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Pathfinder Tales: Death's Heretic
By James L. Sutter
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2011 Paizo Publishing, LLC
All rights reserved.
A Death in the Family
Salim stepped off the deck of the barge and into a land of perpetual summer.
Not that it hadn't been hot on the ship — it was warm in Ostenso as well, the ships' boards searing the sailors' callused feet. It had been the same on the Osirian river barge, pulled upstream by a team of oxen, though the wealthy Osirians were loath to go without creature comforts, and had their own ways of dealing with the elements. Yet here, on the end of the sweltering pier, Salim was confronted once more by the dry, baking heat that comes only from the desert. Not even the spray from the river could completely eliminate the fine, particulate grit that permeated the air. Alkaline salts weathered the wood of the dock and made it crack and splinter, and dust too fine to be seen coated his clothes immediately, making the fabric smooth and stiff, as if it had been starched. The sun beat down, and the air clawed at his throat as the deckhands behind him cursed each other and began off-loading oversized barrels of trade goods.
Salim loved it. Moving down the pier, past fishing dories and slender single-masted pleasure craft, he realized for the first time in years how much he had missed it — the cleansing heat of the sun, the beads of sweat in his hair. Man is made for the desert, they said here, for what is man but dust and water? In the end, everyone returns to those. Or almost everyone.
Past the edge of the dock, Lamasara spread out before him. Though the reeds along the river's bank immediately began to give way to the dust and hardpan of desiccated and well-trodden earth, the city that sprouted there was as bright as any garden. Just past the boards and cart roads of the waterfront, the city opened itself in a barrage of color and sound. Awnings dyed every hue of the rainbow shaded market stalls in which hawkers pressed their wares on passersby at the top of their lungs. Irritable camels stomped and spat, and urchins ran riot through the streets, thieving what they could from greengrocers and wine merchants. And everywhere — everywhere — there was music. Sitars and tambourines and low horns, and a thousand others besides, blending in with the crowd until it was impossible to tell the rumble of the drummers from the breathing of the city itself.
Salim stepped quickly across the road and let the market envelop him. With his purse tucked securely inside his dark robes, and his sword conspicuous enough to earn him a wide berth from the pickpockets, he strode confidently, taking it all in. There was a reason they called Lamasara the jewel of the desert. Here was Thuvia's artistic heart in full flutter, the fabulous wares and performances of which even the pale northerners of Avistan had tales. He moved past an ascetic lying on a bed of nails — the trick simple physics, not even worth a second glance — and a parade of scantily clad dancers before he began to reach the real attractions. Jugglers spinning dozens of knives, some while blindfolded. Drummers frantically pounding out a rhythm while a child-sized rat creature danced awkwardly from side to side on its hind legs at the command of its master. There was even a beautiful fire-eater whose limbs were tattooed with flames, distinguished from the others not so much by her beauty as by the fact that she managed to light a candle through a small piercing where throat met collarbone. This last he stopped to watch for a moment, meeting her gaze and nodding approval as she mutely acknowledged the applause and collected coins. Then he turned and moved to the nearest stall.
"Greetings, honored one! May the sun smile upon you." The man was a poultry merchant, and the tiny stall stank of the crowded cages.
"And you as well," Salim returned, slipping back into the old accent with barely a thought. "I need directions."
"Ah!" The merchant clapped his hands. "You think you need directions, my friend. But what you actually need is a chicken!"
So fast that he hardly seemed to move, the man suddenly held one of his half-plucked charges, beady eyes staring at Salim over the top of the merchant's meaty fingers.
"Not today, friend," Salim replied. "Only directions." He held up a coin.
"Oh no, my friend, no!" The chicken merchant made a shooing motion, the dazed bird bobbing up and down in his hand. "There's no way I could take a good man's money for something as simple as directions. The Dawnflower would burn my eyes for such lack of charity. No, I cannot accept your money. But neither can I let a good man go undernourished, as you so clearly are. See how your bones hang loose beneath your clothes, and your skin grows waxy and pale as an Avistani! It would be next to murder, honored one, and I am an honest man."
The patter was familiar, so different in tone from the blatant northern merchants, but Salim couldn't afford to spend time haggling properly. Instead, he turned to one of the street children lounging nearby and whistled sharply, motioning him over. The child came, though not within reach. Salim jerked his head toward the merchant's cages.
"You want a chicken?"
The child nodded.
"Where can I find the temple of Pharasma?"
"Southwest of the square," the child answered promptly, pointing down the main thoroughfare. Salim flicked his eyes sideways at the merchant, who nodded.
"My thanks," he said, and flipped the child the coin. The boy caught it eagerly, and immediately began haranguing the merchant. Salim strode away without looking back. It was as it should be. Children had all the time in the world to bargain, more than even the merchant. In the end, the boy would get his chicken, and for a fair price.
