The Perfumer's Apprentice
by Kevin Andrew Murphy
Chapter One: The Flowers of Calistria
They say the wickedest thing about the old nobles was that they were always coming back from the dead, 'cause folk never came back quite right.
They don't know the half of it.
"None of that, Orlin," my brother corrected. "We're in Isarn now. Remember your manners."
"But Norret!" I pointed. "Look! She's at it again!"
Indeed she was. One of the little bouquets from my tray had floated in the air, high over the crowd waiting for the executions, and up to one of the windows of the House of Joy.
That's what they call the temple of Calistria in Isarn. Back in Dabril, Calistria's temple was just the beekeeper's house, and no one besides him did much in the way of worship. In Isarn it was one of the old palaces. But instead of nobles, each window had a beautiful woman or a half-dressed man.
Each also had a window box of carrots instead of flowers, since the Revolutionary Council had recently declared that everyone, even the temple of Calistria, had to grow vegetables, and use horse manure besides.
It made the city stink even worse than usual. That's why we were selling nosegays.
Norret swore too, an expression I'd never heard before. I guessed he'd picked it up soldiering. He followed it with a growl: "Rhodel..."
That was the name of the old strumpet back in our town before I died. Before she died, too, and went off to serve Dabril's patron goddess, Shelyn.
I should probably have mentioned the dying bit.
I died, I guess. All I know is I had a fever and I had this dream. There was a beautiful lady who wanted me to come with her, and a grave lady who said that I couldn't because there was someone else coming for me. Then the beautiful lady made me a bed of roses, told me to sleep, and I did.
I swear they were Shelyn and Pharasma, the actual goddesses. I mean, who else could they be?
The next thing I knew, I was being woken up by a pretty girl a little older than me, maybe sixteen summers, and she definitely wasn't Shelyn or Pharasma. She said she was Rhodel, and she looked sort of like the old Dabril prostitute, only young and pretty. Rhodel told me she was a friend of my brother's, and I should come because he was waiting for me.
So Rhodel took my hand, and next thing I'm standing in the town graveyard, it's winter, and Norret's there, but he's all grown up. Last I saw him, he was barely older than I am.
He used to be fun, too, but now he's all learned and trained in alchemy, which is what he used to bring me back. Of course my brother doesn't know everything, since he didn't expect he'd get Rhodel in the bargain.
He spent what coin we had to talk to some necromancers, and they told him stuff about "psychopomps" and "spirit guides." Even Norret was confused by all of it, which is saying something. Me? All I know is that I came back from the dead and now I'm being haunted by a dead harlot.
A dead harlot, I should add, who was currently taking one of our boquets to a living one. Not that you're supposed to call the priestesses of Calistria that, since they're "sacred prostitutes," and when they're not turning tricks or playing them, they're getting revenge, and they ride around on wasps the size of ponies. This one was tarted up in a gown of yellow-and-black oiled silk, and even had a fuzzy black-and-gold-striped muff to match. Except that it wasn't. It took wing, and I realized the muff was a bumblebee the size of a lapdog.
The bumblebee bumbled around the nosegay, caught it with its claws, then brought it back to its mistress. She took a whiff, smiled, then looked down from her balcony and gestured for Norret and me to come up.
The guards let us use the outside stair, and next thing the sacred dollymop was rising from her divan. Excepting my dream-Shelyn, she was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen, with honey-blonde hair done up in patriotic Galtan braids and three patches shaped like daggers rayed around her right eye. She was dressed a lot sluttier, too.
"What a delightful tussie-mussie." She smelled the flowers again. "These blossoms are mere tissue paper, but their scent is fair enough to fool a bee." Hers sat on her shoulder, eyeing the bouquet with eyes like perfume-bottle stoppers. "How can this be?"
I half expected Norret to explain how he'd found the secrets of the perfumers' guild hidden in the diary of the Duke of Dabril, and how we'd been using them to make fake flowers, but all he said was, "Ah, fair lady, the flowers are false but the scents are true. Floral essences from the fields of Dabril..."
