By Dave Gross
This is an excerpt from the upcoming Pathfinder Tales novel Queen of Thorns by Dave Gross, presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Paizo Publishing and Dave Gross, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2012 by Paizo Publishing, LLC.
Chapter One: The Midsummer Masquerade
The slap lifted Radovan off his feet and knocked the mask from his face. He crashed through a table, scattering morsels of candied fruit across the dance floor. The music stopped, and every elf in the plaza turned to watch.
Arnisant growled. I touched the wolfhound’s shoulder and felt his muscles tense. He wanted the sign to defend Radovan. I showed him my palm. Stay.
Radovan shook his head, stunned by the blow. He blinked up at his attacker.
She removed her badger mask to glower down at him. Rather than the delicate features common among elven women, she had a countenance that would not have seemed out of place among the Egorian war monuments. Her prominent jaw conveyed physical power.
Radovan pinched a lemon confection off of his precious new jacket. Wincing at the stain on the red leather, he popped the sweet into his mouth. Chewing with that lopsided grin he calls his little smile, he said, “It was just a suggestion, sweetheart.”
She scoffed at him and shook her head in disbelief before stomping off.
As she passed, the other celebrants laughed, not even bothering to cover their mouths with discreet hands. They stood in cliques unrestrained by age or gender, their splendid costumes blurring their sexual identities in a manner that would have proved scandalous in Cheliax. To my eyes they appeared more like children than the nobility of an ancient race. As they watched the badger-masked woman go, they whispered the word “Forlorn”—their term for elves raised outside of proper elven communities, among the shorter-lived races.
The mockery dissipated once she vanished beyond the hedge, where the glow of bonfires indicated common folk performing the Ritual of Stardust. Having lived nearly a century as a half-breed among humans, I felt a pang of sympathy for this Forlorn elf.
The division of my own parentage had brought me to Kyonin. My mother raised me in the grand old city of Egorian, now the seat of power in Imperial Cheliax. The only material connection to my absent father arrived on my sixteenth birthday, an elven carriage of rare and lustrous red wood. There was no other vehicle like it in all of Cheliax—and then catastrophe dashed it to flinders. I had come to Kyonin hoping to locate the original craftsman and restore the Red Carriage to some semblance of its original state.
Before melancholy, my old acquaintance, could embrace me, the minstrels revived the music. Among the petal-lanterns floating above our heads, sprites resumed their moth-chasing.
Radovan grinned at the woman’s retreat, careful not to reveal his big smile. For that, I was grateful. I had no wish for our hosts to mistake him for a demon after taking pains to explain that his fiendish ancestry was rooted in Hell, not the Abyss. For all I knew and could prove, my claim was true.
I crooked a finger. Radovan fetched his wolf mask, brushed off a few more crumbs, and sauntered over.
He practices that saunter. I am certain of it.
Radovan held up a hand. “Couldn’t help it, boss. She was all kinds of winsome.”
Again I regretted my efforts to expand my bodyguard’s vocabulary. Each morning I wrote four uncommon words in Taldane, the common tongue. The challenge was for him to employ each term in conversation before day’s end. I rewarded each success by teaching him the same terms in Varisian and Tien, languages of which he had picked up only a smattering. The exercises began as a means of passing the time while we awaited transport back to Absalom, but Radovan insisted on continuing.
“‘Winsome’ is hardly the term I would choose.” I removed my domino mask to reveal my displeasure. “She nearly decapitated you with that slap.”
“What can I say?” Radovan rubbed his jaw. “You winsome, you lose some.”
Our vocabulary exercises had inspired Radovan to indulge in that most vulgar form of wordplay. My disapproval only encouraged him to produce more and worse puns, so I pretended not to notice. “You do not appreciate the honor we have received. Outsiders are seldom welcomed to Iadara, much less to the Midsummer Masquerade.”
“All I said—”
“And I note you have been slapped quite often since our return.”
“I may get slapped a lot,” he said, “but I get kissed a lot, too.”
I waved away his boast. A servant mistook my gesture as a call for another drink. Before I could stop her, she moved to a “tree” composed of a thousand grape vines that some druid had coaxed into a new configuration. Beneath the supple bark, a pulmonary motion of this wine-tree absorbed and crushed its own fruits, fermenting the juice until sparkling wine splashed into an alabaster basin cradled in the tree’s bole.
