A Passage to Absalom
by Dave Gross
Chapter Three: Peach Brandy
My pronouncement of death silenced the room. Everyone else stared as I knelt beside the corpse. I watched for clues in their faces.
Lady Neverion clutched the nearest arm, which happened to belong to Captain Qoloth. The hirsute ship’s master patted the woman’s hands, but his eyes remained locked on the dead man. His grimace deepened into a scowl.
Young Murviniel peered around the captain’s shoulder with naked curiosity, his brow furrowing as he inspected the dead man’s countenance. Whatever killed Menas Neverion had burst the veins in his eyes and colored his face purple.
Beside the elf, the dwarves gaped at the dead man. Pekko appeared confused, but considering his flushed cheeks and the two goblets in his hands, I concluded he was simply inebriated. He raised a goblet toward his mouth, but Jaska lay a hand on his arm and shook his head until Pekko noticed the sherry glass lying beside the dead man. Pekko set both goblets carefully on a sideboard and wiped his hands on his shirt.
I could not at first see Shadya. She had retreated from the corpse until her back pressed against the ship’s bulkhead. She pressed a fist against her mouth and stared at the floor, in either utter revulsion or else an excellent facsimile of that emotion. When she saw Radovan looking at her, she looked away.
A loud whistle pierced the silence. At Qoloth’s signal, a crewman opened the door.
“Escort this lady to the empty cabin.” The captain drew Charikla Neverion away from the corpse of her husband.
“But sir, it is full of the dwarves’ extra cargo—”
“Then remove it.”
“Aye, sir. But where—?”
“I don’t give a damn!” bellowed Qoloth. “Can’t you see the lady is distraught? You can put the cargo on deck or in the bilge for all I care.”
“Wait, wait!” sputtered Jaska. “The contents are fragile. I will go with you.”
Before Qoloth could object, Lady Neverion shrieked.
One of the lady’s tiny dogs lapped at the damp spot beside the fallen glass. Radovan scooped up the tiny creature and snagged its mate before it too could sample the spilled sherry. He poured the shivering dogs into Charikla’s arms, and she hugged them to her breast while recoiling from him. To his credit, Radovan pretended not to notice her disdain.
"Lady Neverion certainly seems distraught. But then, when doesn't she?"
Qoloth’s head wobbled as though he were stifling the urge to shout some more. Instead he simply steered Lady Neverion toward his crewman before waving them and Jaska from the room. As the door closed behind them, Qoloth muttered, “Gold—Fisted Abadar, couldn’t you have given the fat fool his heart attack in Absalom?”
I suppressed the urge to stop Qoloth from letting the others go, as the captain had already cautioned me not to challenge his authority. Even so, I could not stop myself from correcting him. “Lord Neverion did not die of natural causes. He was murdered.”
I nodded, tugging a handkerchief from my sleeve.
“It was the sherry, wasn’t it?” Pekko slurred. He pressed the backs of his hands against his cheeks and forehead. “Great gods and little fishes, he had only two. I drank four. No, seven!”
I lifted the glass Menas had dropped, careful to shield my bare skin with the handkerchief. In addition to the impression of the dead man’s lips and a few remaining drops of sherry, I perceived a faint discoloration around the outer rim of the glass.
“It would appear you are in no danger,” I assured the dwarf.
Murviniel bent low to examine the glass, placing his face close to mine in a careless gesture of familiarity. His breath smelled of nettle tea as he whispered, “Satyr’s tears.”
The faint blue tint of the otherwise unobtrusive stain led me to the same conclusion. I stood. “You are familiar with poisons?”
Murviniel also stood. “Not poisons especially, no,” he said. “But with herbs in general, yes. I suppose I should have kept quiet.”
“Well, I’ve just made myself a suspect, haven’t I?”
“Everyone is a suspect.”
“I’m not,” said Qoloth. “Murder aboard ship’s bad for business. If Neverion’s death is somehow related to this stolen book of yours, I expect you to sort it out before we reach port.”
“Then you withdraw your objections to my using magic?” Much as I deplore divination spells as a cheat, in this matter I was willing to stoop. Allowing the power of the Lacuna Codex to be unleashed upon the world was too terrible to consider, and it seemed quite possible that I would discover a link between the theft and the murder.
Qoloth barked a dismissive laugh. “When I told you there’s no magic aboard the Sea Lion, I wasn’t objecting. I was stating a fact.”
I should have realized sooner that the Katapeshi’s exorbitant fare included certain amenities not commonly available on other vessels. Many wealthy travelers were happy to pay a premium for protection from magical detection or attack while traversing the Inner Sea. I had simply engaged the first available passage, heedless of the expense.
“You cannot deactivate the effect?”
“I’m a sailor, not a sorcerer,” said Qoloth. I saw no evidence of falsehood in his expression, but he was the bold sort of man to whom big lies come easy.
“Very well,” I said. “In that case, I wish to begin questioning those present. Would you be so good as to have your crew escort the men to their cabins, there to remain until I visit?”
Qoloth narrowed his eyes, perhaps deciding whether my request sounded too much like a command. Now that the captain had endorsed my investigation, it was imperative that I establish some measure of authority without undermining his.
“Good,” he said. “Report to me at eight bells.”
The ship’s cook had struck four bells just before we arrived at the Neverion’s cabin. Informing the captain of my progress less than two hours hence would interrupt what would doubtless prove an arduous inquiry. Nevertheless, if reaffirming Qoloth’s authority in this manner would permit me greater freedom to investigate, I would be content. I bowed my assent.
As the others departed, Qoloth whistled up another pair of sailors to remove Neverion’s body to the cold locker. As the corpse vanished from sight, Shadya spoke. “Please, Captain. Don’t leave me alone with them.”
