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Jun. 7th, 2011

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5 Ches 1373

Once upon a time, waking up to a fresh snowfall was one of the simpler pleasures I took in life.

Since taking up residence in Silverymoon, it's just become another annoyance to the start of a day.

Today I took refuge from the unexpected snow in a tavern with which I'd only recently become acquainted- the Dancing Goat.

As I nursed a warm pot of tea and tried to shake the bitter cold from my fingertips, I cursed the scheduler who had decided to move my class at the Invocatorium not only earlier in the day, but to a new annex across the river from the usual buildings.

However, as it turned out, the changes ended up proving to be more fortuitous than I had anticipated.

It was with some surprise that I observed the most unusual group of companions entering the tavern on this chilly morning. A human wizard with an owl familiar, a half-elf, a young human girl and a wolf entered together, followed shortly thereafter by the very surprising sight of two drow- a man and a woman, and a half-orc who carried the most preposterous-looking double-bladed axe. At the sight of the drow and the half-orc, I placed my hand inside my component pouch as the words to a defensive spell formed on my lips. But even more surprising than their appearance was the complete lack of a similar reaction by any of the other patrons in attendance.

It wasn't until the owner greeted them that I assimilated that they must have been regulars and that I simply had not been here often enough to have noticed them previously.

They soon disappeared en masse upstairs, with the half-orc carrying what looked like a breakfast tray- the sight of which suddenly struck me with some amusement as I considered the pros and cons of employing a half-orc as a servant.

They were lost from my thoughts after they left my sight, however- and I returned to listening to the solitary minstrel in the main room.

When they returned, however, my attention was immediately piqued again as they had been joined by both of the leading members of the Sun and Moon. Again, thoughts of a half-orc performer on stage struck me as foolish and absurd, yet I briefly considered what instrument he might play. Perhaps he tied mandolin strings down the length of his axe which produced a sound unlike any other? Banishing that comical image from my mind, another thought immediately replaced it. Were these Harper agents? Surely not, given the dubious moralities of drow and half-orcs.

As it turned out, the large group simply sat down at a long table to discuss matters of what appeared to be some urgency. Whatever it was couldn't have been too critical as they were soon enjoying the standard breakfast fare.

Unable to avoid eavesdropping, I listened with great fascination as best I could to their conversation.

"… Glade… always get lost..."

"… feel like I'm going to be sick… city is miserable"

"…and what is he doing here?"

"… employ whatever contacts…. perhaps your friends in the Spellguard…"

My ears twitched as I tried desperately to focus in on this latter conversation between the female drow and the wizard.

"You have a strange definition of 'friends'…."

"…don't care, pull whatever favors…. might have some information…"

"After we check in with her parents, I'll see what my friends may have heard…"

Very quickly the growing crowd in the tavern drowned out any further conversation threads I could pick up from this eclectic group, but I kept an eye on them and waited to see if I could find out more. It wasn't long before they had finished their breakfast meals and were starting to head for the door.

Glancing around, I hoped no one was paying any attention to the unobtrusive sun elf woman sipping tea in the corner as she quickly disappeared, only to be replaced by a nondescript human male.

My disguise in place, I quietly slipped through the tavern and followed the group out into the snow-dappled streets of Silverymoon. They split up almost immediately, and I made sure to stay just out of sight as the female drow and the wizard made their way north- with me not far behind. A quick nod and a whisper and Shade was in stealthy pursuit of the other half of the group.

Finding a wizard with connections to the Spellguard was a small stroke of luck. I needed a token and they were my next best avenue for acquiring one. Even more promising was that he didn't look all that formidable or imposing; a student, most likely- given his apparent youth. Unfortunately, his drow companion looked dangerous. I'd seen enough assassins and thieves in the last few years to recognize a skilled throat-cutter when I saw one. I only hoped that whatever they were up to, it would present me with the opportunity I'd been seeking.



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3 Ches 1373

I slid my hand provocatively along the thigh of my young companion, inching slowly forward as I laughed softly in his ear.

"Oh, being a Knight in Silver sounds so exciting!" I breathed heavily, my lips just grazing the outer lobe of his ear.

"It is, it issh," he replied groggily, his speech slurred from the bottomless glass of wine he held in his calloused left hand. Its never-ending nature was no trick of magic, however. On the contrary, it was the result of just a bit of sleight of hand and a little arrangement I had made with the barmaid prior to sitting down. Every time his glass reached the half full point, she provided a full-to-the-rim replacement while I kept his attention away from the table.

"So tell me more about these wards. As a knight, I'm sure you've seen a lot of amazing things- but how effective are they really?"

He leaned into me as his eyes began to go cross-eyed and I wondered if perhaps I'd pushed him a little too far. "Ohh… vehhry eff-eck-tive. Makes my job…. sooooooo….. easier."

"Surely they hamper you too, though? How can you apprehend dangerous troublemakers if you're restricted by the wards?"

He shook his head elaborately and grinned, his pale teeth shining in the dim candlelight of Sorlar's. "Nuh-uh… toes…. toes' kin 'lows us to do stuff. Not in the hamper at all."

"Amazing. And you have one of these tokens?"

He nodded vigorously and clapped his hand over the light breastplate that was suspended on his tunic.

"Could I see it?" My mind raced as I wasn't entirely sure how I planned to get the token off of him and whether this was the right place to attempt to steal a token from a Knight in Silver.

He shook his head no.

"Do they give them to just Knights, or can other residents obtain one for their own use?" I ran a finger along the bridge of his nose and then across his lips as I whispered close to his ear.

"Sure!" he smiled brightly. "Just ask Lady Alustriel." He laughed at this, clearly pleased with his sense of humor. "Or Taern, or Azuth or Mmyssstra." He shrugged nonchalantly as if any of those were perfectly reasonable alternatives.

"So there's no other way, then."

"Nope! Outside of joining the Shpellguard- and why would anyone want to do that- there'sh really no way."

Ah, of course, the Spellguard. I vaguely recalled the clerk at the Lady's College mentioning that wizardry students who wished to defer some of the cost of tuition could do so by enlisting in the service of the Spellguard. Sadly, that meant dealing with… wizards.

Considering the alternatives, I debated the likelihood I could get my male companion alone and disrobed before he passed out. I also debated the possibility I might not get him to pass out and I might be stuck in the rather uncomfortable position of having to actually sleep with him. There's always the possibility of robbing him while in his drunken state… I considered for a moment whether sex or robbery would be considered the worst of all possible approaches.

Regardless of the means, he still seemed like my most immediate and best chance at acquiring a ward token.

My hand slid all the way up his thigh as my fingers found their target. "Mmm… this is all too exciting. Perhaps we should retire to my room to discuss further?" My lips brushed against his flushed cheek as I felt his entire body stiffen in response to me.

"Oh… " his eyes grew wide and frightened for a moment, and then he frowned. "Uhh… well, you shhee… I uh…"

I raised an eyebrow and stared at him quizzically.

"Well… you're very sshweet but… I didn't join the knights to meet women…"

I continued to look at him, uncomprehending. His shoulders visibly slumped in defeat. Leaning over he whispered quite loudly: "I like… y'know, men."

I groaned audibly and pushed away from him. If I had known that, I would have made the appropriate alternations to my appearance beforehand.

"Don't be mad!" He called after me as I started to slide out of the booth beside him. "Please tell no one. There'sh this… policy…"

As I collected my coat, I reached into one of its pockets and retrieved a few silver coins to leave on the table for the barmaid.

I stepped out onto the cobblestones of the street outside and huddled in the warmth of my heavy winter coat. I scanned the buildings nearby, looking for a suitable vantage point from which to observe the tavern's entrance. The corner of an alley across the way seemed promising aside from the incredibly well-placed street lamp that sat perched next to its otherwise darkened entrance.

Looking about the deserted street and finding only vermin of the rodent variety, I moved carefully across the cobblestones before slipping into the alleyway.

"Dumak," I breathed and followed with a quick gesture to silently extinguish the flame in the lamp housing. The alley was immediately drenched in the persistent darkness that had been held at bay by its light, obscuring me along with it.

