Mortil spun only just in time to let loose a spell. Colors ravaged Gull's eyes, and he felt dizzy, as if a full drunken night were compressed into one heartbeat.
When his senses returned, Mortil was gone, a crowd of people was combatting the fire in the kitchen, and Tambour was speaking urgently.
"She'll be all right, Gull, but we must speak, now."
"I'm telling you, your friend will be all right."
Gull stumbled onto the veranda where Admiral Kasaba and Governor Bozbeyli themselves were among those tending to Corvine Gale.
Not a mark was on her, but Corvine looked as weak as Gull's elder brother the day a horse kicked him and permanently scared Gull away from honest work.
"Gideon... It will be all right. Whatever that bastard's up to, you stop him, okay...?"
"Hey, you're Gideon Gull, gentleman adventurer... I saw..." She handed him a crumpled piece of paper, patting his hand. "Take it, for luck..."
He took the poem, and she closed her eyes.
"I've seen this sort of injury before, Lion Blade," the admiral told Gull. "She should recover."
"Go with Tambour," the governor said. He passed a bejeweled ring to the corsair. "You Lion Blades are authorized to do anything necessary to hunt down this traitor."
"'Lion Blades?'" Gideon said, rising.
Tambour took his arm. "We'll talk as we walk."
The corsair steered Gull through garden and guards and gate, out into the moonlit streets of Old Cassomir. They passed the public gallows called Pharasma's Pulpit after the goddess of graves, and Gull was unhappy with the omen. He made the sign of the antlers, but good Erastil seemed as far away as Andoran.
"There's no time to spare, so we'll plan as we go," Tambour said. "Most destinations in Cassomir are south of here."
"What plan?" Gull said.
Tambour's response was a grim laugh. "You aren't thinking like a Lion Blade, my friend."
"That's because I'm not a... whatever that is..."
Tambour seemed not to hear him. "We don't need a plan of our own so much as we need to guess Mortil's. He spoke of a target, yes? I don't think he could have meant the admiral. Mortil had enough opportunity, and enough power, to kill her just now."
"But—" Objections crowded Gull's brain as thoroughly as rich houses crowded this walled section of the city. The Admiral's Citadel rose ahead, its towers jabbing at the moon. Beyond, across the harbor, lay the even larger edifice of Grayguard Castle. "Isn't the admiral key to all of Taldor's defenses?" Gull said. "She was vulnerable tonight. Why else plan an assassination for now? Who else to kill?"
"Ah! Now you're thinking, rather than mooning over your diva back there."
"Shut up. She could have died."
"Count yourself lucky. I've lost comrades tonight. Rack your brains, gentleman adventurer. Did the dog Mortil specifically speak of killing?"
Gull thought. "No," he admitted. "I don't think he did."
"I fear he has another target in mind. Something important, something less carefully guarded what with the admiral's party. Something Mortil could still attack with his magic—and certainly will, now that he's exposed."
"The shipyards?" Gull guessed.
Tambour nodded. "That's my thought as well. We have magic-sniffers scattered throughout that district, but as a governor's man, Mortil could bypass them. As ever, betrayal is the greatest weapon."
"I don't have to tell you everything, Gull. Come, let's be quick."
They ran through Old Cassomir's gate and dashed near the looming ruins of Quickfall Abbey. To distract himself from ghosts within and without, Gull said, "If not magic-sniffers, can you tell me of Lion Blades?"
"Why not? Since Lion Blades don't officially exist. We serve in the shadows and the light. For it is a dark time for Taldor. We Taldans are a mutinous crew on a sinking ship—at each other's throats when we need to patch the hull and watch for sharks. Sometimes it's only those who do not properly exist who can do what must be done."
"Why did the admiral and the governor call me a Lion Blade?"
"Well, it was an understandable error. From their perspective you helped me, so you must be one of us."
"Am I not obviously a minstrel—not a spy?"
Tambour chuckled. "My dear Gull, we recruit from the all the bardic schools of this land. Most of us sing quite well. I am a rare exception."
