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Pathfinder Tales: Winter Witch
By Dave Gross
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2010 Paizo Inc.
All rights reserved.
The Ice Sculptures
Declan Avari squinted into the oversized spyglass mounted on the north edge of the rooftop observatory, rolling one dial after another to adjust the focus. One final tweak, and the black turrets of Castle Korvosa came sharply into view.
It was an imposing sight. Torchlight gleamed against black marble, casting long shadows down the ancient pyramid upon which the castle stood. From this distance the imps that wheeled around the towers resembled a swarm of gnats, black specks silhouetted against the rising moon.
The soft thump of wings drew Declan's attention to the grape- covered pergola on the southern end of the roof. A pale blue house drake, a recent addition to the clutch that inhabited the turret of the Frisky Unicorn, his family's inn, often followed him to the observatory. The little creature settled down amid the grapevines, folded his wings, and turned tiny golden eyes toward the castle.
My cousins are in spring flight.
This thought projected directly into Declan's mind, along with an image of small flocks of migrating dragons.
"Ah." He nodded. A flock of randy drakes near the imp nests would mean only one thing. "So the skies of Korvosa will be one big tavern brawl tonight?"
Yes. The telepathic voice sounded wistful to Declan's mind. Enmity between the imps and the tiny dragons ran hot and deep. With the possible exception of a plump mouse or a dollop of fresh butter, there was nothing a house drake enjoyed more than smiting imp-shaped evil.
"Plan on joining the fun?"
The drake burrowed into the vines. Leaves rustled, and a tiny squeak, abruptly ended, announced a successful hunt. Since the little dragon would be happily occupied with his meal, Declan turned his attention back to the castle.
Now that he thought about it, he noted more activity in the night sky than usual. Imps and dragons in battle was a sight so familiar it seldom drew a second glance in Korvosa. Declan was not entirely certain what this said about the city.
He went to the astrolabe, a flat metal disk covered with intricate markings and mounted on an iron plinth. A series of dials and levers allowed Declan to set its measure upon the Grand Mastaba. The sandstone pyramid provided a foundation for Castle Korvosa and, more importantly for Declan's purposes, a known measure against which to test his skills.
After several moments of fiddling with the dials, he jotted down his figures and frowned at the result. His calculation of the Grand Mastaba's height was off by more than ten yards. If he were ever going to become a credible mapmaker, he'd need to do better.
With a sigh, Declan turned to the shallow basin of water that dominated the roof, a round reflecting pool in which tiny star-shadows glimmered. The markings along the edges of the pool, similar to those on the astrolabe, provided a second, simpler means of calculating angle and distance.
A thick book lay open on a pedestal nearby, revealing figures arranged in three columns. Declan's apprenticeship to the famed astronomer Majeed Nores had been devoted primarily to taking measurements of the stars, repeating each computation with the reflecting pool, and comparing the difference. Majeed expected him to fill the book before the next new moon.
"The nights aren't long enough for all this work," he muttered. "And I suspect there aren't enough stars in the sky to fill a book that size."
"Hello, the roof!"
Declan turned toward the stairs, glad of the interruption. His smile dimmed when he recognized Jamang Kira, a childhood nemesis he'd not seen in years.
While Declan was no more than average height and build, he stood nearly a head taller than his visitor and probably outweighed him by half. Jamang had always been small and scrawny, with a disposition that reminded Declan of the overbred lapdogs favored by the matrons of Korvosa. Some men might have rued such a small stature, but not Jamang. Declan knew that, from boyhood, Jamang had learned that when someone was busy guarding his ankles against a nip, it was easier to slip a knife between his ribs.
Jamang strutted toward Declan like a bantam cock, and his confident smile proclaimed he was sure of his welcome, not just here but anywhere in Korvosa. Jamang wore the city's colors from the red velvet slouch hat perched on his raven-black hair to his fine crimson jacket to the gleaming ebony of his boots. Riding proudly on his chest was a silver amulet proclaiming his graduation from the Acadamae, Korvosa's most famous school of magic.
They exchanged one of the back-thumping embraces common to young men and quickly drew apart. After a moment's study, Jamang offered, "You're looking well."
Declan did not miss the faint note of surprise in Jamang's voice. He nodded toward Jamang's new Acadamae amulet. "It would appear that congratulations are due."
"For many reasons," Jamang said smugly. "I have recently acquired a position with Somar Nevinoff. I trust you know the name?"
A reply was neither necessary nor expected. Everyone in Korvosa who had a passing interest in magic — and that included nearly everyone in Korvosa — knew the name Somar Nevinoff. The man was a powerful necromancer with more imagination than scruples.
"I can think of few situations better suited to developing your ... natural inclinations," Declan said. He barely concealed a smirk.
Jamang's face brightened, and he made a little bow. "How gracious of you to say so."
Declan inclined his head politely to cover his wasted mockery. "To what do I owe the honor of your visit?"
The young necromancer's countenance settled into more serious lines, an effort at gravitas so studious that Declan suspected Jamang had practiced it before a mirror.
