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Crown of Slaves: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Saturday, April 9, 2005 09:56 EDT



    Getting to his ship a few days later was a madhouse for Anton. Queen Elizabeth had waited until the last minute to leak the news, but the Star Kingdom's paparazzi had the same lightning reflexes possessed by that breed throughout the Galaxy. By the time Anton and his entourage reached the gate to the landing field where the orbital shuttle awaited them, the area was mobbed with journalists.

    For all that he'd planned for it, Anton still found the whole situation a bit infuriating. For one thing, he'd become so accustomed to working in the shadows that he'd overlooked how much he would be an item of avid interest. As many of the paparazzi seemed interested in getting holopics of him as they were of the Princess.

    Glumly, he could imagine the tabloid headlines.

    Disgraced officer on mystery trip with royalty!

    Captain Zilwicki tosses over the Countess for the Princess!

    Catherine Montaigne heart-broken! "My lover left me for a younger woman!"

    Another scandal in a scandalous career!

    It didn't help any when Berry, filled with excitement at the occasion, planted a sloppy impromptu kiss on his cheek right in front of the journalist mob. That it was a daughter's kiss and not a lover's should have been blindingly obvious to anyone nearby. But the paparazzi were kept at a distance by the police, and all their carefully-cropped holopics would show was the sight of a pretty young woman dressed up like a princess apparently slobbering over a much older man.

    Something of his unease must have shown. Behind him, he heard Princess Ruth murmur with amusement: "Oh, stop worrying, Captain. The proper news media will carry the official version of the story, and who pays any attention to the scandal sheet tabloids anyway?"

    About two-thirds of the population of Manticore, thought Anton sourly. Ninety percent, on Gryphon. I'll never be able to show my face in the highlands again.

    Despite the sourness of the moment, he was pleased with Ruth herself. The young royal was playing her part in the charade to perfection. She was ambling casually along a few paces behind, engrossed in a conversation with Web Du Havel except when making wisecracks to her purported "father." The spitting image of a bright and none-too-respectful daughter.

    Nevertheless, he couldn't help but wince at the sheer number of paparazzi present at the landing field. Like locusts swarming over ripe grain.

    Great, just great. And now I'll be an item myself. The notorious Cap'n Zilwicki, rogue of the spaceways.

    Modern holopic technology did not involve the dramatic flashbulbs of ancient times. But, at that moment, Anton felt as if every spotlight in the universe was focused on him.



    He didn't feel any better once they reached orbit and transferred from the shuttle into the ship they'd be making the voyage in. There hadn't been any physical problem getting through the landing gate, of course. Paparazzi took scuffling with police for granted, in order to get closer to their targets, but not even they were crazy enough to meddle with royal bodyguards from the Queen's Own Regiment. The lieutenant and half-dozen soldiers detached from the regiment as an escort for the Princess in her trip were heavily armed, scowling as ferociously as such well-trained and disciplined soldiers ever did, and were making absolutely clear with their body language alone that they would instantly gun down any paparazzi who managed to break through the police line. Gun them down and probably gut the corpse for good measure.

    The problem lay elsewhere. Princess Ruth was as much of a political junkie as Anton had expected she'd be, given her fascination with intelligence work. So, the moment they'd entered the ship's lounge, she'd made a beeline for the HD and turned it on. Even after the ship left orbit, there'd be time to catch the evening news broadcasts before they were out of reception range.

    Not to Anton's surprise, the show Ruth turned to was the prestigious talk show The Star Kingdom Today. The show's moderator, Yael Underwood, had a flair for presenting serious news in a manner which captured popular interest. Personally, Anton thought Underwood was a much shallower thinker than he managed to project. But he'd readily admit the man was an expert showman, and his news did have more substance than the usual fire-and-a-freak fare.

    He caught the last part of a question posed by Underwood to his panel of guests.

    "—think there's no truth, then, to the rumors regarding a romantic tie between Captain Zilwicki and Princess Ruth?"

