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Crown of Slaves: Chapter Fourteen

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



    Once they reached their hotel suite, Anton lowered himself into an armchair and took a long and slow breath.

    "Didn't mean to be rude. But for this, I'm not relying on any portable scrambling equipment small enough to carry on your person." He glanced toward the corner where the suite's scrambling device was located, checking the green light to make sure it was operating. The double-check was more a matter of habit than anything else. That equipment, paid for out of Cathy's fortune, was the very best available anywhere in the Galaxy.

    "So what's up?" asked Ruth brightly.

    The dubious expression on Berry's face amused Anton. Unlike Ruth, she was not a princess in training to be a spy; and, clearly, was not at all sure she wanted to hear whatever it was Anton had learned from the Solarian officer. Berry still hadn't decided what career she wanted to pursue, but the one thing it was not going to be was espionage.

    "One in the family is enough," as she'd put it once over the dinner table. "If you added another, we'd all go crazy." To which Cathy had immediately added: "Amen to that," and his daughter Helen—sharp as a serpent's tooth is the ingratitude of children—had chimed in with: "Not sure we haven't all gone crazy already; no, Daddy, that's just my dog wagging his tail in the corner, hoping I'll toss him some food; he's not a robot sabo-toor, honest. So don't you dare dissect him."

    Anton still wasn't sure what career course Berry would finally settle on. The girl suffered from a mental condition which, though probably excellent from the standpoint of her own sanity, was a severe handicap in a modern society: she was interested in everything, but not obsessively interested in any particular thing. A generalist rather than a specialist, by temperament. Someone whose emotional stability continued to privately amaze Anton—the more so, given the horrors the girl had gone through in her childhood—but who showed no special talent for any given occupation.

    Berry herself made jokes about it, now and then. He smiled, remembering another conversation which had once taken place over the dinner table. Just a few months ago, in fact, over the end of form holidays, when Helen was enjoying her first extended leave from the Naval Academy on Saganami Island.

    "It's obvious, Daddy," Berry pronounced. "There are only two things I'd be good at. First, being a housewife—talk about an obsolete profession—or, second, being a queen." Berry pursed her lips thoughtfully: "A constitutional monarchy would be best, I think. I'm sure I'd be a flop as a despot. Too easy-going."

    "Be a lawyer," Helen chimed in between mouthfuls. "There's no opening for queens anywhere that I know about, and at least as a lawyer you'd be able to meddle in everything."

    "I don't meddle," Berry said, a bit crossly.

    "Nope, you sure don't," came Helen's reply, "even though everybody's always confiding in you. Which means you'd make a great lawyer."

    Anton's natural daughter broke off for a moment, shoveling food into her mouth at a rate Anton was certain was anatomically impossible. There had to be a demon residing somewhere in the girl's belly.

    Helen's metabolism was a little scary. At the age of fourteen, she'd been on the smallish size. Four years later, she was already over a hundred and seventy-five centimeters tall and still probably hadn't reached her full adult size. The girl had gotten her musculature from Anton, but clearly enough she'd inherited the height which was normal in her mother's family—even if her mother herself hadn't shared it.

    "I don't want to be a lawyer."

    "'Course not. So what? You don't much want to be a housewife or a queen, either. Besides, the first one would bore you to death—you're too sensible to slobber all over babies—and, like I said, there's no opening for the second. So," Helen concluded triumphantly, finishing her plate and scooping on seconds, "lawyer it is. Process of elimination."

    Scoop, scoop. Anton began to fear for the structural integrity of the table.

    "I learned about it this semester, at the Academy, in my course in introductory logic." Scoop, scoop. Like most of the furniture in Cathy's mansion, the table was an antique. Gorgeous thing, sure. But with Helen around, Anton would have preferred an industrial strength assembly bench. "My prof was fond of quoting some ancient philosopher. 'Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however... um, how'd he put it?"

    Helen broke off for a moment, in order to feed the demon. "Can't remember, exactly. 'However implausible,' I think. Anyway—" She broke off again. The demon was apparently still rampaging in full fury. "Whatever's left, however screwy, has got to be the right answer. So lawyer it is, Berry. Mark my words."



    Judging from the little smile on her lips, Anton suspected that Berry was remembering the same conversation.

