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

Silk embroidery depicting Penelope in scene from Homer's Odyssey

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. Continue reading “Innogen and the Hungry Half: 08 – How fit his garments serve me”

Innogen and the Hungry Half: 07 – The heavens must still work

Fractured reflection of old clock face

Previously: Out after bedtime; Sower Street; a ringing endorsement; pub crawling in the Roman Empire; he’s not his brother; haven’t I seen you before?; katabasis; corralling Cloten; a convenient exit; a confession; a convenient pipe; a confirmation.

That isn’t my perfume.

It colors everything—the smell of my sheets, the smoke in my hair, the stink of Sower Street still in my clothes. A newspaper rustles. Before the sound ends, I am rigid and upright in my bed.

“Calm down, my dove. Helen let me in.” Varinia doesn’t look up from her broadsheet. She fits precisely into my chair, ankles crossed. She has come in her traveling clothes, the long, tailored jacket spilling over the seat.

I yank my quilt up to my waist. “How long have you been here?”

“You obviously needed your rest.” She eyes me around the page—the Citizen Countryman, out of Durocortorum. The headlines swim. “I took the liberty of having your letters sent out.” She makes a show of folding the paper, the creases correct, just so. “What an exciting evening you had. Was he worth it?”

“You are completely out of line.” I fling back the covers, willing my panic not to show so drastically, and bolt for the nearest dressing gown, slung over a closet door.

“Your hair is so long now.” She’s smiling at me. I can hear it. “I can’t remember the last time I saw it down.”

My hands shake as I tie off the robe. “Can you remember when last you saw fit to trespass on my chambers?”

Her chair creaks; she’s leaning back. “I’m leaving Britain soon. I’ve missed you.”

Helen let her in. Dorothy didn’t wake me up. In my own bedroom, of all places. I face her, fists balled at my sides. “Is this one of the rights of a quaestor of Rome? To presume you understand how I weight my schedule?”

“Have you been seeing to business, then? I should love to hear of it; my work has been lacking in trifles these days.” Her voice goes harder. “I cannot imagine what outweighs the future of your own nation, but then, I am not so young as you are.”

My knuckles go white. “Do not insult me for my age. You never have before.”

“And you have always kept your appointments. But then, you are very like your father.” Some of that languid drawl seeps back into her voice. Cold shots hurtle up and down my spine. “I worry, Imogen, that I am telling you this, rather than the reverse.” She reaches into her jacket and offers me a piece of folded paper—treasury letterhead. “This came across my desk last night. Look and see what your father has authorized.”

The memo is short and formulaic. By order of Cymbeline, Rex Britannicus, funds heretofore allocated to the below subsidies and works are hereby redirected to defense.

Increases in military spending. Illyria took steps long before they broke the Pax. My cheeks color. “You know he’s negotiating to expand the Roman rails. As a show of good faith—”

“Imogen.” Varinia rises. Her silence demands my full attention. “Rigantona’s been spending time here. We know what she’s like, and what she believes.”

I wait to hear it, proprietary technology, the good of the empire, where is ours, but Varinia only crooks an eyebrow. “It is easy enough to start a war from a pillow,” she says, more carefully.

I breathe in, once, and hold out the memo with a small smile. “Virginity doesn’t make me stupid.” We must be friends, Varinia and I. She is too valuable to be otherwise.

She shakes her head. “I have copies. Do not let your father deny it.” She hooks her buttons through each hole, one by one. “I have every confidence in you, my swan. Trust me when I say this visit was a compliment.”

We embrace, and I inhale her perfume. “All the same,” I say, in the moment before we let go, “when you come back to Britain…”

“In the spring, I hope.”

I set my hands on her elbows. “Never come into my bedroom like that again.”

“If you invited me, I could never accept.” She winks, and kisses my cheek. “I’ll be in Lusitania for a month, then winter in Cyrenaica.” Her lips curl at the corners. “I’m only a telegram away. Please send word if you’re in danger of marrying Rigantona’s son.”

I clutch my stomach. “You would never say such a thing if you had met him.”

Helen is pacing outside my door, hugging one elbow, a knuckle to her lips. She snaps to attention, anxious, but I dispatch her and Varinia both with coolness and poise. Varinia glances at me over her shoulder; I shut the door and sink against it.

The room looks different to me, now that someone has intruded on it. Dorothy declined to wake me up. Helen chose to let Varinia in. I cannot be showing that much strain. I cannot require tending.

No one who knows this business could accuse me of being idle. Even so, I have been stalling; nothing else can rightly call itself preparation. In the quiet, I slip out of my dressing gown and shuck off last night’s disguise. No more skirting the matter. I must arm myself.

*

Dorothy pins my damp and scented hair, not at all hiding that she’s watching me in the mirror. I hold myself straight and still, looking over my vanity. The tabletop is a clutter of bottles, tins and notes, but only we will ever know that. I will look my part today: she will appreciate that. The dress of a local, highly regarded make; the necklace from Sorviodunum, Rigantona’s birthplace; the glass comb in peacock colors, a gift from Neapolis, shot through with gold teeth.

“I am only saying—” Dorothy begins.

My eyes flick up. “We are done with this.”

She adjusts a roll of hair. “It’s not that you’ve been straying, it’s that for you, all this—”

“I’m not a child, Dorothy. It’s not your place to mind me like this—”

“—you’re leaping out of a hot air balloon.” For a moment, we glare at each other’s reflections. Dorothy thins her lips. “You’re never like this, Imogen. You’ve always been so good.”

Lies have their uses, but the truth accomplishes more. I look away. “On the contrary, I think I am more myself than ever.”

The door swings inward; Helen approaches my chair, too quiet, her usual bundle of letters and papers in hand.

I break the silence, as is my right. “You are in a king’s house, Helen.”

Helen does not waver. “She thanked us for your father’s hospitality.” She sets the letters atop a jewelry box. “She mentioned the Boar and Brachet, and said you would know what that means. I am to ask after its local charm.”

I must exhale. “It has little.” Varinia did not press on the matter of Cloten; another front may have opened up, but I suspect she’s showing her hand to make a point. If the world knows the British princess came to Sower Street, it will have come from her. I look back to Helen. “Where is the king this morning?”

Helen raises her eyebrows. “With chieftains from the Cornovii and the Atrebates, touring sites for the Roman rails. He’ll be out of Londinium for several days.”

Dorothy sets the final pin in my hair. She holds up a hand mirror so I may inspect the back. A moment’s study, and then I look to Helen. “If he writes, tell him all is well.”

