Actions

Work Header

Venturing the Uncharted

Chapter Text

 They sat against the wall of a little used balcony on the second story of the temple of Rillifane, watching the stars appear one by one in the gray-violet sky. This was Solaufein’s favorite time of day, when the sun had faded and the cool of evening set in, and he was engaging in one of his favorite pastimes. He had come to the surface knowing a few phrases in Common, and the bare basics of syntax. Maera had offered to help him learn by practice, and so they had been meeting on the balcony once every few days ever since her victory over Irenicus. She was a patient teacher, and he enjoyed the company. It was pleasant to have the opportunity to be himself. The people of Suldanessellar required careful handling - conciliatory expressions, and deferential words. But Maera needed no such niceties, and that made their bilingual chats the high point of his week.

"So, do you think you're going to stay here?" she asked. Solaufein had to take a moment to parse the sentence and prepare his response.

"Yes. I think I stayed."

"Will stay," she corrected, then switched to Elvish. "Future tense."

He made a face. "Tenses in Common are so strange. Adding words, taking them away, changing the order... it’s disorganized."

"I admit, Elvish tense structure is a lot more elegant. But," she shifted back to Common, "you are improving."

"Thank you," he replied, also in Common. "But my accent..."

She waved a hand dismissively. "Everybody has an accent. Grammar and vocabulary are what really matter.” She laced her fingers behind her head, glancing at him sidelong. “I am curious, though,” she said, returning to Elvish once more. “Why stay?”

He mentally thanked her for the switch. He wasn’t sure his Common was up to the task of explanation. “Because…there seems to be relative safety here. Safety to learn the ways of the surface. The Queen has very generously offered me sanctuary here, and I would be a fool not to accept it. I cannot change my appearance, but at the very least, I can learn enough of the language and customs to ease my passage through the world.”

“Good plan. And maybe you can get comfortable enough you don’t flinch every time you walk outside.” She grinned slyly at him. He raised an eyebrow, feigning disapproval, and she laughed. “Sorry, sorry. That was cheap, I know.”

“It was. You should be ashamed.” He said this in Common, and she gave a delighted clap of her hands.

“Very good! Two verb tenses, and an auxiliary! I am impressed.” Her smile grew softer and she said, “Joking aside, I know this isn’t easy for you. On any level. You’re making the best of a less than optimal situation, and I think that says a lot about you.”

“It helps having a friend here I may rely on.” He returned the smile; it was his turn to be sly. “Though I wonder where I might find one.”

She stuck her tongue out at him, that eminently human gesture that never failed to make him laugh. “Who made the mistake of telling you that you’re funny?”

“I require no one’s validation to know the truth,” he replied. She shook her head, chuckling, and he watched her smiling profile for a moment. He had never thought he would call a female friend, but friend she was, and he was glad for it.

She was gazing upward, towards the palace. “It’s getting late. I should head back.”

“I am sure your return is ardently anticipated.” He succeeded in keeping his features neutral, but the battle to keep a smirk out of his voice ended in defeat. She swung a friendly punch at his shoulder.

“Gods, you are such an ass.” She stood, and stretched her shoulders. “By the way, will I see you at the consecration tomorrow?”

He glanced to the side. “I rather doubt it. I’m not sure my presence during such an event would be wise.”

“You shouldn’t have to hide, though. Rillifane obviously doesn’t have a problem with you being in his temple. I mean, Oghma’s books, you’re living here!”

“I think my living quarters are more a matter of expediency for the Whiteleaf. Easier for her to keep an eye on me.”

“Give her a little credit, Solaufein. She’s not spying on you. She has other things to do with her time.”

“True. But I do not think that she trusts me.”

“Why wouldn’t she?”

He simply looked at her, choosing not to dignify such an obvious question with a response. Maera raised her hands in defeat. “Fine. Be a suspicious neurotic.”

“You mean, be a drow?”

She shook her head. “I won’t tell you not to be yourself, Solaufein, but what you were saying about learning the customs of the surface? Trust is one of them.” She turned for the door. “Well, if I don’t see you tomorrow, I’m sure I will soon. Have a good night.”

