The road meandered down to the village at the river's bend. Across the water to the west lay Kyonin, its meadows bright with elven starlilies, while to the north the bogs and fens of the Sellen's many tributaries were held by the River Kingdoms.
Norret limped down the dusty lane, past the ancient rows of roses which still bore the names of noblewomen and beauties of ages past: Lady Gemerel, a pretty pink cabbage rose, simple but sweet and a once great favorite at court; Viscountess Vavarin, a ruby damask temptress, rich with intoxicating musk; and Duchess Devore, an unassuming apothecary rose of great strength and subtlety that he smelled before he saw. A light blush tinted the arsenic-pale petals like a touch of rouge across a noblewoman's cheeks and led to a drop of blood at her center like the infamous moue of Anais Devore's carmine lips. Tales were told of her pomading them with everything from love philters to the water of death, but as with everything from before the Revolution, Norret was certain the legends were half fabrications and half wishful thinking. Poisoning her aged husband, the legendarily cruel Duke Arjan who had taxed Dabril into penury redecorating his ancestral home to suit his wife's extravagant taste? Conspiring to become the royal mistress? Seducing the Chelish ambassador, conceiving his love child, and then aborting the devilspawn abomination with a solution of pennyroyal and alkanet?
It was possible, certainly. Every alchemist favored a different starting point, or "first matter," for use in his or her formulations. Some, particularly dwarves like Powdermaster Davin, preferred mineral compounds, such as arsenic and antimony. Others went the bloody route of animal tinctures, from as common as doe's heartblood to as rare as the teeth of winter wolves. Still others like Citizen Cedrine, former confectioner to a disappeared lord, favored vegetative matter, and could in one moment concoct an aniseed comfit to soothe a wounded soldier and in the next use a violet pastille to blow off an enemy's head. If Anais Devore had used herbs in her alchemical dabblings, she would hardly be the first.
Poisons were not Norret's strong suit, let alone selective banes that could slay one creature while leaving another unscathed, but like tansy and rue, pennyroyal and alkanet were classic abortifacients, and catalyzed by the royal art...?
Norret bit his tongue mentally. In Galt, such thoughts could get you killed. Alchemy was still welcome after the Revolution, its bombs having played a rather large part, but solely as the philosopher's craft. Royal water, the acid that dissolved gold, was now euphemistically termed "the blood of the green lion," and even pennyroyal was too monarchist. A careful speaker referred to the herb as flea mint.
Nor did it do to remind folk that the acme of the alchemist's quest, the great work, allowed the seeker to perfect himself and thereby bring about many wonders, one of them being the philosopher's stone, an artifact which could transmute base metal to gold or resurrect the dead. With the so-called "Revenant Princes" in the River Kingdoms currently resurrecting every noble corpse that might support their mad plan to retake their former Galtan holdings, such an artifact was about the last thing the Revolutionary Council wanted to exist.
Yet as for the roses, keeping the old names was less seditious than it might seem: Like the beauties for which they were named, the roses of Dabril all lost their heads. Snip, Lady Gemerel! Snap, Viscountess Vavarin! Here's a basket to catch you!
Of course, the metaphor broke down in the case of Duchess Devore. Unlike the flower bearing her name, the crafty duchess had evaded the Gray Gardeners and their Final Blades.
Madame Devore—duchess no longer—was still a person of interest forty years hence. Norret shook his head. That was twice as many years as he himself had been alive, and the broadsides were still using a woodblock that had been ten years out of date when the Red Revolution began. Unless Anais Devore, born Anais Peperelle, had achieved the pinnacle of the metaphorical mountain of the alchemists and elected to taste the elixir of eternal youth, she was unlikely to resemble the coy coquette in her wanted poster. Norret had better things to do with his shattered life than accuse random beldames of being Dabril's former duchess.
Tattered bunting straggled over the city gates: blue for fidelity, white for virtue, red for the blood of patriots—and everyone else, for that matter. Below the dusty blue, dirty gray, and faded rose madder lay another rose, this one carved in bas relief, held by a stone glove, the combined signs of the Perfumers and Glovers Guilds, together the arms of Dabril.
