What Distant Deeps — Snippet 01

What Distant Deeps by David Drake

CHAPTER 1: The Bantry Estate, Cinnabar

In what distant deeps or skies
Burned the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
The Tiger
William Blake

“Come and join, Squire Daniel!” called a dancer as she whirled past. “I’m not partnered!”

Daniel vaguely recalled the face, but he knew he must be thinking about an older sister. Ten years ago, he’d left Bantry to enter the Republic of Cinnabar Naval Academy. This girl was no more than sixteen, though she was undoubtedly well developed.

Mind, he didn’t recall the sister’s name either.

Steen — Old Steen since the death of his father, who’d been tenant-in-chief before him — elbowed Daniel in the ribs and said, “Haw! Not just a dance she’s offering you, Squire! Going to take her up on it? You always did in the old days!”

Steen’s wife was hovering nearby, though she hadn’t presumed to enter the group of men centered on Daniel and the cask of beer on the seawall. Foiles, the commodore of the fishing fleet, and Higgenson, the manager of the estate’s processing plant, were from Bantry, like Steen, but also present were the owners of three nearby estates who had come to the festivities. Waldmiller of Ponds was over seventy and Broma of Flattler’s Creek wasn’t much younger; but at twenty-five, Peterleigh of Boltway Manor was a year Daniel’s junior.

Before Daniel could pass off the comment with a grin and a shake of his head, Mistress Steen clipped her husband over the ear with a hand well used to hoeing. Fortunately Steen hadn’t gotten his earthenware mug to his lips, so he merely jerked the last of his ale over his bright purple shirt instead of losing his front teeth.

“Where’s your manners, you drunken old fool?” Mistress Steen demanded in a voice that started loud and gained volume. “Can’t you see Lady Miranda close enough to spit on? You embarrass yourself and you embarrass the Squire!”

Daniel caught Mistress Steen’s hands in his own, partly to forestall the full-armed follow-up stroke she was on the verge of delivering. “Now, Roby!” he said. “My Miranda’s a sensible woman who wouldn’t take note of a joke at a celebration, or even –”

He bussed Mistress Steen on the cheek. It was like kissing a boot.

“– this!” he concluded, stepping away.

“Oh, Squire!” Mistress Steen gasped in a mixture of delight and embarrassment. She put her hand to her cheek as though to caress the memory.

“Oh, you do go on!” she said as she stumped off, seemingly half-dazed. Daniel thought he heard her titter when the piping paused.

The original piper, gay in a green vest with blue and gold tassels, was snoring in a drunken stupor behind the bench. His son — who couldn’t have been more than twelve — was making a manful effort to replace him. All the will in the world couldn’t increase the boy’s lung capacity.

Daniel’s eyes touched Miranda, who was with her mother Madeline a good twenty yards away — Roby Steen had been exaggerating. She waved with a merry smile, then went back to describing the stitching of her bodice to more women than Daniel could easily count.

The wives of the neighboring landowners were there, but Bantry tenants made up most of the not-quite-crush. The tenants observed protocol in who got to drink with Daniel, but their wives and daughters weren’t going to give way to outsiders from other estates at their first chance to meet the Squire’s lady.

“A pretty one, Leary,” Peterleigh said. “Your fiancée, is she?”

Daniel cleared his throat. “Ah, Miranda and I have an understanding,” he said, hoping that his embarrassment didn’t show. “There’s nothing formal at this moment, you’ll understand, until, ah, some matters have been worked out.”

Miranda herself never raised the question. She was an extremely smart woman, smart enough to know that others would prod Daniel regularly.

“For the gods’ sakes, boy,” Waldmiller said with a scowl at Peterleigh. “If you weren’t raised to have manners, then at least you could show enough sense to avoid poking your nose in Speaker Leary’s affairs, couldn’t you?”

Peterleigh could probably buy and sell Waldmiller several times over, but seniority and the words themselves jerked the younger man into a brace. “Sorry, Leary, sorry!” he said. “Don’t know what I was thinking, asking about a fellow’s private affairs. Must’ve drunk too much! My apologies!”

