By Jaap-Peter Hazelhoff
Chapter 14 - The Castle
Berdusk, 1371 DR, Eleint, 8th day, evening
Leaving the dining room, Matteo walks briskly down the passageway and enters the common room, pausing to look around at those present. Nodding towards Immerine, he turns towards Telsom and seats himself near him. Facing away from those patrons that are nearby, Matteo begins speaking quietly.
“Telsom, I have spoken to the Lady Jalarghar and she has agreed to meet back here at dawn tomorrow morning before going out of the city to return to where the undead attacked her party. I hope you do not mind. It seems prudent to me that we gather before splitting up to pursue different avenues of investigation. Portia is returning to the Temple of Kelemvor and might return in the morning with useful information or assistance. At any rate, her knowledge and skills could prove most useful to you tomorrow. I am going to see the Captain now. With luck, she may be able to relay some information regarding the Lady Jalarghar’s mother from the guard patrol that visited the scene. Will you return here with her before leaving the city?“
Turning to Matteo a small smile on his face Telsom replies. “I’ll consider it. I did not come here this evening to join forces with a group of strangers I came here as a favor to the lieutenant. I had planned to go to the site of the attack without Ditalidas so it matters little that she will be coming to meet with you folk. Those under you, although pleasant folks, seem touched by Cyric, especially the lad, and the halfling. You were less than forthcoming with information on your involvement, I will think on this matter tonight. After my devotions tomorrow morning I will have come to a conclusion. I might accompany the lady here, however I might be once again on the road.“
Quirking an eyebrow, Matteo replies, “I thought paladins such as yourself had duties and obligations to uphold the law and defend society? Forgive me if I misunderstand.“ He says wryly, “We do not have many paladins in Sembia. It might be something in the air.“
“I would welcome your presence Telsom. We need some order and stability within this party if we are to achieve anything. Can you forgive me my secrecy? I am not given to informing people I have just met of all my secrets.“
“My obligations and duties are first and foremost to Lady Firehair. I try to abide whatever customs, beliefs, and ways I meet in the different lands I venture to but they vary from place to place. I follow my heart above all other things. At the moment my heart bleeds for the young woman the elf and I rescued earlier today, I shall tend to her this evening, hopefully I’ll be able to lessen the pain she is going through. The Sunite religion is quite different than most others; I’m not like most paladins who roam the lands. I must follow my heart, and at this moment I am conflicted. The things this group wishes to do seem noble, but secrets and insanity are not something I can be a party to. If I do join this group on the morrow, I will do what my heart tells me to do, in most cases that will not interfere with orders but I’m not sure I’d care to be a follower in the first place. My steed and I have done well for ourselves to this point and although company is welcomed I find that I work best alone. I understand why the priestess of Kelemvor wishes to go forth and eradicate the undead and the Velsharans but the others have me puzzled. I will sleep on this matter. That is the only answer I can give you at this time.“
Nodding, Matteo replies, “Thank you. Your consideration is all I can ask for. I will hope to see you here tomorrow, but will understand if you are not.“ About to rise, he adds, “I am sorry if I appear to act in an overly authoritative manner. It is force of habit as much as anything. When one is raised to wield great power it can become second nature. I shall try to moderate my behavior a little more.“
As Telsom nods and returns his attentions to the bubbling waters of the spring, Matteo rises to his feet, lightly laying a hand on Telsom’s shoulder in thanks and moves over towards the Lady Immerine. As he approaches he raises an eyebrow and murmurs, “My lady, I wonder if I might have a moment of your time?“
The veiled woman gazes at the man, “You ask for a moment now and we do not yet know each other. I give a moment hoping for a return one day.“ He gets the feeling she is smiling or smirking under the veil. She motions for him to sit. “What is it you wish?“
Glancing towards the outer door Matteo takes a seat opposite the veiled woman. “I would like to discuss the piece of paper with you.“ He replies softly. “You seemed rather strenuous in your position regarding it. I would like to know why.“ A faint smile quirks the corner of his mouth as he adds. “I would also like to know where you come from. I can’t place your accent. I am Matteo Ashgale, by the way, recently arrived by way of Sembia.“
“It is not the paper I am strenuous against, but rather what is etched into its surface and the intent behind the words. It would not be damaging to let that kashish study it.“ Immerine’s voice is sneering and Matteo gets the feeling she is speaking of Kalil. “The ritual is incomplete. I am but a servant to the powers of this world. I feel the ebbs and flows of life and death – I always have. This paper is a focus for that which goes beyond death and is representative of deep pain and abomination.“
“You – I trust. You know pain, but you also know peace, Matteo. You are unsatisfied and search. You are on dajemma as am I. I am called Immerine; I do not believe you were present when I introduced myself. Where I am from…“ She pauses weighing the man before her, “I am from Rashemen.“ As Immerine lays open his inner self, Matteo surges backwards from his chair and stands looking down at her with his chest heaving. “Do you always greet people so? By laying bare their souls?“ He asks in Damaran, “Are you truly a witch?“
Immerine’s green eyes watch Matteo’s reaction, a spark of pain at another’s distrust wrenches into her soul again. “I do not speak your language Matteo. But I believe I understand – just from your actions.“ She pulls her veil taut across her face and stares at the table before her, suddenly looking very small and alone.
Closing his eyes briefly, Matteo struggles to regain his composure. “Forgive me.“ He says evenly after a moment, “You touched a nerve, a soft spot. I am sorry for over-reacting.“ Looking at her for a moment he asks, “Would you care for a walk, my lady? I have to report to the guard captain and find I wouldn’t mind some company.“
“I seem to affect people more deeply with my words than I realize, Matteo. I should be the one asking for forgiveness.“ Immerine stares into the waters of the spring several moments before answering his query. “Yes, I would enjoy accompanying you. I would like to see this city under the jewels of the night sky.“ She stands and waves to Elisa and Mumadar as she leaves with Matteo.
Opening the door for her, Matteo follows Immerine outside onto the street. Gesturing towards the castle he murmurs, “That is our destination.“ Falling into step beside her he says, “It is I who should apologize for letting mere words upset me. My reaction was unwarranted.“
Looking toward the stone edifice Immerine shudders. “I do not understand you ‘civilized’ people. You seek freedom and then box yourselves into tiny dens of dead wood and cut stone.“ She raises her arm and points to the castle, “That invites enemies. Is that why you build them? Do you entice your foes to enter and attack?“ She shakes her head.
Matteo looks at Immerine in a little surprise. “Castles? Castles serve a number of purposes. First, they provide protection to the populace by offering shelter. They can also be used to store livestock and food against raiders. They are eminently defensible in that only a concentrated force of size can truly threaten one in normal circumstances – thus one needs to mass large forces before one can threaten a region that contains one. An invader cannot afford to leave one behind for forces can issue forth from them to cut supplies. So in a sense they are targets. One that says: ‘you must be prepared for war on a large scale if you would harm me.’ In that regard they are a preventative defense of sorts. And lastly, a subtle commander can use them as a diversion. If one is there, then the enemy feels obliged to take it in order to guarantee their supply lines. It can be made a trap or simply positioned to have invading forces move through a desired route to get to or around them, allowing further traps or ambushes.“
Pausing for a moment Matteo adds, “I hope you do not mind, but on the chance that you might be joining us, I took the liberty of booking you a room at the Running Stag. Mumadar can show it to you or you can remain in your current room. Should you need anything, Mumadar will just add it to the tab I have set up. You need not concern yourself with mundane expenses.“
A variety of emotions play in the willowy woman’s eyes. Anger flashes first then relief and finally they settle into tranquility. “I am not used to kindnesses like this from outlanders, Matteo. As you can tell, I do not impress people enough to earn coins for my stories.“ She smiles and it barely reaches her eyes, “But my tales were not designed to entertain, but to teach. I fear I also use them for my own purposes and I am not so sure my sisterkin would take kindly to that part of my tales.“ She pauses, “I almost told a tale of the Outsiders and Khelliara. I am glad I did not-seeing how the tale of the Birth of Water affected a few of your companions.“
“Khelliara?“ Matteo queries, “Who is this Khelliara?“ Smiling wryly he adds, “And it was not truly a kindness on my part, for I intend to obtain reimbursement from the Captain.“ Immerine frowns at his mention of reimbursement, “Then if you do not mind I will not tax the resources of people I do not know. I will get by. Khelliara is the Lady Protector. In your lands she is called Mielikki.“
“The matter of reimbursement is simple.“ Matteo, says, “We are working for the city on an unpaid basis and quite likely risking our lives. The least they can do is provide for our living expenses while we take on the Zhentarim and the clergy of Velsharoon for them. If not, can you allow me the privilege of your board? Rest assured. It is an expense I can handle.“
“I am not working for the city and it is not fitting for me to allow you to tend my debts.“ Immerine says coolly, “I will find a way to persevere.“ Pursing his lips, Matteo replies somewhat coolly, “I do not want to argue with you, my lady, so we will let the matter lie.“ Narrowing his eyes slightly, he asks, “What if I was to employ you as an advisor?“ Immerine’s veil puffs out as she gives a brief laugh, “You are a stubborn man. What would this position entail? I do not take orders very well and am very opinionated. Are you sure I would not be too much trouble?“
Smiling at Immerine, Matteo colors slightly and lowers his gaze quickly. “No, I am not sure you will not be too much trouble but that is a risk I will take. As for orders, I will give you none. I might ask you to do something or to refrain from doing something, but the actual decision will be yours to make. My education is lacking in some areas. I will ask for your council on various matters and I would hope you would provide me with your untarnished opinion. But…“ He adds softly, “I cannot promise I will always follow your advice.“
“Then we will get along just fine. I accept your appointment.“ Immerine’s eyes dance at the thought of dealing with Matteo. Glancing at her, Matteo asks, “Would you tell me a little of your home? Rashemen was not a land my tutors touched upon.“
“It is not a land we allow many to see. Which Rashemen would you choose to know Matteo? That which is presented or that which is withheld?“ Immerine’s eyes dance in mild challenge. “There are rumors of my people in your lands. Even here we are called Witches. What does that word truly mean? Why do we accept it?“ Looking at the streets as they walk she pauses to hear his answers then continues.
