Though Hell Should Bar The Way – Snippet 31

“Olfetrie!” someone called from the pit. I couldn’t make out individuals in the gloom. Then a different voice, Langland’s, called, “Hey, Olfetrie? Can you get me out of here?”

“Come along, now,” Giorgios said. “We’ve wasted enough time.”

I paused. To the chamberlain I said, “How long will they stay in this prison?”

“A few days,” Giorgios said. “A week at most. They’re just useless mouths until they’re sold.”

“You’ll be out in a week or less,” I shouted into the pit. Then I turned and walked quickly back to the vehicle. I couldn’t do anything more for Langland, and it wasn’t as though I owed him. He hadn’t been a bad shipmate, but I wouldn’t have been here myself if he hadn’t bought me from kidnappers.

“Who buys the slaves?” I asked as the chamberlain turned us around.

“Sometimes there’s foreigners,” he said. “People with a plantation or a factory on another planet they need staff for. And there’s ships from charities in big places that buy back their own spacers even if there isn’t a treaty with Salaam. If there’s a treaty, the ships’re exempt, but citizens who’re crew on other ships can still be captured.”

“Can’t anybody stop it?” I said. I guess I sounded pretty angry, because Giorgios turned and looked at me with a frown.

“Why?” he said. “Slavery’s legal many places besides ben Yusuf. And a lot of slaves, they’re bought by locals and work on farms right alongside their owners. It’s not so bad. Look at you, you’re fine. If you play your cards right, you could wind up in charge of one of the Admiral’s own ships.”

I thought of telling him that I’d refused to join a pirate crew already, and I certainly wasn’t going to be running one. It wouldn’t do any good, though. Nothing would do any good but an RCN squadron…but maybe someday I could help make that happen.

It struck me that though Cinnabar didn’t have a presence on ben Yusuf, Saguntum might. I said, “Giorgios, if I were a citizen of Saguntum, what would happen to me?”

The chamberlain shrugged. “You were crew on a ship from Masque, and Masque doesn’t have a treaty with us. Saguntum has a treaty but there’s no consul. Their treaty rights are handled by the Karst consul.”

I remembered Lady Mundy telling me that Karst controlled Saguntum’s foreign policy. Karst really would be powerful in this region.

“How would I be able to talk to the Karst consul?” I asked.

“You wouldn’t!” Giorgios said. He was too forceful for me to believe him. “You’ve got no business with him and he wouldn’t see a slave anyway.”

He turned and glared. “You’re a member of the Admiral’s household!” he said. “Be thankful for it!”

I nodded. I wasn’t thankful to be a slave.

We reached the street that had brought us from the bay and turned up it. Giorgios pointed at the massive building just ahead to the right and said, “There’s the palace.”

“Giorgios?” I said, because my mind was still back on something else. “Have there been escapes from the slave pen?”

There were enough prisoners in the pit to form a pyramid from which half a dozen men could work on the grating. That was massive but it hadn’t looked particularly sturdy. I was pretty sure I could crack some of welds myself, given time — and the guards didn’t seem to pay much attention.

The chamberlain laughed. “If there’s a lot of noise from the pen,” he said, “they toss a grenade at where the noise is loudest. The last time it happened, they used white phosphorus — an incendiary grenade.”

I didn’t say anything. I was going to get out of this place one way or another.

The front of the palace was three stories tall, and the arched gateway in front rose two of them. The gate leaves were split in half vertically though, and the guards pushed the right portion open as soon as they saw us approaching.

We jolted through a tunnel and into a courtyard which was smaller than I’d expected. It was more like a light well; the hollow walls on both sides were twenty feet thick. The upper stories had windows and balconies. Poles protruded with clothes drying and hanging plant baskets. Children were playing noisily and women chatted as they watched.

Directly in front of us was a blank curtain wall. Spikes glittered on top. It wasn’t an outside wall; there was clearly a higher wing beyond it. What I could see merely divided the courtyard into the larger portion that we’d driven into and a smaller section on the other side.

Giorgios parked by an interior doorway. Three attendants wearing sandals and pantaloons wheeled the vehicle away, pushing it instead of driving. The chamberlain saw me studying the curtain wall and said, “Better keep away from that, Olfetrie. That’s the wives’ quarter. If you’re caught trying to look in, you’ll be gelded and become an attendant.”

I turned my head. There were better and worse places to be a slave on Salaam.

People stood on both sides of the passage we’d entered, talking and dozing as best I could tell. The passage was shaded and there was a slight breeze through it, so it was a reasonable place to be if you had nothing better to do. That seemed to be the case for plenty of people in the Admiral’s palace.

We went up a set of wooden stairs in a stone well. Instead of curling like the companionways on a ship, these made right angles every six treads or so. The whole rig seemed flimsy, and it’d be a chimney packed with kindling if it ever caught fire.

A couple people vanished onto upper stories when they saw the chamberlain coming, but there wasn’t a crowd on the stairs like I’d half expected after the entrance passage. Maybe more people than me thought the stairs were an accident waiting to happen.

When we reached the third floor, Giorgios was puffing. He threw open the door and announced proudly, “The entire top floor of this wing is for me and my household! You’ll have a room in my private suite, where the computer is.”

“At least the stairs’ll keep me in good condition,” I said. If the palace caught fire, I’d have to learn to fly very fast; but maybe that wouldn’t happen.

We were in the left wing. A gallery ran the length of it on the outside. Most of the doorways opening off it were long, narrow rooms running toward another gallery at the courtyard end. Faces peered out of curtained alcoves, then ducked away.

There were electrical lights of various sorts — mostly glowstrips, but fluorescent, incandescent, and diode fixtures as well. I didn’t see any two of the same sort.

Also I didn’t see any open flames, which was a mercy. At this time of afternoon there was still a lot of daylight coming through the galleries, anyway.

Giorgios’ suite turned out to be the last quarter of the corridor. He walked me past a pair of attendants — guards, I suppose, though I saw only one carbine — and into the far end where an astrogation console from a starship sat in an alcove.

Giorgios pulled curtains to shield us and switched it on. “See?” he said when the stand-by display, an opalescent globe, appeared. “It doesn’t work.”

I used the keyboard to get to the sidebar, where I switched the holographic display from astrogation to what I hoped was the local area. The unit was of Karst manufacture, but the hollow square looked like a good bet for my first try. A list of proper names came up with no other information.

“How did you do that?” Giorgios shouted. “Is all the information still there?”

I had no idea what “information” there might have been, so I called up one of the names — Petruschka. It expanded into a list of foodstuffs, as best I could tell. It was so long a list that it spread into a second screen when I expanded the typeface to a readable size.

“Is this what you’re looking for?” I said.

“Oh, thank the Great God!” Giorgios said. “I’m saved! No wonder he was complaining that if the deliveries didn’t come in, we’d run out of food!”

Giorgios disappeared into another alcove for a moment, then returned with a stylus and a notebook. “Here,” he said, thrusting them at me. “Write down all the orders and I’ll send out messengers at once. Oh, the Great God is good to me!”

I got to work. Among other things, I was feeling hungry. I decided that would be my second item of business.