I have never been so grateful for vinegar in my life.
Norret had taught me, as part of the science of perfumery, that there were seven basic scents. One of them, putrescence, was necessary in any truly fine perfume, but only the faintest note.
Putrescence was found in stinkhorn fungi and the carrion flowers of the Mwangi Expanse, but most commonly in putrescine and cadaverine, alchemical substances that came from corpses.
We were in the Gray District, the necropolis in the southeastern corner of Korvosa. More specifically, we were in Potter's Ward, the southeastern corner of that, used for the graves of the poor. The air was filled with greasy smoke. It smelled like someone was cooking rotting pork and it had caught fire. Except that in this case it was long pork. The only thing that smelled worse than the burning corpses were the ones that weren't yet burnt.
Some of those even stumbled around. I think they were zombies–I hope they were zombies–because the other alternative was that gravediggers and priestesses of Pharasma were beating still-living plague victims with shovels and setting them on fire.
I clutched my pomander orange and inhaled the floral notes of tansy and thyme, the camphoraceous notes of rosemary and lavender, the minty note of mint, and the sweet pungency of apple cider vinegar.
"Wizards are utterly mad, Rhodel," I told my spirit guide, or possibly the empty air. "Even crazier than alchemists." I held the pomander against the stench. "A 'keepsake,' Dr. Orontius said. A memento to remember his beloved school chum.…" I snorted and was immediately sorry because I'd snorted vinegar. Then I was less sorry because, once my eyes stopped watering, I realized I couldn't smell anything.
I glanced at another corpse and checked Norret's picture of Zharmides the Godless.
Nella had told us more about Zharmides, a convert to the Rahadoum heresies who spiced his divination lectures with tart comments on the gods, calling Blackfingers a two-bit snake-oil salesman and Pharasma a schoolmarm with an attendance fetish.
Nella wouldn't repeat what he said about Asmodeus other than mentioning that one particular string of blasphemies had reportedly made an imp faint.
I was sorry that he was dead, and even more sorry I wasn't finding his body. That was my job while Norret ran interference, helping the priests and priestesses of Pharasma blow up the zombies that seemed to be rising with some regularity. Our story was that we'd been sent to help by the temple of Shelyn, not that anyone seemed inclined to check.
When I wasn't looking at corpses, I amused myself—if that's the right word—by examining the potsherds the Potter's Ward was named for. Norret's art tourists' map noted that some believed the bits of broken crockery littering the soil went back to the time of the Shoanti.
I assumed this was a more relaxing pastime when there weren't zombies lurching around. Someone else with wild hair and glassy eyes lurched toward me, except this man had a wheelbarrow filled with fresh bodies. I was about to examine them when I took note of the gravedigger's brocade waistcoat. Not only was it too fine a garment for gravedigging, but it was covered with stylized Zs. Unfortunately, the pockets were all flat. Even the pocket square was gone.
"Where'd you get your waistcoat?" I asked.
The gravedigger beamed. "The master gave it to me."
"Who's your master?"
He paused, then said swiftly, "I have no master."
"Then whom do you work for?"
"I work for the Church of Pharasma. I am a simple fellow. I dig graves." His voice was as flat as a zombie's, assuming zombies could speak. He attempted to push past me with the barrow full of plague-raddled corpses. "Please move. I must bury these bodies."
To say that he was acting strange was an understatement. "Did you by any chance find a snuffbox? A little ivory one with gold fittings, same monogram on the bottom as you've got on your vest?"
"Oh yes. The— He was very pleased to get it. Said every nobleman should have one."
"So where's your master?"
"I have no master."
"Could you take me to your master?"
The gravedigger looked puzzled, then tortured. At last he whispered, "Only if you're one of the faithful?" His eyebrows rose hopefully.
"If I said that I was?"
"Then I would ask you for the password."
"What's the password?"
"I'm not allowed to say." He looked frightened. "I am a simple fellow. I dig graves. Please move. I must bury these bodies."