Glancing at the lady beside him, Matteo replies carefully, “Appearances are deceiving so I would know of that which is withheld.“ Pausing for a moment to gather his thoughts he continues, “I know little of your land beyond that which is commonly thought. That it is a hard land ruled by the witches, mighty women of strange mystical powers and magics who, together with their frenzied, berserker warriors, have thrown back the Red Wizards of Thay time and time again. That bespeaks power, for Thay is not to be taken lightly. It also provides a reason to accept, if not promote, a picture of the witches as inscrutable people of strange and vast power. In this sense they are your castles – a warning to prospective invaders that attacking your land will be a costly exercise.“
“I am to be a leader, protector and teacher of my people one day. I am on dajemma – a quest for enlightenment and knowledge. Most wychlaran do not take the journey. But I am one who felt the need – and my superiors agreed. I feel things intensely, ever since I was a child. I also do not have the experience of dealing with others. I want to know about people, truly know them. But because of my rank in my home, I am feared, respected and immediately obeyed by all around me. I do not want this to be the extent of my life. I want to be accepted for who I am, not what I am. In this my journey is selfish. However, I also feel a pressing need to be here. Something is disturbing the balance in these lands, nature weeps and spirits writhe in agony. It hurts Matteo. I feel it and sometimes I just want to scream. Even Qwenta knows something is wrong. He knew it at the river and he knows it now.“
“The land and people are both rugged. We live simple lives and our world is real. Life is not easy, but it can be pleasant. There are valleys; forests and lakes of such beauty, to see them would cause you to lose a part of yourself to them. Rashemen is a wild untamed land where nature is truly a force to be reckoned with. Yes, there are Witches and Berserkers. Yes, we drive Thay back time and again. There is much I know, and most I cannot tell. At least – not yet.“
“So you are to be a witch one day.“ Matteo says quietly as a faint look of pity flits across his features.
“No, I am to be a Hathran some day. I am already a wychlaran – a witch. Does this disturb you?“ She watches the effect of her admittance on the man.
“The reputation bothers me.“ Matteo replies thoughtfully, “but only, I suspect, because it is something I do not know and understand. I have an image of women shrouded in mist raising the living spirits of the land against Thayan invaders and leaving their cold bodies behind to bear mute witness to the folly of the Red Wizards.“ With a troubled frown he adds more quietly, “I think I can almost see you as one of them, though I fear the cost such action would have on you… What is a Hathran?“
Immerine closes her eyes and whispers, “You are closer than you know, Matteo. And, it comes with a cost, you are correct.“ She breathes deeply before explaining, “Hathrans are the true witches. I need more experience to join the ranks of the sisterhood. Until then, I am nothing more than a talented aspirant.“
As Immerine closes her eyes Matteo looks away over the city, uncomfortable with her emotion and how it makes him feel. Without looking back he nods as she explains. “Who is this Qwenta? Do you have a berserker warrior up your sleeve? Interesting that you too believe the land is alive. Nienna once believed as you do. She…“ Closing his mouth abruptly, Matteo looks down a side street before returning his attention to their surroundings.
Immerine stops herself, as she raises a hand to lay on the man’s shoulder. When he looks back at her she is staring at the extremity in puzzlement. When she speaks her voice is calm and sure, not betraying anything of puzzlement or concern. She also selects her response to avoid the subject of Nienna as it causes the man pain. “Qwenta is my stallion. I raised him myself – we are friends and companions. I have not earned a companion in other regards yet.“
“You are not as you seem Matteo. You are like Rashemen; you present a face to the outer world, while you are truly buried within. What delights do you hold, what pains do you face, what do you seek? I would like to know the Matteo being withheld, of course… that is also selfish of me.“
“There is little to me, lady.“ Matteo replies evenly, “I had a falling out with my family and felt obliged to part ways with them. Now I am here in Berdusk.“
“We are both very private people Matteo. I will respect you and not ask more. I am curious though. If given the paper, after you show it to this person you are going to see, what do you intend to do with it?“
Looking at Immerine thoughtfully, Matteo replies slowly, “To be honest I am not decided. Kalil is right in that magic is just like a tool to be wielded, or so I was taught to believe. But you remind me of… make me think of someone else and what she would have said. In truth, the decision may not be mine. Captain Zaina may take it herself, though I suspect not. You would have me destroy it? If so, why exactly?“
Immerine stops in the street. “I agree. Magic is but a tool. But Kalil is wrong. Some magic is inherently evil. One such spell is indicated on that paper. It is called Unholy Blight in the common tongue. Do you know what this spell does Matteo? It calls up unholy power in a cold, cloying cloud of greasy darkness to kill and sicken those whom the caster deems enemies. This magic does not come from the Weave. It originates in the pits of damnation in which the powers of evil thrive. That paper must be destroyed.“
“You ask me why? I tell you… it is an infection I would see ended before it has time to fester. Kalil is too curious and I hope it does not lead to his or anyone else’s downfall. In the end, it is a choice you must make for your own reasons.“ Her eyes are filled with tears and pain. She turns from Matteo to gaze at the city around her.
Raising a hand towards her at the sight of her pain, Matteo lets his outstretched fingers curl into a fist which drops back to his side. Turning away from her he squats down on the road to pick up a stone, which he contemplates as he rolls it between his fingers. “So this spell is like a magical poison then?“ He asks emotionlessly, “Something that sickens those affected by it and then kills them?“
Without turning around she says, “Yes, roughly put – but adequate. The magic inherent in that spell is of the darkest and most fell of evils. It cannot be studied by those who do not seek to cause harm or have no ill intent in their very souls.“
Still squatting down Matteo looks at his stone briefly before turning it over in his palm. “I saw a person die of a poisoned wound once. They lost control of their body, jerking and thrashing almost violently as they vomited and foamed at the mouth. It was not a pleasant sight. It took them what seemed like forever to die… muscles spasming and drenched in sweat.“ A hot tear splashes onto the stone and Matteo hurls it away angrily. “I will not see another suffer that way, whether from a poisoned blade or a poisoned spell.“
Immerine turns back to Matteo as she hears the tight control slipping from the man. She walks to him and kneels before him, laying down her staff and reaching out with both her hands to grasp his forearms. “Death, however horrible it may seem, is a part of life. We cannot change this no matter how we may try. I know this from experience.“ She closes her eyes to hide the tears burning behind her lids.
