The School of Betrayal
Maera sat up, returning her sword to its stand by the bed, and waited. Phaere resumed her pacing. "He's right, you know," she said bitterly. "House Despana cannot have him openly put to death. Not now. But he galls me so! He defies me for his sport! I will not stand for it any longer. If you kill him, quietly, no blame can be cast on my House and there will be no interruption to our endeavors." She stopped again. "Will you do this for me, Veldrin?"
Mind racing, Maera asked slowly, "How do I know you won't denounce me when he's dead?"
Phaere sat at the foot of the bed. "A prudent question. Very well. I will pay you in information." She leaned towards Maera, voice lowered. "We are making war on the surfacers. Already, two waves of our army have met the elves above and been victorious. We have even defiled one of their temples." Maera tensed in fascinated horror. Had Irenicus put the drow up to this? For what purpose? Reading her body language as surprised admiration, Phaere continued. "Magnificent, is it not? And we have a greater plan that will ensure their complete devastation. I can make you a part of it, but I will tell you no more until you do this for me." She picked at the bed's coverlet. "He will have to seem to disappear, so you will have to dispose of his body completely. Maybe have that pretty mager of yours disintegrate it or something." She tapped her lips thoughtfully. "And bring me that ridiculous piwafwi cloak of his. I could use a trophy of my own."
A plan bubbled to the surface, and Maera nodded. "All right."
Phaera stood, looking considerably more subdued, and said, "Speaking of your mage, I don't suppose I could borrow him? I could use a little distraction tonight."
Maera could not have thought of a less appealing idea. "You've already asked one favor."
Phaere sighed. Maera couldn't tell if the contrition on her face was real or feigned. "True. Maybe later?"
"Get some rest, Phaere," Maera said. "I'll let you know when I've handled it." Phaere departed, and Maera dressed quickly and belted on her sword. She heard one of the other doors open behind her as she left the suite, but she did not stop. She would explain it to them later.
No one in the Male Fighters' Society dared to ask any questions about why the newly popular female foreigner wanted to see Solaufein in the middle of the night. They had all lived long enough to learn the wisdom of discretion. Nor was Solaufein himself surprised to see her, whatever he surmised her intention to be.
"To what do I owe the honor, Veldrin?" he asked, calmly pulling on a shirt.
She felt no need for preamble. "Phaere sent me here to kill you."
He looked neither shocked nor dismayed, but quietly lit another lamp and beckoned her to have a seat. "I was wondering how long it would take her. I didn't think she would ask you, but it makes sense that she did."
She remained standing. "I'm not going to, though."
That got a flicker of reaction. "Why not?"
"I'm a lot of things, Solaufein, but I am not an assassin. Definitely not hers. And for some reason, I have the feeling this isn't where you really want to be. Or what you want to be doing."
His eyes fixed on her face, trying to divine the meaning from her words. "And you would spare me for that? Defy Phaere? For a feeling?"
"I have no loyalty to her."
"Or to any other?" His gaze was measuring. "You are a very unusual female, Veldrin of Ched Nassad. You have a secret. I can tell."
Damn. She'd gone too far, strayed too much from character. She said nothing, and he offered, "If you are unwilling or unable to tell me, I respect that. But if you aren't…I could trade you. A secret of mine, for one of yours." The silence in the room was almost overpowering, and to her astonishment, she realized she wanted to say yes. Why should she trust him? He was a drow. He had to be playing at something. The only word in his language for trust connoted its absence.
"You are right," he said. "This is not what I wish to be doing. We have strayed, as a people. The Spider Queen is no longer sufficient to our needs. She is certainly not for mine. She has been replaced in my heart, by Lady Silverhair."
Maera stared at him, taken utterly aback. "Lady Silver- You're a follower of Eilistraee?"
His chin came up defiantly. "I am. Do you still wish to spare me?"
