I sort of abandoned this story for a while, didn't I? Sorry about that! I'll try to be more attentive in the future. Remember, "favorites" and "follows" are wonderful, but reviews are appreciated, too!
Kâras trailed behind Cavatina, his wet boots sinking deeply into the snow, and reflected bitterly that Eilistraee's worshipers were fools. To connect their far-flung shrines by a network of portals was a good idea, if you could trust your fellow worshipers—the fact that Vhaeraun's priesthood had never had such a network was a sign of how well they trusted one another—but to use pools of water, when so many shrines were so far north, was madness. Even Lolth's priestesses would not have done such a thing.
His teeth were chattering uncontrollably by the time their guide—a male lay worshiper who had introduced himself as Ralinn—led them to a great tree, as large as five lesser forest giants put together, close to the center of the shrine. Despite the snow that covered every branch, the tree still wore its summer cloak of green leaves. Thin, straight twigs, each the length of his arm, floated in the air in front of the tree like a ladder. The lay worshiper gestured upward.
"We keep the first two rooms for visiting priestess—for visitors. The braziers are lit. If you'd like to warm up and change into dry clothes, I'll let Lady Rowaan know you're here."
It was politely phrased, but Kâras knew an order when he heard one. So, it seemed, did Cavatina—or perhaps she just had the sense to follow a good suggestion. She thanked Ralinn and began to climb. As he waited for her to clear the ground, Kâras studied their guide. The other male met his eyes boldly and a little aggressively, and Kâras thought Ralinn must have been dedicated to Eilistraee long enough to learn a hatred for Vhaeraun's followers. It was a shame, he thought, that Ralinn had escaped Lolth's lies only to become trapped in the lies of her daughter—lies about equality between the sexes, and about the drow's place in the World Above.
Of course, in the end Vhaeraun's truths counted for nothing now that he was dead. Kâras looked away from Ralinn's hostile gaze and climbed the ladder after Cavatina.
There were two doors set into the massive trunk, one ten feet above the other. Cavatina took the uppermost, so Kâras paused beside the lower door. It was perfectly round, and he could make out a discoloration in the center, where a glyph had been scribed and then later scraped away. He was no wizard, but he thought the glyph was one to dissuade males from touching the door. The scrape looked fresh.
Inside a brazier burned, just as Ralinn had promised, filling the small room with light and warmth. Kâras studied the space with interest. It seemed to have been carved out of a single giant knot in the trunk of the tree, with shelves and benches cut into the sides and a table sprouting from the center of the floor like a mushroom. There were a few simple things, like cushions and blankets and—Kâras was pleased to see this last—a bottle of wine, but the room was empty of personality and clearly meant for visiting rather than living. He thought it looked more like something a surface elf would construct than something made by drow.
He stripped off his sodden clothes and spread them on the table where the heat of the brazier could dry them. After a moment's hesitation, he peeled his mask off as well. From his pack—waterproofed with magic—he took a spare change of clothes and dressed quickly. Still feeling cold, he wrapped himself in one of the blankets and sat on a cushion on the floor, as close to the brazier as he could get. He had lived on the surface before, and could tolerate it, but the Night Above always seemed too hot or too cold.
Someone knocked peremptorily on his door. Kâras hastily tied his mask back on, grimacing as the wet silk clung to face. Before he could reach the door, it opened, revealing Cavatina. She climbed inside without waiting for an invitation and settled on one of the benches.
"Please," Kâras said dryly. "Make yourself comfortable."
Cavatina scowled at him. "That's exactly why I wanted to talk to you," she said darkly. "I've been thinking about this murder. If there really is a Nightshadow involved in this, we can't afford to show a divided front in our investigation. We need to prove that Protectors and Nightshadows can work together, even when there is conflict between us. Your talking back and petty insubordination damages that image of harmony."
Kâras picked up his blanket from the floor and sat on the bench across from her, forcing his movements to be smooth when his emotions would have made then sharp. He would have liked to return to his place beside the brazier, where it was warmer, but that would have forced him to sit on the floor at her feet and he refused to put himself in such a vulnerable position.
"What you are describing is not harmony," he said, controlling his anger. "It is submission. You want me to follow your orders, just as you want male to submit to female. But you and I hold equal rank, just as male and female are equal. Why should you not follow my orders?"
Cavatina pressed her lips together. "I'm in charge on this assignment."
"Did Qilué say so?" When Cavatina did not answer, Kâras continued, "I agree that a unified front is needed, but I am better suited to present it than you."
Cavatina opened her mouth for an angry retort, but another knock cut her off. She crossed to the door and opened it, letting in a tall female wearing a thick cloak over one of the diaphanous gowns favored by the priestesses. The gown was at odds with her heavy winter boots and the longsword at her hip.
Kâras sized her up as she stood in the doorway, stamping to dislodge snow from her boots. She was young, with the faintest hint of yellow shading her hair. Although she was not nearly as tall as Cavatina, she still stood nearly a head taller than Kâras—and he was not short, for a male. He suppressed a sigh. The Eilistraeean females were all so tall; he was tired of being towered over.
The newcomer bowed to Cavatina, looking a little awed. "Thank you for coming so quickly, Lady Cavataina. I am Rowaan, head priestess of the shrine."
