Brontë saw the girl in the foam green dress, hunched in her wheelchair, sitting all by herself near the open doors to the terrace almost as soon as he entered the hall with his parents. He felt sorry for her. The noise and light levels were not oppressive, but even he already had slight sensory overload. There were sort of a lot of people, and a sensitive person or one not used to crowds might feel more comfortable watching from the side. Still, it was no fun sitting all alone. He'd go speak to her; not to bother her if she didn't want company, but to let her know she didn't have to sit by herself. Excusing himself mumblingly to his parents, who had already spotted familiar faces and were moving towards the adult bar at the far end of the room, he sauntered towards her.
He lost sight of her as he went. The music was in full swing and a few couples drifted or gyrated around the dance floor. He passed among knots and bigger, looser groups of youngsters whispering conspiratorially or talking animatedly with much laughter, hand clapping and gesticulation. But always he spotted her again, still and hunched, her head down. It was further to the terrace doors than it had look, as though the hall grew as he crossed it. But, finally he was through the press, within a few steps of her, and he could see her clearly. She looked to be around thirteen, just about a year younger than himself. Her face was pale; not merely faire skinned but unnaturally pale as with illness or nervousness. Her hair, which was cut short, was the color of sunshine early on a summer morning and very curly. Her eyes were the same sea green as her dress. Indeed, the fabric must have been selected specifically for the color, or even dyed specially. Though he was generally aware of prettiness only in flowers and birds, Brontë thought the effect a becoming one.
And now he could see that she was either totally blind or very close to it. She looked like a nice person and intelligent. You couldn't say her eyes were vacant - there was definitely somebody home behind them - but there was some indefinable something about her, some way in which she was just slightly less aware or just slightly more closed in than the sighted and partially sighted. Anger flared in him and his fists clenched. Whoever had brought her, probably her parents, had just parked her here without so much as a PCR or a service animal to talk to. He wondered if she even had a PCR or a service animal (chimpanzees were most common for the very severely disabled). Probably not. People like that wouldn't want her to be able to do anything without them.
He stepped back and then advanced towards her, making his tread firmer, heavier than usual so she could tell someone was coming towards her. It worked. She started and raised her head, straightening her shoulders just a bit. She looked a little alarmed but not frightened. "Hi," he said cheerfully, stopping right in front of her. "I'm Brontë." After a moment's thought he knelt down to be more on a level with her. "What's your name?" he prompted.
"That's a pretty name."
A faint color rose in her cheeks, making her look healthier. "Thanks."
"Sure thing." He glanced around, casting about for something else to say. He wasn't good at chitchat. He liked talking about real things, sailboats and horses and maybe garden design (He got that from his mother.) But you couldn't start out with stuff like that. You had to start out general. And, he wasn't good at general. Then his gaze rested on the glass door, twice - three times - the width of an ordinary door, folded back against the wall in front of which Emma's chair had been parked.
"It's nice over here," he remarked, feeling a little silly. " Not quite so hot and noisy, and you get some breeze." As he spoke he felt the faint wind on his face and saw it ruffle her unruly curls. She nodded and murmured some vague assent. Taking a deep breath, Brontë decided to cut to the point. "But, you know," he said gently, "I can't help wondering how come you're sitting all by yourself."
In the instant after the words were out, he wondered if she'd be angry and send him away. But she seemed only resigned and a little sad as she replied, "Mama left me here. She said she'd come right back, but she didn't."
Fury blazed through Brontë's whole body, tightening his chest and his throat; blanking out his sight and hearing; freezing his very thoughts for a moment. Then the worst past, like a storm front that leaves rain after it, rain that isn't scary, that you can cope with. He could cope with this anger, think through it. And he thought, "Lousy, rotten people! They don't deserve to have a little girl. Just walking off and abandoning her like that!" But he forced his eyes to focus on Emma, forced his voice to be calm as he asked, "How long ago was that?"
Emma shrugged. One of her shoulders rose higher than the other, and it looked as though the gesture hurt her. "I donno. I don't have a watch."
Suddenly Brontë jumped up. He had to dump his energy somehow. "D'ya wanna dance?"
"I'm in a wheelchair." She didn't sound scornful or defiant, just as though she were stating a fact that he might not have noticed.
"I know. But, that doesn't mean we can't dance. C'mon. I'll show you." He stepped behind her chair. "Brakes off?"
She leant forward stiffly, and it took longer than he expected before she sat back and said, "Yes."
"OK. Hang on. I'm not real good at driving these things."
She giggled. "Neither's Mama. She runs me into things all the time."
