By the time he had detoured home yet again to collect what he needed and made the trek to the royal palace at the center of Tar’naris, Tazun had recovered enough of his equilibrium to avoid shaming himself publicly, at least. Only his strict Narisian upbringing enabled him to keep it in place. At least he hadn’t been called upon to enact any kind of elaborate plan; going for help, the only help he could think of, had been his first and only thought, and seeing that through had at least given him an attainable goal upon which to focus, rather than the mounting panic of his situation.
Or rather, he had been called upon to not only enact an elaborate plan, but somehow think of one first. He was doing this instead.
Situated on an island in the center of the lake around which the city was built, the palace was both highly defensible and a thing of beauty. Carved from a huge formation of living rock into a roughly pyramidal shape bedecked with terraces and angular spires, its walls were still adorned by the native crystals which had been all over this immense cavern when the drow had first moved in. Over millennia of conservative mining, never taking more than they needed both for crafts and to clear the way for construction, Tar’naris had cleared out much of the glittering gems, while leaving others strategically placed and cut into facets while still in their native housing, frequently augmented with nearby luminescent mushrooms to make them sparkle bewitchingly. The walls of the Queen’s palace held the greatest concentration by far, of both intact crystals and luminous fungus, and the island resembled a massive jewel itself.
Clutching his sample case, currently replete with the very best of all his available work, Tazun made his way across the long bridge toward the palace, nodding respectfully to the soldiers as he passed. They ignored him, mostly, though a few gave him very direct looks. In theory, he had a perfect right to be here and wasn’t about to try setting foot anywhere that was off-limits to the likes of him, but most of those who visited the Queen’s home were far more richly dressed than he—or, in the case of Imperial visitors, at least more exotic. Here, all the guards were female. Only the unequivocal best served this close to the Queen.
Upon reaching the island itself, he immediately went to the right, to the temple of Themynra situated against the base of the edifice. An unprepossessing structure, it had an open front with no visible door (though he knew there had to be mechanisms to secure it in the event of attack), and a statue of the goddess in its small courtyard. Themynra was depicted in the usual fashion: robed, her cowl drawn forward over her eyes, head lowered in contemplation and hands folded before her.
House An’sadarr soldiers stood to either side of the temple’s entrance; one glanced at him as he passed, but neither spoke or moved to intercept. It was at the latter part of a dayshift, and traffic was light, so at least he had the place mostly to himself—along with the undivided attention of its denizens, which was somewhat less comfortable. Inside, two more women stood vigil bracketing the door, these in the pale gray robes of the clergy.
Of all the necessary functions which served Tar’naris, the worship of Themynra alone was not affiliated with any House. Each raised priestesses from within its own ranks, and provided them for training here, at the central temple. The goddess approved Queen Arkasia’s division of the city’s infrastructure among the Houses as a highly functional system, but insisted that no House should control access to her clerics.
“Welcome,” said the priestess on the left as Tazun paused inside, glancing around.
“Well met,” he replied, stepping forward and turning so that his deep bow of respect could be directed at both of them. “If it is not troublesome, I seek an audience with a Gray Cleric.”
The priestess who had spoken quirked one eyebrow almost imperceptibly, then glanced at her companion, who remained impassive.
“Of course,” she said after a bare moment. “Follow me, please.”
“My thanks,” he said, bowing again, then had to hurry after her; she had set off at a stately glide without waiting for him to fully straighten up.
Here, again, he had a perfect right to seek out a Gray Cleric, but doing so was generally the province of the nobility, to the point that his presence here would inevitably be odd to the priestesses. Not suspicious, probably, but a curiosity. The Gray Clerics answered directly to Queen Arkasia, and formed an integral part of the careful political system by which she kept Tar’naris stable, prosperous, and peaceful. Anything the Gray Clerics learned, Arkasia would learn, and they provided advice, information, and blessing to most political maneuvers in the city. In the end, most nobles went to them before attempting anything ambitious simply because if they did not, their opponents might, and to create the impression that they sought to cut the Queen out of their manipulations could be fatal. Tar’naris, it was said, was a web with Arkasia at the center, and not a thread was plucked whose vibration she did not feel.
