A Lesson in Taxonomy—Chapter Two: The Observation Post
A Lesson in Taxonomyby Dave Gross ... Chapter Two: The Observation PostAre you certain those are the females? ... Very certain, Most Excellent Count, said Amadi. I have seen where they lay their eggs. ... I lowered my spyglass and compared what I had seen through the mist with Amadi's sketch of the dinosaurs. His illustrations were astonishing for both their simplicity and their accuracy. At first glance, the dinosaurs we observed from our treetop post appeared identical to the brachiosaurus....
A Lesson in Taxonomy
by Dave Gross
Chapter Two: The Observation Post
"Are you certain those are the females?"
"Very certain, Most Excellent Count," said Amadi. "I have seen where they lay their eggs."
I lowered my spyglass and compared what I had seen through the mist with Amadi's sketch of the dinosaurs. His illustrations were astonishing for both their simplicity and their accuracy. At first glance, the dinosaurs we observed from our treetop post appeared identical to the brachiosaurus. They were slightly smaller, perhaps no more than twenty-five tons. Their most distinguishing feature was a large gill-like organ on the females' heads, just below the angular jaws.
Proving that these creatures were a species distinct from the brachiosaurus would be a commendable addition to my bestiary, but to deduce the function of this singular feature would surely impress upon the Decemvirate the value of my studies.
"We need a closer look," I said.
"No, Excellency, I beg you not to approach," said Amadi. "It is too dangerous during the mating season. You must list these creatures as 'dangerous' in your book."
The simple classification of creatures into the "dangerous" and "docile" categories had charmed Amadi. During our trek from Kalabuto, he had pointed out various wildlife along the way, categorizing them himself. He pronounced a band of tiny lemurs "docile," but then declared a family of similarly tiny monkeys "dangerous." Before I could demand an explanation, Remigo threw a stone among the monkeys and suffered a barrage of feces in retaliation. Under cover of his curses, I whispered to Amadi, "Definitely 'dangerous.'" Amadi laughed.
Much as I had grown impatient in our arboreal perch, I had to acknowledge the wisdom of Amadi's warning about the dinosaurs. It was tempting to send some of the bearers for a closer look, but they too were wary of approaching the beasts. I would have sent Remigo, but the villain had slipped away a few nights earlier.
Remigo's desertion was surprising only in that it occurred so long after I had relented to the man's pleas to remain in service rather than to return alone to Cheliax. I had expected him to accept his dismissal with relief after the indignity of his punishment, although it could not have been too severe judging from his unhindered gait. Instead, Remigo surprised me with an apology so abject that I could not find it in my heart to refuse him—or rather, I could not bring myself to disappoint my cousin Ersilia. With reticence, I allowed him to remain in service under a few absolute strictures, foremost of which was that there would be no mupute or any other alcoholic drink among our supplies.
The absence of his beloved liquor wore on Remigo as the days slogging through the humid Mwangi jungle elongated into weeks under the increasing torrent of the rainy season. At times the rain fell so hard that it splashed up at us as violently as it descended, and even the native bearers gulped in an atmosphere thicker than a lake bottom.
By the time our party reached the observation post that the Taldan Pathfinder Vors Nevarion had constructed nearly thirty years earlier, we tumbled into the barren tool hut at the base of a great rahuru tree and collapsed beneath its shabby roof. We stirred as the susurrus of the rain subsided, and I set the bearers to work conveying supplies to the upper level. They ignored the rotting rope ladder and clambered up hand- and footholds I could barely perceive in the gleaming brown and green bark. When at last I turned to give Remigo his orders, he was nowhere to be found. The brief silence surrendered to a rising cacophony of hoots and shrieks from the monkeys for which the Screaming Jungle earned its name.
Amadi reported seeing Remigo step outside the hut during the rain and assumed it was to empty his bowels. The former Hellknight did not appear before dusk, when I sent the bearers out with torches. An hour after dark, the men returned with the rain, having found Remigo's tracks leading back the way we had come.
