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Though Hell Should Bar the Way: Chapter Twenty One

       Last updated: Wednesday, April 4, 2018 19:49 EDT



    I’d say that the lunch with Lal had changed my life, but it really didn’t. It just sort of reinforced my plan to keep on doing things the way I was.

    Particularly about trusting Abram. The worst Giorgios and the Admiral would do if Abram told them I was planning to escape would be to put me in shackles, but if Abram had told them what he’d figured out on his own — that I was spying on the wives — my punishment wouldn’t have stopped till I was dead.

    I kept watching the wives, but mostly I kept watching Monica. She didn’t belong as the Admiral’s wife, any more than I belonged as his slave. Maybe that was part of what was eating at me about Monica, the fact we were unfairly in the same boat, but I don’t kid myself that I’d have thought about her so much if she’d been old and ugly. I try to be a person I can smile at when I look in the mirror, but I never wanted to be a saint.

    There was plenty of work to do. I was combining the week’s food order — I wouldn’t put it all with the same broker, but bulk still gave me more leverage than I’d have had otherwise — when Abram brought me into the present by ringing the triangle.

    I shut down and turned as the chamberlain entered the gallery. I didn’t see Giorgios very often except when he was passing through, to and from his own apartments. He was so willing to leave the console to me that he didn’t seem to look at it.

    “We’ve bought a lemon tree,” he said, sounding flustered. “It’s being delivered this afternoon,”

    I’d gotten up, clearing the couch for Giorgios. “Yes, sir?” I said politely. I couldn’t imagine why he was upset by a purchase which didn’t sound particularly major. Nobody’d submitted an invoice yet, so I couldn’t be quite sure of that.

    “It’s for the wives’ garden!” Giorgios said. “The Admiral will be here shortly to unlock the alley entrance! Is the console working properly?”

    “It’s working perfectly,” I said. “I was just checking the food orders, but there’s no rush on that.”

    “Oh, thank the Great God,” said Giorgios. “I’m always afraid that it will fail again and I’ll be blamed!”

    “I’ll keep out of the way, then,” I said calmly. “I didn’t know there was an alley entrance.”

    I bowed to Giorgios, then slipped through what was left of the usual gathering of spectators. Most of them had disappeared as soon as they’d heard that the Admiral was coming.

    Abram followed without me needing to call him. I’m not sure whether he was coming with me or just dodging the Admiral.

    “Let’s see Martial,” I said, though what I really meant was “Let’s go outside.”

    When we got through the main entrance, Abram gestured to the left. Martial’s diner would have been to the right.

    “I figured you wanted to know about the alley entrance,” Abram said. “There’s a bit of a plaza at this end of the alley — there’s a common well. That’ll let us watch without, you know, getting caught up in it.”

    “I’m glad you’re on my side,” I said. That was the truth if I’d ever spoken it.

    There were lots of people in the plaza, which was a flag-stoned triangle with a street on one side and the sides of buildings built askew on the other two. There wasn’t any furniture, but a pair of local trees grew in terracotta pots which were as sturdy as the dry stone well curb.

    We sat on the edge of a pot, and Abram began trimming the callus on his left heel with his long knife. The three men who’d been standing nearby moved away.

    “They’re house slaves,” he said. “They’re just here with the women — ”

    He nodded in the direction of the well where heavily bundled-up women stood gossiping.

    “Down the alley there is where they’ll be bringing in the tree.”

    Six guards with impellers and wearing edged weapons stood in the middle of the narrow passage. They were led by an officer wearing a fur cap above which nodded a long feather dyed bright blue.

    “There’s a tunnel through the wing and into the little garden just for the wives,” Abram said. “There’s no door through the wall between the courtyard and the wives’ garden. Food and stuff you can bring into the wing through the regular passages, but this is a tree.”

    A pair of motorized platforms came up the street from the direction of the bay. They looked like the one Giorgios used when he went out, but they were linked back to back. A tree with a cloth-wrapped root ball rode the join. Men stood on either side, bracing the trunk with their hands.

