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.”

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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!

Innogen and the Hungry Half: 02 – To th’field, to th’field

Previously: Photoplate wizardry, novelty waffles, a boy named Posthumus, tiny automatons, revolts in Illyria and a public demonstration.

My nursemaid was the second person to hold me, after the midwife and before my mother. Dorothy needs only a glance — at my poorly made bed, my bramble of hair, my correspondence in its neat stack — to sigh from the doorway and insist again that I should never have gone to the exhibition palace. The dawn chorus is finally underway; my blood will hum all morning. Dorothy arms herself with a brush and takes up her post behind my seat.

“You knew it would give you bad dreams.” She cards out a knot. “And don’t tell me Posthumus needed you there that much.” She sighs again, pointedly. “Imogen, your nails are full of ink.” Still, she pets me on the crown of my head.

“That’s what gloves are for.” I study myself in the mirror: a little powder should mask the bruised eyes. “Varinia will never know better.”

Dorothy focuses on a section of hair. “Is that who you’re seeing today?”

“Among others.”

“Then we’ll plan accordingly.”

When Helen arrives with my schedule and the morning papers, I am ensconced in my dress, with my hair bound up after Rome’s latest fashion. I’ve gone through half a pitcher of water, and feel armored against the day. “Iudocus has sent me three messages since dinnertime,” Helen huffs. “That man should be old enough to know a little patience.”

She hands me the stack of dailies, two in Latin and one in Briton. “I suppose he wants to meet as soon as possible.” I scan the headlines. Price of cattle rising. Fire at the docks contained. Trial opens on famous murder in Herculaneum. “Has he been clearer with his reasons?”

“Isn’t his urgency reason enough?” Helen runs a pencil over my schedule. “I’ve cleared your morning, as you asked. Varinia at one o’clock, Brisius at three about the proposed public bath, the Iceni caucus at four to line up support for the currency measure, a few minutes with Larcius Saturninus to check in on the census, and dinner with Rigantona starts at seven, so we’ll return no later than six.”

“Brisius does not want the bathhouse, correct?”

“Yes; it clips the site of a sacred grove, and the Romans are making no allowances.”

“I see.” Dorothy hands me a pair of earrings: lapis drops, a gift from the praetor of Lutetia. She sets out another box, a gold necklace smithed at Durobrivae. “How about the studs from Leucomagus, to change into?” She nods and sets off to find them.

With a knock, Posthumus ventures in, dressed for the master of the yard. Dorothy sighs again, and Helen engages herself with her notes. Posthumus’s shoulders go looser. “You’re looking better.”

“A good night’s sleep will work wonders” is what I say, before I lean to look around him. “Good morning, Pisanio!” Posthumus’s manservant steps in from the hall, holding his hat. He brought the newborn Posthumus to us as a marooned boy of twenty; I don’t believe they’ve spent a day apart since.

Posthumus nods at my array of hairpins and jewelry. “Another day at the front?”

I can only gesture back. “And for you as well, it seems.”

He laughs. “Fencing this morning.”

I lean on my elbows. “Will you need that, when you have found your trade?”

Posthumus shrugs. “One never knows. I hear scientists are a ruthless sort. Speaking of which.” He digs into a pocket, and produces the butterfly from yesterday’s event. I glance at Helen, whose mouth twitches. Its wings have been straightened, and its legs hang at their intended angles. “I thought you might want this, for your dinner tonight.”

Away from the crowds and the machines, it’s innocuous, even charming. He has repaired it expertly. My stomach clenches, but it passes, and I smile at him. “She’ll surely want to meet the man who brought it back to life.”

“Oh, it doesn’t work, not like it did at the demonstration.” He points to its underside. “It’s just a fancy toy when it’s away from her signaling device. But I do have questions about how she did it. The engineering is very fine for something she just gives away.” He holds out his hand. “If you’re able to arrange some time with her, of course I wouldn’t object.”

“You’re very devious.”

“Devious and well-intentioned.”

I pick the butterfly up by its wing and set it by the mirror. “I’ll see what I can do.”

He looks to Dorothy, who is still giving him meaningful glares. “I don’t want to make the arms-master wait.” His fingers brush the edge of my vanity. “I’m glad you’re feeling better.”

He excuses himself, and Pisanio shuts the door behind them. Dorothy scoops up today’s necklace with some force. “It’s not his fault I went,” I remind her.

“Then I will blame Varinia,” she announces, and drapes the necklace at my throat.

I watch her in the mirror, unable to keep from smiling. She’ll forgive him by tomorrow. “And I’m not to blame in the slightest?”

She pats my cheek. “Posthumus may think the world of you,” she says, “but yes, I know you’re still foolish.”

*

When Dr. Cornelius opens his door, his face falls. “My lady Imogen! I wasn’t—is something wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong.” I peer down the short stairs to his basement laboratory. “May we come in?”

“Please, please!” He steps back, nodding to Helen and me, and rubs his palms together. “Apologies, my lady. Your father is due at the hour, and I find myself a little jumpy.”

“I know. I don’t want to take up too much of your time.” His ceiling is low, and as crowded with instruments and artifacts as the rest of his space. I sidestep a pile of folders marked Peer Review!!! “Why is the king coming to see you?”

