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Dana Bedwen never wanted to be a dark mage. It's in her blood. It's her destiny. But what is that, compared to a young woman's desire to be an Alchemist?

So she is looking for a job as an Alchemist, despite the suspicion and discrimination she faces as a dark arall. She wants to build steam trains and make money, not spend time on silly, antiquated rituals. But the Universe is conspiring against her. In order to save her own life, she'll have to accept the fate she fought so hard to avoid. On the path to her destiny, she'll regain longlost family, a boyfriend, and uncover some secrets about herself.

Book one of the Alchemist series, which will take you through Dana's personal growth story, as she accepts her destiny and matures to become the great woman she will become. Without forgetting alchemy, of course.

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The Apprentice’s Path

The Alchemist #1

Stacey Keystone

Copyright © 2020 Stacey Keystone

All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the publisher is an infringement of the copyright law.

ISBN: 978-1-83988-000-1 (paperbook)

eISBN: 978-1-83988-002-5

Published by Ellauri Press 2020

Contents

Books by Stacey Keystone:

Part I

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Part II

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Epilogue

For next book in series

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

BUY NEXT BOOK IN SERIES

Books by Stacey Keystone:

About the Author

Glossary

Books by Stacey Keystone:

Alchemist series:

GOAT IN THE TRAIN (prequel story)

THE APPRENTICE’S PATHALCHEMICAL MAGICTHE ALCHEMIST GRADUATES

Marn Magical Academy series:

THE GHOST SCHOOLTHE GHOST BRIDETHE GHOST FRIEND

Part I

1

The crisp, starched shirt felt stiff, and the collar itchy. Ironing it had been a chore this morning, with the flicker of a candle as the only source of light. I had to spray the shirt with potato starch and cover it with a cloth to protect its not so pristine white color. The charcoal fire I lit in the iron burnt too hot at first, and the sharp pain in my wrist was but a reminder of that.

The audible crackling of wood was strong in the fireplace, filling the office with a red light noticeable in the middle of the day due to the dark shadow of the cloudy sky. I could taste the faint particles of smoke in the air, and feel the dusty, thick air. Nobody had aired the office in a while, probably to avoid losing heat. Or maybe they couldn't open the windows; some buildings are more akin to jails than houses.

The interviewer, a middle-aged woman dressed old-fashionably in a blazer with shoulder pads over her button-up shirt, wasn't very impressed with the efforts I made. Such things are expected, and nothing to be praised for when looking for a job. 

"So, Miss Bedwen," she looked at me over my CV, which she had picked from the pile in front of her. The pile was big, as many students were looking for internships. "I see you won the Floyd scholarship, and your grades are great, which is quite impressive, but you don't seem to have much practical experience."

"Depends on what you consider practical. I have quite a lot of experience in the repair of mining equipment."

"Practical experience in designing alchemical devices. We are a design firm, not a repair shop." She seemed to say it with contempt. White-collar hate towards blue-collar work, I guess.

"If you don't count the many alchemical competitions I took part in, including the Floyd Trust Competition." I redesigned a piece of machinery that kept breaking down so it would last longer, "as practical experience, that is. Or do you only consider working a desk job as alchemy experience?" Yes, maybe I was too confrontational, but it's not like this bitch wasn't aware of why I didn't have a job in an alchemical firm on my resume in the first place.

"And that is fairly impressive, Miss Bedwen. But in our firm, we like team players able to collaborate and follow the leadership…"

Be yes-men who don't show any initiative, that is.

"… and you seem to have an affinity for solo work."

That is, I am a dark arall. This has probably been the combination of most of the clichés I've heard so far. "We like team players", "We prioritize a friendly workplace over achievement" (that's a lie, nobody's that stupid), "Experience in collaboration and teamwork is paramount to us", etc. I've heard most of them. Despite the end of the Inquisition fifty years ago, and the equalizing of rights of all magical and non-magical people, it is still quite difficult for dark arall folk to find a job. We are very competitive, aggressive, and vindictive. Employers avoid hiring people who are too assertive, and dark arall tend to be very independent-minded.