Gull laughed. They were approaching the shipyards, and the lights of the dens of ill-repute lightened his spirits. "If you wore this cloak," he said, "you would no doubt believe yourself a fine singer. Just as it made me think I was an adventurer."
"Yes, that cloak... At first I thought it a strange tool for an infiltrator. Why not a blade? Or something that makes one invisible? But I see now that the cloak allows one to enter into any setting and be accepted—in its way, a greater power than invisibility."
Gull said, "That suggests the agent needed to get very close to something... what's wrong?"
Tambour had stopped. "Listen."
There was a lapping of waters, patter of conversation in a nearby tavern, chirping from the marsh.
"I hear nothing."
"Exactly. No sound of assault."
"Mortil may have fled the city."
"Perhaps... but what you said just now... the Chelish agent wanted to get close to something. Perhaps it isn't a target as big as the shipyards. Perhaps it's something enclosed. A treasure, a device. Can you think of anything else Mortil said?"
Gull could not. Yet his mind was twisting something else, as he'd twisted the poem that lay now in his pocket.
A river swells to spill, dark and rapid through the silent room—
He'd awakened that morning startled from a dream, a dream of the music of the spheres...
What if I'd rolled it out, banquet-carpet, banner unfolding?
And what awakened him was a sound of mechanical grinding, stamping, booming...
Dancing dark, shadow-whisper, marked for crumpling.
"Do you know of any mechanical device, Tambour, a large one, inside Grayguard Castle? For I've heard such, from the Dog's Teeth."
"I do not, Gull. But I think we should be going there."
∗ ∗ ∗
"This is most irregular," the castellan of Grayguard said, even as Tambour flashed him the governor's ring and led Gull inside the vast grim fortress.
"We've had no trouble here," the man continued, getting in the pair's way.
"We intend to keep it that way," Tambour said airily. "Can you point us to the machine?"
Wariness entered the castellan's voice. "What machine?"
"The one that wakes up drunks in the Dog's Teeth," put in Gull. When the castellan blinked, Gull added, "Oh, yes. We have informants everywhere."
Whether it was the cloak or Gull's voice or the governor's ring, the castellan gave in. "There's nothing about the apparatus that need worry the crown, Lion Blades."
"Show it to us," Tambour said.
The castellan muttered to himself, told a guard, "Send a runner to the governor," and led Gull and Tambour through a wide, soldier-lined passage into the castle courtyard. After passing a magnificent temple dedicated to many gods (none of them the being that Mortil had sworn by) they reached the far wall and there entered a much smaller passage with a stairway snaking up.
"You realize," the castellan said, "the governor is entitled to his personal projects..." He stopped as he nearly stumbled over a dead guard, whose face was frozen in pain though he bore no obvious wound.
"No!" the castellan cried.
Looking up the stairway, the trio beheld more armored corpses.
"Summon help," Tambour said. "I will deal with the wizard behind this."
"The castle is my responsibility," said the man.
"That's why you must summon help."
The castellan hesitated, but Gull gave him a curt nod and the man turned and descended, bellowing for guards.
Tambour motioned in the direction of the retreating man. "You too, Gull."
"No," Gull said. "I'm finishing this."
"Is that you speaking, or the cloak?"
"Either way, I do this for Corvine Gale."
Tambour grunted and led the way.
The torchlit room at the top was stuffed with machinery—or rather with one single machine. For a long disoriented moment Gull could not understand the sprawling steel mechanism's purpose, but it came to him that the walls of the room were lined with paper and books. He saw titles like A True History of House Thrune and The Benefits of Infernal Rule for All Chelaxians.
"It's a printing press," Gull said. He'd seen them before, for his politically minded compatriots back in Andoran grew ever more fond of posters and pamphlets and broadsheets. But this machine was to a normal printing press as a hydra was to a newt. An octopus of hinged arms terminated in presses that seemed poised to hammer out publications at a blinding rate. The heart of the mechanism possessed a steel face with eyes of blue crystal and a flat, determined expression. It reminded Gull of a bookplate.
