Maiden of Pain, page 3
“Well, if you’ll excuse us, Aznar, there are some other people I wanted to speak with.”
Aznar blinked, just now aware that the conversation had run its course and Mylra was turning to leave. What was the name of the woman with her? He realized he hadn’t even asked. Mylra was already involved with another group across the room before he could open his mouth.
“Does anybody know who that woman with Mylra is?” he asked the others around him. Everyone shook their heads or said that they did not. Aznar excused himself and started toward Mylra and her companion, but he was intercepted by Lord Brusjen after only a couple of steps. The elderly patriarch of some minor noble house momentarily blocked Aznar’s view of his objective, and the young Red Wizard craned his neck over and around the old man in an attempt to reacquire Mylra’s position. She was nowhere to be seen.
Desperate, Aznar cut off Brusjen, physically moving him aside. He scanned the room and caught a flash of green silk exiting on the far side. The young woman trailed behind, but she stopped in the doorway and looked back, right at Aznar. Their eyes locked, and she smiled then followed her mistress out. Before he could chase after them, Milurkah Ilvable, a fellow student who had practically thrown herself at him this past tenday, snaked her arm around his and pulled him aside. Aznar frowned but resigned himself to the fact he would not learn the young woman’s identity that evening. He allowed himself to be led away, and even worked up a smile at the thought that he would at least be able to take his frustrations out on Milurkah tonight.
He contacted the headmistress a few days later and was told the woman was a newly appointed Maiden of the Lash named Yenael Duumin. Mylra invited him to the manor to meet her. After participating in one of their pain rites, he and Yenael spent the night together. For the next year they shared a bed.
Then one day, without explanation, she disappeared.
Other things had kept him occupied: his rise to zulkir, the Salamander War, and becoming tharchion of Bezantur. He was never at a loss for companionship during those years and hardly thought of Yenael.
So it took him somewhat by surprise when she resurfaced just a few years ago, requesting his aid in a plot to replace Mylra as headmistress. He readily agreed, realizing the advantage of having a powerful temple in his debt.
While the ink dried on the parchment, Aznar mouthed a cantrip to summon his chamberlain. The man appeared in the doorway as Aznar pressed his seal into the hot wax on the back of the envelope. It was time to call in a debt.
“What is your bidding, O Mighty Tharchion, Mightier Zulkir?” the chamberlain asked with a bow as Aznar rose and walked over to him.
“Have this delivered immediately to Headmistress Yenael at Loviatar’s Manor. I’ll be in my bedchambers. Send her there when she arrives.”
The Year of Lightning Storms (1374 DR)
Prisus Saelis leaned against the port rail and watched the ship pull up to the pier, his breath visible before him as he exhaled into the chill air. A slight breeze ruffled his sandy hair; he shivered and pulled tight the collar of his wool overcoat. These trips were bittersweet. No city could compare to the clean, white stone buildings or the magnificent marble sculptures that lined the streets of home, certainly not Bezantur. From his vantage point, he could see the slave markets just beyond the wharf. Masses of filthy bodies milled about in pens while auctioneers yelled out bids. The markets rivaled the many temples as the dominant feature of Thay’s largest city. He could see the spires of various religious structures rising above the tangled skyline. The whole city was a chaotic jigsaw whose pieces didn’t quite fit. No, Bezantur was definitely not Luthcheq. But much as he loved the sites of Luthcheq, they reminded Prisus of his wife, gone now these past five years.
With a sigh, Prisus warded off the homesickness and melancholy that typically followed these reveries. He was here on business; best to get it done quickly and be off. The ship had docked, and a gangplank was secured from the deck to the pier. He motioned his manservant, Leco, toward the bags and made his way down to the city. The pair waded through the bustling crowds toward Myulon’s, the only inn where Prisus felt even a little safe. It was located near the North Gate, which meant passing by the Central Citadel, home of Aznar Thrul, a Red Wizard and ruler of the Priador. A mix of human, gnoll, and goblin guards lounged against the black stone of the massive building, harassing pedestrians who wandered too close. Prisus made sure to keep his distance.
