Your grace, I implore you to tell the whereabouts of my relatives. My sister and her wife, their two sons were in the care of your household, but nothing has been heard or seen in a fortnight and I am worried. A sennight without word is not uncommon, but twice that?

Benevolent Lady Heather looked up from the papers on her desk at the man begging her. Leave her word, her answer.The man who identified himself as Master Tim of North Way didn’t look like the usual overfed, unfit northerners she was used to. He was wiry – like a lumberjack – and had the drawn face of one who ate little fat and no sugar. His teeth were strong but crooked. His voice, though, had the swift twang of those raised in the North – the wide vowels, dropped Rs and clear annunciation of those raised in the provinces north of the capitol.

I have nothing against you North people – we have good relations with your representative at court, but no one of your descent is in my household at this time, in care or in service.

Tim held his tongue, but considered the tense her grace used – is in my household. He took a different tack. ‘My sister and her family came from out the West – she no longer looks or sounds much like a Northman and her wife is a Westerner by descent and their sons by birth and upbringing. They’ll have had the red irises of the West.

No, Master Tim, I don’t know of the family you speak of . There’s a register you can read that details the comings and goings – the arrivals and departures – of our staff. When did they arrive? Time me the year and I’ll have my chief of staff bring the volume.

They arrived before the harvest in the third year of your reign, your grace.

So I’m beautiful – to some – what of it? Why does my beauty require that I bear children too, that I succumb to the pawing of some man who might not want it either. There’s a lot to do in this world that bears no resemblance to bearing children, raising them, adding to the surplus population. Surely there’s enough that I can’t just live my life without adding to that number, no?

My mother, father, and the priest who had leered at me weekly from the day of my first communion when his finger lingered on my lip just a little too long after putting the wafer on my tongue. Had it not been in front of everyone, I would have bitten him, but at the age of 8 I knew better than to embarrass my family that way, but I kept my eye on Father Steven ever after that. The fact that here he was in my parents’ house 15 years later abjuring me to marry and fulfill my duty to the community.

‘And how do you fulfill your duty to the community, Father?’

‘When, I’m this congregation’s spiritual leader. I speak the word of god and lead the flock.’

‘And what else does leading the flock entail?’ Yes, I know I was leading the conversation away from my parents’ focus on getting me to consider marrying Father Steven’s nephew Laurence, but I had enough reasons for not wanting to marry, to marry Laurence, and to marry into Steven’s family.

‘Cora, darling,’ my own father said, ‘we’ve belonged to this parish since you were a toddler – Father Steven is the only spiritual leader you’ve known. Surely you know what he does?’

‘I know what he says he does, but is he representative? Do they all do that? And take the fringe benefits too?’ And that was where I derailed everything.

I watched the old magician, though she called herself a physicist, whatever that means, adjusting flames under glass bulbs, gently twisting tubes to test their tightness to the various apparatuses on her big work table. In the village we used such things only when we needed to purify water for sickly children. Some made strong alcohol with them when they could afford the materials, but we mostly drank beer. The lembik the physicist used was far more complicated than any stil I’d seen. 

And when I tried to ask her about the tools, the magician said, ‘Tscha, child! Silence or away with you.’ I knew the rules. I could watch to learn and ask questions only before and after. I wanted to do the work she did or my time was wasted. I thought if I couldn’t twist the pipes, adjust the flames, measure the ingredients myself, what use was I? Paper was at a premium and so was ink, so there was no taking down what she said and did. I just had to trust in memory. And I could barely read the crabbed script in the cookbooks she used. Textbooks, grimoires, recipes. It was all the same to me and would remain so for years.

My efforts to memorize her actions, the sly gestures she made with her tools, put me into a kind of revert. I repeated her steps in my mind and added new ones and repeated the whole list. This technique worked pretty well, especially if I asked before she started what she was doing. If I had a name, I could put it into my recitation. At some point after the tenth or eleventh step, she let out the loudest ‘Tscha!’ I’d heard her utter, and a bulb shattered, filling the room with the foulness of hell.

Dragging me through the door, she said, ‘Tscha, girl! Tell me what I did. What happened here?’

