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Bright Future

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Once the door to his room had closed behind him, Jorlan shot the bolt and slumped down against the zurkhwood frame.

Words echoed in his head. Og'elend, first among them. Traitor. He had known he would be branded that the moment he'd chosen to live and follow the prisoners to the surface. So why did Zilchyn's casual use of it tear through him as viciously as Kinyel's blades?

Maybe because in Menzoberranzan, at the height of his power, the matron mother of his house would have flayed alive anyone who dared insult even her sons.

And now? He imagined Ilharess Prae'anelle hearing the news of his defection from one of her scouts in the Upper Dark. She would keep it to herself, like an embarassing illness. No one else in the house would know -- not his relations, not the Duskryn bondsfolk -- let alone a leech like Zilchyn.

But eventually, she would confirm the news, and the rumors would boil over. She would need to make a statement, and she would not hesitate in making it.

Once it came time to cut, she would cut Jorlan mercilessly out of the family, out of the house, out of Illythiiri society. She would tear his likeness out of portraits; efface his name from the family shrine. She would set alight the web of his life and make it like he had never lived. He should have never been born, he imagined her saying. I should have exposed him as an infant.

He couldn't find it in himself to argue.

Interesting word, og'elend. In Undercommon, it translated into two different words. "Traitor," yes, but the other one was "heretic." Fundamentally, og'elendar meant "opposition to Lolth's will."

And he'd been in opposition to Quarvalsharess since the day he decided not to give his life foolishly to save Ilvara's. Or longer -- maybe since he opened that prison door.

Which meant his continued existence was dire to his matron mother, and to the status of House Duskryn. His disfavor would visit disfavor upon them; he was anathema to everyone he ever met. Maybe even the so-called "heroes of Velkynvelve."

Especially them, wasting one of those diamonds on his wretched life.

He found his hands were shaking, and clutched them to his sides. He was absolutely covered in blood, drying tacky on his skin and clothes in that way that only blood could. It didn't matter whose any more, but he suspected it was mostly his own. Fitting, really, since he'd been the architect of his own fall.

He raised his head to look around the room, ashamed at his reverie.

Steam was rising from a basin, which the yuan-ti woman had enchanted to stay warm. Clean towels and a bar of soap sat beside it, inviting in their homeliness. Jorlan's small bundle of belongings -- a few clothes, and whatever equipment his traveling companions had given him -- sat in a corner. The bed was clean and made, and the whole room smelled of fragrant mushrooms.

He unbuckled his sword belt and tossed his short sword and dagger onto the floor, making a smear of dark red against the zurkhwood. Better that than the bed, he supposed. His doublet came off next, sticking to the site of his mortal wound. His companions had put enough healing into him to make him dizzy, but still the skin there, just below his sternum, was tender. He poked at it experimentally. Hard to believe that he'd been pieced back together so easily -- and yet so expensively -- heart and lungs and guts mended as smoothly as flesh. When he tossed the doublet aside, it was so wet with his blood that it slopped against the floor.

The rest of his clothes and his hidden weapons joined the pile, and soon he was standing over the basin, trying to scrub the blood from his hair and face and under his nails and all the places he never imagined blood could get. He imagined the bathhouse of the Duskryn house -- the water luxuriously hot, steam rising in curlicues, a beautiful slave massaging his back with perfumed oils -- and gave a bitter laugh. How far you have fallen, Jorlan.

A pile of wet, bloody towels and several changes of water later, he was passably clean. He changed into a pair of loose trousers, and regarded the pile of bloody clothes on the floor. He couldn't imagine even the best laundress or tailor putting them back together.

There was a shard of mirror hung above the wash basin, probably for the hairier races to shave. He pulled it down and seated himself on the edge of the bed, using it to see while he sponged blood out of his hairline.

He held the mirror at arm's length, inspecting his work. The water and towel were already so bloodied that his efforts left pink streaks in his white hair. He frowned at that, thinking it was the sort of thing a drow woman would probably have found appealing. Ilvara, for example, would have--

He tossed the mirror aside, sighing. He knew already what it had to tell him. He was attractive enough, by drow standards. He hardly would have survived his first hundred years if he didn't know how to use that to his advantage. Ssinss, the one little power allowed him.

