From the Journals and Papers of Dr. MorningGlory Gaeston
(Rated PG-13: Adult themes, mild language, mild violence, sorry, no nudity in this one)
CHAPTER V - Part II
I sat down and stashed all my notes from Nigel’s visit into my pouch to take home with me. I then pulled out the other notes I had been trying to finish earlier before their arrival and began to add to them.
Connor arrived almost an hour later with food in hand. As the previous day, we hurriedly ate and adjourned to the laboratory for a couple of hours before I had to leave.
As I rode home in the carriage I thought about what Connor had shown me. He had been able to disengage the clasp and map its internal workings. It was mostly different metal components, the same as the collar, but it was Connor’s theory that the unique configuration added with the miniscule amounts of gradient thought energy made it ultimately work. And could it be duplicated? Yes, but whether the results could be duplicated was another story.
I arrived home earlier than the previous day and told Drusay to inform Father and Waukeen I was having dinner out. I knew that wasn’t going to sit too well, but I would be out the door before anyone knew I was gone. Then I went to play with the children before their mealtime. They were their usual little impish selves, full of fun and frivolity, and their enunciation of ‘Ma-ma’ had improved. I left them to their meals with Marguerite and retired to my apartment to sit down at my dressing table with my slate board. I wrote that I would be at dinner for the evening and I would contact again when I returned. If all were asleep, then I would see him in my dreams.
“Waukeen,” I whispered and my reflection faded into a scene of trees and a small creek. The weary adventurers were out of the Underdark and topside again. It appeared that they were beginning to make camp for the night. “Quickly, Hendak,” I whispered. “Before it fades…”
He immediately pulled his mirror from his pack and the scene changed to what could be evidenced by it. He smiled ear to ear and puckered his lips in a make-believe kiss. It still made me giggle. I held up the slate board for him to read. He nodded and looked puzzled. I quickly erased it then wrote him I would fill him in later and asked when they would arrive. I couldn’t make out what he was trying to tell me and his board was evidently still packed away. I shrugged my shoulders and shook my head. He repeated it. I still didn’t know what he said. He finally gave up with a laugh and waved me off. Later, he mouthed. Then he told me again he loved me and the scene began to fade back to my reflection.
I sat and sighed and rubbed the bridge of my nose. My eyes were tired and I still had business to attend to. I had to find out what Linvail knew and how he knew it. And it was going to be a test of my endurance to get it out of him before I personally throttled him.
He arrived precisely as the sun began to set over the western edge of the city, and knocked at the front door of the great house.
How strange, I thought as we boarded the carriage, that such an important man would risk traveling in a carriage with only a driver for protection. “Might I ask you, Aran,” I inquired, “considering your stature and the prominence within your organization, why you travel so openly and with no protection?”
He laughed lightly. “Lovely Lady,” he began. “There are no less than fifty of Amn’s finest bowmen nestled amongst the shadows that are our protection. If you are concerned for your safety, you needn’t be. They have all been instructed to safeguard and protect you in the same manner accorded me.”
I felt instantly foolish. That was such a stupid question for me to ask. I should have known.
“My..my apologies, Aran. I am sure I should have known,” I said. I was glad the carriage was dark so he couldn’t see my embarrassment.
“There would be no reason for you to know such things, Madam. No apology is necessary at all,” he replied. In the dim light I couldn’t see if he was secretly laughing at me, or not. We rode the balance of the trip in silence.
If someone had told me two weeks ago that I would be dining in the inner sanctum of the Shadow Thieves organization with the Shadowmaster himself, I would have laughed in their face. Now that same Shadowmaster was graciously pulling out my chair for me. And there was a glass of very rare wine sitting in front of me as I was seated. A perfectly distinguished headman stood at attention nearby.
“I trust you like Rund lamb,” Aran said as he sat across from me at the intimate table for two. “I have had my cook prepare a special rack with fresh applicots.”
How did he know Rund lamb was my favorite of favorites? Oh, silly me, I reminded myself cynically. This is Aran Linvail! It’s his business to know everything.
“It happens to be one of my favorites,” I smiled and picked up my glass.
“And, my Lady, may I offer a toast? To a very mutually beneficial association?” he smiled and raised his glass.
“I will agree to that,” I said and touched his glass with mine.
Dinner was surprisingly quite lovely. If it was because he was in familiar surroundings, or if it was just the two of us, I did not know, but the affectations of intimidation were notably absent and in their place was an articulate, intelligent, well-read mind. He was a convolution of interests and curiosities -- from science to the arts.
He read every book he could get his hands on and even collected first editions. Of course, they had all been forcibly separated from their prior owners, but he felt they didn’t appreciate or care for them, as did he. Maurice had been correct and I glimpsed only a smattering of the many layers of Aran Linvail that my Kirani had so accurately pointed out earlier.
