Valentine reaches the flat, uses the latchkey to let himself in. Finally, he’s alone. He’s out of the public eye, and the servants have gone to bed.
He retires to his dressing room, strips off his jacket, waistcoat and neckcloth. The fashion is for tight, elaborate neckcloths, so there are are pink marks all around his neck and jawline. He hangs up his jacket and waistcoat.
They really are elegant, he thinks.
He removes his pocket watch, cufflinks and rings and drops them in a little tray on his dressing table. His signet — a massive onyx stone set in mithrail — hits with a clunk. It’s difficult to remove his Hessian boots without his valet’s help, but he finally gets them off. They’re so highly polished that he can make out his own reflection in the black leather tops. He removes the studs from his starched, brilliantly white shirt. It’s exquisitely tailored, fits him perfectly, and is as comfortable as a fiercely starched garment can be. His breeches follow. He’s pacing the room as he undresses, mechanically sorting his clothes and accessories, ensuring that they will be cared for and not stained or creased or torn.
He thinks, I looked good tonight, if nothing else.
He sits down at his dressing table. He unpins his hair, loosens the braids, and brushes it out. He hasn’t yet adopted one of the newly fashionable short haircuts. They’re supposed to mimic military styles, but Valentine has always braided his hair or worn it down, like the Drow do, and he still associates long hair with valor in battle, and with a certain kind of insouciant fearlessness. The kind of dandyism that long hair requires has become unfashionable among gray elves. He’ll probably cut it soon. He should. The new styles suit him, and would be simpler.
As he returns his brushes and hairpins to his wardrobe, he catches sight of himself in the full-length mirror. He knows that he’s considered to be handsome, but he believes that to a conventional opinion. He’s “handsome” because he’s a Shelawn: Tall, pale, blond, violet-eyed. He’s young, and not deformed in any way. Therefore he’s called handsome, in much the same way that debutants from good families are considered pretty.
Valentine knows he’s nothing special next to his cousin and nephew. Inglorion is a true Shelawn, naturally relaxed and alluring, with perfect features and a graceful dancer’s body. Aramil didn’t inherit the Shelawn family’s bone structure, and tends to be pudgy if he doesn’t watch himself, but he’s animated, and radiates kindness and warmth.
Valentine thinks of his body as a tool. It’s reliable and serves him well. He’s too thin, and muscular to the point of rigidity. Valentine’s face is properly placed on his head, with the correct number and arrangement of features. His expressions are wooden and reserved except for anger. He’s always had a harsh, starved aspect. He looks at himself now, and absorbs this truth.
Finally, with a sense of inevitability, he turns his back to the mirror and looks over his shoulder. There are the Drow tattoos, of course, across his shoulders and breast: A blood oath, and its redemption. They’re benign compared to the scars: Marks from flogging and whipping, decades old now, a mix of livid white and angry pink, a twisted, unruly landscape stretching from the tops of his shoulders down his back and buttocks to his calves. They’re bad — deforming, even — but he knows they’re not the problem. All of them have been dinged up in combat, even the lovely Inglorion. If Inglorion lost an eye, he’d rock an eyepatch and use it to get girls. It would be an asset and not a liability.
Valentine sits down heavily at the dressing table. His expression in the little mirror is cold, stern and disapproving. But then, it always is. He ties his hair back in a queue, preparing for bed. He thinks of the long, painful, awkward evening he just spent: The young lady’s little attempts to draw him out, his own darting efforts to leave cover, approach the enemy and ask for a cease-fire.
The conversation ground on, labored, stiff. She did her duty, and he tried to do his. She and his dinner companions had probably been warned, so they came prepared to work hard. And the debutante labored valiantly to draw him out, raising subjects that might interest him: Estate management, the political environment, his exploits in battle. He had no idea how to talk to such a suave, correct, lovely young woman. He found her entirely unappealing, like the plastic models of sushi that you see in the windows of Japanese restaurants: Here’s what you could have if you come inside. He doesn’t want it. He can’t figure out how the real, delectable, savory treat would taste.
Inglorion and Aramil both have charm to burn. They draw in children, great-grandmothers, cabbies. Valentine’s housekeeper would gladly die for Inglorion on the slightest pretext; any of his parlor maids would drop her duster and run away with him if he winked at her and smiled. Valentine has no fucking idea why anyone puts up with him: Inglorion, Aramil, Sieia, or anyone else.
Valentine doesn’t have a name for what’s wrong with him, but he knows he’s awkward and cold. He hates being alone — hates it. He wishes with a kind of painful, gasping desperation that he had a wife here, brushing out her own hair, getting ready to curl up in bed with him. They would gossip about the party and laugh indulgently at the other guests. He would kiss her goodnight, and maybe — once they’d taken their clothes off and were freed of civilized constraints — he could make love to her, hold her, kiss her, lose himself within her. He would be so good to her, so kind. He would treat her tenderly, pet and caress her, shield and protect her.
Now he’s crying, his face buried in his hands. He can barely squeeze out the tears. He sobs, makes retching noises, like a cat bringing up a hairball. Even his grief is awkward, unattractive.
God, how he wants that. For an instant he thinks, She would get pregnant. We would have kids. Eventually, a son.
He’s torturing himself now, driving himself deeper, hoping that if he descends into a passion of grief, it will relieve his tension and disgust.
The thought is too painful to bear for long. Pressure builds within him and he cannot relieve it, so his mind veers away. He climbs into bed, lies there still and cold, jaw clenched. After a time, he feels his breath and he sees his own regret and sorrow and anger. He keeps turning away, back to his breath. It’s shallow and labored, but it’s there. His grief remains, but it ebbs.
Trance comes slowly. It’s hard to find a story to soothe and reassure himself. Things will change. He’s making progress. Someday he will feel more at home among his people, and less like an imposter. This insupportable loneliness will end. For the moment, he’s lost the ability to tell himself this story. It will return to him — the narrative that gives him hope, and makes him think that someday he will have a wife and children to love, and that they will love him back.