A Passage to Absalom
By Dave Gross
Click here to read this story from the beginning.
Chapter Two: Dry Sherry
"Please, Captain, you must see it from my perspective."
Captain Qoloth brayed so vigorously that the top of his close-shorn head bumped the ceiling. The Katapeshi stood several inches taller than I and doubtless carried thrice my weight on his broad frame. His prominent jaws and bristly whiskers suggested a parent among that nation's hyenafolk, though my studies at the Acadamae suggested that such a hybrid was categorically impossible. Considering the bestial odor of his fur-clad body, I reevaluated my understanding of the term "impossible."
"Do you know, my half-elven friend, what it is that I most enjoy about being captain?" Qoloth smiled, revealing long canine teeth. "It is that everyone else aboard my ship must see things from my perspective."
"Very well." My station was no advantage so far from my native land, even had I chosen to announce my Chelish origins on a vessel flying the crowned white lion of Taldor. My attempts at reason had failed to move Captain Qoloth, who noted with perfect logic that the Lacuna Codex had been stolen before I came under his protection by boarding his ship. Thus, I was reduced to begging the most meager concession. "Will you at least grant me permission to question the other passengers?"
"Talk all you like. Just remember, there is no magic aboard the Lion. And keep your boy out of the other cabins."
Radovan bristled at the dismissive term. It mattered little to him that he had, in fact, been spotted attempting to pick the lock of Shadya's cabin to search for the missing tome.
"Very well, Captain. Thank you for your time."
Arnisant awaited us on deck. A sea breeze ruffled the hound's pewter-gray coat, but the sun's warmth assuaged the winter chill. The wolfhound's eyes flicked toward Radovan before settling on me. I bade him heel as we strolled the deck, careful not to intrude upon the labors of the crew.
The Lacuna Codex had to be somewhere aboard the Sea Lion. Under other circumstances, I would appreciate the captain's insistence that none of his guests were to be subjected to physical or magical inspection. For the exorbitant price he charged for passage, one expected a modicum of privacy while traveling between Taldor and Absalom.
Yet someone had absconded with my property, and the thief had to be one of my fellow passengers. Apart from the crew, who had been nowhere near my luggage before the theft, there were only six others aboard. In his own coarse manner, Radovan had already searched Shadya, the Qadiran woman who had lifted my purse at the wharf. While not eliminating her as a suspect, Radovan's "inquiry" left five other likely suspects.
Lord and Lady Neverion seemed innocuous, but it is my business to dispel seeming. The wealthy Menas Neverion began life as a butcher, gradually expanding his business until he had accumulated sufficient capital to speculate on imports. Desna favored his investments, and eventually he bent his vast fortune toward his ultimate goal: the title, hand, and lands of the widowed and impoverished Lady Charikla. Had catastrophe withered their holdings? The stolen Codex was worth a fortune to the right buyer.
Or to the wrong one.
Pekko and Jaska were dwarf merchants conveying cargo to Absalom. They too took the air, their breath forming clouds as they walked arm-in-arm on the far side of the deck. Pekko threw us a jaunty wave. He was a gregarious sort with bells and charms tied in his red-brown beard. Jaska was his opposite in almost every regard, disagreeable of countenance with a sooty smudge of a beard and an angry canker-blossom overtaking his left nostril. He was the one who seemed most concerned with the safe handling of their cargo, the nature of which I had not yet discovered. Did either of these ostensible traders harbor a lust for rare tomes?
"Pekko is likeable enough, if something of a lush. But is his jovial exterior a front for something more sinister?"
The young elf called Murviniel had revealed himself to be a Pathfinder aspirant, as I had surmised. Once he overcame his trepidation, he asked whether I was, as he suspected, "the famous" Venture-Captain Varian Jeggare. Accustomed as I am to idle flattery, I was surprised that his admiration sounded genuine, if born of innocence. Any active Pathfinder would know that my once-flourishing reputation had paled. In fact, my latest excursion had proven a failure except for the discovery of the now-missing Lacuna Codex. Did Murviniel hope to steal for himself the prize that would win back my former status?
