It wasn’t fashionable to live in year 594 of the city of Alba Eloi. At least for those who could afford not to. It always amazed Seneca how much people would pay to look out their windows and into any other year than the one in which they were living.
In 560, when Seneca was still too young to remember, a glassblower had been hired to recast the stained glass triptych in the office of the principal secretary. In pursuit of a more vibrant shade of blue, he had stumbled upon a nickel compound that trapped light within the glass and delayed its journey out the other side. Light beams spent years within a mere finger’s width of glass, reflecting and reflecting internally until at last they found their way out—the light of the past carried to the eyes of the present.
It wasn’t long before it became high fashion among the aristocracy to commission panes of this glass. The idle rich would sit and watch the views from whatever vistas the glass had absorbed years before—an eclipse in a distant land, the summitting of a mountain, the revels of a foreign festival. Yet many soon decided it was not places that interested them but times. They became enamored with living in days of yore, and for a city archivist such as Seneca, it was a very unexpected windfall.
Currently it was in vogue to pretend one lived in 564. Never mind that most of the aristocracy couldn’t name one difference between the Alba Eloi of today and thirty years earlier. Year 564 had only been a few years after nostalgia glass first became sensationalized. Few people had been anticipating the state of nostalgia glass even three years in the future, let alone three decades, and the production orders of the time had created a far scarcer supply than the current demands of the market. Anyone with money to throw around could get their hands on glass with a two-year or even ten-year delay, but nostalgia panes with a thirty-year delay, only just now emitting light from 564, were rare and exceedingly expensive. The market was rife with misrepresentations, panes from more recent years that were impossible to appraise as such unless one had a most discerning eye.
Most of the aristocracy did not have such an eye, so three nights a week at the Nostalgia Parlor, Seneca regretfully assured the city’s rich and powerful that no, the nostalgia pane they had purchased wasn’t actually displaying Theater Boulevard from 564’s summer festival but a view of Grand-Comp Market from 589, which they would know if they had ever actually been to the place. As a student of contemporary history and an apprentice archivist at the university, Seneca saw city skylines on the backs of her eyelids; she could ferret her way from the textile ward to the sauna rotunda by smell alone. She knew which buildings belonged in 564 and which hadn’t even passed their zoning bids.
Unfortunately, the nostalgia pane she had before her at the moment carried one such telling inconsistency. From within the dark interior of her appraisal chamber she called softly, “Lady Eringale? I’ve finished.”
The silk partition whispered aside, and Lady Eringale, austere and unadorned for a member of the nobility, stepped into the small room. In the warm light shed by the nostalgia pane—the light of early autumn from twenty-eight years earlier—she looked concerned. “Well? I can see it’s bad news, Seneca, let’s be done with it.”
Seneca gave her a pained smile. The glass was a small, circular piece, no larger than an oxeye window one might find in an attic, but as custom-made nostalgia glass it would have cost a fortune. It was no wonder Lady Eringale, aging scion to a poor house, had chosen to purchase it secondhand—against Seneca’s recommendation.
“Do you see these smokestacks?” Seneca used her little finger to indicate plumes of white in the distant scenery.
Lady Eringale leaned forward, crow’s feet deepening around her eyes as she examined the image. The foreground was a view of the Stackshead Bridge, a day like any other with foot traffic and couples throwing promise bouquets into the river, carriages trundling by every few minutes. The smokestacks were difficult to see, their effluence almost blending in with the drifting of the cottony clouds.
“Are they not supposed to be there?” Lady Eringale asked. “Were they not yet built in 564?”
“No, they were there,” Seneca said, “but in 564 they weren’t processing anything yet. They were connected to the city incinerators, before the new ones were built out by the farmsteads. Incinerators generally produce a much darker smoke than we see here. There can be some variation, but I’ve been watching it for almost thirty minutes, and it’s quite clear that something is being processed, not burned. The color of the smoke means we’re looking at 566 or later. I’m very sorry.”
“Damned by a smokestack,” Lady Eringale whispered. “I had an appraiser with me when I bought it, and he went over everything—everything but the color of the smoke. I don’t know how you do it, Seneca.”
Seneca relaxed. Oftentimes the clients of the Nostalgia Parlor got their hackles up over unfavorable appraisals, but Lady Eringale had always seemed the philosophical type. She had never treated Seneca as lesser for her employment—although Seneca kept to herself the fact that she had pegged the smokestacks because she had grown up in their shadow. For most of Seneca’s childhood, the textiles ward had reeked of burning trash, and it had been a relief when some magnate purchased the incinerator to be turned into a smelting facility.
“It’s a lovely piece all the same,” Seneca said, “and difficult to appraise because the Stackshead Bridge is so timeless. And you know, since this current vista is no later than 566, then it will be worth a king’s ransom as it progresses through the 570’s.”
Lady Eringale pursed her lips and squinted at the image. “Why? I don’t remember anything important happening there.”
“The Stackshead Bridge was the first place the Orator performed, during the summer strife of 575. Not many people attended the Orator’s first performance, and there aren’t many panes like this, with a nearly thirty-year lethargy and a good view of the bridge. Where did you get this, if I may ask?”
“The church that overlooks the bridge,” Lady Eringale replied, somewhat distant as she contemplated the view shining up from the felt-top counter. “I heard it from a friend that the church decided to remove all their nostalgia glass. Thought it made them appear too materialistic. This one came from the bell ringer’s chamber below the belfry—say, wasn’t the Orator’s final performance also on the Stackshead Bridge?”
“Oh.” Seneca blinked, as though she had to think about it. As though she weren’t painfully familiar with every speech the Orator had ever given. “It wasn’t a performance, really, but yes, I believe you’re right. The Orator was almost caught by the constabulary on the bridge. They jumped into the river, and their body was never found. It would make for quite the viewing party, but that wasn’t until 590.”
Lady Eringale gave a rueful laugh. “In twenty-four years I’ll probably be dead. Besides, it’s not for a viewing party. Don’t tell anyone, but I find those parties quite depressing.”
Seneca thought so as well, but she rarely met a noble who thought the same, and almost never for the same reasons. Various nostalgia glass fads came and went, but viewing parties had become entrenched in the culture of Alba Eloi as soon as the first nostalgia panes were sold. Such gatherings appealed to the aristocracy’s sense of living at a dignified remove from the rest of society; not only inhabiting a different place but a different time.
“I’ve never been to a viewing party,” Seneca said, with an uncritical naivete she always wore around the aristocracy, “but depressing is the last thing I would expect of them. They seem such fun.”
Lady Eringale sighed and looked down at the view of the Stackshead Bridge from nearly thirty years past. “Oh, I suppose there is something romantic about them, but in a melancholy way. The city is so different now. I only wanted this piece to silence my daughter-in-law. She was appalled when she found out I didn’t have any nostalgia glass, although I don’t know why; she doesn’t bother with viewing parties, either. She prefers to run around like a fool with a nostalgia bowl on her head.”
Seneca kept her expression studiously blank. It was gauche in the extreme not to have at least a single small nostalgia pane in one’s home, and the truly wealthy built entire viewing rooms of it, but the current trend was to walk about wearing helmets of the stuff, like fish bowls on their noggins. It was a bizarre, stuttering sort of experience, perceiving a space different from that which one actually occupied, and more than a little dangerous. Vast nostalgia lawns had become popular in 592— spaces for people to wander about with their heads stuck in the past, aided by parlor employees who were part actor, part historian, versed in improvisation to fit the role of whatever year the rich nostalgia bowlers chose to occupy.
There were many such fools in the Nostalgia Parlor at that very moment, awaiting a turn on the lawn connected to the parlor, but Seneca would never have expected Lady Eringale to refer to them as such. That she had done so, and in front of Seneca, made her suddenly much more intriguing.
With calculated nonchalance Seneca said, “I suppose the trend will only grow more popular once Councilman Neylor is principal secretary.” It was his private lawn that was connected to the parlor, which most of the bowlers used for their amusement rather than wander senselessly through public parks.
“Neylor?” Lady Eringale blinked at the change of subject. “As principal secretary? That won’t be for a decade at least—gods I hope bowling isn’t still in fashion then.”
“I mean, there’s the principal election later this year,” Seneca said.
She busied herself with brushing down the nostalgia pane as she waited for Lady Eringale’s response. When she glanced up, the older woman was looking at her with a mixture of pity and amusement.
“Oh, Seneca,” she said. “That’s what I mean by the city changing. These days, if you think anyone has a chance at the principal secretary’s office before she’s willing to hand it over... well, you’d have to have spent the last twenty years with a nostalgia bowl on your head.”