Shade appeared at my side and purred contentedly. This was more in line with his preferred approach to hunting, and he softly whispered his anticipation as he sat beside me. His attention was so rapt, he even managed to ignore the rats which scurried about the periphery of nearby buildings.

There we remained for what felt like hours, until the sky began to turn an iridescent blue- heralding the return of the sun. It was about this time as well that my drunken knight stumbled at last from the tavern's darkened entrance. Much to my frustration, however, he was not alone. Draped around his shoulder was another man- younger, fairer and possibly one of the servants of the tavern itself, if I remembered his face correctly. I couldn't tell if he were simply escorting the knight home out of politeness or if my companion had found what he had been looking for after all.

I heaved a great sigh of disappointment and retreated from my cold outpost. Shade padded along silently behind me, sharing in my frustration at a spoiled evening.

Spellguard it is, I thought grimly.

Mar. 31st, 2011

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1 Ches 1373

I stared blankly at the plate of food that was rapidly growing cold in front of me. Once again we were having lunch at Solar's after morning classes, but I'd spent most of the day preoccupied with thoughts of the Vault of the Sages and how I could get past the Forehall. I would need a token of some kind, to be sure, but how I was to get my hands on one was the one minor detail that continued to elude me.

Given my state of mind, it was unsurprising that I was oblivious to the fact that someone was trying to speak to me.

"Are you even paying attention to me?" Aerun's voice, tinged with annoyance even through her hushed tone was like a needle being twisted in my ear.

"Hmm?" I asked, looking over to where she sat opposite me at the table. The boys were late arriving from their class, and so it was just the raven-haired wild elf and myself holding a table during the busy lunchtime rush.

"Of course not," she sighed with exasperation and made an elaborate gesture of crossing her arms defensively across her chest.

"What is it?"

"I asked you if you were sleeping with Calvin."

I wasn't sure whether my expression could have properly conveyed the complete and utter surprise I had at being asked such a question. But it seemed whatever my reaction was, it wasn't reassuring.

"Well?!"

I stared blankly at her for a several heartbeats, meeting her icy gaze without flinching. There was a hint of anguish in her eyes that was just hidden behind the antagonism in her body language.

"No- of course not. Why would you even ask me that?"

"I always see you flirting with him. I see the way he looks at you." If she could have stabbed me with words, I got the distinct feeling she would have.

"Aerun, I don't know what's going on between the two of you but I've never once flirted with Calvin." I thought back to all the times he surreptitiously brushed against me, his hands slipping here and there and then meeting my annoyed gazes with the boyish "who, me?" expression he thought was so charming. "Believe me, I have about as much interest in him as I do this undercooked pheasant." For emphasis I poked the lump of cold bird meat that sat largely untouched at the center of my plate.

"Are you suggesting you're too good for him? That you're better than us?"

"Again, not what I said-"

"You think you're something really special, don't you? The little sun elf princess that everyone just loves," she was practically spitting the words out as she spoke. "Getting special treatment from the instructors, all the other students kissing the ground you walk on-"

"I have no idea what you're talking about and frankly I'm tired of listening to you," I snapped back. "Whatever your problem is with Calvin, don't take it out on me. You knew him well enough before the two of you started your little… whatever it is you two have. Don't blame me if you regret it now."

"The only thing I regret is the day you showed up in Silverymoon."

"Allow me to spare you from any more suffering, then." Shoving the bench away from the table with the screeching sound of wood scraping the floor, I stormed toward the front door just as it was opening. Emerging from the bright outdoors were the comically disparate outlines of Calvin and Gnaz, who as a gnome barely even reached the height of his human companion's thigh.

I only caught a hint of Calvin's obnoxious grin and a brief exclamation of surprise as I stormed past them. As the door slammed shut behind me I could barely make out Gnaz's tinny voice. "Where's Anaya going?"

~~~~

I walked aimlessly through the city streets, my mind turning over Aerun's sudden antagonism and getting more and more irritated the longer I thought about it. I had no idea where her sudden argument stemmed from, nor why she chose that particular moment to attack me.

It was in this mindset that I found myself in an area of the south bank I rarely visited, and realized I had potentially gotten lost in my carelessness.

As I scanned the unfamiliar streets and buildings for a sign or a street name by which I might orient myself, a flash of gray and white moving amidst the crowd grabbed my attention. Seeking the source, I peered intently between the constantly shifting mass of humanity until I finally got a glimpse of the figure again- wrapped in gray and white with a wide blue sash that trailed out behind her.

Kūkaku Shihōin.

Gilles' attendant, servant, bodyguard or lover, I wasn't sure- but she represented access to Brightblade's sanctuary inside the Vault of Sages. In my attempts to uncover any information about her, I'd failed spectacularly. No one in town seemed to know of her. She moved like a ghost through Silverymoon- completely unnoticed and unremarkable.

If she kept quarters in this part of the city, this would be a good opportunity to find out. With access to where she lived, I might even be able to break in and get my hands on the token she must have owned.

All thoughts of Aerun's pettiness banished from my thoughts, I quickly moved to keep Kūkaku in sight. It was difficult navigating the crowds as she seemed to flow effortlessly between people like water through a tumbler. I, on the other hand, felt like I was being jostled and tossed about like a rock bouncing down the side of a hill.

Despite the difficulty, I was pleased to see I was somehow gaining ground on her. I briefly lost sight of her as she turned a corner, so I hurried my pace to make sure she couldn't disappear down an alley while I was unable to observe her movements.

Practically leaping around the corner, I was taken completely off-guard when an arm came flying out from behind the stone wall. With a swift blow, she struck my midsection with the palm of her hand, completely knocking all the air from my lungs. Staggered, I slumped over and propped myself against the side of the building as I tried to regain my breath.

"Nine times out of ten, the key to defeating a spell caster is to silence her." Kūkaku's accented voice was low and threatening, but I couldn't help but pick up a slight hint of enjoyment in it.

She tossed me, still gasping for air, against the hard stone and mortar wall opposite us. A sudden flurry of fingertip strikes sent tingles of pain shooting up through my arms. Immediately thereafter they fell limp and useless at my sides. Without even a blink of an eye, her hand was at my throat, holding my head roughly against the wall.

"Take away their hands too, and most surrender on the spot." With her free hand, she grabbed my jaw and forced my lips apart in a display of her dominance of the situation.

Her fingers pulled at my tongue and held it in painfully in her grip. "Some methods of silencing are more permanent than others."

She regarded me with curiosity, before releasing my tongue from her grip. "I saw you once before, didn't I? Or was it twice?" Her eyes gleamed as if she were referring to a private joke shared only between the two of us. I thought back to the scene on the street with the Harpers in pursuit of her. "Why are you following me? Even Harper spies aren't so clumsy. Or do you serve another power? Who has you watching me?"

She relaxed her grip on my neck just enough to allow me to choke out a response. "I serve no master. My intentions are my own. I have no I interest in you, only the librarian."

"Hmm. Jilted lover? Possible, but not likely. Thief? Even less likely as most know to avoid spell pouches at their peril. You are an interesting specimen."

"And you?" I sputtered.

"My master is my business and I make sure no one interferes with my business. I'm sorely tempted to see what you are made of, but I'm in a bit of a hurry. It will be interesting to see Gilles' reaction to this. I almost can't wait to tell him about his secret admirer."

She released her hold on my neck and I slid to my knees, still unable to move my arms to prop myself up.

"Don't try following me again, little sun elf-" I tried not to laugh at her 'little' remark, as I was easily a head and a half taller than the diminutive Kozakuran. "I won't play so nice in the future."

She disappeared again, moving with speed and grace through the crowd and leaving me behind in a disheveled heap to consider my failure.
~~~~

The Moonbridge shone brightly in the fading light of the afternoon as I stepped out onto its ethereal surface. Even as a mage, I still found it vaguely unsettling and bewildering to cross the magical archway between the old city and the newer sections on the south side of the river. Even through its silvery form, I could vaguely see the rushing whitecaps directly below.

I wasn't sure how I ended up here, after my encounter with Kūkaku. I had a distinct and unshakeable feeling of defeat, however. It weighed heavily in my mind, and threatened to suffocate me just as effectively as when she had cut off the passage of air through my windpipe.

