Gentlemen adventurers needed to mind their steps, especially on roofs. Gull discovered that hard lesson—as well as that cold, wet, and muddy lesson—when he slipped off the mist-slick summit of Skua Croon's Curiosity Shop and toppled into the mud.
He stood up painfully, brushed the muck of Admiral's Fen off his new cloak, and acted as though such things happened every day.
The passersby nodded and smiled exactly as if it were so.
Striding through the fog toward Cassomir's shipyard like an admiral and not a vagabond minstrel, Gull wondered at the new poise that enveloped him. True, he was clearly no more coordinated than before, nor tougher, as his bruises informed him.
But something had kindled his spirit. Perhaps it was the strange rattles and cranks he'd heard from Grayguard Castle, or the stares he'd attracted with this peculiar cloak. Whatever the reason, Gull walked without fear through the heart of Taldor's naval power. And despite his odd appearance, workers, sailors, merchants, and officials all nodded or waved as he passed.
Once or twice he heard shouts behind him—the corsairs or the ruffians perhaps—and he took care to slip through fog-shrouded alleys between the businesses that catered to the navy and its sailors, the provisioners, sailmakers, coopers and the like, as well as the brothels, fortune-telling halls, and gambling dens. No one challenged him, though some beckoned him toward this ill-reputed doorway or that. Perhaps, with more time on his hands and fewer foes on his tail, he'd have lingered.
But now he'd a destination in mind.
He emerged from the maze of ship-related concerns and braved the shadowy ruins of Quickfall Abbey, making the sign of Erastil's antlers on his chest as he passed that reputedly haunted locale. Like the splintered bones of dead giants, the crumbled walls jabbed through the sunlit fog. Gull whistled, mentally revising an old Andoran drinking song.
Oh, my name's Gideon, I'm a songman gone bad,
And a roving young fellow at need.
So be easy and free, if you're haunting at me—
I'm a man who will run far away.
No spirit deigned to trouble his morning. The tune's energy seemed to pour into his feet, and it was with a light step that he emerged into the northern end of Cassomir, a realm of cobblestone lanes and pleasant cottages and houses. As the rising sun melted the fog away, Gull located a certain flower shop and purchased a red rose from a matron whose suspicious look similarly melted in the light of his smile.
"Why, Master Gull," she said. "You've not been this way in weeks."
"The life of an musician is a busy one, Mrs. Amaranth." Gull looked toward the ceiling. "Ah, is Corvine..."
"She is in, but I don't think—" But by then Gull was out the door and ascending one of the exterior stairs. Abbey Green held many such locales, harboring a shop or two on the ground level and lofting dwellings overhead. A widow, Mrs. Amaranth owned this building and reserved for herself a flower shop and a small home above, while renting the rest of the ground floor to a navy wife who supplemented her husband's pay with needlework and flag-making. As the wife lodged at the Citadel, the remaining space was rented to a pair of female musicians.
Gull had known one of them quite well. The other had regarded her roommate's taste in men as a mental affliction.
As he knocked, a snatch of song came to him, a piece with a backwoods sound, something he'd not worked on in years.
Howling like a mangy old wolf at the moon
Sleeping through the warmth of the sun
Worrying too much about getting the girl—
Not enough about getting the right one.
The door opened. It was the one who'd thought him an affliction.
Thea Zephyr (a stage name if Gull had ever heard one) narrowed her eyes beneath her artistic beehive of hair, which loomed above like a russet thunderhead with black hairpins for lightning. Taldan women fought endless skirmishes via their glorious crowns of hair. Men who supposed these displays were entirely or even mostly about them were naive.
Gull's own naivete lay elsewhere. "Me," he confessed, smiling.
"You selfish bastard." Thea stepped out, her stare pushing him backward as though she were warding her roommate from the very sight of Gideon Gull. "Do you have any idea how long Corvine looked for you?"
"She thought you were dead!"
Thea finally got a good look at him, taking in the shave, the wash, the raised hands, the cloak. She blinked.
"She minded," she said. She studied him a little longer, her expression shading from anger to confusion. "I'll get her." She shifted slowly inside, then slipped back, snatched the rose from his hand, and gave it a quick sniff like a child stealing a sweet. In she went, and now Gull wore the confused look.
