Maera was many things, Jaheira reflected. Many wonderful, noble, admirable things. But one thing she was most emphatically not was patient. And that evening, with a whole day between them and their departure for Brynnlaw, she was driving Jaheira to distraction with her pacing and her muttering and her general aura of discontent. So as the druid saw it, she had two options. One: she could lock the girl in a room with her young sorcerer and let nature take its course. It would do them both good and would reduce the overall tension level of the group considerably. But given her current state of agitation, she would probably end up injuring the poor boy, and Jaheira did not feel like dealing with the aftermath of that. That left alcohol as her other option. Drinking made Maera sleepy and complacent, and that seemed the best possible outcome Jaheira could devise under the circumstances.
They were staying that evening in an unassuming and surprisingly decent inn on the Docks called the Sea's Bounty. Sime had recommended the place, saying one could pay far more for far worse beds in Athkatla. So Jaheira steered Maera down to the common room, hoping the bar would have a good enough selection that Maera would not turn up her connoisseur's nose. As it turned out, there was a good Sembian ale on tap, and she soon wound into a much more tolerable state under Jaheira's watchful eye.
"Jaheira, my darling."
The man who spoke was gaunt, hollow-eyed, and unkempt. His tunic was worn and baggy and his hair and beard had seen nothing like proper grooming in a very long time. She would not have recognized him, if not for that voice. All those years, and she still knew it in an instant. She would never forget it, but she wasn't about to let him think he was so memorable. He didn't deserve it.
"I'm sorry. Do I know you?"
His face clouded. "You cannot tell me you do not recognize me."
Jaheria shook her head, wide-eyed as a lamb. This was rather enjoyable. "I am afraid not."
"So you do not remember the faces of those you have ruined?! Have there been so many you cannot keep them all straight?"
Jaheira didn't let her expression change. Maera looked tipsily between her and the angry stranger, unsure of what to make of the scene. "Ruined?" Jaheira asked mildly. "I'm sure I don't know what you mean."
"My name is Ployer!" he roared. "Baron Ployer, until that title was stripped from me by the courts listening to your slanders that I was a slave trader."
"It is only slander if it is untrue," Jaheira said calmly. Oh, she remembered Ployer. She and Khalid that labored for months to gain the evidence needed to bring down his little empire. It was gratifying to see that all that work had not been in vain. She looked him up and down with a cool, assessing gaze. "Poverty suits you, Ployer. The last time I saw you, you were fat."
Ployer's hollow eyes narrowed angrily. "You haven't changed a bit, have you? I'd heard you were back in Athkatla, arrogant as ever, and I had to see for myself." He craned his neck about. "So. Where is your stuttering shadow these days? Misplaced him?"
Jaheira stiffened. The words cut to a dark, walled-off place, scoring her fortifications like a wolf's claws. "Khalid's whereabouts are none of your concern, Ployer," she hissed between gritted teeth. Maera, still lagging behind in her unwitting ignorance and very willing inebriation, caught that much at least.
"I don't know who you are," she said, fixing Ployer with a hard, if unsteady, eye. "But I think you should probably shut up and go away now." The haggard man smirked.
"Oh, I will. But before I do, I have something to give dear Jaheira. A gift to thank her for all these years of unrelenting shit she has given me."
There was something in his hand, Jaheira noticed too late, something that he broke with a quick, vicious tear. And as he did, a bolt of pure, white-hot agony cut through her like a blade. Her vision blanked; she couldn't breathe, and a roaring filled her ears that muffled every sound. Miles away, a chair overturned. Something smashed, and there was a scream. She pitched forward, letting the bar catch her. The solid wood connecting with her torso couldn't hurt worse than what she already felt.
An arm wrapped around her waist, and a hand brushed her face. She didn't have the strength to push either away. She turned her head towards the owner of the appendages, every degree of movement sending needles of pain into her head behind her eyes. Before her swam Maera's face, pale and stone sober. "Jaheira? Jaheira, what did he do?"
She wanted to answer, but didn't know how. The pain was making her nauseous, and all she wanted was to curl into a ball and pray it disappeared. She tried to take a step and couldn't; only the bar and her young friend's arms were keeping her upright. She heard Maera saying something to someone – the barkeep, perhaps – and then they were moving, and every step took more will than she had ever expended in her life.
