Through the massive market, the party proceeded. Tinuviel soon discovered, much to her consternation, the majority of them had yet to experience a city of such size and activity. Foradjinn gawked and was forever apologizing for bumping Patra into passersby and accidentally guiding her into traffic. Dwarves, men, elves, half-orcs, half-elves, all the races they’d encountered thus far, and even some new ones mingled, shouted their wares, bought, laughed, bartered, and conducted business in a mass around them all.
Staring as a furry creature padded past with a swish of its tail, Syl exchanged glances with Foradjinn. “Talking cats?” he mouthed?
“Gorgeous pelts,” replied the tribal bard, a particular gleam in his eye.
Onwards they rolled. Traffic clogged the road but Tinuviel assured the group this would be the quickest way to meet Gwendolyn. Farther down, they could see tall masted ships poking up over the houses and if one craned their neck, before them was the bay, the city sprawling around the entrance to the ocean east. Up to the left, the massive castle loomed and in accordance with the proximity, the number of guards increased. Tinuviel called the guards standing watch “Sentinals.”
“I only know of two inns here: the Gleaming Star and the Laughing Rose.” Syl remembered the Drift Valley brothers. “Do you know where they are?”
Squinting, Tinuviel nodded. “They…might not have rooms for these.” She gestured toward the massive aurochs plodding ahead of the carriage, their ten-foot horns forcing a wide berth through the crowd.
“Well, if we wanted to sell them anywhere, this would certainly be the place!” The wizard turned an expectant gaze upon Kaven.
Who wasn’t paying attention. At the back of the halfling paladin’s mind, a subtle prodding urged him to reach out with his divine senses and he felt a desecrated place very near. He reigned in the aurochs, motioning toward a nearby cutlery shop. “Hey, let’s go check out those knives…”
With a heavy sigh, Tinuviel rubbed her head, feeling the beginnings of a migraine. She wobbled on top of the carriage as Kaven tossed the reins to Syl who panicked slightly and almost ran it into two horsemen going the other way. “Is this really the time? Look, let’s get you all to Gwendolyn. Then you can explore.” She ignored the traffic fighting its way around the carriage, Syl handing the reins back to a reluctant Kaven and minor illusioning a rude gesture to the cursing crowd.
Farther down, the basic shops gave way to the artisans such as jewellers, smithys, ironworking, leather, and so on. More restaurants appeared. Tinuviel called the area “Pinehurst,” and they soon found themselves beside the Laughing Rose tavern. “Let’s go in,” Syl suggested, remembering back to Drift Valley and Geoffry’s request to find his brother Xander in Port Cecil. The Laughing Rose and the Gleaming Star were the two inns the brothers used when in the capital.
In the Laughing Rose, a beautiful red-haired half-elf woman was conversing with a man with long dark hair at the bar. A closer glance revealed her slight boredom and she brightened as the travelers entered. She greeted Tinuviel in a familiar manner and asked them their business. Over drinks, served with a skillful use of mage hand, she alternated between curiosity as Foradjinn told an abbreviated history of himself, bemusement as she regretfully informed Kaven there was no room for the aurochs in the stable, and apology when Syl discovered she had not seen Xander there.
“You could have easily parked all this at the palace. We can check the Gleaming Star after we meet Gwendolyn,” Tinuviel grumbled for the lost time, leading them onto the main road once more post inquiries. She frowned at the half-elf bard riding beside the carriage. “You’ll want to play your cards closer to your chest around here.”
After the metaphor was explained to him, Foradjinn understood and they continued onwards. The quality of the shops increased from middling to high-end. Here, the center of the city surrounded them, blocks of homes and then courtyards of larger estates blossomed up. Farther along, the homes gave way to warehouses and the smell of the sea rose sharp in their nostrils. Up ahead, the high keep towered larger as they drew nearer and nearer. They passed a set of ornate gates set in granite walls more elaborate than they had seen thus far. Tinuviel tilted her head toward it. “Banking district,” she muttered to Foradjinn.
The guards in this area wore a different sort of uniform, featuring more of the blue of Guardians as Tinuviel identified them. She nodded to a pair outside the gates of the outer keep walls as they entered; one called out in greeting, “Hey, Hawk.”
The courtyard featured less-ornate stonework but of an elderly richness nonetheless. Syl immediately made friends with a guard and the exchange left both of them glaring at one another. Distant tung-tung-tung announced a nearby blacksmith along with the distant whinny of stables. On most sides, offices filled the buildings and Tinuviel pointed toward a near one. “That’s where we’ll go.”
