The Embezzled Hoard

Aleina's eyes widened as she entered the dining cabin. The feast laid out on golden platters on top of the mahogany table would have been surprising enough, but then there was also the fit and trim muscular man. He wore a red loincloth. A purple wide brimmed hat with a white feather. An eyepatch. Crisscrossing red leather straps over his chest.

And nothing else.

The aasimar decided things had just gotten decidedly strange.

"Welcome aboard the Eyecatcher," the man said, raising a wine goblet in greeting. "Zardoz Zord, at your service."

Their host wasn't even the only scantily clad occupant of the room. A dusk skinned, blue eyed, brown-haired woman played a lyre in the corner and a dark-haired woman with skin the color of cinnamon and a toned and athletic build sat at her feet. Both wore only short silk chemises with matching underpants. The strap of the musician's top had fallen off one shoulder and she stopped playing to flip it back in place, then gave them all an embarrassed smile. Aleina found it bizarre the lyre player found that little detail embarrassing. As if playing for a group of strangers in under garments of very thin silk was all fine and normal, but only if you didn't accidentally reveal a bare shoulder while doing it.

Zord drained his wine goblet then tossed it aside with a flourish. Rather than clatter off the wooden wall of the cabin the drinking vessel tinked against the metallic hand that reached up and snatched it out of the air midflight.

Things were getting stranger still.

Behind the high-backed chair at the head of the table was some sort of mechanical man. The aasimar hadn't noticed it before because of the obscuring chair and the attention-grabbing attire, or rather lack thereof, of the others in the cabin. With clanking steps, the humanoid construct came out from behind the chair, walked to the table and set down the wine goblet. It was the most dressed of any of them, wearing a fine red coat with long tails. Geometric designs were embroidered into the coat in golden thread in a chaotic pattern.

"What is that?" Sky asked, tail lashing.

"That is a nimblewright," Zord said. "Terribly useful and obedient. This one is named Ratchet and he is my favorite of the pair I own."

The nimblewright was about to refill the goblet with a bottle of green wine it had retrieved from the table, but now froze in place, as still as a statue.

"Oh, are you Jacks?" Zord asked.

The automaton head moved up and down in an affirmation of whirring gears.

"My mistake," Zardoz said, shrugging. "This is Jacks, most definitely the favorite of my pair of nimblewrights."

The nimblewright, Jacks, proceeded with the pouring, then clanked off to stand behind the high backed chair once more.

"We seem to have caught you at an inopportune time," Kuhl said.

The half-elf appeared to not know where to look. His gaze flitted from the Zord to his two female companions, then quickly back to Zord. There he seemed to find the top of the man's hat very fascinating as he focused his eyes there.

"Nonsense," Zord said, with an airy wave. "I invited you to lunch with us. But I told them to tell you formal dress was not required. Which implicitly meant informal undress was preferred."

At the time of the invitation, Aleina had thought the little detail about formal attire was an unusual thing to mention for an impromptu lunch.

"So, make yourselves comfortable," Zord said. "And feel free to lose any unwanted clothing to do so."

With that, their host strutted his way to the high-backed chair at the head of the table and sat, his two female companions joining him.

"I'll at least loosen this collar," Sky said, fingers seeking under the ruffles of her shirt to find buttons. "This thing is choking me. I am Red Sky in the Morning by the way."

The tabaxi went to the table and pulled back a chair, but Jhelnae spoke before she sat, and her cold tone stopped Sky in her tracks.

"We're not here for a social visit," the half-drow disguised as a human said. "We're here to deliver a message to Jarlaxle Baenre from the Open Lord. So, either you know where he is, you are him, or we're on our way."

"Jar-lax-el Bay-en-ray?" Zord asked. "What an odd sounding name. Never heard it before. I feel sorry for the bearer of that name. Such a mouthful. I much prefer the much more common place Zardoz Zord."

He gave Jhelnae a pleasant smile and motioned towards the empty chairs. The disguised half-drow's hands balled into fists in response and her eyes narrowed.

"Stop playing games," she said. She pulled the wax sealed scroll tube out of her pocket. "You want to learn the Open Lord's response? Then tell us who you really are."