Seneca was well-aware of this, but she kept silent as Lady Eringale cut herself short, seeming to have a realization about where she was and who she was talking to. She may have been friendly with Seneca, but when it came to politics, crossing class lines was underheard of. Perhaps even dangerous.
“Ah, nevermind, Seneca. It’s not important. Thank you for the appraisal. I suppose now I won’t have any problem selling it; as you said, the bridge is so picturesque. Perhaps this isn’t such bad news after all.”
Lady Eringale placed a small purse on the table, which Seneca studiously ignored as she swathed the nostalgia pane in velvet and placed it in its carrying case. She handed over an appraisal slip and bowed as Lady Eringale left. The curtain opened and shut, and Seneca reached up in the darkness to twist a knob on the hand lantern suspended from the ceiling. Gentle gaslight illuminated the soft contours of the appraisal chamber. She opened the drawstring purse and dumped a single silverback into her palm. Not a bad tip.
A second later the curtain was thrown open again and Iles, another employee of the Nostalgia Parlor, slipped in. “Seneca your—what is that.”
Iles raked her long, blonde hair back as she stared at the coin. She smacked the underside of Seneca’s hand, popping the silverback into the air, but before she could make a grab, Seneca swiped it.
“That is an absolute miscarriage of justice, Sen,” Iles said. She gestured vaguely to the other side of the parlor, where she staffed the second appraisal chamber. “I spend all day giving Lord Fuddy-Duddy and Lady Smack-Me-Bottom excellent appraisals, and you know what I get for a tip?”
“Nothing,” Seneca said, and slipped the coin into her pocket. “Because you have the worst luck, I know.”
The truth was that half the time, Iles smelled like a taproom during well hours, and she wouldn’t have had the job at all if she wasn’t related to the owner of the parlor. Although she was a good appraiser, the social elite didn’t like dealing with such open self-indulgence. They preferred theirs to be hidden in the dark, where it could coil in on itself until decadence collapsed into debauchery.
“What were you saying when you came in?” Seneca asked.
Iles’ attention remained on Seneca’s pocket, her gaze a little glassy-eyed as the question penetrated the haze of alcohol. “What? Oh, your six o’clock is here. You said to tell you if he ever showed early.”
“My—Iles, I don’t have a six o’clock today.”
Iles shrugged. “Well, he’s here.”
Seneca tied the silk curtain off to one side and stepped into the main atrium of the Nostalgia Parlor. Clients sat on divans or clustered in partitioned booths, conversing as they waited for appraisals or a time slot on the nostalgia lawn. From across the room, an elderly man raised a hand in greeting toward Seneca, his nostalgia bowl under the other arm.
“Goddamn it,” Seneca whispered, her bland smile still in place. “I told him I had personal business tonight. He doesn’t listen to a thing I say, I swear...”
Iles edged past her with a chuckle and sympathetic pat on the shoulder.
Guiding nostalgia bowlers was the half of Seneca’s job at the parlor that she truly hated, although it hadn’t always been so. She used to make her friends roar with laughter, regaling them with anecdotes of posh bowlers: people with the pitiable mix of too much money and not enough sense. Yet that amusement hadn’t lasted for long. Making upward social moves had a way of becoming a wedge between even the best of friends. It had been a long time since Seneca had time for anything outside of studies or parlor work.
Lord Mitaunte alone took up a considerable amount of her time, as he had a standing appointment with Seneca twice a week. Every time, Seneca led him through the final days of the Mitaunte Ballet Company: his life’s work before the principal secretary had labeled it a problematic polemic.
He had commissioned an entire audience to wear newly cast nostalgia bowls on their heads while attending the company’s last performance. The cost was unimaginable to Seneca, each bowl cast with a different delay, worn by someone who wouldn’t even see the performance because the light wouldn’t emerge from the inside surface of the bowl until long after it was over. For years Mitaunte had been reliving that night one nostalgia bowl at a time, yet despite being Seneca’s most boring client, he was also her most important. She couldn’t refuse him.
The other patrons watched somewhat pityingly as Seneca crossed the room to greet him. She had felt much the same when Lord Mitaunte first came to the parlor: what was it like to be so enamored with the past that one couldn’t move through the present, couldn’t move past a day that was years behind you? Pathetic in the truest sense, although people came to the lawn for worse reasons, and it hadn’t taken long to see that Lord Mitaunte was much cannier than he first appeared.
“Lord Mitaunte,” she greeted him, helping him rise from his divan. “I wasn’t expecting you this evening.”
He smiled, his gaze distant, always appearing somewhat disoriented. “That’s fine, just fine. I only wanted to see if you have time for me. If not now, perhaps later? Eight o’clock?”
Seneca plastered a smile on her face and took his arm, lowering her voice for him alone. “I have a personal appointment at eight o’clock, we discussed it last week? It’s why we rescheduled your usual slot?”
“Oh—oh yes.” His gaze sharpened, “You’re keeping it?”
“I am, but now that you’re here, I can fit you in beforehand. It wouldn’t do to turn away my favorite client, would it? This way, if you please, Lord Mitaunte.”
“Splendid, splendid,” Mitaunte crowed. “You are the best, Seneca, I simply couldn’t have another.”
Mitaunte was overselling her a bit. While Seneca was an excellent appraiser, she was not the best of actors—a fact she knew because she had grown up with the best—but when it came to the nostalgia lawn, she could get by. Most clients only needed a warm body to respond to their conversation, another layer to the fantastical veneer that all was well and good in the city, just as it was in the halcyonic glow of the nostalgia glass. Those who saw through it, like Lady Eringale, were difficult to find.
It was just past eight o’clock when the ballet finale of yore concluded and Seneca led Mitaunte, still misty-eyed, back through the turnstile. His carriage driver and a footman awaited him in the parlor, and Seneca bade him good night.
He smiled, his expression still distant with memory, and pressed a purse into her hand. “Best of luck with your appointment this evening, and sorry to have horned in.”
“Thank you, you’re too kind, Lord Mitaunte. And if you’re still looking for a place to rehome some of your old nostalgia bowls, might I suggest Lady Eringale?”
The reverie faded from his eyes, replaced by something more shrewd, but all he said was, “Oh Seneca, you’re always so thoughtful, but my finances are fine. Thank you.”
As soon as he had hobbled away, Seneca slipped into the employee changing room tucked into one corner of the parlor. She unbraided her hair and pulled it back into a mane of curls at the nape of her neck, then changed into her street clothes and a flat cap.
A back door led to a rickety iron staircase in the alley, where she nodded to the night-shifters and was on her way. Normally she would go home to her apartment on College Hill, but tonight she had business among old haunts.
A hot and viscous anxiety churned within her as her feet followed familiar paths through the city. She crossed the Stackshead Bridge, feeling as though she were inhabiting Lady Eringale’s nostalgia pane as she wound closer to the textiles ward where she had grown up. The summer sun was still setting, and in the shadow of the smokestacks that she had pointed out earlier that evening, there was a taproom called Sog’s. As Seneca stepped through the door and removed her cap, the eponymous owner glanced up from behind the bar. He performed a vaudevillian double take.
Thankfully the taproom was still empty despite Mitaunte delaying her, as most of the regulars were absent until after dark. Sog made his way around the bar and grasped Seneca’s hand, laughing in disbelief.
“The prodigal returns,” he said. “When Tendo told me you’d moved to College Hill, I thought maybe you’d discovered a taste for wine at one of those urban chateaus by the university.”
A sense of loss tightened around Seneca’s heart. A year or two was not such a long time in the grand scheme of life, but here and now, it felt like she had missed so much.
“Never,” she said. “I swore off drinking entirely. Sog’s or bust.”
He laughed, and Seneca didn’t bother explaining that she was serious. Between her university stipend and her work in the parlor, she made enough to live on College Hill, but booze in those parts came dearly.
“So Tendo told you I moved,” she said. “He say anything else?”
“Just that you were moving up and on in life, and good for you. He’ll be pleased to see you.”
There it was. The reason she’d come tonight. “He and Calypso still darken your door every weekend, then?”
“Oh yeah, them and whoever else feels like tagging along. They’ve always got a gaggle in orbit. Should be here soon. Want anything while you wait?”
Seneca ordered an ale and went to sit in a corner booth, where one could watch the ebb and flow of the room. She had sat here many nights over many years, had probably spent the equivalent of months in that booth. Sog brought her drink, and she sat in silence, the foam head breaking down as she stared at the door.
