“And for the main ballroom,” Nahemiah Froll said, tossing the latest issue of Arts Today in our direction as she paced heavily over the mosaic floor, “I want that piece that Estorges made for Hestland’s Public Opera. The Three Dancers of Gizari.”
I tried to forget that I knew to the penny how much that thousand-year-old mosaic she was stomping on had cost (1,023,048.18 thalers sterling, not counting shipping it across the sea and all the wrangling with the insurer), something Nahemiah had not cared to know when she ordered it for her architect and curator, Izida Charteret, to fit into her palace.
Izida now stood near me, half-lit by a rose window of her own design. We both knew exactly what Nahemiah was talking about, as she expected us to. But this time, for this sculpture out of all the paintings and sculptures and transfigurations and works of magic described in Arts Today, I did not trust myself to reply. Let Izida, the artist, the aristocrat, comment.
“The one that the Public Opera then rejected as obscene? If you want to branch out into modern artists at last, Chief, why not Tammen? He’s all the rage right now. If...” she paused, “what you desire is fine female nudes that emanate sensuality.”
I had never understood how Izida, older and university-educated, could so blindly fail to anticipate the effect of her words. Or perhaps my time in the theater looking at faces gave me the advantage there. Or perhaps it was that unlike her I had been born and raised an underling, always watching the subtle signs of my lady’s displeasure—such as knowing that using “my lady” instead of “Chief” to her would be grounds for dismissal. Especially when the veins in Nahemiah’s forehead just below her ornate cloche hat (40ts.; the imitations on the street went for 3.50) bulged as they did now.
“You look at Tammen’s paintings, sculptures, transformations,” Nahemiah said in that ice-cold tone that masked white-hot rage, “and you see men doing things and women—looking bored. Nude, clothed, all his women have no expression on their faces at all, and any sensuality of theirs hasn’t a hen’s tooth of true emotion behind it. And men hail him as a genius! You know why the men at the Public Opera rejected Estorges? Because he dared show women looking happy, unabashedly, unashamedly happy!”
She opened Arts Today with a sudden movement; the spine had clearly been broken at the spread with the dynamic-captures of the “obscene” sculpture. That was striking: all of the newspapers from her chains that Nahemiah read every day, she sent back in pristine condition, only their content copied to her formidable brain. But then, Arts Today was not yet in her chain, even as she bought a profiled work after nearly every issue.
“I got you to show these men what women can do”—she pointed at Izida, though not at me—“and I will now get these men to see and feel women being happy.”
I sighed and silently began making notes. Costs of journey to Halispell (32ts. by ship, then between 0.25 and 0.5 ducats by train), ship schedules, Nahemiah’s contacts, or rather, mine. My Chief wanted the Three Dancers of Gizari. All through the years of building and rebuilding the elaborate palace we now stood in, Izida, and later I, had done what the Chief wished.
The flare of Izida’s nostrils now showed a skeptical distaste. I had seen it many times in front of a design that she wasn’t pleased with, whether drawn by another’s hand or her own. It had always made me yearn to do all I could to change her expression, that nose and cheekbone doing more than any of Nahemiah’s shouts.
But, looking at the spread in Arts Today, I instead found myself gripped by the energy in the women’s expressions, indeed by their unabashed joy. Joy that I had never seen in Izida or Nahemiah, for all the beauty one had wrought and the other had bought. Joy that I would never feel from any allatir sculpture adorning Nahemiah’s collection, acquired by me but not meant for me.
As always, it would be Nahemiah’s thalers sterling that I would count out on green-edged checks and assignation notes to pay for the sculpture, and it would be Nahemiah’s palace home, amid mosaics and paintings and tapestries, that it would stand in.
But it was I, Bethenica Morning, Nahemiah’s financial manager, who truly wanted it.
Nahemiah Froll. People have called her mightier than queens. To some, a visionary, a builder, a challenger to the aristocracy, a new baroness of modern print. To some, an art connoisseur, collector, and patroness of peerless taste. To others, a tyrannical despot, who had built her newspaper empire by simply buying up newspapers that dared publish criticism of her. To others, a whim-driven bitch, who tore down million-thaler creations because she didn’t like them today, and threw away friends, entertaining guests, lovers just as easily.
If they asked me to describe her, I would simply say that if her fancies were volatile because she loved the process of change and creation, she always paid my 30ts. a week fully and on time.
