Authors: Philip Athans
“I will not let his murderer go unpunished,” Pristoleph assured her, but Phyrea didn’t care.
She didn’t even have the energy to shrug him off, let alone tell him not to bother.
1 Alturiak, the Year of the Gauntlet (1369 DR) The Cascade of Coins, Innarlith
Still in mourning, Phyrea wore black to her wedding. She hadn’t carefully considered the choice, and Pristoleph had shown no sign that he cared. When he looked at her in the coach on the way to the temple of Waukeen, he had
looked at her eyes. The softness, the longing, the love she saw in his gaze had warmed her and chilled her at the same time. She felt safe in his presence. Safer, anyway, than when she was alone with the ghosts.
Rain came down in nearly horizontal sheets, driven by a fierce wind off the Lake of Steam. The horses faltered several times, and Phyrea held on to the arm of the coach’s velvet bench for fear that the conveyance would be sent over on its side by the frequent, violent gusts.
One of the high priests met them just inside the temple doors. Phyrea didn’t know his name, but she recognized his face. Flanked by a quartet of acolytes in robes of shimmering silk, the priest was draped in thread-of-gold, even finer silk, and a variety of fur that Phyrea couldn’t immediately identify. His wide, pale face betrayed a reluctance no bride wants to see on her wedding day.
“My dear Senator,” the priest said, tipping his chin down in the barest suggestion of a bow. “No guests have arrived.”
“There will be no guests,” Pristoleph said, his flat voice inviting no response.
“But surely a man of your” the priest began.
“Do you require guests?” Pristoleph interrupted.
The priest looked down at the marble-tiled floor and Phyrea could tell he was disappointed. He had hoped that a lack of wedding guests would put an end to the affair.
“This has all been arranged,” Pristoleph went on. “It has been paid for. Shall we go in?”
“Of course,” the priest acquiesced.
Phyrea wiped a drip of rainwater off her temple with one fingertip and leaned in closer to her groom. The warmth that always radiated from Pristoleph soothed her.
A sudden gust of wind rattled the tall, arched window, its intricate panes of stained glass creaked in their gilded frames. All eyes glanced up at it, all of them afraid, if not certain, that the glass would buckle and shatter, but it didn’t.
“Perhaps…” the priest began, then shook his head, uncertain what to say.
“Lead on,” Pristoleph told him, his voice heavy with impatience.
He won’t marry you, the man with the scar told Phyrea. She knew he stood behind her, and that only she could see him, and she was surprised that Waukeen would allow his unholy presence in her temple. He’s afraid of you. But I think there are other reasons.
She shook her head and let herself be led deeper into the temple..They followed the priest, who walked slower than a man being marched to the gallows. The wind battered the stained glass windows all around them, seeming to come from all sides at once. The opulent interior was lit by fewer candles than Phyrea knew was typical. Gold, silver, and platinum gleamed in the dim candlelight. Though Pristoleph was as warm as ever, Phyrea shivered.
“Perhaps…” the priest started again. He came to a sudden stop, and two of the acolytes bumped into each other. A nervous shuffling of feet followed.
“Speak, priest,” Pristoleph all but growled.
He won’t do it, the ghost whispered. He can’t.
“This is a bad day,” the priest said. Phyrea looked at him, but her eyes were drawn to the acolytes. All four of them stared at the ground, refusing to look at the priest or each other. A tear dripped from the eye of onea girl barely in her teens. “We have had a… a loss, here.”
Pristoleph stiffened and Phyrea put her hand on his arm, the heat under her palm uncomfortable but not yet painful. He was getting warmer. From the corner of her eye she could see Pristoleph’s strange red hair begin to dance on his head. The priest wouldn’t look at him.
“One of our own was” the priest started, but stopped when the girl sobbed, loud and sudden. Phyrea startled at the sound of it, so like the woman who appeared to her as an image of violet light, and of impenetrable sadness.
The girl turned and scampered away, and the priest didn’t stop her.
“We are to be married,” Pristoleph insisted. “Today.”
The priest couldn’t seem to be able to make up his mind if he wanted to nod or shake his head, so he just stood there and quivered.