Remigo's absence was as much a relief to the men as it was to me, but kind-hearted Amadi wished vocally that the man would find his way back home. I wished the same, although with somewhat less enthusiasm. There was no telling what falsehoods he would relay to my cousin Ersilia about the conditions under which he left my service.
Once we had repaired the observing post, I established a daily routine for our camp. The men were experienced at journeys to the Mwangi interior and needed little direction to establish rain pots for fresh water. After repairing the lower hut, the rope ladder, and the observation platform, they set themselves to gathering and hunting to supplement the provisions we brought from Kalabuto, while Amadi and I began our survey of the southern plains between the edge of the forest and the Pasuango River, the last natural barrier between the site of our survey and the dangerous Mzali tribes.
Through the veil of rain we could discern the shadows of the colossi in the distance. On misty days we saw their serpentine necks craning up past the river bushwillows to tear the leaves from the middle boughs of the lofty baobabs, whose leaves they favored. They moved with elephantine grandeur. Males and females alike greeted each other by nuzzling necks, to which I could observe no reaction from the unusual gill-like organs on the females.
Those gill-like apertures posed the most intriguing question about the creatures. Were they secondary sex organs? Scent emitters? Were they used in some form of echolocation? No one even glancing at the illustrations Amadi drew for me would fail to ask the question, and my Bestiary of Garundi would be incomplete without the answer.
"I can see nothing through this confounded mist."
"We pray to Gozreh," he said, placing his cupped hands upon the points of his shoulders. "There will be more sun."
I found myself ambushed by a yawn and caught Amadi's amused grin before he turned away, wary of my displeasure. I let out the next one with a roar and a broad stretch of my arms, crass as a porter. At that he laughed, and I felt the first moment of joy since Remigo's departure.
"Wake me when Gozreh answers your prayer," I said before withdrawing to the relative comfort of my hammock. I fell asleep to a muted symphony of simian chatter.
Human voices woke me.
"Excellency, you must wake up," hissed Amadi. "They are here."
"Prince Kasiya," he said. "And your man Remigo. The bearers have fled."
There was but one reason I could imagine for Kasiya's arrival, especially if he were guided by Remigo. He wanted the bestiary for himself. I hastened to the table containing my journal and Amadi's sketches. There was no place to hide them, nor did we have any avenue of escape from our treetop shelter. The platform trembled under the weight of men climbing the restored rope ladder.
I could have torn my journal to shreds, or lit it on fire if I dared, but I could not bear to destroy my life's work even to spite a thief who would present it as his own. There was little hope of arguing against his claim, even assuming he permitted me to live long enough to return to Absalom. The word of a prince outweighs the word of count.
A wicked thought emerged from my imagination. I took a paper knife and lifted the labels from the dinosaur sketches, reversing them. The paste was still moist, and I completed the task just as Remigo rose up from the trap door opening.
"I'll have those, Jeggare," he growled. I stepped away, wishing briefly that I had taken up my sword instead of the knife. Remigo followed my fleeting glance and put himself between me and my blade as Kasiya followed him up onto the platform. Behind him came two of his armored guards.
A long smile creased his eel-like jaws. He began to speak, but something held him back. His cheeks darkened, and I realized he was blushing.
"You would have let him flog me," said Remigo. Hatred colored his face, and I needed no further explication of events. Remigo had traded his punishment for betraying my location.
"Prince Kasiya has a strange sense of honor."
"Forgive me, Count Jeggare." Prince Kasiya's voice rang with sincerity. "Perhaps one day, when you have forgiven this offense, you will allow me to demonstrate my gratitude."
"Let me demonstrate mine first," said Remigo. He jerked me toward the edge of the platform. The ground was so far below us that I could not make it out through the mist.
"Unhand him," ordered Kasiya.
Remigo scoffed, but he sobered as he saw the deadly earnestness in the prince's eyes.
"You are a treacherous dog. Your hands are unfit to sully a noble person," said Kasiya. "Await us below."
Remigo glowered at me before descending the rope ladder.
"I must delay your pursuit." Kasiya whistled a command, and one of his guards bound me to the guardrail. The other placed food and water within reach of my hands. "Once we have captured a specimen and have a good lead, I shall send a servant to release you."
