53. More Mysterious Than the Average Elf

Soundtrack and Video: Adam Ant, Gotta Be a Sin

That evening, Inglorion makes his way to the theater as usual. He plans to read and write while Lucius rehearses and dresses. When he arrives and lets himself in, Lucius is busy working on a bit of choreography involving his feather boa and a silk rose. After 15 minutes, he casts aside the props, saying, “That’s as good as it’s going to get for now. How are you? Maman tells me you paid her a call.”

“I did. I’m grateful you introduced us.”

Lucius smiles, sits down at his dressing table, begins to mix foundation and apply it with a brush. Inglorion is watching him anxiously, waiting for him to reply. Lucius meets his eyes in the mirror, says, “I don’t know what you did or said, but she seemed very taken with you. She kept saying she hoped you would call again, but she didn’t know for sure — perhaps there was some barrier.”

“Not anymore.” His gaze softens and he smiles seraphically. “Lucius, did she really — it seemed to me at the time — she’s a wonderful creature.”

“She is, isn’t she? I’m so glad you like each other. I thought you would.” He looks smug.

“Do you think… I told her I would call on her again when… I would very much like to see her.”

Lucius swirls a little brush in kohl and deftly sketches a thick, black line around one eye. He stops for a moment to reload his brush “What was it? The barrier?”

“I’ve been keeping company with an old flame. It was more habit than anything, and had become painful to both of us. This morning I broke with her entirely. I should have done it long ago.”

Lucius studies Inglorion’s face as he explains. “If you’re truly free, then I think you should go see maman and tell her so. She was afraid you would change your mind.”

“Do you think so?”

“I do. She is not coy, and I don’t think you should be, either.” He picks up a slightly larger brush, the size of a pinky fingertip, begins to apply layers of silver shadow to his eyelids. After a moment he stops. “She leaves for Liamelia tomorrow, you know. You need not stand on ceremony — just go to her.” When Inglorion doesn’t leave immediately, Lucius makes a shooing gesture. “Inglorion, just go!”

“OK. I don’t know why I would feel even slightly reluctant. It’s just that…”

“I know. You like her very much, and you’re afraid you’ll fuck it up somehow.”

“Well — yes.”

“Just go. Don’t disappoint her.”

And so he goes, heart pounding, feeling absurdly empty-headed and flustered. He has no idea what he’ll do when he gets there — he, Inglorion, who always acts with conviction, if not with common sense; Inglorion, who has charmed and satisfied droves of women of all ages, races and social degrees; Inglorion, with his famous combination of persistence, beauty and effrontery. For the first time, he wants a particular woman very badly. He believes he can have her now, in the usual fashion, but he doesn’t know if he can win her and keep her.

When he enters the private parlor at the Swan, she’s sitting by the fire, sipping tea and scratching in a little notebook. When she sees him, a glow of quiet delight washes over her face. She brings one hand to her cheek, as if to hold back her rising color. “Inglorion!” she says. “How nice to see you!”

He walks over, takes her hand, kisses it. “I couldn’t stay away. Or, rather — that makes it sound as if I shouldn’t be here. This morning I settled a certain pending matter. I’m entirely free, and I wanted to see you before you leave tomorrow.”

“I’m glad,” she says simply. “Nothing too troublesome, I hope. If you sit down, I’ll make you some tea.”

“Yes, please. And no, nothing terrible. I’ll tell you about it soon, when we have time and leisure.” As she prepares the tea for him, he admires her manner and movements. Like Lucius, she has a quiet grace — the practiced ease of an actress or dancer. She hands him a perfect, fragrant cup of tea with cream.

“It’s assam,” she says. “I wonder if you’ve had it before?”

He inhales the steam, sets the cup aside to cool. “Yes. I particularly like it, too.”

They sit there, smiling at each other with nervous delight. Normally Inglorion would break the tension by making a pass at hear — the bolder the better, something audacious and exhilarating to them both. He wants her desperately, and seduction is a comfortable and familiar routine.

“Virginia, do you dance?”

“Of course. I taught Lucius.”

