Soundtrack: Skinny Puppy, Tin Omen
A couple of weeks into Inglorion’s adventures with the black market, he strolls over to the smoking area to check on a coffee shipment. It’s the kind of thing that Ajax would normally do, but that Inglorion now handles occasionally in the name of research. A knot of slaves is huddled there, two rolling dice, and two smoking. Inglorion recognizes the smokers — they both belong to Antigone. Theodora is Theo’s sister — they were a package deal — and Caesar is her bodyguard.
He greets them, gets a light from Thea. They chat for awhile, and Inglorion asks where Theo is.
“He’s not here,” says Thea coldly.
“I can see that. I just wondered when I might catch him. I wanted to ask him about a coffee shipment.”
“Your coffee’s on its way. Probably tomorrow or the next day.”
“Good to know.” Normally Inglorion doesn’t push slaves for information, but her manner is so cold and angry that it arouses his curiosity. “What happened to him?”
“He seemed fine yesterday. Sudden thing?”
There’s a little pause, then Caesar shrugs and says, “He caught a flogging.”
“What does that mean?”
Thea says angrily, “It means he’s lying in the infirmary half-dead with no medical attention, and I can’t see him or care for him. So you won’t fucking see him for awhile.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. What happened?”
“The charge was hybris — looking the mistress in the face,” she says bitterly.
After a moment, Caesar says, “He got the full treatment.” Seeing Inglorion’s uncomprehending look he adds, “She handed him over to the lictors. They use a flail tipped with bone, flog from the shoulders down to the calves, revive you when you pass out. It’s an all-day affair.”
“Holy fuck.” Inglorion is genuinely appalled.
Thea says in a low, angry voice, “Don’t pretend you didn’t know that shit happens.”
“I knew it was possible. I didn’t know the details.”
Caesar looks at him calmly, almost with compassion. “It’s not just possible, it’s common. We’ve all been flogged — even your man Ajax.”
“You’re shitting me — who would flog Ajax? It’s like flogging a kitten.” Even as he says it, Inglorion knows Caesar is telling the truth.
“Nonetheless. You’ve had him, what, 10 years? I guarantee you.” Caesar sets his cigarette down carefully, turns around, lifts his shirt. His back is covered with criss-crossed scars that disappear into his belt line. It’s hard to look — Inglorion’s stomach tightens with sympathetic pain. Caesar drops his shirt, picks up his cigarette. He keeps his eyes down, but his voice is defiant. “Get the idea?”
He and Thea finish their cigarettes in silence and leave. Inglorion returns to his quarters and finds Ajax in the storeroom. He’s unwrapped his treasures, and is absorbed in adjusting the kitten skeleton. It seems that he can’t quite decide how it should be posed. It wants to lie stiffly, with its legs outstretched. Ajax cautiously adjusts each of its legs, trying to achieve a more naturalistic pose, rather like the way elves curl up on their sides in trance. Inglorion thinks it’s a pity that Ajax has seen so few live cats. He would appreciate their tidy, vicious ways.
After a time, Ajax senses Inglorion’s presence. “Did you need something, sir?”
“No, not particularly. I was just appreciating your kitten. I wish we could have a live cat down here.”
“Yes, sir.” Ajax stops fiddling with its legs, and strokes its skull with one finger. “It’s a fine animal.”
Inglorion says awkwardly, “I was talking to Thea and Caesar just now. They said that Theo was flogged very badly.”
“I know all slaves are flogged —” he has no idea how to proceed. He’s ashamed of both his ignorance and his concern. “They said that you had been, many times.”
Ajax doesn’t answer immediately. When he does, he merely says, “Yes, sir.”
“The Duchess and the late Duke, of course. I served one of Her Grace’s courtiers when I was much younger. Others. Why do you ask?”
“I’m sorry to ask. I’m sorry to be ignorant.”
“Sir, it’s a universal practice.” With the faintest trace of humor he adds, “I wasn’t always as correct in my behavior as I am now.”
“Why were you flogged?”
“For the usual offenses, sir. For impertinence, for a wandering gaze, for lying and trading on the black market. It’s routine. Especially for younger slaves.”
Inglorion doesn’t know how to reply. The idea of flogging shocks him, but it’s much worse in the case of Ajax, who is quiet and fragile. Finally he says, “I’m sorry that happened.”
Ajax considers this. He’s still looking at his dead kitten. “I would like to tell you something, sir. All slaves are whipped or beaten or flogged. You are the only Drow citizen who has never beaten a slave or ordered a flogging.”
“I’ve heard that many times, but it seems impossible.”
Ajax begins to wrap the skeleton up neatly in its white linen cloth. He says, “Theo may die, sir. He may be permanently injured. Antigone has flogged more than one slave to death.” He wraps up each of the objects while Inglorion watches.
When Ajax has stowed away his entire museum, Inglorion says haltingly, “I will do anything I can — anything in my power — it is very wrong.”
“I am grateful to you. It’s important that you become Marquis Theates, and Duke after that.”
Ajax’s words sicken Inglorion. It’s horrible that he should feel gratitude for something so simple, and that Inglorion should feel proud to meet such a low moral standard.
Inglorion retires to his bedroom, and prepares to enter trance. He recites the evening prayer to the Bringer of Light, and this calms him.
To him, the world suddenly seems crueler and more brutal, but for Ajax, nothing much has changed. The truth has been there all along. Now Inglorion sees it.