And besides that, the crisp grey air of the morning had risen, giving way to languid rays of sun that peeked through the ash trees lining the boulevards of Verdann. Across the sky, between the grasps of far set-back stone towers and close spires of rowhouses – streetside spires extending the parlor room being the defining architectural style of the past few seasons – she caught glimpse of stray lines of clouds, burning off and disappearing into a near uniform white-blue.
Still, despite all other senses indicating warmth and humidity, a silent breeze kept the day from reaching what she had accustomed herself to categorizing as pleasant. Not like the first day of summer. Not like the first warm, noticeably so, morning where she would walk the fences of the farm or bring her journals acres into the juniper fields and end up having to use her overshirt as a blanket when she found just the right tree to provide shade without attracting spiders. Not like meeting the sun before it beat down across the endless fields, before anyone woke, and sprinting until her legs ached and her face turned red.
There were leading and trailing edges here, but it wasn’t Bathune.
Maisel’s boot caught on a curb and she stuttered forward one-and-another step. The boot came to an asymmetrical round toward the inside edge and was a pristine dark-chocolate leather. She frowned at a scuff that had appeared on its side, the only mark as she examined the rest of the polished material up past her ankle and ending in a mess of knotted laces. Polished because she made a ceremony of polishing them, knotted because she often found herself hurried when putting them on or taking them off. She took the moment to compose herself and pulled at a thick woolen sock peeking from the boot, unfolding and folding the buttoned edge of the material and tucking a crease of her trousers back into it.
Straightening, she shook a loose curl back from the sharp crest of her nose, put a hand up to pull it past the green of her eyes, over the freckled white of her harsh cheekbones, tuck into the poorly-tamed fountain of red-orange nested into a bun atop her head and spilling out over her ears. She pulled her mouth, perhaps just a breath too wide when compared to the population-at-large, into a scowl of disapproval at her hair’s unwillingness to cooperate and made a just audible, “Hmph.” A passerby had looked up from a book he was reading as she did, and she silently mocked the bald spot he was trying to comb over.
With her hair up, Maisel broke a few inches past six feet. Taller, still, if not for a habit of leaning sway-back in any brief moment of inactivity. She was buttoned up in a three-piece wool ensemble, brown and tan Prince of Wales check with sparse overlines of red that blended into a rich coffee color from far away. Ostensibly, it was her mother’s, but Maisel had come to suspect it to have been a ruse put on by her father to curry favor for the woman. Under, she wore an ivory shirt with intricate lace cuffs and collar detailing with a set of brass collar points attached – a gift from Thapora.
She carried a small shoulder bag in black-and-white with a pattern of geometric acorn cups along its front and back, the strap and handles in brown leather. Inside were various documents, statements, forecasts. Near all she had pored over with Bradanoff the evening prior over a bottle of some horrible brown liquor he had presented as a gift and two blocks of ice filtered from a nearby spring that the inn at which she was staying made a special point of carving their insignia into before delivering to her room.
“No, you see that’s the argument exactly for the individual townships to be represented here, the doubt would be gone.” She let the excitement of the moment, the drink, pull her into a friendlier, more genuine pose and she put a hand to her mouth. “If the incentive is there, and the townships understand it, then th-”
Bradanoff stood up from the bed, unsticking the icepick from the remaining block and stabbing at its corner. “There’s the issue, Fiske. That doubt. Nothing drowns a trickle of doubt like a flood of truth.” He pulled the cork from the bottle. 20 years, aged in barrels that were older than both of them, not that she would know any better. “Don’t lean into the abstract when the concrete is right there.” He sat back on the bed, closer to her than before, and did that smile that someone back in the day had called irresistible. “You’re sick of this town getting rich without you.” He reached over and brushed a stray font of curls out from in front of her face. “Tell them what you want, they won’t see it coming.”
Maisel’s mouth pulled wide as she paused at the physical contact, and the recommendation. She looked to him and he looked down into his drink. “Politics is the perfect idiot’s profession, isn’t it?”
“Maisel,” he put his hand on top of hers and let the ice swirl in his glass once before looking back toward her, “what do you think it is you’re doing?”
A few hours from this moment, she planned to be standing in front of an audience of governors. But right now, she stepped through the ornate wrought-iron gate of one of Verdann’s central string of parks. She smiled, it crawled slowly across her mouth and pushed creases into both of her cheeks. Her jaw, just slightly stronger – more squared – than she had hoped as a child, tightened and the bridge of her forehead lowered. If she tried, she could hear the roll of the wagon wheels, the stomp of the horses, the yells of vendors. But if she didn’t, the trees of the park, the occasional calls of cicadas, quieted the city from encroaching on any sense for just a moment.
