Black Sunset

The Marliir Estate, Dining Room

“DEATH TO THE COUNT! CYRIC’S CURSE ON HIM!”

The visiting merchant’s dagger came up to strike the count, but before it came down again, the lady he was sitting next to had brought her fist up between his thighs. With a heartfelt scream of agony, he dropped the dagger before falling backwards into the lady’s lap. She brought her elbow down onto his throat and held it there until the guards arrive to drag him off.

She took off her snood, and as she did, the circlet became a hat of deep green sporting an iridescent band, the lady’s skim darkened to a deep grey, her eyes changed from blue to a deep violet, and her hair shifted from a complex braid to a set of black ringlets.

“Quite right, my lord Count, there was someone looking to take your life. I do wonder who would benefit from it,” Meliantha added, thoughtfully, looking around the room for anyone who seemed less than surprised.

SEVEN DAYS PREVIOUS

The High Helm, Juniril

“I am here under protest,” Count Rauphin Cormaeril noted, his mouth turned down and his hand scratching where his signet ring would normally have rested. The inn they were in was mere yards from his estate’s entrance, but he acted like it was the most run-down tavern in the slums of Marsember. Even in this private room, the most well-appointed inn room she’d ever been in, and having entered through a secret door in the back, he seemed offended by the need.

“I understand that, my lord count,” Meliantha said, and briefly enjoyed his response to her voice. “But I was asked, as one who might not be known by the rest of the townfolk, one who might see things that might be overlooked. I was told there have been two reliable threats and the poisoning of one of your cooks already, so an outsider may be your best option. And I do have my recommendations.”

“Yes, well, as you say,” he replied, irritatedly. “I requested a Purple Dragon, not a…” He paused, then sneered, “a common mercenary.”

She favored him with a small, dark smile. “I am no common mercenary,” she replied, “As Lord Lhal’s letter should have explained. In addition,” she continued, displaying her necklace, “I hold a high level of trust from the Lord Commander of Arabel.” The pendant presented showed an enameled purple dragon, with two purple gems surmounting it, then she spun it to reveal a glowing set of runes on the reverse side.

The reveal of the reverse side caused his eyebrows to go up. “Well, that… that does make things a bit different.”

* * *

“I’m not asking you to join the Dragons as a guard,” Loran Durtharr said, gesturing with his mostly-empty tankard, no sign of the three he’d already drunk in his eyes or voice. “I am asking you to accept a commission as a Gold Dragon. You’re the kind we need – you’ve got skills we’re blessed to know are on our side, and you’ve got a good heart.” He finished the tankard off, then gestured with it again. “I promise you that you won’t be asked to act against the Harpers – Torm’s gauntlet, lass, I think we need you lot to keep us honest. I’m making you this offer because I think you’d be a benefit to Cormyr. Take the commission, and swear the oath, and make Cormyr your home. Even as you wander, this’ll be your home, here in Arabel more than any other place in the realm. I’ve sent messages to Shadowdale and Berdusk, and everything I’ve gotten back shows you to be trustworthy of the right to mete out the King’s Justice.”Meliantha regarded him, her own eyes sharp despite her own tankard. When Loran had pulled her out to go for a drink, she wasn’t sure what he was thinking of, but this hadn’t even been part of it.

A Gold Dragon! The veiled dagger of the Purple Dragons, and the people who handled things quietly that those warriors couldn’t handle publicly. It wasn’t so far from being a Harper, except it gave her even more latitude in Cormyr, answerable to Loran, the seniors of the Gold and Purple Dragons, the Council of Mages, and the King himself if it came to that. Some even thought the Golds were just a rumor the War Wizards used to keep people looking over their shoulders, even other War Wizards.

“And you’ve passed every test,” he added, after a thunderous belch. “One of the War Wizards I can trust completely gave you the Once-Over while you were recovering and swore to me that you’ve got the kind of heart that’s true to what we believe. He’s probably reported me to Vangy, but one does what one can with what one has, eh, lass?”

She weighed every possibility she could think of in her mind, then made a decision.

“All right, Loran, you’ve got a deal. In the morning when you’re sober, we’ll get it taken care of.”

* * *

“Well, I suppose, then, you can be trusted.” He rubbed his nose. “How much do you know about my troubles?”

“That you’re expecting assassination, that you’ve gotten more than a few threats, and that it’s probably a Cyricist group.” She drew a circle on the table. “I had to deal with a priest of Cyric and a sworn warrior recently. What kind of evidence do you have that it’s Cyricists?”

The Count’s face made an ugly expression. “My castellan was killed and the Black Sun was carved into his chest and his face. He was my wife’s cousin. His bodyguards… all we found were their left arms. Two experienced Purple Dragons.” The tankard hit the table hard. “And a note that if I did not swear allegiance to the Black Sun and renounce my oath to the Crown, they would kill me and my family, and install their own ruler here.”

Meliantha considered. “Bold. They’re not usually so bold.”

