All Mad Here
Perhaps, Maera mused, her propensity for getting along so well with thieves was the ultimate expression of her questionable parentage. Because she really quite liked Sime. Her straightforward manner and blunt sense of humor were refreshing, and as there was little else to do abroad Saemon Haverian's small ship, they had wiled away several days in conversation. It was nice to have someone to spend the time with; she and Kelsey had been purposefully avoiding one another, as best they could, since Jaheira had walked in on them (again) belowdecks, just as things were starting to get interesting. Mortified, they were doing their best to avoid temptation by keeping their distance, but it really only seemed to provide Jaheira with even more amusement. Sime at least had the decency to keep it to herself, and they had spent much of their time at the fore of the ship in conversation.
That morning, they sat in their now-regular spot, watching the sunlight sparkle on the waves. "Linvail didn't just send you with us to keep an eye on us, did he?" Maera asked.
"We prefer to consider it due diligence in the keeping of our bargain," Sime replied calmly. Maera rolled her eyes, and the other woman smiled. "But you are right. He also sent me because I've been to Brynnlaw before. Granted, that was seven years ago, but it's a pretty provincial place. I doubt it's changed that much."
"Seven years? But that story you were telling me last night, about you and Linvail and how he became Shadowmaster-"
"Was hardly finished. I told you it was a long story, didn't I?"
"So this was after your fight with the guy with the hook?"
"Treton Wey, yes. The fight that Linvail had to save my miserable hide from. He'd saved my life, yet again, and I just couldn't face him anymore. So I skipped town."
"And went to Brynnlaw?"
Sime shrugged. "I'd heard about it from my old friend Sanik – he was, and is, a mate on a ship that used Brynnlaw as a wintering port. I hired a ship, and ran like the coward I was. Spent a month or two moping around the island feeling sorry for myself until Sanik finally talked sense into me and sent me home. That was when things got really interesting."
Maera grinned, but keen as she was for more tales of underworld derring-do, her restlessness was especially keen this morning, and she shifted anxiously. Sime noticed.
"So you've never been to sea before?" she asked. "You handle it far better than most first-timers."
"Well, I was a bit queasy the first day," Maera said modestly.
"Your poor ranger friend hasn't been so lucky." Maera tried not to snicker. Minsc had been so violently seasick that he'd tried to make Jaheira swear a sacred oath to care for Boo upon his imminent death. Her response had been a sleeping draught so strong he hadn't wakened since. "But he won't have to suffer much longer," Sime continued. "Havarian says we're two days out from Brynnlaw. He may as well have 'opportunist' tattooed on his forehead, but he knows these waters, I'll give him that." Maera did not reply, but leaned against the rail, eyes fixed on the horizon. Sime shot her a knowing look. "You won't have to suffer much longer either. The boat really is faster than jumping in and swimming, even if it doesn't feel like it."
Maera leaned back, chastened. "I know. It's just…it's almost over. We'll get Imoen back, and then…well, I don't know what, but it won't involve crazed, experiment happy mages." Her fists clenched. "I hope they've got Irenicus in the deepest hole they could find."
"I'm sure the Cowlies find him fascinating." Sime said. "It's not as if there is a shortage of mad mages under the streets of Athkatla, but most of them manage to avoid drawing too much attention by doing something flashy. Like kidnapping well-known adventuring parties and blowing up half of Waukeen's Promenade."
"I still wonder what his connection to Bodhi is. Hopefully, it doesn't matter now. For your sake, anyways."
Sime grinned. "I had no idea you cared."
"What can I say? You and your merry band of thieves have wormed your way into my heart."
"My gods, that's terrible." There was a commotion below decks, scuffling and shouting, and Sime's eyebrows went up. "Sounds like Yoshimo is teaching the crew to play cards. Again."
Maera shook her head. "When will they learn?"
"When they run out of money." They laughed, and fell into silence, watching the ocean slip by. She took a deep breath, the salt air prickling her nose. Soon, Im. I'll be there soon.
