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Crown of Slaves: Chapter Thirty

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



    "—highly doubtful, Princess Ruth. I grant you, the Cherwell Convention would give me—"

    The speaker broke off and cocked an eye, seeing Berry come into the room. The tall, narrowly-built officer in the uniform of a captain of the list in the Royal Manticoran Navy looked dismayingly like a much younger, far more athletic version of the Prime Minister of Manticore. His limbs had that look of the Janviers of High Ridge—as if they were somehow too long for the rest of his body—and she felt her heart sink at the very sight. But then she saw his eyes. Dark eyes, yes, but nothing like the half-slitted, perpetually calculating ones the Prime Minister showed the rest of the world. They were the eyes of a man unprepared to take anything from anyone, but they were also clear and thoughtful.

    The corner of the captain's mouth ticked with sardonic humor. "And this, I take it, is the supposed 'Princess Ruth.'" He rose and bowed politely, with all the ease and grace of a man born and raised in the highest circles of the Star Kingdom's aristocracy. "Captain Michael Oversteegen, here. Delighted t' see you none the worse for the experience, Ms. Zilwicki. Don't appear t' be, at any rate."

    Listening to the man's aristocratic drawl and speech mannerisms, Berry was glad that she'd taken time to quickly change before coming to join Princess Ruth and the captain. She strongly suspected that beneath the suave exterior, Oversteegen had all the unconscious attitudes of a Manticoran nobleman, who simply wouldn't have taken seriously a girl who appeared before him in tattered rags—no matter that the rags were of the most expensive material, and that she had a reasonable excuse for their state of disrepair. Appearances were appearances. Captain Oversteegen's own uniform was immaculate.

    The lieutenant had risen also. The tall man turned to her and waved a languid hand. "May I introduce my assistant tac officer, Lieutenant Betty Gohr."

    Rather than bowing, Lieutenant Gohr stuck out her hand in a rather abrupt gesture. She was smiling politely, but there seemed to be some sort of uneasy question lurking in her eyes.

    "Pleased to make your acquaintance," she said. Then, almost blurting the words: "But I'd like to know how your father knows about me."

    Berry's eyes widened. "I have no idea, Lieutenant Gohr. But I'd assume it's because you're either very good—or very bad—at intelligence work. My father makes it a point of keeping track of these things."

    Oversteegen chuckled. Although, to Berry's ears, the sound reminded her more of the snort of an aristocratic horse. A high-pitched, sharply ended little neigh, as it were.

    "Very good, then," he pronounced. "The lieutenant certainly wouldn't fit the alternative description." He bestowed a sly smile on Gohr. "I believe you may rest easy, Lieutenant."

    The little question was still in Gohr's eyes, but she no longer seemed uneasy. "Damn snoops," she muttered.

    She'd probably not meant the words to be overheard, but Berry had acute hearing. She grinned and said: "Yup. That pretty much describes my father to a Tee. Damn snoop."

    With as much in the way of sophisticated aplomb as she could manage, Berry slid herself onto the couch next to Ruth. "And don't think I haven't started worrying about it, once I get myself a boyfriend. Gah. Bad enough my father's a snoop—he's also a very good one."

    Feeling rather proud that she'd managed to seat herself gracefully—not easy, given the fancy clothing she was wearing—Berry segued forward smoothly. "But I believe I interrupted things. You were saying, Captain?"

    Oversteegen had resumed his seat. Before continuing, though, he cocked an eye at Ruth.

    "Berry is entirely within my confidence, Captain." She nodded toward the man seated on her other side. "As is Professor Du Havel. You may proceed accordingly."

    Oversteegen hesitated before he spoke again, but not for more than a second.

    "Very well. As I was sayin', Princess, I think it's extremely doubtful that the Manticoran ambassador here would give her sanction to your proposal. Whether I could proceed without it...."

    He shrugged. "Probably. If I were convinced it was the proper course to follow, I would certainly do so. Let the consequences be what they might."

    Ruth smiled. "A comment which my aunt Elizabeth made recently might interest you, Captain." She nodded toward Berry. "The comment was made to her father, in fact. 'I believe I can trust a man who isn't afraid of being on the beach when he has to.'"

    Oversteegen returned the smile with a wry one of his own. "Indeed. I take your point, Princess—but you still have t' convince me that it would be a good thing t' do in the first place. The Queen's not here, after all, and whatever decision I make has t' be make quickly or there's no point t' it at all."

    Ruth began to open her mouth, but Oversteegen raised his hand slightly, forestalling the words.

    "The issue's not the idea itself, Princess. Truth be told, leaving aside the undoubted charm of Congo becomin' a planet run by slaves, I can see at least two other advantages t' it."

    He held up his forefinger. "First—bearin' directly on my duties here—it would make anti-piracy work far easier. No pirate in his right mind—much less a slaver—is goin' t' be playin' around in a stellar backyard with ex-slaves on the loose and armed. Especially when—let's not even pretend otherwise, shall we?—those slaves will be largely led and organized by the Audubon Ballroom."

