She exited the front door of her modest mercantile, a shop specializing in trinkets, around sunset, as she did every evening, handing the keys over to her trusted assistant. The sign over her head as she walked from her porch read Tazmikella's Bag of Silver, and true to the moniker, most of the items within, candlesticks and paperweights, decorative orbs and pieces of jewelry, were crafted of that precious metal.
Tazmikella herself had earned quite a handsome reputation among the merchant class of the circular road called Wall's Around in Heliogabalus, a cul-de-sac off the more major route, Wall Way, so named because of its proximity to the city's high defensive encirclement. The woman was rather ordinary looking and dressed simply. Her hair showed some of its former strawberry blond luster, but was mostly soft gray, and her shoulders appeared just a bit too wide in support of her smallish head. But she always had a kind word for her fellow merchants, and always a disarming smile, and if she had ever fleeced a customer, none had ever complained.
Unassuming and simple, with few needs and plain tastes, Tazmikella did not have a fancy coach awaiting her departure. She walked, every night, the same route out of the city and to an unremarkable cabin set on the side of a hillock.
The woman coming out of Ilnezhara's Gold Coins across the street from her could not have appeared more contrary. She stood straight, tall, and thin, with a shock of thick, copper-colored hair and huge blue eyes. She was dressed in the finest of threads, and a handsome coach driven by a team of shining horses awaited her.
"Can I offer you a ride, poor dear?" Ilnezhara asked her counterpart, as she did every evening - much to the amusement of the other merchants, who often whispered and chortled about the pair and their rivalry.
"I was given legs for a purpose," Tazmikella responded on cue.
"To the city gates, at least?" Ilnezhara continued, to which Tazmikella merely waved her hand and walked on by, as she did every night.
Any witnesses watching more closely that night might have seen something a bit out of the ordinary, though, for as Tazmikella passed by Ilnezhara's coach, she turned her head slightly and offered the tall woman the slightest of nods, and received one in return.
Tazmikella was out of the city in short order, moving far from the torchlit wall toward the lonely hill where she kept her modest home. At the base of that hill, in nearly complete darkness, she surveyed all the land around her, ensuring that she was alone. She moved to a wide clearing beyond a shielding line of thick pines. In the middle, she closed her eyes and slipped out of her clothes. Tazmikella hated wearing clothes, and could never understand the need of humans to hide their natural forms. She always thought that level of shame and modesty to be reflective of a race that could not elevate itself above its apparent limitations, a race that insisted on subjugating itself to more powerful beings instead of standing as their own gods in proud self-determination.
Tazmikella was possessed of no such modesty. She stood naked in that unnatural form, basking in the feel of the night breezes. The change came subtly, for she had long ago perfected the art of transformation. Her wings and tail began to grow first, for they were the least painful - additions were always easier than transformations, which included cracking and reshaping bone structure.
The trees around her seemed to shrink. Her perspective shifted as she grew to enormous proportions, for Tazmikella was no human. She had crawled from her egg centuries before beside her sister and sole sibling in the great deserts of Calimshan, far to the southwest.
Tazmikella the copper dragon lifted into the night air. She gained altitude quickly, flying away from the human city. The leaders of the land knew who she was, and accepted her, but the commonfolk would never comprehend, of course. If she revealed herself to them, King Gareth and his friends would be left with no choice but to evict her from the Bloodstone Lands. And she really didn't want a fight with that company.
She moved directly north, across the least populated expanse of Morov and into the even less densely populated Duchy of Soravia. She flew between the Goliad and the Galena Snake, the two parallel rivers running south from the Galena Mountains. And she continued to climb, for the thin air and the cold did not bother Tazmikella at all. A person on the ground might catch a fleeting glimpse of her, but would that person know her to be a dragon flying high, or think her a night bird, or a bat, flying low?
She was not concerned. She was naked in the night air, above such concerns. She was free.
Tazmikella crossed the mountains easily, weaving in and out of the towering peaks, enjoying the play of the multidirectional air flows and the stark contrast between the dark stones and moonlit snow. She entered Vaasa just to the west of Palishchuk, and turned east as she came out of the mountains. Within moments, she noted the lights of the half-orc city.
