So I’m pleased and relieved to announce that The Ladies and The Gentlemen is officially off to my copyeditor (the splendiferous Amy Garvey.) To celebrate, instead of teasing y’all with the first chapter (as I promised I would) I’m going to tease y’all with the first chapter and the prologue.
The prologue used to be the first chapter, actually—until my intrepid first readers pointed out that I should probably cut it, given that it’s mostly just fan service. It’s an assertion which I can hardly dispute—the chapter consists largely of canoodling and eating desserts (as the title “Just Desserts” implies)—but on the other hand, it does contain a bit of playful banter that proves quite critical later in the story. So if you’re the type of person who skips prologues, in this case, I would advise against it. 🙂
Standard spoiler warnings apply. If you haven’t read the first two books, this novella (which takes place after the end of The Hidden Goddess) will contain spoilers—as will this excerpt. Read at your own peril. The management assumes no responsibility. &c.
The Ladies and The Gentlemen will be released in early April in ebook & trade paper (and likely as an audiobook later on—my agent is still working out those details.) Of course I will post an announcement when it’s available for purchase. Meanwhile—enjoy!
August 18, 1876
Warm summer rain from the gulf, smelling of humid white sand and sawgrass, peppered the patinated bronze roof of the Institute’s railcar and streamed down the leaded glass panes. Emily and her not-husband were in bed, among rumpled sheets, eating meringue. Or rather he was eating meringue and she was watching him with growing astonishment.
The astonishment was not because he was eating meringue on a railcar, for while it was an outlandish dish to expect to receive on such a conveyance, this was no ordinary railcar. It was a plush private railcar stuffed with demonstrative sorcery intended to impress and mystify gullible guests.
The meringue in question was produced by a magical cabinet in the galley that could sorcel up any dish, no matter how exotic, in any quantity. Over the past fortnight, as they’d lazily cobwebbed the eastern seaboard on their honeymoon trip, her not-husband had done his best to test the cabinet’s abilities. He’d ordered a baffling panoply of odd delicacies, mostly sweets: jellies and aspics and mousses and poufs. Today, apparently, he fancied meringue. And not just any meringue, but a very particular meringue delivered straight from Delmonico’s in New York City.
When he was a boy, he had explained, his family had often dined at the storied restaurant to create the public illusion of familial harmony for his father’s starched-shirt Republican cronies. His only fond memory of those dinners seemed to be of a dessert called a “Marshall Ney”—an extravagant confection comprised of molded tiers of meringue shells, vanilla custard, and marzipan.
Many years later, when it had become public knowledge that the dessert was a boyhood favorite of Dreadnought Stanton—now Sophos of the powerful Stanton Institute in New York City—the management at Delmonico’s had hastily revised the old standby, renamed it Meringue à la Stanton, and raised the price by a dollar. It wasn’t all that much of a revision, really (chocolate custard replaced vanilla and some sugared cherries were thrown in for good measure) and the dessert had been lambasted by the press (with The New York Times archly observing how apt it was to honor the nation’s preeminent credomancer with a dessert that was hollow, insubstantial, and full of air) but nevertheless, her not-husband seemed to wholeheartedly approve.
“I never got to eat it even once when I actually was Dreadnought Stanton,” he noted. “So now I intend to make up for lost time.”
Emily, though, having watched him eat three whole plates, was deeply concerned.
“You’re going to get fat as an Astor eating like that,” she observed. “I will have to get you an extra large yachting cap and some suspenders.”
“Well, it is part of the contract I signed with the Institute that I try not to look like myself anymore,” he said, offering her a spoonful, which she refused. She’d politely sampled several bites from the previous plates, but had found the intense sweetness positively nauseating.
“Have you considered growing a tidy little goatee instead?”
“An Astor wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a goatee,” he said, as if this was a discussion he’d had with one or more Astors on several separate occasions.
“I think you’re just looking for an excuse to eat three plates of dessert,” she said. “We’re going to live in California to get as far away from your old self as possible, isn’t that enough?”
He grunted, but did not comment. This had become his customary response whenever she mentioned California. She could tell that he was still trying to reconcile himself to the notion of living there. She knew he found her home state somewhat provincial (he had used the term ‘backwater’ more than twice) but apparently, it had been another requirement of the contract he’d signed with the Institute. They’d sent him to California to get him out of the way in the first place; back to California, it had been decided, he would go.
“I swear, I’d like to read this contract sometime,” Emily muttered. “Every time I turn around there’s another clause you haven’t told me about. Do you leave your slippers by the side of the bed for me to trip over because it’s a clause in your contract?”
