59. Not Yet Wise or Predictable

Soundtrack and Video: Talking Heads, Burning Down the House (Live 1984)

The Duchess has been there all along, within earshot but apparently absorbed in a report. Inglorion walks over and stands within her field of view, waiting to be recognized. For a long, uncomfortable moment, she refuses to notice him. During that moment, a sick, cold conviction grips Inglorion: He’s truly fucked himself. This was the ultimate loyalty test, and he’s just failed it.

He’s not going to be Marquis Theates, and without Philomela’s patronage and interest, his position in the Underdark will be unenviable. He has few friends and allies, no natural power base. He finds most other Drow alien and distasteful, and his sentiments are heartily reciprocated. Absurdly, he finds himself thinking of the floggers and torture equipment in the old prison yard. It’s where political dissidents are held. The cells are a bit larger than a coffin. All confinement is solitary, and indefinite.

Finally she says, “Yes, Inglorion?”

“Your Grace, I wish to discuss the proposed joint operation with the Xyrec clan.”

“Yes?”

“They’ve briefed me, Your Grace, and I believe the operation is poorly planned, they lack the resources, and the objective is a bad one.”

He’s looking at the floor, but he can feel her gaze. She stares at him silently for awhile.

“I’m not asking for your opinion, Inglorion. You’ve been allocated to Xyrec to carry out an objective they chose based on intelligence you provided. I expect you to provide aid and expertise, and to work with them to meet their chosen objective, nothing more.”

Of course, he can’t do that. He’s carefully avoided personal arguments — has tried to block those thoughts from him mind, to stick to the glaring practical objections. He truly believes it would harm the Drow more than they appreciate. In his heart, though, he’s terrified and sick at the thought of Drow warriors marching into Liamelia and killing civilians, no matter who they are or what attitudes they hold. Xardic is his brother-in-law. They propose to carry out a murder in his sister’s house.

Finally he says, “Your Grace, I won’t participate in the operation described. I will explain my reasons, if you didn’t overhear them. But I must respectfully refuse the trial.”

She stares at him for what seems like several minutes, but is probably only a seconds or two. Finally she says, “Erebus, Eryx, wait in the anteroom outside. I will send Inglorion to you when this is resolved.”

Erebus and Eryx withdraw. It takes a painfully long time for them to retreat down the aisle, reach the huge door and pull it closed behind them.

Philomela lets the silence settle in for awhile. They truly are alone: Duchess and commoner, and, for what it’s worth, mother and son.

In his confusion and exhaustion Inglorion thinks how curious their relations are. He has never discerned a trace of maternal feeling in her. She seems indifferent to the physical bond between them: The fact that her body nourished and carried his, that she nearly died in labor. She’s pleased with his Drow features, but doesn’t connect them to herself personally. She considers him Drow and Theates, but hasn’t noticed any resemblance between them, or even searched for it. When Inglorion thinks of this, it seems odd, and characteristically Drow. He doesn’t object to it, but occasionally he notices it and wonders if he should.

More than anything, he’s puzzled that she doesn’t seem to feel disgust or hatred in his presence. His features, voice and manner are those of a man who defeated her in battle, held her captive and raped her. She certainly ordered Tereus’s death, and may have tortured and murdered him herself. She’s noted the resemblance, but treats it purely as a convenience: Inglorion looks like a Drow version of a notorious gray elvish commander, and this may prove useful.

Though Tereus scrupulously ignored him, Inglorion never doubted his father’s hatred. Their mutual loathing was deep, visceral, and no doubt perceptible to anyone who saw them within 100 yards of each other.

It seems strange, then, that Philomela should be so entirely free from love, hatred, or even curiosity. Perhaps she has little memory of Inglorion’s part in events. Perhaps she doesn’t much connect the man in front of her with the tiny, cat-like, pale infant she bore. Perhaps she doesn’t dwell upon his features — after all, the Drow rely little upon sight. Perhaps she rarely heard Tereus’ voice. Perhaps Inglorion represents an ordeal she survived.

Finally she observes, “You’ve humiliated me in front of an important ally.” Her voice is as flat and unemotional as ever.

“I am sorry to hear it, Your Grace. My intent was to save you and the Theates from much greater humiliation.”

“The trials are optional, of course. You can withdraw from consideration. But my orders are not. You are my subject even if you choose not to compete for the Marquisate.”

As Inglorion considers her work, his anxiety tips over into a familiar, giddy excitement. He’s been speaking quietly. Now his voice drops even further. His words are still clear in the excellent acoustics of the throne room. “I’m grateful for the confidence you’ve shown in me, but I will not be involved in the proposed operation.” He raises his gaze, looks her full in the face. “I came here and surrendered to you, knowing I was already dead. Nothing has changed. I know the gods have marked me as their own. I walked into the Underdark. I can walk out again.”

Silver eyes gazing into silver eyes, hers cold, his burning.

She looks away first.

He’s surprised to hear satisfaction in her voice as she says, “Inglorion Atropos Androktasiai, you have passed your final trial. If your remaining rival fails or you defeat him, you will be Marquis Theates.”

He bows deeply. “Thank you, Your Grace.” Then, in a kind of sheepish anticlimax, he asks, “What will you tell the raiders from Xyrec?”

Philomela laughs. “They’re not Xyrec. They’re Theates interrogators — accustomed playacting. I will compliment them on their performance, and send them on their way. In the future, when a stranger claims to represent a clan, ask to see their token. We all assumed you would. They’d rehearsed that scenario extensively, and were probably taken aback when you started drilling them on operational details.”