The dragon stayed up high as she overflew the city, for she knew that the half-orcs, living amidst the Vaasan wilds for so many years, knew how to protect themselves from any threat. If they saw the form of a dragon overflying their city at night, they wouldn't pause to consider the color of the wyrm - nor would they be able to determine that in any case, under the light of the half-moon and stars alone.
Tazmikella used her extraordinary eyesight to scrutinize the city as she passed. It was late, but many torches burned and the town's largest tavern was bright and noisy. They still celebrated the victory over the Zhengyian castle, she realized.
She banked right, to the north, and began her descent, confident that none of Palishchuk's citizens would be out and about. Almost immediately, she saw the dark and dead structure, an immense fortress, a replica of Castle Perilous, only a few miles to the north of the city.
She came down in a straight line, too intrigued to pause and take a survey of the area. As she alighted, she changed back into a human form, thinking that anyone who subsequently spied her wouldn't feel threatened by the sight of a naked, middle-aged woman. Of course, if any lurking onlookers had watched her more closely, that image would have created more confusion than comfort, for she strode up to the huge portcullis that barred the front of the structure without pause. She considered the patchwork grate that had been chained over the break in the gate, where Jarlaxle and his companions had apparently entered. She could have removed that patch easily enough, but that would have meant stooping to crawl under.
Instead, the woman slipped her arms between two of the thick portcullis spikes, then pushed outward with both, easily bending the metal so that she could simply step through.
Unconcerned, Tazmikella strode right through the gatehouses and across the courtyard of torn, broken ground, littered with the shattered forms of many, many skeletons.
She found the great doors of the main keep repaired and secured by a heavy chain - one that she grabbed with one hand and easily snapped.
She found what she was looking for in the main room just beyond the doors. A pedestal stood intact, though blackened by fire near its top. The remnants of a large book, pages torn and burned, lay scattered about. Her expression growing more sour, Tazmikella went up to the ruined tome and lifted the black binding. Most of it was destroyed, but she saw enough of the cover to recognize the images of dragons stamped there.
She knew the nature of the book, a tome of creation and of enslavement.
"Damn you, Zhengyi," the dragon whispered.
The clues of Jarlaxle and Entreri's progress through the place were easy enough to follow, and Tazmikella soon entered a huge chamber far below the structure, where lay the bones of a long-past battle, and the debris of a more recent struggle. One look at the dracolich confirmed everything Tazmikella and her sister Ilnezhara had feared.
* * * * *
The dragon arrived back on the hillside outside of Heliogabalus shortly before the dawn. She dressed and rubbed her weary eyes, but she did not return to her home. Rather, she moved south to a singular tower, the home of her sister. She didn't bother knocking, for she was expected.
"It was that easily discerned that you did not even need a full day at the site?" the taller, copper-haired Ilnezhara said as soon as Tazmikella entered.
"It was exactly as we feared."
"A Zhengyian tome, animated by the captured soul of a dead dragon?"
"Urshula, I think."
"And the book?"
"Destroyed. Torn and burned. The work of Jarlaxle, I would expect. That one is too clever to allow such a treasure to escape his greedy hands. He saw the truth of Zhengyian tomes when he destroyed Herminicle's tower."
"And we offered him too many clues," Ilnezhara added.
They both paused and considered the scenario unfolding before them. Ilnezhara and Tazmikella had been approached by Zhengyi those years before with a tempting offer. If they served beside his conquering armies, he would reward them each with an enchanted phylactery, waiting to rescue their spirits when they died. Zhengyi had offered the sisters immortality in the form of lichdom.
But the price was too high, they had agreed, and while the prospect of surviving as a dracolich might be better than death, it was anything but appealing.
"Jarlaxle understood exactly what was buried within the pages of Zhengyi's book, so we can only assume that he has Urshula now, safely tucked away in a pocket," Tazmikella said after a long while.
