Newby analyzed the contents of Norret's flask, pronouncing it ninety-nine point nine percent pure will-o'-wisp essence, with the impurities mostly consisting of honeysuckle and grape. Norret nodded, and the three old men fell to talking amongst themselves.
"Wizards would buy it for ink," Sage pointed out.
"Wizards don't need this degree of purity," Newby countered.
"Would be useful for underpainting secret messages," said Hessim. "Signatures and such."
Newby snorted. "Think of the holy glow of Iomedae's sword or Sarenrae's rays."
"Bit heretical, considering the origin," said Sage.
"Then the ghastly pallor of Urgathoa."
"Or the flames in Asmodeus's eyes," Hessim enthused.
"Point," admitted Sage. "Wonderful for unholy icons. We are agreed then, gentlemen?"
"Aye," said his fellow shopkeepers.
The old men were nothing if not scrupulous. They kitted Norret out with an elaborate case of oil paints and brushes, including a traveling easel, a sketch pad, and a small canvas, while I was given a similar set of watercolors. They also gave us a map of Korvosa and advice on the best bridge to take to cross the narrows en route to the mainland and the Acadamae atop Citadel Crest.
It was grand. It was imposing. It was also open only to students, faculty, and tradesmen. Frightening hellspawn guards menaced those who didn't belong.
That said, Norret and I were Galtan, and we were used to avoiding the Gray Gardeners. Hellspawn gate guards, no matter how ridiculously twisted their horns, simply did not rate. We walked past.
A plague also raged, and we'd noted any number of Korvosans who'd masked themselves like hastily deputized Gray Gardeners, neckerchiefs pulled up over their faces to keep disease-bearing spirits from flying down their throats. Ours were Vudrani silks which had belonged to Rhodel.
Perhaps the most shocking thing were the imps that perched blatanly on the shoulders of students and professors, or lounged on the lintel of the main gate. These stuck out their tongues and made evil gestures at the tiny dragons who rode on the shoulders of better-minded students and faculty. One older and elegant wizard had a cloud of multicolored gemstones orbiting her head, serving as the hoard for the rust red drakeling perched atop the jeweled comb holding up her long red hair.
We had floating pomander oranges.
We followed her into the Acadamae's grounds. Before us lay the grandest and newest building I'd ever seen in my life.
Suddenly an imp swooped down. "Trespassers!" it shrieked. "You've no legitimate business! You're our lawful prey!"
Norret displayed Dr. Orontius's letter, including the seal at the bottom, a calligraphic O that resembled an owl's eye. "On the contrary, we're here to deliver a missive to one of your instructors, Zharmides the Godless."
The little fiend snatched the letter, fluttering higher into the air, then turned a backflip as it giggled with infernal mirth. "Didn't you know?" the creature cried. "He's dead! Not even of the plague! Choked on a fishbone!" The imp laughed as if this were the most hilarious joke in the world. "But without this letter, you've no legitimate purpose—or even with it! Ignorance of the law is no excuse!"
"Except you've no lawful right to that letter either."
"Possession is nine-tenths of the law!" the imp countered. "Care to try for the last tenth?"
It hovered above Norret, just out of arm's reach. While my brother is tall, he's not that tall. Norret jumped for it while the imp pulled it out of the way, still chortling.
Then I saw my brother get angry.
Norret angry looks a lot like Norret happy, except instead of the corners of his eyes going crinkly, his lips go white. He took off his glove, the fringed one with the ruby on the back, then reached into his pouch and took out the reefclaw pasty. He seasoned it with thieves vinegar and chewed it slowly, his teeth becoming longer and sharper, pointed like an eel's.
Then his arm shot up and his hand—well, I've seen my brother sprout claws like a wolf or a bear, and once even talons like an owl, but that was nothing compared to this. His hand changed, growing and shifting, becoming a giant crawfish pincer with the top half as big and sharp as one of the Final Blades of Galt.
The claw snapped like a guillotine. The imp's head flew one way, the body another. The letter drifted down.
