Baldur's Gate II -
Welcome to my online fiction site! On this site you can read my online novel inspired by the game "Baldur's Gate II - The Shadows of Amn". This is unofficial site and it is not associated by any means with Interplay, Bioware or TSR inc. No material from this site can be reproduced for any commercial use and any noncommercial use must be authorized by me.
THE STORY OF A GIRL WITHOUT A NAME
by Janetta Bogatchenko
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Jaheira walked out of Lord Coprith’s office in a good mood. The man was smart and industrious as a honeybee. During their half an hour interview the Trademeet Mayor managed to rebuke an attempt by an important looking nobleman to barge into his office, dispatch the guardsmen to apprehend Menold, and set up a team of investigators to look into the alleged financial machinations around the phony ‘caravan route’ project. It looked like everything was under control.They agreed that a short briefing on the situation development for the most prominent noble families will be hold later that same day. Before that Jaheira wanted to visit Mazzy Fentan and have a bite for her lunch. They were to dine in Lord Coprith’s house tonight, and Jaheira was worried if she would have time to clean herself and change. It looked like some reward was due to them for their involvement in the Druid Grove affair. Jaheira cringed at the thought. The last thing she wanted to think about was accepting blood money from the burghers of Trademeet.
She had to admit reluctantly that her anger with Faldorn had more to do with personal vendetta, than with rightful indignation over the animal’s attacks. After Menold’s plan of poisoning the Font was discovered, she could not but admit that the druids acted in self-defense. Jaheira was now thankful that it was not her hand that ended Faldorn’s life. Still, they needed the money if they were to pay the thieves for Imoen’s return. She had no intention of letting the girl continue drag her feet on that! Something had to be done soon.
The Mayor’s residence looked impressive from the inside. Thick, soft carpets in patterns comforting to eye covered every surface; recently polished furniture shone and smelled of natural wax. There were many expensive wax candles burning in the chandeliers. Jaheira smiled to herself remembering her bee analogy. Someone was surely bringing enough pollen into this hive.
Minsc was waiting in the corridor having a conversation with a pretty female official in her mid-thirties, who turned out to be the Mistress of local Merchant’s Guild.
The ranger was trying to woo Mistress Busya with his heroics, although it looked like he was having less of the success with her than the third member of their crew. Boo was sitting on the ranger’s glove (rather like a miniature falcon) chirruping happily. The woman’s full attention was on the fuzzy rodent, rather than his master.
“Isn’t he adorable! Would he bite if I pet him?”
Boo peeped; Jaheira snorted. Minsc was using the hamster trick again. Not that he was very successful with it but it never stopped him from trying!
“Bo would be happy!” Minsc proclaimed loudly. “Go ahead, give him a cracker Mistress! He needs some tender care to calm down his nerves. To think of it, so do I.” Minsc winked at the lady in what he though was a sly manner. “Did I tell you he is a Miniature Giant Space hamster? Aye, his eyes shot forth lightening when we fought the dragon! That was a butt-kicking to behold! I swung my mighty Lilarcor (that’s my sword, mind it) and the dragon froze from the sheer sight of it!”
“Yeah,” the metal-raspy voice coming from Minsc’ scabbard suddenly interfered, “we’ve cut that lizzy into ribbons - kidneys, brains and loin chops! I was magnificent - sharp, and zingy! You had never seen so much blood in your life! Stream! Rivers! It was everywhere!”
“Eek,” Mistress Busya suddenly lost interest in the hamster. “What was that voice? Minsc, you are scaring me!”
“Nothing, really,” Minsc pushed Lilarcor’s hilt back into its scabbard. “Be quiet, you bastard son of a rusty file and a cow-bell,” he whispered threateningly out of the corner of his mouth.
“I think I better go,” the lady suddenly switched to a business-like manner and smiled nonchalantly at Jaheira. “Not that I have much to do. Ever since those Dao Djinn took over, my office is empty!”
“The Djinn took over?” Jaheira raised an eyebrow. “Lord Logan did not tell me anything about that.”
“Oh,” Mistress Busya waved her hand vaguely. “He probably did not want to bother you with this. It is a matter of jurisdiction, really! These Dao have absolutely no business culture, neither they care about public relationship. It is such a mess. They insist that since Rakshasa is technically roaming on our territory, it is Trademeet responsibility to apprehend her. But I can prove easily, using a precedent from the 1362 case of Amn against Shams Blunderburp the Third, that since the perpetrator committed her crimes in Calimshan first …”
“Wait a minute,” there was a metallic note in Jaheira’s voice now. “Are you telling me that the Djinn hunt a Rakshasa on Trademeet grounds?”
“Of course not, my lady Jaheira! We could not let them run wild on our land, could we? It will cause public unrest! Now they are buying all the goods from incoming caravans stopping them just outside the city, and then re-sell us the supplies at outrageous prices! Their amir 55 is telling everybody that not a button will be sold in Trademeet without this extra ‘tax’, until they got their quarry! I call it an economic blackmail!”
“And I call it a necessity, madam” a suave, arrogant voice with a weird oriental accent interrupted her. “We have wasted enough time on your petty formalities and your papers, little mortal woman! Now at least, how do you say it? The ball is in your court! I shall entertain myself by watching you do my bidding!”
“Don’t tell me you’ve made the Djinn fill one of these five page questionnaires that I’ve seen in Athkatla!” Jaheira cried out in sudden understanding. “No wonder they’ve turned to economic blockade!”
She turned to see the newcomer, and stood silent looking at the Djinn ambassador with amused appreciation. The Dao was resplendent in his loose trousers of golden lame, burgundy velvet caftan, and a turban crowned with peacock feathers. The djinn’s features were dark and handsome, though obviously very out-worldish. Still, he looked more ‘material’ than the genie they had rescued in the Plane of Air. The Dao tribe dwelled in Calimshan, in the Prime Material Plane after all.
Jaheira felt a tug at her heartstrings - over the thousands of years the Calimshani bloodlines mixed with enough Djinn blood to make her see Khalid’s smoky eyes looking at her from the royal djinni’s face.
“Greetings, mortal woman! I am Khan Zahraa Almal ibn Alfar, though my name may be a bit too long for your simple tongue. I have not seen you around this place before.”
Jaheira snorted at that impudence and noticed that the djinni’s full attention was not on her but rather on something at her left side. She lowered her eyes and sighed.
“The girl was right, I should have been more careful.”
“I am called Jaheira, effendi,” she bowed her head politely. “I am just a visitor to this place, so if you will excuse me…”
“I see. Tell me, Jaheira, how did you come by this splendid weapon that you carry at your side so carelessly?”
The druid’s lips tightened, though not from fear but rather from irritation at her own ineptitude. All they needed now was to start spreading the rumors of their victory over the stray Rakshasa! As if carrying the Flail of Ages was not enough of a problem. She did not like attracting attention. Traveling in her charge’s company was bad enough. It was like always staying in the middle of a tornado – every flying brick or piece of wood would hit you eventually.
“That is a long story, effendi,” she answered politely. “Sufficient to say it was won in a true and bloody fight.”
“Ah! I suspected as much. My marvelous little mortal, can you assure me that the former owner of this noble scimitar, called Belm by the weapon master who had forged it many centuries ago, is dead?”
Jaheira’s eyes popped up. “Yes, Zahraa-effendi, the Rakshasa is dead. I cut her head off with this very hand and took her weapon, though the honor of defeating her was shared with my other companions who are presently not here.”
“Splendid job, even for a mortal!” The djinni stepped forward and made an elaborate bow, kissing the tips of his fingers and blessing every one of the four Windrose quadrants with his hand. “I congratulate you! I can sense that you are telling the truth. I had known Ihtafeer for no less than half a millennium – she never let anybody touch this blade whence she was alive! Still, I would like to see the body.” He looked at her expectantly.
“Well, you can’t,” Minsc growled from behind. “We’ve burnt the bodies of the wicked cat and her two whelps. And if you ask me – that’s what they deserved! I saw what they did to the dear old lady and the kids. Evil is always thoroughly kicked when it comes within the reach of Minsc’ boot!”
“Oh that is even better news!” The ambassador was beaming at Jaheira and Minsc, though his eyes stayed sharp as gimlets. “Burnt, you say, after being beheaded with their ashes spread on the winds?”
“Yes, effendi” Jaheira bowed again.
“I would have to visit the site of course,” The djinn sighed dreamily and smiled for the first time, so that Jaheira could see his sharp white teeth. It was a scary sight, for there was a dark fire of sated revenge in his gaze. “But it is a pure formality! I can smell her death on this weapon. This may be a bit dangerous for you my valiant little mortal. Let me touch it.”
Jaheira unbuckled the scimitar from her side and offered it to the djinni together with its richly decorated golden sheath.
Khan Zahraa accepted the weapon, pulled it out as if to examine it, and muttering an incantation drew a pentagram with its tip in the air before him. A sharp twang and a flash of blue light followed that strange ritual, after which he returned the weapon to Jaheira with a polite bow.
“It has my spell on it now,” he explained to her, “so if you come close to a hunting Rakshasa’s pack they would smell my gift instead of the blood token from Ihtafeer! Now, of course, you will need a pair to this blade. I want to make you a present worth of your courage little mortal, from my heart to yours! Let your left hand be as steady and quick as its graceful twin that cut the head of my enemy. Behold the Rashad’s Talon!”
The djinn unbuckled his belt and removed his own glorious crescent-shaped weapon. Jaheira observed in awe that its pommel stone was an emerald, the size of a pigeon’s egg. The stone shone mysteriously and the druid’s heart warmed to the weapon immediately.
“Oh yes, the jewel is almost the same color as your eyes, mortal woman! This blade will serve you well as it had served me. It has a rather sad history but that has nothing to do with its powers.” The Dao offered her the scimitar, which she accepted gratefully.
“Now, our business here is over.” The amir turned to Mistress Busya. “Tell Logan-effendi that we are departing now, woman!” The djinn waved to his escort, which consisted of two lesser Dao's. “You shall take care of the details, Faatirah. I will be on my way.” With these words, he twisted a ring on the small finger of his left hand and was gone in a flash. His subordinates followed the suit, if a bit less elegantly and through the main doors.
“That was an extraordinary performance, my lady Jaheira!” The Guild Mistress was giggling like a little girl. Jaheira decided that she was not that bad, after all. “Now we are free to pursue our business interests once more! You’ve been surely sent to us by our missing Goddess, Waukeen! I cannot attribute this miracle to anything else!”
“Whatever you say, Mistress Busya,” Jaheira shrugged. “I am glad to be of assistance.”
“Some shortsighted individuals may call Amn the nation of crude materialists,” Busya continued with greatest aplomb. “But there never was a state providing more liberties to its citizens to exercise their financial and political rights! The Dao tried to strike at the heart of our freedom by preventing us to buy cheap and sell high! Oh, never mind, you understand what I mean of course. You are our hero. I am seriously considering ordering a set of gilded statues for our new fountain in the town square. It will be a good case for the two rival families of Trademeet to work together. We may call this composition ‘The Hero’s Triumph” - it will be you and your friends surrounded by the prominent citizens of Trademeet crowning you with laurels; we can add a nymph or two with Cornucopia’s, bunches of grapes and fatted calves on the side, but this will depend on the budget! Yes, I hope both Lurraxols and Alibakkars will contribute.”
Jaheira imagined how would it look like and groaned. Her only hope was that they would never agree on the design.
She was wrong of course. Lord Coprith decided that this will keep his overenthusiastic Guild Mistress occupied, and did not interfere. So, the gilded monstrosity was ordered a month after we had left Trademeet for good and erected by the end of the year. When I saw it later my only consolation was that nobody would ever be able to make a connection between me and the fat lady in a toga and horned helmet, whom lord Skarmaen Alibakkar was gently supporting under her massive bronze elbow! Jaheira looked no better, and was portrayed accepting a laurel wreath from lady Lilith Lurraxol. At the center of the composition was Minsc, holding the noble hamster in one hand and Lilarcor in another. Anomen and Yoshimo posed as the ranger’s sidekicks, standing behind him with hands on each other’s shoulders. (I though it looked more like Yoshi was quietly stabbing Anomen in the back, while the cleric was gently strangling him in return.) Finally, Jan was depicted with a pointed crossbow, rather like a small bald and bearded cupid.
A cold mud of the Great Tethyr road squished under our horses’ hooves for what felt like eternity. As we continued to ride through the thick curtain of snow and freezing rain my whole word shrunk to the few feet of dirty road ahead. I was tired, soaked, and chilled to the bone. I lost track of time, space, and my thoughts. There was nothing left but the steady rhythm of hooves, cold aching of my frozen limbs, and the wet grayness of winter grasslands.
We had left Imnesvale at sunrise when the blue shadows were still sleeping under the walls of Vince’s old inn, and only a few houses sprouted columns of smoke coming from their chimneys. The sleepy red-cheeked maid brought the hot porridge and fresh milk for our breakfast. I almost moaned, remembering the taste of food in my mouth and cozy warmth of the kitchen. It felt like a lifetime ago.
The day before was spent in purchasing supplies and mounts for our travel back to Athkatla. We finally had enough funds to afford riding horses in addition to our pack animals. The villagers were more than happy to sell, because after weathering the harvest season under the dread of the shadows there was not enough fodder stored for the beasts for winter. Though since the roads were now opened, I was sure the stream of supplies would start coming. As for our luggage ponies, thanks to Yoshimo’s diligence they were in decent shape and ready to travel.
I was not particularly comfortable with the notion of riding, yet the idea of hiking back through the hundreds of miles of frozen winter fields and forests held even less attraction. Whenever we traveled the land before I always preferred walking. We had made it across half of the Sword Coast on feet, and walked behind out pack animals all the way from Athkatla, but now our time to rescue Imoen was running short, and I agreed to the change. I was an abysmal rider, and after half a day in the saddle I could not feel my lower body, or my legs, yet my pride prevented me from complaining. My three human companions were all excellent horsemen and Jan on his chubby little pony was keeping up with their pace, which did not make me feel any better.
The animal that was the main source of my misery swiveled a moist, olive-black eye at me as I pulled at his reins, and sighed. We were already half a mile behind the rest of the party. Yet, I countered all his timid attempts to switch from a stroll to his regular shaky gallop. My backside had about enough of it! The mount in question was a sturdy twenty-year-old gelding, yellow-brown in color, with thinning black mane and tail, and a disposition of a very old turtle. Valygar, who had inspected all our prospective purchases and negotiated the price, had told me that this horse in his opinion was the only one available, that a rider with my skills would be able to survive. His name was Honey, both for his color and his temperament, as his previous owner proudly admitted. I suspected that half of the Imnesvale pre-school population would be missing him dearly.
I peered ahead. One of the three tall and graceful riders turned back, and was approaching me in a steady stride. I grated my teeth and pulled my lips into a sweet rubber smile. Valygar (for it was him) reined his purebred mare few steps away from me, and dismounted in one fluid move.
“Your Worship, are you all right?” His voice sounded neutral, even sincere but his eyes were sparkling with hidden laughter. “Neither one of your paramours is feeling confident enough to approach you, so I volunteered for the task.”
“I am fine,” I answered through clenched teeth. “Though I thank you for your concern.”
“O, you are obviously not, or I am a two-headed Ettin!” He walked briskly to my horse’s side and took my reins. “Come on, you obviously need a walk.”
He offered me his hand, which I grabbed as a drowning man would grab a lifesaver. It was hot and strong. I began to scramble off Honey’s warm back that was raising and falling under me like an empty barrel driven by the ocean waves. My boot got caught in a stirrup, and I ended up making a little dance on one foot with the other one high above my head. Fortunately, I was wearing men’s leather breaches and riding boots under my heavy black dress and the dress itself was cut for riding almost to my waist. The black woolen mantle, torn and burnt in many places, completed the ensemble. Valygar caught the wet, disheveled bundle that I was and steadied me to the ground.
“Thank you again,” I breathed heavily after he finally let go of me. “I think I can walk by myself now.”
“Nonsense,” he snapped grinning like a fox. “Unless you want to continue this performance by falling flat on your face of course! Or you would rather have one of the love-stricken fools carry you in their hands? No? Then grab my hand and let’s walk until you can feel your feet again.” He took a firm grip on my elbow while gathering the reins of both horses in his other hand.
“Valygar,” I said tentatively after a few painful steps. “I would greatly appreciate if you stop referring to my personal matters. I know, after Anomen’s antics the other day it is hardly a secret that he is somewhat … infatuated with me. I hope this will pass. But you are only making things worse by your comments. It is like pouring oil into a fire … and Yoshimo and I are just friends, nothing more.”
“O really?” The ranger nodded in mock understanding, “so, you are not playing these two against each other like puppets? I have no sympathy for your pompous Helmite but Creeps deserves better than this. And don’t give me this crap about you being ‘friends’ with him. He is following you like a dog, and you know it. My grandmother used to say – you either s… or get off the pot!”
I wandered if he shifted the guilt for his rough treatment at Yoshi’s hands on me, with some perverse ‘men’s’ logic. In any case I was not about to tolerate this kind of treatment from anybody.
“Holy smokes, Valygar!” I exploded. “All of this is absolutely not of your business! And if you think Yoshimo needs your help, think again! I still have a right to say ‘no’ to both of them if I wish to, or do I? Even if I was attracted to one of them, which I am not, it is up to me to decide what I am going to do about it! Have you ever though of the consequences of being a lover of Bhaal’s Child?”
“What of it?” He raised an eyebrow. “It is not like it is contagious or something?”
“You can easily catch your death if you stay close to me,” I answered grimly, “and that what had happened to the two men whom I dared to love. One was my father, the other … I would rather not talk about it. As for Yoshimo, I do believe he has his own agenda, which has nothing to do with your fantasies,” I blushed and quickly turned away from him.
Valygar chuckled and whistled a little tune.
“May be he has,” he answered in a little while, “or may be both of you are too content in playing the game for the game’s sake to consider making a serious move.”
I stopped and pulled my hand free of his grip. “I think this had gone far enough,” I said as haughtily as I could manage, “I have no desire to continue this conversation.”
I bit my lower lip. The hood of my cloak fell off, and the strands of my wet hair curled around my face all covered in small beads of moisture. I suspected my cheeks were flaming red.
He looked at me strangely and bowed, suddenly serious.
“I do apologize for my rudeness, please forgive me my lady.”
I was so intent on the conversation that a sudden neigh of a pony that appeared out of the drizzle right in front of us startled me badly. I jerked and pulled my wet cloak tighter around me, but it was only Jan peering at me happily from the back of his frisky miniature steed. The little wizard was cheerful as a bird, but I noticed a quick sharp look that he threw at Valygar as if assessing his intentions.
“Howdy, your Worship!” he smiled at me and nodded to the ranger. “It looks like Mr. Corthala is taking good care of you. Unless of course, this is how he goes about his wizard assassination routine. I mean, by boring them to death! Which reminds me of that time, way back when I was a young gnome in the services of Master Galadon the wizard, and one of my duties was to serve him his dinner. You see, I was supposed to dole out his chow and tell him the stories that were good for his digestive system. At first he would fall asleep around the dessert, but over time I had perfected my technique and had managed to get him snoring even before the main course. I had gained a few pounds before he finally realized what was going on.”
I laughed. “Speaking of dinner, gentlemen, I feel a certain emptiness inside my stomach. It may be a good time to stop and have a quick snack.”
“Ah!” The gnome slapped himself on the forehead. “I forgot. There is a gypsy caravan ahead, at about half a mile to the right. There are tents and bonfires, music and dancing.” He winked at me. “It looks like the burghers won’t let the gypsies into the city for there was a trouble of a sort with the caravans, but there are plenty of fools who would come to see the girls dance, have their fortunes read and pockets picked. There is hot food too. The lads rode straight in taking the pack animals, and I am going to guide you to them.”
I looked at Valygar; he smiled wickedly in return and offered me my horse’s reins. Honey whinnied softly. I sighed and shook my head.
“Nope, you are not getting me back on him, not yet. I would gladly walk all the way from here to the city gates. It cannot be that long!”
Now both of them grinned at me like a pair of hyenas.“Is it that bad?” The gnome made some soothing noises. “I shall ride beside you two. We will make in no time!”
After the Djinn adventure Jaheira was overwhelmed by her suddenly intense social life. She was the hot topic in town and every family that deemed themselves important in Trademeet high society jumped out of their skins to have her over for lunch, dinner, or some other special occasion. She ended up throwing all the invitations into the trash, and locking herself in their spacious suite of rooms in Vyatri’s pub and inn that was paid for by Lord Logan. That was where Jaheira had planned to spend the next few days, doing her breathing exercises and gymnastics, and contemplating her misery.
Minsc, on the other hand, was as happy as he could be at the circumstances, for his merchant passion had accepted his advances. Mistress Busya was a merry widow with luxurious bosom, long dark lashes, and the energy of a dwarven steam engine. It was her influence that almost brought Minsc’ untimely demise. I always despaired to understand Minsc’ relationship with his girlfriends. They all adored him indiscriminately (and left him financially ruined) even though they all knew of his hamster fixation and, how to put it gently, his lack of intellectual prowess. He even admitted once that his famous blue tattoo was the result of a quick and steamy affair with warrior lass from some distant land. I guess women are not always looking for the best brains in town!
In the past, Dynaheir56 kept a blind eye on all his activities, though she was thoroughly attached to her loyal bodyguard (who was also her distant cousin). It was a strange relationship, for she was celibate and mystically involved with her duties as a Witchlaran to the point of forgetting to take her meals. Minsc cared about her as if she was a small child. When we had rescued her from the gnoll’s pit, emaciated and tortured half to death, he had carried her on his back all the way to Nashkell and nurtured her back to health. I asked her once if she was jealous of Minsc’ multiple affairs. She just smiled at me silently and shook her head.
It was our ranger’s new passion, who had introduced him to the Trademeet first vixen – lady Lilith Lurraxol, though at their first meeting the lady seemed to be a paragon of nobility and shrewd business sense. Not only was she running her own fur-trading company, she was also the head of the noble house Lurraxol. That honorable position was also the source of her biggest grief, as she explained gracefully. For the last decade or so the house Lurraxol was at war with house Alibakkar. It was quite ridiculous for the Lurraxol family had founded Trademeet many centuries ago, and Alibakkars - these charlatan carpetbaggers, had moved into town and tried to usurp her house rightful place! Minsc was never any good at politics but lady’s noble grief (and perhaps her prominent bosom) produced the desired effect. He agreed to undertake a mission for her and she gave him a key from the mausoleum.
All that was required of him was to explore her family crypt (unfortunately rumored to be haunted by the undead) and locate a historical artifact, buried with one of lady Lilith’s ancestors. The artifact – a legendary necklace, supposedly a gift to that aforesaid ancestor from Goddess Waukeen, was frequently mentioned in Trademeet chronicles, and lady Lilith was positive that by presenting it to the crowd she would prove her house noble roots once and forever. Minsc was tempted to ask why no one dared to go and search the famous relative’s bones before, but decided against it. After all, a thousand gold was a thousand gold, and he could buy these pearls for Mistress Busya and still have something left over. Plus, there was a chance of some undead butt-kicking! Life looked good. He decided not to bother Jaheira with the matter. His ladylove packed him a basket with supplies, and promised to wait for him just outside the crypt. That was in the morning.
At five p.m. that day Jaheira was having a cup of herbal tea with Mazzy and her sister when Mistress Busya barged into her living room, looking like all the hounds of Hell were on her heels.
“Lady Jaheira! They are going to finish him! I could not find Lord Logan. I think he may be out of town! We need to hurry!”
“What is going on, Busya? Who is ‘him’ and ‘they’ and where the hell is Minsc?”
“Forgive me, lady Jaheira!” Busya sniveled. “It is all my fault! Minsc is down there, in that crypt, and he is not getting out unless I bring you there!”
“Show us the way!” Jaheira jumped to her feet, grabbing for her twin scimitars.
So did Mazzy and Pala. Pala Fenton, Mazzy’s pretty sister was not as strongly built and fit as her elder sibling, but she was alert and agile, and her skill with a sling and any other missile weapons was superb, as Mazzy confided earlier. They were discussing Pala’s upcoming marriage, and Mazzy said jokingly that if not for that – she would have enlisted Pala in her new adventuring company.
As they sprint out of the inn’s courtyard Jaheira did not have time to ask any more questions but she could see others running in the same direction. They could hear angry shouts and disdainful remarks, for the running crowd seemed to be divided into two rival factions. The ones with the green band around their sleeve or a sprig of fir in their caps were hatefully eyeing the others, with red insignia.
The snap remarks like “Alibakkar swine!” or “Lurraxol goat!” and other, less zoological terminology, flew freely between the supporters of both sides.
The war between house Lurraxol and house Alibakkar defined most of Trademeet internal politics. These two noble families were the oldest and the richest in town. (Unfortunately they also wanted to become ‘the only’.) The sudden elevation of Logan Coprith to the post of the Mayor was a result of the rest of the population being fed up with their feud, which dominated all spheres of public life. So the Mayor was doing everything in his powers to stop it.
Jaheira of course knew the history of the two rival families. Over the course of last two days it was repeated to her on numerous occasions. The intensity of that feud, and both side’s attempts to secure her support were one of the reasons for Jaheira’s self-imposed seclusion. She hoped she could weather the rest of time until the company’s arrival in her rooms. It looked like the Gods had other plans for her.
Soon they reached the Western Gate and what lay beyond it – the old cemetery. It was already getting dark, and half-melted snow that fell today turned the dirt road into a mud trap. They could hear the crowd and see the flicker of torches around one of the grim-looking stone structures inside the iron fence encircling the cemetery. Jaheira cursed, and sheathing her scimitars jumped and grabbed at the spikes at the top of the fence. She was strong and agile enough to heave herself up and swing her body over to the other side. The rusty iron creaked but held.
“Do not try to follow me!” she yelled to her halfling companions and Busya, who looked at her maneuvers in astonishment, “just follow the road! I will see you there!”
Jaheira had run into an angry crowd like a cannonball, pushing, showing and using her knee as a lever. The mob gave way to her and she found herself at the center of the tight circle of heavily armed guards, face to face with two main players.
“Well, Skarmaen, this was not very smart!” a small fiery-eyed woman in green velvets, trimmed with dark fur spat under the feet of a thin gentlemen clad in red. “Bringing her into it is not going to help your case! I would pry the heirloom out of her dead cold fingers, if needed. You are never going to have it!”
“So you did not buy her out yet, Lilith?” The man in the red cloak raised an eyebrow sarcastically. “Your witchery does not work on women? Very well, that still leaves me a chance.”
“A chance at what?” Jaheira asked coldly. “If you are buying me, you can at least tell me what is the meaning of this. I am looking for my companion.” She raised her voice to overcome the noise of the crowd. “Minsc, blast it! Where are you?”
“Your friend is inside my ancestral tomb at the moment,” the gentlemen called Skarmaen answered with a little bow. “And he is not getting out until I get back my property, which he currently holds in his hands.”
“You are a liar, Alibakkar!” The lady in green exploded. “A liar and a criminal! Get out of here immediately and take your lackeys! This is my ancestral tomb, not yours!”
“I would appreciate if you watch your tongue, Lurraxol witch!” the red-clad man answered with a snarl. “We all know that house Alibakkar is superior to the filthy gang of beggars that you call house Lurraxol. The honorable Luca was my ancestor, not yours!”
