Though Hell Should Bar The Way – Snippet 32


That was my introduction to my duties as the chamberlain’s assistant. I copied out the food orders and gave them to Giorgios. He would have gone off with them, leaving me on my own, if I hadn’t followed him out of the alcove and caught him by the flowing sleeve.

“Sir!” I said. “I need somebody to guide me around. Where do I get food? For that matter, where’s the latrine?”

Giorgios glared at me, but he couldn’t pull his tunic away without tearing the fabric. We had an audience, at least a dozen people, watching more or less openly. The chamberlain pointed at one of them, a boy of fifteen or so, and said, “Abram, this is Olfetrie. Do whatever he tells you.”

Abram said, “Suits me,” without enthusiasm. He continued to squat on his heels as Giorgios swept into the gallery and out of sight.

“I want some food,” I said to the boy. “While we’re eating, I’ll have some more questions for you.”

“Would the food include wine for me?” Abram said, raising an eyebrow.

“It could,” I agreed.

He bounded upright as though he were a toy driven by a spring. His grin was not only alert but friendly. “Willing to take a bit of a walk?” Abram said.

“Yes, if there’s a reason to,” I said, wondering what this was about.

“I won’t say old Martial has better food than the refectory here in Giorgios’ suite,” the boy said, “but Martial’s wine is a lot better. He taps the Admiral’s own casks, right? Now, it’ll cost a bit.”

“I don’t have any money,” I said.

“Well, I’ll front you till you start making your own graft,” Abram said. “And you’re in a bloody good place to do that, it seems to me.”

We went down a different set of stairs. If anything, they were flimsier than the ones Giorgios had led me up. At the bottom, we went left and through a door that led outdoors rather than into the courtyard. Thirty-odd people, men and women both, stood near a kiosk built against the outside wall. We were on the north side of the palace, so there was a strip of shade even now in early afternoon.

Abram squeezed up to the counter. There were two servers — both middle-aged women — but Abram shouted, “Hey, Martial! I want you to meet a friend of mine. Olfetrie runs the chamberlain’s computer!”

The cook turned around. “No fooling?” he said. He was a fat man of fifty, bald on top but sporting a magnificent moustache and sideburns. His terry cloth singlet was soaked with sweat but without any other stains that I could see. “Hey, Ayesha? I’m going to take a break. Come on back, Abram.”

One of the servers took over at the grill. Abram led me under the end of the counter — we ducked; it didn’t have a gate to lift — and into a door in the palace wall. It seemed to have been enlarged from a ventilator. The interior was a large storeroom.

Martial twisted two bare wires together; fluorescents flickered on. He gestured to the low stools along the interior wall. “Will you have wine?”

“Do fish piss in the sea!” Abram said. “I’m paying for my friend Olfetrie until he gets something going.”

I took the glass of red wine and tasted it with my tongue. It was good, good enough that my mother would have approved. Well, she would have approved if anybody but Dad had offered it; nothing Dad did was good enough. Or anything I did, come to think.

“So…” Martial said, settling onto another stool. “Do you think you’ll be able to earn some money, Olfetrie?”

“Yes,” I said. “And if we’re going to be friends, I go by Roy. As for the details, I won’t know exactly how until I learn the system here, but” — I shrugged and turned my free hand up — “I can think of half a dozen ways off the top of my head. It shouldn’t be hard.”

I’d told Captain Leary that I wasn’t a crook like my dad, and I wasn’t. That didn’t mean I didn’t know how a system could be fiddled. There was nothing about Giorgios or his master the Admiral that made me imagine that I owed them loyal service.

“I can find anything you want, Roy,” Abram said. “Say, are you looking for girl?”

“Maybe later,” I said. I didn’t say that I’d rather meet somebody on my own. “I told you, I need to learn the system.”

“That’s smart,” said Martial. “Jumping in too quick, you’re likely to get trapped.” He snorted. “Or clapped.”

“Hey, Martial,” Abram said. “You know I wouldn’t let him get burned!”