Just before I headed for the motor-car to take me to the ship headed across the strait, I went to see Izida, up in her naturally tasteful apartment. The drapes of pure white velvet, the carpets also; her paintings, and those of artists she admired—most of them from Halispell, most of them men—provided the only color. No sculptures.
Simplicity and elegance, she would say, saving the intricacy for my Chief. As if a bleaching in color could hide that the materials (20ts. a yard) were still fit for the Count of Schellerbide’s daughter she once was.
Twenty years ago, she’d had enough of the Count not understanding that his daughter’s passion and genius lay not in governing estates or bride-market balls with eligible noblemen, but in turning designs to stone and wood and gardens. No occupation for a lady, the Count had said. But in Tavalland, by Hestland’s standards still the wild colonies half a century after the Independence Act, titles meant nothing, and so his heiress had bolted there, finished her schooling and found Nahemiah Froll’s patronage, and stopped being a lady. Or claimed to. Her taste in drapes, her high speech, her refined yet thoughtless manner, her unconscious expectation of obedience, all told otherwise to me.
She had never carved allatir stone, never tried to make art that swayed emotions directly rather than merely through the eyes. But Nahemiah had set an allatir statue on the landing leading to her suite. An elegant panther (485ts.).
As always, I silently cringed passing by the panther emanating luxury. Thoughts floated up in my mind. You are important, they assured me. You are wealthy. You are worth it all.
You are worth thirty thalers a week, I retorted. Stop lying to yourself. I hastened my step, then had to pause before entering Izida’s suite so she would not note my rapid heartbeat.
“Just so you know,” I said, “I depart.”
“Find out the prices on Tammen paintings, while you are there,” she said without looking up from her drafting table. “The Chief can still change her mind. As she is wont to do.”
As usual, she would not ask me for news about any family or friends in Halispell, not about the fine townhouse where she had spent her childhood winters. The Count had never forgiven her, naming a distant male cousin as heir but seemingly keeping himself alive and hearty by the blaze of anger at his disowned daughter. She in turn never mentioned his name, not even in our most intimate hours.
“I will. Goodbye, Izida.” I knew not to expect her to soften, to show more of her secrets to me than I learned from servants’ gossip. She had everything I lacked, and so our inequality was only right and proper.
Estorges’s art was the first I’d seen, in seven years working here, that outshone hers in my mind.
The village of my childhood lay down by the sea, below the hill where Nahemiah’s palace was then just rising from the ground. My own father had sold fish and squid for the tables in Nahemiah’s builders’ camp, and had not possessed much beyond a hut and a stove (worth maybe 10ts. on a good day) to disinherit me of when I ran away at seventeen with a traveling theater. Of my inheritance, I took only his family name, Morning, refusing out of perverse honesty to assume a better one. If Nahemiah Froll could rise from a prospector’s daughter, so could I, I had thought then, not realizing how much lay in the Froll married name, or in her father’s silver vein that she inherited—what cost there is to overcoming a name.
The stage, its painted sets and lights and music and drama, seemed my passion, but I soon learned I had little acting talent beyond “third citywoman from left.” Instead, almost unconsciously at first and not thinking that my knack for numbers and details was anything special, I fell into being the one who actually knew what was going on. From painting sets and stitching costumes, I became stage manager, remembering all the director’s changing whims during rehearsal, and all the cues for the actors and stagehands and lighting hands that they couldn’t remember themselves, and where in the script we were. I was the woman they went to, the small but mighty household god behind the footlights. None of the theatrical people had any idea how the cost of breakfast that day or of thread to mend the curtains fitted into their budget. I turned their finances around and made them the most successful traveling company in all of western Tavalland, such that in five years they—or rather, I, for I was the one negotiating and writing the checks, although I was only twenty-two and had never set foot in a university—were able to purchase a permanent theater (3,215 thalers, with 1,000 down and the rest amortized over ten years, plus 1,823.45 adding up in repairs and renovations) in Dies Incanti, the largest city on the western coast.
Six other theater companies and two Dies Incanti newspapers approached me discreetly in the next year trying to purchase my skills as a treasurer. It was after I rebuffed the second newspaper that its owner, Nahemiah Froll, arrived at my office herself.
