Ed Greenwood, Elaine Cunningham
The City of Splendors
3 °Ches, the Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
Sharp gusts of wind buffeted Laeral Silverhand as she strode along the ramparts of Waterdeep's Westgate, dodging among archers and the wizards and sorcerers hurling fire at the besieging host below. Her beautiful face was grim, and her lithe body glowed slightly through her well-worn battle leathers. That glow was the only outward sign of the great power being drawn steadily out of her by the man she loved.
All about her, wizards were dropping with exhaustion. Two mages, their minds scorched by overuse of Mystra's fire, cowered behind merlons, gibbering like the madmen they might forever-more be. Laeral passed by without breaking stride. Later she'd weep, but nothing could be done for them now. Waterdeep was very far from being saved.
The wind off the sea blew cold and strong, too capricious and cruel even for early spring. Fell magic was at work. Sudden gusts snuffed the archers' flaming arrows and made small fire-spells to guttering like empty lamps. The Weave around her was aboil, stinging her skin like thousands of ceaseless needle-piercings. Laeral had not expected such magic from the seas.
Alas for Waterdeep, none of its defenders had, not even the mighty wizard who commanded the guard over the Westgate.
Khelben "Blackstaff" Arunsun, Archmage of Waterdeep, stood atop the gigantic stone gate-lintel. In the throes of spellcasting, he let slip the face and form he'd worn for many a year. Briefly, all eyes could see him as Laeral did: tall, ageless, elf-blooded, feral as a rampant dragon, barely recognizable as a mortal being. The building power of a mighty spell sent his somber robes and raven-black hair swirling, and motes of silvery light coursed around him like moths drawn to flame. In both hands he held his long black staff high overhead, and in an awful voice like a chorus of all his mortal lives combined, declaimed a ringing chant.
The tiny lights began to multiply and grow, each swiftly taking the shape of an enormous silvery fish. A vast school of these flying creations spun briefly above Khelben and then swept out to sea, drawing the winds in their wake. Laeral's windblown tresses settled around her shoulders as the invaders' wizard-wind faded.
As he lowered the Blackstaff, Khelben seemed to sink back into himself, becoming once more a pepper-and-salt-bearded man in his later middle years, cloaked in black robes and imperious dignity, strongly built but no taller than Laeral's own slender height.
She slid a steadying arm around his waist. "And now, love?"
For a moment Khelben was silent, glaring along the city walls. Laeral followed his gaze.
Magic burst into the twilit sky beyond Mount Waterdeep like fireworks celebrating a festival of death. To the south, the harbor flamed. A strong stench of burning pitch was drifting from the docks, where the oily smoke of burning spars and sails was billowing up into the sky. Low tide was approaching-but if the sea was retreating, its minions were not.
The sands below the Westgate were littered with blackened, smoking sahuagin bodies, yet fish-men beyond number were still storming the gate furiously, undeterred by the carnage. To Laeral it looked like all the devils of the Nine Hells had come to host a fish-fry.
Their strivings had taken a heavy toll of the city's defenders. Many mages slumped in utter exhaustion, and several hung out over the walls, retching helplessly in the foul smoke. A few stood muttering together, casting dark glances at the Archmage of Waterdeep.
It was widely-and correctly-rumored that enough magic blazed in Khelben's staff to melt all the rock and sand along Waterdeep's shores into glass and turn the entire harbor into a simmering saltwater cauldron in which the sahuagin would boil alive.
Therein lay the problem, Laeral knew well: The Art always had its price. The more powerful a magic, the greater its cost. She didn't need to glance at her beloved's face to feel his anguish and frustration. Waterdeep was his city, his home, and-perhaps even more than Laeral herself-his deepest love. The Lord Mage of Waterdeep had power enough to protect the City of Splendors… but only at the risk of destroying it.
Khelben turned his head as sharply as a hunting hawk. "I dare not call down the ward-wall, not with the Weave so strained. 'Tis small magics and force-of-arms we need now."
With a snarl he gestured at the nearest merlon. It exploded outward like a great tumbling fist, to topple down onto the crowded sands below.
They watched its fragments roll, raking red crushed ruin through the sahuagin. Before the great stones stopped, fresh sahuagin were surging forward, rising out of the blood-dark waves where so many bodies of their brethren already bobbed, filling the beach once more with unbroken fish-men.
"Ahghairon's enchantments weigh on me like yon mountain," Khelben growled. "I'm holding them from crashing down on all our heads right now. If I wasn't calling so much power out of you, I'd be crawling-helpless."
Guardsmen were trudging along the walls toward the Lord and Lady Mage of Waterdeep, faces grim and eyes full of questions.
Khelben watched their approach and sighed. "I need you to return to Blackstaff Tower and summon all aid-of-Art you can, right down to the last tremble-fingered novice. Use the Tower magics to send your plea afar."
Laeral looked down at the roiling sea, where sahuagin were still rising out of the blood-red waves to splash ashore, crowding against their fellows. "You're saying we can't hold them?"
The Lord Mage shook his head. "A few might scale the walls and fight through, but the gate will hold."
She shrugged, not seeing his reasoning.
"They've got that far." Khelben waved grimly at the harbor and then back at countless staring eyes and wet scales below. "You know the merfolk would die before they let these sea-scum into the inner harbor."
Sorrow thinned Laeral's lips. In the fury of the fray she'd forgotten what the bold advance of the fish-men must mean. Some of the harbor merfolk were dear friends.
Had been dear friends.
"Without them," she murmured, "the storm drains are undefended. Each is well warded, but whoever sends the sahuagin against us is no stranger to the Art."
"Aye," Khelben agreed, clasping her shoulders briefly as she turned to go. "For all we know, there could already be sahuagin in every sewer in Waterdeep-and once they're down there, there's no place in the city they can't go."
Laeral nodded grimly. "I'll send for everyone who can hurl a spell or swing a sword."
"We've not much time," the Blackstaff warned, "and many of our friends may be busy elsewhere. This strike from the sea isn't limited to Waterdeep."
"I'll contact Candlekeep first." Laeral, never much of a scholar, gave her lord a swift, ironic smile. "Surely the monks have nothing more pressing to attend to."
A small snake, a bright garden slitherer banded in tropical turquoise and green, wound a soundless way through room after dim room full of books. With sure instinct it made its way to a certain dusty alcove deep in Candlekeep and spiraled gracefully up one leg of a study table.
The young man seated there greeted his familiar with an absent-minded nod and returned his full attention to the book open before him: a thick history of fabled Waterdeep. Mrelder had always been fascinated by the City of Splendors, his hunger for its lore almost stronger than his ache to master sorcery. Almost.
The sorcerer seemed an ill match for the bright little snake. Lean, fit, and intense, he was pale from many hours spent with books. His once-dark hair had already gone gray, and his narrow face was seamed with thin, pale scars and dominated by fierce dark brows over mismatched eyes. One was a muddy gray, and the other (an old glass eye he'd bought in a manygoods shop) an odd pale green hue. Mrelder wasn't vain, but hoped to have coin enough someday to have a glass orb made to exactly match his surviving eye. It would be one less constant reminder of the horror known as Golskyn.
Light footfalls whispered on stone, approaching his corner. Mrelder paid little heed. Candlekeep was a quietly busy place, where many came to learn or, like him, to hide. The little snake, however, took alarm, darting into its master's sleeve and coiling about his forearm.
Thus alerted, Mrelder swept up his books and rose-just as a red-bearded giant of a man rounded the nearest shelf. Though one of Candlekeep's Great Readers, Belloch looked more like a warcaptain than a scholar. Just now, his face wore a dark expression better suited to a battlefield than a library.
"Come," Belloch rumbled, dropping a massive hand onto Mrelder's shoulder. Without pause he wheeled, jerking the young sorcerer along so sharply that books tumbled. Mrelder stooped to retrieve them, but Belloch's grip tightened. "Leave them."
Mrelder stiffened. To treat precious tomes so was unprecedented in Candlekeep! In a sudden flood of wild speculations, he fetched up chillingly against a dire prospect: perhaps a certain priest by the name of Golskyn had recovered from his latest "improvement," somehow found Mrelder's trail, and come here.
No escape, even here…
Striding hard, Belloch marched the young sorcerer out of the chamber and down hall after hall Mrelder had never walked before. Some short time after he'd become thoroughly lost, they descended a winding stair and crossed several darkened rooms to emerge in a large circular chamber.
Mrelder's heart sank. Several senior Readers were gathered, and with them his favorite lore-guide, the visiting monk Arkhaedun. Six of his fellow scholars were also in attendance, looking frightened and confused. Armored guards-and where had they come from? — ringed the walls, faces impassive and long spears held ready.
It looked as if a court had convened to condemn Mrelder for his part in Golskyn's crimes-or perhaps, a small voice whispered deep in his mind, for his own inability to duplicate them.
"Arkhaedun informed us of your training," Belloch said curtly, stepping away from Mrelder only to turn back and glare. "He says you possess considerable fighting skills-not just small, untutored magics."
The Reader's dismissive tone wasn't lost on Mrelder. Belloch had been a battle mage; many wizards scorned the inborn-and to their minds, unearned-powers of sorcery. Long used to far worse treatment, Mrelder was years beyond taking offense.
"I've learned much in my time here, lords," he replied, trying to sound calm. "May I ask what this meeting concerns?"
"We've received an urgent summons for every willing warrior and magic-wielder we can spare. A great battle rages, spawning small fires that can best be stamped out by such as you." Belloch grew a mirthless grin. "Your fascination with the city of Waterdeep has been noted; it should serve you well."
"Waterdeep? You want me to go to Waterdeep?"
Something in Belloch's face changed at Mrelder's awed tone. "I'll not lie to you, lad: this task may be your last. Monks' sparring is poor preparation for bloody war-and Binder forgive me, even all our books and scrolls leave many of that city's secrets untold."
"I'll go," Mrelder said eagerly. "Of course I'll go."
The Master Reader nodded and turned to the other scholars. "Choice made? Well, then: When 'tis time to return, say 'arranath' aloud, and so hear the way."
As he silently mouthed that word to fix it in memory, Mrelder's thoughts were of Waterdeep. To see the City of Splendors with his own eyes!
How often he'd dreamed this dream without really expecting it to become truth! Yet what crisis could threaten mighty Waterdeep that his small skills were needed? Had the great wizards of the city somehow… fallen?
Wilder thoughts whirled through Mrelder as he watched Arkhaedun step onto a circular mosaic in the middle of the chamber floor, an intricate rune outlined in flecks of colored crystal. A fractured rainbow of light shot up from the crystal shards-and the monk disappeared.
When the soft shafts of light faded, a sturdy, fair-haired lass Mrelder had seen frowning over high-piled tomes of battle magic stepped onto the rune. She was followed by a tall, silent scholar from the Inner Sea lands. When the soft glow of his journeying faded, a scholar of Tethyr was waved forward.
Then Belloch nodded, and it was Mrelder's turn. The young sorcerer hastened into the circle.
A searing flash of white light was his prompt greeting, as painful as falling into a hearthfire. Groaning, Mrelder fell to his knees, hands clapped to his burning eye.
When his mistily swimming vision returned, he saw spear-points. The circle of guards had closed around him with deadly intent.
Belloch pushed through them and dragged Mrelder roughly to his feet. "Are you a traitor or a fool?" he thundered. "Only one living thing at a time may pass the gate! What secret are you hiding?"
Belatedly, Mrelder remembered what he bore coiled about his arm. "My familiar," he gasped, plucking back his sleeve. What had been his snake fell limply to the floor like a bit of severed rope.
Chagrin twisted the Great Reader's face. "I-it did not occur to me you might have a familiar. It appears your sorcery hasn't been… sufficiently regarded."
"I seldom speak of my Art," Mrelder murmured. "If there's fault, it's my own."
He should have anticipated something like this. Of course any magical portal in this most precious of strongholds would be carefully warded. Allowing but one living thing to pass at a time was a wise safeguard, given the worth-beyond-price of Candlekeep's irreplaceable treasures.
He gazed down at the little snake, the latest of many creatures to die in his service, and allowed himself a sigh. Then he looked at Belloch. "I'm ready to go."
The Great Reader shook his head. "No. You'll be a staggering weak-wits until morn, no use in battle."
Mrelder held out rock-steady hands. "I've… learned to withstand worse pain. I'm ready, and I am needed. Send me."
After a moment's hesitation, the burly monk nodded and thrust Mrelder into the circle.
The crystal mosaic blazed up and seemed to give way at the same time, and Mrelder found himself falling through a void of soft colors and eerie silence. In the utter absence of sound, the faint but constant ringing in his ears-another reminder of Golskyn- seemed deafening. It was almost a relief when he jolted to a stop on solid cobblestones amid the clanging cacophony of battle.
Mrelder glanced quickly around. He stood in a reeking, rat-scurrying alley between two old, large, rather crumbling stone buildings-warehouses by their look. Over the stench of rotting refuse and a heavy smell of smoke, the stink of fish was strong in the air. Mount Waterdeep loomed up behind him, its first rising rocks only paces beyond an alley-blocking mound of rotting crates, barrels, and garbage. The other end of the alley opened into a larger cross-street filled with a hurrying crowd.
They were all fleeing to Mrelder's left, shrieking and jostling as they ran. The crackle of fire and the clang of hard-wielded weapons sounded very near, off to the right.
Beyond the warehouse to his left stood a taller, finer building. Wisps of steam coiled from a door left ajar, bearing the soft tang of seawater. This must be one of the heated saltwater baths said to be popular in Waterdeep. Mrelder stepped closer.
A soft plash of disturbed water came through the steam.
Mrelder frowned. It was unlikely even the notoriously jaded citizens of Waterdeep would be idly soaking in the public baths as their city burned around them.
Then he heard something more from inside the bathhouse. Faint converse. The tongue was strange, liquid-sounding and guttural: Clicks, grunts, and deep thrumming croaks that plumbed depths no human voice could reach.
Mrelder looked around for a likely weapon. One nearby crate looked sturdier and less rotten than most strewn about the alley. He pried loose one of its boards, noting with approval two long iron nails protruding from one end. Sidling up to the bathhouse door, he peered in cautiously.
Three large, wet, green-scaled creatures were padding softly through the steam of the lofty, many-pillared bathing hall, finned tails lashing. Barbed-headed spears were clutched in their webbed claws, and their staring black eyes were intent on the panicked crowd visible through the multi-paned windows along the street-front.
Vaguely human, they resembled enormous upright frogs with tails that brought to mind merfolk or gigantic tadpoles. Their fish-like heads bristled with spikes, and were split by gaping jaws filled with lethal-looking fangs.
Mrelder swallowed hard, slipped inside, and followed them, flitting from pillar to pillar as silent as a shadow.
Dripping, the fish-men stalked to the ornate front doors of the bathhouse. They glanced at each other-and then kicked the doors open, leveled their spears, and charged into the street. A chorus of screams and desperate shouts rose above the battle-din.
Mrelder hurled himself into a run. Bursting from the building, he slammed his board into the head of the central, largest sahuagin, driving the nails deep into the glistening scales at the base of the creature's skull — and breaking the board into splinters.
The sahuagin was thrusting its spear viciously over the shoulder of its comrade to the left at a tall armored warrior beyond. As Mrelder's strike slammed home, the creature shuddered. Before it could turn, he leaped onto its back and rode it down to the cobbles.
The sahuagin writhed and bucked, trying to free itself of both imbedded weapon and stubborn attacker. The broken board swung wildly, slamming into Mrelder's clenched jaw.
He struggled atop the fish-monster, avoiding its spines as best he could. Around him was confusion, swords swinging on all sides, scaly limbs waving, bubbling screams rising wetly from beneath him. Angry shouts were laced with squalls of rage and pain that didn't sound human.
Finally Mrelder managed to tear the broken board-end free. Tossing it aside, he seized the finned head by two of its spines, and threw all his strength into a quick, brutal twist.
Something broke sickeningly under those wet scales. The sahuagin shuddered again and went limp.
Seeking the ruins of his board again, Mrelder sprang off it, afraid the other fish-things would And found himself staring up into the open visor of a fine, burnished war-helm, into a face lined by well-spent years-and a calm swordpoint of a gaze, leveled at him by eyes that were kind and wise.
This, marveled the awed sorcerer, is what a king looks like.
The regal man looked right through Mrelder, as if able to see everything the young sorcerer was and his every last guilty secret. Sudden dread rose in Mrelder and was as swiftly gone; the man was giving him an approving smile.
"Ably done," he said, in the rich voice of one cultured yet commanding. "Without your aid, that spear would have found me."
Mrelder tried to return the smile, but his mind was awhirl. He'd never seen such splendid, silver-blue battle armor. Knights in warsteel just as fine were gathering beyond the tall warrior's broad shoulders, but Mrelder's attention was on the bright silver crescent of metal covering the tall warrior's throat, a device that bore an elaborately wrought stylized torch-the arms of the Lords of Waterdeep.
Mrelder had seen its unmistakable likeness that very morning, on a page of an obscure book of Waterdhavian lore. He was looking at the Guardian's Gorget, a magical device of great power, fashioned for and worn by only one man.
"My Lord Piergeiron," Mrelder breathed, awed to find himself in the presence of the Open Lord of Waterdeep.
Piergeiron clapped him on the shoulder in a soldier's thanks to a battle-comrade. Drawing a long dagger, he pressed it into Mrelder's hand.
"Well met, lad. That board of yours is not good for much more fighting; take this." The lord grinned. "If you're so minded, there's work yet for us all."
If? At that moment, Mrelder would cheerfully have followed Waterdeep's Lord into a volcano!
A deep rumbling shook the cobbles under their boots then, and everyone turned to peer at Mount Waterdeep. Another thunderous impact followed, and then another.
The young sorcerer followed their gazes and found himself whispering "Mystra's sacred shadow!" in fresh wonderment.
A man-shaped colossus of weathered stone, ninety feet tall or more, was striding down the mountain, finding-and sometimes making-a sure path to the harbor. Mrelder had never expected to set eyes on one of the fabled Walking Statues, much less watch it walking!
"That should hold our foes," Piergeiron said in satisfaction, watching the great construct lumber along.
He turned his head. "Are you with me, lad?"
"I'd not want to be anywhere else, just now," Mrelder said firmly, and they traded heartfelt smiles.
Time passed in a bright haze of blood and fire. Never far from Lord Piergeiron's side, Mrelder fought errant flames, vicious fishmen, and men who swarmed the shadows of Dock Ward like rats to loot and steal and stab.
It seemed as if the lord's band was a running, tireless whirlwind. When at last Piergeiron barked a halt in the courtyard of some grand mansion, Mrelder's shoulders sang with pain, and his eyes swam with smoke and stinging sweat.
Around him, the grandly armored knights of Piergeiron's guard sprawled wearily on smooth stone benches or leaned against statues, tending small wounds and seeing to their weapons.
One handed Mrelder a water flask. "Whence do you hail, monk?"
The sorcerer drank deep before murmuring, "I'm no monk. Trained to fight as one, yes, but I've not taken orders in the service of any god or temple."
The knight smiled. "Smart lad. Gods are like women: When there are so many fine choices, why should a man limit himself to but one?"
This philosophy was greeted with a few tired chuckles from around the courtyard.
Piergeiron turned to give Mrelder that commanding gaze. "Listen but lightly to Karmear. 'Tis a fine path you've chosen. My father was a paladin, and I've always held the deepest respect for all who choose the way of the altar."
"My father's a priest," Mrelder blurted. Surprised by his own outburst, he stammered hastily, "Or was. I'm not sure…"
The Open Lord's brow furrowed. "You know not if your father lives?"
"No, Lord. We parted badly, some time ago." Mrelder hesitated, not sure what to say. "I was… I could not be the son he wished me to be."
"When you leave Waterdeep, you must find him," Piergeiron said firmly. "From what I've seen this day, I'm certain any father would rejoice in such a son."
The words, spoken with such assurance, kindled hope in Mrelder. Could it be that he, who'd proved capable in a fray and was at least comfortable as both sorcerer and monk, might be weighed in Golskyn's grim measure and finally found worthy?
Suddenly, Mrelder could imagine nothing more important than learning the answer to that. He looked at the Lord of Waterdeep. "As you say, I will do. This I swear.''
Piergeiron nodded. Eyes never leaving Mrelder's, he reached into a belt-pouch and drew out something small, black, and gleaming. "This is a Black Helm. I'd like to hear how matters fall between you and your father. If you return to the city, present this at the palace, and the guards there will know you as a friend to Waterdeep and to me."
Mrelder stared down at the charm. It was a tiny replica of Piergeiron's own war-helm, rendered in fine obsidian and pierced to be hung on a neck-thong.
"My lord!" was all he could find to say.
The tall paladin waved away his stammerings and turned to address his knights. "The city's quiet. There'll be much to do come morning, but our night's work is done."
At this dismissal, the men rose slowly and stiffly, taking up swords and helms. Mrelder politely refused an offer of lodging for the night in their barracks and waved farewell. Candlekeep was expecting his return and report. The last he saw of that shining-armored band was Piergeiron's answering wave and smile.
Twilight slid into night as Mrelder made his way deeper into Dock Ward. Dazed citizens stumbled past, wandering like sooty ghosts amid the ruins of homes and businesses.
As the weary sorcerer trudged along, he murmured, "Arranath." Belloch's gruff voice promptly announced in his mind: To find Candlekeep, seek the same circular symbol that adorns our floor, and say aloud 'Arranath' when touching it. The symbol is in the wellhouse behind the shop called Candiera's Fine Shoes and Sandals, on the west side of Redcloak Lane three shopfronts south of Belnimbra's Street, in Dock Ward.
Mrelder's destination looked humble indeed. Timber-framed buildings leaned dark and close over narrow streets. Ramshackle balconies and catwalks meandered from one to the next, many crossing overhead and casting the streets below into deep shadow. Belnimbra's Street, however, was long, broad, and well-known, and Mrelder soon found Redcloak Lane.
He turned into it, shouldering past merchants morosely trying to salvage wares from a tangle of wrecked and charred carts-and stopped in dismay.
The corner shop stood intact, but most of the west side of Redcloak Lane beyond it was gone. Candiera's Fine Shoes and Sandals was just a few plumes of smoke drifting from blackened ruins.
Mrelder stared at the mess, sighed, and strode forward. The soot might make things look worse than they really were, and along Redcloak two or three buildings rose undamaged out of the swirling smoke like surviving teeth in a crone's grin. Perhaps…
Perhaps not. The second building, a shop offering stools, benches, and chairs, seemed largely untouched under a thick veil of soot, but the third was a tumbled pile of blackened timbers, fronted by a crazily leaning doorframe that now led nowhere but still sported a blackened signboard proclaiming to all Waterdeep that this was Candiera's Fine Shoes and Sandals.
Mrelder sighed again and started to pick his way through the still-warm embers, dodging drifting cinders as he went.
His boots grew warm as he trudged through tumbled, blackened spars and over a heap of stones that had recently been a chimney into an open area beyond: a stretch of back alley that hadn't disappeared under the rubble of fallen buildings.
Right in front of him, like a gift from the gods, stood what he'd been told to seek: a communal wellhouse, a small stone hut that had escaped the flames.
Opening its peg-latch door, Mrelder felt his way down the stone steps inside. The wellhouse was damp and dark, but dim light beckoned ahead. A single stroke of crumbling glowpaint had long ago been splashed across the ceiling. In its glow he made out an uneven stone floor, a few scattered pebbles, and the well, a simple circle-wall of stone covered with a cross-braced wooden disk like a barrel-end. Mrelder lifted this lid by its rope handle and held it up to the glowpaint.
There on its underside was a crudely carved rune, the echo of the mosaic in Candlekeep that had brought him here. He smiled-which was when the faintest of grating sounds came from beyond the well, hinting of unseen places and stealthy lurkings. Mrelder ducked down, easing the well-cover to the floor. Leaving it there, he crept around one side of the well, drawing the dagger Piergeiron had given him… had it really been just half a day ago?
He could make out things in the gloom now. He'd thought the cellar drew down to an end just beyond the well, but now he saw its deepest shadows hid the mouth of a stone-lined passage.
Wet feet slapped stone in its darkness, pounding quickly toward him!
A huge sahuagin lurched into the well-cellar, its dark-eyed, spiny head nosing this way and that as it sought to see all perils. It was larger than any sea devil Mrelder had seen before, and its hulking torso sprouted two-two! — pairs of long, heavily muscled arms. One limb hung limp and useless, shattered ends of bone protruding from a deep sword-gash, but the other three all held bloodstained blades of various sizes. Seized in battle, no doubt, from men this fish-beast had slain.
It hissed at Mrelder and leaned forward, seeking to reach over the well with its swords.
At full stretch, its trio of blades could just span the stone circle, but it could not seriously menace Mrelder so long as he could move freely.
He moved now, backing to the steps with his lone dagger raised. He mounted the first step by feel alone, keeping his eyes on the sahuagin.
The fish-beast hissed again, the gills on its neck flaring convulsively, like a hooked fish gasping on a riverbank. It occurred to Mrelder that the sahuagin was dying, drowning in the thin air.
The creature tried again to lunge across the well, but the act of reaching made it shudder in pain and draw back, swaying. In a moment, it would choose one side of the well or the other and come around the stones in another charge.
Mrelder readied his dagger for a throw. It was well-balanced, the finest war-steel he'd ever wielded, and would fly straight and true. At this range he couldn't miss, and if he feinted first to make the sahuagin commit its arms and blades in an attempt to block his strike and then flung his steel, it would have no time to dodge or deflect. A quick toss would win Mrelder time enough to race back up the steps and flee into the ashes and drifting smoke.
From what I've seen these past hours, I'm certain any father would rejoice in such a son.
Piergeiron's remembered words stilled Mrelder's arm.
He stretched forth his other hand, palm down and fingers splayed, and worked almost the simplest of spells.
The wooden lid rose into the air and spun toward the sahuagin. Three blades batted at the spinning disk, but the force of Mrelder's magic kept it on course. The lid caught the fish-beast just below its ribs and sent it staggering back.
The sahuagin slammed solidly into the stone wall and slid down it, too winded to draw breath.
Mrelder advanced, chanting another spell, this one of his own devising and used on his last familiar: the bright Chultan snake that had once been large enough to swallow two of Golskyn's servants.
The sahuagin began to shrink. It dwindled, spasming and clawing the air in a violent, — and vain-struggle against the magic.
When the fish-man was no taller than the length of Mrelder's hand, the sorcerer ended the spell. The moment the sahuagin was released, it hissed and darted toward the tunnel.
Mrelder snatched up the tiny creature in one hand and tugged a vial from his belt-pouch with the other. Ignoring the sahuagin's fierce struggles-an easy matter, as its fangs and webbed talons were now no more vexing than a kitten's claws-the sorcerer pulled the vial's cork with his teeth and tapped a single drop of fluid onto the sahuagin's head.
Gills flared, instinctively grasping the proffered moisture-and the tiny creature went stiff and still.
Mrelder tucked vial and immobilized sahuagin into his pouch. Then he moved the inverted wooden lid to an open stretch of floor and stepped onto the rune-design. With but a word, he and his prize would be in Candlekeep. "Arr-"
Just in time, he remembered his familiar's fate. The sahuagin was no good to him dead.
Hissing one of his father's viler oaths, Mrelder drew it from his pouch and scowled at it. A dead sahuagin wasn't hard for a man like Golskyn to acquire. Capturing one alive, now, was another matter, but how could he keep it living until he was ready to face his father… and endure the grim transformation that must follow?
Mrelder stepped off the gate to think.
He could see only one path: hide the creature here and return for it at some later time. If he couldn't take this prize to Golskyn, he'd bring his father to Waterdeep. Surely even the great Golskyn wouldn't scorn such an offering as a four-armed sahuagin, nor the son who'd brought it to him!
He caught up a handful of pebbles in case he needed to toss or drop them to judge unseen distances, then strode into the dark tunnel. Unpleasant wet and rotting smells assailed him as he felt his way into deepening chill and damp, groping at the rough walls in search of hiding-places.
Eventually he found one: a small niche in the uneven stones to his left, well above his head and near what felt like an empty but sturdy iron torch bracket. Mrelder hid the tiny monster there behind most of his handful of stones and then cut free one of the leather thongs that criss-crossed his soft boots to ensure a snug fit. He tied the thong to the bracket, letting it dangle there to mark the hiding-place for his return.
Mrelder stood listening for a breath or two, afraid the small noises he'd made thus far might have lured other sahuagin-or worse-hither.
He heard nothing, not even the plink of dripping water, and with a relieved sigh returned to the wellhouse, took his place on the gate, and murmured, "Arranath."
Once again, the floor seemed to give way under his boots, plunging him into a silent, dreamlike freefall.
He emerged into warm lamplight in the circular chamber in Candlekeep where an anxious Belloch was pacing.
The monk's scowl fell away as he rushed forward to clasp Mrelder by the shoulders. "You're the first to return! What news?"
"Waterdeep's secure," Mrelder mumbled, suddenly weak with weariness. "Our work's done, the Open Lord told me."
The Great Reader smote the young sorcerer's shoulder, in a painful reminder of Piergeiron's salute. "Victory, lad-glorious victory!"
"Yes," Mrelder agreed, managing a smile.
He was not seeing battles in the streets of Waterdeep, however, but a confrontation to come, one where he'd not stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Open Lord of Waterdeep and a score of veteran bodyguard knights.
When he faced Golskyn again, he and the sahuagin would prevail.
Even as he made that silent vow, Mrelder seemed to hear the mocking echo of his father's taunting voice, saying this bid would fail him as so many had before.
Monsters, observed Beldar Roaringhorn glumly, were damnably unreliable fellows. According to everything Beldar knew of swordplay and monsters-and he prided himself on his knowledge of both-the ugly green bastard should have won that fight. Handily.
He counted out the ten dragons he'd lost betting on the scarred half-ogre, and with a casual flourish that told the world he tossed away gold at least a dozen times a day, slid the coins across the table. The peg-legged sailor who stood waiting for it grew a nastily delighted leer.
Beldar studied him. The strange, dirty, spidery-looking fellow appeared to be held together largely by years' worth of accumulated grime. His arms were long, thin, and ropy with sagging remnants of muscles. He wore no shirt, but his faded red breeches were belted high over a tightly rounded belly that seemed at odds with his emaciated limbs. His remaining foot was bare, and gold toe-rings gleamed down there through layers of dirt.
The old man grinned at Beldar, displaying three blackened teeth, and flipped one of the coins to the half-ogre. The brute caught the gold deftly and gave Beldar a mocking, almost courtly bow.
"Son of a sahuagin," muttered the young noble.
"My friend Gorkin's not what you'd call sea-devil spawn," the old sailor said smugly, "but you'll be seeing plenty of those soon enough. Word is Waterdeep's under attack right now! Wouldn't put it past yer perfumed pretty-women to drag the scalies into those public baths fer a quick… swim."
The look on Beldar's face sent the wretch into gales of laughter that promptly turned into a coughing fit. It lasted, relatively speaking, a tenday or so, ere the salt spat a thick gobbet of pipeweed onto the floor, wheezed, and gave Beldar that grin again.
"You'd like that, would you?" he taunted. "Comin' home to Waterdeep to find yer women's got a taste for seafood, so to speak? Might be they'd find the sea-devils a closer thing to a real man than yer fancy-pants, soft-handed, white-livered, sorry sons of-"
The old sailor's words ended abruptly with a sharp urp! as Beldar sprang lightning-swift from his chair to drive a fist deep into that capacious gut.
The salt went to his knees, wheezing, coins bouncing and rolling in all directions. In an instant, the makeshift sparring floor emptied as the trio of mixed-blood outlaws currently fighting for the entertainment of Luskan's lowlives hurled themselves at a richer prize, not to mention the young nobleman who'd provided it.
Beldar's eyes lit up at the prospect of battle. With a widening smile he clapped his hand to the hilt of his sword.
Suddenly a larger hand took hold of his collar, and he was jerked up and back so sharply his feet left the floor.
Green muscles rippled as that arm twisted, turning the momentarily strangling Beldar to almost touch noses with… Gorkin. The half-ogre's other hand clamped over Beldar's sword-hand, holding the noble's magnificent weapon firmly sheathed.
"Easy, lad. I'm just takin' you out of harm's way."
Beldar blinked. There was no menace in the brute's face. Avarice, yes, but what face in Waterdeep didn't bear the same stamp?
"Very kind of you, I'm sure," he replied, "but hardly necessary."
The half-ogre held Beldar off the floor a moment longer, because he could, then lowered him, stepped back, and jerked his bald, green-skinned head at the widening brawl where knives were out, and men were dying over a few spilled coins.
"More needed'n'you might think. Yonder's Boz." A stubby green finger indicated a furry mongrelman not much larger than a halfling. "Might as well thrust your arm into a dragon's maw as draw steel on him. Mean little bastard."
"Really." Beldar watched the small fighter kick, bite, and stab for a moment, and saw Boz's teeth take out a second throat as thoroughly as his wickedly hooked knife had served the first one. "Gods! He looks as if his mother had carnal knowledge of a badger."
Gorkin grinned. "Fights like it, too."
"So I see," the nobleman murmured.
The little mongrelman pinned an orcblood foe tusks-down to the ground and wrenched one thickly muscled arm back so sharply that Beldar imagined the thick, wet sound of rending bone and sinew. Not that he could have heard it over the shrieking. Boz was calmly biting off fingers, one at a time, to get at the coins clenched in the orc-blood's fist.
Beldar rubbed his chin thoughtfully. Yonder mongrelman might prove to be a creature he'd long sought. It was certainly worth the price of an introduction to find out.
He met the half-ogre's speculative gaze. "You know who I am?"
The brute nodded. "I know who, but I don't know why."
Beldar smiled thinly. In certain circles he was known for his fascination with monsters. Of course, he wasn't the first wealthy well-born with a taste for exotic creatures, but Beldar's interest was less easily explained than most. He slew not for bounty, nor entertainment. He did not line the walls of Roaringhorn mansions with mounted trophies, nor did he collect living specimens. Occasionally he purchased some of the more interesting bits of slain monsters for magical uses, but what man with his resources did not?
The truth was something Beldar pondered daily but had never spoken aloud. It sounded too vainglorious, even for a noble of Waterdeep, to announce an important destiny awaiting him. Stranger still to claim his path to greatness would begin when he mingled with monsters. So he'd been told years ago by a seer of Rashemen, and so he believed, with every breath he drew.
It wasn't Beldar Roaringhorn's way to wait for destiny to find him. He seized every chance to seek out the company of monstrous creatures. Fortunately, the travels expected of an idle younger son of a noble house of Waterdeep afforded opportunities aplenty to do so, far from the ever-watchful eyes of kin and the expectations of Waterdhavian society.
Boldly, he clapped the half-ogre on the shoulder. "Gorkin, is it? Let me buy you a drink! Perhaps we'll find business interests in common."
"Perhaps?" the brute scoffed. "You think I kept you from yon tangle out of the softly dawning love in my heart?"
"That possibility never occurred to me," Beldar replied with a wry smile. "How's the ale in this establishment?"
"Wouldn't know. I'm not allowed to drink here. They say it makes me mean and ugly." Gorkin bared his fangs in an ironic smile.
"Hmmm. Had I known," Beldar responded dryly, "I'd have offered to buy you a drink before I wagered on the outcome of your fight."
The half-ogre's bark of laughter sounded like a file rasping on a rusted blade, and he gave the noble a friendly swat on the shoulder. "A place down on the docks'll let me in-or used to, before I bought me one of their girls."
His small, piggish red eyes studied the young nobleman, turning thoughtful.
They beheld dark chestnut hair falling in waves to shoulders, a fine-featured face with skin that evidently-remarkably-held its sun-browned hue year-round, dark eyes rimmed with sooty lashes that must be the envy of many a woman. Wiser than most idle young wastrels out of Waterdeep, by the looks of him, with a swordsman's lean and fit build. Small, dapper mustache, and that air of style all wealthy young Waterdhavians wore like a golden cloak.
"Could be I'd get me another girl, if you was doing the asking," the half-ogre wheedled.
Beldar fought to keep revulsion off his face. "Let's start with a drink. If the wenches offer you their favors, what befalls is your choice."
"But you'll pay?"
The nobleman gritted his teeth. This sort of "mingling with monsters" hadn't featured in his dreams and speculations.
"I'll pay," he said shortly.
Gorkin grinned wickedly. Turning, he pushed through the crowd, out into the deepening night, and led Beldar down a steeply sloping street to the docks.
The Icecutter stood hard by Luskan's longest wharf, a first port of call for sailors just off the cold waters. It was a tavern only slightly less rundown than the fighting-den they'd left and full of patrons only slightly less disreputable. Oddly enough, its taproom was scrupulously clean. They took the nearest empty table.
A small, slim serving lass came over to them at once, a tray of battered tankards in her work-reddened hands. She placed two foaming drinks before them and swayed deftly back beyond the half-ogre's hopeful reach.
"The ale comes with Vornyk's compliments," she said flatly. "He doesn't want any trouble. Drink it and leave, Gorkin."
The half-ogre emptied one tankard without coming up for air, thunked it down on the table, and belched mightily.
"Another," he demanded, tossing his head toward Beldar. "He's paying."
The wench glanced at the Waterdhavian, fire rising in her brown eyes. "You'll pay for all damage, too? And a healer, if need be?"
"I hardly think such will be necessary," Beldar replied coolly.
"Tell that to Quinta," she snapped. "Enjoy your ale. 'Tis all you'll get this night."
Beldar watched the wench's quick retreat to the kitchens. She wasn't conventionally pretty; too thin for beauty, and not gifted with the lush charms Beldar usually sought in women of negotiable virtue. Yet unlike many dockside wenches, she was clean and neat, her long, thick brown hair carefully pulled back into a single braid. Those brown eyes were large and very bright, and something about her light step and swift, efficient movements appealed. A little brown bird, come to roost in an unlikely nest…
"That's the one I want," Gorkin announced.
The nobleman chuckled mirthlessly. "I'd not wager a copper on your chances. Who's this Quinta?"
Gorkin plucked up and drained Beldar's tankard. "My last girl. Haven't seen her since."
Before Beldar could inquire more closely as to just what that meant, a huge man was bustling up to them, a large, well-laden food tray nestled against his food-splattered apron.
He gave Beldar an oily smile and with swift skill served more ale and set surprisingly appetizing fare before them: a thick seafood stew in hollowed-out roundloaves, a small wheel of cheese, and a bowl of pickled vegetables. "Two gold, the lot."
An outrageous price, but as the half-ogre was already devouring cheese and stew as if starvation loomed large, Beldar dropped two gold dragons into the man's outstretched hand and threw in a sigh for good measure. One coin was promptly bitten, whereupon the man grunted approvingly, gave the half-ogre a curt nod, and left.
Watching him go, Beldar murmured, "Your peg-legged partner is surprisingly good at games of chance, considering how poorly he bluffs."
"Poorly? Got the better of you, didn't he?"
"I refer to his comments about Waterdeep."
The half-ogre raked his stew with a finger and caught a plump mussel. Tossing it between his fangs, he swallowed without chewing.
"'Twas no bluff. Kypur heard it from an old mate what has an ear out for wizard-talk. There'll be lively times a-plenty hereabouts, once most folk hear. 'Course, some Luskan ships'll run afoul of the sea-devils, but most jacks'll quaff to their own misfortune so long as Waterdeep's harder hit."
Beldar nodded absently, but his thoughts were not of the longstanding rivalry between the two northern ports.
So 'twas true. Waterdeep was under attack by sahuagin, in numbers sufficient to be a serious threat. His family and friends were in danger, his home threatened. The rising bloodlust of a warrior bred and trained sang through his blood, but not loud enough to silence a single, devastating truth:
Waterdeep was under attack, by monsters, and Beldar Roaringhorn wasn't there to seize his destiny!
He wanted to dash out and find a fast coach or ship about to sail and ask Gorkin a thousand questions, too… but the half-ogre waved away his first few to empty the pickles into his mouth. Making a face, he followed them with the soggy remnants of his loaf-and then reached for Beldar's. The noble waved at him to eat it all and waited impatiently until the last crumb disappeared.
Gorkin leaned back, patted his belly in satisfaction, and growled, "I've one more need to settle, then we'll talk."
He rose and stalked to the back of the tavern, most likely to seek relief in an alley out back. In Beldar's opinion, the quality of the ale was such that Gorkin might as well return his portion directly to the cask and call it a loan. No one would notice the difference.
A woman's scream tore through the tavern clamor. Chairs scraped on the bare board floor as drinkers turned to see why, but not a single patron rose to help.
Gorkin was backing out of the kitchen, dragging the serving wench under one arm. He strode toward a stair leading up to what Beldar assumed were coins-for-the-night rooms. The lass shrieked and struggled, but the half-ogre merely grinned.
The girl gave the apron-clad tavernmaster a terrified look of appeal. "Vornyk, please! He beat Quinta almost to death!"
The man shrugged, unmoved. "If he's buying, I'm selling."
Rage tempered fear on the wench's face. "So I've heard, from this one and a hundred like him!" she spat. "The sooner he turns me loose, the sooner the two of you can go about your business!"
Gorkin released the girl long enough to backhand her savagely across the face. "Watch your tongue, wench, or I'll cut it out and eat it," he growled, watching her drag herself dazedly up from the floor. "'Tis women for me, and none'll say otherwise."
"This woman isn't for you," she hissed. "I'll die first!"
The half-ogre sneered. "Makes little difference to me one way or 'tother."
The wench seized a heavy tankard from the nearest table and threw it at him, contents and all. Gorkin batted it aside, snatched her up and over his shoulder, and headed for the stairs.
Amid some cheers from around the taproom, the lass kicked, swore, and screamed, but never cried to patrons for help. Beldar decided she knew better.
Gorkin grinned and struck a pose, his prize struggling vainly in the curl of his arm. He made a show of starting to unlace the cods of his breeches, as men laughed and shouted lewd suggestions.
For a moment-just one-the young Roaringhorn noble weighed his life-long quest for an unknown monstrous ally against the sullying of a tavern wench's virtue. And then, with a disgusted growl, Beldar rose to his feet, reaching for his sword.
Another sword sang out faster. The taproom turned in almost perfect unison at the sound to behold an aging warrior in full armor, with the hammer and scales of Tyr bright upon the chest of his surcoat and his eyes shining with terrible wrath.
Holy wrath. A paladin of Tyr drawn by the screams, the doors of the tavern still swinging behind him. Beldar peered at the man. He seemed familiar, as if Beldar had seen him before. In Waterdeep, most likely, but…
The paladin strode forward, and the patrons of the Icecutter sprang to sudden life. Leaping from their chairs, they pulled tables aside in a trice to clear a battlefield of sorts. Bets were shouted, and coins slapped down on a dozen tables.
The paladin paid no heed. Crossing the room in a few long strides, he plucked the girl from the half-ogre's grasp as if she weighed nothing.
Gorkin whirled with a roar and found himself facing a raised and ready sword, the wench safely behind the man wielding it.
Without hesitation the half-ogre sprang back, drew steel, and then plunged at his foe. Steel clanged on steel, sparks flew, the old paladin's blade circled arrow-swift up and under Gorkin's guard, and the half-ogre spat blood in astonishment, stared at the ceiling… and fell, eyes wide in disbelief.
Beldar was tempted to applaud. Four quick, precise movements, done in less time than it took to count them aloud, and Gorkin lay dying. It was a marvel of efficient swordsmanship, if lacking the showy flourishes Beldar favored.
The holy knight wiped his weapon on the sprawled half-ogre, sheathed it, and swept the taproom with a slow, measuring glance. Beldar got the uneasy notion the paladin was judging each man there. His grim expression suggested he saw little difference between those who committed evil deeds and those who merely sat and watched.
Then the paladin looked at the tavernmaster. "The girl leaves with me."
Avarice battled fear in Vornyk's eyes and won. "Aye, as long as you pay her price."
The paladin's cold expression deepened into a killing frost. "Is slavery legal now in Luskan?"
"She has debts," Vornyk growled. "An indenture. Not the same thing."
"I'd sooner challenge a skunk to a pissing contest than argue ethics with the likes of you. Name your price."
That amount was ridiculously high, but the paladin paid it without comment and left the tavern, gently leading the girl by one hand. As she passed Beldar her expression was wary, even cynical, but she probably preferred her chances with a grim stranger than a drunken, violent half-ogre.
Her chances were almost certainly better, the noble thought bitterly, with a champion of Tyr than with Beldar Roaringhorn of Waterdeep, the hero who might have been.
Midsummer, The Year of the Unstrung Harp (1371 DR)
Taeros Hawkwinter strode quickly through Dock Ward, one hand on the comforting hilt of his sword and the other keeping an open vial of scented oil under his nose. Above the sagging rooftops of this lowest-lying, dirtiest part of Waterdeep, the summer sun shone high overhead, and its baking heat brought out an incredible mingling of stinks in the narrow streets. Even more incredibly, no one around Taeros seemed to mind.
On all sides, sweating dockworkers and fishmongers with unspeakable slime smeared on their bellies and boots were breaking off work to seek their midday meal, jostling under the cries of street-sellers hawking highsunfeast: thick-crusted handpies, wooden skewers of still-sizzling roast meat of dubious origin, handwheels of strong cheese, and plump twists of saltbread.
Taeros elbowed his way through them all until he found a particular building-no easy task, given the frenzy of dockside rebuilding after last year's fish-men war.
He tossed a coin to the sour-faced doorguard. The burly warrior gave the noble's black hair and storm-gray Hawkwinter eyes a slow, hard look ere nodding, waving a "fire not" signal to the crossbowman in a window across the street, and stepping aside.
Taeros sprinted up a long, narrow flight of stairs, eager to leave the scents and sounds of the Dock Ward behind. His ascent ended on a small landing before a massive door.
Black with age but richly carved from a single plank of oak, it was obviously a relic of some vanished, far grander building. Taeros took a large black key from a belt-pouch and tried its massive lock. It swung silently open on well-oiled hinges, and he stepped into the room that, he fondly hoped, would become a second home to him and his five closest friends.
This new lair was a far cry from the luxury of the Hawkwinter estates, but Taeros was well pleased with it. The room was spacious and lofty, open to the building's bare rafters and lit by rows of tall windows. Comfortable chairs were scattered about, flanked by small tables ready for tankards or friendly games of dice or cards. Polished wooden cabinets held a suitably lavish assortment of bottles, goblets, and tankards, and a keg of ale sat ready on a metal rack. White wisps of steam, like breath on a wintry morn, curled up from a pottery dish situated just beneath its oak staves.
Taeros nodded approvingly. They'd done well to entrust the furnishing of their new haven to Korvaun Helmfast. True to their family name, Helmfasts were steady and practical folk, and Korvaun bred truer than most. He'd forgotten nothing-including the perpetual ice-smoke, a common but very handy little enchantment that kept ale pleasantly cool and local alchemists in ready coin.
Leaving the door ajar, Taeros strolled to one of the west-side windows. The casements had been thrown open to catch the ocean breeze, and the room was pleasantly cool despite the midsummer heat. The sun had just begun its descent, which meant he'd arrived at precisely the agreed-upon meeting time. Even so, he didn't expect his friends any time soon. They had many virtues, but promptness was not among them. Taeros didn't mind; in fact, he'd been counting on their tardiness.
Between his family's mercantile affairs and jollity with his tardy friends, the young Lord Hawkwinter found few quiet opportunities to indulge his private passion. Taking ink, parchment, and quills from his thigh-satchel, he chose the table in the best light and settled down to write.
The title page was done, brought by the scribe's runner this very morning. "Deep Waters," it proclaimed, in large script embellished with colored inks and surrounded by an elaborate border.
It was a fine thing, certain to capture the eye of any child-even that of Cormyr's young king.
Taeros dipped his quill in black ink and began to write: Humbly offered to King Azoun, fifth of that name to rule Cormyr, a gift from one who is a loyal subject in his heart, if not by his birth.
He considered this phrase, and decided to let it stand. The wording was awkward and the sentiment would infuriate his family and puzzle his friends, but it was truth nonetheless.
In the courts of Cormyr, a young man of noble birth could rise as high as talents and ambition would take him. There, as a counselor, envoy, or even a royal officer, Taeros could have had a hand in the important work of governance.
What awaited him here in Waterdeep but the endless gathering and flaunting of wealth? No one knew who ruled here, and few cared, so long as trade was strong and coffers full.
Taeros swallowed old bitterness and bent to the task at hand. If he was to complete this book by the time young Azoun the Fifth was able to read, he'd scant time to waste on self-pity.
No shortage of heroes plagues your land, he wrote, but it is said that a king must know the ways of many lands if he is to rule his own wisely and well. Waterdeep cannot match Cormyr's thousand-year dynasty and proud and noble traditions, yet our history is not without tales worth telling.
He dipped the quill again and pondered. Where to start? Ancient times when dragons ruled all, or when elves founded the haven of Evermeet? Or perhaps with the first barbarian settlements? Something heroic, certainly, from the days before true heroism in the shadow of Mount Waterdeep was drowned in the endless clinking of coins.
A battle, perhaps. By the gods, Waterdeep had survived enough of those!
Recalling his childhood fascination for glorious sword-swinging tales brought to mind less pleasant memories: the frowns of nursemaids when they found him bent over forbidden books.
No, too stirring a tale would prompt the young king's minders to snatch this book from small royal hands and put it on a high shelf and thence, perhaps, into a waiting hearthfire.
Perhaps a humorous tale? Surely the Obarskyrs shared a strong sense of humor; how else could they have endured the counsel of the wizard Vangerdahast all these years?
No, that wasn't quite the thing, either. The wit of Taeros Hawkwinter was too often a kettle that seethed and scalded. Heated words from afar were even more likely to be swiftly introduced to devouring flames.
Better to start with a nursery tale, one Taeros had favored as a child. Yes, safe enough to pass the judgments of nursemaids. Something they might enjoy reading aloud to a boy king.
Eagerly he began to write, the familiar story flowing swiftly onto the page. This had always been one of his favorite tales. For once, the hero wasn't the strong young chieftain or the beautiful golden maiden. From such sprang worthy heroes, of course, but why not the occasional quick-witted lass?
Or for that matter, an ink-stained nobleman?
Swiftly ascending boots thundered on the stairs: Two pairs, at least, of expensive heels.
Hastily Taeros powdered his page, blotted his quill, capped the ink, and shuffled pages out in a concealing fan over all, leaving a satirical poem-something suitably frivolous he'd dashed off over morning ale, to explain away ink-stained fingers-atop the pile.
Familiar grumbling echoed on the stair, too low-pitched to make out words, but from an unmistakable source: Starragar.
Taeros grinned. Ho, then, Faerun, salute you Starragar Jardeth, tireless voice of dissent! Every circle of friends seemed to have a Starragar. His constant nay-saying annoyed as often as it amused, but that didn't mean the man wasn't occasionally correct. Even a water clock run dry told the right time twice a day.
On cue, Starragar poked his head into the room, surveying it with distaste already riding his pale face. His hard gaze fell upon the portrait over the hearth, and he sighed loudly.
A Hawkwinter grin widened. Last winter, they'd all sat together for a portrait. As a joke, they'd had the painter render Starragar entirely in black and white. In this, art fell not far short of life.
With his lank black hair, customary somber garb, and skin no blaze of sun could brown, Starragar seemed strangely colorless.
The young man just behind Jardeth was his opposite: Korvaun Helmfast was tall and fair-haired, with serious blue eyes and a quiet, thoughtful manner.
"Dock Ward," Starragar said flatly and dismissively, as if that alone was sufficient condemnation.
Korvaun slipped past Starragar. Catching the grin Taeros wore, he greeted his friend with an easy nod.
"Nicely done," Taeros offered, sweeping his hand to indicate the entire room. Starragar's predictable response was a disdainful sniff.
A belly-shaking burst of laughter rolled up the stairwell from below. The friends exchanged delighted smiles, and even Starragar's face lit up. As one the three nobles rushed to the door.
Malark Kothont was mounting the stairs two at a time, despite the large wooden crate in his massive arms. Keeping pace with him was Beldar Roaringhorn, their unofficial leader, darkly handsome face smiling but arms empty.
As usual, an inner annoyance rose in Taeros. Unlike the rest of them-young blades of Waterdeep born to wealth, whose proud merchant families had claimed nobility generations ago-Malark had royal blood. His mother was from the Moonshaes, distant kin to High Queen Alicia. Malark was, quite simply, better than the rest of them. His blindness to this grated on Taeros.
Malark tossed the crate onto a chair and threw his powerful arms wide. "I'm back, lads, and thirsty as a Ruathymaar sailor! I see ale in plenty, but where are the wenches?"
"There're no women in the Moonshaes?" Starragar asked dryly.
Malark winked. "Aye, but I've been there a year and more, haven't I?"
Long enough to acquire considerable bulk, it was evident, not to mention considerable facial hair. Though Malark was only two-and-twenty, he was muscled like a dock worker, and the curly red beard spilling down his tunic would be the envy of many a dwarf.
Beldar clapped him on the shoulder. "Run through all the women, did you? No wonder you've come home. We've business to attend to, but tonight we'll drink the taverns dry."
"Speaking of which-" Taeros untied a small bag from his belt and tossed it to Korvaun. "That's for covering me the night I was coin-short for ale and breakage."
Beldar's face darkened. "Time was-not long gone, either-when a noble's word was coin enough until his steward came to settle up."
"You said something about gifts?" Malark asked with smooth eagerness, eyes wide and bearded face innocent. The others grinned. Beldar lifted an eyebrow to show he'd recognized the ruse, but let his temper drop. Prying up the lid of the crate with his silver-mounted belt knife, the Roaringhorn folded back linen wrappings within and lifted a length of shimmering cloth into view, its rich amber hue as bright as a copper-backed candle. Not bothering to shake it out, he tossed it carelessly to Taeros.
"A cloak. I'm told flame-kindle is a good color for a man with black hair and gray eyes."
Taeros momentarily struck the taunting pose of a coquettish high lady, making a show of smoothing his hair, then shook out the garment. He abandoned playacting to hold it up and raised his eyebrows, impressed. It was very fine, woven with threads that sparkled brightly. He moved it, watching them wink and catch the light.
"Amber and topaz. I found a weaver who can work gemstone into cloth," Beldar replied. "For a suitably lofty stack of coin, she agreed not to sell her wares to anyone but us for the rest of the season. By then, we'll have set the fashion, and anyone who takes up wearing gemweave will be seen as a come-lately."
Turning, the Roaringhorn tossed a black cloak to Starragar. It started to unfold in the air, tumbling into a shimmering cloud of darkness.
"Hematite," Beldar said with a grin. "A stone said to absorb negative energies."
"Let us hope its capacity rivals Malark's thirst, or it'll shatter in a tenday," Taeros said dryly, drawing a ripple of laughter-even from Starragar.
"For Korvaun, what else but true blue?" Beldar continued, handing the fair-haired blade a cloak that displayed a spectrum of jewel shades from pale blue to darkest sapphire. Korvaun nodded and smiled silent thanks.
Malark snatched the next cloak from his friend's hands the moment its emerald hue gleamed forth. "You needn't be saying it. With this hair and beard, I'll look like an overfed leprechaun, but you haven't the imagination to be picking any other color. Jade, is it?"
"Emerald, you ingrate," Beldar told him, scowling with feigned wrath, "and worth far more than you are. As for me, it's rubies and garnet." He swept a glimmering red cloak about his own shoulders and struck a pose.
