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Crown of Slaves: Chapter Eleven

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



    "This is a funeral?" asked Berry dubiously. "If I didn't know better, I'd think it was a carnival."

    "It is, in a way," replied Anton, his eyes slowly scanning the huge crowd. "It's been months since Stein died, so even his family has had time to work through most of the grief. Now..."

    "It's time to do business," concluded Ruth. "I imagine that's what Stein would have wanted himself, when you get right down to it."

    Anton nodded. "Milk it for all it's worth. Whether or not Stein was a saint, I'll leave for others to decide. What I know for sure is that the man was a slick politician and a superb showman." He glanced up at the ceiling far above and smiled. "He'd have loved it. A big top and everything."

    Berry was scrutinizing the ceiling herself. "Did they really use to make these things out of cloth?"

    "They did, indeed, if you go back far enough. Circuses are an ancient form of entertainment, you know. Nowadays, we put up temporary edifices like this using contra grav instead of tent poles, but the original 'big tops' were just gigantic tents, essentially."

    Berry was still dubious. "How did they hold up the trapezes and highwires and stuff?" She paused for a moment, watching an acrobat making his way gingerly across a highwire suspended far above. "And how would you even use them anyway, back in the days before contragravity?"

    Anton told her. Her eyes grew very wide.

    "That's sick."

    He shrugged. "People still gawk at accidents, you know. And speaking of gawking, I think we've done enough." He nodded toward a cluster of people gathered on a large dais across the crowded floor. "It's time to pay our respects."

    Berry and Ruth immediately sidled behind him. A moment later, so did Web Du Havel. "You lead the way, Daddy," commanded his daughter. "You're the widest. Besides, your best scowl will probably part most of the crowd all by itself."

    Zilwicki looked back at the soldiers from the Queen's Own, momentarily tempted to order them to clear a path. But he dismissed the idea immediately. The soldiers weren't even paying attention to him, their eyes continually scanning the crowd looking for threats. They were charged with guarding the Princess—which they couldn't do marching ahead of her.

    No help for it, then. Anton scowled. Three people standing near to him edged away. "How come I always get the Moses assignment?"



    From a different edge of the mob, Victor and Ginny were facing the same problem.

    More precisely, Victor was.

    "I still think you'd do better at this," he groused, trying to nudge someone else aside without precipitating an actual brawl.

    "Don't be silly," countered Ginny, pressed close against his back. "I'm way too small and—more to the point—my outfit's way too demure. If you'd let me wear the sari I wanted to wear—"

    "We'd have both gotten arrested—you for soliciting and me for being a pimp." His scowl bid fair to rival Anton's. "In that outfit, you don't have to say a word and you're being obscene."

    "Oh, pfui." Victor jumped a little as Ginny tickled him. "You're just a hopeless prude. Back in the Solarian League, that outfit barely gets a glance. Well, maybe two."

    With a deft maneuver, Victor managed to get them past a small clump of people chattering away. Another few meters forward.

    "And you're so good at this, anyway. I'll make sure to tell Kevin so he can add that to your dossier."

    "Thanks a lot, Ginny. Thank you so very much."



    "Thank God we got here early," whispered Naomi to her uncle, leaning over in her chair to do so. "I'd hate to be fighting my way through that mob to greet the royal family, instead of already being here on the dais."

    Walter Imbesi let no trace of humor show on his solemn face, when he whispered back. "Gives you a whole different perspective on Brownian motion, doesn't it? But do try to keep the witticisms under control, if you would." He made a miniscule nod in the direction of Jessica Stein and her entourage. "I don't think they'd much appreciate being referred to as the 'royal family.'"

    His niece didn't have quite the degree of control Walter did, so a faint trace of distaste was evident on her face. Evident, at least, to someone who knew her well.

    "I'm sure they wouldn't, the damn poseurs. Hieronymus Stein may have been a modest saint and an ascetic—I have my doubts, but I admit I'm something of a cynic—but his daughter bears no resemblance to that description." She cast a quick glance at the woman in question and the people around her. "Much less her hangers-on."

    "Be charitable, Naomi. They've been patient a long time."

    "No credit to them. As long as Stein was alive, they had to be patient. Now..." She cast another glance, this time at a man leaning over and exchanging some witticism with Jessica Stein.

    "I don't like him. Even less than I like her."

    Imbesi's shrug was as minimalist a gesture as his nod had been. "Neither do I. In fact, since I know a lot more about the man than you do, I'm sure I like him a lot less. But whether you or I like him is neither here nor there. Ingemar Cassetti is the right-hand man of the governor of the nearest Solarian League sector province. That makes him just another rock we've got to deal with."

    "Poor little Erewhon. 'Between a rock and a hard place,' except we've got so many rocks."

