15. Charon of the Xyrec Army

Soon thereafter, Inglorion returns to his flat in Amakir late one night. He’s discouraged, itching with the undefined misery that he feels in Artemisia’s presence. He didn’t feel comfortable leaving her with servants, but he couldn’t force himself to stay. She was drunk but not to the point of illness, and seemed inclined to rest. He rang for her dresser, explained the situation, and left. He feels craven relief knowing that he’ll have a peaceful night and uninterrupted trance.

It’s not even midnight, so instead of going to bed When he gets home, he heads to the library, rings for coffee. He makes himself a little nest on the chaise lounge, arranging his cigarettes, tinderbox, paper, pens and ink, and lighting a candle so that he can read and write. The door opens, and Ajax comes in with the coffee tray and a double-locked courier bag.

“Hi Ajax. What have you got there?”

“A Gypsy brought this. The bag, not the coffee.” He sets the tray down on an occasional table by the chaise lounge, and pulls a calling card out of his waistcoat pocket. “She said the bag contains critical intelligence. You’re to read it now.” He hands Inglorion the calling card. It’s a Nine of Hearts, the symbol of a Drow High Priestess.

Inglorion sets the card aside, takes the bag from Ajax. The outer lock matches a key that Inglorion carries on a chain around his neck. The second, inner lock is a combination that only Inglorion knows. The bag can be cut open in an emergency — in case of Inglorion’s death, for instance — but it requires an adamantine knife, and any tampering is obvious.

Once he’s opened the second bag, Inglorion pulls out a manila-sized envelope made of the coarse paper manufactured in the Underdark. It contains a sheaf of routine reports. He flips through them, frowning. “What the fuck?” he mutters. He examines them individually, looking for a cypher or special markings. Nothing. Everything’s written by scribes in uniform copperplate. He searches through the bags again, then examines the envelope itself. As he peers inside, he sees that the inside is covered with close, faint writing in pencil, crossed and re-crossed. He’s got a paper-knife of the kind used to slit the pages of novels. He uses it now to tease the envelope apart at the seams and unfold it.

The crossed lines are difficult to make out, but after a time Inglorion finds the salutation:

Your Lordship:

I write at some risk to myself, because you and I do not share a cryptographic key. Recent events in Physryk are unusual and, I believe, of grave importance. I fear the news will not reach you in time from any other source. Burn this once you have read it and mastered the contents. Do not discuss the contents of the letter or the fact of its existence with the courier or the aide who prepared the enclosed briefings.

Two days ago, Theates slave-catchers received a playing card for a recently escaped Xyrec slave, Charon. Charon is a gray elf who was enslaved at the age of three. He was raised entirely in Drow ways, and rose to a position of trust as an aboveground raider in the Xyrec army. Four months ago, Charon and four other members of a raiding party murdered their Drow captain and deserted aboveground. Two returned to captivity when they were overcome by hunger and thirst; two were found dead from injuries and exposure. Despite an intensive search, Charon has not been found. It’s believed that he surrendered to the wood elves of Xiomelia, and is under their protection.

His escape was finally communicated to slave-catchers throughout Physryk because it represents a serious intelligence threat. Charon was a 30-year veteran of the Xyrec army, and was well-versed in tactics, training, troop dispositions and Physryk defenses (though not, apparently, in the layout and defenses of the Theates district). As a slave, he had no access to sensitive information or cryptographic keys; however, he had a wealth of practical knowledge that would be of use to attacking troops.

All of this has been communicated to your staff. Additional facts have come to light that have been withheld.

Charon was captured during the raid on Xialo 75 years ago. He is your cousin, the youngest son of Lucius Shelawn, and a nephew of Tereus Shelawn. During his captivity, he was ignorant of his own birth, and of the events leading up to the raid on Xialo. It might seem unlikely that he would make his way back to Liamelia and his surviving family. However, the wood elves of Xiomelia discovered the massacre site. Your intelligence reports have indicated that they remain closely aligned with Liamelia’s Mayor and Council of Elders. Charon’s description on the slave-catcher’s playing card makes it clear that he inherited the classic Shelawn look: Violet eyes, pale blond hair, his height and build. If Charon is among the wood elves, Mindartis Amahir will make it his personal business to see that he returns to Liamelia, and is reunited with his family.

