25. Persephone Eats Six Seeds

He’s gone when her water breaks. The pain yanks her into the open, impales her in her body and the cell around her. She’s bound, as always. The force is terrible — a series of rhythmic blows from the inside that warp her frame. It grips her by the nape, shakes her over and over, tirelessly.

After a time — hours or days — he’s there. He can do nothing for her, so he sponges her off with cool water, sings to her. He’s distraught, pacing like any new father, talking aloud, trying to reassure both of them. She hears none of it. She intends to kill it, of course, if she has the opportunity. At some point they realize there’s been a change of plan, and it may kill her instead.

He leaves, and she sits in a remote corner of herself, wondering if he went to his family. He was terrified and covered in blood up to his elbows. Where could he go to wash up and change into fresh clothing? How does he account for the time?

He returns with a large, pale woman. Her hair is reddish, and almost as light as his. Her hands are strong and freckled. The cot is filthy, Philomela is filthy, and the woman somehow cleans everything swiftly, arranges clean towels and sheets and hot water. Tereus scrambles to obey her commands. Where before there was fear and a sense of entropy, now there’s purpose.

The woman drapes Philomela with a sheet, then manipulates her under the drape. Her body from the waist down feels gigantic, featureless, ballooned with pain. It’s over in a rush, like being pulled under by a rip tide and thrown gasping onto a strange shore.

Philomela is silent now — she had been screaming. She looks down. Their faces are blank with horror, then the woman’s face lights up with awe and joy. She turns to Tereus and says, “It’s a caul. I’ve never seen one before.” She busies herself under the sheet again, and the bloodied white thing starts to shriek. She cleans it, cuts the umbilical cord, turns away.

When the woman turns back, she has given it her breast. This confuses Philomela. Her own breasts are swollen, heavy, painful. She instinctively wants to relieve the pressure and weight.

“It’s a boy, sir,” the woman says. “He’s healthy and hungry.” She directs Tereus quietly. He removes the afterbirth, cleans Philomela, binds her breasts, draws a clean sheet over her.

The woman gently probes a cut on Philomela’s temple. The bruise has faded, but the cut is slow to close. “She should have had a stitch or two here,” the woman says. “It’s too late now.” There are finger marks on Philomela’s throat and upper arms, and a burst blood vessel under one eye. The woman notices, but says nothing.

Tereus gives Philomela cold water and she drinks it gratefully. He strokes her hair, which is stringy and lank, plastered against her skull and cheeks. He looks over at the woman with an expression of boyish anxiety. “Will she live?”

“Oh, yes. She’s dehydrated and undernourished. Give her plenty of water, broth and gruel as soon as she’ll take them. Solid food when she asks for it.” The woman pauses. “Do you have a wet nurse, someone to take him? She can’t nurse him. You can’t leave him here.”

He’s silent for a time, as if he hasn’t heard her, then turns and says, “I beg your pardon?”

“A wet nurse, sir. She can’t nurse him.”

“No?” He looks puzzled.

“She can’t care for him here. It’s unhealthy.” Because he doesn’t seem to understand, she says, “The air is bad. It’s impossible to keep him clean. She’d need fresh water, diaper cloths, a crib.” She breaks off, looks down at the infant at her breast. “I’m a new mother myself. It’s not possible here, underground.”

“She’s Drow, you know. It’s what they do.”

“Not like this.” They’re silent for a moment. The only sound is the baby snuffling at the woman’s breast. Finally the woman says, “Sir, I don’t know if you’ve considered. She may harm it. Young mothers sometimes do. The circumstances —”

He cuts her off. “Yes, of course.” He smiles at her. “Can you take it? Nurse it?”

She strokes the tiny, pale face. “Of course,” she says. Then quietly, almost to herself, “His eyes are silver.”

“Thank you. I’ll pay you, of course, however much you think is right. Just until I can make other arrangements.”

“What will you call him?”

His face turns cold, and he says curtly, “Call it whatever you like, madam. I have your direction. You’ll hear from me soon.” He helps her into her cloak, ushers her out the cell door, locks it behind her.

He sits down again, takes Philomela’s cold, unresponsive hand, presses it to his cheek. “I’ll go in a moment,” he says, “and come back with food. Broth, gruel, like she said.”

He offers her more water, and she laps it up eagerly.

The cell seems empty.

