Crumbling Down – Chapter 9: He Who Fights Monsters

If the inn had a name, no one knew it. It had existed as long as Ust Natha itself, tucked away in the corner of the city, attracting clients with the promise of pleasures of every possible description. If asked on the street, any drow would say that the heart of Ust Natha was the Temple of Lolth, and that the most important rituals took place there in the sight of the Spider Queen. In actuality, the twists and turns of the Pleasure District were the veins of the city, the scores of citizens and slaves who meandered them were the blood, and the massive spider-webbed inn its grotesque and pulsing heart.

A thunderous roar of voices arose from the crowd that was gathered around the slave pits – cheers, moans, screams, and insults. The Master of the Pits, Sondal, grabbed Veldrin’s hand and hoisted it into the air.

“The victor!” he shouted, raising another round of cheers. “Three weeks and undefeated! Veldrin of Ched Nasad!”

Veldrin grinned. Even though his muscles were burning from exertion and he was nearly breathless from the strain of the fight, he felt wonderful. Powerful and invincible. The crowd’s attention only increased the rush of pride and satisfaction.

“Again!” a voice shouted from the mass of bodies. It was quickly echoed by another, then a third. Soon the entire crowd writhed with a new and fresh lust for blood. “Again! Again! Again!”

Sondal released Veldrin’s arm and gestured towards the crowd. “Males and honorable females, I beg your patience until tomorrow. There may be only two matches per–”

“No.” Veldrin cut him off with a hand on the man’s shoulder. “I will fight again.”

Sondal objected. “But, my lord, surely you are in need of rest!”

“I will fight again,” Veldrin repeated, raising his sword high in the air. The audience erupted into a cacophony of approval. The sound was intoxicating and stoked his adrenaline to new heights. “I will fight again!” he bellowed.

Sondal’s dark red eyes scanned quickly over the crowd; his business instinct was far too shrewd to let such a lucrative moment escape. “Veldrin will fight again!” he shouted. “Ten minutes, ladies and gentlemen! Place your bets! Fifty to one! Veldrin will fight Tebrekturek!”

“Fifty to one?” called a disbelieving voice. “One-hundred to one!”

“Fifty to one!” Sondal repeated firmly. “Veldrin is undefeated!”

“It’s his third fight in the hour!”

“Suicide,” another muttered. “Hundred to one.”

“Fifty to one! Take it or leave it!” the Master of the Pits barked.

Veldrin caught his arm as Sondal turned away and started collecting money from eager, outstretched hands. “What is a tebrekturek?”

“Nabassu. Juvenile, lucky for you.”


“Nabassu,” Sondal confirmed, grabbing another handful of coins and passing back a betting slip in return. “Get into the pit. Six minutes!” he called, and disappeared into the crowd.

Nabassu, tebrekturek, whatever. The name didn’t matter; it would bleed just the same. Veldrin flourished his sword in one hand, habitually testing and adjusting his grip, and advanced into the arena.

Although everyone called it the ‘pit’, it was a bit of a misnomer – the arena was more of a large, circular cage than anything. Despite the delicate appearance of the web-motif construction, the bars and gates were enchanted and magically reinforced, and once the doors were closed only death would open them again. The ground inside was the rough, unfinished stone of the natural cavern floor. A careless or inattentive step could mean a loss of balance or ill-timed stumble, both of which would send the crowd into an uproar.

Veldrin paced around the interior impatiently. The terrain was nearly second nature now, after nearly three weeks of challenges. He couldn’t even remember why he’d first stepped into the arena, but the rush of excitement and energy had proven addictive. The umber hulk had fallen easily; the drow fighters had as well. Even the weaponmaster Lasaonar, famed as he was in Ust Natha, had been no match for Bhaalspawn strength and speed. Scoffs had become whispers, whispers become rumors, rumors become cheers. Veldrin from Ched Nasad: the perfect warrior. Fame had brought new challenges; each additional victory had brought new admiration and respect from the throngs of Ust Natha. The tendrils of Taint quivered in excitement at the very thought of a new battle, of new blood on his blade.

“Two minutes!”

He took in a deep breath; the scent of death was still in the air from the previous duel. The drow crowd was a sea of flickering, every-changing auras beyond the bars: purple, red, brown, and black. The Taint unfurled, gathering itself, spreading slowly into every nerve and muscle. His lips drew back in a cross between a grimace and a smile. The cold seeped into his essence, so beautiful that it hurt.

“Males and honorable females! The duel begins!”

The doors of the Pit swung abruptly closed, slamming together and locking with the harsh ring of clashing metal. The hunt was on.

There was no point in standing still. Veldrin broke left in an easy jog, bouncing lightly, shifting his weight back and forth on the balls of his feet. The arena wasn’t that large, but there was still room enough to hide. If the tebrekturek was smart – or a coward – it’d probably try to conceal itself first.

He circled around. The air was as still as death itself. Outside the arena the crowd was going wild, with flailing arms, shoving and screaming, but the sound was held back by the magic of the pit. Sondal brooked no interference with his gladiators, and the fairness of the games was part of what made it both so exciting and so popular.

A cage came into view around the large central pillar, and Veldrin slowed his step. It was huge – even larger than the one that had held the umber hulk. He would have had to stand upright atop another man’s shoulders to be able to touch its ceiling, and it was wide enough to easily stable a full-grown horse. Enormous metal shackles, fastened to the cage floor with chains easily three fingers’ thick, lay ominously empty. The cage door was open; its former occupant was gone.

Blue eyes shifted, scanning the area. There was no cover large enough to hide such an enormous creature. It had to be out here, somewhere. He flexed his fingers on the hilt of his sword. There was nothing. No sound. No movement.

A second later a small, almost inaudible rustle caught his ear. Granules of sand and tiny pebbles of broken rock trickled over his armor, and a sinking feeling settled in his stomach. He looked up.

Five hundred pounds of flesh collided with Veldrin head-on as the nabassu dove off the side of the pillar and attacked him. The impact knocked him prone and smashed his face into the unforgiving stone floor. A huge, taloned hand closed around his head and hauled him upwards. The body rushed into view, a blur of thick, muscled legs, a broad torso, against a backdrop of leathery black wings. There was a flash of teeth and yellow eyes, and Veldrin instinctively thrust his arms forward to block. The jaws stopped short of snapping shut on his chest and crushing his ribcage, now held only inches at bay by the drow’s gauntleted hands.