"Most Great Highness," said Amadi. "You must not approach the females. It is their season, and they are dangerous."
Kasiya looked to me for confirmation, and I let him see it on my face. The warning would do him little good, after my change of the labels.
"Also," added Amadi. "The labels on the drawings, they have been changed."
Two treacherous dogs!
Kasiya bent to examine the drawings. He lifted the edge of one label with a long fingernail and saw the imperfect bond of paste beneath.
"Very cunning," said Kasiya. His expression darkened again, but not in shame this time. "And most wicked." He stepped toward me and kicked the food and water over the edge of the platform. "I suddenly find that my gratitude for your labors knows bounds."
With that they abandoned me.
My initial efforts to wriggle out of my bonds suggested that I would sooner starve to death than escape them. That was of course assuming that no predatory visitors found me first. The prospect of being devoured alive tempted me to implore Asmodeus for vengeance upon my betrayers, but I would not break the vow I had made to my late mother. Instead I prayed for some fantastic stroke of fortune.
Amadi's prayer was answered first with a glorious parting of the clouds and the evaporation of the mist. From my vantage I watched as Kasiya's party traveled across the grassy plain to the river's edge, where they carefully waited to approach a lone dinosaur.
They had for some reason chosen a female. I watched in astonishment as Kasiya commanded his men to dab their spears in some dark toxin. Remigo was among them, holding his own spear cautiously away from his body as if whatever they had told him about the poison was more frightening than the dinosaur that became restless at their approach.
As the men raised their spears, the dinosaur trumpeted her alarm. The "gills" upon her neck flared into thick, tumescent rills of brilliant color. From them radiated a deep, barely discernable sound. Its effects were more visible than audible, for the surrounding trees shuddered and shed their foliage. A moment later, I felt a horrific scrape along my teeth and in my sinus cavities.
The soldiers' spears bent and melted under the sonic wave. The bodies of the men leaped from the ground, their limbs jerking involuntarily into a hundred unnatural postures as their bones shattered and their organs burst.
Behind me, Amadi panted as he returned to the observation post. He must have slipped away even before the ill-fated party approached their prey. He released a breathless torrent of apologies as he released me from my bonds, but I already guessed why he had done as he did.
"You altered the drawings before I switched the labels."
Amadi grimaced. It was as beautiful as his smile, but more sad. Despite the treachery of Kasiya and Remigo, he mourned their deaths.
∗ ∗ ∗
It required patience and swift running to retrieve the trampled remains of Prince Kasiya from the riverside. I hoped against all chance, and Desna rewarded me with the recovery of the Bestiary of Garundi. We left Remigo and the prince's guards to the scavengers.
Amadi remained with me all the way back to Kalabuto, and then to Eleder. His cheerful disposition had been diminished by the horrors we had witnessed, but still I felt a bond of affection had grown between us. The day before I embarked upon the voyage home, I offered him a place in my household.
"You would make an excellent secretary," I told him, meaning it. "I will send you to the finest schools."
"Your Excellency is most generous," he said. "But I will remain here, in my homeland."
"Whatever for? Among the Sargavan colonists, you will never be treated better than a slave, and outside the cities, there is nothing but danger."
Amadi offered me a wan smile. "I have met many of your people before," he said. "Even in your homeland, and in that of the prince, I would classify most of them as 'dangerous.'"
It was impossible to argue with that. Disappointment wrestled with admiration in my heart. "Farewell, Amadi."
"Farewell, Most Excellent Count. Do not feel too bad. You are not so much like your countrymen," he grinned. "I am pleased to classify you as 'docile.'"
Coming Next Week: A young Mwangi wizard's introduction to subterfuge in the Acadamae of Korvosa in Elaine Cunningham's "The Illusionist."
Dave Gross is the author of numerous Pathfinder Tales novels and stories. His other adventures of Count Varian Jeggare (usually paired with his hellspawn bodyguard Radovan) include the novels Prince of Wolves and Master of Devils, the Pathfinder's Journals "Hell's Pawns" and "Husks" (published in the Council of Thieves Adventure Path and the upcoming Jade Regent Adventure Path, respectively), and the short story "The Lost Pathfinder." In addition, he's also co-written the Pathfinder Tales novel Winter Witch with Elaine Cunningham.
