58. The Last Trial: Kicking the Hornet’s Nest

Soundtrack and Video: Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime (Live 1983)

Two days after his meeting with the Duchess, Inglorion is jolted out of trance. Ajax says, “You’re to go to the Duchess immediately, sir. It’s the last trial.”

“Hm. Okay. What time is it?”

“Just past midnight, sir.”

“Very well. The throne room?”

“Yes, sir.”

He finds the Duchess on her throne, and two unfamiliar Drow, a woman and a man, standing at a conference room table nearby. The Duchess acknowledges him immediately. “Erebus, Eryx, this is Inglorion, a candidate for Marquis Theates. Inglorion, Erebus and Eryx are Zyrec raiders. They’ve asked for our support for a raid they’re planning, and I’ve selected you to go. Erebus will brief you.”

Inglorion joins them at the table. It’s close enough to the throne that the Duchess can overhear their conversation if she chooses, but she’s clearly preoccupied with other work.

The female Drow, Erebus, questions Inglorion about his weapon skills, seems satisfied. “We’re planning to strike a high-value target in the city of Liamelia. It’s an assassination. Once I’ve briefed you and we’ve settled a few operational details, we’ll hold a brief with the larger team, and leave to execute the operation.” 

“Understood,” says Inglorion. He adopts an expression of efficiency and lively interest.

“The target is the Mayor Elect, Xardic Ceralac. The operation will be carried out in the Ceralac townhome.”

Inglorion has a sense of unreality. It’s the middle of the night. He’s disoriented, tired. it seems like he must have misheard or misunderstood somehow. “I didn’t know the Ceralacs owned property in Liamelia,” he says after a moment. “You’ll have to show me on a map.”

“It’s in a place called Holborn Square, two blocks North of the armory and mint.” As Erebus speaks, Eryx rifles through a map case, finally produces a map of central Liamelia. Some portions are finely detailed; others are blank, sketched in lightly, or clearly inaccurate. Holborn Square is a mile from the Shelawn property, part of a cluster of mansions built soon afterwards, by the same architect. Inglorion knows the area intimately: He spent his youth on those wide, gracious streets, delivering notes and packages, ducking into alleys to smoke cigarettes and flirt with parlor maids. It’s chilling to see it mapped out from the perspective of foreign troops. “Here,” says Erebus, pointing to the larger of two structures that looms over the square.

“Oh, the Wallace House,” says Inglorion. “They must have just acquired it.” He pauses, scans the area. It calms him to focus on operational details, the plain inaccuracies in the map. It has the subtle distortions characteristic of a bad dream. “This map is shit. These two streets are one way,” he points to two parallel East/West streets. “Holborn ends in a cul-de-sac two blocks down, right here. Your team’s going to have a couple of nasty surprises.”

“You’ll be with us. We can adjust those details as we go.”

“Let’s table that for now. You’re planning to hit Xardic Ceralac. Why?”

“You should know. You provided the intelligence. He’s been elected Mayor, as you predicted. He’s rabidly hostile to the Drow.”

“Is he the only target?”

“Yes.”

“How many people live in that townhouse, including family and servants?”

“We don’t know. You should be able to estimate that, right?”

“Of course, based on the size of the house and the facilities attached. I can tell you right now that every last one of them is a civilian and non-combatant. Probably no one is combat trained, unless they’re retired army or navy.”

Erebus and Eryx exchange glances, look relieved. “Excellent,” says Erebus.

Inglorion looks at them with disbelief. He’s actually deprived of speech for a moment. He realizes they understand nothing of gray elvish legal and moral distinctions. More to the point, they may know that Inglorion has some tie to Liamelia, but his love for his sister and nostalgia for his home are outside their understanding. They’ve never seen the little harbor city, with its marble monuments and spacious, green squares. To them, it’s a set of lines on paper: hastily sketched, contingent, abstract. Inglorion has little notion of family life, but full-blooded Drow have much less. They don’t have a word for “sister,” let alone “brother-in-law.” They lack the words and concepts to understand any moral argument he might make. No gray elvish commander, no matter how hard-bitten, would order a man to lead a raid on a family member’s house. Any man willing to do it would be considered depraved, sociopathic, inherently untrustworthy. The Drow are sure to meet any moral objection he raises with blank incomprehension.

Finally he says, “It’s very far from excellent. Let’s back up, and I’ll try to explain the situation. All of this was in my report. Did you read it?”

They both shake their heads.

“Well, there’s your problem. Xardic Ceralac hates the Drow, true. But you’re forgetting two key facts. First, on his own, he’s powerless to harm the Drow in any way.  Only the Council of Elders can declare war or authorize military operations of any kind, and they won’t do it unless a whole host of lawyers and diplomats recommend it, and they have clear cause. Right now, they don’t have cause. Nothing’s happened since Xialo. They’re not going to declare war unless, of course, you do something incredibly fucking stupid, like assassinate an elected official and a handful of innocent civilians. If you do that, they’ll have an imminent threat, and they’ll come after you with everything they’ve got. They don’t know one tribe from another — if you attack them, they’ll blow up every egress point and slaughter every Drow they can find. They’ll extend operations to Theates and beyond.”

He pauses for a moment, looking to see if his arguments have landed. Their expressions are polite, and entirely blank. They’re waiting for him to finish and get back to what matters.

