Previously: Photoplate wizardry, novelty waffles, a boy named Posthumus, tiny automatons, revolts in Illyria and a public demonstration.
My nursemaid was the second person to hold me, after the midwife and before my mother. Dorothy needs only a glance — at my poorly made bed, my bramble of hair, my correspondence in its neat stack — to sigh from the doorway and insist again that I should never have gone to the exhibition palace. The dawn chorus is finally underway; my blood will hum all morning. Dorothy arms herself with a brush and takes up her post behind my seat.
“You knew it would give you bad dreams.” She cards out a knot. “And don’t tell me Posthumus needed you there that much.” She sighs again, pointedly. “Imogen, your nails are full of ink.” Still, she pets me on the crown of my head.
“That’s what gloves are for.” I study myself in the mirror: a little powder should mask the bruised eyes. “Varinia will never know better.”
Dorothy focuses on a section of hair. “Is that who you’re seeing today?”
“Then we’ll plan accordingly.”
When Helen arrives with my schedule and the morning papers, I am ensconced in my dress, with my hair bound up after Rome’s latest fashion. I’ve gone through half a pitcher of water, and feel armored against the day. “Iudocus has sent me three messages since dinnertime,” Helen huffs. “That man should be old enough to know a little patience.”
She hands me the stack of dailies, two in Latin and one in Briton. “I suppose he wants to meet as soon as possible.” I scan the headlines. Price of cattle rising. Fire at the docks contained. Trial opens on famous murder in Herculaneum. “Has he been clearer with his reasons?”
“Isn’t his urgency reason enough?” Helen runs a pencil over my schedule. “I’ve cleared your morning, as you asked. Varinia at one o’clock, Brisius at three about the proposed public bath, the Iceni caucus at four to line up support for the currency measure, a few minutes with Larcius Saturninus to check in on the census, and dinner with Rigantona starts at seven, so we’ll return no later than six.”
“Brisius does not want the bathhouse, correct?”
“Yes; it clips the site of a sacred grove, and the Romans are making no allowances.”
“I see.” Dorothy hands me a pair of earrings: lapis drops, a gift from the praetor of Lutetia. She sets out another box, a gold necklace smithed at Durobrivae. “How about the studs from Leucomagus, to change into?” She nods and sets off to find them.
With a knock, Posthumus ventures in, dressed for the master of the yard. Dorothy sighs again, and Helen engages herself with her notes. Posthumus’s shoulders go looser. “You’re looking better.”
“A good night’s sleep will work wonders” is what I say, before I lean to look around him. “Good morning, Pisanio!” Posthumus’s manservant steps in from the hall, holding his hat. He brought the newborn Posthumus to us as a marooned boy of twenty; I don’t believe they’ve spent a day apart since.
Posthumus nods at my array of hairpins and jewelry. “Another day at the front?”
I can only gesture back. “And for you as well, it seems.”
He laughs. “Fencing this morning.”
I lean on my elbows. “Will you need that, when you have found your trade?”
Posthumus shrugs. “One never knows. I hear scientists are a ruthless sort. Speaking of which.” He digs into a pocket, and produces the butterfly from yesterday’s event. I glance at Helen, whose mouth twitches. Its wings have been straightened, and its legs hang at their intended angles. “I thought you might want this, for your dinner tonight.”
Away from the crowds and the machines, it’s innocuous, even charming. He has repaired it expertly. My stomach clenches, but it passes, and I smile at him. “She’ll surely want to meet the man who brought it back to life.”
“Oh, it doesn’t work, not like it did at the demonstration.” He points to its underside. “It’s just a fancy toy when it’s away from her signaling device. But I do have questions about how she did it. The engineering is very fine for something she just gives away.” He holds out his hand. “If you’re able to arrange some time with her, of course I wouldn’t object.”
“You’re very devious.”
“Devious and well-intentioned.”
I pick the butterfly up by its wing and set it by the mirror. “I’ll see what I can do.”
He looks to Dorothy, who is still giving him meaningful glares. “I don’t want to make the arms-master wait.” His fingers brush the edge of my vanity. “I’m glad you’re feeling better.”
He excuses himself, and Pisanio shuts the door behind them. Dorothy scoops up today’s necklace with some force. “It’s not his fault I went,” I remind her.
