Posting this from a Starbucks outpost as the WiFi in my apartment has been dead for months. Grad school applications, job hunting, roommate drama, romantic tragedy and sundry medical issues have consumed my life. In the immortal words of Cathy, "Ack!"
By the time Robert arrived back at the flat it had begun to rain. Cold water soaked his hair and dribbled unpleasantly down the back of his neck. He hardly noticed. In fact, he was so sunk in private misery that when Hugo shouted something at him he almost didn’t hear.
“What?” Robert said, blinking the mist from his eyes.
Hugo sprawled across the couch by the fire, long legs kicking over the far arm. Val was studying in the moth-eaten chair by the door. He sighed as Robert’s entrance let in a gust of rainy wind, spattering the notes he had been taking.
"Hugo asked,” Val said, “if you had – what was the phrase you used, Hugo? Oh yes: ‘gotten any ass’ last night.”
“You could make Bacchanal sound as interesting as a literature tutorial, Val,” Hugo retorted. He ignored Val muttering that literature tutorials were interesting and turned to Robert. “So! Tell. How many boys?”
Robert cast off his jacket on the back of Val’s chair. “One.”
At this even Val looked up with a noise of surprise. Hugo goggled.
“Only one? On Bacchanal? You’re joking!”
“I’m afraid not.” Robert untangled the ribbon from his hair. “What about you, Hugo? Seduce any titled ladies from their husband’s carriages?”
Hugo waved a hand. “Oh, a few. But you won’t put me off that easily. Did you pass out in a gutter before you could find a second willing gent, then?”
Robert winced. Hugo wasn’t far off. “I’ll have you know I was waylaid on urgent business,” he said loftily.
Hugo grinned. “Did your urgent business take you by the Harlequin?”
Robert started. “You knew!”
“Of course.” Hugo’s grin grew wider. “Francis told me. He gets chatty when he thinks he's been clever.”
“You no doubt think it a marvelous joke,” Robert said sourly.
“I do, actually,” Hugo chuckled. “Oh, don’t glare at me over your nose like that. Francis was doing you a favor. We all know you’ve been moping since Adrian left you—”
“I was the one who did the leaving!”
“—and you were in desperate need of a good lay. Roll your eyes all you like, you know it’s true. You’ve been sulking around the flat for weeks, snapping at everyone, masturbating constantly, and paying far too much attention to your studies. It’s been frankly depressing to watch. We already have one miserable celibate in the place.” He jerked a thumb at Val. “Add another and you might as well hang a sign over the door that says CONVENT.”
“I am not celibate,” Val said indignantly. Hugo ignored him.
“I suppose,” said Robert, “that Francis informed you Adrian would be in attendance?”
Hugo waggled his eyebrows suggestively. “Well? Did the pair of you take the Ganymene from both ends?”
Robert went hot and cold all over. He made a noise somewhere between a bark of laughter and a howl of anguish, grabbed handfuls of wet hair, and doubled over.
Before Hugo could comment, the door to the kitchen swung open and Barnabas emerged, chewing a slice of kippers on toast.
“I heard rather a shout,” said Barnabas thickly. “Everything all right, then?”
Robert gave what he feared was a somewhat mad-sounding laugh. “Oh, yes,” he said, straightening. “Never better.”
Barnabas swallowed, gesturing to the cloakrack with his toast. “Grossie – Lord Grosvenor, you know – returned your cloak. Said he woke up under it in Paradiso and found your card and cigarette case in the pocket.”
“Sterling generosity,” Hugo said. “Did you gift your regalia to a beggar too, then?”
“No, but I promised my fortune to a Harlequin whore,” Robert shot back. “Did I have any other callers? A circus of prostitutes sent courtesy of my dear cousin, perhaps?”
“Actually,” Val said, “Professor Gregory did stop by this morning.”
Robert gave another mad laugh. He didn't seem able to help it. “Yes, to order up another ream of seditious tracts for the Falcon.”
“It isn’t sedition!” Val said hotly. “Philip of Guye is the rightful king of Lyonesse. King Eustace —”
“— is a mad bastard. I know, I know.” Robert sighed. Professor Gregory hadn’t been wrong to say that Robert regarded their work for the Resistance as a game, but Robert feared Val took it altogether too seriously.
“You also had a runner from House d’Argent,” said Hugo, not to be outdone.
“Oh, great and little gods,” Robert groaned. “With a summons, I suppose?”
“Your grandfather expects you for high tea this afternoon,” Hugo recited. “You will arrive promptly at four. You will be appropriately attired. The conversation will touch upon the finer points of Erminian law, and you are expected to have an intelligent opinion on the subject. You will not attempt to delay, reschedule, play truant, or send a minstrel in your absence.” He hesitated. “There were some threats after that, but they were so elaborately vague that I’ve forgotten them. Anyway, bad things will happen if you don’t go. Oh, and make sure your hair is combed.”
“Right,” said Robert. “Well. Damn.”
House d’Argent stood on the high bank behind the spire of the Consecration, a majestic bulk of white brick and dark, gleaming windows. As Robert peered out from the carriage that bore him up the drive he couldn’t help thinking that those windows looked unpleasantly like teeth in a white brick mouth, and the drive like a long tongue rolled out to swallow him in.
