Maera poked her head into the common room of the Crooked Crane Inn. "You were aware you had a lich in here, right?"
The barkeep perked up. "Well, yes. Did you take care of it?"
She glanced behind her to the backroom carnage, and the greasy spot on the floor that had been the lich. "Yeah. It's pretty well taken care of."
"That's very good of you, my lady! Would you and your friends care for a free drink?"
Yoshimo edged up next to her, something hidden behind his back. "Fair friend, I believe you will like what I have found." He produced a long sword, golden hilted, which he presented over his forearm with exaggerated chivalry.
"Oh my." She took the sword in her hands, balancing it, hilt and blade, on her palms. "Well, hello, beautiful." She noted the circle of rose quartz set into the crosspiece, and the elegant tracery of sunbursts etched down the delicately waisted blade. "Lathander, eh? What tricks do you know?" Yoshimo shot her an amused look as he handed her the scabbard. She sheathed the sword and set it on her belt, maneuvering the other to her right hip without a pang. There was no emotional attachment there; she'd bought it shortly after their escape from Irenicus to replace her beloved Varscona, and would not mind in the slightest to set it aside. She wrapped her hand around the new sword's hilt, and smiled. It was a good fit. "I don't know what you were called before, but I think I'm gonna call you Daystar."
The street torches were being lit as they left the Crooked Crane. Maera pinched the bridge of her nose tiredly – she really wanted to just get to Gaelan Bayle's and get the matter dealt with. She hadn't slept well the past few nights since leaving Trademeet. The dreams were back, with a bloody vengeance, and they seemed determined to crawl about in her head during her waking hours, too. Irenicus's voice, smooth, cool, and mocking. "Do you see?" Imoen, her eyes huge and glittering with pain and fear. "You will come too late." And the knife. Oh gods, the knife.
She mentally shoved the nightmares back into their box as Kelsey fell into step beside her. Here was something far more pleasant to direct her attention towards. She had wondered if things would be awkward between them after The Kiss, but thus far they seemed to have avoided that by focusing on finding an opportunity to repeat the performance. Yes, kissing was a much better mental diversion than knives…
"So," he teased, "am I welcome, or would you like some more alone time with your new friend?"
Much better. Maera stuck her tongue out at him. "Jealous?"
He opened his mouth to reply, then closed it and shook his head. "You know, I'm not even going to discuss the implications of a man being jealous of a woman's sword."
She snickered. "You're no fun."
His eyebrows went up, and he looked as if he were about to disagree with her, when a woman in a dark cloak stepped from the shadows in front of them. "Greetings, friends. There is a bit of business I would impart to you this fine evening, if you would hear me." Her voice was syrupy sweet, and something about her made the hairs on the back of their necks stand up.
Maera's left hand dropped to Daystar's hilt. "I'm afraid we are not interested in business at this hour, friend."
"But you are," the woman said. "For it is business you are already about."
"What are you talking about?"
"It would be best to direct your questions to my mistress."
"And who is this mistress of yours?"
"You do not know her, yet. All will be revealed, if you will come with me."
"Do we have a choice?"
The hooded head tilted, and there was a glimpse of icy eyes. "You do not want her to come to you."
"I see." Maera glanced about at her party. Jaheira's eyes were narrowed.
"And who are you," the druid asked, "that we should divert our steps for some unknown meeting, dealing with vague 'business' we may have no interest in pursuing?"
"I am Valen, and I am merely the messenger."
"That tells me little," Jaheira said shortly.
"Perhaps we should hear her out," Yoshimo offered cautiously. "What harm can it do us?"
"What harm indeed," Maera murmured, watching Valen carefully. The woman stood still as a statue, and though her face was shadowed, Maera could feel the weight of her gaze, heavy as a hand on the throat.
"Would it not be best," Valen asked, her voice still sweet, "to meet with my mistress before you brand her your enemy?"
Maera sifted the words down to their implications. "But if we don't, she might be?"
"I come only to offer you her hand. I dare not speak for her."
"Right. And I'm to assume that your mistress is waiting for us to meet with her right this very moment?"
"She is most anxious."