    Again, Imbesi made that little nod. "Many indeed. With Manticore's High Ridge Government as the hard place allotted to us by the Lord Almighty, for whatever inscrutable reasons He might have."

    He would have sighed, except that Walter Imbesi hadn't sighed in public since he was eight years old. The thrashing he'd received from his father afterward had made sure of that. The informal regimen which the youngsters of Erewhon's central families underwent was severe, for all that it wasn't concerned with the trivial matters that obsessed most of the galaxy's elites.

    Sexual mores being one such triviality, as Naomi immediately demonstrated.

    "So which one of these clowns do you want me to seduce?" she asked. The very faint smile on her face indicated that the question was asked partly in jest.


    "I assume your normal rules apply?"

    "They certainly do. Rocks and a hard place or not, Erewhon isn't that desperate. I don't insist on Adonis or Venus, but the seducee has to have some appeal to me."

    Imbesi allowed himself a little smile. Naomi's free-wheeling ways tended to irk most members of the family, but he was not one of them. Possibly that was because he was the recognized head of the family, and couldn't afford to overlook any asset. "In that case, I suspect you'll be enjoying—or not—a very chaste funeral. If there's any man here worth seducing that you'd like to sleep with, I can't think of who it might be. Nor any woman, for that matter."

    Naomi's eyes wandered for a moment. Seeing the direction of her gaze, Imbesi gave his niece a very curtailed—but very abrupt—shake of his head.

    "Whatever you do, girl, stay the hell away from Luiz Rozsak. I don't care how pretty he is. You might as well bed with a cobra."

    Naomi's eyes widened just a bit. "That seems a little rough, uncle. My impression is that he's less vile—quite a bit less, in fact—than the rest of that Solarian crowd."

    "Who said anything about 'vile?' Cobras aren't vile. They're just deadly." All trace of banter left his voice. "Just take my word for it, young lady. Stay away from Luiz Rozsak. That's an order."

    "Okay, okay. You don't have to go all paterfamilias on me about it."



    Her eyes moved slowly across the rest of the small crowd assembled on the dais, narrowing as they went. "Yuck. I think you're right. I may as well enter a nunnery now and be done with it."

    A little motion off to the side—an eddy in the mob surrounding the dais—drew her eyes in that direction. The eyes began to widen again. Then another eddy, almost on the opposite side, drew her gaze that way.

    "But what's this? Two very interesting looking gentlemen, all of a sudden. Please, Uncle—don't tell me they're out of bounds also."

    Imbesi looked one way, then the other. This time, he really had to struggle to keep from smiling. From grinning outright, in fact.

    "Good luck, you vamp. To the left, you see Anton Zilwicki, formerly a captain in the Manticoran Navy. I'll admit you're way better looking than his girlfriend—a lot younger, too—but your entire savings wouldn't match her pocket change. Besides, he's supposed to be fidelity incarnate, according to all reports."

    His eyes moved in the other direction and narrowed a little. "On the other side... Hm. Not sure. The name's Victor Cachat, and we don't know much about him. He's evidently the favored special agent of Haven's director of their federal police force. That's Kevin Usher, which means Cachat must be awfully good to have his approval, as young as he is. On the other hand—"

    He didn't need to finish the caveat. Naomi had already caught sight of the woman following Cachat. Following him very closely indeed.

    "Oh, life is so unfair. How am I supposed to compete with that?"

    Imbesi started to make a quip in response, but the witticism died a-borning. Now that he thought about it...

    "Kevin Usher is really good, Naomi."

    He spoke even more softly than before, even though Walter had great confidence that the scrambling devices he and Naomi were wearing made their conversation impossible to pick up beyond a range of one meter. Nor did he think that any of the forces gathered at that public event were all that interested in the doings of Imbesi family. Certainly not interested enough to have focused very rare and expensive spying equipment on them.

    The Imbesis were officially part of the Erewhonese political opposition, not one of the families represented in the existing government. To almost all non-Erewhonese, that made them not much of a factor in the political equation. The informal methods by which Erewhon's dominant families governed were simply too alien to other polities which lacked Erewhon's history and traditions. Not so much because it was informal—the croneyism of the Solarian League's elites was notorious, after all—but because it was honorable. True enough, Erewhon had been founded by a pack of thieves. But those thieves had become as wealthy and successful as they were because, whatever their other sins, their word was their bond—and they never made the mistake of forgetting the ancient saw: "one day you're up, the next day you're down."

    All of which meant that the families which currently ruled Erewhon were careful to retain close ties with the Imbesi family. And they made just as sure that if the Imbesis should come back into power, which was not at all unlikely, that at no point had anyone mortally offended them. Or even irritated them, for that matter. "Mortality" among Erewhonese was not an abstract concept.