They arrived in Brynnlaw on the evening tide. Maera helped Minsc wobble down the gangplank, and as they reached the dock, they looked about them. In the last light of the fading sun, the whitewashed stucco buildings of the tiered town glowed faintly, clustered close to the docks. "Where's Spellhold?" Maera asked.
"North of town," Sime replied, "on the other side of the hills. We'll want to head to the Vulgar Monkey, see if we can run down my Sanik. His ship's run supplies for the Wizards for years - he'll be able to tell you how to get in."
"The Vulgar Monkey," Kelsey repeated. "I don't know why more people don't come here."
Saemon Havarian oozed among them, exuding good cheer. "Well, my friends, you are safely delivered, as per our arrangement. I do wish for the swift conclusion of your business. I wouldn't want to be gone from the mainland for an undue length of time."
"None of us do, Captain," Maera replied. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Saemon grab Yoshimo's sleeve and whisper something to the thief, who nodded. As the captain walked back towards his ship, she asked, "What was that about, Yoshimo?"
He started, opened his mouth, and closed it again. With a sudden smile, he replied smoothly, "The good captain was warning me that some of his crew were feeling vengeful after their losses on the voyage. Apparently, I should watch my step."
She chewed on her lower lip, vaguely troubled for some reason she couldn't quite identify. "That's good of him, I suppose."
The Vulgar Monkey tavern and inn was not a dive, though it seemed to desperately wish it could be. The obvious goal in décor and mood was to be the seediest place any of them had ever visited. Maera didn't know what it said about her that she had, in fact, seen worse. Some coin passed to the barkeep revealed that Sime's friend Sanik was already there in the common room, nervously nursing a drink, his hood drawn despite the warmth of the room. He was pointedly sitting with his back to the wall. As they approached, he tensed, then said, "Sime? What are you doing here? I thought you were too busy running Athkatla with the Shadowmaster to be too far afield these days."
"And I still am. My area of influence has just momentarily expanded." Sime reached out to clasp his forearm and smiled as she sat across from him. "This is Maera. I can vouch for her. She was hoping you could tell her about how to get into Spellhold."
"Why would anyone want to get in to Spellhold?" Sanik scoffed. He held up a hand, forestalling Maera's explanation. "Not that it's my business anyway." He turned his attention back to Sime. "You're lucky you got here when you did. I intend to be gone on the tide by this time tomorrow. I just have some business of my own to attend to first."
Sime's eyes lit with professional interest. "Anything exciting?"
"Personal business. I'll tell you later." He motioned for the rest of them to sit. "If you're crazy enough to want to get into Spellhold, that's between you and your gods. The Wizards keep a tight hand on the place. You can't just traipse on in. It's gone quiet lately, though. I don't think anyone's passed the gates for nearly a month." He scratched his cheek thoughtfully and shrugged. "Anyway, there are a couple of ways to go abou-" There was a faint buzzing noise, Maera felt something whiz past her ear, and suddenly Sanik was face down on the table with a dart lodged in his left eye, blood pooling around his head.
The room went silent. Yoshimo reacted first. He made for a table on the other side of the common room and plucked a hooded gnome up from his seat. "What is the meaning of this?" he snarled.
"A job's a job," the gnome grumbled, with all the bluster he could manage being dangled eighteen inches off the floor. He appraised Yoshimo, noting the similarities in their garb. "You should know that. And Lady Galvena pays real good not to ask questions."
"Who's Galvena?" Maera demanded, starting from her seat. "Why did she want this man dead?"
The gnome flipped her a rude gesture in response. Stretching his foot, a small blade emerged from the toe of his boot. He kicked, aiming for Yoshimo's gut, but the thief was not caught unawares and threw the gnome hard against the bar. The small figure landed at just the wrong angle.
"Here now!" The barkeep protested. "You broke his neck!"
Maera advanced on the bar angrily. "What the hell just happened? I needed that man's information, and he's been assassinated right under my nose!"
