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A Preview of Pathfinder Tales: Queen of Thorns

Posted on October 31, 2012 by Flames

To give people a taste of the Pathfinder Tales novel line, Paizo’s fiction editor solicits short prequels for the web fiction page.These stories allow us authors to show a glimpse of what happens to our heroes between books. I appreciate the opportunity to go darker or funnier or just a little different from the novels while showcasing the same protagonists.

I love them.

Paizo also posts chapter excerpts from the novels, often from the middle of the book, with glorious full-color artwork.

I hate them.

Well, I love that Paizo is showing off beautiful art and a sample chapter, but why is it never Chapter One? That drives me crazy! I wrote the chapters in order, damn it, and I think the first one is a pretty good introduction to the story. Why can’t that be the excerpt?

So I complain, as anyone who’s read my editor’s blog knows all too well. And he responds with perfectly reasonable-sounding explanations like, “We wanted to show off some action, because we like your fight scenes.” (That’s a dirty trick, the appeasa-flatter.) Or maybe he’ll say, “We loved this character and wanted an excuse to commission a painting of her.” (I loved her too, so I’m thwarted.)

But, damn it! I still want everyone to read Chapter One (and Two and Three) before Chapter Four. And so I keep complaining, and my editor keeps posting lists of things authors should never say to editors, and so it goes.

But something different happened this time. I don’t know, maybe my editor was just tired, or maybe the stars were right. I suspect the enlistment of publicity impresario Jaym Gates might have been a factor. The result is that you can follow the links from blackgate.com to flamesrising.com to sfsignal.com and finally to paizo.com to read Chapters One, Two (scroll down), Three, and Four of Queen of Thorns.

If you like what you read, I hope you’ll buy a copy of the book. And if you like that, I hope you’ll tell everyone you know to buy one, too.

If you like what you read, I hope you’ll buy a copy of the book. And if you like that, I hope you’ll tell everyone you know to buy one, too.

In the meantime, let’s thank our hosts here at Flames Rising, as well as Jaym Gates and my long-suffering editor, James Sutter, for making this happen.

I promise not to complain for the rest of the week.

Dave Gross – 2012

The elves of Golarion worship a number of gods, including Calistria, also known as the Savored Sting. In fact, the goddess of guile, lust, and revenge has three “stings” or aspects, each equally important to her worshipers. Those who’ve already met the hellspawn Radovan know which of those stings best appeals to him, but in Kyonin one doesn’t always get what one wants or expects. Find out what Radovan discovers about the Third Sting in this second chapter of Queen of Thorns.

Chapter Two

The Third Sting

Radovan

Kim— Kem—? Hey, girl. Where’d you go?” I’d lost her name in the hubbub of the party. Now I’d lost the elf herself in the shadows between the trees and towers of Iadara. I can see right through most dark, so that meant magic.

“Kemeili!” She corrected me from behind a pair of stone angels linking hands to form an arch. She sounded irate, but I still liked my chances.

I moved through the gate. The statues weren’t really angels, but one of those twin images of Desna. The goddess’s butterfly wings were thin as parchment, a few pockmarked spots letting starlight through the stone. The gate and surrounding hedges formed a little garden. In the middle, a half-dozen or so elves encircled a bonfire. One threw a handful of what looked like sand into fire, setting sparks dancing above the flames. The rest stood away from the fire, paired off, hands entwined, faces close.

Past them, I saw a shrub move and heard Kemeili’s laughter. I kissed my thumb and drew Desna’s wings over my heart. Lady Luck, smile on me, you sweetheart, you.

Past the garden, the path looked more accident than plan. Even the statues seemed abandoned, like they’d been dropped by lazy porters on their way to a museum.

Stalking Kemeili through the maze got my blood pumping—not that I wasn’t ready the moment we snuck away. I’d been ready for weeks, ever since I got my pretty body back after a year stuck in a devil’s big bag of bones.