The man sitting at the end of the table eyed the scroll tube with intense interest, but his smile never faltered, nor lost its smirking nature.

"My name is Zardoz Zord," he said. "And games are fun. It seems to me you could use some fun. I could certainly help with that. Just ask Khafeyta and Margo here."

In response his female companions, Khafeyta and Margo apparently, each gave contented sighs and put a hand on Zord's arms. Aleina recognized them now. They were performers in the Faire. Her group had seen their shows while they scouted the dockside carnival. Khafeyta was an acrobat and Margo played the lyre and sang with a beautiful voice. They were performing even now, each of them not missing their cues. Jhelnae recognized it as well.

"Just like a male," she said. "Trying to impress with us with his supposed sexual prowess. But, to my way of thinking, all that little act told me was neither of these ladies had any faith you could fully satisfy them."

The half-drow paused for effect, meeting the man in the red loincloth's gaze.

"Unless they brought a friend along to help," she finished.

The eyes of the women on either side of Zord widened, then they brought hands to mouth, trying to cover their smiles of amusement. It took a moment longer for the man seated between the two women to puzzle it out. Then his single eye glittered with understanding. To Aleina's surprise he barked out a laugh.

"Oh, ho," he said. "You are a quick witted and sharp tongued one. I didn't catch your name?"

"Jhelnae Mizzrym," the half-drow said,

Unlike the man she spoke with, she didn't seem to find anything funny. No trace of humor or joking was in her expression.

"An interesting name," Zord said. "One that really doesn't fit a human."

He studied the half-drow, but the way he cocked his head made it seem he looked at her with the eye covered by the patch rather than his uncovered one.

"I am no human," Jhelnae said. "But you know that already. Just like we know who you are. So are you ready to drop the act and receive the message of the Open Lord? Or not?"

She again held up the scroll tube. Zord once more motioned to the empty seats. This time, the half-drow, illusioned as a human, moved forward and sat at the table. The others followed her lead, Sky finally getting to sit.

"So how is the Open Lord of the city?" Zord asked when they'd all settled. "Try the braised pheasant and poached eggs. Quite delicious."

He took his own advice and Aleina did as well, scooping some onto the golden plate in front of her, then slicing an egg and taking a bite. It was soft with a runny yolk and marinated in the same garlic sauce as the pheasant, which was also delicious and tender. The nimblewright clanked around the table filling wine goblets.

"A bit angry about being lured into the Blue Alley and made to fight stone versions of herself," Jhelnae said. "Which is understandable."

"Interesting way to court a potential ally," Kuhl said, taking a sip from his wine goblet. A look of surprise crossed his face, and he took another drink. "This has a very interesting flavor."

"Spiced Green Wine," their host said. "Rare on the surface, but I have a reliable caravan source. Or I did, anyway. Might get rare even for me. As far as the Open Lord goes, imagine being the daughter of the goddess of magic, imbued with divine silver fire, and spending all your days doing paperwork you can't burn to ash and meeting with bureaucrats you can't set aflame? Whoever lured her into the Blue Alley, and I don't know who would have done such a thing of course, did her a favor in letting her cut loose."

Despite herself, Aleina somewhat agreed. She'd seen all the paperwork laid out in teetering piles in Laeral's office. Sky verbalized these thoughts.

"Oh, I think she enjoyed it," the tabaxi said. "You should have seen her. All blazing with silver flame and hair swirling. Even her eyes were fiery and shining."

"That would be something to see," Zord said. "Hidden, from a distance, and preferably not the target of her wrath."

He held up his hand in a catching motion. He'd not said he was Jarlaxle Baenre, but he'd all but admitted it. Apparently, it was enough for Jhelnae because she tossed him the scroll tube. He caught it, admired the wax seal for a moment with the impression of the signet ring of the Open Lord, then popped the top. The others at the table ate and drank while he read. The wine did have an interesting flavor - spiced and a bit salty. It fizzed a bit as it touched the tongue and left a tingling sensation in the wake of a drink. The aasimar had to admit, it complemented the pheasant and poached eggs quite well.