"Despite appearances," it's illegal to discriminate against people for their magical status. I wanted to remind her of that, without becoming an affirmative action hire. That would destroy my carefully crafted reputation as a capable alchemist, and I would become the butt of all jokes. "I work well with others. Our team won an inter-university alchemical competition," for which I did most of the work myself, but let's not mention that, "and we were even featured in Alchemist's Review."

I breathed deeply, trying to calm myself. The dusty air tingled my nose, and the itch to sneeze was almost unbearable. This would not work. I stopped the breathing exercise. It was absolutely pointless. This whole meeting was absolutely pointless.

The interviewer lady — I think she introduced herself, but I didn't pay much attention. No point in trying to remember now, since I wasn't going to get a job, anyway. She stared at me, trying to see if the fuse was about to blow. I would never give her that satisfaction.

"I hope you have seen my capabilities, and a fair decision will be made, following all the articles of the Labor Law," especially the anti-discrimination article, "and make a fair decision. I will await your call; it seems our time is over. I will escort myself out." 

No point in wasting any more time on this. 

I left the dreary old building behind me, without stopping to put on the coat before exiting. As I fumbled to put on a heavy coat, wrap a thick woolen scarf around my neck, and put on my oilskin fedora (very sensible, protects from the rain), and a pair of woolen gloves. One of the gloves fell down.

"Fuck."

It didn't fall into a pool, and the floor was icy. I adjusted all my clothes and put on the glove. The boulevard was empty. The trees were an amalgamation of green, yellow and reddish colors with brown hues. The usually annoyingly chirpy birds had fallen quiet, preparing to migrate, and flies and mosquitoes were busily reproducing to be reborn next year. I love autumn here in Ashford.

The trains go from the sleepy summer schedules to the usual, busier ones. The city, which empties every summer, fills up with students again. Drinking and fights return to the pubs and the night streets around the student area. Police lose the pounds they gain during the summer by having to patrol during the cold, dark nights under the rotten eggs smell of gas lamps. Criminals come back, from whatever they were doing in the summer, to scamming naïve freshers, pick-pocketing in the busy crowds, and robbing drunkards on the streets. Meat markets will soon be full of freshly killed livestock, fattened up during the summer, and students will eat a year's worth of meat in a few barbecues, to then go back to eating plates of potatoes and oatmeal. This is also the time when the scholarship loans get paid, so all debts get paid off, and everybody is the most generous.

And despite all this, I was in a terrible mood. This interview was not the first, nor the second. It was the forty-first, the last one, in the smallest, most insignificant company in this small city. And even they wouldn't hire me. I couldn't really do much about it; I had already done everything I could, and that wasn't enough.

I was in my fourth year of studies in Alchemy. Experience was going to be critical for me to get a job after I finished, and I could not get any. I also hoped to get a paid job, because otherwise I would have to resort to becoming a bouncer or a waitress. Wasting my time for three shillings an hour is not the best use of my time, considering that a proper alchemist earns at least three crowns — ten times that. The Floyd scholarship paid for tuition and the dorm — but I would have to work that back. So, if I could find a job that would not just pay for the food, but also allow me some savings — that would be nice.

So I needed a job that would provide me with some experience in practical alchemy, and some money. Maybe I could go work at the coach station? After I helped them fix a car, they were keen on hiring me. On the other hand, I escaped Crow Hill to avoid working at my father's machine and repair shop, because I wanted to do new things. I wanted to go out, and maybe have a beer, so I headed to the dorms to change.

I arrived at the dorms and changed into more comfortable attire (but kept the fedora; it's my favorite). Also made a salami sandwich to avoid paying for pub food (universally terrible, and sometimes provoked food poisoning). Munching the sandwich, a few crowns in my pocket, I left all the valuables in the safe and headed out. It was time to blow off some steam.

The pub I went to was one of the decent ones. Families dined there during the day, although you wouldn't see anybody respectable this late in the afternoon. The floor was still clean, without the sticky gloss it would acquire by the end of the night. The beer here was decent, cool and not watered down. It was also more expensive than in other places. I usually didn’t mind if my beer tasted like piss, but I came to see Joe tonight, and he hung out in fancier places (at the beginning of the night, at least; by the end of the evening, he would not mind what he drank). I elbowed my way to the bar, making my way through sweaty and smelly men. Some of them got annoyed at first, but when they saw me, they went back to minding their own business.

