CHAPTER THIRTY THREE
Fall of 1371, Year of the Unstrung Harp
Chyil peered into the gloom, trying to catch a glimpse of the child’s fragile shape. The blazing lantern swung back and forth in his shaking hand; he could already taste the fine mixture of dust and sand carried by the wind. Chyil knew he had no time to waste, as the moment of the diversion was chosen exceptionally well: within an hour Amkethran would be plunged into roaring madness of the sandstorm and her villagers would be trapped inside their houses for hours if not for days. When the storm ended there would be no witnesses to his disappearance, and his body could be easily hidden from view, buried deep under the new layers of sand. Unless of course, the boy’s ‘mistress’ had something different in mind for him... The old priest suspected that even now someone was watching the temple, and that if he tried to raise the alarm the child’s fate would be sealed. Chyil was almost positive that he had deduced Dustan’s condition correctly – the boy was not himself anymore, but rather a pawn in the hands of one of the most horrible abominations that stalked Toril.
Although there was almost no chance of saving the child, Chyil felt he ought to try it anyway. There was a remote possibility that he would be able to deal with a single spawn of darkness on his own. His clerical training was pertinent, and he had Waukeen’s favor. However, the old man’s intuition was screaming at him that that was exactly what ‘mistress Bodhi’ was counting on, his overconfidence. Perhaps she – if it was indeed a ‘she’ – was playing games with him, and the direct invitation was meant to test his mettle? It was also possible that old Ephrahem, the drunkard who had disappeared around the same time as Dustan, had also been turned, and that the ring of darkness was closing around the village even now… But why – Chyil wondered sincerely? What was one of her kind doing in the middle of a sun-drenched desert, where food was scarce and danger almost palpable?
Surely, the main reason of the vampire’s visit to Amkethran had been given to him sincerely. Chyil nodded to himself as he retreated back into the temple and locked the door behind him with a sturdy wooden bar, (a precaution to which he had not resorted for months, ever since Balthazar’s mercenaries had been banished from the streets of Amkethran). After all, if the undead creature simply wanted another meal there were much easier targets in Amkethran than its only resident cleric. The creature wanted to talk about Jon... In all honesty, Chyil was not much surprised at the request. He had always known that there was something dangerous about his former patient, some hidden darkness that lurked under the raw pain seeping from the elf’s shattered mind. Chyil had never been quite sure about its exact nature... but even though he was an expert in matters of spiritual corruption, he had never felt worried that Jon would hurt anybody in the village. Chyil simply knew that during his patient’s stay in Amkethran Jon had never been a danger to anyone but himself. The final confrontation with Farheed had been a surprise, but it had, after all, been thoroughly provoked. Still, the darkness had been there all along, and now the faintest trace of the elf’s presence could be enough to bring wreck and ruin to the village that Jon had called his home for less than six months.
Chyil sighed, and dragged his tired feet away from the front door, walking into the small chamber that usually served as both his bedroom and his office, but in the final weeks before Jon’s departure from Amkethran had been turned into the wizard’s personal study. Afterwards, something had prompted Chyil to collect every piece of paper that the elf had filled with line after line of his bold energetic writing, and lock all those notes in a small wooden box, together with the dried snake head, and a few other trinkets, which had been left in the house after Jon’s sudden disappearance. Now, Chyil took the box from its place on the shelf by the window and added a pair of ruined sandals, and a knife with a broken handle to its contents. The old priest knew the value of things that belonged to an individual, and did not want to risk leaving even a single scrap that might be used as an anchor for a divination spell. He also knew that locating and hiding all the objects that could be tenuously traced back to Jon, was his only hope of bargaining with the vampire.
