Those Who Harp by Slide


Chapter: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Chapter 1: Darkest Nights

The Athkatlan docks were rarely the setting for the happiest of occasions. As a place where a murder could happen at least once a night and nobody would bat an eyelid, it was hardly somewhere the Amnish Guard decided to poke its nose into too often – after all, they valued their noses, and the way Aran Linvail ran the area they’d be lucky to keep them if they interfered with the Shadowmaster’s businesses. Nobody did.

Well, almost nobody. Despite the fact that the Shadow Thieves clamped down hard on any independent operators within Athkatla, there were still some individuals foolish enough – or resourceful enough – to challenge the guild. These were people who ran operations in the utmost secrecy, out of fear of Linvail rather than fear of the Amnish Guard.

One such operation was currently being run by people who rather suited the criteria needed to go more than a nanosecond when running an independent Athkatlan criminal business. Down in the darkest depths of the docks, in the most hidden, secretive piers which were all but impossible to access and thus barely used, a boat was settling in to dock.

It wasn’t a particularly large boat, for a great ship would not fit in this tiny pier in a darkened corner of the district, yet it was still suitably large enough to draw attention to itself if something went awry. Which is why the resourceful people in charge had made every effort to ensure this didn’t happen.

The boat, the Wolf Fang, was little more than a ferry from her mother ship, which was anchored off-shore, just beyond reach of the Athkatlan authorities. Sailing under neutral flags and doing nothing any more aggressive than loitering, the Seawolf had stubbornly resisted all efforts made by Amnish battleships to encourage her to move along.

The Wolf Fang’s temporary captain and first mate on board the Seawolf was first to bound down the gangplank the moment his craft settled against the pier. His pace was light and bouncy as he clearly ignored the ominous creaks the plank below his feet gave out at every step.

Two men were awaiting him on the pier. The first one, a massive brute of a man who probably had more than a little Orc blood in him, seemed quite content to gaze at the ship with a rather distant air, his eyes glazing over as the boring wait for the Fang’s arrival penetrated and melted his slow brain a little bit.

The second man was far more alert. Small and wiry, with a dark cloak and hood thrown over him which would have made him look inconspicuous if it wasn’t made from a fabric so fine that no simple commoner could afford it, he watched the Fang’s skipper disembark jovially through his hard steel-grey eyes.

Ramman Thorstein of the Seawolf stepped onto the semi-solid land of the pier and grinned cheerfully at the waiting party. “Greetings, mates!” he declared, a little too cheerfully and stereotypically for the second man’s liking. He adjusted his garish sash and shifted his hat so it sat on his head at a rakish angle. “I suppose you’re awaiting our little package?”

Baron Geoffrey Ployer resisted the urge to roll his eyes as he pushed the hood back from his head to show his full head of dark, if greying, hair and rather worn face. Thorstein knew him to be only about forty, though he looked considerably older. “You’re late,” he declared at last, and the attempt to project some malice into the lyrical, educated tones of his voice failed rather magnificently.

“The tides and wind were against us,” Ramman Thorstein replied jauntily. These men weren’t sailors. They wouldn’t know that Captain Bates had wanted to sample their wares for a few extra moments before handing them over. It wasn’t as if the goods had been spoiled, or anything. “Do you have the money?”

Ployer turned to the Orcish man, who lifted a large sack and passed it to the jovial Thorstein. The sailor took it with a brief nod of cheerful thanks, before opening it up and glancing inside.

“I trust everything is to your liking,” the baron continued lightly, still attempting to intimidate the far taller and broader man. “As I trust everything will be to mine, otherwise I shall be taking that money back, Mister Thorstein.”

Ramman raised an eyebrow as he brushed his light brown hair back from where it dangled over his eyes in a way he thought gave him a suitably roguish air before responding. “Hey, hey, hey,” he responded soothingly, raising his hands in a gesture of submission. “We wouldn’t be wanting to lose your patronage, just as you wouldn’t be wanting to lose our supplies. We’re all friends here, milord. Neither of us have been dissatisfied with the other on past ventures.”

“Yes, but, as I’m sure you’re aware, my demands this time are considerably higher than they have been in the past,” Ployer pointed out, shrugging. “Everything must be absolutely perfect. I can’t afford for things to go wrong.”

“And everything is fine. They’re all tucked in back there, sitting pretty, just waiting to be handed over into your loving hands,” Thorstein assured him, gesturing briefly back at the Fang. “Do you have the carriages?”

Ployer turned to look back at the long stairs along the side of one of the old, run-down buildings of the Docks District which led to the main road. “At the top. My men are waiting up there – they shall help supervise the disembarking. Fortunately, there are not as many items as before, otherwise we would be here until dawn with your late arrival.” The attempt to project a slight amount of irritation was not missed by Thorstein, but the comparative master of subtle intimidation ignored the baron’s attempts to daunt him.

He turned to face the sailor straight on as his Orcish manservant hefted a large battleaxe in a way which suggested that no wriggling on Thorstein’s part would allow him to say ‘no’ to the next suggestion. “I would like to see the wares before we partake in the exchange,” Ployer explained mildly.

* *

For the past few weeks, all dozen of the captured humans had been stuck in a small hold which had gradually filled up with refuse, both from themselves and the inedible portions of their daily rations. There had been no escape from their situation, from their captors, from each other. Within hours, nobody had been able to notice the smell any more. It simply became as much a part of their life as the background noise of the waves crashing against the side of the ship.

Which is why the short move from the hold of the Seawolf to the Wolf’s Fang had seemed like an absolute blessing. Some of them were seeing the sky for the first time in months, the feel of fresh air on the face and feeling clean for the first time in what seemed like an age as their captors threw buckets of salt water over them to remove the accumulated grime invigorating them. Yet, none of them had thought that this was the end of their torment. They had already begun to accept their fate; they merely welcomed the brief respite from the hell they were in.

The hold of the Fang was considerably smaller than that of the Seawolf, and they had been exceedingly cramped on the bigger ship. Now there was barely space for them to move. The trip to the docks had taken all of a half-hour, during which time nobody had said a word. Words had long ceased having any relevance.

When the door to the hold had swung open and the big man, the biggest brute of them all after his captain, had stepped in, followed by a small, mousy-looking individual they didn’t recognise, it was quite clear things were going to change; that their torture had only just begun.

Ployer looked at the selection of pitiful-looking humans before him, giving each of them the careful, appraising inspection of the expert. Some were dark-skinned, some pale; some male, some female; some younger, some older; some big and muscular, some small and wiry. But they all had one thing in common: the spark of the eye and tilt of the chin that made them of a disposition which was absolutely perfect for what he needed them for. He needed survivors. He needed fighters.

He didn’t say that, however. “This is the best you could find?” the baron demanded of Thorstein, injecting absolute disdain into his voice, a façade the sharp sailor picked up on instantly. “They don’t look like much to me.”

