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A mean between two vices

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Alexius found Halward Pavus’s son in a cheap lupanar, where gilt peeled from the walls, a blue cloud of deathroot smoke caressed the room from the ceiling to the wool window-curtains, and where most of all Alexius himself had hoped never to be recognized.

But he was, as ever, compelled by honor, and so he greeted the boy with more respect than he was strictly due.

It was not returned.

“Well, sirrah,” spat Dorian Pavus, to the excessive amusement of his companions, “you have the advantage of me. But I do not mind; I do not care to know your name.” He was inhaling deathroot, and the vapor curled from his lips as he spoke. He had to shake his head to recapture his focus. “Despite which, I will make you this offer. Join us, or walk on.”

“If you will let me speak a minute,” Alexius began to say, sitting down beside him in order to keep their conversation more private. But Dorian’s eyes rolled like he was falling asleep, and his limp right arm moved when Alexius touched him, depositing the pipe onto the floor.

Alexius dragged him out by his elbow.

At the threshold, Dorian had at least the dignity to lift his robe over his face and shield himself from the shame of being led staggering from a brothel at midday.

“Now,” said Alexius, when they were both inside his carriage with the doors closed. “Truly, do you not know me? I am Magister Gereon Alexius, and because I am a true friend of your father’s I have not called the Templars to arrest you."

“Magister Alexius, of course I know you,” said Dorian, sobered remarkably by humiliation and the sunlight. “You know what they say, in wine, nonsense. I would have pretended to forget my own name if it amused me in the moment.”

“I believe,” said Alexius, patiently, “that the phrase is rather ‘truth in wine.’”

The carriage began to move, and he heard his small household guard move alongside it.

“I try very much not to repeat idioms that run contrary to my experience of the world,” said Dorian.

“Your experience is is not so much as, I suspect, you think -- ”

“But nevertheless it is enough. Enough indeed, for me to ask you this, do you not have a son nearly my age? His name is Faustus, or Fortunatus?”

“Felix.”

“Felix. In Qarinus we have a local custom of killing our enemies. Do you have no such similar practice in Asariel? You should have tipped me into the sea by now, I am Felix’s rival, he is your heir, and here I am,” Dorian paused, and tilted his chin up to watch Alexius’s face as his voice took on every inflection of rank insinuation, “entirely at your mercy.”

Alexius closed his eyes.

Dorian pressed what he clearly considered his advantage. “Or perhaps this conversation is less ordinary even than I had guessed. Do I resemble your son?”

“Were it not for my respect for your father,” said Alexius, to make him stop.

Dorian spoke over him. “My father, my father. It is him, then, whom I resemble? I do not think he had leisure at all for depravity in his youth, so your affection must have been unrequited. But then all things come to those who wait -- in some form or another.”

“As I have just said,” Alexius continued, though he was taken aback by Dorian’s implications, and how belligerently he made them, “Magister Pavus is an admired friend, and I count it as my duty to help his family, since I am able to do so. You must know that you are trafficking in a great deal of danger. You could have been robbed, or even killed, or --”

Dorian interrupted him again: “Worse, why, I could have been kidnapped.”

Alexius felt himself flinch, and looked out of the window to put his attention elsewhere.

The daytime carriage they rode in had curtains of stiff muslin, which obscured the sun only somewhat. The Gilded Quarter of Minrathous could be blinding in the afternoon, when light glared off bookmatched black marble and came searing from the crumbling glitter of gold smalti.

The ancient mosaics were set high and built wide to catch the setting sun, and accomplished their task so well that it hurt to see them. Everywhere in Minrathous, grandeur was cut with cruelty, and then again with decay.

When he turned he discovered that Dorian was asleep.

 


 

Alexius installed Dorian in a remote guest apartment and did not see him until it was after noon the next day.

Bathed and sober, Halward Pavus’s son looked not only remarkably improved but remarkably more like Halward Pavus, if that worthy had ever put hippophae oil in his hair or gone ungloved a minute after sunrise.