These events present a very real security risk. I am personally concerned, as well. Her Grace has reacted to the news in a manner that must be deeply troubling to anyone who cares for her welfare, and that of the Duchy of Theates. Her Grace has sought spiritual council from me. The details are confidential, but I must tell you that her state of mind is such that she is struggling to fulfill her duties with the necessary equanimity and judgment.

I believe — though I cannot prove — that a Theates faction has perceived her distress, and is working to turn it to their advantage. A joint military operation is being planned with the Xyrec to locate Charon and eliminate him. Though you are not a commander in the armed forced, you are Marquis Theates and the head of intelligence. It is not in your best interest, or Her Grace’s, or the tribe’s, to exclude you from critical decisions.

I urge you to investigate these matters personally, and to return to the Underdark as soon as is practical. I will send updates if there is the opportunity to do so, but I must weigh my concern for the tribe against my personal safety. Please know that I remain faithful to the oath I gave at your coronation, and that I will serve you and Her Grace in any way possible.

Your obedient servant,

Alecto Tyche Hecate

P.S. I have sent a shipment under separate cover containing three syringes loaded with doses of the hallucinogen I administered when you were tattooed. If you are unable to return to the Underdark immediately, I urge you to seek one or more visions by receiving the injections when you will have several private, uninterrupted hours.

Inglorion looks up from the letter, rolls and unrolls the paper thoughtfully, taps it against  his chin. “I think we should go to Liamelia,” he says to Ajax, who is making a little show of pouring out and arranging the coffee.

“Why, Your Lordship?”

“Because that’s where the action is, or will be.” He hands Ajax the letter, sips coffee while he reads it. Once he’s finished it, Inglorion adds, “This Charon will certainly head that way, followed by our troops. The moment there are reports of Drow on the loose, it will be hard for me to travel on the post road, and impossible for you. It’s that or go straight back to Physryk, without the benefit of fresh intelligence.”

Ajax nods, hands the letter back. “When do you want to leave, Your Lordship?”

“As soon as possible. You pack, I’ll hire a post chaise.”

He rouses a footman to carry the following note to Artemisia:

Dearest,

I must cancel our plans for tomorrow evening, and for the immediate future. I have been called out of town on urgent business, and may be gone for some time. I will make my apologies in person when I return.

Yours,

Inglorion

As he writes this, a second Gypsy courier arrives with a package from the Underdark — the three loaded syringes that Alecto promised. By the time the post chaise arrives at the door, he and Ajax are packed and dressed for travel. Neither of them relishes the idea of being cooped up in a carriage, but traveling by post will allow them to move quickly and privately, and leaves all horse-handling to post boys and ostlers.

Once they’re settled inside, Ajax asks the question that’s on both of their minds. “Do you think there will be war?”

Inglorion shakes his head almost regretfully. “It’s not a simple matter — not like at home. There’s a whole legal machinery to start up, various arguments and interested parties. Every gray elvish schoolchild knows how it happens in theory: Someone with standing has to request a legal study, which is presented to the Council of Elders for deliberation and a decision.”

“Who has legal standing?”

“Any two members of the Council of Elders. The mayor. Curiously, a delegation from Xiomelia or Amakir, since they have mutual aid pacts with Liamelia. But it’s not a majority vote of the Council of Elders. A declaration of war requires consensus. Once they’re in, they’re in — they’ll seek a pitched battle, and try to stomp any troops that show up to fight.” He darts a glance at Ajax and says, “Naturally, it’s unfortunate.”

He stops there, but Ajax nods at if he’s said the rest: Inglorion is bored, and welcomes the disruption. He would rather go to war than continue in his present mode of life.

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