Bliss. Too exhausted even to let out a sigh of grateful relief, I slowly eased my aching limbs into the steaming water of my tiny bath. The tub itself had been crudely fashioned out of a large used ale keg and while the top had been roughly sawn off to leave several splinters behind, I was beyond noticing any of it. The only thing that concerned me was getting the reek of Irenicus' dungeon off.
I counted myself lucky that my small size allowed me to tuck myself inside of the barrel, whereas most patrons likely would have had to stand and pour the water over their heads.
Carefully, I began scrubbing my skin free of the dirt and grime that had settled on my person since our escape. Wincing as I encountered the first of what would likely be several large, deep bruises, I decided to reorder my thoughts into a plan for what the group should do next.
From what I'd been able to glean from Nalia, her mission was a time-sensitive one. The sooner we could set out for her lands, the sooner we could claim a reward that might finance the next stage of my own rescue plans.
Trying desperately not to dwell on why those plans had suddenly become so necessary, I quickly set about the urgent task of washing my hair.
I'd been surprised initially when I'd first uncoiled it, by how long it had grown. Just how much time had we spent down there? Had it been that long before? Luckily, the tightness of my braids had kept the worst of the sludge from sinking too deeply into the thick locks. I made swift work of the tangled, knotted mess.
"Are you all right, Rem?" The cool, feminine voice of my companion startled me out of the drowsy, complacent stupor I had fallen into.
"I'm fine," I called over the tall, wooden changing screen she'd insisted I use. While I didn't mind her modesty, I had been more than a little baffled by how vehemently she and Anomen had opposed my rooming together with Yoshimo.
Both seemed a little too preoccupied with propriety for my tastes, though I supposed it could just be an Amnian thing. Or perhaps an upper class thing, as evidenced by the fact that Nalia was clearly of noble stock and Anomen's crested shield spoke of a prominent family name.
While I'd been prepared for Yoshimo to make some canny remark about how my virtue was safe from his lascivious ways, I'd been shocked at his show of restraint. Perhaps he'd noticed how bone-weary I was. Perhaps he was trying to make it clear that he was on my side and in the wake of Imoen's disappearance, understood that it was not time yet for jokes. Perhaps he simply needed a respite as badly as I did. Regardless, the only expression he'd given me was one of faint concern and pity. Not the kind of pity that was born out of disgust or contempt, but the gentle kind, teeming with empathy.
Wringing out the soapy moisture from my hair, I finally stood and reached for the small bucket of still steaming rinse water. I reveled in the deluge as it streamed over my back and aching shoulders, rinsing away every last trace of grime in its wake, before joining the tepid, dirty pool I was now standing in.
"You look much different without the muck of a thousand sewers caked on you," Nalia intoned as I finally appeared from behind the screen clad in a towel. Clearly from her earlier overtures of friendship, she intended this comment to come across as a compliment. Too tired to do more than throw a half-hearted smile in her direction, I made my way to the small cot across the room.
Nalia hadn't offered to give up the bed. I suspected the thought had honestly not even crossed her mind. Her upbringing seemed to imply this was the case, at least. It was considerate of her, however, to offer to study her spellbook in the common room while I rested, instead of keeping me up with the light. I was having a difficult enough time adjusting to the brightness of everything above-ground after being held in captivity for so long.
Seeing that I intended to dress in her proffered shift for bed, Nalia swiftly made herself scarce. The door clicked shut behind her and I quickly dropped the nightdress over my head, savoring the soft, light cotton against my freshly scrubbed skin.
The cot smelled faintly of sweat and body odor, but I instantly threw myself upon it, expecting that sleep would claim me soon enough that it wouldn't be an issue for much longer. Feeling more comfortable than I had in what felt like weeks, my eyes closed and I began to drift into slumber.
Frightened blue eyes. Pale, tear-streaked cheeks. Such a horrible, palpable, creeping feeling of inevitability and dread as the sadistic bastard calmly placed both himself and Imoen in the custody of the cowled ones.
My eyelids stubbornly refused to stay closed. Shame and guilt were taking turns gnawing at my insides the longer I dwelt on Imoen's capture. With nothing left for me to think about and distract myself with, the full weight of it all was just beginning to sink in.