The elf girl—I knew she was older than me, but she looked plenty younger—ran off whenever I pushed through the bushes, going quiet whenever I stopped. She’d played this game before.

I shook a branch and listened. Her footsteps retreated on the other side of a high hedge. A couple months back, I could have jumped the wall and landed right behind her. These days I had to rely on my sneakitude.

In the back of my mind, I wondered whether that was a word. I put up with the boss’s grammar lessons to keep his mind off those Pathfinder mucky-mucks back in Absalom. When we finally got back from the last job they’d given him, he asked why they’d sent us halfway around the world. Whatever they’d said to him, he didn’t like it one bit.

Worse, they’d handed over his agents to other venture-captains since he’d been gone so long. Maybe he kept his cool in front of them, but when we were alone he hit the ceiling. Afterward, it was all I could do just to keep him off the sauce. He gets to drinking way too much when somebody hurts his feelings.

After we blew out of Absalom, the first thing the boss wanted to do was fetch his busted carriage, which we’d left in a Kyonin port over a year ago. He got permission to enter, and we found the place was pretty much one gigantic forest, except for a town where gnomes lived in tree houses above the elves, and then Iadara with its magic fog and shadows.

I circled around to where I reckoned Kemeili was hiding. Her foot cracked a twig. I crept toward the sound and heard her let go of the breath she’d been holding. Easing around a broken column, I saw her crouched in its shadow.

Most elf women were taller than me, but Kemeili was a bitty little thing. She couldn’t have weighed much more than my left leg. My devil vision let me see her only in shades of gray, but I’d already seen that her hair matched her red fox outfit. We’d dumped the masks as soon as we left the party. I’d climbed up to hang my wolf mask on the face of a statue. She’d laughed and made him a codpiece out of hers.

If she knew I was right behind her, she didn’t let on. The temptation to grab her grew stronger. I can resist almost anything else, just not that.

She screamed and wiggled around in my arms. Instead of pushing away, she grabbed my hair and pulled herself up for a kiss. Just as her lips brushed mine, she stopped and felt my ears between her finger and thumb.

“How can you hear anything? They’re so small!”

“That ain’t what a guy likes to hear.”

“They’re cute.” She bit me hard on the earlobe.

“Ow!” I let go, and she sprinted away.

I chased her up a hill shaped like a loaf of bread. On the crest lay a long pool lined with blue-white columns. The moonlight made ghosts of all the colors of the city. The slim towers and fragile bridges were all pretty much the opposite of the heavy red-veined black looming all over my home town of Egorian.

By the time I caught up with her, Kemeili had her slippers off and dandled her feet in the water. I pulled off my fancy new kickers and set them far from the water’s edge before joining her. A current tickled at my toes, but I couldn’t see any source. There had to be magic feeding the pool. You’d think I’d be used to spells since the boss got over his spellcasting problem. I’d just never seen so much magic in one place.

Kemeili leaned against my arm and pointed down the other side of the hill. “There’s the temple of Calistria, where I was raised.”

The temple dome looked like a fat onion with a hole near its tip. It pointed off to one side like the little observatory on top of the boss’s house. As I watched, a big bug flew near, clung near the hole, and crawled in. It took me a second to realize that the thing had to be the size of a pony. When I saw an elf slip off the bug’s back, I whistled low.

“Temple patrol,” said Kemeili, squeezing my knee. She found the hard bone of my kneecap and felt it the way women do when they discover the little differences in me. Except for my elbow spurs, most you can barely notice so long as I don’t smile.

“You’re a priestess?” I nibbled her arm—not too hard, since a little nibble from me goes a long way.

“No, not a priestess.” She raised her shoulders. “That tickles!”

I lifted the sleeve of her blouse and found a tattoo of a wicked-looking bug. “What, were you a temple beekeeper?”

“It’s a wasp. Don’t you have wasps in Cheliax?”

“Sure, but we ride the horses.” Well, other guys ride horses. I stay out of their way.

