31. Event Horizon

The first step is to see the Duchess outside the usual setting: Formal cabinet meetings and the like. He sends a note to Clytemnestra asking when he can have an audience, and receives the following reply:

Your Lordship,

If you present yourself at Her Grace’s quarters late this evening, I will admit you.

Philomela’s private residence isn’t much larger than Inglorion’s. As Duchess Theates she doesn’t sleep in a barracks, and she needs quarters for a score of slaves, but otherwise her mode of life is simple. Inglorion enters the ducal residence from a common passageway, and finds himself in a small, unfurnished foyer with an ornate mosaic floor. There’s a single, steel door leading further back. It’s equipped with a formidable combination lock, almost as if the Duchess is stored in a bank vault overnight. After a moment or two, Clytemnestra emerges and beckons to him. The air within is poor. The residence, like Inglorion’s, consists of a series of chambers leading straight back, ending with the sitting room and bedroom. Clytemnestra leads him through storerooms, a barracks for slaves and a study, into the sitting room just outside Philomela’s bedchamber. Clytemnestra makes her nest here, just like Ajax does in Inglorion’s quarters.

She says quietly, “Her trance is poor, Your Lordship. I sit with her most nights. You can take my place for awhile.”

He nods. “Is there anything I should know about how to approach her?”

“In the evenings she’s very quiet, almost childlike. She’s less easily angered or frightened. I’ll check on you periodically, and you can come get me if you like. I’ll wait in the study, Your Lordship.”

“Thank you, Clytemnestra.” With a sense of unreality, he walks through the low doorway, into the last room.

It is dark and still, equipped with a bed, wardrobe and washbasin. The Duchess is sitting on a stool next to the wardrobe. She doesn’t seem to notice his presence. He feels that she might just sit there like an abandoned doll if no one put her to bed.

He can see her features clearly. They’re so immobile that she seems to be in trance or unconscious. Her eyes are open, however, and after a moment he sees that she’s wringing her hands.

Inglorion has been alone with two Drow: Ajax, who is his slave and personal servant, and a rival whom he cornered and assassinated. Neither provides a precedent for the current situation. Probably nothing could.

A drawer of the wardrobe is open. He sees a hairbrush and silk ribbons lying within, so he says quietly, “If Your Grace will permit it, I will brush your hair and help you to prepare for trance.” Without waiting for a reply, he walks over, picks up the hairbrush, and gently places a hand on her shoulder. Her hair is white, fine, and perfectly straight, like Inglorion’s. It reaches halfway down her back.

He removes her circlet and begins to brush her hair, saying, “I’m afraid I’ll be very unhandy. I’m trying to remember how Ajax does it. I believe he has a system.”

She does not move independently, so he tilts her head this way and that, and plies the hairbrush as well as he can. At one point it catches her left ear, and she darts a reproachful glance at him. Otherwise she’s unresponsive.

When he’s brushed it thoroughly, he says, “Unless you dislike it, I will braid it into a queue for you. I find it easier to sleep with my hair pulled back, and perhaps you do, too.” He French-braids it, left side and then right, then joins the two sides into a queue in the back. He wraps and secures it with one of the ribbons, saying, “I think you’ll find you like that.”

Her hands have fallen still in her lap. He says, “I take it your rings go in this dish? Hand them to me.” She slowly works them off all eight fingers, even her massive signet, which is jointed.

There’s a jar of lotion next to the ring-tray. He picks it up, warms it in his hands, and begins to massage some into her limp right hand. It’s shockingly thin. The bones are tiny, and her skin is oddly papery. His touch is gentle — he’s certain he could draw blood with a fingernail. He spends a good deal of time massaging her palms, using both thumbs to do it. He often does this for lovers, and he’s used to sensing some quiver of anticipation, a slight yielding. Philomela’s hands remain cold and still, though he massages them for several moments.

She’s still wearing the leather armor common in the Underdark: A close-fitting leather doublet molded to her form, and hardened at key points with thin adamantine plates. It won’t block a direct sword or arrow hit, but it protects against spent arrows, glancing blows and assassins’s darts.

He asks, “Your Grace, may I help you to remove your armor?”

