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Absinthe Moon, an excerpt | VRChristensen

Absinthe Moon, an excerpt

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Prologue

30 September 2101

The soot-encrusted streets grew more crowded as the carriage approached the entrance to the Absinthe Moon. Robert Mayhew descended the cab and pushed the armored door closed with a muffled thud, then turned to observe the matched horses, immense and muscular, as they pulled their burden from the curb. The sounds of gunfire sounded in the near distance, reminding him how unwise it was to turn ones back on any crowd. He secured the latches of his coat, ensuring the bullet-resistant leather covered him securely, and turned instead to examine the towered and turreted building before him. It was the largest and most respected bordello in the Liebesturm district, and the center of recreation and leisure for the greater part of New London—for the better part, at any rate.

New London, with its smog-choked air and densely populated urban core was a thoroughly modern city, designed to provide every need, if not every comfort, to its burgeoning populace. Global over-population had once been a dire concern. To solve the problem, to rescue the planet and its quickly dwindling natural resources, the entirety of the world’s populace had been gathered into a handful of urban centers. It was the last hope of saving the earth—and humanity. Perfecting that humanity was the aim of the Icarus Project, where, through hard work ingenuity and, above all else, physical perfection, the inherently superior would rise to the top and lead the people into a new and better era.

Mayhew forced his way through the crowd and entered to stand a moment in the sumptuously decorated foyer. The gas-lit chandeliers cast a warm, flickering glow over the velvet upholstery and thick oriental rugs. But he had no time to waste gawping over the Moon’s finery. He took his place in line and waited his turn at the reception desk.

“Last screening?” the concierge inquired when his turn came.

“Congratulations,” she said. “You won’t mind providing a sample, I trust? Just for identification purposes.”

He held forth his hand. His finger was swabbed and pricked and a tiny vial of blood collected. It was placed on a card and submitted into a computer screening system. The computer’s gears whizzed and whirred, it spewed steam and choked. A sharp ding indicated that his records had been matched. The concierge examined them while the rest of his results were populated.

“Robert Mayhew?” she said, though there was little need to inquire. It was there before her on the flickering screen. “Birthday, please?”

“September 30, 2079.”

“Happy birthday,” she said and smiled at him. She had come from Asian descent, he guessed. She was very pretty.

“Can you confirm your address, please?”

He gave it. He lived here, in the Liebesturm district, the 4th habitat and the humblest of the districts allowed to patronize Madame Moon’s venerable establishment. The receptionist eyed him with cautious admiration. She might doubt his results if she wished, but the screenings were never wrong.

“You have Privilege, I see. And a great deal of it. Have we been saving for something special?” she asked with a coy smile.

“Perhaps,” he answered dryly.

“It’s unusual for someone from the 4th to have so much Privilege,” she observed. The monetary system of the Project provided that everyone had their most basic needs met. What one earned beyond that was their own business—as was how they spent it. It wasn’t her place to question his budgetary practices beyond assuring he could pay for the services provided him. Perhaps she was only making small talk while the system finished populating the results of his sample, and while it compared those results to those of his most recent screening.

He knew what she was looking for—what the results would tell her—and what it would take her a moment to believe. She looked up from the screen, examined him, tall, dark haired, a perfect complexion beneath his perfectly-groomed stubble of a beard, perfect features, perfect frame… A perfect man?

She was suddenly all admiring obsequiousness. “What are your preferences, Mr. Mayhew? How might we make your visit today something worth remembering? Perhaps you would like something a little…exotic.” She blinked slowly, her dark eyes peering through very long—and probably false—eyelashes.

“I’ve come to see Madame Moon herself, actually.”

She graced him with a look that was at once rejection and offense at his presumptuousness. Who was he to request—and so certainly—such special treatment? Well, that was for Madame Moon alone to find out.

“I’m afraid it takes weeks, sometimes months, to get an appointment with Madame—if she’ll grant it at all. You must understand, her time is very much in demand. She is a celebrity, you know.”

“Yes, of course.”

Who didn’t know that? The fact was insignificant to him. It would prove helpful by and by, but for now… He took a slip of paper from his pocket and slid it across the counter. On it was written a single phrase—An old acquaintance wishes to say hello—and a series of numbers. Eight of them. 09302079. He slid it across the counter to the concierge, who read it and looked up at him.