    Oversteegen held up a second finger. "Moreover—and provided such a slave planet remained politically neutral—it could provide a very useful neutral port in the region." Grimly: "There's no tellin' what armed clashes might erupt in this region in the future, but so long as Congo remained neutral and in ex-slave hands, at least any new outbreak of hostilities wouldn't produce the usual rapid upsurge in piracy."

    Ruth was starting to look pleased, but Oversteegen's next words erased that.

    "Which brings me t' my chief concern, Princess—and that's the role bein' played in all this by the Havenite secret agent, Victor Cachat."

    Berry saw Ruth start to speak, then hesitate. She had no doubt that the princess had been about to argue that Victor Cachat was not really a "secret agent," but...

    Fortunately, Ruth had the good sense not to advance the proposition. Seeing as how, to anyone as obviously knowledgeable as Captain Oversteegen, it would have been absurd.

    Instead, Ruth just said, a bit curtly: "Elaborate, please."

    "I'd think it was obvious. Cachat is certainly tryin' t' use this episode t' advance the interests of the Republic of Haven in Erewhonese space. Interests which are just as certain t' be inimical t' those of the Star Kingdom."

    Ruth nodded. "Yes. Of course he is. Specifically, I'm quite sure—and so are you, I imagine—that he hopes to use the episode as a lever to pry Erewhon loose from its alliance with us. Possibly even to work them into an alliance with the Republic of Haven. Which, as you say, would be very inimical to our own interests. If nothing else, even if the current truce leads to an actual peace treaty, Erewhon could provide the Havenites with a tech transfer of almost everything which now gives us a military edge over them."


    "And so what, Captain?" demanded Ruth. "Whether or not Cachat can manage to pull it off, how do you think we could forestall him by not participating in his project? The problem we face, putting it crudely, is that Cachat has effectively boxed us in. He's got us trapped between two jaws of a vise."

    Her own jaws tightened for a moment. "You’re constrained by military protocol from saying it out loud, but I am not."

    It was Ruth's turn to hold up a forefinger. "Jaw number one. Thanks to the idiocy of the High Ridge Government's foreign policies, Manticore's reputation here on Erewhon is now the equivalent of mud."

    Her thumb came up. "Jaw number two. Regardless of its possible ramifications, Cachat's proposal with respect to Congo is something which we simply can't oppose on its own merits. If we do so—"

    She brought her thumb and forefinger together, like a pincer. "—if we do so, we’ll simply look even worse than we do at present. Once again, the Star Kingdom will demonstrate to the Erewhonese that we’ll roll over their interests for the sake of our own—and our 'own interests,' just to make it worse, which are really the product of our own stupidity and arrogance."

    She dropped her hand and almost—not quite—glared at Oversteegen. "In short, Captain, if we fail to assist the Erewhonese in Cachat's plan, we run the risk of making the political situation even worse. Whereas if we help Cachat...."

    She let the thought trail off. After a moment, Oversteegen sighed.

    "Yes, I understand. Whereas if we help Cachat, we might at least minimize the damage."

    Du Havel interjected himself into the discussion for the first time. "More than that, really. Don't forget the need to think in the long term, Captain. Manticore's governments come and go, but what remains is the dynasty. It will be no small thing, I believe, if nothing else, if you demonstrate here and now that the honor of the House of Winton is not made of the same tissue as the unprincipled schemes of Baron High Ridge. That might mean nothing today—or next year—but history is properly measured in decades and centuries. Like prime ministers, alliances come and go as well."

    Oversteegen cocked his head, then squinted at Ruth. "Ah. Do I take it, Princess, that you have some proposal for a member of the dynasty t' become directly involved in the affair? In the line of fire, as it were?"

    Ruth did her best to look innocent, but...

    Good as she was, Berry thought, she was still only twenty-three years old. Oversteegen wasn't fooled for a moment.

    "As I thought," he gruffed, sitting up straight. Any trace of aristocratic languor was quite gone. "Whatever else, Princess Ruth, I can’t possibly agree t' allowin' a member of the royal house t' put herself at risk. The idea's positively absurd. T' begin with—"

    Berry resigned herself to a long evening.




    When Ginny entered the suite, Thandi trailing behind her, Victor was sitting in a chair by a table, staring at the suite's display screen. The screen, filling most of the far wall, showed nothing more than a view of the stellar neighborhood looking outward from Erewhon—a view which was grand enough, but as bleak as it was cold.

    He didn’t turn his head when they entered. Indeed, for all Thandi could tell he was oblivious to the sound of the door opening and closing.

    "Figures," muttered Ginny. "Leave it to Victor Cachat to sit in the most uncomfortable chair in a luxury suite."

    Still, he didn't look their way. "And why are we in this damn thing, anyway? I didn't ask for it."

    "I did," stated Ginny forcefully. "And you've got a guest, so stop grousing."

    Thandi realized Victor had had no idea anyone had entered with Ginny. Given the man's usual sensitivity to his environment, that alone was enough to make clear that he was immersed in a black depression.

    He turned slightly. When his eyes fell on Thandi, they opened a bit. Then, narrowed. And then, within a second, he was staring back at the display.