Before she could lead them on, a young teen boy sprinted up. “Can I help you – oh!” Straightening, he cleared his throat and blushed. “Hi, Tinuviel.”
“Hello, Arryn.” Eyes twinkling for a split second, the half-elf jerked a thumb toward the aurochs. “Think you could stable the hors- uh, the aurochs for us?”
Appearing to notice the hulking beasts for the first time, Arryn’s mouth fell open slightly. Then he recovered himself. “Psh, sure! No problem.” He whisked a bead of sudden nervous sweat away, strutting toward the carriage. Kaven jumped down and handed him the reins. The stablehand, seeing the halfling’s diminutive size, brightened, obviously figuring the aurochs would be a bit more manageable.
Tinuviel guided the party to Gwendolyn’s office. A simply decorated place, it nevertheless featured a stunning view of the bay and the ocean beyond through a barred window. At the desk beneath, another half-elf stood up.
Dark-brown hair, a strong jaw, more plain-looking than beautiful, Gwendolyn possessed a faint and unyielding steel in her eyes. Indeed, when Tinuviel entered, saluted, and made her report, Gwendolyn was unphased when she produced the viscera-spattered necklaces and trophies of the orc party she helped kill. “And you are the adventurers Sir Targin spoke of?”
Once she was brought up to speed, Gwendolyn sat back and stared at each of them in turn. “I don’t quite trust you,” she said at last. “The world is broken and this wizard, Meles, is near the fault-line. We will need a powerful band indeed to be rid of him and his ilk. What can you all do, anyway?”
Drawing himself up to his full height, Kaven grinned. “I am a paladin of Yondalla.” A faint gleam of divinity glittered at the tip of one of his javelins. “By the way, I sensed a desecrated place within the city as we came here.”
“There are quite a few. Where did you get that armor, by the way?”
“The dragon wyrmling we killed.” Foradjinn held up his scimitar and pointed at the fang set into the hilt. “And I am the last holder of the kabir; I sing and aid my allies in fighting better.”
“As you say in your language, yes.”
Turning to Syl, Gwendolyn raised her eyebrows. “What can you do?”
With an enormously smug look, the elf wizard spread his hands, a rainbow bursting into brilliance above his head. “Maaaagiiiiic.”
“I like you already. And you?”
Igneel blinked. “I’m a monk.”
“A fast monk.”
“He can catch arrows!” Syl unlimbered his bow but found his hand blocked from reaching into the quiver with a swift motion from Tinuviel. “What? He can!”
A nod from Gwendolyn and Tinuviel released Syl’s hand. Sure enough, the wizard’s arrow halted an inch from Igneel’s face, caught in a motion quicker than the eye could match.
Somewhat satisfied but not entirely, Gwendolyn nodded once more. To ensure they were competent and could put the needs of the lands above their own, she set them a task. “Northwest of the city, there is a quarry that hosts a low security prison. It’s called The Drop.” Running a hand along the wall beneath the window, she tapped a brick. “A lot of granite is mined there by the prisoners. Within the last week, we’ve had prisoners die. They go to bed at night and are discovered the next day, lifeless and covered in putrid green slime.” Crossing her arms, she pursed her lips. “Find out what’s killing off our free labor and then we’ll see about tackling Meles and these wizards.”
The party agreed and Gwendolyn dismissed them, desiring to speak with Tinuviel for a few minutes. Before heading out, Foradjinn used disguise self to briefly show her the appearance of the wizards they had met.
Instructing Tinuviel to aid the group until further notice, Gwendolyn also ordered her to check in with her inquisitor before she left. Obeying, the half-elf rogue returned to the courtyard to find the group waiting as quietly as only they could wait quietly. The Sword of Haré clashed with Foradjinn’s Tribal Scimitar as the bard and wizard practiced their dueling while the paladin pitted his celestial steed against the monk and his boots of speed.
With a final glare at the guard who had argued with him, Syl mounted the carriage. “Well then! To the Gleaming Star.”
Ten minutes later, Tinuviel led them into the taproom. Bustling with the early dinner crowd, the warm, slightly more posh atmosphere was particularly welcome to a hungry halfling paladin.
Foradjinn turned to Tinuviel who was already nodding. “Bernardo’s? Bernardo’s. Come with me.”