    “I wonder why the Admiral uses the cameras to watch what he could be right there in person watching,” I said. I had wondered, and this was a chance to discuss it with the one person on ben Yusuf I could do that with.

    Abram snorted. “Hey, he’s getting on,” he said. “He’s fat, he drinks, and he’s bored. I don’t guess the wives get much personal attention, though you’d know that better’n me. If he can’t do it himself, he can still get a kick out of peeping at what the women get up to on their own.”

    I thought about it. “I suppose,” I said.

    Certainly the Admiral didn’t visit any of his wives’ rooms often. I didn’t watch what happened during those visits, but from the determination with which several of the women tried to entice him, he wasn’t terribly interested in sex.

    Giorgios arrived from the other end of the alley. When he gave an order, a guard grasped the door handle — it was a U of reinforcing rod welded onto the metal door — and tugged. Another guard joined him before the panel started to open, but it took a third man to actually haul it fully back.

    The crew who’d arrived with the tree lifted it down on its wooden framework, then carried it into the passage. There were half a dozen of them, but two carried shovels and a pick from the vehicle.

    “There’s another door on the garden end,” Abram said. “Boutros, he’s one of the geldings, he told me. There’s no key lock, just the console that only the Admiral can work.”

    He looked at me and raised an eyebrow. “Except maybe you can too, can you?” he added.

    I shrugged. “I ought to be able to,” I said. “I haven’t looked for a lock control on the console, though.”

    The guards and workmen finally came out of the passage. The last one was Giorgios. I turned my head away, but Abram didn’t bother to. The chamberlain seemed to have paid attention only to the door as the guards forced it shut with a loud clang.

    The workmen rode off on their vehicle. Giorgios and most of the guards waited near the closed door, but one man scampered past us and continued up the street toward the front of the palace.

    “They’ve gotta tell the Admiral to lock it again,” Abram said. “I hear that some places, they got radios to do that from a ways away. Is that true?”

    “That’s true,” I agreed. Then I said, “Abram, would you be able to find me some penetrating oil and a pry bar?”

    “Yeah,” he said. “If you were crazy enough to want them.”

    I heard another clang from down the alley, sharper and lighter than that of the door itself being closed. This must have been the electronic bolt being shot home by the console. Giorgios and the remainder of the guards walked off, going in the other direction.

    “I’m that crazy,” I said.



    I wasn’t going to do anything until I saw a way of doing everything I needed. It was a case of one step at a time, but most steps had to be in different directions rather than marching straight toward a goal.

    I daubed the three massive hinges of the alley door with penetrating oil, but then I reentered the palace and hid the remainder of the can of penetrating oil in the framework from which Giorgios’ bed curtains hung. I could retrieve it easily there, but even if it were found it didn’t point to me.

    When Giorgios next came past my alcove, I stopped him. “Sir?” I said. “Was the Admiral pleased with the way I’ve kept the console in operating condition?”

    “Yes, everything went well,” the chamberlain said. He looked a little worried, which is what I intended when I brought up the console and the fact it depended on me.

    “Good,” I said. “Good. I want to attend the sale of slaves this afternoon, sir.”

    “You do?” Giorgios said. His mild worry had risen to alarm. “Ah. I suppose you’re planning to buy a slave of your own. Slaves, perhaps?”

    “I’m just considering possibilities, sir,” I said. It was normal for slaves of some rank to own slaves themselves. Generally it was a mark of status, though I’d run into cases where a slave official’s slaves did all the official’s work.

    To make sure Giorgios was getting the point, I said, “I think I’ll have to continue doing all the computer work, though. This console is remarkably finicky, and I regularly have to reset it when it locks up. I could never train somebody who could keep it going.”

    “Well, there’s no reason you shouldn’t buy a slave,” Giorgios said. “Ah, and you can come to me if you need someone to guarantee your credit with the auctioneer.”

    He strode quickly into his bedroom. I bowed respectfully to his back, then said to Abram, “Let’s go watch an auction.”

    “Suits me,” Abram said. “Though I don’t know what you want a slave for.”

    I didn’t. What I wanted was a look at — and just possibly a meeting with — the Karst consul.




