Ill Fame Follows
Nudge, nudge. Maera flailed momentarily at the hands on her shoulders before some semblance of waking pushed through the fog of sleep. She peered hard at the face above her. "Im? Didn't Minsc have the watch before me? Is something wrong?"
"No," came the quiet reply. "I, uh…I let him sleep. And you. It's nearly dawn."
"What?" Maera sat up, rubbing her eyes. "You kept three watches? Why?"
Imoen's gaze was furtive. "I…didn't wanna sleep."
Ah-ha. The truth was out. "Bad dreams?" Imoen nodded. Maera sighed and took her sister's hand; Imoen winced, and in the gray light, Maera could barely make out a line of deep, crescent moon cuts across the palm. "Oghma's books, Im." She laid her fingers over the wounds and felt a faint tingle of energy. A silvery glow lit the tent for a moment, and when she pulled away her hand, the skin beneath was smooth and unmarked.
"I wonder why you can do that, and I can't," Imoen said softly.
"It seems like we can all do different things. But we haven't had a lot of chances to sit down and have a heart-to-heart with anyone about it." She sighed, the lost opportunities of Saradush hanging over her like a pall. "And it seems like we're running out of people to ask."
"It seems silly to feel left out in the evil god powers contest, and yet I do," Imoen said, chuckling without humor. "All the bad dreams, none of the benefits."
"I wouldn't say that," Maera answered. She reached for her jerkin. "What about your magic?"
"What about it?"
"Two years ago, Dynaheir was teaching you cantrips. Now you're casting spells she never could have attempted, even by the time she died. How else do you explain going from novice to master in that kind of timeframe?"
"Well, I'd picked up a few things from the Readers before she…" Imoen blinked. "You know, I hadn't thought of it like that."
"Honestly, I think you got the better deal there," Maera added as she pulled on her boots. "You're practically an archmage. Me? I can heal shaving cuts."
"Now you're just selling yourself short, Mae. You're meant for something big, and from what you told me about your little interlude with the Solar yesterday, I think you've been meant for it since the moment you were born."
"How different would it have been," Maera mused, "if Gorion had seen Sarevok there? If he hadn't taken me?"
"He did because he was supposed to," Imoen said firmly. "He took you, because despite all Bhaal's planning, you were destined to be the person you are, here and now. Just like he found me later, because I'm supposed to have your back."
Maera laughed weakly, shaken more than she cared to show. "Deep thoughts, Im."
"It was a long night." Imoen crawled through the tent flap, turned, and held out her hand. "C'mon. We should get breakfast started."
Maera tried to keep her lips from curling. "I guess."
"Mae, you have barely eaten for the last three days. You keep this up and Jaheira's gonna have Minsc hold you down while she force feeds you. And nobody wants that."
"Is it because you miss Kels? Because honestly, pining does not suit you."
"It's not Kelsey!" Maera glared at her sister, then dropped her eyes, feeling strangely embarrassed. "It's the smell. It's been putting me off. I think it reminds me of Saradush."
Imoen pursed her lips. She'd been fighting a losing battle against her sister's overdeveloped sense of responsibility since they were children, but that never made it any easier to watch. "Okay. I won't make you eat, but you should try."
The landscape changed as they moved south and west on the trade road that followed the curve of the Marching Mountains. Scrubby thorn trees fought the dry, yellowed grass for every drop of water they could pull from land and sky, and a haze of dust clung to the horizon. Farther north, autumn was coming, but here, it was just the dry season. Every map marked a sinkhole oasis midway to Amkethran as a valuable stop, and it happened to fall neatly into their day's journey at mid-afternoon, the perfect time for a stop.
There were other travelers gathered there, under the shade of the only green trees for miles around. To the north, the road branched and formed a major artery into Amn; commerce from Calimshan and other regions of Tethyr flowed through this dusty land. Maera was sure Kelsey could have provided her with an exhaustive discourse on the subject, and she was surprised to discover she was sorry he couldn't. But she found her musings on international trade and the benefits and drawbacks of being romantically involved with a merchant cut short as she realized the hushed hum of conversation seemed to be revolving around her.
A well-armed group of veteran adventurers was always eye-catching, but as Maera surveyed the faces around them, they all seemed to be running through the same checklist Melissan had outlined in the Saradush plaza: Tall, blonde hair, sword with a golden hilt. No one wanted to look her in the eye, and the small knots of people all turned inward as they passed, heads ducked warily.
"It would seem your reputation proceeds you, sister," Sarevok murmured. He seemed pleased at the discomfort in the air. She shot him an ugly look.
"We're not looking for trouble," Maera replied. "We'll just take a few minutes to rest and be on our way."
She had spoken too soon. Typical, she thought, as a tall man wearing finely made armor emblazoned with the royal crest of Tethyr pushed his way through the crowd to face her, flanked on either side by mages whose robes bore the same symbol. It was impossible to guess his age with any degree of success – time and the elements had weathered him like driftwood, and he carried himself with the easy confidence of experience and command.
