CHAPTER ONE: THE HIDDEN DAGGER
“LET US SIT, THEN.”
I sat on the couch, smoothing a hand over my skirt, my eyes still taking in my surroundings. It had been many cycles since I had sat in the manor of Xun’viir proper, though at a glance little had changed. The couches clustered around the fireplace were of fine make, two statues of the archetypical jaluk
of the House flanking the entrance. In the background of our meeting, a human servant bustled about, dusting furniture.
Matron Ilphaeryl regarded me in her usual impenetrable manner, unclasping her cloak and letting it drape over the back of the seat. If I had to hazard a guess I would have said she was my elder, her fine features framed by locks of stark white hair. Only on rare occasions did her expression change, and it invoked much the same emotion as seeing the features of a statue move.
“I did bring wine,” I offered, as if I’d done it in anticipation of our meeting and not because I happened to have leftover bottles from a trip to Dis. “If you’re interested.”
“I do enjoy a good vintage,” Ilphaeryl replied, her eyes (an intense and uncommon green) settling on me. I slipped the bottle from my bag, offering it to her, and she held up an index finger to me. She clicked her fingers with her other hand, and in an eyeblink the servant stood at our backs. He plucked the bottle from my hand, deftly uncorking it and pouring the contents into a wine glass, which Ilphaeryl was offered. As she took it he bustled away, the rest of the bottle gone with him.
She swirled her glass, eyes now trained on the contents. I felt once again extraordinarily out of place.
“How fares the House of late?” I posed after a moment. “I have noticed-- indeed, it is difficult not to-- that you have some returning members.”
“House Xun’viir fares quite well,” Ilphaeryl replied, her gaze tracking back to me. “Saslae has come back to the city as she tends to do periodically, though I believe she is here to stay for a short while. Jhaamdath’s return is a great surprise, but not an unwelcome one.”
I had little knowledge of Saslae to go on but her reputation, which preceded her. A prolific slaver, an enemy of the unwieldy-named dwarf settlement, and a fierce combatant. On the other hand… “I have not conversed with Saslae, but Jhaamdath has made himself… known, to Athol.”
One corner of the Matron’s mouth twitched in an almost-smile. “Indeed so? Is that something to instill… apprehension?”
I hesitated. “I wouldn’t say apprehension
, though he hasn’t exactly endeared himself to one of our retainers.”
“Of course it should be nothing that requires serious intervention--” I hated how defensive I sounded, had
to sound. “--but he’s been a touch pushy on the matter of offering Xune a rating. You might have seen her; older female, long hair, smokes a great deal.” I wondered how Xune herself might have responded to that description; I had the feeling it would have amused her.
“I have seen her about, yes,” Ilphaeryl mused, taking a sip of wine.
“She ended up needing to give her final word to his quartermaster,” I continued. “But somehow, I feel he’ll persist.”
She chuckled, and some of the tension left me. “He is persistent. He wishes the Dreadnaught to regain its former glory upon the seas. Though I am curious,” and there came the tension again, “what does Xune have to offer? I know she gave her final word…” She trailed off deliberately, the but hanging unspoken in the air.
“He spoke highly of her…” How best to phrase it? The image of Xune’s conflicted expression as she recounted the incident hung in my mind. “What is the word? Grit. He happened upon her disciplining
an arrogant female who insulted her, and thus took interest in her.”
“Jhaamdath does enjoy competence,” the matron remarked. “However, if that is what she wishes to stay with, I will let him know.” I wondered if she was referring to Xune’s final word, or more obliquely commenting that she still stayed with us. Ilphaeryl regarded the fire briefly before continuing. “Know you her hesitation, or… her desire not to be part of the crew?”
I rubbed my chin with my palm, considering. “I think there are other things she would rather dedicate herself to, before her time is over. That’s only my extrapolation, however.”
Her face seemed to show a hint of expression; perhaps pensiveness. “Her time is limited, then?”
“She has an affliction verging on the terminal,” I said simply, even as I regretted it. Was it really my business to go on about it? Granted, she’d never been particularly opaque about the matter, but it was private all the same.
But Ilphaeryl nodded. “I will see he takes it easier on her. He will not press-gang her, if you are worried over this.”
I couldn’t help but smile. “Thank you, Matron, but I am not worried. She can handle herself.” I paused. “In some ways, she’s even stronger than I am.”
She gave another nod, and then there was a lull in the conversation. Ilphaeryl took another sip of her wine. “Was there anything else you wished to speak upon?”
I thought for a moment. “Well, this is old news… but I’m curious as to your opinion on the whole incident regarding the brother Z’ress and the tiefling.” Tamaris’ name was deliberately redacted-- on the other hand, I couldn’t distinguish between Treemma and Streeaka and I had no care to. “I’ve heard a wide variety of perspectives on it.”
I could take little from the non-expression on Ilphaeryl’s face. “I find that many see ‘loyalty’ to Andunor as far more of a black-and-white thing than it should be. Especially with those who do not live within the city, hmh. Ultimately,” she pronounced, shifting her posture and settling back in the chair, “despite their justified desire to subdue the tiefling…” There was a pregnant pause. “They did aggress, and they did lose.”
The statement was all the more piercing because of its subduedness, and I forced down any amusement that could have shown on my face. “I do not expect anyone to just sit down and die,” Ilphaeryl continued, “but their further insistence to aggress was unwarranted. I spoke with the Harbinger and the Warchief to ensure they did not step on each other’s toes, and left it at that.” Did I detect a hint of long-suffering in her voice? I wondered how well she knew Hlarnoth and Arak, and wondered still if she had been here before either. No doubt she had outlasted many Tyrants, and she would outlast Arak as well.
