Snippet–The Alchemist’s Apprentice (Zero 5)

31 Oct

I had this going through my mind …

Prologue

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 and my name had been passed down from mother to daughter, 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.

“Be careful, Rebecca,” my mother said. “You must get the right sort of job.”

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.

Chapter One

Potions have a magic all of their own.

Master Travis had told me, time and time again, that most magicians preferred to work with their own magic, rather than unlock the inherent power of everything from Nightmare Grass to Dragon Scales. It was risky, they said, to brew a potion when the slightest misstep might cause an explosion that would blow both the magician and anyone standing too close to the next world. And yet, I could never agree with them. There was just something about watching a potion settle, the magical sheen growing more powerful as the unlocked powers blended together, that I found wonderful. Master Travis had never had to beat me to get me to brew. The fascination of watching a potion come together was more than enough to keep me bent over the cauldron.

I felt his eyes on me as I carefully – very carefully – dropped a tiny cup of beetle eyes into the liquid, bracing myself to shout a warning and duck under the scorched wooden table if I felt a sudden surge in magic. I had been working for nearly an hour, starting with boiling water and adding the remainder of the ingredients one by one; he’d watched me like a hawk, ready to snap a warning if I made a single mistake. I didn’t resent his presence, even though I knew people who would feel that he was denying me the chance to learn on his own. The wards around the apothecary were strong, but nowhere near strong enough to keep an expossion from killing me or starting a fire if something went badly wrong. I would be ungrateful indeed to complain about something meant to keep me safe.

The liquid bubbled, changing colour from yellow to blue. A faint shimmer appeared on top as the magic shifted, before settling down. I let out a sigh of relief – a stable potion would remain stable as long as no one did anything stupid, like hurling a fireball into the brew – and sat back on my chair. My legs felt stiff and sore. I’d been standing so still that they’d started to cramp. I rubbed at them as Master Travis checked the brew, carefully sampling it with a spellcaster of his own design. I didn’t need him to tell me it was perfect. I’d done everything right.

“Well done,” Master Travis said. He gave me one of his rare smiles. I’d never seen him happy, save for when he was brewing. He’d put me in charge of the apothecary almost as soon as I learnt the ropes, a sign he trusted me. “Good enough for the healing arts.”

I felt my cheeks heat. Master Travis sold potions everywhere, but healers were very particular about when and where they bought potions. I’d always had the impression that they had a small army of Potions Masters and Master Brewers tucked away, brewing whatever they needed. But then, there weren’t that many students willing to seek a mastery in brewing. It demanded dedication as well as skill. A student who lacked perfect control over their magic was more likely to blow himself up then graduate. But I had that perfect control. Master Travis would hardly have let me brew some potions – minor ones, to be fair – if he hadn’t been sure I wouldn’t blow up the apothecary. I dreaded to think how much it would cost to rebuild the apothecary.

“Thank you, sir,” I said.

I played with my hair as he bottled and sealed the potion, affixing his personal design to the lid of each vial. I didn’t feel any resentment. Master Travis wouldn’t be able to sell the potions unless he vouched for their condition. Even now, even after four years of comprehensive instruction, I wouldn’t be able to sell them myself. Not to the healers, at any rate. There were people who wouldn’t ask so many questions, but they wouldn’t pay so much either. And the City Guard and the Kingsmen had no qualms about harassing unlicensed brewers. They thought that one of them would eventually blow up the city.

It felt strange to have my hair hanging freely, rather than in braids. My stepfather – technically the head of my family, even though he was renting me out to Master Travis – had pushed me into adulthood as soon as he decently could, severing some of the ties that bound us together in a single blow. My half-sisters envied my freedom, or what they saw as my freedom, but I wasn’t so sure. And yet, it had its advantages. I didn’t need a guardian looking over my shoulders, not now. I could sign contracts on my own. I could even undertake a formal apprenticeship without my stepfather’s permission. Paying for it would be tricky – my stepfather had confiscated half my wages for the last four years – but I wasn’t completely destitute. And besides, I had a plan.

