36. The Sea Sprite Bar and Grill

Soundtrack and video, David Bowie, “Hang on to Yourself,” live 1973

Our story continues a few months later, in the winter of 1825, not long after Inglorion’s 138th birthday. He doesn’t think of it that way, because he doesn’t know what day he was born. For elves, who live hundreds of years, anniversaries wax and wane in mystery and significance, much like Sunday Mass. Inglorion feels old and wise hanging out with his less worldly cousin, but by elvish standards he’s young and callow.

On this particular morning, Inglorion is reading Horace and fiddling with a slice of toast, and Valentine is eating whatever Valentine eats in his large, orderly household. The footman brings Valentine an unsigned note, which he reads aloud to Inglorion.

“It says, ‘You’re invited to visit with a close friend who has been absent for some months. If you present this note at the Sea Sprite Bar and Grill in Amakir, the bartender will bring the author to you.’ Do you think it’s a trap?”

“Anything could be. It does sound sketchy. If it were a trap, though, I feel like the author would have put more effort into concealing exactly how sketchy it is. The Sea Sprite is a notorious thieves’ den. Any stevedore or cabdriver here in Liamelia will tell you that. Any idea who it’s from?”

Valentine studies the note. There’s nothing special about the ink and wafer, but the paper is folded with unusual precision and artistry. “If I had to guess, I’d say it’s from Aramil. He was last seen in Amakir, and he’s the only person I know who is actively pursuing a life of crime. It’s the kind of thing he would do — send a cryptic note instead of just writing a letter like a rational creature.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask if you’d be willing to relocate to Amakir for awhile,” Inglorion says. “I’ll hook you up with sources that might lead you to contacts in Liamelia. If that is from Aramil, you can introduce us and save yourself the trouble of recruiting him. And the lease on my flat is good through March.”

“There’s nothing keeping me here,” says Valentine. “Marcus’s agents can forward any documents I need to sign. If I’m here, I’ll have to meet with them, but if I remove to Amakir, I can’t be faulted for skipping the lecture and taking the test.”

The note becomes a pretext, then, to pack their belongings into the Shelawn traveling barouche and a carrier van, and remove to Inglorion’s flat in Amakir. Once they arrive, Valentine’s amused to discover that Inglorion’s library, bedroom and sitting room are lavishly outfitted — by Ajax, as it turns out — but the rest of the house resembles a cross between a museum and a trading post on the American frontier. Curious items, trade goods and rare volumes abound, but dishes and silverware are scarce, and Inglorion has made no provisions to house or feed visitors. Indeed, he considers all of the seating comfortable to gray elves to be uniquely his, except for the what’s to be found in the servants’ quarters.

When they arrive, Inglorion turns over a suite to Valentine, urges him to find someone to clean it out — Ancilla is good at such tasks — and considers the problem of entertaining his cousin to be solved. He hasn’t hired a cook, since he considers meals to be wasted time that he’s trying to eliminate from his schedule. Valentine is free to rummage through the larder if he should become hungry; Ajax puts things in there, some of which may be edible.

Luckily, Ajax perceives Valentine’s predicament, and quietly arranges for his luggage to be unpacked and his suite furnished. They reach a tacit agreement that additional servants should be hired, and they needn’t trouble Inglorion with the details.

Once he’s left his bags in Ajax’s care, Valentine ventures out to find the Sea Sprite Bar and Grill. Though it’s notorious — the jarvies at the cab stand hoot and holler when he asks for directions — he wouldn’t have guessed it’s a criminal haunt. It looks like any other riverside dive bar, with the usual worn-looking occupants and nagging whiffs of urine and vomit. It seems too functional for notoriety, nothing more than a box to get drunk in. He approaches the bartender, a troublingly blowsy young woman, and hands her the note.

“Right,” she says. “Wait here. I’ll see if he’s in.” She disappears down a hallway that leads to the brewery. The wait seems interminable, probably because there’s so little to look at: The muddy countenances of daytime drinkers, a wooden bar counter painted flat black.

Finally she reappears, says, “He’s coming,” and jerks her head in the direction of the doorway. A moment later, Aramil emerges wearing a rumpled silk shirt, breeches, and a black smoking jacket with frayed cuffs.

He starts forward, radiant with delight, exclaiming, “Valentine!” The cousins embrace. “Excuse my dishabille,” Aramil adds. “It’s early yet.”

“You’re lodging here?”

“Oh, yes. It’s nicer in back, you know — they don’t put any money into the bar. It’s a front.” He signals to the barmaid. “Can I have Viola get you anything? No? I’ll have a glass of ale, my dear.”

