Previously: Out after bedtime; Sower Street; a ringing endorsement; pub crawling in the Roman Empire; he’s not his brother; haven’t I seen you before?; katabasis; corralling Cloten; a convenient exit; a confession; a convenient pipe; a confirmation.
That isn’t my perfume.
It colors everything—the smell of my sheets, the smoke in my hair, the stink of Sower Street still in my clothes. A newspaper rustles. Before the sound ends, I am rigid and upright in my bed.
“Calm down, my dove. Helen let me in.” Varinia doesn’t look up from her broadsheet. She fits precisely into my chair, ankles crossed. She has come in her traveling clothes, the long, tailored jacket spilling over the seat.
I yank my quilt up to my waist. “How long have you been here?”
“You obviously needed your rest.” She eyes me around the page—the Citizen Countryman, out of Durocortorum. The headlines swim. “I took the liberty of having your letters sent out.” She makes a show of folding the paper, the creases correct, just so. “What an exciting evening you had. Was he worth it?”
“You are completely out of line.” I fling back the covers, willing my panic not to show so drastically, and bolt for the nearest dressing gown, slung over a closet door.
“Your hair is so long now.” She’s smiling at me. I can hear it. “I can’t remember the last time I saw it down.”
My hands shake as I tie off the robe. “Can you remember when last you saw fit to trespass on my chambers?”
Her chair creaks; she’s leaning back. “I’m leaving Britain soon. I’ve missed you.”
Helen let her in. Dorothy didn’t wake me up. In my own bedroom, of all places. I face her, fists balled at my sides. “Is this one of the rights of a quaestor of Rome? To presume you understand how I weight my schedule?”
“Have you been seeing to business, then? I should love to hear of it; my work has been lacking in trifles these days.” Her voice goes harder. “I cannot imagine what outweighs the future of your own nation, but then, I am not so young as you are.”
My knuckles go white. “Do not insult me for my age. You never have before.”
“And you have always kept your appointments. But then, you are very like your father.” Some of that languid drawl seeps back into her voice. Cold shots hurtle up and down my spine. “I worry, Imogen, that I am telling you this, rather than the reverse.” She reaches into her jacket and offers me a piece of folded paper—treasury letterhead. “This came across my desk last night. Look and see what your father has authorized.”
The memo is short and formulaic. By order of Cymbeline, Rex Britannicus, funds heretofore allocated to the below subsidies and works are hereby redirected to defense.
Increases in military spending. Illyria took steps long before they broke the Pax. My cheeks color. “You know he’s negotiating to expand the Roman rails. As a show of good faith—”
“Imogen.” Varinia rises. Her silence demands my full attention. “Rigantona’s been spending time here. We know what she’s like, and what she believes.”
I wait to hear it, proprietary technology, the good of the empire, where is ours, but Varinia only crooks an eyebrow. “It is easy enough to start a war from a pillow,” she says, more carefully.
I breathe in, once, and hold out the memo with a small smile. “Virginity doesn’t make me stupid.” We must be friends, Varinia and I. She is too valuable to be otherwise.
She shakes her head. “I have copies. Do not let your father deny it.” She hooks her buttons through each hole, one by one. “I have every confidence in you, my swan. Trust me when I say this visit was a compliment.”
We embrace, and I inhale her perfume. “All the same,” I say, in the moment before we let go, “when you come back to Britain…”
“In the spring, I hope.”
I set my hands on her elbows. “Never come into my bedroom like that again.”
“If you invited me, I could never accept.” She winks, and kisses my cheek. “I’ll be in Lusitania for a month, then winter in Cyrenaica.” Her lips curl at the corners. “I’m only a telegram away. Please send word if you’re in danger of marrying Rigantona’s son.”
I clutch my stomach. “You would never say such a thing if you had met him.”
Helen is pacing outside my door, hugging one elbow, a knuckle to her lips. She snaps to attention, anxious, but I dispatch her and Varinia both with coolness and poise. Varinia glances at me over her shoulder; I shut the door and sink against it.