Veldrin gritted his teeth and tried to concentrate his power first on the creature’s massive maw. It was elongated and wolf-like, filled with two-inch long, dagger-like teeth. Two hate-filled bestial eyes glared at him from the wrinkled red muzzle, only growing more enraged as he continued to resist. His muscles trembled and his blood thundered as he pit raw muscle against muscle, and somehow held the jaws back.

Suddenly he was flying backwards as the creature howled with anger and flung him away like so much straw. He hit the ground and rolled with the impact; the drow armor, light and flexible, bent to accommodate. Within seconds Veldrin was back on his feet, and for the first time was able to get a good look at his opponent. What he saw took his breath away.

It was the demon from the staircase. From his dream in Spellhold.

“No one chains Tebrekturek,” it hissed as it stalked forward. The claws clenched and unclenched, eager for flesh.

Veldrin brandished his blade. “No one throws me around.”

The demon charged forward; Veldrin screamed a war cry and did the same. They met head on; Veldrin angled the sword at the creature’s legs and ducked under the massive arms, pivoting on his feet and spinning around to slash the blade across the demon’s hamstrings instead. The blade was highly enchanted and perfectly balanced: a gift from House Despana to their new champion. It bit into the thick red hide and was greeted by a spray of black ichor. Tebrekturek roared and unfurled its wings with a powerful snap of its muscles; the whirlwind of air, dirt, and leather made Veldrin stagger backwards.

“Mortal.” The nabassu advanced with its teeth bared in feral warning. The yellow eyes focused on the drow with unnatural intensity, and a sudden wave of nauseousness turned Veldrin’s stomach inside out. He fought back the sickness and dropped instinctively back into a defense crouch. The taste of bile was bitter and raw in his mouth. “Little black nothing.”

A second wave of power rolled over him as the demon’s stare narrowed. It prickled his skin and made the hairs on his arms stand at attention. For a moment the world wavered; a thick, unnatural blackness crept over his senses and wormed its way into his brain. It burrowed deeper, ravenous with hunger, and a sharp, paralyzing pain numbed his muscles as it began to feed.

The demon’s massive hands reached forward. Veldrin’s muscles ignored his mental commands. Only with great effort did he manage to lift his arms, and even then they shook and quivered. Tebrekturek smiled with its rows of razor teeth and closed its talons around the fighter’s hands. They disappeared entirely in the creature’s enormous fists.

“Pathetic little drow,” it whispered, and began to squeeze.

Something cracked, and if Veldrin had been able to scream, he would have. The blackness inside made it impossible. The demon’s gaze pierced him to the core and held him there, immobile, as the creature savored the slow crush of flesh and bone. On the edges of his vision he could see the patrons of the Pit milling about, faces contorted with rage and excitement as they shouted and screamed beyond the wall of silence.

Another crack; another spike of agony. Veldrin dropped to his knees. The demon moved closer, pushing him downwards with superhuman strength and grinning in delight. Outside the arena money was already changing hands as people threw down their betting slips in disgust. Veldrin of Ched Nasad had been defeated.

No. No one defeats me! The enraged thoughts swirled through his mind, but his body failed to respond. The pressure increased, and Veldrin met the burning yellow eyes with his own fury. The coldness of the Taint lurked under the surface, and the drow’s dark lips curved in a tight, bitter smile as he released it from its prison. It surged upwards in an exhilarating rush of ice and darkness. No one.

“Yield,” Veldrin whispered.

The nabassu’s lips drew back in a snarl, and a vicious clench of its claws crushed the bones of Veldrin’s fingers. The warrior’s withered smile stayed in place. The numbing worm inside his mind writhed and twisted, but now it sought escape from the new unnatural power that seeped through his essence. Abruptly the Bhaal-spirit lashed out, striking like a viper, and the demon’s power recoiled as if struck by hot iron. The presence was gone, his muscles released from its hold. His mind was clear and sharp.

The demon blinked. Mortal flesh quivered and squirmed inside its grip as bones and muscles reknit themselves. Now only one of them was smiling.

“Let me go,” Veldrin demanded.

“You stink of Gehenna,” the nabassu growled. “What are you?”

“Your master, beast.”

It barked in amused disbelief. “Master? You are no Demon Lord.”

Veldrin braced his foot against the rocky floor and pressed upwards. The demon had the advantage of leverage as well as superior muscle and weight; it seemed impossible to move, even with Bhaalspawn strength. They strained against each other; Veldrin’s skin was soon slick with sweat. The nabassu grunted with effort and its bestial face contorted with frustration as the mortal continued to resist.

Abruptly Veldrin switched tactics and dropped down, at the same time pulling forward with all his might. Tebrekturek suddenly found that the resistance to its strength was gone, and its own force combined with the drow’s muscle catapulted it forward. It smashed to the ground some ten feet distant, sending up a cloud of dust and dirt. Veldrin rolled to his feet and retrieved his blade. By the time he was ready, the nabassu had regained its feet as well. He charged it with a cry of battle before it had a chance to re-assess the situation.

“Fool!” it growled, lashing out with a sweeping strike. The fist missed Veldrin by only inches as he dove back to the earth and rolled one more, this time coming to his feet directly in front of his opponent. He thrust his blade forward; it sank into flesh and was rewarded with a howl of pain. He moved and struck again, slashing and stabbing in a whirlwind flurry of blows, until abruptly one of the clawed hands seized the sword and yanked it free of his hands. It arched through the air, a glittering spiral of blue-violet damascus steel, and clattered to the earth somewhere in the distance.

The talons closed around Veldrin’s throat. The Bhaalspawn lashed out with a punch to the lupine muzzle. He struck again and again, growling and panting, hammering his fist into the leathery red flesh in raw, raging fury. Red and black clouded his vision; the rush of blood in his veins drowned out all other sound. The hiss of the Taint urged him onwards, whispering, shouting, demanding. A chorus of voices, the cacophony of a million souls, raged at him to kill it kill it no mercy blood for blood death for death kill it now. Something cracked as he slammed his gauntleted hand into the creature’s face again. Another strike; another crack. The pressure around his windpipe choked off his air, but the voices drove him on regardless. No mercy my lord Lord of Murder kill it – a spray of blood hit him the face, blinding him with a shower of thick ichor – kill it NOW – the cracking continued as he pummeled it with both fists – no mercy for the weak no mercy.

The beating continued long after clawed hands released his throat and Veldrin was able to draw breath once more. The wet and bloody smack of flesh against flesh was a music, a primal rhythm that echoed throughout the arena. His blood sang with it and his strikes beat percussion accompaniment. It was a symphony of beauty, and the sound filled him with joy.