I lifted my eyes to look at Master Travis, feeling a surge of love for the old man. He was my father. Not my stepfather, who had washed his hands of me; not my real father, who had sailed away to Hangchow instead of giving me a family. Master Travis had practically treated me as a daughter, not as a servant or a slave. I’d seen the bruises on other girls – and boys – who’d gone into service. And there were rumours of worse things than the occasional beatings. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the details. It was enough to know that I had been spared such horrors …

… And if Master Travis took me as a formal apprentice, my future would be secure.

The plan was simple enough, I thought. I was a legal adult. I could pledge myself to him for the five years it would take to qualify as a Potions Mistress in my own right. I wouldn’t be a qualified magician, not like someone who’d graduated from Jude’s, but with his blessing and certification I would be able to set up my own shop. Or stay with him, if he wanted. The apothecary was big enough for two Potion Masters. I wasn’t going to steal his secret recipes and spread them far and wide. I just wanted a life of my own.

“Master,” I said, once he had finished sealing the potions. “I …”

A chime echoed through the apothecary. I looked down, automatically. Someone had stepped into the apothecary below. Someone had … I swallowed, hard. It was nearly midnight. Who would be walking the streets of Water Shallot at this time? Not anyone with any good intentions, I was sure. This late, the only people who would come visiting were landlords and protection racket thugs … and the latter, at least, knew better than to threaten an alchemist. Master Travis had friends in the community. Very few people wanted to risk his ire.

Master Travis let out an irritated sigh. “Go see who it is,” he ordered. “I’ll finish here.”

“Yes, Master,” I said, standing. “I’ll see to it, then close up for the night.”

I hurried down the darkened stairs, keeping one hand on the rickety banister to ensure I didn’t fall and tumble right down to the bottom. The lanterns below had come on, automatically, when someone entered the shop, but Master Travis had never bothered to illuminate the stairwell. It would have disrupted his misdirection wards. I took a moment to brush my hair back as I reached the bottom, then stepped into the light. A young man was waiting for me, standing behind the counter. He was examining the bottles on the shelves with a curiously bored expression.

I felt my temper begin to fray. “Can I help you?”

He turned, slowly, allowing me to see his outfit. He was quality. He had to be quality. No one else could afford a blend of silks and satins, let alone walk through Water Shallot without fear of attack. The livery on his shoulder marked him as one of the Great Noblemen, from the Great Houses. I knew them all, of course. We all knew the Great Houses, even though they rarely deigned to look upon us. My throat was suddenly dry. If a Bolingbroke decided I’d insulted him, I was in deep trouble. Even Master Travis would be unable to protect me.

I hastily dipped a curtsey, then went down on one knee. I could feel his eyes, far less warm than Master Travis’s, studying me for a long moment before he let out an exaggerated sigh. I resisted the urge to look up, terrified that he would find a reason – another reason – to take offense. Master Travis might be a big man, in Water Shallot, but he couldn’t stand against a nobleman. A word in the right ears might see him banished from Shallot – or dead. And no one would care about a half-caste girl at all.

“You may rise,” the man said.

It took all my strength to stand on wobbly knees. His eyes were watching me – I shivered as I felt them pass over my breasts, silently grateful that I hadn’t worn anything too revealing – as I moved. I looked back, careful not to meet his eyes. He was handsome, with strikingly long blond hair and a smile that seemed to light up the room. His clothes were cut to reveal his muscular arms and legs, suggesting that he wanted to show off his physical strength as much as his magic. I didn’t dare try to probe his magical field, not when that too could be taken as an insult, but I was sure he’d be strong. The Great Houses were always strong in magic. The handful of low-power magicians born to their bloodlines were often quietly sent to the countryside before they could ruin their family’s reputations.

“I am Reginald Bolingbroke,” the young man announced. He sounded as if he expected me to know him. I didn’t, of course. I might have memorised the livery, but I didn’t know Reginald Bolingbroke from the rest of his family. It wasn’t as if I had time to read the society pages. “And you are?”