At the bar, I ordered a pint, and after the barman poured me one, ahead of everybody else, I paid the half-shilling it cost. I took a sip of the overflowing glass and looked around. Joe should be somewhere here. After I went around the tables, stepping on some toes and maneuvering between the tables, he saw me first, probably because of the field of annoyed stares that surrounded me.

"Hey, Dan! Come here." He was sitting alone. This was rare for him, as he tended to be surrounded by friends, and many women. He probably waited for me, as he knew this was my last interview.

I sat down in front of him, after taking the chair from a guy who headed towards the bar. His friends tried to stop me, but I looked at them and they shut up. The chair was still warm. It was nice.

"So, how did it go?" — Joe asked. He was used to my lack of manners.

"It was awful. The same cowardly excuses I always get."

Somebody from the next table heckled me obscenely. There weren't that many women in the bar, so I guess he was desperate. I gave them the finger. After some hooting, they didn't take it further. I was more a man than a woman to them, anyway. 

"You show remarkable restraint," Joe commented. "If somebody made such lurid comments about me, I would be furious."

"Would that be just because of the comment, or because they'd be implying you're gay? Men get incredibly insecure when their sexual orientation gets questioned. In my case, I don't like it, but not enough to beat them. It hasn't been easy maintaining a clean police record."

Joe seemed surprised at the last comment. For a dark arall to have a clean police record was quite rare, as my peers tended to get into fights. It's not that I never fought, to be clear; the trick was never getting caught, and not destroying any property. Choosing people who wouldn't go to the police if beaten by a woman was very important in not getting caught.

"Are you saying you have a clean record? Wow, I never thought that would be possible. That opens some interesting possibilities."

"What do you mean?" The only reason I cared about the police record was my father's desire not to get any attention. Although his marriage to mother and his long residency in Kalmar allowed him to gain citizenship, he still didn't like to get on the authorities' radar. A bit absurd for one of the most prominent men in our town, but it was probably because of his Yllamese origins. He tended to be very skeptical of law enforcement, which is why he studied the law (and made me read it).

"Well, I saw this advert recently. I didn't think about you, because it said you'd need to have a clean record, but…" he paused, as if unsure he should continue.

"What, what did you see?"

"Well, I saw that the army was offering alchemy jobs for students. They're doing a collaboration with the University. It's a pilot project, the first time they're doing it."

"Where did you see that? When did it appear?" Joe had this uncanny ability for learning about everything, before everybody.

"It appeared on the student board a week or so ago."

"Ah." The student board! The corkboard in the Main Hall was so full of adverts, pasted one on top of each other, that reading anything from it was almost impossible. People posted everything there: love confessions, poems, offers of puppies and kittens (how did they keep them in dorms, when they were banned?), and adverts for all kinds of things. Nothing serious ever got posted there, so I tended to ignore it. I would have to check it out. 

"Thanks for the tip. I'll check it out. How are you, by the way?"

I took another sip of beer. Was my life going to get better?

When I went to the Main Hall to check the announcement board, it was the mess it usually was. It took me a while to find it, and I had to remove a ton of stupid love messages, advertisements, and pictures of male genitals. Finally, I found it. It was small, written on a typewriter. 

Looking for fourth- and fifth-year alchemists for training in repair and logistics. Must have clean record. Bring CV, grades and records to office G22 in Old Alchemy building.

The advert was small. I'd be surprised if they got many applicants, but that may mean I will get a shot.

In the G22 office, I met a smiling secretary who collected the documents, made me fill a form, and promised to call me in a week. We'll see.

2

After I brought the documents to that office, I got nothing for an entire week. Lectures had already started, so I just focused on managing my schedule, with all the labs, seminars, and lectures we had. This year, maybe to give some jobs to the people in the Interpersonal and Intercultural Relations Department, or maybe to annoy us, they changed credit requirements and demanded we get a course in the IAIRD by making it mandatory. 

