A Theft Among Family by DezoPenguin

Prelate Arjan scowled down from the bench at the witness before him. Arjan was not an experienced man in his position; under the newly-restored theocracy that ruled the planet Dezolis, the Prelate was not only the religious leader for his district but also the administrative head of the area—a sort of mayor or village elder—as well as the presiding magistrate.

It was in this last capacity that Arjan had experienced the greatest trouble during the months he had served as Prelate of Vassha. He was at heart a scholar and theologian, and had worked largely on such matters before the Church had needed him to help fill the thinly-staffed ranks of administrators. He was still not comfortable judging guilt or innocence, dealing out punishment to offenders by his word alone.

Arjan often wondered if these self-doubts made him a weak Prelate, unwilling to impose severities when they were called for. And yet, he asked himself, what kind of Prelate would he be if he acted against the dictates of his own conscience? Was it not written that "one who bends always with the passing wind has no shape, but one with a firm core of the self shall stand even against a tempest"?

One thing Arjan had found within himself, despite his fears, was a strong passion for justice. He had relied on this more than once to give him strength, most recently in the case of the murder of a retired Army colonel. This same passion now directed his anger against the defendant who stood before him in the tribunal.

"How dare you?" he challenged. "You have sworn by the Eternal Flame to speak the truth, and yet you have offered this tribunal nothing but base lies!"

His eyes flicked meaningfully to the bailiff, who stood with several police-wardens to the Prelate's right. Lying under oath was an act of contempt of court by the law, and could be punished with blows of the truncheon or whip. Such measures were distasteful, Arjan thought, a relic of feudal times, but ironically with the planetwide collapse of the technological base Dezolis was in danger of sliding right back into the chaos of those times.

Yet if one used barbaric methods to preserve order, was one not already lost to chaos?

Arjan scowled again, but this time at himself. This was foolish of him, he knew, to let his brain wander on philosophical subjects when he needed to be focused on what was before him. He was, he realized, shying away from confronting the realities of his duty by allowing his internal doubts to distract him. As disgusted with his own weakness as he was with the defendant's mendacity, he firmly dragged his attention back to the facts of the case at hand.

"Your Grace, I beg of you! I know that my story is improbable, but it is true."

"That lying rajago-breed!" burst out the plaintiff, unable to contain his emotion any longer. "A few strokes with the whip and he'll think better of his lies, Your Grace! Then he'll tell you what he did with my money!"

Arjan turned sternly to the angry man.

"Vaduz, it is only because of your loss and your obvious injuries that I will excuse your interruption. Nonetheless, I remind you that this is my tribunal, and I will dictate the course of the investigation."

Vaduz fell into a sullen silence. The owner of a pawnbroker's shop, he made a comical yet pathetic figure with the bandage wrapped around his head tipping his kem'pallah askew. Being assaulted and robbed in his own shop, though, was no laughing matter.

"Now, Rasos, despite all the evidence against you, you still protest your innocence?"

The defendant, a youngster barely in his early twenties, squirmed with fear.

"I do, Your Grace! Please, you have to believe me!"

"Isn't it true that you fell in love with your employer's daughter, Lika?"

"Yes, but..." Rasos stammered.

"And isn't it true that after her father strictly forbade the two of you to see one another, you did not heed his strictures but continued to see her in secret? That in fact you initiated a love affair with her?"

"We love each other, Your Grace! He had no right to—"

Arjan crashed the gavel against the bench.

"He had every right! Until a child turns twenty, his or her parents are responsible for sheltering and keeping them safe. The duty to provide a proper upbringing includes the choice of suitable social partners and potential courters! Beyond that, was Vaduz not only Lika's father, but also your employer to whom you owed a duty of loyalty? Your behavior has been dishonest and reprehensible. Were it not for the fact that you yourself are only twenty-one, within the legally permitted age difference of three years, your affair would make you guilty of the crime of statutory rape!"

The young man quailed before Arjan's wrath.

"But...but we are in love, and—"

The Prelate looked at him, his gaze steady. Speaking now more as a priest than a magistrate, he said, "In that case, you should have waited until Lika's twentieth birthday, which came but four months after the start of your shameful conduct and passed four days ago. At that point, she became lawfully an adult, entitled to make her own decisions about love and marriage. You, however, let your passions overwhelm your sense of honor and decency. And now that Lika is twenty, you chose to rob her father to obtain traveling-funds for your elopement!"

"No, no I didn't. It is true that we were eloping—we had been planning it for nearly a month! Since Lika is now twenty, we could be married without her parents' consent. We'd planned to run away, since her father would make things miserable for us. But I didn't steal any money."

"Now listen to me. You've heard Vaduz claim that the back door of the shop was locked, and you yourself verified that it was always kept so. There were only two keys, one for Rasos and one for yourself. When the police-wardens caught you and Lika, you still had the key in your belt pouch. What's more, they found some of the loot, two silver bracelets, in one of the packs you carried. All that remains is for you to confess where you cached the missing four thousand meseta and the other items of jewelry."

"I don't know where they are!" pleaded the terrified young man. "I didn't take anything! I don't know how the bracelets came to be in my pack!"

He's barely more than a boy, Arjan thought.

"Take this wretch back to jail!" he ordered. "Perhaps a taste of your future will loosen your tongue, Rasos."

