"So this is my reward for years of loyal service. I break my back for this city, and this is how I am thanked. Are we truly so overextended that you are the best I have to work with?" The drow drummed his fingers on the table before him and stared up at Maera. Solaufein, pride of the Ust Natha Male Fighters' Society, was already on her list after an acquaintance of scarcely five minutes. "As if I do not have enough to do in a day," he groused. "Do not expect your hand to be held."
Arms crossed, Maera looked sidelong over her shoulder at her party, then back down at Solaufein. "I can't speak for you, but no one on this side of the table needs a nursemaid."
As soon as the words left her mouth, she realized she might have gone too far. To her relief, he barked a single laugh and appraised her anew, something akin to wry humor in his red eyes. "You have a spine at least. That bodes well." He gestured about the common room of the Ust Natha inn vaguely. "A suite of rooms has been set aside for you upstairs. Settle in, then meet me back down here. One of the Handmaidens has a task, so you won't have to wait long to prove yourself." He pushed back his chair as they turned to go, saying, "Your sword, Veldrin. It's an unusual weapon."
Panic gripped her. Adalon's illusion had altered their clothing and armor; she had not even noticed that Daystar remained unchanged. The wheels turned swiftly, and a lie appeared. "A trophy. I got it off a surfacer."
Solaufein cocked an eyebrow. "Interesting." He waved a hand dismissively. "Don't take too long. Time is of the essence, as I have lately been told."
Their suite consisted of a circular sitting room and four bedrooms. Imoen and Jaheira claimed the shared room without comment. There was little to say; they all still felt awkward in their borrowed forms. Minsc in particular, now nearly a foot shorter and at least a hundred pounds lighter, was so withdrawn and hunch-shouldered that he was unconsciously presenting the perfect image of the subservient drow male. They set aside their packs in silence, but there was little 'settling in' to do. That phrase implied ease, and there was none of that for any of them.
When they descended, Solaufein stood waiting. "Follow me."
Maera had never given much thought to the details of an underground city's layout, but even those few thoughts had never lighted on anything like Ust Natha. The buildings were spire-like, cut from natural formations, it seemed. Between them, from far below near the unseen bottom of the cavern, to high above their heads, were strung the multitude of platforms and walkways that were the city streets. A graceful, bright green spider the size of a large dog glided by, followed by a thin halfling male in a dingy smock and a heavy iron collar, his skin splotchy and unhealthy, his eyes vague. Maera felt a hot surge of anger, and ducked her head to hide her expression as they passed an armored female wearing a holy symbol of Lolth.
Solaufein led them along the winding walk towards a platform near the city gates, and Maera decided the thing that currently irritated her the most about him was the fact he was taller than her. In her natural state, the only man she had to look up at was Minsc. "House Despana currently holds the greatest prominence here," he said to her. "They have risen quickly due to…recent events, but by extension, they stand for a precipitous fall, should things go awry, especially now. Your Matron Mother sending you at this juncture is a major coup for them, but it adds to the pressure."
Without meaning to, she found herself following the thread, and replied, "Other cities are taking notice." He nodded in agreement and she was about to thank him for the information when she remembered the source. "And why are you telling me this?"
He laughed his singular laugh again. "Admirable caution, but unnecessary. No politics here, merely conversation. I am not Despana. I simply observe, and do as I am told. Besides, if you fail to distinguish yourselves, I'm sure there will be plenty of blame to fall on me as well, so we must all shore up these walls together, mustn't we?"
Conversation failed as they reached their destination. Imrae, the Handmaiden of Lolth, was waiting for them, and the chill in the air that spread outward from her was palpable. Nothing about her physical form seemed prepossessing, but there was an unmistakable aura of silent danger about her. Her cool eyes did not bother to measure any of them up; as far she was concerned, they were already lacking. Gods, Maera thought, no wonder nobody likes the drow.
Solaufein made a low obeisance. "The foreigners, Handmaiden."
"I am not blind, male." She fixed her expressionless eyes on Maera, tilting her head ever so slightly. "You are Veldrin?"
"I am, Handmaiden." Holding her gaze was like being buried in an avalanche.
"I will not mince words. In an act of pure defiance, intellect devourers have kidnapped the favored daughter of Matron Mother Ardulace of House Despana. She must be retrieved, and they must be taught a sharp lesson."
