25. Collateral Damage

When she returns in the morning, Lucius is awake, and she can hear him and Tereus talking quietly, though she can’t make out the words. Their voices are almost indistinguishable — clear, sweet. As young men they could imitate each other flawlessly. Tereus would mimic Lucius’s precise, measured diplomat’s tones, and Lucius could easily adopt Tereus’s various manners: Seductive, bullying, theatrical. He used to do a side-splitting impression of Tereus drunk and trying to pick up a barmaid.

She stands in the hall now, listening, remembering how they all loved each other — the hopes and anxieties of the time. She remembers the urgency of their suit, how suddenly they both appeared and laid siege to the two sisters. She’d hesitated when Lucius proposed, because she felt that she was the lesser sister, the one left over after Tereus had taken his pick. She was the plain, good, smart one. Lucius was eligible in his own right: He’d inherited their grandmother’s fortune, had patronage at the Foreign Office, and was trim and handsome in his hussar’s jacket and pelisse. He kissed her hand devoutly and said softly that she was the only thing he’d ever really wanted, and that Tereus was a fool and could go hang. They would have a double wedding, but would have their own domestic peace and joy. “They’re beautiful,” he said. “We will be happy.”

As she approaches, they look over, grave and calm. 

“There you are,” says Tereus. “Let me change the dressings, then I’ll be off to bed.”

“I’ll leave you,” she says, absurdly. She’s feels as if she’s interrupting. 

“Please stay,” Tereus says. “I’ll need your assistance.” 

When she’s brought fresh water and towels, he unwraps and inspects the stitches. Everything is clean and healing well.

“Those are quite tidy,” says Lucius. “I didn’t know your needlework was so fine.”

“It’s the least I could do. I wish I hadn’t driven you to it,” says Tereus in a matter-of-fact tone. He bandages both wrists back up, and Valeria takes his place in the armchair. Tereus smooths back his brother’s hair, says, “I’ll see you tonight, JP.” Lucius smiles wanly.

Tereus leaves them, and Lucius seems inclined to rest. Valeria sinks into her own thoughts. 

They returned to Liamelia several years after Tereus was found guilty and sentenced. She’s never known if Lucius came out of loyalty, or if the scandal somehow damaged his career. She knew he was worried — a diplomat’s reputation should be spotless, and men were routinely called back for less. She doesn’t know if he ever tried to resume his career abroad. He’d been offered a modest post at the Foreign Office in Liamelia, so he accepted it and filled it quietly, remaining in his brother’s shadow. 

They had little money saved, and lived off Lucius’s salary and Valeria’s small inheritance. He never expressed any bitterness, or even acknowledged the change, but Valeria resented it deeply. Tereus was a rich man; he destroyed his brother’s career, the inheritance and prospects of his nephews and niece. Perhaps he thought of it as collateral damage: Regrettable, but proportionate to the aim he was pursuing.

He’s quiet and abstracted now, but clearly awake and conscious. She tries to take his hand, and he withdraws it, saying “Please don’t.”

They sit like this for hours, Lucius silent or in light trance, Valeria pretending to read, and occasionally obliging her husband to drink water or broth. Ancilla brings Valeria her meals, and makes gruel for Lucius that night. Sometime after dark, Tereus relieves her watch. She lies down in the cold bed, and continues to wait.

On the seventh day, Tereus removes Lucius’s stitches, and declares that he’s out of danger. He’s physically recovered, but is still sad and pale and quiet. That evening at dinner, Septimus announces that he and Ancilla are leaving. Winter is coming — the baby has a cough — perhaps they’re not cut out for this kind of life after all.

Tereus nods and says, “Very well. Thank you for staying until the crops were in and Lucius was back on his feet.”

Aside from necessary, polite exchanges, Valeria and Tereus do not talk at all. It grieves Valeria. She misses him, and feels she is being punished. She’s something of a pariah in the farmhouse. Lucius can’t bear to speak to her or look at her, and seems startled and offended when she addresses him. Lavinia avoids her scrupulously, as if she were a bit of filth on the carpet that someone else should clean up. Valerius spends as little time in the house as he decently can, and otherwise keeps to his bedchamber. 

Camilla and Claudius are her only company, and they are solemn and frightened. Camilla’s old enough to understand what’s happening, and seems to follow the adults’ lead: She thinks Tereus is an asshole, and blames her mother. Claudius doesn’t understand, and seems anxious and puzzled. The night of the accident, Claudius conceives a fear of his father. When Valeria tries to bring him to the sickroom for a visit, he refuses flatly, and throws a fit.

As soon as Lucius is up and about, he visits Claudius’s room at bedtime, when Valeria is tucking him in.

Lucius asks, “Would you like a story?”

Claudius eyes him anxiously. “No.” After a little pause, he adds, “You were on the floor of the bathroom.”

Lucius says gravely, “I was.”

Claudius watches his father fretfully as Valeria fetches him a glass of water, lights a votive to the Bringer of Light. His eyes are wide, and he’s pulled the blanket up to his chin. Lucius reaches over to tousle his hair, and he shies away. “Good night, old cock. I’ll see you tomorrow.” 

Claudius watches Lucius silently until he withdraws. When he’s out of sight but still within earshot, Claudius remarks with painful clarity, “I wish he wouldn’t call me old cock.”

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

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