The moon was cresting the treetops, and Solaufein watched it for a long while after she had departed. What he had not been able to bring himself to tell Maera was that he hoped she was right, that he did have the Whiteleaf’s trust. She was an intriguing figure - blunt, commanding, and as self-possessed as any priestess he had ever known before. But she had allowed her initial opinion of him to be swayed, and spoken for him in the face of her friend the General’s disapproval, and wept over the bodies of those she had resurrected. And she was clever. Dangerously, curiously clever. He shrugged to himself as he stood. It was good to have an ally he could respect, but he had a feeling that was the most he could expect from Suldanessellar, and from her. He certainly had no illusions of being her friend.

⁂⁂⁂

In the end, he did go to the consecration, though not in the manner anyone would have expected. He had been given a small room in the uppermost story of the temple, which suited him quite well. After all, he had brought nothing with him from the Underdark, so he did not need much space. In his explorations of the great structure, he had discovered there was a half-enclosed balcony, nearly invisible behind a pillar, that looked down into the sanctum, and it was from there that he chose to watch the ceremony.

Phaere had been so excited to hear of the desecration of this place, and for a moment, in her pride, she had almost looked like her old self again. But like every emotion since her time with the Handmaidens, there had been malignancy in it. The female who had returned from those weeks of torment was like a vampire, in a way. She had looked, moved, and sounded like she was still alive, but within, there had been nothing but a blasted wasteland. And this is what your pride earned you, Phaere, he thought. They live, and renew themselves, and you are dead. The pang that thought gave him was surprising. He had thought his grieving for her was long done, but apparently this last small measure had remained, waiting for the day when she truly beyond his reach.

The elves below him, bright in their festive finest, solemnly chanted the responses of the litany that Demin led. In a room packed full of vivid colors, she was almost exotic in her simple white robes, a crown of oak leaves holding back her long hair. Her face was raised, an expression of tempered joy upon it. It was his understanding that the primary virtues of the Leaflord were strength and endurance, and she seemed to radiate both in abundance. It was clear she had not come to her current position by chance. He did have to wonder, however, how one rose to such a height when assassination was not an acceptable form of career advancement. Did others of the faithful decide who was foremost among them, or did Rillifane himself speak on the matter? He was so deep in thought on the subject that he actually focused on the scene below him again, he was shocked to see her looking directly at him. But it was only for an instant, and then her eyes were elsewhere.

It was not a long ceremony, and after the participants had streamed out of the temple to enjoy the pleasures of a festival day, Solaufein gazed down at the altar, remembering the whirling form of Rillifane’s avatar. “I will try to make the best of the mercy you showed me,” he murmured. “Carry good report of me to your lady sister.”

He didn't hear the rustle of cloth and the footsteps until they were upon him. There was so much noise in Suldanessellar, and sound seemed to travel differently on the surface. But making excuses wouldn't change the fact he was just going to have to learn to accommodate for the differences. He turned quickly, and found himself facing the Whiteleaf. "This was one of my favorite solitary places when I was an acolyte," she said. "I'm surprised none of the current crop seem to have discovered it. Or perhaps they have and I have simply failed to notice. That happens as we grow older."

He bowed his head deferentially. "Whiteleaf. How may I be of service?" 

"No service is required. I merely noticed you skulking about in the rafters like a bat, and I wondered why."

"I did not think it politic to be among the throng, today of all days. This ceremony was necessary because of the actions of others of my kind." He shot her an ironic glance. "You yourself were quite eager to remind me of that, I recall." 

If the jab had been an actual blow, it would not have even turned her head. Her lips twitched, and in the movement, he could see a swell of sarcasm, seeking out a target. But her expression remained cool, and she replied, "It is unfortunate you must be so conscious of the sentiment of others. However, it is probably well that you are." She began to turn away, then added, "I will leave you to your solitude, but I do hope it will not become habitual."

She departed through the narrow door with a sweep of her skirts, and he murmured, "Others than just myself must be the test of that, Whiteleaf."

⁂⁂⁂

Demin sat at her desk the next morning with a contented sigh. The twitching sense of wrongness she had felt while the temple remained desecrated was gone now, replaced with the serene hum of energy she had missed. Like a living body, the temple’s hurts required mending to allow for proper function to return, and so long as it had remained wounded, its pain had been her own.