Veldrin! Stop it now!”

A hand landed on his shoulder, and he spun around with a furious growl. One hand grabbed a handful of cloth and yanked the person closer; the other balled back into a fist and drew back in anticipation.

“Cassandra.” The name was whispered, barely audible, but the foreign sound shook him with shock. Inolin – Imoen, his sister, Imoen – regarded him with cool gray eyes, unfased that her robe was caught firmly in his grasp. She raised her voice for the benefit of the onlookers. “How dare you lay a finger on me!”

The chorus of voices went quiet; the seductive, icy embrace of the Taint began to ebb away, leaving him empty and hollow. He looked around in confusion. The arena had been reopened, and now a half-score heavily armed drow warriors ringed him, weapons at the ready. Sondal stood several yards distant, and the audience remained outside, quiet and attentive. Their auras flickered in a rainbow of hues: jealousy, lust, greed, all weaving in and out of the steady dull-yellow fear. Everyone, everywhere he looked, was terrified.

“Release me.”

His eyes fell back on Inolin. It took nearly three attempts before his hands finally obeyed the command to loosen and let go. Her aura was yellow as well, but spiked through with thick, jagged cracks of red-brown anger: piss mixed with dried blood.

“The winner!” Sondal announced suddenly, raising his arms high but making no move to approach. He thrust one finger towards the warrior. “Still undefeated: Veldrin of Ched Nasad!”

A murmur arose from the crowd, low at first, but slowly growing. Sparse, scattered cheers; low applause. Soon the throng had recovered from its shock and the cheers became louder and more sincere. The auras shifted and darkened, taking on the dark purple hue of rich wine. They were proud: proud of his victory, of having such a champion in their midst. Veldrin let out a shout and raised his fist high. The crowd roared with approval.

“Veldrin.” Inolin’s tone was neither approving nor amused. “Come with me.”

“But I–”

“This is not a discussion, male,” she snapped.

Male? Veldrin shook his head, trying to clear out the weak, lingering whimpers of the voices. Drow males obeyed. They were drow. He was male.

Inolin turned away in a flutter of dark scarlet robes and strode with firm steps out of the arena. The drow warriors kept their weapons trained on Veldrin and gave only the barest of nods to her as she passed. Sondal bowed low, nearly doubling himself over in his display of deference.

“Thank you, Honorable Mistress.”

“Veldrin is hereby forbidden from participating in the Pits,” she stated.

A low murmur of discontent arose from the nearest section of the audience. The sour look on the Pit Master’s face was visible from twenty paces. Veldrin had brought him more profit from the fights in three weeks than he’d earned in the entire previous year. “Yes, Mistress.”

The crowd parted respectfully as the pair exited the arena, and for the first time Veldrin turned to see what had caused such a commotion. The body of the nabassu was visible for a split second before the ranks of the warriors closed and blocked the view. The lupine head had been reduced to a lumpy mash of bone fragments, brains, and bloody flesh. Had the gore not rested just above the fallen shoulders, it would not have been identifiable as a head at all.

“What in the Nine Hells do you think you were doing?” Inolin demanded once they were back in their room on the inn’s second level. “Are you really that stupid? It’s one thing to draw attention to yourself, but noooo, that’s not good enough for Ms. Almighty Bhaalspawn. You have to go and kill a nabassu with your bare hands.”

Veldrin bristled defensively. “I had a sword. He disarmed me and–”

“Your bare hands, Veldrin. Do you think people aren’t going to notice that?”

“Would you rather it was me that died?” he fired back. “I could have been killed!”

“Well if you wouldn’t have gotten in the stupid Pit to begin with, you wouldn’t’ve had that problem!”

“Don’t yell at me, Im–”

“Stop calling me that,” the wizard hissed. “We’ve got a job to do, Veldrin. We’re supposed to be laying low and blending in!”

“Blending in isn’t going to help us figure out where the eggs–”

“Shut up! Gods and minions, Vel, what part of ‘secret’ don’t you understand?”

The rage reignited. “How about you let me finish a fucking sentence for a change?” he demanded, taking a step forward.

Her eyes narrowed, and abruptly the air was sharp with the tension of magical energy. “Don’t threaten me.”

“Don’t talk to me like I’m stupid.”

“If you had a single ounce of brain in that vacuum between your ears–”

He grabbed her shoulders and shoved her backwards, forced her up against the wall and pinned her there with his greater mass. She instinctively and immediately began the arcane motions and gestures of her craft, but Veldrin was far too familiar with mages – friend and foe – to let her complete them. He seized her hands and trapped them against the wall as well.

“I said… don’t talk to me like I’m stupid.”

Her aura flared with sudden fear, but her voice was steady and firm. “Let go of me.”

He snorted. “So you can magic me with something? I don’t think so.”

She was angry. The low glow of yellow was almost lost under the tar-like layer of thick red-brown. She tried to free herself, straining against his grasp, but the movements were abortive at best. Her hands remained pinned. The attempt only succeeded in making her hair fall over her eyes, which she shook back with an annoyed jerk of her head. “Let me go, Veldrin.”

Her body tensed and pressed against him as she struggled, and a different kind of tension answered in his own. The flush of heat across her cheeks was suddenly captivating; the small, vulnerable flutter of her heartbeat bewitching. Her breasts brushed his chest with the barest of movements as she breathed, but it was enough to make his pulse jump. As a female the reaction was easily hidden, but his new body was less subtle. His cock began to stiffen in response.

Inolin felt it as well. A second’s confusion flashed across her face, then she went rigid as she registered not only the existence but also the origin of the new pressure against her hip. Her aura dissolved into a kaleidoscope of confused chaos, shot through with thin, vivid threads of lust.

“Let me go,” she repeated.

I’m in charge here.” The dreams and fantasies which had haunted him since Athkatla, since Baldur’s Gate, since their youth, flooded back. The desires so long kept hidden demanded recognition now that his soul – his conscience — no longer blocked the way. The almost inaudible murmur of the voices rose again in excitement. “I hauled you out of Spellhold,” he reminded her, leaning closer. Her scent was soft and intoxicating. “I saved you from Irenicus.” He was fully hard now, straining against the unnatural confines of his breeches.

Inolin lifted her chin in defiance. “So what?”

“You owe me.”

“Like Hell I do.”

“You owe me,” he repeated, their faces now so close that could feel the warmth radiating from her skin. She tried to recoil, but there was nowhere to go. “And you want it,” he whispered. The Bhaal-essence hissed in serpentine agreement. “I can see it.” His hand dropped to her hips and there slid slowly up her thigh.