And my revery broken, I had to think hard to recover what I’d seen. I’d usually take a deep breath, but I still had the poison from the workroom’s air in my nostrils and couldn’t bear to inhale. As soon as I could, I recited what I’d seen.

The apartment empty of furniture as if cleared for a realtor’s viewing, but it was enby because Tamara had cleared out every stick, every dust mote, anything that could be moved while Thom was stuck in that freeze in Houston.

‘I know you’ve got your big oil company presentation, but if you stay one extra night this time, I swear I’m leaving.’

One time, on one trip, Thom had hooked up with a colleague and ever since, Tamara had given him this spiel. And there was no winning. It’s not like he had even come home late, but that was Tammy’s fear – that any day he was away longer than planned, it was a day he was fucking around. So she hung this albatross on him that he always had to be back on his planned flight. When he got home as planned, she always tried to make it worth his while, but the threat hung over everything.

He was only supposed to be in Texas for four days, but curse everything, it was the week the whole state froze. He called as often as the power situation would enable him to and tried to calm her fears. 

‘The whole state’s frozen. There’s no way I can get back before the storm passes. No planes are going anywhere, and no one wants to see them try to take off in this condition. I’ll be back as soon as I’m able.’

‘Ted Cruz got down to Cancun, why can’t you get back to San Diego?’

‘Ted Cruz is a senator and has donors who will pull strings for him. I’m an advertising executive and I don’t have that kind of pull with anyone. Yet.’

‘Well, get it and get back here. I’ll make it worth it if you get back in time.’

He didn’t have to ask, ‘And if not?’ He knew. That combination of cajoling and demanding and promising made his head spin, but in this case, there really was nothing he could do.

He sat on the bed talking to her through his tablet and tried to make her see the logic of the situation. ‘The runways are frozen, there’s no way anyone’s taking off today from any airport in the state – or at least in the eighty percent of Texas that I’m in.’

He tapped the screen in an attempt to make their pictures the same size rather than one large image of himself and Tammy tiny in one corner of the screen. What happened was he tapped the camera button and suddenly heard Tammy screech, ‘Thomas Stone, who is in that room with you?’

‘Housekeeping. It’s just the cleaner.’ He frantically tapped the screen to focus the camera back on himself.

‘In a towel? You best be home on the next flight or you’ll be so sorry you got on a plane in the first place.You hear me?’ Tammy broke the connection and Thomas exhaled. 

‘Housekeeping, Tommy?’ Rod from Accounting slid into the bed next to him, and reaching under the cover said, ‘I’ll try to make this worth your while.’

Aaron: Let him that think of me so abjectly know that this gold must coin a strategem

Those who see me on the street think little or nothing of my appearance. I don’t look poor or rich. I’m clean when I go out of the house and my clothing is such that I’m neither ragged nor ripe for mugging. Not that the muggers these days are picky, but I prefer not to look as though I’m asking to be held up.

But seeing me on the street and knowing me from meetings, or water cooler discussions, the to and fro of office chit-chat, that’s a different story. In the office, you see, I open my mouth. People know how I sound, know my opinions, know the way I manoeuvre. And many of them look at me with a sort of abject pity, as though my inability to navigate office politics is something I should regret, or work to change.  

But the fact is, and you of all people will understand this, there’s no reason to fall into that game, to play as though there’s a real way of winning. There’s no real way of winning and so the way I play is not to play. The way I win in general is not to engage. ‘But you want to rise in the company, don’t you?’ Is rising in the company the goal? ‘But you won’t get a raise.’ Is there a need for more money? Only insofar as I could share it with others. I suppose that’s a reason to play. The company isn’t feeding the community now, is it?

But those aren’t the questions you ask, my friend. You ask how I can retain myself at the end of the day. And I’m not sure I know either. I go home at the end of the day and I can sleep with myself. I can write to you knowing that I was honest and worked to the best of my know how and did the best I could by the people around me. Is it a philosophical victory, to be seen by those near me as something of a failure? 

I ask myself that question with the additional question: Is there such a thing as a philosophical victory?