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Crown of Slaves: Chapter Thirteen

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



    Although he had no way of comparing notes with him, Victor Cachat's reaction to Jessica Stein was about the same as Anton Zilwicki's.

    "Something about that woman gives me the creeps," he muttered to Ginny, after they'd presented their respects to The Grieving Daughter and Close Associates of the Martyred One, and quietly eased themselves off the dais.

    "What was it, exactly?" chuckled Ginny. "The way she gauged the political value of our respects in an eyeblink, down to the last millimeter? The way she brushed us off not a nanosecond too late? The way she fawned all over Cassetti's not-so-wittycisms? Or is just the fact that when she laughs at his stupid jokes her front teeth are too big?"

    Ginny took Victor by the elbow and steered him firmly toward an approaching robotray. "I need a drink. Me, it was her sandals did it. Call me old-fashioned if you will, but I do not think high-heeled sandals are proper attire for a funeral."

    Victor glanced down at Ginny's feet. "And what do you call those things?"

    "I'm not the grieving daughter," Ginny responded firmly, snatching two cocktails from the passing robotray and handing one to Victor. "Here, try this. I have no idea what it is, but it's bound to be bad for you."

    Dubiously, Victor tried the beverage. "Yuck. Tastes like—"

    "Alcohol. Of course. What it is, mostly. You don't like any drinks, Victor, except that Nouveau Paris slum-brewery so-called ale you and Kevin swill down. How do you expect to be a galaxy-famous great spy if you don't pick up a little suave along the way?"

    Victor took a second gingerly sip. "First, 'galaxy-famous great spy' is another oxymoron. Great spies are never famous. Second, I'm not a spy anyway. I'm a cop these days, remember?"

    "Victor, give it a generation or so, and the distinction between 'spy' and 'cop' may mean something in the Republic of Haven. Today, it's like insisting on the difference between a mutt and a mongrel."

    "Don't ever let President Pritchart hear you say that." Victor held the cocktail further away, as if it contained some toxic substance. "This stuff is really bad, whatever it is. Is there somewhere I can dump it without being crass?"

    The last two sentences had been spoken a bit loudly. To his surprise, a voice came in from over his left shoulder.

    "Sure. Give it to me." A moment later, a female arm appeared and deftly removed the glass from his hand. The arm was bare, lightly freckled, and quite nicely formed if a bit on the plump side. The hand attached to it, likewise.

    Victor turned and saw a young woman smiling at him. Her face was of a piece with the arm and hand: pretty, in a slightly full and snub-nosed way; green-eyed; coppery-haired; peaches-and-cream complexion; and with a very appealing sprinkle of freckles across the cheeks and bridge of the nose.

    In another deft motion, the woman drained the glass.

    "Yuck. This is that godawful crap they concocted as a 'special punch' for the festivities—uh, sorry, solemn occasion. I think they even had the nerve to call it a 'Stein memorial martini,' which'd have Stein spinning in his grave if he had one, which he doesn't because they never found more than a few pieces of the body."

    Despite himself, Victor found the professional interest irresistible. "I'd heard he was murdered with a bomb. But my impression was that it was a fairly narrow-focus device."

    The woman didn't sneer, exactly. The lip-curling expression simply had too much relaxed humor to qualify for the term. But she came close.

    "That's what the RA said for public consumption. I'm not sure why, exactly. Been me, I would have broadcast the fact that whoever killed Stein was callous enough to plant a bomb which not only turned Stein into molecules and scattered him across a city block, but also killed three of his aides, two secretaries, and"—here the trace of good humor vanished—"two five year old kids playing on the street outside the RA's office. Blind luck all the people living in the building next door managed to get out alive."

    By the time she'd finished, Victor's interest in the woman had gone from Casual Accidental Encounter to Full Professional Alert. He could tell from subtle signs in her posture that the same was true for Ginny.

    Ginny launched a probe. "At a guess, I'd say the RA wanted to keep the focus entirely on Stein. There's a difference—a subtle one, true, but still there—between an assassination and an indiscriminate attack. From the viewpoint of public relations, the first has a clearer edge to it."

    "Yes, there is," said the woman, "and, yes, I think you're probably right." She nodded toward the dais. "I take it you were no more overwhelmed by the grief of the occasion than I've been."