She remains stiff-backed. “Lie to him?”

I rise, and gather up the letters she brought. She will see my face as I speak. “There is no lie in it.”

*

Only the din of construction troubles the halls, muffled, intermittent and somewhere out of sight. Someone must have told me that my father would be gone. I must have known, though I cannot call one scenario less worrisome than another. The full contingent of guards remains at the palace; they patrol the corridors, vigilant of the royal person as ever. Some stand square-jawed and ceremonial, but others nod and wink as I pass.

As a little girl, I honed many of my charms on the palace guard. I was reprimanded more than once for distracting them from their work. I argued that they would protect a friend better than an assignment. My father always growled that duty was impetus enough.

Rigantona’s work crew greets me with an atlas of accents: Durotriges, Brigantes, Iceni, one thick burr I suspect is Caledonian. One shows me how they’re threading the wires through the walls without damaging the woodwork. A low hum laps at the edge of my hearing. The Caledonian engineer assures me it’s just the generator stowed in a wall nearby. There are more of them every several yards. It’ll subsume, he says. I won’t notice it after a bit.

The unmarked door is three halls away, with no guard in sight. More than Varinia’s cautions, Cloten’s words last night have wormed their way into me. I cannot begrudge my father some dalliances. It has been a long time since my mother died. I will focus on this, on arming myself. I will push past what happened on Sower Street: Cloten’s fumbling hands, his sour breath, his plaintive, abusive self-pity.

This is the usual room. It looks onto a secluded cul-de-sac; in the spring and summer, it smells of mint and the flowering trees below. A place for lingering. The bed is crisply made, the linens sweet and fresh. Greenhouse flowers sit on a table, the water high in the vase. There is no more reason to stay here. I know enough.

My father sets his favorites outside this door. When I step into the hallway, I don’t recognize the guard with whom I nearly collide. The guard has a young face atop a broad body. I blink at him. “This is Dagobiti’s post.”

The stranger gestures with his pike at the hallway. “I’m filling in for him, milady.”

Dagobiti has always showed promise—strapping, popular, discreet. When I was younger, I nursed a bit of heartache that our love could never be. I wonder who this new boy is, and what he has done to merit guarding Cymbeline’s lovers. I search his face. “Is he with the king?”

He is too professional to shrug, but he wants to. “I wasn’t informed,” he says, “just told to be here.”

I cannot begrudge him. There is value in being where you should be.

*

I glance at Dr. Cornelius’s back. “Are you sure he doesn’t mind?”

Posthumus snorts. “Only one thing makes him happier than being arm-deep in starfish, and that’s cutting live starfish in half.”

“Is that what you do here?”

“It’s not that barbaric,” he insists. “They grow back. He’s studying how they regenerate.”

Dr. Cornelius coaxes and cajoles his quarry from the side of a barrel. My insides twist on themselves a little. I turn back to Posthumus. He stoops to avoid the hanging lamps; the yellow cast of the light brings out the bruises under his eyes. “Pisanio knows,” he says quietly, before I can explain myself. “We spent most of the night talking about it.”

A particular spot in my chest clenches. I would have trusted Dorothy that much, before this morning. “What did he say?”

“That I was always an easy boy to raise, and that he can’t speak for raising any other.” A shadow deepens at the corner of his mouth, but his shoulders are tight. “It came out, though, that I changed when I was eight.” He bows his head. “He just thought I was living up to my potential.”

I hug my elbows. “You believe it happened, then.”

“I see no other explanation.” He pulls at his rubber gloves. “It makes no sense not to move on.”

He wrestles with it, though. Every inch of him broadcasts his struggle. I don’t know why it troubles me less, to think that he has been distilled into his best parts. Then, that is our nature, his and mine. Posthumus is the good half. I have seen it all my life. So be it if that is the consequence of our actions that night, even if Cloten is the byproduct.

(I must still make myself pity Cloten. A better person would have done so already. Who would leave anyone passed out and injured in an alley? But I am coming to accept that as well.)

“You’re dressed very nicely,” Posthumus says, when neither of us have continued. “Are you going to see her?”

I push my shoulders back. “Yes.”

“I ought to come,” he says, but makes no move to remove his gear.

I hesitate. “How did Pisanio manage when you told him?”

“Not well. He thinks it’s mad. But he’s not running from it.” Posthumus watches Dr. Cornelius. The frames of his glasses glint briefly. “It’s a lot to take in.”

“Aha!” Dr. Cornelius raises his arms and beams. “There—the work of many months! Pure science, my lady. Your father won’t be sorry!” I peer at the specimen he displays for us, spread out in his hands. His quarry is a misshapen creature, with one large arm and a number of odd-sized others. My stomach lurches. I imagine it has been cut many times over.

“Is that the original?” I am too aware of Posthumus just at my shoulder.

Dr. Cornelius’s smile falters. “Eh?

“When you cut them—” I nod at the starfish. “Is one the original and the other the twin?”

“No,” says Posthumus, a tray in hand. He steps past me, heading for the scalpels. “No, there’s no original.” He begins picking out his instruments. I can’t see his face. “They both are.”

*

Tincomarus Place is no place for a revolutionary. The houses are uniform and fine, with pristine faces and good bones. Of course, Rigantona, clarissima femina, is not afraid of tools, any more than I am afraid of armor.

I look at what she’s telling me from the sitting room where I wait. She has only been renting the property for a matter of weeks, but she has filled it with books—interesting ones, from what I can see, touching on all number of subjects. Every available surface is covered, with papers, letters, bits of machinery, a stained teacup and saucer, whatever is at hand. I imagine the housekeeper’s orders are the same as ours: do not move a thing, I know exactly where everything is. The knot in my chest eases, if briefly, and irrationally: she is just as messy as I am.

I remember how it is now, to be nervous about meetings. Varinia always said that was the side effect of perceiving a power imbalance. Rigantona is a scientist, and I am heir to the throne. This is not a matter of power.

I focus on my breathing, in and out, deeper and slower, until the room slows down. I cannot ask this question yet, not even in front of Posthumus. I must prepare myself.

Heavy footsteps outside, descending a staircase. The noise jolts me out of my calm. My mind sprints from one unlikely possibility to another. I strain to see through the open door.

Cloten staggers past, bleary-eyed and grubby. Straight lines are beyond him: he blunders against a wall with a soft thump. I’m on my feet before I can reconsider, watching him from the next door down. He catches sight of me. I grind my teeth, bracing for some assault, but he simply grunts, sighs and continues. No memory of the alley, then. No memory that we found him, or that we came for him. He slouches away, trailing the tie of his bathrobe.

