Soundtrack: Venetian Snares, Gentleman
Soon after Inglorion is told to compete for the Marquisate, he and his rivals learn about their first trial. Clytemnestra brings the three of them to a remote chamber, deep in the unimproved portion of the caverns. The chamber is divided by a glass wall. On the far side, there’s a pit roiling with orange spiders, each roughly the size of an outstretched hand.
“Hm,” says Inglorion, who still thinks of spiders as vermin.
“It’s simple but difficult,” says Clytemnestra. “They’ve built their nest around a hatch that you’ll need to open. Underneath, you’ll find the keypad for a combination lock. You’ll enter an eight-digit code three times, correctly. When the lock opens, that will allow you to lift the manhole cover, and escape into an airlock. Once you’re there, you’ll be cleansed of spiders, and dosed with anti-venom.”
The three candidates contemplate the nest. A single spider isn’t a bad thing, if it confines itself to spinning modestly in corners. These spiders look like a bold, lively, numerous crew, more given to hunting than trapping.
Clytemnestra continues, “The real obstacle is the venom. Within 60 seconds of the first bite, you’ll start to lose motor coordination. At the 90-second mark, intestinal cramping begins, followed by vomiting and alternating chills and fever. Your vision will begin to blur. You’ll be blind within two minutes, and your strength will begin to fail. Paralysis sets in within three to five minutes. Without treatment, death will follow within hours.
“At any time, you can knock on the glass to end the trial. You’ll be rescued as soon as is practically possible, and will be given medical treatment. After three halted attempts, you will be disqualified.”
Jason asks, “Is the venom widely available? Can it be harvested or bought?”
“Yes, if you choose to do so, but you must complete the trial within 90 days.”
Antigone asks, “Are there limits on personnel and equipment?”
“You must complete the trial alone, dressed as you are now. Of course, you will want to have retainers present to remove you in case of serious illness.”
Inglorion asks, “It’s a standard 10-digit key pad?”
“How far in advance will we receive the code?”
“Fifteen minutes before.”
“How soon can you administer the trial?”
“Within two days, if you feel you’re ready. We’ll schedule a surgeon, allocate the antitoxin. Two weeks are required between trials, to allow the spider population to recover.”
“Good to know.” Inglorion gazes at the nest. A few brash individuals appear to be playing tag around the perimeter, or perhaps engaging in lighthearted cannibalism.
“Do you wish to schedule it?” Clytemnestra asks.
“Yes, I think so. I won’t be any smarter or stronger or faster 90 days from now. The day after tomorrow?”
“Yes. At midday.”
He says to Jason and Antigone, “Sorry to hog the spiders. You’ll get your turn.” He’s careful to meet both of his rival’s gazes. Jason looks away, unsettled.
Antigone says, “You’ll die in there.”
“We’ll know soon,” says Inglorion.
When he returns to his quarters, Inglorion asks Ajax, “What do you know about an orange spider, very energetic, about five inches across?”
“They’re extremely dangerous, sir. Their venom is collected and used for assassination attempts. It can be used to coat weapons, but it’s considered too dangerous to handle in combat conditions.”
“Interesting. Is it possible to build up immunity?”
“Yes, sir, but it’s difficult. The venom can be disabling even in very small amounts, and some individuals are hypersensitive. Concentration varies from batch to batch.”
For the next two days, Inglorion sticks to his usual schedule of study and training. He appears outwardly calm. If anything, he seems a bit more cheerful and high-spirited than usual. When he and Ajax wake up on the morning of the trial, he says, “Ajax, at noon I will have the first of my trials, involving those orange spiders. I would like you to accompany me there and nurse me afterwards.”
Ajax looks startled. “Of course, sir, but I wouldn’t recommend –”
Inglorion says gently, “I’m not asking for your recommendation, Ajax, but I would very much appreciate your help. I need you to take care of me. It may be quite bad. Please make whatever arrangements are necessary.”
“I won’t argue with you on this subject, Ajax. I will be sparring from eight to eleven, as usual. The trial is at noon. Clytemnestra will fetch both of us from here. Please be prepared.”
Inglorion is too keyed up to eat or drink. He fights viciously all morning, startling his sparring partners and himself. Afterwards he shuts himself in his bedroom briefly, sits on the edge of the bed. He finds his breath and heartbeat, slides the Alexander ring onto his right hand. He makes a fist, whispers to himself, “They’re afraid of you because you’re batshit crazy and you’re already dead. No one can kill you. You’re already dead. No one can kill you. You’re already dead.”
