A Godsdamn Kraken

Chapter 1

The pale elf fled into the shadows, and Tav followed.

He could say he wasn’t thinking clearly, what with Astarion’s taste still lingering on his lips, and he wouldn’t be lying. But he knew it was folly. Astarion’s last words to him weren’t just a warning: they were a threat, and he heard them well. No. Even had he known it would be the end of his life as he knew it, he would’ve pursued. He just… couldn’t let him go.

They’d met earlier that night. The crowd in the tavern multiplied phenomenally as soon as the sun had set. Tav had been drowsing in the darkest corner, away from windows and candles alike, his cloak wrapped tightly around his faded armor with the hood drawn so low he could just barely see under it when he finally stirred. The woman he’d been waiting for the entire day, who’d taken half his supply of Lolth’s wax in exchange for the promise that she’d set him up with some underpaid craftwork for a local paddler in the arcane, never showed up. With the cursed sun finally down, and the air inside getting thicker by the minute with bad breaths, farts, burps and yelling, he was just about to leave.

But the tired thoughts of finding a cheap bunk in the slums closer to the foul-smelling bay promptly evacuated his head when he saw the pale elf.

He sailed through the jostling crowd like a ship cuts through unruly little waves. Tav’s wasn’t the only head that turned as he made his way to the bar, meandering between chairs and tables, taking his time—no, giving everyone else the time to gaze at his moon-kissed pallor, his halo of white curls, his otherworldly beauty. Tav watched him hop onto a barstool and exchange a few muttered words with the barkeep. The pale elf slid something over the counter, the barkeep pocketed it, and then discreetly gestured with his triple chin at several patrons.

Including Tav.

His breath hitched as the pale elf glanced in his direction, then skipped ahead to the next target, likely on account of Tav’s stained, patched cloak that gave an accurate depiction of his current status and wealth. Though their eyes only met for the briefest of moments, Tav recognized the look in them. The infinite weariness, loathing and boredom of a professional. Either a swindler or a prostitute, out looking for a mark.

From his dress and poise, Tav reckoned the pale elf could do a lot better than this hole. Yet it wasn’t his first time here, as he obviously had some arrangement with the barkeep. Preying on lone travelers, most likely. New arrivals, bamboozled by the bustle of the big city after weeks on the road, unfamiliar with the lay of the land, the workings of the law and the local gangs, far from friends and family. Unmoored, like Tav.

The barkeep served the pale elf wine in a glass chalice. Tav watched him bring it to his lips, keeping his little finger well away from it in the manner of nobility—and pretend to sip. He scanned the room again, and following his stare, Tav could identify some of the other candidates. A nervous young dwarf, sitting with an arm stretched warily over a backpack almost twice his size like it was liable to spring to life and flee at any moment. A middle-aged woman, human or half-elven, in well-made but worn garments, nodding over an empty mug of ale. A tall, brown-skinned wood-elf with an impressive mane of blond hair parted under a leather band, a hefty meal on his plate. There, the pale elf’s gaze lingered, but the man was too busy eating to notice.

Slim pickings. The rest of the attendance was mostly made up of the dregs of local society. Sailors, dockhands, fishermen, carriage-drivers, carpenters, foundry-workers. It was difficult to imagine the long, pale fingers wound around that chalice picking pockets or unlacing breaches for mere breadcrumbs.

Tav was rudely awakened from his reverie when the elbow of a drunk halfling jabbed his ribs. He burped loudly, swaying close enough for Tav to smell his rancid breath.

“Watch your step,” Tav growled through his teeth.

The halfling squinted, peering under Tav’s hood, then his stupid scowl turned to dismay and he backed away, mumbling an apology that sounded more like a curse. More grumbling ensued as, going backwards, he stumbled into another patron, and heads turned from adjacent tables.

The pale elf took no notice of the noise, staring at his untouched wine, the terminal boredom on his handsome face tinted with desperation.

Tav rose and emptied his cup. His shoulders and thighs ached for a stretch, but he didn’t want to draw attention. Clasping his cloak over his chest, lest his armor shows, he picked his way between the tables, drawn to the bar like a moth to the flame. The pale elf was flanked by a pair of chatty gnomes on one side, and a burly half-orc woman on the other, but as Tav’s luck or fate would have it, the woman turned around just as he approached and stalked away with a pitcher of ale in hand.

Tav’s heart drummed while he took the vacant seat. Their elbows chafed and Tav murmured a pardon, but the pale elf said nothing, pulling away to give Tav more room. All Tav could see of him past the rim of his hood was a slim hand and manicured fingers caressing the stalk of his chalice. Lace showed under the threadbare sleeve of his velvet doublet, intricate but yellowed by laundering. His skin was incredibly light, even for a high elf unmarked by sun or labor. Veins showed thin and blue under it. Tav’s own fingers prickled as he imagined how soft it must be to the touch.