“Ah, that’s just a bit of malnutrition,” Thorstein replied, not willing to be goaded into playing Ployer’s games. “Feed them well and they’ll be just what you need for the pits. We searched far and wide for this dozen, picking only the best of the bunches. The others got sold off along the way.” He cocked an eyebrow at the irksome aristocrat. “Why’d you only want humans, anyway?”

Ployer smiled a thin, rather disturbing smile, before turning to his Orcish manservant. “Explain, please, Warner,” he asked lightly, continuing with his inspection of the goods as if Thorstein was not worthy of another second of his time.

Warner gave a brief grunt of acknowledgement as he turned to Thorstein. The two men exchanged a pained look as both glanced in the baron’s direction, before the half-orc offered the explanation he’d been told too many times. “Them nobles don’t really want to see little dwarves and skinny elves running around fighting each other. They want to see humans fighting humans – more engaging, Lord Ployer says.”

The baron waved a finger approvingly in his manservant’s direction. “Very good, Warner, very good.” He straightened up, finished in his appraisal, and turned back to Thorstein. “I am suitably impressed. Give Captain Bates my compliments, and aid me in disembarking this rabble, if you would be so kind.”

The respite from whip and squalor had been brief, as all dozen of the slaves knew, and as they were driven through the darkest nights of Athkatla to unknown destinations, every single one of them knew that this was not the end of their troubles – merely the beginning.


Chapter 2: Of Balance

Arteris Galvarey paced casually in the grand hall of the Harper’s headquarters within Athkatla. The tall, broad shouldered young man picked his path carefully, stepping only in the illuminated parts of the entrance hall, the light of massive torches on the roof and walls dancing off his armour in a way that made him look almost ethereal. It made him look powerful. He wanted to seem almost celestial, for it was only in appearance that he could rival the man he was due to meet.

Herald Vedus of Athkatla had ordered him to meet and brief the sage Gorion Greenmantle when he arrived. Galvarey had always been intimidated by the great man, who was one of the most powerful mages of the Harpers, barring Blackstaff and such. Although Gorion was not, technically, a full member of the Harpers, but rather the closest thing to a sub-contractor they could get, he held more prestige and power than Galvarey himself did.

Understandably, the young Harper hated this. He was on his way up, working to ingratiate himself with Herald Vedus until he could gain a post of power of his own. He was a Herald’s right-hand man; that in itself should offer some kind of cache. And he was still young. There was still that ladder to climb.

The great door of the entrance swung open with a loud creak. Three times the height of a normal man and about twice as broad, it seemed ready to proclaim the arrival of a grand group of victorious adventurers, rather than the silent coming of a single, humble man.

Gorion Greenmantle drew his emerald robes closer around him as he closed the door. Though it was pouring down with rain outside, a thunderstorm threatening sleeping Athkatla, the mage seemed bone-dry, and hardly hindered by the climate.

The sage looked around confidently. For as long as Galvarey had known him, the wizard had seemed eternally aged. He didn’t know just how many years he had seen, but his hair had remained a close-cropped steel-grey for all the time Arteris could remember him.

Finally, Greenmantle’s eyes settled on Galvarey, and the mage stepped forwards slowly. Although there was nothing threatening about his pace, the Harper felt mildly intimidated as Gorion walked carefully and confidently towards him, smooth and silky as a cat.

The sage eventually outstretched a hand towards the younger man. “Arteris. It is good to see you in good health,” he greeted Galvarey, a small smile tugging at his otherwise utterly emotionless face. There was no twinkle in the eyes as he regarded the Harper.

Galvarey resisted the urge to squirm as he shook Gorion’s hand. “A pleasure to receive you, milord Greenmantle,” he responded humbly, bobbing his head up and down in a rather lackey-ish manner. Then he remembered just who he was, what he was doing, and that someone with his designs would not be intimidated by the mage and he straightened up. “The Herald asked that I brief you the moment you arrived. We should not waste more time.”

Gorion nodded, his green eyes twinkling at last as he noticed Galvarey’s attempt to remain in control of the situation. “Yes, Vedus can be a little impatient,” he commented as the younger Harper turned and veritably scurried towards one of the side rooms off the great hall, all the while trying to stand up straight and look imposing. Greenmantle smiled; the ambitious youth amused him.

The room Galvarey had chosen was small and cosy, each wall lined with bookshelves filled with various volumes on history, culture and mythology. The only gaps were for the door and the fireplace, where dying embers cast a slight, reddish glow on the otherwise dark room.

Galvarey moved to the fireplace and picked up a log lying beside it. Gesturing absently for Gorion to take a seat, he hefted the bellows and gently goaded the fire back to life. Soon the previously dark and cold room was warming up, and most of the shadows were being chased away to the darkest corners of the bookshelves.

Gorion took the large, overstuffed armchair in front of the heavy oaken desk that sat in the centre of the room, made a little steeple with his hands, and peered at the young Harper inquisitively. As Galvarey started to pace in front of the fire, he had the horrible impression that the mage already knew what was going on.

“Slavery in Athkatla has always been a most active business,” Arteris Galvarey started falteringly, clasping his hands behind his back – not a mean feat when wearing the chain mail he sported. “But in recent years, mostly thanks to our endeavours, it has slackened off considerably. The Shadow Thieves have withdrawn in their advances in that direction, limiting themselves to their usual activities, and thus it is an enterprise usually only undertaken by independent parties.”

“And the Shadow Thieves most certainly do not like that,” Gorion mused levelly, stroking his silvery beard with a thoughtful air. “Thus any successful slavers in the city would have to be the most resourceful of individuals.”

“Precisely,” Galvarey responded, trying to keep the irritation out of his voice. He had rehearsed this briefing carefully, wanting to impress the sage with his knowledge. He was starting to think, however, that Greenmantle already know more than he did. “As such, there are only a handful of slavers now active in Athkatla, and we have tabs on most of them. They’re small-time operators, and present little threat to anyone.”

“Other than the slaves they keep,” Gorion pointed out mildly.

Again, Galvarey resisted the urge to glare at him. “Uh, yes. As it is, they’re being taken down one by one, but subtly enough that they don’t realise we’re keeping tabs on all of them.” He paused, looking straight at the mage. “Unfortunately, there’s one party that has just emerged which aren’t so easy to deal with.” He pulled a scroll from somewhere inside his armour and slid it across the desk towards Gorion.

The mage took and unrolled it wordlessly. “Ah, the infamous Baron Ployer strikes again,” he commented lightly, raising an eyebrow. “The man gets around, I must say. I believed we had seen the last of this particular Calimshite.”

“Not a chance,” Galvarey replied, shaking his head and offering what he hoped was a knowing glance. “He’s as slippery as an eel, this fellow.” The Harper wilted under Gorion’s inquisitive glance, and he bowed his head a little miserably. “I’ve read the file.”

