I’ve now reached the point where (despite still enjoying reading my manuscript again after all this time) I’m seriously thinking of taking out a big red pen.
That’s surely simply an effect of time. The bits whose creation I once reveled in now don’t seem quite as important, and if they don’t move the story along they need to go. What was Nabokov’s line? “I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction.” That seems like a good place to aspire to. It’s not my job to save the world. It’s just my job to birth this one story in the most realistic way.
And real life is never truly didactic.
… Is that an oxymoron? My God, perhaps I am.
“It was completely improper,” Father Toma fumed.
Max held his forehead and tried to ignore the threatening migraine. “So what exactly did she say that was so out of line?”
“It’s not what she said,” Toma insisted, “it’s the fact that she spoke at all. It was a very… inappropriate conversation for a young lady to be a party to.” He had started to look a little embarrassed.
“Then why didn’t you send her out of the room?”
“I tried. I didn’t realize the conversation was going to take that turn, and when it did she immediately jumped in with her opinion and insisted that she should speak with the man!”
“Okay,” Max nodded. “I’ll deal with her.”
The Father got up to leave Max’s office, before adding an afterthought. “You know, I only brought this to you because I think that both you and I understand the importance of discretion in matters like this.”
Max’s pause was only brief. “Of course.”
After seeing Toma through the gate, Max returned to his office and closed the door. He was not a stupid man, and he hadn’t retained his position this long by trusting liars as bad as Father Toma. Toma would come to Max first, and then he would follow it up this afternoon or tomorrow by scurrying off to Robinson too. And then Robinson would say nothing, but sit back to see what Max would do next.
Max took a bottle of codeine out of his bottom drawer and swallowed two pills with his morning coffee. His weekly ‘Security Reports’ to Robinson were galling enough, but he knew that the priggish, little upstart was also keeping tabs on him behind the scenes. Something like this was just the sort of relish that he was looking for.
“That stupid little bitch…” Max muttered to himself. Darbi had been doing so well since he’d disciplined her, and she only had a few months to go before her biggest problem would presumably be solved. Now this… She clearly couldn’t be trusted at any time she was out of his sight.
He’d have to deal with her immediately – hopefully before Robinson found out – and then it was just a question of how to word the report.
Sometimes he wished that the younger ones weren’t so damned naïve.
“Why?” she asked, defiantly.
Max looked up from his desk. He didn’t like being questioned. “I beg your pardon?”
“Why aren’t I allowed to go back? Other wives in the past have worked at the temple. I know. I looked it up!”
Max studied her for a moment. He shouldn’t have to explain himself to her. “His Excellency has indicated to me that he doesn’t like you performing such hard labor. He says it has toughened your hands.”
She glared at him. “I take very good care of my hands.”
The two of them stared at each other in a contest of wills.
“It’s because of what happened yesterday, isn’t it?” Darbi continued. “You just can’t stand for me to be outside of your control.”
Max chose his words carefully. He was angry. “You know better than to speak out of turn, Darbi. An Emperor’s wife must always maintain a sense of propriety when in public. We can’t have you talking about the most intimate details of your life – of the Emperor’s life! It was a gross breach of trust on your part!”
She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “I didn’t tell him anything about the intimate details of my life!”
“YOU SHOULD NOT HAVE SPOKEN AT ALL!” His volume had now risen to a shout. “If the discussion moves onto private matters, you should get up and leave the room! Why should I think I can trust you if you take every opportunity to speak to men you hardly know?”
“EVERY OPPORTUNITY!?!” her voice was becoming shrill. “It was one time! He asked me what I thought and I told him!” And I lied! she nearly added. “Aren’t we meant to be hospitable to foreign guests? Would you rather I was so rude that I walked away when he asked me a question?”
“If it was an inappropriate question: yes. Besides, the Father told me it was you who spoke first. You interjected yourself into a conversation – a rather indecent conversation – which was none of your business!”
“They were talking about me!”
“You are the Emperor’s wife,” Max had taken on a drum beat. “A lot of men will want to talk about you. And it’s my job to make sure that everything they have to say is complimentary… You are playing a dangerous game, Darbi. I’m required to report this to his Excellency.”
Darbi blanched. “No,” she pleaded. “I’m sorry – it won’t happen again. Just please… please don’t tell Aarik.”
Max looked at her sternly. “I’m afraid I have to. You’re restricted to quarters until you go to the Birthing Annex. You will only attend official engagements, and you’re not to go anywhere unaccompanied from now on. This is a very stupid thing you’ve done, Darbi.”