I stepped aside. My skin prickled as if a whole gaggle of geese were walking over my grave, and I've been dead so I know what that feels like. I went to Norret and told him about my conversation.
"Drugged or enchanted," he concluded. "Duke Devore's formulary has a recipe for hypnotic perfume, but..." My brother flipped one of his monocles down and peered at the gravedigger. "Definitely enchanted. Mind-controlled—I've seen it on the battlefield. Give someone too many contradictory orders and the mind starts to break."
I didn't know if he was talking military orders or magical ones, or if there was much of a difference. "How do we find his 'master'?"
"We keep an eye on him and an ear out for this 'password.'"
When my brother said "keep an ear out," he meant this literally. He swigged some tincture of wolfsbane and grew ears as long and pointed as a wolf's. A bit of eavesdropping and spying on the addled gravedigger later, he said, "I am famished."
"You're hungry?" I gasped, still holding my pomander against the stench.
"No, 'I am famished.' That's the password."
It certainly wasn't one that easily sprang to mind, especially with how I'd lost any trace of my appetite, given the reeking corpses. But with that last clue, everything about the strange man fell into place. "I guess that tells us what he meant by a 'one of the faithful,' then?"
Norret nodded. "It would seem that the grave digger—or whoever's controlling him—is a worshiper of Urgathoa, goddess of gluttony and undeath."
I shuddered, but it made sense. Who else would be hungry in a graveyard?
Once the sun had set, our pomander oranges began to glow with will-o'-wisp light like little moons. We dodged one last patrol of Pharasmins as the priests swept the necropolis before locking the gates for the night–plague or no plague, even priests of the goddess of death needed sleep, especially after the day they'd had. Norret and I, on the other hand, would get no sleep, not just because of where we were but because Norret had prepared a pot of coffee Woodsedge-style—half coffee, half roasted chicory root.
We picked our way across the Potter's Ward, trailing the gravedigger and a cortege of figures we presumed were cultists. We hopped a low fence into Everyman's Ward, and finally slipped past a loose bar in the spike-tipped iron fence that led to the Gold Ward where the nobility were interred. Being a Galtan, it soothed my soul somewhat to know that the Urgathoans were desecrating the tombs of the nobility rather prying into graves of the common man, not that I think they were making that distinction.
Most of the mausoleums in the Gold Ward were grand affairs, with polished brass knobs, cypress wreaths, and even freshly cut flowers placed in urns outside. One mausoleum looked decidedly seedy and unkempt, neglected for many years, the doors falling off their hinges and the only flowers being weeds and lichen growing through cracks in the marble façade. The name Galdur was carved above the doors, and the last cultist was disappearing down the steps.
We followed and were greeted at the bottom by a lady in a tattered spattered gown like from the nursery rhyme. Her black hair was an obvious wig, though her ghoulish teeth were real enough, having been filed to points. The cultist smiled, letting us get an even better look.
"I am famished," I said, and Norret did as well.
"Then you are welcome in Urgathoa's Hall!" She smiled as if welcoming us to a holiday party. "You must call me Deaconess Gentle. How should I know you?"
"I'm Orlin, and this is my brother, Norret."
"Oh, an artist!" She took delighted note of Norret's folding easel and the multicolored alchemical stains on his clothes. "You must paint a portrait to immortalize this celebration."
Norret nodded in hasty agreement.
"So, what have you brought for Urgathoa's feast?"
"Brought?" I repeated.
"An offering to share! An unholy delicacy for us to consume for the delight of the Pallid Princess!"
I thought, then remembered my little horn spoon. "How about unicorn bone porridge?"
"Delightful!" exclaimed the cultist. "Did the beast scream as it was butchered?"
"I don't know. It died a long time ago."
"Well aged, then." She turned to Norret.
"I brought coffee."
She rolled her eyes but merely said, "Mistress Kissim brought funeral biscuits. I'm certain they will go well together." She gestured to one corner of the crypt. "I think you might set your easel up there. It will have the best view of the festivities. Do we need more candles?"
"No, the shadows are just right," Norret said.
