41. Sheltering the Flame

Soundtrack, Part 1: Marilyn Manson, Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger (Live 1999)

Part 2: David Bowie, Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide (Live 1973)

The inn Inglorion has chosen is by the dockyard, a long walk from the Shelawn family townhouse. It’s late — just before midnight — and the streets are quiet. Inglorion’s boots echo on brick, and later cobblestones.

A part of him feels that he’s lost Sieia forever. During the interview, he genuinely felt that he didn’t hate Xardic, and he hoped they would enjoy a long, happy wedded life together. Now, pacing the silent streets of his hometown, Inglorion’s pretty sure he hates that motherfucker. He wishes something would prevent their marriage, or, better yet, that he’ll be forced to rescue Sieia from Xardic and take her away again. He knows this is a childish fantasy. His beloved sister has found a home; unfortunately it’s with a racist prick. Xardic can’t possibly hate silver eyes more than Inglorion does. He thinks, You hate my eyes, asshole? I’ll feed them to you on a fucking silver serving dish. I’ve wanted to be rid of them for 60 years now.

Inglorion suffers from a certain fair-mindedness, and it torments him now. How can he hate Xardic when most of his suspicions are true? He doesn’t know why his prospective brother-in-law tried to tree him like a wild cat, but he can guess. He’s heard the charges often enough.

If Xardic thinks Inglorion’s a spy, he’s right. He’s a token-holding member of the Drow nobility. The Theates clan specializes in intelligence-gathering and psychological operations; thus the clan motto, “We see you.” Inglorion is secretly sworn to Lolth, and he has Drow tattoos to prove it. 

Gray elves complain that Drow culture is communal, harsh and warlike, and that the Drow haven’t produced great literature, visual art or architecture. This, too, is true. In times of shortage, infants and the elderly are exposed. The economy of the Underdark is built on various forms of servitude and slavery; these systematically distort all human relationships. Inglorion is free to sell Ajax, breed him against his will, whip him for slight infractions, or flog him to death. Inglorion doesn’t exercise any of these rights — he treats Ajax as a valued, if unpaid, servant. By definition, though, Ajax’s situation is much more dire than Inglorion’s was as a groom, gardener and footman in Liamelia. 

All of these facts can be debated, given their proper weight, depth and shading. Inglorion has not chosen his fate freely, and arguably can’t be held responsible for every structural horror of Drow society. Drow women live longer, happier and more productive lives than their gray counterparts, and are much less likely to be beaten, raped or murdered by their fathers, husbands or brothers. Slavery aside, the Underdark is largely a meritocracy, and there’s little hoarding or inequality. Citizenship is more widely distributed than it is among gray elves, and social mobility is high.

Ultimately, no intellectual defense is possible. Inglorion is everything Xardic hates, culturally and racially. He isn’t just Drow by birth — he’s chosen to make his home in the Underdark, to adopt their culture and religion, and to curry favor with his mother in the hopes of succeeding her. The Xialo massacre, Tereus’s crime — these are only the latest in a string of bloody acts stretching back to the gods themselves.

As he carries on an intellectual argument, convicting himself in the court of his own mind, Inglorion feels overwhelming sadness and fear. It was an act of trust to bring Sieia home to Liamelia. It’s sustained Inglorion to know that she loves and misses him, and that they’re permanently bound. Losing her goes far beyond irony or injustice. The price of his birth seems unbearably high. He lacks words for his grief, so he spins out arguments, deposing his own conscience and composing a detailed indictment. Tears run down his face unchecked as he walks towards the ocean. He thinks, This is how it feels to be cursed from birth. 

The streets are empty. Even the taverns and tattoo parlors have closed. Surely he must be near the docks. 

As he turns a corner, he finds himself at the mouth of a long pier. The last pilings and planks are far away, at the limit of his dark vision. The tide is high, so the waves lap through gaps in the planking, and the wind spatters foam and bits of seaweed across the pier. He’s taken a wrong turn. He should leave now. It’s cold and dark, and it will take time to retrace his steps and find the inn.

As he looks out over the ocean, Inglorion sees a light flicker and bloom at the end of the pier. A small figure is standing there, leaning against the rails, cloak flapping. It’s hard to judge scale, but he’s convinced that it’s a child. He finds himself striding down the pier, sick with apprehension. The wind and waves are so loud that he can’t hear his own steps. The figure continues to lean against the rail, wind whipping its cloak. 

As he draws near, he sees that it’s a little boy, holding a votive candle. He’s trying to shield it from the wind and spindrift with a single hand. It flickers wildly.

Inglorion hears himself crying out, “Are you OK?”

The little boy turns, looks up. He’s a Gypsy, no more than four or five years old, with black hair and eyes, dark skin, and straight, heavy brows. He smiles, hands Inglorion the candle in its glass holder. “Take it,” he says. It’s hot in Inglorion’s hand. He wraps the glass in a corner of his cloak so that he can bear to hold it. 

The boy fumbles in his pockets, finds a box of matches. “Here. In case it goes out.” Inglorion pockets them. They’re both shivering. The wind is dropping, and the tide will go out soon. The boy takes Inglorion’s free hand. Inglorion rounds his shoulders and inclines his head, sheltering the flame and the boy. As they turn towards the shore, the flame steadies, grows. The boy walks Inglorion to the end of the pier, then jerks his chin to show which street he should take. Inglorion can’t wave without exposing the flame, so he smiles and nods. 

He finds the inn easily, slips into the private parlor. Ajax is snuffling quietly in his nest. Even deep in trance, he turns from the light, whimpers softly, covers his face like a cat.

Inglorion takes the candle into his own chamber. It’s burning brightly now. He removes his boots, cloak, breeches and shirt, and curls up under the down comforter. He carefully wedges the candle between two pillows, where he can see it and rest his fingertips against the glass. His toes and ears and fingertips tingle now that he’s warm underneath the bedclothes. Though it hurts his Drow eyes, he watches the flame as he drifts into trance. He follows his breath into the labyrinth and down, pays it out like thread on a spindle. His tears have dried, along with the salt spray. He can almost feel a loving gaze. He imagines a hand stroking his hair and cheek, and this comforts him.

2 thoughts on “41. Sheltering the Flame

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