The woman was ready to answer, but Jaheira was not in the mood to listen to any more of this. The situation was quite clear.
“Silence!” the druid growled in a voice that made grown-up men go pale (and sometimes made me queasy). “You, filthy bog-scum! If I hear another squawk from you,” she glared at lord Alibakkar, “or another peep from your big mouth,” Jaheira gave lady Lurraxol a look that made the lady shiver, “you are going to wish you had never been born! Now I am going to get inside and find out for myself!”
She pushed past the two rivals and quickly made her way to the heavy wooden door of the crypt that was closed and barricaded from inside.
“Minsc!” she yelled, praying that he would open the door before two noble idiots recover their wits. “It is I, Jaheira. Open the door immediately!”
There was a noise of something heavy being lifted and thrown aside. Then the left side of the door creaked and the hand shot out grabbing Jaheira’s shoulder and pulling her inside. Fortunately for the druid, it was indeed Minsc, not some undead thing. More luckily yet, the spear thrown by one of the Lurraxol’s guards, hit the wooden panel two seconds after Jaheira was inside.
“Fools!” a hysterical woman’s voice came after the disappointed howl of the mob. “Now we will have to kill both of them!”
Jaheira blinked her eyes rapidly, trying to adjust to the flickering light of the single torch. It was the only source of illumination inside the tomb. Her infravision finally kicked in, and she was able to see the details. They were inside a small empty chamber with dry sand floor. Minsc was sprawled on the stone bench that was currently the only piece of usable furniture. Few other benches of the same design were piled up barricading the door. The ranger’s right hand held a half-eaten chicken drumstick, while his left one clutched the neck of a wine bottle. Half-empty picnic basket at his feet, and a heavy crossbow at his elbow finished the composition.
“It looks like you did not waste any time on regretting your folly!” Jaheira snapped sarcastically.
“Boo says regrets are for ninnies,” Minsc answered cheerfully,” and we are heroes here, right Boo?”
Jaheira could have sworn that the hamster understood him perfectly, for the rodent, who was sitting inside the basket sniffing at the olive stuffed with marinated goat cheese like a true connoisseur of fine cuisine, rose to his hind legs and squinted his little black eyes at her. Then, finding her not worthy of his attention, he squeaked and continued his meal.
Jaheira growled deeply, like an angry she-wolf.
“Come on Jaheira,” Minsc waved his chicken leg at her, “don’t get mad at us! Grab something to eat. Busy is a great cook and there is plenty left in the basket!”
The noise coming from the outside resolved itself into a stampede of many feet and a loud ‘boom’, as if a heavy timber was lifted and used as a ram on the crypt door. Jaheira blinked.
“Don’t you worry! They had already tried this,” Minsc nodded at the door and took another bite. “Boo thinks, this door is magikked. Nobody of them was able to enter but when I put the key in, it just clicked and opened wide.”
“We cannot sit here forever,” she pointed out reasonably.
“And why not?” Minsc asked mildly. “They are bound to get bored with this. Boo says, when Master Coprith comes he will show this nincompoops who is running the show!”
Jaheira nodded considering this. The situation was not as bad as she had though at first. If the crypt door will hold, they should be fine. She hoped that Fentan sisters would be smart enough to run to Lord Logan instead of trying to force their way in as she did.
As she bent over the picnic basket to grab an apple a bright golden sparkle under the white linen caught her eye. Jaheira pulled it out and stared in wonder. It was a golden neckpiece, or rather, a Chain-of-Office. A heavily bejeweled Symbol hung from a massive golden chain that was fastened at the back with elaborate lock. Each link of the chain was adorned with a different color gem about the size of her fingernail. The Symbol represented a perfectly balanced scale, where each cup was heavily loaded with treasure. The letters on the base of the scale formed a simple two-words phrase ‘The Merchant’s Peace’57. It was a gaudy, ornate thing with no much consideration to taste or subtlety. Yet, after looking at the ornament for a while Jaheira realized that she had expected the Merchant Goddess Symbol look even richer. This piece was too delicate, almost as if it was made for a child, not a burly, overfed trader.
“So,” she mused hanging the thing by its heavy chain, “that was what they have been after?”
“Sure, “ Minsc responded merrily, “the Mantle of Waukeen! The little fella gave it to me willingly. He said his grand-grandchildren are a noisy bunch of fools, who keep banging on his door day and night, and that he just wanted his rest.”
Jaheira shifted uneasily. “Are you saying you got this from its original owner? Is he…undead?” She dropped the chain back into the basket, and looked around feeling less and less comfortable.
“Oh, don’t worry about Master Luca, Jaheira. He is a cheerful little ghost, and after he gave this to Boo and me he said he is now free to go to the Fugue Plane. His Goddess promised to come and collect him in person, but something is holding her back. He is no threat to anybody, I swear! He was so happy when we got rid of the stupid skeletons in his crypt. It was some fun butt-kicking!” After this uncharacteristically long speech Minsc took a swig from his bottle for fortitude.
“There were skeletons!?”
“Grave robbers,” the ranger nodded gravely, “after they set off all his traps Master Luca had locked the front door.”
“How can you eat in a place filled with undead? It is…unsanitary!”
“They are down there,” Minsc pointed at the darkest corner of the crypt. “And Minsc is here.”
Now Jaheira realized that she had missed something about the chamber they were in. The darkest corner hid a small staircase leading down into the ground. The low entrance was barred with an iron grate. Jaheira grabbed a torch and came closer to have a look at it, her jaw dropped – the sign above the entrance stated: ‘Honorable Luca Lurker-Braggart, the chosen of Waukeen and founder of the village of Trademeet’.
“Yeah,” Minsc chuckled, “nice Lurraxol-Alibakkar connection.”
In reality, it took us about an hour to reach the gypsy’s campsite. By that time the cold mud seeped into my boots freezing my toes. My muscles were stiff from riding, and the angry emptiness in my stomach was giving me a throbbing headache. The rain had stopped but the grayness above condensed into a thick pool of shadows. The day was dying on us, and the evening was drawing closer. At first I only saw the crowd around the orange lights of bonfires and heard the music, then the hum of human voices and laughter filled my ears, and the divine aroma of roasting meat reached my nose.
There were six brightly colored tents sprawled across the shorn wet cornfield, like some exotic birds ready to fly off into the leaden-gray sky. The simple canvas wagons circled the tents, and in the middle the bonfires burnt hotly radiating waves of blessed heat and flickering orange light. The fiddle cried sweetly breaking my heart with sudden desire of happiness, and was joined by a flute and a drum, carrying the slow steady rhythm of the dance.
Valygar disappeared into the gray mist, leading away the horses, but Jan and I moved forward to the nearest fire. The crowd parted before us as we approached. I realized vaguely that many of them wore the rich clothes of town merchants and nobility. Most of these were young men dressed in velvets and fur, and decorated with golden chains and flashy headgear, though some of them brought their girlfriends and mistresses.
I pulled off my wet gloves and tucked them under the belt, spreading my icy fingers over the fire. The heat coming from the flames was scorching, and I was shivering from the pure physical pleasure of it. My face was flashing hot but my back was still cold, so after a while I turned around to reverse the situation. My nosy familiar had chosen to stay in his cozy nest, inside Honey’s saddlebags. I did not blame him for not willing to come out. I wished I was curled into a ball inside some warm and dry place too.
“You are too big,” came a vague response, and he drifted back to sleep.
The rhythm of the dance was still in my ears, making my feet twitch involuntarily in response, as the music continued to flow from the invisible gypsy performers. I pushed away the hood of my cloak and my dark mane fell in wet ringlets over my shoulders. My black riding dress started to steam and I could finally feel my toes again. The jingle of silver bells and rhythmical clapping of many hands was coming from the dancing ground in between the three bonfires. Feeling more human with every passing second I raised my head to have a better look at the dancers.
I had never seen the gypsy girls dancing. No caravans were ever admitted on the Candlekeep grounds or within twenty miles of the walls. Later on, the bandits and the threat of military conflict had driven the wagons of the eternal vagabonds away from the country roads of the Sword Coast. The only gypsies I had ever saw were the tired, bedraggled women in multicolored rags, carrying hungry babes on their backs. They seemed to thrive on Baldurs Gate’s busy streets and markets. They begged for small change or read your palm, while their older offspring, thin and quick like fledgling sparrows, cleaned the pockets of the unwary.
The girls in the circle of the orange light were fey creatures made of fire and music, and summoned to our Plane by magic. The fiddle wept and the drums beat the rhythm; and their dresses were a whirlwind of color and glitter as the small coins that were sewn into the hems of their overskirts flashed in the firelight. Their bright petticoats frothed around strong, slender legs like petals of red and pink anemones as they leaped into the air and whirled in fury of their dance. Their décolletages, adorned with ruffles and lace left their tanned shoulders naked, stopping short of exposing their deepest secrets. The dark, shiny waves of hair floated around them, and the golden and silver coins in their filigreed necklaces jingled keeping with the rhythm as they shook their shoulders and raised their hands.
I was hypnotized. For a moment it felt ultimately right to shake off my heavy black cloak and join the dancers in the circle. Then I remembered who I was, and the weight of that knowledge draped over me like a mantle of cold lead.
“Here is another one of them!” a hand grabbed me by the waist, and a youthful drunken voice breathed spiced wine into my ear. “Will you tell me my future, pretty gypsy? I have a few silver coins left in my purse that your sisters did not take!” he clinked his purse to emphasize that last statement. Judging by the sound of it there was not much left inside. I suppose I did look like a gypsy in profile with my eyes closed, for my coloring always was that of a butterscotch caramel, and my hair is sable brown; though only a fool could have mistaken my stark monastic garb for gypsy’s rainbow vestments.
I turned around, slowly opening my half-closed eyes, and taking my time to answer. A wicked grin spread upon my face as the poor wretch had a good look at my black attire and glowing yellow eyes. He was a tall, lanky town youth, dressed rather ostentatiously in burgundy velvet trimmed with green tassels. At the sight of my face he hiccupped loudly and let go of me.
“I am s…sorry, m...madam!” he mumbled shakily backing away from me as fast as he could. “I mistook you for one of the fortunetellers!”
“Why, of course,” I murmured seductively. “I can tell you everything about your next morning without any payment. You will wake up with a horrible headache and an empty purse, and the first person you would see is going to be your father. He is not going to be happy about your condition. Do you want me to tell you more?”
“N…no thanks!” The young man yelped in horror and pushed away gathering speed as he broke away from the crowd.
Somebody giggled in a high-pitched gnomish fashion. Jan had disappeared from my sight some time ago, so I looked around trying to locate him.
“I think Jan exaggerated the direness of your condition,” a slightly accented voice stated in my ear. “You are sharp as a razor, and bright as a new moon. That was hilarious, by the way.”
“Thank you, Yoshimo,” I answered turning to face him. “Though truly told, I am cold, exhausted and hungry as a pack of werewolves. Can you believe it?”
“Of course I can,” he smiled sympathetically. “That is why I brought you some hot spiced wine.” He was holding a bronze carafe and a goblet in one hand, and a thick blanket in another. “And if you will follow me, I shall take you to the tent where you can have some hot food.”
I wrapped the blanket around myself and sniffed. “You know, if somebody had told me before today that guardian angels wear black leather suits, I would have called him a liar.”
“I see. You would have been right. I am no angel.”
“You sure come darn close,” I muttered. “Give me that goblet before my newly discovered trust in humanity evaporates as quickly as it was found!”
I gulped down the hot cordial, and allowed him to lead me through the crowd to a tent where a white-haired woman in parrot-green skirts and virulently yellow ruffled blouse was cutting slices of steaming roast, and ladling deliciously spicy stew into the chipped pottery for a couple of small silver coins. The yellow mass of turnips, peas, and tender white meat was generously seasoned with curry, pepper, and cardamon. That was one of the best meals I could remember.
Valygar and Jan were there as well, sited on the low wooden benches near the cauldron with steaming ruby liquid, which after a close inspection turned out to be mulled wine. Jan handed me my rabbit, who was wide awake by now and wanted company. I scratched him behind the ears and wondered how did Jan manage to coerce Puck out of his den. The rabbit radiated something akin to embarrassment superimposed with an image of a carrot. We were all quite happy and content with life but something was nagging at my consciousness.
“Where is Anomen?” I asked sleepily. “I hope you guys did not loose him on the way here.”
“Oh,” Yoshimo smirked mischievously. “I think your gallant cavalier is still trotting the Great Tethyr Road. As far as I know, he may be half way back to Imnesvale by now.”
I woke up immediately. “Why would he do such a thing without telling me? Did you guys quarrel, or something?”
Jan giggled. “When we did not show up at the camp within quarter hour the lad decided to go look for you in person, leaving the ponies with Yoshimo. Somehow he managed to pass us on the road.”
I moaned and started to get up. “Why me?” I complained loudly. “I think it is my destiny to drag him out of various messes he puts himself into! I knew he was bad luck from the first time he got himself hit on the head by that guard in Copper Coronet! Get up – we are going after him.”
“There is no need, my lady.” The icy cold voice came from the tall figure at he entrance. “Though I thank you most graciously for your noble intention to rescue me. I do not wish to bring you any more ‘bad luck’, as you have called it. You only had to state your true feelings once! I am now asking your permission to leave your service and return to Athkatla.”
I jumped to my feet less than graciously. My cheeks flashed, though it was hard to say was it more from anger or embarrassment.
“What a mule-headed idiot with a consideration of a headless chicken!” I thought angrily.
“You are too soft on him,” came a reply from Puck, “he has an intellectual prowess of a clam, combined with a temper of a buck in heat.”
“I am not granting you this permission, Anomen.” I proclaimed loudly. “If you want to leave us, you will have to do it without my approval for I still need you.” He looked deeply hurt. “I do apologize for my remark,” I added softly. “I am very tired and slightly drunk. I really did not mean it.”
Anomen nodded thoughtfully, but his face was still deadly white and his eyes were dark and sorrowful. I almost giggled at the though of how much of a romantic hero he looked at that moment. If he can only shave that mess that covered the lower part of his face.
“You hate romantic heroes, aren’t you?” my rabbit asked shrewdly.
“Good point,” I answered, “though at the moment I only hate this one in particular. It would be a relief to let him go, but I think I would feel rotten about it, too.”
“Why? You are certainly not in love!”
“No, I am not. But I know too well how it feels to be an outsider, somebody who is not wanted by anyone. If he cannot take it from me, imagine how he would feel when a guy twice his size and ugly as hell starts making jokes about his ‘bad luck’; which is, by the way, a result of him always having his head in the clouds!”
“It may be much harder on him to take it from you than from some stranger.”
“ If he stops trying to be a hero and starts paying attention to the facts of life, he is going to be just fine! I bet he had missed us on the road because he was thinking of how romantic would it look to offer his poor, exhausted love a strong hand, and lift her on his saddle in a single sweep! I hate been swept on the saddle!”
“So, what do you say?” I raised an eyebrow. “Will you humor me, and stay with us at least until tomorrow? We are going to make one last ride to Trademeet. I would hate to spend the night outside when the city walls are almost within sight.”
Anomen bowed his head and mumbled his agreement, though he was still seething with anger, and I was not sure if it was not only for one more day in our company. I nodded and gathered my skirts, tucking the rabbit into a big pocket that I had sewn to the insides of my mantle to have my hands free when he wanted to stay with me. My hood was not that convenient, though sometimes Puck still preferred to ride in there. At least my clothes were semi-dry now and my belly full of curried stew.
My companions just started to get up from their seats when the old lady, who served us our food and drink, entered the tent. She had thrown a rich embroidered shawl with lush red roses and firebirds, over her vivid garments. It clashed terribly with the green and yellow of her skirt and blouse, but also made her look important, almost regal. I noticed how much gold she carried on her fingers and in her ears.
“Leaving so soon?” She beamed at me affectionately. “I hope you were pleased with our hospitality, young lady and lords! I thought you will stay overnight. There will be more dance, and a game of dice in the other tent. Later on, the choir will sing and the girls will serve hot spiced wine to the patrons.”
“Thank you very much,” I smiled. “We were quite happy with the meal and the dance. The way your dancers move makes me think of the fire elementals, and one can loose her head and heart to your music!”
“Really?” she was obviously flattered. “Two of my older daughters are in the Circle tonight, and my husband is playing the fiddle. I am glad you’ve enjoyed their performance! I am Kveroslava, the Roma58 of this band,” she beamed at me, and her lined face lit up from inside making me see the beauty she once possessed. “Would you like me to read your hand before you go? I never do it for the regulars,” Kveroslava made a dismissive gesture at the crowd of outside the tent. “But I like your face. I do have the powers, and though it can be upsetting, sometimes it is better to be forewarned than to stumble blindly into a disaster.”
“I don’t know,” I ventured hesitantly. “Perhaps it is wiser to let the sleeping dog rest, never poke at the coiled snake, and do not disturb the wasp’s nest, you know.”
“It is up to you,” she nodded, “but you may learn something to your advantage if you are brave.”
“Nonsense!” Valygar chuckled dismissively. “Don’t let her pull this trick on you. Phew, I though you at least would be immune to all kinds of superstitions!”
That patronizing tone of his was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Our conversation on the road was still vivid in my memory. I did not intend to listen to Kveroslava’s ‘reading’ before that, but now I changed my mind just to spite him.
“Why would you think so?” I asked musingly. “My blood does not protect me from been a gullible, romantic and sappy female. May be I do want to hear all the flabby nonsense she is going to tell me about handsome stranger, sinister blonde rival, and eventual happy union with blue-eyed knight in shining armor!”
The only present qualifying specimen did not really strike my fancy, but I was mad at Valygar for his earlier attempts to goad me. I turned to the gypsy and following a silly impulse gave her my hand.
“I don’t like you attitude,” she shook her head at my flamboyancy, “but I am going to keep my promise. Let me see.”
Kveroslava seized my hand, and ushered me closer to the tall brazier filled with burning coals that was the only source of light inside the pavilion. As she took my right palm in both of hers, and bent over it attentively my companions started to chuckle, making funny little noises. Even Anomen relaxed somewhat, and an indulging smile appeared on his face. For whatever reason that irked me, even though I was glad he forgot about his recent fiasco. So far this fortune telling seemed like a good distraction.
For a minute or so the gypsy traced the lines on my palm, murmuring softly to herself. Then her mouth tightened and she clutched my other hand pulling my two palms close together. She seemed to be in trouble now, for her face blanched and her eyes narrowed into two black glinting slits.
“It cannot be,” Kveroslava, muttered, “you are so young and spirited ... I must have got it all wrong.”
She dropped my palms suddenly and grabbed my head. I squawked in mild protestation, and tried to pull back but she was holding me firmly by the temples, and her fierce black eyes bored into mine like two daggers.
“The golden eyes,” she whispered trembling from head to toe as if in a terrible discomfort but refusing to turn her gaze away. “You can burn a hole in a man’s soul and never notice... There should be passion in these eyes, laughter and desire, but all I can see is death! You will die, though somehow not entirely, the weakest part of you will survive! I can see a man, dark and dangerous ... he is also dead … and the two of you will become one! You shall forsake your powers to become strong ... you shall kill yourself to live ... you shall betray your destiny to fulfill it!”
Kveroslava was foaming on the mouth, and her eyes were rolled back under her eyelids showing whites. It was a scary sight. I wriggled in her hands trying to get away from her but she was holding me with inhuman strength. Suddenly she wept shortly and let go. Her whole body was shaking from the nervous shock, and she jumped away from me as if I was a leper.
“Go,” she whispered, “please go now! I should not have touched you. Your destiny has broken my powers! Nobody can help you. You are on your own.” She looked at me with terrible sadness, bowed deeply touching the ground at my feet, and fled.
* * * * *
I feel better today. Yesterday, I had a dream. She was walking across the wide plain covered in first snow. She was happy, she was smiling and talking to someone I could not see. I thought – how could She be so happy when I am dead? Then I remembered that She did not know.
When I woke up, I wept and wished I were dead for real. But then I thought - what’s the matter with me? I should be happy that She is free at least. May be She will come to me one day. I started to remember things. It was like a window opened inside my head, and some of the fog that is always there oozed out. I will try to write some of it down now, so that later I can read it and call my memories back again.
They had brought us before their council. Later Irenicus told me these were the Cowled Wizards, but all I can recall is a huge hall filled with scrolls and people running back and forth like they were mad, though I know now they were not. I have seen the real ones. They all were so afraid of him I almost laughed. Like rabbits, who have caught themselves a tiger. Irenicus just stood there and looked like he was bored. I bet he was.
I was still hurting from the fire spell, and my clothes were all scorched and tattered. Somebody said –“What a pretty face!” Irenicus just looked at that guy and his lips stretched under the mask. I had never seen anything scarier than that smile. I thought, how come they say I am pretty? I am all burnt and covered in soot. She had tried to heal me when they grabbed me. I don’t like it when She uses her Bhaal’s magic. It is unnatural. Though She said once - how is it worse than any regular prayer? I dunno. I just don’t like it. It’s like touching something long dead and slimy.
My head hurts when I think of this stuff - Her being a Bhaalspawn and such. When I first learned about it I went mad. I cried and cried until I felt asleep. It was like learning about my mother all over again. I knew She was not like the other people, but I always thought that was because She was special. She was my sister, somebody who loved me just because I was me. Not because somebody paid Her for it or out of pity.
The Wizards at the council said I was unstable; that I cannot be allowed to run amok on the streets of their precious city. Irenicus nodded, and I thought he knew they would sentence me to be in the same place with him. As if he could command them. May be he could, even then?
I closed my eyes and yelled at the top of my lungs. I cried that I do not want to go. I begged them to get him away from me. That was when they’ve decided I was truly mad. I was not back then. Now I am not that sure. He had taught me to love pain.
I keep remembering times when I was still free of Irenicus, of his continuous presence inside my head. I think that is what is driving me insane. He is so persistent. He keeps asking questions about Her all the time. As if he can learn enough, he can summon Her here. Can he really do it? No, he is not that powerful! She is safe from Irenicus as long as She stays away from me. She should never come here and She won’t. I know it. She is not my sister. She never was, truly. All She had ever cared about was her precious magic, and Gorion, and Jaheira and… everybody else.
That is not me talking! That is Irenicus. I know it is one of the things he trying to do to me – convince me that She had never cared! One of the things… Whatever he says, I know that She was like sister to me once.
Irenicus…I am so tired of him. I…I cannot stand his mask! It scares the wits out of me. It feels warm and soft when you touch it like he ripped the face off the living person and put it on. His body is that of a young man, but he never takes off that mask…I cannot think of what is under it! He said once that this is his real face and what is under is not important. Then he laughed though it sounded more like he was crying.
They take me to him every day. He is sucking me dry of emotions. I cannot even hate him anymore. I am too tired. It is like he wants something from me that he cannot get anyway. I hate myself! I feel I am becoming what my mother was - his mindless bed-slave, his toy, his concubine, his…whore. Now I’ve said it. That is the word that was haunting me. That is what he wants me to be.
I wish I could be strong like the dryads. I wish my skin were a tree bark, senseless to pain and pleasure. He is the master of both and my body cannot resist anymore; it became a supplicant to his wishes. I would welcome death with open hands now… though he had removed the enchanted belt. He said that it was not important anymore, that I would not dare to deny him. I think he is right – there is no will left in me even to die gracefully.
My body craves pain and he gives it to me slowly, patiently, like an artist putting another careful stroke of his brush on a canvas. He had chosen me to be his next masterpiece. When my skin once again becomes a horrible network or bleeding welts, and my every nerve screams out in agony something inside me opens and embraces it. He said I would be ready, when I want to share it with the rest of the world. Ready for what?
After he is done, he would talk. Sometimes he would talk about his elven wife. Another paragon of insincerity. The queen was a bitch, I am sure of that. I wonder if he is doing to me what he wants to do to her? I remember that poor clone in the room of glass and cadavers; and her bedroom full of fresh flowers, music, and deadly poison.
I started having dreams of the forest I had never seen. The lush green leaves of linden trees, the pungent aroma of firs, the oak-bark heated by the afternoon’s sun. I should not have these memories. They are floating to the surface of my mind when he touches me as if he calls them forth and consumes them. I feel that he cannot hold them. The dryads were right. He is dead inside.
I do not want to think about him. Let’s try it again. I am in a cell. It is a small room, with four empty walls, and a bed. This is my lair, my safe place, and my hole. I am safe here. Irenicus cannot get me. Here I am bold enough to call him by his name. I can never do it in his face. This is it - here is my journal, and my pen and ink. I have to hold it on my knees. I got it all from the old warden before Irenicus took over the Asylum. He told me something about concentrating. Like writing will help me to clear my brains.
They would let me out at first. That week when he was still playing games with the warden. I have seen the others- they are all nuts, even the little girl and old Dradeel. Every one of them has their own obsession!
I was so glad to see a familiar face at first. But all he could talk about was his stupid culinary book and the werewolves. Dradeel thinks I am still a werewolf. I cannot blame him - we were all infected, even Her. But Dradeel was bonkers already when we first found him on that island. A great elven mage stuck on the piece of rock with Balduran shipwreck and the werewolf crew. I wander how did he end up here?
It does not really matter for I think mages are all this way. I should not have tried to learn about magic. Gorion always refused to let me try. He had said something about me not being strong enough to handle it on top of my other problem. I always thought that was because he did not want me to be like Her. Like She was special somehow, better than me. So I told Gorion that I did not have any problems but he just patted my head and walked away quickly.
Irenicus, on the other hand, does not have any reservations about it. He says I can learn to be better than Her if I only let him ‘unlock my potential’. Gee, what a treat! I suppose that is what he was doing with me all along!
I just re-read that last line. I can actually laugh about it.
Does this mean I am not entirely lost? That I can still hold to myself somehow? I will try. May be She will come for me one day. Until then – Ilmater, the Crying God, protect me.
In the wee hours of the winter predawn, they were finally rescued by Logan Coprith and his loyal guard. Jaheira was awakened by the loud banging on the crypt door, and even louder screams of enraged lady Lilith outside. In the last few hours the breaking attempts had stopped, and the noise of the ongoing squabble outside was reduced to the level when the druid could sleep without paying much attention to it.
Jaheira swore and tried to go to sleep again. The floor of the atrium chamber was covered with a relatively clean gray sand, so she could curl up on it trying not to think of the undead feet that she was sure had trundled it before. Now it was all over her clothes and in her hair. She though in cold anger that she was going to make lady Lilith swallow a handful of it, if she ever got her hands on the wretched noblewoman.
Minsc turned on his other side, and continued to snore like a pig. The sounds he was producing could be best described as that of someone ripping thick linen, with the passionate abandon of a true vandal. When camping outside she had always picked up the spot farthest from Minsc but this chamber was too small to escape his roulades.
“How can any woman sleep close to the source of this?” Jaheira though wearily. She felt truly sorry for Mistress Busya.
At that very moment, the banging was repeated, and a rich baritone that she vaguely recognized as Lord Logan’s called her by her name.