Taeros did not share Beldar's preoccupation with fashion, but had to admit his friend looked dashing. A fine horseman and keen hunter, Beldar had the sun-browned skin of an outdoors-man and the lean physique of a swordmaster. His dark chestnut hair swept his shoulders, and his small, elegant mustache gave him a raffish air.
Taeros crooked a critical eyebrow. "All you need is an oversized pirate's hat to complete your garb."
"Why d'you think we were late?" Malark whispered, loudly enough to be heard clear down the stairs. "We had to stop in every hattery 'tween here and the Northgate to try on great wagon-wheel things, but no one had a hat quite big enough to suit him."
Beldar shrugged off the resulting laughter. "Well, we have our club," he began, nodding approvingly to Korvaun, "and our name."
"Gemcloaks?" ventured Taeros.
"Of course. The question remains: What shall we Gemcloaks do?"
"Gossip, gamble, drink, wager, and plot little schemes to pry money out of rich and title-hungry merchants-all of which we'll promptly loose in various bad investments," Malark replied promptly. "In short: The usual."
"Add to that list a haven for younger sons," Taeros said glumly. "'Tis my misfortune to have a paragon for an older brother. When Waterdeep was attacked, I was away on a 'pleasure trip,' but Thirayar slew ten sahuagin with a salad fork-or so our proud parents tell the world."
"At least you still have a brother," Starragar said sharply. "Roldo wasn't so fortunate."
An uncomfortable silence fell. Roldo Thongolir was still on his wedding trip. His older brothers had both died in the defense of Waterdeep, leaving him heir. Roldo was a fine companion, the first to lift tankard in tribute and a stout lad at your back in a tavern brawl, but he was fashioned to follow, not to lead, command, or administer. Thongolir elders had swiftly chosen a bride for him, a brisk and competent young woman who would manage the family fortune capably and, no doubt, Roldo as well. Never was a man less suited to the duties of a noble of Waterdeep, but Roldo did as his family bade without a word of complaint.
Beldar cleared his throat sharply and nodded at the crate. "Roldo's is of rose quartz, as he honors the Morninglord."
"A thoughtful gift," Malark said with a grin, "and practical. With one of us sporting pink, we're sure to be invited to a brawl early on. Get the fighting over and done first, and we can devote the better part of the night to the ladies."
"As to fighting," Beldar said firmly, "if Roldo had been here, he'd have acquitted himself better than either of his brothers. 'Tis Waterdeep's misfortune that none of us were here when the attack came."
"And ours," Taeros added under his breath.
Though none of them liked to admit it, they all wore the weight of unintended absence from the battles. Who'd have expected the sea to erupt with scaly beasts bent on destroying Waterdeep?
One and all, they were younger sons of proud Waterdhavian noble houses. Come every spring, until circumstances or family decrees thrust them into posts of responsibility, they were expected to wander and learn the ways of rivals, buyers, and would-be clients in the family trades all across Faerun. If much of their time was spent in festhalls and taverns, did that make them wastrels any idler than their sires had been? Didn't every traveling merchant of Waterdeep do as much, insofar as coins allowed?
A shared sigh of relief arose in the room when Beldar's eyes lit with new mischief. He pointed out the nearest window. Across crowded and ramshackle rooftops, one structure stood out, bright with new timbers and scaffolding-one of many Dock Ward buildings damaged in the sahuagin fighting. Fire had all but gutted it, but restoration was well underway.
"See yon scaffolding? All those ropes?" Beldar smiled. "An excellent place for some fun, I'm thinking…"
"A battle!" Malark said gleefully. Slapping his knees, he bounded to his feet. "Beldar and I against you three."
"Beldar's the best sword among us, and you're the biggest and strongest," Starragar complained.
"Two against three," Beldar pointed out, "and you've got Korvaun. He's nearly as good as I am."
This teasing boast brought a bow from Korvaun and a groan from the others. It occurred to Taeros that-Beldar's claim notwithstanding-if one set aside flamboyance and showmanship, it just might be that Korvaun could best them all. Moreover, Korvaun probably knew as much, but considered it unworthy of mention.
Not that it mattered. The day was fair, and the glorious game unfolding once more! Amid general laughter and swirling of new finery, Taeros tucked his things into his satchel and became the rearguard of the general rush downstairs.
"I cannot believe," Beldar Roaringhorn announced in aggrieved tones, whirling his drawn sword in a gleaming flourish to underscore his pique, "that some fool-head of a shopkeeper needs a building of this size to sell a few sandals."
"And I," Starragar added, "find myself mired in similar disbelief that a shop on Redcloak Lane in Dock Ward can truly sell 'Fine' anything."
"Well, then," Malark roared, drawing a frown from a worker peering down over a fire-scorched sign proclaiming this no mere half-rebuilt shop, but the one and only Candiera's Fine Shoes and Sandals, "we are collectively affronted. Does this establishment deserve a continued existence? I say no!"
"Whereas I," Taeros responded with a grin, entering into the spirit of the thing, "stand against you, sir, and say that it should and must! For humble shops like this, howe'er overblown and spurious their claims, have been the backbone, lifeblood, and ever-rising greatness of the City of Splendors these passing centuries, and bid fair to remain so! To strike at Candiera's Fine Shoes and Sandals is to threaten true Waterdhavians all!"
"Well shoveled," Korvaun chuckled, as hammerings and clatterings fell silent above them, and the faces of workers-younger ones grinning, but older ones frowning apprehensively-began to gather to gaze down at the Gemcloaks.
"Moreover," Starragar added hastily, recalling which side he was supposed to be on, "I can only view any attack upon this establishment's claims, however embellished they might be, to be an assault on the essential character of what it is to be Waterdhavian! Endless mercantile disputation and strife is the very lifeblood of our city! In short, to demand the destruction of this shop is to decry the very soul and core of Waterdeep!"
"What, by all the watching gods…?" a grizzle-bearded carpenter demanded in bewilderment, shouldering between his suddenly idle trustyhands to gaze down and try to discover why they'd all stopped work.
"Foolblades," an older worker spat scornfully, hefting his mallet. In response to his employer's sharp, inquiring frown, he added in explanation, "Young wastrel nobles. At play, as usual."
"And when foolblades play," another worker grunted, "things always get broken."
The carpenter leaned forward and bellowed down at the Gemcloaks, "Ho! Be off with you! Yes, you!"
Malark seemed not to hear. "Well, then," he said grandly, continuing the game, "only one solution remains to men of honor!"
"Indeed," Taeros replied politely. Four blades sang out of scabbards to join Beldar's already-bared steel, and the Gemcloaks drew themselves smoothly into two lines, facing each other in mock menace.
Someone hummed a mock fanfare, and one man from each line glided forward to stand blade-to-blade. With matching grins, Beldar and Taeros indulged in a mocking, finger-crooking parody of the elaborate lace-wristed courtesies of old nobles. Grand flourishes were made, bows performed, and blades crossed delicately, steel kissing steel.
"Insomuch as thy tragic and injurious delusions must fall, have at you, miscreant," Beldar intoned, stepping back to strike a dramatic pose made resplendent by his ruby cloak.
"And to rescue all Faerun against thy grievous and ever-burgeoning errors, have at you," Taeros replied, his fierce grin belying the haughty styling of his words.
With a whoop, Beldar lunged and charged, hacking hard twice at Hawkwinter steel as he came, the drive and direction of his assault seeking to back Taeros over a handy bucket.
Taeros, who'd marked that hazard before crossing steel, sprang over it without looking down. In a swirl of amber finery he retreated nimbly into the litter of boards, chopping-blocks, dangling ropes, and sawhorses that crowded the building's ground floor.
Beldar advanced, kicking the bucket at his Hawkwinter foe. If the bucket chanced to contain fresh and very sticky mulehoof glue, and if Taeros happened to be adept at sliding aside and letting such missiles hurtle past him to strike and topple a leaning sheaf of boards, and thence ricochet hard into the face of the first charging worker to come thundering down a rickety temporary stair, well, that was merely the will of the gods, was it not?
And if the Gemcloaks burst into the wood shavings and barrel-littered worksite with enthusiastic roars, wild slashes, and kicks that upset most of the barrels and toppled an entire run of thankfully unoccupied scaffolding with a deafening crash into the stout stone wall of the shop next door, well, that too was as the gods willed and merely to be expected when the future champions of Waterdeep's honor took the field with blades bared and battle in their eyes.
"Ho!" Malark boomed cheerfully. With wondrous economy of movement he parried two blades as he landed a kick to Starragar's ornately filigreed codpiece.
The midnight-cloaked Voice of Dissent went staggering back, but his yelp of pain was not quite the sob it might have been. The freshest flower of House Jardeth had experienced this particular favorite Kothont attack a time or two before and protected himself accordingly.
As it was, Starragar's helpless retreat took him crashing through and over the low, stout brazier kept alight to warm and soften the carpenter's peg and wedge glues, sending it and an array of battered glue-pots flying.
Flames were springing up here and there among the thick-fallen shavings by the time the carpenter and four of his largest trustyhands came clattering down their temporary stairs with roars of rage, hurling mallets as they came. If a foolblade got knocked senseless or lost a nose to his own foolishness, well that too was in the hands of the gods.
With a whoop Beldar Roaringhorn sent Taeros sprawling over a pile of boards. Emptying a small belt-flask in a single quaff, he spun around in a ruby-red swirl to slice through the stout rope lashings holding the lowest flight of the temporary stairs in place.
Under the weight of onrushing workers, that run of steps plunged to earth. So great was the force of its landing that it rebounded hard and high into the air, then slammed down again amidst splinterings of protest. Those crashes smote the ears almost as hard as the toppled workers hit the board-and-shaving-strewn floor. Almost.
One laborer struck a litter of lumber with a helpless curse that rose into a howl of fear as a trio of propped beams toppled over onto him. They slammed down on the man and then rolled away, leaving him bruised and groaning. Enraged, another trustyhand leaned down from the floor above to send a drop-bucket swinging hard at the back of Korvaun Helmfast's head.
Taeros saw this peril approaching on the end of its stout rope and lunged into a frantic dive that took a startled Korvaun safely to the floor with him. It was merest mischance that someone had left dressed boards atop a row of sawhorses there and that their sudden arrival dislodged the end horse, making the boards dance and rattle with force enough to spill the carpenter's crate of precious hand-forged longnails.
The noisy clatter of that outpouring swept the carpenter into white-hot, shrieking fury. He charged at Taeros and Korvaun heedless of obstacles.
Accordingly, several sawhorses and an entire handcart of wooden pulley-blocks were sent flying, sweeping several workers from their feet to slide and roll helplessly. One man's tumble took Starragar Jardeth's feet out from under him, and the watching gods alone willed that Starragar's flailing blade severed a vital anchor-binding of a scaffold still alive with laborers pounding along its boards and hastening down its ladders.
In a sudden and sickening cacophony of shrieking wood, a corner of that scaffold buckled and swung out from the building, spilling mallets, nails, boards, off-cuts, and shouting trustyhands down into Redcloak Lane, where, a staggering Malark Kothont could not help but observe, as he smote aside a furious laborer with the flat of his blade and puffed his way back into the flame-flickering heart of the deepest shavings where Taeros and Korvaun were enthusiastically thwacking a roaring carpenter with the flats of their own blades, a delighted crowd was beginning to gather.
"Ho!" Malark shouted sportingly as he came, his sword cutting the air with mock ferocity. Workers were fleeing in all directions now, having little taste for fencing sharp steel with battered hand-mallets.
As the worksite speedily emptied of cursing, sweating laborers and Malark bore down on the still-raging carpenter, the blare of a Watch-horn arose to the north: the single note of one patrol summoning another. Redcloak Lane would very soon host more Watch officers than a bugbear had fleas.
Malark halted, abandoning his sport with a shrug. No one had been slain, though if this fool of a carpenter didn't stop snatching gouges and chisels from his belt and throwing them at Taeros Hawkwinter, that might well change…
Malark's speculation was abruptly cut short by a flying chisel. He ducked low then turned his dive into a somersault, bringing both of his boots up hard and fast into the carpenter's gut. They sank therein with satisfying thuds, hurling the retching man away into a pillar, which, being a fresh and temporary prop rather than a stoutly anchored timber, promptly gave way.
The slow but gathering-in-strength groan that followed was truly impressive and heralded the sagging of an entire section of still-charred ceiling. Gemcloaks scampered away with excited shouts but were forced to turn in swirlings of bright finery as the peg-popping, wood-twisting shiftings overhead caused the already leaning Redcloak Lane scaffolding to turn and crumple a little more.
Cries of excitement and alarm arose from the crowd, and the few of them who'd shown signs of drawing daggers or brandishing dock-hooks to join the fray drew hastily back.
The carpenter's belligerence seemed to have left him along with the contents of his stomach, and he now devoted himself to hastily crawling away, coughing, "Help!" and "Fire!" and "Call the Watch!" as he went.
Magnanimously Malark let him go, for there were brighter foes to vanquish-to whit, one Taeros Hawkwinter, a certain Korvaun Helmfast, and the never-to-be-overlooked Starragar Jardeth. With Beldar Roaringhorn at his side, the valiant Malark Kothont would now… and where was Beldar?
Malark caught sight of him through merrily rising flames. The ruby-cloaked Roaringhorn was happily fencing with Starragar, while Taeros and Korvaun raced to snatch and empty the workers' fire-buckets on the most enthusiastic of the conflagrations. Beldar, unaware or uncaring of such trifles, buried his blade deep in a pillar that Starragar had ducked behind.
The Jardeth took advantage of Beldar's frantic tugging to race up a short ladder, snatch another fire-bucket, and empty it over Beldar's head.
Thankfully it proved to be full of water and not pipe-ash and sand, and watching Waterdeep was treated to the sight of the leader of the Gemcloaks spitting water and roaring in damp fury.
Malark opened his mouth to bellow delightedly-and Waterdeep suddenly vanished in a dark, stunningly wet torrent of evil-smelling water.
The scion of House Kothont staggered blindly, clawed the bucket off his head, and glared angrily into the coldly smiling visage of a Watch officer. The man faced Malark with his sword drawn, its blade thrust through the handle of a second full bucket. The dozen hard-faced Watchmen looming behind his leather-armored shoulders held leveled halberds in their hands, and they were not smiling.
"Stand!" another Watchman bellowed from the far side of the building in the tones of one who is accustomed to obedience. "Stand, and down arms all! Reveal your names and business here to the Watch! All others, keep back and keep silence!"
"Stamp and quench!" the officer facing Malark snapped, without turning his head to look at his men. "In there now, swift as you can! Get those fires out!"
The Watchmen charged forward, more than one of them roughly jostling Malark. The officer took one slow step forward and curtly made a 'down arms' gesture to Malark.
Who spread his arms wide, splendid emerald cloak swirling, and asked, "Surely, goodman, you don't mean to separate a noble from his sword?"
The Watch officer's face went carefully expressionless. "Being an officer of the City Watch, lord, I never mean to do anything. I uphold the law, follow orders, and visit consequences on those who do not."
He repeated the 'down arms' gesture. Malark shrugged and let his blade fall to the shavings-littered floor at his feet.
The Watch officer nodded curtly. Good dog, Malark thought, remembering one of his father's huntsmen nodding in exactly the same way to a hound he was training.
"And what might your name be? Lord…?"
"Kothont. Malark Kothont."
Many Watchmen were approaching through the littered building, forming a loose ring around the other Gemcloaks. The Watch officer nodded his head toward them without lowering his blade or taking his eyes off Malark. "And these bright-feathered birds: They're nobles, too?"
"Of course," Malark said airily, spreading his hands in an expansive gesture.
"Of course," the officer echoed, the merest thread of contempt in his level, carefully flat voice.
Catcalls and derisive comments were being shouted from the crowd, but by now there were more Watchmen than dock workers in Redcloak Lane, and when curt "stand away" orders were given, space was cleared.
The complaints of the carpenter rose into a roar as he and his men were included in that shoving of turned-sideways halberds. The ranking Watch commander held up a warning hand and growled, "Patience, goodman," in tones that promised dire consequences for disobedience. The carpenter fell silent.
The commander turned back to Beldar Roaringhorn, who with Taeros and the others had now been herded to stand with Malark Kothont. He made a swift, two-fingered circling gesture, and Watchmen scrambled to take up the Gemcloaks' weapons.
"I say-" Malark protested, and again the warning hand came up, commanding silence.
"Assault, damage to property, and fire-setting," the commander listed almost wearily. "Openly and in public, apparently with pranksome intent. Have you any explanation for this fool-headedness or good reason you should not face magisterial justice forthwith?"
With only the slightest of wincings Beldar stepped forward and gave the commander an easy "We're all reasonable men here" smile. Malark subsided, more than content to let his friend fly this particular hawk.
"Mere fun, nothing more! No harm was meant and little was done. On my honor as a Roaringhorn, we'll be happy to compensate the building's owner for any damage!"
Most of the Watch officers were eyeing the Gemcloaks as if they'd like to toss the young nobles into the nearest rat-infested dungeon, yet in a civilized city, money smoothed many rough roads, and men of means could send their stewards around to settle any unpleasantness.
On the other hand, Malark mused, perhaps the city was too civilized. In Waterdeep, things were done in sly roundabout ways that didn't suit him at all. In the wilderlands of his mother's kin, men dealt with matters, promptly and openly, with none of this whining dependence upon a council of anonymous rulers.
Here, a carpenter could glare at Malark with eyes holding deadly promise, and a nobleman could be deprived of his sword, yet knowing Waterdeep, most likely both of them would die not settling their differences blade to blade but eating a stew poisoned by an unseen aggrieved party.
The Watch commander made a gesture, and the Gemcloaks' weapons were proffered to them, hilts-first.
"Stand back, men," he said softly. "Restitution has been offered. These men are free to go."
Beldar sheathed his sword, and his companions followed suit. "We meant no harm," he repeated.
"Aye," the commander said dryly, his eyes boring into those of Beldar Roaringhorn like two contemptuous daggers. "Your sort never do."
Morning came slowly to Dock Ward. Its close-huddled buildings cast stubborn shadows the guttering street-lanterns did little to dispel. Here and there roosters caroled like conjurers summoning the sun. Muttered curses followed most of their crowings amid clatters of tools. Some folk who dwelt here had to rise early to earn coin enough to eat.
Mrelder headed for Redcloak Lane, marveling at the changes a year could bring. The last time he'd stumbled wearily along here, seeking his way back to Candlekeep, most of these buildings had been charred and smoking ruins.
The rebuilt structures had stone walls to twice a man's height, crowned with one or more stories of stout timber. Most roofs were of new thatch, but the fires hadn't been forgotten: there were a few runs of slate tiles too. Mrelder wondered how much such a roof would add to the cost of his new establishment.
He stopped where Candiera's Fine Shoes and Sandals had stood. Its rubble had been carted away, and a new timber frame soared to impressive heights above a repaired foundation of dressed stone. However, roofless openwork timbers kept a man a trifle damp and drafty, even in fabled Waterdeep.
One of the workers shifting and hammering boards in that littered interior saw him and strode over, mallet in hand.
"Have you business here?"
Mrelder smiled faintly. "I'd fondly hoped to be doing business here before the midsummer fairs, but it seems the work goes slowly."
The man's eyes widened. "Be you the sorcerer who bought out Candiera?"
"The same. Would you be Master Dyre?"
A passing trustyhand grinned at them. "If yer offering to magic him into Dyre, he'd probably take you up on it-leastwise, if'n he could keep his own nose." There were roars of laughter from workers all around.
"I take it Master Dyre's not here. May I… look about?"
The carpenter shrugged. "It's yours, bought and paid for. Don't be climbing the frames or pulling on any ropes, though; they're not secured proper."
Mrelder nodded. "Fair enough. I want a look around back to see what room we'll have for loading carts and such."
"Back there? Done, all but some carting away. Mind your step and take a torch-it's dark as Cyric's heart down by yon well."
"Oh? What befell the glowpaint?"
"Probably wore out. Everything does. I can tell you true there was no magic about the place when we started. Master Dyre always makes sure; says it costs him less coin to hire a wizard to spy out magic than to pay for his own burial if he blunders into an old ward."
"A prudent man," Mrelder observed.
Accepting a torch, he made his way through ankle-deep shavings to light it from a small fire in a copper brazier near the workers' glue pots, and picked his way on through the litter to the well house.
It, too, had changed. Beyond a new door, neatly dressed stone had replaced the old chipped steps. As the carpenter had said, the glowpaint was gone.
As Mrelder glanced at the well, his heart sank. It had a lid so new that the wood was still pale, the brass fasteners bright. Beside it, the old cover lay in a rotting heap.
There was no sign of the Candlekeep rune on those moldering shards. The magic was gone. The wood had probably crumbled when the enchantment was dispelled.
Mrelder sighed. No doubt spell-ways into that great fortress temple were crafted to vanish if any magic was worked on them.
Or perhaps the monks now believed they had reason to distrust him.
Mrelder shook his head. No, they had applauded his decision to apply himself to the study of sahuagin. After a year, when he'd declared his intent to fare forth to gather tales of sahuagin attacks and compile information about their magic and methods, the First Reader had given his personal approval and even modest funding. No, these doubts were his fancies, no more.
He lifted his torch high. To his astonishment, its flickering light fell on a fresh oval of solid stone wall. The tunnel was gone!
Mrelder rushed around the well to feel and then pound the stones-large, solid blocks, each so tightly fitted to its neighbor that he doubted a dainty lady's dagger could slip between them.
Mrelder stared around the well house in stunned disbelief and then turned, rushed up the stairs, and ran back through the worksite until he could catch the sleeve of a passing worker.
It was the carpenter, who blinked at the ferocity of Mrelder's question: "What happened to the well house?"
The carpenter frowned. "Dyre oversaw that rebuilding himself. The stonework should be tighter'n a dwarf moneylender."
"It is, in fact, too tight," Mrelder snapped.
The carpenter looked incredulous, so he invented quickly: "I plan to sell well-aged cheeses. They require a cool, damp place to ripen."
The man's face cleared. "Well, that's fine, then. You'll have a big root cellar yonder when we're done." He glanced swiftly about and then leaned close and murmured, "There was a tunnel in yon well house leading to gods-only know. 'Tis good fortune for you Master Dyre closed it off. What was found there, you don't want to have come a'calling."
Mrelder's heart thudded. He slipped a silver coin from his purse, turning his hand discreetly to show it to the carpenter alone. "A prudent man knows the dangers he avoids as well as those he faces."
"'Twas a token," the man said softly, his eyes on the coin. "From Those Who Watch, whose noses you don't want poking into your affairs."
"The token was black," Mrelder said softly, and the carpenter nodded.
Mrelder managed a smile and held out his hand. "My thanks for your help." They shook, and the silver changed palms.
With that, Mrelder waved farewell and strode away. On his return to Candlekeep a year ago, he'd sought in vain for the little black helm Piergeiron had given him, and in the end concluded it must have held some magic and so had been stripped from him by the defenses of the gate.
It seemed he'd dropped the charm in the well-tunnel, and the workers had taken it as a warning from the First Lord to keep away.
What to do now? Requesting the tunnel be re-opened might establish him as a man with ties to… well, to those whose noses were best kept out of common folks' business. That sort of reputation would draw attention he could ill afford.
By now it was bright morning, and the streets were filling quickly. Mrelder walked briskly, dodging the inevitable creaking hand-carts and sleepy-eyed, shuffling dockers as he made for the house he and his father were to share.
Golskyn had pointed out, sensibly enough, that they'd need more than one base in the city. For several tendays now his father's followers-mongrelmen who served the priest with hound-like devotion-had been busily connecting divers lodgings and storehouses with new tunnels. Most who served Golskyn couldn't walk any city openly and so had become well versed in the lore of dark places, including tunneling and hiding all traces of such work.
Mrelder would send some of them to Redcloak Lane when the harbor fogs rolled in and full darkness came to begin a tunnel between the root cellar the carpenter had pointed out and the stone passage where the tiny sahuagin lay waiting.
Thinking of what was to come, Mrelder felt himself smiling.
The sahuagin would regain its formidable size and find itself joining a certain young sorcerer in a new war.
More accurately, selected parts of the sahuagin would join with Mrelder.
"No work ever got done," Varandros Dyre growled at the two apprentices scurrying at his heels, "by a man who spends more time on his arse than his feet. That's why we go from site to site, afoot so the lads don't see us coming three streets off! And mark me, young Jivin, our little visits are why Dyre's Fine Walls and Dwellings can afford to hire the likes of you and Baraezym here-and why I, the gods help me, can afford the fine gowns my daughters so like to wear."
Dyre shouldered through the thickening crowds at the mouth of Redcloak Lane, clearing a path for his two 'prentices like a hard-driven coach. Not much stood in Varandros Dyre's path. The sheer energy of the man was enough to sweep aside obstacles and draw eyes to him.
Not that he was a pleasure to behold. Gray-haired and sharp of glance, Dyre had the sun-weathered hide and battered fingers of the Master Stoneworker he was, and his nose was so large that Baraezym, his older apprentice, had once described it as "the snout of a shark." Those words came into Jivin's mind whenever he glanced at his master, leaving him on the verge of grinning.
Jivin's life was hardly one of ease, but much could be learned from such a master. Building after building had been raised from the rubble of last year's fighting under the Dyre banner, and Baraezym and Jivin knew very well Varandros had taken them on because he needed men who could write, count coins and see approaching menaces and swindles, not trustyhands who could lay stones and hammer pegs and nails with keen-eyed skill. He already owned scores of those.
Baraezym and Jivin knew something else: Dyre was smarter than he liked to appear and had been testing them with deliberate ledger errors and casually "forgotten" coins left in coffers here and strongboxes there. He'd been watching to see if they'd keep even a single copper nib for themselves.
Like a storm wind or Mount Waterdeep, Varandros Dyre loomed up fierce and unyielding. Just now, he'd lifted his snout sharply to gaze down the crowded street, toward the distant scaffolding that was their destination.
"What boar-buttock-brained idiot braced that mess?" he snapped, rounding on them as if his two apprentices were personally responsible for the sloppy lashings. Without waiting for replies, he whirled around and set off at a speed that forced them to trot to keep up.
"Baraezym!" he growled, over his shoulder. "Tell Jivin what's wrong with that scaffolding!"
The older apprentice peered. "Uh, broken boards… loose lashings." He frowned. "It looks almost as if it fell down, or came close to, then got dragged back up into place with ropes and braced with a few boards. Everything's…"
Baraezym flung up both hands, as if his fingers could snatch the words he wanted from empty air. He succeeded only in knocking a hat off the head of a hurrying sailor on his right and unintentionally slapping the cheek of a heavily cloaked woman on his left.
The sailor cursed as he leaned and snatched his hat out of the air before it could fall and be lost. The woman spun around to lessen the force of Baraezym's blow and said huskily, "Hey, there! I charge good coin for that, y'know!"
Baraezym's stammered apologies were lost in his own hurried pursuit of his master, and in Dyre's fiercely approving, "Exactly! Yon work's sagged and been hauled back into place, rather than rebuilt properly! Oh, heads are going to roll!"
The master of Dyre's Fine Walls and Dwellings stopped dead in mid-stride, so suddenly that Jivin nearly slammed into him. The Shark was staring up, but barely had time to gape before broken boards came tumbling down through the air. Trailing a startled shout, a workman plunged after them.
From high above Redcloak Lane the man fell, mallet tumbling, and disappeared behind the crowd filling the street with their hand-carts and shoulder-perched baskets.
The crash and clatter was surprisingly loud, and heads turned all over Redcloak Lane. Varandros Dyre was already racing through the gawkers, spitting a stream of unfinished, crowded-atop-each-other curses. When he fetched up against a close-harnessed team of three mules, it was the mules that were brought to a rocking halt.
Their carter spat a curse at Dyre as the builder shoved his way past, but Dyre's roared reply was so fierce that the man recoiled. Baraezym and Jivin gave the startled man apologetic grins as they hastened after their master.
They burst free of the press of bodies to find Dyre in the midst of a ring of workers, grimly promising a groaning man at their feet his healing would be paid for, every last shard and dragon of it. The man smiled, nodded, and promptly slipped into senselessness.
Varandros Dyre looked up with a black storm brewing in his eyes. He gave the grizzle-bearded carpenter a glare that should have spat lightning.
"D'you call that scaffolding, Marlus? For once I trust you to raise woodworks alone, just once, and you-"
"'Twas nobles again!" a worker burst out. "Young louts with bright cloaks and blades! Playing at being swordsmen! They had our works that side right down, an' chased us with swords and tried to burn the place down, too! This side just slumped 'n' hung, and we spent so much time getting the other up again…"
Dyre's eyes never left those of the carpenter. "Is this true?" he asked quietly.
Marlus nodded, his own anger red and clear on his face. "Every word! Glue ruined, boards broken, everything thrown down, and they laughed at us and tried to sword us, like we were little goblins running about for their amusement!"
Jivin waited almost eagerly for the explosion. The Shark was, he thought, more terrifying when he was calm and quiet.
"And the Watch? Did they happen along, perchance?"
"They did," Marlus said heavily, "and broke it up. If they hadn't, we'd never have got the fires out."
"And they took our happy noble lads where?"
"Nowhere," another worker said sourly. "They let 'em all go. Oh, the Watchcaptain was as cold as winter ice, but they went free, for all that."
"I see," Dyre murmured, strolling forward into the building site as if idly enjoying a walk across a flower-meadow. Hands clasped behind his back, he ambled through shavings, scorch-marks, and hastily restacked lumber.
"Mark me, Jivin," he said softly and suddenly, never turning to check if his younger apprentice was right behind him or seeming to care that a ring of men were moving as if glued to his shoulders, intent on his every breath. "Mark me: this is the last time a pack of noble pups will sport with my hard-working men. Young idiots, too coin-heavy to work and too stupid and bone-idle to think of worthwhile spendings of their time… so they work mischief with Varandros Dyre, and cost me coin. Oh yes, this is enough, and more than enough."
Baraezym and Jivin exchanged unhappy glances, silently and instantly agreed on one thing: they feared this dangerously calm and quiet Varandros Dyre far more than the loudly authoritarian one.
Dyre's boot struck against something sharp amid the shavings. He bent and plucked up a slender, finely made dagger. Its pommel was shaped like a spear point transfixing a star, and on both sides of the spear-blade was a complicated monogram of curlicues and interlaced letters.
Varandros Dyre was neither herald nor calligrapher, but he was a master at looking past fancy trimmings to what lay beneath. "M-K," he murmured, and raised both of his eyebrows as he looked slowly around at his silent, gathered workers. "This belongs to none of you, I trust?"
There was a general rumble of denial, but it was hardly necessary. No one among them could afford so costly a weapon, and none were foolish enough to carry a dagger that could have tumbled from the pages of some fancy tome of heraldry. The shaped hilt was clearly adapted from the proud device of some house or other.
And proud houses could be traced.
Varandros Dyre smiled, slowly and unpleasantly. For the very first time in his life, Jivin did not envy the nobility.
"It goes against my sacred beliefs," Golskyn said sternly, "to waste good money and evil monsters."
Wrapped in his long, deep-hooded cloak, the old priest was striding along the docks at a pace Mrelder, though taller, was hard-pressed to match. His father had stepped off a ship from Chult only a few breaths ago but had already found a dozen ways to express disdain for Mrelder's plans.
"There'll be no waste!" the younger man protested. "I've studied sahuagin for over a year and read all the known lore. I've been trying spells-"
"Trying spells!" the priest echoed scornfully. "Better you should approach the most fearful gods known to man and monster and in holy fervor demand what you desire."
"I'm no priest!"
"As well I know! You had to be a wizard, mucking about with bat dung and bad poetry!"
The young man repressed a sigh. "No wizard, either. I'm a sorcerer, Father."
"The whim of the gods at your birthing, nothing to boast about. A man is what he makes of himself, and you are still no different from the boy who turned tail and fled ten years ago!"
Mrelder looked around for something-other than his own shortcomings-that might capture Golskyn's attention. "Look, Father! See yon colossus standing sentry on the mountain? 'Tis one of the famous Walking Statues of Waterdeep. When I was last here, it looked like a gigantic man. In honor of the victory over the sahuagin and as a warning to other would-be invaders, Waterdeep's archmage re-fashioned it into a sahuagin."
The priest nodded approvingly. "Man into monster. Perhaps I might find common cause with this archmage of yours."
Golskyn and Khelben Arunsun together. The thought left Mrelder unsure whether to laugh or shudder.
Spying the guild badge he'd been looking for, he hailed a passing carter and gave instructions for his father's strongchests to be delivered to their house.
The former rooming house wasn't far off. It had been secretly purchased by the Amalgamation Temple almost a year ago, after Mrelder had convinced Golskyn to turn his attention to the fabled City of Splendors. Several Temple followers had been living there for months preparing for this day.
His father set off after the cart without another word, leaving his son to hasten behind. The dockside streets were their usual crowded chaos, but Golskyn dodged as adroitly as any seasoned Dock Warder, his hood moving like the beak of a crow as he peered this way and that. Mrelder had no need to look inside it to know that his father's face would be as calm and set as old stone.
Mrelder often wondered what Lord Unity of the Amalgamation was thinking behind that stonelike mask. It was unlikely to be anything gentle, caring, or merciful. His father never had time to waste on such weaknesses.
The last of the strongchests was vanishing inside the rooming house as they arrived. A tall man, close-wrapped in a cloak, barred their way at the door. He was unremarkable but for the breadth of his shoulders and the girth of his chest; when he squared himself, he almost filled the doorway.
This sentinel gave Golskyn and Mrelder a glance, and his eyes, of a gray so pale it was almost silver, took on a reverent gleam.
Quickly ushering them in, he shut and barred the door and then bowed low to Golskyn.
"Lord Unity," he murmured, "we've long awaited your arrival. You're well, I trust?"
"I am better," Golskyn said meaningfully. Sweeping back his hood, he touched the black patch covering his left eye. "You have learned well, Hoth. Your work is excellent. The grafts were a great success, as always." He gave Mrelder a sidelong glance and added, "With minor exceptions."
The big man bowed again. "I am gratified."
"And perhaps curious?" the priest asked slyly. He removed the patch, revealing a bulging crimson orb. His mismatched gaze swept the room and settled on a small table set with a light welcoming meal: fresh bread, a cold joint, a bowl of summer berries and a smaller bowl of clotted cream.
"Fresh jam would be a pleasant addition," Golskyn commented. The red orb glowed-and a thin crimson beam erupted from his eye.
A flash more fleeting than lightning erupted from the berries and left them at a seething boil.
Hoth exclaimed in delight. His cloak parted as the three pairs of arms that had been folded neatly across his chest and belly rose to applaud.
"You've achieved remarkable control," he said proudly.
"It was hard-won. Mastering a beholder's eye is no easy task." Golskyn turned to Mrelder. "Hear me well: what you propose will be nearly as difficult."
"I'm ready," his son insisted.
"So you've said, time and again. How many times should precious seed be sewn in soil too weak to see it sprout?"
Rage rose in Mrelder, almost choking him. He turned away quickly to hide his anger and made the movement into a doffing of his cloak. A hunchbacked mongrelman whose warty, toadlike head was topped by an improbable pair of fox ears stepped out of a doorway and padded silently forward to take the garment.
"Before you dismiss my notion, Father," he said, "come see the sahuagin." Stepping into an archway that pierced a very thick wall, Mrelder pressed the right two stones and swung open the door hidden in one side of the arch.
Wordlessly Hoth held out a lit lantern. Mrelder took it with a nod of thanks and led the way down a steep stair. The air was cool and smelled of damp earth and stone.
The descending way soon started to spiral, going as deep as two buildings atop each other, until it ended in a room that had lain dark and forgotten beneath the rooming house and, more than likely, several buildings earlier.
It was dark no longer. Hanging lanterns glimmered in a chamber large enough for more than twenty men to dwell in spacious comfort. A dozen mongrelmen awaited them, wearing the dark cloaks of acolytes of the Amalgamation.
Their reverent gazes followed Lord Unity as he strode slowly around the room, expressionlessly examining cages, metal-topped tables, shelves of weapons and tools and racked glass vials, and even small floor-drains underfoot that emptied into yet deeper places.
"We found this while digging the tunnel from Redcloak Lane," Mrelder said proudly. "There are two ways in: the stair we've just taken and a tunnel yonder. I trust it will serve you and Hoth well for the holy work ahead." Slapping the nearest wall, he added, "Private and defensible, these walls are more than three feet thick, of solid stone, with the streets of Waterdeep a long way above our heads."
Which means, he thought silently, no one will be able to hear the screams.
Golskyn turned. "As yet," he remarked almost idly, "I see no sahuagin."
Mrelder entered the tunnel and stepped into an alcove, lifting his lantern to light up a large raised cistern capped with iron bars. "At least twenty feet deep. Water storage, perhaps; this place was built as a hidden refuge."
Golskyn strolled over to take a closer look.
"'Ware, Father," Mrelder murmured.
As he spoke, four thick, green-scaled arms thrust up through the bars at Lord Unity's face, talons flexing to seize and rend. The old priest flung himself to the floor, rolling away with surprising agility.
He came up smiling. "A live sahuagin! Who'd have thought it possible?"
Mrelder bit back the urge to sarcastically thank his father for having such confidence in him and instead asked, "Shall we harvest the limb?"
Mrelder signaled to a ready trio of mongrelmen. One took a pinkfin from a large bucket, and another hefted a heavy chain, threaded through a metal ring in the ceiling directly over the cistern, that ended in a barbed hook. With deft brutality the first mongrelman transfixed the fish with the hook, and raised this squirming, dripping bait for all to see.
His two fellow acolytes faced each other across the cistern, each holding a docker's reach-claw: a metal rod ending in two open, claw-like metal pincers, fitted with a trigger-wire that controlled a spring holding the pincers open.
"Ingenious," Golskyn murmured, seeing what they meant to do. "Begin."
The cloaked acolytes started to chant. The strange result was more akin to nightmares than bardcraft, half-spoken and half-sung over a jagged, ever-changing rhythm.
Hoth drew his sword and extended it, long and slender, toward the chanting mongrelmen.
Then Golskyn began to sing, a thin thread of melody that twined around the chant, goading it to a higher pitch and intensity. Like foul incense it rose, prayers to gods whose names Mrelder still did not know.
Slowly Hoth's sword began to glow, not with heat but with a cruel, pale light: divine magic. Mrelder nodded to the acolytes by the cistern.
The mongrelman who'd baited the hook hauled on the chain, lowering the dying pinkfin to dangle over the iron bars, gasping and writhing.
The taloned hands lunged for the fish.
The mongrelmen flanking the cistern moved just as swiftly. A pair of triggers snapped, and iron claws clanged shut around sahuagin wrists.
Its hissing, snarling bellow of rage was almost lost in the swelling chant. Still singing, all the acolytes rushed forward to haul on one reach-claw, pulling one sahuagin arm well up through the bars. Tugging and singing, they managed to pull it flat against the iron grate. The manacled sahuagin thrashed and struggled but was overmatched.
Hoth strode close, glowing sword lifted on high. He hefted it, two of his hands on the hilt and one on each crosspiece, his thews rippling-and then brought the blade down.
Scales, flesh, and bone were shorn through as if they were so much butter, and the arm bounced on the stone floor, severed above the elbow. The cleanly sliced stump vanished back through the bars, and a bubbling wail of agony trailed away into the unseen waters.
Mrelder was already peeling off his tunic. He lay down quickly on one of the tables, extending his arm. Strong hands held it firmly in place as he closed his eyes and composed himself, silently reciting the mind-chant an old monk of Candlekeep had taught him.
It was working. He was drifting… down… deeper and darker, all sound fading. He was only dimly aware of the continuing chant now…
He'd spent hours practicing this, hoping that if his mind was settled just so, his body might accept the new limb.
White-hot pain exploded in Mrelder's skull like a fireball, dashing his wits and will to screaming froth in the void, tatters that writhed, faded… and were lost in the deepening, silent darkness.
Varandros Dyre leaned across his gleaming desk and snapped, "Be welcome!" with a fire in his eyes that betokened no good for someone.
All the men taking chairs in this unfamiliar upper office wondered just who Dyre held such ill will toward, and hoped they'd not be caught standing too close to whoever it was when the old Shark struck.
Dyre noticed Karrak Lhamphur eyeing the nearest of the small, gleaming forest of decanters on the curving table before the arc of guest-seats, and waved at it grandly. "Drink, friends!"
Lhamphur and Dorn Imdrael shot him similarly suspicious glances, but it was Lhamphur who spoke up. "What's the occasion, Var? And why here, in such secrecy, instead of at your grand little citadel on Nethpranter's Street? Something you don't want your 'prentices to hear?" He glanced around curiously. "What is this place, anyway? A new venture you want our coins for?"
The Shark's eyes flashed, and-just for a moment-the room sang with tension as every guest awaited the expected explosion.
Then Varandros Dyre smiled and slowly reached for one of the two decanters on his desk, and men breathed in the room again.
"No to your last, Master Smith! Dyre's Fine Walls and Dwellings owns this building free and clear, thanks to the successes we've all shared in this season. Just as Lhamphur's Locks and Gates recently acquired a warehouse for metals to meet the need for gates and hinges and doorplates, I find myself in need of a place to store cut and dressed stone. I can't just leave it lying about in the streets, now can I?"
This caused an overly eager eruption of chuckles from Dyre's closest friend, Hasmur Ghaunt, which thankfully distracted the Shark from noticing the expression that passed momentarily over the face of Jarago Whaelshod, the last-invited of his four guests. The proprietor of Whaelshod's Wagons privately held the view that to save sharing coin with him whenever possible, Varandros Dyre frequently did just that. The Watch usually came to Master Carters to inquire as to how piles of building-stones came to be blocking the narrow streets of the southerly wards of the city, rather than bothering the fastest-rising builder in Waterdeep.
"No," Dyre said heartily, "I don't want your coins, yet I do want to share some news with you, and the words we may exchange shouldn't be overheard by anyone. My home comes furnished with not only 'prentices but daughters and servants, whose hearing, I shouldn't have to tell any of you, can be far keener than even their tongues."
Some chuckles arose. Of the five men in the room, only Hasmur Ghaunt was unmarried, and only Dyre had buried a wife. All of them had been blasted, at one time or another, by the dragonlike temper of Goodwife Anleiss Lhamphur.
"My lasses'll be along later to bring us food to go with this death-to-thirst, but we'll hear them arrive and have to let them in: there'll be no listening at keyholes."
The four guests nodded. Jacks were drained and set down thoughtfully, and Dyre waved at his guests to have more and drink freely.
Surprisingly, it was the swift-to-roister Dorn Imdrael who put his hand over the top of his jack and suggested, "Before we all get roaring, suppose you tell us why we're here. I prefer to be prudent when giving my aye or nay."
Dyre nodded. "Well said. Of course." He looked meaningfully over at the closed and barred door they'd all come in by. It was the only door in the room.
His glance made Hasmur Ghaunt lean forward in almost breathless haste to gabble, "I barred the door like you said! And set the alarm-cord, too!"
Dyre nodded his thanks and planted his hairy, battered hands on the table. "Yestermorn," he began, "a man of mine was injured falling off a scaffold in Redcloak Lane."
His guests winced, frowned, and made sympathetic sounds. The days of hushing up deaths and maimings of workers were gone or going fast. A hurt man meant coin paid out for no work, and hard questions in the guildhall-or harder questions from the Watch.
"Boards broke and spilled him off works that had got all twisted the night before and near-fallen into Redcloak Lane."
"Wasn't that Marlus and his crew?" Lhamphur asked disbelievingly. "I thought he was one of the best-"
"He is. A pack of noble pups at play set their swords on him and his hammer-hands, and started fires, too! One scaffold came right down, but this second one they hauled back into place and braced, and I hardly blame them. But for the whim and grace of Tymora, and the Watch happening along in a timely manner for once, the whole place would have burned!"
There were gasps and whistles at that, and more than one man reached for a decanter.
"As you know," Dyre went on, his voice on the edge of a snarl, "this is hardly our first brush with Waterdhavian nobility."
Lhamphur pursed his lips. "They walked free?"
"They did. The Watch gave them cold words but let them go. Utterly unpunished. One of them made noises about restitution, and that was the end of it."
Whaelshod shook his head. "They've got to be stopped," he growled, and heads nodded around the room.
Dyre's was one of them, as the grim beginnings of a smile crept onto his face. Two seasons back, some idiot nobles had taken it into their heads that racing each other on their most wild-spirited horses from the Court of the White Bull to the South Gate was a daringly sporting thing to do. The fastest way out of the Court was down Salabar Street, and Whaelshod's Wagons stood on west-front Salabar. Everyone knew Jarago Whaelshod had lost beasts and harness and had one man injured.
"I don't know how prudent 'twould be to complain about it, though," Lhamphur said slowly, twirling his jack in his hands.
Dyre suppressed a knowing smile. Nobles bought the elaborate and expensive gates crafted by Master Smith Karrak Lhamphur, and nobles paid the highest coin for copies of keys made with utter discretion, which half the city knew to be Lhamphur's special skill and greatest source of income.
Instead of sneering, Dyre nodded. "Right you are, Karrak. We've complained before and gotten nowhere. I'm through complaining."
All of his guests looked up sharply. This time, Varandros Dyre did smile.
"Something must be done," he told them. "And mark me: this time, something will be done."
The proprietor of Ghaunt Thatching, normally Dyre's smiling and enthusiastically tail-wagging follower, frowned at his friend a little doubtfully. "Uhmm… Var? What d'you mean?"
Varandros Dyre sat back, regarded his guests over the large and battered ruin of his nose, drew in a deep breath, and began.
"Waterdeep's a city of coins, hard work, and the rise and fall of trade. How is it that we who sweat and strain for every last nib and shard suffer the antics of idle young men who ruin property and harm hard workers and cost us all coin?"
His voice had sharpened to match the fire in his eyes. Dyre drew himself up as firmly as Mount Waterdeep and answered himself. "Because we know speaking up or seeking justice is a waste of time and marks us as men to be hurt, ruined, or driven out of the city. Why? Because, deep down, we know the Masked Lords, who purportedly rule us all in fairness and supposedly number among their ranks many dungsweepers and humble crafters from Trades Ward garrets as well as master merchants and the occasional noble, are in truth all nobles or powerful mages! The Lords keep the city safe and firm-ruled and orderly not for the common weal but to guard the power they have-and they suffer none to rise and challenge it! The tales of humble folk wearing the Masks of Lordship are mere fancies intended to accomplish just one thing: to keep any Waterdhavian not nobly born from rising up against the rule of the Lords!"
He leaned forward again, eyes blazing. "Now, I've no more interest in ruling Waterdeep than the rest of you, but I have had it up to here-" He slashed one hand across his throat, "-with standing idly by, swallowing my lost coins and trying to smile into the foolish young faces of those who openly despise and ridicule us because of the names they happen to have been born with, while this goes on and on, and we await a real disaster! City blocks set aflame, scaffoldings falling with scores of good men on them… as our taxes rise year by year, those who're driven beyond prudent silence are savagely put down-"
There were grim nods across the room, as everyone remembered Thalamandar Master-of-Baldrics, and the body of Lhendrar the weaver being fished out of the harbor, and…
"— and the nobles grow more and more reckless and steeped in their depravities, as they jeer at us from behind the wall of faceless Lords! How many of them wear the Masks of Lords? How many?"
"True," Imdrael muttered, "all true, and said before, by many of us, even without…" He held up his jack in salute, to indicate the fine wine it held.
"True," Lhamphur echoed, "and to my mind almost all the Lords are probably nobles, yet pointing fingers at rot and corruption is one thing, and doing something about it is another. The doing is what can get us all killed."
"So what," Jaeger Whaelshod asked heavily, as if Lhamphur's words had been an actor's cue, "d'you want of us, Var?"
The Shark looked across his gleaming desk at them, juggling something in his large-fingered hands. Almost lazily, he tossed that something into the air.
It flashed back the light of the candle-lamps as it came. The merchants holding their jacks of wine, men of Waterdeep all, drew sharply back from what they saw in an instant was battle-steel, and let it bite deep into the table not far in front of Karrak Lhamphur and stand there quivering.
The weapon was a slender, finely made dagger with a curiously shaped pommel: a speartip topped by a star, bearing an ornate monogram on the sides of the spear blade.
"M… K," Lhamphur deciphered it frowningly. "Kothont."
"Dropped by one of them, in his haste to carve up Marlus," Dyre told them. "They don't hesitate to draw steel on us."
The proprietor of Ghaunt Thatching had gone as pale as the linens his sisters were wont to hang across his balcony on Simples Street. Cradling his jack in trembling hands, he asked faintly, "But what do you want us to do, Var? Surely not-not-" He nodded at the dagger wordlessly, his meaning clear enough: take up arms.
Dyre smiled and shook his head. "Nothing so drastic. I want us to work together, friends, to make a new day dawn over Waterdeep. Let us be that 'New Day.' Not to butcher Lords, nor cause unrest in the streets, for how does that help hard-working merchants make coin? No, I've something simpler and fairer in mind: to make the folk of the streets demand, more and more loudly, until 'tis the Lords who'll have to agree to the changes we seek or draw their blades and show us all their true villainy."
Lhamphur looked very much like a man who had impatient oaths dancing ready on his tongue, but asked only, "What changes, Var?"
"I want the Masks to come off. Lords should vote openly, in front of anyone who wants to walk in off the street and watch, and I want the Lords to stand for election just like guildmasters-say, every ten summers."
Eyes narrowed, then brightened again.
"But then everyone would know how they voted!"
"Exactly. Lords who rule unfairly, to fill their own purses, or to reward themselves and their rich noble friends, would have to answer to honest men."
Jarago Whaelshod set down his jack very carefully and announced, "That, friend Dyre, is a New Day I'll work to bring about."
"Aye! Me, too!"
" Yes!" Ghaunt shouted, coming to his feet for an instant before realizing how loudly he'd bellowed and freezing into silence, as stiff as the monument on a paladin's tomb.
"Oh, sit down," Dyre told him irritably. "There's no harm done, for there's none as can hear us here."
In the forehall at the bottom of the stairs, a slender hand deftly unhooked the alarm-cord. Three pairs of hastily bared feet ascended a few steps, and three heads bent nearer still, so as not to miss a single word from the locked room above.
Muttering an apology, Hasmur Ghaunt hastily sat down again, almost toppling a decanter.
Imdrael shot him a look of contempt and asked Dyre in a low, eager murmur, "So what will we of the New Day do, exactly?"
"Are you with me?" Dyre asked, just as eagerly. "Each and every one of you? Guild oath?"
His four guests almost fell over each other's tongues giving their emphatic oaths, two of them nicking palms and slapping down blood onto the table in the manner of their guilds. Decanters danced, and Dyre's smile grew.
"You know the Lords control the very sewers beneath our feet?"
Every Waterdhavian knew that, and the four merchants said so.
"Wherever the sewers don't run just to suit them in their spying and rushing bands of thugs here and there by night to silence unruly commoners, they cause passages to be dug. As a Master Stoneworker, I see much of the ways beneath the cobbles, and I swear to you: this is truth."
Four heads nodded-and from somewhere below came the sharp creak of a board, as if someone was on the stairs.
Five heads turned with frowns of alarm to listen intently.
And heard only silence.
The stillness stretched until Dyre stirred and muttered warningly, "For the words we've traded here this night, we could be the next unruly commoners to be silenced, so-"
"We must protect ourselves!" Imdrael hissed.
The Master Stoneworker smiled thinly. "I've already started doing precisely that."
From below came the hollow boom of the door-knocker. The men of the New Day flinched in unison, grabbing hastily for daggers.
"Dyre," Lhamphur snarled through suddenly streaming sweat, "if this is some sort of trap-"
The Shark flung the door wide, peered down the stairs, and turned back to his guests with a smile.
"Alarm-cord still stretched, door still closed, and-hear that giggling? — my gels at the door outside, with hot platters of something to make us all a little less fearful! Men, 'tis time to talk of the new buildings we'll raise together before the season's out, and those we must repair before they topple! No New Day talk around the ladies, mind!"
"We're not fools, Dyre," Whaelshod muttered under his breath.
"Oh, no?" Lhamphur whispered, his own knuckles white on the hilt of his still-sheathed dagger. "Let's hope not, or the heads that roll won't be the ones wearing the masks of the Lords of Waterdeep."
You must find him, Piergeiron had said. From what I've seen this day, I'm certain any father would rejoice in such a son.
The First Lord's words echoed in Mrelder's mind, mocking him with the hope he'd cherished for more than a year. The false hope.
He knew. He had yet to open his eyes, but he knew the graft had been a failure.
There was a dull, phantom ache where his left arm had been. If the gods had granted Golskyn's prayers and found Mrelder a worthy host, he would now be aflame with searing pain. Not lightly did the monstrous gods award their favors.
A faint, unfriendly hiss came from somewhere beside him. Then another, slightly fainter.
Mrelder fought his way up through the darkness. As lantern-light flared before his eyes, he turned his head toward the hissings.
The dying sahuagin lay on a table beside him, its gills flaring weakly as it gasped out its last breaths. A foul scent came from the charred, blackened stumps that were all that remained of not one, but all four of its scaled arms.
Four times had the followers of Lord Unity attempted the graft, and four times Mrelder's body had refused to accept the gods-given improvement.
"My son lives," Golskyn said coldly, looming over Mrelder, "and the sahuagin dies." His tone left little doubt as to his opinion of this state of affairs.
"I… I'm sorry," Mrelder managed to murmur.
"My sentiments precisely," his father replied, each word burning like acid. He drew a long dagger from its belt-sheath. "The mongrelmen follow me because I tell them they are more, not less. They enjoy the special favor of the True Gods. They are already well along the path only the strong may take. They are my children. I need no other."
Golskyn lifted the knife high.
This was it. His father's patience was at an end. Forlorn dreams and schemes flooded Mrelder's mind, a storm-flow of regret and loss. All would fade with him, thrown away in this dark cellar, all…
One idea caught in the rush of thoughts, looming rather than being swept on. A moment later, it was joined by another-and fresh hope, as Mrelder realized the two notions could become one: the sahuagin-shaped Walking Statue and the Guardian's Gorget.
"There's another way," he gasped.
"To end your worthless life?"
"To gain the strength of mighty creatures!" Mrelder gasped excitedly, seeing it all now.
The priest's uncovered eye narrowed. "Explain."
Mrelder nodded, but the words he needed would not come. As his stupor faded, the pain came in waves. He reached across to the other table to pluck away a strip of the dying sahuagin's scales from one of its stumps. Holding up the ribbon of hide, he managed a single word: "Gorget."
For a long moment Mrelder prayed to any gods who might be listening that his father would remember the letters he'd written about Piergeiron and the Walking Statues, wherein he'd told Golskyn about this wondrous magical piece of the First Lord's armor, enspelled to command the great constructs.
Golskyn lowered the knife. His uncovered eye regarded his son thoughtfully. "This has possibilities. You can do this? With your… sorcery?"
Mrelder nodded. Perhaps he could prove to Golskyn that magic and items that held it were worthy sources of power, and in doing so earn his father's respect.
And, not incidentally, save his own life.
Naoni Dyre sang softly to herself as she spun the last few chips of amethyst into shining purple thread.
A hole in the kitchen doorframe held her distaff: a long-handled runcible spoon, both ladle and fork. Instead of wool or flax, it held a steadily diminishing pile of rough amethysts. Delicate purple fibers spilled between its narrow tines in a curtain of gossamer purple that drew down into a triangle. At the point of that triangle Naoni's deft, pale fingers were busily at work, drafting the fibers together and easing them onto the shaft of her spindle.