"This drow plays dangerous games," said Ilnezhara. "If he knows the power of the phylactery, does he also understand the magic behind it? Will Jarlaxle begin tempting dragons to his side, as did Zhengyi?"
"If he walks into Heliogabalus and offers us a dark pact toward lichdom, I will bite him in half," Tazmikella promised.
Ilnezhara put on a pouting expression. "Could you not just chain him and hand him to me, that I might use him as I please for a few centuries?"
"Sister...." Tazmikella warned.
Ilnezhara simply laughed in response, but it was a chuckle edged with nervous tension. For both of them were beginning to understand that Jarlaxle, a creature they considered a minion, was not to be taken lightly.
"Jarlaxle and Entreri defeated a dracolich," Tazmikella stated, and there was no further laughter. "And Urshula the Black was no minor wyrm in life or death."
"And now he is in Jarlaxle's pocket, figuratively and literally."
"We should talk to those two."
Ilnezhara nodded her agreement.
* * * * *
Every so often in his life, the fiercely independent Artemis Entreri found himself in a time and place not of his choosing, and from which he could not immediately escape. It had been so for months in Menzoberranzan, when Jarlaxle had rescued him from a disastrous fight with Drizzt Do'Urden outside of Mithral Hall and had taken him back with the dark elves on their retreat from the dwarf lands.
It had been so quite often in his younger days, serving the dangerous Basadoni Guild in Calimport. In those early phases of his career, Artemis Entreri had done what he was told, when he was told. On those occasions when his assignment was not to his liking, the younger Entreri had just shrugged and accepted it - what else was he to do?
As he got older, more experienced and with a reputation that made even the Pashas nervous, Entreri accepted the assignments of his choosing, and no one else's. Still, every so often, he found himself in a place where he did not wish to be, as it was that morning in Bloodstone Village.
He watched the ceremony with a strange detachment, as if he sat in the crowd that had gathered before the raised platform in front of King Gareth's palace. With some amusement, he watched Davis Eng go forward and accept his honor. The man hadn't even made it to Palishchuk of his own accord. He had been downed on the road and had been carried in, a liability and not an asset, in the back of a wagon.
Some people will celebrate anything, Entreri mused. Even mediocrity.
Back on the streets of Calimport, a man who had performed as pathetically as Eng would have been given one chance to redeem himself, if that.
Calihye was called forward next, and Entreri watched that presentation more carefully, and with less judgment. The half-elf had refused to go into the castle, though she had agreed to stay with the wounded Davis Eng. She had broken her agreement with Commander Ellery, her vow of servitude to the mission, and still she was being rewarded.
Entreri merely smirked at that one and let the negative thoughts filter away, his personal feelings for the half-elf overruling his pervasive cynicism for the moment.
Still, it amazed him how liberal the king seemed to be with his accolades - because it was all for show, Entreri understood. The ceremony wasn't about Davis Eng or Calihye. It wasn't about the annoying Athrogate, who hopped forward next to receive his honor. It wasn't even about Jarlaxle and Entreri. It was about the people watching, the commonfolk of Bloodstone. It was all about creating heroes for the morale of the peasants, to keep them bowing and praising their leaders so that they wouldn't notice their own troubles. Half of them went to bed hungry most nights, while those they loved so, the paladin king and his court, would never know such hardship.
In the end, cynicism won over, and so when Entreri was called forward - the second time, for he had been too turned inward to even hear the first summons - he stepped briskly and didn't even hide his scowl.
He heard Jarlaxle's laugh behind him as he moved to stand before Gareth, and he knew that his companion was enjoying the spectacle. He managed one glance back at the drow, just to glare. And of course, Jarlaxle laughed all the more.
"Artemis Entreri," Gareth said, turning the man back to face him. "You are new to this land, and yet you have already proven your worth. With your actions at the Vaasan Gate, and in the north against the construct of Zhengyi, you have distinguished yourself above so many others. For your defeat of the dracolich, Artemis Entreri, I bestow upon you the title of Apprentice Knight of the Order."