    Now, her smile widened and her eyes crinkled. Even with his professional caution aroused, Victor found himself warming to her.

    "I'm Naomi Imbesi, by the way. As I'm sure you've figured out by now, our meeting was about as coincidental as a rigged lottery. But I do think I pulled it off rather nicely, for public consumption."

    Ginny's responding smile was just as wide and just as cheerful. "I thought you were great. And the outfit's perfect. That—what is it, anyway? some kind of riding apparel variation?—sets off your figure perfectly. The bust alone ought to be bronzed. Same for the hips and ass."

    "I'd call it jodhpurs and vest, except I'd die laughing—and don't think I wouldn't, the way I'm built, wearing this thing." Rather complacently, she gazed down upon herself.

    It was a self which Victor was trying his best not to ogle. Naomi Imbesi had the kind of lush figure modern society officially frowned upon as "overweight," and a good percentage of that society privately had fantasies about.

    Ginny's sharp elbow caught him in the ribs. "You lout! After all the trouble this poor woman's put herself through, you're not even going to look? You have to excuse him, Naomi. He's really a sweet guy—honest—but he's as sophisticated as a turtle. No savoir-faire at all."

    Ginny raised her glass and drained the drink. Then, looked around. "But who am I to talk? Speaking of savoir-faire, I'd better get started on my own job for the evening."

    Victor must have been frowning a little, trying to follow Ginny's train of thought. Seeing the expression, she smiled sweetly.

    "Getting pie-faced drunk, dimwit. Falling-down comatose. How else are we going to get the awkward paramour out of the way so business can proceed?"

    She transferred the smile to Naomi. "Won't take long. I can't handle liquor at all." A moment later, she was making a beeline for a nearby robotray.

    When Victor looked back at Naomi, he saw that she was studying him. Still smiling, true, but there was more in the way of calculation than good humor in her eyes.

    Yet, whatever she saw must have reassured her, for the humor came back soon enough. "Don't worry, Victor. It won't hurt."

    Finally understanding, he flushed a little, suppressing the impulse to say aloud: I have been seduced before, you know. He had a moment's desperate wish for a mug of slum-brewery Nouveau Paris ale. Okay, once, when I was sixteen years old and one of my sister's friends... ah, never mind.

    Ginny was plowing her way back toward them, triumphantly holding four glasses aloft. "Three for me and one for Naomi," she announced upon arrival. "You don't get any, Victor, 'cause you can't hold your liquor all that well either and we can't afford to blow the opportunity." She handed one of the glasses to Naomi. "Um. Possibly a poor choice of words."

    Naomi and Ginny burst into laughter. Victor flushed again and resigned himself to...

    Well, possibly a very pleasant night, true enough. But, he was darkly certain, an endless period of ridicule thereafter.



    As Naomi and Ginny continued to chatter away, he fell deeper and deeper into a gloomy assessment of just how long and constant that ridicule would be. Ginny was bad enough on her own, when it came to teasing him. Now that she seemed to have found a like-minded female with whom to share her low-minded sense of humor...



    He was far enough into his morose ruminations that the jarring collision took him completely by surprise. All that kept him from toppling to the floor was a hard and very powerful hand holding him by the arm.

    The reflexes of constant hours of training kicked in. Over the past few years, under Kevin Usher's ruthless regimen, Victor had become quite a good—if not naturally adept—martial artist. His forearm twisted out of the grip, turning into an elbow strike, while his foot lashed back and—

    The kick was blocked by a foot on the calf and the unseen hand was now on his wrist, holding it in a grip which Victor was dead certain was about to result in a broken elbow.

    His. And his calf hurt. The foot blocking his strike had been as hard as the hand.

    But he was thinking again now, not just reacting. And if Victor wasn't especially adept at the martial arts, he was a quick thinker. So, within a split second, he realized that the grip on his wrist was just there to immobilize him, and the strike on his calf, as painful as it might have been for a moment, had caused no real damage. Which he was quite sure whatever still-unseen person had delivered it could have easily done.

    He pictured a troll in his mind. Had to be. That grip was powerful. So he was quite surprised to hear the monster speak in a mezzo-soprano.

