The Perfumer's Apprentice
by Kevin Andrew Murphy
Chapter Four: The Scent of Honeysuckle
The hag or ogre wife or whatever she was stepped into the room, still looking like a sweet grandmother with her knitting bag and little spectacles. Then she saw the dead spider lying on the hearthrug.
She screamed in horror, rushing over. “You fiendish little pig! What have you done?” She picked up the corpse. “My baby! My poor precious one! Speak to me!”
Her knitting bag fell to the floor, Norret’s glove on top. While I was frozen with fear, my spirit wasn’t. It grabbed the glove and pulled it on.
The unicorn’s jewel shone on the back, glowing with ruby light.
But I wasn’t the only one using more hands than he rightfully should. “Oh no, none of that,” snapped Madame Eglantine. Just like she sometimes seemed to have more eyes, she now definitely had more arms. While two were cradling the dead spider, two more appeared and wove a magic pattern in the air. Then I was looking at not one Madame Eglantine but five, each as monstrous as the last.
I swung the poker at the nearest one and she shattered like a soap bubble. The rest laughed mockingly like a chorus of schoolgirls. My spirit swung at another. The glove’s jewel blazed with light as that illusion vanished as well.
“What are you, you horrid brat?” snarled the three remaining Eglantines. “A sorcerer? An oracle? Some halfling wizard masquerading as a child?”
I swung again, but missed. “I’m the one who’s going to stop you, you cannibal witch!”
A ghostly wind began to blow. The cobwebs fluttered and another bell jar toppled from the mantel, its head bowling across the floor.
“Oh, I’m not the cannibal,” laughed Madame Eglantine. “I have never eaten my own kind. All my husbands were human, and while I ate every last one after he violated my private sanctum, the only true cannibal here is you...”
As she said this, she became fatter and squatter, her body becoming more hunched and spidery, until all that was left was a garden spider the size of a woman, a cross-shaped marking on her back big enough to protect a wedding cake from a whole troop of dancing pixies. It was the mother of the horrible little spider I’d killed, mirrored three times, moving around one another like walnut shells shuffled by a charlatan hiding a pea.
I screamed and ran at them, hitting one with the poker while my spirit swung at another. The illusion before me popped on contact with the iron bar, but my spirit felt the glove slap the spider’s flesh, burning it, antitoxin meeting toxin.
Madame Eglantine hissed and reared. Then the sound of ladylike laughter issued from her horrible spidery maw and webbing shot from her abdomen, a great net like you’d throw to snare songbirds for a pie, thick and sticky as bird lime.
It covered me and I was stuck fast, both me and the fireplace poker, her web pulling taut against the walls as it dried. But my spirit’s hand was still free and I slapped at her again with the glove.
The last illusion vanished with a flare of ruby light. Then the spider shifted back to the form of the spider-armed woman. She reached into her bag and drew forth one of her knitting needles, ebony capped with silver. She waved it about like a wand, weaving magical patterns in the air and clicking her tongue like a Mwangi witch out of a story. A gray ray shot from the tip, hitting the glove.
The light of the unicorn’s jewel died, the spider woman smothering its good Galtan magic with her evil foreign spell. I felt my soul’s hand slapped back as the glove fell to the floor.
She picked the glove up with the tip of her knitting needle as if it were a dead rat. “Just what are you?” She flipped the glove into her knitting bag, stuffing it down to the bottom with the wand. “I’m curious to find out...”
She shifted back to the form of the giant spider. Then she crawled over me, her huge bloated mass avoiding the sticky strands the web. She leaned close, her horrible fangs dripping venom, and bit me.
I felt pain, and then nothing, the poison numbing, putting my limbs to sleep and freezing them, like when you wake from a nightmare but still can’t move.
But the nightmare was not over. The spider woman tenderly, carefully, bit through the strands holding me on the left and the right. She freed the fireplace poker and threw it to the floor. Then she put her claws on me and began to spin me, like a woman twirls a drop spindle. Webbing flew from her abdomen, smooth and soft as silk, wrapping around me, cocooning me as she had Norret.
