34. The Wild Card

Inglorion devotes the next few years to learning Drow language and ways, and fitting in best he can. Over time, he begins to gain privilege, status and material goods, always granted by Philomela, and supplied by the clan. It’s clear that Philomela has some purpose in mind, and that she’s slowly positioning him to be of use.

To Inglorion, Drow life seems confusing and strange, almost dreamlike. The Drow resolutely ignore the most fundamental unit of gray elven civilization and wealth: the stifling, all-encompassing Family. The Drow have clans, which overlap partly but not entirely with blood ties. Each clan has an identity and ideology which is enforced at every opportunity. Men, women and children all live communally, in barracks; individuals are assumed to belong first and foremost to the clan.

In return, the clan provides all the necessities of life to its members: food, simple lodgings, education, weapons training. Professions run on a guild system administered through the clan. Clans are ruled by a handful of powerful individuals, mostly women. Their titles correspond roughly to gray elvish peerage, but succession is not inherited. Instead, titles are gained and lost through combat or, more commonly, factional struggle. Individuals rarely hold a peerage for a lifetime; they are typically deposed, forced to abdicate, or assassinated. Together, the various local clans administer the city-state, which seems to be nothing more than a geographic unit perpetually one step short of anarchic all-on-all civil war.

Family life among the Drow is unrecognizable, or, more properly speaking, doesn’t exist. As far as Inglorion can tell, little effort is made to track birth and lineage. Clan membership absolutely trumps parentage in determining Drow identity. When a Drow woman gives birth, she may nurse the child herself for some minimal period, carrying it everywhere like a papoose, or, depending on her role in the clan, she may hand it off to a wet nurse immediately. Either way, she will have little to do with it subsequently; children are raised communally as soon as they are weaned. Fertility seems to be very low, and Inglorion suspects that infants are commonly exposed at birth. He’s seen the practice among nomadic cultures, and it fits with the attitudes and resource limits here. Midwives probably make the choice, based on the health of the infant and resource availability. He finds this fact disquieting — no one raised among gray elves could feel otherwise — but it helps to put Philomela’s actions after his birth into context.

Social relations among the Drow are difficult for Inglorion to grasp, as well. The Drow place an extremely high value on appearing equanimous and impassive; while gray elves are reserved in certain contexts, they’re very emotional at times, and passionate feelings aren’t considered abnormal or wrong. Among the Drow, expressions of deep emotion are considered a sign of weakness, and routine emotions like boredom and frustration aren’t shown or mentioned at all. Inglorion finds it almost impossible to imagine seducing any of his Drow peers, partly because doing so would entail displaying humor, appreciation, passion. The idea of having sex with them is frankly unappealing, since he’s not certain if they would behave like other elves, or if they would remain cold and unmoved throughout.

It’s lucky, then, that when he’s underground, Inglorion is relieved of the iron compulsion to fuck that he felt in the sunlit world. Only now does he realize that every day of his life aboveground, he was aware of a ticking timer — really a fuze — measuring the number of hours and days since he last had sex. It’s a relief to be able to think of other things and reallocate the time and energy. He’s also grateful because matters between the sexes are entirely different here, and his sexual habits would meet with cold puzzlement and reproach in the Underdark. If gray elves disapproved of his conduct, it was because he operated outside the bonds of marriage. Here, as far as he can tell, fucking for pleasure itself would be treated with frowning incomprehension. The Drow regard pleasure, leisure and luxury with suspicion. If there’s sexual intrigue and flirtation among his peers, it’s well-concealed.

There are other curious differences. Among elves who are racially Drow, women are slightly taller, heavier and more dominant than men. To Inglorion’s amusement, at 5’4” and roughly 115, he’s a strapping fellow, and he looks down on most Drow of either sex. His reach in combat impresses them, and the strength he’s developed through dual-wielding heavy weapons makes him a freak. They honestly see dual-wielding longswords as a form of cheating — not a proper combat technique for elves.

Inglorion has never thought of himself as especially manly, but he’s outspoken, self-assured and decisive, and after decades of adventuring with his little sister and chance-met companions, he’s accustomed to taking command. These qualities aren’t disliked or discouraged, but the Drow don’t arbitrarily reserve leadership roles for half the population, and female Drow don’t look to him for orders or reliably find him charming. From the moment Inglorion arrives in the Underdark, he’s inclined to boss around peers of both sexes, and they resist at every opportunity, demanding facts and data rather than deferring out of habit. They’re not loud, but they’re deeply stubborn, and it’s impossible to lead them if they don’t want to be led. The Drow have recognized lines of authority, but their social structure is flat, fluid and highly competitive. Overwhelmingly, among peers, the Drow settle disputes through debate or combat rather than appeals to authority. It takes time for Inglorion to adapt to these customs, but once he does, he finds the system congenial. After all, though he’s male, his birth and upbringing accustomed him to the idea that if he wanted wealth and status, he would have to fight for it.

