The group rise in a staggered pattern the next morning. Aleph, of course, never slept. He is tuning his baliset by the embers of last night’s fire when Keothi emerges into the common room of the Cat & Squirrel. The goliath orders an entire loaf of plain bread and begins to eat in stolid silence. Gerard follows shortly afterwards, then Nubbins, and finally Cyd, who clatters down the stairs as if she’s never snuck around beneath a Cloak of Stealth in her life, before wandering into the kitchen to request every breakfast food they have be delivered to the table.
As the party tuck in to their piles of food, Keothi taps Gerard on the arm. “That woman has been staring at you for some time now,” he says, in an undertone. “I believe she may be a spy.”
Gerard immediately turns to look, reddening as he spots an attractive, half-elven woman with long white hair. She catches his eye and smiles, then walks over to the party’s table.
“Good morning,” she says, holding out a hand for Gerard to shake. “I’m Saph!”
Gerard nods at her through a mouthful of bread, swallowing a slightly too-large chunk before answering. “Um, good morning. How can I—err, we—?”
“I’m glad you asked,” Saph interjects, before he has finished the question. “I do have a favour, actually, and when I heard that the Heroes of Phandalin were in town and helping clear out the undead from the temple, I thought the opportunity was too good to pass up.”
“I think you must be mistaken. We did assist the temple of Chauntea, but we’re not the—” Gerard trails off as he notices the rest of the party shuffling awkwardly. “Wait… you’re all heroes?”
“Yep,” Cyd says. “Saved a village, found an ancient, magical mine. It was a whole thing.”
“You never mentioned this!”
Cyd shrugs. “You never asked.”
Gerard turns back to Saph, his blush deepening. “My apologies. It would appear that we are the Heroes of Phandalin, plus me. I am Gerard, by the way, monk of Oghma.”
Saph grins. “A monk of Oghma? That’s perfect! Besides the pursuit of knowledge being a shared goal of mine, the favour I was intending to ask may interest you particularly.” She pulls a sheaf of notes from a pack at her waist and spreads them out across the breakfast table, shunting aside a platter of bacon and some empty glasses.
“I have been researching Oghma—well, his children, really—for some time now,” she begins.
Now it is Gerard’s turn to interrupt. “You have? What have you discovered? Very little is known about Oghma’s demigod offspring,” he adds, for the benefit of his companions. “Many have not so much as been sighted for—for centuries! New insights as to their whereabouts, their nature, would be immensely exciting!” His eyes widen at the thought. “Have you any?”
Saph considers her notes. “I have a—let’s call it a theory, but I need a certain artefact, a painting, in order to confirm it. You can only get so far perusing the books in Candlekeep, you know. At a certain point, you have to go and verify your hypotheses through empirical observation.”
Gerard almost falls off his chair. “In—In C-c—You mean to tell me that you’ve been to Candlekeep?”
“All the time,” Saph says breezily.
Cyd raises an eyebrow. “I’ve heard of Candlekeep,” she says. “My dah always said it was sewn up tighter than a nun’s—than something that’s been sewn up very tight. They won’t even let you through the door unless you give them a book they don’t have in their library. And they have everything in their library.” She gives Saph a hard look. “So how did you get in?”
“I am fortunate enough to have some connections there,” Saph replies. “Anyway, my point was, I’ve achieved all I can in Candlekeep. I need this portrait in order to continue my research, and I think that it’s here, in Greenest keep. I’d like your help to acquire it.”
Keothi coughs. “I do not trust her.”
“I could cast Zone of Truth again!” Nubbins says, bouncing up and down in his seat. “Then we can ask if she’s telling the truth and she’ll have to tell the truth and we’ll know if she’s telling the truth!”
“That would be extremely discourteous,” Gerard returns, frowning. “This scholar has come to us asking for our aid. She is not some prisoner for us to interrogate!”
“Oh, come on, Ger,” Cyd mutters. “This pretty bookworm stumbles in, looking for a fellow Oghma enthusiast, and you just happen to be on hand? I know a con when I see one.”
“If she has nothing to hide, she has nothing to fear,” Keothi adds.
Saph, who appears unfazed by the conversation going on around her, shrugs. “Mistrust me all you like. If you decide to help me, you’ll see that I’ve been nothing but honest with you.”
Without realising it, the group have turned towards Aleph. The Warforged considers for a moment, his eyes flickering like the fire by his side. “Wordweaver is right,” he says at last. “An honest person need not shrink from a test of their honesty. But perhaps our new acquaintance would take it less amiss if Nubbins were to cast his spell on one of our own number as well, as a gesture of good faith.”
Gerard sighs. “If you all insist on being so suspicious, then so be it. Cast the spell on me, too.”
Nubbins looks troubled. “I don’t want to be rude, but if this is what everyone thinks is best…” He takes out his lute and plays the slow, graceful melody of the spell. Gerard’s eyes glaze over, but Saph furrows her brow, her shoulders tensing as she braces herself against the lure of the enchantment.
“Um, Saph, I noticed that you resisted the spell,” Nubbins says meekly. “Maybe I could cast it again and you could… not resist it?
Saph’s smile does not meet her eyes. “I am tolerating this mistrust because I would still like your help, but make no mistake that Gerard is right—this is highly discourteous. I won’t submit to be probed like a common criminal. You must take me at my word for this arrangement to make sense.”
“Oh, this was a bad idea,” Nubbins groans. He puts down his lute and turns to the rest of the party. “No more truth spells! I trust Saph. I don’t think we should question her any more.”
