The Year of the Dead Rose
by Rachel Parsons
Table of Contents
Chapter 12 and Chapter 13
appeared in issue 239.
Princess Rhiannon of New Fairy was a prodigal daughter of a king, forced by circumstance into a life of prostitution before returning to her father. Though freed from her servitude, Rhiannon has suffered a terrible curse and must appear naked at all times, vulnerable and cold. As she resumes her rightful place in the world, she encounters dark sorcery, the evil of men, the intrigue of enemies and her own inner conflicts.
Stone was dangling on the edge of the landing to Dol Pelbin’s apartment. The advantage that you have when your quarry is the king of thieves is that everyone knows where he lives and can give you directions. The disadvantage is that the cutthroats who are his guards would kill you as blink at you. And they were everywhere. So there had been just one thing to do.
The witch had been easy to find, too. She had a small dwelling outside of Capital City, in a clearing that she kept herself. She was the only one of the sisterhood still in residence in New Dyved, but she had proclaimed, according to the whispers among the rogues, that she would not leave until Queen Alcippe was forced to eat her own bosoms. This had been uttered with the air of prophecy, as odd as such a thought was.
Stone had reckoned that the witch was his patron’s nemesis. But she needn’t know he worked for the woman she had made go naked before all others. He had already dipped into his draughts, bought from sorcerers in New Fairy, which guaranteed he could lie to anyone without detection. Now, it was another invulnerability from detection that he sought.
The witch had been working in her herb garden. Pouring bones of salt sea shark over her spices; she picked up a baboon’s arm and squeezed macabre bloody droppings on her vegetables. She had a bag of grotesque noses around her waist. She certainly lived up to her reputation: although clothed in a black gown, she was indeed the most hideous woman Stone had ever met. Although entirely without snakes, as a gorgon would have, she had warts, moles; a nose as large as one of the Preseli mountain peaks, and a figure, if something that gelatinous could be called a figure, that seemed to slither and quiver under her dress. He was morally certain that at least there had to be snakes undulating out from her stomach.
“Madam Graymulkin,” Stone said, bowing deeply.
“Master Stone,” she cackled.
“You know me, then?”
“There is little I do not know, for Time Itself is upside down to me.”
Stone had no idea what she was saying. “Does your knowledge extend to what I need?”
“The Dark One Himself has told me. You may have what you need, and for only a modest price.”
“I am prepared to pay well,” Stone said.
“And well you shall pay. For when I need you, I will come for you. And you will perform a mission for me.”
“What mission is that?”
“When I know of it, so shall you. Here is what you seek.” She had reached into a pocket on her apron, and pulled out a slime green jelly that had been compacted. She handed it to him.
“How does it work?” He stared at it insensibly.
“Remove all of your garments. Smear it on yourself.”
“And it will make me invisible?”
“It will make you inconspicuous. People will see you but perceive you not. But be careful.”
“If you wear it long enough, you will become permanently inconspicuous. Nobody will ever have commerce with you again. Cabbies will whip their horses right by you; serving wenches will ignore you no matter how much you protest. You could stand in a queue for hours and not be given service. Wear it for no more that the time it takes for the suns to rotate in the sky before you bathe in the Don and remove its power.”
“I understand. But if you know as much as you say, you must know on whose charge I am working.”
“Of course. I knew that some day it would come to this. Now begone, as although you work on her behalf and now I do through you, I still sting from her tongue and laugh at the indignity I have forced on her. I am not your natural friend or hers, and you will find me a most unnatural enemy.”
“I take my leave,” Stone said and quickly paced away.
“Happy now?” Graymulkin said bitingly.
The cowled man emerged from the shadows. He picked up some mouse entrails and made a cat’s cradle from them.
“I am never happy but am I satisfied? Aye.”
“You owe me a boon,” Graymulkin said.
“And when you know what it is, so will I,” the cowled man said and went back into the shadows.
So now, as inconspicuous as if he were a gnat, Stone dangled from the ledge of the fat man’s apartment. But he wasn’t a gnat. He swung, and swung, and swung, until the momentum swung him over the ledge onto the landing. His drop caused one of the pots that studded the small canopy to fall and spill its contents. A vermillion plant fell to his boots, along with its soil. Drat! But he had at least twelve hours to go before he became conspicuous again.
Thank the gods that he could wear clothes. He had thought, when he smeared the ointment on his person, that he would have to be naked for it to work. But no. It wasn’t invisibility, which might require that. The very odor of the jelly made people look beyond him, as if he were not there. He could be in the center of the city, with a sign proclaiming that he would work only for food, and people would not notice him.
He took a burglar’s tool out from his cloak and jimmied opened the glass door to Pelbin’s apartment. His heart nearly stopped. Pelbin was sitting in a fur lined cushion of a chair, cackling as he read a farthing-awful. One with a lurid cover of a man, bloody, with arms outstretched, holding a knife that had obviously just been plunged into the bosoms of a woman with a ripped bodice.
But the king of thieves just kept on reading. Tiptoeing anyway, Stone sneaked past the portly man’s footstool, the silver plates adorning the walls, and the golden statues of gnomes that had been arranged in a mock battle, as if marching to his kitchen. Stone went to a table full of documents, hoping that it would be that easy.
It wasn’t, of course. But a slight irregularity in the wallpaper between the plates did almost make it that easy. A wall safe. Pulling up his sleeves, and listening with his father’s ears — his father being a safe-cracker — he heard the tumblers. He knew by the third twist the difference between those which had been well used and those which had not. He pulled, wincing at the sound, and the safe opened. He looked nervously at Pelbin, who was slapping his knees at some passage in his book.
Inside the safe were rolls of gold coins, several pictures of big-bosomed women without clothes on painted by the hands of famous artists, and...
The ancient scroll. Stone whooped, which made Pelbin look up for a moment. Apparently the ointment didn’t apply completely to whoops. Stone held his breath until he who must be weighed went back to his book.
Stone then quickly tiptoed back to the window, shut it, and dropped down to the ground. His knees made a protesting squish as they flexed to cushion his fall, challenging his cartilage. He stood up, put the scroll away, and went to plunge off the boardwalk to wash off the ointment. It was three hours past second noon; hopefully, by this time, the Grand River wouldn’t change the tone of his voice forever.
Copyright © 2007 by Rachel Parsons