Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

Crown of Slaves: Chapter Twenty Nine

       Last updated: Saturday, April 9, 2005 09:57 EDT



    From the dark table, Jack Fuentes watched Victor Cachat walk over to the two women who’d entered from the other side of the gaming hall, and observed the recent events from that vantage point. That would be the Solarian officer, and the Manticoran girl she'd rescued.

    "This is awfully rough, Walter," he said hesitantly. "I'm not sure—"

    To his surprise, Alessandra interrupted. "Oh, piss on it! I think it's time things got rough."

    Jack and Tomas Hall both turned to stare at her. Tomas seemed as surprised as Jack was. Of the three of them, Havlicek had always been the most gingerly in her approach to the Mesa-Congo problem. And even more gingerly, in the way they dealt with Manticore.

    The woman who headed the powerful Havlicek clan and was one of Erewhon's three triumvirs was scowling. Oddly, perhaps, the harsh expression made her seem more attractive than usual. Jack thought that was probably because it was so rare to see any expression on her face. A face which, besides, had been so often reshaped by biosculptors that Fuentes thought of it less as a "face" than a permanent mask.

    But there was no mask, now. Alessandra was genuinely angry and determined. "I know I've been urging caution all along. But that was just because I couldn't see a good way to strike them down without exposing ourselves. Don't you see? This kid is it. Right out of the old days. Lei varai barbu. Sure, he's not of us—he's a Havenite. But this is no time for screwing in-round."

    Lei varai barbu. Jack Fuentes thought about it, for a moment. Alessandra was using an ancient slang term, from the hybrid patois of their gangster ancestors. Like most such expressions, the exact translation was rather meaningless—"the true bearded one"—but the connotation was precise. The one you went with, when the family's life or honor was at stake. The one who might die in the doing, to be sure, since fortune was a fickle thing. But would neither flinch, nor hesitate, nor cry in pain or fear. Not ever. And who, even if he failed, would strike such terror in the family's enemies that they would never forget the penalty to be paid.

    Jack saw Tomas Hall's expression undergo a change, and knew that further argument was pointless. And, not more than a second later, felt the same change in his own heart and mind anyway.

    Alessandra's right—and Walter was right all along.

    Piss on it. This is now a matter of honor. Let it go any further, and we might as well just admit we've become Manticore's lackeys. Sitting up like poodles, begging for scraps from the Baron's table. Taking a pat on the head for a gesture of respect.

    "All right, Walter," he growled. "It's a go. First, tell us what you need. Then—"

    He and Havlicek and Hall exchanged quick glances. Clearly enough, they'd let him take the lead.

    "Then, give us your terms."

    There was always this to be said for Walter Imbesi, Jack thought. He was too reckless in his policies, too much the gambler, but he was never anything other than gracious when it came to the rest.

    "Terms can be discussed later, at our leisure. Believe it or not, I feel no burning need—not at the moment, anyway—to turn this into a quadrumvirate." He nodded deeply, almost a bow, and added an ancient expression of his own. "Maynes uverit, banc etenedu."

    Tomas grunted, approvingly. "Hands open, table wide." Loosely, that meant: Let's take care of pressing business, and we'll worry about the divvy later. There'll be plenty to go around.

    "Good enough," said Jack. "And for the moment?"

    Imbesi didn't reply immediately, taking the time to study Cachat again. By now, Cachat had reached the two women and was discussing something with them.

    "I'm not sure," he replied. "First, we all need to stay in the background." He gave Alessandra a glance of sly approval. "Lei varai barbu, indeed—but part of the purpose of such, after all, is to save the family by taking the fall himself. If need be, of course, which we hope it won't. But... who knows?

    "Beyond that, I think we just ought to keep giving Cachat the reins. He was lying, you know—stretching the truth, at least. He really isn't a planner. If he were, this scheme of his would have collapsed already, from the complications. He's just a genius at improvisation. So let him keep improvising."

    Havlicek grunted her own approval. "Like I said: lei varai barbu. Break in the door and see what that leads to. Good enough for me. If nothing else"—the scowl had faded, and was now replaced by a truly savage smile—"he'll scare the daylights out of Manpower and Mesa and the Manticorans and everybody else who's been shitting on us. You can be sure of that."



    After Fuentes, Havlicek, and Hall rose and left the table, sliding out the back still covered by darkness, Walter Imbesi turned to study his niece. Naomi was not looking her usual insouciant self, to put it mildly. In fact, she seemed on the verge of nausea.

    "He doesn't seem cute, any longer?"

    Naomi's quick headshake was a minimal thing, as if she were afraid that an expansive gesture might trigger off the nausea.

    Walter saw no reason to push the issue. He wasn't really surprised. Naomi had led a much more sheltered life than she liked to think she had. An affair with a "foreign secret agent" was romantic, flashy, daring, risqué. Sleeping with a cold-eyed man who could blow out another man's brains with nerveless hands was...

    Something quite different.