I hesitated. Up close, he didn’t look that much older than me. I guessed he wasn’t older than nineteen. Wearing his hair long might be a fashion statement, proof that he didn’t have to care about what High Society found acceptable, or it might be a hint that he was more interested in men than women. I didn’t know for sure and I didn’t dare ask. A nobleman would be expected to marry and have children no matter his personal proclivities. There was certainly no way he’d be interested in me.

“Rebecca, My Lord,” I said, feeling his eyes lingering on my face. “I greet you and …”

“A very typical name for a very uncommon beauty,” Reginald mused. “Your father is unknown, is he not?”

“Yes,” I said. Four years of good food had done wonders for my development – I was no longer as scrawny as I’d been as a child – but it had also sharpened my features. There was no mistaking me for anything, save for a fatherless half-caste. “He went back home before I was born.”

“A mistake on his part, no doubt,” Reginald said. “He should have acknowledged you before he left.”

I felt a pang of bitter shame. No one cared about my looks. Reginald might be as pale as the moon, but House Aguirre was as dark as the night and House McDonald had bright red hair and bluff cheeks that spoke of an origin somewhere in Garstang. My looks didn’t matter so much as my lack of any recorded family. I was a bastard, plain and simple. And the only half-caste family I knew that had achieved any kind of success in High Society was House Griffin. Their daughters knew their mother …

And their father is one of the most powerful men in the kingdom, I thought, sardonically. I imagine that helped a little too.

Reginald cleared his throat. “I believe your master is expecting me,” he said. “Perhaps you could call him.”

I blinked. Master Travis wasn’t expecting anyone, as far as I knew. Normally, visitors came in the morning or late afternoon. Reginald was late. Reginald was very late. I wondered, suddenly, if he had a small army of bodyguards camped outside. A powerful magician could defend himself, of course, but it would be better to deter attack rather than cause a mess that would require a great deal of expensive soothing. I didn’t want to think about what might happen if Reginald took offense …

“My Lord,” Master Travis said.

I nearly jumped out of my skin. I’d been so intent on Reginald that I hadn’t heard Master Travis coming down the stairs. I kicked myself, mentally. I was normally more aware of my surroundings than that! But Reginald had distracted and discomforted me.

“Master Travis,” Reginald said. “I see you got my note.”

“I did,” Master Travis said. “Rebecca, close the shutters and then go to bed. If I don’t see you in the morning, open the shop as usual.”

“Yes, Master,” I said, obediently. There was an edge in his voice that told me not to argue, not now. Reginald’s presence didn’t bode well for either of us. “I’ll get right on it.”

Master Travis nodded, then led Reginald up the stairs and into his private chamber. I felt a stab of envy, despite my fears, as the wards went up. There was no way I could eavesdrop. It hurt more than I cared to admit. Master Travis rarely let me into his private chamber – normally, I was only allowed in to dust and then under close supervision – but he’d taken Reginald right inside. I wondered if the young nobleman would appreciate the honour Master Travis had done him. The private chamber was the heart of the building. The wards around it were so strong that I doubted anyone could crack them without a great deal of effort.

Or an Object of Power designed to crack wards, I thought, as I pulled down the shutters to signify that we were very definitely closed. But anyone who could get their hands on one of those wouldn’t want to steal anything from us.

I smiled at the thought, then hesitated at the bottom of the stairs. Master Travis had told me to go to bed, but I wanted to stay awake and see what time Reginald left. And yet … this was serious. Anything that involved a nobleman was serious. I sighed and started to climb the two flights of stairs to my garret, closing the door behind me. Master Travis would tell me what was going on tomorrow, if he was so inclined. Until then, I’d just have to wait and see.

The lantern came on as I entered the tiny chamber, bathing the entire room in an eerie white glow. I smiled as I sat down on the bed and started to undress, remembering just how long it had taken to get the spell right in the first place. I hadn’t grown up with magic, let alone someone willing to teach me how to conjure properly. It was sheer luck, I thought, that Master Travis had been capable of showing me the basics. I wasn’t sure where he’d been taught – some of his spells were different to those in the books I’d purchased from the markets – but it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that they worked.