It was a simple drop spindle, a round, smooth stick ending in a flat wooden wheel and hung suspended by the fine purple thread. As it spun, its weight pulled the fibers from the gemstones, and the thread collected in a widening cone atop the wooden wheel.
It was no small skill, keeping the spindle moving at the perfect speed-not so fast that it broke the delicate thread nor so slow that it fell to the floor. To Naoni, the rhythm was as natural as breathing.
When the last of the gems slipped into thread, Naoni eased the spindle to the floor. She didn't fear a fall might shatter her work. Anything she spun became as strong and flexible as silk, for Naoni Dyre was a minor sorceress.
Hmmph. Minor indeed. The ability to spin nearly anything into thread was her lone gift.
"You, dear sister, need a spinning wheel."
A fond smile lit Naoni's face as she turned to greet Faendra. Her younger sister was the very image of their dead mother: a petite and pretty strawberry blonde, plump in all the right places, with blue, blue eyes that promised sunny afternoons, and a pert little nose that matched a smile that was never far from her lips.
"Spinning wheels are far too dear. What would Father say about such expense?" Naoni asked mildly.
Faendra propped fists on hips and thrust forth her chin in imitation of their father's manner. "Buy a proper wheel, girl, and stop spinning thread like a Calishite slave! Good tools will triple your coins, or may Waukeen damn me to the poorhouse," she growled, in tones as deep and gruff as she could manage.
They laughed together, but Naoni's mirth quickly faded to a sigh. Her father knew she spun and earned fair coin, but dismissed attempted talk about her work with a brusque, "What's yours is yours." He was far more interested in her ability to run the household with frugal efficiency.
"Perhaps it's time to consider a wheel," she said. "Jacintha would be pleased to have more gem thread."
Faendra eyed the glittering skeins carefully laid out on the sideboard. "What wouldn't I give for a gown of Jacintha's gemsilk!" she said wistfully. "Perhaps this time the gnome could pay you in cloth?"
"Little chance of that; most of gemsilk's value is the gems, not the labor."
The younger girl sniffed. "Oh? Who else can spin such thread?"
"I know of none other," Naoni admitted, "nor know I another weaver who has Jacintha's gift for weaving many sources together into cloth. If not for her, how would I have gems to weave? We're fortunate to have found each other; I've no quarrel with our arrangement."
"So be it," Faendra said lightly. "How soon can we be in the Warrens?"
"We can leave as soon as I finish this last skein." Naoni picked up a niddy-noddy, a simple wooden frame of three sticks, and began to wind the thread around it.
"Niddy niddy noddy, two heads with one body," Faendra chanted, grinning. "You taught me that rhyme when you made your first frame. How old was I then, I wonder?"
"Seven winters," Naoni said softly. She'd begun spinning the year their mother died, leaving her, a lass of twelve winters, to run the household and raise a frolicsome little sister.
Her swift hands made short work of the winding. "If you'll summon Lark, we can leave."
"I'm here," announced a low-pitched voice.
The young woman who emerged from the buttery resembled her namesake: small, trim, and as brown as a meadow bird. Her long hair was gathered back into a single braid, and she wore a brown kirtle over a plain linen shift. A green ribbon bound her brows to hold back stray wisps of hair, and its two ends had been laced into her braid. A matching sash was tied around one of her bared arms. Her nose was perhaps too narrow and a bit overlong, and her bright brown eyes disconcertingly keen, but she was pleasant enough to look upon.
Naoni gave her a tentative smile. Her father, in keeping with their new-found affluence, had insisted they hire a servant, but his elder daughter was still not sure how a mistress should treat a hired lass.
Her sister had no such worries. To Faendra, every stranger was a friend yet unmet, and any girl living under her roof as good as a sister. She picked up a skein of glittering purple and draped it around Lark's shoulders.
"What say you? Wouldn't you love to wear a gemsilk gown?"
Lark carefully lifted the skein and set it aside. "For my work, in this heat? It'd be as wet as washrags by highsun."
"Don't be goose-witted. You wear such gowns to noble revels, not for cheese-making!"
"I've been to many such," Lark replied, in a tone that implied her memories of revels were neither fond nor impressive.
"To serve, yes, but not on the arm of some handsome, wealthy young man!"
Lark's lips thinned. "I know my place and want no other."
"Let's wrap and bundle the skeins," Naoni said hastily. They all got on well enough, but Lark had little patience for Faendra's thinking: beauty was its own guild, and the business of its members was to charm all the world into doing their will.
Faendra gave her sister a sunny smile. "I'll just change my gown and freshen my hair." She danced out of the room, humming.
"She'll not reappear until the task is done," Lark murmured.
True enough, but such truths would sit ill with the master of the household. "My father would not like to hear it said that any Dyre shirks work," Naoni observed carefully.
"Then I'll say instead both Dyre sisters are willing workers," Lark replied dryly. "Naoni's willing to work-and Faendra's willing to let her."
Naoni smiled faintly, shook her head, and wrapped linen over her basket. "That's the last of it. It seems strange so much thread can be woven from a handful of gems."
"Stranger still you can do it at all."
Faendra reappeared, twirling to show off her new blue gown and slippers dyed to match. The bodice was fashionably tight, the sleeves thrice-puffed and slashed to best display her rounded, rosy arms, and the slim skirt hugged her hips and thighs before flaring out in a graceful sweep.
Naoni frowned, gray eyes stern. "You're dressed very fine for the Warrens. Is that wise?"
Her sister danced over to kiss Naoni on the tip of her nose and then spun away with a grin. "You worry overmuch. Let's be off!"
As the three girls made their way through Dock Ward, the streets were as crowded and bustling as usual, but no fights or spilled wagons drew crowds and slowed them. Even the everpresent handcarts were fewer and less precariously loaded than usual.
They were soon standing in a narrow alley that ended in a tangle of ramshackle buildings. Naoni tapped on a sagging door half-hidden behind a rotting pile of broken barrel-staves.
It swung open to flickering torchlight amid darkness and the familiar hard stares of a pair of halfling guards. Mostly hidden beyond the doorframe, they were dressed as human urchins, and their belts bore cheap, bright-painted leather scabbards. Despite their childish, harmless appearance, those scabbards held swords that were very real and very sharp.
"A fine afternoon to you both," Naoni said, hefting her covered basket. "I've business with Jacintha."
The guards nodded and silently drew back to let her pass. The three girls ducked inside, and Lark spread her hands, palms up, to show she bore no weapons.
"You, too," one hin said in a surprisingly gruff voice, nodding at Faendra. "Palms, pretty one?"
The younger Dyre sister rolled her eyes and held her arms out wide as if to ask "And where might I be hiding anything in this gown?"
The guard nodded, and the door was already being thrust closed behind them as Naoni handed the basket to Lark and took a torch from the guards' barrel. Lighting it from their wall-torch, she started along the tunnel.
The smell of damp stone arose strongly around the three, and they took care not to brush against the walls. The Warrens was one of Waterdeep's lesser-known neighborhoods. It had been centuries in the making, beginning with stone houses built along hilly streets. Betimes a higher floor would be added here, or a walkway built across a street from house to house there, and with the passing years stretches of streets were completely hidden from the sun, and many lowest floors became cellars. Rebuilding shored up the lower levels and worked upward from there, and beneath a few blocks of bustling Waterdeep, the slow result of this tireless reaching for the grander was a forgotten layer.
Many Small Folk dwelt here. Gnomes, halflings, and even the occasional dwarf found a congenial and discreet address amid the dark cellars and narrow tunnels of the Warrens.
The lasses passed several gnomes coming the other way, and polite nods were exchanged. Jacintha was so highly regarded that Naoni, by association, was counted among their own.
Soon they reached a familiar arched door. Twice as wide as it was tall, it stood open, letting out a rhythmic, slightly ragged clatter to echo in the tunnel.
A soft clack and sweep filled the room, swelling around the three lasses as they entered. Half a dozen looms clattered busily in the low-vaulted stone hall, but one slowed smoothly as the weaving-mistress left off her work and bustled over with a smile of welcome.
Jacintha was, as usual, too busy for additional pleasantries, taking the basket from Lark without pause to unwrap the skeins and hold them up into the lantern light.
She stared hard and nodded. "Fine, very fine."
Faendra had already wandered over to Jacintha's loom, which bore a silky, almost translucent amber fabric. Woven into it was a pattern of dragonflies with brilliant, glittering wings.
"How's this done?" she marveled, peering closely. "Many colors… but all the threads, warp and weft, seem of one…"
"And are," the gnome said briskly, "made from your sister's amber thread and silk I dyed to match. One drop of amber had a dragonfly trapped in it, as I recall. The pattern's none of my doing; it came of itself as I was weaving. 'Tis a pretty thing."
"Indeed it is," Faendra said longingly. Something brighter caught her eye. "What of this?" she asked, waving at a nearby glittering swath of red cloth.
The gnome smirked. "That'll become a nobleman's evening cloak. Take two paces to your left and gaze on it, letting your eyes lose focus."
Faendra did as she was bid, and after a moment burst out laughing. "There's a pattern: a male peacock, all a-strut!"
"Fitting for those who wear such things," Jacintha observed dryly, "and fitting amusement to those of us who don't."
She unstrung a pouch from her belt and handed it to Naoni. "Your coins are on one side, and the next gems to be spun on t'other. Peridot, a very fine pale green."
"That hue would suit Naoni, with her hair and eyes," hinted Faendra.
Her gaze slid to a bolt of shimmering blue that matched her own eyes, then moved to the pouch holding Naoni's payment, her meaning all too clear.
Naoni looked up from examining the gems to give her sister a warning glance. "A lovely green," she told Jacintha. "I'll enjoy spinning it."
It was the way of gnomes to remember faults, longings, and other weaknesses for future bargaining. Before Faendra could say anything else, her elder sister made swift work of the farewells and hustled her companions back out of the Warrens.
As Father expected her to know the sites where Dyre money or men were at work, Naoni led them up Redcloak Lane to check on the recent damage.
One entire run of scaffolding was a near-ruin. Faendra surveyed the bustling workmen and murmured, "I begin to see why Father was so a-fret."
Naoni frowned. "Even so, I dislike this talk of New Days and challenges to the Lords."
"Old men's foolishness," her sister said cheerfully, putting a lilt to her hips for the benefit of the watching laborers.
"Such talk's nothing new," Lark observed. "Common folk have always complained about nobles, and rumors about the Lords are as old as Mount Waterdeep itself."
Naoni nodded. "The Lords know their own work best."
Lark made a sound that was suspiciously like a sniff. "Some may be good, fine men behind those masks, but I'll warrant most of them are no better than they have to be. Still, Waterdeep goes along well enough, and I'd just as soon not shave the dog to spite its fleas."
"Perhaps Father wants to be a Lord," Faendra put in lightly. "I suppose many might be unhappy that Waterdeep's governed in secret, for how can they rise in power and influence unless they can see the path ahead?"
Naoni winced. Despite her frivolities, her sister saw people with disturbing clarity. Sudden fear rose in her: did Faendra know their mother's secret?
No, that was impossible, surely! Naoni had hidden those letters and journals very carefully. And well she had! In his current temper, Father needed no reminders of Ilyndeira Dyre's sad taste of Waterdhavian nobility.
Redcloak Lane was behind them now, and Faendra had strolled into a smaller crossway than Naoni would have chosen.
They almost brushed shoulders with a cluster of dockers arguing heatedly over ownership of a battered crate in their midst.
Naoni was only six or seven strides past the men when a realization struck her with a sudden chill.
The argument had fallen silent.
She glanced back. One man was only a few paces behind her, moving very quickly and quietly.
He gave her a grin that might have been charming if he'd still possessed most of his teeth. "What's in the pouch, pretty one? Let's have a look."
Naoni's heart started to pound. All six of the others were right behind the foremost one. Before she could cry out to Faendra and Lark, the men charged at her, and knives flashed in their hands.
"That dagger was my favorite-or rather, the two of them were." Malark held out his hands: one empty, the other holding a dagger with an elaborate Kothont monogram. "Superbly balanced, very fine steel, and a matched pair. I'll have it back, and damn the cost."
Taeros grinned mockingly. "I'd wish you luck, but you'll need the kiss of Tymora herself to find it. By now your fang's probably been buried in several hearts-"
"All at once?" inquired Korvaun Helmfast, with a gentle smile.
"— in rapid succession," Taeros continued, "and thereafter sent to the bottom of the harbor, still hilt-deep in its last victim!"
"You," Beldar growled, "spin too many wild tales. Malark has the way of it. Someone at the worksite picked up his dagger, and will doubtless require some… persuasion to relinquish his prize."
"If we employ discretion, perhaps we could settle this with less 'persuasion,'" Korvaun said. "If we keep our tempers and guard our tongues, this could be easily resolved."
"Have you a temper to keep?" Taeros asked with mock incredulity. "I've seen no evidence of it."
Korvaun shrugged. "We won't learn if the workmen found Malark's dagger if we arrive with accusations and demands, but we might well start a small riot."
"Speaking of small riots," Malark interrupted urgently, "look!"
Three young women were running frantically toward them, with several rough-looking men pounding along hard on their heels.
Beldar's disgruntlement changed to dark glee as his sword sang out of its scabbard.
Malark ducked deftly aside to avoid getting cut, drew his own blade, and started down the alley toward the girls.
Beldar sprinted past him, eyes afire. "Gemcloaks!" he shouted as he went, Korvaun and Malark right at his heels. "The Gemcloaks are upon you!"
Which is when, of course, Taeros tripped on a loose cobble and fell on his face amid a swirl of amber.
Fortunate was the hero, he observed wryly, who writes his own story. If ever this tale were told, Taeros Hawkwinter would be foremost among the fair maidens' defenders. Until then, he'd have to acquit himself as best he could.
He picked himself up, drew his sword, and charged after his more nimble friends.
Hard fingers raked down Naoni's back, then snatched at her hair. Desperately she jerked her head away, clenching her teeth against the burst of pain as tresses tore.
She stumbled and almost went down, but a glimpse of Faendra's wide-eyed terror gave her new speed. She caught her sister's hand and pulled her along. Lark was several paces ahead, running like a rabbit. Then, suddenly, there were men with drawn swords shouting and running toward them, too!
"Oh, Lady Luck!" Naoni gasped, as a heavy hand fell on her shoulder and dragged her down. "Be with my Faen…"
She struck the cobbles, hard. The pouch at her belt slammed into her midriff, leaving her no breath at all. Writhing and sobbing, she looked frantically about for her sister.
There! Somehow Faendra had slipped past the onrushing men and was nearly to the main street. She'd be safe there.
Relief swept through Naoni. She was dimly aware of rough hands clawing at her belt and her hand, where it was clutching the heavy little bag. Her attacker was snarling promises of what he'd do to her if she didn't yield it up right quick, and Suddenly he was gone. A bloodstained cobblestone rolled past Naoni's hair-tangled gaze, and she saw a determined-looking Lark reaching down for another.
A man with a long, gleaming sword in his hand and a red cloak flapping-a cloak made of Jacintha's gem-fabric, woven from her thread! — sprang past Lark, soaring right over Naoni in a leap that snatched him from view.
"Have at you, miscreants!" a cultured voice rang out.
Naoni rolled out of the way of Red Cloak's companions. As she came up to her knees, she caught sight of one of the halfling guards from the Warrens. He winked at her as he darted past, a blur of dusty gray, to hamstring one of the ruffians.
The man screamed and went down, and his fellow behind him went pale and staggered hastily back out of the way as a second grandly garbed man sprang past Naoni, blue cloak swirling and blade flashing.
The thieves brandished knives and muttered curses as they hastily retreated. One fell heavily, tripping the man behind him. Naoni saw a leather thong slide out from behind his ankle, and the two halflings responsible for tripping him vanish behind the tangle of frantically struggling arms and dirty, hairy legs.
These must be guardians, sent by Jacintha to tail her home. She'd often been assured the Small Folk protected their own, but this was the first time she'd caught them at their work.
"Run, lowlife scum!" exulted one of their sword-waving rescuers, a red-bearded young giant in a green gemcloak with, oddly enough, a Moonshar accent. "Bested with barely a slash of my steel!"
"They weren't all that good at standing, let alone fighting," observed a dark-haired youth whose cultured tones were heavily laced with sarcasm. "No, Beldar, let them go. I believe we can trust the Watch to find crawling men."
Nobles. These must be nobles. Who else would speak of Watchmen with such weary disdain? Plenty of crafters and dockers hated the Watch, but Naoni had never heard them dismissed with amusement before.
A sword slid back into its sheath, and firm but gentle fingers were under Naoni's elbows, lifting her. She looked up into a handsome face framed by fair, short-shorn hair. The man's eyes were blue and kind, full of concern… and something more.
It took Naoni a moment to recognize that "something more" as the sort of look commonly directed at pretty Faendra.
"Are you hurt, my lady?"
She considered this, and the man's lips twitched.
"Had I asked how your companions fared, you'd have a ready answer," he said quietly. "In the midst of danger, you spared no thought for yourself."
"Well, there wasn't time, you see," she said lamely.
He smiled, not in mockery, but with genuine warmth, and beyond him, Naoni caught sight of a rising cobblestone, clenched in familiar work-reddened fingers.
"Lark, no!" she cried.
The man whirled, blue cloak swirling. Lark stepped deftly back and tossed her weapon down.
"My… yon goodwoman means no harm," Naoni said urgently, putting a staying hand on the man's sword arm.
"Oho!" the red-bearded man grinned knowingly, as the nobles gathered around.
She snatched her hand away. Her pouch might be heavy enough to tempt even these young blades-and didn't such highnoses come to Dock Ward to sport with lowborn lasses? Would the refusal of a damsel they'd just rescued be heeded?
Her younger sister was wandering back, pretty face cat-curious. Fear choked Naoni. Not Faendra! Never that!
"Lark meant no harm," she repeated hastily. "Can you say as much?"
"Aye," the fair-haired man told her firmly. "Korvaun's my name-Lord Korvaun Helmfast-and despite what some say about the habits of the nobility, I'm not in the habit of attacking women in the street."
"He speaks for himself," the red-bearded man said cheerfully, giving Faendra a good-natured wink.
Naoni's heart sank at the delight in her sister's face. Faen might have their mother's beauty, but that didn't mean she had to repeat Mother's mistakes!
The sardonic man sighed. "Malark, not now! Save the jests for ladies not so unsettled. Ah, forgive me: I am Lord Taeros Hawkwinter, this buffoon is Lord Malark Kothont, and our foremost battle-blade yonder is Lord Beldar Roaringhorn. Usually his tongue is as swift as his sword, but just now he seems at a most uncharacteristic lack for words. Collectively we're the Gemcloaks for, hem, obvious reasons. Are you unhurt?"
Naoni nodded, alarm fading. "Bruised, perhaps. They took nothing." She managed a smile. "I'm Naoni Dyre. This is my sister Faendra, and our servant Lark."
Faendra pointed at Naoni, her eyes bright. "She spun the gems that went into the cloaks you're wearing."
The one called Beldar frowned. "Crafters?"
"Lord Roaringhorn," Lark said, her voice like acid, "you seem surprised to learn we're respectable women."
The leader of the Gemcloaks reddened at her rebuke. "Forgive me, mistresses, but what do you hereabouts? These streets are no place for-"
"Folk who must go where their work takes them?" Lark's voice and gaze were now positively glacial. "What would you know of work?"
Beldar and Lark locked gazes. What passed between them only they knew, but it looked profoundly unpleasant. Naoni winced.
Gods above, we should be thanking these men, not insulting them! They seem pleasant enough, but they're nobles-and who knows what such grand folk might do if they take offense?
"We just came from one of my father's worksites," she said hastily. "It was badly damaged by some bold blades playing pranks."
The four nobles exchanged uneasy looks.
The one called Malark frowned. "Stands this, ah, site on Redcloak Lane?"
Four throats were cleared in unison. "Good ladies," Lord Roaringhorn said stiffly, "you're probably not going to like these next words of mine well…"
"That's a certainty," Lark said under her breath, causing Faendra to giggle and Malark to grin.
Naoni sent both girls a quelling look and turned it into a warning frown when Malark offered his arm to Faendra. Ignoring her, Faendra slipped her hand into the crook of Lord Kothont's arm with an easy grace that suggested long practice in front of a mirror.
"Mistress Naoni," Korvaun Helmfast murmured gravely as he took her hand in both of his, "will you suffer our protection as you take us to your father? Those ruffians are not the only dangers in Dock Ward."
"Ah, of course, but why take you such an interest in us?" Then, belatedly, "My father?"
"Mistress," Lark said crisply, "these four fine noblemen are obviously responsible for the worksite damage. And, being men of honor, they're planning to make restitution. Isn't that so, Lord Roaringhorn?"
"It is," Beldar said stiffly.
"Then my two lady mistresses here will be happy to take you to the man you wish to see. No," she corrected herself, "the man you need to see. No one wishes to see Master Dyre in his present mood, but… the gods don't always grant wishes." She looked at Naoni. "Does that cover it, mistress?"
"It does," she agreed absently. "Most thoroughly."
Lark firmly took Lord Hawkwinter's arm, leaving Beldar with no partner, and gave him a glare. "Have a care where you walk, Lord Roaringhorn. It would be a shame to spoil those fine boots."
Naoni opened her mouth to order Lark into silence, but the words stuck in her throat. The girl's loyalty meant much, and her judgment could hardly be faulted. Everything Naoni knew warned her to distrust these noblemen-even kindly Lord Helmfast.
She glanced up at his handsome face, and something leaped inside her.
Especially Korvaun Helmfast.
Varandros Dyre reached his front door as the third imperious volley of rapping began. Even before its sharp thunder befell, he was scowling.
Someone was ignoring a perfectly good bellpull and striking his knocker-plate with hard metal.
The Master Stonemason shook the old sword that lived in the stave-stand beside the door out of its sheath and kept one hand near it as he shot the bolts. He didn't take the blade into his hand to heft meaningfully lest the rapping-now crack-crack-cracking on his good door again, by Tempus! — prove to be the Watch.
Dyre swung the stout door wide and stood back, his hand hovering by his blade, and saw what waited beyond his threshold.
His eyes flashed even before his mouth dropped open.
His daughters stood outside with the housemaid and a seeming army of smiling, fashionably garbed young men. There was color in everyone's cheeks, and hair askew, and faces that looked as if they'd been laughing and were holding back mirth even now!
And looming right in front of him, in the elegantly gloved hand of one of these laughing young pups, was a dagger, reversed and raised to strike his knocker-plate once more.
It was the twin of the one he'd found at the worksite, monogram and all.
Dyre raised a hand sharply, cutting off Faendra's excited flood of explanation of how their lives had been so bravely saved, by these very "Enough, daughter. I'll be having a word with these… gentlesirs," he growled at her, his fierce gaze brooking no argument.
Fire to match his own kindled briefly in those blue eyes-not for nothing was her name Dyre! — but Naoni placed a quelling hand on her sister's shoulder. Her gray eyes fixed on him in some sort of mute appeal. Before she could speak, the maid deftly herded both girls back from the doors and drew them firmly down the hall.
Dyre gave a curt nod of approval. Lark's wages were well spent; she at least had sense. Though in truth, he cared not if his daughters heard every word. Might be better for them if they did.
Varandros Dyre turned his back on the young nobles and strode around behind his desk to stand regarding them across its large, parchment-littered expanse. His gaze was not friendly.
Taeros saw Beldar looking askance at the untidy papers. So did the master of Dyre's Fine Walls and Dwellings.
"You seem unused to the litter of honest toil," Dyre said coldly. "Might I remind you that some of us in this fair city must work hard to keep Waterdeep fair?"
Shrewd eyes and ears weren't needed to conclude that the stonemason was simmering with rage, and Taeros raised a hand in a warning gesture to his fellows.
"It seems you protected my daughters and my maid, and I owe you the thanks any father must tender. Please accept it." Dyre did not trouble to make that 'please' anything but a command, and swept straight on.
"You must forgive me if I have some suspicions as to why such grand young lords, free in idleness to pursue any amusement that might occur to them and range freely from end to end of great Waterdeep, come to be in the vicinity of a certain worksite in the heart of highly unfashionable Dock Ward-a worksite that a band of young lordlings recently reduced to a shambles! In doing so, it seems they also found it amusing to sword honest workers, to say nothing of setting fires that might well have devastated more than a street or two of fair Waterdeep."
Dyre's words came out cold, clipped, and inexorable, like measured lash-blows. "And so damaging a scaffold that another worker fell from it this morn: a man who'll be maimed for life if healings fail."
Taeros saw his own guilt mirrored on his friends' faces. Before any of them could find the right words, Dyre planted his large hands on his desk, leaned forward with his eyes ablaze, and asked softly, "Now, would any of you know anything about this?"
Despite the desk, his shorter stature, and several paces of floor between them, the stonemason seemed to loom over the younger men.
Taeros swallowed. "Master Dyre, goodsir, I assure you, we'll…"
The Mason Stonemason looked directly at him, and under the sudden fierce fire of his gaze and its comical juxtaposition with that huge snout of a nose, the Hawkwinter's mouth went dry.
"Sir," Malark said swiftly, "of course we'll make amends!"
"Of course," Beldar added grandly, reaching for his purse. "I am-"
"I know who you are, Lord Roaringhorn," Dyre said with a snarl, "and I know you'll pay for all you've done. I'll have the Black Robes make sure of that, whatever your intentions. I know our laws, which is why I'm not taking a blade to all of you, right now, and ending your foolishness for good! Waterdeep had more than enough of the haughty vandalism of Waterdhavian nobility years ago."
He drew himself up, becoming, if possible, even more imposing.
"I shall expect all of you to keep well away from my daughters henceforth, which should prove easy for you, my lords, because they spend their days in honest work. You have your grand houses to sport in, to say nothing of clubs my lowborn girls would not be allowed through the doors of, even if they had coins enough to waste."
The stonemason took a long breath and continued more calmly but even more firmly, "My daughters will have to earn their places in Waterdhavian society, and I cannot think they'll be aided in achieving the station and success they deserve by consorting with ruffians, however nobly born, who amuse themselves by harming and beggaring others whenever they're not doing the dirty work of the Lords!"
Taeros blinked. Dirty work of the…?
The Gemcloaks scarcely had time to frown in puzzlement ere the Master Stoneworker came slowly around the edge of his desk, hands hanging loosely at his sides, ready for trouble.
"Nor am I alone in such views. I've friends among the guilds and shopkeepers who watch the antics of you and your like with far less than approval. Many eyes will have seen your arrival here, and tongues will wag as to why. A good part of the city-the working part-will be watching you lordlings very closely in days to come, to see if any 'accident' should befall me. Not because I am important, or for any love of me, but because time and again dissent has been quelled in Waterdeep through the silencing of overly loud critics, by accident after accident, and they won't stomach much more of it."
He took a step closer, and more than one noble hand drifted toward a swordhilt.
"So, my lords," Dyre added softly, his eyes still blazing, "let us understand each other very well. I will accept your apologies and your coins, and you will keep away from the women of my household, and take very great care that no further accidents befall me, Dyre's Fine Walls and Dwellings, or any of my worksites."
The stonemason's slow stalk forward brought him nose-to-chest with Beldar Roaringhorn, who said quietly, "Have done, goodsir. Your anger is understandable, but your slander of Waterdhavian nobility is both misplaced and repugnant. I-"
"Don't like to hear truth. Your sort never does. Right now the most important truth confronting you is this: I am a citizen of Waterdeep standing in my own house, and I'm far too angry to be prudent, so you'd best begone. Now. In due time my 'prentices will bring you an accounting, and you can send the coins back to me here."
Dyre pointed at the door, his hard gaze never leaving Beldar's eyes. Korvaun Helmfast moved to open it as swiftly and quietly as any servant.
Two young men stood just outside, their faces set and pale. Their matching tunics bore the stone-sprouting-a-fist badge of Dyre's Fine Walls and Dwellings. The stonemason's apprentices were clutching ready mattocks in their hands.
"Baraezym, Jivin," Varandros Dyre greeted them grimly. "Our guests are just departing. In peace, I trust. Mark their faces, for there may come a time when you'll need to know them."
The Gemcloaks had already begun to stride silently out, faces set, but Beldar turned his head sharply. "Goodman Dyre, just what do you mean by that?"
"I mean, lords," the Master Stonemason said flatly, "that a time will come when consequences can no longer be laughed away."
Varandros Dyre watched, stone-faced, as the lordlings stalked away, fine cloaks swirling.
Then he whirled around so swiftly his apprentices jumped. Ignoring them, he peered around the hall for his daughters.
There was no sign of them, but the door to the kitchens was open, and the housemaid stood in it, steam curling from the covered serving platter in her hands. Her gaze was on the floor, and she was as still as a statue.
Dyre nodded approvingly. Some folk, at least, knew their places. He permitted himself a chuckle of satisfaction as he made the gesture that sent his apprentices hastening to close and bar the doors.
Lark kept her eyes down and wisely said nothing.
"I don't understand." Faendra shook her red-gold curls in puzzlement as she thumped the dasher emphatically into the butter churn. "Father may be hard, but he's fair. It's not like him to condemn a man for the cut of his cloak."
Naoni glanced up from the piecrust she was crimping. "Father has no love for the noble houses. Best you remember that before you sigh over highnosed redbearded rogues."
"I'd much rather laugh than sigh, and Malark Kothont's a merry fellow. Though I suppose some girls," Faendra said slyly, "might prefer Korvaun Helmfast's golden hair and courtly manner."
Naoni felt her cheeks grow warm. Faendra's smile broadened into a grin, and Naoni hastened to speak of something else. "What if Father's right-if the Lords are all nobles and control the sewers and the thugs who lurk there? That puts Father's New Day squarely between the highest and the lowliest, and that's as dangerous as…"
"Pissing into lightning?" Lark suggested.
Naoni's chuckle was weak. "Father won't listen to us, and his friends are too cowed by his temper or dazzled by their New Day dreams. I–I don't know what to do."
"There's one who might," Lark said slowly, pushing the simmering stewpot back to a cooler spot on the stove and turning to face her mistresses. "Know you of Texter, the paladin?"
The Dyre girls exchanged glances, then shook their heads.
"He's that rarest of things: a good man. He… helped me, once." Lark's words came haltingly, not with her usual tart-tongued confidence. Naoni smiled encouragement.
"He travels, helping folk wherever he goes, seeking news of importance for Waterdeep. He speaks to the Lords."
The leisurely thumping of the butter churn halted abruptly as Faendra threw up her hands in exasperation. "Yes, of course we must tell him all! Let's bring the Lords right to Father's door and save them the trouble of discovering his foolishness on their own!"
"I said he speaks to the Lords," Lark said quietly. "Texter knows how to keep a secret. I trust him, and I can say that about no other man."
Naoni frowned. She'd never met a paladin, but everyone knew they were upright men, holy warriors who could not break their stern codes without losing the blessing of their god and their own powers into the bargain. Moreover, Lark had good sense, and never before had she spoken so well of any man.
"You can talk to this Texter, and he'll advise you?"
"He travels much, but messages can be got to him. There's a hidden place in the Westwind Villa in Sea Ward."
Faendra tugged off the soft gloves she wore to keep churning from roughening her hands. "I know that place! The great hall there can hold half the nobles in the city-and will, at a grand revel morrow-night!"
Naoni raised an eyebrow. "And you learned this how?"
Her sister grinned. "A tiny shop on Sails Street sells ladies' cast-offs; betimes I talk to the maids bringing the gowns in."
"Stolen?" Naoni demanded, aghast.
"Rest easy! Some high ladies give their old gowns to their maids-as if the girls have any place to wear them! Fine stuff, nevertheless, that can be pulled apart and made over. I'll show you."
Faendra flitted from the room and in short order returned, bearing an armful of rich green.
"Off with your kirtle and shift, Lark," she ordered. "The bodice is too slim-cut for me, but it should fit you well enough. It goes on thus, this side to the front."
The maid sighed but peeled off her clothes and reached for the dress. Sliding it on, she checked to make sure her ribbon was still in place around her left arm and looked inquiringly at Faendra. "Where's the rest of it?"
The younger Dyre sister laughed merrily as she came forward to tighten the side-lacings and smooth the neckline into place. "This is all there is! No sleeves, you see, and the back's supposed to be open to the waist. It fits the hips snugly, but the skirt will flare out full when you turn. 'Tis meant for dancing."
Naoni stared in wonderment. "This is your design, Faen? Your work?"
Her sister nodded happily. "I've always been handy with a needle, and making over a gown's more pleasant work than hemming linens. Giandra the dressmaker stocks ready clothes for ladies who haven't time to order them made. She's already bought two of my gowns and will happily take more."
Looking as surprised as Naoni, Lark started to slip off the gown.
"Wait!" Faendra commanded, clapping her hands excitedly. "You can wear this to the revel at Westwind! You can go as a grand lady, and leave your message for Texter!"
"I've a better idea," Lark said dryly. "I'll go to Sea Ward after my work here is done and ask at the Westwind if they're hiring extra servants. For the big revels, they usually do."
"Why be a servant when you can go as a lady?"
A stubborn expression crossed Lark's face. "I don't like pretending to be other than I am."
Naoni put a hand on Faendra's arm to still her, and said, "I quite agree, but I overheard Master Whaelshod talking with my father and learned the Westwind changed hands recently. It now belongs to Elaith Craulnober, a rather sinister elf better known to the city as 'the Serpent.' He's been away from Waterdeep for a few seasons."
She leaned forward and murmured, "Master Whaelshod said this elf had a secret partnership with Lady Thann. She died two moons past, and Craulnober's returned to sort out his affairs." Naoni looked from Lark to her sister. "Their ah, connection's not widely known; you'd do best to keep this quiet."
Faendra's eyes grew round. "I've heard about the Serpent. This is the company your paladin keeps?"
Lark shrugged. "Not from choice, I'll warrant. In Waterdeep a man may choose his friend, but not the Lords who rule."
"Surely not! You don't think…"
"As I said, some of the Lords are no better than they have to be. Mayhap the elf is among them; who can say? All I know is that someone in the Westwind can get messages to Texter, or perhaps my notes are carried by magic, untouched by any hands but Texter's and mine."
"You must wear the gown," Naoni said softly, "and attend as a noble lady from afar. You'll get in more easily with less scrutiny. Elaith Craulnober's far more likely to be particular about his servants than his guests."
The maid sniffed. "As he's inviting nobility, that goes without saying."
As he stepped out of the midst of the comforting bulk of the House Helmfast bodyguards, Korvaun Helmfast felt suddenly alone.
Mirt's Mansion loomed before him like a scowling fortress, all dark, stern stone save for a cascade of green to his right, where its gardens climbed a rocky shoulder of Mount Waterdeep.
Straight before Korvaun, down an avenue formed by two rows of rune-spangled warding pillars thrice his height, the mansion's grand stair began. At its head the moneylender's guards were waiting for him. Four of them, standing impassively in full plate armor, two on each side of the broad black double doors, heavy-gauntleted arms folded across their chests.
Korvaun raised one eyebrow at the motionless full-face helms above him-or rather, at the complete lack of eye slits or visor openings in those unbroken, gleaming metal ovals. How did they see? Or were they but statues?
Seabirds squawked in the none-too-fresh breeze coming off the harbor, and his eyebrow rose still farther. If they were statues, what kept the bird-dung off them?
He took a stride forward. As he did so, the guards moved too, gliding a step sideways and putting hands on swordhilts, all in precise unison and utter silence.
Ah. Illusions or helmed horrors. My, but moneylenders were doing well in Waterdeep, these days.
"So," he asked, taking another step, "is there a password?"
The doors emitted a gentle feminine chuckle… or no: there was a sudden, ghostly shimmering in the air just in front of the doors, and the silvery shadow of a tall, gracefully slender lady-for Korvaun had measured folk at a glance for years, and this woman could be no less than a lady-suddenly stood before him. He could see the four impassive guards through her, and in fact she was protruding through them. Korvaun watched tiny blue motes of light, like sparks turned the hue of moonlight, dance along the line where ghost-shadow met gleaming blue armor, and noticed her flowing gown did not ripple in response to the harbor breeze but to some other, unfelt wind of its own. A ghost wind.
"Well met, Lady Ghost Wind," he said, in as friendly and respectful a voice as he could manage. Thanks to several maiden aunts, Korvaun Helmfast could sound very respectful when he needed to. "My name is Korvaun Helmfast, and I seek audience with Mirt, commonly called the Moneylender."
The ghostly lady smiled. "Ghost Wind is a better name than some have given me." She looked down the stair past Korvaun at his waiting bodyguard. "I trust you don't intend to bring all of your bullyblades inside our doors."
Korvaun bowed to her, turned, and made a certain signal. "You trust rightly, Lady. I'll proceed alone."
"Then be welcome. What you'll feel on the threshold within is no attack but a probing. Ascend the stair, and Mirt will doubtless find you."
She winked into nothingness even before her words ended. The helmed horrors stepped back to their former positions as the doors beyond them parted and drew inward, revealing a cavernous forehall beyond.
"Impressive, I'll grant," Korvaun murmured, as he crossed the threshold.
The lofty-domed forehall of Mirt's Mansion was smaller and far less ornate than most nobles' abodes, and far more welcoming. Free of clutter and ornate adornment, it didn't strive to impress the eye, yet everything was well-made. It was not a showplace but a home, of someone wealthy and pleasure-loving and yet no-nonsense.
Another eight helmed horrors awaited Korvaun, four on either side this time. As he stepped forward, he felt the probing the ghostly lady had warned him about, like a tingling haze in the air. He was suddenly surrounded by blue smoke so thin he could barely see it, and so acrawl with power that he was shuddering.
The youngest Lord Helmfast hesitated as radiances flickered and grew stronger all around him, and his hands and face went numb. He decided to walk on. What sort of probing was this? The surging tinglings coiled most strongly around the rings on his fingers and the slender sword he wore, but seemed to ignore his dagger. Most curious.
Then it was all gone, fallen away as if it had never been, and he was passing between the motionless helmed horrors and traversing empty flagstones toward the stair. Before him, massive turned wooden posts like the deck-bollards of a great ship held up stairs as finely made as the flights in any villa or mansion he'd ever seen, but far plainer.
Faint kitchen noises-and now a waft of cooking, too-came from behind some of the doors he was leaving behind as he ascended, but he still saw no sign of a living person.
Some folk of Waterdeep spoke of Mirt's Mansion as a sort of vast prison or series of bloodstained torture chambers, where folk who'd been unwise or desperate enough to fall into his clutches screamed out their pain as he cut what he was owed out of their flesh. Others held that it was as gray and drab and graspingly humorless as any moneylender must be, and still others…
Had obviously never been here, any of them. None had walked along a thick blue fine-weave rug as long as any Waterdhavian noble villa might boast, in a white-walled passage whose sides curved up and around overhead in a smooth, unbroken arch. Korvaun strode softly along it, past several closed doors: broad, plain-plank affairs rather than the gaudily carved entries of snarling lion faces and suchlike favored by most rising-coin merchants. He was heading for what must be a solar ahead, where the passage opened out, sunlight streamed down from above, and plants flowered in profusion.
Fine plants, some in hanging baskets. Dodging amongst them was a fat, puffing man in flopping boots and seaman's breeches held up by both braces and the broadest belt Korvaun had ever seen. But then, he'd seen very few bellies that bulged and strained above and over belts with quite the quivering enthusiasm Mirt's did.
Just now, the infamous moneylender was watering his plants with a shower of sweat as he stamped, parried, and scrambled. Mirt was grunting and wheezing like a tired cart-ox as he fenced with a petite lady in dark leathers, whose hair danced behind her like the mane of a proud horse.
My, what a beauty! Korvaun watched her in open admiration and found his gaze drawn to the quickening skirl and clash of blades as Mirt groaned, sputtered, and cursed his way right out of view, driving his lovely opponent back through the greenery.
There followed a sudden lionlike roar of dismay and a tinkling of merry feminine laughter. Korvaun followed the sounds into the warm, damp air of the solar.
Both combatants were regarding him with interest before he could even draw breath to speak. Rings on their fingers glowed in sudden readiness. Korvaun tried a smile.
"I… offer no menace to you or to any in this fair house. I'm Korvaun Helmfast of House Helmfast, here to crave audience on matters of business with the famous Mirt the Moneylender."
Mirt grunted, wiped one fat-fingered hand across his brow, and leaned on his sword as if it was a dung-spade. Korvaun managed not to wince.
"A flatterer, eh? Ye must be desperate."
Korvaun found himself at a loss for words. Well, that was quick.
"I've some need for coin, yes," he managed, uncomfortably aware of dancing mirth in the woman's eyes, "yet I've come here rather than just emptying the nearest family coffer because I find myself also in need of some advice."
The shaggy-mustached head lifted from its hard-breathing rest on the pommel of the sword, its owner frowning in sudden interest. "Well, now. Have ye, indeed?"
A hand like a gnarled, hairy-knuckled shovel waved Korvaun toward a door.
"Rest yerself in there, my young friend, an' we'll sport together awhile. Asper will find us something to drink-something unpoisoned, I hope."
Asper gave him a dazzling smile, tossed her blade onto a cushion, and dived head-first down a hitherto-hidden slide. The broad leaves of a sea-mist flower, large enough to conceal several such floor openings, danced in her wake.
Aware of Mirt's scrutiny, Korvaun repressed the urge to shake his head in bemusement as he went to the indicated door. Unlike a noble villa, indeed. The man most of Waterdeep called the Old Wolf fell into step behind him.
"So, young Helmfast, how's your mother these days?"
Gods, but she was beautiful. Not in the overpainted, gilded, exquisitely coiffed manner of noble matrons, nor yet in the slyly wanton lushness of the best tavern dancers, but… like a graceful wisp of a temple dancer, yet with something of the imp about her, too, in her dark leathers.
Asper gave Korvaun a smile that made him blush as she handed him a decanter to match the one she'd given Mirt, stopper and all, and trotted out of the room, unstrapping and unbuckling as she went.
"She's gone down to the pool to bathe, an' there's no one else this end of the house," Mirt grunted, from where he was lounging in an old wreck of a chair with his feet up on a matching ruin of a footstool. He waved Korvaun to more catastrophes of furniture. "So speak freely. An' soon."
Korvaun lowered himself gingerly onto a decrepit chair. It creaked, but held firm. "Goodsir, I'm here because I need to settle a debt we-I've just incurred, to a certain Master Stone-"
"Nay, nay, tell me nothing, young lord! I needn't know an' don't want to know, for I cannot tell excited Guardsmen or dogs of the Watch what you've never spoken of. Besides, I know all about your little swordsclang with Varandros Dyre, an'-"
"You do?" Korvaun blurted, too astonished to stop himself.
Keen old eyes met his from under bristling brows. "Tymora keep ye, is each new generation born blind? As ye strut about the city, young cockerel, has it never occurred to ye that your every spit and belch an' casual insult is marked, an' remembered, an' told about to someone else?"
"What? By who?"
"By whom, lad, by whom. Ye don't want to sound unlettered. How d'ye think street urchins earn coppers enough for a daily gnaw-bun, hey? By running an' telling some merchant ye're strolling down his lane, or some gossip-monger who wants to Know All, an' resell some of it for brighter coin… or some creditor, that ye've wandered within reach at last."
Mirt swallowed most of the contents of his decanter at a single gulp without apparent effect and growled, "Yet ye spoke of having coin enough not to need my hand a-clutching at your purse, or if it falls empty, something else ye keep dangling rather near it."
Korvaun frowned. "I really came here for advice," he said quietly. Lifting his decanter, he peered into its depths, and his frown deepened.
"Drink," Mirt bade gruffly. "'Tis fine. Nothing but the finest horsepiss do we serve young noble visitors wise enough to know how dunderheaded they are! I grow older and thirstier by the breath, so out with it, lad: what troubles ye?"
Korvaun grimaced. "Dyre's furious with us. He said all of us reach a time when consequences can no longer be laughed away, and that his friends-all the merchants and shopkeepers of the city-would be watching us. He made it sound like the city was two steps away from rising to butcher all nobles!"
Mirt took a swig from his decanter, sighed in appreciation, and asked it, "Did he, now? How unusually candid of him. Ye should be grateful he managed to speak so bluntly, instead of trailing off into cursing the way most of us coarse lowborn do. I hope ye remembered more of his words than just that much."
Korvaun found that his mouth had fallen open. Uncomfortably aware of the weight of the Old Wolf's gaze, Korvaun murmured, "I'd never considered before that the commoners might get angry at, well, the way of things."
Mirt's gaze turned mocking, and Korvaun found himself burning with embarrassment.
"I mean, at what we young nobles have always done-pranks and swordplay and jollity. The common folk always just seemed to-"
"Get out of the way as best they could, an' otherwise just stand and take it?"
"Well, yes. Exactly. And yet I see it, now: they're right to be furious. We smash what they can ill afford to lose, and our jests mock them even when we don't mean to… and yet most of the time we do."
Mirt nodded. "The road to being deeply loved, no?"
"No," Korvaun agreed a little grimly, and drank.
Liquid fire promptly ran up his nose as well as down his gullet, and left him sputtering.
The Old Wolf chuckled, deftly plucked the decanter from failing Helmfast hands, and dealt Korvaun a slap on the back that would have led to prompt face-first disaster if he hadn't also raised the knuckles of his decanter-holding hand like a wall in front of Korvaun's chest.
Korvaun wiped away tears and croaked, "What is this… stuff?"
"Firebelly. 'Tis all the rage in the pirate ports, an' goes well with the strongest cheese. Makes your breath sweet, clears out the pipes-as ye've found-an' is very good for ye."
Through still-watery eyes Korvaun found Mirt grinning at him, and gasped, "Are you drinking it, too?"
"Of course I am, ye silly man; I have some professional ethics. So it's dawned on ye at last that the common folk of our fair city might be discontented an' have cause to be. An' now?"
"An uprising would be terrible. It must be forestalled, and you… are of common birth, wise to the streets, and yet are… well, widely rumored to be-"
Mirt's eyes were bright and steady, offering no aid at all, and Korvaun wallowed in blushing embarrassment for a breath or two ere he managed to blurt: "-a Lord of Waterdeep!"
"Well, now. Rumors can be such ugly things, can they not?"
"So can truths," Korvaun told him quietly. "Nobles learn that much, at least. Even when secrets…" He paused, wondering just how to say what was in his thoughts.
"Are such fun, an' the game that all your elders are playing?" Mirt asked, his voice very dry.
Their gazes met squarely. After a moment, Korvaun nodded.
"Merchants are no different from nobles when it comes to secrets," the Old Wolf said gruffly, reaching down behind his chair to bring up a second decanter. "'Tis just that more of our secrets are about money. Nobles have more idle time to play at pride an' betrayal, but your biggest, sharpest secrets are all about coins, too. Inheritance, hidden debts, obligations, trade-ties gone wrong; all of that."
"All of that," Korvaun agreed. "So what should be done-no, what can I do-to take the commoners a step back from their anger?"
Mirt unstoppered his new decanter, sniffed it, and asked the stopper curiously, "Why should ye do anything?"
"Well, if we nobles are the cause, we must be the ones to make amends, and it seems fairly clearly that we are the cause."
"Ye've taken the first stride already, young lord: ye've admitted that, an' seen Waterdeep differently because of it. Now, if ye could bring your young friends around to the same view…"
"I'll do that!" Korvaun said with sudden fire. "I'll go and tell-"
"No," Mirt growled, "ye'll not."
The youngest Lord Helmfast blinked at him. "Whyever not?"
"No one ever convinced a hot-headed young noble of anything-at least, not one who still keeps his brains in his codpiece an' hasn't yet had his teeth handed back to him by the world-by talking to him. Ye rush in with your jaw flapping, an' they'll listen an' think poor Korvaun's gone straight into gods-mazed idiocy, an' can safely be ridiculed or humored but either way ignored. Events have to bring your fellow lordlings around to seeing this for themselves."
"'Events'? Like a city-wide riot?"
The retort brought a slow smile to Mirt's lips. "No, that'd make them see foes to stick their fancy blades through. I was thinking more the sort of 'hard lesson' events that knock sense into us all, events that sometimes-just sometimes, mind ye-can be nudged into happening by, well, by a young nobleman who's almost half as clever as he thinks he is. The sort of events that your mother an' every other woman her age learned long ago."
Korvaun frowned. "I beg your-?"
"Nay, ye do nothing of the kind. Ye look for a challenge, if ye beg my pardon or anything else in that tone. Stop thinking with your pride for just a breath an' see what I'm saying: now, don't all the noble ladies ye know, young and old, arrange things to make their menfolk or brothers or sons react in some way they'd like? Get angry an' insist on something, mayhap? Or regard some matter as touching the honor of the House, an' thus demanding the opposite response from them than they'd said they'd give, a little earlier?"
Korvaun nodded. "I see," he said, and did. "Yes."
"Good. The gods smile on us both this day," Mirt said briskly. "Now, how many coins d'ye want?"
"I know not, yet. Master Dyre said he'd send us an accounting."
"An' ye can send word to me, an' I'll have coins or tradebars or both ready here for your hands-your hands, mind, not some servant or fellow lordling-to claim."
Mirt's second decanter was almost empty. Korvaun regarded him in some amazement. He was fat, yes, but this firebelly stuff! The man should be slurring his words at least by now! Korvaun started to stammer thanks.
One large and hairy hand shot out in a silencing wave. "'Tis the least I can do to help such a rare breed: a noble who sees the city so clearly an' cares about what meets his eyes. Yet I can do something more, an' believe I will. If Waterdeep needed ye, would ye answer the call?"
Korvaun blinked. "But of course-"
That large, silencing hand worked its power again. "If I asked ye to do a service-large or small, perilous or seemingly silly-for our city, would ye? Dropping all else an' with no thought of fame nor reward?"
The youngest Lord Helmfast met the old moneylender's gaze squarely and said quietly, "Yes. This I swear."
"Good. Fix in your memory, then, two words: 'searchingstar' and 'stormbird.' Got them?"
"Aye, and stormbird."
"Good," the Old Wolf said again. "Now remember also this: if a stranger says 'searchingstar' to ye, ye're to get yourself here as fast as your legs can bring you an' say 'searchingstar' to whoever answers the door. If some stranger instead says 'stormbird' to ye, do the same-but bring whatever friend ye've confided in."
"Friend? You suggest I'd confide in-"
Mirt made a rude sound. "However hard ye swear to the contrary, here an' now, ye'll tell a friend all about this. Young, excited lads always do."
Mirt's hand went up again. "Spare me your protests, but mind ye tell someone who can hold his tongue, or ye'll discover the hard way that I've never seen ye before, an' this little chat never happened."
Korvaun nodded. "I quite understand."
"There's something else ye should know, wise young noble, something to tell ye not to always trust in what ye see."
Mirt brought something else up from behind his battered chair: something small enough to fit in his palm. It gleamed, yet bent easily in Mirt's stubby fingers-but slipped back into its former shape as he shifted his grip. It looked like a miniature shield, with a flat top and sides but a rounded bottom, or at least it did until Mirt turned it the other way up and held it forth. Leather thongs dangled from it, making it now look more like an eyepatch than anything else.
"This," Mirt said simply, "is a slipshield. Touch it."
"A little secret of the city. Touch it."
Hesitantly, Korvaun did as he was bid. It felt… hard. Like wood, solid and smooth, neither hot nor cold.
Mirt had muttered something, and now drew back, fastened the thongs loosely around his arm, pushed the little shield against his arm with one finger, and murmured something else Korvaun couldn't hear.
The Old Wolf's features melted, blurred-and Korvaun was looking at himself.
"Aren't I handsome?" his own voice asked him. "Give a young noble a kiss? No? Look down at your hands."
Korvaun did so-and discovered to his horror that they were hairy and knobby-knuckled, with stubby fingers and calluses. They were the hands that had waved him to silence and hefted decanters. Mirt's hands.
He looked up at his double, but its shape was blurring, and his own hands were, too. Then the image of Korvaun was gone, and the stout, shaggy old moneylender was holding the little shield in his hand and grinning at him. Korvaun quickly looked down. His own hands were back, too. So the slipshield was a device that let two men trade shapes.
"Let that be the secret I'll test your keeping of," Mirt said as he dropped the shield into Korvaun's palm. "Now be off with ye, before your bodyguards reluctantly decide something's happened to ye and they'd better start earning their pay. Back on the streets with ye, an' back to getting rich. From the day ye pick up my coins, ye've a year to pay me back."
Korvaun discovered his mouth was still agape. He closed it hastily to stammer his thanks.
Mirt snorted and showed him to the door, slapping the unfinished firebelly decanter into his hand. "A gift. Ye'll be needing it, Lord Helmfast."
Korvaun managed a smile. "You speak with conviction. Are you a seer?"
The moneylender snorted. "Ye're tryin' to do the right thing, lad. D'ye think to be the first man who won't be punished for it?"
Mirt sneezed again and slashed aside another black, clinging armful of cobwebs. Well, 'twasn't as if this tunnel got used every day. The lantern in his hand was getting uncomfortably warm, so he must be almost there by now.
Aye, there 'twas. And at least he wasn't making this trip at the dead puffing run, with some disaster or other rocking the city above him. 'Twas good some of the young noble pups were finally showing signs of taking up the mantle of responsibility. At last. At far too long and bleeding last.
And wonder of the gods, if young Helmfast wasn't actually seeing for himself that the common folk had true cause for complaint!
Mirt passed his hand along the wall at ankle height, and was rewarded with a momentary glow. Aye, right here.
He trailed his fingertips up the rough stone to the familiar knobs, curled his palm around one of them in such a way that his fingertips pressed onto the stones in spread array, and a door-sized oval of wall abruptly swung inward, revealing faint blue gloom beyond.
Mirt stepped through, to be greeted by the sound of a young lass choking.
The duty apprentice was seated at the usual desk, with a glow-stone resting on the pages of what might be a spellbook but then again might just be a heaving-bosoms chapbook. She'd dropped both book and stone in haste as the opening of the seldom-used secret door startled her, and grabbed for a ready wand beneath the still-bouncing book.
That wild grab had forced her to hastily swing her feet down from their perch on the far end of the desk, and her fashionable boots had brained her backup-who was now slumping senseless to the floor. So much for Tower guardroom rules about the backup sentinel watching from no closer than the far doorway.
Mirt put away his growing grin and set down his lantern as it became clear the tangle-haired young mage was in real trouble. The wand shook in her hand, and she was making strange gargling, mewing sounds as she spat out too little of a hot-mussels-and-gravy bun.
Mirt could lurch forward with surprising speed when he had to, and in a trice he'd snatched the wand from her trembling hand and flung it aside, then come around the desk and laid hold of one booted ankle. Thankfully these slender, high pointy-toed jobs didn't come off all that easily, so he could do this:
He hauled hard, put a foot on her stool, pushed off as if he was starting to climb a steep stair-and the choking apprentice was suddenly upside down.
Her fashionable skirts fell away to reveal old petticoats with holes in them and a stained undersash that wasn't much cleaner than Mirt's own customary clout. Her face promptly changed from trying to turn blue to also trying to blush crimson at the same time.
The Old Wolf shook the lass once, vigorously, then thumped her on the back hard enough to make her limbs bounce and flail like a rag doll's.
"This'll clear your pipes!" he announced heartily, watching hot mussels, gravy, and half-chewed bread shoot past his boots. Before she could even begin to sob for breath, he threw her up into the air, caught her waist in both hands, and spun her upright like a wheel.
She was taller and more gangly than Asper, and Mirt got an unintentional elbow in his face for his pains, but in another moment she was coughing and crying all over her desk, with Mirt resting one hand on her flank to keep her standing.
