Skin of Glass

Knights and Tigers

Misara had been in Silverymoon for three days. After turning the Black Guard over to the city officials she had let Rowan handle anything else. As luck would have it she had met an old friend on the first day: Aelar Shaelon-an elf she had not seen in over forty years.

Together they enjoyed all that Silverymoon had to offer. Dressed in the finest clothes from the best of the city's tailors they attended an opera and two plays. They ate in the fine establishments, and visited the many shops. In the evenings they made love on silk sheets.

She was also quietly visiting with various sages and scholars, trying to find out about Asharass. The Conclave of Silverymoon, the city's college, possessed a great deal of knowledge, but no one she spoke with knew anything. Even those who worked in the Vault of Sages could tell her nothing.

On the third day Aelar kissed her gently on her forehead and then left. She lay in the bed, tangled in the sheets, and simply smiled. When they had met he had told her that he would not be long in the city, and she had not been concerned. It was a temporary arrangement, they had both known it and accepted it.

Later in the day she dressed and went out for a walk in the city, enjoying it in a different way than she had with Aelar. Silverymoon was a city for lovers, and yet it was also a city for those alone. In fact, the city was nearly perfect no matter what one's situation.

She spotted Domas before he saw her, though she almost did not recognize him. She took a seat on a stone bench in front of a small shop and waited for him. For a moment she thought he might walk by.

He did not.

"It has been a long time," he said, smiling.

Misara schooled her face to stillness, not letting her emotions show: A long time for him, not very long for her. She remembered Aelar, unchanged since they had last met. And Domas, who not even half as much time had passed, and she had almost not recognized him. And he said it was a long time.

She smiled as she stood. "It is good to see you again Domas. It has been too long."

"I was glad to learn you were in the area, for many reasons."

"You know I am always happy to help."

"Come. Let's find a place to sit down and have drink in comfort rather than standing on this breezy street." He offered his arm

"Lead on kind sir," she said with a smile, slipping her arm into his.

As they walked along the streets they talked of the changes in the North, the changes that had occurred in the last several years. She had felt it almost since arriving in Everlund. The Silver Marchers were balanced on the edge. They might become a peaceful, vibrant nation, or fall back into wilderness and barbarism.

Domas had thrown himself into it, obviously set on seeing the Silver Marches succeed. He had put a lot of himself in the attempt, of that she was certain, and he would not accept failure.

He finally led her into a building that, on the outside, was much like the many other buildings in Silverymoon. The interior took her by surprise. Outside it was made of bright stone, fashioned together skilfully. Inside it was rough looking wood, darker than she would have expected, decorated with simple furniture. It was a place she might find in a small village, not a city.

"What do you think?" he asked, smiling.

Getting over her initial surprise, she took more account of her surroundings. "It is a façade, isn't it?"

"Something like that," he told her as he directed her to a table. "It is like those small places we'd end up in after some adventure or another."

She sat, noting that while rough looking, the furniture was well made, with none of the small slivers or rough edges such pieces usually suffered from. "As I recall those places often offered bad beer, draughty rooms and fleas in the bedding."

He laughed and leaned back in the chair. "Well, this is as I recall those places as being." He lifted a hand to attract a waitress. "What do you want?"

"Do you think they will have Winter Wine?"

"They will have any wine you chose to name."

Misara thought she would challenge that, but decided to stay with her initial choice. Domas ordered a mug of stout ale, likely in memory of old times.

"I want to thank you for all the help you have given us," he said to her after their drinks had arrived.

"You know that I will always help you if needed Domas. I value your friendship highly."

"And I yours, even though you are still a woman of hedonistic tastes, unbecoming to a Paladin." He lifted his mug slightly, as if offering a toast.

His words seemed almost an accusation to her, though he knew he said them in pure jest. They cut a little too close to a recent wound, however. She tried to let anything show of her thoughts and smiled as she said, "Still interested in lecturing me?" She lifted her glass and tapped it against his.

"Someone has to," he told her. He lifted the mug to his mouth and took a long pull. When he lowered it foam covered his thick moustache. He blew up, sending foam flying, some if it coming to rest in his thick, bushy eyebrows.

Misara laughed and shook her head. "You are not currently presenting a very convincing argument."

Domas wiped the foam away, frowned at her theatrically, and then laughed. "This is far too much like old times."

"A little. I am very impressed with what you have accomplished here. It was what you always wanted, to lead a force of good men, to make a difference on a large scale."

"It is what I wanted and it was nothing like I thought it would be. I spend far too much time dealing with politics." He shook his head. "No matter where I send my men, someone else wants me to help them. The leaders of the Silvermarches want to know why I increase the numbers of Knights while members from all the tiny villages want to know why I do not have more warriors available to help them. And almost daily I have to deal with messages from the Argent Legion, suggesting that I allow them to make decisions for me, for the good of the region of course."

