Pei pyramid, the Khorkhinn carousel, the Floating Saucer of the Tuileries.

“May we expect a robbery at the Louvre anytime soon?” one asked.

“I’m here on vacation,” Maijstral said. “I’ve never been to Earth before, and I have no intention of spoiling my pleasure here by indulging in my profession. I have too little time to properly appreciate my heritage: Paris, Edo, Tejas, Memphis.”

“Do you expect the recent recommendation of the Constellation Practices Authority, condemning burglary and urging that it be banned, to have any real effect on your occupation?”

Maijstral considered an answer. “Allowed Burglary is a custom that predates human civilization,” he said. “One hopes that the various parliaments of the Constellation will have consideration for its antiquity.”

“You think, then,” a new voice, “that the Human Constellation should maintain inhuman customs even when they’re contrary to traditional human civilization?”

Maijstral’s green eyes glittered from behind heavy lids. The question was provocative, particularly the word
inhuman
, which had recently taken on a nasty edge. His own view was that the phrase “human civilization” had been something of a contradiction in terms until humanity had found itself annexed by an alien power; but he didn’t want to make a reply as provocative as the question had been, so he temporized.

“I’m entirely in favor of human civilization,” he said, “but there’s nothing civilized in change for its own sake. Why alter an institution that works, and that has been providing sport and entertainment for millennia?”

“Do you think you’ll hold the championship as long as Geoff Fu George?”

Maijstral smiled. “Fu George is incomparable,” he said. “I was lucky at Silverside Station, and if he hadn’t retired, I’m certain he’d still hold first place.”

“Nichole is onplanet,” another globe, said. “Do you plan to see
her
?”

At that point one alarm after another began to sing from the Louvre. Guards—massed near the entrance to see Maijstral off—jostled one another in confusion. Maijstral smiled in amusement: someone had decided to pull a job when the guards had their attention elsewhere. He turned to Huyghe.

“Let’s be on our way,” he said, “before they try to pin this one on
me
.”

*

The red Sportsman arrowed into the Parisian sky. Maijstral sighed as the media globes fell astern.

“How did Fu George put up with it all those years?” he asked.

“He had a more sizeable entourage than you,” Huyghe said. “That time on Silverside Station, he was restricted in the number of people he could bring. Just two.”

“Two and Vanessa Runciter,” Maijstral said, “and she’s worth an army.” He shivered at a memory of staring down the barrel of Vanessa Runciter’s rifle.

“Still, I’m afraid you’ll need more people.”

“I’m trying,” Maijstral said, “but you’d be surprised at how-hard it is to find promising young criminals these days.”

*

A few minutes later the Sportsman set down on Huyghe’s estate southwest of Krakow. Maijstral thanked his host for the tour of Earth’s most renowned gallery, then made his way to his room to dress for dinner.

In his room Maijstral was met by his servant, Roman. Roman was tall even for a Khosalikh, and his family had been in the service of Maijstral’s for more generations than Maijstral could, or for that matter cared, to count.

Maijstral handed Roman his pistols—he’d left his knife behind, as a courtesy to the museum’s canvases—and then Roman began to unlace his jacket.

Roman’s ears twitched forward. “I understand there was some difficulty at the museum, sir,” he said.

“Not really. But, just in case the police decide to doubt the evidence of their eyes and conclude it
was
me somehow, we might tidy things a bit—I don’t know what the local regulations allow in the way of burglar gear.”

“News flashes indicate the theft may have been successful, sir.”

“Ah. In that case we may as well resign ourselves to a visit from the authorities.”

A few weeks earlier, the Imperial Sporting Commission had, somewhat to Maijstral’s dismay, rated him the top-ranked Allowed Burglar in all known space. Maijstral had never permitted himself to consider himself a serious candidate—during his entire professional career, Geoff Fu George had occupied the top spot, a position he’d secured during the Affaire of the Mirrorglass BellBox and in subsequent years made his own. But Fu George had just retired, two other leading candidates had the bad fortune to be sent to prison, and—Maijstral might as well admit it—he’d outdone himself on Silverside Station and come out of the business with a truly astounding array of swag. He’d managed to outscore the nearest rival by all of twenty points.

Roman finished unlacing Maijstral’s jacket, and after picking off an offending piece of lint, carried the garment to the closet. Maijstral picked up a pair of binoculars and gazed out the window, trying to locate the detectives he knew were lurking on the fringes of the Huyghe estate.

Being first in the ratings, Maijstral had discovered, guaranteed the champion an unfortunate amount of attention from the local authorities.

There the police were, he discovered, behind some shrubs. The detectives were too dignified to actually crouch down behind the foliage, and were trying to act as if it were perfectly natural for some badly dressed, slightly seedy public servants to spend hours loitering behind the thorn bushes.

Maijstral couldn’t help but hope they would fall into them.

*

Once Roman had finished dressing him, Maijstral glided silently into the study next door, where Drexler, a glass in his eye, was absorbed in the microscopic innards of a piece of burglar equipment, in this case a flax-jammer.

“The authorities should be here shortly,” Maijstral said; “There’s been a successful burglary at the Louvre.”

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