That was bad news. The IAIRD was the place where almost all the empaths were. It's not like dark arall hate light arall, anymore, after the Reformation; we just dislike and avoid each other. Their magic is much finer than ours, more related to the living, whereas dark magic works better on inanimate objects. Hence the modern euphemism Practical Magic. Light mages can get echoes of other people's feelings (though thankfully not their thoughts), and they can manipulate living organisms. The only practical uses of their magic that weren't ethically questionable were their plant and animal breeding program (although there were still huge debates over whether it was OK to modify spiders so they wove their nets to death), and Healing. Healing requires a very strong soul, to not go crazy with all the pain and suffering they feel the patients go through. Healers were actually the only tolerable light arall, with their dark humor and cynicism. But the only thing more risible than a dark arall empath was a dark arall Healer, so I had to choose something else.

Since empathy is not my thing, and I wasn't interested enough in ancient cultures (who cares what a bunch of primitives did? Modern technology is so much more interesting!) nor foreign languages (my father forced me to learn classic Yllamese, my ancestor's language; there were no alchemy books written in classic Yllamese — none at all!), I decided to take a course called Kalmar Republic's Law. Knowing the law is useful — especially if you want to break it.

Monday morning, the classroom was busy and noisy. I had come exactly on time, but it seems that was a mistake. The lecture hall was packed. I found just one spot — in the middle of a row, with a rucksack on it. Most people would not bother everybody in the row just to sit, but I wasn't that nice. So I maneuvered across the feet, bags, and tables on the row. When I reached that spot, I lifted an eyebrow. The girl sitting by the rucksack glanced at me, and silently removed the bag. That's right — nobody leaves me standing! I sat down and took out a notebook and a refillable ink pen. Great invention — don't have to carry an inkstand with me.

The class went with the usual conversations before the professor entered, confidently walking in, right on time. He was dressed in a suit, a very formal attire for a light arall, as they usually like to dress rather informally. He looked kind of familiar — which was strange, considering I had never seen him before.

"Good morning. I'm sure you're aware that this course is very full, so I want to make sure that everybody who signed up is here. Wouldn't want to keep a spot for somebody who isn't interested enough to come. I will now call out your names, and you should lift your hand."

The class groaned. This was highly unusual. The lecture hall was full, and it could fit a hundred students. Was he really going to call out all the names on the list?

Apparently, he was.

I started to absentmindedly draw a sketch of the professor. Drawing people helped me understand them since I had great difficulties reading people. I sketched his face, copied his stern, serious expression. The way he stood, with his back straight, one foot on a sharp angle from another. There was something on the back of my brain telling me I had seen it all somewhere…

"Miss Bedwen. Is Miss Bedwen not here?"

I stood up, notebook still in my hand, and looked at the stand.

"Here."

"Next time, Miss Bedwen, make sure to pay attention. Don't make me call you twice." He seemed annoyed, and he licked his fingers to turn the page. That gesture — how he absent-mindedly put both his index and middle finger to his lips before turning the page — made me realize… 

"You can sit, Miss Bedwen. No point in standing."

I had been too surprised by the realization and hadn't sat down. My notebook fell out of my hands. I bent to pick it, struggling to organize my thoughts.

I had seen that gesture before. Hundreds of times, when my mother read books at night, first to me, then to my brothers. My brothers also had a tendency to do that. And they also looked a lot like the professor. Besides, his surname was identical to mine. And my family had adopted mother’s surname when father married her. Professor Bedwen was my grandfather.

Mother never told us anything about her family. As far as I knew before, we didn't have any extended family. Why had she kept that secret? Why did she not tell me he was living in Ashford? Why did she lose contact with him — was it because of my father's origin? Or was it because I was born dark arall in a light arall family, a very rare occurrence, an oddity, a freak.

After the class finished, I decided to approach that man. Although I refused to take part in my father's sessions of ancestor adoration after my sixteenth birthday, I was still the firstborn of the family, and making sure everybody in our family was taken care of was my duty. Being raised Yllamese is quite a burden. I lingered, which was quite easy, considering I was in the middle of the row and I had to wait for everybody to exit if I didn't want to step on everybody's toes again. I try to do that only when necessary.

