Her moon was almost done. Maghfira blew ruddy copper spirals off the newly-carved plate, examining the curves and grooves she had spent the last ten hours engraving. It was not the moon that hung over Amsterdam, but the other side. Hatched with mountains, upside-down and plump as a peach, only the verges suggested familiar landmarks. This moon’s face was a vast expanse of fanciful topography, including a city on the north-western edge of the Oceanus Procellarum—Eleusis.
She had just taken up her graver again when two men entered her shop without knocking. Maghfira squinted from where she sat hunched over her desk, her eyes watery and sore from the hours spent sketching by dim rushlights. For a moment, the crosshatched lines of her project remained burned into her eyes, framing the men in an alien landscape of mountains and oceans, stars and cities.
They were men from the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie—Dutch East India Company—she was sure. Either that or smugglers, though they amounted to the same thing in the Dutch Republic. The bulkier of the two men waited by the door while the second, a wide-faced, bearded fellow dressed cap to toe in black, perused the sketches, frames and supplies that littered her print shop.
“Hello?” she asked. “Can I help you?”
“Where is your master, Blauwe?” he asked her without making eye contact, rifling through the prints stacked on her small press. The insult sharpened Maghfira’s senses, clearing her starry daydreams with a cold flush of fear.
“I am the mistress here,” she declared, laying aside her graver and standing. “I’m Maghfira van Delsen. What is your business?”
“You?” The man smirked and finally looked at her. “Coloured Hollander, are you? Van Delsen’s a Dutch name. Your daddy had a good time in Batavia, I see.”
Maghfira balled her hands into fists and tried to calm her mounting temper. She might be Dutch by law, but there would always be oafs who only saw her Javanese blood. It was, however, the first time someone had come right into her shop to insult her to her face. She told herself to be cautious, as these men were big and her serving girl, Arjani, was still at market.
“What is your business?” she repeated slowly.
“Last week you were delivered a cartload of engravings. Maps,” the man said, roaming the cramped room. “From Mr. Janssonius.”
Maghfira paused. “Yes,” she eventually replied, unable to fathom what a large and rude VOC man could possibly care about a simple repair job. She barely cared herself. The plates from Janssonius’ Harmonia Macrocosmica had already been printed hundreds of times over by the time she had gotten her hands on them. She was copying them now that the originals had been flattened and worn by repeated impressions. It was rote work, but the best she could get. Despite her efforts, nobody had commissioned any original work from her. She was known for her copyist’s skills and for her infallible memory. Maghfira van Delsen: fake engraver, fake Hollander.
“Are these them?” The man started browsing through the racks of wood-framed plates leaning against the walls.
“Excuse me!” Maghfira pushed to his side, appalled. “This is a private commission, thank you. Now I ask you again…” she tried to insert her slight self between this man and the plates, “…do please state your business, or get out. I have work to do.”
The man frowned suspiciously at her and refused to back away. With her nose very nearly pressed to his waistcoat, she could smell ink, smoke and herring in the fine black of his clothes, see cunning in his bloodshot eyes. She held his gaze defiantly. I am mistress here. Me.
“Show me the maps, mistress,” he said, with cold efficiency.
Maghfira’s thoughts raced. She could scream, and perhaps old van Laer next door would come to her aid, though he had never liked her much. By instinct and habit she wanted to lock wills with this man, but she could not ignore how he towered over her, how his big, calloused hands could encircle her throat, were he so inclined. She reluctantly stepped aside.
The man flipped through all twenty-nine plates in seconds, pulling them away from the wall and examining the space behind. He let them fall back with a clatter and turned back to her.
“Are there any others?” he asked.
The question hung between them for a moment too long. Ah, Maghfira thought. Is that what this is about? You want Eleusis.
She had known there was something different about that last plate, its copper rosy and fresh, its lines cut sharp and new. It wasn’t from Janssonius’ atlas; it wasn’t from any book yet printed. It must have been gathered up by accident when they had loaded the cart. That was why she had pulled it aside, kept it for herself. It was too fantastical for a serious work of uranography, but just familiar enough to her. It filled her with nostalgia for the huge, upside-down moons of her childhood, lustrous with dreams.
