CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT
28-30 of Uktar 1371, Year of the Unstrung Harp
My lips pressed firmly against the hot mouth of my lover, drinking the warm ambrosia of her frantic breath, my hands entangled in the web of her silken locks and twisted garments, caressing the skin that tastes like the most delectable bouquet of spices – it felt familiar indeed… almost to the point of fainting. Albeit it was cinnamon and honey this time, not sweet cedar and roses, and the tresses were raven-black in the shades of twilight, not russet gold. She sobbed quietly, melting under my kisses, and her lips opened in ecstasy, admitting my tongue; her body pressed itself against mine even as her hands sneaked into my robes, and quickly pulled away, as if burnt by their sudden daring. Such sweet innocence… such clumsy sincerity... and who was I to complain or to mock her, to chuckle quietly to myself, even as my own hands continued their expert dance of seduction across her body… Who was I indeed? How did I know what would please her most? And why did it all feel so… lacking?
I came to my senses fast enough. “It is too cold here, little one. We should go back to the Unicorn before the sun sets.”
“Do we have to? I do not want to go anywhere! Why are you so frigid all of a sudden?”
“Patience, Mirriam. Surely, we cannot stay here all night.”
“When we return, will you pretend that all of this never happened?”
“No, I will not. It is not something I wish to forget.”
“But you can, can’t you? Jon... I… I love you! Gods, I was so afraid you would never let me tell you…”
“You have no idea what are you talking about, child. It is getting darker. We should not dawdle here, in the shadows. Your clothes are inadequate.”
“It is quite warm here,” Mirriam objected reasonably, wriggling closer to me under the cloak that was now shared between the two of us. “Do I have to come out?”
“Yes you do.” She stiffened, and I switched to a softer tone, with less of an iron edge in my voice. “My dear, we cannot walk up the stairs like this. I will stumble and crack my head on the stones. Do you really want that to happen?”
“No.” That was followed by a flurry of fidgeting with various hooks and buttons on her clothes, and an exasperated sigh.
Soon, the girl was fully clothed again, although still swathed in the heavy fabric of my cape. Her fingers began to run through the tangled mass of her hair, re-plaiting her braid.
“I am still afraid though,” she admitted after a while.
“Afraid of what?”
“That when we get back you will suddenly become as cold and distant as you always are; that you will never touch me in this way again, and that you will laugh at me when I try to remind you of this evening! It all feels so... unreal somehow. I didn’t not disbelieve your story,” She added anxiously, leaning closer to me and daring to put her hands on my chest again. “Jon-Jon, you are so amazing… Did I tell you that I’ve always thought you must be an exiled elven prince or something?”
The silence that followed could be best described as profound and embarrassing. Then I found the courage to laugh. Months ago, Mirriam had been the first one to help me remember how to smile; only a few days back she had been the first to make me feel ashamed of myself. It was amazing how much difference the ability to experience these simplest emotions could bring into one’s life. Alas, I was now convinced that reeducating me in the matter of love was far beyond her simplistic ways. Try as I might, it was near impossible to summarize my feeling towards her, but two things were clear enough: her affection was a gift of fate, unruly and gratuitous, but I remained coldhearted and ungrateful nonetheless.
The girl’s sinuous curves and sweet mouth were alluring enough to tempt a wali, and her undeniable attraction to my wretched persona made the affair at least plausible, as after my re-awakening in Amkethran I had fallen into a state of emotional lethargy that had been broken only by her relentless pursuit of me. On my own, I would not have lifted a finger to court her, or any other female. Yet a very important element of this budding relationship had been missing from the start – our spheres of intellectual interest were worlds apart, and could never be brought together. The fresh but simple mind of the twenty-year-old human maiden never intrigued me enough to bother with a rational conversation; whereas her emotional outbursts were puzzling and embarrassing.
Mirriam was a good listener, yet she never seemed to seriously analyze any information she was given, which could potentially lead to the invention of more absurd fantasies, like her notion of my ‘noble background’. Yet, I had only myself to blame for providing fuel for her overripe imagination. As for her professed feelings... I was more annoyed than flattered by her declaration of love, for how could anyone in their sane mind fall for a stranger with no memories of his past? Of course she was not in love with me, but rather with her own fantasy of me, and somehow that felt unfair to both of us.
