71. The Magnificent Five Continue God’s Work

T – 6 hours. It’s pitch black.

Valentine, Lucius and Inglorion are walking their horses up and down the square in front of Valentine’s flat. Valentine is muttering, “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” As the minutes pass, his curses become more complex and vicious, and Lucius looks increasingly apprehensive and miserable. Every now and then Lucius casts an anxious eye at Inglorion, who looks exhausted.

After 10 minutes of this, Inglorion beckons to Valentine. Lucius can’t make out what’s said, but he hears Inglorion’s voice, cold, quiet, precise. When they return, Valentine is silent and chastened.

A moment later, they hear hoofbeats. Aramil and Ajax appear at the far end of the square, 17 minutes late by Valentine’s repeater watch. “Finally,” Valentine growls, earning a cutting look from Inglorion. When Aramil comes into view, Valentine slumps in his saddle and mimes a face-palm. His cousin looks stale-drunk and frowzy, as if he slept in his clothes. Even Inglorion winces at the reek of gin on his breath — in truth, steaming from his pores.

“Sorry to be late,” says Aramil airily. “We had a little trouble getting started. We’re here now. Let’s do this.”

Inglorion turns to Valentine and says, “You and Lucius will oblige me by riding ahead to the next waypoint. Ajax, please keep them company.”

Valentine makes a choking noice, and finally says, “Inglorion, he’s drunk! Are you going to —”

Inglorion cuts him off coldly, raising his voice only slightly. “Valentine, you will oblige me by riding ahead with Ajax and Lucius.” When Valentine seems about to protest, he adds, “We’ll discuss this later. Ride on, gentlemen.”

Once they’re out of earshot, Inglorion looks at Aramil wearily, dismounts, loops Paris’s reins on the hitching post and says, “Tether your mount and join me behind the stables, Aramil.” Aramil does so, offering a stream of excuses and justifications as he goes. Inglorion glances back and says, “Yes, very likely. We’ll test your readiness here and now.”

There’s an archery target set up behind the stables. Inglorion says, “I’ll count down to one. Draw and fire six arrows. I expect six on target in 10 seconds.”

Aramil’s expression is a mix of relief and horror. He expected a dressing-down; now he will have an objective test of impairment, and he knows he won’t pass.

“Inglorion —” he’s shocked to hear the pleading, whining note in his own voice. 

“Shut up and do it. In five… four… three… two… one.”

Aramil starts to shoot. The first arrow is badly off, so he fumbles the second and shoots wide. The third hits the rim of the target, as does the sixth. The fourth and fifth are lost in the darkness.

“Thirty-eight seconds,” says Inglorion. 

Aramil starts to talk again, saying God knows what, putting words in the air like he did arrows, praying something will hit.

Inglorion cuts him off. “Aramil, none of that interests me right now.” He walks over to Aramil, removes the bow from his unresisting grip.

He’s standing quite close. The smell of liquor is strong, but Inglorion doesn’t allow himself to react. He looks into his nephew’s eyes. Inglorion is a few inches shorter and a good deal lighter. He looks fragile, but his voice is cold and steady. “I need your skills today. Right now I don’t have them. What do you suggest I do?”

Aramil unleashes another stream of apologies and explanations. Inglorion counts to six, then cuts him off, saying, “You’re objectively incapacitated. We have five hours. I’m honestly asking you: What’s fair to you and me and the team? What do you propose?”

Aramil looks confused, and finally says, “I’ll ride along. Test me just before the op. If I fail, I’ll stand down.”

Inglorion considers. “Make it T – 2 and T -1. If you fail at T – 2, I still have time to replan. If you fail at either point, I reserve the right to pull you. Let’s go.”

Aramil looks stunned, grateful, nauseated. “What if I get saddle-sick?” he asks finally.

“That’s easy. Puke.”

They mount up. Aramil says mournfully, “Valentine’s going to preach at me.”

“Fuck Valentine,” says Inglorion. “It’s my call, not his.” Aramil looks relieved, so Inglorion adds, “Don’t worry, nephew — I’ll preach at you later. The only thing that’s stopping me now is a longstanding resolve not to quarrel with drunks.”

They rejoin the group, Aramil gloomy, Inglorion tired and strained. 

Inglorion rides to the head of the column, striving to put distance between himself and his nephew. Valentine joins him, and hisses, “He’s drunk. I got the whole story out of Ajax. What did you say to him?”

Inglorion gives his cousin a measuring look. “I won’t trouble you with the details. He and I came to an agreement. I’ll make a decision about whether to cut him at T – 1.”

Valentine looks dissatisfied. They ride in silence for several moments. Finally Valentine says, “Look, it’s a safety issue. He’s our covering fire. Lucius is still very new.”

