Another episode of Man Raised by Spiders, the coming-of-age story of Valentine Shelawn.
A masked assassin bursts through the doorway. There are three more behind him, all armed with daggers. They must have been counting on some combination of surprise and weight of numbers to overcome their victims.
Inglorion disarms his opponent with the first strike, sending a dagger skittering across the floor. The second strike sends the assassin crashing to the ground with a head wound. Valentine takes the next one, striking from behind. He’s only wearing leather armor, so Valentine skewers him handily with both rapiers. He goes down hard, and Valentine has to take a moment to brace his foot against the prone corpse and yank out his off-hand rapier.
Meanwhile, Inglorion nearly beheads the third with a single longsword stroke, and gets spattered across the face with arterial blood for his pains. The last assassin lingers a moment in the hallway, perhaps questioning his life choices. As soon as Valentine has freed his weapons, he darts out to meet the guy, knocking him out by smashing both rapier hilts against the side of his head.
The feminine screams haven’t let up, so Inglorion charges down the corridor to the front room. Valentine gives his unconscious captive another sound blow to the head, then follows Inglorion just in time to see him sheathing his off-hand sword and uncoiling his bullwhip. A fifth masked assassin has a knife to Linnea’s throat, and is hustling her towards the front door. Valentine darts around and blocks the exit.
Inglorion raps out, “Let her go!” The assassin hesitates, feints at the shop girl’s throat with the knife. “Really? For fuck’s sake,” Inglorion mutters. He lashes out with the bullwhip, neatly curling it around the assassin’s forearm, then yanking it up and away. Linnea jumps away with admirable alacrity, allowing Valentine to trip the assassin and deal a sharp blow to the base of his skull with the hilt of his rapier. The assassin fumbles at his bandolier for another dagger. Inglorion strikes him full in the face with the flat of his longsword, and he slumps to the floor.
“I’ll get him into the back,” says Valentine. “Now we have a spare for questioning.”
Inglorion turns to the shop girl, asks, “Did we get them all, love? There were only five?” She nods. “Why don’t you put up the ‘Closed’ sign and lock the door? We’ll need a moment to sort this out.” She scrambles to follow his orders. “Good girl. We’ll get this settled in a trice.”
Meanwhile Valentine has dragged the fifth assassin down the hallway to the back room, and starts to search the corpses for tattoos and tokens.
Inglorion pops back through the doorway. “Find anything?”
Valentine shakes his head. “Not yet. They’re human — no ID or tokens.”
Inglorion binds the live captives using their own belts, then starts to search the last body. In his peripheral vision Valentine sees the supposed corpse make a sudden move to shank Inglorion. The two start to grapple, so Valentine nails the assassin in the throat with a throwing dagger. “Did he get you?”
“Yeah, he did. Just a scratch. Fucker. I must have just knocked him out. ” Inglorion sounds troubled.
“What is it?”
“It looks like the edge of the blade was coated. Yeah, it was. Son of a bitch. What do you know about poison?”
“Very little. The Xyrec never let slaves anywhere near that stuff.”
“Figures. They didn’t know you’d be hanging out with the heir to a dukedom.”
“How bad is it?” They’re both studying the cut now — a long, shallow defensive wound on Inglorion’s left forearm.
“I’m not sure. This is only the second time I’ve caught a dose. Well, shit. Spying is all fun and games until someone gets poisoned.”
“Will anyone up here know what to do?”
“Nope. Look, if it gets bad, send a calling card of mine to Harry’s Tattoos. He’ll get word to my valet, Ajax. He’ll know what to do.”
“Do you have a safe house anywhere around here?”
“No. You’ll have to get me to an inn. I imagine Linnea will know what’s close.”
“Can you ride?”
“For now I can.”
“We’ll take the roan. He can carry us both. How long do we have?”
“Maybe five or six minutes. Perhaps less.”
Valentine corners the shopgirl. “Linnea, I need your help. My cousin is badly injured, and he’s not safe here. Where’s the nearest inn? Someplace where they won’t ask questions?”
“The Prancing Pony, two blocks north and one block east. What about the corpses?”
“Yes, that’s awkward. Is there somewhere we can stow them for now? I’ll send servants later in the day. Will anyone notice you’re closed? Does another shift come in later?”
“The storeroom should work. My uncle owns the shop, and he’s out of town.”