"Concern," Jamang said. "I'm deeply concerned about you, Avari. As one of your oldest friends, I felt a duty to speak out."
Declan gritted his teeth. Jamang's pompous intonations foreshadowed a conversation Declan did not wish to have. Still, there was courtesy to be observed.
"Speak out about what?"
Jamang swept one hand in an arc that took in Declan, the rooftop observatory, and the not-quite-fashionable Cliffside neighborhood Majeed Nores's manor occupied. He sniffed. "This is no place for a wizard of your talents."
Alarms chimed in Declan's brain. Flattery had never been among the weapons in Jamang's arsenal, and Declan doubted it was a skill he had learned at the Acadamae. Whatever had brought Jamang here was something he wanted badly enough to overcome his scorn for the innkeeper's son.
"I'm afraid my master shares your opinion of my ability," Declan said, deliberately misunderstanding the compliment, "but since my apprentice fee is paid in full and he is not inclined to return it, he bears with me."
"My point precisely," Jamang said. He stabbed a finger in Declan's direction for emphasis. "You are still an apprentice, and to an astronomer."
"It's an interesting study," said Declan.
The necromancer shook his head sadly. "Such a waste! You, who set out on a wizard's path — although why you chose to study magic at the Theumanexus confounds me, considering that the Acadamae holds thrice the prestige and many times the opportunities ..." He frowned, seeming to have lost his train of thought.
"I'm not interested in fame and fortune," suggested Declan.
Jamang's laugh was as sharp as a dog's yap. He shook his head as if he'd just heard the most ridiculous joke. Of course, Declan thought. In Korvosa, avowing one's disinclination toward fame, wealth, or power would almost certainly be perceived as a deliberate absurdity.
"You could almost persuade me of that," Jamang said. "The Theumanexus was bad enough, but why you would leave it in favor of the university is beyond my comprehension."
"The University of Korvosa has a fine art school."
The necromancer pursed his lips. "I suppose I can see your attraction to art, all things considered, but why astronomy?" "Why do you care?" Declan said.
"Perhaps I presume upon our friendship," said Jamang. "That alone would not excuse my curiosity, but something your brother said preys upon my mind."
"What about my brother?" growled Declan.
Jamang was oblivious to Declan's mood, or pretended so. "Asmonde took the study of magic seriously. He once told me that you both swore to pursue the art — swore at your mother's deathbed, no less."
Declan clamped his mouth shut. That was not a subject he wished to discuss with anyone, least of all Jamang.
Undeterred, Jamang pressed on. "You are not the sort to abandon an oath, I think. Where have you been studying, and with whom?" Declan folded his arms. "My situation is exactly as it appears. I'm learning the entirely unmagical art of reading the night skies."
"But why? Art? Astronomy? What on earth do they have in common?"
"Maps," Declan said.
Jamang frowned in puzzlement.
"Korvosans are known across Avistan as an adventurous breed. Adventurers require maps, and I intend to provide them. Knowledge of the stars is a necessary part of my training in cartography."
"Cartography!" said Jamang. "You're learning a trade?" He blanched at the last word, as if he had bitten into an apple and found half of a wriggling grub.
He watched in silence as Jamang's face contorted in a struggle between disbelief and distaste. Declan noted the soft rustle of vines and glanced toward the pergola. The house drake perched on the edge of the lattice roof, his eyes bright with avarice as he studied the newcomer.
Declan knew what the little creature wanted. Dairy farmers had cats, and Korvosan innkeepers had house drakes. His family ran the Frisky Unicorn, a small inn famous for its tall, slim turret and the drakes that nested there. More curious than cats and more acquisitive than ravens, the tiny dragons gathered in places frequented by strangers, where jewels were worn and coins exchanged. For the most part, the Unicorn's winged residents left the guests in peace, but some of the creatures were accomplished thieves. This little blue dragon, a relative newcomer, could make the slickest pickpockets weep with envy.
Declan brought to mind an image of Jamang's silver amulet and gave the little drake a subtle shake of his head.
The drake's whimper of disappointment echoed through Declan's thoughts.
Want, he said emphatically.
Can't have, Declan sent back. It is unwise to steal from a necromancer.
Declan could not dispute the assessment.
"It's about your brother's death, isn't it?" said Jamang at last. Before Declan could answer, Jamang placed a ring-laden hand on his shoulder. "There's no stigma attached to you, if that's what concerns you. Many of the students who begin at the Acadamae don't survive to graduation. This is not only inevitable but necessary."
Declan stepped back. "I certainly hope you don't intend to assure me that Asmonde's body was put to use in the necromantic laboratories."
The necromancer raised both hands in a placating gesture. "You know how things are done."
"I don't want any part of 'how things are done' like that."
"Instead you want to draw maps?" Jamang sneered. "Perhaps you fancy yourself a Jeggare?"
The name was one of Varisia's oldest and most famous families, but in this context Declan understood it to mean an adventurer in the style of Montlarion Jeggare, someone who left the civilized world behind to stamp his name on wild and unclaimed lands.
