Though Hell Should Bar The Way – Snippet 34


I’d thought my first order of business would be to find Abram, but I heard his laugh — a cheerful bray — coming up from below several times while Giorgios and I were chatting. I leaned over the gallery railing and saw the boy among the customers at Martial’s diner.

I could have shouted to him, but walking down the stairs didn’t arouse general notice. That didn’t necessarily make me safe, but keeping a low profile struck me as the better option.

People who randomly whack the heads off flowers start with the tallest stems. There were plenty of randomly violent people in the Admiral’s palace.

When Abram saw me walking toward the diner, he waved and trotted to meet me. “Hey, boss,” he said. “Glad you don’t need a stake to stay upright. How’s Giorgios?”

“The same when I left him,” I said. “He may need to change his trousers. Though come to think, he was still in his nightshirt. Still, it seemed like a good time to get out into the town. Take me to Balian’s, to begin with.”

“We have an order for Balian?” Abram said. “He usually gives me a glass of wine when I bring him an order.”

“I’ll talk with Balian,” I said. “There’ll be others today, and more later too.”

I planned to come away with more than a glass of wine. Martial had kept me supplied with as much as I needed in piaster coins — he’d still be making a nice profit on the six “mouths” I’d transferred to his roster — but I thought it was time that I started making my own way.

Abram led. I made an effort to recall the turns, but I wasn’t very concerned about it. I’d be just as happy to have a companion every time I wandered the city.

I could get Giorgios to assign armed guards, I suppose, but I trusted Abram and his wits to stand me in as good stead as any of the guards I’d seen thus far. They seemed to be village boys who’d been handed a weapon. They might be brave enough, but they had the intelligence of the goats they’d been herding before they entered Salaam.

Abram turned into a plaza around a sprawling building with white walls. The walls were less than ten feet tall, but I could see that the roof was covered by a series of vaults. As soon as we stepped inside, keepers of the shops inside greeted us with noisy enthusiasm.

They came from behind their counters, often with a selection of their wares hanging from one outstretched arm. Those in this neighborhood seemed to be jewelers, offering chains and bangles hanging from chains.

“We want hardware,” Abram explained to me in a dismissive tone. “That is” — his expression grew cunning — “unless you’ve changed your mind about a girl? Murid in the last shop down is my friend and he can give you a good price.”

“I haven’t changed my mind,” I said, keeping my eyes straight ahead despite the fingers plucking my sleeves. Did they treat everybody this way? Because Abram and I certainly weren’t dressed to impress people with our wealth.

We continued through to a cross bay and turned right. This time the shops sold low-end clothing, the local equivalent of the spacers’ slops I was wearing. I could use more garments, but not now.

For that matter, my inclination was to let Abram shop for my personal needs. I preferred to bargain at a higher level.

Beyond the clothing was a hardware market. The shopkeepers were mostly male as they had been in the jewelry bay, but they were less boisterously enthusiastic. The garment sellers had been women.

Balian was an old man seated at the back of the shop. At the counter were two younger men; one wasn’t much older than Abram. They cheerfully greeted him, taking him by the arms and drawing him past the counters of pipe fittings and into the racks of tools.

I’d intended to have lists with me when I began visiting shopkeepers, but the Admiral’s arrival hadn’t given me time to plan. I’d recently gone over hardware purchases, though, so I figured I was current enough for the present purposes.

“And this one…?” said the older of the youths, eying me without pleasure. “You’re training to be the new messenger?”

The words were harmless. The insult was in the tone.

“Not exactly,” I said. The acoustics in this large hall were designed for drinking clatter rather than for transmitting speech clearly, but I could see that the old man in back was listening intently. I pitched my voice for him: “I’m the chamberlain’s assistant and have sole control of the console. I’m here to discuss future orders rather than to place one today.”

The younger clerk sniffed. “Well, I guess we can stand a second glass of wine,” he said loudly.