There were murmurs through the crowd, not all of them approving ones. Clearly, there were several of the citizens of Vassha who agreed with Vaduz that legal severities should be used to make the defendant reveal his crime. Then, too, there were also dissenting opinions. In the front row Lika, a pretty young girl, watched the police-wardens drag her beloved off with anguished eyes. Her mother, Janei, spoke sharply to her in a low voice. The older woman had the same natural beauty as her daughter, though the sour expression on her face spoiled the effect even more than her threadbare jacket and trousers. Obviously neither parent was pleased by the elopement.

"This case is continued until tomorrow's session of the tribunal," the Prelate announced. "Let's have the next case, bailiff."

The few remaining matters were largely administrative, and Arjan dealt with them quickly before ending the session. Leaving the tribunal hall, he changed out of his formal robes and tall official hat, then proceeded to the library. A scholar at heart, Arjan used the library both to receive guests and as his favorite place to relax and think; he was most comfortable and at home among the ranks of well-laden bookshelves. Another man was already waiting for him.

"I took the liberty of ordering a pot of kej," the fellow said, handing Arjan a cup of the hot, strong native Dezolian tea. The Prelate drank it gratefully.

"Thank you, Colce," he said, letting the brew restore some of the energy drained by the tribunal session. Colce was his special assistant, who'd worked with him for years, even before Arjan had been appointed as a Prelate. Due to their long-term relationship and the fact that Colce was about fifteen years older than his master, there was a greater familiarity between the two men than between most clergy and their servants. Although short for a Dezolian at a bit under six feet, Colce had broad shoulders and a powerful build; he was an expert at hand-fighting, mixing the trained skills of the martial artist with the savage cunning of a street brawler.

Picking at his teeth with the nail of his little finger, Colce said, "You let that boy off pretty easily."

"I strongly believe that torture, of any kind, is no way to question a suspect. It's the kind of thing that the civil government would have done under the pai'tekkan's rule, or that might have happened in the old feudal days. That hell-pit, the ancient prison Ikuto, is rightly called a 'torture palace,' thanks to what was done there in the name of so-called justice. As a priest, I know that I cannot teach the Word of Heaven by fear, and the same goes for law and order."

Colce dropped into a seat.

"Yeah, but you let him off easy. He seduces his boss's daughter, then hits the man over the head, steals a hefty sum of money as well as jewels and valuables, then uses that money to elope with the girl. He may look like he's a weak-kneed puppy, but he's both brazen and clever."

Arjan shook his head.

"Is he? I'm not so sure."

"You don't mean you believe his story, do you, boss? He's just blowing snow in your eyes."

"I wonder..." Arjan mused.

Colce shrugged.

"Well, you're the Prelate, so it's your decision. Though, I really don't see much to wonder about."

Arjan finished his tea before speaking, gathering his thoughts.

"I agree that things look bad for Rasos, but one curious point strikes me. You recall what the apothecary said in her testimony?"

Colce nodded. Vaduz had called on the apothecary D'Crena to have his head tended, and she had testified on his behalf to the injuries he'd suffered. The formal rules of canon law demanded that the assault case be proven by more than the victim's own word, hence the medical testimony.

"He was struck one blow, just to the left of the brain-stem at the base of the skull. It's the perfect place to hit a Dezolian, almost guaranteed to cause unconsciousness."

"You've struck such a blow before, then?" It was an allusion to Colce's past; before he had entered Arjan's service, the broad-shouldered city native had been a member of the underworld. This gave him a range of practical knowledge that the Prelate lacked, which was proving to be a valuable resource in Arjan's criminal investigations. "How are they struck?"

"The best way is with a backhand swing—which explains why the right-handed Rasos would hit Vaduz to the left of the spine, if you were thinking about that. Some real artists at this kind of work use a thin bag filled with metal pellets or wet sand, but for practical purposes a short club is as efficient a weapon as you'll find. Or, you could use an impromptu weapon such as a sheathed knife, the edge of a metal skillet, or in the old days when such technology was still common, a gun butt. It's an excellent trick for knocking a person out; you're much less likely to make a mistake than hitting them in some other spot. I'm not sure if it works on Palmans the same way; their alien body structure doesn't always respond the way a normal person's does."

"I see," Arjan said. "You have perfectly illustrated my point, by the way."

Colce tipped his head to one side, looking at the Prelate with a mix of confusion and curiosity.

"I'll be honest with you, boss; I have no idea what you're talking about," he admitted, which caused Arjan a bit of worry. He'd hoped that Colce would see what disturbed him as well, mostly because to have someone else agree with his opinion would bolster his confidence that he was seeing something and not just being misled by his own mind. Then, slowly, the confusion began to clear from Colce's face.

"Wait a minute," he murmured. "I get it now. How did a weak-kneed kid like that know just how to hit Vaduz to knock him cold? That's a blow used by soldiers and by crooks who've been taught. Amateurs always either hit someone on the crown of the head if they have a height advantage or crack them across the rounded back of the skull if they don't; I've seen it a dozen times."

Arjan nodded.

"That's what I thought. The strike that knocked out Vaduz was too precise for a nervous lover attempting his first theft. Either Rasos got lucky, by coincidence, or someone else—a skilled professional—hit Vaduz."

"So you think this was just a robbery, boss?" Colce asked, then quickly answered his own question. "No, that doesn't work because the door was unlocked with a key, not broken in or opened with a picklock."