“No,” she stammered, a surge of possessiveness overcoming her. “This is all of them.”
It was a bad lie, and the man looked beyond her, over her shoulder towards her desk and her kitchen. “Tell me truthfully, mistress, for if I think you are lying, I will burn this house to the ground.” Maghfira had no cause to doubt his words. She looked down, suppressing the urge to spit in his eye.
“No,” she whispered. “There are no more.”
“Look at me!” he ordered, and she did. Let him see fear, she hoped. They always mistake fear for submission.
The man studied her a moment, then scowled. “How can anyone read anything in those squinted eyes of yours?” he demanded. “You look like a liar, Blauwe.” He pushed past her.
Maghfira flinched. Prints and sketches of the moon-map were scattered haphazardly around her desk, pinned, smudged and dusted with metal shavings. In the centre of it all, her perfect copy, newly engraved and lacking only the last details. The man took the plate in one great hand, studied it a moment, and then tucked it under his arm.
“That’s mine!” she blustered as he gathered the sketches up as well. “My work, my own—” She bit her tongue as the man started fishing through her cabinet and turned up the original she had been copying. “I wasn’t forging it,” she insisted, excuses spilling from her lips in panic as she trailed the man around the room. His silence was more alarming than a denunciation would have been. “It was only for me, just to look at. I was going to return the plate to Janssonius.”
“I don’t give a penningen about Janssonius,” the man said without looking at her, over-filling her hearth with the rumpled papers.
“What are you doing?” Maghfira demanded, alarmed. The man returned to her desk in silence, retrieving a large bottle of correcting acid and the last stub of a lit rush. “Stop it, you can’t—no!” Laying the moon-plate atop the prints, he doused the heap in acid and applied the touch of the wick. Maghfira shielded her eyes as the pile exploded into flames and filaments of orange smoke, spilling on to the stone as the fire collapsed. She ran to stamp the loose leaves into the stone, choking on the nauseating fumes sizzling off the copper plates. She grabbed at the man as he pushed past her with a lit tinder, but he shrugged her off like a cloak.
“You should not have lied to me, Mistress Blauwe. You have betrayed the animal cunning of your people,” he continued with calm. He carefully lit the sheets of paper draped over the bed of her small press, instigating a lively fire enthusiastically taken up by the woodwork of the machine that had cost her everything her father had left her. Maghfira cried at that, an angry, animal yell that made the man nod with satisfaction before leaving, shutting the door behind him.
Maghfira threw herself at the burning press, trying to smother the flames with damp paper and ink, but the mounting inferno was too well-fed. The noxious miasma of burning acid drove her from the house, shouting and crying for help. The neighbours brought bucket after bucket up from the canals to quell the flames, but there was little they could do. They shook their heads and tutted, as the last of her belongings smouldered inside the stone building like a kiln, as if she were a child who had dropped a sticky treat in the sand and not an independent woman who had just lost her livelihood to incomprehensible malice.
After a day and night spent fighting a losing battle against the fire, after the neighbours had given up and everything had been lost, Maghfira stood alone on her threshold with her petticoats blackened and reeking, seething with anger and confusion.
Her home, her press, her comforts, and her responsibilities. She had lost everything.
Not everything, she reminded herself as the moon dimmed with the coming of the day. Amsterdam still holds my heart. She felt like a ship in a storm, tethered precariously by one last rope. She prayed it was strong enough to hold her fast.
If Constantin will not marry me now, Maghfira brooded, I am lost.
She started the long walk across town to Holfwijck, her lover’s manor, as soon as daylight allowed it. The city was still waking as she crossed the wide lawn on foot, her serving girl having been returned to her family the night before. Maghfira could no longer afford to change her clothes, let alone pay poor, stunned Arjani.
Her affairs should have been settled by now. She had the training, background, experience, and talent to be a cartographer of the first order, but in the mercantile world of the VOC these virtues meant less than nothing. What she needed were the contacts, something a newcomer just off a ship from Batavia had too few of. She had taken her first jobs forging the work of more accomplished engravers thinking it would lead to more legitimate work, but in the eyes of the Dutch printers there was nothing legitimate about her.