    "Oh, for God's sake!" exclaimed one of the guests. Anton recognized her as one of Underwood's regulars. A woman named Harriet Jilla, who'd once been some kind of academic specialist in who-can-remember-what but had long since traded that in for a more lucrative career as a Professional Talking Head.

    "Not even the tabloids are going to push that for more than a day or two," she jibed. "If for no other reason than that they're going to suffer from schizophrenia, seeing as how they'll also want to run all the holopics they got from Montaigne's townhouse. I'm told the paparazzi were almost as thick on the ground there as they were at the landing field."

    Underwood gave the audience his patented knowing smile. It was quite a superb thing, combining shrewd intelligence and savoir-faire, with just the right touch of slightly-sardonic humor.

    "I'd say you're right, Harriet. In fact—" He glanced away for a moment, as if checking something with an off-stage technician. "Yes. Let's run a little footage of our own from that scene."

    Anton had time to wonder about the origin of the peculiar term footage, used throughout the news industry to refer to imagery despite its apparent meaninglessness, before the scene itself came on.

    "Goddamit," he growled. "Is there any privacy left?"

    "That's a little rich coming from you, Daddy," retorted Berry. "Mr. Supersnoop."

    Anton silently admitted the justice of her remark. But it still didn't make him feel any better seeing his parting embrace—kiss, too, and a damn passionate one, as usual with Cathy, public spectacle be damned, when did she ever care?—from the former Countess of the Tor and current candidate for Parliament. Now plastered all over Manticore's news media for untold millions to watch.


    From a professional point of view, now that he could see it from a distance, Cathy had performed perfectly. He took a certain personal comfort, as well, in the fact that the embrace and kiss she'd given him at the doorway of their house would certainly put paid to any notions that Anton was lusting after another woman.

    Objectively speaking, true, Catherine Montaigne wasn't perhaps all that physically attractive. Anton thought otherwise, of course, but he was dispassionately willing to admit that was his own emotional involvement speaking. Cathy was far too slender, for one thing, and if her face had an open pleasantness about it, it was hardly the sort of face most people would associate with female beauty.

    But none of it mattered, as Anton could see for himself watching the newscast. Cathy's kiss was a kiss, and the long leg half-looped around his thigh as part of the embrace made clear to umpteen million Manticoran viewers that whatever ailments Captain Anton Zilwicki might suffer from in his life, getting laid—well, and often—was not one of them.

    "Gosh, Berry, your mother is so sexy," murmured Ruth. "I bet she just got another twenty thousand votes."

    Anton ignored the first part of the remark, in a properly aloof fatherly manner. As for the second...

    He wasn't sure. Cathy Montaigne's let-it-all-hang-out-and-damn-the-bluenoses style, in her personal life as well as her political one, was a two edged-sword. It could easily slice her up—as, indeed, years before it had led to her expulsion from the House of Lords. On the other hand, if it caught the mood of the public...

    Yeah, maybe. God knows she's a breath of fresh air in Manticore's politics. Nobody's going to believe Countess New Kiev balls her husband's brains out. And if New Kiev's political partner Baron High Ridge has any balls at all, he's keeping them well under wraps.

    The professional side of him, however, was primarily interested in the rest of it. Following Cathy's farewell embrace of Anton, she bestowed one just as energetically upon Princess Ruth. In this case, of course, a maternal embrace rather than a romantic one. But Anton was certain that not one of the tens of millions of people watching would suspect for an instant that the casually-dressed apparent teenager upon whom Cathy bestowed that hug was anyone other than her quasi-adopted daughter Berry. Just as they wouldn't suspect that the warm but far more reserved handshake which she then gave to Berry herself was the salutation given to a royal princess.

    "Perfect!" exclaimed Ruth, clapping her hands. She grinned at Anton. "It's going to work just like you said it would."

    Even Anton was not impervious to that intense a degree of admiration. But he allowed himself only a moment's pleasure, because a slight frown was beginning to gather on his brow. Or, at least, gather in his mind.