“You are already acquainted with Madame Moon?” she asked him dubiously.

“Let’s just say she is acquainted with me.” He extracted a coin from his pocket and laid it on the counter. The red numbers glared, indicating a sum equal to a week’s wages.

She looked at the coin suspiciously.

“It’s unmarked,” he said. “Just don’t spend it all in one place.”

She hesitated a moment, her hand hovering over it, before at last grabbing it up quickly and tucking it away in the pocket of her blouse. She then left to deliver the message.

He waited, not quite patiently, while the customers behind him groaned and murmured in impatient displeasure. Mayhew had not much sympathy with them. They had their own selfish purposes to fulfill, and they would have it fulfilled sooner or later, one way or another. His own purpose was a little more ambitious, if not, ultimately, as selfish. He checked his watch, and then checked it again.

A quarter of an hour later, the girl returned.

“She’ll see you,” she said as if she thought he’d be surprised.

He wasn’t.

“If you’ll follow me.”

He returned his watch to his pocket and followed as the concierge led the way. On the third floor, at the end of a long maze of corridors, they came to a suite of rooms where a door was flanked by two female guards, one of which opened the door, allowing Mayhew to pass. He entered, alone, and the door closed behind him.

Tentatively he crossed the foyer and entered a small but comfortable sitting room. She was there, resting half reclined on a darkly upholstered divan and looking perfectly at ease in a kimono style robe that was loosely tied. The Queen of the Liebesturm, known throughout New London as a timeless and ageless beauty, as the goddess of her profession and a representation to all women everywhere as to what it was possible for a woman to accomplish, appeared rather spent and tired in real life, though her photographs and advertisements suggested an ever-flawless appearance. Her occupation was tiring, however, the demands upon her time and her energies unrelenting. She ought to look tired and spent. She ought to look old. She was fifty, after all. Despite her position and power, her fame and wealth, she had lived a very long life. Longer than most who remain in the Liebesturm district. It was the home to the labor force, and she was perhaps one of the hardest working of all.

“What can I do for you?” she said, tucking a red curl behind one ear. Her hands were trembling slightly. Was it a side-effect of drink, or had she begun to form a suspicion as to why he had come? She had granted him audience. She must have some idea.

He did not answer her, but laid his hat aside and slipped out of his overcoat, which he draped over the back of a chair. He removed his right glove and with deft fingers he unbuttoned his waistcoat and laid it, too, aside. He loosened his necktie and then, one by one, he freed each of the buttons on his shirt. He hesitated a moment before removing it, but at last slid it from his shoulders and let it drop to the floor. He drew off his left glove and it, too, fell to the floor. He watched her watch him, unmoving but not unmoved as her eyes took in the whole of what she saw. Was she impressed? Afraid? Horrified? He was not perfect, after all. Hardly that.

Her eyes met his with a question that swam in shimmering brilliance. He knew the question but would not answer it until it was spoken. As she prepared to utter it a shadow crossed her face and gave her the appearance of a woman ten years older than she truly was.

“Why have you come?”

“Why do you think?”

Chapter one

Four years later.

On the extreme summit, where the ends of the two converging hedges…were stopped short by meeting the brow of the chalk pit, he saw the younger dog standing against the sky—dark and motionless as Napoleon at St. Helena. A horrible conviction darted through Oak. With a sensation of bodily faintness he advanced: at one point the rails were broken through, and there he saw the footprints of his ewes. The dog came up, licked his hand, and made signs implying that he expected some great reward for signal services rendered. Oak looked over the precipice. The ewes lay dead and dying at its foot…

—Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd

T

he gas jets flickered and in the temporary darkness Emaline looked up from her reading to peer through the window and out onto the street. It was late afternoon, but dark as afternoons so often were. If only a rain would come and wash the grit from the sky. She couldn’t remember when she had last seen the sun.

Emaline examined the passersby. Alfred was expected home any moment. Was he among these men, talking and laughing as they made their way along the lamplit street? She could not hear them over the loudspeakers that cackled incessantly, or over the gramophone that her aunt employed to drown out the barrage of senseless music and incessant prattle of meaningless information the Icarus Project seemed to think was necessary to its citizens’ welfare.

The gentlemen had passed by without stopping but others soon followed to replace them. The gas came back on. The automatic pilots clicked and the room was once more awash in light and casting a glare upon the window panes so that she could no longer see outside. She wiped the glass with her fisted hand.

