1201, The Year of Embers
They sat on a balcony overlooking the glittering constellation of lights below and around them that were the night jewels of Suldanesselar. Having grown up in one of the biggest elven cities in the Realms, with its marble palaces and tree-shaped stone towers, Velemir never suffered from acrophobia but he never actually lived in one of the taller building. He had to admit – the sight from here was simply breathtaking. From the height of one hundred fifty feet or so, the city looked like an eerie mantle studded with glowing gemstones and fit for a fickle elven goddess. Vel stretched on a simple wooden bench polished to a high shine and strewn with cushions, and tried to relax. That tiresome, hot, everlasting day was finally over. The half-elf was exhausted and numb from the ceaseless procession of bronze angular faces painted with various clan-specific designs that was a signature look of sylvan subrace; their exotic, often generously revealing outfits, so different from the classic streamlined fashions of Evereska populated mostly by moon and sun elves; and the flood of contentious emotions caused by his obvious human blood that was spilled on him casually from every pair of slanted green or brown eyes. The fierce competition between human and elven tribes of Tethyr had lasted centuries, and claimed many lives on both sides, as well as hectares of burned and ravaged forestland. That troublesome history aggravated the generally suspicious outlook that the sylvan elves always had about humans.
All that wealth of experience was showered on his dark-curled head today by capricious Lady Luck. His family venerated the Seldarine as their primary patrons but there was never a day when his father failed to burn a scented candle before Tymora’s little statue in the private family shrine, and so he was well acquainted with the human Goddess of Good Fortune. The young magician looked at his friend, who was contemplating some mysterious but pleasant thoughts with his bright eyes half-closed, and a strange little smile floating on his pale lips, and decided that overall this day should be stored in a closet of his mind assigned to his luckier memories. The stroll through the sun-lit forest surrounding Suldanesselar Hills, the secret entrance to the tree trunk, hollowed inside to be used as an elevator to the lower level of the city itself, the stunning view on the sea of green, gold, and rosy-red leaves interlaced with suspension bridges and graceful oblong platforms that served as the city streets and plaza’s – these were the images he would cherish forever, and maybe even take to his grave into the life beyond.
The tree city itself was ancient beyond belief but in the past few centuries
Suldanesselar’s ascetic, environmental architecture based on utilizing the natural
shapes and physical characteristics of the trees it was built upon has been
evolving, as many sun and moon elven families moved into Tethyr in search of
refuge after the fall of Myth Drannor, and the devastation that had befallen
its surrounding lands. Suldanesselar has benefited from that disaster as many
skillful artisans found their new home here, welcomed by queen Ellesime as valued
new subjects, enriching the whole sylvan elf community. As a result, what only
three centuries ago was a modest rural village populated by a few hundred copper
elves, now was one of the most beautiful, vibrant examples of the hybrid architectural
style, with graceful temples and communal buildings built of glass, metal and
magic crystal rising from their extended, naturally-grown wooden supports that
were the original Suldanesselar structures. The Royal Palace itself was built
by the famous gold elven architect that designed many noble palazzos in the
ill-fated City of Song. What astounded Velemir was how well this secret was
kept from the prying eyes and ears of the outsiders. Even in Evereska itself,
Suldanesselar was still considered a small backwater settlement, and the name
of queen Ellesime was never mentioned in the rumor mill that was mostly sustained
by news from Evermeet, and by the local political events. Vel realized that
he was probably the first non-elven visitor here in more than a century, and
the only reasons he was allowed to enter the city and enjoy his stay were his
Evereskan roots, and the reputation of the Ithilnien family.
The half-elf sighed, feeling slightly teary and melancholic after the day of strenuous emotions. Not only the city itself excelled his expectations - Joneleth’s family was everything he ever thought it would be and more. Being of moon elven blood and tradition, they lacked both the aristocratic aloofness of the sun subrace, and the deeply entrenched reservations of the sylvan clans. His friend’s mother was an impressive looking elven woman, with eyes of the same bright sapphirine blue, and a mane of silver-white hair, pinned into an elaborate knot on top of her regal head. Lady Nyonin was formal and mannerly but at the same time extremely accommodating and easy to please, with that air of orderliness around her that kept everything in the household running smoothly, and yet left all of her children a room to express their individualities. If there were inner tensions behind that genteel and easygoing facade, she hid them well enough, so that his untrained eye never spotted a ruse. Jon’s two sisters were an entirely different matter. Vel smiled as he thought of them. They were as different as night and day in their coloring, and yet he could sense the common blood they shared in the graceful elegance of their moves, fine bone structure of their pale faces, and the hidden fire burning in the depth of two sets of blue eyes – one of pale aquamarine, and the other of dark sapphire tinted with a disturbing shade that he was unable to recognize.
