6. Like Wanting a Unicorn

Soundtrack: Adam Ant, 20th Century Boy (T-Rex Cover)

The world is slow to return, but eventually Inglorion finds himself lying on his back, playing with Artemisia’s hair. She’s curled up on his chest. Presently she gets a washcloth, sponges them both off. She snuggles up to him again, says, “So that’s what it’s like to fuck a marquis?”

“Well, this one, anyway. I can’t speak for the others.”

“Should I call you Your Lordship?”

“I only enforce it in the Underdark. You could refer to me as ‘Theates,’ if that gives you pleasure.”

“And you’ll be a Duke one day?”

“When my mother dies or abdicates or is deposed, if someone hasn’t gotten to me first. I’ll be up here quite awhile, you know, dividing my time between Liamelia and Amakir.”

“Are you hungry?”

“I’m not sure. Possibly.” He tilts her head back so that he can kiss her forehead and eyelids. She squirms up a bit so that he can reach her lips, and he gives her a long, tender kiss. “God, I missed you.”

“I missed you, too,” she says softly. She buries her face in his shoulder and says, “It hurt so much to lose you. It was terrible. I thought I would die of it.”

“Oh, darling. I’ve regretted that more than anything else. I was an ass and a fool.”

“You got what you wanted, though. You said you were born to rule, and now you will.”

“Yeah.” He thinks back on the young man he was — his confusion and uncertainty. “I was desperate, you know. I went to the Underdark thinking I’d be killed, and that it didn’t matter if I died. I literally didn’t know what else to do.” He looks down at her face, so beautiful and serious. She’s not light-hearted, a fact that he didn’t appreciate then. “What about you? Did you get what you wanted?”

She averts her face. “I had everything, you know. Wealth, status, friends.” She pauses for a long time, then finally says, “All I wanted was you. I knew I couldn’t have you — it was like wanting an unicorn. But for a long, long time after you left, I didn’t care what happened to me. I was going through the motions.” She speaks slowly, with difficulty. “I didn’t mean to wait, but of course I did. Eventually I realized that it really was over and you were gone. I went on with my life, or tried to.”

He’s silent, abashed. He knew her feelings ran deeper than his, but he didn’t know how deep.

“It was strange to get your letter. I’d dreamed of it for so long. I knew I shouldn’t answer — it took me so long to put my life back together.” She laughs. “It was a bitter, heartfelt struggle that lasted a whole five minutes.” She’s staring at the ceiling now, her head on his shoulder, her fingers twined with his. “We had such a short time, really. A few months. But I never felt anything like that, before or since — such pure joy and freedom. My life was so full of rules and constraints and duty. I’d been so careful and good, guarded my reputation and looked after my fortune. You were so carefree and high-spirited. You took what you wanted. You were bold and confident and entirely reckless. And you’re still the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen.”

He doesn’t answer because she’s thinking aloud, and he doesn’t want to interrupt the flow of her thoughts. He thinks of the empty desperation that drove him. How odd that she thought he was carefree. Her words bring home to him how little he shared with her, with anyone. And what do they know of each other now? He doesn’t know if she’s devout, if she wanted children or still wants them, if she has family living. 

She turns to him and asks, “Why did you come back?”

He takes some time to frame his answer. He’s innately honest, but he doesn’t want to hurt or shame her with his own, less romantic reasons. “It was different for me, you know. I was trying to make my fortune. But I never forgot you. I came to see how rare and unusual you were, that you were special to me.” He forces himself to say the next part. “I’ve never been in love, you know. At home, in the Underdark, I was wholly focused on ambition, fighting for status and survival. It’s incredibly cold and strange down there. I was alone, and I had time to think. 

“I’ve only been close to one person — my sister, Sieia. We loved each other entirely, were together every day. I think a lot about what it was like to have someone who was the center of my existence. I truly cared more for her than I did for myself. She’s married now, and our paths lie apart. I’ve missed that selfless love. It was the motive for my existence. It shaped everything I did.”

He strokes her hair for awhile, then adds, “Part of my Drow name is Androktasiai. It means ‘eager to die,’ absolute recklessness. That’s how I was when I came to the Underdark. If you think about it, that’s a terrible state. I have power now, and someday I’ll have a lot more. But power for its own sake is psychotic, empty.”

He looks down into her face, and says solemnly, “I don’t understand anything, my dear, but I know I want to fall in love. You’re special and rare and beautiful. I thought of you often, and wore the ring you gave me every day. So I came back here to try to understand, to find out what I’ve been missing, to make amends.”

They lie there quietly for awhile, watching the dappled sunlight play on the window shades. The windows are open, and the smell of roses and jasmine drifts in from the garden beneath. “How beautiful it is here,” he says softly. “I’ve missed this, too. The beauty you’ve created here. You taught me so much.”

“Did I?” she muses. “I don’t feel like I have anything to teach.”

