Chapter Eleven

                                                               Artemis
 
 

         The Merry Halfling, Athos' destination, loomed up on the left, its worn wooden sign (which depicted a halfling holding a mug of foaming beer aloft, hair feet propped up jauntily on the table before him) hanging unmoving in the slight breeze.
         He felt a tremor born of nervousness flutter in his stomach, which built steadily as he approached the front steps.  It grew and grew, and when he reached them he lost his nerve, and walked by the front doors nonchalantly, continuing down the street.
         He walked on until he reached the end of the block, raging at his foolishness internally but maintaining an outward facade of unconcern, then stopped as if he had forgotten something and turned back towards the inn.
         His gaze passed over it as though he could care less, as if it were just another sight, but the nervous flutter returned to his stomach, and his knees felt wobbly.  He continued past the steps once again.
         This time he walked two blocks before he stopped, before turning himself around boldly.  He was furious with himself.  This was silly!  He was Athos, trained by the Viper himself!  He would just go into the inn and see if she was there!
         The Merry Halfling came into view again as he walked, and he felt his nervousness return.  Quickly he shoved down his anxiety, replacing it with bravado and striding forward more purposefully.  He would go in!
         Inwardly, his mind was in turmoil.  What if she was there?  What would he do then?  Should he stay, and order something to eat, ignoring her?  Would that be rude?  Would it be more foolish-looking if he approached her?  What would he say to her if he did?   What if she didn't recognize him?  What if she wasn't alone?  How could he leave without approaching her?
         He knew that turning and running from the inn would be the silliest thing he could do, but he wasn't certain that that wouldn't be exactly the action he would take.
         The wooden steps of the inn loomed before him, and he halted momentarily.
         This is foolish, he though, climbing the stairs slowly.  It was early noon and there wasn't much chance she would even be here.  Yes, she probably wasn't here.
         The wooden door stood before him, but suddenly he was frozen, unable to make himself reach for the handle.
         This was ridiculous!   He was Athos!  Invincible in battle!  He had faced the Viper!  No mere girl should be able to make his knees knock together so!  Why should he care about her?  He'd only met her twice in his life.
         "I won't!" he said suddenly, wincing as he realized he had spoken aloud.
         He turned to go.
         Artemis was coming up the steps behind him.
         His heart jumped into his throat.  She hadn't looked up yet.  What should he do?  What should he say?  Mentally he tried to compose himself, and failed miserably, wondering about his appearance.  Was his exression foolish?  Was his hair mussed?  Did he appear as nervous as he felt?
         She looked up at the top of the stairs, wondering who was blocking the door.
         "Oh!" said Athos, a little too loudly to his own ears, as he turned to let her pass.  "I'm sorry!"
         Brilliant opening, he thought to himself.  His voice had cracked on the 'sorry', and it sounded as weak as he felt.  Inwardly he kicked himself.
         "Athos!" she said, smiling.  "I wondered when you would appear again.  I've missed you."
         He tried to keep the adrenaline out of his voice.  "I did?  I mean.. you did?"
         "Yes," she smiled warmly.  "You were such good company that night."
         Athos hadn't thought he'd been very good company.  He smiled though, some of the tension easing out of him.
         "Well, were you coming in or going out?" she asked, indicating the open door.
         "Coming out," he blurted.  "I mean, going in."
         She smiled again.  "Great, let's have lunch together."
         Athos blushed, his heart racing, and followed her in.
         "Hello Zip!" she beamed as she stopped to speak with the innkeeper.  Athos stood behind her, shifting uncomfortably and wondering whether he should proceed to a table or try to join in the conversation.
         "Hi Art," he answered, sparing her a quick glance, then looking over to where Athos stood.  "Hello, then.  Who've you brought with you?  You're new boyfriend?"
         Athos flushed, feeling very uncomfortable, and began wishing he'd proceeded to the table instead of waiting.  What would Artemis think of the halfling's comment?
         "Not yet," she replied easily, with a knowing smile.  "Not yet."
         "It's me, Athos," he put in, trying to steer the conversation in a different direction.  "I was in here not long ago-"
         Zip chuckled, holding up a palm to forestall argument.  "I was only teasing you.  I never forget a face, and there's not much chance of forgetting yours."  He leaned toward Athos and winked.  "Have a good time with her."
         Now Athos felt very, very uncomfortable with the turn the conversation had taken.  Surely she would be offended by that.
         Artemis, though, only laughed musically, turning away.
         Zip chuckled and went back to cleaning glasses.
         Athos turned back to Artemis.  She was scanning the room, looking for something.
         "Looking for someone?" he asked her, then immediately winced.  Had that sounded as bad as he thought it had?  "I.. I mean, are you looking for Jitinder, or some of your other friends?"
         "No," she answered distractedly, "Jitinder never eats lunch.  He's up all night, and sleeps late into the days sometimes.  He finds that afternoon meals don't agree with him.  I was looking for a table... There's one."  She pointed.   "It'll do wonderfully, I think."
         It was a table for two, situated far back in the room, away from most of the other customers.
         It didn't look like a wonderful table to Athos.  He wasn't used to eating with other people.  This was going to be uncomfortable enough as it was, without it being intimate as well.
         During the meal, Athos found himself wishing fervently that Jitlin did eat lunch, and that, more importantly, he was here now.  Jitlin, with his witty style and his good humor, had provided all the interesting dinner conversation last time.
         Now the meal seemed to drag on forever, as the two sat in uncomfortable silence.
         Artemis tried to make lighthearted conversation, but Athos didn't know how to respond.
         He wished the meal would come to an end, even though he didn't dare eat anything in any way other than slowly and deliberately for fear it would be ill-mannered.
         "I wish Jitinder were here," he said suddenly.
         "Oh?"
         "He's so much better at talking than I am."
         She gave a laugh.  "I'm sorry," she said, "it was just the way you said that.  So innocent.  Jitinder?  Yes, I suppose he can be a lot of fun to be around sometimes.  Most of the time I get tired of him, though - he's really kind of an ass.  He goes far beyond the bounds of civility just to get a laugh.  I like being alone with you much more."
         Athos flushed, then stared down at his plate.  "Thank you," he managed to mumble.
         "So, how long are you staying in Calimport this time?"
         He looked up again.  "Only until nightfall."
         She smiled   "It seems to me that you are probably missing the best sights this city has to offer."
         "Oh?"
         She nodded seriously.  "Yes.  I've got plenty of free time today.  Why don't you let me show you Calimport, as you've never seen it before."
         I must be doing something right! thought Athos.
         "Why,  umm, I... Well, why do not you?"   That hadn't sounded quite right.
         Artemis leaned back, uncertain.  "You don't have to if you don't want to."
         "No!" he said quickly.  "I mean Yes!"
         She still looked uncertain.
         "I mean... I'd love to," he clarified.
         Her smile returned.  "Well, then, it's a date."

