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Bright Future

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After Veldyskar closed the chamber door behind him, Mavash whirled on Jorlan. "Vizeran deVir is your father?"

"More importantly," Lux piped up, "are there any adorable baby portraits of you?"

Other voices joined in, but Jorlan raised a hand. "You know, that room looks very inviting right now." He pointed over his shoulder to the room Veldyskar had pointed out, glimmering with just the right amount of light for drow eyes, the lintel set at the right height for drow heads. "And I could use a rest." He made exaggerated movements towards the door.

He relented at the last minute, leaning against the doorframe. "All right," he said in Common. He'd spent more time speaking that language lately, but he still spoke it haltingly. "Mavash. You would ask your question?"

Mavash opened her mouth, but no sound came out. What did she want to know? Everything, but she could scarcely say that.

It was Umbra who saved her, saying, "I suppose we'd like to know the nature of your relationship with Vizeran deVir."

Mavash blurted out at last, "And why do you not take his name?" Why was that the first thing that came to mind?

Jorlan turned an indulgent smile to Mavash. "Well, your question has an easy answer. Drow children take the names of their mother, of course." He paused, struggling to find the words. "Not mother, quite. The head of the house. The word in Drow is ilharess. It--" He stopped, his mouth gaping open as he tried to find the words.

"'Matron mother' is the phrase in Common, I believe," Neheedra said. Her lips curved up in a slight smile, her eyes unreadable behind her blindfold. "I had much opportunity to learn Common from my... visitors."

Jorlan gave a nod. "Yes. Mother of mothers. I would always be Duskryn, after the matron mother. Who was not my birth mother, but the mother. If that makes sense." He pinched the bridge of his nose. "Common is... imprecise."

"Go on," Mavash encouraged him.

It was a moment before he continued. "Umbra's question, then. I told you Vizeran was an outlaw. An exile. His crime was being too powerful for the liking of the priestesses. But before that, his family was influential, the fourth house in Menzoberranzan. Their star was... rising? Is that the term?"

Mavash nodded.

"In that time he caught the attention of Matron Mother Duskryn. She wished..." He held out a hand, as if grasping elusive ideas. "Let me go back. Duskryn was -- is -- the ninth house of the city. Do you know what that means?"

"The top eight houses form the Council," Mavash said. "Ninth is..."

"Ninth is... how do you say it? Out of the running. It stung Ilharess Duskryn to be so close and yet so far away from the highest honors of Menzoberranzan, especially ones we had held in the distant past. One of the things House Duskryn lacked was magic, faer. The Matron Mother saw the deVirs, saw Vizeran, and wished to bring that power into her bloodline."

Ambergris, who had been digging through her satchel, cursed under her breath. "Bloody drow eugenics."

Jorlan frowned at the unfamiliar words. Rather than explain, Mavash pressed, "Was it not... scandalous, what the Matron Mother did?"

He shrugged. "It was not a job she did herself. She assigned it to the second priestess of the house, keeping her hands carefully clean. And no one may question who a priestess brings to her bed." He inhaled deeply. "It is that second priestess who birthed my twin sister and me."

Mavash raised her eyebrows. "Sister! You've never spoken of her. Is she--"

Jorlan raised a hand to stop her. "There is more. The star of the deVirs was no longer rising. Vizeran was branded a heretic and exiled. The house fell out of Lolth's favor, and was destroyed. House Duskryn's complicity with the outlaw Vizeran became known, and when the bloodline was declared dead--" His lips moved wordlessly for a few moments before settling into a sour smile. "How do I say this? A punishment--no, a tax--was put on House Duskryn. House deVir was dead, and if we wished to take their place on the Council, we would relinquish all we had taken of their blood." Jorlan's gaze was fixed on a far point, looking through his companions. "My sister paid Lolth's price. I, being utterly without value, was allowed to live."

Mavash touched her hand to her chest. "Oh, Jorlan," she whispered. "My heart--"

"Please," Jorlan demurred, looking embarrassed. "That is... how it is, in Menzoberranzan. What it does not destroy, it hones." He closed his eyes. "I am a well-honed weapon."

A moment's uncomfortable silence, before Mavash added, "I cannot hate the whole city, if it has given us you." She paused, licking her lips, before continuing, "You said the Matron Mother wanted to breed magic into the Duskryn line. Did she succeed?" She waved at Jorlan. "I didn't think you were magically gifted."

For a moment he looked pained, as if Mavash had just struck him. It was gone in an instant, his face once again placid. "No, I'm not so gifted, aside from things that all drow know innately. My sister, however... it was believed she would be a more powerful wizard than Vizeran himself."