A nervous swooping sensation took the bard’s stomach and he followed the rogue from the tavern. Tinuviel ducked into a nearby alleyway and exited again after a brief moment, clad in a stunning dress and jewelry. “Now, it would be best to come up with a plan for walking around in there.” She passed a critical eye over his travel-worn clothing. “You’ll pretend you’re my servant.” Foradjinn listened carefully to every word, failing to notice Syl and Igneel poke their heads out of the door behind them.
“Want to follow them?” the wizard nudged the monk. “I can make us owls.”
Drawing near the opulent gate of the banking district, Tinuviel glanced back over her shoulder and saw two owls drifting along. Curiosity slightly piqued, she nevertheless focused on the task at hand. She waved an imperious hand at the gate guard, who, recognizing the wealth upon her, made haste to allow her entrance.
The banking district boasted what could only be described as a “stupid” amount of wealth. The finest smooth granite, the most exotic of hardwoords – the decor progressed from luxuriant toward tacky, a constant struggle to show off the most wealth. Though it was late summer, everyone strode around in heavy fur coats. Few horses trod the paved streets, curiously enough.
“Here’s the problem,” Tinuviel muttered back to Foradjinn who trailed a respectful distance behind. “I don’t exactly know where Bernardo’s is. You’re going to have to go into a store and ask.” She halted next to a tableware shop.
Gulping, Foradjinn entered. Lanterns set at intervals gleamed through fine crystal decanters and stemware. The light also sparkled off of silver and gold cutlery, the reflection offering far more illumination than the lanterns could. The feelings of disorientation rising, Foradjinn coughed and approached an older gentleman towards the back who seemed to be in charge. “Excuse me. My mistress is seeking directions to Bernardo’s?”
With a glance down his aquiline nose, the distinguished individual sniffed and pointed a careless hand down the street. “Should you proceed that way, you shall find it easily enough.”
“Thank you, sir.” Bowing, Foradjinn returned to Tinuviel.
Sure enough, after turning a bend in the street, they arrived at another bustling scene. Built of stone like most of the buildings, Bernardo’s was an edifice of opulence. Massive windows set in granite swung out into the street to allow diners to sit in the open air. A maitre d’ held court at a small podium, tapping his small pencil moustache as he leafed through an enormous ledger. A line of people stretched from his seat of judgment back down the street, full of hungry and anxious prospective patrons. Next to him stood a fair-skinned goliath dressed in fine-etched leathers. Above them all, the name of the restaurant had been chiseled in raised-relief calligraphy. More of the cat creatures Foradjinn had seen before in the marketplace scurried around, serving meals.
Approaching, Foradjinn bowed to the maitre d’ and said, “We are to meet Anaya of House Aeroth here.”
Instant recognition of the name filled the man’s eye and he bowed them both towards the inner tables.
And at long last there she sat. Golden hair braided in intricacy, skin still tanned and flawless, the jewels upon her throat paling in comparison to her bright green eyes. “Foradjinn!” she greeted, extending a beringed hand.
Struggling to act natural, Foradjinn kissed it and introduced Tinuviel. The latter did not interrupt, allowing the half-elven bard to ask his questions. Anaya proved evasive, saying she preferred not to think of the days before she was taken away to House Aeroth and the Brotherhood of the Veil. Their conversation continued and Foradjinn, though well out of his league with the niceties of conversation and etiquette, soon realized Anaya was not herself.
“Things were awkward at first with Aeroth, but I’m taken care of,” Anaya summed it up, sipping at her wine.
“Don’t you miss your family? I…did not think to ask before.” Foradjinn toyed with his food and tried to think of the right way to put things. “Should we…get word to them?”
“I miss that world sometimes. However, that’s all behind me. I don’t have the full privileges of wife standing, but, again, I’m taken care of. Now, let’s not talk of this. It’s so good to see you again, Foradjinn.”
Noting the distress in his eyes, Tinuviel leaned forward and patted Anaya’s hand. “Come now, dear, best to tell us what we need to know. We’re all friends here?” In the touch, the rogue cast friends upon their hostess.