“Thank you for your care of me,” said Dorian, when he had been announced. “And for your hospitality.”

Alexius set down his pen. “I am happy to provide it, but you must know how lucky you are in your discoverer,” he said, and as he said it, found himself regretting that he was giving such boring, fatherly advice. Anyone could have read a lecture on where and in what company it was appropriate for a magister’s son to be falling-down drunk in the middle of the day. Alexius himself was more qualified. He understood far more, how to make a life in an empire’s final chapter, how to refuge oneself in that certainty -- but then, what advice could he truly give? They had ended up in the same place.

“Yes,” said Dorian, with probable insincerity. “I am so grateful.”

Alexius nodded. He was not Dorian’s father or his headmaster, and Dorian was not his equal. Therefore there was little more to be said, between them, about the lupanar. So he changed the subject: “Can I offer you anything to eat? The pomegranates are from my own trees in Asariel.”

“I think I know this plot, I eat one seed and find myself confined to your lair of degenerate mysteries for all of eternity.”

“You have a most imaginative way of declining a pomegranate,” said Alexius, amused despite himself.

“You forget I’ve had, until recently, a religious education,” said Dorian. “And I’m not declining.”

Alexius looked down first.

He was not a poor speaker or incompetent in a conversation. He had held his seat in the Magisterium since the age of thirty-one, and could skillfully debate and declaim in circles academic and political. He had, more than once, been hissed to silence when he broke expediently from his moderate caucus, and even then he had not faltered.

But this sneering truant had now twice gotten the better of him in his own home. There was little finesse to it, which could have been the secret. Dorian was so desperate to be taken seriously as a cynic and so tireless in his provocation that it was bound eventually to work, and it did, but it still disquieted him.

“On the subject of your education, you must know I am obligated to return you to your school,” said Alexius. “Tomorrow, I think.”

Dorian breathed in sharply, finally taken off the offensive. “You may try,” he said, lifting his head, “but if I go, I will not remain.”

He was rescued from the need to elaborate when the pomegranates arrived, with bread and a green glass vessel of hydromel. Alexius’s household slaves in the capital did not know him as their counterparts did in Asariel. They withdrew quickly, but not quickly enough that he missed their glances at each other. If they were already gossiping, others were. It confirmed what he knew, that he needed to disembarrass himself of Dorian Pavus before his own standing suffered.

“Please sit down,” he said, pouring them each a glass of hydromel. Dorian sat, very decently, on the far kline. “I have not had one civilized conversation with you, I think.”

“You attend my father’s convivia,” said Dorian. “So I must have said hello. At some point. As a child.”

“Attended, yes,” said Alexius, with real wistfulness. “Less often than I would have liked.”

“You belong now to different factions. He certainly mourns your company,” said Dorian. His generosity in this statement was almost charming.  

“You understand the situation precisely.”

“If I understood anything precisely, I think I would have been expelled from fewer schools.”

“Was it for ineptitude?”

“Of course,” said Dorian. The generosity was abruptly gone. “Obviously.”

“But most recently you left of your own volition,” said Alexius, out of innate curiosity and the more political desire to have more information than anyone else. He drank after he said it, to make the conversation more casual. Already Dorian had a fist around his cup.

“Yes. Well.”

“Why did you leave?”

Dorian set his cup down harshly.  “Because I am profligate and unskilled,” he said, and his voice rose. “Because they say a noble house can be overcultivated, to the point that it begins to produce morons as often as mages, and these creatures of stupid greed devour their ancestors’ good legacies. I am one such, the mouth of the ouroboros. And because I prefer not to bide my time in the classroom I have left it. Does this satisfy you?”

“I have not lived a life much different to yours,” said Alexius, more curious than before. “And if you explain yourself, you will find me understanding.”

