The Perfumer's Apprentice
by Kevin Andrew Murphy
Chapter Three: The Garland of Eglantine
The innwife woke me at dawn. I’d spent the night beside the fire. Someone had picked my pocket during the night, so the gold Norret had given me was gone. All I had left was the little horn spoon.
The innwife made it clear that if I bought breakfast or even ale, I could stay, but if not, I should go. I left, stepping out into the cold morning.
Cries of “Gardyloo!” came from up and down the street. Maids and goodwives threw open windows, emptying chamber pots. Piss and night soil spattered the cobbles, running down to the grate that led to the sewers below. Horrible stories were told about those sewers, but nothing could be more awful than the stench. I wished I had one of the paper nosegays Norret and I had spent hours making, but had to make do with the woodsmoke on my clothes.
A moment later, I realized I was crying.
I bit my lip and forced the tears back. Life in Galt was harsh, and I had no illusions. Madame Eglantine was a witch, and she’d warned us not to pry into her business. What that business was, I could only guess. Summoning devils like the vile Chelaxians? Worshiping nightmares from beyond the stars? Smuggling nobles out of Galt?
Whatever it was, it was awful enough that my brother had decided to do something about it. But the witch had won.
How she had won was the question. My brother could be injured, dead, drugged, or even turned into a toad for the witch to feed flies and taunt.
Given Madame Eglantine’s ties with the Revolutionary Council, the cruelest possibility was that he would join the next cart of condemned to feed the guillotine.
The window of the uppermost gable of the house at the top of the street popped open and a familiar female voice cried out a warning. The night soil flew down and the window snapped shut, the little diamond panes frosted from the inside to ensure the old woman’s privacy.
She was unusually late. Normally Madame Eglantine would have done this before dawn, giving her time to go down to the kitchen and fix breakfast for the guests.
I steeled my courage and made my way back to the familiar house. I slipped in as one of the other boarders stepped out—the old wizard Norret had got the manuscript from, off to take his morning constitutional before returning for breakfast.
The rooms Norret and I had shared were bare as when we moved in. The only change was a pile of ashes in the grate. The air smelled strongly of irises and alchemist’s fire.
I made my way to the dining room. The other boarders greeted me kindly, inquiring as to when Norret would be by and how his research was going. I shrugged. The old wizard returned shortly, reeking of cherry tobacco and snuff.
A half-hour late, Madame Eglantine came in, bearing a tray heavy with pork pies and mirabelle plums. “My pardon, gentlemen. There will be no croissants this morning. I missed the baker’s boy when—”
“Where’s my brother?”
The old witch looked at me, shocked, but quickly regained her composure. “My dear child, you’re still here? I thought you left with him last night. Your brother gave notice and cleaned out all his things.”
“I waited at the tavern. He never came.”
A look passed among the guests, a sad one, and the old wizard turned to me and said, “Did he leave you no money?”
“A little. My pocket was picked.”
There were more sad looks and tut-tutting. The old wizard produced a few silver coins and pressed them into my hand. “You must take care of yourself now, Orlin.”
Madame agreed. “I’m not in the business of charity. You’re welcome to stay for breakfast, but you’re almost a grown man. Inquire at the workhouse, or perhaps with the army.”
“My brother would not abandon me.”
She looked very sad, but it was an actress’s look from a melodrama, a practiced expression of grief that had nothing to do with the cold glittering little black eyes behind the half-moon spectacles. “I’m sorry, but you are not the first child in Isarn to believe that, nor will you be the last.”
“People are only human,” the old wizard agreed sadly.
I did not mention that my brother had given up a fortune to bring me back to life. I only burst into tears and ran from that house, unable to think how to save Norret.
I had no way of knowing that he was not already dead. But if you’re from Galt, you know that the only truly final death comes from one of the Final Blades.
No one knows that better than myself. Even coming back wrong is better than not coming back at all.