“However, those responsible for dealing unwarranted death can be dealt with. Justice can be harsh and is not always in accordance with the laws of man. Nature has its own rules, which is why I am here. Rather than traipsing across Aglarond or Northern Thay, I was drawn here Matteo. I do not know why – but here I am.“
“Justice?“ Matteo says bitterly, averting his face while his forearms tremble under her hands, “There is no justice! Not unless you would have me kill my own family!“
In an awkward tone she opens her eyes to meet his and says, “I am sorry for your loss. But for the brief time you knew this person, was your life enriched? If so, then you are not totally bereft as they would leave a mark on you in here.“ She touches his chest, “in here.“ She touches his head, “and in your soul. As long as you cherish the time you had your life will be better.“ She reaches her hand to trace the path the tear took down his cheek.
Standing abruptly, her eyes troubled, she says, “We should continue. I – well, we should go.“ She reaches for the staff she laid at his feet.
Matteo’s jaw muscles quiver as he clenches his teeth tightly together. Rising stiffly to his feet he has to work to unclench his fists, as he gazes not towards Immerine but the castle. “She was so beautiful to me.“ He whispers almost inaudibly.
“I am sorry Matteo. I never meant to bring up painful memories for you. It seems I do this to most people I meet.“ bitterness reflects in her eyes. She quietly speaks again. “There is justice even against your family. I will not pry, but what I have gathered in the past few moments is that your family poisoned Nienna. Nienna is someone you cared deeply for and you have shut out the world. There IS justice, even for this.“ She grips her staff between both her hands anger coursing through her body. “If you like; I can help.“
“She was my wife.“ Matteo says from between clenched teeth. As his fists clench and unclench his face becomes impassive and his voice cools somewhat. “It is not necessarily you, my lady. I think Dita… the Lady Jalarghar has affected me more than I realized.“ Inhaling deeply he takes a moment to still himself then says, “I think tonight I just wanted company. I thank you for that.“ Though his voice remains even his eyes darken as he asks, “Just what can you do to help?“
“You are the first person to ever say they appreciated my company.“ She pauses before continuing. “As to what I can do to help, we shall see. I will have to travel back through Sembia to go home. By then I should have attained status as a Hathran. This crime should not go unpunished. It is a terrible thing to lose someone you love.“ Her voice is soft but hard as iron.
Matteo looks at her intently for a moment before giving a moment shake of his head. Turning away towards the castle he says, “We should continue on to see the captain. Not much is going to be achieved standing here in the street.“
In a completely detached and impersonal voice she says, “Agreed. But as we walk would you tell me how you became embroiled in these current affairs? The Lady Ditalidas has affected me. The boy, Marc, is intriguing but very confusing. The others I know little to nothing about. The elf is insulting and Kalil is insufferable and I will not work with someone who is so like the enemies of my homeland.“
Starting back off down the street Matteo replies, “My involvement is simple enough. I am currently employed by the Lady Angruatil here in the city to help manage her business. It is work I am familiar with and very good at, though on a significantly smaller scale than I am used to. She trades fabrics into and out of Amn as well as throughout the city-states of the Western Heartlands. Lately, that trade has been subject to a greater degree of interruption than is normal and she asked me to investigate. I was to meet with one Tharkas Lhun this evening. He works on occasion for Lady Angruatil as well and had been in Amn investigating things there. He was to share his findings with me. Unfortunately, he was murdered before we could speak. Lord Sillisten, a friend of Lady Angruatil, asked Portia to assist me. And so here I am, chasing down speculative leads.“
Shrugging his shoulders, Matteo adds, “The boy Marc is one of a kind that you find in every city; young, brash, over-impressed with his own cleverness. He’ll grow out of most of it within a couple of years or he’ll wind up floating in the harbor.“
“The Lady Jalarghar… Ditalidas… has an air of sadness about her. She has had it as long as I have known it. She mentioned that she fears her mother may have fallen to the undead outside the city. I think she is also undergoing a change herself… a manifestation of arcane ability. It is a difficult time for her, I fear.“
“As for the others, well, leaving Portia aside, let us just say that I am yet to be convinced regarding their worth. Kalil has a type of innocence, I think. He comes from Amn where the practice of sorcery is not encouraged. His beliefs arise partly from self-justification to an extent. Magic itself is not evil therefore it is not wrong to study it. He is a product of his environment and I think only hard experience will allow him to transcend that limitation. Druth I do not know. Calathra will be problematic. Telsom… Telsom I feel is an unpredictable asset. He has dedicated his life to love and beauty and follows his heart. That makes him unpredictable and potentially unreliable… though only time will tell. Grim I think is trustworthy though. And then, of course, there is you, my lady.“
“You call me last and leave your impression open. I wonder just how you see me. At first I saw you as cold and inflexible, now I see it is a mask you wear against the world. Kalil is correct in that the majority of magic is not evil. Only when dealing with the divine you find things like what is indicated on that paper you bear. Sorcery and Wizardry do not draw upon that force. I believe Kalil is confused about the paper and may think it uses the weave when it does not. I still do not like him. You call him innocent, I call him foolish.“
“I think you wear a mask as well, my lady, possibly deeper even than mine. But it is a mask I am afraid of trying to pry loose, and for all the wrong reasons.“
Looking away troubled, Matteo adds, “I think I would rather deal with a fool than an innocent, though I take your point. A fool may be misguided but still knows doubt, may still question their actions. An innocent acts without thinking, with total conviction.“
Immerine shakes her head, “I do wear a mask, but I am not sure your reasoning about the wrong reasons.“ She shrugs, “As for Kalil, we will have to wait out his impatience and eagerness. Perhaps he will surprise us all.“
“My own counsel will I keep on my reasons, I think.“ Matteo replies while looking away. “As for Kalil, well, not many people surprise me any more. And rarely for the good.“
“So, you are a merchant? Are you like the typical Sembian I have heard about? After one thing in life… amassing wealth at all costs and damned be those who get in your way?“ She asks this in a soft voice and he gets the feeling she already knows the answer.
“It was all I knew.“ Matteo replies softly. “As the eldest son I was raised to assume my rightful position as my father’s successor. I learned commerce on his knee, ate it for dinner, breathed it my every waking moment. Politics I learned from my uncle, the peculiar world of the unsaid, the vicious word delivered just so, the art of manipulation and intrigue that makes the very air of my home city. And I was good at it. I excelled. My family was wealthy beyond dreams… our accounts tallied in the millions of gold florins.“
“In Saerloon success comes at a cost. As we became richer, we ruined those weaker than us, less skilled at the game, until we breathed the rarified air at the top. We were one of the first families. We still are as far as I know. And I played my part. To be honest, I more than played my part. Families were torn apart, competitors extorted, wives seduced, children left homeless, all at my hand.“
Clenching his fists, Matteo keeps looking away from Immerine. “I do not know why I tell you this.“
“If you cannot tell an advisor, whom can you tell.“ Her voice is light and quiet. “No one will learn your secrets from me Matteo. Part of me was hoping you would deny my summation of Sembia. I am shocked that you actually reinforce it. Past actions are just that, past. You can always change. What you are does not have to be what you were.“ She touches his shoulder lightly.
Matteo’s shoulder quivers under her fingers and slowly, hesitantly, he leans back ever so slightly into her touch.
“I know nothing of merchants, or their actions. I am a child of nature. This is the first large city I have ever been in… the first man I met was a merchant. His name is Halacan and he was very nice to me. Then there is Mumadar, also a merchant of sorts, he was gracious and again very nice even when he found my purse was all but empty.“ She clamps her mouth shut suddenly as if she did not mean to admit to being desperate for coin.
“Wealth is not always measured in the coin you have, or the power you wield. I am richer than most people because I am my own person. Until becoming your advisor, I was beholden to none, not even my sisterkin at home. Part of the reason my dajemma was encouraged. I do not work well with others, as you can see.“
“What I want more than anything is to gain the trust of those I rule and serve, but I cannot until I am able to trust.“ She shakes her head. “What a pair we are.“ She drops her hand from his shoulder and turns away.
Bowing his head, Matteo quietly says, “Not all of Sembia is like that. Saerloon is the worst of the worst, the higher you get the more poisoned the air. Personally, my brother and my uncle are welcome to it. And to each other.“
Turning back towards Immerine he pauses for a moment as he regards the woman before him. Running his fingers through his hair he reaches hesitantly towards her hand but pauses before making contact, looking down at the black cloth of his sleeve. His hand drops back down to his side where he clenches it tightly into a fist. “Is there anything I can do?“ He asks quietly, in spite of himself.
