"Observe, Orlin." Norret scooped a vial of purple cabbage water from the leaves I was blanching for the afternoon's meal. "Note how the introduction of even a weak acid transmutes the deepest amethyst to brilliant fuchsia...." He added a drop of vinegar and swirled it.
The dark purple did indeed change to bright pink, but I'd already seen this reaction when he'd ruined half my store of violet syrup, oblivious to the facts that sugar was dear in Isarn and violets troublesome to pick.
High on the kitchen wall, one of the servant's bells jangled—the one with the wire running to the Primrose Suite, occupied by Dr. Orontius, a kindly old wizard and one of our best boarders.
A whiff of ectoplasm manifested—an example of ethereal, the seventh scent, as Norret had taught me—mixed with the faint odor of roses.
Some people, when they returned from Pharasma's Boneyard, could see its denizens. Others heard ghostly voices. Me? I was raised in Dabril, famous for its perfumes and gloves, so I only smelled the dead and sometimes felt their touch.
The violet syrup levitated. It emptied itself into a jug of water, dying it the same color, then changed this to pink as a cut lemon squeezed itself over it.
"You see?" Norret beamed. "Even Rhodel can work a litmus test!"
My ghostly spirit guide also knew how to make pink lemonade. "Go stall." I handed him the jug. "I'll bring lunch up as soon as I can."
As Norret left, words appeared on the kitchen slate, written in a woman's hand: Careful what you wish for.
"I know." I had hoped that, after our last adventure, my brother would stop treating me like a child. I had not expected that he, a grown man, absolved of this responsibility, would start acting like a child himself. But it was the case.
It was also the case that the Revolutionary Council, rulers of Galt, had appointed Norret and me proprietors of the Eglantine House, home to some of the nation's finest scholars and magical researchers. They paid rent but expected meals. The kitchen garden provided fruits and vegetables, a few hens provided eggs, and an enchanted horn spoon provided bland unicorn bone porridge. I had become good at hiding it in other dishes. This afternoon's luncheon was cabbage rolls stuffed with "horsemeat."
What would have really helped were salt and spices.
Fortunately, Dr. Orontius had his own, or at least he could wave his fingers in the air, mumble some ancient syllables, and make a sprinkling of salt materialize over his food, followed by pepper. This he did as soon as I arrived with the tray, then sampled a bite from a silver fork. "Ah, yes, now it is perfect."
Norret adjusted the complicated series of jeweler's loupes and lead crystal lenses attached to the monocle he'd taken to wearing in place of his old eyepatch. For reasons only my brother could understand—sympathy, antipathy, planetary resonance—lead both helped divination and blocked it. This included the sense I'd picked up from some unicorn horn and a drop of philosopher's mercury, which let me detect poisons. Norret, after an alarming and thankfully temporary experiment with eyedrops that let him look through walls, had switched his optical inquiries to lens grinding and tinted glass. He'd been trying to peep through the veil into Pharasma's realm so we could see Rhodel. He still hadn't discovered the right combination of lenses to see the spirit world, but had managed the arcane spectrum.
"Is that phenomenon accomplished by means of conjuration or spontaneous generation?" he asked Orontius.
"An astute metaphysical question," said Dr. Orontius, "but a true wizard never reveals his secrets." His old blue eyes twinkled, the same color as his robes and pointed hat. "At least not without receiving another secret in trade. Perhaps that formula for 'thieves vinegar' you mentioned?"
"Not in exchange for such a trifle," said Norret. "An alchemist has his secrets as well."
"Just so," Dr. Orontius agreed, turning to me. "Your brother claims to have a formula for a fabulous antiplague, a sovereign preventative for all manner of ills. As Desna would have it, a plague currently ravages Korvosa. Zharmides, an old classmate from my Acadamae days, has recently perished therein. I desire a keepsake to remember him by, a little ivory snuffbox of which he was fond."
"Can you describe it?" Norret asked him.
