Chapter Six: Managing
… so, Jarrek, you've likely bit your nails to the quick waiting for me to get somewhere with all this but as it turned out, this drow, Urlryn Mlezzir he's named, was guard for a trade caravan from Lesaonar's old city to Skullport. Seems they'd picked up some slaves and were going back when Selvetarm split with that other spider god or some such thing. The priest of Selvetarm on the caravan got wind, and he got most of the guards together. They killed all the followers of that other spider god on the caravan - thing is, their priest ended up killed too. Which left them in something of a bind, seeing as the transport was pretty much a wreck and they probably couldn't get back to their city. Not that they really wanted to go back.
Here, it seems the magic skulls'll stop other drow just up and killing them in the name of the other spider god, or in the name of the other gods they've got - I suppose they're good for something. But the skulls probably wouldn't stop the lot of them just up and disappearing, that is if they hadn't any of the right friends. Mlezzir said the same thing might happen to Lesaonar, tried to go all you-need-us-and-we-just-might-need-you. Lesaonar laughed at him.
So the drow argued round in circles, according to Urlryn, and then he went off into Skullport to have a drink, get in a fight, that sort of thing. Well, there, he heard things about another priest of Selvetarm running about of late - not sure why "of late" seeing as Lesaonar said he'd been here for years - and guess who that came out to be? So now Lesaonar's in charge of a bunch of other Selvetarm worshippers, not to mention the slaves.
I've just been to the rest of the Company, and we've set up a talk. Eshail is still game for trying to be an Ilmatari, and I can't say I fault her for it. Meanwhile, Gannisley wants to be a Tyrant - punish fell creatures, deal out justice and all that. I'd say he wants to be a Bloodbrother except for he wanted an ambush, and except for who he wanted to ambush.
Oh, and for the record, Lesaonar's real family name isn't Jhalavar. It's Pharn. Had to ask him how to spell that.
"What of the slaves?"
Eshail Helder's tone was convincingly casual, but from earlier observation of her views Lesaonar knew it for a lie. He considered his response. "We're feeding them. Watering them. There aren't any who need healing. We aren't throwing them into pits to fight to the death." Her eyes narrowed, and he regretted the specificity of his last comment. It must have sounded as though he were doing just that and mocking her with the denial.
"Sounds well enough," said Barakat, sitting beside her at the inn room's table. "Ilmater's mercy, there's no need to harp on it."
"You would say that." She smiled as she looked to him. Her voice, though acerbic, seemed to lighten as she continued. "Must be absolute luxury in Calimshan, food and water and not having to fight to the death."
Gannisley rolled his eyes upward, one of them darkened with bruising, and half-smiled - the first expression of anything resembling humor Lesaonar had seen on his face this meeting. Daron, seated on a bed, smiled as well. It was a different one than he'd seen on her with impending fights.
Barakat laughed as he adjusted the sleeve of his robe. "We simply understand that we can't hold barbarians to our high slave-keeping standards. Hence, well enough."
She laughed back, and Lesaonar considered the odd exchange. On further examination, it seemed little more than the warrior and the mage dancing around each other in well-practiced patterns, tapping so lightly with their verbal weapons that he would be hard put even to call it sparring. In Eryndlyn, there would have been stabs - verbal or otherwise - alongside such words.
Then there was the familiar but no less baffling matter of gods. He'd heard the other three in Daron's group call on close to a score of them besides Ilmater, and Daron was far more tolerant of it than any Eryndlyr priest would have been. He'd almost asked her about it earlier, but figured out in time that it was simply the usual way with humans. Their gods had their rivalries, to be sure, but he gathered that few were as offended by invocation or propitiation of others in pertinent situations.
Daron had explained that to him, again with far greater openness than he was accustomed to - he could've and had indeed discovered fairly neutral readings on such matters, particularly easy to find in Eryndlyn, but you wouldn't find them with clerics. She spoke about how they would appease the goddess of the surface sea when making voyages, or give thanks to the god of craftwork when they forged a fine sword.
