10. A Familiar Routine of Flirtation and Seduction

For just over a year, Inglorion sets a personal record for sexual fidelity. He does not fuck women other than Artemisia, or even flirt with them. Over time, however, events conspire to draw him back into his old ways.

He has legitimate reasons for dissatisfaction, if not for infidelity. Perhaps because their relationship has been formalized, Artemisia is sharply critical of Inglorion. She complains of the limits imposed by his bastardy, mocks his bad handwriting and color-blindness, and accuses him of flirting, which he scrupulously avoids in her presence. Admittedly, he’s a difficult cavalier: He can be fatally charming, but among her friends he’s distractible, easily bored, a bit shy. He dresses well, but finds it dull to talk about clothing, furnishings, and the latest expensive knick-knack someone acquired in Rome or Paris. He holds strong opinions about music and books, but refuses to discuss either. When she asks why, he says her friends are ignorant and vulgar, and it’s not his job to teach them music theory and classical literature. His silence reinforces the impression that he’s pretty, virile, and vacuous.

Even someone as innocent as Inglorion must notice that Artemisia drinks more than she should, often when she doesn’t intend to. She’s circumspect at first — makes excuses that she got tipsy for this reason, or is celebrating that event — but he quickly realizes that her friends expect her to drink, and are surprised when she doesn’t. He suspects that she doesn’t like them any more than he does, but that they accept and encourage her indulgence. The men, in particular, keep her wineglass full, and to press her to drink even if she’s tired, giddy or sick. 

She’s never less than tipsy at the end of an evening. For the first year or so, she occasionally becomes drunk, and is prettily embarrassed and apologetic afterwards. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, this shifts. Artemisia often frets about her weight, and if her dresses become too tight, she simply stops eating and continues to drink as much as ever. These bouts — he can only call them that — genuinely distress Inglorion, and leave her thinner, but sick and worn. She’s drunk more and more frequently, and feels less need to excuse her behavior.

If he begins to drift away, she assures him of her love and devotion. She was devastated when he left, she says. It broke her, destroyed her. She can’t bear to be without him now. It would kill her if he left again. He worries that she’ll hurt herself or damage her health, and so is trapped by a mixture of remorse, affection, solicitude and fear. Worst of all, her body and sexuality still have a narcotic effect on him. He continues to escort her everywhere, tolerating squalid scenes, feeling helpless, sad, and increasingly angry.

None of this explains why Inglorion cheats; he simply feels he must. He has nothing that he wants, and a surfeit of what he can barely tolerate. He has enough money, his ambition is gratified, and he’s free to indulge his interests in music and literature, but the backstabbing of the Theates clan and gray elvish gentry wear on him. His true goals — bringing peace and ending slavery — seem impossibly distant. He has some pleasures, but lacks joy and transcendence. On the rare occasions when he feels connected to the gods, or to his own soul, he’s pained by the gap between longing and reality. It shocks him to look back on his youth and remember the purity of his rage, fear and grief.

Later, when Inglorion tries to recall how he allowed himself to slip, he does not think of a particular woman he met, or even of sexual need. He thinks of a brief instance of pure beauty.

Sir Jasper invites four singers who are touring to perform privately for his guests. Since Sir Jasper is tone-deaf, Inglorion can only assume he does it to lend his considerable wealth an air of permanence and respectability.

That evening Inglorion and Artemisia form a handsome couple. Artemisia is magnificent in cherry-red silk, her bosom exposed to the degree permitted by law, and only lightly obscured by a ruby necklace. She wears matching bracelets and rings, and a brooch poised intriguingly on the verge of mechanical failure under the strain of her swelling cleavage. Her fashionably wide skirts obscure the lush proportions of her ass, but every man present tries to deduce them, just as they peer at her bosom, hoping for a glimpse of nipple.

Inglorion feels caged at Artemisia’s side, but he’s still arrestingly lovely. His clothing is correct and exquisitely cut, a black backdrop for his snow-white hair, brilliant eyes, and skin as bright and clear as porcelain. Incessant weapons training has left him thin and whip-hard, however, and hands betray him. They’re strong and calloused, and the knuckles are darkened with layers of half-healed bruises.