The creak of salt-encrusted hinges interrupted my reverie. As the portly Menas Neverion held the door, his delicate wife emerged from below decks. She squinted at the white sky as the breeze ruffled the various furs of her stole. In her arms shivered a pair of tiny dogs that must have arrived within their baggage. Arnisant lifted his snout to catch their scent but remained obediently at my side.
"I bet you could eat both of those little rats in one bite, couldn't you, Arni?" Radovan scratched the back of the hound's head.
"Please," I said. "Do not confuse my hound by using a diminutive of his name."
"Arni's not confused," said Radovan. "He's smarter than he looks, like you always say about me."
"Considerably smarter, I hope. All the same—"
"There you are, my dear fellow." Menas Neverion bustled toward us, extending his hand to grasp mine as if I were some common broker of fortunes. I countered his unseemly greeting by offering a curt Chelish bow. He withdrew the offending appendage and fiddled with a button on his fur coat.
"Your Excellency, my husband wishes to invite you to sample his sherry this evening," said Lady Neverion. She stroked a finger across the heads of the tiny dogs cradled in her arm. They trembled and strained their little necks for a view of Arnisant. "If the sherry pleases the foremost count of Cheliax, it should dazzle the connoisseurs of Absalom."
While I had taken no special pains to conceal my identity, I had not expected to be known among the other passengers. Only Murviniel had recognized me, and I now wondered how. Certainly my name was well known among members of the Society, but my image was not so commonly distributed. Even setting aside that question, either Murviniel had identified me to Lady Charikla, or else some other intelligence allowed her to identify me by title.
Lady Neverion anticipated my question. "We were never formally introduced, my dear Count. I glimpsed you once, some years ago, during a procession in Oppara. You cut quite the dashing figure among the Chelish emissaries. I pray you won't think me forward when I say you appear quite unchanged."
"My lady is most kind," I replied with a more courtly bow than I had offered her husband. Menas appeared undisturbed by the attention she shone upon me, but I could not return the compliment, for I had no recollection of the lady. My most recent visit to Oppara had occurred more than forty years earlier, when I served a minor role in a diplomatic gesture following the revolutions in Galt and Andoran. Unless some magic were responsible for preserving her appearance, Charikla must have been little more than a child at the time of my visit.
A sudden eructation drew my attention. The sound emanated from my hound. Arnisant gazed up at Charikla's little dogs, who yipped in fear. With a sign, Radovan directed him to move farther away. Charikla cradled her darlings to her breast.
Before I could frame an apology, Menas spoke again.
"Do be a good fellow and join us for a drink before supper." He glanced to the side and waved at Pekko as the dwarves completed their latest circuit of the deck. Pekko waved back, but sour-faced Jaska tugged him down the stairs to the cabins. Menas added, "We've invited everyone, and I promise I won't be stingy, even though it's very expensive stuff."
Lady Neverion glanced away from her husband's crass remark. Radovan cleared his throat to cover a chuckle. Even to one raised on the streets of Egorian, the pretensions of this merchant lord were risible.
"I would be honored," I said.
"And do bring your man," he added. "I've invited that Qadiran girl. What do you think? They'll add a bit of color."
Menas grinned, awaiting my approval. His wife's eyes narrowed as she considered my bodyguard. Radovan smiled without revealing his teeth, but I knew he was stifling the urge to wink at her. That was wise, for Lady Neverion was doubtless unaccustomed to including hellspawn or pickpockets in her social gatherings.
"We should be honored," I said.
"Don't bring your hound, of course. My lady wife's precious little creatures are not among the hors d'oeuvres." He leaned in to whisper, "Not that I'd mind the quiet afterward!"
Radovan snorted. Charikla turned away, murmuring assurances to her noisy little dogs until Menas offered her his arm and escorted her around the deck.
We arrived at the Neverions' cabin twenty minutes after the appointed hour. I wished to observe the dynamics established among the other passengers in my absence. Also, it would not do for a count of Cheliax to stand awaiting the arrival of those of lesser status.
