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Homeland (part 2 chapter 23)

2006-08-28 22:23

  CHAPTER 23

  RIPPLES

  Matron Baenre took a long and careful scan of Malice Do'Urden, measuring how greatly the trials of Zin-carla had weighed on the matron mother. Deep lines of worry creased Malice's once smooth face, and her stark white hair, which had been the envy of her generation, was, for one of the very few times in five centuries, frazzled and unkempt.

  Most striking, though, were Malice's eyes, once radiant and alert but now dark with weariness and sunken in the sockets of her dark skin.

  “Zaknafein almost had him:' Malice explained, her voice an uncharacteristic whine. ”Drizzt was in his grasp, and yet somehow, my son managed to escape!

  “But the spirit-wraith is close on his trail again:' Malice quickly added, seeing Matron Baenre's disapproving frown. In addition to being the most powerful figure in all of Menzoberranzan, the withered matron mother of House Baenre was considered Lloth's personal representative in the city. Matron Baenre's approval was Lloth's approval, and, by the same logic, Matron Baenre's disapproval most often spelled disaster for a house.

  “Zin-carla requires patience, Matron Malice:' Matron Baenre said calmly. ”It has not been so long:'

  Malice relaxed a bit, until she looked again at her surroundings. She hated the chapel of House Baenre, so huge and demeaning. The entire Do'Urden complex could fit within this single chamber, and if Malice's family and soldiers were multiplied ten times over, they still would not fill the rows of benches. Directly above the central altar, directly above Matron Malice, loomed the illusionary image of the gigantic spider, shifting into the form of a beautiful drow female, then back again into an arachnid. Sitting here alone with Matron Baenre under that overpowering image made Malice feel even more insignificant.

  Matron Baenre sensed her guest's uneasiness and moved to comfort her. “You have been given a great gift,' she said sincerely. ”The Spider Queen would not bestow Zin-carla, and would not have accepted the sacrifice of SiNafay Hun'ett, a matron mother, if she did not approve of your methods and your intent:'

  “It is a trial,' Malice replied offhandedly.

  “A trial you will not fail!” Matron Baenre retorted. “And then the glories you will know, Malice Do'Urden! When the spirit-wraith of he who was Zaknafein has completed his task and your renegade son is dead, you will sit in honor on the ruling council. Many years, I promise you, will pass before any house will dare to threaten House Do'Urden. The

  Spider Queen will shine her favor upon you for the proper completion of Zincarla. She will hold your house in the highest regard and will defend you against rivals:'

  “What if Zin-carla fails?” Malice dared to ask. “Let us suppose. . :' Her voice trailed away as Matron Baenre's eyes widened in shock.

  “Speak not the words!” Baenre scolded. “And think not of such impossibilities! You grow distracted by fear, and that alone will spell your doom. Zin-carla is an exercise of willpower and a test of your devotion to the Spider Queen. The spirit-wraith is an extension of your faith and your strength. If you falter in your trust, then the spirit-wraith of Zaknafein will falter in his quest!”

  “I will not falter!” Malice roared, her hands clenched around the armrests of her chair. “I accept the responsibility of my son's sacrilege, and with Lloth's help and blessings,

  I will enact the appropriate punishment upon Drizzt:'

  Matron Baenre relaxed back in her seat and nodded her approval. She had to support Malice in this endeavor, by the command of Lloth, and she knew enough of Zin-carla to understand that confidence and determination were two of the primary ingredients for success. A matron mother involved in Zin-carla had to proclaim her trust in Lloth and her desire to please Lloth often and sincerely.

  Now, though, Malice had another problem, a distraction she could ill afford. She had come to House Baenre of her own volition, seeking aid.

  “Then of this other matter,' Matron Baenre prompted, fast growing tired of the meeting.

  “I am vulnerable,' Malice explained. ”Zin-carla steals my energy and attention. I fear that another house may seize the opportunity:'

  “No house has ever attacked a matron mother in the thralls of Zin-carla,' Matron Baenre pointed out, and Malice realized that the withered old drow spoke from experience.

  “Zin-carla is a rare gift,' Malice replied, ”given to powerful matrons with powerful houses, almost assuredly in the highest favor of the Spider Queen. Who would attack under such circumstances? But House Do'Urden is far different. We have just suffered the consequences of war. Even with the addition of some of House Hun'ett's soldiers, we are crippled. It is well known that I have not yet regained Lloth's favor but that my house is eighth in the city, putting me on the ruling council, an enviable position:'

  “Your fears are misplaced,' Matron Baenre assured her, but Malice slumped back in frustration in spite of the words. Matron Baenre shook her head helplessly. ”I see that my words alone cannot soothe. Your attention must be on Zin-carla. Understand that, Malice Do'Urden. You have no time for such petty worries:'

  “They remain,' said Malice.

  “Then I will end them,' offered Matron Baenre. ”Return to your house now, in the company of two hundred Baenre soldiers. The numbers will secure your battlements, and my soldiers shall wear the house emblem of Baenre. None in the city will dare to strike with such allies:'

  A wide smile rolled across Malice's face, a grin that diminished a few of those worry lines. She accepted Matron Baenre's generous gift as a signal that perhaps Lloth still did favor House Do'Urden.

  “Go back to your home and concentrate on the task at hand,' Matron Baenre continued. ”Zaknafein must find Drizzt again and kill him. That is the deal you offered to the Spider Queen. But fear not for the spirit-wraith's last failure or the time lost. A few days, or weeks, is not very long in Lloth's eyes. The proper conclusion of Zin-carla is all that matters:'

  “You will arrange for my escort?” Malice asked, rising from her chair.