As the priestess led him through the temple, Tazun couldn’t help feeling all this was getting him even more over his head, not less. But it was all he could think of.
Their destination was a small stone room deep enough within the carved island to have no windows. It contained nothing, in fact, but simple insets in the walls carved to make convenient if uncomfortable benches. There was a door, at least, standing open when they arrived.
The priestess stopped outside, gesturing him through; Tazun paused to bow again to her before obeying.
“Whom may I tell the Gray Clerics has come?” she asked quietly.
He bowed again, feeling slightly foolish but preferring to err on the side of courtesy. “Tazun tyl Vrashti n’dar Vyendir.”
“Be welcome, Tazun,” she said, inclining her head fractionally. “You will be attended shortly.”
She turned and glided away with no more ado, and he was left alone in the small room. It really was bare; one bench on each side, the whole place barely wide enough for two people to sit facing each other without intruding on personal space. Glowstalks had been cultivated in small alcoves along the ceiling; it was well-lit, anyway.
Seating himself on one, he carefully arranged his sample case in his lap and opened it, just for something to do. Within were his best pieces—the fullest selection the case could hold of the best he had ever produced, not simply his primary stock of silver work that he had been trying to sell at the Imperial enclave. Several of these were items he hadn’t planned to part with at all; early works of his, first attempts in a variety of styles and materials that he had found satisfactory, most with sentimental value. But, desperate times demanded desperate measures, as the saying went.
If only he could keep the times from becoming any more desperate…
He had barely the mental wherewithal to securely close his sample case before shooting to his feet and bowing. That was remarkably fast; he had really expected to be left dithering for a good while before one of the Queen’s own priestesses found time for him.
The woman who stepped into the little chamber was not physically remarkable in any way; her skin was perhaps a shade darker than his, but only the most ancient drow cared about that at all. Narisians came in a variety of shades of gray, due to millennia of interbreeding with surface folk; while stark black complexions were a sign of pure drow blood, it was also heavily associated with the Scyllithenes, who had no surface contact, and thus was not considered desirable. This priestess had her hair cut at chin level, which was unusual as it was a style associated with warriors…but then, he did not know her story. Aside from that, she wore the gray robe of a Themynrite cleric, her order indicated only by the black armband with Queen Arkasia’s spider sigil embroidered in white.
“Thank you very much for seeing me,” Tazun said, lowering his eyes demurely after getting a look at her. “I shall try not to take any more of your valuable time than absolutely necessary.” He bowed again, proffering the sample case. “I realize my offerings are doubtless lesser in quality than the Queen is accustomed to, for which I apologize. This is the best of my work.”
The priestess smiled faintly, lifting one eyebrow, then turned and pulled the door shut.
“There,” she said. “We are private; please, Tazun, relax and be yourself. Everyone has the right to see a Gray Cleric, as I’m certain you know.”
She reached out and, without taking the case from his hands, unlatched it and lifted the lid, studying its contents. Tazun was somewhat taken aback by this; he remained in a bowed position, beginning to feel his back stiffen, while she examined his work. After only a few moments, however, the priestess carefully picked up a single item from the case.
He chanced a glance upward to see which. Ah, but of course, she had chosen the amber. The smoothly polished stone was apparently fossilized tree sap, and thus unavailable in Tar’naris. Even better, this one had an ancient spider embedded within it. Tazun had obtained the gem from a minerals trader who clearly had failed to realize the rarity of what he had in the Underworld; apparently amber was a less-valued substance on the surface, only pieces containing insects or other things being prized at all. Even so, it had cost most of Tazun’s free money at the time, and yet he had still not brought himself to part with it. The white gold setting was unobtrusive, yet very carefully worked to resemble tangled cobwebs, a pleasing association with the spider within. It was his favorite piece.
“A most generous offering,” the priestess said, lifting the pendant and admiring it in the light before tucking it into her hand. “Your modesty is becoming, Tazun, but I believe the Queen will quite like this. It is not often that I am presented by a petitioner with a selection; most presume to know her Majesty’s tastes and pick a gift accordingly. They are mostly wrong.”