When they arrived at Myulon’s, a two-story building of gray stone with a tiled roof, Prisus went straight to the front desk and checked in.
“Master Saelis, welcome. I did not think we would see you again until the spring.” Myulon was tall and lanky. His head was shaved, but the sallow skin of his scalp was bereft of tattoos. He wore the same smile Prisus remembered, broad and unsettling, as though the innkeeper knew something you did not. Myulon handed Prisus a note along with the room key.
“You be careful, Master Saelis,” Myulon said. Prisus frowned, not sure what to make of the innkeeper’s words.
“Oh, I did not read the note,” Myulon quickly reassured, “but I saw who delivered it. Those types of maidens bring only pain. I could find you a nice girl, if you like.”
“Thank you, Myulon. I’ll remember that.” Thoroughly confused, Prisus climbed the stairs to his room. He unlocked the door, entered, went immediately to the writing desk, and broke the wax seal on the letter.
If you wish to go through with our transaction, come to Loviatar’s Manor at your earliest convenience after arriving in Bezantur. Ask for me.
Prisus was slightly taken aback. He was aware almost every god in Faerûn had a temple or shrine of some sort in Bezantur, but what little he knew from his wife’s involvement with the church of Loviatar still gave him pause. The goddess wasn’t called the Maiden of Pain for nothing.
“I don’t like this, Master Saelis.” Leco had brought the luggage in and now stood over Prisus’s shoulder, reading the note. “Do you really want to bring a Loviatan back into our household? Remember what it was like when Mistress Saelis—Waukeen bless her soul—was involved with that cult?”
Prisus sighed and nodded. Unfortunately, there weren’t alternatives. Without his wife, their daughter, Iuna, needed a governess. The poor girl was not adjusting well to her mother’s death. They had gone through four women in the past five years because of her mood swings. Finding new help locally was suddenly all but impossible. So Prisus started searching elsewhere, but a steady increase in taxes by the Karanoks made coin tight, and many of the candidates’ fees were too expensive. He’d almost given up when he was contacted by a woman named Yenael.
Prisus left the inn right away. It was already late afternoon, and only a fool walked the streets of Bezantur after sundown without an armed escort.
The manor was just a couple of blocks east of the Central Citadel. It was built into a hillside, with extensive grounds consisting of graveled walkways that wound through well-manicured lawns. Prisus paused at the open front gate, unable to reconcile the church’s reputation for painful torture with the peaceful landscape that stretched out before him. He approached the main building, a sprawling affair of stonework, unadorned except for the low relief of a barbed scourge carved above the lintel of the entrance, its nine tails spread out like a fan. Prisus banged the knocker on the iron-bound wooden door then stepped back to wait. Several minutes passed before it opened.
A robed figure surrounded by a soft nimbus of golden light stood in the doorway and said, “I’m sorry, but the manor is closed to the public while the rite is being performed.”
Prisus could not see the face, as it was hidden under a hood, but he thought from the voice that it must be a woman.
“I am here to meet Yenael,” said Prisus. “She’s expecting me.”
He showed her the note. He could feel the woman’s eyes measuring him.
“You don’t look like her typical subject. Loviatar calls all kinds, t
Closing the door, the woman left Prisus standing in the middle of a small entry hall. Her words had been unsettling, and he glanced about nervously. Candlelight glowed from small coves carved in the walls, creating more shadow than illumination. Opposite the front entrance was a great open archway that led into the main sanctum. Prisus gasped.
The room was lit with numerous candles. Little flames filled candelabras or flickered in groups on table tops. In the center of the floor sat a large circle of candles placed several feet apart from each other. For each candle on the floor, a man or woman danced naked around it. Each person was singing or chanting, though none of them seemed in unison. And each, at some time during their ritual, would pass a body part through the flame of their candle, often holding it there for several seconds.
