A Plague of Serpents
Chapter Two: Where Were You When My Ship Went Down?
So where were you when my ship went down?
Where were you when I ran aground?
Where were you when I turned it around?
Where were you when they burned me down?
(Big Country, Ships)
Lips on hers, soft but firm, sending heat blazing through her. Strong hands holding her. The lips drew away and Chantry opened her eyes. It was dark but she could see his face clearly. She raised her arms to embrace him. “Kelleth,” she murmured.
Or tried to. Pain shot through her chest and something surged upward within her. She turned her face aside and coughed. Water spurted from her mouth and her nose, painfully, and she coughed again and retched. More water gushed out. She expelled water until there was no more left and then gasped for breath.
“Wh-what happened?” she croaked out.
“The ship hit the rocks and broke up,” Kelleth explained. “Your armor dragged you down.”
“My armor?” Chantry’s voice rasped in her throat and she coughed again. She realized that she was soaking wet, cold, and wore nothing over her shift. She was lying on sand.
“I had to cut the straps to get it off you,” Kelleth said. “It’s at the bottom of the sea.”
She propped herself up on an elbow and gazed at him. It was night and, although there was a bright moon, his face was in shadow and his expression was hard to read. She could feel her cheeks flaming with embarrassment, as she remembered her response to his Kiss of Life, and hoped that the darkness was obscuring her own expression equally. “You saved my life.”
“Uh, yes, I suppose I did,” Kelleth said. He shrugged. “We’ll probably save each other’s lives a dozen times in the course of this, uh, mission.”
“Starting in a few minutes, I would think,” put in another voice. Aysgarth. Chantry turned her head and saw the wizard standing a few feet away. His pointy hat was missing and his robes were dripping. He turned to glance at something behind him and then looked back at Chantry. “Are you well enough to fight?”
“Just… give me… a moment,” Chantry wheezed. She cast a curative spell on herself and the pain in her chest and throat eased. She sat up. “I’ll manage. What’s going on?”
“Batiri,” said Aysgarth. “The Samarach version of goblins. We seem to be in their territory and there’s a whole tribe assembled on the beach.” He grimaced. “They dragged the captain and the mate away before you woke up. Volo’s trying to negotiate with the Batiri now. I doubt if he’ll achieve much. We don’t exactly have much to bargain with.”
“Or to fight with,” said Kelleth. He tapped his hip. “I had to abandon my sword. My bow’s unusable and I’ve lost all my arrows. There’s some debris washed ashore. I’ve sent Thorpe scavenging through it but he hasn’t come up with anything useful yet. Maybe he might find something you could use as a club.”
Chantry grimaced and clambered to her feet. “Priestesses of Talona are trained in unarmed combat,” she told Kelleth. “Maybe I wouldn’t last five seconds against Light of Heavens, or Khelgar, but I should be able to cope with goblins.”
“They’re bigger than the ones we’re used to,” Aysgarth cautioned her, “and you’ll be vulnerable without armor.”
“But able to move faster,” Chantry said, “and, if I remember right, the Batiri don’t wear armor either. Anyway, it’s not like I have a choice.”
“True,” Kelleth agreed. “Ah, here’s Thorpe.”
The halfling’s arms were full. “Two short swords,” he reported. “I found a pack with scroll cases in it. Yours, I think, Aysgarth? Also a few potion bottles. Unfortunately I’ve no idea what’s in them.”
“Leave that to me,” Chantry said.
“You’re the expert,” the halfling agreed. He handed her the vials and then passed Aysgarth the pack. The wizard opened it hastily and pulled out a scroll case.
“The seal has held,” he reported. He checked another one. “And on this. With these, and the spells I have memorized, I can give a good account of myself.”
“That is just as well,” Kelleth said, as he took a short sword from Thorpe and ran through a practice thrust and withdrawal, “as we are hardly a formidable force.” He scowled. “I am used to a longer blade. Still, this will have to do.”
Chantry examined the potions. “Three of Cure Moderate Wounds,” she declared, “and one Bull’s Strength.” She proffered the Cure potions to Kelleth, who kept one and passed the others on to Aysgarth and Thorpe, but held on to the other bottle. “I have ample Cures prepared,” she said, “but, if it’s okay with you, I’ll keep the Strength potion.”
Kelleth nodded. “Of course.” He pulled a dagger from his boot and offered it, hilt first, to Chantry. “Am I right that priestesses of Talona are permitted daggers?”
“Permitted, yes,” Chantry confirmed, “although they’re supposed to be envenomed. We don’t train with them, though, and I’d rather just stick with bare hands.”
“As you wish,” Kelleth said. He reversed the knife and adopted a duelist’s stance. “Volo’s negotiations don’t seem to be going well. My guess is we’ll be fighting within minutes.”
