CHAPTER THIRTY SIX
28 of Uktar 1371, Year of the Unstrung Harp
On the morning after our egregious rescue mission, I woke up feeling sick. Doubts were gnawing at my heart like a pack of hungry rats - it was an indescribable but very real condition, more of a spiritual than a physical nature, which nevertheless had very material ramifications. I imagine I was feeling more or less like a patient suffering from undiagnosed cancer at the stage when the disease has just begun to set its invisible hooks into their flesh: insidiously pulling at the still healthy tissues, causing small twinges of pain, and filling the bloodstream with deadly poison. The body of such a person already knows it is dying, but on the surface the sufferer looks only slightly pale and detached. A sense of impending doom filled my every pore, and my mind was mired in doubt, yet I could not make myself either force a resolution by visiting Castle Faemtam and requesting an audience with the elven Envoy, or try to escape the danger without finding an answer to the riddle of the mysterious elf in the corridor.
The main symptom of my malady was, of course, the return of the nightmares. They had resurfaced immediately after the fateful meeting, and had haunted my every night from that moment on. Time after time, I dreamt of a tree-city on the forested banks of a moonlit river... but it was burning, and the night air was filled with oily smoke rising into the heavens from the blazing trees and houses alike. In those dreams, everything stank of burning meat and charred bone, and the swaying suspension bridges between the city’s talans were smeared red. Night after night I stalked those bridges, leaving a trail of death in my wake, killing and being killed in my turn, and then falling through the green haze of interwoven tree branches into an immeasurably deep burning pit with a sharp stake at the bottom. Every time I reached the end of my fall the broken tree limb pierced my stomach, and the flames of the inferno swathed me in a blazing shroud of agony, melting flesh off my bones but mercilessly leaving me fully conscious throughout every instant of the hellish experience.
Yet another nightmare that I had been having with maddening repetition was that of being torn to pieces by a silent crowd of somber-eyed tattooed warriors, dressed in naught but animal skins and feathers. Most frighteningly, every one of them always had the familiar features of the elf from the theater. But oddly enough, all these horrific dreams and mysterious portents failed to make me feel any sorrow or regret.
Yes, I was strangely defiant about my visions. I had no doubt that they were recurrent images of my alter-ego’s crimes and subsequent punishment, but since I could not truly recognize the elven city, or the faces of the numerous corpses with which I seeded her streets, I also could not truly acknowledge the crimes as my own or feel remorse. I did not understand these dreams. Aluril had spoken only of one object of Joneleth’s nefarious passion – the monstrous Tree, whose burning silhouette always hovered at the edge of my vision in every one of the nightmares. The rest of the recurrent scenery was somewhat of a puzzle. Had he gone berserk after his original crime? Or had that illusionary carnage been only a vague allegory? Even so, I was upset with my perceptible lack of emotion. Surely, so many deaths should have produced a stronger reaction? But perhaps the surrealistic feel of the events had something to do with my indifference? I could not believe the slaughter had really happened - and therefore dismissed it as a sick fantasy.
Still, acknowledged or not the consequences of these dreams were very real. Elven laws and traditions were as alien to me as those of humans, but I was positive that someone banished by his people for causing a tragedy on such a grand scale would be in great danger if he was ever recognized by his former compatriots. In fact, it was astounding that Joneleth had been left alive... but since I knew little of the Elven Spirit, and of what the severance from it might have meant to him, I could not form an objective opinion on the severity of his punishment. Just thinking of it made my head throb with renewed intensity, but for once I ignored the pain and tried to concentrate on the few well-known facts - these were sparse and highly controversial.
After the water weird had spoken about the Spirit I had experienced a terrible fit of longing: for a fleeting second I had almost ‘remember’ the link, and ‘felt’ the flow of energy gently swirling under the glossy green skin of every trembling leaf and grass blade in Aluril’s little oasis. But the moment had passed almost as quickly as it had been granted, leaving the taste of ashes in my mouth and filling my heart with bitterness. In her further, even more puzzling allusion, the oracle had mentioned that after I had been ‘pardoned’ by the elven gods, I had received a human soul in place of my long-lost elven spirit. The significance of this fact, which had re-confirmed the taking away of my elvenness and my separation from the People, had eluded me at the time, and afterwards I had preferred to ignore the unpleasant questions that had no answers.