    Belatedly, Anton was realizing that there was something not quite right about the way Underwood was covering this issue on his news show. Granted, Underwood was not above dipping into items of popular interest for the sake of keeping up the ratings for The Star Kingdom Today. Still, the man was always careful to link such an item to something of deeper significance. Or, at least, provide depth to the item itself.

    In this instance...

    For a moment, the view in the display moved back and Anton was able for the first time to see all the panelists on the show that night. His eyes were immediately drawn to the man sitting on the far right. Snapped to him, more properly.

    His daughter was sitting next to him, and her eyes followed his. "Who's he?" Berry asked.

    "I have no idea," replied Anton, shaking his head. "But I can tell you this. He's no Talking Head. And, unless I miss my guess..."


    "He's in the trade himself. First cousin, anyway."



    Sure enough. After spending a minute or so polling his panel to get a general consensus that whatever was involved with Captain Zilwicki and Princess Ruth's voyage to Erewhon, it was not a romantic escapade, Underwood allowed the well-oiled-and-practiced panel to segue into a learned (but not too learned) analysis of the political subtleties involved in the affair.

    Nothing there surprised Anton. It was all much as Queen Elizabeth had foreseen and, with Anton's advice, schemed and plotted for.

    —think it's scandalous myself, the way the Government is officially ignoring Stein's funeral. What in God's name is New Kiev thinking? If you ask me, she should have broken with the Cabinet on the issue and at least spoken out in public. Stein's been one of the idols of the Liberal Party for decades now and if she doesn't think—

    —can't say I agree with you, Harriet, unless you think New Kiev's ready to resign outright. Which I don't think there's the proverbial snowball's chance in Hell of happening. You're right, of course, that she's going to take a beating from Montaigne on the issue.

    —more interested, myself, in the way the Queen's sending a lot of messages at once. First—this one's as blunt as it gets—by choosing Catherine Montaigne's live-in lover as Princess Ruth's unofficial escort—

    —agree completely! I mean, really, does anyone think the Queen couldn't round up a ship of her own for a trip to Erewhon?

    Exactly! Sure, the former Countess of the Tor is still officially in the Royal Black Book, but I'd say that pretense is getting threadbare. For all their famous public clashes—which are a lot more famous than they were frequent, I might add; don't forget how many issues the Queen and Montaigne agree about—does anyone with half a brain think Elizabeth wouldn't jump for joy if Montaigne displaced New Kiev as—

    —not going to happen any time soon, though. New Kiev's still got a lock on the leadership of the Liberal Party, I don't care how many rank and file Liberals she's ticked off by her silence on the Stein issue. What I think is more interesting is the way the Queen's also using the issue to send a message to the Solarians themselves. Nobody's come forward to take credit—if you can call it that—for Stein's murder even now, but the general opinion everywhere seems to be that Mesa or at least Manpower was behind it. How else explain the refusal of the Solarians themselves to launch a serious investigation? That sector province of the Solarian League is in Mesa's pocket, and everybody knows it. So Stein's family had to flee to Erewhon for the funeral, and who does the Queen of the Star Kingdom send to escort Princess Ruth to pay her respects? The same guy who's literally in bed every night with the most famous Manticoran leader of the Anti-Slavery League, that's who. You ask me, the Queen is—

    Anton had been holding his breath throughout. All of this he could live with, easily enough, if not comfortably. But who was the out-of-place panelist sitting on the right? The man hadn't spoken yet, and Anton was wondering why Underwood had included him at all. He had a gnawing feeling he would find out sooner than he wanted to.

    Smoothly, Underwood interjected himself into the panel's jabber-jabber. Just as smoothly, like the well-trained seals they were, the Learned Ones slid into silence. (Slid, not fell. There was nothing uncouth or openly servile about the way they accommodated their meal ticket.)

    "It seems to me that in all the endless talk about Captain Zilwicki which this affair has sparked, what's most absent is any serious examination of the central figure involved. And that's Zilwicki himself. Everybody talks about him only as he relates to someone else."

