Maiden of Pain, page 20
Ovros followed the hallway behind the library to the right until it came to a flight of metal stairs that led both up and down. He began to climb, the clanging of his steps echoing off the stones of hall. The four looked at each other before Kestus started up the stairs. Muctos shrugged and began his ascent, followed by Kohtakah, who navigated his crutches awkwardly. With a quick look back down the hall, Ythnel brought up the rear.
The stairs ended at a landing with another door. Again, Ovros put his medallion to the wood and spoke the command to open it. Another hallway stretched beyond, lined with doors on either side every ten feet or so. Ovros stopped before the third on their left and knocked.
“Come in,” came the response in a deep, commanding voice. The door swung open at the librarian’s touch, and he stood aside to let the four enter.
“I’ll be here when you are finished,” he said and turned to leave.
The room they were in appeared to be some sort of lounge. There were four overstuffed chairs set about the room, each with their own end table and candelabra. Thin bookshelves stood against the walls at odd intervals. Another door stood closed in the far wall.
The dominant feature of the room, however, was the imposing figure who stood in the center of it. Thick, shoulder-length gray hair framed a square face and was held back by a gem-encrusted gold band at the temples and forehead. Bushy eyebrows drooped over sparkling eyes, and a neatly trimmed beard ran along the jawline before surrounding a broad mouth. A thick cape dyed red hung over a loose silk robe of deep purple.
“I apologize for all the secrecy,” the man said in the same strong voice Ythnel had heard from outside. She started in surprise just the same then blushed when she realized she had been staring, captivated by the physical specimen before her. “If my presence here, my connection to you, were to be known, much planning would be ruined and lives possibly lost.”
“Who are you?” There was something in Kestus’s voice, as if he already knew the answer, but couldn’t believe it. “We know Crarl Ormane is a phantom.”
“I am Hercubes Jedea, king of Mordulkin.”
Kestus nodded slowly, his face betraying his inability to come to terms with the revelation.
“So you were going to help us,” Muctos breathed.
“Yes, I answered Kestus’s inquiries through a third party, so as to remain anonymous. Don’t look so shocked,” Hercubes said to Kestus, in response to the furrowing of the mage’s brow. “I’ve known about the society for a while, but I didn’t dare to make contact until everything was in place. In fact, I know more than you may realize, Kestus Aentius, Muctos Dapri-tus, and Ythnel Duumin, though I am surprised to see the werecreature is still with you.”
Ythnel could not keep her jaw from dropping open. It was one thing for him to know the mages’ names, but how would he know about her. She had never set foot outside of Thay until a few tendays ago.
“Well, you waited too long, your majesty.” Anger bolstered Kestus’s voice, and there was a fire in his eyes. “The society is dead.”
“But you are here,” Hercubes replied, “and that will do.” He met Kestus’s gaze, but his voice softened as he continued. “I am truly sorry for the loss of your friends. Do not turn your anger upon me, though. The Karanoks are the ones responsible. We can still exact vengeance upon them.”
“I’m listening,” Kestus said.
“Mordulkin and Luthcheq have long been enemies, as I am sure you are aware. While we have been able to turn away invasions, we were too small to mount an offensive of our own. So we waited, biding our time until the fanaticism of the Karanoks created enough instability in the city that we could strike.
“That time has come. What we lack in armies, we make up for in arcane resources. This academy, which my ancestor built, has produced many skilled wizards loyal to Mordulkin and her cause. Luthcheq’s edict against magic will end, and the Karanoks will be destroyed.
“There is one obstacle still in our path, however.”
“Witchweed,” Kestus answered.
“Yes, witchweed. The Karanoks have enough of the cursed plant to stop a legion of wizards. We cannot succeed as long as it remains in the Karanoks’ possession. My agents have learned the location of three stockpiles kept within the city limits. If those were eliminated, the forces of Mordulkin could sweep in and take Luthcheq long before new crops grew come next harvest.
“That was what I was hoping your society would accomplish. It is what I’m still hoping you will accomplish.”