“Tell me, Aran. How did you ever get into your, shall we say, line of work?” I asked, as the headman served the raspberry soufflé for desert.
“Ah,” he sighed and refilled my wine glass again. “The lady analyst wants to know why Aran does what Aran does.” He lightly smirked.
“Indulge me,” I grinned. “Feed my professional curiosity.” He paused and looked at me, deciding whether to tell me or not, then his face relaxed.
“My family were farmers from outside of Trademeet and we were fairly poor. My father worked hard and my mother worked hard on that patch of rock trying to grow things that don’t grow in rock. I had an older brother who helped my father and I watched my brother’s back begin to stoop and his shoulders sag by the time he was barely twenty. I could see my own fate staring me in the face, and I made a conscious determination that I would not succumb to such a futile and worthless endeavor.
“So when I became fifteen I ran away, lied about my age, and joined the military. When they found I could read and write – my mother, who was a learned woman, saw to that – they made me a courier between the battlefield command and the front lines of whatever skirmishes were happening at the time. Then it happened one day that I was standing in the commander’s tent awaiting my instructions and command pouch as he and a captain were detailing a left-flank sweep. I had just returned from that area and I couldn’t help but notice from where I was stationed that the stand of trees as indicated on their map was no longer there, as in, the enemy probably dispensed with them a while ago.
“The crux of their plan, you see, was to have a small battalion hiding in those trees, rush through the left flank of the enemy between the trebuchets and the ground troops. They felt they could inflict considerable damage to their ground forces, capture a certain number of the missile launchers, and from the forward advancing troops, capture or destroy a fair number of the enemy’s mounted troops. At the least, it would split their forces thereby gaining the advantage before the enemy could regroup.
“Foolishly thinking I could contribute something worthwhile, I stepped forward and boldly interrupted their session and pointed out that the trees physically no longer existed. Only a stand of stumps stood in their stead. They both looked at me in blind rage. How dare I, insolent youth who knew nothing, question their map. That I would think they would take the word of an impertinent, foolish nobody who dared to impugn their irreproachable intelligence gathering that only yesterday gave them this map. It was, in fact, the prior day that I had personally witnessed said stumps.
“In short, I was duly berated, chastised, and confined to my tent until further orders.” He stopped momentarily and stretched back in his chair, a look of slight amusement upon his face.
“Where I dutifully went and sulked. But as my sulking subsided, I could see that if they continued with their folly of a battle plan, the enemy would be able to splinter our own lines and simply march straight up the center and into the middle of our camp. I learned one very valuable lesson from that military campaign. Always, always maintain two sources of intelligence.” He paused briefly. “Anyway, it was time for Aran Linvail to leave the military.
“So, knowing that none of the soldiers would be alive at the end of the day, I went from empty tent to empty tent until I had all the gold I could carry in my double pouch. About 500 coin altogether, as I recall. Then I stopped by the ration tent and filched enough food for a two-day journey. As I left the ration tent I could hear the carnage begin in the dale below us.
“From the sounds, it was the massacre I had predicted, so I bid them all a fond farewell and slipped out the south end of the camp. I later heard that all were lost, including me! My Mother and Father even received a stipend for my death in service to my country.” He swirled the last of the ruby liquid around in his glass and stared into it. “So, my dear Lady, that was my short-lived tenure with the military. Then I came to Athkatla, the city of coin… the city of fools.” He smirked.
“You were so young here. How did you survive without being robbed or worse?” I asked, my curiosity of this man’s survival instincts and skills piquing.
He smiled his crooked half-smile. “I went to the Church of Oghma and asked if I could sleep in the church and in return I would watch the sanctuary at night and help the priests whenever I could during the day. They were most agreeable seeing as how I was a young boy with no home or family. After all had gone to bed, I found a loose floor stone that happened to have a space under the grid. I hid my coin in the sanctuary under where I slept and no one was the wiser.
“During the day, I quickly made friends and those ‘friends’ would ask me to do favors for them. To run errands for them and they would pay me. After a time I was promoted. There were certain weapons of which I have a natural gift of deadly aim, and again, I was asked for certain favors for which I was remunerated quite well. My skills went to the highest bidder. Then shortly after I became a little better known within the organization, they began to appreciate my talents for military strategy, as well as my talents for negotiating with certain elements within our business. And, as you can see, the rest is history.” He swallowed the dregs and called for his glass to be refilled.
I vaguely recalled hearing of the bloody turf wars of the rivaling factions of the Shadow Thieves. It must have happened when I was only eight or nine.
“And your family? Did they ever know you didn’t perish in battle?” It was difficult for me to envision someone just leaving their family and never seeing them again, let alone to leave them thinking and believing one had perished. It was anathema to me.