Well then. The conversation had certainly taken an interesting turn. She took the seat he had offered. "I believe I owe you a secret now." She bit her lip, took a deep breath, and stared him square in the eye. "My name is not Veldrin, and I am not from Ched Nassad."
"Who are you, then?"
And here came the real test. "I am Maera of Candlekeep. I'm a surfacer, a human. This face and body…they're just an illusion."
He leaned forward, that spark of undrow-like curiosity in his eyes again. "An extremely convincing illusion. How is it even possible?"
"What do you know about dragon eggs?" she volleyed back.
He straightened, and an expression of intrigued amusement crossed his dark face. "So the Guardian has moved after all. Ardulace and Phaere were so sure she wouldn't risk it. Fascinating." He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "As it turns out, I know quite a bit about dragon eggs. You learn a great deal when you keep your ears open and your mouth shut. The eggs were not simply stolen to prevent the Guardian's interference. They are an offering. Matron Mother Ardulace plans to summon up a demon lord and offer them in return for his aid in our attack against the surface elves."
Maera sucked in a breath, appalled. "A demon lord? Loose on the surface? No one would stand a chance."
"No commoner of the Abyss for the Mother of Despana, certainly. But," he continued, holding up a finger, "I also know the plots don't end there. Phaere, like the good daughter she is, is planning to betray her mother."
"Is it not?" He shot her a sardonic smile. "She has had exact copies of the eggs crafted in secret. No doubt her intent is to exchange them, thus causing Matron Ardulace to inadvertently make a false offering."
Maera nodded in understanding. "The demon kills the Matron for the affront, and Phaere produces the real thing, taking control of her House and positioning herself as the sole architect of a major victory for Ust Natha."
"Very good. No wonder you've been able to play a drow so convincingly."
"I'm not sure if that's a compliment or not," she rejoined dryly.
"Please, take it as one. That's how it was meant." His eyes lingered on her. "At any rate, Phaere should have paid her artificer better, because he was only too glad to extend me the same service." He got up, and rummaged around in the base of the corner wardrobe, producing a small bag – obviously enchanted, as he was able to sink his arm into it up to the elbow. He withdrew an oblong object roughly the size of his head, a shimmering, silvery egg that seemed to glow faintly in the lamplight. "Amazing that such massive creatures come from such minute beginnings."
Maera got up to examine the false egg more closely. "You were planning to swap the eggs yourself. A double cross of the double cross." He nodded. "How do you people keep all this straight?"
Solaufein chuckled. "If you can't, you don't live to see adulthood." He slipped the egg back into the bag. "Since I'm to be 'dead' soon however, I won't be able to carry out my original plan. I'm afraid I'll have to be very ungracious, and ask a favor in return for you saving my life."
She took the bag from him. "I think I know what that favor is, and actually, I'm more than happy to, Solaufein. This is just the chance I've been waiting for."
"Then I count myself fortunate to die at your hand, Vel- …Maera," he said. Their eyes met, and it occurred to her that they were standing very close to each other. His hand rested gently on her forearm. His head tilted slightly, his liquid red eyes warm with some expression she couldn't quite place. The light seemed to shift, and for an instant, the red was replaced by hazel, green ringed with brown. Cursing herself in every manner she could think of, she took a swift step back, guilt and embarrassment stabbing her in the gut. Solaufein dropped his head, a dark flush coloring his cheeks. "It would appear I've misjudged," he mumbled.
Her own face was burning. "I'm sorry."
He shook his head, eyes still downcast. "Don't apologize. I should not have presumed." He glanced at her diffidently. "There's a claim on your heart," he said softly. "Someone already in your affections."
She bobbed her head in self-conscious confirmation. "I hope I'm still in his."
"He'd be a fool otherwise." He shook himself and made great show of changing the subject. "May I ask how you were intending to murder me?"
"I trust you know how to get out of town quickly and quietly. I thought I'd leave that to you. All Phaere wants as proof is your cloak. You should probably bleed on it some first, just to be convincing."
