A/N: Thanks to those who reviewed, and for being patient waiting for this chapter. As always, enjoy!
It was just dusk when she came riding up the path back from Neverwinter, the sunset gleaming ruddily on the reconstructed walls of Crossroad Keep. Izzy had to rein in on that last pass above the valley, her new cloak of Knighthood heavy on her shoulders. Conri, her wolf companion by the barest of technicalities – given how often he went off into the woods without her for days on end – padded a few steps forward. When he realized she wasn't following, he looked back at her; through their bond, she got the sense of a question, more a mental smell than a tangible thought, though even that was a poor description for how he communicated with her. After being bonded with him these past few years, she was used to figuring out words from the mess of senses and impressions he pressed on her: in this case, it was like she was smelling the pack all around and a deer a mile off, and was waiting for the cue to begin the hunt.
In response, she shook her head and gestured. The wolf bounded away, vanishing back into the forest, where he spent most of his time. At least he approved of one part of this new life…
But while she dearly wanted to run off after him and never look back she needed time alone with her thoughts, without even her bonded companion intruding.
It had been a long tenday; indeed, it was hard to believe that only a few mornings ago they had returned from Ammon Jerro's Haven, Ammon Jerro himself imprisoned within their grim ranks…and one of their number gone forever.
Shandra. The new-minted Knight-Captain set her teeth against the thought, refusing to think about the woman except in the barest of terms. It hurt too much, and she did not dare question why. Not yet. There would come a time when she would have to face it, but not now; she shoved it towards the back of her mind, and forced herself to move on.
And no sooner than I got back than I was on the road again, "with all possible speed." Nevalle's orders still rankled even after several days and the whole Knighting ceremony fiasco. At least on her way back home this time, she got to set her own pace… even if she did push the courier mounts to return to her lands "with all possible speed".
Her lands. She had thought, at the onset, that she would buck against a set territory forever. She had thought that she would be forever prowling the borders, longing to go farther, if only because she could. But instead, she had grown accustomed to this territory; she had gotten used to calling it hers, and found it no hardship to prowl within her borders until she knew every hill and dip.
There are certainly enough of those…she thought, fondly viewing the mountains that surrounded the Keep on all sides. And, as she nudged her horse's sides and continued on the last leg of her journey, she watched the trees of Conri's – and her – beloved forests give way to hills and farmland. Even she recognized that there too many fields still lying fallow. It seemed only fitting that the shadows of dusk lay thick over the valley; perhaps the lands were fertile, as Orlen and Elanee had said, and perhaps the farms would flourish in time… but not if there was no one here to till the fields in the first place.
The hooves of the light courser clopped over Veedle's pride and joy, the bridges that spanned the river. The water swirling beneath the bridge was dark as pitch, and she couldn't help but wonder if the trout were still biting – and if Wolf and his gang had brought some up to the Keep for supper.
She absently gave her horse its head as they passed the small inn set on the far bank of the river. She shifted her weight forward for the long, steep switchback climb up to the ledge that held the Keep and the lands that immediately supported it. She looked up as the horse made the first turn, seeing the walls looming above her, and felt a shiver in spite of the fact that she commanded those walls. At least her first order had been clear: repair the walls at all costs. And then, once they would physically hold, she let Veedle have fun designing arrow-slits. She knew that any invading army would have to pay dearly for every inch of ground they gained.
But for her, as well as for any ally of the Keep, the unbreachable gates would swing open, and welcome her home. She could almost see the courtyard through the wall, could picture the rows of buildings, all with their neat thatched roofs…and the perpetual scaffolding cluttering the main thoroughfare. It always seemed like there was some kind of repairs or outright construction going on in the middle of everything. Of course, given what the Keep had looked like before Veedle's workers started swarming all over it…
Repaired, the keep was a true bastion; she could believe that it would be the last defense before an army reached the city of Neverwinter. She knew – knew as Zhjaeve insisted that one must know something deep in their soul, without even the thought of a doubt – knew that the Keep would hold against a normal army.
It was the unearthly army and the unearthly war that worried her…
And while the Keep was not completely a pile of rubble anymore, that only meant that now she really had the hard decisions in front of her: without meaning to, as the horse scrambled up the steepest and last incline, the thoughts rose into the forefront of her mind. In vain, she focused her attention on her horse and its footing, the narrow path treacherous even for the Longsaddle-bred.
