By Jaap-Peter Hazelhoff
Chapter 6 - Making Acquaintances
Berdusk, 1371 DR, Eleint, 8th day, late afternoon
The servant leads Portia through the main hall, toward a grand staircase. The hallway decorated expensively but with great taste. A portrait of a noble woman of elvish descent hangs centrally in the main hall. Ascending to the first floor, the priestess notices the fine carpeting on the marble stairs. Silken draperies hang from the ceiling in flowing shapes. The servant knocks on one of the mahogany doors, and opens it to step inside, “A young lady wishes to see you Milord.” Portia can see a young man sitting behind a desk. He appears fair skinned, dark haired and lithe of build, and is dressed in dark but elegant clothing.
Setting his ink pen back in its holder, Matteo turns and, with a soft drawl marking his speech, replies; “Show her in, Rohr.” Rising to his feet, Matteo waits to greet his guest. Portia enters the room, nodding and smiling to the old man in thanks as he holds the door for her. Striding forward, Portia says, “Thank you for seeing me, Lord Matteo. The Death’s Hand did not really give me very much information about what you require, but he assured me that I would be a great help to your effort. He seemed to indicate that whatever it is, it’s quite important.” Her mild expression never wavers, but there is curiosity in her eyes.
At Portia’s words Matteo pales, stammering, “Death’s Hand?” Quickly recovering his poise somewhat and hoping to make up for his poor manners Matteo enquires, “Would you care for any refreshments, something to eat?” Portia nods, “Thank you, I would.” Her expression, already fairly open, shifts slightly toward a more concerned look. “You didn’t ask Lord Sillisten to send someone here? From the way he described things, I’d thought you’d be familiar with him.” She purses her lips thoughtfully, hoping the man doesn’t mind if she sits. He seems a gentleman, she thinks, maybe something is on his mind. She seats herself in one of the plush chairs before the desk.
“Or, could it be you’re not familiar with his title within the Church? The Temple here in Berdusk is fairly new.” She waves her hand off to one side, as if to show him which direction it lays. “Actually it’s a converted manor house, and really quite nice for a Temple. Lord Sillisten, Death’s Hand of Kelemvor, is its Patriarch.” She leans forward earnestly. Lowering her voice only slightly, enough to indicate something special, she adds, “He’s a very important man within the Church.”
“Anyway…” Portia continues brightly, “I’m here to help you. I’ve only recently left the Abbey of the Fallen outside Baldur’s Gate.” She makes a face, as if she smells something distasteful. “There’s a Velsharoon priest out in the countryside stirring up the dead, and that’s just not acceptable. There are a dozen of us out and about, all over the countryside, trying to find the scum.” The pitch of her voice leaves no doubt that if there is anything she hates; it’s a Velsharoon Priest and his undead minions. “I’d just brought Lord Sillisten word that we’d found some sign of the blasphemer, and he asked me to stay.” She looks at the young Lord curiously. “He really did seem to think whatever you’re doing is just as important, if not more so, than hunting down that dark priest.” Even as she says it, the look on her face indicates that she’s having a difficult time believing it.
Standing with a slightly dazed expression on his face, Matteo blinks at the rush of words and sinks back into his chair. Unable to keep the surprise from his voice, he stammers, “You worship the Lord of the Dead? Whatever for? Why would anyone… I mean… why?”
Portia looks surprised at the question for a second, before realizing that the young man’s probably had little or no instruction in the Faith. Smiling sympathetically, she says, “You don’t know much about the Faith, do you? You probably think the God of the Dead is sitting on some throne made of human skulls, chuckling at every death…” She snorts at the thought. “In truth, Kelemvor detests untimely death.” Portia seems to lose herself in her explanation. “Let me tell you about how I came to the Faith. Maybe that will help you to understand.”
“My parents died when I was just a babe. This was back before the Time of Troubles, and Myrkul…” Her distaste is evident, “was God of the Dead. Anyway, the city placed me in a city-funded orphanage. As I grew up, I helped out in the infirmary.” She sighs at the thought. “The place wasn’t the nicest in the world, but they tried.”
“A few years ago, there was an illness that swept through the place. We did our best to fight it, but still, there were deaths. By then, Kelemvor had become Lord of the Dead. His clerics tend the dying, and we had dying. That’s how I met Jared.” Leaning forward, Portia places a hand on the edge of Matteo’s desk and says, “He truly cared for those children, Lord Matteo! I could see the care and compassion in him. Not only did he care for those destined to pass on, he did everything he could to heal those that could fight off the disease.” Leaning back, she sighs again. “He came back twice more that winter. By spring, I’d asked to receive instruction in the Faith. I was just about old enough to leave the orphanage anyway, so there was no problem with that.”
