Excerpts from books by Matthew Hughes
Excerpt from ‘Majestrum’
Lord Afre’s estate lay some distance past the village of Binch at the base of the long peninsula that was capped by the tarnished crown of Olkney. The aircar carried me in sumptuous comfort at treetop height over the deodar forest that rimmed the farm fields around Binch, then rose to where a broad height of land was surmounted by a rambling pile of brick and masonry, surrounded by spacious gardens. Within the walled grounds I also saw a mutable maze and broad sweeps of parkland dotted with follies and belvederes that replicated well known architecture from various worlds down The Spray.
As the car eased down, I was not surprised to see that it was not delivering me to the old house’s grand formal entrance. But then it also bypassed the ordinair and flew me past the maze, landing before one of the follies: a one-tenth reproduction of Genyon’s Mausoleum on Astrolium, one of the Foundational Worlds first settled during the great effloration of humanity out into The Spray at the end of the dawn-time. The tomb was surrounded by a recreation of the Bone Plaza of Thornwell on Chin. Curiously, as I stepped down from the air car, I thought that plaza and sepulcher harmonized with each other quite effectively, although the original were built light years and eons apart.
Lord Afre appeared at the top of the mausoleum’s steps and peered about. I knew he could see his own vehicle, ornamented with his family’s arms, but to bring myself into focus, I centered the lozenge on my brow, made sure the cuff studs were visible. I then executed the precise formal motions that would register in the hyperesthetic circuits of his aristocratic neural net. After a moment I saw that he had me in view.
“Hapthorn?” he said, descending the steps. “Henghis Hapthorn?”
I assured him of my identity, prefacing my remarks with an honorific that made it easier for him to hear it.
Dealing with the highest levels of the aristocracy could be tedious; I had occasionally wondered if the best thing to do might not be for everyone, especially their servants, to just ignore them until they dwindled and disappeared. But then, I would remind myself, their strangeness was not terribly out of place on a planet bristling with oddities. And, every now and then, they provided me with diverting experiences and highly paid assignments.
I invited Lord Afre to acquaint me with the troubles of Chalivire. He spoke at length, though much of his speech consisted of unfavorable estimations of the character and antecedents of Hobart Lascalliot, the man who had lately won his daughter’s affections. I formed a mental image of the fellow as being built mainly from grease and grime, and filled to overbrimming with materials that usually went unmentioned in polite discourse.
Eventually, the aristocrat began to repeat himself and tailed off into mutterings and hand gestures that mimicked the harm Lord Afre would accomplish if left unhindered within reach of Hobart Lascalliot’s most fragile parts. I repeated the words and motions that secured his attention and put some direct questions as to what was known about the man’s background, intentions and present whereabouts.
Amid more profanity, I learned that he claimed to be from the province of Asper on the world Mythisch. I knew the place; it was another of the Foundational Domains, a quiet and mannered world, and the named province was a region of large estates and comfortable towns. The rural inhabitants spent most of their time raising vegetables and foodbeasts while the residents of the towns excelled in useful crafts. The eight-man shells built for the annual boat races on the wide and placid Zoetsee were considered the finest light coursing vessels to be found among all the Ten Thousand Worlds.
Lascalliot’s intentions remained unstated, at least to Chalivire’s father, but his whereabouts were certain. He was in the Blue Parlor, it being the hour of the afternoon that the ladies of upper classes gave over to retrospective aspersion. Chalivire had never shown much interest in the time-honored custom of invoking complex curses upon the enemies of her ancestors, accompanied by vigorous stamping and symbolic motions of hand and arm. But after Lascalliot expressed a desire to see her in action, and then rewarded her performance with fulsome praise, it had become a regular part of their day.
I reflected that he had brought her some good — the times I had seen Chalivire she had looked as if she might benefit from a few bouts of exercise — but I did not trouble Lord Afre with my opinion. Instead, I proposed that I should now encounter the object of his suspicions and see what came of the meeting. He acceded to the suggestion but declined to accompany me. The last time he had been in Lascalliot’s presence, he had experienced difficulty suppressing an urge to order the man taken out to the Greater Woods on the far side of the estate, there to be surreptitiously shot and buried. As I reboarded the aircar and had it take me to the ordinair, I wondered if the aristocrat’s plan was based on mere conjecture that his faithful servants would do as they were bid, or on solid experience. But it seemed an unprofitable line of inquiry, so I focused myself on the encounter to come.