I looked over his head at Balian and smiled. It wasn’t a good-humored smile. I didn’t speak, which seemed to put the boy off his stride.

The old man got up and said, “Mehmet, why don’t you and Suleiman attend our friend Abram. I will take the new gentleman — your name, sir?”

“Roy Olfetrie,” I said, nodding slightly.

“Our new friend Roy into my office,” Balian said. To me he added, “It’s quieter, and perhaps I could find a better bottle of wine?”

“I’m not here for wine,” I said as I followed him toward the back of the shop.

“No, no, I didn’t think you were,” Balian said sadly. He opened a door to which a rack of small metal fittings hung. They tinkled when the panel moved. “Well, what can a poor man do?”

The office was small but antiseptically clean: one small desk, two straight chairs, and a four-drawer file cabinet. The old man opened the bottom drawer of the cabinet and came out holding an earthenware bottle and two shapely tulip glasses.

He looked up and paused. “Unless perchance you’d like something stronger?”

“Ben Yusuf wine is quite strong enough for me,” I said.

Balian handed me a glass and closed the bottle with a plug of waxed wood. When he’d settled into his chair with the second glass, he eyed me and said, “Not bad, don’t you think?”

“Yes,” I agreed after a taste. “But as I said, I’m not here for the refreshment.”

“Of course,” Balian said. “What proposition do you have for me, Roy Olfetrie?”

“For every twenty items ordered for the palace,” I said, “you invoice twenty-one as delivered. I enter the twenty-one, and you and I split the billed amount of the twenty-first. You pay over my share in cash the next time I come by.”

“Indeed,” said the old man, speaking with no inflection. “And what would you do, Roy Olfetrie, if I reported this conversation the Giorgios, your master?”

I shrugged. “I think he’d be pleased,” I said. “At least when I explain that your pique is natural, given that I moved all the hardware purchases to Ajah. He agreed to pay a twenty-five percent commission to the chamberlain instead of twenty, you see.”

“Ajah won’t pay twenty-five percent!” Balian snarled, the first time his mask had slipped.

I shrugged again. “I suspect he will if I double his volume,” I said.

For a moment, Balian stared at me with an expression as blank as a pearl. Then he chuckled and said, “You know, you might be right about that. But” — his eyes hard-focused again — “you haven’t actually done that yet?”

“You were my first stop,” I said truthfully. “As best as I could tell, your prices are better than Ajah’s. While the well-being of my employer — my owner, I suppose I should say — isn’t my only consideration, I did take it into account.”

Balian chuckled again. He set his glass down on the desk and laughed harder.

It didn’t hurt me, but neither did the business seem to me such a funny joke. I said, “Where do you get your supplies? Are there factories elsewhere on ben Yusuf? Because I haven’t seen much sign of them in Salaam.”

“Pipe and fittings are mostly made on planet,” the old man said, sobering. “There’s an extrusion plant in the west suburbs here. Hand tools, some on ben Yusuf; there’s a couple factories in Eski Marakech. Power tools, they’re all from off planet.”

I thought of what Giorgios had said when he brought me to the palace. I said, “I didn’t realize ben Yusuf had off-planet trade.”

“Charities on other planets buy back their citizens under truce,” Balian explained. “That’s mostly done in Eski Marakech, but my agent there buys on my orders and ships them to me.”

He lifted the wine bottle. “Another?” he said.

“Not for me,” I said, getting to my feet. “But I’ll be sending Abram with a formal order in a few days, once I’ve checked my records on the console.”

That wasn’t all I’d be checking on the console. I hoped the Admiral was finished by now. I was looking forward to learning what he’d been doing.

* * *

I let Abram check about on Admiral’s whereabouts. I didn’t want to be seen asking about him or about much of anything. That was largely my plan of keeping a low profile, but I’d seen from our first meeting that Abram would get better information than I could. He knew so much that his quick brain could cross-check whatever people told him, and nobody was going to ask why he wanted to know something.