At last it opened, the sound of laughter and good-humored mockery floating in on the night air before Tendo’s bulk filled the doorway. Following in his shadow was Calypso, her angular features obscured by curtains of dark hair. Seneca gripped her mug, waiting for one of them to notice her. Tendo called out to Sog, ordering for a gang of acquaintances and coworkers that filed in. Calypso had always been reserved, but as her gaze found Seneca’s, she became a stone. The rest of their group flowed past her. The distance between them seemed to close as Calypso mouthed, Why? And then she had closed that distance and was standing over Seneca.
“What are you doing here?”
Seneca played calm. “Same reason as you: Sog’s brew is still the best. Isn’t that right, Tendo?”
Tendo looked away from his conversation at the bar, and when he saw Seneca his face lit up. He wrapped his massive hands around six mugs and ferried them to the booth, his eyes on her the entire time.
“Sen! Last winter when you said you’d stop by for a visit, you might have told me it would be a while. I was beginning to wonder.”
Calypso looked at him sharply. Seneca certainly hadn’t seen Calypso last winter, although she had been invited to the same party as Tendo, celebrating Seneca’s acceptance as an apprentice archivist.
Tendo didn’t seem to realize he’d put his foot in it, and he forged obliviously ahead. “What took you so long?”
“Nothing in particular. It’s been busy since I started in the archives.” Seneca scooted over to make room in the booth. “But today I wanted to see you. And maybe put the principal secretary’s eye out.”
She glanced over her shoulder at a dart board on the wall, which had been plastered over with the day’s photograph of the principal secretary, torn from the newspaper. The first to stick her right eye got a free pint, and among Seneca’s old posse there was nothing better than free. That certainly hadn’t changed.
Calypso slid in on the other side of the booth. She stared at Seneca. “Heralt died.”
Calypso was coming out swinging. Seneca put down her mug and folded her hands on the table. “I know. I sent something to his sister. I wish I could have gone to the funeral, but I was busy.”
Seneca had been at the country estate of Councilman Neylor, discussing the future of nostalgia glass. The future of the city. But that wouldn’t go over well with Calypso, not yet. She sidestepped the question. “I was out of the city when he died. I didn’t hear about it until I was back.”
Calypso eyed her over the rim of her mug, dark eyes made darker with wingtips of kohl. It was a look that said she knew what Seneca was doing. Seneca had never liked talking with Calypso about her job, and bringing it up now would be the shortest route to ruining the evening. It would happen eventually, Seneca was sure, because it was what Calypso wanted. But Seneca wasn’t going to let the reunion implode the second Calypso walked through the door. She stood and pulled Tendo into a game of darts. Calypso watched them, Tendo all smiles, and lapsed into silence.
Ale and laughter made a blur of time as Seneca caught up on what felt like a decade of drama, and as a brief lull fell over the group, the eleven o’clock bell echoed throughout the district. By now friends had come and gone, most of them surprised into laughter when they recognized Seneca. Even Calypso had relaxed somewhat, smiling in spite of herself whenever Seneca dredged up an inside joke that only the three of them understood.
But the conversation inevitably made its way around to Seneca and her employment.
“Seneca,” Calypso asked, a knife’s edge hidden within the nonchalance of her cadence, “are you still play-acting for nostalgia bowlers on the lawn?”
Seneca briefly looked away from the dart board. The last time she’d been to Sog’s, Calypso had made it clear she didn’t want to see her again, not as long as Seneca was rubbing shoulders with socialites on the lawn. “Most weekends, yeah.”
“More like every weekend, from what I hear.”
Seneca shrugged and made a throw, dab in the middle of the principal secretary’s eyelashes. She cast a hopeful glance at Sog, who was already shaking his head no.
“Lately, sure,” Seneca said. “It’s been a busy month. Didn’t realize you missed me enough to keep tabs.”
Calypso didn’t rise to the bait. “And why is that?”
Seneca stalled. It was a busy month because two years ago, the principal secretary had put down a rebellion among the farmsteads in the distant interior of the country. At the time, a group of aristocracy had gotten the great idea to commission two-year nostalgia bowls and pay poor slum kids an ungodly sum to wear them through the thick of the suppression effort, which had been a slaughter. Now those same nobles were spending the two-year anniversary of the Farmsteads Massacre wearing nostalgia bowls and pretending they had been there, reliving the battle from the perspective of someone who had probably died in it.
“Just a busy—” Seneca made her final throw and missed. “Busy month. Hasn’t been a single weekend without a few idiots tumbling around like drunkards, pretending they were at the massacre. They’ve got me barking orders like a sergeant and firing blanks in the air, can you believe it? Complete horseshit.”
Calypso shared a glance with Tendo. She set her mug on the scarred tabletop and rose from her seat. “It was nice to pretend for a while, but I think we’re done. Come on, Tendo.”
As Tendo awkwardly scooted out of the booth to follow Calypso, he cast Seneca an apologetic look. They had both lived in the same building as Seneca until she moved out, but Calypso had been the most hurt by it. It wasn’t Seneca’s fault she had the background to make a good guide on the nostalgia lawns; her mother had been a maid for an ancient professor of contemporary history at the university, and he let her bring books home for Seneca to peruse. A firm-yet-nonjudgmental grasp of history was one of the first things they looked for in a nostalgia lawn candidate, and Seneca fit that bill.
At least, she appeared to. She had left her more radical activities—even the legal ones—off the application, which was another thing Calypso took issue with, and one that Seneca understood. She could see how it might seem like she was ashamed of the work she had done with Tendo and Calypso in their youth. It had taken Seneca a while to realize it was a hatchet they would never bury. But now, tonight, she had to try, although she had been hoping to have this conversation a little later, when the pub wasn’t so full.
“Wait,” Seneca said. “There’s something I need to talk to you about.”
Calypso leaned on the counter as Sog settled her tab. “And what’s that?”
“I’m, ah...” Seneca kept an eye on the rest of the group, more good acquaintances than close friends. None of them knew the full extent of Seneca, Calypso, and Tendo’s political labors. “I’m planning a little celebration of my own for the two-year anniversary. An installation. And for that, I need an orator.”
Calypso froze. It had been almost four years to the day since she had led the constabulary on a mad chase through the city, culminating in a standoff on the Stackshead Bridge and her nearly suicidal plunge into the river below. It had given Seneca and Tendo time to escape, which had been a miracle in itself.
Only Heralt had been captured that day, and it had been the last time Calypso appeared in public as the Orator. Since then they had gone dark. They had told themselves it was out of prudence, but for Seneca, that had been when she realized how little their actions shifted anything in the political landscape of the city. They patted themselves on the back while they tweaked the nose of the constabulary, naive and self-congratulatory, but when the principal secretary turned the merest sliver of her attention onto them, any sense of progress evaporated. It had, in fact, gone backwards—it was as if Heralt had never existed. Their lives had closed up around the gap where he had been. It was then Seneca had decided that if they wanted to make actual change, their installations alone would never stand a chance. She had tried to explain this to Calypso, but it had only driven them further apart, mostly because at the time Seneca hadn’t had a better answer. She just knew something had to change, and if she had to make that change herself, she would.
Now, for better or worse, the mention of oration and installations got Calypso’s attention. She returned to the booth, and the three of them crammed into one corner while the rest of their group continued volleying the principal secretary.
Calypso leaned in close, her tone poised but acerbic. “An installation? After you cut us loose and left us in goddamn freefall, waiting for Heralt to cave in while you cozied up to councilors? You think you can come back here now that we know Heralt kept his mouth shut, your pockets full of blood money, and we’ll just go back to how things were?”
“Not back to how things were.” That would be impossible—and pointless.
“I see,” Calypso said, her smile porcelain and false. “Then this is just for old times’ sake? A last hurrah? Maybe you’ve got a job for me on the lawn, too, once we’ve put our past behind us?”
“Calypso,” Tendo said, “you know that’s not fair...”
She silenced him with an open palm. Calypso was the actor of an age, but she spurned the patronage of the elite. The thought of her working on the lawn was heartbreaking. The city had been her theater, the streets her stage, every citizen her captive audience, and the city’s bloody politics her muse. As the Orator, she impersonated the rich and powerful, reciting their past speeches on street corners while standing in front of art installations that acted as counterpoint to the speech, highlighting the inherent hypocrisy. It had been thrilling, especially when the constabulary showed up but could not proceed with an arrest because Calypso was so damn good that no one could say for sure she wasn’t who she was impersonating.
That had been an idyllic season in their lives.
After that day on the Stackshead Bridge, they hadn’t given up politics completely, but they hadn’t done installations, either. A chapter of their lives had closed, and Seneca had moved up and on, as Tendo had put it. If only that were true. She had always imagined an eventual reunion, even as they had grown further apart, and she needed them now more than ever, but she had waited too long. Calypso wanted nothing to do with her, and Calypso could not be goaded, placated, or fooled—only given exactly what she wanted.