He studies her face. He doesn’t give a shit about the corpses — he’s entirely focused on getting Inglorion to safety. Still, Linnea is surprisingly calm and stoic. “Hang in there, okay? We’ll take care of you. Don’t tell anyone what you saw. Someone tried to kill us, and we don’t know who or why.”
She nods briskly. “Just help me get the bodies in the storeroom. I’ll clean up out here.” When she sees his incredulous expression, she adds, “My people fled genocide. I’ve seen worse.”
“Oh. Okay.” Valentine cuts both captives’ throats. It’s distasteful work, really just cold-blooded butchery. Once it’s done, he and Linnea drag the bodies to a storeroom in the back and lock it.
Inglorion’s stretched out on one of the smoking couches, his good arm thrown over his eyes to block out the light.
“How are you holding up?”
“It’s starting. Heightened light sensitivity. Stomach cramps. Alternating fever and chills.”
“Let’s get you to the inn while you’re still conscious, then.” Valentine brings the roan around, and Inglorion struggles to get into the saddle, partly because it keeps backing and sidling nervously. Valentine steadies the horse’s head, says, “Settle down, you fucking cocksucker,” in Drow.
Inglorion’s pupils are dilated, and he’s having trouble focusing his eyes, finding the stirrup, placing his foot in it. “God, I hate horses,” he says.
“Swear at him in Drow.”
“Is that the secret?” Inglorion grabs the bridle and tells the roan, “Look, horsey, I fucked your mother and she wasn’t that good. Now hold still.”
They get him in the saddle somehow. Valentine mounts behind him. It’s only two minutes to the inn, but Inglorion’s dead weight before they get there. Valentine shouts for an ostler. “Get a groom for my horse and someone to help me carry my cousin in — he’s been drinking blue ruin for three days straight — I’ll need a room for a few days to straighten him out.” The ostler takes the reins, allowing Valentine to dismount and lower Inglorion to the ground.
The ostler looks Inglorion over with a sapient eye. “Must have been a bad batch.” As if to lend credence to Valentine’s story, Inglorion starts to vomit. “Turn him over. Once he slows down, we’ll get him down the corridor and around back. I’ll bring you hot water and a few of sets of linen.”
A groom leads the roan away, and the ostler helps Valentine to move Inglorion, strip him, and get him into bed. Valentine forks over a couple of gold pieces, says, “Start a tab for us — Dutch reckoning. His family’s wealthy — they’ll stand the nonsense.”
“Throw the dirty linens out in the hall. I’ll send the laundress around later to collect them.”
“Thanks. Can you come check on us in 30 minutes or so? I’ll need a messenger presently.”
“Will do.” He studies Inglorion’s pale, sweating countenance. “It’s a pity. He looks young and healthy.”
Valentine cleans Inglorion up as well as he can, and balls up the soiled clothes and towels. He wonders briefly if he’ll be poisoned from caring for Inglorion, like the doctor feared with Ariadne. He dismisses the thought as irrelevant, useless. He’ll wash up when time permits.
Towards the end of the operation, Inglorion’s eyes drift open — wide, unfocused. Valentine shivers to see that his pupils are so huge that his eyes looks black instead of silver.
“Send that calling card. They’re in my cloak pocket.”
“Okay. Yup, they’re right here.”
“Repeat the instructions I gave you earlier.”
“Send a courier to Harrison Henschel at Hairy’s Tattoos. Have him hand over the card in person, using your name if necessary. He’ll contact your valet, Ajax.”
“Yes.” Inglorion doubles over, starts retching and spitting. After a long, agonizing moment, the convulsions stop. “Wow. Fuck. Lock and bar the door if you haven’t already. Don’t admit anyone you don’t recognize unless they show my calling card.”
“It’s locked and barred.”
Inglorion’s gaze drifts. He starts to pant. His jaw clenches, and the tendons stand out in his neck. Sweat streams from his forehead.
There’s a knock at the door. It’s the ostler. Valentine cracks the door, tells him, “He’s desperately ill. I’ll need a messenger right away. Someone smart, whom you trust.”
“Great.” He hands him the card, gives the instructions, makes him repeat them back. “Perfect. Five gold pieces now, five when you return.” As he hands over the money, he says, “I’m sorry — I don’t even know your name. I’m Valentine. My cousin is Inglorion, Marquis Theates.”
“Tom Robinson. He’s a marquis?”
“Yeah. Distant branch of the family, obviously.”
