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Though Hell Should Bar the Way: Chapter Nineteen

       Last updated: Saturday, March 24, 2018 09:21 EDT



    That was my introduction to my duties as the chamberlain’s assistant. I copied out the food orders and gave them to Giorgios. He would have gone off with them, leaving me on my own, if I hadn’t followed him out of the alcove and caught him by the flowing sleeve.

    “Sir!” I said. “I need somebody to guide me around. Where do I get food? For that matter, where’s the latrine?”

    Giorgios glared at me, but he couldn’t pull his tunic away without tearing the fabric. We had an audience, at least a dozen people, watching more or less openly. The chamberlain pointed at one of them, a boy of fifteen or so, and said, “Abram, this is Olfetrie. Do whatever he tells you.”

    Abram said, “Suits me,” without enthusiasm. He continued to squat on his heels as Giorgios swept into the gallery and out of sight.

    “I want some food,” I said to the boy. “While we’re eating, I’ll have some more questions for you.”

    “Would the food include wine for me?” Abram said, raising an eyebrow.

    “It could,” I agreed.

    He bounded upright as though he were a toy driven by a spring. His grin was not only alert but friendly. “Willing to take a bit of a walk?” Abram said.

    “Yes, if there’s a reason to,” I said, wondering what this was about.

    “I won’t say old Martial has better food than the refectory here in Giorgios’ suite,” the boy said, “but Martial’s wine is a lot better. He taps the Admiral’s own casks, right? Now, it’ll cost a bit.”

    “I don’t have any money,” I said.

    “Well, I’ll front you till you start making your own graft,” Abram said. “And you’re in a bloody good place to do that, it seems to me.”

    We went down a different set of stairs. If anything, they were flimsier than the ones Giorgios had led me up. At the bottom, we went left and through a door that led outdoors rather than into the courtyard. Thirty-odd people, men and women both, stood near a kiosk built against the outside wall. We were on the north side of the palace, so there was a strip of shade even now in early afternoon.

    Abram squeezed up to the counter. There were two servers — both middle-aged women — but Abram shouted, “Hey, Martial! I want you to meet a friend of mine. Olfetrie runs the chamberlain’s computer!”

    The cook turned around. “No fooling?” he said. He was a fat man of fifty, bald on top but sporting a magnificent moustache and sideburns. His terry cloth singlet was soaked with sweat but without any other stains that I could see. “Hey, Ayesha? I’m going to take a break. Come on back, Abram.”

    One of the servers took over at the grill. Abram led me under the end of the counter — we ducked; it didn’t have a gate to lift — and into a door in the palace wall. It seemed to have been enlarged from a ventilator. The interior was a large storeroom.

    Martial twisted two bare wires together; fluorescents flickered on. He gestured to the low stools along the interior wall. “Will you have wine?”

    “Do fish piss in the sea!” Abram said. “I’m paying for my friend Olfetrie until he gets something going.”

    I took the glass of red wine and tasted it with my tongue. It was good, good enough that my mother would have approved. Well, she would have approved if anybody but Dad had offered it; nothing Dad did was good enough. Or anything I did, come to think.

    “So…” Martial said, settling onto another stool. “Do you think you’ll be able to earn some money, Olfetrie?”

    “Yes,” I said. “And if we’re going to be friends, I go by Roy. As for the details, I won’t know exactly how until I learn the system here, but” — I shrugged and turned my free hand up — “I can think of half a dozen ways off the top of my head. It shouldn’t be hard.”

    I’d told Captain Leary that I wasn’t a crook like my dad, and I wasn’t. That didn’t mean I didn’t know how a system could be fiddled. There was nothing about Giorgios or his master the Admiral that made me imagine that I owed them loyal service.

    “I can find anything you want, Roy,” Abram said. “Say, are you looking for girl?”

    “Maybe later,” I said. I didn’t say that I’d rather meet somebody on my own. “I told you, I need to learn the system.”