“Not for old times’ sake,” Seneca said. “This will be something new. I want to perform on Neylor’s lawn. And if it’s not the best installation we’ve ever done, then you’ll never see me again.”
Calypso gave a humorless little laugh, one that said she clearly thought Seneca was overcompensating, trying to win her over with bombast alone. The lawn where Seneca worked wasn’t technically public property. Many nostalgia bowlers didn’t want to mix with the new rich, who didn’t have the same appreciation of history as old blood families. To avoid undesirable mingling, they used Councilman Neylor’s private lawn, which he had opened to ‘the public’ provided ‘the public’ was a name he personally recognized, thereby collating a group of nobility he found politically and personally advantageous. He was also the nephew of the principal secretary.
“Won’t security be tight?” Tendo asked.
Seneca could have hugged him—already hashing it out as if it were a done deal. “Not so much. It’ll be at night, and Neylor just fit the entire lawn-facing side of the mansion with nostalgia panes, a whole range of delays and sizes.”
“Wait, at night?” Calypso curled her lip in disgust. “You know I won’t go in for anything like that.”
It had become a recent trend among the disillusioned to trespass on private property at night and commit lewd acts in front of nostalgia panes, where they wouldn’t be witnessed for years.
Seneca shook her head. “Nothing like that. They want to commemorate the rebellion in their way, and I want to in ours.”
Calypso’s eyes were half-closed, her lips in a half-smile, everything about her hypnotic. “Ours? And what is ours, Seneca?”
“I got my hands on a list of every noble who commissioned a nostalgia bowl to commemorate the massacre, and I put a little production together, marrying it with that ghoulish speech the prin-sec gave in the aftermath.”
Calypso’s voice was full of mock sympathy as she reached out and laid a hand on Seneca’s arm. “Are you sure? If we get caught, you could—you could lose your job, Seneca. Neylor’s second in line for the prin-sec office.”
Seneca pulled her arm away from Calypso’s grasp, ignoring the jab. “This needs to be done.”
Most of the people hired to witness the rebellion had died—hard to navigate no man’s land with a bowl on your head—yet they were just a few among the many who had perished that day. The principal secretary had never been so forthright before then, never so bloody. She had known it, too, for the speech she gave in its wake had been sweet rhetorical venom, at once both calming and incensing, shifting blame and drumming up camaraderie.
“Details?” Calypso asked.
“I exhumed five of the kids—”
“Fucking hells, Sen. Why?”
Seneca waited, listening to the thunk of darts into corkboard, reeling Calypso in with silence. At last she said, “Because they deserve to be remembered in a better way. With no crowd and no constabulary to worry about, it’s only a three-person gig. Aside from me getting us in, Tendo will help with setup and presentation. We’ll rig up a scaffold to hang the corpses from, and you’ll give the prin-sec’s speech in front of that. We’ll leave the whole thing set up for them to find in the morning, and they won’t know what it was until they watch it through the windows.”
“Why are we doing this at night, where no one will see, in front of nostalgia panes only Neylor gets to see? Are you expecting him to watch it and die of apoplexy on the spot?”
“Calypso, you’re missing the point. We’ve never had access to nostalgia panes before. Now we have access to dozens, all with different delays. I intend to make the most of that.” She lowered her voice, forcing them to lean in as she reached one hand into her coat and withdrew a glass cutter. It glittered briefly in the dim lighting before she concealed it once more. “You think I didn’t know people willing to lend me a few of those? We’re going big.”
Calypso abruptly sat back, watching Seneca with renewed interest. Glass cutters, while frequently the tool of a criminal, had acquired a certain cultural status in Alba Eloi over the last thirty years. On the black market they sold for almost as much as nostalgia glass itself.
“Really?” Calypso asked. “You would go that far?”
“As I said, one final installation. If we do this, we can show it again and again months or even years later throughout the city, depending on which of the councilman’s nostalgia panes we manage to, ah, liberate.”
“Bold, but what good is a speech no one can hear?”
Seneca held her gaze. “It’s iconic. Everyone in the city knows that speech, they don’t need to hear it. My aim is to make sure they never forget it.”
Calypso pursed her lips. At last she said, “It’s insane, Seneca. Even for us.”
“I dunno, I kinda like it,” Tendo said. “But why do the installation? Why not just grab the glass and do the installation later, somewhere less risky?”
“Tendo,” Seneca said, “we used to perform on street corners and church steps. We got constables for our trouble. Hounds. Spilled blood. When has less risk ever factored into our installations? I’d set up in the prin-sec’s office if I could, but I’ll settle for her nephew’s private property. Using the nostalgia lawn as a backdrop is the point.”
Tendo seemed to mull this over, then he looked to Calypso. After a moment she gave a curt nod of agreement, as Seneca had hoped she would. Risk had always been an element of their installations, what made them sensational.
“Even with our help,” Tendo asked, “how are you sneaking five corpses onto the lawn?”
Seneca gave him a sad smile. “It’s been years. What’s left by now is bones in a carpet bag.”
Tendo squeezed his eyes shut. “Right. Five kids in a sack. Gods that’s grim.”
“So are you game?” Seneca asked, her eyes on Calypso. “Have you still got it?”
It had been a long time since Seneca had done an installation with Calypso. Dead comrades and bleak futures had quenched that fire, but as Calypso met Seneca’s eyes, something of old sparked there, a recognizable passion.
There was, generally speaking, no time when the nostalgia lawn closed. Day or night did not matter when the light beaming into one’s eyes was on a days-long, months-long, or years-long delay. Thankfully most of the aristocracy found it distasteful to be out at night, and the lawn rarely saw traffic in the small hours.
Three nights after the meeting at Sog’s, Seneca stood beside the south gate that led from the lawn to the parlor. It had been deserted for hours. At the north end, the emaciated silhouette of Neylor’s gothic family home loomed like a sepulchre. While Neylor may have enabled nostalgia bowling, he didn’t necessarily love it, and he had insisted the parlor be built on the far side of the lawn, in a refurbished imports warehouse.
Seneca stared up at the stars, washed out and dim, and whispered a prayer that this would work. Somewhere in the city the clocks struck one hour past midnight: time to go to work. The first step was establishing a rock-solid alibi. She pushed through the turnstile and ascended the stairs that connected to the parlor.
Inside, low lamplight cast the parlor in deep shadow, the divans and curtained booths unoccupied. Security consisted of one doorman at the far entrance, taller even than Tendo. As Seneca entered, with her face arranged into a particular mix of apprehension and expectation, the doorman looked up from his much-folded copy of the Parlorside Evening Post.
“Uh, Seneca?” His voice rumbled like the throaty growl of a mastiff deciding whether it wanted to bark. “Something wrong?”
“What?” Seneca spared him a glance and went back to her search of the parlor. “Nothing. Have you seen Iles? She was supposed to replace me an hour ago.”
He shrugged, massive shoulders bunching up under his tailored evening jacket. “Nah. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her work a night, actually.”
Everyone knew Iles didn’t work nights, just as everyone knew she had a drinking habit. There was often no telling how far gone she was at a given time—or what she would remember the following day.
“I have an early morning examination and... and she probably doesn’t even remember I asked. Shit.”
The doorman gave a sympathetic laugh, which trailed off as Seneca sank onto one of the divans and cradled her forehead in one hand, eyes closed.
“Dammit. I need to be there, and if I miss this then next month what with the archive audits I am so fucked.”
She glanced up, hoping she looked as haggard as she felt. “Yeah?”
“You know, uh, you can probably go.” The doorman looked around the empty parlor. “No one ever comes this time of night. If someone does, I’ll just say it’s closed, tonight only. Trimming the hedges or something.”
Seneca let the silence stretch out, as though weighing her options. At last she said, “Thanks. I owe you one.”
“Anytime. Well, not anytime. But sometimes.”
“Just this once, I promise.”
Seneca hustled out through the changing room before he could float any ideas about how she might pay him back. He was nice enough, but Seneca was pretty sure he got himself scheduled on her nights.
As she stepped out the employee entrance, she threw a coat over the yellow vest that marked her as an employee of the parlor. In the alley she paused, and for a long minute all was silent, the air stuffy and hot in the summer night. The shadows shifted, and Tendo stepped into the moonlight. He was remarkably good at hiding for such a tall man. But then he’d certainly gotten enough practice over their years working together.
“You weren’t kidding,” he said, his voice soft and low. “Quarter past first bell, on the mark. You threw that guy like a pot.”
Seneca pursed her lips as she lit a cigarette. “We bum smokes off each other sometimes. You find the stuff okay?”
