This past Memorial Day weekend I corrected a longstanding tragedy, which was that I had never seen Cymbeline performed. I’ve read it numerous times, but there’s a particular thrill in seeing a text you love interpreted in another medium—in this case, its right medium. The fabulous Alex agreed to trek down to Hyde Park during her visit to Chicago, and we showed up, full of dinner from a favorite college haunt, for an outdoor performance at the new (and stunning) Logan Center for the Arts. Continue reading
According to my outline, we’re one-third of the way through Innogen and the Hungry Half. Which is mind-boggling to me! Of course, I meant to be much further ahead by this point, but given the givens, I’m going to take it as it comes. I did, however, want to take a note from Monty Python and sum up where we are and how far we’ve come since the story began. It’s also been pretty long between updates, and I understand if October is a little hard to remember at this point. So, without further ado, the story of the film so far. Continue reading
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
First things first, folks: I have every hope of posting Chapter 8 of Innogen and the Hungry Half this Tuesday. I am proceeding with this post as though that will be the case. There’s some personal stuff happening at the moment, though, and we expect to get some important news over the next day or two. If there’s another delay, it will be because I’m dealing with family things. As ever, I deeply appreciate your patience and support.
I have been having some frankly wonderful conversations lately with the fabulous Alexandra Kingsley, who is always doing a lot of really cool things with literature, theater, the BBC Sherlock and Americana. (Everything she does is excellent, so you should check out her work!) She told me that she enjoys reviewing these preview posts after the next chapter goes up and seeing what hints link up to the story. Does anyone else do that? I really enjoy writing these up, so it’s lovely to hear you all are enjoying them too.
Fun fact, as an aside: Nikola Tesla shares a birthday with me, along with Jessica Simpson, John Calvin, Marcel Proust and the State of Wyoming.
In The heavens must still work, Imogen wakes up to find the world has changed around her while she slept. She goes to confront the source of all this upheaval, but what Rigantona has to say shocks her. What’s coming? How will it all unfold? Read on and see what you think!
“Haunted” by Poe [lyrics]
Ah, Poe. So great for so many reasons. This song and this album in particular have a lot of Shakespeare in them: Poe has threaded Hamlet throughout the album’s narrative, and here, bits of King Lear (“My heart will break before I cry”). I’m also delighted, now that I’ve read the lyrics, to discover that one line is “Hallways, always.” Right fitting all around.
Rigantona’s device is not quite a Tesla coil, though they’re certainly closely related. One great thing about writing steampunk technology is you can play fast and loose with your skience, so long as you keep it believable/consistent. I do this with open eyes and hope my readers do too. However, this guy who works at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles (which you may recognize from Rebel Without a Cause) gives a great five-minute explanation of what a Tesla coil is really capable of, aside from emitting really cool, gigantic sparks.
And who knows how accurate this is, considering it’s from Tumblr, randomly, but I enjoyed this factoid about children and the age of most nightmares. Considering what’s coming, you may too.
Do you feel me right here? She pressed him to her shoulder as he gasped himself back to sleep. It was a problem to be worked out in the dark, the thin weight of him huddled against her side.
Big things are coming. Are you ready? New, game-changing chapter this Tuesday! As always, no knowledge of steampunk or Cymbeline is necessary to enjoy Innogen and the Hungry Half, but if you’d like to read the play, MIT has the full text available for free online.
Previously: Out after bedtime; Sower Street; a ringing endorsement; pub crawling in the Roman Empire; he’s not his brother; haven’t I seen you before?; katabasis; corralling Cloten; a convenient exit; a confession; a convenient pipe; a confirmation.
That isn’t my perfume.
It colors everything—the smell of my sheets, the smoke in my hair, the stink of Sower Street still in my clothes. A newspaper rustles. Before the sound ends, I am rigid and upright in my bed.
“Calm down, my dove. Helen let me in.” Varinia doesn’t look up from her broadsheet. She fits precisely into my chair, ankles crossed. She has come in her traveling clothes, the long, tailored jacket spilling over the seat.
I yank my quilt up to my waist. “How long have you been here?”
“You obviously needed your rest.” She eyes me around the page—the Citizen Countryman, out of Durocortorum. The headlines swim. “I took the liberty of having your letters sent out.” She makes a show of folding the paper, the creases correct, just so. “What an exciting evening you had. Was he worth it?”
“You are completely out of line.” I fling back the covers, willing my panic not to show so drastically, and bolt for the nearest dressing gown, slung over a closet door.
“Your hair is so long now.” She’s smiling at me. I can hear it. “I can’t remember the last time I saw it down.”
My hands shake as I tie off the robe. “Can you remember when last you saw fit to trespass on my chambers?”
Her chair creaks; she’s leaning back. “I’m leaving Britain soon. I’ve missed you.”
Helen let her in. Dorothy didn’t wake me up. In my own bedroom, of all places. I face her, fists balled at my sides. “Is this one of the rights of a quaestor of Rome? To presume you understand how I weight my schedule?”
“Have you been seeing to business, then? I should love to hear of it; my work has been lacking in trifles these days.” Her voice goes harder. “I cannot imagine what outweighs the future of your own nation, but then, I am not so young as you are.”
My knuckles go white. “Do not insult me for my age. You never have before.”
“And you have always kept your appointments. But then, you are very like your father.” Some of that languid drawl seeps back into her voice. Cold shots hurtle up and down my spine. “I worry, Imogen, that I am telling you this, rather than the reverse.” She reaches into her jacket and offers me a piece of folded paper—treasury letterhead. “This came across my desk last night. Look and see what your father has authorized.”