"How convenient for her that you managed to run across us just as we were coming back into town. That's really impeccable timing you have there." Valen said nothing, so Maera abandoned subtlety. "Are we being watched?"
"More eyes than you can possibly imagine are fixed on you. My mistress's might well be the most benevolent."
Somehow, Maera had trouble believing that. So much for a straightforward evening. Her eyes made the circuit of her party again. She saw an equal portion of warning reflected back at her. "All right, Valen. Since you're so keen on this, let's see what your mistress has to say for herself."
"Excellent. Now please, follow me closely. One would not want you to lose your way."
They proceeded in silence through the darkening streets, and passed through a gate into a landscape of tombs. There stood another cloaked figure. Valen bowed deeply before her mistress, who threw back her hood and regarded them with predator's eyes. "Ah, you are here. I was afraid you would not come. My name is Bodhi. We have something to discuss."
Maera crossed her arms. "And what exactly is so important it requires waylaying us in the street, and very politely threatening us into coming here?"
Bodhi seemed to approve of Maera's stance. She drifted close, regarding her closely. "I am glad my Valen was polite. You will be rewarded later, my dear." She smiled towards her handmaiden, then turned back to Maera. "You have been employed to raise a sum of gold, for the purpose of gaining information? To retrieve a lost friend, and avenge yourself on an enemy?"
"What's it to you?" She hadn't intended it to come out quite so belligerently, but uneasiness always made her blunt.
Bodhi smiled indulgently, as if she found Maera charming. "Oh, it is a matter of utmost interest to me. Understand, there is a war in these streets, one about to break like the waves on rock, and you would do well to choose the proper side. I can offer you what the Shadow Thieves have, easily and without hesitation. Don't look surprised; those who made the first demand of you are indeed Shadow Thieves, however they have cloaked their identities and motivations through glib lies. I intend to break the stranglehold they have on the nights here, and I would have your assistance."
"I don't care who can puff their chest and claim to run the streets of Athkatla. All I want is the information I was promised. I want my friend back."
"And I can give you that." Bodhi smiled, her lips pulling back from a row of pointed white teeth. "But I can do more. I can answer the questions you have feared you would never have answers to. Why were you in that cage? Why did your companions die? What did the mage Irenicus want with you?"
Maera forced herself to focus on Bodhi's eerily pale face. There was an aura of coldness about her, a sense that touching her would burn like ice. But her eyes, manic, liquid, and hot, glowed like embers in the darkness. Looking at her tapped that deep recess of the mind that feared the dark and shivered at a wolf's howl. "What do you know about him?" she whispered.
"Now, now," Bodhi replied lightly, "this is business, not charity. My price is twofold: a small monetary consideration, and your aid against the Shadow Thieves. My war shall very soon reach a point of escalation in which your considerable talents would be most advantageous. In return, I provide you with the information you need to recover your dear, lost Imoen, and the truth about the mage who imprisoned you." She clasped her hands before her; Maera noted that her fingernails were black. "I have come to you honestly. I have told you my name. Meanwhile, the Shadow Thieves hide behind their proxy, preying on your desperation, telling you nothing. Which do you prefer?"
Well, isn't this an interesting conundrum, Maera thought. Bodhi was right: Gaelan Bayle had said nothing of who he worked for and why, and it was sheer desperation that had led her to agreeing to his terms. If he was truly employed by the Shadow Thieves, there was more to their motivation than mere money. There had to be. And Bodhi had been honest, at least to a point. She had named her price and her expectations. But every instinct looked at her and wanted to scream. What was hiding behind that wintry smile? What was she not saying? Maera realized then that she still had her hand on Daystar's hilt. She got the impression the sword didn't like Bodhi much either. "I take it you would like an answer now?"
"Why drag the matter out? I'm a great believer in the power of first impressions."
"Then you'll need to give us a moment." She turned back to her party, and simply raised her eyebrows.
Kelsey rubbed his arms. "I don't like it. I've got no fondness for the idea of working for or with the Shadow Thieves, but she comes swooping in to offer us the exact information we've been after all along, right as we're heading to Gaelan Bayle? Always suspect a counteroffer that's too convenient. I don't like it at all."
