Illicit Alchemy by Eric Lewis

“Unfortunately, we’re unable to offer you a position at this time…” Emony stopped paying attention after that; she’d heard it a hundred times before. But the alchemist’s mouth just kept moving so she reached out, grabbed the glass retort off his desk and smashed it into his fat face.

Well, she fantasized about it anyway. Instead she nodded, and muttered, “Thank you for your time and kind consideration” through gritted teeth.

“It’s just,” the man kept on, gesticulating broadly as if it helped matters any, “well you have to understand… your history, your former master—”

“Yeah. I understand.” Not caring to waste any more time she left the laboratory and stepped into the gloomy drizzle of Carsolan’s streets where better-dressed gentlemen and ladies parted around her to avoid even the hint of association. “Thanks Trasca, you’re the gift that keeps on giving.” She fought back a surge of resentment at the sight of the streetlights—gas lamps were being replaced with new ones powered by Vril. They’d burn bright for days on a single droplet of the mysterious substance, and explode if not maintained properly. So when the Royal Archalchemist absconded with a liter of it to join the insurgency against the queen, his young apprentice had been tossed out of the palace, disgraced and unemployable. Idiots! If I’d had anything to do with it I certainly wouldn’t have stuck around here for the last year. She hurried past a banking house that still bore the scars of a recent attack, an entire face of its slate façade blackened by explosions. Barely a microliter’s worth of Vril, she thought. But for how long?

She made her way from the city’s more respectable districts towards the wharf, dodging horse carriages where the streets had no lighting at all until the stench of rancid fish and salty sea air told Emony she was almost home. Both intensified when a fishmonger passed her on his mule cart and waved.

“Evenin’ Em, how goes the job hunt?”

“Hello Curswell,” she sighed without slowing her pace. “As I’m still residing here at my oh-so-lovely seaside estate, take a wild guess.”

“Sorry to hear it. My door’s always open, o’course.”

“Yeah, so are your breeches.”

The man laughed. “Hey, I resent that remark!”

“You resemble that remark.” He tried to play it casual but Curswell had made his intentions clear long ago. She wondered briefly how much he’d be willing to pay for a tumble… No, don’t even think that.

A stairway next to a vacant storefront led to Emony’s dilapidated room above. A note she didn’t bother to read was nailed to the door. The landlord no doubt—she was late on rent. Again. Let him complain. No one else’s lining up to lease this rat hole.

Emony flung her cloak aside and felt around on top of the empty pantry until grasping what she sought. “There you are. Been missing you all day.” She thumbed open the brandy bottle and drank without bothering with a glass, drank with the abandon of one brought so low so quickly that food became a luxury, and booze the necessity. She lay on her mattress and stared into the darkness of the rafters, listening to the mice in the walls and imagining her hands around Trasca’s neck until oblivion claimed her, another day done.

Sunlight filtered through dirty glass woke her around noon. “Ohhh,” Emony moaned, cradling her head. Do I have any interviews today? She poured herself a cup of water, glanced at the bit of brandy still in the bottle, and hesitated only a moment before emptying it into the cup as well. Might as well start the day off right. Let’s see what that bastard’s threatening me with now… She ripped the note from the door, and after reading a few lines almost dropped her brandied water. It wasn’t from the landlord.

 

“What exactly is the job?” The note had directed Emony to an abandoned warehouse on Carsolan’s outskirts, far out of sight of the palace. The coach fare had eaten the last of her savings, and along the way the towering, cramped city buildings gave way to smithies, then mills, then isolated industrial parks over which coal dust clouds hovered so that you could barely make out the mountains in the distance.

“Well now love,” said the man across the desk who’d given his name only as Nebb, “I guess you could say we’re a… a bit of a startup. Contract alchemy, doin’ whatever our client needs.” He leaned back in his chair and flipped a silver coin between his fingers. His grin made Emony want to reach for the stiletto under her cloak.

“Who’s your client?”

“Oh, I’m afraid that’s confidential.”

Emony frowned. “Then, what sort of alchemy?”

“Also confidential.”

“Wha— then how the hells can I decide?”

Nebb rose from his chair. “Hold up a bit. Come wi’ me.” Emony followed him out of the dust-choked office down a short hallway. “I was advised that you were more than common motivated to seek employment. Didn’t expect to have to do so much convincing.”

“Advised by whom? Wait, lemme guess. Confidential.”

“You’re catching on! I can however give you a peek at the facility we got all sorted for you.” Nebb unlocked an iron door and pulled it open. “There now. What think you o’ that?

Emony gasped.

