16. A Bit Well to Live

They both take a sip. Inglorion doesn’t know what to expect, so he’s surprised at the subtle layering of flavor: Salted lemon, tart mango, the wild honey and its comb, piercingly sweet. Then there’s the wine itself, which is dark, smoky, redolent of licorice and cherries. “That’s very good,” he says cautiously.

They sit there for awhile, taking in the scent and flavor, the sound of the storm approaching. They both light cigarettes. Inglorion gradually relaxes, so that they’re both half-reclining in their respective corners of the couch. Brutus removes his boots, props his feet up on the coffee table. Inglorion sees the tension draining from Brutus’s jaw and shoulders as he drains his glass. His expression, usually reserved and stern, softens. The same happens to Inglorion, though he can’t see it.

Brutus refills their glasses. The wind picks up suddenly, and branches screech against the eaves and windows. There’s a patter against the windowpanes, a gentle drumming on the screen door. Brutus murmurs, “There we go.” They both feel a sudden lightness. The gusts are cold and wet.

Inglorion can’t help but laugh. “Finally,” he says. “I thought it would never come.”

“The cisterns will be full again. How do you like the sangria?”

“It reminds me of perfume — the subtlety, how it develops over time. That surprises me. I thought it would be something that would just blot out consciousness.”

“Was I that bad?” Brutus asks.

Inglorion looks over. “Are we having a father-son talk now?”

“Only if you have advice to give. I’m sure you have a lot to teach me.”

“Marcus did that, you know, as we got older. Asked me when I intended to settle down and raise a family.”

Marcus did? Oh, dear. None better, of course — he knew his duty. God knows how. I didn’t teach it to him.”

“Why not?”

“I had nothing to teach. My father was —” he shakes his head, gestures with his cigarette. “I came away knowing not to emulate him, nothing more.”

“Agamemnon, right? What was he like?”

“That’s a long subject. He was brilliant, and cruel, and given over to vice. A follower of the Marquis de Sade, entirely without conscience or decency, as far as I can tell. He had good taste, and he made us very rich. He beat and whipped me, and terrorized my little brother Lucius. I fought with him constantly. We often came to blows.” He falls silent, watches the smoke rising from his cigarette. “It pains me to this day. He had such refined taste, complete intellectual mastery, and yet he was entirely depraved. So we had every opportunity and endless wealth, but there was an emptiness. I had no idea what I ought to do. I kept Lucius safe, married more or less as I ought, and rose in my career.” He shrugs, puts out his cigarette, lights another. “Drink up,” he says. “I’ll give you a refill.”

Inglorion obeys. By now, he’s determined to have whatever experience is on offer. It feels as if the rational part of him — never strong — is slowly receding, while sensation and emotion rise to the foreground.

“You never answered the question,” Tereus says. “Was I that bad?”

Inglorion takes a sip, tilts his head back, considers. “I’m the wrong person to ask. I saw so little. I didn’t know you.”

“I’m asking you — your experience. You were there, and intimately concerned.”

Inglorion feels helpless to respond. He’s entirely unaccustomed to drinking, weighs much less, and hasn’t eaten all day. When he replies, it’s with reckless confusion, in an awkward rush. “Of course you were. More than anything else, I feared turning into you — the resemblance between us, entirely repressed, denied and undeniable. All I could think of was how to keep Sieia safe. She was miserable and terrified, and I loved her.”

“I know,” he says quietly. “Like I loved Lucius.” Their eyes meet, and Tereus says, “I feared becoming Agamemnon, you know. Not in some ways — he was a catamite, and I knew I liked girls. But his ruthlessness, his cruelty. It pleased him to humiliate and terrify Lucius, and I hated that. He was a true care-for-nothing, and that’s an ugly thing.”

“What did you want?” Inglorion asks.

“I hardly knew. To rule, to control my circumstances, to secure some measure of security and decency, I suppose. Love, although I didn’t know it at the time.”

Inglorion cuts him off, blurting out, “I came to care for you, you know. You were a part of me. I felt your isolation.”

“Did you?” Inglorion nods. “What perfect, unearned grace. I wish I could say the same.”

“I thought of you often, long after your death. You were present to me — your intellect and temperament. I came to admire you.”

“Again, more grace.” He pours out the last of the sangria.

