Soon after Aramil and Ajax’s arrival, all five are enjoying breakfast in their various ways. Aramil is eating the last of the ham while explaining to Valentine that his cook has provided the wrong condiments. Ajax is quietly miffed because Aramil has been chewing an African narcotic that dyes his teeth crimson. Lucius is trying to divert Ajax by recruiting him to braid silk ribbons and feathers into his hair. Valentine is ignoring Aramil’s culinary advice and drinking a third cup of coffee, hoping this will motivate him to apply himself to certain dull legal matters pending on the estate.
Inglorion’s toast is cooling on his plate because he’s fixated on the idea that he should learn to ride a horse. He interrupts Lucius and Ajax to ask, “Lucius, how long have you been riding horses?”
“Since I was 10 or 11.”
“And you can ride any horse?”
“I wouldn’t say that. I’ve done well with Indian ponies. They take to me in a way that other horses don’t.”
“Indian ponies?” His tone is skeptical, as if Lucius had endorsed onagers or zebras as proper Drow mounts.
“They’re surprisingly common in Ireland. I’ve worked with a couple of different horse-dealers in Amakir.”
“Hm. How does one learn to ride? Are there riding masters?”
Valentine says flatly, “One learns to ride by getting on a fucking horse and staying on it until you’ve reached your destination.”
“Do they bite? I seem to remember that they bite.”
“Oh, dear, yes. At every opportunity,” says Valentine with relish.
“Horses don’t generally bite,” says Aramil. “It’s just that miserable roan of Valentine’s. I don’t know why you keep that animal in your stables, cousin.”
“Strictly speaking, he’s in Marcus’s stables. I don’t know how he got there, or how he came to be mine. It is unfortunate. No sane person would buy him from me. It would cost money to send him to the glue factory. My butcher doesn’t know how to slaughter and dress a thoroughbred, and anyway Sieia tells me it’s not the thing to hold a horse barbecue. On the whole, he’s not a bad animal. He’s never injured. You can feed him or not feed him — he’s equally ugly and disagreeable either way.”
“Do horses come to resemble their owners?” Aramil asks ingeniously.
“Given that yours is a showy little peacock that’s forever throwing out a splint and too high in flesh, I’d say yes,” Valentine retorts.
“I wonder what mine will be like?” Inglorion muses.
“A miniature Arabian with a permanent hard-on that insists on sharing your bed,” says Valentine.
Inglorion considers. “That’s not bad. You can train them to go outdoors, right?”
“No. They’re like rats. They crap wherever.”
“Really? With a hard-on, no less. Do they maintain eye contact the whole time?”
“I’m sure yours will. For fuck’s sake, stop fretting and buy a pony already,” says Valentine irritably. “In fact, if you haven’t bought one by nightfall, I’ll make you a present of the roan.”
“I’ll accompany you to Tattersall’s, mon pére,” says Lucius. “Aramil can get us in. He still has a subscription.”
Valentine groans. “Tattersall’s? Look, I’m engaged with my lawyers all day. I can’t be a part of this. Lucius, I’m counting on you. You know what Inglorion is. Left to his own devices, he’ll either chicken out and take the roan or buy a string of Royal Lippizaner stallions.”
Luckily, Lucius proves himself to be a competent agent. He canvasses the subscription room until he finds a reputable Irish horse dealer. “My father rides about eight stone, so there’s no point in showing us anything over 16 hands,” he says bluntly. “I’m thinking a New World pony would be best. They’re good animals — tough and spirited. I’ve also done well with Spanish and Arabian mounts.”
“I’ve got several you can look at,” the dealer says. “Two Arabians, a Spanish horse — a bit large, but older and well-trained — and a handful of Irish stock. They’re very neat little beasts, just a generation away from the Great Plains.”
As the horses trot by on leads, Inglorion stands back with an almost ludicrous expression of distaste. The Arabians are lovely and well-mannered, but Lucius rejects them because they seem sensitive and easily chilled. Lucius frowns at the prancing Spanish horse, saying, “Definitely not. We’re looking to buy a cover hack, not rehearsing a circus appearance. Let’s see your Irish stock.”
The Irish ponies trot out, six on a string. They range from 2-5 years old, and look to be shaggy, sturdy versions of their Arabian cousins. “Please go to their heads as I walk by,” Lucius says cooly to the dealer. “Horses sometimes react badly to Drow.”
And sure enough, the first four — all stocky piebalds — degenerate into crazy-eyed head-tossing when Lucius approaches them. He dismisses them with a wave of his hand, and examines the remaining two, a little Appaloosa mare and a black stallion. Both allow him to examine their mouths and hooves. The mare trembles a bit, but seems docile, while the stallion is positively friendly, nudging Lucius and lipping at his queue.
“Inglorion, come take a look at these two. They’re very much what I have in mind,” he says.
Now Inglorion feels the true depth of his hatred for horses. His few early childhood memories concern mucking out stalls, dodging random nips and kicks, and avoiding that horrible creature Copenhagen, which plunged and kicked at the sound of Fabius’s voice. It doesn’t pay to be timid with animals or elves, though. Inglorion assumes an air of casual interest, walks over, and takes the mare’s halter firmly.
Her eyes roll, and she shakes her head. Her ears flicker with anxious indecision. He murmurs to Lucius, “I thought I’d like to have a mare, but she seems reluctant, poor honey.”
“She’s two?” The dealer nods. “She might settle down over time. But a green girl like that, a bit shy — she might not be your best choice.” Lucius takes the stallion’s bridle, strokes his nose. “What do you think of this fellow?”
