55. Animals, Not Angels

“Basically her family built a trap, and I walked right into it. They created this story about how I’m this violent, depraved, out-of-control monster. Her brother taunted me until I pounded the shit out of him — one of my army buddies had to pull me off of him — and then they created just enough doubt in her mind about my military exploits, the creepy Drow thing, Tereus and Aramil’s crimes. She went back home, and apparently they’d lined up an engagement to some merchant who agreed to pay off the mortgage on their estate and her brother’s gambling debts. That’s what they wanted all along.”

Valentine is pouring out his troubles at Inglorion’s bedside in a inn by the dock. Inglorion has chosen to recover from his bout of poisoning aboveground. He doesn’t discuss the situation with Valentine except to say that a powerful Theates faction wants him not just disinherited, but dead. He’s rented an easily defended second-story suite with a private parlor and quarters for Ajax and Ancilla, and has spent the last few days reclining on a chaise lounge, the recipient of outstanding service from the daughters of the house, and, through Valentine, full lending privileges from the Shelawn family library and the Liamelian city archive.

Inglorion shakes his head. “That’s rough. I could tell you had it bad. A merchant, huh? At least she’ll remember your swashbuckling self when she’s got five kids and a household of servants to run.”

Valentine sighs, pokes at the carpet with the tip of his sheathed rapier. “It’s not like I can take another blood oath and kill Drow until I feel better. She broke my heart.”

“Hearts mend. And killing Drow is kind of a crutch. You need to find a better way to cope with heartache.”

“I wouldn’t just kill any Drow — they’d have to be enemies.”

“Of course — that’s how I took it. You’d only kill enemy Drow, and act at all times in strict accordance with international laws of war.” Inglorion sips delicately at a medicinal tea specially brewed by the eldest daughter of the house. “That’s not bad for tea,” he says. “You should try it.” After a moment he says, “You want the truth?”

“Whose? Yours?”

“That’s the only one I’ve got. And you can toss it out if you don’t agree. But I think she was right. You didn’t suit.” He holds up his hand to cut off Valentine’s objections. “I know, I know. She was perfect. Lovely, smart, a skilled fighter. Looked great in breeches, which is no small thing. Here’s the thing, though.” He leans forward, fixes Valentine with a bright, burning gaze. “You have a short fuze and a big payload. You need a girl who doesn’t get jumpy every time you punch a wall or draw weapons.”

Valentine looks stunned.

“That was the real problem, right? You’re a Shelawn. You can only bank that flame so much. You like to fight, you like to fuck, you do stupid shit without thinking about it too much. What’s the alternative? Becoming meek and calm and repressed and calculating, like Marcus? Good luck. He’s been like that his whole life, apparently without effort. You and I have a different path. Aramil, too, unless I’m mistaken.”

“But she was right! I shouldn’t….”

“Shouldn’t what? Punch shit all the time? My very dear fellow, you already do. When Aramil got caught holding up coaches, did you tell him to take up accounting? No? Well, there’s your answer. You’re a brawler, I’m a cocksman, and Aramil’s a criminal. All three are better than being a drunk, which is what Tereus became when he stopped fighting and fucking.” Inglorion pauses, sits back, gropes around in the pockets of his dressing gown. “Damn, I feel like it’s impossible to finish this speech properly without a cigarette.”

“It’s not lack of proper stage business that’s bothering me,” says Valentine dryly. “Oh, for fuck’s sake, I’ll roll you one,” he says. He pulls out the little leather pouch, which somehow made its way into his possession before Valykria fled. “There.” He lights it, holds it out, then yanks it back out of Inglorion’s reach. “You’re not going to smoke it in here, are you?”

Inglorion gives Valentine a measuring look, decides to start with persuasion. “Oh, come on. I’m sure as shit not going outside in broad daylight. Not in my delicate state of health. I’ll crack a window.” Valentine surrenders it reluctantly.

Inglorion perches on the windowsill with an air of triumph, takes a drag, sends a plume of smoke outdoors. After a moment, he says, “Fuck it. I’m probably wrong. All advice is bad. People are always talking to themselves when they give it.”