The Honorable Artemisia Anna de la Viña and Inglorion Fabius are announced, and make their way through the receiving line to Sir Jasper and the colorless older sister who acts as his hostess on such occasions. The ladies exchange a perfunctory kiss, and Sir Jasper exclaims, “Artemisia, my darling, you’re in excellent looks.” He signals to a footman, and procures a glass of wine for her. 

“Thank you,” she says primly. “I find I’m parched this evening.”

“Inglorion,” he says, inclining his head. “I believe you’ve met my sister, Lady Brock.”

“I have,” says Inglorion. “It’s always a pleasure.” They exchange cold bows. Her expression is one of grim indifference, much like a statue or idol. He wonders if Sir Jasper’s vulgarity pains her, or if her misery has some other source.

They pass into the main assembly rooms and part ways. Artemisia will seek out her particular friends, and Inglorion will seek useful intelligence. Dinner is the usual ordeal of boredom. Sir Jasper always seats Inglorion between a debutante and a widow, a concession to his bachelor state. He’s distracted by the sound of Artemisia’s voice. She’s arguing good-naturedly with the man to her left, and it seems to Inglorion as if her voice is strident, and perhaps already slurred. He treats his dinner companions with distant courtesy, prompting the young lady to remark later that he’s no great thing — pretty starched up for a man with no family and no clear source of wealth or income.

After dinner, the crowd assembles in the music room. The singers will each perform an aria, then a few duets and popular ballads. Inglorion and Artemisia sit together, though he suspects she would prefer to mingle with the less musically inclined guests, who will drink and talk throughout the performance. She looks respectful and attentive, however, and when the music starts, he forgets her, himself and his surroundings. He becomes engrossed, not just in the music, but in the musicians’ technique and professionalism. All four are a pleasure to watch, even when they’re just singing throwaway love duets. He’s rapt, delighted. 

Afterwards, even before the polite applause has died away, he springs up to approach them. They’re gathering up their music, seem bent on withdrawing quickly. The tenor has an air of precision, discipline and barely suppressed humor, and seems to be their leader. Inglorion detains him by placing a hand on his sleeve, and says, “Thank you so much. It was a pleasure to hear you sing.” His manner is quiet, and so obviously sincere that the man stops and turns around.

“You’re welcome,” he says. “I’m glad it gave you pleasure.”

“I’m Inglorion Fabius.”

“Jonathan Cain.”

They shake hands, then Inglorion says, “I wanted to ask you — in the aria you sang — I was particularly impressed with your breathing. It seemed quite different from what I’ve been taught, and I was intrigued.”

Jonathan replies, and quickly they’re plunged into a technical discussion. Inglorion demonstrates the method he learned by singing several bars at half-volume. The other three musicians break off their conversation and turn to stare at him. “Sir,” the Jonathan says, “You have an exceptional voice.”

Inglorion laughs. “Thank you. I’ve been told that. I’m not well-trained or in practice, though — not like you are.”

Jonathan says, “Nonetheless, it’s striking. What do you sing?”

“Tenor, primarily.”

“I wish you would help me out with something. I hope this won’t sound strange. There’s something I’ve been wanting to try. Can you sight-sing?”

“Well enough.” Inglorion realizes that though most of the room is talking and laughing undisturbed, a handful of people heard the short passage he sung, and are staring at him.

Jonathan searches through his music case, pulls out a hand-written score. “I wish you would read this over. It’s something I’ve written for a tenor voice, and I’ve wanted to hear someone else sing it. It would be a great help to me.”

“Of course,” says Inglorion. “That’s not odd at all.” He feels Artemisia’s angry, disapproving gaze, and he feels as if he must be in error. It’s not wrong for him to talk with the musicians, though. They’re here to entertain the guests.

He looks the score over. It’s a romantic ballad, and it requires unusual range and vocal flexibility. The piece intrigues him. It’s challenging, but within his ability.

Jonathan asks, “Can you do it? Will you?”