Bringing up Daniel’s strained relationship with his father was calling in heavier artillery than Peterleigh deserved, but the young man could have avoided the rebuke by being more polite. Corder Leary was one of the most powerful members of the Senate — and certainly the most feared member. He hadn’t visited Bantry since Daniel’s mother died, and Peterleigh — who was both young and parochial — had obviously forgotten who the estate’s real owner was.

“Not at all, Peterleigh,” Daniel said, smiling mildly. “But as for drinking, I think it’s time for me to have another mug of our good Bantry ale. It’s what I miss most about Cinnabar when the RCN sends me off to heaven knows where.”

So speaking, he stepped to the stand beside them where a ceramic cask of ale and a double rank of earthenware mugs waited. He knew his neighbors — Bantry’s neighbors — would be surprised at having to pump their own beer, but Daniel was providing a holiday for all the Leary retainers.

He’d thought of bringing in outside servants, but city folk would mean trouble. One of them would sneer at a barefoot tenant — and be thrown off the sea wall, into the Western Ocean thirty feet below.

Daniel was dressed more like a countryman than a country gentleman, but he was wearing shoes today. He generally wouldn’t have been at this time of the year when he was a boy on Bantry.

A pair of aircars landed in quick succession, drawing the men’s attention. “That’s Hofmann in the blue one,” Broma said. “I don’t recognize the gray car though.”

“I think that’s . . . ,” Daniel said. “Yes, that’s Tom Sand, the contractor who built the hall. I, ah, invited him to the dedication.”

Broma squinted at the limousine which was landing a hundred yards away, on the field of rammed gravel laid for the purpose beside the Jerred Hogg Community Hall. “That’s quite a nice car for . . . ,” he began.

He stopped and turned to Daniel in obvious surmise. “You don’t mean the Honorable Thomas Sand of Archstone Construction?” he said. “By the gods, Leary, you do! Why, they’re one of the biggest contracting firms in the whole Capital Region!”

“They did a fine job on the Hall,” Daniel said with a faint smile, turning to look at the new building itself. All four sides had been swung onto the roof as they were designed to be, turning the building into a marquee. The drinks — no wines or liquor, but ale without limit — and the food were inside, where Hogg was holding court.

Hogg had been the young master’s minder when Daniel was a child and his servant in later years. He’d taught Daniel everything there was to know about the wildlife of Bantry which he and his ancestors back to the settlement had poached. He’d taught Daniel many other things as well, much of it information which would have horrified Daniel’s mother, who was delicate and a perfect lady.

Hogg had a tankard of ale and a girl half his age ready with a pitcher to refill it. His arm was around a similar girl, and as many tenants as could squeeze close were listening to his stories of the wonders he and the young master had seen among the stars. Daniel was probably the only man present who knew that the wildest stories were absolutely true.

Hogg was royalty in Bantry today. Daniel smiled faintly. That was a small enough payment for the man who’d taught the young master how to be a man.

Tom Sand walked toward Daniel in the company of half a dozen children including at least one girl. They could claim to be guiding Sand, but they were more concerned with getting a good look at a stranger who was an obvious gentleman. Sand had weather-beaten features and more chest than paunch, but his suit — though gray — shimmered in a way that neither wool nor silk could match. Daniel suspected it had been woven from the tail plumes of Maurician ground doves.

“You’ll be spending more time in Bantry now that we’re at peace again, Leary?” Waldmiller asked, letting his eyes glance across their surroundings. His tone was neutral and his face impassive, signs that he was controlling an urge to sneer. This was a working estate, not a showplace.

They stood in the middle of the Bantry Commons, a broad semi-circle with the sea front forming the west side. The shops bounded its south end and the sprawling manor was to the north; tenant housing closed the arc. The dwellings facing directly on the common were older, smaller, and much more desirable than the relatively modern units in the second and third rows. Younger sons and their sons were relegated to the newer housing.

Instead of turning the manor into a modern palace to reflect the family’s increased wealth and power, Daniel’s grandfather had put his efforts into a luxurious townhouse in Xenos. Corder Leary had visited Bantry only as a duty — and not even that after the death of his children’s mother. The house looked much as it had three centuries ago.

Birds screamed overhead. The fish processing plant was shut down for the celebration, and they were upset at missing their usual banquet of offal.