    Slaves were sold at the top of the swale near the underground prison. There were stone seats and a permanent roof of structural plastic for spectators.

    There was nothing for the prisoners, unless you counted the tower which mounted an automatic impeller. It was sited on the back side of the bleachers, which struck me as odd until I realized that from this location the muzzle couldn’t be lowered enough to bear on the customers. Given the quality of the guards I’d seen in Salaam, that was a wise precaution.

    They’d started to bring out the prisoners by the time we arrived. They were in groups of five roped together at the right ankle. Guards were linking them as they climbed a ladder from the pit. None of them looked in great shape even without bonds, but I suppose the Admiral saw no reason to take chances.

    We climbed four levels of seats, above the audience already in place. Those seated on the bottom row had come with cushions. Two of the four principals had brought attendants.

    “The high mucky-mucks down there’re the consuls,” Abram whispered. “That’s Platt from Karst on the right and the woman on the left’s Kimber or Kimley, something like that, from the Alliance. The two in the middle are the Solitan League and the Sworn Brotherhood. They’re each three worlds, but they don’t count for much.”

    The Alliance consul was the only woman visible. Platt was taller than me but he looked worn. His curly hair was obviously dyed and had receded high up his forehead. My first glance wasn’t encouraging, but it seemed that he might be what I had to work with.

    I looked at the woman from the Alliance. There was no legal connection there, but maybe her gender would help? The thing was, I’d met plenty of women doing jobs that mostly were handled by men. From what I’d seen — and I was an outsider, I know — most of them were harder on other women than a man would have been. I guess they were just proving they weren’t soft.

    The first gang of slaves shuffled in front of the stands. They were looking down and sometimes shielding their eyes with their hands: The roof didn’t cover them.

    “Five spacers from the ship Hentzau,” the auctioneer called. He was in the chancellor’s division, a man named Albert. I knew him slightly because he chose to buy meals from Martial instead of eating with his own division. “All sound in limb.”

    Two men in the second row bid against one another without enthusiasm. The lot was sold at 120 piasters per person. Guards shuffled the slaves off to the other end, where groups of attendants waited. An aide to the successful bidder jotted notes, as did Albert’s assistant.

    “They’re both off-planet labor contractors,” Abram explained. “They’re putting together gangs to ship out of Eski Marakech.”

    Another group was offered. This time an old man seated just below us with a grandson asked for a closer examination. He looked at the spacers — also from the Hentzau — individually, demanding they open their mouths. He finally offered 200 piasters on the second man in line. No one bid against him, though the other labor contractor bought the remainder of the coffle at 110 apiece.

    These were men just like me. It bothered me a little that I was thinking of them as items of trade — as I would think of shovels or bags of barley being bought for the palace. I don’t suppose it mattered. I wasn’t buying them, even buying them for the palace.

    Giorgios had an assistant to purchase labor. That fellow, Ali son of Ali, wasn’t present today.

    I said to Abram, “How about me? I wasn’t paraded like those fellows.”

    “Oh, I heard about that,” he said. “That was really hush-hush, you know? Giorgios did a deal with the cutter’s captain who took you, cash under the table. The chancellor didn’t get his cut, but maybe Giorgios squared him.”

    Abram looked at me and grinned. “I guess he had to pay pretty well to get an expert on the console like you, huh?” he said.

    “I don’t know what he paid,” I said. “It was off-book like you figure, so I haven’t found it in the records. I think he paid in Alliance thalers.”

    I didn’t argue about being called an expert on the console. In Salaam, that’s what I was.

    The third group came up to bid. Albert hadn’t more than stated, “Five spacers from the S611 out of Rupert’s Planet,” when the tall man at the head of the line put his arms akimbo.

    “I am a citizen of Bryce!” he called, looking from one consul to the other. “I’m being improperly held!”

    Albert turned to the woman. “Mistress Kimber?” he said. “This spacer was a member of the crew of S611, which is registered on Rupert’s Planet. Salaam has no treaty with Rupert’s Planet.”

    “That’s a lie!” said the spacer. “I’m Gus Andre and I was a passenger on S611, not crew!”