But even as she shifted her weight forward again, she wondered if Veedle wasn't right and they shouldn't just cobble all the roads in the valley; he'd been nagging her to do so almost since the day he'd started working for her. But where will the coin for that come from? Kana would have her tax the merchants, but if she taxed the merchants, they would take another route and bypass this pass altogether. The merchants were the life's blood of the Keep; they could not afford to alienate them. She could tax the peasants instead, but there were so few on the lands already she did not have the heart to make life yet harder for them. We need the peasants, we need the merchants…and we need the roads, but if we cobble the roads, the workers won't be working on the Keep itself, and we need the Keep…
But at least she was in the good books of one undemanding merchant; Deekin had been so happy to have a roof for his shop…if only she could please all the others so easily!
She breathed out a sigh just as the horse crested the last turn with a snort; issues of merchants and roads aside, she still had problems with the Graycloaks. The land needed to be patrolled, but so did the roads, and she had to protect the few peasants and towns on her lands, and there were various requests for assistance piling up, but she could hardly take men away from the patrols… And we need to find more recruits, and we're going to need more sergeants for those new squads, and they all need to be trained for war, and, and…!
As they began to pass the Keep's immediate farmlands, she shoved the thoughts out of her mind; she had known that things would take a turn for the worst – so far as her need to command was concerned – sooner rather than later, and she knew she was fortunate they had not been too bad before. But now that the Keep was repaired, there was little to draw her attention from the much greater problems that now clashed in her mind.
But there was nothing she could do about them now; the morning would be soon enough to worry. Right now, she just wanted rest.
"Almost home," she murmured to the horse, laying a hand on its neck. The horse understood the idea of "rest, soon" if nothing else, and picked up its hooves.
Even as she watched, a single gate cracked open, two Graycloaks with torches passing through to relieve the two on duty outside. Before the evening watch took up their places on either side of the gate, they reached up and lit the larger torches set on either side of the gate. Warm yellow light illuminated a surprising length of the road, and anyone – foe or friend – who might be approaching.
Friend of the Keep…She was its master, of course, and not just an ally, but that did not fundamentally change what she dearly wanted from it. She would enter through the gates and get her horse settled into the stables, and then she could sit and eat: she could hardly remember the last time she ate more than a strip of jerky and stale water. Food, aye, and there would be clean, dry clothes, and warmth, and a bed… And all her concerns could just sit out in the cold night until she was ready to face them in the morning.
A farmer with an ox-cart loomed out of the darkness ahead of her, seeming to come from nowhere. It took her a moment to remember that there was indeed always work to be done in the fields, even in these last few months of the year. As she passed them on her swifter horse, they looked up, and stopped their beasts. She could feel them watching her as she passed, but could not for the life of her think of what was so interesting about her: she had passed them countless times before and they never bothered to acknowledge her…
Her first inkling of just what they were staring at occurred at the first gate, the huge main entrance into the Keep. The guards posted on either side came to swift attention as she approached: heads up, shoulders back, torches lifted aloft to grant her more light. They saluted her with a smart rap of the butt of their spears as she passed between them and into the half-tunnel through the wall. What on earth are they…? They're treating me like a…! They'd saluted her when she'd been Captain, true, but it had always been a casual thing, an acknowledgement as she passed them. This…this was the full formal salute: before, she had only seen this in Kana's drills. They're treating me like a lord… Uh-oh…news travels fast…
Izzy shook her head, turning her thoughts to the next few moments: A turn and up that steep ramp between the walls and to the inner gates, and then she would be truly home, and could finally get off this horse. She was dully grateful that the sentries standing at attention on the outer wall did not turn to acknowledge her – their duty was to watch for an attack, not to honor the returning Lord of the Keep, and so it was well. But the guards at the inner gate saluted her as the first had done as she passed through, and she forced herself not to stare; Kana had undoubtedly told them to do so, and there didn't seem to be much of a point in gainsaying her second over something that was so trivial.