They were led through the angry (if reduced) crowd of both families’ supporters surrounded by the tight circle of Mayor’s guards, and delivered to his town residence on the backs of Trademeet fastest horses. Now Jaheira was sitting in a soft, comfy armchair in front of the lit fireplace, with a mug of hot cordial, and tried heroically to stay awake. Minsc’ booming bass and Lord Coprith’s baritone kept throwing her off track, and she wanted to concentrate.
“You are lucky these two halfling lasses mobilized their entire community to find me,” lord Logan chided, “it was a fairly stupid thing to mess with Lurraxols.”
Minsc sighed, producing a sound worthy of a medium size whale.
“I cannot just destroy the damn thing!” the Mayor complained loudly. “It is part of our history. And if I keep it locked in my cabinet both Lurraxols and Alibakkars would try to break in and steal it, killing each other in process! Why did you bring it out of the crypt? You should have left it where it was!”
“The little fella said it was time for it to see the light of day,” Minsc answered apologetically. “He was rather tired of guarding over it, and said he wanted his rest.”
“He wanted his rest!” Lord Logan exploded. “And what about responsibility? An Ogre invasion is on my doorstep and I have to waste my time and valuable recourses on guarding a second-hand heirloom! What am I supposed to do – put a honor guard around it or hire a band of wizards?”
“I have a better idea!” Jaheira said suddenly, lifting herself from the red velvet cushions. “You can hand it to lady Lilith and lord Skarmaen as a gift on the day of their wedding!”
Lord Logan looked at her with pity as if considering if he should call for a healer right away, or send her to bed.
She grinned like a shark at him, and continued smugly. “I just realized why lady Lilith yelled that now they have to kill us both. Do you understand what kind of a family name ‘Lurker-Braggart’ is?”
“It is a funny double-trouble one,” the Mayor shrugged, “so what?”
“What is more important is that it is a halfling name!” Jaheira exclaimed triumphantly. “I was not able to get inside the tomb proper for Master Luca had locked the door after he gave Minsc the Mantle of Waukeen, but I realize now what was bugging me all that time! Minsc am I right or what?”
“Aye, of course,” the big man responded in surprise. “Did not I tell you already? Master Luca was a jolly little bugger, as round and hairy-toed as any one of the Fentans. I had a good look at his toes, as he had dangled them in my face whilst sitting on his own coffin! We had a nice chat - Minsc, Boo and him. I though everybody knew about that.”
“Lady Lilith will kill herself rather than admit having a halfling for a grand-grandfather and hairy toes,” Jaheira laughed, “and that smug Alibakkar man, can you imagine him receiving Midwinter Night cards from all his halfling cousins and second aunts? He would die from embarrassment! They both consider themselves the blue blood, cream of the cream; now how would they feel if their true heritage was revealed to the public?”
“This is rich!” Minsc suddenly got it, “they’ve changed Lurker to Lurraxol and Braggart to Alibakkar to hide their halfling roots? What a bunch of morons!”
“So, what you are proposing, if I am not mistaken, is a simple blackmail,” the Mayor grinned back at Jaheira. “They get married and receive the medallion as their wedding gift from the city in exchange for us keeping mum about their halfling blood?” He chuckled. “I like the idea! In fact - I love it. But what will stop them from assassinating each other on their wedding night, and the survivor sending a hired killer after me?”
“Or, that is easy,” Jaheira waved her hand. “You will be the one who puts together their marriage contract. Just ask Busya – she seems to be a specialist in finding the right clause. Make it so that if there were no children, the survivor would have to accept his/her true family name and heritage. It can be a hidden article. Trust me, they will be watching over each other’s health like hawks. I think Lilith is young enough to bear children.”
“O, she is only thirty five,” Lord Logan answered smilingly, “and she has had more liaisons than I have fingers on both hands and feet! Never was married. There were rumors of an illegitimate daughter growing in the country. Skarmaen has two sons and a daughter. His wife died three years ago, and there were rumors that Lilith was involved. To think of it, the family feud had intensified fifteen years ago, right before Skarmaen married the rich Tethyrian heiress, and nobody ever knew the father of Lilith’s daughter.” He shook his head. “We may be doing a favor not only to this city, but to both of them as well.”
“Hell hath no Fury like a Woman wronged,” Jaheira said quietly. “You have no idea, Master Logan, how true this saying is.” She opened wide her bright emerald eyes and looked at him boldly. “Let’s get it over with. When my companions return - I will have no time to waste on this nonsense!”
We reached the city gates in the chilly darkness of the winter night. My companions were silent, giving me some breathing space to recover my wits after disaster at the gypsy camp. I was grateful. I expected horror and revulsion; what I received was a mix of curiosity and, strangely, pity. The alliances that I had forged with these four were built on different foundations, though it was no secret to me that every one of them was trying to use me for his own ends. We had been together for little more than a month, or even less in Valygar’s case, but already I could feel the tender cobwebs of personal ambitions and hidden passions, binding them to me stronger than the steel wires.
Jan rode on my right side, keeping silent for a change, but periodically giving me a quick, reassuring grin and a wink. I realized how much did he change since I literally pulled him out of Rakshasa’s jaws. Before that, his major imperatives were his financial and magical gains. Now the little wizard was watching over me like a mother hen over her chick, and his personal crusade of protecting me from Anomen’s advances was most touching. Nobody really cared about me on this level since Gorion’s death, except Jaheira. But I poisoned our relationship with her with my betrayal, and there was no way back.
Yoshimo’s black horse matched an uneven stride of my mount on my left side. Kveroslava’s reading had the strangest effect on our enigmatic rogue. At first his face went rigid as if from a sudden blow and for a moment I though he was going to collapse. The cold sweat beaded his brow and he gasped for air, then he took a deep breath and slowly stabilized himself. I could have sworn he was scared half to death, but of what? In all my vanity, I could not believe he actually felt serious about me, even though he was eager enough to flirt, and to drive Anomen crazy with his manner of touching my hand ‘accidentally’ every now and then.
Anomen… Anomen was at the lead, keeping slightly away from everybody, his face in a painful contorted scowl. All the way from the campsite, he was carefully avoiding my gaze, deep in his uneasy thoughts. I was positive that he was going to leave us by tomorrow, and this time I was not going to ask him to stay. Some wounds can only be healed by quickly cutting away the infected limb. Our relationship had festered into something ugly and painful, and I could not see any other way to alleviate his pain. If he had finally realized that his body betrayed him by lusting over the weird progeny of immortal evil – good for him! Better that it happened now, while he still was in control.
Valygar Corthala, an alleged murdered of wizards, and a sharp-tongued pragmatist was riding in the rear, leading the pack animals. In only a few days he had established himself as an expert in horseflesh and a worthy traveler. He was smart, reliable, and good with animals, which was in my observation an invaluable feature of every ranger. I missed Minsc’ easy-going humor and simple ways; still Valygar was a good substitute.
The guard at the Eastern Gate grinned at us through the small grated window and yelled to his invisible partner to open the gates at once. Considering that only a week ago this same gate was under a virtual siege by packs of wild animals it was a pleasant change, though hardly an appropriate one. As we rode inside the city walls in a single file, he and his companion saluted us heartily with their half-empty tankards, and in the flickering light of their oil lantern I noted a-red-and-green twined cords wrapped around their sleeves and an ale cask sitting precariously on the stone slab by the guardroom.
The second guardsman smiled, showing a row of uneven yellow teeth and burst into a bawdy wedding jingle, praising the manly expertise of a groom, and unearthly delights he was going to give to his bride. I chuckled, despite my generally depressed mood. It looked like the Trademeet inhabitants were gradually recovering from their troubles.
“Dangerous fools,” Anomen muttered to himself. “If I was their Captain, that would have been the last day of their service.”
“For once, you are right, Helmite,” Valygar suddenly agreed, “these are dangerous times and a guard that is drunk at his post is the worst kind of a traitor, for not only he betrays the trust of his people, he also betrays his own wit.”
“You are a bright one for an unbeliever,” the cleric responded in surprise, “tell me, Valygar, how can one of a noble decent and upbringing not feel a need to dedicate his life to the righteous ideal? The service of the rightful Deity gives our life purpose. Without it there is emptiness filled with howling of the damned. Or do you expect Kelemvor59 to be lenient on your lost spirit when you pass into his realm?”
“You’ve created this emptiness yourself, preacher,” Valygar answered with a fierce scowl. “My trust is in men, not in gods and the only thing I believe in is my own reason, and my right to decide what is good for me without divine interferences!”
“But how do you know you are free of interventions even now, ranger?” Anomen asked sadly. “The dark powers are cunning, and there are traps for the souls of the unwary. Even the gentlest spirit, and the purest heart can eventually succumb to corruption or despair if it does not have the support of true love and friendship, and lacking these there is only one source of spiritual energy – the help from your chosen Deity.”
“I feel sorry for you, Helmite,” Valygar said after a moment of silence. There was no anger in his voice, just tiredness. “Leave me be. You have your own demons to battle, so leave me with mine.”
They both fell silent. Our horse’s hooves clicked on the cobbles of a narrow street leading up the hill into the heart of the city. I stayed quiet through the whole exchange. There was no fire left in me to pick up another fight. My mind was overwhelmed with bleakness. It felt like the weight of the whole world was resting on my aching shoulders, and my only wish was for a hot bath and a bed.
We took a turn at the crossing and continued in a general direction of Vyatri’s pub, located in the more respectable part of town. It was our designated meeting place with Minsc and Jaheira. The streets were not empty, despite the late hour and cold weather. There were torches in the wall rings of most of the houses, and we met few more drunks with red and green insignia. Loud cheering, music and singing was drifting from the richest quarter of the town, mixed with catcalls and loud banging.
When we finally reached the inn all I could do was slide down my horse’s side and collapse. I vaguely remembered the strong hands picking me up and carrying me inside, then Jaheira’s voice ordering a hot tub and a meal.
Pleasant warmth of the perfumed water washed away my pain and anxiety, my muscles started to relax, and the tight circlet of the sickening headache dissolved into nothingness. It had been a terrible day… but now it was over. My eyelids were getting heavier, as I inhaled the scented vapors of my herbal bath. Slowly but inevitably, I fell asleep. Amazingly, my dream was free of the usual nightmares, and as I floated in the quiet, fragrant darkness I relished these few precious moments of being carried away from the pain and suffering of my regular dreams.
Suddenly, something changed. I felt as if I was pulled away from my bubble of peaceful slumber and dragged somewhere against my will. The emerald light ahead of me glowed brightly, and I plunged head forward through its green and golden curtain…
The night is filled with silver music of harps and sweet, tangy scent of pine resin. A gentle breeze blows from the heart of the forest, bringing with it the aroma of fertile soil and growing mushrooms. I cannot remember ever before the night forest’s scents filling me with such abundant joy and tranquility.
I am sitting on the ground with my back against the warm, solid trunk of an oak. My body relishes in the pliable softness of earth and the firm, reassuring support of the living tree. My head is spinning slightly from too much music, laughter, and golden wine. I look at my hands and discover to my wonder that these are men’s hands, strong, yet delicate, with long flexible fingers. A large cameo, cut from translucent green beryl and rendering a perfect woman’s face, graces my middle digit. The lady’s features, sharp and intelligent, are strangely familiar, and my heart gives a painful jolt as I look at the miniature. I am wondering how soon would my Queen notice my absence, and if she would consider looking for me. Queen of what people? I wonder dreamily in my other consciousness.
It would be nice to talk with her alone for a change. We have not had much privacy lately. I smile bitterly, my pleasant mood disrupted with the thoughts of her. We’ve been lovers for many years now, but I feel that her passion is fading. She is the Queen and the Chosen One, with the blood of the God flowing in her veins. I am just what I am – a younger son of the minor house. Admittedly, everybody says I have an affinity to magic the kind of which nobody had seen in generations. But everything that I possess – my vast knowledge, respect of my kindred, and most importantly her love, I’ve earned honestly through the years of hard work and self-sacrifice. Obviously, that is not enough for her, not any longer.
I think resentfully of the unfairness of life. All she had to do to assume her position, was to be born, for the mother of her mother was beautiful enough to attract the attentions of our God, who sometimes walks among his children in his earthly avatar and while in this form succumbs to the weaknesses of flesh. Now, where did I hear this story before? I wonder frantically.
My thoughts now take a bitter, jealous path. “My love is still attracted to me,” I think cynically, “as to so many others before, as she will no doubt be to many others after.”
Still, I cannot stop myself from lounging after her. I am cursed with this commitment to a single female. I could never follow the fashion of my many brethren, and their light-hearted approach to life’s pleasures. I had always needed a partner who could understand me, with whom I could share more than a single night’s tryst. She is all I ever dreamed of and more but she is also elusive and unpredictable as a night’s wind. I smile remembering her beautiful eyes of jade green, and the way they sparkled with laughter after the night of passion and the morning spent in leisurely conversation. I panic slightly as my body, evidently male in this strange dream, starts to respond at the thought of my lover.
“Here you are!” A soft voice interrupts these enjoyable fantasies “I almost gave up on finding you tonight!”
I frown in mild irritation. My nosy sister is not the company I desire tonight. Still, I am fond of her, for she is the only one in our large family, who seems to genuinely care for me. Now this is a familiar situation, I remember in my other mind…I have a sister too, do I?
I look at her in wonder, noticing the graceful beauty of her features, her delicate pointy ears, and the minor slant of her dusky blue eyes. These are beautiful eyes, a slightly darker shade of sapphire than mine, but with a disturbing red spark, hiding somewhere in their depth. I incline my head to acknowledge her presence and she plops to the ground unceremoniously, spreading herself on the green moss near me, and supporting her smiling face with both hands.
“You are drunk again, Joni,” she says matter-of-factly, “and alone, while your glorious girlfriend chatters with that idiot general of hers.”
I lift my hand, in protest and lower my heavy eyelids. “I am not drunk,” I mutter sheepishly, “Seldarine protect me! I am just enjoying a moment of peace and quiet away from the crowd.”
“Seldarine’s powers do not grant immunity from too much firewine,” she laughs musically. “The Gods do not preoccupy themselves with a plight of each individual Tel’Quessir unless she happens to be their granddaughter. As for peace and quiet - I had seen and heard enough in the last few months to understand why are you always slinking away when Elhan joins her company.”
I am silent, so she continues with more vigor. “How long are you going to play a toy-boy for the Queen’s bedchamber? You are the most powerful mage to ever come out of this family, may be even out of the whole Tethyr! How can you reduce yourself so before her? Just because the little wench has Rillifane’s60 blood in her...”
“Please, Bodhi, stop making all this random noise,” I chuckle, “you are making my head hurt. Why are you so sour tonight? Enjoy the festivities.”
I make a fluid gesture with my right hand and whisper. A cloud of multicolored sparks flows from my fingers, turning into the tiny fireflies shining with green, red and violet lights. The little creatures turn in the air and form a sparkling circle around her head, like a wreath of tiny stars. My sister looks stunningly beautiful in this crown of lights - her exquisite porcelain features are lit with delight at this magical gift. Her violet eyes look at me with admiration and some deeper, disturbing craving, which makes me little uneasy, so I laugh again to cover it. Her face is an exact copy of mine, though maybe slightly sharper and harder around the eyes.
“You know how I feel about you,” she continues after a slight hesitation. “I view you as a continuation of myself, as somebody so close to me that I can feel every wrong done to you and every humiliation you sustain at her hands as my own. How can you love somebody so ... so shallow, so self-absorbed, and egocentric as Ellesime? She does not deserve to kiss one of your footprints!”
“Shush little one, you make me blush,” I say, genuinely uncomfortable with this talk. “I love her and this is enough for me, the rest of it is not of your business.”
“Not of my business, perhaps,” she carries on with less fire, and more caution in her fluid voice. “I just think that you are loosing your time with her, instead of increasing your powers and moving forward with your research. Tell me about your work. The last time I’ve heard, you tried to breed this special kind of aphid, the magical one who would make firewine and mead out of tree sap.”
I laugh, delighted with her interest, and capture one of the fireflies from her fiery crown.
“Look at it,” I say gently, “is not it a beauty?” I blew on the insect in my fingers, and it begins to grow, becoming the size of the hazelnut, then an apple. Its soft green body continues to glow in the darkness, bathing my hand with emerald light.
“One of the nature’s wonders.”
“Eeek, a giant bug,” she cringes away from my outstretched hand.
I laugh again and release the thing into the night. It buzzes loudly as it flows away.
“So much for your concern for my work,” I lift unsteadily from the ground and shook a finger at her. Her eyes fill with tears at my rebuff and she bites her lower lip with her sharp white teeth.
“I must be off now, little one. Hope you will find somebody to lift your sour mood tonight.” I wink.
My sister is famous among the young ones for her many adventures and insatiable sexual appetite. She claims she had never laid with the same male twice. Sometimes I wonder if the nature intended us as one and mistakenly split in two halves instead, giving her this everlasting hunger for change and me the obsessive fixation on one woman.
Suddenly I feel a strange pull on my mind as if somebody is trying to call me from far away. I do not want to leave the forest, I cry and try to claw at my fleeing memories, but my dream is shuttered and I am thrown back into my own reality…
“Are you out of your mind? You cannot just barge in here like this! She has fallen asleep in her bath. Get out here this very moment before I called for help.”
“Please wake her up!” I heard a voice choked with grief, pleading desperately. “I need to see her! The messenger was waiting for me with news from home… Jaheira, it is my sister… she is dead! I need to go but I cannot just leave without telling her!”
But still, wine constantly leads a man to the brink of absurdity and extravagance; and, beyond a certain point, it is sure to volatilize and to disperse the intellectual energies: whereas opium always seems to compose what had been agitated, and to concentrate what had been distracted.
Thou has the keys of Paradise, oh just, subtle and mighty opium. 61
Moira Delryn woke up early that morning with a sense of determination. There were many things to be arranged today besides her regular chores. It was raining outside. The wet bare branches of old elm tree under her window scratched against her shutters all night and gave her nightmares. She should have asked Terl to cut it down long time ago.
It was chilly, but she could not afford coal in her bedroom. The last month’s bill still was not paid, and the weather was getting colder with every passing day. She shivered, thinking of how would they make it through the winter if it will be as harsh as the last one. Well, if everything will go according to her plan today, she would not have to worry about it.
She was a tall, slim girl, with a wonderful pearly-white tone to her skin, proud aquiline nose, and high cheekbones. Nobody would have called her pretty, simply because her exquisite patrician face denied such a trivial definition. Her steel gray eyes seemed bigger and brighter, accentuated by her thick, dark lashes.
She threw a threadbare blue robe over her nightdress, and shoved her icy feet into old sheepskin slippers. The sole of the left one needed mending, and she could feel the deep chill of the stone tile through the whole in it. The thick woolen rug and bright Tethyran tapestries were gone from her room again, along with her mother’s jewelry and the most valuable of books. Moira sighed. She should have tried to squeeze more out of the fat pawnbroker.
He was quite taken with her, but just remembering the oily look in his little beady eyes and the touch of his clammy fingers on her wrist made her shrug with revulsion. She would have to manage until the news of the ‘Golden Sun’, the last of the Delryn family ships, would come from Muran. Then she would be able to get more credit and buy her things back. She was furious with Cor for putting her into this position again. But she also knew that she cannot miss on the pay for her clerks, and on the monthly Merchant’s Guild fees. Noblesse obliges. Though what little noblesse was left to her was spent on convincing the Magistrate to drop charges of aggravated assault against her father, and stick with lewd language and indecent behavior.
Thus, Cor Delryn was spared the ignominy of prison term, and their name stayed in the Merchant’s Guild books. The old fool barged into a private room in “Four Winds’, where Saerk the Calimshite and his cronies were celebrating their latest victory of signing away Cor’s best agent in Zazesspur. He was drunk as a fish, and mad as a rabid dog. As of late it was his standard condition. Moira shook her head ruefully. One of Saerk’s parasites got a bloody scratch on his cheek and lost few buttons from his shirt, but she had to put together 200 gold for his injured pride.
All she got for her trouble was a fresh bruise on her forearm, and being called ‘a meddlesome wench’ and ‘an ungrateful daughter’. Later that night Cor begged her forgiveness on his knees, dribbling tepid, watery tears over her feet and promising to mend his ways. She was not sure what upset her more – his drunken sprees and debauchery, or his pathetic fits of self-humiliation afterwards. She remembered these scenes repeating themselves all through her miserable childhood. Only then it had been her mother before whom he begged and sniveled, and pleaded after beating her up, and wasting the last of family’s money. Now it was Moira who virtually became the head of the household.
Moira brushed her light brown hair and pinned it up before the small looking glass. She cringed at her pale reflection and bit at her lips, trying to bring in a little color. It was important that she looked her best today. She lost little weight lately and there were dark circles of fatigue under her eyes. She wished they were deep blue, like her mother and brother’s. No such luck – she got Lord Cor’s cloudy gray orbs, as well as his long nose and thin lips. She wondered if that was the reason under the old man’s bursts of irrational, sappy affection to her. She frowned. At least she did not get his volatile temper and penchant for self-indulgence. She was afraid somebody else in the family picked up these traits.
Moira adored her older brother. It grieved her to be separated from him when they needed him so badly. But she also knew him well. There was no way he was coming back to help her, even though the family was on the brink of a financial ruin. Anomen would never bend his stiff neck before the old drunkard again. Her brother and her father, the two men who were her only family since her mother’s death, hated each other with passionate abandon, which ironically was their shared family trait. That last year before Anomen finally left home for good and entered the Order as initiate to Helm, it was so bad that Moira started thinking about leaving herself, even though she knew Cor would not last a month without her. The reason she did not run away at that time was her mother’s poor health.
When Lady Moraia finally died after the long, debilitating sickness Lord Cor dropped the last pretence of civilized behavior. Moira remembered the terrible scene at the funeral - the old man was drunk and miserable, wallowing in his grief and self-pity, and Anomen as always, was a convenient scapegoat. When her brother refused to return home with them yet again, Cor lost control and hit him in the mouth, as if Ani was still a little boy. She had to hang on her brother’s sword hand begging him to forgive the old fool one last time, while the servants dragged Cor away, screaming obscenities at the top of his lungs. She had looked up, then at her brother’s white face and bloodied lips, and felt that if she let go nothing would stop Anomen from slamming his mailed fist into the old man’s face. She still shivered remembering the murderous look in his eyes.
She put away her brushes and combs, and made her way through the silent, empty house to the kitchen. The cook already lit the fire in the stove and put on a portly old kettle. Moira sighed and sent her for fresh rolls and butter, giving her one of the few silver coins from her purse. She decided she needed a clear head today, and this could not be achieved on a half-empty stomach.
Yusef Farrahd snapped his eyes open and gulped hot air permeated with the reek of Black Lotus. A pitiful whimper of a hunted animal escaped his lips. He never was so scared in his short life. He was in the back room of the ‘Sea Bounty’, his favorite lotus den as of late, hidden deep in the shabbiest quarter of the Dock’s district. It was a dangerous place, frequented by smugglers and pirates, but it suited Yusef just right at the moment, as he wanted to hide from the terrible mess that he had made of his life. The owner was smart enough to keep his mouth shut and let him indulge his addiction discreetly for the appropriate fee. Yusef had no idea how long had it been this time, but judging by the terrible parchedness of his throat and weak shaking of his fingers he had spent many hours sprawled on the striped silk cushions, breathing in the aromatic smoke from ornate hookah 62. Its flexible mouthpiece had fallen from his numbed fingers and lied as a coiled snake by his side.
His awakening was not a natural thing for he was summoned. Something had entered his lotus-induced pleasant dreams, and urged him back to consciousness. Yusef knew what it was, and the knowledge made him tremble like a mouse caught in a mousetrap. He was a handsome boy of about eighteen, tall and graceful, with beautiful dark eyes and fine features, though now his skin acquired an unhealthy yellow tone. He wiped a droplet of sweat that started to trickle down his nose and moaned in desperation. To feel so desperately vulnerable, and not being able to do anything about it almost made him queasy for most of his life he was pampered and spoiled by adults.
Yusef’s father, Saerk Farrahd, respected the traditions of the country that had become his new home after he was forced to flee Zazesspur over some major political misadventure. Over many years that he had spent in Amn he never took more than one wife, but neither he gave up the man’s right to please himself in as many ways as he desired. The upper floor of his Athkatla mansion was always filled with silvery tinkling of a fountain in the winter garden, and rustling of fine silk clothes of its current occupant. When Yusef’s mother died he was only six. He could not remember much of her now – only the perfumed palms of her soft hands, and shiny black eyes. After five years of bachelor’s life his father remarried but soon his second young wife died of mysterious sickness, leaving him a small daughter. Saerk cursed his bad luck, and swore never to take another wife, limiting himself to expensive concubines.
Yusef was never quite sure what had befallen his father’s wives, and he preferred it that way, for Saerk’s moods were dark and dangerous. Until Yusef turned twelve he had a full run of the upper floor. He was always fed sweets and slices of fruit and given small gifts by his father’s women and their maids. He liked them, and they loved him in return for he was quick and pretty, in a dark and handsome way, and he always knew how to say the right thing to make them laugh. Then one day he was summoned to his father’s room and restricted from visiting the seraglio. Yusef felt as if an important part of his life was taken away from him. He was in the men’s world now, and this transition did not bode well with him. At least the women always listened to his complaints, and coddled him to their soft bosoms.
Being an extremely busy man, Saerk bought the services of the best tutors and instructors to groom his only son into a proper heir for his massive trade empire. The problem was – Yusef was never really interested in anything they tried to teach him, and the teachers were too afraid of Saerk’s temper to let him know how Yusef really faired at their respective subjects. So they pretended to educate him while he pretended he cared, all to their mutual satisfaction. As he grew older, Yusef acquired some followers – a crowd of like-minded youngsters from the families of his father’s sycophants and allies. Saerk was pleased with his son’s social advancements and bestowed on him an extravagantly rich allowance; though in truth he never cared how did Yusef spend this money and what did he do in the company of his so-called friends. By the age of sixteen Yusef had been to every expensive bordello and gladiator pit that Athkalta could offer to his young and restless spirit. Fortunately for him he never took to drinking. By the age of seventeen he was thoroughly fed up with paid love and forced cruelty. By eighteen he discovered Black Lotus.
Now that was a habit that drained his pockets faster than any other vice that he had tried. The good stuff was really expensive, and continuous civil unrest in Tethyr made overland smuggling routes from Calimshan and beyond dangerous. The Shadow Thieves guild controlled the black market and charged outrageous prices. When his money started to run out, first he could not believe it. He asked his father to raise his allowance, but was firmly told that what he got already was more than a combined monthly income of a small village. He was promised more when he could show firm interest in the family business and start making a valuable contribution. He was also told to expand his social horizons and start thinking about a marriage alliance with one of the more powerful merchant families. Possibly even one of the Six. That was the last thing on Yusef’s mind. His monthly attendance of business dinners with his father’s agents and their wives was more than enough for him. Yusef needed a really good doze of smoke to sit through one of these endless affairs without his eyes turning glossy blank. But what really threw him into a spin was the though of a marriage.
His childhood experience proved that an expensive pet of a woman could be a desirable and pleasant companion, even though the only thing they were good for did not excite him any longer. His body was saturated with lotus smoke, and his animal instincts were blunted and almost culled out by his overindulgence at younger age. Thence, even a thought of being forced to share a living space and his bedroom with of one of the bland and pompous High Merchant’s daughters, with their shrill, bird-like voices and insufferable mannerisms made him shiver with disgust. Still, he had to attend more of the social events hosted by the Merchant’s guild that year. It was on the Midsummer Guild Ball that it all really started.
