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Bright Future

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Jorlan was in the baths of the Tower of Araj. He had washed the fomorian blood and the purple worm ichor from his skin, but still the mental grime of the day lingered.

The bathing facilities were sparse, by drow standards, but still far better than he'd sampled since he'd started his chase of the heroes of Velkynvelve. This large pool was fed by a hot spring, which -- along with some assistance from Vizeran's spells -- kept the water blood-warm. In addition to the central soaking pool, the corners of the room held smaller pools for cleaning, fragrant with the smell of soap. There was even a small room with heated, reclining beds for lounging or massage.

(Not for the first time, Jorlan wondered at Vizeran's motives for keeping a place like this. He was too busy to make much use of it, aside from basic hygiene. But perhaps he was also too drow to entirely leave these luxuries behind).

Jorlan sunk under the water, opening his eyes to take in the sight. The pool was lit by glowing algae that thrived in the vents of the hot spring. It was the only light in the room, by his choice. His head ached from too long spent in the bright light his companions favored, and he cherished the opportunity to rest in a place that didn't hurt.

Well, mostly. The hot water was doing its best for the muscles in his shoulders, but at this point the knots in his back had their own knots. He'd spent the last few days swinging around a blade that was entirely new to him, and marginally heavier than his shortsword. And he'd replaced his offhand dagger with the shortsword itself, effectively doubling the effort of each of his attacks. But he wasn't going to admit to his companions how much it was bothering him, lest they regret giving him the blade.

Oloth tlu malla, the sword was called. Darkness be praised. He'd recognized it as soon as he saw it -- a drow assassin's weapon, found in the hands of a troglodyte chieftain. When they'd put it in his hands, he'd raised an eyebrow and said. You're giving me a head-chopping sword?

But you're doing such a good job of chopping off heads already, Jorlan, Mavash had added, her eyes twinkling with humor.

And statistically speaking, Umbra had added, it's only moderately more likely to chop off a head than a regular sword.

You are all disgustingly trusting, he'd replied, a mix of awe and disdain and... pride? He wasn't sure. This hadn't even occasioned a debate, unlike the poisons. Of course he would get the sword, they seemed to be thinking. Who else was going to use it?

And then, on its very first outing, Jorlan had used it to deadly effect.


That whole fight was... hard. Physically exhausting, yes, but that wasn't the half of it. He'd spent enough time fighting beside his companions that they trusted him -- and he trusted himself -- not to bolt. And certainly they'd been in dire peril before.

Even Mavash, who --

he could now admit, at least in the privacy of his own head

-- he was quite enamored with.

It was an odd feeling -- like the drunken elation he'd felt in the Gravenhollow had just never gone away. Perhaps the most surprising aspect was how... protective it made him. While there'd been people he'd fancied before, most of them were fleeting whims. There was no one he worried about going into danger.

(No one still living, at least).

But when Mavash suggested turning into a giant spider and leading the fomorian on a merry chase across the purple worm's webbing, his first reaction was a no that he couldn't suppress. "Absolutely not." He regretted the words as soon as they were out -- as if he had any right to tell her what to do.

And yet Mavash turned to him with curiosity and surprise, instead of the anger he deserved. "Do you have a better plan?"

He didn't. It was a good plan. As a captain, it was one he would have approved. Her giant spider form was one of her weaker ones, but she only needed to run away, and there seemed little risk that the lumbering fomorian could outpace her. And from a mercenary point of view, better she be in danger than Hanne, the teenaged drow girl who was busy prying out an egg from one of the highest egg sacs.

Who, in fact, Mavash was trying to distract the giant from.

Still, when Umbra's spell of invisibility settled over him, he followed Mavash-spider across the purple worms' webbing. He couldn't climb as a spider did, but he'd had enough experience walking on the spidersilk bridges that connected the stalactites of Velkynvelve, and was dextrous enough to catch himself if he started to fall.

He thought Mavash noticed him once, crouched on the egg sac beside her. He feared she'd order him back, but realized in the next moment that she would never order him to do anything. Nonetheless, he held his breath, still and cautious.

What do you even intend to do, Jorlan? his mind had mocked him. You can't defend her better than she can defend herself. It was a stupid, idiot urge, and he half feared he was growing possessively sentimental -- a feeling he'd had turned towards him before, and been discomfited by. A matron who wanted to keep you safe was almost more dangerous than one that wanted to shove you between her and peril.

They were both surprised how fast the fomorian moved. Within moments, it turned that terrible, cursing eye upon Mavash. Jorlan watched with horror as the legs of the giant spider curled and shriveled beneath it, effectively immobilizing it. The fomorian's club had come down in a terrible one-two smash, splattering spider guts across the webbing, and returning Mavash to her slight kalashtar form.