A Lesson in Taxonomyby Dave Gross ... Chapter One: The BestiaryNo reprobate more taxes my patience than a drunkard. ... My new bodyguard entered my employ under a cloud. Since the adumbration of his character originated from the headquarters of the Order of the Scourge, I weighed its warning against the value of a favor to my cousin Ersilia. She pledged to place me foremost in her prayers should I offer the former Hellknight an opportunity to redeem his reputation. As my cousin is famed...
A Lesson in Taxonomy
by Dave Gross
Chapter One: The Bestiary
No reprobate more taxes my patience than a drunkard.
My new bodyguard entered my employ under a cloud. Since the adumbration of his character originated from the headquarters of the Order of the Scourge, I weighed its warning against the value of a favor to my cousin Ersilia. She pledged to place me foremost in her prayers should I offer the former Hellknight an opportunity to redeem his reputation. As my cousin is famed throughout Cheliax as much for her influence in the Court of Thrune as for her personal charms, I was powerless to refuse.
The first harbinger of discord occurred during our passage from Egorian. Whilst we passengers of noble birth enjoyed a late supper of roast pheasant at the captain's table, a supremely vulgar song erupted belowdecks. The ensign departed the cabin to investigate the disturbance. Moments later, the same slurring voice that had regaled us with excerpts of the amorous adventures of the Trick Alley Trio bellowed curses, threats, and finally pleas as the mates clapped the singer in irons. My appetite perished as I recognized the voice as that of my new servant.
Four of the ship's mates bore the proof of my man's violence upon their faces. The malefactor had already fallen into an unshakeable slumber, due less to his own injuries than to the copious amount of grog he had consumed. A brief investigation revealed that he had begun the evening with Desna's kiss upon his brow, for he had a blazing streak of luck in a game of dice in the crew's quarters. Having won the grog ration of every off-duty sailor for the evening, he stepped on the hem of Cayden Cailean's cloak and proceeded to mock his conquered foes by drinking it all while regaling them with his favorite brothel ditty. When the sober crewmen implored him to constrain his volume, he responded with fisticuffs.
The knave presented a grotesque figure as he emerged from the brig in a miasma of cheap alcohol and body odor. I shielded my nose with a handkerchief my cousin had granted me as a sign of her favor. Her delicate perfume succumbed to the assault of the drunkard's stench. A smile flickered over his mouth as he witnessed my reaction, but it vanished when he recognized the handkerchief. Instead his eyes beamed intense jealousy.
At that point I fully understood my cousin's interest in the man.
I returned the man's scowl until he relented and cast his eyes to the deck. "I trust I need not articulate my displeasure, Remigo."
The hairs on my neck became needles. "Do I resemble a knight of your acquaintance?"
"No, Your Excellency."
I withdrew to the main deck for fresh air. Remigo's conduct was sullen until we reached Khari on the north coast of Garund, where we disembarked to await passage to Eleder under Sargavan colors, lest we attract the rapacious eyes of the so-called Free Captains who, emboldened by their victory at Desperation Bay, continued to prey on lone Chelish vessels. In hindsight, I would have been wise to delay my departure and seek a replacement for my bodyguard, but I was anxious to begin what promised to be my final expedition as a member of the Pathfinder rank and file. Once I had completed my Bestiary of Garund, the Decemvirate would surely offer me the reward for which I had longed since first joining the Society: my commission as a venture-captain.
∗ ∗ ∗
Of the marvels witnessed during the voyage along the western coast of Garund, I have expounded at length elsewhere. We disembarked at Eleder, which resembled a half-completed Chelish city. Since my previous visit two years earlier, the proportion of fair-skinned inhabitants had risen to nearly one-fifth of the crowd gathered by the docks. I counted dozens of halfling porters and several dwarves. There was even a pair of elves awaiting our vessel, one of them a tall, pale figure with eyes the color of amethysts. For a moment I imagined him to be the specter of the father I had never met.