A long, palpable silence filled the room. Even the dwarf priestess had given up her puttering, and was watching Jorlan assessingly.

"And yet you are still the ninth house, are you not?" Gaulir said, breaking the silence. "Did your house not gain what it wished?"

"For a time," he said, his voice flat. "But recently, House Baenre -- the first house of the city -- saw fit to re-create House Do'Urden in that position. Duskryn was once again demoted to ninth, and..." He trailed off.

Unspoken was my sister's death was in vain, but everyone in the room knew it; it was writ in their sympathetic glances.

Those would pain him more than the memory itself, and so Mavash changed the topic. "I think that's the most you've ever said about yourself. And in Common, too!"

"Well, you wouldn't stop asking," he murmured in Undercommon. He instantly returned to the sardonic Jorlan she knew, his mannerisms easing into a language he was more comfortable with.

Mavash thought back to her introduction to Vizeran. "I gather there is no love lost between you and your father?"

Jorlan had turned his attention to the great stone table of the room, running his fingers along the stonework. "Hm? What makes you say that?"

"What he called you when we met him." She winced to say the words aloud. "'My greatest mistake.'"

He laughed at the memory. "Oh, that. No, it's... a joke? The mistake is that my sister is dead and I am alive." He ducked his head. "Perhaps it doesn't translate well from Drow."

Umbra nodded her head. "No, I think I understand what he meant. It's... sweet, almost."

Mavash looked between Umbra -- prisoner of the drow, passing as drow, for so long -- and the wounded man at her side. She wanted to ask, Who hurt you so?, but she knew the answer already. "I think I will never understand the drow."

Jorlan gave her a pitying look, as if to say, Pray that you never do.

A throat was cleared, and Neheedra spoke up. "On that note... I still have not received an introduction to your new companions." Her turned to Jorlan and Ambergris in turn -- a habit of the sighted. "You had a different dwarf woman with you when we met, in Rockblight. And certainly no drow... mercenary?"

Jorlan made a flourish of a bow. "Jorlan Duskryn, formerly of House Duskryn of Menzoberranzan. Now outlaw and traveling companion to the, ahem, 'heroes of Velkynvelve.' "

Neheedra bobbed her head in greeting. "A pleasure, I'm sure. I suppose you could say I understand where you come from. I know it doesn't appear so now, but I was once a high priestess of Menzoberranzan." She looked at Lux, biting her lip nervously. The changeling took her hand and squeezed it. "I even knew your family, Jorlan." An odd smile passed over Neheedra's features at the word family -- Mavash might have almost termed it sly. "But after being cursed into this form, I had many years to reconsider my life and my choices. I suppose now that I'm free, I'm looking for a... blank slate, of a sort."

"There does seem to be an epidemic of that," Gaulir said, glancing over at Jorlan, mirth lightening his rasping voice.

Ambergris stepped forward, taking the medusa's hand between two of her own. "And I'm Ambergristle O'Maul, that some call Cray, of Gauntlgrym. Priestess of Shar."

"Oh!" Neheedra breathed. "Now, that is odd. I did not think the dwarves favored the darker pantheon."

"They don't," Ambergris said, a note of disdain entering her voice. "But my goddess is not all she appears, and my relationship with her is none of their concern. Our king trusts me, and that is all that matters."

Neheedra bowed her head. "I'm sure I have no judgment in the matter. I am no longer a priestess. And even if I were..."

It didn't need to be said. Lolth was still a crueler mistress than Shar.

Jorlan slapped his thighs and stood up. "Well, I'm no priestess, either. And I need some rest."

"But Jorlan," Mavash teased, "You'd look so fetching in a dress."

The tips of his ears darkened in a blush. "Alas, I don't think I have the figure for it," he said, surveying his own body.

Lux leaned over to Mavash, and whispered, "How about: a maid costume?" Their face crinkled with humor, the blood hunter indulging their trickster side.

Jorlan held up a finger. "One: I have very keen hearing. Two..." His smile fell, and continued more seriously, "Excuse me. But having once been in the position of ultimate service... I am not eager to return to it."

Please, Mavash said to Lux telepathically, No jokes like that around the fellow that's been told since birth that he only exists to serve women.

A knock sounded at the door. Startled, it was some moments before anyone replied. It was finally Lux who sang out, "Who is it?"

A reedy, familiar voice said, "It is I, Vizeran deVir, of the Tower of Araj." His affected formality was at odds with the circumstances -- trying to talk to them through a stone door.

Araj? Mavash mouthed at Jorlan.

"It means 'vengeance,' " he murmured. "He bears a certain animosity towards the drow of Menzoberranzan, as you can imagine."

"Indeed," Mavash said. "If I were him I would want to burn it all down."