But it was too much. Her whole body throbbed, her head felt as if it caught in a vise, and she could feel the darkness rushing up on her. No. She had faced pain and suffering before. She would not be beaten by it. She would not-
Kelsey had seen Maera and Jaheira descend into the tap room, so it was not a surprise to see them on the steps together. Except that Maera was the one who looked sober, with a limp, semi-conscious Jaheira's arm flung over her shoulders to support her. Her eyes lit on him, and he saw instantly that something was very wrong. There was an air of barely restrained panic hovering around her; this was not a case of too much drink. "Kelsey!" she hailed. "Help me."
He nodded quickly, and hurried down the stairs towards her, hesitating for an instant before reaching out for Jaheira's arm. She was not, after all, the sort of person one touched without explicit, preferably written, permission. No sooner had his hand met her sleeve than a charge raced through his fingers and up his arm, like touching a metal door handle on a dry day. He jerked his hand away. "Kelsey?" Maera shot him an odd look. "What's wrong?"
"Don't you feel it?" he asked, realizing as soon as the words were out of his mouth that of course she wouldn't.
"She's-" He steeled himself and took Jaheira's arm again, lifting it around his neck. The charge settled to a dull tingle – unpleasant, but bearable. "There's some kind of magic here," he muttered, lowering his voice out of instinct. "It's strong and it's…well, for want a better word…it's mean."
Maera blinked in comprehension. "Like a curse," she whispered to herself. "That's what that thing in his hand was."
"What thing in whose hand?"
She gave herself a small shake, looking back at him. "Help me get her back to her room, please."
Between the two of them, they managed to get her into her room and onto her bed. "Will you please find Minsc and Yoshimo?" Maera asked, unlacing the other woman's boots without looking up. "We need to have a meeting." Kelsey nodded, but caught himself in the doorway. He wanted to say something, but wasn't sure what, and before he could speak, Jaheira groaned, and Maera's whole attention was on her, as if the entirety of the multiverse did not exist. "Jaheira?" he heard her whisper. "Jaheira, I gonna fix this. I promise."
They were gathered in Jaheira's room, Maera on a chair beside the bed and Minsc hovering at the foot. Just a few days before, in the aftermath of the vampire ambush, they had been much the same, fussing over her like unnerved children. But that was who Jaheira was to them now, he realized, the anchoring presence when so many others had been ripped away. And a threat to her as a cut too close.
"I am not sure that is wise, fair friend," Yoshimo was saying. Maera glared at him.
"Wisdom has nothing to do with it! That man did something to her and I am going to figure what that was!"
"Need I remind you that our ship leaves on the morrow?"
"No, you do not! But it can wait!"
"Can it?" The thief met her furious eyes calmly, and she looked away with a sigh.
"It has to. What am I supposed to do, Yoshimo? Leave her here like this?"
"Others might, but you would not," he said quietly. "Perhaps if you told us more of this mysterious man, we might better understand the affliction he has placed on our lady druid, yes?"
Maera took a deep, thoughtful breath, but before she could speak, there was a wheezing exhalation from the bed. "Ployer," Jaheira whispered weakly. "His name is Ployer."
Kelsey's brow furrowed. "Ployer…Baron Taddeus Ployer?" Jaheira nodded once; any more than that would have made the nausea unbearable. Maera turned to Kelsey.
"You know him?"
"Of him. He was a big name here in Athkatla about twenty years ago – had a nice house in the Government District, knew all the right people, splashed around just the right amount of money. Until it came out that all that money came from trading slaves. I was too young to care at the time, but it was a huge scandal." He chuckled softly. "My father always said he would have loved to shake the hand of the person who turned over those ledgers to the authorities."
"A pity he is not here now, then," Jaheira murmured, eyes still screwed shut. Kelsey's jaw dropped.
"That was you?"
"Khalid and I followed him for months. We tracked his ships from Chult. We posed as buyers. We…encouraged his factors to find new careers. And in the end, a bookkeeper who rediscovered his conscience provided us with what we needed." A faint smile marked her pained face. "And the courts took everything from him. It was very satisfying." She swallowed hard. "We probably should not have gone to him while he was standing trial – I was gloating and full of myself. But after seeing the suffering he was willing to visit on others to line his own purse, I couldn't help it. He deserved to know." She panted, overwhelmed by the effort of so many words at once. Her eyelids flickered, and her head rolled to the side; she had lost consciousness again.