Has it only been a month? Slightly more? It felt like I'd been in Silverymoon for a year already. So much had happened. Waterdeep was a lifetime ago, yet the pain of Kessa's death still pricked me as freshly as it ever had; perhaps moreso now that I had come so close to my goal of exacting revenge.

I stopped along the bridge to stare off at the sun as it slowly disappeared beyond the hills and mountains to the west. It wasn't that long ago that I was making may way up the Evermoor Way from Triboar. Merill Thornweaver died out there. Another pang clutched at my heart.

What was the point? After all my struggles, after all I'd done to get here, I was no closer to what I'd set out to do than when I was standing beside Kessa's funeral pyre in Skullport.

I thought I could get justice. If Gilles were to pay for what he did. But even that is denied me. He hides in his library, protected and secured from the rest of the world.

What have I accomplished? What point in continuing on is there? I've brought nothing but misery to those near me. I've burnt away the ties to a life I once thought I had. Without hope or purpose, why linger?

A familiar voice, once soothing and a boon to my spirits but now a just bitter reminder of my own nagging conscience, chimed in- as it was want to do of late. "You have people who care about you still. Your classmates. The Shadesteppers. Saari-"

"Leave me alone," I sighed at the figment of my consciousness masquerading as Kessa. "I should have died with my parents. There was nothing left for me, no reason to live till you came along and resurrected me. Now you are gone, and I have nothing."

"Life is not about having. Life is about finding. Find a new reason to live."

"GO AWAY! You're not even her." I felt the brimstone in my blood starting to rise. “Why can't I make you go away?” My skin radiated heat in my agitated state, and I felt my facade slipping. Passers-by moved in wider circles around me as I argued with myself at the edge of the bridge's apex.

"Because this is a truth you know deep within yet still you bury it with your self-pity and your grief and your anger. No matter how hard you try, you cannot deny the truth of it."

"Watch me." I stared down at the roiling waves and the crests of pure white that danced across their peaks as the first melt of winter surged down from the distant mountains. At that moment, it seemed so cool and inviting.

"Kessa will not be there to greet you with open arms," the apparition warned. "Nor will your parents."

I considered this for a moment as I stared at the rushing water below. Perhaps she was right. But even the emptiness of the void seemed like it would be comfort enough.

I tentatively placed a foot near the edge of the shimmering silver construct of the immense archway. White-knuckled, my hands clenched and unclenched of their own accord, as I mentally envisioned hurtling through the air and splashing into the river below.

"Anaya…" a new voice, deep and masculine but barely above that of a whisper drifted on the air from behind me. Uncertain of who it was, but expecting a new form of mental delusion, I closed my eyes and slowly turned around to face my new critic.

When I opened my eyes again, I was taken aback by the sight of Thalgard Amundsen's tall shape, his expression as stoic and expressionless as ever I'd seen on the Northman. The strong wind over the Moonbridge whipped his wheat-colored hair across his eyes, yet he never seemed to blink nor take his gaze off me.

"Whatever it is, it's not worth it." His frankness was almost like a slap to the face and I immediately felt the shame of it.  I suddenly found myself unable to look him in the eyes.

"Thalgard… it's nothing. I was-" I hesitated as I tried to think of a way to explain myself, "I was just taking in the view before moving on."

He watched me with that damned look of his- the one that revealed no trace of what he was thinking and always made me feel stripped bare.

"I'm actually quite tired. I think I just want to go home and rest," I continued, trying to wave him off. Turning, I started to head south across the bridge and he silently moved alongside, effortlessly matching my stride.

"Rest seems like a wise choice," he said as if he were simply stating an abstract truth.

"You needn't escort me home- I should be able to make it back alright."

"Escort?" He gazed at me with a mischievous grin that I rarely ever saw, "No, you misunderstand. I'm just on my way to the college."

"Of course."

He nodded and we moved without further word through the teeming boulevards of Southbank, leaving the crashing waves of the turbulent Rauvin behind us.

Mar. 25th, 2011

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27 Alturiak 1373

The Dancing Goat. A comical little caricature of an inebriated goat standing gaily on its hind legs- presumably dancing, adorned an engraved wooden shield which hung just above the entrance to the tavern which bore its name. Even though it was only midday, there were already sounds of raucous entertainments being enjoyed behind its dark stained glass windows. I had come here in search of the Sun and Moon troupe, a band made up of of troubadours, entertainers, bards and as near as I could tell- Harper agents.

Unfortunately, the information I'd been able to glean during my little exploratory jaunt inside Moongleam Tower in Everlund hadn't afforded me much in terms of identifying the key members, only that they had ties to two of my targets- the former Gabriel Quinlaren and the very soon-to-be-deceased Gilles Brightblade.

Katherine, the occasional overnight visitor of my halfling landlords had pointed me to this particular tavern in my search for more information. I hoped that something would pan out that might give me an avenue toward getting past the various blocks that stood between myself and Brightblade.

The truth was, I had no idea what I was looking for.

I pulled the heavy oak door aside and stepped into the dim light of the tavern, Shade nimbly darting between my moving feet to explore the interior on his own.

No one seemed to take much notice of me- I was just another customer in a reasonably popular tavern. I weaved my way around tables and red-faced servers as they hustled to and fro in service of their clientele. One young teenage boy pointed toward an empty table near the center of the dining area, just a foot or two away from a large empty space that had been cleared on the floor for dancing and merry-making.

I deposited my coat on the accompanying table stool and then sat down. Observing the crowd with curiosity, I looked for anyone who seemed recognizable. In a city this size, however, the odds of that were fairly low. But there was a part of me that was hoping for a familiar face. There was one in particular that kept creeping into my mind no matter where I went in Silverymoon.

I imagined there wouldn't be anywhere I would have been surprised to stumble upon Saari. It seemed to me like she could turn up in even the most unlikely of places. Despite the fact that I hadn't seen or heard from her for a few days made any moment feel like it could lead to a surprise encounter.

On the nearby stage a small group of performers were finishing up a lovely melody and preparing to take a short break off-stage. I was only beginning to observe their behavior when a gnomish barmaid stopped by my table and greeted me in a chirpy, enthusiastic voice.

"What'll it be, sweetie?"

"What's your speciality?" I continued to watch the band as they laughed and spoke together in a small nook at the corner of the room.

"The Dancing Goat is best known for our fantastic wine cellar. You can't go wrong with any selection."

"Very well, bring me a glass of the house wine then. What about for food?"

"Ah, well the special this afternoon is herb-roasted chicken breast with mash and winter greens."

"That's fine." I took my gaze away from the corner of the tavern to smile politely to the gnome. She bounced energetically away from the table, shouting at the kitchen as she ran past the swinging doorway outside it.

As I returned my gaze to the group of musicians preparing to return to the stage, the origin of their name became suddenly evident- the two leading performers were a sun elf woman and a moon elf male. The woman stepped forward to the edge of the stage, preparing to sing vocals while the moon elf retrieved an instrument from where it rested against the back of the stage and took up a position alongside a half-elf male.

Strumming out a ponderous chord on their instruments, the moon elf and half-elf began a slow melody that gave me goose pimples from its haunting measures and disquieting yet beautiful harmony. I closed my eyes as the music drifted around me; and just as I felt as though it couldn't get any more intense, the fair voice of the sun elf rose to join the music with a sound that pierced me to the core. The sound of the music was so moving that it immediately silenced the crowd more effectively than any spell. It was so powerful in fact, that I almost wondered if there was some magical effect in play.

And so they played on, until reaching the song's bittersweet and moving coda. As the sound of the last note echoed in the still tavern, there was a moment as if the crowd was waking from a dream. And then there was thunderous applause and cheering.

The sun elf thanked the crowd for our rapt praise and attention and promised something more upbeat to lighten the mood. Sure enough, a quick drum beat and a rising guitar melody signaled a welcome return to more lively music to come.

My gnome barmaid appeared from the crowd, her face showing a hint of moisture as she dropped off a glass of pale golden wine and a warm platter filled with food. "I hate it when they play that song," she sniffed, "But when they do, I wish they'd never stop."

Without waiting for any kind of response, she hurried back to the kitchen and disappeared behind its swinging door.