'No one will see me now if I cry,' I thought, surprising myself with the suddenness of the realization. 'I don't have to look strong and confident lying alone on a smelly cot in the Copper Coronet.'
The impulse was tempting, but my fatigue was so profound, I just couldn't summon the tears. And then I remembered what Yoshimo had said after the dust had cleared.
"Odd that this wizard stopped fighting… and odder still that he demanded your young companion be taken and not you-" He turned then and started a bit at my expression. While I wasn't aware of what my face was doing, he must have read something in it that seemed to genuinely soften him. "I say this not to make you feel guilt, young one. Do not despair. We will find her."
He had known the guilt would consume me, even before I did. How? Had someone in his past suffered in his place and caused him the same feelings of shame?
The most perplexing thing of all was wondering why this was happening to Imoen and I of all people? Could it be because of this bhaalspawn taint inside of me that Irenicus had been so curious about? Who was I that I was of such interest to this madman? And what did Imoen have to do with it?
Just behind the self-loathing was the feeling of utter and complete loneliness. I had nothing and no one to help me piece together this mystery. Nothing and no one to rely on. Surely I would go mad. Imoen was my one link to my past, and with her gone… The world becomes a much harsher, crueler, emptier place when you realize you have to face it alone.
Before I even realized it, I was out of bed and leaving the room. I padded quietly down the hall toward the door I knew to be Anomen and Yoshimo's. While the young knight hadn't seemed particularly thrilled at the prospect of sharing his room with the jovial bounty hunter, he had apparently found the notion of us rooming together even more distasteful. The Kara-Turan had followed my lead in not questioning the Amnish and their odd sense of propriety.
Anomen opened the door after just two knocks. He was dressed down for the night and I was clearly able to see from his features that he was much younger than I'd originally presumed. Though the carefully cropped beard and coiffed brown hair did give him a slightly more mature look, it was the eyes that betrayed his youth. His were clear blue eyes that reminded me painfully of Imoen's.
I smiled politely, choosing to ignore the bright blush that decorated his cheeks at the sight of me in my shift. I'd been remiss in choosing appropriate attire before leaving my room, apparently. Nothing I could do now that he'd already seen me, though.
"I need to speak to Yoshimo for a moment."
"But!—My lady, you can't be serious. Perhaps you should seek him out on the morrow after you've rested. Once you've dressed…" His flush threatened to engulf his whole face and he was studiously avoiding looking at any part of me that was covered by soft white cotton. It was almost endearing, but while I appreciated the show of chivalry, I couldn't leave without getting what I'd come for.
"Anomen, why don't you go downstairs and keep Nalia company? We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow and I don't want her accosted by some drunkard while she's trying to study her spells." Before he could protest, I plowed on, aiming to exploit his sense of chivalry. "Go ahead and escort her to her room when she's finished."
He hovered hesitantly in the door- frame for a few moments, blocking my view of the room beyond, before reluctantly hefting his mace over his shoulder and turning to leave. He frowned at me one last time, opening his mouth to voice another objection, before seeming to think better of it. I waited until he disappeared around the corner before stepping inside the small room and shutting the door behind me.
A changing screen, similar to the one I'd used to bathe, stood before me stretched out to its full length, almost comically dividing the already cramped room into halves.
I hesitated for a moment; surely Yoshimo had heard me speaking with Anomen. Why hadn't he risen to receive me? Could he possibly know why I was here? As if he'd heard my errant thoughts, the bounty hunter rounded the edge of the screen and nodded to me in silent greeting.
"Hey, it's me. Can I come in?" I announced myself, wincing at the unsure, plaintive quality of my voice. His serious expression cracked at once into a pleasant grin.
"What can I do for you, my lovely?" His eyes crinkled ever-so-slightly at the corners. Finding them oddly interesting, I guessed his age to be over a score of years but no more than 30. Gone was his half-shredded leather armor. In its place was a plain black tunic and baggy, brown cloth trousers. The pants were wound in black cloth around the shins and tucked securely into sturdy leather boots. Underneath, he looked to be lean and wiry in build, with finely muscled arms and a trim waist.