“Oh my dear, must you?” Aunt Maggie scolded her.

Both her hand and the sleeve of her blouse were now stained with sooted humidity. Emaline took only a passing notice and, ignoring her aunt, she removed her violet-lensed glasses and strained once more to see outside. The gentlemen had gone.

Emaline’s heart gave a little flutter as Alfred appeared at the sitting room doorway, accompanied by two of his most recent acquaintances. He greeted his mother coolly as she arose to receive them. He greeted Emaline not at all. That was how it had been of late. Alfred, her cousin, once her closest friend and confidant, no longer seemed to notice her. He was too preoccupied these days with the effort to throw off his mother’s restraining influence. In his quest for independence he had begun to associate with shadier and shadier characters, men who had no respect for her aunt’s outmoded principles. Men who would persuade Alfred to hold them in contempt, as no doubt they did themselves. It was they Emaline held in contempt. Their influence over her cousin was both observable and deeply disturbing.

She peered over her glasses as Aunt Maggie offered tea. The gentlemen accepted and followed her into the dining room, while Emaline determined to ignore them as thoroughly as they ignored her. She felt the slight as far as it concerned Alfred. If she went unnoticed by his friends perhaps that was for the best.

She turned her attention from them to the wallpapers. She rather liked the large damask of plumb and black. The furniture was comfortable, the décor seemingly inspired by an era somewhat similar to that she was used to reading about in the antique books her aunt collected and held as her dearest possessions.

Aunt Maggie felt herself out of place in this world, though she could not have remembered any other. Her beloved books evoked a simpler time. They were stories of love and longing, of bridled passions and desires unfulfilled, of large, happy families, and friends one could trust and depend on. Of right and wrong clearly defined. Not like this world at all.

While Aunt Maggie found great comfort in her daily readings, Emaline found them confusing, even troubling at times. Having always lived in New London, and generally in the humbler parts of it, she had no way of knowing where to separate fact from fiction. What was history? What was invention? She had read of journeys to the center of the earth and great houses in the distant and open countryside, of space and time travel and of journeys overseas, of immaculate conceptions and murdered saints, of superhuman feats of strength and extraordinary triumphs of cunning and intellect. It was these last accomplishments that fascinated Emaline most. Was it not possible that every person born had been given a special gift? She had noticed in those around her, in her family in particular, that each had been blessed with some quality extraordinary and unique to them alone.

Aunt Maggie, for example, though she took comfort in stories of the past, claimed to have strange visions of the future. Perhaps it was nothing more than paranoia, or her over-active imagination, ‘ideas’ and false notions that had persuaded the Icarus Project to deem such books illegal. But Aunt took such immense solace from them, that, despite her Uncle’s protestations, she would read them. As for her aunt’s strange notions, Emaline found them impossible to dismiss outright. Aunt Maggie believed the Icarus Project, the government program which determined who was worth more in New London than another, was nothing more than a means by which the city’s leaders could conspire against their own people.

“They are coming for us,” Aunt Maggie would say when in one of her fits, while her children and husband laughed at her and called her ridiculous and while Emaline tried to sooth and comfort her. “Just you wait. One of these days they will gather us up like cattle and slaughter us all.”

Gifts. That’s what she was thinking about. Not those theories and speculations that gave her such nightmares. Gifts.

Alfred’s gift was immediately apparent upon looking at him. He was breathtakingly beautiful, a perfect specimen of male humanity with his perfect complexion that was always just a little rosy, his bright sparkling blue eyes, and his tall, lithe frame. On that alone he might go far, for no one rose to the outer habitats who was not perfectly formed in every way. But Alfred was also convincing. Perhaps it was simply for his angelic good looks that everyone seemed to trust him. Perhaps it was something more. Every story he told, every assurance he made, one simply had to believe him.

If Emaline had any gift at all, surely it was that of invisibility. She sat there alone in her comfortable corner, plainly in sight but entirely unobserved. She did not wholly mind it. In fact it gave her a certain advantage. She could watch them, Alfred and his friends, she could study them, evaluate them, and no one would mind that she did it.