The red glow of lust abruptly darkened and grew, surrounding the younger sibling in a cloud of fury. “Get away from me.”

“You want it. It’s branded on your soul.”

“Take your hands off me,” she whispered viciously. “Or I swear by every god in Faerûn that you will never touch anything again.”

Veldrin’s eyes narrowed. The possibilities flashed through his mind: graphic images of them together, their love making, raw and wet. The visions only made the rock-hard length of his member even more demanding. Inolin met his gaze with quiet, dark sincerity. Whatever lust or desire had been there was gone. The only color present in her aura was deep maroon rage, so bright and strong that even through the heat of his want he hesitated. Her promise was sincere: she would show no mercy.

“You aren’t worth it,” he growled, still only an inch from her face. He released her and backed away, leveling an accusatory finger at his sister. The voices whimpered and moaned in protest. “You aren’t worth it!”

“Get out,” she ordered. The electric snap of magical energy once more charged the air now that her hands were free.

“You’re nothing, Imoen!”

“Get the Hell out!”

Veldrin stalked over to the door and yanked it open, pausing only long enough to spit his disgust in her direction. “I should have left you in Spellhold,” he shouted. “I should have left you to rot!”

The door slammed closed. The entire room trembled in protest, and then it was still.

He brooded at the bar, nursing his sixth glass of drow mead. Figures moved and shifted at the edges of his vision as the clients danced, fought, and dined, but they kept their distance from the still-armored male. The initial adoration, the fawning, the sycophantic sweetness, had quickly lost its charm, and soon his admirers had found themselves face to face with the same dark rage that had spawned their flattery. Being on its receiving end proved much more disturbing than distant observation.

The Voice whispered to him. It had not been silent since the encounter with the nabassu. The seductive, sinister hiss was ever-present, playing through his brain in a constant stream of subtle noise. It was unintelligible, mysterious – words-but-not-words, thoughts-but-not-thoughts, meaningful and empty all at once.

A delicate, thin-stemmed glass of translucent turquoise liquid slid across the counter top and came to rest in front of him. Veldrin glanced up in surprise. The barkeep offered a shallow smile. “From the male over there,” he said, tipping his chin towards another table.

Veldrin turned around, brow furrowing. The room swayed and tilted under the influence of the six drinks he’d already downed, and finding the designated patron was a challenge. After a moment of concentration, he found it: a table near the edge of the bar’s seating area, occupied by both a male and a female. More sycophants. He downed the contents of the glass in a single gulp and then pushed it back to the bartender. When he looked up again, the male of the pair was standing in front of him.

“Honorable Lord,” he said, bowing low.

“Go away.”

“Just a moment of your time, if I may, my lord.”

The cold embers of anger stirred as Veldrin studied the other through wine-blurred eyes. “You don’t have a House insignia,” he muttered after a moment.

“No, my lord, I do not,” the other male admitted. “My House is insignificant, and the Despanas and Jae’llat do not take kindly to interlopers. I am Urlroos Quarra, Third Son of House Quarra, Ninth House of Ust Natha.”

“Leave me alone.”

Urlroos made a small motion to the barkeep, and within seconds another glass of mysterious blue-green liquor appeared at Veldrin’s elbow. “I assure you that my proposal is both short and rewarding.”

The warrior shook his head. “Not for sale.”

“Not your martial talents, my lord, although they are without a doubt beyond compare. People say you are the best warrior since the Descent itself.” Urlroos glanced meaningfully back to his female companion, who sat watching the affair from the table. “That is Alaunrae Quarra, First Daughter of House Quarra. She would like to engage you for… intimate purposes.”

Veldrin rubbed his face with his hand, trying to keep up with the string of words. They tripped over one another in his consciousness, increasingly drowned out by the Taint’s hissing frustration. “What?”

“She wishes to breed with you, my lord.”

“Breed?” That was a word he knew. “With a drow?” he asked in astonishment.

“Not with just any drow,” Urlroos corrected. “With you. A child of your seed, male or female, would be worth much to our House. We are prepared to pay – and, of course, we offer you a rare experience. The First Daughter is willing to allow you… certain privileges, in the bedroom.”

“Not interested.”

Urlroos took the glass in his own hand and offered it forth. “Another drink, my lord? Marimerra wine: a delicacy you are sure not to forget. As will be your night tonight, should you consider our offer.”

The female was approaching, now that the ice had been broken. She was slender and well-formed, with graceful curves and fine, feminine features. Her cheeks and eyelids had been painted with a dust of mica that glittered and shone as she moved. The coy smile on her lips was subtle, secretive, and inviting.

“Veldrin,” she said with a small tilt of her head, extending her hand to him. Drow etiquette was to bestow a kiss on the fingers, but he wasn’t in the mood to be polite. The male’s continued refusal to back down was quickly stoking Veldrin’s ire, even through the muddled haze of drink.

“No doubt it irks such a powerful male as yourself to be at the female’s command in the bedroom, always caring for her pleasure and never for your own,” Urlroos was saying. “But while we cannot offer you the prestige or wealth of House Despana, we can offer, shall we say, forbidden pleasures. The First Daughter offers herself to you, in exchange for your seed.”

“Meaning?” Veldrin asked sourly.

“Meaning that you can do anything you want to me, dear Veldrin,” Alaunrae purred, caressing his arm with her bare palm. Her other hand suddenly pressed between his thighs, stroking the hidden bulge. “Anything and everything.”

“I am available at your request as well, my lord,” Urlroos informed him, “should you enjoy male companionship as well.”

It was too much, and too surreal. The rush of blood to his nether regions only thickened the alcohol-induced fog in his brain. Now it threatened to shut down entirely, especially under the female’s continued ministrations. She wet her lips with tip of her tongue when she felt the object of her attention begin to swell in response.

Veldrin shook his head and forced himself to his feet. The motion was far too abrupt, and it was more through blind luck than any amount of dexterity that kept him from falling flat. He grasped the bar with both hands as the world slowly steadied itself again.

“No, I can’t,” he slurred, shaking his head again. Anger mixed with desire in his loins, and only made the offer all the more tempting. The whispers in his mind grew more insistent, filling his brain with visions. Shut up, he willed, but the Taint ignored him. Just shut up. “I can’t,” he repeated. “Go away.”

“Are you a eunuch?” Alaunrae asked curiously.


“Do you still have your manhood, sweet Veldrin?”

Show her, the Voice insisted. Pin her down. Make her scream. “Of course I do.”

