"My greetings, Faceless One" the high priestess said, pushing past Alton into his private chambers in Sorcere.
"And mine to you, Mistress Vierna" Alton replied, trying to keep the fear out of his voice. Vierna Do'Urden coming to see him at this time had to be more than coincidence. "What act has brought me the honor of a visit from a mistress oL Arach- Tinilith?"
"No longer a mistress" said Vierna. "I have returned to my home"
Alton paused to consider the news. He knew that Dinin Do'Urden had also resigned his position at the Academy.
"Matron Malice has brought her family back together" Vierna continued. "There are stirrings of war. You have heard them, no doubt?"
"Just rumors" Alton stuttered, now beginning to under-stand why Vierna had come to call on him. House Do'Urden had used the Faceless One before in its plotting-in its at-tempt to assassinate Alton! Now, with rumors of war whis-pered throughout Menzoberranzan, Matron Malice was re-establishing her network of spies and assassins.
"You know of them?" Vierna asked sharply.
"I have heard little" Alton breathed, careful now not to anger the powerful female. "Not enough to report to your house. I did not even suspect that House Do'Urden was in-volved until now, when you informed me" Alton could only hope that Vierna had no detection spell aimed at his words. Vierna relaxed, apparently appeased by the explanation.
"Listen more carefully to the rumors, Faceless One" she said. "My brother and I have left the Academy; you are to be the eyes and ears of House Do'Urden in this place"
"But. . " Alton stuttered.
Vierna held up a hand to stop him. "We know of our failure in our last transaction" she said. She bowed low, something a high priestess rarely did to a male. "Matron Malice sends her deepest apologies that the unguent you received for the assassination of Alton DeVirdid not restore the features to your face"
Alton nearly choked on the words, now understanding why an unknown messenger had delivered the jar of heal-ing salve some thirty years before. The cloaked figure was an agent of House Do'Urden, come to repay the Faceless One for his assassination of Alton! Of course, Alton had never even tried the unguent. With his luck, it would have worked, and would have restored the features of Alton DeVir.
"This time, your payment cannot fail" Vierna went on, though Alton, too caught up in the irony of it all, hardly listened. "House Do'Urden possesses a wizard's staff but no wizard worthy to wield it. It belonged to Nalfein, my brother, who died in the victory over DeVir"
Alton wanted to strike out at her. Even he wasn't that stu-pid, though.
"If you can discern which house plots against House Do'Urden" Vierna promised, "the staff will be yours! A treasure indeed for such a small act"
"I will do what I can" Alton replied, having no other re-sponse to the incredible offer.
"That is all Matron Malice asks of you" said Vierna, and she left the wizard, quite certain that House Do'Urden had secured a capable agent within the Academy.
"Dinin and Vierna Do'Urden have resigned their posi-tions" said Alton excitedly as the diminutive matron mother came to him later that same evening.
"This is already known to me" replied SiNafay Hun'ett.
She looked around disdainfully at the littered and scorched room, then took a seat at the small table.
"There is more" Alton said quickly, not wanting SiNafay to get upset about being disturbed over old news. "} have had a visitor this day, Mistress Vierna Do'Urden'"
"She suspects?" Matron SiNafay growled.
"No, no!" Alton replied. "Quite the opposite. House Do'Urden wishes to employ me as a spy, as it once employed the Faceless One to assassinate me'"
SiNafay paused for a moment, stunned, then issued a laugh straight from her belly. "Ah, the ironies of our lives!" she roared.
"had heard that Dinin and Vierna were sent to the Acad-emy only to oversee the education of their younger brother" remarked Alton.
"An excellent cover" SiNafay replied. "Vierna and Dinin were sent as spies for the ambitious Matron Malice. My compliments to her"
"Now they suspect trouble" Alton stated, sitting opposite his matron mother.
"They do" agreed SiNafay. "Masoj patrols with Drizzt, but House Do'Urden has also managed to plant Dinin in the group"
"Then Masoj is in danger" reasoned Alton.
"No" said SiNafay. "House Do'Urden does not know that House Hun'ell perpetrates the threat against it, else it would not have come to you for information. Matron Malice knows your identity"
A look of terror crossed Alton's face.
"Not your true identity" SiNafay laughed at him. "She knows the Faceless One as Gelroos Hun'ell, and she would not have come to a Hun'ell if she suspected our house"
"Then we have an excellent opportunity to throw House Do'Urden into chaos!" Alton cried. "If I implicate another house, even Baenre, perhaps, our position will be strength-ened" He chuckled at the possibilities. "Malice will reward me with a staff of great power-a weapon I will turn against her at the proper moment!"
"Matron Malice!" SiNafay corrected sternly. Even though she and Malice were soon to be open enemies, SiNafay would not permit a male to show such disrespect to a ma-tron mother. "Do you really believe that you could carry out such a deception?"
"When Mistress Vierna returns. . "
"You will not deal with a lesser priestess with such valued information, foolish DeVir. You will face Matron Malice her-self, a formidable foe. If she sees through your lies, do you know what she will do to your body?"