“No.“ She says softly. “If I am to change, I must be the one to do it. But for now we should press on and get the information you have to the people who need it.“ Without looking him in the face she says, “Please, lead on.“
Nodding, Matteo exhales softly, his shoulders almost drooping with relief. “Very well.“ He says quietly and turns from her towards the castle. As they near the castle he asks, “Have you ever been in a castle before?“
Looking up at the imposing edifice she almost shudders. When she looks at Matteo her eyes are wide and there is a sense of fear behind them, “No. There is no life here. The stone has been torn from the earth, the ground has been ripped asunder and the plants and animals driven away. Even the spirits here are changed and twisted to what service they can give to the men living within.“ She stops almost priming herself to flee, “It scares me.“
Turning towards Immerine at the sound of her voice, Matteo looks at her with wide eyes. “I…“ Hesitantly, almost afraid, he stretches his hand forth to touch hers. Her hand is clammy and delicate as silk. Through his light touch he feels her quivering in actual fear. If it were not for the support of her staff she would either fall or run. Her wide eyes look down at his hand and back to his face. “No one has ever touched me without permission.“ She seems to be trying to grasp at something substantial in her mind, but her hand grips his despite her scathing denial.
Matteo’s eyes widen even further at the feel of her trembling hand and he pales as his heart clenches with near-forgotten feelings. His fingers relax as he hurriedly tries to relinquish her hand but she grasps him too tightly. Unable to retreat without physically tearing himself away, her words hit him like hammers and he instinctively steps towards her. Catching himself before he attempts to embrace her, Matteo stands rigidly upright as his skin tingles at her touch and the scent of her that assails his senses. He opens his mouth but no words issue forth from his dried up throat. Swallowing painfully, he stammers, “I… I…“ Tearing his eyes from her he clears his throat, “I could… there is no need for you to… I could take you back to the Stag and return alone.“ Despite himself, his eyes steal back to hers.
Immerine releases his hand as she gains control of herself and in a quavering voice says, “I will continue. I promised to help deliver this and I shall. I will see it through to the end.“ She swallows hard and takes three deep breaths then blows them out slowly causing the veil to flutter softly.
Matteo’s eyes drop to the fluttering veil, hoping against hope to catch a glimpse of her lips before hurriedly looking away. Stepping back from her he turns towards the castle, taking a deep breath of his own. It is a moment before he speaks, but when he does so his voice is even and controlled. “Very well, when you are ready then.“
After a few moments more Immerine nods silently. When she realizes he is looking away she says, “I am ready now, Matteo.“ A few moments more she whispers, “Thank – you.“
Closing his eyes momentarily Matteo nods before turning back to face her. “Let us be off then.“ He says quietly before starting to move away.
It is not long before the pair closes towards the gatehouse and the guards on duty. Walking up to them, Matteo says, “Saer Matteo Ashgale to see Captain Zaina. Would you be so kind as to inform me where I might find her at this hour?“
The two guards at the gate look at the two people walking uphill toward the castle, when Matteo addresses them, a female guard steps forward. “Yes Saer, if you would follow me please“ The guard turns about and she walks under the gate onto the bailey. Light and laughter emits from the open door of a low building across the bailey. The guard walks in toward the low building. The building appears even smaller then it is against the walls of the central keep rising up behind it.
“If you would, please wait in here. I’ll send for Captain Zaina“ The guard gestures to the open door. Through the doorway a room can be seen not unlike an inn. There are a few other guardsmen about, some playing cards, others standing at the bar drinking. A few glances are thrown toward the people standing in the doorway, especially at Immerine. After looking at the newcomers the guardsmen continue their activities. There are a few unoccupied seats in the room. Immerine murmurs a few words in a language Matteo does not recognize and moves very close to him. She looks like a deer that has caught the scent of a hunter. Her gown touches him and her arm brushes up against him since she is so close.
Matteo’s stills at her touch and the feel of her so close and he glances quickly at her. His eyes widen fractionally at what he sees in her eyes and his fingers touch her hand lightly in reassurance. “Are you alright?“ He whispers softly, alarm and surprise in his eyes. Taking a deep breath Immerine nods, “Please, do what you would normally do. I will follow.“ She grips her staff in whitened hands.
Nodding his head almost imperceptibly, Matteo’s face relaxes into bland impassiveness and he steps into the room, walking towards a table where a card game is underway. Smiling slightly at the guardsmen present he says, “Good evening, mind if we join you?“ The guards at the table look up at Matteo. One of them, a person with the physique of a blacksmith stands up. “Well Saer, this is not my lucky night. You can take my place.“
Standing behind a chair he pulls it out and motions for Immerine to seat herself before taking a seat for himself beside her. Looking the guards he scratches the back of his head, gives them a relaxed smile, and introduces himself. “Matteo Ashgale, and this is the Lady Immerine. I don’t suppose you’ve got room for another in the game, do you?“
Immerine sits quietly, her eyes darting from face to face and looking around at everything around her. She keeps one hand on her staff and another clenched in her lap. She listens to the conversations around her and says nothing unless directly addressed.
“Well Met.“ A somewhat haughty look on his face, a lean, but well build and muscled guard leans back in his chair, rocking it on two legs. “You sure you want to join ma’am?“ He asks Immerine. “Not that I have any objections, but I would hate to see such a lovely lady as you lose in a game of cards.“ He shuffles the deck a few times in an experienced manner and puts the stack on the table. Then he turns around the topmost card: the Queen of Hearts.
Immerine looks the man squarely in the eyes for several moments, “I do not play – games, and I do not ‘lose’ well.“ She gauges her words on him and follows up with, “It is best I not participate – I would hate to see you fall beneath a beginner. I am certain Lord Ashgale will be at least more entertaining for you to play against.“ Standing again Immerine walks to a seat near the fire and turns the back of the chair to the wall and sits in it watching everyone in the room.
Matteo glances towards Immerine as she rises and moves towards a chair by the fire. Raising an eyebrow at the upturned card Matteo murmurs, “I’m sure I can manage a hand or two before the Captain is ready to see us, though it has been awhile since I played.“ Grinning slightly he adds: “I’m sure you gentlemen will go easy on me.“
The confident looking guard follows Immerine with his eyes as she walks to the fireplace. In the mean time he re-shuffles the deck and deals the cards. The players try to put on their best poker faces and the game begins in earnest. The first round goes fairly quick, leaving Mateo and the dealer soon playing each other. A small smile creeps on the dealer’s face as he tops Matteo’s hand by one point.
As if Tymora is on Matteo’s side, he easily wins the second and third round, easily penetrating the bluff of two of the guards which seemed confident in their win. A third guard, a hawk-nosed female who had to pass early in both rounds, smiles at Matteo in recognition of his counter bluff to her two colleagues. The first guard, Myron, who seemed so confident after his first win, did poorly in the second round and in the third round even worse. Dychella, the hawk-nosed guard, secures the fourth round when Myron and the guard named Travis try to outsmart each other.
A fifth round is about to begin when Captain Zaina steps into the room and toward the table. “Saer Ashgale, you’re not trying to outwit my guards are you?“ She says with a friendly smile. “Of course not, Captain.“ Matteo replies with a slight smile. Looking back at his companions, he rises from his chair. “My lady.“ He says, nodding to Dychella, “Gentlemen.“ He adds to the men, “It seems it is time for me to leave you to your game. I must say I enjoyed myself. Thank you.“
Stepping away from the table Matteo looks over towards Immerine, nodding almost imperceptibly. Turning back to the Captain he says, “This is the Lady Immerine, an advisor of sorts. Where shall we go to talk, Captain?“ Immerine watches Matteo rise from his game and she maneuvers her way to his side. Once she is introduced she inclines her head to the Captain. The stance and position indicates that she intends to accompany the pair.
Captain Zaina looks at Immerine “Well Met Lady Immerine“ Captain Zaina extends her hand in greeting, a friendly smile on her face. “Please follow me. We will go to my office.“ She says as she turns towards the door and walks out. The card game continues, the guards not sparing a second glance at their visitors.
