Where the hell was Antonio? He was on Hallar somewhere - he had to be - although Francis had sent him messages telling him, begging him not to come, it was dangerous, he'd be snapped up by the Hallar BSPA and interrogated.

According to the interviews Antonio had given to the papers, this was exactly what had happened. Well, cold comfort in I told you so.

'No truth to these allegations', Antonio had said, 'I would never deal with pirates!' Francis hmphed - it was true in the most literal, exact sense of the words only, because Antonio used Romae as a go-between.

While Antonio could not have had prospectives originating from New Joplin - according to the papers, it was the first time the pirates had raided the dwarf planet since 1403 - he had prospectives from New Sainte-Dolitte all the time. Most notably Belle, who would tell anybody who would listen how unfairly she was seized from her home. (Nonsense. The street was not a home. But Belle wouldn't see reason and didn't respond to Antonio's care, no matter how gentle.)

Antonio Fernandez Carriedo was most certainly involved in Nova sector raids ... just not that particular one. And it seemed the only reason they cared anymore was because of this Jones Jr character! Francis hoped they found him soon so that the heat could be off Antonio for awhile. At least he seemed to be recouping his financial losses through interviews. Maybe any publicity was good publicity, in the end.

The question remained whether Antonio would show up today. If only for his own sales, Antonio should be here! And he was missing for those too; according to the bondsperson attendant, two of Antonio's prospectives had led the rest from the Deversorium to the fairgrounds with Antonio himself out of action all morning.

There was also Matthieu. If Antonio wouldn't purchase Matthieu, how could Francis ensure his protection? With the new hold on his accounts at the Legislative level, thanks to Councillor Héderváry, Francis had been blocked from registering as a bidder, and therefore was barred from placing bids on any item, especially his own. With all his paperwork catalogued, the Council had eyes and ears on every single prospective sellable item - including Matthieu - and would monitor their trip from stage to sale with precision. No, it was Antonio or bust.

But all Francis' hard work these past few weeks had put his own house in order, and that lifted scrutiny on his own accounts. (Although tell that to Héderváry, who kept rifling through them incessantly. If Antonio did not show, he'd wait until the auction began and she was too busy calling out numbers before attempting to register himself as a bidder.) It also let him entrust the majority of the care of his prospectives to the Council.

He didn't trust the Council in the literal way of saying. But after the fourth time he checked in on Matthieu, the attendant - an uncouth, belligerent fellow! - had forced him out and told him not to come back or face the BSPA, and so he waited at the corner of the seller's lounge, ignoring Helena Carson's advances by scouring the crowd impatiently.

He didn't want to say it - he hated even to think it - but he wished the pirate were here. Kirkland could buy Matthieu, Francis could buy his "Romae I" - whoever the first of Romae's bondspeople would be - and they'd swap at the end. It would be simple. It would have been so simple.

Why could he not ever have things be simple?

There came a tap at the microphone and a squeal of feedback from the speakers.

Still no Antonio! Had he forgotten? No, Antonio was inattentive to things like subtext, but that didn't necessarily mean he was stupid, or forgetful ...

"Ladies and gentlemen of Hallar!" boomed Héderváry's amplified voice to the crowd. "Good folk from out of town! If I may have your attention please?"

They were starting the auction and a major seller was nowhere to be found! Was he busy giving interviews at the moment? What fool would request an interview so close to the auction itself?

"I'm Councillor Elizaveta Héderváry, and on behalf of the Legislative Council of Bonds Service People, and as Master of Ceremonies today, I'd like to welcome all present to the ninety-fifth Decennial Auction!"

A roar of applause.

What if - and this was a truly horrifying thought if it were true - what if Antonio were detained again? He'd read the first few interviews Antonio had given after he was detained upon arriving on Hallar; apparently they had locked him in a cell and kept him under guard - what if they wouldn't let him out this time?

Of course, Francis would go and find him and pay his bail gladly - what were friends for - but it would be some time before he could find Antonio and where he was being kept, and meanwhile, in less than an hour, Matthieu would be sold!

Héderváry prattled on. "For those of you by the radio, thank you for joining us today - it's a lovely day on Caput Halleri, Tolino Downs is packed full of people, and we sincerely wish you could be here with us. But the next best thing is listening in the comfort and privacy of your own home! Allow me to walk you briefly through the process ...

