“Why do we have to read this?” protested Mercedes Esperanza Juana Sofia Paloma (known to her siblings as Pidge). “It isn’t in English.”
“Because it’s on the list of recommended texts for your pre-law program,” said Udine, “and you don’t want to be behind when you get to the university.”
Mercedes pouted, but picked up her reader again, as Udine had known she would. Competition was a powerful motivator for all of the children, but especially the evensibs.
“Besides,” Udine added encouragingly, checking her own copy of the play, “it really isn’t as difficult as you think. When shall we three meet again, in thunder, lightning, or in rain – that isn’t so hard, is it?”
“I guess,” said Mercedes, with an elaborately performed shrug. “But what’s when the hurly-burly’s done supposed to mean?”
“Take a look at the next line. When the battle’s lost and won.”
“Well, why can’t he say it once, the simple way?”
“Because it’s poetry,” said Udine. It was also, of course, a play, and it was very difficult to explain play to a willful teenager who had never seen one. Udine had often been to the theater as a young woman on Komarr, but there were no such theaters and no actors on Jackson’s Whole. (Someday, Udine, thought, there might be – when she had a Great House of her own, and sufficient capital.) “We’ll read parts,” she said. “It will go faster that way. Topaz, can you come and help us?”
Topaz joined them, cheerful and cooperative as always. (Udine knew that she ought not to play favorites among the children; she admired Shiv’s capacity for loving them all equally and uncritically; but she had always found that the Jewels were simply easier. They were all her, and all hers.)
It would help the time pass faster, she thought, as they began to read; she needed something to distract her now.
* * *
… and shalt be
What thou art promised; yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition …
There had been no possibility of saving the clone.
Shiv had considered it; examined various angles; and had, at last, come to the same conclusion as Udine had. He had seemed to waver after he realized this, not for the first time. Udine had placed the clone’s picture among the medicine bottles on the Baron’s bedside table, a sweet-faced laughing boy, to remind Shiv that there were other sweet-faced laughing boys out there who would live, even if this one must die. One high-profile failure was enough to make a dozen people reconsider their surgery.
In any case, the Baron could not have lived long in the natural course of things; bribing his doctors to keep him from cheating nature scarcely counted as murder. He would simply not wake: as gentle a death as any man of a hundred-odd could hope for.
Still, Udine found herself … not wholly easy in her mind. She had never liked leaving things to other people.
* * *
… Come to my woman’s breasts
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances,
You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark…
Of course, Shakespeare thought Lady Macbeth was the villain. Men, in most ages of history and in most places, were good at making villains out of women.
… Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off…
What if it were not so?
What if Duncan had been no saint? Surely, most medieval kings were not saints. What if the thane of Cawdor, a gentleman on whom I built an absolute trust, had reasons for betraying him? (Why was Scotland at war at the beginning of the play, anyway? Mercedes had asked, and Udine had no answer.)
What if Duncan had been bloody, luxurious, avaricious, everything that powerful men usually were if they were given half a chance? And what if he had been willing enough that others should die in order to give his own pleasures full rein?
Udine had endured the way the Baron looked at her odd-daughters, and had advised them to endure it too. It wasn’t as if a decrepit old man in a float-chair could do anything, whatever might be passing through his mind.
A lecherous old fox in a strong young body was a different matter. And he looked at them all that way, even her Lapis Lazuli, her little clever one, who had just turned fourteen and looked younger, being little and small-breasted as a dancer should be. Rish (even Udine thought of her as Rish) was still very much a child in other ways as well, as yet more interested in ice skating and snow forts than in clothes and boys.
… I have given suck, and know
How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me…
Udine recollected, vaguely, from her own schooldays, that Macbeth had heir problems. She wondered whether Lady Macbeth’s babe were dead, or from another marriage, or whether it simply did not count because it was a girl.
If we should fail?
Failure was not an option. They had a backup plan of sorts if the surgeon betrayed them – take the children and get off planet by private shuttle – but that wasn’t really a plan, more of a mad scramble for survival. When you made a play for a Great House, you had to win once and forever.
* * *
… Now o’er the one half-world
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtained sleep; witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate’s offerings, and withered murder,
Alarumed by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his steady pace
With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his design
Moves like a ghost …
It was very late.
Udine released Mercedes from her schoolwork, and Topaz from her position as reader, saying they could pick it up again in the morning. Most likely they would do nothing of the sort; whether things went well or badly tonight, they would have more important things to think of in the morning.
She went to the nursery to look in on the two youngest children. They were both fast asleep, Tejaswini with her chubby little arms wrapped around her stuffed bear; Onyx’s lashes gleaming silver in the moonlight.
Everything done tonight is done for you, sweetlings.
* * *
The call came, at last.
Thank whatever gods there may be. Udine drew a slow, deep breath, realizing for the first time how tense she had been.
Then she went back to work. She had a funeral to organize.
* * *
“Children,” she said in the morning, “I’m very sorry to tell you the Baron did not survive his surgery.”
They looked at one another, the younger ones blank with amazement – they had never known a world without the Baron in it – the older ones savvy enough to be alarmed, though Erik and Stella seemed rather less surprised than the others. “What’s going to happen to us?” Topaz asked after a moment.
“Nothing’s going to happen to us,” said Udine, carefully masking the triumph in her heart and making her voice as neutral as possible. “We’re staying right here. Your father and I are his heirs.” (The Baron had had a son; but he had not named his son his Prince of Cumberland. He had never been a man of strong family feeling.)
After the first flurry of questions – and after Shiv had gone to comfort Tejaswini, who had inexplicably burst into tears and fled from the room – there were practicalities to attend to. “Pearl, your name-necklace should be all right for the funeral. Ruby, yours is too showy, but that Gnostic pin of yours should look well. Let me find something simple and tasteful for the rest of you girls.” Udine led her troop of daughters into her bedroom and began to rummage through her jewel-box.
“It’s awfully lucky, isn’t it, that we all got grown-up black dresses for Randfest?” said Emerald, and then, without waiting for an answer or noticing the cool, cynical smile with which her older sister Stella had greeted this remark, “Will these boots be all right? I hope we don’t have to wear heels, they’re dreadfully uncomfortable.”
Rish did catch the smile, and the implications of what Emerald had said. Her eyes widened, and before Udine’s eyes, she abruptly stopped being a child.
Udine caught Rish’s eyes and formed, with her lips, the words Don’t tell Amiri. Amiri would not understand, at least not now. He was going through an idealistic phase. Udine could only hope that he would grow out of it.
Rish nodded, obedient, and Udine understood at once that she could trust her. The Jewels had always been easy.