23. The Habit of Taking Beautiful Things

Soundtrack: Adam and the Ants, Digital Tenderness

Once he’s accepted the family’s congratulations, Inglorion tries to settle in and reform his life. For six days, he sticks to a regimen of studying, training, domesticity, and chastity. On the seventh day, a Sunday, he receives a note from Artemisia saying that she’s returned from her travels, and would welcome a visit, if he’s at leisure. Of course he presents himself at the stated hour. 

The butler admits him, and leads him to her study. She’s sitting by the fire, reading. Absurdly, she’s wearing a pair of shaded spectacles of the sort that accountants wear. She looks up, breaks into a smile, sets her book and glasses aside. Her hair is arranged in a charming fashion, with curls loose at her temples, and one trailing artfully across her bosom. She does not look young, precisely, but she does look eager and happy. “There you are,” she says, and adds in her frank manner, “I’ve missed you terribly.”

He sweeps her into an embrace, and is almost overcome with the scent of her perfume, her narrow waist and high bosom. His hands slide down to cup her bottom, and he pulls her against him. Her arms are draped around his neck. They gaze into each other’s eyes — she’s precisely his height — and he kisses her hungrily.

When they come up for air, he gasps, “I’ve missed you desperately — more than you know.”

“Inglorion, that’s your cock talking, you know it is.”

“I don’t think so. If my cock could talk, it would say something vile, and the wretched thing would never shut up. Can you imagine? It’s enough of an embarrassment to me already.”

She laughs, diverted. “All the more reason to keep it safely buried inside me.”

He kisses her again, then pushes her down on a handy chaise lounge and slides his hand under her petticoats, up her thighs, past the tops of her stockings. He pulls aside her pantalettes. She’s slick with anticipation. He works two fingers into her while unbuttoning his breeches with his left hand.

“I just want a taste of you before I get you upstairs,” he says. They clear aside her skirts and petticoats — she’s wearing a simple morning dress — and he plunges into her. He’s almost overcome by the way she spreads her legs, adjusts her hips, opens up for him. There’s always been such easy harmony between them. 

“I know I should see to you first,” he says breathlessly, “but —”

She chuckles. “Please yourself. We have all afternoon.”

And so he does. It’s an incredibly luxury to lose himself in her familiar scent and feel, and take her just as he pleases. “God, I’ve missed you,” he says. “Every day, every hour, every moment.” He punctuates his words with thrusts. “You don’t know…”

“Oh, I think I do,” she says. He doesn’t hear her. He’s already too far gone. 

Afterwards he smiles brilliantly, kisses her, withdraws. He rearranges her pantalettes and petticoats, and smooths her skirt down over all. He stands, takes her hand. “Shall we?”

“Oh, yes. Are you hungry? Shall I have them send up lunch for us?”

“I’m not yet, but I will be. Have them bring it up.”

They run upstairs, laughing like children. Once the servants have laid out a series of delicacies and left, they strip their clothes off and recline, intertwined, on Artemisia’s feather bed.

“I brought you something,” she says. She rolls over, looking mischievous, opens a drawer in the bedside table, fishes out a black velvet pouch. “I don’t know if you’ll like it — I’ve never seen you wear jewelry — but it reminded me strongly of you, and I wanted you to have it.”

He opens the pouch and fishes out the ring inside.  It’s a mosaic made of onyx set with infinitely tiny chips of shell, marble and agate. The image is of a bareheaded young man on horseback, wielding a spear. He marvels, “It’s beautiful. The workmanship is so fine.” He adds, cocking his head, “The image looks familiar.”

“It’s a copy of a larger Roman mural, from Pompeii.”

“Of course, Alexander the Great! I saw a print of it once.”  He looks up. “Artemisia, this must be valuable. The detail is so fine, so precise.”

“It is old, I believe. I don’t know for sure. I found it at a flea market in Rome. Such things are common there.” She laughs self-consciously. “As I say, it reminded me of you. I know you admire Alexander. I collect so many things for myself — I wanted you to have it.”

“I feel like I shouldn’t accept it,” he murmurs. “But it’s so beautiful.”

“Take it,” she says. “I believe you’re in the habit of taking beautiful things when you shouldn’t.”

His face darkens. “True. I will, then.” It fits his right ring finger perfectly. “How funny. I was raised around valuable objects. But I’ve never owned anything like this.”

“You didn’t find gold and gems when you were adventuring?”

“Oh, of course. But we sold everything we found, and only kept what could be easily carried. Adventurers are hunter-gatherers, so there’s a cold pragmatism to it. Even very beautiful objects mean less when they come to you in that way.”

“You don’t have anything from your family?”

He shakes he head, smiles. “You know what I had? When we ran away, Sieia stole a cloak that belonged to our father. It was valuable, as clothing goes, and certainly beautiful — quilted brocade, satin-lined. Very dashing. A bit long for me, since he was more than a head taller. I wore it all those years, then returned it to our brother Marcus after our father’s death.”

“What do you know of your father?”