"Well," the deaconess allowed, "none of them are hungry, but I'm certain that can be remedied later. I'm just so pleased we have an artist. Please, come in."
Norret nodded and did.
I might have expected many things of the cult of Urgathoa, but one thing I did not expect was a demented potluck. Cultists were milling about, placing food on the old sarcophagi like they were artists arranging still lifes—should the skull go beside the cheese tray or on top of it?—and everyone was chatting as if they'd gathered in some Isarn salon for a Crystalhue feast rather than in an abandoned Korvosan crypt for the blasphemous rites of the Pallid Princess.
Deaconess Gentle peered up the stairs. "Is there anyone else?"
"One more." The scent of roses and ectoplasm replaced the musty odor of the crypt.
Beside us appeared a vision of loveliness, a girl of no more than sixteen summers garbed in a green and ivory festival gown, a garland of pink noisette roses plaited into her golden hair. I'd only seen my spirit guide in this world once, when I was poisoned, but necromancers had told Norret and me that spirits had an easier time appearing to the doomed or the dying, or in certain places where the veil between worlds wore thin.
I hoped it was the third possibility, or at least that "doom" was more a warning than a certainty.
"How lovely you are!" The priestess clasped my spirit guide's hands, but not quite. "How may I know you?"
"Call me Rhodel."
"It is an honor to be graced by one of the incorporeal. Lord Galdur had feared that he would be the only one here to celebrate an ashenmorn."
"Ah nae." Rhodel laughed. "Orlin slipped his grave too."
"Indeed?" said Deaconess Gentle, blinking at me. "I took you for a living child. Forgive me."
"No need," I said truthfully.
"You shall have the place of honor." The priestess showed me to a chair at the upper left corner of the central sarcophagus, seating Rhodel just to the right of me before taking her place at the head of the "table." It was covered with a funeral pall. Seated opposite me was a rakishly handsome young man with dark hair, pale skin, and mismatched finery. Being from Galt, I was familiar with the look. It was what happened when you raided the wardrobes of dead nobles and had no eye for taste.
"Now, Master?" asked the gravedigger groveling at his side.
The gravedigger whisked away the pall like a waiter uncovering a tray. I tried not to look at what was on the slab–who was on the slab–not wanting to see another plague-ravaged corpse. But then I did and I realized that, apart from liver spots, there were no marks on the old man's naked body. The mouth was open in a death rictus. Even so, I recognized it. I had been looking at it all day. It was the face of Zharmides the Godless.
"Oh, one without the plague!" Deaconess Gentle exclaimed delightedly. "Wherever did you find it, Lord Galdur?"
The young nobleman smiled, revealing pronounced eyeteeth, and petted the gravedigger like a faithful dog. "Good Alfoun brought it to me."
"Urgathoa has truly blessed us! Much as I enjoy the fruits of the season, it's nice to have a little variety."
"Shall I have the kiss of undeath now, master?" the gravedigger begged.
"No!" cried the pretty young woman seated to his left. "You swore your next bride would be me!"
"Patience, dear ones. Go eat some rats."
He said this last just forcefully enough. They both scurried off to one of the lower tables where one of the other cultists had indeed brought rats, roasted on a stick.
"There is a chair free now, my lovely." Lord Galdur gestured.
Rhodel vanished from her chair and reappeared in the one at his side.
Deaconess Gentle made brief introductions, then told Rhodel, "I'm so embarrassed. We didn't expect any of the incorporeal. How might we feed your pain?"
"Mayhaps a li'l pinch a snuff?" Rhodel asked. "Loved it in life 'n I kin still smell it in death."
Deaconess Gentle looked perturbed, but Lord Galdur reached into his pocket and gallantly produced a snuffbox. The snuffbox. Ivory, carved with lions and lilies. Even the stylized Z on the bottom. "A nobleman never goes anywhere without it."
"Ah, how pretty!" Rhodel exclaimed. "Lemme guess yer name. Is it Zander? Zaries?"
"It's Tyrnan," he said smoothly, "the fourth of that name. But I inherited this from my great uncle, Zellin Galdur."