Alton gulped audibly. "I am willing to take the risk" he said, crossing his arms resolutely on the table.
"What of House Hun'ett when the biggest lie is revealed?" SiNafay asked. "What advantage will we enjoy when Ma-tron Malice knows the Faceless One's true identity?"
"I understand" Alton answered, crestfallen but unable to refute SiNafay's logic. "Then what are we to do? What am I to do?"
Matron SiNafay was already considering their next moves. "You will resign your tenure" she said at length. "Return to House Hun'ett, within my protection"
"Such an act might also implicate House Hun'ett to Matron Malice" Alton reasoned.
"It may" replied SiNafay, "but it is the safest route. I will go to Matron Malice in feigned anger, telling her to leave House Hun'ett out of her troubles. If she wishes to make an inform-ant of a member of my family, then she should come to me for permission-though I'll not grant it this time!"
SiNafay smiled at the possibilities of such an encounter.
"My anger, my fear, alone could implicate a greater house against House Do'Urden, even a conspiracy between more than one house" she said, obviously enjoying the added ben-efits. "Matron Malice will certainly have much to think about, and much to worry about!"
Alton hadn't even heard SiNafay's last comments. The words about granting her permission "this time" had brought a disturbing notion into his mind. " And did she?" he dared to ask, though his words were barely audible.
"What do you mean?" asked SiNafay, not following his thoughts.
"Did Matron Malice come to you?" Alton continued, frightened but needing an answer. "Thirty years ago. Did Matron SiNafay grant her permission for Gelroos Hun'ett to becom~ an agent, an assassin to complete House DeVir's elimination?"
A wide smile spread across SiNafay's face, but it vanished in the blink of an eye as she threw the table across the room, grabbed Alton by the front of his robes, and pulled him roughly to within an inch of her scowling visage.
"Never confuse personal feelings with politics!" the tiny but obviously strong matron growled, her tone carrying the unmistakable weight of an open threat. t, And never ask me such a question again!"
She threw Alton to the floor but didn't release him from her penetrating glare.
Alton had known all along that he was merely a pawn in the intrigue between House Hun'ett and House Do'Urden, a necessary link for Matron SiNafay to carry out her treach-erous plans. Every now and then, though, Alton's personal grudge against House Do'Urden caused him to forget his lowly place in this conflict. Looking up now at SiNafay's bared power, he realized that he had overstepped the bounds of his position.
At the back end of the mushroom grove, the southern wall of the cavern that housed Menzoberranzan, was a small, heavily guarded cave. Beyond the ironbound doors stood a single room, used only for gatherings of the city's eight ruling matron mothers.
The smoke of a hundred sweet-smelling candles perme-ated the air; the matron mothers liked it that way. After al-most half a century of studying scrolls in the candlelight of Sorcere, Alton did not mind the light, but he was indeed un-comfortable in the chamber. He sat at the back end of a spider-shaped table, in a small, unadorned chair reserved for guests of the council. Between the table's eight hairy legs were the ruling matron mothers' thrones, all jeweled and dazzling in the candlelight.
The matrons filed in, pompous and wicked, casting belit-tling glares at the male. SiNafay, at Alton's side, put a hand on his knee and gave him a reassuring wink. She would not have dared to request a gathering of the ruling council if she was not certain of the worthiness of her news. The ruling matron mothers viewed their seats as honorary in nature and did not appreciate being brought together except in times of crisis.
At the head of the spider table sat Matron Baenre, the most powerful figure in all of Menzoberranzan, an ancient and withered female with malicious eyes and a mouth unac-customed to smiles.
"We are gathered, SiNafay" Baenre said when all eight members had found their appointed chairs. "For what rea-son have you summoned the council?"
"To discuss a punishment" SiNafay replied.
"Punishment?" Matron Baenre echoed, confused. The re-cent years had been unusually quiet in the drow city, with-out an incident since the Thken'duis-Freth conflict. To the First Matron's knowledge, no acts had been committed that might require a punishment, certainly none so blatant as to force the ruling council to action. "What individual deserves this?"
"Not an individual" explained Matron SiNafay. She glanced around at her peers, measuring their interest. "A house" she said bluntly. "Daerrnon N'a'shezbaernon, House Do'Urden" Several gasps of disbelief came in reply, as SiNa-fay had expected.
"House Do'Urden?" Matron Baenre questioned, surprised that any would implicate Matron Malice. By all of Baenre's knowledge, Malice remained in high regard with the Spider Queen, and House Do'Urden had recently placed two in-structors in the Academy.
"For what crime do you dare to charge House Do'Urden?" asked one of the other matrons.
Are these words of fear, SiNafay?" Matron Baenre had to ask. Several of the ruling matrons had expressed concern about House Do'Urden. It was well known that Matron Mal-ice desired a seat on the ruling council, and, by all measures of the power of her house, she seemed destined to get it.
"I have appropriate cause" SiNafay insisted.
"The others seem to doubt you" replied Matron Baenre.