The office is a Spartan room, holding not much more than a large oak desk and three chairs. A small cabinet stands on one side, a wardrobe on the other. Three large candelabras provide light and a hearth close to the door is blazing, banishing the cold of the night out of the room. The night sky is visible through several small windows near the ceiling. “Please take a seat.“ Captain Zaina gestures to the two chairs sitting on one side of the table. “Can I get you anything to drink?“ As she unbuckles her sword belt and hangs it from her chair.
Unbuckling his own sword Matteo hangs it over the back of his chair before seating himself. “I am fine, thank you Captain.“ Glancing at Immerine to see if she wants anything he adds, “We have just come from the Running Stag where food and refreshment were made available.“
Immerine looks up at the windows a desperate longing in her gaze. Turning her attention back to the Captain and Matteo she shakes her head and sits down to wait for the meeting between the two to begin.
Captain Zaina takes her seat and sits down. She puts her arms on the desk, folds her hands and leans forward. “First, I think this should be the last official meeting between your group of investigators and me. I take this case very seriously, and you have my full backup in this, but I would not want to give an impression to our opponents that we are on to them. We can use Mumadar as our contact, which should not draw any suspicion. The guards frequently visit the Running Stag, either in or out uniform.“
Captain Zaina leans back in her chair, taking a more relaxed pose. “So tell me. What have you found out so far Saer Ashgale?“
Catching the look of longing on Immerine’s face, Matteo stills for the briefest of moments as a chill causes his skin to tingle and break out in goose bumps. Tearing his gaze away from her he shivers slightly and turns towards the Captain, his face carefully impassive.
“After we’ve finished…“ He begins, “…I want to go over a few details concerning our working arrangements, but that can wait.“ Sitting upright in his chair, Matteo crosses one leg over the other so that his right ankle rests on his left knee.
“I can fill in a few details regarding Tharkas’s murder. He was investigating the recent disturbances in trade, trying to find some clue as to who was responsible. We were to meet tonight to go over what he had discovered. I know I mentioned this before, but it places certain items that I will get to in a moment in some context.“
“As to the murder itself, Lohgran was seen in the company of three other men arriving at Memblar’s on horseback. Two of the others have been recognized as having worked with Lohgran on the docks, loading and unloading cargo. The third wore a long brown cloak that obscured his features. The two bargemen entered Memblar’s from the rear. Lohgran went around to the front entrance while the cloaked figure remained outside. When the three exited out the back with Tharkas’s body the cloaked figure cast some sort of incantation and the door sealed over, becoming part of the wall. They all then moved to their horses with Tharkas. They threw a powder in the air and disappeared, leaving only their horses visible. That is when I came out and gave chase, seeing the horses ride across the Handspan and up towards Castle Hill.“
“Before he was killed Tharkas slipped a small black pouch to Kalil. It contained a few coins, a gemstone, a signet ring, and a small scrap of paper, all of which I have with me now.“ Leaning forward, Matteo slides the pouch and its contents across the table to the Captain. “The ring is called a Death Shroud. It depicts a stylized symbol of Kelemvor, is fairly common within the church of the god of the dead, and bears a minor protective dweomer. The gem is called adamantine Zendalure and is sometimes used to strengthen magical wands that channel necromantic energy. The scrap of paper holds the symbol of the god Velsharoon and contains partial details of a necromantic spell called unholy blight that sickens and kills. It also contains information about a ritual to create a set of magical bracers utilizing that spell as well as speaking about protecting those in Velsharoon’s service, smiting those not of the faith, and using large bones for something. An ancient magical term for dragons is used.“
“You said earlier that Lohgran has possible links with Darkhold. It seems he may also have links with the church of Velsharoon, even if only a monetary one. I have not determined whether the Zhentarim are actually involved or not.“
Glancing briefly at Immerine, Matteo closes his eyes briefly and turns back to the Captain. “The lady Ditalidas Jalarghar was attacked outside the city by undead earlier in the evening. Someone went to the trouble of making one of these appear like her mother. Telsom and the elf Druth rescued her. As they returned to the city it seems they encountered Lohgran and the others fleeing the city. One of them dropped a holy symbol of Velsharoon, which Telsom was able to retrieve. He believes that they were surprised to see the Lady Jalarghar still alive and that the attack on her was a coordinated one.“
“The lady Immerine was also attacked by one of the undead just outside the city, one that seemed to possess a spark of intelligence.“
“It seems that the followers of Velsharoon are responsible for the trade disruptions, though, from what little I know of them, such is not typical behavior for them. This raises the possibility of a third party. Given Lohgran’s past Darkhold is the best candidate, though this is mere supposition, more so given their ties to the Mad God. In fact, I believe Lohgran was hired for expressly this purpose, to divert attention towards the Zhentarim.“
“My guess is that those behind events are the Cult of the Dragon.“ Giving a wry smile laced with bitterness, Matteo adds, “I am somewhat familiar with them. They are very influential in Saerloon, where I am from. Indeed, it is considered fashionable in some circles to dabble in such things. They certainly involve themselves in banditry to raise revenue, along with extortion, protection rackets, smuggling, kidnapping, and vice. This is what I surmise was their intention regarding the Lady Jalarghar, to kidnap her for ransom. Increased disruption of trade ties in with this and a sudden need to raise extra revenue quickly. The elements of necromantic magic, the references to certain rituals, and the arcane references to dragon bones leads me to believe they are attempting to create a Dracolich somewhere in this area. They need the revenue to finance what is undoubtedly a costly ritual and to persuade the dragon concerned that being dead is a good idea.“
“In the mean time it is my intention to investigate the scene of the attack on Lady Jalarghar for any more information regarding the Velsharans. At the same time, some of us will go to the docks tomorrow and try to trace Lohgran and the other two dockworkers. Both are somewhat weak avenues to pursue but they are all we have at present.“
“You may want to pass on the paper to those with musical proclivities to verify our findings, though my advice is to destroy it immediately. The gem should also be destroyed. Some of my companions wish to sell it for the coin it would generate, but why take the chance that those who desire it might then simply be able to purchase it back again?“
When Matteo suggests the paper be destroyed she smiles and there is some surprise in her eyes. Immerine looks at her hands and staff and back at the man in the seat not so far from her. She shakes her head almost imperceptibly.
“Hmmm Darkhold, Cult of the Dragon, Velsharoon. I don’t know if I like the sound of this. And a brutal attack by undead on one of the First Folk. And on you as well Lady Immerine.“ Captain Zaina frowns as she ponders over the information. Softly speaking, more to herself then to her audience she continues. “What do we know of Tharkas, or his mission? Some more details might provide clues.“
She stands up and begins to walk slowly through the room, hands folded behind her back. A long moment of silence follows. Standing in front of the hearth, her back towards the room, Captain Zaina speaks again: “I will have to notify my superiors of these events, and I’m certain this song will be heard by those with ears attuned to this music. Saer Ashgale…“ She turns back towards the table and walks up to stand next to Immerine, “… I’m still convinced that for now we want to keep this a low profile investigation. Do you agree?“
Nodding his head slightly, Matteo purses his lips in thought. “As far as efficacy goes, a low profile investigation has its pros and cons. Authority figures have their uses but I think I know a way around that so our lack of authority is not detrimental to our efforts. But if the Cult doesn’t know the city is pursuing them they are less likely to act in such a way as to draw attention to themselves, therefore violence and deaths can hopefully be kept down. To an extent at least.“
“Nor would I get fixated on the idea that they might be seeking to create a new undead dragon. Large funds may be needed for something else. They may, for example, be seeking to establish a significant permanent base or fortification somewhere in this general region. Regardless though, whatever they want to achieve is likely to be something we don’t want to see happen. The end goal is somewhat academic at the moment. Simply put, they must be stopped.“
“As far as Tharkas is concerned, I will speak to Lady Angruatil later this evening if possible. She may have further information.“
“We also need to arrange some method to cover the costs our operations will incur, if only food and accommodation expenses. The Stag has unmatched location but is not cheap and I cannot afford to continue paying for everyone. Nor can we continually ‘bump’ into guardsmen there without attracting attention.“
“I suggest that the guard start considering new uniforms. I’ll arrange for small sample bolts of fabric to be sent to your office for consideration and we can hide correspondence within the folded material. Any payments that need to be made to cover our expenses can be disguised as payment for the fabric samples plus a ‘consultation’ fee. To keep everything above board, announce that you are accepting tenders and design submissions. That way, our interaction will pass unnoticed. You don’t actually need to commission new uniforms.“
Raising an eyebrow at Immerine, Matteo asks, “Does my lady have any advice to offer?“
Immerine absorbs everything she hears and merely looks at Matteo with her penetrating green gaze. “What advice could I offer? It sounds as if you have this situation well in control.“ Her voice is soft and sure and her eyes seem to laugh at Matteo. “Lord Ashgale, all I can say is the Cult has deeper pockets and far-reaching fingers than even some of the most talented of those with an ear for music could guess.“ Her eyes turn hard in hate, deeper than what Matteo witnessed against the Red Wizards.
