New Fiction Friday!

Posted: October 7, 2016 in Fiction, Flash Fiction Friday

This week’s story was prompted by the mash-up of “The Princess Bride” and “Doctor Who”, which is an…interesting combination and one that immediately made me think “quixotic alchemist”. So, I present, “A Handful of Grapes”:

    Horace looked out the window, his eyes passing over the many brick- and stone-faced buildings of the City, their slate-tile and tarpaper roofs reflecting the sunlight in ways that made him avert his gaze over and over until it rested on the tenements of far-off Eversham-borough. Absently, his vision rested on that section of neighborhoods, framed by the factories of Lowers-borough and Thanes-borough in the fore, leading down to the sinuous body of the Ashagem River, with the rising bulk of Mount Dolan behind. He saw, but didn’t see: his eyes perceiving while his mind wandered roads that were fully imaginal. It wasn’t until he heard the steady drip from the alembic behind him that Horace brought his focus back the here-and-now and pulled himself away from the tower’s window.

    “Finally!” he said with unrestrained glee as the distilled liquid ran down the anbik’s tube into the glass vial situated beneath it. “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Horace clapped his hands as he watched the dark brown substance fill the vial.

    Once the vial was full, he turned off the heat beneath the cucurbit and stoppered the smaller container, holding it up so that he could gaze lovingly upon it. “Oh, yes! Ignatius will love this: so potent, so lethal, so beautiful!

    In his exuberance, Horace almost kissed the cork stopper but stopped himself before doing so.

    Distantly he heard the bells of the Cathedral of Celestial Glory toll and his eyes darted to the tall clock that hung upon his workroom’s northern wall. “Tenth Bell,” he murmured, narrowing his eyes thoughtfully. “If I leave now…” He nodded resolutely, delicately placing the vial into the rectangular pouch that hung from his belt before grabbing his long coat from the back of the chair that sat next to the room’s hearth. “Yes, yes,” the alchemist muttered to himself as he shrugged the coat on and wove his way through his apartments to the hall. “Court will be convening…”

    He swept down the hall, not even bothering to lock his doors — who would dare burgle the King’s alchemist? — as he made his way to the lifts. Stepping inside before the doors were even fully open he barked at the lift operator to get him to the ground floor, eliciting a fearful half-jump from the shaggy-haired young man, likely an undergraduate student working off their tuition. The gears and chains of the lift clanged and whirred, before the carriage itself jerked slightly and began its rapid drop toward the ground. Five floors above the ground, the carriage’s brakes slid into position and slowed its descent to a safer, more sedate pace, and when the doors opened upon the Tower of Erudition’s marble-clad lobby, Horace grunted out a perfunctory utterance of gratitude to the young lift operator. The young man mumbled something that was both inaudible and inconsequential to the alchemist as he strode off down the lobby, his boots clipping loudly across the marble flagstones.

    The glammer-carriage ride from Scholar’s Square, where the campus of the Imperial University and its attendant Tower were located, to the Imperial Manse of Ebury House in the Golden Triangle was quicker than even Horace had hoped. As the vehicle slowed to a stop outside the outer gates of the Manse, he tipped the driver a tuppence and began to wade his way through the street crowds toward the guarded gate. The quartet of Imperial guards who stood watch nodded in recognition to him as he approached and opened the small sallyport located within the main gates for him. As he walked across the inner courtyard toward the main wing of Ebury House, where all state functions including the holding of the Imperial Court were held, he saw a number of individuals and groups already beginning to file in through the great doors.

    “Good, good!” he said softly to himself, the sound of a barge’s foghorn sounding nearby drawing his attention away. “Perhaps I’ll go for a stroll around the Landing after speaking with Ignatius? Yes! That sounds delightful.”

     With thoughts of wandering through the Imperial Park situated nearby Ebury House — where the Ashagem, Norfinch, and Tellury Rivers came together — he entered the Imperial Manse and followed the train of courtiers and officials and ministers up the winding, grand staircase to the throne room and began scanning the crowd for Ignatius’ face. It took him only a few moments to find the spartanly dressed elder gentleman among all of the others and Horace wove his way through the assemblage over to him. As he did so he passed by a boorish young man, dressed in the kind of garish finery that was increasingly fashionable among the younger nobility, that was quietly but severely berating a young woman at his side.

    “Do not embarrass me in front of the King, Constantia,” the young man said, holding her upper arm tightly in his meaty hand. “I know you’re not used to our ways, so just smile and nod. Don’t say a word.” The kind-looking young woman, her face a mask of nervousness as she was spoken to, nodded sharply and definitely in agreement with the nobleman’s dictate.

    “Horace,” Ignatius said as the alchemist approached. “It is always good to see you in the halls of Ebury House. What brings you out of the Tower this morning?”

    The alchemist absently ran the fingers of one hand through his shock of brown hair, his gaze still upon the boorish young man and his companion. “To see you, actually, O’ Master of Ravens,” he said, only glancing at the elder man after another beat. “My word, who is the young man over there giving such a tongue-lashing to that pretty little thing? I dare say, she seems hardly to deserve it.”