“Wasps are sacred to Calistria,” she said. “Unlike a bee, which dies after using its sting, a wasp lives on to strike again and again.”

“Zzzt!” I poked a finger between her breasts. Her skin was softer than the fabric of her clothes. “So what did you do? Cook? Housekeeper? Don’t tell me: you kept the ledgers.”

“I worked in the temple brothel.”

“How’s the what?”

“For years I had the honor of serving as a sacred prostitute of Calistria.”

Thank you, Desna.

“Does that trouble you? Some outsiders find the sacrament of lust distasteful.”

“Oh, it don’t bother me. Say, you got any other tattoos?” I let my finger slide down the crevice between her breasts.

“Two.” She plucked my finger out of her blouse and guided it to her other shoulder. I lifted her sleeve and turned her for a better view. At first I took it for the spiral of Pharasma, Lady of Graves, but it was just a tattoo of a coiled whip.

She stood and looped an arm around my wrist. “Do you want to see my third tattoo?”

I rose with her. “Oh, yeah. I definitely want to see that.”

She turned my hand, levered my wrist, and flipped me into the pool. She wasn’t strong, but she knew where to twist.

I surfaced, spitting water. “Damn it, girl, this is a new jacket!” The red leathers had cost me a fortune even before the enchantments. I should have sprung for the waterproofing.

Kemeili laughed and held my boots above her head.

“Don’t!”

She tucked them under her arms and ran.

She was down the slope and halfway to a leaning tower near the temple before I was slipping barefoot down the hill. I fell twice, stopping the second time to check my jacket for grass stains. I took it off and carried it over my arm.

Near the base of the tower ramp, Kemeili paused to laugh at me again. When she saw me coming, she ran up around the tower, out of sight. I slogged after her, leaving behind a trail of wet footprints.

She’d left the door open for me, or else I might have had to start knocking. The tower narrowed as it rose, with one oval door more or less over the one below. They all faced east, toward the wasp-nest roof of Calistria’s temple. That couldn’t be a coincidence.

Before I entered Kameili’s rooms, I felt the hairs rise on the back of my neck. I looked back at the temple and the nearest towers, but all I saw were dark, hexagonal windows. There wasn’t anybody on the other ramps, and nothing moved in the nearby groves and gardens. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was spying on me.

I shuddered. Maybe it was just the breeze on my neck. Maybe I just needed to shake off more of the past year’s memories.

Fortunately, I had a pretty good idea what would make a good distraction.

As I stepped through the threshold, all the outside sounds stopped as if I’d closed the door—which I hadn’t. More magic. I shut the door.

Kemeili hit me in the chest with a towel made of some gauzy fabric. It smelled all right, so I tried not to think of spider webs. As I dried my hair, I had a look around.

Farthest to the left was a little nook I figured for the loo. Beside it was a narrow window. Next to that was a tall oval wardrobe growing right out of the wall. It wasn’t exactly wood, though it was the color of maple. It had a sort of earthy quality to it, like some cross between stone and wood. The stuff made me think of a few pieces of petrified wood the boss had in the library back at Greensteeples. Maybe this whole tower was a big petrified tree. The elves had plenty of wizards and druids who could bend wood and stone. Kind of like the boss, only without his flippy scrolls.

There was a bookshelf and a little dressing table. The table’s mirror was decorated with gold wasps. On its surface stood naughty little statues of men and women, men and men, women and women, and assorted other variations on my favorite pastime. I was getting the impression that elves, or at least their temple prostitutes, were pretty broad-minded.

Leaning in, I spotted a big alcove to the right. It was dark, but I saw the outline of a bed covered in pillows. Light glimmered off oval mirrors on the walls and ceiling.

“Leave your wet things there.” She indicated a row of antlers on the wall by the door. Some I recognized as stag or elk, but a few were from animals I’d never seen, not even in the boss’s art gallery. Kemeili had left more towels on a wicker chair.