“I thought so,” she replied, her hand now growing more insistent. “You certainly feel … able.”

“I am,” he stammered, then realized that he’d not yet had the chance to put that particular statement to the test. Take her, the whispers urged. Take your reward, what you deserve. “I think. I think I am. I mean– I–”

Explanations weren’t working. The overload of sensation, the alcohol, the Voice, the conflicting demands of his mind and body, made it impossible to think straight. He gave up the attempt and tried escaping the situation instead. His body was functioning, even if his brains were not. He retreated from the bar with quick, stumbling steps, barely avoiding a collision with a servant boy, and was nearly to the door with a flash of color stopped him. Red. Dark red. Not the color of blood, but the color of hair. Imoen’s hair. Imoen was here?

A hot flame of anger leapt into his chest as he quickly fastened on the only explanation. The little witch was spying on him! She must have followed him. The proposition was likely her doing, designed to trap him, humiliate him. He’d teach her. She had to learn that no one belittled him – not even her. The auburn beacon disappeared behind the swinging doors which separated the kitchen area from the clientele. He followed it automatically.

“Hey! You can’t go in–”

He shoved the male aside and entered the kitchen; the doors flew open as he stumbled through. The staff consisted of two males and one female, all human. A swarthy-skinned man with a spotty beard was gutting the remains of an Underdark reptile while the other male tended the grill. The red-haired woman was stationed slicing vegetables and mushrooms, and now paused in her labor with a started squeak.

“Imoen.” Veldrin crossed over to her with strong, if unsteady, steps. She started to back away, only to bump roughly against the counter top and spill a handful of small, bulbous roots onto the floor.

She recovered herself and dropped into a low curtsy, trembling slightly as his hand landed on her shoulder. “My lord?”

“What the Hell are you doing here?” he demanded.

Imoen scrambled to her feet, eyes still fastened to the ground. “My lord? N—nothing.”

He grabbed the front of her tunic with one hand. “You’re spying on me!”

Her eyes flashed up, full of fear. “No! No, my lord, I swear! I would never!”

Were her eyes green, or was it just a trick of the light? Veldrin cupped her chin in his hand and took a closer look. In the edges of his vision one of the males had disappeared, while the other stood watching uneasily. Imoen looked different somehow – a bit older, a bit more tired. She’d put on a bit of weight since… when had he last seen her? Spellhold? No, no – after that.

Her denial was sincere enough. There was no mistaking the earnestness and emotion in her words, nor the shimmer of frightened tears in her eyes. Maybe he’d been too quick to judge her. She’d probably come here looking for him, to apologize and set things right.

“I’m sorry,” he murmurred. His thumb brushed across her cheek as he wiped away a lone teardrop. She was still trembling. He’d been too hard on her, lashing out in anger when all she wanted was to soothe things over. “It’s okay,” he whispered softly as he stroked her hair. It was soft, just like her skin. “It’s okay.”

The touch didn’t console her. If anything it seemed to upset her more, and now the tears spilled down freely as she tried once more to back away. He tightened his grip and stopped her. “My lord–” she began.

He kissed her softly, cutting off her words. Even her lips quivered with delicate uncertainty. “It’s okay. Sssh, it’s okay.” He kissed her again, repeatedly, whispering apologies and reassurances, pulling her more tightly into his arms. She’d been through so much… If she only knew how he felt about her, how important she was, how precious – if she only knew, she wouldn’t be afraid anymore. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have gotten angry.” He cradled her in his arms, trying to soothe her.

“Please,” she whispered in a trembling voice. “Please stop.”

There was no reason for her to be concerned; even had the drow known of their blood relationship, it wouldn’t have mattered. Drow siblings were often intimate, and no one thought it was unusual. It wasn’t wrong here. It wasn’t forbidden.

“Sssh,” he said again, bestowing another kiss. His erection, still half-hard from the First Daughter’s attention, stirred awake once more as his adoration of her swelled within his chest. He could show her how much he loved her. He could pleasure her, please her, and make the pain of the past go away.

Imoen’s hands grasped his shoulders. Her lips met his roughly as she whimpered in response.

“Hey! Hey you! What in Lolth’s name do you think you’re doing?”

The words registered only as distant noise through the fog of drink. Imoen was pushing at him, twisting, trying to get away. The resistance only increased Veldrin’s determination. The Taint’s chorus of voices babbled in excited encouragement: take her, your right, your prize. She was safe with him; she just had to realize it. She had to realize how much he loved her.

“Get your hands off my slave!”

A pair of hands grabbed his arm and tried to haul him backwards. Veldrin turned and planted one hand firmly in the man’s chest and shoved him away. The force of the push knocked the man prone and sent him skidding several feet across the polished floor before he collided with a granite wall. Imoen started screaming.

“It’s okay,” he repeated, grabbing her around her waist as she tried to dart aside. “I’m here.” He made the point clear with another kiss, this one firm and desirous. The way she moved her hips; the way she pressed her breasts against him; the scratching of her fingernails over his skin… It wasn’t the most romantic of places, but with the staff gone and the unwelcome intruder ejected, it was private enough. If she wanted it here, then here it would be.

Veldrin hoisted her up onto the counter, knocking the produce aside. Her skirt was knee-length and loose; it slid easily as he pushed it over Imoen’s thighs. The sight of pale skin and the barely-visible edge of simple cotton underpants flooded him with a hot wave of lust. His member was rock-hard and aching, and suddenly he realized that he could give Imoen what she wanted, something that Cassandra never could: the pleasures of being with a man.

“Stop!” she screamed. “Please! Please!”

Veldrin fumbled with the fastening of his armor, trying with wine-addled fingers to free himself from the codpiece, his breath quick and shallow. His entire mind was consumed with one thought, one image: Imoen underneath him, moaning, as he finally made his desires clear. There was no more shame, no more hesitation, only the need: raw, primal, and instinctive.

Something cracked with amazing force over his head, turning his vision black from pain. He whirled around instinctively and lashed out with backhanded strike. It connected, and Veldrin’s sight returned just in time to see a body collide with the shelves of liquor and spices. A dozen delicate glass bottles burst from the force of the impact.

Another assailant charged him; Veldrin intercepted the man and grasped him with both hands, abruptly reversing the man’s trajectory and launching him out of the kitchen’s double doors. The would-be attacker smashed into one of the servants, sending both men and the tray full of drinks tumbling into a table full of patrons. Soon the four drow were on their feet as well, screaming their displeasure at the interruption.

Veldrin turned his attention back to Imoen. There was a flash of movement, a whip of pale skin and red hair, and a strong, well-placed kick knocked him backwards.