There lay the most fundamental problem of my condition: the Seldarine wished me to atone for the crime I could not remember, for the sake of a reward that I could not appreciate. It was hardly surprising that I could not desire the return of something I would not treasure - and I understood nothing of my condition, and cared little for the link with the Elven Spirit. My main priority was, and had always been, the return of my memories. Yet, I was scared of what these memories might bring, for that bitter-sweet moment in the desert had given me a taste of the phantom pain, the magnitude of which I was as yet unable to comprehend. (Looking back at that particular moment of my existence I cannot but laugh at my naiveté – one should always remember that wiping one’s memories clean could not change their nature, and my innate scientific curiosity had always exceeded the level that would have been sufficient to make entire population of Faerun’s domestic cats extinct as species.)
Snapping back from the painful reverie I thought of my current situation. I did not doubt that some sort of recognition had taken place in the theater. The subsequent disappearance of the elves had been suspicious, and my own decision to do nothing about it plain reckless. I suppose my subconsciousness had been aware of the growing danger all along, but since my intellect refused to acknowledge its material implications the only way my inner turmoil could spill out was into a physical malady. Thus I was queasy with expectations, and my body was running a mild fever caused by anxiety. To put it bluntly, I was sick with worry but was doing nothing to eliminate the underlying reason.
For a while I sat in my bed, watching the pale rays of sunlight creep across the polished oaken floor and trying to suppress the pangs of a mild headache, until I belatedly realized that the time was drawing close to noon - which meant I had slept through the hours of my usual morning visit to the Queen’s market, and now it was too late to go. By the time I arrived, the tavern, which in the early mornings served as a gathering place for professional caravan guards, would be filled with merchants munching at their late lunch and guzzling the most popular local beer, known as Zaranda’s Royal Lager, (in honor of the queen who was renowned for her wild adventuring youth as a mercenary captain).
The very thought of food and drink made me nauseous, even though I had not eaten properly for a very long time. The previous day had been spent in endless waiting in various public offices, and later I had been too exhausted to even look at the food. I sighed, and crawled out of my bed in a mood which could be best described as mildly dangerous. Kessen had a lot to answer for, and the scolding that he had received from his sister, (who had not stopped talking even for a moment all the way from the city jail to the Unicorn), had been only a small fraction of the punishment he was due.
The story behind the disaster with his imprisonment was dubious, and I already decided that it would need further investigation. From what little Kessen told us after we had delivered him home, at the moment of his arrest he had been utterly drunk. Eldoth had convinced him to spend one more evening gambling at the Deep Guilders festhall before committing himself to the self-imposed abstention. Supposedly, at some point during the evening when he had run out of coin once again, Kessen had tried to use Mirri’s golden scissors as a stake, and someone had recognized the bauble. Remarkably, the boy could not remember either how the scandal had started, or where his friend Eldoth had been when the city guard had dragged him out to jail.
When I finally ventured out of my bedroom in search of the basic essentials of civilization, the whole group was seated around the big fireplace in the loggia in a family-like gathering. Mirriam and Omwo were quietly discussing something, while Miamla was sprawled on the rug at their feet in deep contemplation over a scrap of parchment – most likely her latest finger-painting. Kessen still looked crestfallen despite the night’s rest, and I noted with some satisfaction that one of the lately acquired bruise marks on his cheek - the most obvious of his ‘trophies’ after the night out on the town - had turned a deep black with vivid purple edges. (Presumably, the prison guards had not bothered with good manners.) After giving it a brief consideration, I concluded that for now the boy was tethered to the Unicorn, as his vanity would never allow him to be seen in this condition, even if his noble ‘friends’ did not shun him for his scandalous arrest. And with good luck we would be safely out of Darromar before he could think of a way around his debacle.
They all turned their heads in my direction as I entered the living room, but Kessen was the first one to speak out.
“There is still plenty of hot water in the bathing room if you want it, effendi,” he offered with a sheepish grin. “I asked a maid to bring some extra. And we will order you some late breakfast if you wish, as you take your bath.”
I looked him over, slowly and purposely, noting that his hair was still wet from his own ablutions. Kessen’s dress was rather modest today, and his hands were free of his usual collection of gaudy rings. I decided that most of them must have been sold, while the rest had ended up in the pockets of the prison guards.
“Commendable.” I suppressed the wave of nausea that the mention of food had stirred in my stomach. “But Kessen, from this day on I would prefer that you call me Master - at least for as long as you are in my employ.”