    And that's just the way I want it, thought Anton grimly. I've got a bad feeling about this.

    "Cathy Montaigne's lover, Princess Ruth's escort, and so on and so forth," continued Underwood. "But who is he? Where does he come from? What produced him? What is it about the man named Anton Zilwicki that leads one of Manticore's thirty richest women to trust him with her fortune as well as her affections, and leads the richest woman in the Star Kingdom to trust him with her niece?"

    Underwood's well-coiffed head swiveled toward the Unknown Panelist, like a suave cannon might bring itself to bear on its target. Or, rather, its ammunition.

    "You haven't spoken up yet, Mr. Wright. If I'm not mistaken, though, I think you have some relevant expertise on the subject."

    The Unknown Panelist cleared his throat.

    "Who's 'Mr. Wright'?" demanded Berry. "Have you ever heard of him, Daddy?"

    "No," growled Anton. "And if 'Mr. Wright' is his real name, I'll eat the sofa we're sitting on." He took a deep breath and let it out in something of a sigh. "But I'm pretty sure that what he is..." He paused briefly, eyeing the sallow-faced man on the screen. "He's some kind of former intelligence analyst, dollars for donuts, now in private practice. Probably from the SIS. The Office of Naval Intelligence types tend to make a fetish out of physical fitness, whereas this guy has the struggle-to-lift-a-martini air about him that the civilian spooks seem to think is especially suave."

    He fell silent. "Mr. Wright" was finally speaking.



    What followed was a nightmare, and before it was over Anton had condemned Yael Underwood to a thousand horrible deaths. This was worse—far worse—than Anton had imagined. He'd been expecting, at the most, that "Mr. Wright" would trot out some hitherto-unknown facts about Anton's involvement with the now-famous Manpower Incident on Terra some years back. Instead, it soon became obvious that Wright was part of a thorough and well-planned news scoop that Underwood must have been working on for months. The recent flap involving Princess Ruth had just given Underwood the handle to tie it on.

    What the audience got, in essence, was The Life of the Mysterious Captain Zilwicki.

    All of it. From his boyhood in Gryphon's highlands on up. His early career in the Navy. His athletic prowess as a wrestler, culminating in multiple championships. His marriage to Helen...

    That part brought a lump to his throat. Underwood was making no effort to smear Zilwicki. If anything, the biography leaned toward excessive praise. And Underwood, ever the master showman behind the sophisticated veneer, knew a good show when he saw one. So the audience got a full dose of Helen Zilwicki herself, all the way to an extensive analysis of the battle in which she lost her life defending the convoy carrying her husband Anton and their daughter Helen from an overwhelming force of Peep raiders.

    That part of the show ended with a drawn-out shot of the Parliamentary Medal of Valor, which Helen had been given posthumously, fading away into darkness. The lump in Anton's throat seemed the size of a fist.

    Dimly, he sensed Berry's hand sliding into his. When the viewscreen re-emerged, a man was sitting there being interviewed by Underwood. The footage had evidently been taken some time before.

    Anton recognized the man, vaguely, though he could no longer remember his name. He'd been one of the bridge officers on Carnarvon, the ship carrying Zilwicki and his daughter when his wife Helen was killed.

    "Oh, yeah, I'll never forget it. The kid was sobbing her heart out, sitting on his lap. Zilwicki himself..." The officer shook his head. "When the screen showed that his wife's ship had been destroyed—no chance of any survivors—I saw the look on his face. If ever a man turned to stone, it happened to Anton Zilwicki that moment."

    "Oh, bullshit!" snapped Berry. Her small hand gave Anton's very powerful one a firm squeeze. "Daddy, these people are stupid."

    Oddly enough, Berry's words snapped Anton out of his black mood. Far enough, at least, that he was able to watch the rest of the show with his usual analytical and objective detachment.

    Most of it, of course, was devoted to the Manpower Incident. By the time it was halfway through, Anton was able to relax a bit.