"Galvena's tying up her loose ends, looks like." She tapped her fingers on the bar, waiting for him to elaborate. He sighed. "If you want companionship in Brynnlaw, you go through the Lady. Sanik was in love with one of her girls; Claire, I think her name was. He did a piss-poor job of hiding it, too, if you ask me. I'd say he was lucky Galvena waited this long."
Conversation slowly began to fill the room again. Maera glanced over her shoulder. Sime had rolled Sanik onto his back on the table. He looked surprised. "Poor Sanik," she muttered, shaking her head. She tossed the bartender a coin for his information. "This place is insane."
There was a small alcove at the end of the long, dim back hallway their rooms were located on. A pair of narrow windows looked out on the harbor of Brynnlaw, lit through the night by huge, swaying oil lamps. Maera saw Kelsey's reflection in the glass as he approached. "Not much of a town, huh?" she asked. He shook his head. "Though I guess it makes sense that the Cowled Wizards would have their prison here." She rubbed her face disbelievingly. "A prison for people who use magic. I still can't even fathom it."
Kelsey shrugged slightly. "It's more about control these days than any real fear of magic. The Cowled Wizards have to justify their existence after all these years."
"Yeah, but…they'd haul you off, given half an excuse. And you're the most normal person I know!"
His expression was vaguely incredulous. "Really?"
She turned to face him, smiling. "Okay, Jaheira is fairly normal, all things considered. But Minsc thinks his hamster can talk." Kelsey had to chuckle at that. "Though," she continued thoughtfully, "we don't actually have any evidence that Boo can't talk. We shouldn't discount it just because none of the rest of us have heard him."
"That's very open-minded of you."
"Being receptive to new ideas is a central precept of the Lorekeeper," she replied piously. Her straight face only lasted for a moment and she laughed quietly before sobering again. "That said, though…it's still such an alien mindset to me."
"Well, I hope you don't think badly of Amn anyway," he said with a faint smile.
"Actually, what I've seen of Amn so far, I like. I've liked the people." She gave him a playful poke to the sternum. "Some of them have been very welcoming."
His smile broadened, and he slid the palms of his hands against hers, catching her fingers in his. "They're the ones with common sense."
She slowly bent her arms back so his hands were behind her; he got the hint and released her hands to hold her waist. "Common sense, huh?" She rested her forearms on his shoulders, hands behind his head.
"Absolutely. It's always a good idea to be nice to insanely talented warrior women who can kill a dozen vampires before breakfast."
"I'd had breakfast!"
His smile grew a bit lopsided. "And it makes it very easy to be nice when said warrior woman is intelligent, funny, generous, and incredibly attractive."
He was at it again. She shook her head fondly. "What am I going to do with you?"
To her surprise, he colored, inhaled deeply, opened his mouth…and closed it quickly. "I, uh…I'm not going to answer that right now. There's definitely an answer, but..." He kissed her quickly, and stepped back from the embrace. "Sleep well, okay?"
"Okay. Good night." She watched him walk back up the hall, wondering what exactly that was about, before turning back to the window.
"Just give him a tumble and have done. You'll both be happier."
She hadn't seen Sime's reflection at all, of course. She narrowed her eyes crossly. "Sime, you were spying. Shame on you."
"Shame on me? I'm not the one who let that obviously willing young man go to bed alone."
Maera sighed, determined to leave that statement where it belonged – in a corner far from the rest of the conversation. Sime chuckled and stood beside her, looking down onto the sleeping town. "By the way, Sime…I'm sorry about your friend."
Sime sobered, her eyes suddenly very far away. "Bad timing all around," she said softly. "I was wrong. Brynnlaw's obviously changed a lot since I was here last. I'll go out early, in the morning. See what I can find out."
"It's my job, isn't it?"
She dreamed that night of Candlekeep. This was not unusual; her dreams frequently returned her there. But that night, instead of the library or the courtyard or her old room, she was in the Inn. Imoen was with her, and they ran, hand in hand like children, through hallways and rooms, something at their heels. Something dark and formless, grasping of hand and hungry of maw, followed them, and Maera knew it did not want her. It was after Imoen, and she would not let it have her. Not without a fight.