A man dressed in dirty robes stepped up to the bald, fat priest at Gareth's side. The priest, Friar Dugald, offered a quick blessing over the sword then handed it to Gareth.
But as he did, the ragged man looked not at the king, but at Entreri. And though Gareth's complimentary words had been full of all the right notes, Entreri saw clearly that this man - a dear friend of the king's, apparently - was not viewing Entreri in the same complimentary light.
Artemis Entreri had survived the vicious streets of Calimport with his skill at arms, but even more importantly, he had survived due to his ability to measure friends and enemies at a glance.
That man, slightly older than he, and no commoner despite his ragged dress, was no friend.
Gareth took the sword and lifted it high with both hands.
"Please kneel," Queen Christine instructed Entreri, who was still regarding the man in rags.
Entreri turned his head slowly to consider the queen, then gave a slight nod and dropped to his knees. Gareth laid the sword on his left shoulder, and proclaimed him an apprentice knight of the order. The fat priest began to recite all of the honors and benefits such a title bestowed, but Entreri was hardly listening. He thought of the man in rags, of the look that had passed between them.
He thought about how Jarlaxle was wrangling them both into places where they did not belong.
* * * * *
Far to the north of Bloodstone Village, the celebration in Palishchuk lasted long into the night, and Riordan Parnell continued to lead the way. Whenever things seemed to be quieting, the bard took up a rousing song about Palishchuk and its many heroes.
And glasses were lifted in toast.
Most of the town had turned out in the common room of the Weary Wanderer that night to honor - yet again - Arrayan and Olgerkhan, their brave kinfolk who had ventured into the castle. Several of the citizens had been killed and many more injured in the battle with the castle's gargoyles, who had flown through the dark sky to assault the town. To a man and woman, the half-orcs recognized that had Arrayan, Olgerkhan, and the others not proven victorious over the dracolich and its vile minions, their beloved city would likely have been abandoned, with refugees streaming south for the safety of the Vaasan Gate.
So the half-orcs were more than willing to celebrate, and when Riordan Parnell, the legendary bard and a charter member of King Gareth's court, had arrived in Palishchuk, the revelry had taken on new heights.
Seeing that his reputation had preceded him, Riordan was determined not to disappoint. He sang and played on his fine lute, backed by some fairly good musicians from Wingham's traveling merchant band, who - as good luck would have it, for Wingham and Riordan were old friends - happened to be in town.
Riordan sang and everyone drank. He sang some more, and they drank some more. Riordan graciously treated many of the dignitaries, including the two guests of honor, from his seemingly endless pouch of coins - for in his generosity, the bard could cleverly determine how much each was drinking. Initially, he had thought to keep Arrayan and Olgerkhan semi-lucid, for there was much more to that particular evening's celebration than merely the bard showing off his musical talents. Drunken people talked more freely, after all, and Riordan had gone there for information.
After seeing the pair of heroes, though, the bard had slightly altered his plans. One look at Arrayan's beautiful face had convinced him to make sure that Olgerkhan was getting the most potent of drinks, all the night long. Truly, Arrayan had caught Riordan off his guard - and that was not a common occurrence for the brash and charming rake. It wasn't that she was spectacularly beautiful, for Riordan had bedded many of the most alluring women in the Bloodstone Lands. No, what had so surprised the bard was that he found himself attracted to Arrayan at all. Her face was flat and round, but very pleasantly so, her hair lustrous, and her teeth straight and clean, so unlike the crooked and protruding tusks so prevalent in her orc heritage. Indeed, had he seen Arrayan walking the streets of Heliogabalus or Bloodstone Village, Riordan would never have guessed that a drop of orc blood coursed her veins.
Knowing the truth of it, though, the bard could see bits of that heritage here and there on the woman. Her ears were a bit small, and her forehead just a little sloped, up from a brow that was a hair too thick.
But none of it mattered to the whole, for the woman was pretty, and pleasant and smiling, and Riordan was intrigued, and because of that, surprised.