"And, of course, the two bracelets found in Rasos's pack suggests someone who had access to those bags. According to his testimony and Lika's she kept all the packs except his rucksack of personal items in her room at home. I must admit, at first that sounded strange to me."

Colce nodded.

"Yeah, me too. Until it came out that Rasos has a room over the Happy Hunter wine-shop. There's nothing like a whole taproom full of people asking why he's lugging bags up and down the stairs to give away an elopement before they're ready to leave town."

"That means that any one of Vaduz's family had the opportunity to slip the bracelets into the pack."

"So, the wife, the girl herself—I suppose that would be one way to get rid of a suitor, especially if she'd gotten sick of him and wanted revenge for his seducing her, besides. Are you including Vaduz himself, boss?"

"He is a suspect, surely. As you mentioned with respect to the girl, revenge on Rasos would be his primary motive, as well as foiling the elopement for once and for all. In fact, he seems to be the most likely suspect, for he had the key. If one of the others had stolen his to give to the robber there would be a very good chance Vaduz would notice it."

Colce shook his head.

"There's a better way," he explained. "What you do, if you can get ahold of the key, is to make an impression of it in wax or another soft substance. You then use the impression as a mold to make a new key—carved out of hardwood, say, so it can be burned after the crime to destroy evidence. The wife or daughter could easily do that. Heck, the girl could do it to her lover's key, too, and have twice the opportunity."

"That's a good idea," Arjan said approvingly. "Would they think of it, though?"

Colce shrugged.

"If there was a hired crook involved, which we're pretty sure of, they wouldn't have to. He'd tell them about it while they were making their plans to frame the boy."

The Prelate smiled at him.

"In which case, we can eliminate none of the potential suspects yet. Therefore, if we are to establish the truth, we need the testimony of the robber himself or herself."

"So how do we get that?"

"For that," Arjan told his assistant seriously, "I am counting on you."

Colce returned to his quarters and changed his clothing. He had expected, sooner or later, to be given exactly this kind of work. While Vassha was not a large town, it was still big enough that travelers came and went and not everyone knew everyone else. Like his employer, Colce was not a local man, so relatively few people knew him on sight. This was especially true because, unlike Arjan, he did not have a particularly high profile. While the Prelate's duties put him constantly in the public eye, Colce's errand-running was rarely done in front of crowds.

Taking off his neat blue jacket and trousers, he replaced them with patched leathers, edged with ragged fur. Vagabonds typically wore garments like these, since they rarely had more than one set of clothes. In place of his medium-height kem'pallah, he donned the short cap of a low-class laborer. Since no brigand would go unarmed, he buckled a broad-bladed knife to his belt and transferred his boot knife—a habit he had not given up in his "legitimate" life—to the top of one of the worn pair of boots he'd put on in place of his new white ones. The old clothes, he reflected, felt more comfortable than the ones he'd removed.

The fact was, he thought, that he'd been born poor and it still didn't quite feel right that he was in the employ of a respectable churchman, let alone one who'd been appointed as a high official. Entering Arjan's service had been the best decision he'd ever made, but it wasn't easy to get used to such a radical change in his own fortunes, not even after five years.

Well, he said to himself as he inspected his reflection in the mirror, if Arjan needs me for the rough work, then I'll just have to take things in hand. He tried to imagine the scholarly young Prelate trying to arrest an experienced robber in hand-to-hand combat and almost laughed aloud. No, this job was his, right enough!

Colce slipped out of the compound, which included the shrine, the tribunal hall, and the official residence of the local administration, by the back gate so no one would connect the disheveled figure with the Church. As he walked through the streets, he was pleased to see more than one passerby give him a look of arrogant contempt, and on one occasion a woman actually ducked down a side street to keep from crossing his path. Apparently he looked more than suitably villainous for the job at hand.

His ultimate destination was a cheap wine-shop known as the Dancing Mammoth. Even in the late afternoon, a number of unemployed loafers and vagabonds were there, downing cups of deKal, the hot, spiced common wine, and eating bowls of greasy noodles. Several regarded the newcomer with scowls. Not bothering to return the looks, Colce sauntered up to the counter.

"Val-tartii!" he ordered, "One jug of your best." Colce then claimed a side table, sitting with his back to the wall. The barmaid brought over a wooden drinking-cup and a ceramic flask containing the strong wine. Danoom, more commonly called "ice-wine" because its translucent blue color was similar to that of an ice flow and because it was served cold, was a raw spirit made by freezing off some of the water from ordinary wine, greatly increasing the alcohol content.

"Ha! We have a serious drinker here, fellows!" cried one of the men at the bar as he saw the barmaid set down Colce's wine. Staying in character, Colce gave the fellow a sullen look.

"What's it to you, anyway? Or do you figure I'll finish it all by nightfall and there won't be any when you finally work up your courage to try a real drink?"

"You're a stranger here," the man barked. "How dare you come in and shoot off your big mouth?"

"I'll say what I like, when I like, and if I feel like celebrating then I'll drink whatever I want!"

The loafer, a big man with a greasy face, got up off his stool and came over to the table.

"If you want to talk like that around here, then you'll have to back it up. We don't hold with lazy city types that talk big and act small."

"And I don't hold with country boys who figure they're top elephant just because their herd is so tiny," Colce taunted back. The loafer's face twisted in a snarl, but before they could move on to the real insults that preceded a brawl Colce threw a few copper cash on the table. "Sit down and we'll see who's more breath than balls. The first round's on me!"