“Even here on the East Marches, you’d think they’d be less likely to be so open. Unless there was something here they wanted. But why? I’ve only set up my estate here in the past two years, so what could they want?”

“The Helm’s got rumors enough about what’s hidden. Perhaps something here?” She thought. “I don’t even think every story’s been written down. But the only other thing I can think of is that they feel your death or conversion will bring them some kind of benefit, even as it’ll bring the War Wizards and the Purple Dragons and for all we know Vangerdahast himself.” She paused. “And if that happens, we might see all sorts of madness across the East Marches. The kind of strife they would like to see.”

Count Cormaeril snorted. “And what do they gain?”

“They’re all mad,” she said flatly. “They get to be their capering, lunatic selves and cause all sorts of trouble. This part of the kingdom starts to fall apart and they stir up trouble.” Her brow furrowed. “But still, there’s something missing.” Meliantha shook her head. “There’s something else. I’ll have to do some research, see what I can find out. Something historical, perhaps.”

The Count coughed. “That could be it. There was a temple of Bhaal near here – it’s been deconsecrated and demolished, but the foundation remains. Something there?”

Meliantha nodded, considering. “That sounds like a possibility. I think that’s my next step – check that. In the meantime, my lord count, tell no one I’m here to work for you. What’s your schedule for the next few weeks?”

“I’ll have to check with my secretary, but nothing too unusual. Everyone here knows what’s been going on, so I had a number of things cancelled, but every tenday I have everyone in town in for a meal – including any visiting merchants, but not those staying at the Helm. If they’re hiding, I may need to cancel that. It won’t be popular, though.”

“No, no, don’t. We could use that to bring them out – they might try something there, some kind of demonstration of their influence.” She looked upwards, thinking. “I’ll be there as well, disguised, only you knowing about it. I’ll come back in four zdays as some rich lady – I’ll use Althena Goldspur as the name – and be demanding as a devil. At that meal, put me at your table, nearby, and I’ll serve as a hidden guard.”

“And what will you do until then? Laze about here?” Apparently he still had a bit of a bad idea as to what she really was.

“Investigate that temple,” she replied. “If there’s a problem there, you’ll hear beforehand and I’ll be able to reassure you. If not, then we go forwards.” She leaned forwards, looking him right in the eyes. “I don’t need you to like me, and I need to earn your respect, but Oversword Durtharr and Lord Llal trust me enough to have me come here to protect your life. If I end up dying doing that, so be it – but that’s what it’ll take for them to get you. Take careful steps the next few days, and Helm’s grace will keep you safe through me.”

He sniffed, but had at least the courtesy to not comment.

He thinks you’re a madwoman, Chainbreaker sent to her.

He may be right, she replied.

* * *

The destroyed temple turned out to be just that – a overgrown, tumbledown pile of rocks around a broken, bloodstained altar. The bloodstains were old, and there was no sign of any activity there. A careful search also found no secrets in the floor or nearby trees. The only sign of recent activity that wasn’t from animals was a place where liquid had been spilled and disturbed dust on some of the rocks, then dried. She looked closer, then caught a scent and made a face.

Probably nothing here if a local feels comfortable pissing on the rocks, she mused.

Her next step was a day’s trip on foot away, where she bought a horse for a frankly extortionate rate. It was of good lines, and trained to the saddle, so she had decided this one was worth it. She’d sell it – probably at a huge loss – when this was over, but Althena Goldspur needed to ride into town on a horse.

As she camped that night, she fed the horse, then began to prepare. Into the bag went most of the adventurer Meliantha’s gear, and out of it came items she’d bought in Arabel, when she thought she might stay longer. The dress fit badly, made for a noblewoman’s proportions instead of her own, but some strategic stuffing and padding would remedy that. Jewels on fingers and at faux décolletage would highlight the outfit, and then she took out the last bit she needed. With a frown, she regarded the green hat, then reluctantly put it on her head. A moment’s concentration, and she changed: the thick leather belt became a gentle girdle, the boots became fashionable instead of utilitarian, Chainbreaker became a slender rapier, and her eyes, skin, hair, ears and teeth all became those of a human. She changed as little as possible, to protect the illusion, but when she opened her eyes, Meliantha was gone and Althena Goldspur of Wheloon, a rich merchant’s daughter, sat in her place.

Meliantha didn’t like Althena very much – she was rude, impudent, and too headstrong to listen to any advice that didn’t help her catch a rich husband. But that was all right – she didn’t have to like her, just be her for a few days. The real Althena Goldspur was already married and living in Alturiel, and Meliantha would be gone before any news came back about her – if it ever did, the real Althena being a supporter of the Harpers.

That next morning, she rose, practiced, read her book on tactics for a bit, then dressed as Althena and used the magic hat to finish the disguise, then rode into Juniril. Taking the character to heart, she was rude and impudent; an attitude which brought her into the High Helm, telling a story about her guards abandoning her on the Hullack Trail and haring off to Hultail instead of camping like they were supposed to do, what did she pay them for, but at least Juniril was here and safe until she could get some more guards and, hopefully, get to Thunderstone and find out what they did with the carts. Heads shook, ostensibly in commiseration with her complains, but more in commiseration with the guards who had to deal with this woman.

