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“I don’t need to tell you that this client is very valuable to our business. If you fail to impress him, I’m afraid you’ll be sent back to Montreal. It requires discretion, the personal touch.”

Alain Camus nodded. He was standing in the CEO’s office high above London’s financial district. Affectionately called Babylon, the new hi-tech building used hanging gardens as part of its internal environmental systems. “I must admit I am not sure why I was chosen. I’m Canadian and not exactly connected in the way my predecessor was.”

The client in question was Lord Percival Coventry, Duke of Sunderland, the second richest man in England after King Charles. And his predecessor had been Sir Anthony James, the Duke’s chief financial adviser. They had known each other since their schooldays at Eton.

“I am not sure either. The Duke is very private; all I know is that Sir Anthony compiled a shortlist and your name was at the top. His untimely death interrupted the proper selection process. That is why the Duke wants to see you personally, to judge for himself if you are the right fit.”

“And you have met the Duke?”

“On several occasions, mostly formal. He can be a difficult man.”

“Eccentric?”

The CEO frowned. It was a simplistic question based on a cliché and he regretted asking it immediately.

“His family have played a significant part in British history. He has no need to please anyone. He does as he wishes and we cater to his whims because he makes this bank a lot of money in commissions.”

“Yes, a diversified portfolio worth over six billion pounds, most of it in fixed assets: substantial rural land holdings, property investments in major cities, a large Australian cattle station, one of the best private art collections in Europe, a complex share portfolio…”

“That we know of… Rumour has it the family has hidden assets. We know we are not the only bank they deal with. Of course any increase in our share of the business will naturally be reflected in your commission and bonuses. So best not to stuff it up, eh old chap?”

Alain Camus grimaced. He was sure he was well and truly in over his head.

 

The Duke’s private secretary had emailed the details. He was to catch the train to the nearest town that night. From there he was to catch a cab to the heritage-listed village of Deerbridge on the edge of the Sunderland estate where a room had been booked at the local pub. He was to be ready to be picked up by a driver at five-thirty in the morning, sharp. All communications devices where to be left at the hotel, no notes of any kind were to be taken, the dress code was summer country casual (he had to make a quick dash to Harrods for an appropriate outfit).

The only time he had to swot up on the Duke was on the train and at the hotel. He had expected to be supplied with extensive background notes, but none had been provided. The only resource he had was the internet and he was sure the Duke had hired a top PR firm to do a thorough web clean, leaving a carefully curated public profile, basically the family tree and biographies of its more famous members: a Prime Minister; a Lord High Admiral of the Navy; a Governor of South Australia; an heroic young Duke killed in WW1; an adventurer; a drug-addicted, pox-riddled gambler who had squandered half the family fortune; a scandalous, free thinking Duchess; a noted Bohemian female artist; and an eccentric scientist and rival of Sir Isaac Newton. There were photos of course, most of them dull and taken at this or that charity event – nothing that would generate much interest. In fact the Duke seemed totally unremarkable.

Of the Duke’s financial details he had only the broadest idea, principally because the portfolio was complex and subject to the normal market forces, besides, he would have a team of people working under him to manage the detail. No, his real job would be to liaise with the Duke and to follow his directions with the utmost discretion. He also understood that if anything were to go wrong he would likely be expected to take the fall, even go to jail if necessary.

 

The car was ready as expected, the latest hydrogen/electric hybrid Aston Martin, very stylish. The door hissed open and the car’s computer greeted him with a posh butler’s voice. “Good morning sir. The journey will take approximately fifteen minutes. Would you like to listen to music or watch the news?”

“No, silence, thank you.”

“Please fasten your seatbelt.”

He gripped the handrail tightly and gritted his teeth. He hated the idea of driverless mode, hated not being in control. The car started slowly and carefully made its way down a quaint county lane as the morning sun cast its golden light across lush green fields. He wondered if the car was a hint of the rewards to come. Sir Anthony was known to be very stylish and a lover of good design.

They arrived at the estate gates within the allotted time. The gates opened automatically and they continued down a tree lined, dirt road that gave stunning glimpses of one of the great houses of England, Chetwick Hall, with its Georgian neoclassical façade and grounds designed by Capability Brown.

Like most of the great houses, the main building was managed by a private trust, its upkeep financed by opening the gardens and main interiors to the public. In some cases the aristocracy no longer lived in the ancestral home, but a fortunate few, like the Duke, maintained apartments in a separate wing.

