Illustration by Steve Cavallo
Emericho, Count Mar, Master of the Ceremonies to the Emperor.
Oria, Countess Mar, Wife to the Master of the Ceremonies to the Emperor. Count Mar came from a very high and noble family indeed, and was indeed the last of his line. There had indeed been one sole cousin, an heir to the shrunken meadows and the crumbling chastel and to the very many honors, privileges, and titles. And when he had in fact died in battle against distant barbarians so barbarous and so distant that even Count Mar as a historian of war had never even heard of them (Turks, they were called. They were called Turks. And it was assumed that now that the Sub-commander of a Legion the Knight and Patriarch Ser Audulen Mar had given his life to defeat them, that they had slunk back into the wild wastes from which they had come, and would never again be heard of. Whence? That heartland of Asia More, Bactria Extra Oxum or some such syllables and babblement. Turkst), Count Mar had set up an altar and burned balsamum and myrrh. Himself the August Caesar had attended, as well as members of the Old Aristocracy. Which excluded those ennobled during the last seven reigns, or, rather, their descendents… unless said descendents were also descended from the Old Aristocracy. And everyone remarked how straight and erect had been Emericho Mar, the Count Mar, the Master of the Ceremonies at the Imperial Court, at the Court Imperial.
No one knew that afterward, all the servants sent away except that one servitor as old as the Count Mar and in fact his bastard brother by a garden-ing-maid, no one knew that the Emperor’s Master of Ceremonies had put his face upon his arms and wept aloud: not because of an especial fondness for the Sub-commander Ser Audulen Mar, whom he had never seen, nor had he ever seen his Father: but because the ancient and noble House of Mar had all but come to an end. The contents of the chastel might he leave as he would, but the chastel itself and the meadows at which grazed a flock of grizzled sheep of a race seen nowhere else, these would in no great time become escheat to the Crown Imperial, and the Emperor might do with them as he would.
House Mar: no more.
Vergil wiped the blood from the blade of his dagger, and set it aside. Carefully, he splayed the dove’s intestines and read the signs: Audacibus annue coeptis. Be favorable to bold beginnings.
He laughed and clapped his hands. The portents, horoscopes and auspices all agreed. This would be a marvelous day for the great work.
Which visible display of cheer should have spread quickly through the workshop major. Odd that it did not. There were a dozen workmen employed in various aspects of the Great Labor and though every man set to his task with a will, they exchanged many a nervous and even dark glance. They were all on edge. They would turn hastily away at his approach, as if there were something about his clothes or his appearance or his shadow that displeased them. Yet so good was their discipline that no one did speak a word to him. Not so much as boo.
None except the Chinese wizard Ma.
Ma came trotting up to him and with puppyish eagerness, said, “Great sir, stop. You are being superstition. Consider the sky. Consider the winds. Consider all life. Instead of kill birds, you must throw coins, separate yarrow stalks, consult Book of—” And then stopped, chagrined, because the tome whose divinatory authority he was about to (and, it might be added, far from the first time) call upon was not in his immediate possession. It had been some time, indeed, since he had last seen it. He was beginning to think he had left it behind. In his study. In Tai-Ting.
“Rest assured, my young colleague,” Vergil said, “that Roman science is quite advanced in the area of Prediction. Why don’t you go help out Oria in the workshop minor?” He was feeling particularly tolerant today. The signs were as good as he’d ever seen them. With such omens, absolutely nothing could possibly go wrong.
Also, as a scholar himself, he understood the pain of misplacing a book.
But Ma only shook his head pityingly, and thrust his hands each up the opposite sleeve of his tunic. When he was in such a mood there was nothing to do but ignore him.
The Chinese wizard had come to Vergil, as so many things did, as a gift. Technically speaking, he was a gift to the Emperor from the Great Cham the Son of Heaven, Conqueror of Hind, Tibet, Java Major and Minor (any day now, the deed was as good as done), Benevolent and Absolute Sovereign of the Middle Lands, aka Cathay, Qara-Khita, Greater Meng-tse, Serica, the Land of Silk, et cetera and cetera, amen. Who had heard distant reports of his beloved cousin’s glory and so sent, along with his compliments, a caravan of presents, including jugglers, carvers-of-ivory-balls, tigers, elephants, book-printing machines and mechanics to operate them, blackpowderers, kite-makers, fireworks artisans, and the odd inconvenient lateral heir to the throne itself, to say nothing of robes of hyacinth-purple silk, bolts of fine scarlet cloth, sandalwood casks of emeralds y-carven with Zodiacal ideograms, hempen sacks of peppercorns from Malabar and Tellicherry, cinnamon from Ceylon, brocades from the Isle of Lanka and dragon’s blood from Serendip, oh really the entire catalog is too tedious for recital. Let it be said: Munificent.