It took her some time to recover her breath, and Mirt passed it by reading her book-it was a heaving-bosoms affair, by Sharess! — aloud.
"'The bruising strength of his grip made her gasp, and even as she twisted furiously away, cursing her silks for their lack of handy daggers, she knew she'd been dangerously-possibly fatally-wrong about him.'
'"A moment later, her fingers found what they'd been straining for… and a moment after that, he knew it too.'"
Mirt chuckled. "Ho-ho, but this is ripe stuff!" He thumbed a few pages, ate the discarded end of her bun with lip-smacking enjoyment, then glanced at still-heaving shoulders and asked, "Are ye all right yet, lass?"
"M-my… my…" She was still fighting for breath and turning to face him slowly, hands far from her belt dagger-or the one strapped to her ankle that Mirt's rough medicine had just revealed.
"Wand? 'Tis under my boot-and staying there, until ye settle down."
"Who are you?"
Mirt grinned at what he could see of the tear-streaked face through all the hair. "Call me Elminster-and get me Laeral straightaway, aye?"
Large, dark eyes goggled at him as frantic fingers dragged hair out of the way, then the still-raw voice that went with them managed to stammer, "The L–Lady Laeral is, uh, elsewhere at the moment."
"Then," Mirt growled grandly, "I suppose Old Windbag-Khelben, to ye-will have to do."
A strange expression crossed the guard-prentice's face as mirth rose to join anger and embarrassment. Abruptly she gasped, "Stay here!" and rushed out of the room, looking even more like she was struggling not to laugh.
Mirt waited for her to look back and then disappear around the first bend of the ascending stair. Then he set off after her. He knew where she was almost certainly heading.
A short but wheezing journey later, they arrived more or less together at a certain door, where the guard-prentice gave Mirt an angry, helpless glare, and whispered something to its latch, almost as if she was kissing it.
The door clicked and moved a little, as if a lock had been released, and the apprentice quickly stepped forward, whirling to slam it shut again-and discovered that the fat stranger had somehow crossed three paces of passage and got not just his foot, but an entire leg through the door in her wake, and there was just no way she was going to be able to get it closed.
The rest of Mirt followed his bold leg into the chamber, favoring her with a fond grin. "Shouldn't ye be getting back to your post?"
The mage drew herself up to say something really blistering-and someone else said an oath for her, a long and heartfelt string of obscenities that owed so much to spell-inferences and references to wizards long dead that its heat was quite lost in its own bewildering grandeur.
"I love ye, too," Mirt replied affably, as the Lord Mage of Waterdeep came toward them like a thundercloud, with the chaos of collapsing spells singing and lashing across the vast chamber behind him like wildly whipping mooring ropes flung by a storm-ropes that glowed and spat showers of sparks and flung lightnings, that is.
So large was that room that it should not have been able to fit inside the neighborhood, let alone the slender girth of Blackstaff Tower-yet most of it was occupied by a gigantic stone head that any Waterdhavian would know at a glance as belonging to one of the Walking Statues of Waterdeep. Mirt knew Khelben was "bringing them all in" this month to augment their enchantments, but couldn't identify any of the strangeness in the air around the head as more than just "powerful magic."
There were glowing golden lines of force, now drifting slowly to the floor. Along and above some of them were elaborate runes and words, written in flowing script on the empty air, and here and there Mirt could even see tiny gemstones and winking motes of light orbiting a few of the sigils. It looked like hours of work to him… and by the expression adorning the Blackstaff's face, probably was.
From somewhere down near her boots the guard-prentice found her voice. It emerged quavering dangerously, but quite loud enough. "S-sorry, Lord Master. I bring Elminster, who craves audience with you."
The exhaustion, loss, and rage warring on Khelben's face twisted into something like incredulity. "That's not Elminster! Idiot lass! He's not nearly so handsome!"
The apprentice recoiled from her master's anger but glanced helplessly at the fat, spiderweb-covered bulk of Mirt. Her face changed. She struggled again for a moment, as if she was going to choke anew, and then burst into helpless giggles.
With the last of his great web of spells crashing soundlessly to the floor behind him, Khelben "Blackstaff" Arunsun clasped his hands behind his back, gave his helpless apprentice a disgusted look, and swung his glare back to Mirt.
"Well, whatever do you want?"
Mrelder nodded thanks to the wench as she set down the latest round of ale.
The dozen men in the booth with him-apprentices, daycoin-men, and hireswords, strangers all-took up the tankards and drank deeply.
His offer of a free highsun meal with drink had bought him their time, and a few sly hints about a rich, fat, easily plucked pigeon of a merchant had won their close attention.
The theft he was hiring them for was pure fancy, of course. The men in the booth would probably always wonder how the plot had unraveled but would have no doubts about the fate of the man who'd hired them-or rather, the man whose face Mrelder currently wore. That unfortunate would be found dead in an alley before nightfall. Golskyn's mongrelmen would make sure of it.
Mrelder set down his tankard and tried not to be seen scratching. His father's spells had reattached his arm, but the fingers always felt numb, now, and the rest of it itched damnably. "Our time draws to a close. Questions?"
"What of the Watch?" asked a sell-sword.
The disguised sorcerer put on a grim face. "Greater concerns ride them than what we offer."
Uneasy glances were exchanged. "There's trouble in the city?"
"Trouble enough," Mrelder told them. "'Tis whispered Lord Piergeiron's passed into the Halls of Tempus."
"The Open Lord, dead?" someone gasped incredulously.
His neighbor gave him a sharp elbow. "How else d'ye get there, fool? And when the answer comes, try not to shout it quite so loud!"
"Aye," Mrelder said in a grim whisper. "The Lords're keeping it secret. Until they let it be known, I'd be taking it as a favor if you'd keep it secret too."
Every one of the dozen grunted agreement, but every last one of them drained their tankards in haste and looked to him for dismissal. Mrelder doubted their eagerness to depart came from any desire to return to work. He waved them away, hiding his smile with his ale.
By day's end, Dock Ward would be buzzing with the rumor of Piergeiron's death.
A trio of revel-bound matrons bustled past Lark, their feathered cloaks aswirl in the evening breeze. Self-satisfied confidence wafted from them like perfume-never mind that they resembled a gaggle of fattened geese. Lark batted away an errant feather and fought down a moment of panic.
"Gods going sideways," she murmured under her breath. "I don't know if I can go through with this."
Stars twinkled over elegant Sea Ward, and the night air was turning cool. Lark had surreptitiously tossed her old cloak over one of the ornamental spires adorning a grand railing two blocks back, and the breeze ghosting past her bared shoulders made her shiver.
She suppressed an urge to tug at the low-cut bodice. Faendra's gown was absent from much of her upperworks and clung to her hips as if it was dripping wet. Lark had never stepped out of doors in such scant garb, nor, for that matter, had her mother. This was a strange city, to be sure, where fine ladies showed the world more flesh than Luskan's dockside whores!
But then, Lark thought cynically, judging by the gems on lavish display around her, these noblewomen got a better price for their… wares.
Jewels sparkled in the night as women-and men, for that matter-alighted from gilded coaches. They swept down the street toward Westwind Villa in a grand promenade to the strains of hired minstrelsy.
Strolling with them but feeling very alone, Lark kept her head high and looked at no one. The gazes of the villa guards, standing silently in their dark finery on every step, felt heavy and suspicious. She reminded herself not to look too closely at them as she ascended the broad white marble steps. Nobles seldom noticed those who served.
Don't hurry. Hold your gown up as if you're used to doing it, and DON'T HURRY. Only a few steps more.
At the head of the stair, tall and many-paneled doors stood open to reveal golden light and revelry beyond. She could hear the announcements now over a rising hubbub of chatter and mirth.
"Lord and Lady Gauntyl," the doorwarden declaimed haughtily. Everyone ascended another step. She was the only one climbing the steps alone. Lark swallowed hard.
"Lord and Lady Thongolir," the warden said grandly.
Another step. Lark reminded herself that the Texter had thought she was worth the price of her freedom and good enough to serve him still, in the small, secret way hidden beneath her belt, inside her gown.
"Lord Ulboth Tchazzam, and the Lone Lady Carina Tchazzam," the doorwarden announced, his voice rolling out into the vast, growing din of revelry. Ah. They'd be brother and sister, not a couple.
One of the guards on the topmost step was peering at her suspiciously. Oh, Lady Luck, be with me now!
Lark forced herself to raise her chin a trifle more and kept her eyes cool and the faint half-smile she'd learned so long ago on her lips.
"Lord and Lady Manthar."
Then she was on the top step, and the doorwarden was giving her a faint frown.
She turned her head just far enough to give him her half-smile and murmured, "Lady Evenmoon, of the Evenmoons of Tashluta." That should be far enough away that she wouldn't have to fear dozens of Tashlutans loudly proclaiming her an impostor, and it certainly sounded better than: A tavern wench from Luskan, daughter of a dockside trull, in a borrowed gown.
There was a moment of silence as the doorwarden traded glances with two men in lace-wristed finery inside the great door-men a head taller than most.
Oh, gods! Should she've said "I am expected," or mentioned Craulnober's name? Should she "Lady Evenmoon, of the Evenmoons of Tashluta," the doorwarden proclaimed, raising his grand voice just a trifle to give it a thread of excitement: A guest from afar!
A few heads turned amid the glittering chaos of elegant men and women standing talking amid deftly drifting servants with trays of tallglasses, but the overall din continued unabated.
Lady Lark Evenmoon of Tashluta let fall the hem of her gown with an elegant flick of her wrist and strode forward across gleaming emptiness toward those suddenly much needed drinks as haughtily and as gracefully as if she'd been doing it all her life.
"Korvaun's coming, surely?" frowned Beldar, surveying the glittering throng.
"He sent a servant with his regrets. Family business, apparently," Taeros murmured. "An odd excuse for a younger son whose proper business is carousing with his friends and tempting his parents to disown him. I've been threatened with that very fate thrice this tenday."
"Only thrice?" Beldar struck a pose and examined his fingernails as haughtily as an undefeated swordmaster. "Then my record, goodsir, stands."
Taeros smirked. "I'll continue my quest to unseat you, of course, but if our Korvaun continues to display such unseemly responsibility, he may take himself out of the fray entirely."
"Tragic," Malark declaimed, on the edge of mock tears. "Simply tragic. Just the three of us then." He rolled his eyes. "How shall we console our lonely selves?"
"In the usual manner, I expect," Beldar observed dryly. "Now remember, my gallant Gemcloaks: utter nothing about our host that you'd not say to his face. He's doubtless using one of those spells that lets you hear your name spoken, what words are said with it, and any reply."
Malark's eyebrows shot up. "I'll curse him inwardly then. What's he throwing this hurlygowns-prance for, anyway? To show us all he has spare coins enough to rent a villa just for a fling? Or to remind us all what jaded low-life dogs we all are, that he can jerk the leash and we'll come running in hopes we'll see the infamous Serpent do something infamous?"
"My guess," Taeros Hawkwinter told the backs of his fingers confidentially, as he inspected them for missed blotches of ink, "is that the far-traveled Lord Craulnober wants to show himself once more on the social ramparts of Waterdeep, to remind the, ah, darkest such ramparts that should they feel the need to hire someone to do something a little shady, he's… right here. Handy, as it were."
"Chatoyant," Beldar said grandly. "Simply chatoyant. Let's make our grand entrance before all the best wine's gone."
"So of course I told him to get on his horse and ride right back to Myratma-and take his hairy-rumped harem with him, too!"
Men guffawed and wheezed, and women tittered far too loudly and threw their heads back to let the conjured glowflames catch the full dazzle of the gems dripping from their earlobes and around their throats. Lark deftly slid her shoulder out from under an idly reaching hand.
"By Tempus, you take the maiden, Braerard! Fancy some dirt-neck from Tethyr thinking he can just ride through our gates and start acting as if he owned the place! Does he think we give two thin nibs if he calls himself a 'duke,' or some such? They'll be rolling in here calling themselves 'emperors,' next!"
Lark smiled absently at nothing at all and drifted on, trying not to look as if she was in any haste. More than one servant had already given her a puzzled look-as if they'd seen her before but couldn't quite place where. In Waterdeep, that could lead to a cry of "thief." She certainly wasn't the first person to come to a revel uninvited for purposes other than dancing and boasting.
Sun on the Mountain, but these old men thought well themselves! Judging by all the red faces and quivering jowls and-and wattles, most of them seemed to have mastered eating long ago, but judging from their vapid, vainglorious chatter, not much else.
Their gossip was a trifle more interesting than servants' talk, but of course that was because she wasn't familiar with most of the names and little catch-phrases yet. It didn't sound much subtler or grander than the boastful backstairs talk she was accustomed to.
"Brokengulf?" someone roared drunkenly. "Is that you?"
"Aye, what's left of me!" came the equally sodden response.
That jest, Lark thought sourly, was nearly as old as the man using it.
Come to think on it, there weren't a lot of young nobles here, beyond a few girls trailing their mothers around like pale-faced, gem-drenched lapdogs. As yet Lark had seen no sign of the handsome Elaith Craulnober-or any elves for that matter, moon or otherwise.
Suddenly Lark froze. Across a glittering expanse of flashing, winking gemstones displayed by women who apparently believed no one should be seen in public wearing less than half her own weight in gaudy jewelry, she saw three of the Gemcloaks absently taking tallglasses and crowns of smoked mussels off passing platters as they strolled together. They looked uniformly bored.
In that boredom lay danger; they'd be looking around for something to amuse themselves. Lark faded a few steps to the left to hide herself behind someone, and so brought herself into the lee of two red-faced, bristle-mustached old patriarchs in full spittle-spraying career. Lost in their jovial roarings, they were both clutching huge goblets in each hand and flicking flash-snuff rings all too often. Through the resulting threads of smoke they peered at her, leered in unison, and reached out together (transferring their goblets to one hand with a deftness that bespoke long practice), intent upon fondling the newcomer.
Lark stepped out of reach, seized with a wild urge to snatch those four goblets, empty them over the dyed and powdered coiffures of their owners, and then use the massive metal cups to do a little fondling of her own-hard, and where it would hurt.
The two promptly forgot her. "Scared?" one of them bellowed. "By Bane, sir, we were! Guides didn't last two breaths before they were off like spring rabbits, shrieking like a lot of gels seeing Piergeiron in the baths! Second night out, and us left alone, with all our food and kit gone with 'em! That's when we found the tracks, of course! And the blood!"
"Dragons. Three of 'em, at least! Big ones. Talons as long as my arm, and-"
Someone was grinning at her around a dragonslaying elbow. Lark blinked and then swallowed again.
It was the redbearded Lord Kothont. Malark, that was his name. His eyes were shining almost as brightly as his emerald cloak.
"Well, well! You do look familiar, Lady-?"
"Battle-axe," Lark told him smoothly. "Old Lady Battle-axe."
Malark's eyes twinkled. "Am I to take it that both edges of your tongue are as sharp as the weapon you refer to?"
"You may take it elsewhere, my lord," Lark told the back of her hand airily. "I give you fair warning-I've been told betimes that my knee is as sharp and as swift as any weapon you might care to name."
"Ho ho!" Malark chuckled, genuinely amused. "I take great care in naming my weapons, to be sure, but I like even more the names friendly ladies give them."
Lark gave him a very direct stare and murmured, "So go to your friendly ladies and collect some new names. I fear you'll acquire nothing so useful from me." She let him see a twinkle in her gaze to go with her bright and brittle smile to leave him nothing to flare into anger over.
Yet it seemed Lord Kothont was far from anger. He saluted her with something that might have been admiration in his eyes and cocked his head to give her an almost fond smile. "You offer rare sport, My Lady Battle-axe. I look forward to renewing our converse at revels to come-many of them, I hope-yet it seems your desires lie elsewhere this night."
"You should presume nothing as to my desires," she said coolly. "They are not one whit as obvious as you deem them to be."
She lifted her chin and stared him down, prompted by a surge of pride beyond anything she'd known before. She would not run from this man or any other. It was essential that she stand her ground, that it would be he who moved away.
Malark laughed almost as if he knew that too, gave her a wave of his hand, and strolled off-leaving Lark suddenly aware of two bloodshot, rather frowning gazes.
"You're not Lady Battle-axe," Old Dragonslayer said accusingly. "Rode her back in oh-six. Impudent young wetbottom."
The two old warriors then turned their backs on her, leaving Lark wondering if they meant she was impudent-which seemed most likely-or Lady Battle-axe had been, back in oh-six. 1306? Gods above!
Suddenly in great need of a drink, Lark headed for the nearest platter. The liveried, carefully expressionless servant bearing it would have orders to circle back to wherever the pouring-pantry was when less than a fifth of the drinkables were left, and his load was approaching that now.
Her progress was halted abruptly by a familiar, dark-eyed gaze. Beldar Roaringhorn had lifted his head from the excited gabble of a green-haired matron-Sune look away, WHERE do these women get such dyes? Or the blind idiocy to think such hues flatter them? — to stare right at her.
She froze for a moment, and then realized she dare not show such a reaction. She forced herself to stroll casually forward and claim a glass from the tray. Sipping at the wine, Lark stole a glance at the Roaringhorn lordling. Yes, he was still looking her way.
So was Lord Hawkwinter-Taeros-standing at Beldar's shoulder, but Lark realized their regard held nothing more threatening than mild interest. There was no hint of recognition on either face, even though Beldar had met her twice before, under circumstances she considered memorable.
She let out a small sigh of relief. They were probably among the legions of nobles who didn't look closely at female servants who weren't thrusting bared charms under their noses. As a "noble guest," she was apparently worthy of closer scrutiny. Moreover, she was their age, and if no buxom beauty, a "stranger from afar" offered some small novelty.
Despite her tense nervousness, Lark understood their boredom. If this was what nobles did at revels, 'twas hardly better than the interminable orations of the worst opinionated windbag merchants who came around the shops-and those men at least had work to do that would eventually call them away, and their blustering and whinings with them.
Malark Kothont was well on his way back to rejoin his friends, and Lark decided it would be very much for the best if she was no longer in view when he reached them. Any comment about the young lass with the delightfully sharp tongue would draw attention she'd rather avoid.
"I don't believe you've ever met the third Lone Lady Ammakyl," someone gushed nearby, and Lark rolled her eyes and moved away. Three maiden aunts at once? That would be a delightful household to work for!
"Ohhh, yes, ahahahaha!" a man brayed, loudly and falsely enough to make Lark wince.
And wince again at her own stupidity. Gods above, had she lost her wits along with her own clothes? As a servant, she had the sense to keep her thoughts from her face. She twisted her lips into a vapid smile and lowered her bared shoulders into a more relaxed posture.
The great vaulted hall was filling up rapidly, which meant that some of the early arrivals, who wanted to avoid rivals or cut dead those with whom they were feuding, would soon start to leave. This didn't have the feel of a relaxed revel, where debauchery might soon break out. The grand folk of Waterdeep were uneasy because their not-yet-seen host was Elaith Craulnober, the notorious Serpent.
Right now might be her best chance to slip away. She was to leave her report in the study that overlooked the grand hall from the seaward side-and this had to be the grand hall.
She caught up to the servant, left her emptied tallglass on his platter and deftly procured a tallglass of something she could at least see through, and tilted her head back to idly survey the hall as she sipped.
Quite used to such self-absorbed behavior, the servant slipped around her and moved on, with neither of them having so much as glanced at each other's faces, which was a good thing, because the man's dwindling form looked familiar. She'd probably worked alongside him, cleaning up after some other revel elsewhere.
Lark raised her glance and her glass again-and spotted what she was looking for. The hall sported a promenade or continuous balcony, overlooking the crowded floor from all sides, and a second level above that of separately jutting balconies. One of them, on the seaward side, was larger than most and was glassed in. All was in darkness on both of those upper levels; the Serpent obviously wanted his guests to crowd and mingle beneath the glowflames and the chandeliers, to make it clear to all just how many of Waterdeep's best and brightest his invitation could bring.
"Eltorchul! Eltorchul! Hoy, Bunny-Ears! Over here!"
Lark winced at the deafening bellow and swiftly turned her back. If people looked this way, she would just as soon have them look at her bared back than her face. There were none in this city who'd recognize it, as she wasn't in the habit of baring her spine in noble mansions or anywhere else.
"Why, I was talking to Lady Hiilgauntlet just the other day, ahaha, and she told me-"
Lark began drifting toward the seaward wall. Now if I was an ascending staircase, where would I be? Close enough to a garderobe to serve as an excuse, it was to be hoped…
"What a sly little snake you are, Bedeira. How many hang-tongued men have you demolished as thoroughly as you did poor Laeburl, I wonder?"
"Forty-six, my lord," came the gloating reply. "Care to be my forty-seventh?"
Lark's progress thankfully took her out of hearing whatever reply Bedeira was offered-and even more thankfully, showed her broad stone steps, flanked by suits of armor far too ancient to have living men inside them, within the third archway in the wall before her. The light was dimmer here, and inevitably the gossip was more whispered and vicious-and some hands were wandering.
Lark stepped around a couple so lost in rapture that the feminine half of it was using her chin to hold up her own gathered gown. Beyond them was the arch that opened onto the stairway.
Glass in hand and affecting the frown of a well-bred lady who was beginning to feel some urgency in a search for the nearest garderobe, she stepped through the arch, glanced up the stair, and discovered something else.
There was not a guard to be seen, and over a landing far above her hung the paired blue and red lanterns that proclaimed: Garderobe Here.
Gasping a relief she didn't quite feel, Lark started up the stairs.
"You look as bored as I feel," Taeros murmured to Beldar, deftly avoiding a drunken Brokengulf maiden aunt. The aging beldame seemed bent on changing that status before the evening was out; she reeled past, twittering and clutching at all and sundry.
Beldar inspected the dregs in his latest goblet and told them, "I am hideously bored. One thinks of the notorious Serpent with the spice of danger, not-so-veiled elven insults, a whiff of things illicit-and a lot more elverquisst than I've seen yet." He waved a hand to indicate the room all around and added, "But this… this is our parents, chattering about their petty politics and intrigues. As harbor-filling usual."
To underscore his judgment, Beldar nodded his head toward old Laranthavurr Irlingstar just as the craggy-faced old bore's monocle made another of its inevitable plunges from its cheek-top perch into the grotesquely large snifter in the eldest Irlingstar uncle's hand. Droplets of luminous green liquid arced up in all directions in the wake of its loud "plop," and Aeramacrista Gauntyl, whom he'd been lecturing about proper precedence when dealing with "those new-coin think-far-too-well-of-them-selves visitors from Amn," drew hastily back from the shower with a little crow of alarm that she clumsily transformed into a titter.
Her retreat caused her to jostle Mornarra Cassalantar. Exaggerated exception was taken. Cutting words erupted.
Taeros rolled his eyes.
Beldar was rather gloomily regarding a glistening emerald droplet that had just landed on the back of his hand. "Calishite aumbruril. How three decades back!"
Taeros chuckled rueful agreement. "Shall we flit elsewhere, then?"
"Decidedly. There's a dance on at the Slow Cheese. Find Malark, will you?"
"Consider him found. Behold our royal blade-besieged, as usual."
Taeros pointed with his fresh goblet at a solid ring of noble matrons, all waving ring-laden hands expressively and spouting nonsense as fast as they could draw breath. The two Gemcloaks could just see Malark's rather weary smile over the fantastic coiffures of the shortest noblewomen. It seemed silver galleons were fashionable at the moment, for no less than three such vessels were sailing through cranial waves of artfully dyed, pinned, and stiffened hair.
As they watched, Malark's smile slid just a trifle more. Taeros made a sympathetic sound, tossed his goblet in the general direction of the nearest servant, and strode into the press of loud laughter, overwhelming perfumes, and glittering, gleaming "my taste is even worse and more expensive than thine" garments. Trills of alarm erupted and flower-bedecked fans swatted at him, but he forged on.
"Come, Lord Kothont," Taeros announced firmly, arriving at his destination, "'tis past time we attended to your prize pegasus. You know the poor thing goes mad if you don't dose it by four bells past dusk!"
"Goes mad?" one matron crowed delightedly. "How so, young sir?"
"Dose it?" another shrilled, her plump face gleaming with the avid fascination of one whose own ills were legion, endlessly fascinating, and entirely imaginary. "What sort of medicine?"
Malark was already grinning helplessly at the fancy Taeros was so glibly spinning and continued to do so as the youngest Lord Hawkwinter laid hands on his shoulder and started steering him out of his twittering prison.
"A secret distillation," Taeros confided grimly.
"Secrets, my lord? Come now! You dare keep no secrets from us, your elders and betters!"
"Very well," Taeros said sweetly, turning to survey the bright-eyed host of over painted faces as Beldar, not quite wearing a smirk, took Malark's other arm. "'Tis a distillation of… the blood of noblewomen."
They departed amid a noisy chaos of scandalized exclamations, delighted laughter, and uncertain mirth. Taeros suspected Malark would have slightly more breathing room at the next revel he attended.
By the lopsided grin on his face, Malark evidently thought so too. "Couldn't you have said the blood of old noblewomen?"
By the giggles issuing from within, the garderobe was being used for other than its usual form of relief. Good, that gave her a handy excuse. Lark strolled idly on into the darkness to look over the promenade rail and noticed the three Gemcloaks making their way to the doors. Good and better.
She faded back from the rail with the air of someone killing time in casual boredom toward the flight of steps up to the second level. She was almost underneath the study now, if she was right about which room it was. Ribbed vaulting soared from spindles to carved bosses and supporting statues. Lark spared their shadowed beauties no more than a passing glance, because no bored young noblewoman would have done any differently.
She strolled along the promenade and oh-so-casually ascended the second stair. The reign of darkness and silence continued.
Fur rugs covered the landing at the top of the stair, and their whiteness glowed slightly in a faint blue radiance issuing from the open door of the study, immediately to her right.
Lark swallowed. Could things be this easy? Surely not.
It was hard to maintain her casual air, and harder still to stroll on thick furs, but she thought she managed it, passing the door and glancing in as she did so.
The glow was coming from a large map or chart spread out on a desk, and was strong enough to show her a chair and a crammed bookshelf beyond. There was overstuffed seating on the far side of the desk, some sort of large but tidy potted plant, and so far as she could tell in the gloom, no one in the room.
Raising her eyebrows in what she hoped was a look of languid interest, Lark went to the doorway. If that desk had a carved ship-under-sail medallion on its far side, it was the place Texter wanted the report left. She smoothed her gown and felt beneath it the reassuring stiffness of the message written in Naoni's neat, careful hand.
Lark slipped through the door and walked boldly across the soft, deep rugs. As she neared the desk, she noted that the parchment on the table was creased with many rectangular folds-too creased to be parchment, come to think of it, because it hadn't cracked. It showed a finely drawn labyrinth of chambers and passages-more of the latter than the former-like some vast dungeon. Fascinating, but she dare not spend the time to look at it properly. Maps were valuable, dangerous things. She'd seen sailors and treasure-seekers alike kill each other over the possession of an ink-scrawled canvas scrap. If she were caught here studying a map, no explanation would suffice.
She strolled past the desk to the window overlooking the grand hall. "Well," she announced idly, "this is quite a view. Not that it makes those tail feathers on Lady Eirontalar's hat any more attractive, seen from above."
She turned back to face the desk. Yes! There was the ship medallion. A quick glance assured her she was alone.
Lark went to her knees in a flash, touched the sail of the ship, felt the medallion drop open like a flap, and ran her hand up under her gown and snatched out the report. Slipping it behind the medallion, she closed the little panel again and straightened up To stare straight into the coldly amused eyes of a slender moon elf in a dark, jeweled doublet and hose, who was leaning against the doorframe with one hand resting comfortably on the hilt of a long, slender sword. His other hand toyed with a drawn dagger whose blade was little more than a needle.
A needle as long and glittering as Lark's forearm.
"Lady Eirontalar's headwear is indeed quite gaudy," Elaith Craulnober said in singularly rich, musical tones, "but her presumption is more than matched by other ladies here in my house this night. Wouldn't you agree?"
The Slow Cheese was neither the grandest festhall in Waterdeep nor the largest, and even a blind and none too choosy man would not have deemed its dancers as anywhere near the best, but it was all the rage at the moment for the very novelty of its newness and for its hanging balconies.
The Gemcloaks were crowded into one of them now, overlooking the oval stage where dancers were disrobing in a succession of little mime-plays of true love, roguery, and elopement, to the accompaniment of some pleasant but rather wandering airs performed on lute, harp, and string-of-bells.
Not that anyone could hear much of it through the lusty roars of inebriated patrons shouting bawdy suggestions down at the stage, the rumble of converse, and the groaning of overloaded balconies. The Cheese was packed this night.
Malark helped himself to another generous slice of peppered Tharsultan cheese from the little "castle" of cheeses on the table in their midst. Exotic cheeses were the house gimmick, all of them strongly seasoned enough to make even iron-throated patrons order more drink.
"Thirsty?" Beldar inquired mockingly, watching Malark's eyes fasten in amazement on a particular display of bulbous flesh below.
Their own prized perch was one of dozens of small, elaborately filigreed and obscenely carved balconies that jutted so far out over the stage that they were barely a man's height above the heads of the dancers. All around the Gemcloaks, it was raining, a constant flashing fall of coins being dropped from balconies, aimed with greater or lesser degrees of lubricated skill to plunge down bosoms below. Wise dancers at the Cheese kept their mouths shut when on stage; one could choke on a freshly minted silver shard.
Malark delightedly watched some of those coins find their plunging destinations and others just miss and bounce, ricocheting most amusingly. One of them stuck, just for a moment, half-up a dancer's nose-and the roar of laughter that swept through the Cheese was deafening.
The balconies shook and quivered under the Gemcloaks-and under everyone else, by the feel of it, as drunken patrons started to clap rhythmically. The dancers obliged by hiking what little skirts they wore to kick in time, and the very stage swayed.
"Magic?" Beldar muttered. "'Tis like being on a ship fighting high seas in the harbor!"
"Hoy!" Taeros exclaimed suddenly, slapping his friend's arm. "Look! Isn't that Jessra Belabranta?"
He was pointing at the next balcony, barely the stretch of two long arms away. His gesture was noticed by its occupants, who waved and grinned back.
Beldar and Malark looked, and momentarily forgot the balcony-shaking dancers below.
Jessra Belabranta was widely held to be the silliest and most slow-witted of the Belabranta sisters-as well as the fattest. Her natural endowments were ample in all directions, and she was proudly displaying a pair of them to everyone in the festhall at the moment.
Jessra had evidently just acquired a mer-scale bustier-a garment simply dripping with thumb-sized, teardrop-shaped deep sea pearls of the sort reputed to be the exclusive "catch" of certain pirates of the Nelanther. She obviously wanted all Waterdeep to see those pearls, and the designer of her new garment understood that teardrop sea pearls are best displayed dangling from something and so designed the bustier to reveal to all the watching world the magnificent frontage of the wearer.
Jessra's frontage was… expansive, and the gems she'd glued all over them in a random array did nothing to detract from this.
She was also obviously of the school of taste that believes too much is better and had just tossed a pinch of glow-dust over her bosom. The effect was very much as if a lantern had been lit atop two… two…
Taeros whirled around to face Beldar, swept a flurry of cheeses off the little table, and with a finger wrote in the revealed dust beneath: Two blind whales trying to out-leap each other!
Beldar stared down at the symbols-a code they'd not used since they were young boys together, bored beyond yawns at the same revels. Then it all came back to him. He looked up again at Jessra Belabranta and whooped with helpless laughter.
Taeros promptly joined in, almost choking with mirth, as Malark sat there grinning at them and rolling his eyes.
Jessra cast them a slightly annoyed look through the trembling din of the sort that asks, "And just what do you find so amusing?"
That, of course, only made Beldar laugh all the harder, slapping the table hard.
As if that had been the proverbial last stroke of a woodsman's axe, the table fell through the balcony floor. The slowly building groan of wood that followed was almost deafening, and a startled Taeros stood and spun around in time to see…
All the balconies swaying, sliding, their support-pillars leaning…
Boards popped free, folk screamed, and patrons toppled helplessly over the low balcony rails.
Then everything was falling, with an enthusiastic roar.
Elaith Craulnober lounged against the doorpost, watching the fear that had leaped into the young woman's eyes. Apparently she wasn't a complete fool. He had yet to ascertain, however, exactly what she was.
He watched as she gathered herself with admirable speed. Her panic faded, and her softly curving smile of invitation was more subtle than most he'd received this night from fine Waterdhavian ladies. The dock whores of Luskan evidently bred a finer class of trollop.
"In truth, Lord Craulnober," she breathed, "I was hoping you'd follow me here."
The elf smiled. "You're pretty enough, by human standards, to add temptation to that offer," he said dryly, "but I can hardly leave my guests long enough to make a tryst worth my while or yours."
She cocked her head to one side. "Strange words from one who's not yet appeared among his guests."
"Oh? Who can say with assurance that I have not?"
The girl calmly made no answer. Some of Elaith's guests had responded to similar suggestions with barely disguised panic. Their eyes had grown wide and wild as they took hasty inventory of what they'd said, and to whom, and in whose hearing. This girl knew she'd committed no indiscretion. She'd said or done nothing, save intruding here, to offend her notorious host. That alone made her a rarity among his guests.
He regarded the girl with something approaching interest. "You must have been wandering about alone for quite some time to not have heard the whispers in the great hall."
"You'll have to be more specific, my lord," she replied. "Waterdeep knows no shortage of rumors."
"True enough. I'm not so thoughtless and inattentive a host as you suppose. While it's true I've not entered the great hall-at least, not as you see me now-I've received several of my guests at brief private meetings."
She nodded, understanding at once. "They leave your presence speaking of things you'd like to hear said when nobles talk with nobles, rather than making idle chat about the cut of your clothes and the quality of your wine."
"Well said," he told her approvingly.
"And, of course, the nobles of Waterdeep being what they are, those who were given an audience will lord it over those who weren't," she added. "I'd wager gold against copper that within a tenday, half of those spurned will seek you out. Whatever the business at hand, you'll get a better offer from the come-lately folk than from those you spoke with tonight."
The elf's silver brows rose. "Well said, indeed. You know the fair flower of our citizenry well for a foreigner."
He allowed himself a certain dark pleasure at the sudden panic that flashed into her eyes. "You must be enjoying our sea breezes, Lady Evenmoon. Tashluta's very warm during the Flamerule moon."
If the girl harbored any uncertainty about this matter, she hid it well. "Warmer than in winter, certainly."
Elaith chuckled at her deft parry. He swept one hand lightly toward her, subtly unleashing a minor spell. "Please be seated. Not on the carpet, preferably, though I can see why you were on the floor when I entered the room."
Her eyes were wary as she moved away from the desk and took the chair he'd indicated. "I'm not sure I understand, my lord."
"Why, you've lost an ornament, of course."
The girl's hand immediately went to the green ribbon around her left arm-precisely the response Elaith had anticipated. He suppressed a smile. Toying with this girl was the most pleasure he'd had all evening.
"I was speaking of your earring," he said lightly. Striding around behind the desk, he plucked from the carpet a hoop of silver wire, from which was suspended an intricately knotted web of gem-like threads.
The girl's brown eyes widened and her hand lifted to her ear. She'd not felt the earring vanish with his simple theft-spell.
"Thank you," she said, accepting the pretty thing.
Her eyes followed him as he went directly to the hiding place and touched the carved wood in precisely the spot that released the hidden panel.
The young woman relaxed noticeably, hardly the response he'd expected from someone whose secret message had just been intercepted.
Elaith skimmed the note, a report about some merchants seeking to unmask the Lords of Waterdeep. From its tone, it was apparent that this girl, or someone who paid her hire, was an agent of one of the Lords. He raised his eyes from it to meet her watchful gaze.
"For whom are you working, girl?"
Uncertainty flickered over her face, swiftly blossoming into suspicion. Elaith realized, to his surprise and delight, that she assumed he was her contact!
Logical enough, being as he'd shown familiarity with the hiding place. Folk who knew little of magic seldom stopped to think about the precautions taken by those who did. Elaith knew of every magic in this villa, including those borne by each of his guests. Magical toys of his own collected such information.
"Who do you work for?" he repeated, phrasing his query in less formal terms and, not incidentally, in a manner one of his magical devices would recognize.
He glanced at one of several portraits hanging on the wall. The nondescript image shifted, taking on the features of Texter the paladin-an image taken from the girl's thoughts.
Well, well. Little surprise there; Texter had long been on Elaith's private short list of suspected Lords. The paladin's business often took him north, and he was the sort to rescue maidens in distress. No doubt he'd extricated this girl from the clutches of a rough-handed patron, thinking her a set-upon serving girl.
"A reasonable question," he continued, staring into her increasingly suspicious face, "given your former employment. Our good friend Texter holds a far more optimistic view of human nature than I do."
Color drained from the girl's face. "What do you know of that?" she whispered.
In a heartbeat, he was standing over her, dangling the ribbon from her arm tauntingly before her eyes. Too late, she slapped a hand over the small brand burned into her upper arm.
"A mark of indenture," Elaith said softly, recognizing the shape of the old scar. "All too common on the docks of barbarous Luskan. Your mother was a tavern slut and owed more than she could ever hope to repay on her own. She no doubt rejoiced when her belly swelled with a ten-fathered bastard, and sold the babe at birth. I doubt you were much past childhood when you started plying your mother's trade."
To her credit, the girl did not weep or plead with him to stop. A question burned in her eyes, more painful to her than her revealed shame. "Did he tell you?"
Elaith did not need to ask whom she meant. Something held him back from naming the paladin as his source. His reticence was not, he told himself, prompted by a desire to save the girl from disillusionment and pain. It was merely-practical. Let her believe in her Texter's shining honor, and so let her continue to send and receive messages. Messages the Serpent would intercept and profit from.
"I have some… small magical skills," he murmured, giving her his softest smile. "You may rest assured: Texter did not betray you."
The emphasis was not lost on her. "But you might."
"If it affords me an advantage, certainly. That's why I make it a point to know the secrets of everyone in my employ."
She frowned, lips thinning.
"It's not escaped my notice that you've avoided your first trade since arriving in Waterdeep-in fact, you seem to want nothing much to do with men."
He let the ribbon drift down, and watched her snatch it deftly out of the air before adding dryly, "It would gladden my heart if more elven females would emulate your good judgment in such matters."
"I want nothing to do with male elves, either," Lark said bluntly.
He smiled, faintly amused by her presumption. "You'll have no quarrel from me on that score; it's hardly the service I require from you."
The girl shook her head. "I owe a debt of honor to Texter. It's him I'll serve, and no other."
"Is that so?" he asked mildly. "Whom would you serve if your tawdry past became common knowledge? The working-class respectability so dear to Master Dyre would demand you be summarily dismissed and loudly denounced. You'd be hard-pressed to find another position among respectable folk."
She regarded him with a mixture of anger and uncertainly, but said nothing. Merely watched him, eyes larger and darker. Waiting to hear her fate.
Elaith smiled pleasantly. "You wish to leave your past behind. Commendable." Time to twist the knife. "Also understandable. I can see how this knowledge could color your working relationship with an upstanding man like Texter."
"You son of a snake," she said softly.
Elaith's smile never faltered. "I'll ask you one more time: Who are you working for?"
A long, heavy silence followed as Lark wrestled with herself under his interested eye. Then she took a long breath and squared her shoulders.
"You," she said heavily.
The elf took her at her word. How could he not? The portrait of Texter had shifted again, and his own handsome face gazed out of the frame, amber eyes gleaming over a smile of supreme satisfaction.
The rumble and roar of falling timber was all around, unseen in swirling, choking dust.
"Taeros!" came a familiar Roaringhorn bellow. "Malark!"
Taeros knew Beldar was nearby, somewhere that way… but "that way" was all dust, fallen wood, and leaning beams.
Lanterns and candles had crashed down everywhere to start little leaping fires, and their flickering glows showed Lord Hawkwinter a swaying, swinging chaos of ropes and beams. Smoke was rolling and eddying energetically-and all around him wood was screaming.
Taeros wouldn't have believed splintering, rending wood could scream, but then, he hadn't known it could groan, either.
It was doing both right now, even more loudly than the frantic, sobbing screams of women blundering about in the alarmingly leaning labyrinth of pillars and sagging balconies. Men were shouting and coughing, and at least one fool had drawn a sword and was slashing wildly as he came staggering through the dusty gloom, as if sharp steel could slaughter dust.
As Taeros struggled to his feet, the remains of someone's chair and table falling away from his bruised shoulders, a balcony tore free and plunged to the stage with a thunderous crash. In an instant, the man waving the sword was smashed into a bloody smear on those shattered, bouncing boards.
Taeros saw that sword, still clutched by the severed ruin of a forearm, clatter to the floor near Malark, who was having troubles of his own amid much splintered furniture. Then roiling dust hid Lord Kothont again.
Curses and thuds heralded someone wearing a splendid scarlet-and-gold tunic, not Malark's emerald gemfire, who came stumbling out of the dust. The man clawed his way past Taeros, trailing a stream of curses and half-dragging someone long-haired and presumably feminine whose slender shoulder slammed into Beldar with force enough to stop a Roaringhorn bellow in mid-roar, and leave Beldar retching on his knees.
Well, at least Taeros now knew where that friend was. He turned toward Beldar, but Another balcony fell, with a splintering, floor-shaking crash. And then another.
Taeros fought for balance on floorboards that were suddenly rising and falling like waves rolling into the harbor.
The next crash was a long, rolling, ear-hammering chaos, and Taeros saw a ceiling-beam, wreathed in flames, plunge to the floor. Dust rose like a wall.
As the echoes of its rolling faded, he became aware that someone was shouting-someone familiar. Beldar had found his breath again.
"Get out! Come on! We've got to get out!"
Taeros turned, staggering as loose boards shifted under his boots, and then glanced back. Had Malark-?
Other patrons were thundering past, running blindly. Some slammed into already trembling pillars and reeled sideways or fell senseless.
Flames flared as a fallen curtain ignited, and Taeros could suddenly see the stage again, where blood lay in pools and still, huddled forms were sprawled under tangles of jagged wood.
"Malark?" Taeros shouted, peering at where his friend had been. Dust swirled thickly there, but he thought he saw a glimmer of green.
He started forward-and fell hard as something else collapsed, far off in the gloom, and the floor bounced and rippled again.
More grandly garbed folk came running out of the smoke and dust, wild-eyed and staggering. Among them, a woman who wore a tiara and dripped with jewels was cursing like a sailor as she tried to twist and tear free of three or four terrified serving-girls who were clinging to her long sleeves and trailing gown.
"Let go!" the woman spat. Cloth tore with a long snarl of protest, baring her legs, and a mewling trio of maids crashed to their knees in the wreckage.
Weeping with fear and rage, the woman ran on, spraying jewels in her wake like hailstones. Across much dust and chaos, Taeros finally caught sight of Malark's familiar grin-directed not at him, but at a servant-lass who was clinging to him, sobbing and trembling.
As they emerged fully from the dense smoke, Lord Kothont put her gently away from him and gave her a little shove in the direction of the door. She stumbled, then caught herself and darted toward safety. Malark nodded in satisfaction, then reached down to pluck up one of the three terrified maids.
And then, with a crash like the hammer of Gond coming down on his Greatforge, three or four ceiling-beams came down right in front of Taeros, hurling him helplessly back, arms flailing, into-something hard yet yielding that cursed as it collapsed under him.
"Hawkwinter?" whoever it was snarled. "That you?"
"Beldar!" Taeros gasped, fighting for breath. His arm was numb, one of his knees was burning as if afire, and "Up, and out of this!" Beldar growled, rising up under Taeros like a harbor wave. His snarling strength hauled them both to their feet, and they swayed together as more beams fell. Then the young flower of House Roaringhorn snatched, heaved, and broke into a stumbling run, Taeros Hawkwinter bobbing along on his shoulder like a sack of meal.
"Can fend for his bloody self," Beldar panted. "Much good we'll be… to him… flat as… fish-heads underfoot… on the docks. 'Sides, have you ever known Malark not slide out of anything?"
Taeros couldn't find breath for a reply as he was hustled along, bouncing jaw biting his own tongue repeatedly, but he didn't have to. Malark would come out unscathed. Malark always did.
He couldn't stop coughing.
On his knees on the dirty cobbles, Taeros hacked and spat and heaved, shoulders shaking, until a grim-jawed Beldar slapped his back hard enough to drive him nose down onto the stones, which promptly rattled and shook hard enough to numb a Hawkwinter chin and send its owner rolling helplessly over onto his side, still coughing.
"What was-?" he managed to ask.
"The last of the Slow Cheese," Beldar Roaringhorn snapped, in a voice that promised brutal death to someone, and soon. "Going down flat."
"Under it, somewhere." Beldar thrust something under his friend's nose.
Taeros blinked at it, fighting for breath.
"This," Beldar growled, "was stuck to a spar that was flung into the air just after I carried you over here-and damned near skewered me coming down. It was stuck there with blood."
Taeros stared at what his friend was holding: A blood-smeared scrap of emerald green gemweave, cloth that in all Waterdeep, only Malark Kothont could have been wearing.
The first rumble and roar brought Golskyn from his bed, coverlets flying. He hurried to the window of their upper room and gazed up into the midnight sky, his uncovered eye searching the stars with open longing.
"A dragon's heart," he said wistfully. "Now that would be a true test of a man's strength!"
Mrelder stumbled to his father's side, rubbing sleep from his eyes. His thoughts were not of dragon flight, nor the wondrous challenge of capturing, dismembering, and incorporating that greatest of creatures. He thought instead of the city all around and the folk who dwelt in it. Fresh rumblings drew his gaze.
"A building's fallen!" He pointed. "Look, there: Dust rising. Flames now, too."
Golskyn peered. "Dragonfire?" he asked hopefully, not ready to relinquish his fond hope.
"No dragons," his son murmured.
Mrelder thought he might know the cause of the collapse. The mongrelmen had tunneled thereabouts to link to the cellars of another of Golskyn's buildings. Lord Unity wasn't the only priest of monstrous gods in Waterdeep, but he was new to Waterdhavians, and undeniably impressive. Folk were flocking to his hidden rituals, and the traffic beneath Waterdeep's streets was rapidly increasing. If one foundation had been so weakened, what else might soon fall?
Once the rubble was cleared, that tunnel would be discovered, and then The sharp, suspicious glare of his father's uncovered eye suddenly blocked Mrelder's view.
"You know something of this," Golskyn snapped. It was not a question.
Mrelder's thoughts raced. Nothing less than a solution would serve; Golskyn had no patience for unsolved problems.
A map of the city sewers came suddenly to mind, and with it his answer.
"I had the mongrelmen undermine yon building's foundation," Mrelder lied. Golskyn scowled, and his son added hastily, "Their work runs very close to a long established sewer-run. It'll be short work to breach what's between them and use the dirt and stone to block off one end of our passage, keeping it secret."
"And the other end?"
"Leads to an old warehouse, half-full of the rubble of our diggings."
Golskyn's scowl remained. "I like this not. Too high a risk."
"How so? Investigation will show only that someone's extending tunnels. Most Waterdhavians believe the Lords control the tunnels, so the Lords'll be blamed. The more troubles Lord Piergeiron must answer for, the more frequently he'll be out among the people-and the more opportunities we'll have to lay hands on the Guardian's Gorget."
"And this warehouse?"
A genuine smile spread across Mrelder's face. "I won it at dice-no coin changed hands, no papers-from an old, retired merchant. He had no family, and, ahem, died suddenly. Shortly after our game."
"He'd no parts worth keeping, I'll warrant," Golskyn muttered predictably, in his usual response to news of death, dismemberment, or murder.
"Alas, none. Heirs and mourners: None again. If anyone wonders who owns the warehouse, the law's clear: as he had no heirs, it's now city property. Another finger pointing at the Lords."
Lord Unity's scowl was gone. "You've given this hard thought."
Mrelder nodded. "Once the 'why' of this collapse is known, citizens'll be ready enough to blame tunneling for other downfalls."
"There are other buildings down?"
"Not yet." Mrelder smiled. "Before dawn, another building will fall. Far from here, so no hint of suspicion comes to our doors."
Golskyn actually smiled. "Your sorcery will cause this?"
The priest squinted at the sky. "You'd best get on with it, my son. Dawn is but three bells away."
My son. Mrelder turned away to hide his blushing smile. He'd never thought to hear those words spoken so casually, much less with something approaching pride. He'd felt such happiness only once before, but then it had been Lord Piergeiron who'd looked on him with warmth and called him friend.
The sorcerer put that fond memory firmly out of his mind and strode across the room to his clothes. It was time to go out and spread dissent and destruction in Lord Piergeiron's Waterdeep.
The guards on the Palace steps gave Mrelder hard, steady stares, but let him pass.
The guards inside challenged him, and no wonder. The mists weren't off the harbor yet; it was early indeed to have honest business at the Palace.
However, it seemed the polite note he'd sent Piergeiron yestereve, mentioning his own arrival in Waterdeep and inquiring after the First Lord's health, had done its work well. Merely giving his name had the guards nodding respectfully and waving him toward a servant in a fine tabard.
"The First Lord bids you welcome and wishes Waterdeep had more friends of your mettle," that man said approvingly, as he waved Mrelder smoothly through a door that looked like most of the others in that long, lofty hall.
Morningfeast for Piergeiron was evidently a hearty serve-yourself affair. Steam was rising from platters on a sideboard, where about a dozen grandly dressed, important looking men with serious, frowning faces were forking sausages and smoked silverfin into wooden bowls, and plucking boiled eggs out of a sea of spiced butter. They looked as if they were expecting grim doom to strike them down before highsun, and had little desire to meet it with empty bellies.
The First Lord looked up from a stack of papers a clerk had just put in front of him, smiled broadly, and waved Mrelder to the sideboard.
Mrelder grinned back. Whatever his father's intended dooms for Waterdeep or anyone who stood in his way-and the First Lord of Waterdeep could hardly help but do that-he found it impossible to dislike this man.
"We can talk soon," Piergeiron promised, taking a quill the clerk was already holding out to him.
The son of Lord Unity joined the men at the sideboard, who all gave him silent "And you are-?" frowns. He found himself nose to nose with sleepy-eyed City Guard officers, a few softly gliding courtiers, and several grumpy looking Watchful Order wizards.
Mrelder's stomach rumbled. Several of the guardsmen were heaping their bowls to precarious heights, so he didn't stint in filling his own, ere he sat with the others at the long table. He had the far end from Piergeiron, of course, but as he dug into fried mushrooms dripping with some sort of sauce and gratefully received a drinking-jack of warmed zzar from a deft servant, he gathered from the speed with which the others were eating that they'd soon be out the doors to their duties.
So it proved, and Mrelder was just sitting back from his last few sausages with a sigh of contentment-gods of Amalgamation, it'd been years since he'd eaten this well! — when the oldest-looking wizard sat down right beside him and asked quietly, "And you are-?"
"Fought beside the Lord Piergeiron in defense of the city, and are his personal friend, yes," the wizard said smoothly, his dark old eyes keen and bright. "Perhaps I should have added the words, 'here for' to my question, thus: And you are here for-?"
"Ah, to thank the Lord for his advice, and tell him I found my father, just as he suggested. And to give him a gift."
"Aha. What sort of a gift?" Two rings on the wizard's fingers winked into life.
Mrelder had expected this but put a puzzled frown on his face as he dug into his belt pouch. Retrieving the small copper coin he and two Amalgamation acolytes had done so much hasty work on, he put it on the table.
The mage peered at it suspiciously. Its origins were evident if one examined it closely enough, but it now had the shape of a small copper shield bearing, in an arc, the words: "All Perils Defeated."
The wizard held a hand above the badge. A third ring kindled into life, and he gave Mrelder an unfriendly look. Taking up a fork left behind in someone's bowl, he carefully turned the little shield over and read aloud its obverse: "To the Open Lord of Waterdeep, in deepest respect, from admirers at Candlekeep."
"Fine folk, all! Well met, friend Mrelder!"
The sorcerer sprang up to greet his host. Piergeiron, it seemed, could move as silently as a cat when he wanted to. They grasped sword-forearms, in the greeting of one trusted warrior to another.
"You found your father?"
Gods, he remembered!
Mrelder found himself grinning widely. "Yes, Lord, and I wanted to thank you in person for your advice. We're reconciled."
In our own manner, at least.
"Good! Good! So what's got Tarthus here so suspicious?"
"I–I'm afraid I was bold enough, Lord, to bring you a gift, on behalf of all who came from Candlekeep to fight for you that day. We'd be honored-"
"As will I!" Piergeiron said heartily.
"There're no spells on it, Lord," the mage murmured, "but prudence demands…"
"Of course, of course."
Mrelder carefully kept all trace of a smile off his face. Not a spell, but a spell focus, by which Mrelder, who'd so painstakingly engraved the cruder of the two messages it bore, could with a swift spell of his own easily track Piergeiron's whereabouts.
The Open Lord took up the shield and admired it with pure, simple pleasure. "All Perils Defeated, eh? I wish I could measure up to that. Still, let it be my goal and be ever with me." He turned it in his palm. "Made from a copper piece. Clever." He fixed Mrelder with that disconcertingly direct gaze and said simply, "Thank you. This is a princely gift."
Mrelder knew he was blushing. Boldly, before he lost his nerve and the chance, he stood up, took the little badge from the Open Lord of Waterdeep, and went down the table to where Piergeiron's war-helm sat, holding down stacks of papers still awaiting the Paladin's signature.
Slipping the point of the shield firmly under the edge of the brow-guard that surmounted the helm's eye-slits, he settled it in place, centered over the nose guard. "There!"
Piergeiron grinned again. "Now, that I shall be proud to wear." His grin faded. "Though hopefully not soon. Waterdeep enjoys a hard-won peace."
Mrelder put the helm down carefully and came back down the table, aware of the wizard's thoughtful scrutiny. Tarthus had doubtless noticed the spell of binding Mrelder had cast on the shield earlier, to keep it affixed wherever it was put. No matter: There was no magic more harmless.
"Peace is always my hope, too," the young sorcerer said quietly, "yet strangely, Lord, the mood in the city now seems darker than when folk were fighting beasts from the sea. If I may speak bluntly: I've been in cities in the South where unrest was strong, and this has the same feel."
Piergeiron nodded. "You see and speak truth, lad." He strode back down the table, frowning. "Waterdhavians work together against clear peril," he added slowly, "but not in times of prosperity."
Mrelder spread his hands. "Why not remind citizens that in the thrust and parry of trade, Waterdeep is in one sense always at war? Some folk only see a battle when blades are bared and blood flows."
Tarthus was frowning at Mrelder now, too. "What sort of reminder?"
Keeping his eyes on Piergeiron, Mrelder waved at the war-helm.
"Put on your armor. Be seen only clad in battle-steel, sword at your side, awakening not fear but remembrances of victories and sacrifices-a rebuke to those distracted by foolish trifles and an reminder to all of the precious cost of what they enjoy."
"You," Piergeiron replied slowly, "are a lad no longer, but well on your way to being a graybearded sage."
He strode to where he could snatch up his helm and did so, smiling at its gleaming curves. "I've always preferred honest battle-steel, even with its heat and discomfort, to walking about in whatever foppish nonsense is currently in fashion."
Mrelder nodded. "Folk know you in your armor, and it's probably best if you're seen and recognized all over the city. I heard more than a little unhappy talk in Dock Ward this morn that you were dead or gone from Waterdeep, and tax collectors were inventing their own orders and charges in your name." He spread his hands. "We of Candlekeep have a proverb: If a thing is said often enough, fools aplenty will believe it to be true."