Nearby, a lichen-faced troll sat bound in chains of gold. At a sign from the servant, a minstrel leaned near the troll’s elephantine ear and sang a quiet lament. The brute snuffled and eked out a thumb-sized tear. The crystalline drop grew as it trickled down, expanding to form a tiny goblet. The servant plucked the vessel from the troll’s beard and filled it from the fountain.
Absorbed by the strange sight, I missed something Radovan said. He repeated himself. “You know what I mean when I say I get kissed a lot?”
I accepted the wine and turned to Radovan. “I apprehend your vulgar insinuation. So will anyone else who overhears you. They may not often speak Taldane, but you will not find an elf here who does not understand our language. The queen herself may appear tonight. Kindly restrict your lascivious propositions to the help.”
Radovan shrugged and put on a dejected face.
I allowed him to sulk as I nosed the wine. The bouquet reminded me of a delicate white from one of my western estates. At first sip, the wine seemed frail, yet the flavor grew strong as I took it on my tongue. I savored the ripe fruit before letting it trickle down my throat.
“How do you find our midsummer wine?” asked the servant.
Surprised that she should address me directly and without my accustomed honorific, I appraised the elven woman. Unlike the noble guests, she went unmasked. Her leaf-green eyes returned my gaze without deference. Her attitude verged on the insolent. She spoke again before I could admonish her.
“But you haven’t come to Iadara for the wine, have you?” She dimpled a smile, not entirely unappealing. Her features were not homely, exactly, but thin and angular in the manner of some fey creatures. Her long ears drooped slightly, giving her the air of a dishrag wrung out too often.
“What do you know of my purpose?”
“It isn’t often a half-human comes to the court of the Viridian Crown,” she said. “And you, a Chelish lord with a hell-touched henchman. You are all the gossip in the kitchens.”
“Kitchen gossip? About me?” That was too far by half. “Why, you brassy little—”
“Look!” She pointed south, beyond the trees dividing the plaza from the river. “Here comes Prince Amarandlon.”
My vision is not as keen as an elf’s, but I can see as well on a cloudless night as a human can by day. The slivered moon provided little light, so I could not detect what this insolent maid meant to indicate until a star winked out, followed by another. A black shape glided across the river, where the reflected starlight revealed a gigantic owl.
Behind the great bird’s head, an elf stood tall in stirrups. A rack of antlers rose from his closed helm. His cloak rippled as he directed his mount to skim just above the river. With the slightest correction to navigate the hedges, he brought the owl over the plaza and dropped lightly to the floor. The owl beat its wings once and soared away.
A masked elf tossed Amarandlon a bow of silvered birch. Nearby, a pack of hounds sat awaiting instruction.
Amarandlon raised the bow above his head. A woman screamed, and the dancers stirred like sheep at the scent of a wolf. I touched the hilt of my sword, but the servant placed her hand on mine. “No,” she said. “Observe.”
Bristling, I watched as Amarandlon drew the bowstring. A sparkling arrow materialized in place. He let it fly, striking a goose-masked woman. The arrow exploded into a glittering cloud. The woman writhed inside the silvery dust. Her arms elongated and feathered as she raised them above her head. An instant later, she honked and beat her wings, transformed into the very image of her disguise—yet still I could perceive her true form within the illusion, an elf within the bird.
The man who provided Amarandlon his bow signaled a hound. The dog dashed toward the goose, which flapped onto a table and scattered a platter of cheya dumplings. Snatching one in her mouth-beak, the goose-woman gulped down the enchanted morsel. In an instant she glowed pale blue and began to float above the table. She flailed her arm-wings, honking in alarm as she rose uncontrollably higher.
The other guests scattered, but I realized their screams were full of delight, not terror. They laughed at the first victim even as they sought shelter from the hunter.
Amarandlon stalked his prey, shooting every few steps. Each elf struck by the ephemeral arrows became the creature whose mask he or she wore: deer, skunk, duck, ferret, salamander, or bear. Through each illusion I perceived the elf’s original form.
After their transformation, the “prey” attempted escape through guile or by enduring the unpredictable effects of the cheya dumplings. Some dumplings transformed the eaters into nightingales or caused them to vanish—yet again I could perceive the faint outline of their otherwise invisible figures, even as the pursuing hounds paused, momentarily confused, before picking up the scent trail.