“No wonder their plan was so sketchy.” The moment is almost normal — easily the warmest exchange he’s had with the Duchess. He says, “I hope Your Grace is satisfied with the outcome. I’m deeply grateful to have had the opportunity.”

“Elegantly said.” She studies him for awhile. He cocks his head, and returns her scrutiny with a half-smile. She says, “You’re not at all Drow. You’re very different from us. It’s why I selected you. You will puzzle rival tribes, and you understand the aboveground races better than any other Drow could hope to.”

“That’s true, Your Grace. Do you think it’s important to understand the enemy?”

“The greatest errors of my career have resulted from failures in understanding. It’s unfortunate that a tribe specializing in intelligence should be so parochial and ignorant. I certainly am. Whatever the outcome of the trials, I hope you will serve the tribe by establishing intelligence networks in Liamelia and Amakir. You’re uniquely positioned to do that. Such intelligence would be a tremendous help to the Theates, and a valuable product to offer to other tribes.”

“I would be honored, Your Grace.” He bows again, and leaves.

Inglorion walks back to his quarters. The passageways are quiet. It seems arbitrary that certain times in the Underdark are considered night. Nonetheless, the 25-hour clock is universally recognized among the Drow. 

Ajax is awake in his museum, waiting up for Inglorion. He recently procured a set of horse-blinkers with a plumed headstall, and he’s passing the time by studying it, arranging it this way and that, trying to figure out how it’s used, what it means. 

“What have you got there, Ajax?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

Inglorion allows Ajax to reach his own conclusions about objects from aboveground, and never corrects his misapprehensions. The truth interests Inglorion a good deal less than Ajax’s characteristic pattern of error. At times, Inglorion thinks he would like to live in Ajax’s version of the aboveground world. 

“I passed the last trial just now,” says Inglorion. “It was strange. An elaborate bluff.” He describes it to Ajax. After a moment he confesses, “I haven’t been tracking Jason’s progress through the trials at all.”

“He’s still working on developing immunity to venom, sir. He’s got two days to schedule the first trial. I think he may have had some strategy of delay connected with Antigone’s attempt at the same trial — a game of chicken with the deadline. Now that she’s dead he’ll have to schedule sooner than he expected. He won’t like being rushed.”

“Good God. I get bored just thinking about it,” says Inglorion. “At this rate it will take him a year to get through them all. I might as well go back into trance.”

He’s roused a few hours later when Ajax knocks and slips into his bedroom. 

Inglorion props himself up sleepily. “What is it, Ajax?”

“There’s news. Jason has forfeited, sir. You will be Marquis Theates.”

“He forfeited? No Drow should be that scared of spiders. When did it happen? How do you know?”

“Clytemnestra agreed to pass any word as soon as she got it. He sent a servant to notify Her Grace three hours ago.”

Inglorion checks his watch. “So, at two in the morning? He would have to have completed the trial tomorrow. Unless — did he have word that I passed my last trial?”

“I think he must have.”

“His intel is good.” They both consider silently. Inglorion’s initial surge of excitement fades as he considers more carefully. “So he got word early in the morning, sent a servant to Her Grace almost immediately — within the hour.”

“There aren’t rules for the trials, sir. But traditionally, if he failed a trial he’d be eliminated from consideration entirely.”

“He’s waiting for me to fuck up in some way and be forced to abdicate.” Inglorion laughs. “I like it. He’s got larger quarters, an handful of slaves, a command — all basically for free. I almost envy him — it’s a clever strategy. I couldn’t carry it out.”

They sit there, considering: Ajax standing by the bed, Inglorion gazing at the ceiling.

“You’ll be crowned, sir,” says Ajax presently. 

“That seems awkward. You know, I have no idea how to rule or manage or lead. I just boss people around, and half the time they don’t listen.”

“You’ll learn, sir. It’s in your blood.”

Inglorion wrinkles his nose, says candidly, “I think that’s bullshit, unless you just mean that I’m taller than most Drow, and will look cute in a coronet.”

Ajax glances at Inglorion. He’s sprawled on his back, staring at the ceiling, hair rumpled and half out of its queue, trailing over one exposed shoulder. The warpaint stands out vividly on his cheek. He’s still very young — not yet 60, a child by elvish standards. Lying there in his nightshirt, he looks even younger, like a boy resting after a long summer day playing cowboys and Indians. Adults are wise, and their actions and advice are predictable. Inglorion is kind and radiant and idealistic and eager, but he is not yet wise or predictable. 

Inglorion says dreamily, “I wonder what Tereus was doing when he was 60? Probably getting drunk and boxing the watch.” Ajax doesn’t know what that is, so he doesn’t answer. Inglorion adds, “None of the Shelawns are nobility.” 

Pursuing his own train of thought, Ajax says, “It’s good to be tall and look cute in a coronet.”

“I’ll take what I can get,” says Inglorion. “I’ve never been considered tall before. It is pleasant.” He grins shyly at Ajax. “Thank you. You’ve done so much for me. I hope some day I will be of real service to you.” Inglorion feels, but cannot explain, that he’s inspired love and worship, accepted people’s help and kindness, but has been unable to reciprocate as he would like.

“I’m sure you will, sir.”

There’s nothing more to be said, so Ajax retreats to his nest. It’s too early to get up, but Inglorion’s too excited for trance. He lies there quietly, then, mind spinning, trying to understand what it means to be a Marquis.

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