The memo is short and formulaic. By order of Cymbeline, Rex Britannicus, funds heretofore allocated to the below subsidies and works are hereby redirected to defense.
Increases in military spending. Illyria took steps long before they broke the Pax. My cheeks color. “You know he’s negotiating to expand the Roman rails. As a show of good faith—”
“Imogen.” Varinia rises. Her silence demands my full attention. “Rigantona’s been spending time here. We know what she’s like, and what she believes.”
I wait to hear it, proprietary technology, the good of the empire, where is ours, but Varinia only crooks an eyebrow. “It is easy enough to start a war from a pillow,” she says, more carefully.
I breathe in, once, and hold out the memo with a small smile. “Virginity doesn’t make me stupid.” We must be friends, Varinia and I. She is too valuable to be otherwise.
She shakes her head. “I have copies. Do not let your father deny it.” She hooks her buttons through each hole, one by one. “I have every confidence in you, my swan. Trust me when I say this visit was a compliment.”
We embrace, and I inhale her perfume. “All the same,” I say, in the moment before we let go, “when you come back to Britain…”
“In the spring, I hope.”
I set my hands on her elbows. “Never come into my bedroom like that again.”
“If you invited me, I could never accept.” She winks, and kisses my cheek. “I’ll be in Lusitania for a month, then winter in Cyrenaica.” Her lips curl at the corners. “I’m only a telegram away. Please send word if you’re in danger of marrying Rigantona’s son.”
I clutch my stomach. “You would never say such a thing if you had met him.”
Helen is pacing outside my door, hugging one elbow, a knuckle to her lips. She snaps to attention, anxious, but I dispatch her and Varinia both with coolness and poise. Varinia glances at me over her shoulder; I shut the door and sink against it.
The room looks different to me, now that someone has intruded on it. Dorothy declined to wake me up. Helen chose to let Varinia in. I cannot be showing that much strain. I cannot require tending.
No one who knows this business could accuse me of being idle. Even so, I have been stalling; nothing else can rightly call itself preparation. In the quiet, I slip out of my dressing gown and shuck off last night’s disguise. No more skirting the matter. I must arm myself.
Dorothy pins my damp and scented hair, not at all hiding that she’s watching me in the mirror. I hold myself straight and still, looking over my vanity. The tabletop is a clutter of bottles, tins and notes, but only we will ever know that. I will look my part today: she will appreciate that. The dress of a local, highly regarded make; the necklace from Sorviodunum, Rigantona’s birthplace; the glass comb in peacock colors, a gift from Neapolis, shot through with gold teeth.
“I am only saying—” Dorothy begins.
My eyes flick up. “We are done with this.”
She adjusts a roll of hair. “It’s not that you’ve been straying, it’s that for you, all this—”
“I’m not a child, Dorothy. It’s not your place to mind me like this—”
“—you’re leaping out of a hot air balloon.” For a moment, we glare at each other’s reflections. Dorothy thins her lips. “You’re never like this, Imogen. You’ve always been so good.”
Lies have their uses, but the truth accomplishes more. I look away. “On the contrary, I think I am more myself than ever.”
The door swings inward; Helen approaches my chair, too quiet, her usual bundle of letters and papers in hand.
I break the silence, as is my right. “You are in a king’s house, Helen.”
Helen does not waver. “She thanked us for your father’s hospitality.” She sets the letters atop a jewelry box. “She mentioned the Boar and Brachet, and said you would know what that means. I am to ask after its local charm.”
I must exhale. “It has little.” Varinia did not press on the matter of Cloten; another front may have opened up, but I suspect she’s showing her hand to make a point. If the world knows the British princess came to Sower Street, it will have come from her. I look back to Helen. “Where is the king this morning?”
Helen raises her eyebrows. “With chieftains from the Cornovii and the Atrebates, touring sites for the Roman rails. He’ll be out of Londinium for several days.”
Dorothy sets the final pin in my hair. She holds up a hand mirror so I may inspect the back. A moment’s study, and then I look to Helen. “If he writes, tell him all is well.”
She remains stiff-backed. “Lie to him?”
I rise, and gather up the letters she brought. She will see my face as I speak. “There is no lie in it.”
Only the din of construction troubles the halls, muffled, intermittent and somewhere out of sight. Someone must have told me that my father would be gone. I must have known, though I cannot call one scenario less worrisome than another. The full contingent of guards remains at the palace; they patrol the corridors, vigilant of the royal person as ever. Some stand square-jawed and ceremonial, but others nod and wink as I pass.
As a little girl, I honed many of my charms on the palace guard. I was reprimanded more than once for distracting them from their work. I argued that they would protect a friend better than an assignment. My father always growled that duty was impetus enough.
Rigantona’s work crew greets me with an atlas of accents: Durotriges, Brigantes, Iceni, one thick burr I suspect is Caledonian. One shows me how they’re threading the wires through the walls without damaging the woodwork. A low hum laps at the edge of my hearing. The Caledonian engineer assures me it’s just the generator stowed in a wall nearby. There are more of them every several yards. It’ll subsume, he says. I won’t notice it after a bit.
The unmarked door is three halls away, with no guard in sight. More than Varinia’s cautions, Cloten’s words last night have wormed their way into me. I cannot begrudge my father some dalliances. It has been a long time since my mother died. I will focus on this, on arming myself. I will push past what happened on Sower Street: Cloten’s fumbling hands, his sour breath, his plaintive, abusive self-pity.
