85. A Plea for Guidance

Just before daybreak, the temperature drops and a chill breeze kicks up, waking Virginia from trance. She’s shivering. Inglorion has somehow stolen both cloaks in his sleep. He’s curled up tightly, deep in trance, and she’s huddled next to him for warmth.

She disentangles herself gently. He’s limp, breathing deep and slow. When he’s awake and in motion, Inglorion’s will is an irresistible force. Now, in a rare moment of stillness, he looks fragile, almost gaunt. He’s lost weight steadily since they began campaigning, and now she sees that he’s hollow-cheeked, and that the lines of bone and muscle are deeply etched on his neck and exposed shoulder.

Something disturbs his rest — her absence, or the feel of her gaze — and he turns, nestles down, unconsciously seeking warmth. The cloak slips from his back, and she feels a clutching, sickening shock: His neck and back and shoulder blades are smeared with crimson.

She gasps and reaches for him. His silver eyes flutter open. “Inglorion, your back — you’re hurt –” She’s confused, still not properly awake.

They both blink at her hand, smeared with crimson. He sits up, twists to try to see the bloodstains. “Good Lord…” He gives a peal of laughter. “The poppies — I left them in my hair last night.” He reaches for her, pulls her down next to him. “Never mind that. Come here — you must be freezing!”

They kiss. She warms herself in his embrace. Fear slowly releases its grip. She murmurs, “I find I married a blanket hog.”

“That’s the least of your problems, my darling.” He considers. “Anyway, now that I think of it, that was covered in your vows. You faithfully promised to cede your share of the blankets, to insure that my clothing and accessories aren’t mismatched, and to refrain from mentioning that my handwriting is bad and I never mend my pens. You should have paid closer attention, my dear.”

“What did you promise to do?”

“That’s the curious part. The only positive vow was, ‘Husbands, love your wives,’ which seems vague and difficult to enforce. I do love you, so much that I’ll brave the cold to collect your clothing and underthings, and act as your dresser.” He brushes away the remains of the crushed bouquet, saying, “My hair will have pink streaks for a day or two, unless Ajax knows some trick.” He dons his breeches, but she still enjoys the sight of him shirtless, searching around for each of her underthings, shaking off the leaf litter and handing them over one by one. Her chemise somehow came to rest a few feet away in a stand of ferns, and one of her stockings suffered from spending the night crushed under his cloak. Otherwise, everything is easily retrieved, and soon they’re dressed and walking back to camp.

As they draw close, his spirits sink. The problems he set aside on his wedding night are still there, unsolved. 

Valentine has not returned, and there’s been no courier. Today Inglorion will have to consider how to get 58 people, many of them ill, weak or crippled, over bad roads to Liamelia. When he makes his morning rounds, going from tent to tent, he talks to the healthiest slaves — particularly the ones who were nursed through fever — about staying to help. Many agree to remain, but he can tell that they’re losing faith in the prospect of rescue, and that they’re beginning to suspect that the Council of Elders may find it convenient to forget its promise to feed, house and care for rescued slaves.

There are five new cases of gaol fever. The camp has always been precariously balanced between the sick and the well — people able to forage, nurse and haul water, and people utterly dependent on others. Inglorion feels the balance has shifted sharply towards illness and entropy. Chillingly, Inglorion realizes that if he does manage to find enough carts to transport everyone to Liamelia, the caravan will be the equivalent of a plague ship. It will be hard to keep the caravan staffed and provisioned, and to ensure that they don’t spread fever on the road. They’ll be barred from entry upon arrival, and everyone, sick and well, slave and highwayman, will be quarantined.

By midmorning he’s back in his tent, trying to draft a letter to the Council of Elders reporting their state and pleading once more for aid: Money, outriders and drivers who have been exposed to gaol fever, provisions, draft animals and fodder. The ink dries on his quill. He doesn’t know where to start.

He’s trying to convey their plight to a dozen old men secure in marble buildings, seated at desks in rooms with coffered ceilings, silk rugs and toasty fires. They have water closets, chamber pots, gas lighting and hot meals, and servants to light fires, haul ashes, prepare meals and mend their pens.

By the end of the day, Inglorion will have hauled water, gathered firewood, foraged for food and game, and buried the dead. Virginia will have changed soiled linens, given sponge baths, fed her sickest patients by hand. She will have laid out the dead and sewn their shrouds, and she’ll end the day hiking far downstream to wash soiled linens and underthings as best she can, praying that she doesn’t foul the drinking water. Aramil will catch and cook game and dig graves; Ajax and Lucius will struggle to care for other fever patients, though they’re still weak and ill.

The wise old men in the marble chambers will consider his words, shake their heads at his poor planning and administration. And Inglorion knows now that they were ill-prepared, since they were overwhelmed by a single logistical change from hired assassins to closed caravans with Gypsy drivers. The change was predictable — inevitable, really. They should have had more provisions, fodder, medication, money. They should have been prepared for the humanitarian crisis this has become. He should have stopped to think that Valentine was rattled, that he doesn’t know Romany and Gypsy ways, that he might act out of panic or rage.

Inglorion acted out of idealism — a desire to stop the slave trade in the most direct manner possible. Others might draft legislation or levy tariffs or start diplomatic missions. Inglorion is, at heart, a pirate, so he accepted a Letter of Marque. He wanted to prove his worth in his hometown. He’s longed for citizenship, legitimacy. They had a string of successes; after this operation, he imagined they’d be heroes. Aramil’s citizenship would be restored, and Inglorion could apply for citizenship on the basis of service.

He felt he had to act, and the result is that he’s pinned down far from Liamelia or any other city, struggling to feed and care for dozens of desperately ill slaves. Some will die, and some will recover. A few will go home; most have been permanently displaced by civil war, famine or genocide, and will have to be resettled. None will be enslaved in the Underdark. Inglorion cares passionately about the latter, but few gray elves do. It’s unlikely that the city will look at the cost of the rescue and consider it a good investment.

As bad as their current circumstances are, it may be worse in Liamelia. The Letter of Marque will almost certainly be suspended or revoked. Valentine and Lucius will be investigated, and the former will almost certainly be court-martialed and tried. The Underdark will be too hot to hold him, and the Physryk tribes may actually send assassins once they trace the source of their recent supply chain delays. He misses Rosalee desperately. They’ve never been separated for longer than a few days, and he worries that her condition will worsen, and she’ll become unmanageable. He and Virginia are ostensibly married, but it won’t be legal in Amakir or Liamelia. He’s not a citizen of either city, and among gray elves, a man claiming to be a Drow Marquis is bound to be condemned as a spy and adventurer.

His despair feels complete. He sets aside his quill and paper, caps his ink. He has nothing to say to the Council of Elders. Instead he kneels down and prays, a simple, repetitive plea for guidance from the Bringer of Light.

After a time, the chant clears his mind. He feels his body and spirit as they are now, watches anger, terror and despair rising steadily within him like a storm surge of dirty, turbid water.

Kneeling there, he sees what he truly fears:

In his pride, ambition and idealism, he’s led the people he loves most into disease, disgrace and death.

They trusted him, and they may die.

When Inglorion heard of the Xialo massacre, he said of his own father, “That stupid fucker, settling outside the city walls.” At least they were on a post road, two days’ ride from the city, perhaps an hour from the nearest village. In hindsight, it seems obvious that they’d be slaughtered. At the time, the risk probably seemed remote, fantastical. The soil was rich, the climate temperate. Tereus could have lived out his life as a gentleman farmer; the estate could have easily borne the cost.

Inglorion has spent his life in flight from his father, but somehow he’s managed to reproduce Tereus’s spectacular failure.

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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