“Anyway, most of my duties up until now have been in healing the sick and, when needed, easing the passing of the dying as gently as I know how. Kelemvor detests unnatural death, Lord Matteo. I’ve never viewed a sword through the belly as a natural way to die, have you?”
“The Abbey of the Fallen cares for the dying around Baldur’s Gate. Most of the people that end up in the Abbey’s care have terminal illnesses that even the might of the gods can’t cure, or they are simply at the end of their allotted span on this plane.” Smiling gently, she adds, “Remember, Lord Matteo, Death is only the beginning.” There is a lilting ring to that, as if it were a catch phrase for the Priestess.
“As for why others come to the Faith, well…” She grins, “As you get older, the thought of your mortality is likely to become more pressing.” The wry tone in her voice is evident. “Most of our worshippers are getting older, and wiser, and they know that they aren’t likely to escape death. Kelemvor isn’t a cruel God, Lord Matteo, and there are many simple people about who find his teachings a comfort.”
She finishes her oration with a little sigh, and the look on her face seems to indicate that she’s pleased to have given the man a gift by enlightening him. As the young priestess speaks Matteo sits forward, his gray eyes hard and listening intently. As she finishes, he sits back in his chair, schooling his face to impassiveness. “I thank you for your insight, My Lady.” He quietly replies, “It helps.”
Visibly relaxing, Matteo says, “Now that you have been so forthcoming, I suppose I can inform you of what we will be doing.” Matteo’s eyes soften as, with a wry smile, he says, “You’re about to enjoy the pleasure of my company in an afternoon at the docks. It appears that someone has plans to disrupt trade in the Vale. Like Baldur’s Gate, this city depends upon trade for its livelihood and so the matter is of no small concern. Should that livelihood be significantly undermined or destroyed the city would wither, leaving it open for intrigue or manipulation; …or potentially creating a power vacuum for some outside agency to step into and gain control of the region.”
Frowning slightly, Matteo adds, “I have precious little to go on at the moment. A messenger, one Tharkas Lhun, is arriving this afternoon by barge from Iriaebor with more information. I’ve been down to the docks already and it seems that two shipments from Iriaebor are expected this afternoon. So we have to wait for Tharkas to arrive and meet him when he disembarks.”
“Seeing as how we will be spending some time together.” He adds in a light drawl, “I’m afraid I must insist that you call me Matteo. None of this Lord Matteo business, besides.” He says, waving a hand in a vague dismissal, “I am no longer really a lord anyway.”
“Matteo it is then!” Portia says cheerfully. “From what you say, I can see why this task is so important. With a disruption in trade, people will go hungry, and unrest will be just around the corner. Unrest can lead to bloodshed. Unfortunately, it’s likely to be the common folk who suffer the most. By all means, let’s put an end to this. I’m glad I can help. I must correct you on one thing though. It seems that someone has already targeted the city for intrigue and manipulation.”
“Ah, thank you.” She says, as the old manservant returns with a small tray of cheeses and a fine crystal glass of wine. Nibbling a bit, and carefully setting the glass on the desk so as not to risk breaking it, she asks, “On the way to the docks, you can tell me what you meant by that last remark. While I’m no judge of such things, you seem to have every right to the title.” She looks about at the fine office, lending credence to her last remark. “When do you plan on heading out?”
Shaking his head at Portia’s observations, Matteo’s face closes up as he replies, “The remark is simply explained. I made the mistake of marrying the wrong person. My family disapproved. To show me the error of my ways they had her killed. When I refused to return to Saerloon they disowned me. All the finery you see is Lady Angruatil’s.” Anger and loss flare in Matteo’s eyes as he rises to his feet. “I think I could use some air, Portia. If you don’t mind, we may as well go down to the docks now.” Portia’s look of shocked dismay fades to sad empathy. Seeing that the subject is all too painful for the man, she simply says, “Yes, we may as well.”
As she readies herself, Portia asks softly, “If I may ask, how did you come to be an agent for the city of Berdusk? I don’t mean to pry, but a Sembian seems an odd choice for such a task.” Biting her lip, she continues with, “I’m sorry, I tend to ramble. If I stray into sensitive or personal areas, just tell me to back off. Believe me, it wouldn’t be the first time. There was a lad at the Abbey that tended to be a bit light-fingered, if you know what I mean, and he was always telling me to shut up and mind my own business. I really liked him. He left after a bit, though, didn’t have the calling to be a priest.” Then, with a light laugh, she adds, “for any god, I’d imagine, though I’d be willing to wager he’d do Mask proud, always looking for a way to score big. He’d managed to swindle half the Abbey at cards before he left…”
Settling her buckler once more on her arm, Portia asks, “Ready?” Smiling in spite of himself at Portia’s flood of words, Matteo replies, “We are investigating a disruption to trade are we not, Portia? If there is one thing I understand it is money.” Looking about the room, Matteo’s smile fades a little at the irony of his present situation. “Just three or four months ago, dear Portia, I could have bought up Lady Angruatil’s entire business and everything she owns, before breakfast and without even blinking.”