This is the usual room. It looks onto a secluded cul-de-sac; in the spring and summer, it smells of mint and the flowering trees below. A place for lingering. The bed is crisply made, the linens sweet and fresh. Greenhouse flowers sit on a table, the water high in the vase. There is no more reason to stay here. I know enough.
My father sets his favorites outside this door. When I step into the hallway, I don’t recognize the guard with whom I nearly collide. The guard has a young face atop a broad body. I blink at him. “This is Dagobiti’s post.”
The stranger gestures with his pike at the hallway. “I’m filling in for him, milady.”
Dagobiti has always showed promise—strapping, popular, discreet. When I was younger, I nursed a bit of heartache that our love could never be. I wonder who this new boy is, and what he has done to merit guarding Cymbeline’s lovers. I search his face. “Is he with the king?”
He is too professional to shrug, but he wants to. “I wasn’t informed,” he says, “just told to be here.”
I cannot begrudge him. There is value in being where you should be.
I glance at Dr. Cornelius’s back. “Are you sure he doesn’t mind?”
Posthumus snorts. “Only one thing makes him happier than being arm-deep in starfish, and that’s cutting live starfish in half.”
“Is that what you do here?”
“It’s not that barbaric,” he insists. “They grow back. He’s studying how they regenerate.”
Dr. Cornelius coaxes and cajoles his quarry from the side of a barrel. My insides twist on themselves a little. I turn back to Posthumus. He stoops to avoid the hanging lamps; the yellow cast of the light brings out the bruises under his eyes. “Pisanio knows,” he says quietly, before I can explain myself. “We spent most of the night talking about it.”
A particular spot in my chest clenches. I would have trusted Dorothy that much, before this morning. “What did he say?”
“That I was always an easy boy to raise, and that he can’t speak for raising any other.” A shadow deepens at the corner of his mouth, but his shoulders are tight. “It came out, though, that I changed when I was eight.” He bows his head. “He just thought I was living up to my potential.”
I hug my elbows. “You believe it happened, then.”
“I see no other explanation.” He pulls at his rubber gloves. “It makes no sense not to move on.”
He wrestles with it, though. Every inch of him broadcasts his struggle. I don’t know why it troubles me less, to think that he has been distilled into his best parts. Then, that is our nature, his and mine. Posthumus is the good half. I have seen it all my life. So be it if that is the consequence of our actions that night, even if Cloten is the byproduct.
(I must still make myself pity Cloten. A better person would have done so already. Who would leave anyone passed out and injured in an alley? But I am coming to accept that as well.)
“You’re dressed very nicely,” Posthumus says, when neither of us have continued. “Are you going to see her?”
I push my shoulders back. “Yes.”
“I ought to come,” he says, but makes no move to remove his gear.
I hesitate. “How did Pisanio manage when you told him?”
“Not well. He thinks it’s mad. But he’s not running from it.” Posthumus watches Dr. Cornelius. The frames of his glasses glint briefly. “It’s a lot to take in.”
“Aha!” Dr. Cornelius raises his arms and beams. “There—the work of many months! Pure science, my lady. Your father won’t be sorry!” I peer at the specimen he displays for us, spread out in his hands. His quarry is a misshapen creature, with one large arm and a number of odd-sized others. My stomach lurches. I imagine it has been cut many times over.
“Is that the original?” I am too aware of Posthumus just at my shoulder.
Dr. Cornelius’s smile falters. “Eh?
“When you cut them—” I nod at the starfish. “Is one the original and the other the twin?”
“No,” says Posthumus, a tray in hand. He steps past me, heading for the scalpels. “No, there’s no original.” He begins picking out his instruments. I can’t see his face. “They both are.”
Tincomarus Place is no place for a revolutionary. The houses are uniform and fine, with pristine faces and good bones. Of course, Rigantona, clarissima femina, is not afraid of tools, any more than I am afraid of armor.
I look at what she’s telling me from the sitting room where I wait. She has only been renting the property for a matter of weeks, but she has filled it with books—interesting ones, from what I can see, touching on all number of subjects. Every available surface is covered, with papers, letters, bits of machinery, a stained teacup and saucer, whatever is at hand. I imagine the housekeeper’s orders are the same as ours: do not move a thing, I know exactly where everything is. The knot in my chest eases, if briefly, and irrationally: she is just as messy as I am.
I remember how it is now, to be nervous about meetings. Varinia always said that was the side effect of perceiving a power imbalance. Rigantona is a scientist, and I am heir to the throne. This is not a matter of power.
I focus on my breathing, in and out, deeper and slower, until the room slows down. I cannot ask this question yet, not even in front of Posthumus. I must prepare myself.
Heavy footsteps outside, descending a staircase. The noise jolts me out of my calm. My mind sprints from one unlikely possibility to another. I strain to see through the open door.
Cloten staggers past, bleary-eyed and grubby. Straight lines are beyond him: he blunders against a wall with a soft thump. I’m on my feet before I can reconsider, watching him from the next door down. He catches sight of me. I grind my teeth, bracing for some assault, but he simply grunts, sighs and continues. No memory of the alley, then. No memory that we found him, or that we came for him. He slouches away, trailing the tie of his bathrobe.
I have no more hope of quiet; now I can hear all the noises of the house. Pipes rumbling, shoes clacking, door shutting. I straighten. Two voices, coming closer through the corridor. One is Rigantona’s; the other is male, and familiar.
I peer down the hall. She is striding alongside a palace guard, one who is out of uniform but unmistakable. I have become uncareful about watching. Dagobiti spots me and slows to a halt. “My lady?”
Rigantona steps forward, lit up with a smile. “My dear Lady Imogen, what a surprise!”