And the price she named, 20ts. a week with room and board and raises yearly, was one I was willing to sell myself for. Or rather, not for the money itself, but for the chance to be part of a theater far grander than any in Dies Incanti, of a drama greater and more real than any theater could give, and where, again, I was the god behind the footlights, knowing all the cues. Nahemiah was the producer, Izida was the director, but no director can do without a stage manager. I could live my life surrounded by mosaics and music, sunken pools and thoroughbred horses, dynamic-picture stars and poet laureates, enjoying almost all the comforts my Chief’s heart desired, no matter that not a penny I was counting was my own.
And walking among Nahemiah’s allatir statues, I thought, would give me pure joy and passion in a way that the theater could not, with all of its empathetic trickery drawn from stories not about my class of people. At least the sculptures did not lie.
Except that I learned that if they spoke truth, it was not to me.
To the music of the rattling train and the engineer’s whistle, both so subtly different in rhythm and pitch from the Tavalland rail, I arrived at the Halispell Central Station with its famous mosaic walls and ceiling. Nahemiah had never been interested in Queen Ethelburga-style mosaics, so I did not know their price. The train journey in first class had cost three eighths of a ducat (nearly 12ts.), and the cup of tea and piece of orange flan I had purchased, an additional three pennies. In Tavalland they would have cost half that. But my Chief allowed me to draw on expenses, if I were not extravagant in my mission—which was to follow two farwrites to Estorges’s lodgings in the Artisans’ Quarter, these days crowded with painters, writers, and musicians rather than artisans’ guilds. And to return with the money exchanged and the sculpture wrapped in felt for shipping across the sea.
In my purse lay Nahemiah’s check, the amount left blank. Start with five hundred thalers, she had said. That is a good price he should be grateful for.
And what is your ceiling? I had asked.
We won’t need it.
I need a ceiling, Chief. For my peace of mind. I had written the numbers on a check for that mosaic now in the great hall, all seven digits of them to the left of the decimal. My hands had shaken.
What is the most I am willing to bid to get the Three Dancers of Gizari before I give up? Before I give up? Her mouth seemed to taste the phrase like a sample of an unfamiliar dish. It’s not a thousand years old. If he asks for ten thousand, farwrite to me first. I have my aeroplane ready to fly to bargain myself. But... She left the consequences for me unsaid. Flying the aeroplane itself from Palace Froll to Halispell would cost nearly 500ts. in itself, and that was if the aerodrome authorities were lenient on paperwork.
I once again inhaled the scents of inland Halispell, the smells of their beloved cured ham and sharp cheeses replacing western Tavalland’s fish and sea-scent, lemon blossom and myrtle replacing the northern island’s pear orchards and pines. And the dust, the road dust and motor-car fuel everywhere the same, whether one paid in ducats or thalers or was ruled by Queen or President.
The cab (11 pennies) left me at the porch of the Estorges Atelier, and the maid took my card. “Miss Morning? An unusual name.”
I had heard that before, though rarely from servants, but Halispell servants may think themselves so much above even the rich from the colonies that they presume to draw attention to low-class family names. I did not dignify her insult with a reply. With my own saved liquid net worth of 1211.37ts. with interest at 4.5%, I could afford to hire and fire her, no matter her pay.
I wondered, looking at the simple and worn if well-cared furnishings in the front room, how much its rent was. If Nahemiah were to buy a town house in Halispell, it would not be in the Artisans’ Quarter, so I did not know the going prices.
Then I stepped through the door of the studio, and all thoughts of this flew out of my head. Before me were three graceful women, nude, one stocky, one slender, one curvaceous, three shapes as different as women come in, arms outstretched and embracing, the two raising the central dancer up by her naked hips even themselves rising on their toes as if the earth could barely hold them. The Three Dancers of Gizari. The right one seemed to give me a welcoming wink. Join in the dance!
Joy they radiated, but more than that another feeling I had so rarely felt before that for a few minutes I couldn’t even place it, but I felt nearly faint with desire for these women.
I made myself look around—at the preparatory maquette studies of their heads, a dozen identical ones looking at me with that joyful smile; at the hands of clay and plaster and limestone that seemed lopped off in the middle of their greatest delight; at the other mockups of nudes and elephants and men for other projects. A block of raw allatir lay in the corner, squat and white; even though I knew that uncarved allatir was very limited in power, I dared not approach closer, in case this block was the kind emanating primal fear rather than primal safety. Fear-inducing allatir stones had been used for arrowheads by ancient armies, I’d heard, before they were superseded as even the warriors themselves found them too draining to carry, and artists took to them to make works draining in other ways.