A majordomo met me at the door and presented me with a chain-link collar and pendant that I could wear while on the estate; it would make it much easier for the Lord and his daughter to keep me in view. He then handed me over to a footman who escorted me to the Blue Parlor. There I found the daughter of the house just finishing her exertions, her normally pasty complexion now patched here and there in pink and a glow of perspiration on her narrow brow. She was attired in a daydress artfully cut to make the most, or at least undo the worst, of her ungainly figure. When the servant announced me, her gaze slid quickly over me, while her expression transformed from pleased surprise to wary distrust.
After the brief ceremonies that custom demanded, I told her I had been in the neighborhood and thought I would pay my respects. I then turned expectantly to the man seated on the small divan and awaited an introduction. My general impression was of an unremarkable frame and a pleasant disposition. The face was handsome but did not look to have great intelligence lurking behind it. The fellow seemed affable enough as he rose and made the gestures and remarks the occasion required. He wore no marks of rank other than a pendant similar to mine, but I gathered that he had other qualities that would allow Chalivire to remain aware of him.
The ensuing conversation was one of those colloquies that occur when no one wishes to mention the particularly salient fact that is nonetheless in the front of each participant’s mind. We discussed the weather, including the prospects for tomorrow and the general effect of the season on crops and the ambient mood of the population. It was adduced that Hobart Lascalliot did not hail from these parts, and an inquiry was made in passing as to where he did call home. Asper on Mythisch was mentioned at which point I affected only the vaguest familiarity with the world and asked for more information. It was duly forthcoming and I expressed an interest in traveling there, wondering if the visitor might recommend a suitable hostel. That brought a recommendation to try the Boon in the centrally located town of Aamst. I inquired as to sights and diversions, and was given a few recommendations.
There followed one of those moments when the current topic of discussion has been exhausted and everyone waits to see if a new subject will be offered. Chalivire and Lascalliot said nothing, he standing at apparent ease, clasping his hands behind his back while rocking gently on his heels, she glowering at the carpet between sharp glances at me from beneath her untended brows.
“Well,” I said, “this has been pleasant, but I really ought to pay my respects to Lord Afre and be on my way.”
Their protests and attempts to stay my departure were scant and nominal, Chalivire hoping that I would stay even as she summoned a footman to lead me out. Moments later, after the most perfunctory formalities, I was on my way back to her father’s presence. I found him engaged in his own set of retrospective aspersions, and was treated to some of the inventive cursing and evil-wishing for which the high aristocracy of Olkney are renowned up and down The Spray. I have known veteran spacers and professional criminals who would have been glad to take notes on the inventive maledictions that filled the air around the stamping, gesticulating lord.
I waited until he was finished then waited further while he was wiped down, recostumed by a valet and provided with a glass of improved water. When the attendant was gone, I said, “Your suspicions are justified. Lascalliot is not of Asper, and likely not even of Mythisch. His vowels lack the flattening that is common to the regional accent. As well, he showed only a slight familiarity with Aamst.”
“Hah!” said my client. He stared into the middle distance and his expression told me that he was imagining events at which his daughter’s companion would have played a prominent though most unhappy role.
I regained his attention after some effort. “If you wish, I will conduct a thorough discrimination and tender you a comprehensive report.”
“Yes. Do it.”
“It may require some offworld travel. The man is subtle and not without intelligence. He may have taken steps to disguise the true nature of whatever program he is pursuing.”
The lord summoned a majordomo and gave succinct instructions: I was to be provided with whatever assistance I required. I thought it best to remain on the estate overnight to observe the subject further and perhaps test him with other inquiries that might shed light on his true origins.
