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Short Fiction: An Unwanted Diadem

AeternisApr 18, 2020, 5:04:48 PM
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(Banner art by Sara Tarr.)

This story was written last week and submitted to a friendly creative contest on my Discord server, the Committee for Writer Efficacy. The randomly-selected theme of the contest was "Crown." It is posted here in exactly the same form as it was submitted, with no further edits made.

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“Welcome to Brett’s Antiques.” Though he had been thirty seconds from locking the doors and going home for the day, Risko Brett turned on the charm the moment the door chime sounded.

“Yes, hello.” The newcomer, a young man whose street clothes failed to disguise a Navy spacer on shore leave, glanced around at the half-lit storefront. One hand clutched a wrapped bundle to his chest while the other raked his close-cropped hair. “Are you closing?”

Risko shrugged, reaching under the counter to turn the display-case lights back on. “I was about to.” It had been a quiet day – the young spacer was only his fifth patron in ten hours, and only three had bought anything. He could tell immediately that this junior enlisted spacer would not be making any major purchases either. “Take your time, look around.”

“Actually...” The young man stepped further into the shop. “I was wondering if you buy.”

Risko nodded. Brett’s Antiques was only too happy to buy items from walk-ins, but he doubted the young man could possibly have anything worthwhile. “Depends on what you want to sell.”

Hesitantly, the spacer approached the counter and set his paper-wrapped bundle down carefully, then stepped back as if worried it might explode.

Risko eyed his customer for a few seconds before touching the bundle, but he didn’t see any indication that he was being subjected to some sort of practical joke. Gingerly, he unfolded the crumpled paper, taking it slow even after he caught his first glimpse of silvery metal within. “Can you tell me what it is?”

“Well...” The young man looked over his shoulder, then stepped in close and lowered his voice. “My cousin dug it up on Adimari Valis. He sent it to me before Nate took the place.”

Wincing, Risko picked up the item. He didn’t like dealing in Xenarch artifacts, since they tended to attract the wrong kind of customers. The item didn’t look ancient - its bright, untarnished metal looked new, and it was clearly shaped like it was meant for a human to wear. “It looks like a crown.”

Nodding eagerly, the young man reached out to point at a line of symbols just below the peaked crest at the front. “That’s Xenarch script, there.”

Risko scrutinized the text. He couldn’t tell if the symbols were a forgery – perhaps no-one could, since not even the experts could read the extinct aliens’ writing. “It could be. I’d need to have a xenoarchaeologist look at it.”

“I, uh...” The young man clearly didn’t want Risko to know what he’d already guessed. He’d not given his name; he wanted the transaction to be anonymous. The antiques dealer wondered if the story about a cousin on Adimari Valis was a sham – perhaps the young spacer had stolen the crown or won it in one of Maribel’s disreputable gambling-houses, his presence in which would violate Navy regulations. “I was hoping to sell it today.”

“Sorry, kid.” Risko pushed the crown back across the counter. “I can’t buy what I can’t verify. It might be what you say it is, but it looks like a-”

“A damned holo-drama prop, I know.” The youth ran his fingers over the fluted decorations on the face of the artifact. “I thought so too...”

Risko waited expectantly, but no words followed. He turned away to begin shutting down the shop, supposing that the conversation was over. When he had done so, he turned back to see that his customer had not moved. “Come on, I’ll see you out.”

Roused from staring down at the gleaming metal bauble, the young man turned and allowed himself to be led from the store but lingered nearby as Risko turned off his shop’s holo-signs and locked the door.

“Hey, Mr. Brett, one more thing.”

Risko turned around in time to see a silvery-white object flashing through the air in his direction. Reflexively, he caught the crown which had been thrown in his direction. By the time he looked up to its owner, all he saw of the spacer was his heels disappearing around the corner at the end of the block.

Chuckling and presuming he’d just foiled a swindler, Risko tucked the flashy item under his arm inside his jacket and walked home to his flat a few blocks away. The crown was pretty – even if it was worthless enough to be discarded as soon as its shifty owner couldn’t get any credits for it, he considered it fair compensation for his wasted time.

Setting the item on a shelf just inside his front door, Risko busied himself with a meal and his favorite holo-drama, then turned on a vidcast news service. The war and its many minor disasters dominated the news yet again, and he watched with interest but no real concern. Business would continue as usual, and the conflict did bring plenty of new customers to his store, even if some of them were disreputable.

When he retired for the night, Risko was still chuckling at the hapless spacer’s panicked flight and the glittering souvenir he’d collected. In the morning, however, he woke to find his head feeling unusually heavy. Reaching up to rub his forehead, he found cool, fluted metal before his hand touched skin.

Suddenly wide awake, Risko sat bolt upright in bed and pulled the offending object off. It was the crown from the previous day, looking if anything more lustrous in the morning light than it had the previous afternoon. Not having experienced somnambular episodes before, he hurriedly scoured his apartment for any other sign that he had been up and about while unconscious, finding only that a few other items had been dislodged from the shelf by the door.

