30. Listening for a Miss

Life in the Underdark as Marquis Theates sounds exotic, but at times it resembles the life of a mid-level manager in corporate America, seen through infrared vision. Over the next few days, Inglorion attends a lot of meetings and briefings, and holds some. He writes and reads reports, resumes his usual alliances and vendettas. All but a handful of meetings are routine, and outcomes are usually determined elsewhere in advance. Though he’s attentive to the matters discussed, he spends more time considering the motives of his fellow actors, and observing their tactics.

Alecto and the other two priestesses, Megaera and Tisiphone, surround Philomela, and seem bent on preventing anyone from speaking to her without their knowledge. In formal dress, they’re alarming figures, in floor-length black robes, outlandish headdresses and masks made of adamantine hammered into exquisitely thin plates. After a few days in the Underdark, however, he sees that their behavior towards Philomela is tender and protective. Even in painfully formal settings like cabinet meetings, he begins to discern normal elvish motives in them. Alecto has told Inglorion that she wants to shield the Duchess from gossip, and to prevent others from exploiting her weakness. Of course, their solicitude itself prompts rumors, and leaves the Duchess unnaturally isolated.

Inglorion quickly comes to see Jason, the leader of the armed forces, as a natural ally, because they’re both determined not to commit troops aboveground for any reason. Jason rarely speaks, but observes everything closely. The events of the summer and fall confirm Inglorion’s impression of his old rival: He never acts, and only reacts when immediately threatened. This isn’t a wholly bad quality in a peacetime commander. Bad ideas are legion, and Jason resists these with all his power. Jason can’t disobey a direct order from the Duchess, but he has many avenues of resistance, and he’s familiar with most of them. His relations with the Duchess are cordial but formal. He must know that she is ill — he observes her closely, and has intelligence sources among her servants — but he’s never betrayed this knowledge publicly, or privately in Inglorion’s presence.

Behind Jason’s bland impassivity, there’s strong determination not to make the first move, leave cover, or fuck up in any way. He’s well-adapted to an environment of political uncertainty, because his deepest allegiance is to survival. He’s sworn fealty to Inglorion as Marquis Theates, and Inglorion trusts him to keep his oath as long as their interests remain aligned.

There are others: Officials who deal with trade, the skilled professions, slave labor, and representatives from the Avril and Cyrx tribes. Observing them now, Inglorion appreciates how deeply conservative Drow society is. Dark elves enjoy a reputation for factional struggle and bloodthirstiness, but for every impulse towards vengeance or bloodshed, there’s an equally strong reason to bring conflict to a swift, definitive conclusion.

It takes a few days for Inglorion to spot the Xyrec delegation, and longer to learn to tell them apart. There are two women and a man, and they are perfectly generic Drow: Slim, grave, quiet. They don’t attend cabinet meetings. He sees them before and after, though, jostling with the three priestesses for proximity to the Duchess. They pace the halls with her, and pursue her into the throne room. 

And in the middle of it all, there’s his mother, impassive and glassy-eyed. Occasionally Inglorion thinks he sees a flicker of rage or terror. It’s as if a circuit shorts out briefly, convulsing her face. It passes in an instant, leaving no trace. Her hands are restless, and her eyes are blank. Now that he knows she’s suffering, he sees a dozen little signs. No one speaks of it, and much of the cabinet may not know. For Inglorion, Jason and Alecto, however, and for the Xyrec delegation, nothing matters more than the risks and opportunities presented by the Duchess’s illness.

After three long days of laboring to grasp the overall situation, he breaks off before the evening meal, feeling dull and disheartened. No matter how much evidence he provides of the gray elves’ military capabilities, his tribe is drifting towards war with Liamelia, apparently to serve some Xyrec goal. He can fail to solve that problem for another hour, or he can break off and train for awhile. He decides to train, not because he feels frisky, but because it’s a hell of a lot better than remaining inside his head, tending the day’s crop of worries.

He’s equipped his compound with an armory and gymnasium. It’s long and narrow — long enough to allow target practice at normal crossbow range — with an area set up for working with melee weapons. He starts out by working with his bullwhip, aiming to his the torso of a target dummy from 10 feet out. As always, it takes a few practice strikes to get the right force and range. Each time he misses, he pulls back, closes his eyes, focuses on his breath. He can feel the tension in his jaw and neck, the churning in his stomach. Each time, he redirects his focus to making the whip an extension of himself. He observes its motion, feels the waves traveling its length as he cracks it, then deliberately aligns himself: The core of his body, the fire of his breath, the motion of his arm and wrist, the shock wave traveling the weapon’s length, the impact of the tip against the target. After several rounds of this, he’s hitting consistently, and with great precision.

