19. Rare, Like Violets

Soundtrack: Adam and the Ants, S.E.X.

The conversation with Lucius occurs on a Sunday, a half-day, so eventually Inglorion makes his was to Artemisia’s townhouse. They usually spend Sunday afternoons together, unless she’s traveling or he has a tournament. Today their lovemaking is leisurely. Before, Inglorion felt a kind of driving hunger, a need to master her repeatedly. Now he’s more inclined to linger and enjoy subtle pleasures.

All through the sweet, fair afternoon, they lie on her feather bed. She’s noticed his preference for low or filtered light, so she’s artfully shaded the open windows. A warm breeze scented with roses and jasmine blows in from the garden,  cooling them when they bother to work up a sweat. Artemisia has laid out sliced fruit and bread and cheese, and made some kind of exotic tea that Inglorion doesn’t recognize. She calls it by its Chinese name.

Inglorion helps himself to tea — it really is excellent — then sits back, regards Artemisia. She’s lying on her stomach, head pillowed on one arm. She sits up halfway to pick out a slice of pineapple — it’s grown in her hothouse. Her auburn curls trail across her shoulders, almost to her waist. He marvels, as he always does, at the way her slender waist flares out to her hips, and the curve of her bottom. Dressed she looks severe, older. Lying here naked, she’s lithe, strong, like a dryad. He’s reminded of one of Artemis’ hunting companions. 

“You’re beautiful,” he says. 

She smiles. “I’m well enough. Between us, you’re the true beauty.”

He laughs. “I think that’s the first time you’ve mentioned it.”

“You get plenty of reminders, I’m sure. That’s not your main appeal.”

“Really? What is?”

She laughs, shakes her head. “I shouldn’t tell you! But you’re no coxcomb, and Lucius has filled you up with a sense of your sins. All right, then.” She takes another piece of pineapple, eats it slowly, licks her fingers. “Setting aside the fact that you’re an amazing fuck, which is another thing you know too well —”

“What else could there be? I think that’s a comprehensive list.”

She ignores the interruption. “You’re very bright. But then, you know that, too. You’re an interesting companion — curious, witty, thoughtful. You like women and respect them. You’ve always treated me like a rational creature, not like property. You have a good heart, I think. You notice when people have less power, and you’re careful not to take advantage. Servants, slaves, women.” She breaks off, laughs again. “I don’t know. Your vices and virtues almost don’t matter. I just like you.” She looks at him, and her expression is soft, tentative.

He’s touched, feels uncertain. He’s never considered that she might care for him. “Do you ever consider marriage? Finding a second Mr. Artemisia?”

“Now’s the time when I’m supposed to say that I’ve had many flattering offers.”

“Have you?”

“I’ve had offers. Perhaps I’m not easily flattered.” She considers for a moment. “There are real advantages to marriage. But I have so much already, and there’s so much I would have to give up.”

“Like what?”

“Well, unless I had very clever lawyers and chose a complacent husband, I would have to give up all my property. My husband would have the management of it, and would own it absolutely. I wouldn’t like that, you know. But there’s more — a certain kind of freedom.”

“To do this?”

“I would hope to do this within the bounds of wedlock. No, to be able to come and go as I please, not account for my time. To spend money how I wish, on paintings and fine tea. But beyond that, mental freedom. Now I can think my own thoughts, read about what interests me, spend half a day looking at a painting, or sitting in the garden looking at nothing. I can think about monetary policy, or why the Imperial Romans made such finely detailed portraits. There’s nothing worse than having someone ask what you’re thinking, and be disappointed with the answer.”

He laughs. “I think I know what you mean. It’s terrible to have to defend one’s tastes and preferences.”

“Or to be corrected! To be told that I should prefer wool to silk, or that I haven’t made enough of a study of, I don’t know, chamber music. Fuck chamber music, you know?”

“Exactly. Fuck chamber music.” They lie quietly for awhile, watching the play of shadows on the wall and across the silk coverlet. Or, at least, Inglorion is. Artemisia may be thinking about monetary policy, or Imperial Rome.

She says abruptly, “My husband was a good man. He left me all of this, with no conditions. He was honorable, and treated me well. But there was always that impulse to guide and correct and control me, to cultivate me in a certain direction, to make me into a lesser, feminine version of himself. I hated that, and resented it far out of proportion — it’s such a small price to pay for comfort and security and companionship and ease. I’ve always known my own powers, though, and had very decided tastes. I hid my resentment well, I think. When he died, I had the resources to grow into myself fully. I took charge of the business and property instead of leaving it in the hands of an agent. I educated myself, and cultivated my taste. I started collecting artwork, and assembling a library.”