“I have a son, you know,” he says. “Marcus, my heir. My wife bore him easily — took the whole thing in stride — never a moment’s illness. I believe we engaged a wet nurse. She’s a famous beauty, so naturally her bosom is valuable, and purely ornamental.” His voice takes on the casual mockery that men sometimes employ when speaking of their domestic lives. “I imagine she’ll produce the spare in good time — the proper minimum. The family will look to it. I’ll be notified if there’s an action for me.”

He squeezes her hand, rubs his face against it. He kisses her fingers. She starts to turn over, curl up for trance, but he stops her. “No — please.” He moves the chair closer, places her hand on his thigh, rolls and lights a cigarette, takes her hand up again. His grip is warm. She’s too tired to resist. She thinks, this is how Persephone eats six seeds, ends up married to the god of the dead. Still, she does not pull away.

He smokes, holds her hand. She feels tears on her cheeks, realizes she’s crying. She tries to retreat into herself, but cannot. She’s empty. Her body will slowly close up and contract back to its usual size and shape.

In the silence, she hears him inhale, the crackle of the flame consuming the cigarette paper. She’s become accustomed to the smoke: The lazy patterns in the air, the slight sting in her eyes and throat. Outside, it’s winter. The cell is cold and damp. He drew the blanket over her, so she’s warm. The pillowcase is fresh.

“There’s a melancholy one feels after battle,” he says dreamily. “I’m sure you know it. One counts the dead and buries them. The cost and consequences begin to emerge. One recalls that even victory is bitter.”

His blond hair, gathered loosely at his nape and tied with a black silk ribbon. The clean lines of his profile. The drift and flutter of his pale lashes against his cheek.

Tereus says, “I don’t know what will happen now. Nothing, perhaps. She seems like a reliable sort.” He finishes his cigarette, stubs it out. “Goodbye, darling. I’ll be back soon.” He kisses her hand, places it on top of the blanket. His face convulses briefly with some strong emotion — grief, or maybe fear.

He puts on his jacket and cloak, blows out the candle. There’s a rush of frigid air as he opens the door, locks it behind him.

She’s alone, bound loosely to the bed. Her face itches briefly as the tears dry. She’s empty. She waits.

The vision breaks up like storm clouds parting. Inglorion finds himself curled up on his side. Ajax is sitting nearby, gazing at a gap in the farmhouse wall where a window pane should be. It’s late evening.

Inglorion stretches, rubs his face. Ajax hears him moving, and looks over. “You’re awake, sir.”

“Yeah. Give me a moment.” He gathers himself up, pushes himself to his feet. He walks downstairs, carefully skirting the noise traps, and steps through the open doorway. The sky is black with clouds. Rain has just started to fall.

Inglorion is distressingly sticky. He always sweats heavily when he has a vision, and of course he was sick. It really doesn’t bear thinking on. Huge, cold raindrops smack down in the dusty farmyard. Without much thought, he walks to the center of the clearing, barefoot and dressed only in his breeches, and lets the rain wash him clean.

This is how Ajax finds him: Arms outstretched, rain pummeling his bare shoulders and chest, pony tail streaming wet down his back. If, in repose, Inglorion looks like a marble statue, now as he shivers in the wind and rain, he’s clearly made of bone and muscle and sinew and skin. He senses Ajax’s presence and retreats, shivering, into the parlor. Ajax wraps a blanket around his shoulders. Inglorion wrings his hair out, towels it off. Inglorion loves the rain. He smiles sheepishly at Ajax, who detests it.

Once he’s dry, Inglorion wraps himself in the blanket and perches at the top of the farmhouse steps. Ajax joins him, and they sit side by side, just under the eaves, barely sheltered from the storm. At first, Ajax thinks the rain is falling on Inglorion’s face. After a time, he realizes his master is crying.

Finally Inglorion says, “Ajax, do the Drow have a word for compassion?”

“Your Lordship, I’m not sure I understand the High Elvish word.”

“What you’re doing now. Sitting with me while I’m in pain.”

Ajax considers. “I think we would call it theate. Witnessing, watching.”

“Hm. I thought that was for the audience at a play. Oh, no, that makes sense. Because the audience goes through purgation of emotion, pity and fear. So, yeah. Watching, being present.”

“Why do you ask?”

Inglorion tries to answer, shakes his head. His voice is suspended with tears. Ajax takes Inglorion’s hand, puts an arm around him. He can feel Inglorion’s shoulders shaking with suppressed sobs. Inglorion is working to maintain a slight but marked distance between them because he feels Ajax is at his mercy. “I’m sorry,” Inglorion says. “Oh, fuck —” and then he’s crying openly, overcome with misery and confusion. The tears flow unchecked. His nose is running, he’s trembling. Ajax holds him. “I’m sorry,” Inglorion says again.