I barely noticed the man, shorter and younger than he’d seemed in Arts Today’s pictures. Possibly used to visitors’ reactions, he stepped right in front of me.
“I am Nouet Estorges, madam. You are the... emissary of Nahemiah Froll?” Politeness slid into sarcasm on that word.
“Yes.” With an effort of will, I got my breath back. “She wishes to buy this. For...” For perhaps the first time in my life I hesitated at recalling a number, and the sum, astronomical compared to my own pay, seemed absurdly low in the light of the dancers’ smiles. “Five hundred thalers.”
I caught myself at once that I had broken all rules of bargaining by going straight to the point, not getting him into conversation, asking him about his studio, his work, his family. What had gone over me? What was the sculpture emanating?
He stepped back three careful steps, and I realized that he was himself getting out of the dancers’ aura. Prudently, though my heart clenched at this, I followed.
“Well, I am very sorry,” and he did not sound sorry at all, “but she can’t.”
Hastily, too hastily, I named higher numbers, in much larger increments than I normally would. He just shook his head at each, a smirk on his face. One thousand. Two thousand.
It dawned on me that he enjoyed watching me squirm; a proud competent woman but to him just Nahemiah’s commoner puppet, below his own housemaid. Watching me beg, and him saying no.
“Ten thousand!” I spat out the words intentionally in the heaviest Tavalland accent that the theater had eradicated in me twelve years before. “Ten thousand thalers for your measly sculpture that the Opera rejected!”
“Does Nahemiah Froll, the richest woman on earth”—he laughed—“really think that she can buy me?”
My shout sank back down my throat as I blinked. “Of course she does,” came out, stupidly.
“Well, let her learn I’m not selling this piece, of all pieces, to the highest bidder. After I got your farwrite, I arranged for another buyer.
“And don’t ask me what his price is so Nahemiah can top it. I don’t need money, and it won’t help her here.”
My fingers searched in my pocket blindly for something to hold onto and found a forgotten Tavalland penny, small and almost worthless here.
FARWRITING OFFICE, HALISPELL, HESTLAND
BETHENICA MORNING TO NAHEMIAH FROLL, PALACE FROLL, TAVALLAND
ESTORGES SELLING DANCERS TO SCHELLERBIDE STOP
DELIVERY NEXT WEEK STOP
One hour later:
IZIDA CHARTERET, PALACE FROLL, TAVALLAND
TO BETHENICA MORNING, HALISPELL, HESTLAND
FLYING OVER TOMORROW STOP
WILL FIGHT SCHELLERBIDE IF NECESSARY STOP
Izida had been against Estorges’s art, arguing for Tammen all along. She never saw in that sculpture what Nahemiah had seen, and would not feel in it what I had felt. Now, I knew, and Estorges knew, he had found the one price that would move Izida to Nahemiah’s desire.
As soon as reasonable visiting hours began the next morning I was back ringing the bell of Estorges’s studio door. I had walked, carefully trying to keep the street dust from my low leather shoes, but I would not indulge in another cab ride. Not when I was not certain if I would have my job once my Chief’s flight landed, Izida with her.
The street looked normal that morning rather than the way the afternoon light had painted it the day before. No, not the afternoon light—the fact that, since leaving Estorges’s studio, I had forgotten to ponder the price of anything I saw.
The maid allowed me in, seemingly to both her own surprise and Estorges’s. “Nahemiah Froll’s emissary wishes to try to persuade me again?” he said, now in his smock and work gloves snowy with allatir dust, chisel still in his right hand, chewing his moustache.
“No,” I said. “Bethenica Morning wishes to see you. And not you, but the sculpture.”
He froze as still as his allatir dancers. “The sculpture.”
Just then I sneezed from the dust. Eyes watering, I fumbled for my handkerchief. With equal awkwardness, he offered his own from his pocket, only to realize that it was already smudged with dust and dirtier than mine.
We couldn’t help it. We both burst out laughing, and for a few happy seconds I noticed our poses echoing those of the dancers above us. Was that what they were laughing about, the ridiculousness of life?
No, it must be something deeper. I thought of the cool-eyed women of Tammen’s paintings, of the still, expressionless nudes of antiquity. To work in allatir required exquisitely refined empathy. “How did you do it? Capture women looking so ...at ease?”