Jorlan was already in motion, having readied himself for precisely this. He dropped onto the shoulders of the giant, taking his first swing with the vorpal scimitar.

The giant's head toppled off, as easily as a cutting the cap off a mushroom. Jorlan didn't even needed to sink his second blade into the creature. He leaped back into the webbing before he could fall with it. The creature's burning blood spattered his back, sliding down his neck.

Mavash was already back in wildshape -- an owlbear -- by the time he returned. And just in time, too. The shaking of the walls presaged the arrival of the purple worms, sensing their eggs were in danger.

After that... it was a blur. One purple worm after another came through the walls, each one arriving just as they thought they were done. In the final count, they killed six before Hanne pried the egg free.

He remembered, though, the one that swallowed Mavash. He remembered the horror of watching the beast engulf her owlbear form, as if the hulking bird-creature was nothing more than a morsel to it. The utterly helpless feeling that came over him, like he was unmoored and falling slowly to his death.

He turned away from the worm he'd been fighting -- leaving Lux and Umbra by themselves -- and ran towards the other one, chiding himself the whole way.

(Why did he care? Why did he care so damn much?)

Taking his place beside Gaulir, the dragonborn gave him a knowing smirk. Jorlan guiltily recalled that he hadn't moved so expeditiously when Gaulir himself had been swallowed.

He sunk his blades again and again into the thing. With Gaulir doing his part, and Mavash helping from inside the creature's gullet, the worm finally gave a screech and went still.

He was still cutting, stabbing, trying to get Mavash out of the terrible thing. Only when she emerged -- the owlbear's white feathers blackened with stinking ichor -- did he relent.

Stepping back, he realized his hands ached from clutching the blade too tightly. He wanted to run towards her, embrace her, and yet every every survival instinct screamed at him to turn around, to face the rumbling at his back.

She butted her feathered head against his side and gave a psychic Thank you before sprinting off, towards the worm Lux and Umbra were still fighting. It gave him a brief luff of something like... hope? But that was quickly tamped down by the realization that she had caught a whiff of the fear and calculation going through his mind.

And finally there was the stupid book. Why had he taken the dumb thing? (Why did a fomorian even have it?) What did he think drow poetry had to teach him? What sort of sentimental idiot was he becoming? He'd flipped through it in the privacy of his own room -- no one else had seen him take it -- and found it sickened him. It was all lust and no depth of emotion.

It was as mercenary as coin, and he saw through the empty verses.


He sighed out a breath as he surfaced from the water. Had he really expected to find words for his wordless emotions in a language that didn't even have a word for--

The creak of a door, and the sound of bare feet. The red driftglobes of the bath turned on -- not painful to his eyes, but an adjustment from the relative darkness. He squinted and looked over his shoulder at the interloper.

It was Mavash. She wore a robe of unbleached fabric, loose enough to slip off one shoulder. She was still covered in dirt and grime and ichor; she hadn't had the chance to bathe yet.

And here he was, inconsiderately making it impossible for her to do so.

"I'm sorry," he murmured, and turned to face the wall of the pool, setting his arms on the edge. It was the least revealing position he could manage, given that he was, of course, naked. While he wasn't particularly troubled by his own nakedness in general, he'd found that other races had some prudish notions about bodies.

At the same time, Mavash said, "Oh, goodness, don't let me intrude."

They both gave a nervous laugh, followed by an uncomfortable silence.

It was then he remembered that appearing naked around someone you fancied was quite another matter entirely.

Eventually, Jorlan continued, "I'm done in here, anyway. It's no bother. I just need a towel and a moment's privacy."

Mavash gave an odd little half smile, and gestured permissively at the water. "You look comfortable. I won't bother you. I need to wash this mess off first, anyway." She indicated her own body, and then walked towards one of the cleansing pools, which was set up with a privacy screen.

He heard the sounds of running water, and splashing, and he relaxed back into the water. His heart was beating too fast. It must be from the heat.

The rushing of water had quieted, replaced with soft splashing noises, and a pleased groan. "Oh, how I wish we'd had these in Gracklstugh," Mavash said. "I remember limping into that city, covered in grime, wearing nothing but prison rags, and being told, 'oh, we don't do full immersion baths here; the water from the Darklake isn't safe for bathing.'"

"That explains why the deep dwarves smell so bad," Jorlan said, without rancor. Like most of his old beliefs, this stereotype was a tattered but familiar rag he hadn't bothered to throw away yet.

