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Authors: Brian Thomsen

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BOOK: The Mage in the Iron Mask
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“So don’t just cower there, find him!” she screamed, sending him out of the room at a break-neck pace that was, no doubt, largely propelled by complete and utter terror.

The Tharchioness laughed for a moment, her thoughts temporarily diverted from the precarious situation at hand.

“And while you’re at it,” she said aloud with a grin, though the ambassador had long since left, “clean yourself up. You can’t seek the High Blade smelling of excrement. He might mistake you for one of his subjects.”

The Reid Room in the Tower of the Wyvern:

The two heads of state met in the receiving room, their entrances carefully orchestrated and timed by their retinues so that neither seemed to have been left waiting for the other.

“Darling,” the Tharchioness cooed.

“My Thayan beauty,” the High Blade countered, “I was not expecting you for another month.”

“I just couldn’t stand being away from you,” she
replied, her cruel lips pursed in fake kisses for the husband she hated.

“That makes two of us,” he agreed with just a hint of a leer that the retinues would no doubt mistake for lust, rather than contempt. “How goes the rebuilding of Eltabbar?”

“Slowly.”

“Earthquake, wasn’t it?”

“Right as always.”

During the entire exchange neither the husband nor the wife had come any closer to each other, and still stood on opposite sides of the room. They tentatively drew closer together, still halting well before they had reached an arm’s distance.

He first noticed the scent of a new perfume as they entered the room, while she recognized the foul stench of his tobacco. Their eyes never left each other, like two jungle cats each waiting for the other to be the first to blink, at which point the other would strike a lethal blow.

She’s even icier than usual, the High Blade thought. She is probably already aware that her plan has gone awry.

Usually he can’t remove his eyes from my breasts, the Tharchioness contemplated. Now he won’t break my stare. He knows something and is trying to see if I know it, too. I mustn’t give myself away.

The subtle standoff was interrupted by the arrival of some Arabellan Brandy. The High Blade seized the opportunity to seemingly relax, and poured his bride and himself a snifter each.

The Tharchioness sipped.

“Mmmmmm,” she purred, licking her lips.

“I’m glad it is to your liking,” he said in mock gallantry. “I always try to provide you with the best Mulmaster has to offer, but sometimes plans do go
awry, as you no doubt have recently experienced.”

The Tharchioness maintained her composure, and in a tone that she thought of as schoolgirlish (which, incidentally, turned her stomach every time she used it), she inquired, “What could you mean, darling?”

“Why the earthquake, of course,” he replied, hesitating just a moment before adding, “dear.”

“Of course,” she said in agreement, realizing the subtext of taunts that he was beginning to bedevil her with.

“It’s a funny thing though,” he persisted, “one’s misfortune is sometimes another’s boon.”

“To whose advantage is an earthquake?”

“Why those who are paid to make the repairs afterward, my sweet,” the High Blade replied in his most subtly condescending tone.

The Tharchioness decided that she needed more time and information before further dealing with the delicate matter at hand. The High Blade obviously knew something, but of what and how much, she was not certain. She decided to change the subject.

Delicately dipping her finger into her snifter of brandy, she held it out for her husband’s consideration.

“Care for a taste?” she purred.

Gently taking the proffered hand with its anointed digit in his two hands, he slowly brought it to his lips, and bestowed a kiss.

“I thought you’d never offer,” he replied breathlessly, then turned to the crowds that had followed them into the receiving room and instructed the retinues, “Leave us! Matters of state and diplomacy can wait until later. Much later.”

In less than the time it took for their lips to meet, they were alone and on the receiving room settee.

No further words were exchanged, and delicate situations were temporarily postponed.

In the Dungeon of Southroad Keep:

Rassendyll’s eyes had finally grown accustomed to the dim light of his cell, and the iron mask that enshrouded his head no longer shifted with every movement he made. It was as if the metal of the domed skullcap had taken root in the back of his head, allowing less movement in the face of the mask as well. The ringing had finally stopped in his ears from the ceaseless clanging that had ensued during his period of hysterics when he had beaten his head against the wall in despair. The strong iron metal of the mask had protected his head from any major damage or concussion, and all that remained of his temporary outbreak of insanity was a nagging headache.

The edges around his eyes chafed his sockets, while the slits that barely functioned as access points to his mouth and nose pressed back against his face providing the smallest windows of entry for air and other sustenance. He vaguely remembered the comment his twin had made about the lethality of his beard’s growth, and resigned himself to the eventuality of his fast-approaching demise.

“Death,” he called in a volume equal to his outbreak of the night before, and immediately regretted it as his own words seemed to echo within the skull that the combined mask and bone of his head had become. He stopped, pulled himself up short, and steeled himself for another round of beseeching the gods.