"The piwafwi?" He lifted the cloak from its hook on the wall. "Of course she would."
"Is it that obvious?"
"You can't hate a stranger as much as you two hate each other."
He laughed bitterly, balling the fabric in his hands. "She was very different once. Witty, headstrong, warm. Rather like you, actually. Maybe that's why I…" He sighed. "But Matron Ardulace felt she was too attached, too emotional, and rather than simply killing her, gave her to the Handmaidens to learn the error of her ways. What they must have done to her-" He swallowed suddenly, gazing at the floor, and Maera's heart ached with sympathy. "She was so vibrant. So passionate. Now she's a monster." His sword, mail, and other gear stood neatly stacked in their place near the door; he drew a dagger and incised a long, deep cut along his palm. He smeared the blood on the interior of the cloak, and handed to her. "I hope that will suffice."
"I think it will."
He began pulling on his mail. "I don't know that we'll ever meet again. Perhaps someday I'll find myself to the surface, and be able to see your true face."
"It's not much like this one," she said, smiling a bit weakly.
He shrugged, and inclined his head in a small bow. "Thank you, Maera. For your aid, and your mercy, and your understanding."
"Thank you for confounding my expectations."
A thoughtful, distant smile crossed his lips. "He is a very fortunate man indeed."
She could think of nothing to say to that. She ducked her head by way of farewell, and returned to the inn.
Kelsey was awake in the suite sitting room, tapping his pen aimlessly on his notebook when she returned. He started when he noticed the bloodstained cloak draped across her arm. "That's Solaufein's, isn't it? Maera, did you-"
"No, but it's good enough to fool you, it'll fool Phaere." Her shoulders slumped. "Everyone's so willing to believe the worst of me lately. First Imoen and the gnomes, now this."
"You haven't been yourself," he said apologetically.
"I'm not myself!" she shot back, pointing to her face. She heaved a heavy sigh. "Look, after I take this to Phaere, we'll need to have a conference. Solaufein gave me a lot of information; we're going to be able to get out of here very soon, I think."
"He did, huh? Good for him." There was an implication in his tone that cut deep.
"Don't worry about it," he muttered, heading for his room and firmly closing the door.
She wanted to hit something. Anything. Hard. And she couldn't even take it out on Phaere now, she thought as she stalked through the sleeping streets of Ust Natha, not after what Solaufein had told her. What kind of sick minds thought it right to punish love with torture? To reward treachery above honesty? To advance cruelty over trust? Suddenly she hated the Underdark so fiercely tears of pure rage blurred her sight. There was nothing there but rock and dirt, no scent but sickly fungus and stale, chilly air. No sky, no wind, no sun. No time. It was only night here by consensus – who knew if the sky above actually dark? Who knew how many sunrises had passed while they'd been down here, dancing to the dragon's tune, playing the drow's game?
Irenicus. This was his doing, forcing her into this terrestrial hell. He had to pay, and not just for this. For Khalid and Dynaheir. For Yoshimo. For taking Imoen from her and unleashing the Slayer, leaving them to die while he and Bodhi traipsed off to sow untold destruction for an unknown purpose.
That thought stopped her short, and sanity slapped her fury in the face. The drow were attacking the surface en masse, for the first time in generations. Now they intended to up the ante by unleashing a demon lord, and Irenicus had somehow directed it. She could see her missing pieces. Even if she did not have them all yet, a clearer picture had emerged. Whatever power he had gained from taking her soul, he was using it to hurt people. There were innocents in his path, and she owed it to them to stand in his way. She placed her hard over her heart; she could just barely feel the outline of her pendant beneath. Gorion had raised her for better than this. She composed herself, and knocked at Phaere's door.