"You should explain your accusation-quickly, if you value your reputation"
SiNafay knew that more than her reputation was at stake; in Menzoberranzan, a false accusation was a crime on par with murder. "We all remember the fall of House DeVir"
SiNafay began. "Seven of us now gathered sat upon the rul.
ing council beside Matron Ginafae DeVir"
"House DeVir is no more" Matron Baenre reminded her.
"Because of House Do'Urden" SiNafay said bluntly.
This time the gasps came out as open anger.
"How dare you speak such words?" came one reply.
"Thirty years!" came another. "The issue has been forgotten!"
Matron Baenre quieted them all before the clamor rose into violent action-a not uncommon occurrence in the council chamber. "SiNafay" she said through the dry sneer on her lips. "One cannot make such an accusation; one cannot discuss such beliefs openly so long after the event! You know our ways. If House Do'Urden did indeed commit this act, as you insist, it deserves our compliments, not our punishment, for it carried it through to perfection. House DeVir is no more, I say. It does not exist"
Alton shifted uneasily, caught somewhere between rage and despair. SiNafay was far from dismayed, though; this was going exactly as she had envisioned and hoped.
"Oh, but it does!" she responded, rising to her feet. She pulled the hood from Alton's head. "In this person!"
"Gelroos?" asked Matron Baenre, not understanding.
"Not Gelroos" SiNafay replied. "Gelroos Hun'ett died the night House DeVir died. This male, Alton DeVir, assumed Gelroos's identity and position, hiding from further attacks by House Do'Urden!"
Baenre whispered some instructions to the matron at her right side, then waited as she went through the semantics of a spell. Baenre motioned for Sinafay to return to her seat, then faced Alton.
"Speak your name" Baenre commanded.
"I am Alton DeVir" Alton said, gaining strength from the identity he had waited so very long to proclaim, "son of Matron Ginafae and a student of Sorcere on the night House Do'Urden attacked"
Baenre looked to the matron at her side.
"He speaks the truth" the matron assured her. Whispers sprang up all around the spider table, of amusement more than anything else.
"That is why 1 summoned the ruling council" SiNafay quickly explained.
"Very well, SiNafay" said Matron Baenre. "My compliments to you, Alton DeVir, on your resourcefulness anc;i ability to survive. For a male, you have shown great courage and wisdom. Surely you both know that the council cannot exact punishment upon a house for a deed committed so long ago. Why would we so desire? Matron Malice Do'Urden sits in the favor of the Spider Queen; her house shows great promise. You must reveal to us greater need if you wish any punishment against House Do'Urden"
"I do not wish such a thing" SiNafay quickly replied. "This matter, thirty years removed, is no longer in the realm of the ruling council. House Do'Urden does indeed show promise, my peers, with four high priestesses and a host oj other weapons, not the least of which being their second boy, Drizzt, first graduate of his class" She had purposel) mentioned Drizzt, knowing that the name would strike. wound in Matron Baenre. Baenre's own prized son, Berg'i nyon, had spent the last nine years ranked behind the won derful young Do'Urden.
"Then why have you bothered us?" Matron Baenre de manded, an unmistakable edge in her voice.
"To ask you to close your eyes" SiNafay purred. "Alton is I Hun'ett now, under my protection. He demands vengeance for the act committed against his family, and, as a surviving member of the attacked family, he has the right of accusation"
"House Hun'ett will stand beside him?" Matron Baenre asked, turning curious and amused.
"Indeed" replied SiNafay. "Thus is House Hun'ett bound!"
"Vengeance?" another matron quipped, also now more amused than angered. "Or fear? It would seem to my ears that the matron of House Hun'ett uses this pitiful DeVir creature for her own gain. House Do'Urden aspires to higher ranking, and Matron Malice desires to sit upon the ruling council, a threat to House Hun'ett, perhaps?"
"Be it vengeance or prudence, my claim-Alton DeVir's claim-must be deemed as legitimate" replied SiNafay, "to our mutual gain" She smiled wickedly and looked straight to the First Matron. "lb the gain of our sons, perhaps, in their quest for recognition"
"Indeed" replied Matron Baenre in a chuckle that sounded more like a cough. A war between Hun'ett and Do'Urden might be to everyone's gain, but not, Baenre sus-pected, as SiNafay believed. Malice was a powerful matron, and her family truly deserved a ranking higher than ninth. If the fight did come, Malice probably would get her seat on the council, replacing SiNafay.
Matron Baenre looked around at the other matrons, and guessed from their hopeful expressions that they shared her thoughts. Let Hun'ett and Do'Urden fight it out; what-ever the outcome, the threat of Matron Malice would be ended. Perhaps, Baenre hoped, a certain young Do'Urden male would fall in battle, propelling her own son into the p0-sition he deserved.
Then the First Matron spoke the words SiNafay had come to hear, the silent permission of Menzoberranzan's ruling council.
"This matter is settled, my sisters" Matron Baenre declared, to the accepting nods of all at the table. "It is good that we never met this day"