The old servant fumbled with the keys. The glow of the lantern transformed his gnarled hands into dried roots.
At my side, Arnisant growled a warning. The instant I touched the Shadowless Sword, a gloved hand covered mine in a gesture doubtless intended to reassure me. Instead, the unwelcome touch raised the hairs on my neck. My pulse remained calm, however, a reminder of the strange transfiguration of my lately sundered heart.
Invisible a moment earlier, a woman glanced up at me. The shadow beneath her voluminous hood offered no impediment to my half-elven vision, yet I perceived only a platinum mask inlaid with blue gemstones. I had seen that mask only a few hours earlier, on one of the Decemvirate, the anonymous inner circle of the Pathfinder Society.
I showed Arnisant a hand sign. The wolfhound's growl ceased.
"I'll take those, Timon." The woman released my hand and reached for the lantern and keys.
I recognized the servant's name. As he surrendered the lantern, I saw that the wrinkles on his face and hands were the result not of age but of horrific burns.
"Timon of Korvosa," I said. "The Timon who stole the captain of the Sable Company's steed. The Timon who eloped with Chief Redmuzzle's daughter."
He bowed, stiff from his wounds but with a crooked smile acknowledging his pleasure at the recognition.
"Eloped?" The masked woman fidgeted, keys rattling, light bobbing. "Wasn't Chief Redmuzzle a goblin of the Mushfens?"
"The marriage was strictly a matter of self-preservation," said Timon.
"But goblins hate humans."
"Shortly before encountering Redmuzzle's tribe, I ran afoul of a marsh witch—"
"Green Sobeska!" I recalled his decades-old report in the Pathfinder Chronicles. "From the hag you retrieved several fragments of the tablets of Xanderghul. She transmogrified you into a goblin as you fled her grotto."
"I am flattered that you remember, Venture-Captain."
Timon's use of my Society title pleased and irritated me in equal portion. After my infuriating audience with the Decemvirate, I remained uncertain of my status. In my long absence, they had reassigned all of my field agents to others, leaving me a venture-captain in name only.
"Thank you, Timon." The woman's cool tone indicated dismissal.
For a moment I wished Radovan were with me so that he might slip a few coins into the retired Pathfinder's withered hand.
As Timon withdrew, the woman brushed past me and opened the door. Before I could identify her perfume—something Qadiran—the mingled scents of old paper, parchment, and leather poured out of the building. The woman snapped her fingers. Two rows of yellow lamps flickered to life along a pair of long reading tables.
Ranks of bookshelves surrounded the tables. Like tombs in a catacomb lay thousands of old, damaged, or misfiled volumes of arcane and mundane lore. The curators of the Grand Lodge's many libraries would determine which to restore for general use and which to retire.
I felt a pang of sympathy for the forgotten books and for Timon.
"Are you sure you wouldn't rather use one of the libraries?" she asked.
"I enjoy the solitude."
"It's better for sulking, isn't it?" She saw the effect of her remark in my posture. "No, no, I'm sorry, Varian. That isn't how I meant to begin. Here, I brought you a gift in honor of your long-awaited return from Tian Xia."
She produced a goblet from beneath her cloak. I stifled my annoyance at her familiar address, made all the more infuriating by her own anonymity. Since my return to the Grand Lodge, no one but Timon had addressed me as "Venture-Captain." In default of that title, anyone less than a prince should address me as "Your Excellency," or at least as "Count Jeggare."
She set the goblet on a reading table and produced a pair of bottles. The curling labels seized my attention: the wine came from my own vineyards in Western Cheliax, two of the finest vintages ever produced in the Inner Sea.
Decades earlier I had sent such bottles to certain of my field agents, who reported their excursions to me for fact-checking, annotation, and ultimately submission to the Decemvirate for potential inclusion in the Pathfinder Chronicles. Could this woman be Medesha? Khirsah? It should not surprise me to learn that either of those talented women had entered the Society's innermost circle.
I studied what little I could see beneath the mask: sea-green eyes, coral lips, and a long, fair chin. The enchantments of a Decemvirate mask could very well extend beyond the features it covered, even disguising the wearer's voice. Perhaps the masked stranger was not a woman, perhaps not even human.
As she poured the wine, I noticed that the corks of both bottles had been previously drawn and reinserted.
"You will join me, of course."
"I hoped you would ask." She produced a second goblet from beneath her cloak. She filled both vessels and allowed me to choose.
Her gesture only heightened my caution, despite the seeming absurdity that a member of the Decemvirate would poison me on the grounds of the Grand Lodge. I chose the goblet nearest me. As I nosed the wine, she lifted the other goblet and said, "To old friends."
"Whoever they are." I put the goblet to my lips to cover my sarcasm.
The wine covered my palate with ripe cherry balanced with a hint of black olive and tobacco. After a moment's savor, I let the wine trail down my throat, relishing its decades-mellowed character.
The woman admired her goblet before setting it down. "Patience has its rewards."
By her tone, I knew she had prepared that remark.
I gestured for her to sit, taking the chair opposite as Arnisant settled at my foot. He laid his head upon his crossed forepaws and closed his eyes.
"Believe me when I say I understand your frustration," she began. Uttering my thoughts on that proposition seemed impolite after accepting a drink, so I smiled. "All right, I can't possibly understand your frustration. But I can imagine that you feel you deserve an explanation."
"And you feel I do not deserve one?"
"I'm not saying that. I'm saying you must trust that we know what we are doing."
