Silk embroidery depicting Penelope in scene from Homer's Odyssey

Innogen and the Hungry Half: 08 – How fit his garments serve me

Previously: Not her perfume; Varinia departs; the Roman rails; threading wires through wood; the guard at the unmarked door; Dagobiti is not at his post; barbarism toward starfish; Pisanio knows; Posthumus moves on; Tincomarus Place; “He’s the other one”; “Shall you go first, or should I?”

Cambria: West of Britannia, unconquered by the Romans, ruled by coalitions of Silures and Ordovices. Sends no ambassadors, proclaims every dock an embassy. The free port at Milford-Haven remains open to all who come with nonmilitary and apolitical intent.

The road to Milford-Haven was unpaved, a bending, crooked thing parting the wide wilderness. Rigantona marched in a straight line, the chill spring damp still a shock on her skin and in her lungs. Behind her, the wagon wheel remained cracked, swallowed by a hole in the road, and Cloten continued shouting. He was 14 and rawboned, not yet shaving, not shy about leering at girls. She was 34, not meant to endure such things at this or any other age. The thought was dizzying, just walking away, relying on only herself again. She turned away from him mid-sentence and headed for the town the last mile marker had promised.

His tirade did not falter. She did not answer him. It had escaped her, the moment when she no longer thought of forgiving him—for appearing, for all the havoc, for the all-defining disruption. This was never supposed to be normal. She had wanted such different things. The Cambrian quiet took her in, without questions and without hesitations. She heard the sounds of her son fall away, and she kept walking.

Around a bend in the road, a woodsman surprised her. He stood in the center solid as a soldier on watch. Rigantona froze, staring at the ax in his hand. The woodsman hardly moved as he spoke. He inquired whether she owned the cart in pieces up the road. Two young men, surely his sons, emerged from the trees, dangerous and wary. Rigantona held still and affirmed her ownership of the cart.

A great shout echoed behind them. Cloten emerged charging up the road, his limbs windmilling. He threatened the woodsmen with grave violence if they so much as annoyed his mother. He stumbled to a halt by her side and glared. The two sons, handsome boys, reached for their swords, but the woodsman calmly offered to mend the cart. Rigantona looked at Cloten, who panted and kept his face ferocious. She dealt with the woodsman and dispatched the Cambrians. Once they were gone, she took Cloten’s hand and squeezed it. He scowled, though he couldn’t look at her yet, and told her he’d go keep an eye on their trunks.

The woodsmen were quick and able, and took their payment in news of Cymbeline and the British court. Cloten glowered all the while. They parted quickly, the Cambrians vanishing behind the trees. Rigantona and Cloten were in Milford-Haven by dawn.

Circe device: Shorthand for conceptual prototype submitted by Rigantona to the XXIV Minervan Exposition in Londinium. A scale model system of generators and manufacturing elements that converted energy into discrete, portable, highly concentrated units (“Jovian bolts,” Jb) of solid matter. All raw materials and labor sourced within Britannia; billed as a centerpiece exhibit with widespread industrial implications. Part of the exhibit postulated suites of machines engineered to receive and utilize Jb units as freestanding power supplies.

The Circe device was the culmination of thirteen years in the professional sphere for Rigantona, who turned 28 in Londinium. Though she had earned both praise and notoriety within scientific circles, her time in the capital afforded her access to all citizens of the empire. Her private reputation was one of outspokenness, but her science remained unassailable and could not be overlooked. During her months there, Rigantona took frequent meetings with British chieftains, advisors to the king, Roman bureaucrats and groundbreakers from Egypt and Syria. One popular cartoon of the time depicted representatives of various interests eating from the palms of her hands.

Exhibition rules prohibit exhibitors from entering into contracts concerning submitted work until after the closing ceremonies. The weeks following any Minervan Exposition have traditionally been its busiest period, and as the Londinium close drew near, Rigantona had her pick of investors.

The Circe device was impounded in Magiovinium during the inquest into its catastrophic failure. In cooperation with authorities, Rigantona provided blueprints for the device, though upon disassembling it, investigators discovered that the blueprints did not entirely account for the final design. By that time, Rigantona had vanished, and none of her former patrons could call her up. An imperial court ruled that she forfeited any claim to patents derived from the Circe device, which were remanded to the crown and licensed individually in a ferocious bidding war.