Chantry looked around, and along the beach to where the writer stood parleying with a group of the goblins, and then looked in the other direction. She clenched her teeth and turned back to Kelleth. “Is this all there are of us?” she asked. She estimated the goblin numbers as over forty but she could count her own side on her fingers.
One sailor lass, clad in a ring-mail jerkin, holding a belaying pin in a trembling hand. A dwarf passenger, a dour character who had kept himself to himself throughout the voyage, who had managed to retain his armor despite the shipwreck and who wielded a long-sword with the air of someone who knew how to use it. Luaire, the representative of the merchant company that had invited Volo to come to Samarach, a stammering, nervous, unworldly book-keeper; at least he seemed to be a mage of some sort so perhaps he wouldn’t be a total liability. The four members of her own group. Volo. Only eight in total.
“Not quite all. Dalin has a bow,” Thorpe said, referring to a halfling sailor, “and he wouldn’t pass it over to us, so I told him to get up on those rocks and cover us from there.” Chantry’s gaze followed his pointing hand. At first she saw nothing, and suspected that the sailor had simply fled, but then she made out the small form crouching behind a boulder.
“Good thinking,” Kelleth praised, “although I must admit I’d have been tempted to take the bow from him, willing or not, and make better use of it.”
“It’s a halfling short bow,” Thorpe pointed out. “Not a lot of…” He broke off and tightened his grip on his sword. “Uh-oh. That doesn’t sound good.”
The parley, presumably taking place in some dialect of Goblin, was incomprehensible to Chantry but she could hear the pitch of Volo’s voice rising as a note of desperation crept in. She opened the vial of Bull’s Strength potion and raised it to her lips.
“Prepare yourselves,” Kelleth said. “What spells do you have ready, Chantry?”
She drained the potion. “Mainly healing spells,” she told him, “apart from Barkskin and Bless.” She began the incantation of Barkskin, vaguely aware as she did so that Aysgarth was also chanting, and felt the protective covering forming.
Volo yelled, spun around, and ran. Batiri warriors pursued him. Arrows whizzed through the air. Kelleth raced to protect his employer. Chantry followed close behind and almost immediately she was caught up in a flurry of confused action.
She punched, kicked, caught and threw. Kelleth’s sword flashed. A Batiri staggered away with hands clutching its belly. A shock ran through Chantry’s arm as she landed a punch on a goblin’s head and hit solid bone. Her next punch with that hand sent pain shooting up her arm. A broken bone. She backed away, kicking out to gain space, and cast a minor Cure spell to regain full use of the hand.
Her retreat had left Kelleth exposed on one flank. As he delivered a sword thrust a goblin hatchet swung and bit deep into his shoulder. Chantry saw him go down, falling to his knees, blood spurting from his wound and pooling on the sand. The Batiri hatchet-man whooped in triumph and raised his weapon for the coup de grâce.
Chantry bared her teeth and charged. She felled the goblin and stamped on its neck. Kelleth slumped forward and collapsed to lay face down in the sand. Chantry stood over him, snarling defiance, and held back the goblin horde. A Batiri war chief, man-high and wielding a two-handed axe, advanced with the weapon swinging menacingly. A smaller goblin attacked from the side with a short spear.
The axe-wielder jerked and cried out as an energy bolt from a Magic Missile struck him. The axe stroke went wild and the blade bit harmlessly into the sand. Thorpe went past Chantry in a diving roll. He came up inside the arc of the axe and stabbed the chieftain in the groin. Chantry seized the thrusting spear, tugged the goblin forward, and brought her knee up hard. She released the weapon as the creature doubled up and slammed her elbow down on the back of its neck. It dropped as if hit by a mace.
She had a moment free of attackers. She bent to Kelleth and cast her most powerful Cure spell. At once he began to scramble up and she had to move aside hastily.
“Thanks,” Kelleth grunted. He scooped up his fallen sword and resumed his place in the battle line.
Not all the Batiri had joined in the attack, Chantry realized now, in fact probably less than a third of the tribe. Only a handful of survivors faced them now. They paused, jabbered, and then backed away. The dwarf strode forward, waving his sword, and Kelleth joined him. The goblins turned and fled.
“Is that the end of it?” Chantry wondered. “Have we won?”
Thorpe shook his head. “Doubt it,” the halfling said. “That stupid sod,” he pointed with his sword at the dead chieftain, “thought he could take us. The others stayed out of it. Trouble is, now we’ve killed that one some other bugger will probably want to prove that he’s tougher than Dead Bloke was. Unless Volo can talk him out of it we’re going to have to do this all over again.”
“Ah, yes, I believe you are substantially correct,” the writer said, approaching from the rear. He had come through the fight entirely unscathed. “Hopefully, however, our demonstration that we have, ah, teeth will show them that it would be in both our interests if they simply allowed us to depart peaceably.”