"Devourers? You mean mind flayers?" The question slipped out, and Maera cursed herself for a fool, but rescue came from a surprising quarter.
Solaufein cocked his head, real, honest-to-Oghma curiosity lighting his eyes. "Mind flayers. Is that what they are referred to as in Ched Nassad?"
Imrae obviously had no time for intellectual interest. Her mouth twisted a mere fraction, but it was more than enough to silence him. "Solaufein, do you wish a visit to the driders?"
"Then hold your tongue. I am speaking with a female." He ducked his head and took a step back. "The devourers are returning to their own city with their prisoner even now. Solaufein will conduct you to the best place along their path for ambush. If you fail, do not bother to return." With that, she turned, obviously finished with them.
With a visible shudder, Solaufein started them back towards the inn. "I told you you wouldn't have to wait long for a chance to prove yourself," he said, his tone attempting levity and failing. "Take a few hours for some rest. I will come for you when it's time."
They ordered dinner, and trudged up to their suite. No one was surprised that Maera shut herself in her room to eat in solitude. They all wished that they were.
Behind her closed door, Maera sat on the edge of her bed and stared at Veldrin's face in the mirror opposite. The long, slim face that looked back at her was attractive enough, she supposed, though she had no idea what exactly the drow considered beautiful. She scrunched her nose and moved her eyebrows; she tried a smile, but even if it hadn't looked unnatural, it felt it.
What had she gotten them into now? Playing politics among the drow got more than enough drow killed, and she was sure she wasn't that good an actress. Of one thing she was certain: Irenicus had not been engaging in hyperbole when he said her part in his plans was small. Whatever he was up to, the fact he had managed to get an entire drow city involved indicated an unnerving broadness of scope. She wondered if he had a checklist.
Step one: Steal Bhaalspawn soul.
Step two: Wreak havoc (invite drow).
Step three: ?
She shook her head in frustration. There were still too many missing pieces. She had most of the edges, but it was the middle she needed. She sighed and raked her fingers through her white hair. It was longer than she was used to, and she toyed with the idea of braiding it. It had been years since worn her hair in braids. She glanced back at the mirror. The face there looked sad, and she straightened herself stubbornly. Drow don't do sad, she told herself.
Someone knocked at the door, and it opened slightly, revealing a female drow in familiar clothing. It took Maera a second to recognize the face as Imoen's.
"Solaufein's here," her sister announced. "Are you ready to go?"
She stood, and buckled on her sword belt. "Always."
They peered over the jagged rocks, down the steep slope into the narrow passage below that led to the illithid city. They had crouched there for at least a quarter hour and Maera's legs were starting to cramp. "Do you have a plan, Solaufein?" she asked, her voice hushed.
He shot her a quick glance. "I'm honored you would condescend to ask. And I do, in point of fact. We kill them, as quickly as possible."
"Truly, you are a tactical mind for the generations."
He shrugged. "You asked." From the corner of her eye, Maera saw Kelsey's lips tighten. "You know what devourers can do," he continued, his eyes returned to the passage below. "Best to deal with them as expediently as one can." There was movement below, and Solaufein swore. "Umber hulks! They have umber hulks with them!"
Maera returned the shrug in kind. An idea was forming in her mind, its steps falling together in rapid order. "Same plan, right? Just faster." She slowly unsheathed Daystar, the blade sliding from the leather with a whisper. She glanced over her shoulder at Kelsey and Imoen. "Cover me."
Solaufein's eyes widened. "Veldrin! What do you think you're doing?"
Edging along the rocks, she waited until the lead illithid was almost under her. "What? It was your plan." And then she jumped.
Even as she landed on the mind flayer sword-first, Kelsey stood, calculating angles. The narrow passage was perfect for a lightning bolt, but he could see the pale head of a female drow in the midst of the throng and knew he didn't dare. Jaheira spotted her too, however, and he mentally thanked the druid for her quick thinking as she shoved Solaufein and Minsc ahead of her, skidding down between the rocks. The trio snatched the prisoner and dashed out of the way as Kelsey let the magic flow through him, the air cracking as light and heat left his hands, arcing down among the illithid and their slaves.