At last she stopped spinning me. I was terribly dizzy, but my eyes focused as she turned back into a woman. But not all the way. She still had eight eyes and six arms. Then the most horrible thing—her bottommost pair of arms reached into her bag, pulled out a half-finished stocking, and began to knit as if nothing were odd at all.
“Now what are we going to do with you, Orlin?” she mused. “You’re a bit young for husband material, though your brother’s comely enough, if a trifle thin.” She poked Norret’s middle with one long-fingered hand. “Yes, too thin for my tastes. But I’ll plump him up once I have the right charms brewed...”
She picked up the two heads tumbled on the floor, placing them back on the mantel. Norret moaned. Madame Eglantine paid no mind. She looked into her bag and selected a different knitting needle. She mumbled a charm and waved it over a pile of broken glass. Half the pieces flew up and reformed into a bell jar. She repeated the charm and the other was restored as well.
Norret opened his eyes halfway and saw me. “Orlin...” he whispered. “Her bag... bottle... spiderbane...”
He was delirious, but my body was paralyzed by poison, and my spirit as well. A fine time for it to be properly tethered to my body.
But I was not the only spirit about. While I couldn’t feel my jaw, I could sense it opening. “Rhodel...” I croaked.
"Galt’s people don’t take kindly to monsters in their midst."
Madame Eglantine fussed with her dead husbands’ hair and so didn’t see the knitting bag behind her tip on its side. One by one the balls of yarn rolled out, as if an invisible kitten were investigating them. She replaced one of the jars as Norret’s glove appeared, the unicorn’s jewel still dead from the spell. Then as the second jar was being replaced, a crystal flask rolled free. Pretty and faceted, it was a treasure that once belonged to the duchess of Dabril. It was filled with a golden liquid.
“There, much better.” Madame Eglantine looked at her husbands’ heads, now back in their places. Then she looked mournfully at the dead spider. “Poor little dear. I’ll have to put her in the garden and plant a fruit tree. Maybe a sour cherry.” She turned. “That would be nice, wouldn’t it?”
Then she saw the bottle floating up.
She dropped both the dead spider and the half-finished sock as she sprang forward, grabbing the flask with all her hands before Rhodel could work the stopper free.
“Oh, tricky,” she said admiringly. “Very tricky. But not tricky enough. Your brother said this held my doom, but he talks too much. I got the jump on him, and the same with you, Orlin. But I do wonder what it is. A poison for spiders, perhaps? Maybe some grand mithridate like the glove, or an antivenin to sour my venom in its sacks? I suppose I—”
A girl appeared next to her, a beautiful young woman dressed in the livery of a page of House Devore.
“Who are you?” asked Madame Eglantine, shocked.
“Death,” replied Rhodel. She ripped the bottle from the spider woman’s hands with the strength only the dead could possess and pulled the stopper free. “Never trouble a child of Dabril!” She threw the contents into the witch’s face.
Rhodel disappeared, the empty bottle and stopper clattering to the floor as Madame Eglantine screamed, clawing her eight eyes with all six hands. Then she stopped screaming as the room became filled with the overwhelming scent of honeysuckle.
“Perfume?” Madame Eglantine gasped. “Perfume? That’s all you have?” She exploded into gales of laughter. “Oh, that’s rich! That’s the cream of the jest! Two riddles solved for the price of one! You, my child, are nothing more than a baby bone oracle! And your brother? Not even an alchemist! A mere puffer who thought to bluff me with a bottle of perfume!”
With that, the windows began to spring open, one by one, the cobwebs ripping free as Rhodel let in the fresh air of the garden outside.
The fresh air—and the wasps and bees from the garlands of eglantine that hung about the house.
Madame Eglantine screamed as the insects swarmed her, stinging her as she shifted into her monstrous spider form. She sprayed webbing as quickly as a magician conjures scarves, but still more came, drawn by the pure scent of honeysuckle absolute.
Then came a droning buzz loud enough to be a roar. Bumblebees the size of lapdogs and wasps the size of small ponies came through the windows, the pets of Calistria, goddess of trickery and vengeance.