She wasn't comfortable being saluted, true, but she'd ignore it until a more opportune moment, mainly by focusing on what she wanted: off this horse, a hot bath, sleep for at least twelve hours, a whole haunch of venison to sate her hunger, a goblet of mulled ale…
Caught up in her dreamy vision of the comforts of a settled life, she was surprised when the horse snorted and abruptly halted in the middle of the courtyard, right in front of the ramp leading up to the smaller Upper Courtyard and the keep. She shook her head to clear her daydream, blinking away the wonderful thoughts, trying figure out what had startled the equine – the entire courtyard seemed to be mostly deserted, as it usually was during the night: miners and workers kept Lathander's hours, after all…Perhaps it had been nothing more than an odd shadow, or…?
"Izzy's back!" Neeshka chirped from somewhere beyond her. As the tiefling bounded down from somewhere in the above courtyard – or possibly from the rooftops, but Izzy prayed dearly it was the former – the horse put its ears back and snorted. Oh. So that's it…
"Easy!" Izzy muttered, with little hope the horse would listen. Not even Neeshka's usual mount really liked her, and so Izzy could hardly expect the courier's horse to do any better. Near as she could tell, it was less because of Neeshka's fiendish heritage and more because she was Neeshka, and was further unfortunately inclined to large gestures.
There was little point in fighting the inevitable; the horse was going to start, and given how she felt at the moment, she'd rather be on the ground when it happened. She kicked her feet out of the stirrups and dismounted, automatically grabbing her saddlebags and slinging them over one shoulder. One of Wolf's kids ran up from out of nowhere – it was uncanny, how they could do that – and grabbed the bridle of the exhausted gelding. A single head-toss was all the complaint the horse gave at the sudden change, and then the kid was trotting off towards the stables with the horse placidly following behind.
Wait…I wanted to do that… She actually liked taking care of the horses, when she could…but she was cornered by her companions and the kid was already gone, so there was no use running after him. She shrugged to herself: what was done was done, and she couldn't change it. She could barely deal with what she could change.
By that time, Neeshka was upon her, and she found herself subject to more attention than she would have liked.
For whatever odd reason, Neeshka had it in her head to give her a hug, whether or not she wanted one. She never knew what to do during hugs, but Neeshka hardly seemed to care that she stood rigid and tense during the whole affair.
When she pulled back at last, Neeshka snapped her fingers. "Here, Wolf," she said, and passed off Izzy's saddlebags to the stocky boy – Where did he…? …So that's why she hugged me… – "how about you take these into the Keep?"
"You got it," Wolf said. "Er…" he looked shiftily left and right, then shifted his armload to lick his thumb, tug twice on his right ear, then flick a finger across the tip of his nose.
Neeshka rolled her eyes and shrugged. "Go ahead and look if you want, but I already checked, and trust me, she doesn't have anything on her."
Izzy bit back a groan, but she had little opportunity to protest; by that time, the rest of her mismatched company had all heard the news, and had all finally made their way over to wish her welcome from various directions, effectively walling her in bodies.
She tried to shove her nagging sense of claustrophobia aside as Khelgar went so far as to pat her on the shoulder; the most she managed was to work her sense of impending doom down to a minor itch of irritation at the back of her mind. "Welcome back, lass," Khelgar gruffly muttered, and then Elanee took his place with quiet ease, and then Grobnar was on her other side, beaming and rambling through a variation on Khelgar's short greeting.
And everyone seemed to know she'd had a hard couple of days…but not enough to give her space.
One voice finally cut across the babble of welcoming, snapping her attention beyond the circle. "Welcome home to your humble Keep, oh Knight-Captain," Bishop drawled from where he'd been leaning, unnoticed up to now, against the wall.
"How in the Nine Hells do you already know?" Izzy couldn't help but snap as she automatically turned her steps towards the Phoenix Tail Inn, shouldering her way through her companions on the off-chance some of them would wander off. No such luck… Of course. They followed in her wake like a billowing cloak, and their very presence began to rub at her.
Bishop snorted, giving her a quick once-over, then began to tick off features on his fingers. "Cloak of Knighthood; tunic of Neverwinter Blue and the Eye; shiny spurs of Knighthood on your heels; and unless my eyes mistake me – and they never do – you've got a Sword of the Knighthood there at your side."
…Oh, gods… She stopped dead in her tracks, feeling the embarrassment start at her toes and flush its way up her spine; she rocked back on her heels and pressed her eyes closed briefly. How in the Nine Hells had she forgotten about the sword, much less the cloak or the spurs?
Bishop, hunter that he was, scented the wound and closed in for the kill. "Thought you'd have been quicker on the draw, ranger," he sneered, "or does knighthood blind you as well as bind you?"
