Viola and Ella
Hermione's numb lips could barely return the kiss. "Aunt Viola," she said, blaming the cold for the way her tongue tripped over the words, "Thank you for your kindness in hosting me. I know that—"
Viola barked a harsh laugh, one that turned all-too-swiftly into a coarse cough. "'Your kindness in hosting me'?" she chortled, to the doorman or to Hermione or to herself it was unclear, "Listen to the child! As if this home were not half hers anyway! Don't be foolish, my girl. Now, come in and have some soup and some tea; you feel more like an icicle than flesh and blood."
Borne along irresistibly by her aunt's pull, Hermione threw one glance over her shoulder to see that her bags were being taken upstairs before allowing herself—though the choice was far from hers—to be brought into the dining room. What few diners were within hardly looked up from their spoons as Viola introduced them with an idle wave of her hand, silver bangles jangling.
"Now, you'll soon get to know everyone, I am sure, but here is George Wehaugen, assistant harbor-master. Not much to do now, I'm afraid, except freeze himself half to death keeping the 'burgs away from the bridges. And over there are the Misses Sneeds, lecturers of some repute. Henrietta speaks on Elactric architecture of the second and third Dynasties and Laurietta teaches appreciation for the ancient products of the Orestrian loom. Then you have some tradespeople, a few of the clergy," Viola dismissed them with another wave and jangle, "and over here—Miss Marquise!—is someone you might be interested to meet."
Miss Marquise herself, hunched in at least three layers of coats, like a tortoise in its shell, hid her grimace behind a not-so-successful smile that rose only to the level of a wince as they approached. Her dark skin and eyes were wind-chapped and red, and her hands trembled around her teacup, gripping it as though it were a lifeline in the middle of a storm-ridden sea. Around her were spread no fewer than five books, each of which bristled with countless notes, written in a neat, tiny hand. A spray of pencils was tucked into her tightly braided bun, fanned out like an ornamental comb. Hermione had a thought that someone should paint her in the midst of her books and blankets; she made a picture with, if not much beauty, at least much character.
"This," Viola presented her with a flourish, "is Miss Ella Marquise. An university fellow, like yourself, though she began last year. Poor little thing, this climate is quite harsh on her, and none of her family were willing to join her, so far from home." These last two remarks, delivered in a stage whisper, were quite loud enough to make Hermione blush and Miss Marquise squirm further into her shell. Viola did not notice at all, and sailed right along. "Miss Marquise, my niece Hermione Bascombe. I am sure you two will be fast friends. Sit," she said, fairly knocking Hermione onto a chair, "I will have the cook send you up a bowl."
Hermione swallowed, sweating from nerves and the heat of the nearby fire. Water dripped from the brim of her hat onto the oilcloth on the table, leaving greasy wet smears. "Excuse me," she said at last, flinching as her shallow bow splashed still more on the table, "it has been many years since I have seen my aunt. She is just being anxious about my comfort. I assure you, this will not happen again. But it is a pleasure to meet you, Miss Marquise, even under such circumstances."
Ella shrugged. "Only please do not get water on my notes, and we will be friends enough," she drew back a few of the volumes and closed them around pencils plucked from her hair. But the last still stayed open, and she resumed her reading, one long finger prodding her cheek as she scanned the pages.
The silence dragged, broken only by the popping of wood on the fire. With a dizzy whirl, Hermione imaged herself around the hearth at home, sitting across the sofa from her mother as they played a spiritless game of Carriage. She swallowed, forcing brightness into her voice as she said, "So, you are a university student? What is your specialty?"
Ella's eyes flicked up. Without a word, she took her book by the spine and flipped it so Hermione could read the page clearly. Delighted, she gasped, "You are learning to calculate parallax distance? Then you are an astronomy student, like myself!"
"I am not learning to calculate parallax distance," Ella seemed less enthused by their similarities, as she flipped her book again, "I am using these equations to verify the conclusions reached by the recent study from the Orestrian Scholarum. Something about their insistence on Betolan Cluster being closer to us than previously conceived doesn't agree with me."
"Oh," Hermione had read the same study utterly enraptured, and now felt vaguely foolish, "But the Scholarum has the most accurate equipment in the world. Why should you doubt their calculations?"