The spider woman played her own tricks, multiplying her form with one illusion, turning herself invisible with another. But the swarm was too great for the decoys to last, and the scent of Norret’s perfume unerringly guided the wasps to their prey. Madame Eglantine was stung again and again, until at last she was as paralyzed as Norret and I, trapped as a bloated spider with a woman’s head.
It was then that the wasps did as they always do when they win a battle: They returned to their nest with their prey, as well as the bodies of their fallen comrades—for to a wasp, meat is meat—and any other meat they can find.
The corpse on the table was carried off. The heads of Madame Eglantine’s husbands as well. Even the slab of half-smoked man-bacon from the hook at the back of the hob.
Lastly, the wasps looked at Norret and myself, still paralyzed and caught in the spider’s webs. They bit us free, picked us up in their claws, and carried us back to the nest as well.
Meat is meat, after all.
Fortunately for us, their nest was the temple of Calistria, and Mistress Philomela knew us.
We were cut free from the webs with Calistrian daggers, had the poison neutralized with one spell and our wounds healed with another.
There was no balm for the horrors I’d seen save holding my brother’s hand. I knew he must have seen worse during the wars, and I understood why he had to bring me back.
Family is worth more than any gold, even if you come back wrong.
“Gingerbread?” offered Mistress Philomela. We were back on her balcony, sitting beside each other on the yellow divan. She held out a plate. On it were three gilded figures: a wasp, a dagger, and a beautiful elven woman.
I took the dagger. I didn’t want to have anything to do with cannibalism, even in the form of gingerbread.
Norret must have felt the same, since he took the wasp.
Mistress Philomela took the one in the shape of her goddess and delicately nibbled her ear. “The only thing sweeter than the cakes of Calistria is the taste of revenge.”
A great cry of exultation came up from the crowd. Rather than a load of fresh prisoners being delivered by tumbrel cart, there was only one late arrival, but arriving in style: a gilded, magical chariot borne by giant wasps hove into view, driven by one of the priests of Calistria, dressed in a golden loincloth that left little to the imagination, especially when it flapped aside. But hanging from the back of the chariot was what truly captured the interest of the crowd: a horrible monster, half woman, half spider, paralyzed by wasp venom, a look of terror on her eight-eyed face because she knew what her fate would be.
The priest did three laps of the street, to greater cries of bloodlust each time, until at last the Gray Gardener on the guillotine’s platform signaled for him to land. He did.
There was then the usual dry speech about the values of Liberty and the enemies of the people, as well as the thanks of the people for those who’d apprehended the enemies of the Revolution, especially fiends and monsters. It was then that I realized I was supposed to stand.
Norret squeezed my hand and I stood next to him. Mistress Philomela stepped aside and applauded us and the rest of the crowd below followed suit. I also realized I was still holding the barely nibbled gingerbread dagger. I raised it over my head. “Victory!” I cried.
“Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!” responded the crowd.
“Vengeance,” added Mistress Philomela with an amused smile.
The execution of Madame Eglantine was very much like any other. Madame Margaery’s blade was hoisted up. Madame Margaery’s blade came down. A woman’s head bounced into the basket. A giant spider’s body lay on the stage. The crowd cheered, all except a group of women in the front row who for once stopped their knitting, looking at the head in the basket, then at each other with expressions of mute horror. The Gray Gardener standing on the stage looked down at them with his gray mask.
You know he was thinking exactly what they were thinking.
There would be questions for Madame Eglantine’s head. Questions for the heads of her husbands. Questions for myself and Norret.
I already knew my answers. We had rehearsed them before.
We were two brothers from Dabril. My brother was a veteran who had returned from the war. My father and brother had died, so my mother remarried, and my brother had taken me with him to be his apprentice when he returned to the capital. Any peculiarities about me were likely just a bit of sorcery unlocked when I was ill. Nothing more.
Norret squeezed my hand. I looked at him. He smiled and bit off the wings of his gingerbread wasp. I smiled back.
Mistress Philomela was wrong. Revenge was sweet, but the sweetest thing was fraternity—having a brother there for you.
Coming Next Week: A sample chapter from Hugh Matthews’ upcoming Pathfinder Tales novel, Song of the Serpent, plus a fantastic new illustration from Eric Belisle!
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.