He continues, “There’s a second point, and it outweighs every short-term calculation we can make here. Every target in Liamelia is soft by Drow standards. They don’t train and have mandatory service like we do. So you’ll get an easy win. After that, you’re soundly fucked. Liamelia is incredibly wealthy and populous compared to Physryk, and they have mutual aid pacts with the wood elves in Xiomelia and humans and gray elves in Amakir. They have materials, engineers, manufacturing capability — sophisticated technology that you and I can only guess at. Drow troops are tough, but it’s a fight you can’t win. There’s no Drow city-state capable of raising enough troops to fight effectively aboveground. All you can do is raid and assassinate — basically, kick the hornet’s nest until you get badly stung.” He’s leaning forward, lecturing with passionate intensity, his voice cold, hard, precise and quiet. 

Erebus waits for him to finish, then sits in silence for a moment. “Look — it’s Inglorion, right?”

“Yes.”

“Inglorion, we’re not authorized to make those kinds of decisions. We’re given an objective, and it’s our job to meet it with the resources allocated.”

“What’s your rank?”

“I’m a captain. I’m in charge of three raiding parties, one of which would be allocated to this operation. Say, 6-8 troops.”

“How many of those troops have been aboveground?”

“None. They’ve all trained for a wide range of contingencies, but they’ve never been aboveground. We’d be relying on your expertise.”

“What egress point do you plan to use?”

Eryx flips through the maps again. “Here.” He points to a spot halfway between Liamelia and Amakir, near the old Xialo site.

“It’s three days’ travel on foot. Really more like four, since you can’t travel in daylight.”

“We’re planning a forced march.”

“How do you have any confidence you’ll get your troops there? You’re starting out in wood elf territory. They’ll shoot first and take prisoners later, and send a courier on horseback to Liamelia warning them that Drow are on the move.”

“Again, we’d be asking you to work with us on those details — understanding how to avoid the wood elves, the best route to take to Liamelia, how to proceed when we get there.”

Inglorion has to suppress a strong impulse to bury his face in his hands in sheer vexation. “Erebus, Eryx, I know your troops are a tough as balls — all Drow are. I’m sure you have resourceful commanders. You’re all professionals. But the wood elves of Xiomelia aren’t a detail. They know that forest because they live in it — pretty much fucking grow up on horseback, camping out, roosting in trees and shit. I’m not a ranger. I can’t guide you through that forest. All I can do is march you parallel to a heavily trafficked post road. You’d lose half your troops, maybe more, and when you got to Liamelia, the city gates would be shut and they’d have guards and skirmishers posted for miles around.”

Erebus frowns down at the map. “Yeah, I see your point. I thought you were a ranger, and that you could get us by the wood elves, maybe lead us through the foothills or the North mountain range.”

“Nope.”

“Can you get into Liamelia?”

“Me personally? Alone? Of course. I was born and raised there. I’m light-skinned, and I have a lot of acquaintance.”

“Can you do it?”

“Kill Xardic Ceralac?”

“Yes. You said his house is unguarded. If they didn’t know you were coming, could you do it?”

Inglorion sighs. “I can do anything once. I could stroll through the city gates, knock on the door at midmorning, shank the butler when he says Xardic’s not at home to visitors, step over his body, find Xardic’s study, and cut his throat. I might get brained by an enterprising parlormaid with a poker, but that’s unlikely. Xardic might really be out, and then I’d be forced to seek him at his club or office, covered in the butler’s blood. But, yes, I could probably take out Xardic, given time to plan. Again, it’s not a trivial effort. More importantly, if you use me, you get one shot. I can do it because I have friends and family and acquaintance in the city, and I’ve never harmed anyone there. If I try to kill Xardic, my cover is blown. I’ll never enter Liamelia again, and the Theates lose the one source they have there.”

“But you could do it.”

“Maybe. With enough time to plan, I’d give myself an 80 percent chance.”

Erebus and Eryx perk up again, exchange another glance. “How long would you need?”

“Say a week, most of it aboveground. I’d need detailed intel, and I’m the only person who could collect it.”

“That’s a much longer timeline than we allocated. We wanted to hit him before the inauguration.”

Inglorion leans forward, fixes Erebus with his burning gaze. He says quietly, “I have nothing but respect for you and your team, but the problem here is not the timeline. My larger point still holds.” His next words are clear and calm, but they echo through the throne room. “You’ve been given a fucking stupid objective. I won’t be a part of it.”

Erebus pulls back. “I thought you were Androktasiai.”

“Sorry to disappoint.” Inglorion pauses for emphasis, then adds, “I’ve done some reckless shit, but nothing like the orders you’ve been given. The objective is bad, you don’t have the resources, and the timeline is unrealistic.”

“It’s not my job to evaluate objectives. I receive an objective and figure out how to accomplish it.”

“I understand that. Again, I respect you and the Xyrec tribe. I don’t work for Xyrec, though, and I’m not in your chain of command. I’m happy to brief anyone who needs briefing, but I won’t be a part of this operation.”

Erebus looks stunned. Finally she says, “You do work for the Duchess. You’re a candidate for the Marquisate.”

“Yes.”

“She’s allocated you to me, so you’re under my command.”

“Erebus, you’re a professional soldier, and I have the highest regard for you and your tribe. I understand that intelligence out of Liamelia is limited, and that your leadership believes that they’re making a reasonable judgment based on the evidence available. But I won’t be involved in the operation you’ve described.”

“You’ve better talk to the Duchess about that.”

“Yeah. I think I’d better.” 

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