Memento Mori: 18
In which reunited friends begin to get reaccustomed to one another's idiosyncrasies, a bribe is offered and refused, and some things turn out to be not quite what they appear.
"Well, sweetheart, welcome to Athkatla," Sheridan said as they fell into step behind the wagons bearing the dead. Bells lashed to the sides of the wagons tolled noisily as they trundled through the busy streets, alerting the crowds of their approach. Oblivious to the curious stares of the onlookers, some of whom were shuddering or making the signs of their gods as they watched the grisly parade pass by, Sheridan swept his arm in a wide arc to encompass the entire district and continued his tour. "This is the Promenade, which," he said with a grin, "judging from the work you're bringing for us, you've already seen. Let's try not to make this a habit for every time you go sightseeing, shall we?"
The Hunter returned his sardonic smile with one of her own, despite the somewhat disrespectful comment. Though the years away from him had dimmed her memory of his healthy -- and often sophomoric -- sense of humor, she did not have the heart to scold him. At least, she thought, he is of good cheer as he always was and has not succumbed to Jergal's morose ways. But as he always was, he is still a hard taste to acquire!
Sheridan pointed at a door on the Promenade's second level. "That's the Seven Vales. Remind me to take you there. They have a pumpkin bread to die for. Trust me, Buffy, when I say that the Promenade's usually a lot less blown-up looking than this. I heard a planes-hopping mage and his pet demon hopped through this morning and took the place apart over a bad pastry."
The Hunter rolled her eyes but chuckled. "Ray hookar ilis(You are a great liar), you silly boy. You lie like an uncle. That is not what happened here, and that you know."
An overexaggerated look of hurt crossed Sheridan's face. "I'm not lying, I'm merely telling tales. But I'd bet you gold to glitterdust that my version's more interesting than whatever really happened."
"To make such a bet would be to lose," the Hunter replied. She told him of the firefight between the thieves and mages, beginning with her sudden and painful emergence from the dungeon in the sewers and ending with the abduction of Imoen and the Shattered One by the Cowled Wizards.
At first, Sheridan interrupted her to point out one sight or another, first in the Promenade and then in the slums she had passed through earlier, but as her tale progressed he held his tongue. When she finished, he rubbed his chin and looked at her thoughtfully. "So you came into the city through a dungeon in the sewers? You know that there's actually a street that goes through the City Gates, don't you?"
"Arvalie, that is known to me. In this way I came into this city at the dusk of one day past."
"Then you went from the Gates to the Promenade through the sewers? You know there's actually a street--"
Seeing an endless round of silliness ahead, the Hunter shoved Sheridan, slightly harder than she meant, to quiet him. When he stumbled, she felt a measure of satisfaction and a smidgen of guilt. "I did not venture to any place in this city by way of sewers. I walked to there bythe road from the Docks District. It was there at which I met for palaver with--" The Hunter stopped herself before she could speak Aran Linvail's name. Eventually, despite her promise of secrecy to the Shadowmaster, she would have to tell Sheridan at least some details of why she had come to Athkatla, for she doubted she could accomplish what he wished alone. But suddenly the crowd surrounding them seemed like a very good place for a set of Shadow Thief ears to hide. "--my contact in this place," she finished lamely.
"Ah, the mysterious contact in this place," Sheridan repeated, mimicking her accent badly. He draped his arm over the Hunter's shoulder to pull her close and say into her ear, "So now we get down to the question -- who or what brings Buffy the--"
"Zhalko(Get off,)" the Hunter ordered, shoving him again. He did not stumble this time, nor did he still his flapping tongue. "Do not call me this ridiculous name you have given to me!"
"-- great Hunter of the Dead of Waterdeep, the Romany Fury, the Two-Weaponed Mistress of the Dark -- there, is that better, Buff? -- what brings her down to the City of Coin? Where has she been since she got here yesterday? And how did she end up in the circus of doom?" Dramatically emphasizing the last words, Sheridan clutched at the Hunter's sleeve and shook her arm playfully. "Inquiring minds want to know, y'know."