Greenmantle raised his eyebrow even higher, but passed no comment. “I take it you wish for me to investigate, and bring down his organisation if at all possible.” It wasn’t a question. “I believe that is within my capabilities, gods willing. Who do I have working with me?”

Galvarey glanced down at a second sheet. “Darial’s party,” he answered brightly, smiling hopefully. “Belgrade should tag along, and two newer members as well. A suitably highly skilled group.”

“Darial…” Gorion frowned thoughtfully. “Since when was she given a party to run? Last I heard, she was working under Aisath.”

“Things have changed. Aisath has retired from the field,” Arteris Galvarey responded lightly, shrugging in a non-committal way. “The Herald thought she quite capable of running a group herself. You have no problem?”

“With her? No.” Greenmantle shook his head firmly. “It simply seems I have been away long enough to be out of date on the recent Harper politics. And I am a little concerned to have Belgrade and Darial working together.”

Galvarey looked blankly at him. “They seem to get on perfectly well. I have heard no cases of any trouble between the two of them,” the desktop-working Harper replied mildly, a little nonplussed.

“You obviously haven’t been in the field with the two of them together,” Gorion muttered under his breath, before standing up and looking straight at Galvarey. “I shall meet them when they arrive tomorrow,” he said simply, slipping the scroll into the recesses of his emerald robes.

“They should be here in the late afternoon. Darial is travelling with Khalid, one of the two newer members, a half-elven native of Calimport. He may have connections which will help in finding Ployer. Belgrade is with the second new member, Jaheira, a druid whom I, personally, have reservations about yet Belgrade was insistent should join the group.” Galvarey looked a little miffed, as if Belgrade’s opinion couldn’t possibly be as valuable as his own.

Gorion gave him a thoughtful look. “I shall reserve judgement for when I meet the girl,” he replied levelly. “If Belgrade’s found something of worth in her, then I shall trust his opinion enough to give her a chance. Good day, Arteris,” he finished formally, before turning and striding out of the room.

Galvarey glared at the closed door once Greenmantle was gone. “Belgrade has found something of worth in her,” he muttered bitterly, “because he’s bedding the girl…”


Chapter 3: Wilderness

Whilst the urban grandness of Athkatla did indeed spread across an impressive fraction of Amn, the southern land was hardly overwhelmed by cities and towns. Within two miles past the city gates a traveller could find themselves in the deepest undergrowth, trudging along a small dirt path in the middle of the densest forest.

Some fifteen miles out, on the outskirts of one of these forests, a pair of travellers had settled down to camp for the night, a final stop before making the final leg to Athkatla the following morning.

The last of the sun’s rays had long stopped penetrating the filter of the tree branches, and the only illumination offered was that of the small yet vicious campfire that had been set up, over which a small pot of unidentifiable stew was merrily bubbling.

The slender dark-haired woman stirring occasionally at the dinner lifted the metal ladle, blew lightly on the doubtlessly boiling hot food, before tentatively tasting it. Her companion, a man of light build and slightly pointy ears that displayed his elven heritage watched her dubiously.

After a second’s brief coughing, the woman firmly spat the offending mouthful onto the floor before frantically lunging across their small campsite towards her travel pack and struggling with the water flask to unscrew the lid.

Her half-elven companion watched the display with a slight smile of nervous amusement lingering on his lips. “A l-little hot, is it then, D-Darial?” he asked inquisitively, his slight stammer impeding his speech a little.

Darial the bard gave him a mock-glower. “Don’t try sarcasm or dry wit, Khalid. It doesn’t suit you,” she retorted wryly, shaking her head before she gulped down yet more cooling water.

Khalid shrugged, taking his own bowl and rather bravely serving himself a generous portion of the stew. “I rarely have t-trouble getting people to laugh at m-me,” he replied ruefully, stirring the stew and letting free an almost overwhelming amount of steam.

The bard grimaced slightly as she sat back down on the opposite side of the fire, helping herself to her own share from the small pot. “Sorry,” she replied, shaking her head a little. “I just hate it when people criticise my food. I’m a good cook, and don’t forget it,” she continued, waggling a finger at him cheerfully.

Khalid smiled nervously. Darial had so far been unsuccessful in getting the perpetually anxious warrior to laugh outright, though he never seemed to treat any of her jokes with anything other than humour. This was quite a feat; even she acknowledged that some of her quips were truly terrible.

His problem, the bard considered, was that he was so insecure he didn’t dare do anything other than his utmost to ingratiate himself with others. As people had informed her when she’d met up with him in Tethyr, this sometimes got on peoples’ nerves; fortunately the laid-back bard found him little other than endearing. Though not the most confident of people, Khalid was always polite, well-mannered and rather cheerful. Many of Darial’s former companions had been some of the dreariest Harpers imaginable.

“I wouldn’t d-dare,” Khalid muttered, shaking his head. The bard gave him a brief, sharp look before hiding it with a smirk. Good; she’d already started to loosen him up since they’d joined forces a mere week ago. “At what t-time should we be r-reaching Athkatla t-tomorrow?” he asked out loud.

Darial paused for a moment, considering. “Depends on what time we set off, and whether or not you insist we pause every ten minutes for a drink,” she replied teasingly. “But with a little luck, by lunchtime. We’ll be feasting with the Herald within twenty-four hours.”

Khalid’s eyebrows shot up. “T-the Herald?” he repeated, his voice going up a mildly panicked pitch.

The bard paused. Her warrior companion was barely twenty; young by human standards and still an infant by elven. Though his combined genetics tended to wreak havoc on each other, contradicting wildly on matters such as age, Khalid’s quiet nature sometimes made him seem older than he appeared. It rendered him rather easy to tease.

As did his stutter and the fact that he was slightly jumpy. In fact, on the whole, he was an easy target. A far too easy target, which led Darial to suspect he would have experience in shrugging off any taunt offered by someone less scrupulous by herself.

So instead of teasing him, however good-naturedly, she decided to give him a break and shook her head, her dark eyes twinkling merrily. “Nah, I doubt it,” Darial conceded. “We’ll probably never even see Vedus whilst we’re there. According to what I’ve been told, we’ll be working under Gorion Greenmantle, the sage.”

Khalid’s brows knitted together as he frowned with thought. “Greenmantle,” he repeated softly and considerately in an absent tone which suggested he was trying to remember something.

“Yep. Gorion Greenmantle,” Darial repeated. “Great man, great mage. Whatever we’re up to, he’ll make sure we don’t do anything too stupid. Great man.” She nodded sagely. “Whatever we’re up to.”

* *

Darial and Khalid would have been kicking themselves had they known that the Dancing Dragon Inn lay a mere five miles north of their current location. Whilst the trek there would have been mildly challenging, it would have then relieved them of the troubles presented by cooking and the undeniable chill of the Amnish nights as all the heat accumulated from the blisteringly hot days fled from the ground.