Yoshimo cocked his head. "And this man was below in the common room tonight?" Maera nodded and gave a brief summary of the altercation; the thief's eyes narrowed. "So where did he go?"
"He teleported away. Which surprised me, but I guess if he had access to one kind of magic-"
"Wait," Kelsey interrupted. "He teleported? Why were there no Cowled Wizards?"
Maera paused, blinking. "I- That's a really good question."
"One that might provide us with an avenue of investigation, perhaps?" Yoshimo offered.
"I think so," she said, eyes distant with thought. "And there's someone else I've got some questions for." She looked back at Yoshimo. "We're going to have to move fast. That ship is not leaving without us tomorrow night, so come first light, we all have to be ready."
The thief smiled slightly. "Yokatta."
She returned the smile faintly. She'd asked him once what that meant. It means yes, he'd told her. With greatest respect. She was glad she could rely on that. "You should all get some rest. It's going to be an early morning." Yoshimo nodded and departed; Minsc hovered, his broad brow furrowed unhappily. "You too, big guy. I'll keep an eye on her, don't worry." He sighed and slunk out, or at least as much as a man his size could slink. Kelsey thought about following him, but the sight of Maera's slumped shoulders wouldn't let him leave. She buried her face in her hands, and then he could move, resting a hand on her shoulder. He didn't know what to say, but it seemed like this was good enough.
"My gods, Kelsey," she said finally, voice muffled. "First the vampires and now this. I'm doing a really awful job of taking care of her."
There was another chair shoved in the corner of the room; he grabbed it, and sat beside her, gently angling her to face him. He took her hands in his, lowering them from her face. "I think you do a pretty good job of taking care of all of us," he told her. She chuckled sadly.
"You're being sweet again."
"Maybe, but it's the truth."
"You don't understand, Kelsey. It's my fault that-" Her voice broke. "I'm the reason she lost Khalid."
Sweet Waukeen, he hated to see her cry. He touched her face, brushing the tears away. "Irenicus killed him. How is that your fault?"
"He captured us because of me! Because he wanted something from me!"
"That still doesn't make your fault, Maera. I'm sure Jaheira doesn't blame you. If she did, do you think she'd still be with you?"
"I-" She took a deep, steadying breath. "I don't know. I just…I miss him a lot. I can't imagine how much she does."
He took both of her hands in his, brushing his thumbs over her scarred knuckles. "Tell him about him."
She was silent for a moment, staring down at their hands. "He was…the sweetest person I have ever met." She looked up at him apologetically. "Even more than you. Sorry."
He chuckled and shrugged self-consciously. "It's not a contest." She laughed a little as well, but her smile was sad.
"People thought he let Jaheira walk all over him, but…they just didn't know him well enough to understand. He had a terrible stammer, and it frustrated him. You could see it in his face sometimes, how much he wanted to say something, but the words just wouldn't come. And well…Jaheira definitely doesn't have a problem talking." They shared another laugh at that. "I think it relieved him to have someone who could speak for both of them, and would. He wasn't tough, but he liked that she was." Kelsey smiled a little; he could relate to that. Maera sighed. "And he was a great friend. He was so patient and supportive, always telling me that he was proud of me. That Gorion would be proud of me. There were so many times I felt like I was flailing around lost, but he always helped nudge me back in the right direction.
"That's what made him strong. That's what made him a good man. And there's this giant, gaping hole now without him. That's why I have to take care of her, Kelsey. She will never, ever say how much it hurts, so all I can do is keep things from hurting her more."
Kelsey watched his thumb pass slowly over the back of her hand. "You're a good friend to her, Maera. The kind of friend anyone would be incredibly lucky to have."
"I have to be. She's the only family I've got right now," she whispered, and looked up at him again. "You should go to bed, Kelsey."
"What about you?"
"I'm gonna stay with her tonight."