I realized then that the vampire was a fraud—and likely about more than just the snuffbox. I suspected that if he had any noble blood in him at all, it was only because he'd drunk it.
"I've been ta the other side. I've met Tyrnan Galdur. All four." Rhodel took the snuffbox from him—actually, physically took it—and smiled. "Yer not him."
The vampire hissed like a cat, fangs bared, but this wasn't very frightening to a ghost. "And you, milady? Who are you, appearing like a Shelynite doxy at Urgathoa's feast!?"
"Ah," said Rhodel, "ye found me out. 'Tis true. I loved the Rose mosta' all. But I lived a long life, an' I prayed ta the Pallid Princess there at the end." As she said this, she grew older and older, the lines of age and care appearing on her face, then the sores of hag pox, the harlot's curse. "Kith me, handsome!" she slurred, her odor of roses turning to alcohol, anise, and the stench of sulfur as she grabbed him in a clench. Then she caught fire and exploded in a flash of fireworks and ectoplasm.
The vampire shouted and stood, his chair clattering behind him.
I felt something appear in my hands. It was the snuffbox, sticky with ectoplasm. I quickly put it in my pocket.
Deaconess Gentle retrieved her wig from where it had been blown off in the explosion. Beneath it, her hair was stringy and white. "The incorporeal—always so dramatic!" she exclaimed to the assembled cultists.
"Where is she?" hissed the vampire. "Where's my snuffbox?"
The priestess tugged the edge of his coat. "Lord Galdur, please. The ritual."
The vampire sat, glaring at me.
Deaconess Gentle placed one hand on my shoulder, then addressed her congregation, "My famished ones, this is Orlin. He's brought us a special delicacy. What was it again, dear?"
"Um, unicorn bone porridge."
Appreciative sounds issued from the cultists. The pretty woman who wanted to be a vampire brought me a bowl. I tried to ignore the fact that it was made from the top of a human skull and placed the little horn spoon inside.
Thick pasty gruel welled up. Norret had tried to make it look and taste like blancmange, but it only did insomuch as blanched almond pudding looked similar to stewed unicorn bones.
I offered the bowl to the priestess. She took a delicate bite. "It... has a lovely texture," she said politely. "Like rotten brains."
I was less disturbed than I should have been. "It's a little bland," I admitted.
She smiled. "I believe Lord Galdur may have a solution." She turned to him. "Might Orlin borrow your talisman?"
The vampire set down the glass of blood he had been draining from Zharmides' arm and addressed his priestess. "Does he have any skill as a chef?"
"A little," I admitted.
"Marvelous." He greeted me with a predatory smile. "Behold this talisman, sacred to the Pallid Princess." He reached up to his neck and touched his lavalier. "It makes the blood of the dead taste as sweet as that of the living." The pendant was amethyst, dark as Hymbrian grapes, a six-sided natural crystal capped with silver filigree in the shape of flies. "In the hands of a true chef, it can also produce sugar, salt, and spice. Yet that is not its only virtue. When touched by the undead, the Princess's crystal becomes the pure purple of royalty." He unclasped the chain, and held it out, then dropped it to pool on Zharmides' dead chest. "When touched by those bereft of Her blessing, it turns pale." The crystal clouded and color leached from it, transmuting from amethyst to milky quartz, white as leprosy. "But when touched by the living, it turns as pink as a baby's cheek."
The vampire bared his fangs in a feral grin. "Although you appear alive, Orlin, you smell of vinegar, like my cousins from the east." He stared at my neck. "Tell me, does your head come off?"
So far as I knew, everybody's head came off when you applied a Final Blade. "Yes, but I'd prefer if it stayed where it is."
"Just so," said the vampire. "I've heard it's troublesome to put your head back. But as youthful as I appear, I am older than I look."
"Indeed," agreed the vampire, "but from what I know, my eastern cousins are all women, not men. And never children. Touch the talisman and reveal Urgathoa's truth!"
