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Crown of Slaves: Chapter Twelve

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



    There was something vaguely unpleasant about Jessica Stein. Anton wasn't quite sure what it was. Some of his reaction, he was sure, was simply due to the people who surrounded her. Stein's own coterie of Renaissance Association leaders were no more repellent than such people ever were: self-righteousness and moral loftiness serving as a none-too-thick patina over ambition. But the Solarian who made it a point to stay at her elbow the entire time set Anton's teeth on edge.

    Not that the man wasn't polite and cordial. Anton was quite certain that no one had ever accused Ingemar Cassetti of being crude or uncouth. But since the same could be said for any suave reptile, Anton was not impressed. And, in Cassetti's case, knew more than enough about the man to be certain that his emotional reaction was well founded.

    Still, there was also something about Stein herself that made Anton uneasy. Perhaps it was the subtle sense that her grief at her father's death was more than offset by the elation of newfound power and influence. Jessica Stein wasn't simply the daughter; for at least twenty years, she had served as Hieronymus Stein's closest aide and confidant. Now that the founder of the RA was gone, she had quickly and surely seized the mantle of leadership.


    Anton had a pretty good idea where she intended to go with that new authority. Whatever doubts he might have had were dispelled by seeing the obvious rapport between Jessica Stein and Ingemar Cassetti. The Renaissance Association, for years, had been riven by an internal faction fight which was none the less savage for all that it had been conducted without violence. It could be described, loosely, as a quarrel between doves and hawks—or, perhaps more accurately, between those people who preferred a long, patient, educational and moral campaign to transform all of Solarian society, versus those who looked to settle for something less sweeping but faster and surer. Soft and slow, versus quick and hard.

    The most obvious route for such a "quick and hard" campaign to take was for the RA to gain the support—and return it in kind—from one of the Solarian League's powerful sector governors. Voila...

    Ingemar Cassetti, political trouble-shooter and hatchet-man for one Oravil Barregos, governor of the smallish but highly industrialized and wealthy Maya Sector. And also one of the sector governors more famous than most—less infamous, it might be better to say—for his comparatively high ethical standards and lack of venality. Of all the sector governors of the Solarian League, Barregos had been the friendliest toward the Renaissance League and at least paid lip service to the RA's program, the so-called "Six Pillars."

    With how much sincerity, of course, remained open to question. Anton was quite sure that Barregos had little if any use for the first through the third of the Six Pillars: the RA's calls for a genuinely federal structure to the Solarian League's government, anti-trust legislation, and the establishment of mass-based organs for popular control of the bureaucracy. On the other hand, he probably was favorably inclined toward the other three: the removal of all grades of citizenship, abolition of the Office of Frontier Security, and the eradication of genetic slavery.

    The Maya Sector was an anomaly in the Solarian League. The sector's central planet of Smoking Frog was as highly industrialized and economically advanced as any in the galaxy, and most of its other settled worlds not much less so. From the standpoint of its social structure, the sector resembled the autonomous inner worlds of the League rather than the outer colonies. It had little in common with most of the sectors still under the control of governors appointed by the Office of Frontier Security. For the Maya Sector, the harsh social stratification which characterized most of the League outside of the inner worlds was neither necessary nor economically advantageous—and the political restrictions were extremely irksome.

    Despite having been originally appointed by the OFS, for a number of years now Governor Barregos had been championing the growing demand for a change in Maya Sector's status. The OFS had resisted that demand with its usual heavy-handedness—but had not (so far, at least) quite dared to remove the very popular governor. Doing so might possibly trigger off an outright revolt. And while the OFS normally didn't worry about provincial rebellions, because the backward planets where they usually occurred could be easily suppressed, a revolt in the Maya Sector could be...

    Dangerous. Unless the revolt was crushed quickly, Smoking Frog alone had enough resources to create a fairly impressive naval force. Not one which could possibly stand off a fully-mobilized Solarian League Navy, of course, but a powerful enough one to raise such a ruckus as to draw the spotlight of Solarian League public attention onto the policies of the OFS which had led to such a fiasco.

