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Though Hell Should Bar the Way: Chapter Twenty

       Last updated: Saturday, March 31, 2018 06:55 EDT



    I’d thought my first order of business would be to find Abram, but I heard his laugh — a cheerful bray — coming up from below several times while Giorgios and I were chatting. I leaned over the gallery railing and saw the boy among the customers at Martial’s diner.

    I could have shouted to him, but walking down the stairs didn’t arouse general notice. That didn’t necessarily make me safe, but keeping a low profile struck me as the better option.

    People who randomly whack the heads off flowers start with the tallest stems. There were plenty of randomly violent people in the Admiral’s palace.

    When Abram saw me walking toward the diner, he waved and trotted to meet me. “Hey, boss,” he said. “Glad you don’t need a stake to stay upright. How’s Giorgios?”

    “The same when I left him,” I said. “He may need to change his trousers. Though come to think, he was still in his nightshirt. Still, it seemed like a good time to get out into the town. Take me to Balian’s, to begin with.”

    “We have an order for Balian?” Abram said. “He usually gives me a glass of wine when I bring him an order.”

    “I’ll talk with Balian,” I said. “There’ll be others today, and more later too.”

    I planned to come away with more than a glass of wine. Martial had kept me supplied with as much as I needed in piaster coins — he’d still be making a nice profit on the six “mouths” I’d transferred to his roster — but I thought it was time that I started making my own way.

    Abram led. I made an effort to recall the turns, but I wasn’t very concerned about it. I’d be just as happy to have a companion every time I wandered the city.

    I could get Giorgios to assign armed guards, I suppose, but I trusted Abram and his wits to stand me in as good stead as any of the guards I’d seen thus far. They seemed to be village boys who’d been handed a weapon. They might be brave enough, but they had the intelligence of the goats they’d been herding before they entered Salaam.

    Abram turned into a plaza around a sprawling building with white walls. The walls were less than ten feet tall, but I could see that the roof was covered by a series of vaults. As soon as we stepped inside, keepers of the shops inside greeted us with noisy enthusiasm.

    They came from behind their counters, often with a selection of their wares hanging from one outstretched arm. Those in this neighborhood seemed to be jewelers, offering chains and bangles hanging from chains.

    “We want hardware,” Abram explained to me in a dismissive tone. “That is” — his expression grew cunning — “unless you’ve changed your mind about a girl? Murid in the last shop down is my friend and he can give you a good price.”

    “I haven’t changed my mind,” I said, keeping my eyes straight ahead despite the fingers plucking my sleeves. Did they treat everybody this way? Because Abram and I certainly weren’t dressed to impress people with our wealth.

    We continued through to a cross bay and turned right. This time the shops sold low-end clothing, the local equivalent of the spacers’ slops I was wearing. I could use more garments, but not now.

    For that matter, my inclination was to let Abram shop for my personal needs. I preferred to bargain at a higher level.

    Beyond the clothing was a hardware market. The shopkeepers were mostly male as they had been in the jewelry bay, but they were less boisterously enthusiastic. The garment sellers had been women.

    Balian was an old man seated at the back of the shop. At the counter were two younger men; one wasn’t much older than Abram. They cheerfully greeted him, taking him by the arms and drawing him past the counters of pipe fittings and into the racks of tools.

    I’d intended to have lists with me when I began visiting shopkeepers, but the Admiral’s arrival hadn’t given me time to plan. I’d recently gone over hardware purchases, though, so I figured I was current enough for the present purposes.

    “And this one…?” said the older of the youths, eying me without pleasure. “You’re training to be the new messenger?”

    The words were harmless. The insult was in the tone.

    “Not exactly,” I said. The acoustics in this large hall were designed for drinking clatter rather than for transmitting speech clearly, but I could see that the old man in back was listening intently. I pitched my voice for him: “I’m the chamberlain’s assistant and have sole control of the console. I’m here to discuss future orders rather than to place one today.”

    The younger clerk sniffed. “Well, I guess we can stand a second glass of wine,” he said loudly.

    I looked over his head at Balian and smiled. It wasn’t a good-humored smile. I didn’t speak, which seemed to put the boy off his stride.

    The old man got up and said, “Mehmet, why don’t you and Suleiman attend our friend Abram. I will take the new gentleman — your name, sir?”

    “Roy Olfetrie,” I said, nodding slightly.

    “Our new friend Roy into my office,” Balian said. To me he added, “It’s quieter, and perhaps I could find a better bottle of wine?”

    “I’m not here for wine,” I said as I followed him toward the back of the shop.