Yusef remembered that night. He was hot and bored, and the ever-present wish for another smoke was gently gnawing at the edges of his patience. Saerk was resplendent in his purple surcoat trimmed with golden cord and Yusef in his dark brown velvets felt himself but a bleak shadow of his father, even though his clothes showed much better taste. Saerk’s parasites flocked around both of them continuously, and soon Yusef lost count of the sweaty blushing maidens that were presented before his bleary eyes, one after another. But his father frowned if he let his eyes linger on any one of them for too long. Saerk was hunting for a bigger game. Yusef’s head began to pound, and he could see the swarm of glassy worm-things gathering at the periphery of his vision. He had stayed far too long without a smoke, as he had not had a chance to indulge since that morning. So, he excused himself politely, and went into the inner courtyard decorated with statuary and shadowed with flowering lemon-trees in the wooden buckets. The place was blessedly empty and quiet, and sparsely lit by the flames of a few oil lamps.
By the time he had reached welcoming shadow of the tree, his hands started to tremble badly. Yusef pulled out a sheaf of dried petals and a small clay pipe that he had carried around in his belt pouch. The oil lamp in the hands of a stone nymph was shaped like a miniature bronze dragon, sprouting a jet of flame out of its toothy jaws. Yusef gently tapped his pipe on the tail of the creature, and quickly stuffed it with the dried lotus mix. He had to hold the dragon by the tail tilting it slightly in order to light the aromatic herbs. One side of his pipe was already burned black from such exercises. He dropped at the marble bench at the feet of the statue and drew in a mouthful of smoke. The relief that he felt with the first inhalation was incredible. His heartache started to dissolve, and the bubbling happiness trickled through the thick blanket of boredom and despair that were his constant companions these days.
“Hey lad! Psst – over here!”
Yusef chocked on his next puff and almost dropped the pipe.
“ I could have bit your nose off for this, you know,” the little bronze dragon said conversationally in a strangely hissing voice. “You are just lucky today, that I already had my supper.”
Yusef jumped up and looked around growling like a dog. The dragon responded with undignified giggle that sounded suspiciously feminine. Yusef’s hand went to his belt, almost drawing out his small stiletto.
“By Helms beard, boy! I did not mean to scare you. It’s just you looked so funny when you cuddled that little chap.”
“Who are you?” Yusef heard himself say hoarsely into the blackness of the night.
He licked his dry lips and forced his hand to drop at his side casually. There was no need to show how tense he was. It was so stupid of him to be caught with lotus pipe in a public place. He cursed his luck and tried to make out the details but the lamp fire spoiled his night vision, and all he could see was a slender white silhouette in the overgrowth of the oleander bushes. So, she was there all along! She called him ‘boy’ and probably had no idea what was it that he was up to. Now if only he can keep it casual, may be she would forget about the pipe.
“Don’t worry. I am not going to tell your parents that you smoke.” The invisible girl said amiably. “I tried the tobacco leaf once when I was about twelve, and I could not keep my food down for about a week afterwards. Now that I think of it, our old groom may have given it to me on purpose, so that I would know how vile-tasting is it.” Her voice sounded low and melodic, without the coquettish lisp that was so fashionable among the well-bred young ladies.
“Oh … yes, please don’t tell my father,” he mumbled. Somehow it hurt to be perceived as a boy, who is hiding in the bushes for a quick smoke of pipeweed.
She stepped forward boldly, and entered the bright circle of light from the bronze dragon. Yusef sucked in his breath. Her skin was so radiant that her face looked almost transparent. It glowed with a light of its own in the golden halo of the lamp as if she was one of the nymph statues made of alabaster, and brought to life by some potent spell. Her eyes were deep pools of gray light, shining softly in the deep dark shadow of her black lashes. Yusef wondered briefly how much of her glamour was the result of lotus fumes. Then she smiled, showing two rows of perfect white teeth, and he forgot about it. All that mattered was an aura of quiet strength and confidence that she carried around her like a queen’s mantle. She did not wear any makeup, and her only ornaments were small silver earrings and a shiny blue stone on a silver chain at the base of her throat. Her dress was simple pale-blue silk, outmoded and freshened-up with a bit of lace. She definitely looked older than him. It did not matter.
“You are Farrahd’s son, aren’t you?” the girl asked casually, ignoring his question about her name. “I would never betray your secret to someone like him.” She scowled disgustedly, as if the very though of his father made her angry. “I am very good at keeping secrets.”
His interest was peaked - his father provoked fear and respect, not anger, and it was certainly unusual to hear this from a young lady of a good family. He was certain now that she was noble-born – her manners were graceful, and her accent that of the upper classes.
“Now you have an advantage over me,” he bowed deeply turning on all of his inborn charisma. “I am indeed Yusef Farrahd but I did not have a pleasure meeting you before, although I praised myself at being acquainted with most of the Athkatla’s eligible belles. Are you a visitor to our fine city?”
The girl in blue frowned, looking at him with disappointment.
“Now you sound like a parrot!” she exclaimed in distaste. “How old are you anyway? You looked so young and sad when you touched that dragon. I just wanted to make you smile, nothing more. I am sorry I’ve bothered you, Yusef.” She gathered her skirts and walked away from him down the gravel path leading back to the house.
“Wait!” he cried after her not sure if he was relieved or disappointed at this sudden departure. “What is your name? Look, it is not fair! I gave you mine!” it sounded so childish that he cringed at himself. His friends would laugh at him if they hear of this.
She stopped in her tracks somewhere in the shadows, as he could not hear the grate of stones under her shoes any longer.
“I am Moira Delryn, Lord Cor’s daughter,” she said after a short silence, and marched away.
Yusef would have forgotten all about it if they did not run into each other again next week. The daughter of his father’s arch-enemy was a fascinating creature, but still she was just another girl. Yusef had no lasting interest in females.
His financial problems deteriorated. He had to turn to loan sharks, and although they all agreed that he was a young man with ‘big expectations’, they refused to give him more than several months worth of his allowance, and charged an outrageous interest. He already owed them a hefty sum. At the same time Lehtinan, the primary source of the drug for young Athkatlan nobles, refused to sell him on credit. Yusef could not understand this but suspected that the ghastly owner of the ‘Copper Coronet’ was protecting himself from future retributions by Saerk, in case he would find out about his son’s addiction. In fact Lehtinan was charging him ten times his regular price, trying to get rid of the dangerous client. Saerk’s temper was legendary, and he had ‘connections’.
Yusef crawled out of the ‘Coronet’ in a terrible state. He had not had a smoke for two days and it felt like his skull was bound with tightened steel hoops. Each step awakened a pounding in his head akin to marching of an elephant herd and his hands trembled so badly that he could not carry a drink of water to his mouth without spilling it on his chest. Lehtinan had laughed in his face even as he begged him for a single pipe. The thought of it made Yusef flash with a hot rage that was quickly transformed into a fit of wretched misery. He was so sick - he could not even stay angry. That morning he had managed to slip out of the house through the servant’s quarters and made it to the Slums, only to find out that his source of lotus petals, and his life’s only joy, had run dry.
Yusef dragged himself few steps away from the entrance, and sagged to the ground. He crouched there with his back against the dirty wall, and his whole body began to shake badly as a cold sweat trickled down his spine and legs into his shoes. At some point he actually worried that someone, who may recognize him, may happen to be in the area. Then he simply forgot about it. He retched with a terrible wheezing sound but his stomach was empty, so it only filled his mouth with bitter yellow bile.
He could hear the laughter and callous remarks of passersby, but it all stopped bothering him after a while. He was sure now that he was going to die here squirming like a squashed cockroach on the pantry floor, so he closed his eyes and let go. Suddenly, he heard a clacking of heels on the dry dirt and an angry exclamation. He felt the warm, strong hands grab him by the hair at the back of his neck and lift his head up forcibly. Involuntarily, he gave a cry of pain and dismay, and immediately felt a sharp slap of a small yet heavy palm upon his cheek.
“You do not smell of spirits at all, though by the Gods - you sure look like you’ve been dragged through every offal receptacle from Baator to Nine Hells!” A puzzled voice said into his face.
Yusef whined piteously and lifted his heavy eyelids. The shock of seeing Moira’s gray eyes looking at him broke him out of his queasy delirium. She was wearing an unobtrusive brown cloak with a hood, over a dark woolen dress. Her hair was modestly covered with a white headscarf.
“It is you,” he mumbled stupidly. “W…what are you doing here? This place… it is not suitable for the young woman of good repute.”
“You are not exactly in a position to lecture me about what is appropriate,” she noted smartly with a lift of an eyebrow. “But if you need to know - I was visiting a acquaintance, who happen to live in the area. My mother’s friend, and mine in turn.”
He just nodded tiredly. If was too hard for him to concentrate on her words. His head that was cleared for a moment by her slap began to pound again, and another fit of tremors run through his body.
“You are not drunk, you are sick!” Moira exclaimed worriedly. “Can you get up, or should I call for a litter? If only I could get you to my friend’s house – he would help. He is a wizard and famous healer!”
“Please, leave me alone,” he moaned petulantly, “can’t you see I am dieing? I don’t want your help. And if you think you can blackmail my father with this, think again! He will rather kill you than pay. Just go. Now.”
“It will suit you right to leave you here on the street!” She snapped back at him. “But I have had enough experience with the wool-headed males to know that you really cannot mean what you just said. And even if you did – I don’t give a damn! I will drag you to Gerhardt’s house even if I have to slap you on every step from here to his door.”
True to her word, she had dragged him into some little alley to the east from the ‘Coronet’, and brought him inside with the help from a crowd of gnomish children that appeared out of nowhere, shy and quick as mice. Yusef had little recollection of the place afterwards. All he could remember was a warm, spacious chamber clattered with books, scrolls, weird instruments, and many strange plants in pots, jars and wooden boxes vying with each other for every ray of sunlight falling from the low, arched windows. The wizard himself was a strange figure – a gnome by origin and quite obviously insane, in a quiet, comfortable way. This does not seem to bother Moira at all. She kept answering calmly on his inane, disconnected questions, until he suddenly smiled and patted her on the arm as if remembering something. After this, Gerhard (or whatever his name was) asked her to wait outside, much to Yusef’s relief.
The gnome examined Yusef briefly and scowled, muttering something to the effect of ‘stinking black death’ and ‘blood poison’. Then Gerhard whipped up a brownish malodorous concoction and made Yusef drink all of it, though the young man almost gagged at the metallic aftertaste it left in his mouth. Immediately, he started to feel better. The pounding in his head stopped, and he suddenly felt ravenously hungry, which was not surprising considering how long he had stayed without food.
The old wizard looked at him sadly, and said in absolutely clear, sane voice, “You know, it won’t help you against the craving. It removes the withdrawal symptoms, but it is up to you to resist the temptation. I will make you some to take home with you, though if you stay clean you would not suffer from headaches again. But if you poison yourself once more,” he shrugged, “let’s just say it won’t be this pleasant the next time you decide to quit.”
He gave Yusef a little jar with the vile potion and ushered him out of the room, quickly falling back into his usual state of cheerful lunacy.
Moira was not in the corridor, so he had to follow the tiny child who was waiting for him into the kitchen, where he found her taking tea with an elderly gnomish matron and a pack of youngsters. In his current condition, Yusef felt like his head was forcefully removed from his shoulders and reattached back after considerable trashing. He excused himself from their hospitality, and offered Moira to escort her home somewhat sheepishly. He was ready for her angry rebuff but, to his greatest amazement, she agreed.
They finally made it to the Delryn’s house in prestige Government district. Yusef had to admit that his father’s nouveau riche mansion lost some of its luster when compared to this grim but impressive derelict. Delryns were still a very old family, if now stripped of their former influence and impoverished. Moira asked him not to follow her to the doors and he obeyed but at the last moment suddenly asked if he could see her again sometime. He could see that she was surprised and did not know what to answer, but after a moment of hesitation agreed to meet him at the city’s central square in a week’s time, and maybe let him escort her to the town fair.
After that, they had met several times, and took walks through the city talking mostly of the current social and political intrigues, the past and present wars that endangered the free trade, the iron plague of the North, and the history of the current conflicts. Somehow, it was not boring when coming from her, though he always dreaded his father’s political talk. At first Yusef was stunned to find out the she was in fact running most of the family business, he had never thought that woman can succeed in what he was taught to believe was a man’s job. She had never mentioned any details of her business affairs, and that was understandable considering who he was, but Yusef was very much impressed with what little had slipped her tongue. He started to believe she was very professional in the matters of trade, and when his father once complained that, ‘the yellow murkhag dog’ (his personal name for Lord Cor) was sharper than he gave him credit for, Yusef almost betrayed himself by laughing, but remembered and concealed his amusement by a pretend coughing fit.
Thus had passed few weeks. Yusef’s headaches never returned. The scare that he got over his withdrawal symptoms, and the lack of financial resources was enough to keep him away from the drug for good. But in the middle of the last month of summer a sudden spell of existential dread and boredom overtook Yusef once more. The air was hot and humid. The winds that normally blew from the open sea all year round, and made the local climate mild and pleasant had subsided. The stench of rotten fish guts and iodine wafted from the docks reaching into the richest quarters of the city. On Athkatla’s sun-baked streets the stray dogs lingered in the scanty shadows of disheveled acacia trees lolling their tongues out, too tired even to bark. Saerk was out of town for a few days. Moira was preoccupied with some important enterprise, and had sent him a note canceling their next assignation. Yusef was sulky, hot, and irritated. His temper, usually subdued by his father’s oppressive autocracy, had flashed and led to several ugly confrontations with guards and house servants.
So, the Farrahd heir spent his time playing dice with the stable-boys or sulking in the hot and dusty garden, feeding breadcrumbs to the fat bubble-eyed fish that thrived in the fountains. He was too hot for the sword practices with his trainer, and he had fallen asleep on the second page of the novel that Moira lent him at the last meeting. Most of his friends were at the summerhouses, hiding from the heat wave in the green hills around Athkatla, but Saerk insisted that he stayed in the city for the rest of the summer to learn more about his future empire. At first he was glad because it meant he would see more of Moira. Now it looked like she had abandoned him for some stupid business deal. It was simply not fair.
It had arrived on the third day of his forced solitude. A pageboy in a non-descript, dark livery gave the package to the guard at the front door. It was a small bundle, wrapped in brown sackcloth, and secured with a piece of rough thread. There was no note with it, but the boy had left a message that it was a ‘gift to the young master from one of his friends’. Yusef’s first thought was of Moira. He was rather pleased with the idea. She was trying to make amends with him, which meant – he was important to her. Deep in his heart he was still not sure if he was not merely a charity case.
All his life he was taught to treat women like things that could be used for one’s pleasure, bought and sold for the right amount. Even his little sister Syraiah, was merely a bargain chip in their father’s hands. She could be sold into marriage for a significant price – an important political alliance and hefty wedding gift. Moira simply did not fit into that category. He sometimes tried to imagine her wearing one of the transparent outfits that his father favored for his toys, or the tight black leathers of the street prostitutes. It brought a strange shiver to his spine. He never felt this way about any of his paid partners, or any of the empty-headed, pretty merchants daughters that were presented to him as prospective brides. Moira was a challenge. She would have to be conquered. The thought of what may happen after this, or what price he would have to pay for this never crossed his mind.
He took the package to his study and left it unopened for a while, trying to imagine what was it that she thought may catch his attention. Hopefully it was not another book. Delryn’s financial situation was dire. Yusef knew she had not had a new dress for years. He thought warmly how beautiful she would look in the striped silk of turqouse and gold, that Saerk had shown him among the other samples of their imports. He would make her a present in return, he decided suddenly, and grabbed the package cutting the string with one sure swipe of his little dagger.
The cloth fell away under his hands revealing a simply crafted box of sandalwood. The small copper key was attached to it with a white silk thread. Yusef suddenly became anxious. There was something familiar about the fragrance that lingered about the box. Something that he dreaded yet craved with all his heart. He picked up the key and inserted it into the tiny hole. It clicked once and opened. As he lifted the lid with trembling hands the familiar sweet and spicy smell went into his head. The box was filled up to the rim with soft and silky, dry lotus petals of beautiful midnight color. Tears run down Yusef’s flashed cheeks, his mouth filled with saliva and his bladder felt like it will burst. He knew he could not resist it. His whole body ached from the sudden craving. What was the harm in a single pipe? Deep in his subconscience something wailed in protest, but its voice was too weak against the frontal assault on all his physical senses. Yusef knew he was lost and nothing could stop him now from loosing himself again in the endless ecstasy of lotus fumes. Not even a promise of Moira’s skin against his.
Yusef finished the whole box in three days. Locked in his rooms, he lost the sense of reality. He raised from his bed only to refill his pipe and to have a quick drink of water from the pitcher on the washstand. He vaguely remembered servants knocking at his door several times and pleading him to admit a tray with food and wine. The first few times he bothered to sent them away. Then he stopped answering.
Through these days Yusef was immersed in a pure stream of mental energy flowing through his body like a great, slow river that runs through the dry plains of a desert. His intellect acquired the precise, brilliant quality of a genius. He knew he was omnipotent. He floated inside the void, savoring his perfect understanding of the Universe and its laws, knowing that a single shift of his finger could change the future of generations. He did not bother to test it, for the sheer knowledge of his powers existence was enough for him. He would never have to do anything again for he had reached that sole point of equilibrium, balanced like a single flame on the tip of a needle, that was the ultimate goal of his life, and that the ancient philosophers called a ‘nirvana’.
Then one day he had reached for the box and found it empty. It was such a shock that at first he could not believe it. Yusef took it in his hands and looked at a single black spec that was left within. He picked it carefully with his finger and put it under his tongue. A pleasant sharp numbness spread in his mouth. But that simply was not enough. Yusef felt a terrible urgency to act, to recover his illusory paradise. He knew that with the amount that he had consumed the craving would come back in a few hours, and then he would be crushed with physical pain.
He stumbled to the door of his sleeping chamber, and threw it open letting the cloying smoke of lotus leak into the sitting room. He had spent too much time sprawled upon his bed, and now his head was spinning from the quick motion. Suddenly, a sharp tremor ran through his body, ending in a terrible cramp in his left ankle. The wretched boy lowered himself to the edge of his bed, trying to subdue the panic attack, “I am fine! It is just a cramp, nothing more.” Eventually, his shaking subsided to the level when he could stand upright again.
Yusef made it to the window and threw away the heavy curtain squeezing his eyes tightly and letting them adjust to the bright daylight outside. Then he lifted the latch, briefly struggling for a good grip with his unfeeling fingers. The bedroom windows in the family quarters had cost Saerk a small fortune, for these were put together from many perfectly polished diamonds of clear glass. The lattice pattern was simple but gracious, and the metalwork - a masterpiece of artistry. It had rained outside. The exasperating dominance of heat wave had ended while he was locked inside his chamber. The air was fresh and cool, smelling faintly of wet greenery. Judging by the position of the sun that peeking briefly through the curtain of white clouds, it was about noontime.
He heard a sharp intake of breath and spun around only to see a serving girl, fidgeting in a deep curtsy at his door.
“My lord,” she squeaked, “there is a letter for you, and the messenger is waiting downstairs.
I though I would go check …” She handed him a thick envelope, sealed with a blob of green wax, imprinted with unfamiliar seal.
Yusef nodded gravely. His thoughts were running in every direction, pounding at the possible implications. He sent the girl for hot water and soap, and tore the package open. Inside was a small silk bag, and a note on single sheet of thin paper. The bag contained a handful of dry lotus, same high quality as before. The note, penned with meticulous hand in black ink, said only ‘Follow the messenger to the Government District.’
Yusef picked a single black petal, and crumbled it in his fingers, breathing in a rich, spicy fragrance. Then he put it back inside the bag. He had to be frugal from now on. He selected a fresh white shirt and dark hose from his wardrobe, and looked in the mirror. He looked dreadful. No wonder the maid could not look him in the eye! A thick, three-day bristle covered his cheeks. The young man had only started shaving regularly about a year ago, but his dusky complexion and raven black hair made him look like a pirate whenever he neglected to use a razor on his chin twice a day. When the serving girl returned, carrying a pitcher and a box of soap, he dismissed her and concentrated on making himself presentable once more. He was lucky Saerk did not return in time. For a brief moment Yusef wondered what could have held his father. Saerk was only supposed to meet one of his caravans en route outside Athkatla. He should have been home by now.
Yusef finished shaving, only nicking himself twice, and used talc powder to stop the bleeding. This should do. He was pale as a ghost, and his belt needed another hole to hold his pants. So, he picked a rich brandy-colored coat with lots of gold embroidery to compensate for his sickly appearance. At the end he realized he was procrastinating and shrugged. The person who had summoned him in such a confident manner robbed him of his free will with his gift of the drug. Yusef knew he had nobody to blame but himself. Now he had to try to make the best bargain. Of course, there was also an option of confessing all to Moira and begging her help but somehow he knew he could not bring himself to do it. The gnome wizard would surely refuse him treatment this time. And even if he won’t -Yusef was not sure he could live through another agony of withdrawal. No, he had to find a way to live with his addiction. May be if he just be careful he could eventually reduce his dose to a sensible level.
Yusef sighed, looking himself over one last time. He was tall and handsome, and the deep shadows around his eyes only made him look more romantic. Not that he really cared about such things, but he knew women found him irresistible. Two courtesans at Madam Nin’s establishment once fought each other with their belt knives over him. He drew his tongue over his teeth and spat. His mouth felt like a chamber pot. Nothing can be done about that for even the though of food made him queasy. He tucked the pouch with lotus in his coat pocket and checked that his pipe was inside his belt pouch. There was nothing left now but to go downstairs and face it like a man.
The messenger was a pretty boy of about twelve, sweating liberally in his dark velvet livery. There was something disturbing about the way he looked Yusef in the eye as if in appraisal, and how his brow clouded for a moment before he composed himself and made a graceful bow. The boy refused to answer any questions stubbornly, and informed Yusef that his instruction were to lead him to his master, not to satisfy his curiosity.
“The package contents spoke for themselves,” he added somewhat smugly, and Yusef though that his knowing eyes did not belong on the face of a twelve-year-old. He nodded curtly and followed the boy outside, telling the servants that he will be back shortly.
They passed through the wet and boisterous streets of Athkatla, revitalized and cleaned by the recent rain. At once, Yusef was overwhelmed by the cheerful noise of the crowd and the sheer vitality of the monstrous city, sprawled around the aquamarine bay of the Sea of Swords like a bright, bejeweled armband. His head had cleared a bit, and the fresh air brought some color to his cheeks. Now that he had some time to think about his situation, it did not look that grim. The pouch with the lotus mix in his pocket made him bolder. Most probably it was a practical joke played by one of his many friends. There were few who knew of his addiction, and most of them used the drug recreationally. Yusef wanted to believe that his failure to control himself, although embarrassing, was not fatal. If he could manage to convince his patron to continue supplying him with the drug and promise to pay him back in time …
In time they entered the older part of the city, and now the page led him along the familiar streets of the Government District. Yusef felt a little worried as he spotted a vaguely familiar man bowing to him curtly. Lately, he became somewhat recognizable face in the area. Then he panicked. They were headed towards the Delryn Estate.
He was ready to grab the boy by the collar and require explanation, when the little bastard gave him the all-knowing smile and turned onto the side street. To Yusef’s great relief they had followed the crumbling stonewall to the hidden gate, and now were standing in front of the low wooden door at the back yard of the two-stored, dull-gray mansion of questionable appeal. Yusef was certain he had never been inside this house, and doubted he would even recognize it from the façade. Unlike Delryn’s architectural nightmare, graced with many add-on wings, gargoyles and spiraling staircases, this was an epitome of bourgeois common sense.
They entered and the boy ushered him through the dark, clattered kitchen into the dimly lit corridor. This was obviously a servant’s entrance, and Yusef felt a pang of worry, for now it was obvious that his visit was to be kept a secret. Still, he could not believe he can be in danger. Not in the middle of the most conservative quarter of Athkatla, two steps away from the Town Hall.
They followed the corridor until it suddenly turned and ended in another door. The page knocked briefly, and upon receiving no response, opened it and gestured for Yusef to enter. The door was quickly closed behind him, and Yusef heard a key turning once in the lock. He had no escape route left.
Bewildered and angry, the young man found himself in the open inner courtyard - a traditional element in the Amnish house architecture. But he would have never expected a site like this behind the dull-looking facade that the house presented to the outer world. It was a place of peace and relaxation, designed by somebody in possession of good taste and substantial resources. A fountain murmured its clear tune in the middle of the small grounds. Its centerpiece was a nude statue of a slave boy, holding broken amphorae. The water was streaming endlessly from the shattered vessel into the white marble pool, under the eternal gaze of the crying statue. The gray mosaic floor around the fountain was polished to a dull shine and lush magnolias and rosebushes in the small garden, drenched by the recent rain, filled the air with their strong fragrance. A few rose petals floated in the water of the pool. Yusef touched the marble bench near the water edge – it was still wet and his fingers left a trace of water droplets on its polished surface.
“I see that you are enjoying yourself in my little piece of paradise!” the cloying drawl filled Yusef’s guts with a sudden sense of revulsion.
He turned around slowly to face the newcomer and quivered, unable to hide his nervousness. He had never seen this man before - that was clear. The stranger was dressed in rich robes of the style favored by spellcasters, although his were not the official gray-colored ones of the Order of the Cowled Wizards. He would have stood out among the Cowled Ones like a peacock among pigeons. The quilted green silk of his long outer caftan was slashed from waistline to the ground, so that the deep dark gold of his inner robe could be seen in the slits. His voluminous sleeves were folded back to expose the rich embroidery of arcane symbols, and his fat white fingers were studded with bejeweled rings. Yusef could swear the man reeked of rose oil and patchouli. His middle-aged face once may have been considered pleasant, although now the heavy pouches under his eyes and flabby varicose cheeks somewhat spoiled the appearance.
“G…good day to you, sir,” Yusef muttered at a total loss, “I think it was some sort of a mistake. I got the wrong house.”
The unknown mage lowered his heavy lids, and pulled his lips into a semblance of a smile. It was most unpleasant.
Yusef became conscious of the incredible folly of his behavior. He realized that he may have walked straight into the trap, and a very crude one at this, because nobody in the city knew where he went, and where to start looking. He made a quick bow and started to back away from the man, trying to look casual.
“I am an idiot,” a calm and clear though surfaced in his mind. “Father is going to be pissed,” was another. He had no doubt now that this was a kidnap, and that Saerk would be asked to ransom him. Unfortunately, he was utterly wrong.
“Oh, let’s not be vulgar!” The man chuckled softly as if reading his mind, and dismissed Yusef’s frantic motion with a wave of pale hand. “You had followed Farheed from the doors of your house to mine on your own free will, boy, and I have absolutely no desire to waste my time on these little games!”
“Who are you and what is it that you want from me?” Yusef suddenly felt very angry. He committed so many idiocies today, that one more was not going to make much of a difference. He grasped at his dagger considering his chances at gutting the wizard with this little stiletto, and then dismissed the idea pulling his hand away from the hilt.
