Sayor finally looked down from his work when the stranger had got close enough for a naked-eye appraisal.
“Cap, cape and all…. we’ll brush him off inside ten minutes.”
“But why?” asked Kren. “Why repel him? A visitor! Doing us the honour –”
“You’ll see. He’ll brush himself off. By which I refer to his attention span.”
Presently the visitor stood in the doorway.
Close up, neither of the cosmographers liked what they saw. Or rather, it was not so much what they “saw” as what they sensed through a fog of hostile and uncomfortable feelings, because of the way the stranger loomed, almost as if it were possible to swagger when standing still.
Tall and superciliously handsome, he seemed to smirk down at them, as if to say: How amazing that you can work out your lives in this deserted spot. How fortunate for you that I am standing here, wafting a breath of the city to refresh your deprived little selves.
All this without a word being spoken. Then at last came some actual sound – words which almost slipped past the attention of the listeners, so hard it was to realize that all the man was in fact saying was:
“I am Midax of the house of Rale. I would work for you here, if work can be found.”
Work? Who ever heard of a Splasher wanting steady work?
“Can’t,” replied Sayor bluntly.
Inside his head and Kren’s, the visual impressions of Splasher arrogance were buzzing far louder than any actual sounds uttered by the fellow’s technically innocent mouth.
Hence although, come to think of it, Midax Rale was not physically grinning, yet he was somehow grinning with his stance, with his head-tilt proclaiming, Surely I can not have heard aright; how can a pair of artisans like you possess the cheek to refuse me?
“You’ve come to the wrong kind of place,” went on Sayor.
The nobleman shrugged sadly. “I thought I might ask.”
“Here,” emphasized the scientist, “we have something which not even one of your set can walk in and ask for.”
The stranger made a small gesture of disappointment. A mere shrug, hardly more. But again, it was exaggerated in the perceptions of Kren and Sayor. The tiniest ripple of sleeve – a moment’s tremor of irritation – swelled fast in their imagining, into a full-blown condescending wave.
And the words that followed were unfortunate, too.
“Now please understand,” the Splasher chided crisply, “you have encapsulated the precise motive for my application. I want the sort of thing I can’t just walk in and ask for.” A concluding smile. “So you see, you are ill-advised to posit as an objection, the very point which for me comprises the principal recommendation.”
Kren looked nonplussed, while Sayor also was taken aback, even in danger of being impressed, by the confident flow of patronising polysyllables. You had to give these wealthy drones their due: they could certainly talk.
A short pause ensued, while the old scientist sat brewing his counterblast. Then his voice rumbled into action.
“Listen, Midax Rale. You are not playing Rhetorical Counters here. I have told you the truth, that there are no vacancies, and besides, do you seriously believe you could stand this?” Sayor’s eyes became sharper lit and his face grimmer with pride, as he wheeled his arm to indicate the limits of his working world. “Day after day? Monitoring minute variations in the appearance of lands hundreds of thousands of miles away? Perhaps making it your life’s work to add your own personal fraction to the photometry of one of the smudgy bays around the lip of the Silver Stain? Can you see yourself sticking to it? You, an idler whose duties are as intermittent as rainstorms? And those rare duties, when they do occur, are administrative only, never creative or scientific, so come on, Splasher – in a very few days you would thank us for throwing you out.”
The cosmographers watched the drain of hope from the tall man’s face.
“I am reluctant,” Midax finally remarked, “to contemplate the picture you’re holding up in front of me, but you’re the experts, so….”
Kren spoke up. “It’s not the end of the world, you know, if you can’t get in here, I mean, you could try the Olamic Institute, it’s an outfit much larger than ours, and they’re holding an Open Day tomorrow….”
Midax lifted his brows. “And their entrance requirements are less stringent than yours?”
“We can’t guarantee that, unfortunately,” answered Sayor, his voice stony and unmoved – the tone of a man who was determined to be fair rather than kind, all the more so as he did at last sense that this hopeless dabbling tourist might be sincere. “It’s possible, you might get in; but my guess is, by this time tomorrow you’ll be just as disappointed with them as you are with us. In which case, Splasher, treat it as a sign that you must go back to your banquets and pleasure-boats, and stop trying to indulge your type’s occasional urge for a meaningful life.”
The expression on the face of Midax Rale became extra specially mild.
“Thank you,” he replied with gentle, self-possessed despair. “That sounds like a feasible idea.”