It was an alchemy laboratory. Not the kind of cobbled-together, second-hand junk you’d expect in such a place, but the latest modern equipment, all new. Alembics, sublimators, hermeticizers, all manner of accessories. “It’s better than at the palace! How did you…?” Emony shot a look at Nebb, who just raised an eyebrow.  “Right.”

She walked along the bench admiring the setup. New brass and fresh-blown glassware gleamed even in the wholly inadequate, windowless light. Lighting can be fixed, she thought. And it’ll need better ventilation. Still—

She stopped cold.  At the very end of the bench lay a piece of equipment that’d rarely been seen outside the palace, for its only possible application was severely restricted. A shiver slithered down Emony’s spine as her excitement turned sour. “I know what this job is.”

“Oh?”

“That’s a digestive vapor demitransmutation chamber,” Emony replied, shooting him an accusing glare. “Only one use for that. You’re making black-market Vril.”

“A task for which you’re uniquely qualified. You studied under the man who perfected the process, after all.”

“Are you insane? That’s not just illegal, it’s treason. If anyone suspects… I’d be crucified! Literally!” She’d meant to shout, but it came out as a hoarse rasp. Emony whipped out her stiletto and held it between them like a magical ward. Her hand shook.

“Whoa, calm down! And put the little pricker away. You want a slow, certain death by starvation over the risk of a quick one then I won’t stop you. Be thankful you got that choice.”  Nebb stood to one side and held the iron door open. “Sorry to’ve wasted your time.”

“I…” Thoughts of Curswell, landlords, brandy and alchemists with retorts smashed in their fat faces smoldered in Emony’s brain. And the stench of fish. The weapon fell from her grasp, and some vital strength went out of her in that moment. “I didn’t say no, did I?”

“You sure as hells ain’t said yes, neither.”

She ran a hand over the equipment’s pristine surfaces, the scent of mineral-greased joints like a fine perfume. How I’ve missed that. “Then, yes.”

 

Emony took two coaches to the warehouse each day to avoid being followed, switching inside a crowded station house and turning her cloak inside out, red for gray. She rarely saw anyone but Nebb, who stayed shut up in his office scribbling at some secret correspondence. Ventilation shafts were installed by silent workers, gaslights replaced with alchemical phosphor lamps, raw materials and whatever equipment she desired arrived in the night. Nebb paid her an advance and she was out of her slum to rent a finer apartment in a finer district. After weeks of labor the day arrived when both moons were in alignment with Antabolus—a most auspicious day for such deep alchemy. Stinking of sulfur, naphtha and other detritus of the hermetic arts Emony opened a valve under the demitransmutation chamber to collect five milliliters of refined Vril. Her hand shook once more, for the merest tickle from a flame would ignite the fluid, reducing the warehouse, the buildings surrounding it, and anyone inside to a charred crater of ash. The greatest power of our age, she thought, the only magic left in the world, and I made it all on my own! The danger terrified and excited her, and for a moment Emony forgot the desperation that’d led her to take the job.

She brought the sealed phial to Nebb’s office and set it on his desk. He looked at her expectantly, and she nodded. “Not crystal-clear like the palace’s stuff, but it’ll work. Your client should be pleased.”

Our client,” said Nebb, beaming, “absolutely will be. You can do more?”

“It’s a slow process and not a cheap one, but yes. I can do more.”

“Then love, you’ve just made yourself a very rich woman.”

Emony took a few days off to enjoy her bonus. She had a bubble bath, ate veal and drank aged whisky for the first time. She bought all new clothes and visited the only brothel on Harlot’s Row that employed males to have herself pleasured until she could stand no more.

Not a month before she’d been the one considering whoring herself out. Now… Never again, Emony promised while a blond fellow with a freakishly long tongue worked between her thighs, forcing any thoughts of to what use her Vril might be put far from her mind.

 

The night before collecting her second batch of Vril, Emony was walking home in a tight-fitting but very stylish evening gown when an odd sound drew close behind— a vehicle approaching at frightening speed. One of the new steam carriages, powerful but quite dangerous. When she was certain she was about to be run down it jerked to a stop, and two dark figures jumped out and grabbed her. “What the—? Stop, let me go! Help! Rape!”

They tossed her into the cabin, which was closed on all sides and lit by a tiny lantern. The door locked and the car began moving again. “Don’t bother,” said a basso voice. “Even if anyone cared to notice, these walls are iron. Incredible things, steam engines. We’re quite secure in here.”

The bald, middle-aged man in the seat across from her seemed vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t quite place him. “Who…?”

