“And this,” Avon said, “is the Corrymore.”
Vila shrugged as the image of the gemstone revolved slowly on the screen in front of them. “OK.”
“Is that all you have to say?”
“It’s nice,” Vila said. “So what?”
“It’s nice,” Avon repeated.
“It’s very nice?” Vila suggested.
“It,” Avon said, “is the single largest and most flawless stone of its kind. It is worth more than the price on my head, and that is saying something.”
“That’s right,” Vila said. “It says that a lot of people have an over-inflated idea of your worth. Probably people who haven’t met you. I’m going to find the others -“
“It is currently in possession of the Earl of Morquay, Head of the House of Fullarmpie, the most powerful family on Rigel,” Avon told him.
Vila turned back to look at him. “Rigel? You mean, the planet we’re above now?”
Vila’s expression became thoughtful. “Avon, I think I understand what you’re saying.”
“That is a relief,” Avon said. “They speak English on Rigel. It would have been inconvenient if you’d forgotten how to.”
“You’re saying we should steal this stone,” Vila said.
“I’m saying we should steal the stone,” Avon agreed with a thin smile.
“Is it heavily guarded?” Vila asked.
“Not any more,” Avon told him.
“What do you mean?”
“Until today it has been under the heaviest guard Morquay could arrange for it. Today, however, it will be presented to his new bride as a wedding ring. Security outside the wedding pavilion is, I understand, formidable, but, once you’re inside, there is nothing. Just a young woman wandering around with millions of credits on her ring finger. We teleport in, switch the gem with a fake and teleport out.”
“Not a very sophisticated plan, but I like it,” Vila said. “I have one question.”
“Why do you want me to come with you?”
Avon smiled broadly. “Generosity.”
“Is not something you’re known for,” Vila said. “You don’t need anything unlocked, you don’t even need a distraction by the sound of it. Are you planning to trade me to this Earl-ess for her ring? If so, I’m not interested.”
“I’m sure she wouldn’t be interested either.”
“There is,” Avon said, “one small aspect of the plan that I haven’t mentioned yet.”
“I thought there would be.”
“Everyone at Morquay’s wedding will be married,” Avon said. “It’s a tradition on Rigel. And they will be attached to their partner with these.” He held up a pair of slim, silver handcuffs and tried to enjoy the horrified expression on Vila’s face. “Another tradition, I'm afraid. I can’t go alone.”
“Surely Jenna or Cally –”
“Jenna and Cally would tell Blake what I was up to,” Avon said. “I need someone unscrupulous. Someone who would be interested in a thirty per cent share in the Corrymore.”
“Now hang on a minute,” Vila said. “Thirty? We’re splitting this thing fifty-fifty or you can find yourself another date.”
“I knew you’d see it my way,” Avon said. “Shall we go then? The wedding has already taken place and we should be in time for the reception.”
“Blake isn’t going to like this, you know,” Vila said after a moment. “Any of it.”
“Blake,” Avon said, hoping it was true, “will never have to know.”
“That’s a good point,” Vila said. “He’ll never have to know. Orac can teleport us down, can’t he? Well, Avon, you’ve convinced me. I’d love to help you steal that very nice, shiny stone.” He watched the Corrymore still revolving on the screen. “I suppose the image isn’t life size.”
“No,” Avon said.
Vila sighed. “Oh well. I’m sure it’s nice anyway.”
“The real one,” Avon said, with a grin, “is much bigger.”
They materialised inside a lavatory cubical. It was slightly larger than a regular cubical, because the Earl of Morquay was very rich, but it was still slightly too small for both Avon and Vila to stand in comfortably. Avon pushed the door shut and locked it moments before the outer bathroom door opened letting in the sound of the party and two clearly drunk guests, who were laughing.
“Ow,” Vila said loudly, as Avon closed one of the cuffs around his wrist. “Avon.”
“It needs to be tighter.”
“No, get off,” Vila said, pushing him back into the door, which thumped as he collided with it. Outside there was laughter from the other guests. “It’s not as if anyone’s going to be looking.”
“I don’t cut corners,” Avon said.
“No, I know. Just blood supply,” Vila said as Avon managed to seize his wrist again at last and close the cuff more tightly.