They would also have had a chance to meet some of their future companions, although neither of them seemed particularly inclined to go about and meet new people that night… for they were perfectly content with each others’ company.

In a small yet comfortably furnished room, the first rays of sunlight sneaked through the tiny gap in the curtain, strategically aimed so as to hit one of the two people sleeping in the big bed directly in the eyes.

He stirred slightly, shifting out of the light, but the damage was already done; he’d been woken up. With a groan of dissatisfaction, the Harper Belgrade sat up slowly, rubbing his eyes in an attempt to shake off the fatigue that had not yet been dismissed by sunlight.

Scratching at the stubble that graced his chin, the human turned to glance at his sleeping partner, who had clearly not been roused by the arrival of dawn. On a brief whim of amused envy, he lightly poked her bare shoulder. “Jaheira? Wilt thou be rousing thyself any time within the next few seasons?”

The young druid swatted at his hand none-too firmly, rolling over to present her back to him as she slid further underneath the covers. “Belgrade,” she started, her voice a quiet mumble of dissatisfaction, “I am attempting to sleep. You deprived me of that pleasure last night, so have the decency to permit me to have another hour or so.”

Belgrade raised an eyebrow, blinking. “But –“


Jaheira’s tone was firm, and threatened possible intense pain if he was to push the matter. Raising his hands in submission, Belgrade shifted away and slid out of the bed, wincing with anticipation as he brought a bare foot down on the coarse wooden floor which promised splinters.

He fished quickly for the comfortable dressing gown that was one of the few luxuries of the slightly natty room, temporarily slipping his feet into his light boots as he trooped across the room towards the mirror on the wall. Though he was almost silent in his movements, he knew he was still making a noise, and intentionally – the sooner Jaheira woke up, the sooner they could be moving on. Odd how a druid who would get him up before dawn when they camped in the wild would demand a lie-in once sleeping in a normal bed.

Then again, last night was hardly the most relaxing of nights, was it? Belgrade grinned to himself as he retrieved his shaving equipment and proceeded to remove his face of the offending stubble that had accumulated overnight.

Though he could not quite attend to it at the moment, his sandy-blonde hair was getting just a little too long for his liking. Though not particularly vain, Belgrade took great pains in keeping himself neat and tidy. He’d have to attend to that later.

As he scraped the blade along his damp face, wincing as a brief slip sliced a little – fortunately not deep enough to draw blood – he glanced at the reflection of the sleeping Jaheira.

He had brought her into the Harpers himself after their rather dramatic meeting in Tethyr. Intrigued by the druid’s fire, her passion for life and dedication to fighting what she believed in, it had not taken long before their relationship had pushed from being friends to being lovers. Most of his superiors frowned on it, but Belgrade could easily push their disapproval aside. He did the work they needed; what more could they ask of him?

To be on time at his assignment, he supposed, frowning a little. Then he looked at Jaheira again, and shook his head. He valued his neck more than the opinion of his superiors, anyway…


Chapter 4: Drinking Hole

“I’m n-not so sure we should be sitting in a tavern when we c-could be heading over to the Harper Headquarters,” Khalid commented unhappily as he and Darial sat in the Crooked Crane, a rather ancient and dilapidated tavern just within the city gates. He sipped his ale then grimaced; there was clearly more water than alcohol in the mixture.

“We won’t be here for long,” the bard replied absent-mindedly, drinking lightly from a glass filled with a golden, sparkling liquid. “Gorion won’t be expecting us for another few hours.”

The half-elf frowned slightly, clearly a little nervous to challenge his direct superior on a matter that he was not necessarily fully informed about. “Then… why are we h-here?” he asked tentatively.

“Waiting for someone,” Darial responded, not looking at him as she scanned the tavern from their seat at the bar. “I’d planned to meet him here all along.” Finally, she gave the unsure warrior a sideways glance. “He’s an old friend.”

“I s-see,” Khalid murmured, cradling the tankard in his hands as he stared at the swirling mixture he had been foolish enough to order. This was his first assignment with the Harpers, and he wasn’t particularly sure why he’d been selected. From all accounts, Darial was a seasoned veteran, even if she was only a few years older than himself. He had no idea what he was expected to contribute to what sounded like a highly important mission.

Truth be told, he was also rather intimidated by the bard. He knew that there were still other members of the party they were to meet up with, and that he probably had something of an advantage, having travelled already with the leader, but her forcefully outgoing and perpetually chirpy nature was such a direct contrast to his own that it was slightly overwhelming. He rather hoped that his other companions would be a little more sedate then his leader.

He eyed the other drinkers of the tavern dubiously. Though Calimshan hardly heralded the greatest of drinking-holes, he was clearly softer than these hard-core Athkatlan drunkards – in that he was used to getting a clean glass. Khalid was fully aware that there were finer establishments than the Crooked Crane within the walls, and was thus very suspicious of Darial’s reasons for dragging him in here.

Behind him, the tavern door swung open with an ear-piercing squeak that demanded oil, and the half-elf winced. As he took a gulp of his ale in the hope that the little alcohol within might help dull the pain, he barely registered Darial’s face lighting up.

“Ah, here he is!” she exclaimed cheerfully, half-rising and waving in the direction of the door. As Khalid was facing the wall, he had his back to the newcomer, and by the time he’d managed to swallow his ale and turn around, the new arrival had already reached the table.

He looked up to see a sandy-haired man with a roguish grin he probably thought made him seem ruggedly-handsome; Khalid didn’t think himself the best judge of such matters.

Belgrade was probably about two inches shorter than the half-elf, though it was difficult to discern whilst the latter was still seated. Despite this, he was slightly broader around the shoulders, which wasn’t a particularly difficult task, and obviously in possession of a confidence Khalid was inherently lacking.

“Darial!” the human greeted the bard, pumping her hand warmly as he pulled up a nearby chair. “You must be the only person who could persuade me to enter a place such as this; by Tymora, the beer seems to have things living in it, and I do not refer to yeast!”

The dark-haired woman shrugged, shifting her chair around to offer Belgrade more space. “There’s no place easier to get to than this tavern once you’ve hit Athkatla. I thought it’d be a good meeting spot,” she exclaimed lightly. Khalid did not miss the glance the two exchanged as they spoke.

“Of course,” Belgrade murmured, shaking his head. “You are accustomed to sordid establishments such as this, though I’d suspect you’d be murdered on the spot if you attempted to interrupt the drinking with a spot of singing…”

Khalid blanked them out as they started to exchange mildly friendly gibes, feeling a little put out. He studied the new arrival intently, taking in his practical yet fine clothing, neat leather armour and classing him as one of those rogues that occasionally graced the Harpers ranks.

So intend was he in studying Belgrade that he failed to notice the shadow that fell over him, and was only shifted out of his reverie by the pointed clearing of a throat. He glanced up to see Belgrade’s half-elven companion, who was currently giving him a rather haughty look.

