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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."

"No, sir."

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."

"Remigo."

"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.

Art by J. P. Targete.

More Web Fiction. More Paizo Blog.
Tags: Dave Gross J. P. Targete A Lesson in Taxonomy Pathfinder Tales
Contributor

Excellent as always, and I love the first and last lines.

RPG Superstar 2009 Top 32, 2010 Top 8

Personally, I found the first line rich with irony.


I'm so happy to see a younger Varian Jeggare. I always wondered what events have shaped a person to be who they are, and I've been curious about that with Jeggare since I first read about him in Council of Thieves.

Contributor

Vastly amusing. As a collector of bestiaries myself, I approve of both the subject matter and of Count Jeggare's final decision.


Pathfinder Adventure Path, Maps Subscriber

A masterpiece of fiction, as always, "Master and Command". :)

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