    “No, no, I didn’t think you were,” Balian said sadly. He opened a door to which a rack of small metal fittings hung. They tinkled when the panel moved. “Well, what can a poor man do?”

    The office was small but antiseptically clean: one small desk, two straight chairs, and a four-drawer file cabinet. The old man opened the bottom drawer of the cabinet and came out holding an earthenware bottle and two shapely tulip glasses.

    He looked up and paused. “Unless perchance you’d like something stronger?”

    “Ben Yusuf wine is quite strong enough for me,” I said.

    Balian handed me a glass and closed the bottle with a plug of waxed wood. When he’d settled into his chair with the second glass, he eyed me and said, “Not bad, don’t you think?”

    “Yes,” I agreed after a taste. “But as I said, I’m not here for the refreshment.”

    “Of course,” Balian said. “What proposition do you have for me, Roy Olfetrie?”

    “For every twenty items ordered for the palace,” I said, “you invoice twenty-one as delivered. I enter the twenty-one, and you and I split the billed amount of the twenty-first. You pay over my share in cash the next time I come by.”

    “Indeed,” said the old man, speaking with no inflection. “And what would you do, Roy Olfetrie, if I reported this conversation the Giorgios, your master?”

    I shrugged. “I think he’d be pleased,” I said. “At least when I explain that your pique is natural, given that I moved all the hardware purchases to Ajah. He agreed to pay a twenty-five percent commission to the chamberlain instead of twenty, you see.”

    “Ajah won’t pay twenty-five percent!” Balian snarled, the first time his mask had slipped.

    I shrugged again. “I suspect he will if I double his volume,” I said.

    For a moment, Balian stared at me with an expression as blank as a pearl. Then he chuckled and said, “You know, you might be right about that. But” — his eyes hard-focused again — “you haven’t actually done that yet?”

    “You were my first stop,” I said truthfully. “As best as I could tell, your prices are better than Ajah’s. While the well-being of my employer — my owner, I suppose I should say — isn’t my only consideration, I did take it into account.”

    Balian chuckled again. He set his glass down on the desk and laughed harder.

    It didn’t hurt me, but neither did the business seem to me such a funny joke. I said, “Where do you get your supplies? Are there factories elsewhere on ben Yusuf? Because I haven’t seen much sign of them in Salaam.”

    “Pipe and fittings are mostly made on planet,” the old man said, sobering. “There’s an extrusion plant in the west suburbs here. Hand tools, some on ben Yusuf; there’s a couple factories in Eski Marakech. Power tools, they’re all from off planet.”

    I thought of what Giorgios had said when he brought me to the palace. I said, “I didn’t realize ben Yusuf had off-planet trade.”

    “Charities on other planets buy back their citizens under truce,” Balian explained. “That’s mostly done in Eski Marakech, but my agent there buys on my orders and ships them to me.”

    He lifted the wine bottle. “Another?” he said.

    “Not for me,” I said, getting to my feet. “But I’ll be sending Abram with a formal order in a few days, once I’ve checked my records on the console.”

    That wasn’t all I’d be checking on the console. I hoped the Admiral was finished by now. I was looking forward to learning what he’d been doing.



    I let Abram check about on Admiral’s whereabouts. I didn’t want to be seen asking about him or about much of anything. That was largely my plan of keeping a low profile, but I’d seen from our first meeting that Abram would get better information than I could. He knew so much that his quick brain could cross-check whatever people told him, and nobody was going to ask why he wanted to know something.



    Abram was always working an angle. If you stayed on his good side, you wouldn’t find that angle jabbing you in the dark some night.

    The Admiral had only stayed twenty minutes before going back to the women’s wing with his entourage of guards and toadies. None of them were permitted to watch what he was doing at the console.

    As before, I had Abram shoo the spectators off to a distance, though there hadn’t been any reason for that except that I didn’t want to be jostled. Less than half of the palace staff were even literate, and all I was doing at the computer was my job as the chamberlain’s assistant. I didn’t intend to discuss with the chamberlain what I was doing, sure; but he was probably happier not to know.

    I checked the usage log and found that all the Admiral’s activity had been in areas accessed after insertion of a chip key. That disassociated them from the console’s normal routines.

    The only way around that was to create an identical key — impossible for me and probably impossible for anybody else unless they had the original to copy — or to reset the console itself and to wipe all security formatting. That too was impossible unless you had the console’s password, which could be set to fourteen digits of letters, numbers, and symbols.