Lesaonar was male, certainly, but he wouldn't have given token prayer to Vhaeraun even before he'd been called to Selvetarm's clergy - he supposed some kind of analogy could be drawn with the requisite prayer to the Spider Queen, but in the end he hadn't even done that.
"Are you listening?" Eshail's voice was acerbic still, but the lightness had departed. This was no tap from a wooden blade. Before he could reply, she went on, "At least listen to this." She slammed a bag on the table between them, pulling it open to display gems sparkling in the lamplight. "Look at this." He considered not looking, on general principle. "Barakat's been to the market-" On cue, Barakat produced a stack of papers. "-and he's got the going rates. We'll pay those. I doubt they'll be as much use to you here as they would've been in, ah-"
"Eryndlyn," said Daron, sorting through her own paper sheaf.
Eshail nodded, plucking out one of the gems and holding it up. "In Eryndlyn."
Lesaonar restrained a wince as the lamplight reflected off the gem into his eye. "And what use will you have for them?"
"That's our business. Going rates and a quarter."
"I suppose you'll…" He grasped for the right words. "… turn them loose. I hope you've thought of a better place than here for that. Someplace on the surface."
"Yes. On the surface." She twirled the gem. Lesaonar closed his eyes in time. "Going rates and half again." Barakat tugged at her sleeve, which she snatched away. Gannisley scowled. Lesaonar wondered how he'd come by his bruised eye, and if Daron was mixed up in it anywhere. Could be she'd instigated another brawl in his absence.
"I'll have to discuss that with the others," he said at last. The others. He had others now. "Once the price is totaled up you may want to rethink your offer, but until then… What of these other drow I've been told of? I assume they aren't Urlryn's lot."
"You assume right," said Barakat, putting away the papers. "You're from the area - you know of a temple just out of the city? The Dance, the Stroll, some such thing."
"The Promenade." He should have expected them. These humans didn't look the sort to entertain proposals from House Tanor'Thal or the slavers of the Dark Dagger. "The followers of Eilistraee."
"Yes, that's it." Barakat paused, then continued in a speculative tone, "Say, is it true that to please their goddess they dance on the temple roof with all their-" He let out a sort of strangled yip. "My foot - the bones-"
Eshail wore an oblivious expression as convincing as her earlier casual manner and probably as real. "Ilmater's mercy, go to Daron if they did break. As he was saying, they've been asking us to take on a job. They're asking for you."
Lesaonar didn't realize he'd stood, let alone that he'd moved backward, until his back fetched up against the closed door. He hefted his mace, holding it in position between him and the rest of the room - Barakat had retreated behind one of the beds with hands in casting position, Eshail was on her feet and reaching for her sword, Gannisley already had a dagger in hand, and Daron-
"That wasn't any way to put it. Everyone. Put away the sharp objects. And your hands, Barakat. And your mace, Lesaonar."
Gannisley swung round to face her, mouth hanging open. Lesaonar lowered the mace halfway, and he would have silently derided Gannisley if he didn't suspect that he had a similar expression. Eshail let her hand drop, while Barakat put his behind his back; that pair seemed far less taken aback.
"This isn't cause for a fight," said Daron, still sitting on the bed. "Not over something stupid like this. These… Eilistraee drow aren't asking for you as in your head on a pike, and we wouldn't do it for them if they did ask. Would we?"
"We wouldn't," said Eshail.
Barakat nodded fervently. "Certainly not."
"Well, if you think there's no reason…" Gannisley put away the dagger. "Then, I suppose there really isn't one -" He rubbed at his bruises. "Tymora, since when did there have to be a reason for you?"
"Since it would mean having it out with a shield companion over a thing like that. Lesaonar, I'm trying to take your part here-" He lowered the mace the rest of the way, then clipped it back to his belt. "This isn't avoiding battle, Gannisley." Lesaonar wondered if Gannisley was the only one she was trying to convince. "It's not having a stupid fight over absolutely nothing."