Phillip Keaton had come before. He was pleasant looking, but not tall, and wore his hair a little long and unkempt. He had come, originally, from the 3rd habitat, and had clung to his father’s coattails as the family had ascended to the 5th. He considered himself as having “arrived” and planned to relax and enjoy himself there, to remain and to do so without having to exert much toward the effort. Emaline wondered how long it would last. At the breakneck pace he and Alfred were running through their measured allowance of monthly Privilege—the digitized tokens that allowed them all they required, and, in the outer habitats, what they wanted as well—Emaline wondered that he was still here at all. She feared if Alfred were not very careful he might not be able to maintain the place his father had earned for him. It was easier, after all, to move inward than outward. But, when all was said and done, Alfred could do far worse for friends.

Case in point: Robert Mayhew, the second of his companions this evening. She caught his name and studied him all the more carefully. She had heard that name before, whispered about. He was connected with something…what was it? Something her aunt despised. Something dangerous and loathsome and something, Uncle repeatedly assured his wife, was necessary to keeping the cogs of the current enterprise running smoothly.

Cautiously Emaline lowered her glasses again. She really could see much better without them, but then that was the problem. She saw too much. She could see it, the Shade that Mr. Mayhew had brought with him. It walked arm in arm with him, slid long shadowy fingers through his dark hair, around his neck, across his chest. It held its amorphous face against his stubbled cheek, and spoke into his ear. Could he hear it? Did he heed it? Was it his friend? His lover? Or merely a reflection of his soul? When it turned its blackened eyes upon her, she slid her glasses back into place and returned her attention to the wallpaper, studying its scrolls and flourishes, the light and shade of it. She might not look, but she could still listen, though the record continued to play in the background. It was gentle and soothing, not like what thumped and pounded from the loudspeakers outside. It was familiar to her, despite its strangeness to others. It, like the books, was from an era long passed.

“You haven’t been yet?” she heard Keaton say as if he found the notion—whatever it was—astonishing.

Emaline’s resolve crumbled. She looked. Mr. Mayhew was smiling broadly in that smarmy, self-satisfied way of his.

“I haven’t,” Alfred answered sheepishly. “Mother doesn’t approve of the Moon, do you Mother?” he said to her as she entered with the tea things. “She doesn’t approve of the brothels at all—despite their obvious necessity.”

Aunt Maggie merely shook her head and mumbled something incoherent as she returned to the kitchen.

“Well you can’t go it alone,” Keaton said. “Not now you’re in the 6th. It’s too risky to do otherwise.”

“That’s rather hypocritical of you, Keaton, if I do say so.”

“I’m don’t live here in the 6th though, do I?” Keaton said and smiled half-ashamed, half-envious. “Besides, the Moon’s a little too high-brow for my taste. But if it’s the Moon you have your heart set on, then why don’t you have Mayhew show you the ropes?”

Emaline grew increasingly troubled as she listened to the conversation. Alfred was meant to be something great, and here were these…gentlemen…come to persuade him to be as wicked and self-indulgent as they. Why did the great ones always seem to be so weak? He was better than this, and Emaline was determined to make him know it. It was her duty to rescue him. He would be grateful one day.

“He’s there every night,” Keaton went on, “or so I hear. How he has Privilege left to eat I’ll never understand.”

“Not quite every night,” Mr. Mayhew answered as if it were a point of modesty. “Nearly every, but not quite.”

“I hear you have a standing appointment with Madame Moon, herself. Is it true?”

Emaline, growing increasingly disgusted by the conversation, continued to watch Mr. Mayhew alone.

Mr. Mayhew demurred with a cock of his head and turned from his friends to the table as Aunt Maggie placed a cup and saucer before him.

“Thank you, Mrs. Newell,” he said so solicitously Emaline wondered if he were quite sincere. He sounded sincere. It was all the more reason not to trust him.

“You are very welcome, Mr. Mayhew. Sit, won’t you? Make yourselves comfortable.”

Mr. Mayhew nodded, but did not sit and took up a cup and saucer. As he raised the cup with his right hand, the saucer fell from his left. To his luck it landed on the hearth rug and did not break. He picked it up.

“I beg your pardon,” he said, and looked a trifle embarrassed, and at last sat as he was bid. It was only then he observed Emaline. “Good night! Have you been sitting there all this time?” he said and stood again.

His rudeness, accompanied with his show of politeness, confused her. She was offended and yet… No, she was offended by him. There was no need to confuse things with niceties. She realized who he was by now, of course. He was the famous head curator of the Absinthe Moon, a quickly rising star in the flesh trade, and a connoisseur of high-quality companionship of the hired variety. So why was her aunt being so nice to him? Did she fear him for some reason?

