The distillation was just about complete, but it had turned a worrisome shade of bright blue. Sand double-checked the tome open in front of him, and the illustrations were definitely rust orange.
He looked back to the beaker.
He frowned at his equipment. Perhaps there was a contaminant somewhere. The alchemist's lab at Crossroad Keep had been salvaged from under ten tons of rubble, and while the glasswork was all new, one of those idiots in grey could certainly have done something unfortunate to the tubing.
The elf rubbed his hands down the sides of his robe. He'd have to start over, for the third time.
It is a pity I wasn't able to pull my equipment from Neverwinter before the invasion. Ah, well… He sighed.
Footsteps came pounding down the hall and the library door slammed open and slammed shut. Someone dove past him under the workbench.
Sand had been traveling in bad company for so long that he was fairly sure he didn't have any nerves left to shatter. He stepped aside as his assailant rolled past his knees, and didn't spill a drop of the mixture.
Another day, another crisis…
There was a brief silence, broken by ragged breathing from under the table. Sand sniffed.
Human. Female. Leather and metal and destiny. Ah.
"The good captain, I see." He licked a fingertip and turned a page of the tome. "Are we under attack again already?" Flick. Another page. "What is it this time—bandits, shadow reavers, angry farmer's daughters?"
"You've got to hide me!" hissed the woman under the table.
"Do I, really?" Flick.
Clank. Clank. Clank.
Sensitive elven hearing picked up the approach of someone in plate mail.
"And suddenly much becomes clear…" Sand said under his breath. He wished his distillation would become clear. There was a cloudy precipitate forming that was troublesome.
"If you tell him I'm here, I'll make you room with Grobnar."
"Anything for my glorious leader, I'm sure." Flick. He shifted sideways a few inches so that his elaborate robes blocked the underside of the workbench from the door.
The door opened, and Sand's nose was overwhelmed with the scent of metal polish and angst.
"Sand." Casavir made a careful half-bow. "Have you seen the Knight-Captain?"
A hand closed over Sand's ankle and squeezed frantically.
The elf held his beaker up and tapped it. Azure shadows skittered across the bench, and the cloudiness roiled in the bottom. "I'm certain she's around somewhere."
While Sand knew that human hearing was far inferior to his, it still amazed him that the paladin couldn't hear the teeth grinding under the table.
Casavir fidgeted in the doorway, looking more morose than usual.
The precipitate was settling sluggishly at the bottom of the flask. Sand's foot was going to fall asleep if the Knight-Captain clutched his ankle any harder.
"She has an entire Keep to run," the elf said wearily, when the paladin showed no sign of moving on, and his potion showed no sign of turning orange. "I suspect the dear girl is probably striding the battlements or cleaning the oubliettes or whatever it is that knights do." He made a shooing gesture with his free hand.
The grip on his ankle relaxed. Sand smirked into his beaker.
"I see. Thank you," said Casavir gravely, turning away.
"Of course…" Sand purred, not lifting his eyes, "if it is urgent, I'm certain you could enlist the aid of our dear ranger to track her. He always seems to know right where she is."
A fist landed on his toes. He'd been expecting it.
I regret nothing.
"No—!" Casavir coughed. "Ah. No. Thank you. It is not urgent. Should you see her, please inform her that I would like to speak with her."
"Nothing would make my life more complete, I assure you."
Casavir eyed him thoughtfully for a moment. It had been weeks, and Sand was still never sure if the paladin understood sarcasm on anything more than an intellectual level.
On the other hand, he was always good for his turn doing the dishes, which you learned to appreciate if you were camping out for weeks on end.
"Thank you," said the paladin finally, and clanked off into the heart of the Keep.
The elf waited until the smell of steel and unrequited love had faded, and then prodded his glorious leader with the tip of his boot. "He's gone."
"Are you sure?"
"Avoiding our perfect gentle knight, are we?" Sand murmured, licking another fingertip and turning back a page. Was he using the right amount of ingredients? They said umber hulk toenails, but some of them had extremely large toenails. Perhaps he'd overdone it. Flick.