Now his task was almost complete, but after some short hesitation Chyil finally pulled out a brass key on a chain and opened his strongbox. It was a massive chest, built of sturdy wood, and reinforced with iron. It was perhaps the only piece of furniture in the whole building that reflected a well-known secular function of Waukeen’s temples – to serve as secure vaults for the communal treasure. Chyil rarely accepted such commissions as nobody in the village owned anything valuable enough to be stored in the shrine, and the smugglers and monks had their own treasuries. Yet there was a single item in the box (among the old legers and a few coins left of the temple’s money) that always gave him goose-bumps... But this was not the time for tarrying, so he pulled the grubby cloth bundle that contained a peculiar set of leather armor out of the chest, and added it to the small pile of items on his bed. Considering his guest’s intense personality, it was remarkable how little there was left of him in the house. After another short period of indecision, Chyil lifted that odd collection and carried it out of the bedroom and into the temple proper – a cleanly swept oval chamber strewn with woolen rugs and lit with warm glow of sacred lampions. There he carefully placed his burden on the main altar, silently asking Waukeen to forgive this indiscretion.
The situation was grave, and the only safeguard Chyil could rely upon was the goddess’ holy presence. He knew that no undead creature no matter how powerful would be able to approach the altar itself. Thus, even if the whole village was turned, the altar was the only place that would be safe from the undead intruders. If his suspicions were correct these belongings were Chyil’s only bargaining chip in the gamble for the little boy’s soul and if he was wrong… there was no harm in asking the goddess for extra protection. The old priest was driven mostly by his instinct, but those who live their lives in places periodically shaken by magical earthquakes and invaded by passing dragons, warring armies, irate jinn, and similar sinister creatures tend to rely more on intuition than logic.
15 - 22 of Uktar 1371, Year of the Unstrung Harp
The next week passed at a ridiculously slow pace - I could have sworn that the time itself was dragging its feet, while I felt more and more agitated and confused at my own attitude. The few caravans that departed from the city during that time were headed in entirely wrong directions (or so I insisted), and I pointedly ignored Mirri’s questioning stares, and Omwo’s humorous remarks aimed at my lack of action. Kessen was too busy to care about any long-term plans. The boy acquired a habit of disappearing right after noontime and coming back in the early hours of the morning, and by that time even my rigid stubbornness at pushing ahead with my studies was usually overcome by fatigue. As a result, during those last few days before Eldoth’s premiere performance, I rarely saw him at all.
I was trapped by my own indecision. On the one hand, I could clearly see the dangers of delaying the departure from Darromar. On the other, my head was full of strange half-formed dreams and delusions. The wild vastness of Wealdath, otherwise known as the Great Forest of Tethyr, was less than two hundred miles away and it seemed ridiculous to undertake a long and dangerous journey into the heart of the Northlands when the answers to all my questions lay just across the shallow range of the Starspire Mountains, and the swift currents of the river Sulduskon. I checked the maps in the Royal Library. The name of the smaller stream that forked from the Sulduskon, cutting deep into the endless green masses of Wealdath was Suldanesse. It sounded strange in Common tongue, but I kept repeating it to myself in elven – Sul-dan-esse – the River of the Shining Wind.
Every day I stood under the slating rain on the Ithal bridge, which arched over the dirty brown waters of the Darromarran major waterway, thinking that if I followed the Ithal road and walked across the plains of Tethyr all the way to the mountains, I would soon arrive on the forested shores of the Sulduskon that ran only a hundred miles to the north. Then, if I could find the bend where the Suldanesse branches away into the forest and follow it I would eventually reach Suldanesselar and Ellesime. Ellesime... the name alone had the power to give me shivers. Ever since the dying dragon had uttered it, I kept having visions of a radiant ageless face and a golden cloud of fine hair with a wide band of silver streaking through its rich shining weave… I had no doubt that Ellesime was the woman from my dreams, the one from the elven city called Suldanesselar, which I had seen in at least two or three of my nightmares. The city, whose mythal I had supposedly destroyed, trying to steal its power for myself.