When the Revolution came, there had been an unfortunate dilemma: The Revolutionary Council demanded that all noble crests and related imagery be destroyed, whereas Shelyn, goddess of beauty and Dabril's patron, forbade the destruction of any beautiful thing unless it were replaced by even greater loveliness. Accordingly the crown that had once surmounted the town's shield had been chiseled out, replaced with a liberty cap that everyone agreed was far prettier. Publicly. Privately, Norret thought the shapeless pit resembled a puckered wound.
He adjusted his own cap, the same style that the twisted forest gnomes sometimes dyed with the blood of their victims. Norret had achieved the proper red via an admixture of sulfur and mercury, creating vermilion, also known as cinnabar—a formula taught by Powdermaster Davin. The answer to the seditious question of why the Revolution had adopted a style of hat most popular among bloodthirsty and toadstool-addled fey was taught by painful experience: If you were going to be lobbing bombs, it paid to wear a high hat with a curved point and no projecting brim.
A tricorne, on the other hand, was a hat almost perfectly designed to catch bombs.
Norret was a casualty of poor uniform design. He limped along painfully with his crutch. Oh well. Everyone was a casualty of something, and the fool who had thought he was giving the grenadiers nice new hats had made a date with Madame Margaery, the Final Blade of Isarn.
Norret had left Dabril at thirteen, conscripted with no protest from his parents lest they appear unpatriotic. He'd left no bride behind to widow, and if he could have left orphans, the earliest would have been at a farm west of Edme a couple years later. But Dabril still had her roses, and nothing could compare to their scent, except maybe the scent of a woman, his nose to her neck in the morning after making love, both still grateful to still be alive.
It would be a while before he enjoyed that again.
Grisettes and dollymops were still willing, of course, but not for what little coin he had left, and the ones in Dabril looked even older and more haggard than he remembered them. Well, all save for one who had always looked that way. "Rhodel, isn't it?"
The woman looked, then after a moment exclaimed, "Young Norret, hardly recognized ye! Ye sound like a citizen a' Isarn. Ye lost yer Dabrilaise!"
"Along with a few other things," he admitted wryly, touching his gloved hand to his patched eye.
"Eh, time be not kind ta any of us." She smiled up at him, showing the remnants of three teeth just below an unpatched sore. Once, vain noblewomen and foppish men had covered such blemishes with artfully cut bits of black taffeta, but since the Revolution, such beauty marks were considered unpatriotic in Dabril, and bards now extolled the fresh, unpainted Galtan beauty such as Rhodel displayed. In theory.
At least patches were still allowed for soldiers' eyes.
The old dollymop's lashes fluttered like tattered butterflies. "Always knew ye'd end up taller than yer da." Her scabbed lips drew over her gums then and she looked about warily.
Norret knew the look. "When?"
"Five years last autumn," she said softly. "Sent to Woodsedge t'meet Jaine."
She left off the "Bloody" that usually described the guillotine that still awaited Darl Jubannich, former poet of the Revolution. "Best I don't know." Norret sighed. "My mother?"
"Married t'Baker Gentz." The old slattern looked him up appraisingly. "Know I'm not what ye're lookin' fer nowabouts, but ye were a fine lookin' boy and ye're still half a fine lookin' man, 'n' comfort is comfort...."
"I'm down to my last copper."
"I'm a patriot." She gave a rotten-toothed grin. "Soldiers get one free. Always have."
"I'm not a soldier anymore."
"Eh, my rules. Vet'rans count too, 'n' honest men more so. My bed's open whene'er ye want, fer mem'ry's sake if naught else."
It was a kindness, and another that she didn't press. She just laid a gentle hand on his arm. "Let me show ye ta yer ma's...."
Norret scarcely recognized the woman who opened the door. She was smaller than he remembered, and fatter, and had one fussing baby held in one arm and another peering out from behind her skirts. Norret would have knelt down if he still could, if his legs and the crutch would allow it, but he looked at his mother's face to see if she still recognized him. She did, but what he could see even more clearly was that she recognized that he was not the bereavement purse her new family could have used.
Norret barely remembered the grenade that burst, robbing him of half his hearing, half his sight, and the use of a whole body. He knew he would never remember all of that conversation with his mother, either, but it cost him half his heart.