Tendo jerked his thumb over one shoulder. A glassblower’s rickshaw stood at the far end of the alley, fitted with padded slots to hold at least a dozen panes, along with their installation gear. In some ways, that was the riskiest part of the plan; anyone could sneak across the city, but hauling around a rickshaw like that had become synonymous with nostalgia glass, and hauling one around past sunset meant nothing good.
Seneca stepped out into the gaslight. Tendo followed shortly after with the rickshaw, keeping a reasonable distance between them. She led him around the outside of the hedgerow, in the direction of the front gate of Councilman Neylor’s city home: Avyn Way. The grand mansion—gothic and imposing, overlooking the nostalgia lawns—was the heart of the nostalgia glass cultural movement. It had been Councilman Neylor who commissioned the stained glass for his aunt’s office in the first place, when he was just a fledgling statesman trying to curry favor with a newly elected prin-sec.
As they neared the northern end of the hedgerow, Seneca paused to drop her cigarette on the sidewalk and grind it out beneath her heel, then walked on, leaving a smear of black ash on the concrete as a marker for Tendo. The sound of the rickshaw no longer followed her as she rounded a corner and arrived at the front gates of Avyn Way. They were so thickly blanketed in ivy that what lay beyond couldn’t be seen, and for a moment she had to fumble to find the lock. Her nerves thrummed as she kept her focus on the task at hand, refusing to appear anything but casual while she unlocked the gate and slipped inside.
Avyn Way thrust up from the ground like shards of charred bone, the dark gray stonework eating light, the street-facing windows small and insignificant in the vast wall of its edifice. A narrow strip of lawn ran around the perimeter to a servants’ yard on the side of the house, where a side gate was cleverly concealed within the hedgerow. She unlocked it and pushed it open. Tendo stood waiting on the other side. He pulled the rickshaw in, and Seneca closed the side gate behind him. They sighed, their collective breath loud in the humid, windless night.
Tendo craned his neck back, looking up at the four-storey heights of Avyn Way. “I know you’ve been working here for a while, but I’m surprised you have a key to the front door.”
That had been what hurt the most. Among all the moving parts of this plan, Calypso hadn’t batted an eye when Seneca said she had a key to the front gate of Avyn Way. It made it clear how far gone Seneca was in Calypso’s eyes; how far removed she was from the roots of their friendship, cozying up to the council and the aristocracy. Seneca wondered what else Calypso thought about her.
“She’s not mad at you, you know. Not really.” Tendo sat on one wheel of the rickshaw, the axle creaking softly beneath his bulk. “She just didn’t understand why you quit politics completely for a job here. She thought she understood at first, and then you kept working here, and then you didn’t help with the autumn soliloquies two years ago, and then you missed Heralt’s funeral—”
“Yeah, I get it. And look, she’s not entirely wrong. I know these people better than you’d expect. Better than I want, sometimes...” She stared down at the key in her palm. With a deep breath, she shifted what felt like a stone’s weight resting on her chest. “I was at Neylor’s country estate when you had Heralt’s funeral.”
Tendo whistled with a forced indifference. “That’s some high-level schmoozing. Don’t tell Calypso—she might actually hate you.”
Seneca was afraid to ask the natural next question, but she had to know. “And you don’t?”
“Nah. It’s kind of impressive—get in good with the prin-sec’s nephew, then use that to set up our first installation in four years? The ultimate last hurrah. Assuming Neylor doesn’t find out and kill us.”
Tendo adjusted the rickshaw for a quick exit out the side gate, then started unloading the installation components. For the first time, he seemed nervous. “What’s the plan if someone finds us, anyway?”
“If someone finds us...” Seneca held his gaze, utterly serious, then cracked a smile. “Tell him to go back to bed— he’s the gardener, and he’s ancient. Otherwise the place is empty. Neylor’s been in the country for months.”
Tendo grunted in disgust. “Avoiding the summer strife, go figure. I often wonder why we never see his face up on the dart boards.”
Every summer the city’s political landscape groaned with the pressure of too many restless citizens, the long days and unbearable temperatures spilling over into outright chaos. Many on the council chose to get out of the city during the summer, although, as the principal secretary’s nephew and head chair of the security board, Neylor should not have been one of them. The hollowness of Avyn Way damned him.
“He wouldn’t leave without good reason,” Seneca said. “Neylor wasn’t... he isn’t as cold as he seems. Not half as bad as his aunt, and far better than the rest of the council.”
Tendo watched her uncertainly. After a minute he shrugged and said, “Hard not to be better than the prin-sec. Let’s hope Neylor stays that way once the office is his.”
Seneca gave a tired laugh. The office of the principal secretary was supposed to be an elected position. “If he accepts the office from her, I think the ship of integrity will have long since sailed.”
The side yard spilled out onto the lawn, and they came to a stop just outside the view of the lawn-facing nostalgia panes. Moonlight glossed the neatly trimmed grass, a sheen of white splashed across dark fringe. Tendo stared. “So much space. What the hell did he do with it all, before he turned it over to the bowlers?”
“I’ve heard Neylor hates them, you know,” Tendo said. “Which makes it all the weirder. A bunch of bizzaros wandering around his property with bowls on their heads, and he doesn’t even like them?”
“All I can say is that he keeps his friends close and enemies closer.”
Seneca accepted a hood from Tendo but paused before she pulled it over her head and shoulders. She knew this hood—the tear in the material where a constabulary hound had gone for her throat; the dark stain that was equal parts her blood, equal parts Tendo’s; the way the drawstrings were knotted like prayer beads, one for each installation.
She looked up to find him watching her, his own hood obscuring his features.
“Didn’t know you’d kept mine,” she said, and pulled it on.
“Told you,” he said. “She isn’t really mad at you. Wouldn’t let me get rid of it, even if I had wanted to.”
They stepped into view of the home’s lawn-facing windows. A familiar tension tightened across Seneca’s shoulders, as it always did when she was in sight of nostalgia glass, with everything she did being flung forward to some potential observer in the future.
Tendo stopped every so often to turn around and use his hands as a viewfinder, sizing up the best place to build the scaffolding for the installation.
“Here,” he said, and dumped the bags onto the lawn.
They erected a freestanding screen to conceal their preparations, then quickly began the task of binding the contents of the five bonebags into skeletons. It was grim business, and they went about it without a word, fastening joints together with wire. When the skeletons were assembled, arranged in a neat row, and covered with linen sheets like ossuary offerings, Seneca and Tendo began erecting the scaffolding of a crude rectangular gallows.
They worked seamlessly, as though the last four years hadn’t seen them move into different spheres of life, and soon the scaffolding grew taller than Tendo. Without hesitation he hoisted Seneca onto his shoulders, handed up the last of the bamboo rods, and she fastened the crossbar along the top of the scaffolding. As she slid to the ground, a companionable silence overtook them. The bell tolled four hours past midnight, and something in Seneca relaxed. They were right on schedule.
She bent to tie nooses and name placards around the five skeletons’ necks, then tossed the opposite end of each rope over the bamboo crossbar. Tendo went about moving the concealment screen to behind the scaffolding, so he and Seneca wouldn’t be seen doing stagework during the performance.
“Feels good,” Tendo said. “Doing an installation again.”
It did. The first time Seneca had done an installation, Calypso had dressed as the High Priest of the Numinous Dark, reciting his speech from the previous Alms Day about the plight of the poor, all while Tendo and Seneca had flogged an actual dead horse behind her, spraying blood across a collage of pages torn from holy books. The crowd had been delighted. This was a far cry from that day, but it felt the same nonetheless. A return to how things should have been.
Before Seneca could say as much, the sound of voices and footsteps drifted across the green. Someone was coming down the parlor stairs to the turnstile onto the lawn, and Seneca recognized at least one of those voices. The doorman, doing his best to dissuade whoever was with him.
“Back to the side yard,” Seneca hissed, and wheeled toward the house.
She and Tendo knelt along the side of the house, concealed within its shadow.
The doorman’s voice rumbled like distant thunder. “My lords, I’m sorry, but as I said we’re closed and there’s no one here to aid you with—”
His voice cut off, which Seneca understood as a stunned silence. He had seen the scaffolding. He, and whoever had so adamantly barged onto the lawn.
Another voice, mellifluous and self-assured, cut through the silence like a pealing bell. “Closed for what, was it? Trimming the hedges?”
“And that,” the doorman said, the word itself a sweeping gesture to the scaffolding, whatever it was. “That, too, my lords.”
Against better judgment, Seneca peeked out to get a glimpse. Three young men, wearing stoles and baggy trousers as was currently fashionable, stood in front of the scaffolding. Each of them had a nostalgia bowl under their arm. The doorman stood behind them, hands at his sides, arms rigid, as if he had to keep himself from bodily dragging them off the lawn. He was in a tough spot. His job was to keep riffraff out, not prevent actual clients from doing whatever they pleased.