I splashed water on my face, then drew the blind down and climbed into bed. It was already far too late to stay up and read, although Master Travis would hardly check on me once I’d closed the door. He’d simply make sarcastic remarks if I woke up with a headache, or failed to get the fire lit and breakfast started before he climbed out of bed himself. I sometimes felt he wouldn’t bother to feed himself if I wasn’t looking after him. It was something that worried me, more than I cared to admit. A full-time apprentice could hardly be a servant as well.

Perhaps we could take another girl into service, I thought. It was an idle flight of fancy – I knew enough about the shop’s finances to know that Master Travis could hardly pay two sets of wages – but I clung to it anyway. Or maybe I could have a longer apprenticeship.

I pulled the blanket over my head and muttered a single Word of Power, powering down the spell in the lantern. The room plunged into darkness, broken only by a faint hint of moonlight coming through the overhead window. Master Travis and I had spent months trying to fix up the roof, weaving spell after spell into the leaky wood, but he’d reluctantly conceded that it was probably beyond fixing. The landlord, damn the man, was dragging his feet on any proper repairs.

It felt like I hadn’t slept at all when I awoke, sunlight streaming through the window. I stood hastily, casting a quick spell to check the time. It was six in the morning, but I could already hear the sounds of the city coming to life. Down below, the milkmen would be rushing bottles of milk from the countryside to the cafes and shops before they opened for business. I knew I’d find two bottles outside the door, waiting for me. I pulled on my robe and hurried downstairs. There was a note on the kitchen table, waiting for me. Master Travis had ordered me to forget his breakfast and go straight to work.

Odd, I thought, as I dug up some bread and jam for myself. What happened last night?

But the scrap of paper offered no answer.

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13 Responses to “Snippet–The Alchemist’s Apprentice (Zero 5)”

  1. Anthony Perkins October 31, 2018 at 7:33 pm #

    Awwww you bugger. Now that’s ANOTHER book I’m gagging to read 🙂

  2. ink October 31, 2018 at 9:13 pm #

    I’d have to agree with the above comment.

  3. William Ameling November 1, 2018 at 12:35 am #

    I wonder where it fits timeline wise with the other Zero books.

    • chrishanger November 4, 2018 at 9:33 pm #

      It starts shortly after The Family Shame, roughly.

      Chris

  4. Gardner Friedlander November 1, 2018 at 2:31 am #

    Chapter One, Third paragraph—two typos

    >

  5. sam57l0 November 1, 2018 at 3:23 am #

    Aye, a story what’s kidnapped my imagination!

  6. Scott Osmond November 1, 2018 at 5:53 am #

    Listening to a text is different to reading it. It’s difficult to skim over the author’s writing ticks. I use a screen reader and when published in audio format am assuming the text isn’t altered. “and yet” is one of Christopher’s and appears 7 times, 4 in the prologue alone. It’s distracting like nails down a chalkboard. Other than that I liked the sample and will buy when published.

  7. Roxanne Piotrowski November 1, 2018 at 10:01 pm #

    Yes, please!

  8. Stuart the Viking November 2, 2018 at 11:52 am #

    Hmmm… I notice the lack of an obvious “Zero” so far. Can’t be Rebecca because she has cast some spells. Master Travis seems unlikely. Perhaps Reginald Bolingbroke, except that doesn’t feel right either, although maybe.

    Well, I suppose I’ll just have to read it to find out (as if not reading it was an option… LOL_

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard November 2, 2018 at 2:22 pm #

      It is set in the Zero Universe. 😉

      Mild spoiler, it is set before the first books in the Zero Universe.

      • Anthony Perkins November 5, 2018 at 6:34 pm #

        Erm nope it’s not. See Chris’s reply

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard November 5, 2018 at 6:38 pm #

        So I saw. 😦

  9. George Phillies November 11, 2018 at 1:33 am #

    The cover is beautiful.

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