Micah glanced up in annoyance from the welter of her papers covering the wooden table as the door to the front room of Rafe’s lodgings swung open to admit a trio of laughing young men who immediately blundered into the table. Her inkpot would have spilled across her latest calculations had she not already lifted it clear, well used to such interruptions by now.
“Sorry, Micah.” It was Larry, the scholar who had invited her into the lecture on geometry all those weeks ago. She supposed that, in a way, she owed her presence here to that encounter, for without it she would never have met the man who, in turn, had led her to the Ink Pot, and if she had not met that man, she would never have encountered Rafe. It was interesting to consider how far back one might trace a series of such events before reaching the initial cause from which all subsequent effects flowed. In isolation, each seemed random, pure chance, yet when looked at in a certain way, through the clarifying lens of mathematics, they were not random at all, but rather the outcome of probabilities amenable to calculation, at least theoretically. She wondered what it would take to compile a likelies table to cover all such eventualities. First it would be necessary to—
Micah groaned at the interrruption. “Could you be quiet for a moment, please?”
“’Scuse me, but have you seen Rafe?”
“Micah, this is Nick,” said Larry, then nodded to his other companion. “And you remember Tim.”
She did, from numerous card games—the man had a genuine talent for losing, and, as Rafe said happily, never seemed to tire of exercising it.
“Rafe isn’t here,” she said impatiently, eager to get back to work. All morning she’d been experiencing the maddening sense of fizzy excitement that she’d come to associate with a fresh leap in her understanding of a subject. The last time she’d felt this way had been in the lecture hall, listening to Doctor Volney’s lesson on geometric solids; the discomfort had grown until, in a flash, she’d seen that he was wrong, and that knowledge had compelled her to challenge him. Volney hadn’t appreciated it, but Rafe and his friends had been impressed.
“What kind of numbers are those?” Tim was looking at her papers—the scribbled and crossed-out calculations, the Kinwiinik navigational star charts Kaab had loaned her, her corrected and re-corrected and re-re-corrected table of artificial numbers (which, maddeningly, was still not correct!)—with an expression she’d seen often enough on the faces of her family whenever they offered a minnow for her thoughts. One of the things Micah liked best about Rafe and his University friends was that most of them didn’t look baffled—or, worse, sorry to have asked—when she explained what she was thinking. Well, sooner or later they did, even Rafe. But it was still better than back on the farm, where everyone’s eyes glazed over long before she got to the good stuff. Even though she missed her family. And felt guilty about not helping out with the planting. Which reminded her that she owed her uncle another letter; she hadn’t written home for weeks now, since the Swan Ball . . .
“Oh, gods.” Tim glanced over at Larry. “Is this stuff I should know?”
Larry was looking a bit panicky himself. Nick had already made himself scarce, disappearing into Rafe’s room, where a seemingly endless chocoloate-and-alcohol-fueled party had been going ever since the miraculous return of chocolate to the city had coincided with the equally if not more miraculous news that Rafe had passed his exams. And what, she wondered, would the likelies have been on that eventuality? Rafe himself had been a rare visitor during this time; his tasks at Tremontaine House were quite demanding, apparently, and his friends had taken advantage of his absence to put his vacant room to what they considered better use.
Micah did not agree. But despite these annoyances, she was gratified by this unexpected interest in her work. “Those are artificial numbers,” she said.
“Artificial?” squeaked Tim. “The real ones are bad enough!”
“Oh, all numbers are artificial, if you think about it! But at the same time, they’re the realest things of all,” she said, warming to the subject. “Even if they don’t exist in the same way as, say”—her eye went to one corner of the room, where a slumbering student whose name she couldn’t recall had made a pillow from the sack of turnips Rafe had purchased from her uncle before the ball, then forgotten to bring to Tremontaine House as he’d promised, even though she’d reminded him fourteen times so far—“turnips, for example—”
“Say, isn’t that Joshua?” Tim’s eyes had taken on a faraway look. “Talk to you later, Micah!” He lunged away from the table.
“And there’s Thaddeus!” said Larry.
Before she could say another word, he was gone, joining Thaddeus, who sat by the room’s one window, engaged in earnest conversation with an alchemy student called Clarence. With a sigh, Micah set the inkpot back...