She tried to turn down the Harmonia Macrocosmica job, but her broker, Bartelsz, had pressed her into it. “You need the income, Maggie,” he’d told her, chewing his moustache and fixing her with a disapproving look. “Unless you’ve finally decided to return to Batavia, and your mother. I can find you a ship, dear girl. I think you’ve proved your point. Go home, before you’ve wasted all your father’s hard-earned money.”
That had made her angry enough to take even the pettiest commission, just to spite the old man. Go home, indeed! Batavia was not her home, just as it hadn’t been her father’s home. She was an independent woman now, with her own house, business and servant.
Or, at least, she had been, until yesterday.
“My lord Huygens says he will meet you in the kitchens,” said Eelke, Constantin’s nervous majordomo, glancing across the grass as if someone might see her. “It is indiscreet, you understand…” Maghfira steeled herself with fury, aware that if she succumbed to any calming measures she would drop from exhaustion.
“Eelke, how could you be so heartless? Your master wrote to me just last week, asking me to see him.”
“Yes, mistress, but not here. Cross the canal, come the back way…” He blocked the entrance as effectively as a broom resting on a doorframe, and Maghfira could feel him slipping with each step she mounted.
“I’m here now, damn you, Eelke! Tell your master he will meet me in the library this minute, or by the Heavens, I will get on the first ship to Batavia without another word! My lord Constantin will see me now or he will never see me again!” She was nose to nose with the man now, and he folded completely. He stepped back to admit her, wringing his moist hands.
“You should not come alone, you see, and without a carriage…” he babbled as he trailed her resolute path towards the second-floor library.
“My servant is on errands, Eelke,” she muttered, coming at last to the deep green room she knew so intimately. “And as for a carriage, you can tell my lord I blame him entirely for failing to provide me with one.” She settled into the seat at Constantin’s desk. “I will wait.” She dismissed the servant.
She allowed herself a small sob of fatigue when Eelke left. The warm leather of the chair she had read so many books in lulled her into a sleepy melancholy. It was too easy to forget she did not belong here, that she was not—yet—Constantin’s wife. Her fingers found the little box where Constantin kept the spectacles that fit so perfectly on the curved bridge of her nose. The relief to her sore eyes was instantaneous and almost put her to sleep. Wake up, foolish girl! she chided herself.
She drew a shaky breath and ran her fingers along the spines of Constantin’s books to calm her nerves. A cabinet by the windows shelved newer works of mathematics and astronomy, along with an assortment of instruments and failed experiments. On the bottom shelf were several newly-bound books in English, which made her pause. Though she knew little enough of the language, she could make out bits of the titles. The Man in the Moon, read one. A World in the Moon, read another. She immediately opened the cabinet and removed them all.
They were bound in Flemish-green morocco like the rest of the Huygens collection, gold-tooled, each worth more than Maghfira could make in a year. The first book fell naturally to a folded insert sewn between two quires, its new hinge still stiff. She couldn’t help but squawk with indignation when the map revealed itself to her.
It was her moon, the moon she had unwittingly traded for her home. Hand-drawn this time, the roads and canals of the city imagined in a different pattern, as if the same idea had been described to a different artist, but in all other ways so similar. The city was set in the same location at the edge of the moon’s greatest sea, the grand avenues exiting at the same angles. The topography of the seas and mountains, the bestial constellations dancing about its sky, and the name: Eleusis. Her moon.
“Maggie,” Constantin’s subdued voice greeted her. Maghfira let the book tumble from her fingers as she turned towards him. He looked as tired as she felt, half-dressed in black stockings and a rumpled shirt. “What are you doing here? I haven’t—that is, I was just writing to you. You’ve anticipated me, I’m afraid.” He allowed a small, sheepish smile. Maghfira’s belly turned over.
“Anticipated you? I certainly hope you weren’t coming to call on me dressed like that,” she teased him gently, covering her nerves with false coquetry. She had known it would surprise Constantin to see her alone and unannounced, but something in his manner told her she was not simply unexpected, but unwanted.
