The Tiger’s Wife: What I wanted and what I got

Note: Innogen and the Hungry Half is still on hiatus, but should resume normal posting next week. Until then, a throwback to the original purpose of Magpie & Whale: the personal essay!

As I was reading The Tiger’s Wife this month, I spent a lot of time being angry at Téa Obreht for being a year younger than me. Her author portrait glows. She’s poised, talented, wise, articulate—and an angelic blonde with wide, liquid eyes. Born in 1985! What right does she have to be so accomplished, before me?

I recognize this jealousy. I felt it every time I was confronted with Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, which I refused to read for years, the principle being that wunderkinder are a pain in the ass. Of course, once I did read it, I was staggered by how good it was, and determined to push myself more, to experiment with form and style and structure, to break out of linear storytelling, to embrace the messiness of human emotions more fully. The Tiger’s Wife has the luck to come after my encounter with Everything Is Illuminated, so my resolve is not quite so fiery, but it’s absolutely a magnificent book that makes me want to try harder, farther and wider.

This isn’t going to be a book review so much as a book reaction. I will say that The Tiger’s Wife is intricate, interconnected, restrained, vivid, fully felt and richly realized, and that it’s well worth your time. (Also: that certain repetitions began to bore me after a point; certain choices felt unnecessary and dulled the consequences that resulted; the end, to me, did not match the rest of the story in scope or depth or power, but your mileage may vary.) I am very much excited to see Téa Obreht continue to write: she should have a long, fruitful and amazing career, and despite her age (fie!), I wish her very, very well.

Tangled up with this fixation on Obreht’s age is a question I keep asking myself: What could I write, if I was to try something like this? Because The Tiger’s Wife is very much the product of growing up in and with the Balkans. It deals with wars, survivors, myths, superstitions, borders, local lore, traditions, families, religion and death, all in a context that I simply haven’t experienced. I grew up a faculty brat in a university town in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. I had no relatives in the area—our family is quite far-flung, though I grew up constantly surrounded by stories. Still, the things that give my life texture are different than Obreht’s, and it’s easy to feel somewhat shy about them, when, in comparison, they seem so American, and of a certain strain that’s not short of representation.

Of course, there’s nothing to be done about where we both were born and have lived our lives. And The Tiger’s Wife isn’t a book I would have written for reasons other than biographical ones. Though it contains a strain of magical realism, I found myself frustrated by how limited that aspect of the story was. It flirts with the fantastic, but at moments, I wished—much as she often frustrates me—for Cat Valente to take over the story. In her hands, the stories and the act of telling the stories would have taken on a life and hue of their own, living and breathing as more than cultural illustrations, things people do. As they emerged, the stories would have warped the story itself. That wasn’t their purpose with The Tiger’s Wife; in ways, it was explicitly the opposite.

Which led me to another question: What moves people to write literary fiction? This isn’t entirely facetious, and it’s not just because I have no use for Jonathan Franzen. I don’t understand the appeal of a lot of contemporary literary fiction. Historical fiction, Great Books/“classics,” genre fiction (even of the non-magical variety, like mysteries or satire)—I love it! But straight treatments of human topics somehow don’t get me where I live like the stranger takes do, and I’m not sold on the idea that the plot of a “literary” novel inherently lives beneath the surface, requiring more work from the reader. Still, the point remains that given the choice, I would probably steer away from creating a book that’s so devoted to realism. The times I’ve tried to root my fiction in a non-magical universe, I’ve at least had a world from the past to fill in for other kinds of strangeness.

With Obreht’s novel, I craved a stranger story than the one I got. All my favorite stories have some unnatural or supernatural element to them. Someone recently asked me my opinion on Shakespeare’s history plays; I don’t particularly have an opinion on them, though give me Macbeth or The Tempest or King Lear and I am off to the races. There is something about the literalizing of the imagination that engages me without qualifications (see Esther by genre for more on that). This isn’t to say there’s nothing worthy in a “literary” work; I’ve just realized more and more that other things speak more closely to my heart.

In the end, all that matters about the year Téa Obreht was born is that’s where her arc as someone who shares words—her words, her particular take on the world—begins. This book spoke to me, and I’m glad I found it. Storytelling is a gift economy at heart. I’ve learned a lot from reading The Tiger’s Wife, and I hope that will work its way into Innogen and the Hungry Half sooner rather than later.

And if I write that deeply rooted story about where I come from, somewhere down the line, it will be stronger for hearing other voices. It will be mine. And it will have unreal things in it.

Blurred to protect the innocent

The day after the next installment of Innogen and the Hungry Half goes up (or is supposed to go up — more on that in a minute), I’m flying to Columbus, Ohio, for Thanksgiving with the fam. The only sensible way to ensure that I enjoy my vacation and you enjoy the next chapter is for me to take a breather, so FYI, we’re going on hiatus for two weeks starting this Tuesday. I promise that means there won’t too much of a cliffhanger. Wait, what? No, sorry, I think I mean the opposite of that.

In all seriousness, it’s going to be a good spot for a break. I charged into writing this story on fairly little notice. There’s a larger outline planned, and I know the ending in as exquisite detail as I knew the opening, but it’ll be good to step back and get a little more strategic about where we’re going in the more immediate future. We’ve had a lot of character- and world-building so far; in long-form improv, or at least in the Harold that they teach at iO, this is the first beat of the show, from which you extrapolate the rest and go in wild and new directions. Personally, I’m looking forward to the action, capers, skience and intrigue that’s coming — and I thank you all for staying with the story, whether you’ve just arrived or read since the beginning!

Magpie & Whale won’t be totally quiet, though. I’ll be posting some tidbits to tide us over, and — if you’re curious — answering questions. Actually, I would love to answer your questions about the story — where the idea came from, what a detail means, how I envision something, whatever you can come up with! Please feel free to send me a Tweet or a DM on @magpiewhale, to submit an Ask on my Tumblr or to leave a comment here. Queries about the future of the story will be as cryptic and misleading as I see fit, which I hope will be to our mutual entertainment.

On a separate note, Chapter 6 has turned out to be more work than I anticipated. Given the rest of my workload, I’m going to try and get it out by Tuesday or Wednesday morning, but in the interests of having a good chapter rather than an on-schedule chapter, it may be a little later than normal. Thanks for your patience.

Last week, after being thwarted from every corner, Imogen decided to hell with it and broke out, only to find that the dream team was, somewhat conditionally, together again. Now she and Posthumus are on the hunt for Cloten, somewhere in the public houses of Londinium. That can’t possibly go wrong in any way, right?

One song, which is all for this week, alas

“Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba [lyrics]

If you were alive in 1998, you probably have this song burned into your ears forevermore. It is a stupid, stupid song, and also incredibly catchy. I don’t have a lot of pub crawl music, but Flogging Molly was too political for what I was looking for: a theme song for Cloten’s night out on the town. I feel like he would be pretty laddish offstage, given what we see in polite company. (Obviously the oeuvre isn’t confined to Chumbawamba by any stretch of the imagination, but despite the track’s commercialism, it gets the job done well enough for our purposes.)

In conclusion, this can only end well. Tune in this week to watch it unfold! Don’t forget, I’ll be answering your questions about Innogen over the hiatus, so send ’em in wherever you’re happiest. As always, no knowledge of steampunk or Cymbeline is necessary to enjoy Innogen and the Hungry Half, but if you’d like to read the play, MIT has the full text available for free online.

Innogen and the Hungry Half: 05 – Depender on a thing that leans

Art Nouveau Youth Admired by Women Ferdinand Hodler

Previously: Cheating; meat pie; confessions; virtue; SPQR; two cats, surprised; archives; evidence; a blank slate.