"Well," Mavash said, "I'm surprised but delighted. I didn't expect an exiled wizard to have a spa in his basement."

"Spa?" He raised an eyebrow at the unfamiliar word. It must be Common.

He could imagine her furrowing her brow, trying to find the translation. "Perhaps in Undercommon you would say 'bathhouse?' Like... a place for luxury baths, basically. And other stuff, too, like massages and steam rooms and whatnot. They're usually built around a hot spring. I went to one in Neverwinter once." She chuckled. "It felt exquisite after a long time in the woods. But it wasn't something I wanted to get too used to."

He imagined her smile, and found himself smiling along with her. "Ah. We have such places in Menzoberranzan, too. We call them el'laren d'ssinssrigg, houses of pleasure."

She laughed at that, and it echoed off the tiles of the room, breaking into tinier laughs that surrounded him. "That makes it sound like it's a brothel."

He shrugged, his aching shoulder making an echoing splash. "That is one of the services they provide, along with the ones you mentioned. Ssinssrigg has many meanings"--none of them the right one right now--"but it encompasses sexual desire, as well." He tried not to think too hard about the slaves working there -- attractive specimens of other races, the only ones who would lower themselves to dally with the likes of him for mere coin, noble though he was. Not that they really had much choice in it.

"I see," Mavash said, after a lengthy pause. She hadn't reached out to him with telepathy, but still she seemed to understand all the implications, what was left unsaid.

He sunk back under the water's surface, hiding. He was never sure how frank to be with her about sex. She had a bawdy sense of humor, but perhaps this was a bridge too far. Had he offended her with his talk?

But she was ready with another question when he broke the surface. "Are these mixed gender, these... houses?"

He brushed wet hair back from his face. "No. Not usually. Though I suspect not for the reason you think." When she did not immediately reply, he added, "The matrons and mistresses wouldn't want their bathwater sullied by the likes of males, of course."

A tired sigh echoed behind the screen. "Of course."

"Though, in the privacy of a noble house's baths, it's not unusual for a matron to share a bath with her consort, or to exchange massages." Not, of course, entirely without ulterior motives.

A thoughtful pause, more splashing. "Do you not get tired of this?"

"Of baths?"

"Of being looked down upon."

"Mmm." That was a more difficult question. His initial response was Of course. Looking back on his life from this perspective, he was infuriated by all the things that were denied him because of his gender. But at the time? "If it's all you've ever known, it's very hard to imagine that things can be any other way. Would you miss sight if you were born blind?"

"I suppose not."

"It wasn't until I was stationed in drow-occupied Blingdenstone that I started to understand that other races didn't live like that." His mouth twisted into a sour expression. "My matron mother would say that was when I grew... headstrong."

A musical laugh floated out from behind the screen. "I do so enjoy it when you're headstrong, though."

Her voice, breathy and cherishing, plucked at some resonant frequency in him. He sunk beneath the water again, and put his nervous energy into propelling himself to the opposite side of the pool and back.

When he broke the surface again, he said, "But to answer your original question, why Vizeran has these baths. I suppose you might say we are a people who value... sensual pleasures? Massages with scented oils, silken clothing, jhinrae, and perfumes. Beautiful things of taste and smell and touch. And with that goes--" He made a gesture encompassing the space, though it didn't read through the screen. "I'd be surprised if my father had turned his back on all that. There's little enough else to miss out of Menzoberranzan."

Another long silence -- long enough for Jorlan's worries to start up again. But eventually Mavash made a splashing noise and said, "You miss those things, too."

The wistful way his stomach turned at those words surprised him. It was a pang of nostalgia and homesickness that he hadn't expected -- even greater than when he considered never seeing the inside of House Duskryn again.

There wasn't much worth missing from the City of Spiders -- except when there was.

"I... suppose I do," he murmured, gazing into the water. "Even as an unwanted son of an unwanted house, they were things I was allowed..."

He heard the slap of her feet on the tile again, and her shadow melded with his own in the water. He did not turn -- whether to preserve her modesty or ignoring his own, he didn't know. Anyway, the scars at his collar felt like the greater immodesty, right now.

He felt her crouch down on the ledge behind him, and a finger slid over one of his scars. His muscles bunched involuntarily under the light touch, sensitized by the exertion of the past few days.

She always knew where he hurt, didn't she? And she would always prod it with her finger before she learned better.

He ground his teeth, feeling heat rise to the tips of his ears -- but too mortified to move.

"Your concerns are touching, but you'll find I have very little modesty," she murmured, intuiting his thoughts. "I do go about naked half the time, remember."

Her animal forms, of course. He smiled, forcing his tone to be light. "I suppose once you've seen one pair of mammaries you've seen them all, eh?"