In a way, I felt like I understood what she meant. The worst part of the song seemed to be that it had ended. Despite the emotion of the music, I felt like I could have swam within it for eternity, like I were floating down the gentle waves of a stream through a forest.

Taking a sip of the house wine, I found it lived up to its billing. For a house wine, this was possibly one of the best varietals I'd had at any tavern, anywhere. I wondered what the "good" stuff here was like.

Shade appeared from seemingly out of nowhere, as per his usual behavior, the moment I began to cut into the tender breast of chicken that sat at the center of my plate. I ignored his elaborate licking of his chops as I began to eat.

I kind of like this place, I thought to myself. I would have to come here more often.

Dec. 28th, 2010

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22 Alturiak 1373

Katherine was once again a guest of the Shadesteppers, as evidenced by both my lack of sleep and the extra place-setting at the breakfast table.
 
"Good morning, Anaya!" Seraphina seemed as chipper as ever. Part of me was desperate to ask about her and Kikrock's relationship with the human girl, but another part of me was afraid to hear the answer. But as long as it was making them happy, I decided it was none of my business.
 
"Good morning, Sera," I murmured, still tired from a noisy evening and somewhat out of sorts already.
 
Seraphina pulled a chair out for me and immediately placed a plate of toast and bacon in front of me. "I've already got your breakfast ready. Eat up!"
 
"I see we have company again?"
 
"Yes," Seraphina dropped a glass of milk in front of me and a glass of water at the extra place-setting. "Katherine should be down in a moment. She's just having a wash now."
 
"Where's Kik?"
 
Seraphina blushed and I had my answer.
 
Stuffing my mouth with bread seemed like the wisest response, so I did. Shade rubbed his way between my ankles, and I reached down and handed him a small morsel of bacon.
 
"Don't say I don't do enough for you," I mumbled with a full mouth.
 
It was only a few minutes before I heard the gentle stepping of a young woman coming down the stairs. Katherine emerged from the front entry, her hair still wet and her clothing clinging to her wiry frame in various places. She crossed over to where Seraphina was working at the stove and the two kissed briefly. Given their relative height differences, it was a rather odd sight to see.
 
The human girl sat down opposite me and proceeded to take a long drink of her water. "I'm always so thirsty in the mornings, I don't know why."
 
Seraphina delivered a plate with eggs and toast, which Katherine eagerly began to devour.
 
"Katherine," I began slowly, "you're studying at the House of the Harp, correct?"
 
She nodded, her mouth still full.
 
"So I imagine you know a lot of the performers that work in Silverymoon?"
 
Again, another nod.
 
"Have you ever met a half-elf named Gabriel Quinlaren?"
 
She seemed to chuckle and then took a moment to swallow her food before she cleared her throat. "Oh, sadly yes. I hope he didn't sweet-talk his way into your bedroom or anything like that?"
 
"No, nothing like that." She has no idea, I thought wryly.
 
"Oh good. He's a complete horse's ass, and terrible in the sack. Worst bard I've ever played with- in more ways than one," she took another bite and chewed it quickly. "At least his music is good. He just needs to keep his mouth shut."
 
"Can you tell me anything else about him? Did he have friends here? People he did business with?"
 
"I can't say I know him well enough to be of much help there. I heard some strange rumors about him. Some people think he's a Harper spy- but I never gave much credit to that. He's too incompetent to be useful as a spy for anyone."
 
I took another bite of my bacon and slipped a piece under the table to Shade. His wet, fuzzy mouth greedily snatched it from my fingertips.
 
"Do you know a group called Sun and Moon?" I played idly with what remained of my toast before taking another bite.
 
"Oh, sure. They travel quite a bit around the north. I haven't seen them in a while here in Silverymoon but usually when they're here, you can find them at The Dancing Goat."
 
"Where's that?"
 
"It's in Northbank, on the east side of the Moonway just north of the Moonbridge," Katherine smiled as she thought of it. "Nice little spot. Fun crowd. I've always enjoyed playing there. Just keep an eye on your purse. The crowd can get a little rowdy."
 
I nodded and smiled. "Thank you- good to know."
 
"Why, are you looking for a bard?" She suddenly seemed very eager to please. "If you need someone for a gig-"
 
"No, it's not that." I hesitated while I sought a way to explain myself. "I'm looking for an old friend and I think he may have had some ties to either Gabriel or Sun and Moon."
 
"A musician?" She asked, scraping the last of the food off her plate. "I might know them."
 
"He's no musician that I'm aware of- he's a librarian, by the name of Gilles Brightblade."
 
She considered this earnestly for a moment, then shrugged helplessly. "I wish I could say the name rang a bell- but I'm afraid I'm at a loss."
 
"You needn't concern yourself," I replied, "In fact, probably best if you just forget I mentioned him."
 
 "I see." She regarded me skeptically for a moment, but then it was like she wiped the thought from her mind and she was once again a blank slate. "I was just thinking, I'm going to be performing at Four Corner Square this week- you three should come see the show. We can even get drinks afterward. I promise it'll be fun!"
 
"A great idea, Katherine!" Seraphina exclaimed. She walked over to Katherine and nudged her in the shoulder. "I'll see what I can do about getting these two over there. You know how Kik is."
 
Katherine smiled, and I assumed she was pleased at the prospect of having a receptive audience on hand for her performance.
 
I took my empty dishes to the sink and quickly rinsed them off.
 
"Oh, don't bother sweetie- I'll take care of that," Seraphina called from the dining table.
 
"Too late!" I wiped the plate and silverware down and returned them to the cupboard. "I've got to run to classes- see you later!"
 