“No, I do that because, like any other civilized human being, I like having my slippers where I can get to them.” He scraped the plate clean and set it on the bedside table. It would vanish when they weren’t looking, as the other dishes had, swept away by invisible hands. The same invisible hands made the bed (which likely presented a challenge to the invisible hands, for the pair of them hadn’t vacated it very often, maintaining it as their base of operations for every activity imaginable, including, but certainly not limited to, eating Meringue à la Stanton) and kept the gleaming polished surfaces free from what would otherwise be a monstrous accumulation of dust and engine soot from their extended peregrinations. It was all done silently, automatically, and without any human intervention. If they wished, they could go the entire trip without seeing another human being, which, for newlyweds, was certainly an ideal arrangement. It was also an ideal arrangement for them, even though they weren’t actually newlyweds, having realized once their honeymoon trip was underway that becoming “weds” in any legal sense was impossible, given that he’d sold the name he’d been born with to the Stanton Institute—in addition to granting the Institute perpetual rights to continue publicizing the (always-fictional) exploits of the (now-fictional) Sophos.
Together, they’d settled on a new name for him—William Edwards—but much as he was having difficulty reconciling himself to the idea of living in California, she was having difficulty reconciling herself to his new name.
“I mean, when it comes right down to it, I simply can’t call you Will, or even William,” she said, randomly reopening the conversation they’d been having for the past fortnight—a conversation which never ended, just washed in and out like the tide. “It just doesn’t feel—right.”
“Oh for pity’s sake,” he rolled his eyes. “You said the last name didn’t feel ‘right’, either. I’m beginning to think you’re somewhat particular.” He glanced over at the side table, probably to see if there was a random clot of cream he’d missed. But true to form, the plate had already vanished. “Anyway, you’re the one who chose the name William. You said it suited me because I’m a man of great will. Or perhaps because you’re fonder of Wordsworth than you care to admit. Something like that.”
“I am not at all fond of Wordsworth,” Emily blazed, offended at the suggestion. “And while, yes, you are a man of great will, I have come to realize that you have … other qualities.” She reddened beneath his lurid smirk. “…and if you insist on leering at me like that, I’ll start calling you ‘Willy’ and then you’ll be sorry!”
“I just don’t understand why it bothers you so much,” her not-husband said, as he went—horrifyingly—to retrieve yet another dish of dessert. She watched as she performed the familiar actions to activate the galley cabinet—speaking the name of what it was he wished to eat, then snapping his fingers three times. He flopped back down in the bed beside her and drew his knees up before him, attacking the confection with the same relish as he’d dived into the other three. “You’ve done a fine job calling me ‘dear’, why not just stick with that?”
“How about when I’m mad at you?” she said. A large part of her concern derived from her awareness of this eventuality.
“‘Dear’ works just as well when you’re mad at someone,” he said. “Better, even.”
Emily sighed. “And when I have to introduce you? ‘This is my not-husband, Dear’?”
“You will introduce me as your husband, Mr. William Edwards, just as we agreed.” He spoke with extravagant patience. “What business is it of anyone else’s if we’re not actually married? I would venture to guess that most social situations will not require the presentation of a certificate.”
“It’s just … hard to know who you are without your name,” Emily said. “Even though I didn’t much like your name before, it was your name. Now it’s not. And making up a new one is just so—presumptuous.” It was hard to find the right words for exactly what she was feeling, and she idly searched for better ones as she stared out the windows at the rear of the railcar, which opened onto an observation platform. A smallish crow, one of hundreds that squabbled for fish around the inland bays they’d passed, had chosen that moment to light on the platform’s ornate railing, and was peering in at them quizzically (its attention apparently focused on the meringue.) Inspired, Emily jabbed an illustrative finger at the bird. “It’s like suddenly deciding to call that crow a ‘slogdawdle.’”
“Slogdawdle?” he wrinkled his nose. “Who in their right mind would call a sleek, nimble avian creature like that a slogdawdle?”
“You are missing my point—”
“Especially one that so obviously possesses good taste,” he continued, saluting the bird with his spoon.
“Except that has nothing to—”
“Now, a tortoise stuck in a tar pit … that you might call a slogdawdle,” he allowed. “The word itself evokes something ponderously slow, something laboriously stuck. A giant tree-sloth bound with rubber ropes soaked in spirit gum—”
“It’s a crow!” She cried, exasperated. “That’s what it is, that’s what it’s called, and you just can’t call it anything else!” She paused, shaking her head at him in astonishment. “Honestly! How you can bring rubber ropes and spirit gum into a conversation plain defies imagination!”
“If it’s the new name that’s throwing you off, don’t call it anything at all,” he shrugged. “Negation is a perfectly valid method of definition. Call it a not-crow. Just like you’ve been calling me your not-husband all during our not-honeymoon.” He paused, admiring the gloss on a sugared cherry, turning it over on his spoon before devouring it. “Just call me ‘Not.’”
