Though Hell Should Bar The Way – Snippet 37


I’d say that the lunch with Lal had changed my life, but it really didn’t. It just sort of reinforced my plan to keep on doing things the way I was.

Particularly about trusting Abram. The worst Giorgios and the Admiral would do if Abram told them I was planning to escape would be to put me in shackles, but if Abram had told them what he’d figured out on his own — that I was spying on the wives — my punishment wouldn’t have stopped till I was dead.

I kept watching the wives, but mostly I kept watching Monica. She didn’t belong as the Admiral’s wife, any more than I belonged as his slave. Maybe that was part of what was eating at me about Monica, the fact we were unfairly in the same boat, but I don’t kid myself that I’d have thought about her so much if she’d been old and ugly. I try to be a person I can smile at when I look in the mirror, but I never wanted to be a saint.

There was plenty of work to do. I was combining the week’s food order — I wouldn’t put it all with the same broker, but bulk still gave me more leverage than I’d have had otherwise — when Abram brought me into the present by ringing the triangle.

I shut down and turned as the chamberlain entered the gallery. I didn’t see Giorgios very often except when he was passing through, to and from his own apartments. He was so willing to leave the console to me that he didn’t seem to look at it.

“We’ve bought a lemon tree,” he said, sounding flustered. “It’s being delivered this afternoon,”

I’d gotten up, clearing the couch for Giorgios. “Yes, sir?” I said politely. I couldn’t imagine why he was upset by a purchase which didn’t sound particularly major. Nobody’d submitted an invoice yet, so I couldn’t be quite sure of that.

“It’s for the wives’ garden!” Giorgios said. “The Admiral will be here shortly to unlock the alley entrance! Is the console working properly?”

“It’s working perfectly,” I said. “I was just checking the food orders, but there’s no rush on that.”

“Oh, thank the Great God,” said Giorgios. “I’m always afraid that it will fail again and I’ll be blamed!”

“I’ll keep out of the way, then,” I said calmly. “I didn’t know there was an alley entrance.”

I bowed to Giorgios, then slipped through what was left of the usual gathering of spectators. Most of them had disappeared as soon as they’d heard that the Admiral was coming.

Abram followed without me needing to call him. I’m not sure whether he was coming with me or just dodging the Admiral.

“Let’s see Martial,” I said, though what I really meant was “Let’s go outside.”

When we got through the main entrance, Abram gestured to the left. Martial’s diner would have been to the right.

“I figured you wanted to know about the alley entrance,” Abram said. “There’s a bit of a plaza at this end of the alley — there’s a common well. That’ll let us watch without, you know, getting caught up in it.”

“I’m glad you’re on my side,” I said. That was the truth if I’d ever spoken it.

There were lots of people in the plaza, which was a flag-stoned triangle with a street on one side and the sides of buildings built askew on the other two. There wasn’t any furniture, but a pair of local trees grew in terracotta pots which were as sturdy as the dry stone well curb.

We sat on the edge of a pot, and Abram began trimming the callus on his left heel with his long knife. The three men who’d been standing nearby moved away.

“They’re house slaves,” he said. “They’re just here with the women — ”

He nodded in the direction of the well where heavily bundled-up women stood gossiping.

“Down the alley there is where they’ll be bringing in the tree.”

Six guards with impellers and wearing edged weapons stood in the middle of the narrow passage. They were led by an officer wearing a fur cap above which nodded a long feather dyed bright blue.

“There’s a tunnel through the wing and into the little garden just for the wives,” Abram said. “There’s no door through the wall between the courtyard and the wives’ garden. Food and stuff you can bring into the wing through the regular passages, but this is a tree.”

A pair of motorized platforms came up the street from the direction of the bay. They looked like the one Giorgios used when he went out, but they were linked back to back. A tree with a cloth-wrapped root ball rode the join. Men stood on either side, bracing the trunk with their hands.

“I wonder why the Admiral uses the cameras to watch what he could be right there in person watching,” I said. I had wondered, and this was a chance to discuss it with the one person on ben Yusuf I could do that with.