The recording ended, and the needle bumped and thudded against the spindle in time with her heart.

“Emaline, will you stop lurking in corners and come help me with the sandwiches?”

Emaline arose, smoothed her long skirt, straightened the corset that fit tightly over it, and followed her aunt out of the room. Mr. Mayhew, still standing bowed, but the other gentlemen did not seem to notice her at all.

In the corridor Emaline lingered, hoping to hear what more she could of their conversation.

“I forgot you had a sister, Newell,” Mr. Mayhew said. “But didn’t you tell me she was a twin?”

“Oh, Em’s not my sister. She’s my cousin.”

“But she lives with you?”

“Yes. It’s rather a drain on dear old Dad, but mother insisted on it after her sister died. There was nowhere else for her to go.”

“And they allowed it?”

“For a price, I assure you, they’ll allow almost anything.”

“I don’t think so, Newell,” Mayhew returned. “Two children only is the rule. There must have been something extraordinary in her circumstances.”

“Yes, of course,” Alfred said with a laugh that suggested impatience. “I told you. Her mother died, and…”

“That wasn’t’ quite what I meant,” he said, interrupting him. He was silent a moment, as if there was a question he wished to pose but was uncertain he should. “Never mind,” he said at last. “It isn’t important.”

“So are you going to take Newell to see your special lady friend or not?” Mr. Keaton asked of Mr. Mayhew.

“I don’t know to whom you can be referring,” he answered dismissively.

“You mean you don’t know which, there are so many of them! It’s the goddess, I’m referring to. Queen Madame of New London. She is a little old for you, isn’t she?” Mr. Keaton asked with a smirk.

“I take it it’s Madame Moon, you’re referring to,” he answered with the sound of a forced smile in his voice. “I’ll beg you to speak of her with respect.”

“She’s that special to you, is she?”

“It’s a privilege to know her at all,” Mr. Mayhew answered, making a point.

Mr. Keaton was reluctant to take it. “That is a ‘no’, then. Sorry Newell. I tried.”

Emaline heard her aunt’s footsteps and turned.

“There you are,” she said, a tray in hand. “Take these in, won’t you?”

Emaline returned once more to the dining room. Mr. Mayhew was seated now, and he looked up at her as she entered, his eyes following her, watching her, trying to divine the secret of her extraordinary existence here. It was not so great a mystery as one might suppose. Motherly love, familial duty, some still possessed these qualities. Certainly Robert Mayhew knew nothing of them. She laid down the sandwiches and prepared to return to her chair in the farthest corner of the room.

“Oh do dish them out, Em, that’s a dear,” Alfred said. He was looking at her so imploringly. How she missed that look!

“Yes, all right,” she said. It was for Alfred’s sake alone she obeyed. Perhaps in doing so she might show his friends just how devoted she was to him—how much he deserved that devotion. She handed Alfred a plate, then Mr. Keaton. And lastly, as if there were a point to make in that as well—and there was—Mr. Mayhew. He would not take it from her.

“You can put it down,” he said. He held his cup in one gloved hand, but the other was free.

“Or you could just take it,” she said. Laying it down would mean coming round to his side of the table if she wanted to do it without toppling the teapot.

“Or you could just set it down, Miss Newell. If you don’t mind,” he added more insistently. She wondered why it mattered so and suspected he had an ulterior motive.

“You know, most people remove their gloves when they are eating.”

“I think you’ll find I am hardly ‘most people’. May I have my plate?”

She sighed and crossed to his side of the table, and yet still held it before him.

He was watching her hands. He nodded a gesture toward the table, but still she stood there.

“Forgive me if it seems impertinent, Miss Newell, but I want to see your hands.”

“Perhaps I want to see yours.”

He gave her a long, blank look and at last put down his cup. With his now empty hand he took hers and examined it. She tried to take it back, but he held fast, and with a look that was both solicitous and warning, he continued his examination, first of her palm and then the back of her hand. He looked up again, first at her, then at Alfred.

“Black?”

Alfred shrugged.

She freed her hand, wiped it hard on her skirt and presented it to him again. “Soot,” she said, and might have added “you idiot,” but didn’t. It was in her tone, nonetheless.