    In the RCN, every console was given a password generated by cosmic ray impacts; I’m sure the Alliance used a similar system. As consoles came from the manufacturer, though, the normal default was the last three digits of the unit’s serial number. The palace console was ex-commercial; as I expected, keying in A3* opened all sectors of the console to me.

    There were document files which could be updated by information transferred when the key was inserted. That had been done regularly, but there’d been no changes in the past month. Each was a personnel file, so to speak: the name of a woman; particulars of height, weight, and identifying characteristics; and where applicable the name of her father and her birth village, with the bride price.

    In five cases the file gave the woman’s name and planet of origin, with no mention of bride price. Four of those women did have prices listed, but with the name of a captain rather than a father; they’d been bought at slave auctions.

    The unique item on the list was Monica Smith, a blonde from Saguntum. She was the most recent arrival, from three months back. No source or price appeared. That was a puzzle with no obvious means of solution.

    The sectors which the Admiral had been checking a few minutes ago were displays for observation cameras in the Wives’ Wing, though I had to check the sources to be sure of that.

    I blanked the display in sudden terror, then turned on the couch. The console was in an alcove. Ten or a dozen palace servants sat in a loose semicircle out in the gallery. They were staring at my back. They didn’t seem concerned or even interested when I looked at them.

    Between me and them squatted Abram, with a double-edged dagger in his lap. Nobody was close enough for the point of the dagger to reach — quite — if Abram suddenly started swiping at spectators. I made sure the focus of my holographic display was set so that the images cohered only from within sixteen centimeters — the unit was of Karst manufacture — of where my eyes were when I sat at the console.

    I took a deep breath and opened one of the camera feeds.

    I was looking at a woman with lovely blond hair, about as old as I am. She was staring at a window covered by a carved wooden screen. The screen was a marvel of workmanship; the craftsman who’d made it could have earned a fortune on Cinnabar, turning out one-off masterpieces for newly rich gentlemen in Xenos.

    People like my dad had been.

    The blond was in a corner room; I judged that she was looking over the alley on the south side of the palace. I doubted whether she could see the pavement, and I wasn’t sure that she could even see the tops of the two-story buildings across the way; the screen was finger thick, and the openings were narrow swirls an inch or two long.

    The blond got up from the window ledge. Her expression was the only part of her that wasn’t lovely. It was as cold as polished granite, not ugly but inhuman. There was only one blond in the Admiral’s records, so this was Monica Smith.

    Monica picked up a long-necked stringed instrument and walked to the door. I lost her when she went out, but there were more than twenty other feeds. I cycled through them until one gave me a large bay, probably the central half of the wing.

    Eight women lounged there. Two were playing a game with cards and tiles; three sat at another table and drank small cupfuls from an urn; and the final three read or stared at wood-screened windows, much as Monica had been doing in her room.

    The camera installation had been expert. It covered the entire top floor of the wing and showed the interiors of every chamber. The feeds must have come from extreme fish-eye lenses, but there was no distortion in what I saw because the console’s enormous capacity easily corrected the images.

    I wondered who had installed and connected the equipment; and I wondered also if they had long survived the task. It was possible that the work had been done by women or by eunuchs. My suspicion after my past experience with the palace was that the Admiral had bought slaves with the necessary expertise and then had executed them.

    The women were all dressed in loose garments and slippers. Monica wore a shift much like the one Giorgios slept in, though hers was white instead of patterned. Most of the others were in similar garments or skirts and blouses, though one of the game players wore only a bandeau above the waist.

    Monica walked to a woman reading. They moved to a bench without back or arms and sat. Monica began to play while the other woman watched her fingering intently.

    Another woman entered the hall from a door which had been closed until then. The observation cameras didn’t have sound — and I wouldn’t have dared use it anyway — but the roomful of women started as suddenly as birds raised by a gun dog.

    The newcomer was older than most of the others — midforties I would guess — but in very good condition. She was plumper than my taste, but that seemed to be the norm for ben Yusuf. The only slim adult woman whom I’d seen here was Monica.

    The woman who’d been sitting with Monica disappeared into one of the rooms. She left behind the book she’d been reading. Monica stood also, but she didn’t back away.

    The Admiral’s chief wife was Azul, fifty years old and born on ben Yusuf. I was certain now that I was watching her, though she wore her age well. I couldn’t hear the words the two women exchanged, but I could read them easily enough in the postures and expressions.

    Azul advanced. Instead of backing away, Monica picked up a lamp of turned brass from the table where her instructor had been reading. Azul halted.

