Chapter 82: Adventurers for Hire
The Copper Coronet was part of a dense cluster of buildings that had, over time, become one solid mass where the houses all shared walls with their neighbours. With no space left on the ground, the houseowners had started to build platforms on the rooftops; they had grown together just like the structures below them, giving the entire block a second level that was sturdy enough to support even a few extra houses. Birds and rats thrived under the shelter of the platforms, cats fed on the smaller animals, and droppings, leaves, and other forms of debris that accumulated in cracks provided enough soil for wildflowers and even the occasional tree to grow there, far above ground.
The platforms were not a safe place to be at night, when thugs and thieves used them as a convenient meeting place, but by dawn, the area was empty. While the life that blossomed in the nooks and crannies of the rooftops was hardly more than one could find in any alley, the platforms offered an escape from the early morning bustle of the streets below. The stillness was one of the things Ember sought when she and Minsc climbed the rickety ladders that led to the rooftops the morning after their reunion with Edwin, but there was also another reason for her to choose that spot for meditation: in all of Athkatla's poorer districts, the platforms were the best place to go to watch the sun rise.
It was a beautiful morning. Puffy white clouds were building in the distance, promising a rainy afternoon, but for now the air was mild, even pleasant; on the platforms, the smells of the city were less pervasive than they were at street level. Reluctant to leave after her meditations, Ember and Minsc decided to stay a little while longer, and sat down to talk about forests and hamsters and other mornings they'd seen as the sun climbed above the walls of the city.
When they finally left the platforms - Boo was getting hungry, Minsc claimed - and returned to the inn for breakfast, they found Anomen sitting at a corner table, polishing his shield with a large, soft cloth. Just like Ajantis used to do, Ember mused. The young cleric looked as if he'd been up for hours; he was already wearing his chainmail, his hair and beard had been groomed, and he looked fully awake and alert. Are they trained to do this when they become squires, or are habits like this a prerequisite for joining the Order?
"Look, our new friend Anomen is awake, too! Minsc will bring breakfast for him as well," Minsc announced, and headed towards the kitchens.
Ember went to the table where Anomen sat. "Good morning," she said. "Do you mind if I join you?"
The Helmite stood up and bowed slightly. "Good morning, my lady! By all means, have a seat." He gestured at the chair beside his.
"Minsc went to get some breakfast. He's bringing some for you, too," Ember said as she sat down.
"That is most kind of him," the cleric replied, and continued polishing his shield. It looked old and showed signs of having been repaired several times, but there were no traces of rust, and the metal gleamed in the faint light that drifted in through the inn's small windows. The shield's only adornment was a simple emblem on its center field: two golden rings, looped through each other, on a field of dark blue.
"My lady, is the wizard truly as skilled as he claims to be?" Anomen asked.
"Edwin? Yes, he actually is," Ember replied, "as long as you don't need a divination spell, that is. He's very intelligent... sometimes, I wonder if he might not have been a nicer person if he hadn't been so aware of his intelligence."
"Aye, perhaps. I find him to be exceedingly abrasive and arrogant."
"As I understand it, he's like every other Red Wizard in that respect."
"Minsc refers to him as an evil wizard."
"Their homelands are enemies, and Edwin was a direct rival of Minsc's first witch," Ember said. "As for him being evil... compared to Minsc, maybe he is. Compared to people like Lehtinan or Rejiek Hidesman, he is not. I wouldn't have let him come with us if I didn't think he cared about Imoen. And I really believe he'll be helpful. He's saved our lives in the past with his magic."
"It troubles me, my lady, that someone who professes to detest thieves - as you claim he does - could so easily enter into employment with them. Why would any man embrace the ways of his foe so willingly?"
"Out of necessity, perhaps?"
Anomen scoffed. "Necessity, or convenience? Even before I was accepted as a squire of the Order, I strove to uphold its ideals. Such moral hypocrisy... I find it repugnant."
"I understand," Ember said. She watched him as he continued to polish the shield, running the cloth over every surface with smooth, practiced movements. "The Order is very important to you, isn't it?"
"Aye, my lady." The cleric smiled. "I can still remember the first time I saw an array of the Order's knights, when I was but a child clinging to my mother's arms. The sunlight glinted off their immaculate suits of armour, and their bright banners moved gaily in the breeze, but what truly struck me was the look of honest pride in the eyes of each knight. From that moment on, my greatest wish was to become a paladin... to ride forth to glory under the Order's pennant." He fell silent, then looked down at his shield and closely scrutinized its top edge.
But he didn't become a paladin. He became a cleric. Ember was tempted to ask why he'd chosen a different path, but something in his change of manner warned her not to delve. Instead, she said, "I haven't told you this, but we travelled for a while last year with another squire of the Order."
Anomen looked up at her. "Indeed? What was his name?"
"Ajantis Ilvastarr, from Waterdeep. We hunted bandits with him along the Sword Coast road. He felt exactly the same about Edwin as you do, by the way."
"Ah, I see! He is now Sir Ajantis; he passed his Test and was knighted late last summer."
Ember smiled. "I am glad to hear that."