"Yes," Mortil said from across the room. The man grasped a tome of great thickness, bound in red leather, and Gull suspected no printing press had ever touched it. This was surely the stern elder kindred of Corvine's gentle reference works: a true book of spells.
Mortil continued, "This thing, this apparatus, this is the great weapon Taldor dares aim at Cheliax."
"But it's all merely words," Tambour answered, voice full of honest confusion. As he spoke crept around the mechanism toward Mortil. "For that matter, it would seem to be words praising Cheliax and its masters."
"'Seems' is the correct term," Mortil answered. "This printing press is producing official-seeming works that are to be smuggled into Cheliax. But unlike the approved works, these contain ideas that would plant the seeds of sedition."
"You mean," guessed Gull, sidling toward Mortil in the opposite direction, "they tell the truth."
"'Truth' is hierarchical," answered Mortil. "Wizards all understand this, though some may deny the knowledge. Not all revelations are appropriate for all people. The common folk need not know every detail about the lives of their betters. Certain lies are, for them, better than truth. Only Cheliax understands this reality and acts upon it. That's why Cheliax will triumph."
"I don't understand," Tambour said. "It's just a printing press. With all this effort, you might have thrown our navy into chaos."
Mortil laughed. "You lack the immortal perspective of our patrons. To you, the struggle is all about land and gold. We understand it is equally about thought. This weapon here is more significant than any warship. And more insidious. The words it prints, though brimming with Chelish pride and patriotism on the surface, magically imbue the reader with sentiments quite the opposite. We need to discourage Taldor from trying this tactic again. I would come no closer were I you."
"You're finished, Mortil," Gull said. "You can't kill both of us and destroy the printing press all at once."
"I don't need to." Mortil cried out in a strange tongue Gull did not understand, and the crystal eyes of the printing press glowed as it rumbled to life.
Inert, it had allowed Gull and Tambour just enough room to step around the perimeter; active, its gyrating arms—grabbing paper and bindings, sinking stamps into ink buckets, pounding out text—made hazardous any path to Mortil. The machine was so thunderous Gull could barely think. He needed to hug the wall to avoid a concussion and at best could only inch his way along.
Tambour was in worse shape, having been tripped by a metal arm and now lying flat for fear of being beaten with the weight of history.
Tambour shouted the strange words the wizard has used to activate the machine.
"Alas!" Mortil cried, laughing. "To shut it down takes a different phrase!"
"That's not it!" Mortil said. "Now, you've cost me enough time and magic." The wizard began incanting.
Unless the spell was absurdly convoluted, Gull doubted he'd reach Mortil in time to stop its casting. However, his movements did bring him near a bucket of red ink.
It was not so big he couldn't lift it—
Gull ducked and grabbed and heaved, and red ink spilled across the room. Most of it splashed the printing press or the floor, but enough of it hit Mortil to distract the wizard and ruin his pages.
"You!" Spattered with red, Mortil looked as though he bled from a thousand paper cuts. "Whom do you work for? Taldor? Andoran? Rebels in Cheliax?"
"I work for a sad, sweet moment on a long winter's day." Gull shifted ever closer. "I work for the lumberjacks coming home with too little pay."
"What?" Mortil began a spell, this time one from his own memory—perhaps nothing that could destroy the magical press, but surely enough to slay one minstrel with delusions of grandeur.
Gull kept going. "I work for the child's laughter and the lover's kiss. I work for weeks of sorrow and seconds of bliss."
Gull laughed. "I am Gideon Gull."
"Then die, Gideon Gull." And Mortil began the words that would make his spell complete.
Sebastian Tambour had crawled beneath the swinging limbs of the machine and planted a dagger in Mortil's foot.
Now Gull reached Mortil, knowing he had just moments to act.
He removed the cloak.
Standing there beside the contraption, the corsair, and the traitor, Gull suddenly felt frail and foolish, like a mouse chasing cats. But he did not falter.