The car parked itself in a large rear courtyard situated near stables. He immediately recognised the Duke standing near a silver Land Rover hitched to a horse float (also electric). As he walked over the Duke barely acknowledged him. “Ah, Camus is it? Good chap. On time.”

“I’m pleased to meet you Lord Coventry,” he said offering his hand.

The Duke did not take it and merely grunted a brief acknowledgment. He wondered if he had somehow breached protocol by using the wrong form of address, perhaps he should have used the more formal, ‘your Grace’?

“You know anything about horses Camus?”

“Not a great deal. I can ride to a canter…”

The Duke grunted again and he wasn’t sure if it was disapproval or a simple acknowledgment. He was not a handsome man, somewhat portly with a ruddy complexion and a round, chubby face. He seemed impatient and suddenly bellowed. “Damn it Puddin, get a bloody move on girl, you know I can’t abide traffic.”

At that precise moment a girl appeared leading a horse out of the stables, followed by an assistant – perhaps an equerry. She was wearing a polo uniform and walked with self-assured grace and slightly out turned feet – suggesting deportment classes or years of ballet training, something he recognised because his eldest daughter attended dance classes. She certainly had a young dancer’s physique: long legs, slender waist, straight back and broad shoulders. His immediate impression was that she was being haughty and yet there was something else. She was certainly exceptionally pretty – teen model pretty – high cheekbones, petite nose, full lips and large eyes, her blond hair tied back in a tight ponytail. He was momentarily transfixed, unable to judge precisely how old she was. Her finely sculpted face and demeanour suggested late teens or very early twenties but her narrow hips and undeveloped chest suggested she had just entered puberty.

He was confused by her presence. He had expected to meet with just the Duke, not members of the family, most especially not a child. He continued to watch captivated as she soothed the horse and assisted the equerry to coax it into the float. He realised he had started to blush, sure that she knew he was watching her every move. Perhaps like royalty she was used to ordinary people being in awe, uncertain of how to react.

“Come meet our guest Puddin – monsieur Camus,” said the Duke in a gentler, more adoring tone.

The girl closed the float doors and walked towards him, her face glowing with a warm smile, her hand extended in genuine welcome. He could not avoid being pulled into vivid, charismatic green eyes that seemed to look right into him. It was unsettling.

“Camus, this is Lady Georgiana, Marchioness Broadford, my granddaughter and the future Duchess. Puddin is her family name. I’m sure you’ll forgive my use of the familiar.”

“Your Grace,” he said as he lightly took her hand, almost bowing as if she were royalty (the word ‘enchanted’ held back out of a fear of gushing).

She laughed in response to his social awkwardness, not to mock him, but to lighten the mood. “Milady is the more accepted term, but I must admit it is all ridiculously complicated,” she said sympathetically. “Vous êtes de Montreal? Parlez-vous francais?”

“Ah oui, le francais est ma langue maternelle, vous maitrisez?” he replied, put at ease by speaking his natural tongue.

“Bien sur, ma mere est francaise.”

“The late Emilie Manon De Viscay, Viscountess Lavois,” the Duke interrupted gruffly, emphasising the word late, perhaps irritated that he had to tell him something he should have known. ‘Well get in Camus. Can’t abide waiting in traffic.”

He hesitated. He was being asked to ride alone with the Duke and the young Marchioness. He looked around to see another Land Rover waiting for them. It contained two people, the equerry and a sombre looking man wearing dark glasses – the uniform of a bodyguard or possibly the Duke’s valet.

“I’m sorry,” he said as he put on his seatbelt, “only I’m confused. You said Marchioness, I thought…?”

The girl turned and fixed him with her eyes, her smile charmed him. She spoke as if she were sharing a confidence. “After the Charlesian manner. The Royal family changed the rule of succession to give female heirs equal standing. Since my parents were killed in that dreadful accident, I am the next in line and as such I assume grandpapa’s senior subsidiary title, which happens to be Marquis. Personally I don’t place much stock in formal titles. I go by many names. In certain moods my friends call me Broadford, Coventry or Georgy, my family and close friends call me Puddin, but the public seem to get a kick out of calling me Lady Coventry, or Lady Georgy if they know me well. It’s all for them really. They like the pomp and ceremony. It provides stability and continuity.”

“Ah, of course, now I see – Georgy porgy puddin and pie; kissed the girls and made them cry.”

“That’s it, a terrible posh affectation – pet names I mean. Grandpapa is called Grazer by his friends, after he grazed his back and arse in a biking accident at school.”

