The wheel of the year had begun again and with it the month of Abadius. Abadar, Master of the First Vault, did as he had always done, and politely but firmly informed the spirits of the dead the Night of the Pale was over.
In other lands and other times, New Year's Day was an occasion for market fairs and festivals, but in Galt forty years after the Red Revolution, the holiday was more often a time for cleaning, putting things in order, and general tidying.
Norret Gantier kept this custom better than he ever had, bandaging his injured hand, decanting the will-o'-wisp's luminous ichor into pre-revolutionary champagne magnums, preserving the strange sponge-like body for future study, writing notes about the curious behavior of the lightning in the elevator cage, and telling the other inhabitants of the Liberty Hostel repeatedly that he was as mystified as they were at the miraculous restoration of the unicorn-and-cockatrice statue in the reflecting pool, the sudden appearance of the siren in the dolphin fountain, the reappearance of all the frescoes about the Liberty Hostel, and whatever that glowing mess was in the elevator.
Flauric called a mandatory household meeting for all the guests to discuss these issues—which is to say, when he served up the New Year's luncheon of Liberty Cabbage, the goose confit and sauerkraut he had left simmering since the night before, he sprang it on everyone.
Of course, those gathered in the banquet hall were already discussing it, starting with the fresco that now adorned that chamber, something between a royal wedding feast and a menagerie. Here was the duke, there was the duchess, there was Crapaudine the giant toad dressed like an old witch with a lace collar and a pointed beaver hat festooned with ribbons, alongside her horrid son, Coco the cockatrice. Further along, standing on his hind legs and dressed as a court fop, was Patapouf the unicorn, flirting with a camelopard dressed as a houri from Katapesh. The chamber depicted the alchemical process of Dissolution, not just because the wedding reception looked like a remarkably genteel afternoon tea in honor of the Mother of Monsters, but because at one end of the table sat the Green Dragon with his ward, the Green Lion, in the process of eating one of the solid gold wedding plates, the allegory for royal water dissolving gold. Not that Norret was explaining this.
There was particular consternation about the fresco in the front hall, as the image of Liberty had lost her liberty cap and the banner of the revolution but otherwise remained untouched, making her look much more like Duchess Devore—especially since her husband had appeared on the wall opposite. Norret privately surmised this was because Tintinetto had sealed his works with an alchemical overglaze derived from copal that allowed objects to resist the passage of time, and the patriotic overpainter had not been privy to this trade secret. Thus, when the fog containing the last of Norret's universal solvent had drifted through, it stripped the additions but left the originals intact.
Nowhere was this more apparent than the grand ballroom, where three and a half stories of whitewash had vanished overnight, replaced with Tintinetto's masterpiece, a glorious mural of the Mountain of the Alchemists with the Tree of Knowledge at the summit.
All the wedding guests were there, garbed as the various planetary emissaries and ambassadors of the elements, from the six-year-old Rhodel with her hobby horse to the duke and duchess representing the Sun and the Moon, wearing planetary symbols on their bodies and not much else. The Tree of Knowledge was a great ash, with silver branches, golden leaves, and every symbol from the requisite mole nibbling the deepest roots to the poetic birds of Katapeshi alchemy nestling in philosophic eggs where the uppermost twigs extended into the lunette at the top.
There were two main schools of thought among the inhabitants of the Liberty Hostel as to what to make of all this. The majority, led by Joringel, the gardener, who had spent the Night of the Pale at the Tabernacle of Shelyn along with most of the village, were of the opinion that the sudden appearance of so much beautiful artwork featuring so many lovely roses could only be a sign of Shelyn's divine favor—and the weird kinky stuff was probably just a peace offering from the Eternal Rose to her misguided brother, Zon-Kuthon. Indeed, Joringel explained excitedly, she had wept tears of joy to see so much beauty, and at this point began to spout utter gibberish. Older inhabitants of the Liberty Hostel explained that he was speaking in tongues, specifically the celestial language of the angels, as Joringel went to the elevator cage and began to ecstatically smear himself with glowing will-o'-wisp ichor, gesturing for others to join him. Some did.
The minority opinion, led by Flauric—which Norret found himself expected to go along with, as he also claimed to have spent the entire night drunk at the Transfixed Chanticleer and no one had contradicted him yet—was that since the Liberty Hostel reeked of vinegar, this could only be a sign of Cayden Cailean's divine displeasure, in no way related to the fact that Flauric had possibly overcooked the sauerkraut, or maybe confitted enchanted geese (even if this would also explain the smell of goose grease and garlic in the ballroom). Besides which, his sauerkraut had been nowhere near the tavern when Coco the cockatrice's statue had come to life and everyone had chased the monster out into the snow—even Lutin, the blessed tavern cat, who had come back two hours later, bedraggled and cold. But as everyone could see now, the brave cat had chased the monster all the way back to the Liberty Hostel, where it hopped back onto the unicorn's head—because as everyone knows, water is the one thing even the bravest cat will not touch.