He heard new voices from the fog to the south. They might be Sebastian Tambour's men, or even Tarik the Unclean's. He practiced looking as inconspicuous as a minstrel in a gold-embroidered purple cloak on a second-story stairway could be.
A woman with a more subdued tangle of black hair, held by a single ivory pin, appeared at the door. She had bronze-looking skin and pale blue eyes that made Gideon shiver like a newly plucked string.
"You," she said.
"Me," he said.
She handled the rose like an idle conductor with a baton, tapping the blossom against one palm. “So?”
"Yes..." he began, and stopped. The word was like a steppingstone leading into fog.
He held up his hands. "I know."
Corvine Gale's fresh appraisal of Gideon Gull did not seem to banish her disdain as it had Mrs. Amaranth's and Thea Zephyr's. Rather the opposite. "You're sorry?"
"Yes. May I... come in?"
"No." She followed his gaze to where a group of figures appeared to be emerging from the fog around the abbey. She noted his concern. She sighed. "Yes."
"Don't thank me," she said as she led him into the crowded room.
Just before the door closed, Gull heard something hit one of the fallen stones of Quickfall Abbey.
Gull looked around, seeing many familiar faces, most with a musical instrument to go with them. "Why, Alaric, Nicolaus, Walpurga... It's been too long."
Several people looked as though they might question that assertion. But they shifted uncomfortably and were uncharacteristically silent in the presence of the new Gull.
Corvine placed a hand on his shoulder, spun him to face her. In the process her balance faltered and she weaved into him. He smelled gnome whiskey. He had an excellent nose for that sort of thing. She stiffened and pulled away. "I'm having a party, Gideon. Well, a rehearsal with a friendly audience. Not much difference. You know how it is."
"I used to."
"Well. Four of us are singing at Admiral Kasaba's birthday at Madame Velm's." She gave Gull a scrutinizing look, for they'd both known Velm well.
"Maybe three," put in a harpist named Alaric. "I've been feeling ill..."
"You'll make it," Corvine insisted. "It has to be a four-part madrigal. And I believe they're going to surprise Kasaba with a giant cake and have a handsome midshipman jump out or some damn thing. I don't know, she's not my patron anymore." Here came another hard look. "They're just paying us to sing. But we need to be good. Just about everybody who's anyone is going to be there."
Gull said, "That's why you're practicing drunk? Madame Velm doesn't like lushes."
"You are not going to lecture me about drink. Nor about a patronage you deprived us both of. You are going to sit right there and not make a fool of yourself."
Gull knew when to shut up. Sometimes. He bowed and took a chair beside Corvine's bookshelf. He tried easing the commotion he'd caused by peering over his shoulder at the books. Although Gull could read, it was no easy task, and he'd learned music entirely from mentors, starting with backwoods fiddlers back in Andoran. Corvine, now, she was a reader. Gull saw books of ballads, scores for operas, and ragged collections of songs and folk tales collected from the villages of the Taldan interior. He saw, too, books about magic—The Olde Companion, The Magister's Tunebook, Songs of the Azlanti Twilight—not the intricate tomes of professional spellcasters, full of maddening esoteric formulae, but the sort of homely references collected over time by those worthy of the title bard.
For all the bravado of this day, he now felt fully the bumpkin, and as the quartet resumed its jolly madrigal the feeling only grew.
Raise the sail, strike the drum
The long-awaited hour's come
Let all who live by wind and wave
Stand attention proud and grave.
Alaric's part faded in a fit of coughing. The man waved for the others to go on, and Corvine proved her status as a bard by gesturing and conjuring an enchanted mouth to sing from the wood of the door. The mouth used her own voice but made it possible to proceed without Alaric.
Though Taldor's foes yet ring us round
Our admiral runs them all to ground.
Though alarums summon all too soon
Hearken to this happy tune.
Now the song seemed to disintegrate like a flock of birds startled by human voices, only to careen back into formation at a higher pitch:
Happy happy (la la la) happy birthday (la la) birthday birthday (la)...