He was surrounded by excited students, who were blabbering about how excited they were to listen to the lecture (very common in light uninitiated young arall). My brothers always showered me in adoration, and I know enthusiasm like that can be grating. Being the infallible older sister is a very high standard after all. I stayed, waiting for them to finish talking. They weren't really saying anything, just purging their feelings, and he wasn't paying too much attention to them. His eyes were wandering the classroom, and he noticed me. I stood there, with my bag on my shoulder. I would wait for him.

He got rid of the adoring crowd quite quickly, seemingly with lots of experience.

"So, Miss Bedwen." The classroom was almost empty, the last few students heading towards the exit. "Did you stay to apologize for your behavior earlier?"

"That also. Look, I'm sorry about being so distracted. It's just that I was so excited to finally meet you, I've heard so many things…" Buttering up people was the usual tactic when caught in the wrong.

He seemed exasperated.

"Look, Miss Bedwen." He tapped his messenger bag impatiently. "You are probably a relation of mine, but, considering I've never even heard of you before, we are very distant relatives. There are certainly few people who share our illustrious family name…" 

Illustrious family name? Seriously? Who did he think he was? Mother never mentioned our family was noble or anything like that.

"…but I would like you not to spread any rumors on our family ties, or expect any leniency."

So my grandfather is a pompous fool who thinks everybody wants something out of him. Poor guy. 

He may have been a very respected lawyer, and all that, but money was never the objective for me. Money is just a way to keep score, and unearned money doesn't help much in that. I certainly would not cling on to a man who didn't want me for money. I would earn it all myself.

Still, getting close to my grandfather was probably a good idea.

There is an Yllamese story about Karim, whose demented father had rejected him, and who came every day to wash his father's feet and feed him, only to be kicked out every time. My grandfather had rejected me, and if I was a proper Yllamese firstborn, I would come back and show my respect, lower myself, until I was accepted into the family.

I'd always thought Karim was an idiot. 

I smiled at this man who didn't want to be my grandfather.

"Fine. But could I write my minor thesis with you, sir?"

There was a bit of Karim in me, I guess. Somebody had to take care of this rich old fool.

"If the work is interesting enough, I could take a look at your proposal, Miss Bedwen. But why the sudden interest?"

"Well, sir, I didn't have any classes on the law before," I avoided them because they were boring and useless, "but I've realized today that the law is quite relevant for the material development of alchemy."

He seemed skeptical.

"Alright, then, Miss Bedwen. Try to interest me." And he left.

Collecting rumors about my grandfather was quite an easy task. First, I had to verify he was indeed my grandfather, and I wasn't embarking onto a fool's errand of saving somebody else's relative. Unlikely, considering the likeness, but still possible. Prof. Bedwen did indeed have a daughter named Claire. She apparently died in a train robbery twenty-one years ago (my parents moved to Crow Hill twenty-one years ago), and she would have been the same age as my mother.

Why did my mother decide to disappear like that? I wrote her a letter. I would not get an answer for at least two weeks; the train takes a week to get to Crow Hill, and mail needs to be sorted and delivered.

I would stay close to that man, whatever the answer was. He raised my mother, after all. He couldn't be too bad, considering what an amazing woman she was.

My mother never shared much about her family, or, for the matter, about her life before she met my father. I knew virtually nothing about my parents' lives before me. But I knew my mother was educated in a university at a time when that was still considered inappropriate for a non-magical woman. The fact that she got an education said good things about my grandfather, and their disagreements are not my business.

I actually got a call about the job I applied for. It was a bit weird, though. They asked me to sign a confidentiality agreement, which they gave me a week in advance. They also told me to go to a different location; the induction would happen quite close to campus, in the old Alchemy Department building. The mystery was drawing me in; arall tend to be very nosy, a trait I usually kept under control.

The old Alchemy Department had been built in an era when the worst thing alchemists could do was burn it. It had been built in solid brick, with big windows that gave plenty of light, and no air filters. Modern Alchemy was quite a bit more dangerous, so the new building had been built with solid, reinforced concrete, each corridor blocked by solid fire doors. Windows were only used for lecture rooms, and labs were lit with a closed-loop smokeless gas lighting system. The air vents contained filters that could get rid of most poisons. It was a death trap designed to keep whatever creative students came up with inside the building.