Tantif the falconer, the household's sole worshiper of Erastil, usually stayed in the mews but had spent the Night of the Pale in Old Deadeye's lonely shrine—a folly in the shape of a hunter's hut at the edge of the snow-filled gardens. She suggested that the two interpretations were not mutually exclusive: Perhaps the Accidental Hero had helped the cat chase the metal cockatrice back onto the unicorn's head, and then the Eternal Rose had decided that since one bit of pretty artwork had been restored, she might as well restore the rest of it. Maybe the time had come for the art to be seen again, for what could the grand mural be but the Liberty Tree itself? Indeed, there was now even a liberty cap atop it!
There was indeed a liberty cap atop the Liberty Tree, or at least Norret's cap caught in the chandelier nearest the mural of the Tree of Life where it had landed when the grenade exploded. Tantif sent her favorite falcon up, and it returned a moment later with the cap, looking at her disappointedly as if it had expected a dead rabbit. She rewarded it regardless, then shared a significant look with Norret.
He tried to work out whether the reflecting pool was visible from the garden folly, but it didn't matter. The road certainly was, and a man with a crutch made a distinctive silhouette and track.
Dissembling quickly, Norret claimed that when he was at the tavern, he threw his cap at the cockatrice, and it stuck on the horn coming out of the monster's chest. He then collected it from Tantif, showing the hole conveniently made by the falcon's claws, and opined that perhaps the vinegar smell was from Cayden's displeasure at Coco as the god's blessed cat chased the cockatrice around the Liberty Hostel?
Everyone looked like they bought this except Tantif, but she held her tongue. Norret put his cap back on.
The birds in the top of the tree then began to sing:
The summit of our mount have ye
Yet what to choose now from the tree?
Everyone looked at the painted birds, then Norret, then back as the birds continued in order.
The phoenix: Eternal Youth?
A pelican pecking blood from her breast: Unending Health?
A clever-looking raven: Infernal Wit?
A halcyon floating atop a sea of mercury: Undying Wealth?
A cockatrice: The Baleful Sting of Poison's Feast?
Finally, a griffin: Or Every Strength of Every Beast?
It was the riddle of the alchemists: what to choose once the great work was complete, for while there were six known prizes at the end of the alchemist's quest, an individual could pick only one. Or at most two, if united in an alchymical wedding.
Or one could die en route, as had Arjan, or get distracted by petty things like revolutions, like Anais. Or...
Norret wasn't certain what the "or" was for him, but suspected it might end with his head meeting a Final Blade like his brother and father, despite the fact that he was currently a slight favorite of the village council, his fireworks having lined their coffers nicely last All Kings Day.
Someone then remarked how strange this was, for earlier that day they had played a game in the billiards room and the great shark that had appeared on the wall had spoken a rhyme as well. Others then revealed similar experiences, and it was put to the test by Norret being asked to doff his cap and put it back on again. Norret did, and again the birds sang their rhyme.
Most were mystified, but a few posited that this was some arcane wizardry or fey sorcery, like the talking mirrors and snuffboxes in the bards' tales—illusion rather than necromancy.
Norret took out his formulary, opened to a completely blank page, and wrote down the rhyme, then asked the others what the frescoes had said in the other chambers and what the good citizens of the Liberty Hostel had been doing just before they did.
This explained everything except why Coco's statue was still wearing his own liberty cap.
Tantif then remarked that if a metal cockatrice was smart enough to remember that cats hate water, he was probably smart enough to keep his liberty cap on, given the opinion of crowns in Galt.
Everybody laughed, although Norret's was forced.
The citizens then agreed, by unanimous vote, that as this was the Liberty Hostel, the mural must now officially be the Liberty Tree, for it would be seditious to call it anything else, and all the other artwork might be similarly patriotic with just a little imagination. Indeed, there was even a portrait of the Gray Gardeners in the crypt, and the unseen armonica often played the Litranaise as well. If that wasn't patriotic, what was?
Norret bit his tongue. After reading The Alchymical Wedding, he knew that the Litranaise was just a slowed reprise of the Silver Maiden's song, the girlish minuet the accursed armonica also played at times.
Rhodel was also right. Darl Jubannich was a hack. In the libretto, under the title of the Silver Maiden's song, was a note: Sung to the tune of "The Seven Merry Maids of Westcrown."