“What is it?” the young man asked.
As he moved closer, the clouds shifted, revealing his face. Tendo let out a long, slow breath. “That’s Lord Panshasa.”
The principal secretary’s youngest son. That would explain why he was here in the dead of night—it might be well and good for others to revel in the memory of the massacre, but not him. Not the son of the woman who had ordered it.
This was unraveling faster than Seneca could have imagined.
A cold, mirthless voice from behind her said, “Well, fuck me.”
She and Tendo spun as a dark figure stepped away from the inner perimeter of the hedge, a swatch of shadow turned gray in the moonlight. The principal secretary herself—hair coiffed into a side-swept whorl, lips painted nude to give her a bloodless affectation, a pair of spectacles balanced on her nose.
Seneca’s heart kicked, even as she recognized the voice as Calypso’s. The rise and fall of panic left her suddenly drained. Seneca almost hadn’t recognized her; had almost thought that of course with the principal secretary’s son waltzing onto the lawn, why shouldn’t the principal secretary herself walk into the side yard as well?
Calypso remained in the shadows, listening. In the distance, the doorman sputtered something about the upcoming summer solstice festival the following week.
“We scrubbing the installation?” Tendo asked. “Grab some glass while they’re bowling and get out of here?”
Calypso’s attention was fully on Seneca. She was probably expecting her to bail.
“No. We’re doing it.”
Tendo gaped. Calypso was motionless, unreadable, watching Seneca with an intensity that Seneca hadn’t seen in a long time.
Before Tendo could protest, Seneca removed a glass cutter from the rickshaw and pressed it into his hand. “Listen, we can still do this. I just need one thing from you: go inside the house. Cut the nearest first-floor windows in the solarium that overlooks the lawn, but don’t take them. Leave the glass in the frame. Then come out and join me in time for the installation. Can you do that?”
“Can you do that?”
He blinked, his gaze blank, attention turned inward, then his fingers curled around the glass cutter. “Cut the windows in the solarium, leave the glass in the frame. Got it.”
He darted into the house without another word. For one fraught minute Seneca stood frozen, her mind a jumble as she continued to reconstruct a plan falling to pieces around her. She went to the side gate and locked it.
“What are you doing?” Calypso asked.
“We’re not getting out of here with the rickshaw now, and they can’t know I have a key.”
“Seneca. What is going on?”
Seneca shook her head. “You had enough faith in me to come out here tonight. Give me just a little more.”
Calypso glanced at the side door where Tendo had entered the house, still slightly ajar, then crossed her arms. “Fine. What do you need from me?”
“Listen for my signal.”
Seneca waited as the doorman tried once more to control the situation, unable to do anything but give the nobles the gentlest of reminders that the lawn was closed. Panshasa and his friends ignored him—the one silver lining was their arrogance. They didn’t seem to care that the actor-historian normally there to enliven their experience was nowhere to be seen.
Eventually the doorman retreated, leaving the young bowlers to wander around the scaffolding in amused wonder. One of them bent to examine the skeletons beneath their sheets.
Seneca rose and stepped out of the shadows. She strode across the lawn, praying they didn’t ask why she was wearing a hood, and opened her coat so her yellow parlor vest was visible but concealed from the perspective of Avyn Way’s nostalgia panes. She stopped a few paces behind them and with a sweeping bow softly said, “My lords.”
They turned as one, concealing their startlement behind a veneer of disdain.
“There you are,” Panshasa said. He had his mother’s heavy eyelashes and full lips, his demeanor one of snide prepossession. “I knew that doorman had the wrong of it—Cousin Weimant never closes the lawn.”
“Ah, but we are closed.” Seneca straightened and from the depths of her hood looked him directly in the eye. “Closed to everyone but you.”
The hint of a smile played at his lips. “What’s this about?”
“You can’t very well relive the rebellion without your mother,” she said.
Seneca gestured toward Avyn Way. “Your mother.”
Calypso stepped into the moonlight. She looked the part, always did, but there was no way she would fool the principal secretary’s son. But then maybe she didn’t have to for the installation to succeed. Perhaps this would work out better than Seneca had hoped.
Calypso came closer, and a flicker of confusion passed across Panshasa’s face, then he grew guarded once more as it became clear that he had clocked her as an actor. His friends, however, remained stunned. They looked between Panshasa and Calypso, and one of them began to bow before Panshasa’s hand snapped out to grab his shoulder.
“Don’t make a fool of yourself; it’s not her,” Panshasa said, and then to Seneca, “Again, what’s this about? Don’t make me ask a third time.”
With a glance, Seneca passed the question to Calypso, who smiled and said, “Verisimilitude.”
Panshasa reeled as his mother’s voice came from Calypso’s lips, and he looked at her again, as though unsure of his original assessment.
“Your cousin, Councilman Neylor, knew you were having a special viewing tonight,” Seneca said. “And it goes hand in hand with the speech your mother gave. He arranged for one of our premier actor-historians to give the principal secretary’s speech. Let the sound of her voice blend with the light from your nostalgia glass to carry you into that day.”
Panshasa looked legitimately impressed. “Cousin Weimant put this together?”
“He did, Your Lordship.” Seneca gestured to the lawn in front of the scaffolding. “If you would like to make yourselves ready, we can begin at your leisure. I’m sure the viewing will begin shortly, and nostalgia glass waits for no one.”
Panshasa peeked into his bowl, then nodded to his friends. “This ought to be interesting.”
They moved a bit farther from the scaffolding and donned their bowls. Panshasa chuckled, looking around and adjusting the angle of his view. Seneca beckoned to Tendo, who silently sprinted across the lawn to join them.
Seneca buttoned up her coat as she studied the scaffolding, perhaps one and a half times Tendo’s height. Not the most imposing, nor realistic for a hanging, but it would do for theatrics. It had been a metaphorical hanging anyway. An economic hanging. A social hanging. The sort of injustice that leant itself well to Calypso’s installations. And it would be all the better with the principal secretary’s wastrel of a son tumbling around on the green in front of it. The idiots were already laughing, talking amongst themselves, trying to determine where on the battlefield their individual bowls’ perspectives were in relation to one another.
Calypso stood with her back to the scaffolding, arms crossed, stance wide, her cold gaze on the trio of young lords. Quietly she said, “I don’t know about this.”
Seneca caught Tendo’s eye and motioned for him to wait behind the backdrop as she asked, “What do you mean?”
Calypso gestured helplessly. “There’s no crowd. No one to talk to. No one but these fools who don’t give a shit. They’re celebrating the massacre.”
“But there will be an audience.” Seneca stepped up beside her and gestured to the dark silhouette of Avyn Way, nostalgia panes winking in the moonlight. “And you’re always fantastic.”
Calypso nodded slowly and closed her eyes. When she opened them again, Calypso was gone. Something hard glittered behind those spectacles, something that was purely the principal secretary. Gooseflesh rippled across Seneca’s arms. This would work. She hadn’t been sure until this moment, had almost forgotten what it was like to watch Calypso sink into character, but it would work. She had asked once what it was like, and Calypso had looked lost as she said, “I could kiss them. I could kill them. It hurts.”
Tonight, it was clear which of those two sentiments ran through Calypso’s veins like shattered glass. She was incandescent, shifting her weight like a prize fighter, her fingers curling and uncurling by her side, lips mouthing silent invocations. She was consuming and consumed by the principal secretary.
From behind the backdrop Tendo said, “Ready.”
Panshasa and his friends were growing louder, running nearly in circles as they shouted about watching their flank. Seneca nodded to Calypso and joined Tendo behind the scaffolding. Each of the nooses was longer than the last, the free ends all attached to a single iron bar that Tendo braced across his shoulders like a yoke. He handed Seneca a small hammer and a bag of five wooden stakes. They waited in silence, listening for Calypso to begin her monologue.
And there it was, a whisper beneath the clamor.
“The smile of heaven is the grin of devils,” Calypso began, quoting the principal secretary in the wake of that blood-soaked day. “Do you know what I mean by this? With one hand we give alms, with the other we shackle. Do you know what I mean by this? The people clamor for what they spurn. Do you know what I mean by this?”
She was full wroth, her tone a controlled tremble, loud enough to act as a rhetorical metronome for the performance, quiet enough not to be heard beyond the expanse of the lawn. The sound burned through Seneca, hot ash on the wind, and she didn’t need to see Calypso to know what she looked like. She would be holding the spectacles in one hand, the other at the bridge of her nose, eyes closed, brow tight with anger.