The barkeep graced him with his attention after a few minutes, dipping his head theatrically to look under Tav’s hood, as he’d done every time Tav approached the bar during this long, wasted day. Understandable. No one likes a man who hides his face. Yet the spite in him wished his mask hadn’t ended up buried at the bottom of his pack.

“I’ll have the same as the gentleman, please,” he said, inclining his head to indicate the pale elf.

The barkeep snorted, loudly and rudely, before turning his back on them to fetch the carafe of wine.

“Pay no heed to Herbert,” the pale elf said. “He’s grumpy because he’s not getting any now that his wife has grown hideously pregnant again, and no one else would have him. Not even for gold.”

His musical voice carried just far enough for the barkeep to hear every word and stiffen. Tav glanced at him sideways, but the pale elf was gazing at the barkeep’s back, a cruel little smirk casting the laugh-lines around his mouth in sharp relief. Up close, he didn’t look half as young as Tav had thought.

Herbert, if that was truly his name, served him the wine in a matching chalice, but didn’t bother with a retort. From the manner of both men, Tav guessed they’d been acquainted for far longer than either would care to admit.

“I’ll have the coin now, if ye don’t mind,” the barkeep said instead, peering in Tav’s eyes.

At first, Tav thought it strange—he’d been eating and drinking here the whole day and the night was young. But then he caught a glint in the barkeep’s eye as he glanced at the pale elf, and his thoughts came to Tav as clear as spoken aloud. Those who drink with the wretch follow him out and never return.

Which only confirmed what Tav had known already.

It took him half a grueling minute to sort through his feather-light purse with his gloves on, but at last he fished out five gold pieces. He put them on the counter but kept his hand over them. “I reckon this will cover everything so far and buy me and my friend another round?”

“Aye.” Herbert pawed the coins as soon as Tav released them. “Just holler when ye’re ready.”

“I’d thank you if the wine was any good,” the pale elf said softly. “Sadly…” He brought the chalice to his face and sniffed, grimacing. Taking the opportunity to study him, Tav noticed he had the most extraordinary eyes, the color of the bright red wine in their glasses. Unusual for a high elf. Perhaps…? But no. His pallor precluded any possibility of drow ancestry. An albino?

Sensing Tav’s scrutiny, he lifted his long lashes—painted black, no doubt—and gave Tav a piercing look. Gods, but he was beautiful. If his… time… was for sale, and Tav had gone and spent the last of his gold on a drink he disliked, he’d never forgive myself.

He had never done it before. Paid for love. But he would now, if he had the means.

Not that a hundred coins could buy him an hour with a man as fine as this.

No. His plan was rather to see if he couldn’t negotiate… an exchange.

Holding the pale elf’s gaze, Tav lowered his hood slowly, letting his eyes adjust to the light, letting the pale elf’s eyes drink him in. They grew wider and wider the more of himself Tav revealed, till they became quite round. Genuine astonishment erased a decade from the his features. Tav gave him an equally genuine little smile in return. “Talven Vrinn, at your service.”

The pale elf gathered his wits quickly enough. Arching an eyebrow, he said, “Don’t make promises you don’t mean to keep.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.” Tav raised his chalice, and the pale elf touched his to it with the gentlest clink—which rang as loud as a church bell because the room had gone silent in a wide circle around them.

Well, around Tav.

With his hood down, he could pick up the usual mutterings and whisperings with ease. A drow! A godsdamn underelf! Some cursed under their breath, others mouthed a prayer to a benevolent deity of choice. More than a few spat.

He couldn’t blame them. Had one of their pink faces shown up in a random tavern in the slums of Undraeth, they’d have received the same treatment.

The barkeep, to his credit, recovered after only a moment. He yelled, “What are y’all staring at?” And somehow, by inscrutable tavern-magic, the normal hustle and bustle resumed as if there’d been no interruption to begin with.

Prying his eyes from the pale elf with unveiled reluctance, Tav gave Herbert a grateful nod.

“Ye’re as good as yer gold, no less, and no more,” the barkeep said, spitting onto the tin plate he’d been polishing with a rag. “Just the same as everyone else here.” He glared at the pale elf briefly, then turned his back on them once more.

Tav peeled his gloves off and took a sip of wine. It was as cheap as one could expect to get in a place like this, but for all that, not too bad. Sweet and light, the taste of grapes still alive in it.

“You look undaunted by the welcome,” the pale elf said, gesturing vaguely at the crowd. Apart from a few pairs of eyes smoldering with fear or hate, they seemed to have already forgotten the incident. “Been on the surface long?”

“Long enough for my garb to fade.” Tav let the cloak fall aside and reveal his chest.

