By this time, the next loaves are done baking. Margaret pulls them out, and leaves them to cool on a wire rack while she tends the fire. They look and smell perfect. Inglorion eyes them wistfully, leading Margaret to say, “Now, you know they need to cool before I slice them.”
He says, “It reminds me how little fresh-baked bread I get. You can tell the inn buys prepared loaves.”
“That’s a shame. Where are you staying?”
“Down by the quay. It’s respectable, but they don’t cater to gentry. My manservant is Drow, so no posting house would have us.”
“Really?” she exclaims. “They wouldn’t give you rooms? That’s terrible.”
“I was surprised. Honestly, it seems worse than when I lived here as a young man, and it wasn’t great then. Poor Ajax. The sun pains him, so he can’t travel at midday. If he steps out for a breath of fresh air at dusk, people react like they’ve seen a cockroach: ‘Quick! Over there! Get it!’ He doesn’t like Liamelia, and I can see why.”
“I’m amazed that they wouldn’t give you rooms. I should think you could complain to a magistrate — it seems very arbitrary.”
“Doesn’t it? I don’t think they have a formal policy. It’s like I brought a pet tiger with me. I keep trying to explain to innkeepers that my tiger is perfectly tame, I’ve had it for years, it’s not at all given to man-eating. And they just keep saying, ‘Look, you can’t bring a tiger in here! This is a respectable house!’ That’s gray elves in a nutshell. Whereas the Drow would just issue everyone a tiger cub at age five, and accept that the occasional unwary child will be eaten.”
She smiles, puts the rolls in the oven, and starts shaping the next set of loaves.
“How are you fixed for water?” he asks.
“We used what you drew for the washing-up, so I’ll need more presently. All the dough is mixed, though, so it can wait. I’ll have to get the table cleared and set for dinner. You’ll stay, of course. Tom would hate to miss you. He doted on you, though he’ll pretend otherwise.”
“I will, thank you. What became of Anne and Augustus and — what was your younger son’s name again?”
“Claudius. And one more daughter, Virginia. Let’s see. Anne married the brewer’s son, and they help run his father’s place. It’s not the best beer you can buy, but it’s very profitable, I’m told. Augustus lives here and helps me and Tom. He’s looking to buy a few acres nearby for a vineyard, but property rarely comes up for sale, and when it does, your brother Marcus snaps it up.”
“Does he? I wouldn’t have thought he was such a sharp man of business.”
“His agent does, which is much the same thing.”
“Does he know you’re interested in it?”
“Come, now, Inglorion — aside from the fact that he’s quality and we’re not, there’s been bad blood ever since Tom was fired all those years ago. I delivered Marcus, you know, because the highfalutin’ doctor was abroad, and no one could come over from Amakir on short notice. Since your birth, I’ve never been asked to see so much as an errant parlor maid. Tom never worked on the estate again, and he’s an excellent finish carpenter.”
“I’m not surprised that Tereus and Lavinia would hold a grudge, but Marcus is very just. If you like, I’ll write a letter of introduction for Augustus. I can’t promise Marcus will do what he asks, but I think he’d be mortified to hear that you’ve been ill-treated, and he’d likely speak to his man of business if there’s a particular piece of land he wanted.”
“Well, I’d take it kindly, even if there was no result. You can’t know if you don’t ask, certainly. Now, let’s see. As far as the others, Claudius spent time in the Navy, and now he works for a shipbuilder. He’s looking to go sailing again, perhaps with a merchant. I don’t think he cares much for life ashore. Virginia works for a milliner — she says she can’t imagine being a farm wife — it’s just too hard. I don’t know how she stands being indoors all the time, hunched over, trimming hats. There’s a fair amount of fancy work to be done here in town, though — I believe they’ve provided hats for Lady Shelawn, though from what I hear, she’s not addicted to finery.”
Inglorion laughs. “You must mean Marcus’ wife Penelope — when I last saw her, it appeared that Lady Sieia was very much addicted to finery.”
Margaret exclaims, “Isn’t she a lovely creature? A diamond of the first water. Of course, her mother was an even greater beauty. I remember when they were married — a double wedding with his brother and her sister. Do you know, huge crowds gathered outside the church to see what they wore? It was all so lavish — even the horses and carriage. It’s not something I would do, stand for hours for a glimpse of a dress and uniform — but I remember it was quite the spectacle.”
