61. The Letter of Marque

left-handed daggers, Wallace Collection, London
All six men inquire into Inglorion’s weapons training and combat experience. No one thinks to ask if he works for his tribe’s intelligence service.

Over the next several hours, Inglorion is interviewed by six different men. Two are openly hostile; one, disarmingly genial. The remaining three are neutral or non-committal. They all inquire into his weapons training and combat experience. One questions him extensively about his language studies, though he doesn’t speak Drow, Romany or French, and can’t give Inglorion a proper oral examination. Another quizzes him about local geography and culture. He’s asked about his time among the Drow and his ties to the Theates tribe, but they seem oddly incurious about his loyalty and motives.

As the morning wears into early afternoon, Inglorion scrupulously follows the instructions he’s been given. He answers truthfully, elaborates only if asked, and volunteers nothing. His interlocutors permit certain evasions. When asked if he’s sworn to Lolth, he says that he has taken an oath to Corellon Larithian, and is devout. He can affirm truthfully that he’s never provided information about the strength, disposition, tactics and training of Liamelia’s troops, because until recently, he’s never been in a position to do so. No one thinks to ask if he works for his tribe’s intelligence service, recruits and runs agents, and compiles information about economic and political trends. It’s clear from their questions that they imagine Drow intelligence capabilities to be much more extensive than they are, and focused entirely on military matters. Just by being interviewed, he gains a clearer picture of their sources, gaps and blind spots.

Sir Noix returns late in the afternoon, carrying a portable writing-table. “Well, then,” he says with an air of quiet satisfaction. “I won’t say everyone’s pleased, but no one was able to raise a substantial objection. Do you know what a letter of marque is?”

“It allows a private vessel to act as a pirate ship under limited circumstances — to stop, search and divert enemy shipping in a time of war.”

“Exactly. What I’m offering is a variant on a letter of marque. It will allow the bearer to stop, search and divert shipments on land. The Drow have arranged to have a series of slave shipments landed in ports north of Liamelia and smuggled to egress points in the North Mountains and Xiomelia. There are laws against human trafficking and smuggling, of course, but for various reasons we don’t choose to send troops to intercept them. Instead, we’re prepared to issue a letter of marque, and to provide intelligence and resources to a small group of men who will intercept shipments as we hear of them. The outriders belong to a smuggler’s guild in Amakir, and will be paid in advance to switch sides.

“We’re looking for someone to train up a team, plan each operation, halt and search shipments, provide any necessary humanitarian relief, and redirect the shipments to Liamelia. Once the shipments reach Liamelia, the captives will be returned to their country of origin, or, more likely, settled in the area using charitable funds. The person would be responsible for keeping accounts, and providing an after-action report. In return, the city would pay out prize money for each shipment halted, and for each captive rescued. Does that sound like something you could do?”

“Yes, I could certainly do it,” Inglorion says.

“Will you?”

There’s a brief pause. Inglorion cocks his head, considers. There’s a tremendous risk of antagonizing one or more of the Physryk tribes, including his own. In fact, it’s less a risk than a certainty. The only question is, would he be hindering an enemy or an ally? If the latter, the Underdark may be too hot to hold him. He may be disinherited, even assassinated. The institution of slavery is absolutely unquestioned in the Underdark; abolitionism isn’t a radical position there — it’s incoherent, mad.

If Inglorion rescues captives from slavery, he’s likely consigning them to servitude in Liamelia or elsewhere. He vividly remembers his youth as a footman. Wages were abysmally low, and included room and board. It was impossible to save enough money to marry and support a family; even maintaining lodgings away from Shelawn House was an unthinkable luxury. His peers earned tips in various distasteful ways, ranging from providing sexual services to guests of both sexes, to side hustles running numbers or keeping betting books. The greatest hope of a footman is to become a butler or valet and save enough money to open a boxing salon or casino.

For all servants, there was little recourse in case of a cruel master. He thinks of the parade of parlor maids through Shelawn House, the housekeeper’s little gambits, from hiring girls with a birthmark or a squint to timing service on the master’s suite just right. The whispered advice and reassurance, the mingled compassion and impatience. It’s to be expected. Everyone knows what he is.

It was squalid, but not nearly as cruel as slavery. Inglorion’s never ordered or witnessed a flogging, but he’s seen the marks on Valentine’s back. Both he and Ajax were valued and privileged slaves; it’s why they survived.

He considers what it would mean to Ajax to stop even a single shipment.

He feels like he did when he vowed to take Sieia away from Liamelia. The action he’s contemplating seems reckless and extreme, but he cannot imagine acting in any other way.

He thinks, You can never know the consequences of your actions. What appears to be rash may be wise; what seems like prudence may later be revealed to be foolishness. When calculation fails, love is the only good.

After a moment of silent reflection, Inglorion says, “Yes, I will.”

Sir Noix sets up the writing table, pulling out a sheaf of papers, uncapping the inkwell, producing a sharpened quill. Inglorion takes up the pen, reviews the documents: A nondisclosure agreement, a series of oaths, various legal releases, a wage agreement, which seems remarkably generous. He skims each one, and signs in his distinctive, scrawling hand.

He hands over the papers.

“It’s settled, then,” says Sir Noix. “You’ll report directly to me. Copies of all reports and accounts will go to Lord Carlyon, and to the Council of Elders.”

“There is one last matter,” Inglorion says. “Prize money is all very well — more than I expected, truthfully — but I approached Marcus because I hope to earn citizenship by service.”

“You must know I can’t promise that,” the spymaster says coldly. “All determinations of citizenship are made by the Council of Elders, in consultation with the High Magistrate.”

“But you can make a recommendation? Support my application?”

“I would look to your brother for that, and your brother-in-law. Together they have considerable influence.” He adds, “You’ll hear from me soon. In the meantime, I suggest you start pulling a team together.”

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