The Alchemist’s Apprentice Snippet

29 Dec

This is one of the planned successors to The Zero Enigma.  So far, it’s nothing more than a snippet, but comments would be welcome.


I was twelve when I was taken into service.

It was no real surprise to me, not really. My stepfather might have accepted me into his home, but he’d never really liked me. There was no way a half-Hangchowese girl could pass for his. My skin was pale enough to pass for a country girl, but my almond eyes – slanted, the crueller kids said – proved that my father had come from overseas. He’d made sure I was fed and educated – the law demanded no less – yet he wasn’t going to waste any of his money on me. I certainly didn’t have enough magical talent to win a scholarship. And so, as soon as I turned twelve, my mother wrapped my dark hair in braids, stood over me as I packed a bag with everything I’d need for a month and took me down to the Hiring Hall.

My mother … I wasn’t sure how my mother felt about me. I wasn’t even clear in the details of what had transpired between her and my father. She seemed to love me, yet … yet she hadn’t kept my stepfather from ordering me into service. Was I a reminder of something she’d prefer to forget? Or was I merely old enough to earn my keep? I’d been cooking and cleaning almost as soon as I’d learnt to walk, like every other girl-child born in South Shallot; I knew the basics of housekeeping better than many a grown woman. My mother had taught me well.

I couldn’t help feeling nervous as we stepped through the massive wooden door and looked around. Normally, a girl who went into domestic service would find a placement through friends and family, but neither was willing to go out on a limb for me. My stepfather certainly wasn’t going to waste his contacts ensuring I had a good placement in a decent home. That was reserved for my younger half-sisters, assuming they didn’t have talent of their own. And yet, the Hiring Hall wasn’t meant for young girls who wanted to go into domestic service. Most of the people who came in search of a job were men from the countryside.

My mother spoke briskly to the attendants, who gave me a necklace to prove I was in search of a job. They didn’t seem surprised to see me. I couldn’t have been the only youngster who’d passed through their doors. And yet, as my mother walked me around the hall, it looked as though I wasn’t going to get a placement. I was too young for some placements, too weak or inexperienced for others … I’d never realised how limited my experience truly was until I needed a job. The Great Houses, who might have trained me, never hired through the Hiring Hall. They hired through family connections.

And then I saw Master Travis for the very first time.

He looked old to me; his chocolate-coloured face marred with the scars of a hundred potions explosions, his tattered brown robes covered with burn marks and marked with alchemical symbols I didn’t understand until much later. His gait suggested that he was constantly on the verge of falling down. He was, as he walked over to us, more than a little frightening. But he was also the only person who’d approached us.

“I need a shopgirl,” he said, bluntly. His accent was pure Shallot. I later learnt that he was a certain family’s natural-born son. “One who can read and write.”

“I can read and write,” I assured him, quickly. I could too, although not as well as he might have wished. My education hadn’t been that extensive. I certainly hadn’t done well enough to earn the chance to study for the financial or legal guilds. “And I can serve customers too.”

My mother leaned forward and started to haggle. My stepfather – damn the man – had insisted that I find employment in a place that gave me lodgings, even if I had to sleep on the cold stone floor. Master Travis haggled back, although without the intensity I’d expected from someone who’d grown up in Shallot. We’re a trading city. Children learn to bargain before they reach their second decade. By the time she’d finished, darkness was falling over the city and I had a job. Master Travis had even agreed to teach me some basic potions in exchange for a slightly reduced salary. My mother had been insistent. A young woman who could brew would have excellent marriage prospects, as long as she didn’t set her sights too high. It might just be enough to make up for my absent – and unknown – father.

“Come,” Master Travis said, once the contract was signed. I was his now, at least until I turned eighteen. “We have to go.”

The sheer enormity of what I’d done crashed down on me as I bid farewell to my mother and turned to follow him. I might go back to my stepfather’s house for visits – and Master Travis had agreed to give me one day off per week – but I didn’t live there any longer. Master Travis’s shop would be my home for the next six years. My heart was pounding like a drum as we walked out of the hall and down the darkening streets. Master Travis walked with the utter confidence of a man who knew no one would get in his way. I wished I felt so confident. There were parts of the city my mother had told me never to visit in darkness.

It felt as though we walked for hours before we crossed the bridge to Water Shallot and turned down a cobbled street. The city was darker here, bands of sailors and tradesmen hanging around bars or roaming the streets in search of entertainment. Most of the shops were closed, their doors covered with protective runes. I stayed close to my new master as he stopped outside a darkened shop and pressed his hand against the doorknob. It opened a second later, revealing a vast collection of alchemical ingredients. I couldn’t help thinking of a sweetshop. And yet, the air smelled of herbs rather than sugar.