Cavatina inclined her head in response. "Thank Eilistraee, not us. We merely do what the Goddess commands." She sounded humble, but Kâras saw her smile faintly, pleased at the younger priestess's admiration. She gestured to him. "This is Kâras, a Black Moon, and lately of the Promenade."
Rowaan hesitated for a moment, then bowed to him as well—though not quite as deeply. Kâras hid his irritation and returned the greeting with a nod.
"I thought I saw..." Cavatina had turned toward the shelves and was peering into them. "Yes, I did." She produced a bottle of wine and uncorked it. As she poured three glasses, she said, "Please sit, Rowaan, and tell us about what's happened here."
Kâras accepted a glass, but only cradled it in his hands; Nightshadows did not eat or drink in public if they could help it. He watched Cavatina curiously as she handed Rowaan another glass glass. She had answered the door herself, and now waited on him and Rowaan with her own hands, both menial tasks he would have expected her to try to foist onto him. He could not understand why she was so insistent on her dominance one moment, then seemingly subservient the next.
Rowaan sipped at the wine. "It happened only last night. One of our priestesses, Aliira, failed to join us for Evensong. That wasn't alarming, of course—no one is required to join the dance—but it was unusual, since she almost always did. One of her friends went to check on her later and found her... gone."
"Gone?" Cavatina repeated. "Lady Qilué told us there was a murder."
"There was. Her clothes, her boots, her weapons were all there, and her shirt was torn and stained with blood where she had been stabbed. But her body was gone."
"You mean," Cavatina said incredulously, "That someone killed her, undressed her, and then hid her body, but left the bloody evidence behind?"
Rowaan spread her hands helplessly.
"Or," Kâras said, "the killer disposed of her body with magic."
"That may be more likely," Rowaan agreed. "Her underclothes were still inside the outer, as though her body just... disappeared from within them."
Cavatina was clearly baffled by this. "And you're sure she's dead?"
"Yes, our auguries show she's safely in Eilistraee's domain. But without a body we cannot raise her or speak to her shade to find out what happened."
"We were told," Kâras said, "that a Nightshadow was involved somehow."
"Yes," Rowaan said, frowning slightly. "There was a dagger in Aliira's room, hollow-pointed and filled with poison, like Nightshadows use. We found it under one of the benches, bloodied. Aliira had a young Nightshadow as consort. When we went to speak with him, he was gone."
"Gone, but not dead?"
"Yes. Some of his personal possessions were missing from his room. It looks like he fled."
"Do you know where he fled to?"
"No, we've found no trace of him, though we've searched." She added, almost reluctantly, "The evidence against him seems clear."
Now Kâras frowned. "Too clear," he said. "A poisoned dagger points to a Nightshadow, which is why he would be a fool to use one like this. Foolish Nightshadows don't last long."
"If he's innocent," Cavatina countered, "Why did he run?" But she, too, was frowning.
Kâras thought the answer obvious. "He knew no one would believe he wasn't guilty."
"Once we questioned him with a truth spell his innocence would be proved," Cavatina argued. "Now that he's run, we can only assume guilt."
Kâras held his doubts. Truth spells could be foiled by careful wording, and were not always enough to establish innocence—especially with such damning evidence arrayed against the accused. The Nightshadows had their own spells to extract the truth, but they were excruciating for the subject, and he was not certain the Masked Lady would still grant them.
"Either way," Cavatina continued, "we need to find him. I can't believe he could just disappear without a trace. Are there any druids or surface elves here who would be willing to help in the search?"
Kâras raised his eyebrows, a little impressed despite himself. He wouldn't have thought of asking the other denizens of the forest for help. Of course, for most of his life those others would have tried to kill him on sight.
Rowaan seemed impressed as well. "There may be." She half-rose from her seat, but the sank down again with a grimace. "No, they'll all be asleep now. I'll send word in the morning."
"In the meantime," Cavatina said. "I'd like to see Aliira's room."
"Yes," Kâras said quickly, before Cavatina could rise. "But first, Lady Rowaan, please tell me why you really sent to the Promenade for help."
Cavatina shot him a sharp look, but Kâras ignored her. He watched Rowaan, who stared back at him with slightly startled eyes. Then she looked down into her half-empty cup.
"There are a handful of Nightshadows here at the shrine, most from Jaelre and Auzkovyn. There are many priestesses who were not pleased at the addition of Vhaeraun's clerics to Eilistraee's faithful. There's been tension here between the Nightshadows and those who dislike their presence, and even amongst the priestesses, between those who accept and do not accept them." She sighed. "Aliira's murder, and her consort's apparent guilt, have aggravated that tension. I sent to Promenade because I need help mending this divide even more than I need help solving this mystery, and I don't think I can do either on my own."
Cavatina transferred her sharp look to Rowaan. "Is there no one you trust here at the shrine to help you?"
"Among the priestesses, yes. Among the clerics... no."
Now both females glanced at Kâras, and he was grateful his mask hid his expression. Had Rowaan explained this to Qilué? Was he really the male Qilué trusted most among the new converts? The thought both troubled and pleased him.
"I'll speak to the other Nightshadows," he said. Then, to stop them staring at him, he said, "Shall we go?"