Alchemical Marriage, part 4

Thursday, November 20, 2008 - 12:25 PM

The concept and design of the crebath is expounded upon and used here by permission of the creator, Nigel Sade.

Sliding a battered and steaming tankard over to his younger comrade, Wisten settled his bulk on the bench.

“That'll warm your guts some,” he offered affably, and patted Dieder on the back.

Dieder gave Wisten a tolerant glance, nodding silently.

“More watch duty tonight,” continued Wisten, and winced at a sip from the concoction in his own tin tankard. Watchman's tea was a perpetual struggle; in autumn, it cooled quickly, so you had to drink it while it was warm without burning your mouth.

Dieder did the silent nod again, keeping his hands wrapped around the heat of his tea. The mess hall was nearly empty at this hour, with just a couple of scouts warming themselves at the fire before heading out again. It was a quiet time, the sort Wisten would describe as the pulling back of the ocean before the wave. Dieder would know this too; he was a different lad than the hot-tempered recruit he'd been. One battle can change a man completely, and Dieder had seen five now.

Braving his beverage, Wisten managed a searing gulp of the stuff, and then coughed a little when Dieder asked a question he didn't expect.

“Who the Hell are the Cyragrim, anyway?” Dieder was looking at Wisten fiercely, tapping a finger on the side of his tankard.

“...not sure what you're asking,” rasped Wisten. From Dieder's mood, he'd expected some of the sentimental things, like 'do you think I'll get home again' or 'I'm worried about my woman' or 'I almost died yesterday'.

“Who are they, Wisten? What kind of monster do you have to be to build something like that?”

No, instead, he's infuriated about the thrice-bedamned acid cannon. Putting up a hand, Wisten laughed a bit. “Easy, easy. One thing at a time.”

Dieder drank some of his tea with no regard at all for the inside of his mouth, and peered at Wisten. “Well, who are they? Funny how nobody ever sees them, nobody goes to their manor. I've heard other things, too...”

“Oh, now,” said Wisten. “That's not true. The Cyre houses are old, very old. Used to be nobility, and some say they still think of themselves that way. So they usually send middlemen to do business for them. They meet with peers, see, not mud-stomping soldiers like us. And people do go out to Karnain and Quevel; when I was a recruit, my first battle was just west of Quevel.”

Setting his jaw, Dieder nodded. “I never heard of a Cyre king or queen or whatever else. I thought they were merchants.”

“Yes, they are. Maybe their kingdom's built on money now, but some say the Cyre weren't always the Cyre. You know how some of the Hillmen carry the hanging masks on their banner? Or the six-fingered hand they get tattooed on their chest? That's all Kerlotyn. You ever see the Cyragrim arms? It's got a six-branched tree on it.”

Dieder mulled this over, frowning. “But the Kerlot got wiped out.”

Wisten nodded. “All of them. Sure, all that's left now are little piles of rock and some crazy Hillmen, but you don't have an empire like that and not leave something else behind. They conquered everybody from here to as far north as Greenstone Tower!”

“But that was ages and ages ago. And ...” Dieder paused, looking at Wisten suspiciously. “Are you changing the subject?”

“No, no. Just listen. The Kerlot were ruthless, right? So are the Cyragrim. I heard some wagoneers talk, the Cyre houses are great to do business with, but you better hold to contracts. You heard what happened to Anvil House that one time, right?”

Dieder looked at Wisten warily. “Sure, they got mangled.”

“Right. That's the thing... last time the Cyragrim took the field, they hired soldiers. But this last time? Nobody heard about any contracts. If they'd hired outside, we would've seen the troops on the road. So... who were the soldiers?”

This prompted another frown. “I don't know.”

“Hillmen,” said Wisten. “There weren't many survivors, and the fight happened at sundown. Not many people to see, but those who did... they say it was Hillmen. And who do they hire to? Nobody.”

“So you're saying the Cyre are Kerlotyn?”