“And give us Cap’n Lastri and the Mate back,” the sailor girl put in.
“Indeed so,” Volo said. He walked across the beach, empty hands raised, toward the main body of the Batiri.
“Let’s search the bodies,” Kelleth said. “Goblin gear is usually mediocre but it would be better than nothing.” He picked up the chieftain’s axe. “Stoneborn,” he said to the dwarf, “how about swapping your sword for this?”
The dwarf seemed less than enthusiastic about the offer. Chantry left Kelleth to his attempted trade and approached the female sailor. “You’re wounded,” she said. “I’ll fix you up.”
“It’s nothing,” said the girl, although a rent in her armor revealed a gash along her side that was oozing blood. She backed away from Chantry.
“Are you crazy?” Chantry stared at the sailor. “You’ve been sliced open. It must hurt like blazes and you’re bleeding badly enough that you’ll probably pass out before long. Stop being a bloody idiot and let me heal you.” Inside she was seething with fury. All through the voyage she’d met with the same attitude. In the sailors’ eyes she was evil and ill-omened, to be feared and avoided, which was why she still hadn’t learned any of their names even after more than two months on the ship. When one of them had eaten tainted food, and gone down with virulent food poisoning, they hadn’t come to her; no, they’d let him die rather than ask the Talonan for help, even though she could have saved him with her hands tied behind her back.
“Don’t touch me,” the sailor said. “I don’t need your help.”
“Fine!” Chantry spat out. “Be like that. You can fuck off and die for all I care.” She turned her back on the woman and walked away, conscious now that the rush of the fight had faded of the way the ground seemed to rise and fall beneath her, stumbling slightly on the uneven sand. Perhaps she might be able to find a shield, or a serviceable club or mace, on the dead Batiri.
“You idiot,” Aysgarth scolded the sailor. “Take this potion – although you don’t deserve it after the way you spoke to Chantry. Unfortunately we need you alive and able to fight.” He went on to say more but Chantry was no longer listening.
“I’ve found you some armor,” Kelleth said. He held up a buff coat made from some unidentifiable animal hide and stained by several smears of blood. “I think it will fit you.”
Chantry grimaced, not being keen on wearing a goblin garment, but took the armor nonetheless. The Barkskin spell would be wearing off soon; better to stink, or even become infested by fleas, than to receive an arrow in the lung or a short-sword in the guts. She struggled into the heavy hide jerkin. It was broad enough for her shoulders, and long enough, but uncomfortably tight over her breasts. Kelleth had found a buckler for her, too, and a stone war club that wasn’t too different from a mace.
Kelleth had searched a corpse and found a longbow, apparently of human make, and a quiver with a few arrows. He tested the draw of the weapon as Chantry was slipping her arm through the straps of the buckler. “Not bad,” he said. “The next wave will not reach us without loss.” He glanced over at Volo and the Batiri. “And, I think, that wave will be coming very soon,” he said, and nocked an arrow.
Chantry cast her Bless spell. From near at hand came a ‘pop’ of displaced air as Aysgarth summoned a wolf to their aid. Seconds later a fainter ‘pop’ sounded as a Batiri shaman duplicated Aysgarth’s spell and a second wolf appeared among the goblins.
“Snap,” Thorpe commented, “only those buggers have another pet besides the wolf.”
“What do you mean?” Chantry could see some sort of animal moving around behind the goblins but her night vision wasn’t good enough to make out what it was. She knew the halfling could see far better in the dim light than a human and assumed that he saw it clearly.
There was no time for him to reply. Once more Volo yelled and fled from the goblin encampment. Again a horde of Batiri warriors followed at his heels. This time Volo didn’t make his escape unscathed. He was staggering as he passed Kelleth, blood streaming down his face, his scalp laid open to the bone by a slingshot. Chantry slammed her club into the face of a pursuing goblin and gained a few seconds breathing space, which she used to cast a healing spell on Volo, before having to turn to fight off more of the Batiri.
Kelleth put an arrow through the slinger’s throat and picked off two charging spearmen before he had to drop the bow and draw sword. The two summoned wolves collided in a frenzy of fur and fangs. Aysgarth used a scroll to cast a Fireball into the goblin formation.
This time the Batiri were attacking in full force. Thirty warriors, less those slain by arrow and spell as they charged, and a creature unlike anything Chantry had seen before. It held its body parallel to the ground, like a panther or a wolf, but walked on two legs with a long rigid tail held out behind it. Bigger than a man, but not greatly so; ten or twelve feet long, Chantry guessed. It had arms ending in talons like those of an eagle, a fanged maw resembling that of a dragon, and hide that bore both scales and feathers. One of the feared ‘dinosaurs’ of Chult, presumably, but Chantry was more concerned with trying to kill it than with identification and classification. An electric bolt from Aysgarth shocked it into temporary immobility. Kelleth hacked at its legs and it fell. Chantry smote it on the head with her stone club and it went limp.