"Come in, old man," Jorlan hollered, winking at Mavash.

Let's meet this vengeful drow wizard.

After deVir had excused himself, a long silence fell on the room.

Telepathically, however, the conversation ticked on.

If I understand correctly, he wants us to join him at his tower so that we might discuss more freely what we learn here in the Gravenhollow?

He doesn't trust that the walls aren't listening. He was relieved when I suggested telepathy. I don't think I've ever seen a grown drow male that happy about anything.

Did he really suggest that we lie to the Stonespeakers about what we were looking for?

"Well," Jorlan said aloud, for the benefit of the wall's ears. "I can't agree with my father's taste in wine, but I do like to indulge once in a while. Shall we see about dinner?"

As if summoned, Veldyskar entered the room, followed by several odd creatures who looked like blobs of stone given legs. "Galeb duhr," he said to Mavash, and she wasn't sure if that was their name, or if he should be excusing him.

In any case, the stone creatures carried in plate after plate of food. No mushroom-everything, this; the dishes looked and smelled like something out of a dinner party in Neverwinter. The plates were small but numerous, and Mavash smelled roasted carrots and quail and raisins, and oh, there was even real wine. Ewers and ewers of it.

Running a finger over a damp, cold pitcher of white wine, Mavash smiled at Jorlan. "Look, it's your favorite."

He made a sound low in his throat that could have been a growl or a chuckle. "As I said... and anyway, we're not short on intoxicants in Menzoberranzan. They just aren't weird rotting fruit juice."

"I do wonder what you would be like drunk." Her smile broadened into a grin.

He narrowed his eyes in mirth, and said, his voice low, "You'd find me very entertaining when I'm drunk. I become, if possible, even more charismatic."

"Doesn't everyone?"

"Ah, no. There are some matrons who--"

Veldyskar interrupted, clearing his throat. "Please enjoy. Tomorrow you will have your audience with the librarians. As I have suggested, you might use this time to determine the subject of your research." He backed out of the room, and the galeb duhr followed after him.

They settled in to eat in their usual informal way -- dishes passed around the table to share, the talk flowing freely, dinner etiquette becoming blurry. Jorlan learned, to his visible delight, that several of pitchers contained not the "weird rotting fruit juice" he disdained, but a drink that was more familiar to his palate.

"Or, as I like to call it," Mavash said, "weird rotting mushroom juice."

Jorlan cradled a pitcher close to his chest. "I'll keep it all to myself, then, if no one else wants any."

"I'll happily partake," Neheedra piped up. "Light, I haven't had jhinrae in I don't know how long."

"Oh, I'll try some, I suppose," Umbra said, and held out a glass. "It's not like my captors ever deigned to share any with me, and I'm curious."

"Jhinrae," Mavash said, feeling how the Drow word sounded on the tongue. "What does that mean?"

There was a twinkle of mischief in Jorlan's eye as he said, "It means 'wine.' "

"It doesn't have some poetic meaning like, 'blood of the earth,' or something?" Lux asked.

"The less said of drow poetry, the better," Ambergris interjected, and continued slathering butter onto a slice of bread.

Resigned to the fact that morphology did not explain itself, Mavash continued, "I would like to try it." She'd had little chance to indulge her taste for intoxicants during her time in the Underdark -- not until Gauntlgrym, but even then she'd been too busy to sample their famous brews.

Mavash was a connoisseur of altered states, collecting these experiences like some people collected antiques. She wasn't particularly beholden to any single vice, but she had missed the freedom to partake. It was hard to do so when running for one's life in unfamiliar and deadly terrain.

Jorlan poured out half a glass for her, and met her gaze with a challenge in his eye. "You probably won't like it."

Mavash raised the glass and inspected the beverage. It was golden-brown and oddly iridescent. Putting it to her nose, she smelled the odors of freshly-tilled soil and barnyards, and wrinkled her nose. "Is this fermented with yeast?" She repeated the word in Undercommon, in case the brewing terms were unfamiliar to him.

But it was no help to him in either language. In Common, for the benefit of the table, he replied. "Mm, I'm not sure I know what that is? This is how it is made: we press mash'ar mushrooms to produce a slurry. Then we add sweet things and water. There are... tiny animals? That live on the surface of the mushrooms, that eat the sweet things, and grow in number, and turn the sweetness into alcohol."

That was a lot like making normal wine or ale, then. Although it did not surprise Mavash to learn that mushrooms, by themselves, did not produce enough sugar for fermenting. The drow must also use some type of wild yeast, lacking the precision of the vintners of the Sword Coast.

