CHAPTER FIFTY NINE
9 -19 of Nightal 1371, Year of the Unstrung Harp
It was not a proper night outside, but the sky had already turned the color of fresh bruise. The rain continued to fall incessantly like an old woman’s tongue. Cursing the freezing rain that turned the burial grounds into a quagmire of yellow mud, the louts who chose to die in such weather, the ogres who drove hordes of scared peasants into the city, driving the prices of goods astronomically high, and the Gods for allowing all of the above, Lopar Hogg gave the wheelbarrow one last kick, then slammed the door of his shack.
It was unlikely that among thousands of rogues dwelling in good Queen Zaranda's capital, there would be a thief wretched enough to break into a cemetery tool shed. Still, Lopar dug out the rusted-over hanging lock, the size of a small melon, and fitted it into the staples.
"Need to keep 'em loitering buggers out," he complained to the door, fastening the lock.
Ever since the Queen had ordered her guards to admit anybody seeking safe haven inside the city walls, Darromar was overflowed with refugees. Many of them were homeless, and on a night such as this, would be looking for shelter.
"Prudent as a serpent, aren't you, my good man?" someone purred behind his back. "I was told to seek out the groundskeeper. I assume you are him?"
Feeling more annoyed than worried, Lopar turned around, still fumbling with the key ring. He was a heavy, balding man with rust-colored bristle in place of beard and a mouthful of rotten teeth. His job did not give him many great insights into the human nature, but served as an excuse for a foul temper and propensity to seek fulfillment at the bottom of a tankard. Despite an ample ale belly, he was strong as an ox, with neck and shoulders thick as tree trunks. He was not in the least frightened by the sight of a slim female figure, huddling in a fancy black cloak.
Over the years working at the cemetery, Lopar had seen enough to make him immune to common men's superstitions. A young noblewoman, sneaking into the Death's domain at night ,whilst shivering from delicious horror, was not a reason for worry. In truth, his first thought was how much she would pay for her fancy, and if the payment would be all in good Queen's coin. Visitors of her kind usually came accompanied by servants or bodyguards, but some were foolish enough to venture out alone.
"Wadda you need, wench?" He spat at her feet. "Bones, hair, teeth? I trade in skulls, and finger bones, too, but these are more expensive. I have a stash of everythin' you might want from them deaders, but it will cost you a few silvers."
Her laughter was quick to come, hearty and palatable as good wine.
"You would not need to worry about money when our deal is complete," she murmured insolently. "But it is not old bones that I seek here tonight."
"Then, what will it be?" Lopar, licked his fat lips, giving the woman an appraising look. All he could discern in the falling darkness was the pale spot of her face and the expensive cut of her clothes. He could not make sense of her accent, but her voice was low, and rich with salacious undertones. "Keep your name and station to yourself, wench, but state your business, and be quick with it. I don't want to spend the rest of the evening haggling here in the rain."
"I need to find the grave of an... old acquaintance of mine. I was told he was buried here less than three days ago. After we find the spot and dig the body out, I would like to stay alone with it for as long as I need, without disturbances."
"A necromancer, eh? " Lopar spat again. "You’ll get what you want, but it will cost you a pretty penny. How about thirty gold?" He was surprised at his own audacity, but the wench looked rich enough to cough up the sum. "Give me the name of the chap, the money, and come back tomorrow."
This time her laughter was no less pleasant, but perhaps a bit harsher.
"I have little patience for fools, and even less for the ones with presumptuous attitudes. You will receive fifty gold after you dig out the right corpse and another fifty after I am done with it, no questions asked."
"Deal!" Lopar swallowed, to moisten his suddenly dry mouth. "But show me your coin first."
She hissed in a sudden bout of irritation. A fat coin of yellow hue flashed between the forefinger and the thumb of her hand, gloved in black velvet, then slid back, clinking softly with the rest of the pouch contents.