Yet, the mere thought of following the Suldanesse’s flow and facing her filled my heart with dread. Having stolen Adalon’s eggs was bad enough. Stealing the future of the entire city was something her denizens would not likely forgive, even though I could remember neither the crime itself, nor the motives for committing it. As for the woman herself... every time I tried to remember anything about her I experienced a jolt of crushing pain running through my entire body, followed by a wave of nausea. The effect was very similar to that produced by my geas. The ‘Ellesime syndrome’ was shorter and less devastating than the fits of magical sickness that I experienced every time after casting a harmful spell on an ‘innocent’, but after a few experiments I gave it up and locked her image in the deepest basement of my mind. Perhaps, Joneleth had put some sort of a ward on his memories? Or, more likely, it was the work of the Seldarine. But it certainly was another powerful enchantment that I could not tackle in my present condition. That discovery resulted in another fit of searing, impotent rage, and I spent an hour standing on the Ithal bridge without a cloak, letting the rain soak me to the bone, until finally the streams of cold water calmed my temper to a semblance of normality, and I returned to the Unicorn, miserably wet and shivering from the physical effects of my outburst. Luckily, none of the group were around at the time and I was able to pass into my bedroom and change without enduring another verbal assault.
Still, leaving Darromar now, and heading away from Suldanesselar would feel like breaking the only fragile link that tied me to my past, and I was not ready to commit myself to that step even if all the oracles of Toril insisted that it would eventually cost me my life. Therefore, I procrastinated, pretending to look for a suitable caravan but in reality finding feeble excuses to reject each new opportunity. The tension within my little group of followers had abated somewhat, since all of them were preoccupied with their own agenda. Omwo was rarely in, as his new job consumed the lion share of his time, and every time he went back to the theater, he took Miamla with him. The dragon child was so excited about her new found addiction to acting that she could barely speak about anything else even when she deemed to address me, (which was hardly ever). She had already known a few words in Common, but now her ‘human’ vocabulary was quickly expanding, albeit it was still near impossible to understand what she meant when she tried to use it. On the positive side, Miamla was quickly learning how to use her hands and face to express emotions, and that made it easier for her to communicate with the rest of the party. Strangely enough, I felt a little jealous, as my exclusive privilege to understand her was now threatened.
But what about the rest of my companions? Kessen was too busy wasting away his time and money, and his twin sister seemed to be similarly preoccupied with her social life. Yes, Mirriam was unmistakably enjoying herself. Her dresses and coiffures became more elaborate, her jewelry more gaudy and expensive, at some point she had even learned how to use makeup, and would spent endless hours in front of the mirror before leaving for another late-night soiree. Since Kessen was otherwise occupied, most of the time she was accompanied to these gatherings by one or another of her newly acquired cavaliers from the Darromarran bon ton. I wondered how long it would take before she would stop returning to her room for the night. But so far, she had been back every time just before I put out my light. It became a sort of a game, as every evening I checked the stub of my candle trying to guess how short it would be by the time ere I heard a creak of the front door of the apartment, snippets of a brief conversation, the last peals of laughter, and finally, a rustle of her skirts as she slipped past my door to her own bedroom. Sometimes I wondered if the male voice was that of the human bard who employed Omwo at the theater. It was becoming annoying, and every night I had to remind myself that Mirri was free to choose her entertainment as she pleased, and that I should be grateful that she had followed my advice and placed her affections elsewhere. Still, my pride was somewhat stung by the ease of that transition. The girl was pleasant to the eye and her attention had given me back a fair amount of self-respect.
So, that was where the situation stood on the date of the performance. On that day, everybody was agitated beyond their normal levels from early morning, (which is a mild way of saying that the atmosphere in our common room quickly became intolerable). Thus, I took the first opportunity to escape the premises and found refuge in the Royal Library of Castle Faemtam, as was my standard routine. Unfortunately, through that past week Miamla had reminded me about her desire to see me at the theater at least a few dozen times, and I could not think of any reasonable excuse that would allow me to avoid that fate without causing a major rebellion. Of course, I could have ignored her request anyway, and stayed away from the Unicorn until it was too late to fetch me, but an odd worm of curiosity had been eating at my heart for the past few days. My prickled pride needed a reprisal, and thus to my deepest embarrassment I could not dismiss the fancy of meeting Eldoth Kron in person.