So the caravan set out for Rome. Past the Great Wall. Past the Gobi Desert. Over the cold Pamirs. Past the frozen and lofty Himalayas. Over the Oxus and the Jaxartes Rivers. Under the shadow of the Great Stone Tower. Across the waters of the Caspian Sea, heavy with sturgeon and epsom salts. Along the winter coasts of the Black Sea. Over the bars and shallows of the Indus with its ship-killing tides. Through the burning waters of the Erythraean Sea. Skirting first the crocodile-ridden lands of Gog and Magog, and then the hashish-beautiful lands of the Old Man of the Mountains and so to Babylon and past the ruined stump of Babel’s tower and then Byzantium and… well, it was a long trip.
At the end of which Ma, with his thousand-drawered pothecary chest, was the sole survivor to prostrate himself before the throne and offer the Chinese Emperor’s fondest compliments to his cousin, the King in Rome.
The King in Rome.
Caught ye that? as the Emperor would say. King in Rome, which was as good as to imply nowhere outside of Rome. It was a calculated insult. No sooner were the fatal words were out of the politically innocent (to say nothing of pig-ignorant) Chinese wizard’s mouth, than the court generals bristled and clapped hands to swords, ancestral memories of martial glory kicking up dust in their ancient skulls, and prepared for the clarion call to a senseless decade or two of yet another ruinous land-war in Asia.
But Good King Festus, as the denizens of the war-foddering classes were wont to call him, when they thought of him at all, which was—let’s be honest—not all that often, Festus as we began to say, had an original and straightforward mind. He knew how to make trouble disappear with a word. “No, no, dear child,” he said with a dismissive flick of the fingers. “I am the King of Rome. You want the King in Rome, which would be…” He consulted with an advisor. “Vergil. King Vergil, on the Street of Mages. Down the via and second left, you can’t miss it.”
And so the bewildered but ever-loyal-to-his-Emperor’s-command little wizard had come trotting down the yellow brick streets of Rome and into Vergil’s life.
“It’s going to explode!” the bellows-boy screamed.
The apparatus was a combination of pelican and sublimatory. Which is to say that the furnace had an iron bar running transversely through it just below the thick glass pelican (thus regulating temperature) and a perforated disk above that that held the glass vessel in place and vented the hot gases from the furnace. The pelican had two looping necks that returned the distillate to its residue for redistillation. Which process—called cohobation—might recur some five hundred times before a state of absolute purification was achieved.
Cohobation. An unlovely word. And yet…
An emerald through cohobation might improve its water threefold, though it were cheaper to simply buy a finer stone.
A base metal such as lead could, through cohobation, be improved into gold at a cost not many times greater than the value of the gold.
A certain Tincture through cohobation could be so clarified as to extend life—and in perfect health! no sibylline ironies here!—for so long as to be… well, indefinite. And no price was too great for that.
If one succeeded.
If the apparatus did not explode and kill everyone in the laboratory first.
The prevention of which catastrophe lay not in spells, talismans, and the employment of minor demons, but in regulation, constancy, a discerning eye. Watchfulness! While his laboratorians labored in silence, Vergil stood unblinking (those who mistook the sorcerer’s stare for aught other than simple and absolute attentiveness, who indeed found it downright spooky, were simply misinformed) and motionless. He held in his mind and at the tip of his tongue a cantrip for the regulation of the heat. Apprentice smiths extended long spoons (called “devil-suppers”) into the flames, each spoon containing a liquid that would bubble, steam, or sublime at a different known temperature. So that when a gust of wind coming through the laboratory door caused the flames to rise and hotten, Vergil was ready.
He spoke a certain Word.
With a whoosh, the flames leaped toward the ceiling beams. White-hot they were, far hotter than could be explained by any natural process. Hot almost as that Red Man whom Vergil had confronted (and fought; and defeated) in the deserts of Lybya. Insanely hot. Magically hot.
“It’s going to explode!” the bellows-boy screamed.
All stood frozen with horror.
Save Ma, who stepped forward and calmly poured a sack of salt over the flames.