When Iudocus is startled into silence, his eyebrows nearly vanish into his hairline. This is the first interesting thing I have learned since the very persistent chieftain of Sulloniacis received me at his residence. He has engaged me on every topic from the height of the river to innovations in industrial ceramics—anything, in fact, save the revolts in Illyria, which had been of such concern in his many missives.

“My most sincere apologies,” he stammers when he has recovered. “I thought I should be hospitable first.”

“A fine impulse, my lord, but the day is only so long.” Beside me, I hear Helen breathe in; I smile. “Do please communicate the matter which has so troubled you on our behalf.”

Iudocus gestures to one of his men, who marches forward with a leaflet in hand. “This has been making the rounds for several days now. I saw it two days before we encountered each other at the wireless demonstration.” His fellow is gangly, and wears glasses. Sensibly or not, I resent him at once. BRITAIN KNOWS HER PLACE IN THE EMPIRE trumpets the title. I take the paper. Iudocus clears his throat. “Might I draw your attention to the third paragraph?”

The leaflet is the most boorish sort of pro-government screed, reaffirming the anonymous author’s support for Rome and all that hailing the Caesars has done for us as a people. The notable selection has been helpfully circled in pencil.

To see these reactionary nonsense-mongerers cluttering the Pallas grounds is the poorest sort of display. The exposition is our chance to show the world we’ve become better than Rome found us. Britain stands with the empire, not the ungrateful of Illyria. We should speak with one voice to assure these so-called revolutionaries that their complaints have no place within our society.

The tract is signed “Britannicus.” I look back to Iudocus. “Can we be sure this isn’t a parody?”

He leans toward me. “If I may be so bold, my lady, we both know that hardly matters.” He taps the leaflet; perhaps he thinks it makes him look canny, rather than stalling for momentum. “This has been in the water for nearly a week now, and the king has made no mention of it.”

“Dozens of these come off the presses every day, my lord. Anyone who can pay may spout opinions on paper. The king has no reason to mention it. Unless,” I add, not displeased to see his face drain a little, “there’s something you’ve withheld from me.”

“I’ve made every effort to be timely and open with you, my lady!” Behind Iudocus, his men murmur among themselves. Helen shifts her weight; I can see her arms go stiff. I keep my focus on Iudocus. He bows his head, and then taps his fingers together. “Many of my constituents agree entirely with Britannicus. But, then again, some… do not.”

“Not on grounds trumped up by pamphleteers, I hope?”

Iudocus spreads his hands. “Based on nothing more than what the Latin papers print. You must agree that Illyria is worrisome—the Romans marching on their own subjects, and with such force.”

“Illyria could not happen here. Your people have nothing to worry about.” I smile again. “There: you have it from a royal mouth.”

“I do beg your pardon, Lady Imogen, but it would be worth a great deal to hear it from the king.” He clasps his hands. “All we would like is a statement. A directive.”

“Rome is confident that Britain is a good investment, my lord. The presence of the exposition is statement enough, don’t you think?”

Iudocus’s mustache bristles as he grimaces. “I don’t know what to say, my lady. I can only share what I know.”

Something about his words grates at me. I fix on the long-limbed lackey again; he drops his eyes as soon as I catch him staring. He’s a redhead, but the lines of his face are sharp. I still find I resent him.

My soles itch; I long to pace. Iudocus wants such a little thing, to be heard. What does doubt gain me? It seems an object lesson, one to impress on others. Besides, Iudocus is certainly taken by the document, whatever its pedigree. The screed has some power. It’s in the water, he said. The story cannot become the story. And such a little act could stove it. I collect myself, and nod. “The king is a busy man, and far busier than I. But I will see what I can do.”

All the many creases in Iudocus’s face smooth out at once. “Most, most appreciated, my lady.” He gives a short bow, which becomes a series of short bows. “You are a paragon, an absolute paragon. And please, of course, let me know if there’s any way I may be of assistance in the future.” His entourage mumbles encouragingly behind him. We remain in imminent danger of continued hospitality, so before Iudocus can inquire after the price of pork, I make our excuses and leave him to continue his own affairs.

As we head back to the carriage, I hold up the leaflet. “We need to look into this Britannicus fellow.”

Helen nods. “I didn’t think you’d get this involved.”

“Always duty,” I reply, more lightly than I feel.

As soon as we’ve climbed inside, the horses surge forward, and the carriage jerks. I catch myself against the door. Helen busies herself with her pocket schedule and pen, unmoved. We must be on the other side of Londinium within the hour. Idly, I rifle through my pockets. A crumpled piece of paper comes up. I unfold it, and immediately ball my fist again. It’s a shelving number, from the Hall of Public Records. Helen watches the paper roll over the seat. “Perhaps we might delay our next appointment,” she remarks, at which I scoff. Her expression grows stern “Take a minute, Imogen. You were not at your most diplomatic back there.”

It’s such an old chestnut, I nearly laugh. “If my father may be king with his temper, I see no reason why I should be rebuked for mine.”

“Your temper is beside the point,” she says, matter-of-fact. “You’re spoiling for fights today.” My whole body goes rigid. She tilts her head. “Is there another fight you’re avoiding?”

“Don’t take it on yourself to be my minder, Helen. That’s not your function.”

Helen purses her lips. “Iudocus is an easy target. If you’re going to make up for these days you’ve been taking off, you’ll have to do better than that.”

I glare out the window, rolling the leaflet tighter and tighter. At least Helen will confront me. Better than to be avoided. My closest friend won’t even meet my eye now, no matter what I do. These days haven’t been an indulgence: no one has any right to tell me so. I have every right to fume after telling the truth. Is any risk I take the wrong one? Is it so trying to others that I want to be believed?

*

Matugenus, my father’s bodyman for as long as I remember, fills the door to the king’s study. He blinks down at me. “You’re not expected, my lady.”

“He’s my father,” I retort. “I needn’t be expected.”

Matugenus steps aside, and I make a point of sweeping in. My father braces himself against the table’s edge, arms spread wide. He has never learned to properly sit at his desk; he is far too much of a general to enjoy the work of long documents and fine print. “Ah, Imogen,” he says, absorbed in the spread of papers. “What can I do for you?”

I stop an arm’s length distant, and glance over his work—a ledger, now that I look closer. “I’ve been to Sulloniacis today.”

“And how is Iudocus these days?” My father’s mouth twists, though he still doesn’t look at me. “I didn’t think he was a big enough fish for you.”

I make an effort to smooth out the wrinkled leaflet, still curling from my furious twisting in the carriage. “Have you heard of a pamphleteer named Britannicus?”

“I don’t have time for common street chatter.” He makes a mark on a column. “I know you know that.”

“Would I be here if this was just about scuttlebutt?”

My father chuckles. He glances at Matugenus. “Listen to her.”

I press my heels together. “Many people do, my lord.”

“I’m well aware.” He drops his pencil and does me the honor of a crooked eyebrow. “What do the people of Sulloniacis require of their king?”

“Nothing grand. A statement about Illyria.” I offer him the Britannicus leaflet. “In light of Dalmatia and Pannonia, my lord, it might be worth a private word to your chieftains, at least.”

He cocks his head. “And what do they have to do with us? Their poor choices are theirs to endure.”

My knuckles are growing pale. I know he can see that. “The Illyrians are giving the legionaries more of a fight than anticipated. Britons have noticed. I’m sure the Romans have too.” I think of the protestors near the Pallas, and their paper signs.

“And I should give a statement clarifying our position on an illegal action within the empire?” My father grunts. “Absolutely not. Give the thing air, it’ll never be off our backs. Let it die down. In a few weeks no one will think anything more of it.” Satisfied, he picks up his pencil again.