    "Hey, take it easy, will you?" There was an undertone of laughter in the voice. "It was just an accident."

    The hand left his wrist and he could sense the monster moving back a bit. Victor took a step away and turned around.

    Facing him was another woman, this one wearing a Solarian League Navy uniform. A Marine uniform, actually, Victor corrected himself. The uniform fit her... very well. Some part of Victor's brain went through wild gyrations, finding weird amusement in the fact that he was surrounded by three women, each of whom in a different way was an archetype of female pulchritude. Not often that happened to him!

    Ginny was petite and shapely; Naomi was voluptuous; and this woman was...

    What's the word, anyway? 'Statuesque' doesn't quite do it. Statues don't move, and I'll bet this woman moves like a lioness.

    She was a good ten centimeters taller than Victor, had broader hips and shoulders, longer legs and a narrower waist—all of which the gaudy Marine uniform accented—and still managed to look completely feminine. Which was something of a mystery, given that Victor was dead certain her percentage of body fat fell way outside the normal parameters for human females.

    She held up her hands in a pacific gesture. "I come in peace. Actually, I didn't come here at all. I stumbled over some jerk in a hurry who got in my way."

    Victor didn't believe her for an instant. That a jerk in a hurry might have gotten in her way, sure. Said jerk would have discovered himself sprawled on the floor while the Marine lieutenant went on her way as unperturbed as a lioness brushing past a mouse.

    Apparently, Ginny shared his assessment. "Oh Lord," she muttered. "Glad I'm going to be out of it." She guzzled one of the three drinks she was holding—the one in her right hand—plopped the empty glass on another passing robotray, did a quick shift of the other two glasses and started working on the next. "You may not survive the night," she whispered to Victor. "I'll see to it that Kevin puts up a plaque in your name in FIA headquarters. Died heroically in the line of, um, duty."

    Ginny's version of a whisper was what Victor thought was called "sotto voce." For about the millionth time in his life, he knew he was flushing and hated the fact of it.

    Fortunately, neither of the other two women seemed to notice. They were too busy eyeing each other like prizefighters stepping into the ring.

    Somewhat to his surprise, the new woman broke it off first. She brought her gaze back to Victor and smiled.

    The smile transformed her completely. She seemed much younger—Victor suddenly realized she was not much older than he was—and less of a two-legged tigress than an impish young woman. It was a very wide smile, for starters. Victor found himself wondering what her actual grin would look like—and hoping he'd find out. The smile bordered on dazzling. The woman had skin so pale it was almost pure white—which went a bit oddly with the broad features and very full lips. Her short hair was an odd combination also; kinky, densely matted, but so blond it was almost silvery. Her eyes were a very pale hazel color, except the smile seemed to warm them to a darker hue.

    The complexion, combined with the woman's physique and her very distinctive hair and facial features, started ringing a bell in Victor's mind. But before he could bring the thought into focus, Ginny spoke up.

    "You're from one of the Mfecane worlds, aren't you?"



    The woman nodded. "Ndebele, the worse of the two. That was true even before the OFS took over." She bowed slightly to Ginny. "Name's Thandi Palane. First Lieutenant in the SLN Marine Corps, currently attached to the staff of Captain Luiz Rozsak. I'm surprised you're familiar with the worlds. They're pretty obscure."

    In that casual way she had about it which still tended to unsettle Victor, Ginny stuck out her tongue and displayed the Manpower genetic markers. Seeing them, Palane stiffened.

    Victor began to bridle, until he realized the lieutenant's stiffness was due to anger, not revulsion.

    "Stinking swine," she hissed. Her lips pursed, as if she'd tasted something foul.

    Ginny extended one of her drinks. "Here, guzzle this. It'll taste about as bad, but it's just booze."

    Palane took the drink and knocked back half of it in one quick gulp. Victor noticed, however, the way that her eyes remained level throughout; at no point—which was hard to do, guzzling a drink—exposing her to attack. That confirmed his tentative estimate that the Marine officer was a master of the martial arts. Young be damned; this woman was dangerous.

    After lowering the drink, she said to Ginny: "You'd have seen a fair number of us, then. I've been told Manpower favors the stock."