“There was a good deal of unnecessary fallout,” I replied. “Having spoken with Tamaris, I can confidently say she’s certainly hard to make peace with. But her arrogance--”
I was interrupted suddenly by the SLAM
of the doors against the walls. As the manservant moved to close them with an irritable look on his face, in strode a duergar. Silver-haired and scowling as the rest of his kind, I nevertheless recognized him.
“Hello Pani,” Ilphaeryl said lightly, swirling her glass.
Pani huffed, briefly looking about. He held his arms out a distance from his body, as if perpetually in a fighting-ready stance, and his ashen face was always deep violet-grey. “Ahoy. Lot rambling story short, I’m tussling.”
“Ah?” Ilphaeryl said, expression unchanging. I gave a nod, unsure of what else to do.
“Was hoping I might turn in a favour for some wards and an empowered weapon,” Pani demanded. Or just asked-- his tone could have lent itself to either. “Need to put a sinner in their place.” Then, he surged forward with the surety of one who knows their surroundings, past us at the fire. “Nearest anvil?”
“Downstairs,” Ilphaeryl called after him.
“Give me a moment!” And then he was gone.
The foyer was silent again for a moment. “I wonder what that’s about.”
The matron chuckled. “Uncertain. Though I would not wish to be the object of his ire.”
“I was not aware he worked with the House,” I probed.
“Pani was Lavok’s right hand for a number of years,” she hummed, taking another sip and setting the glass on a side table. “He still does odd jobs for me.”
“A good ally to have,” I said hesitantly. And a mercurial one.
“We weave wide
webs,” she said, smiling mysteriously.
I was about to open my mouth to comment when Pani stormed back into the foyer, hefting a fine (and wicked-looking) axe in his hand. Ilphaeryl rose, magic dancing about her fingers, and with some muttered words wards twisted about the duergar and his weapon. (How did magic come to her, I wondered? Bae’qeshel
, Lolth’s favour, arcane studies?)
“That should do,” she pronounced, and I might have seen a smile touch those furred, sullen lips.
“Bonny,” he rumbled, moving for the door. “Wouldn’t normally ask, but blighted premonition is my damn bane.”
“Enjoy, Pani,” Ilphaeryl said elegantly. I nodded, unsure of what else to say lest I kept him from his crusade.
With a grunt, the door slammed behind us, a quiet huff coming from the manservant as he moved to turn the locks.
The matron sat back down, chuckling to herself. “Well. Had you anything else you wished to broach?”
“The, er.” Still mentally processing what had just happened, I grasped a moment for words. “The prior matter was intended to lead into Z’ress’ recent dormancy. I’ve heard news of Matron Aly’arra departing the city for a time, for example.”
She nodded slowly. “I have only seen Treemma as of late. The House seems to subsist only on war… unsurprising, given its name. When there is more conflict, they may likely return.”
I recalled Ilphaeryl’s prior praise of the House, her pride in Matron O’annir, and chose my next words carefully. “It seems unsustainable, if I may be so bold.”
“It is,” she replied, to my mild surprise. “War is an important aspect of our people. Domination and strength…” She plucked the glass off the side table, taking another sip. “The desire to kill leads towards expansion. But those who hold such bloodlust rarely comprehend how to exist without it.”
For some reason, my mind turned towards Gorehound and the Z
brand on his shoulder blades.
“War carves the way for civilization to grow, but there must be respite that follows, to grow what you have conquered,” she finished.
“Such as it is,” I said, watching the flames in the fireplace dance. “And when a House built on war loses one, it breeds contempt. Or that is what I have been gleaning.”
She reclined further in the chair. “That can be the case. It is unfortunate, but many of our people in Andunor rarely take… measured prediction into consideration. They are as reactionary as the masses.”
“That’s what I’m starting to realize, yes,” I replied.
There was a rapping on the front door, and the manservant approached, cracking the door and saying something indistinct to someone on the other side. A high, grating voice, one that could only have belonged to a goblin runner, sounded, and the servant closed the door to look at Ilphaeryl. “Matron. Treemma Z’ress has sent a message-- he desires an audience.”
She hummed softly, setting down her glass. “I fear I must take that. Unless there is anything else you wish to broach, Nemerarie.”
I shifted in place, moving to rise. “No, that is perfectly understandable. I apologize if I took too much of your time, Matron.”
“It is fine,” she said, rising alongside me. “I do enjoy discussion, hm hm.” She seemed to scrutinize me a final time. “A dark cycle for now, Nemerarie. May Lloth’s webs ensnare your foes.”
“Thank you,” I said, wondering if the same blessing upon her would have come off as derivative. “Dark cycles, as well.”
I was promptly (yet politely) shooed out by the manservant, coming to stand on the streets of Andunor. The scent of industry was thick in this part of the city, smoke rising above the chimneys of smithies, the stench of unwashed bodies from the slave cages wafting towards me as I passed to the entrance of the Hub.
Ilphaeryl had given me much to think on. Xune did not want to be part of Jhaamdath’s crew, naturally, but that didn’t mean House Athol could have no hands in this new voyage of the Dreadnought. And House Z’ress’ newfound dormancy meant there were gaps, however small, in the Table’s hierarchy.
And of course, perhaps the most important matter, was considering the web Xun’viir wove.
ooc afterword: based on a TRUE STORY you guise. or real in-game dialogue. also yes, i know the formatting kind of sucks; bbcode is hell to play with, and i'll probably come back and edit the indents to be less wild later.