He remembered some. Raw fragments: His younger brother, Orlin, dead. A fever six summers past. His only sister, Kerril? Married to a charcoal burner somewhere. Three years since anyone had seen either.
When he asked of Ceron, his older brother, his mother pronounced a single syllable: "Jaine." Then she shut the door.
Norret was not told his half-siblings' names or even number.
He somehow found his way to the village cemetery. The gravedigger eventually decided Norret was not some shambling ghoul or other undead staggering around dazed in the noonday sun and at last took pity on him.
The gravemarker had fallen over, eaten by worms at the base, but once righted, the name was still legible: Orlin Gantier. Crude scratches were twined around, meant to represent the blooms of Shelyn, the Eternal Rose, guardian of the innocent.
Norret could not mourn Ceron or his father, their bodies burnt to ash and cast to the four winds, their souls trapped in Jaine's bloody steel, but at least Orlin's soul was free and his body here. The grave of a child was something even the poorest necromancer would not bother with, and so its desecration had been relegated to the lowliest fiend, Neglect.
Norret tended the grave as best he could. He trimmed the grass with his belt knife, heaved himself back up with his crutch, and gathered Shelyn's wild roses from the graveyard fence, fashioning a garland. The thorns pricked his fingers, but at least his left hand could not feel pain. He made what prayers he could and watered the grave with his tears.
It was near nightfall when the gravedigger fetched him, offering to show him the way to the Liberty Hostel, the place the village council had set aside for the homeless and itinerant. Norret had slept by roadsides and in battlefield trenches and would have slept by his brother's grave, but one did not question the decrees of any authority in Galt if one valued one's life.
Even so, when he saw the building, he could not help but let out a dark laugh. Cayden Cailean, God of Accidents and Ale, had played his finest jest. The hostel was none other than the former duchess's chateau.
Norret turned and asked bluntly, "Is it still haunted?"
The gravedigger's pale face told Norret that yes indeed, it still was, but he was a man who buried corpses for a living. "I'll accompany ye as far as the front hall."
The carriage porch, where nobles would have once alit, lay shadowed save for the moonlight illuminating the statue of the old ducal arms. Its inverse shimmered in the chateau's reflecting pool. Melzec, the fife and tabor player of Norret's old company, had taught him that, in blazon, the language of heraldry, the arms of the late Duke of Dabril were properly termed vert, a cockatrice in his majesty displayed and inverted tergant regardant or issuant a fountain and transfixed by a unicorn incensant argent. Or, more prosaically: a green field with a crowned golden cockatrice flying out of a pool, only to get stabbed in the back by an angry white unicorn.
Of course, the cockatrice was not actual gold but alchemically gilded bronze, was informally known as Coco, and had long ago been removed along with the alchemically silvered steel horn to become the mascot of Dabril's tavern, known variously as the Transfixed Chanticleer, the Goosed Goose, or the Chicken-on-a-Stick. The unicorn horn—properly termed an alicorn and exceedingly useful for healing physics—was lovingly polished, as were Coco's gilded bat wings and serpent's tail, usually while singing "The Tale of the Cockerel," a bawdy and increasingly improbable Dabrilaise song Norret had learned as a boy. He'd taught all his fellow soldiers, singing of how Coco's father was a cockerel who, after a night of debauchery with a cross-dressing peacock (likely the Mother of Monsters disguised), laid an egg that he hid in a dunghill. It was there adopted by the lady toad Crapaudine, who fancied herself royalty as she was crowned with a diamond periapt of the same name, an actual magic gem commonly referred to as toadstone, and a natural mithridate. The toad queen's monstrous son then hatched bearing a crown of his own—though unless the singers were exceptionally drunk, this was changed to "liberty cap," which neither rhymed nor scanned—and every All Kings Day there was a contest among the village women to celebrate Galt's glorious independence by knitting a new cap to cover the crown worn by Coco's gilded effigy.
After kissing his mother goodbye and subsequently turning her to stone, the song went, Coco flew off to seek a bride, only to instead find Patapouf, a bumbling unicorn looking for a pure-hearted virgin's lap in which to lay his horn, but who instead sticks it up Coco's bung. After a verse about the alicorn itself and how it sprung from another wondrous jewel, the legendary carbuncle—not the enigmatic lizard which wears a ruby in its forehead like one of the fabled houris of Katapesh, but a blood red cabochon on the unicorn's brow akin to the bud of a stag's antler—Crapaudine's dungheap somehow becomes a well. The petrified Patapouf then falls in, the screeching Coco still buggered on his horn, all of which explained why to this day the waters of the village still reeked like the bad egg while possessing the alicorn's healthful purity.