A Batiri drove a spear into Chantry’s shoulder and she cried out. The goblin shaman cast some unknown spell and Kelleth doubled up, retching, and dropped his sword. A goblin swordsman had slipped past them and was attacking Aysgarth, who was fending it off with a piece of driftwood as an improvised staff, preventing the wizard from aiding his comrades. Thorpe tried to protect Kelleth but was driven back by a Batiri chieftain wielding a two-handed war club. Chantry parried another spear thrust but lost her club in the process. The goblin drew back his spear to strike again.
A knife thudded into the goblin’s throat and it toppled. “Take that, varlet!” Volo’s voice called from behind Chantry. “Ah-hah! Well done me.”
Chantry did not take time to thank him. She ignored her fallen weapon, ignored her wound, and rushed to Kelleth. The Batiri shaman was stabbing at him with a stone knife. Kelleth was parrying with his dagger but feebly, obviously partially incapacitated by the shaman’s spell, and he had a bleeding gash across his cheek. Chantry slammed into the shaman from behind, knocking him from his feet, and kicked him as hard as she could as he went down. The Bull’s Strength was still in effect and the kick was as damaging as a mace blow. The shaman didn’t get up.
Chantry took a brief look at Kelleth, trying to determine if he had been poisoned or infected with a magical disease, but a pair of goblins interrupted her. She spin-kicked one; the other was shot in the back by the halfling sailor bowman. Chantry guessed at disease, cast an appropriate curative spell, and followed it up with a Lesser Restoration. Kelleth grinned, bent down to retrieve his sword, and returned to the fray with renewed vigor.
More goblins fell upon them and Chantry had no time to heal her wounded arm or do anything about the gash on Kelleth’s face. She punched, dodged, kicked and punched again. The Barkskin spell expired, the Bull’s Strength wore off, and still the goblins came on. Many of them lay dead upon the sand, though, and so far none of the shipwreck survivors had fallen. At last the surviving goblins began to waver and fall back.
“We’ve beaten them,” yelled the dwarf. “Wipe the bastards out!” He brandished his sword above his head and ran in pursuit of the retreating Batiri.
“Wait!” the sailor girl shouted. “We need to find out where they took the Cap’n.”
“Indeed so,” Volo called. “We must take prisoners. Also, my headstrong friend, beware of ambushes.” The dwarf hesitated.
Suddenly a rain of arrows fell upon the goblins. Several dropped dead. The remainder broke into full flight but found that their retreat was cut off by a score of armored humans in phalanx. The only remaining avenue of escape was inland and that meant climbing rocky slopes. Spears jabbed up at them and arrows hissed through the air. None of the fleeing goblins escaped. The new arrivals returned to their formation and marched toward the shipwreck survivors.
“Well,” said Volo, “that was, ah, invigorating, in a fear-of-impending-doom sort of way. It will make an exciting chapter of my next book, I am sure, but my readers will no doubt find it much more pleasant to read than it was to go through it. It appears that we have at last come to the notice of more kindly-inclined locals. It would have been better if they had arrived somewhat earlier but at least we are definitely safe now.”
“Halt! You are all under arrest!” The leader of the patrol, a woman by her voice, pointed with her spear and her followers fanned out and surrounded the bedraggled group.
“…Or not,” said Volo. “On what charge?”
“Illegal entry into Samarach,” came the reply. “You landed here without permission. You could be yuan-ti spies.”
“What? Our ship was wrecked,” Kelleth protested.
“We are here by invitation of Sa’Sani,” Volo said, “an important merchant of your capital city.”
“I am a citizen of Samarach, and an employee of Sa’Sani,” Luaire added. “To arrest us is ridiculous.”
“It is the law,” said the woman. “You will be escorted to Samargol for processing. If Sa’Sani really knows of you she can find you in prison. Hand over your weapons, gather up your belongings, and march.”
“At least let me heal our wounds first,” Chantry said. She stared at the patrol leader. A chain-mail veil hung down from the woman’s helmet, hiding all of her face bar her eyes, and making her expression unreadable. ‘I must get one of those,’ Chantry thought.
“Very well,” the woman agreed, “but if you cast any offensive spell you will all be slain on the spot.”
“I shall protest about this in the strongest possible terms,” said Volo, as Chantry healed her bleeding arm and then went to Kelleth. “I am not without influence.”
“Foreigners have no influence in Samarach,” came the reply. “Your weapons. Now!”
“I’m not giving up my sword,” said the dwarf. “I’m here legitimately. Your miners want my expertise.” His words were ignored. Three soldiers seized him, wrenched the sword from his grasp, and shoved him away.