(Why did he find himself thinking, suddenly, of what was considered attractive in kalashtar culture?)

Why else had he drawn Shoor into that ambush that had left the other man scarred? Jorlan had sought to eliminate a possible rival, but he'd miscalculated. Ilvara hadn't seen it as Shoor's weakness, but his willingness to sacrifice himself for her, his commitment to streea--

Now that was a word that cut through him, more than traitor. Death in the service of Lolth.

That word his continued existence revolved upon.

That word that had been on Kinyel's lips as she stood over his bleeding-out body. If you had given yourself in streea, it wouldn't have come to this. You would be a hero in Menzoberranzan.

She was right -- especially if his sacrifice had somehow, against all logic, saved Ilvara's life. Instead of cutting him out of family portraits, his matron mother would have made sacrifices in his name. House Duskryn would rise in the favor of Lolth, and thus might rise among the Great Houses.

But for all that he'd be a hero, he'd still be dead. He couldn't see past that wall that bookended his life. He couldn't see past the vision of his body cooling on the floor of that cave in the Upper Dark, the lights of phosphorescent fungi blinking out as his eyes and his mind and his heart stopped responding. It filled his chest with a cold stone of fear that he would do anything to avoid.

And yet, that was precisely what had happened today.

The pain had been the least of his worries. It had happened so quickly -- and Kinyel's blades were so sharp -- that the first thing he became aware of was being bludgeoned from behind. When he'd looked down and seen a blade protruding from his chest, glistening with his own blood -- that was when the fear had struck him. He was no physicker, but he knew that was no wound a mortal could survive. Already he could not draw a breath, and a bloody froth filled his mouth.

But then Kinyel had removed her blades, and he'd fallen to the floor, and that was when the pain hit. That was when he tasted the poison in his mouth. One he knew the name of, but suddenly couldn't recall. His face rested against the cool ground, and it felt like a relief.

Until Kinyel stood over him, pulling his head up by the hair, and said what she said. I do you a mercy by killing you, Duskryn, she had finished. I pray this kindness won't be my weakness. That was the last thing he recalled.

(By Mavash's recounting, she'd followed that up by stabbing him repeatedly -- heart, gut, eye -- because she wanted to make sure he was really, truly dead).

The next thing he knew, he was waking up, face to face with a dragon. No, not a dragon, a dragonborn -- the paladin Gaulir. He felt for the diamond he wore around his neck, and found it gone, the cord snapped. Gaulir opened his hand, and specks of diamond dust had fallen onto Jorlan's chest.

What a waste of three hundred gold coins.

He didn't want to die, but he felt like every sign was telling him he should no longer be alive. Why fight his fate? Every breath he took after the ambush in the Upper Dark had been at someone else's expense. The only way to be solvent was to pay that coin with his life, as he'd been meant to do from the start.

To do been what had prescribed for him his whole life. The thing he had gone to the Melee-Magthere to learn how to do.

To be expendable.

Jorlan rose and went to his pack, removing the two tin boxes his traveling companions had given him. It had been some housekeeping on Gaulir's part -- wanting to clean out the bag of holding they'd been using since Velkynvelve. It had been a shock to Jorlan when he'd removed things he'd remembered, like the gourd of poison he'd last seen sitting near the altar to Lolth, or Ilvara's tentacle rod.

Giving him these boxes had occasioned some debate, but here they were. Without them, he couldn't have avenged himself on Kinyel.

He set them on the bed, examining the contents. These had been kept in one of the guard towers at Velkynvelve, but they hadn't been collated by him. Each compartment would have been an indistinguishable mass of grey lumps, save for the labels written in a neat hand. Shoor's, maybe, or someone under Jorlan's command.

He touched a finger to the one he had used to make his blade poison. Timmask -- identifiable, even in its dried state, by its bright red cap.

Most of these were used for blade poisons -- things that would weaken the enemy, cloud their mind, or make them bleed out faster. Any drow who wielded a blade had learned to use these. But ingested poisons were subtler, and tended to be the domain of matron mothers and house agents, looking to eliminate rivals silently. And, of course, less likely to be found in a poisoner's kit out of the guard station of Velkynvelve.