Imoen drew her knees up to her chest, her eyes distant, lost in memories that
only she could see. “I kicked him. I screamed, I kicked, I punched, but nothing
helped. He was too strong.”

He stumbled and nearly caught himself, but the unexpected flash of memory jarred him even more than the blow itself. Veldrin collapsed, stunned, to the floor. The girl was gone in a heartbeat, running from the room as quickly as her legs would take her. Outside the sound of angry voices was escalating.

She’d kicked him. Veldrin shook his head, but the thought remained. She’d kicked him. She’d screamed – had she punched? — and kicked him. He got unsteadily to his feet, bracing himself against the preparation table. She’d run away.

“Bastard!” A middle-aged drow male had appeared in the door way. Beyond him the vague outlines of a handful of others could be seen. “You’ve ruined my kitchen! This is going to cost you. I don’t care if you are Despana’s high and mighty champion!”

“Go away,” Veldrin muttered. Something felt wrong. Imoen… where was Imoen?

The man wasn’t done with his tirade. “You can’t just go around raping a man’s slaves! That’s my property, not yours! If you damaged her, by Lolth, you’ll owe me three replacements!”

Rape? No. No, it wasn’t possible. He’d never–

“Go to the Lust Chambers next time you want to fuck some human whore. But stay the Nine Hells out of my kitchen!”

He felt sick. His stomach clenched in sudden protest as he stumbled towards the door. Bile filled his throat. He’d almost raped her. He would have. Oh gods, he almost had.

“Hey! You can’t leave yet!” The man blocked the doorway as Veldrin approached.

“Get out of my way,” Veldrin ordered, trying to keep himself steady. The sound of Imoen’s – no, it wasn’t Imoen, it couldn’t have been – screams echoed through his mind. He had to get out of here.

“You’re staying right here until the City Guardsmen–”

“I said get the Hell out of my way!” Veldrin roared. He slammed the man aside and rushed through the door, suddenly desperate to be anywhere else but there. A score of curious patrons had gathered around the kitchen’s entrance to witness the commotion; some now scattered from the warrior who came barreling out, while others grabbed him and tried to restrain him before he could flee.

A grunt and surge of muscle sent another male flying through the air. Clients scattered to avoid him as he crashed down two yards away. Angry cries and heaves of strength sent his would-be captors in all directions; the sound of shattered glass and breaking tables echoed throughout the cavern. Soon a path lay clear and unobstructed: the remaining patrons left him in peace as he exited the tavern in a staggering run.

The distance back to his quarters couldn’t have been more than a few hundred yards, but the thick mass of revelers, spies, servants, slaves, and masters made it seem like thousands. He shoved his way through, unceremoniously pushing both male and female aside in panic. He had to get out. He had to get back to his room, alone, away from others. An intense claustrophobia narrowed his vision; the world suddenly consisted of nothing but stone walls and hot, glowing bodies. There was no space to breathe, no air, and another scream and violent push sent the crowd scrambling and bodies flying.

Stairs. He was at the stairs. Veldrin started up them, tripped and fell, regained himself and tried again. They refused to stay still under his wild movements. The sickness seized him a second time, making him retch a mixture of food, drink, and stomach bile onto the dark stone. On hands and knees he forced himself forward, inch by inch, up the treacherous walkway. Soon it leveled out and he recovered his feet once more. The door was only a dozen feet away.

He greeted it with both fists, slamming them into the stone portal. It shook but remained firm as he cried out in frustration and rage. The exterior handle was little more than a small nub of carved stone; neither pushing nor pulling on it made a difference.

Suddenly the door opened, and Veldrin found himself face to face with a startled drow female. Her surprise quickly turned to fury as she recognized him.

“Go to Hell!”

He jammed his hand against the door before she had a chance to close it. “Imoen–”

“Gods dammit!” she hissed, eyes narrowing. “Call me Inolin. You’re going to get us both killed!”

“No.” He shook his head in denial. “Never do anything to hurt you. Never, I swear.”

She frowned, regarding him with a mixture of anger and wary caution. “What’s wrong with you?” The expression twisted into disgust as a whiff of air gave her her answer. “Great. You’re drunk.”

“Please, Imo–”

Her hand flashed out. She grabbed him by the wrist and yanked him inside the chamber, slamming the door closed again with a deep and heavy thud.

“By Tyr’s eyes, Veldrin, if you say my name just one more time…!”

“I’m sorry,” he muttered, leaning up against the wall for support as his legs sagged beneath him. “Didn’t mean to, I didn’t mean to, I’m sorry.” The memory of the bar, the girl at the bar, the Imoen-who-wasn’t-Imoen, came back again, and this time it brought with it tears of shame and sorrow. “I didn’t mean to,” he repeatedly forlornly. “I’d never hurt you. Never, never, never.”

Inolin regarded him skeptically, hands braced on her hips. Her brother had slowly slumped to the floor and now sat there, head in his hands, rocking back and forth. Saline sadness painted wet lines down his face and dripped silently onto the floor.

Despite the anger and hurt she’d been nursing from his earlier words, she couldn’t ignore his obvious distress. Cassandra had always been the strong one, the one who pushed on and kept fighting no matter how helpless she felt inside. Imoen could count the number of times she’d seen her older sibling cry on one hand – and even then, she’d never seen him like this. Not in Candlekeep, not in Baldur’s Gate, not in Spellhold or anywhere in between. Not since the night Gorion had died. “What happened?” she asked softly. “Are you okay?”

“I didn’t mean to!” he moaned, burying his face in his palms. “I didn’t mean to, Im, I didn’t mean to. I wouldn’t have– but I wanted– I just–”

Shaking sobs cut off his words, and Inolin crouched down before him. She reached out and placed a tentative hand on his shoulder. “Just calm down. You’re safe now.” There was blood splattered over his armor, but it was impossible to know whether it was his. “Just tell me what happened. Are you okay?”

He looked up, fixing her with a wide-eyed and half-mad stare. “No,” he whispered. “No, no, no, there’s something wrong with me.” His eyes went to her, then to his own hands. “There’s something wrong with me,” he repeated. The tears began again, and his voice jerked erratically as he struggled to keep speaking. “I can hear it. I can hear it and it won’t go away.”

Inolin wrapped her arms around him and pulled him into a tight hug. “Sssh,” she whispered, stroking one hand over the white-silver hair. “It’ll be okay, sis,” she promised, squeezing Veldrin close again. She wasn’t sure if it was true, but she’d settle for a necessary lie. “It’ll be okay.”