I have no more hope of quiet; now I can hear all the noises of the house. Pipes rumbling, shoes clacking, door shutting. I straighten. Two voices, coming closer through the corridor. One is Rigantona’s; the other is male, and familiar.

I peer down the hall. She is striding alongside a palace guard, one who is out of uniform but unmistakable. I have become uncareful about watching. Dagobiti spots me and slows to a halt. “My lady?”

Rigantona steps forward, lit up with a smile. “My dear Lady Imogen, what a surprise!”

“Good morning to you both.” There can be no more preparation. I hold my chin up and look to Dagobiti. “My apologies, I didn’t expect to find you here.”

He grins. “The king has asked me to supervise the new security system. Rigantona was putting me through my paces to be sure I’m up to it.”

“He more than is.” She sets a friendly hand on his shoulder. “I hope you’ll forgive me if I turn my attentions to the princess.”

“Not at all, ma’am!” Dagobiti shakes Rigantona’s hand, then offers me a crisp parting bow. “My lady.”

The house has gone quiet to me again. Rigantona leads us back into the sitting room. “I’m so pleased you dropped in, my lady.” She catches my eye and smiles. “I was about to order lunch. Would you do me the pleasure of joining me?”

“I suspect you may wish to hear me out before that.” I fold my gloved hands. Here it begins. “I’ve come on a matter that’s personal to both of us.”

Something canny comes over her face. She offers me a seat, which I accept; she pauses, to remove her jacket. “I beg your pardon, my lady. If we may both make ourselves comfortable…”

The sleeves of her shirt are rolled to the elbow. Her forearms teem with tattoos; more are surely hidden beneath her clothes. Rigantona gives me a wry smile. “The markings of a different age. I assure you they were quite fashionable at the time.”

The ink is bright and crisp: she maintains them. They’re also all of a type: horses, trees, slogans, fish, whorls. All the iconography of British nationalism. She lowers herself slowly to her seat.

“A personal matter, then. My dear, I believe I can guess.” She presses her palms together and touches the tip of her mouth. “It’s your Posthumus. He’s the other one.”

There it is. And still my preparations fail me. “My—sorry?”

“Posthumus. Your friend. Or… more than that?” She lifts her eyebrows.

“He’s a dear friend,” I say quickly.

She lowers her hands and nods. “I knew as soon as I saw him. I didn’t wish to proceed indelicately, though. Imagine my shock—of all people, the daughter of the king.”

I prop my hands against my knees, though every inch of me must be shaking. “We must trade stories, then. I owe you an explanation, and much more.”

“Yes,” Rigantona says, and threads her fingers. “Such a long time we’ve been half in the dark. Shall you go first, Lady Imogen, or should I?”

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Innogen and the Hungry Half: 06 – A tail more perilous than the head

Previously: Britannicus the pamphleteer; Imogen the diplomat; Cymbeline versus Illyria; Cymbeline versus Innogen; Dr. Cornelius and his caller; Posthumus and the walls; Rigantona looks fondly on him; Imogen leaves on her own.

All of Londinium is my city, even the parts I haven’t seen yet. Behind us is the palace, the chieftains, the minders, the arrangements, the backrooms. Behind us is my father, whose greatest fear is that I will be out of bed.

We have the river between us now. Yes, it warms me a little. Maybe some. Maybe more.

This is my city, day and night. It will open to us if we ask.

*

“I say, I say, I say! A girl for that other arm, my lad? Fine-looking woman, two’s better than one, I say!”

Posthumus pulls me closer, stammering to the stout man who’s planted himself in our way. The fellow winks at me and tips his cap. “Or I got boys—you want two boys for your lovely lady there? Guarantee she’ll love it, bet you will too! Ten pieces for the first hour, prices negotiable after that.”

“I—thank you,” Posthumus tries, pushing up his glasses. A towering woman jostles us with an enormous, ragged bustle as she passes. I clutch my jacket as I catch myself, to be sure of my purse inside.

“We’re fine,” I say quickly, and lead Posthumus around the pander.

“It’s Bellicia’s Bawds when you change your mind!” he shouts after us.

Before I came to Sower Street, I might only have known this: that when the Romans built their great bridges over the Tamesis, fishers sold their bankside land to builders and moved on from fishing. That taverns, theaters and all manner of low entertainment bought deeds along the new road, and flourished like so many toadstools. That Sower Street is a byword in Britain for all the trappings of ill-spent money and youth.

Posthumus twists to stare at the pander, gobsmacked at the offer we just fled. “This was a better idea at the palace,” he says.

I have to smile, only a little. “Oh come now. Cloten is here somewhere—what’s that, if not a ringing endorsement?” I nod toward the long row of public houses, Romans and Britons alike streaming through the open doors. “Which one looks most appealing?”

“I’m not him,” he says, irritated. “Don’t start with that.”

*

I have accepted the fundamental madness of our childhoods, for which I’ve been granted some narrative consistency. Posthumus may not remember it, but that means nothing. Soldiers may black out the pitch of battle; survivors of a sinking ship may blot out their time in the water. A trauma like ours could easily leave no trace. A child might touch a machine and become two children. A girl might dream of it for years and learn it was true.

Cloten might know what happened that night at the exhibition. He was there too, and his mother who found him had to tell him something. We are not doing anything unreasonable, now that this is the case.

*

The Emporion, the sprawling port. Every surface plated with bright tiles from Massilia. Continental fare covers the tables, wine and olives and goat’s cheese and rosemary. One look and I’m ready to turn around. “He’s not here.”

Posthumus knits his brow. “He might have stopped in.”

Rigantona surely raised him calling us Lud’s-town. She believes in Britain. This place seethes with empire.

Posthumus catches a trim, dark man in a spotless apron. “Excuse me,” he says, one hand on his arm. “I’m looking for someone, my height, no glasses, curly hair.” The server glares and pushes past us. Posthumus tries to follow. “His name is Cloten. Has he been by?”

The server curls his lip and leaves us behind. At the bar, a smartly-dressed man, his black hair slicked neatly back, smirks into his tumbler. I am exquisitely aware of my scuffed boots and seasons-old skirt, of Posthumus’s knobby wrists inches beneath the sleeves of his coat. This place is aspirational; he wants to be here, not Cloten. All at once, I’m embarrassed for him. I grip the back of a nearby chair. “We can do better than this.”

Posthumus’s expression curdles, just a little. “I’m listening.”

