Paris had once been a beautiful place before the revolution and the Second Renaissance. Cornelia recalled walking through its bright, garden-fringed avenues when she was a little girl, during a trip she had taken with her father many years ago. But Paris's once-renowned beauty had long since been choked by the unstoppable force called Progress. The parks and boulevards had been replaced by smokestacks and towering steel structures, and the air was tinged with a grayish haze that reeked of sulfur. While no one could deny that it was now the most advanced and technologically forward city in all of Europa, Cornelia missed the elegance and artistry that Paris had once embodied.
Cornelia turned away from the winding maze of grimy brick streets that was passing by out the window and looked across the red-upholstered taxi carriage at Ikonov, who was once again flipping through the pages of the Book of Daedalus.
"So how do you know Cli — er, this Cornwall fellow?" She asked him in a rather clumsy attempt to sound casual. Fortunately, Ikonov seemed to be a bit clueless at the best of times, and engrossed in his book as he was, he didn't appear to notice anything at all.
"Oh, well, Cliff and I went to university together," replied Ikonov, looking up. "We were both good friends, interested in many of the same things, you see. But while I became more interested in history and the sciences, he developed more of an expertise in sociology." Ikonov paused, staring into space for a moment as though recalling some far-off time. "Of course, Paris was the prime place to be for him. He wanted to learn Francish, and it was a quickly-developing center of learning. More cultures and ideas mixing in this city than anyplace else in the world."
Cornelia swiped another coat of lipstick over her lips as she turned this over in her head. A sociologist? But that wasn't Cliff Cornwall at all. He was a dashing swashbuckler, the man who had introduced Cornelia to the air trade eight years ago . . . but of course, why couldn't he be a sociologist? He hadn't bothered to tell her about any of his other exploits. He had already proved that he was quite capable of living a double life.
Cornelia glanced back out the window just as the taxi turned onto the familiar cobblestone ribbon of Rue Prideux. A moment later, the little white house came into view, it's old-fashioned design in stark contrast to the tall, gray apartments that dominated the street. The clopping of horse hooves slowed and the carriage pulled up to a stop in front of the house.
"Votre rue, monsieur," said the driver through the curtain in the front. "Your street, sir," he swiftly translated, realizing that his passengers did not speak Francish.
"Will you take pounds?" said Ikonov, leaning forward.
"For double the price," said the driver, brushing aside the curtain to speak to them face to face.
"Twice the price!" exclaimed Ikonov, indignant. "But francs are nearly equal to pounds these days!"
The driver shrugged. "It's more inconvenience to trade them in, no? If you want cheap, you walk."
"Oh, blast it," muttered Ikonov, rummaging in his pockets and shoving money into the driver's opened palm. He still looked disgruntled as he and Cornelia exited the carriage a moment later, and as the driver geed his horses and began to move off again, Cornelia heard him say, "Damn French!"
Then they were walking up the short garden path to the house and a minute later, Ikonov was rapping briskly on the oak door. Cornelia nervously applied another superfluous layer of lipstick to her lips and tapped one black aviator's boot against the ground.
"Are you alright, Miss Harper?" asked Ikonov.
"Oh yes, I'm fine," replied Cornelia, perhaps a little too quickly.
She was saved any further scrutiny, however, as the door opened suddenly, and they both turned to see Cliff Cornwall standing before them.
"Harold!" he began, grinning; but his grin vanished quickly as his eyes swept over them and landed on Cornelia. His mouth opened slightly, and he looked both confused and amazed.
"Hello, Cliff," said Cornelia stiffly. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Ikonov gape at her in astonishment.
"Cornelia —" Cliff started, pain filling his eyes, and Cornelia was reminded of the many times he had tried to give her excuses, stammering how he really did love her.
Cornelia met his gaze with a look of cold indifference, trying to suppress the whirlwind of emotions that were pent up inside her. "I'm here for business purposes only," Cornelia intoned unfeelingly. "Professor Ikonov requested that I take him here and that I accompany him. Nothing more."
Ikonov was now fidgeting uncomfortably as though a steady column of insects were crawling down his spine. "I dare say I didn't —" he stammered. "Well, er, I take it you know each other?"
There was a frozen pause, in which Cliff nodded and all three of them cast about for something to say. Finally, Cornelia broke the silence.
"Well, Mr. Cornwall, aren't you going to invite us in?"
"Oh, yes — of course," said Cliff, stepping back from the door to let them past. "Come right in and I'll fix us some tea."