Dr. Cornelius hesitates. “I’m a scientist, madame. I don’t… I don’t want to somehow play a side.”

I fold my hands, a pantomime of demureness. “You needn’t worry, doctor. I’m here on a personal matter.”

He seems unsure whether to look relieved or not. Dr. Cornelius came to us from the most distinguished societies in Alexandria, before which he’d been the brightest young biologist in Libya. By the time he arrived in Britain, in need of a patron, he believed he’d failed to live up to his promise. Dr. Cornelius advises the king on scientific matters, while the king funds his research, the shape of which seems Protean. At present, it involves open tubs of briny water, and a half-finished dissection somewhere close by.

He looks somewhat shyly toward the mess. “How may I help you? If you don’t mind, I still need to straighten up a bit.”

We follow him, ducking away from rows of swinging lamps. “I assume you’ve heard of Rigantona.”

“The prodigy? Who hasn’t?” He shakes his head. “Her treatise on EM fields is a classic. In Egypt, we thought she was wasted in Britain.”

We stop at a group of barrels near the door to his hothouse. The glass panes are foggy and, at the corners, green. “Have you seen her show at the Pallas?”

“Not yet,” he says ruefully, his back to us, “but I’ve heard it’s worth the ticket.”

“I know this is supposed to be some sort of comeback for her.” Dr. Cornelius pauses, lid in hand, before setting it aside. I press on. “Why is that?”

“Oh.” His eyes wander. “That’s some very old gossip.” He reaches for a pair of elbow-length rubber gloves draped over the back of a chair. “She presented a very exciting bit of tech that time. A converter of some sort, energy into units of matter and back to energy again.”

Helen snorts, then catches herself. My eyebrows crook up. Dr. Cornelius smiles as he buries his hands in his gloves. “That’s what we all said, but she made it happen, and the math seemed to check out. It wasn’t intended for everyday use, mind you — it was an industrial-grade device. I think she meant it to make Britain more self-reliant.”

“Self-reliant?” Helen glances at me.

Dr. Cornelius plunges one arm into a barrel, working at something stuck to the side. “She’s very patriotic,” he says uncertainly. “No idea too big for her, that was the reputation. Ah!” He pulls up a bright red starfish, as large as his hand. It’s grossly lopsided, one pair of arms far bigger than its others. He examines the underside, his brow knitted.

“What happened?” Dr. Cornelius looks up at me, blinking. “After the exhibition?”

“Oh! I wasn’t there, but everyone read about it.” He cradles the starfish between his fingers. “The evening before the closing day, her device broke down. It shorted out the entire hall.”

I have dreamed that. Dr. Cornelius gesticulates with the starfish, oblivious. “There was an investigation and all sorts of unpleasantness. Obviously the machine was unsafe.”

“I see.” Sleeplessness has numbed me; I file this away, and my knees hold for me. “And this is a matter of public record?”

“I don’t know what is and what isn’t.” Dr. Cornelius tips the starfish back into its barrel. “But to you, my lady, I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be open.” He rifles through his supplies until he finds a bucket, and heads toward the dissected animal on a table nearby — another starfish. The smell keeps me at bay.

“What is all this, doctor?”

For the first time, Dr. Cornelius lights up. “This is a most amazing creature, my lady. In the center — come look! There is a disc—”

“Cornelius!” my father booms from the front door. “Didn’t you hear us?”

When his uncle’s heart finally broke, years after surrendering to the Romans, or so one narrative claims, Cymbeline became king over Britain. My father is equal parts imperiousness and practicality, and does not hate what the Romans can give him. He extends this attitude to all things in life, including my marriageability.

“Ah,” he says, as he strides ahead of his entourage. “I see my daughter was distracting you.”

Dr. Cornelius sets his bucket down with a clank. The dead air stagnates; I step in. “My lord, Dr. Cornelius was indulging my curiosity.” He glances at me, and I smile. “I was hoping he’d explain some things I saw at the exhibition, which he has more than adequately performed.”

My father grunts. “We are here on the same mission, then. I’m to meet with an inventor tonight, Cornelius. I’d like to not sound stupid when she talks about her wares.”

Dr. Cornelius finally shuffles forward, still gloved. “I am no engineer, your majesty, but I can endeavor to outline the principles, if I can.”

“That’s why we keep you,” my father says, dryly, and Dr. Cornelius barks an uncomfortable laugh.

I want more. I want names and contacts and leads, but we are as good as no longer in the room. The king’s advisors murmur among themselves. My father begins interrogating Dr. Cornelius about wireless theory. I have time, and other means. Helen and I show ourselves out.

*

“Oh, I love your necklace.” Varinia holds me by the shoulders to admire it. “So charming,” she purrs. “One of your local artisans?”

I finger the chain, a twist of gold bearing a wide pendant. “Out of Durobrivae.”

“Just lovely.” She slips her arm through mine and steers us through the park. “Italy can be so narrow-minded about the provinces. It’s just suffocating. There’s so much ingenuity in the empire.”