You live at the palace, I want to say. Instead, I nod to the tiles, to the statues of the gods. “Let’s start with places where he wouldn’t come just to pick a fight.”

“Fine.” He dips his chin. “By all means, we’ll do it your way.”

I drop my hand. “That’s not what I’m saying—”

“Aren’t we wasting time?” he says, and strides toward the door.

*

“Can we be clear on one thing?” Posthumus steps to avoid a puddle of effluvia, pressing us instead into a hooting gaggle of wealthy teenage boys. “I need to know why you’re out here with me.”

“We need to find Cloten. Were you not sure?” I squeeze my elbows to my side, narrowly dodging a young man with much to learn about sharing space. “Remember we both had the same idea and met in the middle.”

Posthumus shakes his head. “I want to find him and see what he’s about. As far as I can tell, you just want to win at something.”

I smile. He’s needling because he can, because he’s nervous. “What do I want to win here?”

“You don’t like it that no one thinks your theory is wonderful,” he says. “You don’t like it that I haven’t said I believe you.”

My smile becomes tighter. “I don’t like that you’re less committed than I expected.”

“Soft beds up here!” someone calls from an open window. “No fleas! Good rates!”

Posthumus bows his head. “You’re telling me that I’m half of some other person. Forgive me if I’d rather take some time on this.”

Rigantona is not waiting for any of us. I can only laugh; I am out of other rebuttals. “What time have we got?”

*

Ardu, named for the forest without roads. The walls teem with hunting gear and taxidermy; no subtlety nor chance of escape allowed. The barkeep glowers, a gladiator in a starched shirt. His bald head gleams; his mustache bristles, perfectly trimmed. His arms bulge as he wipes down a mug that engulfs his fist.

“He’s not my brother,” Posthumus insists. “I’m just looking for him.”

The barkeep eyes me suspiciously. I give him a bland, eager smile. He grunts. “Strangers have no business hearing about my customers.”

I have coin ready; it gleams against the counter between us. “We’re customers too. Doesn’t that make us friendly?”

He pockets the money with not a flicker of interest and strolls off to the taps. Posthumus drums his fingers, engrossed with the wall art. The din of the pub rushes in to fill the space. Behind us, a cluster of men howls in a parody of song. A few seats down, a red lady leans against a shabby man, her hair threaded with the ribbons of her trade. Where her hand is is anyone’s guess. Posthumus appears, with effort, not to notice.

The barkeep returns with two tankards, one laughably dainty, which he sets before me. He grunts at Posthumus. “Left here about an hour ago,” he says. “I wasn’t sorry to see the back of him.”

I lean over the counter. He can be no harder to crack than a proconsul. “You don’t have any idea where he could have gone?”

The barkeep’s monstrous mustache twitches, but Posthumus cedes the man’s attention to me. “He didn’t confide in me. I’d guess further down the street.” He says so with rueful disdain, as one who knows that he’s low but not that low.

“He’s not my brother,” Posthumus insists, setting down his mug. The barkeep watches him, unimpressed. Posthumus glances at me, wipes his mouth and drinks again.

*

Three Cambrians cheer as we leave Ardu. “Lovely catch!” crows a ruddy fellow with one dead tooth. Posthumus tightens his hold around my shoulders.

“They’ve obviously seen him!” I hiss. “Let’s go back!”

“There’s nothing obvious about it,” he says, eyes forward. “They’re just catcalling.”

“I could give a damn. We have to talk to them!” I squirm out from under his arm.

He throws up his hands. “Yes, of course we do, Imogen, because after all, it’s your idea, and your ideas are never wrong.”

I circle in front of him and glare. “Would you shout a little louder, please? I don’t think the whole street heard my name.”

He rolls his eyes. “Oh, calm down.”

Don’t, Posthumus.”

*

We cut across the current, across the street. On the curb, a young woman is bawling; another crouches next to her, rubbing her back. Drunks spill past us, laughing and baiting each other. We step to one side, not looking at each other, waiting for an opening. One of them catches sight of us. He’s a middle-aged man, shorter than I am, half bald with a merry face. He beams. “Here now. Haven’t I seen you before?”

“I think you’re mistaken,” says Posthumus, at the same time I say, “Him? Have you seen him?”

“No. No no no.” The man veers closer. “I know I’ve seen you before.” He wags a finger. My breath catches. “Down on Epaticcus Lane, eh? Here on your own time, then?” He reaches for my arm.

In an instant, Posthumus has stepped between us. He has a good eight inches on the man. I cannot think of Posthumus as ferocious, but in that moment, he is so still, I wonder what he might do.

“Too early for a fight, Mato.” One of his friends pounds his shoulder and pulls him back. Mato gives me one more merry wink before he’s swept off down the street.

“This is all a mistake,” Posthumus murmurs, neck bent.

“Let’s not catastrophize.” I slip my arm through his again. I also look behind us, watching Mato, weaving away.

*

The Boar and Brachet, wild pigs and hounds crowding every inch. Posthumus cocks his head. “Isn’t it the Gauls who are obsessed with boars?”

It’s an old place, all the wood dark and stained and smooth. The booths are pitted with nicks and dents, deeply gouged with graffiti. The names and boasts are all British; not a hint of Latin to be seen or heard. A proud place. For a princess of Britain under Rome, an oddly uncomfortable place.

Posthumus has gone still again. Of course he has: abruptly, there is Cloten, raising his glass to a group of regulars.

He is hard to watch. He goes from chair to chair, the dog wagging furiously and hoping for scraps. I still can’t reconcile the movements he makes with the face and the body he wears. His expression shifts constantly, often exaggerated, often unpleasant. I glance at Posthumus, who is so quiet I hope he will come up for air.

“We should get him,” I say quietly.

Posthumus looks at me, skeptical. “It’s noisy, it’s raucous, the night is young and so are we—what do you think you’re getting from him tonight?”

“He’ll talk to us,” I insist. “This is important.”

“Imogen, this theory of yours, I’m not even sure I believe you yet.” Posthumus slips his hands in his pockets and looks out over the bar. Then: “I’ll get him.”

“Why don’t we both—”

Posthumus shakes his head. He’s in earnest. I glance toward the bar again, uncomfortable. “You don’t like each other.”

He doesn’t look away. “Let me have this.”

Posthumus is here for a different reason than I am. If I am honest, I have no rebuttal.