“What about your agents?” Muctos asked.
“Unfortunately, I have not heard from them in tendays. I fear they may have been discovered and disposed of.”
“And you expect us to go back into that city of madness? Forget it. Unlike Kestus, I lost everything when I left. I’m not about to throw away my life trying to return.”
“I understand,” Hercubes said. “You will be welcome here in Mordulkin, if you wish to stay. What about you?” he asked Kestus.
“I’ll do it,” Kestus said. “I owe it to the others to see this through. I’m not sure if I can do it alone, though.”
“I would go, but I think I would be more of a hindrance in my present condition,” Kohtakah said, disappointment thick in his voice.
“I’ll go,” Ythnel said. They all turned to look at her. “There is retribution to be meted out and a debt to be paid.” Ythnel braced herself for the inevitable protest, but all she got were knowing nods from both Kestus and Hercubes.
“Then it is decided. There are a few details to see to, but they can be taken care of in the morning. Tonight you will return to your rooms at the Flaming Griffon and sleep well. What aid I can give will be waiting for you when you leave.
“Farewell, my friends. May Mystra watch over you.”
The carriage rolled past the East Gate and into the city at a leisurely pace. The streets of Luthcheq were filled with revelry, its citizens out in force to celebrate Midwinter. Ythnel pulled her fur jacket tightly around her; the carriage did little to keep the chill of the air out, or the dull roar of the festivities.
“It will probably snow before the night is over,” Kestus commented from his seat opposite Ythnel. “There’s enough moisture in the air.”
Ythnel nodded, wondering what snow would look like. It was a distracting thought, and she shook her head to be rid of it. They were here on dangerous business. A misstep would mean the end. Nervous, she played with the ring given to her by Hercubes Jedea. The three rounded, red stones embedded in the silver band were smooth under her fingertips. The ring stored spells that the wizard had told her would aid in her mission. She had already cast one as they waited in line to enter the city. Her hand moved subconsciously to touch the soft, unmarred skin of her right cheek.
“You look … beautiful.”
The pause caught Ythnel’s attention, but Kestus looked away when their eyes met.
“If I had never met you before, I’d … I’d never recognize you.”
He was right, of course. She looked nothing like the woman who had come to Luthcheq as a governess. Her golden hair was full and shiny, falling in waves just past her shoulders. Deep blue eyes looked out from long eyelashes, separated by a button nose and complemented by lush, pouting lips. A blouse and trousers of flimsy, pale blue silk clung to curves she was not born with. It was all a ruse, bait for a trap.
The carriage came to a halt with a lurch. Kestus opened the door and stepped out then turned to lend a hand to Ythnel. Their breaths were puffs of white in the air between them.
“Are you ready?” Kestus asked, continuing after she nodded. “Naeros favors three taverns in his carousing: the Black Mercy, the Vampire’s Tooth, and Bale’s Bones. Two of them are a few blocks north of here; the other is on the southern end of town. Be careful. I’m not going to be there to back you up.”
“No, I mean I won’t be helping with the rest. Taking care of the witchweed is going to be up
“I understand,” Ythnel said calmly. “You do what you have to. May Loviatar bless your endeavor.” She gave him a small kiss on the cheek and stood back. There was a question in his eyes, and his mouth twisted as though he wanted to say something, but he merely nodded and got back into the carriage. Ythnel watched it pull off down the street and disappear into the frolicking masses. Then she turned and headed north.
The Vampire’s Tooth was a sailor’s tavern. It sat right across from the piers, a long, squat building that blended well with the dockside warehouses surrounding it. Thin slashes of light escaped through the warped wood of shuttered windows and the battered door. Ythnel’s nose wrinkled at the unique combination of salty sea air and fermented alcohol that exuded from the Tooth like the poisonous breath of some great green dragon. It was hard for her to imagine that a self-important noble such as Naeros would patronize such an establishment. Of course, the most unlikely people always wound up where you least expected them. Some of the visitors to the manor back in Bezantur would have certainly raised eyebrows were their appetites ever to be made known publicly.