“What’s wrong with me?”

“Sssh. C’mere.” She guided him slowly to his feet and led him over to the double-bed. He swayed unsteadily from the whirlwind of wine and emotion. He followed with small, awkward steps, trying unsuccessfully to wipe his face clean with the back of his metal gauntlet. Once he was seated Imoen busied herself with the buckles and clasps which held the drow plate armor on; deft hands and determination removed the largest pieces in less than two minutes. His sobs shook his entire form as he moaned her name over and over again.

“Imoen… Imoen, I’m sorry.”

She sat down next to him, and Veldrin immediately embraced her. Whatever rage, whatever hatred, had been there earlier, was now complete wiped away. His strength was exhausted, both mentally and physically, and he could do nothing but sob into her shoulder as she tried to comfort him.

“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t want to hurt you.”

“I know,” she answered quietly, cradling him in her arms. “It’s okay. I understand.”

“I love you.”

Imoen leaned back, guiding him to lay his head against her chest as she held him and whispered soothingly into his hair. “Sssh; try to go to sleep. You’ll feel better tomorrow.”

“I love you, Imoen,” he murmured weakly. “I love you so much.”

A sudden flower of warmth filled her chest, and her eyes now welled with tears of their own. “I know, Cassie,” she whispered, pressing her lips against his forehead and squeezing him as tight as she could. “Believe me, I know.”

“How… touching.”

Imoen’s eyes flashed open at the sound of Phaere’s voice. The Despana noble stood next to the long granite wardrobe that housed the pair’s belongings, examining one of Imoen’s scrolls with interest. A handful of guards – six of them – had entered the room as well, and now ringed the bed with bristling metal and stern gazes. Inolin attempted to sit up, but Veldrin’s still-sleeping form, half atop her, made it impossible. He stirred only briefly at the disturbance.

“How did you–”

“Get in?” The woman’s bright crimson eyes glanced over, accompanied by a small smirk on her wine-dark lips. “It’s not polite to lock one’s door against one’s employer, but I forgive you – this time,” Phaere informed her, placing the scroll back in its place. She now turned her attention fully to the prone pair, crossing her arms across her chest and leaning back against the dresser. “Both still fully clothed,” she observed with a delicate arch of one brow, then, as her nose wrinkled: “What is that smell?”

Inolin pushed Veldrin off her and quickly got to her feet. “I apologize, Phaere. We thought that we had been given time to rest, and Veldrin… overindulged.”

“So I’ve heard.” Her expression hardened as her eyes fell on Veldrin’s bleary, half-awake form. “Get him up.”

The Despana soldiers seized Veldrin’s arms, forcibly hauling him out of the bed. The man’s befuddled lethargy was rapidly replaced by alarm. Inolin quickly moved to intercept them before a more physical reaction manifested.

“Don’t.” Phaere’s sharp warning was accompanied by one dark hand in the middle of Inolin’s chest, holding her back.

“What’s going on?” Inolin demanded.

“It seems that Veldrin caused quite a disturbance last night – more damage than I’d think one man was capable of,” the First Daughter replied, giving Inolin a small push backwards. “I have heard nothing complaints since daystart. I’ve soothed the loudest of them with palms full of gold, but it is… inconvenient. I do not like to be inconvenienced.”

The guards had managed to wrestle Veldrin to the door and now forced him out into the hallway beyond. He struggled.

“I can explain–” he began.

“I certainly hope so,” Phaere interrupted coldly. “We’ll talk. Alone,” she specified as Inolin moved to follow, and three additional guards moved in to block the mage’s advance.

This time it was Inolin who attempted to interject. “Phaere, wait–”

Phaere followed Veldrin and his Despana escorts out of the room. He tried to see around her, tried desperately to catch Inolin’s eyes and find some clue or reassurance, but it was impossible. The door was blocked by Phaere’s body, and his sister was nowhere to be seen.

“You’ll get your pet back soon enough,” Phaere informed the unseen female as the door slid closed, sealing her and three of the soldiers inside. “And maybe next time you’ll keep him on a shorter leash.”

Veldrin had stopped struggling. His head pounded like a herd of horses in the aftermath of the drink and even the faint light from the faerie-fire markings around the tavern was enough to force him to squint his eyes. Phaere regarded him with disgust.

“Get him clean and sober,” she instructed her soliders, “and then bring him to me. Oh, and Veldrin…” She raised the haft of her snake-headed whip, using the butt against his chin to gain his full attention. “If you so much as breathe in a way that my guards do not like, I will have you bound, gagged, and thrown to the driders. Understood?”

He nodded, and she seemed satisfied.

“One hour,” she over her shoulder as she walked away. “Don’t be late.”

The guards pushed him forward, and Veldrin mutely fell into step. His occasional glances behind him, back to the door and his sister somewhere behind it, were met with brandished weapons and orders not to turn around. It was still early morning, judging from the faerie-fire clock in the distant center of the city – a fact which immediately explained why his stomach was still twisted in knots and his head throbbed with every step. Even a Bhaalspawn body had limits on how much alcohol it could withstand.

The very motion of walking hurt, and soon Veldrin found himself staring at the walkway instead. The smooth, black granite was a welcome change from the hurrying slaves, sudden drop-offs, and assorted glows, magical and non-, that made up the normal city view. He walked as directed, trying both to think and not-think about the night before. Phaere had heard something; what, exactly, he wasn’t sure. If she had questions, he’d have to answer them. He wasn’t sure that he could admit what he’d done – what he’d almost done – without his stomach emptying itself once more in protest. And if she asked why, what could he answer? Nothing with Imoen’s name. A lie would be dangerous, though, if it was discovered.

The Despana mansion was huge: the second-largest building in Ust Natha, surpassed in size and ornateness only by the Temple of Lolth itself. The exterior guards parted as their cohorts approached, and Veldrin was led inside. News of his impending arrival had evidently preceded him: a line of six servants stood ready just inside the entrance, armed to the teeth with brushes, towels, perfumes, and gods only knew what else. He was immediately pulled aside into a small side chamber, where a steaming tub of water awaited.

The next fifteen minutes passed in a flurry of hands and motion. The servants stripped off his soiled garments and forced him into the bath, scrubbing and washing him with soapy cloths until every crevice of his body was clean. Once the headmaster was satisfied, Veldrin was dried off and anointed with scented sprays before given a clean pair of breeches. A new tunic was not among the accessories provided, but a layer of warm oil smeared over his arms, chest, and torso served as an unexpected replacement.