I hung the jacket over the chair back, which was less pointy than the antlers. Even though the enchanter made the leather extra tough, I didn’t want to chance a scratch.

The jacket was the best I’d ever owned. It should have been, for all the cost I’d paid and waiting I’d done. The Tian craftsman I’d hired wouldn’t start work until I’d told him the whole story of my time in his land, every fight, every killing. Most guys would have laughed at my stories of phoenix warriors, monkey gods, and dragons, but he just nodded and got to work. When he was done, a celestial dragon twisted up one arm of the jacket, across the shoulders, and down the other arm. On the back, a phoenix died in ashes. A monkey-man on one breast faced off against a pair of silk-throwing women on the other. In the borders between those scenes fit images of goblins, necromancers, dragon turtles, ghosts, swordsmen, and devils.

“Nice jacket,” said Kemeili.

“Thanks.”

I shucked off my leather pants and removed the spiked leather cup I keep as a surprise for mooks who lead with the knee.

“Kinky.” Kemeili whistled and gave me the up and down. She frowned.

“What?” I resisted the urge to cover up.

“Isn’t the tail usually on the other side?”

Much as I appreciated the compliment, the tail thing is a sore point for me. Plenty of hellspawn have ‘em, just not me. No horns, neither. I pulled the big knife from its inverted sheath in the jacket’s spine, showing her that what looks like a tail is really the weapon’s grip.

“I like it.” Her eyes weren’t on the knife. I let her have a good look because I’m not shy, and she’d see it all soon enough. When she was done, I wrapped the towel around my waist.

As I put the knife back, my fingers traced the secret pockets in my jacket. My hidden arsenal added extra weight, but it also gave me extra protection.

I felt a little piece of lemon something stuck in my teeth.

“Mind if I clean up?” I slipped my toothbrush out of a slot made to fit my lock rake. The pick fit inside the toothbrush handle, so I didn’t need to sacrifice a sleeve.

Kemeili filled a basin from a pitcher near a bigger window. The opening tilted upward to let the rain fill wide-mouthed pitchers. Beside the water table stood a wooden screen carved with images of dancing elves. A second glance showed they weren’t exactly dancing.

That grin was going to get stuck on my face pretty soon.

Over the screen hung a bulging membrane, like an animal bladder, only made of plant fiber. Kemeili slipped out of her own clothes and stepped behind the screen. At the stroke of her finger, the membrane let loose a shower from its sieve-like belly. The water rinsed the red from her pale blonde hair.

She saw me staring through the holes in the screen. She nodded at my toothbrush. “Weren’t you going to—”

“Yeah, yeah.” I wet the brush, loaded it up with tooth powder, and went to work. Before that Gokan merchant sold me with a terrific pantomime, I’d never seen a toothbrush. Now I didn’t know why everyone didn’t have one. Maybe the barbers had a racket to keep them out of the markets in Egorian. Anyway, it meant no more paying the barber extra for a scrape every few months.

Just as I worked up a good lather, Kemeili stepped out of her shower and said, “Can you reach up there?”

She nodded at a lit candle on a nearby table and pointed above her bed. Three iron cups hung from a chain in the ceiling. I bit the toothbrush like a cigar and stepped onto the bed. The instant I touched the chandelier, two of the “cups” popped open like crab claws. Before I could move, they snapped shut around my wrists.

“What the—?”

“Mind the flame,” said Kemeili. “Let’s not set the sheets on fire just yet.”

I set the candle in the third cup—a real one—before testing the strength of the trap. The manacles were as strong as the chain fixed to the ceiling. The harder I jerked, the more it pulled me up.

“Relax,” she said. “If you stop struggling, you’ll have enough slack to kneel.”

