What Distant Deeps — Snippet 34

CHAPTER 11: Calvary on Zenobia

A middle-aged servant wearing an outfit of slanted black-and-white stripes opened the door of Cinnabar House to Adele and Tovera. For more than a generation the garb had been standard for servants in Xenos households that couldn’t claim livery.

This woman was obviously local, however, and the tailored garment made her look more dowdy than she might have done in the looser national costume. Behind her was a tile courtyard with a roof but no furniture.

“Lady Adele Mundy!” the woman bellowed, then turned and waddled toward the arched gateway at the back. “Come this way if you please, your Ladyship!”

They followed; Tovera looked wary. Adele smiled faintly and said, “She was directed to announce us when we arrived. She appears to be a little fuzzy about the details, however.”

Clothilde Brown had risen from her seat in the garden to meet Adele. She gave the servant a despairing glance, but managed to sound cheerful — albeit brittle — as she chirped, “Lady Mundy, I’m so glad you could come. And may I present my friend –”

She turned to gesture to the other young woman rising from a chair in the garden.

“– Lady Posthuma Belisande?”

“Posy, please, your Ladyship,” the Founder’s sister said, offering her hand and a bright smile. “Clothilde tells me that you too were aboard Captain Leary’s yacht when it landed during the Assembly. I had no idea until I called on Clothilde yesterday. Do please forgive me for my oversight.”

“There’s nothing to forgive,” Adele said, taking Posy’s hand briefly and releasing it. “We both had our duties on Stahl’s World, I’m sure, and we properly focused on them at the time.”

She had been concerned that Posy would remember her from their proximity on the Sissie’s bridge. Adele’s present outfit, a lavender pantsuit with a thin white stripe, seemed to have driven out all recollection of the RCN signals officer in utilities.

“Please, do sit down, both of you,” Clothilde Brown said, extending her hands to her guests and walking toward three chairs set at arm’s length apart, facing their common center. “Lady Mundy, what would you like to drink?”

“A white wine, I suppose,” Adele said. “A local vintage, if such a thing exists.”

“Braga,” Clothilde said to the male servant at the refreshments table. He looked even more uncomfortable in his uniform than his presumed spouse did. “Pour Lady Mundy a glass of Knight’s Reserve.”

Adele smiled, hoping her expression was pleasant. Social interactions were almost entirely a matter of acting for her, and she knew that she wasn’t very good at them. Fortunately, most people heard and saw what they expected, so they mentally corrected Adele’s missteps.

She probably wouldn’t have accepted the invitation had she not known — from an intercepted call — that Posy had asked Mistress Brown to arrange a meeting with Lady Mundy. It seemed the best way for Adele to meet her target; and a meeting was necessary, because in the two days the Princess Cecile had ridden in Calvary Harbor, it had become obvious that electronic means were not going to unveil any of Posy’s secrets.

The garden was a square fifty feet on a side. A service building, probably a kitchen, and a wall of open brickwork set it off from what may have been intended as a park. Now it was a tangle from which trees with coppery foliage emerged.

The enclosure wasn’t in a great deal better shape. The shrubs had been pruned within the past day or less, so that statues of cherubs with gardening tools were again visible among the lopped stems.

The “lawn” had been hacked off also. Short tufts of something grasslike were surrounded by circles of dirt which their foliage had shaded bare until the recent shearing.

The clearance work — calling it yard work seemed akin to describing a heart attack as indisposition — might explain why Braga glowered so fiercely as he handed Adele a glass of faintly greenish wine. Unless the job market in Calvary was very tight, Mistress Brown would be looking for new servants shortly.

The wine tasted all right, despite the hue. The glass was etched with the monogram dS, marking it as a piece Clothilde deSales Brown had brought with her to the marriage.

“Quite good,” Adele said to her hostess. That was a bit of an exaggeration, but it was close enough. Some of the Mundys and their affines had been experts in vintages and liquors, but Adele’s interests ran to colophons and Pre-Hiatus incunabula.