Some hidden undercurrents were swirling between two elven girls. Even with
his unsophisticated manner, and his mind overwhelmed with many alien impressions,
Velemir could sense the charges that almost crackled in the air when the sisters
pretended to talk to each other. Jon seemed to be the only one who was oblivious
to the strange atmosphere at the dinner table. When Yave (the younger of the
two) had pointedly asked him if he was going to disappear for another ten years
after this short vacation, or if he was finally going to stay with them long
enough to make them feel that they have a brother, he only blinked at her absently
and it was clear he did not even hear the question. Jon never even mentioned
the driving reason behind this visit – his supposed move to Evermeet, but perhaps
he was saving this conversation for another day. After a profound moment of
silence, Bodhi (the older one) laughed sharply, and made Vel’s heart tumble
into his stomach with a smoldering look of her unusual eyes that were caressing
his face and his slender figure almost palpably during the whole evening. She
was the first full-bloodied elven female ever to give him a second glance, and
she was Jon’s sister, not to mention an exceedingly beautiful woman. Poor Velemir
was very much confused and unhinged by this sudden show of interest, especially
after he had noticed Lady Nyonin’s glance. It was not exactly the one of disapproval
- more like a discouragement or a warning, and he was not sure what to make
of it. Now he itched to discuss the issue with Jon but respected his friend’s
need for rest and relaxation after a day of physical and emotional trials. Joneleth
looked worn out and fatigued despite his pleasant mood, and Velemir was not
about to trouble him by speaking of something that might have been his wistful
thinking, or simply a practical joke on the elven maid’s part.
Velemir wondered if he should ask to retire to his chambers, he was given a nice suite of rooms on the guest floor of the spacious treehouse. Every room here had walls polished to a shiny gloss, showing the natural fibrous patterns of the living wood the dwelling was shaped from. The floors were draped with soft carpets in subdued pastel shades, the walls decorated with intricate silk tapestries bearing sophisticated geometric designs. The openings in the tree trunk that served as doors and windows were coaxed by magic to form graceful oval shapes that were later finished with ornamental bronze grilles and colored glass. The small niches held fantastic elven sculpture, and small lanterns of hand-blown glass and polished silver. Lady Nyonin possessed some minor magical talent, although most of her spells were of practical, household use. It did made running the house much easier - she commented to him with her usual subtle humor, and complete lack of pose. Velemir wondered - how would it feel to grow up in a house like this, where every minor chore was done by almost instinctive pulling on the weave, and shrugged. It was too addictive even to contemplate.
They were now sitting on the terrace adjoining Joneleth’s old studio that was kept intact for all these years, and was dusted and freshened up by the summoned spirit servants upon their arrival. Vel had not spotted any ‘material’ servants as of yet, and Lady Nyonin did not give any indication that she had any. Later on, he discovered that the house was teeming with tree sprites that were very useful as house helpers but were prone to various mischief, and practical jokes. Everything around him was clean and shiny, and there were even fresh flowers floating in glass bowls on the side tables, and bright magical fires in every corner. It was such a sharp contrast with Jon’s bachelor apartment at the Academy that Velemir almost snickered when he thought of it. That place was a mess of broken magical apparatuses, crushed spell components gone bad, yellowed crumbling scrolls, and other even weirder paraphernalia. He looked at Jon again, considering what to do next. The moon elf’s pale face was tranquil, almost blissful. Vel knew elves did not sleep but was wondering if Joneleth was falling into a reverie. Generally, it was considered impolite to observe someone in this highly vulnerable state without their permission, and Vel had never seen an elf in a reverie before. He wondered briefly if he should simply leave and seek his own chambers, when Jon finally stirred and opened his eyes.
“So, what do you think of my dear sister’s advances, wonder boy?” the smirk on moon elf’s quivering lips was unmistakably friendly, and Velemir relaxed his rigid stance a little, although he was still unable to produce any comprehensible sounds, and only some muted groans of protest escaped his lips. “Come on, you must have formed some sort of opinion on the matter. Bodhi was watching you through the whole meal like you were a choicest dessert.”