He took her hand again, more gently this time, and studied her fingers, front and back and in between. He lingered over her nails especially. “How old are you?”

“It’s none of your business.”

“I want to know,” he said and looked up once more.

“I’m sure you do, but—”

“She’s twenty, Mayhew,” Alfred answered him.

“Twenty?” he said in surprise and examined the rest of her.

“The flowers in my aunt’s garden are not to be picked, if you take my meaning. She’s my aunt’s pet and she won’t give her up. Not to you, at any rate.”

“I’m almost insulted,” he said, and flashed her a too knowing grin. It was the kind of self-confident smile that suggested he was used to getting what he wanted.

She took her hand back and thrust her plate into his other hand. The moment his fingers took hold of it, it snapped into a dozen pieces.

“Look what you’ve done!” Emaline said, and wished to say a great many things more. Mr. Mayhew’s gift was clumsiness, it seemed.

“I did ask you to lay it down,” he said, that smile still on his face, though there was a sharpness to his gaze that implied frustration.

“I won’t get you another.”

“Then I suppose it’s a good thing I’m not hungry.”

Having had enough of him and his conversation, she returned to her place and once more took up her occupation of studying the wallpaper.

“She has no Tinge,” she heard Mr. Mayhew comment to her cousin.

“She never goes out. She’s had little opportunity to acquire it.”

“The pollution, you mean?” Mayhew asked as if he were not entirely aware how the Tinge was acquired.

“It’s not that unusual. Mine is very light, after all,” Alfred said. Emaline looked as he raised a hand as evidence. She knew those hands well. They might easily have been as fair as her own had he heeded to his mother’s admonitions. He had not, of course, and so, his fingers, consequently, were laced with blue. Were it not for the vaccinations they might be much darker yet.

“You don’t have it, I think,” Alfred observed to Mr. Mayhew. “Or is that why you wear the gloves?”

Mr. Mayhew flinch a smile as his only answer.

Alfred shrugged. “I suppose there are impurities in everything from the paint to the water, but… No, she’s perfectly healthy. Aunt is very careful with her.”

Mayhew seemed to consider this, apparently thought to ask a question further, but abandoned the attempt when Aunt Maggie returned with some colorless fruit and some very dry cheese. Mr. Mayhew thanked her but took none and arose. From his place across the room he observed Emaline, watched her as if there were some secret she had yet to reveal.

“What’s wrong with your eyes?” he said at last.

The door opened and closed again, mercifully distracting his attention.

“Ah, there you are, Arden!” said her aunt, greeting her daughter as she entered the house. “You’re just in time for tea. Alfred has brought friends. Mr. Keaton, whom you’ve already met, and Mr. Robert Mayhew.”

“It’s good to see you again, Mr. Keaton,” Arden said and allowed her smile to linger upon him a little longer than necessary. Her skin was porcelain perfect, her cheeks faintly but ever-blushing, and both qualities were accomplished with a great deal of makeup. She turned to the other gentleman. “Mr. Mayhew,” she said and shook his hand with blue-tinged fingers. “I’ve heard a very great deal about you. And not all of it good. All of it interesting, mind, but not good.” She giggled and batted her very long eyelashes.

“I cannot quite decide if that is a compliment, Miss Newell.”

“I suppose it might be whatever you wish it, Mr. Mayhew. You are a clever fellow, after all.” She gave him a sideways look and a crooked, thoughtful smile. “To be quite honest,” she said in a tone more confidential, “I always preferred interesting over good.”

She held both gentlemen in thrall. That was her gift, Arden’s. She possessed a power to attract that was absolutely irresistible. She could capture the attention of anyone, young or old, male or female, and could hold it for as long as she pleased. It was perhaps a good thing Emaline had never been prone to jealousy. She was jealous for Alfred’s attention, but she had long ago lost that, and it had nothing whatsoever to do with his sister. He had simply found shinier toys to play with than his too sheltered, too unextraordinary cousin.

Arden, after examining the fare, and bending low to do it so that each of the gentlemen had an opportunity to appreciate what they might of her fine figure, took up a plate. Mr. Keaton nearly fell over himself as he offered to fill it for her. She let him. And when she had her plate again, she sat down to enjoy it, and to continue to captivate her audience with her coy conversation and flirtatious smiles. Emaline would have thought them super-human indeed had they been able to resist it.