“Would the lady be so kind as to honor me with a dance?”
It happened every so often at balls. The Fall Cotillion was a charity event, with a different charity selected each year by the Emperor’s daughters. It was meant to be a chance for the daughters to really shine (and to meet potential eligible suitors), but sometimes a foreign dignitary would take one of the wives for a spin on the dance floor too. In the light atmosphere of cotillion it was generally permitted as part of the fun, but protocol demanded that each partner got only one dance, and the dancing was to remain tasteful. So Darbi was not totally surprised when a request interrupted her conversation. She wasn’t allowed to dance with anyone other than her prescribed partners tonight, Max had said so. But her surprise set in when she turned around to see the man she would have to politely dismiss.
There was pause, then an elegant, flattered nod before he gently held out a gloved hand and led her from her seat. Her jeweled cuff didn’t stand out to foreign eyes as anything more than a pretty trinket.
“You dance very well,” Abraham smiled as they twirled around the floor.
“It helps to have a good partner.” Darbi was looking away, nervously. Up by the dais, behind the Emperor’s table, she could see Max watching them like a hawk. She knew he wouldn’t cause a scene by interrupting them, but she would catch hell later. He was turning crimson against his natty white suit.
“I missed you at the temple yesterday. I thought that Tom said you worked there on Fridays.”
Darbi thought carefully about her next sentence. “Wednesday was my final day there.”
“They won’t let you come back, huh?” He was very perceptive.
She didn’t answer him.
“It’s because of me, isn’t it?”
“No,” she said, with a slight taint of sadness. “It’s my own fault.”
He studied her as they circled. “I have to go back home in a couple of days, and I very much enjoyed our conversation this week. I was hoping that we might continue it at lunch tomorrow… but they probably wouldn’t allow that either, would they?”
“I’m only to keep to official, planned engagements.”
There was a silence between them as they danced.
“Vous ne vivez pas dans la sécurité, ma chérie,” he finally said.
“You cannot speak that language in the palace,” Darbi murmured.
“You understand, though, don’t you?” Abraham said softly. “I asked you whether you were happy. And I knew right away that you lied to me… You know that there are other places in the world where you would not have to be his property.”
Darbi looked up at him without raising her head. “Professor Schiller, I’ve met people like you before: people who think they need to save me… No one’s asking to be saved here.”
“I’m only asking you to consider saving yourself.”
“But I could never be the girl you want me to be. I could never be strong and strident and selfish like that. I love my husband. He needs my support.”
“You are strong.”
“You don’t know me,” Darbi returned insistently.
“I know you’re strong enough that you got up and spoke to me. I know that you question the way things are… And I know that you got into trouble for it.”
“I’m not in trouble… And I really am happy here.
Abraham raised a cynical eyebrow.
“He protects me,” she added more quietly.
“He protects you from living.”
Their eyes remained locked together.
“Don’t you dare,” she finally replied, firmly and aggressively. “Don’t you dare make him out to be some sort of monster. He’s a wonderful man.”
Abraham met her gaze without any hint of anxiety. “He wants you only so long as you do not think – so long as you do not speak. You must ask yourself: why does he fear you so much?”
“He doesn’t fear me,” she said.
“Oh, but he does. Perhaps more than you know.”
“He keeps me safe,” Darbi insisted. “Safer than I would be anywhere else. I don’t have to be…” she struggled for the right words, “I don’t have to be treated like a piece of meat. So long as I am his wife, I know that I am cherished and honored and free, and that I don’t have to fear what some man may do to me – no one would dare… He protects me from all that.”
The music was ending.
Abraham frowned but didn’t seem entirely put out. “I will come back to see you next time I am in town,” he said. “And if they won’t let me in – I will come back the next time, and the time after that, and the time after that. Even if they put me in jail – even if they arrest me and send me home in disgrace – I will keep coming back. Not to save you, as you say, but simply to make sure that you are as safe and free as you hope to be.” The last notes wove their way around the floor, and the dance came to an end. He kissed her hand. “And if there ever comes a time when you need to know that you are important to someone… know that you are important to me.”
She curtsied politely.
“But you must make me one promise,” he said, without letting go of her hand.
“What is it?”
Darbi stared at him for a frozen moment, and then let go of his hand like he’d just propositioned her. Without another word, she returned to her seat.
The older woman on her left looked at her as she sat down again. “Oh, my dear,” the woman said, placing a concerned hand on her arm, “are you all right?”
“Yes,” Darbi whispered, wiping away a tear. “I’m fine.”