If Mirri was less serious about her feelings, I would have felt more comfortable… but then again, had she indeed been less serious, she would never have managed to make me reciprocate her infatuation. In my present state, it was easy enough to give in to her desires, even though she hardly deserved an initiation in the arts of love performed by a cynic whose only intent would be to satisfy his sudden urges. Yet who could blame me for enjoying the pleasures of the flesh, when they were offered to me in such a sincere and straightforward manner?
“Why are you laughing all of a sudden? Did I say something wrong? Tell me, please! Oh, Jon, stop being impossible - I want to know, what did I say that amused you so?”
“It was not anything worth mentioning. Really, Mirriam, be reasonable. We need to get back to the inn. Indeed, it is getting rather late.”
With that, I unfastened my winter cloak, forcing it on my companion despite her vigorous protests. It did not qualify as an act of gallantry, merely as the practical reasoning of a rational mind. I was less sensitive to cold, and letting her have it now was less of a sacrifice than being compelled to listen to her sneezing and coughing otherwise. I remembered our arrival in Darromar only too well; both of the twins had been miserably sick after only a few days under Tethyran rains. Subsequently, protecting my pretty toy from the dangers of a red and stuffy nose seemed a wise move.
Evening was rapidly advancing upon the deserted grounds of the royal park, and as we walked up the stairs, I saw from the corner of my eye how the last splotches of the sunset’s orange blaze drowned in the brown waters of the Ithal. We had spent the entire afternoon wandering around Darromar, and our amorous overtures had made us oblivious to the encroaching nightfall. For some reason, being outside after dusk in a big city made me feel uneasy, in a way I had never felt when we had traveled in the wilderness. Not that I was seriously worried about the street thugs. Even though I was crippled by the geas, my magical prowess had reached the level where I could discourage the would-be-robbers by utilizing some of the subtler, less violent spells, and hopefully, circumventing the curse. (Lately, I had made a special habit of acquiring scrolls and tomes pertaining to the Schools of Enchantment and Conjuration, although my studies were moving ahead slower than I had originally hoped.) Still, there was a certain something about the dark and empty streets of Darromar that made me shiver in advance, but perhaps it was simply the chill of the quickly descending night.
As we exited the Garden of Rhinda, leaving the grounds of Castle Faemtam behind and turning in the direction of the Gilt Unicorn, I looked at the sky one more time and saw the bright crescent of a new moon rolling amidst the swiftly running clouds, like a small boat in a stormy ocean. A single blue star had risen above the horizon and was hovering between the moon’s horns. It was a beautiful view, but since I now suspected who was behind the tomfoolery of my compulsory ‘redemption’, it made me shrug in annoyance. My own silver crescent was still traveling with me, safely tucked at the very bottom of the pouch that held my spellbook. I had not thrown it away yet, but neither was I going to humiliate myself by openly displaying the sign of Corellon’s patronage.
The way back to the inn took us much less time than our original chaotic journey across the city. After hours of unflagging vocalizations and listening to the sound of my own voice, I was spent and disheartened. Naturally, the telling of my story and the later outbreak of passion did not make things look any brighter. In fact, I felt more wretched and confused than before, and most of all craved to be left alone with my thoughts. At least Mirriam had the good sense to do just that – leave me to my own devices and shuffle quietly at my side with her face hidden in the soft folds of the hood, ignoring me completely. So much so, that by the end of the walk I felt a certain dissatisfaction, as I had expected her to give me more attention.
Most likely, the watcher had been lurking in the shadow of the trees in the patch of greenery that occupied the plaza right across from the Unicorn. But I was so preoccupied with the mix of controversial thoughts and desires simmering quietly inside my head, that I would not have noticed him, even if he had been shadowing us for the length of a few blocks. The Gilt Unicorn was located in the respectable part of the city that could afford streetlights. As we walked by one of the lanterns, which swung precariously from its shaky support on a wooden post, he almost let us pass, waiting until my face was fully illuminated by the fuzzy glow of the oil-lamp. I heard a soft exclamation of warning and surprise from Mirriam; then my attention was drawn away by another voice.
