posted by Darth Krzysztof
5 Gozran (IV) 4720 AR
Nasti tucks loose hair behind her horns, but knocking on the shop’s door just causes them to fall again, framing her lilac face in strands of black. As the door opens by itself, she balls her hands into fists at her sides and steps into a shop that’s solely illuminated by uncountable candles. Everburning candles, she thinks. Chendrea could make a minor fortune selling those. Maybe she already does? Nasti hasn’t seen them on display when the shop was open in the past…
“Excellent!” Chendrea calls from somewhere out of sight, speaking mellifluous Elven. “You’re here. Please, come in, come in, darling. Make yourself comfortable. I’ll be right with you.”
Nasti goes to close the door behind her, but it shuts of its own accord. She takes a deep breath and holds it a moment, exhaling as she moves through the room. All the trinkets and talismans look different in this dim light, but the real difference is the quiet. Instead of a dozen arcane conversations, the air is filled only by an ornate enchanted harp, playing a sonata Nasti doesn’t know. A Chelish sonata, if she has to guess, something that predates the Thrice-Damned House of Thrune.
This is nice, Nasti thinks. It’s understated, but she cares enough to make it special. I wonder if she gets to do this often…
Nasti stops when she finds the laboratory table. Normally buried beneath equipment and books, it’s been cleared so it can hold a meal that falls short of a banquet, but only just. Everything looks amazing, and it smells even better. What were you saying about understated?
Don’t get yourself twisted, Nasti. Canter would say that, were he here. It’s just dinner with a friend. Maybe you’re trying to find out if you can be more than friends, but it’s still just dinner. Just relax.
As if on cue, Chendrea appears in the doorway to the back room, the dazzling green of her dress shimmering with iridescence in the dancing candle flames. “Kyonin fireberry wine, from a very good year,” she announces, holding up a delicate bottle. “I’m afraid I misfiled it in my cellar, otherwise I would have been ready for you.”
She crosses the room, standing across the table from Nasti. Her lovely hazel eyes take Nasti in for a long second, and her grin tugs at the tiefling’s heartstrings. “You look beautiful,” Chendrea says, and Nasti feels like it could be true. “Did you make your robe? It’s positively breathtaking.”
Nasti’s worn her favorite creation, the fiery red one she saves for special occasions. “I did! They call it a kimono.”
“Kimono,” the wizard says, trying the word on for size. As Chendrea sets the bottle down and circles the table, Nasti hears her bare feet on the marble floor before she sees them. “Sorry about that,” Chendrea says when she catches Nasti looking. “Those cursed boots have been pinching me all day; I simply must replace them. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Of course not.” She remembers reading something, somewhere, about how bare feet can be as provocative as bare breasts in certain situations. Is this such a situation? She loses the train of thought as the notes of lavender in Chendrea’s perfume find Nasti’s nose, causing the tiefling to wonder if they’ve ever stood this close before. It seems like the sort of thing she’d remember. “Maybe I could make you some better boots?”
“That’d be wonderful, darling. Your capacity to surprise me is without limit. Tell me, is this Tien silk?”
Nasti remembers to nod. “All the way from Minkai. There was a family in Magnimar who had a supplier we used to get it from.” She wants to add that Minkai’s new empress belongs to that family, but it’s getting harder to think clearly with Chendrea close enough to touch.
Like a telepath, Chendrea holds her hand over Nasti’s upper arm. “May I?”
She nods again, feels Chendrea’s warmth as her fingers caress the sheer fabric. A nearly imperceptible mmm noise escapes the wizard’s throat, and Nasti has to swallow a similar reaction, though she can feel her tail swishing behind her. “It must be wonderful to have this against your skin all day.”
I could get used to it. Wait, you mean the silk. No, she means both. Of course she means both. “I could make one for you,” Nasti says when her brain comes back online.
“Boots and a kimono? I wouldn’t want to impose.”
“Well, I didn’t say it’d be free. I don’t work for exposure.”