The boy blanched and tried to say something, choking on his words.
“And you will stand up when addressing me,” I finished firmly.
“I’ll be damned if I will!” He cried out angrily, but received a sharp jab in the ribs from his sister and jumped to his feet, glaring at her with an expression of pure hatred.
“Remember what I told you?” Mirri hissed vindictively. “You have made a fool of yourself by listening to Eldoth. Now be enough of a man to keep your word and take your punishment.” She added a few epithets in impassioned Alzhedo, and her intonation left no doubt about the meaning of her words.
Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised by this attitude, as knowing the girl’s loyalty to her family I had expected Mirri to jump to her twin’s defense. Still I waited, looking at her brother mockingly from the height of my extra few inches. Kessen was not particularly tall for a human, and I was happy to use every advantage I had over him to break his obstinacy.
“You will pay for this,” Kessen muttered, looking at his hands that were once again caressing the hilt of his belt knife, “by Lady Luck - there will come a day when I will make you pay through the nose for this, ‘Master’!” This last word was practically spitted out.
“You already did,” I sighed with purposeful exaggeration, “but, Kessen, if it chafes you so I will be more than happy to release you from this unwanted servitude. All you have to do is to pay me back two thousand golden Stars right now.”
“What?” Kessen stared at me with an expression of horror. “Who are you kidding, effendi? Stars are doubloons, which makes it four thousand honest Calimshite Suns!”
“I paid almost two thousand pieces of gold in various bribes for your release, the rest amounts to what you owe Eldoth Kron and various other creditors. I presume you don’t have this sum on your persona at the moment?” I nodded mournfully. “Then it is ‘Master’ for you, my boy. Since I will be responsible for your upkeep and clothing, I will put your wages as roughly two coppers a day. Let’s calculate how many years it will take you to work off your debt.”
“Two coppers a day! You are a greedy vulture!”
“Master if you please. And I am merely being practical. So far, the only skill you seem to have mastered properly is how to reliably get yourself into trouble. But don’t worry, in a year or so I will make it three, if you show some assiduity.”
I will spare the reader the rest of that conversation. But by the end of it my mood had improved significantly, whilst Kessen had been driven into a corner and forced to agree to almost all of my harsh and highly embarrassing conditions. Although, after a few pleading glances from his sister, I had deigned to drop the most humiliating part and settle on the title of ‘effendi’ – a Calimshite word for an ‘educated scholar’ or a ‘teacher’, which Kessen had been using anyway ever since we had arrived in Darromar.
Yet again I was pleased with Mirri’s disposition: supporting me against her own flesh and blood must have been somewhat of a sacrifice, but her twin’s antics deserved nothing less. Besides, after the day and the night that we had been forced to spend in each other’s company traveling around Darromar and offering bribes to various local bureaucrats, we had managed to establish a new sort of understanding. It was a far cry from the humorous light-hearted camaraderie that had existed between us before her brother’s first ill-fated escapade in the Temple of the Water Woman, but still a pleasant change from the restrained embarrassment of the later days.
The girl’s eyes would still be drawn to my face when she thought I was not looking, even as her breath would become quicker and her cheeks would flush red, but nowadays I had found it flattering rather than annoying, and at least she had stopped pretending she was in love with someone else. In addition to this gratifying display, in every office which we had visited throughout our quest, I had enjoyed looks of envious approval from every male citizen of the pubertal age – something I would have missed entirely before the events of the last three weeks.
But even after his sister’s gracious interference my bargain with Kessen had been harsh. He was charged with the task of making a list of his remaining valuables, and another one, of his various smaller creditors whom he would have to visit individually. After the boy removed himself to his room, (still grumbling and complaining as loudly as ever), I checked the small round table by the front doors of our apartment, on which the Unicorn servants deposited our correspondence, and which usually had abounded with dozens of scented invitations.
Today it held a few less aesthetic notes in grubby envelopes, mostly with bills from various traders in luxury goods. It was not surprising, as the rumor mill had almost instantly spread the news of Kessen’s downfall across the city, and the merchants had been eager to collect what they could while he was still paying. Normally I would not have touched these, but since the boy’s debts were now my responsibility I sighed and collected the whole bunch to sort through them during a quick meal that Omwo had ordered from the Unicorn kitchens despite my half-hearted objections. To my great irritation, the halfling had insisted that any kind of a deal would benefit from being discussed on a full stomach, and after bickering with him for a few minutes I had agreed to humor his belief, as he had promised to share my financial burden of settling Kessen’s debts.