Nodding in understanding, she says brightly, “Oh, I see, the old philosophy of ‘set a thief to catch a thief.’” Then, blushing slightly which highlights the scattering of freckles across her cheeks nicely, she adds, “Not that I think… Oh, that didn’t come out right, did it?”
Matteo blinks in surprise at Portia’s words then bursts out laughing. Several seconds pass before the young Sembian can bring himself under control. “I haven’t laughed since… in quite a while.” Chuckling, Matteo shakes his head once again. Still smiling, it is obvious he genuinely finds the entire situation rather amusing. “I’ll just get my coat and sword, my lady. Then we can be away.”
As Matteo moves to collect his possessions, Portia liberates one more bite of cheese and moves to follow him. Rohr enters carrying Matteo’s coat and sword: “Here you are Milord.” Handing over the cloak and sword, he proceeds to pick up the tray and the wine glass. Walking downstairs and out of the mansion, it is obvious that quite some time indoors has passed, more than expected. The sun is close to the horizon, highlighting the few clouds in a red-golden shine. Walking downhill, down the Minstrelride, Matteo turns left toward the Handspan Bridge. From the bridge two barges can be seen. Both are in the process of being unloaded.
Frowning at himself for losing track of time, Matteo pauses momentarily on the bridge looking down at the barges. Turning to Portia he says, “Come, my lady, we need to hurry. I only hope we have not missed the Iriaebor barge bearing Tharkas.” Setting deed to words, Matteo turns towards the harbor. Settling her gear and straightening her vestments self-consciously, Portia looks toward the harbor and the barges there. Her eyes sparkle with interest.
“Lead on, friend Matteo.” Portia says cheerfully. As they make their way through the town, Portia keeps up a running string of conversation, mostly about her recent adventures involved with the hunt for the Velsharoon priest, though, from what she’s saying, there was very little ‘adventure’ and quite a lot of walking, waiting, and frustration.
As they near the docks, Portia asks curiously, “So what does this Tharkas look like?” “Wh…?” Matteo begins to say before catching himself, by this stage having just half an ear to Portia’s incessant chatter while thinking matters over in his mind. “Oh.” He replies, “Tharkas is… well… a wiry man. Spends a lot of time on horses, so has a slightly off-center walk. I’m sure I’ll know him when I see him.”
“Excuse me for a moment, my lady.” Matteo says as he moves towards a dockhand to enquire whether either of the two barges being unloaded is from Iriaebor. Portia nods and smiles, then watches Matteo as he accosts one of the deck hands for a moment before turning to look about the docks. She waits for Matteo to finish, unconsciously twirling the end of her ponytail. She is not completely oblivious to the wary looks many of the dockhands are sending her way, but she acts as though she were.
As Matteo approaches the closest barge being unloaded, one of the sailors calls over from the deck: “Can I help you Saer…? Hey you! Watch that crate!” The sailor yells to a dockhand as a crate almost slides of a hand cart. “If ye want to oogle pretty wenches ye can do that in yer own time, now the only thing ye care for is unloading that cargo. Do ye understand?” The sailor fixes a hard stare on the dockhand, who mumbles a quick “Yessir.”
“Cuse me, I didn’t get yer answer Saer?” The sailor walks over to you, keeping an eye on the unloading process. “Good afternoon.” Matteo greets the man, also keeping an eye on the unloading, “I was wondering if you could inform me whether either of these barges is just in from Iriaebor and when you’re expecting the next shipment from that city?”
The crates seem to be containing various items, but Matteo can identify at least a few containing iron ingots and pottery, as well as several casks of wine. Bales of grain are also unloaded. As to the country of origin, Amn would be his best guess. The bales of grain carry the Ophal family crest; that Amnish family holds a major interest in Amn’s grain industry, and the wine casks are imprinted with the Bormul’s crest, also an Amnish family.
Matteo has the idea though that most of the freight has already been unloaded, though a large ale-wagon is still parked on the deck of the first barge. A female half-orc is trying to goad the draft horses over the ramp to the dock. “By Tyr’s eyes, I wish that Tharkas or Sara were here to help…” She mutters.
“Aye, these here boats arrived from Iriaebor early this afternoon. We had a quick trip; a strong current sent us down stream in no time. Must have been a lotta snow in them Sunset Mountains last winter, or those Zhents up in Darkhold are emptying their bladders. The hard part is going up, but isn’t that always… Hahahaha” The jovial sailor puts a friendly hand on Matteo’s shoulder, obviously pleased with his own joke. “The next shipment eh? Well, I’d say that’ll be due in half a tenday or so.”