"Most Excellent Count Jeggare?"
Puberty had not yet coarsened the speaker's voice, but the Mwangi boy stood taller than my shoulder. I estimated his age as something between ten and twelve. His accent was a peculiar marriage of the native Kalabuta dialect and my mother tongue.
"Beat it, boy," snarled Remigo. His demeanor had grown more surly for his abstinence.
"No," I said. "Who are you?"
"I am Amadi, Excellency." His bow was perfect, although it revealed wicked scars upon the back of his shoulders. He wore an unbuttoned Chelish waistcoat and short trousers cinched with a length of sisal. He had a canvas bag slung over his shoulder. "Your esteemed colleague bade me await your arrival and offer my service as a guide to Kalabuto." He proffered a sealed letter.
I opened it to find a short note of recommendation from the explorer Rosk Hargun, a fellow Pathfinder whose acquaintance I had made during my previous visit to Sargava. Our association had been collegial, but I had no expectation of such a favor from the dwarf.
"What do you have there?" I nodded at a rolled parchment protruding from the satchel.
Amadi's radiant smile indicated that he was pleased to be asked. He unfurled the parchment and revealed a sketch depicting me. It was an extraordinary likeness, and my first impulse was to imagine that Hargun had commissioned it so that Amadi could recognize me. Yet behind my image was an equally striking depiction of Remigo.
"Does your bag contain a spyglass?" I asked.
"No, Excellency." He smiled again, obviously apprehending the trajectory of my inquiry.
"How long did this take?"
"Since you left your ship."
We had been on the stone docks for only a few minutes. Amadi's combination of speed and accuracy was a rare gift, one that I could fruitfully apply to my bestiary. I understood why Rosk Hargun would recommend the lad.
"Tell me how much Hargun paid you," I said. "I shall give you twice that."
∗ ∗ ∗
We remained in Eleder long enough for the local venture-captain to assure Baron Grallus that my visit was wholly divorced from any intrigue of the House of Thrune, to whom all loyal lords of Cheliax had sworn obedience. If the baron had received any intelligence on my service during the war, it was insufficient to compel him to detain me from my personal ventures.
Remigo complained constantly during our passage upriver. He hated the temperature, the humidity, and most of all the mosquitoes. On the final count, my sympathy was limited, since the sickly odor of mupute on his breath only attracted the vermin. If he thought I could not smell the pineapple liquor, he was more stupid than I had imagined. In past expeditions I too had endured the depredations of the pests, who seemed particularly fond of my half-elven blood. At last I had relented and applied the noisome unguent the natives used to deter the insects. Amadi had offered him the balm, but Remigo refused to acknowledge the lad, much less to contaminate himself with a native concoction.
At last we navigated the Lake of Vanished Armies and turned northward to Kalabuto, an oasis of civilization upon a mound of ancient ruins. While the city is named for the most populous local tribe, the Kalabuta were not its founders. Rather, the tangled mound among the pineapple fields, date orchards, and cattle ranches is all that remains of a long-forgotten tribe whose mysteries linger in every crumbling monument protruding between the contemporary huts. There was no telling where a marketplace ended and the homes began, but there was also no mistaking the grand pavilion of Prince Kasiya. Its silken tents and golden-helmed guardians appeared like a mirage of distant Osirion.
The prince was no older than I, although as a human he appeared a good fifteen years my elder. The illusion of chronological seniority served as a reminder that the prince was my superior outside the Society. He was the sixth son of the great Khemet and brother to the current ruler, Khemet II, known by the lurid appellation of "the Crocodile King." Kasiya greeted me with a fraternal grip of my hand before I could bend knee.
"Welcome, brother." His smile revealed a legion of tiny white teeth. If his elder brother was a crocodile, then Kasiya was an eel.
"Your Highness." I glanced back to ensure that Amadi had knelt and to remind Remigo that he should do the same.