When I arrived at the inn at about five hours past noontime, the suite was empty. I was almost relieved, since there was a slight chance that they had forgotten about me, and that would mean that I could spend the rest of the evening reading quietly before the fireplace. But when I entered my room, the first glance inside was enough to banish the idea.
The concoction of turquoise silk and silver thread that occupied the middle of my bed could have only been delivered here on request from one person - and I was not about to give her the satisfaction of seeing me in those robes! Then again, my regular outfit of modest indigo wool was plainly not suitable for the occasion. Curse it - but I had completely forgotten that this outing implied special dress code. I sighed and gave the proffered goods a withering look, but it did not seem to have any effect on the fabric. There was nothing much that I could do, and after spending another ten minutes on deliberations, I was forced to put the thing on and walk into the girls’ bedroom to have a tentative look in the mirror.
It was not really that bad, I was forced to admit after giving myself a brief glance. The robes hugged my shoulders, falling down in a cascade of gleaming silk; a wide silver sash fitted firmly around the waistline, giving the whole figure a slim, aesthetic outline. At any rate, it fitted properly – a feature that I was beginning to appreciate in clothes after spending a few months wearing leftovers from somebody else’s wardrobe. Technically speaking, this was the first set of clothes I had ever owned that was tailored to my personal measures, as upon arriving in Darromar, I had purchased only a few unpretentious second-hand mage robes. Even that had been done mostly to maintain the façade, as the supposed guardian of rich Calimshite siblings could not wear a garb fitting only to a pauper.
I was lucky enough these robes were not purple - I smirked at my own reflection, remembering the clothes that Kri-Niss had burnt to a crisp together with patches of my skin and put my hands into the wide, lavishly embroidered pockets of the new garment. One of them rustled, and upon further examination yielded an envelope that contained a note, and a square of vellum with golden lettering, which informed the reader that the holder of this invitation was a personal guest of the director and should be escorted to a private loggia. I whistled, and stuffed the ticket back into the envelope. The fact that my companions and I all of a sudden received this kind of treatment from Master Kron required further investigation.
The note was brief and unequivocal. Written in Mirriam’s round hand it stated the following:
I hope you like your new clothes. Miamla helped me to pick out the fabrics, and even drew a picture of her ‘father’ for the tailor. It cost a small fortune to make these robes on such short notice. Don’t you dare to be late – the child is frantic to see you at the performance!
The theater was crammed with people – there is no other way to describe the atmosphere of the event, and I will leave the account of the celebratory human crowd to someone who is less misanthropic, and more benevolent towards the entire race. I felt sufficiently annoyed even when forced to visit the city markets, my displeasure with the mob that filled the three-storied edifice of the Magnificent Theater that night was dangerously close to the point of explosion. All I could do to keep my hands from contracting into an involuntary casting stance was to stuff them once again into the deep pockets of my new robes, and clench them into fists, while at the same time maintaining what I hoped was a polite expression glued to my face. Most of the gapers were smart enough to give me a wide berth; still, I caught a few terrified glances from the unfortunates who happened to bump into me as I made my way through the throng that filled the grandiose gilded vestibule.
“Here you are at last! Effendi, you look resplendent in those robes,” Kessen grabbed me by the arm, as I finally reached the set of narrow doors leading into the heart of the theater - a huge auditorium that leaked the soft humming of music and glimpses of red velvet on lavish furniture.
“I cannot return the compliment. Kessen, you look like a prime candidate for a mortuary. Have you been home at all for the last three nights?”
But the boy was already a few steps ahead of me, beckoning me to follow, beaming and nodding at every second face in the hall, introducing me to his many associates in a flighty mix of Common and Alzhedo, (the soft Calimshite dialect to which he often resorted in situations when he was nervous, or needed to cover his tracks). I shrugged and decided to leave him be. I had enough problems of my own without trying to solve his, and he obviously did not want my intervention.
