Arvin Utner knew his next words would save him or doom him. His head started to perspire beneath his powdered wig. A rivulet of sweat ran down behind his left ear, leaving a small white smear from the wig’s powder.
“Well?” the blonde elf demanded, her features becoming even sharper as her mouth angled downward into a frown. “Was a hood among his belongings, or not?”
Arvin looked nervously around his office, knowing nothing there would help him. He’d had this office less than a year, taking over as notary when his hardworking employer retired quite suddenly. The old solicitor had cited the drier climate of Taldor as more conducive to his failing health than that of Galt. Arvin wasn’t surprised at anyone leaving Galt—he was thinking very, very hard about it himself right now—but he’d been surprised that his employer would leave such a prosperous enterprise behind. The senior advocate had ascended to manage the business, her junior advocate had taken her position, and so on, with employees inching up through the ranks. Arvin had gone from junior scrivener all the way to notary, earning a tidy raise and this office. He’d thought it was quite a coup for his career. He heartily regretted it now.
The rotund man sitting in the plush chair next to the elf frowned. “Master Utner, it’s a deceptively simple question. But answering on behalf of the deceased could be…unwise.” The man, a pompous aristocrat named Entienne Quibnel, leaned over to examine the papers on Arvin’s desk. Arvin resisted the temptation to throw himself bodily across his desk to block Lord Quibnel’s view. It wouldn’t have helped. He felt his trail of sweat turn into a small river. It was now past sundown, with a light rain falling in the city of Litran. His sweat couldn’t be passed off as anything but nerves.
The elf, Zintaya Calbieste, sighed. “Perhaps we cut this meat from a different angle.”
Arvin found the metaphor gruesome. He was already thinking much too much of the final blades, the magical guillotines used across Galt to behead criminals and those who threatened Galt’s national security.
The elf kept speaking in a folksy drawl that Arvin guessed was an affectation. Secretary Calbieste was the head of Galt’s farming cooperative, a union of ranchers and farmers. The political power that came from controlling food was immense, and Zintaya talked like the dirt-diggers she represented to earn their trust and to bait rivals into underestimating her. Arvin wasn’t falling for it.
“The dead fellow, he farmed kohlrabi, I recall.”
“Yes, some of the most delicious kohlrabi in Litran,” Lord Quibnel agreed, nodding his jowly head.
The elf ignored him. “And the Gray Gardeners—the ones who name wrongdoers, arrest them, and execute them—could be anyone, right? They wear masks while on duty. But other times, they go about as anyone else, digging out traitors and revolutionaries and criminals like they were rabbits in your radish patch. Who’s a Gray Gardener? Maybe a beggar, maybe a wainwright, maybe a noble.”
“And maybe a notary,” added Lord Quibnel with a chuckle, “though certainly not Arvin, here.”
Arvin hated being referred to in the third person when he was present, but he didn’t hate it enough to protest. Certainly, a Gray Gardener could be anyone—such as a plump aristocrat or an elven union manager. He was certain that Gray Gardener business had brought one of these two visitors into his office this evening.
Secretary Calbieste continued, “But Gray Gardeners zealously protect their secrets. And when this kohlrabi farmer was pulped into grease under the wheels of a runaway grain wagon…”
Both Arvin and Lord Quibnel grimaced at the graphic description, but the elf seemed unbothered.
“…his property was boxed up and shipped here to the city, to a relative who’d died of the pox. So the property came to your firm, Master Utner, and you catalogued it. So, I repeat the question: Was a hood among his belongings, or not?”
“As a point of legal clarification,” insisted Lord Quibnel, practically preening, “the deceased was a freeholder indebted to me, so his possessions default to me. This means his secrets do so, as well. Master Utner, don’t answer her question.”
“As a counterpoint, Lord Quiverjowl Quibble, as he was a member of the farming cooperative, his affairs are my business. And outing one of the Gray Gardeners is a very serious business.”
Arvin closed his eyes, thinking hard. His father had been one of the finest and quickest tailors in the city, with a keen eye for style. He’d been taken away by the Gray Gardeners when Arvin was a boy for “promoting unpatriotic fashion,” whatever that meant, and joined those slain beneath a final blade. But his father never had to thread such a fine needle as Arvin did now. One of these two visitors was a Gray Gardener, Arvin was sure of it. Was it Lord Quibnel, as good as ordering Arvin to keep the dead man’s secret? Or was it Secretary Calbieste, wanting to find out whether Arvin knew about the gray silk hood jumbled among farm clothes?
Arvin opened his eyes and spoke slowly.
“Farmers have need for rough daily clothing. Fancy things don’t suit them, except for an occasional trip into Litran for a wedding, a mandatory National Day celebration, or a significant execution.” He was stating the obvious, he knew, and his visitors both listened very carefully. He pictured a very fine thread advancing toward the eye of a very small needle.
“And while a farmer might have need for a nice cloak or fine hat, he wouldn’t need a hood, no. Not at all.” He started sweating again. His visitors were becoming impatient. The thread in his mental image shook.
“And if there had been a gray silk hood among this man’s possessions, and I’m not confirming or denying that there was, only a notarized probate inventory could prove it. And as I’ve not yet concluded the notarization, there might be—officially speaking—no mention in any formal inventory, ever. Regardless of the hood’s existence.”
The office was silent. There was an instant after threading a needle when you made a slight tug, just to see whether you’d hit the eye and the thread held or missed it and the thread came free. Arvin thought about that tug.
Secretary Calbieste smiled. “A gray silk hood, you say?”
Lord Quibnel grinned as well. “Not yet notarized in the inventory, eh?”
The doors to the office flew open. Two large figures in rain-soaked capes and wide hats barged into the room. The facemasks they wore obscured their features and their gloved hands reached for Arvin.
In his mind, the thread flew free.
Illustration by Raymond Sebastien from Pathfinder Adventure: Night of the Gray Death
About The Author
Ron Lundeen lives in the rural hinterlands outside of Seattle, Washington, where he finds the climate a pleasant change from his native Illinois. After a career as a corporate attorney, Ron took a full-time position with Paizo, Inc. as a developer, working with freelancers to create fabulous worlds and monstrous threats for the Pathfinder and Starfinder roleplaying games. He now serves as development manager overseeing the Pathfinder development team. He also designs games in his free time, creating a dizzying variety of perils, plots, and legends. Ron’s favorite RPG design work is adventure writing, to help others share exciting stories with their friends. Although his first game design credit came back in 1993, Ron has recently written for Paizo, Wizards of the Coast, Ulisses Spiele, and many others. Ron also runs a gaming company and RPG writer advice blog, which you can visit at www.runamokgames.com.
About Tales of Lost Omens
The Tales of Lost Omens series of web-based flash fiction provides an exciting glimpse into Pathfinder’s Age of Lost Omens setting. Written by some of the most celebrated authors in tie-in gaming fiction and including Paizo’s Pathfinder Tales line of novels and short fiction, the Tales of Lost Omens series promises to explore the characters, deities, history, locations, and organizations of the Pathfinder setting with engaging stories to inspire Game Masters and players alike.