The chamber was larger than I had expected, even considering the high price Captain Qoloth charged his passengers. Not even the enormous master of the ship had any need to stoop beneath the seven-foot ceiling. His evening clothes included a hyena-pelt cape that only exacerbated his resemblance to the hyenafolk.
For the occasion I had chosen an embroidered coat to wear over a linen shirt with laced cuffs. Radovan's leather garb was barely presentable, but none of my clothing would fit his wide chest. I insisted that he wear a soft gray half-cape I had made for myself in Caliphas.
The Neverions appeared well appointed as usual, all fine furs and tasteful jewelry, the selection of which I attributed to Lady Charikla rather than her husband. Menas laughed as he poured another drink for the jocular Pekko, who held two large wine goblets rather than the dainty sherry crystals held by the other guests. Despite the effort to appear unconcerned, I could see Menas wince slightly as he calculated the cost of every drop he poured for the seemingly insatiable dwarf. The dwarves had donned gray waistcoats over fresh linen shirts, but Pekko had already managed to stain his cuffs while quaffing sherry from both goblets. Judging by his rosy cheeks and the ever-increasing volume of his voice, he had already imbibed plenty, and he had a bottle of his own nestled into one of his trouser pockets.
I started toward the group, but then I heard Radovan's intake of breath. I followed his gaze to the other side of the cabin.
Shadya appeared less a thief and more a lady in loose silken trousers draped as sensuously as a skirt over her long legs. Over a beaded shirt she wore a brilliant azure vest of crushed velvet, its stiff fabric somehow failing to conceal the curves of breasts and hips. Subtle patterns appeared in the fabric as she moved, betraying its fine quality. Either Shadya was an exceptionally successful thief, or else she picked pockets for the thrill of the act.
Radovan straightened. Before he could take a step toward the woman, she lifted her chin and turned away. Radovan jutted his jaw, deterred for now.
Murviniel appeared at my elbow. Alone among the guests, he appeared out of place. His robes were the color of old sailcloth, and his tri-corner hat was unfashionable even in Andoran where it had once been popular. His only ornament was a cheap brass ring on which was stamped the emblem of the Pathfinder Society.
"There's only one captain on this ship, by Abadar!" Qoloth's voice thundered across the cabin, but his wide grin belied his threatening tone. He drained his glass and held it out for Menas to refill. The trader obliged, tugging at his tight collar as the captain joined Pekko in guzzling his expensive sherry.
"While we are aboard ship, you must address me as Count Jeggare."
"I beg your pardon, Your Grace."
"'Excellency' is the traditional honorific."
"I'm sorry, Your Excellency."
Radovan moved away, but not before I saw him roll his eyes.
I waved away Murviniel's apology. It is acceptable to dispense with formality in the field, but the young elf was not yet a member, only an applicant to the Society.
"How is it that you recognized me?" I asked.
Murviniel lowered his eyes. "The truth is, Your Excellency, you are my idol."
"My hero," he said. "You travel the world and uncover secrets no one else has ever found, even other Pathfinders. My copy of your Bestiary of Garund has fallen to pieces, I have read it so often. I want to be just like you."
"Your words are…gratifying." It was now my turn to feel flustered, but before I could recover my composure I saw Menas Neverion pull at his collar again, this time with far more force. The man's face had turned dark red. His eyes bulged, the veins darkening as they spread toward his iris.
Beside Menas, Pekko peered into his goblets, one after the other, glassy-eyed and seemingly oblivious to the events around him. Charikla recoiled from her husband, her face a mask of revulsion as she realized the extent of his distress. Qoloth squinted suspiciously at the choking merchant before reaching out to steady the man.
"Help him!" cried Charikla. Jaska grabbed Menas and eased the man to the carpet. The others all moved at once, some toward and others away from the fallen merchant. I pushed through the crowd and felt the man's throat.
"Too late." I said. "He is already dead."
Coming Next Week: Theft turns to murder, and an elegant ship becomes a dangerous prison in Chapter Three 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 Mike Capprotti.