Gideon Gull leads a double life: one as a talented young bard at the Rhapsodic College, the other as a student of the Shadow
s infamous Lion Blades are trained to be master spies and assassins. When a magical fog starts turning ordinary people into murderous mobs along the border between Taldor and
s home nation of Andoran,
s up to him and a crew of daring performers to solve the mystery before both nations fall to madness and slaughter. But how do you fight an enemy that turns innocent people into weapons?
From critically acclaimed author Chris Willrich comes a bold new adventure of intrigue, espionage, and arcane mystery, set in the award-winning world of the Pathfinder Roleplaying
|Product dimensions:||4.10(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.30(d)|
|Age Range:||16 Years|
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Pathfinder Tales: The Dagger of Trust
By Chris Willrich
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2013 Paizo Publishing, LLC
All rights reserved.
Overture for Voice and Poisoned Blade
The day of the murder dawned bright and rosy upon the Gilded City. At that hour Gideon Gull, having roused, stretched, and performed his morning exertions in the crisp wintry air of the conservatory roof, had no idea a killer stalked even now within his vision's reach. The brightly painted rooftops of Oppara stretched all around like spots on some ornate octopus, sprawling from the Black Cliffs to the lowlands upstream along the Mighty Porthmos, while the Grand Bridge lashed south across the great river like an arm snatching at some morsel worthy of imperial Taldor's ancient hunger. You could smell the sea to the west, chimneys and cookfires to the east, and a tang unique to the maritime district around the college, a scent that suggested sewage and sweat and sex and spirits, and which swaggered its way to Gideon's nose. All seemed cheerfully decadent as ever. You could write a song about it. Perhaps he would.
All he had to worry about was this morning's debate. And, of course, the assassination.
His acrobatics and shadowboxing done, Gideon sat cross-legged and pulled out his harp, a rugged and compact traveler's instrument carved by the gnomes up in Wispil. A good bodyguard needed his spells, so he plucked at the metal strings, finding the melodies he'd come to associate with particular magical effects.
The spell for throwing his voice he linked to a rafter-shaking aria from the opera The Winter of White Roses. The spell for curing fear he connected with the backwoods song "Ain't No Devil's Gonna Move Me." The one for making a rope move on its own? The sea shanty "Haul Away for Arcadia." The one for inducing uncontrollable laughter was simply background strums, fit for a tavern jester. The music itself didn't convey the magic, per se, but the bardic college had taught Gideon to coach his memory with such associations.
Arcane formulae crackled through his brain as he prepared spell after spell, ready for casting at need.
As he let the pattern of a final spell pass into his head on a wave of shimmering notes, something like a cacophony of brass horns assaulted his mind.
"Ah!" Gideon clutched at his skull, losing the spell. He could still see the stones of the college roof, but it was as if a writhing fog had obscured his vision. The air felt chill. He had the sensation of some cold, cruel intellect appraising him, and a voice sliced through the brass, feminine and cruel. He couldn't quite make out the words. But something about it was familiar ...
Just as abruptly, the presence let him go.
The fogginess vanished, and the clear winter dawn returned. Gideon made the antler sign of the good god Erastil upon his chest. I will never eat Jalmeri dumplings before bedtime again.
As life would have it, there was no time for Gideon to investigate the bizarre event. Even having lost his favorite spell, the one that transfixed several observers at once, he couldn't spare time to recover it. Gideon wished the things that perplexed him would wait their turn instead of crowding for attention like unruly children.
Gideon heaved himself over the rooftop wall and descended a surface bricked with irregularly shaped stones, which he half-suspected was fashioned with climbing in mind. The Rhapsodic College had many such quirks, if you looked for them. But most students were too preoccupied with music or dance or theater to see.
When Gideon reached the ground he scrambled into a region of topiary and rose bushes. Concealed by fantastic green animals and prize-winning blooms, he scurried toward the meeting green. The garden provided more cover than any garden truly needed to — another quirk. If he dug around in particular spots he knew he'd find concealed weapons and message drops and a trapdoor to the underground complex known by its initiates as the Shadow School. No one could see him, for his stealth improved week by week.
If only Corvine could see me now ...
He stepped among the cushions of the college's meeting green, a well-tended lawn with a trio of columns set upon a slope at one end. Students were already arriving, and Gideon decided to test his stealth and eavesdrop on a couple of gossipy first-years.