    By its nature, the OFS was a nocturnal predator. The last thing the bureaucrats who ran it wanted—much less the commercial combines who were their unofficial partners—was to be examined in the light of day.

    So, Barregos stayed; so, the demand for independent status for Maya kept growing; so, the OFS kept reacting like a Mesozoic dinosaur. It was a situation which reminded Anton of water coming to boil in a pressure cooker.



    As he had been ruminating, the steady stream of visitors come to pay their official respects had gently but steadily pushed him toward the edge of the dais after he had presented his own respects. Now that they were out of hearing range of Jessica Stein and her inner circle, Ruth put into words what Anton was thinking.

    "Sun Yat-sen is dead. Long live Chiang Kai-shek."

    Anton was startled. He hadn't expected that kind of sophisticated historical knowledge from such a young woman. Once again, he reminded himself not to underestimate the Princess.

    Du Havel was nodding. "Like all historical analogies," he said, "you can't push it too far. But... yes. That's about what I was thinking myself, although I was reminded more of India's history. Gandhi and what followed. But the Kuomintang's a good analogy too. Maybe a better one, in fact. Like the RA, the KMT started off as a society of idealists. And then, after Sun Yat-sen died, became essentially a front group for warlords. Within a generation, it was every bit as brutal and corrupt as the imperial mandarinate—and a whole lot less educated."

    Anton started to add something; but, sensing the presence of an approaching person, broke off and glanced up. And froze.

    Froze so abruptly, in fact, that both Berry and Ruth bumped into him. Curious, the two girls peered around his shoulders at the odd apparition who had caused this highly unusual state of affairs. Captain Zilwicki, to put it mildly, was not known for being easily taken aback.

    The young man standing in front of Anton cleared his throat. "Good evening, Captain Zilwicki. I hadn't expected to meet you here."

    Anton's throat-clearing was a lot noisier. "Good evening, Citiz— ah... what is your title these days?"

    The smile on the young man's face was much like the face itself: on the square side, a bit gaunt, and mostly made up of angles and edges. "Just 'Special Officer Cachat,'" he said. "I'm no longer in the, ah, foreign security side of things. These days I'm a cop instead of a spy."



    Anton's self-possession was back. "I see. Usher took you along with him, then."

    Cachat nodded. "But I'm forgetting my manners. Ginny—" The young Havenite officer turned half around and more or less hauled a shortish woman away from her conversation with one of the guests. "Captain Zilwicki, may I present Virginia Usher, the wife of our new director of the Federal Investigation Agency. Virginia, Captain Anton Zilwicki, formerly of the Royal Manticoran Navy."

    The woman in question was shapely, beautiful, and possessed of a smile that was even more dazzling than her costume.

    "Oh, Victor!" she laughed, extending her hand to Anton. "I'm quite sure Captain Zilwicki knows exactly who I am. Even if I did manage to stay out of his sight while we were all having our little adventure on Terra."

    The last remark caused Berry and Ruth's eyes to widen.

    "Oh!" Berry gasped, staring at Cachat. "You're the one—"

    She broke off, fumbling for the words. Anton, despite the fact that most of his brain was simultaneously cursing fate and listening to alarm bells going off, decided that straight-forwardness was called for.

    "Yes, he's the one. Saved Helen's life—and Berry's too, most likely." He gave Cachat a deep nod, almost a bow. "I never really had the chance to thank you properly at the time. Please allow me to do so now."

    Cachat looked uncomfortable. Virginia Usher laughed again. "Look at him blush! It still amazes me, as many times as I've seen it. S'about the only thing Victor does that makes him look his age instead of"—here she poked his rib cage playfully with a finger—"a crazed cold-blooded assassin."

    Now, Victor's expression was pained. "Ginny, 'crazed cold-blooded assassin' is the silliest oxymoron I've ever heard."

    "Nonsense!" She grinned at Anton. "You were there, Captain. So what's your opinion?"