"Gimme the name," he mumbled thickly, shifting his eyes away from her slim form, so as not to give away his thoughts. Images one quicker and darker than the other flashed through his mind. It was clear that her purse contained more than a hundred gold. They were going to be alone at the grave site. He wondered how much fight she could put up, and how her quivering body would feel in his arms. The temptation was great, yet if she really was a necromancer and not a foolish dilettante dabbling in dark arts, the consequences of such an attack could be dire.
"I am seeking the grave of Eldoth Kron," the woman said smoothly, as if sensing his mood and finding it amusing. "The actor, slain by his paramour. Surely, you must remember him, if only for the scandal."
"You are a lucky wench, then," Lopar grinned slyly. "For you won't have to wait in the rain while I dig the body out. Master Kron was buried in a mausoleum. A special favor of a female friend, they say. She was rich and influential enough to put him next to her two late husbands. Some say he was on his way to becoming the third, before hooking up with that she-devil, who became the death of him."
"A she-devil, indeed," the woman chuckled as if at a joke known only to herself. "A man-eater, one might say. Lusting over her betters, whom she should have had no business wanting. But we should not waste time discussing such matters, while the night is waning away. Surely, you want your reward as much as I wish to see the body. Lead on and I shall follow."
Lopar shifted from one foot to another, pulling at his flask, and wondering if his courage was high enough to attack his employer. The hallway of the mausoleum was drafty, but at least the structure was rainproof, and the floor was covered with clean, dry sand. He himself had hauled a few barrels of the stuff here, just a few days ago. The oil lantern smoldered at his feet, emitting streaks of brown smoke. He remembered that the wench had gone inside the inner crypt without any light. Despite his callousness, just thinking about it made him take a swag from the flask. But perhaps she had a candle and a flint-box in her pocket?
After they entered the mausoleum, Lopar had opened the door of the inner sanctum, then locked the door on the outside, effectively trapping the woman inside. One look of her strange blue eyes, tinted with red, was enough to make him swallow his demands for an immediate payment. Now he wondered if she took him for a simpleton, and planned to cheat him of his reward. If that was indeed the case, he was going to show the creepy wench her mistake. Eventually, she was going to realize she was trapped. Then he could negotiate a better price for her release. He wondered if he could make her pay with more than just her money, but decided against it.
Even with her weird eyes and unnaturally pale skin, the wench was comely enough to make him stir. One look at those lush red lips would have made a monk regret his vows. Lopar could only guess at the shape of the body under that bulky velvet cloak, but the predatory grace of her movements vouched for itself. Yet something inside warned him against attacking or threatening her, although he could swear she did not carry any weapons.
He cursed his ill luck with skirts - even the lame and ugly tavern wench from the Lucky Cockroach would charge him dozen coppers for a quick roll in the hay. The street whores spat at him, claiming his manhood was as sound as his teeth. It was no wonder he preferred the company of the dead. Most of the time, the corpses were as demanding as logs, and equally quiet.
Time trickled by, and Lopar was getting drunker and angrier with every swig of Cockroach's lousy apple brandy. Then the stone door of the crypt shifted and cracked, exploding from inside. He did not have time to get surprised. Instinctively, his hand went into his coat pocket to check for the keys that were still there. Next he groped for the lantern at his feet, flanging the shutter open. His patron stepped through the threshold, grinning at his stunned look. Long, sugar-white canines glistened in the red wetness of her mouth, and her strangely-colored eyes flashed with amusement. With somewhat of a theatrical flourish, she threw her wide velvet cape aside, exposing her grisly trophy.
Yet the head of the darkly handsome, bearded man dangling from the vampire's belt hardly caught Lopar's attention. He had seen the fine stitches on the cadaver's neck, hardly visible under the thick layer of paint, and was well aware of the manner of the bard's death.
Instead, his eyes were glued to the vampire's nearly naked flesh, clad only in a few strips of leather and velvet. High-heeled boots hugged her shapely tights, but above that line nothing much was concealed. In the uneven light of the lantern, her skin shone like alabaster, and the shape of her lean, well-muscled body made his head spin. There was no sense in fighting: one look at the pile of door fragments littering the floor told him that much.