“Capture?” He stepped over to put his hand on my shoulder, looking at his sculpture as if for the first time. “I didn’t capture it. Nor did I buy it, as Nahemiah Froll would”—he made a face at me, almost joking. “It was given me freely.”
“What were your models feeling?” I said. When was the last time such a look had transformed my own face? I tried to shape my face, still warm from ironic hilarity, into an imitation of that radiant smile.
As my theater proved to me, I am a bad actress. But Estorges’s gaze seemed to want to break down every inch of my face into planes and facets, to trap it in allatir stone forever. He took off one of his gloves and with his finger traced the line of my hand, from wrist to fingertips. I hadn’t even noticed what my hands were doing. His hands would have shredded and shattered stone, but his touch was remarkably gentle.
“I just asked them to think of a moment of delight. Doubtless it was different for every woman.”
What was Nahemiah’s delight? Izida’s? What would they look like, lit like this?
“I think that if I were your model,” I said, trying to control, to appraise the feelings in my heart and set a fair price for them out of my own coin, “I would think of being here now. With the dancers.” And even before he spoke, I realized what it was they emanated, and why it drew me so much.
And his face transformed too.
We must have talked for an hour or more, forgetting the time. His mother had been a lapidary in Halispell, teaching her son from childhood to cut gems and appraise them. He himself had been a boy soprano in the Halispell Boys Choir, until his voice broke and he, broken himself, changed to another art. I told of the theater and my own disappointment on realizing that I could not act. Of how I had always been able to remember how many fish my father had gotten, when and for what prices, to advise him on his strategy.
“What were your mother and sister like?” Estorges asked. In twelve years, this was the first time anyone had ever asked me that question—conversations about my family, even with Nahemiah, always started and ended with my father.
I was sitting on the end of the bench by the dancers, basking in their gift to me. I took a light breath, knowing that I did not have to worry about selecting my words, that what I said would be right.
Just then the girl—not a maid, he’d told me, but his cousin who had a studio of her own for watercoloring prints in another room of the house—knocked again. “Er, Nouet,” she stuttered, all of her hauteur gone. “Madame Nahemiah Froll, and Lady, er, Miss Izida Charteret.”
As I sprang from the bench, he bent over and picked up a small object near my foot.
“A Tavalland thaler penny,” he held it up to me with a teasing smile, brushing off the stone dust to make it shine. “Are you counting them? Do you want it?”
It must have fallen out when I took out my pocket-handkerchief. Normally, I would want it. Even after I became a fashionable professional woman I had a trick to pretend to drop my gloves just so I could pick up a penny lying in the street. A penny meant candy at the soda shop. A penny meant costume thread. A penny meant a ribbon or pair of shoelaces that would make my shoes look newer. A penny meant one less penny I had to work for.
But an accountant counted pennies, not an artist. And right now, an accountant, a woman who failed at the arts but was left counting the artists’ pennies, was the farthest from how I felt sitting by those dancers.
“Keep it,” I said. It was only one-fourth of a Hestland penny. “Consider it payment for services rendered.”
And then Izida and Nahemiah came in.
The greetings and formalities, during which both Izida’s and Nahemiah’s eyes kept drifting to the sculpture. Then Nahemiah spoke.
“I will take you as a guest to my palace in Tavalland. For two nights, and a full day. You will return on my aeroplane the day after tomorrow.”
1500 thalers, I thought. I went to stand beside Izida, just the accountant again.
“You expect to buy me with a three-day holiday?” Estorges asked, arms crossed.
“I expect to overwrite your yellow-press bar-gossip prejudices about me. I want you to learn for yourself who I am. And why I want that piece.”
Guests would beg and wait for years for an invitation to her palace six months hence, not that very day. I would have been more surprised if she had groveled on the floor and kissed his foot. Or rather, the foot of the Three Dancers.
“Nouet,” Izida said, for the first time using his first name that I had not dared to use, “I think you will appreciate the art that I’ve worked so hard to collect.” I and not my father, she left unsaid.
And that was something that I, Bethenica the penny-counter, could not offer him at all.
“Will you?” Nahemiah was gentler than I had ever heard her. “My aeroplane is waiting on the aerodrome just outside the city. We will take a first-class cab.”
Nouet Estorges said slowly, “Give me two hours.”
“To speak to my solicitor.”