The loafer couldn't resist a challenge like that, as Colce had figured. He dropped into the seat opposite the Prelate's man. The barmaid came over with another jug and cup, scooping up the meseta when she dropped them off, and the rest of the patrons crowded around to enjoy a good drinking bout.

Colce was no stranger to strong liquor and had the impressive capacity that went along with his hefty build. Still, he didn't want his brain fogged before the job even started, and he also knew that some bartenders weren't above tricks such as watering or strengthening the participants' wine so as to help the local to win. A quick inadvertent-seeming jostle of his arm sent a splash of wine onto the table and his forearm into the puddle, sending a large wet stain down his sleeve.

A little wetness on the outside of his sleeve did a good job concealing any wetness soaking through from the inside. Down his sleeve, after all, was where he intended to put the greater quantity of his drinks.

By the fifth round, the two men were very...convivial, and even the crowd was getting in on it. Colce told a couple of spicy tales, and the loafer replied with a humorous story of his own about three brigands, a Dezo Owl, and a highly elusive cooking pot. As Colce was pitching forward in laughter, the other man leaned over and clapped him on the shoulder.

"You know, fellow, you're all right, even for a city man," he said blearily.

"You too," Colce said, swaying. "It's good to know I'm in a town with real men."

"And women!" replied his drinking companion, aiming a leer at the barmaid, who approached with the next round. The girl snorted and gave him an arch look, flouncing back to the bar. "So tell me, how is it that you come to thish...this corner of the world?"

"There's a story to that," Colce began. "I, as you can plainly see, am a simple but honest traveler. It so happened that following a...misunderstanding...with local officials over the ownership of certain property, I felt somehow unwelcome in my previous home. Accordingly I chose to begin a journey, and what happened but that I encountered a trader who, like myself, was traveling in search of profit. Since in these troubled times the wilderness is home to all too many rogues and ruffians, we chose to travel together. Unfortunately, along the way he happened to suffer an...ahem...accident. Luckily for him, I was there, and after I had spared, er, saved his life, he put me in line for an excellent business opportunity for a fellow like myself here in Vassha."

A chorus of laughter greeted this tale, as everyone in the bar made exactly the assumption Colce intended them to. Quickly he moved on to the next step of his pitch.

"My only problem is that it's a two-man job."

The eyes of the drunken loafer lit up. Meanwhile, the crowd began to thin out, recognizing business talk as being none of their business.

"Now, there's no problem at all! Aren't we here to help?"

"It's a...specialized job. I need a fellow who knows what's what, if you know what I mean."

"Don't I!" Colce's drinking companion laughed. "Just last year I was on to a beautiful piece of business—a huge silver statue studded with rubies and amethysts. Only, its owner kept it in a locked iron safe and I never got close to it. Had to shell...sell the information, too, just to make a few cash on the job."

Colce sighed heavily.

"I know your pain. Too many fellows are full of themselves, just because they know how to force a lock, use a handy technique, or swing a club just right. I don't mind splitting a prize fifty-fifty, but not selling off the whole thing!"

The other man nodded.

"So, what kind of job ish...is it? Maybe I can help you out?"

"Well, I don't need a strong fellow, but it has to be someone sharp, who can take out a guard without a fight, sneaky-like. But no killing, mind! One thing I've seen is the Church will leave a little side business slide, but murder they're all over like that!" He snapped his fingers loudly. "Have to be, if the people are going to trust them to keep us all safe."

"Right, then. Is that all?"

"Well, it wouldn't hurt if he knew his way around keys and locks. My hands aren't as quick as they used to be. Now the way I see it, this job could mean twenty silver pieces to the right partner."

The loafer shook his head sadly.

"That's too bad. Me, if I need to get through a locked door I break it down."

"I'm sorry to hear that. I'd have liked to direct a few meseta a friend's way. But since you're from around here and I'm not, maybe you could point me in the right direction."

"I'd say so. But business is business, my friend, and it'll be one silver piece as my commissh...commission."

"Fair enough! But fifty cash now, and the other fifty if I like the looks of the fellow."


Colce handed over fifty meseta, reflecting as he did that this job was taking more than its share of expense money. With the wine bill, he was nearly up to a hundred meseta, a whole silver piece's worth!

"Thersh...There's several people I know who might help you. Rilla for one, she's not big but she's sneaky. K'Teen has the shk...skills, but I don't advise you talk to him—knife you in the back as easy as look at you, that one. Or Groth, but he might not be interested. He even paid up his bar tab, so I'm shure he's made some money. But if you wait a day or two, he'll have lost it all over at the old barracks, dicing."

It would have been rude to rush off, and Colce didn't feel like insulting a man who'd given him so much good information, so he stayed and shared another two rounds before wishing his new "friend" a cheery farewell and staggering out into the snow. Once the door closed behind him, though, his entire manner changed. Squaring his shoulders, Colce headed for the abandoned barracks.

Originally, the barracks had been home to the military garrison assigned to Vassha under the rule of the old secular government. Unlike the comfortable quarters of the officers, the grunts and noncoms had been granted few luxuries beyond the right to be the oppressor rather than the oppressed. After the fall of the corrupt regime the building had been looted of its few examples of technology, then put to the torch. It wasn't, Colce figured, precisely what Arjan might have meant by "the cleansing fire of Truth," but he believed the people had the right spirit.