Matteo glances coldly down at the sailor’s hand, then back up into his eyes. In a cool voice he says, “If I were you I’d check that grain. Lately a subsidiary of the House of Ophal has been pushing quantity over quality with the result that they’ve been supplying product touched by blight or rot. Not that I’m saying that’s bad grain you’re supplying. Of course not, now, if you’ll excuse me…”
Matteo steps away from the slightly stupefied sailor, turning back towards Portia and gesturing towards the first barge where a female half-orc is trying to goad draft horses pulling a large ale-wagon up and over the ramp to dry land. Falling into step he quietly murmurs to Portia, “This is the right barge but Tharkas has already left. Give me a moment?” Leaping aboard the barge, Matteo calls up to the half-orc woman, “My Lady, might I have a brief word?”
Without looking up, the muscled woman replies: “Ye might, if ye lend me a hand with these stubborn mules.” And she continues with her efforts to unload the ale cart. The cart is a contraption you haven’t seen before, a small and long vehicle, two steering wheels in front and two fixed in the back, between the wheels a low, flat floor on which the ale barrels are stacked. A locking beam in the rear prevents them from rolling off, and can function as an unloading ramp. The two heavy draft horses in front seem reluctant to cross from the boat to the dock.
Cocking her head to the left, Portia eyes the contraption with the horses and prudently steps back. Calling to Matteo, she says, “I think I’ll wait for you here!” Flashing Portia a wry look, Matteo quickly takes a large step back and to the side of the horses. Calling up to the half-orc woman, he asks, “Do you have any salt?”
The half-orc woman stops dead in her tracks and lifts one of her eyebrows in surprise…”What ya need salt fer?” An incredulous look forms on her face. “The horses…” Matteo calls back, eyeing the pair of draft horses uncertainly. “Horses love salt, or so some of my old wagon masters used to tell me. Do you have any?”
She looks at you strangely and hollers over her shoulder to one of the sailors: “Hey, Krem! Get me some salt! Now!” Stupefied the sailor looks at the imposing woman, before realizing who she is. Quickly he dives into the captain’s cabin and comes back with a small vial containing salt. Offering it to the woman she replies: “Not me you oaf, that gentlfella over there…”
Taking the proffered vial from Krem, Matteo shakes a small amount out onto the palm of his hand. Nervously eyeing the large horses, he slowly moves up in front of the closest, raising his salt-filled palm to its mouth. Seeing the horse eager for more, Matteo pours a little more into his now wet hand; raising it towards the horse’s mouth allowing it to smell the salt, Matteo takes a step backwards up the ramp.
To Matteo’s surprise the trick works… partially… the other horse unable to see what’s going on, refuses to take one step forward. The cart seems to move a little, but more closer to the water than dry land… Sighing in frustration, Matteo rolls his eyes, muttering, “There’s a reason why we used to pay ‘other’ people to do this…” Stepping across to the other horse, he pours more salt onto his hand. Raising it to the recalcitrant horse’s nose, he steps back between them so that both can see the proffered salt. Then steps back again, hoping the team will start to follow him.
Now the trick seems to be working better. Slowly the team moves forward. Rattling over the ramp and guided by the half-orc woman, the horses pull the ale-wagon on the dock. Visibly the horses are relaxing. The half-orc steps over to Matteo and grasps his hand. She gives a strong handshake. “Thanks mister. If ye ever need me help, just ask fer Duvarra.”
Quickly wiping the horse saliva off on the ground, Matteo clasps the woman’s hand. Smiling slightly, he says, “Well, Duvarra, there is one small thing you might do for me. I was supposed to meet Tharkas here on the docks but I seem to have missed him. You don’t happen to know where he has gone, do you?”
The cleric steps up in time to hear Matteo’s question. Beaming at the man, she then nods a welcome to the huge woman. “Wasn’t that something?” She says. Nudging her companion, she adds, “He’s pretty quick, isn’t he? I was just telling him…” Seeing the big lady’s eyes glaze, she ends with, “ah, never mind.”
“I do… they went of to Memblar’s Minstrelry. Close by, near the Riverroad Gate, can’t miss it.” Portia looks at Matteo, her smile never slipping, and nods, indicating she’ll follow his lead. “Thank you.” Matteo replies to Duvarra before turning to look at Portia. “Shall we go, my lady?” As they head off, Matteo pulls a handkerchief from his coat and with a look of faint distaste wipes the remaining horse saliva off his hand.
“That was pretty slick.” Portia says, “Where did you learn that?” She lets him lead the way to the tavern. Tucking away his handkerchief, Matteo replies, “I heard of it talking to caravan masters that my family employed, though I’ve never actually seen it done.” “Attention to detail, that’s what makes a profitable business into a truly successful one. At least that’s what uncle Parnien used to say.” He adds.
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