So he made sure, with a wink at the barmaid and an extra coin on her tray, that Arrayan's escort and fellow hero, the brutish Olgerkhan, was amply sauced. Soon enough, Olgerkhan fell off his chair and out of the picture entirely, snoring contentedly on the floor to the howls and cheers of the other patrons.
Riordan picked his time carefully. He knew that he couldn't outmaneuver Wingham, for the old half-orc was far too crafty to be taken in by a man of Riordan's well-earned reputation, and he saw that Wingham took quite the interest in Arrayan, who, Riordan had learned, was his niece. When he judged that an ample number of patrons were falling by the wayside, the bard changed the tempo of his songs. It was early in the morning by then, and so he began to wind things down... slowly.
He also began slipping a bit more enchantment into his tunes, using the magic of his voice, the gift of the true bards, to manipulate the mood of the slightly inebriated Arrayan. He put her at ease. He charmed her with subtle flattery. The background magic of his songs convinced her that he was her friend, to be trusted, who could offer comfort and advice.
More than once, Riordan noticed Wingham glancing his way with obvious suspicion. He pressed on, though, continuing his quiet manipulation while trying to find a plan to be rid of the too-smart old half-orc.
Even clever Riordan realized that he was out of his league, though. There was no way he was going to distract Wingham. During one of his rare pauses from song, the bard gathered a pair of drinks from the tavernkeeper and moved to Wingham's side. He was not surprised when Wingham dismissed the other three merchants who had been sitting at his table.
"You sing well," the old half-orc said.
Riordan slipped one of the drinks over to him then lifted the other in an appreciative toast. Wingham tapped one glass to the other and took a deep swallow.
"You know Nyungy?" he asked before he had even replaced his glass on the table.
Riordan looked at him curiously for just a moment. "The bard? Of course. Who of my heritage and training would not know the name of the greatest bard to ever walk the Bloodstone Lands?"
"The greatest half-orc bard," Wingham clarified.
"I would not put such limitations on the reputation of Nyungy."
"He would tell you that the exploits of Riordan Parnell outshone his own." Wingham lifted his glass to lead the toast, and Riordan, grinning, tapped his glass to Wingham's.
"I think you flatter me too greatly," the bard said before he drank. After the sip, he added, "I played a small role, one man among many, in the defeat of the Witch-King."
"Curse his name," said Wingham, and Riordan nodded. "I stand by my comment, for I have heard those very words from Nyungy, and recently."
"He is still alive, then? Fine news! Nyungy has not been heard from for years now, and many assumed that he had passed on from this life, to a reward that we all know must be just."
"Alive and well, if a bit crotchety and sore in the joints," Wingham confirmed. "In fact, he warned me to be wary of Riordan Parnell when we learned that you were coming to Palishchuk, only two days ago."
Riordan paused and cocked his head, studying his companion.
"Yes, my friend, Nyungy lives right here in Palishchuk," Wingham confirmed. "Of course he does. Indeed, it was he who deciphered that Arrayan had unwittingly begun the cycle of magic of the Zhengyian construct. His wisdom helped guide me to the understanding that ultimately allowed Commander Ellery's group to defeat the construct and its hellish minions."
Riordan sat staring at the old half-orc through it all, neither blinking or nodding.
"Yes, you would do well to pay Nyungy a visit before you leave, since you have come to discern the complete truth of this construct and its defeat."
Riordan swallowed a bit too hard. "I have come to honor the exploits of Arrayan and Olgerkhan," he said, "and to share in the joy and celebration until King Gareth arrives from Bloodstone Village to formally honor them."
"And truly, what a fine honor it is that the king would even travel the muddy expanse of Vaasa to pay such a tribute, rather than demanding the couple travel to him in his seat of power."
"They are worthy of the honor."
"No doubt," Wingham agreed. "But that is far from the extent of it - for their visit and for your own."
Riordan didn't bother to deny anything.
"King Gareth is right to worry," Wingham went on. "This castle was formidable."
"The loss of Mariabronne, and Gareth's relative, Ellery, would attest to that."
"To say nothing of Canthan, a high-ranking wizard in the Citadel of Assassins."