Maera heard the lightning behind her, and felt the hair on her head rise as it passed. But she spared no time to look; after slipping up against the balor, she was determined not to lose her focus again. She slashed at the illithid's tentacled face, ducking hard to her right as it reached for her with its unnaturally long-fingered hand. An arrow sank into its shoulder, and another lower on its torso – even in the dim light of the Underdark, Imoen's eye was not to be underestimated. Dark purple blood spread on the creature's strange, mottled robes, and Maera finished it with a sharp blow to the throat. The heavy step of an umber hulk gave her no time to catch her breath; she dove between its massive legs, driving Daystar up at the base of its spine. More arrows peppered the umber hulk's front, and she rolled to her feel to hear as it roared. There was a sizzling hiss, and one of Kelsey's fire arrows struck a multi-faceted eye, bringing it down. Maera drove her sword through one of the others, just to be sure.
As the last of the umber hulks fell, the prisoner, who had been pressed warily against the cave wall, straightened, dusting off her cloak. As she adjusted herself, she caught sight of Solaufein, an expression of recognition on her lovely face. She began to laugh, shoulders shaking. "Poor Solaufein!" she exclaimed. "How it must gall you to have been sent after me."
His face was carefully neutral. "I go where I am sent, and I do as I am instructed. You know this, Phaere."
"Of course." Her lips twitched in catty amusement. "And you," she said to Maera, "I don't recognize that house insignia. Would you be the ones sent from Ched Nassad?" Maera nodded the affirmative. "Excellent. That was a pretty bit of fighting…the Matron will be pleased we were not sent dross." She slid a hand across Solaufein's shoulder in an overly familiar and obviously unwelcome fashion. "Will you conduct us back to Ust Natha, brave warrior?" Her smirk had a malignant edge.
"You know the way back," he replied. "I will take up the rear." She looked as if she were about to make a vulgar play on his words, then shrugged, leaving Maera and her party to follow in bewildered silence. Only Kelsey noticed that Solaufein stopped to slam his fist into the cave wall before proceeding.
They were summoned down to the common room the next day to find Phaere holding court at a corner table with Solaufein in glowering attendance. "Veldrin!" she said sweetly. "Good of you to join us. This male is tedious company. But then you probably already knew that. It doesn't take long to notice." He snorted, crossing his arms and examining the ceiling, clearly irritated. There was a story there, Maera was sure of it. Phaere continued as if he hadn't made a sound, fluttering her fingers in a welcoming gesture. "Please, sit. We have business to discuss. The Matron and the Handmaidens were very impressed by the report I gave of my rescue at your hands. In consequence, they have other tasks they wish you to undertake, which means that for now, I have been given charge of you to see that they are done. Our own fighters are much engaged elsewhere in the first phase of our…operation, so your presence here in the city provides you with an excellent chance to prove yourself useful. Do so and you may get to play a greater part in events to come."
Seeing her opening, Maera asked, "What events, exactly?"
Phaere smiled conspiratorially over the rim of her wine cup. "Much still depends on discretion, but I can say that should our plans go well, as they no doubt will, being allied with House Despana will be very propitious for you. But for today…Mother Lolth requires your service. There is a cult of Ghaunadaurites in the lower levels of the city who must be dealt with. Filthy, muck-loving apostates. The entirety of the city must be unswerving in its devotion to Lolth. Dissent before the Spider Queen is never to be tolerated, but especially not now." She inspected her perfectly manicured nails. "Solaufein will, of course, accompany you."
He fixed her with a flat, disgusted stare. "They don't need me. You know that."
"Why, Solaufein," she asked innocently, "what happened to going where you were sent and doing as you were told? I have given you an order, and you will carry it out."
"Very well," he muttered between ground teeth. She swept away with a condescending smile, and he scowled at her back. "Arrogance. Pure arrogance!"
Despite herself, Maera was intrigued. He was not at all what she'd expected from a drow male. "You don't like a little arrogance in a female, Solaufein?"
"Not her kind." He rubbed at his eyes with displeasure. "Ghaunadaurites. Commoners who think turning from the Spider Queen will somehow better their lot. It will be a slaughter, and worse, it will be pointless." He sighed. "Get your gear. The sooner we begin, the sooner we will be done."
It had been exactly as Solaufein had predicted, and everyone returned to the inn in low spirits, feeling somewhat dirty, and not just because they had been in a sewer. Maera had cleaned up and in short order, vanished, saying only that she would be back, leaving the rest of them to sit in the small sitting room of their suite in downcast silence.
