Though Hell Should Bar The Way – Snippet 22


The cabin of the limousine which the Saguntines provided for the officials had room for six; I waited while they entered. Maeve Grimaud sat primly with her back to the driver, facing the three men from the Foreign Ministry. The vehicle was old — probably of off-planet manufacture — but it had been lovingly maintained (or possibly restored).

The locals had provided an armored personnel carrier for me and the escort. It moved on wheels like the limousine, but it was much newer and was locally built. Sun chatted with the vehicle commander in the cupola about the APC’s automatic impeller.

I watched the limousine following us through the armored glass (I’d opened the steel shutter) in the rear gate. I didn’t know what I could do if something had happened to the limousine, but I guess I had to worry about something.

The APC had ports in the sides through which I got glimpses of Jacquerie, sepia toned by the thick glass. It looked pretty ordinary. Along our route it had been mostly one- and two-story structures with businesses on the ground floor and apartments on the higher level. There’d been a handful which were tall enough that I couldn’t see the tops through the windows, but I was pretty sure four stories was as high as anything got here.

We drove past a stone-faced building set back behind a plaza; our APC slowed to a halt. There were full-height pilasters set into the facade, and a pair of ornamental-looking guards at the entrances. Civilians on the plaza lounged in the shade of trees in big pots.

I fumbled to open the gate, but Sun reached past me and dropped the ramp with a clang of steel on stone. We trotted out and were standing beside the limo before the Saguntine staff — a driver and his assistant — got the passenger doors open.

Sun grinned at me and said, “That was a combat release. The hydraulics would’ve taken forever, and I didn’t think you wanted to wait.”

“Too bloody right,” I muttered as Director Jimenez got out gracefully. He had experience doing that sort of thing.

The driver’s assistant whispered to me, “I’ll guide you if you like, sir.”

I nodded, because I certainly would like. With Sun beside me and the four ministry people strung out behind us, we walked to the entrance. The rest of my spacers brought up the rear.

Maeve was in a black suit whose flowing trouser legs could have been a skirt to look at. The tailored jacket she wore over the dark-gray tunic was completely demure — but a prostitute on the strip outside Harbor Three couldn’t have looked more alluring.

“Wait here one moment, please,” my guide said. He spoke to a civilian just inside the entrance. The guards’ weapons were chromed. That didn’t mean they wouldn’t work, but neither of the men in green and gold uniforms struck me as the sort I wanted behind me if things got rough. I guess Sun thought the same, because he muttered in my ear, “Pretty little fellers, aren’t they?”

“What’s going on?” Jimenez demanded in a peevish voice.

Our guide returned and said — to me and the Director both, “It’ll be just a moment, and — ”

From inside but clearly audible boomed the loudest unamplified voice I’d ever heard, “Your grace, allow me to introduce Director Oleg Jimenez of the Republic of Cinnabar, and the members of his honorable delegation!”

Sun and I moved fast to lead Jimenez inside. Beyond the anteroom was a large hall in which about forty people stood in small clumps. At the front were two desks, one facing the entrance and the other at right angles where two female clerks worked.

Councillor Perez — I recognized him from his picture — stood up behind the desk facing us. He was wearing a business suit.

“Greetings, Director Jimenez,” Perez said. “You are welcome on your own behalf and in the name of the great republic you represent. Please come forward.”

The Director and his two male associates walked through the assembly; in the big room it was too sparse to be called a crowd. I gestured to my spacers to stop. Until I was told otherwise, we were going to wait at the back of the hall and remain unobtrusive.

Jimenez and Perez spoke when they met beside the desk. After a moment, Perez turned to the general audience and said, “My friends? Director Jimenez and his companions are going to join me briefly in my private office. I’ll return shortly.”

“What’s that about?” Sun whispered to me as Perez let the delegates through a door in the wall behind his desk.

I started to shrug, then really thought about the question. “More bloody nonsense,” I whispered back. “But they’re dressing it up to look like something. I don’t know how much trade there even could be between us and Saguntum, but Cinnabar is big and Perez wants to be polite.”

When the door to the private office closed, there was motion and a louder buzz of conversation in the hall. A table with glasses and pitchers stood in a corner. The pitchers probably held water, but Sun and the other spacers drifted hopefully in that direction anyway.

I stayed where I was, but the fact that other people were moving allowed me to see faces where there’d been only the backs of heads before. I saw several people whom Mundy’s dossiers described as business leaders, and against the back wall, on the side opposite the door to the private office, was Colonel Foliot in civilian clothes. He was talking to a younger man in uniform. The uniform wasn’t quite battledress, but neither was it a comic opera outfit like those of the guards at the entrance.

I felt motion in the corner of my eye. I glanced left. Representative McKinnon, the head of the Karst Observation Mission, was smiling at my side. I didn’t like the smile; nor the pudgy man with thinning, sandy hair if it came to that.

“So…” McKinnon said. He was holding a glass, about half-full of water. “What are you really here for, then?”

“Sir?” I said. “Oh, we’re spacers from the Sunray. We’re escorting those diplomats who just went in with the boss here. I guess we’ll escort ’em back to the ship when they’re done talking.”

“Yes, but what is the Sunray really doing on Saguntum?” McKinnon said. “You surely don’t think I’m fool enough to believe your story about a trade delegation!”

It wasn’t hard for me to act like an ignorant spacer. I wasn’t quite ignorant enough not to know McKinnon was trying to pump me, but it was simpler to pretend to be.

I said, “Sir, I don’t know you well enough to think anything about you.” I offered my right hand to shake and added, “I’m Roy Olfetrie, third officer on the Sunray. And you?”

McKinnon made a noise in his throat and turned on his heel. I’d thought for an instant that he was going to slap my hand away. If he’d done that, I was going to give him my left in the pit of his stomach.

That might’ve caused trouble when Director Jimenez learned about it, which didn’t concern me; or when I reported it to Captain Leary, whose opinion did matter. But I’d asked Officer Mundy how I was supposed to behave, and she’d said clearly that I was supposed to be myself. If you hit me, you’d better expect to be hit back.

Besides, I didn’t think an RCN officer was required to let himself be assaulted by foreigners. If I was wrong about that, it was a good thing that I’d dropped out of the Academy.

Maeve had remained in the rear of the hall when her colleagues went into conference with Councillor Perez. She’d been watching with a smile. Now she came over and said, “You don’t seem to have hit it off with the gentleman from Karst, Master Olfetrie.”

“He wanted me to talk about things I don’t know about,” I said, my eyes on McKinnon’s back. “And were none of his business anyway.”

Maeve chuckled. “Well, I wouldn’t bet about it being none of his business,” she said. “He’s Karst’s chief spy on Saguntum. But it’s certainly not your business to answer him.”

She cocked her head. She said, “You know, Roy…it’s still all right to call you Roy, isn’t it?”

I remembered the way we’d last parted. “Sure,” I said. “And me to call you Maeve, I hope.”

“Of course,” she said warmly. “I was wondering if you had plans for after this levee?” she added, gesturing around the room with her left hand.

“Well, I’m still on duty after I get my people back to the ship…” I said.

“Can you get off?” Maeve said. “I’d like to have dinner with a pleasant companion for a change.”

“Well, I probably can,” I said. “I don’t know anything about restaurants in Jacquerie, though.”

Maeve laughed again. “No matter,” she said. “I have quite a number of contacts here. I think the best choice would be to eat in my hotel and then decide what to do afterward.”

I started to ask what she meant by “my hotel” but the door to the private office opened. Councillor Perez came out and spoke to one of the clerks at the other desk while the three Cinnabar delegates filed past him and returned to where I waited. I’d formed up my five spacers.