The Duke gave a frown of amused disapproval and huffed. “As you can see Camus, my granddaughter is rather precocious. She often accompanies me on such occasions because she is being prepared to hold the reins, including all our financial interests. Don’t let her age fool you. It is not unusual in the greater history of our family for one her age to assume adult responsibilities. I hide nothing from her. One day all of this will be hers,” he said nodding toward the green pastures and rolling hills of his vast estate.

The Marchioness took it as a cue to explain why they had asked him to join them on that particular day. She spoke in fluent French. “You are here to observe Alain. We want you to understand who we are as a family. Every year we host a polo match, women in the morning, men in the afternoon. Some of the Royals will be there: the Princess of Wales, Prince George and Charli, I mean, Princess Charlotte – they both play you see, Charli is of course a good friend. You won’t be introduced. It’s not the reason you have been invited. At the same time we host a fair for the local people, their friends and a limited number of the general public and tourists. Walk around, talk to people, don’t mention your connection to us, soak up the atmosphere, sample some of the local wares, watch the matches if you like. Tell us what you observe. We’ll talk later. Here…” she rummaged around in the glove box and handed him a security pass. “It’ll give you access to all areas, but don’t abuse the privilege.”

And with that the conversation was over. The Marchioness put on a fitted stereo headset and the Duke instructed the car to tune into the BBC.

Again he felt way out of his depth. He was an investment banker, a futures analyst, not a British socialite. He was sure he had blown it, made some catastrophic mistake by not researching the Duke’s immediate family. His son had died, but how? He had never had any interest in gossip about the rich and famous, let alone the British aristocracy. He closed his eyes and tried to force a memory. All he could muster was something about a British Lord who had died in a light plane crash in the Swiss Alps a few years earlier, but that had also involved a famous model by the name of Dido, not a French Viscountess. Perhaps he had confused separate incidents?

 

As soon as they parked the car in the muster area he was curtly dismissed by the Duke with the words, “two Camus, sharp. I don’t want to get caught up in the last minute bloody chaos.”

As he walked away he heard a female voice shout out, “Puddin…”

He turned to see Princess Charlotte waving her over to join a group of players. Her face was so well known he recognised her immediately. He expected to see the paparazzi hustling to get an image, but they had been kept well away. Proving that he was well and truly in the rarefied atmosphere of the aristocratic inner circle.

The fair was larger than he expected, a showcase for local farm produce and rural arts and crafts. There were the expected competitions and stalls: prize vegetables, baked goods of all descriptions (jams, cakes, tarts, pies, bread and biscuits galore), beer and cider, all locally made and all proudly organic; as well as the traditional crafts of quilting, weaving, crocheting, knitting, pottery, glass blowing, woodwork, blacksmithing, even an amateur art show. There were folk musicians, jugglers, acrobats, traditional dances, competitions and games for the children, a jumping castle, a Punch and Judy show (without the violence). He could have been at any county fair from the past, except for the police security drone hovering overhead and the ubiquitous hand-held electronica of various types – although he thought the crowd were remarkably disciplined in not looking constantly at screens, most happily entertained by the sights, sounds and tastes of the fair, completely unlike their counterparts in the city.

But he was not there to be amused. He had been directed to discover something about the community and there was only one way to do that, ask. So he used his not inconsiderable social skills to strike up casual conversations with the vendors and some of the locals. He quickly gained the impression that the Duke was much admired by the community, his idiosyncrasies a matter of affection, not ridicule. It appeared he was a generous benefactor who had sponsored many community initiatives, including setting up a small fund to help local businesses. He learned that one beneficiary, a local microbrewery, had won first prize at a European competition. Another, a beekeeper, was exporting his honey to the gourmet market. A mill was producing high-grade stone-ground flour, a weaver’s co-op was struggling to meet demand for its vintage cloth and a blacksmith had hired three apprentices to meet demand for bespoke metalwork for architects and interior designers. It was obvious that these enterprises weren’t turning over large profits, but they could be considered successful small businesses. He also learnt that the Duke was subsidising the conversion of local villages to non-grid electricity using solar, wind and water and had even reverted some of his land to village commons so the locals could grow their own food.

He did some quick mental calculations as he ate a pork pie and downed a local cider. If he was correct the Duke was strategically buffering the local community against future global financial crises. Should the national grid suffer a brown out the villages would remain unaffected. Should the economy collapse and people lose their jobs, they could still grow good food. If new tech failed, then the local community had the pre-industrial skills to find alternative solutions. He also discovered that there was a growing share economy. Some of the local businesses used their own currency. There was nothing new in this. There were other such experiments, especially in Europe, but they seemed more localised. This experiment extended to the whole of the Duke’s ancestral lands.

