The air stank of ale and greed. Into this miasma walked a slight figure, hooded and cloaked despite the sultry Stranglethorn air. It approached the makeshift, ramshackle bar, and bent low to ask a question.
Leering up with a knowing grin, the green-skinned creature behind the bar jerked his head upward and said, “Upstairs, toots. He’s waitin’ for ya.”
The figure scowled uselessly, the mask over her face hiding her irritation from the goblin who would not have cared in any case. Turning with an exasperated sigh, she made her way to the stairs, with effort concealing her distaste at having the slimy goblins pressing by her in the gloom. She took the stairs carefully, alarmed by the discordant creaking of every step.
Why this place, she thought, not for the first time. What possible reason could he have for coming to such a grubby corner of this Light-forsaken Realm. This was why she preferred dealing only with the Lord Protector. He’d never be caught dead in such a vile hole.
At the top of the stairs there was a table, no more or less shabby than the rest of the establishment. At the table was the elf she’d come to meet. The elf who had summoned her to this slum. He sat rigidly erect, the gleaming finery of his Ecclesiastical uniform catching sparks from the torches irregularly placed along the rough walls. As she approached, he looked up at her and smiled pleasantly, saying, “Exactly the point, my dear.”
Stopping short, she replied, “What?”
“You were thinking that there’s no way the Lord Protector would ever come to a place like this.”
“And how do you know that?”
“We’re not what one would call friends, Sulime, but we’ve worked well together for many years. I’ve gotten to know you rather well.”
“Take a seat, Sulime, we have much to discuss.”
Lowering herself into the least uneven chair, she asked, “What did you mean? Are you trying to hide from Him?”
Her companion smiled thinly, thinking he could actually hear the capital letter in Him. In response, he said, “Hiding implies fear. I am merely exercising due caution.”
“Due caution. Sitting here openly, in uniform no less.”
Running a hand down one fine-threaded sleeve almost lovingly, he replied, “This livery and that for which it stands may have been abused to Lord Protector’s ends, but it is one of the few things that still remains to me, and I shall not lightly give it up, my dear.”
Clearly disturbed by his words, Sulime said quietly, “Borænin, you are not making sense. What have you done?”
“Thus far? Nothing. I am here today for your sake, if you want to know.”
Skeptical, Sulime answered, “My sake? As you’ve said, we’re not friends. You’ll forgive me if I doubt your largesse.”
“Nevertheless, I come with a warning.”
“A warning for me?”
Sulime, nonplussed, stretched out with her special senses, doing her utmost to better read the situation. Around herself she felt only the oily sensation of the goblin minds, and of course Borænin. Her own questing tendrils of sense simply slid off the rigidly controlled barrier he always kept on his inner self. After a moment, however, she felt it. A thin thread of intent. It pressed itself lightly on her awareness, barely visible to her inner sight. She was being watched. Every beady little eye in this place was on her. She tensed, preparing herself for the worst.
Borænin remained imperturbable, simply said, “Another advantage of such an establishment. Coin is the only master they serve, and I find it unlikely you brought more than I.”
Hissing at him, she said, “I will not go down easily, you pampered dandy, I will…”
He cut her off impatiently, barking, “Don’t be stupid! I have no intention of harming you. My little green friends are simply insurance. They watch to ensure you do nothing foolish, and I leave here alive. Hear me out, and we can part ways. Nothing else needs to happen.”
Hesitating a moment, Sulime finally gave him a stiff nod, growling, “Say whatever it is you came to say, then.”
“You are in danger, Sulime. And no, not from me. At least, not yet.”
“The Lord Protector.”
Laughing derisively, she said, “We are all in danger from the Lord Protector, that is his nature. We can but ride the wave, Hierarch.”
“You think I do not know this? You think I would drag you here to discuss such vague threats?”
“I have no idea why you summoned me here!”
Sighing, Borænin told her simply, “He speaks openly of replacing you, Sulime.”
Behind her mask, Sulime’s skin went pale as ivory. In a weak voice, she whined, “He wouldn’t.”
“That is foolish talk, my dear. You know very well that he would. He told me directly that you had been ‘whining’ and he was getting fed up with you. He even alluded to taking my new assistant as his plaything.”
Offended, Sulime hissed, “What? That Novice? What did she do to draw his eye?” As she spoke her voice crescendoed, carrying an edge of hysteria.
Laughing bitterly, Borænin countered, “Done? She’s done nothing, you fool. He’s not even met her.”
“Because he tires of you and he is sending a message to me.”
Confused, Sulime asked, “Message? What message?”
Eyeing her as if she was an idiot, he replied, “He is telling me that my toys can become his toys whenever he wishes.”
“Your to…” Her voice stopped cold, and she looked at Borænin in shock. Finally, she said quietly, “I’ve never known you to indulge yourself with your subordinates, Hierarch.”
Making a dismissive gesture, he said, “I’ll not justify myself to you, and it’s beside the point anyway.”
“Fine. Then make your point.”
“I just did. You are in danger of being cast aside. I give you this warning in deference to our years working together. Do with it what you will.”
Her control faltering for a moment, she asked in a small voice, “What, pray tell, can I possibly do?”
“Cryptic answers don’t make you sound wise, Borænin. You just sound like Him.”
Chuckling mirthlessly, he replied, “Fair enough, my dear, fair enough. The question is, what are you willing to do?”
“Whatever He wishes me to do.”
Hearing her earnest reply, a sad look passed over Borænin’s face. He said softly, “I was afraid you would say that.” He touched one finger to the side of his nose, letting the watchers in the room know it was time for them to act.
Before Sulime could react, the zip of darts flying could be heard, and she put a hand suddenly to her neck. Lurching to her feet, she tried to reach for Borænin, but the poison in the darts was very fast. She fell over the table, overturning it and sprawling herself on the uneven floorboards. A yellowish goblin came running over, put his finger to her neck to check her pulse.
“She’s good, boss. Out like a baby. She’ll sleep for a day or so and wake up sick as shit,” he said in response to Borænin’s concerned look.
“See that she recovers. I don’t want her dead, just removed from play for a few days.”
“We’ll keep her on ice, boss, no worries.”
“Four days, Krask. Four days minimum.”
“No sweat, boss. We got it covered.”
“She has abilities you have never dealt with. You have set the wards as I instructed?”
Grinning, the goblin replied, “Brought in a specialist, boss. The coin you threw around buys the best.”
“Very well. When she recovers, when you cut her loose, see that your people are nowhere around. She will not be in a pleasant mood.”
Cackling, Krask replied, “I know the drill, boss, not my first tea party here.”
Nodding, Borænin turned and left dingy tavern.
Now, I am truly committed, he thought.