38. Developing Actual Liking

Before Aramil was banished from Liamelia, he and Valentine spent a lot of time together. Though their tastes, habits and temperaments are very different, their friendship was tolerant and brotherly. They quickly fall back into their usual pattern, which means that Aramil is soon running tame in Inglorion’s flat, which is larger and better-appointed than Aramil’s lodgings.

At the same time, Ajax starts to approach Valentine with questions that Inglorion can’t or won’t consider, such as whether the massive wood-burning stove in the kitchen should be replaced with a new gas model. Valentine considers Ajax’s questions, and answers them to the best of his ability; within weeks, he’s become his cousin’s part-time housekeeper and majordomo. Inglorion doesn’t resent the change, and seems pleased when toast and coffee begin to appear at a predictable hour every morning. His complacency is unsurprising. Inglorion has never lived in a conventional gray elvish household as anything other than a servant; he’s accustomed to rough billets, and sincerely indifferent to all but a very few domestic details. He feels strongly that books should be shelved in alphabetical order by author and title, that furniture should be made of silk and down wherever practical, that the piano should be tuned regularly, and that his favorite soap should always be on his washstand. He’s always left everything else to Ajax, whose ideas of decor and storage are bound to seem strange to gray elvish guests.

Inglorion also feels no obligation to play host. His habits are private, and his responsibilities and interests leave him little free time. As far as Valentine and Aramil can tell, he spends his mornings smoking and scribbling in the library, his afternoons sparring, and his evenings escorting Artemisia to various social events or chasing other women. After a few weeks in which he makes brief appearances around mealtimes, then makes excuses and glides away, Aramil takes to calling him Greta Garbo.

“Hey, Greta, what’s the rush?” Aramil asks for the twentieth time as Inglorion tries to filch a slice of toast from the sideboard and slip into the hall and out the front door.

“I’m engaged to meet Signora Castigliani in half-an-hour,” says Inglorion. “She’s very temperamental, and nothing angers her more than unpunctuality.”

“Uncle, who is this Signora Castigliani that you prefer her company to ours for breakfast? So private! So reclusive!”

Inglorion says loftily, “The Signora is a renown voice instructor. She only accepts extremely promising students.” He destroys the effect by adding, “Private voice lessons are my chance to bend a charming Italian woman over a music stand and make hit her high notes. If I bring you two along, she’ll charge for a group lesson.”

Aramil scolds, “You slip in here like a feral cat, steal a piece of toast, eat it standing up in a corner, and swan away again. We’re your houseguests, not paparazzi.” He nibbles a sausage with clear relish, nauseating his uncle.

“I’m never hungry in the mornings,” Inglorion says defensively.

“Some people join other people for breakfast as a sign of liking.”

Inglorion looks baffled. “Are you certain of that?”

“Over time, they may even come to feel actual liking for the people around them.” Aramil peers at the ham thoughtfully, takes a slice. Inglorion notices for the first time that ham is being served at his table. He has never eaten ham, and can’t imagine a circumstance that would force him to try it.

“I like both of you already, but if it gives you pleasure, I’ll sit here while I eat my toast.” Inglorion perches on the corner of the table, and struggles to withdraw his attention from the various animal products on Aramil’s plate. “Good God, is that ketchup?”

“Very likely. I wouldn’t recommend it on toast,” Aramil says helpfully.

“His father is a diplomat, you know,” says Valentine.

“Oh, certainly. I don’t accept etiquette advice from just any highwayman.”

“If you could see his dressing gown in full color, you wouldn’t accept any advice from him at all,” Valentine says.

“Thank God I’m spared that. Clearly I’ll have to start attending meals just to learn what’s being cooked in my kitchen. No decent elf should eat bratwurst. It’s an abomination unto the Lord. Valentine, how can you stand to look at that?”

“I avert my eyes and sip my coffee tamely in the name of developing actual liking.”

Aramil smiles seraphically and says, “You give yourself airs because you weren’t out drinking last night, and yet you’re flinching and whimpering as if you’re at the end of a week-long bender. I must doing something right.”