We are an uncommon sight, a princess of Britain strolling with a quaestor of Rome, and I believe Varinia likes it that way. Her official function is one of financial oversight, which sends her to new parts of the empire as often as she likes. I’ve always admired her: she wields her knowledge of money with all the cunning of a king. She first passed through Londinium when I was bored and restless and fourteen. My father has never forgiven her for my abiding hunger for statecraft.

Since her last circuit through Britain, Varinia has picked up the henna fad sweeping Thrace. Her hair flames and sparks in the sunlight, to great advantage. “How is your father? He hasn’t tried to marry you off to anyone horrid lately, has he?”

“Not since Morcant was caught selling favors to fund his vanity press.”

“It shouldn’t have mattered, if only the books were good.” She smirks. “I hope we shall always be friends, Imogen.”

“I trust you to stay careful enough to keep it that way.”

“A high honor!” Varinia chuckles. “I’m glad you’re being sensible about this, even if the wait is long. Pick a man who devotes himself to you, my dear. Only then will I be certain this country is in good hands.”

“You speak lightly of our future king,” I deadpan.

“If you might rule through him, you may as well also be happy.” She thins her lips. “You must be so bored of marriage talk. I’m sorry to bring it up; I have futures on my mind.” She looks me in the eye. “It’s actually why I was so eager to see you. You have as good a measure as any on the mood of Britain.”

Generally Varinia is either blunt or coy; her earnestness throws me. I frown and stare ahead of us. The protestors at the Pallas spring to mind. “Is this about Illyria?” I ask quietly.

She rolls her shoulders. “You know how it is — one province sees another act up, and not to follow suit is to admit weakness, while Rome overextends herself.”

“Such is the trouble with vassal kings.”

“I’m not being condescending, Imogen.”

“My father is independent, but he’s also loyal. You know how he fought to have the exhibition here. We’ve earned our goodwill.”

“Nonetheless, Caesar’s armies are in Dalmatia and Pannonia, laying waste.”

I say nothing for a few minutes. “Who says Rome is overextended, the politicians or the soldiers?”

“It doesn’t matter who said it, now that people have heard it.” Varinia stops and leans close. “Imogen, your father is a good king. He rules with a strong hand, and I am more than certain he could keep his chieftains in line, should there be any trouble.”

I watch the passersby over her shoulder; a few glance our way, though not for long. “But?”

“By the time the king bullies his way to unity, the idea will be in every public house and private home in Britain, and that is hard to control.” Her focus on my face is intense. “You are quiet. You are discreet. And you could be as strong a hand as he is.”

I huff in disbelief. “Should I ready myself for a coup?”

She lays her hand on my arm. “I am saying you must do everything in your power to keep things from getting that far.” She begins to walk again, and I fall in step beside her. “The Illyrians broke the Pax by refusing to pay their tribute. It started earlier than that, though. There is a process that leads to such an act.”

Does she know? Has word of Rigantona’s court visit raised some flag for Varinia? Rigantona, pro-independence and clarissima femina. Why should my father be so susceptible? I smooth out the backs of my gloves. “I have questions for you, and will likely have more after tonight. How long will you be here?”

Varinia finally smiles again. “Name the time, pet. My visit is short, but it need not be that short. We can meet somewhere private.” She makes a show of taking in the sights, the stately gardens and finely dressed parties around us. “Such a lovely spot.”

It’s hard not to imagine this moment as something that passes, and that someday it will be a touchstone for something that I’ve lost. But the park is so orderly, between the statues and the paths and the fountains, and I let myself feel comfortable. There will be other days like this one. I am fortunate in my constants.

“Yes,” I say to her. “It is.”

*

Dorothy helps me change into my eveningwear. She asks who I’ve talked to, what was decided, how I accomplished my works, while she buttons me up and teases out my pins. Making my answers keeps me still and focused for her, a trick she’s used since I was in braids. In the quiet of my bedroom, I can feel my thoughts arrange themselves and settle. The census, the public bath and the letters I must answer go quiet. Rigantona keeps me busy: I will need to make some lists. Dr. Cornelius and his account of the closing night nip at my heels, but I am able to set them aside. When Dorothy finishes me, I am perfectly composed. I flick the edge of the mechanical butterfly’s wing, but leave my chamber without it.

There is a little time yet before I must be at dinner. I will need some conversation after, and Posthumus will want fresh details. I find Pisanio near the foyer, blacking boots in a side room. Once, when we were young enough for loose teeth, Posthumus and I begged to help him, and emerged from our labor pied with grease. Pisanio sets his work aside and rises. I gesture toward the boots. “How was fencing?”

He dips his head. “You know Posthumus, my lady. Exemplary by every standard.”

“You will swell his head, Pisanio.”

His mouth twitches. “Then I suppose we must keep you around.”

I lean against the doorframe. “What are his plans for this evening?”

“He said he would have dinner in his room, then he’d be there studying some texts, I believe.”

“But he’ll be in his room when the king has concluded our dinner?”

“He should be, my lady. His word is his bond.”

I thank him, and he bows and picks up his brush again. The front hall is a short walk, but I nonetheless feel myself putting on my armor: my shoulders back, my gait long, my expression calm and pleased. When I turn the last corner, the foyer opens up before me. Posthumus stands in the center of it, his back turned, craning his neck. He’s dressed for a court dinner; perhaps he managed to wheedle an invitation.

