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Past Imperfect

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January 1820


Summer in Venice is a remarkable sight. Decay goes hand in hand with the most fascinating architectural beauty, and the scent of brilliant flowers, sweet perfumes, and fresh baking bread mixes with the stench of filthy water and poverty. Winter in Venice is remarkable in other ways. Canals that will in a few months flood and distress all classes of the city's residents are now awash with floats of broken, translucent ice. Heavy, wet snow batters the windows like a flurry of limp palms slapping the glass, one after another.

On that particular dank January afternoon, a cheerful fire was burning in the hearth in Emma Wintertowne's library, creating an island of warmth that reached only just beyond the three seats arranged around it. At the corners of the room chill lurked, ready to overtake the ladies should they venture to place a foot upon the cold stone floor or fetch a book from one of the tall, ornate book-cases. All three had consequently wrapped themselves in heavy shawls.

The conversation had turned to Lord Byron's latest placement in the Palazzo Osio and rumours that he may be about to publish some remarkable new work. "I dare say his Lordship is permanently on the brink of greatness," remarked Emma, who had as little pity for Byron as any other male save from Mr Honeyfoot and Mr Segundus.

Miss Flora Greysteel shared a look with Mrs Arabella Strange. Byron had been a friend of sorts to Arabella's husband, who had very nearly been Flora's husband as well. There would have been very little point in defending him, even had his Lordship had more to recommend him than talent. Goodness in men was all comparative to Emma - Strange was less of a villain than Gilbert Norrell, and Byron may have been preferable to Sir Walter Pole, Emma's own husband, whose company she steadfastly refused.

"I find that the fame surrounding any author or person of eminence is quite incidental to their abilities," said Arabella. "One very much praised might have mediocre skill, so far as any-one can tell when not influenced by others' opinion. On the other hand someone barely recognized can possess a most charming turn of phrase - do you not find it so? Byron may have both fame and talent, but not half the people who have heard of Byron have heard of Joanna Baillie. If I had my choice of which should be the poet laureate of the magical restoration, I'd prefer the lady."

Flora shot Bell a warning glance. Men and magic were Emma's two favourite subjects to rail against, and one of those was Flora's own favourite pursuit. "Have you yet finished Mrs Shelley's work?"

Arabella shivered and drew her cloak closer around her. "I don't think I ever shall. Why conjure up such horrors? A man raised to life through technology, when it can be done through magic with no less horrid consequences? Oh - I do beg your pardon, Emma."

"I wish you would not coddle me so," said Emma, who had been growing more irate by the moment. "There is more to life than men, magic and the resurrection of the dead, but by all means, speak on those if you find them so diverting."

After that, conversation soon dwindled. Arabella made her excuses - she was woefully behind on her correspondence - leaving her companion alone with Emma Wintertowne.

"Perhaps something by Miss Seward?" said Flora after she was gone.

"I am not in the mood for poems of lost love," said Emma with a sigh and reached a hand out to Flora, who raised it up to her own cheek and kissed the palm.

"I am never going mean as much to you as she does, am I?" asked Flora.

Emma smiled, her eyes and thumb caressing Flora's youthful face. She was very pretty, shining with that curious intensity that comes from desiring what one should not. "Why? Are we not in the same predicament? You are the one she comes home to."

Flora frowned. "I was never abducted by a fairy, but I am not afraid of resurrections or horrified by unknown lands - you know that. I love you all the better for your bravery, for all that you have gone through. I am not afraid."

"My darling," said Emma, laughing, "that is one of your chief flaws." But she was too fond of Flora to point out the distinction between bravery in the face of the unknown and courage called upon when the danger was all too familiar. Instead, she opened her arms. Flora skipped from her seat across to Emma's and the two curled up together quite comfortably on the plush arm-chair.

"Shall I recite to you some of my own work?" asked Flora. Emma nodded, and Flora began:

"Marble-cast and ivy-framed stands she: Venetian,
A dream of sand, wave-born, wind-torn, alone;
Oh! I long to join her dream, wild and Dionysian
To grasp her hand. Our voices together in song..."

Emma very much feared her friend had been attempting an iambic pentameter. She kissed Flora's neck and heard her gasp, her recitation faltering. She ran her fingers over Flora's ankle, allowing her to continue struggling stanza after stanza as Emma contrived to be as much of a distraction as possible.

It is curious to note how quickly the feeling of warmth is conjured through proximity and exercise. The chill seemed to retreat out of the edges of the room even as the final log in the fireplace collapsed. The candles flickered and some went out, but the ladies paid it no mind.