Man in the Iron Mask Part 11: Friends in Low Places
“I have always wondered about the effectiveness of a disguise if the man beneath remains the same...possibly the best means to hide one’s true identity is a transformation of the soul...not the skin...”
-Sarevok of the Iron Throne
Winski sat in his dimly lit study, gently leafing through some ancient texts and gazing up occasionally at the man before him. Sarevok...he remembered him as a youth, a tall, strong boy quick with his sword and even more so with his mind, those yellow eyes always burning...burning with hunger. Hunger for power, hunger for strength, but most of all, hunger for immortality. He could remember the teenage boy standing a head above all of his peers, although he rarely saw anyone his own age, he dwelled among the books and soldiers...but he would look at them all with a certain lust, a lust for their blood on his sword, a desire to hear them scream.
Sarevok would confide in him sometimes, when the dreams began, the trembling boy would tell of blood, pouring, rushing, crashing around him, he tasted the metallic flavor on his tongue and felt invigorated, he would slash open various faceless beings and roar in ecstasy, lifting his blood-stained hands to the heavens. They frightened him at first...then he spoke once of a voice speaking to him...and he never complained of a dream again. But it was no mere innocent voice, it was the child’s dead father speaking to him, luring him. Winski warned Reiltar that Sarevok would soon aspire to higher places than beneath his foster father’s iron fist...and he was right.
“Are you certain this will be successful?” Sarevok interrupted, his deep amber eyes glancing up critically at the mage. His brows furrowed and he rubbed a thick hand over his stubbled chin, “I...I had not intended for it to end in...quite...this fashion,” he said, his voice ending in barely a whisper.
Winski snapped his book shut and leaned forward, his dark robes rustling against the top of the desk. He pursed his lips, then looked at Sarevok, his eyes smoldering above sharp cheekbones outlined in the light filtering through the gray windows. “She cannot protest, there will be no pain...it is the best for her, if that is your concern,” Winski answered. No pain for her at least...
Sarevok scowled and waved a hand dismissively, “she would not care about pain, nor do I, it’s just...well...damn it all to the Abyss, I had not imaged it would end like...like this!” he growled, slamming his fist down on the arm of his chair. “I...I had hoped...bah, what do I care! It is not as if I have another alternative...why do I care...? he wondered to himself, gritting his teeth tightly together as his fist twisted against the slick wood.
“I find myself wondering that as well,” Winski replied, a grin creeping up at the corners of his mouth. He lifted a finger to silence Sarevok as the man opened his mouth to protest, and pointed towards a book lying on the desk, and an open page with a picture of a fashionably dressed man who looked to be of questionable...orientation. He had an open, billowy white blouse that exposed his tanned chest, and a long mane of thick black hair with a immaculately manicured goatee that was long and braided, with one hand resting on a jutting hip held in a rather...peculiar posture.
“What about it?” Sarevok asked cautiously, “planning a change of wardrobe?” Winski grinned and shook his head, then began to weave his spindly fingers in a odd web of designs. “Not me...” he hissed, then a ball of white light shot out from his hands and engulfed the puzzled fighter. Dark locks of hair sprung from his scalp and pooled around his shoulders, and bunches of hair sprang from his chin and wove themselves together into a braided goatee resplendent with various trinkets and pieces of colored thread. Sarevok watched in horror as his plate mail transformed into a pair of tanned leather breeches and a leather vest over a white linen shirt. “What are you doing to me?!” he roared, jumping up from his chain threateningly and reaching for the sword...no longer strapped to his back. “WHERE IS MY SWORD?!” he cried, watching as the last remnants of his armor melted away.
Winski stood up with agility surprising for his frail form, and pointed a long finger at the infuriated fighter. “Did you really think you could walk out in the streets in a full suit of armor, do you not think Semaj has servants watching for you? Of course, noone would think it strange for a man to be roaming the streets armed to the teeth and completely covered in metal during the warmest period of the year...I am quite surprised you have made it this far!” he hissed, motioning towards the doorway leading to the staircase, “go!”
“I will be recognized, my face...” Sarevok stammered, running a hand through his long locks of black hair.
“You blundering idiot! Did you lose your intellect as well as your life?! You have been ‘dead’ for years now, noone would recognize you, especially not with clothing other than armor, and hair! You can use your cunning to bring your half-sister to kill your foster father to save you the trouble...yet you can’t even use your common sense to reason that a person walking around in FULL ARMOR IN THE MIDDLE OF THE SUMMER MIGHT BE SLIGHTLY SUSPICIOUS!” Winski roared, his black eyes flaring up dangerously and his mouth tightening into a thin, quivering line. “Now GO!”