I’m glad of it. These dinners are my father’s domain. The company will be good, even if we must pass the evening as attentive, unspeaking subjects. We can laugh about it later, and dissect the talk. I stop just behind him. “Are you coming after all?”

He turns and blinks at me. He’s forgotten his glasses. But he’s not so vain that he’d forgo seeing Rigantona. A stranger’s smile snakes across his face. “I’ll come if you are,” he says, and the smile shifts into a leer. “Did you mean dinner with the king or something better?”

Something in my blood starts to hum. “Posthumus?”

“Is that a joke?” He wrinkles his nose. “Very much alive, if you want to find out.”

That is not Posthumus.

“There you are!” Rigantona emerges from a sitting room, splendid in a plum-and-copper gown. She waves the stranger toward her. “Come, we’re sitting down!”

This isn’t Posthumus. Posthumus is in his room. This man begins to walk away; he moves like Posthumus, but he doesn’t. The way he moves is wrong.

Rigantona notices me. “Stop!” she hisses to the stranger, and she sweeps across the floor to greet me. She fills my vision; I can hardly focus on her. “You must be Imogen,” she says, plainly sincere. Each word makes sense by itself, but the string of them baffles me. “I’ve been longing to meet you. I’m so glad we have the opportunity tonight. And I see you’ve just met Cloten.”

“Cloten?” I repeat, faintly.

“Yes.” Behind her, Cloten slouches and fiddles with a cufflink. My ribs grip me tight as I watch him. Rigantona smiles. “Yes, this is my son.”

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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!

Just like a corgi on a whale-watching boat

Confession time: I’m not sure what’s going to happen next week.

Sorry, that’s a bit of a fake-out. I know where Innogen is going. I’m just not certain how it’s going to get done. See, this has been an odd month for me; there have been a lot of holidays at work, and several times now I’ve had the luxury of spending four straight days pounding out a draft or gnawing away at notes or obsessively line-editing. But that’s all in the past now: my next weekday break will be Thanksgiving, which presents its own delights and challenges. (I get to see my parents! My dog! My nieces from Seattle! I… don’t know when I’ll have two minutes to myself!)

There’s time yet to set up a routine, as I tell myself, and that’s my goal for the coming month. If I can cut out my Tuesday activity (obsessively checking stats after posting a new installment) and replace it with planning and outlining, that means three or four days for drafting and two or three days for honing. One thing I admire about web comic creators is their ability to produce on a consistent — and quick — schedule. That’s discipline. Fingers crossed, I can follow their example.

Second confession: I am so grateful and thrilled and overwhelmed at the response to the first chapter of Innogen and the Hungry Half. To all who have read, and commented, and contacted me over Twitter and email and Tumblr, thank you. I can’t tell you how much your words mean to me. To those who have shared this story with your friends, loved ones and readerships, my undying gratitude! There will be more — if you’re digging the story, please keep spreading the word. (If you’d like to recommend this story to your network of choice, please know that it is one of several ways straight to my heart. I so appreciate any and all word of mouth. If you don’t like it, tell your enemies!)

“Not imagined, felt” was a big day for Imogen and co. (For the curious, this is the source of the chapter title.) Here’s a hint at what’s coming for her next.

One song

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about Aaron Sorkin. I’m stealing some key components of this story from The West Wing, and recently had the revelation that if Imogen is a much politer Josh Lyman, then Posthumus is clearly Donna Moss. That pleased me. But my first Sorkin show was Studio 60, and early in that run, Matt Albie, head (and sole) writer of a 90-minute comedy revue, realizes he has to repeat his feat every week. At first it’s exciting. Then he turns to pills and self-pity.

Maybe I shouldn’t think about Studio 60 right now.

Two links
This was not intentional, but it’s been a heck of a week to do searches on Libya. I poked around and found a stunning slideshow of Roman ruins in the old city of Leptis Magna. They were published in the context of whether they might survive the war for independence, which has just taken a rather stunning turn with Gaddafi’s death.

In less charged news, I’ve been learning a lot about starfish lately — including the fact that we’re supposed to call them sea stars, as they’re not fish. Either way… just saying.

Three lines

Dr. Cornelius advises the king on scientific matters, while the king funds his research, the shape of which seems Protean. At present, it involves open tubs of briny water, and a half-finished dissection somewhere close by. He looks somewhat shyly toward the mess.

Yes, I had to dissect starfish/sea stars in high school biology. My teacher didn’t give us any directions: we just came into the classroom and there they all were in a bucket, waiting for us. I made a complete hash of it, and felt awful for years after that I had turned what had formerly been a living, eating, probably sentient creature into an indiscriminate pile of mush.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these teasers. Come back Tuesday to see what they all mean!

Hi! You don’t have to know anything about steampunk or Cymbeline to enjoy Innogen and the Hungry Half, though of course, if you’d like to read the play, MIT has the full text available for free online. For a lighter, quick summary, you can watch the short video linked at the bottom of this post. I assure you the original text is exactly that ridiculous, wonderful and strange.

