Another episode of Man Raised by Spiders, the coming-of-age story of Valentine Shelawn.
There’s a sudden ruckus. Four Drow guards enter, and in a swift, businesslike fashion, they cut the bonds holding Valykria and Valentine together and hogtie them both to poles. They hoist Valentine and take him away, leaving Valykria bound and alone in the cell. He’s carried rapidly down a series of corridors, head lolling uncomfortably. Eventually they reach what appears to be a living area. The head guard knocks on a door and is told to enter.
Within the room it’s still too dark for Valentine to see. An oddly familiar voice says, “Release him and leave us,” and his bonds are cut, none to gently. Valentine struggles to his feet, rubbing his numb ankles and wrists. The guards file out. Valentine picks out the heat signature of a man standing in front of him. A match flares, and Valentine sees that it’s Inglorion, lighting a branch of candles and placing them on a table nearby.
Now that there’s light, Valentine can see that the room is an office of sorts. There’s no fireplace, of course. Instead, there’s a writing desk and grouping of chairs around a kind of tea-table. The room has all the stark beauty of an Underdark interior: the stone walls are richly carved and inlaid with marble, agate and other semiprecious stones; there’s an elaborate mosaic underfoot with an abstract spiderweb pattern. There are no hangings, carpet or upholstery, but Valentine notices a single cabinet of books, a luxury he’s never seen in the Underdark. Inglorion must have brought them with him, or had them imported. The writing desk is outfitted with pens and ink, too, another unusual luxury.
Once they’re seated at the tea-table, Inglorion smiles at Valentine, cocks his head. “My apologies for your reception. It’s the best I could arrange on such short notice.” He pours out two drinks from a decanter, pushes one over to Valentine. “It’s just fresh water — rare enough down here, certainly.” Valentine notices Inglorion’s signet ring on his left hand. Of course, he’s wearing it openly. “What brings you here, cousin? I’m honored, but also surprised. The Xyrec have a price on your head, and I don’t know that I can guarantee your safety with the Theates clan.”
Valentine unconsciously fingers his own signet, with its saucy Siamese cat. He says, “That’s the problem, right? I know your troops withdrew at the height of battle. They gray elves were satisfied that they’d won, but the last I heard, I still represented unfinished business from Xialo.”
“You thought we might strike again from a distance?”
“Remember, cousin, I’m Xyrec. We settle things face-to-face, hand-to-hand, if necessary. I don’t give a shit about slave-catchers — they’re welcome to try their best. But I’ve seen what the Theates can do, and I can’t leave that hanging over my head.”
“It was an ugly business. No apology can be made — it would be asinine to attempt one. You’ve taken lives in return. Do you consider the debt settled?”
“I settled it on the battlefield. Ten Drow lives for her death. I’m interested in answers, not revenge.”
Inglorion nods. “I’ll tell you what I can.” He considers for a moment, gathers his thoughts. “Your guess was correct. I persuaded Philomela to withdraw her troops, but I can’t promise that she won’t strike again. I’m not entirely in her confidence. She’s more powerful than I. I wasn’t present at the time, but it’s my understanding that your escape from Physryk agitated her, and once you settled in Liamelia, she came to feel that she had to finish you off. Last of the Shelawns, and all that.”
“I’m hardly the last of the Shelawns. Aside from you and Sieia, there’s Marcus and Aramil — you’re all senior to me, and direct descendants of Tereus.”
“You come from a junior branch, true. You know how little those details of pedigree matter to the Drow. You look like him, and you enjoyed Drow hospitality for so long.”
“You look a lot more like him.”
“I’m not a Shelawn, and never have been. I’m Drow, and her son.” Inglorion regards Valentine silently for awhile, considering. “Lust for revenge is a sort of madness, subject to its own logic. My face and form are a threat and an insult to gray elves. They always have been. But you, with your violet eyes and gold hair, and your bold escape — you represent a kind of hope.”
Valentine laughs. “In some ways, I’m more Drow than you are, cousin. I came out of here unable to read and write High Elvish, and speaking it with an accent. I fight with Drow weapons. When the Theates clan killed Ariadne, I took a blood oath, got tattoos over my flogging scars. When I went into battle, I took trophies and counted coup. I tried to live among the gray and couldn’t. The Drow should be proud of their work. They took a born Shelawn and made Drow warrior out of him.” Valentine speaks passionately and earnestly. He’s aware that he’s exaggerating for effect, eliding certain details, including his Liamelian citizenship.
As Valentine speaks, Inglorion regards him thoughtfully, head tilted, a smile playing on his lips. Finally he asks, “What are your plans, cousin? If I could guarantee your safety, arrange a truce with the Theates clan, what would you do?”
“Try to live my life. I can’t live knowing that I’m a danger to everyone around me.”
“You’ve sworn your oath to Corellon Larithian? You’re a citizen of Liamelia?” Valentine nods. “But you have no inheritance, no property, no profession they would recognize.” His voice is gentle, sympathetic.
“I got a nifty signet ring from my father and a few jewels that belonged to my mother. That’s it.”
Inglorion continues in the same mild tone. “When you were aboveground, you provided information to Mindartis and Xardic — very specific intelligence.”