Even after a stable government was reestablished throughout Dezolis, the barracks had not been repaired. It had been a symbol of the oppression, after all, which no one wanted to bring to mind, and there was no need for an armed garrison. The burnt-out shell had become a shelter for vagabonds, travelers who lacked the funds for an inn-room, and wandering crooks. Some illegal business went on there, most of it petty. Sometimes stolen goods were fenced, and the occasional brawl or even knife fight was not uncommon.

A determined effort by the police-wardens could have cleaned the place out, but there was little point. Either the crooks would just move somewhere else, or if the law worked hard enough to stamp out petty crime the result would be to make the people see Prelate Arjan and the Church as the iron fist of tyranny instead of the open hand of justice. Ironic, but there it was: a little lawlessness reassured people that they still had their freedom.

Through the broken windows and several holes in the walls Colce could make out the lights of multiple fires, around which the barracks's denizens huddled for warmth. He supposed he could enter, identify himself as an officer of the tribunal, and try to arrest his man, but he dismissed the idea almost before he could snicker at its naiveté. The man he was after would run or hide, and the only help he'd get was from those fearful of authority or hoping to collect a bribe. Frankly, he doubted he'd have tried it even if he'd known this Groth on sight. The local toughs might pitch in against him if they were feeling particularly repressed by the government's disapproval of their chosen profession.

Better, Colce thought, to use his head.

Though the afternoon was dimming into evening, finding Groth was easy. Drifting through the barracks, Colce soon came upon a game of wolraa being run by a distinctly fat man—a rarity among Dezolians, especially in the lower classes. He was dealing, which meant he was probably the one who owned the tiles. Four other players were sitting in a circle with him, cheering or cursing as fate blessed or turned against them. A minute or two's listening to the banter and insults being tossed back and forth told him that Groth was the fellow with the greenish mole-fur ruff on his coat.

"You got room for one more, or does a fellow have to lose to himself around here?" Colce said, already forming his plan.

"You have anything to lose besides hot air?" the fat man said amiably.

Colce bounced a small pouch on his hand, letting the others hear the satisfying clink of coins.

"Then sit down, brother, and join in. This round's almost over, as you can see."

Two men shifted a bit to make a place for him. It was Groth's play; he threw the dice into the tin plate used as a rolling-surface and cursed as they came up with an unplayable number. He passed the dice to the next man, who spun them out with a quick motion.

"Nine," he said. "Looks like I get to play."

"Just one though, Jovo, and then it's my turn. You'd better hope you come up with that second six."

Jovo flashed him a grin and reached into the cup holding the unplayed tiles. He plucked one out, then reached out and set the White Dragon into the pattern.

"I think the Four Wyrms is a better play, Tolbak. Not a penTal leKTmoo, but Vul already swiped the Ice Rune for his Winter March so that's out."

Groth let out a sigh.

"Well, that lets me out of this one," he groaned and passed meseta over to the smug winner.

He had a right to be smug, too. After all, it had been pure skill that had won him the hand, switching out the tile he'd drawn for the palmed Dragon. Of course there was the whole moral issue associated with cheating, but somehow Colce doubted that this cost Jovo much sleep.

When the next hand began, Colce made a couple of subtle movements of his fingers in Jovo's direction. These were signs used by professional gamblers on the road, which basically amounted to an offer to fleece the rubes instead of wasting time cheating each other. Jovo quickly indicated his assent, and it didn't take long to see why. The point of wolraa was to build patterns of tiles in the field, one spiraling off from another. It took a sharp eye and keen memory to see potential patterns as they grew, recognize which ones were impossible, and know when to take a lower-scoring pattern rather than risk a higher (and more complex, therefore more difficult to build) one.

Colce had often thought that Prelate Arjan would be brutally good at wolraa.

What soon became clear was that while Vul, the fat man, was an excellent player, the other three were not. Suuv was one of the cautious types who snipped off tiny scores at every opportunity and so not only never made big plays but rarely blocked any of his opponents'. Tolbak was just inept, and Groth was a plunger, building to big scores that never materialized. An hour passed, a fair amount of deKal was drunk from leather flasks, and Colce made back every meseta he'd spent at the wine-shop and was several hundred cash to the good. He hadn't even had to cheat. Much. Jovo was a good palmer but a mediocre player; he didn't know how to use his skill to best advantage.

Colce's object, though, wasn't to get rich; it was to drain Groth of ready cash. Not only did he take a few coppers off the man himself, but more than once was able to set up the others for a big play that cost Groth much more. Finally, the surly fellow threw in the last of his tiles and pronounced himself out of funds. The game broke up after that, and as the men straggled off in search of their next entertainment, Colce slipped after his quarry.

"Ho, Groth, don't be in such a hurry to run off."

The other man turned. He didn't look too pleased to hear Colce's voice. Already Colce had sized him up as potentially dangerous—tall, wiry, drunk enough to be mean but not functionally impaired, at least no more than Colce was. As for Groth's skill with the short club in his belt, well, Vaduz's skull was the best testimony to that.

"Maybe you didn't hear. I'm broke. Dead out. You can't leech blood from a rock."

"Not here for that. Fact is, I thought I could send a few cash your way. Figured you might be receptive, since I saw you needed the cash."

Groth snorted.

"What makes you think you've got anything to offer, stranger?"