“It’s okay, Your Lordship,” says Ajax. “I came out here to make sure you were okay.”

Now, as Inglorion sits wrapped in a damp blanket, Ajax finds his beauty shocking, carnal and immediate. He’s blue with cold, head bowed, rueful but unrepentant. Ajax feels the force that drove him into the rain half-naked, seeking relief he can’t name.

Ajax saved Inglorion’s life when he recklessly exposed himself to poison: Fed him cold water by the spoonful, changed his soiled linens, rubbed ointment on his cracked lips, lashed him down when he lost his mind to fever, force-fed him.

When Inglorion was ordered to kill a political rival in cold blood, they left the crime scene together, Inglorion soaked in his victims’ blood and carrying the murder weapons. That night, Inglorion stood naked in the middle of an underground river while Ajax poured water over him until it ran clear and his hair glowed white again.

Ajax remembers his satisfaction at Inglorion’s coronation, as he watched Theates nobility abasing themselves before him, kissing his signet ring.

Ajax is mute with longing at the sight and smell and feel of Inglorion in his arms, cold and stripped and sobbing.

Inglorion finally breaks the silence, saying cryptically, “She didn’t hate him all the time, or, she did, but —” he breaks off, and Ajax waits. “You don’t hate Her Grace, do you?”

He clears his throat. “No, Your Lordship, I don’t.”

“She whipped you, had you flogged.”

“Yes, Your Lordship.”

“How do you not hate her?”

“I’m not sure. Possibly because I was her personal servant. We were intimate in some ways, like you and I are. Flogging and whipping are terrible, Your Lordship, but customary among the Drow.”

“I wish you wouldn’t call me that right now,” Inglorion says.

“Your Lordship, I’m still a slave aboveground, when there’s no one to see us.”

“It galls me. I wish I could release you.”

“I’ve wished for it so much, for every reason you can imagine, and many reasons you don’t know. My heart is full of it all the time: The brand they put on me, the slave catchers, what’s in my heart, the distance between us. None of it goes away because we wish it, Your Lordship.” They sit in silence for a moment, listening to the rainfall and the sound of tree branches scraping on the eaves. Ajax asks, “Sir, what did you see?”

“I saw my own birth.”

Inglorion thinks of how Tereus took her hand. She tried to turn away. “No — please,” he said, and she left her hand there. What did he need from her? What was he seeking in that cell, in her body? How does that differ from what he’s seeking now, by allowing Ajax to hold him?

There are moments that transcend calculations of power and debt. Inglorion starts to cry again. He curls up and allows Ajax to hold him, stroke his hair, and whisper, “It’s okay. Everything’s okay.”

And it is. Eventually Inglorion stops crying and blows his nose on Ajax’s handkerchief. They hug, and Inglorion says, “I do love you. You know that. Just not, you know —” He cuts himself off, says under his breath, “Why am I such an asshole?”

Ajax laughs. “I don’t know why you’re an asshole, sir. I love you, too. I always will — just, you know —”

Inglorion cracks up and says, “That’s just sick. I don’t know which one of us is worse.” They’re both laughing harder than the joke deserves. “Oh, fuck. Did you get any trance? Should we stay longer, or head out?”

“I think we should leave, unless you want to seek another vision.”

He shudders. “No, I’m good.”

As they’re packing, Ajax says, “Your Lordship, it’s true that I’m still a slave aboveground. But you’re still Marquis Theates.”

“I really don’t see how that helps.”

“It does, though.”

He shrugs. “If you say so.” He flashes a glance at Ajax, catches him looking, winks at him. “I do love you, Ajax.”

“Stop that right now, Your Lordship.”

“Sorry. Habit. Anyway, it’s your fault for looking at me. Stop being so gay.”

“Your Lordship, I’ll stop being gay when you stop being an asshole.” Ajax mimes checking his watch, waiting. “We can start any time. Go ahead. You first.”

“No, I think I’ll be an asshole for a little while longer. At least until I reach Liamelia.” They embrace one last time. Inglorion listens as Ajax rappels down the cave vent, then straps on his weapons, shoulders his pack, and starts the long walk home through the gentled rain.

4 thoughts on “25. Persephone Eats Six Seeds

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