The pale elf’s eyes widened again. “Drow armor! And it looks like it’s seen its fair share of action too.” He reached forward, glancing up to see if Tav would let him, then traced the patched-up gash across his ribs where he’d been struck by a sword during the retaliatory raid on House Naerth. With his fingers still on Tav, too light to feel over the hard leather, the pale elf smirked and gave Tav a sharp look under his brows. “You’re full of surprises, aren’t you?”

Tav smiled at him fully, then brought his chalice to his lips, and watched the pale elf’s eyes track his tongue as he licked the smooth glass lip. “And you, my friend?”

“Hm?” He blinked the thirst out of his eyes. “Oh! Pardon my manners. My name’s Astarion.”

The introduction was accompanied by a little bow so charming Tav couldn’t help but laugh. “Astarion,” he repeated dreamily.


“Talven,” Tav corrected. “Tav for short.”

“Ah, yes. Such a long name is clearly in need of shortening.”

“You’ve managed to forget it in less than a minute.” He took another sip. “Astarion.” Saying his name in such an intimate tone made Tav’s stomach flutter.

“Yes, darling,” Astarion said, matching the timbre of Tav’s voice. “You had it right the first time.”

Tav laughed, a little breathless, writhing under his relentless gaze. Then dizziness came over him and he shook his head clear, gripping the counter.

“Are you all right?” Astarion asked languidly, as if he knew exactly the effect he had on Tav.

And perhaps he did. Perhaps Tav was under a charm?

“Just a dizzy spell,” he confessed, while feeling the pale elf up tentatively with his magic. It found no purchase.

“No wonder.” Astarion gestured at the room with disdain so palpable one could build a house with it. “If you need a bit of air, I might be… persuaded… to join you for a walk.”

“You waste no time, do you?”

“The nights are short this time of year,” he said without a blink. “Better make use of the few hours we have.”

Excitement bubbled in Tav’s chest, and he sipped on his wine to shut himself up before he could say yes, yes, please. Instead, he said, “I’d rather finish my drink first, if you don’t mind. Paid for it with the last of my gold.” He watched the pale elf keenly for a reaction, and when something like pity pinched his brows closer, Tav braced himself for whatever excuse Astarion would come up with before leaving Tav in favor of some more promising target.

But what Astarion said was, “You actually like this swill?”

As he tipped his chalice up, and finally tasted the wine, Tav glimpsed a blemish on the side of his alabaster neck. A puncture—no, two punctures, long scarred, just above the lace of his collar. “Awful,” he said with a grimace. “Here. You can have mine too.”

“Thank you.” His fingers lingered on the chalice like an invitation, and Tav brushed them with his own, accepting. Astarion’s skin was like ice. “Forgive my indiscretion, but is that… a bite mark?”

Tav touched his throat at the matching spot. As the pale elf mirrored the movement, feeling the scars, his right eyelid fluttered and he looked away. “Yes. I was attacked by a vicious beast. It was a long time ago, but the scars remain. Funny. No one noticed them in—years. I didn’t think they were so prominent.”

“Oh.” Tav coughed. “They aren’t. Not even a little! I just…” He shrugged helplessly.

For a few arduous moments, Astarion waited with an arched eyebrow, then let it fall together with his hopes for an eloquent excuse. “You’re not much of a liar, are you?”

“No,” Tav lied.

Astarion hummed thoughtfully. “I suppose most people have better manners. You do come from the Underdark, after all.”

“Indeed, sir. Manners are as scarce as sunlight there.”

He laughed at that, a high-pitched, startled giggle that revealed clean teeth and a welcome lack of bad breath. “Allow me an indiscretion in turn, and we’ll call it even.”

“All right.” Tav gulped down the rest of his wine. “Hit me.”

“Do these—” Astarion leaned closer and touched an icy fingertip to Tav’s cheekbone—“go on below the neckline?”

The scales. His touch made them lift, and he gasped, but didn’t pull away.

“They do,” Tav murmured.

“How far below, I wonder?”

“Keep me company a while longer, and you might find out.”

Astarion sat back and brought the fingers that touched Tav to his nose, like he’d done with the wine before. Desire flitted over his features, but was almost at once clouded with something else, something Tav couldn’t parse. He looked around like one who’d forgotten where he was and why, but was beginning to remember, and Tav cursed himself for running too far ahead.

He gently probed Astarion’s thoughts.

Normally, when it doesn’t work, all Tav sees is dark; all he hears is silence. This was unlike anything he’d ever experienced. Astarion’s mind was a fortress. Literally. An image of bone-white walls, ancient and insurmountable, with blood-red vines creeping over them in the warm glow of the setting sun leaped into Tav’s mind fully armed and left stripes of crimson over his vision.