Gull knew there were variances and flourishes here he'd not the education to appreciate, but he understood this tune was both respectful and teasing, and would bring joy to the listeners, and applause—and then be forgotten. That was the way of much Taldan music. In contrast, he'd had only blunt verse, with whatever truth he could muscle behind it. Even songs of battle had eluded him, for he'd focused in Andoren fashion on the horrors common folk faced in war, not on the glory, real or supposed, chased by nobles in polished armor.
His musings led him so far from Corvine's chamber that he only slowly understood the rehearsal was over, the enchanted mouth had faded, and the quartet and its small audience were now gossiping and talking shop. Some snatches of conversation cut through his bitter reflections.
Alaric: It helps to first compose several stanzas about the history of the campaign, the battle setting, the distribution of forces, et cetera. Then you can just tack on an ending that celebrates the victory or mourns the loss. Last, you add a prologue about it all being destiny. Saves time and worry...
Thea: Could it be? Could I truly have been born to sing?
Corvine: Born to talk about it, maybe.../p>
Nicolaus: Alaric, give it up. There's no such thing as imitation quirky...
Alaric: But of course we trust pretty people more than honest people! Taldor's great tragedy is that we value faces over facts.
"Andoran's worse," Gull muttered, "in its way."
Conversation ceased. Gull uneasily looked back at these musicians of Taldor, each better versed in the craft than he. Corvine frowned, as though she'd forgotten he was there, and was unhappy to be reminded. "I'd have thought you would be missing Andoran," she said. "For a while, I thought you had returned there."
Gull saw no choice but to plunge in. "In Andoran anyone can hold high office. So even though we've no king, we the people are in the same position as a king choosing his ministers. But we don't have the leisure or learning of kings. We are busy... well, my fellow Andorens are busy... with our lumbering and bee-keeping and harvesting. So we are like the most foolish of kings—a wastrel prince, maybe, suddenly inheriting the crown and choosing his servants in a hurry. And so we choose the pretty. Or the silver-tongued. Or someone with a famous name, even if they were famous for something utterly irrelevant. Or we choose whomever now seems angriest at the last fool we elected."
He expected to be laughed off, a fool speaking of fools. Or worse, tsked and tut-tutted at by the superior folk of Taldor.
Instead they nodded with interest at his words. Had he spoken better than was his wont? Or was the strange charm of this day working upon them?
Alaric coughed and answered. "Far be it from me to praise Andoran before Taldor... but I think you are too harsh. What you speak of is simply human nature. It applies everywhere. Perhaps the consequences have special meaning in Andoran, but I assure you shallow judgment is as devastating here."
The other man in the quartet, Nicolaus, nodded. "And if the great of Taldor are foolish, who's to stop them? At least in Andoran the fools can expose each other."
And indeed, Gull felt a sudden yearning for his old land.
"I did not know," said Thea, "that you were a philosopher, Gideon Gull."
The other guests made encouraging sounds to echo Alaric, Nicolaus, and Thea's responses. All but Corvine.
"He's not!" she scoffed. "He talks a good story, always has. Maybe he's a little more polished now. But it's the same old Gideon!"
But the others ignored her, and from then on Gull was the center of the party. Alaric loaned him a harp, and with the other musicians' help he began composing something on his theme.
In Andoran, the founders so fine
Gave us all a bottle of wine.
Common Rule, the label had read
A glorious vintage of martyrdom red.
In drunken sprees we drank it all down
Rejoicing that no one would wear a crown.
In sickly dawn's light we needed to pee
And so used that bottle called Democracy.
O Andoran, you land of the free,
You drank up the wine of Democracy
But the price of gettin' some more of that drink
Is a plunge in cold water and a promise to think!
Alaric and Nicolaus jumped in with a verse they'd just concocted:
O Taldan lords, you trample our rights
While you battle each other for miniscule slights.
Our lords eat and drink while the commoners thirst,
True nobles would always put common men first!
"You'll get thrown in the stocks," Corvine warned.
"Just like I'll get tarred and feathered in Andoran," Gull said.
"It's the song that gets you in trouble everywhere!" Nicolaus said.
"But don't you see?" Thea said. "If we are more careful with the words... this song could actually criticize the nobility. It sounds at first like it's mocking Andoran. But it's not actually mocking Common Rule. It just says that Andoran's people don't live up to the ideals."