Innogen and the Hungry Half: 01 – Not imagined, felt

My father, my dead mother and my two kidnapped brothers stare down at me from the exhibit stall. The Truth Is No Prisoner To Time! proclaims the signage that wreathes them. Dr. Dodson’s Photoplate Wizardry Unlocks The Secret Of Aging!

“Imogen?” Posthumus elbows his way through the crowds to my side. A paper cone full of waffles occupies his hands; pamphlets peep out from his pockets, along with his gloves. He looks to Dr. Dodson’s display. “That seems a bit crass.”

The false photographs are a towering act of imagination. Toddlers have become grown princes at Dr. Dodson’s hand. Have You Seen These Men? Find Lost Loved Ones Among Us! reads one placard; another, Gaze Into The Future, Recreate The Past—See Yourself At Any Age! My likeness has been placed next to the supposed face of Arviragus, my immediate elder. His doctored image borrows generously from mine, for the resemblance is certainly striking. My mother glows; they have used her wedding portrait, specially photographed to send to Augustus Caesar. My father looks pugnacious and regal, as befits a king of the Britons. I shake my head at the waffles Posthumus offers, but glance back at the pictures. “I am not entirely convinced.”

He pushes his spectacles up his nose. “It’s very clever, though, how they’ve done the manipulations.”

“Have you found your profession, then?”

Posthumus smiles and bows his head. “You see me through. I wish to make my name among the ranks of forgers, and all the Empire will fall before me.”

We are in public; I cannot nudge him. “You’d never have known if you hadn’t come.”

“Look who’s talking.” He pulls one of the waffles from his cone, already translucent with grease. “I told you it wouldn’t be so bad here.”

For my part, I am still reserving that answer. Posthumus has been eager for the Minervan Exposition since we learned it would come to Londinium, after an absence of seventeen years. It is a reward for good behavior, one which has already benefitted Belgica, Hispania and Gaul many times over. With the Minervan Exposition come the eyes of the world, along with industry, infrastructure and diplomatic generosity. Britain is still a far edge of the empire; my father considers this quite the coup.

Posthumus loves the machines. All the greatest inventors of the age flock here, to flaunt their wares and creations. It is, as we say in speeches and print, a testament to the ingenuity of our fair isle, to stand alongside the greatness of the continent as equals. Though he has been raised alongside me, Posthumus is the poorest sort of gentleman: an orphan, of Roman and British extraction, and one who has only his good name to support him. He seeks his own way, hoping to use both his intellect and his hands. Here, he is eager as a child at the circus.

The Minervan Exposition fills me with unease. Each device seems an opportunity for something horrible to come of it. I never felt this way as a girl, but since the last time we hosted the imperial fair, few have been my nightmares without some unknowable contraption at their core. Still, I am not here for the machines. I put the doctored family portrait at my back. “Isn’t that demonstration soon?”

“Yes, at three.” Posthumus searches the wall until he finds a clock. “We should hurry! It’s bound to be crowded.”

I check over my shoulder for Helen, my aide. She nods as we make eye contact, and we set off, Helen a few innocuous paces behind us. “I’ve heard Rigantona’s a show-stopper,” Posthumus remarks. A daub of powdered sugar sits at the corner of his lips.

“So you’ve mentioned, several times.”

“Don’t parry me, Imogen. I know you’re interested. Remind me again when she’ll be dining at court.”

“Tomorrow,” I say, and he smiles. “I must line up my compliments!” I insist, and he smirks. I tug at my gloves. “It would not do to meet her unprepared.”

“She’s not a hapless chieftain to cow into voting your way.” He bites into another waffle. “I only wonder why you left it so late.”

“Likewise. You might have come here without me.”

“Some things are best enjoyed shared,” he says archly.

Commensurate with the interest she generates, this Rigantona has a hall far at the back of the exhibition palace. A separate ticket must be purchased to witness her works. The bustle hides us; we pass through the crowds unheeded, as Britons and Romans alike enjoy our latest technical feats. One woman has built a miniature model of a purification system that produces, from the sewers, potable water crisper and fresher than an aquifer’s. Next to the thunderous cooling-bellows which keep the palace bearable is a freestanding room which, if the signs are credible, admits no sound from outside. A Greek fellow with a red cap keeps watch over a table of small automatons; as we pass, one is inking names on scraps of parchment.

Above us, room by room, the watchful gods stand sentry: Ceres over the threshers and catalogs of seeds, Mars by the repeating rifles and plumed helmets, Vulcan with the beaten brass friezes and flickering praxinoscopes. Perched on high, covering every corner, sits proud Minerva herself, her owls adorning all the columns and lampposts. Past her, clouds rush overhead. When this place was new, I loved the greenhouse ceiling crowning it, the iron and glass mosaic mirroring the tiles at our feet. The palace has cleaned up well, after so many years vacant. Every few steps, until I unclench my jaw, I skirt the sensation that I am eight again.

The crowd is thick at the far hall, even with twenty minutes to spare. Flanking the doors stand two canvas banners, hand-painted in a brazenly native style. WIRELESS DEVICES: ON THEIR POWERS AND APPLICATIONS; AN ADVANTAGE FOR AND OF BRITAIN. Beneath this is her name, Rigantona, clarissima femina. I could scoff, but from what I know of her, she is a distinguished woman. The last exposition adored her, and Posthumus has keenly followed talk of her comeback.