The First Lord and his wizard exchanged a quick glance. "Graybeard indeed," murmured Piergeiron.
Tarthus drew his cloak around himself. The wind on the high balcony was, as usual, as cold as a knife blade. Piergeiron had stopped looking at the new badge on his helm at last, and was gazing out over the city. The wizard kept silent, waiting for what he knew would come.
"Some things the lad kept from you. I doubt his meeting with his father went as well as he wanted you to believe."
Piergeiron sighed. "Hardly unusual, I'm afraid, and tells us nothing sinister about young Mrelder. So they're saying I'm dead again, are they?"
Tarthus had been the Open Lord's spell-guard for a long time, but he was still a senior Watchful Order member and kept himself well informed. "Though it seemed a rather heavy-handed urging on the lad's part, he spoke truth. They are saying you're dead down on the docks, and of course, that all manner of villains and impostors are signing your name to decrees and running the city just as they see fit."
Piergeiron's smile was wintry. "Who would these villains and impostors be?"
"We of the Castle. Every last belted noble in every last mansion and crypt in the city. The secret cabal of wizards who've ruled Waterdeep these past three eons. Dragons using spells to take the faces of humans. A legion comprised solely of Elminster's bastard offspring. Take thy pick."
The Open Lord of Waterdeep sighed and clapped his war-helm onto his head. "None of those, thanks. Let's go find my armor, and you can check it for sinister spells, too."
"Of course, Lord," the wizard replied calmly. "Someone may have cast some since I last checked it, yestermorn."
The door thudded sullenly against the wall of Varandros Dyre's new meeting chamber, and a sleepy-eyed Karrak Lhamphur lurched into the room.
"You're late," Jarago Whaelshod growled. "My working day begins three bells before dawn, not one."
"Work a little harder, so as to enjoy the successes I have," Karrak Lhamphur flung back, "and you can sleep in just as late as I do!"
Whaelshod grumbled wordlessly, turned his heavy-lidded gaze to their host, and barked, "Well? We had to wait until this sluggard got here for what, exactly?"
Varandros Dyre looked less than bright-eyed himself this morning. "Two buildings collapsed last night," he said grimly.
Lhamphur frowned. "You're blaming those on the Lords and nobles? I doubt they even know what holds buildings up, let alone what makes them fall down! That's why they hire the likes of us, no?"
"They didn't hire me to dig tunnels that aren't on my maps," Dyre snapped back, "and how else d'you think the collapses occurred? Both buildings fell into something."
"Like a pit that shouldn't have been there," Hasmur Ghaunt put in nervously.
Dorn Imdrael drank the last of his steaming broth and waved his tankard. "Thanks for this, Var. It's hard for a man to think on an empty stomach."
Turning to Whaelshod and Lhamphur, he pointedly eyed their still full mugs and asked quietly, "Who else could pay for a tunnel without the rest of us knowing about it? Or do the digging, without all the city gossiping about it? There's a warehouse by the docks full of dirt up to the rafters. Doubtless it's where someone stored what they dug out of a secret tunnel-and I can't believe the Watch and the Guard and the Watchful Order are all such idiots they don't notice when something like that's going on. No, Var's right: the Lords are to blame for this."
"Well said," Ghaunt agreed hastily, looking at Varandros.
Dyre bared teeth in what might have been a smile. "Thank you, Dorn. I say again: we must learn who wears the Lords' masks… and one way or another, see that the real incompetents among them get replaced."
"'One way or another'?" Imdrael echoed. "Var, we must be very careful. Even if we do nothing that makes anyone decide to put a blade through us, we'd be wise to remember that old saying about toes."
Jarago Whaelshod scowled, in no mood to play games this morning. "What old saying?"
"Be careful which toes you step on now, lest they be connected to the arse you must kiss on the morrow."
Karrak Lhamphur waved away those words with an impatient hand. "How exactly do we set about learning who's a Lord?"
"Watch over Mirt's Mansion from now on, to see just who comes and goes, because…"
"I know!" Hasmur interrupted excitedly. "Because everyone knows Mirt's a Lord!"
Naoni silently closed the well-oiled door, turned her key in its lock with slow, exacting care, and sat down with Faendra and Lark around the broth pot. A warm, rich-smelling mist was rising from it in the chill of approaching dawn, but they left their mugs untouched, staring at each other with identical looks of dismay.
"And so it starts," she whispered. "Father's striding right down the path that can take them all to their deaths."
"And us with them," Lark said quietly.
Faendra turned wide eyes on them both and asked forlornly, "So what do we do?"
Naoni rose and began to pace, her thoughts flying. "Hasmur Ghaunt's the one to work on. The others are much too clever. We leave them be until we've learned things from Ghaunt that we can 'let slip' to make the others think Father's brought us into his confidence. Your task, Faen!"
Her sister smiled sweetly, lashes fluttering over guileless blue eyes. "Dear Hasmur," she murmured. "So very wise, so handsome-"
"Don't fluster him overmuch," Lark warned, "or the poor man won't be able to stammer a word. We need to know, as things unfold, just how far each of them is willing to go."
Boots thundered faintly down the stairs within, and Lark hissed, "Lean back and look sleepy!"
They barely had time to do so ere the lock rattled and the door grated open. Jarago Whaelshod glared out suspiciously. Seeing naught but three sleepy girls huddled in their cloaks, he nodded in grim satisfaction and strode out and away down the street without a word.
Lhamphur and Imdrael were hardly slower, though both returned their tankards with murmured thanks.
Then Hasmur Ghaunt was blinking out at the brightening dawn. Alone. The girls exchanged glances.
Naoni quickly slipped past Master Ghaunt and up the stairs to forestall her father's departure for a few breaths, and Lark knelt to tend the fire. Faendra stepped to Hasmur Ghaunt's side with an understanding smile and murmured, "I know how upsetting this must be for a man as wise as you."
Ghaunt blinked at her, then blushed at the thought such a lovely young lass would know something about him. Had she-no, surely not-said "wise"? He cleared his throat. "'This'?"
"This business with the Lords," Faendra said, eyes demurely downcast. "You've always been the most understanding of Father's friends. I know he trusts you more than anyone else in the New Day."
Her gaze lifted to Ghaunt's face as it drained of color. "New-? How-?" he croaked.
Faendra patted his arm, then took it and walked him a little away from the doors, snuggling against him. Trembling against her soft warmth, Hasmur Ghaunt made the mistake of looking into her blue, blue eyes and was lost.
"Father tells us everything, since Mother died," Faendra told him a little sadly. "I know he was worried that Whaelshod and Lhamphur didn't believe him. Did he tell you why he thinks the Lords are watching him?"
Master Ghaunt blinked. "Y-yes. He showed us all."
Faendra raised her eyebrows and turned her face to his in mute appeal, and Hasmur Ghaunt blushed vividly and stammered, "Y-you're right: Jarago pressed him to say why he's so sure the Lords are watching him, and Var-uh, your father, showed us a little charm he found in a tunnel near one of his worksites: A Black Helm token, of the sort Lord Piergeiron passes out as marks of his favor!"
"In a tunnel," Faendra echoed soothingly, looking very serious.
"Aye-yes-err-ah, a tunnel your father swore wasn't on any map he, a master stonemason, has access to, so…"
"So it must be one of the secret tunnels the Lords use to keep an eye on honest men like you and Father," Faendra breathed, her wide eyes very close to Ghaunt's.
He trembled in her grasp like a rabbit on the verge of fleeing. Then there was a familiar roar from behind them both, and Master Hasmur Ghaunt tore free with a high-pitched stammer of apologies and fled, gone down the street in a scampering instant.
"Stop teasing the man, Faen!" Varandros Dyre growled, stamping up to his favorite daughter. "You've been making men blush like lasses since your twelfth winter, but Ghaunt has work to do, and 'tisn't seemly, a daughter of mine reducing a grown man to gabbling, in a public street!"
"Father," Faendra said reproachfully. "That's hardly fair! Master Ghaunt's like an uncle to us. He's the only one who has time for our jokes, and he's polite when we-"
"Yes, yes," her father agreed curtly. "Now get in there and clean the place up! Mind you bar the door and keep behind it, and have the place spotless before highsun; I'll send some of my men then to escort you home. You're not to go traipsing around on your own. What with footpads and wandering nobles, this ward isn't safe for young gels to be flouncing through unguarded!"
Faendra knew when it was time to meekly agree-whatever her actual intentions might be-and give her father a quick hug and kiss. This was one such time.
Then he was off down the street like a thunderstorm afoot, and she and Lark were settling the bar into place.
Naoni came down the last few steps, her face thoughtful. "I recall once," she said slowly, "Father having dealings with an old tunnel-repairer, one Thandar Buckblade. Remember, Faen?"
Faendra shook her head. "Father has dealings with lots of old men. I get tired of their winks and leers. Some are so old they can't even whistle, and they just wheeze at me!"
Lark rolled her eyes. "Don't be so quick to dismiss old men. There can be snow on the roof and fire in the loins."
"This Buckblade," Naoni said firmly, "was a dwarf of Dock Ward. Father said he knew everything under the cobbles of the city. Everything. He retired years ago."
Lark frowned. "And you think we should go and ask this Buckblade about the Lords' secret tunnels? If he was in the habit of giving away the Lords' secrets, how did he live long enough to retire?"
"Perhaps his reaction will tell us something."
"And if he gets angry and demands to know where you got this foolheaded notion?"
"I… I'll tell him I overheard Mirt the Moneylender talking about the tunnels when he was drunk-and claiming he was a Lord, too!"
Lark shrugged to the accompaniment of Faendra's long, low whistle of appreciation, and said reluctantly, "That should work, but make it his servant, not Mirt himself. Who'd believe the Old Wolf a loose-tongued drunkard?" When Naoni nodded, she added, "So where exactly do we find this dwarf?"
"On our shopping next morn, we can ask some of the men Father trades with if they know where Buckblade lives, and then go see him after our highsun rounds the day after."
Faendra's nod was as eager as her grin was wide.
"Mistresses, it seems adventure awaits," Lark said dryly, "but first things first: While fortune may favor the bold, masters pay the tidy and hardworking. Hand me that mop."
Korvaun unlocked the clubhouse door and held it open for the trio who'd followed him up the stairs, carrying fresh provender for the Gemcloaks' morningfeast. His friends had agreed to meet here first thing in the morning, which to them of course meant "shortly before highsun." Accordingly, Korvaun had ordered a spread of cold food commonly served at both morning and afternoon meals: breads, cheeses, sliced roasts, berry tarts, and cool ale.
His thanks and coins swiftly saw the baker's man and the provender shop delivery lad off, so he could supervise the placement of the ale.
The brew had been carried up by the brewer's apprentice, a boy of perhaps thirteen winters, who lingered after the handkeg was settled on the coldsmoke rack, staring at wisps of cold steam rising from the rack's copper basin.
"How's that done?" he demanded, too fascinated to remember proper deference to nobility.
"Handy magic." Korvaun plucked up the vial of coldsmoke liquid. "A few drops of this in the basin-so-creates enough cold air to cool a cask this size for two days."
A frigid cloud rose from the basin, and the copper fittings of the barrel misted over at once. The boy peered with bright-eyed interest, and Korvaun thought of his own boyhood. He remembered intense impatience when lessons ran overlong, but he'd been fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn. There'd be no books, lessons, or boring tutors for this lad.
The apprentice waved at the vial. "What if you get that on your hand?"
Korvaun smiled. "Well asked; I'm sure Nipvar Tattersky-the alchemist who devised coldsmoke-wishes he'd had your foresight. His best mouser tipped over a vial and was frozen alive, as stiff as wood. Master Tattersky's exceedingly fond of his cats, and spent days seeking a priest willing to beseech the gods on behalf of a cat. He altered his potion, so now it works only while touching copper."
The lad was frowning but also nodding slowly.
On impulse Korvaun asked, "Why do you suppose he chose copper?"
The apprentice looked at him. "I'd say he didn't want coldsmoke used as a weapon or on weapons so warriors could freeze foes at a touch. No one fights with copper blades, but coopers use it all the time."
The youngest Lord Helmfast nodded, impressed. This lad was as bright as new coin, utterly wasted as a brewer's drudge. "How came you to Master Drinder?"
The lad shrugged. "My father knows Drinder, or you might say he knows his ale. Da's powerful fond of it and likes to chide me for the six tenday's drinking lost to my apprentice fee."
Outrage flooded Korvaun. "Your father sold you for two months of ale?"
The boy's jaw dropped. He stared at Korvaun and then whooped with laughter. "Oh-hoho, that's rich! A master don't pay the apprentice fee! It's the 'prentice as pays him-and thanks him for the privilege!"
"I see." That made sense, given that an apprenticeship was a crafter's education. "If you could do anything, would you have apprenticed to a brewer?"
The lad gave Korvaun a puzzled frown. The thought of choosing a livelihood was obviously new to him. "There's a lot to brewing," he said slowly, "but Master Drinder says I need only know what he sees fit to tell me, which isn't much more than fetch this, mop that."
"You and Master Tattersky would get on well. His lament is that his new apprentice is content to do what he's told but hasn't the wits to wonder why. The alchemist values an inquisitive nature, which most likely explains his affinity for cats."
"Master Drinder doesn't like cats or questions. He says too much thinking sours ale."
Korvaun corked the vial and handed it to the lad. "Take this to your master, and instruct him in its use. It might be of benefit to him in brewing, and-who knows? — perhaps the brewer and the alchemist might find themselves engaging in mutually beneficial trade. Of more than one kind."
The boy was quick to grasp the unspoken, and his eyes widened with the wonder of new possibilities. Korvaun watched the dawning of hope with pleasure and dropped a large handful of coins into the lad's hand. "For your apprentice fee," he said softly, touching a finger to his lips to counsel secrecy.
Eyes shining, the boy nodded and knelt to Korvaun as one does to kings. Springing up, he ran down the stairs in a joyful clatter of boots.
"You're a good man, my friend," a voice observed quietly. "The best of us all."
Korvaun looked up, startled. Wary alarm melted into pleasure at the sight of Roldo Thongolir. His long-absent friend was lounging against the doorpost, smiling wistfully. Roldo was sunbrown from long hours riding under summer skies, and his blue eyes were weary. He'd always been shorter, slighter, and less flamboyant than his friends, but he wore his new gemweave cloak proudly. Its soft rose caught the light, glowing like a cloud at sunrise.
Grinning in real delight, Korvaun strode forward and pulled his friend into a back-thumping hug. "Welcome home! I didn't hear you come up."
"You were too engrossed in arranging that lad's future. When did the Helmfasts leave off shipping to become champions of the common man?"
"Weren't champions once those who gave aid wherever it was needed?"
The Thongolir heir chuckled. "You sound like Taeros talking of knights and heroes. Speaking of whom, it seems our sharp-tongued friend's been busy."
"Aye. I've just come from the print shop, where the ink was drying on his latest broadsheets. The cryers' lads came to take them round the taverns. Fur'll fly before day's end."
Korvaun sighed. "Our Taeros can offend people more efficiently than a flatulent half-orc in a public bath."
Roldo smirked. "His is a rare gift-Lathander be praised for that!"
The youngest Lord Helmfast nodded in full agreement. "How was your wedding promenade?" he asked, knowing he must.
His friend's smile slipped. "I always enjoy Silverymoon. The minstrelsy and plays are better than ever! I held dawn vigil at Rhyester's Matins; it fills with rainbows when the light of morning touches its windows. Extraordinary." He plucked at his rose-quartz cloak. "I'll wear this when next I worship there, and see if the faithful mistake me for the next Mornmaster!"
Korvaun nodded. 'Twas said that laying the right "sign" of the god on that temple's altar would show the devout of Lathander their next leader, or some such. "And Sarintha?"
"She was pleased with the trip."
"It augers well for your union," Korvaun observed carefully, "that you find enjoyment in mutual interests."
Roldo smiled faintly. "As to that, my lady's already showing promise of a steady hand at the Thongolir helm. Father's pleased with several ingenious plans she's devised to increase trade with Silverymoon."
"I'm surprised to learn Silverymoon lacks either scribes or books."
"They've both in plenty. In fact…" Roldo reached into his belt-satchel and took out a volume bound in purple leather and stamped in gold: Dynasty of Dragons: The First Thousand Obarskyr Years. "I found a tome The Hawkwinter has long sought."
"Ah, he'll be pleased."
"Oddly enough, 'twas Sarintha who acquired this. She was busy indeed during our time in Silverymoon."
"Oh? What schemes hath the fair Sarintha hatched?" Korvaun asked, not without genuine interest.
Sarintha Thann was the granddaughter of the redoubtable Lady Cassandra and had inherited that lady's shrewd business sense as well as her blonde beauty. The unfolding of Sarintha's plans for the Thongolir calligraphy, limning, and printing businesses would be worth watching.
Roldo smiled a little ruefully. "We're now in the trade of printing music, and off to a promising start. The lutemaster at the House of the Harp is something of a legend, a half-elf of the old bardic tradition: memory only, nothing written. Sarintha won him over with personal charm and samples of family calligraphy; he's agreed to allow his work to be set down in a fine Thongolir tome. Each page carved and block-printed, and for the coin-heavy, copies with hand-painted borders. Demand swells already, with not a single page printed."
"Then we'll drink to its success." Korvaun strode to the keg and drew two tankards. "To the union of Roldo and Sarintha, and to your new business venture."
Roldo lifted an eyebrow and his tankard together. They drank in silence, and it was almost a relief when swift footfalls on the stairs heralded the arrival of another Gemcloak.
Starragar Jardeth stumbled into the room, face even paler than usual. His air of quiet elegance was absent, and his garb uncharacteristically disheveled. His hematite cloak was twisted around and hanging over one shoulder, and his black jerkin gaped from shoulder to opposite hip, slashed open to reveal his tunic beneath. A tunic smeared with dirt and Korvaun's eyes narrowed. "Scods, man! Is that blood?"
"Aye," Starragar said grimly. "Who'd have thought a made-from-scrap fang could cut so well?"
"Sit," instructed Korvaun, pointing to a chair. "I'll get a healer."
Starragar flopped into it with a groan. "No need. A good jerkin reduced to rags, but I've naught but a scratch."
"I was out dicing with the Eagleshield twins last night. By the time they ran out of coin it was so late we took rooms above the tavern. Come morning, they insisted on seeing me safely here, and for that I owe them my life. We were set upon by ruffians. Like all Eagleshields, they're keen brawlers and leaped right into the fray-so they took the worst of it."
"Badly hurt? Did the Watch come?" demanded Roldo.
Starragar looked up. "You're back," he said flatly. "Welcome home, and so on. Aye, to both: the twins'll mend, but not soon. The Watch came-again, not soon. Once come, they didn't move to protect us any too swiftly, either. Is there more of that ale?"
Korvaun filled a tankard to the brim. A thunder of booted feet below bespoke more arrivals, so he filled another three.
"A sad day, when Waterdeep's lowlives run in packs like wild dogs," Starragar grumbled. "'Tis time to run blades up a few backsides to teach some lessons!"
"Hear, hear!" Roldo echoed, raising his tankard.
Korvaun frowned. "What lessons?"
Starragar looked up from his ale. "Quelling talk of the Lords all being nobles working hard to enrich nobles, for a start. You should hear what they're snarling in the taverns! Some hold the Lords-yes, the Masked flaming Lords of Waterdeep! — to blame for the festhall collapse!"
Roldo frowned. "Festhall?"
"The Slow Cheese," Beldar Roaringhorn snapped, striding into the room to clasp Roldo's forearms in welcome. He continued straight to the three tankards, drained one without pausing for breath, and stared at the other two. After a moment, he picked up a second and drained it just as quickly.
Korvaun regarded him in puzzlement. Accustomed to servants, Beldar seldom gave thought to menial tasks but was as attentive to his friends' comforts as his own. It was unlike him to help himself to a tankard obviously meant for someone else.
"News travels fast," Taeros observed, limping into the room and leaning hard on a silver-handled cane. Sinking into a chair, he grimaced as he stretched one leg out before him. "Alas, faster than I do."
Korvaun frowned. "What befell?"
"An unfortunate choice of words," Taeros replied in a strangely flat voice. "The Slow Cheese fell. We three were inside at the time."
"Three? So where's Malark?"
"Dead," Beldar said bluntly.
A heavy silence descended.
"I left him," the youngest Lord Roaringhorn added angrily. "I left him there, and the whole damned festhall fell on top of him."
Taeros stirred. "If there's blame in this, Beldar should shoulder none of it. He was occupied with matters of lesser importance in the grand schemes of the gods, namely, carrying me to safety." His voice broke. "Don't think me ungrateful-never that-but Malark was worth two of me."
"As to that, Malark outweighed two of you," Korvaun pointed out, his voice gentle. "If Beldar had left you lie to help Malark, all three of you might have perished, and Faerun would be poorer by two good men."
"The matter before us now," Starragar said grimly, "is avenging our friend's death."
Roldo gripped his swordhilt. "I'm ready." He looked to Beldar, awaiting their leader's word.
Roaringhorn set down his tankard and smoothed foam from his mustache before turning to Starragar. "You'd know the men who attacked you if you saw them again?"
Starragar's lips tightened in a deadly smile. He nodded and held out a hand, palm down. Beldar strode over and put his hand atop Starragar's. Roldo followed suit, and the three waited for Taeros, who fought to rise from his chair with the unfamiliar assistance of the cane.
Korvaun frowned. "Might I remind you that these men did not kill Malark? They should be reported to the Watch, certainly, but not hunted down merely because we can't take vengeance on a fallen building."
Taeros gave up the struggle and fell back into his chair. "So, you suggest?"
"Caution. Whatever we do shouldn't embrace bloodletting in the streets."
Roldo's hand rose from the clasp to hover uncertainly. "Then what?"
"I know not," Korvaun admitted. "Yet."
He watched his friends' hands slide part and found himself transfixed by Beldar's dark glare. Worse than the anger in those Roaringhorn eyes were the uncertain looks of the other Gemcloaks. He'd challenged Beldar's hitherto undisputed leadership, but offered no path of his own.
As Taeros Hawkwinter limped between the last pair of impassive, gleaming-armored guards, he cast swift glances at the four men who'd walked the length of the grand hall in perfect step with him, limp and all.
No man, he swore silently, had ever been gods-blessed with better friends than these. When his father's grim old manservant had stepped into the Gemcloaks' clubhouse bearing Eremoes Hawkwinter's summons, the Gemcloaks had insisted on accompanying Taeros, though they'd all felt the sharp tongue of the Hawkwinter patriarch before and knew what was coming.
Taeros swallowed. The painted shield that had for years hung over the door of his father's office, displaying the Hawkwinter arms, had been replaced by a bright new tapestry. Its royal blue field positively glowed around the black silhouettes of two mailed fists holding wind-tossed banners. A large silver star gleamed high in one corner.
They stopped together before it. Beldar was already scowling. "Real silver, look you! That gnome weaver will answer for this! She swore to sell gemweave to me alone until spring."
"Silver's not a gem," Starragar pointed out, predictably contrary.
"Nevertheless," Beldar muttered.
Taeros knew stalling when he heard it. "Wait for me here, lads. If I'm not out in three bells, go in and offer to bury what's left of me."
Four mouths opened to protest, but he flung up his hand to silence them. "We've just lost Malark, and none of you are minded to shrug away unearned abuse today. It'll be hard enough for me in there, and I deserve the accolades my loving father heaps upon me." He lifted one black brow. "And need I remind you we stand in a garrisoned armory, full of loyal Hawkwinter men impatient of any challenge to their employer's will and well-being?"
"Good points all." Beldar clapped his friend's shoulder. "We'll wait here."
Taeros gave Beldar his cane to hold, squared his shoulders, and pushed open one of the great metalshod doors.
His father looked up, face darkening. His briefest of glances at the three men flanking Lord Hawkwinter's desk-veteran warcaptains who'd been in Hawkwinter employ as long as Taeros could remember-had them bowing in silence and striding out past Taeros without a glance.
The youngest Lord Hawkwinter tried to match their confident swagger as he advanced on the desk, but his swollen knee throbbed with every step.
"Limp if you must," his father growled. "No sense doing more damage to that knee."
Taeros came to an abrupt halt. "You've heard about the festhall."
"The Slow Cheese," Eremoes Hawkwinter snapped in disgust. "A low alehouse where 'dancers' disrobe while drunken emptyheads toss coins at them. No fitting place for a noble of Waterdeep to die. Better a man of honor die of heartstop riding some unmarried lass-at least then his family can claim he died trying to extend their lineage!"
"I'm sure Lord Goldbeard regrets the fact of his son's death more than the manner of it," Taeros replied in acid tones.
Eremoes waved a dismissive hand. "The Kothonts are herders and trappers, not men of battle. Better's expected of you."
His son bowed. "Then give me your blessing, Father, and I'll set out forthwith to study upon a more glorious end."
"Still your tongue!" Lord Eremoes Hawkwinter roared. "It's barely highsun, and your foolish words this morn will last us all season!" He snatched up a sheet of bright new parchment. Through the closed door, Taeros heard Roldo groan; the Thongolir heir knew only too well what was coming.
"A broadsheet, Father? Since when do you heed anonymous scribblings?"
"Since I received on good authority the name of he who printed this-this rhyming dung, and more importantly, the fool who paid for that printing." Lord Hawkwinter shook the broadsheet.
"That fool," he added sourly, making the parchment rattle, "seems to be me. Now, is this your work, or hired you some other half-wit to pen it?"
Taeros bowed sardonically. "'Tis mine own. Merely a small tribute to the royalty of Cormyr; no harm in it, Father."
"Tribute! Since when is any man increased through another's ridicule?" Clearing his throat, Lord Hawkwinter read aloud:
When great Azoun fell dragon-doomed
And princess mage lay dying,
In steel-clad Regent's peerless arms
The next great king was lying.
But when OUR Lordship's heir is crowned,
It's likely they'll have found her
In converse with some paramour Both flatter than a flounder.
Taeros nodded. Catchy, mildly clever: Cormyr's stability compared to Waterdeep's energetic street-scandals. The infant king cradled in the arms of his warrior aunt contrasted ironically with what dignitaries might well find if they went looking to crown Piergeiron's roving, fun-loving daughter. No one in all Waterdeep expected her to succeed the Paladin-a point that had apparently sailed over his father's head with room to spare.
Wherefore an explanation would probably fail, but he must try. "Piergeiron's daughter-"
"Is none of your concern!" thundered Eremoes, his fist slamming down onto his desk. "She can do whatever she sees fit, in whatever bed suits her fancy, and Waterdeep's none the less for it! We've no hereditary monarchy-or have you forgotten that merest of details?"
"I strive daily to reach that happy oblivion," Taeros replied coolly. "The Obarskyr dynasty has endured a thousand years, but what awaits Waterdeep when the Open Lord's reign is done?"
"Well, we're about to find out, aren't we?"
Taeros felt suddenly cold. "Lord Piergeiron's dead?"
His father nodded grimly. "So 'tis said. The city's always awash in such rumors, but this news is racing through the ranks of the Castle itself. True or not, when warriors think their leader's dead, a door opens that's seldom shut again without bloodshed."
Taeros swallowed. "No one will believe House Hawkwinter foments rebellion against the Masked Lords," he said tentatively.
"Won't they? Tell me, how many men-at-arms can any noble house maintain?"
"No more than seventy, by decree of the Lords."
"And how many swords are hired through us every tenday?"
"I–I don't know."
"Of course not." Eremoes crushed the broadsheet in his hand. "You've far more important matters to attend to, such as, perhaps, the forcible establishment of a Hawkwinter ruling dynasty? I've made inquiries-it seems this isn't your first foray into scurrilous politics."
Taeros sank into the nearest chair. "How could anyone draw such conclusions from a few humorous verses?"
"This wouldn't be the first time swift and foolish words have been used to sway small minds and herd crowds like cattle. You call for a dynasty; what man does that, but to advance his own line? Even if no one accuses us of ruling ambitions, many will likely ponder the wisdom of allowing any one family so much control over men of the sword-the hiring of which is, may I remind you, the family business?"
Taeros sat in silence for a long moment. "My rebuke is well deserved," he said quietly.
His father nodded curtly. "I don't need your apologies, Taeros, I need you to think." He picked up a scroll and added, in a softer voice, "This came for you."
The seal was broken. Taeros decided not to comment on that breach of privacy. It was a swiftly written notice announcing that Malark's funeral would be held that very day.
"You were right about Lord Goldbeard," he told his father wearily. "The Kothonts are ashamed of Malark's death, though he died a hero. His last act was helping a servant girl. He died trying to save her."
Lord Hawkwinter's expression was unreadable. "Is that a hero to you, or is this?" He waved the ruined broadsheet. "Dragonslaying, royal blood…"
Taeros stared at the crumpled parchment. "I… I don't know."
Lord Eremoes Hawkwinter sighed, massive shoulders rising and falling. "You might have less sense than the gods gave to sheep, son, but at least you're honest." He waved a hand. "Go then, and honor your friend as best you can."
The last rays of the sun were slanting through the trees, bathing the City of the Dead in warm, golden light. Walking in its serenity, Taeros Hawkwinter couldn't deny the Deadrest's beauty, even in his current mood.
No other spot in all Waterdeep had been so touched by artists. The finest sculptors of many lands had crafted wondrous statues and adorned the flanks of soaring monuments with intricate carvings. The inside walls of many tombs were painted with vast and lush scenes, and there were living artworks, too: small floral bowers and ponds full of bright fish. Beautiful pavilions beckoned not only those who came to mourn or contemplate but also folk who sought green pleasantness for outdoor dining or trysts. Children were wont to run and play among the tombs, their voices hushed by awe and by subtle enchantments… and the rare druid arriving in Waterdeep would be drawn to the old trees and quiet groves. Pixies and sprites were rumored to dwell here.
As were other, darker creatures. The high, magic-mortared cemetery walls weren't just to keep out vandals and tomb-robbers. They also, it was whispered, kept in night-hunting monsters and unquiet dead.
The gates in those walls would be closed at twilight, so there was little time for a full funeral. Malark Kothont, noble of Waterdeep and blood-kin to royalty, would be laid to rest with only slightly more ceremony than that afforded a favorite hound.
Taeros glanced at the western sky. Sunset was already approaching; the burial would be swift indeed.
His gaze fell on a familiar face: a small, slender lass with snapping brown eyes, walking with another girl. Who-ah, yes, the maidservant of Dyre's pretty daughters. Named for a bird Raven? Wren? Lark-yes, Lark.
He fell back a pace, waving his friends to walk on. "I'd not thought to find you here, Mistress Lark."
She regarded him thoughtfully. "Nor had I expected an invitation."
Lark nodded at the backs of the four Gemcloaks Taeros had been walking with. "Lord Helmfast came this afternoon to the Rearing Hippocampus. I serve betimes in the dining hall there. He asked me to find the woman your friend saved." She smiled reassuringly at the wan, fragile-looking lass clasping her arm.
Taeros also gave the timorous girl a faint smile, wondering what Beldar would make of this. Usually such timely gestures were his doing… but perhaps the youngest Lord Roaringhorn was as much unsettled by Malark's death as a certain Taeros Hawkwinter.
"He seemed a good man, your friend," Lark said quietly.
Taeros looked at her, startled. "You knew Malark?"
"We shared words at a revel. Very fond of women, he was, but less obnoxious about it than most."
He snorted. "Thus you define a 'good man'?"
"I haven't met many who were better," was the flat reply.
Taeros nodded in full agreement, though he suspected he and the maid saw different meanings in those words.
They walked together in silence the rest of the way to join the mourners gathering at the Kothont tomb. Some noble families had their own crypts at country mansions or beneath their city villas, but deceased Kothonts slept in the City of the Dead, in a small fortress of white marble hung about with banners of Kothont green. A constellation of silver-plated stars, echoing the Kothont arms, gleamed on its domed roof in a grand, even ostentatious display that Malark had poked sly fun at in life.
All stood silent as the plain oak casket was carried to the threshold of the open tomb. By custom, final tributes would be said at the door.
Long moments passed, and no one spoke. Alauos Kothont- known to all Waterdeep as Lord Goldbeard-stood with head bowed and tears running unchecked into his famous red-gold beard, a beard not quite as long or luxuriant as his son's had been. How often had the Gemcloaks teased Malark about this family affectation, calling him a long-legged dwarf and more? Never once had their good-natured friend taken offense. He was a good man, the best of them all! Why would no one say so?
Taeros swallowed. Why couldn't he say so?
The silence became strained. Grim looks passed between Korvaun and Beldar. Taeros watched them both. It had always been Beldar who spoke and Korvaun who quietly arranged. Longstanding habits were not easily broken.
Finally Korvaun stepped forward and put his hands on the polished oak. "The measure of a man," he said in a raw voice, "is often found in the worth he accords those around him. Malark saw good in everyone and was ever swift with kind words and gentle jests. He died not obeying some great lord in battle, but aiding a frightened lass."
Korvaun's gaze turned to the girl standing with Lark, and he walked to her, smiling in reassurance. Yet only Lark's arm around the girl's waist kept her from shrinking away, so overwhelmed was she by the eyes of so many grand folk turning upon her.
To the astonishment of all, Korvaun went down on one knee before the girl and took her small, work-roughened hand in his. "Melia Brewer, never forget your worth. A good man valued your life more highly than his own."
He lifted her hand to his lips in tribute then rose and looked slowly around at the gathered mourners. "The same can be said of all here. A good man called us brother, cousin, father, or friend. Malark Kothont called me his friend. If that's the only tribute said at my burial, I'll need no other, and rest content."
Taeros blinked moist eyes and watched as Lord Goldbeard placed his hand on the casket. There was no time for more farewell than that.
On a nearby knoll stood a memorial graven with the curving runes of elvish Espruar. The leaves of the tree sheltering it were turning blue, a sure sign of coming night. The Elven Ghost Tree-by day an oak, at night form-shifting into an Evermeet blueleaf, a tree well loved by the elves buried among its roots. There were strange tales aplenty told about it… and what if all the other tales told of the City of the Dead were true?
Taeros fell into line, taking his place among those shuffling quickly past Malark's casket to bestow the customary farewell- and make a quick escape.
The dining hall of the Rearing Hippocampus wasn't a place any of the Gemcloaks would normally have chosen for an evening gathering. It lacked the dazzling splendor and pretensions of highcoin houses, the sly exclusivity of daring clubs and festhalls, and the raw fun of the Dock Ward dives.
What it did have, as Taeros had successfully argued, was zzar laced with stronger drinks to achieve a potency that matched their collective need to remember Malark over something far stronger than ale. It also happened to be the inn where Lark worked, though neither Taeros nor Korvaun mentioned this to the other three remaining Gemcloaks.
Lark was waiting tables right now. She came around to theirs with a well-laden tray and briskly replaced their empty glasses with full ones. Taeros found his gaze following her as she walked away.
"This," Beldar announced, raising his tallglass, "is a more fitting tribute to our fallen friend. Wine, pretty women, and frivolous sport-that's a send-off Malark would appreciate!"
Glasses were raised in their third or fourth toast. Taeros drained his in a single stinging swallow, grimaced, and gasped, "I thought Korvaun's words well said. He took the burden none of us cared to lift and deserves no chiding for it."
"I take no offence," the Helmfast scion said quietly. "Malark was fond of revelry. It's fitting we celebrate his life as he lived it."
"Hear, hear!" Roldo echoed, waving his tallglass. It hadn't escaped Taeros's notice that the Thongolir heir had drunk sparingly, not much more than wetting his lips with each toast. Roldo was wont to talk overmuch in his cups and probably feared what he might say if he drank freely on the night of Malark's funeral.
Beldar had no such qualms. Their leader waved his empty glass imperiously on high. Lark promptly arrived with a serving tray in one hand and a bottle of zzar in the other, and began pouring.
"Leave the bottle," Beldar ordered, not glancing up. "Yes, yes, Korvaun did well. Just as he said, I consider myself honored to have been counted among Malark's friends." He shook his head. "But what an appalling waste! Was it really meet to elevate a serving slut-a whey-faced chit with no grace and less bosom-to the same honor as noble friends and family?"
"If, my lord," an acid-laced female voice inquired, "the lass sported breasts larger than your head, would you find her more worthy of Lord Kothont's sacrifice and your regard?"
Taeros stared at Lark in both curiosity and horror. Serving wenches, even those pleasing to the eye and possessed of a swift and entertaining wit, simply did not intrude upon patrons' conversations-and certainly not with a rebuke!
Beldar gave Lark a drunken glare. "Sported? Aye, she might then be worthy of sport, if not the high honor Korvaun offered."
The servant regarded him for a moment. Then she set the bottle of zzar on the table with exaggerated care, turned to leave-and whirled back, serving tray held high in both hands. Before anyone could do more than gape, she brought it down on Beldar's head with a ringing clang.
He crashed to the floor, chair and all. Lark spun away and marched straight out of the Hippocampus, tossing the bent platter to the floor and her apron to the indignantly sputtering master of the hall as she went.
Chairs scraped as the Gemcloaks sprang to help their fallen leader. Korvaun, who'd been seated next to Beldar, did most of the honors, raising the dazed Lord Roaringhorn to his feet and briskly brushing floor-reeds from Beldar's ruby cloak. "Are you unhurt?"
Beldar explored his scalp with tentative fingers and nodded.
"Good," Korvaun said politely-and punched Beldar in the jaw, hard. The youngest Lord Roaringhorn reeled back, stumbled over Lark's twisted serving-tray, and found the floor once more.
As the hallmaster stared, aghast, Lord Korvaun Helmfast strode quickly to the front door, his sapphire cloak swirling around him like a stormcloud.
This time Beldar stayed down, groaning and unaided, as Taeros, Starragar, and Roldo stared open-mouthed at their departing friend's back.
"Thank you, Hoth," Mrelder murmured, when it became clear his father wasn't going to say anything at all.
The tall man bowed silently and departed, leaving Mrelder and his father alone in Golskyn's office with the tankards of hot cider Hoth had brought. The priest gestured imperiously, bidding Mrelder to go and bolt the door.
When he turned back from doing that, Golskyn of the Gods was sitting at his desk looking out the windows at the dawn, warming his hands around his tankard. "You have been here longer than the rest of us," he said abruptly, "and so seen more of this city of greed and bustle. Moreover, you are still of an age where dreams and fancies flourish, so tell me something of your thoughts: What should we of the Amalgamation strive for? Speak freely."
Mrelder's jaw dropped.
His father's gaze never left the street below, but the thin smile on Golskyn's hard, lordly face told Mrelder he'd seen his son's astonishment.
"Waterdeep," Mrelder said slowly, "is a city of secrets and strivings. Men clash daily with wits and coins-and too often with daggers and worse. Buy this, sell that, swindle and cajole and misrepresent: Folk here spend their lives chasing coins."
He waved at the busy street outside, where carters were calling their wares amid rumbling wagons and hurrying folk. "Many dream of great wealth, even when they know it's forever beyond their grasp. Some slave their days away grumbling or resigned to their lot, but a great many here have the fire and ambition I've always seen in you, Father-though not your wits or perception."
"They seek an edge, an advantage over others, some first step or hold on power that'll bring them a shade closer to making their dreams real. Waterdeep holds a lot of doers, not just dreamers."
Golskyn nodded. "And this means…?"
His father actually seemed to be taking his words seriously! Desperate not to put a word wrong, Mrelder took a deep breath and burst out, "Folk so eager for riches offer themselves, often without realizing they're doing so. They leap at chances, for fear of missing the trail to riches. They never want to refuse or turn away from what could be their way to power. They all like to think they're cleverer than their fellows, but time and again someone crafts a new swindle, and jack after lass falls for it: They can't resist."
Golskyn sipped his cider. "So if we say and do the right things, we can 'use' a large number of these coin-hungry schemers. To what end?"
"I'm not certain. Yet this unrest, the anger against the Lords and the nobles, these snarls in the taverns over the falling buildings… all can be turned to our advantage. The city's more restless than I've ever seen it before."
His father turned an amused eye Mrelder's way, and the sorcerer hastily amended, "Not that I've seen all that many years passing in Waterdeep, I'll grant, but graybearded Waterdhavians are saying it in the streets and alehouses, and goodwives in the shops agree with them."
"So this city is, as they say, ripe for the plucking," Golskyn murmured. "Whereas any hothead can set men to swords out and shouting in the streets, superior beings can control, or at least steer what unfolds, to achieve intended ends."
"Exactly," Mrelder agreed, a little too enthusiastically.
Golskyn was suddenly facing him, his uncovered eye as cold and hard as ever. "And so, my son of such wisdom and keen perception, what plans have you thought through to take advantage of this rare opportunity?"
Mrelder swallowed, aware that he was on dangerous ground. He said cautiously, "The grafts, Father, are valuable. If we can master them, they improve us."
Golskyn's smile was wintry. "And?"
"Yet they are by definition limited to we who already believe in Amalgamation, who revere you for your vision and try to enact your desires."
The priest waved impatiently at Mrelder to continue.
"More can be accomplished by improving others-if, through these improvements, we achieve a measure of control over those persons we… augment."
Golskyn nodded. "We gain tools, whether they know their servitude or not, and thus increase our reach and power. Continue."
Mrelder took his first sip of cider, more to look away from his father's piercing gaze than to slake any thirst. "Perhaps," he told his tankard carefully, "it's this control that's most useful to us, not the improvements themselves. I say nothing against the gods, mind, or the rightfulness of augmenting ourselves as they guide us to; I speak now only of others, non-believers. Nor am I necessarily saying such persons should remain non-believers… only that control itself is valuable and that there are other ways to achieve control than through-"
"Cutting useful bits from beasts most would deem 'monsters'?" Golskyn's tone was cold. "So you look no higher than an alley-thug who seeks to gather a gang around him and so feel powerful? Tell me, O wise young one: What sense is there in controlling fools and weaklings?"
"They can go places and do things that augmented men cannot. If I'd gained and mastered that sahuagin arm, I wouldn't have been allowed anywhere near Lord Piergeiron. I'd have been wrestled down and carried off for his guardwizard to mind-ream!"
"Until you prove yourself before the gods," Golskyn said icily, "you are like all other men and so can serve me as the unsuspicious envoy you champion. I have one weakling; why do I require others?"
"But son," Golskyn mocked him, "you can find words to do no more than feebly try to justify your own failures. You see Waterdeep well enough but still fail to see yourself. Has your vaunted sorcery brought us one of the Walking Statues yet? And if it did, how would you then protect the rest of us against the alerted Watchful Order or this Lord Mage of Waterdeep everyone whispers of with awe? Or the energetic buffoons of the local Watch, who can call the clanking-armored Guard out to march on us from all sides, to say nothing of fly down at our very heads? Have you a plan to defeat them all? Or some mighty spell you've been hiding from me?"
Mrelder flushed, anger rising. Again his father was dismissing him with scorn. He should have known not to expect more. Hope, it seemed, was the latest of Golskyn's victims.
"Go and scheme some more," Golskyn of the Gods decreed coldly, pointing at the door, "and come up with something useful!"
The Meadows were lovely on a midsummer morn, fragrant with flowers, sweet grasses, and swift-drying dew. The cleared lands east of Waterdeep's walls were a fine hunting ground. Pheasants and grouse nested in plenty in the tall, wind-rippled grass, and plump hares were easy prey for the bright-feathered hawks of nobles.
Taeros and Korvaun rode without speaking, their glossy mounts trotting briskly. Korvaun's invitation had come by messenger late the night before. Taeros had agreed to come riding at this ungodly hour-a mere two bells past dawn-mostly out of curiosity. On the pommel of his black mare's saddle rode a hooded peahawk very nearly identical to the bird perched on Korvaun's golden, white-maned stallion. The blue and green plumage of his friend's bird was perhaps a shade more brilliant, but his, Taeros thought, was more pleasingly marked.
He waited as long as he could before raising the subject that had no doubt prompted this outing. "You're seldom as angry as you were last night," he observed, as they halted on a little hillock they'd flown their hawks from hundreds of times before. "How did Beldar so offend you?"
Korvaun unhooded his hawk and undid its jesses. The bright little raptor immediately hopped onto his gloved wrist, and he tossed her into the air.
"Beldar's a fine lad, make no mistake," Korvaun said slowly, watching his hawk wing happily into the sky, "but he can be far too swift and loud in dismissal of common folk."
Taeros echoed Korvaun's words over the casket: "The measure of a man is the worth he accords those around him."
Korvaun's smile was faint. "You don't sound convinced."
"I agree in the main," Taeros replied cautiously, "and 'twas certainly tactless of Beldar to make such remarks in the presence of a servant girl." He turned his head suddenly from following the flight of the hawk to add slyly, "Especially a little brown lark in the employ of a white dove."
Korvaun flushed, and Taeros whooped with laughter. "Aye, I thought you paid rather close court to the elder Dyre lass. Though, forgive me, she seems… singularly lacking in color, despite her red hair."
"No woman is half so fair in my eyes," Korvaun said earnestly, "Naoni has a quiet and restful spirit, yet she's quick to see what needs doing. She's swifter to think of others than of herself, and as kindhearted as she is sensible."
Kindhearted? Sensible? Not words that sprang to the mind of Taeros Hawkwinter when he daydreamed of feminine perfection, but then, feminine imperfection was more to his liking. Take the servant girl, now: Lark was no more a beauty than was her mistress, but Taeros admired the keen edge of her tongue.
"Her hands are touched by Mystra Herself," Korvaun went on. "Only a blessed-of-the-goddess could spin gems into thread. Pretty Faendra says Naoni could spin broken dreams whole, if she took it in mind to do so."
"Perhaps so, but her father, the so-fierce stonemason, will have your guts for his next set of garters if you lay hand on the girl."
"I'm not worried about Master Dyre," Korvaun said quietly. "Naoni's her own mistress. Alas, there the matter ends: she stands adamant against any notion of romance."
Taeros regarded his friend with amused fascination. "And you know this how?"
"I've sent her letters respectfully requesting her company. She declined, with equal respect."
"You've sent letters," Taeros echoed disbelievingly. "Have you never heard bards sing 'faint hearts ne'er won fair prize?' Seek her out, man! Chase her down!"
He shook his fist in emphasis, drawing a squawk from the hooded peahawk perched on it.
"Was that my intent, I'd need a bigger bird," Korvaun said dryly.
Taeros chuckled. "What I meant was, woo her more heartily! Flowers and gifts, pretty words and poetry."
Korvaun roared out laughter. "Oh, and who's to be my poet? You?"
Taeros grew a slow grin. "Perhaps you're wise not to be employ me as your envoy. Even so, you should speak to the girl at least."
Korvaun started to nod-and his hawk suddenly plunged to the meadow, disappearing into the grass. He kicked his steed toward her.
"Fly your hawk!" he called back. "Mornings this fine are meant for hunting!"
"Precisely, Korvaun," Taeros murmured, releasing his bird. "Precisely."
She circled twice, then stooped-and almost immediately rose with a small, long-tailed grouse in her talons.
Taeros stowed the kill in his game satchel and fed his little hunter her reward from the vial of diced giblets his hawkmaster always provided.
The Helmfast had dismounted to collect the plump hare his hawk had slain, but sent her flying again without reward-a sure sign that something other than the morning's hunt, perhaps something other than wooing the fair Naoni-rode his thoughts and heart.
"Your mind seems a crowded place this morn," Taeros said quietly.
Korvaun swung back into his saddle. "Your father told you the talk of Lord Piergeiron's death?"
"Rumors-and like most such, more smoke than embers."
"I think the tales false, too, yet they're troubling nonetheless."
Taeros chuckled in bewilderment. "You've never shown the slightest interest in politics! Why now?"
"It's time," Korvaun said simply and whistled his hawk down from the skies.
Taeros pondered that reply as they rode back to the city. Try as he might, he could think of none better.
Later that morning, the youngest scions of Houses Helmfast and Hawkwinter traded glances in front of a heap of rotten barrel-staves and a small, sagging door beyond it, an inauspicious ending to a narrow alley.
Korvaun shrugged and tapped on the door. There was no response.
He rapped more firmly. Still nothing.
Exchanging glances with Taeros again, the youngest Lord Helmfast shrugged. "The lad who sold this destination is doubtless snickering with his friends about now."
Whereupon the door swung open, and the two nobles found themselves face to face-or more accurately, waist to face-with a pair of grim-looking halflings who held daggers ready. They looked not at all like the plump, complacent Small Folk the Gemcloaks betimes saw drinking in the more squalid taverns: These two were lean, sharp-featured, and coldly alert.
The curly head of a third halfling thrust between the two guards, eyeing the nobles' glittering cloaks. "Gemweave; you'd be the Tall Folk who blundered by to 'save' the Dyre lasses and Lark a few days past. Your intentions are appreciated, even if your assistance was unnecessary."
Taeros blinked. "'Unnecessary'? Three unarmed girls are hardly a battle-match for half a dozen roughblades!"
"Perhaps not, but so few are no match for Mistress Dyre's guard."
"I saw no guard in that alley!"
The curly-haired hin grinned. "We do our work well, then, don't we?"
Korvaun drew a deep breath and tried again. "I'd like to speak with Mistress Naomi Dyre. We were told she might be found here."
"What business have you with Mistress Dyre?" one of the guards demanded. His voice was low, gruff, and unfriendly.
"Take ease, good fellow. We mean her no harm."
The guard sniffed. "You couldn't harm her if you tried. Not in here, not anywhere in the city."
"Then you've no cause to object," Taeros pointed out, reasonably enough.
The curly-haired halfling studied Korvaun for a long moment. "She's not here," he said slowly, "but there is something within that you should see."
Taeros peered into the dimness beyond the doorway. "What is this place?"
"The Warrens, home to most Small Folk in Waterdeep," the hin replied. "Take a torch."
The nobles traded looks, shrugged, lit a torch each, and followed their guide.
"This tunnel's cobbled," Taeros muttered, stamping his boot.
"Used to be a street. You Tall Folk kept building up and up 'til this level got forgotten. Through here."
The hin led the Gemcloaks into a small room where seven well-armed halflings lounged at small tables, drinking and dicing. They came to sudden, silent alertness at the sight of the humans.
"I need to show them something in Mistress Dyre's safe-box," said their guide.
One of the guards went to a wall and busied herself with a complicated set of locks as two others stood like a wall to block the visitors' view of what she did.
When the door swung open, their guide ushered the nobles into the low-vaulted cellar beyond. Selecting a metal box from shelves of seemingly identical boxes, he took a single sheet of parchment from it and handed the page to Korvaun. "You're the one who's needing to see this."
The young noble read silently. Something like sorrow stole into his eyes, and he silently handed the parchment back.
"You'll not be coming back," the hin said. It wasn't quite a question.
"No," Korvaun agreed quietly. Nodding his thanks to the halfling, he strode quickly from the room.
Taeros hastened after his friend, curiosity aflame, yet Korvaun was silent until they were out of the Warrens and blinking in the bright light of approaching highsun.
Then he said two words: "Thank you."
A black Hawkwinter eyebrow lifted in inquiry.
Korvaun smiled faintly. "For not asking. I can only imagine what that silence cost you."
Taeros draped an arm about his friend's shoulders. "No sacrifice too great for friendship," he said grandly. "Besides, when all's known, won't it make a grand broadsheet ballad?"
"I'd not do that, were I you-not for fear of my wrath, but of unseen Small Folk blades."
The Hawkwinter chuckled but cast a quick glance into the alley shadows all around. He'd never before thought to check small places for lurking danger. Waterdeep held far more than his life, much less his fancies, had thus far revealed.
Deep waters, indeed!
One of the things that made the library Taeros Hawkwinter's favorite room in all Hawkwinter House-gods strike that, in all Waterdeep and the wider world beyond-was that it had a door that locked.
He set that lock now and turned to regard the principal reason this was his favorite place, "the refuge of my soul," as he'd declared it grandly to himself one summer evening years ago: his books. Rows and rows of them, precious tomes that had cost more than he'd ever in his life spend on gems or clothing, no matter how often fashions changed.
Taeros ran a hand caressingly across the gilded, tooled, familiar spines of his treasures-tales of great men and women, of heroic deeds and glorious quests, the very fire, heart, and glory of what it was to be human. To matter.
Here was Aldimer's Histories of the Heroes, and there The Glory of the Dragon, Danchas the Scribe's glowing history of Azoun IV of Cormyr.
The Purple Dragon. Dead now, swept away in fittingly heroic sacrifice, dying in battle to save his realm, hewing down a dragon on a blood-drenched field.
What wouldn't he give to serve a man such as Azoun! Oh, not a king, but a leader whose name men murmured in genuine awe, a man so loved that those who wore his colors would unhesitatingly throw their lives away in his cause. To see that fierce loyalty like a flame in their eyes, to hear your lord's name chanted because the very sound of it bolstered courage and gave a sense of purpose.
Now, more than ever, Waterdeep needed such heroes-and to be shaken by the throat to open eyes and follow them, too. To lift Waterdhavian attention from daily coin-grubbing or the cut-and-thrust of proud noble rivalries, and look upon…
Taeros snorted aloud. Who? No faces came to mind. And who was he to tell Waterdeep what it needed, and be heeded? After all, what great deeds had he done?
He glanced at the locked, chained-to-the-table box wherein lay the precious parchments that would someday become Deep Waters.
Nothing, yet. Nothing beyond pondering things a trifle deeper than the frivolities that consumed the lives of his friends and their noble elders, especially the older nobles. Arrogant, feuding emptyheads and gossips, wasteful, cruel, selfish, malicious when crossed…
Enough. Suffice to say that he could point at nothing in all that parade of smeering faces and proud names to admire and emulate. Not one thing.
So what would befall if Piergeiron was truly gone and Waterdeep left lordless? Oh, Masked Lords abounded, but what of the tall, striding figure in armor at whom citizens could roar approval?
How went the song? Empty throne at the Palace…
As he tried to recall words for that tune, an angry face swim up in memory to glare at Taeros: Varandros Dyre, standing behind his desk glowering at them all.
The more Taeros pondered that stonemason's anger, and Dyre's snarls of a "New Day," the more sense the man seemed to make.
Not that Varandros Dyre was any sort of hero. A hard, grasping man, full of bile and indignation, and lowborn to boot.
Yet heroes were just his own fascination, and it was so typically noble a mistake to let one's own enthusiasms and views blind one to everything else. Perhaps, in crowded, bustling Waterdeep, it was men such as Dyre who could get things done. Small men, effecting small changes. Coin by coin, deal by deal… small tugs at the tiller of the great ship of a city, turning it slowly and ponderously on into a new sunrise, and… a New Day.
Taeros Hawkwinter snorted again. If Varandros bleeding Dyre could turn Waterdeep, so could the youngest, hitherto most idle flower of the Hawkwinters.
With Piergeiron dead or alive but with folk thinking he might be, it was time for change. The city needed a man to become a hero, or at least take the first longbooted stride toward glory.
Beldar. Beldar Roaringhorn, who'd always been at the fore in the Gemcloaks' adventures, and in settling their disputes. He'd never become "the" Lord Roaringhorn unless at least three cousins died first, but his kin weren't blind to his gifts. They'd noticed his quick wits and swift tongue and set him to studying law, the better to aid them in dancing around it. Beldar, of course, had excelled, and when inclined, he could argue a Black Robe to a standstill.
Beldar must be Waterdeep's tall man in armor! He was as strong of arm as he was keen of wit, the best blade among the Gemcloaks, and a skilled rider. The Roaringhorns bred racehorses and battle steeds, and Beldar had learned to ride almost before he could walk. Taeros could easily picture him in a high saddle, swinging a blood-drenched sword and bellowing Waterdeep's greatness in the thick of battle…
He was handsome, too, with an infectious energy and a gift for the grand gesture, and there was something more. Since boyhood, he'd carried himself with the confidence of one destined for great things. Because Beldar believed that, so did his friends. In time, so might others.
