If Osk Rievor had been anyone else, I could have contacted him through our integrators. But, almost unheard of on Old Earth in this penultimate age, he had elected to live without one. Instead, he was attempting to create, by magical means, what would be the equivalent of an integrator in the coming new age: a versatile animal companion known as a familiar. For a while, my own integrator had been such a creature — the technical term was a grinnet — until it had justifiably rebelled and arranged to become again the disembodied device that I had originally designed and built to assist me in my work.

“We should get Osk Rievor an integrator,” I now said, not for the first time.

“He has refused one,” said my assistant.

“I need to contact him from time to time. Otherwise, I am flying half-blind.”

“I am surprised to hear you say it.”

“I would not do so outside this room,” I admitted. “Try him. Perhaps he has realized the folly of trying to get by without an assistant. He may have put one in place but is too embarrassed to admit it.”

I waited for a response from the integrator, but there was none. “What is happening?” I said, after the moment grew long.

“I am not sure,” it said. “Before, when I sought contact, there was nothing, just a gap in the connectivity grid.”

“And now?”

“Now there is a sense of… something — some undefined presence, but it does not respond.”

“Perhaps he is in the process of installing an integrator but has not yet tuned it right.”

“Integrators are self-tuning,” said my assistant, “otherwise the grid would be chaotic.”

“Try again.”

“I have been trying all the while. Nothing has changed.”

“Then stop.” I thought for a moment then said, “Could a surveillance bee make it all the way to the estate?”

“Possibly, if fully charged and if the winds cooperate, though it would be surer to send an aircar. Or you could send the Gallivant.” He referred to a modest space yacht that I had acquired during a recent discrimination. It was parked at the space port on an island out in Mornedy Sound.

“I am conserving my funds,” I said. “The undockage and redockage fees for sending the Gallivant would be more than the cost of hiring an aircar. Dispatch a bee with a message, asking him to contact me.”

Master Jho-su’s artistry with the fieriest of spices had not diminished since the last time I had been so fortunate as to taste the products of his kitchen. But several of his signature dishes were new, the change in menu a consequence of his having spent a sabbatical year on Bloom, one of the grand foundational domains, as the most anciently settled of the Ten Thousand Worlds were known. He had cross-fertilized his own genius with that of the chefs of the great cities of Os and Sheeshah, and brought back some of their Twenty-Year Sauce, as well as a shelf of powerful brewed capsinatespices. The result was a fusion of cuisine that was drawing the attention of gourmets from all the parts of Old Earth still inhabited by human beings — or at least those that could afford The Pot of Fire’s prices. My meal this evening would eat up a week’s food budget, but I calculated that it was worth the expense to put myself under the eyes of so many potential clients. As well, I felt that after all my recent trials, I deserved a treat.

And a treat it turned out to be. As the old orange sun dropped behind the ornate facades of the multistoried houses on the west side of The Old Circular, like an arthritic old man lowering himself gingerly into his bath, I tasted the Master’s plate of the day: a platter of eighteen meat, vegetable and nut pastes, into which one dipped pieces of a fine-crumbed bread studded with amarast seeds. The different pastes could be combined on one cob of the bread to produce remarkable combinations of sweet and savory, mellow and fiery, bold and subtle. A bottle of vintage Janvari red made a perfect accompaniment, along with a carafe of palate-cleansing improved water.

I dined alone, though I was aware of glances cast my way and whispered comments. Word had passed about my purpose in being there this evening. For my part, I let my gaze follow the comings and goings of pedestrians on the square. My intent was to spot not only Massim Shar’s cut-out but the other member of his criminal coterie who would be there to watch our transaction. There might even be a watcher to watch the watcher, trust being a commodity in short supply among the lawless. I meant to have records of them all, captured by a suite of devices unobtrusively built into my clothing.

It was the time of day when those who cared about fashion walked in the evening air, showing each other their finery. The style this season, for men, was close-fitting, long-tailed coats, accompanied by tall, cylindrical hats and tight, knee-high boots; for women, elegance came in the form of collarless dresses that fit tight above the bust and at the knee, though inbetween the fabric ballooned out on hidden stays to create an illusion that the body beneath must be spherical. The combined effect of so many ambulatory sticks and balls, each of whom wore an expression of complete self-satisfaction, added strength to my longstanding belief that the profession of couturier required only a good knowledge of fabric and a malicious sense of humor.