    “That’s smart,” said Martial. “Jumping in too quick, you’re likely to get trapped.” He snorted. “Or clapped.”

    “Hey, Martial,” Abram said. “You know I wouldn’t let him get burned!”

    To me, in a wheedling tone, he said, “Boys, maybe?”

    “No,” I said. “Abram, if I need something, I’ll let you know.”

    Someone knocked on the outside door. Abram hopped up and opened it, then returned to us carrying a tray of hot pasties. He held out the tray to me, but he’d taken one himself with his free hand.

    “Which division do you eat in, Roy?” Martial said. “The chamberlain’s, I suppose?”

    “I suppose,” I said. “Giorgios didn’t say, but he said I’m his slave.”

    Martial’s mouth worked as though he were going to spit in disgust, but what came out was only the words, “Gardane’s the cheapest bastard in the palace. I’d as soon drink lamp oil as the wine he serves.”

    I took a careful nibble off the end of a pasty. It was a green vegetable, probably spinach, and very good. It was hot enough that I was glad not to have taken a larger bite, but it made me realize how hungry I was.

    “Can I transfer from his division to yours, Martial?” I asked around another mouthful. “I’m not really enrolled yet, after all.”

    “Naw, the bastard won’t let you go,” the cook said glumly. “The losing division has to agree, and Gardane won’t. He screws half the per-person allowance in straight profit, and he won’t let a soul off his books.”

    “Oh,” I said. “If it’s just a matter of getting Master Gardane’s agreement, then I can talk to him. I think he’ll be reasonable if I ask him the right way.”

    “Dream on, buddy,” Martial said. “Here, though, another glassful on me.”

    “I’ll take the wine,” I said. “But Abram, you and I need to get going soon. I have a lot of work to do. A lot of work.”

    I’d decided that my first priority was to prepare for my interview with Gardane. I already had some ideas about that.



    I wasn’t a computer expert, but the palace’s systems were so unsophisticated that I was sure within a few hours that my only problems were going to be with preexisting input errors. Nothing was encrypted, but a number of the files were corrupt beyond my ability to clarify.

    There were areas which had been mechanically blocked. They would require chipped inserts, in the unit’s present configuration. I figured I had an answer to that, but it could wait until I had the leisure.

    I found the refectory accounts easily, but it took me and Abram two hours to compile the list I wanted. The boy knew more than half the names, but the rest took research. I found a few by searching the computer, but mostly “research” meant Abram running off and talking to friends. He knew a lot of people in the palace, which didn’t surprise me; and at least at the bottom end, people seemed to like him — which didn’t surprise me either.

    When I decided I was ready, I had a much longer list than I’d expected at the start. “Now…” I said to Abram. “Lead me to Gardane. Then go do something else. This will work best if it’s just me and the cook in private. It shouldn’t be a big deal.”

    The chamberlain’s refectory was five bays in the south wing of the third floor, just around the corner from Giorgios’ staff quarters. The first two bays off the gallery were given over to tables; a third was the kitchen itself. The remaining two were housing and offices.

    Abram brought me to the last of these and said to the guard, “This is the chamberlain’s personal assistant. He needs to talk to Gardane.”

    “It isn’t time yet for Gardane to see people,” the guard said stolidly.

    “Giorgios told me that Olfetrie goes everywhere!” Abram said, which wasn’t quite true. “Do you want to spend the short rest of your life on a stake because you didn’t obey the chamberlain? This is important!”

    I kept my mouth shut and looked stern. Maybe I could get a uniform. I was wearing spacers slops, comfortable but not very imposing. The palace seemed to be big on appearances.

    Well, bigger on appearances than society generally. And as I thought about it some more, maybe not that much bigger.

    “Look,” said the guard, “don’t try to put me in the middle of this. It’s between the chamberlain and my boss. Nothing to do with me at all!”