Regardless, everyone thanked Tantif for imparting Erastil's wisdom, some more than most.
As part of the celebration of New Year's Day, local custom was to sort through the unwanted clutter from one's life and give away what one could not use. Norret offered Tantif all of Rhodel's old clothes, which he thought she might get some use out of, and in the middle of the bundle was the pouch with Rhodel's savings, which she certainly could.
Tantif smiled and thanked him.
Over the course of the next few days, Norret set about gathering the rest of the rhymes and triggering actions, recording the various mathematical patterns of the dancing lights, as well as scavenging ingredients to concoct more of the universal solvent so he could properly clean the changing maiden.
As a rule, alchemists did not trust wizardry. Not because it was not efficacious, but because it was not efficacious enough. If one wished to hide something from divination, for example, a wizard would cast various abjurations and illusions that were neither foolproof nor permanent, and even if made permanent, could still be suppressed or dispelled. An alchemist faced with the same task would rely on natural magic, specifically the fact that lead was the metal symbolic of Eox, the dead planet, and deadened divinatory magic accordingly. Thus, all that was necessary was a thin sheet of the metal and a thinner application of sovereign glue.
Norret had composed his latest solvent from the various citrus oils used in Dabril's perfumes, primarily bergamot and neroli, fresh from the orangery, and as he applied it, the lead sheeting peeled back like the rind of a bitter orange.
Soon Madame Devore's changing maiden stood there in all her silvery glory. Where there was once plain lead with poor silvering, she was now a masterpiece of occult engraving over purest mithral, the wondrously light planetary metal symbolic of Liavara, the Dreamer. The mirror's back was cut into the diamond quadrants of a horoscope, the tray into a horary circle, the table was a map of the constellations, and even the maiden's head was now no mere stand for hat or wig but a phrenological head with the face marked with the signs of astrological physiognomy: on the chin, the Hammer; by the right side of the mouth, the Key; on the left of the nose, the eight-pointed Star of Wisdom; on the right cheek, the Shield; by the left eye, the Book; and on the brow, the mark of the constellation the Revolution had rechristened the Liberty Cap, but properly known as the Crown.
Norret was out of fern seed, so mixed another of Citizen Cedrine's signature extracts, a tincture of pimpernel to clear the eyes, plus two drops of eyebright to sharpen them. He applied this prescription to his good eye and blinked twice, but only once he looked under the table did he see the secret drawer. The central pillar appeared affixed by a knob, but his preternatural acuity showed this to be false. Around it were three bands marked with the sigils for the sun, the moon, and the constellations. Norret then found that the maiden's arms were now free. Moving the mirror moved the moon's dial. Moving the tray, the sun's. The constellations were fixed in their zodiacal houses.
Norret tried a number of combinations to no avail. Norret whispered a prayer to Abadar, Master of Keys, then looked to the wall of his room and noticed the lunar and solar patches on the faces of Anais and Arjan Devore, then back to the map of physiognomy on the face of the mithral maiden.
Norret moved the moon and sun to one position, then another, the horoscopes of Anais and Arjan. Nothing happened. Then his good eye came to rest on The Alchymical Wedding. Norret opened it, and after a moment's calculation added a third date.
The drawer dropped open.
Norret used tongs to retrieve a cylindrical leaden casket, a final protection against divination. He placed it on the table, then put on the mask he wore when dealing with toxic fumes. There were none, and when he opened the casket, the ivory leather inside tested negative for contact poison.
He unrolled it, revealing a glove of fine kidskin. Then he realized it was something far finer: unicornskin, for the cuff was fringed with silken beard below the palm and snowy forelock at the top, and the back was set with nothing less than the Carbuncle itself, a ruby cabochon lobed like a heraldic rose or the base of a unicorn's horn. Once he had taken off his mask in wonder, he noticed the whole was softly perfumed: Duchess Devore, the rose of mystery. It was the glove the elderly Arjan wore here, perfumed with his wife's signature scent.
Norret unwound the bandage from his left hand. His scars now had more scars, but the wounds were mostly healed. He pulled the old duke's glove over his hand. The duke had been a smaller man, but the glove expanded to fit. This was magic, and not just the natural magic of alchemy, but a product of wizardry or sorcery. The Carbuncle shone on the back of his hand, glowing softly with an inner light which grew brighter and began to pulse with the beat of his heart.
He remembered something from a tale Melzec told once after a battle, of a gloved assassin who had but to snap his fingers to have a flask of poison appear. Norret had thought this exceptionally silly, and said as much, since poison could be hidden in anything from rings to fan mounts with no magic required. Even so....
