52. The Museum of Aboveground Curiosities

Inglorion has gotten his tattoos and had his visions, and yet he feels he has no clear answer from the gods. Admittedly, the question was nonsensical. He knows it’s wrong to commit murder in cold blood. Really he just wants to know if he’ll be punished for the crime, and if the suffering they inflict will be tolerable. The gods remain reticent on this point, so Inglorion slogs on despite feeling dread, uncertainty, and the humiliating conviction that he’s sure to bungle the crime in some fundamental way.

While Inglorion is preoccupied with conspiring to commit murder, each of the three receives further markers of status: slightly larger quarters, removed from the barracks, an additional slave, and Theates calling cards. Inglorion’s new slave is a female half-elf named Ancilla. She’s a strapping girl, taller and heavier than either Inglorion or Ajax. Inglorion hands her over to Ajax with instructions to settle her in and make her comfortable. “I have no idea what to do with her,” he says candidly. “I’m sure you’ll settle that between the two of you.”

“She seems strong,” says Ajax. “She can start out by moving everything to your new quarters.”

When Inglorion’s done with that day’s briefings, then, he finds that his household and meager possessions have been moved to a warren of interconnected rooms that open up into a huge cavern. Antigone’s and Jason’s quarters connect to the same cavern, a half-natural environment studded with stalactites and stalagmites and criss-crossed by tiny streams of exquisitely pure groundwater. Now Inglorion has six rooms instead of two. Or, rather, Inglorion has three, since Ajax immediately claims one each for himself and Ancilla, and a third for storage and black market activities. So Inglorion has a bedroom, a dressing room and a study — far more personal territory than he’s ever had before, and more than his current wardrobe and library justify.

Once he’s spent a few moments admiring his Ace of Hearts cards and arranging his clothing, weapons and armor, he pokes his head out, trying to orient himself to their new surroundings. After half an hour taking the air and surveying the scene, Inglorion sees a blooming pinpoint of white heat — someone in the far reaches of the cavern is lighting a match and drawing on a cigarette.

Inglorion’s noticed that Antigone’s senior slave — her Ajax equivalent — is a hard-bitten half-elf sailor who smokes, a rare habit in this oxygen-poor environment, and one with interesting implications. Chiefly, it means that her slave must have reliable connections with traders or aboveground, and that Antigone is either winking at his habit, or is ignorant of an important fact in her household. He walks over, says, “Hey, can I bum one off you? I hate to ask — they’re probably hard to come by, but…” he shrugs.

The half-elf matches Inglorion’s conspiratorial grin. “Not at all. I have a supply.” He hands a cigarette to Inglorion, lights it for him. For a long, pure moment, Inglorion savors the combination of throat hit and mild euphoria. He smoked occasionally during his years as a footman, but left Liamelia before developing a full-fledged habit.

“Oh, that’s fucking great,” he says after a couple of drags. “I only smoke aboveground. I miss it. It’s like pussy and fresh fruit, you know?”

“Yup,” says the half-elf. “You’re Inglorion Atropos, right? I’m Theo.” They shake hands.

“You’re in Antigone’s service?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s that like?” There’s a moment of silence, which Inglorion makes no effort to fill. They both pull on their cigarettes for a moment.

“Well, if you really want to know, she’s a fucking cunt.”

Inglorion gives a choke of laughter that turns into a cough. “Oh, shit. That’s kind of what I thought. Sorry, man. That fucking sucks.”

Theo shrugs. “It does. Sometimes you just gotta say it.” They finish their cigarettes in silence, then Theo says, “Hey, when I said I have a supply, I meant I can always get more. Do you want to buy into my next shipment?”

“Hell, yeah. You know my man Ajax, at least by sight? I’ll send him to you. You guys can figure it out between yourselves. I’d do it myself, but he knows the price and value of things down here. I’d be wasting your time if I tried to negotiate with you.”

“Send him my way. I’ll hook you up.” He hands Inglorion another cigarette and a couple of matches, and they shake hands on it. Just like that, Inglorion has a source in Antigone’s household.

He also has a steady supply of cigarettes, half of which he resolves to smoke in the presence of a knot of slaves who hang out gambling and swapping dirty stories in a nook just off the large cavern. Inglorion listens to their gossip and complaints, and waits for them to forget that he’s aspiring nobility. His years as a servant help — the topics of conversation are eternal: women, black market hustles, asshole gentry and rumors. The rumors are almost never true, but they reveal the servants’ wishes and fears, and are interesting for that reason.

He quickly learns that there’s a brisk black market run by slaves, and that most Drow with status benefit from it. He’s used it less than many of his peers because he doesn’t know what’s available or how to ask. Ajax has been deeply involved all along. He owns bone and paper dice because he gambles for small stakes to make friends and open conversations; he also offers divination services in exchange for barter items.

Inglorion learns now that most slaves have illicit specialties: food items they can procure from aboveground, strange cooking techniques, additives intended to spice up dreary Drow rations; drugs, including nicotine, opium and even occasional shipments of cocoa leaves.

Herbs and spices form a whole separate category. Salt and pepper are fairly common. More exotic spices are rare, and the subject of wild rumors and fantastic schemes: cumin, paprika, powdered chilis and fennel seeds are the stuff of Underdark dreams. Within a month of Inglorion’s introduction to the black market, Theo gets what he thinks is a line on some fenugreek, which no Theates tribe member has ever smelled or touched. Theo becomes extraordinarily active, taking real risks to line up buyers. The deal falls apart eventually, plunging him into abashed silence.

On a more everyday note, tea and coffee are easily procured, and can be cold-brewed successfully. When Inglorion discovers this and starts directing Ajax to buy both, conversation in Inglorion’s compound becomes more lively at the expense of good trance. Inglorion’s capacity for sitting still and reviewing reports increases, and his already formidable quick-draw ability is enhanced.

Like the wise, discreet creature that he is, Ajax has been smuggling all along. Inglorion is charmed to discover that Ajax specializes in curiosities. He values spices and drugs as much as the next elf, but aspires to a more refined trade in experiences. A corner of the storage room is therefore dedicated to items that caught Ajax’s fancy in some way: An ornately embroidered lady’s glove; a bit of stamped leather; a badger-hair shaving brush with an etched ivory handle; a handful of dyed ostrich feathers; a fragment of a paper wasps’ nest with a single embryo wasp sealed inside. Ajax charges admission to his little museum, which consists of Ajax laying out each of the items neatly on a cloth wrapper, and explaining them. This is his most jealously guarded commodity.

The centerpiece of the collection is the skeleton of a newborn kitten. The Drow can readily believe in rodents, but to them cats are fantastical creatures whose existence must be proven. It comes out that Ajax bought Inglorion’s face tattoo by allowing Alecto to examine the kitten, and describing to her how and where he found it.

Like everything else in the Underdark, the black market exists at the pleasure of Drow nobility. Trading clans dislike it and wish to stamp it out; other Drow accept it as long as it remains surreptitious and benefits them directly. Servants in Liamelia fight over girls, or because they’re drunk; disputes among Drow slaves center on threats to supply and market encroachment.

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