Though Hell Should Bar The Way – Snippet 20

Looking at me again, he said, “Anyway, the delegation needs an escort of five spacers when they present their credentials in Saguntum, and I need an officer to command the escort. You’re what I’ve got with civilian clothes.”

“Ah…” I said. I had nowhere to go with the thought, so I said, “Yes, sir!” and shut my mouth.

“I don’t believe you’ve met our passengers,” Captain Leary said. He grinned. “Except for the pretty one, right?”

“Mistress Grimaud,” I said, nodding vigorously. “Though I don’t know precisely what her position is.”

“If she’d told you…” the captain said, “she’d probably have lied. We’ll go down now — no, clean up and put on a suit before we do that. When you’re presentable, I’ll introduce you to the delegation. Director Jimenez seemed to be concerned that his escort would be a bunch of roughs who’d embarrass the dignity of the Foreign Ministry.”

His smile wasn’t altogether warm. “Personally,” he went on, “I don’t believe anything the RCN did could possibly lower it to the level of the Foreign Ministry, but I figure your experience will put his mind at rest.”

* * *

I thought of just changing clothes, but I knew I looked like something the cat had dragged in. Five hours working — and I mean working — in an air suit really takes it out of you. I showered before changing. It made me feel more human as well as cleaner, though I was still very tired.

I came back, wearing my dull green jacket over gray tunic and slacks. “I knew you’d clean up nice,” Captain Leary said. “Doesn’t he, Hogg?”

“Pretty as a picture,” his servant said, rising from the striker’s seat to take a good look at me. “I hope he can take care of himself.”

“Now, Hogg,” the captain said. “It’s not going to be that kind of escort. They won’t be carrying weapons.”

“I can take care of myself, Hogg,” I said. If he’d been a gentleman, I’d have said, “Master Hogg,” but he wasn’t. “But your servant raises a good point, sir: Who have you chosen for the escort?”

The captain shrugged. “I figured I’d leave that to you, Olfetrie,” he said. “Pick any five you’d be comfortable leading on this business.”

I started to protest, then caught myself. I wanted to be an officer; this was my job. “Yes, sir,” I said. “I suppose any of the crew, at least of the former Sissies, would stay solid if something went unexpectedly wrong.”

“They’re all former Sissies,” the captain said. “Except for you, that is.”

He was watching me. There might be a touch of amusement in his eyes. I was pretty sure that he wouldn’t let me go too far wrong, though he’d said it was my decision.

“The main thing we have to worry about is keeping Director Jimenez happy,” I said. “We’ll want clean-cut personnel, and people who won’t scare the civilians. Also with a bias toward smart rather than, say, quick. So — ”

I took a couple seconds to go over my choices one last time. “Sun and Barnes,” I said. “I say Barnes instead of Dasi, because I know him better and because Dasi’s nose is crooked from where it was broken. Wedell and Gamba, in both cases because I’ve worked with them and trust their judgment.”

“And Woetjans?” the captain said.

“Even if Jimenez is as slow as the mid-level Foreign Ministry staffers I’ve met have been,” I said, “Ellie would scare him to death. But I would like Tovera, because she wouldn’t scare anybody.”

Captain Leary’s face went very still. “Have you looked Tovera in the eyes?” he said.

“Yes,” I said. Tovera and her mistress were in earshot, but I didn’t turn my head. “But Jimenez won’t. Most people won’t. They won’t notice her at all.”

I wouldn’t have either, except that Maeve had told me that Mundy’s clerk was an assassin. Since then I’d been watching her; I had no proof that Tovera was what Maeve called her, but the feeling I got from her was certainly that.

“Tovera isn’t under my command,” the captain said, “so I can’t — ”

“I can,” said Mundy’s voice from the speaker on the command console. “Tovera is welcome to join Master Olfetrie if he wants to have her. And she’s amenable, of course.”

“Sure,” said Tovera. Mundy was still looking down at her data unit, but Tovera — as always — was scanning the room with an alert expression, like a lizard looking for a meal. “I don’t expect there’ll be any fun, but I never lose hope.”

The grin that followed the comment would’ve convinced me that Maeve was right even if I hadn’t already been sure.