    Naomi was able to follow her uncle's unspoken thoughts quite well. "Enough said," she murmured. She gave Victor Cachat one last glance; just enough to make sure she'd recognize him anywhere in the crowd, but nothing more than that. Naomi wasn't quite as accomplished a seductress as she liked to think she was, but she'd long since learned the basics. And one look at that stiff young face was enough to make clear to her that seducing Victor Cachat was going to require adroitness.

    "My motto. Nothing gauche."

    Imbesi decided he could venture a public laugh. Too much stiffness, after all, was a mistake in its own right.

    "Since when? What about that time—don't try to claim you've forgotten the pool before the statue in Sears—what I had to go through to cover that one up—"

    "Don't be gauche, Uncle. I was young and foolish then. Besides, I'm not drunk now—haven't touched a drop. Besides besides, this fellow is a challenge and Freddie Havlicek was just cute." Firmly: "So it doesn't count."



    Other Erewhonese notables sitting on the dais were not being so careful. They too had spotted Victor as soon as he emerged from the mob. Had spotted Ginny, more precisely, and were following her with their eyes as she approached. In the case of both the men as well as the woman, Ginny's figure had something to do with their interest. But not much, in truth. The three families which currently dominated Erewhonese politics had been trying for months to establish a private liaison with the new government of Haven, and they were all wondering if...

    They didn't wonder for long. "That's Virginia Usher's toyboy," whispered Jack Fuentes to Alessandra Havlicek.

    She maintained the usual Erewhonese sang-froid in public, but her returning whisper bore traces of scorn. "No accounting for taste, and there's the proof of it. I'd give her a lot better time than that... God in heaven, from the looks of him I bet he sits at attention on the toilet."

    Next to her, on her other side, the third of the trio who more-or-less governed the planet did a fair imitation of sitting at attention himself. Tomas Hall gave a little meaningful glance at one of the Solarian officers clustered around Cassetti. Spotting the glance, the Navy lieutenant detached himself and sidled over.

    With another glance, Hall led the lieutenant's gaze to Ginny and Victor. Seeing them, Lieutenant Manson's lips curled a bit with derision.

    "Ha! I guess that's one way for a slut to give herself a holiday with her boyfriend. Just call it a visit to pay personal respects to a saint's memory."

    "You're sure?"

    Manson shrugged. Like the sneer, the gesture seemed expansive to Erewhonese. "We did some investigating of our own. Whatever Usher's skills may be—I'm not as impressed as most—they sure as hell don't extend to his personal life. His wife's been making a fool of him everywhere they go."

    Tomas nodded, and Hall sidled away. The lieutenant's movements, at least, were subtle enough. To anyone watching, he would have simply been a Solarian officer exchanging a casual pleasantry with an Erewhonese notable at a public event. If nothing else, Manson was careful not to let anyone realize he was taking money from the Erewhonese on the side.

    Which, of course, made the Erewhonese trust him not at all. Still—so far, at least—Manson's information had proven reliable enough.

    "What do you think?" asked Fuentes softly. Like Imbesi, all three of the Erewhonese sitting together had full confidence in their scrambling equipment. But caution was a habit with them, and had been since their childhood.

    "Take it at face value," stated Havlicek.

    "I'm inclined to agree," said Hall. Privately, he didn't fully share Havlicek's assurance. Alessandra was normally very sharp, but her sexual orientation did sometimes lead her to hasty conclusions. In particular, he'd noticed before, she tended to resent beautiful women who were too overtly heterosexual and dismiss them as bimbos. Still...

    He observed the none-too-subtle way Virginia Usher was casually fondling her male companion as they approached the dais. If it was an act, it was certainly a good one.

    "I'm inclined to agree," he repeated. Then, and just as easily as Imbesi had done, repressed a sigh. "Isn't there anyone in Haven's new government who has the brains of a carrot?"



    "What an idiot," hissed Henri Guthrie. Haven's ambassador to Erewhon was making no attempt to hide his glare at Virginia Usher.

    "Which one?" snorted Jacqueline Pallier. "Her or her husband?"

    "Both. Her for screwing around in a situation that's already messy enough—and him for being stupid enough to let her do it." Virginia Usher had now reached the steps leading onto the dais, and Guthrie looked away. He decided to pretend he hadn't noticed her, which was plausible enough given that they'd never actually met. He only knew what she looked like from holographs brought by the same courier which had brought the idiot woman. Ambassador Guthrie was damned if he was going to let a tramp's shenanigans get in the way of his duty.

    "For God's sake," he muttered, "the Manticorans are already making a fuss over every stupid jot and tittle of everything we do. Let them get word that the wife of Kevin Usher is here..."

