4. Unhappy and Uncertain

The brothers trot along for another moment, until they reach the edge of the creek. They dismount, hitch their horses to the massive remains of a felled tree. Tereus spends a moment with Paris, watching to see if he’ll try to pull free. He seems inclined to crop grass quietly with Marcus’s mount.

Tereus remarks, “It’s because we’ve taken his balls. Copenhagen would have snapped the reins, run off, and rid himself of his saddle.”

The creek bank is just a few feet away. The water is high and cold with runoff from the North Mountains. The rush and chortle of it masks the faint sounds of city traffic; the sudden chill and smell of wet earth are familiar and comforting. This, at least, hasn’t changed.

Tereus begins to pick his way downstream. There’s a spot where the creek forms a little cove attractive to water birds. As they make their way around the bend, they spot an egret fishing in the shallows. It stands gazing into the water, its impossible slender, white neck arched. It senses their presence, glances over with angry impatience. They freeze. Its neck relaxes back into its natural curve, and it continues to regard the shallows. After a moment, it lifts one foot and gently probes a cluster of reeds, trying to flush out minnows. Nothing. Again, gingerly, it extends its foot. Absurdly, the gesture reminds Tereus of a cook loosening the edges of an omelette prior to flipping it.

A second egret lands nearby. The first bird whips around and bites it with snakelike speed, then cuffs it with a wing for good measure. The newcomer retreats downstream with a series of awkward hops, and the two settle in to fish.

Tereus glances over at Lucius. He’s beaming, and his breath is quick with delight. Their eyes meet, and Tereus mouths the words, “You’re welcome.” They’ve always considered egrets to be uniquely Lucius’s bird. They ease back from the bank to give the birds privacy, and continue to make their way downstream.

In 100 yards, they reach an area at the foot of the city’s north wall. It’s deep with runoff. From here, the stream follows the perimeter of the city and runs into the harbor, or sinks through the limestone to feed the network of caves below. The stretch of water isn’t extensive — perhaps 50 yards across.

“There,” says Lucius, pointing to their right. A blue heron has just landed, and is surveying the shallows with an air of casual mastery. The egrets are roughly the size of a large house cat, with spindly legs and an improbably slender neck and head. The heron is a more hefty and impressive bird. Its blue eyes are cold and proud. It flexes its neck this way and that, displaying its crest, so like the horsehair plume on a Roman soldier’s helmet. The heron is Tereus’s bird; he’s named for the ancient Thracian king who took it as a symbol of eternal preparedness for battle.

The bird stalks around for several moments in a dissatisfied manner, looking for trout, then launches itself and flies low over the city wall, presumably to raid the koi pond in Green Park.

The brothers make their way to a flat rock slab. It’s a popular fishing spot, but empty now at midday. It’s uncomfortable to perch there in riding clothes, but they do it anyway. Soon they’ll have to return to their horses. As they sit in the sunlight, some of the tension drains from Tereus’s face. He still looks unhealthy. Instead of porcelain, his features look like they’re carved from stone: Grayish, cold. He’s put on weight, too. He feels Lucius’s gaze, looks over.

Lucius asks, “How are you, really?”

“I’m fucking terrible, little brother. Why do you ask?”

“Because everyone around you is miserable, too. I wasn’t sure if you could feel it, or if you’d become accustomed.” He says this quietly, holding his brother’s gaze.

“I’ve become accustomed to their pain. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to my own.”

“What is it?”

“There’s no need to play a fucking guessing game. You know perfectly well what it is.” Tereus’s manner has been quiet, distant. Now Lucius sees a flash of rage. His voice starts to rise. “It’s fucking shitty. There’s nothing — nothing — to be done. What’s my fucking action here? Be a better person? Enjoy my exile? Take pleasure in my wife and children and thriving estate? You and I both know I don’t have that in me. I’m not like you, brother. I wish I were.” His voice is loud, agitated. It echoes across the water and against city walls.

Lucius watches him and waits. Tereus jumps up, paces to the edge of the rock — an absurdly short distance, given the length of his stride. “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” he grumbles. He’s facing away.

Lucius says, “It reminds me of when we were kids. That sense of doom. I’ve felt sick to my stomach since I got here, just like I did then.”

Tereus looks back. “That bad, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Very well. You’ve made your point. Let’s go back.” He starts off briskly, leaving Lucius to scramble to keep up with him. Lucius feels as if he should apologize, but he knows that if he does, Tereus will react with contempt — or, worse yet, with contrition. They ride back in silence. Tereus’s expression is thunderous.

They hand the horses off to a groom. As they’re walking back to the house, Tereus says, “Don’t worry, JP. I’ll see to it.” He uses Lucius’s old army nickname — he means to sound affectionate, reassuring.

Lucius looks skeptical. “Can you?”

“I’ll have to. Oh, God.” He looks unhappy and uncertain for an instant.

They’ve reached the door. As they enter, Tereus schools his expression to one of cold boredom.

They retire to change out of their riding clothes. It’s time for tea.

For a linked table of contents, listing all of the Shelawn family adventures, click here.

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