Roj stood up as his father came into his room. "Goodnight, Father," he said, shaking Associate Commissioner Cedric Blake's hand.
"This is the guest list for your party," the elder Blake said. "I'm sure you'll be grateful, we went to a lot of trouble." Cedric (perhaps so named to toughen him up--if so, it worked) was an imposing man, a gentlemanly ruffian in all sorts of sports.
Roj strove to keep the disappointment from showing. For his best mate, Nor Wavril's, birthday, they had gone horseback riding on real horses. For his second-best-mate, Tez Rysaniek's birthday, they went to see a really super viscast. He hoped that he would be able to take Nor and Tez to either or (he dared to hope) both. Roj was a boy much given to hope, although few of his hopes panned out.
"Father, you invited girls," he said.
"Yes, they come from very good families--the Servalans are the best Alpha stock, and the Grants have achieved a great deal."
"And you invited a raft of boys that I hardly know at all."
"All those boys have mothers and fathers, Roj. You see, when you hold a responsible position, social events aren't frivolous. They are a means to associate with the people who mean something."
"Yes, Father." Roj played his trump card. "And you invited Kerry Avon. He's not even in Third Year, he's in Fourth."
"As you grow up you'll have to learn about people management. The Avons may not be quite out of the top drawer" (Cedric's private opinion was that Jean Avon was the most cloyingly irritating social climber of the entire Dome) "but Brian Avon is the Captain of the Junior School First Eleven and Kerry's at the top of the class."
"Well so he would be, he's the school swot."
"It's useful for you to cultivate people like that. Someday you may have an inconvenient assignment and want someone to do it for you. You're a popular little chap, Roj. I daresay that if you give him some attention, he'll look at you with a sort of hero worship, and you can use that."
"Last time he looked at me, it didn't look much like hero worship, Father."
"What do you mean, Roj?"
"Well, he was down on the ground and I kicked him a couple of times."
"What was he doing there?"
Roj looked at his father, bemused. Kerry Avon getting beaten up on the way home from school might not have been a regularly scheduled part of the curriculum, and you didn't get graded on it (a point in its favor, apart from its built-in attractions), but it occurred at least as often as OTC kit inspection or arithmetic homework.
"After the second time I did think it was a bi' silly, so I stopped doing it. Everyone else went on though." Roj remembered Kerry looking up at him, sobbing out "I'm not afraid of you," which was a stupid thing to say anyway if you were soppy enough to cry. Roj had read and re-read all the cubes in the Heroes of the Federation series, even the ones for older children, and he was fairly certain that none of them ever cried.
"Roj, we don't say "a bi'," if we must qualify we say "rather" or "somewhat."
"You're a good lad, Roj. You try to obey and learn from your mistakes. But never forget, son, that we serve the Federation. Think about that. A Federation means we're all together. So if everyone else was doing it, then probably you should have been too."
"It's a VERY GOOD chemistry set," Kerry said patiently. You had to be awfully patient with adults, you could go mad sometimes. "I wish I had a chemistry set like that. I don't see why we should give it to HIM. I don't even like Roj."
"It's his birthday, love, not yours, yours was months ago," Jean Avon said. "And you're not getting another chemistry set, I'm not as green as I'm cabbage-looking. I quite liked that conservatory."
"I quite liked the noise," Kerry said reminiscently. "And it turned marvelous colors before it blew...what was it I mixed up, Dad?"
"Don't encourage him," Jean said.
Francis Avon thought that "conservatory" was putting it a little high. "Garden shed" was more like it. But part of being a parent was disapproving when your offspring blew up the garden shed. Just as his parents had done.
Kerry went back to the Aetherfix model pursuit ship he was building.
Jean tried to put the invitation, which had been delivered by Lucinda Blake's uniformed Norland nanny, into the mirror over the mantelpiece. It drooped. "They could at least have given us a stiffie," she said.
Francis and Brian (his eldest son--he was twelve) couldn't help sniggering. Kerry looked up, wondering what was funny. It must have something to do with Bad Words. He knew lots of them, although not enough for his taste.
"For a children's party? That would be pretentious," Francis said.
"Roj is Eight!" the invitation said. "Come celebrate!" It was printed on paper (just ordinary limp paper) with a design of colorful balloons.
Jean Avon put on her best twin set, checked her lipstick in the hall mirror, and also checked to see that the gold crucifix around her neck wasn't visible. A lot of people got angry about other people believing, and it wasn't quite nice to give offense.
The twin set was azalea pink, an obvious violation of the sumptuary laws. But she had an approved blue raincoat, covering her throat to ankle, to wear on the tram. She sighed. Most of the other children came from Alpha families, and were licensed for personal transport or had staff cars. Well, what can't be cured must be endured.