As I quickly checked the mail, finishing my first cup of tea and eyeing the plate of toast, smoked fish, and cheese standing next to the pots with jam and butter, (Omwo’s idea of a ‘light meal’ was quite remarkable), there was a quick rap at the door, and a blushing maid in a white apron over a dark green uniform handed me another bundle of mail, supposedly delivered only minutes ago. A quick look at this fresh pile of letters was enough to send my heart tumbling down into my stomach – it contained a document which stood out among all the other correspondence as much a live flower would stand out amidst a bunch of silk and paper ones. It was a small scroll wrapped in a casing of soft green leaves and tied with a cord; it was sealed with a small blob of yellow wax that smelled sweetly of honey, and the seal had been pressed with a signet bearing the outline of an oak leaf.
I squashed the seal between my shaking fingers, and tore the cord away, baring the little scroll.
Vedui' heru en amin, Demadan E’resse...
I gulped, almost dropping the scroll. The graceful symbols of the elven script danced before my eyes, blurring into jumbled nonsense. The letter was a very polite inquiry as to why I had not answered the previous invitation, and whether I would find it possible to visit Her Excellency, the Honorable Envoy of the Elven Court of Suldanessellar in her quarters at Castle Faemtam on the first day of Ringare (Nightal), or whether I would like to suggest another, more convenient date for our rendezvous. The language of the epistle was extremely refined, if somewhat dry, but it was strongly emphasized that the meeting would benefit all of the involved parties as it would help to dispel certain distressing misapprehensions, and that avoiding it again would be inadvisable. There was no personal signature at the bottom, and for all I knew, in human culture it might have been considered a grave insult.
“Curse it!” Instantly I was on my feet, and striding towards the front door. “This is the second letter they have sent me. I need to find out what happened to the first. If the serving wench is responsible, she is going to be extremely sorry when I get my hands on her!”
But even as my fingers touched the doorknob, I felt a tug at the hem of my robe and had to look down, furious at the delay. From somewhere near the level of my knees, Miamla stared up at me with an air of reluctant sadness, and I noted absently that her childish face, which in the past had been unanimated and aloof, now looked very enlivened and intense. One of her small hands clutched a scrap of parchment, covered with an elaborate web of sylvan script.
“So, it was your doing I presume?” I was stunned at the sudden icy coldness of my own voice. The little dragon sighed and offered me the parchment, on the back side of which she had painted a few winged creatures with long necks and snake-like tails.
“Miamla could not read the letter,” she explained in reluctant Elven. “But she thought it will make Joneleth upset, so she kept it for herself.”
“By the Gods - not that name again!” I forgot myself enough to reply in Common, and bit my tongue - the syllables of my elven name were easy enough to identify, even to the ear unfamiliar with Quenya, and I suspected that Omwo was far less inept in High Elven than he always pretended to be.
I snatched the defaced letter from the dragonette’s hand and quickly scanned through it – the original invitation was also written in Elven, in the same curly elegant hand, and had been likewise left unsigned. There was no point in scolding the child for hiding it - the epistle had been delivered on the next day after the ill-fated meeting at the theater, and the date of the suggested appointment had passed two days ago. I stared back at Miamla, unsure if I should laugh or weep at her naiveté. If only I could truly make my problems go away by ignoring them!
Shaken and distressed, I turned to my remaining two companions, they were both watching me, Omwo with an air of subdued curiosity, Mirriam with avid compassion. Of course, hiding the nature of the letters and my distress over them was now out of the question – surely some explanation was in order. Instantly, I felt an overpowering desire to escape the complications. I tried to think rationally, to subdue the sudden fit of panic, to think of a solid lie or a logical half-truth; but my instinct took over - the urge to flee any company and seek comfort in solitude was too strong to resist. Thus, all I could do was turn on my heels and leave the Unicorn, stopping only to grab my outdoor cloak from the rack by the fireplace.