He was trying to command me like his rat-chewing lackeys. But it was a litmus test. As awful as Urgathoa was, she still followed rules. The milky quartz of the pallid crystal would turn to amethyst for the dead and rose quartz for the living.
Of course, if you contaminated your sample, a litmus test could yield a false positive or negative. "Fine." I stood up and reached for the crystal while under my breath I said, "Rhodel...."
My spirit guide knew how to take a cue. I felt the cold touch as her hand overlaid mine.
I sat back down. While my fingers were closed around the crystal, they weren't touching it. Rhodel's were. Slowly I saw it clear and change from lavender to violet to deepest amethyst.
"Blessed child of Urgathoa!" cried the priestess.
The vampire sulked, even more so when I asked, "So what do I do now? Twist it like a pepper mill?"
As I said the word "pepper," a sprinkle floated down over the bowl of unicorn bone porridge, just like it had for Dr. Orontius. "Does it do thileu bark?" As I said it, it answered my question.
"If you add some fear's breath and hatefinger, I'll take that bowl, please," said Deaconess Gentle.
I'd never heard of these herbs, but Urgathoa's lavalier had, adding a sprinkle of each.
"Just nightfog and bloodroot for my wine," "Lord Galdur" grumbled sourly, holding out his glass of wizard blood.
Orders came in. It was almost like I was back in Isarn dishing up breakfast for our boarders. I fixed myself a bowl of porridge, seasoned it with sugar, cinnamon, and ginger, and tried to pretend I wasn't eating out of the top of someone's skull. It did taste like mother's blancmange now.
The festivities proceeded. Deaconess Gentle opened some moldering tome titled Serving Your Hunger, which I'd initially taken for a cookbook, and led the congregation in a ghastly chant made more horrid by the fact that most of the cultists were off key. Then she had me sprinkle Zharmides the Godless with thileu bark, after which she proceeded to pour Korvosan tawny port over the wizard's corpse and began to dish up slices of meat.
I didn't know whether this was the fate the gods had designed for those who mocked them or whether Zharmides had foreseen it and this explained his choice in religion.
As the cultists continued their ritual, I began noticing little oddities. For all that she looked the part of a priestess, Deacon Gentle seemed to fumble her way through the divine readings, sometimes stopping and having to repeat passages. Though the other cultists ate with gusto, all bore normal human features, and one or two even seemed a little queasy over the things they were shoving into their mouths. Only the vampire was actually undead, and despite the way the humans simpered and fawned over him, he too seemed to be trying hard to play a part—that of the world-weary undead lord.
They're new at this. The realization struck me suddenly, and for a moment I felt a little sorry for them. I wondered if their conversion was the result of the plague, or if they merely hoped to be rewarded by the vampire. Either way, it was a pathetic scene.
Then one of them began gnawing at a loop of intestine, and my sympathy evaporated.
I realized that Deaconess Gentle was looking expectantly at me. She was holding an empty plate, waiting for me to request a cut.
"Um, that's not how I... serve my hunger," I said as politely as I could, hoping I was saying the right thing.
"Indeed? And what would your kind prefer?"
Alarmed, I looked for Norret. The woman followed my glance. "Oh, the artist! Of course—he'll eat first, then you'll drink from his veins. Splendid."
My brother came over and saw what he was expected to do. Fortunately there was a line of cultists, and some were going back for seconds.
I got his attention when the priestess went to pour more port over Zharmides' body. I surreptitiously slipped my brother the damned snuffbox. He put it in a pocket and handed me a vial, jerking his head towards the bottle of port.
I unstoppered the vial and gripped it tight with my spirit's hand. It glittered like a diamond as I raised it in the air, but the cultists were distracted and drunk and didn't notice the drops dripping down as I added to Zharmides' seasoning. For good measure, I made sure a few drops got into the vampire's glass as well.
Then I pulled my spirit's hand back to my physical hand and stole a glance at the empty vial, pondering the label, written in Norret's neat handwriting: Syrup of Ip.
Coming Next Week: Things get truly gross in the final chapter of "Thieves Vinegar" by Kevin Andrew Murphy!
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