"I am Jamis Tombelthen," he said, bringing his heels together and inclining his head as if introducing himself at court, "Knight of the Royal Guard of Tethyr. And you are Maera of Candlekeep. Bhaalspawn."
"Gotta admit, your title is a lot more impressive than mine, Sir Knight," Maera said, fighting down a shudder of nerves. "What can I do for you?"
"You can come with me. Quietly. There is no need to involve anyone but ourselves in this matter." He cast a significant glance about at the travelers around them, who were, to a one, staring at the sudden theatre before them.
"What are you talking about? We're just passing through."
"I'm afraid I cannot allow you to do that. You have done grievous harm to the people of Tethyr, and it is my duty to see that justice is done for that." Taking her shocked silence for defiance, he added, "I have a score of men here. Even you and your famed band cannot defeat us all."
Maera found her voice. "Harm? Who have I harmed? And how?"
The knight lifted one graying eyebrow. "Have you forgotten Saradush already?"
"Now wait a minute!" Imoen cried hotly. There was a creak of drawn bows behind them as she stepped forward; Tombelthen raised a hand. Imoen subsided, but her eyes were still bright with indignation. "Yaga-Shura was the one besieging that city. It was his army that killed all those people. And Maera killed him! So I'd say she did you a favor."
"It was the Bhaalspawn sheltering in Saradush that he wanted, and he crushed a city of thousands to get them. This violence between the Children of Bhaal will not stand, not here."
"So you would make her a scapegoat. You would punish her for what others have done." Jaheira's voice was stiff. "I had been led to believe Tethyr had seen marked improvement under the regime of the new Queen. I see my sources were mistaken."
Tombelthen sighed and closed his eyes briefly. "There is no need for raised voices. All I ask is that you come with us quietly. This is not the proper setting for such scenes."
Minsc leaned forward and waggled a thick finger in the knight's face, obviously unable to stand it any longer. "Maera has kicked the butt of evil more times than even Boo can count!" Maera put a restraining hand on his arm.
"Sir Jamis," she said quietly, "I did not want Saradush to fall. I…I wasn't able to react quickly enough, and the dead there are on my conscience, believe me." The Slayer had snickered over them in her dreams, and the image of shadowy claws stretching over the slaughter still lingered behind her eyes. "But I can prevent more innocent blood from being shed, and if I go with you, I won't be able to."
"No good has come from the actions of the Bhaalspawn in Tethyr," Tomelthen said, steel in his voice. "It is my duty to protect this land, and its people, and I will do that, from you and any of your brethren!"
A harsh reply prepared to take flight, but good sense caught it on its way out Maera's mouth. She took a sharp, steadying breath. "Sir Jamis, your duty and mine are the more alike than you think. I respect your desire to fulfill yours, but I can't let you stand in the way of mine." The mages on either side of the knight took a half step forward, but Tomelthen quelled them with a gesture.
"Am I to believe you are so different from your fellows, then? How would you propose to prove that?"
"I can't." Maera looked him in the eye, daring him to look away. He had an honest face, careworn but proud. "All I have is my word. And I swear to you that I will stop them, and no one else will have to suffer. If you are willing to damn me on the evidence of what others have done, maybe you'll be willing to accept something as flimsy as that for my defense."
He didn't flinch from her gaze, and she knew he was reading her face as closely as she had his. "What would you have me do, then?" he asked softly.
"Let me go. Let me finish this."
"And you honestly believe that you can?"
"I have to. I don't have any other choice."
"If I do this, it will not simply be the lives of the innocent you carry, but my honor as well."
Add it to the pile, she thought. "All the more reason not to fail."
His nod was so faint and quick as to almost be imperceptible. "Refresh your water supply and go. And do not be seem within Tethyr again while this matter remains unresolved."
"Sir!" protested one of the mages. He was quickly silenced by a hard stare.
"I don't forget when people do me favors, Sir Jamis, and I won't forget this," Maera said softly. "Thank you."
They did not linger long.
It was awkward, seeking Sarevok out after they made camp that evening. But after her experience with Gorion and the Solar, Maera couldn't help but feel obligated to share what she had seen.
"I do hope you have the sense to be ashamed after that display this afternoon," he commented coolly as she approached.
"Why would I?" she asked.
"You all but begged the man to let us pass. We could have easily dealt with his lot, no matter how confident he seemed to be."
"I was not about to risk a fight in that environment, surrounded by non-combatants, and certainly not with a good man over a misunderstanding!"
Sarevok shrugged expressively. "Groveling is beneath you."
"You are unbelievable," she snapped, throwing up her hands. "Do you oppose every single thing I do out of principle, or just for the hell of it?"
"You must admit our clashes are…invigorating."
"Try comically frustrating and you're closer," she grumbled. "Look, Sarevok, I...we need to talk." He raised an eyebrow, and she forced herself to continue. "The Solar showed me a vision yesterday, of the past. Our past. And…much as it galls me to say it, you were right. Our lives are connected, and they have been since the beginning. And maybe…the reason you're here now is because…" She chewed her lip, searching for the right words. "Because it wasn't supposed to end with one of us killing the other."
