14. Xialo

Tereus enters a long, dark period. Later, it will feel as if he’d fallen under a fairytale curse. During this time, he engages in unbridled brutality, beating Lavinia, raping the odd parlormaid and terrorizing his valet. He has a series of  near-fatal carriage and riding accidents, which prove that neither is a reliable method of suicide. Lucius and Valeria rarely visit, and bring the children over only when decency absolutely requires it. Marcus has married, probably because it seems like he’s about to inherit; he, too, shields his wife and heir from Tereus’s contaminating influence.

Tereus makes steady progress towards destroying his health and sanity, but his constitution is strong, and even his courage fails at the prospect of another few hundred years of deepening rage and squalor. Eventually he’s forced to acknowledge that he’s failed to commit slow suicide, and something in him — some residue of self-deprecating humor, probably — prevents him from resorting to a quicker, more reliable method.

All these years, he’s had to while away a certain number of waking, conscious hours. He spends them reading about whatever subjects catch his slow and muddled fancy. Just as he realizes he’s done being a drunk, he becomes fascinated with the beauty and efficiency possible on a small, self-sufficient homestead.

The climate around Liamelia is Mediterranean, which means that farming is physically demanding, but unlikely to end in starvation. Many fertile fields outside the city gates lie abandoned in the wake of the recent war. Tereus knows nothing of agriculture — Marcus manages their extensive estates — but it seems intuitively true that much misery springs from the idle, refined, overly civilized existence that high elves lead. He becomes increasingly passionate about demonstrating that it’s not just possible, but desirable, to strip away some of those layers and cultivate the true man beneath.

This passion might have died a natural death, or remained a purely intellectual interest. Tereus decides to become a gentleman farmer because it’s an alternative to fucking killing himself and everyone around him.

Because his recent behavior has been so very bad, people who might be expected to object to the Xialo scheme will at least entertain the idea. Marcus thinks with uncharacteristic cynicism that it will get his father out of his hair, and it’s unlikely to put a dent in the Shelawn fortune. He signs the needed paperwork, accepts a full power of attorney, and agrees to stay behind to manage matters in Liamelia.

Once he’s selected and bought the property, Tereus needs farmhands. Lucius is still loyal to him, and accustomed to falling in with his ideas. Tereus gets his little brother alone, applies charm and reason, and, for good measure, refuses to entertain counterarguments. After a few hours of this treatment, Lucius agrees to spend a year in rural hardship much like he enlisted in the army: Because Tereus demands it. Valeria could almost certainly have prevented this outcome if Tereus allowed her in the room during the discussion. He correctly guesses that Lucius will recruit her; she believes that she should defer to her husband, although she’s brighter and has the stronger will. Once Valeria has consented to play farmwife for a year, their three children are part of the package: Valerius, who is old enough to sow and reap and bale, 10-year-old Camilla, and the solemn, blond toddler, Claudius.

Because both couples are gently reared and unaccustomed to rural life, Tereus also recruits a non-commissioned officer who served under him, Septimus, and his wife Ancilla. Tereus has noticed that they have somewhere between two and four loud, vulgar infants. Septimus and Ancilla are to engage in manual labor, so their progeny are unimportant. Presumably one or more of them will be old enough to glean by harvest time.

There is one remaining objection: Tereus is objectively in no state to engage in manual labor. He’s drinking heavily, at a pace that he’s maintained for years. He’s become accustomed to the associated discomforts; from his perspective, sobriety looks novel and menacing. Therefore, he’ll have to quit entirely.

He’s done it before, most notably when he first enlisted, and on various occasions as an officer: Upon being promoted, during times when he knew he needed focus, and when the demands of a campaign required it. He’s forced other officers to dry out, and occasionally imposed it on his entire staff, so he’s familiar with the potential objections and arguments, and with the physical symptoms of withdrawal.

He’s older now, of course, but the method stays the same. He starts to train — riding, sparring, boxing — and tapers off the sauce slowly, on a schedule. He feels like shit, is snappish and defensive, and resolutely ignores questions and suggestions — really any discussion at all.

Almost immediately he feels an unwelcome physical clarity. He’s painfully aware of the itch of his hair falling across his forehead. The searing heat of cigarette smoke becomes almost abhorrent. His back aches for no good reason. His mind leaps into restless, frantic action. It’s truly uncomfortable how others’ thoughts and feelings impose themselves upon him. He notices afresh that Lavinia flinches away from him constantly, from either annoyance or fear. She knows something’s afoot, and she can’t help but dread any change.