Seraphina patted me on the back as I passed by, and Katherine waved goodbye idly. It seemed I was going to have to get used to her being a regular around the house.
 
~~~~
 
While I didn't actually have classes this morning, I did want to check out the Dancing Goat. So I crossed the Moonbridge and entered the Hunters district of the Old City.
 
It was while scanning the buildings for a sign of the tavern, that I noticed a familiar flash of gray and white robes move quickly through the crowd. It moved so quickly I almost didn't notice it, but I was able to track the movements of the person as she disappeared into an alleyway. I recognized her as the woman I'd seen with Gilles Brightblade days earlier. I moved to follow when I realized I wasn't the only one in pursuit. Two men and one woman dressed in green and brown leather armor suddenly appeared amidst the crowd- they were clearly following her trail. Their movements were less nimble and precise and so they moved more slowly through the large mass of pedestrians that filled the avenue.
 
Rather than follow down the same alleyway that she disappeared into, I ducked into what seemed a parallel street and ran as fast as I could in the hopes of not falling far behind.
 
I didn't have to run far though, as I quickly heard the sound of raised voices echoing from the direction where she'd gone. With no way of cutting over, I quickly surveyed the alley I was in and then leapt up onto the metal ironwork on the side of the building.
 
Scaling it carefully, I reached the rooftop and gingerly made my way over the frost-covered terra cotta roof to the opposite side.
 
Below me, the alleyway had come to an abrupt end and now the woman was cut off from an immediate escape.
 
"Kukaku Shihoin!" A male voice rang out loudly down the narrow street. "You are required to surrender and submit to the authority of the High Mage of Silverymoon."
 
The trio closed the distance separating them from their quarry with measured caution. Their swords and daggers drawn, they closed in on the Kozakuran woman.
 
She seemed to regard them with little concern, as her posture was relaxed- almost lackadaisical.  She waited until they were just outside of arm's reach before she spoke.
 
"You amuse me, Benethor." Her voice was at a lower register than I was expecting for someone so petite. Her tone carried with it a distinct warning. Part of me was surprised at her almost non-existent accent. Again, I had expected something different from looking at her; for now that I could clearly see her features, she truly was an exotic creature here among all the other human races I was accustomed to.
 
"You no more represent the High Mage than I represent Azuth," she continued. "If the High Mage were truly interested in my activities, he would have sent the Knights and the Spellguard, not some pathetic Harper agents."
 
"Nevertheless, you are wanted for questioning by our Masters," the half-elf named Benethor replied, indicating to his fellows to take up flanking positions on either side of her. "This will be easier if you come along without resistance."
 
From my vantage point, I could see the muscles in her back grow taught and I resisted the urge to shout out a warning to the Harpers.
 
Kukaku lowered her head and stretched out her stance- with both her arms and legs spread apart from her body at angles. "Wrong," she sneered.
 
Before I could even see what was happening, the other male Harper was disarmed and on his back, grasping his throat for air. However she had struck him, it had been lightning fast and left him nearly paralyzed. The female Harper swung her two blades in a cutting arc, but the space she had targeted was empty moments after she had begun her strike.
 
Kukaku spun and weaved herself around the blows of her attackers with ease, quickly knocking the female to the ground with a blow that I could hear from my vantage point four stories up. The woman remained perfectly still on the cobblestones as Kūkaku turned to focus on the one called Benethor.
 
The two of them seemed to dance and spin about one another, as if choreographed by a master dancer. But I could see that ultimately the half-elf was going to lose. She was gaining ground on him methodically, breaking down his defenses and his methods inch by inch.
 
Then something remarkable happened. Seemingly from nowhere, Benethor managed to strike a hidden blow to her midsection- with a thrust of a heavy dagger straight into her side.
 
But it had cost him. She didn't even react to the blow and simply used the opportunity to disarm him completely in a sickening display of power- breaking both his arms with snapping noises that made me want to wretch.
 
The dagger that he had thrust into her side clattered to the ground, its tip barely even flecked with blood. She wore no armor that I could see, and I wondered at her remarkable physical and mental conditioning.
 
Satisfied that her opponents were either dead or incapacitated, Kukaku quickly disappeared back down the alleyway from which she'd come.
 
So much for the idea of using her to get to Gilles. She was probably his personal bodyguard.
 
But it didn't make sense. Brightblade was a Harper contact, informer and associate. He was on their payroll. What did the Harpers want with Kukaku and why was she targeted for what appeared to have been an arrest attempt?
portrait

21 Alturiak 1373

I returned to classes the next day with excuses of illness, deaths in the family, apocalypses, planar teleportation, and whatever else seemed necessary to return to my instructors' good graces.
 
In exchange for a copious amount of something called "make-up" work, I was allowed back into my courses without any further drama.
 
"Heyyy! Anaya's back!" Gnaz chirped happily upon seeing me in the hallways of the Invocatorium building. Thalgard was not far behind him, as they apparently were just exiting a class.
 
Both smiled at my approach, with Gnaz practically wrapping himself around my thigh with a hug. Thankfully, Thalgard had a better sense of decorum and politely extricated the over-eager gnome from my leg.
 
"I think someone's pleased to see you," he rumbled in his deep, northern accent.
 
"I didn't realize I would be so missed." I looked up at the big northman and saw from his expression that he was genuinely pleased as well- albeit in his subdued, nonchalant manner.
 
"Did you get my letter? Where have you been? You missed out on so much! DidItellyouaboutAerunandCalvinandcanyoubelievethey'retogetherit'sjustsofunny!" Gnaz seemed unable to restrain himself as he tried desperately to get me caught up in ten seconds or less.
 
After he seemed to exhaust himself and he paused to take a big breath for what I feared might be another long information dump, I interjected. "Where is the couple, anyway?"
 
Gnaz opened his mouth but Thalgard spoke for him. "You're not the only one who's been skipping class. They often disappear from campus for hours at a time."
 
"They're making babies!" Gnaz squealed, unable to contain himself.
 
"Do we need to have this conversation again, Gnaz?" Thalgard sighed.
 
Gnaz frowned and shook his head. "It's just an expression. I don't actually think they're trying to make babies. But if they're not careful, they might be!" At this his mood swung back to being upbeat and chipper again.
 
"Can you imagine how cute they'd be? Wow." He seemed to get lost in a daze for a moment. "Maybe they'll make me a god parent. How incredible would that be?"
 
"You'd be the first god parent smaller than the kid," Thalgard chuckled.
 
"Are you two heading to Malik's class?" I asked as we walked down the hall.
 
"Yes, are you coming?" Thalgard noticed I had stopped near the main reception desk.
 
"I'll be there momentarily. Save me a seat."
 
They nodded and continued on. I turned to the clerk behind the reception counter and asked for paper, quill and ink.
 
Quickly scratching down the elven words, I penned a quick apology to someone who I knew was thinking of me.
 
Sorry for being unavailable this past week, but it's difficult to explain. I hope this finds you well and happy. I hope to see you again soon. - A
 
"Please save this for the messenger when he comes by this afternoon," I asked, dropping a silver on the counter along with the folded note once I'd addressed it.
 
The clerk nodded and collected both the note and the coin and put it with a stack of other outgoing messages.
 
Feeling better, I hurried off to my next class- thinking up a new set of excuses for my  next professor.
portrait

20 Alturiak 1373

I didn't sleep as restfully as I wanted, as the noises of the Shadestepper's lovemaking on the floor above me had been louder than usual and had kept me unhappily reminded of the woefulness of my own social life.
 
There were times I woke up convinced I had heard an unfamiliar voice coming from upstairs, but I passed it off as strange dreams that were playing off of the reality of the situation.
 
So it was with only minor surprise that I came down the stairs in the morning to the kitchen and was greeted by the sight of a young human woman sitting at the table. She had long, blonde hair that draped down to almost the top of her hips; and she was barefoot and wearing only a pair of slightly undersized woolen pajamas.
 
She, Seraphina and Kikrock were all busily eating their breakfast together as I came in.
 
"Good morning!" Seraphina beamed, "What can I get you?" She started to get up from her seat.
 
"Please, don't let me interrupt," I waved her to sit back down as I passed the table and entered the large pantry just off the side of the kitchen. "I'm just going to warm up some tea and take a scone with me today."
 
"Is that her?" The girl whispered, but not softly enough- at least for my ears. I could hear Kikrock's clothing move as he nodded his head.
 
"I see what you mean," the girl continued.
 
I chose to ignore their conversation and exited the pantry with the goods I needed for a small breakfast at my usual garden vigil.
 
"Anaya, this is Katherine-" Seraphina began as I approached the table again, "She's a good friend of ours."
 
"I was once a boarder here, as well," Katherine added.
 
"Yep! Now she's studying at the House of the Harp and working as a performer all over the north!" Seraphina seemed quite proud of her young friend.
 
"Pleased to meet you," I extended my hand to the girl, and she shook it very gently.
 
"Aye, hopefully our paths might cross again," Katherine offered.
 
"Well, I'm due on campus. Another early morning," I excused myself and collected my things from the entryway closet- which included a stack of letters and hand-delivered messages which I'd been dutifully ignoring for the past few days.
 
~~~~
 
The bitter temperatures never warmed up over the course of the day, so that even at the height of the sun's path in the sky, I felt little to no warmth from it. Shade, as usual, was elsewhere- and I was growing very irritated at Brightblade's reticence to show his face on the street. At this point, I had made up my mind that if I were to get the chance, I would fall upon him with whatever I had at my disposal- Wards or no. I would transform into a thing of nightmares and rip him apart with my bare claws if necessary.
 
Yet as the days passed, the likelihood of that ever happening seemed to be fading evermore.
 
I reluctantly opened the notes and letters addressed to me, already suspecting what lay inside.
 
Two notes from Saari, inquiring as to my health and expressing concern at not having heard from me.
 
One letter from the Invocatorium suggesting I should start attending classes again or find instruction elsewhere- along with a reminder that my tuition fees were non-refundable.
 
One note from Gnaz. How he found out where I lived, I didn't know- but he had proven his resourcefulness. It was largely a note expressing his concern for my well-being and wishes for my return to school; then it sort of spiraled into a long, gossip-filled tome of random and presumably exciting news. Apparently Aerun and Calvin were an item, albeit still unofficially. Gnaz conveyed how both he and Thalgard delighted in observing the couple's attempts at disguising their relationship and how they remarked upon it endlessly.
 
Frustrated and upset with myself, I tore the letters to shreds and left them on the icy path which wound through the Vault's garden.
 
"May the Gods damn you, Brightblade- you coward!!" I shouted in elven at the top of my lungs. There were only a few other people about and they all turned to watch me with both concern and curiosity. "Come out here and stop wasting my time!!"
 