She laughed lightly. "I've heard tell of the legendary artisans of some Mwangi queen, able to craft false blossoms so lifelike that they fooled all but Calistria's bees. You, it seems, have done them one better. But I wonder... can your false flowers be used to encode a message like a true tussie-mussie?" She looked at the bouquet, inspecting the blossoms. "Ah yes, here's honeysuckle, for ‘the bonds of love'... And vervain—that's ‘sorcery,' yes?" She looked at Norret and then at me. Rhodel had picked up another of the nosegays, and it was floating. I reached out and grabbed it back. "Ah yes, definitely ‘sorcery.' Your assistant is far too young to be a wizard, but definitely has the mage's hand."
She was wrong on both counts, but not by much as I realized both of my actual hands were still steadying the tray, while my spirit's hand was on the tussie-mussie and was playing tug-of-war for it with Rhodel. It must have looked like two invisible bridesmaids wrestling for the right to be the next one married.
Like I said, people never come back from the dead quite right. The overpriced necromancers told Norret stuff about spectral hands and phantom limbs. All I know is that my soul isn't tied to my body as tightly as it should be and that's not good.
The Calistrian dollymop sniffed her bouquet. "And lavender... That's either ‘devotion' or ‘distrust'... I forget which. I'd have to check my floral dictionary." She looked closer. "Or is this sea lavender? And what is that?"
"‘Sympathy,'" Norret supplied quickly. "And you are correct. It is sea lavender."
"The ‘sympathy' that's used by sorcerers or the type that goes with tea?"
"Does it matter?"
She dimpled. "Always." She tucked the nosegay into the front of her bodice, between breasts each bigger than her giant bee. "A worshiper of Blackfingers, I take it?"
"What makes you say that?"
She winked and gestured to Norret's face. "It's not a mask, but a patched eyed gives an air of mystery..."
"Just a war wound," my brother explained self-consciously, leaving important bits out, like the fact that he'd since used alchemy to heal it, or that he'd also got some magic mercury in it, making it look a bit odd. And in Galt, odd was not good unless you were looking for a place in one of the tumbrel carts headed for the guillotine.
One of those was finally headed through the crowd now, and a cheer went up.
"Oh come, join me," the woman said. "Only the tricoteuses have a better seat..."
"The knitters," Norret explained to my baffled expression. "The market women there."
I looked. Right in front of the Monolith, Isarn's prison and Hall of Justice, was the guillotine with its famous Final Blade known as Madame Margaery. And right there before Margaery's basket with the very best front-row seats was a group of women like you'd see at any market, with aprons and white caps fitted with ribbons. Every last one of them was knitting.
"How might we address our hostess, O beauteous demimondaine?"
Norret liked big words and flowery talk, but from the way she laughed and smiled, I guessed that this was a really nice word for ‘dollymop.' "You may call me ‘Mistress Philomela.' And this," she said gesturing to her giant bumblebee, "is Honeybun."
"A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mistress Philomela. I am Norret Gantier and this is my brother and apprentice, Orlin."
"A Calistrian priestess can be a good friend to have, but you don't want to get on her bad side."
I tugged my forelock. "Pleased to meet you."
She made space for us on the divan, which was feathery soft and upholstered in yellow silk, the brocade done with a pattern of vines and blossoms and what looked like skulls. "The fell and fabled creeper," Mistress Philomela explained, seeing Norret's interest in the floral theme. "The pollen produces the most fabulous yellow dye and is of great use in charms of passion and fascination."
"Truly?" asked Norret, touching the silk.
"So I've been told," the dollymondaine admitted. "It's from before the Revolution. It might be saffron from Jalmeray or just common dyer's weld." She smiled conspiratorially. "I've also been told that if you can obtain honey from that particular vine, you can make a mead that acts as a love philtre." She reached for a decanter filled with a pale golden liquid and poured each of us a crystal flute full, as well as a shallow dish for Honeybun. The bee crawled off her shoulder and began to lap it up. "This hydromel comes from the flowers of Calistria, the honeysuckle that we... used to grow here," she finished lamely, looking at the window boxes filled with carrots and horse apples.
Her look continued beyond. Ever heard the expression "to look daggers" at someone? Well, these weren't just normal daggers, but Calistria's, tipped with all of the revenge goddess's wasp venom, and they were aimed straight at the line of knitting women in front of the guillotine. I half expected the three little patches on Mistress Philomela's face to go flying after them.