Other dumplings caused the eater’s screams to appear as ribbons of colored light. One inflated its subject like a balloon, causing both his elven and hedgehog forms to sprawl helplessly on the floor until one of the hounds nosed his body. The first touch of the dog’s snout dispelled both magic and the mask, leaving the elf to loll on his back, gripping his arms in uncontrollable laughter.
Arnisant whined deep in his chest. He glanced up, craving permission to join the game. I offered none.
Beside me, I felt the servant watching my reaction. What did it matter if she saw my disappointment in her people? They were childish and cruel to their own kind, as evidenced by their mockery of the Forlorn woman. Yet they seemed oblivious to the effects of their behavior.
I hated them a little, for they made me feel old. They were as mercurial as the gnomes and fey creatures they allowed to reside with them. Certainly they lacked the grim demeanor of the elves who refused my first petition for entry.
After an unwelcome return to Absalom, I journeyed to the port of Greengold, which served as a diplomatic and trade buffer with the surrounding human nations. There, despite my substantial credentials and the physical proof of the carriage I wished repaired, the clerk remained deaf to my request to pass into the interior of Kyonin. That was until he received a reply to his request for more information about “this half-breed landowner from the Infernal Empire.” As he read the response, on which I spied the royal seal, I witnessed a transformation as profound as any caused by Amarandlon’s arrows.
After a few hours punctuated with unctuous apologies, we departed Greengold in the company of an honor guard. We rode through the western reaches of the Fierani Forest until we reached Omesta, where gnomes had built a city in the trees above the once-abandoned elven homes. There our escorts insisted we leave the Red Carriage once more in storage.
From Omesta we traveled by skiff along the Endowhar River, disembarking among the shining spires of Iadara. Servants led us to chambers reserved for diplomats and left us in peace except to deliver meals, fresh clothing, and invitations to bathe, worship, or wander where we would.
Radovan visited the baths daily. Since his misfortunes in Tian Xia, he had become fastidious about his personal hygiene. He was especially fixated on a toothbrush acquired in Goka, which he employed with a mixture of seashells and soda ash. Doubtless he wished to make himself as appealing as possible as he resumed his pursuit of voluptuous pleasures.
After a modest offering at a shrine to the Tender of Dreams, I explored the elven capital. A thin gray mist obscured much of the city, foiling my curiosity. It was no natural fog, for I could see that the river sparkled clear in the sunlight. The haze hung upon the silver towers like a veil, stirred but never dispelled by the summer breeze. Even where the vapor thinned to reveal a hint of the inner chambers through crystalline walls, green vines preserved the occupants’ modesty.
Or perhaps their secrets.
I could see more of my present surroundings after sunset than I could of the city in daylight. The highborn elves held their Midsummer Masquerade in a plaza surrounded by lush arbors and weathered statues of elves who had died ages before the founding of Cheliax.
Servants had covered the stone plaza with a wooden dance floor. Rather than the trapezoids of parquet, the inlaid woodwork depicted wild undergrowth. Its roots and vines entwined, only to part ways until each tendril found another entanglement in the next panel. There was a pattern to be discerned, one incomprehensible to the negligent eye. Some quality of the work gnawed at my memory, as if I had seen it somewhere—
“What’re you doing after this little shindig, sweetheart?”
My hand tightened on the pommel of my sword as I saw that Radovan had sidled up to the impudent servant—whom I now saw in a surprising new light.
Just as those struck by Prince Amarandlon’s arrows appeared as two beings at once, so did she. Beneath the servant’s mask I saw another face, this more stately than mischievous. Her real eyes were the color of amethysts. Three faint scars upon her cheek heightened rather than marred her austere beauty. Upon her brow she wore a silver circlet in the shape of vines set with tiny purple gems.
A lump of fear dammed my throat. Recalling a letter I had once received from the Chelish ambassador to Kyonin, I glanced up to spy a hawk perched upon a branch of the wine-tree. It returned my gaze with keen intelligence. It was no mere bird, but a wizard’s familiar.
A very particular familiar.
I stepped out of the elven woman’s view and showed Radovan the sign for danger: Stop.
He didn’t notice. I signaled again, this time with enough vigor to alarm Arnisant, who supported my efforts with a hearty woof.
“Because I’m not doing anything,” said Radovan, either oblivious to my efforts or pretending so. He reached for the woman’s hand. “And if you aren’t doing anything, maybe we could do it together.”
“Alas,” said the woman, withdrawing her hand. “I have a previous engagement.”
“Maybe I could show you a few things that this previous engage—”
“Radovan!” My bodyguard was on the brink of causing the worst possible breach of international diplomacy. I gripped my sword tighter than ever.