Even within the dream, she knew the Inn had never been so huge, so full of empty space, but even magnified by dreaming, it was not large enough. They couldn't outrun the stalking darkness for long. They fled into a storeroom, crouching among the barrels and boxes, but the thing would find them soon. Imoen's eyes glistened with tears of panic and dread, and Maera gripped her hands tightly. She could feel the bowstring calluses on Imoen's fingers, and the fine, bird-like bones beneath. She said the only thing she could think of, the only comfort she could offer.
"Are we not two parts of a greater whole, you and I? If our own defenses fail, we must stand for each other!"
The door swung open, and she woke.
She stared up at the ceiling, still trying to separate reality from dream as her pulse slowed. She suddenly, absurdly, wished for Kelsey, and found herself briefly entertaining the idea of getting up and going to his room. No, that would not be a good idea. She rolled onto her side, forcing slow, measured breaths. "It'll be okay," she whispered to herself. "We'll find Im, and it'll be okay." She realized she was holding her pillow as if it were another person, and sighed heavily. "And going to Kelsey's room would be a bad idea." Maybe if she repeated it enough, she would believe it.
"So am I to understand that we are marching on the festhall of this Galvena on the off chance Sanik told his lady friend the information we sought from him?" Yoshimo asked the next morning.
Maera gave him an ugly look. "Stop it, Yoshimo," she said. "I have also considered the possibility that this plan is born out of some misplaced do-gooding after what happened last night, or maybe I just feel sorry for the girl. I don't know! But we are up the proverbial creek at the moment, and I don't see any paddles!" She was in a foul mood. The dream had rattled her more than she cared to admit, and the intelligence Sime had gathered for them was not at all encouraging.
Galvena ruled the whores of Brynnlaw with an iron grip that would make a Zhent cough uncomfortably about personal freedom, and any attempts at competition tended to end up as shark food. Her monopoly on the flesh trade was absolute, and the unfortunates caught in it were little better than slaves.
Maera knew it was a long shot. But just maybe, they would learn something useful. After all, she had gambled on worse odds before and won. And if nothing else, she reasoned, kicking around someone who profited in the misery of others would make her feel better.
But it was mostly doubt ringing in her ears as she led her party through the sandy streets of Brynnlaw to the garish hall near the docks that served as Galvena's base of operations. Crude, brightly colored graffiti covered the walls, no doubt advertising the dubious delights within. Maera felt the beginnings of a blush creeping up her neck, but then sternly reminded herself she'd seen better (or worse, depending on one's point of view) in the margins of the books in Candlekeep. A gaggle of scantily clad, gaudily painted prostitutes of both sexes loitered about, half-heartedly displaying their wares. One, a girl with obviously dyed blond hair and heavily rouged cheeks, caught sight of them and said warily, "Oh. A group."
Pity jabbed at Maera's heart. "Nobody's here for that. I just need some questions answered."
"Do you know a girl named Claire?"
A whisper ran through the group. "Maybe. Why?"
"Sanik married her," said a dark girl whose hair was dressed in elaborate braids. The blonde who'd spoken first shot her a reproving glare, but she continued, "Well he did! One of his shipmates is a priest of Selûne, and they got married. They were gonna get off the island tonight, but the Lady found out and locked her up. Poor Claire."
"And poor Sanik," Maera replied. "Galvena had him killed right in front of me last night."
None of the prostitutes looked surprised. The blonde, struggling to regain her role as spokesperson, said, "What do you want with her anyway? She's as good as dead. You don't cross the Lady."
"Claire may know something that can help me," Maera said. But looking at them, dead eyed and hopeless, she knew that the information wasn't what really mattered at the moment. "But I think this may be something I need to take up with Galvena. Forcefully."
A pair of guards stopped them as they entered the festhall. "We're here to see Galvena," Maera said calmly. The guards eyed them and gulped, but the senior of them stuck to the script.
"Lady Galvena is not receiving visitors," he muttered nervously.
Maera scowled. She was not in the mood. "Minsc, convince them."
