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Crown of Slaves: Chapter Fifteen

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



    By the time Victor and Naomi managed to get Ginny settled in bed, Victor's annoyance with the Erewhonese woman had eased a lot. Catty and nastily competitive Walter Imbesi's niece might have been earlier, in the presence of the Solarian League Marine lieutenant. But Naomi had been charming and good-humored thereafter—never more so than when Victor had been faced with the awkwardness of having to drag a thoroughly plastered Virginia Usher away from the crowd before she committed sheer mayhem in the way of social embarrassment and public scandal.

    Ginny had not been kidding when she'd said she couldn't handle liquor well. Victor had never seen her get drunk before, and, now that he had, hoped fervently that he'd never witness the event again.

    It wasn't the puking he minded, in and of itself. Although he still retained a certain stiffness of demeanor, despite all of Kevin and Ginny Usher's efforts to rub it away these past four years, Victor was far removed from a prude. The Dolist slums of Nouveau Paris which had produced him were a poor culture medium for prissiness, after all. It wasn't as if he'd never seen anyone heave their guts, or been through the experience himself.

    But he'd never seen anyone do it with Ginny's single-minded target selection. The moment her face had suddenly turned a shade of green and her eyes had widened—Victor had immediately recognized that unmistakable can't-hold-it-down sign—Ginny had started feverishly scanning the crowd.

    Naomi had recognized the signs as fast as he had. "Here," she said to Ginny laughingly, "hold on to my arm. I know where the nearest women's lavatory is."

    Ginny shook her head. "S'a waste," she muttered through tight teeth, her eyes sweeping back and forth until they fixed on something.

    Somebody, rather. "There—s'perfect!" Despite the so-obvious nausea of the moment, there was something gleeful in the words. A moment later, Ginny was tottering off with great determination, somehow managing the oxymoron of "lurching steadily forward." She even managed—barely—to stay on her feet when, at one point, she stumbled out of one of her high-heeled sandals. But only by kicking off the other, forcing Victor to delay a moment while he scooped up the abandoned footwear.

    That moment's delay prevented him from stopping Ginny before she could commit her Major Diplomatic Incident of the Minor Variety. Naomi was still more-or-less holding Ginny by the arm. But, not knowing Ginny as well as he did, didn't realize what she intended until the deed was done.

    "Oh, Christ," hissed Victor, on one knee as he picked up the pair of sandals. He'd just lifted his head and seen where Ginny was headed.

    A table toward the side, where the official delegation from the Solarian League was sitting. Minor diplomatic officials, all of them, identifiable by their distinctive consular outfits and the fact that they were obviously trying to maintain as low a profile as possible. They had clearly been instructed to Make An Appearance For The Record—and nothing more than that. Victor had kept an eye on them, from time to time, and had seen that at no point had any of them done so much as glanced in the direction of Jessica Stein, much less gone to pay their respects.

    For all that he didn't much care for Stein himself, the studied insult angered him. He'd always found the Renaissance Association's preachments somewhat holier-than-thou and vacuous, true. But at least Hieronymus Stein had denounced the multitude of evils committed under the name of "Solarian League democracy and social justice," which was more than could be said of anyone in the Solarian League's own government, outside of a few figure like Oravil Barregos. Ginny herself having been one of the victims of that official indifference, Victor knew she had strong feelings on the subject of the Solarian League.

    He lunged to his feet and made a desperate attempt to divert her. None of which availed any purpose except to bring him close enough to witness the entire ensuing scene in—quite literally—visceral detail.

    Ginny staggered up to the table, bumped against it, braced herself on spread hands, and bestowed a green-faced smile on the six diplomats assembled at the table.

    They all stared back at her, frowning slightly as diplomats will do when in the presence of gaucherie.

    "Don't believe 've been introduced," Ginny blurted out. Words were at a premium now, running out like water on a beach before the tidal wave hits. "You people really make me sick."

    The tsunami arrived, then, washing across five of the six before it was done. Some portion of Victor's brain decided he was witnessing a miracle. Two miracles, in fact—first, that any of the six diplomats had emerged unscathed, given the volume of the torrent and its volcanic energy; second, that a woman as small as Ginny could produce such a volume in the first place.

    Startled, Naomi released Ginny's arm and stepped back. Startled beyond compare, the diplomats lurched to their feet and did likewise, tipping over their chairs in the process.

    Not startled at all, Victor grabbed Ginny by an elbow, swung her around, and began marching her off. "Sorry 'bout that," he said over his shoulder to the now-very-distinctively-outfitted Terran diplomats. "She's a bit under the weather," he added lamely, to the staring crowd around them—a statement which he privately thought was ludicrous. Like announcing the weather had turned iffy during a cyclone.