Steeling herself, Ythnel pushed through the door and hit a wall of sound. What had been only a muffled hodgepodge of noise outside transformed into a roar of distinct activities: the knocking of wooden tankards, the booming of raucous laughter, the skidding of heavy furniture dragged across the floor, and the angry shouting of patrons demanding the fulfillment of their desires. Ythnel stood in the doorway, stunned. Waves of silence rippled out from her as those closest took notice and all eyes were turned upon her.
“If you’re lost, darlin’, I’ll be more’n happy ta take ya home.” The anonymous catcall brought a chorus of chuckles and snapped Ythnel out of her momentary daze. Disguised as she was, she could not afford to be caught off guard in a place like this. Confidence would be her greatest weapon. Holding her chin up, Ythnel strode toward the bar, ignoring the lecherous leers from patrons and the hateful glares of the wenches who normally serviced the Tooth’s clientele. She scanned the booths and tables as she crossed the sawdust-covered floor but saw no sign of Naeros.
When she reached the bar, there was nowhere to stand or sit. A tall, husky man with a clean-shaved pate and a gold hoop in his right ear shoved another patron who had passed out on a stool. A puddle of drool had formed around his head as it lay on the bar. The push sent the unconscious drunk to the floor, where he continued to snore. Ythnel nodded and took the seat, ordering a tankard of ale from the scruffy bartender.
“So what brings a pretty lady like yourself to this fine establishment?” the husky man asked.
“I’m meeting someone here,” Ythnel said, avoiding the man’s gaze by searching the crowd.
“Ya shore ya in da right place?” the tavern master asked when he returned with her drink.
“Actually, no,” she replied, turning to look at the round face covered in splotches of short, bristly hair. “Is Lord Naeros here?”
“I ain’t seen ’im,” the bartender said, a knowing grin growing on his mouth, “an’ I don’ reckon ’e gonna be ’ere tonight.” Ythnel nodded, set down her untouched tankard along with a few coins, and got up to leave.
“Where you goin’, pretty?” The husky man was suddenly in front of her, his stained vest and the barely contained flesh underneath filling her view. “Just ’cause your ‘lord’ ain’t here don’t mean you gotta leave.”
“You’re quite right,” Ythnel said, smiling. “I could certainly enjoy myself with such a fine specimen as yourself.” She leaned in, her eyes smoldering, and wet her lips with a lick of her tongue.
“Now, that’s what I’m talking abou—uhn.” The man grunted as Ythnel delivered a blow to his solar plexus, followed with a heel to his left knee. She gave him another fist just under his sternum, and the man crumpled to the floor on his side. Ythnel stepped over him, ignoring the gaping jaws of the remaining patrons, and left the Vampire’s Tooth.
The Black Mercy was only a few blocks west of where Kestus had dropped her off. It was a flat-roofed, single-story building of white stone from which rolled the sounds of merrymaking to mix with the noise of the crowds in the streets outside. Ythnel stood across the street for a few moments, watching well-dressed men and women coming and going from the tavern. With its strategic position near the palace and the apparently higher class of clientele, Ythnel was certain she would find her prey here. She made her way through the celebrants and entered the tavern.
A minstrel played upon a stage to the left. There were tables spread across the center of the taproom, booths on the right wall, and the bar in the back. She spotted Naeros almost immediately. Dressed in a fur-trimmed cloak over a black tunic with the Karanok crest embroidered on his left breast, he sat at a table on the far side of the stage near the bar. A wench snuggled in his lap while he drank and joked with three of his thugs. Ythnel let her gaze stay on Naeros long enough to make eye contact when he finally looked her way. Then she casually looked away and headed for the other end of the bar, feeling his eyes on her the whole way. Ordering a tallglass of wine, she turned to watch the minstrel’s performance, keeping track of Naeros from the periphery of her vision. In predictable fashion, he unceremoniously dumped the wench as he stood and sauntered toward her, waving off his henchman when they rose hesitantly to follow. Ythnel continued to ignore him until he spoke.
