Skeld was the only other staff member who’d stayed at entry level as long as she had but in his case it was because his grandfather had made a big, public song and dance about there would be no undue influence on his career progression. Skeld knew exactly who and what his family were. Rune didn’t. That was what being unacknowledged meant. Your blood kin knew you existed but, for some reason, didn’t want you and didn’t want you to know who they were.
The family holidays were the worst. At times the emptiness where other people kept their family affections and squabbles seemed overwhelming. The orphanage she’d grown up in had been one of the old ones and had survived three separate sets reforms only because the matron-for-life had clung to her job with a death grip. It had succumbed to fire the night before Rune had been due to leave for technical training. Everyone had gotten out but the records were gone, even the backups had been kept on site, and not even a court order could get you a look at them now. It was not the sort of place that had former inmates running around organising holiday get-togethers. Rune coped with the holidays by volunteering for duty on the day or days so someone else could celebrate.
It was Solstice Eve and Rune had the Operations Room to herself. She had coffee, a secret stash of mid-winter cake and a thankfully slow message board. All being well, it would be a long but quiet shift. Someone had left a chain of solstice lights turned on over near the Western desk; she’d have to get around to turning them off.
Her visitor, about three times her age and nearing retirement, must have been the last person in the building besides herself and security. He ran Outfitting which equipped agents in the field with everything they needed whether at home or in foreign places where they couldn’t officially be. Rune knew that Skeld and some of the others found him intimidating but she had always found him to be perfectly affable. He was tall and skinny and she thought that his white hair must once have been as black as his eyebrows.
“Can I help you, sir?” Despite his personal affability, he was a department head and respect was due. “We don’t often see you in the Operations Room.”
“You wouldn’t have,” he agreed, scanning the room as he spoke before turning his attention back to her. “I thought you might want these.” He pulled a ring box from the pocket of his black, winter coat and opened it one handed before setting it down before her. Nestled in the twin velvet slots were the engraved silver rings of the daughter of not just a family or a Clan but a House. The flood of desire for these to be true, for her to have a family who wanted her, hit her as hard as a blow to the solar plexus.
When she could speak again she said, “They’re beautiful, but they’re not real, are they?”
“What do you mean they’re not real?” He looked puzzled.
“I’m sure they’re pure silver and made by a craftsman – everything you provide is perfect.” She paused while he nodded in acknowledgement. “But if I were to put these on and turn up at this family’s solstice feast tomorrow, would they know who I was and be glad I’d come or would they call the police and have me arrested for imposture?”
“I hadn’t thought of it in quite those terms,” he agreed, perhaps a touch sadly. “I did think that if you had those then one of those young men you like might ask you out.”
Rune blushed. “Am I that obvious?”
“Only to someone who’s looking,” he smiled, “but I don’t think they are.”
“Aside from anything else,” Rune offered, “if someone asked me out on the basis of the rings, they would expect to meet my family and I don’t have one to produce. Thank you for the thought sir, but I can’t accept them.”
“Very well then.” He clicked the box closed and put it back in his pocket. “A merry solstice to you, Agent Graymalk.”
“And to you, Special Agent Vlindersspar.” He quietly left the room and she went back to her message board.
Her second visitor a little while later was even more unexpected and she leapt to her feet at his entrance. “Admiral!” The Navy was a completely different arm of the services but she could still read the uniform. He was lean and tall with a regulation haircut that showed his scalp under the still black hair.
“Please, as you were, Agent. This isn’t an official visit.” She sat down again but kept one eye on him and the other on the message board. “You were wise to be hesitant, I’ve always thought that confirmatory blood tests are wise in cases such as this, but,” he put the ring box down on the desk beside her elbow, “I don’t think my brother can have explained himself very well.”
Rune looked at the box and looked back up at the Admiral. “Sir?”
“Quite some years ago my brother, your Special Agent Vlindersspar, was sent overseas for work at very short notice. He was required to remain there for a little over two decades. He was sent with such speed that he wasn’t able to tell myself or our brothers that his...beloved was expecting their child.” The Admiral sighed. “If he had, a better solution might have been achieved when her family required her to give the child up.”
This seemed, logically, to be heading in one direction. “And he thinks I’m that child?” Her full attention was on the Admiral now. “Why didn’t he say?”
“My brother,” the Admiral admitted slowly, “Is used to playing his cards close to his chest. Come to brunch tomorrow and we can organise blood tests and things. I can pick you up on my way home after the official vigil.” He smiled and added, “When we’re out of uniform, I’m Uncle Sebastian.”
“But what if he’s wrong and I’m not, well, her?” That seemed so likely.
The Admiral shrugged. “Then we will have given you the hospitality of our home on the solstice. We all still win.”