Her nod is barely perceptible. He unbuttons the front, starting with the high, tight collar, and unfastens the cuffs. She slowly disentangles herself from the stiff, heavy garment, and he turns to hang it in the wardrobe.

When he turns back, she’s hunched over, face hidden in her hands, rocking slightly with sobs, or perhaps in an attempt to soothe herself. Under her armor she wears a black silk shirt — so precious in the Underdark. The thin fabric clings to her sides, and even as he watches her ribs heave with tears, he’s horrified to see how gaunt she’s become. Her ribs and spine, her shoulder blades and the knob at the nape of her neck — they all protrude terribly.

He’s been proceeding by instinct, feeling his way along despite her strange character and the distance between them. Now he simply places an arm around her shoulder and whispers, “Come, let me take you to bed. You’ll be more comfortable.”

He leads her the few steps to the bed. The mattress is thin, and there’s a single, folded blanket. He settles her head on the blanket, and she curls up on her side, facing Inglorion. She’s been crying silently all along, and now her sobs are harsh, dry, almost like coughing or retching.

He pulls the stool over and sits at her bedside. He strokes her hair, which he now sees is dull. Her eyes are dim. Her skin is rough from hunger and neglect.

“Oh, honey,” he says impulsively, “I wish you wouldn’t hurt yourself. It makes me sad. Now I know where I get it from. He never would have deprived himself like that.” He realizes that he switched to High Elvish, a language that feels more affectionate to him. He doesn’t know any Drow endearments. Of course, she’s fluent in both. Though she doesn’t react to his words, he feels that she can hear him, just like he believe Rosalee listens and understands.

All this time, he hasn’t looked her directly in the eye. Now, following instinct, he removes his boots and jacket and sword belt, and lies down facing his mother. At first, he keeps his gaze lowered, and simply strokes her hair. After a time, he raises his eyes to meet hers. He feels her flinch, try to pull back. He shushes her, continues to stroke her hair until her dull, flat gaze settles on his face.

He’s looked into her face before, but always as a power play, to emphasize his autonomy and strength. Now, for the first time, he truly sees his mother.

To Inglorion, Drow features look generic: Slim, oval faces, almond-shaped eyes, pale lashes and brows, almost like the classic depiction of an alien. Burning eyes, with all other features attenuated, almost wiped away. Because his features are so recognizably Tereus’s, he would have said he looks nothing like his mother. Now he realizes his error. There’s the eye color, of course, and the silver hair. But there’s something else — a mingling of physical fragility and strength of will. When he sees this, he’s moved to kiss her forehead, smooth her hair back, and whisper, “I’m so sorry, my dear. I do love you. I always have.” He says it in High Elvish, of course. He doesn’t know how well she understands the words, if her knowledge is more than academic.

They look into each other’s eyes for a long time. He feels as if he’s summoning her to the surface, as if there’s some response and recognition. Finally he asks, “How do you say that in Drow? ‘I love you.’”

She croaks something he can barely hear, then clears her throat and says it again. He’s heard the phrase before. It has a second meaning, the equivalent of letting down your guard, showing your belly. He repeats it back to her.

They lie there for a long time. He can’t tell if he’s soothed her, or if she’s withdrawn so far into herself that she’s indifferent to the violation of his touch and gaze. He hears Clytemnestra come and go, and at some point he enters trance briefly himself. Nothing seems to change. Her tiny body feels brittle, fragile, stiff to the touch. Her anguish continues unabated.

In the early hours of the morning, Clytemnestra checks in again, and Inglorion strokes Philomela’s hair one last time, slides out of their embrace. He dresses, signals Clytemnestra to follow him to the next room.

“She’s very ill,” he says. “How often does she eat or drink?”

“Rarely. Every few days.”

“You only bring it when she asks?”

“She hates it when I offer it to her.”

“I’ll come tomorrow. I’ll bring food and water with me. I think, if she feels calm, she might take some if it were there and she didn’t have to ask.”

He walks back to his quarters, heart heavy.

He doesn’t want to force-feed her. He doesn’t want her to die.

Under normal circumstances, the body and mind resist death. There is an event horizon, however, beyond which damage cannot be reversed, and the body’s decline can be slowed but not stopped. Though Philomela allowed him to hold and touch her, and to look into her eyes, Inglorion senses that she’s slipping inexorably towards death.

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