Uneasily, Risko hurried through his morning routine, placing the crown back on the shelf as he left for the day. Opening the shop and drinking the fresh-brewed real coffee delivered to him by a specialty café down the street soothed his rattled nerves, and he forgot the incident long before the first customer of the day wandered in.

“Good morning, Mr. Brett.” Cheery old Mrs. Boelens, a regular browser and occasional buyer, waved to him with a good-natured wink. “Aren’t you looking fancy today.”

Risko looked down at his clothes and realized that his smart-clothes were configured in a far more formal cut than he usually preferred. He didn’t remember changing the settings. “I suppose I am.” He shrugged. “Looking for anything specific this morning?”

“Just browsing, dear.” The woman ambled between the display cases. “Did that collection of Heracles pearls you mentioned finally come in?”

“Yes, they have!” Risko brightened – Mrs. Boelens had bought exotic pearls before and would likely purchase something from the lot he’d just received. “I haven’t had a chance to put them in the displays. Would you like me to bring them out?”

She nodded eagerly, so Risko hurried into the back room to find a display tray and lay the various brooches, necklaces, and bracelets out.

When he returned, Mrs. Boelens quickly set to picking each item up and turning it over in her hands. It took her only a few minutes to select one necklace – a modest sale, but a good way to start the day. As he put the transaction through on the shop’s computer terminal, she kept glancing up at him, smiling slyly, as if sharing a private joke – a joke Risko didn’t get.

“Mrs. Boelens, may I ask what you think is so funny?” As he asked, Risko placed the necklace in a padded package and handed it to her, the credit transaction complete.

“Oh, nothing dear.” She tapped her temple with one finger. “I just like to see that you know how to have a little bit of fun once in a while, that’s all.”

“Fun?” Risko frowned as she turned away. He prided himself on his professionalism and patience – he wasn’t in business for fun. Remembering her gesture, he reached up to his temple, only to find smooth, worked metal there.

Yanking the crown off his head in alarm, Risko mentally backtracked through his morning. He’d left the crown on the shelf in his flat, and he hadn’t had it on when he’d opened the shop – his reflection in the window-glass would have given it away. He hadn’t had time to go home to get it – nor any desire to do so. Shuddering, he darted into the back room and tossed the crown into an empty inventory bin, wondering if he was losing his mind.

When a small group of customers wandered in almost an hour later, Risko had calmed down once more, though he had begun habitually running his hand through his hair to verify that he had not been mysteriously crowned once again. The four young people were dressed well, but their attitude told him right away that they weren’t going to buy anything. Still, they asked questions about several items, and Risko was only too happy to answer them, if only to take his mind off other things.

Just as the group was leaving, Risko had an idea. Retrieving the crown from the stockroom, he set it in an empty space in one of the display cabinets. He gave the digital label a low price – lower than anything else on display - and the non-specific text “REPLICA CROWN.” If someone bought the item, it would become their problem, and he’d still make a profit.

Indeed, the next customer to come in, a middle-aged man with the erect bearing of a mid-level Navy officer, pointed to the crown. “Is this price right? Seems a bit low.”

Risko made a show of coming out from behind the counter to scrutinize the label. “That’s my asking price. It’s a real eye-catcher, but there’s not much to say about it.”

To Risko’s dismay, the officer shrugged and moved on to the next display. When he tried to haggle down the price of a hundred-year-old model of a Terran Sphere-era warship, Risko tried to throw in the crown in order to strike a deal close to his asking price. Once again, the man lost interest, and Risko lost the sale.

At the end of the day, having sold nothing since the pearl necklace that morning, Risko closed up Brett’s Antiques and went home, checking his head and person several times on the way to make sure the crown had stayed in the shop. Assured that he’d arrived home without it, he tried to relax with holo-dramas and news, only partially succeeding.

The next morning, Risko woke sprawled on the recliner in front of the idle holo-display in his flat, having not even changed out of the clothes which he had worn to work the previous day. Groggily, he stood and stretched, wondering if the whole episode with the counterfeit Xenarch crown had been only a strange dream.

A glance in the mirror disabused him of that notion quickly. On his head, gleaming still as if it was new, the silver-white crown sat comfortably over his temples, so familiar there that he did not feel its weight.

Tearing it off his head, Risko dashed out onto the street and looked around. He needed to be rid of the crown, but who would take it?

He spotted his mark immediately. The shabbily dressed girl was likely no older than thirteen, and she carried a shoulder-bag covered in glittering material like that of a holo-drama ball gown. Risko crossed the street to head her off, then held the crown out at arm’s length, broadening his salesman’s smile. “Hey kiddo. Want a crown?”

The girl frowned in confusion, then nodded and cautiously took the bauble. Turning it over in her hands, she smiled, nodded in thanks, then dropped it onto her head and continued on her way.

Relieved and guilty in equal measure, Risko Brett retreated into his flat, deciding it was time to take a day off from the antiques business.