Jorlan did recognize one or two -- the sort of things he'd learned to watch out for, as the child of a noble house. (He was a son, and not directly in the line of inheritance, but as the matron mother had reminded him, he could still be used as a pawn). One was a sort of lichen, compressed and dried into grey-green pellets. Tears of the Hated Mother, he'd heard it called. The weapon of the secret moondancers, the cult of Eilistraee.

He found a dusty glass beside the basin, and filled it from his wineskin. He'd tasted wine for the first time in Gauntlgrym, and didn't care for it -- it tasted like something a shrieker might vomit up. But Mavash had insisted he take the wineskin -- a reminder of the surface. A drink of pure sunlight. And, she'd added impishly, in a pinch, a disinfectant.

He took a long, fortifying swig, grimacing at the taste. Then, before he lost his nerve, he chose two of the pellets and dropped them into the cup.

I don't want to do this, part of his mind screamed. And yet he found himself turning the poisoned drink in his hand, contemplating it like some fine vintage. It is time, another voice insisted. Do this on your own terms. Do this before you become someone worth missing.

He opened his mouth in surprise at that last thought.

He heard a door slamming, and then, a frantic pounding on his own door. Mavash. "Go to bed," he croaked, and clutched the glass tighter.

Another rattle of the door. "Open the door, Jorlan." It was a voice that brooked no nonsense. Ssussun, but she had missed her calling as a matron mother.

He set the glass down beside the basin, and rose, sighing. "I'll be back," he murmured to the glass, and unbolted the door.

Mavash pushed her way in. She was in her chemise, one of the green blankets from the bed wrapped around her like a dressing gown. Her hair was loose and messy. "I had a nightmare," she said.

Jorlan slumped back on his bed, trying to feign having been awakened from deep slumber. The candle still burning did rather belie that claim, though. "I thought you didn't dream."

"I don't. But it is how Vash--" Her eyes flicked over the room, finally coming to rest on Jorlan, with the hint of a smile.

It occurred to him she'd never seen him shirtless before. And what was his body but a sharp weapon, honed by hunger and constant flight?

Perversely, his mind supplied, Like what you see? He leaned back on his arms, savoring her gaze. Perhaps he could defuse this a different way; a way he was all too familiar with.

He looked up at her through his lashes, pitched his voice lower, and said, "Perhaps you need a companion to keep your nightmares at bay?"

Mavash shook her head, dispelling the thought. "It was a vision. I saw you were in danger." She was examining the corner of the room now, avoiding looking at him. A blush showed on her pale cheeks.

"As you can see"--he waved expressively--"I am well. And not covered in blood." He cocked his head. "I didn't think that would be something you would fancy. Although..." He raised his poisoned glass. "Join me for a drink? The last taste of the grapes of the surface. Though you'll need to bring your own glass."

She bit her lip, looking up at the ceiling. "Jorlan, shut up and let me think."

"As you wish," molding his voice into an obeisance that any priestess would cherish.

He felt the subtle tremor in his hands as he picked up the drink. Was he brave enough to drink it while she was here? And why not? By the time she realized he was poisoned, it would be too late.

He remembered the stony face of the house agent who had taught him how to recognize the poison. Young Jorlan had asked how quickly the poison acted. It is... efficacious, the man had replied.

Mavash gave up whatever she'd been pondering with a heavy sigh. She crossed to the bed and sat down heavily beside Jorlan, the poisoner's kit between them. "It's not like my quori"--she touched her hand to her chest--"to alarm me with no reason. That troubles me more than anything."

He raised a hand to brush a piece of errant hair behind her ear, letting the back of his hand trail down her neck. It was more forward than he would normally be -- but then, his forwardness here wouldn't lead to him being flayed alive. "I'm glad you're here, nonetheless," he murmured.

She caught his hand halfway to her shoulder, her eyes narrowing. "You're behaving strangely." Nonetheless, she entwined her fingers with his.

"Doesn't it please you?" he said, practicing a breathy tone. "I know we've danced around this, Mavash, but this is what you're after, isn't it?" He raised her hand to his lips, and kissed the back of it, his eyes not leaving hers.