    "How true is all this?" asked the Princess, half-whispering, her eyes glued to the holodisplay. "We got some of it in the Palace, sure, but only the sketchiest summaries."

    Anton waggled his head. "Some of it's pretty close. Quite a bit, actually. But it's got all the usual weaknesses of an analysis done by a tech weenie. To really understand something, there's no substitute for HUMINT."

    What the hell, he thought whimsically. Since my career as a spy is pretty well on the rocks after this, I may as well start on my new one as Royal Spy Trainer.

    "Don't ever forget that, Ruth. The Queen tells me you're a whiz with computers, and that's good. I'm no slouch myself. But spying is like whoring. They're the two oldest professions, and both of them are ultimately fleshy in nature. You can't have sex without a partner, and you can't spy worth talking about without real live spies."

    Web Du Havel chuckled. The Princess, sitting next to him, did likewise. "I'll remember that."



    Anton gave his attention back to the show. Mr. Wright was finally wrapping it up.

    "—never know, I imagine, exactly how Zilwicki put it together. The murkiest part of it remains the involvement of the Peeps. That they were involved, somehow, is beyond question. But exactly how—"

    Underwood interrupted. "You don't think, then, that the rumors the Peeps were behind the kidnaping of Zilwicki's daughter are accurate."

    Wright shook his head firmly. "Not a chance. Oh, don't get me wrong. Some other time, some other place, I wouldn't have put it past the old Peep regime to pull a stunt like that. But on Terra? That year? Not a chance. The key thing, you see, is that—"

    One of the other panelists, evidently frustrated by long silence, was bold enough to interrupt.

    "Parnell, of course. With him arriving to testify to the Solarian League about Peep atrocities..."

    Her voice fell off, the slightly pained look on her face indicating a sudden realization that she had committed a Major Talking Head Goof. The smug expression on the faces of both Wright and Underwood were enough to indicate that her Learned Insight was about to be trumped.

    "Parnell was a factor, of course. But, as I was saying, the key factor is the identity of the man who, at the time, was the commander in charge of the Peep embassy's Marine detachment. The same man, I might add, who was clearly just as responsible for the havoc wreaked on Manpower as the Ballroom trigger-pullers."

    He paused for dramatic effect. "The Peeps—the new Republic of Haven, I should say—have done a good job of covering it up. But with a lot of digging, it's now clear that the obscure Peep colonel involved was none other than Kevin Usher. Today, as I needn't remind this panel of guests, the head of the Republic of Haven's highest police body. A former Aprilist himself, and possibly the closest personal friend of President Eloise Pritchart."

    This was news, and the oh-so-sophisticated panel of Talking Heads wasn't dumb enough to pretend it wasn't. After a moment's silence, Harriet Jilla tossed her head as if to clear it and barked: "No way! Give the devil his due. No way Kevin Usher—any real Aprilist—would have been involved with that."

    "Except as the wrecking crew," said one of the other panelists grimly. A former Army general, that one. He gave "Mr. Wright" a level stare. "What you're saying, in short, is that two corrupt Manticoran officials in cahoots with Manpower—"

    For a moment, the screen flashed images of former Ambassador Hendricks and Admiral Young, at one time Anton's superiors on Terra. He was pleased to see that they were wearing their new prison uniforms.

    "—to use Zilwicki's daughter in some scheme of their own—God knows what insanity that was, I don't think we'll ever know—and Zilwicki tore out their lungs. Cut out on his own, put together an informal alliance of Peep Aprilists and Ballroom gunmen, wrecked Manpower on Terra and put the two bastards behind bars. And, of course, got his daughter out safe and sound. All of his kids, actually, since he wound up adopting the boy and girl his daughter Helen rescued in the course of the whole thing."

    Mr. Wright nodded sagely. "That about sums it up." With a thin smile: "And I guess we can all figure out more or less how Catherine Montaigne got those famous and mysterious files of hers that have since then put dozens of other people behind bars for trafficking in slavery."