“All right, then,” Captain Leary said. “Tovera, you’ll have to leave your briefcase behind; Sun will find you a set of utilities so that you fit in. Olfetrie, let’s you and I visit our betters.”

I matched his grin with an equally broad one.

* * *

The passengers’ accommodations on Level 3 probably didn’t seem palatial to the civilians, but for somebody who’d gotten used to a cabin barely big enough for its bunk and desk, they certainly seemed so. The captain — or more likely, Officer Mundy — must have alerted the delegation that we were coming, because a female servant held open the hatch to what turned out to be a lounge when we came out of the companionway.

She bowed as we approached, then closed the panel behind us. Inside were cushioned seats — rather than pressed steel like elsewhere on the ship — and tables with floral designs on the upper surfaces. The only person standing was another servant, this one male. Like the woman at the door, he wore a uniform of brown fabric with a slick finish.

“Captain Leary,” said the man in the chair facing the hatch. The words were an acknowledgement rather than a greeting. He was alone at a table for four.

Captain Leary nodded to the seated man. “Director Jimenez, I’ve come to introduce the officer who’ll command your escort to the Councillor’s Residence in Jacquerie. This is Lieutenant Olfetrie.”

I stepped forward and bowed. “Sir,” I said as I straightened, “I’m greatly honored to be chosen for this duty. I served an internship in the Bureau of Friendship Affairs. I’ve always felt that the Foreign Ministry does more to preserve the Republic than any other branch of government.”

It was true about the internship: Mother had thought the diplomatic service was more refined than the RCN and had pushed to get both her sons into it. Junior had flat refused, but I’d given it a try.

It hadn’t worked out well. I was quieter than Junior, but I hadn’t been willing to solemnly nod when a fool talked nonsense to me, and there were other things. At the time, of course, I’d been a rich man’s son looking for a profession rather than a job.

“You do?” Jimenez said, clearly startled. He was a trim little man, perfectly groomed the way you get only if you spend more time on it than a man ought to spend. “Then why are you here? What are you doing here?”

I shook my head with a sad expression. “I couldn’t fool myself, sir,” I said. “I knew within a week that I wasn’t fit for the work. I was unwilling to drag down the fine people around me in the department. I was on the Kostroma desk under Director Kwalit.”

I shrugged. “I still wanted to serve the Republic, so I joined the Navy,” I said, deliberately using the civilian term for the RCN. “It was a surprise, a wonderful surprise, to learn that I was posted here.”

“Well…” Jimenez said. “You’re confident that your guards won’t embarrass us? You see, Saguntum has no relations whatever with the Republic. Any sort of high-handed behavior or even the sort of normal loutishness to be expected of spacers — it might absolutely scuttle our mission.”

“Sir,” I said, with more truth than most of what I’d been saying. “I can honestly tell you that I’ve hand picked each person with an eye to intelligence and proper decorum.”

I regretted that Captain Leary was listening to this. Heaven be thanked that Woetjans wasn’t. She’d take it as a betrayal, and I had a good notion of how she’d deal with a traitor.

“Well,” said Jimenez. He put a slight emphasis on the word to make it approving. “Here on my right is Master Han” — thin, bald man of uncertain age. His face showed no more expression than an insect’s does — “who’s our finance expert, and on my left Master Banta, whose specialty is agriculture.”

I exchanged nods with both men. Banta was round, very pale, and gave the impression of having the intelligence of a cabbage…which to a degree he resembled.

My eyes followed Jimenez’s. For the first time since I’d entered, they rested on Maeve. She was in ochre tonight. Smiling, she nodded to me.

“And this is Mistress Grimaud, my secretary,” Jimenez said.

I nodded to her, then returned my gaze to the Director.

“Well, I must say,” Jimenez said, “this is much better news than I was expecting. Captain Leary, I congratulate you. I’ll make sure my superiors learn how well you’ve executed their instructions.”

Captain Leary bowed, just as I had when I greeted the Director. He said, “Thank you, sir. We of the RCN set great store on the faithful execution of our orders.”

We nodded again to the delegates, then left the lounge promptly to go back to where we belonged. I’d have been on the edge of laughter except for one thing: the look in Maeve’s eyes as she smiled at me.

Maeve moved like a cat. For a moment she’d made me feel like a mouse.