The mercenary shook his bald head, as defiant an act as he had ever made against Matron Baenre. At this moment, so soon after the first matron mother's awesome display of power, and given the fact that she was obviously in the Spider Queen's highest favor, Jarlaxle's questioning of her plans seemed even more dangerous.

Triel Baenre sneered at Jarlaxle, and Berg'inyon closed his eyes; neither of them really wanted to see the useful male beaten to death. Wicked Bladen'Kerst, though, licked her lips anxiously and gripped the five-headed tentacle whip tied on her hip, hoping that her mother would allow her the pleasure.

"I fear it is not the time," Jarlaxle said openly, bluntly. "Lloth instructs me differently," Baenre replied, and she seemed quite cool and calm, given the defiance of a mere male.

"We cannot be certain that our magic will continue to work as we expect," Jarlaxle reasoned.

Baenre nodded, and the others then realized, to their absolute surprise, that their mother was glad the mercenary was taking a negative role. Jarlaxle's questions were pertinent, and he was, in fact, helping Baenre sort through the details of her proposed new alliance and the march to Mithril Hall.

Triel Baenre eyed her mother suspiciously as all of this sank in. If Matron Baenre had received her instructions directly from the Spider Queen, as she had openly stated, then why would she want, or even tolerate, defiance or questioning at all? Why would Matron Baenre need to have these most basic questions concerning the wisdom of the march answered?

"The magic is secure," Baenre replied.

Jarlaxle conceded the point. Everything he had heard, both within and beyond the drow city, seemed to back that claim. "You will have no trouble forming an alliance after the spectacle of House Oblodra's fall. Matron Mez'Barris Armgo has been supportive all along, and no matron mother would dare even hint that she fears to follow your lead."

"The Clawrift is large enough to hold the rubble of many houses," Baenre said dryly.

Jarlaxle snickered. "Indeed," he said. "And indeed this is the time for alliance, for whatever purpose that alliance must be formed."

"It is time to march to Mithril Hall," Baenre interrupted, her tone one of finality, "time to rise up from despair and bring higher glories to the Spider Queen."

"We have suffered many losses," Jarlaxle dared to press. "House Oblodra and their kobold slaves were to lead the attack, dying in the dwarven traps set for drow."

"The kobolds will be brought up from their holes in the Clawrift," Baenre assured him.

Jarlaxle didn't disagree, but he knew the tunnels below the rim of the chasm better than anyone, now that all of House Oblodra was dead. Baenre would get some kobolds, several hundred perhaps, but House Oblodra could have provided many thousand.

"The city's hierarchy is in question," the mercenary went on. "The third house is no more, and the fourth is without its matron mother. Your own family still has not recovered from the renegade's escape and the loss of Dantrag and Vendes."

Baenre suddenly sat forward in her throne. Jarlaxle didn't flinch, but many of the Baenre children did, fearing that their mother understood the truth of the mercenary's last statement, and that Baenre simply would not tolerate any bickering between her surviving children as they sorted out the responsibilities and opportunities left open by the loss of their brother and sister.

Baenre stopped as quickly as she had started, standing before the throne. She let her dangerous gaze linger over each of her gathered children, then dropped it fully over the impertinent mercenary. "Come with me," she commanded.