Despite her aggravation, the Hunter laughed and shook her head. We have been apart too long, he and I, for him to be acting so. We are not yet comfortable as we should be, she thought. She touched Sheridan's shoulder and said, "There is much to tell to you, me morosa, but my tongue now is not my own. Perhaps--"
A loud and sudden thump interrupted her, startling her enough to send her hand to the wooden short sword sheathed at her hip. Quickly, she scanned the crowed for a threat and saw nothing, only a balding, burly man standing on the side of the road, dusting off his hands as the slowly moving wagons carrying the circus' dead passed him. Though now atop the canvas covering the second wagon rested a large, burlap-wrapped bundle.
The Hunter relaxed, but Sheridan frowned as he stepped forward to confront the burly man. "Hey! What do you think we're doing? This isn't a trash pickup, you know."
The man looked at the symbol of Jergal -- a skull biting down upon a scroll -- on Sheridan's robes, then his glance fell onto the Hunter and her weapons. "All right," he sighed as he reached into the purse hanging at his belt. "I'm sure we can talk this thing out. No need to get upset."
The addition went unnoticed by the laborers leading the wagons. They kept plodding forward, ignoring the bundle even when it began to writhe about and whimper. "I'm not dead!" the bundle cried, its voice muffled by the cloth.
The man grimaced and hastily thrust a handful of gold into Sheridan's hand, ignoring the young priest's wide-eyed stare. "Look, there you go. That's for you if you can just see your way clear--"
"I'm not dead!" the bundle cried again.
The man turned away from Sheridan and shouted at the wagons, "Mask's eyes, yes you are! You're as sick as an inbred lord, you'll be dead any minute!" To Sheridan, he said, "Look, he's just some bum who keeps sleeping on my stoop. I came out today and saw him there, I thought he was dead. He should be dead. I just thought I'd save me some effort. You know how it is."
Shaking her head in disgust, the Hunter left Sheridan to deal with the man and ran to the wagons. Though she shouted for the laborers to stop, they ignored her and kept up their slow but steady pace. Cursing under her breath, the Hunter grabbed the side of the wagon and hauled herself up to perch on its side, grabbing at the bundle until she snagged an end. It fell open to reveal an old and filthy man dressed in rags. His eyes widened at the sight of the Hunter, and he cried out and squirmed away. Slapping at her hands, he whimpered, "I'm not dead, I'm not! I know what you are, you're one of his!! Let me go."
"If it is that you are not dead," the Hunter said, gasping as she reached for him again and nearly falling from her precarious seat. She caught him by the arm and continued, "then come so that you would not be with the dead." The beggar's whines turned to howls as she hopped off the wagon and pulled him down with her.
Keeping a firm grip on his arm, the Hunter half-led and half-carried the beggar back to Sheridan. "Let me go, I feel fine! Don't take me away! Don't take me to him!" the beggar whimpered, staggering with every step.
The man rolled his eyes as they approached and snapped, "You're not fooling anyone, Rampah!" He handed Sheridan another coin. "Look, can't you just wait around for a second? He won't be long, he's almost dead as it is! It'll be less trouble for us both."
"What, for this?" Sheridan shook the handful of gold in the man's face. "You think I'd just turn my head away from whatever it is you're trying to do for the price of lunch?" He threw the coins down at the man's feet. The anger on the half-elven cleric's face surprised the Hunter. Sheridan Jysstev was an easy-going man whose temper was difficult to unbalance. She could count on one hand the times she had seen him angry. Concerned, she let go of the beggar, who skittered away the moment he was free, and came to Sheridan's side, wincing at the fury in his voice and he continued, "This isn't the way it's done at the Church anymore. We don't take bribes. We especially don't take bribes as shitty as this."
The man scrabbled at Sheridan's feet and gathered up the fallen gold. "No, no, I didn't mean it like that. No insult meant, it's not a bribe. It's part of the fee, uh, for the funeral. You know. When he dies." He nodded knowingly at Sheridan. "Now if it happens that it stays in your pocket--"
"When he dies," Sheridan repeated tonelessly. "You mean after I kill him or just bury him alive, is that it?" Again, the man tried to hand him the gold, and again Sheridan knocked the coins to the pavement.
"So it's like that then." The man's face hardened. "You'd take my money fast enough if we were in the temple haggling over funeral costs, wouldn't you? But a little honest dealing's over a nothing like him's too good for you, eh? Bunch of two-faced bloody leaches, you are--"
Sheridan lunged at the man, grabbing his collar in both fists and pulling his face close to his own. "I don't do that," he said through clenched teeth, shaking the man with every phrase. "That was years ago. Two gods ago. But not now. And not as long as I'm here. Do you get that, you miserly little--?"