He suppressed the urge to sigh and shake his head – consigning herself to another night on the floor like that. "Would you at least like a pillow this time?" Her eyebrows lifted, and he realized what he had said. "Not like that! Um...unless..." He swallowed. This had gone embarrassing rather quickly.
She swallowed too, eyes downcast, biting her lip in a way that prompted deeply interesting, and hastily quashed, thoughts. "Why I do feel like I'd be taking advantage of you if I said yes?"
He wanted to say that she could take as much advantage as she wanted, and more even, but that was definitely not the conversation to be had now. "You wouldn't," he said. "You really wouldn't."
She looked at him for a moment, still chewing her lip. Gorion had always taught her there was no shame in leaning on others. "This life has trials enough, child," he would say. "To think we can manage them entirely on our own is folly and arrogance." And it had always been easy to draw strength from him, and then from Imoen, and Jaheira and Khalid. But there was something different with Kelsey. And not just because of the kissing.
Actually, no, it was entirely because of the kissing. And after what had happened on the staircase earlier, after what they had said to one another - she realized she had reached the limits of her knowledge of romance and beyond this point were dragons, metaphorically speaking. There he sat with that earnest look on his face, eyebrows lifted expectantly, and it struck her that he really would do just about anything she asked, and that was frankly a bit terrifying.
But what she really wanted more than anything was not to be alone. He was telling her she didn't have to be.
She nodded. "Okay. If you want to stay...I'd like that."
He shot her one of those adorable smiles, gave her hand a squeeze, and disappeared into the hallway, returning a moment later with an armload of blankets and pillows. They made a pallet on the floor, and settled onto it, Kelsey on his back, Maera on her side with her head on his chest, her eyes on Jaheira's bed. The steady rhythm of his heart beat soothingly in her ear. The evening's panic and stress began to loosen their hold, her shoulders relaxed, and she felt her eyelids grow heavy. How did he do it? What was it about him that put her so completely at ease?
"So how exactly does this constitute taking advantage of me?" he asked.
"Because..." Her cheeks heated. "Because this just feels good, and I..." Her voice trailed off as she struggled to articulate it. "It's selfish to want someone else to make you feel good, isn't it?"
To her surprise, he chuckled softly. "It would be if the other person didn't want to. But look at it from my perspective, Maera: You are the most amazing woman I have ever met and you want me to hold you. Why wouldn't I?"
She gave that a moment's thought. "Guess I should shut up and let you then, shouldn't I?"
"I would never tell you to shut up," he said quickly. "But..." He grinned. "Yeah."
She tilted her head up to grin back; Jaheira groaned again in her sleep, and the good humor transmuted instantly into concern. But the druid didn't wake, and Maera lay back against Kelsey's chest, worry pulling the corners of her mouth. He squeezed her shoulder (she'd noticed he was being very careful about where his hands went), and said softly, "You'll make this right, Maera. I know you will."
She slept fitfully that night - Jaheira's every shift and groan, either real or imagined, snapped her back to waking. And just when she determined to give up and stay awake, she slipped into a sleep that lasted until she felt a very gentle nudge. "Hey," Kelsey whispered. "It's nearly dawn. We should get up."
She blinked hard, trying to force her brain into something like a conscious mode, and saw Kelsey in the dim light of the small lamp he'd set on the bedside table. He looked as tired as she felt, and she reached up to stroke his cheek, which prompted him to lean down and kiss her very gently on the lips. "Good morning," he breathed, and there was something weighty, and meaningful in those words. Their eyes lingered on each other for a moment, and Maera swallowed. It wasn't just the kisses that had places to go.
"So, uh, what's the plan?" he asked, clearing his throat. Maera sighed.
"We need to split up - run down this lead with the wizards, and check in with my hunch. I hate to leave her here alone, but..." She frowned unhappily. "I just don't know how we can do it any other way."
"We'll figure it out," Kelsey said encouragingly, and she smiled at him. She needed all the positive thinking she could get. They stepped out the door, intent on finding Yoshimo and Minsc, and walked into a shadow instead.
"Sime!" Maera yelped. "What the hell are you doing?"
"Lurking," Sime replied calmly. "I do that professionally, you know."
"Okay, why the hell, then?"
"You have a bit of trouble, I hear. I thought I might offer my assistance."
"Linvail's still having us spied on? Even now?"