"You haven't been with the Company that long," Eshail told Gannisley. "You wouldn't know the… finer points of that. Well, there's one misunderstanding gone." To Lesaonar, "Sorry about the other one. They just want a meeting. Though, come to think of it, that doesn't rule out theirwanting your head after all, when it all shakes out. Isn't that right?" Lesaonar nodded. "But they didn't say they wanted your head, is the thing. What they say they want is a meeting. I gather it's a godly matter."
"Nadal?" Female by the sound of it.
"Hmm?" This one male.
"Do you think this is where the high priests got their blood? Down here?"
Paedriel's eyes had closed at some point, and he'd proceeded to go windwalking. He'd wafted his way up and out, wispy as a cloud. He wondered briefly what drow were doing in the clouds, but decided not to think too much on it. He could do interpretation after he had to wake up.
"Could be," said Nadal. Or was it a title? The Nadal, a Nadal? "Could be. Don't suppose either of us wants to imagine them slicing up thralls for it."
"Ought we give it a regenerative now? Doesn't look like it needs one. The Myrahel bitch didn't have that long with him."
"Doesn't need, doesn't get. Looks like the princess stayed her hand while she was in here - empathy pangs, mayhap?"
They both laughed. The drow woman said, "Might be they'll let her make up for that, do you think?"
Clouds, birds, breezes.
"Micarlin, give them some credit for creativity." The metal vanished from left wrist, right wrist. "There's got to be a better way to be rid of a faerie than calling on a priestess of Lolth."
"Right. Right." Right ankle, left ankle. Was he supposed to move now? Birds, breezes, clouds. "I suppose so far as the Vretenous we'd do better calling on the Truth of the Seeker." She audibly sucked in breath, exhaled still louder. "The Truth of the Seeker. Oh, Selvetarm."
Drifting down now, pretending to be an avariel. High Forest. High Moor. A whispered-of city of hope.
"Selvetarm," said Nadal. "Right. Selvetarm. If I were to bet on who'd stand by Lolth and go on with vivisecting the heretics, stakes commensurate to probability… well. It's a good job I didn't bet on it, is all I can say."
Tsabrak was on his feet. "Throw the faerie a blade. Let's see if he-"
Another of the spiderswords, without looking at him, said, "Don't be an idiot."
"I say we just sacrifice it," said a Grand Temple judicator. "Cut out the heart. That's what it was here for."
"How do we do that? The old spider-daggers and so on? We've sworn that off, haven't we?"
"We haven't sworn off spiders. The Truth of the Seeker can still do his." The Truth of the Seeker, notable in his absence. "So can Jhalavar." A gesture toward the young priestess in question who, report given, continued to stand in the doorway with her spellsinger comrade.
"A battle-death would be a better sacrifice, wouldn't it?" This speaker inclined his head toward Tsabrak, who recognized him as Master Chaszyrd Thenduk - not a priest, but a combat instructor who'd often given his spare time to the Grand Temple, embracing Selvetarm's battle frenzy and the Spider Queen's love of chance. He was often called Crazy Chaszyrd, both in and out of his earshot, and he appeared to relish the epithet.
When Tsabrak was in training at the Grand Temple, novices in service of both Lolth and Selvetarm had whispered that Master Chaszyrd was compiling a secret list of everyone who called him crazy to his face, in preparation for slaughtering them all in the future. Tsabrak himself had never addressed him as such - he was a fine one to toss such a descriptor about, and he was not entirely disbelieving of the whispers.
"Selvetarm smiles on a death in battle against overwhelming odds," said the same spidersword who'd called Tsabrak an idiot, "not a death in battle against a chit of a faerie priest waving a knife."
"What kind of proper warrior," Chaszyrd said, "could die to a chit of a faerie priest anyway?"
Someone else was on his feet, hands pressed on the octagonal marble table. He looked about Tsabrak's age, and was probably also one of the less-powerful Selvetargtlin in the room - Jhalavar and the spellsinger excepted. "We have spells. Couldn't we ask?" One of the senior priests quickly swung on him, and he made a visible effort not to duck.