"I've heard good things about your work. Fast hands and no messy accidents to clean up after."

"Gotta be that way. That dirty orang' of a high-hat we've got now'll come down hard on you for just a few copper cash out of someone else's pocket."

The boss would be glad to know he's getting a reputation for justice, Colce thought with some irony, even if it's not being expressed quite that way.

"Well, this won't be like that. Simple snatch and grab." The story didn't tally with what he'd told at the Dancing Mammoth, but that had been to a different audience. "No one knows my face and no one will see yours. I walk up to the mark and start talking so he's off his guard, a pretty target for you. You give him a quick smack, easy as pie, and we split the take. He doesn't know I'm robbing him until it's too late, so no alarms. By the time he's talking to the tribunal's leashed hounds, I've left town."

Groth gave him a dark look.

"So what do you need me for?"

Colce shook his head.

"And I heard you were smart—that pawnshop job was as smooth a piece of work as I've seen. Of course, framing the kid took a little help, but then—"

"How did you know about that?"

"I've got eyes, don't I? I've been in Vassha for over a week, getting the lay of the land." He couldn't help but feel a little smug. A couple of rumors, a hunch or two, and he'd found his quarry. Of course, it also meant that the Prelate was right and the kid was innocent, but that was okay, because Arjan was supposed to puzzle out stuff like that. "Now look, am I hiring the guy who pulled off that sweet job or the one who's lost his cut of the cash gambling, anyway?"

Groth aimed a nasty look at Colce, but nothing more. He was interested in money, not butting heads.

"Good. Here's the story. The fellow I'm after is one of those collectors—you know, with a bunch of old stuff?" Colce figured the word "antiquarian" wasn't a common part of Groth's vocabulary. "He buys stuff in the shops twice a week. You could set the sun by him."

"So what's the point? Even if we swipe a bunch of that old junk, we'll never be able to sell it anyway."

This time Colce didn't bother to explain. He just glared.

"Okay, okay, I got it. We get him on the way down, while he's got money on him."

"Right. We're talking cold, hard silver here. Maybe up in the hundreds of pieces—and unlike the jewelry and other items you got off that last job, with no need to fence them."

"Show me the spot," Groth finally proved he wasn't just a pretty face. "I'm from around here. Maybe I can suggest something, pick out the best place to make our move."

Colce nodded approvingly.

"It's a plan. Then once we've settled that, I'll buy you a drink to seal our one-day partnership. It used to be your money, anyhow." The two men laughed as if this was an uproarious joke, which on some level maybe it was.

Colce led Groth into Vassha. He wished, now, that the man was a bit more drunk; it would make matters easier. Nevertheless, a few "not much furthers" and "just through heres" got them about a block away from the shrine compound. Two guards stood outside the gate, a recent addition to the night-watch for protection of the compound but mostly to have an additional few men awake in case of an emergency.

"Hey, what is this?" Groth said. "I'm not going near that place."

"Actually, as a matter of fact, you are." Seeing Groth was about to bolt, Colce tried to quickly bring him to heel with a reverse-fist to the belly, but the crook was wary and partially turned away.

Groth snatched out his weapon, a short truncheon, at once. He didn't go for his knife, more than likely not out of any respect for a tribunal officer's life but because he was better-trained with the club. Colce stayed unarmed. Occasionally dead men did tell tales, but live ones spoke louder.

"Dirty lapdog to the priests! You'll never take me in!" Groth cursed, swinging his club. Unfortunately for Colce, the man did know what he was doing; these were no looping overhand swings, no wild flailings. He thrust and jabbed, using the truncheon almost like an extension of his arm, then—cleverly, curse him!—used the way Colce's attention was becoming focused on the weapon to land a simple front kick to the hip.

With Colce off-balance, Groth moved in to deliver a knockout blow, but Colce managed a wrist-block. The two men grappled, and here Colce's powerful build gave him a distinct advantage. He was not able to get the truncheon away from Groth but did turn the man and hurl him face-first into a snowdrift in a move that had little to do with any handfighting art, being pure barroom brawling. He moved in to finish the fight, but this time it was Groth's turn to counter with a back kick that landed on Colce's jaw as he bent over.

As Colce went reeling, Groth came after him, snow still clinging to his jacket and hat. The time it had taken him to extricate himself from the drift, though, allowed Colce to get his wits about him. Eschewing finesse, he bunched his shoulder to absorb a glancing blow as he bull-rushed in close, then locked Groth's right arm with his own left, pinning both to their sides. Then, using his shorter height to perfect advantage, he head-butted Groth in the face. Hard. With the criminal momentarily unable to fight back, Colce spun him, thrust him down onto the road, and wrestled his arm back up behind him.

"About time you got here," he said to the police-warden who'd come from the gate to check out the fight and had arrived just after it was over. "The boss is going to want to have a long talk with this one."

"The case of Vaduz versus Rasos will come to order," the bailiff announced loudly, his one eye sweeping the tribunal hall, quelling the chatter from the crowd. The plaintiff rose from his seat with his family and came forward even as the defendant was brought out from his cell.

"This court has taken the opportunity to further investigate these crimes," Arjan announced. "Thanks to the diligence of our law officers"—he did not want to shame the police-wardens who had not discovered this aspect of the case, so merely referred to Colce's help as being part of the entire force—"a new witness has been discovered. Bailiff?"