“I have no weapon,” Sarevok pointed out flatly, squirming uncomfortably in the straps of his leather armor. Winski sighed and shook his head, then gestured towards the belt strapped tightly around the fighter’s waist and chest. Sarevok looked down and saw a short sword and crossbow hanging at his sides, and reached a hand up, feeling it meet with the heavy pommel of his sword. I know that wasn’t there before...
“Don’t test me,” the mage warned.
Sarevok lifted his head high and groaned as a chunk of hair fell into his face. He looked and felt absolutely ridiculous, like a man more fitting for a stage than a fight, his head had been shaved since childhood. “Thank you,” he said quickly, then turned sharply on his heels and walked towards the stairs.
Winski chuckled to himself as he sat back down in his chair... if this weren’t my ticket out of here...I would have incinerated him. He casually flipped through a few pages of his books, then closed them and leaned back, stretching his arms out and crossing them behind his cowled head. It had been so long since he had seen the outside world...locked away within his iron tower...he would guarantee Sarevok’s success, if only to guarantee his own life. Semaj would die, and he didn’t particularly care if the girl went with him.
Sarevok rushed down the stairs and pushed through the heavy iron doors of the tower, feeling the bright light of the sun beating down on his bare face. He flinched slightly as he entered the crowds of people swarming through the streets, he tried to act as natural as possible but felt himself averting his eyes even from the beggars he passed. He had to find a house, a house that presumably hadn’t been burned down since both he and his foster father died before the order could be carried out, unless his underlings had decided to do it just for sport. Now where was it...somewhere to the south of town, or was it the east...by the temple...Ilmater, of course! he thought to himself, the city had undergone some minor construction but it was mainly his memory that was failing... I suppose a few years in the Abyss would do that to anyone...
Winski’s plans appeared sound, the only weakness within it seemed to be Sarevok’s own strength and will. He couldn’t believe he would have to...she would have to...but Winski guaranteed him it would only be temporary. Just quick, and then it would return to how it was, she would be herself again, everything would be fine and no real damage would be done. Just for a little while, she would understand...she would have to.
He walked through the brick streets, admiring the bustle of the street peddlers selling their goods to women trailed by small children obviously distracted by their noisy surroundings. He could barely remember when he was growing up, when his mother would take him with her to go shopping, he loved the commotion and din of the Gate at midday. As he grew older he ventured out less and less, and usually his only contact with the outside world was to negotiate contracts...and to enforce them. Occasionally Tamoko would convince him to go for a walk with her around the temple gardens, or around the harbor, but even those moments alone with her grew less frequent as the Iron Throne’s power expanded. You must leave me behind, and join with the one you know in your heart and mind is yours... he could hear her voice say, her phantom in his recent dream.
An image of Shar-Teel flashed through his mind, no, not Shar-Teel...Shar. The girl he faintly remembered from his youth, the daughter of that impudent leech Angelo, who certainly knew about and condoned the branding of his only daughter with a curse. She was a pretty girl, in a wild sort of way, who always managed to look quite uncomfortable in any manner of formal dress. He could remember thinking that even her golden hair seemed to fight against the pins holding it in place, and her nervousness seemed more from the awkwardness of being bound up in a corseted dress rather than a shy nature. They had danced once, and he had told her to pursue her interests, regardless of her sex...he could recall her steel blue eyes opened wide as she listened intently, he remembered the smell of her skin as he whispered in her ear to let noone determine her destiny for her. Her destiny, to be cursed...mortally.
He glanced up and recognized the humble temple of Ilmater, and turned to look at the small building beside it. The little cottage was painted various odd shades of color, and the front yard of it was filled with wheelbarrows and barrels containing nothing but...turnips.
He saw a short little man sorting through one of the wheelbarrows, tossing some turnips out into a big bin behind him. He glanced up at the sound of approaching footsteps and peered at Sarevok through a small little eyeglass positioned over one eye.
“My my,” he said, brushing off his dirt covered hands, “if it isn’t Vorekas.” He shielded his eyes from the sun with a chubby hand and grinned. “Darn it if she didn’t know what she was talking about. And that shadowy guy too, but I kinda figured he was smart...,”he said, half to himself and half out loud.
“What...how...Jan, how did you know that...” Sarevok sputtered, glancing around nervously to see if anyone noticed him.
“They said you were coming, nothing to worry about, I wouldn’t have known you except for the fact that you are a bloody giant and they said you’d be coming back without the armor, everyone else who comes here is usually a gnome,” the little man said, his red cheeks bunched up in a wide smile.
“Who are “they”?” Sarevok asked cautiously, scanning over the Jansen’s meager home.
