TORCH OF FREEDOM — Snippet 09:

Chapter 4

Thandi Palane closed the door of her suite in the palace behind her, and then moved over to stand next to the man sitting at a large table by the window overlooking the gardens below. He seemed to be studying the gardens intently, which was a bit peculiar. The gardens were practically brand new, with more in the way of bare soil than vegetation — and what vegetation did exist was obviously struggling to stay alive.

Most of the plants had been brought from Manticore by Catherine Montaigne. A gift, she said, from Manticore’s queen Elizabeth, plucked from her own extensive gardens.

Berry had appreciated the sentiment. Unfortunately, most of Torch’s climate was tropical or sub-tropical, and the planet had its own lush and diverse biota, much of which was quite aggressive. Only the diligence of the palace’s gardeners had managed to keep the imported plants alive in the weeks since Montaigne arrived. Now that she was gone, Thandi was pretty sure that Berry would quietly tell her gardeners to let the Manticoran plants die a natural death.

It was not a sight one would have thought would lend itself to the sort of rapt concentration that the man at the table was bestowing upon it. But Victor Cachat’s mind often moved in a realm of its own, Thandi had found. It was quite odd, the way such a square-faced and seemingly conventional man — which he was, in fact, in many respects — could see the universe from such unconventional angles.

“And what’s so fascinating about those poor plants below?” she asked.

He’d had his chin resting on a hand, which he now drew away. “They don’t belong here. The longer you study them, the more obvious it is.”

“Can’t say I disagree. And you find this of interest because . . . ?”

“Manpower doesn’t belong here, either. The more I think about it, the more obvious it is.”

She frowned, and began idly caressing his shoulder. “You’re certainly not going to get an argument from me — anyone here — that the universe wouldn’t be a far better place if we were rid of Manpower. But how is this some sort of revelation?”

He shook his head. “I didn’t make myself clear. What I meant was that Manpower doesn’t belong in the universe in the same way those plants don’t belong in this garden. It just doesn’t fit. There are too many things about that so-called ‘corporation’ that are out of place. It should be dying a natural death, like those plants below. Instead, it’s thriving — growing more powerful even, judging from the evidence. Why? And how?”

This wasn’t the first time that Thandi had found her lover’s mind was leaping ahead of hers. Or, it might be better to say, scampering off into the underbrush like a rabbit, leaving her straight-forward predator’s mind panting in pursuit.

“Ah . . . I’m trying to figure out a dignified way to say ‘huh’? What the hell are you talking about?”

He smiled and placed a hand atop hers. “Sorry. I’m probably being a little opaque. What I’m saying is that there are too many ways — way too many ways — in which Manpower doesn’t behave like the evil and soulless corporation it’s supposed to be.”

“The hell it doesn’t! If there’s a single shred of human decency in that foul –”

“I’m not arguing about the evil and soulless part, Thandi. It doesn’t act like a corporation. Evil or not, soulless or not, Manpower is supposed to be a commercial enterprise. But lately it’s been acting more like a star nation — and one which, furthermore, has access to more resources than I can account for. And has influence that seems to go beyond anything a corporation should be able to exert.”

Thandi started to reply, but the doorbell chimed. “Open,” she commanded.

The door slid smoothly aside and Anton Zilwicki came into the room, followed by Princess Ruth. In a shocking display of topsy-turvy royal protocol, Queen Berry tagged along behind them.

“You can come out of hiding now, Victor,” said Anton. “She’s gone.”

Berry came to the center of the room and planted her hands on slender hips. “Well, I think you were rude, I don’t care what Daddy says. Mom’s a really curious person and it drives her nuts not to have her curiosity satisfied. She never stopped asking about you, the whole time she was here. And you never came out to meet her even once.”

“Curiosity may or may not have killed cats,” replied Victor, “but it has certainly slaughtered lots of politicians. I was doing the lady a favor, Your Majesty, whether she wanted it or not and whether she appreciated it or not.”

“Don’t call me that!” she snapped. “I hate it when my friends use that stupid title in private — and you know it!”

Anton went over to sit in an armchair. “He just does it because for reasons I can’t figure out — he’s a twisty, gnarly, crooked sort of fellow — using flamboyantly royal titles in private scratches some kinky egalitarian itch he’s got. But don’t worry, girl. He doesn’t mean it.”

“Actually,” Victor said mildly, “Berry’s the one monarch in creation I don’t mind calling ‘Your Majesty.’ But I’ll admit I do it mostly just to be contrary.”

He looked up at the young queen, whose expression was cross and who still had her hands on her hips. “Berry, the very last thing your mother needed was to leave herself open to the charge that she spent her time on Torch consorting with agents of an enemy power.”

Berry sneered. Tried to, rather. Sneers were just not an expression that came naturally to her. “Oh, nonsense! As opposed to leaving herself open to the charge that she spent her time on Torch consorting with murderous terrorists like Jeremy?”