    He shrugged mentally. People have their limits, and Imbesi had never seen any reason to push them beyond it. All that usually accomplished was simply ruining them within their limits.

    "Go on home, then."

    She was gone in a flash, insofar as the term could be used at all in such a great and gloomy hall.



    Standing alone now at the center of the hall, Ginny watched her go. She was no more surprised than Walter. But far less charitable about it.

    "Go, you worthless bitch," she hissed softly. "Run back to your kennel."

    She turned her back on Naomi's departing figure and studied a different woman.

    This one, on the other hand....




    "So what's next, Victor?" Thandi asked. "When do you want me to board the Felicia?"

    His face still seemed like something made of marble. She was almost surprised to see the lips move.

    "Not for a number of hours, yet. At least twelve, maybe eighteen."

    Her surprise overrode her concern. "Why that long? I'd think you'd want to keep pushing."

    "Keep pushing with what, Thandi? Sure, you could probably keep driving ahead. But everyone else—including me—needs some rest. Besides, we've got a lot of groundwork that needs to be laid. It doesn't do us any good to take the Felicia before we're ready to do anything with it. The truth is, so far as that goes, we could wait for several weeks."

    She was trying to follow his thoughts, and failing completely. "What are you talking about? You've already got the incident you need. Templeton's mania did for that. All you've got left to do is grab the Felicia and be able to show the universe that it is in fact a damned slaver and..."

    Her words trailed off. Victor's face was still expressionless, but there was something gleaming in those dark eyes.

    Berry spoke up. "You're planning way ahead, aren't you?"

    "It'd be more accurate to say that I'm jury-rigging ahead. But, yes. Something the Princess said—Ruth, I mean, the real one—made everything fall into place. That's why I asked her to get that Manticoran captain over here. She should be talking to him soon."

    However mature she might appear at other times, at that moment Berry looked all of seventeen. She was practically clapping her hands. "Oh, that's nifty! Is there a part for me to play too?"

    Thandi saw the gleam in the dark eyes brighten, and felt her own heart sinking.

    "Victor, you can't be serious." Almost desperately: "I can take that damn ship alone, if I have to. With the codes—I'm an expert with a skinsuit in open-space maneuvers, and that's not a warship with military-grade sensors. They'll never spot me coming—I can enter through any one of... God, it's a merchant vessel, there must be dozens of ports. From there—I can take weapons this time, too—I'll only be facing half a dozen Masadans and Scrags and a ship's crew that by now is probably pissing in their pants anyway. They're meat, Victor—and I'll plop 'em right on your table. Dressed and boned."

    "I don't want them," he said harshly. "We need the ship, Thandi. More than that. We need it, to all appearances, still under Masadan control—and for weeks. There's no point in having a Trojan Horse if you haven't got the men to fill it with. And that'll take weeks. The Ballroom is scattered all over the place. Even leaving aside the fact that it's going to take days anyway to talk the Manticorans and your preci—ah, Captain Rozsak—into their end of the deal."

    She shook her head, trying to clear the confusion. "What are you talking about? And what the hell is a 'Trojan Horse'?"

    She'd seen Troy mentioned, in one of the books she'd read. But her knowledge of ancient history and mythology was really pretty spotty.

    Apparently, though, the term meant something to Berry. The girl's eyes were very wide. "I get it now," she whispered. "You want me to keep pretending to be the Princess, and get over to that ship... but then... Oh. Of course. It's obvious."

    Her own eyes were now gleaming. Thandi's heart sank deeper and deeper.

    "It's perfect!" Berry almost squealed. "You'll have a classic 'tense standoff.' God, the press will have a field day! They'll come running from every star nation around, slobbering all the way. The Princess of Manticore, still a hostage even though most of the fanatics died in the attempt—yeah, that'll work, dead bodies will make anything seem plausible and you sure left a lot of dead bodies lying around—but where does Captain Oversteegen...? Oh, sure!"

    This time, she did clap her hands. "He's perfect! Just the kind of stiff-upper-lip Manticoran nobleman who will be damned, Sir! if he'll let a bunch of lousy slavers and pirates hold the Star Kingdom to ransom, but—he is my distant relative, after all—well, okay, the real Ruth's—and so he won't really want to pull the trigger. So...."

    At that point she began to falter a bit, but Thandi could see the rest. She didn't have Berry's quickness of thought, perhaps, but she did have a much better grasp of military affairs.

    The look she bestowed on Cachat was completely hostile. She had to restrain herself from striking him with her fist.

    "You cold-blooded bastard. You'd use this girl—she's seventeen, Victor—just to buy you time so you could pack that ship full of your damn Ballroom killers and then—yeah, swell, the deal is made—the Felicia is finally allowed to go to Congo where supposedly the 'Princess' finally gets released from captivity. God damn you, Cachat! They're maniacs! What'll happen to her in the meantime? Weeks she'll be trapped in there with those—"

    Cachat's eyes weren't gleaming now. They just seemed... pained. And Berry was actually glaring at her.

    "Oh," Thandi said.

    "Oh," she repeated. She felt like a complete idiot.

