The clank and whir of infernal machinery called Gideon Gull back from the music of the spheres. At first he thought the din was dragging him down to Hell, but in a way it was worse. He woke up on the Dog's Teeth.
As he sorted the mechanical noise from the pulse of his throbbing head, Gull's namesakes scattered around him, foiled in their efforts to pry last night's crusty bread from his death-grip. Since making a home on these coastal islands, Gull had become used to the squawking scavengers. They were an honest crowd of greedyguts, and their voices possessed a kind of desperate music. In any case, he liked them better than his human and near-human neighbors.
Better get up, Gideon, he thought, before one of those neighbors knifes you.
The thought was a prophetic one, for when Gull rose blinking in the tentative gray dawn, he saw the dead man.
The corpse and the ongoing mechanical racket were both located across a tide-covered waterway. Gull beheld the dark cloak and sprawled limbs of the former, facedown on the shore. Meanwhile the latter boomed from the high windows of the great castle looming above the body. For a moment Gull had the eerie impression that the carcass was a sacrifice to some clattering stone god.
The mechanical sound ceased, and what passed for silence returned to the Dog's Teeth. Amid the screeches and ripple of waves and the stirrings of work in the harbor city of Cassomir, Gull cast a look over his shoulder, nibbled a bit of the bread in his left hand, swirled the nearly empty bottle in his right. The look reassured him that the various vagabonds and thugs who occupied these islands were either sleeping off the night's adventures or hatching new plans, and that he was unobserved. The bread nearly cut his lips, but the combination of food and pain helped revive his wits. The bottle held just one crimson drop, the same color as the cheerful red hat pictured on the torn label—a reminder of his home in Andoran, a handful of miles and years of broken promises away.
The past was gone. He sucked out the last drop and tossed the bottle. Hands itching for his lost harp, Gideon Gull took another look at the corpse. He shivered from more than the morning chill. That's a nice cloak, he thought.
I'm halfway down the road to dead
Armed with a bottle and crusty bread.
And friend, the best that I can see
Is that you're doing worse than me.
As he walked through the knee-high tidewaters toward the mainland, Gull was already thinking through a tune for his bitter ballad, something spare and sharp, far removed from the celestial sounds of his dream. Once he'd followed such dreams to the bustling squares of Andoran and beyond to the glittering manors of Taldor. Now he'd hit bottom in this border city between, and he was learning that his true nation was the Dog's Teeth outside this Taldan navy town, and his true calling the songs the dogs of the Teeth preferred.
You wore a cloak so fine
I wore a reek of wine.
I'd say our places are reversed,
But dead man, you're no longer cursed...
The sandy shore was covered in a hash-pattern of webbed seagull prints, like a carpet woven by a weaver with a mania for threes. Gull shooed the birds away, and although he looked nothing like his family's emblem, what with his haystack of blond hair and his sun-parched gangly limbs, he could squawk with the best of them.
Alone, he bent over the pale, dark-haired body. He made the sign of the antlers and checked for a pulse. But the man was cold and his spirit gone, and no servant of the good god Erastil clomped forth to gore Gideon Gull. He took this as permission.
For the cloak was indeed beautiful. It reminded Gull of opera cloaks he'd seen in the capital, its strange purple material silky soft but warm to the touch like velvet. Golden designs swirled about it with strange interweaving patterns that drew the eye into endless labyrinths. Even soaked by the waters, the material looked vibrant, and where the dim sunlight had hit it, the cloak was already dry. Only a small rip testified to the violence that occasioned this find. The tear matched a gash in the dead man's shirt, with a deep knife-wound beneath.
Almost as an afterthought did Gull search the man's pockets for coin—gold Andoren sails, oddly enough, and what's more there were six, enough for some high living.
If he was living high, he thought, he should have a nice cloak, torn in the back or not. He put it on.
The wine-haze and dog-tiredness seemed to bleed away like harbor fog beneath the sun. He stood and tied off his cloak in one swift movement. The rocks and sands around him came into sharper focus. Shore-grass twisted on the breeze, and sand fleas danced—and boot steps sloshed and crunched their way to shore.
He turned to see three ruffians approaching from the Teeth.
"Off to the opera, Gull?"
He knew these three, two Taldans named Eutharic and Adamantius, and a wanderer from the Mammoth Lords' lands named Thok. Folk declared Thok got his name from the sound his only real possession—the improbably big tree branch he carried everywhere—made when connecting with a target. They said he rarely failed to produce that sound. It was probably an apocryphal story, but Thok never tried to correct it, nor communicated at all save to grin whenever he had the opportunity to make that sound.