Inglorion hesitates. “I don’t think I told you that I was a servant on his property. So I knew him as servants know their masters. He was loathed and feared, mostly. The older servants idolized him, which made me realize that he must have been quite different before. I heard that he was wild as a youth — one of the Mohocks, a peep-o’-day boy. We were at war for much of his army career, and he rose quickly to general, and then field marshal. He was forced to retire, and I imagine that’s where the trouble began.”

“What happened?”

Again, a long pause. “I don’t know the details. It concerned my mother. He didn’t just rape her, you know. She was a prisoner of war, and he — it was very bad I think, something that couldn’t be ignored. I was born, and she escaped soon after, leaving me in an orphanage in Liamelia. I’ve always looked like a little Drow version of him, so there was a scandal, and he was court-martialed, forced to retire. The Shelawns took me from the orphanage when I was five, and I was raised on his estate. I’ve never known why he didn’t just leave me there to be apprenticed to a chimney sweep. It certainly wasn’t kindness.”

“What a sad story.”

“I suppose. I’ve had a hard time feeling much sympathy for him. He was a brute, the kind of man who terrorizes women and servants and slaves.” They’re both quiet for a moment, then Inglorion says, “I’m sorry. It’s been on my mind lately. It’s ugly.”

“You should eat,” Artemisia says. “Let me fix you a plate.”

“Not yet. Presently.” He takes her hand, kisses the back, then the palm, and slowly, almost reverently, works his way up: wrist, forearm, inner elbow, shoulder, collarbones. “Lie back,” he says, “Let me kiss you all over.” And he does, first her front side — breasts, belly, between her legs — then up and down the curve of her back. He removes the ribbon from his hair, shakes it down around his face and shoulders. It forms a shimmering curtain, incredibly soft and straight. He trails it across her cheek, the back of her neck, her shoulders, the small of her back, across her buttocks and legs, then resumes kissing her: calves, thighs, her perfect ass. He spreads her cheeks, tongues her delicately. She gasps. “I have missed you,” he whispers. His manner is tender, almost subdued, as he slips his fingers into her above and below, preparing her.

“Now,” she says. “Please.”

He takes her pussy first, reaching around to touch her delicately, teasing her until he feels har clamp down hard. There’s a extra rush of moisture. She moans, and he buries himself deep inside her as she comes. He pulls out, repositions his cock, which is already slick with her juices. 

“Oh, yes — finish the job,” she says. As he begins to push in, she whimpers, buries her face in the pillow.

He strokes her hair. “Are you OK, honey?” She nods vigorously. He feels her open up, and he starts to fuck her, slowly at first, allowing her time to accustom herself. She starts to push back against him, to buck her hips, and he takes this as a signal to pick up the pace. As before, he realizes that he wants to lose himself in her entirely. He takes her at a canter, not rushing, but not bothering to draw out his pleasure, either. When he does come, he pins her down, whispers fiercely, “You’re perfect — perfect.”

He collapses between her thighs, spent, then rolls off her, onto his back. She curls up by his side, looks up at him. His face is troubled, sad.

“What is it?” she asks. 

“Something happened while you were gone. I hardly know how to tell you.”

He breaks off, falls silent. She finally asks, “What is it, darling?”

“You know how you said that Lucius Junius Brutus was strict? That I would be punished?”

She nods.

“Four weeks ago he told me that his daughter had fallen in love with me. That she regarded me as a suitor, and that I couldn’t stay there unless I made my intentions clear. I told him at the time that I don’t intend to marry, that I can’t —” He breaks off, silenced by the expression of shock and rage on her face.

“You became engaged to her, didn’t you?” Her tone is cold, harsh. He nods. “I heard a rumor from my dresser, but I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t.” She withdraws from him, turns away. 

“I’ve missed you so much, wished for your advice,” he says sadly.

“I can’t advise you on whom you should marry. Surely you understand that.” They’re silent for a moment, then she bursts out, “How could you? All this time! You never even mentioned that he had a daughter! Some poor, innocent thing. You know best what will suit you. What was it you said? Scrimping to send the boys to trade school? I wish you joy of it, Inglorion.”

Again, silence. He feels that he can’t explain, has no way to defend himself. Finally he says, “I knew it was wrong at the time. I gave them every reason.”

“Did you make a clean breast of it? Tell them about this?”

“No. I told them that my mode of life had been such that I would make a poor husband.”

Artemisia gives a crack of bitter laughter. “Oh, God, really? With your prim habits and fucking choirboy good looks?” He’s silent. “If you really want to end it, just say that you’ve been buggering a loose widow since the day you got here. That should do the trick.” She buries her face in her hands.

“I don’t love her,” he says.

“That actually makes it worse,” she replies waspishly, then bursts into tears. “What did you think I would say? It’s fine as long as you don’t love either one of us? Marry whom you will? Fuck you, Inglorion.” She lies down, curls up on her side. “I knew you would hurt me. Why didn’t I just throw you out like you deserve?”

“Probably my dick and fucking choirboy good looks.”

“Fuck you. Get the hell out. I’ll write you.”

He dresses and prepares to leave. She’s sobbing, face-down on the bed. He removes the ring, places it silently on the sideboard, next to their untasted lunch. “I’m sorry, Artemisia,” he says quietly.

“Get the fuck out. I’ll write you. Leave me alone until then.”

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