“Not the same thing at all,” said Victor, shaking his head. “I don’t doubt that her political enemies will level that charge against her, as soon as she gets home. It will get a rapt audience among those who already detest her, and produce a massive yawn on the part of everyone else. For pity’s sake, girl, they’ve been accusing her of that for decades. No matter how murderous and maniacal people may think Jeremy X is, nobody thinks he’s an enemy of the Star Kingdom. Whereas I most certainly am.”

He gave a mildly apologetic glance at Anton and Ruth. “Meaning no personal offense to anyone here.” He looked back up at Berry. “Consorting with Jeremy simply leaves her open to the accusation of having bad judgment. Consorting with me leaves her open to the accusation of treason. That’s a huge difference, when it comes to politics.”

Berry’s expression was now mulish. Clearly enough, she was not persuaded by Victor’s argument. But her father Anton was nodding his head. Quite vigorously, in fact.

“He’s right, Berry. Of course, he’s also now exposed as a piss-poor secret agent, because if he’d had any imagination or gumption at all he would have spent time visiting Cathy, while she was here. Lots and lots of time, to do what he could to make Manticore’s politics even more poisonous than it is.”

Victor gave him a level gaze and a cool smile. “I thought about it, as a matter of fact. But . . .”

He shrugged. “It’s hard to know how that would all play out, in the end. There’s a long, long history of secret agents being too clever for their own good. It could just as easily prove true, years from now, that Catherine Montaigne being in firm control of the Liberals — and with an unblemished reputation — would prove beneficial to Haven.”

Anton said nothing. But he gave Victor a very cool smile of his own.

“And . . . fine,” said Victor. “I also didn’t do it because I’d have been uncomfortable doing so.” His expression got as mulish as Berry’s. “And that’s all I’m going to say on the subject.”

Thandi had to fight, for a moment, not to grin. There were times when Victor Cachat’s large and angular pile of political and moral principles amused her. Given that they were attached to a man who could also be as ruthless and cold-blooded as any human being who ever lived.

God forbid Victor Cachat should just say openly that the Zilwicki family were people who’d become dear to him, Manticoran enemies or not, and he was no more capable of deliberately harming them than he would be of harming a child. It might be different if he thought the vital interests of Haven were at stake, true. But for the sake of a small and probably temporary tactical advantage? That was just not someplace he would go.

She wouldn’t tease him about it, though. Not even later, when they were in private again. By now, she knew Victor well enough to know that he’d simply retreat into obfuscation. He’d advance complex and subtle reasoning to the effect that retaining the personal trust of the Zilwickis would actually work to Haven’s benefit, in the long run, and that it would be foolish to sacrifice that for the sake of petty maneuvering.

And it might even be true. But it would still be an excuse. Even if Victor didn’t think there’d be any long-range advantage for Haven, he’d behave the same way. And if that excuse failed of its purpose, think up a different one.

Judging from the Mona Lisa smile on Anton Zilwicki’s face, Thandi was pretty sure he’d figured it out himself.

Anton now cleared his throat, noisily enough to break Queen Berry out of her hands-planted-on-hips disapproval. “That’s not why we came here, however. Victor, there’s something I need to raise with you.”

He nodded at Princess Ruth, who was perched on the arm of a chair across the room. “We need to raise with you, I should say. Ruth’s actually the one who broached the issue with me.”

Ruth flashed Victor a nervous little smile and shifted her weight on the chair arm. As usual, Ruth was too fidgety when dealing with professional issues to be able to sit still. Thandi knew that Victor considered her a superb intelligence analyst — but he also thought she’d be a disaster as a field agent.

Cachat glanced at Berry, who’d moved over to the divan next to Anton’s chair and taken a seat there. “And why is the queen here? Meaning no disrespect, Your Majesty –”

“I really, really hate it when he calls me that,” Berry said to no one in particular, glaring at the wall opposite her.

“– but you don’t normally express a deep interest in the arcane complexities of intelligence work.”

Berry transferred the glare from the wall onto Cachat. “Because if they’re right — and I’m not convinced! — then there’s a lot more involved than the silly antics of spies.”

“All right,” said Victor. He looked back at Anton. “So what’s on your mind?”

“Victor, there’s something wrong with Manpower.”

“He doesn’t mean wrong, like in ‘they’ve got really bad morals,'” interjected Ruth. “He means –”

“I know what he means,” said Victor. Now he looked at Berry. “And I hate to tell you this, Your — ah, Berry — but your father’s right. There really is something rotten in the state of Denmark.”

Berry and Thandi both frowned. “Where’s Denmark?” demanded Thandi.

“I know where it is,” said Berry, “but I don’t get it. Of course there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark. It’s that nasty cheese they make.”