Matteo’s eyes flicker at what he sees in Immerine’s face and he glances away from her towards the Captain.
Captain Zaina looks down at her uniform and brushes it nonchalantly. “So you think I need a new uniform…?“ Her voice sounds stern, but as she looks up at Matteo her eyes twinkle, and a smile starts to play across her lips. “Well, it might not be such a bad idea…“ She walks up to Matteo and places her left hand on his shoulder and looks Matteo in the eyes. “… I’ll see what funds I can allocate.“ As she steps away from him, Matteo can feel her blue eyes sizing him up in an appreciative way, her stance more feminine then before. “I’ll see to it that Mumadar will be compensated for your stay at the Stag, and we will reimburse you for costs made to further this investigation.“ She puts her hands on the table and leans slightly forward toward Matteo. “Of course I do expect a full report with all of the expenses…“
Following Captain Zaina around the room with his eyes, Matteo keeps his face carefully expressionless. His mouth quirks up at one end as he smiles slightly and replies, “Reports I can certainly manage. Do you have a favorite color? Something you would like to be wearing next time we meet? If we are going to pretend to dress you in something new, it might as well be something you want to wear.“
Matteo’s eyes twinkle as he adds, “I do have one request however. As I said earlier, it could prove beneficial to our inquiries to be able to claim the support of the city. Some people naturally cooperate with those in legitimate authority, just as some people are uncooperative towards those they regard as pursuing personal agendas, as… snooping. Likewise, we may need the assistance of the guard on short notice, without time to come all the way to the castle to find you. As our mission is going to remain secret, those lower in the chain of command within the guard will be unaware that we are in fact working for you and may be unwilling to abandon their current duties to lend a hand should it be required. This could endanger city property, or worse, people’s lives. Bearing all that in mind, it might be wise to provide us with some symbol of authority that we can use should the need arise. If you don’t think it too presumptuous of me, I think it might be a good idea to grant me a temporary commission as a lieutenant in the guard. I would be under your command, of course, but as I am already reporting to you little real change would occur. I would not dress in the uniform of the guard, but as long as I had a badge, or other symbol of rank, we could avoid any unfortunate complications or shortcomings before they happen rather than lament their occurrence after the fact.“
Immerine sits quietly, not speaking again while the two engage in their strange courtship of business and negotiations. She remains impassive and draws her shell around herself again as she thinks of her life long ago when her parents were still alive.
Standing up straight again, Captain Zaina looks at Matteo, her head cocked slightly to the left. “A lieutenant… hmmm. A possibility, but not necessarily needed. There would be too many persons aware of your position; a wrong word at an unfortunate time could blow your cover.“
“I can give you a signet ring, which would allow you enlist the aid of the guard at any time without question. This ring would attract less attention if somehow compromised as opposed to the idea of making you a lieutenant.“
Captain Zaina sits down in her chair, looking first at Immerine, then back at Matteo. “As for the color of the uniform. I was thinking of a deep blue or forest green, either one trimmed with silver.“ Leaning forward slightly over the table she looks at Matteo sensually. “The next time we meet could be without me in uniform.“ A playful smile crosses her face. “I might even expand my own wardrobe and have you come over with samples of cloth to choose from.“
Matteo shifts in his chair slightly, his face losing some of its expression as he withdraws into himself. “Perhaps.“ He murmurs quietly.
Captain Zaina leans back again in her chair. Trying to look bored, but with a twinkle in her eyes, she continues. “These parties of the First Folk… One is always required to wear a new dress.“ She whispers to Immerine in a secretive voice “You wouldn’t want to wear an ‘old’ dress if you don’t want to be the gossip topic of the town for a month or so.“ Cynically she ends “How I love these parties… Not!“
“First Folk? Parties? Gossip?“ Immerine’s voice betrays outrage. “I think very little of your civilization. People who wall themselves in with cut earth and broken trees. Death hidden in every corner waiting to spring upon you…“ Immerine stops, suddenly realizing her frayed nerves are getting the better of her.
After a few moments she says, “Forgive me lady. I am unfamiliar with your customs. If I must attend these parties, I will need a new dress. Especially since I am advisor to Lord Ashgale. Perhaps you are correct. I will need to dress the part.“ Immerine stands and takes her staff to hand shakily.
“If I am no longer needed, I will wait outside. I but ask one thing – destroy that paper. It represents an abominable rite and the spell it describes would sicken even the healthy in this city.“ Immerine bows stiffly, as if she is unused to the motion, and turns to leave.
Looking at Immerine in surprise and partly raised from his seat, Matteo soon snaps his mouth shout and sinks back into his chair. “Perhaps you should just give me the signet ring now and we’ll both be off.“ He says weakly. Glancing back at Immerine briefly he clears his throat. Turning back to the Captain he says in a clearer voice, “I will make inquiries with Lady Angruatil regarding Tharkas’s activities and prepare the paperwork for our upcoming business negotiations.“ Glancing at both ladies he adds, “I will inform you if Lady Angruatil provides any new information.“ Shaking his head slightly he murmurs quietly, “After that I think I may go to bed.“
“I’m sorry milady, I didn’t mean to offend you. It is me who should ask for forgiveness. The comment about the dress was not aimed at you, but at myself.“ Captain Zaina shrugs once. “Plainly, I dislike those parties, but unfortunately my function requires me to attend them.“
“If you need to accompany saer Ashgale to those parties, I’m sure he can provide you with an appropriate outfit, one that would not make you feel uncomfortable to wear.“
Immerine turns back towards the captain. “I am not offended, Lady. Merely ill at ease, this is my first time in a large city and my only time in a keep. I am certain Saer Ashgale will be more than open if I need to accompany him to any parties. After all, our clothing is nothing more than a desire to please others. I thank you for your time and consideration, Captain. Fair Evening.“
Picking up the piece of paper to examine it briefly Captain Zaina looks again at Immerine “I will have this document destroyed. I’m sure High Priest Sillisten would want this affront to his church destroyed.“ She puts the paper down again and opens a drawer. She pulls out a green velvet bag and opens the drawstrings. Holding the small bag upside down, a silvery signet ring drops on the table. Captain Zaina picks it up and hands it to Matteo. “This ring should provide you with enough authority to handle the mission.“
“I wish both of you a good night, and may Lady Tymora bless your investigation.“ With that, Captain Zaina stands to escort Immerine and Matteo to the door.
Taking the ring from the Captain’s hand Matteo gives a flicker of a smile and says, “Thank you, my lady.“ Moving towards Immerine and the door, he turns back towards her. “Oh. A couple of my companions are interested in furthering their knowledge of magic and want to examine that piece of paper.“ Shrugging his shoulders, he adds by way of explanation, “I told them I’d tell you. Personally, I think it should be destroyed.“ Bowing slightly he says, “Until we next meet then, my lady.“
Stepping backwards, he turns to the door, opening it for Immerine. “After you, my lady.“ When Matteo opens the door for her, Immerine braces herself against the desire to flee the building at a dead run.
Taking leave from the Captain, Matteo and Immerine are escorted to the castle’s gate. The lights of the city filter through the trees, and the night air carries the tang of early frost. The city is quiet, save for a few sounds: a dog barking, men working late at night at the docks, and a few late night revelers on their way to their beds.
Glancing back towards the castle a little uneasily, Matteo scratches his lower ear briefly and gives a moment shake of the head. Tugging his coat a little closer around his shoulders he looks towards Immerine. “So my lady, where would you go now? I can escort you back to the Running Stag if you wish, or, if you would prefer a more natural setting, Clearspring Tor is nearby. It’s a large tree-covered rock face that sits in the midst of a park. No walls, ceilings, or other man-made edifices around.“
Immerine looks intently at Matteo. “There is such a place in this city? Please.“ She says almost desperately, “Please, take me there. I would like to see it before retiring for the night.“ She gently lays a hand on his forearm while speaking. “I owe you my apologies for my behavior in the keep. I am not used to being closed within such places. I know I must get used to it if I am to be of any help to my people, but the terror grips my soul. I am shamed by it.“ She lowers her gaze to the ground, surprised to admit her fear to anyone.