“She is very beautiful.”
“Oh that she is,” Jon nodded with another wicked grin. “Runs in the family, you know.”
“You are as modest as a Sembian peacock doing his little courting dance.” Vel could not resist this timid jibe, feeling confident now that their friendship was not threatened in any way.
“Oh really?” A pale brow jerked up in mocking contempt. “And I thought I am a paragon of discretion and humbleness. But you are probably right – humility is as alien to my nature as heat is to fulminating mercury. If you try to combine the two, it may lead to most unpleasant results.”
He laughed dryly, stretching his long limbs, and suddenly turned serious. “If you want to accept her proffered affections, it is fine with me. Just stay on your guard, and most importantly - don’t fall in love with her. Bodhi is an omnivorous creature widely known as a man-eater. I think if she claimed an ear for every night of passion, half of the city’s male population would have developed a habit of wearing a tight hood. I did not bring you here to expand her collection.” Jon’s own long, sensitive ears twitched at the tips, as they always did when he was genuinely angry or upset.
“If that is how you feel about me, brother dear, maybe I should go elsewhere tonight.” A velvety soft voice, dripping with honey and sarcasm sang behind their backs. “And believe me – I have plenty of choices!”
Jon did not bat an eyelash at this remark. Neither did he turn his head to greet the trespasser. “I knew you were eavesdropping, Bodhi. Now come out of your hiding hole, and tell me what do you want.”
Velemir jumped to his feet, blushing like a wild rose. Bodhi was standing in the shadow of the arched entrance that led from the interior of the room to the terrace they were sitting on. She was still wearing the evening gown of green silk with long slits on both sides revealing her perfectly shaped legs, and an extravagantly deep neckline. Her lustrous dark hair streaked with blue fell in twin cascades down her bare shoulders, and her pale throat was circled with a single string of uncut rubies, making it look like a cut soaking fresh blood. The young mage thought that the flickering shade of red that he had caught in the elf maid’s eyes was probably just a reflection of light from the softly shining jewels.
“Is that how you greet me after ten years of desertion?” She asked casually. “Do you truly have no affection to this family?”
“You should be the last one to ask such a question, sweet sister. Your so-called affections had already cost this family a great deal.”
“Oh dear, oh dear. It was such a long time ago. Who would have known the stupid wench would take out her brother’s obsession on you?”
“Enough of this.” Jon snapped angrily. “I was not referring to that particular incident. There were many to follow, equally embarrassing. Today I was willing to give you a benefit of a doubt. After all, even a selfish brat like you can outgrow her childhood ailments. But if you are planning to set your claws into my young friend here, think again – I will not let you hurt him!”
“I was not planning to,” his sister smiled playfully. “It would be like hunting pet rabbits in the queen’s gardens, or harpooning fish in a bathtub. What would be the fun in it?”
“And you just said it in his face to make him feel better?”
“You are no fun, Joni. You are too smart for your own good.”
Velemir wondered if that was the pet name that she had for him as a child. But if that was the case Joneleth did not show any signs of softening towards his raven-haired sibling as a dark scowl played across his lips, even as his ears twitched vigorously. Bodhi had noticed it too, for she first snickered softly, covering her mouth with a delicate, long-fingered hand, then bent over in a sudden uncontrollable fit of laughter.
“Your ears ...you are doing it again,” she was finally able to say in between her bursts of merriment. Strangely enough, this had the desired effect on Jon, for he quit pacing across the floor of the terrace, and stopped in front of her, cocking his head to one side and giving her at first a contemptuous stare that quickly turned into a grimace of mocking horror, and finally into a smile of his own.
“You are a heartless, salacious imp, Bodhi,” he muttered with a low hearty chuckle, “but since it cannot be helped, I suppose I better stop trying to interfere, and limit myself to controlling the damage that you cause to these around you. What is it now? You are obviously in a need of assistance of some kind, or you won’t be pestering me with your presence on the first night of my arrival.”
“Oh, I was not sure if you won’t pull another one of your disappearing acts on me after you had your moment of sentimental reunion, and a welcome dinner at the family table. But can we perhaps, discuss it in private?”
“I shall ask your permission to retire for the night,” Velemir muttered quickly but was stopped in his tracks by a familiar piercing blue stare that was too intense to ignore.