Prisus’s nose wrinkled at the strange odor wafting in from the sanctum. It took him a moment to realize it was not incense, but the acrid smell of burnt hair and singed flesh.
Prisus turned to the door, ready to leave, and came face-to-face with another woman. Instead of a robe, she wore a tight, sleeveless leather body suit buffed to a high shine. Her head was shaved, except for a thin braided tail that began at the base of her skull and ended between her shoulder blades. Blue tattoos of some unfamiliar design covered her scalp. Dark eyes reflected the wavering flames of the candles.
“Prisus Saelis? I am Sister Yenael.” She smiled, a warm and friendly grin. “Let’s go somewhere we can talk.” She waited for a moment, sensing Prisus’s shock. “Our Candle Rite happens every twelfth night,” she explained, holding her hand out toward the sanctum. “Fire is one of the Three Pains. Loviatar teaches that pain brings strength of spirit.”
Prisus shook his head then motioned her to lead on. They went up a flight of stairs and entered a small parlor. Red velvet drapes hid the hard stone walls, and plush sofas of crimson shared the floor with piles of dark red pillows embroidered in gold thread. Prisus had heard that the church of Loviatar often recruited from the ranks of the wealthy. It certainly explained the extravagance.
Yenael lounged across the pillows, leaving Prisus to his choice of sofas. A robed man entered shortly, carrying two goblets on a tray. He offered first to Prisus then to Yenael. She rose partway to take the cup and whispered something to the servant, who bowed and left. Prisus sniffed the drink, a honeyed mead, then took a sip.
“I hope your trip went well, Master Saelis. No sahuagin attacks?” Yenael took a deep draught as she waited for his answer, her eyes never leaving him.
“No, no attacks.” He shifted on the sofa, uncomfortable under the stare. He desperately wanted to get past small talk to the business at hand and return to his room at the inn. “Um, I’m not sure … I don’t think you’re quite what I was looking for.”
Yenael gave a small laugh. “All business, I see. I like that. Master Saelis, I apologize for the confusion. I am not the one you will be hiring.” She set her goblet down then snapped her fingers. The servant returned, this time with another woman in tow. Nearly as tall as Prisus, she wore a simple linen dress that blended with her pale yellow skin. The left side of her head was shaved. A tattoo of a nine-tailed serpent ran the length of her exposed scalp, its open mouth framing her left eye. The dark hair that remained was pulled into a long, thick braid that hung to her waist.
With confident strides, she brushed past Prisus to stand next to the reclining Yenael, who dismissed the servant with a curt, “Thank you. You may leave us.” She turned to Prisus. “Master Saelis, may I introduce Ythnel.”
Prisus stood as the servant departed. “I am pleased to meet you, Ythnel.” The young woman gave a small curtsy in reply. “May I ask a few questions?” Prisus requested, looking at Yenael.
“You may speak directly to me, Master Saelis.” There was no defiance in Ythnel’s voice or eyes; it was just a statement of fact.
“Ah, yes. My apologies, then. Very well. If I may begin by asking how old you are?”
“Twenty-one summers, this Eleasias.”
“Tell me a little about your education.”
“I have studied the regional histories, lifestyles, and societies of Thay and its neighbors: Aglarond, Rashemen, Chessenta, and Mulhorand. I am also versed in the literary and performing arts.”
“So, do you find her acceptable?” Yenael asked.
“If I might ask one more thing?” Prisus hesitated. His eyes bounced between the women, waiting for a signal. Both stared at him stone-faced. Clearing his throat, he turned back to Ythnel. “Why are you interested in becoming a governess?”
“I have lived my entire life within these walls,” Ythnel said without pause. “I want to see with my own eyes what I have only read about in books. I wish to put to use what I have learned.”
Prisus frowned. “I don’t mean to offend, but I will not allow the dogma of Loviatar taught in my house.”
“Do not fear, Master Saelis,” Yenael said, finally standing. “Loviatans do not evangelize. Those who are interested seek us out.” She smiled, but there was no warmth in it this time. “Is there anything else?”
