(11th of Nightal, 1379 Dalereckoning)
Adir attended the revel as a guest of honor in Pasha Ormat’s private estate, his first time entering his friend’s newly constructed home.
He wasn’t disappointed.
His erstwhile ally had built a fine palace along Memnon’s Dock ward; the two story manor was actually placed over the pier, compensating for its lack of height and floors with a truly unique design. The structure, roughly rectangular, was over two bowshots wide and twice that in length, the first floor featuring a high roof, concealing the second level, which he knew was mostly consisting of private rooms, the ones at the ends nearest to the stairwells being servant’s quarters, the ones closest to the center belonging to the Pasha and his personal retinue.
In the main floor there was a grand hallway, with a rectangular table long enough to comfortably accommodate over two dozen, with the pasha’s seat dead center and facing the ornamented double-doors in the antechamber. The walls were ribbed, constructed of pure white marble. Their many flying buttresses, a very rare architectural flourish this far south, were intricately carved into the likeness of dolphins, their noses touching a horizontally-facing beam that ran from end to end.
The many windows, rectangular save for an almost spade-shaped point at their apex, were constructed of pieces of colored glass, mostly in shades of dark blue, aqua, violet, and purple, conjoined by dark metal railing to create vivid murals depicting sea life and clear skies, though the largest specimen, directly behind the Pasha’s seat, depicted a sea at storm; wild, crashing waves beneath a dark cloud alight with thunderbolts.
The numerous lanterns were covered by lightly tinted blue glass, and the embers burning from the massive candelabra over the table were also blue, likely by spell, casting a slight color over everything in the chamber.
The floor of much of the main hall was actually magically hardened glass, the better to view the waters below them, matching the sea motif. With the heavy octagonal stone supports hidden from sight or stylized with curving architecture, hundreds of Glowballs swam through the surprisingly deep shoreline to reveal hundreds of fish and a great many-tiered garden of multicolored coral.
The Pasha himself perfectly fit his decor. At a distance he looked almost like a Sea Elf, with his light blue skin, stark white hair which he tied in a single topknot that reached the back of his thighs, and his pale white eyes, which lacked pupils or corneas. But Adir knew him to be a Water Genasi, the rare breeding between a Human and an extra planar Elemental, in this case a being from the evil realm of Olhydra.
But like Adir, Ormat took what he needed, and what he willed, with a zest for life that few could match in this grim, sullen world. The fellow’s cavalier, easygoing attitude starkly contrasted with his sinister origins, and also his affiliation with the Kraken Society; a secretive guild of sorts that unofficially rivaled the Zhentarim in size and influence.
He sat beside Adir in one of the many private balconies elevated slightly above the floor, lining the walls on all sides. He sat cross-legged atop his chair on the opposite side of a circular table of clear glass, shirtless and barefooted, the better to display the thick dark tattooing all across his arms, shoulders, and torso. His loose black pantaloons were belted with a thick metal cinch, from which hung many jeweled talismans, one of which Adir noticed with some surprise was a holy symbol of Deep Sashelas. His sword, a richly ornamented and bejeweled scimitar, was also sheathed there in a dark oaken scabbard decorated with golden filigree.
The necromancer didn’t however dismiss that sword as merely ornamental, mostly because he had seen the fellow dice a Sahuagin into confetti with it in under a ten count.
Still, he eyed the holy symbol with curiosity; a gold dolphin with aquamarine eyes, his scrutiny catching Ormat’s attention. The fellow hefted the ornament with an embarrassed grin, “I met with an envoy from the Sea of Fallen Stars, who...how shall I say...introduced me to the undersea god of knowledge and beauty. I undertook the rites as priest shortly before constructing my palace in which we sit.”
“The Dread Captain becomes a humble priest?” Adir said with mock derision, “You are growing soft in your old age, my friend.”
Pasha Ormat chuckled, “Oh, and what of you, Lord Adir? Have you reconsidered worship of Corellon Larethian yet? Any intentions in joining me in Arvandor in death, or were you leaning towards Orcus?”
“I am afraid Orcus is dead, my friend, slain by...oh hells, what was her name again? Odd. Anyway, all that time in the ocean must have separated you from current events to allow you to miss such developments.”
They shared a laugh as the server delivered a gleaming silver pitcher.
Adir took hold and pulled, wrenching it from Ormat’s iron grip with a heavy grunt before pouring himself a glass. The light, fizzy wine, clear white with a slight yellow tint, filled the glass to an acceptable level, and he in turn poured for his friend, feigning overflowing the glass with the fine vintage before drawing back at roughly ninety percent to capacity.
