Old Cassomir was like a stately anchorage of petrified ships, and in the case of Madame Velm's domain, one strewn with harbor lights.
Gull, Corvine, Thea, and Nicolaus presented their invitations first to the constables, then the navy officers, then the manor guards, and finally the doorman. The doorman proved the most difficult.
The man, a thick-built but by no means thick-headed Taldan, was by his accent from Zimar and the Qadiran frontier. Luckily he was new to Velm's service and unacquainted with Gull, but he frowned at Gull's invitation. "Seems to me I've heard you sing, Mr. ‘Alaric Reynard.' The harp looks the same, but seems to me you looked different then. Younger. Healthier."
"Perhaps I have degenerated some..."
"Degenerated. De-gen-er-ate. Sounds like a word a Chelaxian would use. You Chelish? A Chelish sympathizer?"
The objection that he was a free man of Andoran rose to Gull's lips. It was Corvine who saved him from such a foolish declaration. She glared at the doorman. "Are you a Chelish inquisitor, to speak thus to my partner?" She linked arms with Gull, squeezed his hand.
The doorman blinked, though his face remained stern. "My apologies, Madame Gale."
The musicians entered the mansion, Gull whispering to Corvine, "Thanks."
"Don't mention it. And don't rely too much on that cloak of yours. It doesn't seem to work on everyone."
"Agreed. Those of mighty spirit seem able to resist."
She blinked at that, as though turning the remark this way and that to discover the hidden insult.
Inside they got a glimpse of the powers of Cassomir. There was Governor Bozbeyli, gray-bearded and stout, holding forth on the promise of magical mechanization, bearing a war-trophy scimitar where weapons were otherwise forbidden. There was Admiral Kasaba, frowning in obvious impatience at all the fuss, in her dress uniform the plainest woman among the mighty, and, despite these things—or perhaps because of them—a striking presence to Gull.
There was the high priest of Gozreh beside Madame Velm, white beard beside black crown of hair, silken sea-green robe beside shimmering evening-blue gown. The first had tried to convince Gull to set aside the crude worship of Erastil for the fickle benefits of the god of ocean and weather. The second had seen Gull as a project, a gem to be cut, before disgustedly tossing him aside.
He turned away from the mighty. Household staff steered his group from the party proper toward an unobtrusive passage and the narrow hallways and rooms beyond. While not secret, these servants' domains were easily ignored by the family and guests. It was clear to Gull this was not to be his party.
He looked around for signs of trouble but saw nothing.
And why should he? The true assassin was dead, and since Gull had no intention of harming Admiral Kasaba, why, surely all would be well.
Except that by morning Mortil would know he was a fake. Soon enough Gull would meet a Chelish killer again, and this one wouldn't be conveniently dead.
As Thea and Alaric located the free food (an important skill for musicians), Gull and Corvine claimed their waiting spot beside the garden, where statues of heroes embellished a stone veranda. They stood beside the visage of Sir Gothmoor, shown carrying the head of the enchanted Knight of the Pit, who according to legend had cheerfully continued talking after Sir Gothmoor beheaded him, and whose advice proved surprisingly helpful on subsequent quests. Gull rubbed his neck as he regarded the Knight of the Pit's fey smile.
"All right, Gideon," Corvine said, "I think we can talk. I asked around. There were indeed sightings of a man in a purple cloak. The sightings today all match your story. But the sightings last night had him fighting a group of corsairs at the shipyards. They said the man fell into the harbor with a knife in his back."
Gull felt the rip in the back of the cloak. "That fits."
She shook her head. "What have you gotten yourself into?"
"The sort of thing a bard gets into."
"You're no bard, Gideon."
"Perhaps I will be yet. A little fisticuffs, a little swordplay, a little magic—these seem achievable talents, just now."
"It's that cloak. It will get you killed."
"No. I have a plan."
"This ought to be good."
"I will seek a new patron tonight, and thereby find security."
"Just like that?"
"With this cloak I can do it. I feel it."
Her eyes searched the garden's topiary as if the green animals could offer up auguries. "It's a false confidence, Gideon. It will betray you, and you'll be back in the Dog's Teeth."
"Amazing. You broke off what we had because I failed to rise as a singer—"
"And now that I have a new chance, you want to reject that too."
But the call came for the quartet, and there was no time for argument.
There was indeed a giant cake, and there was Admiral Kasaba beside it, her stern face registering resigned patience. She brightened a little as the quartet performed.
Gull struggled to pull his weight. It was not that he lacked skill with voice and harp; rather he lacked formal training in this sort of music, as well as the practical experience that might compensate for such a deficiency.
He forced himself to smile. A frown could poison a perfect performance—and this was not going to be perfect.
Happy happy (la la la) happy birthday (la la) birthday birthday (la)...
And yet, where in the past an icy winter of fear might freeze his throat and stiffen his fingers, a spring returned to his voice and his joints, and he was at least able to carry his part. The audience clapped and even the admiral looked pleased. No one jumped out of the cake (and that seemed just as well to Gull, for Kasaba's earlier glares looked sharp enough to cut rope) and the group was briefly free to mingle with the elite.