“Lucius and Valeria must have been quite overshadowed,” says Inglorion. “If I were her, I would’ve held out for a separate ceremony.”
The back door opens, bringing in a blast of cold air and two men. Margaret hops up to hug the older of the two. “Tom, we have a visitor. This is Inglorion Fabius.”
Tom kisses his wife, then shakes Inglorion’s hand, looks him over, saying, “You must be the General’s son. What was your adult name again?”
“Inglorion. And this is your son Augustus?”
“Yes, my eldest.”
They’re both big guys, particularly for elves. They smell of the outdoors, and give an impression of vigor and animal health. Inglorion has to look up to both of them, though Augustus is roughly 20 years younger, and hasn’t yet taken an adult name. The three men go outdoors to draw water and split wood, and as they cooperate on routine chores, Inglorion is impressed with their cheerful practicality.
Dinner is boisterous, with Virginia and two farmhands joining them. Lucius Junius Brutus’ family was cold and formal by comparison. Inglorion’s reminded that he knows very little of domestic life, and what he’s seen has come from a footman’s intimate but partial perspective. At the time, he contributed about as much the drapes, or a serving dish. The warmth and ease of the Amastacia family is comforting, then, but Inglorion’s not sure how to participate. It’s like certain round games he witnessed as a child: the children would form teams in a field or the garden, and start some utterly strange, rule-bound activity. To this day, he doesn’t know how they learned the rules or determined who would play what roles. It was like watching clouds form and evolve. He can’t join in the banter over dinner any more than he can shape the weather, but he enjoys their patterned motions and cries, and he’s pleased to be permitted to watch.
As he leaves, Inglorion gets warm handshakes all around, and hugs from the ladies. They seem delighted that he’s grown up to something resembling adult size, and that he’s able to speak and eat like other elves. It satisfies him to leave a letter of introduction with Augustus; it’s a way of undoing some of the bitterness surrounding his birth.
As he walks home under a new moon, he enjoys the quiet, cold night. At every stage of his trip, he hasn’t found what he expected. The facts that he’s uncovered are largely trivial: for instance, he was born with a caul and delivered in breech position after days of hard labor. These are facts — potentially, the ingredients of myth — but it’s hard to know what they mean.
Margaret, Titus and Collatinus all loved him, though he was weak, troubled and troublesome. They loved him knowing that he couldn’t return their love or help them. Margaret felt a natural surge of compassion for his vulnerability. Titus was moved by his voice and musical ability — his pure, angelic, inhuman gift. Collatinus loved him — why? Probably because he represented a concrete problem that needed solving. Little Fabius felt fear and anger and grief, and needed protection. Collatinus is a plain and honorable man. When he was presented with a lone child, it’s not surprising that he would have protected it, and come to love it over time.
As Inglorion and Ajax travel back to the egress point — several days on foot, traveling at dusk and dawn — Inglorion thinks how simple it was. Margaret fed him, Titus taught him, and Collatinus defended him, and taught him to defend himself. What about Ajax, walking beside him, braving the sun, washing and combing his hair, nursing him through illness? Or Artemisia, who fed him delicacies, made love to him, gave him the Alexander ring?
“Ajax, what did you think of the world aboveground?” Inglorion asks finally. There’s a stiff wind, and Ajax is wearing his unhappy cat look.
“it was interesting, sir. I’m glad I came. I think it will seem more familiar and predictable over time.”
“You can’t tell me you enjoyed being shooed away and chased, and then spending 12 hours in the private parlor of an inn playing dice right hand against left. That doesn’t make sense.”
“I did, though. I learned a great deal here. There was a lot to think about. I would have been bored at home, and worried.”
“Yes, sir. Though I didn’t know how aggressive and unpleasant elves are up here.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“No, sir. But it’s what I felt, and I’m glad I came with you. Will you always bring me along?”
“Why, sir? It’s a lot of trouble.”
“Because if I left you at home, I’d be bored and worried.”
“That’s an excellent reason, sir,” says Ajax primly.
“Life is very strange,” Inglorion says. “But it’s beautiful, too.”