  “It is already waiting,' Matron Baenre assured her.

  Malice walked down from the raised central dais and out through the many rows of the giant chapel. The huge room was dimly lit, and Malice could barely see, as she exited, another figure moving toward the central dais from the opposite direction. She assumed it to be Matron Baenre's companion illithid, a common figure in the great chapel. If Malice had known that Matron Baenre's mind flayer had left the city on some private business in the west, she might have paid more heed to the distant figure.

  Her worry lines would have increased tenfold.

  “Pitiful,' Jarlaxle remarked as he ascended to sit beside Matron Baenre. ”This is not the same Matron Malice Do'Urden that I knew only a few short months ago:'

  “Zin-carla is not cheaply given,' Matron Baenre replied.

  “The toll is great,' Jarlaxle agreed. He looked straight at Matron Baenre, reading her eyes as well as her forthcoming reply. ”Will she fail?“

  Matron Baenre chuckled aloud, a laugh that sounded more like a wheeze. “Even the Spider Queen could only guess at the answer. My-our-soldiers should lend

  Matron Malice enough comfort to complete the task. That is my hope at least. Malice Do'Urden once was in Lloth's highest regard, you know. Her seat on the ruling council was demanded by the Spider Queen:'

  “Events do seem to lead to the completion of Lloth's will,' Jarlaxle snickered, remembering the battle between House Do'Urden and House Hun'ett, in which Bregan D'aerthe had played the pivotal role. The consequences of that victory, the elimination of House Hun'ett, had put House Do'Urden in the city's eighth position and, thus, had placed Matron Malice on the ruling council.

  “Fortunes smile on the favored,' Matron Baenre remarked.

  Jarlaxle's grin was replaced by a suddenly serious look. “And is Malice-Matron Malice,' he quickly corrected, seeing Baenre's immediate glower, ”now in the Spider Queen's favor? Will fortunes smile on House Do'Urden?“

  “The gift of Zin-carla removed both favor and disfavor, I would assume,' Matron Baenre explained. ”Matron Malice's fortunes are for her and her spirit-wraith to determine:'

  “Or, for her son-this infamous Drizzt Do'Urden-to destroy,' Jarlaxle completed. ”Is this young warrior so very powerful? Why has Lloth not simply crushed him?“

  “He has forsaken the Spider Queen,' Baenre replied, ”fully and with all his heart. Lloth has no power over Drizzt and has determined him to be Matron Malice's problem:'

  “A rather large problem, it would seem,' Jarlaxle chuckled with a quick shake of his bald head. The mercenary noticed immediately that Matron Baenre did not share his mirth.

  “Indeed,' she replied somberly, and her voice trailed off on the word as she sank back for some private thoughts. She knew the dangers, and the possible profits, of Zin-carla better than anyone in the city. Thrice before Matron Baenre had asked for the Spider Queen's greatest gift, and twice before she had seen Zincarla through to successful completion. With the unrivaled grandeur of House Baenre all about her, Matron Baenre could not forget the gains of Zin-carla's success. But every time she saw her withered reflection in a pool or a mirror, she was vividly reminded of the heavy price.

  Jarlaxle did not intrude on the matron mother's reflections. The mercenary contemplated on his own at that moment. In a time of trial and confusion such as this, a skilled opportunist would find only gain. By Jarlaxle's reckoning, Bregan D'aerthe could only profit from the granting of Zin-carla to Matron Malice. If Malice proved successful and reinforced her seat on the ruling council, Jarlaxle would have another very powerful ally within the city. If the spirit-wraith failed, to

  the ruin of House Do'Urden, the price on this young Drizzt's head certainly would escalate to a level that might tempt the mercenary band.

  As she had on her journey to the first house of the city, Malice imagined ambitious gazes following her return through the winding streets of Menzoberranzan. Matron

  Baenre had been quite generous and gracious. Accepting the premise that the withered old matron mother was indeed Lloth's voice in the city, Malice could barely contain her smile.

  Undeniably, though, the fears still remained. How readily would Matron Baenre come to Malice's aid if Drizzt continued to elude Zaknafein, if Zin-carla ultimately failed? Malice's position on the ruling council would be tenuous then-as would the continued existence of House Do'Urden.

  The caravan passed House Fey-Branche, ninth house of the city and most probably the greatest threat to a weakened House Do'Urden. Matron Halavin Fey-Branche was no doubt watching the procession beyond her adamantite gates, watching the matron mother who now held the coveted eighth seat on the ruling council.

  Malice looked at Dinin and the ten soldiers of House Do'Urden, walking by her side as she sat atop the floating magical disc. She let her gaze wander to the two hundred soldiers, warriors openly bearing the proud emblem of House Baenre, marching with disciplined precision behind her modest troupe.

  What must Matron Halavin Fey-Branche be thinking at such a sight? Malice wondered. She could not contain her ensuing smile. “Our greatest glories are soon to come,' Malice assured her warrior son. Dinin nodded and returned the wide smile, wisely not daring to steal any of the joy from his volatile mother.

  Privately, though, Dinin couldn't ignore his disturbing suspicions that many of the Baenre soldiers, drow warriors he had never had the occasion to meet before, looked vaguely familiar. One of them even shot a sly wink at the elderboy of House Do'Urden.

  Jarlaxle's magical whistle being blown on the balcony of House Do'Urden came vividly to Dinin's mind.

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