Though Hell Should Bar The Way – Snippet 35

Abram was always working an angle. If you stayed on his good side, you wouldn’t find that angle jabbing you in the dark some night.

The Admiral had only stayed twenty minutes before going back to the women’s wing with his entourage of guards and toadies. None of them were permitted to watch what he was doing at the console.

As before, I had Abram shoo the spectators off to a distance, though there hadn’t been any reason for that except that I didn’t want to be jostled. Less than half of the palace staff were even literate, and all I was doing at the computer was my job as the chamberlain’s assistant. I didn’t intend to discuss with the chamberlain what I was doing, sure; but he was probably happier not to know.

I checked the usage log and found that all the Admiral’s activity had been in areas accessed after insertion of a chip key. That disassociated them from the console’s normal routines.

The only way around that was to create an identical key — impossible for me and probably impossible for anybody else unless they had the original to copy — or to reset the console itself and to wipe all security formatting. That too was impossible unless you had the console’s password, which could be set to fourteen digits of letters, numbers, and symbols.

In the RCN, every console was given a password generated by cosmic ray impacts; I’m sure the Alliance used a similar system. As consoles came from the manufacturer, though, the normal default was the last three digits of the unit’s serial number. The palace console was ex-commercial; as I expected, keying in A3* opened all sectors of the console to me.

There were document files which could be updated by information transferred when the key was inserted. That had been done regularly, but there’d been no changes in the past month. Each was a personnel file, so to speak: the name of a woman; particulars of height, weight, and identifying characteristics; and where applicable the name of her father and her birth village, with the bride price.

In five cases the file gave the woman’s name and planet of origin, with no mention of bride price. Four of those women did have prices listed, but with the name of a captain rather than a father; they’d been bought at slave auctions.

The unique item on the list was Monica Smith, a blonde from Saguntum. She was the most recent arrival, from three months back. No source or price appeared. That was a puzzle with no obvious means of solution.

The sectors which the Admiral had been checking a few minutes ago were displays for observation cameras in the Wives’ Wing, though I had to check the sources to be sure of that.

I blanked the display in sudden terror, then turned on the couch. The console was in an alcove. Ten or a dozen palace servants sat in a loose semicircle out in the gallery. They were staring at my back. They didn’t seem concerned or even interested when I looked at them.

Between me and them squatted Abram, with a double-edged dagger in his lap. Nobody was close enough for the point of the dagger to reach — quite — if Abram suddenly started swiping at spectators. I made sure the focus of my holographic display was set so that the images cohered only from within sixteen centimeters — the unit was of Karst manufacture — of where my eyes were when I sat at the console.

I took a deep breath and opened one of the camera feeds.

I was looking at a woman with lovely blond hair, about as old as I am. She was staring at a window covered by a carved wooden screen. The screen was a marvel of workmanship; the craftsman who’d made it could have earned a fortune on Cinnabar, turning out one-off masterpieces for newly rich gentlemen in Xenos.

People like my dad had been.

The blond was in a corner room; I judged that she was looking over the alley on the south side of the palace. I doubted whether she could see the pavement, and I wasn’t sure that she could even see the tops of the two-story buildings across the way; the screen was finger thick, and the openings were narrow swirls an inch or two long.

The blond got up from the window ledge. Her expression was the only part of her that wasn’t lovely. It was as cold as polished granite, not ugly but inhuman. There was only one blond in the Admiral’s records, so this was Monica Smith.

Monica picked up a long-necked stringed instrument and walked to the door. I lost her when she went out, but there were more than twenty other feeds. I cycled through them until one gave me a large bay, probably the central half of the wing.

Eight women lounged there. Two were playing a game with cards and tiles; three sat at another table and drank small cupfuls from an urn; and the final three read or stared at wood-screened windows, much as Monica had been doing in her room.

The camera installation had been expert. It covered the entire top floor of the wing and showed the interiors of every chamber. The feeds must have come from extreme fish-eye lenses, but there was no distortion in what I saw because the console’s enormous capacity easily corrected the images.

I wondered who had installed and connected the equipment; and I wondered also if they had long survived the task. It was possible that the work had been done by women or by eunuchs. My suspicion after my past experience with the palace was that the Admiral had bought slaves with the necessary expertise and then had executed them.

The women were all dressed in loose garments and slippers. Monica wore a shift much like the one Giorgios slept in, though hers was white instead of patterned. Most of the others were in similar garments or skirts and blouses, though one of the game players wore only a bandeau above the waist.

Monica walked to a woman reading. They moved to a bench without back or arms and sat. Monica began to play while the other woman watched her fingering intently.

Another woman entered the hall from a door which had been closed until then. The observation cameras didn’t have sound — and I wouldn’t have dared use it anyway — but the roomful of women started as suddenly as birds raised by a gun dog.

The newcomer was older than most of the others — midforties I would guess — but in very good condition. She was plumper than my taste, but that seemed to be the norm for ben Yusuf. The only slim adult woman whom I’d seen here was Monica.

The woman who’d been sitting with Monica disappeared into one of the rooms. She left behind the book she’d been reading. Monica stood also, but she didn’t back away.

The Admiral’s chief wife was Azul, fifty years old and born on ben Yusuf. I was certain now that I was watching her, though she wore her age well. I couldn’t hear the words the two women exchanged, but I could read them easily enough in the postures and expressions.

Azul advanced. Instead of backing away, Monica picked up a lamp of turned brass from the table where her instructor had been reading. Azul halted.

The older woman was dressed with greater formality than the other wives. Her long, pale-blue dress was cinched at the waist with a broad belt of leather dyed a darker blue which matched the material of her cut-work slippers. Her hair fell loose on the right side but was gathered by a gaudy barrette on the left.

Azul looked over her shoulder. A moment later, two men wearing pantaloons and loose blouses joined her. They were thick bodied and soft looking, but they were also big. One spoke to Azul; then they moved on Monica from either side.

For a moment I thought the girl was going to fight them. Then she hurled the lamp to the floor and handed the musical instrument to the man — the eunuch, obviously — on her right.

That servant carried the instrument to Azul, bowed, and handed it over. The other eunuch shifted slightly so that he was directly between the women. He continued to watch Monica.

Azul examined the instrument. The sound box was very small compared to the long neck. She walked to the outside wall where Monica could see her clearly. Raising the instrument in both hands as though she were using an axe, she swung it against the masonry. It shattered into scraps of light wood and the sturdier neck from which the four strings dangled.

Azul tossed the neck to the floor. She turned and walked back into the room she had appeared from.

Monica said nothing. She too returned to her room. She closed her door with a controlled motion instead of banging it.

I blanked my display. I was trembling inside. Then after a moment I reopened the feed I had started with, the interior of Monica’s room. It was the last one the Admiral had been watching.

Monica lay on her bed, her face buried into the bedclothes. Judging from the way her body shook, she was sobbing.

I turned off the console. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do just now, but I knew I didn’t want to see more of the internal politics of the Wives’ Wing.