Norret snapped his fingers. A book appeared in his hand, and from the stains and scorches, Norret knew exactly what he was holding: the formulary of Anais or Arjan Devore.
He opened it and began to page through. This was Arjan's, but with copious notes and annotations in a ladylike hand. This was the backup Anais left when she fled the Revolution.
It was a treasure for any alchemist, but especially for Norret. There were formulae for powders and tinctures, dust and unguents, alchemically infused bath bombs and clever methods of reducing potions so they could be used as patches and beauty marks. Yet most important of all, there were formulae for extracts, the prescriptions an alchemist mixed to take advantage of his own natural magic, far cheaper than potions and able to be prepared on the fly. As one might expect of an old man, Arjan D'Ivore's formulary included healing balms of all different strengths and purposes, swabs to mend a deaf ear, drops to clear a clouded eye....
The tinctures of pimpernel and eyebright were already to hand, so Norret healed his eye first, almost throwing the patch away in delight, then on second thought, simply left it flipped up, still attached by a bit of spirit gum.
His ear was next, and with a brief popping sound, the volume of the music drifting down the hall doubled. It was the accursed armonica playing the Litranaise again, but for once, no sound could be more welcome.
Last came the healing balm. Norret composed it as ointment, smearing down his left side where the bomb went off almost a year ago. It sank in and soothed, then all at once began to itch terribly. Norret scratched and clawed at himself, then gazed in wonderment as sheets of dead skin fell away, leaving fresh pink flesh and the ability to feel once again.
Norret closed the formulary and would have kissed it, save that he would not even do that with his own given the number of powders and tinctures it had absorbed over the years. Instead, he removed the unicornskin glove and applied the last of the healing balm to his scarred hand. The formula worked as it was meant to, scarred skin flaking away like winter's snow, and he then replaced the glove and set to perusing the rest of the formulary.
There were a dozen recipes he wished to try, and a dozen more he knew he would, but soon he found the information he both suspected and sought: the glove was the key he needed, but only half. The other half was still locked beneath Dabril's snows.
Norret then glanced up and blessed old Rhodel. She may have been a slattern and dollymop, but she was a true daughter of Dabril. Rhodel had gathered the flowers from the Liberty Hostel's gardens and dried them herself, blending her own sachets and potpourri, and as any child of Dabril would, she had kept the varieties separate for when she chose to blend more.
Norret fished through the jar until he found a bloom that was still intact, if dried, then said the word written in the formulary: "Anais."
The duchess's rose shrank away to nothing, vanishing from sight, but Norret knew it was still there.
He gathered up the formularies and stowed them in his pack along with The Alchymical Wedding, added the glowing bottles of will-o'-wisp ichor, kicked the scraps of lead under the bed, then took a few minutes to figure out how to release the catches to disassemble the changing maiden. It came apart, a marvel of engineering, able to be reconfigured to anything from an astrolabe to a spinning jenny according to the instructions in the formulary, even an armonica using a series of nested crystal bowls stored inside the skull, though Norret was more interested in configuring it as a portable alchemy lab. All the components stowed save the tabletop, which he wrapped with his grenadier's blanket to give the appearance of a round shield.
Norret then flipped down his unnecessary eyepatch and picked up his unneeded crutch. Unnecessary and unneeded did not mean they were no longer useful, and even the scabbed bandage still served a purpose, disguising the duke's glove and the Carbuncle.
Norret proceeded to the pump room, hurrying a bit at the end because his two good ears now heard the finale of Jubannich's masque, and to operate the water clock, it was necessary to start at the beginning.
In what he had formerly thought of as the blessed silence between performances, Norret reset all the baths and fountains and even the heating ducts for the various floors, allowing the pressure in the spring to build until he heard the first haunting sounds of the glass armonica drifting down the stairs with the opening notes of the prelude.
It was more tedious than difficult: this valve turned here, that pipe diverted there, a bath drained, a fountain filled, and patience. He heard the sounds of the chateau shifting, the siren lowering and raising, the geyser shooting out of the reflecting pool, a dozen small bits of choreography that would have been observed by the masquers as they went about grounds while the inventor—perhaps Alysande Benedict herself—stayed here behind the scenes with perhaps her greatest invention, the steam-powered waterworks of the Devore residence.
At last it was done and Norret proceeded to the ballroom.
It was a while before he could get it to himself, as Joringel had taken it as a divine mission from Shelyn to repair the beautiful things that had been broken, and so was enlisting folk to help rehang the fallen chandelier, repair the floor, and possibly use the smashed casks and bottles in the winecellars as materials to mend the shattered doors. Norret was exactly the man that he'd been wanting to speak to, especially since the alchemist had been doing such a fine job repairing the fountains. No one had ever seen the geyser before!
