On seeing her first

On seeing her first, the mathematics of her features were closed to him. Individually pleasing, perhaps, but puzzling – their sharp angles promised an underlying answer which he could not glean. It was only once she tilted her head, allowed her hips to twist with the waltz’s rhythm, and released the song she had been holding that her beauty resolved to a single, clear note. She was never as beautiful as was when she sang.

Nicholas stood with the rest of the scattered crowd as the theremin’s last drone tapered away, applauding and cheering around the stub of his cigarette. She stepped down from the stage, tossing her bobbed hair and laughing at some wit’s compliment. Nicholas kneaded at his back for a moment, and sank back down to stare again at the blank notebook.

He plucked for a moment at a stray thread loosening from the back of his scrivener’s gloves. They were lamoran silk, fingerless and cut to the height of fashion three winters ago. Now, he decided, they were emblematic for the ruined state of his life. He turned his hands over and considered their threadbare palms, knuckles visible where his stylus rested. Nicholas Olafson, the tattered dandy – a scarecrow of loose threads and inkstains, a spirit haunting the demimondains, a memento mori for the life of fame.

Japheth Encara, he wrote at last. That was, after all, the name of his client and the subject of his project. They weren’t books to him, these works: just projects. Means of keeping his debtors at bay and preventing Dona Silva from evicting him from his room at the brothel. But not books – in Nicholas’ mind, he still had only written a single book.

He lit another cigarette. Japheth Encara died as he lived, he wrote – a fine beginning, and one which he had not yet been brought to using. For he was a man to whom work was life and life work. He toiled that the gears of our city might stay oiled, and that our cogs continue to turn eternally.

Had Japheth toiled a day in his sycophantic life, Nicholas had failed to discover the date. And while oiled gears and turning cogs were certainly a noble result of the man’s life, Nicholas’ months of research led him to believe that it was greased palms that helped Encara heave his sizeable bulk from his bed every morning. He drew his pen across the page, crossing out the bare three sentences he’d managed today. Turn eternally? That was beneath him – even when it was only a project.

“Excuse me, aren’t you…”

Nicholas turned with a practiced and pained smile. No, he wanted to say. I’m not. I never was. Instead, he tilted his head to one side and held the smile.

“I’m Amelia. You’re him, right? Nicholas Olafson?”

“Yes.”

“I loved Fate’s Lieutenant. Truly.” Amelia put her hand over his, smiling with just a moment of the beauty she showed in song.

“You’re too kind, really. It was…” Nicholas closed his eyes and held his sigh, bracing for the question to come.

“What are you writing?”

And there it was. What was he writing? It had been four years. His social calendar had grown bare, his name slowly lost from the society pages he once strode dashingly across. His fans, when they remembered him, must do so only to wonder just that. What was he writing? He closed his notebook and laid his pen across it.

“I’m working on a biograph.”

“Again? Why? Your novel was inspired, I studied it at cloisters. Your biography has been quite good as well, but…”

Yes, quite. But. But they’re all doggerel. But they’re terrible. But what’s worse, they’re false. You’ve sullied your pen, Nicholas. You have prostituted your muse. But, indeed.

“But you’d prefer me to be working on another novel, I imagine.” Nicholas shrugged and gestured to the other seat at his table, crossing his legs at the knee and beginning to roll a cigarette from his pouch of shag. “It’s quite all right, you’re not the first to tell me so.”

Amelia tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and sat with a laugh. “I thought it was you, but I couldn’t believe it. You’re such the recluse these days. No-one knows wh…”

Nicholas could see the realization travel from her eyes to her mouth, stilling the question unasked. She saw the dilapidated and stained remnants of his finery, the smudges on his collar, the stitches mending his coat, and she understood. She could see it inside him, the blank terror of the empty page, the unfinished and blocked attempts to create again. Nicholas knew he fooled no-one with his answers, that the stink of despair seeped from his pores, that his imminent failure was written plainly across his face.

“There are so many stories,” He began. He had said this so many times, but was still no closer to believing it. “In the people all around us. In the real heroes of our city. I just feel I’m doing them a disservice when I fabulize imagined heroes who combat imagined ills.”

Without asking, she slid a leaf from his bindle and pinched enough from his shag to twist herself a half-length cigarette. “You said that before.” She leaned forwards and touched the paper’s end to the candle, staring at it rather than him. “You said that to The Runner. I read exactly that. Fabulizing imagined heroes.” She puffed her cheeks until the cigarette glowed.

He didn’t answer at first. “I did,” the admission finally came. “And twice before that in print, and dozens of times before and after in conversation. I find it quite the elegant turn of phrase.”