With a subtle flash of her eyes, Anaya’s expression took on a faint tinge of steel. “And here I thought we were having such a nice dinner…”
“Anaya,” from his pocket, Foradjinn took out the amulet and the wooden carving of her Petmaer made for him in Lylilin, “I have searched for you all this time. I will always regret not being able to reach you before you were taken. You kept me from ending my life out of dishonor and showed me the possibilities of life beyond what I knew. Now I have friends in addition to you and ways to fight I never knew.” Sliding the amulet and carving across the table toward her, he sighed. “If you want to be free of this life, I will do everything in my power to help you and will not stop until you are.”
Around them, the restaurant continued in hustle and bustle. Delicious smells and genial conversation wound and wafted. In silence, Anaya picked up the carving, tracing it with her thumb. Tinuviel caught a faint glimmer in the corner of her eye.
“It is good to see you again, Foradjinn,” Anaya repeated at last, more solemn now than before. “I have a life many want. Aeroth really does take good care of me. He’s a good man…but,” her voice lowered, “his brothers may not be who they seem. The world is a strange place here.”
“I believe it,” Foradjinn muttered back.
“You remember when we traveled through the desert, Foradjinn. We walked for days, longing for water and when we reached the oasis at last, with the trees, the flowers, the water was almost dried up. There was not enough.” Raising her eyes to his, Anaya shook her head.
Standing, Foradjinn bowed. “If you ever want to leave, I know the way to water.”
“I cannot do it freely.” Societal grace taking over once again, Anaya also arose. “Thank you for coming. If you ever need anything, I will do what I can.” She extended her hand once again and Foradjinn clasped it.
A man in a chef’s hat and humongous moustache bustled up. “Ahh. Anaya! How was ze dinnehr?”
“Delicious as always, Bernardo.” With a small smile, the elf bid him and the others adieu
and swept out.
Taking wing in silent pursuit, Sylarese Owllervu and Igneel Reghowlre tracked her to a rich home, less ostentatious than the rest and tending toward the tasteful side of affluence. She paused on the front step, wiping at her eyes, and disappeared inside.
The two polymorphed elves then flew back to find Foradjinn dejected and trailing after Tinuviel once more.
“You look like you need a drink, friend,” the lady rogue said. “I know just the place.”
“Tell me about Aeroth.”
“He’s rich. And important. Full of influence.” Tinuviel did her best to explain to the tribal bard the situation.
In the end, Foradjinn shrugged and set his jaw. “Dragons have treasure, right? At least they do in the stories. Maybe if I kill a few I can match Aeroth and she’ll feel safe enough to leave him and return home again.” He fumbled for his tribal scimitar and grumbled as he remembered it was in the bag of holding. “It used to be so simple in the tribe. The ones with the most trophies had the most influence. I wasn’t the best hunter and the others would mostly take away the ones I had.” He pulled out the panther tooth he’d gotten back from Kartrana and turned it over in his hands. “I guess that’s why I still collect them now.”
“If all the bones and teeth in the bag of holding are any indication,” groused Syl as he polymorphed out of the darkness behind them and frightened the bard half to death, “You’re certainly well on your way to becoming the most influential among us.”
Though annoyed, Foradjinn nevertheless filled him and Igneel in on what had transpired and they traveled back to the Gleaming Star.
Where a certain halfling Paladin had been eating dinner and chatting up the regulars.
Munching away, Kaven at one point felt a prodding at his hip. He grabbed hold of a small wrist and caught sight of a boy leaping out of reach after an attempt at pickpocketing him. “Where are your parents?”
“Don’t have none.”
Recognizing the faint marks of hunger, the Paladin waved for another plate. “Sit down and have dinner.”
Though wary at first, the attempted pickpocket obeyed and tucked in with urgent appetite. Marum, the bartender, recognized and warned the boy, Endeer, not to cause trouble. As the urchin finished and slipped out, Marum leaned on the bar, confirming the boy’s orphan status. “Endeer’s been around, pinching the odd coinpurse. That was nice of you, though.” He filled up another tankard and slid it to Kaven. “This one’s on the house.”
When the rest rejoined Kaven, Foradjinn gathered them to a corner table. “I kept treasure when we raided Ferrin’s house,” he confessed. “There were these gems I thought I could use to buy back Anaya and, well, it doesn’t look like that’s possible now. So…here.” He handed Syl, Kaven, and Igneel a precious stone apiece. “Gracelynn back in Haré said they were worth a thousand gold apiece, so make sure you get your money’s worth.”
Holding his up to the light, the eager gleam returned to Syl’s eye. “I’m going to turn this into so many spells,” he cackled.