“Good morning to you both.” There can be no more preparation. I hold my chin up and look to Dagobiti. “My apologies, I didn’t expect to find you here.”
He grins. “The king has asked me to supervise the new security system. Rigantona was putting me through my paces to be sure I’m up to it.”
“He more than is.” She sets a friendly hand on his shoulder. “I hope you’ll forgive me if I turn my attentions to the princess.”
“Not at all, ma’am!” Dagobiti shakes Rigantona’s hand, then offers me a crisp parting bow. “My lady.”
The house has gone quiet to me again. Rigantona leads us back into the sitting room. “I’m so pleased you dropped in, my lady.” She catches my eye and smiles. “I was about to order lunch. Would you do me the pleasure of joining me?”
“I suspect you may wish to hear me out before that.” I fold my gloved hands. Here it begins. “I’ve come on a matter that’s personal to both of us.”
Something canny comes over her face. She offers me a seat, which I accept; she pauses, to remove her jacket. “I beg your pardon, my lady. If we may both make ourselves comfortable…”
The sleeves of her shirt are rolled to the elbow. Her forearms teem with tattoos; more are surely hidden beneath her clothes. Rigantona gives me a wry smile. “The markings of a different age. I assure you they were quite fashionable at the time.”
The ink is bright and crisp: she maintains them. They’re also all of a type: horses, trees, slogans, fish, whorls. All the iconography of British nationalism. She lowers herself slowly to her seat.
“A personal matter, then. My dear, I believe I can guess.” She presses her palms together and touches the tip of her mouth. “It’s your Posthumus. He’s the other one.”
There it is. And still my preparations fail me. “My—sorry?”
“Posthumus. Your friend. Or… more than that?” She lifts her eyebrows.
“He’s a dear friend,” I say quickly.
She lowers her hands and nods. “I knew as soon as I saw him. I didn’t wish to proceed indelicately, though. Imagine my shock—of all people, the daughter of the king.”
I prop my hands against my knees, though every inch of me must be shaking. “We must trade stories, then. I owe you an explanation, and much more.”
“Yes,” Rigantona says, and threads her fingers. “Such a long time we’ve been half in the dark. Shall you go first, Lady Imogen, or should I?”
Hi, and thanks for reading! Got some feelings? I would love to hear your thoughts. All content © Esther Bergdahl, 2011. Thanks again, and hope you enjoy!
At some point early on in the process of writing Innogen and the Hungry Half, I made an attempt at devising an ideal and reasonable production schedule, one that would more or less keep my usual stressors at bay. It’s so sensible, I’m amazed it came to me at all. The schedule looks like this:
Tuesday: Having published a chapter at 9 a.m., I may spend the day alerting readers of the update and taking notes to outline the next chapter.
Tuesday evening, Wednesday and Thursday: Write 1,000 words each day for a first draft. Each chapter tends to be about 3200 words, more or less. During this time I also bother Excellent Enabler with sections as they come, and she tells me what she likes and what could use improving.
Friday: After polishing the first pass, I then send the draft to First Beta, who gives incredibly helpful notes about structure, characterization, plot holes and other big picture issues.
Saturday: I write that week’s chapter preview, which I then schedule to post automatically sometime Sunday morning.
Saturday night or Sunday morning: I edit according to First Beta’s notes, and send the revised draft to Second Beta, who tackles word-by-word issues, smoothing out unclear passages, typos and other messy writing bits.
Monday evening: I edit the chapter with Second Beta’s notes, and schedule the post to go up the next morning. Then I kick back and congratulate myself for managing my time and resources so well.
Sadly, this has yet to actually happen: the real process involves a lot more procrastinating, obsessive outlining, endless and obscure note-taking and scrambling to make deadlines. Things are always finished much closer to posting than is comfortable. Weirdly, though, I like it, and miraculously, so do my friends, for which I am very, very grateful. And each week is an opportunity to get better! This entry is dedicated to anyone who has ever received a frantic last-minute email from me promising that this is the last time this will happen.
Last time, Imogen and Posthumus had a night on the town that anyone would want to sleep off somewhere private. Too bad that’s never an option when you’re the daughter of the king. What’s waiting for them on the other side of the alarm clock? Check back Tuesday to find out — for now, some hints and clues!
“The White Queen Sleeps/The White Palace,” Iain Ballamy, Mirrormask
Do yourself a favor and see this movie if you can; it’s not actually as dated as this trailer makes it look. Imogen is going to wake up in a world that’s askew. This track unnerves me every time I hear it; it’s just off and just eerie enough.
I’m also not going to deny that there’s any of Hedy Lamarr in Rigantona; it’s too neat a fit.
I see the corner of his mouth quirk, but his shoulders are tight. “It came out, though, that I changed when I was eight. He just thought I was living up to my potential.”
All right, we’re off to the races now. Come back on Tuesday to see how it falls together! As always, no knowledge of steampunk or Cymbeline is necessary to enjoy Innogen and the Hungry Half, but if you’d like to read the play, MIT has the full text available for free online.
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.”
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.
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!
Many of us, I think, have good reason to be mad at Aaron Sorkin. His heroes elevate the professional life to classical heights, and I suspect that if I let myself, I could be quite bitter that the workplace is rarely the scene of an impassioned plea for idealism in action, or even a good pedeconference. It’s not that I feel lied to, because we’ve always known that The West Wing and Studio 60 and Sports Night were fairy tales, but now I have this model for how I’d love to live my professional life, and I don’t know where it exists.