The natural poverty of the Underdark is striking to an outsider. The Shelawn family is very wealthy, and Liamelia is a rich city. Inglorion can recall times when certain luxury items were unavailable because of trade disruptions, but food was always plentiful and varied, even for servants. Food isn’t rationed among the Drow, but it is provided in measured servings. It’s terrible, too — bland, unvarying, prepared in communal kitchens, and usually eaten raw or fermented, since fires consume oxygen. There’s no shortage of fresh water, but the Drow are necessarily more conscious of their water sources and supply than gray elves are. In many areas, too, the air is stale and oxygen-poor.

Stone, metal and gems are common in the Underdark, while fabric, wood, leather and paper are vanishingly rare. The lack of towels, bedding, cushions and carpeting is curious and, after a time, dreary. Furniture is built in, and typically carved of stone. Books are unusual, partly because paper is scarce, and partly because Drow vision is poorly adapted to reading texts printed in conventional ink. The Drow seem to have little idea of two-dimensional visual art, probably because they are largely colorblind, and few pigments are available. Their stonework and jewelry are exceptional, however, and they make excellent armor, weapons and ammunition, and a variety of clever metal gadgets. Even very simple metal items are ornate and well-crafted; watches, scientific instruments and various specialized tools are common here, where aboveground they would be the province of the wealthy. 

Inglorion is not distressed by Drow material culture. He’s been a servant or mercenary his whole life, and has never had many possessions. It’s unfortunate that the food is so very bad, but food isn’t an important source of enjoyment for him. The rhythms of daily life are so much better-adapted to his needs that he doesn’t much miss the abundance and variety of life aboveground. Instead, he feels physical relief living in his natural environment, and enjoys the sense that his skills are needed, and he has reasonable opportunities to acquire power and status. For many years, these facts more than make up for the relative poverty of his surroundings, and the lack of congenial companionship. 

Inglorion has suspected for awhile that he’s being positioned to join the Theates peerage, and perhaps to succeed his mother. After five years, his suspicion is confirmed when he’s notified that he’s expected to compete for the Marquisate, an honorary title awarded to the heir to the Duchy. In the Theates clan, this means completing a series of trials, then eliminating any remaining competitors. Inglorion is aware of two primary rivals for the Duchess’s favor. He judges that they’re rivals because all three have similar marks of status: larger quarters, a slave or personal servant, similar assignments and briefings. When Inglorion hears that the Duchess intends to pick a successor — Marquise or Marquis Theates — he assumes that he’ll be competing with Antigone and Jason.

Jason and Antigone are both strong, if conventional, choices. They’re classically Theates and Drow in intellect and temperament, which is to say that they’re cold, calculating and conservative. Jason is the oldest, just over 200, and best known for avoiding unforced errors through prudence — or, some would say, inaction. Antigone is 120 or so, more active, and prone to occasional fits of cold anger. She dislikes having her authority challenged, and is best known for deference to those in power and cruelty to servants and slaves.

Both have very real strengths. Jason is clever and thorough, and never enters a fight he can’t win, a quality that Inglorion lacks and admires. Antigone is aggressive and can be charming when she wishes; she’s widely feared as ruthless. Their weaknesses correspond to their strengths. Jason an indecisive and uninspiring leader who makes as few friends as he does enemies. Antigone’s peers and superiors don’t trust her, and her subordinates hate her and would gladly do her harm.

Naturally, Jason and Antigone are aware of Inglorion as a rival. He’s generally considered to be daring, bold and an original thinker. He seems impulsive, unpredictable and larger than life when judged against the prevailing backdrop of cold calculation. Put another way, Inglorion’s peers think he’s ballsy and tough at best, and batshit crazy at worst. To his amusement, Inglorion finds out that his third name, Androktasiai, has a secondary meaning in Drow: “Eager to die.” Someone who’s androktasiai will pick a fight out of restlessness or boredom, and will seek battle rather than endure the discomfort of waiting and watching. At 58, Inglorion has to concede that the name is more apt than he knew when he chose it. As he becomes more prominent in the Underdark, he hears the word more and more often, used both in contempt and in admiration. Aside from this, his greatest weakness is that he finds Drow behavior easy to predict, but their motives and reasoning remain alien.

Of the three rivals, Jason most resembles Philomela in personality and temperament, with perhaps an extra layer or two of reserve and caution. Antigone fits with the gray elvish idea of a Drow ruler and commander, and offers a strong alternative to Jason. Though the Theates clan occasionally promotes male rulers — the late Duke was liked and respected — Antigone’s gender also makes her a more natural choice for supreme ruler.

Inglorion is the wild card. No one understands why Philomela chose him, but he can’t be dismissed, since the Duchess has gone to some pains to position him to compete. He’s the youngest and least conventional of the three, and has no natural power base or strong ties in the Underdark. Though he’s extremely bright — probably more naturally gifted than either Antigone or Jason — the Drow regard him as a thug because of his size and physical prowess. As with everything else about him, Inglorion’s status is a mystery.

 

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