"My aspirations aren't so grand," Declan said, "but thanks for the compliment."
"It wasn't intended as a compliment," said Jamang. "Old Montlarion died a pauper."
The sound of light footsteps interrupted their argument and drew their eyes toward the stairwell. A young woman stepped onto the roof, a tall but delicate blonde clad in a green kirtle worn over a chemise of unbleached linen. Her gaze fell upon Declan's visitor and she paused. For a moment she stood poised between speech and flight, like a forest nymph startled to have walked into a hunter's camp.
The sight of Silvana lifted Declan's spirits and clenched at his heart with an intensity that would be painful were it not so poignant. She was the most recent and by far the prettiest of Majeed's constantly changing staff of servants, and she provided the only bright spot in Declan's apprenticeship. He'd hoped she would come to the roof tonight. She often slipped upstairs to indulge in her private vice, a fragrant little pipe delicately carved from some sort of ivory.
Declan beckoned her over. "Silvana, may I present to you Jamang Kira, an old ..." he balked at friend and settled on " ... acquaintance."
The necromancer's eyes lit up. He took Silvana's hand and raised it to his lips. "I begin to understand Declan's sudden enthusiasm for astronomy," he oozed. "Had I known Majeed Nores possessed so lovely a daughter, I might have taken up stargazing myself."
Silvana cast an uncertain glance at Declan. She said, "I work in Master Majeed's kitchen."
Jamang froze. "Oh," he said flatly. He dropped her hand and turned back to Declan.
"As I was saying," he continued, "you yourself had nothing to fear from the trials at the Acadamae. You are far more talented than your brother."
"And far less tolerant of bad manners," Declan snarled. "If you wish to remain, you will treat Silvana with courtesy."
The wizard looked puzzled. "What?" Behind Jamang's back, Silvana shook her head and flicked one hand as if brushing away a small insect. She lifted her little pipe and tipped her head toward the far side of the roof, where she retreated.
Declan turned a cool stare to his visitor. "What do you really want, Jamang?"
The necromancer reached into a satchel hidden beneath his crimson cloak and produced a slim book bound in blue leather.
Heat flooded Declan's face as he recognized the volume as one of the bawdy trifles he had created in his Theumanexus days. He barely refrained from snatching it out of Jamang's clutches.
"Where did you get that?"
Jamang ignored the question and opened the book to reveal an ink drawing of a voluptuous courtesan on the sole page of the book. "I must say, it's marvelous work."
As they watched, the drawing began to move. The courtesan rolled her hips in a sensuous walk along a popular Korvosan street known for its various entertainments. "Nothing like this is taught at the Acadamae, nothing even remotely similar. Who taught you this?"
"No one," said Declan. That was true. He liked to explain that the magical animation might have been the residual effect of a curse placed on the creature whose hide became the leather cover. In reality, he had replicated the magical effect in two other tomes with completely different bindings. The truth was that he had no idea how his attempt at composing a flip-page novelty had transformed from nearly two hundred pages of sequential drawings to a single fat sheet on which his caricatures moved of their own accord.
Revealing his own ignorance to someone like Jamang Kira was like dumping chum overboard to draw sharks before jumping in for a swim, so Declan merely shrugged and said, "It's a spell of my own creation."
An expression like relief flared across the necromancer's face. "Truly? This is remarkably original work. Even so —" Jamang pursed his lips and studied Declan as if calculating how much he could reveal without tipping his hand. "This particular application of magic," he said at last, "is something I've not seen before. It is not an illusion. If it were, the spell would affect the person viewing it, but here the ink itself moves."
Declan shrugged. "So it's a transmutation."
"No, I tested, and it isn't," Jamang said. "Don't bother listing the seven ancient schools for something that seems to fit. I've examined this thoroughly, and the answer is not what one might expect at first study." He snapped the little book shut and raised it like a priest presenting a holy artifact. "This is necromancy."
"There's no need to be insulting," Declan said.
"I'm serious," Jamang insisted, once again oblivious to Declan's mockery. "The spell you crafted animates the ink itself. It brings the dead organic matter of the ink back to a semblance of life."
"So?" the little man echoed. "While the story plays out, the characters you drew are alive. Well," he amended, "not 'alive' as most understand the word, but certainly in the more inclusive sense that defines a necromancer's art. Observe."
He opened the book once more. The image started to move — gracefully, realistically, with a lavish sashay of the sort Declan had spent many happy hours observing as the young women of Korvosa took their evening promenades. The courtesan strolled past an open-air tavern where a uniformed member of the Sable Company sat drinking. She paused to cast a look of unmistakable invitation back over her shoulder. The marine gestured, and the drawing's perspective pulled back to reveal a broader vista and the sight he wished the courtesan to observe: his hippogriff mount, an enormous eagle-headed, winged horse tethered to a rail in the tavern side yard. In response, the beast arched his wings to reveal a saddle long enough for two. The courtesan's lips curved and she sent her new client an arch, sidelong glance.
Excerpted from Pathfinder Tales: Winter Witch by Dave Gross. Copyright © 2010 Paizo Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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