“Go ahead, plume yourself on your lack of sensibility. It hurts us more than it hurts you,” says Inglorion. “Well, that was excellent toast. My compliments to the chef.” He chugs a cup of coffee, and swans away to take instruction from the Signora. Though he retains a mocking tone, Inglorion takes the hint and begins to join his younger relatives for meals.

Aramil shifts the household dynamic in other ways. Before Valentine and Inglorion became housemates, Ajax often sat quietly with Inglorion, either in the same room directly outside the door. They would chat back and forth occasionally, but for the most part, Ajax is a silent, feline presence. Unless he has business with Valentine, Ajax vanishes whenever he enters the room. As far as Inglorion can tell, Ajax doesn’t dislike him, he just doesn’t care to share the same air.

After Aramil has been hanging around for a week or two, Inglorion notices that he’s lured Ajax out of hiding, so that he often sits nearby while the other three are idling around the flat. Soon Ajax is fixing Aramil’s hair in various elaborate ways that Inglorion doesn’t permit, or that don’t suit his fine, white locks. Aramil teaches Ajax whist and blackjack, and Ajax initiates Aramil into the finer points of cheating at dice.

One evening when the four of them are gathered in the library, Inglorion mentions an intelligence source that Valentine might want to cultivate. Valentine’s reply is polite but repressive. When Ajax glides out of the room to find a deck of cards, Valentine says curtly, “How do you know he can be trusted?”

“All of my servants can, Valentine. I’ve made sure of that. I have reason to trust Ajax implicitly. Indeed, compared to him you’re a recent acquaintance, cousin or no cousin.”

Valentine looks dissatisfied. “It’s possible that you’re being naive. I was a slave. They’re never as loyal as their masters think they are.”

Valentine’s curt tones have drawn Aramil’s attention, and now both young men are waiting pointedly for an answer. “I was a servant, Valentine. The dynamic is not unfamiliar to me. Ajax has been part of my household for 70 years. He’s an equal partner in everything I’ve built.”

“That just means you’ve built on a flawed foundation. I’m serious, Inglorion. It’s a real risk.”

“I have reason to believe Ajax is loyal to me. That reason is personal to Ajax.”

There’s a long silence. Finally Valentine says, “The risk is too large. Aramil and I are double agents, and we don’t have the option of removing to the Underdark if we’re exposed. I’ll trouble you to provide your reasons.”

Valentine is one of the few people who challenges Inglorion openly; it’s a quality Inglorion values. Finally he says, “Fair enough. I trust both of you to act with kindness and discretion.” He gives Valentine a hard, cold look, and says, “Ajax is homosexual. He fell in love with me when he entered my service. We rarely discuss it, and of course I don’t share his sentiments, though I love him like a brother.”

Valentine looks genuinely shocked and uncomfortable. “He’s homosexual?”

“Yes.”

“And he fell in love with you?”

“Yes.”

“How do you know?”

“I won’t discuss that with you. I value him too much to speculate about feelings that are deeply private, and technically illegal in Amakir.”

“He’s your valet.”

“Yes, I’ve noticed that.” Inglorion stares Valentine down. “What of it?”

“If you don’t see the problem, I can’t explain it to you.”

Inglorion’s voice is quiet but perfectly clear: “Then let me explain it to you, cousin, since you’re suddenly bashful. Ajax has saved my life, nursed me through illness and injury, and consoled me when I was in spiritual crisis. He’s acted as an accomplice to murder, and collaborated with me to create an intelligence network. He’s a slave — theoretically I own him body and soul — but I would not have achieved the marquisate without him. He has skills that I lack. I owe him everything I have, including my life. Is that clear?” He fixes Valentine with a hard, pale look until he gets a small, grudging nod, then he turns his gaze on Aramil. His nephew looks bewildered and blank. “What about you, Aramil? Is that clear?”

Aramil’s eyes snap into focus. “Yes. Yes, of course. I didn’t know, but I honor your sentiments, Uncle.”

When Ajax returns moments later, Valentine scrupulously avoids looking at him, and Aramil keeps glancing over, then tearing his gaze away. He and Valentine retire soon afterwards, to Inglorion’s relief. Normalcy reasserts itself the following day. Valentine excels at repression, and Ajax is so quiet that it’s difficult to regard him with horror and indignation for long.

 

 

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