Into The Maelstrom – Snippet 10

Bentley bowed deeply as he held the door for her, far deeper than he would for Allenson who only paid his wages. The major domo raised snobbery to a fine art and Linsye was a full Destry-by-blood. Allenson and Trina represented mere colonial gentry only related by marriage to true Brasilian nobility. Hence Bentley’s determination that Allenson should be at his best. It came to something, Allenson reflected, when your clothes were chosen to please a servant’s sense of propriety.

Linsye kissed Allenson lightly on the mouth, the appropriate greeting for an in-law of the opposite sex.

“How are you Allen? My you look dashing tonight.”

Allenson replied appropriately

Linsye continued. “May I introduce my son, Todd? He arrived home in the same ship that Royman and Sarai left on.”

Todd stood to one side, arm outstretched. Allenson hadn’t seen his nephew since he had been sent away to be educated in Brasilia at his Uncle Royman’s old prep school and college. He would have been what, twelve?

Allenson looked at Todd in shock. The boy was named after his father, Allenson’s older brother. Subconsciously Allenson expected a younger version of Todd senior or at least an Allenson. But Todd junior was a Destry. No more than that, he was the spitting image of the young Royman Destry when Allenson first met him on his arrival at Port Clearwater. History seemed to be repeating itself.

Todd bowed deeply and looked at Allenson, waiting for his host to say something. Allenson gaped like a rube at the country fair.

He pulled himself together. “Welcome indeed, nephew. You are quite the young man now.”

Todd replied with a smile. “Age tends to do that to one, Uncle Allen.”

“Ah, yes, I suppose it does,” Allenson said. “Shall we go in?”

The dinner ritual normally demanded fifteen minutes of drinks and small talk in the atrium. However, Allenson needed a moment to order his thoughts and the walk into the dining room would allow that. He indicated to Bentley that they would go straight in. Protocol demanded he escort Linsye while Todd offered his arm to Trina

Left to Bentley the four would dine on a full table so far apart that they would have to converse by datapad. Allenson laid it clearly on the line how far he was prepared to go even when dining with his aristocratic in-laws.  He demanded that most of the grand dining room be shut off by a folding wooden screen. The demesne carpenter had crafted it from highly polished alternating strips of amber and vermilion-colored wood logged from a forest on a Hinterland world that had not yet been named.

The material imparted warmth, reinforcing the mellow atmosphere that Allenson preferred. Many his guests commented favorably on the effect. Allenson considered experimenting with a crop of the trees on the estate.

He sat Linsye on his right in the lady of honor’s place. Todd looked after Trina. Bentley positioned himself behind Todd’s chair where Allenson could catch his eye. The man was in his element. He devoted his life to perfecting a series of complicated rituals that Allenson thought as tedious as they were pointless

To be fair, Bentley was invaluable when Allenson hosted political dinners. The skills of a major-domo went unnoticed by the more sophisticated guests from the Manzanita Upper House. They would nonetheless have noticed their absence fast enough. Bentley’s talents usefully impressed members of the Lower House. In Allenson’s experience, the more a politician claimed to be a “man of the people” the less they wanted to be treated as one. One of life’s depressing little truisms.

Allenson nodded and Bentley touched his thumb and forefinger together triggering a communication switch concealed in his white gloves. A new maid with an apprehensive expression entered via the kitchen door with a tray of aperitifs.  She glanced in Bentley’s direction before presenting the tray to Linsye, who selected a couple of items without looking at her.

Social convention insisted that Trina and Todd were served next with Allenson last. Trina murmured a polite thank you and Todd gave the maid a wink that elicited a pretty blush. He had Royman’s easy manner so different from the Allenson dourness.

When the maid left Bentley went round the table with a bottle of a light blue alcoholic liquid. He started with Allenson who duly tasted it although he never quite knew what he was supposed to be checking for. Allenson nodded approval and Bentley proceeded anticlockwise.

Linsye held her glass up to the central light over the table, swirling it to examine the contents before carefully inhaling the vapor.