Minsc's broad face shone with confusion. "Boo does not like her. She makes his fur stand on end! But we will do as Maera wants."
"As will I," said Jaheira, "but I, too, am uncomfortable with the circumstances of this offer. Surely you have noticed this creature is not of the living, Maera." Maera mouthed 'vampire?' and the druid nodded once. Her neck suddenly itched and she tried very hard not to rub at it.
They all looked at Yoshimo, and surprisingly, the normally glib thief seemed to have trouble finding the right words. "I…am unsure. But…I will stand with you, Maera. Regardless." His resigned expression struck her as odd.
"Well, I'm no great fan of organized crime, but I can't see how the Shadow Thieves could possibly be worse than whatever a vampire would want to do with control of this city's nightlife," she said, exhaling hard. "Oh gods. What have we gotten ourselves into?" She turned back to Bodhi, and straightened her shoulders. "I'm afraid we must decline. I hope you won't take it too hard."
Bodhi's bloodless lips pursed. "I will not. But we will meet again. Soon. And under less cordial circumstances." With that, she and Valen were simply gone, vanishing like mist.
Maera sighed. "Of course."
Gaelan Bayle greeted them on his doorstep with much effusion. "It's good to be seeing you again, me lady!" He ushered them in like old friends, obviously ignoring the party's pale faces and stiff shoulders, and when Minsc proffered the sack containing the gold, he said, "Oh, I'll only be wanting 15,000 of that."
Maera would have let her jaw drop, but it almost didn't seem worth it. "So there's a discount now?"
Bayle calmly waited for Kelsey to pull out enough bags of one hundred to make up the difference. "Markets change." He met her eyes, his bluff good humor evaporated. "'Tis very important to my employer that you take his side. Very important indeed."
Her eyes narrowed. "You know where we just were, don't you?"
"And what would your employer think of that?"
"I imagine he'd be most pleased that you're here instead."
Fair enough. Maera put her hands on her hips. "So what has our time, trouble, and gold bought us?"
The mask slipped back on, and with a flourish, Bayle handed her a key. She looked at him incredulously. "That key, me lady, will grant you access to the lowermost level of the Shadow Thief headquarters, in the Docks District. And there, you'll be meeting with the Shadowmaster himself, Aran Linvail."
Yoshimo sucked in his breath. "The Shadowmaster?"
Maera raised an eyebrow at the thief's reaction. "Should I know him?"
"He is not merely the head of the Athkatla guild. Every Shadow Thief guild in Amn answers to him."
Maera swallowed. Something cold seemed to trickle down her spine. Bayle closed her suddenly nerveless fingers over the key. "You might even be going tonight," he said. "Thieves keep late hours."
She squeezed her fist. "Be honest with me, Bayle. What does the Shadowmaster want with us? What is going on?"
"He keeps his own counsel, he does, so I couldn't venture to say," he returned brightly. Then his eyes changed again, and he continued somberly, "As for the second… War, me lady."
"War in the streets," Maera repeatedly softly. She nodded tersely to Bayle, who bowed extravagantly in return. The party filed out of his modest parlor in silence.
As soon as the door closed behind them, she swore, and drove her fist into the wall. The loosely attached wooden gutters rattled dangerously at the impact. "Just once," she growled. "Just once! I'd love to actually get a straight answer out of someone! But no. Here's a key! Go talk to the thrice-accursed Shadowmaster of all GODSBLIGHTED AMN about his gang war with a VAMPIRE!" She swung for the wall again; Jaheira caught her wrist.
"Maera. Calm yourself." She pried open the younger woman's fist and tucked the key into one of her belt pouches. Maera went limp, her anger doused by shame.
"I'm sorry, Jaheira."
"I understand your frustration, but we have no direction save forward."
"I know." She had joked once that she and Imoen should take up the phrase 'Jaheira is always right' as their trouble avoidance mantra. Time had taught her that wasn't really a joke. She took a deep, controlled breath, letting out the tension. She couldn't go into this with her head clouded and her temper raw. "Yoshimo."
"Yes, fair friend?"
"He said the Docks. Do you know where, exactly, we need to go?"
"Lead the way."