He couldn’t help but let the summer heat and one too many ciders affect his mood. He had rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, unfastened another button and even brought a straw hat to keep the sun from burning his forehead. He was eating an ice cream and listening to a young violinist play regional folk tunes when he realised he had lost track of the time. There had been no clocks and no electronic devices to warn him. He panicked. A young boy told him it was ten past two. He ran. He was puffing and sweating as he raced up to the Duke.

“I’m awfully sorry sir,” he offered in apology. “I had no means to tell the time.”

The Duke narrowed his eyes and huffed. “You seem to have enjoyed yourself Camus. Well, you are not the only one who is bloody late.”

“Lady Georgina,” he said, stating the obvious.

The Duke ignored him and rudely pulled out his handset and began to scroll through screens. He thought it was odd, as if the Duke were purposely ignoring him. He was beginning to feel irritated with the Duke’s games. They were wasting his time. He looked around. It was then he noticed the float had gone. He supposed it made sense. No point in keeping the horse out in the summer sun after the match had finished.

“Sorry,” he heard from behind. He turned to see the Marchioness strolling casually toward them; her polo shirt and jodhpurs dirty from the game. “Got rather caught up, couldn’t extricate myself.”

The Duke grunted again and unlocked the car. After they had began to drive off the Marchioness turned to him.

“Did you see the game?” she asked.

“A few minutes. I’m afraid I don’t know the rules or understand the skills to really appreciate it.”

She nodded. “Well we won. Charli took a magnificent spill, grazed her arm. I think she’s rather proud of herself.”

He didn’t know how to react. He wasn’t sure she was really addressing him or the Duke because she had referred to the princess by her pet name.

“Anyway, to the matter at hand. What did you make of the fair?”

He was confused. Why was she asking him the question and not the Duke?

“Um, if I am not mistaken sir,” he said, trying to engage the Duke. “You’ve rather cleverly made a number of strategic decisions to create a modestly self-sustaining local economy, one that might survive some moderate shocks from national and international economic downturns.”

He watched as the Duke frowned. “Moderate you say?” the Duke grumbled, although it seemed to be a grumble of acknowledgment rather than disapproval.

The Marchioness was smiling. He must have finally said something right. “I think he should visit the cottages,” she announced.

They took a turn onto a rough dirt track and headed across country. After a short time they came to a narrow country road. He was disoriented. After another short drive of around ten minutes they stopped at a dirt track almost hidden amongst a grove of old oak trees. A sign said, ‘Private, No Trespassing’.

The Marchioness hopped out of the car. “C’mon Alain, this is us.”

“Do try and be on time Puddin,” said the Duke as she closed the door. The Land Rover drove off and she began to head down the track. He was dumbfounded and stood motionless. What the hell was going on?

She turned and considered him. “You’ll have to forgive grandpapa. He misses Sir Tony terribly. He can never be replaced.”

“Then what am I doing here?” he asked, utterly exasperated.

“You’ll see,” she said turning and ignoring his question. He had no option other than to follow. He had no idea where he was.

As they walked down the track he began to make out buildings and gardens set amongst the trees. They were constructed of local stone, mud brick and rough-cut wood, each one sporting solar arrays, all quaint and rustic. Some were decorated with Tibetan prayer flags; others contained statues and garden follies across all styles: neoclassical to modernist to abstract. A little further they turned a corner they entered a small village green. A drone was sitting on the grass. The Marchioness marched up to it and retrieved a small canvas bag.

“There’s no one here,” he said, still struggling to understand what he was seeing.

“That’s because they’re still at the fair silly. Do try and catch up,” she said with a cheeky smile. “Henry should be around here somewhere. He’s expecting us.”

He threw up his hands in a gesture of helplessness.

“Change of clothes,” she said holding up the bag. “I’m dying to get out these jodhpurs and bloody hot riding boots. Then I’ll explain everything.”

She headed off to one of the cottages. When she reached the door she headed right in without knocking. “Henry?” she shouted. He followed her in. The interior was cluttered with old furniture, books spilling everywhere; walls covered in artworks, and on nearly every spare flat surface, stone and bronze statues, mostly neoclassical nudes. The cottage obviously belonged to an artist, or so he assumed.

“There should be some lemonade or ginger beer in the fridge. Help yourself and be a dear and pour me one. I’ll be just a few minutes. Make yourself comfortable.”

