“If I’m supposed to be the bearer of this information, I should know how to use it,” Anise said. “Ophelia said it was almost complete.” They stood on the fifth floor of a tall narrow tower – a library with a different floor dedicated to a certain area of study. The fifth floor contained books on physics and energy – and most importantly, alchemy – the science of turning normal metals, iron, lead, copper that had no importance other than uses in building things, into gold. Her mind skipped back to the Golems – patchwork men made of scraps of metal. Like the balloon of an airship was patchwork cloth, the skin of the golems was a mish-mash of bright coppers, tins, dull leads and iron, giving them a misleading fragile look. They reminded her of a patchwork doll her mother had given her when she was still in the crib. She still had that doll, even though she was already a few years past her thirtieth birthday. She couldn’t bring herself to get rid of it. It was her older brother’s doll. A brother she had never even met. He had… She shook her head; she didn’t want to think of that. And it really wasn’t a doll, it was a raggedy patchwork man. Anise got all the left overs, the after thoughts. Even though her mother gave it to her mainly out of selfishness, she still had it.
Colin removed a book from the shelf and added it to the pile that was already spread to take over the long table in the centre of the room.
“I think this is enough for now,” he said. “We need to take them back to my workshop. I have all the apparatus needed to carry out the formulas. You need heat, and ice that is colder than normal. Too cold to touch with bare hands. And you need a dozen other things that we don’t have in this library.”
Anise removed one final book, and acquiesced. She stuffed as many as she could fit in her satchel and stacked them up in her arms so high she couldn’t see over them, and barely around them. Colin did the same.
With only a few casualties of books falling onto the ground and getting bent or falling into the gutter and getting wet, they arrived at Colin’s workshop. Sweat poured from Anise’s brow as she plopped the teetering tower down onto a large, moth eaten chair in the corner of the room. The books spilled off and onto the floor.
Colin went to work arranging various tubes and jars, and glass vials and bulbous containers with spouts. Anise poured over the pages of a book titled with alchemy symbols. “I guess we need to see what happens with the information we have,” she said. “I hope you don’t mind, but if you could point me in the direction of a large mirror, I can take a look and see what it says.” Colin waved a hand vaguely out the door. “Down the hall, second room to your left.”
She found the water closet, and there was a full length mirror. She positioned the tall mirror opposite the sink and unbuttoned her blouse. She stared in the small cracked mirror above the sink. Her jaw fell open in shock at the dark symbols and swirls, crescents, squares, dots that ran across and down her back. She threw her shirt back on, ran back to the lab, grabbed the book she had been referring to as the instruction manual and carried it back to the mirrors. She looked at the map of her back, and down at the book, piecing it together. She yelled out down the hall to Colin, giving him a list of all the ingredients. When she exited, the sun that had been streaming through the windows had disappeared. Night had fallen. How long had she been in there?
Colin had moved two long tables beside each other and stretched out almost end to end was an elaborate chain of instruments along with strange coloured powders and liquids. He had a pair of goggles over his eyes, wearing gloves and had a small mask over his mouth.
“Here,” he said, his voice muffled, handing her the same protective equipment. She slipped the gloves on and pulled the goggles down over her eyes, tying the rough cloth of the mask over her ears and mouth.
Colin began putting a purple powder into a bright blue liquid, and then a yellow powder into a swirling luminescent green liquid that reminded Anise of absinthe. He moved down the line methodically, adding and mixing, and turning up the flame on the burner under this vial and that bottle. At the end of the assembly line sat the bar of lead in a chipped dish. Anise watched transfixed, following Colin’s every move as he added a pinch of this, and five tablespoons of that, mixing some one way, and stirring others in the opposite direction.
She watched, holding her breath as the liquid slithered its way along the narrow tubes to its final destination – the spout that ended up over the chunk of lead.
Both stood, watching, waiting, not breathing. The liquid changed from red, to gold to black, to clear and back again – all colours of the rainbow.
And finally it emptied into the last container and swirled down the spout. It poured out onto the lead, filling the dish.
They waited. And waited. And there was nothing, not even a puff of smoke.
“What did I do wrong?” Colin wailed with an anguished cry.
“I don’t think you did anything wrong,” Anise replied. “But I’m the carrier. Maybe I need to do it to get it to work.”
Colin’s mouth worked like a fish, opening and closing. “But you’re a-” He stopped when he saw her expression, eyes narrowed. “Yes?” she replied, with barely contained disgust. “I’m a what?”
“You’re a…a w-, wo-,” he had got a sudden case of stuttering.
“Yes, but I don’t mean anything by it,” his face flushed crimson.
Anise gave a high, bitter laugh. “Of course not.” I should be used to this by now, she thought glumly. She got enough of it on a daily basis, catching people’s horrified or disgusted glances at her as she walked down the street, once they realized she was a girl, and not a man. She often wore a hat, to cover her hair. The one thing she couldn’t disguise, of course, was her bust – even with a corset.
She elbowed Colin out of the way as she moved to the first set of vials and added a precise spoonful of white powder that looked like sugar and poured it slowly into a bubbling red tumbler. She moved to her left and took a few small black cubes and added them to a small dish that sat over a brilliant blue flame. The little crystals did nothing at first and then suddenly melted into a shimmering silvery puddle that looked like a strange mirror. The silver snaked its way down a narrow pipe and into a thin necked bottle filled with a substance that looked unnervingly like blood. A puff of steam erupted from the bottle along with an overpowering stench of caramel apples, sweet and sugary.