The stallion is coal black with a white blaze, and stands precisely 15 hands high. He eyes Inglorion for a moment, then inclines his neck, offering his soft snout. Inglorion’s been watching Lucius’s movements carefully, so he’s able to make a show of examining the horse’s teeth and gums. He hisses, “What am I looking for?”
“Age, but also general health and soundness. His gums should be firm and pink, with no significant wear on his teeth. He’s just over two.”
The horse regards Inglorion with huge, black, long-lashed eyes. His skin is so dark that his eyes appear to be kohl-lined against the white blaze. “Hey, sexy boy,” Inglorion says softly. Then, “Should I look at his feet?”
“He should let you examine his hooves, yes. Talk to him as you move behind him, so that he knows you’re there.”
And so Inglorion picks up his hooves like Lucius did, sliding his hands down from just below the knees to the hocks. When he touches the stallion’s fetlocks, he lifts each hoof in turn and allows Inglorion to examine his shoes and hooves, and the delicate frogs within.
“The flesh should be clean and firm. No splitting in the hooves, well-shod,” says Lucius.
“They all look good,” says Inglorion. He moves back to the stallion’s head, takes the bridle from Lucius. Again, the horse inclines its head, ears forward, regarding Inglorion with cheerful curiosity. “I like this pony very much,” Inglorion says. He asks the dealer, “Does he have a name?”
“He’s Paris, sir.”
“Paris? Oh, dear. Not Hector or Achilles? Can their names be changed?”
“About as much as yours can, sir. He’s registered.”
“Poor fellow. Well, I won’t hate you because you’re beautiful, Paris.”
The dealer clears his throat and adds, “Properly speaking, he’s a horse, sir. Just barely. He’s a half-hand too tall for a pony.”
“Well, that settles it,” Inglorion says to Paris, “You’ve beaten out Valentine’s roan, sir.”
Lucius arranges the purchase of Paris and his tack, making Inglorion the proud owner of a beast about which he’s entirely ignorant. Inglorion keeps his mouth firmly shut during the negotiations, but afterwards frantically peppers his son with questions. Where will he put the horse? What does it eat? Will he need to hire a groom? Where does one purchase riding clothes? How long do horses live? Where will he store it when he’s in the Underdark? Can horses travel over mountain passes, or is that strictly the province of mules? Is Paris truly a stallion? Will he occasionally need a mare? How on earth will he learn to ride it?
“We can board it near my lodgings if you like, but I should think your brother or Valentine would be willing to stable him. I can teach you to ride him. I’ve never taught anyone, but it’s not difficult.”
Inglorion says suspiciously, “Lucius, are you good at riding horses?”
He wrinkles his nose. “It’s like driving, right? Every man thinks he does it well. But, you know, I’m in a Wild West show. I’ve trained horses.”
Lucius gives a little half-smile and says, “Father, I haven’t had the opportunity to hunt foxes, but I’ve made a good living doing trick shots at a full gallop.”
Inglorion beams ecstatically. “This is going to be amazing.”
He applies himself to riding as if he were learning a new weapon, shocking Lucius with his progress and briefly forgetting his sorrows. After two weeks of daily lessons, Inglorion can guide Paris through light city traffic at a trot. He doesn’t grudge grooming Paris, or even picking his hooves, since he is proving to be a friendly and reliable form of transportation. Inglorion’s also pleased to discover that his height and build are an advantage in the equestrian world. Paris is handsome and well-behaved, and excites a good deal of admiration from strangers, all of whom remark sadly, “I don’t suppose he’d be up to my weight.”
“I can almost appreciate Copenhagen now,” Inglorion tells Valentine. “Tereus must have ridden 13 or 14 stone, and been in the saddle at least 12 hours at a stretch.”
“Oh, yeah. A horse that will carry you like that without kicking your ribs in is a valuable animal. I’m not heavy, but I ride hard. The roan is a tough bastard, so I don’t need him to be Mr. Congeniality.”
To Inglorion’s delight, though, Paris is Mr. Congeniality. He’s calm, smart and cheerful, and disdains random nipping and shying. Lucius points out that he has a good rider. Inglorion has light hands and a good seat, and refrains from sawing on the reins or resorting to spurs or a crop to make his wishes known. At the end of three weeks, Inglorion knows enough to judge the others’ skill. Valentine makes constant, fiddling adjustments to the reins that the roan ignores; Aramil is heavy-handed, and complains that somehow he’s bought a string of iron-mouthed hacks. Despite Lucius’s best efforts to teach him, Ajax is timid and unclear, so his mounts either tend to bolt with him or wander off to crop grass. Inglorion and Lucius ride so well that they draw admiring comments from passers-by.
Inglorion progresses to galloping and jumping Paris. He likes to take the horse out at odd hours, when the parks and walkways are clear of pedestrians and other riders. One evening, towards nightfall, he and Lucius race a quarter mile over dirt lanes. The weather is turning chilly, and the air smells of burning leaves. Inglorion bends low over Paris’s neck, enjoying how the mustang’s paces become smoother with speed. He pulls even with Lucius’s paint mare, then surges past her. The wind whips the ribbon from his queue, and his hair and cloak stream behind him.
He’s overwhelmed with joy — he’s riding, just like a proper elf! In the moment, it seems that anything is possible.
He’s gripped with an immediate, physical sense of power. Inglorion swears to himself that, by God, he will be Duke of the Underdark, he will marry Virginia and make Lucius his son, he will teach Rosalee to speak as beautifully as she sings. His triumph is inevitable because his life and birth are so improbable. He will melt the dreary barriers of birth and fortune in the fire of his will, and he will fulfill the vague, sweet prophecies of the gods.