The loggia provided by Eldoth was a cozy affair in the same two overbearing hues that dominated the entire theater. Burgundy and gold were obviously the colors of choice here, and I wondered if Queen Zaranda’s personal taste had something to do with it – the construction of musical theater in Darromar had been her original idea. At the moment, the place was packed, and the epicenter of that little explosion of faces was my two resident females.
Both Mirriam and Miamla wore matching frocks of golden brocade – even their hair was dressed somewhat similarly and covered with identical golden nets studded with green rhinestones. Overall the effect was impressive, but for whatever reason the shiny metallic fabric reminded me of another costume - the outfit of the golden chains that Mirriam had ‘procured’ from Zaureen, and which she had worn throughout our entire adventure in the Naga’s lair. One of those memories was not a particularly unpleasant one, and I smiled briefly remembering her half-naked form as she had clung to me in desperation under the roaring column of icy-cold water.
Mirri must have felt the intensity of my gaze, or maybe it was mere coincidence, but after a few moments of my scrutiny she shifted her eyes from the bearded face of a man who was whispering something into her ear while playing with the fingers of her hand, and spotted me standing at the door of the gallery. The smile fled her blushing face, and her lips formed a silent ‘O’, even as she jumped to her feet and made an involuntary step in my direction.
“Mirriam, you can stay seated if you wish,” I murmured, uncrossing my arms from their habitual posture that my body assumed almost involuntarily every time I stopped to make an observation, and assuming the nonchalant tone of her warden, while noticing with genuine amusement the dark scowl that had began to spread across the face of her male companion. “But please, introduce me to your… friend.”
“Eldoth,” she blushed even deeper, and bit her lip in vain attempt to stifle her confusion, “this is err... Demadan-effendi – our legal guardian and mentor. And this is Eldoth Kron,” Mirri gave me a brief look, squirmed at my frozen smile, and continued with more dignity, “he sings Ylyss’s part in tonight’s performance – that is the brave sea captain who gets shipwrecked on Evermeet, and falls in love with the elven princess.”
I nodded briefly, lowering my eyelids in polite acceptance of her words, but remained silent, enjoying her embarrassment. The girl looked very pretty tonight, and I intended to punish her for her mind games with Eldoth.
Kessen coughed loudly behind my back, perhaps trying to interrupt the awkward scene. I could not spot Omwo anywhere, and decided that the halfling was probably occupied with the play. (It turned out that he was indeed busy arranging things behind the stage, taking care of the last minute lapses, and organizing the crew – something that Eldoth was supposed to do as a director.)
I examined the actor from head to toe - the human was of an average build and height, but his youthful figure and subtly exaggerated poses, combined with the sharpness of his gaze, and artificial modulations of his pleasant voice, spoke of years of training and a habit of public exposure.
“Charmed,” the look that Eldoth gave me could be best described as a mixture of a sour honey and subtle poison. “Your little daughter has quite a talent, Master Demadan. Please remind her to be ready by the beginning of the third act. But I will send someone to come and fetch her, of course.” He patted Miamla on the cheek and turned back to Mirriam. I cringed at this token of affection displayed towards my supposed ‘daughter’, but let it go, as the dragonette seemed quite pleased with his attention.
“My dear,” Eldoth continued, caressing the tops of Mirri’s breasts, well-exposed in her low cleavage, with a subtle sweep of his gaze, “I am sure you have many interesting things to discuss with your... guardian.”
There was a brief murmur, and upsurge of laughter from the other guests. The actor kissed her hand, squeezing it briefly before letting it drop. For some reason, that off-hand frivolity put my teeth on edge, more so than his previous attempts to show intimacy with her.
“You cannot imagine how busy I am tonight!” Eldoth continued with a gesture of comical horror.
If he was so busy, why was he still here - I wondered silently, whilst nodding in acceptance of his departure. Still, the bard lingered at the doors, beaming at the rest of the small crowd that filled the loggia. Those were probably his admirers, who had first clustered around him and Mirriam, and by now were ready to follow him like a tail of a comet.