Posthumus searches over the hats and heads in the foyer, but the doors aren’t open yet. He sighs, his paper cone empty and crumpled in his hand. I can’t resist how wide open he leaves himself. “Someday you’ll be good at hurry up and wait.” Yet even as I say it, my smile falls away. “Oh no.” Posthumus has enough time to knit his brow; then Iudocus, the chieftain from Sulloniacis, corners us.

“My dear Lady Imogen!” He plucks off his bowler. His drooping mustache flaps as he speaks. “What an excellent surprise.” I have no choice but to wish him well. In an instant, Helen is at my shoulder; I touch her elbow, and she lets us continue. Posthumus I know has melted away — presumably in search of a trash bin, but in truth, he never associates with me when I am on business. Without privacy or anonymity, we are separate. I marvel at whatever gift allows him to become so invisible when he is so very tall.

“I have been meaning to make an appointment with you,” says Iudocus, leaning close. His face is quite red above his collar. “Have you heard the news from Illyria?”

“My lord, while I welcome your company, I’m here as a matter of leisure today.” I stand my ground, but in his attempt to be discreet, Iudocus crowds me just enough to lose my goodwill.

“Quite so, quite so.” His eyes dart around us. “But surely your father the King will have some statement soon.”

I must cut him off. “You know quite well that no one has my father’s ear. What is it you hope I can do for you, sir?”

“You have your channels, my lady.” He shifts his weight. “My people are asking questions. It’s almost unthinkable, rebellion! Against the Romans?”

“Indeed it is, and I appreciate your concern. If I may refer you to Helen, she is the proper channel through which to initiate such a discussion.” He stammers as I excuse myself.

“There hasn’t been more, has there?” Helen murmurs. “Other than Dalmatia and Pannonia?”

“No.” But my father knows of it. He doesn’t seek my counsel, but I have come upon him pouring over maps and telegraphs. The Dalmatians and Pannonians have refused to pay Rome the tribute that is the price of their peace. I must wonder which people Iudocus means who are so concerned. Today we passed a cluster of sign-wavers standing in solidarity within sight of the gates. Some centurion surely made certain those signs were properly disposed of. Far more often such sentiment stays in the public houses, where Cassibelan’s surrender to Julius Caesar moves those deep in their cups.

Posthumus reappears, and Helen hands us both our tickets. At last, the doors swing outward. “Here we go.” Posthumus wags his eyebrows and shoots me a giddy grin.

We swarm into an auditorium, standing room only. The stage glows under a warm, rich light. I almost expect a puppet show or a masque, though the backdrop illustrates the basic principles of waveforms, rather than a pastoral scene. We are not close to the front, but once I am recognized, a few individuals tuck their elbows in, and though I am not so lanky as Posthumus, I have a clear view of the proceedings. Three tables, all on wheels, stand ready at center stage. One holds an array of simple devices, but sheets conceal whatever sits on the other two.

Something in my chest floods me with a chill; I cannot say why. The thrum of the crowd suggests nothing sinister. I take a steadying breath and catch Posthumus’s eye. “In your professional estimation, what do you suppose that could be?”

He glances over the tops of his spectacles and shrugs. “If I’m to be a professional at this, you’ll have to help me.”

His cheek warms me a little. “And here I was about to suggest we approach the lady after her presentation.”

Posthumus laughs. “My ingratitude thwarts me again!”

A fanfare silences the room. From behind the velvet curtains steps Rufus Sergius, one of the curators of the exhibition. “Friends, ladies, gentlemen,” he booms. “It is both my great pleasure and distinct honor to introduce someone who, in truth, needs no introduction.” I glance at the faces in the crowd. Some are more rapt than others, but all are paying attention. Sergius is nearly beside himself. I wonder if he does this every day. “We are so proud to welcome her back so triumphantly to the Minervan Exposition. You may tell your grandchildren how today, you stood in a room with perhaps the greatest mind of our time. May I present to you Britain’s own Rigantona!”

As we applaud, a woman emerges from the wings. She walks with a straight back and an easy smile. A few enthusiasts whistle, perhaps at her high cheekbones and dark eyes. Even Posthumus remarks how he thought she’d look older. I would put her in her middle forties, and congratulate her for her handsomeness.

“My dear Sergius.” She presses her palm to her heart, as they do in the countryside. “Thank you for such kind words.” He bows from the waist and surrenders the floor. The room grows hushed but for the rustling of clothes. Some recollection scratches at the base of my neck, some impression too distant to place. Rigantona clasps her hands. “I will not waste your time: you have all bought your tickets and read the signs at the entrance. I come to you today to shed light on a great opportunity for our island.

“Britain is a rich country, in people and in arts. Our tradition of metalwork is a long and storied one. These very halls speak of our command of iron and bronze.” She nods toward her audience; I find myself watching her more closely. “What you will witness on this stage is entirely ours, from the coal that fueled the forges to the ore that makes the machine. It is my sincerest hope that you leave this room — and indeed, this exhibition itself — with a tenfold appreciation for our national genius.”