“Whatever you are going to say, it can be said in front of him.” Jon emphasized heavily.
“It is a delicate matter. Something I would rather keep secret.”
“I can vouch for his discretion.”
“You are incredibly subtle, as you always were. If only I was not so desperate…” Bodhi muttered derisively. Then, noticing his growing annoyance, she pulled something out of her bodice. It was a small, elongated object wrapped in wax paper. “Can you have a look at this?” she asked almost pleadingly. “It had caused me a lot of trouble already. It will be a shame to let it go without ever finding out what it is, and what it can do.”
Jon took the package carefully, giving her a wide-eyed, quizzical look. Obviously, it was the last thing he had expected from his sister tonight. When he carefully unwrapped the paper, and looked at the contents, he almost dropped it with the vilest of curses in Common, (apparently the elven did not have expressions depraved enough to serve his current need), that Vel had ever heard from his mouth. Usually his speech was too refined for this kind of words. At first, Velemir could not understand what had caused this reaction but when he had a better look at the shriveled object in his friend’s hand, he almost lost his dinner. It was a mummified elfin finger – a contorted, black, ugly stick with a bluish stub of a broken nail, and a wide silver ring, strewn with tiny red stones jammed on the last joint, which ended with a sharp fragment of yellow bone sticking out of the dried blob of dark flesh. The cut that separated the digit from its original owner was relatively fresh, although it was probably done to a desiccated corpse, as Vel could not spot any traces of blood or other fluid.
It took Jon almost an hour of interrogation that included calculated, cynical blackmail to pull the whole story out of his sister; and even then it was not clear if she was not holding something back, as he bitterly complained to Velemir later. But even in her best interpretation, the tale was quite appalling. The finger and the ring on it were the trophies of her latest adventure with a rowdy war-gang of young warriors, led by none other but their recent acquaintance - Keth’roen Thistleleaf. After the successful battle with hobgoblins in the Starspire Mountains, while the company was celebrating, Bodhi happened to come upon a hidden tomb with some ancient drow remains. Apparently, the finger was a sort of souvenir that she picked from the floor before the ceiling started to collapse and she had to retreat. Why did she keep it? She sensed the ring might be important. Why did not take the ring and get rid of the finger? Ah, but the ring was stuck, and she could not pull it from its perch short of carving the finger into chunks, and that was impossible as it was resisting the sharpest of her blades. Quite astounding really, since she was able to cut it off the hand easily originally. At this point of the story, Jon stopped her and told her frankly that if she would continue to lie to him, she could collect her disgusting prize and take a hike in the woods with it. So, she told them about the coffin with the mummified drow cadaver, and the bones fused into the cavern walls. Jon listened with an ill-concealed annoyance but by the end of the tale, Velemir noticed to his surprise that his friend’s blue eyes acquired a familiar spark, hidden deep under the half-hooded eyelids. The researcher in him was indisputably interested.
“Is it wise?” Velemir asked timidly, after the quietly whistling moon elf wished his peeved sister goodnight, and sent her away, promising to have a look at the finger and the ring at his leisure.
“Would you rather have her find something even more disgusting to play with?” Jon answered with a sneer. “In many ways she reminds me of an ill-mannered young puppy that likes to roll among the heaps of rotten garbage, just for the fun of it. At least now I know what she is up to.”
. . .
A few days had passed in a blur of activity. They had walked the city’s wide aerial bridges and narrow catwalks, climbed the spiral staircases twining around the mightiest of the support trees, and visited taverns and guild houses. They even got themselves moderately drunk on one occasion. That was when Velemir discovered that the city’s mythal had a few very practical enchantments woven into it, like the feather fall spell that could save an inebriated guest, unaccustomed to daily runs across swinging, elusive rope bridges from finding out how dangerous it really is to live two hundred feet above the ground.
Joneleth was recognized by many, and although he was not exactly everybody’s favorite, his reputation and that of his family was enough to warrant them a lukewarm welcome almost everywhere they went, even though it was a rare citizen of Suldanesselar that did not give Vel’s rounded (by elven standards) ears a slightly puzzled look. But on the third day of Velemir’s stay in the city queen Ellesime issued an edict declaring the half-elf a guest of state, and that solved most of their problems. Jon grumbled something under his shapely, aristocratic nose but declined to comment on the matter. Next morning they visited the Queen’s Gardens, and afterwards spent the whole day at the river letting the slow, warm currents of Suldanesse wash away their worries of the future as easy as it carried away the sweat and dust of their bodies. When they returned home, the first thing Velemir noticed was a slightly distressed look on Lady Nyonin’s dignified, patrician face. She hid it exceedingly well, but Vel was prone to noticing such things by virtue of having a mother and three elderly aunts in the family.