“Smart boy!” The man exclaimed delightedly. “Attacking me is not going to be pleasant. And you do enjoy the little pleasures that life can offer, do you not?” He nodded at Yusef’s stubborn silence and continued sympathetically. “No need to be formal. You can call me Deril. I want to be your friend Yusef, your best friend.”
Yusef growled, pulling his upper lip up in a wolfish snarl. He knew there were men who considered boys and young men more desirable than women. If he had gotten himself into the hands of a pervert like this… well at least he still had his dagger!
“A pity, really.” The man, Deril, raised his eyebrows in mock disgust. “You have a face like one of Sir Sarles’ 63 masterpieces, and the manners of a lowly peasant.” He waved his hand casually as if setting aside the matter. “I have a proposition to you, boy. A business proposition,” he repeated it with the emphasis on the first word. “A friend of mine is courting a girl from the prominent merchant family. Unfortunately for him he is very shy, and on top of it – he does not speak your language. Yes,” the man made a little pause, and giggled as if thinking it a very good joke, “he is a foreigner, you see.”
“I don’t understand what does it have to do with me,” Yusef said cautiously.
“Of course you don’t! I did not finish my tale yet, did I? He wants to give his beloved a present. Yes, a small but extremely valuable trinket,” the mage chuckled nervously, “But she would never accept it from him willingly! Never!” Deril shook his head sadly. “Young ladies these days are most romantic, you see. So, it must be you who will give her this present.” He smiled coyly at Yusef. “You are such a pleasant young man. And very welcomed to court any young girl you fancy. Most advantageous position!”
“But why?” Yusef shook his head trying to dislodge the fog that started to creep over his mind again. “What is in it for him if I give his chosen girl a present, that she thinks is coming from me?”
“That’s the point!” The man giggled. “She would find out that it was actually from him after she had already accepted it willingly from you! Then she would have a hard time returning it. And may be she would like him better for it at the end.” This time he laughed heartily as if delighted at his own cleverness, and his cheeks trembled like jelly at his every shake. “You’ll ask – ‘what is in this for me?’ Well, if you pull this off you shall get an unlimited supply of your favorite weed. For life, my boy, for life! My friend will make arrangements with one of the taverns at the waterfront. You will get your dope delivered every month, or every week, as you wish. So you can kill yourself at your leisure.” He looked at Yusef appraisingly. “A pity, really,” he murmured to himself. “But business is business. If you do not like this offer – you are free to leave now and forget you had ever seen me.”
“Is it some sort of a trap?” Yusef asked incredibly. His head started to pound. He knew he would not last long now before his urgent need would overtake him again. “Is this thing going to be poisoned or spelled? A love charm, perhaps – so that she will suddenly feel a strong desire for your friend? Is he very ugly and rich?”
“Ah! You are smarter than you look, boy,” Deril exclaimed in delight. “No poison. No, no poison. You can check it with an alchemist if you wish! May be a bit of a love charm – but what is the harm I ask you? My friend has the most honorable intentions. He wants her to be his forever. Yes, forever,” he giggled again.
Yusef though disgustedly that the man’s laughter was most appalling. His head started to hurt badly. So, someone very rich wanted to marry a girl by winning her heart in a somewhat dishonest manner. Was it worth his honor after all? He shrugged - many young women were sold into marriage without any kind of affection, natural or magically induced. The mysterious suitor would have to negotiate with her parents anyway. And if he fails to win their approval he would not get her, love charm or not.
He nodded slowly. “I may try to do this task for your … friend. I suppose there is little harm in giving somebody a present.”
“Ah! I knew you would come to see it my way!” Deril exclaimed happily. His little colorless eyes now looked sharp and menacing. “But do not ‘try’ it my boy, for we can afford no ‘trying’.” He shook his fat, worm-like finger accusingly at Yusef. “You’ll do it or the deal is off!”
“Yes,” Yusef said reluctantly. “I will do it. What is her name?” he felt a sudden relief at this decision. A little indecency, perhaps, but his craving would be satisfied for life. He wondered vaguely how much could it cost the love-hungry suitor, then dismissed the question entirely. So, some men were less favored by Nature than him. What’s a big deal? The girl would never know what had caused her sudden affection.
“You are most practical, I see.” Deril nodded his approval. “I will give you the instructions and the box shortly. But first – you will have to sign a binding agreement.” He noticed Yusef’s frown and hurried to explain. “Nothing to hurt your reputation, my boy! Just a statement that you have received a thirty carat enchanted emerald from me, as a gift intended for lady Tallia Cailcade for her seventeenth birthday. Which by the way is a fortnight away! You better introduce yourself to the family, and make some moves on her before that. I bet you can win her heart over in a day or two!”
Yusef grinned back at him. His confidence had returned and he only wished he could fortify himself with a pipe right now. His hand quested for his belt pouch, then stopped as he looked at his host questioningly.
“Oh,” Deril winced distastefully, “go ahead, make yourself at home. You can smoke here, whilst I will go and fetch the papers.” The mage walked to the ornate door on his side, from which he originally arrived, and fumbled with the lock.
Yusef cringed and snapped somewhat vengefully. “Admit it Deril, there is no ‘friend’. You just want her to herself. Is she really that pretty?” he pulled his pipe out and was filling it with the mix from the small sac.
“My tastes run in a different direction, boy. The ways you cannot appreciate, as your addiction will soon rob you of any means to enjoy your own body. Such a waste, really. You could have been a most enjoyable companion.”
At this, Deril disappeared behind the door, locking it behind. Yusef swore and spat after him, then shrugged dismissively. It was not really of his business how the man amused himself though his oily looks were an offence. He comforted himself that after this one time he would never have to face the mage and his deplorable ways again.
And I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honeys pe hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.64
Two weeks flew by as two days. Saerk returned, complaining loudly at some unexpected string of misfortunes that had befallen him on his trip. The roads were in terrible condition, so he was late for his business meeting and then his horse had fallen ill, and he had not had the heart to abandon Black Pearl to the ministrations of the local hedge-doctor, but had to send for the vet from Athkatla. Fortunately, the prize mare had recovered, though the doctor was puzzled at the original cause of the illness.
Yusef thought he smelled a rat in this mysterious sickness, but since he could do nothing about it short of confronting his new associate, he had to let it go. He had obviously been set up, but he still needed his fix every day. The packages of lotus continued to arrive at regular intervals. Yusef suspected that the stuff that Deril was giving him was far more potent, and therefore more addictive, than the ‘regular’ weed he used to purchase from Lehtinan. He honestly tried to reduce his dosage or lengthen the time between the pipes, but failed miserably again and again.
He had sought out Lady Cailcade at the Maztican Veterans Orphans and Widows Charity Ball. It turned out – she was a widow of the prominent military commander killed in the Maztican campaign, who loathed to stay in the colonies after her husband’s heroic death and had moved back to Athkatla with her remaining family. There were three unmarried daughters on her weary hands, and Tallia was the youngest and the prettiest of them. She was a perky little thing, with soft mane of golden curls and huge blue eyes, empty as a summer afternoon sky in a desert. The two older sisters were less dazzling. Their affection for her was remarkable, considering their situation and the fact that young men always swarmed around Tallia like flies around honey pot.
Yusef flirted outrageously with all three of them, and by the end of the evening was cordially invited to visit the family in their ‘humble abode’ as often as he wished. They had relatives in Athkatla, but widowed Lady Cailcade refused to stay in her father’s house, and instead they dwelled in a rented two-store apartment on the outskirts of the Temple District, in a state of semi-gentle poverty. Yusef noticed the girls’ fashionable frocks and new shoes, and wondered what kinds of sacrifices their mother was making to keep them dressed like this. The late general’s pension surely could not provide for these luxuries, though Lady Jysstev, the girls grandmother, was probably helping them behind her husband’s back.
Crude materialism was not among Yusef’s many flaws, perhaps because he had never suffered from the lack of anything, let alone basic necessities. So, he showered the ladies with many small gifts, sweets and flowers. He took them out for a picnic, and then for shopping at the Promenade, causally dismissing their attempts to pay for themselves at this outing. To his amusement he found the eldest sister, Corellia, more attractive. She reminded him of Moira, and that was enough to make him favor her. Tallia was challenged. Unlike her older siblings, she did not have enough experience in the game of courtship to be generous and easygoing. All she could see was an absolutely gorgeous, and very rich cavalier suddenly showing interest in her older sister. From the moment she noticed it, she applied all her fresh and clumsy charms to the purpose of winning him back. At every social occasion they attended, (and Yusef made sure to keep track of their engagements, and provided the invitations to especially trendy events), she would pounce on him from the moment he entered and make sure that he is thoroughly occupied with her through the evening for every dance or charade game. Corellia just smiled at his half-hearted attempts to engage her as well, and waved him back to her younger sister. That actually made him appreciate her more.
All this time he had to balance his need for lotus smoke with his newly active social life. The Cailcade sisters noticed that he usually became pale and silent by the end of the evenings, and sought some quiet time in solitude, away from public eye. He attributed it to frequent migraines. Tallia decided that his fragile health made him even more romantic! By the end of these two weeks she convinced herself that he was ‘the love of her life’ sent to her as a token of Sune’s favor, and quietly decided to force him to propose at her birthday party. Both Corellia and Deirdre (the second of the three sisters) had tried to dissuade her gently from acting rashly and throwing her young heart and her pride at the feet of a man she barely knew. Unfortunately, this only led to a shouting match and accusations of jealousy, so they were forced to give up.
As for Yusef, his major concern was that either Saerk or Moira would somehow learn of his newly discovered passion before it was over, and he would be forced to provide explanations. He cringed at the very thought of his father’s reaction to his supposed affair with a girl poor as a temple mouse. He refused to think what Moira could make out of it, and hoped that in the worst case he would be able to invent a plausible lie. Technically speaking, she had no claims on him as he on her, and over these two weeks, he was dying from suspense and misery.
Moira had sent him a note, inquiring on his health and promising to see him at first opportunity. That was three days after his meeting with Deril. Then – nothing. He was too damn proud to beg for a date. So, Yusef avoided the downtown, and especially streets around her house as best as he could, albeit it was tough, considering the amount of social engagements that threatened to drag him into the Gem District. He thought he spotted her briefly at the Promenade one day, while escorting Tallia and her sisters, and his heart almost leaped into his throat. Fortunately he was able to distract the ladies and lead them in the opposite direction. He was not sure if Moira had noticed him or not.
She did, and it made her strangely uneasy to see the little blonde cling to him like a parasite vine to a tree. Moira scolded herself for this extravagant association. It was absolutely not of her business. She was so absorbed in her latest string of successful speculations with Maztican goods that she almost forgot about Yusef. The ‘Golden Sun’, her only remaining trading vessel was loading at the docks with coffee beans, chocolate, and exotic spices to start on its months-long voyage to Zazesspur. Cor was out of her way, gone North to re-establish his connections in Nashkel, since the almost imminent ‘Iron-Plague’ war with the city-state of Baldur’s Gate was averted by some rare strike of luck.
Moira had recognized the girls - Corellia Cailcade was one of the few kind souls in the Athkatlan high society, with whom she actually had established some sort of a companionship. Moira was rarely seen among the ‘society’. Her major excuse for neglecting her social connections was, of course, lack of recourses. Though truly told, she loathed the rare occasions when she was forced to don her only presentable outfit, and drag her weary self into another one of the bothersome, noisy events where you were forced to interact with bloody fools and ruthless manipulators, who fancied themselves great politicians; or worse - mingle with their prudish wives and silly daughters, fixated on the only occupation deemed suitable for young ladies – catching a wealthy husband.
She thought briefly that from these girls point of view Yusef was an ideal catch. Rumors had it - Saerk was quickly becoming one of the richest men in Athkatla, but honestly, Moira herself had never dwelled on the implications of her strange friendship with Yusef, before seeing him in the company of Cailcade girls. She had to acknowledge that Tallia suited him much better than herself. He was way too young – at least four years junior, as she had already turned twenty-two that spring. She had never been seriously involved before. A brief romance with one of her brother’s fellow acolytes from the Order did not count, and the young man was reassigned to Murann few months after they had been introduced to each other. “Probably on his mother’s insistence,” Moira mused briefly. An alliance with destitute House Delryn was not exactly what she had in mind for her precious son. Yusef was more of a humanitarian project that she had reluctantly picked up from the dirty street in the Slums, rather than a romance. Moira suspected that there was more to his ‘mysterious’ illness than he was willing to admit to her.
She had a lifetime experience of dealing with an addict, for Lord Cor was an unrepentant alcoholic and a cunning liar. Yet, this same experience made her an easy prey for Yusef’s clinging need. Her in-born compassion, and quick acceptance of responsibility for other’s failures that Cor had nurtured in her soul with years of bullying and tearful apologies made her an ideal recipient for Yusef’s burdens of hidden guilt and self-loathing. He was probably the worst choice she could have made for herself, and yet they were in a sense ‘made for each other’, as their weaknesses complemented, and fed on one another. On top of it, Moira was definitely attracted to him physically. Yusef was, after all, a very handsome boy, teetering on the edge of becoming a truly gorgeous man. But in this delicate matter, her serious and clever mind had betrayed her, refusing to dwell on the reasons for her sudden interest in him. She deceived herself into believing it was pure curiosity on her part.
After some rather embarrassing thoughts and reluctant soul-searching Moira wrote a note to her friend Corellia, wishing her well and asking to renew their acquaintance. In two days she got an invitation to Tallia’s birthday party, which was to be held on the fourth of Eleint (the Fading) in Jysstev’s great mansion. It looked like Lady Jysstev finally convinced her daughter to swallow her pride for Tallia’s sake, and let her organize the event.
It was a perfect evening for a party. The day happened to be warm and pleasant, filled with the buzz of enjoyable preparations and last moment decisions. Tallia was bursting with pride and anticipation. Lady Jysstev allowed her favorite granddaughter to wear ancestral diamonds that evening, whispering quietly in her ear that Tallia is going to have them anyway upon her own demise, and that she wanted the girl to look her part before the Farrahd boy. There were rumors of Saerk’s displeasure at his son’s choice of romantic interest. They were not rich, but for Tallia’s sake she was ready to convince her husband to cut the other grandchildren’s shares of inheritance.
Tallia just smiled quietly. She knew Yusef was going to be hers by tonight, and grandma’s money had nothing to do with it. He loved her for her own sake! She whirled before the mirror one last time and giggled at her own reflection – her bridal-white velvet gown, with an overskirt of finest lace from Waterdeep, hugged her lithe, young body like a second skin. The bodice was a bit too deep, showing the tops of her small round breasts, but grandmother’s diamond necklace wrapped like a rope of frozen light around her slender neck would not look so dazzling in a modest cleavage suitable for a young girl. Her golden curls were dressed carefully into a tall coiffure secured with a sparkling assortment of diamond pins, and decorated with white rosebuds. Tallia smiled at herself one last time and left the room to join her grandmother at the top of the main staircase. The one guest she was expecting tonight should see her surrounded by the splendor and grim elegance of her grandparent’s house, so unlike their family shabby apartment. She shall prove herself worthy of the position that would soon become rightfully hers. For when she became Lady Farrahd, she would also be the Mistress of one of the most rich and opulent houses in Athkatla.
Yusef was sweating with nervous exaltation. His hands would not stop trembling, and the little velvet-lined box in his left pocket felt like it weighted a ton, and was made of hot iron, not of carved wood. He had looked at Deril’s emerald many times during the last two weeks, and always the stone seemed to mesmerize him into a speechless reverie. It was the size of an un-shelled almond, and unlike most of the green stones he had seen before, this was cut in a shape of a teardrop; its one peak sharp and shiny while the other side was rounded and pleasant to the touch. The stone shone with intense green fire of magic, its every facet an infinite mirror reflecting itself a billion times over. It both attracted and revolted him, like an eye of a giant snake, looking deep into the darkest corners of his soul, unearthing his miserable secrets and wretched lies.
He had the most unpleasant conversation with Saerk that evening. One of his father’s minions brought the rumors of Yusef’s supposed affair with Tallia and to-night’s party to Saerk’s attention. The storm that had transpired, the yelling and cursing that stopped short of direct physical attack, left Yusef shaky and bitter from humiliation. He promised to break up with Tallia tonight, and was only allowed to attend the evening celebrations upon swearing his oath on the holy symbol of Shar in the little house shrine. Yusef felt extremely uncomfortable with his pledge to the goddess of vengeance and despair. He knew nothing good will come out of it, but as always, he had no choice.
He dressed himself without paying much attention to his attire, and inadvertently put on the black and purple of Shar’s chosen. As he only noticed it at the entrance to Jysstev’s Estate, it was too late to change. And so, he entered the festive house flooded with the bright light of many torches and grand chandeliers, wearing a dull black jacket, adorned with purple silk at cuffs and collar. Truly told, he looked more like an angel of death than a potential bridegroom, with an expression of perpetual doom on his pale face, and a slight tick in his left cheek.
Moira noticed all these details from her advantageous position in the shady niche at the entrance hall. She had traversed the house several times, smiling demurely at the arrogant sniffs of the highborn ladies most of whom could not hide their revulsion at the sight of her simple, horrendously unstylish gown. She had to escape the unwanted attentions of one of the more inebriated male guests, who assumed her to be a governess or a poor relative but still worthy of his pursuit. She had the most intriguing conversation with Corellia, who was happy to see her, and was easily goaded into discussing their new friend, who seemed to be as much infatuated with Tallia as she with him. Strangely, this put Moira into a depressed mood. She repeated to herself several times that the only reason she was here tonight was to see her friend, not to spy on Yusef. Well, if she would run into him unintentionally tonight, she would apologize for canceling their last appointment (she would not dare to call it a ‘date’, even in her mind), and see his reaction. Though it sure looked like he would not care, one way or another.
Half of the evening had passed, yet Yusef was not there. Tallia had abandoned her post at the entrance some time ago, as it became clear that most of the important guests had already arrived. She could not hide her disappointment at her beau’s rude absence from her birthday party; and Moira abruptly felt sorry for the girl, who was stunningly pretty tonight in her all-revealing evening dress. Whatever were his intentions Yusef should not have kept Tallia waiting. After half an hour in the stifling, overcrowded ballroom overflowing with loud music and smells of sweat and perfume, Moira had escaped into the corridor, and ended up in a small, cozy niche downstairs, shared with a lovely statue of Sune, the cheerful goddess of corporal love. She sat at goddess’ feet on a small bench, thinking of how soon would it be proper for her to depart, and if Corellia would arrange an escort for her or a messenger to Terl, her groom and bodyguard, to come and pick her up early.
When the front door opened without announcement and a tall, slender figure entered the brightly lit hall, she did not believe it was he at first. Yusef looked almost as bad as at their second meeting at the ‘Coronet’. His face once again acquired the pale-yellow tone of an old parchment, and his thick black curls were mottled with sweat and plastered to his brow. Moira could not stifle a slight cry of surprise at the sight of him. He turned at half a step and looked straight at her; if possible he became even paler.
“W…why are you here tonight?” Yusef blurted out before any rational thought could enter his confused mind. “It is not that I am not glad to see you!” he corrected himself hastily. “It is just …I thought you were so preoccupied with your business deal that you had no time for anything else.”
“I was,” she nodded and blushed suddenly. “But it is all done now. The ‘Golden Sun’ sets sails on the morrow.”
Yusef nodded slowly. “I am glad you were successful. Does it mean that I would have a pleasure of seeing more of you starting today?”
“I heard you have been rather active yourself,” Moira said casually. “I would not dare to intrude on your busy social schedule.” She looked closer at his haggard, tired face so unlike the thin but healthy boy that had walked her to the crossing near her house three weeks ago. “It sure does not look like whatever you’ve been doing was good for you,” she stated uncomfortably. “Tallia is a terrible coquette, but I don’t believe it was just her ways that brought you into this sorry state.”
“To Hell with Tallia and her boring bag of tricks!” he exclaimed heartily. “I will be free of her after tonight. Let’s talk about things that are much more important – like you and me!”
“Really,” she frowned in displeasure. “Corellia told me tonight that the girl is quite taken with you. Is it how you normally deal with your girlfriends? I mean, bringing them to the point of believing you are madly in love – and then damping them for someone else?”
Yusef looked astounded at this accusation. It never struck his mind to think about Tallia’s feelings for him. To think of it, he never thought about anybody else’s feelings being hurt in this affair but his own. When he dealt with prostitutes he paid for his pleasures, never thinking twice about women he had used. And he never got seriously involved with girls of his own class before, but he enjoyed flirting. Yusef just assumed that upon receiving the emerald Tallia would loose interest in him immediately. He thought Moira may become jealous, but the notion that she may actually care about her supposed rival’s feelings was completely unexpected. Being put on the defensive, his practical mind quickly found the best way to dissolve the attack.
“I thought you were avoiding me,” he said softly, looking with his dark beautiful eyes straight into her gray ones. “How was I supposed to know you were truly busy? They are nice girls, and I really like them all, but not in that way.” This time she blushed intensely, and Yusef congratulated himself on his chosen tactic – this was working! He continued pleadingly, “Is it really my fault that she deceived herself about my feelings?” then finished it with the last clever stroke, pulling down his sleeve and showing her the five dark spots upon his arm, where Saerk had grabbed him earlier today; “you know my father - he made it quite clear tonight that he disapproves of Tallia. I can do nothing but obey his wishes and stop seeing her.”
Moira blanched with fury. Unlike her brother, who would turn bright red with anger as all his blood flew into his head, her rages were cold and logical. She knew this kind of bruising too well, though it never occurred to her how undignified it was for a young man, who was supposedly courting her to show these. “He has no right to treat you like this!” she said fiercely. “Let alone dictate whom you should or should not see!”
“Would you abandon me as well?” Yusef pleaded, taking one of her hands in both his and squeezing it gently. “I need you, Moira, if only to stay sane while living under the same roof with him.” Strangely enough, this last statement was true. He knew that their walks hand in hand through the busy streets of Athkatla have cleared his head, and made him feel stronger. It was like the last bastion of defense that he had against Saerk’s brutal invasions of his privacy, his life, and his hopes for the future. He also knew that his only chance of breaking the shameful, enslaving circle of his lotus addiction lay with her. If only she would have him!
Moira lowered her eyes and nodded slowly. His heart tumbled. “I will continue seeing you,” she said seriously. “But you must understand – I cannot promise you anything. My loyalty lies with my family, and I will never betray their interests, or switch sides for you. Let’s be friends for now. May be the future would show us the way. I hope that this vile, illogical feud between our fathers would stop one day, and be replaced if not with respect, than at least with tolerance.”
Yusef beamed at her through the haze of descending headache, but it did not bother him now. He had won! Now if he would behave carefully enough as not to scare her away, eventually she would be his. He was sure no woman could resist him for long.
“Of course I shall respect your commitment to your family,” he rushed to assure her. “That is why I admire you so! You are steadfast as a rock, and yet gentle as sea breeze.” (She blushed again.) “How can I ever repay you for your trust!”
“You are expected upstairs,” Moira reminded him gently. “If you are planning to break up with Tallia, please try to do it kindly. She is so young! This may break her heart.”
“I shall be discreet,” Yusef promised with a light bow. “I wonder if I can find a place to have a smoke before that? I don’t think I will survive Tallia without one,” the thought came into his pounding head. “Can I see you tomorrow then, at our usual place?”
Moira stiffened then nodded quickly, as if cutting away any doubts she still had in her heart. “Tomorrow at noontime. The fountain in front of the Town Hall.” She whispered quickly and run off in a rustle of skirts.
Yusef looked after her affectionately. “She has lovely hips, and the way they sway when she is hurrying away is most delicious. I wonder how much is hidden under these moth-eaten ruffles? Tallia’s décolletages are so revealing, why cannot Moira wear something like this?” He sighed and turned his mind to less pleasant things. He had to find Tallia and give her the emerald.
Yusef need not have to worry about it, for in fact, Tallia had found him first. Unlike most of the houses in Athkatla, the Jysstev’s Estate did not have the inner courtyard. But the back doors opened onto a staircase that descended into an elegant, well-tended garden. There were two rows of cypresses that led to a carefully trimmed evergreen maze of thuja trees, some of which were shaped like exotic birds and animals. In the middle of this amusing display was a small hill with a stone sundial, surrounded by rosebushes. Tonight all the paths were lighted with small lamps of colored glass, which were frequently refilled by a special servant. A few fugitive couples traversed the dimly lit garden hand in hand. Yusef made his way past them to the center of the maze, and sat quietly on the sundial for a quick pipe before the forthcoming melodrama.
He did not bother hiding himself, for at his elevated position he should be able to spot an intruder well before they come within a distance sufficient to pick up the smell of the weed. Leaning against the obelisk, the young man quickly fell into a lighthearted mood, caused both by lotus and his conversation with Moira. His headache retreated. But he barely had time for a few soothing inhalations before he spotted a glittering, white figure descending the staircase that led into the garden. When the lady in white crossed the cypress’ lane and entered the maze, he realized where she was headed and quickly extinguished his pipe.
Tallia was truly magnificent in her anger, and her wide blue eyes animated with powerful emotions were sparkling brighter than the borrowed diamonds on her neck. Yusef almost smiled at her, but recalled that he was a guilty party in this little spectacle, and quickly jumped to his feet descending from his perch on the sundial. He met her at the base of the grassy mound and bowed deeply, trying to keep a straight face. The first thing he got for his trouble was a small perfumed palm flying in his face. “I am been manhandled by the lady again,” he thought tiredly, “How droll, but I suppose this comes with the job!”
“My lady, this was uncalled for,” he murmured quickly grabbing her hand and kissing the offending palm.
“You, …you are disgusting,” she tried to wrestle her hand away and burst into tears predictably.
“I am sorry, Tallia,” he tried to sound gentle, yet firm. “I was delayed by the family business. I know I should have went straight to you, but when I peeked into the ballroom – the next dance just started and you already had a partner.”
“Who is ten times more gentleman than you are!” Tallia cried hysterically. “At least he was here in time!”
“But you would not think that I would not show up today, would you?” Yusef said soothingly, pressing her small hand to his breast. “Now this is wrong, I am supposed to break up with her tonight.” She sniffed and shook her head vigorously, sending the diamond pins flying.
“Now look what you’ve done!” Yusef dropped to his knees, quickly picking the small sparkles from the grass, while he could still see them in the fading light of the moon. He gave her a handful, and abruptly remembered about the box in his pocket. He pulled it out, and considered briefly how should he present it. That small hesitation was enough to trigger Tallia’s thoughts in the wrong direction.
“What is it?” she exclaimed in delight.
Yusef realized belatedly that he was still on his knees. He wanted to raise but it was too late – she had already seized the box from his suddenly numb fingers.
“It’s nothing …really,” he stammered, “Well, this is for you. It is your birthday present.”
A quick grimace of disappointment on her face at discovering that the stone was green, not white as she expected, quickly changed into a wide smile of bliss. “Yusef, this is beautiful,” he heard tears in her voice and started to raise from his kneeling position at her feet.
At that moment Tallia sighed, and took the stone from its velvet nest into her hand. The world blurred before his eyes. She screamed in terrible agony as if a heart was torn out of her chest but not a sound emerged from her distorted mouth. A column of emerald light surrounded her twisting body and faded into nothingness, leaving behind a small white figure lying like a broken doll on the trampled grass.