"Bravo," said Admiral Kasaba. She squinted at Gull. "Have I seen you before?"
"I have sung here and there."
"I hope we'll hear more of you. And your companions, of course."
And Gull understood. The listeners had been unaware of Gull's struggle; from their point of view he was the strongest singer, because of the effect of the cloak.
It was unfair. And yet... why should he not enjoy their mistake? Having sold himself through magic, he would apply the hard work necessary to make good on the deal. Was that really so dishonest?
He abandoned any thought of the satirical song they'd discussed at Corvine's. He gave Alaric's harp into Nicolaus's keeping and commenced weaving in and out of conversations, collecting promises of future performances, encounters that could secure patronage. At first he avoided individuals he'd met before, but he needn't have worried. Even Madame Velm seemed to consider him somebody new. Everywhere he left some witticism gleaned from unwritten songs, and was greeted with rapt attention.
"Common sense can't be that common. It's mainly brought up when people are accused of lacking it."
"People talk about being fat and happy as if that were a bad thing. I'd like to try it, just to make sure."
"You live long enough, everything's a phase. Live a little longer, life looks like a phase, too."
However, even with the cloak there was an ebb and flow to the party, and as desserts vanished and drinks took their place, Gull began getting hints the powerful wished to keep their own company. He found himself alone in a corner among gilded eggs on display, counting his unhatched chickens.
Corvine reappeared. She actually seemed a trifle shy.
"I..." she began.
"Yes. It's okay. Say something."
"You were wrong."
That was not exactly what he'd been hoping for. He tried to sound unconcerned. "I'm shocked."
"I didn't break it off because you were failing to rise. Do you have any idea how many good musicians never get anywhere? Even among bards—"
"I just need you to know. I always respected you. Except when you were trying to be someone else."
"You mean, sophisticated. Charming. Witty. The things the nobility appreciate. What I was finally managing to do, just now."
"I liked my blunt Andoren man," she said, "who wasn't afraid of anyone, high or low." She leaned in closer, touching his face, as if reading the music written in his weathered face. "Except, you were afraid, weren't you? Down deep, where no one could see. Afraid of not measuring up."
"I wanted you to read this." She passed him a scrap of paper filled with words, and also strikes and smudges and second thoughts. "I don't have the music yet. Something I've been working on."
He read it.
I dressed your name in inkwell silks
And curled it slow through the dance of hand and pen
To the wild corners of the page and back again
Dancing dark, shadow-whisper, marked for crumpling.
What if I'd rolled it out, banquet-carpet, banner unfolding?
Would you have divined the grace that runs
From hand to pen to eye, from me to you?
Or would words and grace have drowned together in your eye—
Spilled ink, black oil, a blot on white water.
A voice dams up behind a quiet smile.
A river swells to spill, dark and rapid through the silent room
Where I'd sing or swim, your hand in mind,
In the water-dance where voices break
Crying ever over spilled and unspilled ink.
He twisted the paper in his hand.
"What do you think?"
The first thing that came to his mind was not words. He wanted to take her hand. He wanted to kiss her lips.
But something old and bitter rose within him, and it glittered like the courts of Oppara and smelled of the Dog's Teeth.
She hesitated. "Precious?"
"I mean, its heart is in the right place but it's a little... adolescent, don't you think? A trifle... twee?"
"Oh." She took the paper back. "I see. Thank you for looking at it."
He'd expected an angry waving of hands, lashing like wild calligraphy. But her manner, her voice, was compact, withdrawn, controlled. A blot of ink.
"I mean—don't misunderstand—it's good..."
"Don't." She turned and strode to where the servants were scavenging the leftover desserts.
He stared after her, reaching out. His glib remarks of the past half hour were like dead moths on his tongue.
He shuffled toward the veranda.
"Leaving so soon? You haven't tried the cake." Gull glimpsed a servant with a tray veering in close.
"I am not hungry..." Gull began, and felt a dagger against his back.
"Look at that," came the voice of the thug Eutharic, whom Gull had last heard what seemed a thousand years ago this morning, outside the Knotty Mermaid. "There's even a rip here in the cloak, just right for a dagger. Guess it's an unlucky bit of treasure. For you."
"Um, no need to be prickly."
"I got a message for you. From Tarik the Unclean."
"Is it really necessary to say Tarik the Unclean? It's not like I'm going to confuse him with Tarik the Washerwoman, or Tarik the Singing Barber, or—"
They stepped among the statues of heroes. Eutharic herded Gull toward the statue of Sir Gothmoor. Gull wished the Knight of the Pit's head would give him advice. "What's the message?"
"You know," Eutharic said, "I got confused. The message isn't for you. The message is you. Your bloody corpse at a fancy house, showing the whole city no one cheats Tarik the Unclean—"
"There you go again."
"Cheats Tarik the Unclean of his salvage. They won't miss you, Gull. You're fooling yourself with this lot. You're just another commodity. Plenty more where you came from."