He leaves me at a booth that hasn’t been cleared yet. I slide into the middle of the bench and try being patient. One hand starts tugging at the fingers of the other. The noise of Sower Street is starting to bear down on me. I jump at an unseen burst of laughter. At another table, a handful of sailors whistle at me. When I look up, one of them makes grotesque kissing faces; another waves me over. I swallow. Posthumus has left me alone with my city. Realizing I don’t feel safe here infuriates me.

The Greeks have a name for everything. In one word, they describe the act of descending into the underworld: katabaino. Perhaps tonight is making me heavy-handed. I think we’re at the rim of something we can’t see the bottom of.

The pit of my stomach boils, watching Posthumus’s slow collision course with his double. Cloten has shed his jacket and rolled his sleeves to the elbow, loose-limbed and gregarious; Posthumus is shabby and contained, pushing politely through the throng. I wonder, in that moment, precisely what parts of him went with Cloten when they split.

I brace myself for tension, more of the spitting cats from our encounter near the Pallas. Instead, Cloten beams and crows “Posthumus Leonatus!” before thumping him on the back. He embarks on a ramble, full of gesticulations. The regulars lose interest. Posthumus leans close to him, and then points toward me. Cloten’s face lights up with that leer. My jaw goes tight. He swipe his coat from a stool and marches toward the booth, Posthumus at his shoulder. I slide to the outside edge of the bench: he’ll have no chance for liberties.

Cloten plants both hands on the table in front of me. “Who’d have thought to see you here?” He grins. “You have any more surprises for me tonight?”

He reeks of curmi, the cheap barley liquor. Posthumus hovers behind him. To see them side-by-side is still dizzying. I lift my chin. “Have a seat.”

Cloten needs no further obliging; he throws himself down the bench. Posthumus lowers himself next to him, corralling him by the wall. I fold my hands. “Cloten, we’re so glad we found you.”

“Aren’t you?” He smirks, and slings an arm over the back of the booth. “I knew you couldn’t keep away from me.”

“That’s not what she’s saying,” Posthumus begins.

He reaches for his shirt buttons. “I was going to woo you first, but hell, if you’re eager, I’m willing—”

“Cloten,” I interrupt sharply. “This is important.”

He pounds the table. “By all means, then, another round!” He splays a hand over the table, then counts each finger. “I have been at this for five hours now. Let me elucidate you, it only gets better with more.”

*

Cloten plants his chin in his palm. “You came for me,” he says dreamily. “How many times?”

“Mind yourself,” says Posthumus sharply. “She’s going to be queen one day.”

Cloten wags his eyebrows, a senseless jackal just before he laughs.

“Enough.” I shift toward the edge of the bench. “Cloten, we have questions for you, personal questions. Let us take you somewhere, we can make sense of some things.”

“Why, what is it we can’t do here? Other than the expected. I’ve already been reprimanded for that.” He slings an elbow around Posthumus’s neck. “I feel so close to you already—”

“He’s not your brother!” I snap, unplanned and more passionately than intended.

Cloten wrinkles his nose. “Who’s saying that?” Posthumus watches me while carefully disentangling himself from Cloten’s arm. “You know, we both made mistakes tonight.” Cloten’s mouth twists, ugly. “You left your father with my mother, and I left my mother with your father.”

Posthumus frowns. “She’s working for the king.”

Cloten twists toward him. “Have you ever worked a queen?” He winks at me. “Or a future queen?” He claps a hand on Posthumus’s knee. “You should if you haven’t tried.”

My cheeks are hot. All my foolishness is smacking me in the face right now. Everything we’ve learned tonight could have waited another day. “Watch yourself, Cloten. You won’t remember this in the morning, but I will.”

“Save your breath,” he sneers. “This isn’t the palace. None of this matters and no one cares.”

“Listen,” says Posthumus quickly, glancing at me, then turning to Cloten. “Why not take a walk? Get some fresh air?”

Cloten points at him. “You have an interest in asking me nicely.”

“We both do,” he says. “Come on, there’s no reason we can’t all be friends.”

Cloten thumps both elbows on the table. “I like him,” he says to me. He sniffs. “So what if he’s poor and half Roman? I wish you could be more like him. Wait, this is a good one!” He hunches low. “Have you got any Roman in you?”

Posthumus sighs. “Don’t answer that.” He stands and buttons his jacket. The sailors start to howl and whistle.

“Are we going?” Cloten blinks. He waves lazily at the churning pub crowd. “Forget all this. I know a back way out. Forgive me if I’m not precise—I was distracted when the lady showed it to me.”

*

We’ve come only to make him trust us. We follow him, past the brewing vats, past the kitchens, out the delivery doors, into the alley and past the men urinating on the bricks. Posthumus and Cloten walk sometimes shoulder-to-shoulder, sometimes drifting into a line. The rhythm in their movements is nothing alike: Posthumus upright, steady; Cloten swaggering, meandering. How different they became. How queasy to see them together.

The alley runs parallel to the street—to be expected, but so far we can’t seem to find a way back, save through other pubs. I glance at Cloten, hoping he hasn’t led us totally astray. There’s something haggard in his face under the cider cast of the gaslamps. He’s coiled tight and in his cups, which makes me warier than ever. “Are we close?” I ask, hoping one or the other will answer.

Cloten stops and looks around, his face blank. Posthumus turns and points over his shoulder. “I’ll check up ahead.” His long stride takes him away from us before I can insist otherwise.

Cloten and I stand there by the trash bins of The Laughing Mare, awkward as unwilling dancers. The persistent roar of merrymaking is muddied back here, as is the silt smell of the river. “You came for me,” Cloten says thickly.

“We were impatient.” I glance up the alley, to check on Posthumus. “We think you might know something important.”

He shakes his head, something unspooling in his face. “No one ever comes for me.” Too late I see he’s closing the space between us. I sidestep him, but he traps me between his arm and the bricks. “Finally,” he slurs, and leans in, mouth open.

It happens so quickly. I twist away; his lips only graze my forehead. I catch the full force of his five hours of drinking, and gag. His hand gropes at my stomach, seeking higher than that. He tries to pull me toward him. “Oh no,” I grunt; I grind my teeth, brace myself and ram my elbow into his chest.

He staggers, wide-eyed, hanging midair for a moment before collapsing spectacularly into a stack of empty crates. His limbs go flailing. A rat shrieks and scuttles away, at which Cloten thrashes even harder. “What was that for?” he yells.

I raise both fists. “What do you think it was for?”

“Oh, that’s right,” Cloten snarls, grappling for purchase and toppling more boxes. “Never mind what my mother’s doing to your father right now. Never mind what a man wants for himself. It’s all the same whatever Cloten wants.”