“Who knows, you tell me!” Jan said, then motioned for Sarevok to follow him. “I’m glad you could make it, I was pretty sad at the thought of not being able to joke around with the good old tin man anymore, but I guess you aren’t tin man anymore, are you? A bit like “incredibly handsome romance novel cover guy” now!”
Sarevok glared at him darkly. “Vorekas will do just fine,” he growled, and Jan rolled his eyes in response.
“Always the glum one...cheer up, I guess these people are your friends!” he said as he opened the front door. Sarevok followed him into the simple combined kitchen, living room, and dining area, and was shocked to see two humans in front of a fireplace against the far wall. Seated was a man dressed in dark rogue clothing, reclining languidly beside a girl with bright silver hair, who from the side appeared to be familiar...
“Sarevok!” she said happily, turning to look at him. He blinked a few times in shock, then felt numb with surprise as he finally recognized her pale face.
“Seline?!” he gasped in surprise, “what are you...”
“Just thought I’d stop in for a visit, haven’t been to the Gate in a while!” she said, laughing at Sarevok’s shocked expression. “Goodness, you would think that you had seen a ghost.”
“Oh,” she gasped suddenly, “where are my manners, Sarevok, this is Gaelan Bayle, Gaelan, my murderous half-brother Sarevok.” She motioned towards the dark-clothed man beside her, who laughed and stood up to walk towards Sarevok, who was about to criticize Seline for her usual sarcasm. As he extended his hand to greet him, Sarevok froze and stared at him curiously, scanning over his face as he slowly gripped his hand to shake it. “Have we...met before?” he asked.
The man laughed again and nodded, his intelligent brown eyes seeming to smile themselves, although with a certain hidden cruelty. “Does the name High Merchant Derman Jahladz ring any bells?”
“Of course...” Sarevok murmured, “the bandits...but how...and why are you...” he questioned, but was interrupted by Seline.
“Well, Sarry, you know that I’ve been doing this and that for Aran lately, and well we went out for dinner one night at this really nice little place right outside the Guild, by the docks, with a great view of the ocean and it was quite pleasant...but anyways, so I was telling him about how I received your letter and you were traveling north to Baldur’s Gate, and he suddenly got very quiet and asked me what you looked like. Of course, I said well, Aran, you really couldn’t miss him, he’s inhumanly tall and is with a rather tough-sounding girl plus a gnome...and Aran said ‘please don’t tell me her name is Shar-Teel.’ Well, of course, it was, and he proceeded to explain to me how the Shadow Thieves were involved with a guy named Semaj, who was paying a few of his underlings massive amounts of coin to rig a plan to capture this girl Shar-Teel, and whoever she was with. And since it was my big brother with her, I certainly couldn’t let it happen!”
“So,” Gaelan interrupted, “if I may finish with my part.” Seline nodded and motioned for him to continue. “I was the leader of the trap that was being set for you, I was supposed to kill the bandits and make it appear as if I were helping you, all to lure you all to a house which was actually Semaj’s, and I did as I was told but upon return found a messenger from Amn who told me everything that Seline just said. Aran had already known about Semaj funding bandit efforts for his own gain, which was in direct conflict with money the Shadow Thieves has invested in the Nashkel supply lines.”
“Ah, so I assume you were a ‘mole’,” Sarevok interjected.
Gaelan laughed. “Exactly, and here your sister only praised your skills in battle,” he said, and Sarevok turned to glance at Seline, who merely rolled her eyes.
“Anyways,” Gaelan continued, “to finish the story, I was sent here originally to ferret out the Shadow Thieves who were playing both sides of the table, and it ends up that I got caught up in this entire situation merely by chance, as a way to prove my ‘allegiance’ to Semaj, not to mention earn quite a bit of coin...and now I have Seline here to help me finish business.”
“Meaning?” Sarevok asked.
“Meaning,” Gaelan said, his eyes now glittering with malice, “their involvement with the bandits will now be cut short...permanently.” He grinned and pointed towards Sarevok, “which, I might add, seems to be in direct correlation with your own interests.”
“Why would Aran sacrifice the gold which Semaj is offering for Shar-Teel’s capture...not to mention my own?” Sarevok asked cautiously, he had never trusted the theives guilds in Baldur’s Gate, and certainly not ones from Amn.
“Influence from someone near and dear to both him and yourself,” Gaelan answered, winking as Seline’s face began to blush.
“Oh hush up, let’s get this thing going, first thing that needs to be explained is how Semaj is still alive when I thought I killed him when I killed you, secondly how we are going to kill him, and thirdly why this girl is so important to you,” Seline said, brushing a peice of silver hair out of her face as she motioned for him to sit beside her on the small couch.
He sighed. “It’s a long story...”
