Late that afternoon, Inglorion walks over to Artemisia’s house, still feeling cheerful and bubbly. She receives him in her sitting room.
“What’s got you so chipper?” she asks, in a voice that implies a willingness to wipe the smile off of Inglorion’s face.
“I’ve finally managed to find a proper situation for my valet, Ajax. He will be going into service with my nephew, Aramil.”
She finishes her glass of wine and pours out another. “Why do you care so much what happens to a little Drow slave?”
Inglorion finds himself trying to gauge how much she’s had to drink already. Her hands are a bit unsteady and she sounds belligerent, but she’s speaking clearly. She may simply be nasty, not drunk. He sighs, sits down across from her by the fire. “That little Drow slave has been in my service for decades. He saved my life when I first came to the Underdark. I care very much about his happiness.”
“Have you fucked him?”
Inglorion laughs. “You of all people should know that my interest doesn’t lie in that direction.”
She shrugs, takes a swallow from her glass. “You don’t seem too selective to me. Just when I think you’ve told me everything, I find out about a whole new category of creatures that you’ve fucked.”
“In this case, I must disappoint you. I haven’t fucked my valet, and he hasn’t fucked me. It’s been entirely fuck-free, all these years.”
She narrows her eyes. Inglorion has the familiar sense that she’s dissatisfied, wants a grievance to pursue more than she wants facts or reassurance. “There’s something there, though. You didn’t fuck him, but something happened.”
Inglorion is faced with two choices. He can stonewall, making her increasingly suspicious, or he can tell the truth, and submit to an extended line of angry questioning about it. “Artemisia, please leave it. It doesn’t concern you. I have never had a sexual or romantic relationship with Ajax. I care for him and wish him well, and am pleased to be able to do him a good turn. That’s all.”
“That’s not all, though. I can tell you’re lying,” she says with satisfaction. She’s found her grievance, and she settles in to pursue it. She drains her glass and starts to pour out another. The decanter is empty, so she checks the sideboard. “I told Madison to decant another bottle.”
“He probably did.”
“I’m not the liar here.”
Inglorion doesn’t respond. She summons Madison, argues with him unpleasantly for a little while. Once that’s done and she has her freshly decanted bottle, she sits down again, spoiling for another round. “You might as well tell me what happened. I’ll get it out of you eventually.”
Inglorion feels he should leave, but he knows he can’t without a struggle. He feels that by staying, he provides a target for her anger. It’s dreadful and probably destructive to stay, but he’s afraid of what will happen after he leaves. There’s no good choice, and yet he finds himself fretting, calculating, trying to escape the quarrel she so clearly wants. “Very well,” he says. “Ajax is homosexual. He was in love with me. I became aware of it some time ago. He approached me today and asked to go into service with my cousin Aramil. They’re in love. I’m happy for them both. End of story.”
“Your manservant was in love with you?”
“Yes. Shocking, I know, for so many reasons.”
“You must have loved that — knowing that he wanted to suck your dick and couldn’t.”
“I rarely thought about it.”
“I very much doubt that. I know you. You’re a fucking attention whore. You flirt with everything that walks on two legs. You can’t tell me you didn’t enjoy it — knowing he wanted you and couldn’t have you, and couldn’t leave.”
Inglorion sits silently, exhausted and sad. Absurdly he finds that he’s examining his conscience, imagining that she’s right in some way.
His silence seems to invigorate her. She rattles in again: “That’s why I can’t trust you.”
“Because I’m reluctant to quarrel with you about something that doesn’t concern you? Because I care for the people in my service? Ajax hasn’t stolen something that’s yours, Artemisia.”
“The way you hand out free samples, no one has to steal anything.”
“In this case, I’m innocent. Please let it drop.”
“Why do you keep lying about shit like this? Why not just tell the truth from the start? I hate this, how I have to pry and poke and interrogate to get the full truth.”
He says, “All you’ve discovered are the private thoughts and feelings of one of my servants, which, frankly, are none of your fucking business.”
She stands up, walks over. She’s been drinking steadily, and her gait is a bit unsteady now. She places her hands on the arms of his chair, partly to keep herself upright, partly to confine him. She leans over, and he’s very aware of her exposed cleavage. After everything that’s passed, he still finds her lovely. Surely she knows that. “I know exactly what you would do. You can’t tell me you didn’t enjoy it, knowing he was panting after your cock. I know exactly the look you would have given him.” She cocks her head, drops her eyelids to half-mast, mimics one of Inglorion’s inviting smiles. “Like that.” She leans over further. One of her long curls has come undone, and it tumbles forward over her breast now. He can smell the wine on her breath. “I know exactly how you hold it, how you show it off.”
“Artemisia, please don’t do this.”
“Don’t do what? You can’t stand the truth, can you? And yet you’re such a shitty liar. I know just how you would have done it, you cheap little flirt.”
That last, ugly, little phrase spurs Inglorion cruelly. “Are you sure? I find you lacking in imagination. How do you know it wasn’t my ass he wanted? It gets good reviews, honey. Maybe he cheated you after all. Better start poking and find out.”
“God, you’re disgusting,” she says. She sits back down again, hard.
“Yeah, I hear that a lot. And yet people keep coming back for more.” He cocks his head, looks up at her. “I’m disappointed — I hoped you’d demonstrate how I’d flaunt my ass for my little Drow manservant. No? Fuck you. The fact is, you don’t know me. You’ve learned just enough to hurt me. That’s all.”
She takes a pull at her glass, empties it. She’s reconsidering her approach.
Inglorion stands up. “I’ll be going now. I have work to do. After all, tonight’s my last opportunity to tease my little Drow slave before he leaves my service.”
“Don’t go,” she says without looking up.
“Why would I stay?”
She refills her glass to the very rim, brings it carefully to her mouth, drains it in a long series of steady gulps. She doesn’t pretend to savor it, or even to taste it. She pours out another, carefully steadying the rim of the bottle against the rim of the glass. She’s lying back in the chair, limp, where before she leaned forward aggressively, if unsteadily. Her eyes are still on the glass as she says in a soft, flat voice, “I need you. I’m afraid.” The threat is clear: if he leaves, she’ll keep drinking. Of course, she’ll also drink if he stays.
He wants to tell her that he loves her. But that will anger her, and make him feel that it’s wrong to leave. “I can’t stay.”
She nods. She’s looking at the wineglass as if it’s a difficult assignment she’s been given. She brings it to her lips, takes a couple of pulls. “I wish I could trust you,” she says.
He softens. “Oh, honey, so do I.” He kneels by her, takes her free hand, presses it to his cheek. Her scent is so erotic, so familiar. This is what he doesn’t want to feel: Mingled love, compassion and desire. “I wish —” he breaks off, miserable.
Still without looking up, she says, “Send Madison to me.”
He escapes the room. He does not summon Madison. He hopes she won’t be able to ring for him. He’s afraid, relieved and ashamed as he walks the few blocks to his own townhouse.