The ranger casually lifted the one who'd spoken with his left hand and lined up his punch with his right. The guard, seeing his afterlife reflected in Minsc's gleaming plate gauntlet, squeaked, "Okay! Okay, we'll take you to her!" Minsc, clearly disappointed, lowered him back to his feet.
The guards led them through a warren of hallways and down a flight of steps. As they approached a barred door, they heard the sound of fists striking flesh. It made Maera's own fists itch.
The junior guard rapped on the door. "L-lady Galvena. You have guests."
"I said I was not to be disturbed. Send them away!" An imperious female voice replied from within.
"They, um…they were very insistent."
There was a huffy sigh, and a moment later, the door swung open to reveal a bare, windowless room. There were three people before them – a burly nondescript man in mail, a woman of mature years who might have still been beautiful if she'd accepted time's passage with a little more grace, and a young woman with dark curls, tied to a chair. She was slumped forward, obviously dazed, and what could be seen of her face was a mass of bruises and swelling.
"Who the hell are you?" Galvena snapped.
"We're here for Claire," Maera said. She took a step towards the bound girl, but Galvena's thug stepped between them. Maera sized him up. Average height, bulky build, and the sort of face that had seen too many brawls and too few healers. "Call him off, Galvena," she said evenly, keeping her eyes on the man, "or I move him."
"What do you want with her?"
"She may have information we need." She continued to eye the thug. "Like to beat up girls, do you?" He sneered at her, and it was almost cute, the way he seemed to think she could be one of that number. She wasted no time dispelling that particular illusion as she jabbed at his throat hard with her right elbow, followed by her left fist into his cheek. He dropped to his knees, and Minsc stepped over him, easily ripped the bounds that held Claire, and scooped her into his arms. The girl groaned, and he gently patted her hair. "We'll be going now," Maera said.
Galvena's eyes bulged with fury. "What do you think you're doing? That girl belongs to me!"
Maera turned, pursing her lips. "See, Galvena, I think that's our primary point of contention. I was raised in a philosophical tradition that teaches every person belongs to his or her own self, so really, Claire only belongs to you if she says she does." The madam stared at her. "What, too esoteric?"
"Apparently." Galvena had good lungs. They could hear booted feet on the stairs. "All right, then, we do this the uncivilized way." Maera grabbed Galvena by the collar of her gaudy gown and dragged her bodily across the room, pausing to kick at the recovering thug on the floor. "You too, sunshine."
"Change of management, boys!" She announced to the guards as she hauled Galvena out into the hallway. They stopped short, staring. "I assume nobody here is paid well enough to do anything stupid for this woman?" Silently, they parted to allow her up the stairs as Galvena squawked in indignation. "Thought so."
They trooped outside, where their appearance was met with gasps from the assembled prostitutes. Minsc carefully lay Claire down, and Jaheira touched glowing hands to her face. The swelling receded, revealing pretty, very young features. Her eyes opened and, looking bewildered, she allowed Jaheira to help her to her feet. She looked around, taking in her changed surroundings, and her gaze lighted on Galvena, who stood pinned in Maera's grasp. She closed her eyes and heaved a pained sigh.
"Sanik's dead, isn't he?"
"I am afraid so," Jaheira said gently.
"And it was her doing, wasn't it?"
Her chin quivered, and tears welled in her eyes, but she stifled herself with a deep breath. "You saved my life. Why?"
"Because I need something from you," Maera admitted, guilt gnawing at her in the face of Claire's grief. "I need to know how to get into Spellhold. A very dear friend of mine is being held there, and…I'm getting desperate." She glanced at the sand under her boots. "I know Sanik knew how to get in. I was hoping maybe he'd told you."
Claire considered this in silence, then nodded thoughtfully. "You'll need to talk to Perth. He lives on the north edge of town – nice, two-story house, you can't miss it. Most people think he's just another hermit mage, but he's actually a Cowled Wizard. He has some sort of talisman that lets him through the wards."
Maera closed her eyes and exhaled with relief. "Thank you, Claire. Is there anything else we can do for you? Anything at all?"