“I know that look,” pulled her from a closed-eyes deep breath. Maisel looked to the source of the interruption.
On a bench, a few yards further into the park, where the stone path gave way to dirt and gravel, sat an older man in a grey flannel sack suit, as was coming into style, and a white shirt buttoned to the top. He sat one hand on his knee, the other shook, doling out crumbs to a few small birds, finches, that had gathered near his feet. His brow knit with the traces of a smile, but he held himself at an angle such that she couldn’t catch sight of his mouth over his shoulder.
“You’re a mass of intuition, aren’t you?” she subconsciously raised her nose as she squared her posture toward him. “Listen you’re not the first person to tell me I look like a-” Maisel paused, letting out a gasping sort of laugh to fill the space and mentally trying to determine the actual count, “tourist.” Another pause – she pulled her shoulder bag in toward her coat. “I don’t have very much money w-with me, so if you-”
The stranger lifted his head, meeting Maisel’s gaze with deep-set eyes in pockmarked sockets. He smiled more broadly, a dismaring sort of aw-shucks smile that pushed his cheeks up and he shrugged his shoulders into as small a frame as he could. “No, oh. No, I’m sorry. Ma’am, I’m not here to take anything from you.” He looked back to the birds, one of which had started to hop away, toward Maisel. His hand dove into a paper bag on the bench, resupplying. “Just recognizing something that a stranger pointed out to me a long time ago.” He picked up the bag and put it on his lap, and patted the now empty seat next to him.
She tightened her grip on her bag and frowned, but stepped forward. The finch stared her down for a moment before retreating to a nearby tree. Maisel looked more deliberately at the man as she got closer. He had a mess of curly hair kept short on the sides and his cheeks looked reddened from a very recent shave. She scrunched her nose sideways for a moment and took a deep breath, letting her face settle on gratitude. “I do apologize,” she blinked slowly at the man.
“Faust. Christof Faust.”
“Maisel Fiske.” She felt herself pronounce it in a particularly professional way and tried to memorize the placement of her teeth and tongue. Maisel took the last few steps – upsetting and scattering the rest of the birds, making no effort to sit. She pulled and straighted the waist of her jacket as she walked around the bench, leaning sort of half-over the spot the man had indicated. “So, Mister,” she watched as the birds already started to reconvene, she leaving their direct area of ownership, “Faust. If I stick out as such a sore thumb, what – pray-tell – should I do to remedy,” Maisel chewed at the inside of her lip for a moment, “that?”
Christof threw down a few more crumbs, and the bird that had retreated to the tree finally rejoined the rest. “The gods-honest truth?”
She blinked hard and stared daggers into the side of his head, pursing her upper lip.
“Don’t stand in the entry.” He gestured back toward the park’s gate and looked back up toward Maisel. “You’re going to be between places all the time, standing there, looking like you’re waiting for the end of a card trick.” It was punctuated by the crumple of the paper bag, and he wiped his hand on his knee.
Maisel looked up to the sky, just one cloud left, and let out another choked laugh before catching herself. “And y-you want to espouse that sort of,” she was already brushing the words away with her hands, “advice while spending your morning sitting and feeding birds? You’re a fine role model, aren’t you?”
He began to stand, the bag now tuck between a few cracked and ruddy knuckles. “What’s your trade, Maisel Fiske?”
“It’s,” she sneered at the idea,” p-politics.” By the time the word finished she decided to be more sure of it.
“Maisel Fiske, I tune pianos for a living. I can tell you that every governor councilperson that takes an estate in this town has a piano in their house worth what I make in a year and not a damn one of them can play,” he grinned. “They go out of tune from nobody using them, and they get me to fix ‘em and then nobody plays them. Drives me up a wall sometimes.” He extended that same hand out toward her, offering the bag. His voice went solemn for a moment, as if vocalizing that thought caused him to rethink the message he wanted to impart.
“Finches. They don’t belong in a place like this. The smog makes them sick, and the shadows from the buildings confuse them about night and day. But sure as the sun rises, they’ll always be here this time of year – they know where they’re going and they know they’ve got to stop and get some food, and get some rest. They have a long journey ahead of ‘em. And they know I’ll be here to feed them.” He let one last smile creep across his face, cutting into his cheeks and forehead as she stepped off the gravel path, onto the stone, toward the gate, out of sight.
She hesitated, letting him get just out of earshot. “I play piano.”