He was ushered from the carriage, up the front stairs and into the echoing marble entry hall by silent ranks of lackeys in blue and silver livery. Grandfather’s manservant Tolliver awaited between the double flanks of the grand staircases, hands folded officiously before him. Tolliver was outfitted as usual in a crisp black suit crossed by a blue and silver cummerbund. A pair of rimless spectacles perched on his nose. The lenses were so polished they looked like double mirrors, reflecting Robert’s own haggard face back at him.
Tolliver bowed, crisp as his suit. He turned on his heel and strode through a side door, beckoning Robert follow. Robert trailed miserably after.
Tolliver showed Robert into the Gray Parlor. Though the walls were high and bare and the aesthetic decidedly severe, Robert was still reminded unpleasantly of Boq’s office. The impression was compounded by the pages standing at attention in each corner. Robert thought of the child-slave who had cried out on stage the night before; of Luca, no older, glassy-eyed and mute after one of Lord Frederick’s parties.
Gods. Robert pressed his knuckles against his eyes and wished desperately for a drink.
Grandfather left Robert waiting in the Gray Parlor for ten minutes precisely. Robert timed it on the mantelpiece clock as he paced around the room, humming tunelessly and fiddling with the wall fixtures. Even though Grandfather always made his entry after ten minutes to the second, Robert was, as always, caught unaware when the doors swung open and Grandfather strode in.
Robert shoved the cornice he’d been poking at back into place, yanked the front of his shirt straight, and bowed in what he hoped was a single grand, fluid gesture.
“Good evening, my lord,” he said, in his best Court manner.
“Good evening, my son,” said Grandfather. His voice rolled through the room like a funeral skirl. “I see you are in a more tractable mood than usual. I had feared my summons would be insufficient to fetch you after your Bacchanal glut.”
Robert felt his collar tighten like a noose. “Oh, hardly a glut, Grandfather,” he managed to squeak around the constriction.
“No,” said Grandfather, assembling himself on a chair. “I suppose with your appetite, Bacchanal was merely a light refreshment.”
While Robert tried to form a rejoinder, Grandfather made a gesture to the pages. The boys withdrew, returning moments later with covered platters. These were arranged quietly and efficiently on the table before Grandfather.
“Do you care to sit, my son? Or shall you hover like a servant?”
Robert scrambled into the chair across from Grandfather. His knees knocked the table, and only his sword-honed reflexes saved a plate of bannocks from toppling to the carpet.
Grandfather did not sigh. He didn’t have to. Instead the emanation of disapproval about his person grew ever so slightly more potent.
The tea was, as usual, lukewarm and over-steeped. Though milk and sugar would have rendered the brew far more palatable, Robert refused both. Grandfather did not approve of such extravagances; they were, Robert knew, offered only as a test. Robert chose a hard biscuit from the carousel, forgoing (as Grandfather did) the pot of jam proffered by the pages. Instead he filled his mouth with tea and strained each bite of biscuit through the tea until the crumbs were soggy enough to swallow.
While Robert dismantled his biscuit, Grandfather lectured. Grandfather was either an excellent lecturer or a dismal one, depending on your perspective. Robert had attended many lectures during his three years at College, and had come to the conclusion that the quality of a lecture was determined first by its length, then by the animation of its delivery, and finally by the interest of its subject. Grandfather’s lectures were interminable, monotonous, and ruthlessly, punishingly dull. His topics of choice ranged from the defects of Robert’s personality to the military failures of the Ancient Carcaelians, and on a good day he could cover the entire catalogue of the world’s deficiencies before supper.
It was a good day. By the time Robert had toiled his way through four cups of tea, three biscuits and a bran cake, Grandfather had expounded upon the inadequacies of the first thousand years of Lyonesse's political history and was moving on to the second.
Robert tried to pay attention. He always did. But Grandfather’s voice so sonorous and his subject so tedious that Robert soon gave up and allowed his thoughts to return, inevitably, to Luca. Luca gripping Robert so tightly with his thin, urgent hands; Luca ducking to hide his shy half-smile; Luca sighing as he was kissed. Did Luca still love to read? There hadn’t been time to ask. Well, Robert would bring a book tomorrow – a comedy, perhaps, gods knew there must be precious little cheer in that rotting brothel – and a box of chocolate as well, Luca used to love sweets…
Robert was startled from his reverie by the clang of Grandfather’s cane against the tiles.
"Are you attending, my son, or wool-gathering?” Grandfather said severely.
“Wool-gathering,” Robert admitted.
“You will now attend.”
Grandfather began to lecture again. The address had, if anything, become even more boring since Robert last tuned in.
“Grandfather,” Robert said suddenly, “what do you know about slave law?”
There was a distinctly chilly pause. “It is not,” Grandfather said, “a subject on which I can boast a breadth of knowledge. Property disputes are heard in Quorum and rarely reach the Grand Council. Are you considering taking up the subject for your thesis, my son?”