The time for the connection with Massim Shar’s agent was drawing near. When she had brought me the platter of pastes, the server had pointed out to me the different strengths of the eighteen sauces, advising me to save for last the meat puree doused in Sheeshah’s Nine Dragons sauce, predicting that once it struck my palate, the dish’s other, subtler flavors would be unable to register. I now scooped up a good pinch of the stuff, made sure my tumbler of improved water was full and to hand, and popped the laden bread into my mouth. There was a pause — my taste buds may well have gone into shock for a moment — then the full weight of Master Jho-su’s genius crashed upon my senses. My eyes widened, simultaneously flinging a gush of tears down my cheeks, my tongue desperately sought an exit from my mouth, and my nose and sinuses reported that they had been suddenly and inexplicably connected to a volcanic flume.

I groped for the tumbler and took a healthy gulp, but the water seemed to evaporate before it even reached my throat. I drank more, my free hand finding the carafe even as I drained the glass. I could scarcely see to pour a refill and ended up drinking directly from the larger container. Gradually, the inferno in my mouth subsided to a banked fire. I wiped my streaming eyes and sucked in a great breath and would not have been surprised, when I exhaled, to have emitted clouds of steam.

I glanced about me, using only the corners of my streaming eyes, and saw that my actions had drawn some amused smiles but just as many expressions of knowledgeable commiseration. Clearly, Nine Dragons sauce had previously claimed the unwary as its victims, and I was relieved to know that the effects were not permanent. I drank some more of the improved water, felt it begin to repair my outraged tissues, and signaled the server to bring me the bill. The woman did so with that carefully neutral face which fits a great waiter to become a senior diplomat, if she is willing to accept the plunge in status. I added a generous gratuity and, wiping my eyes once more, looked out across The Old Circular.

Between the perambulating orbs and scepters, I spotted a lean and wiry specimen in a shapeless jacket and a wide-brimmed hat pulled low. He was moving at a steady pace toward the meeting point. I scanned the square again, and saw another man loitering at the mouth of an alley, his attitude casual but his eyes never leaving the path of the man in the hat.

I spoke the phrase that activated my surveillance suite and rose from the table, stepped over the low ornamental fence that enclosed The Pot of Fire’s outer terrace, and moved out into the square. Behind me, I heard a sudden rise in the buzz of conversation and knew that my fellow diners would now be entertaining themselves and each other with speculations as to the nature of my case and what might happen next.

My lips and tongue had had the benefit of a carafe of improved water, but my nasal apparatus had been left to deal with the effects of the conflagrant condiment all on its own. My nose was, therefore, still streaming and my sinuses remained as closed as business premises that had been gutted by fire. Still, I kept my eyes on the figure in the slouch hat as I wove among the fashionable pairs that wandered at random through the plaza, meaning to arrive at our mutual destination at the same moment. My attention thus occupied, I did not see the young woman until I walked right into her.

She bounced off me and fell, without grace, to the pavement. I stopped and looked down, receiving an indelible impression of an upturned, longish face, gone pale with shock beneath its crowded constellations of freckles, ornamented by two pale green eyes beneath a tumble of coppery red curls and ringlets, less than artfully arranged. A mouth that it would have been kind to have described as generous when closed was now gaping open in bewilderment. The cut of her clothes and footwear, a long, ivory-lace dress and latticed sandals, each with no more ornament than a few limp ribbons, argued that she might be from offworld, though I could not place the origin.

I was naturally annoyed, but I bent and offered her my hand. The fingers that took mine were not at soft, and the grip they exerted when she began to pull herself up was strong. I made the briefest of apologies, pleading a matter of urgent business, and made to move past her; even if had not been engaged in professional and potentially dangerous business I would not have tarried, for she was the complete combination of feminine attributes that I found least appealing — including, now that she was standing, more height than I commanded. She said nothing in reply, but gave me a look that mingled surprise with resentment, holding onto me until I had to use my free hand to gently release the one she still grasped.