“The Batiri took our Cap’n,” the sailor girl protested. “You have to let us look for her!”
“Do not presume to give me orders, foreigner. The authorities will determine what is to be done.” The patrol leader turned to her men. “Search the bodies of the dead. Check for contraband. Slay any Batiri fallen who yet live.”
“But they could tell us where they took Cap’n Lastri!” The female sailor raised her belaying pin, probably as a gesture to emphasize her point rather than as a threat, but the Samarachan woman responded violently. She reversed her spear and struck with the butt. The sailor collapsed with blood spurting from a smashed nose.
“Silence!” the patrol leader snapped. “Question my orders again and you will all be dragged to Samargol in chains.” She turned on her heel, strode to where a wounded Batiri was stirring on the sand, and thrust down with the point of her spear. The Batiri’s movements ceased.
Chantry had just healed the gash on Kelleth’s cheek. She hesitated, sucked in her lower lip, and debated with herself. She came to a decision, went to the injured sailor, and cast another healing spell.
The girl picked herself up. “Thank you,” she said. “I am sorry for what I said earlier.”
“So you should be,” Chantry said coldly. She turned away with no further words.
“I wish I could find my hat,” Aysgarth said, “and my staff.”
“Why, because you won’t be recognized as a wizard without them?” Kelleth asked.
“No,” said Aysgarth, “because they’re enchanted. Not to a great degree, true, but they bear useful cantrips.”
“They might wash up eventually,” Kelleth said, “but I doubt if these officious idiots would let us search for them.”
“True,” said Aysgarth, “and they would probably confiscate them anyway.”
The halfling sailor with a bow, who had been sniping from nearby rocks, clambered down to join the others. He was immediately surrounded by spearmen and the bow wrenched roughly from his hands.
“Are there any more of you?” the patrol leader demanded.
“These are all we know of,” Volo said, “apart from the two who were taken away by the Batiri. We fear that the rest of us perished in the waves but perhaps, if Umberlee was kind, there may be more survivors elsewhere along the beach.”
“If so they will have to take their chances with the jungle,” the woman replied. “We have wasted enough time here. Form up, men! We return to Samargol.”
“I want to love you but I’d better not touch
I want to hold you but my senses tell me to stop
I want to kiss you but I want it too much
I want to taste you but your lips are venomous poison
You’re poison running through my veins…”
They had been walking for over three hours. Chantry’s underclothes had dried out, under the horrible Batiri armor, but the wet fabric had chafed her skin badly and it felt as if her shift was falling apart. Her feet were blistered and bruised. There was no point in using a spell to heal herself when she’d only pick up more blisters; better to wait until they reached their destination.
The Samarachan guards were dour and uncommunicative. They forced their prisoners to walk in single file, each one beside one of the guards, which made conversation within the group rather difficult. Chantry spent the first half hour of the journey thinking up entertaining ways in which the patrol leader could meet a horrible death but eventually she ran out of ideas. After that she turned to singing to pass the time.
This was the fourth time she had sung the ‘New Hymn to Talona’. No-one had joined in. The sailors had, however, joined in when she had sung Umberlee’s anthem ‘Bitch’. She would have gone through Eldath’s hymn ‘Peace In Our Time’, for Kelleth, but she’d only heard it once and couldn’t remember enough of the words. The same applied to Mystra’s ‘It’s A Kind Of Magic’. She had been sorely tempted to sing ‘I Want To Break Free’ but had resisted the temptation; although she had no spell-singing abilities whatsoever she had a feeling that the patrol leader would take no chances and would respond to the first verse by smashing her in the face with a spear butt. She had stuck to the hymns and a few other favorites such as ‘Live It Up’.
“Your mouth, so hot
Your web, I’m caught
Your skin, so wet
Black lace, on sweat…”
Her black lace undergarments, a requirement for Talonan priestesses since the Reformation of 1370, would be stained by the salt water. Her spare clothes were lost in the wrecked ship. She wondered if she’d be able to find replacements in Samargol; not if they were thrown into prison, that was for sure.
“Silence, foreign scum!” the Samarachan patrol leader commanded. “We are about to enter the city. Your judgment is at hand.”
Chantry scowled. Breaking off in the middle of the hymn was disrespectful to her goddess. On the other hand she didn’t want to be beaten with a spear butt and so she obeyed the command. She looked up and saw city walls ahead, illuminated by the faint light of the approaching dawn, and a set of tall iron gates.
“Behold Samargol, Pearl of the South,” the patrol leader announced. “It is a rare privilege for outsiders to even glimpse the city. Consider yourselves lucky even to have the chance to be cast into our dungeons.”
Chantry rolled her eyes but restrained herself from making any retort. She amused herself, as they were led through the gate and into the city, by thinking of suitable diseases that the Samarachan woman should suffer; leprosy, syphilis – no, hemorrhoids would be the most entertaining affliction.