Adamantius was hardly less intimidating. The man was wrapped in salt-brined leather armor, and what one could see of his skin was a strange blend of scars and tattoos, the artwork portraying monstrous claws and tails erupting from the old wounds, as though the depths of Adamantius were akin to the demonic Abyss.
Eutharic was the brains of the trio, a lieutenant of Tarik the Unclean himself, unofficial lord of the Teeth. Eutharic was only unthreatening by comparison with his colleagues. Thin, taller even than the barbarian, the man exhibited nothing overtly menacing other than the clammy calculation written all over his sneering face. It was Eutharic who had spoken, and Gull knew immediately it had been foolish to assume this loot was unobserved.
The smart move now would be to offer the cloak and some coin to Eutharic. Gull would still come out ahead. Maybe he'd even earn a little gratitude from Tarik's organization.
The deal was upon his lips, and his body was starting its descent into the correct amount of cringing, when something peculiar came over him.
Gull stood up straight as a martial flagpole and said, "I might be. I might not. I haven't decided how to enjoy my salvage."
Eutharic looked amazed. "Your salvage? What washes up on the Dog's Teeth is Tarik's salvage. Give it up, minstrel, and sing us a ditty, and maybe Thok'll only thok you once."
Gull knew about now he ought to be placating the man. All the loot and a round of "The Qadiran's Winsome Widow" might save him from some broken bones. But something buried within him, something like good Andoran steel, rebelled.
He thrust out an imperious finger.
"Then you ought to be about Tarik's business, Eutharic, for there are the Dog's Teeth. Here is the very wall of Grayguard Castle, where Gideon Gull has dared to strike. And what Gull has risked his life to claim, Gull keeps."
By the time he reached Gull keeps, his voice was booming nearly as loud as the surf on the outer reaches of the islets and the strand. The ruffians stood amazed; even Thok's eyebrows rose. Gull felt then almost as though he were two individuals: one who blazed with righteous fury at the threat to his lawful salvage, and the other who fully expected to be gutted and crushed beside the corpse at his feet.
"You... what?" managed Eutharic, too startled even to sneer.
Knowing this was his last chance, Gull raised his hands to implore the thugs to break only a few bones.
Yet something deep and dark as his hometown woods reared up snarling in Gull, and told him no.
And as his fingers rose they did not spread in supplication, but began tracing imaginary designs in the air as he'd seen wizards or bards do now and again. Deep in his throat he gurgled out nonsense words thick with consonants. "Mrrglurrg rumdiggity belchighast blurff! Glark-snaarfl aftblast gassbaggen floof!"
"It's a spell," shouted Eutharic, rushing three paces back, and Adamantius and Thok followed suit, the first crouching low to present a smaller target, the second cursing with the old contempt of his people for civilization and its wizardry. For there was yet about Gideon Gull the reputation of a bard, for all that he'd never truly mastered bardic lore, let alone bardic magic.
Astonished that his bluff had worked, Gull bowed, tossed a gold coin over the trio's heads, and ran like a corsair in a fair wind.
Gull did not stop to scream over the toe he stubbed while rounding the castle wall and scrambling over the breakwater into the town. Nor did he take much notice of his surroundings until he was gasping in the stone streets of the district of Grayguard's Shadow near the Admiral's Barbershop and attracting the stares of two constables.
Little good could come of such attention, so Gull staggered into the shop, struggling to breathe normally. Familiar faces looked up. Though Gull was not a frequent customer, sometimes he came here to sing a shanty or two and earn a shave for his trouble.
He expected a friendly grunt from Bosun Rack the barber, curt indifference from the Taldan sailor in the chair, and easy waves from the laborers waiting for shaves. Instead he got immediate attention.
"Mr. Gull," said Bosun Rack, pausing with his cream-dabbed blade in the air, sounding as if he still had two arms and was serving aboard ship. "What can we do for you?"
Gull searched the tone for sarcasm and found none. The laborers straightened in their chairs. The sailor, half-shaved, sat up, studied Gull, and said, "You seem to be in a hurry, sir. Perhaps you'd like to go first?"
Gull felt as stupefied as the thugs he'd just left behind. But with constables watching outside, he thought a shave would be a good choice about now. He thanked the sailor and sat down, saying, "Nothing fancy, Bosun. Don't want to put on airs."
Bosun Rack brushed cream onto Gull's face and chuckled.
"Full shave, please," Gull said meekly. Bosun Rack was acting as though Gull were still a noted musician, the toast of the capital even, not a washed-up minstrel in a military town. This was becoming an odd day indeed. Maybe the strange mechanical noises of dawn had disturbed everyone's dreams, left them funny in the head. Soon his companions would notice the reek rising from his clothes. The sailor cleared his throat—here it came.