It is as easy as saying no and refusing to hear any more.

I let my arm drop to my side. “And that’s your plan?”

My father allows himself an indulgent smile. “I know you think yourself very wise, Imogen, but I have been doing this longer than you have.”

I know myself. When my skin thrums and vibrates like this, I am right to be this angry. “Sir,” I reply, unclenching my teeth, “I know what I saw.”

The line of his mouth flattens. “Did I not just make myself clear? It’s nothing but your own fancy that gives it weight.” He props himself against the desk again, one fist on his waist. “Suppose I don’t act on your informed recommendation. What, my little Cassandra, can I expect?”

“Do not patronize me, my lord. It does little for either of us.”

Now he glowers. “Think of me, Imogen. I tolerate your meddling because I imagine you will find your way to a husband in government sooner than among your ladies, but do not think you may bend the world simply because you find it not to your liking.”

We are both entrenching. The charge in the air is palpable. I lift my chin. “My lord, it is such a simple thing. Do you believe me, that this is important and real, or am I lying to you?”

My father narrows his eyes. “I do not find your willfulness charming.” He gestures for Matugenus’s attention. “Do you know, when she was a girl, she insisted that her name didn’t suit her? No reason behind it, just stubbornness! She didn’t like the m, of all things. She always scratched it out—preferred two n’s.” He circles in front of his desk, prowling right past me. “It took a Herculean effort to correct her. Such things for their own sake are destructive.”

At a signal, Matugenus opens the door. My audience is over. I could stand here and roar until Matugenus drags me off. It has happened before. I welcome it happening again.

Stop, he’d said. What are you telling me?

The leaflet crunches in my hand. My father holds his ground, more irritated than angry. He should be angry. Why isn’t he angry? I hurl the leaflet at the king’s ledger. “My lord, I will leave you to make up your own mind.”

I need more proof. I need to talk to him. I need a show of good faith. I show myself out.

*

Dr. Cornelius greets me with a cleaver in one hand and a smile fit for a birthday. “I’ve just acquired this!” he exclaims, unprompted. “Forged in Syria. There’s no beating the work of this fellow in Antioch. All of Alexandria wanted a set of his instruments.” He holds up the blade, beaming. It’s coated with zoological matter and some sort of mucus.

He’s alone with his supplies and experiments. One rarely sees him otherwise; I wonder what he must think of that. He seems content, even if he must be content in Britain. I peer behind him, just in case. “Is Posthumus gone?”

Dr. Cornelius nods absently. “Yes, he left with Rigantona. She came by to introduce herself, you know!”

“Rigantona?” The name plows into me. “They met?” My voice has gone faint and unsteady, against my will.

“Oh yes. She wanted my expertise.” He draws himself up. “We have an appointment to discuss the fundamentals of dosage and infusions. She is quite versed in the more mechanical sciences, but biological studies are becoming of interest to her. It’s very exciting. I’ve just read the most extraordinary paper on anesthetic theory and the use of gases, and—”

“Doctor, where is Posthumus now?”

He makes an aimless gesture toward the palace. “She was on her way to inspect the walls, and he wanted to go along. Physics,” he adds, with a companionable shrug.

My father’s security system. Rigantona’s new proprietary tech. I didn’t think she’d be here so soon.

The room hums. My chest has grown tight. I wonder where he stood, where she saw him, whether she saw her son at first. They left together—what are her plans? What does she know? Is Posthumus safe? I take a step backwards, and bump into a shelf. “Thank you,” I stammer. Why did I think I could prevent this?

Dr. Cornelius squints at me. “My lady, are you quite well?” I am halfway up the steps before he can say continue.

The courtyard is empty, as are the foyer and the receiving rooms. Only servants and guards pass me in the hallways. The urgency that grips me is wordless and animal. Because of Posthumus and me, Rigantona lost her whole world at the last exhibition. Because of us, she has Cloten. I cannot explain these things, but they’re true. What toll would I exact to equalize that if I had that chance?

I take the stairwell that splits the guest quarters from the royal residence at a run. She had Cymbeline of Britain call our city Lud’s-town on the first day I saw them together. She holds paying crowds in the palm of her hand with the barest hint of her talents. He needs to listen to me. If they’re together, I have to warn him, really warn him.

I catch Posthumus mid-sentence, all animated gestures; Rigantona watches him, a small notebook pressed to her chest. We nearly collide before I catch myself. Rigantona seems to refocus on the world. “Lady Imogen! What a pleasant surprise.”

“Hello.” I can’t stop looking between them. She is perfectly pleasant; Posthumus looks oddly hangdog. My hands won’t keep still. “I see I’m too late. I had hoped to arrange a meeting for you both.”

“Yes, Posthumus has beat you to it.” Rigantona glances his way — could it be fond? What does that mean? “I see why you had us in mind, though. I’ve very much enjoyed our talk.”

Posthumus turns away from me, just slightly, and swallows “I’m reminded that I’ve already taken up your time.” He directs a small bow to Rigantona. “I don’t want to keep you.”

She smiles. “Thank you, Posthumus. I’d be happy to continue our conversation.”

Posthumus nods, then glances at me. There’s nothing I can say here, and through my own panic, his expression makes no sense to me. He escapes, around the corner and out of sight. Clearly I am the only one who wants to talk.

Rigantona watches him go. “I like him,” she says, keenly. “He’s very bright.”

I clear my throat. This is not the place to show weakness. “He is, very.”

“He’s right, though.” She studies the embellishments at the ceiling for a moment. “If you’ll pardon me, I must get back to my survey. By the way.” She reaches for me—an intimate gesture, though without touching. “The king has invited me to dine again tonight. Will you be joining us?”

My stomach twists at the thought. “Is Cloten coming?”

She wraps her fingers around her notebook. They’re peppered with nicks and scars. Capable hands. “Not this time. He’s exploring the town this evening, but he’ll be happy to hear you asked.”

My mind races; threads are coming together more quickly than I can trace, but I know to trust them. “Unfortunately I’m occupied tonight. But I suspect we’ll be seeing more of each other.”

“Oh yes.” She gestures at the hall. “You know, with any new technology, you test it somewhere small first, then expand it.” She cranes her neck. “There’s just so much to cover here. I wonder what the system will bear.”

*

Half an hour after Dorothy kisses my temple and shuts my door, I slip down the corridor dressed in plainclothes, my hair in braids. I have no boy’s clothes, which strikes me as an oversight now, especially where I’m going. Tonight I’m too impatient. I have not made a habit of sneaking out of the palace, but I cannot limit myself to my usual avenues. If I’m to confirm my suspicions, about my nightmares, about the device, about what I remember, Posthumus isn’t the only person I can ask.

I keep my head down and stay close to the shadows. The nearest servant’s exit is just down the next turn. I rehearse an introduction and a few different identities. It’s another skin to slip into, just like the formality of politicking. I mumble, coarsening my vowels, dropping consonants. The floors creak, as ever; I pick up my pace. The door is within reach.

The body that crashes into me is solid and lean. I fall back against the wall, and he hisses a curse. For an instant, the whole caper is up in the air. A dozen excuses for a dozen different members of the household well up. I peer at the man pushing his glasses up his nose. “Posthumus?”

He lifts his head, squinting. “Imogen?”

“What are you doing here?”

Posthumus hesitates. “This doesn’t mean you’ve won anything.” A touch of obstinacy colors his voice.

My heart skids, just for a moment. “What are you saying? Are you after Cloten too?”

He bends down and picks up a cap from the floor. “I want us to be friends, Imogen,” he says, setting it on his head. “All I know is I need to talk to him.”