He shot me an irritated glance, then noticed my alarm and frowned, perplexed. He stepped away from the woman. “Some other time.”
“Some other time,” she agreed. Both the illusion of a maid and the woman beneath it smiled.
“Radovan, I need you to attend that matter we discussed.”
“Oh, yeah. That matter. I’ll just—” Something behind me caught his eye. I turned to see an elf woman masked as a fox. She fled the crowd in the center of the dance floor and took shelter behind the wine tree. She tilted her head at Radovan. At his wink, she shook her bushy red tail.
“I’ll get right on it,” said Radovan. He fairly skipped toward the fox-woman, who darted away. He donned his wolf mask and gave chase.
Arnisant whined again, wishing to join the hunt. I forbade him, and he settled, silent at my heel.
“Your man has certainly embraced the spirit of the festivities.”
“I pray he has not offended you.” Realizing the impropriety of touching the hilt of my sword in her presence, I removed it. The double-image of the woman resolved into that of the servant alone.
The Shadowless Sword was so named for its swiftness, or so I had assumed. Disheartened by the circumstances of our departure from Tian Xia, I had not yet studied the full extent of its enchantment. I let my hand brush the hilt once more. Once again, I saw two images of the woman before me.
“Your Majesty!” Amarandlon rushed toward me, dropping his bow and drawing his sword.
A few other guests shouted, but the sound of alarm differed little from the cries of the mock hunt.
Arnisant pushed between me and Amarandlon.
“Arnisant, down!” The hound dropped to the floor, eyes locked on the elf menacing me. I stepped away from the woman and raised my hands—whereupon once more I saw only the illusion, not her true appearance.
“Stay your hand, Prince Amarandlon.” With a flourish, the woman dispelled her guise and revealed herself as Queen Telandia Edasseril, monarch of Kyonin. Gossamer of white and violet flowed down her lithe figure, the train of her gown floating just above the floor as if suspended by a river current. In the crook of her arm she held a green oak staff, the gnarled fingers of its crest curling around yet not touching a walnut-sized emerald suspended between them. Even without the benefit of a spell, I sensed the arcane power radiating from the stone, but it was Telandia’s royal presence that bent my knee.
“You will forgive our ruse, Count Jeggare.” The queen gestured for me to rise. “And we shall forgive your giving away our disguise so early in the evening.”
I bowed again, this time in the fashion of Cheliax. “I beseech Your Majesty to pardon my bodyguard’s disgraceful behavior.”
“Your bodyguard’s?” The mischief of her former guise twinkled in her purple eyes. “Do not fear for our dignity on that point. We are advised that we have a little brass.”
The lump in my throat turned to stone. Never had I so thoroughly humiliated myself before such an august personage.
“My apologies if I frightened you.” Amarandlon’s voice rumbled beneath his stag helm.
“Not at all.” While I resented his part in my embarrassment, I could hardly blame him for coming to the aid of his monarch.
“We value your vigilance, Prince Amarandlon,” said Telandia. Her familiar dropped from the wine-tree to perch upon her staff’s head. “And your loyalty.”
Amarandlon bowed. I sensed something practiced in their exchange, but flustered as I was, I could not decipher its meaning.
“Since we can no longer speak in anonymity, Count Jeggare,” said the queen, “we shall rely on the reports of our trusted counselors in weighing the merits of your petition.”
“Your Majesty—” I began, but she had already turned away.
Amarandlon signaled his man as we retired to a secluded corner of the plaza.
“Your Highness, I assure you that I intended no threat to Her Majesty.”
“No, of course not.” He received a pair of wine goblets from his man, who arrived with one of the white hounds at heel. Amarandlon handed me one goblet and watched me drink it before handing me the second. He removed his helm.
The elf prince stood a hand taller than I, who am accustomed to looking down at my fellow Chelaxians. His hair was as black as mine, but longer and braided with clever knots. Although we had never met, I knew his face. The celebrated Ranger Prince of Kyonin appeared in paintings throughout the noble houses of Egorian.
Amarandlon indicated his servant. “My master of the hunt, Caladrel Nirthanya.”
“Your Excellency.” Caladrel bowed in the Chelish manner, but without the flourishes of recent vogue. His seamless face was tan beneath hair the color of corn silk, but I perceived no clue as to his age except that he seemed younger than Amarandlon and Queen Telandia, the latter of whom I knew to be the prince’s niece. Considering the longevity of elves, Caladrel’s last visit to Cheliax might have occurred before my birth. I returned his courtesy.