The room looks different to me, now that someone has intruded on it. Dorothy declined to wake me up. Helen chose to let Varinia in. I cannot be showing that much strain. I cannot require tending.
No one who knows this business could accuse me of being idle. Even so, I have been stalling; nothing else can rightly call itself preparation. In the quiet, I slip out of my dressing gown and shuck off last night’s disguise. No more skirting the matter. I must arm myself.
Dorothy pins my damp and scented hair, not at all hiding that she’s watching me in the mirror. I hold myself straight and still, looking over my vanity. The tabletop is a clutter of bottles, tins and notes, but only we will ever know that. I will look my part today: she will appreciate that. The dress of a local, highly regarded make; the necklace from Sorviodunum, Rigantona’s birthplace; the glass comb in peacock colors, a gift from Neapolis, shot through with gold teeth.
“I am only saying—” Dorothy begins.
My eyes flick up. “We are done with this.”
She adjusts a roll of hair. “It’s not that you’ve been straying, it’s that for you, all this—”
“I’m not a child, Dorothy. It’s not your place to mind me like this—”
“—you’re leaping out of a hot air balloon.” For a moment, we glare at each other’s reflections. Dorothy thins her lips. “You’re never like this, Imogen. You’ve always been so good.”
Lies have their uses, but the truth accomplishes more. I look away. “On the contrary, I think I am more myself than ever.”
The door swings inward; Helen approaches my chair, too quiet, her usual bundle of letters and papers in hand.
I break the silence, as is my right. “You are in a king’s house, Helen.”
Helen does not waver. “She thanked us for your father’s hospitality.” She sets the letters atop a jewelry box. “She mentioned the Boar and Brachet, and said you would know what that means. I am to ask after its local charm.”
I must exhale. “It has little.” Varinia did not press on the matter of Cloten; another front may have opened up, but I suspect she’s showing her hand to make a point. If the world knows the British princess came to Sower Street, it will have come from her. I look back to Helen. “Where is the king this morning?”
Helen raises her eyebrows. “With chieftains from the Cornovii and the Atrebates, touring sites for the Roman rails. He’ll be out of Londinium for several days.”
Dorothy sets the final pin in my hair. She holds up a hand mirror so I may inspect the back. A moment’s study, and then I look to Helen. “If he writes, tell him all is well.”
She remains stiff-backed. “Lie to him?”
I rise, and gather up the letters she brought. She will see my face as I speak. “There is no lie in it.”
Only the din of construction troubles the halls, muffled, intermittent and somewhere out of sight. Someone must have told me that my father would be gone. I must have known, though I cannot call one scenario less worrisome than another. The full contingent of guards remains at the palace; they patrol the corridors, vigilant of the royal person as ever. Some stand square-jawed and ceremonial, but others nod and wink as I pass.
As a little girl, I honed many of my charms on the palace guard. I was reprimanded more than once for distracting them from their work. I argued that they would protect a friend better than an assignment. My father always growled that duty was impetus enough.
Rigantona’s work crew greets me with an atlas of accents: Durotriges, Brigantes, Iceni, one thick burr I suspect is Caledonian. One shows me how they’re threading the wires through the walls without damaging the woodwork. A low hum laps at the edge of my hearing. The Caledonian engineer assures me it’s just the generator stowed in a wall nearby. There are more of them every several yards. It’ll subsume, he says. I won’t notice it after a bit.
The unmarked door is three halls away, with no guard in sight. More than Varinia’s cautions, Cloten’s words last night have wormed their way into me. I cannot begrudge my father some dalliances. It has been a long time since my mother died. I will focus on this, on arming myself. I will push past what happened on Sower Street: Cloten’s fumbling hands, his sour breath, his plaintive, abusive self-pity.