"What I know is that I accepted, without explanation, a mission to retrieve this Celestial Pearl." Even as I named the artifact, I felt the cool pulse of half of its former contents within my breast. My brief death and subsequent resurrection by virtue of the dragon's heart was one of several intentional lacunae in my report to the Decemvirate. "During my absence, no effort was mounted to aid or rescue me and my—"
"We had no message from you."
"So you say. I sent three before misadventure prevented further communication."
"So you say." She drained the rest of her wine and refilled the goblet as I seethed. Once again, I noticed the eerie calm of my heartbeat even as the muscles in my neck drew painfully tight. "The truth is that I believe you, Varian. Others do as well. What I don't believe is that all the wizards of the Grand Lodge are lying about receiving no messages."
"It takes only one to sow deceit."
"Your concerns are noted. And..." She looked toward the door and peered into the darkness between the book stacks. Beside me, Arnisant lay still, breathing steadily. Surely he would have scented any intruder, so I took her gesture for more mummery. "The oaths of the Decemvirate are more demanding than those of the Society at large."
"If nothing else, my tenure in the Society should afford me the courtesy of an explanation. What was the purpose of my fetching the Celestial Pearl? Why can I not see the Lacuna Codex? Why will no one explain—?"
"I'm sorry, Varian. Already I've told you more than I should. You must place your faith in the judgment of the Decemvirate."
"As Eando Kline did?"
She sighed. "I knew you would throw that in my face."
"The machinations of the Decemvirate seem to be driving away the most promising members of the Society even as others retire."
"Kline's mistake was to place his judgment over that of the Decemvirate."
"Was that a mistake?"
"You don't have all the information."
"Perhaps if I did—"
"It is strictly need-to-know—"
"I am a Pathfinder. By definition, I need to know."
She made a silent snarl, a gesture reminding me of Radovan's big smile, except for her perfect white teeth. I raised an eyebrow, half amused at the image she presented.
She let out a sigh and shook her head. "Try to resist the impulse to have the last word tomorrow. You might get it."
"Perhaps tomorrow I will want it."
"I beg you not to follow Ollysta's example, Varian. Don't throw away a long and distinguished career for the sake of pride."
"Only to someone who has forgotten the difference."
She pushed back from the table, jostling the bottles and goblets. "Enjoy the wine. Timon will return later to unlock the door."
As she walked away, I took her advice and resisted the impulse to have the last word. When she slammed the door shut behind her, I opened my satchel.
Arranging my remaining riffle scrolls, I set out a pot of ink, two compartmentalized boxes full of various material essences, dozens of blank riffle scrolls, a blank journal, another half-filled with my notes and sketches from Tian Xia, and my latest grimoire.
It was to fill the latter volume that I had come to this repository. While I had learned many new spells during my time at Dragon Temple, I wished to add others to my repertoire now that I was no longer an armchair arcanist but a practicing wizard.
Draining my goblet, I selected a riffle scroll and raised the cup. With two fingers I pinned a riffle scroll against the heel of my palm and thumbed the edge. The pages zipped past with a satisfying burp. Arcane light surrounded the goblet.
Holding it high, I searched the stacks for the tomes I sought. The organization was more or less as I remembered. Soon I returned to the table with three books of spells.
For a few minutes I indulged the nostalgic reflex, lingering over the names and annotations of the Pathfinder wizards who had fallen in the field. Two had once reported to me as their venture-captain. The other had been a friend, one whose humorous letters I could recite almost verbatim.
After pouring another goblet of wine, I set to work. Hours later, I had inscribed several long-desired spells. As I finished copying an interesting illusion, I lifted the second bottle to find that it, too, was empty. A wave of fatigue fell over me. I shook my head, and the feeling passed.
Arnisant distracted my thought with a loud and abrupt snore. Placing my toe against the dog's ribs, I reconsidered jostling him but instead withdrew my foot. Like Radovan and me, he had endured a long, arduous journey. The loyal hound deserved his rest.
"A loyal dog does deserve his rest." A liquid voice echoed my thoughts as a masked man stepped into the lamplight.
He wore a mask of hammered gold painted with enamel at brows, lips, and beard. Beneath jeweled arm rings, crisp linen wound tight around his arms. He wore a breastplate of compressed peacock feathers and a pleated scarlet kilt. From one hip hung a khopesh in a jeweled half-sheath. From the other dangled a pair of bound books and a miniature chariot of elm, ash, and sycamore. Scents of myrrh, sandalwood, cedar, and attar of roses flowed from him.
The stranger's obscured face rose in an imperial gesture, and he said, "Although you are a most disloyal dog, Count Jeggare, you too shall have the rest you deserve—a final rest."
Coming Next Week: Brawls and brothels in Absalom's seedier districts in Chapter Two of Dave Gross's "Killing Time."
Dave Gross's adventures of Radovan and Count Jeggare include the Pathfinder Tales novels Prince of Wolves, Master of Devils, and Queen of Thorns; the novellas "Husks" and "Hell's Pawns"; and the short stories "A Lesson in Taxonomy," "A Passage to Absalom," and "The Lost Pathfinder," all available at paizo.com/pathfindertales. He also co-wrote the Pathfinder Tales novel Winter Witch with Elaine Cunningham, and has written novels for the Forgotten Realms as well as short stories for such anthologies as Tales of the Far West and Shotguns v. Cthulhu. Dave is the former editor of magazines ranging from Dragon to Star Wars Insider to Amazing Stories, and is currently a writer for Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition.
Illustration by Carlos Villa