91. The Magnificent Five: Conclusion

Inglorion’s recovery is slow and uneven. A few days after he’s consistently awake and conscious, he’s able to sit up and read, spend an hour or two a day in the library or Sieia’s sitting room. After another week, he’s permitted to read the newspaper, though he suspects that they’re withholding certain sections. Neither Valentine nor Lucius is free to visit him, and he’ll need to submit some kind of paperwork — it’s not clear what — to visit them.

When he’s finally brought his correspondence, he thinks there must be some mistake. For weeks leading up to the final operation, he’d been snowed under with letters. Now there’s just a curt request from Sir Noix to wait on him at his earliest convenience, and a letter from Marcus saying that he may receive a summons from Sir Noix, but not to rush into seeing him. Inglorion’s health should come first, and he should take whatever time he needs to recover. 

This news from the outside world spurs him to action. He orders his valet to put out evening clothes, so that he can walk over to his club. Some letters may have reached him there, the newspapers will be uncensored, and he can smoke a cigarette while considering which of the two letters is more galling and ominous.

“I can’t, sir,” says his valet. “They’re locked up in the laundry. Lady Sieia’s orders.”

“I see,” says Inglorion. “Wait here.” He descends the stairs two at a time, strides down the hall, and throws open the door to Sieia’s sitting room much as a gunslinger might enter a saloon, if that gunslinger were wearing a dashing velvet dressing gown and black silk pajama bottoms.

“Good evening, Inglorion,” says his sister with unruffled innocence. She’s sitting by the fire, reviewing fashion plates.

“My valet tells me that you’ve locked my evening clothes up in the laundry.”

“Well, yes. The doctor suggested it. He recommends that you take air in the carriage once or twice before taking exercise on foot, or attempting to ride Paris. In case you should become light-headed, you know.” 

“Are you fucking shitting me?” Inglorion thunders in a voice worthy of his tyrannical male forebears. He restrains himself visibly, clasps his hands behind his back, and paces for 30 seconds in tight circles on the silk Axminster carpet. “My dear,” he says, when he finally trusts himself to speak, “I’m capable of walking a half-mile to my club, and if I’m not, I’d rather collapse in the street and be run over by a mail coach than waste away here, and die from an infected bedsore.”

She peers up into his face thoughtfully. “Your color does look a bit better. But if you keep yelling like that, you’ll fret yourself back into a fever.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” says Inglorion. “I’ll walk down there dressed as I am. It’s far from the most outlandish thing I’ve done.”

She tilts her head, considering, then says, “I don’t think you will.”

“If I get dizzy I’ll call a hackney. What on earth are you afraid of?”

There’s a brief, uncomfortable silence. She says slowly, “It’s not just Valentine’s trial, though that’s part of it.”

“What, then?”

“You were something of a celebrity, you know, and I’m afraid public opinion turned sharply during those few weeks. The news was very bad. It was in the papers, and widely discussed, and you weren’t here to defend yourself. The doctor was very clear about avoiding unnecessary strain. You were very ill, more than you appreciate, I think.”

He sits down next to his sister, takes her hand. He says seriously, “Sieia, I know official opinion turned against me, and public opinion, too. I have to know where I stand. I have to start thinking and planning instead of sitting here helpless, knowing that Valentine’s preparing for his trial. The dread and uncertainty are wearing me down more than anything.”

After this and good deal more like it, he’s supplied with clothes and freed from house arrest. He finds himself striding down cold and empty streets. It’s the dead of winter, so he faces a cutting wind and the occasional spattering of sleet. He privately acknowledges that he’s a stubborn bastard, and should have taken a hackney, or at least a wool scarf, and resigns himself to arriving at his club looking wet, disheveled and sickly.

Even in the cloakroom, as he hands off his cloak to a footman, he sees that his task will be difficult. The foyer is jammed with men in a hurry, all discussing some legislative matter that cropped up during Inglorion’s absence. He recognizes most of the faces — they’re all nodding acquaintances — and to a man, they fail to acknowledge him. It’s subtle and probably unconscious, but distinct: The shoulders turned, the gazes slightly averted. As he proceeds down the hall, heading for the main stairway, they speed up or turn away. 

As he climbs the stairs, heading for the smoking room, he spots a few closer acquaintances — men with whom he’s shared the occasional game of billiards or meal. They greet him with a distracted air, as if they fear he’ll detain them.

His interactions in the smoking room provide the final evidence he needs. The room is meant for lounging and conversation. No one signals a definitive, public break by refusing to speak to him. Several men greet him, shake his hand, allude to recent events. They tell him he’s looking well, or better, or ask him solicitously if he’s sure he’s quite recovered. There’s an even split between men who strive to end the conversation quickly, and those who prolong it unbearably, sympathizing in eager undertones, or, in one case, talking in a wild fashion about those idiots at the intelligence service who soil everything they touch.

Once the room has settled itself, he smokes two cigarettes by the hearth, watching the men present. It’s no longer possible to act naturally, so he forces himself to remain an additional 30 minutes by his watch, feigning interest in a racing form, paging through the Jupiter. After that reclaims his cloak and plunges back into the street: Bitterly cold, but empty, and blessedly quiet.