"More than. You've seen my moorbounder; she has eight. I feel a little inadequate beside her."

"But maybe I'm the modest one." He looked over his shoulder with a smile of perfect innocence, and saw a curving expanse of milky skin--

He snapped his eyes back to the water. No, this would end nowhere good.

Or somewhere very good indeed, his mind unhelpfully supplied.

"So it would seem," she replied, with a gentle chuckle. She rose, her shadow spreading out over the pool again, and fetched him a towel, passing it over his shoulder. He jumped when her hand squeezed his shoulder. "Peace."

She knew where to prod, but darkness bless her, she also knew when to step away.

She padded away on bare feet, and he soon heard the rustling of cloth as she donned her robe again. He made his own awkward dance exiting the pool and wrapping himself in a towel.

Soon the barrier of clothing -- generously speaking -- was between them again. But it did not put him at ease, as he had expected. He'd half wished she'd joined him in the pool. Wished someone would pummel these ssussun knots out of his shoulders.

Wished he could feel her body's weight--

Finger to her lips, she studied him. Backlit by the lamps, he noticed her hair most of all -- she had too much of it, tangled in messy braids. And yet here it made a corona that reminded him of the setting sun of her surface world. If he were an artist, he would paint it.

"You are touch-starved, I think," she concluded, tapping her lips.

He didn't know what that meant, but it felt like a rope thrown down to a prisoner in an oubliette. He grabbed onto it more eagerly than he cared admit. "I... am what?"

She shook her head, as if dissatisfied with how she had started. "These things you miss. Sensual pleasures, yes, but many of them touch-based." As if in illustration, she reached to interlace her fingers with his. "You said it yourself, in Gravenhollow. When you spoke of the love games you played. All that charm, all that flirtation -- sometimes it was just to feel another body against your own, you said. And now... you have so little." Her eyes were sad, asking a question that neither quite knew the answer to.

But she was right. The comfort he had felt that night in Gravenhollow, settling into trance with her body cradling his -- this had been so rare, but it was sometimes all he had wanted. It was easy to pretend it was all about ssinssrigg, the flush of desire, the press of flesh. But he'd been looking for something simpler, too -- at once more primal and more wholesome. Something about escaping the prison of one's own mind, if only for a moment.

A harder prison door to open than any other, that.

"I can try to help. But in this form, I'm not very strong."

Jorlan had one moment of soaring fear and hope at those words. Could she mean-- did she know his thoughts--?

But it passed as soon as she added, "Your back, I mean." She looked down at the tile floor, tracing the grout with her toe. "I'm not an anatomist, but I don't think muscles are supposed to feel like metal snakes wrestling under your skin."

He burst out laughing. "That bad?" He rolled his head to the side, trying to stretch out the ache. "And what wildshape form is best for giving a massage?"

Her eyes crinkled in a grin. "Maybe I could walk across your back as a large housecat. If I could keep my claws sheathed."

"I scarcely believe you're capable of that."

"Mm. You're probably right." She closed the final distance between them, nosing at his wet hair. She smelled of soap and clean linen -- a smell both utterly alien on her skin, and yet supremely comforting. "Would you let me try? No claws; just hands. I promise."

I would let you try just about anything, he wanted to say. Instead he just nodded. "This room," he said, pointing to the lounging room to the right, "should have everything you need."

They stepped into the room, and the amber lights flickered on as they entered. The room held four lounging chairs, made of zurkhwood but draped heavily in cushions and soft furs.

The nearest wall held a shelf full of sundry jars and bottles. Perusing it, Jorlan found various salves for sore muscles, decoctions that claimed to cure any manner of illnesses, and even some hair tonic.

"Oh! This will make this much easier." Mavash said brightly. Her fingers fell on one of the small bottles of massage oil; she opened it to smell it. "It smells of surface plants. Jasmine, I think. Must be very rare in the Underdark." She handed it to Jorlan.

A wave of revulsion overtook him at the smell -- the sort of dread he felt before a blow landed. It took him a moment to realize why: it was a smell he associated with Ilvara's perfume. He hadn't known it was from a surface plant, but leave it to her to demand the rarest of perfumes.

"I don't care for it." He set it back on the shelf, keeping his face carefully neutral.

Mavash shrugged. "Fair enough. Some people think it jasmine smells like cat pee, anyway." She sniffed at another bottle, wrinkling her brow in concentration. "This one smells... spicy? But not in any way that's familiar to me."