“Oh, don’t tell me you’ve forgotten? Jance, Her Majesty’s Vice Cryptarch for Illicit Alchemy.”

“Illicit… you. I remember. You interrogated me after Trasca disappeared! What do you want?”

“Well let’s see. Two months ago you were destitute, living in squalor and begging for any job you could find. Your last inquiry was an alchemical heat-pack producing concern. Hardly a challenge for Trasca’s greatest apprentice.”

“H-how did you—?”

“Seriously child, did you imagine we wouldn’t keep an eye on you? I favored disappearance entirely, be done with the whole treasonous mess. But the queen had a soft spot for you, thus simple dismissal was deemed sufficient. When it appeared you weren’t going to be further trouble I ceased watching over you.”

“Watching over me? You had me blacklisted!”

I merely informed the alchemical community who it was they were considering for employment. Imagine my surprise when you turned up at the finest clothier in Carsolan with more silver than your palace stipend ever provided. Now, would you mind kindly illuminating me as to the source of your newfound fortune?”

Sweat dripped from Emony’s brow in the hot, closed car. “I, uh, received a loan. From a relative. I wrote to him of my troubles and he sent me some money, that’s all.”

“Oh? How generous. I don’t suppose you’d mind providing me with the name of this relative? To verify.”

“Wouldn’t do you any good. He’s abroad. A… an uncle, in Pelona.”

Jance scowled. “An uncle in Pelona. Do you expect me to believe that?” He leaned forward, reflected light dancing in the lenses of his spectacles. “I think you’ve got into something illegal, and I want to know what it is.”

“Then you’d better arrest me in the open and charge me. Otherwise, I have nothing more to say.” Emony sat back, crossed her arms and bit her trembling lip.

Glowering, Jance banged on the wall of the coach. It trundled to a stop. “Step lightly, girl,” he said. “This is terrorism we’re taking about. I’ve the full power of the crown behind me, and if you’ve any involvement in this damned insurgency I will find out. I could have you tortured; there are places deep in the palace not even the queen cares to know about.  But I’d rather not ruin such a… pretty young thing. I’m giving you exactly one chance to cooperate.”

Emony’s skin crawled. She burned to give in and confess, but then how much tighter in his grip would she be? Keep it together. Breathe. “Well if I hear anything, I’ll be sure to let you know.”

“Do,” the cryptarch spat. “I’ll let you think on it. But don’t take too long.”

One of the goons opened the door, and she ran quickly as her brand-new clothes would allow back to the safety of her brand-new apartment, looking over her shoulder the whole way.

 

Before dawn she took three different coaches only to find the warehouse office empty. “Nebb! Nebb, where are you? We have a big pr—”

“Here.” He emerged from the laboratory entrance. “You’re early! Fine coincidence, though. Someone here to see you.”

“Yeah, I’m real popular these days—wait, me? Here? Who?” Emony tensed. Could Jance have found her again already?

“Our client’s impressed with your work, wants to congratulate you personal-like.” Nebb pointed behind him.

Emony crept down the hallway, wishing she had a pistol on her. Not a good idea, all the vapors floating around. But when she met their client she might have fired anyway. I should’ve known. “Trasca.”

“Hello my dear. It’s been too long.”

The old man had grown gaunt and threadbare, but for all that he had a pride about him, an intensity that thickened the air. Someone older and wiser might’ve recognized it as fanaticism but Emony took it for arrogance. Without a thought for her own safety she hefted a vacuum desiccator and hurled it at the former Archalchemist’s head. “Bastard!”

Trasca dodged the vessel, and it imploded against the wall with a pop as the vacuum shattered. She jumped at him, nails aiming for his throat. “Emony, calm down! Let me explain!” He took hold of her wrists to keep her at bay. “Dammit, will you—?”

“Explain? You ruined my life! Do you know what I went through after you ran off to play rebel? I’ll fucking kill you!”

Emony felt hands grab her from behind. “What in the seventeen hells Em,” Nebb shouted. “You gone mad?”

“It’s okay,” Trasca breathed heavily, “she has a right to be angry. She’s always been emotional.”

Emotional?  I was a day from whoring myself for food!”

“I’m sorry! When I left I had to do so in a hurry. I always meant to come back, take you with me, but I couldn’t until I was sure the palace had lost interest in you.”

“You mean until I had no other choice” she replied, too angry to bother telling him about her encounter with the cryptarch. “You never thought to ask if I wanted to be part of your revolt, did you? Just assumed I’d follow wherever you led. Typical!”

Trasca pulled a stool to him and sat down, suddenly looking more his age. “Em, surely you see how the winds of politics are changing. The crown’s time is nearly over, and we must soon have a republic.”

