The afternoon sun painted flat panes of gold across the porch, danced in the fountains on the lawn, and warmed the marble columns of Iacola Keep. This white and dazzling stone, to Asel’s eye, seemed pure and lightly veined as a Czech maid’s thigh, a counterpoint to bright dabs of color gathered round him on the porch, on the steps, on the verdant lawn itself, the gay robes of lords and ladies of noble corporate mien. Every hue and tone was there, every variegate and plaid, each great House here to witness somber rite and occasion most high, here for merriment and drink, for sly misdeeds and shady deals, mischief and scams of every sort.
Asel found his mother in the crowd, amid House troops clad in blue and white, found his brothers and his cousins and his aunts, found the tall and hungry form of Uncle Hal. Found the portly House bishop half asleep, found the pale and brooding lord of SEC. Poor Ducky rambled on, droning through his toast, apparently intent on self-flagellation to the end. Asel risked a glance at Loreli. Not the thing to do but he did. The girl seemed detached. Not completely focused on the day. A nice nose, and a rather pouty mouth. If she heard Ducky’s speech he couldn’t tell.
Asel felt more or less compelled to smile. If Ducky Du Pontiac-Heinz could make an ass of himself in front of everyone at Iacola Keep, then Asel could have the grace to watch him squirm. Oh, how it must be ripping old Duck inside! Anyone could look in those gray septic eyes and see a man who dearly wished to die. Yearned to vanish quietly in the earth.
The thought struck Asel with a surge of dark intent, an image sweet as chocolate in his head. It seemed too much to ask; that on a day that was truly Asel’s own, Ducky Du Pontiac-Heinz might strangle on his drink, turn some sordid shade of green, and expire upon the lawn. And this, only moments before sweet Loreli’s Peek, which of course is what Ducky came to see, knowing in his cold Duck heart this was all of Loreli he’d ever get.
The little dark-haired flunk offered a sweet to Asel’s lips. Asel waved her off, and gestured for his glass. Ducky seemed nearly done, coming to an end of this farce. Coming unraveled at the seams. Asel allowed himself to hear a word or two:
“Time to put aside... corporate malice and regret... friendly competition... bile and enterprise... capital gain and grief...”
Ducky so resplendent in manly spangled green. Ducky’s smile sewn tight with the cords of absent joy.
“Time to toast a dear friend ... twenty-one this day... named Prince of Christler-Coke... the lovely Loreli...”
Asel could stand no more. The words just came, without due reflection or thought. With scant consideration for corporate manner and tact. A reproach from Uncle Hal. Stern disapproval from the Lord of SEC.
“Oh, urpo, Ducks,” Asel said, “that’s quite enough. We’re all going to simply be ill...”
Stone-dead silence, then a flutter of applause for Ducky’s toast - mostly from the back, from the marginally affluent, the hungry and intent. Less restrained from the titled and secure.
Ducky turned a deep shade of red that dashed awfully with his suit, then forced a hearty laugh. A flunk raised crystal to his lips; a rather pretty thing, Asel thought. Tunisia, or somewhere about, one of those dreadfully dreary spots over there, Ducky being prone to dusty skin, girls with oddly tilted eyes.
Asel’s own flunk, a demure little Brit, raised Asel’s glass. Asel took an obligatory sip.
Well-wishers and other parasites circled Ducky with respect.
“Nice speech, Ducks,” said Harry Chase-Breck, who had little need to toady up.
“Good lad,” said the ancient, near destitute scion of Kimberly-Kraft.
“Goddamn fine,” said Jackie Cee of Disney-Dow. “Damn fine indeed.”
Asel’s mother wasn’t near, but her keen and practiced North Virginia ears, bred to catch transgression and offense, pricked up at once.
“Suh, you ah in East America now,” she chided. “We ah most religiously inclined and we do take affront in such mattahs.”
Mother gave the youth a gentle smile, but there was nothing so forgiving in her eyes.
“Your pardon, Lady,”said Jackie Cee. “Very deep regrets.”
An abject bow, formally correct. But Asel saw scorn in his eyes. Saw coastal dreams of elderly assault.
Serves the scalawag right, Asel thought. California State had sent this pissboot third or fourth heir from Disney-Dow as a gesture of contempt, a slap as clear as bogus bonds. A bold reminder of their long and scarcely legal love affair with the House of Du Pontiac-Heinz. Father had said toss the bastard out. Asel intervened. Ignore the affront, Asel said. Rejection, after all, is recognition of a sort.
This, the first time Asel had spoken out in a truly business sense. Well, of course the first time he could. Asel had scarcely noticed at the time. It seemed the thing to do. And Father had readily agreed. As if Asel made decisions every day. When it dawned on Asel what he’d done he felt a sharp, intense little thrill, a surge of corporate repute, and a very nice erection as well.
The little Brit popped a sweet in his mouth. Asel bit down on something hard.
“That’s a nut,” Asel said. “There’s a nut in there.”
“Oh!” The flunk looked contrite. “I’m terribly sorry ‘bout that.”
“I don’t like nuts of any sort.”
“I forgot.”
“Well don’t.”
Asel spit the offending goodie in her hand. Noted a gold bangle on her wrist. Assumed he’d awarded it for carnal enterprise, but couldn’t place the girl at all.