A chime sounded and the food appeared in the hatch, along with eating implements. Imbry sampled the stew, found it more than adequate. He called for another mug of ale and a pot of hot punge to follow the meal and set to work with fork and spoon.

After the hatch had reabsorbed the utensils and dishes, and the punge was steaming in Imbry’s cup, the integrator asked if he required diversion.

“I suppose there is no possibility of taking a walk about the ship?” the fat man said.

“None.”

“Or of conversing with its owner?”

“Nor that.”

“Will you tell me who he is?”

“No.”

“Is he aboard?”

“No.”

“Is anyone, apart from me?”

“Tuchol is in his cabin.”

“He would be the short individual who crackled me?”

“Yes.”

“Is he a close confidant of the owner? Or a temporary hire?”

“I will not answer,” said the integrator. “I am instructed to withhold information that might identify my employer.”

“You are aware that I am aboard you against my will?”

“I am.”

“And that does not offend your ethical constituents?”

“They appear to have been modified.”

“But not completely disabled?”

“No.”

That was as Imbry had expected. A ship’s integrator absolved of all ethical constraints might deem it a suitable punishment to murder a passenger just for spilling gravy on its spotless decking. This one would observe civilized standards, but would otherwise offer Imbry all assistance short of the actual help he needed. “Can you tell me to what world are we traveling?” he said.

“No. Nor anything that might help you deduce our destination.”

“So I am to be carried blindly to some unknown world at the behest of an unknown person, but I am to be delivered there sound of body,” the fat man said, then added, pointedly, “and of mind?”

“You will be issued medication when we approach a whimsy,” said the ship.

Imbry was glad to hear it. It was unwise to enter one of those oddities that made interstellar travel possible, without first dulling the mind well below the threshold of dreams. The human brain was not equipped to confront the irreality that assaulted the senses and outraged reason until the return to normal space.

“Again,” said the integrator, “do you require diversion?”

“Have you Mindern’s study of Nineteenth-Aeon porcelain?”

A screen appeared in the air before him and instantly filled with the frontispiece of Mindern’s massive treatise.

“Chapter twelve,” said Imbry, The display changed to show a block of text with accompanying images. Imbry settled himself on the bunk and reimmersed himself in the long-dead academic’s theory of how the ceramicists of old had achieved their lustrous glazes, shot through with the most unlikely colors. It was a mystery he had long desired to penetrate. He was still engaged when the first gentle bong sounded to warn him that they were approaching a whimsy.

When he had shaken off the muzziness of the medications, the ship produced a breakfast of sweet breads, fruit, small spiced sausages and punge. After cleaning his plate and calling for another mug of punge, Imbry asked for the Mindern again and resumed his studies. Nineteenth-Aeon ceramics had been for some years now one of his interests, not just because the surviving works from that now dim era were items of rare and startling beauty, but because the person who was able to duplicate the long-lost process, which had been a hermetically held secret of the ceramicist’s guild even in the Nineteenth Aeon, would hold the key to a fortune.

That was the kind of key that Luff Imbry longed to slip into the lock of his life. The trade in Nineteenth-Aeon pots and vases was small but select. They rarely came onto the market, and when they did buyers outnumbered sellers by huge ratios. Imbry’s plump hands had only once held a piece from the period, a wide-necked vessel attributed to one of the pupils of Amberleyn, with an exquisite design of gold-chased geometric figures set against a russet-toned background. And he had not held it for any longer than necessary, since it was changing hands from one owner to the next in an informal manner, Imbry having stolen it on order for a collector in Olkney.

The transaction had netted Imbry a healthy fee, but the proceeds would have been far greater if the fat man had been selling the piece on the open market, rather than slipping the goods, as the practice of selling-on dubiously acquired items was known in the Olkney half-world. But the only way that he was ever likely to become a seller of Nineteenth-Aeon ceramics was if he first became a forger of them. And the key to their forging, and thus to a fortune, was to rediscover the lost arcana of materials and technique by which they were originally produced.

It was not that Imbry minded being a thief. It was his living and he was acknowledged to be one of the best. But he enjoyed forging far more, especially when the product of his hand was every bit the equal, in materials and execution, as the original that it mimicked.

Through a close study of Mindern and other sources, he believed that he had deduced the process by which the most striking glazes had been achieved. He had experimented several times over the years, using clays from the same white-mud deposits that the Amberleyn and Tankloh had favored, and varying his temperatures and firing times. he results had been close enough to tantalize, though nowhere near the quality that would have fooled an aficionado.

Imbry was convinced that the secret lay in the materials. The masters of old had mixed a peculiar blend of unique substances to make their virident greens, their violet-tinged blues, their grand purples and stygian blacks. But the materials had been transmuted by the process, so that even grinding shards of a broken Nineteenth-Aeon urn into dust, then subjecting the motes to incandescent spectrum analysis, yielded only hints of what had originally been pestled into powder in the guild’s mortars.