Don’t get me wrong: my colleagues at my day job are passionate, hardworking, good people. I work at a nonprofit, and I’m very proud of my organization. Oddly enough, though, each day doesn’t unfold like a 45-minute play. There is very little patter, and even less narrative symmetry.
I’m taking the GRE tomorrow, which is why there’s no new chapter of Innogen and the Hungry Half today. As a coping mechanism, as those of you who follow me on Twitter have seen, I accidentally wound up watching the second half of Season 1 of The West Wing, and then the first two episodes of the second season. It’s been a while since I’ve spent time with the Bartlet White House, but one thing becomes apparent very quickly on a rewatch: I am still deeply in love with every one of these characters. It is an ensemble show in the truest sense; even the incidental characters are rich, and all of them mean something to each other. Sorkin’s writing and world-building are staggering, and the man who’s capable of intensely funny episodes (need I say more than “secret plan to fight inflation”?) is also responsible for some of the most powerful and moving television ever aired (“Noël,” Season 2’s Christmas episode, is basically flawless).
There’s a reason we love them all, C.J. and Toby and Sam and Josh and the rest. The commitment these characters display, to their work, to their colleagues, to their principles, is immensely appealing—and this is one of many reasons why it’s a fairy tale, of course. Those manifestations that are out there in the real world aren’t marked by speeches or great banter: they’re subtler. That’s fine. But digging deeper, we find that one feature binding the players of the Bartlet Administration is a commitment to professionalism, to being able to take care of things, to fix them. “Don’t worry about it” is a constant refrain on The West Wing.
I remember, somewhere around middle school, I started having conversation with my parents about how they chose their jobs and how they became an English professor and a psychologist. My mom’s answer has always stuck with me: she wanted an identity as a professional, and I think I’ve absorbed that more deeply than I realized. I want, more than anything, to be a professional writer. It’s been the only consistent occupation I’ve ever wanted, and I’ve been writing stories since I was 4. Magpie & Whale is an effort toward that: with a long interruption in the middle of the year (for family health reasons), I’ve tried to hold myself to a regular posting schedule. I like the challenge of a deadline, and of producing good work quickly. One of the reasons I’m doing Innogen weekly is to push myself out of my comfort zone.
For five weeks, the story was produced more or less on schedule. However, it coincided with an immensely stressful month that I couldn’t have predicted, and while I tried to roll with the punches, some things have to be sacrificed, and given that my other balls in the air were paid work, graduate school prep, family commitments and personal issues, Innogen was what took the hit. (That was three entirely separate metaphors in one sentence—apologies!) I’ve been beating myself up about this. If I’m going to be a professional, I should be able to produce, I should be able to manage my time so that somehow I can put together work that makes me proud. That isn’t what happened, though—I wasn’t proud of any of the starts I made at Chapter 6, and I want this story to be good too badly to sacrifice quality for regularity.
So, all of this is to say that I’m sorry Innogen has fallen off the grid these past few weeks. Once I’m done with the GRE tomorrow, that will be off my back, and I hope to be able to resume normal life/posting. I’m very excited about where the story is going, and I so appreciate those who’ve stuck with me. It means more than I can say that people are interested in this. Thank you.
In the meantime, I have less than 24 hours until I take what I hope is the last standardized test of my life. There are still a few fistfuls of practice sets to do, and—dammit, Sorkin—more episodes of The West Wing to anticipate as a reward.
The day after the next installment of Innogen and the Hungry Half goes up (or is supposed to go up — more on that in a minute), I’m flying to Columbus, Ohio, for Thanksgiving with the fam. The only sensible way to ensure that I enjoy my vacation and you enjoy the next chapter is for me to take a breather, so FYI, we’re going on hiatus for two weeks starting this Tuesday. I promise that means there won’t too much of a cliffhanger. Wait, what? No, sorry, I think I mean the opposite of that.
In all seriousness, it’s going to be a good spot for a break. I charged into writing this story on fairly little notice. There’s a larger outline planned, and I know the ending in as exquisite detail as I knew the opening, but it’ll be good to step back and get a little more strategic about where we’re going in the more immediate future. We’ve had a lot of character- and world-building so far; in long-form improv, or at least in the Harold that they teach at iO, this is the first beat of the show, from which you extrapolate the rest and go in wild and new directions. Personally, I’m looking forward to the action, capers, skience and intrigue that’s coming — and I thank you all for staying with the story, whether you’ve just arrived or read since the beginning!
Magpie & Whale won’t be totally quiet, though. I’ll be posting some tidbits to tide us over, and — if you’re curious — answering questions. Actually, I would love to answer your questions about the story — where the idea came from, what a detail means, how I envision something, whatever you can come up with! Please feel free to send me a Tweet or a DM on @magpiewhale, to submit an Ask on my Tumblr or to leave a comment here. Queries about the future of the story will be as cryptic and misleading as I see fit, which I hope will be to our mutual entertainment.
On a separate note, Chapter 6 has turned out to be more work than I anticipated. Given the rest of my workload, I’m going to try and get it out by Tuesday or Wednesday morning, but in the interests of having a good chapter rather than an on-schedule chapter, it may be a little later than normal. Thanks for your patience.
Last week, after being thwarted from every corner, Imogen decided to hell with it and broke out, only to find that the dream team was, somewhat conditionally, together again. Now she and Posthumus are on the hunt for Cloten, somewhere in the public houses of Londinium. That can’t possibly go wrong in any way, right?
