9. Private Joy and Common Sorrow

During this time, Inglorion settles into a respectable merchant area in Amakir, and sets up an intelligence operation from scratch.

Ajax handles all the logistics and record-keeping, including arranging a courier system from the heart of Amakir to the nearest Drow egress point, and all the way down to Inglorion’s household in the Theates district of Physryk. He also devises and has fabricated a set of double-locking courier bags, installs a safe in the Amakir townhouse, and selects and trains the slaves that will act as couriers.

Inglorion collects the intelligence and analyzes it, writing reports on a variety of economic and military subjects. He creates ciphers and cryptographic keys, a skill he learned in the Underdark and finds peculiarly fascinating. For the first few months, he gathers all the intelligence himself; over time, he recruits a variety of sources: Those who communicate valuable information thoughtlessly; those who know he’s collecting information on commercial and political trends, but don’t know why or for whom. He cultivates a few sources in criminal organizations, large merchant houses and government offices who answer specific questions for a fee. The most valuable resource, of course, would be members of government or political circles who are disloyal to Amakir or Liamelia, or loyal to the Drow. To recruit them, he will have to meet highly placed individuals, cultivate their trust and respect, and win them over to his project. This goal is laughably remote, and Inglorion knows he may never reach it personally.

For now, Inglorion collects general information about commerce, politics, crime and social trends and familiarizes himself with factions in the area. At first it’s difficult to know how any of this will prove useful, but within a few months, it’s possible to spot rivalries that may be exploited.

As the threat of warfare subsides, the good citizens of Amakir forget why they confined themselves to living behind city walls, and they begin to settle here and there in the foothills and river valley. This antagonizes the wood elves of Xiomelia, who point out that the resulting noise, traffic and waste degrade the forest they need to hunt and forage. It’s felt in some quarters that the wood elves are invaluable fighting partners, but since there’s no fighting to be done now, it’s a pity that they take up so much space. Not just the mountains, which can’t be profitably farmed, but foothills with excellent soil for grape-growing, and acres of forest that could be cleared and sown with crops. No one is proposes felling all of the oaks of Xiomelia to plant barley — for one thing, the capital investment would be daunting — but the wood elves do take up more than their fair share of space, just because they choose to reject farming and live by shooting rabbits, eating grass and roosting in trees. It’s just a pity, that’s all.

In Liamelia, wealthy families buy up large plots of land in the foothills and put them under cultivation, and Xardic Ceralac’s administration negotiates with Xiomelia to enclose and drain the marshland around Liamelia. The wood elves readily agree — to them, a marsh is a waste, just like it is to gray elves. The end result is that Liamelia nibbles away at Xiomelia from the other end, swallowing a marsh here, a particularly fine plot of limestone soil there, all carefully negotiated and ratified on both sides. After all, Mayor Ceralac considers the wood elves’s leader, Mindartis Amahir, to be a close friend and ally who has often demonstrated proper loathing for the Drow. Most of the land the wood elves cede is traditionally used by the Gypsies for small, seasonal encampments. They aren’t a party to the negotiations because they don’t sign treaties, maintain diplomatic ties or raise armies. When their land is taken, they shrug and spit on it and move elsewhere. The elves treat them like songbirds or rabbits: They’re plentiful, picturesque, and of no use whatsoever.

Inglorion learns about the main criminal guilds in Amakir: One consisting of assassins and bounty-hunters, another of outriders, smugglers and highwaymen, a third that runs fancy-houses, and dabbles in human trafficking and white slavery.

All of this is interesting in its own way, and will, no doubt, become valuable over time. Inglorion knew when he was given the assignment that it’s considered to be a backwater, and that it’s his job to turn it into something more than that. The work will pay off in several years, but espionage can’t absorb all of his considerable energies. He builds a shrine to Corellon Larithian and tends it dutifully, but doesn’t feel the religious ecstasy he felt as a very young man. He’s older now, and weighed down with the trivial but necessary toil that distracts us all from the holy fire burning within our breasts. He craves transcendence, but has no reliable source in his daily life, so he turns to romance, scholarship, and increasingly exotic combat training.