He smelled it, nodding. "I'm not sure what the Undercommon translation would be. Maybe... 'red dragon blood?' It's a mineral. No red dragons were harmed in the making of it, I promise," he said, glancing at her sidelong with an impish smile. "Anyway, it has a heating effect. It should be perfect."

Mavash plucked the bottle from his hand and gestured him to the nearest bed.

"How do you want to do this?" he asked, and winced at the words as soon as they were out of his mouth.

She raised her eyebrows suggestively. "Any way you like, of course."

He gave a chuckle he desperately hoped sounded casual, turning away to recline one of the loungers to lie flat. Well, if this was like the impersonal massages he could get from any random bathhouse in Menzoberranzan, then he should start face down. He settled himself, head on his arms, unsure what to expect.

Of course, those impersonal massage practitioners would only stand beside the bed. Mavash being, well, Mavash, climbed astride his back.

An oof of surprise escaped him. "I don't think these things were made to hold the weight of two people," he said. But that was nonsense. They were drow make; the artisans had to expect all sorts of hijinks to happen on any vaguely horizontal surface.

He thought that, and then tried to ignore that the center of her body's heat was now resting at the base of his spine.

"Seems fairly sturdy to me," she said. Her hands hovered above his shoulders, surprisingly warm. "Should I... avoid your scars? I know they can be nervy and itchy."

The words, her hesitation, eased some of his own. She will not hurt you, he tried to counsel himself. His mind believed it, but still his body was recalcitrant. "Please, go ahead. My shoulders need most of the work."

Nonetheless, Mavash started with his lower back, pressing her thumbs into the muscles that supported his spine. The pressure was less than he would have liked, but the oil worked some of the magic. The scent of it, warmed by her hands, soon filled the room, the miasma soothingly reminiscent of home.

Wherever that was.

"What did you do to your back?" she grumbled, and he felt her bringing all her weight to bear on the heel of her palm. It still made little impact.

"Just a small price I pay for constant vigilance," he quipped. "Just wait until you get to my neck."

"From all the time you spend looking over your shoulder, of course."

"Of course." He winced as her fingers pressed into a sensitive spot. "Not there. Please."

"Oh, sorry." She dropped her hands. "I'm not very good at this, am I?"

"No, please. Go on. Just... avoid that spot on each side above the kidneys. It's sensitive on most people."

"Oh, so you're an expert at giving these, too," she joked, but her hands returned to his back. "I wasn't aware I was being judged by a professional."

He leaned into her touch, surprised to discover he'd missed it -- even if she was still too delicate. But her words brought back a vision of the person he used to play at being, which was less comfortable. Something he'd normally never share, but here he was, at her mercy, and if he was going to tell anyone--

"I had to be," he said, with a shuddering breath. "It is... a part of courtship, I suppose you'd call it?" He smiled ruefully. "A drow woman likes to test the skill of her lover's hands before she puts them to more intimate uses."

Her hands skated over his mid-back, pushing at the spot that always pained him, where one of his ribs attached to his spine. He gave a pleasurable sigh -- she was getting the knack for it now, and he could feel the knot release as her thumb pressed into him.

"And if one didn't pass?" she asked.

"Depends on their mood and their motives, doesn't it?" he answered, with a morbid nostalgia. "Let us say, massage was something I learned to excel at, lest I find out."

"Perhaps you should be the one doing this, then." A long silence followed, as Mavash made long, smooth strokes over his back. They did very little for his muscles, but they left sparks in their wake. "And what if," she continued, with an odd detachment in her voice, "you did not fancy this woman?"

He made a snort of laughter. "I didn't fancy most of them. But they were useful, and I became very good at choosing my targets. I wasn't going to endanger myself if I didn't have anything to gain from it. Unwanted consorts have a habit of turning up dead in Menzoberranzan."

He felt her fists clench against the small of his back. "But it must happen frequently that one approaches you, but you are uninterested. Because it's too dangerous, or she has nothing you want, or she just doesn't suit your tastes." A thoughtful pause. "Always she? I am assuming an awful lot about you, aren't I?"

"You assume correctly, though." Honestly, it would have been so much easier if he had fancied other men. There was an entire demimonde that catered to that in Menzoberranzan, and for the most part it was beneath the notice of the priestesses. Of course, that would not have been nearly so profitable. "I don't know about frequently -- you flatter me, I think. But it does happen." Honestly he had felt that way about Ilvara at first -- her family too powerful, too little to gain. But after turning down the post offered him with the re-created House Do'Urden, getting away from Menzoberranzan with a priestess who wanted to bed him had looked a lot more appealing.

"And?" Mavash insisted. "What would you do?"

He made a grim smile into his arms. "I would try very hard to stay out of her way."

"Stay out of her way? Does that actually work?"