Jarlaxle stepped aside to let her pass, and obediently and wisely fell into step right behind her. Triel moved to follow, but Baenre spun about, stopping her daughter in her tracks. "Just him," she growled.A black column centered the throne room, and a crack appeared along its seemingly perfect and unblemished side as Baenre and the mercenary approached. The crack widened as the cunning door slid open, allowing the two to enter the cylindrical chamber within.Jarlaxle expected Baenre to yell at him, or to talk to him, even threaten him, once the door closed again, separating them from her family. But the matron mother said nothing, just calmly walked over to a hole in the floor. She stepped into the hole, but did not fall, rather floated down to the next lower level, the great Baenre mound's third level, on currents of magical energy Jarlaxle followed as soon as the way was clear, but still, when he got to the third level, he had to hurry to keep up with the hustling matron mother, gliding through the floor once more, and then again, and again, until she came to the dungeons beneath the great mound.Still she offered not a word of explanation, and Jarlaxle began to wonder if he was to be imprisoned down here. Many drow, even drow nobles, had found that grim fate; it was rumored that several had been kept as Baenre prisoners for more than a century, endlessly tortured, then healed by the priestesses, that they might be tortured again.A wave of Baenre's hand sent the two guards standing beside one cell door scrambling for cover.Jarlaxle was as relieved as curious when he walked into the cell behind Baenre to find a curious, barrel-chested dwarf chained to the far wall. The mercenary looked back to Baenre, and only then did he realize she was not wearing one of her customary necklaces, the one fashioned of a dwarf's tooth."A recent catch?" Jarlaxle asked, though he suspected differently."Two thousand years," Baenre replied. "I give to you Gandalug Battlehammer, patron of Clan Battlehammer, founder of Mithril Hall."Jarlaxle rocked back on his heels. He had heard the rumors, of course, that Baenre's tooth pendant contained the soul of an ancient dwarf king, but never had he suspected such a connection. He realized then, suddenly, that this entire foray to Mithril Hall was not about Drizzt Do'Urden, that the renegade was merely a connection, an excuse, for something Baenre had desired for a very long time.Jarlaxle looked at Baenre suddenly, curiously. "Two thousand years?" he echoed aloud, while he silently wondered just how old this withered drow really was."I have kept his soul through the centuries," Baenre went on, eyeing the old dwarf directly. "During the time Lloth could not hear our call, the item was destroyed and Gandalug came forth, alive again." She walked over, put her snarling visage right up to the battered, naked dwarf's long, pointed nose, and put one hand on his round, solid shoulder. "Alive, but no more free than he was before."Gandalug cleared his throat as if he meant to spit on Baenre. He stopped, though, when he realized that a spider had crawled out of the ring on her hand, onto his shoulder, and was now making its way along his neck.Gandalug understood that Baenre would not kill him, that she needed him for her proposed conquest. He did not fear death, but would have preferred it to this torment and weighed against the realization that he might unwittingly aid in the fall of his own people. Baenre's gruesome mind flayer had already scoured Gandalug's thoughts more than once, taking information that no beatings could ever have extracted from the stubborn old dwarf.Rationally, Gandalug had nothing to fear, but that did little to comfort him now. Gandalug hated spiders above all else, hated and feared them. As soon as he felt the hairy, crawly thing on his neck, he froze, eyes unblinking, sweat beading on his forehead.Baenre walked away, leaving her pet spider on the dwarf's neck. She turned to Jarlaxle again, a supreme look on her face, as though Gandalug's presence should make all the difference in the world to the doubting mercenary.It didn't. Jarlaxle never once doubted that Menzoberranzan could defeat Mithril Hall, never once doubted that the conquest would be successful. But what of the aftermath of that conquest? The drow city was in turmoil; there would soon be a fierce struggle, perhaps even an open war, to fill the vacancy left by both House Oblodra's demise and the death of Ghenni'tiroth Tlabbar. Living for centuries on the edge of disaster with his secretive band, the mercenary understood the perils of overextending his grab for power, understood that if one stretched his forces too far, they could simply collapse.But Jarlaxle knew, too, that he would not convince Matron Baenre. So be it, he decided. Let Baenre march to Mithril Hall with no further questions from him. He would even encourage her. If things went as she planned, then all would be the better for it.If not...Jarlaxle didn't bother to entertain those possibilities. He knew where Gromph stood, knew the wizard's frustration and the frustrations of Bregan D'aerthe, a band almost exclusively male. Let Baenre go to Mithril Hall, and if she failed, then Jarlaxle would take Baenre's own advice and "rise up from despair."Indeed.