He only just managed not to speak aloud his thought, "And here I imagined my opinion of her couldn't get any lower." He was actually a good driver, steady and firm. They wove through the shifting crowd and soon reached the dance floor, where another wheelchair occupant and his partner were already doing their thing among the ambulatory dancers. Brontë wheeled Emma onto the floor, turned her ninety degrees and stepped in front of her. "OK," he said a little breathlessly. He'd never done this before and wasn't altogether sure it would work. "Hang on tight. Here we go." There were two sets of handgrips at the front of the chair arms, one vertical and one horizontal. Emma was holding the horizontal ones. Brontë gripped the verticles and began stepping backwards and forwards. Then he tried arcs and spirals across the floor. When the music crescendoed, he spun her in a tight circle, squealing wheels barely audible. By the end of the dance, they were both flushed and laughing. And somehow Emma didn't look so little and frail and ill. "That was fun," she exclaimed.
"Yeah." Brontë pretended to slump against the handles of her chair. "But I gotta sit down. Let's go get something to drink and maybe sit on the terrace."
All the life went out of Emma like air out of a balloon. "I'd better go right back to where Mama left me," she said in a small, scared voice. "She told me not to stir from that spot. She'll be mad…"
Because his adrenalin was already flowing, Brontë barely noticed the rush of anger. When he spoke his voice was strong, almost authoritative. "If she's gonna be mad at anybody, she can be mad at me. This is s'posed to be a party. Yu can dance if you want to."
"They need to know where I am." Her voice had become so small and constricted that he had to lean over the back of the chair to hear her.
He sighed. "All right. We'll find them and tell them you're with me. And then we'll get our drinks and go outside. It's too hot and noisy in here anyhow. He slewed her chair in a wide arc. The dance floor lay between them and where the grownups were congregated at the upper end of the hall and in rooms beyond. "Where are your parents? Do you know?"
"They said something about sitting with the mayor."
"With the mayor. Important people then. But, obviously, important people weren't .always smart people. Feigning a calm he didn't feel he said, "We'll be able to find the mayor easily enough. My own parents have probably drifted towards him too."
Slowly they made their way forward. It was awkward pushing the chair and leaning over the back to talk, but that was the only way he could hear her now that they were in the thick of the crowd, and he managed. "Your parents know the mayor too?" she asked.
"Yep. How come yours do?"
"Papa's a grain merchant. Anyhow, he says he has the mayor's ear. I'm not really sure what that means, but I think he's kind'a important."
Brontë chuckled. "Yeah, grain merchants are kind'a important. I wouldn't be surprised if your papa has the mayor's ear. What's his name?"
Brontë stopped walking. Morrow? Tom Morrow? Yes, he was important. The youngest president of the Corn exchange in a century and a half. He wasn't strictly speaking a politician, but he was every bit as important as Brontë's own father, who was a world senator, and very possibly more powerful. He looked down at the pretty, frail, sweet little girl in the wheelchair and thought savagely that Morrow was also a stupid, thoughtless idiot who deserved…
"How come your parents know the mayor?" Emma asked again.
Just as he began to answer, he was distracted by a shout. "Hey, Brontë!"
Straightening, he turned to see his friend Steve waving. "Hey, Steve," he called back. Where's Arrabella?"
Steve made a face. He'd drawn closer. "Powdering her nose. Saw you and your girlfriend on the dance floor. Quasar!"
"Thanks. Come and meet her." Emma shifted uncomfortably but Steve pushed past the last couple people between them and thumped Brontë on the back. "Emma," Brontë said, this is Steve. Steve, Emma."
"Hi, Emma," Steve said. Rising on tiptoe, he turned a circle in place. "Ah, there she is. Catch you cats later." And he plunged off into the crowd.
"Doesn't stay in one place long, does he?" Emma observed as they started again.
"Not he. I think he must have been a butterfly in a previous life."
"Brontë! There's no such thing as previous lives."
"Sorry," he said, surprised. "It's just a figure of speech."
"A - a saying."
"Well, don't say it. Our Lord is the Way, the Truth and the Life. There isn't any other. And reincarnation is an evil superstition. "
He sighed. Just his luck to befriend a Christian Fundamentalist. Of course what she said was true. He believed that. He knew that. But it didn't stop him using common turns of phrase. "I'm sorry," he said again. "I won't say it any more if it upsets you."
"Thank you," she said primly, and he smiled.
They were almost to the corner where the mayor was holding court. Brontë's heart skipped. There was Morrow. He'd never met the grain merchant, but all Nova Britannia knew him by sight. He faltered. But then he spotted his mother talking animatedly to the prima ballerina of the City Ballet. He couldn't remember ever being so glad to see her. Morrow hadn't seen them yet, Heaven be praised. Turning aside, he headed for his mother.
She looked up with her usual impeccable timing and wonderful lack of surprise. "Oh, hello, dear," she said. "Found someone to talk to then?"