Abram snorted. “Hey, he’s getting on,” he said. “He’s fat, he drinks, and he’s bored. I don’t guess the wives get much personal attention, though you’d know that better’n me. If he can’t do it himself, he can still get a kick out of peeping at what the women get up to on their own.”

I thought about it. “I suppose,” I said.

Certainly the Admiral didn’t visit any of his wives’ rooms often. I didn’t watch what happened during those visits, but from the determination with which several of the women tried to entice him, he wasn’t terribly interested in sex.

Giorgios arrived from the other end of the alley. When he gave an order, a guard grasped the door handle — it was a U of reinforcing rod welded onto the metal door — and tugged. Another guard joined him before the panel started to open, but it took a third man to actually haul it fully back.

The crew who’d arrived with the tree lifted it down on its wooden framework, then carried it into the passage. There were half a dozen of them, but two carried shovels and a pick from the vehicle.

“There’s another door on the garden end,” Abram said. “Boutros, he’s one of the geldings, he told me. There’s no key lock, just the console that only the Admiral can work.”

He looked at me and raised an eyebrow. “Except maybe you can too, can you?” he added.

I shrugged. “I ought to be able to,” I said. “I haven’t looked for a lock control on the console, though.”

The guards and workmen finally came out of the passage. The last one was Giorgios. I turned my head away, but Abram didn’t bother to. The chamberlain seemed to have paid attention only to the door as the guards forced it shut with a loud clang.

The workmen rode off on their vehicle. Giorgios and most of the guards waited near the closed door, but one man scampered past us and continued up the street toward the front of the palace.

“They’ve gotta tell the Admiral to lock it again,” Abram said. “I hear that some places, they got radios to do that from a ways away. Is that true?”

“That’s true,” I agreed. Then I said, “Abram, would you be able to find me some penetrating oil and a pry bar?”

“Yeah,” he said. “If you were crazy enough to want them.”

I heard another clang from down the alley, sharper and lighter than that of the door itself being closed. This must have been the electronic bolt being shot home by the console. Giorgios and the remainder of the guards walked off, going in the other direction.

“I’m that crazy,” I said.

* * *

I wasn’t going to do anything until I saw a way of doing everything I needed. It was a case of one step at a time, but most steps had to be in different directions rather than marching straight toward a goal.

I daubed the three massive hinges of the alley door with penetrating oil, but then I reentered the palace and hid the remainder of the can of penetrating oil in the framework from which Giorgios’ bed curtains hung. I could retrieve it easily there, but even if it were found it didn’t point to me.

When Giorgios next came past my alcove, I stopped him. “Sir?” I said. “Was the Admiral pleased with the way I’ve kept the console in operating condition?”

“Yes, everything went well,” the chamberlain said. He looked a little worried, which is what I intended when I brought up the console and the fact it depended on me.

“Good,” I said. “Good. I want to attend the sale of slaves this afternoon, sir.”

“You do?” Giorgios said. His mild worry had risen to alarm. “Ah. I suppose you’re planning to buy a slave of your own. Slaves, perhaps?”

“I’m just considering possibilities, sir,” I said. It was normal for slaves of some rank to own slaves themselves. Generally it was a mark of status, though I’d run into cases where a slave official’s slaves did all the official’s work.

To make sure Giorgios was getting the point, I said, “I think I’ll have to continue doing all the computer work, though. This console is remarkably finicky, and I regularly have to reset it when it locks up. I could never train somebody who could keep it going.”

“Well, there’s no reason you shouldn’t buy a slave,” Giorgios said. “Ah, and you can come to me if you need someone to guarantee your credit with the auctioneer.”

He strode quickly into his bedroom. I bowed respectfully to his back, then said to Abram, “Let’s go watch an auction.”

“Suits me,” Abram said. “Though I don’t know what you want a slave for.”

I didn’t. What I wanted was a look at — and just possibly a meeting with — the Karst consul.