*

Cloten: Rigantona’s uncle, executed by legionaries in the time of Julius Caesar for killing a soldier in single combat.

“Is this your son?” the Pallas patrol captain asked. The guards had her and the boy surrounded, though the still, dark machines made them skittish. Rigantona could see no opening; neither, she noted, could the boy. She slipped off her jacket, one hand gripping his shoulder, and draped it over him. He made no move to accept it, just stood at her side, limp and sniffling. The patrol captain stepped closer. “Is this your son?”

“Will you allow me to inspect the damage?” she said.

“Your machine did all this?”

“I will not know until I’ve inspected the site.”

The patrol captain shook his head. “The whole Pallas is a crime scene, madam. I’ll have to ask that you come with me.” He gestured at a lackey. Rigantona gripped the boy’s shoulder and leaned away. The patrol captain sighed. “Gavo, escort these two out. We’ll need to interview them—”

The boy whimpered. Rigantona held him closer. “Let me take him home.”

The guard relented. A carriage was called. The boy sat opposite her, embarrassed now by his nakedness. He tried to shrink into her fashionable jacket. “Who are you?”

“Quiet,” she said. “I’m thinking.”

By morning, he was her son. All the papers said as much. There was still time to correct it, but she was too engrossed in him. He could not name himself, nor the person who sent him. He begged to be taken to the palace. He wept for companions he could not identify. He was quite certain he had no parents. He could only be a mole, an innocent-seeming root for her untapped and presumed maternal instincts. She plied him for information, any mistake that might tell her who paid him. An intriguing slate of possibilities emerged, but no one set of evidence was enough to convict.

The cook had a son, about eight, and about the boy’s size. Rigantona paid her to fetch suitable clothes for him. The boy would not sleep; if exhaustion took hold, half an hour later he howled and thrashed so violently he threw himself out of bed. If Rigantona tried to quiet him, he kicked at and hit her. “Who are you?” he screamed. He refused to divulge what haunted him.

The inquest proceeded without her; she refused most contact with the rest of the world. Days passed, then a week, then two. No further clues materialized, no taunting hint at who had orchestrated this. Rigantona began packing her notes. There was no hope of changing the narrative now; it had happened without her. It had happened and moved on. She would accept it. This could be exploited. There was still so much to understand and learn.

The boy was screaming again. She hovered outside his door, listening for words. When the thump came, she burst into the room. He looked up at her from the tangle of sheets and curled in on himself, his hands over his face. Rigantona settled next to him and put her arms around his shoulders. “Oh Cloten,” she murmured, over and over. “Oh my boy.”

His muscles were thick with knots. Sweat and snot streaked the sheets. She could feel his uncertainty, and she soothed it, rubbing his arm. “She didn’t want me,” he gasped, after a time. “She left me behind.”

“I’ll always want you,” she said. “Cloten, I’ll never do that.”

 *

Cunobelinos: British rendering of Cymbeline. Vassal king of Britannia during the XXIV Minervan Exposition. During the long exhibition year, when Rigantona saw him, he remained haunted by the death of his wife, and more so by the theft of his two young sons, already several years past. In character, she found him brusque, military, impatient. For all her honors, it was the first time she had met a king. Their time together was brief and perfunctory.

She grew up on stories of the British kingship, alongside a suspicion of the invaders. Sorviodunum, her birthplace, chafed at the Roman fort and the Latin name it was given. All in the town were either veterans of the war against Caesar or orphans of it. Rigantona knew a language she could speak anywhere in the empire. It opened many doors to her, and with it she learned a great deal.

Cloten was not bright. Accepting this hurt Rigantona more than she could fathom. All her attempts to reveal herself to him in the language she knew best resulted in catastrophe for them both. He had no instinct for science, and machines rattled him. But kings he understood. He knew all the histories of wrongdoing in their nation. He could leap headlong into any conversation about Britain. He found friends among the curmi-drinkers and storytellers. He and Rigantona built many kings, an ideal king, together.

 *

Mitosis: Described recently by Aurelius Chaeremon, formerly a genial rival of Nonus Cornelius’ at the University of Alexandria; the division of cells to enact reproduction.