"There's been no response for more… critical matters," Adinirahc cut in, lifting a hand. "It's doubtful he would pay much mind to this one. You wouldn't know that, I take it." The younger Selvetargtlin hurriedly retook his seat.
The priestesses of Lolth had used this room for private conference, and those who'd known of it apparently thought it a suitable place for similar goings-on once the specific wards were undone and someone used his mace on the ubiquitous statue of the Spider Queen . Now the room contained most of the upper echelons of the Selvetargtlin, judged as such by the strength of their spells, their rank in the clergy, or - failing that - their raw martial prowess. Tsabrak was relatively low on the scale, but at least he was on it and inside.
Selvetarm, please let me not make a crock of this one as well.
At least he was discreetly out of that particular muddle, in a way Vuzlyn certainly hadn't expected. Tsabrak wondered, idly, where he'd gotten to. For that matter, where had Filfaeregot to? Knowing her, he guessed she would have run back to the Grand Temple, but that was of course was out.
Tsabrak realized he was still standing, and took his seat as well.
He was out of that. Unless - and he gripped the edge of the table - they asked him to retake command out there.
They wouldn't, would they? House Chelanghym had been designed for defensibility, and was still usable to that end even if it had been turned into a deathtrap in the Silence. And who'd know its tricks better? No - they wouldn't do that. If he hadn't had the forethought to take quiet Brornal with him to the barracks, he could never have brought them the House. He knew that from the way the people in the barracks stared at him. He wasn't blind - it was just that he hadn't looked close enough at them, nor at himself. Not before this.
Adinirahc and even Crazy Chaszyrd knew him better than Filfaere, surely too well to think he could do that. Surely…
"Interesting," said Adinirahc. "That does bear consideration, Chaszyrd. There is the matter of proper equipment. And then there's the question of who will have the privilege. Have you further suggestion as to that?"
He'd made his arguments on Daron's level. "You know warriors have to do some things on their own," he told her. "Shield companionship has nothing to do with it," he told her. What he didn't tell her was, "I can't be as though I can't go anywhere without a human propping me up."
The Selvetargtlin had taken three rooms in a cheap inn. The largest was for the slaves, and Lesaonar stopped there to toss them a sack of pastries purchased at Eshail's expense. Once she'd counted out the coin for it, she'd given him a look that would have had him quailing if she'd been drow. But she wasn't drow, and in lieu of that she'd gone so far as to ask Daron to use a spell of lie detection on him when he returned.
"You want to spend a spell to find out whether or not I gave them some tarts?" he'd asked. "If you're so worried why don't you just give it to them yourself, when you've got them?" Daron had much the same reaction, while Barakat snickered. She conceded the point.
"Compliments of Eshail Helder," he told the slaves now. "Remember it. There may be a test."
The next two rooms were for the use of the eleven Selvetargtlin, but they gathered in one for the discussion, shoved bedrolls and lockboxes to the wall, and sat atop the heaps packed together nearly as much as the slaves. There proved to be little dispute over the first proposal, and someone went to dig up the bills of sale. That done, he proceeded to the second piece of news.
He paused when the expected muttering started. "Didn't you say we needed allies?"
"They aren't allies," said Urlryn. At some point, it had been silently decided that he would speak for them as he had first spoken to Lesaonar in the Skullport tavern. He seemed to be the strongest of the group aside from Lesaonar, but not particularly used to the idea of being such - those he was used to having above him had probably died in the revolt.
"Would you call the Vhaeraunites potential allies?"
"The Vhaeraunites haven't asked for a meeting, have they?"
"Perhaps they're giving us more credit for intelligence. It's a child's ploy. Get the leader in a room and-" He sliced a hand across his throat. "Who'd fall for that?"
"Not me," said Lesaonar. "I'm not going to stroll in dumb as an orc and get my head chopped by one of their jumping swords, if that's what you're thinking."
"No, you're just going to stroll in dumb as a human. You've certainly more regard for them than for your own." Lesaonar heard more than one intake of breath.
He decided in favor of flat fact. "My own died in the Undermountain."
Urlryn blinked, then groaned. "And now you're looking to join them."