“I'm saying they might be, and if they aren't, they think they are. And that's a lot of blood debt to pay. You've heard how the Hillmen rant. The Kerlot had a thing about grudges, or so they say. A grudge that old? That much hate? No wonder they make the weapons they do. And then they sell and rent their services to us so we kill each other. And remember what they used to say about the Kerlot and their power with curses. How many times have people failed against the Cyre?”

Dieder peered at Wisten for a long moment, and the older soldier looked back. Finally Dieder drained his tea, and shrugged.

“That sounds like a cart of horse shit.”

Wisten laughed. “Fine, so, the Cyragrim are just money-hungry bastards who like to build horrible machines. Is that answer enough?”

“No.” Dieder paused again. “I've seen a lot of killing, and it's just been man to man. We fight to live, this is how we make money. But the acid cannon? There's no cause for that thing. Death is never clean, but if you're a decent man, you make it as clean as you can. Torture is for filth, done by filth. And that thing is torture.”

Wisten gave him a wry smile and tapped tankards.

“Glad you feel that way, Dieder, because next engagement, we're charging the cannon. Come on, our watch is starting soon.”

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Alchemical Marriage, part 3

Sunday, November 16, 2008 - 5:33 PM

The concept and design of the crebath is expounded upon and used here by permission of the creator, Nigel Sade.

People staring at a crebath wasn't unusual. Even though there was not much to see, nor were they unexpected, Brigantia knew the three of them would get the attention. Here, in a war camp, the attention was limited to some staring from new recruits and the occasional glance or two from veterans, even though Brigantia went openly armed. Just three gray-wrapped figures, two unloading jars and boxes from a covered wagon and the third keeping watch.

The dark-haired man, however, had glanced briefly at them, paused, and then stopped to peer at them again.

At her, specifically.

She'd touched the rim of her hat in a polite greeting, but this had only elicited a peculiar mix of puzzlement and surprise in the stranger. Assessing him, she saw a fit, sharp-eyed man, and she certainly would have believed him a combat veteran. In this area, surely he'd met crebath before. One might have even saved his life.

To her surprise, he started walking towards them.

Behind her, Lavinia and Aloysius had been chatting quietly in the Old Tongue as they worked, Lavinia's cool rationality balanced by the subtle banter of her partner. Brigantia greeted the fellow before he got too close, to let them know.

“Good day, sir,” she offered. touching the rim of her hat again.

The man stopped at a polite distance, and seemed to be trying to get a better look at the small uncovered space under Brigantia's hat brim.

“...have we met?” the man asked, wary but curious.

“No, sir,” she said pleasantly, which was not how she felt. The man made her uncomfortable, and it irritated her that she did not understand why. As Aloysius offered greetings of his own and the usual polite questions started going back and forth, Brigantia tilted her head enough to hide her eyes with the hat brim.

But she kept watch on the man from the neck down.

“I am Alembic,” said Aloysius by way of introduction, indicating Lavinia and Brigantia in turn. “She is Aludel, and this is Athanor.”

“Erich,” the man said, as if he wasn't used to saying the name, and Brigantia looked up at him involuntarily. There was loss in his voice, only partially hidden, and he was probably unaware of how much it showed.

But when she looked up, his eyes were waiting, and pounced. Then, they seemed to recoil, the questing light in them leaping back as if burned.

“Who are you?”

The question was an arrow, straight for Brigantia. There was a desperate need to know, and she felt sympathy for wherever that need came from, but she was a bit affronted.

“...I am named Athanor, sir,” she replied quietly. “It means the alchemical furnace...”

“Don't play games with me,” he said in a quiet, deadly tone.

Grief and anger in a trained fighting man were a dangerous formula. She tilted her head slightly, hat brim back, and shifted the set of her shoulders in readiness, resting a thumb in her belt. If he did anything brash, she would stop him.

Her slight movements had a profound effect on the fellow, however. He took a half step back, his face gone dead white, and his eyes were full of confusion.