Rigantona had no name for the other Cloten. The doubling, which she confirmed more by inference than proof, would never leave him. For years he sobbed into Rigantona’s arms and pillows about the light lashing out, the terror of being abandoned, the horror of his helplessness, the betrayal of his body, the transgression that brought him there. The endless repetitions would, for a time, reveal new layers to the event, but Rigantona grew weary and harried. At that age, comfort did not come easily to her, and she worked hard to reason with him to the other side of his dreams. He would not or could not grow inured to the trauma. Rigantona told him that if Zani could not protect him, he should be fired, though Cloten gave Zani many extra chances.

When Chaeremon published his observations of the process, Rigantona could hardly sleep. That the cells split into no more and no less than two new bodies seemed the most promising indicator in years. Biology had never been her strongest science, however, and she wanted to be sure of the theory. Under a pseudonym, she entered into an anonymous correspondence with the publishing journal’s editor, to clarify the implications of and uses for mitosis. These were never published due to other, incriminating content.

Rigantona observed that the daughter of the king behaved strangely toward Cloten when introduced. One day in the palace, a young man approached Rigantona and introduced himself. His name was Posthumus Leonatus, ward of Cymbeline since birth. He was interested in the sciences, was an excellent fencer and had a Roman manservant named Pisanio. He was Cloten’s complement and mirror in every way. Rigantona had been patient long enough not to unleash her throng of questions; she smiled and tongued the backs of her teeth and skimmed her insights from the surface. The princess, when she joined them, had trouble meeting her eye.

Lady Imogen described how she and her companion snuck into the exhibit room and approached the device. She could not recall who set off the generator, only that its energy arced toward the two of them, and they were both knocked unconscious. Rigantona took care to describe the fail-safes against electrocution in the generator; it had to be touched to complete a circuit. The princess could only describe pain, and blacking out. Posthumus did not remember the incident or the hours surrounding it, nor was he, the favored double, granted any dreams.

 *

Phosphorics: Developed by Lusitanian chemical engineer Rhetogenes after observing bioluminescent phytoplankton on the beach northwest of Olisipo. Installed in the Londinium Pallas to accommodate concerns about the exhibition’s electrical grid. Phosphorics rely on alternative energy sources (often solar) to provide light, operating independently of generator systems. Though not widely touted to the public, given the high cost of production, they were repeatedly lauded to certain investors, even in conversations unrelated to Rigantona’s Circe device.

The inclusion of phosphorics in Pallas renovations was a late concession to skeptics among the curatorial cohort concerned about infrastructure. The earliest objections were not specific to the Circe device, but Rigantona perceived that the most conservative estimates of the grid’s capacity came from individuals threatened by economic independence from Rome. When the Circe device was admitted to the exhibition, further objections arose regarding safety risks to attendees and neighborhoods. Rigantona again rejected the notion that interested observers might visit her work at a safe distance from the city and the other machines, insisting that the Circe device would serve and inspire all Britons, not just a limited set. Rufus Sergius made the peace offering, suggesting the curators address perceived hazards with thoroughly vetted fallback measures.

When the Pallas went dark, as every engine sighed, as every running gear stuttered and spun and choked, the phosphorics woke up, pouring flickering green-blue light from the walls. Rigantona was already marching when they came on. Her feet knew the shortest way to her exhibit room; she didn’t need eyes, any more than she needed doubt, shock or fear. Guards with swinging lanterns, only set one or two to a wing, called to each other in panic. Rigantona balled her fists, thinking only of names: Sediacus, nephew to a senator; Audagus, who oversaw the shipping docks; Iudocus, a busybody easily bought; Veloriga, professor of state-approved theories.

The wailing began abruptly, so inhuman she wondered if the zoological park was at fault. The sound ricocheted over all the metal surfaces. Shapes flickered in and out of sight, shadows and figures and reflections. She hurried faster, angriest now at the inelegance of the sabotage. The phosphoric light undulated as if she cut through still water.