“Are you going to move so I can sit down, or shall I be forced to stand as you stare at your drink?” Jaheira asked as disdainfully as she could manage, rather ignoring Khalid’s shocked expression.

Blushing right to the tips of his ears, the warrior mumbled something that could have been apologetic under his breath before shifting his chair around to leave Jaheira space for her to pull up her own seat to the now rather crowded table.

“S-sorry,” he stammered, not making eye contact. “I w-was j-just… t-thinking…” To hide his embarrassment, he took another deep gulp of his watered-down ale and grimaced as the dregs from the bottom of the tankard found themselves in his mouth.

“Evidently,” Jaheira answered, but her voice had now lost something of its former venom. The day had not gone well so far; she was irritated at Belgrade for making this unnecessary diversion when they would have done best to report to the Harper Headquarters as soon as possible.

Her eyes wandered over to the quiet, tanned red-haired man she had just been more than slightly abrupt with. The chain mail he wore had to be excruciatingly hot considering the temperatures both inside and out, though he seemed to be bearing it well, even if he did seem a little distracted.

Darial finally managed to extract herself from recounting the trip from Tethyr long enough to realise what she was supposed to be doing. “Oh! Yes! Introductions!” The bard set down her glass of sparkling wine and looked at Khalid. “This is Belgrade, an old friend of mine,” she exclaimed, clapping the aforementioned human on the shoulder. “He’s the sneakiest bugger you’ll ever meet, but he has a heart of gold.” She paused, giving a mildly melodramatic frown. “If he hasn’t sold it yet.”

Belgrade winked at her before shaking Khalid’s hand. “I am presuming that you would be Khalid, the party’s new warrior,” he offered brightly. “I have heard… certain things… about you. Working together shall be a pleasure.”

Certain things? How? Khalid wondered idly. He knew that Belgrade and Darial, as moderately respected members of the Harpers, would have access to information low-grade members such as himself would never be given, but he always wondered just how much was on file.

Instead of replying, he merely nodded respectfully before turning to Belgrade’s companion. “And y-you are?” he asked lightly, trying to keep his expression open and friendly, rather than in its perpetually nervous state.

So the stammer is a speech impediment rather than something brought about by nerves, Jaheira observed silently as she briefly studied the other half-elf. “My name is Jaheira,” she replied simply, not giving away anything in her expression. “I’m from a druid grove in Tethyr.” She turned to Darial before Khalid could reply. “And I would presume that you are our party’s leader, Darial?”

The bard paused, looking considerate at this assumption. “Pretty much right,” she acceded, nodding slightly. “But this particular mission we’re heading to, whatever it is, smatters of the higher-ups. The man in charge is going to be someone a little more influential than little old me.” She grinned brightly, receiving little more than a cool and inquisitive glance from the druid.

“It is indeed Gorion, then?” Belgrade asked mildly, placing a hand on Jaheira’s shoulder in a way that was not missed by either Khalid or Darial. The latter raised an eyebrow, but neither passed comment.

“Absolutely,” she said instead, nodding. A quick glance out the window of the Crooked Crane confirmed that the sun was high in the sky. “I would suggest we get moving to go and meet him, then. Greenmantle can get a little bit… peeved if we yank him around.” She flashed a grin at the other three. “You don’t want to peeve a powerful spellcaster like him.”


Chapter 5: Down Under

Baron Ployer looked around the converted cellars of his grand house in Athkatla’s Government District with an air of something approaching glee. Although he was not new to the slaving business, it always filled him with something of a thrill when he embarked on a new venture with fresh blood, so to speak.

The slaves he had bought from the Seawolf would most certainly require a little training – unlike most slavers in Athkatla, Ployer knew that the key to an entertaining fight was not simply allowing them to be slaughtered by trolls. The audience wanted human against human with blade and bone, and would hardly be entertained by a pair of gritty men rolling around brutishly. They could go and start a bar-room brawl if they wanted to see that kind of fight. No, Ployer specialised in bringing unusual entertainment of a more specialised kind to the upper classes.

The cellars of his mansion had changed from being a place to store wine to being a place to train men and women on how to kill each other. Rows upon rows of cells greeted him in the massive cellar, and as he walked down the corridor they presented, he could feel the eyes of the slaves on him. He could feel the hate, the anger, the desire for vengeance.

Ployer smiled a little as he walked past the cells, the depth of emotion washing over him. It was good; good that they felt like this. When the slaves were so pent-up, so furious and tense, it generally released itself in the arena. The greatest pit fighters of all were the ones with the most anger.

At the end of the dozen or so cages, Ployer had had his employees construct an arena not too dissimilar to the pits of the Copper Coronet, the top spot for showing off his fighters. The trainers, most of them retired Amnish guards, were going through the moves with some of the more receptive slaves, showing them the ropes. Some had skills already.

In a larger cage to the side of the arena, a pair of slaves fought viciously. One was small and wiry, using his smaller size to dodge the powerful blows of his opponent, who was a huge man wielding a rather large and dangerous-looking axe.

Although the first man was darting around frantically, giving the odd fierce jab with his short sword, it was the larger fighter who seemed tired, his dark skin shining with a coat of sweat as he swung futilely at his opponent.

The fight seemed grossly mismatched. The giant wore a ragged set of chainmail, and his axe was almost as big as the smaller man, who had little more than his tiny blade and rags of clothing held together by leather straps. Yet somehow, the undersized fighter was holding his own.

Ployer meandered over towards where Warner stood by the cell door, avidly watching the fight. In addition to being a personal servant and bodyguard, the half-orc was also a highly skilled trainer and warrior himself.

“Warner,” the baron started, his voice low and mildly inquisitive. “May I just ask why you have a giant against a midget? The whole point of this enterprise is that the fights aren’t grossly uneven.”

Warner turned to his employer, his expression as blank as usual. Ployer didn’t realise his servant was sharper than he let on, however, for it suited the half-orc to appear confounded by anything complicated. “Sorry, sir. I just think the crowds will be entertained when they see the little guy beat the big guy.”

Ployer frowned, and was about to press further when there was a bellow of victory from inside the cage. The larger, dark-skinned fighter had flipped his opponent onto his back, and was about to bring his axe down in a blow that would split his skull.

Panic filled the baron. But… we don’t want to have them killed off yet! They must be trained, must die in the pits! Otherwise, they’re worth absolutely nothing! Yet, before he could call out, something very unexpected happened.

At the last second, the tiny fighter rolled out of the way, allowing the axe to deflect noisily off the cobbled floor. Before a second blow could arrive, however, the small slave’s hands moved speedily, and he seemed to be mumbling something under his breath.

As Ployer watched, incredulous, five small red arcane bolt shot from the small fighter’s fingers and hit his opponent full in the face. The giant bellowed in pain as the spellcaster leapt to his feet and, with frightening speed, whirled his blade around to smash him in the face with the hilt, knocking him into unconsciousness.