“You do, though. I was always impressed with how you used the money you had — that you collected art and cultivated your taste.”

“You come from gentry. I should think you would have learned that lesson at home.”

He shakes his head. “I lived among gentry, but I never was one of them. I just waited on them. I’m not related to the Arahirs or Ceralacs, and anyway the Ceralacs are a fairly vulgar crew. My father had excellent taste — all of the Shelawns do. But I hated that fucker. The fact that he was literate and well-dressed and sang beautifully seemed to be beside the point.”

She regards him for a moment. Lying there nude, he looks like a statue of Eros: graceful, feral, younger than his current age. “I’ve always wanted to ask you what it’s like, being beautiful,” she says. “It’s a strange question, and perhaps one you can’t answer. But I’ve always wondered.”

He laughs. “Well, I won’t waste your time with false modesty: ‘How could I possibly know?’ It is odd. The main thing is that people tend to relate to me as if I’m a magical being, an angel or devil, not a regular, mortal elf. Of course, I’m very flawed. Not stupid or weak — that’s the first thing people look for — but blind and misguided and selfish and foolish. It seems like people either ignore everything else about me so that they can enjoy the feeling of having an angel around, or they’re disappointed and angry.”

“Angry that you’re not perfect?”

“Well, yes. It sounds stupid, and it is stupid. I should come with a disclaimer: ‘Always handsome, often clever, reliably thoughtless, misguided and foolish.'”

“No one would believe it.”

“They never do.”

“It must be a great temptation. I feel it as a woman: That men like me, want to be in my presence, help me, bask in my femininity.”

“And of course you are beautiful — that’s something we’re ignoring. Much of what I’m saying should be familiar from experience.”

She smiles, shakes her head. “I’m handsome, and I know how to use what I have. But it’s an order of magnitude difference. And beauty is something women strive for — it’s expected from us.”

“Whereas beauty has been thrust upon me. It’s the form my greatness has taken.” He flutters his lashes. “It is a tremendous temptation. Everyone wants to forgive you, conspires to keep the illusion intact. That’s what my father had, right up to the end. ‘For a Shelawn, men will lay down their lives, and women will pull up their skirts.’ And they did. It’s not just a physical quality. Even by the time I left, he was looking pretty rough, especially in the mornings. But it wasn’t just perfect features — he had an intensity, an air of conviction. I’ve tried hard not to rely on that, but I often do.”

He’s silent for a moment. “What is it?” she asks. “What are you thinking?”

“I’m not sure I should tell you.” He rolls onto his back, stares at the ceiling. “Perhaps it’s part of making amends, though, or at least explaining what happened.”

“I think you should tell me.”

“I will, then. The letter you sent — I could feel the yielding in you. I felt at the time that you would have taken me back. And I wanted you desperately, cruelly. I may be wrong — tell me if I am — but I felt that I could have lured you back that very day.”

She looks down, and her face darkens. She says softly, “Yes, of course. As badly as you hurt me, I hoped you would try. I wondered why you didn’t try, didn’t want me.”

“I wanted you terribly, for all the wrong reasons. I was wise enough to see that. But I genuinely didn’t know how to free myself from everything I didn’t want. I’d constructed a trap, and I was reluctant to leave it. So I fell back on my old resolve — not to take advantage of my beauty, to use it to make my apologies for me. I stayed in the trap for awhile, and when it fell apart, I went to the Underdark.”

“There’s something else I wanted to ask — that I’ve never known. I never questioned it until then, when you told me you were engaged.”

“What, honey?”

“Were you faithful to me? I mean, aside from getting engaged?”

“Oh, darling. I think you know the answer to that. It was part of my stupidity. I wasn’t. I didn’t care for the others. But there were always others.” And as he says it, he can feel her withdraw slightly, as if she’s received a slight shock. She truly didn’t know.

“Why?”

“Because I felt horrible if I didn’t fuck — physically and mentally disordered. The idea of not getting laid was intolerable. You were often gone, or not available, and I truly thought I couldn’t stand the sensation, the sickness that came over me. At the time, I think I even blamed you for not being perfectly available, a slave to my fucked-up constitution. Because that’s what it was. The moment I went to the Underdark, it stopped — that horrible, iron compulsion. I still feel shitty aboveground, you know. It’s a constant strain.”

“Do you think you will be now?” she seems genuinely curious, her brow untroubled. As naive as he is, Inglorion knows that she needs this.

“I do. I can’t rationalize it anymore, tell myself it’s harmless or it doesn’t concern you. I think it may be hard. But you know how much I want to be good and kind, and I would do anything for love.” He looks down at her solemn, earnest face, and kisses her fervently. “Oh, my darling. You don’t know how much I regret it. It almost killed me. I don’t want to be like that anymore. What it did to you, and to that poor girl — it was awful. I truly didn’t know.”

 

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