“Spare me,” said Dorian, and there were tears in his eyes when he looked up. They fell when he blinked, and he did not lift a hand to acknowledge it. “I met you in what we shall call the men’s wing of a brothel, I do not mistake your understanding for a minute.”

“You have a very low opinion of me.”

“You worry that I have my father’s ear on the subject? I have not even answered his letters for three months.” 

A minute ago Alexius had been content to return Dorian to the Order of Argent in the morning, which would not have required Halward Pavus’s involvement at all.

But he was provoked to sympathy. Years ago he too had disdained to learn the flattering history of his empire to preserve it, to provision himself for its end, and to be another spoiled mind in a generation that would accomplish little and influence nothing at all. He had done nothing about it. But then there had been no opportunity. He changed his mind.

“Nothing could be further from my mind than your father,” he said. “I am not so cold-blooded that I will force you to go where you do not want to be -- as you know, I have entrusted my own son to a more liberal education -- and I have free time enough to take on an apprentice, if you think my company is preferable to the Order of Argent. I have said you will find me understanding, and I am.”

Dorian, thinking belatedly of his appearance, put his hand over his face when his tears did not subside.

“There is one condition,” Alexius went on, when Dorian continued to be silent. “For your reputation as well as mine, and because the nature of our meeting is trivial, I must ask that you do not disclose it.”

“Not I,” said Dorian, recovering himself enough to lower his hand. Crying had altered his voice enough that he averted his eyes in embarrassment. “I cannot disclose an event which has not happened.”

Alexius reached for one of the pomegranates.

 


 

Alexius had been happy to make their arrangement with only one condition of his own; Halward Pavus, who answered the letter he sent almost immediately, had several more.

My dear friend, he wrote. Your letter and your news are most extremely welcome. You know as well as I do how our children are capable, even at great distances, of making us preoccupied.

As for your proposal I am persuaded, but I desire your explicit understanding on several points: First, that you will not instruct my son in the practice of blood magic or suffer him to witness it, or indeed any expedient beyond what the law permits. Second, that you will not involve him in the hearings, comments, votes or especially the productive work of your caucus, and in further service of this impartiality I desire that he not be seen in your company in the Senate building.

I beg you finally to remember this, that despite his behavior he is a member of a noble house, and that if in your service he comes to any indignity, it is certain that I will know it.

I am your devoted friend and trust you in all things, but fortune, as they say, favors the cautious.

Experience proved this warning to be insufficient. For the remainder of his stay in Minrathous, Dorian undertook the seduction of his teacher as the paramount challenge of his tertiary education.

“You cannot have perfect motivations for taking me on,” he said one evening. “You are a moderate.”

Alexius sighed, and the corpse he had reanimated to sweep the library sighed with him.

“I wish you would explain the argument you are making to me,” said Alexius. “And I will show you the flaws.”

“I readily accept that it is flawed. I have always been better suited to the refutatio than the confirmation, and I wish you would make your objections so I have the opportunity to demonstrate as much. I will deliver you a stylish piece. I guarantee metaphor, anaphora, apposition, proficient epistrophe -- and skillful climax.”

Alexius laughed.

Dorian looked offended.

“I apologize,” said Alexius. “It was very funny.”

“I am pleased you find me amusing,” Dorian snapped, and did not return to the subject that night.

 


 

 

He turned instead to the most basic forms of persuasion, giving Alexius long narrow-eyed looks over his wineglass, holding his elbow in public, and shelving volumes of erotic poetry in between his books.    

One evening he walked in on Alexius naked in his sudatorium.

“Oh no,” said Dorian slowly, “I had no idea at all you were here.”

Had he been of a lesser rank, Alexius would have rolled his eyes.

“I wonder if I have misled you,” he said, and put a towel around his hips to make hypocrisy impossible, “about the nature of apprenticeship.”

“You have never misled me,” said Dorian, “and in turn I have followed your example of total integrity.”