“Such a strange color...” he noted, swirling the glass and inhaling its bouquet; citrus peel, green apple, and grapefruit, “Wherever did you get it?”
“Waterdeep.” he replied, taking a light sip, “Imported from Cormanthyr. The Elves managed to breed a new type of grape in the soil of their coolest regions, in turn, allowing for a new type of wine. I like this better than most; dark reds weigh you down like eating too much beef. Try it.”
Sampling the vintage, Adir nodded at its tart flavor and light, bubbly body. Earthy, with a hint of mild fruit. A citrus aftertaste.
“Is this aged?” Adir asked, curious, and Ormat shook his head, “That is the beauty of it; this grape does not need to be aged for long to develop its flavor. Thus, it can be made with quality for a modest price. Just you wait; importing this and selling it to the commoners of all of Calimshan will make me a very wealthy man.”
Sparing a glance around the fellow’s abode, Adir made a grand, deprecating gesture about the hall, earning another laugh, “Well, more wealthy. My association with the land-faring Elves needs to count for something, after all. Fair enough?”
“Fair enough. I must say, you have done well. The house is marvelous. I wish I had thought of something similar.”
Smiling, the Genasi motioned all about him, “It is my tribute to Deep Sashelas. I am thinking of commissioning a temple in his name. Something that will accommodate both a terrestrial communion, and perhaps a lower platform that will reach into the waters, the better to allow my gilled brethren to attend as well. Perhaps Memnon’s sailors will find the lord of dolphins a better patron than that unpredictable bitch Umberlee.”
As he said that, the Genasi made a warding gesture with his fingertip, eyes darting about nervously.
No man who had ever sailed aboard a ship took that one’s anger lightly...
“Well, best of luck to you.” Adir replied honestly, “Let me know if you need a hand with that.”
“My gratitude.” Ormat said, taking another sip of wine and considering the floor below, on which several pairs of men and women, their garb of northern make, began to engage in a slow, rhythmic dance, waltzing about a central axis, “So tell me of this woman you had asked me to invite. Another...prospective?”
Adir chuckled, “Vala? Perhaps. A real firebrand, that one, though you wouldn’t know to look at her. Might be a little wild for me.”
"Exult in the ever-changing beauty of life." Ormat replied seriously, reciting a holy passage of his god, ”Revel in the joy of creation and increase its myriad aspects. Follow the way of the dolphin, my friend. It will not lead you astray.”
“Good advice, that.” Adir conceded, “She will likely be along shortly, and you can comprehend what you will. Now then, what is the main course tonight? Fish or fowl. I know you dislike pork, after that...unfortunate incident in the isles, and I never had the taste for it myself...”
“I have the invitation. Are you going to let me pass or not?”
The Human blanched as she handed him the envelope, containing the token, and refused to take it, as if it were on fire.
“Yes, well. Go in, then. You can leave your cloak with the attendants.”
Nodding, she set down her cloak, and strode in with more confidence on display than she actually felt.
Let her see where this went...
“Well, well, well...” Pasha Ormat chuckled beside him, playfully jabbing at his shoulder, “You sly dog.”
Adir only grinned over the rim of his glass as the entire procession ground to a halt. Hushed conversations ceased. The minstrels stopped playing. The acrobats wavered in their motions to gawk. The jugglers found their articles crashing to the floor, be them wooden balls, glassware, or even torches, slipping from shaking hands. One poor fellow set his shoe on fire, and stomped about impotently to extinguish it, his shrieks the only sound in the room.
Vala stepped away from the attendants, walking down the hall in a simply cut but nonetheless lavish gown of pale white silk. It hung loosely from her shoulders, and was supported by a finely embroidered corset with silver threading.
She wore no jewelry, not in the proper sense; a gorget and a pair of bracelets composed of jagged dark blue psicrystal complemented her wardrobe, appearing almost like strung animal teeth. A trio of larger psicrystals hovered in place behind her back, emitting some manner of vapor that formed an opaque, trailing cloak about her person.
She neither possessed or needed makeup or set hair to be the most beautiful woman in the room; beautiful, exotic, and fierce. A thief had, for a moment, become a warrior goddess.
Though she appeared outwardly disinterested by her surroundings, walking through the crowd as if she barely noticed their gawking, Adir could see the telltale signs of her agitation; the tenseness of her back, the rigidity of her stride, and the minute shift in her expression when she got too close to one or more of the nobles or their nervous attendants.