A captain of the guard, resplendent in gilded armor, met the patrol inside the city gates. “At ease, Elite Leader,” he addressed the patrol commander. “Deliver your report. What is this rabble behind you?”
“We have investigated the shore at Omgar’s Teeth, Captain Dajos,” the woman told him. She removed her helmet, revealing a moderately pretty face and short dark hair, and stood to attention. “We found a shipwreck and hostile natives. We pacified the natives and took these foreign intruders prisoner.”
“Hey, we did all the pacifying before you turned up,” Kelleth protested.
“Silence, prisoner,” the patrol leader growled. “Would you rather we had left you with those Batiri? I’m sure your head would have looked very pretty on a stick.”
“That is…” Captain Dajos began, and then broke off and stared at the prisoners. “Wait. You, there. I recognize you. Speak up!”
“Ah, yes, good man,” said Volo. “I see my fame has spread even here. I am, as you no doubt know, Volothamp Geddarm, the author. I have traveled here at the invitation of Sa’Sani, a merchant of importance, and these are my, ah, bodyguards plus the crew of the ship.”
“He wasn’t pointing at you, Volo,” Kelleth told him.
“That is correct. I did not mean you, foreigner,” Captain Dajos agreed, “although in fact I do recognize you from an illustration in one of your books. You looked rather… younger.”
“Time passes,” said Volo, with a shrug, “and I have been writing for some years.”
“Master Luaire,” said the captain. “You are he, am I correct? You work for Mistress Sa’Sani, do you not?”
“I do,” Luaire confirmed. “Please send for-”
“There is no need to send for me,” a new voice broke in. A woman’s voice, sultry and exotic, with a distinct hint of steel behind her words. “I am here. Yes, Luaire is my employee, and this man Volo is my responsibility as well.”
Chantry stared at the newcomer. Olive skinned, with raven-black hair, a long neck, high cheekbones, and full lips. She wore an elegant gown of blue and green but very little in the way of jewelry. Chantry guessed her to be in her early thirties. Very attractive to men, no doubt; a mutter of approval from Kelleth confirmed this to Chantry and sent her off into a momentary fantasy in which the woman contracted smallpox.
Captain Dajos turned around to face the woman and bowed his head. “Lady Sa’Sani,” he said, “certainly we apologize for arresting these men wrongfully – but how did you know so soon?”
“Do you insult me by implying that my intelligence and scrying skills are less than the pitiful powers of those for whom you work? Your superiors will be interested,” she said.
“I was merely taken by surprise, Lady Sa’Sani,” said the captain. “I meant no disrespect. Forgive me. Guards! Release Master Luaire and Master Volothamp to the care of Lady Sa’Sani at once.”
“I think I like this woman,” Aysgarth muttered.
“Me too,” said Kelleth. Chantry remained silent.
“Sir, what about the rest of this rabble?” asked the patrol leader. “To the dungeons?”
“They are not vouched for,” said Captain Dajos. “They could well be spies, or filthy yuan-ti. Better kill them just to be sure.”
“My lady, you cannot permit such a thing,” Volo appealed. “I vouch for them. I recruited them to be my bodyguards.”
“And they seem to have served you well,” Sa’Sani agreed. “I think I can make use of their talents. Captain Dajos, release all of the prisoners – unless you would appreciate explaining to the High Phantasmage how you interfered with an approved merchant of the state doing business?”
“No, my lady,” the captain said. “We release them to your care – but you will answer to the authorities if they cause trouble here.” He turned to the patrol leader. “Release them. Return their weapons.”
“My father’s sword,” the dwarf said, as his sword was handed back. “It is well for you that you have restored this to me.” The guard merely glowered at him.
“Remind me to buy you a drink some time,” Chantry told the patrol leader, her smile as innocuous and innocent as she could manage while her thoughts dwelt on the Samarachan woman’s painful death.
“I do not drink with foreign scum,” the soldier said, with a contemptuous snort.
‘No, but one day you’ll leave your drink unwatched, bitch,’ Chantry silently promised herself, ‘and I’ll be waiting.’
“Thank you, Lady Sa Sani,” Kelleth said, missing the glottal stop in the middle of her name.
“Do not thank me yet,” Sa’Sani told him. “I will require repayment in the form of service. Thank me if you find that service agreeable. Now, I have business to attend to with my two associates. You look badly in need of some rest and, I would suggest, a bath. Take this,” she tossed a small pouch of coins to Kelleth, “and retire to Leira’s Trick – that is a nearby tavern that caters for foreigners. Come and see me after you have refreshed yourself properly.”
“Where?” Kelleth asked. “We are strangers here, remember.”
“This plaza, the Openpalm Bazaar, is the only area of the city open to foreigners,” Sa’Sani informed him. “My Mercantile House is on the far side of the plaza from the tavern. You will find it without difficulty.”