Less romantically, a sulfur spring flowed beneath the chateau, feeding the baths and fountains, and as every alchemist knew, the mineral possessed properties both baleful and beneficent without additional assistance from dead monsters and lost jewels.
Bereft of his horn, the statue of Patapouf looked like an angry white marble horse with a goatee, but instead of a gem, the hole in his head held a single wilting red rose. Norret grinned wryly. There was a village superstition that if a pure-hearted virgin waded across the pool and brought a replacement for his lost carbuncle, the unicorn would grant a wish.
Then again, it was also said that Patapouf did this about as well as he'd slain the cockatrice. Norret sighed and shook his head; he could not complain. After all, he had lived to return to Dabril and seen his family again. Half a wish was better than some of his comrades' fates.
He touched his cap in respect to the statue, then looked to the frightened gravedigger.
The great doors to the Liberty Hostel were unlocked and opened easily. Once there would have once been beeswax tapers, if not flambeaux ensorcelled with cold flame, but now the foyer was lit by a single rushlight unable to produce more than shadows and greasy smoke.
That said, even a crippled alchemist was not without his resources. Norret took a snuff mull out of his bandolier, uncapped the little horn, and sprinkled a pinch of one of Powdermaster Davin's formulations onto the tallow-soaked rush. The stench of sulfur did nothing to improve the smell of rancid mutton fat, but the luminosity increased a hundredfold, the dip burning with the brilliant blue-white radiance of a magnesium torch.
Cracked and blotched mirrors sprang alight, still able to catch the illumination and send it back, and chandeliers hanging askew and missing half their crystals multiplied it further, spawning rainbows. The humble rushlight shone brighter than day and illumed the life-size fresco of a woman, a black patch in the shape of a crescent moon by her left eye, one in the shape of the sun on her right cheek. Her overskirt was beribboned with a thousand ivory rosettes, a single garnet bead studded into the center of each, and on her left hand she wore an ornate, lace-cuffed green glove with a diamond cabochon set in the back, its fingers holding a single white rose with a red heart surrounded by rays like the sun. Around her waist she wore a golden chatelaine from which depended all the accoutrements of the alchemist's trade—phials and vinaigrettes, ampoules and flaskets, snuffboxes and comfit cases, touchstone, quizzing glass, bodkin, powder horn, miniature mortar and pestle, patch box, cricket cage, a pair of gilded scissors in the shape of a stork, and more. Above, her elaborate coiffure had been ridiculously covered by a crude liberty cap, and her opposite hand, instead of being open in a gesture of welcome, now awkwardly held the banner of the Revolution.
One mindful of his words would say that this was an image of Liberty leading Her people, but anyone with half a sense of history would know that this was Anais Devore, the Dowager Duchess of Dabril, in the full flower of her youth. There was no mistaking that arsenic-powdered face, those dainty painted lips or their artful pout.
Then they spoke:
Who stands before I do not care.
My secret's gold awaits my heir.
Norret would have listened more except his shock and amazement were interrupted by the shrieks of the gravedigger, who ran from the hall as if Urgathoa and all her ghoulish minions were after him.
He looked back, only to see Duchess Devore's mouth once again forming its infamous moue, looking coquettishly down at him as if they both shared a secret.
Coming Next Week: Blasts from the past and a grisly celebration of Galtan independence in the second installment of "The Secret of the Rose and Glove."
Kevin Andrew Murphy is the author of numerous stories, poems, and novels, as well as a writer for Wild Cards, George R. R. Martin's shared-world anthology line, with his next contribution coming in 2011 with Fort Freak. His most recent short stories include "Tea for Hecate" in the upcoming anthology Fangs for the Mammaries and "The Fifth River Freedom," the fourth chapter of Prodigal Sons in the Kingmaker Pathfinder's Journal. For more information, visit his website.
Art by KyuShik Shin