Inglorion lies on his side, depleted from sweating and vomiting. He feels Ajax examine him, take his pulse and listen to his breathing. The next round of chills and vomiting begins. The pain is unimaginable, terrifying, and he hears himself keening like an animal. Ajax gives a series of orders, and Inglorion’s aware of being strapped to a litter, jolted over what seem like miles of twisting corridors, then lifted into his bed.
Some part of Inglorion’s mind remains lucid and detached. He hears Ajax questioning the doctor, sending a footman for clean water and towels. His voice is clear, firm, decisive. Inglorion begins to vomit again. Ajax holds his hair back, wipes his face and brow. Ajax’s hands are cold, and shake so that he can hardly hold the basin and washcloth. Inglorion realizes that his servant is terrified. The convulsions end, and Inglorion falls limp.
Ajax dismisses the surgeon, and the other servants leave to carry out his orders. Ajax is still trembling, and his breath is rapid and shallow. One of Inglorion’s hands is lying palm-up on the coverlet. Ajax kneels down next to the bed, captures Inglorion’s hand, and presses his face against their interlaced fingers in silent anguish. He’s crying. Inglorion can feel his tears. After a moment, Ajax stops shaking, and his breath slows. He stands back up, releases his master’s hand, returns to his duties.
With the lucidity of fever, Inglorion realizes that Ajax loves him, and probably has for years. Homosexuality is taboo among the Drow, barely tolerated among gray elves. For now, Inglorion is simply relieved to know that Ajax will protect and nurse him while he is sightless, paralyzed and utterly vulnerable.
Ajax quickly regains his Drow impassivity. His manner becomes firm, calm and impersonal; he cleans Inglorion when he vomits or soils himself, and patiently feeds him water one teaspoonful at a time. Ajax never betrays any physical desire, and, indeed, it would be difficult to feel any when Inglorion’s condition is so squalid and precarious. Occasionally Inglorion senses a helpless worship in him, as if he’s tending a god fallen to earth. There’s nothing ostentatious about his manner, just a simple, physical devotion that clearly has spiritual meaning for Ajax. Inglorion is helpless to refuse Ajax’s love and care, and knows that he’s done nothing to earn it. As his beauty fades and flickers, Ajax continues to tend him faithfully; his loyalty comforts and humbles Inglorion.
Over the next few days, Inglorion’s fever continues to mount. He’s dehydrated, and struggles to keep liquids down. The chills and convulsions become more painful. He cracks a rib. His kidneys begin to fail, so he’s constantly nauseated, and a dull pain develops in his low back. He becomes gaunt; his skin is pallid and ashy, and his lips blister and crack.
On the fourth day, the illness reaches its crisis. The fever mounts and threatens to spiral out of control. By nightfall, Inglorion starts to drift into hallucinations. He becomes convinced that spiders are hidden somewhere around his body, injecting him with more poison. Inglorion is crazed and hallucinating, but he senses that he’s close to death. He restlessly tries to signal to Ajax that he must search the bedclothes. Ajax has been feeding him sips of cold water all along, trying to reverse the cycle of dehydration and fever, the slow degradation of kidney function, the consolidation of poisons in his blood. As Inglorion becomes increasingly confused and agitated, he starts to refuse the water by turning his head or knocking Ajax’s hand away. Once Inglorion stops drinking water, Ajax spends a couple of desperate hours trying to tempt or trick him into it. Nothing works. Ajax’s hands begin to tremble in earnest, and Inglorion senses his panic and flinches from his touch.
Ajax is exhausted. He hasn’t left Inglorion’s bedside, and he’s been largely alone. Inglorion’s peers consider him a rival, and hope the Duchess will lose her new pet; the Duchess herself will acknowledge him only if he survives the trial without her help. Other servants come and go only to bring fresh linens and water, or to watch Inglorion briefly while Ajax eats or tries to rest.
Ajax is still very young, just a few years older than his decidedly boyish master. He has little experience to draw upon, and no authority. His whole life has been spent in service with the Theates clan, and his worldly status and security are centered upon Inglorion. He has felt for some time that Inglorion is the love of his life. Ajax knows with cold certainty that his young master is dying.
In desperation, Ajax sends for a bodyguard, a mercenary dwarf with the preposterous name of Fistforge, bound to the family only by money and shared interest. Fistforge does not take orders from Ajax — if anything, the reverse should be true — but Ajax ignores this, coldly telling him, “He’s out of his head, refuses water. I need to get a feeding tube into him. I need you to tie him to the bed, and restrain him while I feed him.”