    Pallier shrugged. "I think you're worrying too much. First, because the Manticoran staff here are dimbulbs; second, because even dimbulbs can figure out that there's nothing more involved here than an old whore proving she can't learn any new tricks."



    "I see Lieutenant Manson is up to his tricks again," murmured Rozsak. The captain had just casually detached himself and Habib from the crowd gathered around Jessica Stein.

    "Yeah, I noticed," said Habib sourly. The commander was making no particular effort to speak softly. Habib had great confidence in the scrambling equipment she and Rozsak were carrying, since it was the very best produced anywhere in the Solarian League. It was probably even as good as anything Manticore could produce.

    "You want me to finally lower the boom? It'd be my pleasure, believe me."

    Rozsak shook his head. "No, no. There's bound to be a treacherous little grifter somewhere in our midst. As long as we know who it is, we can control the damage—even take advantage of it. What I'm wondering is why the Erewhonese are so interested in Virginia Usher?"

    "We already went over that, Luiz. At this point, I think they'd grab any straw Haven tossed their way. Although describing Usher's wife as a 'straw' is probably an insult to honest straw."

    Again, Rozsak shook his head. "I think we're jumping to conclusions. Now that I've actually seen him in the flesh."

    Habib frowned. "What 'him'?"

    Somehow, without either looking in their direction or making any sign toward them, Rozsak made clear he was talking about Virginia Usher and her companion. "The boyfriend, Edie. The so-called 'boyfriend,' rather. When you get a chance—not now—take a really close look at him. That kid's a young wolf if I ever saw one, not a gigolo."

    Habib didn't have Rozsak's skills at this miserably non-military "special ops" work, but she was neither stupid nor slow. So, she didn't so much as glance at the couple now climbing onto the dais. Her frown simply deepened as she tried to remember what little she'd seen of the young FIA officer's face.

    "Can't remember," she confessed. "I'll give him a look-see later, once the festivities get rolling. Is there anything you want me to do in the meantime?"

    Rozsak hesitated for a moment. Then: "Yes. Tell Lieutenant Palane to sidle over to me. Make sure she understands to keep it all casual."



    "You wanted to speak to me, Sir?"

    Rozsak was impressed by the lieutenant's subtlety. Most young officers, told to "appear casual," would have erred on the side of exaggeration. Thandi Palane, on the other hand, managed to make it all seem genuinely casual—as if she'd just bumped into her commander by happenstance and was making idle chitchat at a social gathering.

    He'd always known Ndebele was a hellhole, even by OFS standards. The young woman's ease with subterfuge, he suspected, was one of the side effects.

    "I want to ask you to do something, Thandi, but before I start let me make clear that this is entirely voluntary. If you find it distasteful, just say so. I won't hold it against you in any way. That's a promise."

    The tall young officer gazed down at him for a moment. Then, not quite able to suppress a sigh, looked away.

    "The answer's 'yes,' Captain, whatever it is. I can guess. I just wish—" She gave her head a little shake. "Never mind."

    When she turned her head back to face him, her expression was composed. "What is it, Sir? Or 'who' is it, I suppose I should say."

    He gave her a wry little smile. "If I've never mentioned before that I think you're smart as a whip, Lieutenant Palane, let me correct the oversight here and now." He made a little nod in the direction of the couple now chatting with Jessica Stein.

    "Him. The young man accompanying Virginia Usher."

    Palane gave the man in question a quick glance. "Tough looking little bastard," she murmured.

    "I'm not asking you to sleep with him, Thandi. Do or don't, that's entirely your business. If you don't feel like it, then don't. What I want to know is simply whether you could."

    She seemed a bit startled. "What—"

    "Let's just say we're testing a cover story, how's that?"

    Palane gave the couple in question another glance. A longer one, this time, since it was clear neither of them was looking her way. Certainly long enough not to miss the way the woman was stroking the young man's back.

    "Word is that he's her toyboy. Find out for me if it's true."

    Thandi's eyes widened. Then, for the first time since the conversation began, her expression grew humorous.

    "Oh, bullshit. Pardon my language, Sir. Except for the complexion and features, that—what'd I call him?—tough-looking little bastard might have come right off the streets of Mzilikazi. And no helot, either. The kind of guy nobody in their right mind plays games with, no matter how much bigger they are."

    She gave the tough-looking little bastard another glance. This one was definitely longer and more lingering. Then, her quick gleaming smile appeared.

    "Sure, Captain. Be my pleasure."



    After she left, the captain gave the man in question a lingering glance of his own. One of envy, in his case.

    "Discipline, Rozsak," he muttered to himself. "The sacrifices of command, and all that."

    He made no attempt to suppress his own sigh. Like Habib, he had full confidence in his scrambling equipment.

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