She knit her brow thoughtfully, then blinked at him, remembering a conversation they’d once had in Central Park. “Why, isn’t that what your mother used to call you?”
“Your problem,” he said, pointedly ignoring her question, “is that you’ve got me—the actuality of ‘me’—and my name—the symbological representation of ‘me’—all mixed up. But really, they’re two different things, and the one doesn’t have anything to do with the other. As a noumenon, a thing-as-such, I am who I have always been, whether you call me ‘dear’ or ‘slogdawdle.’ You merely have to separate the ideas. Put things in different little boxes in your mind.”
“But everything’s part of everything else … how can you possibly cut it up into little chunks and shove it into boxes?” She gave the poor little crow a sympathetic look, but it had already flown away. “That’s positively murderous!”
“It’s natural that you might find it difficult.” His tone was reassuring. “After all, you’ve never studied philosophy, or logic. I’ll get you some Kant to read, that’ll clear everything up.”
She considered this for a long moment. Then, in a rush, she seized the dish from his hands and began eating what remained of the pastry in enormous bites, determined to get it all down as quickly as possible.
“My meringue!” he cried. “What are you doing?”
“Saving you from yourself,” she said, mouth full. “That’s what not-wives do.”
She had to fight not to gag as she sank the spoon through layers of cloying sweetness. He watched in silence as she finished the whole thing. As she laid the plate aside, he leaned in close.
“It is awfully good, isn’t it?” He suggested, in a low, conspiratorial tone. She shuddered.
“It is tooth-searingly sweet,” she said. “Just like its namesake.”
He leaned in—for a kiss, she thought—but instead it was to lick whipped cream from the corner of her mouth.
“And which name would that be, exactly?” he asked huskily, and the matter of meringues— and names—was once again put aside for more pressing matters.
Emily’s not-husband had no difficulty separating things in his mind. In fact, he was very skilled at keeping every concept he encountered neatly dissected, separated, categorized and pigeonholed—regardless of how much ontological murder this effort required. What Emily called him was a matter of complete indifference to him, for even before he’d sold his name he’d stopped calling himself by it. In his own mind, he continued to think of himself as he had since childhood, by the name he had suggested to Emily, far more seriously than his tone had suggested—and yes, after all, the name his mother had called him:
While the name should have been hateful to him, springing as it did from a spiteful desire to minimize him, in actuality the name was in perfect alignment with the thing-as-suchness of himself. It suited him better, certainly, than the names he’d grown up with. His family name—Stanton, weighty with the social and political gravity of the New York dynasty—had been an obligation he could never sufficiently uphold. And his Christian name—Dreadnought—had been a lie, and not even a plausible one. As a boy he’d dreaded many things—more things than normal, as far as he could tell. And furthermore, his mother’s curt amputation of his name actually had an astonishing effect—it magically transformed everything that was a lie into perfect truth. Shortening his name reversed its meaning—and was so much closer to who he really was that he often marveled at how an act could be so hurtful and yet so illuminating.
Thus, from the time he was very young, he’d thought of himself as Not. It had fixed itself upon his mental landscape. His mother had defined him entirely by negation, by what he was not—not a good boy, not a good son, not a good man.
But Emily defined him entirely differently. When he was with her, he somehow became not what he was not. She transformed him into a double-negative.
Thus, for the first time in his life, he was free. Free to eat as many dishes of meringue as he wanted in a magical railcar with a woman he loved. He was not obligated, not constrained, not condemned.
For the first time in his life, he liked what he was not.
The pair of them spent the rest of the afternoon napping like cats, listening to the rain pattering on the roof. But as the evening sun emerged from behind heavy pearl-colored clouds and slanted at a low angle through the windows of leaded glass, and the gilt clock in its gimbaled fitting chimed prettily, he knew they would soon be arriving at their evening stop. But he lay still and silent for a moment longer, appreciating the soft weight of her hand on his bare chest. It was the hand that the spirit of the earth had given back to her—the one with a kind of magical sensitivity that only she truly knew the extent of. Even though he had relinquished his ability to practice magic, he could feel the strange energy in that hand—warm and tingling, almost electrical. Reaching up, he clasped it, his thumb stroking the simple gold band—his old Jefferson Chair ring—that they had used to pledge themselves to each other. She wore it on her right hand—appropriate, he thought, for the oddly morganatic union of a sort-of-goddess and a man without a name.
“Until death us do part,” he murmured, raising her hand to his lips and kissing it. He whispered these words in particular, because he knew that he couldn’t put off telling her about the Summons for much longer, and he also knew that when he finally did get around to mentioning it, she would very likely murder him. Having gone to such extreme lengths to extend his mortal existence, he felt he had an exceptionally good excuse for not mentioning it up to this point. And while she would likely perceive his failure to tell her about the Summons uncharitably, as a lie of omission, he viewed it as simply a matter of timing. He was extending a kindness, really—inciting her to homicide would, after all, surely diminish the exquisite pleasure of their honeymoon.