Norret caught it, his hand once again its normal shape. He tucked the letter inside his jacket, put on his unicorn-skin glove, and picked up the imp's body by the tail. He stuck the stinger through the stopper of a corked vial and watched as unholy venom leaked down the sides.
"Guards! Guards!" shrieked the imps on gate.
Norret tossed the imp's body on the ground. It smoked, the little fiend dissolving into ectoplasm and ash as Norret turned to face the hellspawn guards.
"Is there a problem?" asked a lilting voice. The wizard with the rusty house drake on her comb stepped forward. "These gentlemen are with me." Hers was a beautiful smile, sweet as an icon of Shelyn. "They agreed to paint my picture before the Hall of Charms. Isn't that so, gentlemen?"
"Yes," I lied. Norret nodded.
The guard with the improbable horns snorted. "Visitors are supposed to sign in at the front gate."
"You are forgetting that the guest book was found to be a source of contagion." The wizard still smiled her sugary smile. "Please just put down that Arlunia Ehrmande, Lecturer in Charms, has two guests for the afternoon, and try to see that those in my retinue are not molested by stray imps." The house drake on her comb flicked its forked tongue for good measure.
"Of course." The horned hellspawn bowed.
Our rescuer gestured for us to follow.
We accompanied her past a rhododendron hedge and around to where a wide lawn opened onto smaller buildings. She gestured to the left to a graceful structure partially obscured by a copse of trees. All I could see above them was a marble frieze of frolicking satyrs and enticing nymphs. "The Hall of Charms is always lovely in any light, but..." she mused, tapping one finger to her painted lips, "perhaps, today, another might be more apropos...." She indicated the building directly behind her. "You're the artists. What do you think?"
What I thought was that I'd seen the building before—the House of Joy, the Calistrian temple from Isarn. The building's shape was slightly different, but otherwise it seemed a perfect copy. Then I realized that the banners of the former palace displayed the old king's crest, and instead of the usual bevy of Calistrian beauties, the balconies were thronged with pre-revolutionary coquettes, frivolous young noblewomen with impossibly high hairdos, fantastically jeweled gowns, and flirtatious glances strikingly like the sacred harlots.
I blushed and looked away.
"Behold," said the enchantress, "the Hall of Lies...."
All at once she changed, like a chalk painting dissolving in rain. The woman's rich flowing gown became mouse-gray robes, her long red tresses became mouse-brown hair, the cloud of jewels vanished, and her comb became a bunch of pencils stuck in a bun. Even the haughty little house drake became a crumple-eared orange tabby cat.
It had been an illusion, I realized. The Hall of Lies had to be one too, since I didn't think it likely that the Acadamae would just happen to have a building I recognized so well.
The woman gave a lop-sided grin. "I'm not Professor Ehrmande," she admitted, "but I couldn't leave a couple Galtan boys to deal with the hellspawn. My grandfather's from Galt, and you sound just like him." She appeared decades younger than the serene enchantress. "Besides, I saw that spell with the claw. It's wicked good, and I want it."
"It wasn't a spell," Norret admitted.
"Alchemy?" she guessed. "All I'll say is I'm from Daggermark, and it's not a spell yet. Give me the page from your formulary and I'll figure out what's missing." She grinned and put her hand out. "Nella. Nella Cailean. Not the one from the puppet show and no relation to the really famous one either. And not Nellaforia or Nellali, and for Cayden's sake not Nellatirencia. Just plain Nella or Nel, Journeyman Fibber. And this," she said indicating the snub-nosed cat still perched atop her head, its eyes round and bright as two coppers, "is Lady Marcatella, or Marcat for short. You two?"
"Norret Gantier," Norret said, "and this is my brother, Orlin."
"And you have a fabulous estate back in Galt that you'll inherit once the Revolution's over?" She paused, looking at our expressions. "Wait, you're really from Galt? Not just the kids of refugees we've got crawling all over the River Kingdoms?"