Feeling the skin on his forearm prickle as the heat from Immerine’s hand permeates through his clothing, Matteo stands torn, wanting to step in towards the young woman before him while simultaneously feeling a nearly overwhelming urge to flee. Closing his eyes as she looks down he tears his face away from her and whispers over her head, “You are not the only one terrified of something Immerine, but at least you have the courage to face your fears. I…“
Biting down on his tongue, Matteo takes a deep breath and desperately tries to change the subject. “Your fear, there is more to it than simply having walls around you, is there not? Something happened to you.“ Matteo’s body tenses and his hands unconsciously clench into fists at the thought.
Immerine closes her eyes. “To answer you simply – yes. To answer you fully, I cannot. It is not because I do not choose to explain my fears. It is because I remember them only as shadows and nightmares. I am thinking that coming here on dajemma was a mistake. Too many memories are battling to the surface. But I am here now, led by Khelliara, and shall not leave. I pledged my aid to you and I will honor it.“
In a quieter voice she adds, “The Captain is a very forceful woman – in battle and in love. She fancies you and I know it makes you uncomfortable. I believe I am not the only one with fears and uncertainties laid bare this evening.“ She gently squeezes his forearm and lets her hand fall from his arm.
She shakes her head trying to dash away dark thoughts. “Tell me of these parties while you show me the Tor. What goes on at them?“ Closing his eyes for a moment, Matteo takes a couple of deep breaths before offering Immerine his arm. “The Tor is over this way.“
Walking off he is quiet for a moment. “The parties are an opportunity for the First Folk of the city to gather for entertainment and enjoyment. They don their gowns and finery to eat, drink, dance, gossip, and to enjoy themselves. All matters are discussed that touch upon their lives within small groups of friends and acquaintances that change as the night progresses. Business deals and investments, politics, religion, the weather, family alliances, who is romantically involved with who. Some go for the gossip; some go to find a prospective mate… whether for the night or longer.“ Sighing softly, he adds, “These are the people with money, influence, and/or power in the city. Little constrains the pursuit of their interests other than conscience. Some you would not want to know, others are good people, a pleasure to be with. Simply put I suppose, it is humanity gathered.“
Immerine takes heart at Matteo’s voice not truly paying attention to the words. Once they reach the Tor her breath catches in her throat. “It is still pure. Oh, Matteo – Thank – you for bringing me here.“ A tear gathers in the side of her eye, but before Matteo can be positive of its presence Immerine hurries to one of the trees and runs her hand along its bark. She walks along quietly and seems to take strength and courage from the small spot of nature in the otherwise chaotic jumble called a city.
She finally sits atop a rock and holds her holy symbol between her palms and speaks in an odd tongue. The inflections seem to be those of a priest speaking to their god, but Immerine’s seem more personalized than ritualistic. After some time passes she again looks over to Matteo and stands.
“Again, I thank – you Lord Ashgale. I will not take anymore of your time. I know you have duties. I can find my way back to the Running Stag.“ She begins moving in the direction they came.
As Immerine walks among the trees and rocks Matteo stands still, leaning against the side of a tree and watching her intently with his arms crossed over his chest. Standing upright away from the tree as she rises from her rock and approaches he says, “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll escort you back.“
“Not that it’s dangerous.“ He adds hurriedly, “Just that, well, I would feel better knowing you were safe.“
Immerine stares coldly at Matteo for a moment finally shrugging. “It truly is not necessary. But if it makes you feel better who am I to say no.“
Walking silently beside her for a few moments Matteo goes to say something but stops with his mouth open then blurts, “Do all women in Rashemen wear veils?“ Blushing and more than a little flustered at his uncouth behavior, Matteo grimaces. “Forgive me, I should not have asked such a personal question.“
“Personal? How could it be personal? No, most women of my country go barefaced. Only the Hathran and aspirants wear veils.“ Immerine looks like she wants to say more but shakes her head imperceptibly and falls silent. “Other than being a merchant, do you have any skills?“
“In some circles being able to turn silver into gold, and gold into larger piles of gold, is considered more than enough.“ He replies dryly, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth and amusement creeping into his voice. “Leaving aside my checkered past, I am a superlative politician and diplomat when I set my mind to it. I speak seven different languages. I am an incredibly good dancer and can recite volumes of poetry when not writing it myself. Oh yes, I am also a rather dab hand with the lute. Alas, I cannot cook to save myself.“
“Ah. I see.“ She looks Matteo over appraising him. “Hmmmm, I knew you were not faydwer. But I would never have thought you to be a… a… well whatever it is in your tongue. I do not mean to be critical, but there are few gentlemen or gentleladies such as you in my home. Life is rough and there is very little time for poetry. There is a fair amount of dancing though and recitations and song. There are teaching ballads and tales. I am familiar with the ones of creation and history and of wilderness lore. I – I – I am most familiar in the wilds. I am lost here in the city.“ She looks at Matteo and adds softly, “But for you the opposite is true. Perhaps we can help and learn from one another.“
“Perhaps.“ He replies quietly, “I think I would like that.“ Glancing away and up at the night sky Matteo sighs softly. “I have a little secret for you though. There are few true gentlemen or gentleladies in Saerloon and I was not one of them. Life there can be just as vicious as anywhere else and there is little time for poetry. We pay others for music and there is nothing educational or functional in our ballads. It is a different sort of battlefield, but a battlefield all the same.“ Shaking his head he adds almost to himself, “I think that is why I like this city. Here someone does not have to pay a price in order for someone else to be happy. That is something worth fighting for I think.“
“I agree with you for that. A person should never be made less for the benefit of others. Sometimes the prices asked are too high to pay.“ Immerine looks off to the stars and whispers, “Sometimes the price is not asked, but taken.“
She looks back to Matteo, “The Cult is one of those that ask too high a price. My apologies for reacting as I did back in the keep.“ Her eyes are hard and her voice very cold as she speaks of the Cult. “If they are involved in this I will fight with you even to my death.“
At Immerine’s words and the tone in her voice Matteo stops abruptly in the street, his face visibly paling even under the light of the moon. “What did the Cult do to you to make you hate them so?“ He whispers hoarsely, “I did not know they were active in Rashemen.“
Crystalline tears again begin to form in her eyes before she dashes them aside and the roiling anger is all that is left. “They are not active in Rashemen. But even a snake will leave its den for prey. There was something important for them to chase, Matteo. Something so important it caused the life of every person in my village to be forfeit – and some even beyond life.“ She answers bitterly.
“A whole village?“ He asks, closing his eyes tightly and looking away. “Why would they… What would…“ Shaking his head he adds, “Never mind.“ Crossing his arms over his chest and tucking his hands up under his armpits Matteo goes to say something but stops. Opening his eyes he looks towards her but quickly glances away, unable to hold her eyes. “I am sorry for what happened.“ He says, closing his eyes at the inadequacy of the statement.
“I was very young, Matteo. I remember only snippets of what happened. I remember fear and hate. I will never forget some things, there will always be some events burned into my mind. Do not apologize for what you are not responsible for. You did not carry the blades that spilled lifeblood on the soil of my homeland, or cast the spells to take life and drive bodies to rise.“ She shakes herself to awareness of her surroundings. “These events should not be spoken of openly and in the darkness. We should move on.“
“No, I did not…“ Biting down on his lower lip Matteo nods his head at her words without meeting her eyes. Hesitantly he takes a step towards her to walk by her side. “I am still sorry.“ He whispers quietly, “I… I do not like to see you in pain.“
“Perhaps we should talk of something else.“
Immerine nods tightly, but grabs her staff between white-knuckled hands as a rush of memories flood into her of that fateful day. Turning away from Matteo, she almost falls to her knees as a wave of anguish rolls into her. “Maman.“ She whispers almost too quiet to hear.
Matteo clenches his eyes tightly closed and gaps softly as anguish and pain stab through his chest. Almost involuntarily he steps up behind Immerine, reaching for her but stopping himself. Trembling at some inner conflict he groans almost inaudibly and wraps his arms around her from behind, resting his chin on her shoulder.