“Of course you don’t, darling. And I only care to be exposed when I care to be.” Nasti pictures an exposed Chendrea for a long and enjoyable second, certain the wicked thought’s made her blush. Nasti’s getting twisted in spite of her reticence – maybe because of it – and Chendrea seems to take great delight in doing the twisting. Her fingertips still linger on Nasti’s arm, tracing up and down. “Do you have a discount for your friends? Or a special discount for your special friends? Something you’re willing to accept in exchange, perhaps?”
Nasti builds a tower of iron will to withstand this siege, then summons all the smoke her voice will carry to reply: “I’m sure we can work something out between us.”
“I don’t doubt it.” Chendrea finally releases Nasti and takes a step back.
Aren’t you forgetting something? “You look amazing,“ Nasti calls as Chendrea pads back around to the far side of the table. “I’ve never seen a fabric like that before.”
“Thank you!” Her tone suggests that she already knows she’s beautiful, in a way that’s both playful and not, but she’s glad to have this incontrovertible fact corroborated. Regarding the dress, Chendrea says, “I don’t even know what it’s called. I believe it’s one of a kind? It was an Evoking Day gift from an admirer at the Magaambya.” Reading Nasti’s reaction, she adds, “No one you need to worry about, darling. No one at all. Please, have a seat. I hope you brought your appetite.”
“Indeed I did. This is all your doing?” Nasti sits down (on her tail, which hurts, but keeps it from giving her feelings away) and wonders where to start.
Chendrea opens the wine and pours two glasses. “Oh, yes. I’m something of a gifted cook. Here.”
The candlelight catches the ruby in Nasti’s newly-acquired platinum ring as she takes the glass in her right hand, and her new jade bracelet rattles a little. “To new beginnings?” she asks, once Chendrea finds her seat.
“I’ll drink to that! New beginnings.”
The glasses clink. The wine is sweet and fine; reminding herself that elven wine is stronger than it tastes, Nasti only takes a sip. For now.
“Oh, that’s the good stuff,” Chendrea says as she tastes the wine. She scans the room, peers over the table at the floor beneath Nasti. “You didn’t bring little Canter?”
Nasti has something for this: “I gave him the night off. Since I don’t know when I’ll have another chance to get you alone, I wanted to make sure I had you all to myself.”
“That’s good foresight,” Chendrea says with a wink. “And it keeps me from having to divide my attention, too… mind you, I’m quite taken with Canter. Not every familiar is so cute, or so charming. You know, there’s a wizard in Jewelford who has a clockwork spider for a familiar?”
The conversation is light and airy while they dine; Chendrea talks about arcane matters in the Valley of Obelisks in general and Sumberton in particular, and Nasti is both interested in what she says and how she says it. She claims to have no love for politics, but her position demands that she play that game, and she’s as shrewd and as charming as they come. There’s a ruthlessness hiding behind that charm, too; Nasti would hate to count Chendrea among her enemies.
Chendrea proves knowledgeable in fields both esoteric and mundane. There seems to be no subject she isn’t at least passingly familiar with, and she seems grateful to talk to someone who can keep up with her. Nasti has seldom, if ever, found someone so close to her own level. They agree on more than they don’t, and their disagreements are civil, if… lively.
The wizard gracefully deflects questions about her past, and doesn’t pry about Nasti’s adventuring life, but listens to the tiefling’s tales of growing up in Caliphas with patient interest. Nasti’s grown accustomed to pleasant evenings with her family, but this is one of the few pleasant evenings she’s enjoyed without them since she left Ustalav.
By the time Chendrea serves strawberry tarts and cream for dessert, Nasti has nearly run out of objections to falling madly in love with her.
She realizes that they’ve been talking for hours, and haven’t touched on the thing she’s allegedly come to talk about. “I owe you a story about drow, don’t I?”
Not looking up from her plate, Chendrea holds up a finger. “Dessert first, darling. We’re so close to the end.”
With this final task complete, Nasti pushes away from the table. When the fireberry wine’s depleted, Chendrea’s starts a second bottle, less special but still very tasteful. And tasty. The wizard catches a bit of wistfulness in the tiefling’s contented sigh.
“Everything all right there, Nastassia?” Playful, but concerned.
Nasti opts for honesty: “I should have done this sooner.”
“Yes, you should have.” Still playful, but a little chiding. “Don’t mistake me, darling, I enjoy the game as much as any girl. But I’m very good at it, and I must admit, I was going a little mad guessing why you were so committed to resisting me.”