It was not a question per se, or a salutation. The voice was filled with the heavy certainty of command, and my intellect had been rendered numb by my inner turmoil, with all my defenses down, and reactions unchecked. Thus, I was caught unprepared, with a mind laid bare to his trap.
“What do you want of me? I am not going to be intimidated by...” I turned around to face the unseen enquirer. My elven name had been called by a shadowy figure, whose appearance was fully concealed by darkness, but I had answered in Quenya as it had been my first natural reaction.
“Joneleth,” he repeated confidently, as if savoring the name in his mouth. “I am glad we finally have a chance to talk.” The reply was also delivered in Elven, and the quiet satisfaction with the cleverness of his ambush was ringing in his voice. “I have been waiting here for a very long time, now I congratulate myself on my patience.”
I noted with unnatural calmness that his speech pattern differed from that of the few city-dwelling elves whom I had encountered in Darromar. Their Elven had been simplified and contaminated with human inflections, unlike his that sounded like music to my hungry ears.
“Well, I congratulate you in my turn.” I replied ironically, even as my mind was racing through the list of possible defensive incantations. “How can I be of assistance?”
But even as I made a quick step forward in the direction of my vis-ŕ-vis, he recoiled, and I heard a muffled exclamation coming from my other side. I quickly shifted my gaze - Mirriam stood there with two slim blades, (relatively short but wickedly sharp by the look of them), in her hands, her eyes ablaze, my cloak in a jumbled heap at her feet. With all my distress over the sudden appearance of an elf, I could not but feel slightly amused and flattered by her reaction, not to mention surprised at this almost magical appearance of her weapons. Perhaps her training as an assassin had not been a complete waste of time? During my earlier thorough exploration of her persona I had not felt any concealed daggers, so I quickly decided that she had probably had them tucked inside her boots.
“Hey, you, whoever you are! Touch him with one finger and you will have to deal with me! ” She hissed like an angry cat, and jumped between me and my would-be assailant.
“Joneleth, I can only admire your infallible skill of always finding a woman willing to risk her honor, her sanity, and her very life merely for the dubious benefit of bedding you,” was the elf’s scornful reply, this time in accented Common, obviously for the sake of my companion.
I moved closer and got a brief glimpse of a tanned, tattooed face dominated by dark slanted eyes, full of searing hatred. Now I had no doubts about his identity – he was the elven guard that had accosted me in the theater.
“What do you want of me and why?” I exclaimed in distress over my sudden recognition, but the elf simply ignored my question.
“I see you have finally found a way to repair yourself.” He continued with a sneer. “Yet nothing could ever restore your shriveled black heart. Is the maiden aware of what kind of a monster she is cuddling between her breasts?”
“I will not answer a nameless slanderer,” I replied coolly. “Not to mention that the name by which you have called me belongs to someone else. Insofar as it can be ascertained, I am known as Demadan E’resse.”
“Whatever name you choose for yourself, Joneleth, you will always remain Irenicus,” the elf responded in an equally composed voice. “And I do not wish to waste my time listening to your lies. Goodbye, Shattered One, I have learned what I came here for.”
“Wait! Can you at least tell me your name, and how you are related to the one you think is me?” I cried out after him in Elven. “How long did you know him? Why did you seek him out? What was that other name that you used?”
But he was already half a block away, and my only answer was his derisive laughter brought back by a gust of wind.
“Curse you,” I clenched my hands into fists, my nails biting the flesh of my palms with strength sufficient to draw blood. “If you think I am going to run after you – think again!”
“Jon?” Mirriam ran up to me, seizing me by both hands. Her daggers had disappeared as mysteriously as they had been produced. “Do you want me to follow him? I bet I can easily catch up, at least within the next few minutes!”
“No. What would be the point?” I tried to shake her hands off, but she would not let go. “How much of it did you understand anyway?”
“Not much.” Mirri looked back at me with eyes big as saucers, and shiny as fresh puddles of tar under hot sunlight. “He called you Joneleth, and some other names, and you... you responded. If that is your real name - why did not you tell me?”
“What good would that have done?” I answered with a shrug of annoyance. “I was not sure. It was given to me by the Water Woman. But I never truly believed her before today.”
“Really? I have heard Miamla calling you that a few times... but was afraid to ask. Why did you tell her but not me?”