With appropriate sputterings and smokings and belchings of stinks, the flames subsided. “What a mess!” exclaimed Petronius, his blacksmith-general. “What a damnable mess.”
Vergil, though outwardly composed, was disposed to agree. His contrivances, to say nothing of his cantrips, had been of the best—he was sure of that—and the auspices had been perfect. Yet it was his application of a spell to regulate the heat which had caused the flames to flare up so alarmingly. Which spell he had successfully applied an hundred times. Why had this happened?
What could possibly have gone wrong?
The Emperor had given no thought to what he would do with the escheats of House Mar, as, well, why should he? Grizzled sheep, shrunken meadows, stone-cankered chastel, pah!, more trouble to rid oneself of than worth the getting (at least if one were as rich as—but who was?—his most August and Imperial self). But he had given a somedel thought as to what he would do with the Count Mar.
There was indeed an Empress, she came not to Court. Never? Indeed, never. She had been a camp-follower when the Sovereign, then a soldier of the line, took it into his head to marry her. She made a good-enough wife for those days, but those days were far off; the ways of court were not the ways of Petronella, Empress of all the Roman World, known generally as Aunt Pet to the hordes of nephews, nieces, ancient uncles, aged aunts, scraggy sisters, be-bent-over brothers, scrannel cousins, and all the rest of them over whom she was Empress; giving orders, handing out favors, throwing largesses of cheap coins and cheaper sweets: it pleased them, it delighted her, there she stayed, in her town of origin, received she allowances, came she never up to Rome.
Or any else where the Emperor might be encamped.
Save that once a year or so they did meet, both incognito, at a small farmhouse in the Libertiex of Etruscany. Conversation might go rather like this:
“Hast everything tha needs, Petsy?”
“Yes, Festus. Mother has tooken it into her head, she must have a closed litter, such a nonsense; ‘What’s thee wants ith such a thing,’ I have asked her. ‘Wants to crawl into it to scratch me tits, it’s not befitten for the Emprey’s mamm-in-law to do it fore the world!’ ” The Empress guffawed, showing missing teeth and present stumps.
“I’ll have it sent. Does any bother thee?”
“Nay. They dasn’t. Do they feed Us well at Court?”
“Too well. But there. Such is the nature of the camp. Hast any petitions or positions wanted or pointments made?”
The Empress stretched toward a basket, failed, quite, to reach it. Was the Empress… fat…? Foolish question. Members of the August House are never fat. But sometimes they are large and comely. The Emperor fetched the basket up himself. “I’ve made some lists.” Had some made, I being ignorant of book, went without saying.
“I’ll bineby have a look. What’s this, thy puppy dog?”
“I must always have one such. Going away, is thee, Festy?”
“Aye. Here’s some Roman sauce and sausage for thee. If tha but somedel needs, send a word. If any durst vex thee, squat and cuck upon them. Vale, then.” A brief embrace. Nothing more. Would be false.
Oria emerged from the lesser workshop, glass mask yet in her be-gloved hand. The mask was a protection against the caustics and mordants employed in alchemy, such as might threaten her perfect and most valuable complexion.
Setting the mask carelessly aside, she rushed into the workshop major, past the bellows-boy cursing and slapping at spark burns on his arms, to clutch Vergil’s hands and peer anxiously up into his eyes.
“Countess,” he said.
She dimpled with pleasure, as she always did when someone of quality had the courtesy to employ her proper and supposed title. Her face aglow with excitement, eyes large. A beautiful, beautiful woman was Oria.
Vacuous as three days in Gaul, but beauteous nonetheless.
What wanted she with Vergil? What did any attractive young woman with political entanglements—a dozen such he turned away from his door in a week—desire?
Aphrodisiacs and fertility drugs.
Yet here was the curious fact that those who most required a love philtre were they who could least afford that knowledge be made public. It was the potion that dared not speak its name. As well ask for extract of pennyroyal to undo an unseemly swelling in the stomach! ’Twould get out.
No more did a mage of serious aspirations desire a reputation of being willing to provide such potions. There were spirits to conjure up and demons to put down. Discoveries to be made and most dire secrets to be kept. Who had the time? Life was short, alas. Life was short.
All of which led to the fastidious young Oria, with such connections as would compel cooperation from anybody, even a King Without Country, prenticing herself three mornings of the week as a pharmecary-in-training. Solely for the love of learning, to be sure. Oh, la! How she did swoon to distill and compound.