When I finally recovered some measure of self-control, I found myself leaning over the dirty brown waters of the river Ithal, with my hands tightly squeezing the rusting iron railing of the city’s central bridge. I remembered the spot. It was the same place to which I had once fled to expel senseless anger over my inability to remember the elven woman named Ellesime. Perhaps the sound of the running water had a soothing effect on me? Or maybe I was hypnotized by the thought that the currents of the Ithal, which ran almost parallel to its sibling stream, the river Sulduskon, eventually flowed into the Trackless Sea, mixing with the waters of the Suladanesse? It mattered little; but my earlier behavior had been reckless and detrimental to my ego. I should have exercised better restraint… And if I wanted to keep my followers under control, these kinds of outbursts were an unacceptable luxury.
I span around, glaring at Mirriam in silent disapproval, then took a deep breath and closed my eyes, slowly counting to ten and trying to suppress the imminent fit of temper. She was lucky that she approached me after I had vented out most of my frustration.
“How did you find me?” I asked bluntly.
“I have been following you from the inn,” the girl admitted defiantly, and sneezed. She was wearing her assassin outfit again, and these garments, while convenient and enticing, were a bit light for the Tethyran autumnal weather. “I was worried, you see! You stormed out of the Unicorn as if all the devils of the Nine Hells were after you.”
“Worried about what? Thanks to Zaranda’s efforts, Darromar is reasonably safe in the daytime. And I doubt you will find a thug in this city willing to risk limb and life for the questionable benefit of robbing me.”
I was bluffing, of course, but hopefully Mirriam still had not learned the truth about my most embarrassing handicap – namely my inability to defend myself from humanoid attackers, if the geas perceived them as ‘innocent’ of malicious intent. The full measure of this disability was unclear even to myself. I had been able to use magic against the Naga and the undead spirit worm without causing myself any harm. On the other hand, casting a magic missile on the halfling, who had been under a domination spell, had backfired badly.
“I am not worried about robbers, you… idiot!” The girl stomped her foot in frustration. “I simply thought that you might need somebody to talk to, after your initial fit of nerves ran its course. Kes often comes to me to vent and complain after he gets himself into trouble, like he did yesterday. It does help, you know!”
The girl’s cheeks were bright pink again – this time from the exercise of rushing after me through half the city on a brisk autumnal afternoon. Her expression was such a comical mix of defiance and concern that I could not resist – my anger thawed faster than the thin film of ice over puddles of mud under our feet. It looked like today even Nature herself wanted to encourage reconciliations. It was one of the last days of the dying autumn - the Nightal with its flurry of snowflakes and freezing blue nights was only a few days away. But miraculously, the pale winter sun had decided to grace us with its final gift and the sky above the dirty cobbled streets and weeping gray walls of the Tethyran capital was clear blue, with only a few distant feathers of white clinging to the edges of the horizon.
“Well, now that you’ve found out that I am fine, what do you intend to do?” I inquired after a rather long and embarrassing pause.
“Maybe we should go and eat something?” Mirriam suggested suddenly. “You did not touch a single crumb on that table before running out, and I know that men generally aren’t rational when they are hungry.” The smile was most becoming on her bright and lovely face, and her whole being seemed to hum with healthy energy. “You don’t have to tell me anything if you don’t want to,” she added after a while. “I swear I will not ask any questions - I know how annoying that can be when you are trying to figure things out for yourself. Still, having a hot meal will not hurt your thought process.” The girl grinned suddenly, “and I know just the place on the other side of the bridge, which serves couscous, and kabob that does not taste like rat!
“Trust you and your brother to have sampled every Calimshite eatery in Darromar,” I replied solemnly. “You know I am not that enthusiastic about spicy foods - I have had enough of Omwo’s experiments on the march.”
“Then we shall find something suitable for your refined tastes, effendi,” Mirriam grinned at my sour expression. “But whatever you think about our food, you have to agree that the northerners cannot brew decent coffee, and what they pass for tea tastes like diluted camel piss!”
“Having not tasted the latter, I will abstain from articulating an opinion.”
“Now you sound like your old self… and do I take it for a ‘yes’?”
I only shrugged at her enthusiasm, but it was already too late. Mirriam grabbed me by the sleeve, gradually taking possession of my elbow, and I had no other option but to follow her across the bridge, and into the busy streets of the Temple Quarter.
I believe we walked through half of Darromar that day. First, we traversed the twisted network of streets and alleys in the pretentious and sedate clerical district, saturated with cloying herbal smokes and haunted by priests in multi-hued robes peddling their respective faiths to eager petitioners of both sexes, who were more than ready to spend their last coin on such a fickle commodity as hope. But frankly – who can swear he has never been tempted to follow the suit, and throw himself at the mercy of one divine patron or another? True to my own agenda, I adamantly refused to enter Tymora’s temple, though my fair companion ventured inside to pay brief homage to the human goddess of luck. Next, I saw her eyeing the giant gilded cupola of the Temple of Sune, but ignored the wistful looks and meaningful sighs.
