A Passage to Absalom
By Dave Gross
Chapter Four: Cheap Sack
The dwarf slumped on the floor of the closet. The manacles on his wrists were newly bolted to the deck to form a makeshift brig.
“I’d never harm Pekko,” said Jaska. “Without him, I’m out of business.”
“You’re out of business because you got pinched smuggling poison,” said Radovan.
“Satyr’s tears aren’t just poison,” said Jaska. “They’re are a key ingredient in remedies for all sorts of ills. For some, it’s the only thing that works.”
That much I knew to be true, but the satyr’s tears had now been used to murder two men aboard ship, and a search of their cabins had failed to uncover the Lacuna Codex. The poisonous herbs, however, turned up in a search of the crates—already opened—in the dwarves’ cabin.
“Who else might have had a motive for poisoning your partner?” I said.
“Nobody,” moaned Jaska. “Everybody loved Pekko. He had an easy way about him. I know the business, but Pekko knew the customers. He did his best work with that flask of his.”
“Yet you never indulged in drink.”
Jaska flushed. “Even outside my people, no one respects a dwarf who won’t so much as raise a toast.”
“What? Are you some kind of monk or something?” said Radovan.
I ventured a supposition.
“You suffer from some sort of inflammatory ailment, probably gout,” I said. “If it is so acute as to require satyr’s tears, then alcoholic beverages must incite excruciating attacks.”
The dwarf nodded. “I told Captain Qoloth as much, but he wouldn’t hear it. All he cares about is arriving in Absalom with his murders solved.”
“How did you intend to disguise your abstinence at the sherry tasting?”
“I usually say I’d just had a drink or two. This time it was trickier, since Pekko and I had just been chatting with Menas. They shared a few drinks in our cabin before the party.”
“Did you have business with Lord Neverion?”
“Not yet,” said Jaska. “Pekko thought him a good future prospect, so I left them to it while I visited the head.”
“Could anyone else have overheard their conversation?”
He pondered. “I passed a crewman, and also that girl and the elf. One of them might have entered the cabin between the time I left and when I arrived at the Neverions’ party.”
“Who awaited you there?”
“Our hosts, of course. And Pekko. Oh, and one of the crew was just leaving. He’d brought fresh glasses. Menas almost handed me one, but thankfully his wife distracted him, and then Pekko kept him occupied with...” he choked "...with his stupid jokes.”
The presence of the ship’s crew complicated matters more than I liked, yet I knew no reason Shadya or Murviniel would desire the death of Menas Neverion. Worse, my most recent visit to the deck confirmed my suspicion that dampening magic was not the least of the Sea Lion’s enchantments. We had nearly arrived in Absalom, far ahead of schedule even considering the favorable winds. Time was running out.
We left Jaska to his confinement. As we walked to Lady Neverion’s new quarters, we saw a deckhand emerging from her cabin, arms full of bags. The ship turned sharply, and the docking whistle sounded above. We had arrived.
With a brief pause to fetch Arnisant from our cabin, we hastened above decks, where the crew prepared to dock. Already we were within the wide harbor of Absalom, its docks stretching east to west. Ships from a dozen different ports vied with the Sea Lion for an available berth. Behind their colored sails and banners, the manors and temples of Absalom rose up to the grand Starstone Cathedral in the distance.
Captain Qoloth stood near the main mast, Lady Neverion’s hand on his fingers.
“Thank you for agreeing to speed our journey,” she said as his whiskers brushed her hand. “It will soothe my nerves to spend a few days on land before returning to bury my husband.”
“And no doubt it is some consolation to see justice done.” He glowered at Jaska, who stood shackled and glum between a pair of sailors.
“Indeed,” Charikla sniffed before indicating a crate of wine bottles left on deck. “Please accept this gift for your men. I never touch the stuff. This common sack is all my husband would drink when no one was looking, even though it aggravated his gout.”
Something tickled in my mind at the word “gout.” Considering his age and girth, it was no surprise that Menas should suffer from the same affliction as Jaska. But what could the dwarf hope to gain from the merchant lord’s death?
The captain, on the other hand, had been most considerate in providing Charikla with an alternative to the cabin in which her husband had died. Furthermore, he had commanded me not to trouble her after the discovery of the poisonous herbs among the dwarves’ cargo. As a wealthy widow, Charikla was well suited to reward Qoloth for his compliance.
"What exactly is Murviniel carrying in that enormous backpack?"