The small warrior dropped his sword to the floor and turned to the door of the cell as Ployer started to clap slowly. “Very impressive… very impressive,” the baron applauded him. “Clever to keep your magic hidden until the end, as a secret resource.”

“Yes… it is,” the other man said, approaching the baron. His none-too-deep voice had a slightly eastern lilt to it, the accent reminding Ployer of a Thayvian he had once met… but not quite.

“You’re from Rashemen, aren’t you?” the aristocrat asked lightly, taking the keys from Warner to unlock the cell door. He had nothing to fear from the slave – the man was clearly sensible enough to realise that any attempted attack, arcane or physical, would bring instant death from the guards.

“I am. Travelling slavers captured me, then I was sold to the pirates who brought me to you,” the small man explained, shrugging. Despite his relatively quiet and courteous tone, there was a fire in his eyes Ployer found a little unnerving. As an escape, he glanced over at where Warner was dragging the giant away.

“What is your name, you who are skilled in both blades and magic?” the baron asked him at last, still not making eye contact, seemingly supervising his manservant in the disposal of the unconscious slave.

The small man started to pace slowly, and Ployer was oddly reminded of a panther he’d once seen at a zoo when he was a boy. Trapped in its cage, it had done nothing but weave back and forth, seemingly glaring at any visitor who approached. At the tender age of six, the young Ployer had been absolutely terrified by the panther. He repressed something of a shiver. He had to remain implacable. He needed to be merciless.

“Aergoth Xanthus,” was the eventual reply in that same foreign accent with the quiet and courteous tone. Though there was not a hint of sarcasm to be found anywhere, and Xanthus’ face was impassive, Ployer had the distinct feeling he was being mocked. Blue-green eyes flared under a mop of blonde hair as he finally regained eye contact with the slave.

“And what did you do in Rashemen? Something quite particular if you can wield a sword like that as well as cast magic,” the baron said, noticing that Warner locked the cell door shut behind him, leaving the slave locked in the larger cave. He really needed to pay more attention to the workings of his own business – if he had, he’d have noticed this man sooner.

“Nothing special. I was a farmer,” Aergoth answered, shrugging slightly. Ployer slowly realised that the slave hadn’t shown any emotion so far, not even at the height of the battle. Yet his eyes were very much alive, and flaring quite dangerously. “I learnt how to fight with the slavers. A captured mage taught me a little magic.” He shrugged again. “I don’t have enough innate ability to become an archmage or such, but I can use a spell in times of need.”

Ployer thought quickly. His first fight with his new selection was at the Copper Coronet tomorrow. He’d have to make a good impression on that rat Skorrid if he wanted to be able to continue to bring his fighters there.

The baron turned to Warner, who was now supervising some of the training of the unskilled slaves down in the massive pit. “Put this man on the itinerary for tomorrow!” he called down to the manservant.

The half-orc looked up brutishly. “What place, boss – uh, milord?” he asked, intentionally slipping in the obligatory blunder required of someone with his supposedly limited mental strength.

“Last, of course. I want him fighting the Coronet’s best,” Ployer snapped impatiently. “That fool Skorrid will have no choice but to accept my fighters as regular appearances at his tavern once the audience see this man.”

Warner gave a toothy smile. “It’s already done boss. I put him on when you told me to take care of the i-tin-er-ary…”

The baron gave his servant a bright yet thoroughly patronising smile. “You, Warner, are a very clever man,” he declared, in a tone a stupid half-orc wouldn’t be able to understand was sarcastic. Warner, being a not-so-stupid half-orc, got the message perfectly, and questioned Ployer’s parentage under his breath as his employee strode off.

Xanthus had been listening to the exchange in silence, and only as Ployer left did he allow himself to slide to the floor of his large cell – this was technically the sparring cage, so he’d probably have to be up for another session in a few minutes – with a groan of fatigue, grimacing.

The slave massaged his aching limbs, closing his eyes. Using even a little magic took a bit out of him – he didn’t have the natural ability wizards had of being able to cope with that kind of arcane power. He wished he hadn’t had to use it, but some of Ployer’s gladiators who had been there a long time had become a little psychotic – he was fully aware that his skill would have been split in two had he not resorted to his magic.

He grimaced, leaning against the wall. Ployer had sucked all of the humanity out of those slaves, but this son of Rashemen would not allow himself to be destroyed in that way. He would not become a monster, an empty shell.

But as he looked at himself, Aergoth Xanthus realised the humble farmer he had once been died a long, long time before he had come under the ownership of Baron Geoffrey Ployer.


Chapter 6: A Simple Plan

Gorion sat silently in the room of the Harper Headquarters where Galvarey had briefed him the day before. Supposedly, those he would be working with today were due to turn up very soon, but the wizard held no high hopes. Darial and Belgrade would drag the two new members to the closest tavern, and probably emerge hours later, too inebriated to care for what he had to say.

Once they knew, of course, they would hate themselves for seeming so dispassionate. As it was, they probably supposed it would be a simple routine mission; investigate this or that threat, then go back on their way. They would not suspect how important this quest was to be.

Which is why he was immensely surprised when the door swung open and the four swaggered in. At least, Darial and Belgrade swaggered. The half-elven druid with a perpetual glare merely strode purposefully, and the nervous armoured man rather crept, seemingly a little worried by the casual attitude of his fellows.

But there was none of this informality in their tone as Darial turned to the mage, giving him a brief but respectful nod of the head. “Master Gorion. Sorry for being a bit on the late side, but we came as soon as possible.”

Khalid gave her an incredulous look. “You s-stopped at the tavern for a drink!” he exclaimed disbelievingly before he could stop himself. “I’d hardly c-call that coming as soon as p-possible!”

Instead of the expressions of betrayal he anticipated as soon as he realised just what he’d said, a sheepish look of fear crossed Darial and Belgrade’s faces. The bard turned to Gorion guiltily. “It was a… preliminary get-together.”

The mage smiled tightly. “As I had anticipated your arrival in six hours time, all of you too intoxicated to move, this is a rather welcome surprise. You are forgiven.” He nodded in Khalid’s direction. “Though I appreciate your honesty.”

The half-elf merely looked as mortified as his two companions, and Gorion shook his head briefly. “I am sure we have more to discuss than this,” he continued, standing up. “Do any of you know why you are here?” Silence greeted him. “As it should be,” the mage continued, nodding curtly and stroking his short, silvery beard.

“Three days ago, the sailing ship Seawolf anchored off the Amnish coast, remaining there for six hours. At the time, we didn’t know why; she didn’t respond to the arrival of the Athkatlan forces, and then left for no apparent reason, having done, we thought, nothing during her time there.