He made a non-committal gesture. "These interests are often... fleeting, so if you can stay away long enough, it will usually pass."

"Usually?" She sounded incredulous, her tone shrill, and her hands stilled on his back.

She also sounded angry, and that worried him. He had said the wrong thing, hadn't he? He wasn't sure what, exactly. But blessedly, he could ask. "What's wrong?"

"I just-- you have no choice in the matter? These women can... prey upon you, and no one does anything to stop it? All you can do is try to escape her notice? What if that doesn't work? Do you just let them... have their way with you?"

He propped himself on one arm and looked over his shoulder at her. Her cheeks were red, and she had balled her fists. In her slight humanoid form, it made her look rather like a petulant child.

He understand then that she wasn't angry at him. She was angry for him.

Charming, really, but deeply embarrassing, because she would like his answer even less. He made himself meet her eye, and said, softly, "I'm still alive, aren't I?"

Her hand flew to her mouth. "Oh, J-" she began.

"Don't say it," he growled. "Don't fucking say my name." Her pity would kill him, cut by cut.

She looked taken aback by his swear, as if she'd never heard the word in Undercommon before. "I just... hope you understand that that's coercion, not consent."

"I'm not a fool," he snarled. "But who's going to stop them?" He was growing angry now, and strangely defensive of his birthplace. "It's like that for women in some places in the surface world, though, isn't it? Maybe not in your beloved Neverwinter Wood, but there are places where they warn our jabresses before sending them to raid." Or they sent people like him -- expendable extra sons.

Mavash met his volley without bitterness. "Of course. Parts of Sossal were like that, too." Her own eyes went distant, and it was a long time before she continued, "It's not right wherever it happens, though." She laid a hand on his shoulder. "This isn't helping your back."

He noticed that he was gripping the wood of the lounger with alarming force. He forced himself to ease his grip. "No," he said flatly, and laid back down. "Anyway. Please... don't upset yourself on my account. I assure you, it was never so unpleasant that... my body could not derive some pleasure from it." He buried his face in his arms, ashamed of the words.

Her hand tightened again on his shoulder. "That is also not consent."

"You make it sound so simple," he murmured, "as if I didn't have any part to play. As if I just lay there like a doll and let things happen to me. What is the saying in Common? 'A dance requires a partner?' You seem determined to think me an innocent victim." There was too much blood on his hands for that.

"Nothing you did would have made you deserving of the treatment they showed you." Her fists were fairly pounding on his back now, which, honestly, was exactly what he needed.

"It wasn't that bad," he murmured. "Perhaps I'm making it sound too dramatic, or too frequent." He gave a deep sigh. "For the most part I was... invisible. Beneath notice. Nothing I did or said mattered. I could valiantly save one matron's life, or let her die, and the same thing would happen -- same yoke, different mistress. I might as well not have lived."

"That's bad enough," she replied, at a whisper. He could feel the tremor in her hands, and the muscles in his back twitched irritably in response.

He gave a sigh of tremendous forbearance. "You surfacers like to tell all kinds of stories of the extravagant evil of the drow. I've read them, you know. Demonic orgies and elaborate torture and selling off woe-betided underage sons to rapacious matrons. None of that happens." That was ... not entirely true, though it was certainly less common than the titillating stories liked to paint. "On a day-to-day basis, it was just... normal. You get used to not being seen. You can get used to anything, I suppose." He broke off, realizing he had been rambling, and no one wanted to hear his thoughts.

The dripping of water marked a long silence.

"What did you want?" Mavash said. "When you were in the midst of all that, what did you hope for?"

"Mmm." He had to think about that. It had been hard to see very far ahead in those days. "Perhaps to become weapons master or patron to a middle-rank house -- nothing close to the scheming of the Council. Somewhere I could be comfortable and yet distant from Lolth's chaotic orbit." He chuckled. "Definitely not what my family would have hoped for." The pressure to take the Velkynvelve post had come from both his mother Inshalee and Matron Mother Prae'anelle. They'd hoped he would use the opportunity to become close to Ilvara, who might one day become matron of House Mizzrym.

"Patron?" Mavash said, at the out-of-context word.

"Ilharn, in Drow," he muttered. "The consort of the matron mother of a house. The highest position most males can aspire to -- short of becoming a master of Sorcere. And possibly the most dangerous, too. There's always someone younger and more captivating, isn't there?" His fingers dug into the wood again, thinking, despite himself, of Shoor. He couldn't bear the man animosity any more -- he was dead, after all, and Jorlan was not -- but it reminded him of the things he had done for that secondhand taste of power.