One song, which is all for this week, alas
“Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba [lyrics]
If you were alive in 1998, you probably have this song burned into your ears forevermore. It is a stupid, stupid song, and also incredibly catchy. I don’t have a lot of pub crawl music, but Flogging Molly was too political for what I was looking for: a theme song for Cloten’s night out on the town. I feel like he would be pretty laddish offstage, given what we see in polite company. (Obviously the oeuvre isn’t confined to Chumbawamba by any stretch of the imagination, but despite the track’s commercialism, it gets the job done well enough for our purposes.)
In conclusion, this can only end well. Tune in this week to watch it unfold! Don’t forget, I’ll be answering your questions about Innogen over the hiatus, so send ‘em in wherever you’re happiest. As always, no knowledge of steampunk or Cymbeline is necessary to enjoy Innogen and the Hungry Half, but if you’d like to read the play, MIT has the full text available for free online.
Previously: Cheating; meat pie; confessions; virtue; SPQR; two cats, surprised; archives; evidence; a blank slate.
When Iudocus is startled into silence, his eyebrows nearly vanish into his hairline. This is the first interesting thing I have learned since the very persistent chieftain of Sulloniacis received me at his residence. He has engaged me on every topic from the height of the river to innovations in industrial ceramics—anything, in fact, save the revolts in Illyria, which had been of such concern in his many missives.
“My most sincere apologies,” he stammers when he has recovered. “I thought I should be hospitable first.”
“A fine impulse, my lord, but the day is only so long.” Beside me, I hear Helen breathe in; I smile. “Do please communicate the matter which has so troubled you on our behalf.”
Iudocus gestures to one of his men, who marches forward with a leaflet in hand. “This has been making the rounds for several days now. I saw it two days before we encountered each other at the wireless demonstration.” His fellow is gangly, and wears glasses. Sensibly or not, I resent him at once. BRITAIN KNOWS HER PLACE IN THE EMPIRE trumpets the title. I take the paper. Iudocus clears his throat. “Might I draw your attention to the third paragraph?”
The leaflet is the most boorish sort of pro-government screed, reaffirming the anonymous author’s support for Rome and all that hailing the Caesars has done for us as a people. The notable selection has been helpfully circled in pencil.
To see these reactionary nonsense-mongerers cluttering the Pallas grounds is the poorest sort of display. The exposition is our chance to show the world we’ve become better than Rome found us. Britain stands with the empire, not the ungrateful of Illyria. We should speak with one voice to assure these so-called revolutionaries that their complaints have no place within our society.
The tract is signed “Britannicus.” I look back to Iudocus. “Can we be sure this isn’t a parody?”
He leans toward me. “If I may be so bold, my lady, we both know that hardly matters.” He taps the leaflet; perhaps he thinks it makes him look canny, rather than stalling for momentum. “This has been in the water for nearly a week now, and the king has made no mention of it.”
“Dozens of these come off the presses every day, my lord. Anyone who can pay may spout opinions on paper. The king has no reason to mention it. Unless,” I add, not displeased to see his face drain a little, “there’s something you’ve withheld from me.”
“I’ve made every effort to be timely and open with you, my lady!” Behind Iudocus, his men murmur among themselves. Helen shifts her weight; I can see her arms go stiff. I keep my focus on Iudocus. He bows his head, and then taps his fingers together. “Many of my constituents agree entirely with Britannicus. But, then again, some… do not.”
“Not on grounds trumped up by pamphleteers, I hope?”
Iudocus spreads his hands. “Based on nothing more than what the Latin papers print. You must agree that Illyria is worrisome—the Romans marching on their own subjects, and with such force.”
“Illyria could not happen here. Your people have nothing to worry about.” I smile again. “There: you have it from a royal mouth.”
“I do beg your pardon, Lady Imogen, but it would be worth a great deal to hear it from the king.” He clasps his hands. “All we would like is a statement. A directive.”
“Rome is confident that Britain is a good investment, my lord. The presence of the exposition is statement enough, don’t you think?”
Iudocus’s mustache bristles as he grimaces. “I don’t know what to say, my lady. I can only share what I know.”
Something about his words grates at me. I fix on the long-limbed lackey again; he drops his eyes as soon as I catch him staring. He’s a redhead, but the lines of his face are sharp. I still find I resent him.
My soles itch; I long to pace. Iudocus wants such a little thing, to be heard. What does doubt gain me? It seems an object lesson, one to impress on others. Besides, Iudocus is certainly taken by the document, whatever its pedigree. The screed has some power. It’s in the water, he said. The story cannot become the story. And such a little act could stove it. I collect myself, and nod. “The king is a busy man, and far busier than I. But I will see what I can do.”
All the many creases in Iudocus’s face smooth out at once. “Most, most appreciated, my lady.” He gives a short bow, which becomes a series of short bows. “You are a paragon, an absolute paragon. And please, of course, let me know if there’s any way I may be of assistance in the future.” His entourage mumbles encouragingly behind him. We remain in imminent danger of continued hospitality, so before Iudocus can inquire after the price of pork, I make our excuses and leave him to continue his own affairs.
As we head back to the carriage, I hold up the leaflet. “We need to look into this Britannicus fellow.”
Helen nods. “I didn’t think you’d get this involved.”
“Always duty,” I reply, more lightly than I feel.
As soon as we’ve climbed inside, the horses surge forward, and the carriage jerks. I catch myself against the door. Helen busies herself with her pocket schedule and pen, unmoved. We must be on the other side of Londinium within the hour. Idly, I rifle through my pockets. A crumpled piece of paper comes up. I unfold it, and immediately ball my fist again. It’s a shelving number, from the Hall of Public Records. Helen watches the paper roll over the seat. “Perhaps we might delay our next appointment,” she remarks, at which I scoff. Her expression grows stern “Take a minute, Imogen. You were not at your most diplomatic back there.”