Claire looked over her shoulder at the festhall behind her and her sad eyes hardened with hatred. "I'd love to watch that place burn to the ground. Can you do that for me?"
Galvena, who had been standing docilely in Maera's grip, suddenly jerked and sputtered with pure rage. Maera calmly tightened her hands as Kelsey said, "Actually, I think that can be arranged." He tapped one of the boys on the shoulder. "Make sure there's no one inside. Then give me five minutes."
Minsc, Yoshimo, and a pair of the now ex-prostitutes rousted the guards and about a dozen others from within, and Kelsey disappeared into the emptied festhall. The crowd whispered as the minutes stretched. There was a sudden roar like a great gust of wind, and brilliant white-orange flames appeared along the roofline. Blue smoke, smelling heavily of burnt wood and charred earth, rose in an ever-thickening plume over the festhall. The fire quickly spread, and Galvena moaned, "No! That was my life's work!"
"Then I feel very sorry for you," Maera said. A moment later, Kelsey appeared from the flames, cloak not even smoldering, and she had to repress a whistle of appreciation. She had to face facts. Knowing him was turning her into a bit of pyromaniac. But the fire itself was probably only so attractive because of its source.
"What about her?" someone asked from the crowd, pointing at Galvena.
"Oh, her?" Maera loosed her grip and gave Galvena a shove towards them. "That's really up to you."
Galvena stared at her in shock. "You can't leave me here!"
"And why should I protect you from the consequences of your own actions? Give me one good reason, Galvena." Maera said icily. The madam was silent. "That's what I thought. If I were you, I'd pray that every single one of them is a better person than you've ever been." She caught Claire's eye, and the girl nodded. They turned and walked away, and none of them felt any need to look back.
Claire had been right. In a town of smallish, stucco buildings, Perth's home was hard to miss. "Are you certain of this plan, fair friend?" Yoshimo asked. "Even if he is but one wizard, we do not want to borrow trouble."
"Only if he starts it," Maera responded. "Besides, we just burned down the only whorehouse in a port town. Trouble has been borrowed in liberal quantities, so why stop now?" The thief's face remained disquieted. "Yoshimo, talk to me. What's bothering you?"
He fixed his eyes on her with such forcefulness she had to look away, uncomfortable. Words formed on his lips, and then his expression closed, and he said, "It is nothing. Pay me no heed." He walked past her, back straight, and she could allow herself no more time for disquiet.
Despite the midday breeze, the shutters were closed, but the door stood ajar. "That's not a good sign," Kelsey murmured, voicing her thoughts.
"Looks like this day still has some interesting left in it," Maera agreed. She pushed the door open and slowly stepped into the front hall. There were no lamps or candles lit; the only light came from the doorway, and those tiny streams of sun that could squeeze through the shutters. "Hello? Perth?"
"You are Maera." A voice spoke from just beyond the open door's light. "I have seen your face…he has shown it to me. I know you…"
Maera's hackles rose. "Perth? Are you the Cowled Wizard Perth?"
A thin man of average height shuffled towards the edge of the sunlight. He obviously had not washed or shaved in several days. He twitched his head this way and that, as though reacting to sounds only he could hear. "You are Maera. I am to test you. Test your limits."
Borrowed trouble was one thing, but madness was quite another. Maera dropped her hand to Daystar's hilt. "Perth, I'm only here for the talisman you use to get into Spellhold. That's all I want."
"The wardstone?" His tone was, for an instant, genuinely curious, then it slipped back into the dreamy monotone. "No. No, you are to be tested."
There was a faint flicker of movement to her left, and Maera was aware of Yoshimo, slipping around the edges of the light towards the mage. He drew even with the man's back and seized him, bringing his katana to Perth's throat. "Fool," he hissed, "there will be no test while Yoshimo is here! Give us what we have come for!"