"Maera." Sime smiled. "This has nothing to do with Aran. How would I be able to lurk effectively if I didn't know where to lurk? I hear things, and I'm acting on what I've heard. So tell me the plan."
Maera sighed. The problem with having inscrutable, endlessly devious people as allies was that they really didn't know how to turn off the inscrutable deviousness. She laid out what had happened, what they knew about Ployer, and their potential avenues of intelligence. Sime listened thoughtfully, and nodded. "Then it sounds like what you really need is someone to stay here and keep an eye on Jaheira. I can do that."
Maera blinked at her. "Why?"
"We have a boat to catch tonight, remember? You made a deal with Aran, and it's my job to see that nothing interferes with the fulfillment of that obligation. So do what you need to. Jaheira will be safe with me."
"Thank you," Maera said slowly. Perhaps it was just the stress and short sleep of the previous night, but she could almost feel tears of gratitude starting to wet her eyes. Sime smiled.
"My pleasure. Though...I do have one suggestion. About making a run at the Cowlies." She gave Kelsey a through once-over. "How comfortable are you with acting?"
Kelsey tugged at the collar of his robe uncomfortably. It wasn't the one with runes embroidered on the collar and cuffs, the one he wore to protect against fire and swords, the one he had surprisingly grown accustomed to, but rather one he hadn't worn in well over a year. One with the Coltrane family crest emblazoned on the right breast, for all that meant these days. They were passing through the gate into the Government District, and he was trying to ignore Yoshimo's smirk. "What?" he grumbled.
"I said nothing at all," the thief replied, his smile of bland amusement still fully in play. "I merely play the role of the humble bodyguard in our charade, so it is not my place to have opinions."
"Sorry. This is just...not exactly in my comfort zone. I'm putting myself in front of people who'd probably vivisect me if they got half a chance, so I'm a little on edge."
"But for our fair leader you do it regardless."
Kelsey shot him another sour look. "Of course. Maera is- We're-" He frowned, his tongue tied by the limitations of Common. "I love you," she'd said, laughing, and it had been perfect. It just made so much sense, everything summed up in three words. But even three words, and especially those three, could never be an easy summation for someone else. Why wasn't there just one word, one nice, simple encapsulation of it all?
"Yes, you are." Yoshimo said, and Kelsey turned to face him.
"Is that a problem, Yoshimo?"
Yoshimo lifted an eyebrow, the smile replaced by perhaps the most sober expression Kelsey had ever seen him wear. "My young friend, I am not such a fool as to reach for what I should not. Now, let us be about our business. Time is of the essence, yes?"
Kelsey nodded, fussing at his robe for the thousandth time, and Yoshimo's smile returned as if it had never been gone. The Council of Six building loomed before them, but fortunately, the Cowled Wizards did not make themselves difficult to find. A small reception desk marked with their sigil sat to the right side of the great common hall, and Kelsey took a deep breath. "Stay to the plan, and we will learn what we have come for," Yoshimo murmured, and he nodded again, tightly. Then, summoning up the ghost of every rude, irate, and unappeasable customer he had ever found himself on the opposite side of the counter from, Kelsey marched up to the desk.
"I would like to speak to someone in authority immediately," he announced.
The wizard behind the desk gazed up at him with the dispirited eyes of one who had not wanted to start his day like this. "Can I help you, sir?"
"I've already told you what I need," Kelsey snapped. "I was witness to a shocking event last night on the Docks, and I would like to know why nothing was done about it!"
"Sir, the City Watch's desk is on the other side of the receiving hall."
"This is not a matter for the Watch! There was an altercation at the Sea's Bounty Tavern yesterday evening-"
"Which would be a matter for the Watch, sir."
"An altercation that ended with one of the participants TELEPORTING away in the sight of the entire common room!" Heads turned as his voice rose, and the wizard raised a placating hand, shifting awkwardly in his seat. "And no sign of you people, either!"
"Sir, please...keep your voice down. I'll fetch someone right away."
"Thank you." Kelsey tugged his sleeves peevishly. On the one hand, getting to yell at a Cowled Wizard was rather cathartic. On the other, he was sweating like a Helmite at a Sharessan orgy.