But that was behind them now. Now, they could move forward, the city could revive, and the work of the temple could continue. The windowed doors that opened onto the balcony were flung open to let in every breath of the summer morning, and outside, the sound of rebuilding mingled with the voices of the populace, returning to their normal lives. Demin looked about the tiny kingdom that was her freshly cleaned office with a pleasure that could have only been improved on with a cup of tea and a warm foot bath. Then there was a knock at the inner door, and Oakheart Latiel, the senior priestess who served as her secretary and aide, pushed it open, a sheaf of papers beneath her arm. Demin’s sigh took on a wistful air. If someone had told her, in her younger, more innocent days just how much management the Leaflord’s temple required, she would have never believed them. Her predecessors had always made it look easy. She liked to think she’d learned to as well. It would never be her favorite part of her work, but she knew she could never leave to anyone else. 

“And what joy have you for me today, Latiel?” she asked. Latiel smiled. 

“Nothing out of the ordinary, Whiteleaf,” the Oakheart replied. “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to bringing you your day’s appointments as much as I have today. It’s quite pleasant to be able to return to one’s routine, isn’t it?”

“That it is, Latiel. More than I would have imagined.”

From outside, there was a harsh, snorting laugh. Latiel craned her neck towards the open door, and they shared a puzzled glance before she replied. “Uh…Silverbark Tafaelen wanted to speak with you this morning, and-”

“Don’t just walk away!" 

The voice was young, and male, and filled to its brim with scorn. A second joined it, equally venomous. “You’re not fooling anyone.” The reply was too soft for the words to be understood, but Demin had a sudden, stomach-tightening sense that she recognized the voice. The second speaker spat back, “The Queen and the Whiteleaf may have bought that Eilistraee shit, but we’re not falling for it, drow.”

Demin thrust herself to her feet, her chair tipping backwards behind her in her haste. She made it to the balcony just in time to see Solaufein turn, jaw clenched and fist raised, to throw the first punch.

⁂⁂⁂

“Idiot.”

It hurt like hell when Demin brusquely turned his head to examine the side of his face, but Solaufein didn't dare complain. To do so would only infuriate her further, so he gritted his teeth and did not make a sound.

The fight was over by the time she got outside, but the fury in her eyes when she stormed towards him had left him with little doubt she would have ended it herself if necessary, and it probably would have been far bloodier had it be left to her. As it stood, she had cleared out the gathered onlookers with a single glare, barked orders to see to the pair of injured guards, and forcibly dragged him back into the temple to the empty antechamber in which they now stood. She was stronger than she looked, and his shoulder still ached from the grip of her fingers.

"Barely a scratch or bruise," she muttered. "How did you manage that? Faarien has a concussion, Thelarias is missing half his teeth, and you escape untouched."

"Their unarmed combat needs work," he replied, his jaw moving stiffly in her grasp.

She raised an eyebrow. "Was that a joke?" she asked, her tone dangerous.

"An observation," he said hoarsely. Having his head at that angle made speech difficult, and she released him. He could not help the wince that followed, and she did not miss it. "My neck," he explained. She prodded along the side of his neck with her fingers, and all seemed fine until she struck a spot just above his shoulder. He saw stars.

"Hmmm," she mused, paying little mind to his hissing breaths. "You probably pulled it when you flung Faarien over your shoulder."

"Then I am in need of practice myself."

Her mouth tightened. "By the Oak, Solaufein, will you leave off your witticisms? What possessed you to do that in the first place? I could not guess how many people saw that little display! Beating a pair of the city guard into insensibility only hurts you! You are giving arrows to those who would shoot you."

"I am well aware of the ramifications, Whiteleaf!" he flared. "I do not need you to explain my situation to me." He immediately cursed himself for the outburst. He had been privileged in Ust Natha - his status had earned him the right to be frank. Here, he had none. He closed his eyes and waited for the rebuke.

It never came. "You're right," Demin said quietly. "I am sorry."

His eyes snapped open and he stared at her, the apology ringing strangely in his ears. His mind balked. Had she just-? 

She had.

But why?

Demin gazed at the floor, her expression disconsolate, oblivious to the stark confusion her words had sown. "They should not have questioned your devotion to your goddess. That was inexcusable." She sighed, and raised her eyes pensively. "But there are many here who would have the Queen toss you out of the city from the highest bough. How am I to stand between you and them, if you provide them with fuel for their fires?”

He swallowed, and suddenly, he could not look at her. The saddened timbre of her voice was actually worse than her anger. How did she manage that? "I can't imagine that is a comfortable place to stand,” he said awkwardly. “Why would you?”