He switches to his left hand, and goes through the same calibration process.

Philomela might be dying, he thinks.

It’s true, and disturbing. He sees this, and sees that the thought makes him sick as it rises to the surface. He flinches, and the next strike misses. He turns back inward, strikes again and again, a dozen perfect strokes, his torso, arm and wrist perfectly synchronized, the energy traveling the length of the whip, the minor thunderclap of a strike. His eyes are open, but his gaze is soft. He’s not relying primarily on sight to judge distance.

He coils the whip up, switches back to his right hand, practices disarming strikes on the target’s left hand, then right, left, right. On the last strike, he coils the whip around the dummy’s neck, yanks it within reach, and mimes gouging its eyes with his left hand. Its features are battered and worn. He gives it a pat on the head as he uncoils the whip.

He shifts the whip to his left hand, prepares to repeat the exercise.

He thinks of Philomela refusing food and water now, and how Tereus force-fed her. The shame of being kept alive — almost worse than the actual rape.

His arms drop to his sides. He feels tired, discouraged. His stomach has been churning all morning, and his throat is tight with unexpressed grief. He observes that for a moment, the mingled sorrow and fear. He often starved himself as a young man, and is still a poor eater. He doesn’t quite know why. He knows it damages his health and limits his strength. It gives his a feeling of purity and clarity, a singular, unclouded focus. It’s instinctive, something he long associated with religious devotion, but now believes was simply a way to cleanse himself and feel joy.

He sets the thought aside, aligns himself to his breath, softens his gaze. He completes the disarm drill with his left hand, ending with the same eye gouge.

Once again, he faces the dummy from 10 feet out. This time, he closes his eyes. He starts with a series of ranging strikes. If he listens intently, he can locate the dummy by listening to the pattern of whip cracks and the sound of his breathing and footwork bouncing back to him. He strikes hard, again and again, listens to the impact of leather on leather. After 12 perfect strikes, he starts to close in using a slow, broad S-shaped path. Each time he misses, he works to sink further into himself, into the sound and wave pattern, the beauty and simplicity of motion.

He never had a mother, and doesn’t know how to be a son. At heart, he’s a gray elf, so he accepts that he has a duty to Philomela. He just doesn’t know how to do that duty.

He misses, stops, coils the whip. He’s within five feet — too close for accuracy.

The dummy can be set up as a quintain for blind fighting. The principle is simple: If Inglorion strikes precisely with a rapier on any one of three targets — throat, sternum or navel — the dummy won’t react. If he hits more than three inches off to the left or right, the dummy will spin around and smack him with whatever weapon he’s affixed to its hand. He gives it a wooden dagger, then, and removes the pins that prevent it from spinning.

He steps back, closes his eyes, and sends out his position and state data in Drow operational language, a series of clicks and whistles. He gauges the location and distance from the echo returned, and strikes rapidly, right-left-right, hitting dead center each time.

He sheathes his weapons, and his arms drop to his sides.

He may fuck up and kill her, push her over some unseen precipice within. A stupid, obvious fact persists: He shares a face and voice with the man who raped her.

It’s funny. He’s always felt that his father somehow stole his voice and features, not that that Tereus had them first and passed them on through inheritance. Nope. It’s always felt like that fucker Tereus Shelawn somehow managed to prance around in an Inglorion mask, mimicking him cruelly.

He shakes his head to clear it, closes his eyes briefly, then switches out the wooden dagger for a live blade. As he resets, he calls himself sharply to order.

Are you ready? Are you good to do this? Stop fucking around and settle in. This is real.

Once more, he closes his eyes, finds his breath, sends out state data. When he’s found the range, he draws weapons and strikes with blinding speed. The last strike is slightly wide, so he ducks, feels the blade pass overhead. He feels a spurt of adrenaline — rage and impatience mixed with fear — and forces himself to strike again and again, always in threes, listening for a miss.

After 12 clean hits, he stows his weapons, opens his eyes. The dummy is still quivering from the last round of blows. He bows, and dedicates his practice to the Bringer of Light.

He’s frightened and grieved. He feels unclean after being immersed in her madness even briefly. He doesn’t love her, or particularly like her. His duty is clear, and it transcends gray elvish ideas about family, and Drow notions of clan. Somehow Inglorion must recall his mother to herself, and persuade her to arrest the accelerating slide into battle.

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