Yusef fell near her, grabbing her small cold hands, checking for pulse at her throat. To his relief some tiny sparkle of life was still beating under his fingers.
“Tallia! My goodness, what’s wrong with you? Can you hear me?” He tried to revive her by pressing his mouth over hers and forcing in some of his own breath. Even through the reek of lotus he could feel the sweet smell of decay coming from her.
“It is a bit late for this my lad,” a mocking whisper made him reel around and face the slumped figure coming into being from a cocoon of fleeing shadows. The wizard Deril smiled, shedding the last remnants of his invisibility spell.
“It was quite a performance, you know!” he exclaimed leering most disgustingly, and clapping his palms together in mock approval. “You just had to do it with a bit of style! I understand. ‘You would not think that I would not show up today.’ Hah! You have missed your calling, boy. You were born an actor.” The wizard bent over the unmoving body of the girl, and carefully plucked the emerald from her hand, tucking it into his belt pouch. Yusef noticed that it was shining softly from inside with a light of its own.
The boy jumped to his feet shaking with sudden fury. “You, a piece of toad’s feces,” he croaked into the wizard’s face grabbing him by the collar, “Stinking, rotting bastard born of a leprous dog and a rattlesnake! What did you do to her?” His teeth were chattering and his eyesight was clouded with tears.
Deril looked visibly surprised. “What did I do? It was you, who gave her the stone my boy, and therefore you are responsible for what had happened! Why are you so disturbed though? It is not like you were in love with her.”
“No, I was not. But she trusted me!” Yusef realized that this was the part that pained him most -Tallia was just a silly girl with a bit of attitude, but she was funny, and she trusted him. Nobody in this world ever trusted him, which was most definitely his own fault, for in his eighteen years of age he was an accomplished liar.
“I would appreciate if you let go of my clothes, you can damage valuable embroidery,” Deril’s cloying voice sounded mildly irritated.
Yusef was never much of a fighter type. He was taught the gentlemanly arts of fencing with a long sword and hunting with a spear, but that was about the extent of his martial training. And he was weakened by his addiction and lack of regular exercise. Still, his fury gave him strength sufficient to slam his fist into Deril’s face and hear the wet, cracking noise of breaking bones and cartilage. Blood streamed down the wizard’s face as he screamed in sudden fear and pain.
“You will pay for this dearly, my boy,” he hissed spitting out the bloody chunks of teeth. His nose was broken and he covered it with one hand, while fumbling in his pocket. “You cannot live without your grass, you little stinker! You will crawl back to me on your belly begging for it, and then I will have my revenge! Goodbye for now, little rat. I will see you later in my house!”
The wizard pulled out a small charm and triggered the teleporter spell. As the milky star of the portal opened in the air, Deril stepped through it and vanished, leaving Yusef alone with his guilt and the dying body of his victim.
Yusef stumbled towards the house that was still shining with light and vibrating with distant music, carrying Tallia’s unconscious form in his hands. She was strangely light, as if she was an old frail lady, not a young woman in her prime, gifted with a good appetite and a passion for dancing. The serving girl screamed at the sight of his face and run off for help. He was soon surrounded by the crowd of panicky guests. Corellia broke through the line of sweaty bodies, and they took Tallia away from him, carrying her up to her own bedroom. Yusef thought he had seen Moira’s pale face in the crowd but refused to dwell on it. He knew where he must go, and the very thought of it made his innards turn to ice.
He walked into the dark and silent courtyard through the servant’s gate. The little door at the back of the house was locked. Could they be expecting him tonight? His heart was pounding as he picked at the simple lock with a bent hairpin that he purloined from one of the maids at Jysstev’s house. It clicked and sprang open. His only chance was taking them by surprise. If he can place his dagger against Deril’s throat, maybe he can force the mage to restore Tallia. Yusef considered his chances - about million to one. He did not deem himself a hero; he was desperate. They had the letter of agreement to deliver the emerald written and signed in his own hand. If Tallia’s grandparents would ever see it – he would be condemned as a black magic purveyor and sent to Asylum, or his own father would beat him to death for ruining his reputation. Yusef realized how stupid it was of him to punch the wizard. But what’s done was done. Now he had to deal with the consequences. The thought of begging the murderous villain for mercy never occurred to him.
Anybody who grew up in Farrahd household would know better than to expect clemency from a man who hold you in his powers! Saerk never forgave anything. Every one of his childhood mischiefs was always punished to the full extent. That was the rule of the house. It was not surprising that by the age of ten Yusef had learned the art of deceit better than his numbers. He could lie his way out of almost any slippery situation without blinking an eye, and if caught he would continue to deny everything to the bitter end. Saerk had tried to beat this out of him many times, but eventually gave up. Yusef chuckled softly to himself. The trick was to keep your mind separate from your body. Then you can pretend that the blows falling on your head are not actually inflicted on you, but on some other boy. He evhaveave him a name - it was Saeed. Saeed was very useful, even though he had not called him forth for many years now. Lotus took away that need.
Yusef sneaked through the dark corridors, trying to recall all the turns the boy-page took as he had led him through the house on that other day, a century ago. His steps were light and silent, and his black outfit was perfect for this job. That was another set of skills that he had taught himself as a child. He could move silently as a cat and pick a simple lock in a matter of minutes, but he did not delude himself about the level of his skills – he was no match for a professional.
Once very long time ago, when he was still rebellious, he had run away from home and lived on the streets for a couple of days, feeding himself from the stalls of the street vendors and on the coin stolen from passersby. These were happy days. He was caught by professional thieves and returned to his father’s house very quickly. The beating that Saerk gave him that time was one of the worst he could remember. Not long after that, he was appointed a lofty sum as his monthly allowance and given some degree of freedom. That had settled it in a steady routine of pretend obedience and habitual lies from one side, and disgusted tolerance from the other. It had always been his father’s way - if you cannot gain your wish by brute force, buy it. So Yusef was either spoiled rotten, or beaten up for defiance.
He passed few closed doors and ventured a peek into the keyhole of another, brightly lit from inside. It turned out to be the kitchen door. Several small critters the size of a terrier, with barbed tails and bat-wings, were busily scuttling about on their chores. They were grayish-brown and wrinkled as prunes, their small heads sporting tiny horns. “Magic!” he shrugged it off, and continued down the corridor. To his relief there were no humanoid servants in this part of the house.
Soon, Yusef reached the familiar door leading into the inner sanctum and pushed it experimentally. This one was not locked. The fountain yard was empty and dark. Only the quiet rustle of water falling perpetually from a vessel in the hands of a marble boy, disturbed the silence. But he could see the outline of the other door leading into the house lighted from inside. Someone was in there. Yusef crept along the garden path, hiding in the shadows of jasmine and magnolias until he reached the opposite wall. Then he plastered himself against it, and edged closer to the lighted door until the slurred murmur of voices from the room behind resolved itself into a dialog.
“Give me the medicine boy, and don’t just stand here like a statue! Fetch more ice!” Deril’s voice sounded harsh and muffled as if the speaker had trouble breathing.
Yusef smiled with satisfaction. The wizard was still in a considerable pain.
A trembling boy’s voice murmured something in response. There was a slapping noise and a yelp.
“You ugly twerp! Wait till I get my hands on you again! Go to the cellar and take Glut with you to crush the ice block - the stupid brute is useless for anything else.”
Yusef’s ears pricked. So the wizard was going to be alone for a while. He slid away and waited in the shadows until the little figure of a boy with a lamp passed through the garden and disappeared into the servants quarters. Then he moved closer to the door and risked a look inside.
What he saw was an opulent antechamber swathed in silk tapestries, and furnished to satisfy the most decadent taste. Thick Calimshani rugs, in colors pleasant to the eye, were strewn over the floor; delicate statues and priceless ancient vases were positioned on the pedestals to increase the value and beauty of each individual piece. A small brazier in the corner emitted soothing, herbal smoke. Yusef’s head swam when a whiff of it reached his nostrils but whatever it was – it did not cause the feigned clarity of mind, and unnatural exaltation of his lotus dreams, instead it made him drowsy.
Deril was lying on a soft-cushioned divan with a bag of crushed ice over his nose. Yusef wondered briefly, why did not the mage send for a healer priest. Surely, he could afford one! Then he eased his razor-sharp stiletto out of its sheath and pushed the door.
It opened smoothly and soundlessly, and in two cat-like jumps Yusef covered the distance to the coach and grabbed the astonished wizard by the throat. Deril gurgled something unintelligent and started to move his hands, but as a sharp bite of Yusef’s stiletto draw the first blood from his pale flesh, he squirmed and went absolutely still. The blade was now firmly pressed against his flabby neck, and a thin rivulet of blood trickled down on his robes, adding more bloodstains to already spoiled luxury.
“Move another finger and I will cut your throat,” Yusef purred softly. “You won’t have time to finish this incantation my ‘friend’, except maybe on the Fugal Plane! And I will make sure to cut your head off properly, so that no priest would even consider the resurrection. Do you understand me, wizard?”
Deril sagged under his hands but managed a shaky nod, and Yusef eased the choking grip on his throat slightly.
“What is it that you want, Farrahd?” The mage sounded like he was half-dead already.
“Ah, I like this better than ‘boy’ or ‘little stinker’,” Yusef nodded approvingly. “I want two things from you, Deril. First you will release the girl from whatever evil enchantment you have placed on her, and second I want that letter of mine back.”
“I will give you the letter, boy,” The wizard almost whimpered. Thick beads of sweat started to dribble down his face. “But I cannot reverse the magic! It was not my spell that had entrapped her soul. I… I was never capable of anything of that caliber.”
“A soul trap?” Yusef raised an eyebrow never letting go of Deril throat. “I had never heard of anything like that, but I suppose I never heard of great many things. She is still alive though. How can it be if she does not have a soul in her body?”
“The soul is a many-tiered entity,” Deril croaked from under his gripping fingers. “There is an immortal part that is released when you die, and the simpler, animalistic component, which you would call a ‘life force’ that is bound to the body and dies with it. When her immortal soul was stolen, her life force was weakened and it is dwindling now. She may live another few days at most. It is a complex thing that cannot be explained easily, even if you were willing to listen.”
“Oh, I will listen,” Yusef smiled unpleasantly. “You may not believe it – but I am smarter than I look. Don’t bet on distracting me, or bidding your time until your whore-boy comes back with help! I will cut your head off even if it will be the last thing that I do in this life. You really should not have pushed me into the corner, you know.”
Something crashed on the floor with a chiming noise of broken glass. Yusef shifted his stance, firming the grip on Deril’s neck and pressing the dagger blade harder into his swollen flesh. The boy, Farheed, was standing inside the open door. There was such hatred in his eyes that if stares could kill – Yusef would have been dead by now. The young man felt a pang of guilt at his choice of words. Behind the boy loomed a gigantic construct, a faceless colossus of strange reddish-brown color, with legs thick as tree-trunks and fists the size of man’s head. “A clay golem?” Yusef ventured. “And I thought getting into the house was ridiculously easy!”
“Tell the boy to bring me the letter and the gem,” Yusef commanded firmly. “Or you will be dead before this thing can reach me!”
But before any of them could respond the construct rushed forward at amazing speed crushing its fist into the side of Yusef’s skull, and sending him flying across the room in a scatter of falling furniture and broken statuary. The knife opened a deep gaping wound at the side of Deril’s neck, severing the major artery but sparing the windpipe.
“Golems are very fast,” the page commented quietly looking at his master, who was gurgling in the pool of his own blood.
Yusef crashed into the wall covered with thick carpet that prevented him from breaking anything. His dagger flew out of his grip leaving him weaponless, albeit it was not any good against the golem anyway. In his half-dazed state, he raised his eyes and calmly looked at the construct that bent over and grabbed him in its monstrous hands. “A rather pathetic end of a useless life,” he thought vaguely.
The enraged golem was ready to twist his neck when the inner door of the chamber swung open silently and a green fairy light oozed from the doorway.
“S.stop this nonsense, “ a hissing came. The sound sent chills down Yusef’s spine. It was the voice of death itself, screeching and rustling like rusty wheels turning inside ancient clockwork. The golem stopped in mid-motion, then carefully put Yusef down and retreated into the corner like a beaten dog.
“You should keep an eye on this s.stupid servant of yours, Deril,” the hissing voice complained.
The thing that crept into the room, filling it with nauseating reek of rotting flesh, was something Yusef could not have envisioned even in his lotus-hazed dreams! At first, he thought it was some sort of a giant insect, jerkily moving its long withered limbs across the carpet. Then he realized it was vaguely humanoid in shape. Its crooked body was twisted in a terrible knot of dried flesh and distorted bones, and swathed in voluminous dark robes with a hood over its skull, still covered with long gray strands. Two eyes glowed with sickening red light from the empty sockets.
A bejeweled collar, woven from links of white metal and studded with multicolored gems, hugged its vertebral column protecting its chest and shoulders. Yusef could not take his eyes from the shimmering piece. Every stone in it glowed with a deep inner fire, akin to the strange sparkle that he had noticed in Tallia’s emerald after her collapse. There were dozens of jewels strung together in the magical weave. Each one was of a different shade, even the same types of gems gleaming with different hue – sapphires bright as the summer sky after the rain, or dark as shadows on the snow, rubies shade of fresh blood and the ones glowing like dying ambers, topazes the color of liquid gold that sparkled next to diamonds of the purest water.
The undead creature noticed his fascination and cackled, propping itself with its tall staff, carved with many runes and toppled with dark globe.
“Do you like my necklace boy?” it rustled fingering one of the stones with his bone joints. “Pretty things they are, pure of heart and soul, precious little things … but they have to be captured willingly, otherwise they are of no use to me!”
Something about its stance and dark aura of power made Yusef feel rather than see it for what it was – not a pitiful animated bag of rotting flesh and bones, but a dangerous abomination, still in full possession of his intellect and powerful magic. It was an undead mage who had entered a state of lichdom; a form that few reckless or desperate spellcasters seek to achieve upon physical death.
“How does it feel, to be trapped in young and hungry flesh like an insect in a piece of amber?” The lich asked casually. His grating voice failed to express any emotion, but Yusef thought he could detect a hint of jealousy. “Enjoying it, aren’t you? You will be free of it one day, and then you will see the lies that your body feeds to your soul.” He paused for a second and turned away from Yusef. “Deril, you should not let your piece of clay manhandle the boy. He is worth more to me with his looks untouched.”
There was a gurgling noise from the figure sprawled on the coach. Amazingly, Deril was still alive. Yusef wondered, how could he last that long with the wound like his? Would his strange associate care to send for a healer? A pity if he will.
The lich finally paid heed to Deril’s condition and hissed. Quickly he turned around and spotted a small figure crouched by the door. With surprising agility, the undead grabbed the boy by the collar dragging him to the body of dying wizard. A whimper from a throat of the terrified child, and a strand of boy’s black hair was clutched in the bony fingers; another flicker - and the lich’s skeletal paw was dripping with Deril’s blood.
A flash of bony limbs, moving with the speed of an attacking spider, was followed by a monotonic chant ending in a short wail. Briefly a sickening glow surrounded the lich, spreading over to the bodies of the boy and the wizard, both of whom he was now touching with his skeletal hands.
Deril sighed deeply and the boy screamed like a rabbit, his shout ending in a babble of blood. The child was bleeding from a deep wound in his throat. The wounded wizard moaned and sat on his coach, grappling over his intact skin. The lich chuckled and released Deril from his grip, as the small body rolled away in the last throws of agony.
“What…what did you do to me, Lagole?” the wizard croaked in amazement.
“It’s an old trick of mine that I never thought to use again,” the undead grated listlessly, “it is called the wound conferral. Luckily for you I had a healthy subject at hand, and the tissue samples were easy to get.”
“You’ve killed Farheed,” Deril complained sulkily. “I spent years on training the little imp! He could have grown into a decent wizard.”
“He would have killed you one day for what you have done to him!” Lagole hissed back in irritation. “You stupid maggot! If you can’t control your urges, at least kill your toys swiftly so they won’t get you in their turn. Do you still have that woman’s baby in the house? I see. He is too young yet, but you are keeping him for the future needs.”
Deril scowled at that and muttered something incomprehensible. His eyes fell on Yusef and he yapped like a dog. “Could not you use the rat-boy instead? And why did you stop Glut from crushing him into pulp?”
“Because he still maybe useful,” the lich replied. “The Mantle of Tears needs more gemstones to be complete, and attain its full protective powers. I need the souls of many virgins to finish it, and all of them have to be imprisoned willingly! With a face like his it is within my grasp.”
“Oh,” Deril cringed, “I will find you another. Let me have him and I promise - I will do my best!”
“So far the only soul you’ve been able to attract was that desperate lonely woman left by her husband,” Lagole wheezed. “It was useless to me. And he brought me her,” he caressed the luminous green stone at his chest. “She is wonderful! I can feel the energy of her purest soul, writhing in sorrow and despair, feeding my life force! Leave the Farrahd boy alone, Deril, and pay him in the way that you’ve promised. Let him know that I honor my obligations. He should get an unlimited supply of his favorite weed as his just reward.”
“Not so fast,” Yusef heard his own croaking voice in the ensuing silence, “you may think me weird but I would rather die than let you use me in this way.”
He could not win that battle of course. If they simply killed him then and there, it would have been easier. But Lagole cackled and declared that he can give him a few months rest, and that he would be approached again in due time. The lich went as far as to burn his letter, over Deril’s angry protestations, for he knew that physical bond that black lotus had over Yusef’s body was stronger than the fear of exposure.
Yusef tried to fight them, but his bare hands could do nothing against the stone-hard embrace of the golem. He was kicking, and spitting in a fit of helpless anger, as Glut carried him outside and threw his dagger under his feet, at the cold cobblestones of the street. Then the construct simply stomped away and locked the door. Yusef wanted to scream or to crack his head open on the stone wall, but instead he pulled out his pipe and inhaled an intoxicating cloud of lotus. He knew he was a dead man walking. One way or another he will end up belly up in the gutter. The lotus gave him strength to lift himself from the ground he was crouching on, and crawl away from the accursed house.
He could not find the resolve to go home that night, even though he knew he was expected to report his splitting up with Tallia. Checking on the girl’s condition did not seem worth the effort. Yusef knew she was going to die now because he had failed. He was considering whether a death by drowning would be less painful than taking a poison. He dragged his lifeless carcass through the empty streets of the downtown, without looking where he was headed, until he run into a dead end. Then he lifted his head and looked at the familiar coat of arms, depicting a lonely ship sailing into the disc of the raising sun. His feet had brought him over to Moira’s house. They had a date set up for tomorrow. “Or is it actually today?” that thought came unbidden.
The velvet black sky looked at Yusef with thousand cold unblinking eyes. Yet, there was a hint of rose light at the eastern side, far away between the tall towers of Council Hall. Yusef suddenly felt an overwhelming desire to see Moira again at least one more time. Surely, it would not hurt if he can talk to her just once before bringing his sorry existence to a well-deserved end? This decision filled him with a tidal wave of hope. He almost cried from relief as if he was sentenced to death, and now his execution was postponed until tomorrow.
He went home, carefully choosing his path as far away from Deril’s house as he could, without loosing his way in a crazy maze of downtown alleyways. To his great relief his father went to bed already, and he knew that tomorrow Saerk had an early morning appointment. If Yusef was lucky enough, Saerk would be too busy to deal with him before this meeting and afterwards the news of Jysstev’s party disaster would surely reach his ears. Yusef slipped inside, waking up a sleepy gatekeeper and leaving him a few silver coins richer. He had an ‘understanding’ with most of the guards, and his late night or early morning comings and goings were routine enough not to arouse any questions.
He had fallen into his bed like a corpse, but as soon as he closed his eyes, he was drawn into an endless string of nightmares, where he was chased along dark empty corridors by Lagole offering him immortality in exchange for Moira’s soul. He tried to wake up but could not, and ended up in a stone cul-de-sac with his face against the wall, listening to the lich’s jerky steps approaching from behind. Yusef could smell Lagole’s stench, and dreaded the moment when lich’s skeletal paw would grab him by the throat. When it finally touched him he woke up with a scream, and sat upright in his bed.
It was bright and sunny outside. He had left the shutters open, and now his room was flooded with sunlight. The Farrahd mansion occupied a large patch of land on the bank of river Alandor, right before the bridge connecting their bank with prestigious north side of the city. A light breeze was blowing from the west bringing with it the familiar smells of river water and rotten vegetables from the market stalls across the street. Out of a sudden Yusef felt a pull to be outside, in the middle of all that noisy, smelly, and most importantly alive crowd of ordinary people, who were wonderfully unaware of his morbid predicament. He looked at the sun – he had an hour at the most before his date, so he swung his legs over to the floor and almost fell down on his face from the wave of nauseating weakness. His head started to pound again, and he had to bend over to fight the fit of dry retching. “Damn myself to Nine Hells and beyond!” he thought weakly, “I cannot meet with her in this condition, I need a pipe.”
When he reached the fountain square, the bronze dial on the tower turned one notch to align itself with the fixed hour hand of the antique clock. The bells in the Temple District started ringing, all of them with intervals of few minutes. Yusef always wondered, why could not the priests come to some sort of agreement and tune their clocks, so the bells would all start ringing at the same time. “Ecclesiastical differences, most likely.” He sat down on the edge of the fountain, preparing for a long wait and at that moment saw her crossing the street with her light and sure step.
Moira wore dark gray cloak over a blue gown this time. His favorite color on her. Yusef could not admit to himself how afraid he was that it was going to be black. He knew she was staying at Jysstev’s house overnight. Before he started on his mad expedition last night, she had told him she would be at the fountain at the appointed time. Moira was shaken and confused, but she did not cancel their date. Yusef honestly believed that he would never see the next morning but never dared to tell her that much.
“I did convince Corellia that it was not your fault!” were her first words. “I knew it all along, but fortunately there were people who saw you two together. They claimed that Tallia was really angry, and you went on your knees before her, and that was when they left.” Moira looked at him sadly. “It must have been a terrible shock for her, to hear about your father’s demand after she convinced herself she was going to be the next lady Farrahd! But you could not be blamed for what had happened, so stop eating at yourself! Hopefully she will recover.”
Cold sweat dribbled down his spine at her words. “Somebody saw us together? By the Gods, how much did they really see?! Did anybody see me punch that scumbag of a wizard? Or a flash of the spell?” Moira’s faith in him was very disconcerting. All the way from home Yusef was trying to convince himself to tell her everything. Now he found - he could not do it. To loose her on top of everything else would be too much.
So he tried to control his shaking hands and listen to her attentively, adding the appropriate exclamations and concerns when she told him how Tallia was still in a coma, and how her grandmother spent all night on her knees before the statue of Lathander.
“I took her to uncle Gerhard’s house this morning,” she added, “but he was in a bad mood, mumbling about ‘rotten thieves’ and ‘the torrent of tears’. I am not sure what he meant; usually he is much more attuned to the reality! He had been in this way for as long as I can remember him. People say – he lost his memories exploring some obscure underground catacombs under the Temple District, while looking for the cure for one of his patients. But insane or not he, is still the best healer in town, and I am almost sure he can read my mind if he wants to!” She blushed prettily, as if at something personal. “He asked me about you, and I told him you were fine, if a little unsettled by Tallia’s misfortune.” Moira looked at his closely. “I hope I was right! You really look like you should be in bed yourself! Do you want to go and see him today?”
“So that he could read my mind and find out who was the filthy bastard who killed Tallia? No thanks!” He almost cried aloud.
“No, no…I am fine,” he mumbled instead. “I am … upset about Tallia. But I hope she will be fine. Are you hungry? I am starving,” he lied bravely, although in reality his stomach was churning. “I skipped breakfast today. Would you care to have lunch and walk along the river for a little while? It may be good for you too. You look very pale.”
Moira nodded thoughtfully and together they sought out a small, clean tavern near the riverfront in the Trades District, and then walked along the bank of Alandor, enjoying the warm sunny day of the early autumn. The light meal of bread and soup, followed by a glass of decent beer had soothed Yusef’s raw nerves, and brought some color to Moira’s pale face. Yusef fell silent, afraid to disturb the fragile bond that had formed between them during the course of that shared meal. The previous night’s events seemed far away and somewhat surreal compared to the solid presence of the warm, lively girl at his side, and her serious gray eyes that were looking at him from under the long dark lashes with unreadable expression.
“Yusef,” Moira said abruptly, after they have been walking along the paved waterfront in silence for a few minutes. “I need to ask you something.”
His heart tumbled. He wanted to beg her to stop, to try preserve the fleeing magic of the moment. To cling to the uncomplicated truth of two young people simply meeting each other at the river for a date on a warm, sunny day. Instead Yusef nodded and smiled with a forlorn expression of a child, who was forced to admit that it was indeed him who had broken his father’s cherished item, and was waiting for the first blow of the heavy, ringed fist.
“Don’t look at me like that,” she begged in distress. “What I am going to say is painful but it had to be done for your own good! Today Gerhard told me you have been smoking lotus. That it had been the withdrawal symptoms that caused that terrible sickness. I hoped his skill had helped you to quit for good, now I am not that sure. I need to know - if only to try to help you break free! Do you smoke black lotus Yusef?”
The shock of that direct question run through him like a lightening bolt through water, hitting him in the most painful spot, and making him gasp for air. For once Yusef was at a loss. He wanted to protest this unfair accusation, to deny that vile unfounded rumor, to smile confidently saying – why, what give him the idea? – but his trembling lips refused to cooperate, and his skills of deception honed to perfection by many years of practice, unexpectedly abandoned him in this time of need. He stopped, making strange noises in his throat, but unable to unclench his jaws to utter a simple denial.
Her face fell. “I see,” she nodded cringing as if she was going to cry. “So you cannot even say it aloud! This habit is going to kill you, and you cannot even make a first simple step of admitting its existence to your friend! For I deem myself your friend, you foolish boy, and I intend to drag you out of that hole you’ve put yourself into either you want it or not!”
It made him feel very little and ashamed of himself. Yusef looked at her almost reverently. “So, you are going to save me from myself?” he asked incredulously. “Even though you know now what I am?”
“What you are - I bet that even you yourself don’t truly know ‘what you are’!” Moira snapped. “Nobody can be that sure of themselves, of all the hidden reserves of good and noble feelings that can be awakened even in the most putrefied and lonely heart! And you are definitely not a lost case. I am going to make sure of it, or my name is not Delryn!”
That made him laugh with genuine relief that he did not feel for many lonely years. Something snapped inside him, suddenly breaking the barriers that he forcefully erected between himself and the rest of the world, to prevent the aforementioned world from hurting him too much. Yusef snatched her little hand, warm and callused from writing infinite entries of accounts in fat, dusty ledgers, and brought it to his cheek.
“It’s a deal,” he winked. “You are saving me from myself while I will try my best to change your mind about that ‘friends’ part. I don’t want to be just your ‘friend’, Moira, and you know it.”
“I want to be your lover, my angel, and the object of your most secret desires,” Yusef added mentally, “but I think you know this already.”
It was her turn to be lost. “I…I don’t know what you mean. If it is what I think it is then surely you must understand that nothing serious can ever happen between us,” she mumbled blushing like a rose. “I cannot marry you.”