And, once again—and perhaps mercifully—Emaline was invisible. She was invisible still, half an hour later when her uncle arrived home.

Uncle Edison entered, was greeted by his wife who kissed him on the cheek. He received the gesture with the satisfaction of a man who had observed duty fulfilled.

If Uncle Edison had a gift, it had to be ingenuity. He had a knack for turning any idea into lucrative reality. He was a Midas among men, and the proof was in the mercurial rise the family had experienced in recent years—all owing to his business acumen and administerial abilities. They had moved house twice in the last year, from the 4th habitat to the 6th, and her uncle had begun to hint of another promotion yet—perhaps even within the year. Their life, once humble and sparing, was almost luxurious now. Their Church Street townhouse was quite the most comfortable house they’d ever lived in. Privileges were now allowed them they had never known before. They had money, a certain amount of freedom, and they could live very much as they pleased, so long as they kept the gloss of respectability as their shield. Did that respectability mean playing nice to Mr. Mayhew, or eschewing him? If Aunt Maggie’s manner toward him was unexpectedly hospitable, what would be her uncle’s?”

“Did you have a good day, uncle?” Emaline said, greeting him. “We have guests.”

He grunted his acknowledgement but did not look at her. He rarely spoke to her, at least not in the presence of company. She did not blame him. She understood very well what it cost him to keep her and that she had not quite earned her place. Not yet, at any rate.

“Can I introduce you to my friends, Father?” Alfred said and proceeded to do just that. “You remember Mr. Keaton, of course.”

“Of course I do. Welcome, Mr. Keaton.”

“And Mr. Mayhew. He’s especially eager to meet you, sir.”

“Mayhew?” Uncle Edison repeated and seemed to think the name significant. “Not Robert Mayhew?”

“Indeed, sir,” Mr. Mayhew said and put forth his hand.

“I’ve heard a great deal about you. You are rather a legend in your field, are you not?” he said and looked briefly to his wife and then his daughter, as if he were having second thoughts about the conversation.

“That’s not for me to say, sir. But your son is right, I have been looking forward to speaking with you. If you could spare the time.”

“By all means!” he said and smiled. He appeared a trifle nervous, but led them to his study. “Come this way, won’t you?”

The door shut upon them. Emaline was visible, it seemed, to only her aunt, who, now having a moment to herself, sat down to listen to a little more of Farmer Oak’s plight.

“What will he do with himself now his sheep are all dead?” Aunt Maggie asked her, and Emaline, as she recovered the book from under the chair and recommenced her reading, attempted to answer her.

In time the animated hum of conversation on the other side of the room dissipated and disappeared altogether. Mr. Keaton and Arden had snuck away. Aunt Maggie took a passing notice and, with only a heavy sigh to indicate her disapproval, listened on as Emaline read.

 

“That was odd,” Alfred said when he returned to the sitting room a quarter of an hour later.

“What is odd, dear?” Aunt Maggie asked looking up at him.

His attention was full upon Emaline. She waited for him to answer the question.

“Mr. Mayhew wanted to know about you.”

“Me?” Emaline said and her blood turned a little cold as her aunt took her hand in her own. “Why on earth is he interested in me?”

“Oh, Alfred, why did you have to bring him here?” Aunt Maggie asked him. “You must have known the danger.”

“Why should there be any danger? You can’t seriously think he’d consider making an offer for her,” he said with a look that implied her apparent disqualifications. “Not our odd little Emaline. I wish he would though. What a relief that would be!”

Emaline felt the rift in her heart widen. “That is unkind of you, Alfred. I’m sorry to know you’re so eager to be rid of me. You used to like me well enough once.”

“Not well enough for that!”

“Shame on you, Alfred,” Aunt Maggie scolded him. “She’s your cousin. How can you think of such a thing? Have you no natural feeling at all for your family?”

“And what of Father? Does no one think of him? If Mr. Mayhew makes an offer for her, Father’d be a fool not to take it.”

Aunt Maggie began rocking back and forth in her chair, wringing her hands together. Emaline arose to start the record again, and then returned to her reading, hoping eventually the combined effect would calm her aunt. Emaline paid no attention to the words on the page, however. Her thoughts and feelings were too tumultuous to think of anything other than the interview taking place in another room. She held her aunt’s hand, both for Aunt Maggie’s comfort as well as her own.

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Regarding Annie
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The Bath Novels of Lady A~
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