8. A Charming Young Whelp and Adventurer

Two weeks after they are reunited, Artemisia’s birthday arrives. Inglorion didn’t know when her birthday was. It hadn’t come up before, and it’s not the kind of thing it would occur to him to ask. Nonetheless, it seems to be a pleasant omen, and he’s pleased when she asks him to celebrate with her.

He writes in his journal:

June 30, 18—

No matter what happens, I’m grateful I approached Artemisia and sought her forgiveness. It is strange and beautiful to be reunited. Strange because everything about her is so familiar: Her gestures, expressions, smell and taste. I could not call these details to mind when we were parted, but they are all infinitely dear and comforting now. It is beautiful because we speak of things we never spoke of before: Our hopes and dreams and sorrows and fears. 

The time when we were apart was very bad for her. She admits frankly that she developed habits and associations that shame her, that she feels she must break. It was different for me. Though it was painful to lose her and everything else, I could not have achieved my ambition aboveground. I can’t regret those losses, particularly now that I have an opportunity to reclaim her love.

I’d hoped we would celebrate her birthday with a naked picnic on her feather bed — particularly since the summer rains began today and the scent of the garden is intoxicating. She’d made plans weeks ago to celebrate by having dinner with her friends, however, so she asked that I come along. The dinner itself was unpleasant. This no longer surprises me, though I do wonder how she endures the tedium. We made love late at night, after returning to her townhome.

I believe I should record my true impressions, not my wishes and hopes, even if the former are still vague and probably unjust.

I do not like her friends. Sir Jasper can stand in for all the rest. I do not believe he wishes to possess Artemisia, sexually or otherwise, but he tempts her to drink more than is good for her, and tempts her to lead an idle existence that is beneath a woman of her powers. That is unfortunate, but easy enough to record here. 

The second item is more difficult to describe. I desire her passionately, constantly, and she turns me away most of the time. When she does give in, I feel as if it’s a diversionary tactic, a way of drawing attention from herself.

This is nonsense, and doesn’t capture what I mean.

When we have sex, I do not believe we are making love. I do what I know how to do, the acts that I believe Artemisia expects and desires.

I cannot explain what more I want.

And yet it was strangely beautiful tonight — raw, erotic, unconstrained. I’ve never felt that either of us hold back in any way, and yet something happened — lying there, tipsy, ashamed of her drunkenness, Artemisia allowed — begged for — license she had never granted before. I took it, and took it gladly, feeling anger and shame at everything that occurred during that interminable evening of small humiliations and disappointments.

I can’t say if we stripped away some layer that had come between us before, or if it was some perverse erotic masquerade.

Today was Artemisia’s birthday. I’m grateful I sought her forgiveness. It was strange and beautiful, and I have no words for much of what occurred.

Inglorion has often imagined falling or being in love, and finds these fantasies pleasant. When he’s standing in line at the cheesemonger’s, and a toothless old man tries to pick a fight about tripe, Inglorion fantasizes about narrating this little scene to a sympathetic, intelligent woman. When his tailor proposes a colored fabric for his waistcoat, Inglorion experiences a moment of sincere longing. How nice it would be to have a lover to oversee his wardrobe!

More than anything, the summer rains fill Inglorion with romantic longing. The weeks after Artemisia’s birthday are punctuated with sudden, violent thunderstorms. Each time, Inglorion is overwhelmed by the smell of wet earth, and a physical surge of joy and optimism tinted with nostalgia. He longs to mark the mood and moment with an afternoon — or even just an hour — of passionate lovemaking. 

In real life, he’s unable to explain what was so funny and wistful about the old man and the cheesemonger. Artemisia assumes an expression of interest, but the story sounds trivial in his own ears. When he asks her if he should order a French blue waistcoat, she mocks his colorblindness, and seems to enjoy his discomfiture.

Because he’s a legitimate suitor, it’s now his duty to escort Artemisia to salons, balls and dinner parties; this replaces more congenial activities, like listening to rain fall on the roof. When it rains, they have to allow extra time for the carriage trip across town, and earnestly collaborate to protect her hats and dresses from ruin. Inglorion finds himself thinking that Sir Jasper is a vulgar fellow, not least because he employs a half-dozen footmen who ogle female guests from a distance when they should hustle into the street with open umbrellas to shield the ladies’ finery from rain and mud.  

None of these small disappointments captures the core of the problem: Artemisia’s birth and marriage were genteel, and she’s wealthy; Inglorion is illegitimate, and his expenses are paid grudgingly by the cash-poor Theates tribe. He’s in Amakir as a spy, so he’s necessarily vague about his origins and status. As a result, his place in Artemisia’s life is uncomfortable, even humiliating.  