As he looked at the message from the Open Lord, the expression on their host's face changed. Since they'd entered, he'd played the role of the irrepressible scamp. But his mien grew more serious as he read and, in Aleina's opinion, he looked more handsome as well. Here was the charismatic leader of keen intelligence the Open Lord had warned them about.

"I know of no connection between the Dock Ward killings and the Faire," the man said, setting aside the scroll. "But rest assured I will look into it, and if I find a connection, it will be dealt with."

Controlled anger in his tone told Aleina he expected to find a connection. That he already had a suspicion. But she also believed it was a suspicion newly formed. Something he only just realized because they brought the matter to his attention.

"Dealt with how?" Jhelnae asked.

"As I see fit," he answered.

"That isn't good enough," the half-drow said.

"It will have to be," their host said, single eye hardening.

For a time, their host and Jhelnae glared at each other across the table and all eating and drinking ceased as an uncomfortable silence fell. Their host broke first, but not in concession. He laughed. He took a bite of pheasant, savoring it.

"Jarlaxle Baenre," he said, chewing. "Sounds like a drow name. From the Underdark. If I am who you suspect me to be, do you know how many scowling stares of disapproval I would have endured from angry females?"

"A lot I am guessing," Sky said. "Ilvara's and Asha's faces were stuck in permanent scowls."

"A lot," he agreed. "So, the stare you are giving me would merely feel like a remembrance of home. Really a reminder of why I left."

He raised his wine goblet in salute to Jhelnae and took a sip. Aleina was too busy worrying to look to her friend to see her reaction. A spark of recognition had registered on their host's face when Sky had said Ilvara's name. The aasimar didn't like the way he looked at them now, giving a contemplative glance at the illusioned Jhelnae again with his patched eye, then to Aleina, to Sky, and to Kuhl. His lips pursed and she felt she could almost read his thoughts in his expression - "a drow, an aasimar, a tabaxi, and a half-elf."

He had just made the connection between Ilvara and a group of escaped prisoners that included a member of each of those races. She was sure of it.

She suddenly felt very exposed and very vulnerable. But their host merely shrugged and smiled.

"This is a lunch party, and you are my honored guests and respected messengers of the Open Lord," he said. "Eat. Drink. Enjoy. And after you are done, as messengers, you will convey my reply. Which is this - any connection I find regarding the Dock Ward killing and the Faire will be handled. As I see fit."

He motioned as he spoke for them all to start eating again, but for the last line he looked to Jhelnae with an unwavering gaze. She remained silent, though the tension in her jaw told the aasimar it was hard for her to do so. But there was truth in what he said. They were only messengers. It was playing out as the Open Lord predicted. If they had any proof, even a name of the suspected individual responsible rather than the vague notion that it was someone on the crew and carnival consisting of three ships, troops could be sent to make an arrest. For now, the best course of action would be to get the killings to stop first and try to find justice for those already dead later.

"Now, as to the other matter," their host said. "She wants to know what Jarlaxle Baenre, whoever that is, might be doing in Waterdeep. Not being Jarlaxle Baenre, I cannot answer that. I can only tell you that Zardoz Zord and the Sea Maiden's Faire is here primarily to entertain and help the citizens forget their problems and dreary politics."

The facade of Zardoz Zord settled over their host again.

"Including an act with a singing voice as beautiful as a siren and lyre playing to match," Khafeyta, the acrobat said.

"And one with the mistress of high wires, the trapeze, and aerial silk," Margo, the lyre player said.

The two grinned at each other from either side of Zord.

"We saw both of your acts. Amazing," Kuhl said, but he focused on their host. "You said primarily here to entertain. That implies another purpose as well."

"Why so I did," Zord said, raising his goblet in toast towards the half-elf and taking a sip.

"So, what is the other purpose?" Sky asked, golden eyes bright and tail lashing.

She apparently had her fill of pheasant and eggs and was ready to move onto dessert, because she plucked up one of the gingerbread warriors facing an owlbear, also made gingerbread, off the top of a frosted cake and popped it in her mouth.