"You might be right." Gull closed his hand on empty air where verse had been. "But you wouldn't be talking about this message unless there was another option."
"You're right. There's stuff going down with Cheliax, stuff you maybe know about, stuff Tarik might profit from. I whistle, my pals Adamantius and Thok create a diversion, we get out of here, you spill to Tarik."
Spilled ink, Gull thought.
"So..." came a new voice. "It is as I thought."
It was the governor's man—and Chelish agent—Mortil. He emerged from the veranda's shadows and raised his hands in a way that instinctively made Gull as nervous as if Mortil had raised an axe. He'd seen such poses from Corvine, after she'd consulted certain books.
"You have not sought the target," Mortil said to Gull. "Instead you have wasted your time on nonsensical activities—or so I thought. But your true purpose was to sell your information to the highest bidder. Disgusting."
"Who's this guy?" Eutharic said.
"I am your death," Mortil said, "if you do not leave now."
"Nobody talks to me like that."
"Hey, that's right," Gull said, "you lose face like that, I might have to write a song..."
Eutharic lunged. It wasn't clear which—Gull or Mortil—he was seeking, especially as Mortil immediately spoke some manner of trigger word and a blast of blue light engulfed Gull's vision.
When he could see again, the Knight of the Pit's head lay at his feet, freed from Sir Gothmoor's stony grip by an eldritch blast. The same blast that had burned a hole through the chest cavity of the gaping Eutharic.
The thug fell, smoking, and Mortil stepped forward. "I will say," he said thoughtfully, "that I exposed enemy agents. It is true enough..."
"You!" called a strident voice. "Governor's man. Stand back from that musician. He may be a spy—and a sorcerer it seems!"
It was Sebastian Tambour, stepping ahead of the astonished partygoers, a few of his fellow corsairs close behind.
Mortil stepped back, chuckling at his good fortune.
Gull's normal tactics in this sort of situation would be to stare, or plead, or duck, or pray.
Instead, he did two things. With one hand he jabbed his thumb toward the statue and shouted, "Would I blast something behind me?"
With his other hand he hooked the Knight of the Pit's curly stone hair and flung the bemused-looking boulder at Mortil.
The Chelish agent swore—and the being sworn by had an address far removed from those of Taldor's patron gods. Gull did not wait for the crowd's reaction, however, but dashed for a servants' entrance and the kitchen.
At the door he paused only to stick two fingers in his mouth and whistle.
Once inside he was confronted by pots, pans, dangling meats, a brick oven big enough to roast two boars, and a gaggle of scattering servants who'd probably already heard the shouted word sorcerer. "Boo," said Gull.
He was doomed, so he might as well enjoy it.
Once alone in the kitchen he grabbed a large iron skillet and crouched beside the door. It was Sebastian Tambour who entered first, and Gull found it rather satisfying to swing something heavy at Tambour's head.
Alas, the corsair ducked sufficiently to be merely clipped. Tambour rolled, snarling, into a bucket of fish heads.
"I'm not a sorcerer!" Gull said. "I'm not a wizard! I'm not a Chelish agent!"
Tambour swept fish guts from his eyes. "Hit me again, Gideon Gull. That will make your case more convincing."
"Would a sorcerer use a skillet?"
Tambour was up now, knife unsheathed. "I might just believe you, Gull. If you are a spy, you are perhaps the sloppiest, most ridiculous clandestine agent I have ever seen."
"It's Mortil. I think he wants the admiral dead. He thought I was working for Cheliax too. But you killed the real assassin, didn't you?"
"Perhaps..." Tambour backed away with a calculating look.
And Tambour's men grabbed Gull from behind.
Gull did not resist. At this point, surrender was safer.
Suddenly the men let go, slumping to the floor.
Gull turned to see Eutharic's compatriots, Adamantius of the demonic tattoos and Thok of the big stick.
"Who killed Eutharic?" snarled Adamantius.
"Thok weeps," Thok said. Gull was startled. This was the first time he'd ever heard of Thok saying anything.
"It was not I," Tambour said. "Nor my men. I am beginning to believe it wasn't Gull."
"Gull could never kill Eutharic," scoffed Adamantius.
"Gull is weak," Thok said.
"Hey..." Gull began, and finished, "that's right. It was the governor's man, Mortil."
"That knowledge," came Mortil's voice, "will die with you all."
Fire filled the doorway.
Adamantius and Thok screamed as an explosive magical blaze consumed them and Tambour's fallen men. Gull and Tambour were barely able to take cover behind a counter. An unused chicken on a hook burned above their heads like a comet of culinary omen. The reek of roasted flesh made Gull gag.
"And when you are finished," Mortil said, "so will the target burn. I may be implicated, and that is regrettable. But in Hell my masters will laugh."
Wedges of light erupted from Mortil's fingertips, and Gull heard a scream.
He knew that voice. Corvine.
Gull scrambled around the counter, skillet in hand, and Tambour was with him, dagger ready. Together they rushed the wizard.
Coming Next Week: The ultimate weapon is revealed in the conclusion 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