Though Hell Should Bar The Way – Snippet 33

The woman scampered off. All three were dressed as maids: young enough to be more than that, but too plain for that to seem probable.

The two who remained clutched one another’s hands and stared at me with a frightened expression. I smiled at them with what I hoped was a friendly face and said, “I’m new here, but your master and I are going to be great friends shortly. I’ve just come by to get acquainted.”

They continued to stare like bunnies in the headlights. At least they weren’t screaming.

It had been long enough that I was just about to go deeper into the bay, when a man in his forties came out of the back, still tying a blue gauze sash around his waist. He glared at me and said, “If Giorgios thinks he’s got to see me, he can make an appointment!”

Which meant that the girl I’d sent as a messenger had reported the exchange between Abram and the guard as well as what I’d said. That was a degree of initiative that I hadn’t expected.

“I don’t think either one of us want to see Giorgios,” I said. “And certainly not the Admiral. Is there some place we can talk in private?”

The girl who’d eeped was peering out through the bead screen to the back of the suite. I already knew that she was smart enough to be dangerous.

Gardane hesitated a moment. Then he said, “Come on. We’ll go up to the roof.”

We went deeper into the bay, then up a circular metal staircase set into an alcove. I suspected the stairs had been salvaged from a starship’s companionway. The trap door at the top was open, but Gardane clanged it closed when we stepped out onto a roof of tiles set in cement. Trees with short, fuzzy, trunks and broad foliage sat in pots in a rough circle around the trap so that shade fell on the wicker couches and table regardless of the time of day or year.

“Go away,” Gardane said to the pair of attendants who’d been lounging in the shade. He made shooing notions with his hands. They obediently sauntered toward the nearest of the five other potted oases visible.

The fourth wing of the palace was a story higher than the front and sides, and it had a real wall around it instead of just curbing. I remembered Giorgios’ warning about the wives’ section and quickly looked at a tree.

“Say what you want to say,” Gardane snapped.

I handed over my list, three sheets which I had been carrying rolled in my left hand. “Before we talk,” I said, “I’d like you to read this.”

The cook scanned the first sheet, turned to the second, and finally the third. He looked at me. He must go to some effort to keep himself in shape, but he liked food too well to be completely successful at that.

“It’s a list of names,” he said, working to stay calm. “What do they mean to you?”

Keeping my voice emotionless so that the words wouldn’t sound like a threat, I said, “It’s a list of people who are assigned to the chamberlain’s refectory but who are also drawing rations from other divisions. And of people who are not members of the palace complement at all, but who are assigned to the chamberlain’s refectory. And of people who aren’t people; non-existent people who are assigned to the chamberlain’s refectory.”

“I see,” Gardane said. His eyes flicked in the direction of the guards whom he’d sent away. “What do you propose to do with this list?”

“Absolutely nothing,” I said. “I came to see you because I’ve been told that you have the authority to transfer my meal allowance to another palace division. In this case, I’d like you to transfer me and the boy Abram, and also the last four names on the list” — people who didn’t exist for any purpose except to draw rations — “to the division of Chef Martial. I believe his division generally handles gardeners and other outside workers; day laborers, many of them.”

Gardane’s eyes went to the guards again. If he called to them, I was going to punch him in the stomach and fling open the trap door, hoping to get down the stairs before reinforcements arrived to throw me off the roof.

“If I do that,” Gardane said carefully, “what other business will you and I have? In particular, what will the chamberlain himself have to say about it?”

“Giorgios will say nothing because he will know nothing,” I said. “I am responsible for all data entry.”

“Agreed, then,” Gardane said. He smiled. “I suggest we go down and seal the bargain with a glass of wine.”

The wine wasn’t bad. Abram had been right, though: Martial’s seemed better.

* * *

I was organizing the accounts, division by division. I hadn’t thought of the Petersburg Chandlery as being very organized, but if I ever found myself back there I would apologize for my previous sneers.

The sneers hadn’t reached my lips, and there was vanishingly small chance of me revisiting Petersburg Chandlery. For that matter, at the moment things weren’t looking good for me ever seeing Cinnabar again.

I left the curtain open while I was working. There was a little air circulation that way, and the gang of household residents watching me weren’t a problem after I’d gotten used to them.

If they pushed too close, Abram chased them away with threats of what the Admiral’s guards would do if they disturbed me. Initially I thought the threats were just over-the-top hyperbole, but after a few days in the palace I’d seen enough casual cruelty to fear that they were literally true.

There was a thrumming bustle behind me, the way birds scatter when a hawk appears. The noise wasn’t frightening, but the sudden silence that followed worried me. I turned to ask Abram what was going on.

Abram wasn’t there, but a pudgy man with a red turban, a cloth-of-gold tunic, and an entourage of three guards was. I’d never seen the Admiral, but I was pretty sure who this fellow was.

I got up from the console, uncertain whether I was supposed to bow or maybe even throw myself on the floor. Sure, I’m a Cinnabar citizen and proud of it, but I’d already watched two people — a guy about my age and a kid of ten or so — be impaled on stakes. I’m willing to die rather than do some things, but I’m not willing to die that way unless there really isn’t a choice.

“Get out of here, you fool!” a guard growled, jabbing his impeller at me. I jumped clear and whisked around the partition into Giorgios’ bedroom. There’d usually have been an attendant there to keep underlings out, but that fellow had vanished when the Admiral arrived.

The chamberlain was alone in his big bed. He’d awakened, probably when his attendants fled. He swung his legs out — he was wearing a paisley shift — and gestured me to the back of the suite. We went out onto the gallery and Giorgios closed the door behind us. There was no one in sight.

“Did he say what he was looking for?” Giorgios whispered.

“He didn’t say anything,” I whispered back. “A guard told me to get out. Does this happen often?”

“Not often,” Giorgios said. “He doesn’t usually leave the Wives’ Wing except on court days. And this is early!”

Then he gasped and said, “The computer was working, wasn’t it? It wasn’t a blank screen?”

“The console was fine,” I said soothingly. It was nearly midday — which might have been early for the Admiral, come to think, as well as for his chamberlain. “I was going over the Treasury Division accounts.”

That led to an obvious segue and I said, “What does the Admiral do at the console?”

If he was checking the treasury accounts, there were going to be more people on stakes shortly. I wasn’t doing an audit — and I’d just started on the division anyway — but the corruption I’d found in household expenses was subtle compared to what I’d seen at a glance in the Chancellor’s department.

“I don’t know,” Giorgios said miserably. “Do you suppose he’s checking on me?”

I started to say, “Well, I’ll tell you as soon as I look at the console history,” but I decided to keep quiet about that. The chamberlain certainly didn’t know that the console logged usage, and I realized that the Admiral himself probably didn’t.

“I guess we’d better hope not,” I said instead. Then, because Giorgios was so rattled, I said, “I think that for safety’s sake, I’d better start contacting the vendors myself instead of you sending the orders by messengers. Heavens only knows what some of them would say under a little pressure.”

“Oh, Great God,” Giorgios said. “Do you really think so? Oh Great God.”

I patted him on the shoulder. “It’s going to be fine,” I said. “I’ll take care of it and we’ll both be safe.”

I wouldn’t be safe until I was gone from ben Yusuf. I was pretty sure this would be a step toward getting me there.