"Everyone who intends on bidding on any one of our fine products today has to have registered at the head table and procured a bidding number to identify you as a bidder. You must have a bidding number to place bids!"

Francis overheard the rustle in the crowd as people who hadn't yet registered slowly made their way to the head table at the east side of the field.

"We will bring out the items one by one, as according to the program, also available at the head table. Our lovely auctioneer here will present the lots with a short description - if male, we will administer the signal to show proof of operation to the crowd - and bidding will commence at the auctioneer's starting price." Why was Héderváry referring to herself in the third person? It was listed on the pamphlets that the auctioneer would be her... Francis double-checked his program to make sure. Indeed - Master of Ceremonies: Elizaveta Héderváry. Auctioneer: Elizaveta Héderváry. Strange woman.

"If there are bids, the price will work up incrementally until a high bid is reached and there are no further bidders. The highest bidder wins the item and purchases it for their bid's worth. If there are no bids, the price will decrease incrementally until there are bids received.

"Please hold your bidding signs high so that we may see your number! The clerk and staff at the stage are equipped with binoculars and live vid feed footage, so don't worry that we can't see you, because we can!" Francis rolled his eyes. Yes, he was certain Héderváry could see everything, alright. She didn't need to remind him.

"If you win your item, you have fifteen minutes thereafter to come to the stage and claim your prize before it goes to the next highest bidder. Winning bidders may examine the items further and opt to discard - though, in my five years of running auctions, I have never seen anybody discard the merchandise. In fact, in my experience, given the chance for closer examination, winning bidders never want to let their items go!" A roar of applause.

"Last but not least, you must pay for your item before leaving the backstage area. Are there any questions?" No objections from the crowd. "No? Then we'll move on. Allow me to introduce to you our fine auctioneer today, Mr. Roderich Edelstein of Hallar! Let's give him a very warm welcome!"



Francis triple-checked the program.

There was massive applause, catcalls and whoops from the crowd - well-warranted, Edelstein was a fine musician - before Héderváry continued. "Oh, Roderich," she simpered, "they like you! They really like you!"

Again he read: Program Credits* - Head Manager: Kaisa Tillen. Master of Ceremonies: Elizaveta Héderváry. Auctioneer: Elizaveta Héderváry. On-site Auction Manager: Elizaveta Héderváry. Head Clerk: Elizaveta Héderváry. Head Ringman: Elizaveta Héderváry - the list went on and on to the next page, most of it Héderváry ... but the asterisk...

There, at the bottom, in smallest print: *Program subject to change without notice.

Francis paled.

Subject to change without notice.


No, it couldn't be, he'd told Kaisa to ensure Héderváry was properly tied up! That was why her name was next to every single position on this list! With assisting committees, yes, but - if Héderváry could walk about between announcements -

"For those of you listening at home on other worlds," Héderváry continued, "Roderich Edelstein is a well-known artist and musician here in Caput Halleri, who has graciously offered to be the voice of the Decennial today, both literally and figuratively - in addition to acting as auctioneer, he will also be conducting the entertainment during the break between class one, and classes two and three later this afternoon. Everybody at home, you'll want to listen, take it from me!"

He'd better go find Kaisa now and try and get her to explain - and also avoid the hell out of Héderváry, now that she was evidently free to roam around while this Edelstein handled the crowd. Doing that would give Francis something to do while Antonio hauled himself to the auction fairgrounds - hopefully in time for Matthieu.

Supposing he wouldn't be able to register himself? But who else would be available to purchase a bondsman at such late notice?! Anybody looking to buy would be buying for themselves, the likelihood of the ability to purchase two would be at best slim and at worst nonexistent with Héderváry now free to check, double-check and triple-check every single sale -

"Well, we've got a great show for you today, I hope you'll all enjoy the fine products we have for sale. We'll start with the first number on our program - allow me to introduce to you a superlative bondsperson trainer and seller with a solid record of sales for the past seven years. She's a forward-thinking businesswoman with quality product, and in my opinion a true asset to the bondsperson trade community. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present the fine wares of Ms Helena Carson of Luna Halleri!"

Deafening applause. And that meant Héderváry would be on the move soon. Francis gulped, whirled on his heel off the post he'd been leaning on while waiting for his friend and -

- and ran straight into Lovino Vargas of Hallar.