“Sir,” came Lavinia's voice from behind Brigantia. “Are you feeling well?”

Dawning realization mingled with horror in the man's eyes, quickly burned away by rage, and in an instant, his sword was out, moving for Lavinia. But Brigantia was just as fast; her sword rang against his, binding it, and drove the point to the ground while her own point flicked up to guard his throat.

“Stand down, sir,” she said in a cool tone.

His anger burned to nothing, and a pair of hollowed out, sad eyes stared back at her. He hesitated, blinking heavily, and then sheathed his sword to bow with a muttered apology before briskly walking away.

Brigantia sheathed her own blade, and noted the amount of interest around them. They all know this man, she thought. They know him and respect him. Who was he, and what has happened to him?

She became aware that Aloysius was talking to her quietly.

“Brigantia, we were misinformed on a matter that seems to have become rather important.”

She turned, looking at her father, whose shrewd eyes regarded her evenly.

“That man is supposed to be dead.” he continued. “The usual Anvil House contract allows us to salvage those remnants which do not have living kin, or kin who relinquish the remnants for a fee. A remnant we took from the field a year ago was exemplary for a Monitor like you. It figured heavily in your build; female, prime conditioning, very finely tuned nervous system...ah, in any case, that remnant originally belonged to Cybil of Tirburg, who was once that man's wife.”

He paused again before continuing. "You have her eyes, among other things."

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Alchemical Marriage, part 2

Thursday, November 13, 2008 - 2:55 PM

The concept and design of the crebath is expounded upon and used here by permission of the creator, Nigel Sade.

“Whew,” announced Athelstan with disgust.

“It's the acid cannon,” replied Godfrey, wrapping the new bandages around the ruin of an arm.
“This man got caught in the fog it kicks up.”

Godfrey was an old man, and he'd been a battlefield surgeon for much of his life. Before that, he was a soldier, and like most old soldiers, he'd seen quite a lot that he didn't mind mentioning if other people could bear it. He was a hard man, brisk and unflappable on the field.

The fact was, the Cyragrim acid cannon terrified him. It wasn't an efficient weapon, but it made a ruin of morale, and it did tend to kill anyone caught in its acrid greenish fog.


He finished another round of medicine-soaked bandages, and silently thanked whatever deity would listen that his patient had long since fainted from the pain. He also thanked them that his new assistant, Athelstan, had stomach enough not to vomit or faint.

“Come on, boy. That's all we can do for him.”

Athelstan's wide and skeptical gray eyes peered at Godfrey. “But...”

“No,” replied Godfrey, half-sighing. “He'll probably die in his sleep, lucky fellow, but we do what
we can. If he's very lucky, he didn't breathe in any of the fog.”

This was the second battle between the Dana Fal merchant houses and the Cyragrim that Godfrey had witnessed. The first had taken place ages ago, before he was shaving, and he'd been like Athelstan but a lot less wise. Old grudges and ample greed were the fuses for these little wars, and it seemed that both would pile up enough to occasion more than mere skirmishing. The House magnates would start buying mercenary contracts, would start calling in debts and militia as well as their House soldiers, and then promises of money would draw other interests from north and east.

Walking through the groaning ranks of the wounded, Godfrey had long since dismissed the appeal of war for money. His old, strong hands went about their work as if they had a memory of their own, allowing his brain to whet itself on other memories and thoughts, occasionally sparing a word or direction to his over-tired assistant.

After a few more rounds of bandaging, stitching, washing and setting, he became aware that Athelstan had stopped asking irritable questions.

“Pay attention, lad,” he said, and then noted that Athelstan was looking at their patient in astonishment.

Godfrey saw a man on the dawn edge of middle age, stronger and faster than the young men would expect, wiser and wittier than the young men generally were. They would see the touches of gray in his hair as a weakness, but these hairs were just scars, and little different than the scars the man had on his lean body. His hair was otherwise dark, brushing against his shoulders and shading a withdrawn, sharp-edged face. There was a threat implicit there, but a quiet and polite one. The man also showed no sign of noticing the stitches that Godfrey was putting into his shoulder.