"Begging your pardon," the sailor said, "but are you singing at the admiral's birthday party? It's tonight, you know."
"I... had not planned to."
"Oh, well. That singer, Corvine Gale—didn't you used to do duets? She'll be there, I hear."
Bosun Rack finished the shave while Gull blinked his surprise, and insisted on washing and trimming Gull's hair too, a task fit for a combat veteran. The thought of Corvine darted through Gull's mind like a crow diving for corn. She'd been about the last good thing to happen to him. And like all good things, it had ended it badly. Bosun Rack ended too, by cajoling Gull for a song.
So Gull entertained the group with a rendition of "What Shall We Do with a Sober Sailor?" and the tapping and hooting brought the constables inside. They tapped and hooted too, and clapped Gull on the back as he left. Gull smiled, bowed, and got away from the barbershop before their sea-fevers broke.
What was happening here? By odds he ought to be locked up or bleeding. One thing was sure, he had gold in his pocket, and close by the castle was no place to spend it. He needed a good meal—and perhaps some paid companionship? He hummed a tune as his feet took him toward the rowdier district of Admiral's Fen, in search of the sign of the twisted-tailed mermaid.
Half-dead man with a dead man's cloak
Where do you think you're going?
Pocket full of gold from a man that's cold
Dead on this fine morning?
Off to the Admiral's Fen, my friend
Where streets are ripe and muddy
'Cause dead man's gold is better sold
For wine than left all bloody.
Half-dead man with a dead man's cloak
Do you not have pity?
Well, I'm still alive with gold coins five
And I'm busy with the living.
And I'm busy with the living.
He was not fool enough to drink at this hour, of course, and the gold he offered the barkeep at the Knotty Mermaid wasn't bloody. Nor was Gull a murderer as his new song implied. Nevertheless he resolved not to sing it here. One coin bought him eggs and sausages and bread and a seat beside the common room's sunnier windows. The windows were of straightened and polished strips of ram's horn, which let the light bleed in all golden and glorious but more importantly kept Gull hidden from the street. A return to the Dog's Teeth was surely unwise, and Gull would have to find somewhere else to live. Homeless men in Cassomir had a way of getting press-ganged. The Knotty Mermaid had rooms, but Tarik's operation had fingers in Admiral's Fen. Perhaps Gull could sing in the streets up in Abbey Green. He was feeling energized, with many new ideas for songs. Something peculiar was happening.
From outside, the voice of Eutharic cut through Gull's thoughts. "Word is," Tarik's man was saying, "there's a foreign agent in there."
"Indeed?" said a haughty voice. "We'll handle it."
Knowing some sort of officialdom was entering the inn, Gull hastened to the bar and used his new line of credit to get quill, ink, and paper from the tavern keeper. "Of course, Master Gull," said the man. There was no irony, no sarcasm. There were no complaints about his stench from the shipwrights preparing for a long Toilday. It was almost as if Gull were a respectable citizen.
As if in answer to that thought, a group of sailors strode into the Knotty Mermaid, all dressed in mismatched rich clothing, and their leader did indeed have a whiskered chin. This motley crew received a rousing spontaneous toast from the laborers, for it appeared they were among the corsairs who operated out of Cassomir. Gull belatedly lifted his tankard of water, but he drew attention as the privateers claimed a table.
He tried to ignore their stares and focused on his work. If he appeared to be just what he really was—a musician come into some luck—perhaps all would be well.
So he worked out the details of the dark ballad that had rattled through his mind since seeing the cloak's dead owner. Gull had no superstitions about projecting himself into his work, and gleefully put his narrator into a noose. He'd not worked this swiftly in a long time. Why had he not composed more? It only went to show that fooling yourself you were a musician was easier if you did it every day. Only the conversation of the corsairs impeded him, for he caught distracting snatches of talk from their table.
"Wrong wrong wrong," the bearded man was saying, and Gull knew him for the man who'd spoken with the thug Eutharic outside. "You're all wrong. I'm wrong too, but I look better when I do it."
There were chuckles from the shipyard workers. More came in, and waved at the corsairs.
"I'm just saying," answered one of seamen, "the Chelish are chumps. Making a pact with Hell, well it's about as stupid as getting a loan from my uncle Wulf."
"No, no," said the bearded man, "the Chelish are just recognizing their true value. Look, a Taldan vessel is worth, what, ten Chelish ships?"
There were snarls of agreement.