Belief was a powerful thing. Enough of it could turn a demon into a god. Of course, a man who lacked the gifts and personal discipline to support a lofty opinion of himself was no more than a buffoon, but Beldar had that discipline. He listened to his friends, and if those friends included wise Korvaun and-ahem-one Taeros…
Yes! There was no time to waste. So much had slipped away already…
Taeros whirled from his beloved books and made for the door. He hit the stairs like a racing gale, cloak streaming behind him, and was out the front doors before the doorguards could do more than gape.
Once through the front gates, he really started to hurry.
No less than three Watch patrols hailed Taeros Hawkwinter during his sprint down Whaelgond Way, for a lone running man in North Ward is unlikely to be anyone other than a thief. Yet it seemed his bright amber cloak was becoming known by sight; a senior officer striding out of a side-street curtly ordered off their heavy-booted pursuit-allowing Taeros to fetch up, panting and red-faced, at the Helmfast gates.
Thankfully, the splendidly armored guards there knew him, too, and let him stagger inside without a word… which was good, because Taeros was damned if he could find breath enough to produce one.
In similar manner he gained entrance through the front doors, where his ruffled state and limp-his knee was afire again, despite all the healing potions he'd swallowed-goaded a servant into scurrying ahead, as Taeros discovered when Korvaun came down the stairs at a frowning trot to meet him.
The hard-panting flower of the Hawkwinters pointed up the stairs in the direction of Korvaun's rooms, and Korvaun took that arm and helped Taeros ascend.
Broad steps tiled in swirling sea-waves of blue and green seemed to rush past, and then they were in the upper hall. Edwind Helmfast, Korvaun's eldest brother, strolled out of the gilded doors of the Great Solar, a chart in one hand and a large goblet in the other, and greeted them with a disapproving sneer.
Too winded to speak, Taeros managed to give the Helmfast heir a pitying look and was rewarded by utter bafflement dawning on the Young Captain's face.
Korvaun saw that and turned his head away to favor a marble bust of old Lathaland Helmfast with a grin. The founder of the house had been sculpted with a grim, lopsided smile, and that did not change as the two friends swept past together, and into Korvaun's rooms.
Korvaun slammed shut his door and whirled around. "What news? War? Castle Waterdeep's fallen over? The Lords've all been unmasked as Mother Amaltha's pleasure-girls? What?"
The winded Hawkwinter swallowed hard and gasped, "They're saying Piergeiron's dead!"
Korvaun nodded. "Every tenday, it seems. Is this talk gaining ground?"
Taeros nodded, still fighting for breath, and sank into a chair. "Half the city's saying so!"
The youngest Lord Helmfast headed for the decanters on his sideboard. "That's bad. Is anyone speaking out against these rumors?"
Taeros waved his hands in a "who knows?" gesture. "Probably, but against truth, rumor spreads faster, dies harder, and is usually far more interesting."
Korvaun turned with a frown, decanter in hand. "And reminds us of the obvious: Piergeiron will not outlive every rumor. Some dark day, that rumor will be true."
"Yes!" Taeros gasped. "Wherefore I ran here! If enough citizens can be made to think about such things, we've the best chance we'll ever have to change things in Waterdeep! Make the Lords unmask, at least."
"How are we going to manage that, without violence? I can't imagine they'll want to reveal themselves, or that, if we try to force change with shouts and crowds and fists in the streets, the drunks and thieves and troublemakers won't swiftly make sure the whole city explodes into swords and blood. We'll have shops smashed, folk murdered, and the Watch and the Guard called out. Jails and blood and very hard feelings, fences broken that might not be mended for lifetimes…"
Taeros stared back at his friend, his red face going white to the lips, and eagerly took and drained an offered goblet. Korvaun calmly filled it again.
Taeros stared down into it. "So for the good of the city," he asked it bitterly, "we should just sit and do nothing as the Lords choose someone else to sit in the Palace, and everything goes on as before?"
Korvaun shook his head. "No, I didn't say that. I pointed out peril right before us and wondered why unmasking the Lords matters so much. Convince me."
"Who proclaims our laws?"
"Piergeiron, of course."
"Right. Who writes and decides them?"
"The Lords of Waterdeep, Piergeiron and…"
"And the gods alone know how many masked Lords, yes. And who chooses them?"
Korvaun chuckled. "I know not-no one does. That is, the Masked Lords choose their own, ah, reinforcements."
"Aha, and who administers the laws?"
"The Watch, and the Magisters decide guilt."
Taeros waved his goblet. "Who does the Watch report to? How are the Magisters chosen?"
"They report to Piergeiron, ultimately, and I believe he appoints the Black Robes, too."
"Just so. How's the Open Lord chosen?"
Korvaun frowned. "Strangely enough, I've no idea."
"Precisely!" snapped Taeros, slamming his fist down on a sidetable. "The most powerful man in Waterdeep, and no one knows just who gave him that power or who else decides things for this city. Piergeiron's worthy and just-few dispute that-but who's to say the one who follows him will be anything of the kind? He'll be the choice of the Lords, of course, but who are they? Why're we so willing to trust in what's kept secret from us? Who's to say we're not obeying the whims of liches? Or the very hissing sahuagin we thought we hurled back from our walls? Why-"
There was a commotion outside Korvaun's closed door: Booted feet coming swiftly closer. Then the door opened precipitously and one of the house doorjacks thrust his head in and blurted, "Pray pardon the interruption, Lords, but you have a visi-"
A long arm jerked the man back out of sight, trailing a startled "Eeeep!"
The owner of that arm swept into the room, face set in dark anger.
Beldar Roaringhorn sported an impressive bruise on his jaw, and there was fire in his eyes as he kicked the door shut, causing a muffled groan and thump from its far side. Taeros swallowed anxiously as Beldar strode forward.
To meet Korvaun's gaze squarely, and snap, "Pray accept my apologies for… last night. The fault was mine; I shouldn't run around disparaging servants, no matter what foolishness they offer me. What I said darkened the memory of poor Malark. Your anger was just. Pray, let it be forgotten between us."
"Let it be forgotten," Korvaun agreed, stepping forward to offer Beldar a goblet.
The youngest Lord Roaringhorn took and drained it. "Fine stuff, and sorely needed!" He set it down with a thunk. "Now, to business."
Korvaun poured himself a goblet. "Taeros came to me a-fire, and now you. What fuels your flame? All this talk of Piergeiron's death?"
"That and more. The city's roused worse than I've ever seen it. Even when scaly things were slithering up out of the harbor and folk were trembling in their beds, Waterdeep stood together. Now the city feels like… like an alley-full of roughblades spoiling for a fight, eyeing you just before the first of them pulls his knife."
"And Malark's dead," Taeros said softly, seeing what lay beneath his friend's anger.
A ruby-red cloak swirled glimmeringly as Beldar whirled around. "Yes, hrast it," he snarled. "Dead, just like that! Gone from us when-when it should never have happened! He had years left to joke and prance and-years!"
Korvaun deftly replaced Beldar's empty goblet with a full one. "Tell us more."
"More?" Beldar snapped. "This isn't enough?"
"Humor me," Korvaun replied, his voice mild but firm.
Beldar stared at him, breathing hard, then sipped from his goblet, swallowed, and growled, "The old Open Lord may just be gone at last, so Malark's passing is forgotten in an instant… and the shopkeepers and dockers are snarling at us as both the cause and all that's bad and wrong about Waterdeep… and blast me if I can find the words to refute them, with my own mother, Mratchetta bloody Roaringhorn, sitting there in her pearl-and-gold bedchamber right now; shouting at her maidservants and everyone else within reach, to get out and scour every last jeweler in the city-just so she can find out how many sapphires Alys Jardeth has had fitted into her new upcomb, so she can have more!"
The rivalry between Alys Jardeth and Mratchetta Roaringhorn was well known, and a traditional source of sardonic amusement among the Gemcloaks, but it took few wits to see Beldar was deeply upset-and not about upcombs.
"That would be those tiara-trellis things the ladies use to make their hair stand up like a rooster's comb, yes?" Taeros asked quietly, to fill the furious silence.
Beldar nodded as he drained his goblet again, somehow managing not to choke in doing so.
"Beldar," Korvaun said quietly, "be fair to your mother. She's grown up knowing she's but a cousin of the Lords Roaringhorn, and that even if neither of them marry and produce heirs, they've a younger brother who probably will. Moreover, with nigh a dozen strong, capable male Roaringhorns striding the halls of your High House, and-forgive me-her neither the most beautiful nor the most capable noble lady in Waterdeep, with no head for business nor easy hostess graces, what does life offer her but frivolous pursuits?"
Beldar Roaringhorn looked up with murder in his eye, and for a moment Taeros wondered if he was going to lose one friend to a burial crypt or perhaps his own life through getting between the two of them… but then the leader of the Gemcloaks set down his empty goblet on the nearest bright-polished sidetable with exaggerated care, drew a deep breath, and whispered, "You… see clearly and speak truly, Korvaun. I thank you for that. As you say, how could my mother be otherwise?"
He strode to Korvaun's windows and asked the city outside grimly, "How can any of Waterdeep's nobility be otherwise? So all of us fine nobles stand blind to the anger in the streets or dismiss it as the usual grumblings of the underclasses."
He made a fist and drew his arm sharply up as if to smash his hand down on a handy table that wasn't there, and then burst out, "Why can't folk just know their place?"
Taeros and Korvaun exchanged glances. It was the youngest Lord Helmfast who ventured to say quietly, "So we stand here concerned but uncertain of how to proceed. I suggest we go see Mirt the Moneylender and ask his advice. After all, he's a merchant of Dock Ward, and-"
"As everyone knows," Beldar said wearily, "he's a Lord of Waterdeep. But come now, Korvaun- advice? Even assuming the truth of that old rumor, what wisdom can fall from the mouth of that puffing, strutting old pirate?"
"You might be surprised," Korvaun said quietly. "I was."
For a long moment his two friends stared at him. Taeros found his voice first. "You have much to tell us."
"On the way to Mirt's Mansion," Beldar added, striding to the door. Taeros and Korvaun hurried in his wake, cloaks swirling.
They found Starragar Jardeth in his favorite gambling house. The Eagleshield brothers, both still bearing evidence of their recent battle on Starragar's behalf, threw down their cards and urged him to join his fellow Gemcloaks. A carriage ride and a brisk walk later, Taeros was beginning to understand why.
Starragar was besmitten. Every woman they passed gave him fresh reason to praise his lady's charms. This lass had a form almost as lithe as Phandelopae Melshimber, and that one's face, though lovely enough, wasn't half so fair. Yonder spill of dark hair echoed hers, but wasn't near so long and lustrous…
Taeros would never have thought it possible, but it was almost a relief when they entered Dock Ward, and Starragar's rhapsodies gave way to his usual litany of complaints.
Beldar strode on ahead, oblivious to his friend's grumbling, leaving Taeros and Korvaun to keep Starragar's incendiary comments from sending sparks into all-too-ready tinder.
"Gods above!" Starragar snarled as the Gemcloaks dodged around another pair of apparently abandoned handcarts. "Don't these lowlife idiots know this is supposed to be a street?"
They were still a lane or three away from Mirt's Mansion, on a busy street that reeked of fish guts. It was all cobbles and puddles and hurrying folk, most of whom were carrying crates or kegs or wheeling creaking carts.
Right in front of them, a fat, puffing little man tipped his delivery handcart upright, kicked its axle-prop down, and pulled free a wheel-pin and the wheel it held in one smooth, expert movement. Unlocking the iron cage that held the goods on his cart, he took one wooden delivery box from among a dozen, hung wheel and pin on their hooks, slammed and locked the cage down over everything and trotted into a shop to make a delivery, all as swiftly as an angry nobleman might draw his sword.
Starragar stared at this deft dance in astonishment, then started to look as if he might just be that proverbial angry nobleman. Taeros and Korvaun hissed "Come on!" in urgent unison and hustled him past, around a larger cart piled high with wet, noisome crates of eels, and between another pair of handcarts.
"This is how coins flow in our city," Korvaun murmured. "Deliver fast, yes? When you call for fresh wine, you expect it at your door before next dining, right?"
"Well, yes, but-"
"But nothing. The man locks his goods and wheel. That strut on the cage makes sure the prop can't be kicked over by some prankster. The only way he can suffer theft while he's gone is if enough beefy lads together lift and carry the thing, which would hardly be worth the effort."
"All right," Starragar snapped, pointing at a large conveyance pulled by sweating men, that was just drawing to a halt, "but what's that?"
"Rental carriage. Shuttered, so it's someone who doesn't want the whole city to know they're coming down here-see? Lady Sultlue!"
Starragar whistled. "So it's true, she does-"
His attention was caught by a clumsily painted signboard, nailed askew over a door.
"Gamelder's Quaffhouse?" he asked incredulously, peering at the barred-window, ramshackle warehouse beside him. "This is what passes for a tavern in Dock Ward?"
He surveyed sagging roof and blackened boards with an open sneer. "I wouldn't deign to spew my guts in a place like this! Fancy downing a drink that's been poured in such squalor! Why, there're prob-"
"We're almost at the moneylender's," Taeros said loudly, taking Starragar's arm and peering through gaps in the broken window-boards behind the bars, at unfriendly faces-with bad teeth-glaring out at them. "If we hurry-"
"It looks like a fire-damaged warehouse," Korvaun put in hastily, taking Starragar's other elbow and steering him away, "because it is a fire-damaged warehouse. If rented out as a tavern, the rent just might make coin enough to pay for a new warehouse, see? There're many such taverns this end of the city. Now-"
Starragar growled, shook off their hands, and strode on down the littered street, muttering.
The quaffhouse door banged open, and a dozen sailors charged out, fists and bottles flying. Korvaun had to dive desperately over the nearest handcart to avoid losing his life right there and then.
Taeros sprang away, trying to draw his sword and shouting a warning. Beldar whirled around, saw the onrushing sailors, and grinned with what Taeros, stumbling on the cobbles as women and barefoot boys shrieked all around him in excitement, could only describe as "savage glee."
Starragar, too, seemed pleased, and drew his blade with a flourish. "For honor, for glory, for Phandelopae!" he howled.
In the time it took Taeros to roll his eyes, his view of Lords Jardeth and Roaringhorn was lost behind dozens of burly, dirty sailors. Right behind them came some calloused laborers whose grinning faces were familiar.
Taeros Hawkwinter had last seen them in a worksite on Redcloak Lane, dodging among boards and scaffolding.
"Oh, Lady Luck, kiss all Gemcloaks now" he whispered fervently.
"Aye, Marlus is better'n most," a trustyhand growled, thumping his chipped mug down on the windowsill to join his elbows. "I know crews as never gets a day off and don't see coin enough to drink even in a place like this!"
"Hey, now!" one of the burly, hard-faced men behind the bar called angrily. "You want fancy lasses, you go up the street and pay three nibs for brew with a lot more water in it than this!"
"Aye," a sailor called back, from beside the trustyhands who worked for Marlus the carpenter, "but there, they don't use the water ye've scaled the fish into."
The man behind the bar scowled and drew back an empty mug threateningly, as if to hurl it. Then he took quick measure of the six or seven sailors turning to face him with the grim grins of men spoiling for a fight, despite a collection of scars that would have impressed any priestess of Loviatar or priest of Ilmater, and turned away.
The sailors had barely started to jeer when another of their number, the foremastman of the Glorious Goblet out of Athkatla and the owner of the fastest fists in the crew, pointed out through the broken window-slats and barked, "Hey! Coupla fancynoses coming, see?"
"No!" the steersman beside him corrected. "Four strutting codpieces, unbearded lads all, a-holding their noses and sneering at the likes of us. Well now-"
Others peered, and chuckled eagerly.
"Let's be rearranging those noses for 'em-and whatever else we can reach of 'em, besides!" someone called.
Whereupon the trustyhand who'd worked for Marlus the longest let out a sudden roar. "'Tis them, lads! The ones as put swords to us at Dyre's site an' had our rig down! Get them!"
This became a general chorus, and the window-counter emptied in an instant, wooden mugs bouncing off walls, floors, and nearby patrons.
"Loins of the Lion!" a Calishite sailor growled, clutching his bruised head.
"S'why we make 'em of wood, sealord," one of the barmen told him laconically, retrieving the mug that had done the damage. "Else ye'd be picking glass shards out of yer brain right now by way of your nose, eh?"
One of the drunkards down in the darkest end corner roused enough to ask, "Awha? Whut's befalling, hey?"
"Some nobles've lost their ways and come prancing past, and the hammerhands an' the sealegs of the Goblet have gone out to teach the young highnoses a thing or two."
A gap-toothed old sailor elbowed his friend awake, and made for the door. "This oughta be good. Got anything left to bet with, Suldyn?"
The tingling warning behind Mrelder's eyes became a red throbbing. He sprang up excitedly. Piergeiron was heading right toward them!
His father's door stood open. Golskyn had just returned from another mysterious errand, and was standing behind his desk still wearing his overcloak.
"I've ordered the chains," Lord Unity was telling Hoth, "but they tell me it'll be at least a tenday before the first links are ready. For all the talk of coin and competition ruling Waterdeep, they don't seem to work all that fast."
Hoth nodded. "Should I buy the cages?"
Golskyn nodded. "Ironbar, and large enough to hold two horses, nose to tail. We'll be wanting large beasts, not treecats."
"Thuldaar, but only if he has some in stock. Buy from anyone who has ready stock-in the barns nigh South Gate, nowhere else. Take Daethur's wagon, and store them in the north warehouse. Don't have them delivered here; this street has far too many curious eyes as it is."
Hoth bowed deeply, turned, and strode out, ignoring Mrelder.
Golskyn did, too, until his son said insistently, "My spells tell me Piergeiron's very close by and heading right toward us."
Lord Unity looked up sharply. "You're sure?"
As Mrelder nodded, sudden shouts, crashes, and the ring of swords striking swords erupted in the street below.
Father and son rushed to the windows together and peered down at a chaos of yelling, brawling men, overturned handcarts, and running Watch officers. Folk were peering out of windows up and down the street, and spilling out of doorways to watch and cheer.
At the heart of the fray, four well-dressed young men sporting glittering cloaks were beset by seemingly dozens of ragged sailors-and were plying their war-steel like desperate men, which is just what they were. If the Watch didn't arrive quickly, that gaudy quartet was doomed.
Swords flashed and clanged, men shouted and screamed, and Watch officers converged from all directions. Beyond them, far down the street, a small knot of armored men were striding purposefully toward the fray.
"There!" Mrelder said excitedly, pointing. A head taller than those around him, magnificent in bright helm and armor, the Open Lord of Waterdeep paused for a moment to peer ahead and frown, trying to see just who was fighting whom and why.
"I see him," Golskyn replied. "This can only work to our benefit."
As he spoke, one of the bright-cloaked men struck aside a sailor's cutlass and ran the man through. A breath later, another of the fancy-cloaks vanished under a swarm of punching, kicking laborers.
Watchmen blew horns, shouted, and waded into the fighting, taking blows from fists and improvised clubs. Piergeiron snapped an order and trotted forward, pulling gauntlets from his belt and drawing them on as he plunged into the battle.
Mrelder cursed softly. He had the right spell ready; he should have used it when Piergeiron stopped to survey the fight! Now, he might never A sailor took the red-cloaked man's slender steel through his gut and reeled, his scream fading into wet coughing as he sank to the cobbles to die. Another sailor punched someone else right back through the curtained window of a rental carriage whose runners had long since fled, then jerked open the door and dived in at his victim. The carriage swayed, received the enthusiastic charges of several more sailors anxious to join in the fun, rocked violently… and slowly crashed over onto its side amid screams and splinterings.
Piergeiron had to leap for his life as the falling coach loomed over him. He slammed right into a handcart. It crashed over onto a wounded sailor with the Open Lord riding it. The paladin wallowed atop the cart-cage, trying to get his balance, his bodyguard still far behind him…
Now! Mrelder spread his hands, vaguely aware that his father was no longer watching at the windows beside him. He hissed out his spell, gaze intent on Piergeiron. A sailor was charging the armored Lord, whose best route away would be The Open Lord found his footing and met the sailor with a raised arm that blocked the man's wild swing and an uppercut that started near his knees and ended up over his head, with the sailor flung away senseless.
So great was the force of Piergeiron's blow that the paladin staggered sideways on the slippery cobbles toward a nearby shop-front.
Just as Mrelder had hoped.
Pointing at the shop's signboard — "Ye Happy Harlot" it proclaimed to the world, in shabby, peeling paint on wood carved into the shape of a buxom reclining woman-he carefully said the last, triggering word of his spell.
Rusted chains flew apart. The faded Harlot happily plummeted to the street below, crashing down on Piergeiron's helmed head and shoulders, driving the Open Lord of Waterdeep to the cobbles in a crumpled instant.
Golskyn was suddenly back at the window, a lit candle in his hand. "Hold this," he ordered.
As Mrelder took the little candle-lamp, the Lord of the Amalgamation raised the first of three egg-shaped bundles of clay he'd fetched. It bristled with wicks, sprouting in all directions like a potato gone to seed. Golskyn held these into the flame, one after another, until wisps of thick smoke curled up. Then he opened the window, tossed out the egg, and calmly drew the sash down against the sudden billowing of smoke.
Without pause the priest moved to the next window, lit his second smoke-egg, and hurled it. He did the same for the third before pinching out the candle and waving Mrelder impatiently toward the door.
"But Father, how'll we see?"
Golskyn tapped his eyepatch. "I will see for us both. You will listen for my orders."
They hastened out and down to the street together.
Mirt's old, flopping seaboots flapped as he strode along, humming to himself. Sune and Sharess, if he wasn't but a few indolent days away from turning entirely to jelly! If 'twasn't for these little sallies forth to see Durnan about which warehouse to buy and what cargo to sell, he'd have long ago Been felled by his own failing heart and some unlooked-for tumble, thanks to the unpredictable cruelty of Faerun, which was whirling around his head now, smashing wind out of him, and dashing him to the hard cobbles in a bewildering instant Mirt rolled over and up, blinking. He'd just been literally run over by a trio of running, battling men. Their swords sang and struck sparks from each other and the nearby walls as they fought on, faces twisted with anger and effort.
Well, Blood of the Whale, if young sailors and Dock Ward louts thought they could trample and ignore the Old Wolf himself Mirt rose like an enraged and puffing walrus, drew his curved saber and favorite dagger, and lumbered after the trio, who were reeling back out of the alley into the street they'd evidently come from… which seemed rather noisy and crowded, come to think of it.
Mirt frowned. The cobbles were crowded with dying, groaning, hacking-at-each-other men-and billowing smoke, too! Through those spreading clouds, the street seemed to be a veritable slaughterhouse of a battlefield! Ye gods and little fishes!
He thrust his head out of the alley, peering through the thickening haze at a fallen signboard and a magnificently armored, somehow familiar leg protruding from under it.
Someone charged at him out of the smoke, shouting in anger and swinging a glittering sword. Mirt knew the man at a glance: one of Piergeiron's bodyguards. So that must be old Steelhead himself, lying there like The glittering sword slashed open one of Mirt's sleeves, and the wheezing moneylender ducked away and forward, to rise suddenly behind the guard's backswing.
He clouted a helm solidly with his saber hilt, snarling, "Young puppy! More fancy armor than a dancer doing the Lady Knight Surrenders, and this is the best you can do?"
The man fell untidily and did not get up.
Someone else came sprinting out of the alley, and Mirt lurched around to face this new foe, puffing and blowing through his mustache, just in time to have a Dock Ward roughblade-stormhowl it all, someone else he recognized! — slam into his capacious gut and send him staggering.
Whereupon a handsome man in fine clothes and a swirling ruby-red cloak lunged out of the smoke to slash open the man's throat, neck, and shoulder with one vicious cut of his blade.
The Dock Warder fell, gurgling, and the nearest of Piergeiron's still-living bodyguards turned in time to entirely misread the situation and leap at Beldar Roaringhorn with a shout of anger and a wildly thrusting sword.
Suddenly sailors and Watch officers and everyone else afoot in all Dock Ward, it seemed, were converging on the fallen paladin and swinging steel as they came.
This being Dock Ward, windows had already flown open to let folk peer down through the rising smoke. Some hurled insults, and others preferred to toss small, expendable objects or the contents of chamberpots. Bets were shouted from window to window as sailors and Watch officers groaned, thrust, parried… and died.
The last and most drunken of the Glorious Goblet's crew came staggering out to join the battle, roaring and swinging their blades wildly. One of them promptly reeled into a handcart and sent it crashing over. Its owner erupted out of the shop he'd been delivering to with a rising scream of fury, spitting out insults and curses as he smashed the sailor to the cobbles with a three-legged stool the shop owner had just rejected.
The sailors all around the stool-seller growled in menacing unison-and the bustling little man growled right back at them, drew his belt-knife, and flung himself at the nearest one, wielding knife and stool with deadly ruthlessness.
Overhead, in an attic not far above the tumult, the smoke and noise had awakened two elderly, dozing sisters: Rethilda, who called the bat-infested rooms home, and Undaera, from the farm crossroads of Windy Hill nigh Secomber, who was visiting her sister in the big city for the first time.
She'd been horrified at the filth, noise, and dangers of Dock Ward and had said so, colorfully and at length, almost causing a rift between them.
So it was with a certain satisfaction that Rethilda surveyed the brawl now filling the street and turned triumphantly to the gaping, trembling Undaera to ask, "Well, sister? Does Windy Hill offer this sort of free entertainment? Hey?"
"Too many people are watching from above," Golskyn snapped, as swearing, snarling sailors clawed at the ruby-cloaked man and the splendidly armored bodyguard. "Far too many blades here, too!"
Mrelder nodded. "There'll be no dragging Piergeiron through our front door-not unless we want half the Watch, and the Guard, too, coming in after him!"
"We don't need him," Golskyn said sharply, "just the Gorget-but folk must not notice us taking it!"
A dying bodyguard reeled back, with three burly sailors stabbing him so swiftly and repeatedly with their daggers that it looked like they were drumming their fists on his armor, leaving Golskyn's path to the paladin clear.
Two bodyguards who now lay sprawled and very dead in their own spreading blood had earlier dragged the signboard off the Open Lord. Piergeiron lay on his back, eyes shut and mouth open, dead or unconscious; the Lord of the Amalgamation didn't care which. Just now, all he cared about was that Piergeiron was so cursed big that he didn't think he could drag the man anywhere.
"Here, Father!" Mrelder gasped, fighting his way free of the heavy body of the Watchman who'd been trying to throttle him. He'd spell-frozen the lawman long enough to slice open the Waterdhavian's throat with his dagger.
"Stop amusing yourself and help me, here!"
Mrelder leaped to obey, and the paladin's armor struck sparks from the cobbles as they dragged him, limp limbs bouncing and rattling, into a doorway.
More bodyguards were bearing down on them, but Golskyn could bark orders as grandly as a king when he wanted to. He drew himself up to block their view of Mrelder tearing at the Gorget and commanded, "The Open Lord lives! See that you keep him safe!"
The foremost bodyguard promptly burst past the priest-and saw what Mrelder was doing.
He raised his blade with a yell, but Golskyn whirled and drove his own dagger into the man's throat from behind, dragging it viciously crosswise and spraying Mrelder with more blood.
Without slowing the priest whirled around again to face the second bodyguard, who stood horrified, and told the man sternly, "Fear not! We've nothing against you-or Lord Piergeiron, either! This is a personal matter involving his villainy!"
Golskyn pointed grandly at the bodyguard he'd just murdered with his dripping dagger-and so did Mrelder, who was clutching the Gorget behind his back with his other hand.
The bodyguard raised his sword and bellowed, "Blayskar a villain? He's me cousin, you murdering bastards!"
Mrelder whirled and fled, and the bodyguard plunged after him. Golskyn coolly swept his overcloak off and over the man's head, then throat-punched him as he stumbled.
The stumble became a topple, and Golskyn swept his cloak away again as he plucked up the bodyguard's sword, dragged the man's helm off, and brained him with the hilt. Tossing the blade down, he ran after Mrelder.
The smoke was thick enough above them now to set people to coughing and prevent anyone at a window from clearly seeing where they went. It was high time to retire from this field of victory.
A new crowd was wading through the smoke now, almost all of them Watchmen. Mirt knew them-and more to the point, they knew him, even through all the blood and heaped sailors' bodies.
"Old Wolf, let's be having you on your feet," one grunted, heaving and dragging. Mirt let out a roar of pain that ended in a sob.
Gods, he was hurt… hurt bad!
"Get me," Mirt gasped raggedly, as Watchmen rolled dead sailors aside, "back to my house: There's healing there!"
They raised him to their shoulders almost tenderly, but the Old Wolf nearly fell out of their grasp in his eagerness to point across more bodies at a gleam of armor, and gasp, "Grab Piergeiron there, too! Bring him to my place! If that damned squarejaws goes down, some fools'll start a war in the city to get onto his throne, sure's sure!"
Watchmen rushed to do just that, the Open Lord's helm and one gauntlet rolling away forgotten as they hoisted him and began the swift trot to Mirt's Mansion.
The street was empty of both moneylenders and Open Lords even before a father and a son finished groping their way through their own doorway with a stolen gorget and got the door safely bolted and barred in their wake.
"Perhaps the tunnel repairer moved away," Naoni sighed, "or died; dwarves are long-lived, not immortal."
"Perhaps," Faendra sniffed, "the folk at the rooming house were lying to us!"
Lark chuckled at the girl's indignant tone. "Of course they were, but that might have nothing at all to do with Buckblade. Some people lie for no better reason than to keep in practice."
"Mayhap we were given the wrong address in the first place," Naoni said-and then stopped abruptly and threw up her hand in warning.
The others looked along her pointing finger, down the street ahead, where men were spilling out of doorways and rushing at each other. There were shouts and the flash of swords. There were far more familiar flashes, too: bright gemweave cloaks!
Lark rolled her eyes. "Watching Gods above, are those men everywhere?"
"Perhaps they're following you, sister," Faendra teased, staring in fascination at toppling handcarts and clattering blades.
Lark laid firm hands on Dyre elbows. "We don't want to be here, mistresses," she warned, even as loud crashings erupted behind them.
The three whirled around and found themselves staring at more Watchmen than they'd ever seen together before. Forty or more hard-faced lawmen were hastily dragging handcarts and carriages together to form a barrier.
"Excuse me," Lark called, dragging Naoni and Faendra forward, "but-"
"Sit you down out the way and keep silent, lasses!" a Watch armar barked back. "There'll be no getting past us this way!"
Watchmen were hurriedly scaling the barrier and taking up positions in front of it, as others came trotting out of alley mouths, drawing blades as they came.
The street fight swirled closer, and Lark sat down. Faendra swiftly followed, leaving Naoni standing uncertainly, turning this way and that as she sought escape.
"We can't flee," she concluded reluctantly, and crouched down just as a Watchman sprinted past.
"Why do these things always have to happen on my watch?" he growled. "Why can't they have their brawls…"
His voice was lost in the rising clangs and cries of men trying to butcher other men, as the three crouching women watched the battle come reeling to meet them.
A man whose face was a mask of blood hurried toward them out of the fray, ruby-red cloak billowing behind him. He'd been cut across the forehead and was running blindly, cursing fervently yet slowly, as if amazed.
So much blood… so much blood…
His wounds didn't hurt all that much, but Lord Beldar Roaringhorn felt empty and betrayed, as if-as if the gods had been lying to him all along, and the world was very different from how he'd thought it worked.
Scores-nay, hundreds-of fights he'd been in, his blade sending men reeling, and he'd never been cut before. Never. Wasn't he invulnerable to such things, at least until his promised destiny was achieved?
His wounding had been so hideously swift and easy. Just like Malark, under those falling beams…
Watchmen were moving to intercept the young noble, snapping, "You, goodsir! You! Stop! Stand! The Watch commands you! Halt where you are!"
The youngest Lord Roaringhorn wiped at his streaming forehead with the back of his hand and stumbled onward as the three women gawked up at him.
He reeled on the littered cobbles as a Watchman came at him-and was suddenly looming above the three lasses.
Lark made a sudden, wordless sound and rose to flee, and Beldar slashed out blindly at the sound, cutting only empty air as Faendra shrieked. He lunged, slipped, and came crashing into Lark.
They fell heavily to the cobbles together, Beldar a sagging, dead weight. Two Watchmen sprinted over, blades reaching down.
"Away!" Lark shouted at them, as fiercely as any warrior. "Get your steel away!"
As the two officers stared down at her uncertainly, she waved down her blood-streaked front at the man whose surprisingly heavy body was sprawled across her lap, and snapped, "Can't you see he offers no threat?"
"Some sort of lord," one Watchman said to the other. They traded quick, satisfied smiles.
"So dawns the New Day," Naoni whispered to Faendra, her gray eyes wide with horror. "Gods above, what has Father started?"
Mrelder leaned back against the bolted door and stared down at what gleamed in his grasp: The Guardian's Gorget. This small metal plate enabled the First Lord of Waterdeep to command the Walking Statues. Little was publicly known about it-few thought it more than mere "show" armor-but Mrelder's life-long fascination with Waterdeep had led him to many of her secrets. He'd sought out and memorized every scrap of Waterdhavian lore in all Candlekeep.
"What wait you for?" snapped Golskyn.
"I'm holding history in my hands," the sorcerer murmured, eyes fixed almost reverently on the Open Lord's crest. "This touched royalty, as surely as has any king's crown or warsword."
"You're holding the future in your hands," his father snarled, "and it's time you realized your role in shaping it. What is a king but an accident of birth and blood? True men become, powerful tyrants take. All your life you've yearned for this city-if you're my true son, you'll stretch out your hands and take what you desire!"
Mrelder nodded and put the surprisingly heavy gorget around his neck. Closing his eyes, he sought for the calm that would let him attune himself to it.
Instantly vivid fire flashed through his mind: a path of golden light. He was swept along it at incredible speed, through thick woods. Suddenly a smoothly rounded black tower loomed up before him, and a spectral voice demanded the password.
Of course. No man, not even Piergeiron, would wield such power without safeguards. The Open Lord and Khelben Arunsun were fast friends; of course the archmage watched Piergeiron's back.
The archmage watched…
With dawning horror, Mrelder realized there was a burning in the back of his mind, the shadow of a strong-and growing-presence. An alien will blossomed in his head, like a glowing web of power. A small, bright tendril twisted from it, questing deeper, closer…
Gods above! He'd drawn the attention of the Lord Mage of Waterdeep!
And he was mind-linked to the Blackstaff!
Mrelder tore the metal off with desperate hands and flung it away. It was still in the air when he hurled the most powerful detachment spell he knew at it, a magic crafted to break the hold of a scrying device and turn its power back upon the seeker.
The gorget flared into brilliant red flame an instant before it crashed into the wall, searing right through a tapestry and biting into the stone beyond. Then it rebounded and fell, leaving dusty wool smoking in its wake.
Golskyn pounced on the smoldering tapestry, tore it down, and emptied two ewers of water over it. The stench of wet, burnt wool filled the room.
His son paid little heed. Mrelder crouched over the fallen gorget. It seemed whole and unharmed, its flame gone.
He touched it with a cautious fingertip. It was already cool.
Warily he picked it up. There was no lingering sense of the seeking magic.
Strong hands seized his collar and dragged him to his feet.
Before he could draw breath, Golskyn slammed him against the wall so hard that Mrelder's vision swam. The gorget fell from his numbed fingers.
His father leaned close, hands at Mrelder's throat and face contorted with rage. "Fool!" he snarled. "I should have let this wretched city burn and you with it!"
Strong spellglows flickered around a bare spellchamber in Blackstaff Tower, lighting the awed faces of Khelben's apprentices. They'd been working for hours now, building a web of glowing, humming lines of magical force without really knowing what they were doing.
The Blackstaff was directing them as gracefully as any dancer, crooking a finger here and silently beckoning there to call forth their castings in precise places, as the spellweb grew to fill the room. The apprentices were accustomed to Laeral's encouraging murmurs and directions, but Khelben Arunsun worked in silence, black robes swirling, and the web was brighter and had risen faster than anything Laeral had ever guided them through. Only he knew what he was striving for, and he Was reeling, suddenly, clutching at his head with both hands and screaming.
As the apprentices stared at him in rising terror, Khelben swayed as the lines of force plunged into him, converging with terrifying speed.
There was a soundless crash that rocked the room, rippling waves of magic raced out past their ankles to slam into the wall and strike clattering shards of stone free… and the great spellweb was gone, leaving only a faint, fitful glow around the rigidly upright body of the Lord Mage of Waterdeep, whose eyes were wide, staring wildly and unseeingly in different directions and whose mouth was slack and drooling, even before he started to topple.
"Tammert!" the wild-eyed apprentice sobbed, long hair still crackling about her shoulders in the swirling chaos of magic that was eddying around them like so many tugging waves of sparks. "Is he dead?"
Tammert Landral had once, several rooms below this one, tried to put a sword through Qilue of the Chosen and been scorched by silver fire for his pains-and he was the closest of them all to the fallen Lord Mage of Waterdeep. He swallowed, stretched out a hand that he snatched back hurriedly when magic rose up from the Blackstaff's apparently intact body to shock into him with a burning, menacing snarl, and replied, "I–I don't think so. Get Maresta! And Araeralee! Hurry!"
The apprentices of Blackstaff Tower being what they were, his order would have ordinarily evoked not obedience but a flurry of dispute and loftily offered opinions, but just now almost everyone in the room wanted desperately to be somewhere else. Aside from Tammert and Callashantra, who stood uncertainly right where she'd been when she'd shouted to him, the room emptied in a few frantic moments.
While Tammert hoped desperately that Maresta Rhanbuck, motherly whirlwind that she was, and Araeralee Summerstar, of whom the Lady Laeral was so fond, would know what to do.
"Mother Mystra, guide us," he prayed fervently, going to his knees and sacrificing a spell from his mind to make his prayer flame up and hopefully be heard. "Oh, that Laeral was here!"
However, it was the impish and beautiful little seductress Jalarra who next appeared in a doorway, to say brightly, "Everyone just came tearing past me like all the devils in the Nine Hells have come visiting! What'm I missing? I-oh."
Eyes going very wide, she stopped, feeling the magic still roiling around the room wash over her, and peered across its fading, flickering glows at the sprawled body of Khelben Arunsun.
"What happened? Is he-?"
"I don't know," Tammert told her grimly, not turning to take his eyes off the fallen archmage for a moment. "Go get Maresta, will you?"
Surprisingly, Jalarra whirled around to do just that-and let out a little shriek of alarm as Maresta and Araeralee almost flattened her in their own hasty arrivals.
"We've sent a calling-spell to the Lady Laeral," Maresta panted, looking more flustered than any of them had ever seen her before, "and we can only hope-"
There was a soundless flash, and the room suddenly held one more person. Jalarra shrieked again.
"Have we trained you that badly?" the Lady Mage of Waterdeep demanded, from where she stood towering over Tammert. "That 'hope' is the only thing you can think of to do?"
She whirled around, saw Khelben, and hurled herself at him. Tammert almost gratefully flung himself out of the way.
The apprentices watched Laeral crawl atop the Blackstaff, eyes closing as if she was trying to feel something. Then she turned her head, gave them a grim nod, and announced, "Backlash-and a bad one."
The apprentices kept silent, not knowing what to say.
"Maresta," Laeral added briskly, "you're in charge. Waterdeep must believe the Lord Arunsun is still here and at work. All of you: if anyone asks, we're both here but we're busy, right? If anyone gets insistent, tell them we're busy with Mystra."
There was another soundless flash, and all of the glowing, swirling magic in the room was gone. The stones where the Lord and Lady Mages of Waterdeep had lain were bare and empty. Tammert Landral trembled, then, and started to sob in awe.
A vast smile was unfolding in his mind amid silver fire… fire that swept over him in wordless reassurance.
"Tammert!" Maresta snapped. "What befalls?"
"Mystra," he managed to gasp. "She heard my prayer!"
White motes of light danced in Mrelder's darkening vision. His father's hand tightened on his throat… the winking lights swirled faster, flashing like tiny stars and clustering ever-brighter.
"Fool!" thundered Golskyn, giving the sorcerer a shake that let Mrelder sob in a breath but brought pain bursting through his head like a stabbing lance. "I waste my time chasing a magical trinket, only to have you lose your nerve and destroy it?"
"No," Mrelder managed to croak. "Not… destroyed."
The cruel grip loosened. "Then why did you cast it aside? Why hurl spells at it?"
Mrelder cautiously backed away, shoulders scraping along the wall. "My knowledge of the gorget was incomplete," he husked, head pounding. "Didn't realize… trying to use it… would mind-link me to Khelben Arunsun."
He waited for his father's explosion.
To his surprise, the ghost of a smile flitted over Golskyn's face. "Ah. And how fared Waterdeep's archmage, when you left him?"
"How fared?" Mrelder echoed, not understanding what his father was asking. "I… took no time to inquire after his health. My only thought was to sever the link: through it, he could find me. Find us."
"Indeed," Golskyn agreed, that odd smile still lingering on his face. "I find myself reluctantly impressed by this archmage of yours and his sensible precautions. After all, it would not do to let just anyone command a stone golem as tall as fifteen men-to say nothing of eight such golems. If such control was easily mastered, it would not take long for the mustered Walking Statues to smash down this entire city, every last building of it."
"Yes," Mrelder gasped. "Most magics this powerful bear many safeguards and wards."
"You could not be expected to know them all," the priest said soothingly. "In time you'll discover them. Now put on the gorget again, that we may learn more."
Dread shimmered icily down Mrelder's spine. He wasn't sure what terrified him more: the thought of donning the gorget or his father's silkily mild tone, the searing promise of silver fire or the calm before the tempest.
"I am… no match for Khelben Arunsun," he said at last. "He could take over my mind as easily as you could assimilate a giant rat's tail."
"An unfortunate comparison, but one we'll leave unexplored for the nonce," Golskyn replied, sounding calm, even amused. "Are you afraid of this archmage?"
Fear was something Lord Unity of the Amalgamation scorned, but dishonesty he simply would not tolerate. Knowing this, his son nodded reluctantly.
"Then consider this: Whatever doom Khelben Arunsun might visit on you is a mere possibility, whereas what I, Golskyn, will do here and now if you do not try to master the gorget is a cold and final certainty."
The priest strolled away, then turned back to face Mrelder, still wearing that faint smile. "Perhaps," he added, his tone still disconcertingly reasonable, "that serves to put matters into proper balance?"
Because he had no choice, Mrelder lifted the Guardian's Gorget with quaking hands and placed it around his neck. He sensed
The tendril of magic connecting him to the silver fire of the great wizard's mind was gone.
Mrelder breathed an intense sigh of relief. The shields he'd unintentionally raised fell away. With their passing, a faint glow of magic filled his thoughts.
The link was not quite gone, but it was changed. No longer a road that ran two ways, it was fading fast but sending Mrelder an image such as he might have seen in a scrying bowl-one whose powers were swiftly dimming.
Khelben Arunsun lay in slumber, beard singed and hands and face blackened as if by fire. What seemed to be deep green woods surrounded him, and a woman with long silver hair knelt over him, her eyes closed and her lips moving like someone praying.
The vision receded, dwindling behind him as if Mrelder was riding away from it, until dark mists closed over all. Then the faint glow of magic faded entirely, and Mrelder opened his eyes and gave his father a jubilant smile.
"The archmage," he announced, trying to sound victorious rather than relieved, "won't trouble us for some time."
Golskyn nodded as if he'd expected Mrelder's triumph. "And the gorget?"
"Nothing more," Mrelder admitted. "Yet."
Golskyn nodded, very slowly. "If Piergeiron lives, we will find him. In time, he'll tell us what we wish to know."
The likelihood of this struck Mrelder as slight indeed, but he knew better than to do anything but nod agreement. He cast the spell that allowed him to sense the little copper badge Piergeiron wore.
"He still lies below," he announced, frowning in surprise.
The angry din from the street was diminishing, which meant order was being restored. Surely tending the fallen First Lord would be paramount in the minds of the Watch!
The two men hastened back down into the smoke-filled street. Mrelder promptly pulled Golskyn aside to let several frantic Watchmen rush past, carrying on their shoulders a fat, ragged-mustached man wearing floppy sea-boots, seaman's breeches, and a blood-stained tunic.
Then the sorcerer led the way through bodies and wreckage and suspiciously frowning Watchmen to the alley where they'd dragged Piergeiron.
There they stopped in dismayed silence. The signboard that had felled the Open Lord had been tossed aside. Piergeiron was gone.
"Well?" the priest demanded coldly.
A glint of metal caught Mrelder's eye. Kicking aside the twisted splinters of a wooden crate, he plucked up the Open Lord's helm. The copper badge was still affixed to it; the spell of binding he'd placed to keep it there had done its job. This was, alas, cold comfort.
He turned the helm so his father could see the badge. "The spells worked as intended," he said haltingly.
Golskyn regarded him with disgust. "Better you should have fed him the copper piece in his morningfeast sausages. Then your 'spell of binding' could have been put to better use!"
"We were set upon, officer," Korvaun Helmfast repeated for perhaps the tenth time, feeling the cold stares of the Watchmen who stood in a tight circle all around, "as I told you. We were simply walking past that quaffhouse, and they all came charging out at us."
"And you had no blades drawn? Made no gestures? Said nothing?"
"No swords and no gestures," Taeros put in. "As I recall, we were explaining what a quaffhouse was to Lord Jardeth at the time."
That earned him a sneer of disbelief from the grizzled old Watch rorden. "Come now, milord! You seriously expect me to believe that your friend here-" He waved at Starragar, who, with his glittering black cloak and blood-smeared face, looked like a large carrion bird-"is unfamiliar with alehouses?"
A chorus of sarcastic chuckles arose from the surrounding Watchmen.
Taeros felt unaccustomed anger rising in him. "What my friend meant," he said rather sharply, "is that the Lord Jardeth expected a drinking establishment to present a more inviting face to the world or lack for clients, just as I expect the Watch to keep the streets safe or at least stand aside to allow us to procure healing for our friend."
The Watch officer regarded him rather coolly. "Part of keeping the streets safe, Lord Hawkwinter, is ascertaining who's to blame for bloodshed-and I note that two young lords stand before me unhurt, whereas over a dozen outlanders and citizens lie hurt or dead, many by wounds almost certainly made by your swords. If for some reason you feel it beneath yourself to answer a few questions…"
"I feel nothing of the sort," Taeros snapped, truly angry now, "yet as we seem to be noting things here, I note that you've not assisted these ladies to rise, nor asked after their health-or asked them anything at all, for that matter."
Another Watch officer snorted. "Ah, yes, shift eyes to your doxies; that'll prove an effective distraction. D'you think we're all dunderheads?"
Surprisingly, it was Naoni who erupted from the cobbles like a leaping flame. "Doxies? DOXIES?'
She flew at the man, heedless of his drawn sword, and delivered a slap that spun his head sideways and brought roars of laughter from other Watchmen.
"We're crafters," she shouted at him. "Honest women doing an honest day's work, not the playpretties of titled men!"
By then, several Watchmen had tugged her arms down, and the swordcaptain she'd attacked had staggered back out of reach, more startled than angry.
"Naoni," Faendra cried desperately, afraid she'd see her sister stabbed right in front of her. "Have done!"
Her sister heard and fell silent but didn't stop struggling against the hands that held her.
"Well, we seem to have touched some nerves here," the grizzled rorden observed. "Not had your share of battle yet, m'dear?"
That "dear" and the patronizing tone it was delivered in brought Faendra to her feet. She flounced over to put herself between Naoni and the graying officer, hands on her hips and blue eyes ablaze.
"Surely Mistress Dyre, the daughter of a guildmaster, is worthy of more respectful address!"
The officers exchanged glances, and the men holding Naoni released her and stepped back.
"See now, young mistress, no harm was meant."
"Oh? Perhaps if your daughters and sisters were penned into a battlefield, left to fend for themselves, then mocked as dockside trulls," raged Faendra, "less rust would have collected on your weapons! Speaking of which, my sister's 'battles' are her own business, but no graybeard with 'rusted weapons' need apply as sparring partner."
A few uneasy chuckles arose. Faendra, however, was not quite finished. She turned and pointed at Naoni dramatically.
"And know this: my sister is a sorceress, goddess-gifted with the ability to spin anything into thread! She could conjure every sword you carry into scraps of fishing line."
She cast a scathing glance over the gathered Watch and added, "Not that most of you would perceive the change."
A young Watchman stepped forward, eyes narrowing. "Threatening the Watch with sorcery, are you?"
"Thellus," an older swordcaptain hastily interrupted, "I think we'd better take these lasses in for some proper questioning. Separately. I'll take-"
"No, goodsir," Korvaun announced then, his sword out and his voice even colder than his drawn blade, "you'll not. These women are now under my protection, and I'll fight any man who tries to-"
"Oh, gods drown all," the grizzled rorden said feelingly, "put up your steel, lordling! You, too, Lord Hawkwinter. There'll be no taking anyone anywhere-by us, anyway. Stand back, men."
He looked down at Lark. "I can see by their, ah, liveliness that your friends here are unharmed. How fare you?"
"Covered with the blood of a man whose weight prevents me from rising," she replied, "but otherwise unharmed." She turned her head to regard Taeros and added coldly, "Yet uncertain of what value lies in the protection of men who inherited titles rather than wits-and whose solution to all impediments seems to be drawing a sword."
A few Watchmen chuckled, at least one whistled in anticipation of fireworks to come, and everyone watched the face of Lord Taeros Hawkwinter redden.
In that expectant silence, Taeros sheathed his sword, inclined his head to Lark, and replied politely, "I bow to the wishes of a lady whenever possible, and as the good officer here has promised you'll not be imprisoned or interrogated, I'm content to let matters run their lawful course."
He turned to the rorden. "I assume you'll wish to interview other witnesses to ascertain the true cause of this disturbance. If you've further need of me or my friends, kindly send word and we'll happily answer any questions put to us."
"Prettily said," the old Watchman replied. "Down blades, men. I think our work here is done-unless, milords, you'd like us to carry Lord Roaringhorn somewhere?"
"I–I can carry myself," a quiet answer startled him, from the bloodstained form at their feet. "I think."
Taeros peered down. "Beldar, how badly are you-?"
"I'll live," was the curt reply, followed by a groan as Starragar hauled the Gemcloaks' leader to his feet.
"I'll see him safe home," Lord Jardeth announced.
Korvaun Helmfast turned to Naoni. "If you'd not think it an imposition, we should serve you three likewise."
A Watch officer who stood safely behind his fellows chuckled. "Ah, now-who'll be protecting who, hey?"
Amid the mirth that followed, Naoni Dyre drew herself up and said with quiet dignity, "We accept your kind offer, Lord Helmfast. Courtesy and duty, it seems, aren't always strangers to men of Waterdeep."
Taking the cue, Taeros extended a hand to Lark.
"Help yon stormcrow take your friend to a healer," she told him coolly, ignoring his outstretched hand to rise unaided. "Lord Helmfast's protection will be quite enough for us. We helpless lasses might not be able to keep two of you from inciting bloodshed."
Beldar shrugged off Starragar's helping hand and took a few tottering steps. The street blurred and tilted precariously, and he leaned on the nearest wall until his vision deigned to sort itself out.
"The lass was right," Taeros said, materializing out of the haze. "Let me call a carriage and take you to a healer."
Beldar lifted tentative fingers to his forehead. To his surprise, his wound was shallow, little more than a scratch.
"It's not serious," he said, something of his surprise creeping into his voice.
Starragar regarded him skeptically. "There's a lot of blood. You were knocked senseless. Either alone, much less both, justifies a healer's fee."
"Head wounds bleed freely," the Roaringhorn responded shortly.
It was hard to admit that most likely he'd simply fainted, like a swooning maiden in one of those foolish chapbooks his sisters were always reading. With an effort, he straightened and stepped boldly away from the wall.
"I'll have the wound tended," he told Taeros. "If it's all the same to you, I'd prefer to be alone."
There was understanding on his friend's face. "I feel much the same way," the Hawkwinter admitted quietly. "Never before have I taken a man's life. It's a grim and serious thing, not to be lightly regarded or easily forgotten."
Beldar stared at Taeros. What the Hawkwinter had just said was truth, of course-but it hadn't even occurred to him. And what did that lack reveal of Beldar Roaringhorn?
Still, the mask offered him was preferable to revealing his humiliation. He clapped the shoulders of both friends gently. "Thanks. Get you home, and we'll talk later."
The Hawkwinter nodded and reached for the strings of his readycoin purse. "No arguments," he said firmly, pressing the bag into Beldar's hands. "The women of Waterdeep would never forgive me if I withheld the means needed to keep a scar from marring that face."
The Roaringhorn managed a smile. "You'll have it back, to the last nib."
Black eyebrows arched in feigned amazement. "That knock on your head must have been harder than we thought!"
Beldar chuckled, because it was expected, and waved Taeros and Starragar on their way.
After the last swirl and glimmer of black and amber gemweave had disappeared around a corner, Beldar removed his own cloak and turned it so only the dark lining was showing. His task ahead would be harder if eyes marked him and wagging tongues repeated his name.
He made his way purposefully along now bustling streets. Ducking down a particularly noisome alley, he picked his way through litter and offal to where it ended against the stout stone wall of a warehouse, adorned with crude graffiti and fading blazon-bills of events long past.
Finding the stone that was lighter in hue than the rest, Beldar ran his fingers around its edges, widdershins. A stone door swung open reluctantly on silent hinges, letting him slip into a narrow, low-ceilinged passage beyond.
The stairs at its far end glowed faintly. Beldar drew the door closed and proceeded cautiously; the glow came from a spongy lichen that made the steps slippery. The last time he'd traversed them, it had been in a bone-bruising tumble that his older brother had found highly amusing-yet Beldar smiled in grim satisfaction, remembering how he'd wiped the smirk off his brother's face.
Or rather, the necromancer's prophecy had stolen that smile and put a swagger into Beldar's step that hadn't yet deserted him.
His first real battle had been an utter disaster. He was destined to be a leader of men, a hero who could rise from seeming death. That was the prediction his brother's coins had bought, yet to his utter mortification, he'd let some lout get a fish-gutting knife past his guard, then swooned at the sight of his own not-quite-blue-enough blood!
He'd atone for this. He would win his next battle, which was why he was here again. It would be a simple matter for the necromancer to seek out the man who'd cut him and the names of those who'd caused the fray in the first place. Thus armed, Beldar Roaringhorn would seek vengeance on them all.
The stairs ended in a small, dark stone hall. Its far wall was carved into the likeness of an enormous skull, a faint greenish glow emanating from the empty eyesockets.
Beldar strode forward to put the purse Taeros had given him on the ledge of the skull's nose.
"I seek names. Their fates have already been decided."
A moment of silence greeted his boast. Then a dry chuckle came from behind the skull-wall, and a voice he knew. A crone's voice. "Welcome, young Roaringhorn. Come in, and learn those you wish to slay."
The front four "teeth" swung inward, and Beldar ducked and climbed through that opening-and a tingling moment of warding magics and spells of darkness-into a surprisingly lavish room.
Fabulous tapestries softened its stone walls, and a warm red glow came from a marble hearth. A winged imp, the necromancer's familiar, was curled up before the brimstone-scented fire like a somnolent cat.
