Another episode of Man Raised by Spiders, the coming-of-age story of Valentine Shelawn.
Valentine has lost track of time — has ceased thinking of it altogether — when a knock comes at the door. Through the peephole, he sees an older, male Drow dressed for travel. The stranger is holding up a Jack of Hearts. Valentine unbolts and unlocks the door.
“You’re Charon?” the stranger asks. “Is his lordship here?”
“My cousin Inglorion? Yes.”
Valentine has been among the gray long enough that Drow manners, which would have been unremarkable a year ago, seem cold and eerie now. Ajax — it is he — averts his eyes from Valentine, and looks at Inglorion only to check his condition, carefully avoiding looking him directly in the face even though he’s unconscious. Having established Valentine’s identity, Ajax ignores him, since even among equals it’s considered rude to initiate conversation without good reason or preexisting intimacy. He moves about the room silently, with a kind of graceful economy, sorting through soiled linen, checking Inglorion’s pulse and temperature, observing his breathing. He notes the lack of clean water, the numerous candles. After several moments, he stands silently in front of Valentine’s chair, eyes averted, hands clasped before him. Valentine has stood in precisely that posture — it’s how servants and slaves wait to be recognized for speech.
“Yes, Ajax?” says Valentine. It seems strange to take the master’s role, but he knows that for Ajax, familiarity would be worse.
“His lordship has been poisoned. If he’s well-nursed, he should live. With your permission, I will care for him.” Ajax hesitates. It clearly bothers him that Valentine has no title or honorific.
Valentine has experienced precisely this discomfort — the unsettling feeling that he’ll be punished for omitting some necessary form or ceremony — so he extends his hands to show Ajax his token, brand and calling card. “My full Drow name is Charon Pallas Proioxis, token holder of the Theates clan, and Xyrec raider. You may call me ‘sir.’”
“Thank you, sir.”
“You may care for his lordship. You will notify me of any change in his condition. I will guard the door and watch over both of you until he is well enough to travel.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Ajax, did you come alone?”
“I brought a young groom, Ancilla. She’s half-elven, and loyal, and can carry messages.” Valentine directs Ancilla to the hookah lounge, instructing her to dispose of the bodies, with Linnea’s help, if necessary. Ancilla seems undaunted by the task. Indeed, she’s a strapping girl — an inch shorter than Valentine, but quite a bit heavier. She towers over Ajax, who is short and slight, like all Drow.
As dawn approaches, Ajax becomes agitated. He clearly feels that the windows should be heavily draped and the door sills blocked to exclude the sun. Valentine slips out and acquires extra sheets and towels for this purpose, explaining to the housekeeper that his cousin has become light-sensitive in his delicate state. Once the door is locked and barred and the room is draped to Ajax’s satisfaction, Valentine feels that he can take a brief trance. He leaves detailed instructions about when he should be roused. Apparently none of these contingencies occurs, because when he returns to full wakefulness, it’s much later, and Ajax is waiting to address him.
“Sir, when was his lordship injured? When did the poison enter his system?”
“Shortly after sunset. Why do you ask?”
“The odds of survival are greatly improved after 24 hours, sir. It’s just past sunset now.”
“Thank fucking God.” Valentine starts up out of the armchair, and steps to Inglorion’s bedside. His appearance is not encouraging. His eyes are open, but they’re flickering over a distant, invisible scene. He’s suffered repeated rounds of vomiting and sweating, so his lips and skin are parched. He’s always thin, but now he looks gaunt, and his eyes, cheeks and temples appear sunken, pinched.
“Ajax, I’m going to light a few candles.” Valentine lights the candelabra, brings it over to Inglorion’s bedside. Inglorion turns away, but doesn’t seem pained or restless. The blue tinge seems to have retreated from his eyes, lips and nostrils. “He’s very dehydrated. When can you start giving him liquids?”
“Sir, his lordship took half a cup of water shortly before sundown, and hasn’t vomited since. I will give his lordship water on a fixed schedule, if he does not vomit.”
“Ajax, he told me he was poisoned once before. Did you care for him then?”
“Yes, sir. His progress has been better this time. He has some immunity now, and the dose was much smaller. It lasted nine days before.”
Valentine is surprised out of Drow inscrutability. “How the fuck did he survive that?”
“It happened it the Underdark. A partial antidote was available.”
“How did it happen?”
“It was connected with training, sir. The exposure was massive and repeated.”
Valentine studies Ajax through narrowed eyes. Fatal accidents are not uncommon during Drow combat training. More than half of candidates for a raiding party wash out, usually because of exhaustion or dehydration, occasionally due to acute or disabling injuries. It’s not surprising that Inglorion should have suffered a serious training injury. Still…
“Ajax, how did his lordship contrive to suffer massive, repeated exposure to poison while training?”
“His lordship made repeated assaults on an obstacle that he was determined to master.”
“Ajax, what is Inglorion’s Drow name? I know his title is Marquis Theates — what’s his true Drow name?”
“His lordship’s name is Inglorion Atropos Androktasiai, Marquis Theates.”
“No shit?” Valentine looks down at Inglorion. His eyes still flicker, apparently sightlessly, and his breathing is rapid and shallow. Valentine leans over and whispers, “Inglorion Atropos Androktasiai, Marquis Theates, you are one crazy motherfucker.”
Inglorion makes a choking noise. For an instant, Valentine fears that he’s having a seizure, then Inglorion whispers, “Fuck you, Charon.”
Valentine cracks up, partly from sheer relief. “You bastard! Do you need anything besides water?”
“Three naughty nurses.”
“Nine days! The next time you get poisoned, I’ll just tell you to walk it off.”
Inglorion chuckles faintly, but he’s too tired to speak further, so Valentine leaves him to Ajax’s care.