    "I'd rather you did hear it, Berry," he said. "Whatever decision I make—we make—you'll be involved." He looked at Du Havel, adding: "I'd like to get your reactions, also."

    Du Havel nodded. "For what they're worth. I warn you, Anton, I'm a theorist—not a practical-minded spy."

    By now, Ruth was perched on the edge of her chair. She, clearly enough, did not share any of Berry's misgivings. Nor, for that matter, any of Web Du Havel's easy relaxation. The Princess seemed on the verge of bouncing up and down with impatience.

    "What that Solarian lieutenant had to tell me was that he could provide me with the link to track down—try to, anyway—the origins of the mysterious Elaine Komandorski."

    The name obviously meant nothing to the two girls or Web. Anton would have been surprised if it had. So far as he was aware, even the woman's name was known only to a small number of Landing City's police force. And none of them had found out, as Anton had, what eventually happened to her.

    "She doesn't use that name any longer. She changed identities quite some time ago. Nowadays, she's known as Lady Georgia Young, formerly Georgia Sakristos."



    Both girls knew that name, of course, even if Du Havel didn't. Berry's eyes were wide; Ruth's, as wide as saucers.

    "The wife of the Earl of North Hollow," Anton continued. "And the person who is considered by many people, me included, to be the gray eminence—at least when it comes to the dirty work—behind the current government of the Star Kingdom." He gave the Princess a glance. "You can add her name to Kevin Usher's on that little list of the galaxy's top spies."

    Ruth stroked her throat. "She controls North Hollow's black files, doesn't she?"

    Anton nodded grimly. "Yes, she does. For all practical purposes, anyway. Those damned files assembled by the old Earl North Hollow, which have been used to blackmail more of Manticore's politicians than I want to think about. And, I don't have any doubt, were all that enabled High Ridge and his cohorts to contain the damage which should have ensued after Cathy and I released the files we brought back from the Manpower Incident on Terra."

    "Who was 'Komandorski'?" asked Berry.

    "Elaine Komandorski, in her heyday, was one of the most notorious criminals in Landing City—among the police, at any rate, even if her name wouldn't have meant anything to most Manticoran citizens. She was no crude armed robber, you understand. She specialized in things like industrial espionage, swindling; financial crimes, essentially. Except that the police are sure she was responsible for the murder of at least two people, and had something to do with the 'suicide' of yet another, in order to cover her tracks."

    "But—" Berry shook her head. "If you could prove that the current Lady Young was—"

    Anton shook his head. "Not good enough. Yes, with DNA evidence it could be proved that Georgia Young and Elaine Komandorski were one and the same person. But Komandorski was never convicted of anything, despite being the subject of an amazing number of police investigations. The cops are morally certain that she did most of the crimes she was suspected of, but they couldn't prove it.

    "So"—shrugging—"the most we could get out of it, as it stands, would be publicly embarrassing the High Ridge regime. Big deal. As long as High Ridge has his hands on those black files, he can put enough pressure where it matters to keep a lid on it—just like he did with the Manpower files."

    Ruth's quick mind had already raced ahead. "The police, I take it, were never able to find out where Komandorski came from."

    "No. Neither have I. She just... appeared one day, in Landing City, and with enough of a bankroll to start her scams. And they weren't piker scams, either."

    "So if you could track down her origins, you might be able to break the thing wide open."

    "Sure. But—"

    Ruth cut him off. "Yes, I know, the question's obvious. Why did a Solarian junior officer hand you this juicy little tidbit? And who's he acting for? You can be dead sure—okay, ninety-nine percent dead sure—that altruism wasn't the motive. Which means, so far as I can see, only one of three alternatives."

    Anton leaned back. He was curious to see how far the girl could work the chain of logic.

    The Princess started ticking off her fingers. "The first alternative—the best one, from our point of view—is that someone else has a grudge against Komandorski but, for whatever reason, isn't in a position to act on it. So they're setting up Captain Zilwicki as their hatchet man."

    "Good," grunted Anton. "Now tell me what's wrong with that picture."

    Ruth frowned. The expression made her thin face—well, Berry's thin face, if Anton wanted to be precise—look more intense than ever. Hunched over in her chair as she was, elbows on knees, her blue eyes peering intently at the floor, with her long dark hair spilling over her shoulders, she made Anton think of a young witch pondering her first major incantation. A very young witch, and a rather pretty one, true; but a witch sure and certain.