Kelsey had his journal out in front of him, but despite the multitude of thoughts buzzing about in his head, he found he did not want to write any of them down. His last entry, written in Brynnlaw the evening before they left for Spellhold, mocked him with his own optimism and happiness. Everything had seemed so straightforward. None of them had known they were standing on a precipice, about to be flung into a nightmare, and he knew Maera well enough to know she blamed herself. Spellhold clung to her, like burrs from a thornbush, and, even though she was obviously trying to hide it, he could see the fear in her eyes. He did not want to imagine what it must have been to be the Slayer, even for a few moments, if the experience had terrified her so. He wanted to hold her and tell her everything would be all right, and he wanted to believe that she would let him. But there was nothing to take for granted now. No assumption was safe. He closed the notebook and stuffed it in his pocket. Writing wouldn't help.
He missed her. That was the worst part. He missed her, even when she was in the same room.
He also knew he wasn't the only one. Her withdrawal had hurt the entire party. Like an ocean current, she pulled them along with her, her drive infectious enough to give them all a sense of purpose. He hadn't realized how much they had relied on her until she pulled away. Minsc sat at a table, glumly feeding Boo some bit of foreign root vegetable (only after Jaheira had declared it safe) and Imoen sat beside him, head resting on his shoulder, her borrowed face drawn and melancholic. Jaheira emerged from her bed chamber, and placed a professional hand on the younger woman's forehead.
"You are still running that fever," she said testily.
"It's not like I'm doing it on purpose, Jaheira."
"It is very frustrating!" Jaheira exclaimed, startling Boo, who ran up Minsc's sleeve in a panic. "I do not like being incapable of aid!"
"It's not your fault," Imoen said soothingly. Her head remained in place. Kelsey realized, with a pang of sympathy, that she was having another one of her headaches. "This obviously isn't a physical thing."
Jaheira exhaled sharply. "I cannot help you, I cannot help Maera, I-" She bit off her words. "Excuse me." As she strode back into the bedroom, Kelsey could have sworn he saw tears glittering in her eyes.
Something prompted him to his feet, and he was standing in the doorway of Jaheira and Imoen's room before he quite knew what had propelled him there. Jaheira's back was turned, her shoulders as straight as ever, but the slight tilt of her neck told the story. "Jaheira, I..." he began. She made no sign of acknowledgment. He took a deep breath, and started over. "I just wanted to say I understand."
She rounded on him, and he instinctively took a step back. "She has held me at arm's length before," she cried angrily. "But never has she pushed me away so completely!" Her shoulders slumped a fraction of a degree, her eyes miserable. "If she thinks I am disappointed in her, or angry...she should not! This is not her making; she does not have to hide from me!"
It was a rare privilege, Kelsey realized, to be allowed to hear Jaheira's thoughts, especially these. "I know it's not the same, but…I know. Believe me, I do," he said. Jaheira was silent. "You really love her, don't you?"
She gave him a measuring look. "That is a foolish question," she said evenly. "And if I were in the habit of asking foolish questions, I would direct the same to you."
He sighed, his eyes seeking out the floor. "I'd think that's obvious."
"I'm not sure it matters now though," he said. "I have no idea if she still wants anything to do with me. I don't even know where she is right now." His voice lowered, and he could not keep the bitterness from it as he added in a mutter, "Probably with Solaufein."
"And what does that signify, hmm?" Jaheira cocked an eyebrow at him. "Tell me, Kelsey, are you always so quick to give up? Accepting defeat even when you are not yet beaten?"
She didn't need the staff, he marveled; she could bludgeon a man with that eyebrow alone. "I guess I am."
"You should work on that."
And that was why Maera, who seemingly feared no one, would scuff her feet like a scolded child in Jaheira's presence. He ducked his head. "I guess I should."
The gentleness of her next words surprised him. "We must both give her time. It is all we can do."
Maera had not wandered far, though she realized she had likely given the opposite impression when she left. Hunger had stopped her in the downstairs common, but the only remotely appetizing thing she could find to eat was some sort of bizarre nut that reminded her of almonds. She wasn't sure she wanted to know what it really was, so she sat and munched in solitude, chin in hand. The Ust Nathan regulars watched her with cautious condescension, and she really didn't care enough to be unnerved.