Keothi shrugs. “As you wish. But I don’t trust Gerard either,” he points out, “and I would like to take the opportunity to question him while he is under the influence of your spell. Are you here to kill us or secretly hinder our mission?” he asks the monk.
Gerard rolls his eyes. “No, obviously not.”
“Are you really a human monk?”
“Are you a member of the Cult of the Dragon?”
“Are you Glassstaff in disguise?”
“Is that your real beard?”
“What? Yes, of course it—why would I have a fake beard??”
Keothi turns to Nubbins. “I believe that he has resisted your spell and is carrying poison in his fake beard.”
Nubbins shakes his head. “Nope, I don’t think so!” Then he turns to Saph. “I’m sorry for being rude. I won’t use that spell again!”
“Let us say no more about it,” Saph replies. “Now, will you help me?”
“Of course!” Gerard breaks in. “I can’t speak for the others, but I’ll do anything you want!”
Cyd snorts. Gerard’s ears and cheeks go cherry-red. “Thrice-damned Zone of Truth spell,” he mutters. “What I meant to say is, I’m listening.”
Saph’s smile is more genuine now, and tinged with amusement. “Right,” she says, getting back down to business. “This painting I told you about will satisfy a question I have concerning the demi-god Kaax. He’s a nature deity. Now, I believe the painting is in a private collection in Greenest keep, but Governor Nighthill refuses to see me to discuss it. Says he’s too busy.” She waves a hand impatiently. “Apparently, siege preparedness is considered more important than academic research around here—can you believe it? But you have the Governor’s ear—I heard he thanked you personally for your help at the temple. If you could just get him to agree to talk to me, you’d be doing me a great service, and helping to further the cause of knowledge.”
“An eminently reasonable request,” Gerard says. He glares at Cyd and Keothi. “I think I speak for all of us when I say that we’d be happy to assist.”
Nubbins nods emphatically. Cyd smirks. Keothi shrugs. “I suppose I do not have anything better to do.”
“Great!” Saph says. “Follow me!”
Nighthill is in the main hall when the group arrive at the keep, poring over yet more maps and charts as he discusses securing the main roads into the town. “Good morning,” he says. “We have kept the prisoners watered and fed on what we can spare. Do you wish to question them again?”
“Thank you, Governor,” Aleph replies, “but we are here on other business this morning.”
Nighthill frowns as he spots Saph standing a little way behind the group. “This is about the painting, isn’t it? I have told this young lady—repeatedly—that immediately before a siege is not the time to discuss such matters.” He pauses, looking from Saph to Aleph and back again. “If you vouch for her, however…” he concedes.
“We do,” Gerard says. “And we promise to take up as little of your time as possible. Would you show us the keep’s paintings?”
Nighthill gestures to a small gallery on the other side of the hall. “Such as we have are over there,” he says. “I’ll be here, if you require further assistance.”
Saph ushers them over to the other side of the room and surveys the paintings ranged along the wall there.
“What do you know about the painting you seek?” Aleph asks her.
“Not much,” Saph admits. “It could be any of these. We’ll need to design an experimental regimen to—”
“Could it be that one?” Gerard asks, pointing to a painting at the end of the wall. It’s a small, dingy picture of an owl in flight. “The owl is one of Oghma’s symbols.”
“It is likely the owl,” Keothi confirms, holding a hand over the painting. “It radiates strong Conjuration and Abjuration magic.”
“Well, that was quick! Looks like I made the right choice when I came to you! So,” Saph looks around shiftily, “how do we steal it?”
Aleph’s eyes flare. “This painting belongs to the town of Greenest. We cannot simply—”
The half-elf cuts him off with a chuckle. “Relax, I was just messing with you! I want to buy it. Perhaps you can help me agree on a price with the Governor?”
The Warforged nods at Nighthill, who joins them in the gallery. “Did you find what you were looking for?” he asks.
“We did,” Aleph says, “and our friend here is hoping to purchase it. Does it have a price?”
Nighthill studies the small portrait thoughtfully. “My predecessors kept purchase records. I’m sure it will be in there somewhere.” He strides away, returning a few minutes later with a large, leather-bound tome.
“Let me see, let me see… Ah, yes. Owl at Sunset… purchased forty-seven years ago for the sum of 2,500gp.” He looks up. “With our coffers in the state they are, I would be hard pressed to sell it for less than that, even to friends.”
Cyd turns to Saph, open-mouthed. “Is that the kind of price you were expecting?”
“I don’t know. Is it a good price?”
“How much money do you have?”
Saph produces a small bag and opens the top, exposing a cavernous space filled with coins and gems of all denominations. Cyd boggles.
“Where did you get all that?!”
“My research mission is well funded.” Saph addresses Nighthill. “I would be more than happy to pay the 2,500 gold. If you don’t mind accepting platinum pieces, that is?”
Nighthill takes a moment to process this offer. “Erm…Yes, of course, platinum pieces are not a problem. I’ll take the money over the profit at the moment; with the siege almost upon us, we could certainly use the funds.”
A few minutes later, the party walk out of the keep with Saph, the painting tucked carefully under her arm. Gerard walks by her side, matching his pace to hers and darting frequent glances, both at the mysterious portrait and at the half-elf herself, scarcely any less mysterious.
“Does the painting confirm your theory?” he asks her. And then, a new thought occurring to him, “does it contain a clue, perhaps, as to Kaax’s whereabouts?”
Saph looks at him, a smile playing around her lips. “Yes, it does,” she says. “In fact, with this painting in my possession, I think it’s safe to say that I’ve found Kaax.”
She holds the painting up triumphantly. “He’s right here.”
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