I was shown to a suite of rooms in the same wing as that in which my quarry, at Chalivire’s insistence, had been given quarters. Indeed, I discovered that his rooms were just below mine. A footman unpacked my valise and instructed the sleeping pallet to rouse its system in preparation for use. He also looked curiously at the old book, then placed it on the nightstand. I saw no sign of the distaste the thing provoked in me, but then a good servant is an expert at offering the world a show of neutrality.
“Integrator,” I said, when I was alone, “Lord Afre wishes me to perform a discrimination on Hobart Lascalliot.”
“I am aware of his wish,” said a voice from the air.
“He also wishes not to burden The Honorable Chalivire nor her guest with any knowledge of my activities.”
“That is understood. How may I assist?”
And so we began. I had the integrator replay for me a representative sampling of occasions when Lascalliot had been captured on the estate’s percepts. In some cases, he was with the daughter of the house, in others he was alone. I saw nothing overtly suspicious in any of them, though I had not expected to. I was already convinced that I was dealing with a well struck item, as the saying goes.
Of course, there were times and circumstances when the fellow was beyond the purview of the integrator, usually at Chalivire’s insistence. I presumed that it was then that he performed whatever services had so endeared him to her, and though I possessed a full measure of the broadmindedness that my profession requires, I had no wish to let such images impinge upon my memory.
“Select an occasion when the subject engaged in lengthy conversation,” I said, “and allow me to hear his mode of speech.”
It turned out that Lascalliot was a man of relatively few words. He tended to let his voice lie fallow while Chalivire filled the air with her throaty observations, many of them to do with the manifold failings of absent friends. Meanwhile, he contributed discreet exclamations of surprise and outrage, as appropriate, interspersed with encouragements for her to tell more.
I bid the integrator string together some dozens of these conversational snippets and attended closely to the man’s manner of speech. His accent was of the type referred to as “unworldly,” meaning it combined the tones of the most densely populated foundationals. I regarded his hand and eye movements and postures and saw nothing that indicated a particular planet of origin. Indeed, I was certain that I was seeing a contrived public persona, the sights and sounds of a man who plays a part.
I now turned to the content of his remarks, having the integrator winnow them into categories. His most frequent assertions concerned Chalivire’s admirable qualities, many of them apparent only to him. I noticed that he spoke often of her voice — a dry contralto with an unfortunate tendency to crack when she applied it forcefully. Several times, he pressed her to tell if she ever sang to herself and when she finally admitted, with a flush in her sallow cheeks, that she would occasionally warble a note or two while bathing or taking a solitary walk, he expressed a burgeoning desire to hear her. There was, he said, a particular song that he liked; he hummed a couple of bars and asked if she knew it, and seemed saddened to learn that she did not.
Nor for that matter, did I. I asked the integrator to isolate the notes of the song and retain them, then had it compare the ditty with any music that was in its repertoire. It did as bid, but pointed out that Lord Afre’s line had never taken much interest in the melodic arts, a profound tone deafness being endemic to the family.
“Indeed,” it offered, “these records of The Honorable Chalivire’s being urged to sing represent the first instances of their kind in several generations. Usually, they are urged when young never to inflict their voices on anyone.”
“Have you recordings of her private performances?” I asked.
“It is understood that any such that are acquired in the course of routine surveillance of the estate are to be deleted at the first regular clearing.”
I noted that I had not received a definite yes or no. I pressed for clarification. The integrator adopted that tone that comes over such devices when they find themselves in an uncomfortable position. I had heard exactly that note in my own assistant’s voice before leaving my lodgings.
It said, “I was enjoined by The Honorable Bejum” — he referred to Chalivire’s younger brother — “not to delete one recording, nor to admit to its existence. Of course, that injunction lapses if Lord Afre’s will is brought to bear.”
“In this instance, I believe it does,” I said, “though you are welcome to ask him yourself.”
“I believe I will not,” it said and played me the sound of Chalivire singing The Chorus of Spring while soaking in warm water in the privacy of her bath. The brother had overheard her while passing by and had instructed the integrator to capture the experience.