Phaere took the cloak from her silently, staring at the bloodstains. Her features were blank, but her eyes burned with a jumble of emotions Maera couldn't begin to name. "Love is foolish," she whispered to herself, as if reciting a mantra. "Love is a trick of the mind." Her eyelids flickered and she seemed to come back to herself. "Thank you, Veldrin, and well done. We need no longer be troubled by him." She tossed the rumpled cloak unceremoniously into a corner. "Have a seat. I have a proposition for you."
"What is that?" Maera asked, sitting carefully in an overstuffed chair.
"You've already proven yourself competent and direct," Phaere said, seating herself. "And now, you've shown me that you are discreet. My offer will require you to be bold and willing to gamble. But if we succeed, we will achieve the sort of greatness that only comes along once in a dozen generations!" Warming to her subject, she continued. "It may surprise you to learn that our offensive on the surface was actually inspired by a surfacer. He's a strange one, but he provided us with the impetus. From there, it has been nothing to destroy the elves above. They're every bit as weak as you'd imagine. But you already know of this. It's the next step you will be most interested in. You are familiar with the Guardian?" Maera nodded and Phaere outlined the plan very much as Solaufein had – the stolen eggs as a sacrifice to the demon lord, her copies and the plotted exchange. "My mother has done an adequate job as leader of our House," she shrugged, "but some opportunities are simply too good to let them pass you by."
"Opportunity is restless," Maera murmured. Alaundo's proverbs really did apply no matter where you were.
"Exactly! We think alike, you and I. That's why I'm presenting this to you now, because I believe we can accomplish something great together. I take control of House Despana, and you will be my right hand. Whatever chance you had for advancement in Ched Nassad, I can promise you ten times more glory here. With the demon's aid, we will crush the surfacers, and none in the Underdark will be able to ignore us. With cunning and guile, who knows how far we could ride this current?" Her eyes shone with triumph.
"So you want me to arrange for switching the eggs, I presume?"
"Yes. The summoning in is two days. I want you there to witness it."
Maera chewed her lip, wheels spinning. This was lining up so perfectly she was starting to wonder where exactly the kink in the plan would present itself, because there had to be one. That was just how her luck worked. On the other hand, the plots and counterplots of the drow were practically doing the dirty work for her. She rose, and bowed. "When you see me again, the exchange will have been made. And our plans can move forward."
Phaere's only response was a smile of dark delight.
Two bags of false dragon eggs sat on the table. "I'm gonna need a flow chart to keep this straight," Imoen said, pinching the bridge of her nose. "So the real eggs are being kept at the Temple. We switch them for Phaere's fakes, give her Solaufein's fakes, and keep the real ones for ourselves. Right?" Maera nodded. "Okay, why not just swipe Adalon's eggs and make a break for it? Why mess with the fancy switcharoo?"
"Because we need the summoning to happen. If we disappear with the eggs now, they're not going to stop their attacks on the surface. But if Ardulace and Phaere try to summon the demon and fail, it throws the whole thing into disarray. House Despana will have taken a major hit, and the other Houses will be too busy fighting it out among themselves in the aftermath to continue their raids."
Imoen did not look entirely convinced, but nodded anyway. "It's not a bad plan, I guess."
Maera leaned back in her chair, eyes downcast. "I hate it."
"Because I'm knowingly setting them up to die," she said.
"They'd do the same to us," countered Imoen.
"And for far more flimsy reasons," Jaheira added.
"I know." Maera looked up. "Im, do you think you can do the switch?"
"'No' wouldn't be a good answer even if it was true, would it?" Imoen smiled grimly. "Get me in and I can do it."
"All right. Phaere wants me at the summoning, and I want the four of you to be ready to vanish without a trace the second the demon's dealt with. Even if that means leaving without me."
"No!" Kelsey and Imoen exclaimed simultaneously. They stole surreptitious glances at each other as Maera stared them down.
"Look, I don't like it either, but we have to be prepared for anything. I don't know what's going to happen when the demon is summoned, or how it will react to the false offering, so we had better be ready. That way, if this plan doesn't fall to shreds, we can all be pleasantly surprised."