In what seemed but a few moments, the servants were dismissed and we reclined upon embroidered pillows, replete with a sumptuous meal of local fare prepared with the subtlest Osirian spices. Only when the sorbet arrived and the last of the servants withdrew did the prince inquire as to the particulars of my expedition. I shared with him as much as one usually does, which is to say I was honest but indistinct about my intended course. I would indeed travel into the Screaming Jungle, but he did not need to know exactly where.
"It is said that this could be the last of your field excursions," he ventured. "All I hear from Absalom is a buzz of anticipation about this bestiary of yours."
I raised my glass to acknowledge the accuracy of his intelligence. It was little surprise that he knew of my hopes for advancement. With gossip and rivalry, our Society is as rife as the courts of Cheliax.
"There is no doubt your work will persuade the Decemvirate you are a deserving venture-captain."
His unwavering gaze told me he was awaiting a reaction from me, but I could not fathom what secret he hoped I would reveal. I knew that he too harbored ambitions for advancement within the Pathfinder Society. Unfortunately, such advancement was limited, and as all evidence suggested that the Decemvirate made their selections of new venture-captains based on merit rather than station, I favored my chances over his.
"Perhaps you would be so kind as to show me this fabled work?"
"Your Highness, it is incomplete," I demurred. "Upon its publication, I shall be honored to send you a copy."
The moment the prince's lips moved, yet before he could speak, a woman shrieked from the far corner of his pavilion. The prince composed his face as we heard the clamor of his guards' armor. Shouts of accusation, a familiar voice raised in protest, and the minutes crawled upon my throat like a disease. I knew what I would see even before the guards entered the prince's tent and forced Remigo to his knees. The mupute from his breath was almost visible. Beside him knelt Amadi.
"We found these wretches within the tent of Your Highness's concubines," reported the commander.
"Amadi is a good-natured boy, and does not deserve to suffer for the crimes of others."
Kasiya's eyes flashed a question.
"They were apprehended before laying a hand on any sanctified person."
"In my country," said Kasiya, "the punishment for looking upon my concubines is six ounces of flesh." Remigo squirmed, and Amadi froze. The prince did not need to specify which six ounces he meant.
"Sir," Remigo blurted at me. "I mean, Your Excellency—"
"Silence," I said. "Prince Kasiya is master here."
The prince nodded approval of my deference. His fury subsided, and he turned back to the prisoners.
"You, boy," he said. "I know you."
"I am Amadi, Most High Prince Kasiya." He kowtowed. "It was my honor to accompany your expedition to the Kaava Lands last season."
"And now you wish to mount an expedition to my bed?"
"No, Most Merciful Prince, I wished only to prevent—"
Remigo snarled. "Shut your hole, you dirty little monkey."
The guards kicked him flat on the carpet.
Kasiya waved away the guards, who dragged the prisoners out of his tent. The prince sighed.
"Count Jeggare," he said. "In respect of our affiliation, I can reduce the punishment to a lashing, but no less."
I bowed. "Your generosity knows no bounds."
"I know it is difficult for you to surrender a countryman to the lash. My honor will be satisfied if only one of your servants endures it. You may choose."
"The Chelaxian?" Kasiya raised an eyebrow at my swift answer. I knew what he was thinking, yet I had seen the marks on Amadi's back, and I had sufficient evidence to surmise he had followed Remigo to the forbidden tent only to prevent his trespass.
"Or," said Kasiya with a cunning glint in his eye. "Perhaps his absolution could be purchased with a gift. I am fond of books."
I took his meaning, but Remigo was not worth a single page of my bestiary. "Let him be flogged."
Coming Next Week: More of Varian Jeggare's youthful Mwangi explorations, and the startling conclusion of "A Lesson in Taxonomy."
Dave Gross is the author of numerous Pathfinder Tales novels and stories. His other adventures of Count Varian Jeggare (usually paired with his hellspawn bodyguard Radovan) include the novels Prince of Wolves and Master of Devils, the Pathfinder’s Journals "Hell’s Pawns" and "Husks" (published in the Council of Thieves Adventure Path and the upcoming Jade Regent Adventure Path, respectively), and the short story "The Lost Pathfinder." In addition, he’s also co-written the Pathfinder Tales novel Winter Witch with Elaine Cunningham.