Jess stifled a yawn as the elevator reached its floor with a cheerful ‘ding’. The four of them – Jess, Darbi, Sascha and Rebecca – were the last ones in for the night. Sascha peeled off her long cotillion gloves even as they made their way through the gate in a thick, swishy rustle of taffeta petticoats.
Max had left the door to his office open, and quietly stepped back inside as the ladies made their way down the hall. Darbi stopped in the hallway and inspected the hem of her dress in the light. Her escort, Joanna’s ten-year-old son Payton, had stepped on it when leading her through the receiving line and it had torn a little. She looked at the three-inch rip with a frown. The doorway to Max’s office glowed warmly from just his desk lamp.
“Thirty-one,” he called out quietly from the doorway, beckoning her inside. Darbi sank. She knew she shouldn’t have stopped.
Her wide copper-colored skirt hushed and whished past him as she tried to enter his office with an air of innocence. He shut the door behind her.
Before she even had a chance to turn around and face him, Max grabbed her hair and pulled her back with a yelp. Shoving her against the door, he clutched her throat right up under her chin and nearly lifted her off the floor.
“You don’t ever speak to that man again,” he hissed coolly, just a few inches away but holding her up higher than his own face. “Do you understand me?”
A wide-eyed Darbi tried to nod but found that she could hardly move her head. His grip held the points of her jaw in a vice.
Max slowly let her go and opened the door once more. She bolted out.
“He’s on a damned watch-list!” Max thundered across Robinson’s homely little desk. “What the hell was he doing here?!?”
Robinson smirked obsequiously. “I thought that you must have invited him.”
“Oh don’t be such a smart-ass, Jacob,” Max spat. He shoved a finger in Robinson’s face. “You want me to do my job: you do yours!”
The EA fluffed some papers and tried to pretend that he wasn’t frightened, but a little nervous frown suggested otherwise. “I believe that there was a mix-up with the spelling of his surname. It’s an easy enough error to make, but I can assure you that we’re dealing with it.”
“Is this your version of security and professionalism?”
Robinson glared back at the older man. “You could have just confined her. Problem solved.”
“My girls aren’t the problem here,” Max countered. “You’ve got a foreign zealot trying to pry up information about the Emperor’s private life, and your people can’t even keep him out of the palace for Christ’s sake!”
“They’re not ‘your girls’, Max,” Robinson reverted to a condescending smile. “And if they’d just learned to keep their mouths shut…”
“No, you’re right,” Max replied, crossing his arms, “they’re not my girls. They’re the Emperor’s girls. And if he wants to take them to dances, then he can damned well take them to dances!… You’ve got no evidence that any of those ladies have said anything improper to anybody! But surely it’s your job to keep suspected spies away from the Emperor and his family!”
Robinson closed his eyes in a cynical display of patience. “You know that it’s not as simple as that, Max.”
“Why not?” Max shook his head in disbelief. “What’s the point in blacklisting someone if they’re just going to be allowed free access to anyone in the palace? I may as well just unlock the gate to the Women’s Wing and be done with!”
Robinson replied like he was talking to a child: “Max, the point of the gate isn’t to keep people out – it’s to keep them in.”
The Kiz paused for a few seconds. “Well then, I think you and I differ on that point,” he said coldly.
Abraham was so close that he was sure his breath must be tickling the young businessman’s freckled neck, and yet the man showed no outward sign of it. The professor tried to look down politely while they waited in the cramped aisle, but only found himself studying the untucked t-shirt and the inch of underwear visible above the young man’s slacks. Things weren’t like they used to be. He shuffled his folded newspaper under his arm and tried to get as comfortable as possible, given the fact that a quick shove from behind would see the entire aisle committing a sexual assault. He hated air travel.
As they finally, gradually slotted into their airline seats, Abraham was a little embarrassed to see that the man whose dress-sense he had just mentally derided was now sitting in the seat next to his. He gave the young man a courteous nod, which was returned, and then tried to fit his case inside the tiny locker.
“How is it that civilization advances, and yet the planes keep getting smaller?” the spy asked with a smile.
“Progress seems to miniaturize everything except people,” Abraham returned, his eyes glowing warmly as he forced the plastic locker to a point that it nearly snapped.
“Nick,” the young man said, holding out his hand in a friendly greeting.
“Abraham,” the older man replied, taking his hand in a firm shake. The young man’s hands were a lot stronger and more calloused than he would have initially presumed.
“So were you travelling for business?” Nick asked as Abraham settled into his seat.