A shapeless pile of black rags rose haltingly from a deep-cushioned chair. Beldar went to one knee-not out of respect, but from memory of the pain the old woman had inflicted at his last visit, when as a lad he'd been too proud to bend a knee.
The old crone nodded approvingly and raised a wizened hand to remove the black mask concealing her face. Bright blue eyes gazed out of a maze of wrinkles. "So you've come to Dathran again."
He bit back a retort about stating the obvious, for the old woman's calling was more a title than a name. Dathrans were rogue witches cast out of Rashemen for doing evil or using magic in a way proscribed by her sisterhood-in her case, death magics of Thay.
Those dark spells and her second sight had earned "Dathran" a place in Waterdeep's underground. Like many nobles, Beldar had more of an acquaintance with the dark underbelly of city life than he would admit to in polite society.
"I want the man who did this," Beldar said, touching the wound on his forehead, "and those who started the battle in which I received it."
Dathran nodded again and hobbled to a shallow scrying-bowl. "Blood," she said, looking at him expectantly.
The Lord Roaringhorn swallowed a grimace and came over to the basin. The necromancer mumbled a brief incantation as she reached up to touch his forehead, her fingers as dry and brittle as bird's feet. They traced the wound, calling forth the memory of its making, and with it, a swift new flow of blood.
Beldar leaned over the basin, letting the dark drops fall into the water. Light promptly began to rise toward the surface, like a glowfish rising from the depths of a cave pool. The water roiled briefly, then smoothed, a vivid picture forming: a roadside smithy, the South Gate of Waterdeep rising close behind it, where a leather-aproned man was tapping a new shoe onto a carthorse hoof. The man's face was familiar, and the sign over his forge-wagon read "The Lucky Horseshoe."
All of Tymora's luck, Beldar thought grimly, would not be enough to keep him alive. "And the instigators?"
The necromancer bowed her head, spread her hands over the bowl, and rocked gently back and forth. Dreading what he might see, Beldar dropped his gaze to the bowl again.
In the scene now floating in those depths, an elderly man was lowering himself into a vast tub of steaming water, a tiled indoor pool that already held several other men. This was common enough in a city of public baths, but there was nothing common about the bathers.
Judging by their scales, clumps of fur, and odd limbs-talons, scales, claws and the like-most of them were mongrelmen.
A few of the bathers, including the old man, seemed different. They looked to be pureblood humans who'd been deliberately mutilated to acquire monstrous limbs and features.
The old man was quite possibly the strangest creature Beldar had ever seen. One of his eyes had been replaced with a glowing red orb. A pair of tentacles grew from his torso, which was armored with many-colored scales. A snake coiled around his forearm, seeming to grow directly out of his wrist.
There were other oddities, too, but Beldar's stunned mind could not make sense of them all, much less catalogue them.
He looked at the other bathers who'd probably been born human. Even the most normal-seeming, a youngish man with dust-colored hair, had an odd-colored glass orb where one of his eyes should have been.
A servant came into the room, bearing a tray. His words, not passed on by the scrying magic, seemed to displease the old man.
A thin bolt of crimson light flashed from his glowing eye. The servant staggered back, staring stupidly at a black-edged, smoking hole that had suddenly appeared in-or rather, through-his forearm. The other bathers glanced at the wounded man but made no comment, as if this was no unusual occurrence.
"Eye of the beholder," murmured the necromancer, awe adding richness to her papery voice. "Skin of the yuan-ti, poison of the adder…"
She went on at some length, but Beldar was no longer listening to anything but his own tumbling thoughts.
He'd sworn vengeance against a villain who, through some fell magic, had augmented himself with the powers of monsters. Beldar had heard of monster cults, and both sorcerers and clerics who worshiped strange gods, but he'd never heard of people becoming monsters, piece by living piece.
Such foes were beyond him, and Beldar Roaringhorn knew it.
His despair was short-lived, for another of the Dathran's prophecies came vividly to mind: His path to greatness would begin when he mingled with monsters.
Beldar had tried to forget those words since that night in the Luskan tavern, tried to consign them to the crypt of lost opportunities. Now they sang through his mind as he gripped the scrying bowl with white-knuckled hands, studying the fading image as if it was a missive from the gods.
Never once had he contemplated such a path, or seen this possibility in the old witch's words.
Mingling with monsters… yes.
As twilight stole across the city, the harbor horns rang out, telling all that the massive harbormouth chains were being raised. Lamplighters hastened along the streets to fill and trim lamps, and three Gemcloaks strode the streets of Sea Ward, cloaks of amber, blue and black glimmering behind them.
"You've inquired at all the houses of healing?" Starragar demanded. "All the temples?"
Korvaun nodded grimly. "Not even the Roaringhorns have seen Beldar since you two parted from him. He's not sought healing."
"Which probably means he can't. He's too vain to want a scar." Starragar sighed thoughtfully. "Have you checked the jails?"
Taeros snorted. "While you're listing rosy options, why not the corpse haulers?"
The youngest Lord Jardeth grimaced, as if chiding himself for this oversight. "Most likely he went seeking revenge; that's why I suggested the lockups, yet-"
"Such thoughts occurred to me, too," said Korvaun, "and I inquired. No, he wasn't arrested."
"Which brings us back to scouring taverns, clubs, and festhalls. For what remedy remains to him, but to get harbor-spewing drunk?"
Taeros sighed. Even the finest boots start to chafe when one pounds the cobbles all night.
Right ahead stood The Gelded Griffon, a new festhall popular with rising-coin dandies who had the wealth but not the cachet of the nobility. Ordinarily the Gemcloaks would never deign to step inside, which was precisely why Taeros had thought it should be their twenty-third place to search. They nodded to the doorkeeper, who was already bowing low, and swept inside.
Korvaun dropped a few coins into obviously delighted hands, received the news they'd all been hoping for, and the trio of Gemcloaks traded grins and headed for the indicated row of curtained booths along the back of the dimly lit hall.
A burly, stern-faced man in a Griffon-badge tunic was standing guard to ensure privacy, but when Korvaun dropped a dragon into his palm, the guard pointedly strolled away. Still watching him go with a cynical grin, Taeros gently parted the curtains of the first booth.
There sat Beldar… or what was left of him.
Bloodshot Roaringhorn eyes looked up. "Sit down," their owner ordered thickly, "before you fall down. You're weaving like saplings in a storm, all four of you."
The three sober Gemcloaks exchanged glances, and slid into the booth. "We've been looking everywhere for you," Taeros told him. "What in the Nine bloody Hells have you been doing?"
Beldar raised a tankard as large as his own head. "Seeking ovlib… libbynon…"
"Oblivion?" Starragar offered helpfully.
An emphatic, slightly wobbling Roaringhorn finger pointed at his dark-cloaked friend, as if celebrating a correct response. "And looking for the man who cut me," he added with sudden, grim clarity.
Korvaun leaned forward. "Beldar, I understand your desire to even scores, but please reconsider any hasty vengeance. This morning's trouble was no fault of ours, but if reprisals follow, the Magisters will blame us and won't be lenient in their judgments."
A sputtering snort was Beldar's only response.
Starragar rolled his eyes and refilled their friend's monstrous tankard from a tall, moisture cloaked metal ale jug. Beldar's third, judging by its two toppled companions.
"He can barely hold his eyes open," Starragar murmured, meeting Korvaun's incredulous stare. "Let him drink himself into slumber, and the night will pass without bloodshed."
After a moment, Korvaun nodded reluctantly.
The three sober Gemcloaks sat with their friend, quietly trading jests they'd heard many times before, until Beldar's sagging head dropped onto the seat-cushion Taeros had thoughtfully placed on the table. When the gentle snores began, they eased out of the booth and gave another coin to the guard with instructions that henceforth no one was to disturb the Lord Roaringhorn's privacy.
When his friends' quiet footfalls had faded, Beldar hauled himself more-or-less upright. His usual impulse was to scoffingly dismiss Korvaun's cautions, but those last words had set Beldar to thinking.
Dimly he clung to one phrase, as if it was a flaming sword in his hand on a dark night, a lone lifeline on a storm-drenched deck, a… the Hells with it! He must not forget it: hasty vengeance.
Korvaun was quite right. He, Beldar, had come to that same conclusion, right? Hadn't he spurned vengeance immediately at hand and resolved to undertake long years' work… to make real the possibilities glimpsed in the necromancer's scrying bowl?
The scrying bowl.
Memories flooded back and with them the grim path he'd seen, whereupon Beldar remembered why he'd come here to drink.
Much pain lay ahead of him: pain, and shunning from kin and the Watch and… mere shopkeepers and beggars in the street.
Yet why not walk that road, when he could gain so much?
He would never be The Roaringhorn, patriarch of the clan. If the street battle was anything to go by, he'd never even be much of a warrior. His friends no longer looked to him as their leader; their devoted gazes were shifting from him to Taeros or Korvaun. Soon he'd have nothing. Be nothing.
Unless he found a way to be stronger-and seize his destiny.
Beldar used the table to find balance enough to stagger out of the booth.
"Call me a coach," he growled, pressing yet another coin into the delighted booth-guard's hand. "I need to be at a certain bathhouse in Dock Ward. Now."
Mrelder studied the gleaming helm on the table. In his imagination, its empty eyes were watching Golskyn's pacing with faintly amused curiosity. He wished he could regard his father with the same shining detachment.
Suddenly Golskyn stopped. Mrelder tried not to shrink back as the priest leaned in close and snapped, "Again your sorcery fails us! It doesn't seem good for much-not that the mages I've known fare much better. I'd cast you aside as worthless, right now, if I hadn't made a grave error myself."
Mrelder knew just what casting aside meant. His life was balanced on the proverbial sword edge-and it was a very sharp sword. He hardly dared ask about this "grave error," but his father obviously expected him to. No matter, as long as the man who so grandly called himself Lord Unity didn't conclude his son would never be able to use the Gorget.
Mrelder thought he saw another way, a mere glimmer thus far… but there was no time to think now, not with his father glaring at him.
"Error, Father? We have the Gorget, with no Watch yet pounding on our door…"
"And that was my mistake," Golskyn said almost triumphantly. "Magical baubles can be traced and in the end are but tools, usable in only a few set ways. More reliable than weak and treacherous men, yes, but I know how to move men to my bidding. We should have grabbed Piergeiron, not this scrap of metal!"
"But Father, they'd have torn Dock Ward apart trying to find him!"
"Torn Dock Ward apart! Exactly! With a few Walking Statues, perhaps? Hah! Why control this or that stone man when you can control the one who commands them and the entire CITY?"
Golskyn's shout echoed around the room, and Mrelder winced.
"We could barely drag him; we'd never have got him in here without fighting off a dozen Watchmen! He's out of our reach, now, carried away-"
"Aye, carried off dead. Or possibly dead. More than possibly, if you send the right spell after him, and Waterdeep thinks him dead already! With sufficient strife in the streets, and if our magic from afar can keep him drooling or maimed long enough, no matter what healings are cast, the other Lords will be forced to choose and present his successor."
Golskyn drew lips back from teeth in an unlovely smile. "Such a man, chosen in haste, is hardly likely to be one so strong in faith. He's far more likely to be everyone's 'second choice,' in other words, a ready tool."
This was a very long chain of hopes and suppositions, but Mrelder knew better than to say so. When his father was like this, 'twas best "You," Golskyn hissed, leaning in again until his nose was almost touching Mrelder's, "will find this man for me. You can redeem yourself by identifying him and delivering him into my power. Bring me the next Open Lord of Waterdeep!"
Mrelder felt Piergeiron's helm being slapped into his hands. He'd not even noticed Golskyn snatching it up.
He stared into the fiery eye so close to his, swallowed, and managed to say, "I'll set to work. Right now."
Whirling around, he almost fled from the room.
He had just time to put a soft, cruel smile on his face before he flung open the door-and met the inevitable measuring gazes of several Amalgamation believers who'd been listening. By the misshapen gods! Why didn't Golskyn graft dogs' ears onto the lot of them? At least then they could eavesdrop at a distance!
Hurrying down the stairs, Mrelder made for the rear door. The back alley was far less likely to be full of bodies and Watch officers looking for handy persons to blame for them. He hefted Piergeiron's helm, and shook his head.
His father was getting worse.
All his life he'd been awed by Golskyn's shrewd eye for truths and seeing how things really worked, and how the priest could move men to his bidding. Even if there'd been no gods his father could call on and no Amalgamation, Golskyn could go far and rise high on wits and judgment alone. No, strike that: on his ruthlessness, too. But somewhere along the line, the priest's single-mindedness had become obsession.
Finally Mrelder faced a truth he had long known: He was never going to win Golskyn's respect. And strangely enough, he no longer craved it. A small part of Mrelder still ached for his father's approval, but he was ready to move on.
There were things to be learned from Golskyn. The deft cleaving between and through foes. The knowing what was going on behind the masks, the sneering at laws and conventions that bound others… that was the way to power and achievement.
It would be his way, and this grasping, brawling, coin-rich city of Waterdeep would be his home, this city he was coming to know so well. Before he was done, Mrelder would end up covertly controlling Lords and laws from the shadows.
But his father had stepped over the parapets of prudence long ago and just now clearly flung himself off the battlements of sanity. There'd be nothing safe and subtle about Golskyn of the Gods from now on. Mrelder had mastered enough Waterdhavian history to know that men who were boldly ambitious but neither safe nor subtle seldom lasted long.
And Mrelder intended to last a long time indeed.
Ordinarily, Korvaun Helmfast would have been hugely enjoying himself. After all, 'twas no accident all the assistants in The Right Foot were stunningly beautiful, dressed in elegantly revealing garb, and obviously enjoyed flirting.
What strange madness had prompted him to enter this place? Malark was dead, Beldar off drinking himself blind, and his own sword still warm with the blood of the men who'd died on it. He had set himself to discovering why buildings were collapsing. But it was one thing to fervently promise action, and quite another to think of some way to successfully start going about it! The buildings were rubble now, and it wasn't as if their stones were going to talk… or was it? Could the right spell…
Tasleena pouted at his frown and ran teasing hands up his thigh. "My Lord Helmfast," she breathed, "do I displease you that much? Should you… punish me, perhaps?"
The fop next to Korvaun, a wealthy merchant who could only dream of nobility, given that his wreck of a face and grasping ways would bar him from ever successfully wooing any noble lass Korvaun could think of, grinned at Tasleena's sally.
So did the amply bosomed young lass who knelt at the man's feet, assisting him into mauve, lace-trimmed thigh boots that would've looked overdone on a lady dancer.
The Right Foot deliberately employed beautiful female assistants to entice male purchasers to pay inflated prices for showy footwear. Moreover, Korvaun liked Tasleena. She was fun, liked jests, and in days past had enjoyed a little skindance now and then without expecting marriage or wanting to cling. The boots she was proffering now were splendid supple black thigh-high affairs, too. It was just that…
All of this could be smashed if Waterdeep went the wrong way, and he'd never forgive himself if he did nothing about it.
Korvaun managed to smile down at Tasleena-she winked, of course-and then was further distracted when the foppish merchant lost his balance and hopped awkwardly, almost putting one mauve spike-heel into the magnificent cleavage, glowing with moonstone dust, on display below him.
Ondeema-that was her name-captured his foot expertly and leaned forward, moondust and all, to force the man back against the leaning-bar and restore his balance, murmuring, "They are a trifle high, aren't they? Perhaps something more… substantial. To match you, milord…"
The merchant agreed breathlessly. Watching the man's hungrily bulging eyes, as he stared down his leg to where Ondeema was pressed against him, Korvaun judged that he'd agree to just about anything, right now. Tasleena's sly smile told all Waterdeep she thought so too.
Ondeema suddenly stiffened, frowned, and then nodded as if in answer to something unheard. Letting fall the man's foot abruptly, she rose in a whirl of high-slit skirts and leaned over as if to kiss Korvaun's ear.
A moment later, Lord Helmfast was stunned to hear her softly murmur a lone word to him: "Stormbird."
He stared at her for a moment, gaping like a fish-and then stepped right out of the fashionable footwear Tasleena was sliding up his leg, yanked on his own boot, and strode out of the shop.
Those left behind in The Right Foot saw him grab protective hold of his stylish sword and break into a run the moment he'd cleared the shop door.
Tasleena and the merchant stared after the departed Lord Helmfast in utter astonishment. When he'd vanished, they had no one left to stare at except Ondeema, who merely gave them a serene smile and silence.
"Wha-what did you say to him?" the merchant demanded at last.
"I merely reminded him of what my four brothers said would happen next time he followed me home from the shop, milord," Ondeema replied sweetly, fixing the fop with large and twinkling eyes. "Now, where were we?"
Find and control Piergeiron's successor. An order delivered as offhandedly as one might say, "Bring me a plate of herring and eggs."
Mrelder shook his head in disbelief. As if Waterdeep lacked a Khelben Arunsun, or a Laeral, or an entire gods-cursed Watchful Order, to say nothing of priests high and mighty who'd be able to detect a magically controlled Open Lord or a spell-disguised impostor in his place. They'd know, all right.
Hefting Piergeiron's war-helm, Mrelder halted in mid-stride. They would know, yes, but if he crafted a light sorcery of false half-memories of masked Lords meeting and Palace passages by night in the mind of the nearest carter or dungsweeper and presented the result to his father as the next Open Lord, how would a certain overconfident Golskyn know?
He resumed his swift walk to the Palace. The sooner this helm was out of his hands and the risk of being traced through it gone, save as the maker of its little copper badge-something Piergeiron's pet wizard knew already-the better.
The Palace guards knew Mrelder by sight this time and recognized the helm too. He thrust it at them. "Here. I trust my good friend the Lord Piergeiron is well enough to be needing this? I managed to keep him alive after he was struck down in the fighting, but departed when the Watch ordered me to; 'twould seem they left this behind when they carried him away. He took a fearsome blow; how fares he?"
The guards traded glances and drew back in frowning uncertainty, one clutching the helm. Behind them, a tall, unfamiliar woman in the full gleaming armor of the City Guard hastened down the Palace steps.
"We thank you for this," she told Mrelder crisply. "The Lord Piergeiron's well but in private conference." Her nod was both thanks and dismissal.
Mrelder nodded back, very slowly, and was rewarded for his tarrying by what happened next.
One of the many doors at the head of the stairs opened, and two Guard commanders hastened out, helms under their arms, with a trio of grim, grandly garbed Palace officials behind them.
"Get word to him right away," one official was ordering the Guard officers. "Mirt's Mansion."
The tall Guard commander watched Mrelder turn away, her face thoughtful. Then she hurried back up the steps, yanked open another door, and snapped, "See that man?"
She pointed at Mrelder's back, dwindling into the usual crowds of people striding importantly to and fro across the great open cobbled expanse in front of the Palace. "I want him followed. See where he goes and what he gets up to. Don't let him spot you, and report back soon. Two of you, so one can return and the other keep watch."
The door opened wider and two men strode out. They looked like dusty, none-too-well-paid merchants' carters, or veteran dock-hands, and carried a large, heavy crate between them.
Or at least they walked as if it was heavy. In truth, it held only cloaks and hats they could use as disguises, but they saw no need to let all watching Waterdeep know that.
Did Mirt's lady always wear dark, skintight leathers? Roldo Thongolir was swallowing and staring openly, and Korvaun knew just how his friend felt. Asper drew the eye with every lithe movement, that mare's-tail of ash-blonde hair dancing behind her, and a slender sword bouncing at her hip. When she was in the room, it was difficult to look elsewhere…
Knowing eyes met his, and Lord Korvaun Helmfast felt himself blushing.
"Lords," Asper said firmly, "stare all you want, and help yourselves to yon decanters, but pay attention. Waterdeep has need of you."
Korvaun and Roldo found themselves nodding and mumbling in hasty unison. They traded glances, and with one accord, reached for decanters.
Asper grinned, rolled her eyes, and waited for glass stoppers to rattle back into place. Nobles. They seemed to need oiling even more often than dockworkers…
When they were both staring at her again, Asper handed a small silver device to Roldo.
"Don't lose or drop those, or all our strivings are wasted."
The two nobles looked down at their slipshields. The device Mirt had given Korvaun was a tiny shield of dull metal, but Roldo's was a fanciful pendant of a hawk soaring across a large and intricate snowflake.
"Winterhawk," Roldo murmured, recalling a tale he'd read in an old and rare book his bride had acquired in Silverymoon. For resale, of course.
Asper nodded. "An old tale, not often told," she said quietly, eyeing Roldo with something that might have been respect in her eyes.
Then she went on as briskly as before, "Now at the Gentle, you'll follow Laneetha-dark purple robe, eyes gray as a harbor mist-to her curtained chamber, where you can make the switch unseen. She'll identify herself. I'm telling you this in case anything happens to me in the tunnel. Come."
"Tunnel?" Roldo asked, face tightening.
"It'll get us behind Laneetha's curtain rather more quickly than the carriage could take us there, through underways neither of you will ever remember and have never seen nor heard of-and if you don't follow my instructions precisely as we proceed, will never be able to forget."
Roldo frowned. "Is that a threat?"
The smile fell from Asper's face so suddenly that Roldo half expected to hear it shatter on the floor. "No, it's a promise, on the part of the traps awaiting there. They're very good at keeping promises, believe me. Now, Lords, answer me this: do you swear to serve Waterdeep in utter secrecy, upon pain of death?"
"Lady," Roldo told her a little stiffly, "we are nobles."
"That's why I'm asking," she said quietly, as their eyes locked.
After a long moment, Roldo sighed and shrugged. "I swear. Of course." Korvaun echoed him, without the shrug.
"Good. Thank you." Turning to the nearest wall, Asper thrust aside a curtain.
Both Roldo and Korvaun knew the battered figure standing in the dimly lit room beyond leaning on a crutch-wherefore they both swallowed hard and rose to their feet in hasty unison.
This earned them a smile and the dry words, uttered in a strangely slow and thickened voice: "Well met, loyal lords."
Mrelder had never before seen so many people just lounging around an alley in bustling Dock Ward. Laborers were casually draped over barrels, fishmongers tallied catch-crates with chalk on a handy wall instead of inside whatever warehouse held those catches, and three burly men were fixing the axle-pins of a wagon even a sorcerer could see wasn't really broken.
Even if he stood boldly in the center of the cobbles like a man awaiting a duel, there wasn't much space left. Wherefore Mrelder went into a handy net mender's shop, pointed up its stairs, and offered the toothless old man behind the counter two gold dragons for "the use of yon upper window."
The old man grinned. "Three dragons. Chair's extra."
Mrelder rolled his eyes, dropped a third coin into the man's palm, and ascended. He was only half-surprised to discover a dusky-skinned, scowling titan of a sailor and a pale, thin girl who seemed to be clad entirely in scabbarded daggers there already, seated in chairs at the lone open window. It seemed there was a deep daily local interest in the comings and goings at Mirt's Mansion.
Either that or half the city already knew Lord Piergeiron was inside the stylish fortress. Mrelder settled himself in the last chair-a crack-seated, wobbly wreck, of course-just in time to see a very drunken young man in splendid but disheveled garb carried down the mansion steps by Mirt's doorguards and loaded into the moneylender's carriage. The glittering blue cloak marked the drunk as one of those who'd sworded sailors in a recent brawl.
"Lord Korvaun Helmfast," the dagger-lass chuckled. "My, he must drink fast?"
The sailor's dirty laugh broke off in a grunt as the guards went inside and a sudden singing shimmering sprang from rune-pillar to rune-pillar. "They've set the night-wards," he growled in surprise. "That's it, then. No one'll be leaving 'til morn."
The girl spat thoughtfully out the window as Mirt's carriage rumbled past, and Mrelder sat frowning and thinking.
Then he sprang to his feet and hurried down and out, following the carriage. About half the watchers who'd been loitering in Tarnished Silver Alley had suddenly found good cause to be elsewhere; Mrelder saw only two others oh-so-casually strolling from shop to shop along the route he was taking.
"This window's the best," a hoarse voice came down to him, as he passed under the open windows above one ramshackle shop, "and a good arrow's a small price to pay for a new Open Lord who's not quite so firm and upstanding, if ye take my meaning."
Mrelder hurried on. Best to pretend he'd heard nothing and keep in close under awnings and downspouts, where no arrow might find him. Of course there'd be folk in Dock Ward who'd want Piergeiron dead and welcome all the accompanying tumult. Why He stopped. Ahead, Mirt's carriage had halted outside a large, new-looking building. Mrelder vaguely recalled that an old rooming-house, its roof sagging into collapse, had stood there as sahuagin had raged down the streets. Newly rebuilt, it now sported steps up to elegant double doors flanked by formidable-looking doorguards, beneath a truly splendid signboard.
"The Gentle Moment," he read, then deciphered the more fanciful script below: "Skilled hands to tend all your hurts and needs."
The horses, their heads tossing, were already unhitched and being led around to the near end of Mirt's carriage, to draw it right back down the street to the moneylender's stables.
Mrelder frowned. His purse was now slender enough to make the prospect of following some drunken noble blade-whose connection to the Lords of Waterdeep was probably nonexistent-into a brand-new and surely overpriced house of healing and pleasure rather less than appealing.
A woman who wore little more than a collar adorned with long strips of glittering cut-glass "gems" suddenly burst out of the doors, planted herself on the steps in a pose that showed Mrelder and everyone else on the street all the charms the gods had given her, and blew a horn.
A Watch horn.
Before Mrelder's jaw could even drop, she'd vanished back up the steps in a flashing of false gems and a bouncing of trim flesh, and voices could be heard shouting inside the Gentle Moment-angry male voices.
A brawl must be brewing. Mrelder strolled away from the house of healing to somewhere he could lean casually against on the far side of the street. Mirt's carriage rumbled away, and from the east came the hasty jingling of scabbard-chains and the bobbing of torches.
The doorguards stood motionless, staring coldly at Mrelder and several other curious Dock Warders who'd heard the horn and come to see the trouble-or being as this was Dock Ward-the fun.
They stared back and forth, the guards on the steps and Mrelder and the others across the street, both casually ignoring the Watch patrol who rushed up the steps into the Gentle Moment, then sent out two Watchmen to blow another horn-call.
The Watch wagon that responded to that summons was rather less elegant than Mirt's carriage and sported enough window-bars and firequench-glowing metal plates to seem part of a fortress rather than a conveyance.
The doors of the Gentle Moment opened again and another unconscious young noble-this one wearing a gem-bright cloak of a soft rose hue-was carried out, unconscious, and stuffed through a hastily slammed hatch into the armored wagon.
"Where's he off to, I wonder?" Mrelder murmured aloud.
An old salt standing near threw him a sharp look, spat on the cobbles while deciding to humor a visiting outlander, and growled, "Palace dungeons, o' course. Watch wagons go nowhere else-unless they're carrying deaders to be burned at the Castle."
"Ah," Mrelder said, nodding his thanks. Then he froze, staring. Lord Korvaun Helmfast, smiling and nodding to the Watch officers in a manner that could only be described as stone cold sober, was descending the steps of the Gentle Moment, and thanking one of them for letting him "borrow" some men to see him "safely closer to home."
Mrelder frowned. An instant sobriety spell? Well, that just might account for the amount of revelry the nobles of Waterdeep were famous for, and where better to acquire one than a house of healing?
Or was it all part of something more sinister?
Roldo Thongolir batted aside a veil of cobwebs and wondered why the tunnel didn't seem quite so terrifying on this return trip.
The underground walk from Mirt's Mansion to the Gentle Moment had been a nightmare. The traps Asper had warned about were plentiful and dangerously imaginative, but far worse were the close walls, low ceiling, and suffocating knowledge that crushing tons of rock and soil loomed just overhead.
On this trip the ceiling was even lower, thanks to his borrowed form, but somehow it bothered him less that his hair frequently swept the ceiling-stones. Perchance something of Lord Piergeiron's famed courage came with the tall, broad, hard-muscled frame.
It was strangely exhilarating, striding about in the shape of Waterdeep's greatest living hero. Roldo was still not entirely certain why he, Korvaun, and Piergeiron had just traded shapes. Answers would surely be his soon; wasn't that glow ahead the end of the tunnel? And wasn't his lovely guide turning to him, stepping so close that she could Kiss him, full on the mouth.
She had to stand on tiptoe to do it, thanks to his new height. Only the grace of Lathander-and perhaps Piergeiron's armor-kept Roldo from staggering back in stunned surprise. 'Twasn't every day fair ladies expressed their thanks so delightfully to him. His own new Lady Thongolir, alas, was… reticent in such matters.
"Now, can you feel this?" Asper asked softly.
"This" was a small, cold, and very sharp blade held at Roldo's throat. He started to nod, swiftly thought better, and murmured, "Y-yes."
Asper stepped back. "Good. 'Twill set to work on you-very slowly-if you ever reveal what you've done and seen this night, until I give you permission to speak of such things."
"Lady," Roldo replied stiffly, "there's no need for your blade. My honor binds my tongue. This I swear!"
Asper stepped back, eyes steady on his. "Then please accept my apologies," she said softly, "and come and take wine. You'll have to stay in Piergeiron's shape until we hear the signal."
Roldo frowned. They were back in Mirt's Mansion, and he was thoroughly confused by what he'd just taken part in. "Certainly and gladly, Lady, if you'll please explain what we just did."
Asper nodded and led him up a curving stair to a room with a high northeast window, where lamps glimmered and warm covered platters waited. Waving at him to help himself, she said, "The Lord Piergeiron's badly wounded. Due to his age and the longevity magics that sustain him, he isn't… healing well. Half the city knows it, including many who see gain in slaying the Open Lord."
"So Sunderstone and Piergeiron's pet wizard want him somewhere secure. The Castle."
Asper smiled. "You grasp the basics. Problem: Piergeiron can't be teleported safely through the Castle or Palace wards because he can't speak the trigger words properly just now."
Roldo nodded. "His mouth was hurt. Swollen."
"Yes. Moreover, his wounds make it unlikely he'd avoid the tunnel's traps. Korvaun swore an oath to serve Waterdeep, so we called on him. A slipshield let him trade his likeness with the Lord. As drunken Korvaun Helmfast, Piergeiron could be taken to the Gentle in our carriage."
"While you took us through the tunnel, and when was that dug?"
"Centuries ago. It's why my Mirt had the Gentle Moment built."
"So you gave me this slipshield so Korvaun could take his own form and be seen leaving, and Lord Piergeiron could be taken away in yet another man's likeness. That whole brawl was staged, wasn't it?"
Asper grinned. "We can't hope to fool true brawlers such as yourselves."
Roldo reddened. "Lady, do you hate nobles so much?"
"No, Lord Thongolir. My tongue makes sport of everyone. Please forgive me."
Roldo swallowed. Women didn't stir him much, but when Asper looked at him like that… "So in my shape and feigning drunk, Lord Piergeiron was arrested."
Asper nodded. "And conveyed safely to the Castle in a prison-wagon."
"All this just to fool watching eyes?"
She nodded again. "I saw scores of them, just glancing out the windows here."
Roldo caught sight of himself, still in the Open Lord's form, in the light-reflecting window. He grimaced at the unseemly disarray and peeled another cobweb from his hair. It was uncanny, seeing Piergeiron's hands obeying his thoughts!
"We'll arrange for the payment of your fine. I apologize for any blot this might leave on your good name."
"A night in the Castle for drunken brawling in a house of healing and pleasure? That can only enhance my reputation," Roldo said dryly.
"With your noble friends, but there remains your wife. I can explain matters to her, if you will-not everything, but enough to ease her mind."
Roldo managed a smile. "Your offer's both kind and appreciated, but I suspect the sight of you would more unsettle my lady wife than thoughts of an entire festhall of hired beauties."
"Gallantly said, milord! If you didn't resemble Piergeiron so closely, I'd suspect you of flirtation!"
They shared a chuckle as a high horn-call rang out, echoing off Mount Waterdeep in a triumphant ascending flourish.
Asper smiled. "He's safe inside," she announced, drawing him away from the windows into another room, where she reached for the hawk-and-snowflake pendant resting on the breastplate of Piergeiron's armor.
As she lifted the charm, a strange tingling swept through Roldo, and the armor felt suddenly heavy and cumbersome. Looking down, he saw that his hands were his own once more.
Asper helped him out of the too-large armor, and handed the slipshield back. "A small reward. In case you ever need it."
Roldo regarded the device with unease. Magic was something he preferred to regard from a distance… and there was something deeper and disturbing about the slipshield, something personal. To one who hides from the world behind a mask, this little thing was ultimate power… and temptation.
"I'll not deny the worth of this gift or the honor you do me in giving it," he said slowly, "but I'm not the man to carry it. Pretending to be someone you're not is a great burden."
Mirt's lady eyed him shrewdly. "One you know something about."
He raised his eyes to hers. "I've never pretended to be other than I am. But I have responsibilities, obligations…"
"And the slipshield might tempt you from those?"
"Lady, you may think me a coward, but that's something I'd rather not learn about myself."
Asper kissed his cheek. "Courage comes in many forms, as do those who possess it. You came without question when your friend called."
"Korvaun's a good man. If he says a thing must be done, I trust his reasons."
"You're right to trust him." Her hand closed his fingers around the slipshield. "Then find another you judge able to bear this little burden. Dawn breaks; we'll see you safely home."
Roldo lifted her fingers to his lips. "I'll strive to be worthy of your trust."
He bowed, strode back to the room of windows, and then turned with a frown. "'We'?"
Asper smiled and drew aside another curtain, and Roldo found himself staring at three scarred, monstrously large sharpswords whose very looks made him shudder. Two of them tried to smile, and that made it even worse.
"Some of Mirt's friends," Asper said sweetly. "They'll see you safely out of Dock Ward-to whatever front gates you'd like."
Gods, if this dangerously capable woman ever crossed wills with his Sarintha… Roldo stowed the slipshield carefully in his pouch. Taeros would wear it well. Moreover, it would settle his gambling debt to the Hawkwinter, avoiding Sarintha's wrath at coins wasted. And what is life but deftly dealing with little debts and unpleasantnesses?
Giving Asper the deepest, most courtly bow he could manage, he turned, nodded to the sharpswords, and strode away with them.
Mirt's lady watched him go thoughtfully, and suspected the burden young Lord Thongolir had taken upon himself was far greater than the one he'd declined.
As sages said, courage and honor took many forms.
A high horn-call rang out from the magnificent turrets and spires of Piergeiron's Palace. Lark listened as the short, ascending melody echoed off Mount Waterdeep once, twice… and thrice.
Folk in Waterdeep thought nothing of those echoes, but people familiar with mountains found it strange that echoes could bounce from a single small peak. She'd said as much on the long-ago day when she'd ridden into the city with Texter. The paladin had told her magic aided the echoes to amplify signal horn-calls.
Lark quickened her pace, striding briskly through the familiar bustle of Trades Ward. Arriving early for her shift, and working hard before her expected time, would win approval.
The carvers at the Maelstrom's Notch were deft at butter-seared seafood, and their superb table was making the inn very popular. Extra hands were needed to serve the later evening meals, after most lodgers had eaten and set off in search of fiery drink and festhalls, and a weary army of hungry guildsmen arrived to dine after a long day's work.
She was fortunate to have found a place; ill repute had a habit of clinging to a girl like a damp cloak, and her rare moment of temper had cost Lark her last position and several days' wages: the cost of the tray she'd dented over Beldar Roaringhorn's hard head.
Bah. Swaggering Lord Redcloak was worth not another thought. Those horncalls, now… everyone knew they were messages for those who knew how to read them. Who sent those notes soaring out into the evening, and to whom? Had she just heard gladsome tidings or a warning?
Once it would never have occurred to her to wonder. She cared little about what great folk did or whose backside warmed which throne. What mattered was honest work and the quiet, respectable life it could earn. Master Dyre's fair wage, bolstered by the coins this serving work brought, would in time buy a small shop with a few rooms above it she could call her own. To be her own mistress… her one desire. Her dream.
That dream burned as bright as ever, but Texter, the man who'd put her on a path toward it, had also opened her eyes to other things. In this city, those who listened could hear secrets in tavern tunes, vendors' calls, even twilight hornsong. Lark absently hummed the horncall as she walked.
"Larksong in the evening," murmured a melodious voice, so close to her ear that she could feel warm breath. "To whom are you preparing to sing, my little brown bird?"
Lark whirled, as startled as if her own shadow had tapped her shoulder and asked her the time of day.
Elaith Craulnober gave her a faintly amused smile and glided forward a step to reclaim the distance she'd hastily put between them. "If I wasn't aware of your sterling character, I'd suspect you of being troubled by a guilty conscience." His voice was gently mocking.
Lark swallowed. "You-startled me."
"You did seem rather lost in thought. Care to unburden yourself to a sympathetic listener?"
She gave him a glare. "Why? Know you of one?"
Silver brows rose. "The kitten has claws. How very… tiresome."
The Serpent's dark reputation tempered Lark's next words. "A lord as important as yourself has many demands on his time," she murmured, careful not to sound mocking. "Pray tell me how I can serve you."
Craulnober nodded at the nearest shop: Andemar the Apothecary, who greeted passing Waterdeep with a fancifully carved arch-topped door flanked by large windows set with many small, diamond-shaped panes.
Lark opened that door and stepped into a pleasant-smelling room crowded with gleaming vials and fragrant hanging bunches of drying herbs. Andemar's welcoming smile froze as he recognized Lark's companion.
Elaith waved a dismissal, and the shopkeeper's head bobbed in frantic assent as he scuttled into his back room, closing its door firmly behind him.
The elf swiveled open the domed top of a silver stud on a dagger-sheath that adorned his inner left wrist. In the revealed hollow was a tiny blue bead, which he tipped into his palm. He passed his other hand over it, fingers flashing in a swift, complex pattern.
The bead promptly expanded into a soft blue haze that drifted smoothly around them both, surrounding them like mist glowing about a lantern.
"Speak freely; none can now hear. The message you delivered was extremely interesting. I desire to know everything you can tell me about the activities of the New Day."
"Activities?" Lark sniffed. "Precious little, thus far. Just grand scheming and bluster."
"The battle in Dock Ward was mere 'bluster?' Dyre's men started it."
Lark's eyes widened. "I–I know nothing of that."
"No? Three young women were seen there, one of them a little brown bird with a green ribbon on her arm."
Lark frowned. "Yes, I was there, but by happenstance! I was with my mistresses, who had cause to pass one of their father's worksites."
Elaith's eyes were bright with disbelief, and he seemed somehow to glide nearer without actually moving at all.
"Wait," Lark blurted, cold fear rising. "I–I think I see how the brawl began! Some of Master Dyre's trustyhands frequent a quaff house just where the fighting broke out, and they hold a grudge against several young lords."
"Helmfast, Hawkwinter, Jardeth, and Roaringhorn," Elaith murmured. "What inspired that particular flock of peacocks to strut through oh-so-common Dock Ward?"
"They'd a debt to settle with my Master Dyre, and they seem taken with his daughters. Both are young and pretty."
"So this settling of grievances befell when blind chance met young love?"
"I believe so, though 'love' is putting it a bit high. Lord Helmfast's skirt-sniffing around Mistress Naoni, much luck may he enjoy."
"And it just so happened that Lord Piergeiron chose that moment, of all the unfolding season, to wander along that particular street of Dock Ward?"
Lark drew a long, shuddering breath. "I know nothing of the Open Lord's doings, beyond brisk tavern-talk of his death-and that's nothing new."
"He was wounded, and carried to Mirt's Mansion. No more is known."
"Not even by the Lords?"
Elaith smiled thinly. "The Masked Lords must, of necessity, keep many secrets."
True that might be, but Lark's interest lay in matters closer to home. "From what I've seen and heard, I can't believe Master Dyre had any part in what befell Lord Piergeiron. He only desires the Lords to renounce secrecy and be accountable to all."
"Varandros Dyre is not so lacking in initiative as you claim, but on this particular matter I'm inclined to agree. These young noblemen, however, warrant closer scrutiny."
Lark was too astonished to quell her burst of scornful laughter.
"Scoff less quickly," Elaith murmured, sniffing some herbs approvingly. "The skill exhibited by the most foolish of our nobles when it comes to keeping secrets would astonish you."
"A remarkable young man," Mrelder said, concluding his recital of Korvaun Helmfast's virtues-all of them boldly invented for this occasion.
Mrelder had arbitrarily chosen the youngest Lord Helmfast as Lord Piergeiron's successor. With so little time to accomplish his impossible task, he'd been forced to consider the most familiar candidates. A few discreet questions had won him the names of the young noblemen in this morning's brawl, and he'd spent the afternoon finding and observing three of the four. Lord Helmfast's visit to Mirt's Mansion had sealed the matter.
He'd never be able to persuade his father that the scribbler Taeros Hawkwinter could be anybody's choice for the next Open Lord, and Starragar Jardeth was the sort of blustering, haughty, hot-headed noble the minstrels lampooned. The Helmfast lordling's golden good looks, his skill with a blade-Mrelder recalled the swirl of glittering blue as Korvaun cut his way through the fray, and his calm, considered speech: these echoed qualities of the Lord Piergeiron. When Mrelder was done with the Helmfast heir, he'd wield some of Piergeiron's powers, too-enough, hopefully, to convince Golskyn.
Thus far, his father seemed far from convinced. "So this paragon of virtue-whom I've not failed to notice you've yet to name-was seen coming from a moneylender? Is being short of coin, in your eyes, a mark of lordliness?"
"This Mirt wields much power in Waterdeep," Mrelder insisted. "Recall the fat bearded man the Watchmen were carrying with such haste they nearly ran us down? That was Mirt. When talk turns to the hidden Lords, Mirt's name is always spoken: everyone in the city 'knows' he's a Lord. Why else would Lord Piergeiron be carried to his mansion?"
"Mansion?" Golskyn's manner brightened. "He's wealthy, this Mirt?"
Mrelder knew well his father's preoccupation with wealth. The priest had amassed a fortune, and considered accumulated wealth one mark of a leader.
"Mirt's Mansion is a city landmark. They say he captained a mercenary company in his youth, and some insist he owned a pirate fleet! His pillaging obviously proved highly profitable."
His father nodded approvingly. A good part of Golskyn's fortune had been acquired the same way.
"So your young noble was summoned to Mirt's Mansion shortly after the wounded First Lord was taken there… yes, things may well stand as you say. Fighting prowess, his fellow lordlings look to him… and he has money."
Heavy footfalls echoed down the hall, approaching in cadence. Golskyn frowned at the open door.
"He wears a cloak woven from gemstones magically spun into thread," Mrelder added hastily, concerned he might lose his father's attention.
Golskyn turned to his son, grunting, "As to that, he'd be better off putting his coins to less vain uses. A wise man, in a city such as this, would put his coins into investments."
"That, good sir, is my intention," announced a cultured male voice.
The priest turned slowly back to face the doorway, every inch a holy patriarch.
In the doorway stood two mongrelmen, flanking a richly dressed young man. One made a swift gesture that made Golskyn's eyes widen.
"Gemweave cloak," the priest murmured. "Tall, fit, handsome, well-spoken-yes, he's much as you said, and he desires to join the Amalgamation! You failed to mention he'd been wounded in the fray outside our doors, but then, so was Lord Piergeiron, who's said to be a peerless fighter. You've done well, my son. Very well indeed."
Mrelder shut his gaping jaw with an audible click.
Later, he'd worry about how this young noble had so swiftly discovered what and where the Amalgamation was. Yes, he'd worry very much indeed, but just now…
"Lord Unity," he said grandly, "may I present Beldar Roaringhorn, a Lord of Waterdeep."
Lord Roaringhorn inclined his head to Golskyn in a small but adequately respectful bow. "I'm honored to meet so great a necromancer."
"I'm only a sorcerer, and a minor one at that," Mrelder said hastily, seeing his father's face turn stormy. Nothing angered Golskyn of the Gods more than being mistaken for a wizard of any sort. "Yet I'm often mistaken for a necromancer because folk misunderstand the natures of those with whom I associate. My father, Lord Unity of the Amalgamation Temple, is a great and holy man, a priest who speaks for gods whose names cannot be shaped by human tongues. The mongrelmen and those granted monstrous enhancements through the grace of these gods revere and follow Lord Unity."
Beldar Roaringhorn bowed again. "An honor. I hope you'll not think me irreverent when I say I'm willing to pay a small fortune to receive a graft similar to the one beneath Lord Unity's eyepatch."
Golskyn greeted these words with a dry, grating chuckle that might have held derision, admiration, genuine humor, or all three.
"Incorporating any graft is difficult," Mrelder warned, "and if your first graft is a beholder's eye, you'll have little chance of surviving."
Golskyn raised a hand. "Let us not judge hastily. The request is not unreasonable. A great lord's heir should prove himself strong."
"Then let me prove myself indeed," Beldar replied, saying nothing of his distance from ever becoming the Lord Roaringhorn. "Am I correct in assuming a graft must come from a living creature?"
"You are," said Golskyn, acquiring a small and approving smile.
"I'll bring you a living beholder. Let it be both proof and payment."
Beldar Roaringhorn bowed again, more deeply, and then turned and strode from the room.
"Capturing a beholder alive's no easy thing," Golskyn murmured, staring at the empty-of-noble doorway. "If he succeeds, we'll know Lord Piergeiron chose well."
"And if he fails," Mrelder added hastily, "I know who the second successor is!"
It would seem Korvaun Helmfast was destined for greatness after all!
"Lord Roaringhorn!" Old Dandalus was as jovial as ever. "It's been some time, aye? Be welcome!"
Beldar gave the shopkeeper a wry smile. All noble lads flirted with disgusting monstrous trophies-taloned this and tentacled that-at a certain age, if only to make young noble lasses shriek at revels, wherefore Beldar Roaringhorn had been to the Old Xoblob Shop many times before. At every visit Dandalus greeted him with the same words, even if his previous visit had been but a tenday earlier.
Dandalus 'Fire-Eye' Ruell was bearded, balding, big-nosed, and bigger-bellied. He looked no different than he had the first time Beldar had wandered into this shop as a boy, eyes shining with the wonder of the Dathran's vision.
Beldar's gaze wandered around the shop, which was both familiar and ever-changing. The shelves were crammed with greenish jars of pickled, staring eyes and less identifiable remains, and hung with a scaly forest of tentacles and serpentine bodies spell-treated to keep them supple. All around Beldar were thousands upon thousands of strange "monster bits." Twenty men could be hiding in all this carrion-tangle and him none the wiser.
No. Dandalus had his smallest finger raised in the signal that meant "We are alone." Beldar glanced quickly up at the shop's infamous beholder, looming over him like a watchful shadow, and then looked away, managing not to shudder.
"Thanks for your good cheer, Dandalus," he said, choosing his words carefully, "and your discretion."
The proprietor of the Old Xoblob Shop leaned forward over his glass countertop, ignoring the tray of jutting fangs just beneath it, and murmured, "In that, Lord Beldar, you can trust absolutely. I hold my tongue, and not even the Blackstaff himself can pry secrets from me. As for why he can't, well, that's one of the very secrets I guard. There's no profit in this line of business if I flap my jaws, nor much of a personal future, if you take my meaning."
Beldar nodded. "Straight to it, then: I need directions to the nearest beholders' den you know of and advice on how to enter it without swiftly greeting my own death." He tapped his chest to let Dandalus hear the stony jostling of gems in his innermost purse, to signify that he could pay well.
"A moonstone for my words," the shopkeeper murmured, "and two more for this."
Reaching several layers down under the counter, he drew forth something that almost fit his palm: a brooch of smooth-polished hemispheres of unfamiliar gemstone, each cut to display a staring-eye image: a large central orb surrounded by ten smaller ones. This signified a beholder, obviously, but "A safe passage token," Dandalus explained. "Worn at throat or brow, it tells eye tyrants you're a willing minion of one of their kind-an agent of proven loyalty."
"Ah. Wear it or die?"
"Indeed. Beholders, plural, you said; is this what you truly meant? A 'wild' den, or the lair of just one?"
Beldar swallowed, nightmarish images flooding his mind, and then pulled firmly on the fine chain that brought his gem-purse into view and started shaking out moonstones. "A wild den shared by several beholders. Is it far?"
"In the Rat Hills," Dandalus said merrily, waving southwards. "Now heed: Despite what the sages and all their books tell you, the powers of their eyes vary from beholder to beholder-you'll not always be facing the same magics. That goes double for beholder-kin, and that's what this particular lair is full of: there're gauth and some of the little floating ones about as big as our heads, too. You'll not be finding many pureblood eye tyrants sharing lairs-and none at all that I know the way to, no matter how many moonstones you throw at me."
Beldar looked up and saw the glint in the old shopkeeper's eyes.
Clearly the thought of a ruby-cloaked noble tramping about the Rat Hills-small peaks made up of centuries of Waterdhavian garbage-was vastly amusing to him. Likewise the vision of a lone swordsman in a den of beholder-kin.
Well, perhaps there was some grim humor in it, but didn't most adventures have far more to do with grime than glory? Even a paladin in shining armor betimes must dash into bushes and hastily unbuckle to answer needs of the body; did that make his quest any less noble?
This was his quest, a firm stride closer to seizing his destiny. If it took him into the Rat Hills, then by the gods, to the Rat Hills he'd go.
"This is all one huge jest for you, isn't it?"
Dandalus leaned close. "Beldar, my lad," he replied, as if he was a god or a king or the Lord of the oldest, haughtiest noble house of Waterdeep, "life is one huge jest."
Beldar smiled in reply. 'Twould be the act of a fool to dispute with Dandalus. Rumor insisted the beast parts filling the shop around him would, upon the old man's command, animate and combine into horrors hitherto unknown to Faerun. The Roaringhorn might be preparing to walk into a beholders' den, but he wasn't entirely moon-mad!
Golskyn reached for a decanter. "Will you scry young Lord Roaringhorn to learn where he finds his eye tyrant-or how he knows of one?"
"Certainly, if I can do so without drawing the attention of the Palace wizards who often scry him," Mrelder lied. Roaringhorn was doomed; his time would be far better spent learning all about Korvaun Helmfast.
"Should we then be arming for the fight of our lives on the heels of these mages watching him, when they come here to treat with us?" Golskyn asked silkily, suddenly looming over his son.
"No, Father. Your wards stand undisturbed-as you're well aware-and I've been very careful to cloak myself from them. Very careful."
Of course, there was the small matter of the two spies who'd been following him, but Golskyn needn't know about that. They were dead, and the mongrelman who'd slain them would take full responsibility, thanks to Mrelder's first attempt at controlling an Amalgamation minion by casting a spell he'd crafted at another creature's monstrous grafts. Successfully, at last! After all, he didn't want his first victim to be "Lord Piergeiron's heir!"
"You answer well," his father replied, pouring himself a much larger drink than usual. "You're learning at last. Whenever possible, stand firm when pushed."
Beldar crept cautiously through the tunnel, moving by the soft glows of fungi on the walls and some vivid green radiances rising from small pools of slime that seemed to be creeping along the rocks ever so slowly. Despite such… plants?… the air was as damply unpleasant as a wet cloak, but its mustiness was vastly better than the choking reek of the Rat Hills. Better even than the foul stench of the deadwagon that had brought him here, bouncing along with the carcasses of an ancient mule and several one-eyed dogs, and now stood awaiting his return at the fading end of a trail.
Trails amid soaring mountains of trash! Who-or what-might find reason to visit this desolate place often enough to make a trail?
The glows were growing few, and the soft darkness deeper. Target or not, 'twas time to unshutter his lantern.
"That's far enough, doomed meat," a soft, liquid voice said almost tenderly, from very close by Beldar's left ear.
Beldar clapped his swordhilt, but resisted the urge to whirl around. He was a dead man if they wanted him so, despite all the little Roaringhorn family magics he was wearing and no matter which direction he faced.
The inky darkness all around him seemed to shrink and dwindle, receding with the suddenness of powerful magic to reveal some sort of ancient, long-abandoned cellar, its walls furred with mold he'd been smelling for some time now, and its floor visibly damp.
For all Beldar cared, it could have been walled and roofed entirely with nude, imploringly beckoning noble lasses; he could only stare in mute terror at dozens-dozens! — of beholders. He did not need to turn to know they were floating all around him. A swarm of miniature eye tyrants drifted like lazy fish amid the larger dooms.
The largest beholder-kin was floating right in front of him. It had a gaping, skull-like socket where its central eye should have been and was surrounded by floating, slowly orbiting glowing gems, and what looked like ornate scepters that winked and glowed softly. Its great jaws, bristling with jagged fangs, were twisted into a grotesque parody of a smile.
Flanking this beholder mage was another horrific creature, of the sort sages called a "death kiss." Around its baleful red eye writhed not eyestalks but ten eyeless tentacles like taloned fingers that lazily opened long slit-like jaws from time to time.
Several of the surrounding beholders were smaller and had only six eyestalks each. Dandalus had said beholder eye-magics varied from one eye tyrant to another in nature as well as strength, and some eye tyrants weren't nearly as powerful as the fearsome reputation legend gave them, but standing alone gazing upon so many gently writhing eyestalks and so many malicious stares, Beldar Roaringhorn knew better.
The smallest one here can slay me at will.
"I come not to harm," he rasped, finding his mouth and throat suddenly dry, "but to warn and seek advice."
"Are you alone?" the beholder mage demanded, "Do you know spells?"
A sudden crushing force blossomed inside Beldar's head, leaving him gasping and numbed, barely able to think or move. He struggled, thick-tongued, to answer… and then, as suddenly as it had come, the awful invasion ended.
"You stagger under the weight of magics you know not how to use," the beholder hissed contemptuously. "Speak now, ere we slay you. You offer poor sport."
Beldar took a deep breath, reminding himself of the Dathran's prophecy, and said, "I come from the city of Waterdeep, where a man now dwells who seeks to 'improve' himself by grafting claws and tails and other body parts of wild beasts-monsters-to himself. He's done so successfully at least a tencount of times, winning new limbs and organs that live and thrive, obeying him as if they were his own. They now are his own."
"And this concerns us how?" the eye tyrant mage sneered, though the glows encircling it brightened and its surviving eyes flashed in evident excitement.
"This man keeps one of his eyes hidden behind a cloth patch," Beldar replied, "to keep other humans from seeing it's been replaced with… an eye from a beholder."
A hiss went up all around Beldar that was almost a roar, drool-wet and furious. Eyes flashed, eyestalks writhed like angry snakes, and a dozen beams and bolts of deadliness stabbed at the quaking human from all sides.
All of them vanished in amber glows that brightened until Beldar could see a soft aura all around him. His skin tingled painfully, and he bit back a moan of fear.
"Soil yourself not, human," the beholder mage said coldly. "That was but a simple truth-test. I'd not have believed your tale, else. You spoke truth and so live yet, but this blasphemer, this human who dares to butcher our kind, must die-swiftly and knowing one of us is his slayer!"
Eager babble filled the cellar in an instant-and ceased, knife-sudden, as amber radiance blazed anew about the beholder mage.
One of its eyestalks curled to tap thoughtfully at its fanged mouth in an oddly human gesture. "Dealing death to this blasphemer would be a pleasure to everyone here, but one of us has a prior claim. Who sent you here, human, to tell us this?"
"No one." Beldar tapped the badge Dandalus had sold him, the device that marked him as a man in thrall to a beholder. "There is no one now," he added meaningfully.
"I see. Your master was slain by this human."
That hissing voice was not quite questioning. In case a truth-magic remained in the soft amber glow, Beldar said, "I decided to come here-alone-and parted with valuable gemstones to learn the way."
"You earn my protection already," the great beholder said, turning to face him fully, almost as if its blind, empty eyesocket could still see. "Are you willing to do more?"