"And a Taldan corsair is worth any ten Chelish fighting men?"
There was laughing affirmation.
"And a Taldan lady in bed is worth any ten Chelish women in bed?"
That gave the men a moment's hard consideration, but patriotism won out.
"And so," concluded the bearded man, "while any of us would think our souls a matter of high price, for a Chelaxian it may not be much to speak of. 'My soul for a pint! My soul for a chair by the window! My soul for sausages and a good cloak!'"
The corsairs' laugher had a pointedness to it, and Gull snapped out of his ballad (sometimes you got to do, he was writing, what you got to rue) and realized the pirates believed they were goading him. He looked up, bewildered. They were all looking back at him, expectantly.
"I am sorry, good sir," said the bearded man with a deep nod. "I did not mean to offend. I merely wished to cheer these good sailors after their hard weeks harrying foreign merchantmen. Why, just three days ago they sank a Ch—ah, but again I risk offense." He smiled, and made a fair impression of a dandified crocodile.
"Excuse me," Gull said. "You believe me to be Chelish?"
The smile stayed fixed as a steady blade. "You are not, sir?"
Anger flushed in Gideon Gull. "You speak to a free man of Andoran. Many a Chelish bottom still wears the imprint of Andoren boots."
That earned laughter from the other tables. The corsairs glanced around them in surprise. Their leader narrowed his eyes. "I could have sworn that cloak was of Chelish make."
"Perhaps. Do you not also wear clothes taken from Cheliax? Or from Qadira, Osirion, or Nex? Or, dare I say it, from Andoran?"
"The sea provides," said the leader, scratching his bearded chin as though sizing up an attack.
So it does, Gull thought, pulling his cloak tighter around him. "Our lands are not at war, and I may overlook the presence of a familiar style of red hat on one of your companions, my friend. But do not insult me again by calling me Chelish. I may be a fool, but I am not a damned fool."
The shipyard workers rewarded him with laughter and a few raised mugs. This response clearly annoyed the bearded man, who was used to adulation. That made Gull smile. He decided to finish things off. "Let me buy the heroes of Cassomir a round."
The privateers seemed rather appreciative, and the one with the red hat tipped it to Gull, but their leader's face became more set, his gaze more appraising. "Sebastian Tambour takes what he wants. He needs no bribe from foreign agents."
Gull knew the same Sebastian Tambour. The man was first mate on the Happenstance, the current flagship of Jean Coromant's crew of corsairs, who operated out of Cassomir with the full blessing of Taldor.
As with his encounter with the trio at the Dog's Teeth, Gull knew he really ought to be quaking now. Instead he was furious.
In an exaggerated rendition of Tambour's voice, Gull said, "Sebastian Tambour has a stick up his backside. Sebastian Tambour is too proud to let his men drink."
Now the guffaws spread to Tambour's own table.
The man stood. "I will show you a stick, dog. Let us settle this outside, like men."
"I will be glad to do so," said Gull, turning away and taking a long swig, "as soon as any men arrive."
The laughter was this time confined to the laborers, as the corsairs all frowned at the jibe.
So it was that the whole group descended on Gull.
Slammed into the table, his already-aching head concluding that whatever new confidence had bewitched him this day had not made him a skilled combatant, he punched and wriggled in a futile attempt to escape.
All at once he was dropped and fell with a thud upon the floor.
The tavern had rallied to his defense.
The laborers had set upon the corsairs—the very heroes of Cassomir—with fists and mugs and plates and candlesticks. The barkeep was gesturing him over. Gull scrambled on all fours behind the bar.
"Quickly, man," said the owner. "The fog's rolled in. If you get out by the roof, you'll likely escape. They're just drunk, I'm sure, else they'd not have preyed upon a fine gentleman adventurer like yourself. You'll be safe once they sleep it off."
"Yes, yes," Gull said, "of course. Lead the way, good man."
They ascended the stairs and the owner unlatched and shoved a creaky window and worked a hand-crank to extend a plank toward a neighboring building.
"This sort of thing happens often?" said Gull.
"Many of my clients need a discreet escape route. I have an arrangement with the neighboring landlord."
Gull fished out one of his gold pieces, handed it to the man. "Gideon Gull will remember you," Gull said. The barkeep winked and shooed him out the door.
Gideon Gull stepped outside into mist and mystery.
Gideon Gull, gentleman adventurer, that is. He liked the sound of that. This cloak had brought him luck. He wrapped it tighter around himself and fled across the rooftops.
Coming Next Week: An uncomfortable reunion in Chapter Two of Chris Willrich's "The Cloak of Belonging."
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