    "See here!" he heard one of the diplomats cry out angrily.

    "Sure," hissed Ginny. "Did I miss one?" She began struggling in Victor's grip, apparently determined to return and rectify the oversight.

    For all her petite size, Ginny was no weakling. So even with Naomi now holding her other arm, Victor knew he was in for a struggle. He was about to let the pair of sandals drop, to free himself for desperate action, when a familiar mezzo-soprano voice intervened.

    "Outrageous! You'll have to leave!"

    An instant later, two powerful hands had his collar and the back of Ginny's sari firmly in their grip. Inexorably, they were propelled...

    Away from the diplomats. Victor cocked his head around and saw that the lieutenant's grin was every bit as dazzling as he'd thought it would be.

    "I wouldn't have missed that for anything," whispered Thandi Palane. "But we'd better get you out of here quick, before she starts an actual shooting war."



    Once they were safely out of the big top and into the relative darkness beyond, the lieutenant released her grip on them and stepped away. Naomi was standing a few feet to one side, frowning. Now that Palane was back, Imbesi's good humor seemed to have vanished.

    For a moment, Victor was afraid that the earlier catty unpleasantness would return. But Palane forestalled that by, once again, removing herself from the scene.

    She came to attention, facing Ginny. Then snapped a very crisp salute. "Madame Usher, I salute you. The Marines salute you."

    She flashed Victor that quick gleaming smile, said "But you'd better make yourself scarce now," turned crisply on her heel and marched back into the big top. Her broad shoulders seemed to be quivering a bit, as if she were trying to suppress a laugh.



    Fortunately, Ginny didn't make much of a scene during the taxi ride back to their hotel. Even more fortunately, the ride was short enough that she was able to refrain from vomiting again until they reached their own room. Then, all the earlier whimsy gone, spent the requisite miserable time hunched over the lavatory bowl.

    Victor gave her what help he could. But, for situations like this, if not female-competitive ones, Naomi proved to be a marvel. The Imbesi scion, clearly enough, was no stranger to the effects of wild partying and excessive alcohol consumption. More important, she had a relaxed and tolerant humor about the situation, which did Ginny a lot more good than Victor's fastidiousness.

    "Okay, girl," Naomi concluded, hefting Ginny to her feet after there couldn't possibly be anything left. "You're off to bed."

    Naomi was taller than Ginny and quite a bit heavier, so she had no trouble half-carrying her the few steps needed without Victor's assistance. But as they neared the door to the bedroom, Ginny began to struggle again.

    "No! Put me onna couch."

    Naomi hesitated. Twisting in her grip, Ginny grinned back and up at her. "Y'll need th'bedroom, dummy. 'Sides, never been used right anyway and whatsa point of that, inna swanky hotel."

    She jerked in the arms enfolding her, motioning toward the couch. "I'll be fine over there."

    Naomi cocked an eye at Victor. Shrugging, he waved at the couch. "Might as well. In case you hadn't figure it out already, she's stubborn as a mule."

    A few seconds later, Ginny was stretched out on the couch. A few seconds after that, she was fast asleep. But, in the intervening time, she managed a few more slurring words.

    There was no humor in these, none at all. One eye closed, she gave Naomi a cold stare with the other. "You be nice to him, hear? I love Vic-hic-tor. Kill you if you're not, swear I will."

    The basilisk eye closed, and Ginny was out cold.



    By the time Palane found Captain Rozsak, Stein and her associates were no longer even trying to maintain the pretense that the event was anything other than a political one. The liquor was flowing freely, and a large portion of the space under the big top had been turned into a dance floor. So it took the lieutenant a while to track down the whereabouts of Rozsak and his staff.

    Not that long, however, once she realized that another portion of the floor had been set aside for tables. She just started looking for the biggest table. Rozsak's staff was efficient about everything.

    Rozsak himself wasn't at the table. He was standing nearby, sequestered in a conversation with Lieutenant Manson.

    Thandi hesitated. She didn't want to intrude on the captain, when he was in the midst of a private discussion. Nor, for that matter, did she much care for Lieutenant Manson. But the captain must have spotted her, for Palane saw him cock an eye at her. The subtle expression made clear he wouldn't object to an interruption.

    Trying not to smile, Thandi headed toward him. Not the least of Manson's obnoxious habits was his tendency to fawn on his superiors. Palane suspected that the "private discussion" between Rozsak and Manson had already degenerated into unwanted flattery.

    Rozsak wasn't immune to flattery. More precisely, he didn't object to it—provided it was kept to a reasonable minimum. But he was one of those supremely self-confident men who didn't need an underling to assure him that he was the greatest. He knew that already.