    Anton, as he had many times since the nanotech transformation, found himself more than a little disconcerted. The fact that Ruth now looked like Berry, and Berry looked like Ruth, he could handle. But their personalities hadn't been transformed, a fact which often left him feeling confused. An intense—almost high-strung—"Berry" was a contradiction in terms.

    "It's still... possible," Ruth said after a few seconds' thought. "But probably not very likely. I'd think it would be even harder to track whoever Komandorski used to be forward in time than it is to track Komandorski backward. Which was so hard to do—the latter, I mean—that neither you nor the LCPD was able to do it."

    Still with her head lowered, she cocked a questioning eye at Anton. He nodded approvingly.

    "Yes. As long as someone's got the money—which Komandorski did, judging from the size of the war chest she had when she popped up in Landing City—it's very easy to break off an old life and create a new one, with almost no tracks left at all. It's a big galaxy, even the little part of it humans have explored and settled."

    "That's what I thought. And if that's the case, then anyone who was tracking her because they had a grudge to settle, presumably had plenty of resources of their own. Plenty enough, you'd think, to handle their own hatchet work." She paused briefly, again. "Which means that it's far more likely that whoever did spot the connection stumbled across it by accident."

    "Not necessarily 'by accident,'" countered Anton. "For their own reasons, they might have been investigating something Komandorski was involved in. Still, I agree with your main point. It's not at all likely that they were specifically looking for her."

    He made a little motion with his hand. "Continue. What's the next alternative?"

    "Well, that one's obvious. Whoever it is has a grudge against you, and is using Komandorski to bait the trap." This time, when she looked at Anton she raised her head. "And you'd be hard pressed not to take it, wouldn't you?"

    Anton's jaws were set. "There is no way in hell I would not take it, unless I was dead certain it was nothing but a trap. Getting rid of Georgia Young and those stinking North Hollow files would be the best political hygiene the Star Kingdom could possibly enjoy."

    Now it was Berry's turn to clutch her throat. "But—Daddy—you can't—"

    Anton shook his head. "Relax, Berry. As it happens, I think that's the least likely variant. Not impossible, sure, but..."

    Again, he waved his hand at Ruth. "You explain, if you can."



    The Princess didn't hesitate. "It's not likely just because it's too convoluted. The problem with hacking up the Captain"—she gave Anton a smile—"is that there's so little you can hack at except himself. Most political dirty work involves ruining someone's reputation, and... ah..."

    Anton grinned. "My reputation is a great shambling pile of ruins to begin with. What are you going to threaten me with? Wrecking my naval career? Been done. Exposing my extra-marital affair with a notorious countess? Been done. Accuse me of consorting with dangerous radicals? Been done."

    Berry was chuckling now. "Can't even accuse you of adopting wayward orphans from God-knows-where. Been done."

    "Which only leaves attacking the Captain directly," concluded the Princess. "And that's more than a bit dicey, as a certain Manpower-financed raiding party discovered not too long ago. Although if you were going to try again, I suppose it'd make sense to finagle the Captain out from behind his normal security. Draw him into unknown territory."

    Anton shook his head. "Not all that much sense. Outside of Manticore itself—or Terra, where I still have lots of contacts—Smoking Frog is the last place you'd want to try to pull any stunts with me."

    The blank look on the girls' faces made Anton realize he'd left something unsaid.

    "Oh, sorry. Forgot. The lieutenant's link leads to Smoking Frog, in the Solarian League's Maya Sector. That's where whoever Lady North Hollow was then had her Komandorski identity created. Makes sense, when you think about it. Smoking Frog's a technically advanced planet. Their bio-sculptors are as good as any in the galaxy, except possibly those on Terra itself or Beowulf."

    Ruth was still puzzled. "But I still don't see why it wouldn't make a good place to ambush you."

    Du Havel chuckled. Anton glanced at him and said: "You explain it to her, Web."

    The academic's smile had a grim feel to it. "It would make a terrible place to try to get rough with Anton—given his close ties with the Audubon Ballroom. There's no planet in the galaxy that has more Ballroom members living on it than Smoking Frog. Not even Terra, since Barregos became governor. The moment Anton arrives, he can provide himself with a bodyguard that nobody will want to fool with."