    The older woman was dressed with greater formality than the other wives. Her long, pale-blue dress was cinched at the waist with a broad belt of leather dyed a darker blue which matched the material of her cut-work slippers. Her hair fell loose on the right side but was gathered by a gaudy barrette on the left.

    Azul looked over her shoulder. A moment later, two men wearing pantaloons and loose blouses joined her. They were thick bodied and soft looking, but they were also big. One spoke to Azul; then they moved on Monica from either side.

    For a moment I thought the girl was going to fight them. Then she hurled the lamp to the floor and handed the musical instrument to the man — the eunuch, obviously — on her right.

    That servant carried the instrument to Azul, bowed, and handed it over. The other eunuch shifted slightly so that he was directly between the women. He continued to watch Monica.

    Azul examined the instrument. The sound box was very small compared to the long neck. She walked to the outside wall where Monica could see her clearly. Raising the instrument in both hands as though she were using an axe, she swung it against the masonry. It shattered into scraps of light wood and the sturdier neck from which the four strings dangled.

    Azul tossed the neck to the floor. She turned and walked back into the room she had appeared from.

    Monica said nothing. She too returned to her room. She closed her door with a controlled motion instead of banging it.

    I blanked my display. I was trembling inside. Then after a moment I reopened the feed I had started with, the interior of Monica’s room. It was the last one the Admiral had been watching.

    Monica lay on her bed, her face buried into the bedclothes. Judging from the way her body shook, she was sobbing.

    I turned off the console. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do just now, but I knew I didn’t want to see more of the internal politics of the Wives’ Wing.




    I was at work on the dry goods accounts, as best as I could. It was a tangled mess, with minimal data entered — usually a gross amount — and uncertain dates. At least a third of the entries were identical to the sou to one or more other entries. That didn’t necessarily mean they were false, however, because it was the nature of housekeeping expenses to be repetitive.

    I’d have been right more often than not to say an account was false, though. It’s not just that ben Yusuf existed by piracy. Its society was corrupt from bottom to top. I wasn’t taking a moral stance to think that it should be remade; that was just a pragmatic assessment.

    Abram rang a brass triangle right behind me. I jumped, but it’d been my idea. When I was working, I tuned out my surroundings. That was fine for most things, but if I ignored the Admiral when he visited I was likely to be alerted by a guard using the butt of his impeller.

    I blanked the display before I turned around. There was nothing wrong with me going over household accounts, but I might have been viewing the Wives’ Wing. I was training myself to react the safe way, every time. I didn’t want either gelding or impaling to become part of my work history.

    Abram stood with Lal, my shipmate from Captain Hakim’s crew. I surprised myself with how glad I was to see him. Lal and Abram were the closest thing to friends I’d made since I was shanghaied on Saguntum.

    “Say, spacer!” I said, getting up from the console. My eyes had to adjust before I could see him properly. “What’re you doing here?”

    “Well, when we landed at Salaam, I thought I’d see how you were getting on,” Lal said, looking around. “I thought you’d be all right, but I’m still surprised that you’re doing this well. From what I hear, you’re running things in the palace.”

    “No, not that,” I said truthfully. I didn’t add, “And if it were true I wouldn’t say it. Even Giorgios doesn’t find me so indispensable that he wouldn’t have somebody knife me if he decided I was a danger to him.”

    Aloud I went on, “Have you had lunch? Let me buy you lunch!”

    “I wouldn’t mind,” Lal said. “We made a couple decent captures this time, but Captain Hakim won’t be paying off till the auction in a week or so.”

    I looked at Abram and made a quick calculation. “Abram,” I said, “let’s you and I find a place we can have lunch with my old shipmate. Some place the food’s as good as Martial’s but where we don’t have to stand outside.”

    “Right,” said Abram. “I really like Etzil’s down by the harbor, if you don’t mind a bit of a walk?”

    We didn’t mind. Of course.

    I’ve heard people say, “You’ve got to trust somebody!” and I’ve also heard them say, “You can’t trust anybody!” Neither of those things is true; both are just words that people shout when a plan or a relationship goes belly-up.

    I’ve known people who didn’t seem to trust anybody. My dad was one of them. Certainly neither my brother nor I had any notion of how he was getting his contracts. As for Mom, I don’t doubt that she was just as shocked as she seemed when the investigators and the bailiffs descended on us.

    But by the same token, none of Dad’s business associates betrayed him. He was unmasked when a new Minister of Defense took over and for her own political purposes forced a really serious audit.

    But that was the thing: Dad had lost — I don’t know a better word for what had happened — despite not trusting anyone. And I simply didn’t want to live that way.