Though he was reeling on the inside, his expression remained steady thanks to years of practice with mind-reading. He saw the pale elf take a deep breath, as if reaching some decision, and when he spoke again, Tav was ready.

“So…” Astarion said, “what brings a lovely specimen such as yourself to the surface?”

Tav sipped the wine, swapping out their chalices. “Nothing exciting, I’m afraid. I hope to earn enough as a freelance arcanist to start my own business eventually.”

“There’s no shortage of mages in Baldur’s Gate. I imagine you’ll have to contend with a lot of competition. But I’m sure that face can open doors even magic might not.”

Tav could’ve laughed, affecting embarrassment. The blush that spread over his cheeks, already warm from the wine, was real enough. But he decided to take a more direct approach and raised an appreciative eyebrow. “You would know.”

Astarion curled his lips in a wicked smile. “Observant.”

“And you, my friend?” Tav asked. “What do you do?”

“Me? I’m a magistrate here in the Lower City. It’s all rather tedious, to be honest. Let us not talk about work.” He paused. “What’s funny?”

“Oh, nothing. Just a bad joke I heard this morning. About magistrates.”

“Really? Do tell.”

In truth, the joke had been about solicitors, and Tav had heard it days prior, but it was close enough. He cleared his throat and leaned in conspiratorially. “What’s the difference between a magistrate and a vampire?”

Astarion’s right eyelid fluttered again. A tell, for sure, but telling of what? His smile widened. “Why, I’ve no clue.”

“A vampire only sucks your blood at night.”

“Ha!” That high-pitched giggle once more, impossible to resist, and Tav laughed with him at his own joke like some wet-behind-the-ears initiate. “That’s not bad at all, as vampire jokes go.”

“Or magistrate jokes, I imagine.”

“Oh, please. Who would bother making jokes about magistrates? I don’t believe I’ve heard a single one in—” Astarion blinked, as if he’d just bitten his tongue before saying something inappropriate. “Well, years, I’m sure.”

“Likely because you don’t make a habit of going out to places like this.”

“To the contrary, my dear! Where better to feel… the pulse of the people?”

He was lying, of course. But he was doing it so charmingly it was no chore to indulge him. Tav was entirely enthralled by his dramatic gesturing and the vivid shine of his eyes, so far removed from the ennui that had been radiating from him when he’d entered the tavern. Had Tav done that? With his lame jokes? Or did he have his looks to thank, as usual?

His wine—formerly Astarion’s—was almost gone, and he wondered if he should call for that other round or not, feeling tipsy already.

“I’ve only been here a day,” he volunteered. “But from what I’ve seen, the pulse of the people is—”

“Sedated,” Astarion uttered, just as Tav said, “Complacent.”

They both paused, startled, then laughed it off, but Tav felt uneasy. Was the pale elf reading his mind? No matter how carefully Tav tested him, he could sense nothing magical.

There was an awkward silence. But then two men rose abruptly from a nearby table, knocking over their stools and glaring heatedly at one another while the onlookers jeered.

“Looks like a fight,” said Astarion. “Just the thing to lift the spirits. Let’s watch!”

Pfft. He was no more a magistrate than Tav was a prince.

With the pale elf’s attention elsewhere, Tav suddenly felt a fog lift from his mind, and sobering thoughts rushed in. What was he doing? Trying to befriend a thief? Seduce a courtesan? People like that don’t work alone and are seldom unobserved. Not only was he clearly trouble—and trouble was the last thing Tav needed—but Tav was likely going to get him in trouble too. Whatever he could hope to get from this—a quick romp in a dark alley at best—was it worth the risk?

This was his chance, he realized as voices rose to shouting and Herbert stepped out from behind the bar, brandishing a great club shiny with years of sweat and blood. Tav could slip away into the shadows while everyone was occupied. The sun had eroded the magic from his cloak almost completely, but enough remained to obscure him for a few moments in the dim candlelight. He should leave his beautiful new friend alone so he could find someone worthwhile. He’d be doing them both a favor.

But Eilistraee had gifted Tav with a fool’s confidence, not wisdom. Spite rose in him like the tide, drowning out all reason. Perhaps he was wrong about Astarion. Perhaps he was a magistrate, living out his baser impulses by night so he could present a fair front by day. Perhaps he really liked Tav. And after all, Tav was perfectly able to defend himself, should there be trouble after all.

But there wouldn’t. He could make sure of it. In the back of his mind, an idea was taking shape.

The argument between two men ended without a brawl, Herbert resumed his post behind the bar, and Astarion sighed. “Pity. I suppose we shall have to find some other way to entertain ourselves. Ready to leave this dump, Talvin?”

“Talven,” Tav corrected him patiently, though he was certain Astarion was doing it on purpose.

“Ah, yes. Tal for short.”

Tav laughed. “Tav.”

“Whatever floats your boat, darling.”