Qoloth paused at the door. He followed Shadya’s gaze to Radovan, who offered him the little smile and a parody of a naval salute.
“Allow me to apologize for the manner in which my associate retrieved my purse,” I began. “I assure you that my inquiry will remain strictly verbal.” While my apology was sincere, it also served to remind Qoloth of the circumstances preceding Radovan’s frisking. Shadya had already proven herself less than trustworthy.
Qoloth summoned another sailor to stand watch inside the room. There was little harm in that, I thought, so long as Shadya revealed nothing I wished to keep from the captain’s ears. He did not seem a likely candidate for the theft, but for the murder I knew I must not discount anyone.
The moment the door closed behind Qoloth, Radovan said, “Knock it off, sister. You’re not fooling anyone with the delicate routine. The captain’s this close to letting us toss your room. I wonder what we’ll find tucked beneath your mattress.”
Rather than intercede, I awaited her response. My bodyguard had chosen the proper tack. My courtesy had granted Shadya an undue sense of security. Radovan, in his coarse manner, had disrupted her cool facade.
She hesitated, but her countenance still betrayed more shock than umbrage. Unless I misread her, she was truly surprised by Neverion’s death.
“I didn’t know the man,” she said. “His wife has a few tempting jewels, I admit, but there was nothing for me in his death.”
“You did not partake of the sherry,” I said.
She hesitated, and in her eyes I saw that she was considering her answer. “I almost did,” she said. “I arrived shortly before you. When I went to greet our hosts, that woman threw me such an icy glare that I thought better of it.”
All too well I understood my peers’ ability to shun undesirables with a glance. So did Radovan, who had experienced such snubs far more often than I.
“Very well.” I signaled the sailor to open the cabin door.
“That’s it?” Shadya sounded almost disappointed.
“That is all for now.” I bowed.
Radovan and I navigated the narrow passage to Murviniel’s berth, passing a lone sailor who stood watch over the passenger cabins. Inwardly I approved of the captain’s caution, but I wondered how well the crewman could overhear conversations within the cabins. Judging from the sound of movement inside Murviniel’s cabin, I expected the guard could hear anything spoken above a whisper.
The elf spoke before I could greet him. “Lord Neverion served the sherry himself. I didn’t notice anyone else handling the glasses, but I think one of the crew set up their sideboard. I don’t know which one, but of course the captain would.”
While pretending to listen, I observed Murviniel’s quarters. He had strewn his personal belongings haphazardly throughout the small cabin. I lifted a battered volume of spells from the bed. “You study magic?”
“Yes,” said the elf. “My brother gave me his first spellbook. I’m not much past the cantrips, I’m afraid.”
“The Society can always use another practitioner of the arcane.”
Among the other swollen and dog-eared books that had escaped Murviniel’s backpack, I spied a copy of my own Bestiary of Garund and thought of his earlier fawning. Had he left it out in an obsequious gesture?
Radovan recognized the book and understood the meaning of its presence. He rubbed his eye in a rude gesture to indicate what he thought of Murviniel’s ploy. It was only a matter of time before the elf solicited my support in his application to the Pathfinder Society.
“What else can I tell you?” Murviniel said, apparently oblivious to the communication that passed between Radovan and me. “I arrived after the dwarves, but before everyone else. No one was talking of anything but the motion of the ship and the favorable wind. The Qadiran girl and the dwarf Jaska did not drink the sherry, but everyone else did. The other dwarf was already half in his cups before he arrived. He and Neverion acted like old friends, but I could have sworn they had never met before boarding the ship.”
“What herbs do you carry in that pack of yours?”
“Ah,” said the elf. His eyes brightened, the opposite of the usual reaction to my changing the subject. “I thought you might ask, so I emptied my pack. Here, you can see them all. Not much here, just these two pouches for tea. I’m not a practicing herbalist. I’ve mostly just read a few books.”
In addition to the nettle I detected on his breath earlier, I recognized a mélange of rosehips, hibiscus, and peppermint commonly steeped as a relaxing tisane. Neither mixture was the least bit toxic, and both suggested that Murviniel was of a delicate constitution, probably suffering from some urinary dysfunction.
Before I could frame a question he had not already anticipated, Murviniel came to his point. “If there is any way I could assist you in this investigation, Your Excellency, I would be only too happy to put myself at your service.”
I weighed the likely distraction of the young elf’s assistance against any genuine help he might provide. In truth, I had chosen to speak with him next only to give Pekko time to sober up and fret about what I would ask him. Considering the famed fortitude of dwarven drinkers, I decided the time was now. “We shall talk more tomorrow.”
“But—is there nothing else?”
“Not at this time, thank you.”
We left Murviniel gasping like a beached fish, his hopes frustrated. Radovan smiled and scratched the back of his neck as we left the cabin. “Kid’s got it bad.”
“We were all young once.”
“Even you?” he said. “Somehow I can’t picture that.”
I stopped before the door to the dwarves’ cabin. My keen hearing detected no sound but the rhythmic creaking of the ship as it rose and descended upon the waves. At my signal, Radovan rapped on the portal. When no reply came, he tried the latch and found it unlocked. He opened the door to reveal a small cabin crowded with several crates lodged between the two bunks. On the tiny space of floor that remained sprawled Pekko. A few inches from his hand lay a pewter flask and funnel, beside it a spilled bottle of liquid exuding the unmistakable odor of peach brandy.
Pekko lay quite motionless, his face the color of a ripe eggplant.
Coming Next Week: Uncomfortable revelations in the final chapter 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 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 McLean Kendree.