"I'm surprised they let you operate as you do. If the Argent Legion is supposed to be the Silver Marches' army, having an independent force of Knights might be considered to be something of an insult."

"I know," he told her, nodding. "And yet I feel that keeping the forces of the Green Stone Keep separate is for the best. There are many things happening in the Marches, and the Argent Legion cannot respond to them all.

"We have orcs in the mountains, giants on the Evermoors, thieves stealing from shines and temples, there is a threat of drow, the Black Guard who was attacking my people, an entire shipment of blessed, ceremonial oil goes missing, merchants complain about caravans waylaid, a spoiled noble from Waterdeep wants us to take his run-away fiancé from the elf she fell in love with, a clan of glaziers disappear somewhere between Waterdeep and Silverymoon, I have reports from the High Forest, there is..." He stopped and took a deep breath. "Well, you see how it is. Much of those things the Argent Legion can and does deal with, but there are many things that seem to fall on us. It is far more work than I ever thought it would be."

"It is the nature of such things. You knew that."

"I suppose I was hoping it would be different." He straightened up, gave his body a shake. "Enough of that. I am here to thank you for the help you have given us, and to present you with a small token of our appreciation." He reached into his cloak and produced a light-blue, silk sash and placed it in front of her. "Something from the Black Guards gear."

She picked up the sash, looking it over. "I do not recall him having something so beautiful."

"It was a leather belt, covered in iron studs when you last saw it. Its appearance was altered to something that I thought you might find more to your taste. You are a soft hedonist after all."

"I take it there was something special about that belt."

He nodded. "It gave him a great deal of strength, that of a giant."

"Little wonder he hit so hard, or that my arms hurt so much afterwards."

"The enchantment remains, though its appearance is different."

"Thank you for the gift. It is greatly appreciated."

"I know you will use it well."

"Has our Black Guard told you anything of value?"

Domas shook his head. "He has told us nothing. He does not even confirm what he already told you."

"Perhaps he realised that I tricked him."

"How certain are you of what you said?"

"As certain as I can be. His fighting style places him where I have said, and when he spoke he thought I knew all there was to know. Have you learned anything of Asharass?"

He shook his head. "To tell the truth, there are some that doubt you."

"I suppose I am a little disappointed, but not surprised. And you?"

"I don't doubt you, but it is not very much really. Most of those I have talked believe that he was working for the Zhents. Some think the name Asharass was simply offered to confuse us."

"Then why does he say nothing?"

"Because, as you obviously suspect, his loyalty and silence belong to Asharass."

"Are you going to deal with this?"

He shook his head. "The Zhentarim are the threat that we have to focus on. Retired Zhents have set up many little villages in the Silver Marches. The Free Towns they call themselves, and while they may be harmless, they may not, and we have to watch them."

"So you will ignore Asharass?"

"I will not ignore it, but until I have more information, I cannot spare the resources needed to properly investigate."

"What is going to happen the Black Guard," she asked, changing the subject.

"His crimes are still being decided. Those we know he killed he killed in duels. That said, that he is evil and dangerous is obvious. I would prefer to see him executed, but it is possible he will be imprisoned instead. Do you want to speak with him?"

She shook her head. "I will not be able to get anything more from him." She picked up her glass and drank all the wine. Placing the empty glass on the table she said, "I'm going to find out who this Asharass is."

"I thought you would. Where will you start looking?"

"I have asked the sages here, and they seem very competent. That they do not know the name tells me that Asharass is either very new, or very old. I know someone to the South who might be able to help me if Asharass is very old."

"Would you be willing to take Lady Jassan with you?"

"Does Rowan wish to travel with me?"

"She does, and I would feel better if I were to lend you some help in this. Were I able to spare them, I would send a larger force with you."

"You really cannot spare her either."

"Not really."

"I will try to return as soon as possible."

"I know you will. Find out what you can and bring us the information we need." He smiled as he picked up mug. "As usual, I am counting on you."

Glowing bright, the red ember on the end of the cigar traced out a line of light as the smoker took it from his mouth, waved his hand to the side, and blew a cloud of smoke out into the air. He was tall, and thin, with long, unkempt red hair. He wore nothing but a ragged loincloth, seemingly untouched by the cold air.

A gangly form dropped down in front of him, appearing all arms and legs, dressed in bright coloured rags. He hung by his knees from the lower branches.

"Why do you burn and breathe such smelly leaves?" he asked.

"Because, I enjoy the taste dear Ippla."

The younger man made a face. "How can you like that? Even the bugs don't like it."

"Which is just a side benefit come the summer. Shouldn't you be on guard duty?"

Ippla growled softly. "Seems that you don't do as much guard duty Liman."