It was with great pleasure for the staff and clients of the High Helm, then, that a representative of the local guard came to the High Helm to invite Miss Goldspur to the manor to dine with the Count, and she accepted.

The meal as planned was extensive – six courses, starting with a (frankly, mediocre) soup, followed by fish, fowl, and venison. Privately, Meliantha thought the Count needed a new cook, as the one he had was not up to the task of a noble house’s cooking for a feast. She said nothing about the food, just keeping up a line of mindless chatter while watching the room, as Master-Trader Larounin smiled and nodded, the look in his eyes seeming to say that he wanted to be anywhere but where he was.

“Really, you’ve been to Zhentil Keep? I’d heard it was so dangerous there, all those things you hear about them. Is it true they publically sacrifice to evil gods there?”

“Well, not sacrifice. They do have a temple to Bane there, after Xvim was destroyed, and the leader of the Banite church resides there. I haven’t seen him, but I must admit that they do keep a very orderly place.” He applied a bit of the spice on the table to his venison, then took a bite. She kept eating, as well.

On the other side of her was another trader passing through, Trader Caelar of the Trail Lords coster, who was spending more time watching suspiciously everyone else, and eating warily. Due to the way people had entered, he was the closest to the Count, and therefore had most of Meliantha’s attention. She watched as he touched a ring against the plate, then ate carefully. She couldn’t quite tell, but –

Yes, Chainbreaker told her, a minor spell, but the ring does hold spells in it.

Interesting.

As the sublety came out – a representation of the purple dragon of Cormyr made of a sweet cake, covered in colored marzipan (one of the tastes that Meliantha adored), and served with small cups of Saerloonian Topaz – she noticed that Caelar was watching things quite carefully, and sometimes glancing at her, as well. She was fairly certain he couldn’t see through her disguise, and her pin kept him from most forms of divination magic on her (it would give plain results instead of just failing, which would be suspicious in itself).

The count rose to give his toast – thanks to the gods for protection, long life and honor to the king, thanks to the populace for attending, and as he took the drink of his topaz, a stiletto shot out of Caelar’s shirt at the wrist, and he drew his arm back. As he did, he shouted, “DEATH TO THE COUNT! CYRIC’S CURSE ON HIM!”

It was the work of a moment for Meliantha’s own arm to slam into Caelar’s groin, causing him to drop the stiletto and fall, groaning, to the floor. Meliantha reached up and removed the snood, turning it back into her hat, and revealing her true face.

“Quite right, my lord Count, there was someone looking to take your life. I do wonder who would benefit from it.” Everyone in the room looked shocked and dismayed, and one of the townsfolk – the miller, she remembered – started shouting for ‘the demon’ to be hanged. Finally, the count’s voice silenced them all.

“This lady is here at my request, sent by the Purple Dragons, to find who had committed the recent killings and protect me. This she has done, and served Cormyr well! Her loyalty to the Crown is not to be questioned!” This settled the crowd down, and he turned to her. She’d picked up the stiletto and was searching his body as he whimpered gently.

“I think he should be taken into a cell, and interrogated there, my lord count,” she said. “I found two more stilletos, but perhaps I should also strip him to insure there’s nothing else.”

Cormaeril nodded, and gestured to two guards. “Take him, and assist Constal Meliantha as she needs. You may go,” he said, dismissing all three, and turned back to the banquet. Her appetite done for, she helped the two guards carry the fake merchant down into the basement of the keep and into its one cell.

“Wait,” Caelar said, gasping. “One moment, I beg you.”

She gave him the moment, and he took it to strip down to his loincloth, then removed that as well to show he had nothing at all to hide. When he turned around, he showed a tattoo on one shoulder blade which made her eyes narrow.

“Why do you have a tattoo of the Banesign when you’re a Cyricist?” she asked, accusingly.

His entire demeanor changed, and he turned again to face her, and now he was smiling. “Because I’m not a Cyricist, I’m a member of the Zhentarim – and a member of the Naug-orls. My name is Caelar Terathian, and my lady Shounra Shalassalar has sent me here because there is a reason for the Zhentarim and the Purple Dragons to work together. I wasn’t going to kill the count, I just wanted to get someone’s attention, and I did, didn’t I?” His eyes twinkled, merrily, then he sobered.

“There are Cyricists trying to make things worse for all of us, but we can’t prove it. The last thing we want is for them to open the seals that hold back Eshatamon Druuthforger from rising up – the first of the greater dopplegangers. The chaos that could bring, a coordination of all the dopplegangers in the Heartlands… that’s their goal.” He dropped to one knee.

“For the sake of all of us… will you help?”

Posted by Meliantha Demonblood

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