It’s such an old chestnut, I nearly laugh. “If my father may be king with his temper, I see no reason why I should be rebuked for mine.”
“Your temper is beside the point,” she says, matter-of-fact. “You’re spoiling for fights today.” My whole body goes rigid. She tilts her head. “Is there another fight you’re avoiding?”
“Don’t take it on yourself to be my minder, Helen. That’s not your function.”
Helen purses her lips. “Iudocus is an easy target. If you’re going to make up for these days you’ve been taking off, you’ll have to do better than that.”
I glare out the window, rolling the leaflet tighter and tighter. At least Helen will confront me. Better than to be avoided. My closest friend won’t even meet my eye now, no matter what I do. These days haven’t been an indulgence: no one has any right to tell me so. I have every right to fume after telling the truth. Is any risk I take the wrong one? Is it so trying to others that I want to be believed?
Matugenus, my father’s bodyman for as long as I remember, fills the door to the king’s study. He blinks down at me. “You’re not expected, my lady.”
“He’s my father,” I retort. “I needn’t be expected.”
Matugenus steps aside, and I make a point of sweeping in. My father braces himself against the table’s edge, arms spread wide. He has never learned to properly sit at his desk; he is far too much of a general to enjoy the work of long documents and fine print. “Ah, Imogen,” he says, absorbed in the spread of papers. “What can I do for you?”
I stop an arm’s length distant, and glance over his work—a ledger, now that I look closer. “I’ve been to Sulloniacis today.”
“And how is Iudocus these days?” My father’s mouth twists, though he still doesn’t look at me. “I didn’t think he was a big enough fish for you.”
I make an effort to smooth out the wrinkled leaflet, still curling from my furious twisting in the carriage. “Have you heard of a pamphleteer named Britannicus?”
“I don’t have time for common street chatter.” He makes a mark on a column. “I know you know that.”
“Would I be here if this was just about scuttlebutt?”
My father chuckles. He glances at Matugenus. “Listen to her.”
I press my heels together. “Many people do, my lord.”
“I’m well aware.” He drops his pencil and does me the honor of a crooked eyebrow. “What do the people of Sulloniacis require of their king?”
“Nothing grand. A statement about Illyria.” I offer him the Britannicus leaflet. “In light of Dalmatia and Pannonia, my lord, it might be worth a private word to your chieftains, at least.”
He cocks his head. “And what do they have to do with us? Their poor choices are theirs to endure.”
My knuckles are growing pale. I know he can see that. “The Illyrians are giving the legionaries more of a fight than anticipated. Britons have noticed. I’m sure the Romans have too.” I think of the protestors near the Pallas, and their paper signs.
“And I should give a statement clarifying our position on an illegal action within the empire?” My father grunts. “Absolutely not. Give the thing air, it’ll never be off our backs. Let it die down. In a few weeks no one will think anything more of it.” Satisfied, he picks up his pencil again.
It is as easy as saying no and refusing to hear any more.
I let my arm drop to my side. “And that’s your plan?”
My father allows himself an indulgent smile. “I know you think yourself very wise, Imogen, but I have been doing this longer than you have.”
I know myself. When my skin thrums and vibrates like this, I am right to be this angry. “Sir,” I reply, unclenching my teeth, “I know what I saw.”
The line of his mouth flattens. “Did I not just make myself clear? It’s nothing but your own fancy that gives it weight.” He props himself against the desk again, one fist on his waist. “Suppose I don’t act on your informed recommendation. What, my little Cassandra, can I expect?”
“Do not patronize me, my lord. It does little for either of us.”
Now he glowers. “Think of me, Imogen. I tolerate your meddling because I imagine you will find your way to a husband in government sooner than among your ladies, but do not think you may bend the world simply because you find it not to your liking.”
We are both entrenching. The charge in the air is palpable. I lift my chin. “My lord, it is such a simple thing. Do you believe me, that this is important and real, or am I lying to you?”
My father narrows his eyes. “I do not find your willfulness charming.” He gestures for Matugenus’s attention. “Do you know, when she was a girl, she insisted that her name didn’t suit her? No reason behind it, just stubbornness! She didn’t like the m, of all things. She always scratched it out—preferred two n’s.” He circles in front of his desk, prowling right past me. “It took a Herculean effort to correct her. Such things for their own sake are destructive.”
At a signal, Matugenus opens the door. My audience is over. I could stand here and roar until Matugenus drags me off. It has happened before. I welcome it happening again.
Stop, he’d said. What are you telling me?
The leaflet crunches in my hand. My father holds his ground, more irritated than angry. He should be angry. Why isn’t he angry? I hurl the leaflet at the king’s ledger. “My lord, I will leave you to make up your own mind.”
I need more proof. I need to talk to him. I need a show of good faith. I show myself out.
Dr. Cornelius greets me with a cleaver in one hand and a smile fit for a birthday. “I’ve just acquired this!” he exclaims, unprompted. “Forged in Syria. There’s no beating the work of this fellow in Antioch. All of Alexandria wanted a set of his instruments.” He holds up the blade, beaming. It’s coated with zoological matter and some sort of mucus.
He’s alone with his supplies and experiments. One rarely sees him otherwise; I wonder what he must think of that. He seems content, even if he must be content in Britain. I peer behind him, just in case. “Is Posthumus gone?”
Dr. Cornelius nods absently. “Yes, he left with Rigantona. She came by to introduce herself, you know!”
