The Perfumer's Apprentice
by Kevin Andrew Murphy
Chapter Two: The Iris of Isarn
Norret had theories, but then my brother always had theories. It’s part of an alchemist’s job. He’d heard some story about assassins wanting to kill an ancient king, and rather than do something obvious like stab him, they got a girl and slowly fed her poison until she was immune but it oozed out her pores. The plan was that once the king made love to this girl, he’d die.
It seemed rather unlikely to me, since it hinged on the king actually wanting this one girl, but the assassins in bards' stories were never the ones who came up with practical plans. In any case, Norret wondered what happened to the “poison maiden” after that. It might also explain how Madame Eglantine’s husbands died.
He also mentioned something called an upas tree, a poisonous mulberry travelers said grew in Tian Xia. The perfume from its branches was supposedly so deadly that it would kill everything in fourteen miles. Were such a tree to have a dryad, that fey woman would undoubtedly be just as toxic.
This was a rather frightening thought, but as I remarked, if there were an upas tree growing somewhere in Isarn, someone would have noticed by now.
Norret’s third theory was that maybe Madame Eglantine was a toad witch like the legendary Crapaudine, mother of Coco the cockatrice, who everyone sang dirty songs about back in Dabril. If she’d used witchcraft to turn herself human, she still might detect as poison to my unicorn-horn senses.
I didn’t think Madame Eglantine had enough warts to be a toad. I also couldn’t picture a toad knitting. But being a witch and brewing so many poisons that some of them stuck to her? That seemed likely.
In any case, her food wasn’t poisoned and she was quite a good cook. It was hard to get food in Isarn, especially meat, but evidently proximity to the Revolutionary Council had its benefits. For our first supper there, there was a beautiful pork roast with gravy, fresh bread to sop it up, and baked apples. After months eating at second-rate inns or choking down my brother’s cooking, it was the sweetest meal I’d ever tasted.
My brother is a very good man and a good alchemist, but not a good cook. It’s a horrible thing to say about a Galtan, but it’s true. If you gave Norret a chicken, he’d be more likely to blow it up or bring it back to life than turn it into anything decent to eat.
The other boarders were mostly scholars, and while they were also appreciative of Madame’s cooking, they told us to get used to pork. There was occasionally goose for holidays, but meat mainly consisted of pork roasts, stews, dumplings, sausages, and even wonderful things like smoked ham and bacon and pork-liver paté, all accompanied by bread from the baker and fresh produce from the garden. The working theory was that Madame Eglantine had a longstanding affair with a high-ranking member of the hog butcher’s guild. There were also jokes about sympathetic magic and Madame using witchcraft to turn men into pigs, but the resident wizards all agreed there was no more magic in the meat than good Galtan cooking, and the only way anyone was going to turn into a pig was through gluttony.
Norret was a bit more worried because the elixir that brought me back from the dead was philosophic mercury, the same magic quicksilver that had gotten into his eye when he cracked the philosopher’s stone hidden in the duchess’s basement. “It’s an amalgam,” Norret explained. “The philosophic mercury mixes with natural magic and enhances it. I used eyebright to heal my eye, so the mercury fumes bonded with the residue. The unicorn’s horn is suffused with healing magic, so it brought you back to life and also let you detect poison. If the mercury were to alloy with other substances...”
I was horrified. “You mean if I eat enough pork I’m going to turn into a pig?”
Norret looked thoughtful. We were back in our chambers with the door locked, so he had his eye patch flipped up. The iris of his left eye was shimmering and silver like a mirror. “Probably not all at once,” he said at last. “You’d probably just grow orc tusks first. They’d actually be boar tusks, but everyone would think you were a half-orc, so it would still come to much the same thing.” I was even more horrified until he tousled my hair and I realized he was making fun of me. “Relax. I’ve got a present for you. I know you’ve been complaining about my cooking, and there was trouble getting food before, so I made this...”