Liman took another draw off his cigar, and then blew a cloud of smoke into Ippla's face.

Ippla coughed and dropped from the tree, landing on the ground on his feet and hands. He growled deep in his throat, barring his teeth.

Liman leaned forward, putting his face close to Ippla's. He barred his teeth as well and half said, half growled, "You're not thinking of doing something foolish, are you?"

For a moment Ippla did not move, but then he shifted back, dropping to his belly on the ground, tucking his chin against his chest to expose the back of his neck. "Sorry," his voice nearly a squeak.

"You're forgiven. Now, why aren't you on guard?"

"Siishi spotted the Oil and Steel man."

Liman straightened, leaping to his feet. "Where?"

"By the deep pool. He was walking towards the old camp." Ippla shifted into a crouch, looking up at Liman.

"He's looking for us."

"Siishi is watching him. Told me to tell you."

Liman threw his cigar away, then dove down, rolling in the dirt and old leaf fall, picking up the scents of the forest, leaving behind the smell of tobacco. He sprung back to his feet and grabbed a bow and quiver from nearby. "Come on," he said to Ippla. Then he leapt up into the tree, climbing quickly into the canopy.

Together Liman and Ippla moved through the thick, interwoven branches of the forest, moving faster than they would have on the ground. Liman stopped every few moments to sniff at the air before continuing on.

He was not surprised that Siishi spotted him before he saw her. He was about to jump onto another tree when he heard a low hiss right above him. He looked up, finding himself looking up into the golden eyes of Siishi: Small, thin, elven, with long white hair that was her only covering.

She shifted her eyes to the left, now silent. He looked and saw the dark form of the person they called the Oil and Steel man, moving down a path that would lead him to the camp they had abandoned several months ago.

"We should kill him," Ippla said in a whisper.

He looked at Ippla, considering the suggestion. Killing the Oil and Steel man would be the best course; it would solve a great deal of problems.

It was Siishi who voiced his concern. "And what if we fail?"

"Then we flee. Let him wander the words forever. He'll never find us." Ippla had shifted along the branch to better see the Oil and Steel man. The branch bent dangerously under his weight, but he was apparently unaware, or unconcerned, of the danger.

"He will find us," Liman said. "I am certain of that. No, I'll talk to him."

Ippla cursed softly. Siishi said nothing.

"Stay here," Liman told the other two, then he moved off, leaping to another tree, moving silently as he followed the Oil and Steel man. He passed over the intruder into the forest, then leapt into the air, flipped, twisted and landed directly in front of the Oil and Steel man. He had his bow ready, an arrow nocked.

"What is your business here?" he demanded.

While his voice was even, Liman was not. The large figure in armour so black it seemed to drink up the light around it did not seem surprised, did not smell of fear. All he smelt of was the oil and steel that had named him to Liman and the others. Every time he spoke to him Liman felt as if he should go to his belly and expose his neck to the man. It was not a feeling he enjoyed.

"I have need of you," the Oil and Steel man said, his voice deep and echoing.

"You always have need of us," Liman said, though it was not entirely true.

"I need you to kill an eleven Paladin. She is called Misara Anor'Esira, also Dawntide. You might find her in Silverymoon, if you travel fast enough."

"I do not like Paladins," Liman said. "They resist the Wild's blessing, and are strong with their faith."

"You will kill her," he repeated again, making it obvious that Liman's concerns meant nothing to him.

Liman wondered if he and the others could kill the Oil and Steel man. They might very well not survive the attempt, and there was another way to deal with him, he realised. "This is the last. We do this and you never come to us again. All debts paid, all connections severed."

"You wish to end our relationship," the Oil and Steel man said, something like surprise in that echoing voice of his.

That confused Liman a little. He never recalled anything surprising the Oil and Steel man, and for a moment he thought he caught some scent under the oil and steel. He wondered if he was making the right choice, but decided it was too late to change his mind.

"This is the last," he said. "No more after this. You forget about us after we kill the Paladin."

The Oil and Steel man nodded. "As you say."

Liman stood, lowering his bow. "Do you need proof of the Paladin's death?"

"There is no need. I will know once she is dead."

Liman nodded and stepped back. He said nothing else.

The Oil and Steel man turned and began to walk back the way he came. The darkness under the canopy swallowed him up, and more disturbing to Liman, it swallowed up his scent as well.

A few seconds later Ippla dropped down to the forest floor. "Are we going to do it?"

Liman looked at the smaller man and nodded. "We will do as he asked. This is the last time. I would do much more than kill some Paladin for freedom from him."

"He was surprised when you asked for that," Siishi's voice drifted from above.

Liman nodded. "I know." He would not show doubt in front of the other two. "It is not something to concern us." He started walking down the path. "Gather what you need. We have a hunt to start!"

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