Wrapt in Crystal

Wrapt in Crystal

by Sharon Shinn

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On a planet of barren beauty, two religions—as different as sun and shadow, joy and grief—are bound together by death....

A serial killer is stalking the priestesses of both sects—and Interfed Agent Cowen Drake must immerse himself in an unfamiliar world of stark spirituality to catch the killer. A world that will trap him between opulence and sacrifice, between desire and duty, and between two extraordinary women—one who could become the killer’s ultimate victim.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593333464
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/02/2021
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 79,080
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Sharon Shinn is the author of the Elemental Blessings novels, including Jeweled Fire, Royal Airs, and Troubled Waters, as well as the Shifting Circle novels, including The Turning Season, Still Life with Shape-Shifter, and The Shape of Desire. Her first novel, The Shape-Changer’s Wife, was a nominee for Locus’s Best First Fantasy Novel of 1995. She has won the William L. Crawford Award for Outstanding New Fantasy Writer, and was twice nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. She has also received an RT Book Reviews Reviewers’ Choice Award and won the 2010 RT Book Reviews Career Achievement Award in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy category. A graduate of Northwestern University, she has lived in the Midwest most of her life.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

                                    Travel on the commercial cruiser was excruciatingly slow, but the vast Moonchild fleet made few visits to Semay, and the planet's government had asked that this mission be started, at least, as quietly as possible. So Lieutenant (Special Assignment Officer) Cowen Drake came in by the conventional route, and divided the long slow days between reading and brooding.

    On the whole, the reading was more profitable. He had brought a stack of books and visicubes and reports about Semay, and he pored over these with the single-minded intentness that he brought to nearly everything he did. He could sit for hours, immobile before the screen, scanning through the documents that described and analyzed this small world on the fringes of the civilized galaxy. Gathered by the formidable Moonchild intelligence forces, the reports tended to center around specific events important to a certain time period; they were thorough as far as they went, but they gave only the sketchiest overviews of the planet's history. The books were a better bet, most of them coming from Semay itself, but the books he could scarcely read.

    He thumbed through one of them now, a hardcover volume bound in crumbling red leather and illustrated with engraved prints. Handsewn into the frayed binding, now and again the pictures unexpectedly came out in his hand. Semay had been settled by a group of colonists from theplanet Mundo Real, which thousands of years before had been settled by pioneers from Old Earth. Those Mundo Real settlers had all come from a segment of the home planet known as Western Europe, and they carried with them languages and traditions that they were determined not to lose. The colonists who, hundreds of years later, traveled from Mundo Real to Semay had left the traditions behind but taken the languages with them. As a result, the common tongue on Semay was some curious, hybrid amalgam of Romance languages called Spanish and French and Italian, and Drake couldn't understand one word in ten.

    He was studying, though. He had brought language tapes with him as well as history books, and he played these while he exercised, while he read, while he slept. He could not say he had made a great deal of progress. Linguistics had never really been his specialty.

    Which had not seemed to bother Comtech Central, the assignment bureau responsible for matching up Moonchild officers with crises in the Intergalactic Alliance of Federated Planets. He couldn't speak the language, and he wasn't exactly sympathetic to religious issues. And from what he could tell of his reading so far, religion was at the heart of the problem on Semay.

    For perhaps the hundredth time, he pulled out his case files to review details of the murders on Semay. Five people had been slain, all women, all priestesses belonging to the two major religious sects on the planet. All five had been killed within the borders of Madrid, the principal city of Semay. The local police force (the "hombuenos," according to Drake's file} were used to regarding the priestesses as sacrosanct, and thus were reluctant to investigate the tragedies with the ruthlessness they might muster in another case. They needed help.

    Drake turned another page in the report. The local governor had asked for assistance from the local Moonchildren stationed on Semay. But there were only three of them, and they were deep in political negotiations with the planetary government. They had recommended instead the full-time investigative skills of an SAO dedicated to the case. The governor had been grateful for the suggestion. And a few days later, Drake was on his way.