“I suppose this is one of your experiments,” she finally said.

Allenson smiled. “In a way, we grow the juniper fruit here on the estate and I have an industrial chemist in Port Clearwater interested in the fermentation process.”

“I see,” Linsye said.

Allenson had a policy of serving Streamer produce at his dinners, preferably from his own estate. His neighbors considered this one of his more harmless eccentricities. Brasilian grape strains could not be successfully cultivated on any of the Stream worlds. At least not well enough to produce anything drinkable.

Allenson prompted Linsye.

“Why don’t you try it and give me your opinion.”

His sister in law displayed the expression of a woman going to the stake. Nevertheless, she tasted the contents as was proper for a guest enjoying hospitality. She rolled it around her mouth and then drank deeply.

Allenson awaited her verdict. His sister in law was familiar with the very best vintages from the Homeworlds.  She often expressed herself robustly on the subject.

Linsye gave her judgment.

“At least it’s not a concoction of fruit juice, alcohol and sugar. I taste a light crisp flavor reminiscent of an acceptable white table wine, albeit a young vintage. It’s not going to win any awards, of course, but it is palatable. I believe I will have another glass.”

Praise indeed. Allenson started to signal Bentley but the major-domo was already off the starting blocks, bottle at the ready.

Todd downed his glass in three draughts.

“Mother’s a little harsh. This’s actually very refreshing.”

Bentley shot around the table to refill his glass as well.

“I’m glad you like it.” Allenson said. “I will have a case loaded on your carriage when you depart.”

“Thank you, uncle.” Todd inclined his head politely. “I’ve brought a small gift for you back from Brasilia. This seems an appropriate moment to present it.”

He handed Allenson a small wooden box that lay lightly on the hand. Inside were three slides, carefully stowed in slits in the velvet lined interior, and a modern black plastic cube. Allenson gently pulled out one. It was archaic, mineral stained by its time underground, and chipped on one corner.

“Are these originals?” Allenson asked in wonder.

“Absolutely,” Todd replied. “They turn up every so often. A friend of mine was looking through an unsorted collection for his thesis and found these. I knew of your interest in the Third Civilization and thought you would like them.”

Allenson held the slide up to the light.

“Very much, I like them very much indeed. Thank you, nephew, can they be read?”

Todd pointed to the black cube.

“I included a decoder in the box as I wasn’t sure you would have the right tool to hand.”

Allenson replaced the slide and examined the black cube.

“Thank you, third Civilization records are stored in such a strange way. All dots and dashes don’t you know.”

“Indeed,” Todd said. “The slide you looked at is particularly interesting, a collection of fine resolution video stills of ordinary Third Civilization life by some ancient called Paul Weimer. Some of are only document records.”

“A delightful gift,” Allenson said, wondering what he had done to earn it.

Todd waved a hand languidly, brushing aside the praise as if it were cobwebs.

“I would have thought that someone would have produced suitable vine strains to grow wine grapes in the ‘Stream by now,” Todd said, changing the subject

“It wouldn’t be impossible,” Linsye agreed, “but the genosurgery is apparently tricky. We don’t have sufficient technical infrastructure to spare so the work would have to be done in Brasilia.”

Allenson grimaced. “Where’s the incentive? Why should a Brasilian wine merchant set up competition? Much more profitable to flog us the finished product at a hefty mark up.”

The aperitif plate vanished under Allenson’s left arm to be replaced by a dish containing soup. Left to his own devices Bentley would have paraded around the table with a bowl ladling out soup to each guest individually. Allenson killed that notion. He wasn’t all that bothered what was in his soup but he did like it hot and the host got served last.

Linsye dipped her spoon, holding it just clear of the plate to cool.

“I could tolerate the mark up if one was sure of getting what was on the label.”

Trina stirred her soup.

“Surely wine labelling is tightly controlled?”

Linsye sighed.

“In theory but half the time the vintage is substituted for something cheaper.”

She waved her spoon for emphasis.