The café was beautiful, all marble topped tables with wrought iron legs, and high ceilings decorated with pressed tin. It marked the spot where the fairgrounds ended and the capitol city’s shops, eateries, and expensive apartments began. People walking by on the street were exceptionally well-dressed, and a quarter of the ladies had tiny dogs much smaller than their impressive hats.The café itself was crowded with people of all nationalities and colors. How Teresthan got them an open table, she was unsure, but she was installed in a seat with her plans and maps laid out before her within minutes of arriving. She found herself in an amusing line of people similarly engrossed in charts and papers, all risking disaster with their ink, coffee, and sandwiches.
The windows of the café offered a view of both the hills upon which the fair was being built, as well as the valley between. To the east rose the winding advance of nations through which they had just descended—all under construction—and across the muddy field, unfinished pavilions dedicated to science, industry, and art wandered down a twin hillside. Built into the sides of both hills were the beginnings of some kind of elaborate gravity-defying bridge. “That,” said Teresthan, “is meant to be Levour’s crowning symbolic achievement. That is the Crystal Arc, the highest, most architecturally ambitious bridge in the high continent. When it’s finished, it will be all iron and glass. At night they mean to have lights inside it, so it looks like a bridge of stars linking the two hilltops.”
“Do they have long enough to complete it between now and the fair?” Anna asked, counting the handfuls of weeks ahead.
“Probably not quite. They’ve had nothing but trouble with every step of it. It’s the biggest drama of the grounds to date.”
Teresthan explained that the other hill had its own hierarchy of placement, just like theirs. Artists, scientists, and inventors sponsored by the major nations of the high continent were featured in the big buildings at the top, while various fringe scientific and industrial presentations hugged the bottom. Most of these latter spots had been applied for by Maribellan entrepeneurs, since Maribelle had no national pavilion. Perhaps, some people rumored, the young nation hadn’t even been invited. Others whispered that the Maribellans had been so furious with the spot they were offered that they refused it. Their businessmen, inventors, and entertainers, however, had no qualms about seeking their fortunes at the fair.
Maribellans were equally famous for their deadly business rivalries and for their showmanship, Teresthan told her, pointing out a few colorful patrons at the café. One man with boots, spurs, and an odd hat was arguing with the proprietor about where he could put up posters for some stunt riding show. A woman with him wore a mannish leather coat, with holsters and pistols with brightly enameled grips. At the table next to Anna’s sat a man in a neat suit and spectacles with a startlingly dark and beautiful shade of skin. Anna tried not to stare at him, imagining how she would paint those deep umbers and rich purple shadows, except where the shades turned soft and almost pink, there where his full lips met, and on the undersides of his slim hands. He was going over a sheaf of complex drawings. Beside him sat an enormous man in a bowtie with a big cloak and a shoulder cap. The walking stick propped beside the big man had the little catch near the top that told her it was probably a sword cane. The dark-skinned man looked like he might be from Maguldi, or Biroon, maybe, but his voice was a slightly smoother version of the broad flat Maribellan cadences of his large companion.
Teresthan disappeared to arrange some potentially disastrous meal for them to avoid spilling on their charts. Anna found herself perusing the big Maribellan, in her effort not to stare at his companion. He had flyaway white hair that matched his broad mustache and eyebrows, and his bow tie clashed awfully with that big green cloak. He was reading a book, and looking closer, she recognized the name of the author. Doctor Wilthir Ash, Perfection and Dilution of Blood: Crafting a Greater Humanity.
The large man caught her looking, and smiled jovially. “I pray you don’t judge me for what you find in my hands. That really is just the look I’d hope most folk would have when confronted with this rubbish.”
“If you don’t like it, why are you reading it?” Anna said, still frowning.
The man tapped the side of his considerable nose with a not inconsiderable finger. “Know your enemy,” he said. “Shandorian, aren’t you, with that accent? You lot were right to pitch him.”
“Doctor Ash is a wanted criminal in Shandor,” Anna said primly. “He did some really awful things to people. Mostly to children. He fled to avoid worse things than pitching.”
“Well, I try not to listen to gossip,” the man said, a little alarmed.
“Neither do I. The world should be warned though, about Ash. He’s very wrong.”
“Mmm. That’s as it may be, but he’s getting famous.”
“For his ideas. The Firaus were just looking for someone to tell them they were naturally better than everyone else, and that’s what he’s been telling them lately.”
Anna frowned. “Don’t the Firaus have just the same ancestry as the Germhacht and Hindlevrii? And half of old Arien?”
The man shrugged. “People are always willing to hear what they’ve suspected all along, that they are more right than their neighbors. And now some people are using the ideas in this book as an excuse to treat their more different neighbors even more like beasts than before. There’s been talk of breeding a perfect race of man, capable of amazing feats and near-supernatural powers, and weeding out any sort of folk deemed weaker.”