“There is no point in bathing without clean clothes to put on,” Chantry said. “Everything I owned, save what I wear, went down with the ship.”
“A good point,” said Sa’Sani. She looked directly into Chantry’s eyes without any sign of flinching at the pock-marks and scars on her face. “Here. Some additional funds,” Sa’Sani said, extracting another small pouch from her belt and tossing it to Chantry. “Do not yet concern yourselves with weaponry and equipment. I purchase my clothes from Pareechehr, who has a stall beside the Shrine of Waukeen, and I recommend that you try her first.”
“Thank you, my lady,” Chantry said. She smiled at the merchant lady and was answered with a smile that, although brief, seemed to be genuine.
After that exchange of smiles Sa’Sani turned away. “Luaire, Volo, you shall accompany me to the Mercantile House,” she said. “We must talk of the wreck of your ship and other matters of great import.”
“My lady, I too am in severe need of rest and a bath,” Volo said, “or my company will be less than pleasant.”
“Worry not, Volo, they await you in my quarters,” Sa’Sani told him. “You shall be my guest. Now, come with me.”
Kelleth watched as Sa’Sani departed. “That’s quite a woman,” he commented.
Chantry’s smile vanished. “Too old for you, surely,” she said.
“Oh, I wouldn’t say so,” Kelleth said, his eyes still trained on Sa’Sani’s swaying hips, and oblivious to Chantry’s sour expression. “Come on, my friends, let us go shopping. And then a meal, a bath, and some badly needed sleep.”
There was a spring in Chantry’s step as she crossed the plaza. She was clean, well fed, and rested. The late afternoon sun was warm but not too hot. Colorful and exotic birds flitted above the plaza and drank from the fountains. She had found a merchant who dealt in goods imported from Amn and she now wore a new set of Anya’s Secret bra and panties, black lace as required by her goddess, and a light gown of gray-green silk that made a wonderful replacement for the shift that had disintegrated when she removed the goblin armor. Instead of her old boots, ruined by the salt water, her feet were now shod with enchanted Boots of Reflexes. She had hoped to find that women in Samarach wore veils, as was the custom in parts of Calimshan, but that had proved not to be the case; however at least when the locals recoiled from her in horror, making signs against the Evil Eye, it wasn’t because of her scarred face.
Kelleth, Aysgarth, and the sailor lass – Saldee, her name was – were getting the same hostile reaction. Foreigners were Evil in the eyes of the populace of Samarach, apparently, regardless of their appearance or their deity. The two halflings and the dwarf were less feared, it seemed, but were treated with an amused contempt that was irritating Thorpe intensely.
There was a courtyard, enclosed by a six-foot wrought iron fence, in front of the Mercantile House. Its gates stood open and Sa’Sani, together with Volo, Luaire, and two men unknown to Chantry, sat around a low table within. “Greetings, travelers,” Sa’Sani greeted them as they entered. “I trust you are refreshed? To business, then.”
There were no free seats. Kelleth nodded to Volo and stood in front of Sa’Sani, his comrades at his sides, and the two sailors and the dwarf stood slightly apart from the group. “Of course, Lady,” Kelleth said.
“You may have noticed,” Sa’Sani went on, “that the guards at the city gates will not let you leave. Not that they wouldn’t love to see you devoured by the denizens of the wilderness, that is, but they’d much rather slay you themselves; given enough time, and without my protection, they will slay you.”
“Some of them will die in the attempt,” Chantry said, “but it is true that we cannot fight a whole city.”
Kelleth flicked a glance at her, frowning, and then turned back to Sa’Sani. “So, what must we do to gain your protection?” he asked.
“You approach this wisely,” Sa’Sani said. “It may be that our meeting will have mutual benefit beyond what I had first surmised. The Council of Samarach will not allow me to protect you unless you are in my employ. If the guards do not see you perform this part they will slay you at the slightest hint of suspicion. Working for Volo does not count, I’m afraid, and your intended role as bodyguards is superfluous now as he will be staying with me. Fortunately I have tasks to be done that seem to be well suited to someone of your ingenuity and resilience. You performed admirably in the aftermath of the shipwreck, Volo tells me, despite your almost total lack of weaponry.”
“I would be happy to assist you, if the job is within our sphere of expertise,” Kelleth said, “but the shipwreck has left us severely depleted as far as arms and armor are concerned. If you could provide some gold to help us re-equip it would be a great help.”
“A practical suggestion,” Sa’Sani agreed, “and it shall be done.”
“We are but poor sailors, ma’am,” Saldee put in, gesturing at herself and at Dalin the halfling, “not warriors like the others. If you have a ship to crew we could assist but otherwise we have nothing to offer.”
