Though Hell Should Bar The Way – Snippet 23

“Han will be going back to the ship with you, Olfetrie,” Jimenez said. “He’ll arrange the transport of the delegation’s baggage here. The delegation is moving to the palace for the duration of our stay.”

“Ah,” I said. “Sir, what shall I tell Captain Leary?”

“Tell him?” said the Director. “I don’t see that you need to tell him anything. His orders are to transport me and to provide any assistance I require. I assure you that when I require something, I’ll let Leary know.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said, bowing. “Were you told what vehicle we were to return in?”

“That’s really none of my concern, Lieutenant,” Jimenez said and led Master Banta to the pair of clerks in the front of the room. Not a man I warmed to.

I looked at Master Han, who had no expression at all. “Sir,” I said, “let’s go outside and I’ll see if I can raise a vehicle.”

Han bowed to me. “I will be glad to travel with you, Lieutenant,” he said.

I was struck that Han had been given the job of getting the baggage together, rather than Maeve. It seemed more like a secretary’s job, but she was seeming less and less like a secretary.

With Han and my spacers in tow, I went back onto the plaza. Our guide waited there. The limo had vanished, but the armored vehicle remained.

“Sir?” I said. “Can the APC run us back to the ship? And we’ve got one of the delegation too, but there’s room for him in the box if it isn’t a problem with you.”

“No problem, sir,” said the guide. I’d thought of him as the assistant driver, but he seemed to be the senior man in the limo, my counterpart of head of the Saguntine escort.

“Roy, I wonder if I could come back to the port with you?” Maeve said, smiling toward the local as she spoke to me. “The restaurant is in walking distance, so we can leave from there when you’ve gotten approval from your captain.”

The guide met my eyes. “Of course,” he said. Then he winked.

I hadn’t noticed the noise on the way to the palace. I did on the ride back — the engine was loud, the hard tires drummed the pavement, and the armored body rang at a thousand points of contact with its own elements. I was glad of that, because it was an excuse not to talk with Maeve in front of the spacers I commanded.

I wasn’t sure what she might say. And I was even less sure of what I wanted her to say.

* * *

Captain Leary was absent. Lieutenant Enery checked the log and said, “Once your escort duties are finished, you’re all off-duty till 0600. Isn’t that what Captain Leary told you?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said and went down to the crew’s quarters to relay the news. The enlisted spacers were already heading out; they’d been told the same thing I had, and they believed it. Well, why shouldn’t they?

I changed into a different suit — brown with russet patches — and met Maeve on the bridge. She’d changed also, into a tan suit that matched mine rather nicely. I wondered if that was chance — it just about had to be chance, because I’d made my choice when I returned to my cabin — but I didn’t say anything.

As we started across the boarding bridge — even the extension was wide enough for two abreast, if they were careful — Maeve said, “How many different suits did you bring, Roy?”

“It was bring them or let them be sold out of pawn,” I said, knowing I sounded defensive. Then, because I hadn’t answered the question, I said, “There’s six of them, I guess. They were comfortable, so why not?”

“No reason whatever,” Maeve said. I may have been inventing the laughter I thought I heard under the words. She made me uncomfortable, and I was pretty sure that she was doing that deliberately. I thought of Rachel, my fiancée until the bottom dropped out of my prospects. I wondered what Rachel was doing now, and I hated myself for caring.

“Here’s the place,” Maeve said as we crossed the second street up from the harbor. The building ahead of us was four stories. The bar on the corner was The Fountain with a neon sign on which a blue fountain mounted to the top of a green frame before sinking back to the base. In the middle of the block was a separate entrance with a doorman. The bronze letters above that door were externally lighted and read, The Saint James.

“The restaurant is through here,” Maeve said, angling toward the bar. “Though we could reach it through the hotel also.” She glanced up at me and said, “But I thought we’d eat first?”

“Yes,” I said, determinedly not meeting her eyes.

We entered; it seemed a decent place with half a dozen customers at present. The barman caught our eyes but Maeve waved cheerfully to him and started up the staircase in the back. She certainly did have contacts in Jacquerie.

“Two, please, Jean,” she said to the greeter. “A quiet booth, if we could.”

“It’s a quiet night, Mistress Grimaud,” the greeter said. “But we’d find something for you regardless. Come with me, please.”

The greeter bowed Maeve into a banquette seat. “Have you been here many times?” I asked as I slid into the other side.

“Well, no, I’ve never been on Saguntum before this mission,” Maeve said. “But when I learned I’d be living in this hotel, I made a point of introducing myself to the staff I’d be dealing with.”

And feeing them very heavily ahead of time, I realized, though I didn’t say that aloud. I didn’t care about that — it was Foreign Ministry money; if they were wasting it, that was their business.

But it did make me wonder what Maeve expected to get for her money. She didn’t strike me like the sort who would be that concerned about a good table in a restaurant.

“The chicken here is supposed to be very good,” Maeve volunteered when the waiter arrived to take our order; but she let me make my choice first and then got the same thing, a house specialty.

Maeve asked for the wine list. Though I said I wasn’t much of a drinker, she ordered a bottle rather than individual glasses.

As we waited for our entrees, Maeve smiled in the dim light and said, “You know, you’re really quite a handsome young fellow, Roy. I hope you don’t mind my saying that.”

“I don’t mind,” I said, sipping my wine. I’d let her fill the goblet. “I think you’re wrong, though.”

Maeve laughed. In the same voice as before, as though she weren’t changing the subject, she said, “What do you think of the Navy and politics, Roy?”

I didn’t choke on the wine, but I put the goblet down before I said, “Ma’am, I’m glad the RCN isn’t in politics.”

“That’s not true, you know,” Maeve said calmly. “Even the way you mean it. There isn’t a Navy Party, but you know that Minister Forbes wouldn’t have come out of the political wilderness if she hadn’t joined with Captain Leary.”

“Ma’am, I don’t know that,” I said. “I don’t say you’re wrong, because I don’t know anything about it. I don’t care about it. It’s none of my business.”

I was trying to keep my voice calm. It was true as true that I didn’t care, and I really didn’t want to talk about it.

“Well, I can’t speak to the rest of what you say…” Maeve said over the rim of her wine glass. “But it certainly is your business. It was because Elisabeth Forbes became Minister of Defense and needed to make her mark quickly that your father was driven to ruin and suicide.”

“Dad shot himself because he got unmasked as a crook,” I said. My mouth was dry, even after I took a gulp of wine. “Mistress Forbes may have had private reasons for doing that, I don’t know. But it was her bloody job to do regardless!”

Maeve looked at me steadily. She smiled again and said, “You’re a very sensible young man. And you’re really quite smart, aren’t you.”

“That’s not what my professors at the Academy would tell you,” I said, more embarrassed than I’d been when she called me handsome.

The food arrived then, which I was glad of. Maeve took my lapse in attention to refill my glass. There was also a fresh bottle on the serving table beside her, without me hearing her order it.

The special turned out to be thin slices of chicken breast cooked between equally thin slices of bacon like a layer cake. There were vegetables with it, and a spicy sauce.

Mom would’ve been able to tell what went into the sauce just by sniffing, like enough. She could’ve discussed the wine, too. When we’d come into money, she’d gone whole hog into what to eat, drink, and wear. She said Dad had low tastes, which was true enough. Junior had no taste at all, though Mom would never have said anything that could be taken as a criticism of Dean Junior. Dad used to say that Mom thought the sun shone out of Junior’s backside.