"I hope Gull's sober for this one."
"You know, he acts drunk a lot, but have you ever actually seen him drink?"
"You think he's one of your spies?"
"I didn't say that."
"Ha! You see spies everywhere. Oppara's not the glamorous place you imagined out in the prefectures. The gold came off these rooftops long ago. Now, sure, probably there are spies in the city. But they'd be over in Westpark sniffing nobles in their silks. Not snooping on us poor performers in our motley."
There was no cover here, but people's expectations could be the best concealment of all. Gideon was bent over, eyes down, making a show of arranging the cushions, in all ways acting like a menial servant. The pair didn't even recognize him when he stood three feet away.
"I don't know ... I'm telling you, he's odd."
"Well, sure, he's from Andoran, not Taldor. They have funny ideas there. People choose their own rulers. Crazy stuff."
"That's not it. He's more backwoodsman than bard. Kind of old for a student. Disappears at odd hours. Shadow-boxes on the rooftops."
Gideon put his hands in his pockets. In his left he crunched two papers. The first was a summons from Professor Aurestia to appear at this debate, upon which a good chunk of his final grade would depend. The second was a tuition bill making it clear that Gideon could afford no second chance at the bardic college.
Meanwhile, in his right hand was the coded message that ordered him to thwart the assassination of Aurestia, at the same time, on the same spot.
Gideon looked up. He noticed the gossipers doing double-takes as they realized he'd been standing there the whole time. He was professional enough not to wink.
"Sebastian," he said, offering his hand to the man who strode across the green. The new arrival reflexively studied it and Gideon's sleeve before giving his hand a surprisingly crushing shake.
Sebastian Tambour was an alumnus of the Rhapsodic College, and Gideon's sponsor at the college. A winsome man in black, he bore pointed ears and purple eyes that attested to some elven ancestry. At first glance, no one would imagine this delicate-looking fellow was anything but a rich dandy.
Many of Sebastian's foes never got a second glance.
"Surprised to find you here," Gideon said, feeling as usual that his mentor was three moves ahead. Beside Sebastian, Gideon felt gangly and clumsy, a hayseed with a haystack of yellow hair and a face rough from a life lived in farmlands and docklands. Early in Gideon's time at the college, Sebastian had often taken him out carousing — though with Corvine on his mind, Gideon's heart wasn't much in it — until one day Sebastian had confessed an ulterior motive: bringing along his rough-looking human friend enhanced the half-elf's appearance by contrast. The human mind is easily steered, Sebastian had confided. There's much your kind sees but doesn't apprehend.
"I've been back in Oppara for a little while, busy with this or that." Sebastian threw a smile at some arriving female students and got a few in return.
"Nothing too dangerous, I trust." Gideon felt a nick of envy, and he cast a look skyward for any winged messenger from Corvine.
"Nothing I couldn't handle. But I'm glad that matter's well settled so I can focus on business here."
"So I've you to thank for this debate?"
"Indeed. I'll be your opposite number."
Gideon's right hand clenched, compressing the black paper in his pocket. "Do I also have you to thank for the Shadow Taunt?"
"Ah. Well." Sebastian shrugged, and he lowered his voice. "As the one who recruited you for training in the first place, I'm curious how you're getting along. A mock assassination, like a good cup of Sargavan coffee, is always invigorating."
Gideon relaxed his hand. He owed Sebastian a great deal, not just for helping him get into the Rhapsodic College, but for placing him in the secret Shadow School beneath it — a school that trained Lion Blades, Taldor's elite espionage agents. Irritated though he was, Gideon played along. "What's the rationale?"
"Does it matter? Death is death."
"I know the Shadow School, Sebastian. These people tell themselves cover stories for bedtime. There's always a rationale, a scenario, a legend. Our enactor will pretend to be someone, and everyone has their signature. A Qadiran assassin, if rash enough to choose such a public setting, might whirl through the crowd with a scimitar. A Galtan revolutionary would favor a crossbow, and a perch on the conservatory roof. A Tian agent might conceal a dagger inside a wig."
"Tian Xia's on the other side of the world!"
"All the better to divert suspicion, if the hiring party's a fellow Taldan."
Sebastian chuckled. "Very well. You always amuse, Gideon. So I'll give you a word. Cheliax."