It’s tempting to be careless, just to give in to the laugh I’m holding. “That’s easily managed.”

“You don’t like anything that’s easy,” he mutters. For a moment, he seems uncertain; I wonder if I would go without him right now. But the moment passes: he smiles at me, and pushes through the door.

home | next: A tail more perilous than the head

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!

Picture not representative of my weekend

I write this from the futon at a friend’s place in another state. Another friend drove us down here, and we’ve been marveling at how gorgeous her apartment is and rending our hair at the low, low rent. It’s been a great opportunity to get out of Chicago and hang out with people I adore, but unfortunately work, like a Prohibition-era G-man chasing down bootleggers, will always cross state lines and stay on my tail. I’m pleased to report that I’ve made my way through all the chapters of my Kaplan GRE test prep workbook, and that high school math is finally fun for me. However, it did require that my two friends leave me at the apartment for a few hours yesterday. Not exactly the mini-vacation it could have been, but I know I won’t go into full-on panic mode later.

All this prioritizing and pacing of competing and equally pressing needs feels very like college again. In theory, I’m older and wiser now, and not given to all-nighter weekends. That’s borne out less than I would like, but I have been congratulating myself a little for keeping Innogen on schedule for a whole month. That’s certainly an improvement over college-aged Esther, and I hope it bodes well for throwing myself back into school again.

Last week, Imogen took a huge risk and revealed the full extent of her suspicions about her nightmares. The risk seems to have isolated her, though — and as a woman of politics, she can’t let her emotional life interfere with teasing out this undercurrent of rebellion against Rome in Britain. Not being able to talk to Posthumus has thrown her off-kilter, though, and one or the other needs to be resolved as soon as possible.

Which will it be, and how? Tune in Tuesday to see it for yourself. For now, some preview material!

One song

“Sea Lion” by Sage Francis [lyrics]

I was introduced to this song by an incredible fan video about Dean Winchester and his mother, characters from the CW series Supernatural. I love the restlessness of the track, and the conflict. Sage Francis is just blisteringly intelligent too, and there’s a vividness about his music that really works for me. In certain ways (not all of them obvious yet, but that’s on me), “Sea Lion” could speak for Imogen or Posthumus right now; certainly “a healthy distrust” is good advice for them both.

Two links
I need to give a well-deserved shout-out to Cambridge University, alma mater of my future husband and also home of the incredibly useful Celtic Personal Names of Roman Britain. Seriously: this thing is the best of the best, as far as this story is concerned.

Sorry, this is a short one this week, since at this point, large swathes of Chapter 5 still need to be written.

Three lines

“Doctor, where is Posthumus now?”

He frowns, and makes an aimless gesture toward the palace. “She was on her way to inspect the walls, and he wanted to go along. Physics,” he adds, with a shrug.

Curious? Given my schedule, so am I! Swing back on Tuesday to see where it all leads. As always, no knowledge of steampunk or Cymbeline is necessary to enjoy Innogen and the Hungry Half, but if you’d like to read the play, MIT has the full text available for free online.

Innogen and the Hungry Half: 04 – Unlike all others, chaffless

Previously: Her best friend’s double; Rigantona’s real work; ways of losing a twin; clarissima femina; just a reflection; Imogen holds her tongue.

“I see what you’re doing.” Posthumus holds up a scrap of paper. The wind ruffles his hair, and nearly makes off with my note. “Bribing me with picnics is cheating.”

“It’s not.” I lift the top of the basket and peer inside. “Just because something always works…”

“All right, all right.” He takes his seat on the other side of the basket.  “This doesn’t mean you’re forgiven.”

I hold the basket open. “Am I not?”

Posthumus gives me a stern look over the top of his glasses. “It takes more than a couple of scones to get you off the hook.” He stops, and sniffs. “Meat pie?”

“I’m very canny.”

“Almost canny enough.” He fishes out one of the pasties, wrapped in muslin, and surveys the scenery. “Nice morning for this.”

Our luck is good: above us, the sky is a clear eggshell blue, the best autumn can offer. There’s no bite to the air yet, and from this old lookout on the palace ramparts, all of Londinium spiders out around us. We used to come up here and scheme, when the worst crime imaginable was not being in your bed.

Posthumus chews thoughtfully. Hints of honey and cinnamon waft up from our basket. I am watching him too closely again. It took me years to break that habit. My nails bite into my palms. “Here it is,” I blurt out. “I didn’t mention you to Rigantona last night because her son looks exactly like you.”

Posthumus puts down his pasty. “What a fate.”

“I mean it. He doesn’t have glasses, but in every physical respect, he’s an exact copy.”

He scratches the back of his neck. “And this made you so spooked that you forgot to help me make a promising career connection?”

“Don’t worry, she’ll be back.” I slouch against the wall. “The king is very taken with her.”

Rather than be swayed from his course, Posthumus brightens. “That’s not so bad, then. Maybe—”

I frown at him. “Aren’t you concerned?”

“I can’t imagine there’s anyone in the world who looks enough like me to merit concern.” He takes another bite. “I’m starting to wonder if this is an elaborate prank of yours. I can only imagine why I deserve it.”

Under any other circumstances, I’d agree. But I’m not hysterical; my nightmares mean something. He hasn’t seen for himself, and I need to prove this. I don’t want to plant ideas in his head; his memories should be his. I find myself chewing my lip. “What do you remember about the last exposition?”

His eyebrows go up. “I was eight.”

“That’s not so young.”

He shrugs. A flash of Cloten colors the gesture; I have to look away from his face. “Not much. There was a mechanical horse that gave rides. And the roasted chickpea vendors. I know we went a couple of times.”

I pinch at the fabric of my skirt. “You don’t remember anything else?”

“Yes, that you liked it that time,” he says, a rueful tint to his smile. “We only kept going back because you begged for permission.”

“Rigantona was there, of course.”

“Imogen, what is this about?”

I lift the basket lid again and examine my options. “I have a proposition for you.”

“Oh dear,” Posthumus sighs, for my benefit.

“Nothing dangerous. I want to visit the archives today. Do you want to come along?” I pick out another meat pie — probably the rest of last night’s bird.

“Are you digging up dirt on Rigantona?” He watches me unwrap my selection. “Because your father’s invited her back to the palace?”

I snort. “Please. Give me some credit.”

“But it is about Rigantona.” He nudges his glasses up his nose. “About where she’s been.”

“Right now, I want to know what she was doing when she vanished. I want to know about her machines.” I want to understand what I remember.

Posthumus contemplates the remains of his breakfast. “You can’t bribe me with picnics, and you can’t bribe me with pie. I can definitely be bought for libraries, though.”

*

Helen is waiting for us at the bottom of the spiral stairs. She uncrosses her arms and holds out a letter. “I hope your schedule changes are a little less sudden going forward. Suagrius in particular was not happy to be reshuffled.”

I take the note. “Is this from him?”

Helen thins her lips. “No, it’s Iudocus again. His messenger actually said ‘The early bird gets the worm’ when he delivered it.”

The wax seal is still gummy and soft. I dig up the contents of the envelope: some sort of printed matter — a flier folded in half — and a handwritten note. Virtuous Imogen, filia regis, your humble servant from Sulloniacis petitions for an audience with your ladyship, regarding the matter we discussed when lately we had the good fortune to meet at… I let the note drop back into the envelope. Always “virtuous.” That must be the excuse for an unmarried princess of my age.

Helen tilts her head. “Please, for my sake, give him half an hour.”