“Then I will blame Varinia,” she announces, and drapes the necklace at my throat.
I watch her in the mirror, unable to keep from smiling. She’ll forgive him by tomorrow. “And I’m not to blame in the slightest?”
She pats my cheek. “Posthumus may think the world of you,” she says, “but yes, I know you’re still foolish.”
When Dr. Cornelius opens his door, his face falls. “My lady Imogen! I wasn’t—is something wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong.” I peer down the short stairs to his basement laboratory. “May we come in?”
“Please, please!” He steps back, nodding to Helen and me, and rubs his palms together. “Apologies, my lady. Your father is due at the hour, and I find myself a little jumpy.”
“I know. I don’t want to take up too much of your time.” His ceiling is low, and as crowded with instruments and artifacts as the rest of his space. I sidestep a pile of folders marked Peer Review!!! “Why is the king coming to see you?”
Dr. Cornelius hesitates. “I’m a scientist, madame. I don’t… I don’t want to somehow play a side.”
I fold my hands, a pantomime of demureness. “You needn’t worry, doctor. I’m here on a personal matter.”
He seems unsure whether to look relieved or not. Dr. Cornelius came to us from the most distinguished societies in Alexandria, before which he’d been the brightest young biologist in Libya. By the time he arrived in Britain, in need of a patron, he believed he’d failed to live up to his promise. Dr. Cornelius advises the king on scientific matters, while the king funds his research, the shape of which seems Protean. At present, it involves open tubs of briny water, and a half-finished dissection somewhere close by.
He looks somewhat shyly toward the mess. “How may I help you? If you don’t mind, I still need to straighten up a bit.”
We follow him, ducking away from rows of swinging lamps. “I assume you’ve heard of Rigantona.”
“The prodigy? Who hasn’t?” He shakes his head. “Her treatise on EM fields is a classic. In Egypt, we thought she was wasted in Britain.”
We stop at a group of barrels near the door to his hothouse. The glass panes are foggy and, at the corners, green. “Have you seen her show at the Pallas?”
“Not yet,” he says ruefully, his back to us, “but I’ve heard it’s worth the ticket.”
“I know this is supposed to be some sort of comeback for her.” Dr. Cornelius pauses, lid in hand, before setting it aside. I press on. “Why is that?”
“Oh.” His eyes wander. “That’s some very old gossip.” He reaches for a pair of elbow-length rubber gloves draped over the back of a chair. “She presented a very exciting bit of tech that time. A converter of some sort, energy into units of matter and back to energy again.”
Helen snorts, then catches herself. My eyebrows crook up. Dr. Cornelius smiles as he buries his hands in his gloves. “That’s what we all said, but she made it happen, and the math seemed to check out. It wasn’t intended for everyday use, mind you — it was an industrial-grade device. I think she meant it to make Britain more self-reliant.”
“Self-reliant?” Helen glances at me.
Dr. Cornelius plunges one arm into a barrel, working at something stuck to the side. “She’s very patriotic,” he says uncertainly. “No idea too big for her, that was the reputation. Ah!” He pulls up a bright red starfish, as large as his hand. It’s grossly lopsided, one pair of arms far bigger than its others. He examines the underside, his brow knitted.
“What happened?” Dr. Cornelius looks up at me, blinking. “After the exhibition?”
“Oh! I wasn’t there, but everyone read about it.” He cradles the starfish between his fingers. “The evening before the closing day, her device broke down. It shorted out the entire hall.”
I have dreamed that. Dr. Cornelius gesticulates with the starfish, oblivious. “There was an investigation and all sorts of unpleasantness. Obviously the machine was unsafe.”
“I see.” Sleeplessness has numbed me; I file this away, and my knees hold for me. “And this is a matter of public record?”
“I don’t know what is and what isn’t.” Dr. Cornelius tips the starfish back into its barrel. “But to you, my lady, I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be open.” He rifles through his supplies until he finds a bucket, and heads toward the dissected animal on a table nearby — another starfish. The smell keeps me at bay.
“What is all this, doctor?”
For the first time, Dr. Cornelius lights up. “This is a most amazing creature, my lady. In the center — come look! There is a disc—”
“Cornelius!” my father booms from the front door. “Didn’t you hear us?”
