New Ceres Nights extract – “Smuggler’s Moon” by Lee Battersby

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Extract from “Smuggler’s Moon” by Lee Battersby

One of the very great advantages of living in the Eighteenth Century is that it is considered somehow gauche to do anything in a hurry. It is important, if your status behoves it, to be gentlemanly. I was able to make Mister Collyer wait a full half hour before I was ready to sit with him in our drawing room and ask after the reason behind his brash declaration.

“You don’t seem worried.” He leaned forward in his chair, elbows on his knees. I smiled.

“An innocent man has only the Lord for his judge, Mister Collyer. I can think of no crime I have committed. Am I wrong?”

He studied me for several moments, then leaned back and blew his lips outwards in an exaggerated sigh.

“No, I rather doubt it, actually.”

“Then why the…” I waved my hand towards the front of the house. He made himself comfortable, considered me again.

“What do you know of your neighbours, Reverend?”

“They are my flock. I serve them as best I can.”

“They’re honest people?”

“As much as can be hoped.”

“No thieves? Adulterers? Smugglers?”

“Not particularly.”

“Particularly?

“Well.” I smiled, somewhat ruefully. “They’re farmers, for the most part. Poor, for the most part. If they steal, or covet their neighbour’s wives, they don’t let word of it reach me.”

“And smuggling?”

“Ah.”

“You know something?”

“No. But it was an odd choice to present me with, after adultery and theft.”

He raised his eyebrows in acknowledgement. “You have me, sir.”

“Oh, I’m sure I don’t. You hunt smugglers, then?”

“Only the rumour, Reverend. It is my stock in trade, you might say.”

“Might I?”

“Well, perhaps I might. Rumours, information, connections. I follow them.”

“That must be fascinating for you.”

“Yes, it is.”

“And what do you do when you track down these rumours?”

He bit his lip, flexing the fingers of one hand against the other. “It all rather depends on how true they are. The Eighteenth Century is our domain, Reverend. We are tasked with ensuring it remains … constant. Her Ladyship insists upon it.”

“And someone in my village is smuggling? Something that is not, how could we say it? Appropriate?”

“There are rumours.”

“I see. Would you like wine?”

“What? I mean, I beg your pardon?”

I indicated the clock on the mantelpiece. “It’s after eleven, Mister Collyer. We shall be having lunch soon, and of course, you will join us. Time, perhaps, for a small glass before we dine.”

“I … yes, thank you.”

“Imogene!”

My daughter appeared at the door behind me, just quickly enough that I knew she had been listening in the gap between the kitchen and the rear stairs.

“Imogene, may we have two glasses of the Chateaux Dubois before lunch, please?”

“Yes, Father.” She curtsied to Collyer, and disappeared into the kitchen. Neither of us spoke until she had returned and we had taken glasses from her tray.

“Thank you, Imogene. We shall have lunch in the garden, if that suits.”

“Certainly, Father.” Collyer watched her go.

“How old is your daughter?”

“Fourteen.”

“No Mrs Clegg?”

I sipped my wine and stared hard at him. “Are you a religious man, Mister Collyer?”

“I was raised a Lennonist.”

“And now?”

He shrugged. “I still like some of the hymns.”

“I was born a Catholic.”

“Oh.”

“Exactly.” I lowered my glass. “Not a well-liked sect on the outer planets. But here, well…”

“A somewhat different environment.”

“Yes. Somewhat different. It was one of the more conservative religions on Earth, in the past. When I heard about this planet and the … strictures it had voluntarily taken on, I insisted we come. Marie, my wife, had converted for my sake and, well, in some environments, in some time periods… ‘A man’s home is his castle’. Have you heard that saying?”

“No, I can’t say I have.”

I snorted. “She did what I insisted, like a good Catholic wife.”

“Ah.”

“So we came to this planet, where we could live as good Catholics, with good Catholic teachings, in an approximation of a time when it was good to be a Catholic. And when Marie fell pregnant, we celebrated as good Catholics do and awaited the birth of our first child.”

“What happened?”

I stared through my glass at the fire, distorted by the glass and the red liquid. “Modern surgical procedures, Mister Collyer.”

“I’m sorry?”

I lowered the glass and looked at him. “They don’t exist here.”

“Ah. I’m sorry.”

I drained my glass. “Imogene was saved.”

“A great comfort, I trust.”

“She is my entire life, Mister Collyer. I would do anything to ensure her happiness.” I stood. “Her station in life is entirely my fault and my responsibility. I will not have her suffer the same fate as her mother.”

“No, I expect not.”

“Our lunch will be ready. Perhaps you can tell me more of rumours and smuggling. Shall we?”

I indicated the door. We stood, and proceeded to our meal.

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