"A toast," she said, raising her glass, "to the wisdom of the market wives who convinced the Revolutionary Council that every citizen, regardless of station or vows, should grow a victory garden of vegetables, to feed themselves and the hungry folk of Isarn..."
"To victory," said Norret, raising his glass.
"And horse apples," I said, raising mine.
Mistress Philomela nearly choked, then added smoothly, "Yes, and to the wisdom to use the effluence of the streets to fertilize our gardens..."
She and Norret both drank, and I did too, after checking for poison.
I don't quite understand it, but Norret said he used unicorn horn in the potion to bring me back to life, so some of the unicorn's magic must have stuck to me. Which means I can tell if there's poison in something.
There wasn't any poison in the hydromel beyond a bit of alcohol, so I drank it. Then I drank some more. And a little more after that. It was good. I was only able to watch a couple beheadings before my own head hit the pillow at the top of the divan and I fell sound asleep.
I awoke in a room that was definitely not the balcony of the temple of Calistria. Instead of soft silk and swansdown, my pillow was linen over bedstraw, and the room was plain and a little cobwebbed. My brother was there as well, talking to one of the market women. She had her knitting put away, but the bag was by her feet, and she looked very old—at least fifty.
"So who told you I had a room for let?" the woman asked.
"Someone in the crowd," Norret lied. I know when my brother lies—the corners of his eyes go all crinkly. "I gave them a nosegay and they gave me some advice. Said you ran a boarding house with good food and weren't averse to alchemy or magic since you had some skill yourself."
The woman clicked her front teeth together. "Well, that much is true, but—" She paused, and then her small black eyes met mine, magnified and multiplied by little half-moon spectacles that made her look like she had four or more eyes. "Ah, he's awake."
She turned to me and I became acutely aware that my bed was in the corner of the room. "Young citizen, your brother informs me you're called ‘Orlin.' You may address me as ‘Madame Eglantine' or ‘Grandmother Eglantine,' as you prefer, or just as ‘Madame' or ‘Grandmother.' I will not answer to ‘Eglantine' by itself, for only my husbands addressed me as such, and they are all now dead." She smoothed her skirts. "Aside from that, a few other rules: I serve breakfast a half hour after sunrise and supper an hour before sundown. If you arrive at other times, you must make do with what's on the sideboard. The only exception is on days when there is an execution, when I shall be joining my fellow ladies for our knitting circle. On execution days, I set out a cold buffet. Take what you need but leave the rest for the other guests. Don't be greedy but don't expect there will be anything left by suppertime either."
She placed her hands on her hips, her long fingers digging into the fabric of her apron. "As you're from Dabril, I also expect you to be of great help to me in the garden." She fixed me with a steely glare. "Beyond that, both I and my guests value our privacy. That means that locked doors are to be respected and keyholes are not to be peeped through. This goes especially true for my private apartments in the attic. If you pry, you may get what you deserve. That said, if someone breaks into your chambers and blows themselves up with, say, an exploding book, you are responsible for both the damage and the cleaning."
She paused then, placing a finger to her lips, then added, "As for cleaning, I expect you to tidy up after yourselves. The only thing I forbid is harming the spiders, both in the garden and in the house. They are here to catch the dirty flies and those nasty wasps. Leave their webs alone and let the little darlings do their work. Any questions?"
I could only shake my head dumbly.
"Good," she said. "Welcome to my house. I expect to see you tomorrow at breakfast."
With that, she left, and the door latch clicked shut behind her.
Norret turned to me and I said one word. "Poison."
"What?" said Norret.
"Poison," I repeated. "I'm detecting poison."
Norret didn't normally question the new sense I'd picked up, but he glanced to the door and then back. "The old lady? She has poison, or she's been poisoned?"
"Neither," I said. "She is poison."
Coming Next Week: Magical investigations gone awry in Chapter Two of Kevin Andrew Murphy's "The Perfumer's Apprentice."
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. His previous Pathfinder Tales stories include "The Secret of the Rose and Glove" (also starring Norret) and "The Fifth River Freedom," the fourth chapter of Prodigal Sons in the Kingmaker Pathfinder's Journal. For more information, visit his website.
Illustration by Carlos Villa.