“And I just want to get to the mine,” Stoneborn the dwarf added. “I already have employment in Samarach. Unfortunately my contract is at the bottom of the sea and those buggers,” he jerked a thumb in the direction of the city gates, “won’t listen to me.”
“I shall see that your employers are notified,” Sa’Sani promised him. “Delivering you to them will mean that they owe me a reciprocal favor. As for you, sailors, ships do not sail often from here to the Sword Coast but I can find you a berth on a ship to Calimport. From there you should be able to make your way home before too long.”
“Thank you most kindly, ma’am,” the sailor girl said. The halfling added his thanks.
“My business with – Kelleth, is it? – and his companions is for the ears of my trusted employees only, however,” Sa’Sani went on, “and that means that you must leave us before I can continue. Return to the tavern, if you would; I shall send word to you later, when I have found a ship for you, sailors, and had a response from your employers, dwarf.”
Once the dwarf and the two sailors had departed Sa’Sani returned her attention to Kelleth. “There are a pair of tasks I would like your assistance with,” she said, “both of which will require you to return to the scene of the shipwreck. Undoubtedly you are not fond of the location, or of the inhabitants of the locality, but it cannot be helped.”
Kelleth shrugged. “I don’t mind killing more Batiri,” he said. “What do you wish us to do?”
“Let me guess,” said Aysgarth. He stroked his neatly-trimmed beard. “You want us to find out what happened to your cargo, assuming that it isn’t simply at the bottom of the sea.”
“A reasonable deduction,” said Sa’Sani. “You are perceptive. Indeed, I would like to recover whatever is salvageable. That ship was carrying some goods valuable to my operations here and obtaining replacements will take too long. Whatever you can retrieve will be gratefully received.”
“What were you importing from the Sword Coast?” Chantry wondered. “Weapons?”
Sa’Sani laughed. “Hardly,” she said. “Mining equipment. There is little quality ore in Samarach but our volcanic rocks are a probable source of diamonds. I belong to a syndicate involved in prospecting for such gems; indeed, that dwarf was hired by another syndicate member. Temporary immersion in water will not harm dwarf-made mining tools. If they are not sunk too deep, and can be recovered, my investment will not be lost.”
“We have no training in salvage,” Kelleth pointed out. “The Batiri will probably have stolen whatever has washed ashore.”
“Simply locate the goods and I will have experts do the recovery, or laborers do the haulage if they are on dry land,” Sa’Sani said. “If the Batiri have stolen them – well, you have already said that you do not mind slaying more of those cannibal savages.”
“Cannibals?” Thorpe gulped. “They dragged off Captain Lastri!”
The ship’s captain had been a female halfling. Chantry remembered that Thorpe had spent a large part of the voyage, after he got over being sea-sick, in trying unsuccessfully to persuade the captain to share a bunk with him. “If we act swiftly we might get her back,” she said.
“If she’s still alive we’ll find her,” Kelleth assured his halfling friend. “We are willing to do this job for you, Lady Sa Sani.”
“Very well. Here. Take this ring as a token to prove that you are in my employ.” She handed a signet ring to Kelleth. “It also bears a protective enchantment equivalent to a light shield or buckler. May it serve you well. This gold,” she produced from under the table a pouch much bigger and heavier than the one she had given them at the city gates, “should allow you properly to re-equip yourselves before you venture out of the city.”
“Thank you, Lady Sa Sani,” Kelleth said. “What is the second task? Searching for more survivors?”
“That would be admirable, and I approve, but my concern is with the wreck itself,” Sa’Sani said. “I am convinced that it was no mere accident but I lack proof. Take this report, investigate the area, and document what you find. The authorities will regard it as a harmless insurance investigation but it will tell me far more.”
“Oh, it was definitely sabotage,” Chantry declared.
“You sound certain,” Sa’Sani said. “What makes you believe this?”
“It wasn’t much of a storm,” Chantry said, “and we went through a dozen worse on the voyage without Captain Lastri having any trouble. This time the steering, the helm – is that the right term? – didn’t respond. There was something wrong with the sails, too, but I don’t know enough about ships to know what it was. Also, that patrol turned up just too damn quick. Somebody knew something in advance.”
“Perhaps evidence, indeed,” Sa’Sani said, “but perhaps coincidence.”
“Maybe,” said Chantry, “but the clincher is that I didn’t fall overboard.”
Kelleth frowned. “But you did. You nearly died.”
“I didn’t say I didn’t go overboard,” Chantry told him, “just that I didn’t fall. I was pushed.”
Disclaimer: ‘Storm of Zehir’ is the property of Atari, Obsidian Entertainment, Wizards of the Coast Inc., and Hasbro, Inc. The song sung by Chantry, and referred to by her as ‘the New Hymn to Talona’, is ‘Poison’ by Alice Cooper; lyrics quoted without permission.