“She learned it from her mother,” I replied briskly, and bit my tongue, quickly remembering how little the girl knew about Adalon, and the dragon’s part in my story. “This is not important. But the fact that they are watching my every step, and that there is nothing either of us can do about it, is.”
“I understand,” Mirri sighed deeply, and lowered her head. Her eyes fell on my hands, still clutched within hers. “You’ve hurt yourself!” She exclaimed softly after taking a brief glimpse at my bloodied palms. “Oh, Joneleth, I am so sorry.”
Without a warning, she drew my hands up, pressing them against her cheeks. At first, I was too surprised to resist, and when I took them away, it was too late – both sides of her face were smeared with my blood.
I only sighed at this outrageous display of foolishness, and withheld commentary, but deep inside my heart my irritation with the girl’s antics battled with a weird feeling of gratification, as if after that childish stunt of hers, a blatantly empty void inside my heart, which had once been occupied by a passion too strong to be endured safely, had been compacted to a smaller size.
When we finally made it to our lodgings, my interaction with the rest of the group was brief and efficient. Mirriam had the good sense to retire to her room, (luckily, Miamla had already been put to bed by the halfling, who had lately appointed himself the dragonette’s mentor and caretaker), and I quickly dismissed all the questions and amused stares of my male companions, making them aware that I would be greatly displeased by any further inquiries. Kessen tried to express his brotherly concern, but I pointed out that his sister had followed me on her own accord, and that he should be grateful that I had delivered her back safely and at a much earlier hour than her regular cavaliers had normally done.
Intended or not, the sheer pace of that insane day had its effect on me - that night I slept like a stone, undisturbed by nightmares or other phantoms brought into existence by my imagination. But the next morning marked a significant shift in my mood: I woke up full of nervous energy born of anger and dismay over the way in which I had been treated by my supposed kin, and, after some deliberations, concluded that I wanted to skip the Envoy’s invitation. Admittedly, after all the hesitation and inner struggle I had gone through, it was the commanding tone of the received letters, and the obnoxious attitude of my elven caller that were the deciding factors behind my sudden change of heart. If the elves really wanted me to cooperate - they could not have selected a worse way to go about it. Truly, I was so disgusted at the previous day’s conversation that I no longer wanted to learn the particulars of my visitor’s personal feelings towards Joneleth. Neither did I care to explain myself to my kin, my pride had been humbled enough and I was not eager to repeat the experience.
Looking back at that highly illogical fit of obstinacy, I cannot but conclude that it must have been a subconscious reaction, produced by my deeply divided and dysfunctional mind to conceal a genuine bout of panic. Most likely, I was dreading the expected revelations to the point of failing to admit the fear to myself, and my rage was feigned to obscure that true reason behind my sudden desire to flee from Darromar. But regardless of that later analysis, the state of my mind on the morn after our little adventure in the Gardens of Rhinda was anything but romantic, and for the length of one day I managed to put the girl out of my mind completely – much to her chagrin and my later regret.
The elven Envoy expected me on the first day of Nightal, thus I had only a couple of days to plan my strategy. It was therefore only natural that I instantly decided to do everything in my power to find a way out of Darromar before the proposed audience. I did not feel bound by guilt or obligation. The elves had expelled my alter ego from their society, and the name of Irenicus - the Shattered One - was a clear indication of their feelings towards me, if only by extrapolation. I knew my mind was shattered – but to receive a mocking confirmation from my accuser’s mouth was a stunning blow. The name stung like an iron brand freshly burnt into my forehead. I had no doubt that my adversary had enjoyed humiliating me in front of a witness whom he had assumed to be my paramour. Every time I remembered the expression on the elf’s face after he had spat out that moniker, I seethed with almost palpable rage. Really, if they wanted this interview to take place, they were welcome to follow me across Faerun and implore politely!
The idea that instead of being asked again I would simply be chased down and executed without a trial had occurred to me, but somehow I dismissed it as extreme. Besides, I was already risking my life for the sake of my ungrateful relations, by virtue of traveling to Evereska through a swath of hostile lands swarming with monsters of all kinds. Having a bunch of vengeful kin follow me through the woods and across the plains added uncertainty to that already dangerous adventure, yet if the elven gods were truly involved in the plot they would protect me against their overeager flock. And if they were not… then I still had free will and the right to make my own decisions, but my trip to Evereska became senseless without the final reward of restored memory.
