10. Going Headlong to the Devil

Why is Tereus so miserable? He could recite a litany of trivial complaints. Attendance may be thin, due to the scandal. A few families have cut their acquaintance entirely, and Tereus has found it too painful to maintain ties to the military community. They don’t entertain regularly, so much of fashionable society may simply find that it has a previous engagement.

The event has been badly planned, and will be poorly executed, because Lavinia is an indifferent housewife, and she’s hired a housekeeper whose only object is to avoid hard work, and a majordomo whose only skills are flattery and light flirtation. Tereus tells himself that he doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the success of the ball, but he feels genuine indignation at being served wine in a grimy glass, or condemning his guests to long moments of confusion in the entryway and cloakroom.

Tereus, Lavinia, Lucius and Valeria form a receiving line. Tereus’s manner is cold and distant; it’s as if he can hear or smell something that the others can’t sense. Lavinia is impeccably coifed and dressed, and stiff with apprehension. Lucius’s concern for his brother finds expression in quiet efficiency. He gives direction to the servants, and gently prompts the others when they forget their duties. Valeria is indignant and baffled by Tereus’s behavior, and exasperated by what she sees as Lucius and Lavinia’s passivity. She’s kind to the servants, but short with every one else.

For Tereus, the emotions and sensations of the early parts of the evening are all too clear. Choking rage and frustration dominate; as the night progresses, apprehension hardens into clinical curiosity, then, briefly, unholy amusement. He feels sick disgust at the mismatch between the nest of spiders in his skull and the frivolity of a ball. He can hardly bear to stand there in his skin. Formal evening clothes add a cruel layer of trivial discomfort: The tight neckcloth, starched shirt-points, fitted jacket and waistcoat, the very powder in his hair. His expression is cold, grave; if he tried to smile, the effect would be even more terrible.

The noise and heat and smell of the ballroom oppress him, as does the blaze of candlelight and the profusion of faces, names and titles. He’s pained by every instance of bad planning or poor taste, and every social miscue. He shouldn’t notice the details, but they crowd in on him like gnats.

He leads Valeria out for the first dance, since she and Lucius are the guests of honor. She’s stiff with disapproval; he feigns indifference, but burns with a sense of injustice. Her outrage stands in for the casual judgment of the entire crowd, for every tribunal that has ever condemned him.

The dance ends. He continues to do his duty, leading out every matron of dancing age in strict order of precedence. Once this is done, he retreats to the card room, stands by the hearth in solitary splendor, and chain-smokes.

This brings Tereus enough relief to take Lady Soane down for supper when the time comes. They’re trapped at the head of the table, and can gossip only in whispers. He drinks steadily and eats very little, making good progress towards becoming filthy drunk. He does his best to get Lady Soane trashed, too, as if this will somehow add to the total sum of oblivion he experiences that night.

“You’re going headlong to the devil,” she says. “I wonder what’s chasing you?”

“Nothing and everything,” he says carelessly. “My blindness and depravity, and the lack of congenial companionship on the path to perdition.”

“Well, well,” she says. “I’d forgotten that you’re still quite young.”

“It’s not the years, darling, it’s the milage.”

“Take it from a woman of 817. It’s the years. How old are you?”

“Not quite 300.”

“An infant.”

Because he’s tormented and half-drunk, Tereus says, “Have you been to war, Lady Soane?”

“I bore six live children and two stillborn. Our estate was burned to the ground during the Drow wars. I lost two daughters to childbed fever. All those years, Lord Soane beat me viciously, until he was too addled to raise a stick.”

“Good God. Why on earth did he beat you?” He leans in, covers her hand with his. He’s struck by the easy compassion of intoxication.

She cackles, raps his knuckles. “I filled his home with bastards after I gave him an heir.” She looks over at Lord Soane with tolerance bordering on affection. He has the vague, pleasant expression of someone who agrees with everything because he understands nothing. “I fought him to a draw, I think.”

“What should I do, Lady Soane?”

“Do? Why, nothing. Don’t kill yourself or anyone else. Avoid unforced errors. Live to see your enemies die. You’re a rich man, Tereus Shelawn. You have more room for error than most of us.”

“True. But then I’m so very unwise.”

“The gods have crushed you with gifts,” she says mockingly. “You should have been born ugly or stupid.”

“Fuck you very much,” he says with a bow. They drain their glasses, and he signals to the footman for more.

After this, his memories become intermittent, alarming. He knows that he hurled a glass into the ballroom fireplace, but he doesn’t know why. He quarreled nastily with a diplomat from Amakir, a particular friend and mentor of Lucius’s. He believes he got the better of the fellow, but can’t be certain. He lectured Lavinia on her shortcomings as a hostess late in the evening, when he was no longer capable of moderating his volume, tone or language.

The ball ends, presumably in the usual fashion. By then, his consciousness is reduced to a flickering blur. He knows that he and Lavinia quarreled again, and that he predominated through sheer mass and volume. Even then, he hadn’t yet ignited — he was still panting for the release of pure, ungoverned rage.

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

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