    Anton glanced at his watch. The Star Kingdom Today had only a short while to run. It was about time, as usual, for the host to sum up the night's proceedings.

    The screen moved to Underwood. His smile was as suave as ever, but this time it seemed to have a slightly wicked gleam to it.

    "Well, you've all heard it. Here's what I think is happening. Yes, the Queen's sending a lot of messages to a lot of people. But I think the biggest message of all is the one she's sending to those people—whoever they might be—who murdered Hieronymus Stein. You want to play it rough, do you? Fine. I'm sending you a serious hardcase."

    The screen faded to an advertisement.

    Anton winced. "God, that's corny. Not to mention sandbox stupid."

    Berry clapped her hands. "Well, it's about time you got some credit!"

    Princess Ruth clearly shared Berry's glee, but made an effort to be analytical about it all. "Of course, it has pretty well ruined the Captain's career as a spy. After this, he's going to be one of the most famous people in the Star Kingdom."

    "I don't care," insisted Berry.

    "It also," grumbled Zilwicki, "plays merry hell with our plans for this trip. How am I supposed to—"

    He was interrupted by the appearance in the lounge of the lieutenant in charge of Ruth's guards. The man was scowling at Anton ferociously.

    "Is there a problem with the ship, Lieutenant Griggs? I thought the liftoff was as smooth as you could ask for."

    "The ship is fine, Captain Zilwicki. I came to express my deepest concerns over the crew. My people and I have been making a reconnaissance, and it is our firm conviction that possibly a good third of this crew is composed of Audubon Ballroom terrorists."

    Du Havel was obviously trying to keep from grinning. Anton sighed and rubbed his face.

    To his surprise, Ruth piped up. "Seventy-three percent, actually. At least, I think so. Sixty-eight percent, for sure. I'm not positive about a few of them. Just about everybody except the department heads and the most skilled ratings. I'm pretty sure the Captain's doing the same thing with this ship he is with all seven of the Anti-Slavery League's armed vessels. Using them as training grounds for Ballroom privateers-to-be."

    Anton's hand dropped. So did his jaw. For one of the few times in his life, he was genuinely astonished.

    The Princess gave him a nervous, apologetic smile. "I hacked into your data banks yesterday. Well. Not your personal data banks. I'm not sure anybody could hack into those. I bounced like a rubber ball. But the ASL itself is a lot sloppier about its security than you are."

    "I will be damned, Sir," the lieutenant began to roar, "if—"

    The Princess cut him off. "Don't be stupid, Lieutenant Griggs! There's not a chance in the universe that Ballroom members would hurt me—quite the contrary, and you know it perfectly well. So why waste everyone's time with official huffing and puffing?" Sharply: "You have your orders. Go about them."

    Griggs snapped his mouth shut, goggled at her for an instant, and then hurried out of the ship's lounge. Anton was impressed. The girl might not have any Winton genes, but clearly enough she'd picked up the Winton knack for authority. Of course, given the way her mother had come to be a Manticoran in the first place...

    He was more impressed, however—quite a bit more—by Ruth's other talents. Even given the quality of training he was sure she'd gotten, and even allowing for the fact that hacking was often a youngster's forte, the fact that she'd been able to get into the ASL's data banks was remarkable for anyone, much less a twenty-three-year-old. True, Anton didn't manage that system himself, and he knew the ASL's specialists tended to be a bit slack about security. Still...

    "I'm curious," he said. "Did you tell the Queen about your findings?"

    "'Course not! Aunt Elizabeth's a frightful worrywart." Ruth gave him that little nervous, apologetic smile again. "You know how it is. If I'd told her most of the crew of the ship I was going on were a bunch of bloody-handed terrorists, she'd probably have made a fuss about it. Might even have grounded me."

    "This might just work," he murmured. Cap'n Zilwicki, retired rogue of the spaceways. Now a tutor to the royal house. One of whose princesses has the makings of a rogue herself. Good start on it, anyway. She's got breaking and entering down pat, that's for sure.

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