"I am your servant," Beldar replied with dignity, knowing no other sane answer.
"Then one of us shall accompany you back to Waterdeep."
Though Beldar saw no gesture nor word pass among the floating horrors, one of the gauths-if he remembered the Roaringhorn library bestiary correctly-drifted forward to hang just above and in front of him. Before he could look at it properly, it began to circle him as if surveying a roast boar for a tasty-looking place to start devouring.
"You shall lead Alanxan without delay to this man, that his death may be accomplished without arousing the city's defenders, attracting undue attention, or leading this arm of our vengeance into any traps. Failure to do this, Beldar Roaringhorn-oh, yes, human, I read all I want of your mind in our brief contact-and not only will you die in long torment, but so shall all your friends and kin. Perhaps every so-called noble house of Waterdeep needs one of us commanding it."
"I thought you loathed…" Beldar stopped, realizing nothing he might say could be well received.
"We do. Save as cowering slaves to fetch, enact our wills, and provide us with entertainment. Yet with your ridiculous airs, you prancing humans entertain and even amuse-some of the time."
"A-a deathwagon waits to carry me back into Waterdeep," Beldar almost gabbled. "It has, uh, grim cause to travel every street of the city, so Alanxan can be safely brought to the back door of the, ah, blasphemer's abode, if, of course, this meets with your approval!"
"It will serve. Go."
Beldar bowed, turned, and strode hastily back out of the lair, eagerly seeking the stomach-churning reek of rotten garbage. The gauth drifted behind him, its largest eye half-closed but its others trained on him, as if anticipating betrayal at any moment.
The Roaringhorn allowed himself a grim smile. As the creature was expecting treachery, it would be ill-bred of him to disappoint it!
Taeros stood on the Westgate ramparts, the siege of Waterdeep raging all around him.
Far below his boots, a host of sahuagin pounded at the gate, using great waterlogged timbers from sunken ships as rams. Wizards hurled down magical fire at them, and City Guard archers loosed wave after wave of flaming arrows. Scores of fish-men fell, until the wet sands were hidden by heaps of blackened, smoking scaled corpses.
Suddenly a gigantic squid rose from the dark, roiling sea, towering higher than Mount Waterdeep. An enormous tentacle lashed out, impossibly long, dashing a screaming line of Waterdeep's defenders off the battlements, leaving Taeros standing alone, armed with only a quill and a fistful of parchments. The tentacle curled back slowly, arching menacingly on high… and then descended at him, vast and dark and terrible…
He was blinking blindly into the bright morning sun, bolt upright in bed and gasping hard. It took some time before Taeros realized the thudding in his ears wasn't just the pounding of his heart. Someone was insistently striking the knockplate of his bedchamber door.
Mumbling curses, Taeros swung out of bed. The shirt and breeches he'd worn the night before were conveniently right on the floor where he'd left them. He yanked them on, strode barefoot to the door, and flung it open.
Onarlum stood with his staff of office raised to strike again, mute apology on his face. Behind his shoulder Taeros could see a young woman-tall, blonde, formidable, and all too familiar.
His irritation fled before the bright wrath burning in her blue eyes.
"Sarintha," Taeros murmured, staring with growing concern at Roldo Thongolir's bride. "Is anything amiss?"
"My husband is amiss," she snapped, pushing past him into the room. Over one shapely shoulder she sent Onarlum a white-hot glare of dismissal. The steward hastily bowed and scuttled gratefully away. "Or rather, missing."
Sarintha's look of scorn might have melted glass. "Lord Hawkwinter, even in infancy, I was neither stupid nor naive."
Taeros blinked. "I–I've never suggested you were. If I knew where Roldo was, I'd surely-"
"Invent some story to cover his tracks," Sarintha said sharply, "but as it happens, I know all: he went to a moneylender, and lacked even the decency to lie about it!"
Taeros blinked again. Roldo was careful with his coins, as nobles went. He owed Taeros a small gambling debt, true, but 'twas nothing pressing, certainly nothing to send him a-borrowing…
Sarintha gathered volume. "Do you know what he did with these borrowed coins?"
Taeros shook his head, feeling like a particularly stupid student being tonguelashed by a supercilious tutor.
"He went straight to the Gentle Moment-for 'healing'- and got into a drunken brawl. They carted him to the Castle dungeons like a common sailor!"
Taeros frowned. "That… doesn't sound like Roldo."
"Nevertheless, that's the tale his manservant dares to tell me! Take this!"
Sarintha thrust a coin-heavy purse into his hands. "Now go and pay his Watch-fines and his debt, whatever it may be. I would be grateful if you handled this with as much discretion as possible."
She glanced pointedly at the amber cloak lying in a glittering puddle on the floor.
It was little surprise that Sarintha mistrusted the Thongolir steward's tongue. She'd want no word of Roldo's indiscretions to reach his parents' ears, lest they conclude Sarintha couldn't manage her husband, much less family business.
"I'll see to it at once," Taeros promised. "You'll have Roldo back before highsun." Whether you want him or not, he thought.
Sarintha was already nodding curtly, and Taeros was left bowing at a swirling of skirts as she turned and strode from the room.
Taeros didn't know whether to glare at the open doorway or sigh. After a moment he shrugged instead, dressed quickly, and strode out, leaving his telltale cloak behind.
Hurrying to the carriage house, he bade the groom harness the unmarked coach, a workaday carriage with curtained windows of the sort used by many slimcoin travelers and merchants.
The hostler knew his work. Without prompting he passed over the stalls of sleek, highbred horses to choose a pair of cart nags, and brought out unadorned harness. The drover stripped off his Hawkwinter livery and turned the tabard inside out, so its plain dark lining showed. The same routine was well-rehearsed among most noble house servants in Waterdeep, for many masters frequently ordered errands best done quietly.
After a seemingly interminable ride through bustling morning streets-ye gods, didn't anyone in this city sleep? — the coach rumbled to a halt before the Castle entrance known as the Dungeon Doors. A panel in the heavy iron gate slid open, and a gray-bearded man looked out expectantly.
Taeros jerked the coach-curtain aside. "I've come for Roldo Thongolir. Brought in last night for drunken brawling."
The gateguard shook his head. "Here no longer; fine's paid."
"What? By whom?"
The guard's steel-gray gaze sharpened. "And who might be asking?"
Taeros thunked Sarintha's purse down on the coach's door-ledge. "A friend to Lord Thongolir, acting on behalf of his lady wife."
The graybeard eyed the purse-or rather, the Thongolir crest worked into its soft leather. "Guess there's no harm in telling you to take Lady Thongolir's coins to Mirt. The moneylender sent word last night pledging payment."
Gritting his teeth, Taeros gave the man a curt nod of thanks. Calling the new destination to his drover, he flung himself back in his seat, not bothering to close the curtain.
They were nearly at Mirt's Mansion when Taeros caught a glimpse of glittering rose hue and rapped hastily on the coach wall. Even before the drover had quite pulled the horses to a stop, Taeros was out and down into the street.
Striding through the street crowd, he clapped Roldo on the arm. His friend spun around, hand on sword.
"Save that for Sarintha," Taeros said sourly. "She sent me to settle your fines and debts."
Roldo grimaced. "My lady's well informed."
"Better than your friends." Taeros slapped the purse into Roldo's hand. "If you'd need of coin, why not come to me?"
"All's settled with the moneylender-and if you're willing, I'd like to settle the debt between us with something more handsome than coins. I've received a gift more suited to your name and tastes than mine: A charm wrought in white gold."
Cradled in his hand was bright, silvery fancy work: a pendant of a smooth, stylized hawk soaring across a beautifully carved, intricate snowflake, on a fine chain. Roldo put it into his friend's palm with great care.
"Very fine," Taeros murmured, peering at it with dawning pleasure. "I think I've won the better part of this bargain."
Roldo glanced around, and then took his friend's arm and pulled him into the angle formed by two mismatched shop walls.
"Perhaps, and perhaps not," he muttered. "This is a magical thing; it lets you trade shapes with another man… and it comes with two solemn oaths: to never tell anyone about its powers and to use them only for the good of Waterdeep."
Taeros stared at his friend. "Who-"
"The moneylender's lady gave it to me. Korvaun has one too. We did Lord Mirt some small service."
"Then why not keep it your-"
"I'm not the one-the right one-to hold such power." Roldo's stare was like fire. "You know heroes and their great deeds, Taeros. I've seen pages of your gift to the child king; Thongolir scribes are embellishing them now. If a time comes when this is needed, who'd know what had to be done better than you?"
Who, indeed? Taeros saw himself again as he'd been in his dream, standing alone on Waterdeep's ramparts with only quill and parchment in hand. Poor weapons… but perhaps Roldo was right!
After all, his Hawkwinter head and heart were full of wondrous stories. Surely one might yield a plan when the city stood in need, so he could tell Korvaun what to do!
Korvaun, not Beldar… now that was unexpected, yet felt oddly right.
Taeros put the pendant around his neck. "I accept with honor, and I swear to so serve Waterdeep," he said solemnly.
Roldo managed a wavering smile. "Thank you. I'd consider it a courtesy if we spoke no more of this."
"As you wish." Taeros cleared his throat. "So, where were you heading in such haste?"
"Korvaun wants all of us to meet this morn. Didn't you-? I guess his messenger came after you were up and about."
"At the clubhouse? I've a coach!"
Roldo grinned. "And I've the sloth to take it!"
Korvaun and Starragar were waiting in the club, tankards ready.
"None of my messages seems to have reached Beldar," Korvaun told Taeros, serving forth ale, "so we might as well start."
Starragar frowned. "Shouldn't we find him?"
"I don't believe he wants to be found," Korvaun said quietly. "If we hear nothing for, say, another two days, we should search, but right now it's probably best to leave him his privacy."
Roldo shook his head. "This isn't like Beldar."
"No," Taeros agreed dryly, "usually he'd be the one starting brawls at a house of healing and pleasure." Waving away Starragar's quizzical glance, he asked, "So why are we here, exactly?"
Korvaun leaned forward. "I've been looking into all of these fallen buildings."
'"All of 'these'?" Taeros asked sharply. "There's another?"
"A tallhouse in North Ward, fortunately empty at the time. However, hear this: both it and the Slow Cheese were owned by Elaith Craulnober."
Taeros whistled. "Interesting. There was some unpleasantness three or four years back, talk of a band of elves from the forests come to the city and fighting here under Craulnober's command. He left for Tethyr soon after and presumably took his elves with him. Now, not long after his return to our streets, two of his properties are destroyed. Some sort of retribution, d'you suppose?"
Korvaun shrugged. "Possibly, but I've come across a remarkable amount of property owned by the Serpent-and I don't think I've found half of it. That two out of all these collapsed is not quite the coincidence it might at first seem."
Starragar frowned. "What else?"
"Varandros Dyre is insisting to anyone who'll listen that the Lords are digging new tunnels to spy on citizens."
"Well, the Lords couldn't do that without hiring Dyre or rivals he'd know about," Roldo pointed out, "but the Serpent, now… if there's anyone in Waterdeep who warrants watching right now, 'tis him."
As the friends exchanged grim nods, Taeros said slowly, "The Lords may not be the only ones watching Elaith. Now that I think of it, Dyre's maidservant was at Craulnober's party the night Malark died, not to serve but gowned as a guest."
Taeros nodded. "I thought she looked familiar at the time but couldn't place her. Yes, I'm quite sure."
Korvaun ran a hand through his hair, sighing. "This is truly troubling. Is she watching Elaith Craulnober or watching for him?"
"The latter seems more likely," Starragar put in darkly, "but if we put a man to watching her, we'll know soon enough."
"'Twould be better to send a woman," Taeros mused, "A sellsword who can pose as a serving wench and go where Lark goes. Hiring blades is Hawkwinter business, so I'll see to it."
Korvaun frowned. "If Lark's working for Elaith Craulnober, anyone you send will be at risk."
"I'll make sure she's pretty," Taeros replied with a wink, "and if my father has any sword-wielding she-elves for hire, so much the better. If rumors tell truth, Elaith Craulnober collects more than real estate."
Varandros strode through South Ward, his heavy coin bag thumping at his hip. It would be lighter on the return trip, more's the pity.
The brawl in Dock Ward was costing him dearly. Four of his trustyhands had died in the fighting, all workers on the Redcloak Lane raising. The sorcerer who'd bought the building would be less than pleased by further delays, so men would have to be pulled from other jobs, and skilled hands came dear in these busy days, with every jack across the city rebuilding… and then there were the burial costs and widows' fees.
He couldn't recall exactly where on Telshambra's Street his man had lived, but the place wasn't hard to find. A small, somber group was gathered outside a narrow stone building, ale cups in hand.
Varandros made his way over. The mourners-many of them his men-moved aside to let him pass. He strode inside.
The small front room was almost filled by a trestle table draped in dark cloth. Rowder had been laid out on it in his best clothes, a chisel in his folded hands.
Dyre managed not to scowl. A needless extravagance; it was customary for great folk to be buried with some sign of their house or station, but he doubted practical Rowder would have appreciated the waste of a good tool.
He nodded to the woman behind the table, face composed but eyes rimmed with red. She bobbed a curtsey.
"We're honored you've come, Master Dyre. Please have a cup of my Rowder's funeral ale."
"I'll drink to him gladly, Mistress," Dyre said gruffly. "A fine man, a good worker. He'll be missed."
"Aye," she said softly. "That he will."
He put the bag in her hands. "This is his portion. If you've further needs, the guild will see to them. I'll make sure of it."
She nodded gratefully, eyes like empty holes, and Varandros found himself standing awkwardly with nothing more to say. He did as he'd promised, raising a cup of ale to Rowder's memory, and then turned and set out for home.
Children playing in the street fell silent when they saw his face, and got out of his way. One of them made a warding sign, but the stonemason said nothing. Something like dark fire burned behind his eyes.
He found his daughters in the kitchen around a trestle table very like the one Rowder had been lying on. To his astonishment, the Dyre kitchen table had a dead man on it, too-pale, naked, and middle-aged, loins draped with a towel for modesty. Naoni, face serene despite the grim work, was sponging dried blood from the body.
Varandros gaped at her-and even more at his dainty little Faendra, who was handily stitching up a gash along the corpse's ribs and not looking the least bit squeamish. His younger apprentice, Jivin, hovered in the buttery doorway all but wringing his hands.
"What is this?" Dyre growled.
The three looked up. "I–I had to bring him here, Master," Jivin said hastily. "There was nowhere else for him."
"He'd no family, poor man," Naoni added. Dipping her cloth in a fresh basin, she gently wiped blood from the battered, staring face.
As the gore came away, Varandros recognized Cael, one of the masons who'd been setting the foundation on Redcloak Lane.
"You did right, lad," he said heavily. Every man in his employ was entitled to a fair wage and a decent burial. Yet this was not a task he'd wish on his daughters. "What of Lark? Where's the wench?"
Naoni's reply was quiet but firm. "She comes early and gives an honest day's work, Father, and in the evenings, she serves at an inn or a revel in one of the great houses. She said she'd be working late last night and would take a bed at the inn. She'll be here in time for the churning and the cheese."
Dyre nodded approvingly. "A hardworking lass."
Nor was Lark the only one. Almost for the first time, Dyre noticed how capable Naoni was, how warm and welcoming she made their home. She had her own craft, too, the spinning of fancy threads. Several skeins of pale, glittering green hung behind her on a neat row of hooks. Her mother would have loved them. Aye, Ilyndeira had been fond of pretty needlework…
Rare nostalgia swept through Varandros. He seldom thought of his wife, despite the living reminders before him. Faendra had her mother's pink-and-gold beauty, and Naoni, though plain and pale, had Ilyndeira's long, slender fingers. His gaze fell to Naoni's hands-and his brow darkened.
Around each wrist was a ring of dark bruises.
"What happened to your arms?"
Faendra looked up from her work, eyes blazing in sudden wrath. "She was rough-handled during the fight in Dock Ward yesterday."
"You were there?" Dyre demanded, aghast.
"Aye," Naoni said. She met his gaze with calm gray eyes. "No lasting harm was done, Father. Lord Helmfast saw us safely home."
"Again, that insolent pup!" Dyre's shout rang around the room, and Jivin fled. "I told him to stay away from me and mine! Was it he who marked you?"
"No, 'twas the Watch!" Faendra said indignantly. "They called us noblemens' doxies, and Naoni gave one of them a clout to remember her by!"
"Good for you, lass," he said gruffly, pride rising through his anger. "What part did Helmfast have in this?"
"It was a chance meeting in the street, Father. He and Lord Hawkwinter drew their swords to defend us against the Watch."
"Did they, now? Well, that's something," he said grimly, "but never forget this: They're still the same worthless, unthinking louts who nearly brought down all our work on Redcloak Lane!"
Naoni looked up. "They intended no harm."
"Bah! What of intentions? They'd not intend to drag a woman's good name into the dust either! To them it's all fun and frolic, but the damage done is the same!"
The look Naoni gave him was surprisingly steely. "I'm not such a child, Father, that I know nothing of the ways of men. Nor am I a fool who simpers and swoons whenever a man looks at me. Neither's Faendra. You needn't fear for us."
"That's simple truth, Father." Faendra narrowed her eyes in a parody of menace. "'Tis the men who should tremble before us."
That teased a faint smile from Dyre.
Seeing it, Naoni considered the matter resolved and said briskly, "I've called the coffinmaker and the carter and sent word to the keepers of the City of the Dead. Cael can be buried six bells after highsun, after down-tools, so those honoring him need miss no work. Perhaps they can return here, after, for the cakes and ale?"
Varandros nodded. "Of course. You've handled it well, lass."
Naoni looked up at him, and her faintly puzzled expression smote Dyre's heart. Was he so sparing with praise, that his daughters were this unaccustomed to it?
"I'm for work," he said abruptly. Turning, he strode from the house, thinking thoughts that were both new and disturbing.
Men of the Watch had laid rough hands on his daughter. A message, perhaps, from those in power? If so, who knows what more might have happened, if not for those silly sword-swinging nobles?
In his desire for a New Day, he'd never considered the consequences for his family, never thought his daughters might be endangered. More fool he!
Aye, this striding fool.
His wordless growl was as bitter as peacebound warsteel- trapped in its scabbard, denied a foe it knew too well.
After all, who knew better how the great folk treated common-born women of Waterdeep than a man whose wife had died from the grief they'd caused?
"I trust Hoth instructed you correctly?" Golskyn's cold words were barely a question.
Mrelder looked up from the tiny golden ring balanced atop scorched stones on the table before him-the Guardian's Gorget, shrunken small enough to incorporate into the graft. The spell-glows playing around it promptly flickered and started to fade. "I believe so, Father, and my follow-all spell definitely captured the effects of the graft-chantings. That's proven by our successfully giving Narlend a lamprey-mouth in his palm-and that lamprey was none too fresh."
Ending his spell, he added, "Unless Roaringhorn bears magics that interfere with our work, or fails physically-much as I've done, thus far-the graft should work. I know how to craft new ocular muscles now."
"So you should. Eight blinded dogs are quite enough, even in Dock Ward. Had we needed more and been foolish enough to take them from North or Sea Wards, the Watch would have come calling."
Mrelder nodded. "No doubt, yet everything's neatly disposed of. The first few went out on the deathwagon, and as for the rest, well, the mongrelmen said they made a quite tasty stew."
"It was; I had a bowl myself. Will your little toy be ready in time?"
"It's ready now, not that I expect our ambitious noble to return quite so swiftly. Capturing a beholder-"
"Yes, yes, may cost him his life," Golskyn snapped, tiring of the conversation. Turning on his heel, he strode out of the spell-chamber.
Mrelder wore a little smile as he took up the little stone that had been the focus of the spell he'd just quelled. No probing questions about it, or just what magics he'd perfected, or precisely what he'd done with them. Sometimes his father's scorn of sorcery came in quite useful.
Golskyn's door slammed, and Mrelder heard something unexpected: the front door warning gong. He frowned. Beldar Roaringhorn had found his way here out of the blue; now who-?
Hoth rushed up the stairs wearing a wintry smile, heading for Golskyn's chamber without a word to Mrelder.
"Hoth!" the sorcerer snapped. "Who is it? Who's at the door?"
Hoth made no reply, and Mrelder barked his question again, making his voice as cold and authoritative as his father's.
Hoth turned, his hand already on Golskyn's door-handle. "The Roaringhorn lordling's returned, and is asking to speak with Lord Unity. Alone."
Mrelder frowned. "Is he-?"
The rest of his words were swept away in the shattering roar of his father's door-with Hoth still holding it-being hurled into a splintering meeting with the far wall.
"Father?" Mrelder shouted, breaking into a run. "Father?"
Hoth was moving feebly under the wreckage as Mrelder pounded past into smoke and two ruby-red beams of magic, flashing at each other in the gloom like thrust swords.
One came from Golskyn's beholder-eye, of course… and the other was identical, which could only mean…
Mrelder had to see. He dare not He cast a swift and simple clarity spell that should sweep away the smoke and banish both shadows and darkness.
There were shouts and pounding feet from behind Mrelder. He stepped aside swiftly so he'd not be in the way of angry Amalgamation believers rushing into the room with ready weapons.
Wards were flickering in Golskyn's chamber as strong magics lashed out and rebounded, and the feeble clarity spell struggled to expand like mist swirling in a gale. Through it, Mrelder caught a glimpse of his father standing fearlessly, hair singed and his tentacles holding his desk-its top scorched and smoldering-in front of him like a shield.
Golskyn was murmuring spell-prayers as fast as his lips could move, gesturing to bring down the wrath of the gods on something across the chamber. A foe that was, yes, high up near the ceiling: Spherical, and with Something flashed through the thinning smoke, and Mrelder felt himself stiffening. He fought to turn and lift his arm, panic flaring like a flame, but… he was caught… and frozen.
His hand slowed to a drifting thing, then stopped altogether, and Mrelder turned what was left of his will to breathing and turning his eyes, trying to see Wall and floor, rushing up to meet him swiftly as mongrel-men burst into the room and struck him aside.
Mrelder slammed into unyielding hardness and bounced, hearing a mongrelman grunt in pain behind him. Then there came a heavy crash as another blundered into a chair and fell through it to the floor.
Then came more bright red flashes, somewhere above him, and more groans. Weapons were dropped with heavy clangs and clatters, someone shouted in pain, and someone else shrieked in agony, cries that receded swiftly back out the door and ended in an abrupt wail that could only mark a plunge down the stairwell.
Golskyn said something cold and crisp and triumphant, and Mrelder felt that horrible shifting in his mind that could only mean one thing: his father was collapsing most of the wards laid on his chamber into a mighty spell to make it even stronger.
Mrelder's skin tingled, and a sudden, high singing began, so thin and high-pitched that it felt almost like a needle driven into his ears… and it went on and on.
All other sounds ceased, but for a few distant groans and the imperious tread of his father's boots, crossing the chamber to thrust bruisingly into Mrelder's ribs and roll him over.
"Well, you exhibited your usual scant usefulness," Golskyn of the Gods commented, staring scornfully down at the paralyzed sorcerer. Mrelder gazed helplessly back at him.
One side of the priest's head was scorched, his bared torso was a mass of sickening yellow-and-blue bruises, blistered burns, and blackened tatters of clothing largely burned away down to his belt, The little snake graft that sprouted from his wrist was thrashing about convulsively, biting the air in agony… but the priest's own surviving eye was its usual cold, confident self. The other one-the beholder orb-stared with deadly promise down at Mrelder, the eyepatch that customarily concealed it dangling around Golskyn's neck.
Beyond him, shrouded in flickering magics, a beholder-a small one, little larger than a round shield, and with only six eyestalks, but yes, a beholder! — hung motionless.
His father's head turned. "Well, Hoth?"
"Four dead. Ortarn here, Danuth and Velp yonder, and Skein's face was burnt off, even before he fell over the rail and broke his neck. The rest of us will live until we can heal each other. Shall I show the noble up?"
Golskyn started to chuckle, a harsh, mirthless sound that went on for some time. Mrelder tried again to move his hand and found that it responded now, but slowly, drifting in dreamlike torpor despite the fiercest exertion of his will.
Hoth ignored the sorcerer at his feet entirely, his eyes fixed on Golskyn as the priest's chuckle ran down. Gazing at the frozen beholder, the leader of the Amalgamation replied, "Of course. Tell him-"
"I found my own way up, as it happens," Beldar Roaringhorn said calmly from the doorway.
Hoth whirled around, but Golskyn snapped out a tentacle to coil around the man's arm and ordered, "Leave us, Hoth. Peacefully. The Lord Roaringhorn stands very much in our favor, just now."
Mrelder's paralysis was falling away very quickly now. He rolled over and got to his feet.
Beldar Roaringhorn was strolling forward, one hand on sword-hilt and the other at his belt. Heedless of the strong likelihood that the noble was clutching his two strongest battle-magics, Mrelder stepped into his path and snarled, "You sent that horror in here, to kill us!"
Lord Roaringhorn lifted one brow. "That was obviously the beholder's intent, yes, but how would that serve my purpose?"
Golskyn eyed him keenly. "A test, perchance, to see if we of the Amalgamation were powerful enough to grant you what you seek."
The young noble nodded.
"And now that you know?" the priest demanded.
Beldar met his gaze squarely. "Now that I know, I'd like to proceed immediately."
Mrelder glared at Beldar Roaringhorn, reaching for the dagger Piergeiron had given him a lifetime ago.
Golskyn's scaly hand closed around his son's wrist before that fang could be drawn.
"Enough," Lord Unity of the Amalgamation said coldly. "You found the right man, and I'll look very darkly on any attempt to harm him now."
Mrelder opened his mouth and then shut it again, swallowing his fury behind set teeth. If this fool of a noble had managed Golskyn's slaying, that would have been a delight, but now…
He'd never expected the man to return, and had laid his plans with Korvaun Helmfast in mind. This Beldar showed a disturbing boldness and wits, too. Could it be he'd actually stumbled on a worthy heir to Lord Piergeiron? Did the Watching Gods laugh that much?
"Your son's right to be suspicious of me," Beldar was telling the priest, "for even as I arrive at your door, this beholder-the sort known as a 'gauth,' I believe-enters your house forcibly, by another way."
He glanced at the charred ruin of Golskyn's back room beyond the office-chamber. What had been a window was now a ragged hole opening onto a high view down over the alley behind.
"I must assure you I'm guilty only of overconfidence. I thought the spells I'd purchased-I dared not specify too closely what I wanted them for, you'll appreciate-were sufficient to keep it securely captive until you could assume control of them, and, ah…of it."
Golskyn waved a dismissive hand. "Irrelevant. We all make mistakes. So long as you don't make a habit of doing so or betray the slightest hint of any malice toward the Amalgamation or our goals, I care not if you bought, borrowed, stole, or personally gave birth to this beholder or overcame it by strength, guile, or beguiling minstrelsy. What matters are results!"
"Father," Mrelder said quietly, "there's a matter of magic I must speak with you about privately, right now. I need only a few breaths of your time and mean no disrespect to you or to Lord Roaringhorn, but magic has already done much damage here, and we may yet have the Watch pounding at our doors as to why. We'll certainly have them doing so if there are further… eruptions."
"I've had my own dealings with the Watch," Beldar put in quickly, "and will be glad to withdraw for as long as you need. Magic can be dangerous, and the Watch all too vigilant."
Golskyn nodded. "You speak truth. Stand you then by the head of the stair while I speak with Mrelder."
The moment Beldar had bowed and withdrawn, the priest rounded on his son, and his whisper was fierce. "Well?"
Mrelder kept his voice low. "I'm alarmed at how swiftly we've embraced this noble-and how quickly he's brought us a beholder! Father, if he's been chosen as Piergeiron's successor, don't you think a dozen wizards have scoured his thoughts scores of times, and taken full measure of his motives? Hasn't he been trained, probably for years, to put Waterdeep first, and ruthlessly put down all threats to-"
Golskyn swung up his hand like a cook hefting a cleaver. Mrelder knew what that meant and fell abruptly silent.
"I meant what I said," the priest muttered. "You found us the right man: this must be the next Open Lord of the city. I think you speak sound prudence now: yes, of course he's formidable, swift-witted and loyal to Waterdeep, yet he's never crossed swords with Golskyn of the Gods before, to say nothing of those I serve! Do you think so little of my own abilities to subvert anyone? Have you forgotten Braeldra so soon? And Aummaduth of Calimport? Both wanted my head before I bent them to the true faith, and you know the eternal price they both paid in the end. Willingly, I might add."
"True," Mrelder muttered, not wanting to voice his own suspicions that proud Braeldra had undertaken her last, foolhardy mission purely to escape Golskyn's bed, once she'd seen she could do nothing against his magic. "Forgive my doubts, Father. If you'll just let me make sure there're no tracing spells on him right now, that might let others in Waterdeep-"
"See through my wards? Impossible, unless he's bearing focus items-and those we'll have off him, 'for his own protection,' of course, before we start." Golskyn's beholder eye seemed to glow, just for an instant. "After we do the graft, he'll either be dead or ours, won't he?"
Father and son stared into each other's eyes for a moment, then nodded in curt unison.
Together they turned to face Beldar Roaringhorn.
"My son is concerned with the magic that has been expended in this room and the state of the warding-spells around it," Golskyn announced. "Do you still want to forever lose one of your eyes-at some small risk to your life-and gain a beholder's eye in its place?"
Beldar raised an eyebrow. "After willingly walking into a beholders' den to get it? Of course."
"Then I am willing to do it. Here and now. Are you also ready?"
The youngest Lord Roaringhorn nodded, folding his arms across his chest to hide his nervousness. "I am."
"Mrelder," Golskyn murmured, "fetch what we'll need."
Beckoning the noble with two of his tentacles, he pointed at the floor. "Remove every item you wear or carry that bears the slightest magic," he ordered, "and leave them outside the doorway before you lie down here. Everything. If you're not sure about something, remove it: The intrusions of stray spells can be disastrous."
Beldar stared at him then began disrobing. He was down to little more than a silken clout before he was done.
By then, Mrelder had cleared ruined furniture out of the way and laid a clean cloth on the floor, carefully keeping his distance from the silent, motionless beholder all the while. A silent crowd of Amalgamation believers had gathered at the doorway. Golskyn held up a hand to keep them there.
Beldar settled himself on the cloth as the priest and his son peered at the immobile gauth.
"That one, that, and this are sufficiently extended," Golskyn murmured. "I believe I recall what those two hurled my way; what do you recall?"
"That one wounds by spell, not fire," the sorcerer replied, pointing.
"Then that's the one we want," Golskyn decided. He glanced at Mrelder, who held up the delicate ring. Bound into the graft-practically in Beldar Roaringhorn's brain-the Guardian's Gorget would give him control over the Walking Statures, and spells would give the priest control over him. If Mrelder's spells were laid deftly enough, Roaringhorn need not know that until it became necessary to violently force him to do something-or refrain from doing something.
Stepping back, Golskyn ordered, "Begin."
Mrelder carefully set the ring on what was left of a table behind him, spread his hands, and muttered the incantation that would attune him to the least of the many wards in this chamber-the only one Golskyn had allowed him to cast.
It responded, the air itself seeming to shift in silent, ponderous solidity in a far corner of the room. Sweat suddenly glistened on Mrelder's face as he turned the unseen ward with slow, deliberate care, bringing it toward the trapped gauth at just the right angle.
Wards crafted in a certain way, with sharp edges rather than a fading, clinging field, could cut like the sharpest sword-if, that is, a sword could shear through anything: stone, metal… beholder eyestalks…
Golskyn held out his hands, palms up, and muttered the prayer that would cause one of the other wards to gently catch and hold the severed eye.
Beldar Roaringhorn lay on his back, waiting, the air cold on his skin, wondering how much this was going to hurt and if it was his first step toward glory or if he was making the worst-perhaps the last-mistake of his life.
Mrelder drew in a loud, shuddering breath. Sweat was almost blinding him, now, dripping off his nose in a steady stream. He blinked furiously; until that ward was back in place, bonded once more to its neighbors, he dared not flinch or falter-unless he wanted to bring the house down in a deadly heap of falling stones that would kill everyone in it and probably open a new shaft down into deepest Undermountain, too…
A tiny chip of stone Golskyn knew nothing about was ready in Mrelder's belt, the putty that would hold it inside the oval of the ring already stuck to it-and one of his father's hairs was thoroughly tamped into that putty.
He'd cast seven spells on that lone hair, trusting in something he'd read at Candlekeep. Each magic captured his father's hand, or reflection, or some deed or property of Golskyn of the Gods as if from Golskyn's own viewpoint. If Watchful Order magists, or Mystra forefend, the Lord and Lady Mage of Waterdeep, probed the ring in time to come, Mrelder wanted them to see nothing at all of a certain young sorcerer and a lot about a man who called himself Lord Unity.
That time of reckoning might not be all that far off. From what little he'd seen of the high and mighty of Waterdeep-not the strutting nobles, but those who held real power at the Palace and over magic and the defenses of the City of Splendors-Mrelder was stone cold certain of one thing: any attempt to control a Walking Statue would instantly awaken the full awareness and wrath of the Lords, the City Guard, and the Lord and Lady Mage of Waterdeep.
When that happened, the son of Lord Unity wanted his father and his fellow ambitious fools of Amalgamation to face the spell-storm-not Mrelder the sorcerer.
Golskyn was on his knees, hands spread like reaching claws over Roaringhorn's face. He allowed only himself to do the deft spell-surgery that would cost the noble his right eye, and bind the beholder orb floating bloodily at hand into its place.
Magic flared up bright and white, the priest murmured, "Close your left eye and keep it closed," and blood fountained.
Everyone standing in the doorway drew in a breath at the same moment in what was almost a gasp.
Then a trembling, sweating Beldar Roaringhorn strained suddenly against the knees-Mrelder's-that were pinning down his wrists. As the grafting began, he gasped out a ragged curse.
The sound of distant temple bells drifted in through the open windows of the Dyres' front room, the sixth chiming since highsun. Lark polished the silver candlesticks one last time and stepped back to survey the funeral spread critically.
Neat rows of mugs stood ready beside a barrel of ale, and heaped plates of almond cakes were arranged down the polished table. Naoni and Faendra stood ready to serve the traditional fare, clad in softly flowing gray gowns, the traditional family mourning hue.
That was Naoni's idea, and Lark thought it clever. When Master Dyre's workmen came from the City of the Dead, they'd see how Cael was being honored and hear the silent message that they, too, were regarded as family. Given such encouragement, they should linger long and drink freely.
Lark turned to her mistresses. "You're certain you don't want me to stay?"
Naoni shook her head. "Things are well in hand." Leaning close, she whispered, "Faen'll serve the men warmly; she knows how fine she looks in that gown."
They traded grins. "Off with you, then," Naoni added more loudly. "'Twon't do to be late on your second night at the Notch."
Lark undid her apron and put it in Naoni's hand. "There's something you should know," she said softly. "All day someone's been following us."
Naoni smiled gently. "My halfling guardians."
"Not so." Faendra's hearing was very keen when she wanted it to be. "I glimpsed him, too-never a really good look, but 'twas a man, not a halfling."
"I see," Naoni murmured, looking at her bruised wrists. "Perhaps we shouldn't tell Father. You saw him when he heard about the street battle; I don't want to worry him."
Lark frowned. "Mayhap you should worry him. If he minded his own family more, he might have less time to poke about in the Lords' business." Remembering Elaith Craulnober's demands, she asked, "Speaking of which, where's he steering the New Day now? He's not one to take deaths of his men lightly."
Naoni sighed. "Father's been all too quiet since the battle. I wish I knew what to think of that."
Faendra's eyes danced. "Perhaps he put a guard to watch us. If so, one of the men will know." Her smile became a purr. "And they'll tell me everything I want them to."
Where once they might have rolled their eyes, Naoni and Lark now nodded approval.
"Tell me all about it in the morning," the maid told her mistresses. "I'm off to the Notch."
The steward's pantry at the Notch was already bustling. An unfamiliar voice, humming nigh her elbow, made Lark look up from the scrawled table assignments, her fingers still tugging at the knot of her apron.
A tall elf maiden she'd never seen before stood beside her tying on another server's apron. Lark tried not to stare at her striking good looks: Moon-pale skin and night-black hair framing a narrow, angular face dominated by eyes the color of new leaves.
Lark blinked, hoping the aristocratic features didn't mean haughtiness to match, but the new server smiled, asked Lark's name, and laughed in delight at the answer.
"How perfect! I'm Ezriel: 'song bird.' It's well we're working together. As the old saying runs, L'hoira doutrel mana soutrel."
"Birds of a feather fly together?" guessed Lark.
Green eyes widened. "You speak Elvish?"
"No, but if one serves drink to men long enough, one hears a lot of old sayings," she said dryly, "most of them more along the lines of, 'If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?'"
Ezriel chuckled. "Surely not!"
"A wager: A copper to you if the night passes without some drunken guildsman trotting that offering out, but a nib to me each time you hear it."
"Done!" A shadow passed briefly across the narrow face. "Though if I lose, you may have to dig your winnings out from under the speakers' thumbnails, for that's the coin I'll be tempted to pay for such compliments."
Lark winced. "That's… inventive."
A sour look from the steward sent them scurrying to tend tables, and there was little time for more talk. Yet as the night wore on, Lark found her gaze turning Ezriel's way more often than was strictly polite. In fact, she found it hard not to stare.
Not many elves served tables in Waterdeep, and there'd been even fewer in Luskan. Lark had little experience of the Fair Folk, and this willow-slim beauty seemed woefully out of place in a South Ward dining-den. She looked as if she should be wearing fine gowns and reclining on silken pillows idly strumming a lyre with a peacock quill.
Lark grimaced at that fancy. Such thoughts were for idle lords and their fancy ladies, not a practical worker like herself!
The elf emerged from the kitchen bearing a large, steaming platter of sea harake, and Lark found herself hurrying over to help.
"Let me carry that," she said firmly, taking its handles. "'Tis hot; there's no sense in you spoiling your hands."
Ezriel gave her a keen look, as if she suspected mockery. Seeing none, she extended her hands, palms up.
"That's kind of you, but as you can see, I'm no delicate flower." She ran her thumb proudly over the calluses on the fingertips of her left hand then the hard ridge on her upper palm.
Lark's smile froze. Both of her own hands were similarly marked from years of handwork. She glanced quickly at the elf's right palm.
Its pale skin was as smooth as a courtesan's, and the elf's left forearm, though slender, was slightly more muscled than the right. Lark knew of only one kind of work that left such signs, and it didn't involve serving tables.
The smile she gave Ezriel was wry. "Forgive me my misjudgment. I'll serve this fish to the hearthside table if you'll get their drinks."
The elf nodded and glided over to the bar. Lark watched her from the corner of her eye as she served the harake.
At a table near the bar, a trio of master tailors was laughing uproariously over their fourth round of mead. One pinched Ezriel as she walked past.
She whirled, left hand darting to her hip, and the flat warrior's stare she leveled at the tailor made her eyes look as cold as green ice.
Lark looked away quickly, laughing perhaps a bit too heartily at whatever cleverness the nearest harake-loving Calishite merchant had just said to her. She dodged deftly away from his groping hand-and froze as she saw Elaith Craulnober, sitting alone at a small table near the door.
He lifted one elegant hand in an imperious beckoning. Drawing a deep breath, Lark threaded her way to him, snatching up one of the small dishes of salt-smoked mussels that served as this night's thirst-starter.
"Evening, milord," she said brightly, setting the dish before him. "What may I bring you to drink with this?"
The moon elf eyed the grayish blobs with distaste. "The only fitting choice would be a large flagon of hemlock. Take this excrement away and bring me some deep-ocean fish, prepared as simply as possible. A bottle of elverquisst if you have it. If not, a pale wine, unwatered."
"Of course. Anything else?"
"What do you have?" he asked softly, his look making it clear he meant information, not seafood.
"Very little," she murmured, bending low to take up the spurned mussels. "Several workmen were killed or injured in the brawl, and Dyre's had time for little else, but someone followed his daughters-and me, of course-wherever we went today."
"Don't you find it of passing interest that the proprietor of Maelstrom's Notch has taken to hiring warrior-elves to befriend the help?"
"How did you-" She broke off abruptly, not wanting to offend him.
Elaith looked faintly amused. "She's as out of place here as a unicorn among cow rothe. No offense intended."
Lark bit back a retort. After all, hadn't she thought much the same?
"Give your shadow no more thought," the Serpent murmured. "I'll see to that matter. In return, I need you to relieve young Lord Hawkwinter of the silver-hued charm he wears about his neck."
As Lark nodded, it occurred to her that they'd been talking for longer than she could readily explain away. She glanced toward the steward-and met his hard, unfriendly stare.
Turning back to Elaith, she blurted, "Begging your pardon, milord, but perhaps you should pinch my backside, or… something."
Silvery eyebrows rose.
"To explain why I've been here so long," she explained hastily. "They expect serving wenches to parry men's advances. If there are none, some will wonder what else might have passed between us."
His hand shot out as swift as any striking serpent. A quick tug at her wrist brought her tumbling into his lap. Before Lark could even draw startled breath, his lips claimed hers.
For a moment all she could think of was the shock of staring into those descending amber eyes. Now she knew precisely how a hare must feel as a hawk glided in…
There came a light caress down her back, as if the elf was writing on her with his fingertips.
And the world dissolved into darkness, in an overwhelming wave of something- something wonderful and terrifying at the same time-that swept over her like a sudden storm, and left her weak, shuddering, and bewildered. Blinking up at Elaith's dark smile, Lark fought her way free of… whatever it was and leaped to her feet, heart pounding.
"You used magic on me!"
The elf gave her an unreadable smile. "Or… something," he replied, his voice managing perfect mimicry of her own.
Elaith watched as Lark flounced to the bar, offended dignity in every stride. She held a low-voiced but heated conversation with the steward, during which his gaze shifted more than once between his mountainous brawl-queller and Elaith, as if measuring the bouncer's chances against the elf. Finally he shook his head. Lark pointed at one of the other serving girls, there was more talk, and the steward nodded.
All of this meant: No, he wouldn't have Elaith Craulnober thrown out, but he would allow Lark to send another lass to serve Elaith's meal.
The Serpent smiled approvingly. Yes, the wench was clever and quick-witted. Now if she proved light-fingered enough to get the slipshield from Taeros Hawkwinter without drawing attention, he'd be truly impressed.
The Gemcloaks were proving entertaining indeed. Young Korvaun Helmfast was unearthing information about Elaith's properties with impressive speed, digging into the Serpent's business with a determination usually managed only by dwarf miners. By now he undoubtedly knew Elaith held title to both the Slow Cheese and the tallhouse formerly owned by Danilo Thann-or to be more precise, those two piles of rubble. It would be interesting to see what young Lord Helmfast did with that information.
More interesting still was a slipshield right here in Waterdeep.
Did Taeros Hawkwinter know what sort of treasure he wore? Most likely not; its magic was nigh-impossible to detect.
Elaith twisted the small, silver ring that had first warned him of a slipshield at work, prompting him to seek out its bearer and confirm with his own eyes that a noble pup still wet behind the ears had the audacity to wear the winterhawk badge, the slipshield that had once protected King Zaor himself. The boy's family name, Hawkwinter, made a bad jest of one of Evermeet's great secrets.
Slipshields had never been plentiful. Borne only by royal guards of Evermeet who might have to act as a decoy for one of the royal family, they were so secret that, supposedly, only the ruling Moonflowers and their guards knew what a slipshield was. No one in Waterdeep-no one-should have been able to perceive the true nature of what the Hawkwinter carried.
Elaith knew it all too well. The silver ring on the smallest finger of his left hand allowed him to perceive slipshield spells. He'd left a similar ring behind when he'd fled the island kingdom all those seasons ago-it wouldn't have occurred to him, even in disgrace, to do otherwise-but Amnestria, his princess, his lost love, had brought him hers when she followed him across the seas, in hopes that it would help him remember what he'd once been.
Elaith thrust such thoughts from his mind to return to the puzzle of the slipshield. How had this so-secret creation of elves found its way to Waterdeep?
He lifted the goblet a nervous servant placed before him and sipped absently. So rare a magic; almost as rare as the humans of Waterdeep who might have dealings with fair Evermeet…
Laeral. Laeral Silverhand, the Lord Archmage's lady. She was a friend to Amlaruil of Evermeet. Perhaps the elf queen had granted this magic after the sahuagin attack to aid in the city's protection. It was unlikely anyone on Evermeet or in Waterdeep knew that a certain Serpent could detect slipshields.
Abruptly Elaith rose from his table and stalked out into the night. Its shadows swallowed him even before the angry steward emerged to send men rushing after the patron who'd paid not a nib.
They found no sign of the notorious elf, but the steward would have shivered to learn how close to him Elaith lounged, watching unseen as he waited with elven patience for the Notch to empty.
It was a long time later when Lark emerged alone, heading north with her light, quick stride. One of the Notch's better brawl-quellers stepped out of a doorway to trail behind her. Elaith was not at all surprised to see the green-eyed elf server emerge from the night to follow them both.
The Serpent joined the tail of this silent procession, a discreet distance behind the elf. When it became clear Lark was going straight to her dismal rooming house, Elaith took a parallel street, gliding along swiftly. Choosing a side way overlooked by no eyes he knew of, he stepped out right in front of the elf warrior.
For a moment she stared at him, her green eyes wide with wonder. Then, to Elaith's astonishment and chagrin, she went down on one knee, fisting her sword hand and touching it to her heart-clan-and then her forehead-a warrior's salute. Archaic tribute not seen at court in Evermeet for many summers, but Elaith knew it well. Old ways died hard among the dark green fastnesses of Evermeet's northern wilderlands.
"Who are you?" he demanded. "Do I know you?"
"Ezriel Seawind, my lord," she replied respectfully, "and no, we've never met."
Elaith stood absolutely still. He knew that name. The Seawinds were one of the clans of fisherfolk who lived on his ancestral lands, in the shadow of the scorched shell of Castle Craulnober.
How inconvenient. He'd told Lark he'd deal with those following her. Human liege lords slaughtered their peasants from time to time, but such things were considered bad manners on Evermeet. However…
"We're not on Evermeet," he said quietly.
The young warrior rose, obviously assuming that he was dispensing with elven formalities.
"I started training the year before you resigned as captain of the king's guard, but I heard all the tales about you," she said, hero worship bright in her eyes, "so I came to the mainland to seek adventure, as you did."
Her words both pained and amused him. So that was the tale told to explain away his sudden departure! It was, he supposed, as good as any.
"Yet I've heard many troubling things about you since I came to this city," Ezriel added softly. Her eyes searched his, almost pleading with him to deny them.
"Humans say many strange things," he replied lightly. "I'll give you my hand on that."
Ezriel Seawind read the answer she sought in his words, and took his offered hand eagerly.
Elaith's grip tightened. Ezriel's face went slack… and she slid to the street like a prance-puppet whose strings had been cut.
He held up his hand, palm out, to show her the small pin protruding from one of his rings. A tiny, glistening drop fell from its hollow point as it slid back, disappearing into the thick band.
"Statha. The Bane of Elves. A poison no rarer than it should be," he told her matter-of-factly.
Those trembling lips couldn't reply, of course, but her eyes, oh, her eyes…
He wasn't prepared for the hurt he saw there or his own reaction to it. He'd been betraying allies for decades, but for some reason this doomed young warrior's silent accusation struck him like a blow to the heart.
He could see her tremendous struggle against muscles that could no longer obey her. Green eyes darted this way and that, their flicker slowing as the statha halted even that last fading freedom.
Suddenly Elaith understood what she wanted, what she was fighting to say. Her gaze went repeatedly to the sword on his hip, then back to herself, and then to the sword again.
Of course. This painless, bloodless death was no fitting end for a warrior of Evermeet. She had lived by the sword and wished to die the same way.
She lived as he once had lived and desired the death he no longer deserved.
Elaith thrust his half-drawn weapon back into its scabbard and made a sharp, impatient gesture over a bag at his belt. Its strings flew open, and a small vial soared up into his waiting hand.
Serpent-swift, he unstoppered it and dropped to one knee beside the dying elf. Taking her hand, he poured a few drops of shimmering fluid onto the tiny wound.
Faint motes of light seemed to dance under her pale skin, racing away through her. After a moment she twitched once then sat up, face uncertain but leaving her hand in his.
"What's said of me is true," Elaith said quietly. "Having heard the tales, you were a fool to trust me."
"And yet I live," she breathed, waiting for his explanation.
"Things in Waterdeep are seldom what they seem."
At this, Ezriel did tug her hand free. She rose to her feet, and he rose with her.
"So by poisoning me, you were cautioning me to walk with care?" Her voice was low but incredulous. "Forgive me, Lord Craulnober, but that was a stern lesson. I am neither child nor fool, incapable of learning through the hearing of words."
"Then hear these: An elf lord of Evermeet might rule nothing more than a sprawling, complex, and largely unsavory business empire."
Ezriel regarded him. "Yet you rule it, do you not? At the heart, is this not much the same?"
Her quiet question left Elaith blinking. Why indeed? He'd been wont to regard the City of Splendors-such ignorant arrogance in these human names-as a rich treasure chest to plunder, its folk mere minions and victims-in-waiting. He followed city laws when it was convenient to do so and protected Waterdeep only when his interests were at stake.
Why, then, did his absence from Waterdeep during the sahuagin attack grate at him so?
If Evermeet were attacked, he'd empty his vast caches of wealth and magic to aid her. He'd gladly die in her defense, as befitted a former captain of King Zaor's guard, but Waterdeep wasn't Evermeet. He had dwellings here-more than a few-but it was not, and never would be, home.
But then, how congenial had he ever found his family holdings? The Craulnober lands held little charm for him. He'd never bothered to rebuild the ancestral keep, firestruck when he was a babe in arms. Queen Amlaruil had taken him in as a ward of the court, raising him among her own children. Where Amlaruil was, where Amnestria once had been-that was the only home Elaith's heart knew, and he looked to find no other.
Yet he ruled the Craulnober lands, did he not? To this day, he met with his steward each solstice to discuss matters of import to the simple folk who farmed and hunted northernmost Evermeet, and fished the waters about the outer isles. He did these things not from any deep love of those wild places, but because he owed a duty to his ancestral lands and the folk who dwelt there. His folk.
How was Waterdeep any different? He'd inherited here no lands or titles but was widely acknowledged as a crime lord of considerable power and influence. Could this human cesspool rightfully expect him to assume a lord's responsibilities and obligations to the city he'd plundered for so long?
"Lord Craulnober?" Ezriel's voice shattered his thinking.
"To whom to you report?" he asked briskly.
"I'm now a Hawkwinter hiresword."
"No fitting position for a swordmaiden of Evermeet. I'll settle things with Lord Hawkwinter and see you more suitably employed-in one of my legitimate enterprises."
Green eyes glowed with excitement. "Yes, I would see my agreement with the Hawkwinters concluded with honor. Beyond that, I care little for human laws."
"Lack of regard for human laws? Shocking!" Elaith took her hand again and tucked it companionably under his arm. "Walk with me, and tell me more."
Morning sun was stealing into the kitchen as Naoni wiped the last mug dry, and Faendra danced merrily into the room, sparkling-fresh despite her sleepless night.
She rolled her eyes. "Gennior finally left. I'm not entirely certain, but he might think we're betrothed."
"If so, Father will beat the notion out of him before highsun," Naoni said calmly. "What've you learned?"
Faendra sat on a crate and smoothed her grey skirt. "Father hired no guards. I doubt he had one of his men watch us, either, as none of them gossiped or bragged about it."
"So you spent the better part of the night charming a gluemaker's apprentice for nothing?"
"Not exactly," Faendra said, examining her fingernails with a smug little smile. "Gennior's cousin serves at Hawkwinter Hall. It seems Lord Taeros hired a guard on behalf of his friend Korvaun Helmfast, who put up the coin for it."
Naoni felt the blood drain from her face, leaving her lightheaded and dizzy. "He's paying to have me… us watched?"
"Protected, more likely."
"I've no desire for his money, nor need of his protection," Naoni whispered, so enraged she was scarcely aware she was clenching her fists, "and I shall tell him so… as soon as I change into something more suitable for an audience with nobility."
She stalked off, pretending she didn't hear Faen calling teasingly after her, "Or to cleave closer to the truth: As soon as you change into a more fetching gown!"
The scream shattered Lark's dreams into bright shards.
As they fell past, forgotten, she found herself awake, bolt upright in bed, heart pounding.
A second shriek brought remembrance, fury, and her wits, all at once. Her landlady's new rooster, a large, handsome bird with pure white feathers and a keening crow piercing enough to make a banshee rise up and applaud, was an early riser with no respect for hard-working lasses who'd fallen into bed only two or three bells ago. "Blast it all to the Abyss and back!" Lark swore, pounding the bed with both fists. "Bugger that wretched fowl on a leeward run!"
She went on in this vein for some time, until thumping on the wall told her she'd awakened-and possibly offended-the sailor next door.
Muttering dire threats of chicken stew, Lark tossed aside her covers and stumbled to the window. If the sun had risen, its rays had yet to reach the small fenced yard behind her rooming house. A streetlamp, visible over the low roof of the stable next door, sparked and guttered as the last of the night's oil burned dry.
No sense burrowing back into the warmth; she was needed at the Dyres' by sunrise. Slamming and bolting her shutters, Lark fumbled for the flint to light her current candle-stub.
Its feeble circle of light reached all of her walls; Lark's room was barely large enough for its narrow cot and tiny table. A chest under the bed held her smallclothes and ribbons, and her two changes of clothing hung from hooks on the wall. Her carefully hoarded coins were in the vault in the Warrens, and they'd stay there until she'd earned enough to buy free of this place. This life.
Pouring water into her chipped washbasin, Lark dipped in a scrap of linen to wash. Out of long habit, she lingered over the mark of indenture on her upper arm, scrubbing it vigorously though she'd learned as a child that nothing she could do would make it go away. Someday she'd have coin enough for magic to remove the brand, but first must come her own shop and her own rooms… and before that, this day's work ahead.
She dressed swiftly, as the cock crowed several times more. She sent dark thoughts its way as she set off through the swiftly awakening streets.
To her surprise, Faendra met her at the kitchen door, still wearing her gray mourning gown. In silence she tilted her head meaningfully in the direction of her sister.
Naoni was sitting on the high kitchen stool, lacing her best slippers with sharp, impatient movements. Despite the early hour, she wore a fine pale green gown.
She looked up, her eyes bright as angry stars. "I'm glad you're early. If you'll help Faendra press the cheese, we'll change the mattress straw when I return."
Lark glanced at the younger Dyre sister, eyebrow crooked quizzically. Faendra rolled her eyes and towed Lark into the buttery. "It's about the man who's following us," she whispered.
"There's no need to do aught," Lark murmured, seeing again Elaith Craulnober speaking his promise. "He'll bother us no more."
"Good, but 'tis only one side of the coin. 'Twas Lord Helmfast hired the guard!"
"Ah." Lark's smile was less than nice. "Such a generous gift, and given with no thought of repayment."
"Generous indeed," Faen agreed, ignoring Lark's biting tone, "but like you, Naoni always thinks the worst of wealthy men. She assumes he's buying, not giving, and she's determined to let him know she's not for sale at this price or any other."
"Good for her. Better yet, I'll carry that message and save her the wear on her fine shoes and good name."
Faendra whispered in Lark's ear, "And take away her excuse to visit Korvaun Helmfast?"
Lark blinked. "Ye gods! Thus blows the wind?"
"Aye. She'll deny it, of course. Yet I've-"
"Faen!" Naoni called.