Emony laughed bitterly. “Republic? Just means the aristocrats’ll run everything, a thousand masters instead of one. Guess you plan to be among ’em.” She shook free of Nebb’s grip and spun around. “And you? Where do you stand in all this?”

“Me? I’m a businessman, love; I stand wherever the profit is.”

“I need you, Em,” pleaded Trasca. “You were my best, most promising. I can only make so much Vril on my own and, well, I’m not getting any younger. You’re the only one I trust and I’m the only one the rebels trust. I don’t need an apprentice, I need a replacement.”

I just needed a job.”

Trasca reached into his worn jacket where a pistol bulged. Emony backed away, fearing he’d lost patience and meant to shoot her, but he drew only a coinpurse. “Here,” he said with a tinge of disappointment, “I’d hoped you would aim higher, but if it’s money you’re after you’ll have plenty.” He tossed it to her, and Emony’s eyes widened in surprise at the weight. Gold. “You just keep making Vril.”

“While you keep blowing people up with it,” she replied uncertainly.

“Crime and politics—someone’s always got to die. I intend to make sure it’s the right ones.”

“And you decide who those are?”

“Like it or not, we’re all going to get drawn into this! I’d rather have some say in how than be a pawn for others. Come with me or don’t. Either way I’m done trying to convince you.”

Trasca left angry, and Emony cleaned up the ruins of the desiccator. At the end of the day she harvested another seven milliliters, but instead of handing it over to Nebb she bottled and set it aside. Just until I decide what to do…

 

As Emony was leaving the carriage station near her apartment a deafening explosion shook the district’s red brick buildings. “Gods, what was that?” shouted someone nearby. Another one, and its pitch and timbre left no doubt of the cause. Vril explosions! An insurgent attack. Plumes of smoke rose to the evening sky at distant and not-so-distant points in the city, black against midnight blue. The final blast was mere blocks away, knocking tall hats from heads and the hats’ owners from their feet. Citizens flooded the street in panic, some covered in blood and all covered in dust and ash, and Emony was swept into the fleeing throng.

The flow of bodies drew her past a familiar laboratory— the same heat-pack manufactory that’d refused her employment. Palace guards were swarming the building, dragging people into large steam wagons. In the eye of this storm stood Jance. Emony fought her way behind a corner to watch.

“What is the meaning of this?” The fat alchemist was being heaved out the door with hands bound.

“All alchemists in Carsolan are to be apprehended for questioning,” said Jance, his voice full of righteous fury and more than a little fear. “This terrorism will not stand. Take them away!” The man was flung into the wagon with his employees. Jance looked left, right as if expecting some challenge to his authority. Wondering where to find me, thought Emony. She couldn’t go home now. Pulling her cloak tight, she kept her head down and blended back into the crowd, trying not to get trampled.

After escaping the press she found herself on the wharf, and the squeal of a mule across her path barely saved her from stumbling into a fish cart. She looked up. “Curswell?”

“Em! Didn’t think to see you again. Hey, you best get indoors—no knowing how much o’ this chaos is yet to come.”

“Curswell, I need your help. I’m in some trouble and, well I need a place to stay. Just for a few days.”

The fishmonger grinned. “Well now, ain’t this a pleasant turn of events…”

“No! Not like that. Please, I’m serious. No one can know where I am.”

Curswell squinted. “Say, you ain’t got nothing to do with this insurgency business, do ya?”

Emony bit her lip. “No, of course not.”

She hid in Curswell’s half-flooded cellar with little to do but sit atop a crate in the dark, fondle her purse of gold like a jealous troll and wait for the sound of guards’ boots thudding above.

Trasca and Jance. Two old battling sabercats, and me caught in the middle. What was it Trasca’d said? Decide how to get involved or be used by others. She could join him or betray him to Jance. Either way I’m a pawn, passive. Gods, I could use some brandy!

But she had no brandy, and in a mind clear for the first time in a long while a notion began to take hold. After three days she came out and drew the fishmonger close. “Curswell, do you have any buddies that could use some extra gold for one night’s work?”

“You kiddin’? City’s on a knife’s edge, not many shoppers about the markets. Depends on the work though—dead men got no need for gold, I know that much.”

“Nothing dangerous. Mostly. I need to borrow carts and mules.”

Curswell nodded. “Consider ’em yours.”

“And I’ll need to buy fish. Lots of fish.”

 

When the door opened, Nebb leapt from his desk chair and leveled a powder pistol at the intruder. “Stop right th—Emony! There you are! Where’ve you been?”