    He stepped out of the way and I walked in, through strings of metal beads hanging down like a curtain. Three women were in the anteroom, whispering together in a corner. They sprang apart, one of them with an audible, “Eep!”

    I pointed to that one. “I need to speak with Master Gardane, now,” I said. “In private. You go fetch him, all right? In one minute I’ll come back and find him if he hasn’t made it out here before then.”



    The woman scampered off. All three were dressed as maids: young enough to be more than that, but too plain for that to seem probable.

    The two who remained clutched one another’s hands and stared at me with a frightened expression. I smiled at them with what I hoped was a friendly face and said, “I’m new here, but your master and I are going to be great friends shortly. I’ve just come by to get acquainted.”

    They continued to stare like bunnies in the headlights. At least they weren’t screaming.

    It had been long enough that I was just about to go deeper into the bay, when a man in his forties came out of the back, still tying a blue gauze sash around his waist. He glared at me and said, “If Giorgios thinks he’s got to see me, he can make an appointment!”

    Which meant that the girl I’d sent as a messenger had reported the exchange between Abram and the guard as well as what I’d said. That was a degree of initiative that I hadn’t expected.

    “I don’t think either one of us want to see Giorgios,” I said. “And certainly not the Admiral. Is there some place we can talk in private?”

    The girl who’d eeped was peering out through the bead screen to the back of the suite. I already knew that she was smart enough to be dangerous.

    Gardane hesitated a moment. Then he said, “Come on. We’ll go up to the roof.”

    We went deeper into the bay, then up a circular metal staircase set into an alcove. I suspected the stairs had been salvaged from a starship’s companionway. The trap door at the top was open, but Gardane clanged it closed when we stepped out onto a roof of tiles set in cement. Trees with short, fuzzy, trunks and broad foliage sat in pots in a rough circle around the trap so that shade fell on the wicker couches and table regardless of the time of day or year.

    “Go away,” Gardane said to the pair of attendants who’d been lounging in the shade. He made shooing notions with his hands. They obediently sauntered toward the nearest of the five other potted oases visible.

    The fourth wing of the palace was a story higher than the front and sides, and it had a real wall around it instead of just curbing. I remembered Giorgios’ warning about the wives’ section and quickly looked at a tree.

    “Say what you want to say,” Gardane snapped.

    I handed over my list, three sheets which I had been carrying rolled in my left hand. “Before we talk,” I said, “I’d like you to read this.”

    The cook scanned the first sheet, turned to the second, and finally the third. He looked at me. He must go to some effort to keep himself in shape, but he liked food too well to be completely successful at that.

    “It’s a list of names,” he said, working to stay calm. “What do they mean to you?”

    Keeping my voice emotionless so that the words wouldn’t sound like a threat, I said, “It’s a list of people who are assigned to the chamberlain’s refectory but who are also drawing rations from other divisions. And of people who are not members of the palace complement at all, but who are assigned to the chamberlain’s refectory. And of people who aren’t people; non-existent people who are assigned to the chamberlain’s refectory.”

    “I see,” Gardane said. His eyes flicked in the direction of the guards whom he’d sent away. “What do you propose to do with this list?”

    “Absolutely nothing,” I said. “I came to see you because I’ve been told that you have the authority to transfer my meal allowance to another palace division. In this case, I’d like you to transfer me and the boy Abram, and also the last four names on the list” — people who didn’t exist for any purpose except to draw rations — “to the division of Chef Martial. I believe his division generally handles gardeners and other outside workers; day laborers, many of them.”

    Gardane’s eyes went to the guards again. If he called to them, I was going to punch him in the stomach and fling open the trap door, hoping to get down the stairs before reinforcements arrived to throw me off the roof.

    “If I do that,” Gardane said carefully, “what other business will you and I have? In particular, what will the chamberlain himself have to say about it?”

    “Giorgios will say nothing because he will know nothing,” I said. “I am responsible for all data entry.”