"I would think a warrior might require a bit more fuel to maintain her strength," Solaufein remarked. She glanced up. He stood opposite her, across the small table. He hadn't been there a moment ago, but she didn't feel like letting him unnerve her, either.
"It's all that appeals to me at the moment," she said. "And I thought we agreed you wouldn't be playing nursemaid?"
"Thankfully, you've set my mind at ease on that score." He gestured at the chair in front of him. "May I?"
"Knock yourself out."
"Knock myself out," he repeated as he sat. "Ched Nassad has some fascinating slang." She had to smile faintly at that.
"So what are you doing here, Solaufein?" She took a drink of her wine. It was quite sweet, and tingled slightly on the tongue. She wondered what it was made from. "I thought you had important things to do."
"I suppose I wanted to be sure Phaere didn't have you doing anything immensely stupid behind my back."
So they were old enemies after all. "You're warning me off her. Why?"
"Everyone's dangerous," she chuckled bitterly. "Including me."
"I don't doubt that." His scrutiny discomfited her, and she returned the look with some belligerence. He looked away, and about the common room, as if seeking out a specific face. "Your companions keep to themselves a great deal, I've noticed."
She shrugged. "They're here because of me. They shouldn't have to suffer with this hole anymore than necessary."
Once again, she worried belatedly that she had been too blunt, and once again, he surprised her with a laugh. "Ched Nassad must truly be our superior."
She played along with another dry smile. "A veritable paradise."
A hoot of laughter rose from a neighboring table, where a cluster of young drow sat. The laughter had come from the female who sat with her chair leaned back, one foot propped on the table, a cup of wine in her hand. The way the others were ranged about her marked her as the leader of this particular pack, and they all chortled as the reclined humorist called, "Looking for a new bed to crawl into, Solaufein?"
Solaufein briefly closed with his eyes with obvious, profound exasperation. "Bitter that I would not crawl into yours, Li'daer?"
"Why should I be?" she snorted. "I'm not the one who has to go sniffing after foreigners for my pleasure." The table snickered in unison.
Maera watched the exchange with raised eyebrows. "Who's that charming creature?" she asked.
"Li'daer Jae'llat," he replied. "A younger daughter of the House."
"Got something to prove, does she?" He nodded, and Maera stood. On the one hand, it was probably a stupid idea, but on the other…she just couldn't help herself.
"Are you going to defend Solaufein's honor, foreigner?" Li'daer smirked. "How very…what's the word the surfacers use – 'chivalrous'." She mangled the pronunciation, and Maera rolled her eyes.
"Hardly," Maera said coolly. "If he can't take care of himself by now, he's a lost cause. But I have decided that you're annoying, and I don't like you."
"Harsh words." Li'daer's lips moved into a tiny, icy smile. "Was it your cutting wit that made Despana so eager to snap you up?" Her court murmured approval.
"It must be refreshing to be so ignorant," Maera retorted, walking slowly towards the Jae'llat table. The rest of the common room had gone silent; she would have to make this good. "I am allied with House Despana because they were the ones smart enough to know that making use of me freed them for other business. And look - I don't see any Despana here this evening. They must all be out advancing the cause of this city, while you sit here soaking in wine and playing with males." She rounded the table, and stared down at Li'daer's suddenly livid face. This was actually turning out to be rather enjoyable. "I may be a foreigner, but that doesn't mean I'll be heckled by the younger daughters of insignificant Houses just because they think that makes them look important in front of their even less significant friends." She pressed the side of her foot against the front legs of Li'Daer's chair and jerked upward, sending it and the drow seated on it tumbling back onto the floor. The clatter of the furniture and thump of the soft body hitting the stones was the only sound in the room. "Learn some respect, or I'll teach it to you."
She turned on her heel, leaving Li'daer stammering angrily, her followers glancing at each other with careful uncertainty, none wanting to be the first to move. Stalking back to her table, she reseated herself across from Solaufein, who had covered his mouth with a hand in a vain attempt to hide his grin. "That was magnificent," he said between his fingers.
"It was stupid. But satisfying. You get her kind everywhere; puppies yapping as loud as they can to make themselves seem bigger than they really are." She drained the last swallow from her wine cup, glancing over her shoulder as Li'daer and her most devoted hangers-on stormed past. "I suppose I should head back upstairs and try to get some sleep. Phaere will be back tomorrow, I expect?"