"It is not my practice to ignore my god's pronouncements. Even if it is something as seemingly absurd as naming a drow among his allies. You have the Leaflord’s sanction to remain here as long as you choose. As his priestess, it is my duty to see that you are allowed to do that." A wry half-smile tugged at her mouth. "And perhaps I enjoy your particular sort of cheek more than I should."

He felt a similar expression warming his own features. "Even when it is directed at yourself?"

"I choose not to answer that," she replied dryly. She touched his neck, and a warm tingle spread through the muscle. He had been healed by divine magic many times in his life, but Rillifane's grace was so different from the cold, jealous touch of Lolth that he could scarcely imagine it being the same process at all. Demin left her hand in place as she continued. "I know it wounds your pride to swallow their insults, Solaufein. I cannot imagine how it must feel, to be a foreigner here, so quickly tried and judged by all. But please. Promise me I will not have to do this again."

He nodded slowly. "You have my word, Whiteleaf."

She seemed to realize then that she was still touching him, and quickly withdrew her hand. “Excuse me. There is other business I must attend to this morning.”

He waited until she had gone, and then, rubbing his neck idly, he took a back way up to his room. Perhaps it would be best to stay indoors.

⁂⁂⁂

He had always learned best by observation, and in the days that followed, he was determined do as much of both as he could. The druid Jaheira had none too subtly reminded him that his options were to either adapt or perish, and after all he had endured thus far, lying down and dying seemed like a colossal waste of effort. He explored Suldanessellar, from the topmost branches, where Queen Ellesime's palace stood, down the delicately strung walkways and curving stairs, from the Temple of Rillifane to the mages' Collegium, past the shops and homes of the common citizens, through the trees to the forest floor. In a way, its layered nature reminded him of Ust Natha. Wouldn't that have given the Matrons a shock?

In the course of his explorations, he learned much. Despite Rillifane's status as the city's patron god, there were shrines to various other deities of the Seldarine throughout the city. Market days were mid-week, and the two best places to hear the city's gossip were at the broad pool at served at as the marketplace watering hole, and outside the temple in the evenings. There was always activity at the Collegium, regardless of the hour. The palace guard changed their watch every four hours. And there was an apprentice at a bakery three levels below the temple who had a bad habit of leaving sweet rolls out in easy reach of the late night explorer.

There were always a few coins left for him, though.

On the whole, it seemed Suldanessellar was poised to recover from its savage handling at the hands of Irenicus's allies with ease and dignity. But as Midsummer passed, there was a feeling in the air that became impossible to ignore, a feeling that he recognized. It spread outward from the gathering places and the commons, wherever news was shared and opinion formed. There was unrest to the south, and its cause and implications stretched out before and around it like a spider's legs. The deep gnomes had a word for that sensation - vfilist - the coldness of bad air from a deep shaft. He had never expected to feel it on the surface, but he supposed that dread was the same anywhere.

He was returning to the temple by a little used route that passed the Collegium one evening when he heard familiar voices speaking in Common. His interest piqued, he sidled through the shadows to a vantage point near enough to hear and half-see. Maera and Demin likely would have abused him for eavesdropping. But information rarely hands itself to you, he thought. Besides, this would be a good time to practice his listening comprehension.

It was the redheaded mager and the little female – Maera’s paramour, and her sister. Imoen perched on the railing, standing on her hands. Kelsey watched her, his expression hovering somewhere between confusion and dismay. "Do you...have to do that?" he asked.

"Helps me think." 

"Uh...huh." He clearly didn't believe her. He puffed out a thoughtful breath. "I wish I could have found out more today. Normally, you'll never find a worse bunch of gossips than Tethyrian caravan drivers, but...nobody wanted to talk." He began to pace. "I hate this, Imoen. I hate it! Everyone's on edge, talking about these Bhaalspawn in Tethyr, but nobody knows any details, or at least that's what they say." He glanced at the little thief, still motionless in her handstand. "And you're having bad dreams."

"Mae's been talking, huh?"

"Did you really expect her to keep that to herself? Imoen...are you okay?"

"I'm fine, Red." The cheer in her voice was forced.

"If they're anything like the dreams Maera has, you're lying. Imoen," he repeated, "are you okay?"