"I said, you will have no need of money when our deal is complete," she whispered in his ear as her iron grip tightened under his chin lifting him from the floor. Then she gave his neck a sharp twist.
The last thing Lopar saw in his life was his own body, sagging to the floor of the crypt, with gushing, red spout in place of a head.
* * * * *
Captain Saemon Havarian paced the carpet of the lounge in Gilt Unicorn's most expensive suite, with an air worthy of the deck of his favorite galleon. Her current name was Umberlee's Pride, and she was docked at a discreet haven, known only to a few. The good captain was not happy with his current situation, but, as always, tried to make the best of the poor hand that life had dealt him.
It was almost three in the morning, and his people were waiting for orders. Unfortunately, mistress Bodhi was still locked in her bedroom, with explicit orders not to be disturbed by anyone. The smuggler scowled at the pair of pale silent youths flanking the door to her rooms. They were matched like a good chariot team: both were lean and dark, with glassy stares and aggressive stances of bloodhounds. They looked recently turned, and not well-adjusted to their new status. The one to the left kept shifting his eyes towards Saemon's jugular, visibly stressed by the presence of a live prey.
In addition to bringing in her crew, Bodhi made a few other adjustments to her new habitat, getting rid of most of the old furniture and replacing it with exotic opulence. It looked like her tastes still ran towards harem-style ottomans, plush Calimshite carpets, silken cushions, and polished marble tabletops. The only items she explicitly forbade to throw away were her 'brother's' belongings and his magic paraphernalia.
The mage's bedroom had remained intact, and as Saemon paced back and forth across the carpet, he took a glimpse at its door, wondering if anybody bothered to clean up the mess inside. Ever since Bodhi had taken over master Demadan's lease, Unicorn's personnel were strictly forbidden from entering the suite. Bodhi’s goons were hardly suitable for any mundane tasks. Saemon himself had been through the mage’s papers and scrolls a few times, but with very little results. The elf who called himself Demadan E’resse, and whom mistress Bodhi suspected of being her missing brother, left very little trace of himself. Certainly, his handwriting matched that of Irenicus's journals, but Saemon was not sure how much of that similarity could be attributed to the sylvan tradition. He wished he had had the journals at hand to do a more detailed comparison, but they were locked at the bottom of his personal trunk in the safety of Umberlee's Pride captain’s quarters.
The last time that Saemon had seen his former master, Irenicus was very much his old angry self, although somewhat diminished by his bond to the Child of Bhaal. The rumors had it, by the end of the summer, the strongest of the Bhaalspawn had prevailed against all other siblings, reaching the ultimate state of godhood. That was the main reason for Saemon making himself scarce from his old hideouts. Since in the end, Irenicus had been allied to the winner, he could have restored himself with the new deity’s help. And that was where all credible possibilities ended, and the story entered the realm of wild speculations.
Sighting for about a thousandth time through that night and ignoring the sullen hisses of the fledgling vampires, Saemon stopped at the door leading into Bodhi’s rooms. It was possible that she was not even there – her windows faced a small park planted with elms and aspen trees, and a few yards of vertical stone wall were not a serious obstacle for her.
“Tell your mistress that I am her captain, not her steward,” he barked to the nearest undead servitor. “If she cannot keep up with her own appointments, she can very well visit me at my own quarters.”
Saemon and what passed for his crew were stationed at a small riverfront inn that catered only to sailors. He had been more than happy to remove Mirriam and Kessen from the Unicorn. There was no chance that Bodhi would allow him to send the twins away from Darromar until she was done with her investigation, but at least, he could keep them away from her daily presence.
“And I thought I was your everything. My dear Saemon, I am deeply hurt by your insensitivity.” Bodhi’s voice sounded as demure as ever. The door to her rooms opened so quickly and silently that he wondered if all that time she was standing right next to it, listening to his steps.
“Now that I am all alone, deprived of my dearest brother’s company, I hoped your family would compensate for the missing warmth. I have heard your young daughter and Jon have grown very close.” Her eyes shone with amusement, but Saemon’s heart nearly stopped in his chest. The last thing he wanted was for Bodhi to catch a drift of Mirriam’s ill-placed affection.