Perth shook his head in confusion, oblivious to the blade at his neck, his wandering mind following some other circuit. "Yoshimo…no, Yoshimo is inconsequential. Maera must be tested!" A circle of fire sprang to life around him, pushing Yoshimo back. The thief's blade skittered off his throat, cutting it, but not deeply enough to kill. Maera lunged for him, sword drawn, cutting through the flames. It was over with distressing ease, before anyone else even had cause to strike a blow. Maera felt a bit dirty. She hated unfair fights.
The fire winked out as Perth died, and Yoshimo dug through the pockets of his soiled robe. He withdrew a flat black stone the size of his hand, covered in arcane symbols. "My knowledge of runes is inadequate at best, fair friend," he said, "but I would imagine that is what you seek." He handed her the stone.
Maera turned it over, sliding her fingers over the carvings. Everything she had fought for was finally there, in her hands. She glanced up at her party, letting a wary hope work its way into her heart. "We can get in. And as long as we can get in, we can get Imoen back." She tightened her grip on the wardstone. "We're really going to get her back."
Back at her room in the Vulgar Monkey, Maera paced, stopping occasionally to stare at her pack as if she could see the wardstone within through the leather. Kelsey sat on the bed and watched her, worried. She was wound so tight he was sure she might explode at any moment. As she strode past him again, he caught her wrist. "Maera, honey, please…sit down."
She sat heavily beside him. "I'm sorry. I'm being very irritating, I'm sure." Her feet tapped restlessly.
"No! No, I understand the pacing. You're just not going to be able to make tomorrow get here any faster by wearing a hole in the floor."
She flopped flat on her back, staring up at the ceiling. "You're right." She was still tapping.
He poked her in the side. "Roll over. And scoot up a little further."
"Just do it."
She compiled, making a face at him as she did. He loosened the neck of her undershirt and began to stroke the back of her neck, slowly increasing the pressure as he worked. He kneaded the junction of neck and shoulder, personally offended at the amount of tension she carried there, which only fueled his fingers. She whimpered softly, and he redoubled his efforts, realizing he could get very used to her making that sort of sound. When he felt he had made some positive progress, he eased up and slowly tapered off, ending with a firm kiss on the nape of her neck. She rolled over, smiling a bit lazily at him.
"What was that for?"
"Feeling a little more calm?" She nodded. Her feet were finally still. "Good." His fingers drifted across her cheek. "All I want is for you to be happy. I know that sounds cliché, but I have never met someone whose happiness mattered to me as much as yours does. So if that means I need to rub your neck, or take on an army of Cowled Wizards to get Imoen back, I'll do it. I've spent the last decade of my life under a cloud, wishing I could change things I had no power over, and not changing the things I could. I got so used to it I forgot what daylight looked like. You've reminded me." Their eyes locked. "I don't know if I believe in destiny, Maera, but I can't shake the feeling that my whole life has been leading me to this. To you."
She smiled, almost nervously. "We do seem to have met at just the right time. For both of us," she said. "There are so few constants in my life, Kelsey. I am really glad you've decided to be in it anyway."
"I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be." He took one of her hands in his and kissed it, never taking his eyes from hers. "Anywhere other than right here. Right now."
He could see something click in her dark eyes, and only had a second to wonder what it was before she reached up, curled the fingers of her free hand in the collar of his robe, and drew him into a deep, breathless kiss. And any trace of doubt or uncertainty was banished as rational thought ceased, drowned out by a wild and reckless need. He felt his hands moving, grasping her hips (Gods, her hips were perfect), her body pressed against his as she drew him closer. He couldn't breathe and didn't want to; she was there, in his arms, warm and beautiful and vibrant, and he loved her and wanted her so badly…
He pulled back, unsure of whether or not to proceed. "Maera, I want you to know, this is not just some physical thing, and I-"
"I know." Her smile was a mix of gentle understanding and sly, wicked intent that made his already overworked heart race all the faster; she still had an iron grip on his shirt front and she carefully pulled him back down within inches of her lips. "You gonna keep talking?"
She didn't need to say another word. There was nothing to reason through, no need for logic, no rationale. There was passion there that demanded expression. It was as simple as that. They kissed again, and again, giving in, letting go. Everything that mattered was contained between them. The night was theirs.