The blunt statement gave Riordan pause.
"Surely you suspected as much," said Wingham.
"There were rumors."
"And they are true. Yes, my singing friend, there is much more for us - for you - to unravel here than the simple defeat of yet another Zhengyian construct. Fear not, for I will not hinder you. Far from it, for the sake of Palishchuk and all of Vaasa, my hopes lie with Riordan and King Gareth."
"We have always considered Wingham a valuable ally and friend."
"You flatter me. But our goals are the same, I assure you." Wingham paused and looked at Riordan slyly. "Some of our goals, at least."
At that surprising comment, Riordan let Wingham steer his gaze across the way to Arrayan.
Riordan gave a laugh. "She is beautiful, I admit," he said.
"She is in love, and with a man deserving of her."
Riordan glanced at Olgerkhan, who lay under the table curled up like a baby, and laughed again. "A man too fond of the liquor this night, it would seem."
"With the help of a few well-placed coins and better-placed compliments," said Wingham.
Riordan sat back and smiled at the perceptive half-orc. "You fear for Arrayan's reputation."
"A charming hero from King Gareth's Court..."
"Has come to speak with her, as a friend," Riordan finished.
"Your reputation suggests a bit more."
"Fair enough," the bard said, and he lifted his glass in salute to Wingham. "On my word, then, friend Wingham," he said. "Arrayan is a beautiful woman, and I would be a liar if I said otherwise to you."
"You are a bard, after all," came the dry reply, and Riordan could only shrug and accept the barb.
"My intentions for her are honorable," Riordan said. "Well, except that, yes, I have indeed played it so that she is... less inhibited. I have many questions to ask her this night, and I would have her honest replies, without fear of consequence."
He noted that Wingham stiffened at that.
"She has done nothing wrong," said the half-orc.
"That I do not doubt."
"She was unwittingly trapped by the magic of the tome - a book that I gave to her," Wingham said, and a bit of desperation seemed to be creeping into his voice.
"I am less concerned with her, and with Olgerkhan, than with their other companions, those who made it out alive and those who did not," the bard assured the half-orc.
"I will tell you the entire story of the book and the creation," Wingham replied. "I would prefer that you do not revisit that painful experience on Arrayan, this night or any other. Besides, since she was in the thrall of powerful and manipulative magic, my observations will prove more accurate and enlightening."
Riordan thought it over for a moment then nodded. "But you were not with them inside the construct."
Riordan set his glass down on the table, and slid his chair back. "I will be gentle," he promised as he stood up.
Wingham didn't seem overly pleased by it all, but he nodded his agreement. He didn't have much of a choice, after all. Riordan Parnell, cousin of Celedon Kierney, friend of Gareth and all the others, was one of the seven who had brought Zhengyi down and had rescued the Bloodstone Lands from the hellish nightmare of the Witch-King.
* * * * *
The celebration was fine that night in Bloodstone Village, as well. Though many had little idea of what had transpired in Vaasa to warrant such a ceremony, or a knighting, the folk of the long-beleaguered land seemed always ready for a celebration. King Gareth told them to eat, drink, and make merry, so make merry they did.
A huge open air pavilion was set up on the front grounds of Castle Dragonsbane, to the side of the Palace of the White Tree. A few tents had been set about, but most of the people preferred to dance and sing under the stars that clear, dark night. They knew they wouldn't have many such evenings left before the onset of winter's cold winds.
For his part, Jarlaxle wandered in small circles around the table where Entreri, the hero of the day, sat with Calihye and some of the lesser lords and ladies of King Gareth's court. Every so often, Friar Dugald would wander by, offering a mug in toast, before staggering off into the crowd.
Many, of course, showed great interest in the drow as he glided about the perimeter, and he found himself tipping his hat almost non-stop. It was a practiced gesture, and one that served well to hide the truth of Jarlaxle's attention. For with a wave of his hand and a call to a small silver cone he held tight in his palm, the drow had created an area of amplified sensibilities, from himself to Entreri and the half-elf. People strode up before Jarlaxle and addressed him directly, even loudly, but he just nodded and smiled and moved along, hearing not a word from them.