Yoshimo, for his part, surveyed the scene. Kelsey's outburst had drawn no shortage of curious eyes, most of which had returned to their own affairs when the initial excitement was done. But two wizards lurked near a pillar, watching Kelsey put on a reasonable show of fuming, and muttering to each other. He eased closer, ears opened to their conversation. This might be even easier than they had hoped.
"-should have known Ployer would bungle this," hissed the taller of the two.
"What was he thinking?" moaned the other. "He wasn't supposed to use either of those charms in public!"
"The man's incapable of following even the simplest direction," said the first.
"What do we do now, Terrece?"
Yoshimo took that as his cue. "How permanent a solution do you require?" The wizards started.
"Who the hells are you?" Terrece spluttered.
"Someone who could not help but overhear your distress, and might be inclined to help."
The wizard glared at him. "That's very generous of you, Sir Knight. How does the rest of the Radiant Heart feel about your quest?"
"Terrece!" His companion shushed him. "As permanent as possible, honestly. A man was asking around about people willing to provide him with certain magical aides-"
"And we needed the money," Terrece interjected.
"I understand entirely," Yoshimo said solemnly. "Side work is the curse of the underpaid."
"So we made him the charms he wanted – a couple of curses, some teleportation talismans if he ran into any trouble – and we thought that'd be the end of it. Money for goods, you know?"
"Only he used them in a damn public tavern! Where people like that –" Terrece cast a scornful look at Kelsey, who was currently being assured of the Cowled Wizards' determination to Get To The Bottom Of This – "can come crying to management and get us all in trouble!"
"He does have very strong opinions about the public use of magic," Yoshimo said blandly. He caught Kelsey's eye, and dipped a quick nod to him. Success, the gesture said. "Tell me more about this…Ployer, you called him? Perhaps we three can reach an arrangement of our own."
Maera knew she was tall. And she knew that was intimidating for some people, especially men. And she also knew what when she stood with Minsc at her back that effect was increased tenfold. So she took care not to abuse that power, and use it only for special occasions.
Bernard did not seem pleased that this was a special occasion.
The barkeep of the Copper Coronet was blessed with more horizontal potential than vertical, and he frowned at their paired scrutiny. "Now haven't I been helpful already?" he huffed.
"And you're welcome, by the way," Maera replied. "Off-hand, I'd said Hendak's kind of a better boss, isn't he?"
Bernard sighed in concession. "A bugbear with hemorrhoids would be a better boss than Lehtinan, but fair's fair. What can I do for you?"
"You and Jaheira knew each other, years ago, when she was here on Harper business."
"Aye. She and I was always oil and water, but I liked Khalid, and I figured if him and Belgrade and the others thought she was a peach, she couldn't be all sharp edges. Why do you ask?"
"So you knew them during the Ployer investigation?"
"Ooooh. Ployer. There's a name that takes me back. That was a bad one." He shook his head. "Ployer didn't just sell slaves. He sold to anybody, for any reason. Any reason." Maera felt her mouth turn. She was fairly certain she understood his intimation. Bernard cocked a bushy gray eyebrow at her. "What's this about?"
"Has anyone been asking around about her lately?"
"There's been a lot of questions about you – you weren't exactly subtle when you started smashing up the fighting rings, you know."
Maera colored. "I'm talking about Jaheira."
Bernard scratched his ear thoughtfully. "Now that you mention it...yeah. There was this squirrelly fella – he looked like most of the regulars, but he didn't talk like 'em. Like he'd been money but wasn't anymore."
"What did you tell him?"
"The truth," Bernard shrugged. "That she'd been here, in your company, and I didn't know any more than that, because she's not the type to send a card for Highcoin. And then there was those two Cowlies, but I sent them off without a pearl, because there's some even I won't do business with."
"The squirrelly one – had you ever seen him before? Did you know him?"
"He showed up a night or two after you took off with that De'Arnise girl. Hadn't ever seen him before then. And he'd come back, every other night or so. But I guess he got tired of waiting, because it's been a near a tenday since I saw him hanging around. Dunno why he stopped."
Maera glanced up at Minsc, and she could see in his narrowed eyes that he'd worked through the timeline too. "Because he found her."
"What'd he want?"
"Revenge, apparently. Do you know anything else about him?"