    “Master Albert?” said the woman. Two of her aides were whispering together as one consulted his personal data unit. “What evidence do you have that this man was crew and not a passenger?”

    “The S611 didn’t have facilities for passengers,” said Albert, pulling a hardcopy document from his scrip. “Just bunks for the crew.”

    “I slept in a bunk,” Andre said, “but I wasn’t crew!”

    “Do you have the ship’s log showing that Andre was enrolled in the crew?” Kimber demanded.

    “I don’t have record of that, no,” Albert said. Before the consul could speak again, Albert gestured to one of the escorting guards. “Release this man to the care of the Alliance consul.”

    An attendant separated the freed man from the rest of the coffle by using shears to snip the light rope which attached his ankle to a heavy hawser. He tried to run over to the consul with his arms outstretched, but one of her aides intercepted him and led him off to the side where attendants waited. Bidding began on the remainder of the coffle.

    “Are there any women?” I asked Abram.

    “They’re sold separately,” he said. “They’re kept in that building with the yellow window frames.”

    He gestured back toward the town proper. The barred windows didn’t set it off from other houses.

    “And the really pretty ones don’t come to public auction anyway,” Abram continued. “The chancellor holds a private sale for high rollers. But say, look — if you want a woman, I can find you plenty of stuff that’s just as good as what comes off captured ships. Except maybe hair color — real blond is hard, but I could keep an eye out.”

    “Thank you, Abram,” I said, “but it was just curiosity. I like to know things, but I’m not looking for a woman.”

    “If you’ve got problems with buying one, there’s a lot of fathers I could introduce you to,” Abram said. “You’re a big man, Roy, even though you don’t put on side. There’s a lot of girls who’d really like to be your woman.”

    Arguing with him didn’t do any good, so I concentrated on the new line of prisoners shuffling in. The man in the middle was arguing with the guards. When he reached the display area he called to the consuls, “I’m from Andover and I was a passenger on the Regenswelt! A passenger!”

    “This man is Thom Burris, crewman on the Regenswelt out of Grantholm,” Albert said, reading from his hardcopy. “He has spacers’ tattoos.”

    “Those aren’t spacers’ tattoos!” Burris shouted. “Ariel is my girlfriend, not a ship! Well, she was. I’ve never been in space except as a passenger, and I was on my way back home when you bastards caught the Regenswelt in orbit!”

    The consul for the Sworn Brotherhood got to his feet and said, “Master Albert, tattoos are common on Andover. There’s nothing about Master Burris’ tattoo to suggest he’s anything but a healthy young man with a girlfriend.”

    Albert glanced at his hardcopy again, then looked up and said, “Appeal denied. Five spacers, one missing three fingers of his left hand. What am I offered?”

    “I protest!” the consul shouted.

    “You can’t do this!” said Burris.

    Albert said nothing to the consul. To the nearest guard he said, “Silence the prisoner so that I can get on with the auction.”

    The guard had a thick-bladed cutlass instead of an impeller. He chopped at Burris’ head with the flat. The prisoner got his hands up, but the edge scraped his forearm. He staggered back and fell.

    The guard moved forward, but Albert said, “That’s enough.” To the consul he added, “You can make a protest to your government if you like. When the auction closes, I’ll give you a note as to where the man has been sold for you to pursue it if you like.”

    The sale proceeded. I said to Abram, “I don’t see how Albert could be so certain. A tattoo doesn’t seem much evidence the fellow was a crewman.”

    Abram shrugged and said, “The Sworn Brotherhood has maybe three gunboats and a very old destroyer if they get everything together. The consul would have to send the message off through Eski Marakech, which would take a good month. Whereas the Alliance could have a standby squadron here in six weeks and stay long enough to screw everybody on ben Yusuf’s life up. They wouldn’t land troops themself, but they might make it hot enough for the other admirals to make a change in who was running Salaam.”

    “I see,” I said.

    As the next coffle was arriving, I tapped Abram on the arm. “I guess I’ve seen enough,” I said.

    We got up and headed back for the palace. The delivery from Roussel should be made this afternoon. I wanted to see Monica unwrap the sauces she’d ordered.

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