When I finally succumbed to hunger, we consumed a hearty lunch in the semi-dark, spice-smelling dining room of the Asdefk’s Saffron Court. (Mirriam was right – it was the only place in town where they knew how to make the delicious hot drink out of the pungent dark-brown beans brought from Maztica.) I had never thought myself to possess a sentimental streak, yet the spicy food served in traditional Calimshite cups of fine porcelain, and the flatbread baked in the authentic tandir instantly reminded me of the months I had spent in Chyil’s care, and of our visits to the market that was Amkethran’s most important public place. I briefly wondered if the old man was still wondering about my fate, or if he had finally put me out of his mind as would have been fitting.
“I sent a letter to Chyil from Fort Qian,” Mirriam said out of the blue, and stuffed her mouth with the last piece of a cinnamon-and-walnuts pastry.
She pointed to her mouth that was now dribbling honey and crumbs of walnuts, and tried to say something through teeth stuck in sticky dough. I patiently waited for her to gobble the rest of her dessert; then watched her lick honey off her fingers. The view was rather... enticing, and I wondered briefly - how would her lips taste right now, after all that honey and vanilla? Upon entering the cozy warmth of the restaurant, she had shed her leather jacket, and now I could once again enjoy the fair view of her tanned neck and bosom in the low cleavage of her silk shirt. The girl caught my eyes and blinked, suddenly turning shy and reserved. Her fingers fidgeted with her fork. I wondered if with her tendency to blush all the time and my idiosyncratic reservations we were going to get anywhere at all.
“I was asking about your letter to Chyil?”
“Oh yes,” Mirriam mumbled without raising her eyes, “I met a smuggler in Fort Qian, who claimed he was traveling to Ihfazuur. And since it is only fifty miles away, I gave him a gold piece to make a detour to Amkethran. I knew Chyil would be worried about you... so I wrote that we have met, and that you were going to be alright.” The girl gave me a brief glance, making sure I was not mad at her. “I did not write anything about the treasure, or the dragons, or that we were headed to Evereska!” She hurried to confirm. “I only mentioned we might go to Darromar, if the Gods were willing...”
“The Gods are always involved one way or another, are they not?” I asked warily, looking at my own hands playing with the cheap tableware. “Let’s get out of here, now that we have eaten. I need some fresh air.”
I left a sizeable tip for the fawning barkeep, and we headed outside, onto the overcrowded streets and treeless boulevards of the Tethyran capital. All of a sudden, I felt the desire to talk. The miserable tension of the last few days brought me to the point when I was almost ready to bare my heart to any kindly inclined stranger – if only I could make sure that they would forget everything I had told them immediately after the conversation.
Mirriam was a different story though… She was not going away in the foreseeable future, and I did not wish to harm her... at least not in a way that she would dislike. Lately, I had been feeling rather possessive of her insignificant persona; she was something I was not willing to give up, if only because toying with her emotions gave me undeniable pleasure... of a rather peculiar nature. But the game was drawing to an end - even I could see that that I would soon have to bed her or let her go, and making this choice was a worrisome if tempting step. I was not sure if my overtaxed brain would respond favorably to intimacy of any kind, although I could no longer deny the needs of a young and healthy male body. In the last few weeks, the shortage of physical exercise and a rich diet combined with the continuous proximity to a young attractive woman, (as well as her supposed ‘affair’ with Eldoth), had been taking their toll on me. It was an embarrassing and ultimately unwelcome condition that had been made worse by my other problems. Having frequent fits of nervous anxiety accompanied by nightmares and outbursts of temper was bad enough - but when these were complemented by the urges of a suppressed libido, things became virtually intolerable.