"Why describe when one can simply show?" Dr. Orontius muttered arcane phrases and made mystical passes with both hands, opening one to reveal a tiny ivory chest resting on his palm. "This is merely a memory, so look but do not touch." The wizard's memory sharpened, scrimshawed lions and lilies appearing on the sides, little clasps and fittings in matching gold. It floated in the air, tumbling like a bubble, revealing a gilded sigil engraved on the bottom, looking like a stylized Z.
My brother took out his formulary and a silver pencil. The talent Norret lacks for cooking he makes up for with drawing and scientific illustration. Soon he had a passable silverpoint architectural diagram of the snuffbox.
"I expect it should be among the effects to be interred with his body." The wizard gestured with his fork and the vision of the snuffbox vanished, quickly followed by his last bite of cabbage roll. "Whether that will be in Korvosa or with his family in Alkenstar, I cannot say. But I'm certain there should be time for formal viewing at the Acadamae itself." He produced another snuffbox, this one of paueliel burl, the sacred "first trees" of the elves. Norret had taught me how to identify paueliel along with a dozen other woods with interesting alchemical properties. A matching traveler's trunk sat against one wall, swirled with whorls like owl eyes, and I swear, I had once seen it blink at me.
Muco, an actual owl and Dr. Orontius's familiar, perched atop a bust of Nethys at one end of the mantel. He swiveled his head around backward and blinked at me for real.
Dr. Orontius merely opened the smaller box, a whorl on the lid forming yet another eye with the iris wide as an O, and took a pinch of snuff in each nostril. The snuffbox disappeared back up his sleeve, replaced with a handkerchief. "I shall give you a letter for Zharmides." He blew his nose decisively. "While he of course will not be able to read it, being dead, it should at least gain you admittance to the funeral."
Where my brother would pick a dead wizard's pocket. Unless Dr. Orontius's "friend" were already interred, in which case Norret would think nothing of burgling the dead.
After all, he'd already dug up my grave. Not that I was complaining.
"He's not going alone," I stated plainly.
"Oh, surely—" said Dr. Orontius.
I cut him off. "Surely something can go wrong."
Norret only smiled with his eyes, but the one without the monocle was almost dancing with amusement. "Orlin is growing up."
"Quite," sniffed Dr. Orontius. "But if this 'thieves vinegar' is as efficacious as purported, there should be no risk to yourselves."
I had already died once of a fever, and while I had been brought back to life, I had no desire to repeat the experience. That said, it was not my brother's alchemy I was worried about.
"As Desna would also have it, tomorrow is an execution day." Dr. Orontius stood, straightening his robes and his beard. "Your boarders will be procuring viands elsewhere, and since you two have no other duties, shall we away now?"
I paused. "Wait. Isn't Korvosa rather far away? Outside of Galt?"
"In Varisia," Dr. Orontius supplied helpfully, "but really, it's no further away than that picture." He gestured to a wall crowded with old paintings. He'd shown me his collection many times, telling tales of his travels in the days before the Revolution: The Grand Opera House of Egorian, capital of devil-haunted Cheliax; or The Warlock's Walk in Nex, parade ground for its arcane arclords.
His finger indicated a smoke-yellowed painting up in one corner. A small brass plaque attached to the frame identified it as The Old Quay In Korvosa. "Are you familiar with a metaphysical process known as 'teleportation'?"
I was not familiar with teleportation before Dr. Orontius cast his spell. Afterwards? I never wished to experience it again. Unfortunately, if we ever wanted to see our beloved Galt, we would rejoin him on the morrow at this spot when he would transport us back to Isarn.
I was also wondering if we'd traveled in time as well as space, for the sun hung lower in the east than it had in Isarn, but before I could ask, Dr. Orontius pronounced some ritual phrase and vanished with an inrush of air and an audible pop.
Norret and I were left on the quay, a very old dock, even older than the one in Dr. Orontius's antique painting. As I looked down at it, I realized we were standing at the same spot where the painting had been made.
"An excellent illustration of sympathetic magic," Norret remarked.
He wasn't smiling, but the corners of his eyes crinkled. He knew the pun he'd made, but wasn't going to admit it.
"But which branch? Homeopathic or contagious?"
"Homeopathic," I decided. "The Law of Similarity governs a wizard using a painting to go where it shows."