His brow rose at my quick, but conspicuous inspection, and despite assuring myself that it had only been casual interest, I felt the back of my neck heat.
Turning, I made my way to the small bed in the corner. Anomen's plate mail had been neatly propped between the bed and wall where a thief would be forced to leap over the sleeping man in order to lay hands on it. Some kind of not-so-subtle statement, I was sure.
A singled wasted candle sat burning on the bedside table. That and the moonlight streaming in from behind the changing screen were the only sources of light in the tiny room.
"So he is a man of the gods…" Yoshimo's soft whisper caught me off guard, and I sat myself on the edge of the bed with less grace than I'd intended. I understood what he meant, however, when I realized what the trinket on the table next to the candle must be.
"The holy symbol for Helm, right?" I muttered, bending closer to examine the small talisman shaped into a steel gauntlet. In the center of the open palm the craftsman had engraved a single watchful eye. "Do you have a god or goddess you worship?"
"The people of my country have faith in over eight million gods. None of which you would have heard of, surely." He smirked a bit at my open-mouthed reaction before leaning in to study the talisman at my side. His face took on a more pensive look. "It is good that our young friend prays. We will need the healing touch of his god even more than his sword-arm if we are to succeed in finding your lost friend."
"Do you think we even will?" My question was delivered softly to the blaze of the candle, rather than to my companion. I took a deep breath – slowly to prevent any shakiness – before meeting his gaze. My face settled into a wooden expression. It wasn't as calm or collected as I wanted it to be, but it was the best I could do.
Yoshimo didn't disappoint me. His smile was still fixed in place, but it had morphed into one of compassion. One that radiated comfort and concern. He sat down carefully next to me causing the bed to dip under his weight. I shifted to compensate and it was all I could do to prevent myself from falling against his side, into the warmth of the body next to mine, and cry.
Without words, the smiling thief simply placed an arm around me, pinning me exactly where I wanted to be. He smelled faintly of incense and the soap he'd used to bathe with.
"Tsuyokunaru, Rem." The foreign words affected me less than hearing his rough, accented voice speak them. At my raised eyebrow, he chuckled. "'Be strong,' my young friend. We will find your Imoen."
Just as quickly as it had happened, his arm released me and he shifted his body away from mine. He remained next to me on the bed, but now sat a respectable distance away. I felt curiously cold.
"Besides. I know something of the Shadow Thieves, as I mentioned before. I know that even if they cannot be fully trusted, they do know more about the goings-on in the city than any other organization we are likely to encounter. More than you perhaps realize." His eyes gleamed in the candlelight and I glimpsed a row of white teeth beneath his sharp grin. "It is a lead; a starting point for us to investigate. The path is set before you. All you need is to follow it."
He sounded so sure. Despite my persistent doubts, I knew this was the best encouragement I could hope for. Everything else would have to come from me. Crying about it certainly wouldn't magically summon Imoen to my side.
I smiled, opening my mouth to thank him, when a pounding of fist on wood jarred me out of my thoughts. After precisely three knocks, Anomen threw the door open and stumbled slightly in his haste to enter.
"Lady Nalia has chosen to retire early," he said, by way of explanation. His eyes narrowed a bit at the positions we had taken up on his mattress. To his credit, however, he refrained from making any comments. "Are you done with your talk, milady? Shall I escort you to your chambers?"
"That won't be necessary, thank you. I can make it on my own," I said, throwing a smile at him to soften the blunt refusal.
As Yoshimo and I rose from our seats, our eyes met briefly. I mouthed the words 'thank you,' without really knowing why I didn't want Anomen to overhear. It had seemed like such a private moment. It felt right to keep it just between the two of us.
A cheeky grin and a slight, subtle bow were his response.
Bidding my companions a good evening, I retreated from the room and made my way down the drafty corridor to the room I shared with Nalia.
Once inside, I peered around to find a tousled auburn head poking out from under the bedsheets on the mattress in the corner. I retired to my smelly cot with a smile. The unpleasant scent only reminded me of how nice Yoshimo had smelled in comparison.
My eyes closed almost immediately and I knew nothing more until the next morning.