As the weeks wear on, the symptoms of withdrawal are loathsome, even alarming. Tereus always feels shitty in one way or another, so he just tells himself coldly that he’s survived worse. He’s no stranger to trembling, exhaustion, headaches, nausea and vomiting. Irritability is an old friend. It’s how he knows he’s conscious. Likewise, rage and despair. As with any uncomfortable period in his life, he knows what he needs to do, and he does it with clench-jawed Stoicism. Any witness to the process who feels concern, compassion, apprehension or doubt can go fuck themselves.

He’s entirely clean for the months of January and February, and these eight weeks disabuse Tereus’s acquaintance of the sentimental idea that he would be a perfectly pleasant fellow if he would just stop drinking. Drunk, Tereus reeks of alcohol and cigarette smoke and sporadically erupts into violence or invective, but he’s reliably fixed in a single location, usually the library. He passes out at a reasonable hour, and never shows himself before noon. Dinner is a dreadful ordeal, but luncheon is grimly predictable, and breakfast is almost serene.

Sober, Tereus possesses relentless physical and intellectual vigor. He turns up at all hours in unlikely locations, full of ideas and plans, issuing a stream of detailed orders, offering perceptive and therefore unwelcome criticism of everything from the hangings in the library, which he’s just now noticed don’t match the carpet, to the fact that the stables are poorly run because James finally quit 18 months ago, and his replacement isn’t up to the job. The weather is bad, all the wrong rooms have fires lit, and the household accounts are in deep disarray.

Worst of all, as soon as Tereus uncovers these problems and people scramble to fix them, he barks at them for losing focus on the one thing that really matters: Planning the move to Xialo and acquiring the seeds and equipment to plant the first crops. Marcus will have to arrest Shelawn House’s accelerating slide into decay. He, Lavinia, Lucius and Valeria must maintain unswerving focus on removing to Xialo March 1.

Tereus tasks the other three adults, and coldly dismisses skepticism and excuses alike. They are going to remove to a farm just outside Amakir in less than four weeks. Time is limited, and money is no object. They had better be fucking ready, or he will know the reason why. By the early weeks of February, all three households accept that sustainable farming is no passing fancy, and leap into startled action.

Lucius and Septimus have seen Tereus in this mood before, and therefore respond with swift, unquestioning obedience. When Valeria refuses to produce a breakdown of raw materials and equipment needed to run a rural farmhouse, Tereus needles her relentlessly, appeals to her pride, and displays a loathsome persistence, turning up at odd hours to demand an updated account of items received and on order.

After five days of this, Valeria accepts that her brother-in-law won’t shut up about the fucking industrial washtub, washboard and wringer — he never calls them anything else, it’s as if Fucking Industrial is a brand name to him — so on the fifth day she commandeers the Shelawn traveling barouche and coachman to pick them up from the manufacturer. To her mingled amusement and disgust, she feels pride when he praises her for prying the fucking things loose from the supplier well ahead of schedule.

Over the years, Lavinia has deployed a variety of tactics to thwart her husband’s wishes. She effortlessly claimed the moral high ground in her marriage long ago, and, through a combination of studied indifference and ill-health, has driven their sexual encounters down to a bare minimum. Tereus has no interest in pleasing his wife, but he knows how to exact obedience when necessary, and he does so now, firmly and remorselessly. When her favored tactics of delay, absence and professed confusion fail, she grudgingly pitches in, packing suitable clothing and toys for the children and, with Valeria’s help, procuring everything necessary for a well-equipped schoolroom.

Through it all — the final push in late February, their departure on March 1, the days of travel and subsequent unpacking — Tereus is relentlessly focused and efficient. Even Valeria is forced to acknowledge his ability. They arrive in Xialo harried but on schedule, with everything they need to feed themselves and farm. On March 5 the ground has thawed and planting begins. Three families have relocated and accepted that they will spend the next year establishing a sustainable farm. That’s the first truth.

The second is equally simple, and known to anyone who’s served under Tereus’s command: When Tereus Shelawn gives an order, he will go to any length to ensure that it’s carried out. He’s largely uninterested in people, but will work tirelessly to figure out how to bend them to his will. Once he’s discovered what motivates someone, he uses that knowledge unscrupulously for his own purposes. He prefers for people around him to be cheerful and fulfilled, but he’ll make them miserable if necessary.

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

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