Brief Encounter

(Side one, track two)

Cover of The Eight-Man AustinMelinestra t’Gaardholm watched the rain, from a wooden window-seat in a high brown room in her father’s house: her blue-and-white frilled dress bunched up around slim ankles, and the cheek and the hand it rested on were smooth and unblemished as a baby’s. A wisp of pale-gold hair, trapped between hand and cheek, flirted with one delicate nostril, and long lashes veiled eyes that recalled sunnier skies.

The view shifted and swam through layers of rain. A myriad tiny explosions marked the crashing of a myriad kamikaze raindrops on the gravel path outside: on the grass beyond they vanished unseen, all impetus absorbed by the pliant, gentle green. The light was gauzy, making a mood-picture out of the room, and Melinestra.

She got up, uttering a small soft sound to hear the echo in the huge old room. She padded on bare feet over to the spinichord that nestled in a corner, and dallied with a few notes, singing them as she played in a breathy, unaffected voice, then shut the lid with a gunshot bang and turned to go.
At the doorway she paused, eyes wide, and cocked an ear. Whether it were some unaccustomed sound...or an alteration in the quality of the air...or something even less apprehensible...the fact was that into the motionless ambience of the house that had been her world for all of her nearly seventeen years, there had come a change. She looked back at the spinichord—had the sound of the lid closing been a signal, for which some dim unknown force had waited these long years before rising up to possess her home, her life, her very self?

Shaking her head at these wild imaginings, she quitted the room.

Faces lined the gallery where she trod. Thin, ascetic faces and faces gross with years of good living: kindly-eyed faces and vulpine masks of anger, fear or power-lust: faces that bore the scars of battle or the marks of toil and faces whose angelic purity rivalled her own. All of t’Gaardholm was here, from old Jan Olmeier who landed with Kelleman himself and founded the estate to the stern, classical countenance of Eirdaan t’Gaardholm, her father. In a small chamber just off this passage rested a portrait of herself, painted two years ago. In another year sittings would begin for the next, and whichever was the most recent when she died, that one would hang next to Eirdaan’s on the pale grey wall. In the meantime, the living Melinestra skipped idly down the corridor, chanting the names as she passed them: Adam, Geraard, Urban, Leia, Lisabet, Adam, Harald, Maurits, Christiana, Urban, Geraard...

Above her the rain pounded on the skylights that let in the cheerless grey glow of the day. She made it the drummer for her skipping and chanting: Geraard, Donal, Urban, Heirman, Georg...
She stopped abruptly, halfway along the gallery, where the stairs ran down to the entrance hall, on either side of a semi-circular balcony. Voices were rising from below, and one voice was as unknown as the others were easily placed. Her father, and Egerman the secretary...but who was the third?

Melinestra’s memory ran through all her previous tutors, the priest, the doctor, the young captain of guards who had been so irritating at the last short, all the male voices she could summon up in her mind’s ear. None matched. And most interesting of all, the accent—the flattened vowels, the delivery, forceful yet somehow drawled—smacked of off-planet. Uitwerelder.

She craned over the balcony to hear.