    "What is she doing here?" The words were spoken in a tone of voice just about as cold as the interstellar void shown on the screen.

    Thandi felt herself shrivel, and started to turn away. But Ginny slapped her arm, as a mother might slap a child, stopping her in mid-turn. And then—to Thandi's utter amazement—marched over to Victor and gave him a genu-ine, down home, motherly box on the ears. No affectionate pat, either. This was a real whap!

    Victor jerked with surprise, his hand flying up to the side of his face.

    "Don't act the asshole around me," Ginny growled, her face tight and angry. "She's your guest because I told her she was. Make me a liar, Victor, and you can figure on using your ears for cauliflower soup."

    She turned to Thandi and, in that lightning manner which Thandi still found hard to follow, was all sunshine and good cheer.

    "Do come in," she cooed. "Victor is delighted to see you. Aren't you, Victor?" The last sentence was spoken through the same cheerful smile, but the temperature in the words plunged to somewhere not far above zero degrees Kelvin.

    "Uh. Yeah, sure. Come in—uh, Lieutenant Palane."

    Ginny raised her hand for another box on the ear. Victor hastily amended: "Thandi, I mean."

    Hesitantly, Thandi took a few steps forward.

    What the hell am I doing here? This is crazy! The man is furious with me—can't say I really blame him—and I ought to just—

    "I'll be going then," announced Ginny brightly. "Now that the two of you are off to such a good start."

    Matching deed to word, she walked past Thandi and was through the door—closing it behind her—before Thandi could think to protest.

    She stared at Victor. He was staring back. After two or three seconds of that, Thandi jerked herself together.

    To hell with it. To hell with him, for that matter. Pride and dignity, girl. Well... dignity, anyway.

    "I apologized once, Victor. I'm not going to do it again. Take it or leave it."

    His face was frozen for a moment, set in the same bleak expression it had held when she came in the room. Then, the expression faded into one of simple melancholy and he looked away.

    "Never mind, Thandi. Apology accepted—and I should extend you an apology for being such a prick about it. I'm sorry. It's just...."

    She could feel her warmth toward him coming back. Pouring back, more like.

    "Yeah, I know. It's just that you wonder about it yourself." She moved over and perched on the wide armrest of a chair not far from him. "Think I don't? In order to get where I am today—which isn't really such a great place, anyway—I had to do a lot of things I'm not happy about. Some of them still make me a little sick, and all of it makes me wonder about myself. Wonder a lot, sometimes."

    He nodded. Still, looking melancholy. Thandi realized that, whatever his other strengths, Victor Cachat wouldn’t be very good at handling his own self-doubts. He'd ignore or deny them, most times, and positively wallow in them when he couldn't.

    The knowledge warmed her up still further. Quite a bit further, in fact. In that constant self-analytical way of hers, Thandi was simultaneously able to recognize two things. First, she had a serious case of the hots for Victor Cachat. Serious. More so than anything she'd felt since her first boyfriend, long years before. Secondly, she thought she finally understood the reason for the attraction.

    The realization made her chuckle, very throatily. That chuckle. The one which, like that smile, had a rather dazzling impact on men.

    Victor was no exception. He was back to staring at her, but this time with an expression which had little resemblance to the barrenness of outer space.

    "Leave it to me to save myself for a devil with a heart of gold," she murmured. "Kinky, kinky, kinky."

    She rose from the armchair, almost lazily, and began unfastening her tunic.

    "Why don't you give your demons a rest, Victor? We've all got demons, you know. What makes us human is how we handle them."

    She was starting to come out of her clothing, moving as quickly as she always could when she wanted to. Her voice was husky, throaty—she'd made her decision and was letting the heat of it pour through her.

    "So how about helping me with my demons, for the rest of the night? I'm willing to bet this suite has a huge bed. We'll need it."

    He was very wide-eyed, now. His head was partly turned away, as if he was trying not to stare but... couldn't move his eyes, which had a life of their own.

    Still, he tried to rally some humor. "I suppose resistance would be futile, huh? How could I stop you from ravishing me?"

    She felt like magma; her boots finally off and the rest of it peeling away. Her laugh was huskier and throatier than her voice.

    "As it happens, Victor, my inclinations run entirely the opposite direction."

    She was completely nude. Two steps and she plucked him out of the chair like a baby. Then, carried him into the bedroom, dropped him on the bed, and more-or-less poured herself next to him.

    "Pardon the role reversal," she gurgled, starting to run her hands over him. She didn't need to help him get out of his own clothing, since Victor was now handling that just about as fast as she'd done.

    "Did it ever occur to you that a lady weightlifter might get sick of it?" she whispered, caressing and kissing. He was nude himself, within seconds. His body was hard and muscular, as she'd known it would be. Not as hard as hers, at any moment except this one. But in that moment, finally, she felt completely soft; more than she'd ever been able to feel in her life, and was reveling in it. Soft and open, almost boneless.

    Her hand slid down and discovered, to her delight, that every part of Victor was exactly the opposite.

    "Oh, God, yes," she hissed. "Just take me."

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