When Saemon first found out that the twins had run away from Amkethran to follow some mad wizard, he was displeased enough, but assumed it was time for them to follow their own path. After all, he himself had run away from home to work as a cabin boy on a Waterdhavian trader when he was only ten. Finding out that his daughter’s first affection was given to a madman with a rotten stump in place of a soul was quite a different matter.
“You have no proof that her companion was indeed master Irenicus,” he objected smoothly. “And in any case, Mirriam's infatuation was short-lived, and unreciprocated. Very soon, she traded the elf for the human. I dearly wish that that latest 'suitor' was still alive, so I could slowly kill the bastard myself.”
“Never ask for something you might later regret, for the Gods might very well grant you the wish,” she replied cryptically, “but enough of this nonsense. Do you have any news of the Elven envoy and her entourage?"
"No one had seen a trace of them since the last day of Uktar, which is, by chance, also the day of master Demadan's disappearance. Castle Faemtam is buzzing with rumors, each one more ridiculous than the other. It was noticed, however, that the Queen remains calm as a millpond. Almost as if Zaranda knows something that the others don't."
"I have no time for guesswork!" Bodhi snapped impatiently. "Have you found the halfling and the child yet?”
“My men have searched the entire city, mistress. We have paid street urchins and bribed thugs at the Docks. There is no trace of them, but a guard at the North Gate remembered two halflings sneaking out of the city a few nights back, on the very morning after we'd freed my wretched children from the city jail.”
“I suspected as much! You should have kept a better watch on the halfling. Alas, your paternal affections have cost me a priceless witness.”
“But my mistress…”
“You have disappointed me, captain Saemon. And you are becoming expendable. I am considering replacing you with your own brat, after making him one of my minions. And that daughter of yours... she is smart and pretty, and will serve as a worthy replacement for Valen. I do miss the dear girl so, and we need a pair of quick hands, skillful with more than a sword. Of course, she would have to be re-trained for her new role. Undeath brings many gifts, but it has limitations too.”
Bodhi gave him a toothy smile, watching for the effect of her threats. As many times before, Saemon’s handsome face remained the solid mask of politeness. The pirate was too composed to lose his temper, and she needed him too badly to punish him with anything more than empty threats. In her weakened state, Bodhi could not imagine continuing her quest without Saemon’s assistance. She could not rely on her old crew; vampire covens lived by the laws of a wolf-pack, and even the weakling Tanova was Bodhi's match nowadays. The younger vampire would have called Bodhi’s bluff after testing the extent of her former mistress' powers. Power took centuries to accumulate, and after being brought back from Hell for the second time, Bodhi was too weak to pretend she could lead anything but a mob of fledglings. Kiaransalee had granted her some modest clerical powers, yet that assistance was not enough to keep in check a coven.
Her first few months on the Prime after her return from the Abyss still haunted her. Stalking caves full of old, dry bones in the midst of a red hot desert, always looking for cover from the over-potent rays of a blazing sun, feeding on rats and occasional beggars... she would never want to relive that experience. Only after intercepting the messenger with Mirriam’s letter to the old priest, had she managed to convince Saemon's lieutenant to send a word to his captain. The pirate's affection for his brats became her trump card. Bodi and Saemon had arrived in Darromar almost simultaneously but from two different directions. Ever since then, Saemon’s help had been invaluable in keeping the tabs on her ‘brother’ and his group. She had settled in Darromar, following master Demadan at every step, and watching his contacts.
His similarity to Joneleth in his prime was striking, and Bodhi congratulated herself on the first major success of her mission. The task of subtly corrupting her ‘brother’ and turning him away from his 'path to redemption', promised to be great fun. Her divine Mistresses would be pleased. Within a week, she had turned enough minions to provide for all her material needs. The city was full of refugees and crime had become rampant. In these stressful conditions, when another nameless peasant went missing, it could always be dismissed as the work of street gangs.