Chendrea gets up and drags her chair around until there’s only the corner of the table between them, then sits back down. She favors the tiefling with a crooked smile. “If I may say so, you are nothing like what I pictured when I heard a tiefling witch had come to Sumberton.”
“Did I disappoint you?”
“No, darling, you made me disappoint myself.” She gazes at Nasti over her wineglass as she drinks. “With everything I know, I sometimes require a reminder that I don’t know everything”
“Canter told me that on the night we met. I have to ‘keep my cup empty,’ is how he put it.”
“Well said. Spiritual wisdom.” She sets an elbow on the table to prop up her head. Is Chendrea drunk? “You are entirely delightful, and not only because I wonder what makes you tick.”
Nasti refills her glass. “Or, more accurately, why I didn’t want to let you tick me.”
Chendrea’s laugh sends a thrill to every corner of Nasti’s body. “All right, fine. There was, and IS, also that. I mean, you wouldn’t have played with me at all if you’d taken a vow of celibacy, unless you’re just evil.”
“I’m not. Well, I’m not that evil.” She flashes her toothy grin.
“Praise Nethys! And I didn’t think you were courting anyone already. Though I’m still not sure. People say you’re a very private person. Even your cousins don’t seem to know anything about your love life.”
I have a reputation? Huh. Wait, were you asking Amaya and Nova about me? I don’t talk about my love life, with them or anybody else, because there’s never been anything to talk about… but I doubt that’s what she wants to hear. As far as she’s concerned, your Abyssal ancestor was all succubus! “No, I’m not currently courting anyone else. Have you considered that maybe I’m not into women?” Some people aren’t, after all. Amaya is, sure, but Jenova isn’t. Nasti’s still working out what she’s into; so far it’s “people who can match wits with her and aren’t irredeemably evil.”
“Then you’re the only straight tiefling I’ve ever met. I’m sorry, I know that’s an ugly stereotype, but it’s one that my experience hasn’t disproved. Besides, I mean. Look at me.” She indicates her entirety with her free hand, up and down. “No woman’s that straight.” Again, kidding but not kidding.
Nasti laughs and decides to ask a direct question. “Are you seeing anyone right now?”
“No.” If Chendrea is thrown by the directness, she hides it well. “Nothing serious, no. Not at the moment. You’ve come into my life at a very opportune time, indeed.” She leans forward in her chair as far as her supporting elbow allows. She needs that elbow, Nasti thinks. She’s not drunk, but she’s close.
Wait. How drunk am I? I mean, I know taking her to bed tonight would probably be a mistake… but does she know that?
Gods of darkness, I bet her mouth tastes like strawberries and cream. I bet she knows tricks I’ve never even heard of. I bet she could go all night. Like a lumberjack.
NO. Her rational mind throws her heart and lions into an icy lake. You’ve waited two years for this. And so many years before that! You can wait a little longer.
She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment in a long blink.
Okay. A little longer. But some time before Aucturn aligns with Golarion again, yeah? That would give her fifty-four years. Elven blood might carry them both that far, right? Stranger things had happened.
“Maybe so,” Nasti said. “But, if I may, can we put the game aside for a moment? Just for a moment.”
Chendrea simply nodded, but Nasti got the feeling the wizard didn’t like where this was going. Maybe that was for the best.
“The truth – the real truth – is that I’ve felt like a freak most of my entire life. And the only people that have expressed interest in me before I came to Sumberton have been people like Brelaggio.”
“I’m sorry, Brelaggio was the drow we encountered in the Lab. The male one. He was…” She flails around for the right Elven word, and has to shift back to Taldane. “Hot. Hot! He was so hot, Chendrea.” Returning to Elven: “But I don’t want that, and not just because of how dangerous it is. Does that make sense? Does any of it make sense?”
Chendrea sits up straight, nods. “Of course it does. Believe me when I tell you, I don’t think you’re a freak.”
Talking past her: “And, I mean, you flirt with everybody. You were flirting with my cousin just yesterday. And I felt like what you were doing to me, with me, was different, but, I’ll be honest, I don’t have the experience to know the difference.” Are you gonna dump your entire bag of holding out right now in front of Chendrea?