Imoen sighed, and tilted her legs to gracefully arc herself back down to her feet. "Not really." She landed within a few inches of Kelsey, and launched herself into the startled sorcerer's arms. "You're a good guy, Kels. Don't let anyone tell you different."

He chuckled fondly and rested his chin on the top of her head for a moment before withdrawing. "Hey, what are friends for?"

"Alibis." She smiled, a far more genuine expression this time. "We should get going. You know how Mae gets when you keep her waiting."

Solaufein watched them depart, absorbed in thought. What an interesting relationship they had – you would certainly never see anything like it in the Underdark. But then, he’d seen precious few interactions on the surface that looked anything like their counterparts beneath. He was reasonably sure that didn’t bother him, but sometimes it might be nice to feel like he knew what the hell was going on.

More importantly, though, he had a name now for the vfilist. The source of the city's wracked nerves were other Children of Bhaal, like Maera. But they were not actually like her at all, if they were putting armies in the field and feeding on the fear of others like intellect devourers. Was Maera in danger, then? And by extension, was Suldanessellar?

That final question was the true issue. Suldanessellar’s recovery was proceeding apace, but there were gaps in the city’s defenses that only time could mend, and time might be in short supply. Gauging the nature and severity of the threat was the first move, and it was apparent that Maera’s companions were already thinking in those terms. Solaufein knew that Kelsey had been a merchant before becoming an adventurer. Likely, he knew several of the caravan masters he had spoken with, and had traded on shared experience in the course of his inquiries. But he was, as Maera put it, nice. Solaufein smiled thinly to himself. Where he came from, there was no word for nice.

He followed a long, steeply curved walkway that led down to the forest floor, the lowest level of the city, and was halfway there when he stopped. What was he doing? What was he thinking? Why take any action for this city's sake at all? He was fortunate in Maera's friendship, and the Queen's kindness, and the Whiteleaf's protection, but what did he care? Why give more than a duergar's damn about the place?

Because you don't know how NOT to give a damn, he answered himself, and sighed. "Your sense of duty will be the death of you, Solaufein," Phaere had told him. That was before the Handmaidens, and there had been worry in her voice, and warning. She had said it again, later, afterward, and she had laughed.

Despite its relative isolation, Suldanessellar saw no shortage of commerce, being the central trade location for the many, far smaller, communities of elves scattered throughout the Forest of Tethir. Solaufein understood that human merchants from the south regularly stopped there on their way into Amn, and there were several there now, camped out on the fringes of the market common. He prowled about the darkening campsite, searching for the most promising target. He may not have known many humans personally, but he knew of them, and he recognized the heraldry of a banner hanging from one vividly striped tent. Calimshites. Most famous in the Underdark for frequently dealing in two commodities dear to the hearts of drow everywhere: slaves and drugs. It was as good a place to start as any.

He ducked into the tent, and for the first moments, was disappointed with the blandness of the materials he found. Ordinary ledgers, receipt forms, business letters...and a locked case, stashed beneath a covered table, which had a very familiar aroma. Black Lotus, eh? Just what he had been hoping to find. And in a heavy folio beside it, something even more damning. A stack of parchment, every one alike, all bearing a skull sigil and the same repeated message. “The time of the Children of Bhaal has come. There will be no sanctuary or haven before our coming.” He pursed his lips. What it lacked in subtlety, it made up for in threat.

Suddenly, the tent was almost unbearably bright, a light flaring from behind him. "I've heard about you," said a deep voice in passable Elvish. "You're the reformed drow. Your coin will spend here, my friend. No need to sneak about like a thief. Unless that is what you are."

Solaufein turned slowly, sizing up the lamp-bearing man before him. The merchant was taller than he, but that was no great surprise, and whipcord lean. That probably just meant he was fast. Solaufein carefully raised his hands in a pacifying manner. He had made a point of avoiding visible armament in Suldanessellar, but that did not mean he was helpless. Best to avoid a confrontation, however. He had always found information was better won without violence. "I am no thief. Nor am I a customer. I am interested only in information."

The merchant shrugged. "Then you are a customer. Information has a price, the same as any other good."

"I do not think that you will wish to charge me, however. I believe you will answer my questions, and require nothing in return."

"Will I? And how do you reckon that?"