Godfrey knew who the man was, of course, but so did Athelstan.


“Hush, lad, pay attention. You haven't gotten the knots correct yet. See how I tie this off.”

Naturally, the boy didn't learn a damned thing, and as soon as Godfrey had finished the stitches, Athelstan aimed at the man.

“It's an honor to meet you, sir, I heard so much about you, it's amazing to meet you at last, sir...”

Godfrey, noting the hollow look in the man's eyes, cut Athelstan off. “Stop your rambling, and go check the water. We'll need more boiling before the hour's out. Go!”

The boy hesitated out of sheer adolescent defiance, but the hard push of Godfrey's eyes broke him, and off he went. The older man sighed, and gave the soldier a quick look.

“Anything else?”

“No,” murmured the man. “The rest are just scratches.”

“Mind you keep them clean, then.” Godfrey paused, and then continued quietly. “I didn't think you were still fighting, Erich.”

Erich nodded. “I'm surprised you aren't dead. You keep pitching your hospital too close to the field.”

Godfrey snorted. “War is all about calculated risks. Been all right?”

There was a moment of consideration that surfaced briefly in Erich's eyes, and then he smiled. “Not really.”

“You'll get past it,” assured Godfrey quietly. “Just mind yourself, eh?”

“I do, but it's back to the front tomorrow.”

“Reinforcements came early, there'll be a push. They hired some crebath to help with medicine and whatnot, too. I've never cared for the crebath, but at least they have something to help deal with the damned Cyragrim alchemy.”

Erich just nodded again, but Godfrey could tell from the slight easing of the eyebrows that this was welcome enough news. There was another moment of silence, and then Godfrey gave Erich a squeeze on the unhurt shoulder.

“You're fit to go, lad.”

Returning in a hurried tangle of new bandages and jars of salve, Athelstan came back in to the hospital in time to see Erich's departure. Godfrey gave the boy credit; it was a few minutes before the questions started.

“Did he ask about me? What...”

“All right, all right. Shut your mouth, lad, and put your hands to work. I need more bandages boiled and salved up for tomorrow. And while you're working, I'll tell you a few things.”

Godfrey's wise and conspiratorial tone did what it was supposed to. Athelstan suddenly became the hardest working apprentice in ten provinces, and when he was hard at work, Godfrey began to talk to him quietly.

“Yes, Erich is one of the best fighters in the South, and yes, he really is something of a magician. And yes, it is true that his wife was as good as he was, but she was taken down about a year ago at the battle of Siris Field. That's where he got the one scar on his brow, from the explosion there. It put him out, but he was mostly under cover so he lived. She lost both her legs, died.”

Athelstan was all attention, but continued working. Predicting the questions, Godfrey continued.

“I know, because I was there. Anvil House took the field, drove off the troops they didn't slaughter, and later got crushed when they tried to cheat the Cyragrim warmongers who sold them artillery. Ugly rout, Erich's side was outnumbered three to one. But he got dragged off the field, and he recovered. He's still grieving, though. And you'd best give him space. He's still just a man, you know.”

Again, Athelstan's youth bubbled up a reply, and this time it won out. But before he could speak Godfrey stared him down.

“You don't get it yet? I'd figured you would, working with me. Heroes are men too, Athelstan, and that means they die just the same. Erich's just a man... just a remarkable one. Of course, I've got the right to be so praise-filled for him. More than you do, anyway.”

This prompted some blinking from the confused apprentice. “I don't understand?”

“He's my son, you idiot. Enough of this, back to work with you.”

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Alchemical Marriage, part 1

Tuesday, November 4, 2008 - 2:46 PM

The concept and design of the crebath is expounded upon and used here by permission of the creator, Nigel Sade.