"Leave her be, Bishop," Casavir cut him off as the paladin strode up from commanding the night watches – or so she assumed, as he was still in his armor, sword at his side. "We all have heard what happened at Castle Never. She is tired and it is little wonder she is not up to her usual standards."
"'Not up to her usual standards'," Bishop mimicked Casavir mockingly, "You gonna say that again when she gets us ambushed one dark night?"
Welcome home to Crossroad Keep… Maybe I won't tell him quite yet that I managed to end up as one of the Nine to boot…once I figure out how I managed to do it, then we'll talk. Izzy wearily thought as she held up her hands for attention. "Look, you're both right: Yes, I'm tired, and yes, I should have been paying better attention. Satisfied?"
No, their combined gazes chorused. But they seemed to agree to reschedule the fight for a more opportune time, like when she would actually attend to their words, and didn't pursue the matter further. At least she'd have an…interesting lecture to look forward to later. As she started for the Inn again, she vaguely remembered a time when she didn't have two men sniping at each other through her – life had been a lot quieter back then. And a lot more boring too, admit it.
"To attack Castle Never..." Khelgar rumbled from his just behind her, cracking his knuckles as he was wont to do when he was troubled – or thinking or getting ready to fight or bored or…her tired and thus rambling mind prompted– "they're getting bold, they are."
Izzy nodded, raising one hand to rub at the back of her neck. "Yeah…" she agreed softly. She shook her head, dislodging the cobwebs that some industrious mental spider was now insisting on weaving between and among her thoughts, and shifted her hand from her neck to her temples, never pausing in her steps. By now, she could almost find her way blindfolded through the Keep. She had no worries about getting to the Inn. "Worries me," she added in an undertone. Though what doesn't, by now? the snide part of her that still resented being drafted into this mess piped up. She stuffed it into the back of her mind, letting it keep the spider and her Knightly duties company. "Makes me wonder why…"
Wait a minute… In the vacuum left by her cleared thoughts, she realized that she was still heading for the Inn…even though her quarters were actually within the Keep. Oh, gods…She sheepishly did an about-face, trying not to look at her companions as she cut through them; she really didn't need what they thought of her continual lack of common sense.
Izzy took a step forward, looked up, and found herself nose-to-nose with Ammon Jerro, who was regarding her with his usual faint sneer.
"Because they've gotten strong enough to do so," her bluntly informed her in his gravelly voice, folding his arms over his chest. "It won't be long before there is open warfare and not just these small strikes. And what efforts are being made in the war?" he snapped the question, not bothering to disguise his annoyance – though that word was too light to convey his need to know, and his assumption that she would roll over and tell him all he wished – "Will Nasher commit his forces? And what of Waterdeep and the Lords' Alliance?"
She fixed him with a long, tired stare, feeling every moment of her years weighing down on her shoulders – how could twenty-two years be so heavy? – until she felt as old as Daeghun or Sand…or both together. He's blocking my way…When all she wanted to do was lie down, he wanted to hear more reports than Kana could ever issue. He demands that I answer to him, as if he was still in charge of this war…
As if he hadn't murdered Shandra. Just a hint of bloodthirsty eagerness entered her thoughts, and quickly swelled to dominance. Murderer…the word and the image of what he had done brought the wild in her to her surface, though deep with the need for justice…and when justice failed, she would take cold, bloody revenge instead. Someone can distract Casavir while those who feel the need to rip him apart do so…
Not tonight, though; she let the thought go with some regret, let it sink away for a more opportune moment…And the exhaustion now inherent in her bones rose up in a wave and numbed the pain of the bleeding wound, submerged the anger that had flared up within her; raw fury took too much energy, energy she flat-out didn't have at the moment. So long as she didn't keep talking to him, didn't keep reminding herself just what he had done and what she wanted to do to him, she could live with him.
She ignored Jerro's demanding questions, then, and focused on ones of her own that just might have answers – and nudged the irritation further into the back of her mind by turning her back on him to ask her companions, "Knighthood is one thing – how did you lot learn of the attack?"
Sand stepped forward with a small smile. "I believe I should take credit for that dubious honor; I – shall we say – kept an eye on your progress to the city."