"I am searching for something," Zord said. "Something I plan to give to the Open Lord so she can do a great deal of good with it. Both for the city itself and for the smaller communities around it."

"What would that something be? Aleina asked.

"A hoard of half a million gold dragons," their host said.

Stunned silence met this statement among the companions. Margo and Khafeyta, apparently having heard this all before, were not affected and carried on with the feast, the acrobat slicing a piece of the frosted cake for herself while the lyre player pulled the owlbear cookie off the top. Jhelnae recovered her voice first.

"A half million gold dragons," she said. "Is this about Neverember's supposed embezzled cache of treasure? Don't you read the Waterdeep Wazoo? We know his son. We rescued him. He told us it is probably just a wild rumor that took on a life of its own."

"I have read the Wazoo since we came to Waterdeep, of course," their host said. "Most of it is useless drivel, but amusing. Occasionally, however, you can uncover a rare gem of real intelligence. I didn't know your friend was that aasimar."

Aleina was absently aware of Zord and his companions looking at her and realizing she was the Runaway Aasimar Bride. But for her own part, she was caught up in imagining what she could do with half a million of the gold coins of Waterdeep! Like restoring the family fortune of the Dlusker family beyond what it had ever been - the manor house in Baldur's Gate completely renovated, other homes purchased to alleviate the crowding in it, and also prudent investments to keep the coins rolling into coffers to continue supporting future generations. It took an effort of will to pull herself away from her daydream and focus her attention on the conversation around her.

"You expect us to believe," Jhelnae said. "That you know where half a million gold dragons are hidden and that if you retrieve them, you'll give them over to the Open Lord?"

"I didn't say I knew where the hoard was," Zord said. "Or I wouldn't be searching for it would I? As for giving it all away, is it so hard to believe in my generous spirit?"

"No offense," the half-drow said. "But you don't strike me as a generous spirit. More like a thoroughly self-serving narcissist."

"You know, I don't believe you about the not meaning any offense part," their host said. "Her, I would tend to believe and the other two, most definitely, but not you."

He pointed at Aleina, Sky, and Kuhl in turn.

"He is a bit narcissistic," Margo said.

"And a bit self-serving," Khafeyta said.

"But also very generous," the lyre player said.

"Especially as a lover," the acrobat said.

Their host's two female companions each grabbed one of Zord's hands and favored him with a tender smile.

"There you have it," their host said, gently pulling free his hands to mime a wounded heart. "You wrong me. I am just a generous soul."

"I think I'm going to throw up," the half-drow said, rolling her eyes and motioning just below her chin. "I feel it, right here at the throat, braised pheasant and egg, ready to come back up."

"I might throw up as well," Aleina said. "Just a generous soul? So, it wouldn't have anything to do with having the Open Lord indebted to you and make her more favorable to an alliance that someone, who you deny being, proposes?"

"I see we understand each other perfectly," Zord said.

That smirking smile again. Yes, they understood each other perfectly. Spirit of generosity had nothing to do with whatever the man who was not Zord offered. But what was he offering? It seemed Kuhl wondered the same thing.

"So, you know a rumor of a supposed embezzled hoard, but not where it is located?" the half-elf asked. "Any tavern gossip could claim the same."

"Even Neverember doesn't know where it is," their host said. "I have to give the rat bastard credit there. Very clever."

"He stole it, hid it, but doesn't know where it is?" Sky asked, asked slowly. "That makes no sense. How is that possible?"

Her gaze went slightly cross-eyed as she tried to puzzle it out.

"A little history lesson will help me to explain," Zord said. "Even though you are somehow already trusted agents to the Open Lord, based on the article in the Wazoo you are new arrivals in the city. The Faire's tenure on the docks probably even started before you arrived."

"Perhaps," Kuhl said, voice careful.

"Perhaps, nothing," their host said. "Everything indicates you've been traveling to places far and wide."

He paused and eyed them all.

"Even dark and deep," Zord said.

The companions didn't answer, but the glances they gave to each other was probably telling enough, because their host gave a knowing nod.

"So have some cake while I tell you about the city's recent history," he said.

