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Magnificent Desolation


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Henry spent a week regretting shaking the count's hand. He spent that time under shuttered shades in his study with a glass of port in hand. That is, until Friday.

The grandfather clock across from his desk chimed twice for the afternoon sun. He strained an eye towards its face, but it landed on the bottle instead. It only had enough for one more glass. Soon he would have to get the other bottle from the pantry. That expedition would be fraught with more peril than any to the Antargic; he would have to deal with a more frigid shoulder than any ice shelf. His wife prowled the corridors of their little home, waiting to turn her contemptuous back on him once he emerged from the comforting, mahogany-furnished twilight.

They had only been married a month.

He finished the bottle with two quick swigs, one from his glass and the other straight from the bottle. Setting it down as quietly as he could, he rose stiffly and crept across his study to the door. As timidly as a mouse he waited at the precipice, listening for her footfalls. He heard none. Satisfied, he slowly twisted the doorknob and cracked the door open enough for a peek. His eyes squinted, adjusting to the daylight. This side of the house seemed deserted. Perhaps she had taken her sexta.* He went out and tip-toed towards the kitchen. The floorboards beneath betrayed him with a whining creak. He laid still for a moment, ears listening. But she did not come to investigate. He pressed on through the doorway and into the kitchen.

There she had laid her ambush. She was waiting for him at the counter, her glare piercing right through his heart.

"Drink the merlot, if you must," she said, arms crossed. "We need the port for dessert."

He made no such move to the pantry. Caught red-handed, his ashamed fingers ruffled through his hair and rubbed his aching face. At last, he spoke. "I thought we were dining out tonight."

"You wanted to go out?" Her voice strained its incredulity. "You haven't left the house all week. I have had to leave your meals at the study door while you sat there in your stupor, brooding like... like some tragic actor!"

A stray chestnut-colored curl tumbled down her forehead during her outburst. She replaced it quickly and preened herself for a moment. He was suddenly much more aware of the dark stubble on his chin and his unbuttoned shirt.

"I'm sorry, Lucy. I will telephone the count and tell him it's off."

"No, no, no!" she stomped her foot. "Are you not the man who conquered the Tapelts? Are you not the man who has never given up? Where is that courageous man I married? Mrs. Henry de Sabaudia is looking for her husband, and all she can find is some drunk who stumbled into her kitchen!"

"I'm right here, Lucy. And as much as it pains me to admit, I am frightened."

"Frightened by what, Henry?"

His cheeks burned.

"Tell me what you're frightened by," she insisted.

"I'm too frightened to see him. To apologize. To get on my knees and beg him to join me again." His eyes began tearing up.

"If you're so frightened of a man, you'll never conquer the South Pole," she huffed. "Maybe you should be more frightened of a woman."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"You should shave. We have company coming for dinner."

"No, Lucy, you didn't--"

"--I did. You'll thank me later. And so will our finances, with all the fine wine you've been drinking."

His mouth hung open. He wished so badly to plead with her to call it off. He could not bear to see de Forda again. It would be an agony worse than the pains of hell. But she knew how to calm his frenzied mind.

"I'll make some coffee for you. Go run a bath and freshen up."

He quit his futile worrying, straightened his hair, and nodded. "Thank you, dearest."

"Don't thank me yet," she laughed bitterly. "You still have to convince him."

 

 

Mr. and Mrs. Marcell Boniface de Forda arrived at the de Sabaudia home a few hours later. The handshake between the two men was stiffly polite. The two women gave each other a hug and admonished their husbands with their glances. Henry excused himself to find them a proper bottle for some drinks before dinner. Lucy toured Marcell and Josephina through the fruits of her labor: the back garden was finally starting to bloom after a month of clearing, planting, weeding, and watering.

The four sat under a pergola at a wrought-iron table, sipping champagne. Both men shrunk from the conversation and offered each other a few curious looks, as if they were studying the surface of the Mun. But the chattering peace would not last. As the sun finally set, Josephina offered her assistance in the kitchen and Lucy gladly accepted, leaving the two friends alone with each other.

"So, Henry," Marcell ventured first. "I hear you and Lucy honeymooned in Salvia."

"We did. We saw the papal palace. Deopolis and King Peter's old crown in the museum."

"I've always wanted to visit. But I hear it's dreadful hot."

"The problem isn't the heat; it's hotter here, in fact. But the air is humid. Under that sun you drip sweat like wax from a candle."

Marcell nodded and Henry was too reluctant to continue the conversation. They watched the dimming sky above them for a few quiet minutes.

 

The pink curtains had closed on the day, the sky darkening into a sleepy blue. It was time to close the curtains on this awful rift between them. Henry gulped down the rest of his glass.

It was time.

"I want to apologize for what I said about you," he began. "About the cheating and the thievery. I want to apologize for ruining our partnership, and worse yet, our friendship. I could not bear to swallow my pride and share the spotlight with you. I'm terribly sorry."

Marcell looked him over. Maybe it was all the staring into the sun, but Henry swore he could see a few tears welling up in Marcell's eyes.

"It cut deep, what you said about me," he replied. "There were many looks I would get in public, you know. But if there's anyone you should apologize to, it's Josephina. She could not stand all the controversy and the gossip. She grieved for our friendship more than I ever could, incensed as I was at you."

Henry swallowed. This was what he feared.

"But in all that anger at being slighted, at having my honor spat upon, I could only remember us in the shadow of Mount Olympus, sharing the tea kettle at camp. What bright smiles we had, dreaming of the future atop that peak," he mused, the corners of his lips drawn fondly. "You and I, ours was a mighty friendship that not even Nature herself could oppose. That friendship made our dream a reality."

"Perhaps I was angry more at the thought that such an invincible thing could be torn apart," he concluded.

A chilly night wind breezed through the garden. But Marcell turned and offered Henry his first genuine smile of the night.

"I would like very much for that friendship to be remade."

"As would I," Henry smiled gratefully. The two friends toasted each other with the last of the champagne and headed inside.

The dinner was uproarious. Their laughter must have kept the whole neighborhood up. The bottle of port at dessert didn't help much at quieting them down. But by the end of that long night of storytelling, glass-clinking, and teary-eyed jest-making, a friendship was remade and a proposal was agreed to. The friends would become partners again. This time, they would not climb, but ski and sled. They would be the first to reach the South Pole. When the de Fordas bid good night, Henry drew his old friend into a hug.

 

 

"Thank you, my love," Henry whispered to his wife in bed, his arms wrapped tightly around her. "If I am a courageous man, then you are one mischievous woman."

"Just promise me, darling, you'll share this victory with him."

He kissed her head of chestnut hair. "Him, but no one else."

 

 

* known in other countries as a siesta.

Edited by Eulycea
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Signed this day in the twenty-eighth year of our reign,
Charles IV, King of Eulycea by the Grace of God

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