Mathilde Leclerke ran the cloth over the already-spotless kitchen bench one more time and folded it into precise quarters. Easy to keep house when the house has no-one in it, she thought with a glance at the couches never-sat-on by the fireplace-never-lit. Change the flowers, dust ... open and close windows.
Not that it should be anything to complain about, not for a woman of her age. A nice quiet life with no crying babies and no toddlers smearing honey on the walls, no adolescent boys tramping mud through the house, no dinner parties for twenty at an hour's notice.
Most housekeepers would envy her, Mathilde knew. I'd have envied myself, fifteen years ago.
Never thought I'd miss cleaning M'selle Camille's handprints off every surface less than three foot off the ground.
She sighed. Can't hold on to your own forever, let alone the others.
What was it her own Maman had said? First they make your arms ache. Later they make your heart ache.
And she was old enough to know better, too.
Still, it would be nice to -
As her thought had bespoke Fortune herself, the front door banged open.
"Ami!" It was M'selle Roth's voice, Captain Roth as she was now. "Ami? I'm home." Rapid footsteps in the hall, and then the girl herself appeared at the door.
"Ami? Mathilde, where's Ami?"
"M'selle Invelen is not here," Mathilde said.
"Did she go out?" Ciarente asked. She crossed briskly to the chiller and opened it. "She'll be hungry when she gets back, Ami's always - ugh, Mathilde. Something's gone off in here."
"No, M'selle," Mathilde said.
Ciarente began to pull things off the shelves, sniffing them cautiously. "Well, something smells terrible."
"I am quite sure I would not let anything spoil," Mathilde said. "But I meant, no, M'selle Invelen has not gone out. She has not been here."
"Oh." Ciarente paused, and then said brightly, "She's probably stopped in to see Alain on her way from the shuttle. She'll be here soon. I wonder if she'd like some - oh, this is it." She held a bowl out at arm's length, grimacing. "The vichyssoise. Ugh, it stinks."
Mathilde took the bowl. "Made fresh this morning, M'selle."
"I don't think so, Mathilde. Get rid of it, please, it's turning my stomach."
The only odors Mathilde could identify were onion and chicken, but she turned to pour the soup away. "You are expecting M'selle Invelen today? She did not call."
"I'm sure she'll be here soon," Ciarente said. "Do we have enough eggs? Ami does like Pierre's omelettes."
"More than enough, M'selle," Mathilde said. "Even for M'selle Invelen."
"Good." Ciarente took a handful of mushrooms from their storage bin and then put them back with a sigh. "Fortune, I'm tired. More jumps this week than I like to think about."
Mathilde studied Ciarente a moment. "Would you like some tea, while you wait for M'selle Invelen?"
"Coffee, I think," Ciarente said. "It's been a long few days."
"I think we may be out of coffee," Mathilde said.
"Well, tea then. Thank you." Ciarente pulled a stool over to the counter and sat down with a sigh. "It is good to be home, Mathilde. I miss this place, you know."
"We miss you also, M'selle, and M'selle Camille." Mathilde set the kettle to boil and took clump of ginger from the root cupboard.
Ciarente looked out the window at the garden. "I've all but missed summer this year. You're well? And Pierre?"
Mathilde grated the ginger and tipped it into the teapot with a handful of lemon rind. "We are both well, yes. A little creaky, these days." She poured hot water into the pot. "And M'selle Camille? And yourself?"
"Oh, Cami's Cami, as always," Ciarente said. "And I'm fine. That tea smells lovely."
"I thought you would like it," Mathilde said, pouring a mug and setting it on the counter by the pilot. "You do look a little tired."
Ciarente wrinkled her nose and sipped the tea. "Ah, worries, you know how it is? But things will be fine, now." She turned on her stool at the sound of the door opening again. "Ami?"
"No, Captain Roth." It was a man who answered, and when he came into the room Mathilde recognised M'ser Tanith Burke from the times he'd visited to check on the security arrangements. "I'm afraid not. It seems now that Commander Invelen changed shuttles on station."
"Well, of course," Ciarente said. "Interbus doesn't do planetary runs."
"No, Captain Roth," M'ser Burke said. "Changed to a different interbus line. With a ticket to Reblier."
Ciarente set her mug down with a click. "I'm afraid you're mistaken, Tanith. Amieta wouldn't buy a ticket for Reblier when she was coming down planet."
There was a little silence in the room. M'ser Burke looked at Mathilde and she made her face expressionless. She'd had decades to practice that, in this household.
"Well," Ciarente said decisively. "When she gets here, she'll be hungry." She stood up. "I think I might make a cake, Mathilde. Do we have any candied oranges? I think with a vanilla base that might be quite nice for a warm evening."
"Captain Roth," M'ser Burke said. "Commander Invelen has, we are almost certain, left the system."
Ciarente opened a cupboard energetically. "That can't be right, Tanith. It simply can't."
"If we move quickly, we may pick up her trail in Reblier," M'ser Burke said.
"She's on her way here right now." Ciarente took the flour down and set it on the counter with a thump that raised a little white cloud from the bag.
Mathilde looked at M'ser Burke, and then reached out to put her hand over Ciarente's. "I think you should listen to M'ser Burke, M'selle."
"I would like," Ciarente said a little shrilly, "to make a cake for my sister."
"I know," Mathilde said.
"So when she gets here, she'll have something to eat." Ciarente's fingers tightened on the bag until her knuckles were white.
"M'selle. If she were here, right now, what would she tell you to do?"
Ciarente stared at the flour. "She - she ... "
Ciarente let go of the flour suddenly and put her hands over her face. "She said ... stop hiding, she said. Before. Stop hiding, and do something about it."
M'ser Burke cleared his throat. "The shuttle off-world ..."
"Yes." Ciarente lowered her hands, tears tracking lines through the dusting of flour on her cheeks. "The shuttle. I will tell the crew to prep the Firefly."
Mathilde picked up the cloth from the counter and began to wipe Ciarente's face, just as she had so many times before. Baby, toddler, child ...
There had been a time when she had had a solution for any problem Ciarente could bring to her. Long past, now, that time.
Mathilde dusted away the last of the flour.
"Bring M'selle Invelen back to visit," she said. "Pierre will make her as many omelettes as she likes. D'accord?"
Ciarente sniffled, and nodded. "I will." She hugged Mathilde quickly, and then turned to M'ser Burke. "We should hurry, I suppose."
They went out together, Ciarente looking very small and young beside M'ser Burke.
But not so young, anymore.
Mathilde sighed, and began to clean up the flour. When they are little, they make your arms ache.
But she is not so little, anymore.