The nimblewright, Jacks, took this as an order. It moved to the cake and sliced it, then distributed the pieces with clanking steps. Aleina ended up with a piece with two of the remaining gingerbread warriors who had faced the already eaten owlbear. She took a bite and found the frosting sweet and creamy and the texture of the cake itself like velvet. She quickly took another.

"It is a good thing acrobatics involves a lot of exertion of the body," Khafeyta said, as Jacks put a piece on her dessert plate that already held the remnants of crumbs and frosting of her previous piece.

"As you know, Dagult Neverember was the Open Lord before her Ageless Majesty," Zord said. "She took over during the crisis where the Cult of the Dragon tried to summon Tiamat."

This had all happened a few years prior. At the time, Aleina was too busy with dresses pulled out of dusty closets and patriar balls to follow events much. But since then, bards and minstrels had kept the details fresh in the collective memory. A group of heroes and a collective alliance had stopped the summoning ritual of the Cult.

"To achieve their goal," their host said. "The Cult raided towns and gathered a hoard of treasure in tribute to their dragon goddess. As these sums were recovered, it proved all too easy for Neverember to siphon off a portion for his own personal cache. But this you already know, or at least have heard rumors of the same."

It was true, rumors theorizing along these lines were widespread. The aasimar found herself nodding in agreement anyway. The man still wore an outfit primarily consisting of crisscrossing leather straps and a loincloth, still had a pair of ladies clad in silk undergarments on either side of him. Yet despite the ridiculous situation and attire, he still had all of their rapt attention. Such was his charisma. Even Jhelnae remained silent and listened intently. But this might have also been because she had a mouthful of cake.

"Neverember was exiled by a vote of Masked Lords rather unexpectedly," Zord continued. "At the time he was up north. Ostensibly to rebuild the city of Neverwinter after the explosion of Mount Hotenow but really to secure his title as the Lord Protector of the city."

A position he still held. But if he had been exiled suddenly.

"Which means he suddenly found himself separated from his embezzled treasure," Aleina said. "With no way to personally retrieve it."

"Correct," their host said, pointing a finger in her direction. "But it was even worse than that. Neverember had used magic on himself to wipe the location of the vault from his mind. Can you imagine such a paranoid individual trusting another with a key that revealed the location? A location he himself did not know?"

"Mind wipe yourself?" Sky asked. "I never thought of that. You build a mystery, leave clues, then get to follow those clues to their conclusion. Sounds fun!"

"Whoever you sent," Jhelnae said, ignoring the tabaxi, "It would have to be someone you were very close with. Someone you trusted completely. The Zhentarim and the Xanathar were mistaken in thinking it might be his son. They aren't on speaking terms. Haven't been for years."

"Only a fool would try to get at Neverember through his son," Zord scoffed. "All the doxies that young rake nobleman's drunkenly blathers to could have told them that. The older Neverember has no one he trusts. So, years passed, and he made no move, and left his cache hidden from all, even from himself."

"But rebuilding a city is expensive," Kuhl said.

"Especially when an eruption opens a rift in your city all the way to the Underdark that you have to pay wizards to magically seal," their host agreed. "Particularly if you are bitter from being exiled from Waterdeep and want your new home to eclipse her in culture and wealth."

"It's called the City of Splendors," Aleina said. "Pretty difficult to surpass that."

"Which is why Neverember needed to recover his hoard, despite the risk of betrayal," Zord said. "He sent agents to retrieve the key to finding the hidden vault to bring back the embezzled treasure. Unfortunately for him, several factions were waiting for just such a move and sent their own agents to follow Neverember's to learn the location of the vault and steal the prize. Chaos has ensued."

"Chaos," the half-elf said. "Including blood on the streets? Is that what the Zhentarim and Xanathar guild are fighting over?"

"Very good," their host said. "I can see why the Open Lord recruited you to becoming her agents so soon after arriving in the city. You must have had previous ties with her?"

He was fishing for information, but hooked tabaxi randomness.

"We're not really her agents," Sky said with a dismissive wave. "We're detectives for hire. The Red Sky and Nightstar agency. Lost items found, missing persons tracked, mysteries solved. No case too small. Two copper nibs per day, plus expenses."