“No, I—” he stopped, and thought. “That is, I could give you the letter now. Perhaps we’d better start there.”
“Yes, perhaps you had better,” she replied quietly. He disappeared and returned with a folded sheaf of paper, which he handed to her hesitantly, as if he were afraid to get within arm’s reach. Maghfira suddenly felt she didn’t even need to read the letter, but she forced herself to anyway.
“Paris?” she read aloud, still scanning the page. “You’re going to Paris—a suitable wife?” Her voice rose as she read the words, rage winning the war against desperation for control over her mood. “Constantin Huygens! What are you saying?”
He raised his hands defensively, eyes wide with alarm. “Maggie, my heart! You know I would not give you up for anything in the world. I love you. This is only—only a business transaction. Politics! My father, he wants to show The Hague that the French are our allies, and you know I need the money—”
“Money?” Maghfira thundered, starting to pace like a caged animal. She glared at him, willing Constantin’s tousled brown hair to burst into flames. “You are abandoning me for money? You…heartless, selfish, inconsiderate beast!” She felt a sob building in her chest and choked it down, determined not to let him break her heart. You need money? She felt herself drifting away from the world. “Very well!” she continued in kind. “I wish you exactly what you are looking for. I will not trouble you any longer.”
“Maggie, Maggie, wait!” Constantin moved to block her exit, taking her by the elbows and bending to look her in the eye. “You did not read on. Please! I am not abandoning you, not now, not ever! Listen!” Maghfira turned her head, refusing to look at him. He continued. “Things will continue between us just as before.” He took her chin between his fingers and tried to turn her back towards him. “I will be in Amsterdam for weeks, months even, no matter what my affairs in Paris become. It will call—for a little more discretion, is all. Maggie!” He pleaded. “I love you!”
She closed her eyes as she realized what he was proposing. He thought to keep her as a lover, forever waiting on his convenience. A fake wife, too, she thought. She pulled away, blinking away tears before he could see.
“Eelke would not let me in,” she told him, realizing what that meant. “You will not let me return here.”
“Maggie, please!” Constantin moved to her side, fixing her with a soft, fatherly look that meant he was going to treat her like a child. “I will come to you instead, at any hour—at all hours! You will have me in the comfort of your own bed. You must understand how foolish it would be to receive you here.”
Almost as foolish as it would be for me to receive you there, Maghfira thought. She wanted to slap him, to scream obscenities, to repay him for the insult to her honour that he was so oblivious to. But she could not let him know her position, not now. She refused to be at anyone’s mercy.
The tightness in her chest made her cough, bringing up the ash-flavoured residue of her losses with it. She waved away Constantin’s move to help her and braced herself against the table, staring hard at the map of Eleusis. I don’t belong in Amsterdam any more than I belong on the moon, she thought, tracing the city’s curling paths with a dry finger.
“I will miss this place,” she said truthfully, straightening. She turned back to Constantin and forced herself to smile. “I will have little enough to read.”
“Darling.” Constantin’s eyes lit up. “You can borrow whatever you choose. You will be my dearest secret, the most beautiful escape. You shall have everything you want.” He stepped forward and adjusted the spectacles that had fallen askew across her face. It took all Maghfira’s will not to swat his hands away, to keep smiling like an imbecile instead.
“May I start with those?” she gestured at the moon. Constantin frowned.
“That’s just nonsense, Maggie,” he said, shutting the book and taking her hand. “Why not the new volume of Vondel? You adore poetry.”
“Are you afraid you will never see your books again, my love?” she pouted, hanging back. Constantin hesitated, looking torn. “Won’t you indulge me in my fancies? The volumes will always be waiting for you, after all, safe with me.” She wore her sweetest smile, but her meaning was clear. She must have something of value, something to hold in trust, to ensure he will come and see her again.
Constantin said nothing for a moment, only glancing back and forth between Maghfira and the books. She could see guilt warring with apprehension, trust with fear. These books were valuable to him, just as the map had been to the VOC men, that was clear. Nonsense, indeed! You know exactly what these are. Maghfira could only pray that she was still just as valuable to him.