Past the town square, the swirl and noise of the bazaar gave way to more permanent structures. Here were the nicer shops, the ones whose owners could afford to choose their positions and let business come to them, as well as the theaters and music halls for which Lamasara was famous. Even at this early hour, open doors let the sounds of rehearsals and matinee performances drift out into the street, both advertisement and enticement. Come nightfall, the city would be ablaze with lanterns of every color.
The cathedral of Pharasma, Lady of Graves, stood toward the outer edge of the district, where the close-packed commercial buildings began to space out and give way to people's homes and the desert proper. It rose up stark and black against the sky, its dark walls in startling contrast to the ocher mud brick of the buildings around it. Here were the same high, gothic spires and sharply peaked roofs that would have been at home in the streets of Egorian or Oppara. Clearly the priests in Lamasara had been heavily influenced by their northern comrades, rather than the lighter, airier practices of the south. The artificially darkened stone undoubtedly absorbed the sun's heat and trapped it, turning the place into an oven on the hottest days, but still he saw few concessions toward local building styles. The goddess of death, birth, and prophecy was not one for concessions, and clearly her architects in Lamasara were of the same mind.
He moved up a wide cascade of stairs toward two enormous doors of blackened iron, swung halfway open to catch the breeze. He approached the gap and was met by a slightly portly young man with hands folded into the sleeves of his cassock.
"Blessings," the man said politely, inclining his head. "How may the church be of service?" The man's black garments were perfectly arranged, but his youth and the careful, intentional way in which he affected the flat tones of a Pharasmin marked him as an acolyte rather than a full priest. He gazed at Salim with what he probably hoped was unsettling directness.
"My name is Salim Ghadafar," Salim responded. "I'm here to see the high priest."
Clearly he was expected. The acolyte's thin veneer of detachment melted away, and he seemed to shrink inside his robes. He quickly stepped aside.
"Certainly, honored one," he said, bowing in earnest now and motioning toward the doors. "Please, enter."
Salim stepped through the doors, and the acolyte followed. Inside, the temple's receiving chamber was vast, stretching perhaps fifty feet or more to an arched ceiling and stained-glass windows showing scenes of judgment and redemption. Pillars of gray marble rose up at strategic points around the room, and the matching tile of the floor was spotless, ringing with the sound of footsteps. Acolytes and priests in cassocks identical to that of Salim's doorman moved quietly and purposefully around the room, conferring with each other or efficiently carrying out the business of the church. Salim strode forward across the massive chamber, half leading his guide.
As they made their way across the tiles, he heard a number of the room's other residents fall silent, followed shortly by a low buzz as clerics nudged each other and acolytes put their heads together, gesturing surreptitiously. Their whispers were too low for him to follow, but he could imagine their content easily enough.
They reached the far side of the public chamber and came to the archway Salim had expected. Here he let his guide take over, leading him through the maze of hallways and smaller chambers. Salim probably could have navigated them unaided, but there was no need, and here the church's layout would begin to vary to cater to the needs of the locals.
The building was a labyrinthine structure, closer to an abbey or monastery than a simple church. Dormitories and kitchens for the resident brothers and sisters mixed freely with the embalming chambers and other facilities integral to the church's function. Salim estimated that thirty or forty clergy and seminarians must make their homes here, with more undoubtedly living outside its walls, mingling with Lamasara's faithful and tending to their needs.
They came to a wide stone stairwell that spiraled both up and down. The latter, Salim knew, would lead to the extensive catacombs beneath the church, in which generations of Lamasara's worthies would be interred. But instead of paying them a visit, the acolyte led Salim to the right, up the stairs that rose in a freestanding wave toward the ceiling. The youth took a step up, then stopped and glanced back at Salim anxiously.
"Apologies, honored one, but I have made an assumption. I presumed you meant High Priest Khoyar, as it was he who set me waiting for you. If you wish to see the masters of birth or prophecy, I can take you to their towers instead."
"The one who sent you will be fine," Salim said, and motioned for the acolyte to continue on. In theory, every church of Pharasma was run by a triumvirate of priests representing the goddess's threefold concerns — birth, death, and prophecy. That was in theory, and it held in some of the bigger cities. In practice, many churches had one priest — often the priest concerned with death, the goddess's most public face — who rose above his or her fellows, becoming the de facto leader of the church as a whole. As it sounded like this Khoyar had.
After passing through two more floors with yet more living quarters and studies, the stairs rose in earnest, becoming a tight spiral encased in a rounded tower. As the two men ascended, narrow arrow-slit windows gave Salim increasingly majestic views. From one side, he could see out over the cathedral's roof to the jumbled buildings of Lamasara as they spread out organically from the river's edge. Then the stairs would lead him around a hundred and eighty degrees, and he would be looking out over the outlying farms and pastures that fed the city, all the way to where the sparse plant life gave out completely and the river's legacy was subsumed by the endless dunes of the desert.
