“Yes, what is it?” The door opened about two inches.
Smewor felt eyes on him from the darkness, fixed his face into a smile. “Sorry to disturb you, love. There’s been a bit of trouble hereabouts. Burglaries.”
“Burglaries!” The voice quavered. “Are you with the Militia?” A suggestion of an eye glittered in the opening. “You’re not in uniform.”
“No, ma’am.” Imitating the Militia was a very bad idea. They got touchy about that. “We’re just checking with householders.”
“Whether your valuables are safe. You have valuables in the house?”
“Oh! I suppose I do. Well, you’d better come in.” The gap widened. Smewor was through in a moment, pushing it closed with his heel.
“Lovely,” he said, grinning.
She was ancient, fragile, one rootlike hand clutching her green velvet cloak at the neck.
“Now, where do you keep your precious things, love?”
“Upstairs,” she said. “Oh, dear, I’ve already been up once today, my hip, you know…”
He was amazed she could get up them at all. She was so bent with age that the cloak dragged on the floor.
“Don’t worry!” he said, bright as a spring breeze. “I’ll just check for you. All right? Which room?”
“First on the left.”
He was halfway up when she said, “Don’t you want to know what I’ve got? You won’t know if anything’s gone, otherwise.”
Her voice sounded sharper, almost young. Smewor cursed himself briefly and silently before turning around and rolling his eyes, grinning. “You know, you’re right, forget my own head if it wasn’t nailed on, haha! What should I look for?”
“Oh, just a few bits. My mother’s pearls, some bangles. On the dresser. Don’t wear them much these days, you know, no call to at my age…”
“Right you are!” Smewor bounded up the stairs.
The house was larger than it looked from the outside, bright and neat, without the old-person mustiness he expected. The first room on the left contained a dresser and a bed, where a large, grey cat opened a sliver of eye at him and yawned.
The dresser itself was nice. In fact all the furniture was nice. A return trip with some mates might be in order. This old bird was easy meat – could probably be persuaded to lock herself in the privy while they stripped the place, and if she couldn’t – well, a cosh would keep her quiet. He’d done worse, often. And the cat would be no trouble, not like a dog.
There were some bangles – nothing but tin, probably, with most of the paint worn off, not worth his time. But the pearls…he blinked, reached out his hand and lifted them from their brass saucer.
They had the shimmer and weight of the real thing, but were no colour he’d ever seen before, a pale smoke-blue. He lifted them close to his eyes. He could almost swear there were patterns moving under the swirling surfaces, writhing bodies, tiny faces – so beautiful...
A noise from outside made him jump. How long had he been standing there like a loon? The old lady hadn’t called out – had she got suspicious? Gone to get help? He jammed the pearls in his pocket and edged out of the room, peered down the stairs. The front door was open – he thought he’d felt it latch behind him. He started down, ears pricked.
The old lady appeared at the bottom of the stairs so suddenly he jolted and almost fell. “Would you like tea?”
“Oh, no, thank you,” he said, smiling. “No, better get on.”
“Was everything there?”
“Yes, it’s all fine. Now you take care.”
“Oh I will,” she said, as she shut the door behind him.
Smewor found himself reluctant to get to Vomos’ place. His hand kept wandering to his pocket, stroking the pearls. Their smoothness, the clicking noise as they rubbed together, was immensely pleasing. At one point he realised he was standing, holding them up before his eyes, right there in the street. He shoved them away, hurried on.
“Nitharion blues!” Vomos the fence picked the pearls up reverently. “Look at that. A hundred of ’em. Beautiful!”
“Nitharion blues, eh?” Smewor said. “Special, are they?”
“You have no idea. Lovely job, Smewor. A hundred now, another forty when I…” Vomos hesitated, his voice, suddenly, a little uncertain, “when I sell ‘em.”
Smewor looked at the shimmering droplets hanging from Vomos’ pudgy fingers. They were beautiful. Like a chain of tiny, misty moons. And Vomos was very generous, all of a sudden – a bit too generous. Maybe they were worth more than he was offering. Suddenly Smewor was convinced of it. Something that beautiful had to be worth more. Besides, Vomos was only going to sell them on – to who knew what passing traveller or merchant, they’d be gone, Smewor would never see them again.
“No,” he said.
Vomos’ face, lumpy with the memory of a dozen fights, tightened like a fist. “No?” He said, not taking his eyes off the pearls. “You won’t get a better offer.”
“I’ve changed my mind. Give them back.”
Vomos’ free fist shot out, the other one holding the pearls carefully out of the way.
Smewor’s cosh came up to meet it, cracking bone.
The woman who stepped into Vomos’ premises a little later looked no more than forty. She was tall, and striking, and wearing a dark green velvet cloak that swirled about her ankles. She peered at the two bodies on the floor. A knife was buried in Smewor’s neck; Vomos’ head was broken. She shook her head, reached down and picked up the string of pearls, and counted them. “Only two this time?” she said. “This place is getting better.” She put the pearls around her neck, and left.
A grey cat put its head in briefly, surveyed the scene, and followed her out, pausing only to piss on the doorpost.