Who he might have become, if he hadn't been blinded by these heedless do-gooders in the Upperdark.

The thing was, that power was sweet and addictive. He nearly thought he had fallen in love with Ilvara, before Shoor came along. The power it gave him in Velkynvelve, the respect of his family, the knowledge that for once in his life he was doing what was expected of him -- it was a pleasure easily mistaken for love.

Especially in his native language.

"It is a poison," he sighed at last, an echo of that long-ago Gravenhollow conversation. "As you said. But they do everything they can to make you believe it's the sweetest wine." He'd said nothing of the indoctrination, the propaganda, either -- he'd gone through the most mind-numbing of it, in Melee-Magthere. "You come to believe that nothing the drow do is too egregious beside the evils of our enemies."

She laid a kiss between his shoulder blades, right on one of his scars. He expected her to say something cute and inane, but he was surprised when she growled, "I'm going to tear out the throats of the ones who hurt you. One day."

He laughed. "I think you already did that. Or, well, Umbra's shadow hound did, at any rate."

Her voice was stern and cold as she said, "I have the feeling Ilvara is only the most recent in a line of people who have hurt you."

He sighed into the pillow, tired of this conversation. "Again, you make me sound helpless."

"Of course not. A helpless man wouldn't have cut the head off a fomorian in one chop. But you're just one man. You can't take on the whole matriarchy by yourself."

"And you can?"

"Well, at least there are six of us," she said, with a lopsided smile. Sobering, she added, "What we're doing here -- banishing the lords of the Abyss -- is no good if you have to go back to being someone's boytoy in Menzoberranzan after it's all over."

He was more likely to become a drider than someone's lover, if he returned. But he had no heart to explain that to her. She would see no difference between the two fates.

She sighed, resting her palms against his shoulders, leaning heavily into him. The pressure was finally approaching something he might want; he felt adhered muscles slide apart infinitesimally under her weight. "I'm sorry. I'm not doing much to help here, am I?"

No. But she was close and she was warm and her hips were canted into his; if she would just stop being mad at him, everything would be perfect--

I hope you know I'm not mad at you, she said, switching to telepathy. Sorry. I was raising my voice. You know, you flinch when I do that. Or at least, these muscles do. She pressed down on one of the muscles running underneath his scars. "Like you're about to be hit."

I am an open book to you, aren't I? he reflected bitterly. He'd spent a lifetime building up a shell as impenetrable as a hook horror's, only to discover that she had the tool to crack it.

"A book I'm still reading," Mavash said aloud, "I enjoy discovering new things about you every day."

"It's only a pity you came in at the final book in the series," he said.

She swatted playfully at his back. "Shut up. You have another, what, five hundred years to look forward to? I'll be bones tangled in the roots of a tree by then."

He was unprepared for the terrible sense of doom that gave him -- not unlike what he had felt, seeing her swallowed by the purple worm. He didn't want to do the terrible math, but his mind relentlessly pushed forward. She was twenty-five; that meant another fifty-five years if she was lucky. Twenty-five years if she was unlucky -- if she kept trusting every damn person with a sob story to tell.

In that many years he would still be considered a young adult.

I hear you calculating, she said in his mind. But don't count me out yet. The greatest of druids age slowly. The archdruid of my grove is a human approaching his third century.

He still didn't like the math, and he ground his teeth around them. This is why you shouldn't care for the short-lived races, he counseled himself. They will be taken from you by an invincible foe: time.

She made a heavy sigh, then, and climbed off the bed. "I'm not sure I helped at all, but..." She smoothed a hand down his back, and he heard her feet patter against the tile to the lounger beside him.

He turned over onto his back. "You did." Maybe she was right -- maybe he was touch-starved, because that attempt at a massage was more helpful than it had any right to be. "And I have some exercises I can do that will help." He pillowed his head on his arms, and admitted, with a sigh of defeat, "It's the sword, you see. It's heavier than my shortsword, and the shortsword is heavier than my daggers... anyway. It should resolve itself soon enough."

She gave a musical little laugh, gazing up at the ceiling. "That was something to behold -- you taking down that giant by yourself. You were incredible. I wanted to..." She coughed, and trailed off. "Do these lights turn off?"

"Mmm." Jorlan made a gesture in the air -- the tiny bit of magic he could manage, allowing the magics of the Tower to recognize him as a resident. The amber lights dimmed to nothing, and the ceiling lit up with thousand pinpricks of light.

"Stars," she said, with awe. "I'm surprised. I wouldn't think Vizeran would care for such a thing."

Jorlan had to think about that. "My father isn't sentimental in the least, so I suspect Grinna is probably responsible for this choice. The moon and stars are a favorite emblem of the Eilistraeeans. They're famed for dancing naked under them as part of their rites."