I didn't know what to say. Here she was admitting that she not only knew escaped nobles but that she might even be descended from one and had even given her cat a noble title. Then I remembered that I was in Korvosa, not Galt, and the Red Revolution was half a world away.
"We're from Dabril," Norret explained.
Nella paused, glancing at Norret's glove and the ruby on the back. She chuckled. "You read Pintgarthe's Lost Jewels too, eh? Points for making it look believable. You can't imagine the sort of gaudy crap impers try to pass off when they take 'Frauds & Forgeries.' The Hero's Tankard made of solid gold chased with pearls? As if!" She gave us each a hard look. "But what's your scam? Don't try to fib a fibber."
Norret reached into his jacket. "We're just here to deliver a letter."
She looked at the letter and laughed. "You're after Zharmides' lost books too?"
"Lost books?" I was confused. I'd thought we were after a snuffbox.
"What, you really don't know? The imp told you straight: Zharmides is dead. Choked on a fishbone down at the Posh and Turtle. The professors have been accusing each other of stealing his books 'cause everyone wanted his spells. Speaking of which, you owe me one." She put out her hand.
Norret sighed and got out his formulary, his alchemical workbook. He pulled a blank page out of the back, took out his silver pencil, and began copying notes and scraps. It took a while, but at last he folded it and held it up out of Nella's reach. "A question first: Where's Zharmides' body now?"
Nella shrugged. "No great secret. The government's ordered all the dead taken to the plague pits in the Gray District and burned. The Acadamae's torched its dead in the Cube."
"And the ashes?"
She paused. "Sent to the Hall of Whispers for its columbarium."
"Columbarium?" I said.
She nodded, slightly so as to not dislodge her cat, which I realized had no tail. "Dome filled with cinerary urns: books for students, busts for instructors, full-on bronzes for headmasters, and a necromantic circle in middle so you can talk to their spirits, though it works a bit better if the urn has actual ashes in it."
I could already summon spirits–or at least one–without ashes, so I was less impressed than I might be. I heard a giggle, a bit too high-pitched and far too nasty to be Rhodel.
Nella raised her hand, adjusting her bun or her pencils or the cat who was sitting on them, but her pinkie was out at an odd angle and her cat was looking the same direction. I looked where both pointed. Norret did too, adjusting the lenses of his monocle.
Dr. Orontius once told me that three or more imps are called "an impudence." The impudence that was fluttering nearby scattered, spooked.
Norret looked back to Nella. "But Zharmides died outside the Acadamae."
"Right," she said, "and no one's wanting to search the plague carts to see if they've burned his body yet. The conjurers are pissed 'cause, if he'd had an imp, they could summon it and ask for his soul, but Zharmides, just to be contrary, had a homunculus."
"Homunculus?" I repeated, confused.
"Homunculus?" Norret said the same word delightedly.
He and she exchanged looks, and she explained, "It's an artificial imp."
"It's made out of a mandrake root," Norret continued, "and that's not quite accurate."
"It's a foot-high manikin with fangs and bat wings." Nella waved flippantly. "About the only visible difference is that an imp has a poisoned tail, while your classic homunculus has poison teeth."
"So what did Zharmides look like?"
"The spell first?"
Norret handed her the folded paper.
She opened it and almost absentmindedly stepped over to the Hall of Lies and tapped one of the statues flanking the door—that of a cavorting nymphette with precariously tall hair.
The statue's illusion flickered, feminine trading for masculine, youth for age, and hard marble for living flesh, now appearing as a stooped, thin-faced old wizard leaning on a gold-topped cane. The brocade of his waistcoat was woven over and over with stylized Zs, and the same sigil was engraved on the wax seal hanging as fob from his watch chain. I didn't see a snuffbox, but I noted a telltale bulge beneath his pocket square.
Norret took a vial from his bandolier and sipped it, flipped to a blank page in his formulary, took his silver pencil in hand, and began to sketch.
Coming Next Week: Bringing out the dead in Chapter Three of "Thieves Vinegar."
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" and "The Perfumer's Apprentice" (also starring Norret and Orlin), 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 Andrew Olson