“There is a messenger waiting for you in the sitting room, Jon,” she said with hardly a hint of annoyance in her voice. “Queen Ellesime is expecting both of you at the palace tomorrow.”
. . .
“Why are you so quiet?” Velemir finally interrupted his excited recital of the audience’s proceedings, and speculations about possible meaning of the queen’s many inquiries. “And what do you think she really wanted to hear?”
Ellesime had spent extraordinary amount of time questioning him about the tiniest details of his family life and traditions. She wanted to know everything: how did they come to live in Evereska, and how did the Council of Elders treated the city’s many half-elven denizens; was their loyalty to the city-state ever doubted, and if yes – was there a historical precedent? And what religion did half-elves generally follow? What holidays did they celebrate? At the end, the queen sounded very pleased with his answers, and now the young mage was trying to imagine to what purpose she could possibly use that information. Was she considering bending the rules a little and admitting half-blooded elves as citizens into her own realm?
“I doubt it really,” Jon answered with a shrug.
They were walking down the narrow suspension bridge in a quiet, shadowed section of the city, stopping every now and then to have another glance at the endless sea of scintillating green leaves below. The daylight was fading quickly from the cloudless sky, yielding to the subtle incursion of the warm, summer evening. It seemed as if Joneleth deliberately picked a path that took them away from the busy bustle of the trade quarter that lay between the Copper Glade Hill that hosted the Royal Palace, and their final destination tonight – the Ithilnien treehouse, which was situated on the quieter and less populated Eastern Hill of the city. Each of the five Hills of Suldanesselar had their distinct name, much as Evereskan Three Sisters, although Velemir could not remember all of them properly yet.
“If Ellesime did not differentiate between you and the rest of that petty band of sycophants that she calls her court, it was not because she treated you as an equal, my friend. Rather, because she sees every one of us, ordinary mortals, so far below her dazzling persona that a tad of human blood is nothing compared to that other abyss, which separates her from her subjects.” The moon elf sounded bitter and downbeat, and his face that was shining with a strange soft light since yesterday, now looked clouded and dull, as if somebody snuffed out that source of inner radiation. “Don’t look at me like I just killed your favorite pet chimera, boy. I am only telling you the truth about our divine queen’s disposition, and it is better than letting you nurture your unfounded illusions.”
“Is she really a daughter of Rillifane Rallathil?” Velemir asked after a short pause, swallowing his abused pride yet again. Jon had a habit of stomping across his young friend’s ego without ever noticing, and Vel decided a long time ago that the best way to deal with it was to ignore it completely.
“She certainly is,” was a curt reply. “Nobody knows how old she really is, and whence she comes from; but my mother told me she was already the queen of Suldanesselar when they first arrived from Cormanthyr, which happened about three hundred years ago. Being of a divine blood, she is an immortal and eternally young spirit of Wealdath. Twenty seasons had passed since I left the city for Evereska, and yet for her it might have been no longer than a quick catnap, a midday respite spent on a balcony under the rays of warm afternoon sun.”
“And is it why you are so desperate?” Vel could not keep himself from asking, although his heart lurched painfully at his own audacity. “You know, I think she is fascinated with you, Jon. The way she kept looking in your direction, whenever she thought that nobody was watching. And of course everybody noticed it, except you ...”
“You imagination is positively running wild tonight!” Jon’s retort came too quick. Velemir could not believe his eyes – the moon elf’s pale cheeks were slowly attaining a treacherously pink tinge. “Or perhaps you imbibed one cup too many of elverquest at the reception. You should moderate your drinking habits if your wine is getting into your head so easily!”
“I drank nothing but water, and you know it perfectly well,” Vel sighed. “Have you been in love with her for all these years? A pity that you cannot admit your feelings even to yourself. The queen seems to be quite taken with you. She missed the question that that annoying warrior type was trying to impart to her. He had to repeat it three times. He was very upset judging by the looks he gave you at the end.”