The rain is coming down in sheets now, and the lightning strikes quite close. It’s cold, but Inglorion is unaware of it. There are goose pimples on his arms and chest. He looks up at his father, confused, but with a sense of urgency. “I saw you in visions — saw the world through your eyes, and I wondered…. It was horrible, but in that last year or so I came to think that I’d been wrong all along. The gods didn’t need me to stop slavery or negotiate a peace treaty. They needed me to love the person I hated most. That was you. That freed me. Now, when I think about being dead, I don’t entirely mind.” He stops, confused. “That makes no sense. I’m explaining myself badly.”

Tereus can’t quite follow him, though he feels Inglorion’s sense of urgency.

Inglorion focuses very hard, tries again. He’s aware, both that his mind lacks its usual clarity and tenacity, and that something else is available to him — he can speak of things that are normally inaccessible. “I was special to the gods. I had visions my whole life. But they never spoke of my goals or objects, or the project at hand. They showed me the past — others’ pain. I came to know you, and my mother, and to care for you both. By the time I died, I knew that battle and espionage and worldly goals mean nothing, and that love alone endures. My wife was pregnant with our first child. I decided to abdicate.”

“What happened?”

An expression of pure anguish crosses Inglorion’s face. “I was assassinated. I found myself here. I never saw my wife again. I never knew our child.” His voice is rough with tears. He breaks off, strives to compose himself. He listens to the rain, and it soothes him. He looks over at Tereus, who is regarding him with thoughtful attention. “Do you know, this is all I ever wanted?”

“What?”

“For you to pay attention to me. To notice and acknowledge me. My whole life.”

Tereus regards him gently. “Are you happy now?”

“It’s not a matter of happiness or unhappiness. It’s a matter of existing — being whole and real.”

“How melodramatic you are.”

Inglorion gives a bark of laughter. “Well, yes. Oh, God.” He slumps further down in the couch, lights another cigarette. “I should take my boots off.”

“You’re cold.”

“I suppose, yes. I’ve been hot for so long that it doesn’t matter.” He removes his boots, then stretches out, much as Tereus has, looking at the ceiling, listening to the rain. “There’s so much that I want to ask you,” he says. “But first — am I drunk?”

Tereus laughs. “Oh, dear, no. A bit well to live, perhaps. But you’re far from drunk.”

“Are you sure? It feels quite different.”

“I’m certain. I should cook dinner, though, if you haven’t eaten already.”

“I knew I was forgetting something. What will you make?”

“I have two steaks. I know a fellow who keeps a herd of cattle in the mountains, foraging on jojoba and prickly pear. Do you know there’s still a slaughterhouse operating just a few miles from here? So, steak, and a few things from the back yard that look viable.”

They move to the kitchen. Tereus puts on an apron with such a matter-of-fact air that Inglorion declines to mock him. Tereus washes and trims the vegetables: Local onions, which are small and mild, with a shallot-like flavor; little ears of corn; a handful of tomatoes and peppers.

“I think I’ll just roast the veggies in a sheet pan, unless you have some objection.”

Inglorion perches on a stool and watches Tereus. He seems very sure of himself. He doesn’t use any measuring tools, and handles the knife and skillet deftly.

It’s ready surprisingly quickly, and smells delicious. Tereus prepares a plate for Inglorion, saying, “I’ve cooked your steak medium rare, since you’re not a vulgar trash person.”

“Thank you. How would you prepare it if I were a vulgar trash person?”

“If you were, you wouldn’t be here. That steak was going to be cooked medium rare. The only question was who would eat it.” He fixes his own plate, and they retire to the living room again.

Inglorion is a notoriously picky eater, but has no fault to find with the dinner in front of him. The steak in particular is simply prepared and intensely flavorful. He cleans his plate, which he never does, and lights up a cigarette. “That was amazing. How do you know how to cook? I thought you always had servants.”

“I learned on campaign. I always had a bâtman and a handful of aides de camp, but it was a coin toss whether any of them could cook. I had to entertain. I like good food, and I didn’t want to feed my guests crap. So I learned.” As he talks, he’s clearing off the coffee table. “If you’re ready for round two, I’ll mix it now.”

“There’s a round two? Good Lord.”

“Well, there’s a second bottle. Personally I’m in favor of drinking it.”

“Very well.”

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

2 thoughts on “16. A Bit Well to Live

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