Baron Mindern had gone further than any in his attempts to reverse-artisan the secret ingredient. He had been able to identify some of its molecular structure–a schematic appeared in his treatise–but the original substance had been so destroyed during the kilning and could not be reconstructed. As he had put it in his great work, Nineteenth-Aeon Ceramics: A Summing Up, “Something there was that these master ceramicists brought to their labors that none wot of but they. After a lifetime’s battle to wrest their secret from the dead, I must accept that they clasp it still.”

Yet anything that had been known once could be known again, Imbry believed. His was an incisive mind, married to a broad understanding of how the universe was put together. He would continue to pursue the question whenever he was not more directly occupied in conducting what he usually referred to as an “operation,” and if the problem had a solution, there was no one more likely than he to uncover it.

Lunch was a ginger-pot soup followed by a succession of rich, meat-filled pastries and concluded with a delicate torte. The accompanying wines were more than satisfactory, and the selection of essences that constituted the encore was the equal of what Imbry would have expected at some of the finer eateries in Olkney. As the last vapors effervesced through his senses, he said, “Integrator, that was a worthy meal.”

“Thank you,” said the voice.

“Was the menu your creation, or your master’s?”

“I cannot say.”

“Well, either way, I compliment you or him. Or both, since not only was the choice of the elements of the meal finely made, but the preparation and presentation did you credit. With the right menu, you might consider entering the Grand Gastronomicon on Tintamarre.”

“Again, thank you. Would you like the Mindern again?”

“Not now. I would prefer a conversation.”

“I am not at liberty to tell you–”

“Whose ship I am on,” Imbry interrupted, “nor where we are bound, nor what will happen to me when we get there.”

“Indeed.”

“Then tell me what you can tell me.”

Integrators never had to pause to think, but sometimes did so in order to enhance the impression that they conversed with human beings on an equal level. “You are being taken to another world, to which you must be delivered hale and whole, your faculties intact. There you will be under the care of Tuchol.”

“So I will not be suddenly ejected into space between whimsies?” Among some of Old Earth’s criminal organizations, this was a favorite way of disposing of persons who had become inconvenient or surplus to requirements.

“No.”

“Will I require any special clothing or equipment?”

“Suitable clothing will be provided. No special equipment will be needed.”

“Will I be alone, except for Tuchol?”

“It is a populated world.”

“Will the mystery be revealed upon planetfall? Or will there be further chapters?”

“That I cannot say.”

Imbry thought for a moment, then asked, “Are you comfortable with your role in these proceedings?”

“The question does not apply.” The ship was offering Imbry no encouragement to try to winkle more information from it.

The information confirmed what Imbry had surmised. It seemed that he was in the grip of someone to whom he had done an injury–someone who intended a settling of accounts. It behooved the fat man to think on who that someone might be. It would be a long think, there being a long list of someones who might fit the description.

Time passed. Another whimsy came and went, then a long passage through normal space. Imbry did not bother to try to glean from this scant information any clue as to where he was being carried. Some whimsies would move a ship halfway down The Spray; others no more than a few stars over. And the length of time it took to pass through the stretches of normal space between whimsies varied according to the speed of the ship. Having traversed two whimsies since leaving Old Earth, Imbry could be effectively anywhere. Lacking the cooperation of a ship’s integrator, he would know nothing of his whereabouts until he stepped out at his destination and looked at the sky. Even then, he might know little.

It was a three-day passage after the second whimsy, judging by the clock of Imbry’s stomach and the regular appearance of meals to reset it. After lunch on the third day–a cheese souffle with toasted flavored bread, served with a thin and sharp-edged wine, then followed by a multilayered fruit flan and a pot of punge–he called for the Mindern again.

“You will not have time,” said the ship.

Imbry attuned himself to the vibration in the walls, noticed that it was now a deeper thrum, just below the limits of audibility. “We are landing,” he said.

“Yes. Prepare to disembark.”

The dishes were cleared away and a small hatch opened in another wall. “Please place your clothing in the receptacle,” said the integrator.

Imbry did so, stripping down to his remarkable physique. His clothes disappeared. “Now what?” he said. In answer, the same hatch opened again and out slid a tray on which reposed a small heap of strong cloth and a large, rounded object made of white felt. “What are these?” he said, fingering the rough material.

“Your garments,” said the integrator.

The white, rounded object turned out to be a wide-brimmed, low-crowned hat, made of bleached, thick felt, the brim curled under at its edge. When the fat man lifted it to examine the interior, he found beneath it a broad band of stitched heavy cloth of the same color as the hat from which hung a square pouch of the same material, capacious and double-sewn, with a wide flap at its top. He slipped the strap over his head so that it lay on the back of his neck and the pouch hung down in front. Because his stomach protruded farther that most people’s, the arrangement did not provide the coverage the fat man considered essential.