Chapter 103: Storm Brewing
Ember and her companions returned to Athkatla on a hot, sunscorched afternoon. A layer of billowing clouds was forming above the city, but it would not thicken to rain until the evening at the earliest; for now, a dead calm reigned in the streets. The air was hazy with heat, sticky with moisture, and more pungent than ever. Few people moved in the streets. The guards that were posted outside most prominent buildings were sweating and grumbling, and the merchants who normally stood in front of their displays, hawking their goods at the top of their lungs, had all withdrawn in under the shelter of their canopied booths. Even the beggars were more listless than usual.
"Boo misses the forest," Minsc lamented. "We didn't even visit the forest ladies again!"
Ember had wanted to visit the dryads as well, but she was nowhere near trusting enough or reckless enough to wilfully bring a Red Wizard to their kingdom. "It wasn't the right time for it," she said. "But maybe we can take Imoen to see them after all this? I think she'd like that."
A broad smile blossomed on Minsc's face. "Boo agrees!"
Just like before, the group arrived at Gaelan Bayle's house to find his nephew Brus sitting on the doorstep. This time, however, the boy was not on watch duty; his attention was fixed on what looked like a fairly sharp dagger, which he was twirling between his fingers.
"Hello, Brus," Ember said.
The boy gave a start, almost losing control of the dagger. "Adventurers!" Brus cried, giving the group a gap-toothed smile. "I did nay think I'd be talkin' to you louts again!"
"It is a pleasure to see you again too, Master Brus," Yoshimo said, bowing deeply to the boy. "Is your uncle at home?"
"'Course not! But he'll be back by sundown, an' prob'ly sooner. You wanna wait here? I won' mind!"
The front of Bayle's house lay in shade, and the street was fairly quiet; it was as good a place to wait than any. Mazzy and Minsc sat down beside Brus, and the three of them were soon deep in conversation about knife skills, adventuring, and dragons. Ember found a seat at the foot of the doorstep. Edwin perched himself alongside the wall with his ubiquitous bundle of scrolls and documents. Yoshimo stood at the corner of the house, leaning casually against the wall as he watched the goings-on in the adjoining, busier street, and Anomen took up a post beside him, standing tall and straight and looking exactly like a watchman on duty; Ember couldn't help but smile at the difference in their stances.
I should tell him what I am.
The thought was unpleasant, but it was true: if anything significant were to happen between her and Anomen, he needed to know what he might be getting into. He was a priest of Helm, after all, and soon to be a knight; a child of Bhaal couldn't exactly be considered a suitable match for someone like him. A suitable match? Hells, he'd be hard pressed to consider someone like me as anything but a foe! And if he didn't know until it was too late, it'd only make matters worse...
Enough. All they'd done was talk. He did seem to hold some admiration for her, that much was true, but there was a long way to go between simple talk and actual courtship. It'd all probably come to nothing, anyway, so there was no point in worrying.
"Is something amiss, my lady?"
She looked up at Anomen's concerned face. "No... nothing's wrong," she said. "Just a bit lost in thought."
"You are certain?"
"Yes, I'm fine. I wish it'd rain soon, though," she said, and gestured at the clouds.
Anomen glanced upwards. "Hm. You may have your wish by nightfall, my lady."
"I hope so. It's a bit too hot for my tastes right now."
"Indeed, the summers in Athkatla are not entirely pleasurable," he said, and sat down beside her. "Nevertheless, I have a fondness for such days."
"When I was a child, days such as this meant fewer chores and more reasons to be outside, away from my father's house. At my leisure, I often took my sister with me to one of the many parks in the government district. She would amuse herself with pebbles and colourful flowers, and I would reenact great campaigns with figurines I had made from wood or soft metal." He smiled. "Some of my dearest memories arise from those times."
"It almost never got this hot at Candlekeep," Ember said, and told him about one of the times it did; Imoen had talked her into bathing in the large fountain in front of the library, and they had both been splashing around in it when a big, important-looking delegation arrived. "Ulraunt was incensed, and at first Gorion looked angry too, but as soon as we all were dismissed from Ulraunt's office, he burst out laughing. And the next day, he took us to a large pond, about a half hour away from the keep, and showed us how to swim."
"My mother taught me that particular skill many summers ago, on a rare trip to Esmeltaran," Anomen said. "Candlekeep is located upon a cliff, is it not?"
Ember nodded. "That's why we couldn't swim in the ocean; anyone who tried would have been crushed to bits by the waves."
"A most efficient defense system."
"And a pretty one, too. If I woke up early enough, I'd watch the sunrise from my window." Ember was in the middle of describing how it looked on calm mornings, when the sea mirrored the sky and everything blazed with colours, when Yoshimo stirred from his chosen post.
"Oh great wizard," the Kara-Turan said, looking at Edwin, "is that not one of your kind standing across the street?"
Edwin glanced up, turned pale, and hurried around to the back of the house in such a rush that he left his all-important documents behind in a disarrayed pile. Across the street stood a grey-haired man in the robes of a Red Wizard. He was busy with yelling at a herb vendor, and had noticed neither Edwin nor his flight. Ember gathered up Edwin's documents, and the group watched the Red Wizard argue with, shout demands at, and then seemingly threaten the vendor.