    It had taken him several readings to get a grasp of what exactly was happening on Semay, and why it was important enough to merit the attention of Interfed and its elite peacekeeping forces. The murders, though baffling, were straightforward enough. First to be killed was a priestess of the Triumphante sect, the dominant and most widespread order on the planet. A few weeks later, a member of the Fidele sect had been found dead. Both women had been garroted and left on abandoned property. Next, another Triumphante was murdered, then another Fidele, then another Triumphante.

    Drake thumbed forward to the appendix describing the religious orders on Semay. Everyone seemed to worship the same goddess, Ava, but how they approached her said a lot about their individual personalities. The Triumphantes were a wealthy, powerful and popular sect that espoused a philosophy of worship as joy. Among their adherents were the rich and the politically ambitious. The Fideles were stern ascetics who gave away all possessions and spent their days ministering to the poor. Different though they were, the two sects had managed to co-exist in harmony for more than a thousand years. They preached no gospel of derision or hate. So who had learned to hate the priestesses, and why?

    And why did Interfed care? Drake closed the folder, then closed his eyes. Semay's major export was a handful of aromatic desert spices that had not been successfully transplanted anywhere, and this unique crop had guaranteed it a place in the free market of the civilized planets. It had also made Semay reluctant to accept a long-standing invitation to federate, since planetary officials feared the inevitable influx of off-world merchants. But Interfed wanted Semay within its protective and commercial net. Indeed, the small Moonchild contingent even now in Madrid was there specifically to woo this skittish bride and bring her home as the latest Interfed conquest. Actually, that courtship had been in progress ten years or more, and to date Semay had shown very little interest in accepting Interfed's proposal.

    Drake leaned his head back against his chair. But. The Interfed was equally interested in attaching Corsica, a military planet with a high level of technological skill. Corsica, desperately seeking a trade alliance with Semay, had agreed to federate only on condition that Semay also step inside the Interfed net. If Interfed could convince Semay, it would win over Corsica, it would secure the whole Aellan Corridor. It would sew up yet another loose corner of the galaxy.

    Drake opened his eyes and smiled sardonically. Whenever an issue seems unclear or improbable, look for the profit motive. Interfed had never been an altruist. Drake was not being sent to Semay merely to save the lives of a few religious fanatics. He was going there to make the universe a haven for commerce. He felt much better once he understood his proper mission.

The cruiser made dozens of stops between its embarkation point of New Terra and its final destination of Fortunata. From there, Drake would have to catch a shuttle to Semay, a loss of another two days. He was by nature a patient man, but he hated waste, and this slow, meandering journey seemed a criminal waste to his fastidious mind.

    The night before they made planetfall on Fortunata, Drake was joined at dinner by a fellow traveler who had introduced himself as Thelonious Reed. He was a small, graying, older man who was perpetually cheerful and indiscriminately friendly; he would strike up a conversation with the surliest crew member or the most reserved passenger. He whistled incessantly as he sauntered through the brightly lit corridors of the ship, as he waited for his meals to be served in the low-ceilinged dining room, as he stood at the windows in the viewing cabin and watched the stars slide by. From a distance of two rooms, Drake could hear him coming, and escape him if he chose, which the Moonchild often did. For some reason, Drake distrusted a man who so openly broadcast his arrival and his mood.

    He was, however, well-trained enough to cover his mild dislike. He nodded genially when Reed asked to sit with him at dinner, and even forbore to be irritated when the older man carefully arranged his linen napkin over his chest and lap.

    "I never asked," Reed said when this task was accomplished to his satisfaction, "is it convicts or commerce that brings you to Fortunata?"

    Even an impassive face could be expected to betray a little surprise at a question like that. "I'm not sure I understand," Drake said gravely.

    Reed widened his eyes. "Fortunata," he repeated, as if that explained everything. "That's all we have to offer, you know. Biggest trading center in the Aellan Corridor—and the biggest prison in this half of the galaxy."

