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.”

home | next: Depender on a thing that leans

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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This entry was published on November 8, 2011 at 9:00 am. It’s filed under Fiction, Innogen and the Hungry Half, Not Entirely Real and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

7 thoughts on “Innogen and the Hungry Half: 04 – Unlike all others, chaffless

  1. DRAMA!

    I like it. The phrasings are all so tasty, and Posthumus is pulling me in. I want to crawl inside his head and peer around with a flashlight.

    • Thank you! Getting the language and the voices down has been a fun challenge, so to hear that it’s working for other people = total delight for me. On a selfish note, you know. Thanks again!

  2. WAIT, WHAT????

    aaaaaah noooooo

    I’m sure I’m wrong, but I am convinced that Posthumus has been tampered with somehow and that Cloten is a robot.

    I love the clarity of realizing this is a memory! And that Imogen was looking for it but without rrrreally telling us, the readers, what she was looking for and why; the dreamlike quality of what she remembers makes it all seem very realistic, in the sense of fits-in-the-world, I-buy-it.

    I still love Imogen more than Posthumus, but I feel sorry for him right now and feel he’s lost in thought! I can’t wait to see what he does from here. Also I love their friendship, and Imogen’s ferocity-in-wait when it comes to legitimizing and defending him to others.

    Of course your language is beautiful, and I think it feels more effortless the more you go. This last installment especially, I was distracted by nice touches (I love the overlibrarian), but at a certain point I was less cognizant of language than I was of characters and events. Not a bad place to be!

    • I am super taken with your theory! I can neither confirm nor deny future developments, but I’m kind of thrilled on a visceral level that you’re trying to figure it out.

      That last point, on the language — watch me be really good with talking and stuff here — oh wow, what a thing to hear. Thank you: that’s such a compliment, especially from someone as good with words as you are, and I really appreciate this. Not a bad place indeed!

  3. Rawles Marie on said:

    OMGGGG. This is making me think of The Prestige where the teleportation ray actually made DOUBLES of people. I really hope there isn’t a room somewhere filled with a million drowned Posthumuses. *TRAUMAS FROM WHICH I NEVER RECOVERED*

    And yes this chapter did make me love Posthumus even more!

    • AUGH, THAT MOVIE SCARRED ME.

      Hurrah! Oh his face and his gold spectacles &c. I know it’s not cool to, uh, have emotions about characters you write, but TOO BAD. Thank you so much for reading, especially when there could have been nap instead!

      • Rawles Marie on said:

        God yes! And for some bizarre reason I went to this late night showing, so I got home at 1AM and was just sitting around in my house going DDDD: and imagining drowned Hugh Jackmans lurking around every corner.

        Man, whatever on cool. Sometimes characters you write are just lovable and need to shut up their faces okay. I have been known to have many a feeling about my own characters.

        NO REGRETS, RE: NAP.

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