"Yes, Your Grace."

Groth was brought out from where he, too, had been jailed.

"State your name and profession for the record."

"My name is Groth. I am an itinerant laborer."

"In fact, the only labor you work at is robbery, assault, and theft, is that not so?"

"Yeah," he replied sullenly.

"Speak respectfully to your Prelate!" the bailiff barked.

"Yes, Your Grace," Groth muttered with even more bad grace.

"You have heard of the robbery which took place at the shop of this man, Vaduz the pawnbroker?"

Groth's head bobbed up and down.

"Yes, Your Grace, but it wasn't me who—"

"Silence!" Arjan snapped. "Confine yourself to answering my questions. Was it you who struck Vaduz and robbed the shop?"

His admission of guilt was nearly inaudible over the surprised murmur of the crowd and the plaintiff alike.

"It had been testified that the plaintiff's shop was always kept locked. How, then, did you get inside?"

"I had an impression of the key in wax, and used it to carve an imitation from hardwood. The lock wasn't much, so it worked pretty easily."

There was a trace of smugness in his voice. Protected by the deal he'd made for his testimony, Groth had been given an unprecedented opportunity to brag in front of the tribunal and all the spectators about how skilled a thief he was.

"I'll return to that wax impression in a moment," Arjan said. "For now, though, tell me what you did after you entered the shop."

"I slipped up behind the old miser. He didn't hear a thing, so I gave him a little tap on the back of the head to make sure it stayed that way. Then, I just grabbed up whatever I could get my hands on." He smirked. "Even got my ring back, too." He held up his hand so Arjan could see that he wore a simple steel band carved with an abstract folk design. The scribe wrote busily, taking down the record for the archives.

"I am already aware that you had an accomplice in this theft," Arjan told the witness. "This accomplice made the wax impression of the key for you. He or she was also the one who placed the stolen bracelets into the baggage where they were later found. The only ones with the opportunity to do these things are the defendant Rasos and the three members of Vaduz's household."

"Now, you have been offered the chance to reduce the sentence for your crime to a single year's hard labor by naming the one who was the instigator of this theft. Do you accept this offer, Groth?"

"I do. Hey, I'm just a hired hand, Your Grace. Why should I pay for what's someone else's idea?"

"Because theft is a crime and a sin," the Prelate said sharply, the priest in him rising to the fore. "You should have refused the offer and confined yourself to honest labor. Had you done so, you would not be before this tribunal today."

He doubted that Groth got the message, but if even one person in the spectators' seats did and refrained from taking an illegal shortcut to wealth Arjan considered the speech worth making. Justice, he knew, was never just about the case before him but also the community at large.

"Now, tell me the name of the person who commissioned you for this theft."

Groth looked up at the Prelate, then looked back over his shoulder at the crowd. He was the center of everyone's attention, the star actor on the stage, and he knew it. He enjoyed it. Dramatically, he pointed.

"It was that man! The pawnbroker, Vaduz. He hired me to rob his own store so he could frame his assistant!"

"You lying g'grat!" the plaintiff screamed, and hurled himself at Groth. The police-wardens moved quickly, restraining Vaduz before he could do any harm. Vaduz's daughter, meanwhile, had leapt to her feet and was screaming insults at her father, demanding to know how he could do such a thing. The spectators, of course, were hotly debating this new testimony, with the result that the tribunal hall had become engulfed by pandemonium.

Arjan hammered the gavel loudly and his repeated cries for order were eventually obeyed.

"Silence!" he roared, surprising even himself with his vehemence. "We will have the truth of this!"

"Will Your Grace take the word of this lying orang', a confessed thief, over mine?" Vaduz cried angrily.

The young Prelate fixed him with a sharp stare.

"I called for silence, and I will have it," he declared firmly. "Nor do I intend to take anyone's word for anything without evidence." He looked from plaintiff to defendant to witness, then back again. He realized then that Groth had inadvertently given him the means to prove the matter, or at least to give a strong suggestion of the truth. Arjan beckoned a clerk over and whispered instructions for Colce in his ear. As the clerk scuttled away to deliver the message, Arjan turned to those before him.

"I stated earlier that only four individuals could have been Groth's employer: Rasos, Vaduz, Janei and Lika. Each of these four people shall go to the scribe's table and write out the text of the Dawn's Grace." He could have picked anything, but the common prayer said upon rising in the morning suited the Prelate's sense of irony, as it included the line, "May I be guided by truth, and escape the snares of deceit."

Confused but acquiescent, each of the four suspects—there was no reason to think of them as anything other than what they were—went to the scribe's table and in turn were given a pen and paper with which they wrote out the required text. The four pages were brought to Arjan, who spread them out on the bench before him.

"A comparison of handwriting will settle this matter," he said.

"May I ask what you intend to compare these with, Your Grace?" Rasos said meekly. He seemed to have recovered some measure of his dignity and self-composure since he was no longer the only one being accused. After all, the presence of Groth meant that Rasos's original claim that he had not struck Vaduz was true. Nonetheless, though Arjan thought it unlikely, it was still possible that Rasos had hired Groth because he himself was afraid he would make a mistake, botch the job through inexperience.

Or, he reflected, it could be Vaduz, making absolutely sure that the romance between Lika and Rasos was broken up. Not only would Rasos suffer punishment for the theft if framed successfully, but it wasn't likely Lika would continue to have feelings for a man who'd attacked her father to get money.