"'Fraid not, my girl. He didn't seem to be the card at Highcoin type either."
Maera dropped a small stack of coins onto the bar. "Thanks anyway, Bernard." She sighed heavily as they turned for the doors. "I hope Kelsey and Yoshimo have had more luck than we have, big guy."
"We can ask them," Minsc said.
"Yeah, we can, but-"
"Because there they are!"
They were, and a more welcome sight Maera could not have imagined. "Please tell me you have good news," she said.
"Considering I was mostly there as a distraction," Kelsey replied, "I'll let Yoshimo tell it."
Yoshimo sketched a small bow and smiled. "We do indeed have good news, fair friend. Ployer gained the curse he used on Lady Jaheira from a pair of financially embarrassed Cowled Wizards, but his public use of it has only embarrassed them further. And they were more than happy to tell me how to locate him in return of my promise that I would handle the situation."
Maera smiled grimly. "I think you mean that we will handle it. Just point me in the right direction."
Once, Taddeus Ployer had lived amongst the first water of Athkatla's great and good, in a house with an atrium and a hypocaust and a wine cellar stocked with the finest vintages in the Realms. But that was all long gone, taken by the courts of the Council of the Six, because there was some merchandise even they could not countenance selling, and they had levied the harshest sentence they could. Asset forfeiture was the Amnish equivalent of cutting off a thief's hand.
So now he lived here, in the basement room of a thoroughly shabby boarding house on a block where shabbiness was an aspiration. Maera felt for the people who had to live like this, but Ployer had it coming.
"Ployer?" She gave the splintery door a solid, booming knock. "Ployer!" No answer.
Minsc smiled brightly; she knew what he was thinking, and it almost broke her heart to tell him no. "I don't think the landlord would approve, Minsc. And we're already pretty eye-catching as is. Yoshimo?" Minsc deflated as Yoshimo picked the cheap lock with an expression that disapproved of how little it was making him work, and Kelsey gave the big man's arm a pat of careful sympathy.
The room within was empty, and Maera made a face. "He'd better not keep me waiting," she muttered. Yoshimo glanced about with a practiced eye.
"A far fall from the Government District," he said.
The four of them barely fit in Ployer's tiny lodgings. "If he's living like this, how'd he manage to pay those Wizards?" Maera wondered.
"It's all about priorities, I guess," Kelsey replied. There was a noise in the hall – Ployer appeared in the doorway, and seeing his unexpected guests, turned to flee. Minsc caught him by the collar.
"I have nothing to say to you!" he blustered.
"Too bad," Maera said, "because you're going to break the curse you put on my friend one way or the other."
"Break it?" he snorted. "She ruined me. This is her doing!"
"You don't appear to have a very good grasp of cause and effect, Mr. Ployer. You paid those Wizards to make you a curse charm, and you were the one who used it, so I'd say that covers whose doing it was. And don't try to feed me any crap about there not being a counter-curse. I know good and well there's no way to make a curse charm without making its counter, so starting talking, or you will discover how encouraging my large friend here can be."
Minsc, who always enjoyed this part, twisted Ployer's collar, riding it up around the man's neck. "I threw it away!" the ex-baron squeaked defiantly. The enjoyment cooled, and the twist tightened.
Maera narrowed her eyes. "Don't choke him, Minsc. He doesn't deserve it." She leaned closer to Ployer's unwashed face, arms crossed. "I think you're lying. I think you've spent years scrimping and saving, dreaming of the day you'd be able to do this, and having that counter-charm makes you feel powerful, because you know Jaheira is suffering right now, and you could end that. But I've found you now, so your little revenge fantasy is over. Give it to me, because I am actually much scarier than the big guy."
Ployer met her gaze, tried to hold it, swallowed hard against his wadded collar, and looked away. "In my tunic pocket," he muttered.
Before Maera had time to wonder whether she should put on her gloves before reaching into the man's filthy clothes, Yoshimo extended a hand. "These, then?" he asked innocently. On his palm lay two round tokens. The center of one looked as if it had been burned away with a candle.
"The burned one," Ployer said, his tone colorless. Maera carefully took it from Yoshimo's hand, turning it in her fingers.
