The club at the back of the tavern was dark, lit only by chandeliers much too large for the little room. There was a separate bar, and a stage. The tables were arranged in intimate conversational areas. At the largest and central-most of these tables, a game of cards was being played. A group of spectators looked on.
Ferdinand and Konrad entered the cozy room. All heads turned in their direction. The game of cards was put momentarily on hold. Konrad tipped his hat to the players. Leopold Babic, one of the game’s organizers, spoke first.
“I don’t know what passes for manners in the City, Wittberg,” he said, looking knowingly at the Vice Chairman, “But in the country, we introduce our guests.”
“Pay no mind to Babic,” Konrad told his companion in a voice loud enough for all to hear. “He’s spent too much time on The Border; his blood’s gone Wild.” He paused. “It’s not his fault that he’s a brute.”
The crowd laughed dryly, Babic included.
Completely without fanfare, Konrad gave Ferdinand his introduction. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” he said, “His Excellency, Ferdinand-Kristoff of Edena, Vice Chairman of the Company Standard.”
The crowd of card players stood, and Ferdinand removed his hat. “Please,” he said, indicating that they should sit.
The players and spectators returned to the game. Ferdinand and Konrad stood close to the table and watched the remainder of the hand.
“What’s the game?” the Vice Chairman asked Mr. Wittberg.
“Storms,” Konrad told him, “No blind. Dealer chooses trump.”
“A humble game for a humble venue,” Ferdinand replied.
Across the table, Babic overheard their conversation. “The dog fight and the horse race are only as sophisticated as the money that rides on them,” he observed. “Wouldn’t you say, Your Excellency?”
Ferdinand smiled. “I’ve been known to gamble,” he replied.
“Tonight?” Babic asked, shuffling the cards.
“What is your opinion of Cannon, Mr. Babic?”
Babic smiled knowingly. “I took an oath,” he reckoned, “To serve at The Company’s pleasure. I assume that includes the dealing of cards.”
Helena stood on the open balcony of the highest tower of the house. Far below, on the other side of the clear barrier, the sea glimmered like an emerald in the rocky setting of the bay. Her hands shaded her eyes. Ferdinand came up beside her. He leaned on the rail and gazed out toward the water.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” he asked.
“What is it?” Helena wondered aloud. “It seems large for a lake.”
Ferdinand was astonished, but remained kind. “The sea,” he informed her.
“It’s not how I’d imagined it,” she declared. Suddenly, she turned away, realizing that perhaps she should have been embarrassed by her naiveté. After composing herself, she looked back at her husband.
The Vice Chairman was interested. “Well, go on,” he insisted.
“Didn’t men go mad with love for the sea?”
“You don’t believe it?” he challenged.
Helena looked back at the glistening water. “It’s nothing but a looking glass!” she exclaimed.
“What were you expecting?” Ferdinand asked light-heartedly.
“I thought,” Helena began, then paused, collecting her disorganized impression, “It would be crueler. Less forgiving.”
“Is that what love is?” Ferdinand wondered, bringing his hand to his eyes, squinting at his wife through the broken canvas of daylight.
Konrad pulled a book from the shelf and carefully turned its pages. It was a copy of East of Eden. He lay on his back, looking up at the yellowed paper with the same devotion he might have given the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. A stamp on the faded cover read:
A Gift to the New York City Public Library, July, 2051.
Across the room, Ferdinand looked toward his friend.
“Quite the collection,” Konrad said, gesturing to the books on the shelves. “When you leave, what happens to them?”
Ferdinand smiled sadly, but his voice maintained a mischievous air. “They gather dust,” he told him.
Konrad handed his friend the book.
“Give them to a museum, I say. Put them on display for the people to see.”
Ferdinand took the book and, lovingly, turned the pages. He spoke with his eyes still fixed on the codex.
“All the books the people care to see are already on display,” he noted, “Say the museums.”