He found the small kitchen, rummaged around for glasses – ignoring the unwashed dishes in the sink – and poured two glasses of cloudy, home made ginger beer.

“She’s an extraordinary young woman, takes after Dido.”

He nearly jumped with fright. “Jesus, you must be Henry?”

The man was in his sixties and he was wearing just an old pair of dirty work shorts, his tall wiry frame tanned, his upper arms tattooed with Celtic bands and his long hair and full beard grey and unkempt, a large gold earring just visible through the tangle. “I’d offer you a hand but I’ve been digging in the garden.” The man held up his hands to show the dirt. They were rough and strong – worker’s hands.

“I thought her mother was a French Viscountess?”

“Yes, the one and the same. Dido was her professional name. She rarely used her title. She was an extraordinary beauty, but she was also exceptionally gifted: a classically trained cellist, fluent in six languages, a superb sportswoman, an extremely well read and engaging conversationalist. She could have been anything she wanted.”

“It sounds like you knew her well?”

“She was a dear friend. She modelled for me when she could.”

“Was this before…?”

“She met Georgy’s father? Yes, which means I’ve known Georgy all her life.”

He took a sip of his ginger ale. It had quite a kick. “Delicious,” he said, “made here?”

Henry nodded as he reached for a kettle.

“Might I assume that this is some form of artist’s colony?”

“Of a kind… old Percy set aside this little nook in the estate as a kind of retreat some twenty years ago. He dabbles himself when he can, watercolours: landscapes, wildlife… I’ve been here twelve. Rent’s free, solar electricity, rainwater… We grow most of our own food. It can be difficult generating enough income when you first start out.”

“I see, of course. The Duke seems to have quite the generous side.”

Henry laughed as he turned on the tap. Over the sound of the water he explained that the Duke took a commission from any work produced on the site in lieu of rent. “He’s no fool. We are tenant artists. Around seventy per cent of the projects never make much money, but the rest more than adequately compensate. We’ve had a very successful novel written here. It’s in its third edition and the author has just signed a lucrative contract to make a TV series. Percy gets a cut of it all, not a huge cut mind, but enough to keep this place going for others. He’s renovated an old warehouse he owns in a nearby town and expanded the concept to create a hub for start-ups: apps, games, digital animation, that sort of thing.”

“And you?”

“I do commissions for the family, a bust here and there, they also get to chose one of my limited edition bronzes. It makes sense when you appreciate that the family commissioned or bought many of their paintings and statues directly from the artist, some of which are now worth millions, some, like the Canovas, the Gainsborough and the Reynolds, priceless…” He stopped talking and broke into a huge smile. “Ah, there she is.”

The Marchioness hurried into the room and immediately went up to Henry to give him a warm hug, pressing her body fully into his arms, as if he were a much loved uncle or brother.

“I see you two have met,” she said as she broke away and reached for her glass of ginger beer. She was thirsty and gulped it down. She had showered and changed into a short, vintage linen slip with lace bodice and untied drawstring décolletage, she clearly used as a light, summer frock. The material was thin and translucent, the type that usually required some form of undergarment to protect the wearer’s modesty. Only in this case, judging by the way the silhouette of her slender form was revealed when she walked through a slither of direct sunlight, she had not bothered. He wasn’t shocked; instead he thought she was being pretentious, as if she were trying to prove she was Bohemian.

“So, come on then Alain. Time to meet Aeginaea,” she said gesturing for him to follow her.

He looked at Henry for some sort of clue but he simply shrugged his shoulders and gave an amused smile, the type adults give when they indulge precocious children.

He followed her through a backyard garden. A rake and hoe had been left lying on a partially overturned vegetable bed; the rest of the ramshackle garden was overflowing with flowers, summer vegetables, herbs and a wild blackberry thicket. She looked every bit the Victorian era child as she half tiptoed, half skipped barefoot toward a backyard studio. It was clear she was excited about something. He had to admit his annoyance had lifted and he was now intrigued.

The studio was lit by opaque skylights and filled with the usual clutter of an artist. Clay models of works in progress sat on a large worktable along with a variety of sculpting tools; an easel held a large sketchpad filled with anatomical details of hands and feet.

“And there she is, Aeginaea!” the Marchioness announced with a dramatic wave of her hand.

It was a life sized bronze statue of naked girl frozen at the moment of hurling a gold javelin, her athletic body fully extended with extreme effort. It was simply stunning, a statue reminiscent of the finest neoclassical bronzes. He thought immediately of Donatello’s David.

“She’s beautiful, but why show me this?”

“Have you heard of the Greek goddess Artemis?” the Marchioness asked.