But hearing everything said between Entreri and Calihye.
"I have no desire to winter in the tight confines of the Vaasan Gate," Entreri said to her, and from his tone, Jarlaxle could tell that he had spoken those very words several times already. "I will find work in Heliogabalus, if it suits me to work, and enjoy fine food and drink if not."
"And fine women?" Calihye asked.
"If you would accompany me, then yes," Entreri replied without hesitation.
Jarlaxle chortled upon hearing that, then realized that he had just confused, and likely insulted, a pair of young women who had approached him.
With an offer, perhaps?
He had to find out, so he abandoned Entreri's conversation just long enough to recognize that the moment had passed.
"Your pardon," he managed to say as the pair turned their backs and rushed away.
With a shrug, Jarlaxle summoned the cone again and tuned in.
"... Parissus has unfinished affairs," Calihye was saying, referring to her dear friend who had been killed on the road to Palishchuk - a death that she had initially blamed on Artemis Entreri, and for which she had vowed revenge. It seemed that she had entertained a change of heart, Jarlaxle thought, unless she planned to love the man to death.
Jarlaxle smiled and nodded at that rather discordant thought. For some reason, he found himself thinking of Ilnezhara, his dragon lover.
"I am bound to her by years of friendship," Calihye continued. "You cannot deny me my responsibilities to see that her final wishes are carried out as she desired."
"I deny you no road. Your path is your own to decide."
"But you won't come with me?"
Jarlaxle couldn't help but smirk as he regarded that distant exchange, how Calihye gently placed her hand on Entreri's forearm as she spoke.
Ah, the manipulation of human women, Jarlaxle thought.
"Jarlaxle has been my friend for years, as well," Entreri replied. "We have business in Heliogabalus."
"Jarlaxle is not capable of handling your affairs alone?"
Entreri gave a chuckle. "You would have me trust him?"
Jarlaxle nodded his approval at that.
"I thought you were friends," Calihye said.
Entreri merely shrugged and looked back to his drink, set on the table before him.
Jarlaxle noted Calihye's expression, a bit of a frown showing around the edges of her mouth. As Entreri turned back to her, that frown disappeared in the blink of a drow's eye, upturning into a calming, assured smile.
"Interesting," the drow muttered under his breath.
"What is?" came a question before him, one that had him nearly jumping out of his boots. Before him stood a group of young men, boys actually, all of them staring at him, sizing him up from head to toe.
All of those stares reminded Jarlaxle keenly that he was out of his element, that he was among a suspicious throng of lesser creatures. He was a novelty, and though that was a position he had long coveted among the drow, among the surface races, it was both a blessing and a curse, an opportunity and a shackle.
"A good evening to you," he said to them, tipping his outrageous hat.
"They're saying ye killed a dragon," the same boy who had spoken before offered.
"Many," Jarlaxle replied with a wink.
"Tell us!" another of the group exclaimed.
"Ah, so many stories..." the drow began, and he started off for a nearby table, herding the boys before him.
He glanced back at Entreri and Calihye as he went, to see his friend with both hands wrapped around his mug, his head down. At his side, Calihye held his arm and stared at him, and try as he might, Jarlaxle could not read her expression.
* * * * *
Arrayan was thoroughly enjoying herself. All guilt had washed from her, finally. Even the defeat of the "living" castle had not allowed the woman to truly relax, for several people had died in battling that construct - a creation of her unwitting actions.
That was all behind her, though, for one night at least. The music, the drink, the cheers... had it all, just possibly, been worth it?
Sitting beside her, face down on the table - and that after clawing his way up from the floor - Olgerkhan snored contentedly. Dear Olgerkhan. He had been her truest friend when they had entered the castle, and had become her lover since they had left it. Soon they were to be married, and it was a day that could not come quickly enough for Arrayan. She had known the brutish half-orc for all of her life, but not until the crisis within the construct, when she had watched Olgerkhan sacrifice so much for her benefit, had she come to understand the truth of his feelings for her - and hers for him.