He had been anxious about the news from Illyria. Iudocus is no Varinia, but if his worries support hers, they are worth assuaging, even if falsely. “Let him know I’ll meet with him as soon as both our schedules allow.” I turn to Posthumus, who’s trying to find a place to leave our basket. “Do you have your credentials?”

Posthumus pats his breast pocket and nods. Helen sighs and holds out her hand. “I’ll take care of that. Wait here.” Somewhat sheepishly, he watches her head for the kitchen, basket swinging from her arm.

After a pause, he clears his throat. “Of course, you should stay as long as you want, but I’ll need to be back by two.” He grimaces. “Dr. Cornelius roped me into helping him at the lab.”

The vision of Dr. Cornelius and his odd, lopsided starfish comes back to me. “An experiment?”

“Who knows.” Posthumus huffs softly. “Probably just cleaning, knowing him.”

Ten minutes later, the three of us are making our way down the Via Legionum, the widest thoroughfare in the city. We could have taken the carriage, but I’ve always preferred walking. Londinium is good to those who watch it closely. Wattle and daub buildings mix freely with brick and stone. Statues, murals and plaques, Roman and Briton, dot the unlikeliest structures. I recognize faces too, and all their different cries: the pigeon-catcher, the rag-seller, the dandy litigator, the wandering scrivener for hire.

The crush of people thickens as we near the Via Mandubracius, the turn-off to reach the Pallas and the exposition. I remember how far this seemed when I was eight, a distance the length of the world. The market that has sprung up at the mouth of the street slows us to a crawl. Vendors cater to tourists and locals with equal alacrity, hawking produce to one set and national trinkets to the other. Though we’ve all made this trip often enough, Helen still urges us to mind the pickpockets.

On the far side of the street, a flock of Roman military standards have congregated on a corner. They march in a tight circuit. As we come closer, I see that the standards are made of paper; the SPQR is not embroidery but paint.

“Morning, madame!” A cheery, bespectacled young woman with flyaway hair plants herself between us and the curb. She holds out a stack of pamphlets. “Some light literature, free of charge?” Instantly Helen pushes forward, ready to deal with her. The woman holds her ground. “It’s no flimflam, m’lady. Just a public service.”

I look to the SPQR banners again; the lettering is the work of a steady hand, but the materials expect to be discarded. “Of course.” I take one of her pamphlets, while Helen glares and Posthumus pats down his jacket, just for certainty’s sake. The young woman grins toothily, nods at us and moves on. I look down at her literature. Summon your Patriotism—Quarrel with Rome. Every possible inch of the paper teems with print. I fold it and slip it into a pocket.

Posthumus is still checking over his shoulder. “What was all that about?”

“Senatus Populusque Romanus,” I reply. The phrase that binds the empire: the Senate and People of Rome.

He watches the protestors as we pass. “Weren’t they closer to the Pallas the other day?”

“I guess they’ve moved.”

The bottleneck at the crossroads takes an age to escape. By the time we emerge on the other side of the crowd, I consider it a triumph that I haven’t succumbed to the temptation to shove. The traffic is much more civilized here; we finally have the space to walk shoulder to shoulder, and pass others without stepping out of the way.

“Give your father this,” says Posthumus, grinning. “This city’s getting its money’s worth of visitors.” I can’t answer him. He laughs. “What? Who is it this time?”

None other than Cloten is jaunting toward us, his chin comically high. We’re right in his path; there’s no way to dodge him. Posthumus stops in his tracks, stiff as a pointer.

Cloten nearly misses us, too occupied with keeping up his smug expression, but luck flies against us, and he slows to a halt. That stranger’s leer slides across his face. “Lady Imogen! I was just on my way to the palace.” He preens. “I’m going to have sword-fighting lessons.”

At my shoulder, Posthumus is still staring. Cloten notices him; his brow furrows, and he works his jaw once or twice. Finally, his mouth twists down. “Who’s this?”

“Posthumus Leonatus,” he says. He doesn’t offer his hand. “How do you do.”

Two cats who have surprised each other could not be more hostile. Cloten gives Posthumus an appraising look; he seems to find his clothes wanting. “And you’re friends with her?”

“He lives at the palace.” I bristle. “He’s my father’s ward.”

Cloten purses his lips and turns back to me. “We’re lodging around here. Mother wanted to be close to her things.”

Helen sets her hand on my back. “It’s a lovely neighborhood,” I manage, a beat too late.

Cloten winks. “I like yours better. I’ll be seeing you back there.” After sparing a smirk for Posthumus, he saunters away from us, without so much as a parting platitude. Helen mutters a few choice exclamations. Posthumus’s eyes are hooded.

“That’s her son?” he says quietly.

I can’t read him. That scares me. “I had no idea he’d—”

Posthumus turns to me; his face is cloudy, his jaw tight. “You think I look like him?” He doesn’t let me answer, but strides ahead. Helen and I struggle to catch up.

*

Helen gets us past the phalanx of dour clerks that guard the archives from those who want to use them. Normally Posthumus would be all talk — he loves that the hall is built of the woods they cleared for it —but he ignores me, his gait stiff and his shoulders hunched. A small, young part of me feels vindicated, but only because he might believe me now. I don’t want to do this alone.

The Hall of Public Records bills itself as Roman order with local character. Were the place built of stone, it could be anywhere in the empire, though its scale is certainly a point of pride. We follow Helen like our own corseted psychopomp, up the cascade of stairs to the Superior Vault. Posthumus and I wait again while Helen makes inquiries of the overlibrarian. He still won’t look at me; he stands there squeezing his thumb, frowning into the middle distance.

“Are you all right?” I whisper.

“Why wouldn’t I be?” he snaps. I leave it at that.

Helen returns with a senior archivist, a brilliant woman with the powerful build of a wrestler. Locinna has a file in hand; it’s thinner than I expected. We have worked together before, she and I. As soon as we’ve greeted each other, she regales me with word of how much a fellowship exchange with Alexandria benefited Hispania Citerior’s libraries, and how much more modern their cataloging systems have become as a result. I give ear in earnest: she has helped me so many times, it is the very least I can do to hear her out.

Locinna leads us to a private room, sparsely furnished but well lit. The heavy door shuts behind us. “Let me tell you,” she says. “I’m good at finding things, even on short notice. But I’m still not convinced I haven’t made a mistake here. There wasn’t very much to find.” She holds out the file, but glances at Posthumus.

“I can vouch for him,” I say quickly, taking the folder.

“As you say, my lady.” She nods to us. “My staff is still pulling the other materials. Let me know if you need further assistance.”

Last night Rigantona had mentioned she was private with her personal affairs. She’s as good as her word: as I spread her records over the table, all I can see is the bare minimum of information. A birth certificate: 45 years of age, a citizen, born in Sorviodunum, no living family. A letter from the Imperial Academy of Sciences, granting her distinguished title. No marriage certificate, though she is listed as a widow. Patent processing fees, paid from as far afield as Cambria and Brocavium, but no deeds on property.

Posthumus hovers at my shoulder, still quiet. He picks up a list of her past employers. Helen squints at a catalog of Rigantona’s publications. I open a separate file bundled with the records: Cloten, a dependent. He has even less of a trail than his mother. His occupation is listed as “gentleman,” though he has no income. His birth certificate was notarized in Londinium; his father is unlisted, save for one notation, deceased. He was born the same year as me, and Posthumus.

“She’s very clean, isn’t she.” His voice startles me. He stands with his neck bent, his long fingers tented over Rigantona’s file.

“I suppose she prefers to let her work speak for itself.” I look to Helen. “Would you mind waiting here?”

She nods. “I’ll wait for Locinna. I’m sure she’ll keep me busy.” Posthumus and I leave with promises to check back by noon.