"Rashai Jergalia, na bister tan tuti!(Priest of Jergal, remember your place!)," the Hunter cried, catching Sheridan by the wrist. Though he did not understand her words, he obviously understood her tone, for he stopped shaking the man, but he did not release him. "Do not do such here," she hissed. "Not here, not now will you act so. It is not the worth of the consequence."
"You see, nothing's changed!" the man shouted, struggling to free himself from Sheridan's iron grip. "The deathgods' priests are all alike, just out to rob and bully!" His cries of outrage stilled as the Hunter drew the wooden short sword and held its tip in front of his nose.
"You," she said to Sheridan, "will put him upon his feet. And you, you will be still. All your words, they are untruths that do harm to the name of the Church."
"It's true as I see it." The man shook off Sheridan's hold and backed away from them, eying the Hunter's sword warily. He shook his fist at them and cried, "Assaulting a man in the middle of the street like you are! I'll call the guard on you!"
Sheridan lunged forward two steps, making as if to grab the man, who turned tail and ran away as if pursued by Jergal himself. "Son of a bitch," Sheridan growled. "I'd like to see him try to call the guard. They'd want more of a bribe than what he offered me to get off their fat arses."
"Let him be," the Hunter said as she sheathed her sword. "He is right to run so after such treatment. And was it so needed for nothing more than words? You acted as if he meant to spit upon your holiest of relics."
Sighing in frustration, Sheridan turned and looked at the Hunter, embarrassment softening the anger on his face. "I'm just so sick of this, Buff. You don't know what it's been like."
"So then. Tell it to me."
"It's just ... it's ..." Sheridan scrubbed a hand through his short dark hair as he searched for the right words. "It's just so different here. It's not like it is in Waterdeep. I mean, you and Wanas and Seelia and Catelina, you guys were doing things Kelemvor's way before there was even a Kelemvor."
"Arvalie, we did," the Hunter agreed. Only in a city as plagued by troubles and as tolerant of faiths as Waterdeep could have accepted an institution like the House of the Dead, a group of priests and lay fighters of various faiths joined for the dual purpose of battling the undead and providing funerary services to undermine the power of first Myrkul and then Cyric. Upon Kelemvor's ascension, most of the House's occupants immediately claimed him as their patron.
"Yeah, well that's great for Waterdeep. But here?" Sheridan shrugged. "Athkatla's always been the home for worshipers of Cyric and Myrkul. People still expect their deathgods to be evil and moody. And the other clergy, they ..." He trailed off, and his eyes roamed over the pedestrians milling about the street as if searching for someone. Though he stood in the sunlight, he seemed very much like a man trapped in gloom. Suddenly the Hunter understood that the past three years, since he left Waterdeep's House of the Dead to return to his home city, had been harder than his letters had told her.
She reached up and caressed the side of his face with the back of her hand. "Me morosa, you know that to me you may say anything, and none will hear tell of it from my lips. What I have come here to do, it is nothing if I cannot give my help if it is needed by you. We are, after all, familia."
Some of the bleak weariness left Sheridan's face, and he caught the Hunter's hand and kissed her fingertips through her gloves. "Who, you? You're a big blabbermouth. You tell everyone everything. Except you tell them in Rom, so no one understands you anyway." He squeezed her hand and let her go. "Ah, Buff. I'm glad you're here. I would have written you if you hadn't gotten to me first."
She shrugged. "But I did, and now it is that I am here. Tell me of your clergy at the Church of the Dead."
Sheridan looked down the road, where the slowly moving wagons had long since disappeared. "Dammit," he muttered. "They never mind me. That's part of what I mean. But I'll tell you what," he told the Hunter, touching her lightly on the back to nudge her forward with him as he began to walk, "we're almost there. You can meet the mortician and let me know what you think."
The Hunter was doubtful. "We are likely to make a poor first impression with each of us. He likely will not be of good cheer to see that I arrive in the company of so much death."
"You kidding?" Sheridan's grin was sardonic again. "He'll probably love you for it. As far as he's concerned, they're literally worth their weight in gold. C'mon."
me morosa -- my dear friend
arvalie -- yes
familia -- family.
Memento Mori: 18
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