I could barely stop myself. By the time I could walk, I’d been sold as a slave to the Goatherds, one of the petty street gangs in Egorian. Even though I wasn’t shackled often, I never could shake the feeling of chains and manacles. It took me years to earn my way out of the Goatherds, and there’s still nothing I hate more than chains. “What are you playing at, girl?” The toothbrush bobbed as I spoke.

“Kemeili.” She paused by the dressing table. After putting on a transparent little blouse that fell barely past her hips, she touched one of the gold wasps on the mirror. Its wings buzzed, and it took to the air like a live insect. “If you haven’t remembered my name by now, you certainly will before the night is through.”

That didn’t sound as good as it would have earlier, but I tried relaxing my arms. Sure as her word, the chain let out enough for me to kneel on the bed, but I had to keep my arms raised.

“Kemeili,” I mumbled around the toothbrush. The gold wasp flew over and landed on the end of its handle. I tried to shake it off without dropping the toothbrush, but it clung tight. The chains shook as I wriggled.

“Not fond of chains?” she asked. “You should have thought of that before you entered Iadara under false pretenses. There is a reason that I am the youngest initiate ever to earn the title of inquisitor. In fact, there are many reasons. Shall I show you some of them?”

She stroked one of the lewd figures on the wall. The oval mirror beside it flipped around. Coiled whips hung from the other side of the panel. Most were of the leather braid variety, but I saw a braid of razors, a chain of bones, and what looked like a living vine with finger-length thorns.

“Can’t say I’m too keen on whips, either.”

“No? Oh, I know just the thing,” she said, walking away. “Don’t go anywhere.”

She returned to the chambers’ entrance. I rose back up to put the toothbrush close to my hands. I shook off the wasp, slipped the rake out of the handle, and popped the toothbrush back in my mouth. I knelt back down just as Kemeili returned with my big knife and a few throwing blades from my jacket.

“You came armed to the Masquerade,” she said. She plucked the toothbrush out of my mouth and threw it aside. The gold wasp bobbed and flew after it.

“There were plenty of guys with swords.”

“Nobles,” she said. “Including your master, who enjoyed the privilege as an honored guest.”

“He’s not my master, he’s my—” What was I going to say? Partner? Buddy? Employer? Before I could answer, the damned wasp flew back up to my face. Its wings brushed my skin a couple of times before it settled on my cheek. I started to rise so I could swat it away, but Kemeili shook her head.

“Nobody said boo about my kit,” I mumbled. I stayed on my knees and tried not to think about how close the gold wasp crawled to my eye. “Besides, if I’d wanted to cause trouble at the party, why would I slip away with you?”

“Why indeed?” She tested the point of the big knife with her finger. A bead of blood welled up on her skin. She sucked it off. “What drew you to that Forlorn at the Masquerade?”

“The what?” The wasp crawled up my temple.

“The woman who struck you.” She touched the point of my own blade to my skin, just below my left nipple.

“Oh, her.” I would have shrugged, but I didn’t want to go through life with one less teat—assuming I got to go through the rest of life. “I don’t know. I guess because I hadn’t caught sight of you yet.”

The knife trembled for a second, but she withdrew it, smiling. One tool I don’t keep in my jacket is my winning charm.

“Tell me, what is your master’s true reason for coming to Iadara?”

“He’s not my—”

Kemeili sighed and stepped away. “Revenge, perhaps? Who are his friends in Kyonin? Who are his enemies?”

I couldn’t think of anybody the boss knew in Kyonin, but he never gave me a list of all his hundreds of pen pals. Kemeili stroked another carving to reveal a hidden compartment full of knives. Most were throwing blades, but I saw a couple starknives and Katapeshi punching daggers, plus one of those three-headed Mwangi throwing blades they call a hunga munga. She took that one down to make room for the big knife.

I wanted to protest, but instead I used the opportunity to slip the rake into the keyhole. The pick was a little too big for the tiny opening. I twisted the flimsy metal strip until its teeth pushed through.