    Ignatius snorted softly, once again strangely amused by the alchemist’s absent-minded lack of decorum. He’d mentioned more than once in the past that he appreciated the sometimes ill-mannered candor of the younger man: it was a breath of fresh air from the fakery of so much of the Court. “That would be…” Ignatius began, surreptitiously peering after where Horace’s gaze had been pointed. “The Duke of Trotten’s son, Jacob Kelling. If memory serves me right, the young lady on his arm is the Princess Constantia Ortiz of Abize, one of the smaller principalities. They’re engaged to be wed, I believe.”

    Horace frowned, absent-mindedly reaching out to pluck some cheese off of a platter carried by a servant that walked by. The King always insisted that the Imperial Court be catered in some, small fashion to make sure that his subjects mind’s were always focused on the important matters at hand. “Well, one would think that a son of the nobility would know better than to be so harsh in public. And at Court for that matter!”

    Ignatius snorted out another soft laugh and absently twisted one tip of his mustache into a more severe point. “Horace, dear Horace,” he said softly, leaning closer so that the alchemist could hear him over the susurrus of background chatter. “I forget that you know so little of what the nobility are actually like.” He patted the alchemist gently on the forearm. “Now then: what was it that you wanted to see me about?”

    Horace’s thick eyebrows lifted as his mind was brought back to his primary objective. “Oh, yes!” he said, reaching into his jacket and opening the pouch on his belt. He withdrew the vial and held it up for Ignatius to see. “I’ve distilled a new type of poison. Because of its novelty, I doubt it will be detectable by any other parties for some many years at least. I assumed the Imperial Intelligence Ministry would be interested…”

    Ignatius grunted with interest, a look of being impressed on his lined and tanned face. “Yes, Horace. We’d be very interested…” He murmured. While he was not the King’s Minister of Intelligence, Ignatius was the actual head of the Intelligence Ministry. His formal title was “Secretary of Logistics”, but he and his predecessors for close to a century had informally been called “Master of Ravens” due to the Ministry’s use of alchemically-bred ravens for communication and surveillance. “Can I…?” he asked, nodding toward the vial.

    Horace raised his eyebrows. “Oh? Yes!” he said, offering the vial to the elder man.

    Ignatius plucked the vial from Horace’s fingers and inspected it, peering at the dark brown substance within. “Interesting,” he murmured. He popped the stopper out and wafting the scent toward his nose while holding the vial a few inches away from him. “Smells like…vanilla?”

    Horace nodded. “Its scent isn’t lethal,” the alchemist assured Ignatius. “It must be ingested or injected.”

    The elder man emitted another soft chuckle before handing the vial and stopper back to Horace. “Come by my offices in the Ministry tomorrow and we can talk more in–” he began to say until a voice from behind him cut through the surrounding noise of conversations.

    “Ignatius, you old raven!”

    The elder man turned to look at his addresser, a man about as old as Ignatius, but wearing a navy uniform adorned with several medals. “Patrick, you old sea-dog!” Ignatius replied, letting out a booming laugh and accidentally bumping Horace with his arm. “How long has it been?!”

    Horace let out a soft cry of alarm as his own arm jerked, the impact sending a portion of the brown substance flying from the vial and landing on a tray of grapes that was being carried past by a servant. The alchemist froze in shock and horror as the servant continued on past, well beyond Horace’s reach or ability to arrest him. He watched, his breath stopped and his heart feeling leaden in his chest, as the servant wound their way through the crowd and Horace feared he’d be stopped by one of the courtiers.

    And when he was stopped briefly by Jacob Kelling, Horace let out a small squeak of abject horror, his own body and mind caught between rushing through the crowd to stop the man as he raised a handful of grapes to his lips and letting it play out as punishment for his ill-mannered behavior.

    Surely he doesn’t deserve to die, one part of the alchemist’s mind asked the rest of it. Unfortunately, the rest of Horace’s mind was just as frozen as his body was and it watched as the Duke of Trotten’s son quickly consumed the fruit.

    “I…I…I…” Horace muttered half-mindlessly.

    “What’s that, Horace?” Ignatius asked, half-turning to look back at the alchemist as he paused in conversation with the other man.

    “I…I…,” Horace said, absently stoppering the vial and pushing it back into the pouch upon his belt. “I will see you on the morrow, Ignatius. Good day.”

    The Master of Ravens returned the parting salutation as Horace nervously ran his fingers through his hair once again and made his way out of the throne room through the crowd of waiting courtiers. He was half-way down the grand staircase when he heard a woman’s muted scream from the throne room, which made him pause on the steps.

    “Nothing to be done about it,” he murmured quietly to himself, his face going ashen. He took a deep breath as he heard the stomp of feet as guards rushed along the upper hall toward the throne room, before continuing down toward the great doors of Ebury House.

    “Nothing to be done at all.”

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