I noticed a few people step away cautiously, and a few others appeared to be moving to notify the nearest city patrol. Furious and seething with anger, I stormed from my spot and left the Vault behind me.
 
portrait

15 Alturiak 1373

I had to have Seraphina come down first thing in the morning to help pull me out of my gown from the night before. She stood atop the bed while I stood beside it, her small hands nimbly undoing the many small latches and ties that held it snugly in place.
 
"Please do me a favor, Anaya," she began, "Never ever wear this in front of Kik. He's got a thing for elf girls, and I'm already afraid he's developing a slight crush on you."
 
I blushed.
 
"This would send him over the deep end." She playfully pinched the soft flesh of my behind as a kind of warning.
 
"Ow! Understood, Sera."
 
As I slipped out of the dress the rest of the way, I turned to face her. "If it ever becomes an issue, just let me know and I'll leave. I don't want to be a problem."
 
She regarded me with great curiosity as I stood practically naked in front of her. "I'd never let that happen, sweetie. Besides," she paused, "I think I might be developing a slight crush on you."
 
She laughed the way a child might and bounced down from the bed. "Do you need any more help? Else I'll be in the kitchen working on breakfast."
 
"No, I'm fine. Thank you." She started to leave the room but I quickly stopped her. "Oh, and you needn't set a place for me at the table this morning. I'm afraid I have an urgent appointment I need to keep."
 
She seemed disappointed, but shrugged. "Let me know if I can pack you anything!"
 
I nodded and watched as she shut the door behind herself.
 
~~~~
 
It was easily near freezing outside the Vault of the Sages this morning. A thin layer of frost covered everything, including my usual observation bench. I dusted it off as best I could and then wrapped my heavy winter cloak around myself as I sat down. Shade had opted to stay in where it was warm today, and I couldn't really blame him.
 
I sipped the steaming mug of milk and honey Seraphina had given me on my way out this morning. She was concerned about me potentially catching a cold in this weather. I had laughed and reminded her that as I was considerably older than she, I should have been the one expressing motherly concern.
 
There was almost no one out on a morning like this. I still didn't know if Gilles kept quarters somewhere else in the city or if he had a small apartment or room that he maintained only here. He seemed to spend enough of his time in this building- whether either out of paranoia or duty, I wasn't sure.
 
I presumed that if anyone was keeping track, I might need to start varying my watch posts outside the building. I glanced around at the garden in the center of the horseshoe-shaped building and didn't see anywhere more secluded.
 
I then started eyeing the neighboring buildings and businesses. The promise of a warm hearth from which to make my observations was starting to sound very appealing.
 
This is my punishment, I thought to myself. I deserve no comforts in this task.
 
I thought of the classes I was going to miss today. I wondered whether my classmates would notice my absence- or more importantly, my instructors. I had to remind myself that I had only enrolled as a diversion and as a cover for my true goal here in Silverymoon- and that all of that simply didn't matter.
 
I sipped my milk and watched the sun rise above the frost-dusted houses to the east. It was going to be a long day.
portrait

14 Alturiak 1373 - evening

I stared at the racks upon racks of dresses and coats and blouses and skirts and didn't even know where to begin.
 
"I- I think I need something simple," I offered as both the clerk and Saari stood by, waiting expectantly for direction. I tugged at the simple garments I already wore, "Maybe something slightly nicer than this?"
 
"Oh don't be so dull. This is Silverymoon! You need to look like you belong here," Saari sighed.
 
"But I don't want anything too... extravagant. Besides, I'm rough on my clothing," I pointed to several scuff and dirt marks. "I don't want to ruin something nice."
 
Saari stood up and came over to me. "Okay, I'll make you a deal. You can pick out an outfit- any outfit- that you want to wear for every day. And I get to pick something... horribly inappropriate." With this, she let out a loud laugh and threw her arm around my neck. "Trust me, you'll love it."
 
I shrugged in assent, and she practically bounced up and down in excitement. "Excellent!" She rushed over to the waiting clerk and whispered in the girl's ear some very detailed instructions. The girl nodded and immediately disappeared into the racks of clothing that filled the store.
 
I proceeded to pick out a few new items that I felt would suit me here in Silverymoon and which I could wear on a regular basis without being too worried about ruining them. A new cloak, a few new blouses of varying designs and colors, a beautiful silken corset which I thought would look great over one or two of the blouses I'd selected, a skirt, a pair of loose leggings similar to something you might find on a djinn, and some practical trousers.
 
"I said one outfit..." Saari teased, but stopped me when I went to put a few of the garments back. "If it looks good on you, you can get it."
 
While I was modeling my new wardrobe, the clerk returned with several dresses of various shapes, colors and sizes and placed them on a nearby couch. Saari immediately began filtering through them. She laughed and held up one for me to see- it consisted of a few straps made of white silk and a bottom of almost translucent gauzy material. It was impossible to see how it was supposed to cover anything.
 
"Okay, so this one's maybe too inappropriate," she chuckled and placed it aside. "Maybe I'll make a 'lingerie' pile for you."
 
"Uh... that's really not necessary-"
 
She turned and shushed me with a wink and a laugh. Then returning to the original pile, she pulled something out with a triumphant shout. "Ah-ha! Try this on."
 
She held it out in front of me to confirm that it was a good candidate. "You're definitely a summer, wouldn't you say?"
 
I shrugged.
 
"Well, I know if anyone's a winter, that's me. And since you're nearly the opposite of me, I think that makes you a summer." She looked to the clerk for support, who just nodded quietly.
 
Slipping out of my current garments, I carefully and with some difficulty managed to slide the dress all the way up- or at least, most of the way. It seemed to stop a little too short for my taste. "Um, are there straps on this thing?"
 
Saari laughed and helped me tug it up a little further, reaching around and helping me make sure it was as far up as it would go. "Yep, I think that's as high as it'll go." She stepped back to regard me with a critical eye.
 
"What do you think?" She wasn't asking me, but the clerk next to her.
 
"As long as she doesn't raise her elbows above her shoulders, she looks fantastic," the girl offered.
 
I frowned. "Why, what'll-" I lifted my arms up and immediately discovered what they were talking about as I literally fell out of the top of the dress with what I could have sworn was a definitive "popping" sound.
 
"Oh my," Saari blushed and immediately rushed to my aid. "Okay, I like it, but maybe we should get you one a size larger?" She turned and glanced at the clerk, who once again disappeared into the forest of clothing.
 
"I'm not so sure about this," I whined.
 
"Not up to you- my choice, remember? That was the deal," she scolded. "You'll look amazing in this, once we get it fitted properly."
 
"It's a shame I won't have anywhere to wear it." That was my one consolation- that Saari would buy this for me and then it would forever sit in my closet, since it would only be appropriate for the most fashionable of venues.
 
"Oh, yes you will," Saari grinned wickedly. "I already made reservations for us at The Silver Lily."
 
"For tonight?"
 
"Yep. So make sure you've found everything you want, because after we get this dress fitted we've got to run to get your hair done."
 
"What's wrong with my hair?"
 
"Nothing, it's lovely. Just needs... a little pick-me-up."
 
~~~~
 
The sun elf that looked back at me from the concave surface of the silver spoon was almost unrecognizable.
 
All around me, the sounds of silverware clinking against porcelain and glass against a low backdrop of whispers and laughter created a strange feeling that I was at the center of an auditorium surrounded by a vast crowd of onlookers. Indeed, the moody, candle-lit interior helped enhance the effect as there seemed to be only enough light to see your own meal.
 
I had never been in an establishment quite like The Silver Lily before. I'd always imagined this must be what the experience of the nobility and the merchant elite was like, and I never thought I'd see it for myself.
 
"What's wrong?" Saari looked up from her plate and watched me with concern.
 
I put down the spoon. "I feel strange being here. Like I don't belong."
 
"Nonsense!" She looked about the room to take a quick survey of the crowd. "You belong here more than most of these people. Did you not notice how many heads turned when we walked in? I'm sure a few here still think you are Hanali Celanil herself."
 
"Only because you dressed me up like a doll," I replied. I immediately regretted it, though, as I saw its effect on Saari's face- as if I had taken my fork and stabbed her in the chest with it.
 