    The question now made sense. Drake allowed himself a small smile. "And which end do you favor?" he asked.

    Reed selected a roll from the bread basket on the table and watched while the waiter laid the night's dinner before him. "I'm a businessman myself," he said. "Run thirty merchantmen cargo ships from my base in Fortunata. Times are good. I remember when it was only ten."

    Drake was slightly interested. He had the Moonchild's ingrained hunger for raw data, no matter how valueless. "What kind of cargo?"

    Reed waved a hand. "Whatever I can buy or sell. Fortunata's a crossroads for the Aellan Corridor and the Maxine Circle. We ship anything anywhere. All strictly aboveboard, too."

    Drake repressed a brief grin; legitimate merchants had, in the past, had their share of disputes with independent mercenaries who could carry small, valuable and often illegal cargoes from planet to planet and avoid inconveniences like taxes and import duties. "Spices?" he wanted to know.

    The other man nodded. "The luxuries of life—the cargo I prefer," he said. "Deal with the rich, my friend, for they can always pay, and they are always civilized."

    Drake toyed with his food. He was not here undercover, after all, and he openly wore the wristbadge and earring that would brand him as a Moonchild. Still, as a matter of principle, he disliked playing his hand too openly. "Do you import and export spices from Semay?" he asked.

    Reed's face took on a bright look of excitement. "Ah, Semay," he said, as if someone had mentioned his favorite daughter. "I have several ships that regularly make the run to Madrid. Best spices in this part of the galaxy. Possibly the best spices within Interfed. Are you a connoisseur of such things?"

    "Not yet," Drake said. "Hoping to be someday, maybe."

    "Then you're on your way to Semay, I take it? Not Fortunata after all?"

    "Semay," Drake confirmed.

    "Give my respects to Ava," the little man said. "We do not worship her on Fortunata, but she has always been a favorite of mine. A happy goddess."

    "Then you must pray with the Triumphantes," Drake said.

    Reed smiled at him. "Any reasonable man would," he replied.

Drake escaped from his dinner companion after a bit of graceful lying. Once Reed realized that the Moonchild would have a twelve-hour layover in Fortunata, he offered to put him up at one of his hotels (apparently he owned several in the shipping district) or even his own home. Drake was not in the habit of making lifetime friends out of chance traveling companions, so he said that arrangements had been made for him back on New Terra. In fact, he planned to spend the night in one of the Spartan rooms set aside for transient Moonchildren at the local base on Fortunata, but he was sure Reed would not understand why he would prefer such a bed to the luxury of a hotel.

    They were only about eight hours from planetfall and Fortunata had become the biggest thing in the night sky. Drake spent more than an hour, solitary in the observation room, watching the violet planet grow closer and more distinct. He did not, on the whole, find the approach to civilization as miraculous and absorbing as his intent expression would indicate. He preferred the vast intervals of unsettled space to the comfortable harbors of the colonized worlds.

    He could, by turning his head, still gaze on the limitless miles of spangled night that sprawled out behind the moving ship. It was a sight that never failed to intrigue him, no matter what his mood or mission. He was not a particularly literate man, but they had all been forced to memorize the Essex Bounty poem that had, centuries ago, coined the name Moonchild, and some of its lines inevitably occurred to Drake as he watched the night fold back.

    She had called the vast expanse of untamed stars "the midnight prairie miles of space," a phrase that had seemed apt enough when he first heard it. Not until he had spent a month on the agricultural planet called Kansas did he fully understand what the poet meant. Drake was a transgalactic traveler; he was used to distance and he knew how to conquer it with machines. But on this serene, quiet, undulating world of flat plains and heavy crops he had learned to appreciate distance when it was measurable only by time and human effort.

