90. Kneeling by the Altar

He lies there day after day in the little room that Sieia made for him years ago: The massive four-poster bed with its rich silk hangings and down comforter. It’s warm and snug and private, and the shrine is beautiful. Sieia has kept it stocked with candles. Sieia and Virginia feed and care for him, and sit with him occasionally, when he’s awake and lucid.

He remembers that in the early days of his illness, Sieia brought Xardic in. His brother-in-law stood by the hearth and gave a stiff speech about how Inglorion and Virginia should consider themselves to be welcome guests in the Ceralac home. The doctor has said that he’s too sick to be moved, and that he needs skilled nursing. Sieia is an excellent nurse, and between her and Virginia he’s in good hands. Inglorion should take as long as he needs to get well, and should not worry about moving back into his lodgings, or to Virginia’s townhome.

As Xardic speaks, Inglorion nods, eyes downcast, and resolves to pack up and jump in a hackney the instant he’s able to stand. He recognizes that Xardic means to be generous, but his entire manner is one of ill-concealed loathing and condescension. His resolve evaporates in the heat of exhaustion and illness, however, which forces him to acknowledge exactly how sick he’s been.

As soon as he’s well enough to stand and move about, Inglorion begins to tend the shrine. He’s touched to see that his old Jack of Hearts calling card is propped up against one of the votive holders. He left it there on a whim years ago, when the Battle of Liamelia was brewing, and he was about to leave for the Underdark.

In his weakened, sentimental state, he feels a rush of tears as he examines it. On the playing card, he’s posed almost exactly as Tereus is in the massive, priceless portrait that hangs in Valentine’s library: Brandishing a longsword in his right hand, left hand on the pommel of his second weapon, cloak rippling about him. More than anything, it’s the gaze: heavy-lidded, seductive, knowing. They’re portrayed in battle, but both Inglorion and Tereus smile at the viewer with an air of knowing invitation, a promise of pleasure.

Inglorion gives a sharp bark of mirthless laughter. For days he’s been preoccupied with with half-conscious court proceedings around a single charge: Like his rash and charming father, he drew the people closest to him into an ill-fated, disastrous adventure. He, Inglorion, is affectionate, idealistic, and casually murderous.

He thinks fiercely for a moment — a sickening, taboo instant — that he hates the gods and loves his family, and will never willingly pray to the gods or serve them if the cost is losing his wife or son or daughter.

He drops to his knees, and starts to pray.

I want a wife and son and daughter. I don’t want this to happen. Please, please save them. I want to serve You, but I beg You — please don’t hurt them. Please keep them safe from harm. Let them live and thrive. I would rather die than see them hurt. Nothing is worth their suffering — nothing.

Virginia finds him kneeling by the altar, tears streaming down his pale cheeks. She starts towards him, shocked at how tired and sick he looks, saying, “Inglorion, you’re ill. Please lie down.”

He starts back with an expression of shame and defiance.

“Come to bed,” she says in a more gentle tone. “You shouldn’t be up.”

She takes his hand, and once he feels her touch, he realizes that he’s giddy with exhaustion, nauseous from it. He bows his head, follows her, unresisting. She sits down next to the bed, strokes his hand.

“Virginia,” he says urgently, then breaks off. He’s too tired to convey his train of thought, ending with the conviction that he’s as wicked as Tereus.

“Shh, darling,” she says. “You’re feverish. Don’t try to talk.”

He lies there silently for quite awhile, then says, “Virginia, please believe that I would do anything to keep you safe, to preserve you and Lucius from pain and injury. I love you both more than my own life.”

“I know,” she says softly. “Why do you say that now?”

“Because it went so badly, and you could have died. Nothing is worth that — no ideal, no slaves rescued —” He breaks off, choked with tears. “Virginia —”

She studies his thin, anguished face. She kisses his forehead, says deliberately, “You’re ill and upset. I want you to listen to me. Are you listening?”

He nods.

“When I followed you there, I knew it was risky. I knew I could die of influenza, and that there were dangers I hadn’t anticipated, and for which I wasn’t fully prepared.”

“You don’t understand,” he says impatiently. “It would kill me if anything happened to you. I never thought —”

She cuts him off, places a finger over his lips. “No, Inglorion. Listen. Do you promise to listen?”

He nods, and she lifts her finger, traces it down the perfect angles of his cheekbone and jaw. She says, “It would kill me if anything happened to you. I went because I knew you were afraid and needed help.” He starts to speak again, and she says, “No, Inglorion, listen. It’s true that you don’t think. I do, and yet I’m still here. No one lives forever. I choose my own risks. You didn’t risk my life, I did, and Lucius risked his. Are you listening to me?”

And suddenly, he hears her. Or, rather, he hears himself quietly forbidding a distraught Lucius from regarding himself as a failure and a burden, and wishing he were different.

“Oh,” Inglorion says quietly.

“Yes,” she says. “Trust us. Trust the gods. OK?”

“Yeah. It’s OK.” Relief floods his features. He’s radiant and calm.

As she watches, he lapses into trance. She presses her cheek to their intertwined hands, the same gesture that Ajax made long ago, when Inglorion was poisoned.

She can’t divide out how much of her devotion stems from his physical perfection, any more than she can attribute different proportions to his wit or passion or stubbornness, the color of his eyes, the way he speaks with quiet precision when he’s angry, the flashes of vulgarity in his speech, or the mix of apprehension and eagerness in his voice when he suddenly asked her to marry him. His tears bring them close, but his loveliness imposes a slight but perceptible barrier within her, a pained, inarticulate longing.

Even now, when he’s in trance, words and breath tangle in her throat. Though she tries, she cannot say that she loves him.

For the first episode of Inglorion’s adventures, click here.

For a linked table of contents, listing all of Inglorion and Valentine’s adventures, click here.

 

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