    When Thandi came up, Manson broke off and gave her an unfriendly glance. The sort of quick hostile look one rival gives another—which Thandi thought was a little absurd, since she and Manson were in completely different career tracks. He was a naval staff officer, she a Marine combat leader. Outside of staff meetings, their paths hardly crossed at all.

    But it was inevitable, she supposed. Manson's constant petty attempts to undermine his "rivals" was as much of a reflex as his compulsive toadying to superiors. It was more a matter of instinct than logic.

    Rozsak cleared his throat. "Lieutenant Palane's been doing some work for me, Lieutenant Manson."

    The hostile look immediately vanished from Manson's face, replaced by smooth politesse.

    "Ah. I'll be on my way, then."

    "No, actually, stick around. This probably involves you."

    Palane was a little surprised to hear that, but not much. Manson did handle much of the captain's intelligence work, after all, although he usually assigned the more delicate parts to Edie Habib or Watanapongse.

    "Well, Thandi? What's your assessment? Oh, sorry. I'm being rude. There are refreshments on the table."

    She shook her head. "No thanks, Captain. Right now the last thing I want is booze. Having just seen a spectacular demonstration of its ill effects."

    Rozsak cocked his eye again. Palane took the invitation and gave him a quick summary of the recent episode involving Virginia Usher.

    When she finished, Rozsak was smiling and Manson was frowning.

    "The woman's an idiot," Manson pronounced. "The last thing Haven can afford—"

    Thandi decided she'd had enough of Manson. "Don't be silly," she interrupted. "The Havenites get their tech transfer through private dealings with industrial combines. What does Trommp Enterprises—just to name one—care if a bunch of minor officials got barfed on? Besides, if the Solarian League's consular staff here is as deaf-dumb-and-blind as usual, they don't even know who she is."

    Manson's face tightened. Thandi realized she'd just made an enemy, out of someone who had previously been competitive with her simply out of habit. After thinking about it for a second or two longer, she also realized she didn't care in the least. After a year in Rozsak's service, Thandi was no longer as insecure in her status as she had been.

    And Manson genuinely annoyed her. She'd liked Virginia Usher. Liked her quite a bit, in fact, from the little she'd seen of her.

    Rozsak, smooth as always, defused the tension. Smooth as always, by making clear to Manson what was what.

    "Have to say I agree with Lieutenant Palane here, Jerry."

    If she hadn't seen it before, Thandi would have been amazed at the instantaneous manner in which Manson veered from anger to bonhomie. She was quite sure he'd been on the verge of dressing her down for disrespect to a senior officer. Instead, he chuckled and shook his head ruefully.

    "Well... true. If there's a League consular staff anywhere in the galaxy that can find its ass with both hands, I've yet to encounter them."

    Thandi decided it wouldn't hurt to ease things a bit herself. "I agree that she shouldn't have done it, Lieutenant Manson. But... she's a former Manpower slave, you know. Those consular officials are lucky the only thing she sprayed on them was vomit."

    It was clear from the startled look on his face that Manson hadn't known. Startled—then stiff. Apparently the Navy lieutenant shared the common prejudice against genetic slaves.

    "Interesting," mused Rozsak. "I hadn't been aware of that fact myself. It certainly explains a great deal, though, doesn't it?"

    The last was addressed at Thandi, excluding Manson altogether, despite the fact the words had been addressed to both of them. Manson nodded sagely, of course, but it was blindingly obvious he didn't have any idea what the Captain was talking about.

    "Yes, it does," replied Thandi. Since Rozsak had invited Manson to remain, and was making no effort now to ease him out of the conversation, Thandi decided he was privy to the information.

    She raised a thumb. "First, it helps explain why Kevin Usher would go to such lengths to establish a cover for her, in case things go sour again in the Republic. Oh—yes, Sir, it is a cover. Whatever the relationship is between Virginia Usher and Victor Cachat, it's close but not adulterous. I'm sure of that. Second, it tells us something about Kevin Usher." She didn't so much as glance at Manson, but she was sure Rozsak understood what she meant. Unlike some people, Usher isn't a stupid bigot. "Third, it enables Haven's President to send a private sign of support to the RA, since you can be sure they know about Virginia Usher's origins. Fourth—"

    "I think we can leave the rest for later, Lieutenant Palane," said Rozsak easily. He turned toward Manson, all business now.

    "If the Havenites are here on business and not a private dilly-dally—which it seems they are, from what Lieutenant Palane says—that changes the equation a bit. It seems to me, at least."

    Manson's nod of agreement was something genuine, this time, not simply obsequiousness. Thandi reminded herself that underneath it all Manson was generally a quite capable intelligence officer.

    "I agree, Sir. For starters, it adds another complication to what was already a mare's nest. But what's probably more important is that it might provide us with an alternate way..."