“Death,” he called in comfortable, hushed tones, “please take me now, and spare me the suffering of waiting.”

“I’m not death,” a voice interrupted from behind, “but if you don’t mind, I’d like to come in and set a spell. When you get to my age, tunnel crawling is hard work.”

Rassendyll quickly turned around, and saw the source of the voice.

An old dwarf, whose pure white hair and beard were as long as his entire body, was halfway through a hole in the wall that had been formed from the removal of one of the massive stone bricks that made up the foundation.

The young mage was speechless, but this didn’t stop the dwarf, who quickly regained his feet, strode over to the new prisoner, and introduced himself.

“Hi,” he said jovially, in a tone that was quite out of place for the dark dungeon. “I’m Hoffman, from the Seventh Dwarven Abbey. I’ve been a prisoner down here for I don’t know how long. What’s your story?”

A Weakened Retreat

Along the Road from Mulmaster to the Retreat:

After the feasting at the Traveler’s Cloak Inn was over, the festing began with a tour of some of the local hot spots such as the very popular Wave and Wink (nicknamed the W&W) and the Smashed Plate. Realizing that he had many days of work and research ahead of him, Volo took it fairly easy, managing to attract no attention to himself amidst the crowd of
Mulmaster revellers. Passepout, on the other hand, gave free reign to all of his desires with all of the
joie de vivre
of the recently released prisoner that he was. His eyes and his appetites, however, were much larger and stronger than his strength and his stamina. By midevening, the chubby thespian was quite unconscious, and the master traveler had to enlist the help of three very strong young laborers and one extremely sturdy cart to get him back to their night’s lodgings.

The following morning, Volo rose before dawn, assembled his pack and scribbled down a hasty note assuring the stout thespian that he would return in a few days. He grabbed a fast breakfast, which Dela was more than willing to provide, and left the inn. The master traveler rented a horse from a nearby stable and set out for his next destination.

The sun was just inching over the horizon when the most famous gazetteer in all Faerûn passed Southroad Keep. Nodding to the city watch, who didn’t pay him much attention as they were more concerned about the apparent tardiness of their relief, he passed through the city gate, and was on his way.

The absence of the city walls and buildings removed all obstructions from the force of the wind, and Volo quickly drew up a spare blanket that he had packed just for this reason, and draped it around himself as if it were a cape. Fastening it in place with a clasp, and then placing one hand on his beret and one hand on the reins, he spurred on the steed with a quick kick and “giddy-yap.”

Volo looked around him as he rode, taking in the scenery, and mentally assembling descriptive passages and entries for the guide.

The mountains, he thought to himself, seem to create some sort of wind tunnel. The breezes off the
Moonsea were magnified by the funnel effect as they roared through, making everything seem colder than it should be. I must remember, he noted, to include a cold weather warning and a warm clothing advisory in the book.

With the exception of the mountains themselves, the rising sun had very little to illuminate on the landscape through which the master traveler rode. Mulmaster was surrounded by rocky, barren lands which further magnified the gloom of the smokey industrial city. The sure-footed stallion had little problem making its way over the rugged and unforgiving ground, with only a minimal amount of direction from its well-traveled rider.

Even though the smoky fog of Mulmaster was far behind and out of sight in no time at all, the gloom and bleakness of the jagged terrain remained as Volo continued on his way. The skies were almost as uninhabited as the ground, with only the occasional bird of prey or vulture breaking up the grey monotony that reached upward as far as the eye could see.

The master traveler seemed oblivious to the lifelessness around him, and contented himself with putting together new and different phrases to describe the barren landscape. Occasionally he would pass an abandoned farmhouse or inn, and would wonder what ill-fortuned farmer or hostler was foolhardy enough to try to ply his trade there. Further on in his journey, he began to pass larger abandoned structures that almost resembled Southroad Keep. From the research notes that he had prepared prior to setting out on his journey, he knew that they were monasteries and habitats for contemplative orders that had long fallen by the wayside.

There must have been something about the austerity of the landscape itself that attracted the ascetic,
introspective, hermit types that had the swelled the orders that had filled these citadels in years gone by. I guess they came looking for the meaning of life, didn’t find it, and left, leaving their monastic dwellings behind, he thought.

The great gazetteer smiled.

Maybe I’ll include something in the guide about these places being haunted to sort of make things more exciting. Local legends have to start somewhere, he surmised.

As Volo and his steed approached what remained of a stone arch that had in some earlier era provided egress for some now long bygone structure, the great gazetteer heard a scurrying like the scrambling of rats on a cellar floor. The master traveler smiled, and reached into the inner pocket of his cloak, the tips of his fingers caressing one of the numerous blades he had secreted on various parts of his person.

BOOK: The Mage in the Iron Mask
10.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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