Cheliax. The name drew a line of fire through Gideon's memory, illuminating a land where power was defined by the patronage of devils. Cheliax had designs on the whole Inner Sea. It was by thwarting a Chelish agent in Cassomir that Gideon had come to Sebastian's attention, though sometimes Sebastian hinted that he'd known Gideon by reputation before then. It was always hard to know where one stood with the corsair. At least he wouldn't throw an actual devil at Gideon.
Gideon sighed. "Does Aurestia know she's a target as well as a judge?"
"Of course not! The subject's cooperation is always a luxury."
"Am I allowed to inform her?"
"Under no circumstances."
"You know, I may only be a country bumpkin from Andoran, but it seems to me a sane spy agency would have that cooperation, and several agents in place, none of whom had a debate to perform."
"Who ever said the Lion Blades were sane? Or, for that matter, the world? Good luck."
Sebastian bowed, stepped away, and began stretching in easy view of the knot of female students he'd eyed earlier. Gideon rolled his own eyes and strolled upslopeto the pillars. The knoll served as meeting place, sparring ground, and outdoor theater. But to Gideon, it was now an ambush site. And facing the audience, he'd lose half his view.
He shook his head and watched the gathering bards, most oblivious to the real contest they were about to witness.
Once upon a time, he wanted to tell them, there was a country that took its bards — those people who bask in the adulation of crowds — and made them into spies. You know, those people whose job it is to go unnoticed. I have yet to decide if this was brilliant or mad. Quite possibly both. Sometimes they throw that paradox into a student's face, in the form of the Shadow Taunt, the dark thread of an espionage problem woven into the bright fabric of a bardic test. I know what you're thinking, folks — can such an arrangement end in anything but disaster? Ladies and gentlemen, hold on to your harps. We're about to find out!
He hit upon a stratagem as he strode toward Aurestia.
Professor Aurestia was a jewel in the Rhapsodic College's crown. A tall woman endowed with regal bearing, red hair, and striking amber eyes, she embodied the bardic ideal of Taldor, able to imitate the poise of nobility, vibrate an opera house's chandeliers with her voice, and smile at admirers of every class and mean it. She was no longer young, and increasingly eschewed the opera house for the classroom, honorably building her academic standing year after year, until she could teach not just opera but rowdy tavern songs and holy chants, and not merely music but theater and puppetry and pratfalls (she left acrobatics and juggling to others). Before long, it was said, she'd leave off performances altogether, and lead the Rhapsodic to new greatness.
Among Aurestia's ideas of greatness was hitting you where you were weakest. Therefore Gideon would be judged on debate. Not his strong suit. Improvisational trickery, on the other hand ...
He'd woken today with a hint of a cold, so he rummaged through his mind for his best memories of sickness, polished them off, and welcomed them with a convincing sneeze.
"Are you ill, Mister Gull?"
"Just a little, ma'am. Something's going around. New bug from the jungles of Garund, I hear."
"Spreads by touch, so you'll forgive me if I don't kiss your hand."
There was the barest hint of a smile. "I wasn't offering it." Aurestia scanned the crowd as if gauging the health of the milling bards. She folded her arms. Good. She'd be warier of anyone approaching her. "You're prepared?"
"Yes, ma'am. I may have to sneeze away from the crowd a bit, from time to time." And thereby study the whole area.
"I don't deduct for illness. Only for laziness, illogic, and feigning a Taldan accent."
"I never do that, ma'am."
She studied him evenly. "I could've sworn differently. In fact, I believe it was my own voice."
"It's well known that no one can imitate the diva Aurestia."
"There are those who find you amusing, Mister Gull. I'm occasionally one of them. But not today. We may have an observer from the court. Our old friend the Royal Adjunct Vice-Critic for Moral Suasion in the Fine Arts. He can't shut us down — probably. But he can make life difficult. I hope you won't embarrass us."
The green was now full, with a hundred bardic students eager to see the triumph or humbling of Gideon Gull. They'd dressed for the occasion. There were aspiring fools in motley; traditionalist harpists in drab traveling cloaks; stage magicians in starry robes most true wizards would find garish; and dancers in a plethora of costumes recalling various historical eras, from ancient green-and-crimson Azlanti togas to modern Taldan fur-wrapped doublets and petticoats. If you looked closely, of course, the finery was ragged, the fools' hats were missing some bells, and even the traveling cloaks were too lightweight for their purpose. It didn't matter. Illusion was all. It was as though the Night of the Pale, when some folk cavorted in costume, had come early this year.