Valentine considers carefully before answering. It’s a serious charge, one that Inglorion wouldn’t make if he didn’t know the truth already. “Here, in this room, between the two of us — yes, I did. There’s certain information that I didn’t volunteer, but I told them everything they asked.”
“You knew a lot about tactics and training, how troops were dispositioned, the defenses in Xyrec, and probably in Physryk as a whole.”
“You helped to plan and execute at least one scouting mission, and you trained with their troops regularly. You were consulted by both the gray and wood elves as an expert on Drow tactics and culture.”
“Yes. That’s all correct.”
Inglorion shakes his head, smiles. His smile is so appealing — candid, sweet. “Oh cousin, you really are an innocent, coming down here hoping for a truce.”
The full absurdity of his actions strikes Valentine, and he gives a sudden crack of laughter. “Well, when you put it like that, yes, it does sound ill-judged.”
Inglorion joins in Valentine’s laughter. “I’m not saying I would have done differently or better. I’m ruled by impulse and instinct — I’m sure Sieia’s told you that. It does pose a problem, though. You’ve left me with two choices.” His face sobers. “The obvious move is to kill you now. It would be conservative, tidy. Easily done, easily justified.” He pauses. Because there seems to be no answer, Valentine waits for him to continue. “The alternative is to try to strike a bargain. Philomela may not agree. You may prefer a noble death. But I suggest you take an oath to Lolth and serve us for awhile. You’re fluent in High Elvish, a citizen, trusted — well-placed to find out things we need to know.”
“Spy for the Theates clan, in other words.”
“Specifically, spy for me.” He pauses, waits to see if Valentine will protest indignantly.
“I would have to swear an oath to Lolth?”
“It’s customary. I have. I was sworn to Corellon Larithian as a youth, of course. That hasn’t changed. The gods aren’t petty bookkeepers.”
“I would live aboveground?”
“Yes. You’d go back to Liamelia, establish yourself there.”
“Valykria would be safe? You’d release her, and she wouldn’t be pursued or harmed? She’s a bystander in all this.”
“Yes. Remember, I’m known to have ties aboveground, and those ties are respected. As long as she refrains from discussing anything she saw here, we’d leave her alone.”
Valentine is quiet for awhile, considering. “The oath to Lolth concerns me. Is it necessary?”
“I think you know that it is. It’s the only way to protect you when neither Philomela nor I is present, to prevent other clans from hunting and enslaving you. It allows you to acquire and hold property, enter certain spaces, marry, take oaths, be buried, act as a witness. You may not intend to do any of these things in the Underdark, but the inability to do them would limit you.”
Valentine continues to twist his signet ring, brow furrowed. “I’m not particularly pious, but once I took the oath, I served Corellon Larithian — maintained a shrine, lit votives, made all the little sacrifices.”
“I know. On the shrine I built, no less. When I returned, I was surprised to see it was back in use.” He cocks his head, studies Valentine’s face and bearing. “Valentine, have you ever seen Corellon Larithian, known him to intervene in events? Is he present to you in any way?”
“No. Not at all.”
“I hold with his ways when I’m aboveground, but I’ve never known him to be a micromanager.”
“What about Lolth?”
“That’s a different matter. She’s a demon, not a god. But her reach is limited aboveground, and that’s where you’ll be. In any case, her ways aren’t unfamiliar to you. You took a blood oath when Ariadne died.”
Valentine nods. “It’s common in the army, even among slaves. We didn’t associate it with Lolth. I don’t know that I thought of it as a spiritual practice. It was just something I had to do.”
“A man’s soul is his own. I can’t tell you what to do. But I think I understand your situation, perhaps better than anyone else can.” He pauses, and Valentine feels his manner shift. Inglorion has always seemed guarded, theatrical even — a seductive and charismatic actor playing a role. Now his gaze drifts into the distance, and his voice softens. Valentine has a sense of intimacy, of being initiated into an important truth. “You may find yourself able to pick sides, Valentine, but I never have. To me, the trappings vary, but the underlying realities — kindness and cruelty, love and hatred — remain the same. I’m sworn to Corellon Larithian and Lolth, but I serve myself and those closest to me. I would expect you to do the same. You will decide where your loyalties lie, and how to use the knowledge you have. Those decisions will have consequences, and may not be entirely free, but they will be yours.” He looks back at Valentine, smiles his angelic smile. “And it’s the only way to keep the game going. Otherwise I’ll have to kill you both.” He adds, “I need your decision now.”
“There’s no point in hesitation. If you can arrange matters as you describe, I’ll do it.”
Inglorion nods. “I’ll raise the matter with Philomela tonight. If she agrees, we’ll take your oath in a day or two. You’ll take a Drow name. It’s usual to choose minor mythological figures, something in line with Drow sensibilities.”
The guards return Valentine to the dark little prison cell. He and Valykria are left with their hands tied, but otherwise unbound. Valykria asks, “What happened?”
“I spoke to Inglorion. I think it worked. He’s going to negotiate for an end to the feud. We’ll find out soon.” He’s exhausted but mildly euphoric — pleased that they’re unlikely to be killed.