She reached over and tousled his hair, but he was too drunk to even respond. She had never seen Olgerkhan drunk before, for neither of them often partook of potent liquor. For herself, Arrayan had begun sipping her drinks more carefully hours before. She wasn't much of a drinker, and it hadn't taken a lot to set her head spinning. She was only just coming back to clarity, somewhat.
She was glad of that indeed when she noted the handsome and heroic bard striding her way, a huge smile on his face. Behind him, she caught a glimpse of her uncle Wingham, but the concern clearly stamped on his old face did not register with the tipsy woman.
"Milady Arrayan," Riordan Parnell said as he moved near to her. He dipped a graceful, arm-sweeping bow. "I feel that the warmth of the night has almost overcome me. I wish to take a short walk in the cool air outside, and would be honored if you would join me."
A flash of concern crossed Arrayan's face, and she was hardly aware of the movement as she looked to Olgerkhan.
"Ah, milady, I assure you that my intentions are nothing but honorable," Riordan said. "Your love for Olgerkhan is well known, and so appropriate, given the status that you two have rightly earned. You will be the most celebrated couple in Palishchuk, perhaps in all of Vaasa."
"Help me to rouse him, then," Arrayan replied, and she blushed as she realized that she slurred her words a bit. She reached over to grab Olgerkhan, but Riordan took her by the wrist.
"Just we two," he bade her. He glanced back over his shoulder, leading her gaze to Wingham.
The old half-orc still wore that grave look, but he nodded in response to Arrayan's questioning expression.
* * * * *
With a fair amount of potent liquor clouding Arrayan's thoughts, it was not hard for the powerful Riordan to weave a magical enchantment over her as they walked out of the tavern. By the time they'd moved only a block from the place, Arrayan had come to fully trust the handsome man from Damara.
In such a situation, it didn't take Riordan long to learn what he needed. He had heard of Mariabronne's demise already - that the ranger had been killed not by the dracolich, but by shadowy demons beforehand when he had been out scouting. Yet, strangely, Mariabronne's corpse had been found at the scene of the dracolich battle, bitten in half.
Riordan got the complete picture, including when three of the already dead companions - Mariabronne, Canthan, and Ellery - had walked past Arrayan to join in the fight. They had been animated by someone or something. Canthan had thrown spells in the dracolich fight, and the animated warrior and ranger had battled fiercely.
The magic that had brought their physical bodies to animation had been powerful, Riordan understood.
He listened intently as Arrayan lowered her voice and admitted the truth of Canthan's demise: that the man and the dwarf had turned on her and Olgerkhan, and had been stopped by Entreri and Jarlaxle. She lowered her voice even more as she recounted the last moments of Canthan's life, when Entreri's horrible, vampiric dagger had drawn forth his remaining life-force and transferred it to Olgerkhan.
Riordan's head spun. There was so much more to the whole business than anyone had understood. And what had happened to Ellery, Gareth's niece, a Commander of the Bloodstone Army? Even Arrayan didn't know, for the woman had remained behind the group with Jarlaxle, studying the tome, and had not returned with the mysterious drow to the room where Entreri had finished off Canthan.
And so Riordan's interrogation, for all the answers it provided, had only led him to so many more, and more intriguing, questions.
They were questions to which he would find no answers from either Arrayan or Olgerkhan, or anyone else in Palishchuk.
With so much to report, he escorted the woman back to the tavern and didn't even stay the night, collecting his mount from the stable and riding out into the darkness, galloping hard to the south.
At the same time, not far to the west, Emelyn the Gray, in the form of a night bird, sped the other way. The grumpy wizard had no intention of going into Palishchuk, so he skirted around the town to the west and veered back to the northeast. He found the castle easily enough and flew over the outer wall, reverting to his human form as he settled before the doors of the main keep. He took a moment to consider the broken chain on the doors.
"Hmm," he said, a sound he would repeat many times that night and the next morning, as he made his way through the Zhengyian construct.