“Of course,” he capitulated, false levity in his voice. “You know I can deny you nothing, darling.”
Maghfira capitulated, too, agreeing to everything the man said and did. When his porter took her out the servants’ entrance carrying for her six volumes of cosmography, she agreed to receive him at her home the following week, without mentioning it had been gutted by fire, or that she did not plan to be there.
Yes, you can have it all. The whole world. But not the moon.
She sold two of Constantin’s books immediately, leaves and binding separately. Even on such short notice, they brought a handsome sum, enough to supply her with new equipment and a room in a hotel on the Herengracht canal.
She copied both maps of Eleusis—Janssonius’ and the one from Constantin’s library—from memory and propped them side-by-side on a windowsill. The VOC men had invaded her home in order to take this moon, and yet there it was, comfortably displayed in the Huygens library as if everybody knew of it. They already had a map of Eleusis. They simply didn’t want her to have one too. They wanted to control this information, not destroy it. What for?
Proposition 6. Maghfira read, slowly limping through A World in the Moon, the first of the English books. That there is a world in the Moon hath been the direct opinion of many ancient, with some modern, Mathematicians, and may probably be deduced from the tenets of others…
She forced herself to think harder. Nobody was conducting a war on telescopes or burning down observatories. It was the maps that were contentious. They showed something the Earth-bound could not observe. She had stared at the moon often enough and seen nothing unusual. Why destroy fanciful pictures? Only the violent secrecy, and the corroboration of a second map, suggested to Maghfira that they showed something real. That Eleusis was real.
She glanced up at the side-by-side maps. The location of the city was identical, on the bottom-left corner of the dark side of the moon, trapped in a net of lines imagining a lunar longitude and latitude. The stars, too, were arranged in the same pattern. Some constellations were familiar to her, depicting a sky she remembered from her childhood. There was Crux, the first cross her father had taught her to wish by. Leo, Canis Minor, and Orion. And yet, if the constellations in this northern sky were different than those in the southern sky, shouldn’t they be even more different when looking at the moon from the other side?
That isn’t the moon’s sky, she realized. It’s another map, laid out alongside the first.
The mix of northern and southern constellations, the upside-down moon, even the hugeness of its surface were all hints. This was a map of the moon seen from a very specific place along the equator.
Eleusis can only be seen from the equator. That will be their point of departure. I need only reference the star charts. She continued to read the English book.
Proposition 13. So, perhaps, there may be some other means invented for a conveyance to the Moon, and though it may seem a terrible and impossible thing ever to pass through the vast spaces of the air, yet no question there would be some men who would venture this…
She recalled the business-like manner in which the bearded man had set her livelihood alight. The Dutch Republic was full of men who would, and did, brave vast oceans to barge into the worlds of others without knocking. Because of them, Amsterdam was the chief city in all the world, the richest and the keenest. Unobstructed by kings or popes, they would claim any corner of the Earth. Or beyond.
Of course they would not share Eleusis. The VOC had grown fat by refusing to share with anyone. Not the Spaniards, not the Portuguese, not the French. They wanted to keep the secret of a new land to themselves until they had it claimed and divided into shares. There was a city on the moon, and they were going to take it.
Two weeks later, Maghfira dressed all in black like any good VOC man. She prepared her portfolio and checked out of the hotel, unsure if she would ever be back. Then she set off for the East India House, headquarters of the VOC, where she meant to get the first true contract in a life dominated by facsimile.
The East India House was an edifice of ongoing construction, a muddy testament to wealth and progress. The brick facade marched unbroken down the Hoogstraat for blocks, guarding the VOC’s secrets behind the unapproachable scale of the building, the biggest in Amsterdam. To the east lay the Kloveniersburgwal canal and the boats. Maghfira had arrived here six years ago, and the idea of leaving the same way felt in some way inevitable. She let herself in to the commons and made for the clerk’s chambers.
“Mistress van Delsen,” Bartelsz greeted her once the door had been shut behind her. “You have chosen an odd hour to visit.”
“And yet you are working, Johan.” Maghfira perched on the wobbly bench facing her broker’s desk. The man shrugged.