At a signal from Rigantona, a page emerges and pushes the uncovered table to the front of the stage. Rigantona begins a slow circuit of the floor. “Right now, the world runs on connection. From our roads to our aqueducts to the imperial network of cables, we are bound together with matter; we live tied to the solid.” She gives us all a knowing, significant look. “But is that life? The most vital connections come to us by speech, which cannot be touched, even if it can be felt.

“I propose a future cut like the Gordian knot. I believe progress means freeing us from the old modes.”

“Are you listening to this?” Helen whispers. I am still thinking on Rigantona’s gesture, and clarissima femina, and how I might place her accent.

Rigantona picks up a pair of boxes and hands one to the page. A long stem sways from the top of each; both stems ends in a light bulb. Rigantona crosses the stage and holds her box high. “This simple device contains a signaling mechanism that emits a wave, like the sound of your voice issuing a command. The other device contains a receiver. Observe the effect when I initiate the wave.”

She flips one of two switches on her box, and the filament at the end of her stem flares on, as it should. She flips the second, and fifteen feet away, untouched, the page’s bulb glows as well. The crowd applauds and murmurs as the page slowly turns his box, revealing no switches or trickery. “They must run on batteries,” Posthumus says. “Will she talk about that, I wonder?”

My eyes stay fixed on the stage. “We may ask her after if she does not.”

Rigantona smiles at us again and sets her box aside. “That is the most basic version of this phenomenon. Everything else is an elaboration. But we can work marvels when we’re freed of wires.” She gestures for the second table, which is brought forth. With a flourish, she reveals a tall glass chamber. She nods to the page, who ducks under the table. On a tier underneath sits a plump generator, perched below the tank. A foot of empty air gapes between its top and the table.

The page yanks a lever, and the whole room gasps. A multitude of shimmering butterflies surge into the glass chamber, their wings clattering against its walls. Rigantona lifts the lid and the butterflies pour out. Cries of alarm turn quickly to delight. Posthumus stretches high and snatches one midair. He laughs and slowly opens his fingers. “They’re mechanical!” He offers it to me; the contraption flutters gently on his palm, its wings stiff paper, its body intricate copper and circuits. When he tips it into my hand, it rights itself with delicate jointed legs.

Rigantona beams. “Keep them, with my compliments!” she calls over the hubbub. “Save one. Who among you caught a green moth?”

A hand shoots up at the back wall of the theater. Rigantona squints into the lights. “Stay right where you are, please. I’d like you to help me with this.” She beckons the page again, and he tugs the final table forward. I watch the covered devices with a sudden twist in my gut. The sound of the audience dies away: in that moment, all I know is how much I don’t want her to unveil that table.

Metal bites into my hand. I open a fist to find the butterfly’s wings crumpled. Posthumus is watching the stage. I tug at Helen’s sleeve; she furrows her brow, and I deposit the souvenir in her pocket.

Rigantona pulls back this cover with less art. Calmly, she lets the room see the wide bell of a gramophone. We watch, I stock-still and the rest enthralled, as she attends to the second machine, a small tower capped with a metal tube: her power source, freestanding. It begins to hum, and she approaches the edge of the stage again.

Dimly I hear her against the thrashing of my heart: “I’m going to ask you a question, madame. Do you have the moth in your hand still?” Everyone else turns: my eye is fixed on the generator. Rigantona smiles and clasps her hands again. “Now, when you answer my question, do not shout, but speak into your hand, to the moth. Ready? Madame, please, what is your favorite meal?”

Helen leans close. “Imogen?”

The generator shimmers. A film of mottled light distorts the air close above it. A terror seizes me; I reach out and grasp Posthumus by the hand. He frowns at me, startled, but his fingers close over mine.

“Roast suckling pig,” says a woman’s voice from the bell onstage. “Oh!”

The room erupts. Rigantona lifts her hands high, drinking in the torrent of cheers. Furious conversation burbles all around us. Above us, the green moth sails back to Rigantona’s shoulder; its wings are a jade epaulet.

Posthumus covers our hands with his own. I search his face, like a silly heroine from a penny dreadful. “I have to leave.” My voice has gone throaty, and unsteady as my knees.

Helen’s arm circles my waist. “Back to the palace, then.”

“You must stay,” I tell Posthumus. “I’m sure this is nothing. It’s so close in here.” He lets go of my hands.

“You’re never unwell.”

My face is finally hot again. “You mustn’t cut short—”

“I would rather come with you,” he says.

*

The nightmare comes more vividly than ever tonight: the maze of equipment, the fear of being found, the smell of ozone and axle grease, the crushing, uncertain quiet. Posthumus and I never stray from each other’s sight. We’re all ages; it never matters when we are.

The dream always ends in the storeroom. We find the machine, smooth and faceless and towering. We feel it thrumming through our feet. The sphere at its top shimmers. We never have any warning. A pearlescent glow engulfs the machine, and it lashes out at us. My vision whites out. I feel the wind sucked from my chest. I’m thrown to the ground. Before I can see, before I can feel my legs, I reach for Posthumus. I grab his wrist and haul us both to our feet.

We run, and never make it home. I never let go of Posthumus. Behind us, caught, his voice persists, screaming and crying out.

home | next: To th’field, to th’field

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!