“Yes, a little. The Romans called her Diana, goddess of the hunt. My wife has an academic interest in mythology…”

“Yes, Dr Sophie Moreau, cultural historian… You met at Harvard…”

He nodded that she was correct. “I at least know there are several aspects to the goddess.”

The Marchioness broke into a broad smile. “Good. Aeginaea is the Spartan version…”

“Yes, I remember my wife saying that Spartan girls were quite athletic, often competing naked with the boys in competitions.”

“The gymnopaedia,” the Marchioness added.

He went up to the statue and ran his hand over the surface, admiring the way Henry had rendered muscle and sinew, sensuous yet energetic.

“She’s inspired by a statue in the library in the main house, The Young Diana by an American, Anna Hyatt Huntington. It’s a particular favourite. It is me you know, in case you were wondering. I posed for it last summer. I haven’t embarrassed you have I?

He turned to see her recreating the pose, the outline of her body visible through her opaque dress. He understood she was teasing him to test his aesthetic sophistication, to see if he understood the difference between low and high art. Unlike the standard classical works of females the statue was anatomically correct in every detail, a nod towards 20th Century realism. “No, not at all. I’m just surprised I suppose, given your position,” he replied calmly.

“That was certainly a consideration, but I simply had to you see. In any case only a handful of people know it’s me and some of the facial features belong to a local girl – an effective enough diversion. Of course Henry has created a couple of more modest versions. One with a smooth pudenda, another wearing a chiton.”

“But why take me into your confidence?”

She sat on a box used to pose models and invited him to find a seat. “Well, I’d rather hoped you’d have worked it out for yourself by now. Truth is you won’t be working for the Duke. He wants to retire and focus on local issues. He is concerned that the ideal of a United Kingdom is beginning to fail. In which case he is obliged to look after the duchy. You’ll be working for me. We have trademarked the name Aeginaea and registered a number of businesses. The umbrella corporation will be called Aeginaea Holdings and she is to be our logo and mascot,” she said proudly. “You are to restructure our investments in line with the new direction.”

He closed his eyes and wiped his face in a gesture of exasperation. This was ridiculous. She was far too young. “You need to be sixteen before you can be a director, eighteen to sign contracts,” he said as he looked back up.

She shrugged her shoulders. “I am fully aware of the legal requirements.” She didn’t seem upset by the obvious point; rather she seemed to be looking at him with pity, as if he were slow-witted. “Do you know how clever I am? I don’t ask the question to brag, it is simply something you need to be aware of. My IQ is in the Promethean range, a fortunate accident of my genetic heritage; a sequence in my maternal line triggered a recessive in the paternal line. I have been assessed as meta-systematic under the revised Piagetian system, postconventional under Kohlberg’s stages of moral reasoning. I also have high emotional intelligence. All in all, my developmental age is adult. Well, to be perfectly frank, it surpasses most adults. It was eighteen when I was just ten. I’ve been home tutored and I completed my Baccalaureate over a year ago. I’ve just been accepted into the Sorbonne under an acceleration program where I’ll study art history, French literature, politics and philosophy, just for the bloody fun of it. It is my body that is immature, that is all.”

“Okay, so you are supremely gifted, but how can this possibly work?”

“Through proxies of course silly, until I reach legal majority, a tedious inconvenience, unfortunately one that must be endured in the short term.” She stood up and walked back to the statue. “Do you know why you were chosen Alain?”

He shook his head.

“When you were at Harvard Business you wrote a fascinating paper on the six technologies that would disrupt and transform the world economy: robotics, biomechanics…”

“AI, renewable energy, private space flight…”

“Genomics… That was a remarkably prescient paper, brilliant in fact. You made a point to cover the hazards as well as the opportunities. Oh, I know many people dismissed it, but that was because they didn’t understand it. You saw things they couldn’t; especially the extent of disruption to old industries.”

“And you understood it?” he asked, flattered, caught in a moment of utter cognitive dissonance.

She sat back down and folded her legs under her. She leant forward in a way that caused her slip to open at the neck and expose her immature breasts. He thought he should tell her, but that might embarrass her. He had two daughters of his own and understood they could be oblivious to such things, although in this case, he suspected it wasn’t entirely innocent. “Yes,” she said intently, bringing his attention back to her face. “I understood it easily. You have gained a reputation for astute strategic foresight and you have built an impressive career in futures analysis, a valuable asset in a time of rapid and chaotic change. As you now know, I will inherit all this,” she said making a broad sweeping gesture to indicate the estate. “But I will also inherit my mother’s estate: a Chateau and vineyard in Bordeaux, a villa in Cannes, interests in Luxembourg, an island in French Polynesia, a majority share in a five star resort in Martinique, over two billion euro in investments, substantial cash holdings in a Swiss bank account. With the combined assets I will become one of the wealthiest women in Europe. It is not an advantage I intend to take lightly. That fortune will need to be protected and expanded if it is to be put to constructive use.”

