Alice touched her silver earring, her reagent, to the scrap of silk she had taken from a gown ruined during one of the Shah's increasingly infrequent visits. She could feel what the sages said, the tingling rush of blood in her hands that came with the advent of transmutation. A foul, acrid scent filled her nostrils and a second later she had fallen back onto her rear, coughing and choking as a cloud of white gas slowly dissipated in the damp, warm air of her privy. Chlorine. She'd been expecting lead, but any result was better than none. She had been through so many failures since the slave girl had brought her Scheza's book.
The book's diagrams and treatises detailing alchemy's basics were simple, but Alice was unschooled and nervous. The cryptic warnings against certain transmutations and reagents set her on edge whenever she so much as considered attempting to use the talent she hadn't even known she'd possessed until her jailer's daughter had told her. In Southern Maturi alchemy was practiced only by the Gold and Iron Cabals, the two covens directly beholden to the Dead Senate and the Lich King. Here in Machen there were guilds, temples, tradesmen and priests all capable of and trained in the Noble Art. To Alice, though, the Art was strange and frightening. Now, propped up coughing and red-faced on her elbows in the lavatory, she had another mixed success to add to her short list of triumphs.
Alice got to her feet, spitting to clear the taste of chlorine from her mouth, and replaced her earring in her left ear. The silver teardrop, dangling from the hook on a fine silver chain, felt warm to the touch as she left the privy and went back into the goosedown-padded cage that was her room with its deep four-poster bed, its elaborate tapestries, calligraphied prayer-sheets and lavish décor. Her bare feet made no sound on the carpets. Water fell from an ornamental spigot worked to resemble a gallus's head into a porcelain basin. Her breath still rasping in her throat, Alice went to the basin and cupped her hands beneath the ice-cold flow. She drank, washing the taste of chlorine from her lips. Faint cries from the city far below assailed her ears as she went to the window seat, but she did not look out. What could she do for those suffering under Ahmad's rule? She could learn, and she could strike against their oppressor, but she could not save them from his soldiers.
With her rings, one of steel, one of silver set with topaz, and one of filigreed bone, she ran through the transmutations she had managed to master. The comforting pulse of heat in her hands built as she worked. First, she turned the onyx bracelet on her right wrist into quartz, then back again. Next came a fingernail clipping turned to water, then an iron cobbler's nail prized from a shoe which she transmuted inch by inch into crackling flames. She had to be careful with iron. Once, when she had transmuted an iron candlestick she'd found discarded behind her bed the flames had escaped her control and set fire to one of the tapestries. She'd had to lie to Mistress Chamyde, the foul-tempered and walleyed Slavemistress of the Palace, telling her in her broken Machi that a lamp had overturned. She'd even pushed over one of the heavy brass lamp stands and smashed its oil reserve, but she didn't think she'd fooled the old witch.
No, she had to be careful. Exceedingly careful. Chamyde was the least of her worries. Ahmad would find out, sooner or later. He was brilliant, but his contempt for her might give her the moment she needed to turn his throat to water. It had been the first transmutation she'd mastered, once she'd worked up the courage to exert her will on a reagent. Her own blood, drawn with a pinprick to the thumb and applied to a mouse that had drowned in her bath. The unfortunate rodent had dissolved into the bathwater like a bad memory. Alice's lips curved upward at the memory. She laced her hands together and looked out at the setting sun, doing her best to ignore the smoke and screams rising up from the city. There is nothing, she thought, that I can do for them.
The sound of something heavy slithering over the lavatory tiles rasped suddenly against the room's illusion of tranquility. Alice froze, her gaze shifting to the thick, oaken lavatory door. Her beringed hands closed into fists. The sound came again, closer now. She heard a long, rattling hiss, and then nothing. Wetting her lips, she stood and said: “Is that you, Divinity?”
Her knees failed her and she dropped abruptly to the carpet, the impact muffled by its plush weave. The thing behind the door hissed again, and again it spoke. Its voice was more in the mind than in the air, a cold and fetid thing with dripping teeth and huge, lurid eyes. Even through the door she could feel its eyes upon her, could feel them reaching deep inside her. “Please,” she said.
Will the Sssssshah come tonight?
“Please, I don't know.”
When he comessssss, you will tell me. I will be lissssssstening.
Alice stared at the door, her pulse thundering in her ears. What color were the voice's eyes? She longed to know. The desire consumed her, drew her to her feet. She crossed the room with brittle tread and pressed her cheek against the door. The wood felt good against her skin, cool and unyielding. “I want to see you,” she mumbled, her voice little-girl slow. “Please, let me come and see you.”
I am death. To look upon me issss to know desssspair.
“I want to see you.”
Slow, huge coils shifted behind the door. She could feel it, close at hand. Water slopped onto tiles. Was it coming out of the bath? Had it come up through the drain? Its bulk rasped against the door and Alice's teeth chattered. Little chills of longing ran up and down her spine as her fingers, fumbling gracelessly, found the cut-crystal doorknob. “Let me come in,” she said. Her thoughts circled a great drain like the water she had made out of the drowned mouse. From a way long way off she could hear herself crying, breath hitching in her chest.
No. You will await your Sssshah in ssssilensssse, and you will remember nothing of thissss, ssssssave that when he comessssss into your chamberssss you will announsssse it.
All at once the world was crystal clear. Alice smiled ruefully, dabbing at the tears of pain on her cheeks. How silly she'd been, stubbing her toe on the lavatory door. Sighing, she limped across the room and sank down onto the edge of her bed. She ran her hands through her long, dark hair. Her rings felt heavy on her fingers, especially the golden one she'd used to transmute the toenails of her little toes into pure agate. The toes still ached, but it had been worth it. She preferred the lesser reagents. Using gold made her feel wild and inspired strange moods, but it was surer. If her other knowledge failed her, she could use the ring of gold against the Shah.
As Scheza's book said, the Golden Way is the road to freedom.
Alice fell back against the embroidered pillows at the head of her bed. The scent of jasmine and coriander was strong in the air. Can I kill him, she wondered, if he comes tonight?
He did not come that night, but there was screaming in the halls and twice someone pounded on the doors of Alice's little apartment. She smelled smoke and huddled in the corner of her room, wondering when the men would come crashing through her door. They never did, in the end, and when a watery sun sent its rays like hesitant soldiers through her window and there were no sounds from the corridors outside her cell, she drifted off into a dreamless sleep.