He shifted his vision to the heat spectrum, wanting to see the fine movements of Mavash's face. I want to play her at a game of sava, he thought; her expressions hid nothing.

Currently, she looked surprised. "I didn't know Grinna followed Eilistraee. Although, I guess it makes sense. She welcomed Hanne and Zhora warmly enough."

"Her religious predilections are probably what drove her out of Menzoberranzan. Though I haven't spoken to her about it."

A companionable silence rested between them for several minutes. But it couldn't last.

After a moment, Mavash's hand reached out, seeking Jorlan's over the gap between the beds. He took her hand, feeling the oil slick against her palm, still tingling with heat. He turned her hand in his, running his thumb down the vein in her arm. Against his darkvision, it glowed bright and lively.

A smile, and a hmph of laughter. "What do you see?"

He gave his own languid smile, continuing to trace the vein into her palm. "Your blood, branching into your hand like a vein of silver."

"I'm amazed you can see that fine level of detail."

"Now you know why we have an entire language of hand signs." He pushed his thumb gently into the muscled edge of her palm, trying to ease the tension there. It was the least he owed her.

Mavash took a breath as if to speak, but it was several moments before she said, "Jorlan, there's something I need to be direct with you about. Instead of dancing around it in innuendos and generalities."

His hand stilled, feeling another pang of dread. Conversations that started this way never ended well.

"If..." she began, and then restarted. "Look. I know where we stand with each other. And hearing what you just told me about your past, well. Whatever you want -- what we might both want -- I will need you to be the one to approach. To put it into words. Real words, not thoughts." She turned on her side to face him, smiling a little sadly. "Because you won't always have the luxury of being with someone with telepathy. Because silence is also not consent."

He understood at once what she meant, and shame burned in his face; he released Mavash's hand as if burnt. Thank goodness she didn't have darkvision; she would have seen him light up like a carnival lantern.

He understood: he was not pleasing to her. The choices he had made, the things he had done, were distasteful to her. She spoke so lovingly of his powers of survival, and yet still she judged him for it.

Or worse: He had a crack down the center of his heart, and she didn't want to handle him, lest he fall to pieces.

And how did she know what he was after? Who said he had any interest in bedding her, anyway? With no curves to speak of and hands as rough a carpenter's? Not to mention she didn't even own a hairbrush.

The telepathic link was still open, so he slammed closed the gates of his mind. "As you like it," he said, nonchalant, and gods damn it he was not going to let anything tell on his feelings this time. Not to a surfacer who knew too much of him and understood none of it. Who couldn't even see his burning face in the dark.

Nonetheless, she sat up, looking alarmed. "Jorlan," she began again, her voice a cherishing whisper. He thought it would tear a scream from his throat. "I'm not doing this to punish you, you know. I'm doing this precisely because I don't want to hurt you. I don't want to leave you with regrets if... I perish in this mission."

His voice thinned with pain, he said, "And otherwise I would have no regrets if you died?"

"Right now I'm not sure," she said. "You've become the mask again." She studied him for a time, and concluded, "I think you are so used to people telling you what to do that you're terrified of doing anything by your own initiative."

He made a noise, halfway between a laugh and a sob. "Initiative is a great way to be killed, where I come from." And a terrible way to die.

"I know. But you're not there any more. You never have to live there again." She leaned forward on the bed, trying to meet his eye. He denied her that, staring straight against the wall. "Listen. Remember how just the other day, you laughed at how afraid everyone was to say 'Lolth?' The safest place to say it -- here in the warded tower of your own father, someone who has done everything he can to oppose her -- and everyone was dancing around the name. Everyone but you. Why was it so easy then to remember you're not in Menzoberranzan any more?"

He didn't have an answer for that. Perhaps it was easier to spit in the face of a demon-goddess who demanded your submission than to spit in the face of a friend.

More than friend.

Lover. Would-be lover.

Whatever.

One corner of Mavash's mouth quirked up in a smile. "Believe me when I say, if it were only up to me, I would..." And through the telepathic link, she transmitted a vision of primal passion that left him without breath.

Again he was very glad she could not see in the heat spectrum.

"But as you say... a dance requires a partner." She rose from the bed and bent down above him, laying a gentle kiss on his brow. "Whenever you're ready. Ask me to dance, Jorlan Duskryn."

As she left the room, he wanted to say something. Wanted to call her back. Wanted to beg her to touch him again, in the way that left no room for doubt as to how she felt about him, or he about her.

But the words stuck in his throat, and he knew himself a coward.