34. Even Victory Is Bitter

Soundtrack and Video: Skinny Puppy, “Spasmolytic,” 1980s concert footage

The Drow line up. Tisiphone gives them their shots, and instructs them to pair up with the prisoners. Within minutes, a weird energy spreads among the soldiers. They’re twitching, their nostrils are flaring, their sweat smells sharp and pungent. One woman clenches and unclenches her fists, while another champs her jaw eagerly. A third starts smacking her fist into an open palm over and over. Philomela whistles instructions: They are to remain still and await orders.

Tisiphone injects the captives one by one, and after a moment, all but the young man quiver to life. She lingers over him for a moment, giving him an extra dose, slapping his face and jaw lightly.

Philomela has paid little attention to the individual prisoners. She knows Tereus is among them — he stands out by size alone. She has not examined his features, because like most Drow, she relies little upon sight. Now, as the drug hits, he coughs, hacks and spits, swears in High Elvish. She feels the brooding force of his will, at low ebb but surging higher.

Until now she’s felt nothing but cold dread, and has pushed herself forward by saying that this is the price of the Marquisate. When she hears Tereus there, lashed to the split-rail fence, she feels an electric current of rage and terror. She whistles orders to the troops, beginning with the older Drow warrior who is smacking her own palm with reckless force. The woman turns to Tereus, draws a dagger, and saws through his shirt and breeches, ripping them off and adjusting his stance. She carries a three-tailed whip; its handle is wrapped in leather cords. As Philomela watches, the Drow warrior uses it to bugger Tereus savagely. She’s high as a kite, has no judgment or restraint, and proceeds with mechanical thoroughness. As blood fouls the whip and stains his thighs, it becomes clear that she’ll continue until she receives another order or the drug wears off. Philomela paces along the line, confirming that the soldiers are doing as she commanded, and that they haven’t killed the more tender captives outright.

This is the first order. Several more follow. Between orders, Philomela calls the troops off briefly, leaving them to pace and shadowbox while she and Tisiphone revive the captives. One young soldier begins to punch herself in the face, and must be stopped and redirected. After six hours, the troops are still fresh, but Tisiphone and Philomela are trembling with exhaustion and disgust. Tisiphone silently offers Philomela a little white pill, smaller than a pinky fingernail. After taking it, Philomela feels a resurgence of aggressive energy. She paces up and down for another four hours, and when the troops begin to flag, she orders Tisiphone to administer a second round of injections.

It continues. Philomela paces and whistles orders; the soldiers carry them out with an empty, kinetic rage. She hardly dares to look at the result. When her energy flags, Tisiphone gives her another pill. After several cycles of this, the Drow are physically worn, though empty-eyed, and the captives must be revived more often. The little girl cannot be brought back — she and her older brother appear to be in shock.

Philomela feels overheated, and there’s an uncomfortable pressure building in her skull. Her mouth is dry, and she’s short of breath. Tisiphone examines her carefully, and says that they must tranquilize the soldiers and captives, and seek trance themselves.

The soldiers wake the following evening in a terrible state. Some tremble on the verge of tears; some are sour, silent and jaded; others are confused and disoriented, and distressingly eager to pick at their own and each other’s skin and hair. Tisiphone injects them as soon as they begin move about and speak. Philomela lines them up and orders them to bury the captives from the neck down. She marks out a rough circle. The prisoners will face inwards. 

The work proceeds slowly, though the soldiers are vigorous and the ground is soft. Drugged, they show little common sense, and seem not to understand how to dig a deep hole without the sides collapsing inwards. After several hours, though, the captives are lowered into the ground and buried, with just their heads and necks protruding. 

Tisiphone takes Philomela aside. They leave the soldiers spitting on the captives, crouching down to slap them, and, in one case, slicing up one of the women’s fair, freckled cheeks — infinite, delicate cuts.

“I believe we’re done here, madam,” says Tisiphone.

Philomela nods.

“The troops are expended,” she says delicately, using a word that also means emptied out or permanently stained. “They cannot return to the Underdark.”

“What’s to be done?”

“We will take them to the cellar and administer a massive tranquilizing dose.” She repeats, “They cannot come back with us, madam. They won’t be right.” 

The stimulant is wearing off. Philomela feels a terrible lassitude mixed with despair. She stands at the top of the stairs while Tisiphone gives the final injection to six unresisting soldiers. Philomela feels nothing but a desire to sink to her knees, even curl up on the bloodstained farmhouse floor. Together, they hammer fresh planks across the doorframe, sealing the cellar from above. 

It’s just after midnight — a clear, cold night. Though Philomela does not know it, it’s November 1, All Soul’s Day. As they walk past the stable yard on their way to the road, she breaks off, fumbles through her cloak pocket until she finds a calling card: The Jack of Hearts. She places it under a rock just inside the circle of heads. She thinks it’s by Tereus’s battered face, but she can’t be sure. The IR signature has faded, and she can’t make out its features. 

“Blood for blood. Grief for grief. Pain for pain,” she whispers. 

She remembers that she’s supposed to take a trophy to close out the blood oath. She saws off a six-inch lock of hair, carefully avoiding the cooling flesh. She ties the lock with a thread, wraps it in her handkerchief, and tucks it in her breast pocket.

Her enemy is dead. It’s over. She can rest now.

His body is there, but she can’t make it out against the cold ground.  

The scent of tobacco, leather, woodsmoke, and milky sweetness. Here, at Xialo, he smelled of blood and dirt and flop sweat — the pungent reek of fear. The bloodied whip handle. Blood running down his thighs. It’s hard to connect the two bodies — one powerful, the other stripped and drained of power — and to believe that she’s killed them both.

It’s as if he’s still out there, warning her, “This will hurt. You’re just a little thing.”

She will be marchioness now.

She hears his voice, soft and rueful. “There’s a melancholy one feels after battle. One counts the dead and buries them. The cost and consequence begin to emerge. One recalls that even victory is bitter.”

The last six Drow soldiers, dreaming among the dead, joining them one by one.

He sensed that they’re more alike than different. His curse applies to both of them. His death leaves her alone with the burden of crime.

Inglorion wakes up choked with dread. That night, he holds Philomela with exceptional tenderness and care. She is just a little thing. Her muscles are wasted, and her hair is dry and brittle. He brushes it out, offers her broth and tidbits of meat, then leads her to bed.

As he pets her and waits for her to settle into trance, he realizes that she’s calm and quiet, and he’s agitated. He holds the body that Tereus raped, the body that bore him. The force of her will astounds him — a will so strong it’s destructive. Deprived of anything else to kill, she will kill herself.

He’s always known what he inherited from his father: Beauty, brilliance, recklessness, charisma. Until now, he’s always felt his Drow blood made him less: Smaller, sickly, cold, uncanny. Now he knows that she gave him the grim, relentless, suicidal will that his father feared. 

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