For a time, Zord couldn't speak, even his glib tongue stunned to silence by Sky's response.

"Are you telling me," he finally said. "The Open Lord hired you to deliver me a message for two copper coins?"

He sounded appropriately insulted.

"No," the tabaxi said, shaking her head.

The look of relief that crossed their host's face was short lived.

"We didn't charge her anything at all," Sky said. "I often forget to do that."

Zord sighed, then gave an appreciative laugh.

"She is very clever, her Ageless Majesty," he said. "It is no more than I deserve. One cruel jest deserves payback in kind. Well played Lady Silverhand."

He laughed again, harder, looking around the room, at the golden platters, the remains of the feast, the decorative doilies, the dress of his companions, his own attire. Aleina could follow his thoughts. He'd carefully crafted the scene to have his fun and throw official messengers of the Open Lord off their game only to find out she had hired, not even hired as Sky had just admitted they currently worked for free, the cheapest band of adventurers she could find. He thought she was mocking him. He was mistaken about this. Didn't know about their chance meeting in Blue Alley nor of the companions' efforts to catch the Dock Ward killer. But Aleina, and the others apparently as well, decided they should let this impression stand. Let him believe himself out maneuvered.

"So, everything you told us is very interesting," Sky said, tail lashing. "But like Kuhl said, not much more than we already knew. Renaer himself told us as much about the rumors of embezzled treasure. But he didn't know about the mind blank, the magic key, or that his father had sent agents. So, what is this magic key? You're searching for it, any idea where in the city it might be found?"

"That is information I don't plan to share," their host said. "I only wanted the Open Lord to know that other than to entertain, that is my purpose in the city. And it would be in her best interests to not interfere with my efforts. Other searching factions, the Xanathar and Zhentarim, would use the gold to undermine her authority while I will give the cache to her and help bolster it. I'll give her this advice as well. The stakes are high and when she decides on how much resources to allocate in her own search, I hope she plans for more than hiring adventures at two copper nibs per day."

She won't even have to pay that," Jhelnae said, shrugging. "I'll work for her for free. Maybe you'll turn over the treasure to her if you find it and maybe you won't. But maybe keeping someone like her not indebted to someone like you is payment enough for me."

"You don't even know him," Margo said. "So, who are you to judge what he is like?"

On the other side of Zord, Khafeyta glared.

"Forgive her ladies," their host said. "She comes from a long heritage of those who can't bear to see a male living free and unshackled to a matriarchy. You can take a spider out of its web, but it still has fangs and venom."

"Oh, I have plenty of venom," the half-drow said. "Especially for anyone who insinuates that I support the matron hierarchy."

"Of that I have no doubt," their host said. "I wish you luck in your search. You'll need it. Especially since you have no idea who, or what, you are searching for."

Zord stood, his ladies with him. Clearly their audience was at an end. Aleina noticed she'd not finished her cake and shoveled in the last bit. It really was quite delicious.

Jarlaxle is FRICKEN TOUGH! Especially when he is posing as someone else and wants to play with the party. Apologies to Jarlaxle fans if I didn't get his vibe right. The only book I read with Jarlaxle was the Sellswords Trilogy (where he is hanging out with Artemis Entreri). From that series I got that he is the charming rogue who loves adventure and bedding women. (I think the line he said when he first saw one of the female characters was, "I must bed her." - which he did, but then they had to kill her for being a betrayer. Which also happened to Artemis (although he didn't kill her, just left her beaten, humiliated, and crying as I recall). Jhelnae did not want to cooperate with his little play act as she was upset that someone under his command was risking everything Eilistraeens worked for to improve drow relations with other races. She could not get past that in my mind.

The module provides two ladies that can be found hanging out in his quarters (should the party be able to explore the ship), but I figured he'd put them in on his little act. His costume as well is also from the module. That, by the way, was tough too! What to do with that! He is clearly playing with the party by appearing in that outfit, but I didn't want a completely random encounter. I wanted to at least put a few plot points in there. I struggled...but I am going to hope it all worked okay.