“Ah…forgive me,” he stammered. “I apologize, but… I had meant the entire case to be an offering. I am not unaware that most who solicit an audience are far wealthier…”
“And for exactly that reason, it would hardly serve Tar’naris, Themynra, or Queen Arkasia to beggar a talented young artisan,” she said gently. “Someday, Tazun, I believe you will be quite famed for your craft, if this is your early work. If you seek us out again at that time, perhaps a more opulent offering will be appropriate. For now, this is most generous. Now please, sit. Be comfortable. You need not be public with me.”
“I…see,” he said slowly, sinking back down onto the bench as she did the same on the other. Indeed the woman’s expression was clearly not a public face, though her smile wasn’t particularly effusive. Well, it wasn’t as if he’d given her much to smile about. “I’m sorry. I’d never realized that one was expected to be private with a Gray Cleric. Forgive me, it never occurred to me that I would need to know the protocol.”
“It speaks well of you that you don’t presume above your station,” she said, still with a kind smile. “Clearly, something very serious must be troubling you, to bring such a modest young man here to seek us out. Speak at leisure, Tazun; I have all the time you need.”
That served as a reminder. She might have time, but he didn’t.
He drew in a deep breath, allowing his expression to set itself in what he hoped looked like determination, and began.
“All right. Well… To begin with, for some time I have been cultivating friendships and business contacts among the humans at the Imperial enclave.”
“Yes, I know.”
He blinked, permitting himself to show surprise, though he wasn’t yet entirely sanguine at letting his public face lapse with this highly-ranked stranger. “You do?”
“The attendant asked your name for a reason, you know,” she said with a faintly wry smile. “None of us know every detail of the city’s doings, but between my sisters and I, we know most. I, personally, am acquainted with your House’s affairs, and your family’s. That is why you are speaking with me, and not someone else.”
“I see,” he said, frowning.
The priestess tilted her head back slightly, her expression growing more serious. “Is this by chance related to your mother’s recent acquisition of a human slave?”
Well, perhaps this wouldn’t be as hard a conversation as he’d feared, if she already knew the high notes.
“Yes, priestess, that is the beginning of it.” Tazun hesitated a moment longer, marshaling his thoughts, which had resisted efforts to be organized the whole way up here. She simply watched calmly, waiting for him to continue. “I… From the beginning, I was very troubled by that. It bothered me so much I couldn’t find rest, and had to seek counsel from a friend. Mother is very proud of the acquisition, and clearly put a great deal of effort into it. She believes it will be a source of great prestige and ultimately social advancement for our family. I…wanted to agree. I trust my mother implicitly, please believe that. The last thing I would ever want to do is challenge her judgment, or her word.”
He had to pause again, there; having allowed emotion onto his face, it now required a little extra effort to keep under control. So it was with feelings; given an inch, they took a mile.
“But you didn’t agree, is that it?” the priestess prompted.
He sighed. “No, I… No. I was very troubled, as I said. Perhaps it’s because I have grown to know humans as individuals. To many, I think they are seen as exotic curiosities, not really people. And the worst part is what I know of how human slaves are acquired. I mean, in theory, enslavement is only inflicted as a due punishment for a justly convicted crime, but…”
“But,” she said, her expression now sober and faintly angry, “the punishment has enjoyed a startling renaissance since the Imperial Treaty, after having been all but unused for centuries. And even now, it remains a striking rarity when it is imposed upon a citizen of Tar’naris. Yes, Tazun, I know of this, as does the Queen. It is a serious problem, and a constant threat to our relationship with Tiraas—and thus, a threat to our newfound prosperity. Her Majesty tolerates this trade only because she is not yet able to extinguish the demand for human slaves. And so long as that demand exists, the desperate and greedy will rise to meet it. Destroying the existing traffickers would force their heirs into hiding without ending the practice itself. As it is, House Awarrion is able to extract many of the unfortunates ensnared, and the Imperial and Narisian governments are able to warn human visitors of this, and offer advice for avoiding entrapment. This can only be done while it goes through legal channels. If banned outright, it will change into secretive abduction without oversight or recourse.”
