Inglorion is lying on his back contemplating the ceiling and letting his mind spin free, as he usually does at night. The only difference is, he’s doing this in Liamelia, in Virginia’s sitting room. He and Virginia are lying side-by-side on the couch, holding hands. He has gone to some trouble and expense to remove to Liamelia semi-permanently, dragging Valentine with him, leaving Ajax and Aramil behind to mind matters in Amakir. Lucius always spends the month of November with his mother in Liamelia, since the theater and cabaret both close down for the high elvish Festival of Light.
He asks her, “How did you become a — what does Lucius call it? — a demi-mondaine with a specialized clientele?”
She smiles ruefully. “Is that what Lucius calls it? It’s not a bad phrase. Perhaps I should adopt it. The story isn’t terribly interesting. My home was chaotic and unstable. I left suddenly, with only a vague idea of what I would do. I had a few romantic notions of taking to the stage, and only slightly more realistic ones of being a governess or schoolmistress. I wasn’t qualified for anything, and I had no references. I was terribly young — just 15 — and pretty. Of course there was no hope of finding respectable employment. I sought a protector when I was close to starvation and had no prospect of work. I was lucky in my first protector. He was candid with me, told me to save money, think about the future. I met some key friends through him — gay men who had worked as rent boys, and such — and they advised me, too.” She glances over to see how Inglorion is taking all of this. “I don’t often speak of it. It’s not glamorous — very businesslike, and desperate, too. There was tremendous risk.”
He brings her hand to his lips, kisses it. “I know, dear. I ask because I don’t know how you managed to survive. I admire you partly because you did.”
“It was very hard, and I was lucky. I had three protectors in succession, all generous and relatively kind. But I saw how bad the odds were. It’s not just staying alive. It’s staying fresh, beautiful, desirable — having enough power so that you could control your destiny to some extent. So few of the people I know from that time — male or female — made it through.
“A very close friend who was gay told me of a specialized brothel. He called it a kind of acting, and I suppose it was. The money was much better, and I could choose whether to have sex with clients. I’m sure you can imagine what it was — domination and fetishes. The work was safer, more profitable. You could have a longer career. And so that’s what I did. I never forget the advice of my first protector. I put money aside, avoided drugs and drink, was selective about my clientele. And my luck held. It’s easy to imagine that you’ve been wise and clever, but bad luck or poor judgment could destroy everything at once.”
He kisses her hand again. “I’m so glad you’re here. I’m so glad you made it through.”
“When I look back, it seems impossible. I’m grateful every day that Lucius and I are secure, that I’ve amassed enough property to support us.”
“Do you think it affected your idea of love? I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with you. You and Lucius are incredibly loving and affectionate. I just want to know how you see it.”
She sighs. “I’m sure it has. It’s a fair question, and one I’ve often asked myself. It’s difficult to know. I have wondered… I was very careful to only have sex with clients if I felt absolutely safe with them. That was my first criterion. Not whether I found them attractive or cared for them, but simply, was there any chance that they would hurt me? Was there even the smallest risk? I’ve wondered if it’s made me cold, cautious.”
“Do you think it has?”
“I’m not sure. For years I never considered being with a man in anything other than a professional capacity. It just seemed too risky.” She sees his puzzled look, and explains, “I felt I knew how to control my customers, but I saw many people — men and women — get badly hurt in relationships that weren’t professional — that they entered freely. People who were otherwise very prudent, that’s how they would slip up. I felt that I couldn’t afford any errors.”
She pauses, glances over at his face again. He looks calm, attentive. Finally she says, “A very dear friend — the man who taught Lucius to cross-dress — a very sweet creature, very tough… he’d been a rent boy, the prey of chickenhawks since his youth… I don’t know how he survived so long. He was with a man who beat him terribly, who was cruel, possessive. He died of it. That man killed him during an argument.” For a moment she looks anguished. Inglorion can feel her hand trembling in his. “It was terrible. And of course poor Lucius took it very hard. I don’t think he ever recovered from the loss. Indeed, that’s how he chose his adult name — as a memorial to another Lucius. I promised myself that I would never let that happen — that since I had survived so much, I wouldn’t give it up for sex or love, for some charming jackass.” She’s near tears. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t speak of it.” She falls silent, averts her face, ashamed and miserable.