He walks out, ready to face his first trial.
Though Inglorion isn’t actually eager to die, he does feel most alive in the presence of risk. Far from feeling dread, when Clytemnestra fetches him and Ajax and 11:30, he’s exhilarated, happy, focused. If he survives this trial, he will have placed his rivals at a significant disadvantage.
By 11:35, Inglorion is standing in front of the glass partition briefing himself:
1. Fuck the spiders. They will bite you. Kill them only if they come between you and an objective.
2. Fuck pain. This will hurt.
3. Learn the combo so you can enter it blind, without thinking.
4. Don’t stop for anything. Go until you’re in the airlock. Whatever happens after that is the surgeon’s problem.
At 11:45, Clytemnestra gives him the combination. He types it on the palm of his left hand until he has it memorized spatially.
At 11:58, Clytemnestra asks, “Are you ready?”
“Give me the combo again,” says Inglorion. As she recites it, he check it against his memory. They match. He nods. “Let’s go.”
“I’ll admit you into the the airlock through the man door on the left,” she says. “Once it closes behind you, push through the second door, into the chamber.”
She opens the man door. He enters the airlock. No spiders, stone walls, ceiling and floor. He takes a steadying breath, and enters the chamber.
The keypad cover isn’t visible through the swarm of spiders, so he plunges his hands in. The spiders shy away briefly, then attack. The bites are only mildly painful — less than a tattoo needle. He gropes his way around the cover, gives it a quarter-turn to the left, so that tabs align with slots. He’s through.
By now, half a dozen spiders are gnawing gamely at his hands, while other swarm up his sleeves. A few hop around on his boots and pant legs, and one bold fellow nestles up to his throat and slides down the front of his shirt. Their legs aren’t bad, but their bodies have an loathsome, uncanny, naked feel.
He tries to brush them away from the 10-key pad, but they’re too quick and numerous — he’ll have to go by feel. He starts banging in the code, realizes that his fingers are starting to fumble and misbehave. He enters the code effortlessly the first time, blows it the second. OK, let’s fucking get this. He slows down to half-speed, gets it right once, twice. After the third time, he checks the lock. Nope, he blew it. He starts again. Once. There’s a knifing pain in his stomach. OK, fuck, that’s 90 seconds. Thirty more seconds. Do it now. Twice, correct. The pain hits again, so bad that he groans and doubles over.
Fucking do it.
Three times. The lock opens.
And now, like it or not, Inglorion stops to vomit. His stomach is mostly empty, so it’s dry heaves and a mouthful of bile.
When he’s able to straighten up, his vision is so blurred that he has to find the manhole cover by feel. Of course the little fuckers are all over it. He winces away the first couple of times he grabs one accidentally. Also, as he gropes around, he realizes that it’s hinged. He can’t lift it up and away — he’ll have to hold it open as he crawls through. He’s shaking hard with the chills, so he has trouble grasping the lip. Just as he catches it, he feels another knifing pain in his stomach, worse than he thought possible, and he thinks, Time’s up. Fucking do it.
With one jerking motion, he wrenches it open. By now he’s almost entirely blind, and is shaken by continuous dry heaves. He drops to his hands and knees and wriggles through as his body convulses. When he’s half through, he loses his grip, and the lid smashes down on his legs.
You’ve got this. Finish it. Fucking do it.
Even though he’s puking and shaking, Inglorion manages to shove at the lid, yank his right leg through, give another shove, drag his left leg through.
Now he’s in the airlock, and he’s still covered with little eight-legged orange bags of shit. Now he starts beating at them with his bare hands, rolling on the ground to crush them. He still twitching when the surgeon bursts in 10 seconds later. Two slaves in protective gear strip him and hose him down. “He’s clean,” one says. The surgeon whips a tourniquet around his outstretched arm, finds a vein, and starts pumping anti-venom into him.
Inglorion is blind, and can’t control his movements. The pain is horrifying. He shivers and vomits continuously.
“He took a massive dose,” says the surgeon to no one in particular. Then, to the slaves, “Are you sure he’s clean?”
“Then get his servant in here. I’ll give him fluids next.”
Through it all — pain, nausea, paralysis, blindness — Inglorion thinks, You made it. Now all you have to do it live.