“There’s still time to pull out.”
“I don’t want to pull out. I just want my hand back.”
“Tough,” Avon said. “This was the deal. You agreed to it.”
“And I’m beginning to regret it already,” Vila said mournfully.
“You can regret it all you like,” Avon said quietly, wincing as he tightened his own cuff, “after we’ve got the stone.”
“How much did you say it was worth again?”
“More wealth than you can imagine.”
“I don’t know,” Vila said. “I can imagine quite a bit.”
Vila smiled. Avon smiled back and opened the door.
Outside a pair of heavily-made up faces (one male, one female) beamed at them.
“Ah, young love!” the man said ecstatically. They were blocking the exit, presumably by accident. “Isn’t it beautiful, Chartleigh?”
“Beautiful,” she agreed. “So touching. We were inspired by the ceremony too, but you just beat us.”
“To the bathroom?” Vila asked perplexed.
“As good a place as any,” Chartleigh’s husband said, with a wink. “When you feel the urge to... renew your vows. We heard you, I’m afraid. Banging and groaning.”
“Oh,” Vila said. “I see.”
“Come on, Vila,” Avon said firmly.
“You must have been very keen. To beat us here.”
“Well, you know,” Vila said, “I can’t keep my hands off him. I love him just as much today as I did the day I married him. Isn’t that right, snookums?”
“Snookums?” Avon said dangerously.
“Don’t pretend you don’t like being called snookums,” Vila said. He smiled broadly at the couple. “He always pretends he doesn’t like it. What a character. Well, we’ll leave you two love birds to it, shall we?” he said, steering Avon around the couple. “Give you some privacy. Come on, Avon.”
“What do you think you’re doing?” Avon said, as the bathroom door shut behind them again.
“Enjoying myself,” Vila said. “I always say stealing’s not only profitable, it’s fun.”
“And I always say you can have fun when you’re dead.”
“Charming,” Vila said. “Sometimes I don’t know why I married you. Is there food at this thing?”
“Plenty,” a familiar, amused voice said. “For the guests who were invited.”
Avon turned and Servalan smiled broadly at him. She was wearing an extravagant white dress, cut close around the waist and dropping to an enormous multi-layered skirt.
“Hello Avon,” she said. “Looking for this?” She held up a hand, which was supporting a massive, multi-faceted stone.
“You didn’t ask Orac who the Earl was marrying, did you?” Vila asked.
“No,” Avon said flatly. “I didn’t think it was relevant.”
Servalan laughed. “And Vila’s here, too. How wonderful. I didn’t know you two were married.”
“We’re not really,” Vila said before Avon could stop him.
“Not married?” Servalan repeated sweetly and everyone in the marquee fell silent. The two couples nearest to Vila and Avon seized hold of their arms.
Avon laughed. “Vila likes a little joke,” he said. “We were just talking about that when you arrived, Servalan. Weren’t we, snookums? Your fabulous sense of humour.”
“Oh yes,” Vila said, catching on slightly too slowly. “Fabulous. Everyone says so. Well, nearly everyone.”
“Darling,” Servalan said, as her new husband joined her, “these two men aren’t really married.”
“Not married?” the Earl said, clearly horrified.
“All right. So we’re not,” Vila said. “What’s the big deal? It’s just a stupid tradition.”
Servalan smiled again.
“The big deal,” Avon said through gritted teeth, “is that anyone who isn’t married and who attends the wedding anyway is put to death.”
“You didn’t mention that,” Vila said.
“I didn’t think it was relevant!”
“If you don’t mind me saying so, Avon, a lot of things you didn’t think were relevant are now turning out to be very relevant.”
“Even the best of us can make mistakes when we underestimate the stupidity of our accomplices.”
“It’s not my fault we’re going to be put to death!”
“You could always get married,” Servalan suggested. “Then you wouldn’t be breaking the law, would you? The priest is already here. I’m sure he’d be happy to perform another ceremony.”
“I’m not marrying Avon,” Vila said. “Not really. Not for real. I’d hoped for more from a long-term commitment. Someone I could actually stand for a start.”
“It’s that or I have you executed,” Servalan said and smiled.
“Well,” Vila said, “when you put it like that, I suppose I could readjust my expectations.”