Solaufein tapped his foot against the case of Black Lotus meaningfully. "It is my understanding the Queen takes a dim view of such...recreation. We wouldn't want her to hear of this, would we?"

"That is intended for the Amnish trade," the merchant said, his narrow face darkening.

"How would you prove that?"

"Blackmail, then? You are not so reformed after all."

Solaufein shrugged carelessly, but his heart was singing. He had missed this sort of thing. "Why do you have these in your possession?" he asked, holding up one of the skull marked broadsides.

The merchant's eyes narrowed. "Supplemental income. I was offered a thousand gold in Daromar to leave them in our wake as we headed north. I have done so."

"Who is behind this message? Who wants it spread?"

"They were given to me by a woman. A human. A northerner, pale with dark hair. I did not ask her name." Solaufein tilted his head slightly, waiting, and the merchant sighed. "There are five of them, that much I know. No one seems to know their names or where they came from. They are seeking out others like them, and I doubt they intend for a family reunion over tea."

He knew little more than that, Solaufein judged, and to press further would likely only lead to trouble. He slowly folded the broadside, and tucked it into his tunic. “Thank you. I will take this, if you do not mind. And we will keep this,” he gave the Black Lotus box another scuff, “between ourselves.”

The merchant’s features grew cunning. “I do not suppose you might be interested? I can make you a very reasonable offer.”

Solaufein nearly laughed in his face. So you can drug me and dispose of me? “I think not. Black Lotus is for surfacers and children. If I wished to alter my mind, I would require something with a bit more…bite.” He pushed past the merchant, smiling coolly. “A good evening to you.”

He could not repress a grin as he ascended back into the trees, taking unnecessary paths and doubling back on himself several times, just to be cautious. He had not had that much fun in quite some time.

⁂⁂⁂ 

The sun seemed almost aggressively bright the next morning, and he was reaching for the headache tonic Jaheira had given him less than ten minutes after rising. He thought of talking himself out of the plan he had made the night before, but found he could not. You can’t leave well enough alone, either, he thought to himself glumly as he splashed water on his face. One way or another, this would be an interesting experience.

There was a pair of guards outside Queen Ellesime’s chamber, a fussy-looking male and a rather young female. “I would like to speak with the Queen, if I may,” Solaufein said in the face of their stares.

The male recovered himself, and sniffed. “I doubt she has any business with you.”

Solaufein strove to keep his expression pleasant, grinding his teeth only mentally. “You will never know until you ask, will you?” He met the guard’s eyes with as bland a smile as he could manage. The male grumbled under his breath and knocked at the door. A soft voice responded, and he entered.

The female guard looked about nervously, then blurted, “If you don’t mind me saying, Faarien and Thelarias got what they deserved. And I’m not the only person who thinks so.”

Solaufein cocked an eyebrow at her. “Indeed?”

“They were trying to provoke a fight, and they got one. You can’t be blamed for that.”

“Can I not?”

“No.” She shrugged, obviously trying to appear more unconcerned than she actually was. “You’re a friend of Maera’s. And the Whiteleaf won’t hear anything against you in her presence. That’s good enough for me.”

She won’t, will she? “That is good to know, …?”

“Naren,” she supplied quickly.

“Thank you, Naren.” He shot her a warm smile. “That is very comforting knowledge.”

The other guard yanked open the door with a crabbed expression. “Her Majesty will see you.” He showed Solaufein into the royal presence, a sullen air hanging on him like a bad odor. “If you require anything, Your Majesty-” he said, but Ellesime waved a hand.

“I am sure all shall quite well. Thank you. You may go.”

Solaufein had met her only briefly before, and what had struck him then, as now, was how strangely comfortable being in her presence was. Calm and peace shone from her as light did from the sun, but she did not inspire any headaches. Her voice was gentle, and she never sounded commanding. She suggested, and one wanted to follow those suggestions. Was it some sort of magic, he wondered; the product of her divine parentage? Or was it simply a gift of personality?

“This is an unexpected, but very pleasant surprise, Solaufein. May I ask why you have come?”

He bowed his head deeply. “I have acquired information I believe you will be interested in, Your Majesty.” He presented her with the broadside, and recounted his exchange with the Calimshite. Her lovely face clouded as he spoke.