“But why?” He asked laughingly. The idea of marrying her had never occurred to him before, but now he toyed with it with some delight. Moira as a wife may prove to be an asset, more valuable than any riches that the other girls may bring with their dowry. She was smart, energetic and possessed an extremely shrewd business sense that was causing his father swore profanities at the rare luck that had followed most of the ‘yellow murkhag dog’ Cor’s transactions when he was not in his cups.
Yusef looked at her with renewed interest. Delryn was a very old house that by itself could bring a gleam of respectability to Farrahd name, that was somewhat sullied by his father’s corrupt ways of doing business. (Not that Cor did not do his best to ruin his family reputation almost to the point of no return over the last few decades!) But still, there was a charm in the old coat of arms, and a derelict but majestic house in the middle of the most respectable city quarter. Saerk would kill him for this, of course. There were rumors some years ago that his feud with Cor had intensified after he himself sought Moira’s hand unsuccessfully. Yusef imagined her as his stepmother and cringed. Thanks goodness this never worked out! It would have been a disaster for all sides, including him.
“Why do you feel this way?” Yusef asked again, taking her hand and kissing it gently. “I am not asking you right now, for it would not be proper considering Tallia, and all other repercussions. But why do you sound so adamant? Am I so ugly that you cannot even consider this?”
“You are too young!” She blurted distressfully and blushed almost to the shade of poppy flower. This color of embarrassment looked most delectable on her. Her ears became bright pink and transparent, and he could see the little vein on her neck throbbing rapidly.
“Is it all you can think of for an answer?” Yusef asked amusedly, “Well, it sure does not bother me. How old are you? Twenty five ? Twenty six?”
“Twenty two,” she cried in dismay, and laughed seeing that he had deliberately provoked her into this admission. “How old are you then – sixteen ?” She knew he was older but said this to come back at him.
“I will be nineteen in a month.” He chuckled and sighed in mock distress. “But you are so ancient that surely the only possible thing you can feel for me is motherly affection.”
“Don’t make jokes about it!” she bristled. “You father never forgave me for turning him down. Trust Cor to come up with a ‘bright’ idea like this! It cost me few month of my life to convey to him that I rather run away than marry Saerk Farrahd!”
“Do you feel the same way about me?” he asked lightly. “Because if you do – I would go and drown myself in that fountain we just passed.”
“Oh, stop it, silly,” Moira scowled. “You know perfectly well that I don’t! But it is still impossible. This feud is impossible. Ani is going to be mad if he finds out! He is as bad as Cor when it comes to my future marriage, albeit in a very different way.” She made a face and said in a deep, arrogant voice “My dear, you shall only marry a man, who will prove himself worthy of such a treasure! A man with solid character yet gentle in nature, strong enough to protect you and your future children and earnest to provide for them to the best of his capacity. I would like to be able to call him my friend when I bestow your hand upon him as his just reward.”
“Ani – is it how you call your big bully of a brother?” Yusef clicked his tongue. “I had seen him once in full splendor of his plate mail and priestly vestments, on some official occasion. It looks like my chances of marrying you are slim indeed.” He sighed. “Unless of course you will agree to elope and marry me in some cozy roadside shrine of Sune, on our way to Zazesspur!”
“Fat chance,” Moira said seriously. “Yusef, you can forget about it. I am not going to admit even remote possibility of any relationship with you, unless you stop taking lotus.”
Yusef blanched. She was as serious as she can be, and he saw now that behind all that banter that they had exchanged this one question always lurked like a shark below the smooth surface of the sea. The memory of yesterday’s night suddenly came back to him. All this talk about possible future for them, all his earnest longing for the sweet warm body next to his, was doomed from the start. He was a lotus addict and his drug was coming from the undead monster, who throve on death and suffering of innocents.
As they walked down the line the somber gray clouds gathered at the invisible line that separated the sky from the distant hills. The smell of upcoming rain was in the air. The weather in Athkatla was often like this – as flimsy and unpredictable as a heart of a young woman. They had to return home. Yusef promised to look after himself and try to reduce his daily intake of the drug. That was the best he could offer her for now. He could not give his word that he would go and see Gerhard right away, but promised somewhat inaudibly to ‘think of it and go when he was ready’. Moira was disappointed of course, but hopeful. They agreed to see each other at least once a week, so that she could follow his progress. Yusef was amazed at how seriously she took this task upon herself. He was not sure whether he liked it or not. Raised by a man with an obsessive need to control everybody around him, Yusef resented any form of subjugation. Though he had to admit that yielding to Moira was the sweetest form of surrender he could imagine. And if that gave him a reason to meet with her every week… Well, for this he was ready to shed some degree of his freedom. Deep in his heart he knew what she was offering was more than he deserved, and it was probably his last chance of breaking free of his addiction.
The first thing that he discovered upon arriving at home was a note addressed to him, sealed with green wax, and imprinted with a serpent hugging a skull. It was short, straight to the point, and dripping with venom.
When you run out of your poison, drag your sorry ass to the Sea Bounty at the Docks and talk to Thumb. He has been warned. Enjoy what’s left of the rest of your life worm, while you still can. You will be approached when the time is ripe.
Yusef stood by the fireplace in the red sitting room, tearing the note into smaller and smaller pieces, when she came down the stairs. Her small feet were shod in soft heelless slippers with curved peaks, so he could not hear her until she touched his hand. He whirled around with a dark scowl and sagged at the sight of her sweet face, puckered with fear and upset at his violent reaction.
“Surayah,” he sighed wearily. “Sorry I did not expect it to be you. What is the matter, little one?”
His sister shook her head in distress so that her multitude of thin braids, strung with colored beads danced around her head with a clicking sound. She was small and fragile, with eyes like ripe damson plums and skin the color of honey. Today she was dressed in Calimshan style, as she almost always did when at home, in loosely fitted trousers and a dress of wine-colored silk. Surayah will turn fourteen this year, and by Amnian standards would become of marriageable age. She normally spent her days upstairs, in the women’s quarters, so they rarely met and almost never talked to each other. Although he remembered her warmly from the times when he was still a child roaming the upper floors, and she a tiny baby in her nurse’s care.
Two months ago, Saerk out of a sudden ordered her to dress in more appropriate western fashions, and join them at the dinner table. She complied, even while she hated tight-fitting corselets and stifling multitude of overskirts. Ever since Surayah was included in these extensive, tiresome meals, charged with hidden anger and subtle loathing, Saerk’s temper had subsided. Yusef was surprised and strangely bitter about it. His relationship with his father was a hidden battle of wills, where one side was always pushing for advantage while the other gently explored the possibilities for flanking counterstrike or cunning evasion. But evidently, if the old wolf was able to hold a gentle sentiment in his heart – it was for his daughter, who looked more like an expensive painted doll than a person while dressed in her hated western fineries and high-heeled shoes.
She was a quiet girl, who never dared to speak to anybody unless asked directly, and even then with some reluctance. They had barely exchanged a dozen words in a week. Yusef was so amazed at her sudden appearance that he almost forgot about his other troubles. He straightened his face and smiled at her vaguely, trying to look nice, albeit he was at a complete loss how to behave himself with a child of her age.
“Yusef,” Surayah asked seriously in her lilting voice tinted with a slightest hint of an accent, “why did you do it?”
“Did what?” he was genuinely puzzled.
“Killed the girl,” she answered simply. “Ninya said, you made her fall in love with you, and then broke her heart so she died.” Ninya was her nursemaid, who stayed with her since her birth. Surayah looked at him with her dark, liquid eyes so much like his own, and there was no way he could hide anywhere from that soft stare.
“I guess that’s how it looked like from the outside.”
“She did not die,” Yusef protested weakly. “Or did she already? While I was with Moira...”
“Oh yes, she did,” his sister confirmed simply. “Today at noontime. Ninya said Father made you do it. Is it true?”
“No,” he lowered himself into one of the absurdly inconvenient gilded chairs. “No. It was not father’s fault this time. I managed it all by myself.” His head started to pound and he knew what it ordained – another pipe, and probably a journey to the Sea Bounty tomorrow. “How does she know?” he asked numbly.
“Tilly went to the market this afternoon, and they knew she was our cook, so they told her and she told all the servants. They all know.” Surayah shook her head so her braids swayed and clinked again. “Do you think Sune will forgive you if you atone?”
“Why?” Yusef was genuinely puzzled. “Why do you ask this?”
“Because if Sune hates you, you are going to be very, very sorry Yusef,” Surayah shook her head one last time and run up the staircase, covered in soft carpet. She stopped at the first flight and told him quickly, “I can’t stay here. Father does not like it when I come down dressed like this. I am going to pray for both of you, but you must atone all the same.”
Yusef went to the funeral the next day, and both the Cailcades and the Jysstevs kept away from him like he was a leper, but Moira found him and stayed close all through the ceremony. But they could not talk much and had to pretend they barely knew each other, so he left her in the company of her old bodyguard and servant.
His next stop was the Sea Bounty – a seedy little tavern in the western, most dangerous part of the Docks, this side of the river. The owner of the establishment was a jolly old codger, with an iron hook in place of his right hand and a red bandana over his balding head, who insisted on being called the ‘Thumb’ by his clientele. His appearance was a bit too ‘piratey’ to be a genuine article, and recently the place has became popular among the young men of Athkatla’s high society, who abandoned the ‘Coronet’ as being to noisy and public for the refined tastes of ‘true’ decadent. Yusef suspected at once that Thumb’s game had many facets, and that the mask of a ‘fashionable’ dive pretending to be a pirate pub, was just one of the many onion-like layers. Deep and dangerous currents ran under the perfect cover of a sleazy bar, unbeknown to the rich fools who came there to be robbed of their gold after inflating themselves with second grade alcohol, and picking a funny disease from the cheap local whores.
“At least Madam Nin’s girls were regularly seen by a healer,” Yusef grimaced, fending off a half-drunk courtesan named Gracie, who was immediately enamored by his ‘romantic’ looks. Somehow it made him feel unclean, and his relationship with Moira less than gracious. He loathed his reason for coming here as much as he hated himself, but his fear of the searing agony of withdrawal was too strong. He could not find the strength to go through it again. Not yet, maybe not ever.
The barkeep grinned at him after having a quick glance at Deril’s note, and pushed a small pouch into his hands, noting that the rooms upstairs were always available, and that for a couple of silvers a gentlemen like him can have a private suite to enjoy his smoke. Then Thumb fended off Gracie, whispering something in her ear. The girl scowled at Yusef and spat under his feet, dismissing him as a junkie. Somehow that annoyed him even more than her initial advances.
He grabbed his package, nodding back at the old pirate with as much arrogance as he could muster and dismissed the offer. It did not impress the man. He grinned back at Yusef, showing a big gap in place of the front teeth, and said that the young lord’s deliveries would be ready for him as often as he wished, no need to worry about payment – the price was met. That he had mentioned with reverence, obviously impressed by the amount they were paying him.
Yusef scowled and left the place noting to himself that the drunk in the corner, slobbering all over one of Gracie’s colleagues, was young Jeb Colwyvv, one of his former ‘friends’ and associates. Jeb winked at him in recognition and went back to his business with the girl. Yusef knew that his affair with Tallia and her sudden death were the talk of the high society these days. Yet Jeb obviously approved of him showing up in the dump like the Sea Bounty right after the girl’s funeral. When Yusef stepped outside he was so disgusted with himself that he wanted to howl. He wanted to go back, stuff the lotus package down Thumb’s fat throat, and wipe that all-knowing smirk off Jeb’s drunken face! He could not. His hands already began to tremble and he was afraid he won’t make it to the house without falling down in one of his seizures.
And so it went for almost a month. He would wake up in the early morning and lay abed for an agonizing hour, trying to fight his urgent desire, and watching the endless stream of sand falling through the hourglass. He had established his limit - six hours, and not a second more. Sometimes he managed to fight it for a bit. But at the end, after an hour or two of painful misery he would light a pipe with his yellow trembling fingers, and suck in the bittersweet, soothing cloud. That would made him a man again, so he would be able to wash himself, shave and dress appropriately before descending downstairs to start another endless, bitter day of failure. Saerk was busy and enterprising as a bee these days, and at least stopped bugging him about possible marriage alliances, although he still had a tendency to drag him out every now and then on one or the other affair related to running his business empire. Yusef could not find any interest in cold formal dinners with government officials, orchestrated as a badly-written plays; or meetings with bad-mannered, foul-smelling characters running the underground part of the operation, like smuggling and illegal slave trade.
His meetings with Moira were mostly brief and melancholic, as he could not tell her any good news. After a while he resorted to lying to her and always took care of having a smoke few hours before the appointed date, so that the smell would be less distinct and his appearance vivid enough to soothe her concerns. Yusef was not sure how well did he succeed in this deception, for she always seemed sad and over-sensitive these days. Moira had had enough of her own troubles.
Cor had returned from his month-long journey, and was carousing in Athkatla with a renewed energy, wrecking her carefully arranged plans and ruining newly established connections. His expedition to Nashkell was a disaster, but since they did little trade in the north anyway it was not much of a loss. But his interference with her Maztican agents had cost them a lucrative business alliance with the New Union of Maztican Traders. Verily the man was his own worst enemy!
As the time passed Moira became aware of the extent of her feelings for Yusef, and this scared her to no end. She was losing her head and heart over a boy who was a pathological liar, a drug addict and for all practical reasons an idle parasite drifting through his life like an ephemeron through the warm, hazy air of late summer night. What was the worst – she could not cut him off, for the vision of his haunted eyes that night, when he had walked into Jysstev’s house carrying unconscious Tallia in his hands, was stored in the same corner of her heart as her other memories: a thin rivulet of blood spreading from her mother’s lips as she laid unconscious after a particularly violent exchange with Cor; Anomen’s terrified sobs coming from the dark closet, as she herself only six at the time was sitting on the stone floor by the locked door in vain attempt to dispel his fear of darkness; Cor on his knees on the dirty kitchen floor, trying to break his skull open, and clutching at Lady Moraia’s old bonnet after returning from the funeral, where his only son had spat in his face before leaving forever. Moira was attuned to other’s sufferings as finely as a violin to playing music. Compassion was her fatal weakness and the driving force of her life. Unfortunately it also became the trigger for the final disaster that had sealed her fate.
As the summer dreams faded away, and harvest festivals frothing with freshly brewed beer and smelling of apple pies rolled through the land, things started to change. With the coming of Marpenoth ( the month of Leafall) the slumbering pace of the big city’s life was thrown into a spin as all the Hell broke loose in a chain of seemingly unrelated events.
First a great silver sphere appeared in the Slums in the middle of the night, crushing several houses and sending their inhabitants scuttling through the streets in their smallclothes. Few of the unfortunate ones were flattened in their beds, and their bodies never recovered by the grieving families. A platoon of city guards was sent to investigate, but after poking at the strange construct for half a day without success, they departed leaving behind a few sentries to keep away most of the scavengers. A delegation of the Cowled Wizards tried to pry the Sphere open without much success, and was forced to admit their defeat.
As soon as the terrified citizens started to recover from this ordeal, and got used to the silver monstrosity sitting in the middle of their neighborhood, the war between the two rival thieves’ guilds broke loose and threatened to engulf the whole of Athkatla’s underworld. There were fresh corpses on the streets every day now. The Vice-Councilor doubled the night patrols in the more respectable parts of the city, like the Gem District and the Downtown, but the Slums became a wild zone, and the local inhabitants dared not to stay outside of their four walls after nightfall.
As if this was not enough on the second week of Leafall a great explosion shattered the whole section of Waukeen Promenade, ripping apart the small shops and private flats, killing and maiming dozens of innocent bystanders, and sending people fleeing in all directions. What happened afterwards was hard to comprehend, for the city was bustling with rumors and speculations, and no two witnesses of the event could agree on the exact details of the catastrophe. It was said that the shadow army of assassins sprang out of the ruins attacking a single mage of immense power, who had called lightning from the skies to obliterate himself and his enemies. When the dust settled there was nothing left there but charred remains of many bodies strewn amongst the rubble. That much was true at least, for Yusef went there next day after the disaster, and had seen carts piled with bloodied remains been pulled out of the guarded perimeter. Amazingly, the rest of the Promenade stayed open, despite the unstable condition of some of the neighboring shops.
It was Yusef’s nineteenth birthday on the 25th, and he had met Moira secretly in their favorite little inn at the bank of Alandor to celebrate in private. Their mood was subdued, despite the occasion. Yusef noticed that Moira’s eyes were surrounded with dark circles of fatigue, and pried gently for the reason. It turned out – Anomen had left Athkatla with a company of foreign mercenaries the week before, on a rather obscure business related to the Order’s political machinations. She was upset and immensely worried about her brother, even though he was now a grownup, with his own agenda and a mind firmly set on advancing his career through the ranks of the Order. From the letter that he had sent with one of his fellow initiates, Moira gathered he was rather proud of his mission; and that it was somehow linked to the leader of that strange company – a foreign sorceress with a murky past and dangerous ambitions for the future. The Order has meddled in many strange affairs, trying to keep their virtual fingers in many jars of Amnian politics. Still, it did not make Moira feel any better about her brother been sent to swim with the sharks for the sake of the Order’s politics! It was useless to remind her that Anomen was three years her senior and very capable of looking after himself.
The disaster struck a week later, on the first of Uktar, the Rotting. Later on Yusef often remembered that date wondering at the precision of the name that had tumbled him into the deepest recesses of despair. The day before Saerk had received an urgent message from one of his agents in Crimmor and was forced to leave Athkatla immediately.
Yusef had a strangest dream that night, one that he recalled vividly in every detail after he woke up in the early hours of down shivering in sick terror. Lagole had called him from some distant dark place, waving a bony finger in admonition and prompting that his services were needed once again.
“People’s memories are short,” the lich chuckled, “They had forgotten your little indiscretion with Tallia. A new stone has been forged, and it’s time for you to resume your work.”
Somehow, in his mind he knew that this was no ordinary dream, and that Lagole’s message was a genuine one. A cold dread settled in his heart, and not even another lotus pipe could dislodge his blind, instinctive terror of what was to come next.
He had cut his resource of lotus into smaller portions, and managed to survive for three days on meager fraction of what he really needed. To Yusef’s astonishment, he realized that the doses he has been using lately were at least twice the size of his quota a month before. Eventually the young man had to make his way to the Sea Bounty.
When he stumbled inside the crowded main room, swimming in cyan-blue tobacco smoke and reeking of stale beer, his hands were shaking so badly that he had to keep them inside his coat pockets. He could not shave himself this morning so his cheeks were covered in two-days bristle. At the sight of him Thumb chuckled heartily and dived under his counter.
“I knew you were coming lad!” he grinned in his usual cynical way slamming a silk pouch with lotus mix and a small packet on the sticky, stain-covered wooden surface. “Here you go, now if you want you can have a quick smoke upstairs at no charge.”
Sick and half-blind from the pounding headache, Yusef nodded. He made it upstairs with some help from Gracie, who was a kind-hearted girl and had forgiven him the rudeness of his first visit. He recovered his wits after a second pipe and his heartbeat steadied a little. With a shudder of disgust, he tore the package open. Inside he found a small jewelry box and a letter. A serpent grinned at him from the wax blob that sealed the note.
The time has come to pay for your sins rat-boy! Be aware that this is the last package of weed until you finish your commission. You can now choose what will become of you – either you deliver the jewel to your little girlfriend or both of you shall be dead by the end of the month.
I cannot promise that it will be quick or pleasant.
Do not try to do anything stupid. We will have her with or without your consent.
Yusef opened a lid of the little box shakily, and a purest spark of blue light met his horrified gaze. Nested in the soft wrappings of white velvet was a star sapphire of that rarest quality that sometimes is called bluefire by collectors of fine gemstones. This one was heart-shaped and somewhat larger than Tallia’s emerald. It was a perfect container for the essence of one person in this world whose very existence made his sad, wretched life still worth living.
“I should have finished it all on the night of Tallia’s collapse,” he thought briefly, “a jump from the Alandor bridge or a piece of rope – and it would have been over. Maybe it is still possible to depart in this way? No,” he dismissed the idea, “they already have a stone made for her. There is no way that Lagole would simply leave her alone after I am gone.”
Yusef made it to her house by late afternoon, after taking advantage of hot bath, shave and change of clothes. He had left the box with the sapphire hidden deep inside his cupboard. To his credit, he never really considered performing the gruesome task. A semblance of a plan started to form in the young man’s head, even though he had to admit it to himself – a major condition that had to be met in order for it to work was entirely out of his control. Yusef cursed himself for not being a man with whom Moira could genuinely fall in love. He was sure now that all she really felt for him was pity. That had to do. There was simply no other way he could save her from Lagole, even if it meant tying her for life with a drug addict like himself.
Yusef never thought that it would come to this, that his honest desire for her would be turned inside out and another, more desperate need would replace basic, physical lust of his body. If they were married and she would become his in all aspects, she would loose one quality that Lagole appreciated so much in his victims. To put it straight - she would loose her virginity. What would they do after that, or how would Lagole react at such a ‘betrayal’, had never entered his mind. The boy did not allow himself to dwell on this. Convincing Moira to marry him despite his obvious disgrace was a hard task, and he no longer deceived himself about his ability to merely seduce her without an offer of a marriage.
“Maybe we can run away and hide in some remote oasis in the middle of a desert,” he thought vaguely. “If I can milk enough cash from father’s private accounts without him noticing right away – we may live on that for a year or two. And then I would think of something. I surely will.” The other thing that had never occurred to him was how was he going to deal with his addiction if he was going to be married, and both of them on the run from Athkatla.
Having his mind set on his decided course, Yusef never allowed himself a moment of hesitation. He walked into a small store that sold quills, paper, and various colored inks and for a small fee drew a note, sealing it with a quick dribble from the burning candle. The young man could not use his signet ring for obvious reasons, so he flattened the wax with the blunt end of his stiletto and scratched a simple Y on the red blob. After this, it was easy enough to find a street urchin willing to deliver the note into her hands for a few coppers. He did not think of what he would do if she were not at home. Yusef just hoped that his mood was desperate enough to convince her. He thought about telling her the truth yet again, and dismissed the idea – she either wouldn’t believe a single word of his tale or would hate him for what he did to Tallia, in either case she would refuse to marry him, and that was not an option he could allow for.
Luckily for him, Moira was at home and his messenger was able to deliver the note without delay. Yusef positioned himself at the corner of the house next to hers, so that he could easily see the front steps of the Delryn’s bleak citadel. He prayed silently that his letter sounded urgent enough for her to come at once. Moira walked down the stairs within fifteen minutes after the street boy’s departure. She was wearing a familiar blue dress and gray cloak, and her face was set in a worried mask of apprehension. Yusef had asked her to meet him at the fountain square, but had no intention of letting her go that far. He managed to catch up with her on the next intersection, grabbing her by the hand and stirring her away from her set course deep into the tangled web of narrow streets, around the Council Building.
“What is it?” she asked incredibly after he finally slowed down enough for her to catch her breath, and let go of her hand. “If this is about yesterday’s scandal – there is nothing you can do anyway! My wretched father brought it all on himself. I knew I should have asked Terl to follow him! But he knows me well, and he is so determined when he is drunk – nothing could stir him from his chosen course.”
“Mm… yes,” Yusef muttered hesitantly, having no clue of what she was talking about, “that is exactly why I’ve called on you. Are you sure there is nothing I can do?”
“Unless you can send your father out of town for a while!” she exclaimed. “No, there is absolutely no hope!”
“He had left yesterday on an unexpected business trip,” Yusef smiled weakly. “I don’t see how this is going to help you, but I feel obliged to …”
“Yusef!” Moira’s eyes shone like two bright stars. In a spur of a moment she stood on her tiptoes and planted a kiss on his cheek. “You have no idea what you’ve just told me! I may be actually able to save our name yet!”
“I am glad to hear this,” he responded meekly feeling pleasant warmth spreading through his left cheek and down his neck. “If there is anything else please don’t hesitate to ask. If you need a financial assistance for example …”
“No, no! This is absolutely out of question!” Moira exclaimed hotly. “You realize how completely inappropriate this would be! Although I do appreciate your offer. If I would manage to convince the Council to drop the most serious of charges against Lord Cor we will be saved. And with Saerk out of the picture I may have a chance to do it. I will need to pull some strings, we still have some connections, you see.” She stopped abruptly biting her tongue and looked at him, blushing to the roots of her hair. “I am sorry Yusef,” she said gently. “After you rushed here just to comfort me in my misery I should not have any secrets from you. But the old habits die hard. After what Cor did yesterday I was at a complete loss as to how can I save our family name. He still has a high chance to go to jail for what he did to your father’s associate. Barging into a private room uninvited, and assaulting the man! I could not believe it when I first heard about it.”
“She is always in the process of saving somebody,” he thought bitterly. “Me, her brother, her father, her neighbor’s cat! Never stops to think about herself.”
“Is not it why you love her so?” The other voice responded. “Moira would not be Moira, if she stops caring.”
“Now, the only way I can save her, is if I manage to convince her that by marrying me she would perform the ultimate act of self-sacrifice and save both of our families, and my sorry self. While in fact she would be saving herself from Lagole’s attentions.”
“It does not have to be you,” the voice of honor peeped his opinion.
“We don’t exactly have time to look for a knight in shining armor,” he hushed the voice.
“And you would kill any aforesaid knight if he dare to show himself around her?”
” That too,” he agreed with himself.
“Moira,” he said very carefully, “there is something else.”
Moira listened to his stumbling speech at first with astonishment, then with keen embarrassment, and finally, surprisingly to herself, with grudging appreciation. What he was telling her made sense. Their only way to stop the feud that was eating at both of their families’ resources and strengths like cancerous growth was simply refuse to participate. And what was the best way to do it if not to join their forces and present a united front to their fathers’ evil will. Yusef swore that Saerk would eventually come to his senses and acknowledge their marriage. “Like Hell he will,” he thought grimly. And than Cor would be forced to follow the suit. “He would rather hang himself on his own guts.” And finally, both families would be able to drop the feud and live happily ever after in peace and harmony. “Yep, that is after both, the ‘yellow dog’ and the ‘rabid wolf’ would be dead for a decade, and Anomen finally decides that since he cannot force me into a duel and kill me outright, he better leave us alone.”
When he finished that admirable speech she was pale and thoughtful. “Yusef,” she said kindly. “I think you are a bit naïve in thinking that it would be that easy to convince both our fathers to make peace. But I do appreciate your sentiment. I …I am not sure what to say. I do have feelings for you, although may be not as deep as such a commitment would require.”
“I understand,” Yusef nodded solemnly. “I dare not hope that you would give me an answer right away. But would you consider it for a while?”
“Why, yes,” she blushed like a poppy flower. “I will tell you in a week. I need to take care of this unfortunate affair, but I promise you I would think it over most seriously. “You see, there is also a matter of your lotus addiction.”
“Moira,” he said excitedly, and he almost believed himself at the moment. “If you make me the happiest man alive there is nothing in this world that we cannot do together! I surely won’t need any other intoxicants if I had you.”
“It may actually be the closest thing to a truth among all the rubbish that I’ve told her today.”
Yusef led her to the spot from which he earlier watched over her house, and saw her disappear inside the double doors. Moira stopped for a tiny moment and threw a quick glance in his direction before going inside. That filled him with fresh hope. He went home almost assured that she would say ‘yes’ to him in a few days time.