Mazzy got to her feet. "We cannot allow him to harass that poor man!" she cried, but then the Red Wizard shrugged and walked away, leaving the herb vendor shaken but unscathed.
"Your friend has left," Yoshimo calmly called out to Edwin. The Thayvian returned, looking around nervously as he stepped out into the open again.
"Everything not well between you and the Red Wizards, Edwin?" Ember asked.
"That is none of your business!" Edwin snapped. "(Being saddled with the company of monkeys should be enough self-punishment for anyone!) Unhand my documents; I will not have them sullied by unworthy fingers!"
Street dust is better, I suppose? Rolling her eyes in exasperation, Ember handed the documents back to the wizard. He retreated back to his corner, purposefully ignoring the questioning glances from the rest of the group, and huffily started sorting through the 'clumsy, disrespectful, ignorant chaos' that he himself had created in his most treasured belongings.
"Would that Bayle returned before long," Anomen murmured.
Gaelan Bayle arrived soon thereafter, and seemed pleasantly surprised to find the group assembled on his doorstep. "Coo! 'Tis grand to be seeing ye again, my friends." He ushered the group inside and looked expectantly at Ember. "Ye've gathered the fee for my associates, aye?"
She held up a bag of gemstones.
"Thank ye, my lady." Bayle accepted the bag from her, poured the contents out on his table, and started sorting through the jewels. "I'll jus' tally these, real quick like... aye, 'tis all here, an' a great an' good thing it is!"
"Where is Imoen?" Edwin asked impatiently.
"Not so quick, my friend-"
"I am not your friend. Where. Is. She?"
"Ye know perfectly well that she is in Spellhold," Gaelan Bayle said, "an' if ye want her to not be there, ye have to be patient. One doesn't simply walk into Spellhold, or we'd have set ye on the path there a long time ago."
"Quiet, Edwin," Ember said. "Bayle, you have our money now. How long must we wait for it to be put to use?"
"Oh, we'll be starting at once, my lady, but as for when we'll be ready to go... I can't tell ye. It could take a tenday, it could take two, it could take three."
Ember frowned. She'd known Bayle wouldn't produce Imoen from his hat like some cheap illusionist, but she'd hoped for a shorter delay than that before they could start the rescue. "Why the uncertainty? I thought your people had a plan in mind."
"They do, they do," Bayle said, "but parts o' the matter are beyond our control."
"Is there anything we could do to hasten the proceedings?" Mazzy asked.
"If there is, we'll let ye know. If there ain't, jus' wait until all is ready."
"How do we know you are to be trusted, thief?" Anomen asked.
Bayle grinned. "I'd say thieves' honour, but that don't mean aught to ye, does it?"
"Minsc wants to trust the little man. But if he tricks us..."
"Don't worry, good Minsc," Yoshimo said. "He would not dream of doing that, I am sure."
"Right ye are!" Bayle said. "We'll be parting now, but rest assured that we'll let ye know when to act. A fair evening to ye!"
Ember entered the Copper Coronet in decidedly lowered spirits. Even as she'd been aware there would be a delay, she hadn't actually been aware of it. They did have things to do, she reminded herself; there was Minsc's armour to commission, there were repairs to be made to much of their other gear, her own armour included, and with their newfound wealth, there was no reason for them to avoid the Adventurer's Mart any longer. Yes, the delay would, after all, give them time to become much better prepared for whatever they might encounter on their way to Imoen.
Still, she would have felt much better if only she knew how long this delay might turn out to be.
"Do not worry, my friend," she heard Mazzy tell Minsc. "Imoen will still be there when we are ready to go."
"But Boo wants her back today!"
"I know he does. Perhaps, if you show him how patient you can be, it'll be easier for Boo to wait?"
"Yes... that is good thinking. Minsc will do that."
Once inside the common room of the inn, they were greeted warmly by Hendak. "Our heroes grace us with their presence once again! A good day to you, my friends, and welcome back!"
"Ah, good Hendak!" Yoshimo called out. "Do you have any news for us?"
"Not much. Some more squabbling amongst the thieves, or so I heard, and some more priests have disappeared. Brother Keelan from the chapel nearby just up and vanished not five days ago."
"I know this Brother Keelan," Anomen said. "He has gone missing, has he? How very odd, indeed. This is not like the Keelan that I know."
"Aye, it is troubling," Hendak agreed. "But come, young Delryn, I have a letter here for you. It arrived the day before yesterday."
Hendak reached into a shelf and pulled out a folded and sealed letter, which he handed to Anomen.
"It bears my father's seal," Anomen murmured as he opened the letter. "What reason could he have to write to me?"
He read, and his face turned white. "H-how can... Helm's Grace, this cannot be..."
Ember reached for his shoulder; he looked as if he were about to faint. "Anomen, what's wrong?"
He sank down on the closest chair, clutching the letter with stiff fingers. "My sister," he whispered. "She... she has been murdered."