May 17 2011 9:22am
The children of the embassy all saw the boat land. Their teachers and shiftparents had had them painting it for days. One wall of the room had been given over to their ideas. It’s been centuries since any voidcraft vented fire, as they imagined this one doing, but it’s a tradition to represent them with such trails. When I was young, I painted ships the same way.
I looked at the pictures and the man beside me leaned in too. ‘Look,’ I said.
‘See? That’s you.’ A face at the boat’s window.
The man smiled. He gripped a pretend wheel like the simply rendered figure.
‘You have to excuse us,’ I said, nodding at the decorations.
‘We’re a bit parochial.’
‘No, no,’ the pilot said. I was older than him, dressed-up and dropping slang to tell him stories. He enjoyed me flustering him. ‘Anyway,’ he said, ‘that’s not…It is amazing though. Coming here. To the edge. With Lord knows what’s beyond.’ He looked into the Arrival Ball.
There were other parties: seasonals; comings-out; graduations and yearsends; the three Christmases of December; but the Arrival Ball was always the most important. Dictated by the vagaries of trade winds, it was irregular and rare. It had been years since the last.
Diplomacy Hall was crowded. Mingling with the embassy staff were security, teachers and physicians, local artists. There were delegates from isolated outsider communities, hermitfarmers. There were a very few newcomers from the out, in clothes the locals would soon emulate. The crew was due to leave the next day or the one after: Arrival Balls always came at the end of a visit, as if celebrating an arrival and a departure at once. A string septet played. One of the members was my friend Gharda, who saw me and frowned an apology for the unsubtle jig she was halfway through. Young men and women were dancing. They were licensed embarrassments to their bosses and elders, who would themselves, to their younger colleagues’ delight, sometimes sway or turn a humorously stilted pirouette.
By the temporary display of children’s illustrations were Diplomacy Hall’s permanent hangings; oils and gouaches, flat and trid photographs of staff, Ambassadors and attachés, even Hosts. They tracked the city’s history. Creepers reached the height of the paneling to a deco cornice, spread into a thicket canopy. The wood was designed to sustain them. Their leaves were disturbed by thumb-sized vespcams hunting for images to transmit.
A security man I’d been friends with years before waved a brief greeting with his prosthesis. He was silhouetted in a window metres high and wide, which overlooked the city and Lilypad Hill. Behind that slope was the boat, loaded with cargo. Beyond kilometres of roofs, past rotating church-beacons, were the power stations. They had been made uneasy by the landing, and were still skittish, days later. I could see them stamping.
‘That’s you,’ I said, pointing them out to the steersman.
‘That’s your fault.’ He laughed but he was only half-looking. He was distracted by pretty much everything. This was his first descent. I thought I recognised a lieutenant from a previous party. On his last arrival, years before, it had been a mild autumn in the embassy. He’d walked with me through the leaves of the highfloor gardens and stared into the city, where it had not been autumn, nor any other season he could have known.
I walked through smoke from salvers of stimulant resin, and said goodbyes. A few outlanders who’d finished commissions were leaving, and with them a tiny number of locals who’d requested, and been granted, egress.
‘Darling, are you weepy?’ said Kayliegh. I wasn’t. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow, and maybe even the day after. And you can . . .’
But she knew that communication would be so difficult it would end. We hugged until she, at least, was a little teary, and laughing too, saying, ‘You of all people, you must know why I’m off,’ and I was saying, ‘I know, you cow, I’m so jealous!’ I could see her thinking, You chose, and it was true. I’d been going to leave, until half a year before, until the last miab had descended, with the shocking news of what, who, was on the way. Even then I’d told myself I’d stick to my plan, head into the out when the next relief came. But it was no real revelation to me when at last the yawl had crossed the sky and left it howling, and I’d realised I was going to stay. Scile, my husband, had probably suspected before I did that I would.
‘When will they be here?’ asked the pilot. He meant the Hosts.
‘Soon,’ I said, having no idea. It wasn’t the Hosts I wanted to see.
Ambassadors had arrived. People came close to them but they didn’t get jostled. There was always space around them, a moat of respect. Outside, rain hit the windows. I’d been able to ascertain nothing of what had been going on behind doors from any of my friends, any usual sources. Only the top bureaucrats and their advisors had met our most important, controversial newcomers, and I was hardly among them. People were glancing at the entrance. I smiled at the pilot. More Ambassadors were entering. I smiled at them, too, until they acknowledged me.
The city Hosts would come before long, and the last of the new arrivals. The captain and the rest of the ship’s crew; the attachés; the consuls and researchers; perhaps a few late immigrants; and the point of all this, the impossible new Ambassador.