“No. But not totally by my choice. Not long after I arrived in Athkatla, Amn was stricken with an outbreak of plague, some places more devastated than others. Hearing that Trademeet had a particularly dire occurrence of the disease, I left the city and traveled to my childhood home only to find my family had become victims as well. They all had perished before I arrived. My mother lay blackened in her bed. My father slumped at the kitchen table with blackened skin and his eyes frozen open in disbelief. My brother sat leaning by the fireplace as though he were waiting to put more wood on an non-existent blaze.
They were so diseased that even the insects would not go near them and their flesh had refused to rot. So I took my shovel and buried each of them behind the little house and said a prayer to Helm to grant them asylum. Then I set fire to the little house where I was born and burned it to the ground.” He swirled his glass one more time then raised it up and emptied it. He snapped his fingers impatiently and the headman instantly was at his side with a fresh bottle.
“And you, dear Lady,” he began. “I would love to ask you about you, but I already know all there is to know. And have known for the past two years. Does that surprise you?” He seemed to be slightly tipsy.
“No, it does not surprise me, but I do wonder why,” I replied calmly. “I am quite positive that I am not so interesting that even my favorite foods are researched and catalogued.”
“It was necessary that I find out everything I could about you, Glory. It was necessary because of the threat we face. I had to know if you were up to the task. You just happened to be part of an almost ready-made kit for extinguishing it.”
I didn’t know what he meant.
“Please go on, do explain,” I coaxed him.
“A combination of your own academic and professional interests and one of your best friends, Riona, an expert adventuress with a very hardy band of dedicated followers. Oh, and let us not forget your formidable husband Hendak and his quintessential mother, the Goddess Waukeen. It was an irresistible package deal designed by the Gods themselves. I couldn’t have put it together myself in a hundred years.
“It’s not unlike when I first met Riona and ‘coaxed’ her to rid our fair city of Bodhi. It took some doing, but she accomplished the goal and she got her sister back, too.”
Just as Anomen had told me. The fine and expert manipulation of one Aran Linvail, master strategist. It all fell perfectly into place now.
“And what do you have to gain from all of this,” I asked. “If we are successful, I mean..” I had to know.
“I gain nothing. I just get to keep what I already have,” he emphatically replied. He had emptied his glass and again snapped his fingers. It was filled immediately.
“And life goes on. You get to go back to your husband and your children and your little practice, and I get to continue master minding the seamier enterprises of our fair city and a few places beyond, and the fair citizenry of Amn is none the wiser.”
“You sound bitter,” I said softly and allowed my glass to be refilled.
“I am too much of a pragmatist to ever be bitter, dear Lady,” he laughed. “Sardonic and cynical, yes. But bitter, no. I learned a long time ago to live with my choices no matter how uncomfortable they might make other people.” He suddenly leaned over the table and looked squarely into my eyes.
“I can offer you nothing, my Lady, but my resources and the information they can supply. You and Riona are truly the only ones who can dispel this menace on the front line. My minions are worthless to you other than minor protection. It is up to the both of you to stop this before it goes further and the whole of the Council of Six in under domination and we find ourselves at the mercy of the illithids’ bidding.”
A thought sprang to mind. I was about to ask a very illegal question, but if one were going to do something very illegal, what better place to do it?
“Aran, are you one of the Council of Six?”
His eyes became hard as he stared at me before answering. His fingertips tapped lightly on the side of his glass as he debated his reply. He leaned uncomfortably back in his chair.
“And, madam, why would you ask such a thing. You do realize that noblesse respectability is something totally foreign to me. I am but a poor farmer’s son who has done well in the big city.” He had not answered my question.
“Respectability has nothing to do with it…. But power does,” I replied.
An ironic half-smile pulled at the corner of his mouth, as he stared at his glass. “Ah, yes. Power. The very essence of my existence. Where would I be without it?”
“You still have not answered me, Aran, and I need to know. Not for my own personal curiosity, but we have to have a link into the inner Council,” I replied. “And, if you are, I will have to provide you with the protection necessary to avert any possible subversion – that is, as soon as we can find a means to do so.”
He swilled his glass and it was instantly refilled. The headman stepped out of earshot.
“Assume what you will, lovely Lady,” he leaned over the table and gently covered my hand with his. “Because if the power I hold is subverted in any way, there will catastrophic consequences felt the width and breath of Faerun.”
There was a heavy silence. He hadn’t answered my question directly, but he had given me the information I needed.
“And did you send Sashar to see me?” I asked, changing the subject.
“Not directly. There is an intermediary whom I entrusted with the facts as I know them. But I knew that Sashar would get your attention and that you would find him credible. With virtually no other evidence to rely upon, it had to be someone whose word could be taken at face value.” He laughed a slightly tipsy laugh. “And, ‘credibility’, my dear lady, is not amongst my better virtues.”
I smiled remembering what Maurice had said.