    He shrugged. "Escaped slaves need somewhere to go, and there's always someplace that—for its own reasons—makes itself a refuge. Partly out of ideological commitment, but as much as anything simply to stick it to whichever establishment has irritated them. Barregos and Mesa are public enemies, so Barregos has nothing to lose by turning Maya Sector in general and Smoking Frog in particular into the modern equivalent of Boston at the end of the Underground Railroad."

    "What's a Boston?" asked Berry. She pressed hands to her temples. "My head hurts."

    Anton saw the Princess hesitate, and realized that she'd seen the next variant quite clearly.

    "Well, yes," he said, his deep voice harsher than usual. "The most likely alternative—this'll be Ruth's 'third'—is that someone is trying to lure someone with me to Smoking Frog. It wouldn't be as easy for me to protect a companion as it is to protect myself."

    Still holding her head in her hands, Berry began to shake it. "That doesn't make sense, Daddy. Sure, I'm your daughter now, but nobody's got a grudge—oh."

    Her head popped up; her face turning to Ruth. "It's you they're after!"

    The Princess shrugged. "Who knows? But—yes—I think that's the most logical explanation." She turned to Anton. "Am I right?"

    "Yes and no." His hand motion, this time, consisted of wiggling fingers. "You're right as far as it goes. But..."

    He tried to figure out the best way to explain it. "You're good, Princess. Very good. But you're still young and suffer from the classic young agent's syndrome. Things make too much sense to you. You trust logic too much, which means you'll wind up over-simplifying in order to make things make sense. If you see what I mean."

    He almost laughed. A young witch, frowning; wondering why her old crone of a mentor insisted on using messy bat's ears and toad's blood when the grimoire plainly said—

    "Just trust me on this one, girl. The universe is a lot messier and murkier than you think it is. Logic's a good habit to develop, but don't trust it too far. It's a wild and dangerous animal, unless it's muzzled and leashed by facts. Of which—"

    He planted hands on knees and sat up straight. "Of which, we don't have enough yet. So here's what we're going to do: I will go to Smoking Frog—this lead is just too potentially valuable to pass up—but you, both of you, will stay here on Erewhon." He glanced at the door, beyond which the Queen's Own stood guard. "Between them, and Erewhon's own security forces, you should be safe enough. Make sure you don't take any excursions to wild and woolly places. Unless someone is prepared to risk a major diplomatic incident—and I can't see why anyone would—you ought to be safe enough until I get back."

    Berry and Ruth exchanged looks. Clearly enough, warring impulses were at work. On the one hand, no teenage girls with any spunk at all wouldn't enjoy the prospect of being on their own for a time. On the other hand....

    "How long will you be gone?" asked Berry in a small voice.

    "Maybe a month. Depends on what I have to do when I get there. I'll take the frigate, of course. It's only about fifty light-years from here to the Maya Sector–call it a week's travel in the Eta bands, if we push it a little–and Smoking Frog's five-point-five light-years or so inside the sector line. Call that another day or so. So, figure sixteen days' travel and two weeks there to dig up whatever I have to dig up. A T-month, more or less."

    "Oh. Four weeks aren't so bad." The look which Berry and Ruth now exchanged had no warring impulses at all.

    "No wild parties," growled Anton. "No orgies. Especially no wild orgies. If this hotel isn't still standing—no wreckage at all, mind!—when I get back—"

    Berry had never been as feisty as Anton's natural daughter, Helen, true enough. She didn't have the same temperament. On the other hand, having Helen for a sister these past four years hadn't gone to waste either.

    "That's nonsense, Daddy! Me?! And Ruth—a princess of the realm?" Somehow, she managed to flounce with indignation while sitting in a chair. "I never heard such a ridiculous—"

    On and on. Needless to say, Ruth added her own flounces and indignation. On and on. Anton got gloomier by the moment.

    Du Havel didn't help any. "That's it," he said, grinning. "The clever scheme unveiled, Anton. You're being lured off Erewhon so that the folly of teenage girls can be proven to the galaxy at last."

    "I'm counting on you to keep them steady, Web," Anton growled.

    "Don't be absurd. I'm an absent-minded professor. They'll outwit me right and left."

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