What Distant Deeps — Snippet 02

Daniel grinned. At that, the flock wasn’t much less musical than the piper . . . and there’d been enough ale drunk already that the dancers could probably manage to continue even if the boy on the bagpipe gave up the struggle he was clearly unequal to.

“It’s true that many ships have been laid up since the Truce of Rheims,” Daniel said, “and that means a number of officers have gone on half pay.”

In fact almost two-thirds of the Navy List had put on Reserve status. That meant real hardship for junior officers who had been living on hopes already. Those hopes had been dashed, but they were still expected to have a presentable dress uniform to attend the daily levees in Navy House which were their only chance of getting a ship.

“But I’ve been lucky so far,” Daniel continued. “I’m still on the Active list, though I don’t have an assignment as yet. And anyway, I wasn’t really cut out to be a –”

He’d started to say “farmer,” but caught himself. Thank the gods he’d drunk a great deal less today than he would have even a few years earlier. Daniel hadn’t become an abstainer, but he’d always known when he shouldn’t be drinking; and the higher he rose — in the RCN and in society generally — the more frequent those occasions were.

“– a country squire.”

Sand joined them; the entourage of children dropped behind the way the first touch of an atmosphere strips loose articles from the hull of a descending starship. Miranda was leading Mistress Sand to the house, having shooed away a similar bevy of children.

Waldmiller opened his mouth to greet Sand. Peterleigh, his face toward the sea, hadn’t noticed the newcomer’s approach. He said, “Well, I think the truce is a bloody shame, Leary. You fellows in the navy had the Alliance on the ropes. Why the Senate should want to let Guarantor Porra off the hook is beyond me!”

“Well, Peterleigh . . . ,” said Daniel. “You know what they say: never a good war or a bad peace.”

“And maybe it was a good war for folks who live out here in the Western Region and don’t leave their estates,” boomed Thomas Sand, “but it bloody well wasn’t for anybody trying to make a living in Xenos. Off-planet trade is down by nine parts in ten, so half the factories in the Capital Region have shut and the rest are on short hours.”

Peterleigh jumped and would have spilled ale if he hadn’t emptied his mug. Waldmiller and Broma masked their amusement — Broma more effectively than his elder colleague. The tenants, Foiles and Higgenson, maintained their frozen silence. They’d been quiet even before Maud Steen had torn a strip off her husband, and that had chilled them further.

“Didn’t mean to break in unannounced,” Sand said. “I’m Tom Sand and I built the hall there.”

He nodded in the direction of it.

“And not a half-bad job, if I do say so myself.”

“These are my neighbors,” said Daniel. “Waldmiller, Broma, and you’ve already met Peterleigh, so to speak. Have some ale, Sand. We’re setting a good example for the tenants so that none of them bring out the kelp liquor they brew in their sheds.”

Sand laughed, drawing a mug of ale. “I understand, Leary,” he said. “I have a capping party for the crew on each job, but it’s beer there too. It doesn’t hurt a man to get drunk every once in a while, but I’d as lief give them guns as hard liquor for the chances that they’d all survive the night.”

He shook his head, then added, “No offense meant about trade being strangled. The RCN did a fine job. But any shipowner who lifted at all got a letter of marque and converted his hull into a privateer. In the neutral worlds, chances are he’s got warrants from both us and the Alliance. That was better business than hauling a load of wheat from Ewer to Cinnabar — and likely being captured by some privateer besides.”

“No offense taken, Sand,” Daniel said. “Every word you say is true.”

He swept his neighbors with his eyes. “You see, Peterleigh,” he said, “our tenants work hard and they live bloody hard by city standards. But they never doubt there’ll be food on the table in the evening, even if it’s dried fish and potatoes. The folk in the housing blocks around Xenos don’t know that, and I’m told there were riots already last year.”

He flashed a broad grin and added, “I wasn’t around to see them, of course.”

“Right!” said Sand, turning from the keg with a full mug of ale. To the others in the circle he said, “Captain Leary was chasing the Alliance out of the Montserrat Stars with their tails between their legs. Splendid work, Leary! Makes me proud to be a citizen of Cinnabar.”