He threw the cloak over Mortil's head and shoved him into the works.
The wizard howled with the pain and outrage of being pummeled with the very propaganda of his Chelish masters. Yet amazingly, Mortil scrambled free of the machinery and on some blind instinct dove for the window.
By the time Gull and Tambour could reach that location there was only moonlight on the waters outside, and the silvered crags of the Dog's Teeth, and no trace of Mortil.
The governor of Cassomir appeared in the doorway and shouted something in a strange tongue.
The printing press slowed and ceased, and the light faded from its eyes.
"It seems I owe you a great debt, Lion Blades," Governor Bozbeyli said in the silence that followed, lowering his scimitar. Armored guards beside him looked around in wonder.
"I'm just a singing drunk, Governor," Gull said, looking again toward the Dog's Teeth. He shivered as his body recognized the danger was over. "Not a Lion Blade."
"Perhaps we should fix that," said Tambour.
"At any rate," the governor said, "I repay my debts. You've exposed a traitor and preserved my little project. What might I do for you?"
Tambour smiled. "I assign my prize to the captain of the corsairs. I'm sure he'll think of something."
The governor frowned a little, but eventually nodded. "And you?"
Gull began to refuse any reward, but he withdrew Corvine's poem from his pocket, stared at it. "This printing press..."
Gull smiled and held out Corvine's poem. "What I ask is that you print enough copies to make the author of this poem, one Corvine Gayle, well known in Cassomir and Oppara and beyond."
Governor Bozbeyli took the poem. "Corvine Gayle. Ah, the young lady from the birthday party. Yes, it shall be done."
As the minstrel and the man in motley took their leave of the governor and walked through the castle courtyard, Gull watched the constellations and heard Tambour's voice as if from a great distance. "I have two questions."
"I was in earnest, Gull. You could join us."
"I'm no corsair. I'm a singing—"
"A singing drunk." Tambour laughed. "Yes, I know. That's why we are visiting the Knotty Mermaid. But it's also why I bring up the Lion Blades."
"You know I'm no bard."
"You could become one. We could ensure you are enrolled in an appropriate school... and an appropriate Shadow School at the same time."
Gull did not even bother to ask what that meant. "I'm not a Taldan man, Tambour. I'm Andoren. More so now than ever."
"Yet you've seen what Andoran and Taldor face together. We have our differences. But if you stand with us, you'll stand with civilization, against whatever it is that Cheliax represents."
Verses came to Gull's mind. He wondered if that would happen more and more, now that he'd left the Dog's Teeth behind. He hoped so.
I'm halfway down the road to dead
But woman you have cleared my head
And now the best that I can see
Is to make me worthy of thee.
"The college," Gull said. "Just the college, for now. We can speak again about the rest. In a year."
And I'm busy with the living.
They left the castle, passed the barbershop, entered the muddy streets of Admiral's Fen. Gull said, "You said you had two questions."
"Will you see her again?"
"Ask that also in a year, Tambour. For now, I am not worthy, or ready."
"Much can happen in a year. She may be someone else's then."
Gull shot him a look. "You?"
"Love is risk, sir," Gull said stiffly. "I would not burden her with the man I am now. But the man who returns in a year—perhaps."
To the wild corners of the page and back again.
Tambour laughed as they reached the threshold of the Knotty Mermaid. "You are ever the hopeless romantic, aren't you, Gideon Gull?"
"No. There is always hope."
Coming Next Week: Chasing down monsters in Chapter 1 of Josh Vogt's "Hunter's Folly."
Dive into more adventures with Gideon Gull in the new Pathfinder Tales novel The Dagger of Trust!
Chris Willrich is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novel The Dagger of Trust. He is a former children's librarian best known for his sword-and-sorcery tales of Gaunt and Bone, which have appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and elsewhere, and which continue in the novels The Scroll of Years (Pyr, 2013) and The Silk Map (forthcoming). Chris lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his family. Visit his website at www.chriswillrich.com.
Illustration by Glen Osterberger