She lifted the red-black mixture and poured it into a large bowl next to it. There were three small dishes next to the bowl, each holding a different coloured pile of powder. She picked up a teaspoon and scooped up some yellow powder with the tang of sulphur. She wrinkled her nose and sprinkled it over the blood-like liquid that had a disturbing thickness. It turned a rusty orange colour. To this she picked up with a pair of delicate pincers five and a half pinches of a powder the colour of fresh spring leaves. The liquid turned a revolting. Lastly she added three generous scoops of a heavy copper coloured powder to the bowl. It fizzed and popped alarmingly and Anise jumped backwards. After a few moments the bubbling stopped, leaving the bowl filled with a golden wheat colour that reminded her of someone she really didn’t want to be reminded of. It was the exact same colour as Gideon’s eyes – the colour of ale left outside in the sun, an intoxicating gold. She took a large dropper and syphoned the gold liquid with the consistency of batter upwards. And finally she had reached the last stage. There was one remaining bottle, perched over a gentle orange flame. Slowly she released the gold into the clear liquid the bottle contained. It seemed to turn almost solid, but then slowly expanded like rising dough and seeped out the spout and onto the rough chunk of lead in the bowl.
At first nothing happened. Anise took a step forward, frowning. And then there was an ear splitting whine and then she couldn’t see anything as her vision turned white. And then the shockwave hit a second later, throwing her across the room. She hit something, hard, and pain shot through her, and then everything went black.
A blurry figure appeared as her vision began to clear. It was a familiar scene. She knew Colin was saying something, she could see his lips moving. But she couldn’t hear anything except for a high pitched whine as if a kettle was boiling. She shook her head. “I can’t hear you.” She could hear her own voice, muffled and tinny as if it were underneath layers of thick cotton. And then she realized that even though her left eye had finally cleared and she could see the world as normal, her right was still fuzzy, making half of Colin clear and crisp and the other a hazy blur of shadow, that had leeched the colour from everything. Her left eye could see the soft corn flower blue of his shirt, and the summer leaves green of his eyes.
“Take my hand.” She could hear that at least. But she couldn’t see his hand and she said so. Then she shifted her head slightly to the right and his outstretched hand jumped into view out of nothingness. She took it gratefully and he pulled her to her feet.
“My eye seems hurt,” she explained. She took a step forward, and was slightly unsteady but she didn’t fall over and for that she was happy.
Colin took her face in his hands. She stiffened slightly as he held her face still, leaning in to look into her left and then right eye.
“The pupil looks a bit clouded on the right side compared to the left,” he admitted. “But maybe it’ll go away eventually, like your hearing coming back.”
She nodded. She was thankful for the googles and didn’t dare think what would have happened had she not been wearing them. She took another step back to the table where the final product lay.
The chunk of metal lay in its dish small and unassuming, but it was a burnished copper, no longer dark, dull lead. She lifted it gingerly from the bowl as if it would burn her. It didn’t, but it did feel different, lighter.
She handed it to Colin. “It worked! It actually worked!”
He tossed it lightly into the air and caught it again in his gloved hand. “Let me see,” he said placing it back down on the table, and moving to a table full of equipment on the opposite side of the room, returning with a small torch. The flame sliced through it like a knife through a pat of warm butter. It was gold on the inside as well as out.
He jumped up, letting out a loud whoop of triumph. “We did it!” He grabbed Anise’s shoulders, jumping up and down. She bounced a little less enthusiastically, her ankle still tender but she hollered along with him. She could do magic! She could make something useless into something useful! She thought of her brother, and how much this would help him. He had tried to find work; he was a strong, capable young man with a friendly smile. He looked nothing like Anise. He was tall, and slim and muscular, with eyes the colour of dark chocolate, not the milk of hers.
He found work easily. No one turned down a man like Robert. He was quiet, strong, dependable. And the jobs he got went well, until he became more comfortable, and his shyness dissipated. And then he began to talk. And shortly after that happened he would be out on the street again with barely a few coins in his pocket and a letter explaining his rejection. They all said the same thing. He had a disturbing imagination that put the other workers off. He made them uneasy with his talk of a world other than this one, a world that existed of tall buildings made entirely of glass and metal. A world full of automated carriages and strange airships that looked like metal silver bullets high up in the sky.
Robert was always on the verge of being evicted from his small flat even though he lived in the cheapest part of town, above a noisy public house constantly full of rowdy soldiers and airship pirates.
His money disappeared as quickly into the bar as he could make it. She always knew exactly where she could find him, sitting at a small table in the back shrouded in shadow, his shoulders up and head down, hunched, making himself as small as possible, turning people away from him. She turned and pocketed the gold, with the intention of sending to her brother, to help him.
Colin’s face fell as she slid it in her bag and she suddenly felt bad. He had saved her life once already, almost another time just now. She dug the piece out of her bag and handed it over. “Here, as a way of saying thanks for earlier, for saving my life when we first met.”
His eyes brightened and he smiled. “Thanks, Anise. That means a lot to me. This’ll really help me with buying supplies for my inventions.”
She pried her fingers slowly off it, relinquishing her grip. She could always make more for her brother when she was back home, after all this was finished.