50. Madame Etoile

The next time Inglorion visits Lucius’s dressing room, Lucius says, “I think it’s time we had a little field trip. My mother is in town, looking into her business interests here. She owns a modiste’s shop, Madame Etoile’s. They have the usual stable of wealthy clients, but they also make women’s clothes to order for men — charming items, of excellent quality. I have a few things to pick up, but I also thought you might want to be measured for a riding habit, and perhaps a few other things. More than anything, though, I’d like you to meet maman — I think you would get along.”

Inglorion feels a instant of panic thinking of meeting a woman — any woman — while he’s engaged in his most recent hobby. He dismisses the thought as absurd, and reminds himself that Lucius’s mother is probably a hardened and eccentric creature.

“Certainly,” he says. “If nothing else, it’s time I got my own corset and stopped borrowing yours.” 

They walk the few blocks over to a long, winding street dedicated to fashion: Modistes, tailors, boot-makers, milliners, glove-makers and drapers. Madame Etoile’s is a good-sized shop, with a bow window displaying a lavish and frivolous walking costume straight from France. The interior is tastefully appointed and luxurious, equipped with clusters of gilt chairs, a few tables for reviewing pattern-books, and a series of ornate, gilt-framed, full-length mirrors. 

A middle-aged human woman emerges from behind a counter, greets Lucius with a kiss, and addresses him in French. He replies in Common, “Celine, is my mother here?”

“Yes, she’s in the office, looking over accounts.” 

“Oh, good. This is my good friend Inglorion, Celine — I know you will take care of him. Inglorion, you can put yourself in Celine’s hands with perfect confidence. She’s an excellent judge of color. Ma chere, we each need a few items, so we’ll come see you after we’ve paid our regards to maman.”

The office is small and spare, with only a desk and one extra chair. The woman sitting at the desk looks a good deal like Lucius. She’s delicate, slim and pale, with a riot of black curls. Her brows and lashes are dark. Like Lucius onstage, she has a air of knowing amusement.

Maman,” says Lucius, “I’ve brought someone to meet you. This is Inglorion Atropos Androktasiai, Marquis Theates. Inglorion, my mother, Virginia Regina D’Arcy.”

She offers her hand. Inglorion is tempted to kiss it, but he suspects that men tend to treat her with more familiarity than respect, so he shakes it firmly instead. “Charmed, madam.”

“What a very long name you have, sir,” she says. “I won’t remember the half of it, I’m afraid.”

“Please just call me Inglorion. It’s how I introduced myself to your son. I don’t know why he troubled you with the whole, dreary length.”

“I’m saddened that Lucius has taken to tuft-hunting. It’s not how he was raised, I assure you. How did you two meet?”

“My nephew took me to a cabaret show where Lucius was performing as Greta X. I burst into her dressing room, prepared to offer her my heart and hand. He declined the honor, and offered to teach me to dress in drag instead.”

“How did that go?”

“He tells me I’m an excellent woman, as long as I don’t speak or move.” 

She chuckles, “That’s true for all of us, I think.”

They talk for several moments on general subjects: The city of Amakir, which is her hometown and Lucius’s, and the possibility of higher tariffs. Presently Inglorion says, “We’ll leave you to your accounts, Madam. May I call on you? I would like to further our acquaintance while you’re here.”

“Certainly. I’m staying at the Swan, in Bruton Street. I’m here on business, so I’m not taking morning callers. However, I’m at home to visitors in the evenings.”

He and Lucius return to the front room, and Celine’s manner is so sympathetic and discreet that Inglorion submits to being measured for a very dashing riding habit a la Hussar in cobalt blue. He also picks up a few ready-made items: A corset, stockings, a garter belt, and a chemise and pantalettes. “I could just wear my normal underthings, or nothing at all,” Inglorion says. “But, you know, fuck it. Go big or go home.”

“It’s all part of the illusion,” Lucius says. “And it’s difficult to mix and match items like that. The result can be very poor.”

Inglorion isn’t sure why he asked to call on Virginia. Or, rather, he knows all too well. She seems to be clever, witty, a good businesswoman. She treats Lucius affectionately without doting on him excessively. If he’s honest, Inglorion must admit that Virginia has the kind of natural eroticism that older, beautiful women achieve. A very young woman’s sexuality is blinding; an older woman’s is addictive. Inglorion finds that he craves Virginia’s company already — the sound of her voice, her glance.

None of this matters, or, at least, it shouldn’t. He and Artemisia are no longer lovers, but she’s never said he’s free to look elsewhere, and he’s never sought that freedom. Deepening his acquaintance with Virginia would be exactly the kind of behavior he swore off in order to win Artemisia back. Even now, it’s what she fears most from him. 

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