“Who, Elhan? Everybody knows he is her official consort, for the moment anyway. But I would not be surprised if she has already replaced him with another eager candidate.”
“The way you speak of it does not bode well for your heart. Who is everybody that ‘knows’? And when did you obtain this information? We had only been in the city for a few days, and I never suspected you to be the type that is interested in this kind of gossip.”
“I am not interested in rumors of Ellesime’s amorous liaisons in the least! You should know me better than this. And stop pestering me about her for I would not listen. After this audience, I have no desire to come into her royal presence ever again! We are leaving tomorrow. And in a month I would be out of her reach, as even her semi-divine majesty would not be able to detract me from studies of high magic on Evermeet.”
“I despair to understand your reasons. Do you have to flaunt the high magic as an excuse for thwarting the only true feeling to enter your heart in a lifetime? For I am sure now that is the truth of it, don’t deny it. It diminishes both of your passions somehow.”
“What would you have me do – make fun of myself by mingling with the crowd of her ‘eager to please’ admirers? She has too many of them already.”
“You would never be lost in a crowd, Jon. And you know it yourself. Can not you give it a chance by sticking around for a bit longer?”
“For what purpose? To make her smile secretly at yet another withered heart, and a set of cheap verses in her anthology? I would rather die than give her a satisfaction of that victory.”
“Oh, I have no doubt about that,” Velemir murmured to himself.
“Enough of this prattle. I am getting tired of this endless talk, and it is leading nowhere. It is getting rather late, and we should rise up early tomorrow, if we want to make it back to Evereska by midday. I cannot teleport us back inside the mythal, and walking across the Vine Valley in this kind of weather is too hot to be much fun.”
“It maybe not that bad down there,” the half-elf replied meekly, hastening after his friend across yet another gently swaying catwalk. “A thousand miles to the north do make a big difference.”
“Was that an attempt at sarcasm or a lesson in Toril’s geography?” Joneleth retorted angrily. “I am aware of the Evereska’s location in relation to Tethyr.”
“I was merely making a comment. You know, as in making small talk in order to distract you from unpleasant thoughts. Speaking of unpleasantness - I was dying to ask you about that finger for the last three days. Did you ever have a chance to look into it?”
“Well, of course I did,” the moon elf responded with a dry chuckle.
His voice was cool and ironic again, and Velemir wondered, if the whole passionate exchange was just a play of his imagination. He tried to understand what possessed him to pry into Jon’s secrets at the firsts place, and hoped it would not spoil their future relationship. The steel glint in his friend’s eyes and the pure venom in his voice after Vel’s innocent remark about Evereska had the half-elf worried considerably.
“Would you let me expire from unsatisfied curiosity then?” Velemir asked with an uneasy smile. “Or would you tell me what it is, and what can it do, if anything? I have to admit – your sister and her puzzle made quite an impression on me.”
He was deliberately avoiding Bodhi and her attentions for the last few days. Then raven-locked elf was a fascinating creature, in her special way. Somehow, her graceful manner made him think of a lean black panther, magnificent and deadly, ready to pounce upon her chosen prey at any time.
“Why don’t you ask her yourself?” Jon replied with a snort. “I gave it back to her on the second day after her little performance.”
“You did? But...why? Is not it dangerous? Were you able to pull the ring off the dead finger, and most importantly, was it magical?”
“Yes I removed the ring quite easily. It holds a minor offensive spell, combined with a permanent effect of seeing through invisibility. Nothing even remotely interesting, except the fact that the finger is a key that unlocks the power of the band. Without it the bauble is totally useless.”
“Do you think it is wise to leave such an item in her possession?”
“Why? Bodhi is well trained in the skill of handling magical artifacts. All the military band members usually are, and she made a habit of never missing an expedition that can yield an enchanted trinket or two, or at least that’s what she told me at our last conversation.”
“But it stinks of necromancy! The silver ring on a dead drow hand ... I cannot quite put my finger on it. Sorry for the bad pun,” Velemir blushed profusely, “but it sounds...ominous.”
“Bah, rubbish! Necromancy is a dangerous subject to study but it is part of arcane lore nonetheless. One skilled in the Art cannot ignore it altogether. And do not tell me you too are falling for that old superstition that everything that comes from the drow is necessarily tainted with evil. They have very skilled wizards and enchanters that can yield amazing pieces of arcane art. I could not detect any divine component in that enchantment, if that is what you are worrying about. And I have no time, nor taste to run a series of more conclusive tests. I have more pressing…needs. I now suspect that she superfluously made up the whole story about the drow tomb, to make it sound more impressive. It was probably an amulet that she looted from one of the goblinoid corpses. A disgusting trophy but quite useful.”