“No, I think that is all. Here is the gold I promised as a commission.” Prisus untied a swollen pouch from his belt and handed it to Yenael.
“The terms are agreed upon,” Yenael announced. “You are free to go.” She led them back to the entrance. “You may return in the morning for her things.” Yenael opened the door. “Good night, Master Saelis.”
“Good night, Sister Yenael.” Prisus turned and led Ythnel away.
Yenael watched Prisus Saelis and Ythnel disappear from view then closed the door. “Good-bye, daughter,” she whispered. It felt strange to think of the girl in that way. Yenael stood there for a moment, her hand still on the latch, wondering why the thought had even occurred to her.
There had never been a familial bond between them. Yenael had always treated Ythnel like another initiate. It was a purposeful decision on her part—a kindness, even, in Yenael’s mind. There always came a point in a child’s life when the parent was revealed to be only human, imperfect. That revelation was often a form of betrayal to the child. In an act of mercy even now Yenael could not explain, she chose to shield Ythnel from this pain. The girl had been raised as a ward of the manor, told she had been orphaned when she grew old enough to ask.
What’s done is done, Yenael told herself, and she is better off for it. She does not need the distractions a family brings. They would only hinder her in the task she has ahead.
Shaking her head, Yenael turned down the hallway into the manor. She needed to clear her own head, and performing her evening prayers would provide the focus she required. The only question was which whip she should use.
Ythnel rose from her bed and pulled back the curtains, letting the sun into the room Master Saelis had rented for her at the inn. She removed the shirt Master Saelis had provided as a nightgown, folded it, and placed it on the floor beside the bed. She then reached behind her neck to untie the thin leather strap from which hung a small, ceremonial whip with nine tails, the symbol of her faith. Ythnel knelt on the folded cloth and began a prayer chant. Every few seconds, as the chanting would reach a crescendo, Ythnel lashed herself with the whip, leaving pink welts on her smooth, sallow skin. With each lash, Ythnel felt a tingle of pleasure that transcended the pain.
A creak from the door brought the prayer to a halt. Ythnel quickly stood, just catching a glimpse of someone stepping back from the doorway. Remembering that she was still naked, Ythnel scooped up the nightgown, put it back on, and traded the whip for a towel and her clothes and walked out of the room. Prisus stood across the hall with his back to her. Ythnel tried to slip quietly past him, but he turned as she closed the door.
“I … uh, I didn’t mean to … I mean, it wasn’t my intention …,” Prisus stammered.
“Of course.” Prisus’s cheeks were flushed. “I only wanted to tell you that I’ve booked our passage. And … and Leco has your things. I’ll have him bring them to your room. We can go as soon as you’re ready.”
“Thank you. I’m going to take a bath before I meet you downstairs.” She didn’t wait for a response.
They made their way to the docks after morningfeast. The city was already buzzing with activity, but Prisus seemed oblivious to it, lost in his own thoughts. As they approached the pier, Prisus finally blurted out, “Why do you beat yourself?” Several dockworkers who were loading cargo looked askance at the pair.
The embarrassment from earlier in the morning came rushing back. “I thought you were not interested in my religion, Master Saelis?” Ythnel raised a questioning eyebrow. She did not want to talk about it, but the deflection failed.
“I’m not,” he replied a bit more discreetly. “To be honest, my wife was part of a group that dallied a bit in some of the less … exotic rites of your faith. She quit before we were married, thank Tymora. I just … I don’t understand what could motivate someone to … to—”
“To suffer?” Ythnel finished. Prisus nodded, but Ythnel hesitated, unsure how to answer. She had been told time and again by the clerics at the manor why they served as they did, and had repeated the reasons back just as often, but this was the first time she had been asked to explain to someone unfamiliar, and uncomfortable, with the Loviatan beliefs. “Why did you come all the way to Bezantur to find a governess for your daughter?”