"Why shouldn't I? They're people—men, mostly—like any other school. Trust me, they would review any study I published with a savage eye. What makes them so far beyond doubt?"
She had no rejoinder and fortunately, had also a good excuse not to make one. Her aunt Viola had reappeared with the cook, a thin-faced woman smelling strongly of boiled cabbage, which also made the base for the enormous bowl of soup she placed in front of Hermione. Hunger and cold impelled her to pick up her spoon, though in her right mind Hermione would not have touched a bowl of corned beef and cabbage soup if she could help it.
Oh well. At least it was hot.
"So then," Viola took a chair between the two girls and smiled one to the other, large eyes blinking contentedly, "friends already?"
She did not wait for their replies. "I thought so. When my niece wrote her intentions of coming to the university here, I was so happy to be able to invite her, the more so since I knew she would have a companion staying in my very house. Dear Ella, promise me you will take great care of her and show her around? She hasn't visited me here since she was a little girl, and I'm afraid hasn't been much used to rough life. Veruca Bay is hardly what anyone could call rough!"
Laughing loudly at her own joke, she shook her head and gave her own rejoinder. "No indeed, not rough at all!"
Ella did not frown, but her brow puckered. "Bascombe," she murmured, "You're a Veruca Bay Bascombe?"
"Yes," Hermione did not wish to admit it, but to deny it or prevaricate in any way would have been worse than pointless with her aunt sitting right there, holding her head like royalty. "My parents are Harold and Marjorie Bascombe."
"So your sister was—"
"Yes," she said, quickly, shoveling a mouthful of soup in so quickly she almost choked. Smothering her cough in a napkin, she nodded. "Yes."
"Hmm," Ella's eyes regarded her much more thoughtfully now. Then, with a shrug, she turned to Viola, "Of course I'll introduce her." Her sharp gaze then turned back to Hermione. Used as she was to giving such stares, it was nonetheless odd to receive one herself. "I get the the university for afternoon lectures at four, which means I leave at three. I'll meet you in the lobby. I walk, so dress warmly."
"Thank you," the prospect of being in her room all morning chafed, but Hermione comforted herself with the knowledge that tomorrow night would bring her her first glimpse of the famous sky of Anchor's End. "I also enjoy walking. You do not find it too cold?"
Ella shook her head, flipping a page.
"I keep telling Ella to use the cab services we offer, but she is determined. Too independent. Almost stubborn. Another reason why the two of you should get along well," Viola yawned so her jaw cracked. "Perhaps you can persuade her, my dear. But all of that will keep till tomorrow. Finish your soup, and I'll take you to your room."
The soup left a greasy residue around her mouth that no amount of genteel dabbing with her napkin could seem to sponge away, but once it was down, Hermione was pleased to admit herself feeling much better. A squashed sandwich on the train had been all she had yet managed to swallow that day—breakfast, sitting down the table from her disapproving father and weeping mother had been impossible—and nerves, while mostly successful in tamping down her hunger, had not eliminated it altogether.
There was even some charm in the awkward dynamic of their conversation. Aunt Viola meandering along any topic she pleased and dropping it when she had had enough, supported by polite nothings from Hermione and punctuated by Ella's plain statements—when she was irritated enough to finally give them—was better than nothing at all. For all its imbalance, Hermione found herself rather enjoying the evening.
But the instant her soup was finished, exhaustion and her aunt completely overwhelmed her.
"Come, it is far beyond bedtime for the both of us," Viola levered her niece out of her chair much the way she'd dropped her into it. "How you will manage to survive stargazing in such weather and at such hours, I have no idea. I imagine after tonight I shall not see much of you."
Was it a trick of the firelight reflecting off the moonstones in her necklace, or were there tears in her aunt's eyes? Either way, Hermione scraped up the last of her energy and good manners and looped her arm through Viola's, squeezing conspiratorially.
"Do you believe I came all the way to Anchor's End to ignore my family?" she smiled, "I anticipate many comfortable mornings chatting together. You know my parents have always been so disappointed not to have had time enough to see you these recent years. I have so much to tell you."
"Well," Viola sniffled, dabbing at her eyes with a frayed cuff, "I doubt I will have much to say on my own behalf. But listen to me going on, when you must be dead on your feet. Follow me."
