32. No More Than 108

Soundtrack: Venetian Snares, Aanguish

Inglorion finds it difficult to fall into trance. The stone bench is hard; he’s distracted by the unfamiliar sensation of cold radiating from his tattoo; he hasn’t eaten since he came to the Underdark. His cell is remote and quiet, so there’s no one to ask about details of schedule. He’s been provided with soap and a small basin of water. He drinks some of the water, and saves the rest to tend his tattoo.

After he’s endured a poor trance and an interminable wait, Clytemnestra comes for him again. As they stride down a series of hallways, she instructs him on how to walk and when to genuflect. Philomela will be there; he must keep his gaze lowered, and he must not look at Alecto, either. As always, she makes him repeat everything back. He wonders if she’s neglecting other duties to lead him around and provide terse instructions about how to conduct himself in ceremonial spaces.

The temple is small — intimate, even. The pillars and walls are elaborately carved in relief, and the floor consists of an abstract mosaic. There’s an altar, an altar rail, and, several feet away, a dais with a chair and desk. The Duchess is seated there, dressed in leather and wearing a small ruff made from the pelt of an animal he does not recognize. She does not acknowledge his presence, and remains disengaged throughout. She and Clytemnestra converse briefly in low tones, and various retainers come and go during the ceremony. He has the sense that she’s receiving routine reports and briefings.

Alecto approaches him at the altar rail, where Clytemnestra has placed him. “You’re fasting?”

“Pardon me?”

“You may address me as madam. You haven’t eaten anything for at least a day? There is some risk of vomiting with the drug I’m about to administer.”

“Oh. No, madam. I haven’t eaten.”

“You may kneel.”

He kneels at the altar rail, and she adjusts his right arm so that it’s outstretched, wrist up. She applies a tourniquet, finds a vein, slips a needle in, and administers what seems to be a lengthy, massive injection. The fluid is cold — he can feel it flowing from the injection site. He shudders, feels faint. The gray use needles only for tattooing, and rarely for that. “Count backwards from 10,” she says. “You’re almost there.”

“Ten, nine, eight….” He pauses, becomes confused, forgets what he’s doing. The shot contains a hallucinogen. His memories of the ceremony will be shuffled in with dreams, visions.

He remembers being stretched out on the altar. He doesn’t know how he got there. Surely he’s too heavy for Alecto to lift? He’s naked, covered briefly with a roiling blanket of spiders, none larger than a fingertip.

He receives another tattoo: His name in Drow characters, wrapped around his left forearm. As Alecto works the needle, he becomes preoccupied with the lattice of faint white scars. He becomes convinced that they form words, and that he must read them before they’re covered by the progress of Alecto’s needle. He tries to struggle. She holds him firmly, and he keeps losing his purpose, distracted by the pain of infinite tiny wounds.

Though he can see her hands at work, he comes to feel that he’s tattooing himself. He imagines that he’s holding his own skin taut, plying the needle, wiping away blood and excess ink. As the drug hits fully, he begins to sweat and shake. His limbs become slippery with sweat, and Alecto must blot his skin almost continuously. As he watches the tattoo progressing underneath his skin, cold and dark against white-hot flesh, the characters slip, and realign to form a playing card: The Jack of Hearts. Right profile, warpaint on flesh. Left profile, a skull. The two flip rapidly, merging into a single image.

His father’s flayed head.

A dead child.

Alecto reaches his wrist, and the images melt into the pain of needle over bone. He returns to characters and flesh, his name: Inglorion Atropos Androktasiai.

Why did you do it? she asks casually, without looking down. Her lips are not moving.

He cannot answer.

She continues, What happened to you? 

I don’t know.

Why did you come here?

I had a vision.

She looks at him with infinite sympathy. You will know, and soon.

He tries to avert his eyes, and cannot. He keeps forgetting the simple task he’s been given. Will I be punished?

No. But you will suffer. It’s usual to suffer three times, or 27. Perhaps 40. No more than 108. Anything more would be excessive. The gods choke you, but they don’t smother you.

Relief courses through his body. Now he knows. He has a number: No more than 108. There’s a limit to what will be asked of him.

Philomela’s advisers come and go like ants harvesting sugar. He sweats and shivers. The tattoo continues. He thinks, No more than 108, but it doesn’t occur to him to wonder, 108 what? Miles, or moments, or lashes across his back? He believes he can survive now.

It ends. He finds himself in a small room, on a bed. He is naked. The bedclothes are soaked with sweat. He hears Alecto say, “This is your room, your bed. Rest now. Someone will come for you presently.”

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