Spit and Polish by Derek M. Johnson

Caison crinkled his nose against the cleaning solution’s caustic fumes. He thought he’d gotten used to the tear-generating vapors over the past two-and-a-half years, but as he rubbed the cloth over the plaque beneath an enormous Azlanti vase, he felt as if he were smelling it for the first time all over again. Dolan probably made Persh mix the solution stronger than ever to enhance the punishment.

Dolan always had Caison pay off his demerits in Sky Reach’s Grand Hall, so everyone could witness him doing the same chore nearly once a month. They would pass by and openly chortle or snicker while putting on the appearance of disinterested aloofness. He’d done it so often since his arrival to the Grand Lodge that he’d earned the nickname “Buff.” Assistant Sword Master Dolan had a personal grudge against Caison. To be sure, the Initiate often defied his instructors when he deemed their deeds feeble, demands petty, or lessons lacking, and he struggled to form lasting bonds with his classmates. However, Dolan’s punishments exceeded Caison’s offenses. The man took unwarranted pleasure in each sentence he could impose. Caison resigned himself to accepting any punishments the petulant instructor doled out to him. At least the extra chores kept his idle hands from practicing his skills on his classmates.

The Initiate was much happier having a warm meal under a warm roof in the grand city of Absalom rather than living in The Narrows of Oppara. He’d spent the first 20 years of life in the slums, learning to fend off threats twice his size by using his wits. Family and other personal ties usually put him in a pickle, so when the opportunity arose he cut those bonds and refused to make new ones. He’d never heard of the Pathfinder Society growing up, but when a twist of fate presented him with the opportunity to escape the slums and join the ranks of the world’s greatest explorers, he took it without question. The prospect of becoming a full member pushed him through every trial. His inability to accept without question the instruction of those in authority earned him the admonition of those in charge, but he felt confident that one day his skepticism would serve him well.

A dry voice cracked from across the far end of the long corridor, “While you’re in here, why don’t you use this feather duster and get the cobwebs off the statuary.”

“Aye, sir,” Caison replied. Persh didn’t warrant a sir, but since Dolan had put Caison to work under the caretaker so often, the initiate felt as if the man were his commanding officer. Persh enjoyed the role and played it up as often as he was able. Caison reflected a moment on the irony, despite his disdain for most authority figures, years of training had planted the word sir into his vocabulary, and it flowed easily from his lips. The old man tossed the ostrich feathered implement to the ground and departed.

Upon completing his polishing task, Caison corked the solution bottle and meandered over to pick up the feather duster. Though he’d been in Sky Reach’s Grand Hall countless times before, he never tired of looking at the objects it contained. He paused in front of a silver goblet, something a casual observer would find unremarkable. However, Caison had meticulously polished the plaque two hours ago, and he knew that it told the tale of Irik Elinder, the pathfinder who had brought the goblet from Usaro. The curious object exhibited designs of the Linnorm Kingdoms, but was found far from home in a long deserted Garundi temple. Caison grinned at the thought of his own conquests living on in etched silver.

Caison’s mind wandered to a sultry jungle. He imagined himself clinging to the edge of a stone pyramid, searching for a hidden door. His mates remained below, looking up anxiously as he crept along, searching for the next handhold. They were relying on him. If he could not find another entrance, their week-long journey through the dense foliage would be for naught. He envisioned beads of sweat trickling into his eyes and his muscles aching, and then at last discovering the hidden panel he knew would be there. In his daydream he slid aside the panel’s cover and worked the mechanism with his nimble fingers. With a shudder and puff of dust the door swung in. His companions threw “huzzahs” his way, but before his heart could fill with pride, a swarm of hostile locals streamed from the trees to surround the group. It would again be up to Caison the Unmatched, world renowned Seeker of Secrets, to rescue the group from peril.

Stomping feet and loud discussion startled Caison back to reality. He double-timed over to the feather duster and swept it from the floor. Into the hall hurried three men, the Master of Lore, the Master of Swords, and Venture Captain Adril Helstram. They paid Caison no mind as they clamored past. The Master of Lore, a bespectacled, grey haired half-elf, and the Master of Swords, a broad-shouldered man burdened by a severe limp, chattered excitedly about some matter, while the Venture Captain grumbled about poor timing, poor choices, and poor luck.

Caison did his best to gather what information he could from the rapidly moving group. The discussion was about a shipwreck, lost cargo, and dead or missing Pathfinders. Before he could get much more, the three men disappeared through a door further down the corridor. He stood still for a moment considering all that he’d overheard. Unfortunately, the men spoke so hurriedly and over one another that Caison couldn’t put the pieces together. Though individually each part of the story could seed a row of tales, they’d be little more than rumor and speculation. Though Caison loved to tell tales, he prided himself on not spreading speculative rumors.

The Initiate began his task of removing the dust and cobwebs from the relics, having already polished their plaques. He frowned as the dust fell onto the newly shined silver plates and stuck to the residual solution. When Dolan inspected Caison’s work, he would find it lacking. The instructor and caretaker had probably conspired in an effort to bring the Initiative back after supper to polish the signs, again.

At the moment, Caison cared little for properly completing the task assigned to him or that he would probably have to redo the entire thing. He flicked the ostrich feathers quickly over each item, making for the center of the hallway and the heavy oak door behind which the three men disappeared. Through the door, he could hear their muffled voices. Occasionally one of the voices would rise above the others. Caison could tell it was Helstram. Even when jovial, which was most of the time, the Venture Captain’s voice boomed. When he was angry, he could shout down an angry troll.

The initiate lingered over the small single-eyed, wooden idol on the one side of the door until he feared the duster’s feathers would strip the object of its top layer. Then he moved to an even smaller item, a jeweled broach, mounted on the other side of the door. He cursed that no eight-foot statue stood here to mask his dalliance. Though he strained his ears, he couldn’t discern any of the speech. No doubt the door was designed to prevent such eavesdropping. Just as he considered placing his ear against the door, the talking ceased. He jumped back to work, skipping over the next two items to put space between himself and the door.

“I suppose I’ll just grab the first one I see,” Helstram shouted as he threw open the door “You. You there. What’s your name?” Caison kept his head down, pretending to be too into his work to notice the three men.

“Don’t be ridiculous Adril,” the Master of Lore chortled. A amused grin cracked the old half-elf’s wrinkled face, and behind his glasses he rolled his eyes.

“What’s your name?” Helstram continued, lumbering toward Caison. The man bellowed from the midst of a wild beard. His voice bespoke his statute. Though the man had a large belly, he was not soft. In fact his thick arms and meaty hands were as strong as any sailor’s. The Initiate couldn’t help but look up at his approach. “You! I asked your name?”

“That’s Buff, ” the Master of Swords answered, hobbling after the Venture Captain. Caison, bristling at the use of his nickname, almost glared at the man but discretion prevailed and he controlled his impulse.

“Buff? That’s an odd name. You look Taldan. Never heard of a name like that from Taldor.”

“Buff’s a nickname,” the Master of Swords said. Helstram glared at the Master, irritated that the man continued to speak for the Initiate.

“Name?” The Venture Captain repeated curtly.

“Caison, sir.”

“So you do speak. Go get your bag. You’re leaving.”

Spit and Polish continues in Part 2