“You may now kiss each other,” the priest intoned.
Avon looked at Servalan, who was standing to one side holding a glass of something purple and fizzy.
“Oh yes,” she said.
“Oh god,” Vila said.
“Stop whinging,” Avon growled, and pulled Vila towards himself so violently that their combined momentum carried them backwards off the dais into Servalan, who raised her drink hurriedly. The crowd cheered and Vila tried not to open his mouth.
Eventually Avon let him go and turned back to Servalan, eyebrows raised.
“Ugh,” Vila said.
“Very moving,” Servalan said. “Now take them to the dungeons for execution.”
“Hey!” Vila protested as they were marched out of the marquee. “You said or, not and!”
“I can’t believe Servalan went back on her word,” Vila said as Avon, still handcuffed to him, tried to pace anyway. “Wait, what am I saying? Of course she went back on her word. She’s Servalan. The question is why did we go along with it?” He paused. “You’re not in love with me, are you?”
“Not with you,” Avon said.
“What?” Vila said.
“In answer to your question, we went along with it two reasons,” Avon said, “neither of which involve either of us being secretly in love with the other.”
“Well, that’s a relief.”
“Thank you. The first reason we went along with it is that it gave you the opportunity to switch Servalan’s ring with the fake one, as planned.”
“It’s very difficult to spend money when you’re dead, though,” Vila said, taking the ring out of his pocket. “That’s why I’ve never wanted to try it.”
“I’m not that keen on dying either,” Avon said. “That’s why I asked Orac to alert the others if we didn’t teleport back within twenty minutes. The second reason, then, that I went along with the sham wedding was to buy us time for Orac to pass on the message and for Blake and the others to work out which cell we were in and get us out of here.”
“You mean we’re not going to die after all?” Vila asked, looking up with hope in his eyes as Avon’s pacing took him into the furthest corner of the cell.
The white outline of a man appeared in the opposite corner. It quickly filled itself with the rest of Roj Blake holding two teleport bracelets.
“Apparently not,” Avon said.
“Oh Avon,” Vila said. “I was so wrong. I do love you.”
“Am I interrupting something?” Blake asked mildly.
“Nothing we wouldn’t all rather forget,” Avon said, snapping his bracelet shut. “Now let’s get out of here. Liberator, teleport now.”
“Isn’t this the planet where you have to be married to attend a wedding?” Blake asked as the prison walls shimmered into the walls of the teleporter room.
Cally grinned from behind the desk. “Have a nice time on Rigel?”
“Lovely, thanks,” Vila said as he broke the lock on his cuff. “Both fun and profitable. Say what you like about Servalan, and really, who doesn't, but she is a great hostess. Wonderful party favours. Now, I think I'd like to take a bath. Is there any hot water?”
“Vila,” Blake said, “can I see the Corrymore, please?”
“The what?” Vila said blankly.
“Just give it to him,” Avon said sourly. Vila sighed and pulled the ring out of his pocket.
“It's all right, I don’t want to keep it,” Blake said. “I was just interested in what you two thought was worth risking your lives for.”
“Worried we’ll die before you can risk them for something that matters?” Avon asked.
Blake ignored him and held the ring up to the light. “It’s very nice.”
“Very, very nice,” Vila said, taking it back.
“Completely unique, in fact,” Blake said, “and immediately identifiable as the Corrymore and the legal property of Supreme Commander Servalan of the Terran Federation. How exactly did you think you were going to sell it?”
“I have contacts,” Avon said stiffly.
“Contacts who wouldn’t hand you into the Federation?” Blake asked. “Contacts who’d be willing to risk the Federation finding out that they’d helped you shift Servalan’s property?”
“We can’t sell it,” Vila said hollowly.
“No,” Blake said and clapped Vila on the shoulder. “But there is still hot water.”
He punished them tacitly.
“They say it's wide open,” Vila murmured a week later.
“What is?” Avon asked.
“So I've heard,” Avon said. “Wide, wide open...”
“Got everything a man ever dreams of, they say.”
“Space City pales by comparison, they say.”
“You know, if it was a desert down there, so hot your eyeballs frizzled, poisonous snakes under every rock -”
“Blake would have sent us.”
“You can bet on it...”