Vala was unsettled by what she saw; likely, she had little exposure to nobility in her life. Not to say that she had lived as a commoner...she had seen enough, enough in a negative light to cause her distress. A thrall, then?
What he gleaned here reinforced what he had learned in his divinations.
Her eyes scanned the room, on the surface unaffected by the caustic, unflattering scrutiny. When her eyes fixed upon him, they narrowed dangerously, though her face remained perfectly impassive.
Oh yes, definitely an escaped slave. Her anger emanated in palpable waves.
Some activity and enthusiasm returned to the throng of partygoers as she ascended a small flight of steps and approached their small, private table, but not much.
Many eyes were still upon them.
“Well done.” Adir said, unable to hide his smile, “You just became the talk of the party, and you didn’t say a word. I think you have a knack for this, Vala.”
“You wanted to discuss business?” she asked, though it was hardly a question. She looked irritated that he had used her real name.
Forceful. Aggressive. He hadn’t thought her to be so thoroughly distressed.
Oh, yes. He made his decision, and gave a short nod to Ormat. He returned the gesture.
“Soon enough, my dear. Sit. Eat. Drink. Mingle with your hosts; Pasha Ormat spent great expense to fund this event, in honor of the completion of this palace.”
She frowned thoughtfully, then shrugged, taking the seat with her back to the wall, the two of them on either side and the railing behind them.
Ormat raised an eyebrow at her behavior, and chuckled, snapping his fingers and calling over a pair of black-garbed servants, whispering a short, clipped sentence before sending them away.
Vala waited for him to say something else, but he let the silence stretch, testing her.
Finally, she blinked, then, “Your house is very nice, Ormat. You must be pleased.”
Ormat nodded, “Aye. It will do well to instill some much deserved envy from both my rivals and my benefactors. From where do you hail, I wonder?”
“Could you be more specific.”
He laughed, “I like her, Adir. Where did you find this one?”
The servants returned, bearing a trio of covered silver platters.
“Around.” the Elf replied, “Very well, milady. We can get to business, if you have no time for pleasure.”
“What is the prize, then?” she asked, considering her plate as the servants set it down; blackened fish topped with green onion, beside yellow squash and zucchini sautéed with garlic, dill, and crushed pepper.
A second, smaller plate featured a traditional dessert fare; baklava, a sweet, nutty meal of almond, pistachio, and brown sugar, compressed into breaded cakes. Additional glasses of Ormat’s wine were also delivered.
Adir hid his smile as the servant with Vala’s glass, a well acclaimed pickpocket, deftly added an additional ingredient... As upset as she was, she didn’t notice.
“A jewel.” Adir said, waiting for the host to take the first bite, “Hardly unique for a theft, admittedly. But this is a...special request. It will be very difficult for you to deliver.”
She frowned, confused by his indirectness, “Defining color?”
“It has many colors.”
Her frown deepened, then she considered Ormat, then the crowd below, and gave a slight nod, “Its value? I need a better description, even now.”
“Absolutely priceless.” Adir replied, “At least to me. Absolutely unique. Strong...shall we say, sentimental value? I will pay greatly to obtain it.”
“It will be in Almraiven shortly.”
“Everything you have ever wanted.” Adir replied simply, “Wealth. Security. A house by the sea. I will provide permanent lodging within Almraiven, and political immunity from your debtors and rivals.”
“How did you...-”
“My school of magic offers me contacts in the spirit realm, which provides me interesting details of that which I see.” he said, cutting her short, “Consider it like an improved divination. Yes, Vala, I had to learn more about you to consider your employment for this task. I prefer my...operatives, to be of a certain caliber. Surely, you can understand.”
She grunted, “I dislike people looking into my affairs. Do not do so again.”
Ormat coughed on his bite of fish, surprised by such directness against a fellow Pasha. Indeed, such rudeness might have warranted severe punishment with most of their peers. In another instance, Adir might indeed have disciplined one of his employees, even a freelance thief, which was generally allowed some measure of independence out of necessity.
Instead, he nodded, eyeing her, “Well enough. I have ascertained what I needed to, to take your measure.”
“Minimal. Magical in nature.”
“You know that I do not kill when on the job. That will not be an issue?”
“Not at all.”
“Good. I trust you will be more prompt in providing the...particulars, at another time.”
“Indeed. I wanted you here so that you could get out of your shell. I have humored you with being forthright, or at least as forthright as I could, as to not jeopardize the success of this heist. You could in turn humor me by trying the food and drink.”
Her frown became a grimace.