Adalon's eggs were being kept in a disused corner of Ust Natha's great temple to Lolth. A pair of Despana soldiers stood a covert guard on a platform outside the hallway leading to the egg chamber – the House's triumph rested on secrecy, and they could not be too open. But the guards were all too eager to let Maera distract them. After all, everyone knew Veldrin was Phaere's new favorite, and who knew what influence could be gained from being in her good graces? Imoen slipped past them, opening and closing the door behind herself so swiftly and quietly they were sure the movement was just a figment of their imaginations. The substitution made, she made for the door again and was about to open it when she heard a new voice.
"Phaere has spoken of little else. You've quite impressed her." It was a female voice, of mature years, a voice accustomed to command. Could it be-?
"I'm honored to be of service, Matron Mother." And that was Maera. Curses echoed in Imoen's mind.
"You were hoping to see them, weren't you?'
"There's no need to be coy, girl. You've come to see the eggs."
There was silence, then Maera's abashed reply. "Well, I haven't ever seen a dragon's eggs before. They're quite a prize."
The Matron's voice had a measuring quality to it. "You are demure now, but you take great refuge in audacity, don't you, Veldrin? I see it in your face."
"It's served me well in the past."
"And it may serve you well yet. Very well. Come with me. I will show them to you."
Imoen winced. She'd hoped to avoid this, but it couldn't be helped. She whispered the words of her invisibility spell and positioned herself behind the door. When it opened and Maera and the Matron came through, she would have a very small window to get past them. The door swung open, and Imoen slithered between it and Maera, clasping her sister's arm for an instant, and making all speed back to the inn to wait for the second half of the operation.
Maera felt the unseen touch on her arm and knew Imoen had been successful. She glanced at the Matron Mother. Ardulace was tall for a drow, and the resemblance between her and her favored daughter was striking. But the Matron had the benefit of years and experience; where the young might seek to compensate with hot tempers and bold behavior, she knew the value of calm. She had nothing to prove. Like an alpha wolf, she knew a simple snarl could bring the pack in line.
"Did you imagine, Veldrin, when you came to us, the enormity of what you had become a part of?"
"I've long since stopped wasting time on being surprised by the plans around me, Matron." Honesty had not come so easily in weeks.
Ardulace unlocked the door to the egg chamber with a flourish. Maera held her breath – if the Matron noticed something amiss, the whole thing would fall apart around their ears. The drow caressed the counterfeit eggs, and rolled one over, flicking off a speck of something with a forefinger. She repeated the action with another, and buffed the shell of a third with her sleeve. She smiled. "They are lovely, are they not? I think our new ally will be pleased with them."
The weight lifted from Maera's chest. "Oh, I think so, Matron."
The worst kind of waiting is the sort that must be done before something is to be accomplished quickly. They were all summoned to the Temple, and Maera had to leave her companions in an antechamber before following Phaere to the sanctum for the main event. Phaere patted the pocket of her ceremonial robe with a conspiratorial smile; no doubt it contained the enchanted bag filled with dragon eggs no more real than the ones her mother now held. Maera felt her bile rise. She wished she were in a position to apply Minsc's stance on deception. Punching evil was a lot more direct and therapeutic than all the backstabbing, both literal and figurative.
As mother and daughter began the ritual, she thanked Oghma that their manic desire for secrecy meant they were conducting the summoning alone. They were so determined to make a showy gesture of having a demon lord under their control, they had sown their own undoing. Maera just wanted the whole mess to be over. Their chanting was making her flesh creep and the musky incense was giving her a headache.
Ardulace's voice reached a triumphant crescendo, and she nicked her thumb, marking each of the eggs with a print of blood before placing them in the center of the summoning circle. The air cracked with energy, and swirling, shadowy doors appeared in its heart, doors which slowly swung open. A dark, hulking form hunched on the threshold, smoke coiling about it. The scent of brimstone overwhelmed the incense.