"But wouldn't it also be contagious?" My brother waved a gloved hand. "Surely it was painted from this exact vista."
The boards of the quay were spotted with pigment. A short distance away were two easels with artists behind them. No pun intended, we'd teleported to the most picturesque spot in Korvosa.
"Both then. It falls under the Law of Contact too."
The Law of Contact, or Contagion, stated that things that had once been in contact remained in contact. That meant that anything that touched evil could become evil, so if you put on a ring that had been to the Worldwound, for example, you could be possessed by a demon. If you touched something that had been touched by a plague victim? You could catch the plague.
It was alarming to think about. Before, I had thought that sickness was carried by tiny pixies so small as to be invisible, who flew over the river from Kyonin on mosquitoes and shot people with poison darts. At least that's what the doctor told my mother. While I'm sure she put out a bowl of milk and honey to make them take my fever away, that obviously didn't work.
Norret's solution, rather than milk and honey to bribe capricious fey, was vinegar to drive them off. Thieves vinegar was perfumed with a bouquet of magical herbs–sage, mint, tansy, thyme, rosemary, lavender, wormwood, and rue–but it took an alchemist to know how to decoct them so what you got was an antiplague instead of salad dressing. Besides driving away evil pixies, thieves vinegar was said to ward off fever spirits, purge foul humours, and repel the flies that were the eyes of Urgathoa, at least if you believed the nursery rhyme:
I met a pale lady in a tattered spattered gown.
Her hair was black. Her face was white. Her dress was red and brown.
She said the flies were all her eyes and she saw near and far.
I drove her off with salad and a splash of vinegar!
That was a lot to expect from salad dressing.
That said, I had faith in my brother. He had faith in Citizen Cedrine who'd taught him the formula. She in turn had had faith in the graverobbers who'd used the perfumed vinegar to safely plunder plague pits and battlefields before they were sent to the guillotine for their crimes.
We'd washed with it, gargled with it, and for good measure carried hollowed-out pomander oranges studded with cloves, wreathed in frilly ribbons, and filled with sponges soaked with thieves vinegar. "Carried" is probably not the right word. They were floating, and not just because Rhodel was playing with them or because I'd forgot and reached for something with my soul's hand instead of my regular hand like I sometimes did. They were floating because Norret's only sponge came from a deceased will-o'-wisp, which he'd prepared specially so that it would retain its ability to float. It glowed, too, or at least would come nightfall.
So there we were, standing on the oldest quay in Korvosa with pomander oranges circling our heads.
Strange as it may sound, we were not the strangest people there. Two men walked down the quay wearing perfectly ordinary tricorne hats, but below them they had the faces of storks. Occasionally they stopped at a shop, looked in, and marked an X on the door with chalk. At first I was thinking they had stork men in Korvosa like I'd heard lived in Osirion, but then I realized that they were wearing masks.
"Plague doctors," Norret explained. "Those are doctors' masks."
"Wouldn't storks make more sense for midwives?"
"If they wore them for fashion, yes," explained Norret, "but the beaks hold herbs that work like our pomanders. Powdermaster Davin once helped us rig up similar masks for the battlefield. But he'd been to Korvosa before the Revolution and said it's illegal to wear a doctor's mask if you're not a doctor. Besides, we don't want to see patients. We just need to find Zharmides the Godless—or his body. He is, or at least was, a professor at the Acadamae."
"Where's the Acadamae?"
It was a reasonable question, and I was completely skipping the fact that I'd missed the honorific and "Zharmides the Godless" didn't sound like anyone you wanted to deal with, even if he was dead.
Especially if he was dead. I didn't know what the gods did with atheists, but it couldn't be pleasant. And I'm saying this as someone who met a couple of them.
Gods, I mean. Not atheists. Or, if I hadn't met them, at least I dreamed about Shelyn and Pharasma talking about me when I was dying, so it sort of counts.
"I think it's on the top of a hill." Norret glanced around. Two hills were visible in the city, one nearer, one farther. "Let me ask."