"Our royals would say," said Corvine, "that no one can live up to those ideals."
"But if we go on to poke fun at Taldor's foils," Thea went on, staring into the daylight beyond the window, "we can have a song that argues for a better world—and sing it right under the nobility's noses."
There was a chorus of assent.
"What?" Corvine said.
"Friend Gull," Alaric said, "you should take my place tonight in the quartet."
"What?" Corvine repeated.
"We all know I'm not feeling well," Alaric continued, "and it's affecting my voice. And just maybe, if there is the right moment, you can sing your song where the powerful can hear. Hold on to the harp. I'll return for it tomorrow."
"What?" said Corvine looking from one companion to another.
"You know," Nicolaus said, "I have had a few ideas of my own, for songs that mock the mighty..."
"I too," said another musician.
"And I," said a third.
"You are all mad," Corvine said. "Out of here, all of you! Gideon is addling your minds. Get some fresh air. I'm serious. You too, Thea."
Thea was the last outside, giving her roommate—or was it Gull?—a last, probing look.
Corvine slammed the door, and turned to face Gull. She did not look enchanted. "Where did you get it?"
"The cloak, Gideon. It's obvious that's it."
"The thing you're using to become such a smooth talker. A philosopher." She shook her head. "I knew something was amiss when I noticed Thea of all people making eyes at you."
"Don't act so innocent! You saw how they behaved. I swear they're ready to write limericks about the Grand Prince!"
"All right... yes." He steepled his fingers, leaned back in his chair. He'd seen scholars act like that. "I know there is something different about today. Something extraordinary has come over me. But it could be a concoction of my own mind." He remembered his dream of the music of the spheres. "Perhaps desperation has kindled something in me. Perhaps I am finally ready to awaken from my drunken dreams..."
"It's not you, Gideon. It's the cloak. It wouldn't be the first magic item to enhance a person's presence. Take it off, and you'll see."
He smiled. "Are you actually telling me to take my clothes off?"
"Go to hell."
"All right, all right. That's a spooky thought, you know, when you're wearing a Chelish cloak."
He began to remove the garment, albeit with reluctance. I can take it off anytime I want to, he insisted silently. So why did he hesitate?
He made a show of negligently draping the cloak over a chair.
"Ah," said Corvine. "There you are."
"What do you mean?" He suddenly felt naked as a mole rat, for all that his old clothes clung clammily to his body.
"I mean, you look like yourself."
He let out a long breath, as if weeks of hard living were woven through that gust of air. What had he been doing? Had he really taunted thugs and corsairs, run along rooftops, encouraged sedition? He was insane.
And yet, he'd rather liked it.
"Ah," he said, looking at his feet. "Myself."
"Where did you get it, Gideon?"
He stared at her. "Why do you really want to know?"
"I've the feeling you're mixed up with something bad. Magic like that doesn't just fall from the sky."
"No." He smirked. "It washes onto shore." He told her the story of his day. Her eyes widened at each new episode.
She gripped his shoulder, firmly this time. Her hand stayed put. Startled, he looked into her eyes. He found himself hoping he could keep doing that...
"Gideon,” she said. “I'm glad to see you. Truly. But you are impossible. You don't need magic to rise out of the gutter."
"The gutter has been a step up..."
"Enough. Stay off the streets. Stay here for a while." She rubbed her temples. "I know how to put an ear to a wall. I will go and see what I can learn about strange Chelaxians with purple cloaks—and those who might murder them. You... well, Alaric is sure to come to his senses, but if he doesn't..."
“What about your senses? You've been drinking.”
“Shut up.” She set down two sheets of handwritten music. "Do you remember what I taught you about reading notation?"
"Then practice. If you do end up joining us tonight I don't want you embarrassing us in front of Madame Velm."
"I am sorry. About all of that."
"Sorry you got sloshed before a duet, and cost us both our patronage?"
"That... and that I convinced you to come to Cassomir to work with her. Where there were no other patrons of similar stature."
"This... is not the time. Give me one of those gold coins."
"I have but three left."
"You need clothes." She sniffed. "Don't argue."