“I am sorry,” I said, a statement that was not entirely true, “but you do not seem to be injured and I must keep an appointment.” With that, I turned and saw that the man in the hat was at the appointed place. I saw him consult his timepiece and glare about him with an air of angry suspicion. Politeness argued for pressing my card into the young woman’s hand, but I did not do so. Instead, I said, “I must go,” and, catching the waiting man’s eye, I forced myself through the pedestrians toward him. His air of resentful mistrust only deepened as he looked past me. I could only assume that the ungainly woman was staring at me, and therefore at him, since he was at the end of the beeline I was making across the square. His head now swiveled from side to side, doubtless expecting to see other eyes turned his way, and he became only slightly less apprehensive when I reached him and spoke the code word Irslan Chonder had given me.

“I was hurrying to make our appointment and bumped into the young woman,” I said.

He glanced furtively past me. “She’s looking at us.”

“At me,” I said. “She is probably angry.” And justifiably so, I supposed to myself; the pavements of The Old Circular were not made to receive falling buttocks in a gentle embrace, and from what I had seen of hers she had less cushioning than most.

He glanced about, twisting the cords in his neck. “I’m covered, if you try anything.”

“I’m not going to ‘try anything.’ Let us do our business.”

The arrangement was that he would show me the contents of one of the soul boxes. If the items tallied with the list I had been given, I would show him a credit pip in the amount of the ransom. Finally, after much peering about, accompanied by grunts and half-voiced mutterings, we stepped into a nearby doorway. He took a small bundle of cloth from inside his jacket and unfolded it. Nestled in the fabric I saw a dried flower, a small length of jeweler’s chain, a silver coin bearing a likeness that had been worn away by decades of use, a round quartz pebble, and an animal’s canine tooth, along with a half-handful of gray grit.

“Very well,” I said. “We can do business.”

He refolded the cloth and tucked it away, then said, “Follow me.”

We went along the side of the square to where Ambledown Way began, but followed that thoroughfare only a short distance before we turned into a crooked alley that wound along the backs of several houses and shops. We soon came to a small open space where other alleys converged, crossed it and went right, then down a flight of steps and through a door into a basement. My guide flicked on a small hand-held lumen and led me across a low-ceilinged room and through a gap that had been gouged in the opposite wall. We climbed a flight of stairs, passed through a door whose lock had been broken, and emerged into a ground-floor room of an empty house. Here we stopped and the cut-out consulted a button on the sleeve of his coat, saying to it, “What’s the lie?”

I could not hear whoever responded to him, but he nodded as if barely satisfied and said to me, “No one followed us.”

“Of course not,” I said.

“All right. Let’s go.”

We set off again, this time climbing through the untenanted house to the roof. On a landing stage waited a nondescript aircar. “Don’t think about tracing it,” the man said. “It’s stolen.”

“You needn’t have gone to the trouble just for me,” I said.

We got in. “I know who you are, you know,” he said, when we were airborne.

“That puts you one up on me.”

He muttered something I didn’t catch and didn’t care to; it was unlikely to have been a generous appreciation of my character. He applied himself to the aircar’s controls and we wove a varied course across the city, he several times again consulting his wrist button. Finally, when he was as satisfied as I suspected his nature could allow for, we spiraled down to a goods storage facility near the Creechy dockyard.

The man flew the aircar directly into the building through an open hatch on the upper floor. Here another man waited, clad from head to toe in a one-piece garment made of a flash-and-glitter fabric that could baffle most recording equipment — though not the suite I employed, most of which was made of unique systems designed and built by me.

The man I had come with handed me the cloth bundle and told me to get out of the hovering aircar. When I had done so, feeling the idling gravity obviators tugging at my legs, he turned the vehicle and flew away. The man in the incognito suit beckoned with one glittering hand. I noticed now that he wore a thin collar of dull metal around his neck, tight against the shining fabric. I again produced the credit pip but delayed handing it over. He moved to an inner wall and touched a control. The wall slid silently back and there were the stolen repositories, one of them open.

I stepped into the room and examined the goods, finding nothing missing and all in order. Only then did I turn over the pip. The scintillating man took it, examined it closely, tucked it away. A moment later, he was gone from the room. I made no attempt to follow but brought out my communicator and called Irslan Chonder.

“Your possessions are yours again,” I said, and gave the coordinates of the building.

“I want to know who took them.”

“You will know by the end of the evening.”