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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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!

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7 thoughts on “Innogen and the Hungry Half: 03 – And a gentlewoman’s son”

  1. That was delicious.

    I should get more sleep before reading these; half the time I feel like I can barely tell what’s going on. The prose is so pretty, and it has the perfect texture for the story, but it’s hard to get my head around it. Every time I read a scene and can tell what just happened I feel a little glow of triumph. XD

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

    Just let me die here omg.

    Poor Imogen, so harried! And so much stuff is happening around her that she wants to get under control and then lol Cloten there completely throwing her off even more.

    I am getting dangerously more into this every update. Let’s not even talk about the noises I made when she goes to see Posthumus at the end. Her ~greedily~ drinking him in just to reassure herself that he’s really himself and exists separately from his doppelganger was fantastic.

    1. I have so many feelings about them, and hearing that you have feelings too makes me both happy and hand-flappy, the best possible way. (That was an awful rhyme; it was unintentional, I’m sorry.) Thank you! OH GOSH, so many things I want to say but can’t! Which makes it all a bit hilariously apropos.

    1. Writing any combination of Posthumus, Imogen and Cloten is kind of becoming the highlight of my week. Glad you’re feeling similarly! Thanks so much for your words — and your keysmashing.

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