“You are making a bad mistake here, Joneleth, under a false pretext. And I am sorry I was not there to stop you.”
“And that was exactly the reason why you were not there.”
They found precisely how bad that mistake was upon their arrival. The house looked deceitfully peaceful from afar, and they could hear the music of Lady Nyonin’s lute even as they approached the last bridge stretching between the locus platform and their destination. Yave was waiting for them, half-hidden in the semi darkness. Her face was wan and puffed from constant weeping but her eyes shone from that pale mask with blue fire of anger.
“I did it but it was all her fault,” were the first words out of her mouth. “I would have never told anybody, if she only kept her word. I did my best to stay out of it, to cover up her folly but this time she went too far!”
Joneleth looked at his younger sister placidly, with an expression of mild curiosity on his impassive face, and that apparent indifference pushed her over the edge.
“She should not have done it!” the pale maiden was near hysterical. “I knew Keth always coveted her, even when holding me in his hands, but without her consent nothing of this would have happened.”
“Ah, so Bodhi stole your lover?” Jon’s brow jerked up in amusement. “And what did you do to repay the favor? Nothing drastic, I hope. I would have thought that seducing her most recent paramour in return was a good enough joke, and would settle the score.”
“You, you are almost as bad as she!” Yave snapped angrily. “You always liked her best, even when she was lying, cheating, and using you to pave her way into another fool’s favor. Even after she dragged this family name through every nearby gutter!”
“Now, don’t give me this holier than thou speech, Yave,” judging by his voice Jon was at least mildly aggravated. “You have always been fascinated with her panache, have you not? It gave you the titillating aura of the virtuous younger sister of the devil herself.” He shrugged dismissively. “Now quit this babbling, and tell me exactly what has happened. Although I warn you – if it is all about your broken heart there is hardly anything I can do about it. This is between you, Bodhi and Keth’roen. Getting me involved can only make matters worse.”
“I... I talked to her,” if possible, the elf girl turned even paler. “And she promised me to leave him alone. She swore it was a one-time fling, and would never happen again. The way she spoke of it ... like it was nothing serious, not even worth apologizing let alone feeling sorry about. And the next day Keth ... he told me it was all over between us, and that he always loved only her, and I was just a substitute for something he could never have. I could not stand it. I knew something was wrong with her. Bodhi is reckless and passionate, she likes to tease men, make fun of them, but she would never hurt me in this way!”
“I admire your faith in her sisterly loyalty.” Jon shook his head wearily. “But so far, I cannot see how I can be of any help.”
“For you, it is always about not getting involved into an awkward situation, is it not?” Yave raised her head stubbornly, and her face became distant and arrogant – a familiar look that made Vel blink with recognition. “I don’t even know why I bother talking to you about this. You are a virtual stranger to this family, who shows once in a decade, only to slink away cowardly when he is most needed!”
“Now, that was uncalled for,” Velemir noticed that it was Jon’s turn to pale from anger. His voice, always cold and refined now sounded like a fall of an ice shard on the stone floor. “I cannot stay long in Suldanesselar because of … for various reasons of my own.”
“It was that damned ring!” Yave burst out suddenly. “She cut it from the drow priestess’s hand, and ever since she was not herself. I begged her to let it go, to throw it away and forget about it, and she was almost ready to burn it or drop it into the Suldanesse rapids but then you had to show up and tell her about its magic! Why on Toril did you do it? Could not you see how dangerous it was?”
“Wait,” Jon looked perplexed, and not a little uncomfortable, “are you telling me you were actually there? So, Bodhi was not lying. There was a dead drow elf in the stone coffin.”
“She told you! And you gave it back to her nonetheless!”
“At first, she declared that she had found it on the floor of some old tomb but after I caught her stumbling over the details, she reinvented her story, and told me she carved it from the drow corpse herself. How should I know she was not making it up to sound more credible?”
“I saw her do it.” Yave shivered, as if feeling the cold of an opened grave seeping into her bones again. “And I could not sleep easy ever since. When I found out by accident that my sister was wearing that thing around her neck as an amulet, I almost fainted. And she told me you were the one who unlocked its power, and told her how to use the finger and the ring on it.”