“I am indeed. How can I help you, my lady? Are you ready, finally, to return to Batavia?”
Where I can find a rich husband and grow fat in the sun, like my mother? No, I don’t belong there either. “I have another voyage in mind,” she said, managing not to scowl. “I believe you have a ship headed for Nais.”
“Nais?” Bartelsz said, his eyes widening in alarm. “You mean Sumatra, of course? I have a fluyt bound for Padang, but Nais, it’s just a jungle. There’s nothing there, my lady.”
“I mean Nais,” she said firmly, hoping she had read the star charts right. “I know there is a company expedition bound there, likely in October. If you know nothing of this, please take me to Governor-General Maetsuycker. I will put my request to him.”
Bartelsz narrowed his eyes with suspicion. “Whatever you have heard of this expedition, my lady, you must have misunderstood. There is nothing for you in Nais.”
“No. There isn’t, is there? And yet, we will depart from that island, or somewhere near it.” She locked eyes with him, hoping he recognized the same unwavering determination she’d had to undertake her first voyage. “I want to be added to the crew. I wish to be—” she sat straighter, testing the words, “—the cartographer.”
Bartelsz balked. “Maggie, this is an audacious request, one I certainly cannot begin to—”
“I know what lies beyond Nais,” she interrupted him, reconciling herself to stronger methods. “And if you know as well, you will take me to my lord Maetsuycker, or whoever has concerned themselves with that voyage, before I take my request to the Spanish.” She tried to breathe normally, as if this were a simple request and not blackmail of the worst kind. Bartelsz’s jaw quavered.
“Do not do this, Maggie,” he begged, more disappointed than worried. “What could you possibly want—”
“Will you pass on my request, my lord?” She did not care to hear what derision he would lay on her. She already knew well enough where he thought she belonged—but he was wrong. She didn’t belong anywhere.
Bartelsz sighed in resignation and nodded. He stood and beckoned her to follow him down the narrow stone halls, deeper than she could possibly dig herself out.
Bartelsz left her alone in the wide office of the Governor-General. She stood, portfolio clutched in both hands, willing on herself the poise that said she believed absolutely that Joan Maetsuycker had no choice but to hire her.
The frown on Maetsuycker’s face when he entered spoke its own stubborn story. The grey-haired man closed the door behind him and marched aggressively towards her, hands outstretched.
“Mistress,” Maetsuycker barked, “show me your work.” Maghfira nearly balked at the directness of his request, at his lack of manners. How very like his underlings this man is. She held out the portfolio to him, grateful that her arms did not shake.
He strode to his desk and unbuckled the leather case, flipping through the moon-maps and star charts within. Maetsuycker looked tired, then tore the top two pages out of their sleeve and tossed them unceremoniously into the fire.
“What!” Maghfira cried, furious.
“You are a great fool, my dear,” he said. “And you have just made a madwoman of yourself. You will get out now. Thank you.” He took two more pages, wadded them, and added these to the mounting flames.
“I will not!” she replied, stepping up to the desk and snatching one of her pages of notes. “I have come for Eleusis, and I will not go until you agree to add me to the voyage to Nais.”
“My lady, you are in no position to make such demands. I know you. My men have been to your home and have destroyed everything in it. You have nothing to offer and nothing to threaten me with. You are a nuisance and that is all. You may go now while you still retain your dignity.”
Maghfira’s heart pounded as if she were about to leap from the pier. “You have destroyed nothing of me,” she said, taking up a quill. “And you need me.” She flipped the paper over and licked the quill before dabbing it in his inkpot. With a few quick, broad strokes, she traced again the outline of the moon and marked on it the location of Eleusis. She had begun to map out the stars when Maetsuycker snatched the sketch right out from under her. She stood straight, staring him down. His red-rimmed eyes looked at her as if she were some kind of abomination. “Burn it,” she offered. “Burn them all. I will make them again. The map is in me and I know what it shows. You cannot undertake an expedition to a new land without a cartographer, so take me. You will find no one better.”