He thinks of the humiliations he’s suffered: The constant slights and bullying of his youth, the dull ache of his affair with Artemisia; times in the Underdark, before his coronation, when he depended entirely on Philomela’s pleasure and often suffered for very public blunders. He’s a half-breed bastard from a dishonored family; Inglorion’s no stranger to humiliation.

He is, however, exquisitely attuned to mockery and scapegoating. He acknowledges that there’s something uniquely uncomfortable about his current condition. For a time, he struggles to name it. None of the men behaved maliciously. Few seemed to be enjoying his fate, or to acknowledge it openly. In the halls they shunned him instinctively, as healthy animal will avoid a sick one.

The smoking room was a different matter. When men were forced to acknowledge his presence, they acted as if he was showing courage simply by appearing in public. He became acutely aware that his face bore the marks, not just of exhaustion and illness, but of failure. He felt ill, he looked ill, and his illness had a distinctly social and political element.

Inglorion doesn’t believe that the operation failed. Rather, it’s been judged a failure by exalted men far removed from events. Those several, brief exchanges in the smoking room taught him that, whatever his private accounting, the public consensus is that he’s failed, and failed so badly that there’s a small but measurable risk in being seen with him.

Inglorion’s never found himself at the center of this phenomenon before, and he finds it repellant and depressing. When he reaches Wallace House, then, he passes it. He winds his way towards the harbor, leaving behind the wide, brick-paved squares, stuccoed garden walls and marble facades for narrow cobbled lanes where tiny bungalows crowd up against the walkways.

Through open shutters and gaps in curtains, he sees warmly lit scenes of other people’s lives: Harmony and strife, intimacy and isolation. He smells their bread and stews and chops, and, horribly, their fish. As he reaches the docks, he sees a human laborer sitting by a candle in his undershirt, a wool blanket thrown around his shoulders. He’s eating stew from a mess-tin. His face is ruddy and coarse. There’s a single line of laundry hung up behind him, including a little girl’s yellow dress. Later he passes a woman carrying some kind of outsized, exotic cabbage — bearing it high, as if it were a trophy. Inglorion loves these small, peculiar beauties — he always has. They comfort him now as he walks.

He passes on, through narrow twisted lanes. On the door of a corner gin shop, he sees a framed sign proclaiming that the owner has been granted a license to hunt Drow, bucks or does, in or out of season. Such novelties were popular in the Liamelia of his youth, even among the gentry. He knows from experience that if he walked in and ordered a drink, he’d likely be served. He could probably rent a room if he needed one. He can’t know for certain without exposing himself to humiliation. That’s the long, exhausting difficulty of his life in Liamelia. And whether the Jupiter condemns him or praises him, it will always begin its remarks with a graceful allusion to the tragedy of his birth.

He turns back and retraces his steps. When he comes upon a hackney stand, he gives in and allows himself to be driven back. 

When he arrives, he walks up to Sieia’s sitting room. She and Virginia are by the fire, drinking after-dinner tea. “There you are,” says Sieia. “Did you eat at your club?”

“Oh. No,” he says vaguely. “I didn’t think of it.” He kisses Virginia and pulls up a chair for himself. 

Sieia prepares him a cup. As she hands it over, she looks at him closely, noting his flushed and hectic look. 

He sets it aside to cool. “You were right, of course,” he says.

“I’m sorry, darling,” says Sieia.

Virginia reaches over and takes his hand, glances up when she feels the heat of his skin. “Inglorion —”

“I know,” he says gently. “I needed to walk, and think.” He finishes his tea in silence, turns to his wife and says, “I know it’s early, but I think I will retire.”

She follows him up, sits with him as he undresses and prepares for bed. As he settles under the blanket, she says mildly, “You’re feverish.”

“I am.”

She kisses his forehead and blows out the candle, as if he were a child. Though he’s tired, he cannot find trance. He thinks of the laborer, the cabbage, and the sign on the gin shop door, and of the string of graves they dug and filled, all they way back to Liamelia.

That night, his fever returns full force.

***

More than one philosopher has observed that we age unevenly. A man or woman may live five, 10 or even 20 years and remain the same age. Then, in a brief period — weeks or months — the pressure of events transforms the endless enthusiasm of youth into the rational and rationed power of middle age. We realize our powers and see that they aren’t infinite; we conserve our energies and apply them to objects that matter, and outcomes we can hope to affect.

Like birth, this passage is painful, dangerous and largely forgotten. To youth, it looks dreadful, like a kind of death. The author would argue that it’s cause for celebration, or at least quiet satisfaction. Middle age allows us to exercise real power: We feel the limits of our time, energy, wealth and intellect, and allocate them with care. The structures we build may be modest, but they don’t sicken us or collapse like the confections and castles of youth.

Inglorion’s illness marks the end of youth, and the start of middle age. Even those closest to him can’t entirely see the change, but to him, it’s as radical as if he woke up a different man.

After a time, he’s relieved and grateful. With the loss of youth, a fog lifts, allowing him to emerge into quiet sunlight. His powers are bounded, but the problems before him — slavery and strife, his own bastardy — take concrete shape, freeing him to act upon the world, instead of cursing his eyes like he did as a child. With this, the second chapter of Inglorion’s life is complete.

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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