Norret talked pleasantly about the chandelier, trying to figure out how to rehang it while time was wasting, as the window of opportunity was only so long. But then Flauric came in to announce that his famous cassoulet that had been simmering since Crystalhue was at last done!
Norret silently blessed Flauric. His cassoulet was even more effective than the Night of the Pale for clearing the ballroom. Norret told Joringel to run on ahead and save a seat for him; he would be along momentarily.
Norret entered the elevator car, the will-o'-wisp's ichor now dried to an irridescent shimmer. He shut the door, then looked about until he found the ormolu flames in the shape of a hand. In the middle was a raised design in the shape of a rose. Norret unwound the bandage and placed the glove over the flaming hand, then with his free hand, pushed the control lever down.
The mechanism engaged and the elevator began its descent, at first into darkness lit only by the warm glow of the Carbuncle but then into brilliant illumination.
The alchemical laboratories Norret was used to were grubby affairs, at best back rooms of former apothecary shops with dusty stuffed crocodiles or house drakes dangling from the rafters. This was bright as day, with clean white marble and the cold light of a hundred ensorcelled flambeaux set in untarnished alchemical silver sconces never looted by the Revolution.
There were apothecary cabinets on the walls, drawers clearly and neatly labeled, cabinets full of tinctures and reagents, bottles of acid and jars of mineral salts, and specimens preserved in oil, wine, or the fluids of Osirian alchemy. In the middle of all this was a great table stacked with a veritable mountain of alchemical glassware: alembics, retorts, cucurbits, crucibles, pelicans, and even a philosophic egg in the center.
Some grand experiment had been left to run while the duchess had fled, but now the burners beneath the crucibles had gone out, the fluids in the pelicans had clouded or sedimented, and in the philosophic egg, rather than the snowy white of albification or the beauteous iridescence of the stage of the great work known as the peacock's tail, all that was left was an ugly charred lump that looked like a black rock.
Norret looked again.
In all of the illustrations, the philosopher's stone was shown as a gleaming golden nugget shining forth with radiance and power, with all the figures seeing it being awed by its majesty or capering about in attitudes of joy. Certainly that's how the grand finale of Darl Jubannich's masque The Alchymical Wedding had ended.
The reality was somewhat less and ever so much more. Just as silver tarnished, so did the stone.
Norret took his mineral hammer out of his pack, delicately cracking the philosophic egg until the charred black lump fell out the hole at the bottom.
He then began to tap at the stone itself until a piece cracked off. It was like a geode, but instead of being filled with jewels or mineral crystals, in the hollow all that could be seen was a bit of shimmering mercury. The mercury of the philosophers.
Norret's breath stilled. This was a treasure beyond price. Not because it could be used to purify base lead into gold, or even iron into silver for that matter, but because it had a higher use, one Norret had not even thought to hope for. Yet it was still incomplete.
Norret blessed a third person that day, Anais Devore, the duchess of Dabril, for she had left her secret laboratory in a state of organization only a woman could. Even Citizen Cedrine would have approved. In the first drawer of the apothecary cabinet, alphabetically, was A for alicorn.
Inside was not a full horn, but a silver nutmeg grater, like a noblewoman would use to spice her food, or carry on her chatelaine as she had for her portrait. Inside were fragments of horn, ground down to little ivory nuts. Alicorn was unequaled for healing, and Norret would need nothing more than this.
That said, creating the potion still took hours, and there was only so long after being exposed to air before the philosophic mercury spoiled. Yet at last, it was done and the two were mixed. A golden oil formed in the flask, glowing with a soft radiance.
Norret stoppered it and gathered up his things, then stepped back into the elevator and ascended. It was night, so he was not troubled as he left the chateau, and while the gravedigger may have seen the will-o'-wisp glow from Norret's bottles or the rosy light of the Carbuncle, he was too fearful or knew better than to trouble with such lights.
Orlin's grave was undisturbed, but only for the moment. Norret took off his glove and put it in his pocket, then mixed tincture of tulip with lupin, creating a mutagenic tonic which gave him the strength and claws of a wolf. The ground was frozen, but at last his nails rasped on rotten wood.
Much has been written about the alchemical stage of putrefaction, but even winter's cold and Dabril's perfumes could only mask so much. Once the body was out of the coffin and resting on the snow, Norret shook off the wolfen mutagen and held the perfumed glove to his nose as he slit the winding sheet.
He did not want to look at the corruption, the worms, the decay, but he did. Then he unstoppered the flask and shook the liquid over the skeleton, starting with the worm-eaten husk that had once been his brother's heart.