"I'm sure of it." Solaufein's expression grew grave. "I know you were being flip before, Veldrin, but she is using you for her own purpose, above and beyond the goals of her House. Remember that."
He knew far, far more than he was telling. What was his angle in all this? "I wouldn't expect anything less of her. Good night, Solaufein."
Phaere was indeed back the next morning, presiding over a breakfast that involved very soft rolls, and some sort of egg. "I heard about your little altercation with Li'daer Jae'llat last night," she said, smiling almost benignly.
"She irritated me," Maera said.
"Providing irritation to others is perhaps her greatest skill." Phaere met Maera's eyes, still smiling. "It pleases me that you so openly declared for my House, as well. We build upon one another's successes now." Solaufein's words of warning from the previous night echoed in her mind, but in spite of herself, Maera found she was fascinated by the machinations. Did the drow weave such complex webs because of Lolth, or had they attracted the Spider Queen's eye for their own natural ability at it?
"But obviously," Phaere continued, "we are not here solely to congratulate ourselves. I have come with another task for you. It involves the svirfneblin." She rested her chin on her interlaced fingers. "There's a whole colony of them a few hours from here – an infestation, to be frank. You may have encountered them on your way here, and if you did, I'm very sorry, because they've become quite uppity in the last month or so. They need to be brought back in hand, and that, my dear Veldrin, is where you come in. Solaufein will lead you to their nasty little hole, and you will…remind them of drow superiority."
Solaufein exploded. "Gnomes?! You expect me to waste my time with gnomes? Who, and what, do you think I am, Phaere?"
The indulgent smile vanished. Glacier runoff was warmer than Phaere's features. "I think you are a male," she said, enunciating each word with painful clarity. "A male who has been spoiled and coddled for far too long. You will remember your place, or I will personally give you to the Handmaidens!" She stood, brows drawn in a tight, angry line. "Take a trophy of some sort when you're done with the gnomes, Veldrin. Mother Ardulace has a collection." She reached down and drew a fingertip along Kelsey's jaw line. He gulped hard and tried not to flinch. "At least your males know how to be docile." She stalked away.
Maera, to her surprise, found that she had half started out of her chair before the forebrain kicked in to remind her publicly pummeling the favorite daughter of the preeminent House in Ust Natha would be a bad idea. Fortunately, Solaufein was too lost in his own personal fury to notice.
"Gnomes. GNOMES. She's doing this on purpose! She wants to grind me down! I should just happily stoop to any menial task she gives me, should I? I am the favored son of my House! I am first among the Male Fighters' Society! She has no right!"
As his litany of abuses rolled forth, Maera spurred her brain for a solution. She didn't want to hurt the svirfneblin. Not after what they had done for her and her group. Certainly not after what Odendal had suffered on their behalf. But there was no way she could think of spare them with Solaufein along. Unless… "Solaufein," she interrupted. "You don't have to come with us."
He cut off mid-rant, words fading in surprise. "I what?"
"You don't have to come with us. We can handle gnomes on our own. You're right, Phaere's obviously making you join us out of spite. So why not spite her back? You can go back to your quarters and relax, and no one will be the wiser."
"You'd cross her, then?" He raised an eyebrow.
"What she doesn't know won't hurt her."
"Very well." He looked pleased, but there was a spark in his eyes that made her nervous. She had just given him something more than a half-day's downtime, and she had no idea what it was. "Fetch me when the business is done."
When he was gone, Imoen said softly, "So we're not really gonna hurt the gnomes?"
"Of course not," Maera replied, also sotto voce. "Have I really been acting like that much of a drow you think I would?"
No one wanted to answer that.
The granitehome guard patrol had almost fainted in a collective wave of terror at the sight of five armed drow approaching them out of the dark. The chief female of the group had demanded to be taken to Goldander Blackenrock, and had done so by name. Now they were closeted with the headgnome, and the whole of the granitehome waited, nerves wracked by anticipation.
"Goldander, it's me," Maera said. "Adalon changed us. It's an illusion!" She unbelted her sword and held it flat on her palms, still sheathed. "You recognize my sword, right?"
The gnome gulped, examining Daystar's distinctive hilt closely. "I had heard of Lady Adalon's illusions, but had never seen them in the flesh before. Er, as it were, of course." He circled them, and, unable to contain his curiosity, poked Imoen in the side. She yelped, and hearing such an undignified sound come from a drow made him giggle. "Remarkable! But, my lady, why have you returned?"