“Constructive use?” He was beginning to feel sick. How could such a young girl be possessed of such ambition?

“Can you guess why I chose Aeginaea, the spear thrower?” she asked him, although it was beginning to feel more like an interrogation.

“I suppose the spear represents the future in some way, or the sign of an aggressive corporate strategy. Her youth represents a new start…”

“That’s one way to think of it. But you see, as brilliant as your paper was it had several flaws. It is impossible to predict every new technology or discovery of course. No one can blame you for that. For instance, whilst you predicted the privatisation of space flight, you missed the discovery of exoplanets. Now that the James Webb is fully functional and the Guizhou radio telescope is scanning the sky, we are perhaps just a few years away from discovering an exoplanet with life, perhaps even sooner.”

His fear was beginning to turn to excitement. The Marchioness sensed the change in his mood and came closer, squatting in front of him and placing her hand on his knee to emphasise her point. Her eyes were shimmering with fierce, charismatic intelligence. It gave him a chill.

“You want Aeginaea to position itself to enter the space industry? But interstellar travel is impossible, the physics…” he started to say.

“It might very well be improbable, but I wouldn’t dare presume to say impossible. I am told it is theoretically conceivable to warp spacetime using an Alcubierre drive. Generation ships are another option; people are working on various drive mechanisms as we speak. But perhaps the strategically critical thing to understand is the impact finding life on other planets will have on humanity. It could stimulate a space race that will spawn numerous support industries and I want Aeginaea to ride the crest of the wave all the way to the shore.”

“But that might take fifty years, perhaps more. That’s a hell of a long-term strategy.”

She stood up, placed her hands on her hips and looked down at him, assuming a position of total command. “What else do you know about Aeginaea?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “Um, she is one of the three virgin goddesses, she is twin to Apollo – he was the sun, she the moon, she’s one of the twelve Olympian immortals…”

He froze, unable to continue. It couldn’t possibly be true.

“Most of the things you predicted are well under way. The age of robotics has arrived. AI is on our door step, privatised space travel is a reality, biomechanics is booming, gene editing can cure ever more diseases.”

She gave him a pointed look, as if he had missed an obvious point. He understood then that she could read every micro-expression and subtle gesture he made. She had been reading him like a book the entire time.

“You?” he asked, finally daring to contemplate the inconceivable.

“Yes, the next step Alain: enhancement, life extension.”

“But that’s still illegal. The ethical considerations… Clinical trials…”

“Not in Luxembourg. There’s a loophole, a deliberate oversight shall we say, designed to capitalise on a promising new technology. It’s frightfully expensive of course, but they’ve tweaked some of my neurophysiology, increased synapse density, improved serotonin uptake. It’s added ten points to my score. But they’ve also strengthened my immune system, made an adjustment to telomere decay, all of which has slowed the ageing process. My current life expectancy is estimated to be around one hundred and fifty, but as they understand more I can expect to live even longer, become even smarter, quicker, stronger. So you see, I am compelled to think long term.”

“How many?”

“Are in the program? The clinic is still small, a few dozen, and there is a waiting list. Rumours are that the Chinese have started a program too – others will soon follow. We’ve already made an offer to go into partnership with the clinic. You have two daughters I believe?”

It was a rhetorical question. She would have known his personal details; his remuneration package included their school fees. “Odile, seven; Yvette, four.”

“Quite gifted themselves I understand. If you accept the position, Aeginaea will ensure they have access to the program. It’s a purely selfish decision. This technology has vital strategic implications. We simply can’t allow rival interests to outnumber us in the genius stakes. The more of the right sort of people there are, the merrier.”

“The right sort?”

“Whilst it would seem a moral good to offer this to everyone, it will be wildly impractical. Some of the Silicon Valley nouveau riche have invested billions trying to eradicate communicable diseases and they have barely made a dent. What would be the point of life extension if the recipients died due to Ebola or some new superbug, or were killed in a ghastly war? Assuming of course, people want to take up the opportunity. There are religious and political objections. We can expect considerable resistance. In such circumstances disparity is inevitable. So one must be strategic in deciding who has access.”