Inglorion sits quietly for a moment, stroking her hand. She doesn’t seem to feel his touch. After a moment she shakes her head, turns back to him, tries to laugh. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I’m glad you told me.” He’s quiet for a minute, then says suddenly, “It’s very hard. I’ve often felt — you know, my father beat his wife, Sieia’s mother, Lavinia. That’s why we ran away. He was cruel to servants, too — to anyone in his power. I grew up knowing that some men prey on the weak.” They’re both quiet for awhile, lost in thought. Finally Inglorion says, “I used to worry a lot that I would end up like him.”
“Why did you think you might?”
“Most obviously because we’re very much alike. I’m instantly recognizable as his son. Every day I catch myself doing little things that he used to do. There’s a famous portrait of him by one of the great painters of the day. The resemblance is uncanny — his gaze, the tilt of his head, his expression. Now that I’m the age he was then…” he sighs. “I’m almost resigned to it, but every now and then it horrifies me.” She’s watching him intently — not with skepticism, but with care. “More than anything, it’s because I don’t understand why he did it.”
“I should think that would comfort you.”
“Oh, no. It makes it much worse. Because no one thinks to themselves, ‘I’ll be a fucking asshole, a brute and a scoundrel.’ Something happened to make that possible, and once he did it, he couldn’t stop.”
“What do you think happened?”
“I was born. The midwife who delivered me reported him to the military police. He was court-martialed and forced to retire. He was publicly humiliated, lost a career that he loved and excelled at. He wasn’t ostracized — the Shelawns are tremendously wealthy, so no Shelawn is ever truly an outcast. But I imagine he was bored, restless. I would have been.”
Virginia’s brow furrows. “He raped your mother?”
“Yes. I thought I told you that. She was a prisoner of war. He did it in a particularly terrible fashion — held her captive. She and I have never discussed it. The Drow don’t have a lot of mother-son heart-to-heart chats.”
“Very few men would have had the stomach for that. Something must have been very wrong already — he just hadn’t been caught yet.”
“I suppose so. I can’t grasp it at all. It seems monstrous.” He’s silent for awhile, then says, “I didn’t mean to speak so much of myself, of my father. What I meant to say was, it makes me sad that you’ve had to fear so much for your safety. It’s a rational fear.”
“Do you think it’s affected your idea of love?”
“I suppose it must have. I was an orphan for all practical purposes. I knew Tereus was my father, but it was never acknowledged openly. I’ve always felt like I was playing a part, like I didn’t quite know how real elves behave. It feels like I’ve been thrust onstage, I blurt out a few lines, people applaud or boo, and I try to reason from that: Did I do it right? Am I a real boy now?” He cuts himself off, ashamed of his own candor.
She strokes his hand gently, intertwines her fingers with his. “So you’re bluffing?” She smiles up at him sweetly.
“Oh, yes. Entirely. It’s worked so far.”
“Is that why you haven’t tried to make love to me?” Her tone is one of pure curiosity, sweet, tolerant amusement.
“No, it’s not that.” He laughs. “I didn’t realize I was behind schedule — I thought I’d come up with a series of excellent excuses.” As he says this, it’s hard for him to sit still, to look at her. “I’m afraid I’ll use it as a diversionary tactic, as a way of drawing attention from the man behind the curtain. Virginia, I’m a fucking sack artist, and I’m not sure I know how to be kind and loving and close in bed. I’m looking for something I can’t explain or describe, something I’ve never felt. I want it to be so good and holy and erotic — I imagine a kind of perfect openness. Does that make any sense? I assure you, I’m not normally a slow-top. Ask anyone.”
She can see how uncomfortable he is — restless with it, practically twitching. She takes his hand and says, “I’ve had a similar thought about myself: That I know everything except how to be close and loving.” Then she adds, in a tone of wonder, “You’re afraid.”
He gives a peal of laughter. “Aren’t you?”
He rolls over quite suddenly, covering her body with his own and pinning her to the couch. He gazes into her eyes and says, “Fear and excitement are physiologically identical, my darling. So maybe I’m just very fucking excited.”
Her eyes are wide, searching his. She gives an uncertain laugh. “You’re so charming — so beautiful.”
“So are you. Bit of a loaded gun.” She can feel him hard against her. His knee is between her thighs, pressing them apart. He feels her yielding, responding to his lead as if they were dancing. “Do you feel safe with me?” Despite their positions — him pinning her down, pushing against her insistently, it is an earnest question.
