Though Hell Should Bar The Way – Snippet 36

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I was at work on the dry goods accounts, as best as I could. It was a tangled mess, with minimal data entered — usually a gross amount — and uncertain dates. At least a third of the entries were identical to the sou to one or more other entries. That didn’t necessarily mean they were false, however, because it was the nature of housekeeping expenses to be repetitive.

I’d have been right more often than not to say an account was false, though. It’s not just that ben Yusuf existed by piracy. Its society was corrupt from bottom to top. I wasn’t taking a moral stance to think that it should be remade; that was just a pragmatic assessment.

Abram rang a brass triangle right behind me. I jumped, but it’d been my idea. When I was working, I tuned out my surroundings. That was fine for most things, but if I ignored the Admiral when he visited I was likely to be alerted by a guard using the butt of his impeller.

I blanked the display before I turned around. There was nothing wrong with me going over household accounts, but I might have been viewing the Wives’ Wing. I was training myself to react the safe way, every time. I didn’t want either gelding or impaling to become part of my work history.

Abram stood with Lal, my shipmate from Captain Hakim’s crew. I surprised myself with how glad I was to see him. Lal and Abram were the closest thing to friends I’d made since I was shanghaied on Saguntum.

“Say, spacer!” I said, getting up from the console. My eyes had to adjust before I could see him properly. “What’re you doing here?”

“Well, when we landed at Salaam, I thought I’d see how you were getting on,” Lal said, looking around. “I thought you’d be all right, but I’m still surprised that you’re doing this well. From what I hear, you’re running things in the palace.”

“No, not that,” I said truthfully. I didn’t add, “And if it were true I wouldn’t say it. Even Giorgios doesn’t find me so indispensable that he wouldn’t have somebody knife me if he decided I was a danger to him.”

Aloud I went on, “Have you had lunch? Let me buy you lunch!”

“I wouldn’t mind,” Lal said. “We made a couple decent captures this time, but Captain Hakim won’t be paying off till the auction in a week or so.”

I looked at Abram and made a quick calculation. “Abram,” I said, “let’s you and I find a place we can have lunch with my old shipmate. Some place the food’s as good as Martial’s but where we don’t have to stand outside.”

“Right,” said Abram. “I really like Etzil’s down by the harbor, if you don’t mind a bit of a walk?”

We didn’t mind. Of course.

I’ve heard people say, “You’ve got to trust somebody!” and I’ve also heard them say, “You can’t trust anybody!” Neither of those things is true; both are just words that people shout when a plan or a relationship goes belly-up.

I’ve known people who didn’t seem to trust anybody. My dad was one of them. Certainly neither my brother nor I had any notion of how he was getting his contracts. As for Mom, I don’t doubt that she was just as shocked as she seemed when the investigators and the bailiffs descended on us.

But by the same token, none of Dad’s business associates betrayed him. He was unmasked when a new Minister of Defense took over and for her own political purposes forced a really serious audit.

But that was the thing: Dad had lost — I don’t know a better word for what had happened — despite not trusting anyone. And I simply didn’t want to live that way.

Sure, I could go off with Lal on my own without arousing suspicion in anybody but Abram himself (and maybe not even in him). He might be able to help, though; and anyway I just wanted to let him know what I was thinking.

Etzil’s was a narrow frontage between a pair of large shops catering to spacers with clothing, cheap jewelry, and personal weapons. Etzil had a satellite location, though, a combination of marquee and shed on an outcrop closer to the water. A sheet of structural plastic formed a floor flat enough for chairs, but because of the rock, nobody came ashore there.

We took a table and were waited on by a boy younger than Abram. When he had scampered back to the main building to fetch our wine and food, I first nodded to Abram, then said to Lal, “I want to get off planet.”

“I’d say you were sitting pretty,” Lal said. “Why would you want to leave?”

“He doesn’t belong here,” said Abram unexpectedly. “There’s some from the big worlds that really take to it — Guido, the War Chief, he’s from Pantellaria, and the vizier of Eski Marakech is from Pleasaunce itself. But Roy here” — he nodded to me — “is scheming to get away. And some other stuff too, I shouldn’t wonder. He’ll lose his wedding tackle if he’s not lucky.”

I didn’t say anything, but my heart was a block of ice.

“Well, you’re out of luck if you think one of the captains is going to sign you on,” Lal said to me. “Even Hakim. He’d have been glad to have you before, but now that you’re the Admiral’s slave he won’t touch you. He wouldn’t be able to come back to Salaam if he did, and even if he was willing to lift out of some place else it wouldn’t do you any good. The admirals all stick together that much — they won’t harbor each other’s run slaves.”

“What about other planets?” I said. My hopes were melting. “I could pay well.”

“Where do you suppose a ship from ben Yusuf could land and not everybody aboard be hanged?” Lal said. “I don’t know of anyplace.”

Our orders came. The food was a thick fish stew spread on a trencher of barley bread. We ate with spoons and our hands. It was the best meal I’d had on ben Yusuf, and I’m not complaining about Martial’s food.

“If you had enough money…” Abram said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “You could buy a ship.”

“And then what?” said Lal. “Oh, sure, Roy could captain it and maybe work it alone — I don’t believe that, but maybe he could. But where’s he going then? To Blanchard or St. Julien? They’d more likely shoot him when he opened the airlock than they’d start cheering about his escape. If it’s a bigger place that has a guard ship, you won’t get out of orbit.”

“Yeah,” said Abram without the animation of a moment before. “Anybody arriving on a cutter from ben Yusuf is a pirate when he reaches anywhere else.”

“That’s not what I wanted to hear,” I said, scraping a spoonful of sopped bread from my trencher. I think I sounded calm. I sounded calmer than I felt anyway.

“Look…” said Lal. “If I knew a way, I’d tell you. You saved my life, Roy. I’ll do anything I can for you.”

“Boss, I don’t want you to leave Salaam, believe me,” Abram said earnestly. “But you’ll die if you stay here. I won’t turn you in but somebody will. So you better get out or quit looking at the wives.…And I don’t know how you can get out.”

Etzil’s wine wasn’t very good, but we drank a lot more of it before Lal went off to his room and Abram led me to the palace. On the way back I said, “Abram, why do you think I’ve been looking at the place you said?”

I didn’t want to use the words. I didn’t think anybody passing in the street would hear enough to be a problem, but I’d been sure that nobody could see the display when I was using it.

Abram looked at me. “Look, boss, I didn’t know what you were doing and I figured I ought to,” he said. “The way you were acting, there was more than just money.”

He grinned. “You don’t care about money,” he said. “You could make a lot more easy, but you don’t bother.”

“I suppose that’s true,” I said. “But how did you see a display that was focused just for me?”

“I rigged a mirror on the pillar in front of me,” Abram said. “I watched your fingers move. I can’t read, but I’m good on motion. And when you were asleep, I did what you’d been doing. If anybody’d asked, I’d have said I was doing it for you — but nobody asked. But when I got the place you mostly went to — ”

He put his hand on my arm and stopped me where we were, twenty feet from the gate of the palace. In an even softer voice than before, he continued, “I glanced at it and then I shut down. I never want to see that again. No matter how bad Giorgios needs you, he’ll have you impaled and probably me too if he ever gets a whiff of what you’re doing.”

I took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Abram,” I said. “If you want to get a long way away from me before anything happens, I won’t blame you. But I’m not going to quit. And I’m going to get her away with me. Somehow.”