His roommate Leothric, a noble scion, wasn't in costume. But he waved with a puppet on each hand. The puppeteer was unaware of the Shadow School, and Gideon knew he'd soured any friendship with Leothric by his constant unexplained disappearances underground. Thus Gideon wasn't sure if Leothric was here to support Gideon or enjoy his defeat. But the puppets were a clue. One was of the legendary knight Sir Gothmoor, renowned more for stubborn durability than intelligence. The other hand belonged to the blue dragon Yallazak, whose electrical breath, according to those same legends, had roasted Gothmoor within his plate armor as he valiantly defended the town of Maheto.
But whether Gideon was about to be roasted or not, he was cheered to see his friends Ozrif and Viridia at the back of the crowd, the son of Katapesh's deserts juggling knives and the daughter of Taldor's eastern plains weaving a rippling dance beside him. Most everyone at the college agreed that Ozrif and Viridia would make the perfect couple — except, of course, Ozrif and Viridia themselves. That refrain was repeated in the catacombs beneath their feet, for like Gideon they attended the hidden Shadow School. Together they formed a small unit the school termed a cell. They were aware of the Shadow Taunt, and while forbidden to interfere, they gave Gideon salutes of encouragement.
Now Ozrif's blades returned to their sheaths, and Viridia spiraled herself to a cross-legged repose, for Aurestia had raised her arm.
Silence fell upon the green.
The professor's voice filled the hollow. "Now we begin the Test of Disputation of Gideon Gull. The proposition is: Should art serve society? Mister Gull's randomly chosen stance is negative."
Good, Gideon thought. He'd prepared a positive argument, of course, and it was good exercise to challenge your own beliefs. But this time he needed all his wits.
"Our honored alumnus Sebastian Tambour," Aurestia continued, "has consented to act as Mister Gull's foil." Sebastian stepped up to the pillars, nodding to Gideon and bowing to Aurestia, who continued. "The debate shall have three rounds: argument, free-for-all, and character assassination."
Aurestia raised a coin and tossed it like a gambler. The golden disc, a Katapeshi scarab, flashed beneath cloud-streaked blue.
Gideon took that moment (even as Aurestia whispered "Call it" to him) to search the crowd for an assassin of more than character. It would have to be the only person studying Aurestia, instead of the flickering scarab.
But Gideon spotted no one. All eyes followed the coin.
"Scarab," he said, almost too late.
The coin landed on the grass. An elongated, eerily inhuman mask stared up from the gold.
"Heads," said Aurestia. "The positive stance begins."
Sebastian surveyed every face. Gideon took the opportunity to do the same.
"Ladies and gentlemen." Sebastian waved a hand to take in the whole area. "You and I, and everyone around us in this fine city ... are animals. Savagery lurks in every skull. Only two powers can tame this savage. Armed force — and art."
Excerpted from Pathfinder Tales: The Dagger of Trust by Chris Willrich. Copyright © 2013 Paizo Publishing, LLC. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Prelude in Fog,
Chapter One: Overture for Voice and Poisoned Blade,
Chapter Two: Chamber Music for Three Assassins,
Chapter Three: Bloodstain Sonata,
Chapter Four: Dirge for Spies and Ghosts,
Chapter Five: Shanty for Vagabonds,
Chapter Six: Solo (with a Chorus for Madmen),
Chapter Seven: Duet (with Dissonance),
Chapter Eight: Hellfire Jig,
Chapter Nine: Nocturne in the Key of Fear,
Chapter Ten: Requiem for Heroes and Fools,
Chapter Eleven: Anthem for Andoran,
Chapter Twelve: Wildwood Chant,
Chapter Thirteen: Blood Pastorale,
Chapter Fourteen: Fugue for Lost Souls,
Chapter Fifteen: Rhapsody in Mist,
Chapter Sixteen: Traitor's Waltz,
Chapter Seventeen: Intermission (with Monsters),
Chapter Eighteen: Ballad of the Desperate Bards,
Chapter Nineteen: Fantasia for Empire,
Chapter Twenty: Aria for Broken Voices,
Coda in Oppara,
About the Author,