She answers in kind. “I trust you. But it’s hard for me to feel safe.”
“Do you want me to make love to you?” Whether or not he intends it, the question is tremendously seductive, backed by the notorious, heavy-lidded Shelawn gaze. He’s pinned one hand over her head; the other cups her jaw and chin tenderly. She thinks of following his lead on the dance floor — the ease and joy of it — his assurance and sense of command. Their lips are close but not touching; he feels her breath quickening.
She says, “I want you very much. It’s odd —” Her face turns from his, and she murmurs, “I’ve always permitted it before, never desired it.”
He kisses her ear, her throat. She shivers at the heat of his lips and tongue. “Virginia, you’re a miracle,” he says fervently. His lips find hers, and now they’re kissing deeply. She’s straining against him, tense with desire, but also with a kind of driving anxiety. She’s used to choreographing encounters from start to finish. Now she doesn’t know her role, or what cues to look for.
He breaks off kissing her, says lovingly, “You haven’t answered the question. Do you want me to make love to you?”
“Yes, now!” He kisses her jaw, throat. “Now, my love. I don’t know what will happen, but I do know that I want you. So tell me, Virginia: Do you want me to make love to you?”
“Yes, I do,” She says.
“Here on the couch?”
“Oh, no! We’ll be more comfortable in the bedroom.” They both crack up laughing, and she leads him there.
The room is simple but luxurious. The bed is large, which he likes, and equipped with a variety of down pillows. He helps her out of her clothing — dress and corset and chemise and stockings and garters. As he removes each piece, he kisses her exposed skin, fair and delicate. She blushes easily, so her cheeks and breast are rosy. He lets her hair down — a cascade of dark, glossy curls.
There she is on the bed, tiny and perfectly proportioned. He strips quickly, and for a long moment they simply lie side by side, kissing. He is so lithe and strong and beautiful — for a moment she feels very real fear, because she has never given in to desire.
When they danced, she followed his lead without thinking. Here, he feels her straining against him, rushing. He wants her to feel everything — uncertainty, joy, delight and apprehension — so he proceeds slowly, eyes closed, touching and tasting her, listening to the sound of her breath and her little cries and exclamations. It’s easy enough to play the role of hero — to overwhelm both of them with haste and drama. That’s his stock-in-trade — taking control, creating an addictive thrill ride of sensation and emotion. Now he’s striving for something more intimate and raw.
They’re lying side-by-side, facing each other, and her legs are drawn up, over his shoulders. She’s tiny enough that he can totally manhandle her — adjust angle and speed and depth, break off to kiss and fondle her. He enters her slowly. It takes a long time for her to open up to him. She’s such a tiny creature, and he feels traces of apprehension in her body. When he’s entered her completely, her eyes widen, her hands grip his shoulders. He can tell it’s almost painful, so he stays deep within her, pins her in place and watches her struggle to give in. When she does, he feels it all at once, like ice breaking in a thaw. Her eyes drift closed, her lips seek his, something shifts within her, and she’s slick and open to him.
For an instant here and there, then for long stretches, she is entirely his, and their perceptions and sensations mingle. He pursues these moments, tries to draw them out. He’ll find an angle and speed that pleases them both and fuck her earnestly. The world falls away. They’re alone together, bathed in sensation.
His excitement begins to crest higher and higher, and after a time he knows that he’s only got another round or two. He wants to bring her to pleasure, to feel her give in. But he starts to lose the thread of the argument — she’s so beautiful and perfect and tiny in his arms, he takes such keen pleasure in holding her and fucking her.
He whispers, “Darling, I can’t hold out much longer.”
“That’s what I want — I want you to come.”
And so he kisses her and holds her just so, pins her down and fucks her, immersing himself in sensation. At the last minute, he slows down, stops straining for it, allows it to wash over him. He’s almost entirely still, eyes wide with awe and delight. She feels him shuddering. She holds him, kisses him.
When he comes back to himself, her dark eyes are watching him. She’s smiling and stroking his hair, which has come undone and is spilling across his face like a length of silk. He whispers, “Are you happy?”
“Me, too.” As they lie there, he thinks, this is what he wanted. Nothing exotic or heroic — just to be close to her, to feel everything that passes between them. “I love you, Virginia,” he says, and though he would like an answer, he doesn’t mind when she simply kisses him and curls up next to him.
As always, Inglorion doesn’t need to succeed the first time — he just needs a chance.