Four months after he’s returned to Amakir and reunited with Artemisia, Inglorion writes the following in his journal:

October 15, 18—

I am unhappy in many ways, but I would not trade this misery for anything.

I spar and fight and train so hard that it scares me, and Ajax, too. I have not trained this hard since I was 18 or 19. I set a new goal for myself — something that seems impossible — and with several weeks of focused effort, I achieved it.

I’ve started to use echolocation in battle, the initial step towards learning to fight blind. It’s an act of faith, and therefore terrifying. I’ve sustained some nasty injuries, and came close to being gravely injured just two days ago. If I can do it, I feel like I should. I want to prove to myself that it’s possible to gain these powers, that I am truly favored by the gods.

Between rounds of training, I am depleted. It doesn’t matter. My work for the clan does not require my full attention. Any information at all is novel, exciting. Occasional requests come in for details about this shipment or that organization, and it’s laughably simple to provide a reply. Artemisia requires little beyond my presence and silence, and I can easily give that.

Every time I train — every time I reach that state where I am emptied out, a hollow receptacle for prayer — it washes me clean, and redeems the rest. After training and prayer I have blessings to spare.

Yesterday I felt love. Or, at least, something beyond physical desire.

Artemisia and I had quarreled. Or, rather, she quarreled with me, and I was silent and removed. She said many things, starting by accusing me of flirting and making a spectacle of myself. I admit that I stopped listening. There was no reasonable discussion to be had. After a time, she fell silent, which was a relief. I’d planned to stay, but there was no tenderness or affection there, so I dressed and kissed her hand, apologized as well as I could, and left.

Normally I would leave through the front door, but Madison had locked up, so I took the French doors that let out into the garden. From there, I could use my key to let myself out by the area gate, or just hop the fence.

I can’t explain what came over me. I stood there for a moment in the garden, smelling the roses and jasmine. Clouds obscured the stars, so the night sky was black and featureless. The low stone wall and the marble of the house itself were gently radiant, and though it was after midnight, it was still so warm and damp that I saw a generalized, pearlescent glow. It was beautiful despite the pain, despite my very real sadness.

The French doors that I’d just closed were cool and opaque. She’d doused the candle, but left the window open. I saw her clearly, standing in the window and looking out.

She looked sad, too, almost in tears. I have seen her look more beautiful many times. She looked tired, pained, heavy with regret. As I stood and watched, she stripped off her jewelry, the heavy bracelets and rings, the necklace. I could almost see the marks the stones left on her wrists and throat and breast. She let her hair down, shook it out.

She seemed sad and tired, but not anguished — not as miserable as I felt upon leaving. I felt that her sadness was so familiar that she didn’t notice it any more that she notices the weight of her jewelry, or the grip of her corset.

I felt more for her in that moment than I ever have. I don’t know why she felt sad, but I saw it then, looking back from the garden. The scent of roses and jasmine, the shimmering warmth, the rich beauty of her surroundings — none of these pierced the armor of her daily mourning.

As I say, she was not beautiful. She looked tired and drawn. But, God, I loved her as she stood there, idled by sorrow.

It sounds stupid to say it — I’m embarrassed to admit it — but I knew that neither she nor anyone else could see me. I watched her as long as I dared, studied her sorrow, drank in her need. I jumped the fence because her window was open and I didn’t want her to hear the lock and key and hinges. And there, in the dark alley, I knelt down and gave thanks because I loved her. I loved her in that moment of common sorrow, after our fight. I felt strong enough for both of us, joyous and happy and blessed enough for both of us. My heart was fuller than it ever has been.

I walked home singing, and felt the usual private joy. I marveled at how easy it is to produce such volume and clarity. I am the gods’ vessel. I am grateful to feel something beyond ambition. When I got home, I burned votive after votive in thanks because I felt love in that moment.

I think back on my childhood and youth — everything I suffered.

I will develop blindsight, learn to slow and stop my heartbeat and breath, and love Artemisia wherever it leads.

Soon afterwards, he writes:

February 14, 18—

Artemisia is angry. She tells me I seem distracted all the time. I am sorry for it. It pains me.

I have blindsight now. I can’t recommend the process, though I may have taken unnecessary risks through ignorance. A sense of sorrow and wild triumph.

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