Most, if not all, of her surprise must have shown on her face, for Neeshka snorted. "'Report to Castle Never at once'," she said in a fair mimicry of Sir Nevalle's voice. "'This Keep will have a new Knight Captain before twilight' – yeah, that doesn't sound suspicious at all."
A group of miners exited the Inn and flowed around the group like a river around a boulder; their rowdy banter was more than enough to cause a break in their own conversation, even as everyone seemed to find it necessary to shift closer to Izzy… She tried not to scream in frustration. She felt a headache born mostly of exhaustion and exasperation tapping at her temples. Not now, she told it, on the off-chance it would actually listen and back off. No such luck; sometimes – actually, fairly often these days – she understood at least one reason why Daeghun didn't like dealing with people.
Still, out of sheer curiosity, she had to ask, "And if something did happen, what would you have done? Neverwinter's a three day ride from here!"
"Do you really have that little faith in me, oh glorious leader?" Sand asked in the ironic tones that Izzy always associated with high nobility and court life – not that she'd ever actually been in court life before yesterday, but even she had heard stories, and she'd spent literally half her life out in the wilds. Gods…the memory of the brief glimpse she'd had into the Neverwinter Court was enough to start a tic throbbing in her forehead at the very best of times. Wisely, she focused on Sand; she didn't want to add fuel to the fire kindling in her. She didn't exactly need to: fuel was adding itself quite nicely on its own. "You weren't even out of the gates before they had me researching and preparing a spell of teleportation."
"Wait…" She managed to shift over, pace a couple of steps, just enough to have her hackles settling. Thinking clearer now, she went back to something Sand had said earlier, something she still didn't understand…but also at least partly because she sensed Ammon glaring at her, incensed at being ignored – how wise it was to needle a warlock with a legion of lesser devils and demons at his beck and call was questionable, but she was still annoyed enough to want to. "I thought there were wards up around Neverwinter that made it impossible to scry in…"
Sand, being Sand, had an answer ready…And Sand, being Sand, felt the need to pace and prowl like a feline as he lectured. Unfortunately, with her luck, that meant he almost stepped on her toes several times. "It is…tricky to scry into Neverwinter," he admitted, "and harder still into Castle Never, but that wasn't the problem." Of course it wouldn't be…This was Sand; if he could find a legal precedent in the metaphorical haystack, he could figure out how to slip under the wards and scry into the castle. "The Shadow Reaver that showed up," Sand continued dryly, "that threw a kink into everything. The magical energies…" he glanced at her, must have seen her eyes glazing over in preparation for the arcane lecture that was sure to follow, and almost visibly edited his words, "…were enough to overwhelm my scrying."
That still made no sense. "So…the presence of the Shadow Reaver canceled out your spell?" she hazard. "How can they do that?"
Sand pinched the bridge of his nose. "No, it overwhelmed it. It is like…" he hunted for an analogy she would understand, "When a flare or a spell of Darkness engulfs you on the battle – if you are not expecting it or have trained to work your way around its effects, you are completely blind and helpless."
"But…" she frowned in thought. "Couldn't you still – "
"Do you wish to spend three days discussing it?" Sand asked silkily, whirling to face her. "While I would be more than happy to further your knowledge of the arcane, I somehow doubt you'd appreciate it as much as I would."
Wisely, she dropped the subject. He was probably right, and talk of magic always gave her a headache – she dreaded to think what continued talk would do to the one she already had. "So, you could scry up to the Shadow Reaver's appearance – " she was not going to think about how or why, but would take his answer on faith, " – But after…?"
"Some of us," Sand shot a look towards Casavir, "were all for charging into the situation blind. But as we didn't know what had happened, only that we could no longer see you, wiser heads prevailed," there was a touch of smug pride in his voice, just in case anyone was in doubt just who the 'wiser heads' were, "and we eventually agreed to wait for any news that could be had. Some of us were not happy with this turn of events and made their displeasure loudly known."
"If she had been in danger – as she was – " the paladin began hotly, taking a step forward, hand to his sword hilt almost in spite of himself.
" – We would have just joined her in dying, stumbling in unprepared, not knowing what she was facing," Sand shot back. "And if she hadn't been, hm? Would she have appreciated our blundering into a peaceable situation to defend her? Nevalle certainly wouldn't have…"
And now the headache was fully formed and throbbing merrily away. She squeezed her eyes shut, wondered if she could slip away while they were arguing, and almost tried it before she decided against it; with the way her luck had been running, they'd notice or, at the very least, corner her later. And if not them, then worse, Kana. Better now than later…Later, she might not be consciously struggling to hold back the undertow of annoyance.