The Office of Patents and Registration lives in the foundations of the archives.  We approach a reedy, mustachioed clerk, enclosed in a booth. A sign declares him the manager of special collections. He looks up from his paperwork, expressionless. “Yes?”

Posthumus clears his throat. “We’d like access to a file, please. I’m a student of Nonus Cornelius.” He reaches into his jacket and presents his credentials, a set of seals struck in pewter and strung together on thick blue ribbon. The clerk examines them, front and back, until he’s satisfied they aren’t forgeries. I am not spared a second glance.

“Which file?” he drones.

“Rigantona—” he begins, and the clerk glowers at us.

“Those records are special access,” he says acidly. “Does no one read? Press credentials, research credentials or high-level inquiries for the patents, and the inquest into the power failure at the exposition is unconditionally sealed.”

“I beg your pardon, sir.” I hold out my hand for his examination. The clerk peers at my ring, a diamond wreathed in silver oak leaves. It’s one of the few keepsakes of my mother’s that I have; her name is stamped inside the band. It is also the only symbol of my rank I wear, and the clerk jumps to his feet.

“My apologies, my lady.” He clasps his hands. “I had no notice of your coming. Otherwise we might have—”

I hold up my palm. “All we require is discretion. If you’ll permit us, we can find the file ourselves.”

The clerk hesitates, but Posthumus nods. “I’m trained in the system, sir. I can get us through the stacks.” He glances at me sidelong; I will give him his smile later.

A minute later and we’re set loose in the maze of shelves beyond the clerk’s gate, a number in hand. Posthumus crooks an eyebrow. “So that’s why you asked me here.”

“I also like your company.” I’m rewarded with a longsuffering shake of his head. Still, we wander the floor in companionable silence. Posthumus forgets that he’s angry with me, at least enough to walk side by side and not at his usual pace.

Rigantona doesn’t just have a file full of patents; she has codices, thick as a fist and leather-bound. We try to be selective, but Posthumus is all eyes, and winds up hauling four or five volumes. We set up at a secluded table; Posthumus drops his pile of books with a thump. “Don’t look at me like that,” he says. “Who knows when I’ll be able to see these again?” He flips one open. “And what is it in particular that we’re looking for?”

My hand hovers over a book, as though it might spark at me. “Her centerpiece from the last exposition. It’s an energy converter, industrial use.”

Posthumus cracks his knuckles. “Right, which of these looks seventeen years oldish?”

Of course, Rigantona is as prolific in the scope of her inventions as she is in number. She has filed patents for everything from ink formulas to theoretical flying machines to miniature hydroponic systems. Each patent is accompanied by detailed correspondence with a staggering range of contacts; a letter could as easily be from a philosopher as a farmer. Dr. Cornelius hadn’t exaggerated: Rigantona is at home with ideas of any shape or scale.

I’m not daunted. I know what I’m looking for. Even awake, I feel flashes of it: the glowing orb on its pillar, the ozone smell, the pearlescent light. The long run through the dark.

Helen may be waiting for us; I cannot tell how much time as passed. But Posthumus flips a page in his third codex, makes a noise in his throat and sits up in his seat. “Now that’s a work of art,” he says, and slides the book toward me. “I can see what all the fuss was about.”

There. It’s right there: a generator, one part of a larger system. My eye trails over the anatomy of the device: stem, coil, resonator, induction tube. I cover my mouth, breathing hard. Posthumus furrows his brow. “What is it?”

I look to him, hoping. “Do you remember that? From when we were children?”

Posthumus gets to his feet and circles behind me. He peers at the diagrams from over my shoulder. “It’s possible?”

I could laugh. There’s no fever in my mind that taunts me. It’s real. “We were eight.” I’m mindful of the quiet, speaking very fast and low. “The exposition was closing the next day. We wanted to see it one more time, so we snuck out. Do you remember? We broke into the Pallas, at night. We saw this. It was still on, in the dark.”

Posthumus is frowning at me. My hand closes on his wrist. “We touched it. It threw us back. All the lights went out, and we couldn’t see. I grabbed you, and we ran. I had to drag you back home. You slept most of the next day. Do you remember?” Still he says nothing.

“I’ve been dreaming this. All my life, I’ve been dreaming this. Posthumus, when we run, I hear you behind us. But you’re with me. But I hear you, and you’re scared. When I saw Cloten—”

“Stop.” He doesn’t pull back; he hardly moves. “What are you telling me?”

“It’s a memory.” My chest flutters. “Something happened. We were the ones who shorted out Rigantona’s device. There were consequences.”

“And you’ve been dreaming this?”

“My nightmares. Always, this one is the worst.”

Posthumus makes no answer. The silence flays me. He bows his head. Light glints off the edge of his glasses. “I don’t know what to say.” He touches the page, and shakes his head. “I don’t have any memory of that.”

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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!

The Koi of Constant Distraction

Clearly this whole “time management” thing and I need to sit down and have a long talk about priorities. I promise you that if I go off on how much I have to accomplish this month (or this week) one more time, you’re all going to throw your hands up and walk away. Or thwack me with something. Trust me, I’m as frustrated as you are. (Thankfully the GRE, at least, has been sweetened with a few carrots to keep me studying.)

This is going to be a short one. I’m all out of juice at the moment, but that’s only because I’m saving it for edits tomorrow.

I don’t know what, precisely, the Koi of Constant Distraction are, but you know as well as I do that they’re real.

Last week was the world’s most awkward dinner party. It’s hard to enjoy yourself when you can’t figure out why one guest is your best friend’s evil twin and whether the other is trying to overthrow the government. How will Imogen and Posthumus come through that? (Bonus: If you liked the previous chapter’s title, this is the source. That whole scene is pretty golden, but then, I have a terrible soft spot for Cloten, wretch that he is.)

One song

“Pine Moon” by Feist [lyrics]

Not only is this the song that got me through the last 900 words on repeat, but to a certain extent it also captures the shivery feel of the wrongness of Imogen’s nightmare. And now that I’ve read the lyrics, they seem appropriate too.

Two links
It’s easy to get caught up in atmosphere and details when the history behind them is so engrossing. My newest time-suck is MapsOf.net, which, very handily, has a simple map of Roman Britain around 410 CE. That’s much later than the historical Cunobelinus lived, but, like Shakespeare, I embrace rampant anachronism with open arms.

We can’t, of course, forget the whole steampunk side of things. At precisely the right moment, as I was stuck over figuring out what, exactly, the Hall of Public Records looked like in my Londinium, Tumblr came through and supplied one doozy of a visual reference.

Three lines

Posthumus contemplates the remains of his breakfast. “You can’t bribe me with picnics, and you can’t bribe me with pie. I can definitely be bought for libraries, though.”

I will catch you on the flip side, my friends. If this all makes you wonder what these have to do with the story, check back on Tuesday for the next chapter. As always, no knowledge of steampunk or Cymbeline is necessary to enjoy Innogen and the Hungry Half, but if you’d like to read the play, MIT has the full text available for free online.

Innogen and the Hungry Half: 03 – And a gentlewoman’s son

Previously: Nightmares, nursemaids, negotiations; starfish, Cymbeline, a quaestor’s warning; Posthumus is in his room.

The facts stand: Cloten is real, and he is as precise a mockery of Posthumus as can be minted in flesh. A finite number of reasonable explanations must exist for this stranger at our table. Neither my father nor Rigantona acknowledge that anything is out of joint about Cloten, but I have trained my sights on him.