Master Travis lit the lanterns with a single spell. I could see why he needed a shopgirl. The counter was relatively clean – and the jars of herbs were properly sealed – but there was dust and grime everywhere else. Something tickled the back of my throat as I looked around. And yet, I was afraid to cough for fear I might set off a storm of dust.

“You’ll sleep in the garret,” Master Travis said, pointing to a narrow staircase leading up into the darkness. His voice was gruff, but I saw genuine concern on his face. “Do you need something to eat?”

I hesitated – my stepfather might have fed me, yet he’d never bothered to hide that the only reason he was taking care of me was because the law insisted – but then my stomach rumbled loudly. I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast and that had been hours ago.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Take your bag upstairs,” Master Travis said. “And then come down and we’ll get something to eat.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, again.

He offered me a lantern. I took it and walked slowly up the stairs. The building felt cramped, as if it was an oversized dollhouse rather than a real house. I later discovered that it had been fitted into the gap between two apartment blocks. The garret, at the top of the stairs, was dark and tiny. I was a small girl, for my age, and it still felt as if I’d bang my head on the roof if I stood up too quickly. There was dust everywhere. The bed and chair looked as if they’d been designed for children, not adults. I wasn’t sure where I was meant to put my clothes.

But it was private, I told myself. It was certainly better than the room I’d shared with my half-sisters. We’d practically lived in each other’s clothes.

I put my bag on the bed and walked back downstairs. I’d been sent away from home, and I’d be lucky if I saw my mother more than once or twice a month, but there were advantages. I’d be away from my stepfather, I’d be earning money … I might even be learning a new trade I could use to support myself. Perhaps, just perhaps, going into service wouldn’t be so bad after all.

And it wasn’t.

26 Responses to “The Alchemist’s Apprentice Snippet”

  1. retina kumar December 29, 2017 at 9:56 am #

    I loved the snippet. Couldn’t wait for it to come in full.

  2. Linda Thompson December 29, 2017 at 9:57 am #

    Love it…. I certainly want to read more, does she have a name yet?

    • allyk December 29, 2017 at 4:17 pm #

      I predict . . . Khat 😉

    • chrishanger December 30, 2017 at 6:45 pm #

      Not as yet


  3. Scott Davis December 29, 2017 at 1:37 pm #

    Excellent start! As a father of daughters I am horrified by the thought of sending them off at 12 but this is certainly an intriguing beginning.

    • jared December 30, 2017 at 3:11 am #

      you know thats was a very common practice for families. and she isn’t even a full daughter.

    • chrishanger December 30, 2017 at 6:45 pm #

      I’d be horrified too, but it was common practice last century.


  4. Jacob R December 29, 2017 at 5:11 pm #

    Looks interesting! I look forward to being able to read it in full. 🙂

  5. kd7fds December 29, 2017 at 5:14 pm #

    It looks like an interesting story. Looking forward to it.

    It just struck me how often it seems, that you your stories have good female lead characters. Not all of your stories but many of them.

    • chrishanger December 30, 2017 at 6:46 pm #

      More true of fantasy, i think, than SF.


  6. Lars December 29, 2017 at 6:10 pm #

    Been reading (most) your books for a while now and i am exited to learn a new book is on the way….any estimated release date?

    • chrishanger December 30, 2017 at 6:46 pm #

      No. It’s just a snippet so far.


  7. Gary F. York December 29, 2017 at 9:01 pm #

    Is her name, “Pippy?” Nevermind; I want to read it, now! GOOD start. G.

  8. anymoose December 30, 2017 at 3:20 am #

    Do. Want.

  9. lampwright December 30, 2017 at 6:25 am #

    I like it! 😉

  10. Barb Caffrey December 30, 2017 at 8:28 pm #

    Excellent snippet, Chris. 🙂

  11. Tom Waugh December 31, 2017 at 8:21 pm #

    Lots of promise — already pulled me in.

  12. Aleisha January 1, 2018 at 4:17 am #

    I was hoping you’d go with the alchemist storyline! It’s already off to a promising start, though of course those first draft chapters are always subject to change. I really do like the world in his series and am just as excited to read and expanded veiw of the universe as I am to read the continuing adventures of Cat and her friends.

  13. sam57l0 January 2, 2018 at 2:12 am #

    Caught my interest!

  14. Doug lake January 3, 2018 at 9:30 pm #

    A happy new year to you.
    Do I dare hope that you are going to show us the other way a Zero may be found.
    Thank you very much for all your wonderful stories.

  15. Michael Misenheimer January 4, 2018 at 9:39 pm #

    More please…..

  16. Daniel Connolly January 5, 2018 at 4:46 am #

    I would be interested in this as a book also. Thank you. Dan

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