This is the usual room. It looks onto a secluded cul-de-sac; in the spring and summer, it smells of mint and the flowering trees below. A place for lingering. The bed is crisply made, the linens sweet and fresh. Greenhouse flowers sit on a table, the water high in the vase. There is no more reason to stay here. I know enough.
My father sets his favorites outside this door. When I step into the hallway, I don’t recognize the guard with whom I nearly collide. The guard has a young face atop a broad body. I blink at him. “This is Dagobiti’s post.”
The stranger gestures with his pike at the hallway. “I’m filling in for him, milady.”
Dagobiti has always showed promise—strapping, popular, discreet. When I was younger, I nursed a bit of heartache that our love could never be. I wonder who this new boy is, and what he has done to merit guarding Cymbeline’s lovers. I search his face. “Is he with the king?”
He is too professional to shrug, but he wants to. “I wasn’t informed,” he says, “just told to be here.”
I cannot begrudge him. There is value in being where you should be.
I glance at Dr. Cornelius’s back. “Are you sure he doesn’t mind?”
Posthumus snorts. “Only one thing makes him happier than being arm-deep in starfish, and that’s cutting live starfish in half.”
“Is that what you do here?”
“It’s not that barbaric,” he insists. “They grow back. He’s studying how they regenerate.”
Dr. Cornelius coaxes and cajoles his quarry from the side of a barrel. My insides twist on themselves a little. I turn back to Posthumus. He stoops to avoid the hanging lamps; the yellow cast of the light brings out the bruises under his eyes. “Pisanio knows,” he says quietly, before I can explain myself. “We spent most of the night talking about it.”
A particular spot in my chest clenches. I would have trusted Dorothy that much, before this morning. “What did he say?”
“That I was always an easy boy to raise, and that he can’t speak for raising any other.” A shadow deepens at the corner of his mouth, but his shoulders are tight. “It came out, though, that I changed when I was eight.” He bows his head. “He just thought I was living up to my potential.”
I hug my elbows. “You believe it happened, then.”
“I see no other explanation.” He pulls at his rubber gloves. “It makes no sense not to move on.”
He wrestles with it, though. Every inch of him broadcasts his struggle. I don’t know why it troubles me less, to think that he has been distilled into his best parts. Then, that is our nature, his and mine. Posthumus is the good half. I have seen it all my life. So be it if that is the consequence of our actions that night, even if Cloten is the byproduct.
(I must still make myself pity Cloten. A better person would have done so already. Who would leave anyone passed out and injured in an alley? But I am coming to accept that as well.)
“You’re dressed very nicely,” Posthumus says, when neither of us have continued. “Are you going to see her?”
I push my shoulders back. “Yes.”
“I ought to come,” he says, but makes no move to remove his gear.
I hesitate. “How did Pisanio manage when you told him?”
“Not well. He thinks it’s mad. But he’s not running from it.” Posthumus watches Dr. Cornelius. The frames of his glasses glint briefly. “It’s a lot to take in.”
“Aha!” Dr. Cornelius raises his arms and beams. “There—the work of many months! Pure science, my lady. Your father won’t be sorry!” I peer at the specimen he displays for us, spread out in his hands. His quarry is a misshapen creature, with one large arm and a number of odd-sized others. My stomach lurches. I imagine it has been cut many times over.
“Is that the original?” I am too aware of Posthumus just at my shoulder.
Dr. Cornelius’s smile falters. “Eh?
“When you cut them—” I nod at the starfish. “Is one the original and the other the twin?”
“No,” says Posthumus, a tray in hand. He steps past me, heading for the scalpels. “No, there’s no original.” He begins picking out his instruments. I can’t see his face. “They both are.”
Tincomarus Place is no place for a revolutionary. The houses are uniform and fine, with pristine faces and good bones. Of course, Rigantona, clarissima femina, is not afraid of tools, any more than I am afraid of armor.