In the room where her device lived, all she found was a boy, naked and huddled into a corner. He shrieked at her, nothing but thin shoulders, a mess of hair, quaking knees. She trapped him against the wall him and demanded his name. He tried to bolt past her, clamoring toward the corridor, but she grabbed his wrist. It was then that something inside her lurched: his skin was soft as a newborn’s. She yanked him toward her again. “Wait, come back, wait for me!” he screamed, still writhing and pulling away. Who would send such a thing against her? Who sought to bring her down with only this? “That’s not me, that’s not me,” he keened. She stared at him, and the dark, quiet generator. Where was the catch?

 *

Rufus Sergius: Former curatorial sub-liaison for manufacturing and industry for the XXIV Minervan Exposition. Middle son of a wealthy Roman British family; his grandmother married an admiral of Julius Caesar’s navy. Assigned as Rigantona’s handler, a fruitful relationship for them both. Lead curator of the present exhibition.

Latin and local newspapers loved Rigantona; they all praised her common touch. Packed rooms and worldly individuals fell to her with equal ardor. The public loved her for her belief in them. “Science,” she declared in a widely published quote, “is neither too mysterious for you to understand nor too obscure to relate to your life.” She made good on her proclamation, holding frequent lectures and workshops, free to all comers, on a host of topics, from physics to anatomy to the mathematics of music. When Rigantona came to Sergius with these ideas—the workshops, the collaborations, the columns in the dailies—he opened doors, and knocked on many more. She was a model public intellectual, and he was her modest and earnest advocate.

During the inquest into the Pallas calamity, he was not refused access to her quarters. Her rooms at Tincomarus Place were in ruins; all employees save the cook had been dismissed. “I will release no statement,” she said, as soon as he entered her study. Her eyes were bruises; her tattoos seemed to move of their own accord, caught up in her nervous, exhausted energy.

Sergius removed his hat and held it at his chest. “Your public feels betrayed.”

“They are not my public. I own them no more than does Caesar.”

“You gave your public the whole scope of your learning and understanding,” he said. “But you would not share that you have a son?”

Rigantona hooked an elbow around the back of her chair. She bowed her head. “I appreciate that this is a difficult situation for you.”

“Thank you. It certainly is.”

She rose from the chair and spread her hands. “But if you can just remain patient, if you can trust me, there is something that has happened, something so profound—”

“What leverage do we have?” If he’d been a man of a certain fashion, he’d have pounded a cane. Instead, he kept his voice steady. “All you can give them is your cooperation. That is all you have to offer anymore.”

Her eyes narrowed, her mouth thinned. “The courts have every piece of paper I’ve touched for the last two years. My work is impounded. I have testified as required—”

“A bare minimum, and little more.”

“I am busy,” she snapped. “I have another project.”

Sergius knew not to shout, or plead. “We want to see you rise above this,” he said. “The whole world wants to see you triumph, not slink away in disgrace.”

Rigantona approached him, and took his free hand. She made him meet her eye, as he knew she often did with investors, with proconsuls, even once with the king. “You must trust me. Do you trust me? Do you believe in me?” Sergius, in a moment of desperate, optimistic sentimentality, nodded. “This is temporary,” she said, and sent him on his way.

 *

Tancorix: Patroness, estate near Brocavium. Even though she lived far in the north, practically neighbors with the Roman-resisting Caledonii, she knew why Rigantona appeared on her doorstep, and welcomed the two exiles in.

Rigantona devised tests for the boy. She analyzed his skin, his hair, his reflexes, his stamina. She watched him play and cut into him with questions. She tried to map him on any plane she could. She monitored his diet and logged his vital signs. When he moaned and shrieked through the night, she recorded every discernible word until she could no longer bear the sounds.

Tancorix, a widow, had never had children in her estate. She battled Rigantona back, and took an interest in Cloten’s education. He had some math, and a little more letters, but reading and writing frustrated him into fits of temper. After some weeks, he came to Tancorix, shyly, and informed her he’d written a song. It was a ballad, musically engaging though lyrically stale, about a monster that turned into his mother in the dark.

The tests found Cloten perfectly ordinary in all anatomical senses. Though he was often fearful, exhausted, short-tempered and suspicious, he appeared sound enough in mind. Whatever his purpose, it was not yet realized, which required further deconstruction.