I had never gone into the old Alchemy building, as it was occupied by administrators. The occupation of this beautiful, brightly lit building, that should belong to alchemists, by paper-pushers offended my sensibilities.

After I signed the confidentiality agreement and gave it to the secretary, who also witnessed it, I was escorted to an office. The door sign said "Capt. Greggs". 

Why would a captain of the Army be in the administrative building of the old Alchemy Department building? The secretary who escorted me knocked before I could hesitate, and I went into the room. The Captain was sitting behind a desk full of folders and papers. He seemed like he had been here, in this office, for a while, and it wasn't a temporary thing. What was happening here?

"Ah, Miss Bedwen." He stood up and extended his hand for a handshake. It was firm, but not forceful. "I'm so glad to see you here. I've asked around, and you seem to be quite a talented student. We're so lucky to have you."

Why did it feel like he was buttering me up? Why would a low-level grunt job temp get interviewed by a Captain, no less? (I was quite fuzzy on the Kalmar Republic's army ranks, but my understanding is that a Captain is above a Lieutenant, so not the lowest rank).

"Thank you," I said, sitting down on the chair. "I must admit I'm quite surprised at being here. The job description wasn't very explicit. I thought it would be more of a repair job…"

Capt. Greggs smiled at me, leaning back in his leather chair.

"Oh, no. It would be a waste of such a talented mind to have you do such menial tasks! We have already hired a drop-out student for the intended job. You are here for another project. A side project of the Intelligence Corps."

The Intelligence Corps? What kind of job would an alchemist do there? I only had a vague idea of what they did, but the only job I could think of was in explosives making — and if there's anything that interests me less than the machine repair job, it's explosives making. Sure, at first explosives are cool things that go boom. But after living for years in a mining town (and assisting mining teams with calculations) I'd realized that exploding things in mines mostly meant lots of calculations based on estimates of the type of rock and density and air pockets and angles — all those estimates being no more than wild ass guessing. The haphazard manner in which those calculations were followed — miners frequently did things because they "felt a hunch" or "well, ten pounds of gunpowder seemed too little for this hard rock" made all that even more pointless. The worst bit was that usually, the miners were right. My university education and skills would be completely wasted on that.

"I do not specialize in explosives." Starting to think of it, the job I could get at the coach station sounded better and better. Sure, it probably wouldn't look too good on my CV, but at least repairing machines would be real Alchemy. And it certainly paid better than waitressing (I never got any tips — can't bear smiling to a client).

"Yes, I've seen your student record. Specializing in machinery and industrial processes, aren't you? Don't worry, that's precisely what we'd like to hire you for."

That's a relief. But what would the Intelligence Corps be working on in machining? Trains, cars and chemical manufacturing are, in general, civilian industries. Save the reinforced cars and trucks the military occasionally uses, there is nothing the military does that civilians can't. And the weapons and ammunitions research is definitely not part of the Intelligence work.

"We wouldn't want you to enter this project blind, so I was authorized to show you a part of it. Just remember, everything we discussed in this interview falls under the confidentiality agreement you just signed. Here, look." The captain carefully took a tiny object out of the drawer and handed it to me.

When I took it, I was deeply disappointed. It was just a button in some glass casing. A button? What's so special about it? It sure looked different, but it's not like buttons are only used in the Kalmar Republic.

Capt. Greggs probably saw the skepticism in my face and decided to disperse some of it. 

"The button may look ordinary. But you need to look more carefully," and he pointed at a microscope that was sitting in the corner of the office. 

How did I not notice it before? Now that I saw it, it sure stood out. It was the only practical thing among all the reams of paper in this office. I examined it; it was a modern microscope, with underneath electrical lighting powered by a battery. It must have cost a fortune! Electricity was a completely new field, and lightbulbs were still very expensive — which is why we still use gas lighting in the city. It's a pity such a great tool lies to waste in a paper pusher's office.