"I'm sorry- I'm so sorry," I pleaded, "Saari, please forgive me. I didn't mean it like that. You've been- you've been so generous with me. I'm just not used to this... finery." I plucked idly at the tight-fitting bodice that cut low across my bare chest.
 
"No," Saari said quietly, "You're right. I've been treating you like a plaything. Something with which to entertain myself." She looked down at her plate, unable to meet my gaze. "That was not my intent."
 
"What- what was your intent?" I stammered, uncertain of whether I wanted to know the answer.
 
Still looking at the food on her plate, as if she were reading her response from there, she spoke just audibly enough for only me to hear. "I honestly don't know. I just... wanted to meet you, I know that. There's something about you. Maybe I see a little bit of myself when I look at you.
 
"But it's not just kinship I felt. There's a darkness about you. Yet I know you're not a creature of the darkness. If anything," she looked up at the candle on the table between us, "you're more like this flame."
 
She thought about this metaphor a bit longer and seemed to find it more apt than she perhaps initially intended. "Like how a flame can be dangerous given too much fuel, or how it can be beautiful and warm if properly tended. I guess I felt protective of that. I wanted to reach out to you."
 
"Unlike a flame, I'm blessed with free will and self-determination," I said- not wanting to hurt her feelings but to assert myself. "I don't need tending."
 
She looked up at me, her eyes thoughtful and almost sad. It was the first time I'd ever seen her look at me like this and it gave me pause.
 
"Perhaps not." She paused. "As I said, I see some of myself in you. I'm head-strong and stubborn too. I have a path I want to walk and will not be swayed from it by anyone. But, as much as I hate to admit it, I have needed guidance at times."
 
"Are you suggesting I need guidance? Are you the one to provide it?"
 
Saari smiled apologetically. "No, I'm certainly not mentor material." After a pause, she continued. "What I'm suggesting is that you may need a friend. A friend who knows the real you and from whom you can't hide. Even when you might want to."
 
"I- I have friends," I protested weakly. It wasn't enough to fool her.
 
"But you have no one to help with the things that really trouble you. No one to help shoulder your burden."
 
"I'm not prepared to share my burden," I said after a long pause. "I've carried it a long time and a part of me wants to bear the weight alone. For now."
 
"Fair enough," Saari reached out and touched my hand gently. "We should probably eat while the food is still warm."
 
"I could cast a spell that would re-heat it," I offered, then re-considered it. "And would probably destroy half the room. But at least we wouldn't be able to complain of cold food."
 
She laughed and took a long drink from her wine glass. "Yes, let's save that for another, more appropriate time."
 
~~~~
 
The street lighting crews were out finishing their rounds by the time we exited The Silver Lily. The night was cold, but not uncomfortably so. Nevertheless, I pulled the heavy coat Saari had purchased for me tight about my shoulders.
 
"Thank you for a lovely- well, day," I said brightly. "You spoil me horribly."
 
She ran a hand lightly over my hair to smooth it back into place. "Enjoy it, it'll be the last time. I think I'm on the verge of creating a monster."
 
"Too late," I smirked.
 
"Do you know your way home? Do you want some company?"
 
I shook my head slowly. "I appreciate it, but I should be able to take care of myself."
 
She nodded. "Of that I have no doubt, but that wasn't my question."
 
"Perhaps another time?"
 
"Of course." She stepped forward and threw her arms around my shoulders, holding me tight. She was nice and warm and despite her soft appearance, I could feel the strength in her slight frame.
 
"Take care of your flame, Anaya," she whispered into my ear before pulling away.
 
I bid her goodnight and she disappeared into the shadows of the Palace district. Pulling the hood of my cloak up over my head, I turned south toward the river and home, my head buzzing from the alcohol and the events of the day.
 
I didn't even remember the path I took to get home, nor could I have recited anything that I saw along the way if pressed. My mind was lost in thought the entire way, and so it was with some surprise that I suddenly found myself on the doorstep of my residence. Turning my key in the lock, I quietly slipped inside to find Shade waiting for me. He'd wandered off during lunch and hadn't seemed interested in joining me for my tea with Saari. He stretched languidly, his tongue curling up in to a little roll as he yawned.
 
"I'm pretty tired, too," I said, stroking him from head to tail.
 
Bundling up my heavy cloak we slowly proceeded up the stairs to the second floor landing. Somewhere above, I thought I heard the sounds of moaning. The Shadesteppers seemed to be enjoying themselves in their third floor apartment. It was going to be another night with cotton stuffed in my ears.
 
Tossing my heavy outer garments onto the dresser, I made a half-hearted attempt to extract myself from the exceedingly tight-fitting gown I'd worn to dinner. The effort was exhausting and I ultimately gave up and collapsed on the bed, ready to sleep as I was. Beside me lay the wardrobe from the day's shopping. I picked through the items, until I stumbled upon an item I wasn't expecting- the gauzy white silk lingerie piece that Saari had set aside as a joke. Attached to it was a little note in her flowing handwriting:
 
Wear it for someone special - S.
 
I set it aside and put it out of my thoughts. As I slowly drifted off, a sudden realization bloomed in the forefront of my mind. I hadn't once thought of Gilles Brightblade the entire day. In fact, I'd failed to even step near the Vault of the Sages for my daily vigil.
 
A chill ran across my skin and I felt a sense of weak nausea roiling in my stomach. I'd utterly forsaken the task I'd set myself. It may have been only for one day, but the guilt of it clutched at my heart and squeezed it like a vice. I was getting too comfortable here in Silverymoon. I was forgetting why I was here.
 
It was a mistake I vowed to rectify immediately.
portrait

14 Alturiak 1373 - afternoon

After class was over and we'd all received our respective lectures from Instructor Riverwood, a few of us headed back into town and to Sorlar's for a late luncheon.
 
"Are you going to eat anything or are you on an all ale diet this week?" Calvin thumped the metal tankard that sat in front of Thalgard with his finger, a dull clank reverberating amidst the noisy tavern.
 
Thalgard grinned broadly and took another long drink from his stein, wiping the foam from his chin. "Where I come from, this is considered liquid bread. Just add meat and serve."
 
Aerun winced at the thought and continued to pick at her small dish of roast pheasant and winter salad.
 
I still wasn't feeling much like eating, so my bowl of spicy potato soup sat largely untouched and growing cold on the table before me. My eyes and my thoughts kept drifting over to the booth at the edge of the room where I'd met Saari "Shimmer" Brightmoon four days earlier.
 
Gnaz chewed happily on his plate of roast rabbit and mushrooms next to me. "You don't want your soup?" He asked, nodding in its general direction.
 
"No, would you like it?"
 
He nodded with a big grin and I gently slid the bowl across the uneven wood surface of the table. "Enjoy it before it gets too cold."
 
"I need all the food I can get. I'm a growing boy, after all!" He said with a laugh. I smiled politely, not quite sure what he meant. I didn't think gnomes got much taller than Gnaz already was.
 
Calvin and Aerun seemed distracted with one another. Even though they sat in silence while they ate, I couldn't help but notice the constant glances being passed between them. I looked over at Thalgard, who seemed to have noticed it as well. He caught my gaze and simply shrugged.
 
I sipped my wine and contemplated the strange woman who weighed so heavily on my thoughts. First and foremost on my mind- how did she know what I was? Did she even truly know or did she just suspect? Why such an interest in me?
 
There was something about her that reminded me of Kessa- and not just that they were both moon elves. Both seemed to carry a certain worldliness and confidence within themselves. Neither were very shy or introverted, unlike myself. They were both beautiful, but in different ways. Kessa had a more natural, rough beauty in which the little imperfections were part of what made her appearance so unique. Saari seemed like she had been sculpted to perfection by a master artisan and then life simply breathed into her.
 
They both also knew me for what I really was. Or at least, I definitely got the feeling I was not fooling Saari in the slightest.
 
I wondered if my only interest in her was because she reminded me so much of Kessa.
 
The fading light of the afternoon poured into the main dining hall where we sat as the front door was thrown open and a slight figure hurried in from the dropping temperatures outside. A few patrons glanced over and then returned to their meals or their companions.
 
A human girl, possibly in her early to mid teens and dressed in the official tunic and slacks of a city messenger, peered around the room- her eyes no doubt taking a moment to adjust to the darker environment.
 
Her gaze fell upon our table and she immediately came over. "Anaya Morningstar?"
 
Surprised, I managed to stammer out a positive reply. She handed the folded parchment to me and then waited. I looked at her blankly before Gnaz nudged me gently in my thigh. "She wants a tip."
 
"Oh!" I frantically dug around in my change purse for a few coins. The girl smiled politely and waited. I pulled out the first coin I could get my fingers on and pressed it into her hand. Looking down at the moon, she positively beamed and thanked me profusely as she hurried back out the door.
 
"A moon?!" Gnaz practically shrieked.
 
"What?" I looked around confused. "What's an appropriate tip?"
 
Thalgard smiled gently and laughed. "Fifty copper is standard, maybe a silver if you're feeling generous."
 
"Oh." I shrugged and broke the wax seal on the parchment. It was a short note, written in fluid calligraphic strokes.
 
16 Bells, Al'miri's Cafe. Tea?
- Saari

 
"What time is it now?" I turned to Gnaz. He beamed with delight- being asked for the time was one of his favorite things, as it allowed him to show off one of his favorite possessions- a gnomish pocket watch. He deftly slid the watch from a pocket in his vest and opened the cover.
 
"It is...." he began, "uh, I think it says half past two. Or is that half past three?" He showed it to me, as if I would be able to understand the gnomish markings any better than he did. He held it up to his ear to see if it was still making any kind of mechanical noise. Satisfied that it was still working, he shrugged. "It's sometime after two and sometime before four," he pronounced with great confidence.
 
"Thank you," I smiled politely, and he seemed satisfied that he had been of great assistance. "It seems I need to leave to attend to other matters."
 
"Nothing serious?" Thalgard asked. Aerun and Calvin looked on without comment.
 
"No, nothing serious," I retrieved my cloak and wrapped it around my shoulders. "Enjoy your afternoon."
 
Gnaz and the others waved then returned to their meals. I caught Thalgard observing me surreptitiously from behind his uplifted tankard before I turned and headed to the door.
 
A part of me was irritated at myself for being so quick to come when summoned, but another part of me was excited at the chance to unravel more of the mystery around this moon elf.
 