    "Not exactly. They haven't engaged in outright slave catching for several generations now, so the original Mfecane stock has been diluted. But, yes, they started with a lot of it. They favor those genetic strains for the combat and heavy labor varieties of their product."

    "Yeah, they would." Again, Palane's lips made that foul-taste purse. "I'm not sure which were worse. The founders of Manpower Unlimited or my ancestors. 'Second Great Bantu Migration,' ha. Can you believe the cretins selected high-gravity worlds to settle? In order, they said, to 'improve the pure true original human stock.' Between the child mortality rate, the mortality rate in general, the lack of resources common to most high-gravity planets—not to mention that they didn't have squat to begin with for all their pretensions—by the time our worlds were rediscovered we were a basket case."

    She raised her hand and glanced down at it. The faint tracing of the veins could be seen under the ivory skin. "Just to finish the irony, on Ndebele—not so much on Zulu—the weak sunlight selected for melanin deficiency. Bantus paler than Vikings, no less! But it did produce a genetic variant that's at the edge of current human physical performance. Big deal. Just made us prime meat for the OFS grinder, that's all."

    Victor was a bit surprised to hear an SLN officer express her hostility to the OFS so openly, but not much. He knew the Solarian Marines had a particularly high recruitment rate in the protectorate worlds, which explained why the OFS used them only as a last resort. He knew of at least one incident where an OFS Security Battalion had been mangled during a pacification campaign by Solarian Marines supposedly backing them up. An unfortunate 'friendly fire' mishap had been the official explanation, never mind explaining how a "friendly fire mishap" could produce sixty percent casualty rates for an entire battalion.

    Palane transferred her gaze from Ginny to Victor. "You're Victor Cachat, if I'm not mistaken. I can't remember your title, but you're attached to Kevin Usher's staff." Her eyes moved back to Ginny. "Which, if I'm right, would make you Virginia Usher."

    For the first time since Palane had inserted herself into their little circle, Naomi Imbesi spoke up.

    "Your simple soldier routine is slipping, Lieutenant," she murmured. There was more than a trace of malice in the words, which annoyed Victor. It was pure cattiness, and even though he understood that he was the cause of it himself—not often that happened to him, either—he still found it distasteful. He'd never particularly liked the fact that women generally ignored him. He was now discovering that he liked being fought over by them even less.

    Fortunately, Palane seemed inclined to avoid the fight. "No secret," she said pleasantly, taking another sip of her drink. "I'm assigned to Captain Rozsak's intelligence unit, so it's my job to know these things." For an instant, she glanced down at the drink in her hand. "Can't say I like it any more than I do this stuff, but duty is duty and beggars can't be choosers. And you'd be Naomi Imbesi, I believe, one of Walter Imbesi's kin. Niece, as I recall."

    There was something vaguely triumphant about Palane's last words, as if she was playing a trump card. Victor noted the fact that she managed to convey the sentiment your cattiness identifies you without saying it in so many words. It would appear the imposing Marine lieutenant had a subtle streak also.

    He found himself really wanting to see Palane's outright grin. Strongly enough, in fact, to wonder about it. To ponder over it, rather, the way Victor was prone to do with his own emotional reactions.

    He didn't have to ponder for long, this time. The reason he felt such a stronger attraction to the Solarian officer than to the Erewhonese socialite was obvious enough to him, and had nothing to do with their respective physical attractions.

    For an instant, his eyes met Palane's. There was no expression on her face beyond pleasant amusement, but Victor understood the meaning of that glance. They came from the same kind of place—generically, at least—and they both knew it. Plebes among patricians; respectable plebes, now, but still plebes.

    Palane polished off the rest of her drink. "And I think I've interrupted your conversation long enough, so I'll be off." She gave Ginny a little nod; did not give one to Naomi; and gave Victor simply another glance. "Have a pleasant evening."

    She was off, striding away. After taking a few steps, one of the many inebriates now sprinkled through the crowd stumbled in front of her. Without breaking stride, Palane seized him under the armpits and set him back on his feet as easily as a woman handling a child. A moment later, her tall form had disappeared into the mob.

    "Accident, my foot," muttered Naomi. Again, the words held an undertone of malice; and, again, Victor found it annoying.

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