"Where does one get sugar in the Underdark?" Gaulir asked, asking the question that was already on Mavash's mind. "Doesn't it mostly come from surface things? Honey from bees, sugar beets, sugar cane down in Calimshan... what am I forgetting?"

Jorlan dropped his eyes to his plate, looking apologetic. "Surface raids, I'm afraid. And then, well, anything can grow under a Daylight spell. I've had orders before to tear up fields of... what do you call them? Dark green leaves, red roots?"

Gaulir nodded. "Sounds like sugar beets to me."

Mavash was more concerned with this talk of surface raids. It was something the drow did, of course, but it was easy to forget that Jorlan would have taken part in them. For some time now she'd been avoiding asking him about one surface raid in particular--

The wine in her hand. It wasn't getting any more appealing, so she raised it to her mouth and took a tentative sip.

It tasted... briny. Yes, that was a good word for it -- like someone had taken the liquid from a barrel of pickles and distilled it. It was mostly savory and sour, with most of the sugar transmuted into alcohol. It was a dry on her tongue as the potato liquor of her native Sossal -- this vintage had brewed a long, long time.

But it was not unpleasant.

Still competitive, Mavash downed the rest of the glass, feeling it heat her stomach. She held out her glass to Jorlan for more.

Amber chuckled and said, "Put some food in your stomach first, dearie, or you're going to be under the table by the end of the meal. Or in this one's bed." She gestured at Jorlan.

A combination of embarrassment and alcohol colored Mavash's cheeks. "Ah, yes, you are wise." She hadn't eaten... oh, since they'd struck camp this morning, and she was famished. She brought a breadbasket and a platter of sliced roast beef to her side, and piled food onto her plate.

Jorlan refilled Mavash's glass, the corner of his lip twitching with mischief. He kept his eyes on the druid as he said, "Amber, you say that like that's a bad thing."

She snorted in reply. "To each their tastes, I suppose."

Gaulir cleared his throat and said, "Are we in agreement, then, about what we wish to research?"

"How and why the Lords of the Abyss came to the Underdark, and how they might be sent back," Umbra said, by rote. Since the telepathic link was still open, she added, And, if we can find it, information on what weapons might be used against them.

That was the bit that Vizeran hadn't wanted them to speak aloud. That was what he wanted to save for visiting him in the Tower of Araj. Who, precisely, the older drow mistrusted here in the Gravenhollow was uncertain. But he had made it clear that, if nothing else, the Gravenhollow wasn't entirely magical; it relied on a network of mortal spies, as well. And those, of course, could be coopted.

Just so, Mavash added.

Returning to an earlier topic, Lux turned to Neheedra. "You never told me what your favorite food was!" It had come up when they'd been pretending to make small talk while discussing their plans telepathically.

The conversation ticked on like that, pleasant and meaningless. Jorlan waxed rhapsodic about Menzoberranzan noodles -- made of an extruded mushroom paste, with a sauce made from the ink of the rocktopus -- and Lux extoled the virtues of hot chocolate to Neheedra. The food was perfectly seasoned, and Vash, she hadn't eaten so well since Gauntlgrym. Maybe before then, depending on how one felt about dwarvish cuisine.

Nor drank so well. She had several glasses of that mushroom wine, but also real wine, too, both red and white. There was a golden dessert wine, too, and a tawny port, and...

Eventually the party left the table and adjourned to the common sitting area. It was a lower section of the floor, encircled by stone benches covered in an array of cushions and furs to make them comfortable. Mavash claimed a corner seat and wrapped one of the blankets around her. She was very hazy right now, and the muscles in her back didn't seem to be working very well, but she felt warm and safe, in a way she hadn't in a very long time. She was surrounded by friends, in a gigantic library, being plied with food and drink.

Just for one night, maybe, nothing would try to murder them.

And to make things even better, her dear drow friend sat down beside her. Gods, but Jorlan was gorgeous, in the way of elves -- sharp-angled, androgynous, and deadly as a blade. Not to mention his eyes that blazed like coals, and hair the color of a moon he scarcely knew, which fell in waves to his shoulders.

Mavash reached out a hand towards his face, but it flopped lazily into his lap instead. She giggled.

From a great distance, Jorlan said, "Are you well? You're so pale." He took her hand between his, his sword-callused hands cool against her heated skin. "And clammy, too." Concern wrinkled his brow, and he lowered his voice. "How much did you drink? I lost count after eight glasses." He glanced back furtively at their companions.

The sound of their friends' sudden laughter strobed through Mavash's head like sunlight off crystal, turning her stomach. But it was a minor concern, very far away.

She was very warm. Very safe. Very hazy.

"Mavash, can you hear me?"

Very sick, all over Jorlan's boots.