They retire to a corner booth. Valentine inspects the bench before sitting down gingerly. Once they’re seated and Aramil is sipping his ale, Valentine says, “How are you? I was delighted to hear from you — Marcus assumed the worst. He said you were lost to us, and refused to discuss the details.”

“Well, I think I was lost.” Aramil laughs and shakes out his curls. “It’s been an odd time. I joined a thieves’ guild — highwaymen, actually.”

“How’s that going?”

Aramil smiles roguishly. “I like it. I’m good at it. In some places, they call me Gentleman Jack. So that’s something.” His voice drops, he twists his rings, glances up at Valentine with a mixture of mischief and — what? Shame? Apprehension? He says, “A chap came to see me from Liamelia. The whole thing was rather strange.” He stops, seems confused about how to proceed. 

“Do you want to take a walk?”

“A walk? I suppose so.” He downs the rest of his ale, and they stroll outside, into a narrow, high-walled alley, empty except for a couple of coal-heavers 20 yards away. Aramil starts to talk, so Valentine shushes and drags him several blocks to an open square with enough sky and greenery to allow their words to dissipate. They stroll around the perimeter.

Valentine prompts him, “Someone came to you from Liamelia?” 

“Yeah. He said he was an intelligence officer. He offered me a bargain — said that if I spied for them, they would suspend my sentence, and restore my citizenship if I gave satisfaction. Do you know anything about that? Was it — do they do things like that?”

“I thought it might happen. I think I mentioned it at the time. Your plea bargain had wording about reinstating citizenship through unspecified, future public service.” 

“Oh. I don’t remember that. Anyway, he gave me a card and said to contact him.”

“Spies have business cards?”

“No, it just had a post office box number printed on one side. He hand-wrote a number on it. Some kind of code or serial number.”

“Good God. What did you do?”

“I haven’t done anything. I wanted to talk to you, see what you remembered. At first I thought it couldn’t possibly be real, that it was a loyalty test. They do that, you know.” Valentine glances over, sees genuine fear in Aramil’s face. In full daylight he looks sallow, bloated. There are bags under his eyes. 

“I thought they would try to recruit you,” Valentine says. “I’m no expert, but I think it’s a real offer.”

“I don’t think I’d ever want to go back there to live, but it sucks that I can’t even enter the city. I worry about my Mom, about Dad. All of them, really. I wish I could visit, at least.”

“What happens if you get caught spying?”

“By the guild? They’d shank me, make an example of me.” They reach the far end of the square. In one corner, a flock of pigeons clambers eagerly over what appears to be the carcass of a chicken. 

“I can’t advise you,” says Valentine. “It’s far from my experience. There’s one thing, though. Inglorion is here in Amakir. I’m staying at his flat, which — look, it’s a long story, and he can tell it to you. He wants to meet you. That’s part of the reason he came here.”

“Inglorion wants to meet me?”

“Yeah. And I think you should talk to him. He can advise you better than I can.” 

“About this?”

“Yeah.” Valentine’s expression is forbidding; Aramil has questions, but refrains from asking them. They stroll over to the pigeons. 

“Man, pigeons are disgusting, especially in a big city like this,” Aramil says. 

They stand there, side by side, contemplating the tussle of dirty birds. Finally Valentine asks, “How are you really? Are you OK?”

“I’m OK. It’s harder than I thought it would be. It’s interesting. I’m learning things.” Aramil adds, with a trace of defiance, “I’m not sorry I did it.”

“I’m not here to judge. Are you safe?”

Aramil laughs. “Are you?”

“Not really, no. But I’m having fun. It’s confusing. You know that Marcus made me his heir?”

“Of course. He’s legally required to recognize you. It’s written into the entail.”

“It feels weird.” Valentine looks over, flashes one of his rare smiles. “I still make a shitty gray elf.”

“Better you than me. I couldn’t do it. Someday I’ll explain the whole thing.”

They turn back. When they reach the front door of the Sea Sprite, Valentine says, “I’ll leave you here. You’ll hear from Inglorion soon — tomorrow or the next day, probably. I think he can advise you, maybe help you out.”

“Still fan-boy on him?”

Valentine shrugs. “You’ll see when you meet him. A lot has happened. We’ll talk soon.” He grips Aramil’s hand, adds, “I’d glad you wrote — really, really glad.” 

Aramil pulls his cousin into a bear hug. “Thank you for finding me. I missed you.”

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