                                                                     * * *

         Nekiset looked up from the precious wine she was sampling, annoyed at the interruption.  "What news have you?" she demanded.
         The servant bowed low, terrified.  "We have been unable to locate the one they call Nighthunter, great mistress.  Apparently, he only comes out at night."
         She flung the wine into his eyes.  "Fool!  that is not news!  Leave, and if you have not found the one they call Nighthunter by midnight you will find yourself on the sacrificial altar of Set!  Every moment that passes, the one we seek gets further away!"
         The man scurried out, wiping his eyes furiously.  In his panic to leave he did not see the high priest, who was entering, and stumbled into him.
         "Imbecile!" roared Hodkamset, making even Nekiset jump.
         He raised an ornamental whip, and began putting it to good use.
         After a few moments, he ceased his assault and stalked into the room while the man slinked off.
         "Who was that idiot?" he demanded.
         "A fool who brough news of failure."
         "Failure in what?"
         "Locating the Nighthunter."
         Hodkamset turned, looking into the now-empty corridor after the departed man.  "He will grace our altar tonight!" he pronounced, smiling grimly.
         "I promised him such a fate if he did not return with news of Nighthunter's discovery." she replied coolly.
         Hodkamset turned back to her, his eyes blazing.  "And I say he will be sacrificed regardless!  Have a care to remember your place, witch!"
         Nekiset shrank back from him, as if expecting a blow.  "I'm sorry," she said quietly, while inwardly she raged.

                                                                    * * *

         Athos smiled.  Artemis was sampling the exotic silks from Amn, putting them on and pantomiming a regal princess.
         She was being playful, but he couldn't see her as anything else but a princess.
         All day she had shown him the wonders of Calimport.  They had wandered the bazaars, seen the works of the city's greatest artists, sculptors, and architects.  They had wandered through some of the more famous museums, and gazed at the city's greatest palaces.
         Athos wasn't particularily impressed with any of them, but he was impressed nonetheless - by Artemis.  She was beautiful and vibrant, and he felt alive when he was with her.  Moreover, he felt like he was someone.
         Gradually she'd coaxed him out of his shell, and now he laughed with her freely, and felt all his earlier discomfort slip away.  he felt as if he were in heaven, if he deserved such a place.
         She put down the silks as the owner of the shop shooed them out, realizing they weren't here to buy.
         "Oh, well," said Artemis.   "There are other purses to slit!"
         Athos smiled at her.
         She began whistling a spry old sailor's song, and Athos stopped, surprised.  "How do you do that thing with your lips?" he asked earnestly.
         She rocked back.  "What thing?  Whistling?"
         "I suppose.  What you were just doing."
         "They don't have whistling where you come from?" she asked, surprised.  "Well, first you pucker your lips, just so," she explained, doing just that.
         Athos imitated her.
         "Then you blow air through them.  Constrict them when you want to make a higher note; loosen them when you want to go lower."
         Athos blew, but no sound came out except for a whoosh of air.
         Artemis laughed.  "No, no!" she said, leaning closer, "Round your lips, like this."
         Suddenly their faces were only inches apart, and Athos found himself staring into her eyes.
         Athos leaned forward slightly, and their lips touched in a tender kiss.
         A moment later, he jerked back, flushing.  "I... I'm sorry."
         "Don't apologize," she said, pulling him closer again.
         This time she kissed him.

                                                                 * * *

         On his way back to the portal, Athos whistled brightly, clicking his heels and dancing every few steps, intoxicated with a feeling he had never felt before.
         He would definitely be making more trips to this city in the future!

                                                                 * * *

         "We have located the one they call Nightrunner.  He is hardly more than a boy."
         Nekiset looked up at the man, her eyes turning his blood to ice.
         "He is under constant surveillance," the man stammered.
         "You are to be sacrificed tonight," she said, smiling cruelly.
         "But.. but it's well before midnight, and you said-"
         "I changed my mind," she said, almost annoyed.  "You should feel honored"