Well, now we're on visiting terms with the Blakes, she thought. So we can have them back. There was a casserole in the Women's Home Companion (Mid-Grades Edition) that looked ever so nice.
However, when she got to the Blakes' house to drop off Kerry, the brief pleasure she felt in seeing that Pauline Blake was wearing a cardi too (although hers was part of a costume, and whyever did the buttons say CC instead of PB?) was curdled by Madame Associate Commissioner Blake's facial expression in response to Jean's well-meant invitation.
I wonder, Jean thought, what Alphas say instead of "When pigs fly out of yer arse."
Kerry, knowing that his mother was hovering somewhere on the premises, felt obligated to display a modicum of civilized behavior. So he took the cheerfully wrapped box, went over to the table where Roj was holding court, and shook his hand. "Hullo, Blake. They said I had to give you this. It's a really smashing chemistry set."
"Jolly nice of you," Roj said, dropping the cold, rather damp
hand as soon as he could. "Tez, good to see you! How'd the umpire ever get away with that call in the second half of last night's match? He must be blind as well as stupid..."
Irene Servalan hoisted herself up on the sofa and arranged herself, kicking one patent-shod foot against the front of the sofa, crushing the lace cuff of her anklet. It was an absolutely horrid party, and there was nothing to be done but wait patiently until the cake was served and then go home and make her Nanny cry.
Boys! The whole house was overrun with them. She couldn't see the point of them at all.
There was one other girl there, but her dutch-doll haircut wasn't anywhere near as nice as Irene's, and she wore a dull deep-red velveteen frock with a clashing coppery-bronze sash. Her dress was greatly outclassed by Irene's white organza embroidered with pink roses, and she wore brown lace-up oxfords. If anything, that would have been a point in her favor, but soppy Anna didn't want to play any games with Irene. She spent all the time talking to Bartholomew and feeding him sandwiches and biscuits, and nobody else could even see him.
"Vila, stay here in the pantry, and don't get in my hair, and don't plague anyone and don't touch anything. Not to break it, and not to nick it. I'll bring you some cake later, never fear," his Mum told him.
Vila more or less stayed in the pantry--didn't wander far, anyway--when he saw a big nose and a pair of dark eyes, followed closely by a chubby small boy with dark hair cut in a fringe on his forehead. At first the eyes looked black, like buttons, but really they were dark brown. The eyes were shiny, but you wouldn't want a ted with eyes like that. Give you nightmares, that would.
"Hallo, I'm Vila," he said. "Why are you in here?"
"Everyone out there has put his fist in my face more often than you've had hot dinners," the other boy said. "It could be that the grown-ups will keep the peace, but I'd rather not trust them to do it." He looked appraisingly at the other child, taking in his innocent face and Delta-drab coveralls. "How old are you, Vila?"
"Six." Below the age of reason then, it wasn't even a sin for him. All the better.
"Where do you live?"
"Number 702, Plantaggnit Close, Delta Level Four," Vila said, proud to have it all memorized.
Kerry took a moment to translate Plantaggnit into Plantagenet. "My parents made me give something of mine to Roj--the boy who lives in this house. I'd like you to help me out and get it back for me."
"Why should I, then? Do it yourself."
Kerry produced a ten-credit note (his birthday money from his Granny and Grandpapa) from inside his blue jacket. He dangled it in front of Vila, who had never seen and could barely imagine so much money at one time. He tore it in half--Vila nearly sobbed in frustration--and handed half of it to the younger boy, a tactic learned from one of his Dad's old viscubes.
"I'll write down my address on a bit of paper," Kerry said. "I expect you can't read it, but you can find someone who can. Watch how your Mum goes when she takes you home tonight. Then, tomorrow, come back here in the daytime, find the chemistry set--(he paused to think of a description that would make sense to the Delta boy)--"the black and red box with a load of tubes and little bottles in it--and bring it to me. And I'll give you the other half of the ten-credit note and stick it back together so you can spend it. Meet me in my back garden, around teatime."
Briefly, Kerry felt nostalgia for the late lamented garden shed, which would have provided secure cover for illicit activities.
Vila had never been on the tram by himself before. It scared him enough to put his thumb in his mouth for a reassuring suck, but it was an adventure too. When his big sister Tiff read him Service Grade Storybooks, the good ones were about heroes. (The crap ones were about factory workers who met their production quotas or farmers who grew really big heaps of soybeans.) Vila wanted to be a hero when he grew up. That, or a space captain.
The Number Five tram was crowded, so he clung to the skirts of one of the drab-clad, thick-legged women wearing a cardigan and headscarf. If anyone asked, he would say she was his Auntie Elsie. More to the point, if anyone asked he'd say that she paid the fare.