The Knight-Captain, hero of Neverwinter, bane of Shadow Reavers, Shard-Bearer, etc, etc, leaned out from under the workbench on her hands. She had cobwebs in her hair and a smear of dust over her cheekbone. "Sand, you have no idea what it's like."
"A fact which fills me with no end of pleasure, I assure you." Ten umber hulk toenails. Mystra's teeth, couldn't they ever just weigh something out in ounces?
"The man's an absolute—my god! All he wants to talk about is honor and duty and Old Owl Well. And he has the sense of humor of a—a—humorless thing!"
"Your vocabulary, as always, is a thing of wonder." No, the toenails had to be right. Was he using the proper amount of sage? They never said whether to use dried or fresh, and the water content could make an enormous difference.
"Do you know what our last conversation was about?"
"I suspect you're about to enlighten me." It had to be dried sage. It wouldn't make any sense to use fresh.
"He was talking about where he wanted to be buried! So that he could talk about honor with dead knights for all eternity!" She raked her hands through her hair until it stood up in short spikes. "That's just maudlin!"
"Indeed." Maybe if he substituted rosemary…
She pulled her knees up, leaning against the inside wall of the desk. "And the other day, he told me he wanted to protect me."
Sand snorted involuntarily.
"I have personally hauled that man's plate-mailed ass out from under a pile of dead orcs more times than I can count, and he wants to protect me?"
"Well," said the elf, giving it up as a bad job and starting the mixture over, "I'm certain that if you told him that you find him insufferable, he would go back to pining over you in silence."
The Knight-Captain slumped back against the desk and put her head in her hands. "I can't do it."
"Hmmm?" Clean beakers, clean flasks, clean piping…
"It'd be like kicking a big angsty puppy. I can't do it. I mean, I'm only human, it's been a long war, I could really use a distraction, and if he'd tell me a joke—one joke—even once—even a bad joke—I'd knock his feet out from—"
Sand held up a hand hastily. "Spare me the details, I beg of you."
"Even a laying on of hands joke."
He pinched the bridge of his nose and made a small, eloquent noise of pain, an elf of rapier wit surrounded by humans with sledgehammers.
"I know, I know," she said, "but anything. A pick up line, even! Women do occasionally want to know that men are attracted to something other than their moral integrity, damnit."
Sand murmured an old pick-up line, half to himself, in his native language, which had no meaningful Common equivalent.
"Nothing you need trouble yourself with, dear girl."
"I'm at my wit's end here, Sand! What do I dooooo?"
Ten standardized umber hulk toenails, and the Knight-Captain whining under the table. Had the Hosttower really been all that bad?
Sand set a flask down, setting glass clinking. "Since you are bound and determined to seek my superior wisdom in your—ahem—private affairs—which, might I add, are about as private as Khelgar's collection of dwarven pornography, and almost as gut-wrenching to the refined temperament—have you considered the ranger?"
"Indeed." Dried sage and rosemary mixture. "He watches you constantly, and your paladin bristles like a wet cat whenever he enters the room. I daresay that your moral integrity is not foremost on his mind."
"Yes, but his idea of foreplay is "Hand over your valuables and I won't kill the hostages." She pondered. "Plus, I can't shake the feeling that the only reason he wants to get me out of my armor is so that he's got a clearer shot at my back."
Sand's lip curled. He dropped the umber hulk toenails into his mortar and pestle and began grinding. "That's not the only reason, I suspect, but your analysis is likely correct. Well. There's always Grobnar."
"That's just sick, Sand."
"On the contrary, if you dressed up as a Wendersnaven, I'm certain—"
"I have a knife, you know."
"And I have a very large beaker of acid."
The elf dropped his components into a flask and poured in a measure of spring water. The room filled with a pleasant scent of herbs, and a slightly less pleasant scent of umber hulk feet.
The Knight-Captain rolled her head back on her shoulders and eyed him thoughtfully. "I don't suppose…"
"You didn't know what I was going to ask!"