On that morning Moira sent the cook Sara to the baker for fresh bread, and asked her to stop by the dairy house and get some milk and butter. There were things to arrange that she could not manage on an empty stomach. She had pawned all her mother’s jewelry again, rugs and tapestries from her bedroom, and some of the rare books. It hurt a lot. Still, the money she collected was enough to pay Cor’s fine of two hundred gold, and there was something left to cover his traveling expenses. She was so proud of herself! Not only did she save the family name by begging the Councilors to drop some of the worst charges against him, she had also managed to convey it to her father (who was grouchy and embarrassed after three-days drinking spree and a harsh argument with her) that the best course of action would be for him to leave Athkatla for a couple of months, until the episode at the ‘Four Winds’ would become history.
Over the years Cor grew dependent on her diplomatic skill and sharp business instinct, and that gave her a certain leverage over him. They agreed that he would go down to Murann, to supervise the local branch of operations. Moira wished she could send him away to Zazesspur or Vilhon Reach, but that was out of the question. She still felt she was responsible for him, despite all the grief he had caused her and her loved ones through many years of abuse. Cor was family, and as the old saying went, the difference between your friends and your relatives is that your cannot pick the later. But if she could not separate herself from him - at least she could hold him at a safe distance.
When Sara came back they had a hearty breakfast of bread, honey, and butter in the kitchen, with Cor criticizing every decision she had made in the last few weeks, and delivering an endless string of complains about Saerk and his rotten practices. On this Moira had to agree. Farrahd the elder was about as scrupulous in his affairs as a were-shark in picking up its next meal. Still, Cor’s problems were mostly created by his inability to govern himself, and indulging in strong spirits in times when he needed clear mind to negotiate his contracts. Moira was positive that without Cor in town to hamper her efforts, she would be able to restore their moderate earnings and perhaps make some advances in her personal project – shifting their operations from conservative Calimshani exports to trade in exotic Maztican goods. In this her biggest hopes were for the latest expedition of the ‘Golden Sun’, their last seaworthy vessel.
As Moira helped Cor to pack his saddlebags, she listened patiently to the last trickle of his admonishments and business counseling, which she forgot immediately upon receiving. Then with a sigh of relief she waved him out of the courtyard as he rode away on his shabby mare, followed by his personal guard and servant Derkin on a gray mule. She was so relieved to see them go, she started to hum something, which suspiciously sounded like a victory song.
It has been two weeks since her memorable conversation with Yusef and she still was not able to give him any answer. Gods, Moira wished she could just say ‘yes’. She had serious doubts about the whole ‘feuding families reconciliation’ part, but Sune was her witness, her feelings for Yusef both frightened and surprised her with their intensity. Moira was intelligent enough to realize that it was normal for her to desire a young and attractive man simply because she was at the age when she was supposed to get married and bear children, as it was intended by Nature. They have been seeing each other for a few months now, almost every week. Something was bound to happen between them. But there were more to it than a simple earning of her body. They were very much alike, these two children of the rival houses. Raised by two different abusers, they were both lonely and vulnerable, lounging for warmth and support they could never get inside their families.
Ever since Lady Moraia became so gravely ill, and especially after her death, Moira was forced to fill her mother’s shoes. She run the household supervising cooking and laundry, helped Cor with his accounts, taking over most of the routine office work he had no heart for; she set aside a little money to send it secretly to her brother, and even managed to have half a dozen new shirts sewn and delivered to him this year. But in all this bustle she had never had anybody to take care of her, to stop her on her way between her numerous chores and inquire gently if she herself was tired or upset, or needed comforting. Yusef filled that need in her. Yes, he was selfish. Moira wondered sometimes if he suspected how snide and arrogant he appeared to anyone who did not have a chance to know him better. But when they met secretly on their dates the first thing he would ask was how did her week go, and he seemed to be genuinely interested in her answers. He brought her small gifts and always seemed to be more intent on listening to her than on complaining about his misfortunes or bragging about his successes.
Of course Yusef’s major advantage over her was the fact that he knew a lot about women, having been raised by his father’s concubines and their maids. At first he was stimulated by the challenge. Over time his feelings became genuine, and then his terrible predicament triggered development of a fixation that threatened to become an all-consuming desperate passion. Moira had never guessed what was buried under his bitter, nervous demeanor. She suspected he was hiding something, and assumed that this was a degree of his addiction to black lotus.
It was a major stumbling stone for her. In all her sensitivity and attraction to him, she could not allow herself to repeat her mother’s fate - be bound for life to an addict. Moira could still remember times when both of her parents were young and full of hope. Cor was zealous and energetic when he had married lady Moraia. Over many years all his grandiose plans ended in spectacular fiascos, caused by his inability to control his drinking problem, and he had turned into a bitter, violent shadow of his former self. So Moira planned and hesitated, and thought how could she be sure that Yusef wouldn’t end the same way, if not worse. On the mean time, she had sent him a letter, bidding for more time and promising to give her answer soon.
Yusef received her letter and immediately fell into one of his darker moods. He was not exactly the most patient of men in his better days, but in this case it was a matter of life and death. The result of her indecision threatened to swallow them both. He could not control himself. Over these two weeks he run through his limited lotus supply and was back at the Sea Bounty for more. Since Deril’s order was to stop his free deliveries until he fulfills his mission, he was forced to pay for the drug out of his own pocket. Thumb’s prices were steep, but not as bad as Lehtinan’s, and Yusef’s financial situation has improved since summer. He knew he could not go like this forever, but at least for now his gold could buy him some time without thinking at all. Yusef locked himself upstairs in a private suite especially kept for the rich clients indulging in expensive smokes, and lost track of time. On the third day of his lotus gorge Lagole had come to him again in his dream, and jerked him out of his euphoric trance. The lich was angry. He seethed in mindless rage and barked at Yusef demanding that he should break out of his stupor and act.
Yusef woke up, shuddering from pure animalistic terror. Never in his life he felt so trapped. Suddenly it made him incredibly angry. Here he was, wasting precious time, when every day was bringing them closer and closer to disaster. His head was strangely clear, his every muscle twitched with erroneous energy of the drug. His body was over-saturated with it and it felt strange, as if he was a racehorse sprinting to the finish line on a heavy dope.
He went home to clean and groom himself after sleeping for three days in the same clothes. The guard at the gates informed him that Saerk was back, and had been looking for him with increased anxiety, but Yusef paid this no heed. He knew where he should go. On his way to the Government District the young man stopped on the bridge and hurtled Lagole’s stone into Alandor, watching the slow brown waters close over it.
He never noticed a small winged shape that crawled from under the bridge and dived into the river after the sinking blue spark.
Yusef walked right to the front gates of Delryn’s house in bright daylight without thinking that they may simply refuse to admit him. The lotus was still swirling in his blood filling him with vigor. It was a pleasant day. The weather was still warm enough, even though there was frost on the windows in the early morning. No one confronted him at the gates, and nobody met him at the entrance. The heavy front door was not even locked. That made him anxious and upset. He sneaked in closing the door behind him, and blinking his eyes until they finally adjusted to the semi-darkness inside.
It was cool and gloomy. Only a single lantern in a wall niche dispersed the fleeing shadows inside the long windowless room. He looked at few wooden benches and a stone staircase leading up. There weren’t even rugs on these stairs, he noted absentmindedly. The stairs brought him into a long corridor that circled around the inner courtyard, branching into many side ways and spawning more staircases. Yusef’s heart was pounding in his chest so intensely, that he was surprised that nobody had heard it and came to investigate. After a short hesitation, he decided against exploring the house on his own. It was bad enough if he was discovered here. If they caught him further away from the entrance Cor can simply kill him on the spot and then claim self-defense.
“Moira,” Yusef called into a silent grayness of the empty house, and again a little louder, “Moira, where are you?”
As if in an answer to his call, a door had opened and closed somewhere at the distance, and he heard a quick light steps of a single person, descending down the stairs. Soon a lighted candle carried by a figure in blue floated into his field of vision.
“Yusef?,” Moira said incredulously at the sight of his tall, slender frame. Her heart jumped into her mouth at the sight of him. He was almost invisible in the shadows in his dark brown velvets but she recognized him instantly. “You are lucky Cor left this morning and there is nobody to stop you! Still, you can’t just walk in here on your own. Somebody might have known you.”
“We need to talk,” he said softly. “There is almost no time left. Can you take me someplace where we can sit and discuss things without being interrupted?”
There was something in his voice that made her swallow all her admonitions. Moira took his hand and was surprised to find how hot and dry his skin was under her fingers. She led him through the empty corridors and up two flights of stairs. In front of the light wooden door on the left side she hesitated for a second, but then shrugged and let him inside.
It was her own bedroom, he realized with a shock. It was an austere, almost ascetic place with a narrow bed draped with a blue woolen coverlet, a threadbare rug on the stone floor, and a wooden desk with a single chair by the window.
“We can talk here,” Moira sat on the bed nodding with her chin at the only chair but he stayed on his feet, pacing back and forth in front of the small window.
“I suppose you cannot give me an answer yet?” he asked casually.
“No,” she sighed softly. “Sorry Yusef, but this is something that you cannot rush. It is too serious. My whole life will depend on it.”
Yusef laughed abruptly, with a sharp hysterical kind of laughter that comes at the last stage of morbid anxiety. “Your life indeed depends on it, just not in a way that you imagine!” His voice broke at these last words and she frowned mistaking this for a bad joke.
It was at this moment that his legs gave up and he dropped on his knees at her feet, grabbing at her skirts and sobbing like a lost child. For once all his cat-like, smug manners were gone, washed away with a terrible storm of emotions that were breaking his heart. Yusef knew Moira was lost if he cannot convince her to accept his offer and leave Athkatla immediately. He was not even sure that this desperate measure would save them, but he had to try, or her gentle courageous soul would end up trapped in the horrendous necklace of the lich.
“Please,” he begged in a hoarse voice, soaking the hem of her simple blue dress with sudden shower of tears, “please, Moira, you have to trust me, there is no other way! If you cannot bring yourself to love me the way I do, and I swear I had never felt this way about any other woman - we can travel as companions. I would not force you into anything you would not want for yourself. But you cannot stay in Athkatla! You are in terrible danger. They would come after you when they are done with me … and I am not sure how long I would be able to hold up against them. I … I wanted to kill myself …but then I realized they would just find another way. And I am sure Lagole would never leave you alone, now that they have invested so much time and magic. I threw the stone into Alandor but they can make another.” All of this spilled out of him in one blurred speech, mixed with hurricane of convulsing sobs.
Moira’s face went blank. Then slowly, unwillingly her fingers started to stroke his head, sneaking into the thick mane of dark, tangled curls at her knees. She knew she was losing the battle. Whatever lies he was throwing at her this time mattered not, but the feel of his warm body, slender yet strong, shaking violently under her hands was too much for her to bear. She could not find any resolve to send him away now. She sighed deeply, stifling a whimper and sank to her knees beside him.
“Now stop it,” Moira whispered softly wiping away his tears. “It is going to be all right, I promise.” It was all so familiar she thought her memory was playing tricks on her again. Ani and her huddled together in a closet after Cor had beaten them up and locked the door, his desperate chocking sobs in the darkness.
Yusef grasped her in his both hands like a drowning man clutches the lifesaver. Her head spun and a spell of dizziness came over her. His lips found hers and she realized that it was the most natural thing in the world to drink in his breath, still sweet and spicy from the lotus smoke. They held each other with a desperate passion that was beyond any rational thinking, or her carefully laid out plans. Yusef’s fingers found the laces of her bodice and she cried with silent tears, as he fought with the silken cords, and then helped him to cut them with his little dagger. They shed their clothes like hungry blind worms that shed their cocoons to become beautiful flying things.
They first come together on the thin rug that covered the stone floor of her chamber, too preoccupied with their urgent need to care for the conveniences. She screamed once at the sharp, sweet pain of their joining and wrapped her legs around him to keep him closer, to drown in the intoxicating smell of his sweat and tears. It was like a quick summer storm that comes over the thirsty land and spends itself in a matter of minutes drying instantly without delivering the long craved relief. It was not enough for both of them so they sought to remedy this, and went over it again and again, moving first to her narrow maidenly bed and then, emboldened by their success but still not satiated, dragging the mattress and blankets on the floor and creating a soft warm nest for themselves among the devastation of thrown off clothes and upturned furniture.
Sometime in between their mad trysts and unconscious slumbers, while they laid together entwined and connected in one, he had whispered in her ear seriously, “Moira, if we are going to die for this, can you promise me that we will do it together? I don’t think I can bear to be away from you again…”
“Yes I promise. But I would rather live with you till we both grow old and cannot do this anymore.”
“Like this is ever going to happen …”
“What – us growing old together or the other?” She snickered, but he just mumbled something in her hair, and then they had no more time to speak about it.
They finally fell asleep and awoken hours later only to find each other warm flesh wrapped in a tight knot under the blanket. So they did it again, just to make sure it was not a dream. But it was real, and after exhausting each other’s resources for the last time they had to smother the all-consuming fire of madness that threatened to burn them to ashes, and finally pull apart.
It was dark outside. Yusef vaguely remembered that he had entered her house at noon, driven by fear and urgent need to convince her to flee with him. It seemed like eons ago now. His every muscle screamed from exhaustion, doubled by a sudden departure of his lotus-borrowed strength.
“Would you run away with me?” He asked abruptly looking at the dark sky in her bedroom’s window. It was strange that nobody had disturbed them during these hours of sweet madness. She was snuggled peacefully in the crook of his arm, naked and beautiful as a new moon in the sky above. They were curled together on the mattress thrown on the floor, under the pile of blankets.
“What, right now?” She asked lazily. “Is not it a bit late? We can think about it in the morning. Unless, of course, they are expecting you back home tonight.” Moira felt strangely confident in a new awareness of her body. She knew that with their reckless lovemaking she had accepted another responsibility, another burden on her weary shoulders – Yusef’s whole wretched life, and that it will probably cost her more than anything she had ever had to pay, both in blood and tears. But it did not bother her, for you always have to decide for yourself if the price you are paying for happiness is really worth it.
“Even if they do, they will never guess where to start looking,” he murmured absentmindedly. “I am serious, Moira, you cannot stay here. This house is like a tomb. Where are your servants? I know Cor is away. That is why I was able to walk in unhindered. But what if it was not me?”
“Then Terl would have chased you out,” she answered with a short laugh. “We are almost alone in the house tonight. Terl is sleeping in the stables with my old horse. The cook is in her room downstairs. She is also my housekeeper and lady’s maid, and the only company I have these days.”
“You have me,” he said gently stroking her cheek. “And this is all that matters.”
“Self-confident, aren’t we?” she answered with a quick kiss.
A low hiss interrupted her next words and the door of her chamber dissolved into nothingness in a sudden flash of a green light.
“Oh he is indeed. Always so sure of himself, ain’t you Yussef ?” A strange voice, grating like a rusty fail against the whetstone rasped from the darkness.
A chill wind blew from the empty doorframe bringing with it a terrible stench of an old grave. Moira screamed as a hideous creature draped in flowing robes and a bespangled in a collar of glittering gems, stepped into her bedroom. Lich’s red eyes glowed with fierce and angry light in their dead sockets. The filaments of long gray hair, still stuck to his desiccated skin, hang around his skull in a parody of high fashion. She noticed in morbid fascination that a single gold earring was dangling from the dry earlobe.
Yusef sprang to his feet with a growl of a trapped animal, snatching his stiletto. At that moment a second smaller figure hidden behind the lich finished the chant and pointed a finger at him. The young man froze on a spot as all his muscles contracted in a stone-hard paralysis of a hold spell. He could not even blink an eye but his gaze shone with a painful intensity of awareness.
“He has been a bad boy,” the smaller man, dressed in rich embroidered robes chuckled wringing his fat, bejeweled fingers. “He deserves to be punished.”
Moira grabbed a blanket, wrapping it around herself, and stood very straight looking at the undead creature. He was the one in charge, she recognized this immediately. “You have entered my house uninvited. Who are you and what do you want from us?” her voice did not shake, though her fingers trembled badly clutching at her blanket, as if it was a shield that could protect her.
“You can call me Lagole,” the undead rasped back, “and I believe that this young man over here owes me a certain something that he decided to take for himself instead of doing what he was told! Boyss,” she could swear the lich tried to smile, though such a feat was impossible to achieve as his lips had rotten away, and his teeth were bared in a permanent scowl. “Thiss one has always been a scoundrel, I should have known better than to trust him!”
“Trust him in what?” Moira suddenly felt a cold dread coming over her. She looked at Yusef. His body was covered in sweat, and two bright rivulets of tears were streaming along his cheeks. He was so beautiful in his naked stasis that she wanted to cry too, but a dark cloud of suspicion hung over her mind now. “What was he supposed to do with me?”
“Did not he tell you already?” Lagole almost purred. “Ah, but you did not believe him. And then you were too busy desspoiling yourself with him to think about it. I do have means of seeing and hearing what I need.” He petted a small winged shape that stirred on its skeletal shoulder, all wrinkled and leathery like a dried old prune. “The way you are now you are of no usse to me. He made sure of thiss!” The lich made a small gesture and Yusef shuddered in his paralysis. A grimace of horrible pain froze on boy’s contorted features. “Ah, that’s better. You see, my dear, I am what you would call a collector in your terms. I collect pure, untouched souls, and in order to preserve them for eternity I store them in these beautiful, shiny sstones,” Lagole pointed at his necklace. “Of course they also give me an additional benefit of sserving as wards, and preserving my remaining flesh from dessintegration by washing me in their life energies! There is no better elixir of youth than the tears of a virgin ssoul. The elders of Netheril knew this as well.”
Moira’s gaze was drawn to the lich’s shiny neckpiece in dreadful fascination. It was a wide collar, covering his shoulders and breastbones, weaved of silvery chains, and studded with beautifully cut gemstones. She noticed for the first time that every jewel in it shone with intense inner light of its own. “And how many pure souls did he help you to ‘collect’?” She asked in a cold, dead voice.
“Oh, jusst one really. And even then he did not know what he was doing. He was told it wass a love charm.”
“Tallia!” Moira gasped in relief, and a painful knot in her stomach untied, leaving her weak and trembling with guilt. She threw a quick glance at Yusef - he still looked as if he was in terrible pain but some desperation was gone from his dark eyes, and the tears stopped flowing down his face.
“I should have left you guessing,” Lagole rasped, “but I find it un-sporty. Yes, you’ve got it right,” he fingered a single tear-shaped emerald among his collection. “I am getting bored giving you all these explanations! And whilst you surely would not live long enough to use this information, I still think I should sstop.”
The lich raised to his full height, towering over her like a giant praying mantis. “Now, whom of you should I kill fisst?” he mused. “Do you think he would look somewhat better without his sskin? Or shall I try to disembowel him through his moth first? On the other hand, I think I should give him to Deril, so the wretch can have some fun with the boy before he peels his skin off and burns him over a slow fire.”
The fat man in wizard robes, giggled and Moira noticed that his nose was broken and crooked to the left as if it was deliberately folded by hand. Some of his front teeth were missing.
“Please,” Moira felt the goose bumps running down her back as her innards were turning to water and her head swam in red fog. “Please, don’t hurt him. I would do anything you ask of me, just let him go! Please.” She was crying now. She knew her self-control was failing but could not stop herself. The very though of him suffering through these tortures made her feel weak.
“Would you rather have all these thingss done to you while he is watching?” Lagole asked. “It may be even more entertaining. Yess, I think that is what I shall do.”
Moira nodded gravely. “Please,” she begged, “kill me first, if you wish, but let him go!” She looked at her lover – his face was a mask of frozen terror, so she averted her eyes quickly.
“No,” the lich leered at her. “That is one thing I shall never do. But I will give him another chance, if you are willing to ssacrifice your soul for him.” She gasped, but said nothing. “You are indeed useless to me, now that he took what should have been rightfully mine! But his worst punishment should be loosing you to that same fate that he hoped to trick! No one lies to me!” Lagole eyes radiated the crimson light of madness. He swiped his hand and pulled a sparkling blue gemstone out of his robes. “Take it willingly, and loose your soul forever – then I will spare the boy!”
Moira looked at the shiny blue crystal in his bony palm. It was a thing of wondrous beauty. A heart-shaped star sapphire, pure and cold as a glacier, high upon the peaks of Snowflake Mountains.
“Will you give me your word on it?” she asked with white lips. “That if I take this, and give you my soul to do as you please with it, you shall let him go?” There was a painful moan from Yusef but she paid no heed to this.
“And why should I lie to you?” Lagole chuckled. “This is fate worth than death, and I think he would prefer to be disemboweled and burned alive, rather then see you suffer it. I would not want to deprive him of this agony by killing him conveniently!”
“Then I shall take it!” she run to Yusef’s side and kissed him one last time on the mouth contorted in a soundless scream. Then slowly, deliberately she raised her hand spreading her shaking fingers over the blue stone and took it from the lich’s palm. The world collapsed around her.
As the blue fire enveloped her slender form and her flesh started to dissolve, Deril’s spell shattered and Yusef plunged forward, finally released from his bonds. He tried to grasp at her, to catch what he thought would be Moira’s dying body falling in final agony of soulless death. His fingers met an empty air. Her body became a transparent shade of blue that winked out of existence in a blink of an eye. There was nothing left of her; only a crumpled blanket that floated down to the ground and settled in a soft pile.
Lagole laughed. At least Yusef thought that the awful, rasping sounds coming from lich’s skull was his laughter. “And she actually believed me! Living are so gullible!”
“What did you do to her,” Yusef was still on his knees clutching the empty blanket to his face. His voice sounded hollow and broke, like that of an old man. It was all over now and he knew it. That final trick could not change the fact that she was dead. “Sune will be very angry with you, Yusef,” he remembered Surayah’s words.
“It was a clever ssolution to my little problem with you,” Lagole hissed. “She is not dead. In fact she can live almost forever in this place with no need for food or drink, or even air.” He raised his hand with a jewel in it.
The sapphire lost its luster. Instead of intense magical fire, emanating from other lich’s stones, this one now looked flawed as if some vague shape was trapped inside it.
“It seemed such a waste to loose a perfectly sound soulstone when it has already been attuned to her! After Azbodel had fished it out of the water and reported your indiscretions, I set to change my enchantment, whilst you have been be-sporting yourself here. It’s a different kind of a spell that I used on her. It did not kill her but drew her into the stone in the flesh. I will be willing to part with this gem if you sstick to your end of the bargain and help me finish the Mantle of Tearss!”
Yusef stared at him unable to comprehend what had happened. The lich shrugged and sent Deril out with some instructions. After a few minutes the rouge wizard returned, floating what looked like a corpse of a plump, elderly woman in the air before him. She was dead for many hours, as the blood stopped oozing from her unevenly slit throat.
“It’s Sara, the cook,” Lagole explained simply. “Deril is no good at it but I could not leave any live witnesses in the house, could I?”
“As if it will make any difference,” Yusef though lifelessly.
His though must have reflected on his face, for Lagole chuckled and clicked his fingers again, muttering another spell. The corpse began to glow faintly, at the same time shifting in size, becoming thinner and taller. Her hair went from dull gray to light brown, almost gold, and her shabby dress became a plain blue gown, trimmed with white lace at the collar and splattered in red. In a few seconds it was not portly Sara, who was lying dead on the floor before his astounded eyes but Moira!
“Why are you doing this?” Yusef cried in horror. “Is not it enough to torture her by encasing her alive in the stone? Why do you have to make it so that everybody believes that she is dead?”
“But it is sso much easier this way,” Lagole answered. “They will find her body and leave it at that, whilst her disappearance would have caused rumors. It may be many years till my necklace is done, and you may be tempted to seek release from your predicament. Everybody knows you are a liar, so even if you decide to sseek help – nobody would believe your wild tales!” The lich scowled at him mockingly. “Now dress yourself, and get out of here before somebody walks in and declare you a rapist and a murderer. You will get your instructions later. Deril will take care of the details.”
She had opened her eyes surprised at the lack of pain. In front of her she saw an endless maze of glittering blue ice. She raised her hand touching the tip of her nose. Yes, she still had her flesh. She could recognize the little scar on her palm, left by the teeth of a feral cat a few weeks ago, when she was pulling it out of the ventilation pipe. Her hair was free of all the pins and combs that she usually employed to keep it in place, and was floating freely around her shoulders. She was stark naked, but it was not cold in here. She touched the sparkling wall. It was not hot or cold – just indifferent. Moira sighed and started on her long journey through the infinite corridors and caves of her new prison.
55. Note from sister Omphalla: Dao society is very open and, unlike human, treats both sexes as equal. Each band is ruled by a sheikh. Exceptionally powerful sheikhs are given the title of amir.
56. Note from sister Omphalla: According to the author's earlier notes Dynaheir was a Witchlaran of the Rashemi, who had traveled with her in a company of her bound bodyguard berserker Minsc. Rashemen custom requires every male warrior to undertake a dajemma - a yearlong quest of travel before his status among the warrior group is confirmed. Witchlaran, or the Masked Witches, is a powerful female wizard society among the Rashemi. The Witches wear black and mask themselves in battle. They rule the Rashemi with absolute authority, and there are sometimes controversial rumors of their alleged cruelty to their enemies and allies alike.
57. Note from sister Omphalla: While little more than a crossroads of two caravan routes, Trademeet stands out as the City of Merchant's Peace. All deals made in this town are honest, aboveboard, and fair. In the Year of Great Riches (920 DR), Waukeen is said to have appeared on Shieldmeet at highsun within the stone circle at Trademeet. She wandered the markets and saw only false deals, poor products, and lying merchants. Enraged, she turned the dishonest High Merchant's hands into gold and doled his fingers out to wronged parties (hence the Amnian curse of De- losar's Fingers!). She then declared a Merchant's Peace, which has remained unbroken to this day. Perhaps this honesty explains why Trademeet is the smallest of Amn's major caravan stops.
58. Note from sister Omphalla: The matriarch of a gypsy band.
59. Note from sister Omphalla: It is widely believed that Kelemvor, the God of the Dead, takes care of the souls of the unbelievers and heretics. The Ones who either rejected to worship any Deity, or betrayed their beliefs by going against the dogma of their respective church.
60. Note from sister Omphalla: Rillifane Rallathil (The Leaflord, the Wild One, the Great Oak) is elven God of Nature - protector of the woodlands and guardian of harmony. He is often linked by his priests to a giant ethereal oak tree, that stands at the heart of the High Forest of Olympus. This oak is so huge that its roots mingle with the roots of every other plant in the Realms.
61. Note from sister Omphalla: From Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859), Earth Reckoning
62. Note from sister Omphalla: Hookah - A pipe with a long, flexible stem, so arranged that the smoke is cooled by being made to pass through water.
63. Note from sister Omphalla: Sir Sarles – our renowned sculptor, famous among the nobility for his compositions of great style, and even greater price. Personally, I find him rather sentimental and posh.
64. Note from sister Omphalla: From Samuel Taylor Coleridge, KHUBLA KHAN,(1772 - 1834), Earth Reconing
Last modified on April 3, 2002
Copyright © 2001 by Janetta Bogatchenko. All rights reserved.
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