“As we later discovered, however, she had released one of her smaller accompanying ships, the Wolf’s Fang, which made its way to the Athkatlan docks undetected. Initially, we believed she was carrying contraband for Shadow Thief smugglers, and thus paid minimal attention. However…” Gorion’s voice trailed off as he passed a scroll to each of his four Harper comrades. “…We now have reason to believe that she was bringing a shipment of slaves to the shore.”

A look of distaste crossed Belgrade’s face as the rogue leant back in his chair, frowning. “I presume that we are dealing with yet more unfortunate individuals doomed to grace the pits of establishments such as the Copper Coronet?” he asked dubiously.

“Indeed, but the Copper Coronet is not our target,” Gorion explained. “The slaves were bought by Baron Geoffrey Ployer, whom the Harpers have had their eye on for a considerable length of time; this is merely the first chance we have had pin anything precise on him. He is the man we are to bring down.”

Darial nodded, a lock of dark hair falling over her face. “I’d be a fool if I didn’t assume you already had a plan, Master Gorion,” she said, her tone light but her eyes hard and unwavering. Khalid and Jaheira, both of whom had only seen the bard in a happy-go-lucky mood, were a little surprised by this change.

The mage smiled slightly. “Thank you for your faith in me, Darial,” he mused, nodding. “Indeed I do. Whilst we shall also be bringing the slave trading of the Seawolf to an end, Ployer is our first objective. He has scheduled his slaves to fight at the Copper Coronet tomorrow, which should attract great crowds amongst the nobles that enjoy such things. The four of you will be in that crowd.”

Jaheira pursed her lips thoughtfully, not wanting particularly to butt in as the more experienced Harper explained their mission. But there was still a question… “How much information do we have on Ployer?”

Gorion paused, then winced briefly. “Precious little, I am afraid. That is something we seek to rectify. One of our few pieces of information is the fact that the baron’s resources have recently started to run low – his legitimate business, trading with Calimshan, has recently taken a turn for the worse. We know that he needs money.”

Belgrade frowned. “We are planning to buy ourselves the information we require?” he asked suspiciously.

Gorion shrugged. “In a way.” He looked at the rogue full on, his piercing green eyes evaluating the younger man until he shifted uncomfortably, and possibly a little guiltily. “You are one of the best infiltrators amongst the Harpers. We shall require your skill.” The mage sat down slowly. “ Your job will be to present yourself as a possible patron of the baron. The Herald has agreed to give you the necessary funding to make your role convincing. Invest in Ployer’s business, and thus burrow your way into his organisation. With the money you offer, you will have a limited hold over him.”

Khalid leant forward as Belgrade digested this piece of moderately welcome information. “And the r-rest of us?” he asked lightly.

Gorion looked evenly at the nervous half-elf. “You will all be evaluating the Copper Coronet. The duty is softer for you – present yourselves as foppish louts wanting to partake in the pleasurable services the tavern offers, become a regular sight at the inn, and gather as much information as possible. When we make a move against Ployer, it will more likely be at the Coronet – striking at the lion’s den is a rather unnecessary risk when we can catch him off his own turf.”

Belgrade snorted good-naturedly. “Ah, as I launch myself into the perilous pit of vipers, my comrades are able to enjoy the pleasures of the most infamous establishment of exotic entertainment in Amn – courtesy of the Harpers, no less?”

Darial grinned, then slowly sobered and looked at Gorion. “He’s going to need backup,” she insisted, shaking her head. “I’d recommend that he has one of us with him, so he’s not doing this alone. Khalid as a business partner, or myself as his wife, or such.”

Gorion considered this briefly, turning his evaluating look on Khalid. The half-elf gazed nervously back, and the mage shook his head. “Darial, you shall accompany him,” he decided at last.

Belgrade took a deep, nervous breath. Why in the Nine Hells did you have to offer that suggestion, Darial? He wondered silently. You know that I am more than capable of fending for myself in such a situation. He glanced sideways at the other members of his group. The bard looked merely thoughtful, though there was a glint in her eye he wasn’t too keen on. Jaheira had merely raised an eyebrow and was looking similarly contemplative, which worried him immensely, and Khalid… Khalid was looking dejected, rejected and trying to hide it at the same time. I am unable to find fault with Gorion, however – this man may be competent, but he is an unknown factor who has not yet proven his worth.

Jaheira leant forwards, and there was an edge to her voice which suggested she was displeased with the decision but had chosen not to argue with it. This was worse than he thought. “And where will you be as we embark on this dangerous task? I believed you were to be leading our party.”

No, Jaheira, no… of all the possible challenges you could extend – and, without a doubt, win – you do not want to be disdainful of Gorion. He is not a petty man, but I assure you, a most powerful man whom you will most certainly want on your side. Belgrade let out a quiet, unhappy whimper that was missed by all present.

Gorion gave her a regretful smile. “Unfortunately, Jaheira, I have other matters the Herald wishes me to attend to. I shall not be out of sight entirely, but, as I am sure you are aware, this party is Darial’s.” The mage stood. “Who I would like a word with in private right now. Would the rest of you leave us in peace?”

He watched the other three filter out of the room one by one, each displaying their own separate emotion. Belgrade seemed more nervous than the mage had ever seen him; Jaheira full of a silent, controlled irritation; and Khalid appeared rather dejected and mournful.

Belgrade closed the door behind him as the half-elven warrior stepped out, and he clapped the man on the shoulder. “I would not worry yourself, friend. Do not think that Gorion has no faith in you – merely remember that he has no idea of your skills and abilities. It would be foolish to assign you to infiltration work if you were more of a sword-swinger, for example.” Or whatever in the hells your skills actually are. I am unsure I can see one as nervous as him being a competent fighter.

But before Khalid could reply with either thanks or, as he wanted, something sharper to halt Belgrade’s patronising, the rogue was gone, catching up with Jaheira. The fighter watched them from a short distance as they all started down the corridor towards the main hall of the Harper headquarters.

Though he could not hear their words, he watched as Jaheira’s body language switched from irritation, to anger, then relaxed as Belgrade offered something to make her laugh. At least her worries were easily assuaged.

Khalid sighed as he looked around the great hall. So far, his first assignment with the Harpers was not going as smoothly as he had hoped or anticipated. He would need to do everything in his power to prove his competence to Gorion, and prove to Belgrade that he did not need to be patronised.


Chapter 7: Rest, Relaxation, Reflection

The Sea’s Bounty, Jaheira reflected, was a far less… seedy establishment than the Crooked Crane. Whilst the Docks were frequented by all manner of low-life scum such as pirates and Shadow Thieves, these scum also brought a considerable amount of money to the tavern, so it was far more pleasant than most other inns of Athkatla.

She was still simmering from the briefing with Gorion, though it did her well to not let anyone know. Belgrade, the eloquent bastard that he was, had been quite capable of cutting down her fury when he’d caught up with her outside the room. He was, as always, quick with a word to calm her worries and make her laugh. That was one of the reasons she… was… fond of him.