She cut them off with a gesture and a physical step away from the brewing conflict. And perhaps she could start slinking towards the Keep proper, and they'd get the idea and let her go, so she could deal with the lot of them in the morning. "I really don't need to hear the argument: I get the idea," she informed them with tired annoyance. Gods…Her head hurt, she was more exhausted than she had ever been in her life, she was trying to adjust to her new rank and thus the new responsibilities laid upon her via the direction the Keep had turned in, say nothing of the whole Jerro issue they were all still coping with; she didn't need this now.
Fortunately, her companions heard her increasing irritation and backed off from the subject. She had just a moment to be grateful and to take a few more steps towards the Keep before Ammon Jerro jumped into the breach. In the sudden silence, he took control of the conversation and pressed his points; given the tone of his voice, his aggravation matched or bested hers. Probably bested: he had a lot more experience with nursing grudges and slights than she did. "If you are quite done wasting time with this inane discussion…"
Her anger, never very far from the surface of her mind, surged again, annoyance rearing up through the exhaustion to seize control of her mind again. Something snapped within her – she couldn't tell if it broke, or if two things clicked back into place. Either way, everything seemed so simple and clear now, so easy: she'd had enough of his massive arrogance, enough of his tone, enough of his very presence before her.
Murderer…It hadn't been all that long since he'd killed Shandra. Just two nights…Two nights to brood on that death. Except it hadn't been two nights, really – she had been awake that whole time; exhaustion was not conductive to rational thought. Her heart kept insisting that she should have been able to prevent Shandra's death…or failing that, demanding retribution from her murderer, in one form or another.
She turned eyes that were bleak with anger on him. One step, then two, and then she was standing before him, her emotions writ large on her face: fury, grief, disgust…and resignation. The bitter brew twisted her mouth, tightened her shoulders, made her move like a stalking wolf. Behind her, she heard a mutters of general approval from the pack – the issue of Ammon Jerro was the only thing they all somewhat-agreed upon, and even then their opinions on how to deal with him spanned the entire spectrum. She could swear she heard Neeshka taking odds on how it would end, but forced herself to ignore them.
This was between her and Jerro.
"Listen to me," she hissed as she stopped before him, meeting his eyes squarely. "You are here because you have to be – no more. You have no right to give me advice – or orders!" One wolf leads…And that had damn well better be me.
"You need my help," Ammon bluntly returned, eyes brighter than usual with anger. No, not a good idea to annoy a warlock…she was surprised how cheerful the thought was, how blissfully uncaring. Exhaustion really did trump rational thought; it both intensified her anger, and let disjointed thoughts slid into the background. "Like it or not," Ammon continued, "we have a common enemy to fight, one that I have been fighting for longer than you have been alive."
"And I've been doing it quite well on my own," she snarled. "Even when I had to fight you right along with the gith and the King of Shadows!"
If anything, his condescending intensified. "You naïve little fool," he began slowly, "If you had the sense to stay out of matters beyond you, you never would have had to fight me." And none of this would have happened.
"So this is my fault?" she sputtered, struck by the injustice of his statement – she hadn't been the one who murdered Shandra in cold blood, after all.
"It wasn't your fight!" he barked.
"Just as West Harbor wasn't our fight?" she demanded; if Shandra's murder was a bleeding wound, the gith attack on West Harbor and Amie's subsequent death – say nothing of her mother's death during the first attack! – was a scabbed one. It was painful when she thought of it, yes, but it was not quite so new; she was used to carrying it, by now. Against all odds, when the hells and shadows simultaneously invaded West Harbor, they had fought, though no one had known why.
She expected him to growl something back at her, expected more anger from those hellish eyes; he had been angry and surly on the forced march back to the Keep, and little else. Never showed an ounce of remorse…Why should this be any different? She was surprised, then, to see him pause, a flicker of something indefinable in his eyes; he did not fidget, did not even unfold his arms from his chest or take his eyes from hers…but he seemed to recoil, now more thoughtful than angry. She blinked, drawing back in affront and just a bit of confusion. He backed off?... Just from reminding him of West Harbor…? She couldn't help but make a mental note of the topic; she would use any weapon to hand to hurt him.