He leaned over far enough to give her a level look from under slanted eyebrows. She shrugged, unembarrassed "Okay, fine, that was what I was going to ask."
"Dear girl, you're less than one-tenth my age." The mixture was turning blue again. Damnit.
"I like older men."
"I suggest you go speak to Ammon Jerro, then. I'm certain his sense of self-loathing would mesh wonderfully with yours."
She lifted a foot to kick him. "Beaker of acid…" he murmured. She let the foot drop.
"Aw, c'mon, Sand. We could run away together. You could be the brains, and I could be everything else."
"Flattering, I'm sure, but no."
"We could burn down Luskan. You'd like that, wouldn't you?"
The elf sighed. Blue, vividly blue, and no orange in sight. "My dear, you are a paragon of many virtues and almost as many vices, but even if I wished to pit myself in a contest of wits against your largely unarmed suitors—and I can think of nothing more tedious and wasteful of my talents—I am afraid you lack two key physical attributes that would even make me consider such a liason."
There was a long silence while the Knight-Captain parsed out this rejection. The mixture remained stubbornly blue. How old was this tome, anyway? He flipped back to the front, looking for a date on the frontispiece.
"Sand, was that a crack about my ears?"
The elf grinned briefly, almost to himself. "Possibly."
She crawled out from under the table and dusted herself off. "Seriously. It's that I don't have pointed ears?"
"Mm-hmmm." Flick. Flick. Flick.
The Knight-Captain rubbed a hand over her face. "Well, that's…oddly specific, I suppose."
"When you have a lifespan measured in millennia, you can afford to have very specific tastes." He found a page that looked promising and frowned down at it. "Please try to avoid throwing yourself from the battlements in despair. You're a lovely girl otherwise. I'm sure you could make some over-muscled paladin very happy." Flick. "Or at least marginally less suicidal." It was hard to make out the crabbed handwriting on the faded parchment, but the book looked to be at least three hundred years old.
The Knight-Captain shrugged philosophically. "Eh, can't blame me for trying."
"Indeed." Sand wiped his hands on a cloth and turned to the bookcases, running his fingers over the tooled spines. Three hundred years old, three hundred years old…aha!
"While entertaining, none of this actually helps me with tall, dark, and humorless, Sand." She leaned against one of the bookcases and folded her arms.
The elf flipped open the book, an illuminated bestiary, and turned to the index. E for elemental, unless this was one of those that used U for undine…
"Saaand! I'm desperate, here!"
He sighed, turning pages. "Very well. If it will release me from this interminable conversation, I will—gah—have a word with your paladin."
"You'd do that?" she asked hopefully. "One joke. It's all I ask."
W for water? That was just sloppy. Sand glanced up from his book and saw his leader looking desperately hopeful. He shook his head wearily. Some days he wondered why he'd even bothered leaving Luskan.
"You realize that you're asking something that may strain even my considerable talents?"
"It could be a why-did-the-displacer-beast-cross-the-road joke, Sand. You would not believe how low my standards have gotten."
"Words to set a man's heart aflutter, I'm sure." There it was, the illustration for water elementals. They were rust orange. Sand grinned, slamming the book shut.
I've been doing it right, the ink colors just faded after so many years. The bright blues never were very lightfast…"Very well."
The Knight-Captain flung her arms around him and hugged him fiercely. Sand hoisted his book hastily out of the way. He eyed the round ear against his cheek and bore it as stoically as a martyr undergoing torture.
"You're the best, Sand."
He waited until her footsteps had faded, and turned back to the row of bookcases.
A nice girl. He might have been able to get past the ears, but the notion of what Duncan would say…no that didn't bear thinking about. An elf had to have standards.
Teaching a paladin a joke. Hmm.
Perhaps I could just dominate his mind. Would anyone even notice?
He ran a hand through his hair, eyes following the stacks of books to the ceiling. There were hundreds. Maybe even thousands.
"I'm going to need a bigger library for this…"