A Passage to Absalom
by Dave Gross
Chapter One: Mulled Wine
The first blush of dawn cast the Imperial Shipyards into stark silhouette, a forest of black cranes and masts standing on the eastern docks of Cassomir. Along the strand, gulls vied with ravens for the shellfish buried beneath a thin blanket of midwinter snow. The lapping waves left a sensuous border of sand at the edge of the snowfall, like the impression of a woman's lips upon a crystal goblet. Soon the tide would recede, and the Sea Lion would set sail for Absalom.
The cost of passage on the converted freighter had been dear, but I felt anxious to return to the City at the Center of the World. Among its hundred wonders was the Grand Lodge of the Pathfinder Society, to whose secret masters I would soon report. Our expedition to Ustalav had met with mixed success, but now I returned with an unforeseen treasure: a copy of the lost Lacuna Codex. Within its pages lay magics so fell that even the Whispering Tyrant had feared their discovery.
A return to Absalom might also assuage the disappointments of our visit to Greengold, where traders and diplomats treat with the elves of Kyonin. There I had hoped to employ a craftsman to repair my beloved Red Carriage, the sole legacy from my elven father. After days of fruitless negotiations with the sheep-faced bureaucrats, I realized my half-elven heritage was no advantage to gaining entrance. Thus I entrusted my vehicle to storage and chartered a riverboat to Cassomir, where I secured passage to Absalom.
Beside me, Arnisant sat as still as a gargoyle. The stone of the quay must have been cold beneath his haunches, but the Ustalavic wolfhound was proving an obedient guardian. I sensed his gaze on me but did not return it. It was his part to look to me for instruction without expectation of reward. It fell to me to dispense those rewards when they would serve to reinforce his training, not simply to cultivate his affection.
My own seat was scarcely more comfortable than Arnisant's. The entrepreneur who had established this refreshments pavilion for departing passengers warmed his guests with enormous coal braziers, but the furniture consisted of the rough benches and communal tables one might expect in a barracks. To deter others from sitting too close, I repositioned our luggage on the seats beside and opposite my own. Only my most precious satchel, that containing my spellcasting materials and the Lacuna Codex, remained by my side.
Radovan returned from the serving cart with a cup in either hand. One smelled of strong tea. From the other rose the scent of cheap wine smothered in clove and cinnamon. He set the latter on the table and glanced back to wink at the buxom barmaid, who returned his leer.
"How much time we got, boss?"
"Insufficient for dalliance."
Radovan sighed, but I doubted his sincerity. No doubt he wished to maintain his reputation as a ladies' man, but I sensed an air of melancholy about him since we departed Caliphas. There he had left behind a Varisian hedge-witch for whom I suspected he harbored a lingering devotion.
The morning air had already cooled the wine, which filled barely more than half of the glazed clay cup. I peered at Radovan, who had lately assumed an inappropriate custodianship of my consumption of wine and spirits. Considering the other evidence, however, it was equally likely that the vendor employed a stingy ladle. My first sip of the sour wine confirmed my expectation that, despite the high prices, it was the cheapest available.
"Dreadful stuff, isn't it? At least it's hot." A corpulent man from a nearby table toasted me with his own cup before draining it. He winced, his chins wagging as the dregs hit the back of his throat. I took him for a merchant, noting that the high quality of his furs and jewels belied his coarse manners.
So did the woman at his side, who sat with the poise of a Qadiran cat. Whatever beauty age had stolen from her she had won back in elegance. Her high cheekbones and thin nose marked her as a descendant of an old Taldan family. If she were wed to the merchant, I deduced that theirs was yet another expeditious marriage between ambitious wealth and impoverished nobility.
Lest I appear uncivil before the lady, I raised my cup to return her husband's salute. The wine was less disagreeable on second sip, more for the wine's fortification than for its quality. I drained the cup, careful to avoid the sediment, and signaled Radovan to fetch me another.
"Hot this time," I said. "And full to the brim."
As I turned to give him the cup, Radovan pretended to study the ceiling of the tent. I knew at once I'd caught him at mischief. Arnisant's drooling jowls confirmed my suspicion.
"How many times must I tell you not to feed my hound?"
Radovan shrugged. "Somebody must have dropped something on the floor."
I saw Arnisant swallow before resuming his stoic posture, which I now realized was a ruse born of natural cunning rather than the fruit of my instruction.
"It is imperative to his training that I alone dispense rewards, and then only—"
"Looks like last call," said Radovan. "Better hurry." He returned to the wine cart, where the barmaid greeted him with a lascivious wetting of her lips.
I checked my impulse to scold Arnisant. Negative reinforcement is effective in the short term, but it would only muddle the more potent accumulation of reward-for-behavior training. Still, I disliked the notion that Arnisant might divide his loyalties. I was the dog's master, not Radovan.
I showed Arnisant the sign to lie down. When he obeyed, I bade him roll over, rise, stand, and return to his seated vigil. Only then did I reward him with a sliver of beef liver sausage from a pouch among the many in which I had secured my riffle scrolls.
Wiping my hands upon a fresh linen handkerchief from my sleeve, I saw the merchant rising from his table. For a moment I feared he might introduce himself, but instead he bustled past me to visit the wine cart. On his way he stumbled into a young Qadiran woman whose snug winter clothes failed to conceal the rich curves of her figure. I wondered how she had escaped Radovan's attentions until I saw the barmaid's finger hooked into my bodyguard's collar, pulling him close to whisper in his ear.
I resigned myself to the prospect of another cup of tepid wine.
