Ellie and Poppy chatted happily with each other in a mix of English and the expressive sing-song language the furry little animal had used before with Gregor. Both of them used mime, too, to convey what their limited knowledge of each other’s words could not. They looked to Bodil like two infants who had met each other for the first time after the long summer school break and were animatedly sharing their holiday stories.
Bodil heard Ellie mention her name and the little cat-girl’s head twisted around to look at her. She found herself under the scrutiny of those bright golden eyes as Ellie talked. At one point during whatever it was Ellie was saying to her the cat-like ears flattened just a little and the pupils of the eyes became narrow vertical slits. Bodil glanced at Ellie, who had also noticed the change in demeanour. Ellie put a hand on Poppy’s shoulder, whether to hold her back or to reassure her Bodil couldn’t guess. But Ellie’s next words, which included the name Alicia, seemed to have an effect and the predatory stare gave way to curiosity. The ears, however, never quite regained their full height.
Just then Ellie’s notebook bleeped and Ellie was preoccupied for several seonds reading the incoming message. This left Bodil and Poppy looking appraisingly at each other and Bodil noticed the small pink nose twitch for a moment or two, reading whatever the professor’s scent told her. Then Poppy very slowly blinked and turned her head away.
Ellie’s voice broke the spell. Reading from the notepad, she gave Poppy an unwelcome message.
“Poppy. Your father wants you back. He’s not happy I’m afraid.”
On the table Poppy’s expressive ears sunk, slowly rotating so that seemed to be pointing straight down. She emitted a very pitiful, very cat-like little mew.
Ellie Looked up. Trying to hide a grin, she delivered the second half of the message.
“He says you have five minutes to get back and dressed or you’ll be getting your tail lifted.”
Bodil just managed to catch the table and so prevent an accident of broken glass and spilled drinks while Ellie deftly rescued her notebook. Poppy was already a white blur on her way back to the ship and didn’t even look around to acknowledge her cheering fans in the crowd.
Only when Poppy was seen to disappear up the steps of the forward landing strut did a sense of normality seem to return. Bodil drained her whisky in one swallow. Then a thought struck her and the professor spoke for the first time since Poppy’s excited arrival.
“Dressed? You mean she was naked?”
Ellie, who was still grinning at her little friend’s speedy departure, laughed out loud.
“No, well yes. I suppose. But not really. The Haethien don’t wear clothes like we do, they have fur after all. But Imperial society uses colour in their clothing to signify all kinds of things, like rank, or profession, social standing, political leaning… all kinds of things. For the ceremony Alicia brought you here to see, Poppy will have her own little role to play and for that she needs to have some way to show her function.”
Bodil listened. Not quite understanding but picking up on certain words.
“Wait… what? Haethien? Imperial society? Since when have we been an empire?” As she was putting two and two together in her mind, her words were taking on a rising angry inflection. “The ‘Troy Empire? Is that what you mean?” Behind her she heard movement which stopped as Ellie raised a finger. With an effort of will Bodil managed to stop her words but couldn’t do anything about the anger in her eyes. Ellie was watching her, the good humour gone.
“Professor. I understand that you have a bee in your bonnet about the Troy family.” The words were quiet and spoken without anger. “Some of what you believe is even true. But as Alicia said, there are reasons and by the time you have finished your research in the archive I hope you come to understand that.”
Ellie took a breath and sat back in her chair.
“Alicia and I argued after you left that evening. I told her I didn’t think you could get past your anger and distrust. Alicia thought, once you had seen this…” Ellie waved a hand in the direction of the ship and the activity going on around it. “That you could put your little squabble over Troy family matters aside and see the momentous events taking place.”
Ellie reached forward and took her beer. She didn’t drink it, just looked at it for a few moments, deep in thought. Then she went on.
“Despite my best warnings, one of Alicia’s last acts as head of the family was to give you the okay to publish whatever your findings from the archive reveal. She’s letting you do so because she wants to show you that, compared to the history being made today, any skeletons in the Troy family closet… Actually, to be more precise, in the ‘Grand Mother’s’ closet, are worth sacrificing to keep you from publically suggesting that Joe Spivey was anything less than a one hundred percent bona fide Hero Of The Fallen Earth.”
Now she drank the beer, emptying the glass like a pro before banging it, upside down, on the table.
“So, Professor. Do you want to know why that stupid statue in New Flagstaff is so damned important?”
Bodil swallowed. She needed another drink, a big one. But if she raised a hand for the waiter, would Gregor think she was attacking his mistress and snap her arm like a twig? Maybe even her neck. She decided the drink could probably wait.
The significance of what Ellie had just revealed was astounding. That there were actual incriminating events in the Grand Mother’s history that could, no would, change the whole world’s view of Her was incredible enough. But that she was being given permission to dig them out and publish them would be the wet dream of every archaeologist and historian everywhere.
Bodil took a long, deep breath.
“Okay. First of all, can someone get me a damn drink? Then explain what the hell is going on here. Then tell me why Joe Spivey has to have that godawful statue.”