“But only after he died.”

“Yes. That’s always saddened me, that I couldn’t become myself while he was alive. He had a masterful nature, felt that everything around him required guidance and management, including his wife. Much of my happiness depended on his death. It doesn’t haunt me. I don’t feel guilty. But I’m aware of it — that ugliness.” She looks over at Inglorion, and her voice and expression have a certain urgency. “I think you must understand. I don’t speak of it, because it’s such a vulgar cliche, the merry widow. I don’t want to remarry, and wait for a second husband’s death.”

He takes her hand, twines his fingers with hers briefly. “I think I do. And certainly I don’t think of you in that light. I don’t see how anyone could. Can I ask you — I’ve always wondered — what it was like to marry money? I think it must have been odd.”

“Mine was not the usual case, of an old man with a persistent cough. We were of an age. I didn’t expect to be widowed. It was an arranged marriage rather than a love match, but that’s not unusual. My parents wanted me to have status and a settled future. He had no vices, and was kind. He expected fidelity, obedience, respect. My birth and connections were superior, and I know he respected my mind and character. ”

“You were faithful to him?”

“Yes, of course.  The terms of our marriage were so moderate. It would have been loathsome, dishonorable, not to give him that.”

“So there will be no second Mr. Artemisia?”

She lets the question hang for awhile, then says, “I don’t rule it out. I never have. But it would take a lot to tempt me.”

“What’s a lot? Vulcan’s promise to Venus?”

“‘I work late nights’? No, I don’t require that. Just love. I would consider it if I were very much in love, and if the gentleman loved me. And if I thought we agreed about how to live, and if he could love me as I am, rather than trying to make me into something I’m not.”

Inglorion takes her hand again, kisses her palm. “Your terms are moderate.” He smiles up at her. “I can’t imagine wanting you to be different. You’re rare, like violets.”

“Do you think of it?”

“Of marriage? Eventually I’ll have to. I feel ill-equipped to be a husband and father.”

“Why?”

“Oh, being a bastard, I suppose. Something about being raised a servant in my father’s household, never knowing my mother. I find it hard to situate myself, to think what it would mean to have a family.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Surely you know I’m a bastard? No? I suppose it’s never come up. One of those tiresome facts that makes all the difference, that can never be fully understood or explained.”

“Do you value marriage less, then? Think it’s a sham?”

“No, not that. If anything, I value legitimacy more. My father was the head of one of the leading families in Liamelia. His legitimate children were entitled to wealth and the best possible education. The Shelawn library alone…” he sighs. “There’s a particular lexicon that I wish I had the use of. But none of it is mine, because my father raped my mother. She bore me unwillingly, and abandoned me as soon as she could flee. My father was a war criminal, and my mother was Drow — the enemy of my people. That’s not a roll of the dice, a so-called accident of birth. He chose to do those things.”

“I didn’t know,” she says quietly. “That’s a lot of history to bear.”

“It’s not even that — I wish I could explain. I know what it means to have an education and status and wealth. Those things are not empty. I fucking want them. I’m every bit as bright and driven and willful as he was. I don’t want to marry some brewer’s daughter and raise six kids and scrimp to send the boys to trade school. Fuck that. I’m a Shelawn. I was born to rule.” As he says it, his eyes are brilliant and fierce. He’s sitting up, leaning towards her, fixing her with his gaze. He catches himself, laughs, collapses onto his back, stares at the ceiling again. “I’ve never said that before. I didn’t know I thought it.”

She props herself up, regards him as he lies there. She says slowly, “I think that’s what drew me to you.”

He looks over. “What?”

“Your passion. Your will. That fire. There’s a strong temptation to be a part of that — to just be near you and see it happen.”

“Really?” She nods. “Thank you. That’s so much better than being beautiful. Or a good fuck.”

“If I were married, I couldn’t do this. Not just the fucking — but lying here naked and hearing you say that.”

“True. Mr. Artemisia would have every right to object.”

“It’s not something you could write into a marriage settlement.”

“No. You should only marry for love, Artemisia — for true, all-consuming passion.” He rolls over, mounts her, pins her arms by her sides, looks into her eyes. She spreads her legs further, adjusts her hips so that his cock is hard against her. He reaches down, guides himself in. They both sigh as his cock slides home. “You really are rare and beautiful,” he says.

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