    But at least Berry wasn't glaring at her any longer. "It's okay, Thandi," she said, patting her arm. It was a bit like a kitten patting the arm of a tigress, granted. But Thandi still appreciated the gesture.

    Especially when she saw the pain still in Victor's eyes.

    "I am sorry," she said softly. "I wasn't thinking. All you need is to get Berry over to that ship, and for them to let her in." A further realization came to her. "That's why you insisted I keep that one Scrag alive, isn't it? But also told me I could hammer him as hard as I wanted. All the shuttle's viewscreen will show those pirates is the Princess and a mangled but still alive Scrag coming over. Probably with Berry here making the call, desperate because she's alone in a craft she can't handle. They let her in—what else can they do, with a Manticoran cruiser ready to turn them into vapor?—and while they're being distracted..."

    "You'll be there already," Berry said. "Just like Victor planned. I'm sure that was part of his plan, all along. Wasn't it, Victor?"

    He didn't reply, but Thandi had no doubt at all that he had planned it that way. Why wouldn't he? She knew by now that he was genuinely brilliant at this kind of thing.

    There was no reason to keep the pirates alive a second longer than the princess made the crossing. The weeks-long "standoff" which followed could be faked easily, so long as Thandi had gotten onto the ship secretly—which Victor would know, before he let Berry make the crossing. Except for those involved in the plan, no one else would realize that there were no pirates left alive on that ship—and hadn't been, from the moment Berry Zilwicki set foot on it.

    It was so obvious—and would have been obvious to her, except...

    Except for the memory of a cold-eyed man shooting another in the head, just to terrify three more into giving him what he wanted. The same man who had, ruthlessly, stood by and watched instead of intervening before Templeton's gang murdered perhaps three dozen Manticoran soldiers and Erewhonese civilians, in order to further his own plans.

    Victor nodded, very stiffly. "Walter Imbesi has already seen to it—at my request—that Felicia will continue to get garbled news account from this space station indicating that a long-running and desperate struggle has ended with a standoff in one of the tubes. That will keep Felicia immobilized, since by now Templeton's men will have established control over there and they certainly won't do anything until they discover what's happened with their leaders and the other fanatics. That buys us the time we need immediately. Other than that, there’s nothing more to be done now except convince Captain Oversteegen of his part in the affair. Which I, a citizen of Haven, am hardly the person to do. Hopefully, Princess Ruth will manage the business."

    He gave Berry a gaze that was much warmer than the one he'd given Thandi. "I would appreciate it—so would she, I imagine—if you could give Princess Ruth a hand. By all accounts, Captain Oversteegen is a stiff-necked man." He jerked his head backward, pointing to Imbesi. "Walter can show you the way."

    He looked back at Thandi. The sense of hurt was gone, replaced by pure iciness. "So I’ll get some sleep. I suggest you do the same. We're all likely to need it, in the day ahead."

    He started to turn, but paused. Then said, very softly and without looking at her:

    "I am indeed cold-blooded, Lieutenant Palane. I make no apologies for that. I wouldn't apologize even to those courageous Mantie soldiers who lost their lives, much less you. I'm sorry they died, but—being blunt—I'm a lot sorrier that ten times as many Manpower slaves die every day, year in and year out, while the universe stands by, clucks its tongue, and does exactly nothing to stop it. That doesn't make me a monster, who would..."

    He seemed to choke for a moment. "Yes, I'll risk her life. But no more—look at her—than she'd risk it on her own. No more than those soldiers were willing to risk their lives when they volunteered for the Queen's Own Regiment. But to think that I'd—I'd—drag her like a sacrifice to an altar and sharpen the blade for the priests..."

    He said nothing further. Just turned and walked away. Within seconds, he'd left the hall.

    "Oh, hell," Thandi muttered, her heart lower than ever. "I really blew it, didn't I?"

    "Don't be silly," Berry scolded. "It's just your first lovers' spat. You accused of him of being an inhuman fiend, and he got a little miffed. No big deal."



    Berry left then, to have Walter Imbesi show her where to find Princess Ruth, Professor Du Havel, and Captain Oversteegen. Thandi remained behind. Staring at nothing, at first. Then, staring at the only other person left in the huge room. Ginny Usher, who gazed back at her with eyes that didn't seem much less hostile than Victor's.

    It took Thandi a minute to make her decision.

    Fifty-nine seconds, dithering over a lifetime's disappointments, foul compromises, and crushed hopes. One second, to cast all that experience aside.

    She strode over to Ginny. "Show me where he's staying."

    "Well, it's about time. I was starting to get worried."

    But Ginny was smiling by the time she finished the last sentence, and already tugging Thandi toward the exit.

    "He'll be so thrilled to see you! Oh, yes, he will!" Ginny waved a scolding finger. "Don't let that lousy fish-eyed stare of his fool you for a moment, you hear! It's just an act. Well, sort of. But underneath it all—okay, way underneath—he's got the hots for you way more than he ever did for that no-good rotten—"

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image