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The Alchemist in the Shadows
By PIERRE PEVEL
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2009 Pierre Pevel
All right reserved.
/ ISBN: 978-1-61614-365-7
Chapter OneBeneath the dripping boughs of a forest which, on this dark night, was being buffeted by the wind and downpour of a violent storm, two young dragonnets were playing. They squabbled as they flew, heedless of the weather, chasing one another, spinning and fluttering in midair, improvising virtuoso acrobatics among the branches. The little reptiles were fighting over a small vole they had hunted down together, whose mauled remains were snatched from one mouth to the other in the course of their unruly game. They were brother and sister, both born from the same egg and thus perfectly similar, sharing the same golden eyes, the same scarlet-fringed black scales, the same grey belly, and the same slender, elegant profile.
And the same intelligence, too.
Growing tired of their play, the twins finally settled on a knotty root where they were sheltered from the worst of the rain. They shook themselves, and then folded up their leather wings. Pulling from either side, they tore the rodent in two and devoured it peacefully together. The darkness lay thick around them and, when the thunder ceased, the only sounds in the forest came from the rain, the wind, and the battered foliage. Yet something interrupted the dragonnets' meal. Something only they could perceive. Something that made them rear up sharply and captured their complete attention.
They remained frozen in place for an instant, like a pair of small onyx statues gleaming wet from the rain. They had to be sure they were not mistaken, that there was no danger of misinforming their mistress, and thus risk incurring her anger or, worse still, losing her affection. But there was no mistake. So they roused themselves and exchanged nervous growls before taking wing, the male vanishing into the shadows of the vast forest while his sister flew toward the source of their interest. She moved swiftly, weaving between the tree trunks and seeming to take pleasure in dodging them at the very last moment, only finally slowing when she recognised the sound of voices. She found herself a comfortable perch in the hollow of a tree ...
... where she did not have very long to wait.
There were riders approaching.
* * *
There were three of them, following a muddy trail beneath the rivulets of rainwater cascading down through the forest canopy. Soaked to the skin, they plodded along in the haloes cast by the lanterns hanging from their saddles. These did not shed much light, but at least, between the flashes of lightning, allowed them to make out the puddles disturbed by their horses' heavy hooves.
Saint-Lucq led the way. Behind him, Captain Étienne-Louis de La Fargue endured the rain with perfect stoicism, as it spattered his aging, patriarchal features: pale eyes, handsome wrinkles, martial bearing, grim mouth, closely trimmed beard, and firm jaw. Tall and solidly built, he was wearing a sleeveless vest over his doublet, which was made of leather thick enough to stop a musket ball fired from a distance, or even deflect a clumsy sword stroke. It was black, as were this old gentleman soldier's breeches, boots, gloves, and hat. As for the doublet, it was the same dark red as his baldric and the sash tied around his waist, knotted over his right hip.
Black and red ...
They were, once again, the colours of the Cardinal's Blades, now they had been secretly recalled to service by Cardinal Richelieu.
"Are we even still in France?" Almades asked, with a trace of a Spanish accent.
Anibal Antonio Almades di Carlio, to give him his full name, rode slightly behind and to La Fargue's left, ready to draw level with a dig of his spurs and protect the flank that a right-handed cavalier would have difficulty defending. Thin and austere looking, he sported a fine greying mustache that he occasionally wiped dry—always thrice each time—with his thumb and index finger. He sat straight in the saddle, his waist snugly fitted into a red-slashed black leather doublet, and he was armed with a Toledo rapier whose guard consisted of a full hemispherical shell and two long straight quillons. Made of tarnished steel, this duelling sword offered no concessions to aesthetic values whatsoever.
"I doubt it," La Fargue said to the Spanish fencing master. "What do you think, Saint-Lucq?" he enquired in turn, raising his voice against the din of the wind and the rain in the branches.
He knew the young man had heard him despite the distance between them. Saint-Lucq took the lead precisely because he heard—and saw—better than any common mortal.
Because he was no common mortal.
Saint-Lucq was a half-blood. The blood of dragons ran in his veins. With his slender, supple figure, smooth cheeks, and shoulder-length hair, his ancestry endowed him with enhanced senses, superior athletic abilities, and a personal charm that was both seductive and disturbing. He certainly had an allure, but there was also something dark emanating from him, with his silences, his long stares, his slow measured gestures, and his proud reserve. This darkness was heightened by the fact that he only wore black and, on him, the colour was associated more than ever with death. He only permitted two exceptions: the thin red feather in his hat and the lenses—also red—of the small round spectacles which hid his reptilian eyes. Otherwise everything, even the fine basket guard of his rapier, was black.
