The most popular and profitable Recreation Planet in the Emeraunt Galaxy. Not a large planet. Small, in fact, compared to Arcanis or Andvari or any of the other worlds in the Lesser Galenic System, but a great place to visit.
Fifty billion tourists a year will tell you so.
Syriakis has the usual resorts, entertaining but very ordinary. Its main attraction and one claim to fame is Border Town, a strip of land only ten kilometers long and a quarter as wide, comprised of cafes, nightclubs, and a single Pleasure Dome built in the classic Arcanian style, separating the Business District of the city of Scylla from the Thieves’ Quadrant.
The Unwritten Law: Lawbreakers leaving the Thieves’ Quadrant can expect to be caught; Lawkeepers going into the Quad can expect to be killed... but Border Town is a neutrality, a Never-Never Land where Law and Disorder meet and pass without seeing.
There, the rich and the want-to-be-rich rub elbows with equanimity. Wallets are lifted with impunity. The tourists go there in eager panting herds, practically begging to be robbed, by the barkeeps, by the cutpurses, and if a necklace disappears or a purse is stolen... It’s something to brag about to the neighbors back home: It was taken, right from under our noses! My dear, the place is lawless, utterly lawless. You simply must go there.
Yes, the streets of Border Town are truly paved with diamontium.
Because of its tales of boundless opportunity and wealth, there were others who came to Scylla, among them two members of the universe’s oldest and most underpaid profession, and also an Exile, weary from ten years of wandering.
The Non-Person had no other place to go; the two young socializers had the Galaxy before them. They had worked a mining camp on Becker’s Planet, where the sand stretched for miles, broken only by the gaping mouths of the mine entrances. They’d signed for six months as part of a Pleasure Herd, but there were too many women and not enough work.
Boredom set in.
The whore wrangler was only too glad to let them go. He needed to thin the herd, anyway, so it saved having to fire them. He paid them their wages (three months severance as per Union contract) and sent them out on the next ship, which just happened to be going to Syriakis.
They had been in Scylla three hours, were registered at the Board of Professions, had gotten their licenses and health cards, and were now standing on the busiest corner of Border Town, only a few yards away from the cobbled steps leading downward to the entrance to Thieves’ Quad. The younger of the two, a plump, petite creature with the ice-blue hair of an Abydian, was staring with mouth agape, at the throngs of beings rushing past in an ever-flowing stream of shapes and colors, while her companion attempted to dodge those same fast-moving bodies.
"Shut your mouth, Sweetie," she called in a high-pitched nasal voice. "Before a buzzer flies into it."
The girl obeyed, only to open it again to ask, "Where are all those pickups? I thought you said they’d be falling all over us."
"Don’t worry, they will. We just haven’t got to the right spot yet. Now, according to this map... " She pressed the button on the side of the tiny map-card the Board had supplied, studying the miniature grid of Border Town appearing on its screen. "The cafes are the places to go. That’s where the rich boys go slumming." The screen went dark, and she dropped the card into her purse and seized the other girl by the arm. "Come on."
"All right." Sweetie turned to take one last look behind her. "But I still don’t see-"
What she didn’t see was the man coming toward her, and the rest of her words were lost in the impact of her body against his. She was knocked off her feet, head rebounding to press her face into the chest of his tunic. Strong hands cupped her elbows, setting her upright again, and she found herself regarding that chest-broad, covered in rough fabric-then looking up until she was staring into the oddest eyes she had ever seen, smoky amber-gold, and unblinking. Sensing a prospective customer, she produced a simpering, guileless smile learned after hours of practice in front of a mirror. Men, she found, thought it irresistible.
"I’m sorry to have been so clumsy, but I... " Under the solemn steadiness of his gaze, she faltered. "M-my name’s Sweetie. W-we’re new here, you see, and I-I was confused by all the people... "
He half-turned away, and fearing he was about to leave, she caught his arm. It was scarred but muscular, half covered by a fold of his cloak, a band of raw-edged leather wrapped tightly around his wrist. He looked back at her.
She released him. "I... W-would you like to take my friend and me to a cafe, f-for a drink?" She could see her companion grimace at the crudeness of her delivery. Oh, if only I could be more professional about it! "A-and perhaps some... a-a little... fun... afterward?"
He still didn’t speak, and she wondered if he understood. She was speaking in caravansi, the common language of the Galaxy. Everyone speaks caravansi. Don’t they?
During their collision, his staff was dropped, and now he bent to retrieve it. As he did so, his hair, tied back in a long braid, fell over one shoulder. The girl stared, suddenly wishing her own hair could be such a wonderful color. One hand reached out to touch its brightness, then jerked back as he straightened to tower over her again. He still hadn’t spoken.
"I-I suppose... " She stopped as he lifted her hand. It nearly disappeared inside his massive one as he pressed his lips against her palm, then released it, shook his head, and walked away. The girl stared after him, fingers curled over her palm as if protecting the kiss he’d placed there.
"Come on, let’s go!" Her friend tugged at her arm. "The cafes’ll be filled. I should’ve told you you’d be wasting your time with that one."
"Why didn’t you, then?"
"I dunno. Wanted to see how you’d do, I guess. Thought you might get lucky."
Sweetie shook off her hand. "Why was I wasting my time?"
"He’s an Exile, stupid! Couldn’t you tell that?" At her friend’s blank stare, she shook her head in exasperation, wondering for the hundredth time why she’d ever partnered with this Abydian bumpkin. Heck, the kid still has haystraw in her hair! "Don’t you know anything?"
"No, I guess I don’t." Sweetie’s retort held surprising asperity. "Why don’t you enlighten me?"
"In the first place, he’s Arcanian. One of the nobility, I think. Nobody else in the galaxy has eyes that color... and a celibate one at that."