At last they reached the top, where the stairs became a small landing in front of a wooden door covered in ornate whorls of wrought iron. The acolyte knocked.
"Enter," a voice called. The acolyte pressed the latch and swung the door inward.
Salim was blasted by light. Beyond the doorway, the half-lit winding of the stairway was replaced by the full fury of the desert sun pouring in through rows of tall windows in the southern and eastern walls. Here was the view that Salim had caught snatches of through the arrow loops, now laid bare before him: a sinuous line of green weaving through the city and then running away through the trackless sands until both blended with distant clouds and were lost. The rest of the room was made up as a tastefully wealthy reception chamber, with a few low couches and freestanding sculptures representing the Boneyard and the Lady of Graves seated on her throne. It was a small room, perhaps half the width of the tower, and a doorway hung with a beaded curtain likely led to a sleeping chamber in the other half. Salim took all this in with a glance, then returned his attention to the distant horizon.
"I see you appreciate the view."
The man who came through the curtain was tall and lean, perhaps in his late forties. Though his cassock was of the same cut as the acolyte's, hanging almost to the floor, it was clear that here was no simple dyed wool or linen, but rather black silk of the highest caliber. The piping on it was silver thread, and matched both the spiral-shaped holy symbol that hung from a chain around his neck and a large silver ring on his left hand. Atop his dark hair sat a small, boxlike hat.
"How could I not?" Salim responded, and the man smiled. His thin, clean-shaven face was strong and proud, with the hooked Thuvian nose and darkly tanned skin, yet something in the way he held his lips — thin and tight — kept him from being truly handsome, giving him a somewhat effete, officious air.
"Another child of the desert. As it should be." The priest put his palms together and bowed at the waist, the forty-five-degree angle appropriate when greeting an equal — an honor, given the man's station. "I am High Priest Khoyar Roshan, steward of Death and shepherd of Lamasara's faithful. And you are Salim."
Salim inclined his head in acknowledgment, yet did not return the bow. The high priest's smile tightened, and he straightened again.
"I was told you have a problem," Salim said.
"That much is true." Khoyar moved toward one of the couches. When Salim made no motion to follow, the priest remained standing. "The situation is most unusual, though I don't know that it requires such an honor as your traveling halfway across the world."
"In my experience," Salim said, "our opinions count for little where the gods are concerned."
Khoyar's smile quirked and disappeared.
"Yes. Well." He waved away Salim's guide, who immediately disappeared down the stairs at a run, then started toward them himself. "I would offer you the church's hospitality," he continued, his voice cooled to the familiar Pharasmin flatness, "but I imagine that after such a long voyage you're eager to be about your business."
"Always," Salim replied.
"Then please, come," Khoyar said, and led Salim back down the twisting stairs.
Another man might have wondered why the high priest had brought him all the way up to his solarium, only to lead him back down again, but Salim had too much experience with church bureaucrats like Khoyar for that. The symbolism was petty but effective — by making Salim climb up to him for no good reason, Khoyar had established his position of dominance. By countering with calculated rudeness, Salim had reminded the high priest that he existed outside the normal church hierarchy. They were even.
"The situation was brought to my attention nine days ago," Khoyar said as they made their way down the circling stairs. "The victim, Faldus Anvanory, is a minor Taldan noble and merchant of some means, come to Lamasara several years ago in search of eternal youth, like all the others." He made a gesture of dismissal. "Unlike most, however, he managed to find it. He was invited to the most recent auction by Queen Zamere herself, and when the bids were tallied, he found that he'd won a single dose of the sun orchid elixir."
"And for just a king's ransom," Salim put in. Sun orchid elixir — the rare concoction that was such an integral part of Thuvia's reputation among foreigners — didn't really grant eternal youth, just a temporary rewinding of the clock. Most buyers could expect maybe fifty more years from a single vial. But fifty years was a long time to a human, and more than enough time to invest and save up for a second dose.
"Quite," Khoyar said. "Yet before the elixir could be delivered, Anvanory's brutalized corpse was found alone in his study. Not entirely surprising — these things happen, and the prospect of potentially eternal life tends to anger one's enemies. As it happens, Anvanory foresaw that possibility as well, and had already made arrangements with the church in case of just such an occurrence. It wasn't until we tried to resurrect him that the mystery revealed itself in earnest."
They reached the topmost of the cathedral's floors, which Salim had passed through on his way up the staircase, and Khoyar paused on the landing for effect. Salim waited.
"The soul," Khoyar intoned, "was gone."
Excerpted from Pathfinder Tales: Death's Heretic by James L. Sutter. Copyright © 2011 Paizo Publishing, LLC. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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