"No, no,” Robert said hastily. “My thesis will be on political law, of course. I – I came across a remark upon slavery in a text, that’s all.” The lie immediately presented practical purpose. Robert shrugged artfully and continued, “Something about the Northern tribes, as I remember. The author said that they were a free people once?”
“Naturally, my son,” said Grandfather impatiently. “They were made chattel by decree during the reign of King Abelard. Indeed, it was a kindness. The barbarians had no civilization to speak of. They lived in caves, warred constantly, and were forever sacrificing each other to that bloodthirsty goddess of theirs. The phrase 'brainless as a barbarian' is not merely a rhetorical flourish; in intellect these Northerners truly are more like animals than people.”
Robert thought of teaching Luca to read, Luca's brow furrowing with concentration as he traced the letters over and over and whispered the alphabet like a prayer. He'd learned so fast, Robert could barely keep up. You're smart, Robert had told him. Luca had shaken his head. Stupid barbarian whore, he'd said. Only good to fuck.
Who had taught him that? Men like Grandfather?
“Still,” Grandfather continued, “even the thickest ox can be bent to its master’s purpose, if the rod is strong and the hand unsparing. And the field, my son, is fecund indeed. The Northern mountains run rich with minerals. Most of our salt and coal is slave-mined. Our copper, lead, tin, iron, and precious metals are all got from barbarian labor, and you won’t find a diamond in Lyonesse that wasn’t pried from rock by barbarian hands. And of course, while we do not approve of the callow theatrics of the arena –” Grandfather rapped his cane for emphasis – “barbarians do, it must be admitted, make for the most excellent gladiators. Proof of their brutish and belligerent natures, of course.”
“One does hear of unrest from time to time,” Robert remarked. “Uprisings, that sort of thing.”
Grandfather waved a hand. “Bulls balking at the yoke. The king’s rule is no danger from a few spear-rattling malcontents, whether savage Northmen or sons of Lyonesse.” His expression darkened. “Upon which subject. Have you heard of the Falcon?”
Robert’s mouth went dry. He licked his lips and managed a shrug. “I can’t say I have.” Could Grandfather detect the subtle tremor of panic in his voice? “But then, my studies leave little time for birdwatching. In fact, I'm not even sure I would know a falcon if I saw one. I don't think they're native to this part of the country,” he went on, babbling now.
Fortunately Grandfather cut Robert off before he could blither his way into a confession. “The Falcon I refer to is no bird,” he said, “but a traitor to the Crown. This mongrel, this coward, this, this agitator has set his pen against King and Quorum. Why, only a fortnight ago Commander Sprottle brought me one of his broadsheets—a note of sedition so vile that even the most insolent drunkard in Hornfleur Wharf would not have had the gall to utter its sentiments. The Falcon suggested that indentured dockworkers ought seize the shipyards! By force of arms, mind you! And what ought these brutes do with the shipyards? Why, sail the king's fleet to Guye and make a navy for the Exile! I ask you!”
Ah, one of Val's. Robert recognized his touch. When Val was writing as the Falcon he waxed lyrical on the plight of the worker, and always threw in a rousing word of support for Prince Philip. Hugo, ever practical, was far more concerned with overturning prohibitions against the public theater and repealing the sumptuary laws. As for Robert, he tended to write florid and (in his opinion) devastatingly clever critiques of repression at College and corruption at Court. All of them spoke against King Eustace, of course, though Val was probably the only one who really meant it. Robert suspected that of the three, his own essays were least likely to inspire a coup.
“A dangerous man indeed,” Robert said, trying to keep a straight face. “What is to be done about him?”
“Are you not a student of law, my son?” said Grandfather, suddenly sharp. “You know the penalty for treason.”
Bodies swinging from the gibbets in Capitol Square. Bulging tongues and crow-pecked eyes. Oh yes, Robert knew very well indeed the penalty for treason.
This avenue of conversation was cutting uncomfortably close. Robert took another biscuit to hide his disconcertion. Then, seeing Grandfather's scowl, he quickly put it back down again. No more than three biscuits at tea. He'd almost forgotten.
“Can I have an advance on my allowance?” Robert asked, affecting his best Court wheedle. “I need a new set of robes. For exams, you know.”
“In that case, I must insist you use my tailor,” said Grandfather, casting a critical eye over Robert's jacket. “Yours never fails to make you look like a scarecrow in farmer's castoffs.” Before Robert could reply, Grandfather continued, “I suppose this month's allowance has already been squandered upon your Bacchanal foolishness?”
The unfairness of it rose Robert's gorge, but he could hardly tell Grandfather that the money had disappeared into the pocket of a Paradiso whoremonger. Instead he tucked his chin and muttered, “My lord knows me well.”
Grandfather's lips narrowed to a thin line of disapproval. “Perhaps a month of poverty will teach you restraint.”
When Robert opened his mouth to object, Grandfather brought his cane down across the table. Bran cakes went flying.
“You will learn to conduct yourself in a manner befitting the station to which I have raised you,” Grandfather said in a voice of terrifying calm. “I will not lose you to your profligacy as I lost your father. Now, my son,” he went on, settling back in his chair. “Tell me what you know of Erminian law.”