We walked back to the Ithal Bridge, unsure of where to go next. I could not force myself to return to the Unicorn, as the mere thought of spending another miserable evening mulling over my fears was giving me a headache. Yet, I refused to make the ultimate leap of accepting the invitation of the elven Envoy; I had no desire to be executed for something I could not even remember. Ultimately, as we reached the bulwark alongside the Ithal, and instead of turning in the direction of our inn continued strolling down the paved embankment towards the imposing bulk of the Castle Faemtam, the troubling tale of my self-discovery began to pour out of my mouth, first in short torturous phrases, then in heated narrations. I had not planned it at all. Even though I felt a certain desire to impress and seduce Mirri with my unhappiness, it was more of a deep craving to have someone to share it with, than a planned diversion. It was also a big risk on my part, as the girl could have been instantly averted by the cruelty of my tale. But I have to give it to Mirriam - she was a good listener, with a knack of asking just the right questions at the right time, and letting the story unravel without interruption when I was falling into one of my more energetic recitals.
I relayed to her almost every little scrap of what I knew myself – with the notable exception of my nightmares of torture and mayhem, and the dreams about the elven woman who had called herself my Queen. Those visions had been too personal to share with anybody. It is also worth mentioning that I could not bring myself to tell the whole truth in an objective and dispassionate manner. In my version of events, I was a misunderstood hero, exiled and persecuted by my own people for boldly experimenting with new potent magic, and for unknowingly causing a catastrophe that killed many of them. Of course, it produced the likely reaction – by the end of my tale the girl’s eyes shone with unshed moisture.
Not that I had been set on achieving this result from the start... I believe I simply needed to relay my troubles to someone who would listen. But who would not be prone to embellish his virtues and lessen his vices while sharing his story with a pretty young woman? At least I had mentioned all the real facts, starting from the strange leather outfit in Chyil’s closet, and ending with the revelations that the late dragon had uttered upon her demise. To my utter amusement, Mirriam was more impressed by Aluril’s lovely appearance, than by her fantastic prophesies, or by the fact that Miamla turned out to be a young silver wyrmling. (I wisely avoided mentioning the stolen eggs and the magical trap, opting instead for a vague mention of Adalon being an old friend of my alter ego’s - this was a half-truth that served as an excellent cover, by virtue of being close enough to reality.)
“I have always known there was something wrong with Miamla,” was Mirri’s only comment. “She is too bright even for an elven child. I am glad she did not turn out to be your illegitimate daughter though.”
“No need to blush,” I replied with a dry chuckle, “and I believe I told you once, that elves have no notion of ‘illegitimacy’ - it is a purely human invention.”
She only nodded and seized my elbow once again, gradually sliding her hand down, until her warm fingers intertwined with mine. It was a strange feeling – not exactly unpleasant, but uncomfortable all the same.
For a while, we strolled forward in silence. Eventually, our feet brought us to the very walls of Castle Faemtam - the route was only too familiar to me. But instead of going up the ramp and entering the massive gates of the Royal Residence and its spacious courtyard, we turned downward and descended upon the marble staircase leading into the heart of one of the most popular projects of the present Queen: the Rhinda’s Garden, named so to honor the mother of Zaranda’s royal consort and the true heir to the Tethyran throne, King Haedrak. I had visited the place before, briefly meeting its elven caretaker. The park was lovely, even in the harsh, cold season of the late autumn. We slowly walked down the steps, pausing only to take another look at the view below – the leaden gray waters of the Ithal flowed past, framed by the black silhouettes of naked trees.
It was on the last landing of this stairway that I finally pulled the freezing girl closer to me and covered her trembling mouth with my own - I was in no mood to dally anymore, and the moment seemed as good as any other. Her lips tasted of honey, her skin burned under my touch. Encouraged by her cooperation, I wrapped her in the heavy folds of my winter cloak, and allowed my hands and lips to wander deep into recesses of her clothing. I had fantasized about this for long enough - the evening dresses that she had been wearing for the last month had been revealing enough to provoke that kind of reaction even in my detached and apprehensive mind. Admittedly, her fitted leathers were somewhat more of a challenge, but eventually I was able to overcome this minor obstacle. Mirriam was enthusiastic and passionate, and it took a major effort of will to stop at the line that I did not wish to cross at this time; it was too cold to engage in more vigorous activities, and in any case, I had no desire to be caught at it in a public place.
Talan – tree platform (elv.)
Star – a Tethyran coin that is equal 2 gp
Sun - Calimshite coin, equal 1 gp
Vedui' heru en amin - Greetings, my lord... (elv.)
Ringare – month of Nightal (elv.)
Asdefk’s – a tavern in the Temple Quarter of Darromar that serves traditional Calimshite cuisine
tandir – clay oven (calim.)