“Starting with fellow aristocrats?”

The Marchioness laughed. “Hardly, most of them are bloody twits. I can’t blame you for fearing that this might be the case and frankly, if we don’t intervene, that is precisely what will happen. The rich and stupid will get to live their vapid lives for longer and that would indeed be a bloody waste. No Alain, the right people are those most likely to make a substantial difference to the quality of life for those left behind. Do you know how many brilliant minds the world has lost due to early death, to dementia? What kind of world might we have had if the very best minds had lived longer or been substantially improved?”

“Especially if Aeginaea has invested in those minds in some way?”

“Of course, to our mutual benefit. We can’t affect the future if we don’t have the financial or intellectual capital to do so.”

“Or the political capital?”

She seemed bored by the question. “Obviously, and again it is a question of the right people. When the right people are in control the world progresses, when the wrong people are in control, the world descends into chaos.”

“And who decides who the right people are?”

“Ah, indeed, who? The answer is a contradiction. The right sort of people decide who.”

Her last comment was more a statement than an invitation to continue the discussion, reminding him that her family were powerful and influential in ways he could not comprehend.

“I’m afraid our time is up. I have ducal duties to attend to. There is a community dinner tonight. The Duchess will hand out the prizes to today’s winners and announce the recipient of our annual scholarship.”

She moved toward the door and he followed. “Scholarship?”

“Yes, a full scholarship to the tertiary institution of the winner’s choice. We award it to the most deserving disadvantaged student from the county. In this case the son of a Libyan refugee, single mother, rape victim. He wishes to attend Oxford music. He’s a gifted singer and composer. He’ll perform for us tonight. I’m rather looking forward to it.”

He followed her outside, his eyes squinting in the sunlight. Henry was digging in the garden. He was not surprised to see that he was now completely naked (and well endowed). The Marchioness skipped up to him to give him a parting kiss on the cheek. He whispered something intimate to her and she smiled conspiratorially.

“Goodbye monsieur Camus, perhaps we will meet again?” Henry called out with a friendly wave.

He waved in return and followed the Marchioness back into the house. He thought he should say something but he was too overwhelmed to formulate a coherent sentence. She fetched her bag and walked back out to the drone.

“I’ll be walking back. There’s a private path through the woods. There’s a weir that has formed a rather charming swimming spot. It’s simply too nice a day not to don’t you agree? The Aston Martin is waiting for you back on the road.” And with that she pulled the slip over her head and stood before him completely naked. She scrunched up the slip and shoved it into the bag, which she then attached to the drone.

“Um, is this wise?” he asked, not because he was shocked, but out of paternalistic concern for her safety.

“No need to be apprehensive Alain,” she assured him. “The Duke swam there as a boy, his father before him. It’s something of a family tradition. The drone will follow me. It’s a modified military drone programmed for personal security. It’s armed. Like Artemis’s hounds, it will attack anyone who dares try anything, not that there has ever been anybody. Besides, my personal security is not your responsibility.”

“Right, um, understood, well, what next?”

She stood directly in front of him. Inviting him to look if he wished, not caring if he did, confident that he wouldn’t. It was a statement of her confidence and power. This was her domain. She could do as she pleased. She was well beyond ordinary, mortal concerns.

“A contract outlying the terms and conditions of your employment will be waiting for you when you get back. I think you will find that our offer is more than generous. We would like your answer in a fortnight. In the meantime you can expect to go through a period of cognitive shock: mood swings, disbelief, rationalisation, a period of mania, that sort of thing. I suggest you take the time to carefully digest everything you have seen and heard. You are of course bound by your confidentiality agreement, but I grant you a personal exemption in the case of your immediate family. You may tell them absolutely everything about me as I hope to meet them soon, especially Odile and Yvette. But in reality Alain, you have but one decision to make.”

She held his gaze and he dared not look away. “That is?” he asked.

“Am I the right kind of person? If you decide that I am then I will require your absolute loyalty.”

“Milady,” he said instinctively, giving a subtle bow of the head, knowing full well he had made his decision.

She gave a small smile in recognition, turned and walked away. The drone lifted into the sky to follow her. The sun was beginning to drop and it cast a golden, Arcadian glow. He was too stunned to look away and watched her until she disappeared into the woods.

His mind was racing with the implications of their meeting. He felt nauseous and disoriented because he understood that something momentous had just happened. He recalled that his wife had once suggested that all the gods and goddesses were merely intuitions of what humanity might one day become.

It was clear that day had arrived.