Posthumus skids to a halt behind me. He checks in, a hand on my elbow, then takes a step toward Cloten, who shouts, “You stop pretending at me!” He rolls away from the mess he’s made and pushes himself to his full height. “I don’t need you,” he barks. “I’ll find better ones. To all the hells with both of you!”

He spins on his heel and marches, full speed ahead, two whole paces, where he collides, headfirst, with a thick copper pipe and lands flat on his back, dead to the world.

One of the men who’d been at the wall yells up the alley. “Hurt, love?”

I wrap my jacket as close around me as I can. I’ve gone cold with rage, shaking and breathing hard. Posthumus sets a hand on my shoulder. “We’re fine,” he shouts back.

*

Posthumus takes a step toward him. “Come on.”

I plant my feet. “Come on what?”

He stops. “We can’t just leave him there.”

“I don’t see why not.”

Posthumus just nods. “Fine. Go back to the palace. I’ll meet you there.”

My knuckles go white. “Don’t be absurd. I’m not leaving without you.” Posthumus lifts his eyebrows. I point to Cloten. “You’re excusing him?”

He holds up his palms. “No, I’m not—”

My voice quakes. “You were right, you know. There was no way we’d get anything out of him, now or ever.”

“That isn’t what I—“

“We’re done. I could honestly give a fig what happens to him.”

“You have stakes in this if I do,” Posthumus says quietly. I only listen because it’s him, it’s Posthumus, and he came with me tonight. “You’ve asked me to believe a lot of difficult things about Cloten and me. Either he’s as important as you say, or you don’t want to deal with what you’ve started.” We’ve both gone still now. “Tell me,” he says, “because it’s one or it’s the other.”

*

We drag him back toward Sower Street, toward the gaslamps, toward the hackney cabs. We carry him between us, deadweight over our shoulders. Cloten’s eyes flutter open. I ought to want to see him as Posthumus does, as related, as salvageable, but I can’t. I can’t and I won’t. Cloten laughs, unsteady and soft. “You’ve never come back for me before.”

Posthumus leans closer. “What was that?”

He releases a long, deep breath, a rotten wind. “My whole life, over and over again at night. I’m left there and I can’t see anything and no one ever comes back for me.” He trips, and Posthumus grunts as he props him up.

I hitch his arm up higher. “We came for you, Cloten.”

“It was just an accident,” he mumbles. “I caused so much trouble.”

“Yes,” I murmur, resenting his sour smell, the fact of my bearing him. “More than you know.”

“The lights went out,” he continues, and his voice cracks. “Oh, everything just went out, and no one came.”

An empty cab lurches in our direction. I hail it, certain it won’t slow down even after it hits us. The driver casts a jaundiced eye at us, but accepts us with our load.

“Well,” Cloten sighs as we push him upright into a seat. “She came for me. But she wasn’t angry long.”

“Say it again?” Posthumus settles in beside him, but Cloten is already snoring, open-mouthed.

*

I realize this as we are walking home, Cloten since deposited at his front step.

The nightmare will come tonight: the pearlescent glow, the air sucked out of our chests, the towering generator thrumming through the floor. Children can touch a machine and become two children. Posthumus has no such memory, but that is not proof against it.

“I did win,” I say softly. Posthumus looks at me, brow furrowed. Oh, for all the comfort it brings me. “It happened just like I’ve said it did.” I ball my hands in my pockets. “Cloten remembers.”

Posthumus matches me, step for step. “How can you tell?”

“He dreams it. He said so, on the way back.”

Neither one of us speaks. We plod on, quiet as the city around us, back to our beds in my father’s palace.


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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: 05 – Depender on a thing that leans

Art Nouveau Youth Admired by Women Ferdinand Hodler

Previously: Cheating; meat pie; confessions; virtue; SPQR; two cats, surprised; archives; evidence; a blank slate.

When Iudocus is startled into silence, his eyebrows nearly vanish into his hairline. This is the first interesting thing I have learned since the very persistent chieftain of Sulloniacis received me at his residence. He has engaged me on every topic from the height of the river to innovations in industrial ceramics—anything, in fact, save the revolts in Illyria, which had been of such concern in his many missives.

“My most sincere apologies,” he stammers when he has recovered. “I thought I should be hospitable first.”

“A fine impulse, my lord, but the day is only so long.” Beside me, I hear Helen breathe in; I smile. “Do please communicate the matter which has so troubled you on our behalf.”

Iudocus gestures to one of his men, who marches forward with a leaflet in hand. “This has been making the rounds for several days now. I saw it two days before we encountered each other at the wireless demonstration.” His fellow is gangly, and wears glasses. Sensibly or not, I resent him at once. BRITAIN KNOWS HER PLACE IN THE EMPIRE trumpets the title. I take the paper. Iudocus clears his throat. “Might I draw your attention to the third paragraph?”

The leaflet is the most boorish sort of pro-government screed, reaffirming the anonymous author’s support for Rome and all that hailing the Caesars has done for us as a people. The notable selection has been helpfully circled in pencil.

To see these reactionary nonsense-mongerers cluttering the Pallas grounds is the poorest sort of display. The exposition is our chance to show the world we’ve become better than Rome found us. Britain stands with the empire, not the ungrateful of Illyria. We should speak with one voice to assure these so-called revolutionaries that their complaints have no place within our society.

The tract is signed “Britannicus.” I look back to Iudocus. “Can we be sure this isn’t a parody?”

He leans toward me. “If I may be so bold, my lady, we both know that hardly matters.” He taps the leaflet; perhaps he thinks it makes him look canny, rather than stalling for momentum. “This has been in the water for nearly a week now, and the king has made no mention of it.”

“Dozens of these come off the presses every day, my lord. Anyone who can pay may spout opinions on paper. The king has no reason to mention it. Unless,” I add, not displeased to see his face drain a little, “there’s something you’ve withheld from me.”

“I’ve made every effort to be timely and open with you, my lady!” Behind Iudocus, his men murmur among themselves. Helen shifts her weight; I can see her arms go stiff. I keep my focus on Iudocus. He bows his head, and then taps his fingers together. “Many of my constituents agree entirely with Britannicus. But, then again, some… do not.”

“Not on grounds trumped up by pamphleteers, I hope?”

Iudocus spreads his hands. “Based on nothing more than what the Latin papers print. You must agree that Illyria is worrisome—the Romans marching on their own subjects, and with such force.”