"Nobody said you had to come along. They said nothing about the rest of you."
"It's not about that," said Urlryn. "I've not gone through all this trouble and actually lowered myself to that human's level just for you to get killed in a stupid thing like this."
"I speak of one meeting and you're already figuring out how to best cremate me."
"No. Cremation is uncalled for. If there's a body, we'll sell it to a zombie maker."
"It could be a child's ploy, yes. They could mean to kill me. Most everyone in Skullport could mean to. We're not exactly strangers to alliance, if you recall."
"You were thrown out of Eryndlyn because you wouldn't hold with alliance. If you recall." And we were right in it, Lesaonar thought, not nearly as smugly as he might have imagined himself doing. We were ahead of our time. "What, now you think we should sell ourselves to the Eilistraeens in replacement?"
"It's different now," said Lesaonar. "They can't very well throw us out of Skullport. Selling ourselves? If that's how you'd like to put it, why shouldn't we sell ourselves dearly? Take bids?"
"Take bids from our enemies?"
"From the Spider Queen's enemy. What objections to them are ours? What objections are Selvetarm's?"
"You're the priest," said Urlryn, somewhat milder now. "You tell us."
He nodded. "I'll ask for a divination next cycle-"
"Not a divination. Too unreliable. They could have gotten together and fed it whatever tale they liked. I've seen it," Urlryn added. "She didn't listen to the scouts when she had her Lolth-given spell to tell her different, and she got thrown into a pit full of slimes with her tongue cut out and her hands chopped off."
Lesaonar doubted he'd find a pit full of slimes at the Promenade, but he understood the rest well enough. He knew Daron had brushed off such objections when the rest of her group half-brought up her method of finding Lesaonar, but she was right in that nobody could imagine who might think it worth the trouble to orchestrate such an apparent result. The Eilistraeens, meanwhile, just might think Lesaonar worth the trouble - especially given recent shifts. "No divinations, then. Have you an alternative?"
Urlryn walked to one of the walls, shooing away the occupants as he moved, and picked up one of the boxes. "Baragh said she kept a scroll of communion in here somewhere," he said, carrying it back. "In case of urgent questions of doctrine."
Baragh, he knew, was the priest of Selvetarm before him - the dead priest that, for them, necessitated his presence. "And you'll trust me to tell you the truth about the answers?"
"I trust you to pay attention to the answers."
"Probably. Have you got a dispeller ready?"
He nodded and took the box from Urlryn. Examination turned up a glyph traced onto the lid, easily taken care of. There turned out be a number of loose scrolls inside, not to mention pots of incense, an athame, and other items that could be used to toss together a ritual to the Spider Queen. Lesaonar wondered how many of those items he could appropriate - he'd no particular objection to spider motifs.
The pertinent scroll was in its own small pouch on the inside of the lid, carefully labeled in High Drow. He unrolled it and began to scrutinize the runes. "I don't suppose you know if this will end up connecting me to Lolth instead? Considering the previous owner?"
"You're the priest."
"This particular question never really came up." The runes weren't so much help with answering it, either. He couldn't cast such a powerful spell normally, and he could tell activating this one wouldn't be a matter of rattling it off and watching the runes dissolve, but if he kept focused he should have a reasonable chance at it.
Lesaonar waved a hand, beckoning everyone back, then seated himself and pressed that hand to his holy symbol while the other held the scroll open. He began slowly, holding the syllables on his tongue and testing the weight of them before release. As he progressed, he dared read them somewhat faster; they seemed to link together now, each one spoken pulling forth another to take its place.
Several times he forced himself to slow and intone the next few with especial care. He had to remember that he'd no reason to proceed with such audacity as he was tempted to. Do that and he'd tangle up his syllables; do that and he might well end up a smear on the floor - or, less dramatically, physically intact but with the contents of the scroll wasted…
AUTHOR'S NOTES: In case you were wondering, I eventually meant for it to have some kind of happy ending.
Well, in any case, I had fun writing this for a while, and I hope it brought some of you similar enjoyment.