Those were my thoughts as I trod the windy streets of Darromar on my way to the Queen’s market, with anger spurring me on my way. Was I already convicted and sentenced in the petty, fanatical, and vindictive minds of my kindred? Or was there a chance that I would be given the benefit of the doubt? It did not matter, I decided finally. The challenge was to prove to them all that even stripped of my memories and reduced to an empty shell of a man, I deserved some respect. Surely, if I restored myself without help from my ‘brethren’, they would be forced to change their tone, and I would be able to impose my own conditions on any future meetings!
As I approached the market plaza, I sighed, biting my lips and cussing at the curious stares of the passersby, (who were noticeably disturbed at the sight of a tall disheveled individual in second-hand wizard robes, having a loud argument with himself), and wondered if this was how I looked when Joneleth was taking over my mind. He had been suspiciously absent, ever since his last appearance in the theater. But perhaps he did not care much for my recent explorations? He did not strike me as a person who had refused himself anything... including female company, but truly, I knew less than nothing about his personal life. There was, of course, Suldanesselar’s mysterious queen, who continued to surface in my nightmares. The last night had been a notable exception as I had had no dreams at all, but before that, I had seen her in every one of my vicious, blood-soaked phantasmagorias. I was fairly suspicious of her role in my, or rather Joneleth’s, life. Yet, as soon as the image of Ellesime’s golden face and elegant frame began to form in my mind, I felt the familiar pang of nausea. Luckily, I had mastered the process of purging her from my thoughts rather well, and on this occasion was able to recover in minutes, by concentrating solely on my task of arranging our flight from the city.
In that, I was indeed lucky. The elven ambassador and her mysterious meeting with Queen Zaranda had already been declared ancient history, and the market was aflame with the new sensations of the day: a trade delegation from Alaghon, and a military convoy to Riatavin. I dismissed the news of the Turmish mission, focusing solely on the latter rumor, and it eventually brought me a longtime sought-out solution to my problem. My old contact among the city’s caravan guards had been hired to protect a shipment of rare spices that had originally been headed for the Amnian city of Eshpurta. Today, his employer had finally decided to take a risk and set out to Riatavin, which was exactly half-way between Darromar and their final destination, and hopefully outside the area most frequently raided by Sythillian gangs. The merchants were going to travel under the steadfast protection of Zaranda’s platoon of cuirassiers, which was being dispatched to support the rebellious Riatavin in its confrontation with the Amnian Council of Six.
I could not have cared less for Queen Zaranda’s political maneuvering, but if her ambiguous actions allowed me to leave Darromar, and move in the right direction in the relative safety of a big caravan, I was not about to complain. I spent the morning bartering with merchants and guards, and organizing the financial matters. As the result of my bargaining, I was able to lessen the passage fees, but was assigned the vexing task of defending the merchants and their goods as one of the caravan’s battle mages. The profit from that arrangement was not as much as I had originally hoped, as my dingy robes and lack of recommendations had not given me much credibility. Furthermore, I was slightly concerned with the effect that my geas might have on my ability to perform my new duties, and that made me sound slightly less assured of my worth as a mage, (which had proved to be a real handicap when it came to dealing with potential employers).
Having made these arrangements, I returned to the inn in a slightly improved but still uneasy mood. The Riatavin convoy was leaving on the second day of Nightal, one day after my projected interview with the elves. That single day remained a problem, but I planned to compel the party to leave the Unicorn in advance and camp outside the city. Hopefully, by the time the elves discovered our departure it would be too late for them to take any immediate action.
Here was where I made my second serious mistake, (counting the ill-fated trip to the theater as my first one). I decided to keep the fact of our speedy departure a secret from the group for as long as possible, reasoning that the less people knew about it in advance, the safer it would be. From my point of view, it was an excellent idea: I minimized the risk of starting rumors and at the same time delayed giving explanations. My companions would be faced with a fait accompli, and later on the march I would mete out only as much information as I saw fit. I was positive I could handle the twins and Miamla, even if I announced my intent to leave the city only an hour in advance of the proposed time.