I carefully placed the button with the case onto the stage, turned on the fiddly illuminator — and saw nothing due to the reflections. Playing with the diaphragm and the aperture did not help much — I needed to open the case.

"May I?" I asked, more as a token of politeness than as a real question, as I took the button out of the case, using some tweezers. The upper side of the button didn't seem to have anything interesting, even after I moved it around quite a bit, examining every millimeter of its surface.

"What? Oh, yes, do take it out. The interesting part is on the back."

I turned it over, and sure, I could see it: an inscription in tiny, tiny symbols, that looked a bit like ancient Yllamese, but I wasn't really sure. The symbols were tiny and barely visible even with the microscope's 400x magnification. That meant the symbols were less than a millimeter long. It was very fine work, very detailed. Only some of the best goldsmiths could do work this fine. But why do this much work, for a button that was made of simple plastic?

I continued examining the button. Symbols like that are usually used for magic — to guide the path for it. Despite specializing in Alchemy, I'd attended quite a few courses on Applied Magic. I never intended to become a mage, which required an Initiation, and intensive study of magic. And who'd hire an alchemist who's a magician? 

I couldn't use magic — not before the Initiation. But I could sense it. All magicals can sense magic — both dark and light, although the precision decreases when it's the opposite magic.

So I stood up and breathed, closing my eyes, trying to feel the surrounding environment through the sixth sense. Meditation is necessary for all arall, whether we go through Initiation or not, to learn self-control. Otherwise, you could end up using magic before Initiation — and that could end up badly.

Feeling magic is not like seeing it. It's more like feeling another person's presence behind you. You don't see him or hear him — but you know he's behind you. That's how feeling magic works. It's a vague, inexact feeling. Unlike the beauty and mathematical accuracy of alchemy, magic is vaguer. So, I tried to feel the room and its contents. I felt the Captain. He was large and covered in objects — some of them dangerous. Feeling dangerous magic is almost instinctive — our bodies feel it more keenly than other types of magic. I tried to feel what was directly in front of me, concentrating on the area around my arms, where the microscope and the button were. I felt the microscope — its lamp was partly regulated by magic, and fire-related magic always feels like danger. But there was nothing else that was magical there. I breathed again, making my last attempt to see anything else — and that's when I felt it. A really vague feeling, like a feather falling on a thick wool jacket — but there was something there.

Captain Greggs, who'd been observing me this whole time without uttering a single word, decided to say something.

"So, Miss Bedwen, did you feel any magic in the button?"

"Ah, no. I thought there might be something magical in them, but I felt nothing." The vague feeling I had was not enough.

"Oh, I see. Well, that's a pity, but I guess it's expected. Only one of our most experienced magicals could see the symbol. Mages that have very fine vision are rare."

"And what did they see? Did the magic follow the symbol?"

"I guess you can turn off the microscope now, Miss Bedwen. Now that you've seen it, I guess I can share the details with you."

After I turned off the illuminator, placed the button back into its casing, and covered the microscope with the protective cloth, I sat down on the chair again. Captain Greggs leaned in, interlacing his fingers, probably trying to tell me as little as he could while awakening my curiosity.

"How well do you know the history of Kalmar, Miss Bedwen?" he asked, and I blinked at the non sequitur.

"Well, as well as any graduate of a school does, I guess. It's not like we focus much on it in University — there are plenty of other, more important things."

He nodded as if saddened by the state of my education. It was pretty offensive — I was a good student, although I never showed interest in anything beyond coursework in anything but Alchemy and anything related to it. Applied Magic had only been tangentially interesting to me, as alchemists need to collaborate with magicians — I thought I could give it a go. I gave up once I realized how unsystematic and haphazard magic was.

He stood up and pointed at a big world map that was hanging on the wall. 

"You see this?" he traced the borders of Kalmar with his fingers. "This is Kalmar. And this," he pointed at a tiny island on the south coast, quite close to Yllam. "This is Forg island. It belonged to Yllam until recently, when after a small border skirmish, it ended in our hands."