“Illyria could not happen here. Your people have nothing to worry about.” I smile again. “There: you have it from a royal mouth.”

“I do beg your pardon, Lady Imogen, but it would be worth a great deal to hear it from the king.” He clasps his hands. “All we would like is a statement. A directive.”

“Rome is confident that Britain is a good investment, my lord. The presence of the exposition is statement enough, don’t you think?”

Iudocus’s mustache bristles as he grimaces. “I don’t know what to say, my lady. I can only share what I know.”

Something about his words grates at me. I fix on the long-limbed lackey again; he drops his eyes as soon as I catch him staring. He’s a redhead, but the lines of his face are sharp. I still find I resent him.

My soles itch; I long to pace. Iudocus wants such a little thing, to be heard. What does doubt gain me? It seems an object lesson, one to impress on others. Besides, Iudocus is certainly taken by the document, whatever its pedigree. The screed has some power. It’s in the water, he said. The story cannot become the story. And such a little act could stove it. I collect myself, and nod. “The king is a busy man, and far busier than I. But I will see what I can do.”

All the many creases in Iudocus’s face smooth out at once. “Most, most appreciated, my lady.” He gives a short bow, which becomes a series of short bows. “You are a paragon, an absolute paragon. And please, of course, let me know if there’s any way I may be of assistance in the future.” His entourage mumbles encouragingly behind him. We remain in imminent danger of continued hospitality, so before Iudocus can inquire after the price of pork, I make our excuses and leave him to continue his own affairs.

As we head back to the carriage, I hold up the leaflet. “We need to look into this Britannicus fellow.”

Helen nods. “I didn’t think you’d get this involved.”

“Always duty,” I reply, more lightly than I feel.

As soon as we’ve climbed inside, the horses surge forward, and the carriage jerks. I catch myself against the door. Helen busies herself with her pocket schedule and pen, unmoved. We must be on the other side of Londinium within the hour. Idly, I rifle through my pockets. A crumpled piece of paper comes up. I unfold it, and immediately ball my fist again. It’s a shelving number, from the Hall of Public Records. Helen watches the paper roll over the seat. “Perhaps we might delay our next appointment,” she remarks, at which I scoff. Her expression grows stern “Take a minute, Imogen. You were not at your most diplomatic back there.”

It’s such an old chestnut, I nearly laugh. “If my father may be king with his temper, I see no reason why I should be rebuked for mine.”

“Your temper is beside the point,” she says, matter-of-fact. “You’re spoiling for fights today.” My whole body goes rigid. She tilts her head. “Is there another fight you’re avoiding?”

“Don’t take it on yourself to be my minder, Helen. That’s not your function.”

Helen purses her lips. “Iudocus is an easy target. If you’re going to make up for these days you’ve been taking off, you’ll have to do better than that.”

I glare out the window, rolling the leaflet tighter and tighter. At least Helen will confront me. Better than to be avoided. My closest friend won’t even meet my eye now, no matter what I do. These days haven’t been an indulgence: no one has any right to tell me so. I have every right to fume after telling the truth. Is any risk I take the wrong one? Is it so trying to others that I want to be believed?

*

Matugenus, my father’s bodyman for as long as I remember, fills the door to the king’s study. He blinks down at me. “You’re not expected, my lady.”

“He’s my father,” I retort. “I needn’t be expected.”

Matugenus steps aside, and I make a point of sweeping in. My father braces himself against the table’s edge, arms spread wide. He has never learned to properly sit at his desk; he is far too much of a general to enjoy the work of long documents and fine print. “Ah, Imogen,” he says, absorbed in the spread of papers. “What can I do for you?”

I stop an arm’s length distant, and glance over his work—a ledger, now that I look closer. “I’ve been to Sulloniacis today.”

“And how is Iudocus these days?” My father’s mouth twists, though he still doesn’t look at me. “I didn’t think he was a big enough fish for you.”

I make an effort to smooth out the wrinkled leaflet, still curling from my furious twisting in the carriage. “Have you heard of a pamphleteer named Britannicus?”

“I don’t have time for common street chatter.” He makes a mark on a column. “I know you know that.”

“Would I be here if this was just about scuttlebutt?”

My father chuckles. He glances at Matugenus. “Listen to her.”

I press my heels together. “Many people do, my lord.”

“I’m well aware.” He drops his pencil and does me the honor of a crooked eyebrow. “What do the people of Sulloniacis require of their king?”

“Nothing grand. A statement about Illyria.” I offer him the Britannicus leaflet. “In light of Dalmatia and Pannonia, my lord, it might be worth a private word to your chieftains, at least.”

He cocks his head. “And what do they have to do with us? Their poor choices are theirs to endure.”

My knuckles are growing pale. I know he can see that. “The Illyrians are giving the legionaries more of a fight than anticipated. Britons have noticed. I’m sure the Romans have too.” I think of the protestors near the Pallas, and their paper signs.

“And I should give a statement clarifying our position on an illegal action within the empire?” My father grunts. “Absolutely not. Give the thing air, it’ll never be off our backs. Let it die down. In a few weeks no one will think anything more of it.” Satisfied, he picks up his pencil again.

It is as easy as saying no and refusing to hear any more.

I let my arm drop to my side. “And that’s your plan?”

My father allows himself an indulgent smile. “I know you think yourself very wise, Imogen, but I have been doing this longer than you have.”

I know myself. When my skin thrums and vibrates like this, I am right to be this angry. “Sir,” I reply, unclenching my teeth, “I know what I saw.”

The line of his mouth flattens. “Did I not just make myself clear? It’s nothing but your own fancy that gives it weight.” He props himself against the desk again, one fist on his waist. “Suppose I don’t act on your informed recommendation. What, my little Cassandra, can I expect?”

“Do not patronize me, my lord. It does little for either of us.”

Now he glowers. “Think of me, Imogen. I tolerate your meddling because I imagine you will find your way to a husband in government sooner than among your ladies, but do not think you may bend the world simply because you find it not to your liking.”

We are both entrenching. The charge in the air is palpable. I lift my chin. “My lord, it is such a simple thing. Do you believe me, that this is important and real, or am I lying to you?”

My father narrows his eyes. “I do not find your willfulness charming.” He gestures for Matugenus’s attention. “Do you know, when she was a girl, she insisted that her name didn’t suit her? No reason behind it, just stubbornness! She didn’t like the m, of all things. She always scratched it out—preferred two n’s.” He circles in front of his desk, prowling right past me. “It took a Herculean effort to correct her. Such things for their own sake are destructive.”