"You mean he’s a priest?"
That earned her a pitying look. "He’s an Exile," she repeated. "Banned from his planet, and to an Arcanian, that’s worse than dying. They’re real planet-lovers. Oh, they’re warriors and explorers and all that, but no matter how far away they go, they always come back to Arcanis. The worse thing that can happen to an Arcanian is for him to lose his home, like your friend there." She nodded over her shoulder. "He probably took that Vow-"
"What kind of vow?" It was asked suspiciously, as if Sweetie half-expected her friend to be setting her up for an elaborate joke.
"Oh, the usual stuff... Giving up all the ways of life they had before. You know, women, money, personal comfort, don’t cut their hair, until they’re allowed to return home. Honestly, those guys are worse than priests! From the looks of that braid, I’d say that one’s been away a long time. Wonder what he did?" She’d tired of the subject. "Let’s go."
The blue-haired girl followed her, pausing for a final backward glance at the tall figure rapidly moving through the crowd. "What a waste!" She turned to run after her friend. He liked me, he really did. She was certain.
At the entrance to the Quad, Aric kan Ingan paused to wipe the back of his hand across his forehead, slinging away the sweat gathering there. The hand shook slightly, and that made him angry. Am Iso damned weak now just being near a woman makes me tremble? He took a deep shuddering breath. The sensation of the girl’s soft body was still with him, but he knew it wasn’t the girl herself who caused him to feel this way. It was the memories her presence awakened.
Tightening his grip on the staff, he went down the stone steps, left Border Town, and entered Thieves’ Quad. As he rounded a corner and dodged a brightly robed Scyllan, he nearly collided with a small man running out of a nearby doorway. This time, Aric sidestepped, so the little man merely brushed against him and sped on, only to be pulled off his feet as Aric’s hand wrapped itself in the collar of his jacket.
"Hold it!" He hauled the little man backward to stand before him, and held out his hand. "Give it back."
"Give what back?" A face of total innocence, if a trifle ferret-like, looked up at him.
In answer, Aric snapped his fingers and thrust the hand at the man again, palm up. Something about the gesture told the little thief not to argue. It frightened him, and he didn’t know why. It wasn’t the stranger’s size. He’d seen bigger men. Nor was it the tiny jewel, set like a droplet of blood in his left earlobe, announcing that here was a warrior Blooded in True Battle, just as the Sign of Ildred, marking his forehead in indelible mourning black, likewise proclaimed him an Exile.
The little man shivered and the stranger smiled, and at that moment, Fredi the Pick knew exactly what caused his fear. Those eyes. Less than human. Like a bird of prey.
Digging into his pocket, he extracted a small leather pouch, and placed it in the Arcanian’s hand, smiling a little weakly. "Well! Now that that’s done, I’ll just be on my-"
"Not so fast."
He was pinned against the wall, lifted by the force of the hand against his chest, struggling to keep both feet on the cobbles as he looked up into his captor’s face.
"I suppose you’re going to peach me?" What did he expect, picking someone like this as a mark? Stupid move, truly stupid!
"Hardly." The Arcanian laughed but it was a grim, cold sound. "You know the ’Keepers don’t come to the Quad."
"I’d prefer the Lawkeepers." The little man looked even glummer. "We’ve our own rules here, y’know, and the Primary One’s that one inhabitant of the Quad never steals from another."
Aric nodded. He understood the little thief’s nervousness. The rules of the Quarter were much more stringent than those in Scylla.
"And the punishment for breaking the Primary One?" he prompted.
"Exile from the Quad." The pickpocket swallowed before he continued. "For a year."
A year’s exile?Aric laughed and released the cutpurse. The little thief winced at the bitterness in the sound. Hell, that’s nothing compared to the time I’ve wandered! "No, my little friend. I won’t turn you in."
Relief and confusion showed on the ratlike face. "Well, then, I’ll just be go-" The large hand detained him again. Fredi looked up. "Was there something else?"
"Yes, I need some... things."
"Oh?" The little man frowned. "What kind of things?"
In spite of where they were, Aric hesitated. He wasn’t certain he could trust this little rodent. "Are you a-a Procurer?"
"Why didn’t you say so?" The frown disappeared. "I thought... you being an Exile and all... Did you break your Vows? You want girls? How many?"
"No. Not girls."
"Oh. Well, I don’t usually deal the other way but... Boys? I suppose I could find one or two."
"No!" Aric’s denial was quick. "I want-" He lowered his voice, struggling to keep the desperation out of it. "I need some drugs."
"No problem." The little man showed no surprise. "Name your poison."
Aric didn’t answer.
"I need nicotine and caffeine. Can you get me some cigarettes and coffee?"
"Cigarettes... " The little man looked around quickly before continuing in a whisper fairly close to a hiss. "You want cigarettes and coffee? Those two are at the top of the Unlawful Substances List!"
"I’m well aware. Can you get them?"
The thief looked away. He couldn’t meet that unblinking amber stare, not just the steadiness of the gaze but the bleakness in it, as if something inside the man had died. "Possibly, but it’ll cost you. There aren’t many, even in Thieves’ Quad, who dare deal in both."
"I can pay."
"I’ll need something for my time, too. Do you know the penalty for possession of tobacco?"
"I don’t want to know." Aric was tiring of the conversation and desperately wanted to lie down. Drel’s tushes, I need a tox! "Just find it, at any cost."
"Right." The little man eyed him as if inspecting him for some sign of nicotine spasm.
"And I’ll need a place to stay."
"Elmia’s. Around the corner and two blocks down." He gestured behind him. "Tell ’em Fredi sent you."
Aric released him.
"I’ll be back in an hour, maybe two." Fredi sped away without looking back.
Aric wondered if he’d keep his word.