My handkerchief fluttered out of my pocket, drying my tears without me touching it.
“Th-thank you, Rhodel,” I snuffled, retrieving it. I blew my nose and put it away.
I still had hope. The witch had gone with the lie that Norret had abandoned me, not that he’d pried into whatever awful thing went on in her attic. That meant that she’d have trouble having him arrested and sent off to meet Madame Margaery.
The Gray Gardeners always asked questions, sometimes even after people died.
I thought about what I knew of Madame Eglantine. The only way into her apartment was the door at the end of the upstairs hall, set with many locks and charms. Once I’d glimpsed a spiral stair beyond it, thick with cobwebs. I could only guess that there would be another door with far more dangerous locks at the top of the stair. All the windows locked from the inside. To get up to the gables would mean scaling three stories and a slate roof. The boarding house also had a climbing rose—an eglantine, like its owner. The vine was heavy with little white blossoms, thick with thorns, and infested with famished bees, the fat little garden spiders that preyed upon them, and the wasps that preyed upon them in turn.
Madame only left her attic to fix breakfast and supper, meet with tradesmen, and tend her beloved garden. The only time she left the house was to attend an execution, which was a general holiday. That was also the only time the cook fires were banked.
I saw a halfling walking down the street. He was wearing a short cap and a pair of heavy gloves, and had a wire brush over his shoulder. The only parts of him that weren’t covered with soot were the gilded buttons on his coat.
I stepped into his path. “Teach me your trade.”
The halfling looked up at me and laughed. “Not that I ain’t always lookin’ fer apprentices, but ye’re too tall, lad, and y’look like ye’re gonna get a dem site bigger before ye’re done.” He then turned more serious. “Parents tossed ye out? Tell y’wot. Y’can touch me buttons fer luck fer free and be on yer way with me best wishes. Sound right?”
“How about I buy you a glass of wine and you tell me about your trade?”
“Halfling size or human size?”
He grinned. “That’d be halfling size. It’s bigger.”
I ended up buying the whole bottle with a couple of the wizard’s silver pieces, but found I what I needed to know. Most of what I needed I already had—a cap and a pair of stout gloves. What I didn’t have, I didn’t need either. I had no interest in cleaning Madame Eglantine’s chimney, with or without a wire brush.
The halfling did an excellent impression of the mistress of the boarding house: “‘Yes, citizen, I am quite aware of the perils of chimney fires. Be that as it may, I have spells to clean my chimney, and I’m more limber than I appear. Indeed, I think you’d be quite surprised at how small a space I can fit into...’” He snorted. “Nasty old harridan. Lost a few snakesmen to her back in the day. Steer clear of that one if’n y’know what’s good.”
“Burglars,” the halfling confessed drunkenly. “Second-story men. Never seen hide nor hair of ’em ag’in. Bet she turned ’em inta mice an’ fed ’em to the cat.”
Feeding someone to a familiar was awful magic, but Madame Eglantine did not have a cat that I knew of. The only pets Madame appeared to have were garden spiders.
There were a great many of them in the garlands of eglantine that twined around the boarding house. I climbed the rose the next day, after watching Madame and half her boarders leave for the executions. I couldn’t believe my luck—the windows of Norret’s and my old rooms had been left open to air. They still smelled very strongly of iris.
I brushed the little spiders from my clothes, then went to the fireplace. It was still warm. The hearth fire had been banked in the kitchen. But not for long.
I took the wine bottle from the inn, reached up the flue, and dropped it down the chimney.
There was dim tinkle and the sound of a small explosion. Norret had taught me the formula for extinguisher grenades. It had taken the last of the wizard’s silver at the apothecary, but was worth it.
I waited for the fumes to clear, then stuck my head up the flue. It was dark, and soot drifted down over my face. I did as the chimneysweep had told me. I tied my scarf over my face and pulled my cap low over my eyes, then worked my way up slowly.