Immerine stiffens and he feels her muscles contract as she starts to bring her staff in to attack him but she pulls up at the last moment. Turning in his arms she looks up at him, tears falling unchecked down her face and wet her veil causing it to mold to her cheeks and lips. She presses her face into his chest and cries helplessly.
Closing his eyes helplessly he cradles her gently against his chest with his arms wrapped her, rubbing her back to offer what comfort he can.
It is several long moments before Immerine pulls away from Matteo. When she does she keep her eyes down and away from him. “I am sorry, I had no right to use you this way. I was not thinking. You have your own pains and I have no right to invade you with my own.“ She looks at her hands on her staff. “We should go to the Inn, if you still intend to escort me. You still have much to do this night if your report to the Captain was any indicator.“
“Yes, I… We should go.“ He stammers as he also steps back. Falling in beside her he walks in silence for several moments. Still looking straight ahead he quietly asks, “How many Hathran are there in Rashemen?“
“There are as many as are needed by our people and the land, even then we are too few.“ Immerine says quietly.
Nodding his head Matteo sighs softly and falls quiet again. He glances towards her but quickly looks away, shaking his head. “Your mother must have been an incredible woman.“ He murmurs quietly before grimacing and silently cursing himself for the indelicate nature of his words.
Immerine winces and there is a sharp intake of breath. It is a few moments before she replies, “You have a strange way with diplomacy, Saer Ashgale. Why do you say this about my mother?“
His voice betrays genuine regret as he replies, “I am sorry, I should not have said that. I… you… If you want, we can drop the subject and talk about something else?“
Immerine looks sidelong at Matteo, “No. Tell me, why do you say that about my mother?“
“It doesn’t matter, my lady. I was just thinking out loud.“ A hint of agitation creeps into his voice as he adds, “Surely there must be other topics you would prefer discussing? What we will be doing tomorrow for instance?“
Immerine stops walking and seems to mire to the spot. The change that comes over her is amazing. She stands still and tall, her eyes turn to iron and the hand resting on her staff does so as if the weapon were a rod of command. “Lord Ashgale, I have learned many things while traveling, one is patience. But there is a limit even to my newfound patience. Tomorrow will take care of itself. I am concerned with your remark and I want to know what you meant by it. My mother was a great traveler and visited many places outside our home. If you have an opinion on possibilities, I would deign to hear it.“ She turns her penetrating gaze on him once again.
Stopping in the street Matteo blanches at the change in Immerine and looks at her through pained eyes. “Don’t ask it of me, please.“ He pleads.
She holds his gaze for several moments, “Good Evening, Saer Ashgale. I can make it safely to the Running Stag without further need of your form of escort. You have duties to attend and should see them through.“ She turns abruptly, shutting him completely out and walks off.
Stricken, Matteo watches her walk off, wanting to run after her but unable to bring himself to do so. “She must have been incredible woman to touch you so.“ He says quietly in a distressed voice. “She died all those years ago and yet is still so very important to you. For someone to matter that much to you… You are an incred… a very special woman Immerine.“ A softly anguished groan escapes his lips. “You remind me of Nienna: Strong yet vulnerable, confident and assured yet sensitive. And I loved her beyond measure.“
Thoroughly miserable Matteo turns and trudges towards the Angruatil estate.
Arriving back at the Running Stag, Immerine walks through the common room. Mumadar, who opened the door, bids her a good night as he locks up for the night, leaving Immerine alone in the room. The forest like decoration of the interior of the Stag appears to be a forest basking in the cool light of the moon and stars. The soft light reflects of the pool in the center of the room. As Immerine steps up to the pool, peering into its soft reflections seeing herself reflected in the water, a tear seeps from her eye. Yet the image in the water seems to weep a tear of blood. When the two tears collide where air meets water, only the wrinkles in the pond remain, distorting the image. When the pond is tranquil again, the image has reshaped itself in the image of an unknown lady with dark, flowing hair and radiant skin. She looks sadly at Immerine. Whispered words reach Immerine’s ears, as the watery lady seems to speak. “How can you teach if you walk away from a pupil? Magic is about choice, decision and knowledge. Magic is an Art, and those who wield it are privileged by the Gift of the Lady. Some might be more ignorant then others, but they can be taught. Magic is to learn humility and eschew pride.“ Involuntarily Immerine brings her head closer to the image, and the image appears to come closer to Immerine. Softly the image kisses Immerine on her mouth. “Go and teach love of magic itself to the world, Daughter of the Land and Sister of the Spirits. Teach the world that knowing when not to use the Art is true wisdom. Teach the world that there is joy in playing with magic, and learning how to best wield it, but not when the price to is paid by others.“
Later at night in her sleep Immerine has a vivid dream. In the morning only some details linger behind.
A dark room, softly lit the glow from a large pyramid shape, covered in sparkling, pulsing lights. The weave seems to stretch out from the pyramid to a naked, vulnerable looking young man. The young man resembles the man Immerine knows as Kalil, yet the name does no seem to fit the young one. The eyes of the man are aglow with intelligence and a desire to learn. His pupils surrounded by seven blue-white stars. Behind the young man shadows seem to lurk, occasionally coming forth to whisper something in the ears of the young man. The shadows seem to take the form of a bald human head, a bald head with all too familiar tattoos, and dim the glow of the seven stars around the pupils.
After bidding Immerine a good night, Matteo returns to the Angruatil Estate to see if Lady Angruatil is awake and available for a conversation. Through the shutters on the windows of her office, Matteo can see light burning: She is probably still at work. Indeed she is, but available to hear an early report from Matteo on his investigation. She seems pleased with the results so far and is able to provide Matteo with some more information regarding Tharkas Lhun.
Tharkas was a bit of a roguish man at times, yet a trustworthy scout and messenger. He has foiled two ambushes on caravans with goods for Lady Angruatil by spotting the bandits and alerting the caravan in time. He also made the recovery possible of another caravan by tracking down the bandits and providing the whereabouts of their hideout to a recovery group. A detail that comes forward during their conversation is that Tharkas’s parents are probably from the Tunlands.
On Lohgran, Lady Angruatil can provide little detail. She has hired his help once in the past, yet was not pleased with the brute’s performance and manners. The link between Zhentil Keep and Lohgran seems to her as a very real possibility.
The Cult of the Dragon possible activity in the area seems to worry the lady. She knows not much about the organization. Yet in her comparison of the Cult to the Iron Throne, she makes it clear that she sees them as a clear threat to the mercantile operations in the Vale.
Also the attack on a daughter of the First Folk seems to worry Lady Angruatil. So close to the city and the manner of how the ambush was set up. She is more inclined to link the attack to a possible other House, yet she is unsure of which House would go to such lengths. An attack like that is sure to attract the attention of the Harpers. She thinks it is very likely that the First Folk invest in the organization and would not be surprised if some of the First Folk were Harpers or Harper agents themselves.
Later at night, in his own house, Matteo has difficulty to fall asleep. And when sleep finally comes, it turns out to be a restless and dreamless sleep.
“Crash!“ Matteo wakes up to the sound of something crashing through the shutters of his bedroom. The early light of morning invades the darkness of the room, making Matteo squint for a moment.
Blinking his eyes against the glare of the early morning sun Matteo begins to shake his head in an effort to clear it of the lingering effects of a restless night’s sleep when the reality of the crash through his bedroom shutters hits home. With a soft oath he rolls out of bed away from the window, reaching for his sheathed sword and standing up. Dressed in nothing but his skin he draws his blade and steps towards the now-open window to investigate the source of the disturbance.
On the floor below the window Matteo sees something lying on the ground. It looks like a piece of rock. Wrapped around the stone, and tied with a bit of rope, is a piece of paper.
Sheathing his sword and tossing the scabbard onto his bed Matteo bends to retrieve the rock. Undoing the string he takes the piece of paper before dropping the rock back onto the floor. Unfurling the paper he scans it briefly, his lips pursing in consideration.
Shivering slightly in the cool dawn air he crosses to his wardrobe and dresses quickly, pulling on black hose, a clean linen shirt, and then his leather armor. Over the armor he dons a black and silver overcoat before slipping a dagger into his right boot and buckling on his sword. Dressed and ready to face the day he hurries to the Angruatil estate to ask that someone be sent to fix his bedroom shutter before turning to hurriedly make his way to the Stag.
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