Kemeili turned back to me. I held my hands as natural as I could under the circumstances, pretending I couldn’t feel the wasp exploring my ear. The way Kemeili looked at me, I could tell she was waiting for an answer.

“Seriously, he just wants his carriage repaired. That’s it.”

“So he has brought it all the way from Cheliax?” she said. “I think not.”

“We were in Ustalav when it got busted.” There was no harm in telling her that. As far as I knew, the boss didn’t have any secrets from the elves, not about this visit anyway. “Besides, it’s a special carriage. The guy who made it lives here. The boss wanted it fixed a long time ago, but we got distracted.”

Kemeili stepped onto the edge of the bed, watching my face as she eased closer. If she came close enough, maybe I could wrap those chains around her pretty little neck. What a waste that would be. I wasn’t even sure I was up for it these days. A lot of my killing instinct had gone to hell with my old devil.

“What was the nature of this distraction?” She reached up. For a second I feared she’d seen the rake between my fingers. Instead she plucked the candle off its holder and dribbled hot wax onto my neck.

I hissed at the pain, but I was glad to feel it. There was a time I could have juggled red-hot coals without raising a blister. That had gone with the devil, too.

“Pathfinder business.” I shrugged. She drizzled a little more wax on the other side of my neck. It hurt plenty, but my wincing covered the motion of my fingers. The rake was barely small enough to move inside the mechanism. I didn’t like the chances of popping this lock. Still, I had to buy some time. “They sent us to fetch some magic pearl! I don’t know the why. I’m not a member of their little club.”

“Your master is a celebrated finder of forgotten things.”

“He’s not my master. I’m a free man. I just go along on these Pathfinder jaunts to keep him out of trouble.”

“What do the Pathfinders have to do with your visit to Iadara?”

“Not a damned thing.”

Kemeili untied the strings of her blouse and parted the fabric over her belly. My fingers kept moving above my head as I looked down. A tattoo of three slim daggers pointed out from a circle around her navel.

“The three stings of Calistria,” she said, pointing at each blade in turn. “The first is for revenge, which we visit on those who offend us. The second is for guile, which led you here. The third is for lust. You know that one well, I imagine.”

“You aren’t wrong about that.”

Click.

Coughing to cover the sound of the lock snapping open, I held onto the chain and left the manacles draped over my wrists. It might have been smarter to let things play out a little longer, but temptation tugged at me again. I flashed the big smile.

Kemeili didn’t even flinch at the armory I had for teeth. I was impressed by her cool. “Why are you really giving me the third degree?”

If my change of tone bothered her, Kemeili didn’t show it. “There are many breeds of wasp. When a rival infiltrates a nest, guardians detect and kill it before it can reach the queen.”

“I got nothing against your queen,” I said. “Neither does the boss.”

She peered into my eyes while she considered whether I lied. Hers were golden-brown with no visible white around the oversized iris. Elf eyes are hard to read, and I couldn’t even see my reflection in Kemeili’s.

“I believe you,” she said at last. “Still, as long as I have you here …” She turned to open the third panel. When she turned back, I was spinning the manacles around a finger.

She gaped. “How did you—? So quickly!”

“It’s all my guile.”

She smiled even as I slid off the bed and stepped close to her. She backed up against the wall of whips. “Don’t tell me now you’re in the mood for revenge.”

“I told you, I’m not too keen on whips and chains. Now be a good girl and hand me my big knife.”

If that scared her, she did a good job not showing it. “Perhaps you would prefer the third sting.” With her chin she indicated the things inside the third hidden compartment. I’d seen a few of them in Egorian brothels or the bedchambers of people the boss was investigating. Still, there were plenty I couldn’t even figure how to use.

“Don’t worry” Kemeili offered me her wrists for the manacles. “I’ll show you how they work.”

What the hell? I thought. In for a copper, in for a gold.

* * * * *

Order Queen of Thorns today at Amazon.com.

This excerpt was provided by and is being published with express permission from the Publisher, Paizo Publishing.

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