The problem was, all four suspects had motives, so that would get Arjan nowhere. Janei's clothing spoke of her husband's miserly ways; for her the crime would be based on greed and revenge—to take back some of what was her fair share of the family earnings. Too, there might be other considerations layered in, such as the fact that Groth was quite a handsome man. She could have overheard Lika speak with Rasos about the elopement and framed the assistant, either to cover her tracks or because she, too, disapproved of the match. Or, Lika herself might be guilty, and her illicit romance nothing but a ploy. It would have been callous, seducing Rasos so he could be her cat's-paw, but even the unworldly Prelate knew such things could happen. And Groth's good looks and vagabond lifestyle might have seemed appealing, even romantic, to the young girl just as to her mother.

"It is true," he admitted, "that the police have found no letters or other communications from Groth's employer to him. However, there is other evidence. Now, we only need to wait for it."

Luckily, the wait was only a couple of minutes, not long enough for the mood of the crowd to cross over from suspense into restlessness and boredom. Colce entered the courtroom, walked up to the bench, and handed up a heavy cloth-bound book.

"Sorry I'm late, boss. I had a little trouble with the new lock," he told the Prelate, grinning impudently.

"That—that's the register from my shop!" Vaduz exclaimed.

"Exactly," Arjan said. He opened the book, then began to flip through the pages. As he expected, the entries were in a variety of handwriting styles. Vaduz's and Rasos's predominated, but he found that of the two women as well, from days in which they'd helped out at the shop—by no means an uncommon practice in small, family businesses. Quick and efficient research was one of the Prelate's strong points, and he soon found what he sought.

"Listen to this entry: 'October nineteenth, 1308. One iron ring carved with abstract motif, size seven. Ticket number 392. Ninety meseta paid.' Do you admit that is your ring, Groth, or will you make me test its size here in the tribunal?"

"It's mine," he admitted. Apparently he didn't like being part of a spectacle that didn't show him favorably.

"It is hardly surprising that one in your profession would seek the services of a pawnbroker, and thus make it unnecessary for your employer to hunt up an accomplice among the criminal underclass. Do you not agree, Janei?"

The pawnbroker's wife stood fixed in place.

"This is your handwriting, is it not?"

He turned the book as if to show those assembled—a gesture more symbolic than significant, since everyone was too far away to make out the details.

The point was made, though.

"Oh, all right, I did do it. I'm sick of living on a pittance, maintaining a household on a beggar's earnings while the shop pulls in a decent wage that goes for nothing," she snapped bitterly. "You talk about justice, Your Grace? Where's the justice in a man who makes his own family eat the plainest, cheapest food when he can afford meat every night? Where's the justice in shivering because the fires are banked low to save fuel? Or in wearing the same worn and patched clothes for years? In being ashamed to be seen by my own friends or of having them as guests in my home?"

Arjan sympathized. If he thought about it for long enough, he might have even felt sorry for her—but that did not change the facts.

"Was it justice to have your husband assaulted? To steal the possessions of your customers that they may wish to redeem? To attempt to ruin your daughter's happiness in order that you would have a convenient scapegoat? The family is at the heart of our social order, but yours takes every method to resolve problems except what you should do, to talk amongst yourselves and arrive at a solution, or should you find yourselves in need of guidance, to consult your priest."

He swept the five of them with his gaze.

"Rasos, this tribunal finds you innocent of all charges. As reparations for the false accusation brought against you, Vaduz and Janei shall at once arrange for a proper wedding feast and a dowry of one thousand meseta—if, that is, you and Lika still wish to be married?"

"Of course I do, Your Grace," Rasos assured him at once.

"Even after my family has caused you so much trouble?" Lika asked him, concerned.

"Even if it had been a hundred times worse."

"That seems to settle matters," Arjan said wryly. Colce just smirked in response. "Now, with regard to the actual crime, Vaduz, do you wish to press charges against your wife?"

"Your Grace, how could I?"

"An excellent choice. Tomorrow morning, the four of you will be at the shrine to speak with Father Reza, and you will come back every week until he is satisfied that you have learned the meaning of a harmonious family life." Reza was the senior underpriest, a grandfatherly old man who could offer wise counsel or the verbal equivalent of a slap upside the head with equal proficiency. The suggestion took Vaduz by surprise, and he made the mistake of protesting.

"Your Grace, surely our private family life should not be the subject of your orders."

"Your private family life is before this tribunal in a criminal case! That renders it my concern as your Prelate, even as your spiritual well-being is also my concern. The problems between you must be solved now, before they can come before me again in my official capacity, perhaps on more serious charges. You may be innocent of crime yourself, but it is your relationships with your wife, daughter, and assistant that have brought you here today."

Chastened, Vaduz hung his head.

"As for you, Groth, you are not only guilty of robbery but have attempted to abuse this tribunal's clemency by offering perjured testimony. Your fate will not be so easy as theirs." Arjan didn't know if the vagabond had lied because he was Janei's lover or because he hoped she would pay him for his silence, but the topic of adultery was not something to raise in public. He'd let Reza deal with that side of things.

Colce grinned at the dismayed thief and said in a low voice so the Prelate wouldn't hear, "Y'know, Groth, it's good your skin ain't purple, or else people would mistake you for a gerotlux: fast-moving, fast tongue, and nothing between the ears."