    He had taken a horse and ridden for five straight days across a plain almost untracked by a man's foot. For two days, he had seen no other living soul; the last buildings he had sighted, without stopping, had been tumbledown homesteaders' shacks where young families were trying to prove up their acres of land. At night, he built his own campfire and cooked his own food and heard about him the mysterious singing of the prairie insects; and he felt, as if it were a tangible force, every mile of that land pressing in on him from long, unimaginable distances.

    Essex Bounty had lived on Old Earth in the days before space travel, but she had known a metaphor when she saw it; and she had captured for Drake exactly the way he felt about the silent, watchful, living tableland of the stars.

Fortunata's main port, Drake felt, gave ample evidence of its two main concerns. It was one of the busiest ship harbors he had ever seen, and its control tower admirably directed the landings and takeoffs of thousands of vessels a day. Drake identified the markings of every major planet in Interfed as well as a few small, fleet ships that could only belong to independent mercenaries or outlaw dealers in the most dangerous of goods.

    As for the prison inmates, it was Drake's guess that many of the newly released convicts—now presumably rehabilitated—took up jobs in the port hauling cargo and unloading ships. He had never seen such a collection of disreputable faces and defiant eyes. No wonder the pirate ships queued up docilely at Fortunata's main gate; unloading stolen goods, no doubt, and hiring on new help.

    His single night on-planet passed without incident, and the next evening he boarded the shuttle that would, finally, take him to Semay. The inconclusive schedule of the days had begun to wear at him; he felt as if he had been traveling aimlessly for months. During nonsleeping hours of the thirty-six-hour flight to Madrid, he prowled moodily around the shuttle, much smaller than the commercial liner, until he happened upon the tiny gym intended for use by the crew. His Moonchild wristbadge won him entrée, and he spent a good three hours working out, pushing his body to the limit on the weights and pulleys. He felt cheerful and almost relaxed as he toweled off after a shower and dressed in his regulation whites. Back in the passenger lounge, he pulled out a recorder, connected his earplug, and played one of his language tapes the rest of the day.

    They landed on Semay at mid-morning by that planet rotation. The passengers exited onto a runway and stepped onto a conveyor belt that fed them into a large, cavernous hangar where heavy luggage and goods would presumably be unloaded. The brief moments on the unprotected runway left Drake dazed and reeling from an excess of fearsome heat and incredibly white light. Semay was a desert, but somehow he had expected it to unfold itself gradually, after he had been there a day or two and had time to adjust. He clung to the narrow rail that followed the moving sidewalk, and blinked rapidly to regain his bearings.

    He had just stepped off the belt inside the port hangar when a thin, dark-haired young man pushed himself away from a wall and approached him. "Lieutenant Drake?" the boy said in hesitant, oddly accented Standard Terran. He was dressed in nondescript khaki and carried himself like a soldier; Drake guessed he was an hombueno, one of the so-called "good men" of the local police force.

    Drake stopped, automatically assessing the young man. He did not look as if he would be much trouble in a fight; by Moonchild standards, he could hardly be called a threat at all. If his brother officers were built along the same lines, no wonder the local law enforcement agencies had felt unequal to the task of investigating this crime wave.

    "I'm Drake," he said. "Are you with the local cops?"

    The boy smiled, a rueful, disarming smile. "Please?" he said carefully, and Drake realized his Standard Terran was recent and poorly learned. "Will you come—with me?"

    Drake had traveled with two heavy duffel bags, both of which he had carried onto and off the shuttle; they were now slung over his shoulders. "I'd like to go to the base first, if you don't mind," he said. "The Moonchild base?"

    "Please?" the boy repeated, still smiling. "Will you come with me?"

    Drake resettled the bags and tried again. "Could I go to the Moonchild base first?" he said, spacing the words slowly. "Could I leave my bags?"

    This time, the young officer seemed to grasp the import of Drake's words. At any rate, he shook his head. His eyes took on the fervency of a man with important news. "It is—urgent," he said, proud of himself for remembering the word. "There has been another—" He paused, and spread his hands as if hoping to pluck the word from the air.

    Drake sighed and nodded. "Asesinato," he said. "Murder."

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