“It means charity is destroying this city. It means us eating ourselves from the inside out.”
Calypso’s eyes would be open now, meeting the spellbound gaze of an imaginary crowd, daring any of them to object to the subtext unfolding behind her. No one ever did, even when there was a crowd. That there wasn’t one now mattered not at all.
“Go,” Seneca said.
They sprinted away from the scaffolding, tugging on the first rope, and a skeleton sailed into the air on the shortest noose. When they came to a stop, Seneca deftly untied it from Tendo’s yoke and staked it to the lawn. In the distance, Calypso’s voice was still clear but soft. Panshasa and his friends had grown quiet.
“We are hollow.” She turned the word into an invective against any facet of the city outside her stranglehold. “We are void.”
Seneca had been in the actual crowd that day, attending the principal secretary’s speech with the other apprentice candidates from the university. Calypso had not been there, and yet she was striking the same emotional notes, soaring the same highs and dredging the same lows. How Calypso did it, Seneca would never know. She had first started participating in Calypso’s political installations out of a naïve contrarianism, which Calypso had stoked into a conflagration. Soon Seneca had started going just for the chance to see Calypso inhabit these people for a few minutes, utterly possessing them, witchcraft as oratory. Distancing herself from such artistry had killed Seneca. But it had been necessary. At least, that’s what she had thought. How strange that the entirety of her plan hinged on a friendship she had buried and mourned years ago, now suddenly coming back to life.
“We are gods damned!”
Seneca tapped Tendo on the shoulder. “Go.”
They ran again, vibrations thrumming down the length of rope as the second skeleton swung back and forth on the scaffolding.
“Because no matter how we twist, no matter how we contort, we cannot escape this decaying body. Every dead traitor in this rebellion is a flake of gilding sloughed away in the wind. And what lies beneath? What’s left?” She would be kneeling now, looking into the imaginary eyes of a crowd member thunderstruck by her closeness. Her voice would dip lower, meant for them alone, and Seneca mouthed those inaudible words, Tell me what’s left, dear citizen.
As Seneca knelt to stake the second noose, she heard, to her great surprise, a reply.
One of the lords must have taken his bowl off to watch the speech.
Seneca wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. The closer they paid attention, the sooner they would realize what exactly was going on. But it would make an unrivaled installation.
“Yes. Us.” Calypso’s voice returned to normal pitch. “We are left. Bearing more weight than ever before. And yet lighter. Stronger. More free.”
Seneca nodded to Tendo, the third skeleton went aloft, and almost as soon as she staked it down, the fourth went as well. When they stopped, Calypso’s voice was the faint murmur of an overheard conversation. The sound of chirping crickets momentarily overtook Calypso’s speech, her voice coming and going through the nighttime sounds.
Tendo stood with his eyes closed, ear cocked towards the scaffolding.
Seneca whispered, “I’m heading back. I’ll signal you when she gets to the part about lye in the rivers, for the fifth one.”
She jogged back to stand behind the scaffolding. Calypso’s voice waxed into full bloom, dripping with ferocious contempt, disregard for the organizers of the rebellion.
“But the decay that surrounds us now is ephemeral, temporary, passing. We have a new spring blossoming within. We will wash ourselves downriver from the bone ash of old, and from that lye we will emerge pristine and new.”
Seneca waved to Tendo, and a second later the sound of rope singing across bamboo filled the air as the final skeleton leapt into motion. The scaffolding creaked and bones clattered in the night wind, every sound carried by the close of Calypso’s speech.
“This has always been a city of rebirth.” A pause. She would be unfolding her spectacles, slipping them back on as she came down from her fervor. “If what we become in the wake of this includes you, that is entirely up to you. But we will endure.”
Silence. Tendo thrust the iron bar into the ground to secure the final rope and returned to Seneca, listening for some sort of reaction.
Panshasa and his friends had hardly made a sound since the speech began. Seneca rounded the backdrop and stood beside the line of skeletons. All three of the lords had removed their bowls. One of them was staring at the placards around the skeletons’ necks, his face pale, unnerved.
Panshasa’s expression had soured to that of a man who knew he was being insulted but to point it out would give it some sort of credence. He couldn’t acknowledge it.
Seneca decided to help him out. “Action isn’t born out of a vacuum, My Lord. Words accompany it. Your mother’s words accompanied the scene you have within your nostalgia bowls. But what sort of words passed among you before deciding to hang children such as these?”
She gestured to the line of skeletons. The challenge in her voice was clear, her earlier deference gone. Tendo rounded the backdrop as well, hovering at her shoulder. Most of their installations had ended with them fleeing the constabulary, and the lighting-strike charge that hung heavy in the air now was much the same. This might be three dandies, but Panshasa could have them killed on a whim.
He dismissed the scaffolding with a flip of the wrist. “I don’t know what these props are supposed to imply, but the people we hired were compensated. They volunteered—jumped at the opportunity.”
Calypso spoke up, her tone still the measured authority of the principal secretary. “These aren’t props. These are real. If you see a name you recognize, then you hanged them there.”
Panshasa snapped. “You cannot slander me to my face and expect no consequences, especially not dressed like that.”
Calypso gave him an icy smile, and Seneca leaned close to Tendo to whisper, “Jig’s up. Go smash those windows you cut, scoop up as much glass as you can, then run for the parlor. Calypso and I will go through the house.”
Tendo’s expression tightened. “A smash-and-grab? That’s your brilliant plan?”
“Just do it. Meet us at Sog’s once you shake them.”
“And the parlor doorman?”
“He’s got a bum right knee and smokes too much—be nice to him.”
Panshasa’s friends had fanned out, eyeing Calypso with predatory intent, although their attention kept flickering to Tendo. Fortunately for them, the only time Tendo had bloodied a constable’s nose, Calypso had flown into a rage, and since then their policy had been strictly non-violent. Which they didn’t need to reveal.
“Lord Panshasa,” Seneca said. “Props or no, the message should be clear: Your family has been the ruin of his city.”
He snarled and lunged at her, which she sidestepped, dancing just out of reach while Tendo made his move. He dashed for the solarium’s wide windows, wrapping one fist in his sleeve. Panshasa’s friends hesitated, caught between following Tendo or moving in on Seneca and Calypso, until the sound of shattering glass cut through the night.
“Stop him!” Panshasa shouted, and one of his friends peeled off in pursuit.
Seneca took the opportunity to sprint toward the house, veering away from the side yard. She hadn’t planned on leaving the mansion so soon after the performance, and the house itself had a final role to play. She located the window she needed—west wing, first floor, no larger than a vanity mirror—and pulled the drawstrings on her hood, to protect her face as she crashed through the nostalgia pane. In an explosion of glass she rolled across the floor of a painter’s atelier. As Calypso sailed past her into the hallway, Seneca blindly reached for a shard until she felt an edge bite into her palm.
She stumbled to her feet, the jagged glass in one hand, the other struggling to loosen the cowl of her hood, and then Panshasa’s fist connected with her jaw.
As she went down, she hooked an elbow around his neck, dragging him with her. His companion vaulted through the broken window, and Seneca jerked the shard of nostalgia glass up against Panshasa’s throat.
“Another step and I bleed him out.”
The man stopped. Panshasa’s pulse hammered against Seneca’s arm, but his voice was pure disdain. “You wouldn’t dare.”
Seneca wormed her way backward along the floor, shards of glass digging into her shoulder blades. “Maybe you don’t think so. Does he?” She eyed his friend. “Eh? Do you want this blood on your hands? The prin-sec’s son?”
At the mention of the principal secretary, the tension bled from the young lord’s shoulders, and he retreated a step toward the window.
Calypso appeared in the doorway leading to the hall. Still in the principal secretary’s persona she said, “The way is clear.”
Seneca dragged Panshasa to his feet, then planted a foot in his back and booted him into his friend. She turned and fled, following Calypso through the halls. As they spilled out into the front courtyard she heaved, “Can’t know I have a key. Climb.”
Calypso threw her back against the gate and made a stirrup with her hands. She boosted Seneca up and onto the iron scrollwork atop the gate, one leg hanging over either side. Panshasa and his friend burst out of the house as Calypso jumped, caught Seneca’s extended hand, and hauled herself up.
Panshasa wasted no time trying to climb the gate himself. “Thieves!”
His cry echoed through the silent neighborhood, and he continued to scream into the night as Seneca and Calypso fled into the pools of darkness between gas lamps, but by the time lights began to wink on one by one, it was too late. They were gone.
With the moon behind the clouds, Calypso and Seneca made their way to Sog’s in pitch darkness. They pounded on the door until Sog could be heard cursing from the tiny second floor where he lived above the bar. A minute later he threw the door open, a truncheon in one hand, only to stop at the sight of them.