Our hounds eyed each other but remained seated. Caladrel looked at Arnisant, then to me for permission. I nodded. We released the dogs from their commands to heel. They snuffled each other at either end before settling back into place.
“Do not feel too badly,” said Amarandlon. “The queen relies on illusion to gather information and secure her safety. Sometimes, unfortunately, this tactic causes more confusion than security.”
“It was entirely my fault,” I said. “I was surprised. Some unexpected property of my sword allowed me to see through her disguise.”
“‘Some unexpected property’?”
“But I am informed you are a wizard of considerable talent. How can you not know the powers of your own weapon?”
While I had studied magic for many decades, only recently had I overcome the handicap that prevented me from casting spells. Misadventure deprived me of my spellbook the previous spring. I had spent months learning new magic from foreign scrolls and had only recently consolidated them into a new grimoire. The story of the Shadowless Sword was even more involved, so I simplified my answer: “It is a recent acquisition.”
“You have a keen eye, Prince Amarandlon.” I handed him the sword in its scabbard.
He examined the ornamentation. “Mainland, of course, and I will venture to say from Imperial Lung Wa before the dissolution.” He unsheathed the blade and admired the thousand tiny characters graven in the steel. “Forty-fifth century?”
“Tian scholars would say—”
“Seventieth,” we finished together.
“Of course,” he nodded. “Naturally, the Tian calendar does not start with the founding of Absalom.”
“Have you traveled to Tian Xia?”
“Only through books and the reports of our emissaries,” he said. “My charge is to protect Iadara. To that end, I study every chronicle of war.”
“Surely you do not expect war to come to Kyonin.”
“We have been at war since the moment we returned through the Sovyrian Stone,” he said. “Or do you forget the Lord of the Blasted Tarn?”
I knew the conflict he spoke of. Ten millennia ago, the elves fled our world of Golarion to escape the ravages of Earthfall, when the Starstone plummeted to earth and rang calamity across the world. Just over two thousand years ago, the demon known as Treerazer attempted to capture their last remaining passage to this world. The armies of Kyonin streamed back through the gate to secure the portal to Golarion, driving the abyssal hordes out of their capital, but not out of their country. “I understood that the demon is contained.”
Amarandlon shook his head. “Only held at bay. His forces range daily out of Tanglebriar. Only the endless vigil of rangers like Caladrel keeps them from our doorstep.”
Caladrel bowed to acknowledge his master’s praise. “Despite our best efforts, the demons creep nearer every day. From the prince’s owl, you could spy a grove where just last month we stopped a mob of scouts. If only we had your Chelish talent for entreating the fiends to truce.”
I winced. Since the rise of the House of Thrune, my native land has bound itself to the forces of Hell. While I eschew diablerie so far as the obligations of my rank permit, demons are by far the worse abomination.
“There can be no question of treating with them,” I said with some heat. “Demons are creatures of chaos, not law. You must drive them not only from your city but from this world. They must be obliterated.”
Amarandlon stared at me. His dark irises made unreadable pits of his eyes. At last he nodded. “I wish more members of our court shared your clear and passionate understanding of the issue. But enough of history and politics. I am told you desire permission to seek the crafter of your renowned carriage.”
“That was indeed my purpose.” After its fall from the Senir Bridge, the ruins of my father’s legacy lay for six seasons within a Greengold warehouse. “I fear my impropriety may have deprived me of the queen’s consent.”
“Not at all, Count Jeggare. Her Majesty said that she would rely upon the report of her most trusted counselor. I assure you that report will be favorable.”
Read Chapter II of Pathfinder Tales: Queen of Thorns at Flames Rising!
Or return to the Queen of Thorns page at Paizo.com
By day, Dave Gross is the lead writer at Overhaul Games, developers of Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition, which reunites him with the beloved Forgotten Realms setting, for which he wrote Black Wolf, Lord of Stormweather, and other stories and novels. Under cloak of night, Dave is also the author of Prince of Wolves, Master of Devils, and the recent Queen of Thorns for Pathfinder Tales.
He also has stories in the recent or upcoming anthologies Tales of the Far West, Shotguns v. Cthulhu, and The Lion and the Aardvark: Aesop’s Modern Fables. You can find him on Twitter @frabjousdave.