Inglorion looks up again, sees the gathering cloud of resentment on Artemisia’s lovely face. Her cheeks are flushed with anger. Because he’s sad, and music comforts him — because he longs to feel that he’s good at something — because he’s tired of the constraints of the company around him — because he’s angry and hurt and knows the rest of the evening will be dreadful — because he hoped to fall in love and cannot — he says, “I’d be honored,” and flips to the front of the score. Jonathan plays piano, and Inglorion sings.

The first few verses are simple, and require pure, clear delivery. The song builds in volume, and reaches a climax with the bridge, which takes Inglorion to the top of his range. At first he feels Artemisia’s incredulous rage, and the looks of the other guests — curious, wondering, full of amazement or censure — but soon he’s lost in the demands of the music. He would benefit from further practice, from opportunity to explore the piece, but he can feel the beauty and purity of his voice, the grace and tenderness of his performance. He knows he’s nailed it.

Many people ignore the incident entirely, much as they ignored the professional singers. Still, some guests turn to listen, and when he finishes, those closest to the piano applaud playfully.

Inglorion gives an ironic bow. Jonathan stands from the piano bench, and bows with the sincere grace of an actual musician. Inglorion turns to him and says, “I like the piece very much. I’d like to have a copy of the score.”

“Of course. Thank you for singing it. Hearing it makes me think of a few changes I’d like to make. If you give me your direction, I’ll send you a fair copy.”

Inglorion returns to Artemisia’s side soon thereafter, having given Jonathan his card and direction. “Am I in disgrace?” he says. “I hope you’ll forgive me. I so rarely get to sing.”

Her anger is irrational, and she knows it. Finally she says, “I wish you wouldn’t make a spectacle of yourself. It does you no credit. You might as well be a house painter, or a dancing master.”

“You’re forgetting that I’ve been a footman and a mercenary,” he says. “Though at times I wish I’d been a castrati.”

The rest of the evening is made more wretched by his fellow guests’ comments, some sincere, some arch and playful, many cruel or dismissive. They all seem to believe his taste and skill are vulgar. Inglorion thinks of his father, who was richer and more genteel than anyone in the room. Tereus excelled at everything from singing to boxing, spoke multiple languages, could calculate the maximum load on a wooden bridge. Admittedly, he was a brutal man with many low tastes, Inglorion thinks, but he was a fucking gentleman, unlike these glorified shopkeepers who assume Inglorion’s a gigolo because he can sing and doesn’t dress like a goddamned grocer. He almost hopes for a fight in the carriage on the way home. Artemisia is drunk to the point of illness, though, and unable to quarrel effectively. 

Though he’s unable to say why, this incident brings Inglorion to infidelity: The brief blaze of pleasure and absorption, counter-balanced by her contempt and resentment. He feels, but cannot allow himself to think, that she hates him and wishes him ill. And so, when opportunity presents itself — and it quickly does  — Inglorion finds himself engaged in a familiar routine of flirtation and seduction.

At first, he tells himself he’s had a string of unforeseeable accidents. The reader may know (and the author can attest), that there are circumstances in which it’s rude to suddenly recall the existence of a spouse or lover. The object of seduction is bound to feel both slighted and deceived. Increasingly, Inglorion finds that he’s cut a woman out from the herd. They’re standing or sitting apart, engaged in low, intimate conversation. He’s contrived some playful excuse to take her hand or touch her shoulder or hair. If she’s very lovely, he’s told her she’s clever, and if she’s very clever, he’s told her she’s lovely. Even a few moments of flirtation exhilarate him. In these moments of banter, laugher, and brief silences, he wonders how she’ll be in bed, and he anticipates the pleasure and solace he’ll find in sex. He feels his power, and knows that with very little effort, he can have her — actually, unless he extracts himself swiftly, he’ll have her whether he wants to or not. 

Through repetition, he’s forced to admit that he’s not a hapless victim. It’s safer to have a stable of women who understand their role, so he chooses his targets, sets up a lover each in Amakir and Liamelia, and carefully covers his tracks. 

Inglorion knows that if Artemisia catches him, she’ll probably rip his dick off. He thinks grimly that he’ll take care that she never finds out, and if she does, he’ll finally get his chance to live as a castrati.

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