What Distant Deeps — Snippet 04

Miranda Dorst had just reached the bottom of the ramp. She waited in the middle of a group of children, smiling up at Adele.

Daniel had kept company with many women in the years Adele had known him. Most of them had been prettier than Miranda — a healthy girl, but not a raging beauty; and none of them had displayed half Miranda’s intelligence.

Adele respected Miranda, which permitted her to like the younger woman as well. She hoped that matters went well for her and Daniel, which didn’t — Adele smiled briefly, coldly — necessarily mean that they would marry. But Miranda was adult, quite smart, and certainly knew her own mind.

Women with floral aprons and contrasting bonnets were descending on Miranda’s gaggle of children like jays on a swarm of termites, whisking them off one at a time by a sleeve or an ear. A boy remained, but a girl of sixteen or so was coming at a run with her eye on him.

“Adele, I’m so glad to see you,” Miranda said, sounding as though she meant it. “Is this your first visit to Bantry? I’m sure it’s a wonderful place when one learns to appreciate it, but I’ll admit that I’ve always been a city girl.”

“Lady Mundy Lady Mundy!” squealed the boy. He couldn’t have been more than six.

“Robbie!” cried the girl running toward him.

“Are you the Squire’s girlfriend, Lady Mundy?” Robbie demanded. “We all think you are!”

The girl clouted Robbie over the ear. He yelped; she smothered his outrage in folds of her scarlet apron which overlay the blue/green/yellow checks of her skirt.

“Your ladyship I’m so sorry!” the girl said. Her cheeks were almost as bright as the fabric. “He’s my brother and it’s my fault, I was supposed to watch him, I’m so sorry! I’m Susie Maynor and I shouldn’t have let it happen!”

“Thank you, Mistress Maynor,” Adele said. Her voice and expression were emotionless, but she had made the intellectual decision to find the business amusing. That was the proper response, especially with a child; though it wasn’t the direction her thoughts had first turned. “You may assure Master Robbie when he reappears that I am not the Squire’s girlfriend.”

“Oh your ladyship!” the girl gasped. She strode toward the main gathering with determination, ignoring the muted wails from her apron.

Adele, grimacing internally, met Miranda’s eyes. As she — and probably both of them — wondered what to say or whether better to ignore the business, Tovera said, “I’ve been in Captain Leary’s company for a number of years now, but no one has made similar assertions about me. If I had human feelings, they would be hurt.”

Miranda blinked at Tovera, then smothered a giggle with her hand. Adele only grinned slightly, but the expression meant more in her case than it would for most people. Aloud she said, “Would you like a raise, Tovera?”

Her servant gave her a wintry smile. “What do I need money for, Mistress?” she said. She had closed her attaché case. “You provide my food and lodging, and you point me to plenty of people to kill.”

Which may be a joke, Adele thought. “Yes,” she said, “but not here.”

“Daniel asked me to take you to the house,” Miranda said as she turned. She started back along the arc of the commons instead of the chord of the seafront. She cleared her throat, perhaps still embarrassed. She said, “He isn’t really the Squire, you know. His father is, and Deirdre will inherit if, well . . . when . . . .”

Her voice trailed off.

“I don’t believe Speaker Leary is immortal either,” Adele said, letting the words rather than her dry tone supply the humor. “But ‘Squire’ is a term of custom rather than law. If the Bantries choose to grant the title to Daniel who grew up with them rather than to his father to whom the estate is merely a muddy asset, then I applaud their judgment.”

They walked close to the tenant houses. Adele could see that the fronts were decked with swags of foliage and flowers, not bunting as she’d thought from the transport’s hatch. Dogs barked from some of the fenced dooryards.

Miranda followed Adele’s eyes. With quiet pride she said, “They really love him, don’t they?”

“Yes,” said Adele. “Just as the Sissies do. The tenants don’t find their lives at considerably greater risk from associating with Daniel, but even so I don’t think a computer could have predicted the depth of feeling.”