On the grounds of Palace Froll there are seven glittering fountains, each in the style of a different era, costing from 250 to 1300 thalers sterling to carve out of marble and rig the pipes. There is a tunnel system, dug at the expense of 300 thalers per foot, excavated and reinforced with marble; lining the tunnel are fifty statues of ancient gods, carved on commission at a cost of 300ts. each; it cost an additional 50ts. per statue in labor to lower them via block and tackle and set them up. The pride of the stables was Wings On Water, the championship racing stallion bought for 7300ts. plus transport, commanding 200ts. as a stud fee, a beautiful horse dancing on springy legs with his mane rippling in the wind, not knowing how much he had cost.
But my favorite place is the pear orchard that had been on that hill long before Nahemiah’s father had bought the property. They were low-grade green pears of the half-feral unnamed variety that grew everywhere along the coast, but that was the only place on the grounds that I did not know the price of, that never had a price, that never cost anything but only gave.
So I hid there while Izida guided Estorges around the grand rooms with the mosaic floors and the fan-vaulted ceilings she had designed herself, around the galleries and the tunnels. Up into the bell tower built just because Nahemiah had seen a Caltavan bell tower when she was a little girl and had fallen in love with it, and so Izida had done one for her. Izida did. Not me.
After an afternoon and an evening and a breakfast where he kept sighing in awe at Izida’s handiwork, at Nahemiah’s taste, I fled to the pear orchard. I had no place on that tour. I was not an artist. I was just the woman who counted the artists’ money and kept them from bankrupting themselves, and as a courtesy, got to talk to them for a while.
I was a village girl who had climbed pear trees (mindful of the thorns) where no one could find me and make me gut and scale fish, and had sat in them, crunching on the sour woody fruit, and dreamed of running away with the theater and becoming an actress, with a mink coat and my name in lights and dazzlingly handsome men and women I had seen on silver screens pouring me champagne, and me never having to think, for an entire night, how much any of this cost. That was what wealth was, really—to be able to buy something without ever worrying, because you have people to do that for you.
I never got that. I only grew old enough to know that my dress had cost 20ts. out of my own wages and I could not afford to tear it on the thorns climbing the pear trees. So I sat under the tree on a spread towel, leafing through the broken-spined Arts Today handed down from Nahemiah, returning again and again to the Three Dancers of Gizari.
“Is this where you escape to?” he asked, and I dropped the magazine face down, wrinkling the page against the grass.
He was dressed in tennis costume; Izida, or Nahemiah herself, must have challenged him to a tennis match. His forehead beaded perspiration, as marble or allatir cannot.
“It’s private,” I said noncommittally.
“It also seems to be the only place on these entire grounds that is not proudly stamped as Nahemiah-Froll-owned, Izida-Charteret-made.”
“It’s within her property line. Her father paid for it.”
“All she has, she has relied on others to get for her,” he said, leaning towards me, “and she rations it out to those who are already rich and fortunate, just like the Count of Schellerbide. Except she favors women more. Yes, everyone in the art world knows that she takes women to her bed, not men. Have you ever slept there?”
“No,” I said honestly. “Never. I do not sleep with people who pay me.” Izida never paid me.
“Because it puts a whore-price on your body? Yet you skulk here like an abandoned lover.”
I realized that he was holding my hand, and I pulled it out of his grasp, even though half of me was very reluctant. Nahemiah rationed things out to me, who was neither rich nor fortunate, but no force could make me admit that aspect of me to him. “Because there are other things that women desire than being wedded and bedded,” I said tartly. “And you of all men should have understood that if to craft that allatir you needed your models’ moment of delight. Nahemiah wants to make the world see women’s joy, as do you. Why don’t you see that?”
“The world—of people I did not intend this statue for. We lock a piece of our soul in our art, and we gift it to kindred souls, not to the largest pile of thalers or ducats. You deserve that sculpture more than she does, or that silver-spoon-gobbling Izida or her stubborn old man, for you can feel the difference when it raises you to a wealth where money doesn’t matter.”
I found tears in my eyes. He knew my station, and he valued me despite it, or for it. But he mistook my expression.
“Think again on your delight at the foot of the sculpture, Bethenica,” he breathed. “Here, it makes you more beautiful than any stone art.”
And he kissed me.
And I responded.
And then we did more, in the tall grass.