“I get that, sure. It could come off as developing customer loyalty instead of something else. As for Amaya, I just enjoy watching her squirm.”
“Hey, who doesn’t?” Nasti feels an urgent need to lighten the mood she’s created.
She fails. “But I thought – I hoped that you could tell the difference. I know you’re brilliant, Nastassia." She reaches across the table to hold Nasti’s left hand, the four-fingered one, but it’s somehow more reassuring than it is stimulating. “In some things, though? You’re a real dummy.” She smiles sadly.
Nasti feels color rising in her cheeks as her mind’s eye stares into the overflowing cup she thought was empty. “Valeska – the woman who raised me – always said that intelligence and wisdom are two very different things, and not all of us get them in equal measure.”
“She sounds like a very wise woman.”
“She is.” Nasti wonders, again, what it’d take to send a message to Valeska in Caliphas, and hopes she’s doing all right. “But romance is definitely one of my blind spots.”
“It’s all right, Nastassia; we all have to start somewhere. And you’re doing fine so far. You have to consider, though, that I may be the one putting her heart at greater risk, here.” After topping Nasti off, she drains the last of the second wine bottle into her own glass. “You keep putting yourself in danger’s path with your… lifestyle? Secondary career? Or is it primary, now?”
“That isn’t lost on me, no. But I think it might be primary. I’m learning so much about things I didn’t even know were things.”
“There are safer ways to learn similar things,” Chendrea says, as if she knows it won’t make a difference.
“You’re right, but there’s more to it than that.” She meets Chendrea’s gaze. “These remnants of Slaughtergarde… someone with evil intentions could do so much harm with them. If it’s within my power to do something about it, I feel like I have to. Especially if I have something to show for it when all’s said and done.” She attempts a smile. “I know it sounds stupid, but my cousins can be very persuasive.”
“I wonder if they influence you to such things, or if it’s the other way around.” When Nasti makes no pithy reply, Chendrea says, “Shall I tell you how I learned to speak Undercommon? It’s terribly germane to this conversation.”
“Of course.” She squeezes the wizard’s hand tighter.
Chendrea draws in a deep breath. “I was once an adventurer, like you. But, while we were exploring the Darklands, my companions were killed, and I was captured. By duergar.”
“Gods of darkness,” Nasti says. She’s heard stories of the pitiless duergar, of the series of tomes whose code they follow: Successful Methods for the Enslavement of Lesser Races. She wonders how long Chendrea suffered underground, what tortures she endured, how she finally escaped. She knows this is not the time for that conversation. “I am so sorry,” is all she can manage.
“It’s all over and done with.” The wizard is serious, but not sad. Nasti’s eyes are the only ones with tears. Chendrea removes her hand from Nasti’s, holds it in her lap. “But. You can see why I can’t bring myself to approve of your vocation. Still, I wouldn’t dream of holding you back from it. That wouldn’t be fair to either of us. Or to your cousins. Or to… anyone, really.”
“I try not to be too reckless.” It just happens,
“I should hope not.” Chendrea drains the last of the wine. “Anyway, now we’ve cleared the air, at last. My intentions are unobscured. You need time to process. I hear you. I can respect that. Why don’t you help me with all these dishes, and you can tell me more about this hot drow chap you encountered?"
“Oh, there was also a woman, Darvyna, and she was sex in boots, too. But Brelaggio was…. He was so beautiful, it pained my heart that he had to die.”
“I can imagine.” Chendrea gets up with a little difficulty, holding onto the table for support. “Doesn’t seem that long ago that drow were just a spooky story our parents used to get us to finish our meals, and now they’re here, and in Varisia, and who knows where else.” She scoops up as many plates as she can manage.
Nasti stands up too, and immediately regrets it as her head executes a little spin and a thousand pins and needles find her tail.
They clean the dishes without using any magic, and talk until long after midnight about everything, and nothing, and a few things besides that.
* * *
Nasti awakens in the little room behind her tailor’s shop. with no memory of how she got home. She rolls over to find a single lilac flower in the bed beside her, a note curled around it secured with a bit of white ribbon. She reaches for it with a smile.