“Stop spreading alarmist theories for a moment and take a look as this, will you?” the dark-skinned man said, looking up from the notes he’d been poring over. “The coils will fit, but we need that extra two feet on the west side that Hagerton insists is his. Here is the map we were given which says that area is ours. Can you try talking to them, or to the fair management? They won’t listen to me. They believe me only a workman, whatever I try to tell them.”
“Ah, of course, and where are my manners?” the large man huffed. “My dear lady, this is the soon to be famous inventor, Embrose Theirrae. I am the journalist and philosopher Elbert Word Grambley, and you are?”
“Anna Darvin, Shandor’s jewel, an art prodigy and the youngest-ever director of the Shandorian exhibition,” Teresthan answered for her, deftly sliding a tray of coffee and sandwiches onto the one part of the table uncovered by papers. “I’m her assistant Teresthan.”
“Shandor hasn’t had any exhibitions before,” Anna scolded him. It was hard to scold when the little coffee with patterned milk foam tasted so amazing.
“Still true though. Youngest, only, best.” Teresthan shrugged. “Really, though, you’re the Theirrae? That’s marvelous. I can’t wait to see what you’ve built.” He gestured with his coffee cup. “He’s a magician, you know.”
“I prefer inventor. It is more accurate,” Theirrae said.
“I’ve read that you make science produce magic.”
“His words.” Theirrae nodded toward Grambley.
“I report what I see,” Grambley said, large palms held up in a pudgy wall of defense.
“Well, you two will get on splendidly,” Anna told Grambley and Teresthan. “You both not only whip things up into peaks of air and sugar, but then you ice them.”
“Speaking of icing, you really must try the cakes here.” Grambley offered up a quarter-full plate of beautiful confections that had, to be fair, inspired her analogy.
“Perhaps after the sandwiches.”
“You’d best take them hostage now then,” Grambley said. “They won’t last so long if I can reach them.”
“What are you building?” Teresthan asked, leaning over to stare in wonder at the complex diagrams in front of Thierrae.
“I suppose you could say, magic.” Thierrae smiled slowly, his teeth very white against his nearly black skin.
Grambley spread his hands. “You and everyone else will have to wait until the unveiling. No journalists.”
“Besides yourself?” Teresthan asked Grambley.
The catastrophe, when it came, was not the fault of any of them. A short, round man in a round hat, with a cane and sneer, nodded to a burly companion who quite deliberately tipped a glass of lemonade over Theirrae and his work. Anna saw it happen, and jumped to her feet with a cry of fury. Theirrae sputtered, dismayed, and at once stood and tilted his papers to channel the rest of the liquid to the ground instead of across the tables.
“So sorry, my man moved his arm, and didn’t even see you there,” round hat murmured, and walked away.
Theirrae gripped at Grambley’s arm, to keep his friend from surging up after the rude man. “We must not be goaded,” Theirrae said.
Grambley did not let it go entirely, though. “Mister Hagerton should perhaps next turn his attentions to inventing better eyeglasses,” he boomed. “Your companion seems to be languishing in need. Oh, don’t bother about getting towels over there yourself, I am sure you have an assistant to do that for you as well. This system of hiring and enterprise is a jolly thing, isn’t it? I hear one needn’t even always invent one’s own work.”
The round-hatted man, Hagerton, walked away, not looking back.
“I’ll get something to tidy your papers up at once,” Anna insisted, handing her defensively-rolled plans to Teresthan, and darting away to the counter. She muttered a few careful, quiet, K’shay tanna curses on all cruel and rich men. It was the only safe language in which to say unladylike things in public. Nevertheless, she seemed to have startled one man, who was conferring with the pastry chef over the bar. He gave her a surprised look, hooded eyes dark in a sharp, pale Arienish face. For a moment she thought his eyes might be entirely black. She shivered, he blinked, and all was normal again. “Pardon me,” he said. She grabbed a clean towel off the counter beside him. “So sorry,” she said lightly. “Small emergency.”
Back at the table, Teresthan had already begun repairs with a handkerchief or two. Anna joined in the rescue effort. When she glanced about again, the dark-eyed Arienish man was gone.
“Does this happen often?” Teresthan asked Theirrae, who seemed to be taking it all with more calm and dignity than his friend.
“In most provinces of Maribelle, someone like me,” he gestured to the skin of his face and hands, “is not allowed in the same places as men like him. Levour does not make the same separations. This frustrates him.”
“It also frustrates him that he must pretend, and play the genius, while you don’t have to,” Grambley said.
“Peace, friend,” Theirrae said. “We will be judged on our work, and what we leave to the world.”
“But he’ll be charging all the pennies he can squeeze from it, and you’re always giving it away.”
“Shared ideas invite greater epiphanies,” Theirrae said. “I should go and see about my work.”