Not entirely swanlike

I’m feeling a bit swanlike over here these days — not in the sense that I’m graceful, or secretly vicious and cranky, but in the sense of appearing to just float when in fact I’m furiously paddling. Is that swans? It might be ducks. As you can see, I’m consumed with big questions.

When I’m not banging my head against my outline for “Innogen and the Hungry Half,” I’m trying to come up with ways to provide background on the project for my readers. I don’t expect everyone coming in to know anything about Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare’s more obscure plays, and even I don’t have all the answers when it comes to explaining steampunk. True fact: for about five minutes at the end of college, when I was desperately grasping for some idea of a career to pursue, I thought I might be interested in dramaturgy. I sought out some theater internships, though the one I got was in New Works, which may have been right for me anyway. Anyway, I believe one of the responsibilities a storyteller has is to teach the audience about the story and how to read it. In the story itself, this comes from good world-building, but since this is the internet, I’m also kind of excited to put together some subject guides for the curious. (Anything that gets more people to read my secret favorite play!)

Some of this means to turning to my friends, who are a collective of riches in every respect. When I talk to people outside my general group about this story, I find that very few of them have heard of steampunk, probably because not everyone is, like me, on the internet for most of their waking hours. I could send them to Tor’s Steampunk Week page, which ends today, or the fantastic and fascinating Beyond Victoriana. I could try and ramble about pseudo-Victorian alternate histories and how the most interesting of these stories deconstruct and subvert power structures and conventions. Or I could go with one friend’s quip that steampunk is what happens when goths discover brown. In the end, I’m still learning myself, and while the decision to set “Innogen” in a steampunk universe is a conscious one, maybe I’d be better served writing that essay when the story is already out there.

These are the things I think about! I’m also in the process of trying to explain Cymbeline in a straightforward manner, because it’s one of Shakespeare’s most ridiculous, overwrought plots, and that’s partly why I adore it. Wikipedia actually has a fairly good rundown, but really, if you want to appreciate how gloriously convoluted this play is, take ten minutes with this fantastic video from The Geeky Blonde:

If you liked that, one of the reasons it’s been a bit quieter over here (other than my constant scheming about this story) is that I’ve been playing around with Tumblr and Twitter a little more. I am definitely looking for more ways to interact with people and share neat things I’ve found, so if you’ve got an account at either or both sites, I would love to hear from you. The Tumblr especially is a great adjunct to this site, because it’s such a great curatorial tool for finding nifty things around the web. Some of my favorites so far include street art from around the world, real airship hotels shaped like whales, real places that shouldn’t exist, one hundred years of fashion in 100 seconds and any number of stories I would like to read or write.

So yes, please keep in touch! Things are fairly churning behind the curtain, even if I’m mixing metaphors there, and you might even get some nifty Magpie & Whale goodies before they make it over here, if they do it at all. Hey, it’s happened before! Hope to see you around, lovelies. Esther signing off.

Tumblr: magpieandwhale.tumblr.com
Twitter: @magpiewhale

“But clay and clay differs in dignity / Whose dust is both alike.”

I’ve been moping for almost a month now about how I need a new project. The novels are nonstarters, the art is thwarting me and even my resolution to take advantage of Chicago’s cultural offerings hasn’t entirely stuck.

The solution is simple, then: conceive of something straightforward yet grandiose, announce it in front of the whole world, and commit to do it in full view of the public. I would like to try writing a serialized novella, and to post it on a regular schedule here. Since coming to this conclusion on Sunday evening, I’ve been riding the wave of joyous certainty that comes from having a project to plan. I’ve decided to attempt a story I meant to write but never did: a “fork,” if you will, of William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, set in a steampunk universe.

I’ve never written steampunk before. Truth be told, I haven’t read much either. But I’ve got about five pages of notes, as seen in the illustration above, and I’m ready for an adventure. The story is called “Innogen and the Hungry Half,” which I hope intrigues you, and keeps you coming back for more. Posts will go up at least once (and I’m hoping twice) a week, probably on Tuesdays and Fridays, and I very much hope it becomes a participatory experience. (Translation: I love to hear from you, hi!) You can always find me on Twitter (@magpiewhale), and you can also now follow me on Tumblr (magpieandwhale, shockingly). (I really love Tumblr; I had a post all planned about how cool it is, especially for a site with “magpie” in the title. Then, appropriately enough, I got a bit distracted.)

So that’s it! If you’re totally unfamiliar with Cymbeline, that shouldn’t be a problem with this story, as it takes place before the events of the play. If you’d like to read the play, MIT has the entire text available for free; it is an amazing, hilarious, over-the-top late romance, in which Shakespeare steals liberally from every play he’s written thus far and parodies quite a lot of it, I think. If you’d like a brief trailer to whet your appetite, Cheek By Jowl has very helpfully provided such a thing, featuring the love of my life (who incidentally plays Posthumus and Cloten), Tom Hiddleston.

This double casting of the two male leads is actually what spurred the idea for the story in the first place. I hope to have a lot of conversations about this stuff as this project moves along. For now, though, I’ll leave it here, along with a plea to recommend your favorite Tumblrs to follow — including, if you wish, your own! Happy Monday, folks, and see you shortly in fair Lud’s-town.