The creaking lift in the lobby had a crooked "Out of Service" sign hanging from its grated door, and it seemed of such long-standing that Viola did not even refer to it as an option. So, supporting each other, the two ladies climbed the grand staircase to the second floor, then took the narrower, bowed wooden stairs up another two floors.
"I'm sorry for the climb," Viola's words were faint of breath and punctuated by dry coughs, "but I thought you would appreciate having a balcony as high up as possible. All your aspirations seem to be in the clouds; you should live there too."
From the pocket of her dressing gown she produced a key the length of Hermione's palm, fitting it into the lock with a heavy clank. It rotated twice, stuck once, and finally wiggled the door open with a sepulchral sigh. Hermione swallowed her cough and pressed her nose against a sneeze as a wave of musty air washed over them.
"No one else has a room this high," Viola looked around, "These were—are—our Royale Suites. Most of our boarders are not so exclusive."
'Exclusive' being the Bascombe code for 'rich', Hermione couldn't help but wonder how her aunt justified keeping an entire floor reserved for such people as never came to Anchor's End in the winter—and rarely enough in the summer—but wisely only said, "You are too generous. You know I cannot afford this."
"Afford, pah! As if I would charge you a single 'till. You are my guest, dear. And I will hear no objections," she cut off Hermione's protest by pressing her cheeks between her dry palms. "Consider it interest on all the sweet things you did for me when you stayed here last. Call it sentimental, but I still use the pincushion you embroidered for my birthday."
"You are very kind," a brief war raged in Hermione's heart over the rightness of accepting her aunt's offer, when well she knew doing so would extend her two months' budget into four...or five, if she stretched her pennies far enough. "This is lovely."
And indeed, the room was lovely even despite its highbrow decay. The brass fittings had been shined to almost new, the damask curtains had been turned so their less-worn fabric was facing out. Chips and scuffs in the mahogany furniture had been painstakingly sanded out and varnished over. Clearly the budget had not extended to new paint—the slate blue of the walls had been fashionable in her parents' youth—but it had not faded with the sun and could be read as dignified, not outmoded. At least to a casual, unstudied eye.
The suite reminded Hermione of her aunt; poor, struggling, yet too proud to let anything go, even when perhaps it would be more honest to do so.
Perhaps that was its own sort of respectable. Perhaps it was even honorable, in a way.
"Ah, yes," Viola patted her, "Rest. You will need it, I daresay, to keep up with Ella down there. She will leave you if you are minute behind, I have no doubt, so go to bed."
"Thank you," Hermione yawned again, too exhausted to conceal it, "for everything."
Viola's wrinkled face creased in a broad smile, showing off her crooked, smoke-stained teeth. The sight was at such odds with Hermione's memory that she felt another wave of dizziness overtake her. Were her memories at fault, or was time alone capable of working such changes? Her aunt had always been such a figure of easy glamour to her; was this just the result of decades working to maintain a facade?
When the door shut behind Viola, she put such questions outside the room with her. She was not here to answer them, after all.
Her clothes had been unpacked and hung, lonely and sparse, in one of the grand wardrobes flanking the balcony door, and the doorman had put all her personal effects—of which there were only two—on the round table in the center of the room. Of those two, she left her little telescope where it was and only moved her family photograph to her nightstand, staring for a moment at the image of two parents and two cheerful, pretty girls standing in perfect symmetry. Why had she brought it? Why did she bring it everywhere she went? Of all the memories changed by time, one that had never been a true memory to begin with, why was this the image of her family she always carried with her?
That was surely another thought to expel. She set the photo on her nightstand and readied herself for bed. Stripping off her coat made her gasp, despite the fire burning to push back the chill, and by the time she had crawled into her double-thick flannel nightgown, she was trembling again. Hermione was not usually one to allow herself, even in privacy, the grace of flouting the rules, but the idea of washing her face with what was almost sure to be icy water from the pitcher was too much. She gave herself one present that night, which was permission to climb into bed and shiver herself to sleep unwashed.
Outside the window, above the ice groaning in the canal, a faint green aurora shimmered. Hermione, eyes shut tight against the cold, did not see it.