41. How It Feels to Be Handsome and Charming

The next morning Valentine wakes up feeling stale and weighed down, though he doesn’t remember why. He spends the morning reading correspondence from his estate agent and lawyers, and consulting with Ajax about household matters.

Valentine is forcibly reminded of his sorrow when he meets Inglorion in the atrium, where they’ve marked out a boxing ring. Inglorion is perched on one of the low walls of a raised flower bed. He’s shirtless, taping his knuckles. Even in quarter-profile his grace and beauty are unmistakable: The arcs of his shoulders and biceps, the clean lines of his cheekbone and jaw, the delicate shell of his ear with a stray lock of white hair tucked behind it. Inglorion senses Valentine’s scrutiny, looks up, grins. He looks tired and chilled, but that’s just one more flavor of gorgeous. Inglorion makes tiredness seem like a desirable and vaguely poetic state.

Valentine has been teaching Inglorion to box, and though Inglorion complains constantly about his size and reach, he’s coming along well. As they spar, Valentine’s mood lifts. It’s a refreshing challenge to teach Inglorion, and to consider how he can fight through very real disadvantages in height and weight. It’s a pleasure to train with his cousin because he handles his body so well — fights hard, is realistic about his limitations, and constantly strives to surpass them in small ways. Together they have a kind of calm curiosity, and take real pleasure in finding and exceeding their physical limits.

After a couple of hours they stop to rest. Valentine draws water from the newly installed pump, and slugs it down gratefully. Inglorion pours water all over his head and down the back of his neck, drenching his hair and pulling it back in a low, dripping pony tail. They sit side-by-side under the bare branches of orange and lemon trees.

“Are you hungry?” Valentine asks.

“Um. I don’t know. Probably.” says Inglorion.

“Ajax and I have agreed that tea should be served at four whether or not anyone’s hungry.”

“I should eat something. That’s a nice feature, having regular meals,” his cousin says naively.

Tea is served in the library, and Inglorion suddenly remembers that he hasn’t eaten anything all day, and wolfs down all the buttered toast.

Now that he’s trained and eaten, Valentine’s misery has faded into curiosity. He often just wonders what it would be like to move through the world as Inglorion, Marquis Theates. He says, “Hey, can I ask you a question? It’s going to sound weird.”

“Weird questions are the best kind,” says Inglorion. He’s cheerful because he’s eaten.

“I’ve always wondered what it’s like — how it feels to be so — you’re very handsome and charming, and people like you. I’ve always wondered how it feels — women like you.”

Inglorion grimaces. “Yes, I suppose. I mean, I won’t waste your time with false modesty. Women do like me.” He breaks off, eyes Valentine, who’s wearing an almost ludicrously hopeful expression. “I’m trying to think what you’re really asking. The easy answer is, ‘Yup, they do. I really can have pretty much any woman I want. I’ve fucked hundreds of them, and it’s been a lot of fun.’ I don’t think that’s what you’re asking, though.”

That’s exactly what Valentine was asking, but he waits for Inglorion to continue.

“You think you’re doing something wrong, and you should be more like me, right?” It’s an uncomfortable question, especially when it’s delivered along with a hard look from Inglorion’s pale eyes.

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Hang on. I need a cigarette to think about this.” Valentine waits patiently while Inglorion rolls a cigarette, lights up, takes a couple of puffs, and watches the smoke curl up towards the coffered ceiling.

“All right, here’s the thing,” Inglorion says after awhile. “All that comes with a cost. You were in love with Valykria, right? And with that other girl you were engaged to.”

“Ariadne.”

“Yeah, Ariadne. Now, I’ve been with plenty of women where it was just sport-fucking. A one-nighter or a little fling. But I stopped being a traveling purveyor of dick a long time ago, partly because of Rosalee, and partly because I was just done with it. I don’t fuck lightskirts. I spend time with women who are artists or scholars, or who own and run businesses. Most of my connections with women are measured in years or even decades. I’m a part of their lives. You met Nathalie last night. She’s a perfect example. She’s a scholar, and I’m genuinely interested in her work. We have a real intellectual relationship. She’s beautiful and she can suck a golf ball through a garden hose, but I spend time with her because she’s bright and thoughtful.

“All of that sounds great, but there’s one problem: I don’t love her, and she knows it. And I’ve never been in love with any of them for more than a month or two.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. Nathalie is perfectly lovable. They all are. She deserves someone who adores her. I don’t, and I don’t know why. That’s the long answer to your question. Each one of them matters — matters a lot. There’s always something missing, and we both know it.” He falls silent. They both watch the smoke curl up from his cigarette towards the ceiling, appreciating the pattern and its subtle variations.

Inglorion glances over at Valentine suddenly, a startling flash of pale eyes. “It bothers me, you know. I know I’m missing out. I want it. I’ve wanted it for a long time. I don’t know how to get it, how to feel that way.” His gaze drifts back to the ceiling. “So, I feel this yearning. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. It causes me pain, and most of the women in my life end up disillusioned and angry, feeling like they’ve failed or I have. I’ve prayed about it a lot, and most of the time I feel hopeful that I’ll figure it out. But I don’t have any answers. I wish I did.” He puts out his cigarette, grins suddenly and says, “That’s probably not what you were hoping to hear. On the other hand, if you want to know how to pick up girls, I can teach you. It’s a knack, and you’d put it to good use.”

Valentine looks at his cousin thoughtfully. “I wonder if I could learn it. I remember when I first got to Liamelia, and I was impressed by how easily Aramil charmed all the girls. I knew at the time it was because he didn’t care. There was no chance he’d fall in love and get hurt. It was easy for him — effortless — because he didn’t care.”

“Yeah, true. Whereas if a girl gives you the time, you fall for her. Like Valykria.”

“Yeah, like that.” They’re both silent for a moment, then Valentine says. “You really don’t care?”

“I do care, but not enough. It’s easy for me to charm women. But you know, in real life I’m a selfish piece of shit. I’m rigid and picky and bossy and I sulk when I don’t get my way. I spend most of my time in combat or staring at the ceiling in silence or reading. When I’m done fucking and talking, I wish other people would shut up and go away. I’m kind of a loner. You know all that.”

Valentine laughs, because it’s true.

“So, yeah. To answer your question, women like me, and I like them, but I don’t like any particular woman enough to want her around all the time. I wish I did.”

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