“Do I amuse you so?” he asked with eyebrows raised.
“No, I was just going to say that Maurice would beg to differ with you. He said you are true to your word and very loyal to your commitments.”
“And what do you think, Madam,” he asked and finished his glass in one swallow.
“I’m here, aren’t I? Does that not answer your question?” I gave him my own half-smile.
“Touché, Madam,” and he bowed his head, feigning submission. Again his glass was refilled.
“Then I suppose we won’t be needing the intermediaries anymore?” I asked.
“Quite the contrary, Madam,” he replied and the crooked smile reappeared. I didn’t understand.
“The intermediaries provide an excellent cover. Indulge me…. It is far easier to explain our seeing one another as the likelihood of a torrid love affair rather than dispelling a government conspiracy. After all, your husband is momentarily away, my Lady, and it only stands to reason….”
I almost choked on the wine in my mouth.
“Excuse me?” I interrupted him.
“You heard me. I was only suggesting that if necessary, we could fabricate a tale that would satisfy even the most salacious of the tongue-waggers. Only a fabrication, dear Lady, as I am well aware of your devotion and fidelity to your husband.” He leaned forward again. “Remember? I’m the one with the dossier. I’m the one who has been reading about you daily for the past two years.”
“We will simply keep our contact to a minimum,” I said, trying to ignore his comment about the dossier and his two years worth of surveillance. But I knew my veneer of composure was rapidly crumbling under his revelations and suggestions. “If we give the gossips no fuel, then they will have nothing to burn.” He reached to touch my hand again and looked intently at me.
“For such a brilliant, beautiful woman, you certainly have no street smarts, do you?”
He regretted saying it the moment the words left his mouth. His face began to flush as he realized his tactless outspokenness then slumped back in his chair. He momentarily closed his eyes with embarrassment. “Oh, Madam, I am truly sorry. I did not intend to insult your intelligence. My remark was… unconscionable. I…I fear the wine has loosened my tongue as well as dulled my sense of propriety. My sincere apologies for my callous insensitivity.”
I didn’t understand it, but his perceived insult strangely seemed to bother him more than it did me. Granted, I didn’t want to readily admit it, but what he had said was true. I knew I had good instincts but no street smarts, having little need of them and no circumstances to obtain or use them. If I was bothered at all, it was only in hearing such indelicate truths about myself, especially from someone whom I hardly knew. Truth be told, I was more insulted by his proffering our association to public scrutiny under the guise of a ‘torrid affair’. Even though from a practical point of view I had to concede it was a very viable deception to veil whatever dealings we might have in the near future. There was a dead, uncomfortable silence.
I had discovered during our dinner he wasn’t, by nature, an ass. But right now, I feared he was quickly becoming a drunken ass. It was time to leave.
“Aran, I think it is getting late and I think I should be getting home,” I said very sweetly. I did not relish the idea of dealing with an inebriated Aran Linvail. The prospect that it could be most unpretty made me uncomfortable. It was time to go.
“Forgive me, Madam, yes, you are right. It is late and I know you have many duties on the ‘morrow as do I.” He called the headman and whispered in his ear. The headman nodded and left the room.
The headman arrived with our cloaks and announced that the carriage waited. It was a peaceful ride home cloaked in the dark of night. Time for Aran Linvail’s minions to be at the height of their business. Time for the fifty-plus expert bowmen to be ever vigilant to our safety as we exchanged small talk while rolling our way to the Government District and home.
“Goodnight, Madam Glory,” he said and kissed my hand to bid me good evening at the great house. Again, he lingered a moment longer than was required.
“Goodnight, Aran. And thank you. Thank you for a lovely dinner and thank you for the maludian.” I smiled at him.
“No, my Lady, it is I who should be thanking you. It is seldom my table is graced with anyone as you…. as evidenced by my lapse of good manners.” Again, there was an apologetic tone in his voice. “As for the maludian -- whatever you seek, you need only tell me and it is yours.” His eyes reflected a softer quality in the soft glow of the outer door lights. I mentally dismissed it as wine-induced as I turned and entered the great house, back into my own world. It was way past my bedtime and there were dreams to catch up on.
Hendak told me they would be home day after the ‘morrow. No illithid, but a copious amount of the brine liquid and some of the distilled salts. They had also found suggestions in the chambers of one of the Creeds, of other settlements and cities as well as the design for a new one that apparently had been in the planning stages as far back as almost five years. But the Gods only knew where that would, or could be. They were also bringing back various parchments written in “qualith,” although no one could read it. I wondered if Nigel would be able to help.
They were going to stop at Imoen’s house on the ‘morrow night where they would leave her until their later return and repack the horse to return to the city.
Night was over too quickly and dawn was radiant on what was to be a most eventful day.
TO BE CONTINUED……….
Mind Games V (Part II)
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