Though the throne room is grand — high-ceilinged and ornate — it gives a curious sense of intimacy. A whisper in any corner can be heard throughout with uncanny clarity.
Inglorion walks down the aisle, between the rows of empty stone benches. As usual, Philomela sits on a low stone dais. Before her, there is a large map table, divided into a grid. She’s preoccupied with arranging a set of token or counters on the map. He feels as if he’s intruding. Within hours of reaching the Underdark, he was summoned to the throne room. Now he wonders if Philomela truly wished to see him. He stands in front of the dais, hands clasped, eyes lowered, waiting to be recognized.
He can’t observe her directly, of course. He’s limited to tracking her motions in peripheral vision, and darting occasional hard glances at her hands and head. She’s bent over the table, so he couldn’t see her face even if he were permitted to look at it. All he can see is her little, slim frame hunched there, her hands moving. She doesn’t speak, but he can hear her breath: Quick, distressed. Her hands dart back and forth over the tabletop, placing and shifting counters. Every few minutes, she’ll stop to evaluate the arrangement, peer at it from different angles. When she does this, he hears a soft humming, “Hm – hm – hm – hm.” It sounds anxious, breathless. He thinks of the little noise that both he and Rosalee make when they’re happily preoccupied: A soft, steady purr of satisfaction. Injured cats sometimes purr to soothe themselves. Philomela’s noise has something of the same desperate quality.
As he watches and listens, her actions become more agitated. He has the sense of machinery speeding up dangerously, a jerky and unstable motion.
She stops suddenly, sweeps the counters to a corner of the table, steps back, seems to register Inglorion’s presence. She studies him for a moment, as if she doesn’t recognize him. He often struggles to recall people greet him enthusiastically. He’s not yet been eyed by a noblewoman, his mother, who can’t quite place him, and clearly doubts that they’ve met before.
Finally she says coldly, “Yes, sir?”
Among the Drow, it’s always the responsibility of the subordinate person to introduce themselves and explain their business, so he says, “Your Grace, I’m Inglorion Atropos Androktasiai. I’ve returned from gathering intelligence aboveground, in Liamelia and Amakir.”
“Hm. Yes.” Her eyes keep darting back to the counters on the table. She would like to dismiss him and start rearranging them.
“Your Grace, I’ve brought news of the slave Charon. I’ve seen him, met with him.”
“You have?” Her interest is sudden, sharp.
“Yes, Your Grace. He left the wood elves in March and traveled to Liamelia. He’s been restored to his clan, and is residing behind city walls. We spoke in the home of a mutual relation.” He can’t tell whether she understands. He believes that the Drow have affectionate personal bonds, but there are few words to name them. They don’t have terms for sister and cousin — at most, they would use the gray elvish words.
“Has he provided intelligence to them?”
“I believe so, Your Grace. I don’t know how much, or on what subjects. He’s one of them now.” Inglorion hesitates to share further impressions — her manner is so strange. Even more than usual, he fears that facts and analysis may be used in ways he can’t anticipate. Valentine’s situation is delicate, ambiguous. Inglorion doesn’t understand it himself.
“You may go,” she says abruptly, so he does. As he retreats down the aisle, he hears the soft click of her placing the markers, and the rasp of her breath.
Alecto is waiting outside the huge double doors. They speak quietly in the empty antechamber.
“Her manner seemed odd,” he says.
“Did she speak of being possessed?”
“No. We spoke of the escaped slave. She did not seem — I’m not confident that she understood the situation. I’ll return to my own quarters and review the intelligence reports. I’ll have to consider what’s to be done.”
“Yes, Your Lordship.” She seems hesitant, so he pauses, brows lifted. “Your Lordship, did you seek a vision when you were aboveground?”
“I did.” Then, because her anxiety looks painful, he adds, “I was Her Grace. I witnessed … certain events in the past.”
“I do not ask this lightly, Your Lordship, and I know that my authority in this matter is limited, but I wonder if you would consent to seek further visions.”
“To find out what she’s thinking?”
“I’m afraid for her,” Alecto says baldly. “She spoke of possession, and returns to the subject often.”
“Do you think she possessed of a demon?”
“I think it’s possible in rare cases,” says Alecto. “There is some severe spiritual disturbance. I see no evidence of possession.”
“If you think it will help, of course I’ll do it,” he says.
And so, after a long day of reading reports and interviewing analysts face-to-face, he admits Alecto to his quarters.
He strips off his shirt, lies down on the bed. She finds a vein, slips the needle in, depresses the plunger. The high is immediate, abrupt and terrible. He trembles, his teeth chatter. His senses are briefly blotted out, though he remains conscious. He’s floating in darkness, alone and untouched. The sound of his heartbeat and breathing nearly overwhelm him in the silence. He can hear the blood rushing in his ears.
Then he’s Philomela alone in the dark. Her eyes are closed, but her head is filled with clanging activity. She paces about rapidly within the confines of her skull, trying to take possession and fill it. Though she is exhausted, she paces terribly quickly, clockwise and then counter-clockwise, nearly running. Her breath is ragged. She burns. There is something before her — a noxious cloud — and she must dispel it, drive it away.
At the same time, she hears voices — her own voice, distorted — berating her, calling her a fucking worthless piece of shit cunt who deserves to die. The voices form an overlapping chorus, a hideous, buzzing dissonance. She can’t quite pick out all the words. She’s given up trying to understand them. Much of her strength is consumed by forcing herself to move despite the vile abuse she’s shouting.