Shar-Teel awoke to next morning to the sound of movement in her room. She stared blankly at the white dress lying on the bed beside her. It was lace, decorated with small pearls that were scattered across the neckline and sleeves, and curved from a slim bodice to a full train. The waves of fabric spilled across her silken bedcovers, and she gently fingered the delicate lace of its long, bell-shaped sleeves.
“It’ll look beautiful on ya’ miss, for certain, but you had better get along and put it on before it wrinkles, master wouldn’t like ya’ to be lookin’ all wrinkled for your weddin’!” a servant woman clucked, who was bustling about the room gathering shoes, some jewelry, and a case of pearl hair pins.
“Oh no...” Shar-Teel murmured, “I wouldn’t want to upset him...”
“Of course not dear,” the servant said, coming up behind her and resting a callused hand on her smoother shoulder, “nobody wants that.” She thought of the long lash marks on her own back and then glanced at the scar on the girl’s chest, angering him was never wise. “Come on now,” she said, tapping Shar-Teel’s back lightly, “let’s get your hair fixed first.”
Shar-Teel glided slowly towards the stool sitting before a mirror and small table covered with various curlers and rouges and other such things. She felt the servant woman comb through her thick hair and then begin to twist it up and around, pinning it in various places with beautiful gold and pearl clips. Before long her entire head was covered with silken, golden curls dusted with a shower of white pearl, which was further accentuated by a choker of delicate pearls that the woman clasped around her neck. After a few minutes her face and shoulders had been dusted with a fine white powder, and her lips and cheeks darkened with rouge, then her skin sprayed lightly with a liquid that smelled like fresh roses. It reminded her of something...of someone...that always smelled like rose...a face flashed in her sedated memory, a smiling face with bright blue eyes. Her mother...
The mother that he killed! HER mother! The murderer that she was going to marry, this very night, with this ridiculous hair and face, with that horrid dress lying on the bed, the bed that...he would...NO!
“I REFUSE!” she screamed, and ripped the strand of pearls from her neck, the fogginess of her mind beginning to clear with the rage pouring into her veins. The pearls crashed onto the floor and were sent scattering across the wooden planks, while the horrified servant stepped back in fear. Footsteps could be heard running down the halls, and Shar-Teel glanced wildly around the room for a weapon. She could see only a comb that ended in a semi-sharp point, and she grabbed it and clenched in tightly in her hand. Before long the door of the bedroom flew open, and a man in a dark robe stood in the doorway.
“You foolish girl,” he hissed, “what do you think you are doing.”
“I am leaving this place,” Shar-Teel growled, “I refuse to marry you Semaj, the same as I refused many years ago, you are a worthless peice of slimy refuse that I would rather see burn in the fires of the Abyss than dirty my sword with your filth.” She grasped the comb tighter in her hand as his green eyes narrowed dangerously.
“You will regret those words,” he spat, then murmured a few words and she felt a searing pain tear through her chest. She fell to her knees involuntarily, her body racked with waves of pain that forced her to shudder pitifully on the ground.
“Tsk tsk, my love,” Semaj whispered, walking towards her and kneeling to stroke her contorted face with a bony hand, “you know that if you don’t marry me, you will die, and we wouldn’t want that now, would we?” She made no response but continued to spasm as pain coursed through her, she attempted to speak but no words could be formed as her lips drew back in a sharp grimace.
“So much pain...” he said, wiping off a bead of sweat that was forming on her brow, “but it will all be over soon.”
“My....m...m...other....” Shar-Teel hissed between waves of pain, her fists pounding against the thick carpet.
“Oh yes,” Semaj said, “of course, that must be what is upsetting you.” He motioned for the servant to leave and she quickly obeyed, and he waited for the door to be closed before clutching Shar-Teel’s tanned shoulders.
“I had to do it, love, you see, your father...well, as you called him anyways, he knew...certain things, knowledge which I procured and gave to him, and she kept trying to keep me from you and...we had to take care of her,” he whispered, tenderly stroking her skin with his cold thumbs, “I only did it for you.”
Tears began to form at the corners of Shar-Teel’s eyes, tears that had not been cried in years. All she had wanted was to see her again, to know that she was alright, to tell her that...that she was sorry. For leaving, for never saying goodbye, for running away and never coming home again until it was too late. Now it was too late for anything, for her mother, for herself, for Vorekas...there was nothing left. The tears streamed down her face, she had no choice anymore, it was marriage or death
“There, there,” Semaj cooed, “it will all be better now.” His hands wove together in a pattern and then swept over her face, shutting her eyes and ceasing the pain. Her mother’s voice was the last thing she heard before she fell asleep.
Rest, Shar, you shall see me soon enough...
Note: Seline is my character from Ripples
Part 11: Friends in Low Places
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