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.
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!