My only problem would be dealing with Omwo, but since I did not care much for his company I could endure his rebellion, if it came to it. Still, I doubted he would be displeased enough to stay behind, as over the last few weeks he had grown strangely attached to the dragon child, and I was confident that I could use this sentiment to control him. In addition, I had the feeling that he still wanted to write his hypothetical drama about the elven Exile, as he had been hoarding every bit of information he could learn about me. Assuredly, he was a bard by choice of heart, not merely by his occupation, and I never understood the breed properly – they seemed to possess a weird logic of their own.
I spent the rest of the day categorizing and packing my scrolls and magical supplies in the privacy of my studio. For my plan to work, it was imperative that nobody should know what I was up to. I expected it to be an easy part of the preparations, as I never allowed any of my companions into my room without permission. Naturally, on this specific day I had a hard time fending off unexpected visitors. First, Omwo wanted to discuss the particulars of my arrangement to pay off Kessen’s debts. It took me a while to explain the matter to him, but in the end he agreed that my plan worked to everybody’s satisfaction.
Then Mirriam tried to sneak in under the pretense of discussing my upcoming meeting with the elves. Perhaps she was truly worried about me, but I had no desire to upset my laborious preparations for the sake of another long-winded conversation that would lead nowhere. After I refused to admit her she sounded a little upset, but I paid no heed to this childish behavior and stayed in my bedroom until very late, coming out only to partake of the simple meal that my companions had ordered into our rooms.
That was one of the few evening meals in Darromar that we had in each other’s company – Miamla was usually sent to bed earlier, the twins and Omwo normally dined out, and I sent my requests for food to the Unicorn’s kitchen only when my hunger became unbearable. During that memorable dinner, I half-heartedly listened to the long string of Kessen’s complaints peppered with Omwo’s old anecdotes, and observed Mirriam’s intense blushing. She was dressed in one of her simpler, yet appealing evening gowns, and was continuously teased by her brother, who wanted to know why she had bothered to don a dress, if she was staying home.
It was a curious question indeed, and I had to admit that burgundy-colored velvet was a perfect frame for the girl’s complexion; definitely a much better choice of fabric than the pale green and golden silks she had favored in the past. It was our last evening in the city, (or so I presumed), as on the morrow I was going to ask the party to pack their belongings and move out. All of a sudden, I became restless once again. I had not talked to Mirriam all day, and the sad yet slightly dreamy look on her lovely face, with deep dark shadows lurking under her eyes, made me wish I had not been so dismissive. There was something deeply alluring about the way these long lashes fell over the hollows of her eyes, and the way her cheeks reflected the shade of her dress, even as her chin sank deeper into the intertwined fingers of her hands. After a while, the lashes trembled under my scrutiny, and I blinked and pretended to look the other way, belatedly realizing that Omwo had asked me the same question for the third time.
Assuredly, it was one of the longest evenings in the long and turbulent history of Toril. But eventually, even Kessen’s incessant grumbling and Omwo’s small talk died out. Miamla’s silvery voice toned down to a slow trickle, and she was led to bed by the oddly serene and quiet Mirriam. I was half-tempted to stop the girl and check if she was sleepwalking, but did not dare to raise my voice, and only nodded in return to her incredibly polite and languid goodnight. After a while, I bid my farewells to the two men remaining in the lounge, and once again retired to my bedroom. For some time I could still hear their voices, and smell the fumes of tobacco from Omwo’s pipe coming from under the door, then everything went quiet.
It took her a little longer than I had anticipated. My candle had burned down to the fourth mark from the top, and I was almost ready to close the tomes of spells and extinguish my light, when I finally heard the faintest scratch at my door. When I opened it, with hands as firm and steady as two jellyfish, she was standing there very still, her unbraided hair streaming over her half-naked shoulders like a cascade of sublimate darkness, her eyes hidden under those perfect long lashes, which were now trembling with anticipation. The weak light of my candle threw strange shadows on the walls, and instead of sending Mirriam away - as I should have done if I had had any sense left in my head - all I could do was to pull her quickly into my bedroom, and to latch the door behind her. Afterwards, I did not have a coherent thought in my head for quite some time, and my only memory of those first few minutes remains the touch of velvet, and the taste of cinnamon on my lips.
wali - a monk (calim.)