He felt very far away, like he watching someone else pilot his own body. Like he was acting out something by rote that he should enjoy, but couldn't feel anything from. Like it so often was with Ilvara, letting her use my body while I was somewhere else.

Mavash's throat bobbed as she swallowed. "No," she said, her voice firm, but scarcely above a whisper. "I know what you're trying to do. But-- you don't need to act like this with me. I'm not--"

Her thoughts suddenly burst into his mind. I'm not someone you need to charm, or seduce. And I think you know that. So now I'm wondering what your game is.

He looked away, as if breaking her gaze would break the telepathic link. He snatched up the poisoned wine, lifted it to his lips--

Mavash yanked the glass from his hands and threw it against the far wall. It smashed into a hundred diamond shards, and the wine dripped like blood down the zurkhwood panels.

Jorlan, his hand still molded to the shape of the glass, looked up. Rage replaced fear, like a thousand spiders biting him. "How dare you," he growled, grabbing for her hands.

She snapped her hands away, taking up the poisoner's kit between them and slamming the lid closed. "You don't even like wine. Do you think I'm a fool?"

"Get out," he said, and pointed to the door. His weapons were far away, but he was ready to lunge for them. Only his years of self-preservation in a matriarchy restrained him from violence.

Mavash steadfastly refused to move. "I don't know what was in that drink, but I know there aren't any blades around here that need poisoning." She gestured to his pile of bloodied weapons. "And I know distraction when I see it." She gave him a sad smile, shaking her head. "I think I understand why Umbra didn't want you to have these. She wasn't afraid of you murdering us in our beds. She was afraid of you offing yourself."

"Do you have any idea," he began, his voice cold, "what it's like to die?"

She looked at up him, her eyes wide, her expression open. "No. I don't."

He couldn't meet her gaze now, and his throat felt thick with raw, restrained emotion. "It's nothing at all." Those moments he'd been dead, a moment or a year might have passed. If he hadn't already doubted the faith of the Spider Queen, he did after that, seeing that he wasn't thrust into some afterlife where he was tortured for her pleasure.

Honestly, the nothingness of it chilled him more than an eternity of torment.

As if intuiting his thoughts, Mavash said into his mind, You truly hadn't passed beyond the veil yet. After a minute or so, it's too late by the means we used, and one must dedicate more... effort to the endeavor.

He gave a bitter laugh. "More diamonds, you mean." He tried a different tack, continuing telepathically, Do you have any idea what it's like to have the value of your life numbered like that?

But no, she did. Mavash touched the diamond that she, too, wore on a cord at her neck. Even though she'd taken off the Eldritch Windstone for the night, that gem still rested at the base of her throat, a glittering ward against assassins in the night.

Of a sudden, Jorlan felt like he was waking from a dream. His anger melted away, replaced by an exhausted sort of shame. Ashamed of his cowardice. Ashamed of how he had tried to charm his one friend just so that she wouldn't notice him poisoning himself. "Why-- how--" he tried to croak out. When words didn't come, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and cradled his head in his hands.

He felt Mavash's hand on his back, rubbing comforting circles. Why don't you let me in, Jorlan? she said into his mind, the gentlest of whispers.

I let you in all the time, he shot back. She knew more of him than anyone ever had. She knew enough to ruin him eight times over in Menzoberranzan. Everything he had told her was a weapon she could use against him. That she would use against him, inevitably.

Why was it not enough? When would it ever be enough? Did she want to completely break him?

You know, she said, this is exactly what they want.

He raised his head, furrowing his brows in a question. 'They?'

Mavash waved a hand vaguely. The priestesses. The matriarchs. Probably even your spider goddess. They want you to destroy yourself, so they don't have to do it. She gave a secretive smile. So they don't have to send favored daughter assassins after you.

He chuckled. I won't flatter myself to think Kinyel was here for me. Although he couldn't deny that if the ninth house Duskryn fell in Lolth's esteem, the tenth house Dru'giir would rise. But... you're right, of course. Ilvara always was lazy as well as hateful.

Her fingers ghosted over his shoulders, to the scars there. They gave a nervy jolt, and Jorlan flinched, as much from the sensation as from the memory of how he'd acquired them.