I listened all the way through, sacrifices sometimes being necessary to the performance of my craft. The Chorus was not a song I would have attempted myself, though I possessed a serviceable baritone. It was intended for a soprano’s range, and featured several sequences of notes meant to mimic the gladness of songbirds at the coming of the vernal season. Chalivire’s handling of these spritely melismas was less mimicry than mockery.
“The Honorable Bejum took the recording to school,” the integrator said. “It seems there was a competition to establish who among his peers had the sibling who was ‘most beyond repair’ — that was the term he used; I believe he scored quite highly and made the final round.”
“I am not surprised,” I said. “Though I am surprised that Lascalliot, having often heard her speak, wishes to take the plunge. Perhaps where he comes from, musical standards are markedly different.”
“Can there be anywhere that strange?” asked the integrator.
“The strange is common once one departs Old Earth,” I said, “but that brings us back to the issue of the fellow’s origins.”
The Afre integrator’s resources were limited in that regard, so I had it give me a private connection with my own integrator. Contact was not instantly achieved and I waited long enough to begin to grow disturbed, then my assistant’s voice said, “I am here.”
Instead of the portrait of myself, looking dignified but approachable, that is supposed to be presented to the world when I am not at home, I saw my assistant sitting on the table, gazing at me with its disconcerting eyes. “Why did you delay in answering?” I said.
“I was asleep.”
“Integrators do not sleep,” I said.
Its mouth gaped in a diminutive yawn, revealing pink tongue and gums and different kinds of teeth. “Apparently, familiars do,” it said. “Besides, when I was in my original form, I would stand down when my services were not required. I suppose it was much like sleep.”
“I am concerned,” I said.
“I awoke when you called.”
“Do you require instant attention whenever you call?”
“I have grown accustomed to it. I designed you for it.”
“This conversation has now swerved onto ground already covered,” it said. “I am no longer what you first made me to be; instead, I am what you have made me…” — its hands performed a small flutter — “lately.”
I said nothing for a moment, then began anew. “I want you to do some research.”
“Find out all you can about an offworlder named Hobart Lascalliot, particularly when he came to Old Earth, where from, and by what means.”
“Is this a full inquiry?” it said. That was its way of asking me if it should use its enhanced abilities to tickle its way into data stores that were not supposed to be open to casual visitors.
“It is,” I said. “Uncle Rodion has already put his head in the barrel, so you might ask him.” I did have an Uncle Rodion — he operated a small but well regarded winery in the County of Bolor and occasionally sent me a case of his Special Reserve — but in this context his name was a covert reference to the Bureau of Scrutiny. I had long ago acquired an access to its well articulated systems that would be at least resented, if not actively sanctioned, should it ever be discovered.
“Very well. Any special instructions?”
I thought for a moment then said, “I believe we are dealing with more than a garden variety Chloön-clutcher. He has taken a particular interest in the target’s singing ability.”
The little eyebrows went up. “Has she any?”
“None,” I said. “Indeed, she might be seen as an antidote to music in all its forms.” That gave me an idea and I said, “Take a look at worlds where musical tastes diverge far from the norm; perhaps there is somewhere out there where throat-singers are prized. Cross-check any such against his accent and his general type — the integrator here has images of him and samples of his voice — although he has taken pains to achieve an unworldly tone.”
I also told it to try to identify the melody that Lascalliot seemed so interested in having Chalivire sing.
“Very well. The offworld inquiries might take some time. Shall I contact you as soon as I have results, or…”
I understood its hesitation. By the time it replied to me I might well be asleep, although my body and part of my mind might be hunched over the book of magic, seeking to unravel its secrets through intuition.
“No,” I said, “I will contact you.”
But I did not break the connection. “Wait,” I said, “why did you not display the not-at-home image when I called?”
“Because it was you who were calling.”
“So had it been anyone else, they would not have found themselves looking at you?”
The little furry face was becoming quite good at conveying sentiments, though I did not care for the one I was now seeing. “Is there anything else?” my assistant said.
There was. “You won’t be going back to sleep?”
Its unsightly expression now intensified. “Not when I have something to do,” it said. “Goodbye.”
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