When his uncle’s heart finally broke, years after surrendering to the Romans, or so one narrative claims, Cymbeline became king over Britain. My father is equal parts imperiousness and practicality, and does not hate what the Romans can give him. He extends this attitude to all things in life, including my marriageability.
“Ah,” he says, as he strides ahead of his entourage. “I see my daughter was distracting you.”
Dr. Cornelius sets his bucket down with a clank. The dead air stagnates; I step in. “My lord, Dr. Cornelius was indulging my curiosity.” He glances at me, and I smile. “I was hoping he’d explain some things I saw at the exhibition, which he has more than adequately performed.”
My father grunts. “We are here on the same mission, then. I’m to meet with an inventor tonight, Cornelius. I’d like to not sound stupid when she talks about her wares.”
Dr. Cornelius finally shuffles forward, still gloved. “I am no engineer, your majesty, but I can endeavor to outline the principles, if I can.”
“That’s why we keep you,” my father says, dryly, and Dr. Cornelius barks an uncomfortable laugh.
I want more. I want names and contacts and leads, but we are as good as no longer in the room. The king’s advisors murmur among themselves. My father begins interrogating Dr. Cornelius about wireless theory. I have time, and other means. Helen and I show ourselves out.
“Oh, I love your necklace.” Varinia holds me by the shoulders to admire it. “So charming,” she purrs. “One of your local artisans?”
I finger the chain, a twist of gold bearing a wide pendant. “Out of Durobrivae.”
“Just lovely.” She slips her arm through mine and steers us through the park. “Italy can be so narrow-minded about the provinces. It’s just suffocating. There’s so much ingenuity in the empire.”
We are an uncommon sight, a princess of Britain strolling with a quaestor of Rome, and I believe Varinia likes it that way. Her official function is one of financial oversight, which sends her to new parts of the empire as often as she likes. I’ve always admired her: she wields her knowledge of money with all the cunning of a king. She first passed through Londinium when I was bored and restless and fourteen. My father has never forgiven her for my abiding hunger for statecraft.
Since her last circuit through Britain, Varinia has picked up the henna fad sweeping Thrace. Her hair flames and sparks in the sunlight, to great advantage. “How is your father? He hasn’t tried to marry you off to anyone horrid lately, has he?”
“Not since Morcant was caught selling favors to fund his vanity press.”
“It shouldn’t have mattered, if only the books were good.” She smirks. “I hope we shall always be friends, Imogen.”
“I trust you to stay careful enough to keep it that way.”
“A high honor!” Varinia chuckles. “I’m glad you’re being sensible about this, even if the wait is long. Pick a man who devotes himself to you, my dear. Only then will I be certain this country is in good hands.”
“You speak lightly of our future king,” I deadpan.
“If you might rule through him, you may as well also be happy.” She thins her lips. “You must be so bored of marriage talk. I’m sorry to bring it up; I have futures on my mind.” She looks me in the eye. “It’s actually why I was so eager to see you. You have as good a measure as any on the mood of Britain.”
Generally Varinia is either blunt or coy; her earnestness throws me. I frown and stare ahead of us. The protestors at the Pallas spring to mind. “Is this about Illyria?” I ask quietly.
She rolls her shoulders. “You know how it is — one province sees another act up, and not to follow suit is to admit weakness, while Rome overextends herself.”
“Such is the trouble with vassal kings.”
“I’m not being condescending, Imogen.”
“My father is independent, but he’s also loyal. You know how he fought to have the exhibition here. We’ve earned our goodwill.”
“Nonetheless, Caesar’s armies are in Dalmatia and Pannonia, laying waste.”
I say nothing for a few minutes. “Who says Rome is overextended, the politicians or the soldiers?”
“It doesn’t matter who said it, now that people have heard it.” Varinia stops and leans close. “Imogen, your father is a good king. He rules with a strong hand, and I am more than certain he could keep his chieftains in line, should there be any trouble.”
I watch the passersby over her shoulder; a few glance our way, though not for long. “But?”
“By the time the king bullies his way to unity, the idea will be in every public house and private home in Britain, and that is hard to control.” Her focus on my face is intense. “You are quiet. You are discreet. And you could be as strong a hand as he is.”
I huff in disbelief. “Should I ready myself for a coup?”
She lays her hand on my arm. “I am saying you must do everything in your power to keep things from getting that far.” She begins to walk again, and I fall in step beside her. “The Illyrians broke the Pax by refusing to pay their tribute. It started earlier than that, though. There is a process that leads to such an act.”