Inglorion is silent for so long that Valentine fears he won’t answer. He looks so tired that Valentine feels an instant of clutching worry. Inglorion’s stamina and strength are legendary. Finally Inglorion glances up into his cousin’s worried countenance. He smiles, seems to be suppressing private laughter. “Why, yes, it is a safety issue. Thank you for your contribution. I shall consider it carefully, and proceed at risk with the planned operation.” His face turns cold and serious, and he adds, “I’ve made my decision. I won’t discuss it any further, Valentine, and I must insist that you refrain from discussing it with Aramil, or any other member of the team.”

Valentine has long styled himself Inglorion’s protector, bodyguard and right-hand man. now, seeing his cousin’s set expression, he feels a sick apprehension that goes beyond the current incident. He fears Inglorion is making a mistake; he fears his cousin’s displeasure and disfavor; he fears that Inglorion will break under the strain. The roan’s ears twitch. Valentine is stiff in the saddle, fiddles with the reins. He’s framing a dignified reply that will show Inglorion his error.

Finally Inglorion says mildly, “Please, Valentine. I can’t have you both on my hands right now.”

“Very well.” His expression is mortified, frozen. He drops back, and allows Lucius to take his place in line. 

Lucius looks anxious, unhappy. Inglorion asks quietly, “How are you holding up, my dear?”

“Well enough.”

They ride in silence for several moments. Dawn is approaching. Inglorion feels the wet chill, despite his heavy brocade cloak. Finally he says something so softly that Lucius can’t make it out until he realizes Inglorion has switched to French. “Merci. J’ai besoin de toi, mon cher, ce soir en particulier.”

“Je t’aime, mon pére.”

“Je t’aime, mon fils. Et ta mére, aussi. Je l’aime toujours, á disespoir.” 

“Je le sais.”

“Elle le sait?”

“Oui. Elle aussi.”

The cold is profound. Inglorion is shivering. 

At T – 2, Inglorion and Aramil stop, and the others ride ahead. They have to canter to catch up. When they do, Inglorion looks grim and Aramil looks sick.

At T – 1, they stop again briefly. It’s a planned halt. Both Valentine and Inglorion crave coffee, and will get headachy without it. To Inglorion’s surprise, Aramil easily passes the shooting test he just blew twice. Even Aramil seems surprised. His aim isn’t perfect, but his hands are swift and steady, and every arrow hits the target. Inglorion had already counted him out, and he’s reluctant to plan him back in. He paces back and forth, considering. It’s possible that Aramil’s performance still isn’t good enough — he may have to shoot with great precision, to injure rather than to kill. His performance may degrade again. Finally, Inglorion goes with his gut, and says curtly, “You’re in. You and Lucius will switch roles. He’ll be the primary shooter during the stop, and you’ll back him up.”

Aramil smothers a surge of pleasure and triumph, and manages to look abashed and grateful. “Thank you, Uncle.”

Inglorion nods calmly. “You’ll do. We’ll talk later, after the operation.”

He and Valentine finish their coffee, and Inglorion signals for the team to circle up. “Gentlemen, most of this should be familiar. The intel indicates a slaver convoy of 8-10 caravans, the largest shipment yet. Each caravan has a driver and guard, and we expect up to six outriders, all hired assassins from Amakir. Valentine and I will stop them, and handle the negotiations. They should know to halt, surrender and submit to a search. If they don’t, I’ll call out a graduated series of warning shots. 

“One change to roles: Lucius will be the primary shooter, and Aramil will back him up. Once the convoy is stopped and guards have surrendered, Valentine and I will search each caravan. As usual, Aramil will cover me and Lucius will cover Valentine. If individuals resist, shoot to disable and disarm. If conflict breaks out, provide covering fire. Again, the guards and outriders should know to surrender. If they don’t, we’ll refresh their memories.

“Guards, drivers and outriders will be bound in place to prevent collaboration; freed slaves will be assembled at the front of the caravan. Ajax will do health checks and take inventory, and provide first aid and provisions as needed.  

“When searches and inventory are complete, we’ll do a hot wash, and divert the shipment to Liamelia, as usual. Any questions?” He looks at each of them hard, in turn. They all shake their heads.

“Valentine, are you good? Ajax? Lucius, Aramil, are your roles clear?” He waits for each one of them to respond verbally, in the affirmative.

He pauses for a moment. False dawn begins to glow in the East, and dark vision fades. Inglorion’s features have been blurred in the starlight, clouded by traces of his Drow tattoos. Now his features sharpen in the slight glow of promised sunlight. He’s beautiful and joyous, alight with pleasure and purpose. Finally he says, “I love each of you guys. We’re the Magnificent Five, and we’re doing God’s work. Let’s ride.”

When he talks about proceeding at risk with the planned operation, Inglorion is quoting his father Tereus; read about the origin of the phrase here.

For the first episode of Inglorion’s adventures, click here.

For a linked table of contents, listing all of Inglorion and Valentine’s adventures, click here.

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