"Yeah, umm. Hi Mme Fontaine."
The ballerina kissed her slender fingers and waved them at him. "Bonsoir, my 'andsome boy," she said, tactfully stepping back. "I speak more with you tomorrow, Marjorie, yes?"
"Yes. I'll call you around lunchtime, Yvette. Glad I ran into you. Good night." Turning her attention to the children, Mrs. Sinclair leant down to look into Emma's face, and gently took her hand. "And, who have we here?"
The words tumbled out of Brontë before Emma could do more than draw breath. "She's Emma Morrow, Mom, Tom Morrow's daughter, and they left her all by herself over by the terrace doors and told her not to go anywhere, and I went to talk to her and we danced, but now she's scared that her parents'll be mad 'cause she didn't stay where they put her like a bloody statue, and her father's over there talking to the new prime minister of Nova Italia, and…" He swallowed. He couldn't say what he thought of the Morrows' treatment of their daughter in front of her. So, he looked appealingly at his mother.
She returned his look gravely. "Is all this true, Emma?" she asked kindly.
Emma nodded and sniffed.
Mrs. Sinclair produced a disposable handkerchief from somewhere - she was marvelous about that sort of thing - and gently wiped Emma's face. "And what are you going to do now?" she asked.
Brontë shuffled and looked down. Their plan sounded pretty flat when you came to tell it to a grown up. But Emma said, "We're gonna find my parents and let them know I'm with Brontë. And then," She turned her head. She couldn't look right over her shoulder at him, but he understood that was what she meant. "Brontë said we could get drinks and go out to the terrace."
"Sounds like a plan," Mrs. Sinclair said, smiling. "It is a bit warm and noisy in here. "So, first we've got to find your dad and let him know where you'll be, right?" Both children nodded. "Well, that's easy enough. As Brontë says, he's not far away, talking with Prime Minister Grimaldi. I'll go over with you, shall I?"
Brontë heaved a mighty sigh of relief and Emma said, "Yes please, Mrs. - I don't know your name." She sounded surprised. Brontë to was startled till he remembered that he had been interrupted before telling Emma who his parents were. He groaned.
But his mother said merely, "Sinclair. I'm Mrs. Sinclair, dear. And Brontë's father is Sen. Sinclair."
A little shiver passed over Emma. "Yes, Please, Mrs. Sinclair," she said. She hesitated. The back of her neck turned pink. That will help."
"What will help?" Mrs. Sinclair asked, mystified.
"That you're important." Emma sounded embarrassed. "It's silly and it's not right, not what Our Lord taught us; but Papa and Mama - especially Mama, though they both are - they're really impressed with important people." Brontë rolled his eyes. Really stupid people. But Mrs. Sinclair was paying attention to Emma and missed it. "So," Emma went on, "They won't be mad when they find out that I've made a new friend as soon as they find out he's a senator's son." For the first time her voice grew hard, not with anger Brontë realized, but with contempt. "'Cause they'll think a friend like that'll be useful." She almost spat the last word.
Mrs. Sinclair straightened slowly and looked at Brontë. He'd never seen quite such a terrible look on her face before. To relieve his seething feelings he made a rude gesture and, rather than rebuking him, she nodded. There was a pause.
When Emma spoke again, her words brought tears to their eyes. "So maybe they'll let me and him be friends," she said.
Morrow was annoyed at having his tete-a-tete with the Italian PM interrupted. He was far more annoyed at the manner of the interruption. "Mi scusi, Tony," Mrs Sinclair said, tapping Grimaldi on the shoulder.
Looking every inch the former soccer star he was, Grimaldi turned, beaming as though Mrs. Sinclair was his long lost sister. "Marjorie, cara mia!" he cried, enfolding her in a bone crushing hug and kissing her on each cheek. Morrow frowned. They spoke for a moment in low, breakneck Italian that obviously left Morrow just as much in the dust as Brontë. Another reason to despise the pudgy little man. Though he was fluent in the native Nova Britannian language, the Aboriginal language as it was officially known, Brontë's own Italian, like his French, was barely sufficient to order cocoa and pastry. But he wasn't a magnate, an interplanetary economic power. He was just a kid. Tom Morrow, he'd once heard his dad explode in exasperation, had the power to say whether whole planets and moons ate or starved. But he couldn't speak one of the most important Nova European languages?
Then the prime minister spoke to the grain merchant in British that was tinged by only the faintest accent. Seniore Morrow, do you know Marjorie Brainerd Sinclair, landscape architect and wife of Nova Britannia world senator Whitman Sinclair?"