Bodhi still could not believe that Jon had slipped through her fingers after being under close surveillance for days. Truly, it had been her own fault. The Huntress was too excited by the 'new' Joneleth’s obvious weakness, and could not refuse herself a little game of cat and mouse. After his sudden disappearance, she had acted rashly, striking in too many places at once and leaving too many holes in her nets. Compared to that disaster, Omwo's loss was a small offence, yet it was another blow to her already ruined plans. Still, what was done was done, and now she needed to move fast to recover her losses.
"You look a little frayed around the edges, captain," her voice was once again dripping honey. "Yet, even though you have brought me no good news, I forgive you, for I myself had been more successful."
* * * * *
"I told you they will laugh into my face!" Kessen threw his hands up, in desperation. His agitation had little effect on his twin. Mirriam continued to stare into the white-washed corner of her tiny bedroom, seemingly content on observing the activities of a house spider.
She looked terribly thin, all skin and bones, sticking out at all the wrong angles: a stick-girl, hugging her knees on a snow-white field of bed-linens. Her skin lost its vibrant golden-brown hue, shifting to the sickly yellow tones of a shrunken lemon. Today she wore a dark indigo long-sleeved tunic, with a tall collar covering her neck to the ears. Under the narrow cuffs, her wrists were tightly bandaged with clean strips of cloth. The healer had assured them that the potions and healing prayers had worked their magic, and she was going to be fine in just a few more weeks. Yet there were some wounds that potions could not heal.
Kessen sighed, unable to contain his misery. Guilt was eating at his mind day and night, yet there was little he could do for his twin sister. Mirri stubbornly refused to talk about her ordeal, or get out of her room even for a meal at the common hall. Kessen was bringing her food and drink, and taking out the dirty dishes and laundry. The only thing that reminded him of his sister's old self was the arm-thick, dark braid, spilling from her shoulders into her lap. But whereas the old Mirriam had paid little to no attention to her hair, the new one spent hours of her time combing and re-pleating her braid, as if that simple task kept her from sliding deeper into despair.
Thus, when yesterday she had finally sent a note asking him to come over for a talk, Kessen nearly jumped out of a window from joy. He remained happy until he had heard her request, which had turned his head into a semblance of an agitated beehive; with his thoughts in place of bees, spinning and buzzing in the enclosed space of his brain box. Kessen could not refuse her call, yet honoring it made his stomach feel like he had just swallowed a huge chunk of ice.
"I 've checked every potion seller at the waterfront," he continued his tale. "They all berated me for a reckless fool, and said my girlfriend should have worn an amulet with a simple protection spell. They say there are plenty of these for sale at every corner of the market."
"It was rather difficult to make him put one around my neck," his sister laughed sharply, making Kessen's heart fall into his churned stomach.
"I still think you should wait for your next moon blood to come, he suggested timidly, "maybe Tymora favored you, and nothing will ensue."
"It is hard to continue putting my trust in Tymora, if you get my drift," Mirriam replied in the same sharp, cynical tone that made him cringe." I would sooner take measures now than be sorry later."
"There was one old crone at the waterfront who did not scold me, "Kessen said reluctantly, "she sells love potions, curse-repellents, and good luck charms. By the time I found her I was so desperate, I had to tell her the real story, instead of my regular lie about a pregnant girlfriend. But I did not name any names!" He blurted out quickly, spotting a flash of resentment rising in his sister's dark eyes. It was so unlike her that he nearly bit his tongue. Mirriam was a gentle soul, and even her spells of anger were clean and refreshing like summer storms.
"As if she needed any," Mirri replied with a dark scowl. "By now, the entire city knows every sordid little detail of the tale, starting with the size of Eldoth's manhood, and ending with the color of my underwear."
Once again Kessen was jarred by her newly acquired cynicism, yet he did not dare to voice his protest.
"That old woman could not give me what I asked, but she gave me directions," he said reluctantly. "You have to come there in person, but it is a public place, and if I stay out of the conversation, I can accompany you as a chaperone," he finished quickly, spotting another spell of anger brewing in her eyes.