I am so used to Posthumus’s mannerisms that Cloten is hard for me to read. He sits stiffly beside Rigantona, his chest puffed out. As the footmen serve him, he stares at their hands, rather than listening to our parents’ conversation. When he reaches for his glass, he knocks the silverware. The place setting clatters; he scrambles to silence it. His eyes narrow and dart at us, equally defiant and anxious. His jaw juts out, a little crooked. No one pays him any mind but me.

Across from me, Rigantona is all ease and confidence at the royal table. She and my father trade volleys, facts and figures and references to earlier conversations. When my father blusters at her, she holds forth with an admirable professionalism, cool and competent as she’d been with her machines.

Our introduction had not been smooth, but there are many ways to salvage it. I catch her eye as she sips our Aquitainian red. “You must forgive me for my surprise earlier, Rigantona. I had not heard you had a son.”

“If I may, I consider that to my credit, my lady. I am very private about my personal affairs.” She smiles at Cloten, who nakedly soaks up her affection.

She did disappear after the last Minervan Exposition. But that was seventeen years ago, and Cloten is certainly no younger than I am. I keep my expression polite. “And his father?”

She grimaces a little, and drops her eyes. “If you’ll forgive me…”

“Certainly,” my father interjects, and frowns at me briefly. He nods to Rigantona. “We’re glad to welcome you here, and your boy.” My father wears his manners poorly, like a young man in his first fine suit, but his efforts are valiant.

I could see this: Sicilius Leonatus was not faithful to his wife; Rigantona must have been fair as a girl, and none of us are wise at twenty. It would have been quiet gossip at the time, given that Sicilius died before Posthumus was born, and how. Posthumus was to be the youngest of three, just like me, but when his two adult brothers were killed, their father died of grief soon after. The good name of the Leonati was canonized after Posthumus’s mother died giving birth to him. Still, nothing vanishes without a trace: a mystery is merely an observable truth waiting to be unraveled.

Cloten drains his goblet and pushes it aside. The footman dutifully refills it. Cloten picks up his drink, but doesn’t yet partake. His eyes wander over the dining room, appraising. When he lands on me, and sees me watching, he smirks, and lifts his wine in a toast.

Cymbeline has known Posthumus almost as long as he’s known me. I look to my father. He could say something. How long has he known Rigantona? I cannot gauge them now; she occupies him entirely.

*

The cook has roasted a magnificent bird tonight. For a moment the smell untethers me. Lunch seems so long ago. Hunger rarely gives me clarity, but I must stay focused. Dr. Cornelius called Rigantona “the prodigy.” Why did she disappear when she did? It could not have been to have Cloten; he would have been my age, about eight, at the time. My chest grows tight as I think on Varinia’s warning. I can still hear those dog whistle words from Rigantona’s speech. Breaking the Pax begins with small steps.

“I don’t know if my father mentioned this.” I take my time cutting into my portion. “I saw your presentation at the Pallas yesterday.”

“He didn’t.” Rigantona sets her fork down. “What a pity we didn’t meet, my lady!”

“I agree completely, though I admit I’m pleased we get you to ourselves in this house.” I give her a coy smile. “Such a display, though. You have quite a way with the people.”

Rigantona doesn’t drop her eyes. “You’re too kind.” She pushes her shoulders back. “That’s really just a parlor show. Their eyes would glaze over if I talked about my real work. I’d rather give my audience something to hope for.”

“Your real work?” From the corner of my eye, I can see Cloten hunched over his plate, shoveling. I lean forward. “What does that entail?”

“A new kind of communication.” She glances at my father. “His majesty and I have been discussing it all afternoon. Machines taking commands at a distance, transmitting information, performing complex tasks — all the higher functions of wireless technologies.” She traces shapes on the tablecloth. Her hands have character; she is undoubtedly a builder.

“What she means is security.” My father saws at his meat. “There may be some interesting ways she can help us. You can never have too many eyes.”

Of course: my two brothers, snatched from the palace when they were still small. It is a tried and true way into the household, the blow from which Cymbeline has never recovered. I look away from my father. “Even Argus wasn’t invincible when Mercury played him to sleep.”

Rigantona smiles; it has a patient cast to it. “The Romans have gods, stories and much else, Lady Imogen, but I assure you, they do not have this.”

Another scenario: Posthumus was borne away from his dying mother too soon; a second boy came, by then lost to his brother, and without loyal Pisanio to carry him to court. How then would Rigantona have found Cloten? Did she know Posthumus was given over to the king? Any contract with the Leonati should be in the Hall of Public Records. There must be a trail. If she took on a child, she must be listed as his mother, and the document must be dated.

My father swallows. “By the by, when can we expect you to look over the rest of the building?”

“My lord, there is plenty of time to plan.” Rigantona gestures at the spread. “We must give ourselves to enjoying this wonderful meal.”

“New proprietary technology, here?” They all look at me. I hope they’ve missed the hitch in my voice. “We’re to lead the empire by example, then?”

Rigantona looks bemused. “My lady, is that not what the exposition accomplishes? To good effect, I think.”

“Hear, hear,” my father concurs.

Of course she will not bring sedition to the king’s table. I smile at her. “Of course.”

*

The footmen have jeweled the table with desserts — honey cakes, fruit tarts, puddings dusted with spices and, most especially of all, a plate full of imported figs. Though he has cleaned every plate set before him, Cloten’s eyes shine at the array.

I hate myself for it, but this thought keeps circling me: what if Rigantona was mother to them both? It could be that Pisanio brought one to the palace, on her instruction. Now we see the first buds of that plan, whatever it comprises. But no: Pisanio is a loyal and trusted member of our household. Could he be a mole? To what end? How would Rigantona know him, or know of him?

I have so much research to do. Public records, patents, print archives. Tomorrow.

“You are quiet, Imogen.” My father punches his spoon into his sweet pudding. “It worries me.”

That, at least, brings me a smile. “Merely thinking, my lord. So much has come to our table tonight.” I set my fork down. “Might I inquire, Rigantona — you have a title after your name.” Cloten sits up, one cheek bulging, to watch us.

She nods. “Clarissima femina, yes.”

My father huffs proudly. “A distinguished woman.”

“From what I can see, it’s more than deserved. I’ve never heard it in Londinium.”

“It’s rare outside of Italy,” she concedes. “The Romans respond well to it, which is why I include it in my materials.” She says it so neutrally — I wonder what more she might give up.

“There’s no shame in accepting the plaudits of the empire.”

Rigantona laughs softly. “It should be more common in the provinces, if I may say so. I believe that birth speaks little to capability.” She turns her dark eyes on me. “I suspect we agree on this matter, my lady.”

“What?” My father leans on his elbow and frowns. “Explain.”

Rigantona twists in her seat. “Your majesty, I only mean that fame of Lady Imogen’s deftness is not confined to the halls of your government.” She nods to me. “I admire that in a woman.”

My father grunts. “If she’d not been a girl, I’d be a lucky man.” I press my spine to the back of my chair. He glances at me, then to the other side of the table. “As it is, I must root out my successor. So far not a one has passed the smell test.”

Rigantona keeps her face sympathetic. “The lady is attentive to her suitors’ virtue.”

“The lady thinks highly of her own,” says my father, and grips the stem of his goblet. “I am too tolerant of her whims. I have a country to think of.” I cannot be scalded by this argument anymore; he has marched it out too many times. Abruptly, he shifts his focus. “What about you, Cloten? What do you do with yourself?”

Cloten swallows too quickly. He coughs, thankfully into his napkin. “I’m a gentleman, your lordship, and a man. The rest will follow naturally.” He gives us a confident smile; to his credit, nothing is caught in his teeth.

My father congratulates him for his enterprising spirit; Cloten worries his palm with his thumb, just as Posthumus does.