The sun had risen high enough to reveal the details of the harbor. Across the bay to the north, the triple towers of Harbor Watch stood vigil over the docks. Ballistas, catapults, and trebuchets fairly bristled on their many platforms, promising doom to any vessel so rash as to assault the shipyards. A great rusty chain descended into the water from the southernmost tower, but I had read more than one report suggesting this hull-breaking chain had never been completed, its appearance merely a stratagem to deter ambitious armadas.
"Quite a sight, isn't it?" The young elf pacing the perimeter of the pavilion blew at the steam rising from his cup. His sallow complexion and nervous gaze lent him the aspect of a scholar. Upon his shoulders he bore a tall woven backpack that sagged with the weight of its contents. I knew him at once, not as an individual but as one of a breed of optimistic youngsters I had encountered year after year via the Pathfinder Society. No doubt he dreamed of traveling Golarion and uncovering ancient secrets, beginning his apprenticeship in Absalom.
As I turned to speak with him, however, the boy shied away like a colt. If that was the extent of his spirit, his over-stuffed pack would seem all the heavier for his disappointment when he was turned away from the Grand Lodge.
The remaining occupants of the wine tent were a pair of dwarves. They were obviously traveling companions, one scowling as he observed the porters loading crates onto the ship, the other distracting his companion with jests at the expense of their fellow passengers. When his gaze fell upon me, the jocular dwarf sketched a bow that seemed more friendly than insolent. I returned the courtesy with a scant nod.
"Pretty or not, she needs to keep her
hands off other people's purses."
The merchant's wife favored me with a bright smile, which I returned with as little encouragement as possible. Her expression faltered somewhat as she understood that I wished to be left alone, but she masked her disappointment with the practiced grace of noble breeding.
The shadow of Grayguard Castle crept toward us by the time Radovan disentangled himself from the barmaid, who clutched his coins with more ardor than she put into her smile. Yet perhaps I do him an injustice. Despite his infernal ancestry, Radovan's knack for enchanting women verges on the uncanny.
That was an interesting thought. Among the benefits of his tainted blood were an ability to see in total darkness and a certain resistance to the effects of heat and flame, which lately seemed to have evolved into a remarkable transformation triggered by great fire. Unfortunately, he rebuffed my proposal to study his metamorphosis. A few simple experiments might determine whether heat or flame was the true catalyst, and whether time or tranquility caused him to revert to his half-human self. Was his unlikely charm another quality of his unusual condition?
The woman fell upon me before I could react. By the time I heard Arnisant growl a warning, she clutched at my neck and shoulder. My own arms instinctively encircled her body, pulling her close to prevent her head from striking the table. For an instant I thought it was the merchant's wife who had tripped over the satchel at my feet, but it was the young Qadiran woman.
Her momentary struggle before settling on my lap evoked an involuntary reaction that she could not fail to notice. In the private company of a gentlewoman of certain charms, I should have welcomed the phenomenon. Yet we stood exposed to the public eye, and she was no lady.
The young woman smothered a giggle with her gloved fingers.
"I beg your pardon," I said, although I was hardly responsible for our collision.
"That's quite a tower you've erected." She did not refer to the luggage.
Not six feet away, the talkative dwarf guffawed. Behind him, his companion frowned at the disturbance, while the young elf ceased pacing, frozen and staring like a startled hare. Near them, the merchant's wife covered her blush with a lace fan, while her husband bit his knuckles to stop his own laughter.
"Nice try, sister." Radovan pulled the woman from my lap. She struggled to escape, but he held tight to her arm while slipping a hand beneath her cloak. Before she could scream, he removed his hand and dangled my purse before her eyes.
This time the merchant could not help but laugh. "That's very good, don't you think, my dear?"
His wife nodded, but her eyes lingered on Radovan as he favored the pickpocket with the lopsided leer he calls "the little smile."
"What's your name, sweetheart?" Radovan asked.
Her hesitation was almost imperceptible. "Shadya."
"What are we going to do about this little incident? If I call the guards, we're going to miss our boat."
Shadya slipped out of his grip. She raised a defiant chin and glared back at him, rubbing her arm where he'd bruised her. "What do you want?"
Quick as an adder, Radovan slipped an arm around her waist and bent her low for a kiss. She struggled briefly while his fingers explored every contour of her body.
The merchant's wife was the first to turn away. A moment later, she prodded her husband with the fan, and he cast his gaze to the floor. The elf and the cheerful dwarf stared, one gaping, the other grinning. The dour dwarf cleared his throat.
I could bear it no longer. "That is quite enough, Radovan."
He released the woman and returned to my side. She retreated, her expression wavering between confusion and outrage.
Radovan returned my purse. "That's all she got."
While no doubt he enjoyed the pretense of collecting a kiss, I knew its true purpose was to search the woman for any other items she might have stolen.
"Passengers aboard!" the burly captain bellowed from the edge of the gangplank. The ship's mates arrived to transfer our luggage to our cabins.
As a spindly sailor approached to take our bags, I noticed that the leather latch on the most precious of my satchels lay unsecured. I opened it, my heart racing. What I feared had occurred.
The Lacuna Codex was missing.
Coming Next Week: A classic tale of theft and suspicion as Radovan and Jeggare attempt to recover the Lacuna Codex in Chapter Two of "A Passage to Absalom."
Dave Gross is the author of numerous Pathfinder Tales novels and stories. His adventures of Radovan and Jeggare 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 stories "The Lost Pathfinder" and "A Lesson in Taxonomy." In addition, he's also co-written the Pathfinder Tales novel Winter Witch with Elaine Cunningham.
Art by Florian Stitz.