"We are in Spain," the half-blood declared without turning round.
They were five leagues from Amiens and had already reached the Spanish Netherlands, which began just beyond Picardy, comprising the ten Catholic provinces that had remained loyal to the Spanish Crown when the lands further north controlled by the Calvinists seceded to form the Dutch republic. The province of Artois, along with the towns of Arras, Cambrai, Lille, Brussels, Namur, and Antwerp, were thus all part of the territory of Spain, a power that was hostile to France and jealous in her exercise of full sovereignty. Spanish troops were garrisoned there and guarded the border, only a few days' march from Paris.
"This storm works in our favour," said La Fargue. "Without it our lights might be seen by a Spanish wyvern rider. They fly over this area every hour, when weather permits."
"So all we have to do is avoid the ordinary patrols," Almades observed wryly.
"Let's hope the person waiting for us had the same bright idea," the old captain replied in a more serious tone. "Or else we'll have come all this way for nothing."
Ahead of them, Saint-Lucq slowly turned his head to the left as his horse advanced at the same steady pace. He'd just spotted the dragonnet spying on them from the shadows, and he wanted to leave it in no doubt as to the fact. Intrigued at first, the young female craned her neck to peer out at him from her tree hollow. Keeping her golden eyes fixed on the half-blood as he passed, she tilted her head slowly to one side, then to the other. Could he really see her? Finally, when she was certain that the rider with the strange red spectacles was staring right back at her, she growled at him in hatred and fury before taking flight from her hiding place.
La Fargue and Almades both reacted to the sound of wings flapping swiftly through the forest and, thanks to a flash of lightning, they caught a brief glimpse of the small reptile as she sped away.
Saint-Lucq, expressionless, turned his gaze back to the trail ahead. "We're almost there," he announced, just before the roll of thunder came.
The storm was still in full fury when the trail began to gradually slope upward and led the riders to the crown of a hill, where a large building could be seen emerging from the treetops, like an island in a sea of tossing boughs. It was a former inn which had been abandoned after being partially destroyed in a terrible fire. The windows were boarded up, the roof tiles rattled, and the inn's illegible sign swung wildly in the gusting wind and rain. An old wall surrounded the courtyard and a well. Only a few charred vestiges remained of the stables, evidently the starting point of the blaze.
The riders passed beneath a stone arch and crossed the courtyard, halting in front of the inn. They cast wary glances at their surroundings, and although they had extinguished their lanterns they still felt exposed out here in the open, beneath the turbulent sky. Remaining in their saddles, all three could see the wavering light coming from behind the boards nailed across a window on the upper floor.
"She's already here," La Fargue observed.
"I don't see her mount," Almades replied.
"Neither do I," added Saint-Lucq.
The old captain stepped down from the saddle into a mud puddle, and gave his orders: "Almades, with me. Saint-Lucq, keep watch out here."
The half-blood nodded and turned his horse around. Almades dismounted as La Fargue, always cautious, loosened his rapier in its scabbard. The weapon was well matched with its owner, being both solid and quite long: a Pappenheimer, named after the German general who had equipped his cavalry corps with it. La Fargue had put its qualities to the test—and had sometimes been tested by it himself—on battlefields in Germany and elsewhere. He appreciated its robust strength and long reach, as well as the guard with its multiple branches and the openwork shell that protected his hand.
The dark, cluttered ground floor of the inn smelled of old soot and wet wood. It was impossible to move without stepping over pieces of debris or making the floorboards creak alarmingly, as if they might give way at any moment. The wind whistled through the gaps between the planks that had been crudely nailed across the windows. A single lit candle had been placed on the lowest step of the staircase leading to the upper floor, the flame guttering in the draughts.
"Wait here," ordered La Fargue before climbing the stairs alone.
Obeying with some reluctance, Almades unsheathed his rapier and took up vigil below.
At the top of the stairway, the old gentleman found a long corridor with a second candle burning at the end, placed on the worm-eaten lintel of a half-opened door. Other doors—which led into the bedchambers—also lined this hallway. But the door at the end, in addition to being lit, was the only one which was not closed.
Since the way had been so kindly shown to him, La Fargue advanced toward the light. He trod carefully, however, keeping a cautious eye on each door as he passed, his hand resting on his sword....
There were leaks in the ceiling, and in places, he could hear rain pattering in the attic, directly over his head. The roof must have split wide open, although neither he nor his men had noticed this when they arrived, but a section of it was invisible from the courtyard and could have been missing as far as they knew, not having made a point of inspecting it.
La Fargue stopped in front of the door indicated by the candle.
"Come in, monsieur," said a charming feminine voice.