Someone told him to walk two streets over and take the Number Eighteen tram, but that wasn't right, and one way and another it took four trams and an hour to get back to the Blakes' house. He enjoyed it all in a scary way. He liked seeing new places (or as much of them as you could see out the window while standing in the aisle at a height of three foot six).
Some of the trams weren't crowded at all, and he wished he could sit in one of the Beta seats in the front or Gamma seats in the back. But everyone would spot him, because he wasn't wearing Beta Blue or Gamma Green, much less Alpha Anything. Blue and Green Should Never be Seen, he chanted.
Once he found the Blake's house, it was easy to shinny up a water spout and get in through an open window; he'd done that lots of times, in the Delta dome, with his cousin Loy when they were out exploring when they were supposed to be asleep. The third room he went into belonged to Roj, and it only took a minute to find the red-and-black box among the neatly stacked presents.
It only took two trams to get to that other boy's house (the one who hadn't told Vila his name).
"Look, can you pull your finger out?" Vila asked anxiously. "My Mum is waiting for me, and I'd like to have my tea before it gets cold."
"Pull your finger out? Is that a bad word?"
"Expect so," Vila said.
Kerry took some of the cement from an Aetherfix kit and stuck the ten-credit note together. You could hardly see that it had been torn, and even that only if you were looking.
"Flamin' Ada!" Vila said. Kerry filed that for reference.
"Money is brilliant," Kerry said (and Vila filed that for reference), as he handed over the mended note. He did give serious consideration to not paying, the other child was a Delta and much younger than he was, but after all, he had given his word. "It means you can do whatever you want and even grownups can't stop you."
Kerry thought the whole transaction over, and said, "Wait a moment." Then he went into Brian's room and took a couple of credits' worth of loose change out of Brian's money box. "The tenner is for helping me out. This is for the bad words." Some of it was for having thought about not paying the kid, but he didn't like to think about that.
Brian didn't want to do his prep, and his baby brother was having his nap, so he went looking for his kid brother instead.
"I got to go to the vizzies," he said, "When you were out at that stupid party." He didn't mention his receipt of a heavy bribe, out of the housekeeping money, to take Terry along and not lose him, even temporarily. When you're twelve, having a four-year-old in tow is bad for your image.
"Well, you would, you're a lucky sod, and you're Mum's favorite anyway."
"They just wanted us out of the house while you were gone, so they could Do It."
"Get off, Brian, they don't Do It, they're our Dad and Mum."
"They said you're not right," Brian said, planting both hands on his kid brother's chest and shoving. "Mum's worried about you. She says that no matter what she does, there's a kind of darkness in you, she doesn't know how to light it up."
"I'll bet Dad said something," Kerry said, picking himself up from the attic floor. "He'd take my part, I know he would."
The attic was where he went to hide himself, which Brian knew. That's why, when that common child turned up with the chemistry set, Kerry didn't hide it there. Instead he stashed it under Brian's bed--the last place Brian would ever look. Justifiably so. Jean Avon had a somewhat superficial approach to cleaning (and she didn't have a Tilda Restal to trawl the deeper layers), and in many instances looking behind or under things could be the stuff of nightmares.
"Dad said that it's like baking a poundcake, it's not like other sorts, it's natural for it to have a crack on the top when the batter bubbles up. So he thinks you're cracked. Everyone thinks you're cracked."
Brian grabbed the front of Kerry's shirt with one hand, leaving the other free to pound him with. He didn't have the strength to haul him all the way one-handed; Kerry was a small but solidly constructed child. He punched his brother on the shoulder, then swung his arm up for a backhand. "You'd better not tell Mum, or I'll kill you!"
"If you hit me in the face, then Mum will know even if I don't tell her," Kerry said. "You fucking idiot."
Brian was so startled (by the language or the un-childlike tone of cold contempt) that he dropped his brother. From Kerry's viewpoint, this was not an unequivocal victory--it was once they got you down on the ground that they could really thump you.
"Vila, where have you been?" Tilda Restal shouted, sweeping him up for a kiss and hug and then clouting him on the way down. "I was that worried! And you were supposed to be minding Juniper when I was at the Cash'n'Carry!"
"Well, Mum, a Security Service man told me I had to go on a top-secret mission to catch spies. I can tell you, though, 'cos you're my Mum. And he gave me this!" Vila held up the ten-credit note. "That's enough for you and Mrs. Bogdanov and Mrs. Lupton to go out on a rip for the whole night!"
Mrs. Restal shook her head, but pocketed the note. "Cheeky monkey! I know what your game is! But next time one of the upper grades asks you to do an errand, you tell me first, you hear me?"
"Yes, Mum," Vila said meekly. He didn't really want his tea, cold or not, after eating two credits' worth of sweets on the way home.