Morrow started. Brontë couldn't see much of his face, but his body language was loud and clear. Brontë thought resignedly that if he and Emma were going to be friends, he'd have to stop thinking about how much he despised her father every time he took a breath. "Marjorie Brainerd," Morrow said with unctuous enthusiasm as he shook her hand. "I've never had the pleasure. My wife's a great fan of yours, Miss Brainerd, Mrs. Sinclair I should say. She has all your books and vids." He gave a false little self-deprecating chuckle. "I'm not good with plants and such things myself; so, I leave all that to Muriel. She'll be very excited when she hears I've met you."
Mrs. Sinclair smiled and murmured as though the flattery pleased her and the prime minister said, "I think, Seniore, it will be best for you to speak with my minister of Agriculture, and perhaps also the minister of Internal Affairs and Welfare. They have the expertise you need." He made a pretense of peering out into the crowd. "I think I see my wife. Please excuse me. Buona notte, Marjorie." He kissed her again and hurried off. Brontë was amused to see that he looked relieved. Morrow shifted uneasily. It was clear that he did not share his wife's high opinion of Marjorie Brainerd and felt that talking to her would be a waste of his valuable time. But, since she was a celebrity in her own right as well as the wife of a powerful member of government, he couldn't give her the bum's rush. Emma had pinned her father accurately, however babyish she might seem in other ways.
Brontë snapped back to attention. For, as Morrow moved, his glance fell on Emma and Brontë himself. For an instant what he was seeing didn't register with the grain merchant. Then a look of such anger contorted his face that Brontë took a long step backwards, his knuckles white and his hands almost numb from gripping the chair handles. It wasn't the frightened anger his parents and grandmother had shown when he was little and they caught him doing something dangerous. That had been scary but comforting too, because he knew they loved him and that was the real reason they were mad. To Brontë who had been brought up by loving parents whose lives, for all their worldly success, centered on him Morrow's rage resembled nothing his parents had ever directed against him. It looked like a bully or petty tyrant who'd been disobeyed and was out to get the person who'd disobeyed him. Brontë was glad to have the wheelchair to lean on. He'd only seen that look in vids, on ruthless, evil villains. He'd never seen it in real life, and his knees were trembling. He was glad Emma couldn't see it, though she'd probably recognize it if she did.
"Mr. Morrow?" Mrs. Sinclair's voice seemed to come from a long way away. Brontë shook himself just a little. It felt as though he'd been staring at that murderous face for eons. But it must only have been a few seconds. Slowly Morrow smoothed his features into a mask of geniality. "This is my son, Brontë," Mrs. Sinclair said.
Unwillingly but knowing what his mother expected of him, Brontë stepped to the side of Emma's chair and offered his hand." Brontë," Morrow acknowledged as they shook with that bluff heartiness so many grownups adopted when addressing youngsters.
He met the grain merchant's gaze calmly, steadily. At fourteen, he was already as tall as many grownups. It pleased him that he was taller than Morrow. "I'm very pleased to meet you, Mr. Morrow," he said correctly and a little stiffly. He took refuge behind the wheelchair.
"Please, Papa," Emma burst out. "We want to go outside…onto the terrace… Is that OK?"
Brontë knew he should keep his mouth shut, but prudence had never been one of his strong points. So he said pointedly, "Emma wanted to let you know, Sir, so you wouldn't worry." He held Morrow's eye till the man shifted and looked away. Had he known it, Brontë looked at that moment very much like his father, before whom braver and far wickeder men than the president of the Nova Britannia Corn Exchange had been known to wilt.
Morrow cleared his throat and addressed his daughter. "Of course you may, Emmikins. But you didn't need to come ask me. You could have asked Mama. She was right there with you."
Brontë opened his mouth to retort and closed it again without seeing Mrs. Sinclair's warning gesture. This was Emma's dad. She had to talk to him, to explain the situation. And she did so quite creditably. As Brontë watched Morrow's face throughout the brief narration, he began to wonder if he'd been mistaken, had somehow misinterpreted the man's initial reaction to seeing him and Emma. Now at any rate, his reaction seemed right: surprise, alarm, disappointment, disgust and anger chased each other across his unguarded face until he smiled faintly when Emma spoke of Brontë, whom she clearly regarded as the hero of the little drama.
Morrow returned his attention to Brontë. "Thank you for taking an interest in Emmie," he said. A lot of children, and a lot of adults as well I'm sorry to say, wouldn't take the trouble to speak to someone sitting alone. If I may say so," here he glanced at Mrs. Sinclair, "it was not only the kind thing to do, but the right thing to do." Brontë squirmed. But he said thank you with as much firmness and assurance as he could manage. "Run away now," Morrow said with an assumed heartiness that didn't entirely disguise his uneasiness. Grateful to escape, they fled.