    He hesitated, glancing at Thandi.

    Rozsak chuckled drily. "A bit pointless to keep it a secret from her, wouldn't you say? Who do you think is going to wind up leading the charge, assuming it happens?"

    Again, Manson nodded. And, again, it was a genuine sort of thing.

    "True enough." He smiled thinly. "Close-quarters assault is certainly not my line of work."

    Close-quarters assault? What are they talking about?

    Thandi's interest peaked sharply. She'd been under the assumption that the "special ops" assignment Rozsak had been given here—most of which was still mysterious and murky to her—was simply a matter of espionage and double-dealing. That it might involve unit action was news to her.

    Seeing her obvious interest, Rozsak grinned. "Did you really think I'd assigned you those Amazons just for the sake of social rehabilitation, Thandi?"

    She had wondered a bit, but... There were any number of reasons, after all, that Rozsak might have use for an unofficial strike force sooner or later.

    "But later for that too," said Rozsak firmly. "It may not happen anyway. With the Havenites added to the brew, there's at least one other possible variant." He rubbed his hands together briskly. "For the moment, let's concentrate on the immediate business."

    All traces of social informality were gone now. The Captain started handing down his orders.

    "Lieutenant Manson, I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to leave us, now. Need to know and all that."

    Manson nodded and walked off immediately. As much as Thandi was sure the ambitious lieutenant hated to do so, he'd been working for Rozsak long enough to know better than to resist.

    As soon as he was out of scrambler range, Rozsak turned to Thandi. Now, his voice grew harsh.

    "All right, Lieutenant. I think it's time I brought you into the center of things. We can start with the fact that Lieutenant Manson is a treacherous bastard who's been selling information to—hell, who knows? The Erewhonese, for one."

    Thandi stiffened, fighting the urge to glance after Manson's departing figure. "D'you want me to—?"

    "No, no. Not yet, anyway." Rozsak's smile was completely mirthless. "A traitor you know about can be an asset, Lieutenant. The reason I told you was to bring you to full alert. Because the other thing a traitor usually is, is a damn fool. And what's bothering me now is that I'm no longer as confident as I was that Manson is on top of what he's supposed to be on top of."

    Thandi waited. She was completely at a loss, now, but was quite sure Rozsak would clear it up. Enough, at least.

    The captain's smile widened and developed a bit of warmth. "Good, good. Those Masadans you've been keeping an eye on, at a distance. Close up the distance, Lieutenant. Manson's supposed to take care of this himself, but I don't trust him any longer not to screw it up. When the time comes—and that'll be mostly your own judgement on the spot, I'm warning you—"



    Ten minutes later, Thandi was in something of a state of shock. Not that she didn't understand what Rozsak wanted from her, but simply because....

    It took her another four hours to absorb the shock. By the time she had done so, she'd long since returned to her room in the hotel and was staring out the window at the now-sleeping city of Maytag.

    Shock had given way to... not sadness, exactly. More like simple bleakness. She'd known since an early age that the universe was a cold and uncaring place. But there was still some small part of her, apparently—some young and girlish part—which was capable of being hurt when reminded.

    She did her best to look on the bright side. At least, if nothing else, she knew she wouldn't be plagued at night any longer by frustrated thoughts concerning the captain. Luiz Rozsak was still a most appealing and charismatic leader, true enough. But as a man, up close and bare...

    It would be like having fantasies about a cobra. She found herself remembering the face of a young Havenite officer. Stiff and somewhat solemn, true; but she'd sensed the good humor somewhere underneath. More important, she'd seen Virginia Usher caress him. The adultery was a cover, she was sure of that; but the warmth of those caresses had still been genuine.

    Thandi was able to laugh softly then. The universe was whimsical as well as cruel. It was perhaps odd that she should find comfort in the memory of a woman vomiting, but she did. That spoke well of the woman's instincts, after all. Thandi was pretty sure that a woman who could puke that unerringly probably didn't make too many mistakes when it came to aiming her affections either.



    When Thandi woke up the next morning, she was in a much better mood. She was a morning person by temperament, so she'd expected to be. Sunlight was always good for her.

    Even better, perhaps, were the sunny expressions on the faces of her special unit after she explained their new assignment. Almost despite herself, Thandi had grown fond of those women. Yes, they were often callous and brutal in their attitudes; yes, they still tended to be infected by an unthinking assumption of superiority; yes, yes, yes—their faults were legion.

    But they were trying, weren't they? In a universe whose overall temperature was but three degrees above absolute zero, that counted for quite a bit in Thandi Palane's book.

    Besides, those wolfess grins were so infectious.

    "Be our pleasure, kaja," said one of them. "You want them quartered also, or just drawn?"

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