“That’s the brilliant conclusion you got from nicotine?” Valentine asks. “You’re not selling me, cousin.”

Inglorion looks amused, gives one of his seraphic smiles. “It occurred to me that maybe I shouldn’t sell you on that idea. Just because I haven’t beat my demons doesn’t mean you can’t. Anyway, I haven’t been laid in eight days, and I’m always half-crazy when I’m aboveground. Any advice I give should be discounted accordingly.” He gazes down into the kitchen garden, takes another drag, blows a series of smoke rings, gives a little wave to someone outside the window. “Check back with me after I’ve managed to talk the landlord’s daughters into a three-way.”

Then, as if he’s just been struck with an original and moderately clever notion, he says, “You know what you need?”

“What?” says Valentine suspiciously. “I’m not going to a brothel.”

“Oh, God, no! What’s the fun in that? No one’s suggesting a brothel.” Then, momentarily diverted, he adds, “I’ve never seen the point — it takes all the sport out of getting laid! It’s just a transaction — you know exactly what you paid for, and you can only be disappointed in the service or selection. No, what you need is a random draw.” He glances over at Valentine, cracks up. “God, if only you could see your face right now! It’s like I offered you week-old fish. You’re such a prude!”

“I am not a prude!” Valentine exclaims hotly. “I just don’t choose to stick my dick into random holes.”

“Who said anything about sticking your dick into anything? I’m talking about enjoying a bit of elegant flirtation and seeing where it leads. Look, Valentine, by my count you’ve fucked two women. One and half, really. You still feel like women are in short supply and you have to lock one up quick, and be grateful that she lets you sniff her knickers.”

“You’re so… coarse about it.”

“Valentine, if there’s one thing I can teach you as your spymaster, older cousin and man of the world, it’s this: Women love a good fucking. They’re not angels to be worshipped. They’re animals, just like we are. When you treat women like they’re made of glass — like they’re precious and sacred and breakable — that’s not respectful, it’s patronizing and insulting.”

Valentine is actually speechless.

“Come on, you were raised among the Drow. Surely you don’t buy all this gray elven bullshit about women being sweet little daisies that are ruined by picking.”

Valentine gives a choke of horrified laughter, then pleads, “It’s different for you.”

“Different how?”

Valentine regards his cousin through narrowed eyes. A week after surviving a near-fatal poisoning, Inglorion is vibrating with renewed animal vigor. He trains constantly, but doesn’t have a dreary aura of deprivation; instead, his slender, muscular body reflects a harmonious balance between Apollonian discipline and Dionysian pleasure. His well-modulated voice sounds suggestive and conspiratorial even when he asks the waiter downstairs to refill his coffee. Not that he has to ask, Valentine thinks bitterly. Valentine didn’t know what good service was until he dined with Inglorion, who is not only charming and sexy, but genuinely sensitive to the rhythms and demands of servants’ lives. Most of all, though, there’s the breathtaking perfection of his features. Even now, Inglorion flashes his pale, deep-set eyes at Valentine seductively, nearly causing his cousin to lose the thread of his argument.

Having made this inventory, Valentine says, “You’re not a regular, mortal elf. When you make a pass at a woman, she’s basically getting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to touch a demigod.”

Inglorion gives a whoop of laughter. “You do realize that there’s no dick in the world that could live up to that? With that buildup, it needs to have spurs, a red comb, and a foot-long retractable peacock tail, and it should definitely be prehensile.”

Valentine raises his eyebrow, shakes his head with regret. “Well, then I really can’t compete. Though mine does play the harmonica and harp.”

“Does it have a built-in bottle-opener and corkscrew? No? I bet you got stuck with the  one that lets you swap out Phillips and flathead tips, but they kind of want to fall off unless you apply pressure at just the right angle.”

“That’s what happens with those cheap Harbor Freight dicks,” Valentine says sadly. “They’re only good for one job, and you just spend the whole time cursing and stripping fasteners.”

Inglorion cracks up again. “Thus only one and a half women — you know your limits. ‘God, I keep meaning to get another dick. This one’s really for renters.’ At least you have a fucking sense of humor. Look, I really don’t think it’s that different for me. There’s a lot more to it than good looks and smoldering glances. Once I’ve landed the job, I have to get in there and lay down pipe, just like anyone else.”