“I see,” he murmured. The thought hadn’t even crossed his mind of demanding to know how the Queen could continue to allow such a thing, but he most certainly had wondered. The priestess’s explanation made a weary kind of sense. Nobles and the rich always got their way through the law. At least this way, the law could provide a countermeasure. He knew nothing at all of black markets or how feasible it was to exterminate them, but logically, it must not be possible to do completely, or they wouldn’t exist.
“I have a suspicion,” the priestess said after a moment, “this is not the only thing troubling you?”
“I—yes, forgive me, I was lost in thought,” he admitted. “This is pursuant to the same matter, but it grows worse. Today I was visited… Well, no, the word is cornered. I was cornered by Nahil nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion and a human whom she called Sidewinder, who is a member of the Thieves’ Guild. Apparently, so is Mother’s new slave. And from what Nahil said of the cult of Eserion…”
“That places your mother and your whole family in immediate danger,” the priestess said, her eyes widening. He had come here expecting to see only a placid public face on whatever cleric met with him; the sight of open alarm was even more dispiriting because of that. “Can you warn your mother of this?”
“That wouldn’t help,” he said miserably. “I was ordered not to, and besides, Mother would never back down from a threat. She would only petition our House and possibly even House An’sadarr for more protection. And…in the long run, that would backfire. The Guild doesn’t quit. More importantly, they aren’t just operating here with one man and whatever resources he has. She did not admit it openly, but Nahil made it quite clear the Eserites are backed by House Awarrion in this. She’s using the thieves to attack the slave trade. And my family is caught in the middle.”
“I see,” the priestess said softly.
Tazun had to swallow a lump rising in his throat. “Before they let me go, Sidewinder ordered me to get Selim—that’s the slave—out of my family’s custody by tonight. Or there would be…consequences, he said. And with Awarrion’s connections and wealth backing him, there’s almost no limit to what he could do. So I either have to steal my mother’s most prized possession, and aside from all the horrible problems with that I haven’t the faintest idea how to break someone out of a cell! And…I mean, or. Or something terrible will happen to someone I care about. He didn’t say what.”
“The mind boggles,” she said grimly. “I have studied the surface cults. Eserites can be vicious when riled. Far less chaotic than Scyllithenes, but their match in cruelty if they think it needful.”
“I don’t believe I wanted to hear that,” he moaned. “This whole situation… I have no way out. I can’t even tell my mother! Sidewinder warned me that would only bring down their punishment, and anyway, Nahil was right; mother would just do exactly the thing that would make all this worse. I’m not someone who can protect my family from a threat, and I’m not someone who can defy my mother and wrangle a jailbreak! I’m the wrong person for this! Maybe if I were a warrior or something, I could…at least…” He had to stop and swallow heavily again, gazing pleadingly at the priestess. “I…I know everything in these sessions is taken to her Majesty’s ears, if you deem it needful…”
The cleric sighed regretfully and shook her head. “Tazun… I will definitely inform the Queen of this, and as soon as she is free to hear it. The matter is clearly of concern to her interests and the welfare of Tar’naris. But I must tell you, in my judgment, it is very unlikely that Arkasia will see fit to intervene. Your pain and your family’s danger are most regrettable, but the Queen is tasked with the welfare of society as a whole. Her life is filled with painful choices, and the abandoning of some for the greater good. And from the perspective of her Majesty’s aims, Nahil’s ploy is an excellent one. By using the Thieves’ Guild to directly attack the purchasers of human slaves, in a way against which they have no defense or recourse, she attacks the market itself. Without that market, the marketers will vanish without having to be leaned upon. It is cunning, elegant, and if successful, for the good of all.” She shook her head. “I am sorry, Tazun, but your problem remains your own to deal with.”
“I see,” he whispered, crushed. He couldn’t even complain. Well, not about this; the situation itself was unfair to the point of cruelty, but every Narisian grew up with the knowledge that those in power had to make painful choices. Even with the prosperity brought by the Empire, even when people were very unlikely to be left to starve by a bad turn of luck, they sacrificed to the greater good. It was the only way their society could endure.
“That does not mean your visit here is wasted,” the priestess said, leaning forward and speaking more gently. “People come to the Gray Clerics not just to attain the Queen’s attention, but for insight and counsel. Those I have for you.”
She paused, waiting for him to raise his head, and continued when he did so.