As the ostler leaves, Valentine bundles up the dirty linen, drops it outside, then locks and bars the door again.
When Valentine returns to his bedside, Inglorion’s eyes are closed, and his breathing is shallow and uneven. Every now and then he twitches his head uncomfortably, trying to escape the candlelight. When Valentine moves the branch of candles to the fireplace mantle, he falls still. Valentine pulls up an armchair, settles in to wait.
Until now, Valentine has felt calm and decisive, as if he were in battle; he’s thought only about what was immediately in front of him. Now, as he sits in the candlelight studying Inglorion’s strained, dead-white countenance, he starts to grasp how difficult the situation is. Inglorion is desperately ill, perhaps dying. They left five corpses in the care of a strange shop girl. Someone hired five men to kill one or both of them. His cover may be blown. Inglorion may be trapped aboveground. Valentine is essentially alone, and forced to rely on the skill and discretion of a handful of strangers. He has no good excuse for how he found himself in a strange inn with an injured Drow nobleman. If Inglorion dies, he’ll be forced to explain how they know each other, why they met in a hookah lounge. Upon reflection, he has no idea what Inglorion intended to tell him or why. As these thoughts flood him, Valentine’s hands start to shake. He consciously slows his breathing, grips his hands together to still them.
When Ariadne ate a few bites of a poisoned cake, she was dead within two hours. Valentine is ignorant, so comparisons are impossible; nevertheless, he can’t stop his mind from useless calculations. The poison entered Inglorion’s bloodstream directly. Ariadne was tiny — just under five feet — and Inglorion is not a big guy, maybe 5’4″ if measured with a generous ruler. As Valentine studies his patient, he can’t help but notice that his wrists and neck are tiny, almost birdlike. In fact, when his outsized personality is quenched, Valentine’s fierce Drow cousin looks delicate and vulnerable, like a sick child.
Inglorion begins to convulse again, and thin streams of bile drip from his nose and mouth. Valentine wipes his face with a damp cloth, notes that the washbasin is almost empty of clean water, and the slop basin is over-full. Inglorion’s skin is cold and clammy to the touch. His long, white hair is soaked, and he’s sweated through the sheets. He starts to shiver violently, and Valentine realizes that he must get him into warm, dry linens. The task of stripping and remaking the bed is tremendously awkward. Inglorion is dead weight. He moves only to recoil from painful stimulus, wincing violently each time Valentine tries to bring the branch of candles closer.
Once the bedclothes are finally changed and Inglorion’s head is resting on a clean pillowcase, it looks to Valentine as if his lips and eyelids are tinged with blue. It’s impossible to tell in the dim light, and it may not matter — it hardly seems worth tormenting his cousin with candlelight simply to determine if he’s dying.
Now, stupidly, it hits Valentine: He’s terrified Inglorion will die. It’s not because his corpse will be an awkward burden, or because Philomela will overflow with vengeful rage, or because Sieia will be grieved.
Valentine can’t stand the thought of losing him.
He has never felt so distant from the waxen, doll-like figure of Corellon Larithian, the Bringer of Light. He has no prayers, and he certainly wouldn’t light a votive if he had one. He keeps hearing Inglorion asking gently: “Have you ever seen Corellon Larithian, known him to intervene in events? Is he present to you in any way?”
When he was enslaved, and afterwards, when he almost died in the woods, Valentine was utterly alone. It’s not just that no one was with him — he lacked deep ties to any other living creature. When his companions turned back, were injured, died, his sorrow was abstract. Mostly, he pitied them because they would never taste freedom.
Now Valentine is engaged and has family. He’s vulnerable to loss, and so are they. If Inglorion dies, Sieia will be devastated. If Valentine’s cover is blown, if he’s killed or has to flee, Valykria and the entire Shelawn family will suffer.
These facts are simple — elementary to someone raised by elves from childhood instead of imprisoned by spiders. But now, in this strange inn, watching Inglorion’s shallow breath, it’s brought home to Valentine that though he’s almost entirely powerless, his actions matter. This knowledge fills him with deep, unmanning terror; it also changes nothing.
Inglorion continues to suffer convulsions, retching violently and painfully. He sweats through two more sets of linens, and chills wrack him. A flush of bluish-purple advances and retreats across his lips and eyelids. His eyes drift open occasionally. When they do, his pupils still blot out the silver irises, making his Drow eyes as dark as any Shelawn could wish.