“I will be unambiguous, then. You are my student, I am a man of reputation, and moreover, your father’s longtime friend. I have made him a promise, and I will make it to you: there will be no intimacy between us.”

“You promised my father you wouldn’t fuck me?” Dorian’s voice rose. “In what possible context?”

“I assured him I would be an example of good conduct, restraint, and courtesy.”

Dorian lowered his eyes. He had no business at all in the sauna, dressed in white samite and striped burdalisander, and was beginning to sweat badly. He crossed his arms to hide it, and lifted his head. “Even so, did you put anything in writing?”

Alexius looked at him. Men poisoned each other in Tevinter, and ascribed good intentions only to their ancestors. They lived in ruins and learned nothing from them. At the founding of the empire, a man’s promise would never have been questioned.

“I am most extremely disappointed,” Dorian replied to his silence. “You know I am missing my chance to be immortalized on some red-figure amphora, gazing admiringly at you and strumming a lute.”

“There are other ways,” said Alexius, and heard his melancholy in his voice.

“What, of being remembered? I do not know them.”


 

The next evening Dorian left the villa with Ulio Abrexis’s son and returned, unsubtly, at dawn the following morning. He attended breakfast in triumph, and was so eager for Alexius to ask him about it that Alexius spoke only of necromancy.

Finally Dorian was unable to maintain his silence: “If you think I am not a credit to you, remember this. It is a feat of necromancy that I am here before you,” he said, “after such a revel.”

“It is good of you to honor your obligations,” said Alexius, benignly.

Abrexis’s son stayed the night that day, and again the next.

Finally Dorian introduced them.

“Magister Alexius, this is Rilienus Abrexis, whose face may be somewhat familiar to you.”

Rilienus bowed. “It is a pleasure,” he said, “to know my host.”

Alexius nodded, and felt himself despite all reason drawing his spine straight to add to his height, closing his expression to something more haughty. He did not extend his hand to Rilienus Abrexis.

“And Rilienus, this is Magister Gereon Alexius, to whom I am apprenticed. He lives a monastic life, so I must beg you not to shock him. Once I came upon him in the sauna, and he could not endure to be seen!”

“What a curiosity in Minrathous,” said Rilienus. “A magister with any shame.”

“I value solitude, not shame, and value it highly,” said Alexius, and though he said it to Rilienus, it was Dorian who looked contrite.

 


 

 

His voting was soon concluded and he returned to Asariel, bearing with him some resentment from his caucus, crates of magical papyri, and finally his apprentice.

Alexius felt his heart lift to see the green harbor of his home and beyond it, the lime washed walls of his city.

Where Minrathous had been built according to an antique plan and more or less all at once, Asariel bore the architecture of empire only grudgingly. Though the forest had been cut back, the laurel trees crowded in and put buckling cracks in the plastered walls. Lianas tangled in the imperial quadrigas, pulling them down from the city gates.

Nothing in the whole Imperium was new, only falling apart in different ways, and there was an immortal comfort in witnessing the mastery of nature over fashions and customs.

The carriage that took them into the city was chosen for the time of day, curtained with madder-dyed linen, and this simplicity of decoration was unspeakably pleasing to him after so long away. Even the macaques that followed them into the city were welcoming. 

“This is a long way to go for pomegranates,” said Dorian, when they arrived finally at Alexius’s property, and then left him in solitude to spend the rest of the day asleep.

Being home reminded Alexius that he had qualities more human than political mediation and bottomless disappointment with the banality and cruelty of the age. He re-educated himself in his own hobbies, botany and riding and correspondence, and found that this leisure interfered very little with the proper education of his apprentice, who had finally given up trying to make a conquest of his teacher.

Away from the capital, there was time enough in each day. Enough corpses to harvest his pomegranates and persimmons while Dorian produced something publishable, and Alexius himself took his son riding into the forest, until the sun set in the same opaque color as his red sandstone colonnade.