“Come now. You already did half the work with the wardrobe. Eat your meal, and share a dance with me.”
“I do not dance.”
“Nonsense! A good thief is light on their feet. It will be easy for you.”
Vala wanted very badly to say no.
She wanted to tell him off and be out the door in less than a hundred count. Disappear beneath her cloak, never to be seen again.
But she knew not to cross a wizard, let alone a co-ruler of an entire city. And the Genasi was an unknown element as well; a Pasha was the same as a Vicelord, and she had no idea what his strengths might be, save that they were considerable to amass such holdings.
Vala considered her plate, and settled on a bite of the fish. With a delicate silver fork, she separated a small filet; lightly pink under its dark surface, and tasted it.
She exhaled through her nose, finding a bouquet of flavors in its spices; tangy, peppery, and sweet. She took a second, larger bite.
“Now that’s better.” Adir chided, turning to the Genasi, “This dish is marvelous, my friend. Isn’t this your recipe...that one you tried to impress the Vaasan diplomat with...only to find that he was violently allergic to chives?”
“Hey! No fair!” Ormat snapped, grimacing, “How could I have known that? The prig was as tight-lipped as Ralan’s spymasters. And he got better after a couple of hours; the sores had run their course.”
“To answer your question...” he added sheepishly, taking a bite around a boyish grin that was nearly identical to Adir’s own, “...Yes. I got the seasoning down just right, and advised my kitchen staff accordingly.”
“You are a chef?” Vala asked, making conversation, “That seems like an odd craft for someone of your station.”
Ormat shook his head, “Not at all. If you know how to make food, then you know how your food is made. Makes it easier to detect poisons through odd consistencies and flavors.”
Shrugging, she was careful not to seem too eager to eat, remembering her grueling lessons with Irae Duskryn on the matter of table etiquette. Every three or four bites, she gently wiped her mouth with a small kerchief, took a light sip of wine, then switched from main course to side, then back again.
Adir and Ormat chatted without her for a time, and hearing them jest like surface children, Vala found herself deeply unsettled by their familiarity. Did everyone talk like this here?
After the meal, she tried to slip away, claiming a light head from the wine.
Adir had replied only by sweeping her down the stairs to the main floor, where the circling scores of Humans had grown more lively with the ingestion of food and drink. They parted, albeit grudgingly, to accommodate them.
He locked eyes with her, one hand enclosing hers and the other slipping about the small of her back, and his body heat quickly became detectable through their clothing.
Vala felt herself flush, and nearly activated her powers in order to become intangible. She needed to get away. A telltale hum filled the air.
“Shhhh....” Adir whispered in her ear, far too close, “None of that now. Hear the music?”
She did; the minstrels had taken up harps, lutes, flutes, and drums, and had begun a slow, rhythmic tune, different than the ambience present earlier. The Sun Elf led her fully into the throng, twirling her about him while maintaining sure direction, his footsteps lithe and agile, and Vala was forced to call upon her later lessons with Alirana during Eilistraee’s communions in order to match him.
“I knew it...” Adir chuckled, “You have the breeding and the education; you are a noble as much as a warrior and a thief. How odd that you chose this life. Were you seeking excitement?” he asked, reversing direction and slipping further into the crowd.
Vala found she could no longer see outside of the mass of bodies.
His hand pressed against the soft fabric of her gown, his fingers running along her spine. The flush feeling became worse. She attributed it to the wine; she had heard that alcohol had that effect on a person.
As she understood, however, it took far more than one glass...
“No...” she finally replied, nonplussed, dismissing the sensation as something more to do with Adir’s uncomfortable proximity and his adventurous hands, “I needed something, and I knew that as I am, I could get it.”
“Oh...?” Adir asked, his eyes lacking their usual mischief, “And what might that be?”
Why was he so insistent with this? And why was she even considering humoring him?
Why had she not long left this place, these people...?
“Power.” she replied, “Not influence. Power; the strength to become more than I am. The power to do as I will. Protect who I will. Destroy who I will. Does that answer your question?”
“Yes, actually.” he replied, leaning forward and in turn forcing her to bend backward, their eyes still locked. Not once had he broken that stare.
The discomfort returned.
“You have been harmed...” he stated simply, “Only one who has come to mistrust fate wishes to take it into their own hands. I understand perfectly, Vala. I am happy to see that we share common philosophy.”
“I do not think so.” Vala replied coolly, trying to twist out of his grip without using her power.
What did a male, a slaver, think to have in common with her? The very notion was offensive.