“My friends, I beg you, forgive my rapid exit!” Eldoth waved his well-manicured hand in a brief salute. “I only wanted to make sure that the young ladies were comfortable here, and that my little ingénue,” he winked at Miamla, “remembers her lines. I am sure Miamla will do exceptionally well – it is her star performance tonight!” The dragonette granted him a sly silver stare and a subtle nod.
The actor shifted his gaze back to me. “Oh, there is something that may actually interest you, Master Demadan. As you probably know already, her Majesty is unable to attend. The youngest of the triplets, little Princess Cyriana - may she bring many years of happiness to all our hearts – has come down with the chicken pox. But we have another guest of ‘special importance’. Tonight, as we celebrate the unity of Tethyran nations under the wise rule of Queen Zaranda the First, the Special Envoy from the Great Forest of Tethyr to her Majesty’s Court at Darromar is gracing our performance with her presence!”
For a moment, the ridiculous pomposity of the recital almost drowned the meaning of his announcement. Then his words finally sank in. Something must have showed on my face, for Eldoth smirked at the unexpected victory. “I am sure her Excellency will enjoy the play, Master Demadan. The elves of the Great Forest are staunch allies of the crown but they are a bit... cloistered, as I have been given to understand. Hopefully, the fact that your daughter has a part in the performance will make an impact.”
I nodded again, murmuring meaningless words of approval at his leering face. Luckily, the actor decided that I was embarrassed at the prospect of the elven ambassador spotting Miamla on stage, and was much satisfied with his snide remark.
I cannot recall much of the interlude before the start of the play. At some point Eldoth must have left with all his queue of chattering sycophants, and the loggia was left empty of all the unwanted visitors. After a few feeble efforts to strike a conversation the twins gave up on their attempts to bring me out of my taciturn mood, and retreated into the corner opposite from mine. Miamla gave me a disapproving scowl, and settled in one of the front chairs with a sizeable bag of sweets and the toy dragon in her lap. I selected the chair at the very back of the loggia, in the shadow of the ornamental pillar that supported the upper galleria. My only hope was to stay there for the entire duration of the play, and pray that ‘Her Excellency’, whoever she was, was too shortsighted and otherwise engaged to spot an individual elf in the huge amphitheater filled with celebratory human crowd.
She appeared just before the third ring of the huge bronze gong that announced the beginning of the performance and of course the loggia that was assigned to her and her retinue was right across the hall from ours. I could clearly see her delicate figure swathed in thick layers of green and gold veil, as she entered her premises. Now I noticed that all around the theater the balconies were richly decorated with garlands of fresh flowers (a costly luxury at that time of year) and multicolored banners that featured the colors of the Royal House of Tethyr, and those of the mysterious elven visitor. The audience met her with a squall of ovations – the elves and the ‘cultural liaisons’ between the Tethyran nations were, after all, the main topic of tonight’s performance. Her Excellency was a frail elven woman, with an unmistakable air of command around her subtle persona, but I could not see the color of her eyes or her hair from my place in the shadows. The other occupants of her loggia were a tall fiery-haired elven male, introduced as Duke Foxfire, and a few elven guards in nondescript green uniforms. I looked at her, marveling, what Her Excellency felt at the sight of so many humans, meeting here to celebrate their unilateral dominance over the weakened elven tribes that were forced to retreat deeper and deeper into their ancestral forests? It was commendable that her visit was marked with nothing less than a play that featured a love affair between the members of the two races… but what were her personal feelings on the matter?
There was, of course, no answer to that question. And to many other riddles, which plagued my depressed mind as I stared at the woman at the opposite side of the hall. What would happen if she could actually see me from there? Would she know me and recognize my face? The color of my new robes was too bright to hide in the shadows through the entire performance. Was the combination of all these subtle events fated, or was it my pure bad luck? At that point, I half-wished that she would notice and recognize me quickly, so that the torment of the uncertainty would be over. But, alas, the evening proceeded in a slow and uneventful manner, and the first act of Eldoth’s dreadful musical went on without any major disturbances.
sul – wind (elv)
dan – shine (v) (elv)
ess – name (elv)