A scraping could be heard through the racket of the storm, coming from just beneath the rafters. There was a peal of thunder at almost the same instant, but the sound did not escape the keen ears of the captain, who pondered for a moment, understood its meaning, and smiled to himself. And as if to confirm his suspicions, he then detected the clinking of a chain.
This room had been spared by the fire, but not by the ravages of time. Dusty and decaying, it was lit by a dozen candles placed here and there. A large bed, of which only the frame and cabled columns remained, took up almost the entire space. At the rear was a door whose outer corner was bevelled to fit against the sloped ceiling just beneath the roof. Tattered curtains swayed before a window with broken panes. Planks had been nailed across it from within, but one of them had been ripped away recently. La Fargue understood why when he saw a dragonnet wend its way into the room from outside.
After shaking its dripping wings dry the small reptile leapt onto the wrist held out by a beautiful young woman who, turning to the old gentleman, greeted him in a friendly fashion.
"Welcome, monsieur de La Fargue."
She was perfectly poised and elegant, wearing a grey hunting outfit composed of a jacket that clasped her waist prettily and a heavy skirt that was hitched up on the right to allow her to ride in a saddle like a man. Her attire was completed by a pair of hose, a hat tilted coquettishly over one eye, and gloves that matched her fawn leather boots.
"You can't imagine, monsieur, my pleasure in meeting with you."
"Of course! Do you doubt it?"
"Yes. A little."
"And why is that?"
"Because my orders could be to arrest you and bring you to France to be tried. And in all likelihood, be convicted."
"Are those your orders, monsieur?"
La Fargue did not reply. Impassive, he simply waited.
He was nearly sixty years old, a more than respectable age in a century when anyone over forty was considered elderly. But if ordeals, battles, and grief had turned his hair white and left his eyes dull from lost illusions, time had not yet stripped him of his vigour and personal aura. Tall and wide-shouldered, with a proud, confident bearing, the old gentleman remained impressive both in his figure and in the strength that emanated from him—and he knew it. He deliberately resorted to silence rather than words to impose his will on others.
Standing before him, the young woman seemed small and fragile. She met his eyes for a moment, without blinking, and then, quite casually, pointed to a small table and two stools.
"I wager that you have not supped. You must be famished. Sit, please. You are my guest."
La Fargue took a stool and, as she busied herself with preparations, he was able to look more closely at this woman playing the role of hostess. She was a pale-skinned, red-headed beauty with delicate features, finely drawn lips, a charming smile, and dark, lively eyes. But the old gentleman was aware of the danger lurking behind this pretty face and innocent air. Others before him had learned that lesson to their bitter cost. The she-devil was cunning and had few scruples. And she was said to be a mercenary at heart.
With her dragonnet perched on her shoulder, she brought over a heavy wicker basket, removed the cloth covering it to dress the table, and arranged various victuals between the captain and herself, setting a porcelain plate, a fine-cut glass, and a knife with a mother-of-pearl handle before each of them.
"Would you pour the wine?" she proposed.
Readily enough, La Fargue took the bottle he saw poking from the basket, removed the wax stopper, and tipped the layer of oil that protected the wine from contact with the air out onto the floor.
"What should I call you?" he asked as he filled the glasses.
The young woman, who was amusing herself by feeding titbits to her dragonnet, paused and gave La Fargue a puzzled glance.
"I beg your pardon?"
"What is your name, madame?"
She shrugged and smiled as if he were jesting with her.
"Come now, monsieur. You know who I am."
"To be sure," allowed La Fargue. "But of all the names you have employed in the service of France, England, Spain, and the Pope, which do you prefer?"
She stared at him for a long moment and her eyes grew cold.
At last, she replied: "Alessandra. Alessandra di Santi."
She nodded with her chin at the glass which the old gentleman had not yet raised to his lips. "Aren't you drinking? The wine is from Beaune, and I believe it to be to your liking."
La Fargue gave a drawn-out sigh of restrained impatience.
"Madame, a short while ago you asked about my orders. Here they are: I am to hear you out and then report your words to His Eminence. So speak, madame. My men and I rode for ten hours, almost without a break, in order to meet you here, now. And I am anxious to leave again soon. Even in Artois, the Spanish climate does not suit my health...."
And having said this, he lifted his glass and drained it in a single gulp.
Then he added: "I am listening, madame."
Thoughtful for a moment, Alessandra watched the old gentleman who was proving so immune to her charms. She knew he found her ravishing, yet her beauty inspired him with no need to please her in return. It was unusual in a man, and merited further study.
Excerpted from The Alchemist in the Shadows by PIERRE PEVEL Copyright © 2009 by Pierre Pevel/. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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