He went over to one of the artists while I stood there feeling somewhere between stupid and nervous. Apart from that time when I died, I'd never been outside of Galt, and while Korvosa wasn't as grand as Isarn, it was still far grander than Dabril. And there was a plague, so I assumed many folk were staying in.
"Reefclaw pasty! Hot 'n tasty!"
Even plague couldn't stop barkers. A young woman wearing a patchwork scarf waved to me. Her booth's sign read Meatclaw's Feast! It showed some horrible monster with the front half of a lobster and the back half of an eel, a giant wooden claw grasping a doll in the shape of a terrified fisherman.
Behind the young woman was an older one tending a cauldron of boiling oil. She used a wire mesh scoop to fish out balls of fried meat that looked like the salmon croquettes. One of them floated in the air, took a second to dip itself in what looked like cameline sauce, and popped itself in my open mouth.
I didn't know whether to thank Rhodel or be annoyed at her, so I just ate it. The sauce did taste like cameline, with cinnamon and nutmeg, but with mint in place of the usual ginger. The pasties tasted like crayfish-and-lamprey tarts.
"For eight silver shields, I'll owe you three more pasties and another spoon of thileu bark sauce." I glanced at the menu slate. It seemed spice was as dear in Korvosa as it was in Isarn, but meat was cheaper, even if it was monster meat.
I took out a gold minted by one of Galt's previous Revolutionary Councils and tossed it to her. The young woman scrutinized it and shrugged. She handed me a paper cone with three more pasties, a waxed paper cup of dipping sauce, and a couple of the local silvers which did indeed have shields on them.
I went back over to Norret, who was talking with one of the artists. "And they still make Newby Violet? Excellent!" He noted the reefclaw pasties and the dipping sauce. He took one, sampling both. "Thileu bark? Some interesting alchemical properties there. And... reefclaw?" He glanced over at the sign. "That could come in useful."
He took a second pasty and munched it. Then he confiscated the last pasty and the dipping sauce, placing the pasty in a pouch and the sauce in a stoppered vial. "Intriguing stuff, thileu bark. Only the Varisians know the trick of harvesting it." He chewed, considering. "Said to be one of the few spices potent enough to be tasted by the dead."
"Did you find the Acadamae?"
"Oh, yes, it's on that hill over there." He pointed to the farther one. "But I also found out where we could buy a map."
My brother had that dreamy look he sometimes gets. He led us up a couple streets and around a corner. There he stopped and stared with an expression like he'd seen Shelyn combing out her rainbow-streaked hair.
I saw a sagging old shop with a quilt of little diamond-paned windows displaying pots and jars, easels and brushes, and a signboard that looked like an artist's palette sized for a giant. The multicolored splotches spelled out Hessim, Newby, & Sage Paint Manufactory.
"Powdermaster Davin told me about this place."
I followed my brother inside. The shop reeked of turpentine and linseed oil. And poison. My unicorn senses were almost overwhelmed: arsenic in the familiar Isarn green, quicksilver in the Tian red, and white lead in the flake white. That was everywhere, in gallon jars and penny pots and covering all the pre-painted canvases.
They also, indeed, had maps, whimsical illustrated ones with points of interest drawn to a larger scale. But the pigments and poisons were everything an alchemist could dream of, which explained my brother's glazed expression. "I want your deluxe set. The one with everything—including the special pigments..."
Three old men stood behind the counter. When I say "old," I mean you could picture them patting liches on the head and calling them "sonny." When I say "men," I'm meaning men shorter than me, like tall no-nonsense gnomes. On the wall behind the counter hung three masterful portraits labeled with helpful brass plaques: Hessim, Newby, and Sage.
Sage spoke first: "You couldn't afford it."
Hessim spoke second: "Who told you to ask?"
Newby simply took off his thick spectacles, polished them with a velvet pocket square, and named a figure that would have made Abadar check his vault.
Norret did not drop his monocle. He reached into his pack and pulled out a beautiful cut crystal flask that had formerly belonged to Dabril's duchess and had until recently held honeysuckle absolute. Now it was glowing with an eerie light. "Perhaps we could work out a trade."
Coming Next Week: Adventures at the Acadamae with Norret and Orlin in Chapter Two 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 Carmen Cianelli