“This only confirms Elhan’s information,” she murmured. She rubbed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose, and it was such an ordinary gesture Solaufein almost gaped at her. If she noticed his surprise, she felt no need to comment on it. She tilted her head gracefully. “Why have you brought this to me?”

Why had he? Was it because she was the ruler of the city? A female? Did old habits truly die that hard? He worked his mouth for a moment before answering, eyes firmly fixed on the carpet, “Apparently, I do not know how to live in a place and do nothing for its benefit.”

He did not look up, but he heard the smile in her voice. “That is a trait worth retaining. I thank you, Solaufein. It was very generous of you to share what you have learned, and I will not forget it." 

He sighed to himself as he left the palace. He just couldn’t stay out. He didn’t know how.

⁂⁂⁂

“If you go,” Solaufein said in Common, “who will I practice my Common with?”

They sat on the balcony where they had always had their language lessons, under another fine evening sky. Maera shrugged. “There’s always Demin. Her Common’s better than my Elvish, I’ll put it that way.” She raised an intent eyebrow at him. “Unless of course, you still don’t think she trusts you.”

Solaufein thought about that, thought about the anger in the Whiteleaf’s voice after the fight with the guards. She had not been angry at him (at least not entirely). She had been angry on his behalf. And there was what the guard Naren had said, that Demin would not hear him insulted. She was taking a chance for him, because she believed it to be right. He found he did not want to let her down again. “No,” he said slowly, “I think she does.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re finally seeing sense,” Maera replied. “That’s good.” She sighed, and dropped her eyes. “It’s not a matter of if we go,” she said quietly. “We have to leave. There’s no way around it.”

It pained him to see her in low spirits, and for a moment, he wanted to apologize, though for what exactly, he did not know. For finding the broadside? For adding to the store of information that said she could not stay? “I know.”

They sat in silence for a while longer, and finally, she stood. “I should go. There’s still more packing to do,” she said.

He stood as well, and extended his hand. “I will miss these evenings. And your company.”

“I’ll miss you too. I’ll miss…everything about this place.” She clasped his hand, chuckling sadly.

“If I do not see you again before you depart, be well, and safe.”

“I’ll do my best.” She smiled slightly, and bumped his shoulder gently with her fist. “Try to stay out of trouble. And keep practicing.”

⁂⁂⁂

The adventurers departed two days later, and that evening, as she walked through the temple, Demin knew where Solaufein would be – on the balcony where he and Maera had met to practice Common. He likely missed the young human. She had looked past his race with an almost belligerent disinterest. Demin had to admit to herself that it was frankly a bit shaming. She had tried her best to judge him on his merits. But Maera had made it look so easy.

Perhaps that was what drew her to the balcony. He was a mortal being making his way in the world the same as any other, and he deserved a friend. She worried at her lip as she approached the balcony door. He had given her his word, without a second’s hesitation, that he would avoid trouble, and since then, he had kept it. Didn’t she owe it to him to try and be more than some distant overseer?

He sat against the wall, squinting at the night sky thoughtfully. She had not taken him by surprise this time; he heard her footsteps, and scrambled to his feet, but she spoke before he could, addressing him in Common. “It is my understanding that you require a new partner with whom to continue the improvement of your Common.”

He glanced away, surprised. “I do.” He leaned on the railing, shooting her a small, diffident smile, adding in Elvish, “Are you volunteering, Whiteleaf?”

She stepped beside him, resting her elbows on the rail and folding her hands. “It would seem that I am,” she replied in kind.

“That is very kind of you.”

“It is no hardship.”

He looked away again, and asked, very quietly, “Why?" 

She watched his dark profile carefully as she responded. “Why not?”

“Because you are-”

“A high priestess, and you are a lowly exile, et cetera and so on?” She didn’t bother keeping the sarcasm from her voice. “Remove me from that pedestal, and look at me, Solaufein.” She gingerly poked his shoulder, and he stiffened with surprise, straightening to his full height. “See?” she said. “You are taller than me. I am the one who has to look up.”

He smiled again, the already familiar satirical edge firmly affixed. “So it would seem.” He turned back to the rail. “Very well, Whiteleaf,” he said in Common. “I accept.”

“Good!” They looked out over the city, illuminated by the lamps that bobbed from the branches in the night breeze. “It is a fine evening,” she said.

“It is. The moon will rise soon.”

“You seem to have quite a good grasp of tenses.”

“Thank you.”