Soundtrack: Marilyn Manson, Get Your Gunn
Tereus’ brother and sister-in-law, Lucius and Valeria, have returned from a diplomatic posting, and a ball is being held in their honor. It’s the first time the family has entertained in three or four years, and from the servants’ perspective, it goes very badly indeed. The new majordomo is overwhelmed; he fights bitterly with the butler and housekeeper, and with all the longtime servants. Inglorion does his best to stick to his duties, ignore the flaring tempers and ego. Nonetheless, it is a long day and night, far from the carefree, lavish entertainments of the past.
Inglorion is relatively senior by this time, which means he directs two or three junior footmen, and gives occasional instructions to the housemaids. Tonight all the servants are demoralized and given to quarreling in bitter undertones. While dinner is being served, he takes refuge in the kitchen with another footman, Septimus, who is wolfing down a quick meal. Inglorion intends to eat, but he’s too angry, tired and keyed up.
“The master’s drunk already,” Septimus says casually as he bolts down a stew of meat and potatoes. “It’s — what? — half-past eight? Nine?”
“Oh, good. That’ll help,” says Inglorion.
“I hear the new housemaid threatened to walk out an hour ago. He said or did something, set her to screeching about how she’s a good girl, and doesn’t hold with city ways.”
“He’s a fucking animal,” Inglorion says coldly. He’s trying to force himself to drink a cup of tea with cream, so far without success.
“You sure you don’t want some of this?” asks Septimus. “It’s good.”
Inglorion shudders. “No. I can never eat when I’m working.”
“It amazes me that they sent her to make up his bedchamber. It’s no secret what he is. Some poor little half-elf from the countryside whose family has fallen on hard times. I mean…”
“Yeah, it’s a shame. The new majordomo is a pimp at heart.”
“You fuck her yet?”
“Who? The new housemaid? No. She literally got of the coach from Amakir two days ago. I’ve hardly laid eyes on her. She seems sweet.”
“You going to?”
“Now that Tereus has broken her in for me? Not fucking likely. Poor little soul. I just hope she gets back to Amakir in one piece.” Septimus eyes Inglorion skeptically. Inglorion laughs. “Of course, if she sticks around, decides that city ways aren’t so bad after all…” He winks. “Oh, fuck. Look at the time. We should get down there.” Septimus bolts the rest of his food, and Inglorion pours out the remains of his tea.
There’s the long, miserable bustle of arrivals, marked this time by simple cues missed, order of precedence muddled. The senior footman has a tendency to scramble names when he’s flustered, and he’s in rare form tonight, announcing an earl’s name and title when a famous naturalist enters, referring to a notoriously homely countess as “His Lordship.”
Once the pace of arrivals slows and the ball is underway, Inglorion slips away to the nursery to look for Sieia. He’s noticed that she feels particularly neglected in the bustle of a large party. He finds her sitting by the fire with her doll.
“Hi, honey. I see you have Melody.”
She nods. “Yes, though I’m too old for her now. I just thought it would be nice to have her tonight.”
“You’re only 11 — not so very old.”
“I wish I were old enough to go to the ball. I would like to see Mother’s dress. I heard it was beautiful — a very fine sea-green silk with bronze trim.”
Inglorion has seen Lavinia a few times already, but he didn’t notice her finery. Like the rest of the servants, he noted that she looks drawn and tired next to Tereus’ thunderous presence. Inglorion rarely looks at Tereus — instead, he senses him in the atmosphere of the house, like a thunderhead rimmed with lightning. Hoping to divert her, he says, “The musicians should be playing now. Do you want to see if we can hear them from the gallery? Just for a moment — I have to get back down soon.”
They dart up the stairs to the gallery, throw the windows open. Sure enough, the noise from street traffic has died down, and they can hear a waltz strike up. The expression of longing on Sieia’s face is almost absurd — this tiny, redheaded girl holding her doll, longing for finery, for the grand adventure of the ballroom.
Inglorion bows to her. “Miss Shelawn, do you waltz?”
She giggles. “Yes, sir, I do.”
“Then I hope you will do me the honor of waltzing with me now.” Neither of them has had the benefit of a dancing-master, but they’re both naturally graceful and romantic at heart. Inglorion has received occasional lessons from an obliging parlor maid. So soon they’re twirling lightly around the gallery. Inglorion starts throwing in little dips and flourishes, and Sieia follows his lead with ease. They laugh with sheer joy. As the dance draws to an end, Inglorion twirls her faster and faster, then lowers her into a final, dramatic dip. Sieia surrenders to it with perfect feminine grace, and they both almost ruin the moment by giggling madly.
Inglorion restores her to her feet, kisses her hand with elaborate ceremony. “A pleasure, as always, my dear.” He glances at the clock on the mantlepiece. “And now your brother is turning into a pumpkin, sweetie. I’ll have to rush to be in place for supper service.”
He barely makes it to his post before the guests start streaming by. Septimus makes a face at him, taps an imaginary watch on his wrist. Inglorion shrugs. His tardiness will not be the worst thing that happens that night.
The Duke of Wellington famously said that each ball and battle exists in hundreds of forms — one for every individual who attended. No one could capture the myriad tiny dramas enacted on a dance floor or a battlefield. A servant’s perspective is particularly fragmented. By necessity, logistics and stagecraft take precedence over romance in Inglorion’s experience. Tonight he’s aware that things are going badly. Dinners return to the kitchen untasted, and the crowd is drinking heavily. The spectacle develops an ugly, frenetic edge as people strive to avert their eyes from discord, and, later, to deaden their perceptions, to blot out everything entirely. Glassware shatters. The hems of dresses are torn. Debutants show up weeping in the withdrawing room, complaining of liberties taken.
In the center of it all, there’s Lavinia, cold and miserable in her sea-green dress, and Tereus, increasingly loud, erratic and abusive, swearing at the servants, angrily contradicting a diplomat from Amakir, and, late in the evening, berating a rigid, silent Lavinia because they’ve run out of champagne. Around them, an eye of appalled silence. Lucius is quietly gracious, issuing apologies on his brother’s behalf, giving needed cues to the servants. Valeria is awkward in her ill-fitting, provincial dress.
On the whole, it’s a thoroughly nightmarish evening, and those are just the parts Inglorion observes directly. He’s on the clock, working without pause, until almost 5:00 the following morning. When Septimus or others bring him delicious rumors or try to engage him in complaints, he cuts them off sharply, strives to return to the task at hand. He’s speechless with exhaustion when he finally slips into trance.