“I don’t believe I’ve seen you around before. My name is Naeros Karanok.” He offered her a smile she was sure he thought was his most charming.
“I know who you are,” she said, sparing him a quick glance before taking a sip of her wine and returning her attention to the stage, a coy smile on her lips.
“Well, then, you have me at a disadvantage, and I hate being at a disadvantage. Might I know your name?”
“I am Reary.”
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Reary.” He took her free hand and brought it to his lips. “Would you care to join me?” He motioned to the wall of booths.
“They are all full, my lord.”
“Something I will remedy immediately.” Naeros moved to the nearest both and cleared his throat. The occupants looked at who was standing before them and quickly vacated. Naeros smiled at Ythnel and offered her a seat first; then he sat opposite her. A serving girl appeared, and Naeros ordered a bottle of wine for them. When the serving girl returned with the bottle and an empty tallglass, Naeros refilled Ythnel’s glass then poured his own. He sniffed the bouquet then clinked his glass off hers and took a sip.
“So I haven’t seen you before, and your name is not common to this region. I’m guessing you’re a visitor to our fair city. Is this your first time to Luthcheq?”
Ythnel took a sip of her wine and smiled. The man was quite astute. She would have to be careful and not give herself away. “No, my lord. I’ve been here once before.”
“And what brought you back, business or pleasure?”
“A little of both. Truth be told, you’re the reason I came back.” Ythnel knew she was taking a gamble. Being this forward might put him off or make him suspicious.
Fortunately, it appeared his ego was quite large enough to accept that a beautiful woman would come back to Luthcheq just to meet him. He arched his eyebrow at Ythnel and leaned toward her, placing his hand over hers.
“Really? Why would that be?”
“You have quite a … reputation. I wanted to see such a man for myself.” Ythnel smiled through her eyelashes, her foot rubbing against Naeros’s calf under the table.
“Well, you’ve seen me now. What do you think?”
“That there is more to you than I could possibly learn about sitting here in this tavern.”
“That, my dear, is certainly true, but I think I have a solution. Why don’t we spend the rest of the evening at my tower?” Without waiting for an answer, Naeros slid from the boo
They walked out of the Black Mercy alone, Naeros having dismissed his men. His arm and cloak were draped over Ythnel’s shoulder as they maneuvered through the crowd. She half-listened as he went on about himself, going over in her head what she wanted to happen next. So far, everything was moving in the direction she had planned. For a moment, she wondered what Kestus was doing and if she would see him again.
That train of thought was interrupted by a sudden crawling of the skin between Ythnel’s shoulder blades. Someone was watching them. She glanced behind them but couldn’t see anyone suspicious amongst the revelers.
“What is it?” Naeros asked, stopping.
“Oh, nothing really,” Ythnel lied. “I’m just amazed at the enthusiasm of the people. It must be freezing out here, yet no one seems to care.”
“Chessentans do love their celebrations, and the citizens of Luthcheq even more so.” Naeros smiled and led her on again. They crossed the manicured grounds of Naeros’s tower, the sounds of the Midwinter festival suddenly distant as they passed under the great trees that formed a semicircular barrier between the Karanok home and city. They stopped before a single wooden door at the base of the tower. While Naeros fumbled for his key, movement back in the trees caught Ythnel’s eye. She studied the shadows but couldn’t make out anything except thick trunks and leafless branches. A click signaled Naeros’s success at unlocking the door, which he held open for Ythnel. Shaking her head at whatever phantoms her nerves were conjuring, Ythnel turned and walked inside.
Therescales weaved his way through the celebrants, his cloak wrapped tightly around him, his focus straight ahead. It was time to leave Luthcheq. Jaerios had been dropping some not-so-subtle hints that Therescales’ usefulness to him was quickly waning. With the Mage Society gone, that left Therescales as the only remaining wizard within the city, and Jaerios was ready to concentrate his efforts on purging the arcane elsewhere. He did not want to have to worry anymore about its presence at home.