    For a moment, Anton's memory flashed back to a weirdly lit grotto in the subterranean depths beneath Chicago's ancient ruins. He'd come to the scene just a bit too late to witness it himself, but Jeremy X had described it to him afterward. Seeing the carnage, Anton had had no difficulty believing him. The way a young State Security officer named Victor Cachat, driven by a semi-madness Anton thought he could understand—more or less—had stood his ground at point blank range and methodically slaughtered a dozen Scrags and StateSec goons hunting Anton's daughter Helen. It had been a sheerly suicidal act on Cachat's part; even if, amazingly enough, Cachat had come out at the end covered with blood and gore—none of which was his.

    "Victor Cachat is not an assassin," he said abruptly. "Of that, I'm as sure as anything. On the other hand... "

    He shrugged. "Sorry, Special Officer Cachat. I think if there's anyone who's ever done something simultaneously cold-blooded and crazy, it's you. Oxymoron or not."

    "See?" demanded Virginia triumphantly. She wagged a finger in front of Cachat's nose. "And you won't find a more expert opinion than Captain Zilwicki's, let me tell you! Speaking of which—"

    In that quick and indescribably charming way the woman had about her, Virginia was now facing Anton again. The grin was as infectious as ever.

    "—what are you doing here, Captain? I mean, besides pretending to be paying your respects to the not-so-grieving daughter, like we're pretending to be doing."

    "Ginny!" choked Cachat.

    "Oh, pfui. Captain Zilwicki is certainly not going to believe our cover story—what a ridiculous notion—so why bother with the rigmarole? We're here on some kind of desperate and dangerous secret mission—when are you going to tell me what it is, anyway?—and you can be sure the Captain is doing the same." She bestowed a look of great sympathy on Ruth and Berry. "I'm sure he hasn't told you either. Aren't men a pain in the butt?"

    Berry and Ruth made little sounds that bore a suspicious resemblance to suppressed laughter. Anton scowled. Tried to, anyway; he was fighting down a laugh himself. He started to make noises about loose lips in public places but Usher's wife drove right over it.

    "Oh, don't be silly. Manticoran scrambling equipment is the best in the galaxy, like almost all your electronics. That's why Victor and I are wearing it ourselves. My husband—bless the man—swiped it somewhere or other."

    Finally, she fell silent, just gazing up at Anton and smiling cheerfully. Still waiting for the answer.

    He couldn't stop a laugh from coming out. "Damnation, Mrs. Usher—"

    "Call me Ginny."

    "Ginny, then. Manticore and Haven are still officially at war. So I am not going to tell the wife of the Republic of Haven's chief of police what my secret mission is." He cleared his throat again, noisily; and sounding, even to himself, like an idiot. "If I were on a secret mission in the first place. Which I'm not, much less a desperate and dangerous one."

    He placed a fatherly hand on each of the girl's shoulders. "Would I have brought my own daughter and one of the royal princesses with me if I were?"

    "Sure," came the instant response. "Makes a great cover." Again, her lithe finger flew to Cachat's rib cage; tickling him, this time. "Just like me and Victor are pretending to be hot and heavy lovers. Works like a charm."

    Cachat tried to fend off the finger. For a moment, he and Anton exchanged a look of sheer sympathy. Then, failing to see any other workable tactic, Anton fell back on pell-mell retreat.

    "'Fraid it's past the girls' bedtime." Ruth and Berry scowled. "Okay, then—it's past my bedtime. We gotta go. Nice meeting you again, Special Offi—ah, Victor. And you too, Ms. Ush—ah, Ginny. S'been a pleasure, really has."



    Once they got outside, Berry started laughing aloud. So did Du Havel. "I don't think I've ever seen you move that fast, Daddy."

    "That woman makes my bones ache," rumbled Victor.

    Berry cast a glance back at the big top. "Well, what do you think? Is she telling the truth, or is she making Victor Cachat's bones ache? With her energy, I bet a man would be doing well to get out of bed alive."