Phaere’s personal quarters were impressive, and fully in line with her status as the First Daughter of Ust Natha’s most powerful House. The interior was richly decorated with fine tapestries and paintings done in elaborate drow fashion: embroidered and embellished with tiny magical enhancements and bioluminescent threads that glowed faintly in the darkness. The different hues of heat and light produced a beautiful weave of radiation that was carefully and selectively blended into the natural shadows of the room. Wooden furniture – rare in the Underdark – was present in copious amounts, as were pottery and vases of glass, ceramic, and china. There could be no doubt that whoever lived here was among the most elite of Ust Natha’s inhabitants.

The First Daughter herself stood next to one of the large bookcases, a thick tome in her hands, and glanced over briefly as the door opened and Veldrin stepped inside. A small smile curved her lips.

“Ah… it is you again.”

Veldrin said nothing, instead bowing slightly. The herbal concoction forced on him in the hallway had settled both his head and his stomach, but it had done nothing for his nerves. Under normal circumstances being called away privately, without Inolin, wouldn’t have bothered him in the slightest – but these were not normal circumstances. How much damage he’d done in the tavern the night before, and exactly what details had reached Phaere’s ears, he wasn’t sure. She knew enough to be displeased, however, and he’d not yet forgotten the sight of her displeasure on Soulafein’s scarred and bloody back the week before.

“You’re lucky that my mood is improved, male,” she stated offhandedly as she closed the book and slid it back into place. “I was pondering having you tortured for my amusement, but the whim has passed.”

He bowed again, deeper this time, trying to fall back into his drowish character. “I am not worthy of your kindness.”

“No, you are not, but spare me the empty platitudes. Your little display last night was impressive, but stupid. Tell me why you thought it a wise idea to assault the citizens of this city, Veldrin. Do you think you’re above our laws?”

Drow have laws? He certainly hadn’t seen any evidence of that in the weeks of the masquerade. “Of course not, Mistress. I have no excuse for my behavior.”

She arched an eyebrow and walked towards him. Her more formal attire from earlier had been replaced with a long, sheer white gown that clung to her skin like the spidersilk it resembled. One side was split up to her hip, and as she approached the smooth, black skin of her thigh glimmered from under the fabric.

“No excuse?” she repeated curiously.

“No, Mistress.”

“Not even your misguided lust for the human?”

The reminder, even as blessedly bland as it was, made him wince. “That was… a mistake.”

“Mm. I see.” Phaere now was within arm’s reach, and she circled him with slow steps. He turned his head to keep her in view, unwilling to let the spider go unseen.

“The only reason you are still alive is because I find you useful, Veldrin,” she commented as she walked. “But even your usefulness does not make you invulnerable. You may be the champion of House Despana, but if you insist on acting foolish, our favor will be withdrawn – and without our favor, even your impressive fighting skills will not be enough to save you. You have made a great many enemies.”

She came to face him again, an arm’s length apart, looking up at him with bold self-assurance despite his greater height and mass. Phaere trembled before no one, especially not a male – and very especially not a powerful male.

“You are going to make it worth my time to have covered your mistakes, my dear Veldrin,” she informed him. “And I hope for your sake that you are as talented in the bedroom as on the battlefield.”

He balked as she took his hand and turned to lead him towards her bedchamber. “Most Honored Phaere… is this really necessary?”

Annoyance flashed through her crimson eyes. “Of course it is necessary, fool. The fact that I command it makes it necessary.”

Directly refusing her was impossible: no Drow male would dare deny a female’s desires, much less those of the Despana’s First Daughter. If he was to maintain Lady Adalon’s charade, it would require a more subtle approach. Unfortunately, subtle approaches didn’t seem to be his area of strength.

He stopped once more at the bedroom doorway. It was decorated simply but effectively with paintings with bold, dramatic lines and small sculptures made of precious metals and gemstones. Inside lay a large and luxurious bed.

“Phaere, I–” He searched desperately for some manner of excuse that sounded plausible, but none presented itself. “I can’t,” he settled on dejectedly. “I’m sorry, I can’t.”

The impact of her hand across his cheek echoed through the room and left an angry, stinging imprint on his flesh. “You dare tell me that, when last night you had to be dragged away from soiling yourself with a common slave? You would rut like a beast between human thighs but refuse the First Daughter of Despana?”

“No! You misunderstand me,” he hurried to assure her. “But I belong to another, Mistress. Should she discover this–”

Phaere’s eyes narrowed, but this time her expression was one of spiteful amusement. “That sorceress you travel with? You needn’t worry about her. We females understand that, under certain circumstances, one must give up their toys.”

“But Inolin–”

“Inolin is not here,” Phaere reminded him sharply, then, in a softer, more coaxing tone: “Put her out of your mind, dear Veldrin. She has more than enough male companionship during your absence.”

Veldrin’s mind flashed back to the muddled confusion of his awakening: Phaere’s entry; being forced outside by the guards; Inolin trying to follow. Three of the Despana lackeys had held her back, and when the stone door had finally closed, all three had still been inside. His mouth went dry. What instructions had Phaere given them? What was going on, now that he was away?

“If she’s hurt–”

“That, Veldrin, depends on you.”

You’re drow, Cass. Play the part, damn you. Phaere was watching him intently. The stupid or careless never lived long enough in drow society to become powerful and feared, and she was second only to Matron Andulace herself in this city. He could not make the mistake of judging her as he would a human or an elf. Any risk was too much of one when dealing with such a viper.

“If she’s hurt, I’ll have her whip on my back for a week,” he finished, faking a smile. “A fate I’d prefer to avoid. But what she doesn’t know won’t hurt me.”

“Excellent.” Phaere smiled as well. “I shall show you, my dark Veldrin, why an evening with me is worth more than an eternity with another woman.” She attempted to lead him to the bed once again, and this time he followed. “Come. I am anxious to begin.”

Could he perform? Veldrin watched her as she unclasped the small hooks at the shoulder of her dress and let it fall gracefully to the floor. It stirred no emotion this time, despite her attractiveness. As Cassandra he’d had precious little sexual experience, mostly limited to awkward teenage trysts. Surely Phaere would notice.

“There is one more thing I’m curious about, Veldrin,” she said, languidly walking over to him and reaching to unbutton the front of his tunic.

“And what is that, Mistress?”

“My spies have been quite busy after your unfortunate loss of judgement yesterday. So, tell me, Veldrin…” Her crimson eyes glanced up as she fixed him with a cruel and shallow smile. “Who is this ‘Imoen’ who fascinates you so?”

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