Mirri sniffed at her drink, giving the delicate froth at the top of her glass a dubious look. It looked inviting enough, but she could not force herself swallow a single drop. Taking a table entailed ordering, so she asked the waitress for something she would pick for herself. The girl flashed her a quick smile, and soon returned with a tall glass of amber-colored liquid, faintly smelling of cherries.
Exasperated with her own paranoia, Mirri threw a quick look at her twin. Kessen sat at the bar, mingling with youngsters about his own age: drinking, laughing and rolling the dice. She was pleased to see that he did not enter the game, but was simply biding his time, watching them roll and joking about his own broken finances.
They had stayed at the small tavern at Ith’s waterfront long enough to stop attracting curious stares from the regulars. Everything looked fine, and still Mirriam was not sure that coming here was a good idea. The hour was not late, and the place looked clean and cozy, but on the inside, she felt taut as a bowstring. Idly, she wondered if she would ever feel safe or comfortable again.
"You look pale." A small, middle-aged woman wearing a cloak of brown wool and a set of mouse-grey robes looked at Mirriam through a pair of thick, metal-framed glasses. She had a nondescript look of a midwife or a book-keeper in a small shop, Mirri decided instantly.
"Would you mind me sharing your table?" the 'book-keeper' continued before Mirriam could come with an appropriate reply.
The girl was about to refuse as politely as possible, but the woman pulled a small knitted satchel from her plump shoulder, and took the opposite seat. "Your eyes are red and puffy," she observed sympathetically pulling out a pair of knitting needles, a ball of black wool, and a smaller one - of silken purple thread. "Have you been crying a lot? It is only natural, considering all the horrors you have been through." Her pale-grey eyes blinked behind the thick lenses of her huge glasses. "Tell me about your problem, child. Old Vyerra, hinted you are looking for a special kind of medicine."
"Are you a witch-woman?" Mirriam suddenly realized that her courage had fled her altogether.
"Of course not. You can call me Sera, if it makes you feel better," the woman's pale lips stretched in an attempt at a smile as she considered her knitting. "Perhaps I can help you - or perhaps not. If I find your story compelling, I might even charge you nothing. But first, I have to be sure we are on the same page."
"W...hat do you want to know?"
"Everything." Sera took off her lenses and began to polish them on the sleeve of her robe. "Your pain. Your loss of faith. Did it feel good to cut off that bastard's head afterwards? You should not be ashamed of your actions: vengeance is the main element of the healing process." Her colorless eyes shone like two beacons as she rolled the word 'vengeance' in her mouth. "You don't have to look me in the eye if it makes you nervous. Listen, child. Only last week they've pulled a body of a fifteen year old from the Ith. She was seven months pregnant and a whore of some repute. I wish I could have talked to her before she jumped to her death from the Ithal Bridge."
"You think you could have helped her? Mirriam was at a loss of what to think of her companion. Something about the woman made goose bumps run across her flesh.
Sera finished polishing the invisible dust from her glasses and put them back on the bridge of her nose. "Helped her? Certainly. By making her realize that she had to take control of her life back from the hands of her abusers. As they say: that which does not kill us only makes us stronger. Thus, our losses entitle us to retribution. This is the law of life, child, don't you agree?"
"I... really don't know," Mirri stumbled over the words that just won't roll off her tongue. "Sometimes I feel I did the right thing... but I cannot be sure. I... I was so angry, I wanted to hack him to pieces, keeping him alive for as long as possible, feeding him his own man-parts from the tip of my dagger...Yet I doubt I could have done it... even if it was the right thing to do."
Suddenly, the words began to tumble out of her mouth, spilling out all of her suppressed anger and anxiety, her fear of unwanted pregnancy, and revulsion at her own body for being contaminated by Eldoth's touch.
"I... I would rather die than carry his child to term," she concluded weakly. "That is if... if I am indeed..."
"But of course you should kill the seed that was planted against your wish, in anger and lust," Sera patted Mirriam's hand. The 'book-keeper's' skin felt cold and clammy to the touch. "There is nothing 'uncertain' about that. A rotten apple from a rotten tree. I will make sure that you have the means to abort the child."