“Merely a little research for my book,” the old man smiled. “I was visiting an old friend, and seeing a few of the sights. I try to get over at least once or twice a year to go through their libraries.”
“What does your friend do?”
“He’s a religious man,” Abraham gave a humble nod. “He works as the women’s deacon at Victory Palace.”
“That must be an interesting job,” Nick’s eyes became a little faraway. “I will admit that their women have always fascinated me.”
Abraham’s thoughts also began to wander. “I fear that it is rarely as poetic an existence as we might be led to believe.”
The young man looked at him, bemused. “You sound like you know something that I don’t.”
“Merely observation, my boy,” the professor replied a little coyly.
“So you spent some time at the palace?”
“A little. Tom (that’s my friend) has managed to finagle me the odd invitation in the past.”
“I hear that it’s very beautiful.”
“Oh it is… very beautiful. Very… impressive.”
“Have you ever met the Emperor?”
“Only in a presentation line, I’m afraid. I’ve been to a couple of functions in the past.”
“But not this time?”
“Yes… I was there two days ago in fact.” Abraham looked quite distracted by now.
The young man looked at him quizzically. “Did I say something wrong?”
“No, no…” Abraham said politely, as if brushing off his thoughts. “I’m sorry – I was merely thinking of something else.”
Nick leaned forward a little in his seat, obviously keen to continue this discussion. “So I’m curious – how does it work? Is it true what I’ve read that you’re not even allowed to look at the Emperor’s women?”
Abraham took a breath and tried to explain. “They do make exceptions for foreigners, like us, because we’re not used to this idea of treating people like they’re invisible… But it’s still not the height of etiquette. Certainly other men within the palace are not allowed to look.”
“But how does that work?” the young man repeated. “I mean: I have to see the girl to know that she’s there, to know that I’m not meant to look… You know what I’m saying?”
“It’s much like passing people on a crowded street,” Abraham replied. “You will see them out of your peripheral vision, and be aware that they’re there, but rarely look at them directly. It’s just a matter of creating that kind of personal space around oneself.”
“Wouldn’t… you still want to look though?” Nick insisted. “I mean: they’re meant to be gorgeous. And it’s not like these guys have wives of their own to go home to.”
“Well, you probably wouldn’t stare if the potential punishment was death…”
The young man gave a little half-laugh. “No, I guess not.” He then seemed to strike on an idea. “… So did you look?” Nick whispered slyly.
“I actually had the good fortune to meet one of the Emperor’s wives at the temple.”
“Really?” Nick was intrigued. “Did she talk to you?”
“A little,” Abraham nodded. “She had bodyguards with her though. It was a bit awkward.”
“What was she like?”
“She was lovely.”
“Certainly. Rather young for a man my age though,” Abraham smiled. “Very polite. Very modest. Good sense of humor. But… terrified.”
“Displeasing her husband, I suspect.”
Nick shrugged. “Well I guess that’s the downside of being interchangeable… You don’t think it’s just a bit of an act though? The whole ‘please rescue me’ thing? It gets a guy like that hooked, doesn’t it? Strokes all our egos…”
“I don’t…” the old man paused, not finishing his sentence.
“Well it’s not like he’s marrying them for their keen political insight! They’ve gotta have a good act!”
Abraham’s eyes glazed over. “She actually struck me as very poised and intelligent. There’s certainly an intellectual curiosity in there… there’s just no one who’s willing to help her explore her own insights. All they get is the official party line… To be honest, it made me extremely angry to see how she was treated. I have more respect for my dog than anyone was showing to her.”
“Well, really, I mean… what good are they to the world? It’s not like they’re curing cancer or anything. All they have to do is sit around and look pretty, shop at designer stores, and polish his knob occasionally! And it’s not even like they need to do that every day. They can share it around… There’s what? Thirty of them?”
“Thirty-five,” Abraham frowned.
“Thirty-five,” the spy gave a low whistle and nodded. “Oh, to be rich and powerful in the Empire…”
The old professor breathed out gruffly.
“I have trouble with one! I couldn’t imagine what thirty-five would be like!… Can you imagine the nagging?”
“I doubt they ever get the opportunity.”
“So did you try to help her explore?” Nick went on with a slightly naughty curiosity. “Could she teach you anything new?… ”
Abraham glanced over at the young man, his misty expression suddenly gone. “No.” He shook his head with a newly worried look. “She has created her own excuses – her own way of masking her suffering, even from herself. But to be in her position, and understand that there are other options… that would be like death.”