Is this why you started when I hugged you?

Oh, that. I'll point out you were still an extremely large cat when you leaped towards me.

She lowered her head in a gesture of embarrassment. Ah, sorry. I forgot. It's easy to get caught up in the wildshape. You're lucky I didn't lick your face. Curious, she bent to the side to get a better look at the scars.

He knew what she would see there; he'd spent many hours examining them in a mirror, seeing if they were as wide as they felt under his fingertips. They were ropes of pinkish-pale flesh against his ashy skin, and they curled around the area where his neck met his shoulder. They were hard to see with a shirt on, but impossible to avoid without. Which was kind of the point.

"These don't look so old. Are they--"

Out of instinct, he pulled away. Then, remembering her request -- let me in -- he exhaled sharply, and tried to relax. "When Ilvara found out I was the one who opened the prison door, she... well." He winced. "It is not as bad as it looks. She mostly wanted to mark me. The tentacle rod can leave nasty scars, but it's... not fatal. And she wanted me alive to, well, find the lot of you." He gestured at Mavash.

He left out mention of how painful it was; how he could feel his flesh necrotizing from the venom, and how that knowledge was more terrible than the pain. How that was still not worse than the fact Ilvara was kissing him the whole time she was doing this, the venomous limbs climbing over his shoulder while her teeth drew blood. How he cried out; how, with her mouth on his, she had savored his torment. How she was punishing him for breaking her favorite toy--Shoor, who had died in the demon attack, spitted on a chasme's stinger.

How all he could think, the whole time was, this is better than I dared hope.

Mavash must have read some part of that on his face, or in his mind, because her whole face had gone even paler than it was naturally, and she clenched her fists in her lap. Ssussun, he was losing all ability to mask his emotions.

She looked like she wanted to say something inane like, I'm sorry, but blessedly did not.

They sat in companionable silence for a while, Mavash continuing to rub his back. "You know," she said at last, "this is not at all uncommon."


"Gaulir did warn me about this. He said that the revivification process is hard on the psyche. And that some people react to it with, uh... the term he used is 'suicidal ideation.' I think that's paladin jargon." She pulled her hand away from his back, her gaze darkening. "I'm so angry at myself for not heeding my instincts, for leaving you alone."

"Don't be," he said. Be glad you came in time. He allowed that to slip through the telepathic link, hoping she felt the pleasure the thought gave him. Maybe not that he was alive, but that she had come.

He picked up the wineskin from where he had left it. Wretched or not, he needed something to wet his throat. "I promise this one isn't poisoned."

Mavash took it from his hand. "I'll be the judge of that." She tipped it back and drank deeply. As he watched her swallow, he realized what a gesture of trust this was. She didn't know it wasn't poisoned.

Except for his word, which no one should trust.

She handed the skin back, and Jorlan took a single swig before placing it beside the bed. It still tasted like shrieker sick to him.

Will you be all right? Mavash said into his mind. I'm taking the poisons with me -- just for tonight -- but it would be irresponsible for me to leave you without your blades. She seasoned the thought with a wash of concern.

He was about to reply I'm fine, but as soon as he formed the words, he realized they were a lie. And worse, she would know they were a lie. Already his mind was spinning deadly fantasies again, the terrible geometry of his own blades against his own flesh.

No, he replied at last.

She wrapped an arm around his back. He was not very bold yet, but he allowed himself to melt into her grasp, pillowing his head against her shoulder.

He wanted, very badly, to be the child who had rested his head in his sister's lap, her fine hands brushing through his hair. To once again be the boy who didn't know the value of his own life.

Mavash carded her hands in his hair in the same terrible, familiar way. Her own hair fell in a veil over him, white against white. Can you take your Reverie sitting up like this? I know more about plants than I do about elves.

He nodded. It's more like meditation. If I'm lucky--and lately he had not been--I shouldn't dream.

Meditation, I understand, she said, pressing a kiss to the top of his head. Where her lips met his skin, he felt warm, as if touched by radiant magic. Breathe, Jorlan. Be here with me, in this moment.

The peace of trance seized him quickly, its touch gentler than the subtlest blade.