To the crebath, everything had variations of meaning. They presented one name to non-crebath, for example, and kept their given name exclusively among their peers. Thus, Aloysius was known as Alembic to the men of the nearby city, and frequently confused with the Alembic-who-was-Honorius, who lived some miles away. As distinct as the crebath were from one another, most humans only ever saw the hat, scarf and coat. Even without, however, Aloysius knew perfectly well most humans couldn't tell them apart.

Reaching the bottom of the catacomb stairway, Aloysius went through the measured ritual of removing the ubiquitous gray work clothing, placing them on the hooks under the First Lantern.

“Aloysius, good evening.”

The slightly raspy but congenial voice came from Justinian, replete with sash, cravat and lace at his sleeves. His thick blond hair was neatly braided and pinned up in the older style of the region. Aloysius peered at him for a moment, amused.

“Dressed for tea so late?” Aloysius plucked at the sleeves of his work smock, and used the boot scraper.

“We were just getting together for a meeting,” replied Justinian. “Our gathering in the past couple of days has been extensive, and the Enclave has determined that some of us may collate offspring.”

“That is significant indeed,” said Aloysius, strolling over to his friend. The two of them moved quietly through the catacomb passages, heading downward. “What is the status so far?”

“It will be drawing lots, this time. Most castes are acceptable, so chances are very good whoever has the privilege will not have to pass it to another.”

Aloysius smiled despite himself. “Even Calcinati?”

“Oh yes. You are still obsessed with one of those?”

“Justinian, the structure I have in mind will be sublime.”

“No, no. Calcinati, not Sublimati.”

Aloysius gave Justinian a sardonic sideways glance. “Wit was clearly not something your parents bequeathed to you.”

“Yes, but charm was, and therefore you like me despite yourself.”

“...wit and logic.”

The two reached a great juncture of passages, fanning out from an austere gallery that might have started as a natural cavern. Justinian waited among the somber colors of hanging scrollwork while Aloysius went to his quarters to dress properly. The two then proceeded down long flights of stairs to the moot hall, where most of the Conclave was present. Rather than a sea of chemical-stained gray, they were resplendent in the brocades and silks they enjoyed in private.

Aloysius made some polite greetings as he moved through the large, dim stone hall, but there was little need for small talk in a Conclave. Eventually, everyone quieted as the eldest of the Sublimati, Grace, stepped forward with her assistant just behind, holding the sealed jar of the lottery.

A subtle touch grazed Aloysius's hand, and he did not have to look to know it was his dearest Lavinia. Around him, the other crebath were also standing with their chosen ones, the complementary half of who they were. Those who had not chosen stood apart; it was not their time for the Great Work.

“Attention,” said Grace again, filling the room with her golden, angelic voice. “We are all attended, now, and it is time. No doubt all here know that some shall be allowed to collate their offspring and complete a Magnum Opus. After consultation with the other caste leaders, it has been determined that two pairings shall have that privilege.”

She signaled the attendant, who stripped the wax from the clay jar, shook it several times, and then began to walk through the assembly, allowing each pair to take one token.

Aloysius consciously stilled his heartbeat, which hope had quickened. Surreptitiously, Lavinia gave his hand a squeeze, but they both kept their eyes forward as decorum demanded. They'd been ready to begin for a couple of years now, refining and designing their offspring, and with his very fortunate findings in the past week, they now had everything they needed. Of course, the fire of inspiration was not only with them; Aloysius had discussed the Magnum Opus with a number of other Conclave members, and he knew their own designs were of equal worth and inspiration.

But if it were now, it would be perfect. He steadied himself.

Then the jar was before them, and he let Lavinia reach for the token. All were still until the jar returned to Grace, who then nodded at them all in sombre ceremony.

The members of the Conclave looked at their tokens in silence. Then two pairs, including a silently elated Aloysius and Lavinia, stepped forward to raise their token as one. Two hands, one female, one male, standing together, joined to the symbol for the rebis; the alchemical marriage.

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