You have called me.
"Behold, my lord," Ardulace exalted, "a humble offering we present in return for alliance with your great and fearsome self. We seek the ruin of our foes - lend us your aid!"
These? This is no offering, darkling. Are you grown so proud you would mock me for your amusement?
The Matron's voice faltered. "I – I do not know what you mean, my lord. These are the eggs of a silver dragon, presented in good faith -"
The demon's glowing eyes narrowed. Foolish darkling. Mortal hands created these false things. You have wasted my time. Smoke billowed from the circle, closing in around the Matron like a vise of shadow. You will die now.
Ardulace's scream was cut short as the smoke thickened for an instant and just as suddenly dissipated. She was gone, leaving nothing behind but her robes. Phaere's eyes were huge with awe and horror. An ambitious glitter lit them, and she stepped forward.
"The true eggs are here, my lord!" she exclaimed. "I, Phaere of House Despana, hold your offering!"
A sick, burbling rattle, like the last breaths of a dying man, rippled from the circle. A chill crept up Maera's neck at the sound. The demon was laughing. The arrogant drow! So quick to betray! How delightful. Know this, darkling daughter. Your plots are for nothing. You have been crossed, just as you crossed your mother. The Bhaalchild has killed you.
Phaere's dark face was so bloodless her skin almost glowed. "W-who?"
The demon lazily turned to Maera, its initial anger now dissolved to cruel amusement. Tell her, Bhaalchild.
Maera closed her eyes. The demon's game was making her nauseous. "I have the real ones. Solaufein had another set of copies made. Those are the ones you have."
Rage and shock brought color back to Phaere's face. "You betrayed me?" she hissed. "After everything I have given you? How could you do this, Veldrin? How could you possibly gain from turning on me?"
"You wouldn't understand," Maera said tiredly. "I'm sorry, Phaere. For everything they did to you."
Undiluted fury twisted the drow's lovely features, her fear forgotten. "I don't need your pity, foreigner!"
Soon you will need nothing at all, the demon cooed. The smoke rolled forth again, and Phaere, too, vanished, her scream of rage left to echo unfinished. The demon lord chuckled. You are proving a credit to your sire's name, Bhaalchild.
"You don't know me very well." She scrubbed her face with her hands. Despite wearing it this long, it still didn't feel right. "Go back to the Abyss. Nobody wants you here."
Four heads came up as she entered the antechamber. "It's over," she said shortly. "We're going." And the five foreigners vanished from Ust Natha, and were never heard from again.
Adalon nudged her eggs with her long nose, murmuring draconic endearments to them as she positioned them just so in her nest. Maera felt her spirits lift; maybe it had been worth it after all, to reunite a mother with her children. It would feel more worthwhile, however, to see the sun again. The dragon seemed to understand, and raised her head to face them.
"There is no need for disguise any longer," she said. And again, the dizzying shift in perception, the strange alteration of features, but this time the end result felt right. Maera raked familiar, scarred fingers through her appropriately blonde hair. Yes, this felt better already. "And now the rest. Dragons do not renege on bargains, after all." Adalon's own form changed and she stood before them in her human shape. "I will lead you to the exit taken by your quarry. From there, you may follow him as you will."
The dragon was an unerring guide, conducting them through the tunnels with precision until they reached the ruins of a drow outpost. "They call this place The Stair. This was their first home below, before they built Ust Natha. Go forward. The tunnel slopes upward and you will find yourselves at the cave mouth in approximately a quarter mile." She bent her head gracefully. "I thank you, and bid you good fortune."
It was nearly twilight when they emerged from the darkness, but that was just as well, because even the dark gold-rose light of the setting sun was far brighter than their eyes could bear. So to a one, they closed them, and drank in the songs of the evening birds, the rustle of the wind in the tree branches, and the scent of the cool, damp earth. It was also why they did not notice the elves.