To me, in a wheedling tone, he said, “Boys, maybe?”

“No,” I said. “Abram, if I need something, I’ll let you know.”

Someone knocked on the outside door. Abram hopped up and opened it, then returned to us carrying a tray of hot pasties. He held out the tray to me, but he’d taken one himself with his free hand.

“Which division do you eat in, Roy?” Martial said. “The chamberlain’s, I suppose?”

“I suppose,” I said. “Giorgios didn’t say, but he said I’m his slave.”

Martial’s mouth worked as though he were going to spit in disgust, but what came out was only the words, “Gardane’s the cheapest bastard in the palace. I’d as soon drink lamp oil as the wine he serves.”

I took a careful nibble off the end of a pasty. It was a green vegetable, probably spinach, and very good. It was hot enough that I was glad not to have taken a larger bite, but it made me realize how hungry I was.

“Can I transfer from his division to yours, Martial?” I asked around another mouthful. “I’m not really enrolled yet, after all.”

“Naw, the bastard won’t let you go,” the cook said glumly. “The losing division has to agree, and Gardane won’t. He screws half the per-person allowance in straight profit, and he won’t let a soul off his books.”

“Oh,” I said. “If it’s just a matter of getting Master Gardane’s agreement, then I can talk to him. I think he’ll be reasonable if I ask him the right way.”

“Dream on, buddy,” Martial said. “Here, though, another glassful on me.”

“I’ll take the wine,” I said. “But Abram, you and I need to get going soon. I have a lot of work to do. A lot of work.”

I’d decided that my first priority was to prepare for my interview with Gardane. I already had some ideas about that.

* * *

I wasn’t a computer expert, but the palace’s systems were so unsophisticated that I was sure within a few hours that my only problems were going to be with preexisting input errors. Nothing was encrypted, but a number of the files were corrupt beyond my ability to clarify.

There were areas which had been mechanically blocked. They would require chipped inserts, in the unit’s present configuration. I figured I had an answer to that, but it could wait until I had the leisure.

I found the refectory accounts easily, but it took me and Abram two hours to compile the list I wanted. The boy knew more than half the names, but the rest took research. I found a few by searching the computer, but mostly “research” meant Abram running off and talking to friends. He knew a lot of people in the palace, which didn’t surprise me; and at least at the bottom end, people seemed to like him — which didn’t surprise me either.

When I decided I was ready, I had a much longer list than I’d expected at the start. “Now…” I said to Abram. “Lead me to Gardane. Then go do something else. This will work best if it’s just me and the cook in private. It shouldn’t be a big deal.”

The chamberlain’s refectory was five bays in the south wing of the third floor, just around the corner from Giorgios’ staff quarters. The first two bays off the gallery were given over to tables; a third was the kitchen itself. The remaining two were housing and offices.

Abram brought me to the last of these and said to the guard, “This is the chamberlain’s personal assistant. He needs to talk to Gardane.”

“It isn’t time yet for Gardane to see people,” the guard said stolidly.

“Giorgios told me that Olfetrie goes everywhere!” Abram said, which wasn’t quite true. “Do you want to spend the short rest of your life on a stake because you didn’t obey the chamberlain? This is important!”

I kept my mouth shut and looked stern. Maybe I could get a uniform. I was wearing spacers slops, comfortable but not very imposing. The palace seemed to be big on appearances.

Well, bigger on appearances than society generally. And as I thought about it some more, maybe not that much bigger.

“Look,” said the guard, “don’t try to put me in the middle of this. It’s between the chamberlain and my boss. Nothing to do with me at all!”

He stepped out of the way and I walked in, through strings of metal beads hanging down like a curtain. Three women were in the anteroom, whispering together in a corner. They sprang apart, one of them with an audible, “Eep!”

I pointed to that one. “I need to speak with Master Gardane, now,” I said. “In private. You go fetch him, all right? In one minute I’ll come back and find him if he hasn’t made it out here before then.”