“Dammit.” He looked either way before ushering them inside. “Been a while since I’ve seen the two of you like this. You doing installations again?”
“Just one,” Seneca said. “Mind if we cool it here for a while? Tendo will be along shortly.”
“Long as you don’t wake me up again. I had a night.”
“Us, too, Sog. Us too.”
He thumped his way back up the stairs, leaving them to sit in the silent, dark taproom. Only the occasional sliver of moonlight through cracked shutters illuminated the booths by the windows.
Seneca took a seat at the counter, and after a brief hesitation, Calypso joined her. She looked tired, hollowed out by an exhaustion that was more than just the harrowing escape. Acting took it out of her in ways she had never been able to explain.
“Well,” Calypso said. “Could have gone worse.”
“I’m happy with it.”
“At least one of us is.” Calypso crossed her arms on the counter and laid her head down, eyes closed. “Because I’m not sure what it accomplished, besides pissing Panshasa off. I’m pretty sure he saw your face.”
“Nah, he was too busy making sure you weren’t his actual mother.”
“I’m serious.” Seneca hesitated. This was it. Not how she had planned, not how she could have imagined, but still. “I mean, do you have any idea what it’s like to watch you give a speech?”
Calypso’s eyes opened, liquid night in the darkness. “Obviously not.”
Seneca reached into her jacket and removed the shard of nostalgia glass she had used to threaten Panshasa. She laid it gently on the countertop, where it shone with a glimpse of Neylor’s nostalgia lawn, shimmering up at them.
“Some of his windows have only an hour or two of delay,” Seneca said. “Neylor’s daughter fancies herself a painter; she likes to watch daybreak more than once.”
Calypso reached out and slid it closer. “It’s a poor painter who blames her paintbrushes, an even poorer one who blames her windows...”
She tilted her head to stare through that shattered window into the past. They sat shoulder to shoulder as the events of the night played out before them.
There wasn’t much in view, only half the scaffold, obscured by Panshasa and his friends when they arrived. They turned as Seneca approached, and then came the moment Calypso walked onto the lawn. In the darkness of the taproom, Seneca glanced at Calypso. Did she see it? Did she see the look of confusion and horror on Panshasa’s face; how it lingered even after he had realized that no, this was not the principal secretary?
Within the glass, Panshasa’s party walked out of view and Calypso took center stage. Even as a mute performance, mouthing unheard words, she was spellbinding. Calypso’s eyes narrowed as she studied herself from only hours earlier.
Seneca said, “I told you, you’re always great.”
A soft smile played at Calypso’s lips, but all she said was, “It felt good. One last time.”
“Does it have to be? Because that wasn’t the installation I had in mind, and there’s more going on in this city than even you realize. ”
Calypso shot her a glance. “What?”
“The discovery of nostalgia panes wasn’t an accident. When Neylor commissioned them, he wasn’t just trying to suck up to his aunt after she got into office. He knew she was a despot from the very beginning, and he knew how despots treat history. Neylor wanted a way to record the past, to ensure objectivity could not be lost. That’s what the nostalgia panes have been about, always. The victors hold the pen of history, but the glass does not lie. Neylor knew life under his aunt’s rule would grow worse and worse, even as she claimed it had never been better. He just needed some way to prove it. And someone.”
Calypso’s expression grew sharp, discerning. “You’re working for Neylor? Not just the lawn, but Neylor himself?”
Seneca put her hand in her pocket and came out with the key to Avyn Way. “Why did you think I had a key to his house? Really, what did you think?”
Calypso’s expression hovered somewhere between disbelief and astonishment. “I thought you were another employee skimming what you thought the boss wouldn’t notice. Why you?”
“Contemporary history.” She tapped a finger against her temple. She had so many worlds in there. So many different iterations of the city. She had seen books and newspapers printed only to be thrown in the furnace the next day. A million cities lived in her head, and only one of them was true. And it wasn’t the current one. “Neylor needed someone to help him paint the broad strokes of our history while he focused on the details of what could be captured in a window pane. He wanted to make sure that every time someone walked out of a nostalgia parlor, they were just a little less satisfied with the city they found themselves inhabiting. The city of what the principal secretary is now, instead of what she used to be. Or what she promised them.”
“But why? The prin-sec spits on objectivity; you and I have known that for a long time, Sen.”
“Because Neylor’s going to run against his aunt in the next election cycle. Actually run.”
The last time anyone had run against the principal secretary had been almost twenty years earlier. The principal secretary had been an idealist during her first few terms, but it hadn’t taken long for her to become entrenched in her own mythology.
And it hadn’t taken long before her ends justified any means. She took all comers and thrust them into political darkness. No one’s career survived challenging her, although she brooked ideological rivals easily enough, which made her message clear: you can stand against this power, but you cannot have this power. The idea that Councilman Neylor would dare run against her spoke to either great ambition or great delusion. She would destroy him if he lost.
“Will it work?” Calypso asked.
“It could have, I think, but...” Seneca trailed off. If things had gone as originally planned, she likely would have never seen Calypso again. She didn’t know how she felt about that. “Neylor’s dead. Once the principal secretary realized what he was trying to do with nostalgia glass, it was only a matter of time. He was poisoned last autumn, after he got himself on the ballot. He left for his country estate as a cover, and since then I’ve been running things in his place. He died last week.”
She lapsed into silence. Calypso’s gaze cut through that quietude, down to what Seneca felt but did not say. “And you still think it can work. How is a dead man going to run in an election?”
“He isn’t. You are.”
Seneca waited for a reaction one way or another, disbelief, outrage, laughter. Calypso gave her nothing but a blank stare. They both turned back to the shard of nostalgia glass and watched as Calypso finished her speech, Panshasa and his friends transfixed. One of them kept glancing up at the skeleton and then quickly away, as though he could not bear to look. From within the glass, Calypso’s imperious gaze slipped past her audience and found Seneca in the present, pierced through time to meet her in that taproom, ignorant of what was to come.
“What do you think?” Seneca asked. “Will she do it?”
“I...” Calypso’s face shone in the light of the nostalgia pane. “I need to think about it.”
Looking as though her own words had disturbed her, as though she herself had been expecting a refusal, Calypso stood and left. Seneca sagged against the counter, reliving the night’s events, all the ways it had gone wrong, all the ways it could have gone better. But in the end, she had made her proposal, and Calypso hadn’t said no. That was something.
A moment later, a gentle knock came at the door. Tendo. As Seneca made her way across the taproom, it came again.
“Hold your goddamn horses, Tendo—”
The door swung open, and standing in the darkness of Sog’s entrance was Mitaunte. His face was cast in shadow, he stood straighter, and he held his cane more like a weapon than a walking stick, but it was him.
Seneca grabbed him by the lapels and hauled him inside. “What do you think you’re doing here?”
He went around behind the bar, hung his cane on the rim of a barrel, and drew himself a pint. “I was in the area, following up on your recommendation from last week. Didn’t you know Lady Eringale lives on this side of the Stackshead? In the old aristocratic quarter. We had a long, long conversation, and she does seem amenable to our cause. Anyway, I got word that you never arrived at my estate with Neylor’s glass. I thought I would check in.”
The old aristocratic quarter wasn’t exactly ‘in the area’, even if it was on the poor side of the Stackshead. “Now? Here? I don’t wander up Rackingham Road and knock on your front door. We meet at the parlor for a reason. We have a system.”
“To be honest, I thought the system was well and truly finished after Neylor died. I convinced the others to let you go through with your contingency since we had nothing better, but tonight I had make sure you weren’t followed—”
He smiled and thumbed foam from his mustache. “Weren’t followed, in case we had to cut you loose if things went poorly. But then I saw your friend going out and... and I have to admit, I thought she was the prin-sec at first. If she can play Neylor just as well, then this plan of yours might actually work, which isn’t something I ever expected to say. Is everything in place?”
“Almost. What about the rest of the conclave? Are they prepared? Are they willing to stand up to the prin-sec herself when she asks why they’re shielding her nephew from her during the election—her nephew whom she is quite sure is dead?”
“I can convince them. But it’s still a mad plan. This friend of yours, will she do it?”
Seneca focused on the shard of nostalgia glass atop the counter, illuminating the pint glass in Mitaunte’s hand. She thought of what she had seen there, of what she had always seen in Calypso but only been able to show her tonight. But more than that, Seneca knew Calypso—she who could not be goaded, placated, or fooled, only given exactly what she wanted. This was what Calypso, and all of them, had wanted more than anything, for longer than they’d known they wanted it. An end to the principal secretary.
“She’ll do it.”