    Anton took a slow breath. He'd been wondering that himself, with part of his mind.

    Again, Ruth gave voice to his own tentative estimate.

    "No. She's telling the truth. Those rumors about her and her so-called 'lover' are so widespread that someone has to be spreading them on purpose. We've only just gotten here, and I've already overheard it from three separate sources. Not even gossip's that fast—and nasty little minds are too lazy to be that systematic."

    Anton nodded. "What I think, too. Besides—"

    He broke off and gave Ruth a sharp look. "You are good at this, young lady. So let's see how good. What's the other reason the rumors don't make a lot of sense?"

    Princess Ruth's eyes narrowed and her lips pursed a little with thought. "Well... I'm not sure, because I don't know enough about Usher. But if he's as sharp as he's supposed to be..."

    "He is," said Anton. "On Terra, he managed—well, never mind. Just take it as good coin that Kevin Usher ranks at the top in this screwy trade."

    "Okay, then. The other reason it doesn't make sense is because there's no way Usher wouldn't know that his wife is cheating on him. Which leaves us with only two options: it isn't happening at all, or he's got exotic tastes when it comes to sex. Voyeurism, whatever." She shrugged. "That last is always possible, of course, but if so—why wouldn't he take advantage of it for professional reasons, since it doesn't bother him emotionally? If he's really that smart, that is."

    "Dead on the money," said Anton softly. "Dead on the money. So what is their desperate and dangerous secret mission here on Erewhon?"

    He and Ruth exchanged a knowing look. Berry made a face. "Why do I feel like the only dimwit in the crowd?" she complained.

    "Don't feel bad," Du Havel said, smiling. "I don't understand what they're smirking about, either—and I've got the Nobel-Shakhra Prize, which says I'm supposed to be a genius at political theory."

    Ruth gave her a serene smile. "S'okay, Berry. You're just not nasty-minded, that's all. And Web doesn't know the particulars. But I've got to tell you that for those of us who are and do, the answer is a no-brainer."

    "A real 'duh,'" agreed Anton sourly. "High Ridge's arrogant policies toward Manticore's allies have aggravated all of them. Erewhon probably more than any besides Grayson—and the Erewhonese have a long history of practicing what used to be called Realpolitik. So, to cut to the heart of it, Victor Cachat—Usher's wife, too, I don't believe for a minute she's in the dark—are here to play the devil's advocate."

    He sighed. "Tomorrow I'll go and try to talk to our Ambassador here." He sighed again, more heavily. "And when he fails to pay any attention, I'll waste my time talking to the chief of station of the SIS."

    "That's Countess Fraser and Charles Wrangel you're talking about," said Ruth. "Waste of your time."

    Anton nodded. "Fraser and Wrangel, versus Cachat and Usher. Talk about a mismatch."

    "Well, look on the bright side," pointed out Berry cheerily. "At least Ms. Usher—Ginny, I mean, and boy did I really like her—got one thing wrong. We're not here on any secret and desperate and dangerous mission."

    They'd reached the outskirts of the immediate area around the big top, by now. The lighting here, in what amounted to a huge impromptu parking lot in a field somewhere just outside Maytag's city limits, was noticeably dimmer. In response, the soldiers from the Queen's Own had moved closer—and now, seeing a man appear out of the darkness, moved closer still.

    The man spread his hands a little, just a subtle motion to demonstrate that he was unarmed. That, and the Solarian League Navy uniform he was wearing caused the guards to relax a little.

    "Captain Zilwicki," he said, in a soft and pleasant voice. "Lieutenant Manson here, attached to Captain Rozsak's staff. I wonder if I might have a word with you in private?"

    "Why do I feel like I'm on the verge of a nightmare?" muttered Anton under his breath.

    But all he said aloud was: "Certainly, Lieutenant. Web, Berry, Princess Ruth"—deliberately nodding to the wrong girl each time he addressed them—"please wait here for a moment."



    When Anton re-emerged from the shadows, he forestalled Ruth's question with: "Later."

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