The dwarf looks Inglorion over. “He’s in a bad way. What if he dies?”
“If he does, the Duchess will ignore him. If he lives, she will be grateful to both of us for saving him. There’s no risk to you, and it’s the only way of keeping him alive.”
Fistforge nods. “Fair enough.”
They use Inglorion’s own neckcloths to lash him to the bed frame, hand and foot. The dwarf holds Inglorion’s head still while Ajax places the feeding tube. As Ajax threads it in, Inglorion stiffens with pure rage. He struggles desperately, but Fistforge easily overpowers him. After a few moments, Ajax is able to start dripping water into him.
Fistforge says, “What if he vomits?”
“If he can’t keep liquids down, he’ll die. But he hasn’t vomited for a day or so.”
Inglorion doesn’t vomit. Once he discovers that it’s useless to struggle, he sinks into lassitude.
After he judges that Inglorion’s had all the fluids he can safely take, Ajax tapes the tube neatly in place, says, “We’ll need to do it again in an hour, and every hour thereafter until he’s back to his senses.”
The dwarf releases his grip cautiously. As he backs away from the bed, Inglorion strains against his bonds, making a vulgar gesture in Drow sign language with both hands. The dwarf roars with laughter as he leaves the room, saying, “He’s a tough little bastard.”
Ajax takes a damp, cool cloth, bathes his master’s burning face, neck and shoulders. Even in his crazed state, Inglorion is grateful for the soothing sensation of cool water. His fear and rage subside.
Within a day, the crisis passes. Inglorion’s fever breaks, and though he is still paralyzed and blind, he’s calm and tractable. Ajax removes the tube and restraints soon after, once he’s confident that Inglorion can drink enough on his own.
When the last of the poison starts to pass from his system, and Inglorion can focus his eyes, speak full sentences, he says to Ajax, “You saved my life. Thank you.”
Ajax drops his gaze to the floor before replying, “It was an honor, sir.” Proper words, spoken quietly.
Inglorion pauses. It seems to him that Ajax must find it humiliating and degrading to serve someone he loves. There’s no way to ask if this is true: It would be foolish for a master to ask a slave about his feelings, and to expect an honest answer. Finally, he says, “Ajax, do you ever wish to be sold, to leave here?”
“I do not wish to be sold, sir.” Cool, quiet.
“If that should ever change, please tell me. If you wished it, I would allow you to serve the Duchess, or to leave entirely. I owe you my life.”
“I don’t wish any of those things, sir.” Ajax’s eyes are downcast, his face impassive. Inglorion has to accept that Ajax finds his situation bearable.
Before his illness, Inglorion thought of love as pitiable, shameful, a misfortune to be avoided. He felt vaguely ashamed when he inspired love, because he knew that though he’s clever, charming and handsome, he’s no better than anyone else, and often worse: selfish, volatile, thoughtless. When women fall in love with Inglorion, he ends the connection, or takes pains to demonstrate how little he deserves adoration. When he recovers from his illness, he’s briefly tempted to sell Ajax, or to treat him coldly and cruelly. In the end, he cannot. Ajax remains in Inglorion’s service for many years, loving him fervently and hopelessly.
For his part, Inglorion knows that he can trust Ajax with his life. Ajax’s behavior is as correct as it ever was, so Inglorion sees no reason to end the physical intimacy that is customary between a nobleman and his valet. Inglorion comes to accept that Ajax’s feelings are deep and true, and that as long as Inglorion is kind to him, they’re a source of meaning and happiness. He is habitually considerate of his servants’ time, convenience, dignity and health, but common decency requires that he reflect on Ajax’s feelings — that he understand and appreciate them, and adapt his behavior silently. He must not torment Ajax with his usual, unconscious flirtation. Later, when he takes Ajax aboveground, he will prevent his lovers from leaving trails of evidence: discarded underthings, stray hairs, loose earrings. Inglorion is careful not to romanticize or naturalize his servant’s love, to imagine that he’s happy in slavery. Ajax’s condition is not an argument in favor of slavery; it demonstrates the power, persistence and resourcefulness of love.
In the years that follow, quite by accident, Ajax teaches Inglorion the dignity and nobility of helpless passion.