“Rigantona?” The name plows into me. “They met?” My voice has gone faint and unsteady, against my will.
“Oh yes. She wanted my expertise.” He draws himself up. “We have an appointment to discuss the fundamentals of dosage and infusions. She is quite versed in the more mechanical sciences, but biological studies are becoming of interest to her. It’s very exciting. I’ve just read the most extraordinary paper on anesthetic theory and the use of gases, and—”
“Doctor, where is Posthumus now?”
He makes an aimless gesture toward the palace. “She was on her way to inspect the walls, and he wanted to go along. Physics,” he adds, with a companionable shrug.
My father’s security system. Rigantona’s new proprietary tech. I didn’t think she’d be here so soon.
The room hums. My chest has grown tight. I wonder where he stood, where she saw him, whether she saw her son at first. They left together—what are her plans? What does she know? Is Posthumus safe? I take a step backwards, and bump into a shelf. “Thank you,” I stammer. Why did I think I could prevent this?
Dr. Cornelius squints at me. “My lady, are you quite well?” I am halfway up the steps before he can say continue.
The courtyard is empty, as are the foyer and the receiving rooms. Only servants and guards pass me in the hallways. The urgency that grips me is wordless and animal. Because of Posthumus and me, Rigantona lost her whole world at the last exhibition. Because of us, she has Cloten. I cannot explain these things, but they’re true. What toll would I exact to equalize that if I had that chance?
I take the stairwell that splits the guest quarters from the royal residence at a run. She had Cymbeline of Britain call our city Lud’s-town on the first day I saw them together. She holds paying crowds in the palm of her hand with the barest hint of her talents. He needs to listen to me. If they’re together, I have to warn him, really warn him.
I catch Posthumus mid-sentence, all animated gestures; Rigantona watches him, a small notebook pressed to her chest. We nearly collide before I catch myself. Rigantona seems to refocus on the world. “Lady Imogen! What a pleasant surprise.”
“Hello.” I can’t stop looking between them. She is perfectly pleasant; Posthumus looks oddly hangdog. My hands won’t keep still. “I see I’m too late. I had hoped to arrange a meeting for you both.”
“Yes, Posthumus has beat you to it.” Rigantona glances his way — could it be fond? What does that mean? “I see why you had us in mind, though. I’ve very much enjoyed our talk.”
Posthumus turns away from me, just slightly, and swallows “I’m reminded that I’ve already taken up your time.” He directs a small bow to Rigantona. “I don’t want to keep you.”
She smiles. “Thank you, Posthumus. I’d be happy to continue our conversation.”
Posthumus nods, then glances at me. There’s nothing I can say here, and through my own panic, his expression makes no sense to me. He escapes, around the corner and out of sight. Clearly I am the only one who wants to talk.
Rigantona watches him go. “I like him,” she says, keenly. “He’s very bright.”
I clear my throat. This is not the place to show weakness. “He is, very.”
“He’s right, though.” She studies the embellishments at the ceiling for a moment. “If you’ll pardon me, I must get back to my survey. By the way.” She reaches for me—an intimate gesture, though without touching. “The king has invited me to dine again tonight. Will you be joining us?”
My stomach twists at the thought. “Is Cloten coming?”
She wraps her fingers around her notebook. They’re peppered with nicks and scars. Capable hands. “Not this time. He’s exploring the town this evening, but he’ll be happy to hear you asked.”
My mind races; threads are coming together more quickly than I can trace, but I know to trust them. “Unfortunately I’m occupied tonight. But I suspect we’ll be seeing more of each other.”
“Oh yes.” She gestures at the hall. “You know, with any new technology, you test it somewhere small first, then expand it.” She cranes her neck. “There’s just so much to cover here. I wonder what the system will bear.”
Half an hour after Dorothy kisses my temple and shuts my door, I slip down the corridor dressed in plainclothes, my hair in braids. I have no boy’s clothes, which strikes me as an oversight now, especially where I’m going. Tonight I’m too impatient. I have not made a habit of sneaking out of the palace, but I cannot limit myself to my usual avenues. If I’m to confirm my suspicions, about my nightmares, about the device, about what I remember, Posthumus isn’t the only person I can ask.
I keep my head down and stay close to the shadows. The nearest servant’s exit is just down the next turn. I rehearse an introduction and a few different identities. It’s another skin to slip into, just like the formality of politicking. I mumble, coarsening my vowels, dropping consonants. The floors creak, as ever; I pick up my pace. The door is within reach.
The body that crashes into me is solid and lean. I fall back against the wall, and he hisses a curse. For an instant, the whole caper is up in the air. A dozen excuses for a dozen different members of the household well up. I peer at the man pushing his glasses up his nose. “Posthumus?”
He lifts his head, squinting. “Imogen?”
“What are you doing here?”
Posthumus hesitates. “This doesn’t mean you’ve won anything.” A touch of obstinacy colors his voice.
My heart skids, just for a moment. “What are you saying? Are you after Cloten too?”
He bends down and picks up a cap from the floor. “I want us to be friends, Imogen,” he says, setting it on his head. “All I know is I need to talk to him.”
It’s tempting to be careless, just to give in to the laugh I’m holding. “That’s easily managed.”
“You don’t like anything that’s easy,” he mutters. For a moment, he seems uncertain; I wonder if I would go without him right now. But the moment passes: he smiles at me, and pushes through the door.
Hi, and thanks for reading! Got some feelings? I would love to hear your thoughts. All content © Esther Bergdahl, 2011. Thanks again, and hope you enjoy!