“I could destroy you as easily as I have destroyed your scribblings, woman,” he said, crumpling this last sketch and putting it aside. “If I thought you were a threat. But the Spaniards will only think you mad, the Portuguese madder. A fanciful picture will mean nothing to them.”
“I know exactly where and when Eleusis can be seen,” she said. “I will commission a ship to Nais myself if I need to. You will find I am quite determined, my lord Maetsuycker.”
“What I see,” he said, sitting at his desk as if the discussion were making him too weary to stand, “is a villain who would sell out her nation to—”
“If this is my nation,” Maghfira barked, frustrated, “then let me serve. What kind of leader are you, who cannot see a good tool when one is presented to him? All I want is to be part of something new. Something where the boundaries are not yet set, the fortunes not yet cast. You will find no one better suited,” she repeated.
“You have threatened the Dutch Republic with treason or worse,” Maetsuycker pointed out. “And my men will not want a woman on their ship.” He frowned in earnest. “Bad luck.”
“Would you rather a wet rag represent you in Eleusis?” she countered. “And as for luck,” she shrugged, “tell them different fates rule the skies than the seas.” Hopefully. “My lord, I am not leaving.”
The creases on Maetsuycker’s forehead retreated in thought. Maghfira tracked his gaze to a framed print on his wall: the moon, as rendered by the artist van Langren. She wondered if she were to flip it over, if she’d find Eleusis hiding in the shadows beneath.
After a long moment of silence, he nodded. “Let us test your resolve then, my lady.” He placed the remaining sketches from her portfolio on the fire and held up a hand. “You will not need them if you are as good as you say. Come.”
Maghfira was determined not to let the Governor-General’s fatalism scare her. The only thing she was absolutely sure of was her resolve. She followed him out the door and through the endless halls of the East India House, praying with every step that he was not leading her to a dungeon—or to an executioner. They finally came to a plain door with one lock, which he opened. Beyond it was darkness. Maghfira hesitated.
“The noose has been around your neck ever since you set foot in my domain, my lady,” Maetsuycker said. “It is no more dangerous in there than anywhere. Has your courage run dry already?” Maghfira glared at him and stepped into the blackness.
The coolness of outdoor air hit her within a few steps. Moonlight bathed an interior courtyard strewn with unfamiliar constructions, the chief of which was an enormous cannon built at one end of the long yard. Maetsuycker lit a lantern and led her towards it. A contraption of shining gold sat tethered atop the long neck and caught the lamplight, shining like a beacon. Maghfira gawked.
“Our great hope for reaching Eleusis, or somewhere else up there,” Maetsuycker waved at the waning moon above them. He held the lantern high as they approached the cannon, illuminating the golden sphere’s portholes and limp sails. It was no bigger than a covered carriage, but sealed as tight as a barrel. He turned to scrutinize her. “We have not yet tested it with men inside, but the unmanned flights have been promising. The greatest minds in the Dutch Republic have informed its construction, and it will take the bravest to pilot it. We are training the crew by locking them in vaults for hours at a time.” He almost smiled then, taunting her again. “Cramped, without fresh air or light, occasionally jostled in the most violent manner. Who knows how long and how arduous the journey will be? We must prepare for the worst. Do you think you could do it, Mistress van Delsen? Ride the winds packed into a crate built by geniuses and lunatics, like a piece of stolen Antiquity? Some of our best captains have already quit the project. What makes you any better suited?”
“I have nowhere else to be,” Maghfira said softly, still taking in the contraption’s golden wheels and joints. “I don’t belong here.”
Maetsuycker’s face softened. “Ambitious people seldom feel as if they belong, my lady. After all, who would venture into the unknown if they were content with what they already had?”
Maghfira stared at the golden vessel in awe. She imagined its sails unfurled, catching gusts from all directions, tenting first one way then another, tossing this little sun about the sky like a kite. Then she imagined gliding towards the Heavens in a moment of calm, the moon growing brighter at their approach. She imagined rolling to a stop on alien soil, unfolding herself in a new place. She imagined new oceans and new mountains, new roads and new buildings. She imagined the freedom of not being expected to belong.
“I could do it,” she said.