The maid standing behind Posy’s chair wore a white cap and pants suit with a broad black sash, a servant’s uniform in the Pleasaunce style. Adele wouldn’t have paid particular attention — it wasn’t surprising that Lady Belisande would have brought a maid when she returned home from civilization — were it not that the servant was looking at Tovera.

Adele’s lips squeezed into a tiny, cold smile. Posy’s servant was from the same mold as Tovera herself. That wasn’t surprising either, given who Posy had been. That left the question of whether the “maid” was a bodyguard or a minder to the Guarantor’s former favorite; or most likely both.

“When I left Zenobia five years ago,” Posy said, sipping a glass of what was probably the same wine, “I thought I’d love the excitement of Pleasaunce society. After I’d been there a time, well –”

She gave Adele and Clothilde a dazzling smile.

“– it was very exciting, but sometimes a little too much so. I wasn’t altogether sorry when events made it prudent for me to come back home. And I do like it in Calvary, really, but when I first arrived I found no one to talk to. I’m so glad that the new Commissioner’s wife is a lady.”

She saluted Clothilde with her glass.

“Commissioner Brassey was an old bachelor, and he neither visited nor entertained.” Posy smiled again. “I gather he found our local vintages, ah, compelling.”

“And it was wonderful to meet you, dear,” Clothilde Brown said with warm sincerity. “Pavel would be happy anywhere that he had accounts to check — that’s what he’s doing now. But I thought I was going to go mad here until I met you. There’s no one to talk to!”

“There’s an Alliance Resident on Zenobia, is there not?” Adele said, raising an eyebrow as she sipped. She’d watched Daniel deal with Resident Tilton, but she was interested in Posy’s description of the man.

“He’s a reptile!” spat Clothilde, slashing her hand before her face. She wrinkled her nose.

“Tilton is certainly a reptile,” Posy said. “He’s a tradesman’s son, and from Pinnacle besides. I don’t know how familiar you are with the Alliance, Lady Mundy . . . ?”

“I was educated on Blythe,” Adele said. “And yes, it’s possible that there are good people on Pinnacle, but they certainly seem to have sent their scum to other worlds.”

She paused. Posy giggled; Clothilde nodded with grim enthusiasm. Adele added, “And I would prefer to be ‘Adele’, Posy.”

“Well, you understand then, Adele,” Posy said, gesturing with her glass again. It was nearly empty, but even so the remaining thimbleful sloshed perilously close to the rim. “Tilton made a, well, an infamous suggestion when he first called on me. Not only that, but I think he might have tried to use force if Wood hadn’t been present. He ordered her out of the room, of all things. Giving orders to my maid in my brother’s palace!”

Wood smiled faintly at the reference. The expression reminded Adele of Tovera, or of a predatory bird.

“He touched me on the pier,” Clothilde said with another grimace. “If it hadn’t been for Captain Leary and his man, I don’t know what might have happened. Pavel isn’t any use in that sort of business.”

Your Pavel might not be as used to knocking people down as Hogg and Daniel, Adele thought. But a woman with pretensions to culture might consider that an attribute rather than a flaw in her husband.

Aloud she said, “Surely there’s a foreign community on Zenobia in addition to the government representatives, is there not? The warehouses facing the harbor include the names of several trading firms which I know have their headquarters on Pleasaunce. At least some of them have off-planet managers, do they not?”

Clothilde looked hopeful, but Posy grimaced and said. “When I was young, I thought the foreigners on Ship Hill — that’s where they live, most of them — were arrogant swine. All us Zenobians did, and we despised them. Now –”

The grimace turned to a sneer.

“– I know what they really are: failures from the core worlds, the drunks and fools, the embarrassments whose families shipped them as far away as they could get. Some of them sent their cards when I returned, trying to scrape acquaintance with Guillaume’s mistress . . . .”