“First of all, Tazun, I think I can give you some moral clarity. Even without the pressures upon you to act, you are confused and conflicted by your role in this, is it not so?”
“It certainly is,” he mumbled.
The priestess nodded sympathetically. “I believe you have been tricked by the variety of factors at play here into seeing a variety of pressures which are not there. The dilemma, as is often the case, is simpler than it appears when you are caught in the middle of it. Not easier, to be sure, but simpler. On the one side is your respect for your mother. On the other,” she said more firmly, “is everything else. The Guild, House Awarrion, the perspectives of your human friends, your concern for your family’s safety, the needs of Tar’naris. And your own conscience, which is more important than I believe you realize. All of these things tell you it is wrong to keep that human a slave. Matters of good and evil are easy, Tazun, even when they’re painful. It’s when our virtues are tested against each other that we are truly tried. Your loyalty and respect for your mother reflects very well on you, but when it is in conflict with every other factor, it seems clear to me which virtue you must abandon.”
“But…” He spluttered, barely able to find words for a thought that no drow should even need to articulate. “But she’s my mother! I’m just—I’m a man, I’m barely an adult, who am I to challenge her judgment?!”
“Tazun,” she said softly, “judgment is an action, not a passive thing. It is not something you just have. It’s something you have to do. And, by the same token, sometimes the best of us do it poorly. I don’t want to insult you, because you are torn enough over this and I admire how dutiful you are to her, but I could go on at some length about how your mother’s judgment in this matter is severely lacking.”
He bit back a bitter reply. The priestess smiled sympathetically.
“Themynra doesn’t expect anyone to be infallible, Tazun, and she certainly does not demand that you subordinate your own judgment to your mother’s, the Queen’s, or anyone’s. There are sometimes more urgent matters than right and wrong, times when we must accept the dictates of those above us even if we cannot agree with them. But Themynra insists of all her people that we think. Your mother cannot think for you. You shouldn’t wish for that.”
He nodded weakly, unable to squeeze out words.
“And you know, don’t you, what you must do,” she prompted.
“I have to free Selim,” he said reluctantly. In truth, she was right: the clarity that came from facing the fact did a great deal to alleviate his inner torment. But it also cast the rest of his problem—the bigger, more solid part of it—into a starker light. “I just have absolutely no idea how.”
“Well, as to that, I may be able to offer you some perspective, as well,” said the priestess, smiling encouragingly. “You seem to be thinking of this as some kind of adventure, something you would need to be a warrior or spy to do. But no warriors or spies have been called on to handle this, Tazun; you have. And so you must meet it as what you are: a craftsman.”
“So,” he said slowly, “I should…craft an escape?”
“Exactly,” she said with a warm smile. “And as with any craft, it begins by establishing what you have to work with. What are your materials? Your workspace?”
“And,” he whispered, “my tools.”
The light was dimmer in the Imperial enclave than usual. It was the lower dayshift, corresponding to night on the surface, and the humans mostly chose this time to sleep, rather than dividing themselves into shifts as Narisians did. It had always struck Tazun as a weird habit to maintain underground, and painfully inefficient, but there was nobody in evidence around the enclave except the soldiers stationed on guard duty. The gates were still open, of course, and there would be personnel awake to address the needs of any later-shift Narisians who chose this time to visit, but most of the enclave’s population was inert, and even their fairy lamps had been shifted to a lower light level, and a bluer shade.
Not that the lower light was any problem for drow eyes. If anything, it made the place more comfortable for them, and he actually saw more drow about than he usually did during the humans’ customary business hours. He was the only one waiting in the front room of the barracks, though, the uniformed man behind the desk studying him with naked speculation. His partner had gone into the barracks proper to see to Tazun’s request, to his relief. He had half expected them to tell him to shove off and come back at a more decent hour.
He whirled to the door at the familiar voice. Elin emerged, golden hair tousled and eyes bleary. She was dressed in loose cotton drawers and a tight pullover shirt, and it occurred to him suddenly that while she was smaller and slimmer than most of the humans here, by elvish standards she had a very lush figure indeed. He swiftly and ruthlessly quashed that line of thought. Really, of all times…
“What’s going on?” Elin asked, seemingly more awake, and he realized he had simply stood there, staring embarrassingly at her.