"Your wizards did good work," she said, and crushed the counter-charm in her fist. The dust sifted between her fingers, becoming a new addition to the strata of dirt on Ployer's tunic. He swallowed again, and she nodded to Minsc. "I think we're done here."
She did not deign to spare him a second look as they filed out, but Kelsey lingered in the doorway. "Twenty years," he said. "And for what? For this? You may have never had a mansion again, but you still had the chance to at least live decently, and you wasted your time and money on pointless revenge!"
"Decently." Ployer chuckled humorlessly, then fixed a narrowed gaze on Kelsey's face. "You're Eila Coltrane's boy, aren't you? You look like him. And by Waukeen, you sound like him too."
"Good. Then I'm doing something right."
Ployer snorted. "Always thought self-righteousness must be a nice warm blanket, the way people like your father liked to wrap up in it. Maybe I should have looked into that instead of trying to buy heat the old-fashioned way."
Kelsey sighed, looking at Ployer's pinched, worn face, and something occurred to him. He reached into a lower pocket of his robe, and withdrew his back-up money pouch. ("Never keep all your coins in one purse," as the saying went.) He threw it towards Ployer, who fumbled the projectile in surprise before catching it. "Get a haircut and a shave," Kelsey said. "Get some new clothes, and then get out of Athkatla. And don't waste the next twenty years of your life."
Jaheira returned to consciousness suddenly – that was a more accurate description that waking, for she had not been asleep, but rather lost in a blinding haze of pain that had occasionally done her the kindness of retreating to mere agony. She had felt her body shutting down, giving up one part, one system at a time, though not without a fight. And the battles made it all the worse. Her digestion ceased, her liver and kidneys began to fail, and somewhere in a part of her brain not seized with the animal panic of a malfunctioning body, she had wondered when heart and breath would follow suit. So it was with some surprise that she found herself suddenly clear-eyed and pain free.
The late afternoon sun slanted through the window, filling the room with orange light. In a chair by the bed, feet propped on the footboard, sat a slim figure in black. Jaheira tried her voice. "Sime?"
The thief looked up. "Oh good. Maera must have found Ployer."
The meaning of that statement sank in. "Yes. I suppose she did." She peered at Sime. "And you stayed with me?"
"Don't worry. I brought something to occupy myself." Sime held up a tiny embroidery hoop, no bigger that the palm of her hand. "I used to hate needlework when I was younger, but I've found it helps to have something to do with my hands. Besides, the needles can come in handy for other things." Jaheira blinked, processing that as Sime stood. "They'll back soon, I'd say. Feel up to some food?"
It was a good think they had already finished the bulk of their packing the evening before, Kelsey thought, because by the time they got back to the Sea's Bounty, it was almost sunset. Jaheira was waiting, dressed and groomed, and so much restored to herself that she immediately informed them that the entire scheme had been incredibly foolish, and thanked them. There followed a mad scramble to make sure everything was in order for their departure – and then no one could find Maera.
She hadn't gone far, having only pulled a chair from the common room back under the overhang of the staircase landing. "There you are!" Kelsey said, and she looked up from the object of her absorbed attention with some little guilt.
"Sorry," she said. "I just…needed a minute to think."
"We're leaving for the dock in a quarter hour," he said. "I don't want to rush you, but…"
"I know." She stood, and Kelsey got a better look at what was in her hand – the other counter charm Yoshimo had taken from Ployer. "It was for Khalid," she whispered. "Ployer didn't know he was dead. He had the Wizards make two, for one him and one for Jaheira, and this one was for him." She closed her fist over it. "I wish I could just crush it, like the other one, and he would be alright again."
Kelsey covered her hand with his. "I wish you could too."
Her eyes, endlessly dark and warm as the sunlight, met his. "I'm so glad you're here."
"I can't think of anywhere else I'd rather be," he said honestly.
She slipped the token into a pocket, never taking her eyes from his. Then she took his face between her hands and kissed him. Every bit of thought melted under the heat of her lips, the rest of reality dropping away so that even the sound of booted feet on the stairs above them registered only in the most vague and insignificant way. And just when he was starting to feel truly adventurous about the placement of his hands (and encouraged by the enthusiastic pressure of her body against his), Jaheira poked her head around the corner of the stairwell and said, "This is becoming a trend, I see."