“Nice to see you too. I’m glad you’re alive and well, I was so worried…”

“Alright, alright. Sorry, I’m a bit flustered. I had no idea they were going to hit the city like that!”

“No? Exactly how do you think insurgencies work? Has anyone come here?”

Nebb laid his pistol on the desk next to a half-empty whisky bottle, barrel pointed at the door. “N-no, not yet. I’ve worked hard to keep this place quiet. Listen, I need to know—are you still with me?”

“Jance is rounding up every alchemist in Carsolan, so I guess I’ve no choice. But it’s too dangerous here. I’ll start breaking down the lab, you work on finding us a new place outside the city.”

“But—”

“I want to see Trasca one more time though. I owe it to him… to apologize. I acted foolishly the other day. Tell me you can get me another meeting.”

“Sure,” Nebb said with an uncertain nod, “I gots my resources. When?”

“First thing tomorrow morning, my lab. You can arrange it?”

Emony disassembled her equipment, disconnecting tubes and valves and glassware and bottling up mercury, salts, everything. Everything except the demitransmutation chamber. Then she took some acid and, making sure Nebb wasn’t looking, droppered it onto the laboratory door’s deadbolt. It hissed, fizzled and smoked, and Emony turned the lock to slide the bolt back in.

“That’s it for today,” she said as she left the warehouse. “We’ll move everything soon as we have somewhere to put it.”

“Right,” said Nebb. “Listen, uh, don’t worry about this. We’ll be fine. Everything’s under control.”

“I know. Just make sure Trasca’s here, eighth hour on the mark. And don’t forget to lock up!”

 

Emony composed a letter and delivered it, sealed, to a courier’s kiosk inside the carriage station with very specific instructions, and a gold crown to ensure they were followed. “In his hands only, is that clear? Tonight.

Around midnight Emony, Curswell and a few fellow fishmongers made the slow trip to the warehouse with two fish carts and six barrels of pickled herring. After making sure all was quiet she smashed a corner window, shimmied through and opened the outer doors from inside.

“Forgive me for thinking it,” whispered Curswell as he urged his mule through, “but…are we robbin’ the place?”

“Don’t worry,” Emony answered, “it’s abandoned.”

“Ah, salvage then. No harm in that.”

Emony went to the laboratory door and yanked. Iron creaked. Another pull and it flew open, the acid-corroded deadbolt crumbled to bits. After loading the equipment onto carts they upended barrels until all was hidden beneath piles of herring.

Lathered with sweat and reeking of fish, Emony nodded. “Good work, keep it all covered up for now. One more thing I have to do then it’s back to the wharf, and fortunes all around.”

She took one last look at the emptied laboratory. Only the demitransmutation chamber remained, and a small phial. She unstoppered and set it behind the device just out of sight as odorless vapors diffused throughout the room.

The next morning at eighth hour many things happened in rapid succession. Nebb escorted Trasca to the laboratory, just as promised. A minute later the two began to argue over the meaning of the empty space and Emony’s absence. A minute after that three squads of Jance’s guards converged on the building followed by Jance himself. “Quickly now,” he ordered, his pistol drawn and ready, “the informant said they’d not remain long!” His mouth watered in anticipation of the capture he’d been promised, washing away any semblance of caution.

They stormed the warehouse, the office, then the laboratory. “Hands up!” Jance shouted, triumphant. “By order of Her Majesty, all will yield.” Trasca and Jance’s eyes met. “You…”

“Bastard!”

Both men raised their weapons. Both weapons flashed. A millisecond later the Vril vapor permeating the lab ignited, reducing the warehouse, the buildings surrounding it and everyone inside to a charred crater of ash.

 

Peace mostly returned to Carsolan when the loss of Trasca and his Vril forced the insurgents’ retreat. Jance’s disappearance was kept secret and thus not remarked upon, yet folk still breathed easier, even if they did not know why.

Having at last grown somewhat accustomed to fish smell, Emony bought the entire building that’d housed her old slum, and after extensive renovations posted a sign outside in bright new paint: “Open! Emony’s Alchemical Emporium, Offering Tinctures, Transmutations and Hermetic Arts for Needs General, Personal and Industrial.” And in not-so-fine print beneath, the disclaimer, “No Illicit Alchemy Performed.”


By day Eric Lewis is a chemist still learning how to be a person again after surviving grad school. His other stories appear in Electric Spec, Bards and Sages Quarterly, the upcoming Alban Lake anthology Into Darkness Peering, the blog Short Fiction Break and other seedy little corners of the web.

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