The man behind the desk cleared his throat pointedly, a smile tugging at his lips. “Y’know, Ralstrind, if you wanna carry on with the locals there’s no regulation against it, but could you train your boy not to wake up the whole barracks?”
“Up yours, sir,” she said without rancor, frowning at Tazun. “It’s not like you to bend your schedule, Taz. Hell, you even look worried. What’s wrong?”
He paused, glancing between her and the other man, before answering. “Elin… Do you trust this man?”
“Hayes?” She glanced at him. “Sure, he’s part of the unit.”
“I don’t mean in a general sense,” Tazun insisted. “Do you trust him. With matters of life and death, or things more…sensitive?” He had no idea how rude he was being, by their standards. By Narisian etiquette, Corporal Hayes had cause to demand a duel for such insinuations.
“My squad is like family,” Elin said, now wide awake and clearly concerned. “We weren’t just brought together to sit on our hands down here—we’ve done frontier duty at the Deep Wild. At a post that ate an entire regiment sixty years ago. Yes, I trust Hayes and all the others. Tazun, what is going on?”
He drew in a deep breath, glancing at Hayes, who was also frowning at him seriously, now. “I’ve come here because I need help.”
“With what?” she demanded.
Here it was. He glanced around. The doors were shut, and deliberately designed to be thick enough to baffle elvish senses; he could hear no one outside. There were no drow positioned to overhear.
“My family recently acquired a human slave.”
Instantly, both of their expressions went hard. Elin opened her mouth to speak, but Tazun pressed on.
“I’m sure you know that this is done through deceit and abuse of the law. Well… All right, it’s a long, complicated matter, and I’ll tell you the whole thing someday, but what’s important right now is that I’m going to break him out. And I need a place to take him, or he’ll just be sent right back, and me along with him. If I bring an Imperial citizen who’s been in trouble with the law here, can you shelter him?”
“That depends on the trouble,” Hayes said, now studying him with clear speculation. “Did this guy actually hurt someone, or do anything that would deserve getting locked up like this?”
“No,” Tazun said immediately.
“Yes,” he insisted. “People who commit actual crimes get fair punishments. Those who hand out sentences of slavery are corrupt, and in league with the people doing the entrapping. I don’t know exactly what he was convicted of, but the fact he was sold into slavery is sufficient evidence that it’s a thin and dishonest charge.”
“That squares with what I’ve heard,” Hayes agreed, nodding, and glanced at Elin. “Then hell yes, we can shelter him. The only concern would be that the diplomats might send him back if the local law came asking. If he was an actual, dangerous criminal, they’d pretty much have to.”
“The law won’t come asking,” Tazun assured them both, his eyes on Elin. “Representatives of my family probably will.”
“And in that case, the diplomats will very politely tell them to fuck off,” Hayes said with grim pleasure. “Meanwhile, we can get your boy on an official transport back to the surface. With military escort, if need be.”
Tazun sighed softly in relief. “Good. All right…good. Then that was the last thing I needed to be sure of. All right, I’m going to go do this—time is a factor. It’ll be tonight. A few hours, if that. Please be ready.”
“We will,” Elin promised, staring at him. “I’ll get some of the others up and ready. Is there anything else we can do besides just wait?”
“No,” Hayes said firmly. “Butting into Narisian affairs like this will bite you on the ass, Ralstrind. You know better.”
“He’s right,” Tazun agreed before she could protest. “I have plans for everything else; all I needed was a place to come with him. Look…to you, and to me, this is a matter of moral necessity, but legally I am just stealing an incredibly valuable object from my own mother. This will go very badly for me if we’re caught. So…” He swallowed, but rushed on when Elin opened her mouth again. “If you don’t see us back here tonight, it…didn’t work. And in that case, Elin, I… I have enjoyed our conversations very much. I will miss them.”
He bowed to her, then turned and strode for the front door, pulling it open and slipping through.
“Tazun, wait,” she called, but he didn’t. He could not; there was far too much to do, and too little time.
It had been an optimistic thing to say, anyhow. If this all went as badly as it very possibly could, he might end up in no position to miss anything.