And she wouldn’t dwell on irrational fear. For this was irrational – Belgrade and Darial were old friends, in Silvanus’ name! They were both seasoned Harpers and thus better suited for the role Gorion had given them. The fact that annoying, irrational, ridiculous jealousy tugged at her was something she would just have to live with.

It didn’t mean she’d be happy whilst living with it. No, something in Jaheira’s gut told her that something was up, and whether it was natural possessive instinct kicking in or a real worry, she couldn’t tell.

Right then, the four of them were gathered around a small table in the tavern. They had been there about three hours now, and so the other three were well on the way to becoming inebriated. Even the nervous Khalid had loosened up after a few drinks, and was slurring rather than stuttering by now.

Jaheira watched them, amused, from her position next to Belgrade. The rogue had placed an arm a little too casually – and heavily, for he had helped himself to a considerable amount of mead – around her shoulder, a public gesture she usually wouldn’t stand for. At the back of her mind, however, she knew that the fact it openly displayed their relationship in front of Darial was doubtless the only reason she supported it.

Stop it, in Silvanus’ name! You’re supposed to be calm, rational, in control. They’re professionals; just because they’re going to be playing at being a couple – and hardly particularly openly, because they’ll be a couple on a business venture – doesn’t mean he’s going to run off with her or anything.

The druid resisted the urge to grimace. There were times she hated her emotions, and now she had to keep them under wraps; because they were stupid. Very stupid. And she had to remain perfectly calm, lest she became mistaken for a silly, irrational girl.

Fortunately, the display in front of her made it easier to appear relaxed. Khalid was remaining coherent and upright only by the strength of the arm he was resting his chin on, and as Darial attempted to drag him into a drinking ditty, he kept slumping onto the table until she poked him back into consciousness.

“Pay attention!” the bard declared mock-sharply, rapping the warrior on the head with a metal spoon. Her erratic gestures and slurred speech made her level of inebriation quite evident. “We haven’t even got past the first verse yet. Now…” Darial straightened up in a pose that was supposed to be serious before lurching into song, disastrously off-key.

“You might like spirits, and you might like wine,
Whiskey, mead, brandy or ale,
But there is one drink that is so fine,
That leaves you hearty and leaves you hale

I talk, of course, of that nectar of gods,
That drink so valued and dear,
Which you out of depression it prods,
And goes by the fine name of beer… Hey!”

The ‘hey’ was directed at Khalid as the half-elven warrior slumped back onto the table with a snore, this time firmly asleep. Another rap on the head from the spoon was ignored, and Khalid continued to sleep.

Darial shook her head, grinning a little moronically. “How much did he have to drink?” she asked, then giggled in a way that sent Jaheira’s nerves off. “Poor fellow can’t take his booze… can’t sing either.”

Belgrade, revealing himself to be a little more sober than the druid had thought, shook his head. “You have also consumed quite enough, Darial,” he assured her, leaning forwards and sliding the tankard away from the weakly protesting bard. “Mayhaps we should get you to your room?”

It would attract too much attention for the party to stay at the Harper Headquarters, and could potentially endanger its secrecy, so the Herald was funding their temporary rooms at the Sea’s Bounty. In a day’s time, they would most likely be slumbering in the Copper Coronet.

Darial shook her head erratically, leaning back in the chair and crossing her arms over her chest in a most childish way. “No. Nope. ‘m fine here,” she insisted, grinning emphatically.

Jaheira sighed, shaking her head. The bard had suddenly started to give her a headache. “Perhaps we should leave her here,” she groaned, rubbing her temples. “I’m sure someone will drag her to her room.”

Belgrade grinned, removing his arm from around her shoulder. “Not necessary, my love. I have a method of getting Darial into bed that has never failed before.” Looking at the bard, he missed the druid’s dubious and suspicious expression. “I shall wager that you are unable to stand, Darial,” he said to the party’s leader firmly.

The bard looked indignantly back. “What’re you talking ‘bout, Belgrade? You know I can stand. Easy!” The human stood slowly yet firmly, and although she swayed a little, she was upright and balanced.

The rogue’s smile broadened, and his eyes lit up a little. “Ah, but are you capable of making your way back to your room in this inn?” he asked, though he kept his voice light and knowing.

The bard’s indignant expression spread. “’course I can!” she declared. “You know me… always make it home…” She gave Belgrade’s falsely dubious look intense scrutiny. “Want me to prove it?”

As Darial strode off unsteadily, hopefully to end up in her room and to then stay there, Jaheira gave Belgrade a brief, mildly impressed look, ignoring Khalid as he remained with his head in a slowly-expanding puddle of mead on the table. “You never cease to amaze me.”

The rogue gave her a devilish grin. “I try my best.” He winked as he slid an arm around her shoulder, and was gratified when she didn’t resist. He wasn’t quite as drunk as she evidently thought he was – mead didn’t go to his head quite like spirits did, and the Sea’s Bounty could rival the Crooked Crane in watering down. Though, from the states of Darial and Khalid, he would guess that ale was not given the same treatment. “This is preferable to carrying her to her room once she has passed out.”

“Hmm.” Jaheira glanced across the table and nodded in the direction of Khalid’s slumbering form. “You may need to carry him up there later,” she pointed out, resting her head on Belgrade’s shoulder, a warm feeling inside dispelling some of the worry in the pit of her stomach.

Belgrade chuckled dryly. “I had not anticipated that one such as him would be able to consume so much alcohol when faces with a drinker like Darial,” he mused, shaking his head thoughtfully. “I suppose he has proven himself on one spot of turf, at least.”

The druid looked at him briefly. “What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked lightly.

He shrugged. “I am sure that he has been assigned to this group for a reason, yet I am unable to find one. I’m not judging yet… it’s too early to judge… just I am simply waiting for him to show us where his skills lie.”

Jaheira considered this for a moment, frowning a little. “It seems as if you are already judging,” she muttered. Why was she being so sharp with him? It had to have something to do with irrational worries lashing out, or the like…

He raised a hand defensively. “No, I… am expressing myself badly.” Belgrade grimaced, then sighed. “Let us wait and see. The Harpers will have assigned him for a reason. The fact that he managed to survive a drinking competition with Darial proves he has hidden talents.”

Jaheira chuckled dryly, the need to leap on his every point passing. Then she sobered slowly as the words sank in a little. “You seem to know Darial quite well,” she commented quietly.

Belgrade shrugged again. “We have long been friends,” he explained lightly. There was a brief silence as he looked at her. “Never anything beyond,” the rogue continued in an assuring manner. Noticing her mildly unconvinced expression, he turned and kissed her lightly on the cheek. “I promise.”

Even as she shifted to return the embrace, which would be little more than a prelude to going to bed, Jaheira still managed to notice Khalid briefly popping an eye open, watching them discreetly, before returning to what seemed to be a drunken slumber.