Lay down pipe? You’re an incredibly vulgar fellow, Inglorion. Do you go around offering that?”

“Not in so many words. What are you doing? Handing out unicorn stickers? Look, you don’t have to follow through. Just start noticing women and appreciating them and flirting with them. Like that girl Linnea in the hookah lounge. You didn’t even look at her until you needed directions to an inn.”

“I couldn’t believe she didn’t slap you!”

“When a girl goes to the trouble to bend over like that, I’m going to take a look, and let her know that I like what I’m seeing. I wouldn’t do it in a bar where they’re forced to wear low-cut dresses, or if she were with someone, or if she took me in dislike for some reason. But it’s a nice way to brighten her day, make the shift go a little faster.”

“God, you sound like Aramil. ‘Let’s go drink blue ruin and pinch barmaids’ asses! Come on! Just try it!’”

“If that’s what you think I’m suggesting, I’m not explaining myself well. I specifically don’t pinch barmaids’ asses — they deal with that shit all day.”

Valentine is curious despite himself. “What do you do with barmaids, then?”

“Talk to them. Ask them questions. Tip well without requiring anything in return. Remember that they have a hard job. They’re on their feet carrying tankards for a 10-hour shift. Barmaids aren’t my primary audience, but if I wanted to approach one, that’s where I’d start.”

Valentine nods. “Okay, I think I’m starting to understand. What about toll-takers?”

“Oh, big smile, wink, call her darling. If you see one often, give her an outlandish nickname and try to make her laugh.”

“Eldest daughter of a noble family?”

“That’s a tough one. Where am I meeting her?”

“I don’t know. She’s shopping in the Pantheon Bazaar with her governess and best friend.”

“I’d probably start with the governess. After all, she’s the bouncer. If you can’t get past her, you’ll never get within hailing distance of Lady Slim-Ankles. I might start out by giving her advice about fabrics. It kind of takes the edge off the creepy half-Drow thing if she thinks you might be gay, and we could have a good laugh when she figures out that I’m colorblind.”

“Is there anything you wouldn’t try?”

“Lots of things! I’m a respectable citizen you know — heir to a dukedom and all that. But when I was younger I tried everything and succeeded at most of it.”

“Is that how you broke your leg jumping off a fire escape?”

“No, no, that was just a stupid attempt to retreat when I was outnumbered in combat. Did Sieia tell you that? She must have gotten it confused with the incident involving the Vicar’s wife and a plate-glass window.” He shakes his head, dismisses the thought. “Anyway, you’re not trying to get into her knickers. All you’re doing is getting her to laugh and smile, and letting her know you admire her. If you can do that, and do it with flair and sincerity, the knickers will follow.” He stubs out the cigarette.

“Inglorion, Valykria left the house a few days ago! I can’t go out and start chasing other women.”

“Why not? You’d happily go into combat.”

“It will look — I mean — we were engaged. She basically left me at the altar.”

“It will look like you have the sense not to mope like a 13-year-old. Never, ever advertise a broken heart. You don’t have to plunge into debauchery. Just start noticing women and trying to make them smile and laugh. It’s not hard.”

“For you, maybe —”

“Stop right there! I’m the heir to a dukedom now, but when I started working on my game I was a half-Drow bastard, and a footman in the Shelawn household. That’s a tough sell no matter what. Just try it, Valentine. You’re a handsome man. You’ve got those violet eyes, the Shelawn Look.” He pauses, and grins. “And if you need a wingman, let me know. If Aramil actually pinches barmaids’ asses, then he’s the wrong guy to help you out.”

Riding back to the townhouse, Valentine is surprised at his own lightheartedness. Courting Valykria was such a solemn, difficult task! He always felt guilty, as if he was in the wrong.

It’s been raining, and the air is clear and light. The roan splashes through standing puddles — he will be muddy up to his knees, and will need to be thoroughly brushed and rubbed down. Valentine himself is pleasantly loose and tired. The more he reflects on Inglorion’s words, the more he thinks that perhaps his older cousin is right.

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