At a signal, Matugenus opens the door. My audience is over. I could stand here and roar until Matugenus drags me off. It has happened before. I welcome it happening again.

Stop, he’d said. What are you telling me?

The leaflet crunches in my hand. My father holds his ground, more irritated than angry. He should be angry. Why isn’t he angry? I hurl the leaflet at the king’s ledger. “My lord, I will leave you to make up your own mind.”

I need more proof. I need to talk to him. I need a show of good faith. I show myself out.

*

Dr. Cornelius greets me with a cleaver in one hand and a smile fit for a birthday. “I’ve just acquired this!” he exclaims, unprompted. “Forged in Syria. There’s no beating the work of this fellow in Antioch. All of Alexandria wanted a set of his instruments.” He holds up the blade, beaming. It’s coated with zoological matter and some sort of mucus.

He’s alone with his supplies and experiments. One rarely sees him otherwise; I wonder what he must think of that. He seems content, even if he must be content in Britain. I peer behind him, just in case. “Is Posthumus gone?”

Dr. Cornelius nods absently. “Yes, he left with Rigantona. She came by to introduce herself, you know!”

“Rigantona?” The name plows into me. “They met?” My voice has gone faint and unsteady, against my will.

“Oh yes. She wanted my expertise.” He draws himself up. “We have an appointment to discuss the fundamentals of dosage and infusions. She is quite versed in the more mechanical sciences, but biological studies are becoming of interest to her. It’s very exciting. I’ve just read the most extraordinary paper on anesthetic theory and the use of gases, and—”

“Doctor, where is Posthumus now?”

He makes an aimless gesture toward the palace. “She was on her way to inspect the walls, and he wanted to go along. Physics,” he adds, with a companionable shrug.

My father’s security system. Rigantona’s new proprietary tech. I didn’t think she’d be here so soon.

The room hums. My chest has grown tight. I wonder where he stood, where she saw him, whether she saw her son at first. They left together—what are her plans? What does she know? Is Posthumus safe? I take a step backwards, and bump into a shelf. “Thank you,” I stammer. Why did I think I could prevent this?

Dr. Cornelius squints at me. “My lady, are you quite well?” I am halfway up the steps before he can say continue.

The courtyard is empty, as are the foyer and the receiving rooms. Only servants and guards pass me in the hallways. The urgency that grips me is wordless and animal. Because of Posthumus and me, Rigantona lost her whole world at the last exhibition. Because of us, she has Cloten. I cannot explain these things, but they’re true. What toll would I exact to equalize that if I had that chance?

I take the stairwell that splits the guest quarters from the royal residence at a run. She had Cymbeline of Britain call our city Lud’s-town on the first day I saw them together. She holds paying crowds in the palm of her hand with the barest hint of her talents. He needs to listen to me. If they’re together, I have to warn him, really warn him.

I catch Posthumus mid-sentence, all animated gestures; Rigantona watches him, a small notebook pressed to her chest. We nearly collide before I catch myself. Rigantona seems to refocus on the world. “Lady Imogen! What a pleasant surprise.”

“Hello.” I can’t stop looking between them. She is perfectly pleasant; Posthumus looks oddly hangdog. My hands won’t keep still. “I see I’m too late. I had hoped to arrange a meeting for you both.”

“Yes, Posthumus has beat you to it.” Rigantona glances his way — could it be fond? What does that mean? “I see why you had us in mind, though. I’ve very much enjoyed our talk.”

Posthumus turns away from me, just slightly, and swallows “I’m reminded that I’ve already taken up your time.” He directs a small bow to Rigantona. “I don’t want to keep you.”

She smiles. “Thank you, Posthumus. I’d be happy to continue our conversation.”

Posthumus nods, then glances at me. There’s nothing I can say here, and through my own panic, his expression makes no sense to me. He escapes, around the corner and out of sight. Clearly I am the only one who wants to talk.

Rigantona watches him go. “I like him,” she says, keenly. “He’s very bright.”

I clear my throat. This is not the place to show weakness. “He is, very.”

“He’s right, though.” She studies the embellishments at the ceiling for a moment. “If you’ll pardon me, I must get back to my survey. By the way.” She reaches for me—an intimate gesture, though without touching. “The king has invited me to dine again tonight. Will you be joining us?”

My stomach twists at the thought. “Is Cloten coming?”

She wraps her fingers around her notebook. They’re peppered with nicks and scars. Capable hands. “Not this time. He’s exploring the town this evening, but he’ll be happy to hear you asked.”

My mind races; threads are coming together more quickly than I can trace, but I know to trust them. “Unfortunately I’m occupied tonight. But I suspect we’ll be seeing more of each other.”

“Oh yes.” She gestures at the hall. “You know, with any new technology, you test it somewhere small first, then expand it.” She cranes her neck. “There’s just so much to cover here. I wonder what the system will bear.”

*

Half an hour after Dorothy kisses my temple and shuts my door, I slip down the corridor dressed in plainclothes, my hair in braids. I have no boy’s clothes, which strikes me as an oversight now, especially where I’m going. Tonight I’m too impatient. I have not made a habit of sneaking out of the palace, but I cannot limit myself to my usual avenues. If I’m to confirm my suspicions, about my nightmares, about the device, about what I remember, Posthumus isn’t the only person I can ask.

I keep my head down and stay close to the shadows. The nearest servant’s exit is just down the next turn. I rehearse an introduction and a few different identities. It’s another skin to slip into, just like the formality of politicking. I mumble, coarsening my vowels, dropping consonants. The floors creak, as ever; I pick up my pace. The door is within reach.

The body that crashes into me is solid and lean. I fall back against the wall, and he hisses a curse. For an instant, the whole caper is up in the air. A dozen excuses for a dozen different members of the household well up. I peer at the man pushing his glasses up his nose. “Posthumus?”

He lifts his head, squinting. “Imogen?”

“What are you doing here?”

Posthumus hesitates. “This doesn’t mean you’ve won anything.” A touch of obstinacy colors his voice.

My heart skids, just for a moment. “What are you saying? Are you after Cloten too?”

He bends down and picks up a cap from the floor. “I want us to be friends, Imogen,” he says, setting it on his head. “All I know is I need to talk to him.”

It’s tempting to be careless, just to give in to the laugh I’m holding. “That’s easily managed.”

“You don’t like anything that’s easy,” he mutters. For a moment, he seems uncertain; I wonder if I would go without him right now. But the moment passes: he smiles at me, and pushes through the door.

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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: 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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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: 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!