"Little Ajantis is a sir? Oh, joyous day!" Minsc exclaimed. Ember turned to see the large ranger behind her, his arms laden with fresh bread, butter, and boiled eggs. "It is a joyous days for other heroes, too. Look what the nice lady cook found for us!" he said happily as he put the food on the table.
"Thank you, good Minsc," Anomen said, and helped him arrange the plates so that all three of them could easily reach everything. "My lady, it occurs to me that we know far less of each other than we should. You do not know of my journeys ere we met, and I am not familiar with your deeds on the Sword Coast. If you would share a tale or two with me, it would be greatly appreciated."
"Well..." Ember chewed her lip thoughtfully. There were several stories she could tell him, but which ones would be wise to share with a squire? Definitely not the bandit camp. Not Candlekeep. Not our hunt for Sarevok. Nothing pertaining to the bounty; it raises too many questions. And not about how we found Edwin; it'd only upset Minsc. "Have you ever heard of a sculptor named Prism?" she finally asked.
"But of course! His renown was well-earned; two of the sculptures at the Orders' headquarters were done by him. As I understand it, he died under tragic circumstances last summer."
Ember nodded. "We were with him when he died," she said, and began the story about the artist who worked himself to death for the sake of a woman he had seen only once.
Finding employment was not as easy as Ember had hoped it would be. The town criers of Athkatla were found on almost every street corner, making announcements about gossip, scandals and wars in a distinctive sensationalist manner, but after two days of listening to them, she had not learned of a single matter that might have offered any income.
"Why are we just waiting around in this insipid city when there is work to be done? (We are wasting valuable time!)" Edwin complained as he, Minsc and Ember ate supper in the Copper Coronet. Yoshimo and Anomen were still somewhere in the city, searching for suitable tasks through their acquaintances.
"Don't complain, Edwin," Ember said. "After all, you could help us look for work instead of sitting in your room with your documents all day."
"(Nobody understands!)" Edwin huffed. "May I remind you that my research may well lead to a magical breakthrough of unimaginable importance?"
Ember rolled her eyes at the wizard, and returned her attention to her bowl of soup. According to him, he'd managed to find several leads on the whereabouts of the Nether Scrolls during his time in Athkatla, and he was utterly convinced that finding them would make him the most powerful mage in history. The night before, Ember had asked him why he was planning on keeping them for himself rather than giving them to his government as he'd planned to all autumn; he had fumed and spluttered and told her to mind her own business, only to tell her a couple hours later that it should be obvious that the great power in the scrolls would help them rescue Imoen and therefore was far more valuable in his hands than anywhere else. Ember avoided discussing the scrolls with him after that; to her, the only thing obvious about them was that he'd always intended to get them for himself.
"Don't be sad, little wizard! Boo understands! He wants to leave town, too," Minsc said, then said to Ember, "The noisy little towncriers make his poor hamster head hurt with their big words."
"(That rodent understands less than its owner, if that is even possible,)" Edwin mumbled between gritted teeth.
"We could go to a different town and look for work, perhaps," Ember said. "Crimnor is nearby, and we could easily go even as far as Amnwater or Trademeet."
"How about Imnesvale?" Yoshimo called out from the entrance. Anomen came in behind him, followed by a tall, dark-skinned man with black hair, which he wore in several small braids that hugged his scalp. A cloak lined in purple covered his suit of very fine leather armor, and a curved blade hung from his belt.
"My lady, may I introduce Lord Valygar Corthala," Anomen said, reaching one hand towards the stranger and the other towards Ember. "My lord, these are our companions: Ember of Candlekeep, Edwin Odesseiron, and Minsc."
Ember stood up. "Pleased to meet you," she said, and bowed slightly.
"Corthala, you said?" Edwin asked, suddenly curious. "The Corthala who was involved with that planar-travelling sphere a few months ago?"
Lord Corthala sighed heavily. "Yes, I am that Corthala."
"What did you do with the sphere?"
"I sent it away, to where no mage on Toril can reach it."
"Of course you did," Edwin muttered, rolling his eyes. "(Why can nobody appreciate such works of art? Barbarians, all of them!)"
Anomen coughed pointedly. "Lord Corthala is in need of adventurers to accompany him to Imnesvale," he said.
"What has happened there?" Ember asked.
"I do not know," Lord Corthala said. "I have spent much time in the village in the past, and have many connections there. A few days ago, I received a missive from the village. People have been disappearing. Some have been found, insane or dead, but others have vanished without a trace. One of the missing people is the ranger I hired to watch over the village and the surrounding woodlands. Now, they seek my aid. I seek the strength of numbers. Delryn has vouched for your abilities, and has explained your situation. You will be paid handsomely for your assistance. Will you come?"
"We must go save the village! I will crush all of the evil!" Minsc announced. "Even the small, rodent-sized evil... but that is more Boo's job," he added throughfully.
"How handsomely?" Edwin asked.
"You will be paid according to the task, mage. At the very least, five hundred gold."
"That is more than fair," Ember said. "We'll come with you, and hopefully, we'll be able to help."
"Very good. Be ready to leave in the morning. I will meet you here an hour past dawn."
The lord bowed to Ember and left the inn.