He slid his bare foot along Emily’s calf, knowing that he didn’t have to do anything to wake her, that the bed would do it for him. The railcar knew their schedule better than either of them did, and it was diligent in ensuring their journey kept to schedule. Knowing that they needed to get up and dress for dinner, the bed would become colder and harder. The silk sheets would become oddly, but persistently, scratchy. If they dallied too long in opposition to the bed’s wishes, the bed might eject them bodily, diligent in its duty to help them keep their appointments.
“Is the bed going to start pushing us around again?” Emily mumbled sleepily.
“Turnabout is fair play,” he said, nuzzling her ear.
“I think it’s too smart by half.” Emily said.
“It doesn’t have any real intelligence, you know,” Not said. “The magic that runs this railcar is merely statistics, a timetable, and a bit of gentle mind reading. It skims the consciousnesses of its passengers just enough to anticipate which services are required.”
“I require another hour of sleep,” Emily said. “It doesn’t seem to have skimmed that.”
“Oh, I’m sure it’s aware that you’d prefer to sleep,” he said. “But it also recognizes that even the most luxurious and accommodating confines will pall if one is exposed to them too long.”
Which was why the railcar stopped at frequent intervals to provide the pair with a measure of society and adventure and sight-seeing and leg-stretching. Every evening, at precisely 7 p.m., it stopped for dinner in a new city, always a city of a civilized and reasonable size, containing enough interesting attractions to be presented in the form of a neatly penned list of suggestions that appeared on the marble-topped table in the car’s grand mahogany-paneled sitting-room.
After dressing for dinner, Not went to retrieve this penned list of suggestions. In addition to these, he knew he would also find a heavy envelope sealed with red wax and embossed with the seal of the Stanton Institute—instructions from Mrs. Zeno. Having assumed the role of Executive Director, she’d made it her habit to send him daily notes instructing him on who would meet them at each dinner stop, what they had been told about “Mr. Edwards and his wife,” and what topics of conversation might prove most fruitful.
At these dinner stops, they met affiliate members of the Institute, graduates or adjuncts or supporters who maintained independent careers as magical consultants, local politicos, or business advisers. These dinners could be somewhat tedious—honestly, they put Not in mind of the ones at Delmonico’s with his father’s political cronies, minus the delicious desserts—but he knew they were important.
That night, however, there was nothing whatsoever on the marble-topped table. Neither the penned suggestions for that evening’s stop, nor the heavy envelope from Mrs. Zeno. That was odd, and he was still searching around for the missing documents when Emily emerged from the dressing room looking exceptionally pretty in a fresh, simple gown of heliotrope silk. The railcar always provided her with gowns in shades of purple, and he entirely approved of the railcar’s fashion sense. As she struggled with a pair of tight-fitting kid gloves, he helped her straighten her gown in places where she hadn’t been able to reach, stroking his fingers along the smooth seams. He had discovered that, much like a cat, she enjoyed being petted, and he enjoyed being free to do so.
“So, another town, another dinner, another set of Institute representatives?” She glanced over her shoulder, grinning at his surprise. “It’s pretty obvious, dear. They all wear magical charms on their watch-chains, and they all use the same weaselly language that every credomancer uses. It becomes very recognizable after a little while.” She paused, extending a hand in a silent request for glove-buttoning assistance. “So, who’s on the menu for tonight?”
“I’m not exactly sure,” he said absently, fumbling with the tiny pearl buttons. “Someone fascinating, no doubt.”
“If the Institute is trying to distance you from your name, why is Mrs. Zeno having us meet Institute members for dinner every night?”
“It’s part of the process to distance myself from my name,” he said, as he completed the glove-buttoning. “Physically imprinting myself in the minds of the Institute’s farther-flung members as someone in diametrical opposition to the image of ‘Dreadnought Stanton’ that the Institute hopes to exploit.” He paused. “The people we’ve met over the past fortnight have been told that Mr. and Mrs. William Edwards are distinguished Californians with a cattle-baron fortune, and that we are generous supporters of the Institute—a cover story supported by the fact that we’re traveling around in the Institute’s borrowed railcar.”
“So, it’s kind of like a king’s processional in reverse,” Emily mused, looking at herself in the glass as she adjusted the adorable little hat the railcar had selected for her. “You know, like the old kings used to go around after they were crowned to show their face to the people to build their power. But you’re showing your face to surrender your power.”
“Precisely,” he said. “I’m showing them who I am not.”