Adir shrugged, lifting her up and resuming the dance, as if amused by her discomfort and her inability to push herself away. The Elf’s physical strength was impressive; he wasn’t idle in his rule over Almraiven.
“And everything continues to fall into place...” Adir said, his grin returning, “It will do you no good, you know. The Eternity Ruby will not offer you what you want.”
She scowled, planting her feet and throwing him off rhythm.
She slipped, and Adir held her up.
The room was spinning.
“The ruby cannot return to you what you have lost.” he continued, unmindful, “And I assure you that you will never reach it. I already had everything I needed to make the proper inquiry, purchased at a hefty but quite attainable price for any of my peers. Any one of them could, or maybe even have, consulted Barboris, that sly halfling to which you owe your allegiance”.
Her legs buckled. Her skin was gooseflesh.
The music felt distorted somehow, but she couldn’t seem to understand how. Colors became more vivid, and bled into each other.
“You should know not to take freelance work.” he chided, his expression solemn, “But fear not; I have ensured your safety, and prepared a place for you. A safehouse, if you will, albeit in plain sight.”
What was he talking about? Why did she feel so dizzy?
Vala tried again to reach for her powers, but found a peculiar haze settled over her mind, obscuring that invisible path...
It felt like a cloud of spores, covering her skin. There was an odor...like perfume. Almonds.
The heat grew stifling. She wanted to vomit, or lie down.
Nobody noticed as he gradually led her away from the crowd. That, or nobody cared.
“What is...what are you-”
They passed by their table. Ormat was leaning over the rail. He toasted them with his glass, grinning with a sort of mischief in his eyes that was more threatening than before.
“It’s alright, Vala. You are just a little weak. Let me set you down outside.”
He led her through a back entrance. He nodded to Ormat’s attendants as he passed, and they closed the door behind them. There was a cold evening breeze. The smell of saltwater.
Up ahead, there was a long alleyway, though one that lacked the disorder and waste of most. Beside the manor was a storehouse, but they skirted it. At one end, behind them, was the sea, and before them, a carriage. Two other males guarded it. Their eyes narrowed as they looked upon her.
And in a moment, her instincts re-established themselves. She was a warrior of Eilistraee. She planted her feet again, and this time she held true.
She turned, twisting in his grip, and butted her head against Adir’s nose, compressing it with a wet crunch.
He grunted, wavered, and that was all the opportunity she needed to slip from his grasp.
And plummet to the ground, though, to her, the ground had seemingly risen up to meet her.
She tried to lift herself to all fours, despite the fact that her surroundings were spinning, but the two men, armored in mail and marked with Adir’s livery, had closed the distance, and dragged her to her feet.
“Easy. It’s fine.” Adir said hastily, circling around them, his hand over his nose. Blood ran down the lower half of his face, but he seemed to be only mildly troubled, “You should relax. The drugs should be running their course, and you don’t want to overextend yourself.”
Like hells she would!
She thrashed wildly, snarling, attempting to shear through the cloud settled around her mind. Like an adamantine blade, her panic bought her a moment of clear concentration, and a nimbus of bright light encircled her head.
She called upon her power to teleport her far away, felt a connection with the Astral Plane and the space native to Toril that she would jaunt to.
Adir barked a short incantation, and that connection severed.
A disjunction, meant to dissipate the energies of the weave that a wizard’s spell focused in the moments of its use.
She wondered, distantly, how he had attuned his magic to target psionic powers, before the cloud again closed over her mind.
Vala screamed in frustration, wordless, though it sounded slurred and wet, drooling as her body went limp and they hoisted her into the carriage. Several moments seemed to pass in the time of one, and she was laying down atop a cushioned surface, Adir sitting over her.
He studied her intensely, and she heard the crack of a whip and felt herself in motion. The implied motion while her body was still made her want to vomit, but the cloud had thickened so fully about her mind that she couldn’t command her muscles to obey her.
“Something is wrong, Sabih. Fetch the antidote.”
She heard Adir’s voice, but all she saw was darkness.
“Be still, Vala.”
Something went down her mouth. She tried to constrict her throat, but her entire body felt numb.
She cleared her throat, and gurgled a reply, “Why are you doing this? How am I to complete your task?”
It was obvious, of course; there was no task. Adir meant to torture her in order to reclaim the codex. That, or he planned to make his own profit to compensate himself for its loss by taking her somewhere to collect a bounty or by selling her into slavery.
She could see again with absolute clarity, but only for a moment
Her vision darkened again after catching a glimpse of Adir turning to accept something from the window, and she knew no more.