The Three Dancers of Gizari was rejected from the Public Opera for indecency because they were naked and yet emanated not just joy but sufficiency. They had enough. They did not fear their lack. They wanted to give, not count or be counted.
And if his seduction had in it something hard and cold as marble, flat as a projection screen, I did not notice it until later. Because after all, it was not him that I truly wanted but the work of his hands.
“The aeroplane has radioed a flight path for a 10:20 departure to take you back to Halispell,” Nahemiah said, setting down her breakfast spoon.
Nouet had been silent all through the simple elegant breakfast of exquisite coffee and flaky biscuits (5ts. it would be, in some prestigious cafe and worth it, too), served at the small table of teacup-delicate porcelain in the southern corner of the Great Hall. Nahemiah and Izida chatted about upcoming exhibitions, about Tammen’s work, about everything but the blank dais at the other end of the Great Hall braced for the weight of the Three Dancers of Gizari.
I was silent too. I had forgotten to add the fresh cream and sugar to my coffee, as I sipped without tasting it.
“Very well,” said Nouet. “I thank you very much for your hospitality. Your art collection took great skill and great taste, and,” his voice went just a bit dry, “a lot of money.”
He rose from the table. But even he stopped when Nahemiah spoke, just as she assumed he would.
“So am I outbidding the Count of Schellerbide?”
Tick, went the great clock (214.23ts., plus 12ts. a visit for the only man in Tavalland skilled enough to tune it once a month). Indeed, it was so quiet that I could hear the ten-foot grand piano, custom-made at 2286.45ts., softly echo in resonance with it.
“I chose to alter the deal with the Count of Schellerbide, for the appropriate price,” Nouet said, so casually that the clock counted a few more ticks before victory registered on Nahemiah’s face. Only Izida was biting her lips as she leaned forward; she still knew her father better than anyone, and she felt something was wrong. But Nouet ignored this and said smoothly, “I have the papers ready for Bethenica to review.”
Out of his briefcase resting by his chair leg, he drew a leather portfolio and handed it to me.
It contained a contract, opened to the back where his signature already filled in one of the blanks. The ink was dry, I noticed subconsciously, having seen enough wet-ink signatures. There was the name of the solicitor. In wet ink was today’s date, and the name, with a blank beneath it for the signature. Bethenica Morning. No space for Nahemiah Froll.
He had palmed me a pen as well. “Sign it,” he mouthed, his eyes meeting mine the same way they had in the pear orchard.
I flipped angrily to the first page. “Do you think me such a fool as to not read contracts I sign?” I was about to snap, and then I bit it back.
Because this was not a bill of sale.
It was a bill of lease. The sculpture known as the Three Dancers of Gizari, allatir stone, emanation: contentment, dynamic-captures from all angles included on p. 4, was the property of Nouet Estorges under contract to the Public Opera, transferring possession, but not ownership. The possessor could display the work wherever she wished, but had no right to resell it without the permission of Nouet Estorges.
The possessor was Bethenica Morning. The leasing fee was one Tavalland penny. One Tavalland penny—and my body, unmentioned by the solicitor who had drawn this up in the missing two hours from two days ago. But I had no doubt that yesterday’s seduction was part of the contract, part of the offset price.
The empathy it takes to carve allatir—how well he saw through us. He’d lied to everyone, including me, in the aim of humiliating Nahemiah—yet he also offered me my heart’s desire. With my signature, the Three Dancers of Gizari would be mine. Not Nahemiah’s, not ever again. Once again I was the stage manager, the little god behind the footlights, the only one, other than the author, who actually has the script.
“But,” I whispered, “the Count of Schellerbide...” Nahemiah, my Chief, was waiting for me to handle the cues as I always did, before passing it to her and letting her have the credit. Izida was waiting for me to ensure that she got her art. I had always been but the executor of her desires.
“I lied,” he replied casually. “Do you really think the old man could appreciate this? I just knew what rival would shatter Nahemiah and Izida the most. Until I saw an even better one.
“Come with me to Halispell, Bethenica. You need the Dancers, not her. Not this.”
I had 1211.37ts. to my name, with interest at 4.5%, standing between thirty thalers a week and two women, and the offer of carved-stone contentment beyond wealth.
He had not put in my place of residence as Palace Froll, Tavalland. He knew that the moment I signed this, it would not be true. If he had guessed my price.
My pen hovered over the signature blank and dripped one single black drop.