He watched her in silence, his eyes unreadable. Heat crawled up the back of her neck to her face and she was grateful for the evening dark. "Perhaps so." Feeling there was nothing more to say, she turned to go, and he said, "Tell me. How greatly does it pain you admit that I am right?"
She faced him again with a near audible grind of her teeth. "Why do you do this? Is there a purpose to it or is it just what gets you through the day?"
"Because I do not understand," he muttered, his face surprisingly troubled.
"You!" he spat, actual frustration resounding in his voice. "I do not understand you!"
The force of his reaction caught her off balance. "What's not to understand?"
He set his jaw, staring down at her. "Those others of the Five might contest it, but you are the strongest of the Children of Bhaal, the most powerful, the most deadly. Nations should tremble at your feet while you carve out an empire. Kings should be handing you their crowns, bowing in supplication before the most powerful mortal in Faerun. You could be like a goddess, dispensing life and death at your whim. And yet, you squander it. Left to your own devices, you'd be happily killing kobolds for farmers with the druid, the idiot, and the sneak thief. To say nothing of that jackass sorcerer constantly drooling after you. Take a lover if you wish, sister, but could you not choose one with a little dignity?"
Maera crossed her arms, eyes flinty. "Let's get a few things straight. One: I happen to like Kelsey the way he is. Two: You do not get to talk about my friends like that. Ever. Do you have the slightest idea what those people have been through for me? What they have sacrificed for my sake? What I owe them? Can you even grasp what loyalty like that is worth? Considering your track record, I'm going to guess no.
"And three… Those farmers you have so much disdain for? Them, and the people like them – the smiths, and the wrights, and the shopkeepers, and the boring, everyday things they do, generation after generation – they're the reason this world keeps going. Nothing matters without them. They are the lifeblood of the world, and I'm just an adventurer. Why should I want to set myself up as some kind of god-emperor? What would be the point? And what gives me the right?"
"Your power gives you every right."
"Forget it, Sarevok. I'm not living out your ambitions for you."
"And what if my ambitions are no longer for myself? Is it truly ambitious to desire to see another take the place they are meant to hold? Or just realistic?" He stepped towards her, and his eyes were almost soft, which was somehow more unnerving than any amount of anger. "Our rivalry was only the beginning. I could not defeat you, and so it stands to reason that the throne I desired for myself was in fact meant for you. I wish to help you claim your birth right."
The conversation had taken such a bewildering turn she was struggling to keep her face neutral. "Our father may have been a god, but he was an idiot, and I don't want anything he has to offer. I never have. If you really want to help me, respect that." She turned again, and hoped it was not obvious that she was shaking. "And if you ever call Kelsey a jackass again, I will stuff your head up your ass and give you a tour of your own intestines."
The town of Amkethran clung to the rocky hills that formed the tail of the Marching Mountains, hovering on the very edge of the Calim desert. The buildings were built into the hillsides, their flat roofs giving them a stepped appearance. Maera had wondered how they would know Balthazar's monastery, but as they drew nearer, it became apparent that was not going to be a concern. The rambling bulk of it dwarfed every other building in the town.
The dusty streets were quiet, the people lean and gaunt eyed. They watched the adventurers pass, their faces betraying nothing. In contrast, a swaggering cluster of armored men cut a path down the thoroughfare, bellowing the over-hearty laughter of those who don't care if anyone else gets the joke. Maera's hackles rose. Mercenaries.
One of them spotted the party, nudging his friends, sizing them up with a smirk. The air grew heavy with potential violence when a voice called out, "You are Maera, yes?"
The speaker was a young man with the shaven head and neat robes Maera recognized as belonging to certain orders of martial brotherhoods. So Balthazar was that sort of monk. When she nodded, the young monk said, "Follow me please. Balthazar will see you." As they passed the mercenaries, Maera took the time to give them a cold glare.
Their guide led them the tall, arched gates of the monastery proper, which were in the slow process of swinging open as they approached. A small coterie of monks passed through the gate, but Balthazar was instantly recognizable. He was not taller or more muscular than any of the others; in fact, he was almost slight. Nor was he dressed any differently, with any sort of ornament to acknowledge his rank. There was simply a presence about him, an aura of quiet control. His eyes were still, his face utterly expressionless. A shiver of anxiety ran down Maera's spine. She couldn't read him at all.
"Melissan is not here," he said without preamble, his voice as every bit as calm as his demeanor. "She arrived and departed on the same day, and I could not say where she has gone and when she will return. She has, however, communicated her wishes to me. I am in possession of the locations of these two…enclaves you seek." He gestured, and a monk behind him scurried forward, presenting Maera with a folded parchment map. "You may feel free to use the resources of this town, such as they are, as you like. But you will not be granted access to the monastery grounds, nor will you interfere in any of my dealings. Is that understood?"
Maera nodded slowly. "It's your town," she said, trying to sound more nonchalant than she actually felt.
"That it is." With that, he turned, his brothers and sisters closing rank behind him. Maera tried not to hear something ominous in the closing clang of the gate.