Pristoleph shifted and Phyrea stepped away from him to avoid his elbow. He pulled a small leather pouch from under his rapidly-drying weathercloak, reached his hand in, and came out with a fistful of gold coins. He threw the gleaming disks at the priest’s feet. The priest startled away from the loud, sharp, echoing clatter as the coins seemed to shatter on the marble. The windows shook again, and something hit the outside wall hard enough to startle Phyrea and all of the Waukeenar. But not Pristoleph.
“This is not..the priest mumbled.
Pristoleph threw another fistful of gold coins at his feetmore than the little pouch should have been able to contain.
Another shower of coins. The three remaining acolytes all stepped back as one.
“You will wed us now, and in the name of your goddess,” Pristoleph said, and even from a step away Phyrea could feel the heat blazing from him. The acolytes were scared, and so was the priest. “Speak the words, even if your goddess doesn’t hear.”
The priest gasped. Two of the remaining acolytes turned and ran deeper into the gloom of the massive vaulted chamber. The last of the young priests in training stepped closer to the senator, his eyes bulging with outrage.
The priest held out a hand, gently pushing his student back from the burning groom, and said, “Chose your words carefully in the house of the Merchant’s Friend, Senator Pristoleph.”
The corner of Pristoleph’s mouth curled up in a dangerous smile and he threw yet another handful of coins at the priest’s feet.
The Waukeenar nodded and said, “Please hold hands.”
Phyrea ignored the protests of at least two of the ghosts that had followed her, and she didn’t look at the priest’s face, which was a mask of resignation, fear, and exhaustion. Pristoleph’s hands burned hers and she cringed at the pain but didn’t pull away. He cooled a little as the priest began his prayers.
Words, the man with the scar whispered. Hollow words to a goddess in hiding.
Phyrea shook her head. She didn’t care if Waukeen was alive or dead, didn’t care how much gold had bought her wedding, and paid no mind to the unnatural boiling heat of the manif he was a manshe was swearing her life to.
When the priest spoke his last words and the two of them were man and wife, the giant stained glass window imploded, burst by the fury of the air around them. The acolyte screamed, Pristoleph shrugged, and the priest began to cry.
Pristoleph and Phyrea turned and went back to their coach with the wind whipping rain and shards of glass all around them, their boots crunching broken pieces under their feet, and the sound of the wailing cries of the holy men harmonizing with the moans of the angry wind.
An interesting start, the old woman said, and as they walked out into the driving winter rain, Phyrea saw the violet ghost laughing on the steps of the once-glorious temple.
1 Alturiak, the Year of the Gauntlet (1369 DR) Pristal Towers, Innarlith
Hi s touch was hot, but not uncomfortably so. Phyrea’s body responded in a much more sincere way than her mind. She did her best not to think but to let her body merge with his. She took on his rhythm, almost as though her heartbeat came into perfect synchronization with his. He
moaned, and she responded with a gasp. He squeezed her tighter and she bent beneath him like a tree making way for the wind.
They writhed in the rich satin-and silk-covered goose-down. Sweat rolled from her skin and his seemed to drink it in. His heat warmed her, fed her, made her safe.
She didn’t listen to the woman crying over the still form of her only child. She ignored the chuckles of the old hag. She didn’t let the little girl’s growled outrage stop her. She gave herself to Pristoleph in a way that made the man with the scar on his face shake his head. The little boy with the missing arm screamed filth at them both but she paid him no heed. Instead she gave herself to her husband in a way she’d only allowed one man before him.
And that was the thought that finally worked its way in.
His name came to her first: Ivar Devorast. Then the touch of his rough, calloused hands, the smell of his musk, the sound of his voice.
If Pristoleph sensed that another had, in some way beyond the physical, come into their wedding bed, he gave no sign. Phyrea touched him and moved with him still, was warmed by him and warmed him both, but her mind began to soar from her body, her desires splitting into physical and spiritual.
Ivar Devorast had gone away. She didn’t know where. Even Surero had lost touch with him. Phyrea had made inquiries at once subtle and overt, public and private, desperate and resigned. He was gone as though he never existed. His great undertaking had been ripped from him and gifted to the loudest-squealing toadies of the ransar. Tendays or longer had passed since she’d even thought of it.