“In that case, you certainly dance. Would you like to go dancing with me?”

“Now?”

“As soon as we can get to a suitable dance hall. I know several here — or, at least, I know where I went in my youth. Will you go with me?”

She gives a delighted laugh. “It’s been so long since I’ve gone! Of course, one never forgets. I’m packed and ready to leave in the morning.” She looks tempted.

“I won’t keep you out too late. It’s worth it, don’t you think?”

“Oh, yes. Let’s, then.”

“Perfect. Let’s just find a hackney and go as we are.”

Within moments, they’re entering a place that Inglorion knows from his youth — not too unruly, good musicians, open late. They play everything from waltzes to exoticisms like tango. A waltz is in progress when they enter. He leads her to the floor and takes her into his arms.

They’re well-matched in height and size — she’s precisely a head shorter than he is. She responds beautifully to his lead, too. So many women have to be managed like horses or cattle, herded across the floor, reminded of their duty. After a few quick turns around the floor, he begins to throw in spins and dips, and she follows him effortlessly, gracefully, joyously, laughing with sheer pleasure, looking up into his face the whole time.

As each dance ends, the band strikes up again almost immediately. They’re able to dance without interruption, completely absorbed in very physical collaboration and improvisation. She’s never surprised or puzzled, never resists his lead, and executes each figure flawlessly, with charm and style.

After a couple of hours, the band takes a break. There’s a little courtyard out back, and Inglorion and Virginia walk about, arm-in-arm, cooling off.

“How wonderful that is,” he says. “You dance beautifully.”

“So do you. I’m surprised — so few men can do more than their bare duty on the dance floor.”

“I’m descended from a long line of dashing fellows. My father was famous in his day, and my uncle cut quite a figure in his hussar jacket and pelisse. My older brother Marcus is a dull dog, but he can hold his own on the dance floor. It’s something of a family duty.”

“That’s a pleasant tradition,” she says. “For Lucius and myself it’s business. But I loved to dance as a young woman. I’ve missed it.”

“Do you sing? Lucius has a charming voice.”

“Yes, though I’ve had little formal training. Just coaching here and there. And, indeed, I’ve never sung professionally.”

They sit down on a little bench at the edge of the courtyard. They’re both still flushed and sweating. Inglorion’s hair is a mess. A few locks have escaped from his queue, and are falling down around his face.

“Hang on,” he says, “I’m going to braid this and put it back.” He starts to fiddle with it, laughs at how unhandy he is. “This will look terrible — I’d need a comb and mirror to get it right. I don’t know how the Drow go into battle with their hair down. It seems very impractical.”

“Here, let me,” she says, hopping up and standing behind him as he remains seated on the bench. He feels her fingers moving deftly through his locks, separating them, French-braiding the strands, pulling everything into a fresh queue. She secures it with pins and a bit of spare ribbon, saying, “I always carry such things. Thread and needle, too.”

Aside from Sieia, no woman has ever braided his hair. His valet does, of course, and Lucius has. But to Inglorion, it’s a masculine task, preparation to meet the day or go into battle. Her touch is light, but also tender. Curiously, he’s reminded of how Ajax used to wash and comb his hair — a simple, intimate service.

As she ties it up in back, wrapping the ribbon firmly, he captures one of her hands, places a kiss on her palm. She’s surprised — he can feel her fingers quiver. He turns back, watches her face as he kisses her inner wrist. She gives a small, breathless laugh. “You startled me.” 

“I’m sorry,” he says softly. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve been startled all night. Shall we go back in? They’ll play one more set.”

“No, I’d rather — can we walk back? Talk for awhile?”

“Of course. That’s probably best.” He tucks her hand in his arm. “I can call a hackney if you like.”

She shakes her head. “It’s close. I like to walk, and I’m sure you can protect us from any number of attackers.”

“I can. Though I imagine you’re resourceful, too.”

“I’ve had to be.”

It isn’t far, perhaps 20 minutes. The streets of Amakir are empty except for night watchmen.