~~~~
 
Al'miri's Cafe and Teahouse was a cute little shop in the Palace district of the city. I'd only briefly explored this area previously, and had completely overlooked this particular venue. From the decor and the descriptions on the menu, it appeared to specialize in exotic and foreign delicacies.
 
"Long Jing?" Our server bent over slightly at the waist as he stood prepared to take our order.
 
"Yes, please," Saari replied, "Also, a few of those delicious elven shortbread cakes, if you would."
 
He nodded and promptly left us alone at the table.
 
"I think you'll really like the food here," she smiled and removed the neatly folded cloth napkin from her plate and placed it smoothly across her lap.
 
"I'm sure I will. It smells quite remarkable."
 
There was a long pause as we seemed to consider one another. She was dressed less extravagantly than in our previous encounters, but I could still tell from the stitching and the subtle patterns in her blouse that, while simple in design, it was of the highest quality material. I still had not spent a copper on clothing for myself, despite seeing a number of lovely shops all over town that would have suited my tastes. All my money was going toward my housing, food and tuition. As a result, I felt a bit like a country simpleton come to dine in the presence of nobility.
 
"How did your date go?" I blurted out, not really thinking of what to say or how to begin to broach the questions I really had.
 
She smiled and shrugged. "He was nice enough. Not much in the way of personality, though. Very martial and proper," she deepened her voice as if to mimic a gruff soldier with the last comment. We laughed nervously.
 
Our server returned with a steaming pot of tea, two cups, and a small plate of pale yellow elven cookies. He poured out the tea and then left us in silence. I reached out and sampled one of the cookies.
 
"Mmm, I haven't had these since I was a little girl," I sighed. "And they probably weren't nearly this good. My Dad wasn't much of a cook, but he occasionally made elven treats for me."
 
"So your father was a sun elf?" Saari inhaled the aroma of her steaming cup of tea and then sipped it lightly.
 
"Yes," I murmured with a full mouth, dribbling crumbs onto my blouse. I blushed and shyly dusted them off.
 
"Did he raise you himself?"
 
"No, I lived with both of my parents."
 
"Really?" Saari seemed very surprised by this. "But your mother was..." she trailed off, as if uncomfortable selecting the appropriate term.
 
"Like me," I said quickly, stiffening in the wrought iron chair that was suddenly very uncomfortable. I stared Saari down as she looked for me to say something more, but I resisted.
 
"And they stayed together? How remarkable." She finally looked away, unable to hold my gaze. I sipped my tea and we sat in an uncomfortable silence for a few moments longer before I broke it.
 
"I know what you might be thinking, but they were the most wonderful of parents any child could have asked for. They were caring, generous and kind. They taught me right from wrong, and instilled in me the virtues of my father's people."
 
"Your mother sounds like a remarkable... person," Again, she seemed uncomfortable finding the correct term for my mother.
 
"She was. She helped me understand what I am and how to keep it from overwhelming me," then, almost inaudibly, "Most of the time."
 
"Where are they now?" Saari leaned forward, clasping her hands together over the table.
 
"They're gone. But they still guide me, as they're never far from my heart." I took another sip of tea and decided to change the topic. "What about your parents? I believe you mentioned your mother before."
 
She leaned back and waved her hand dismissively. "Oh, I never knew my father. My mother raised me and my older brother alone. She's a proud woman, but of late she's stayed close to home. And my brother pursues his own interests, so I rarely see him."
 
"So you're not close?"
 
"Well, we're family. But no, I suppose we don't spend a lot of time together."
 
"Are you all spellcasters?" I watched for her reaction to my question with close scrutiny. To my disappointment, she didn't seem surprised by it.
 
"Yes and no," she looked up at me, her eyes partially obscured by her brow at this angle. "Magic does run in the family but we're not practitioners."
 
She lifted her head up and her hair fell around her shoulders to one side. "You want to know how I know what you are."
 
I nodded, swallowing nervously.
 
"Don't worry, you're very well disguised. It would take someone with keen senses or a good reason to cast true seeing against you. In my case, it was the former. I'm very sensitive to certain things. All races seem to have a unique... signature, I'll say for lack of a better term. It's a combination of things- appearance, speech, manner, attitude, and even smell. I'm sure you're aware of this yourself, as one intimately familiar with disguising oneself."
 
"I am."
 
She continued. "Since your father was a sun elf, and since you are at least half if not more racially elven, your disguise is almost perfect."
 
"But?"
 
She smiled and tilted her head, almost as if to laugh. "You're not going to like my answer."
 
"I'd like to know what I missed."
 
"Again- I'm not sure you can control this. In fact, it's so subtle I doubt many would even recognize it," she regarded me for a moment, then continued on. "On the surface I can smell your perfume, the detergent you used for your clothing, the rinse you used for your hair, the soap that you use on your body, and beneath it all there is the smell that all sun elves have. It's like the smell of birchwood leaves in summer, mixed with a hint of copper.
 
"But you have one additional characteristic mixed in. It's the faintest scent of brimstone."
 
My expression was evidently one of puzzlement, as she took one look at me and laughed.
 
"It's not that bad," she reached out and placed her hand over mine. "I've smelled it before, but only when I've been around creatures who trace their lineage back to the Abyss."
 
"I see," I took another sip of my tea and then picked up the teapot to refill our cups. As I filled hers, I considered my next words carefully.
 
"And what sort of creatures have you encountered that carry the aroma of a spring thunderstorm?"
 
She blew across the top of her steaming cup before taking a gingerly sip of it. "Fabulous tea, isn't it?
 
"Quite delicious."
 
"I'm afraid I don't have an answer for you," she said finally. "I'll have to consider that for a while."
 
Once we finished our pot of tea and the remaining cookies, Saari made a surprising suggestion. "I want to go shopping," she smiled. "Let me take you to one of the finest clothiers in all of Silverymoon."
 
"I would love to, but I really can't afford-"
 
"Nonsense. It'll be my treat." The look in her eyes told me that I would not be able to refuse my way out of her suggestion.

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