*

We retire to a parlor. My father and Rigantona take up in a pair of armchairs far from the rest of the furniture. I need space to think tonight through. I need to decide what to tell Posthumus, but I cannot leave until we send our guests home. I take up a spot on a settee, as close to the conversation as I may. Cloten hangs back, splaying his fingers over his teacup and saucer in an awkward grip. Servants wait at the far wall, silver carafes in hand.

Rigantona cannot be here merely to put tech in the palace. No one who shoots to fame not once but twice wants bragging rights alone, especially not for something as banal as security. How was she cleared for this work? She went to ground for seventeen years. Was it all innovation and research? Has she always resented the Romans so? A prodigy envied as far as Alexandria — where did she come from?

The cushion sinks. I turn to see Cloten trying to balance himself on the other end of the settee. He lifts his chin at me. “Is this seat taken?”

It’s a rough pose, but a vulnerable one. He’s been nervous all night. I’ve seen that squared jaw on Posthumus. I’ve been unfair. He shocks me, but he’s a person on his own. My stomach twists, but I take a breath and look him in the face. “Of course not.”

Cloten leans back, only to find he’s too close to the edge of the seat. He scoots back, self-conscious, and doesn’t quite meet my eye. “What, you think you’re too good to talk to me?”

We’ve been pushed together, the children meant to entertain each other. It’s an opportunity. I try to relax more visibly. “No. We just got off to a bad start. Would you like to start over?”

Cloten crooks an eyebrow: he’s waiting for me to continue. All my questions flicker within reach; I decide on his odd, meandering accent. “Where did you grow up?”

He shrugs. The topic clearly bores him. “All over. Mother travels for her work. Never been here before, though.”

Now that I’m up close, something is off about him, beyond his resemblance to Posthumus. I can’t put my finger on it. “Have you seen the exposition?”

He slings his elbow over the back of the settee. “A little. Mostly I want to see the town, though. We’re finally in a city, I want to have some fun!”

I can hear what kind of fun he means. Posthumus would never—no. I can’t see it. I glance down at my hands. “Your mother’s inventions are very impressive.”

For a moment, something like disappointment twists Cloten’s face. He snorts. “If they say so.” After a sullen pause, he turns toward me. “You know how much people pay to be on stage with her?”

Inadvertently, I sit up. “You mean the pages? Her assistants?”

He curls his lip. “It’s the fashion. Maybe they think she rubs off on them. She gets a lot of money like that. Classes, demonstrations, residencies.”

It’s an impolite subject, but he may let something good slip. I mirror his shrug. “I’d have thought as her son—”

“That I’d help out?” He shakes his head. “No, not me. She’s always kept me away from her work. Not that I blame her. I’ve got no talent for that.” His shoulders slump. It’s strange, to see that face defeated by study and application. Something is missing for him, though what, I couldn’t say. I think I have been scared of him, which seems misplaced now.

“Cloten.” From his chair, my father holds out his empty teacup. Cloten straightens and tilts forward, as lean and eager as a hound. “Your mother’s been telling me about your studies. I like a man who wants to better himself.” He waves a footman over for more tea. “While you’re in Lud’s-town, my men are available to you. If your mother may have access to our facilities, then so must you.”

Behind Cloten’s head, a light flares. In an instant, my vision whites out.

I jerk back against my seat, panting; the taste of metal floods my mouth.

My father’s cup rattles on its saucer. “For pity’s sake, girl, what is the matter now?”

The room returns to me. My father glowers. Rigantona says nothing; she watches with thin lips and arched eyebrows. The footman hesitates at my father’s side, then pours more tea from his silver carafe. Light from the lamps shimmers over the bell. My heart still boxes with my breast. “Nothing, my lord.” Lud’s-town. Did a vassal of Augustus Caesar just use the old Briton name of the city? How long has Rigantona been with him? I brace one hand against the settee’s edge. “A passing weakness. It’s my fault, forgive me.”

It was just a reflection, nothing more. Cloten stares at me, his mouth crooked as a briar. My other hand is cold, crumpled in my lap.

*

My shoes dangle from one hand. Our guests are gone, and I’m done with the pinch of these heels. The wood floors creak beneath me, but that’s all the noise there is. I count the steps on my way through the palace. Today has been exhausting; I only want one thing from it now.

The long, low-lit hall is full of turns. Posthumus and I used to make such a game of it — monsters and thieves behind every corner. We pledged to protect each other no matter what, or lay down our lives so the other might escape. Every night, those promises were ardent and fierce.

Posthumus lives stowed in the furthest guest suite, past the staterooms but before the servants’ quarters. He’s never locked the door; the hinges moan, but I’m quiet and careful as I push. He’s poring over a notebook, his jacket draped over the back of his chair, his legs too long for the desk. I’m greedy with the moment before he notices I’m here. The slope of his shoulders, his mess of curls, the way he cracks stiff knuckles — they’re his. He’s been here this whole time.

The door clicks behind me. He twists in his seat, and his face lights up, unmistakably him. “Hello.”

What was I thinking? Cloten looks nothing like him at all.

I have seven conversations planned, each for a different spectrum of truths to share, but none of them seem willing to step in. Posthumus unfurls as he rises and leans against his desk. “I assume this means we have a lot to talk about.” He crosses his arms, already grinning. “Come on, was it amazing? What was she like?”

Right now, Cloten is in the back of a carriage somewhere, picking at his teeth and slouching with his knees spread wide. I’m so grateful for the distance, my throat closes over. Posthumus’s hopeful expression falters. “Are you feeling all right?”

My eyes snap open, and I shake it off. “Yes, I’m fine.” His bed is a few steps away. I could stay and perch on the edge, but I find I don’t yet care to move. “I just — I hadn’t seen you all day,” I finish lamely.

“I’m touched, truly.” He crosses the room to examine me more closely. His brow knits. “Something’s happened. You look half dead. Did something happen?”

“It was a dinner. There was talk.” My eyes start to throb. I pinch the bridge of my nose. Now that he’s said it, I’ve let myself feel it. A cardinal rule, broken. There’s so much to do still.

Posthumus sighs, about to press on. I adjust my grip on my shoes. “I didn’t tell Rigantona about you.”

He deflates. “Oh.”

He doesn’t look Cloten, disappointed; he looks like himself. I watch his face. “Have breakfast with me tomorrow.”

Posthumus lifts his eyebrows. “And you’ll tell me why? I hope it’s a good reason.”

There was so much else to consider. “Please, trust me on this.” I can see he wants to argue, but he holds back. It’s so silly a thing, that a few hours can cast doubt on twenty-five years of experience. Posthumus has never stopped being real, or present. If I had less control, I’d touch him, just to be sure. Instead, I hug my elbows. “Seven thirty?”

“Isn’t that late for you?” But he crooks a small smile and steps closer. “Do you want me to walk you to your room?”

“No.” I clear my throat and stand up straight. “I should be fine.”

He cants his head. “Are you sure? Or will someone find you tomorrow morning drooling against a wall?”

I huff a small laugh. “I’ll never live that down, will I.”

“Never.” His mouth quirks at the corners.

He follows me into the hall. As I look back down the dim, quiet stretch of corridor, the words tumbles out: “Rigantona has a son.”

“Oh?” Posthumus leans against the doorjamb.

I stick the shoes under one arm. “Yes. Our age.”

He takes this information blithely. “What’s he like?”

The wood groans beneath my stockings. Very much alive, he said. “Not like us,” is what I manage. To say more feels like courting trouble. I smile at Posthumus. “Good night.”

He dips his chin. “Sweet dreams.”

For a moment, he watches me walk off: then his hinges creak behind me, and I take to the dark halls again, silent as sleepwalking.

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