    Sure, I could go off with Lal on my own without arousing suspicion in anybody but Abram himself (and maybe not even in him). He might be able to help, though; and anyway I just wanted to let him know what I was thinking.

    Etzil’s was a narrow frontage between a pair of large shops catering to spacers with clothing, cheap jewelry, and personal weapons. Etzil had a satellite location, though, a combination of marquee and shed on an outcrop closer to the water. A sheet of structural plastic formed a floor flat enough for chairs, but because of the rock, nobody came ashore there.

    We took a table and were waited on by a boy younger than Abram. When he had scampered back to the main building to fetch our wine and food, I first nodded to Abram, then said to Lal, “I want to get off planet.”

    “I’d say you were sitting pretty,” Lal said. “Why would you want to leave?”

    “He doesn’t belong here,” said Abram unexpectedly. “There’s some from the big worlds that really take to it — Guido, the War Chief, he’s from Pantellaria, and the vizier of Eski Marakech is from Pleasaunce itself. But Roy here” — he nodded to me — “is scheming to get away. And some other stuff too, I shouldn’t wonder. He’ll lose his wedding tackle if he’s not lucky.”

    I didn’t say anything, but my heart was a block of ice.

    “Well, you’re out of luck if you think one of the captains is going to sign you on,” Lal said to me. “Even Hakim. He’d have been glad to have you before, but now that you’re the Admiral’s slave he won’t touch you. He wouldn’t be able to come back to Salaam if he did, and even if he was willing to lift out of some place else it wouldn’t do you any good. The admirals all stick together that much — they won’t harbor each other’s run slaves.”

    “What about other planets?” I said. My hopes were melting. “I could pay well.”

    “Where do you suppose a ship from ben Yusuf could land and not everybody aboard be hanged?” Lal said. “I don’t know of anyplace.”

    Our orders came. The food was a thick fish stew spread on a trencher of barley bread. We ate with spoons and our hands. It was the best meal I’d had on ben Yusuf, and I’m not complaining about Martial’s food.

    “If you had enough money…” Abram said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “You could buy a ship.”

    “And then what?” said Lal. “Oh, sure, Roy could captain it and maybe work it alone — I don’t believe that, but maybe he could. But where’s he going then? To Blanchard or St. Julien? They’d more likely shoot him when he opened the airlock than they’d start cheering about his escape. If it’s a bigger place that has a guard ship, you won’t get out of orbit.”

    “Yeah,” said Abram without the animation of a moment before. “Anybody arriving on a cutter from ben Yusuf is a pirate when he reaches anywhere else.”

    “That’s not what I wanted to hear,” I said, scraping a spoonful of sopped bread from my trencher. I think I sounded calm. I sounded calmer than I felt anyway.

    “Look…” said Lal. “If I knew a way, I’d tell you. You saved my life, Roy. I’ll do anything I can for you.”

    “Boss, I don’t want you to leave Salaam, believe me,” Abram said earnestly. “But you’ll die if you stay here. I won’t turn you in but somebody will. So you better get out or quit looking at the wives.…And I don’t know how you can get out.”

    Etzil’s wine wasn’t very good, but we drank a lot more of it before Lal went off to his room and Abram led me to the palace. On the way back I said, “Abram, why do you think I’ve been looking at the place you said?”

    I didn’t want to use the words. I didn’t think anybody passing in the street would hear enough to be a problem, but I’d been sure that nobody could see the display when I was using it.

    Abram looked at me. “Look, boss, I didn’t know what you were doing and I figured I ought to,” he said. “The way you were acting, there was more than just money.”

    He grinned. “You don’t care about money,” he said. “You could make a lot more easy, but you don’t bother.”

    “I suppose that’s true,” I said. “But how did you see a display that was focused just for me?”

    “I rigged a mirror on the pillar in front of me,” Abram said. “I watched your fingers move. I can’t read, but I’m good on motion. And when you were asleep, I did what you’d been doing. If anybody’d asked, I’d have said I was doing it for you — but nobody asked. But when I got the place you mostly went to — ”

    He put his hand on my arm and stopped me where we were, twenty feet from the gate of the palace. In an even softer voice than before, he continued, “I glanced at it and then I shut down. I never want to see that again. No matter how bad Giorgios needs you, he’ll have you impaled and probably me too if he ever gets a whiff of what you’re doing.”

    I took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Abram,” I said. “If you want to get a long way away from me before anything happens, I won’t blame you. But I’m not going to quit. And I’m going to get her away with me. Somehow.”

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