“I don’t know anything about you,” she says. Then, with a mischievous smile, “Lucius told me everything he knows, and was surprised at how little that is. You’re more mysterious than the average elf, sir.”

“That’s by design. I’ll tell you, then. Not my life story, but what you need to know.” He sighs, and suddenly feels tired, weighed down. He stops, turns her so that she faces him. “Virginia, no matter what happens, you must never repeat any of this. Never — not casually in conversation, not as a confidence to your closest friend, not to Lucius, not to anyone.” His eyes search her face.

Her brow furrows, and she nods. “I can keep a secret.”

“I believe you. You must promise me that you’ll never discuss this with anyone.” She nods again. “All right, then.” They continue walking. Inglorion has been listening, tuning into the streets around them. They’re alone. There’s some ambient noise — distant traffic, wind. “You know that my mother is Drow, and I’ve made my home in the Underdark. That I’m the heir to a Dukedom. Part of my responsibility — the largest part of it — is collecting and analyzing intelligence.”

“You’re a spy?”

“No. I collect some intelligence myself, but mostly I leave that to others.” He smiles down at her. “I’m a spymaster. I recruit spies and run them, and provide reports to the Duchess and our allies.”

She’s silent for a long moment. She doesn’t seem angry or frightened, or even particularly surprised. Presently she asks, “Is it dangerous?”

“Not on a day-to-day basis. There’s very little cloak-and-dagger about it. We’re not at war, and my clan is in a time a relative political stability. But my position is risky. I’m a high-profile, high-value target inside my clan and out. If someone credible laid information against me here or in Liamelia, I could be arrested, tried, perhaps hung.” He breaks off, laughs. “I can’t believe I’m telling you this. I’m sorry. There’s no tidy way. I love you and trust you —” he catches himself, realizes what he’s said, and that it’s true. 

They walk in silence for a moment. Inglorion is in agony.

Finally she says, “I know nothing of that world. I can’t possibly know what it really means. I’ve always lived in the underworld, though. The work I did, my friends and acquaintance — Lucius has told you — all of our friends were drag queens, leather men, other prostitutes — mostly in the fetish world, but ordinary opera dancers, actresses, demi-mondaines. I can’t know what risks you run. But I’ve never lived a conventional life, and I don’t think I could.” She smiles up at him tentatively. “The life I’ve led, Lucius’s upbringing — it sounds very raw when I say it. Are you sure you don’t mind?”

“No, I don’t. I know little of that world — only what I’ve seen through Lucius. I’ve never been to a prostitute. I know there are different kinds, that it’s a whole ecosystem.” He shrugs. “Things like that just don’t bother me. I know that parts of it are very shady, but I think you and Lucius are wonderful. You both have a sweetness and candor that I haven’t seen elsewhere.” They’re almost to the hotel, so Inglorion says, “As for what I told you, never mention it to anyone or put anything in writing. Over time you’ll come to see what it means. If you must speak to me about it for some reason, do it in the open air, as we did just now, or in a private residence where you know the servants are knowledgeable and loyal. Mine are.” They walk the last few steps to the portico leading to the hotel lobby. Once they’ve passed through the archway, it’s entirely silent. The night porter has stepped away. 

He takes both her hands, draws her close, presses his lips to her forehead. She tastes of salt. A stray curl tickles his nose. “You’re leaving tomorrow?”

“Yes. Most of my business is in Liamelia — very workaday and dull.”

“Can I visit you there?”

“Please do.”

“I will, and soon.” He wants to make love to her, to keep her up until the moment her carriage pulls up to the door. He tilts her chin up. Their lips meet for the first time. Her lips are soft and pliant at first, then she quickly matches his hungry demand.

After several minutes, they come up for air. He looks into her eyes and says softly, “I meant what I said, you know. I love you and I trust you, and I’ll visit you soon — as soon as I can contrive it.” They kiss again. The whole length of her body is pressed against him, and her arms are around his neck. He could easily lift her and take her upstairs — take her right there, for that matter.

He does neither. Instead he whispers, “I’ll leave you now. Sleep tight, my darling Virginia.”

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