Their old rhythm was to meet twice a week for dalliance: Witty conversation, good food, and raucous sex. Their new rhythm consists of Inglorion escorting her to social gatherings several days a week. He shows up early to watch her dress, and wants her so badly he can hardly stand it. He tries to get her to play hooky and make love to him, but she’s afraid of being late, and can rarely be diverted. His hope and interest gradually diminish throughout the evening. She mocks and belittles him, and he hardly recognizes the brittle, cynical, rich beauty on his arm. Her bosom is lovely, and she exposes great expanses of it, as fashion requires. Inglorion catches himself and other men scrutinizing her swelling cleavage incredulously. Surely her nipples must be right there — perhaps if she leans forward just a little more? By the time they get back, she’s tipsy and he’s jaded and short-tempered. Her bosom is still lovely, but Inglorion is so thoroughly dissatisfied with its owner that he can hardly bring himself to inch her bodice down until he sees the flush of her areolae. 

Inglorion begins to wonder if the poets and philosophers really are just talking about physical passion. If this is love, it’s a poor thing: Chronic desire that occasionally flares up in an acute form, when his desire for her is so strong that he’s blind and deaf to anything beyond her charms. On the rare occasions when he’s permitted to enjoy her, he experiences exquisite pleasure followed by fleeting gratitude and well-being, nothing more.

After eight weeks of this, Sir Jasper apparently decides that Inglorion will not disappear on his own. At that time, gray elves still followed the tradition which called for women to withdraw after dinner, leaving the men free to use the chamber pot, have a quick smoke, or give themselves over to masculine conviviality: Drinking, political discussion, bawdy anecdotes. On this particular evening, the few ladies withdraw, leaving a dozen creatures who might loosely be termed gentlemen. The conversation is loud, general, and uninteresting, so Inglorion withdraws to the hearth to smoke a cigarette and observe them from a comfortable distance. After a moment, Sir Jasper joins him. 

“So you’re a cigarette smoker. I took snuff in my day, and still enjoy the occasional cigar.”

“It’s a bit of a newfangled habit,” Inglorion concedes. “The fashion for snuff was a bit before my time. It seems old-fashioned in a pleasant way — all those varieties of tobacco and scent. I believe it took real knowledge to mix and store one’s own sort.”

“So it did. I learned to do it, but there were men who were real masters, whose ability put mine to shame.”

“Cigarettes are a great leveler. It’s unfortunate, in a way.”

They stand in silence for a moment, Inglorion smoking, Sir Jasper sipping port. Presently Sir Jasper says, “Artemisia says you spent time abroad. Are you from Amakir originally?”

“I was born and raised in Liamelia.”

He raises his brows. “That’s a small town. Do you still have family there?”

“A sister and brother.”

“I’m often there for business. I wonder if I’d recognize your family name?”

“You might. Do you handle your own shipping? I should think you would hire that out rather than taking care of it yourself.”

Sir Jasper ignores the question. “I suppose your business interests are primarily in Liamelia, then.” Inglorion regards him quietly. “Or did you make your fortune abroad? An ambitious younger son, perhaps.”

“Perhaps,” says Inglorion, finishing his cigarette. He rolls a new one. Sir Jasper brings the tinderbox down from the mantle and gives Inglorion a light.

Now they’re both turned towards the fire, and away from the assembled company. Sir Jasper takes the opportunity to say, “Artemisia’s a fine woman. Not just a beauty, but a woman of substance. She’s not one to fall for a pretty face.”

“Oh, no,” says Inglorion. “That’s not her style at all.”

“She’s hardly alone in the world. She has a wide range of acquaintance to protect her and look after her interests.”

“I count myself among their number, sir,” says Inglorion.

“Do you?” says Sir Jasper. He’s been speaking in a conversational tone. Now his voice drops, and the lines in his face deepen. “You have nothing to offer her.”

Inglorion’s voice is quiet, clear and firm, “Sir, I’m grateful for your hospitality, and for whatever kindness you’ve shown Lady de la Viña. I don’t choose to discuss our connection with you.”

There’s a brief silence while Sir Jasper considers how far to go. Finally he says, “I need not discuss Artemisia — an old, close friend — to say this: You’re a charming young whelp, but you’re an adventurer, and she won’t marry you. Artemisia is no fool, and her friends won’t allow it.”

Inglorion meets his gaze and says, “Since you’re curious, I’ll tell you something about my background, sir. I was a footman in the service of an old family in Liamelia. You’d recognize the name. As a result, I know what any well-trained footman would: You permit your servants to treat your female guests with excessive familiarity. Indeed, your behavior encourages them to do so. This exposes your vulgarity and poor breeding for the world to see.”

Sir Jasper’s face tightens with anger, but he remains silent. Inglorion smiles, cocks his head. “Come now, sir. You’re a bachelor. You’re free to make her an offer and see how she and her friends take it.” His smile broadens. “No? I didn’t think so.” Inglorion’s face hardens. “You’ve missed your mark. I make no secret of the fact that I’m an adventurer. The lady has known it for the past 70 years.” He throws his cigarette into the fire, adds, “I’m glad we had this little talk. Shall we join the ladies?”

Inglorion leaves Sir Jasper in a state of chagrin. However, he’s under no illusion that anything’s settled. If anything, he’s made an enemy, one who may actually take the trouble to look into the source of his supposed fortune. 

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