"The drow think we're working for them. They sent us here because they think your people needed to be taught a lesson. It would be a good idea for you to lay low for a while."
"Oh. Of course!" He nodded furiously. "We can retreat to a deeper clime easily enough."
"Then you should do that as soon as possible. And…is there anything you can give me that I can show them as a trophy?"
Goldander patted himself, thinking, then drew his short sword. Reversing the blade, he handed it to her over his arm. It was more like a dagger in her hand. "I thank you, my lady," he said solemnly. "No doubt the real drow would have laid waste to us." He bowed to them. "I must make arrangements for my people's departure."
They took their time going back to Ust Natha, concentrating on the trails. One mistaken turn could leave them wandering in the dark forever. But it was a long walk, and they paused to take a brief rest by a small, rushing stream. The black water surged noisily towards a drop-off about twenty paces downstream, where it tumbled into the darkness in a cloud of white spray.
"It's pretty, isn't it?" Imoen murmured to Jaheira.
"There is beauty even here," the druid agreed, rearranging her pack. "Nature is below the earth as well as upon it, but I still prefer to be under the sky, not the ground."
"It'll be nice to see the sky again," Imoen said distantly. Minsc gently patted the top of her head, then made a face. It was obviously odd for him to have to raise his hand to do so.
Maera stood off to the side, staring into the water, her arms crossed. It was funny, Kelsey thought, that he could recognize that body language in an instant, despite her appearance. Before, that stance would have prompted him to approach her, talk to her, help her work through whatever she was puzzling over. But she had been so forbidding, so distant. Would that even work now? Then Jaheira's words came back to him; he had nothing to lose in the effort. He took a deep breath, and was about to take a step when Maera looked up and said, "We should get moving."
They crossed the stream, and continued on. They began to recognize landmarks, and none of them were sure if that was a good thing or not. When they arrived back in Ust Natha, they wasted little time in retrieving Solaufein from his quarters.
"I see the gnomes did not threaten to overwhelm you in my absence," he quipped, leading them on one of the upper walkways to Phaere's quarters.
"Oh, we sent them on their way quite well enough on our own," Maera replied.
"Part of me wishes I could tell her. Just to see the look on her face. But sometimes having knowledge that another does not is reward enough."
Maera made a point of keeping her face as still as possible. "Definitely."
Phaere's quarters in the Female Fighters' Society were only a few rooms, but they were elaborately and elegantly furnished. The party presented themselves to her, and Maere gave a brief and highly fictionalized account of the events at the granitehome. Phaere smiled. "Mother Ardulace will be very pleased, Veldrin. She wants to meet you. I have encouraged her to make you a part of the next step in our undertaking, and I believe she will. We have need of leaders like you. Your coming has been very fortunate for us all. So go. Rest now. She will send for you in the next day or so." She turned to Solaufein. "You, on the other hand, are done. I don't want you anywhere near the remainder of this operation. For now, you are confined to your quarters, but after your outburst earlier, I have half a mind to have you tortured for my amusement. It's obvious no one has taken the time maintain discipline with you lately."
Solaufein's jaw went tight. "I dare you."
She stiffened with shock, and stared at him as if he had just spit in her face. "What?"
"I. Dare. You."
"Remember who I am, male!" she hissed.
"Oh, I do, Phaere. I know very well who you are. And I'm calling your bluff. You wouldn't dare offend my House at this stage, not with so much on the line. So go ahead. See what Matron Ardulace would say. See what my own Matron, and the Matrons of every other House in this city would say. Take a chance, Phaere! Gamble on your position!" His eyes blazed. "Is hurting me worth it?"
Phaere stared at him, her whole body shaking with rage. Her lips moved uselessly for a moment before she managed to force out a growl. "Get out." The words freed, her voice rose to a screaming crescendo. "All of you, get OUT!"
They returned to the inn and retired. Maera had only barely dozed off when there was a pounding on her door. She fumbled for the lamp and Daystar simultaneously as the door swung open, revealing Phaere. "Return to your beds," she said to the others in their doorways. "I have business with Veldrin."
She closed the door, and immediately began pacing, her agitation shimmering off her like a heat mirage. "Veldrin, there is something you must do for me. This very night." She stopped and fixed Maera with earnest, furious eyes. "You have to kill Solaufein."