Does she know? Has word of Rigantona’s court visit raised some flag for Varinia? Rigantona, pro-independence and clarissima femina. Why should my father be so susceptible? I smooth out the backs of my gloves. “I have questions for you, and will likely have more after tonight. How long will you be here?”
Varinia finally smiles again. “Name the time, pet. My visit is short, but it need not be that short. We can meet somewhere private.” She makes a show of taking in the sights, the stately gardens and finely dressed parties around us. “Such a lovely spot.”
It’s hard not to imagine this moment as something that passes, and that someday it will be a touchstone for something that I’ve lost. But the park is so orderly, between the statues and the paths and the fountains, and I let myself feel comfortable. There will be other days like this one. I am fortunate in my constants.
“Yes,” I say to her. “It is.”
Dorothy helps me change into my eveningwear. She asks who I’ve talked to, what was decided, how I accomplished my works, while she buttons me up and teases out my pins. Making my answers keeps me still and focused for her, a trick she’s used since I was in braids. In the quiet of my bedroom, I can feel my thoughts arrange themselves and settle. The census, the public bath and the letters I must answer go quiet. Rigantona keeps me busy: I will need to make some lists. Dr. Cornelius and his account of the closing night nip at my heels, but I am able to set them aside. When Dorothy finishes me, I am perfectly composed. I flick the edge of the mechanical butterfly’s wing, but leave my chamber without it.
There is a little time yet before I must be at dinner. I will need some conversation after, and Posthumus will want fresh details. I find Pisanio near the foyer, blacking boots in a side room. Once, when we were young enough for loose teeth, Posthumus and I begged to help him, and emerged from our labor pied with grease. Pisanio sets his work aside and rises. I gesture toward the boots. “How was fencing?”
He dips his head. “You know Posthumus, my lady. Exemplary by every standard.”
“You will swell his head, Pisanio.”
His mouth twitches. “Then I suppose we must keep you around.”
I lean against the doorframe. “What are his plans for this evening?”
“He said he would have dinner in his room, then he’d be there studying some texts, I believe.”
“But he’ll be in his room when the king has concluded our dinner?”
“He should be, my lady. His word is his bond.”
I thank him, and he bows and picks up his brush again. The front hall is a short walk, but I nonetheless feel myself putting on my armor: my shoulders back, my gait long, my expression calm and pleased. When I turn the last corner, the foyer opens up before me. Posthumus stands in the center of it, his back turned, craning his neck. He’s dressed for a court dinner; perhaps he managed to wheedle an invitation.
I’m glad of it. These dinners are my father’s domain. The company will be good, even if we must pass the evening as attentive, unspeaking subjects. We can laugh about it later, and dissect the talk. I stop just behind him. “Are you coming after all?”
He turns and blinks at me. He’s forgotten his glasses. But he’s not so vain that he’d forgo seeing Rigantona. A stranger’s smile snakes across his face. “I’ll come if you are,” he says, and the smile shifts into a leer. “Did you mean dinner with the king or something better?”
Something in my blood starts to hum. “Posthumus?”
“Is that a joke?” He wrinkles his nose. “Very much alive, if you want to find out.”
That is not Posthumus.
“There you are!” Rigantona emerges from a sitting room, splendid in a plum-and-copper gown. She waves the stranger toward her. “Come, we’re sitting down!”
This isn’t Posthumus. Posthumus is in his room. This man begins to walk away; he moves like Posthumus, but he doesn’t. The way he moves is wrong.
Rigantona notices me. “Stop!” she hisses to the stranger, and she sweeps across the floor to greet me. She fills my vision; I can hardly focus on her. “You must be Imogen,” she says, plainly sincere. Each word makes sense by itself, but the string of them baffles me. “I’ve been longing to meet you. I’m so glad we have the opportunity tonight. And I see you’ve just met Cloten.”
“Cloten?” I repeat, faintly.
“Yes.” Behind her, Cloten slouches and fiddles with a cufflink. My ribs grip me tight as I watch him. Rigantona smiles. “Yes, this is my son.”
Hi, and thanks for reading! Got some feelings? I would love to hear your thoughts. All content © Esther Bergdahl, 2011. Thanks again, and hope you enjoy!