"I won't argue more with you tonight," he finally said, softer now, shoulders slumping as the defiance left him…or at least subsided to a more manageable amount. "You're hardly rational…less than usual, anyways."
Still more than a little startled at the sudden turn, Izzy staring at him, trying to judge his mood. As usual, it was an effort in futility – all she could tell was that he was tabling the debate for now. A cutting truce…but a truce. I can live with that. Until I'm better rested. She expelled a long breath, taking a step back from him, and felt her anger slid back from the forefront of her mind; the whole process felt like waves crashing up onto a beach, only to slide back into the sea and leave her as she was before – at least until something else tripped her currently short temper. She wished her limbs didn't feel like lead, wished the anger hadn't taken so much out of her until she felt like…well, like she'd been three days and through several battles without sleep, with only adrenaline to keep her on her feet and more or less sane.
She could wish all she wanted; wishing wasn't going to help her. Izzy nodded her acceptance of Ammon's offered respite, and brushed passed him at last, continuing on her way. She longed for her own bed in the Keep, and figured she might as well start walking there now. But…there was something else, wasn't there? Nasher's orders…She grimaced, and turned to address her crew one last time. They had already started to drift away to their own pursuits, the entertainment of the evening over. But they turned back quick enough, each with varying degrees of interest and concern.
"I…we…Nasher gave me new orders for the Keep. I'll give you a full briefing in the morning: you've undoubtedly heard rumors anyways…And it's not like I'd be able to stay awake through one tonight," she admitted.
"I suppose we all can somehow contain our curiosity for one night," Sand remarked dryly.
Neeshka snorted. "Speak for yourself."
"Wasn't like I was going to attend anyways," Bishop muttered under her breath.
Not again…Izzy almost rubbed her temples. Not tonight… She didn't want to deal with Bishop's streak of independence – usually calculated to cause the most problems possible among the company. In the morning, when her mind was clear, she could herd him by the barest of hints – or try to, anyways. Damn the man! Her annoyance rolled within her, disproportional to his offense: usually, she was more than willing to let him go his own way, but at the moment… For one day, just one…
But before she could think of some way of addressing him, Casavir stepped in with what she needed to say but could not find the words. "You're under no obligation to attend, Bishop."
"Well now," Bishop said with a sneer, "that's reassuring. Thank you, paladin."
Casavir appeared to ignore his tone, the insult in his title. "You will, as ever, go your own way – though I notice that you have not yet left. However, the rest of us shall take value in loyalty freely given and returned." In spite of his level tone, Izzy could hear the cut in his words: sounded like she wasn't the only one on a short temper right now…
As Bishop bristled, but for once in his misbegotten life held his tongue for a more opportune moment, Ammon grudgingly admitted, "One night is unlikely to change much in the war."
"Know that the warlock speaks true," Zhjaeve joined the conversation at last, voice as distant and mystic as it always was, giving no hint as to what she truly thought of the situation. "The shadows are slow to grow, and will not overwhelm us in one night of rest."
How did I get stuck with Nasher's board of advisors again? she wondered absently. Granted, most of the time – especially when she had no earthly idea of how to proceed – she was very happy they all were…rather vocal about expressing their opinions. Other times…Right now…She repressed a sigh, and bit her tongue on the sharp retort bubbling to her lips; it was just a product of exhaustion and ill-temper, and as such, she'd regret it later. Besides, they – in particular Ammon and Zhjaeve – were right; no need to snap at them for saying it. Huh. Who'd have thought? I've learned some tact after all…Or maybe it's wisdom…
Well, either way, she did not mockingly ask them if she had their leave to depart. Instead, she gave voice to her second, deeper impulse: she gave in to her exhaustion. She nodded, closed her eyes, and whispered, "Alright. Alright, then." She opened her eyes as she gave a wry grin that soon faded; she was too tired to hold it long. "I'm going to go sleep for, oh, eighteen hours. If the world ends, don't wake me."
The statement drew the quiet chuckles she was aiming for…except for one. Casavir inclined his head, murmuring, "Rest well, Knight-Captain."
Considering his usual reserve, she was absurdly touched by the small sentiment. She nodded, and headed towards the Keep. Bed, she reminded to herself, and staggered off towards her vaguely remembered quarters, praying she didn't get lost on the way.