He reached into his pocket and took out a silver nutmeg grater. He flipped the catch and inside it were little ivory nuts. They were part of the unicorn horn that had resurrected me. There was also a longer bit, the tip of a spiraled horn. Norret had shaved it down even further. As he took it out, I realized that he’d carved it into a horn spoon like you’d use to eat eggs.
“Watch.” Norret took one of his alchemist’s bowls and placed the spoon inside. All at once it began to leak white fluid. It rose up, higher and higher, thick and pasty until it threatened to overflow the sides, at which point Norret removed the spoon and pushed the bowl toward me. “Here, taste it.” He handed me the spoon.
I half expected it to crawl out of the bowl, some horrible animate pudding or jelly like they told nightmare stories about late at night in the taverns, but while it quivered, it stayed where it was. At last I put the spoon in and took a taste of the white pudding. It tasted... like paper maché, with maybe a bit of goat’s milk.
“Do you like it?” my brother asked proudly. “It’s blancmange. Your favorite!”
I remembered. Our mother used to make blancmange for Crystalhue. It was a pudding of rice and almonds with maybe a bit of shredded white chicken breast if we were lucky, flavored with rosewater and once a pinch of cinnamon smuggled in from Katapesh. “It could maybe use a little rosewater...”
Norret gave a wry smile. “I tried to add that, but it wouldn’t take. But at least we do have plenty of rose oil on hand.”
While my brother couldn’t cook, he could make rosewater. It made the pudding taste better, if not much.
That said, the ivory spoon was a very thoughtful gift, and amazing magic besides. “How does it work?”
“Spontaneous generation.” Norret said this as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “The same way that barnacles drop into the sea to become geese, the alicorn produces unicorn milk and bone porridge.” He grinned proudly. “It should be very nourishing. My friend Melzec once told me about a dwarf whose son was suckled by a unicorn and grew to become a giant.”
I stopped eating. “So if I eat this I’m going to turn into a giant?”
“Well, probably not all at once.” My brother looked thoughtful. “I’m tall so you’ll probably be tall anyway, and you could always stoop. And it’s better than boar’s tusks.”
All at once the bowl levitated into the air and the spoon flew out of my hand. Norret opened his mouth to say something more, but the spoon flew in, feeding him a spoonful of bland blancmange like he was a very large baby.
Sometimes being haunted by a dead strumpet isn’t that bad.
“Maybe you could find a way for us to see Rhodel,” I suggested.
Norret opened his mouth again, but every time he did, he got another spoonful of pudding. Eventually he just nodded.
Another thing you should know about my brother is that when he’s given a task or a puzzle, he sets to it with a single-minded passion. He’d already talked to enough necromancers about my condition, so he knew about folk who could see into Pharasma’s realm. Finding an alchemical formula to do that, however, was the trick.
As much as I love my country, I also have to admit that many of Galt’s best wizards died or fled during the Revolution and took their books with them. What’s left are fragments, but fortunately Madame Eglantine’s boarding house had a number of residents with some of these fragments, and Norret was able to trade secrets. One wizard sold him a formula for a costly ointment that was supposed to allow one to see through illusions and deceptions. A bard told a story about another salve that allowed a midwife to peer into the First World of the fey.
There was no recipe for that second salve, but while inquiring about it, Norret was able to bargain for a copy of a manuscript the wizard claimed had come all the way from the Library of Leng.
I’d never heard of Leng, but Norret was certainly excited about it, so I guessed Leng was some dead noble.
In any case, the manuscript was partially burned and written in strange runes, but Norret was able to translate the most important bit: a method to see through the doors of reality into the chambers beyond.
There were pages of complicated illustrations showing rays coming out of eyes like Calistria’s daggers, pictures of all sorts of undead—horrible things like glowing skeletons and men flayed alive—and requirements for everything from alchemically purified pitchblende to the perfume of “the flower of the messengers.” There were even partial instructions for forging a magic ring.
Norret thought that wizards were always overcomplicating things with rings, which he thought they used for status more than anything else. Beyond that, the iris of the eye was a ring already. The “flower of the messengers,” it turned out, was another iris, as “a message” is what an iris meant in the language of flowers.