There were handholds in the brick, but the safest way up was bracing my back against the back of the chimney and my feet against the front. I wormed my way upward, higher and higher, until I found the next flue, the one that led to Madame Eglantine’s attic apartment.
I came down carefully, expecting that I might step directly into a cauldron, but her fireplace only had an iron hook at the back. It held a slab of Madame’s delicious bacon smoking over the hob. Another hook held a kettle for Madame’s tea. The fire was out save for a few banked coals, but the ashes smelled of applewood.
"Madame Eglantine is more than she appears."
I moved the fire screen aside and ducked out into the apartment, shaking the soot off onto the hearthrug. The apartment was the most cobwebbed place I’d ever seen. Madame might want her guests to tidy up after themselves, but had clearly never seen fit to clean her own rooms. What I had taken for frosted glass was a thick film of cobwebs on the inside of all the windows. It made the light far dimmer than day, but still brighter than it had been in the chimney.
There were cases of books and bric-a-brac, shelves containing the oddments and curios of a lifetime. Then I turned and saw the mantel. My heart stopped cold.
Where a scholar might keep the bust of a great philosopher, or an artist might place a single skull for still lifes, Madame Eglantine had done them one better. On the mantel was a row of bell jars like you’d use for growing vegetables or protecting mantel clocks. But under each jar was a severed head, preserved by magic or alchemy, fresh as they day they were chopped. Their eyes were wide and staring, their mouths half open. I expected them to start speaking any moment.
They did not, but as I stumbled away, I wished they had, for they could have warned me not to look at what I saw next.
Stretched out on a table was a corpse—without its head, without its hands, without a great many parts. At first I thought Madame Eglantine must be an anatomy student or necromancer, but then I saw the chart, like a doctor might use, but marked like a butcher’s with notes like brisket and good for paté. I realized that Madame Eglantine must be some horrible hag or ogre wife like in the stories. Suddenly the bacon hanging on the hob didn’t seem so appealing.
Then I saw Norret.
He was poisoned. I sensed it immediately. He was hanging in a great spiderweb strung in one corner. I rushed to him, but before I touched him, I stopped, remembering the terrible stickiness of such webs from the bard’s stories. I ran and got the fireplace poker and used it to rip the webs away.
He was still alive, but paralyzed and poisoned. And it was then that I sensed poison again. But this poison was moving.
It was a spider. A garden spider like the little ones in the roses outside, squat and brown and marked with a cross like a festival cake frosted to keep pixies from dancing on it. But this spider was the size of a crab.
It scuttled toward me. I smashed it with the fireplace poker, hitting it with the hook. It hissed like a pastry dropped into hot fat and scuttled away. I stepped back. Then the hearth broom levitated, swatting at it—Rhodel trying to help, but only swatting it on the backside.
It leapt at me.
I swung the poker, but it went wild. I lost my grip, the iron bar striking one of the bell jars.
It shattered. The head bowled across the floor, eyes blinking.
I caught the spider. It bit at me, drooling poison, but my gloves were stout. I shoved it against the mantel with one hand. With the other, I reached for my belt knife, hoping to stab it. My hand closed around something smaller than expected, and I realized that I had grabbed the little horn spoon instead.
It didn’t matter. The handle was ivory and pointed, and had come from a unicorn. I jammed it in, point first, again and again, stabbing it over and over until the horrible monster vomited blancmange. It died with a shudder.
I was crying again. I went and got the poker and used it to rip the webs away from Norret. Somewhere in his gear he had a jewel that had once belonged to Dabril’s duke, a magic ruby set in a glove that could neutralize poison. If I could just find it, I might heal him, and we could both escape this chamber of horrors.
“I believe,” said a voice behind me, “you are looking for this.”
I turned. Madame Eglantine stood framed in the doorway, taking Norret’s jeweled glove out of her knitting bag.
Coming Next Week: Further horrors in the final chapter 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.