I look at what she’s telling me from the sitting room where I wait. She has only been renting the property for a matter of weeks, but she has filled it with books—interesting ones, from what I can see, touching on all number of subjects. Every available surface is covered, with papers, letters, bits of machinery, a stained teacup and saucer, whatever is at hand. I imagine the housekeeper’s orders are the same as ours: do not move a thing, I know exactly where everything is. The knot in my chest eases, if briefly, and irrationally: she is just as messy as I am.
I remember how it is now, to be nervous about meetings. Varinia always said that was the side effect of perceiving a power imbalance. Rigantona is a scientist, and I am heir to the throne. This is not a matter of power.
I focus on my breathing, in and out, deeper and slower, until the room slows down. I cannot ask this question yet, not even in front of Posthumus. I must prepare myself.
Heavy footsteps outside, descending a staircase. The noise jolts me out of my calm. My mind sprints from one unlikely possibility to another. I strain to see through the open door.
Cloten staggers past, bleary-eyed and grubby. Straight lines are beyond him: he blunders against a wall with a soft thump. I’m on my feet before I can reconsider, watching him from the next door down. He catches sight of me. I grind my teeth, bracing for some assault, but he simply grunts, sighs and continues. No memory of the alley, then. No memory that we found him, or that we came for him. He slouches away, trailing the tie of his bathrobe.
I have no more hope of quiet; now I can hear all the noises of the house. Pipes rumbling, shoes clacking, door shutting. I straighten. Two voices, coming closer through the corridor. One is Rigantona’s; the other is male, and familiar.
I peer down the hall. She is striding alongside a palace guard, one who is out of uniform but unmistakable. I have become uncareful about watching. Dagobiti spots me and slows to a halt. “My lady?”
Rigantona steps forward, lit up with a smile. “My dear Lady Imogen, what a surprise!”
“Good morning to you both.” There can be no more preparation. I hold my chin up and look to Dagobiti. “My apologies, I didn’t expect to find you here.”
He grins. “The king has asked me to supervise the new security system. Rigantona was putting me through my paces to be sure I’m up to it.”
“He more than is.” She sets a friendly hand on his shoulder. “I hope you’ll forgive me if I turn my attentions to the princess.”
“Not at all, ma’am!” Dagobiti shakes Rigantona’s hand, then offers me a crisp parting bow. “My lady.”
The house has gone quiet to me again. Rigantona leads us back into the sitting room. “I’m so pleased you dropped in, my lady.” She catches my eye and smiles. “I was about to order lunch. Would you do me the pleasure of joining me?”
“I suspect you may wish to hear me out before that.” I fold my gloved hands. Here it begins. “I’ve come on a matter that’s personal to both of us.”
Something canny comes over her face. She offers me a seat, which I accept; she pauses, to remove her jacket. “I beg your pardon, my lady. If we may both make ourselves comfortable…”
The sleeves of her shirt are rolled to the elbow. Her forearms teem with tattoos; more are surely hidden beneath her clothes. Rigantona gives me a wry smile. “The markings of a different age. I assure you they were quite fashionable at the time.”
The ink is bright and crisp: she maintains them. They’re also all of a type: horses, trees, slogans, fish, whorls. All the iconography of British nationalism. She lowers herself slowly to her seat.
“A personal matter, then. My dear, I believe I can guess.” She presses her palms together and touches the tip of her mouth. “It’s your Posthumus. He’s the other one.”
There it is. And still my preparations fail me. “My—sorry?”
“Posthumus. Your friend. Or… more than that?” She lifts her eyebrows.
“He’s a dear friend,” I say quickly.
She lowers her hands and nods. “I knew as soon as I saw him. I didn’t wish to proceed indelicately, though. Imagine my shock—of all people, the daughter of the king.”
I prop my hands against my knees, though every inch of me must be shaking. “We must trade stories, then. I owe you an explanation, and much more.”
“Yes,” Rigantona says, and threads her fingers. “Such a long time we’ve been half in the dark. Shall you go first, Lady Imogen, or should I?”
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!