“A pleasure to meet you.” Taranor stood up from his throne to greet Marisa, giving her hand a tight squeeze before motioning for his guardsmen to leave. “I see that you have not arrived with Barateon’s soldiers, though I can recognize your accent as Middlerealm. Let me see your pack.”
Marisa shifted foot to foot, clinging to her tattered knapsack, clenching her teeth. Unable to meet Taranor’s eyes directly, she almost imperceptibly shook her head.
Lifting his right hand to brush against the hilt of his battleaxe, his left hand bringing Marisa’s chin up to look at him, he asked her once more. A squeeze of her fist brought a current through the floor. Taranor winced.
“Notice how you were the first to act.” He leaned down to touch his leg. “That would be punishable, in any other situation.” Guiding her still-closed fist back to her side, he smiled. “However, that removes any suspicion of your involvement with Barateon. You could help us. We could use a skilled mage on our side.”
“The city is burning. I don’t know what to do. I took the secret route in, but--” Marisa yawned, starting to shift again.
“I know, friend. I will find a place for you to rest.” He started towards the front of the castle. “We will stand in desolation, feet on the ground and blades to the sky, hopes as strong as tempered steel.” The stone steps of Cahbaet shadowed the two figures, Taranor’s soldiers joining the shroud. Looking on to the town center, they began to march.
Marisa unstrapped her staff, leaning it on her night table. Loosening the tie on her hair, she climbed into bed, pulling the canvas blanket over her head.
A presence shook her alert. Opening the door, Taranor found a seat on the edge of Marisa’s bed. Looking at her face, peeking up above the covers, he opened the top drawer of her dresser. His hands scaled the wooden drawers, fingers feeling their emptiness.
“There’s nothing in here.” He looked at Marisa, who lay curled up. “Where did you put your clothes?” She pushed the blanket aside, gesturing to her pack, kicking it with a warm foot. Taranor opened the three metal buckles, lifting out a damp brown vest and maroon leggings. He held the garments up, shaking them out.
“I’m sorry for getting them wet. I suppose a potion bottle must have shattered.” Marisa stood, wiping her forehead, a chill coming in from the small window above their heads.
Taranor reached his hand back into the dripping pack, pulling out a green beaker, tape hanging off the top. “Now, I’m assuming you know more about alchemy than I ever will, but to my knowledge, this was closed with a flimsy tape. You carried this pack all night, jostling it around, and throwing it in the air after our victory. Don’t think I’m blaming you. I can lend you some corks--”
“I don’t drink.” Marisa leaned against the wall assuredly, causing a creak. Taranor smiled.
“Never mind.” He took a rock from the top of the dresser and pulled the door open, placing the rock as a weight. “Come, let us take a walk around the castle. My battlemages have requested to meet you personally.”
When they reached Cahbaet’s mage haven, three battlemages raised their staves above their heads to greet them, Marisa raising hers in response. Taranor stepped aside, relegating himself to the doorway.
“Have you heard about the Sanctum yet?” One of the mages led Marisa through the halls, the rest following as guards. “Erothin destroyed it a few months ago. I’m not sure how fast news travels across Nehrim. I’m Samir, by the way. Nice to meet you.”
“Marisa.” She took a deep breath in. “I was at the Sanctum. I had to flee.”
“I’ve always seen it as so accepting of people like us. I grew up in Erothin and had to spend most of my time in the mages’ cave. I worked on keeping the barrier up so the bell tower wouldn’t affect us. Would have been better to grow up somewhere accepting.”
“I didn’t. I grew up in the Middlerealm too.” Marisa wiped her forehead with her bracer. “Can we stop talking about this? You don’t need to make conversation.”
“Oh. Damn, I’m sorry. I just wanted to ask you how you do that fire spell. The one that threw the soldiers ten feet high!” He brushed a piece of lint off his jacket.
“I don’t like using that one.” Marisa raised her grey hood above her head again, and began to back away. “Taranor’s waiting. I’d better go.”
“He lets you--” Samir cut himself off as Marisa exited the mage haven.
Marisa couldn’t sleep in the room she had set up that night. She had been offered a bed in the mage haven after she had refused her own, but she soon rejected that offer as well. Only as the darkness began to fully set in, she collapsed on the chesterfield in Taranor’s suite. As Taranor arose early, he noticed Marisa asleep in the center of his room; she had fallen to the floor in her sleep.
He reached under her chin, bringing her head from its surely uncomfortable spot curled under her body. Jolting awake, Marisa turned to look at Taranor, wide-eyed.
“Relax.” He sat on the floor beside her. “I don’t want to hurt you. I never did. It’s fine that you’re sleeping in here. It comforted me to know that you were just outside.”
Was this the same man that fearlessly took down his foes last night? Instead of thick leather armor, he wore a light henley and faded pants, his shoulder-length hair let loose. The two of them were alone in Taranor’s suite, both feeling safe, secure. Barateon couldn’t reach them here, and even if he could, they’d defend each other.
“Marisa.” Taranor lay back, resting on his forearm. “We have to discuss why you’re here. I trust you. I trust you with everything I have. However…”
“Why are you in Cahbaet? Why are you in Nehrim at all? Can’t you just board a ship to Enderal and live as a wildmage there?”
She stood up, giving Taranor her hand so he could do the same. “I’m not going to do that.” Leaning into Taranor’s shoulder, she moved into a whisper. “Enderal would hate what I’m trying to do. Do you know who I mean when I say the name--”
He pulled her away. “The room has a mentalist barrier around it. Speak freely.”
“Narathzul Arantheal.” He gasped as she spoke. “I’m trying. I’m trying to find him.”
“That’s quite an interesting venture.” Taranor walked a few steps forward. “Do you have any idea what you’re getting into? He’s been imprisoned since I was a child. Do you honestly think you could do that alone?”
“I’m not alone. I have backing.” Marisa stepped to meet him. “I’m part of a team of mages looking for him.”
“At least there’s a chance you know what you’re doing.” Taranor undid the chain holding his cuirass to a knob on the wall. He loosened the side straps, then pulled it over his head. “Why don’t you get yourself some breakfast? I’ll meet you downstairs.” Marisa gathered her clothes, throwing them into her pack. She ran from the suite and found her way to the kitchen.
“Let me think this over.” Taranor spooned some grits into his bowl. “You have a group of mages and scholars sending you rampant around Nehrim on a mission to find Arantheal.”
“Yes.” She began to tap her foot. “Why do you care so much?”
“You don’t know where to look for him?” Taranor asked. She nodded. “I. Well, Marisa, I used to work for Barateon. I handled many of his documents, and I’m sure he has Arantheal’s location.”
“Do you know?”
“I can’t recall at the moment. Perhaps I have worked with that document in the past, but it’s relatively difficult to remember the contents of a piece of parchment I filed over a decade ago.”
“Do you, at least…”
“Yes, I know the location of the Chancellor’s personal quarters. I also possess one of the only two keys which provide access to the aforementioned quarters.” He took a spoonful of grits and brought it to his mouth. “Let me send a guardsman to retrieve it for you.”
“Get it yourself.”
Taranor found her looking directly at him, unkempt as she was. “Alright. And what if I do? Will you join me?”
They ran back through the double doors to Taranor’s suite. Upon reaching the safe, Marisa unlocked it with a spell, Taranor taking the key and slipping it into her pack. Pausing by the door as they were about to leave, Taranor closed it behind them and glanced back at her.
“Just because I’m giving you this key doesn’t mean I’m permitting you to do this.” He leaned on the wall. “If I didn’t accompany you, you would have found a way to do it behind my back. This way, I know what you’re doing, even though I think it’s a horrible idea.”