“You are holding me responsible for Bodhi’s latest indiscretion.” Jon looked at Yave impassively, as if daring her to blame it all on him but Velemir could tell that under that blank facade he was feeling more and more uneasy. “Now, what would you want from me in retribution? Force her to give up the ring and relinquish your lover?”
His sister returned that scornful gaze with equal passion, and for the second time tonight Vel noticed how much alike they looked. Unlike Bodhi, Yave had Jon’s pale-silver tresses, and her eyes, albeit milder in color and of greener aquamarine tone, had the same bold, slanted cut.
“I knew you would do nothing, so it was my turn to act, wasn’t it?” she asked haughtily. Her eyes blazed like two pale ghostlights amidst a field of snow and ice. Then her shoulders slumped, her pallid face crumbled into a grimace of pure despair, and she wailed like a little girl over a broken toy. “I did it. I knew I shouldn’t have, but I wanted her to feel how badly did she hurt me. I wanted her to say she was sorry! Yesterday, she was out for the entire night, most likely meeting Keth. This morning, when she finally came back home and went to the bathhouse, I took the finger out of the bag that she keeps it in, and replaced it with a stick. Then I put the damned thing into a sealed pouch, and carried it to the Palace.”
“You did what?” Jon asked incredulously.
“I took it to the Palace, and gave it to the royal steward as an offering to queen Ellesime. She is the child of the Seldarine and thence she would know what to do with it, and how to neutralize its dark magic. I only wanted my sister back, and could not see any other way to free her of that influence!”
“No, it cannot be. Tell me that you are lying,” the feelings reflected on Joneleth’s ashen face were so intense, that even Yave drew a sharp breath. Her brother’s features were creased in horror mixed with revulsion, and almost religious awe. “To think of her golden hands actually touching that thing, her eyes being polluted by looking at it ... it is offence to her very nature!”
“He did not worry much about his sister wearing it on her neck,” Velemir thought in astonishment, “and now he is talking about ‘polluting’ Ellesime’s eyes? They say agnostics make most devoted fanatics. With all his outward cynicism, who would have guessed that he is a closet romantic, secretly worshipping the very ground she threads upon?” The half-elf looked at his friend sharply but Jon was already out of his shocked trance.
“Tell me – did anybody recognize your face?”
“Of course they did,” Yave looked at him wide-eyed. “I made no secret of it. And I sealed the pouch with Mother’s signet ring. I need you to tell Bodhi about it, as you are the only one to whom she may still listen. She has very little time to confess everything, and throw herself at the queen’s mercy.”
Velemir knew the house Ithilnien insignia – a pale-blue crescent moon with an azure eye shedding a single silver tear, on a sable shield. He wondered idly if there was any chance that Ellesime would not recognize it at first glance, even in a wax imprint.
“When did you take it to the palace?” Jon asked urgently. His voice sounded hollow, and there were visible signs of inner struggle on his face. Vel noticed with disbelief that the moon elf’s lips trembled when he spoke.
“About two hours ago,” Yave said haltingly, “I knew Bodhi would start looking for it, and wanted to give her a chance to find me first. She never even tried. And nobody of our friends had seen Keth’roen since the last night. Then I decided to find you but you were at the Palace the whole day, enjoying the queen’s favor. And I felt so wretched, and so alone. I needed to do something... Joni, you look terrible. Do you think the queen is going to punish her severely? It cannot be that bad, you would not have given it to her if it was.”
“If they did not open that parcel yet, we may still have a chance.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, there is still a small possibility that we can avert the catastrophe that you brought upon our heads. Do you even realize what would happen after she opens it? You maybe accused of trying to harm the Queen, if you are especially unlucky. If not ... this family name, my name would be sullied unremittingly by this disgraceful jest. And all of it for what – a moment of petty revenge?”
“He is exaggerating of course.” Velemir thought briefly. “Or is he? Queen Ellesime is wise and kindhearted ... but the whole affair reeks of treachery and drow dark magic. And I bet there are many at Ellesime’s court that would like to see him fall out of favor with her. Does he really think this will ruin the family name? There maybe repercussions but I doubt it will get that far ... But his chances to win the queen’s affection maybe destroyed forever.”
Ithilnien - Moontear (elv.)