Rigantona accepted an invitation to dine alone with her hostess. Tancorix had a small table laid out for them. “He is a child, you know,” she said, sipping her wine. “He’s neither a bomb nor a spy.” Rigantona watched her, and made no answer. Tancorix sat back in her chair. “You focus on the wrong question, my dear. Is the more intriguing problem not why he is with us, but how?”

Later, Rigantona lay awake at night, listening for him, analyzing the tempo of his breathing, and wondered if it would stop, if some imperfection would betray him, hoping it would not.

 *

Zani: An imaginary servant and playmate of Cloten’s; an Italian-born Roman who had looked after him from infancy. Cloten had a large cast of imaginary companions, but he spoke most openly about Zani. In his earlier years, he was devoted to him. Later, he began to describe humiliating Zani with tricks or demands that he abase himself in his work. The frequency of these dynamics increased with greater exposure to anti-imperial education.

The year he was 12, Cloten dismissed Zani, claiming his presence was both oppressive and unethical. He swore he would never take him back, no matter how much he followed them or begged. Cloten experienced a spike in nightmares after he did away with Zani, but they abated quickly: he was beginning to drink with older boys in the towns, and though he came home ugly and combative, he regularly slept through the night.

Rigantona learned to pay attention to Cloten’s imaginary playmates. She often caught him holding long one-sided conversations. A very few times, he confessed that he spoke with a girl his own age whom he trusted more than anyone. To his great shame, he could not remember her name, only that she wore a belt with a tree on the clasp, and that she was hiding from him.

The daughter of Cymbeline mused on this in silence. She repeated a number of facts Rigantona had shared during their conversation, and circled back to the original night in question. “Could there have been another?” she asked. Did Rigantona see a girl fleeing the Pallas, as naked and disoriented as she had found Cloten?

“Oh, my dear lady.” Rigantona paused, and watched her. “The energy discharged by the device was immense,” she began.

“I see,” the princess said, and nodded to herself, surely confirming something she’d suspected all along. Rigantona asked whether that was why she’d come, and not to seek forgiveness at all. “I came,” the princess said, “because now I know I must find her.”

Rigantona had learned a great deal in seventeen years. She took the perpetrator’s hand in hers and told her she was forgiven all the same.

home | next: 05.01*

Hi, and thanks for reading! Got some feelings? I would love to hear your thoughts. All content © Esther Bergdahl, 2011–2012. Thanks again, and hope you enjoy!

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This entry was published on April 17, 2012 at 9:32 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.

4 thoughts on “Innogen and the Hungry Half: 08 – How fit his garments serve me

  1. Alexandra on said:

    Oh my. Oh dear. This was so lovely. I really like the structure, which keeps it from being a quote-heavy exposition dump. I also was not expecting the two turns at the end AT ALL (the first being the possibility of another double, the second being, well, Rigantona’s immense heart). <3333

    • I cannot begin to tell you how thrilled your comment makes me. Thank you! I struggled with the structure of this chapter for a long time — the exposition-dump seemed like my only option for many weeks, so I’m glad the lexicon style works so well. And I’m glad the twists worked for you too!

  2. kenna on said:

    Hnnnnng WHAT. Oh my goodness. Esther, I love this so much. I am so so happy to see another chapter! The lexicon style worked for me as well, although I would also like to see (were you to revise) what would happen with brief moments of present-tense storytelling in between the lexicons. Ie, we get an entry, and then we get a brief few sentences of Rigantona or Imogen speaking some feelings or some facts about what we just read. I think it might circle us back to the conversation itself a little more, and imbue it with the high stakes that it has. (Also: another double WHAT I was not expecting this either and everything just ratcheted up so much for me!)

    • Thank you so much! I’m glad you’re as thrilled to see it back as I am. You know, I went through about six drafts trying to alternate present Imogen-Rigantona interactions and backstory, and in the end, I couldn’t make it do what I wanted the chapter to do in a way that satisfied me. There’s some of it laced into the entries, and I think without a, er, three-month gap between posting chapters, the stakes might feel higher. Also, this is basically a straight-up pastiche of Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavic, and I really wanted to stick with that format. But I’m delighted you enjoyed the ratcheting! I’m pretty excited about everything that we’re in store for.

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