The Blue Star
Chapter 1: Netznegon City: March Rain

Public Domain

It was raining steadily outside. The older woman’s tears and words fell in time, drip, drip. Cold, for the tall window at the room’s end would never quite shut close, bottom and top not nest into the frame simultaneously. Lalette in her soutane felt goose-pimples and tried to shut out the sound by thinking of a man with a green hat who would give her a handful of gold scudi and nothing asked, merely because it was spring and she put a small spell on him with a smile, but it was not quite spring, and the voice persisted:

“ ... all my life—I have hoped—hoped and planned for you—even before you were born—even before you were born—daughter of my own—” (Yes, thought Lalette, I have heard that before, and it would move me more, but the night you drank the wine with Dame Carabobo, you told her how I was the product of a chance union in a carriage between Rushaca and Zenss) “—daughter—and after I saved and worked so hard—you miss the only chance—the only chance—don’t know what I’m going to do—and Count Cleudi’s not like most—”

“You told him what he offered was frightful. I heard you.”

(Sob) “It was. Oh, it was. Oh, Lalette, it isn’t right, you should be married with a gold coach and six horses—but what can we do?—oh, if your father had left us anything before the war—all I sacrificed for him—but that is what all of us must do, make sacrifices, we can’t have anything real without giving something away ... Lalette!”


“You will be able to employ the Art and have everything you want, you know most of the patterns already, he does not go to the Service often ... and after all, it’s something that happens to every woman one way or another, and with the Art, even if he doesn’t marry you, he’ll find you a husband you won’t mind, it’s only men like Cleudi who want to be the first, a man who marries would really prefer a girl to have a little experience, I know ... Lalette!”

Lalette did not answer.

“All the young ones come to the ball after the opera, Lalette. Count Cleudi will present you, and even if you don’t bring—”

(He would have not only a green hat, but southern-made lace at wrist and throat and a funny-looking man who spoke in a Mayern accent, thick as cream, and carried the purse because it spoiled the fit—)

“ ... as though he were just one of those ... so considerate...” (I suppose we cannot control how we come by our parents) “ ... your father, like an angel out of heaven, and I could have taught you so much more if he—” (Now she is waist-deep in the past again, I’m going to hear it all over) “ ... really, for it is more like one step up than a leap down from a high place, which is always what we think before the first time ... Lalette!”

“Yes, mother.”

Someone knocked at the door.

Lalette’s mother hastily daubed at her cheeks, heaved herself heavily from the chair, looked sidewise, saying; “We could sell the stone.” But before the girl could reply, the tap again. The older woman waddled across to the door and opened it a crack; a long jaw and long nose under a wet turn-down hat poked in.

“I was just saying to my daughter—” began Dame Leonalda.

A pair of thin shoulders pushed past her as though not hearing, the man stood in the center of the room, sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve. “Listen,” he said, “no more stories. I have heard too many.”

Dame Leonalda gave him a doleful look and bustled back to her seat. “But I assure you, Ser Ruald—”

“No more stories,” he said again. “I have charges to meet and taxes.”

She put her hands to her face. (Lalette thought: her only device; I hope I shall not grow like that.) Ruald said; “But I do not wish to be hard, no, and I know you have no money just now. So I will be fair, and if you render me a small service, why then, it is not beyond me to forgive the whole four months’ arrears.”

Dame Leonalda took down her hands again and said; “What is the service?” (Her voice had something like a tinge of dread.)

Ruald sniffed again, darted a glance at Lalette, another at the door, and stepped close. “I have heard that you belong to one of the families of the Blue Star.”

“Who told you that?”

“It does not matter. Is it true?”

The dame’s lips worked. “And what if it is?”

“Why this, dame: it will not peril your soul to place a small witchery—”

“No, no, I couldn’t do such a thing. You have no right to ask me.”

The man’s face sneered. “I have a right to ask you for my money, though.”

“No, no, I tell you.” Her hands waved the air. “That Dame Sauglitz, they punished her with five years and stripes.”

“They will punish nobody for this; utterly private between you and myself. Is not your skill enough so that no suspicion of witchery will fall on you? Come, I’ll do better. I’ll more than forgive the arrears, I’ll give you quit-rent for four other months to come.”

“Mother,” said Lalette from the corner.

Dame Leonalda turned around. “This does not concern you,” she said, and to Ruald; “But how am I to know that having done as you wish, you’ll not denounce me before the episcopals?”

“Why as for that, might I not want your help another time?” She put up a protesting hand, but he; “Come, no more stories. I’ll—”

There was another tap at the door. Ruald looked annoyance as Dame Leonalda crossed the room in another rustle of skirts. Her voice was almost gay. “Come in, Uncle Bontembi.”

Rain shook shining from his cloak. “Ah, charming Dame Leonalda.” The paunch hindered his bow. “The greetings of the evening to you, Ser Ruald. Why, this is a true evening gathering.”

“I was just leaving,” said Ruald, tugging at his jacket. “Well, then, Dame Leonalda, bear in mind what I have said. I’m sure we’ll reach accommodation.”

She did not get up as he went. When the door was closed she turned to Uncle Bontembi. “It is such a problem, dear Uncle,” she said. “Of course the child is perfectly right in a way, and it would be different if her father had left her anything at all, but with such a man as Cleudi—”

“The Count is a splendid gentleman,” said the priest. “I have seen him lose fifty gold scudi on a turn, but never his composure. And he is in high favor. Is there a problem relative to him? Not that his eye has fallen on our little Lalette? I would call that a matter for consent and rejoicing.”

“Ah, Uncle, it is this, if men only behaved as nobly toward women as they do to each other! He has set his eye on this dear child indeed, but not his hand, and says he will pay all our debts and give her a hundred gold scudi besides, if she will only accompany him to the opera and ball of the spring festival.”

Uncle Bontembi plucked at the button of his chin, and the smile left his face. “Hm, hm, it is certainly on the face of matters a proposal ... You are certain you have not been employing the Art, Dame Leonalda?”

“Oh, no, never, never. And my dear little girl, how could she?”

The priest glanced sly-eye at the girl. “Yes, yes, she has her first confession to make. Well, well, let us think this out together. I will say the Count Cleudi is highly held in other circles beside the political. There was some theological discussion at the Palace Bregatz lately, and the Episcopal was of the opinion that he had never heard sounder doctrine or better put than by Cleudi. Wherefore he cannot be very far from the laws of the good God and right moral, can he? And so his plan may be of greater benefit than first appears.”

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