Miranda laughed. She was a cheerful person, a good fit with Daniel in that way. She hadn’t had an easy life, but the troubles didn’t appear to have marked her.

Whereas Adele — she smiled wanly at herself — hadn’t been particularly happy even when she’d been the heir to one of the wealthiest and most powerful houses of the Republic. She’d often been content, though; as she was generally content now, except the nights that she lay in the darkness, surrounded by dead faces that she’d last seen over the sights of the pistol which even now nestled in her left tunic pocket.

The piper was taking a break, and at least a dozen men had begun singing The Ring That Has No End without accompaniment. They stumbled up to, ” . . . when you find one who’ll be true,” but by the time they reached, “Change not the old friend for a new,” their voices had blended into a natural richness which Adele found beautiful. Her hand reached for her data unit as it always did when she was really engaged by her surroundings, but she had nothing to look up.

Her lips twitched, though her expression couldn’t have been called a smile: she reached for her data unit, or she reached for her pistol. Either way, she preferred to keep a mechanical interface between herself and the world.

“I’m so glad they’re getting along,” Miranda said, also watching the festival. She and Adele walked side by side. Tovera followed at a respectful distance of two paces. “I was afraid there’d be, well, fights between spacers and tenants.”

“There probably will be,” Adele said. “And fights among spacers and fights among tenants. Most of both groups will be drunk before the night’s out, and those who aren’t falling-down drunk will include some who want to knock other people down. But they all respect Six — or the Squire, depending — too much for it to go beyond fists. And remember, at least a score of the present Sissies were tenants before they enlisted.”

And anyone who wasn’t sufficiently respectful to begin with would have a proper understanding beaten into him by Woetjans or Hogg, each policing the group they came from. They would certainly be drunk also, but Adele couldn’t imagine them too drunk to do their duty.

She took that sort of implicit violence for granted now. Her father, knowing that a leading politician was open to many pressures, had seen to it that not only he but his wife and daughters were known to be crack shots who would certainly kill anyone who challenged them to a duel. That hadn’t helped him the night troops arrived with the notice of the Proscriptions, but it had kept Adele alive during her years of slums and squalor.

This was different, though: this was force applied in the service of order, not chaos. Her mother, who had believed in the innate decency of the Common Man, would have been horrified; her father would have been disgusted.

Adele, who had lived in very close quarters with the Common Man ever since the Proscriptions, took the same sort of detached view that she had of lice: there were discomforts which you alleviated if you could and bore if you couldn’t. There were no moral questions involved, just practical responses.

And a crack on the head with plenty of muscle behind it was often a very practical response.

The double leaves of the manor’s front door were standing open onto the veranda; guns and fishing tackle hung from hooks in the hallway behind. The gear looked well cared for, though there wouldn’t have been anyone living in the building since Daniel had left Bantry to join the RCN.

Tovera skipped ahead; her right hand was within the attaché case again. The hall and the rooms to either side along the central passageway were empty.

If Miranda was surprised by Tovera’s behavior, she didn’t comment on the fact. Instead she said, “I’ll take you through to the library, Adele, and then go back to the party.”

She smiled fondly. “I need to give my mother a bit of a break, I’m afraid,” she said. “When the Bantry women learned we’d both made our own dresses –”

She touched her skirt. The fabric was sturdy, but the pattern of magenta flames on the white background made it stand out even in these festivities. The lines, though loose enough to be comfortable, flattered what was already quite a good figure.

“– nothing would help but we had to show them every seam.”

Miranda knocked on the last door to the right, where the passage jogged into the new wing. “Enter,” called a voice that had become familiar to Adele over the years.

Tovera reached for the latch; Adele stepped past and said, “No.”

She opened the door and entered what passed for a library here.

“Did you have a good trip, Mundy?” asked Bernis Sand, seated at the reading table with a bottle of whiskey, a carafe of water, and two glasses before her.

“No worse than I expected,” Adele said to the Republic’s spymaster. When the door closed behind her, she went on, “What did you wish to speak to me about, mistress?”