She becomes aware of some persistent external demand. Grudgingly, she directs her senses outward. The voices fade, but remain distractingly present. She blinks, strives to focus her gaze and pay attention.
Clytemnestra thinks she should bathe and dress. Alecto is waiting outside the throne room.
She does her best, but like a child or a very old person, she often falls still as if she has forgotten the next step, or doesn’t grasp its importance. Clytemnestra pushes her through these moments, taking her hairbrush from her unresisting hand and fixing her hair, badgering her to fasten the last buttons on her leather doublet. In her head, Philomela continues to pace and shout, so loudly that she sometimes wonders if she’s spoken aloud, under her breath. She glances over at Clytemnestra, who murmurs something encouraging.
Alecto asks questions that Philomela can’t answer. Has she had anything to eat or drink? How is her trance?
Philomela has explained about the demon, and how she must stay in constant motion, so she’s impatient with questions about food and drink. She cannot bear being told to take nourishment. She’s terrified that the demon will intercept it, starving her while feeding itself and growing in strength. It’s well-known that a demon can take the food-stream for itself and starve out the body’s rightful owner. She’s explained this all before, but Alecto is strangely ignorant, and stubborn, too. Philomela is galvanized for an instant by rage, then sinks back into lethargy.
They can’t meet her gaze, and can’t touch Philomela without her permission. She regards them with angry triumph: They are powerless to help her.
Inglorion shudders back to consciousness. He lies there stunned for a moment. His joints ache, he sizzles with adrenaline. Slowly the sensations fade. He becomes aware of the sweat drying on his chest, the clarity and order of his own mind.
He sits up slowly, turns to Alecto, who is watching him anxiously. “It’s as you suspect,” he says. “She’s in spiritual crisis. It’s spread to her intellect and body. By tradition, who has the authority to touch her?”
“No one, Your Lordship. She’s Duchess Theates. The ruler of another tribe can address her as an equal, but no one can touch her or look her in the face without permission.”
“Is she eating or drinking?”
“Very little, Your Lordship. She’s strong, of course.”
He shakes his head curtly. “Strength doesn’t matter. A strong-willed person who stops eating will feel exalted, cleansed and righteous, even as they destroy their health. I should know — I used to starve myself. How long has this been going on?”
“It became obvious to me when the slave Charon escaped. But I think it started before then.”
“Who knows of her condition?”
“Her closest personal servants. Two other clergy besides myself, both loyal. Jason knows that she’s not herself. I believe some members of the Xyrec delegation have figured it out. They seek time alone with her, all three of them at once. Can you help her?”
He speaks slowly. “I don’t have any more authority than you do. I have looked at her on occasion, and spoken to her honestly, as I would to a friend aboveground. But I’m not a doctor or a priest.”
“There’s a tie between you.”
“Of a kind, yes. I don’t understand her well.” He looks down at Alecto’s averted face. “I’ll do what I can to shield her and help her,” he says. “You’re taken great risks. Thank you for trusting me, for telling me what you know.”
Inglorion returns to his quarters, sits in his study for awhile in silence. After a time, he finds a candle and the tinderbox. He’s never invoked the Bringer of Light in the Underdark. Except when he was a very young man, he’s never believed in a white, stiff figure named Corellon Larithian who cast out the dark elves, or a mad queen who seduced the Drow away from light and truth. The gods are larger, shrouded and mysterious, a series of bizarre and terrible figures that appear on occasion, shouting commands in a language he has yet to learn. Any appearance of cruelty or vengeance results from their infinite perspective, their sublime grandeur.
He kneels and lights the candle. Because familiar words help him to focus, he chants the evening prayer, and the repetition calms him. He gazes at the flame, which hurts his Drow eyes, and prays for wisdom, compassion, understanding.
Philomela gave birth to him. They’re connected, not in some sentimental way, but through blood and suffering. Her body nourished his, and she nearly died giving birth to him. In visions he’s seen how she tried to withdraw from her body entirely. He was there, the dumb consequence, the price, the penalty. He remembers the acts he witnessed as surely as if he’d committed them, or had been the victim.
He took out his cock, rubbed it until it was hard, and shoved it into her. She, who should never have been looked at or touched, who should have been treated as sacred. Inglorion finds it strange and isolating to be Marquis Theates, but he knows what was due to her as Marchioness.
She never spoke to Tereus. Until the very end, she never willingly took food or drink from his hands.
She was exhausted, and wanted to live.
She feels shame for eating and drinking in his presence, for permitting him to touch her, and for consoling him briefly in the hours after Inglorion’s birth. She believes that by retreating deep into herself, she left parts unoccupied and vulnerable to possession. She believes that the demon has taken up residence within her, and she must hunt it at all times.
She doesn’t want to eat or drink because she can’t afford to relax her vigilance. She must never be comforted or calm.
The candle has burned down to a guttering pool of wax. He’ll have to stop soon; it may be awhile before more candles are available.
If Sieia were in distress, he would know how to comfort her. He was able to soothe Rosalee when she hurt herself. He feels no affection for Philomela, only duty and loyalty. If he offends her, she can have him flogged or executed. The Drow way would be to let her die and take the throne himself.
Behind all of his reflections, there’s a single memory: Philomela’s first words to him when he surrendered to her in the Underdark.
How like your father you are.