“That’s the Squire for you!” blurted Higgenson, pride freeing his tongue. “Burned them wogs a new one, he did!”

There was commotion and a loud rattle from the Hall. Hogg and a tenant of roughly his age were dancing with rams’ horns strapped to their feet. The curved horns made an almighty clatter on the concrete floor, but the men with their arms akimbo were impressive as they banged through a measure to the sound of the bagpipe.

“That’s Hogg himself, isn’t it, Leary?” asked Broma. The hammering dance had drawn all eyes, though the tenants around the Hall limited what Daniel and his fellows could see from the seafront.

“Aye, and that’s Des Cranbrook who’s got a grain allotment in the northeast district and a prime orchard tract,” said Foiles. Since Higgenson had spoken without being struck by lightning, the fisherman had decided it was safe for him to say something also.

“Plus the common pasturage, of course,” Daniel said, speaking to Sand; his fellow landowners took that for granted. The dancers — both stout; neither of them young nor likely to have been handsome even in youth — hopped with the majesty of clock movements, slowly pirouetting as they circled one another.

“Haven’t seen a real horn dance in law! twenty years if it’s been one,” said Higgenson. His social betters were intent on the dancing, which gave him a chance to speak from personal knowledge. “The young folk don’t pick it up, seems like.”

“That’ll change now,” said Foiles. “The young ones, the ones that didn’t know Hogg before he went away with you, Squire –”

He dipped his head toward Daniel.

“– they all think the sun shines out of his asshole. And some of the women as did know him and so ought to know better, they’re near as bad.”

The dancers collapsed into one another’s arms, then wobbled laughing back to their seats. Girls pushed each other to be the ones unstrapping the rams’ horns. Cranbrook was getting his share of the attention. The lass hugging him and offering a mug of ale might have been his granddaughter, but Daniel was pretty sure that she wasn’t. He grinned.

“Ah . . . ?” said Higgenson in sudden concern — though he hadn’t been the one who’d actually commented on Hogg’s former reputation. “Not that we meant anything, Squire. You know how folks used to say things, and no truth in them, like as not.”

“I suspect there was a lot of truth in what was said about Hogg,” Daniel said, thinking back on the past and feeling his smile slip. “And about me, I shouldn’t wonder. It’s probably to Bantry’s benefit as well as the Republic’s that the RCN has found the two of us occupation at a distance from the estate.”

Georg Hofmann approached the group. He looked older and more stooped than Daniel had remembered him, but that was years since, of course. His estate, Brightness Landing, was well up the coast.

“I didn’t recognize the woman who got out of the car with Hofmann,” Daniel said in a low voice. She was in her early forties and had been poured into a dress considerably too small and too youthful for her.

“He remarried, a widow from Xenos,” said Waldmiller with a snort. “Damned if I can see the attraction.”

“And she brought a son besides,” said Peterleigh. “Chuckie, I believe his name is; Platt, from the first husband. That one might better stay in Xenos, I think.”

The youth was tall and well set up. He looked twenty from Daniel’s distance, but his size may have given him a year or two more than time had. Accompanied by two servants in pink-and-buff livery — those weren’t Hofmann’s colors, so they may have been Platt’s — he was sauntering toward a group of the younger tenants on the seawall not far from the manor house.

Daniel’s eyes narrowed. Platt took a pull from a gallon jug as he walked, then handed it to a servant. His other servant held what looked very much like a case of dueling pistols.

Hofmann joined the group around Daniel. Up close, he looked even more tired than he had at a distance. He exchanged nods with his neighbors, then said, “It’s been years, Leary. Good years for you, from what I hear.”

“It’s good to see the old place, Hofmann,” Daniel said, “though I don’t really fit here any more, I’m afraid. Hofmann, this is Tom Sand, who built the new hall.”

“I heard you were doing that work, Sand,” said Hofmann, extending his hand to shake. Hofmann was the other member of the local gentry who’d been active in national affairs; though not to the extent of Corder Leary, of course. “How did that come to happen, if I may ask. It’s not –”

He gestured toward the new building.

“– on your usual scale, I should have said.”