The iris was also the flower of Isarn, the ancient crest of the city. Set into the curve of the river, Isarn had a huge number of the flowers fluttering along her banks like yellow flags. Before the Revolution, the royal irises could only be picked with the king’s permission, on penalty of death. After the Revolution, there was no king, but the penalty was the same.
It was a deed that could have cost us our heads many times over, so Norret and I gathered the armloads we needed in the dead of night. Dodging the city watch and patrols of the Gray Gardeners, we took the flowers back to the boarding house. We wrapped them in greased cloths so they would breathe their perfume into the fat as they died, then cleaned ourselves up and went and ate the leftovers from Madame Eglantine’s excellent supper.
Three days later, the iris pomade was washed with alcohol, then evaporated down to a golden perfume absolute. Norret mixed this with the yellow powder he’d extracted from the pitchblende. “All right,” my brother said, holding up the few precious golden drops, “let’s see if the librarians of Leng had their manuscripts in order...”
"Orlin is no ordinary child."
He tilted his head back and dripped the drops into his left eye, blinked a few times, then looked at me. His left eye changed from quicksilver to gold and began to glow. “Orlin, are you all right?” He took a step back, a shocked expression on his face.
“I’m fine, Norret.”
He continued to look disturbed, then looked at the door. He stepped toward it, then bumped into it. “Is there a door here?”
He began to look at his hand then, clearly fascinated, looking at it as if he’d never seen it before. “I’m... not undead now, am I, Orlin?”
“I hope not.” Honestly, my brother’s left eye was glowing like they say the eyes of liches do in all the stories.
He stepped back toward the worktable, bumping into it. “Fetch me the lead foil. It’s right there.” He pointed at his backpack, but I had to sort through several inner pouches before I found the one he wanted. Norret took it from me quickly and held it up, covering his eye, then breathed a sigh of relief. “There, that’s better...”
“What’s better?” I asked.
“Those old wizards, they weren’t as foolish as I thought. This phenomenon would be much better with a ring you could take off...” He took the lead sheet away from his glowing eye and looked at me, then moved it back. “Hand me the tin snips, would you?”
I found them, and the metal punch too, and Norret quickly fashioned an eye patch from the lead, which he placed over his regular eye patch.
“So you’re not seeing Rhodel?”
Norret chuckled darkly. “No. Very much not so. I’m so used to looking at alchemical allegories and metaphors that I failed to read the literal meaning. The wizard’s method for looking through doors into the chambers beyond? It’s not for looking into Pharasma’s realm, or the First World either. It’s for looking through actual doors into literal chambers beyond. It also lets you see bones through flesh, or even look through walls.”
He paused then, glancing at the ceiling. Our rooms were on the uppermost story of the boarding house, and on the other side of the ceiling was Madame Eglantine’s attic apartment.
Norret flipped his lead eye patch up, then went pale. He stepped about, looking, then looked back at me. “We can’t stay here, Orlin. We have to go.” He covered his eye back up, almost as an afterthought.
“What?” I said. “And miss supper? Madame said she was serving croque-monsieur with ham!”
Norret looked like he might never want supper again. “No. We won’t be having supper here. Gather your things and go wait for me at the tavern at the bottom of the street. There is something I must do here first.”
“What’s going on? What did you see?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“What? I’m not a child. I’m almost twelve! I’ve even been dead!”
“Yes,” Norret said, “but I’ve been to war and you have not.” He took me by the shoulders and looked me squarely in the eyes. “Trust me, there are some things you see that can never be unseen, and will haunt you worse than any spirit.” He glanced apologetically to the air. “Present company excepted.”
The last time I had seen my older brother this serious was when I asked what had become of our father and our brother Ceron. I knew he was trying to protect me. I trusted that he’d give me an answer in his own time, so I went to the tavern at the bottom of the street and waited.
He never came.
Coming Next Week: Mysterious disappearances in Chapter Three 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.