He didn't argue. To a degree he was enjoying the fuss. When she left he even dutifully studied tonight's madrigal, so he could adequately perform Alaric's part. He was still a musician. And moreover, he did not enjoy the disdain that had colored Corvine's words.
So he focused on this one small thing.
Presently he was nagged by a desire for drink. He looked about the room for something to sate it. A tiny, persistent disgust at himself crept in through some corner-crack of his soul, like a little animal stubbornly nesting in Gull's mental cupboards. At that moment he found an actual cupboard containing a bottle of Zimaran wine.
He gently closed the door.
And opened it again. And closed it.
He was somewhat in need of willpower.
His eye turned to the cloak, and in one fluid motion he was across the room and swishing it onto himself, tying it off with a dramatic half-turn. "No," he said, "Gideon Gull drinks when he wishes—not when the bottle demands."
And in that manner, proud and purple, he returned to the problem of the madrigal.
So focused upon the music was he that at first he believed the knock at the door to be some rhythm-induced hallucination.
On the second knock, he rose languidly and opened the door. "What did you—" he began, but choked on the words, for it was not Corvine.
Here instead was well-dressed man of hard bearing, his red woolen jacket buttoned with pewter, his blue felt hat bearing a silver pin depicting the Lion of Taldor crouched upon a ship. "At last," said the man.
"Are we acquainted, sir?" The man seemed somehow familiar.
"We know of each other. I am Mortil, assistant to Governor Bozbeyli." More quietly, he added, "I am also your contact." He waited for Gull to take that in, and although Gull failed, Mortil went on. "Are you alone here?"
Mortil brushed past Gull, eyes focused on the musician as if he thought Gull a dangerous customer. Gull was reminded of a look he'd seen back home in the eyes of wild dogs. Mortil took the chair beside the books; Gull shut the door and sat at the nearby bench along the wall.
Mortil said, "I had to call in help to find you. Do you know what that cost me?"
By now, Gull did indeed recall Mortil, someone he'd met once or twice under the patronage of Madame Velm. The recognition was not mutual, however, and Gull suspected he had the cloak to thank for that. A good thing, too. Despite the bland tones, something in the other's eyes spoke emphatically of prices like murder, torture, blood, and madness. This discouraged Gull from his normal loquaciousness. He ventured, "We all must pay the piper..."
"You were not at the rendezvous," snapped Mortil. "Where were you?"
"I—have had my difficulties."
"I have been assured you are exceptional at your work."
"Well... you know, back home I was considered great..."
"We are not in Cheliax. Things are different here."
That annoyed Gull. "Do I look Chelish?"
"Come now, don't fence with me. It doesn't matter to me where Cheliax finds its agents. I have been awaiting the man with the purple cloak for days, and in that time the target has begun working to undermine the efforts of our masters. It is time to strike back."
"Yes. The event is tonight. Never will the target be more vulnerable."
Gull had an uncomfortable feeling he knew who the target was. "I might be able to get close," he ventured, not sure why he was playing along, unless of course it was to avoid getting killed.
Yes, that might be it.
"Good," said Mortil. "I have been unable to divine your plans. You, of course, need not give me details...." Mortil paused.
Gull said nothing.
With a disappointed look Mortil continued. "... but I will ensure the guard is light. There will be enough distraction that you should have no great difficulty. I would do the deed myself, but I would likely be discovered."
"And what of escape?"
"That is your problem."
"And what of reward?"
"That is our masters' problem."
Gull made himself chuckle. "Of course."
Mortil was unamused. "You seem to take this matter too lightly. I assure you our masters, on Golarion and elsewhere, see your mission as essential to their plans."
"Oh, I take it seriously." Gull leaned forward. "Damned seriously." Gull kept a straight face. Mortil studied him, and slowly nodded.
"Very well, I take my leave." Rising, Mortil added, "I hope to hear a tale of woe upon the morning."
Gull opened the door. "Woe's the word."
Mortil shot him a grave look and departed.
"Well, Cloak," Gull muttered, once he was alone. "It seems we have a choice. Disappoint Cheliax and the hordes of Hell. Or assassinate Admiral Kasaba."
He stroked his chin and came to a firm conclusion.
"Where's that wine?"
Coming Next Week: Birthdays and mayhem in Chapter Three 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