Shadya and Murviniel emerged from the passenger cabins. A porter trailed behind the Qadiran woman, but the elf carried his own over-burdened backpack.
“You ask me,” said Radovan, “every damned one of them is guilty of something.”
Such a simple remark, yet it spawned a hasty theory that just might fit our circumstances.
“Captain Qoloth,” I said. “A moment, if you please.”
Everyone who had been preparing to debark stopped to listen. That was well, but the ship’s master looked displeased. “Make it quick.”
“I implore you to keep everyone aboard until we can summon the city guard and resolve the matter of these murders, not to mention the theft of my property.”
“We have our killer, and I already told you the theft is not my responsibility.”
“But you don’t have the killer,” I said. “In fact, you’ve imprisoned the one innocent man among your passengers—myself excepted, of course.”
“And me,” said Radovan. He grinned, stopping just short of revealing the full horror of his smile. “I haven’t done anything real nasty in weeks.”
Radovan’s uninvited aside once again proved handy.
“Despite his fearsome appearance, my bodyguard is a fine example of the adage that one should not judge a book by its cover. Of course, sometimes a cover is honest. For example, you, Captain, are probably much as you appear: a practical businessman who runs an efficient ship with a disciplined crew.
“I’m—” Qoloth hesitated, considering whether I was mocking or flattering him.
“Lady Neverion is also much as she appears, a woman of noble breeding in mourning for her late husband.”
Charikla bowed her head in assent.
“But not mourning for her second late husband.” She bristled, and I added, “No one could mistake you for a happy couple. You were ashamed of his coarse manners and low breeding. If not for the misfortunes of your estate, you should never have thought twice about marriage so far beneath your station. Oh, I believe your horror at his death was genuine. Perhaps you did not expect the method of his murder to be quite so horrible, nor for it to occur so close to you. Yet twice you prevented him from offering a drink to others. You knew which was the tainted glass.”
Charikla’s lips trembled briefly, but she could deny none of what I had said. I turned toward Shadya.
“Our other female companion is also much as she appears, but one must examine her cover closely.” I raised a finger to silence Radovan, who I sensed had been poised to add a remark. “Despite your immodest behavior, Shadya, you have no air of desperation about you. No matter how successful your thefts, you could not have stolen the refined taste to choose such fashionable garments as those you wore the night of the sherry tasting. You are a dilettante from a wealthy family. You steal not for necessity but for the thrill of transgression.”
“I didn’t take your book,” she said. Her voice betrayed a rising fear, and I marked the direction of her gaze when it left my eyes.
She indicated exactly the person I had begun to suspect.
“No,” I agreed. “You merely provided the diversion, drawing my attention and that of my bodyguard while the true thief stole the Codex from my satchel. What I did not realize before was that not everyone at the dock in Cassomir was fooled by your charade. Someone else witnessed the theft, and the price for her silence was the murder of her husband.”
Lady Neverion’s face paled. She was past anger now, wading deeper into the cool waters of fear as I spoke.
“But why was Pekko killed?” demanded Jaska. One of the sailors guarding him jerked his chains to silence him, but the other man looked at the dwarf with sympathy.
“To cover the killer’s tracks. The murderer visited your cabin before the party and acquired a sample of the satyr’s tears from Pekko.” I turned toward the elf.
“But I told you,” Murviniel said. “I’ve only read about such herbs.”
“And yet you brought along a pouch of nettle tea on what you pretend is your first visit to Absalom. You fooled me at first, but I see now what lies beneath your false cover: a thief and a killer.”
“You’re mad,” he said. “Very well, then. Let’s hear the rest of it. What tale will Venture-Captain Varian Jeggare spin for us next? Oh, will it appear in the next volume of the Chronicles?”
“You are no mere Pathfinder applicant. That ring upon your finger resembles those a certain venture-captain presented to her agents decades ago.”
Murviniel shrugged. “One of whom must have fallen on hard times and sold it.”
“Plausible, I admit. But there are more surprises under your cover. The nettle tea you drink soothes a number of ailments, most of them peculiar to men of middle years. Sometimes even I forget how misleading a youthful elven appearance can be. One day—perhaps already—the nettle tea will no longer ameliorate your illness. You cannot say you are unfamiliar with the effects of satyr’s tears, both beneficial and toxic.”
“That’s—that’s—” His naive front evaporated. “What motive would I have for killing Neverion?”
“Before you stole the Lacuna Codex, you had none. But you had to repay the silence of the one who witnessed your theft. Is that not correct, Lady Neverion?”