Letters from Minrathous came within two weeks, and with Alexius’s usual subscriptions came something with bold handwriting for Dorian.

“This is the first I have heard from the capital,” he said, cracking the seal with a sigh. “Apparently my absence is not very much regretted, except at the tzykanisterion.”

“You played polo at school?” said Felix, with some envy. It was a dangerous sport and Alexius would not allow him to learn it seriously.

“We sons of magisters must all play polo, it has been so since the founding of the Imperium,” said Dorian. “Really, Felix, your innocence to your own proper conduct astounds me.”

“Weren’t you expelled for improper conduct?” Felix replied, sounding even more thrilled by expulsion than he was by polo.

“Even then, it was not for innocence,” Dorian replied, and skimmed his letter. “Excuse me,” he said, abruptly, and rose so quickly that he had to put a hand on his chair so it would not tip over.

Felix stared mournfully after him. “I’ve never had an upsetting letter,” he said.

Alexius lifted his eyebrows. “It is only because I am an excellent parent,” he said, and looked at the pieces of the wax seal Dorian had left on the table. Even broken, the cypher was well-known to him, Alexius had letters enough from Ulio Abrexis that he could tell even the edge of the stamp.

He finished his own reading, left Felix alone with two or three periodicals, and left Dorian in solitude until the evening.

He found him still at home, wet-eyed and burning deathroot to smoke it, having evidently abandoned the more tedious paraphernalia. The sky was blue and dark outside his pierced-screen window, and the night so still that it did not even disturb the cloud of smoke.

“I assume,” said Alexius, “that Ulio Abrexis’s son has not delivered kind news to you?”

Dorian sobbed into his palm, and Alexius had time to regret his approach.

“Men are wolves to each other,” said Dorian, his voice choked and vengeful. He had taken his hand from his face and curled it into a fist. “I have been so often warned.”

Alexius put a hand on his shoulder in sympathy. Dorian was wearing a long-staple cotton from Qarinus, and Alexius felt the heat of his body through it. He had disliked Rilienus Abrexis on sight.

He helped himself to the pipe.

“I cannot offer you better advice than that, I think,” said Alexius, breathing out the deathroot smoke. The flavor was burnt and medicinal, but even one breath of it seemed to make his vision better and his wisdom closer at hand. “But I will read the villain’s letter, if you like.”

“I have burnt it,” said Dorian, darkly, and wiped his tears with his forefingers. “But then you’re a necromancer.”

“I am not a prying necromancer.”

“Indeed, you are a the most upstanding of necromancers, the kindest of magisters, and in all ways superlative.”

A magister with any shame, Rilienus had said to him. Alexius considered taking a seat by the window, where the air was slightly cleaner, but instead he moved so he was facing Dorian, and crouched down in front of him.

“Right action is a commodity in Tevinter,” said Alexius. “And the old virtues are not. They have gone out with the last age, with art and invention. You cannot entirely blame Rilienus that he does not rise above his countrymen.”

“I understand you,” said Dorian. “And I do not blame him, I am moved but it is entirely disappointment.”

Alexius put his hand on the back of Dorian’s neck, where his hair was short and slightly damp, and leaned forward to kiss him. Dorian responded with good timing, proficiency, and surprising respectability.

“You surprise me,” said Dorian, and stood up, tugging Alexius's shoulders to make him do likewise, and pressing their torsos together. “If I had known that an epistolary episode was the thing, I would have tried it long ago. Still, I thought you were afraid of Halward Pavus’s long arm?”

Alexius surprised himself, and was not sure what motivated him finally -- jealousy, weakness, or an adolescent relief at hearing I understand you when he had lived so long without it.

“I am not afraid of him,” said Alexius. “I was only keeping my word.”

“And now?”

“I am compelled to break it,” he said, honestly.

“I am calling a red figure artist in the morning,” said Dorian. “For the amphora.”