And as she made love to her husband on their wedding night, as cursed as it may have been, she even let herself, for the briefest of moments, forget there was an Ivar Devorast. But that brief moment had passed.
A shrill scream tore through her as though she was being sawed in half. Though the sound came from inside her head, still her eardrums trembled against its onslaught. Her body tensed and every instinct in her made her fling Pristoleph from her. She scrambled away from him, but only a few inches, before her legs curled up, her knees knocked her chin, and her eyes pressed so tightly closed her temples began to throb.
Pristoleph’s voice came to her as if from the bottom of a deep well. He called her name, confused at first, then insistent. She didn’t want to hear any real emotion in his voice, not just then, so her own mind masked the fear and desperation, the uncertainty that poured over her. His hand wrapped around her arm and she trembled but didn’t push him away. Tears burned her eyes, hotter even than his touch.
“I can make them go away,” he all but shouted into her ear. His breath scalded her. “Let me help you.”
She shook her head and was only barely conscious of telling him no.
The little girl screamed again, and Phyrea sobbed and stiffened. When the apparition began to break thingsa vase, a mirror, a windowpanePristoleph leaped from the bed, his hair dancing on his scalp like flames.
“Go away!” he roared at the room itself.
She screamed the word “No,” over and over and over again until the little girl stopped screaming and started laughing.
Never let him say that again, the man with the scar warned her.
We will kill you both if you let him say that again, the old woman threatened.
And it will hurt, said the little boy.
Then they went silent all at once. Nothing more was broken, and the feeling of them fled her. Phyrea let a convulsing sob vibrate through her sweat-soaked flesh then wiped the tears from her eyes.
“No,” she whispered.
Pristoleph stood naked before her, heat radiating from his body, and she could tell that if he touched her then she would be burned. She felt herself smile when she thought of the painthe pain that would make it go awayand she reached out for him.
Pristoleph took a step back away from her.
Embarrassed, she drew the satin sheet up to her shoulders to cover her nakedness, then turned her face away from him to cover her shame.
2 Alturiak, the Year of the Gauntlet (1369 DR) Temple of the Delicate Chaos, Innarlith
“Xou seem very certain of Senator Pristoleph’s desires,” Wenefir said, his eyebrows crunched together in thought. “Has he said as much to you?”
“Does he have to?” Marek Rymiit asked. He smiled at the Cyricist who sat across from him. Wenefir’s bloated, too-soft body reeked of stale perfume and sweat. The gold and silver goblet in his hand had been drained and refilled eight times by an emaciated boy in a clean white tunic. The boy’s face was as soft and as clean as his clothing, but his eyes appeared almost dead. Even Marek didn’t want to imagine what so youthful a servant must have been put through to burn so much of him away. “What else is there for him?”
“I assure you, Master Rymiit, the subject of the Palace of Many Spires has come up between the senator and myself on numerous occasions. Not only has he never expressed an interest in the position, but he has repeatedly criticized those who covet it.”
“They say it is a woman’s prerogative to change her mind,” said the Thayan, “and we both know the same holds true for menbut for genasi, who knows?”
Wenefir bristled at the word genasi, and Marek returned the look with a smile.
“I am no fool, Priest of Cyric,” the wizard said. “Our friend’s… father, was it?… was a native of the Elemental Plane of Fire.”
“Careful, Master Rymiit,” Wenefir warned, then once again emptied his goblet.
The boy stepped up with the ewer, but the Cyricist waved him away.
“Ever careful, thank you, Master Wenefir,” Marek replied with a wink. “I have friends and close associates among the planetouched, as among other races. I hold no prejudices in that regard.”
“But some in this city do,” Wenefir said.
“As a foreigner myself, I can assure you that you are indeed correct. Should Pristoleph wish to continue to keep his secret, as open as it might be among those with more than the most rudimentary education, so be it. I have kept and will continue to keep secrets aplenty on his behalf and others’.”
Wenefir nodded and waved that train of thought away. They both had secrets, they all had secrets, and both he and Wenefir knew that their secrets would be kept as long asand only just as long asit was in the keeper’s best interest to hold them.
“If it’s true what you say of his ambitions,” Wenefir said, “and I am not saying it is true, then this marriage is even more disastrous. Is it not?”