Charikla adopted a statue’s gaze, staring off into the distance.
“Everyone else present was a man, except for the barmaid—whose attentions were devoted to Radovan—and Lady Neverion, who as a lady of noble birth naturally turned away from Shadya’s bawdy antics. What did she see? I would have noticed had you approached close enough to dip a hand inside my luggage. I wager you plucked it out with a spell.”
“You did do it!” Shadya shoved Murviniel away from her. She closed the distance and struck him again, pushing him over and over.
“How do you know that, sweetheart?” said Radovan. He slid over to Murviniel’s other side, drawing his attention by producing his big knife.
Shadya answered me rather than Radovan. “This elf bet me I couldn’t let your henchman see that I was lifting your purse while leaving you unawares.” She pointed at Murviniel. “If I had known about a killing, I would have told someone. He said it must have been the other dwarf who killed him, over some sort of business dispute.”
“So much for honor among thieves,” said Murviniel, turning his back to the gunwales. “You may be your own most ardent admirer, Count Jeggare. But I must admit you figured it out eventually. Too bad it’s just a bit too late.” He fell over the edge of the ship and plunged into the water.
“Man overboard!” cried a sailor.
I ran to the side and looked down just in time to see Murviniel kick away from the ship. Once free of the Sea Lion’s dampening field, he vanished in a twinkle of magic. I recognized the effect of a minor teleportation spell and looked up along the pier. There he reappeared, already sprinting through the chaotic mass of laborers.
I withdrew a riffle scroll and prepared to throw myself into the water, hoping the scroll would still function after a good drenching.
“Wait,” said Shadya. “You can find him later, can’t you?”
“Perhaps, but I cannot allow him a chance to pass the Lacuna Codex to a confederate. The book is untraceable by magic, and I—”
“This is your book?” Shadya tossed me my Bestiary of Garund. I shook my head, but then I saw fragments of Murviniel’s wicker backpack clinging to the cover, and I recalled the shoves Shadya had given him. She had cut his pack like a purse.
The Bestiary was stuffed full of loose sheets between its pages. Flipping through, I recognized pages of the Lacuna Codex. Murviniel had hidden them in plain sight during my visit to his cabin. Yet there were too few pages to account for the entire tome.
“Not all of it is here.”
Shadya revealed several more slender volumes she had liberated from the elf’s pack and concealed behind her back. Two more were also full of Codex pages. A quick accounting ascertained that she had recovered them all. My sigh of relief deflated me so completely that I almost sank to my knees. Arnisant approached to sniff me, assuring himself I was unharmed.
“Nice work,” Radovan told Shadya. She smiled before remembering she was angry with him. Before she could cement the frown to her face, he whispered something to make her laugh.
I looked past them to see one of Qoloth’s men take Lady Neverion by the arm while a second confiscated her dogs. Shaking his head, the captain signaled the guards to release Jaska from his bonds.
“I can’t say I’m glad to lose the bonus the lady promised for swift passage,” said Qoloth. He said nothing more, perhaps hoping that his silence would prompt me to compensate him for his loss.
As the crew set the gangplank on the dock, I oversaw the conveyance of our luggage while Radovan exchanged a few words with Shadya. The manner in which they stood so close suggested she had forgiven him, at least in part, for his earlier rough behavior. It had, after all, won her wager with Murviniel.
“I don’t expect the boss will want you charged,” Radovan said. “He’s a pretty understanding guy.”
“Perhaps a reward for rescuing his books?”
“He ain’t that understanding. But what kind of reward did you have in mind?”
“Perhaps another kiss,” she said. “I wasn’t prepared to appreciate the last one.”
A smile spread across Radovan’s wide jaws. He stopped it at what he calls “the little smile” before moving in to grant Shadya’s request.
Standing beside me, Qoloth asked, “How does he do that?”
I shrugged. “No one knows.”
We finished our business, glancing up from time to time to see whether the way was clear. When Shadya at last withdrew from Radovan’s embrace, she shouldered her bag and skipped across the gangplank. She waved once without looking back and disappeared into the crowd.
Radovan was still grinning as he hefted a few of our bags.
“You know she lifted your purse,” I said.
Radovan traced his thumb over his lips and gazed into the waterfront crowds. “Yeah,” he said. “I know.”
Coming Next Week: The guilty conscience of a halfling in Galt in Amber E. Scott's "The Seventh Execution."
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 Tony Foti.