    “Agreed, then,” Gardane said. He smiled. “I suggest we go down and seal the bargain with a glass of wine.”

    The wine wasn’t bad. Abram had been right, though: Martial’s seemed better.



    I was organizing the accounts, division by division. I hadn’t thought of the Petersburg Chandlery as being very organized, but if I ever found myself back there I would apologize for my previous sneers.

    The sneers hadn’t reached my lips, and there was vanishingly small chance of me revisiting Petersburg Chandlery. For that matter, at the moment things weren’t looking good for me ever seeing Cinnabar again.

    I left the curtain open while I was working. There was a little air circulation that way, and the gang of household residents watching me weren’t a problem after I’d gotten used to them.

    If they pushed too close, Abram chased them away with threats of what the Admiral’s guards would do if they disturbed me. Initially I thought the threats were just over-the-top hyperbole, but after a few days in the palace I’d seen enough casual cruelty to fear that they were literally true.

    There was a thrumming bustle behind me, the way birds scatter when a hawk appears. The noise wasn’t frightening, but the sudden silence that followed worried me. I turned to ask Abram what was going on.

    Abram wasn’t there, but a pudgy man with a red turban, a cloth-of-gold tunic, and an entourage of three guards was. I’d never seen the Admiral, but I was pretty sure who this fellow was.

    I got up from the console, uncertain whether I was supposed to bow or maybe even throw myself on the floor. Sure, I’m a Cinnabar citizen and proud of it, but I’d already watched two people — a guy about my age and a kid of ten or so — be impaled on stakes. I’m willing to die rather than do some things, but I’m not willing to die that way unless there really isn’t a choice.

    “Get out of here, you fool!” a guard growled, jabbing his impeller at me. I jumped clear and whisked around the partition into Giorgios’ bedroom. There’d usually have been an attendant there to keep underlings out, but that fellow had vanished when the Admiral arrived.

    The chamberlain was alone in his big bed. He’d awakened, probably when his attendants fled. He swung his legs out — he was wearing a paisley shift — and gestured me to the back of the suite. We went out onto the gallery and Giorgios closed the door behind us. There was no one in sight.

    “Did he say what he was looking for?” Giorgios whispered.

    “He didn’t say anything,” I whispered back. “A guard told me to get out. Does this happen often?”

    “Not often,” Giorgios said. “He doesn’t usually leave the Wives’ Wing except on court days. And this is early!”

    Then he gasped and said, “The computer was working, wasn’t it? It wasn’t a blank screen?”

    “The console was fine,” I said soothingly. It was nearly midday — which might have been early for the Admiral, come to think, as well as for his chamberlain. “I was going over the Treasury Division accounts.”

    That led to an obvious segue and I said, “What does the Admiral do at the console?”

    If he was checking the treasury accounts, there were going to be more people on stakes shortly. I wasn’t doing an audit — and I’d just started on the division anyway — but the corruption I’d found in household expenses was subtle compared to what I’d seen at a glance in the Chancellor’s department.

    “I don’t know,” Giorgios said miserably. “Do you suppose he’s checking on me?”

    I started to say, “Well, I’ll tell you as soon as I look at the console history,” but I decided to keep quiet about that. The chamberlain certainly didn’t know that the console logged usage, and I realized that the Admiral himself probably didn’t.

    “I guess we’d better hope not,” I said instead. Then, because Giorgios was so rattled, I said, “I think that for safety’s sake, I’d better start contacting the vendors myself instead of you sending the orders by messengers. Heavens only knows what some of them would say under a little pressure.”

    “Oh, Great God,” Giorgios said. “Do you really think so? Oh Great God.”

    I patted him on the shoulder. “It’s going to be fine,” I said. “I’ll take care of it and we’ll both be safe.”

    I wouldn’t be safe until I was gone from ben Yusuf. I was pretty sure this would be a step toward getting me there.

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