The so-called Forg island was so tiny it was but a speck on the map. I approached it and lowered my head to see better. It almost seemed like it had been added with a pen after printing. I looked more closely. Yes, it was definitely added at a later point; the ink was a bit darker than every other line on the map. Nobody but the military would care about that island; even they probably only cared about it for some geostrategic reasons.

"Well," Captain Greggs clearly saw my skepticism. "To secure the island, we stationed a platoon there."

An entire platoon for an island that small? The island must be quite important. But poor guys. They must have been bored to death. You can't even march very far (I was fuzzy on military entertainment, but in my understanding, marching was as entertaining as it got outside of fighting).

"The lieutenant commanding the unit decided to show some initiative," because he was bored out of his mind, most likely, "and started to dig around the island to prepare fortifications." Or rather, the lieutenant had to make his men do something, so they wouldn't mutiny out of boredom. "That's when they found the buttons — a huge stash of them, in fact. They all have those symbols in the back — different symbols."

"How many buttons did they find?" A modern skilled jeweler could produce one or two of these a day, so depending on how many there were…

"Thousands. Tens of thousands. And all of them had slightly different symbols. Now, I guess you know what that means."

I did. It could only mean one thing. The buttons were produced in a factory. In an assembly line superior to anything we could do today. It's not like we don't have factories in Kalmar. Kalmar is the most advanced country in the world, and our Alchemy is the best (if you ignore Yllam — which I do — but they focus on pharmaceuticals anyway). We have the factories that made the first steam trains, sewing machines, and we can mass produce most household goods. And the tolerances of parts are quite good — our factories can machine parts with tolerances as low as 0.1 microns (or a millionth of an inch, as some people still insist on saying). But to produce not just thousands of identical objects a day — but to individualize each of them to this level of precision, and with magic — that was something you did only if it was for something expensive. Magic that fine was costly; you wouldn't use it for something as insignificant as buttons.

"Are these buttons actually buttons?" Maybe they were used for something else. After all, all this effort just for buttons — seemed too much.

"You thought of this too, right? Well, as far as we can see, they are indeed just buttons."

If somebody had spent what seems like huge amounts of effort — something that we can do but is very costly — for something as cheap and insignificant as buttons… That would mean…

"These are the remains of an alchemically superior society." If it wasn't a hoax made by bored soldiers, but soldiers don't tend to have the patience to do something like this.

"It seems so. And other things found on the island…"

"What other things?"

"Well, if you want to find out, you must sign the contract. We won't share anything more until you sign with us." 

He was tempting me, offering me the possibility of a lifetime — but I would have to sign a contract with the Intelligence Corps. And I never liked the idea of working for the government too much.

"Well, can I think about it? It's such a big decision."

"Sure, Miss Bedwen. You've got three weeks to think about it."

3

I had to find a way other than signing up to get to that research. If there were any historical remains of alchemically and magically superior civilizations, where could I find them? The first thing you do in any alchemy research project is to talk to people who are familiar with the subject and have read lots of literature on the topic.

So I joined the history club. It was a club known for being the place where all the conspiracy theorists and nutjobs got together to discuss the most outlandish ideas. I knew enough of the official history to know that civilizations superior to ours were not something common knowledge. But maybe this club could help me find something?

The club had ten people, young skinny men, all non-magical. They took me in, although their enthusiasm at having a woman join was probably soured by me being dark arall. They didn't seem to know much about any alchemically superior ancient civilization, but I did get a lot of rumors about how the world is ruled by a secret clique of perfect empaths manipulating everybody through mind magic (seriously — where do they get those ideas from?). When I joined them on Friday for one of the guys' presentations, I couldn't stop laughing through the whole thing. Seriously — magicals controlling the weather and provoking the Great Famine by changing ocean currents? Did they have any idea of how impossible that was? The most anyone could do was make it rain when the clouds were dense enough. Magic couldn't create the clouds, nor the wind that would bring them. Changing atmospheric pressures — tons and tons of very light matter — was an exponentially difficult activity. Magic was more effective the smaller the mass and the smaller the object.

The guys, who had been attentively listening to the speaker (he introduced himself, I think his name was Mike?), weren't too happy with me. At the end of the lecture (I wasn't laughing anymore — my belly hurt too much), one of the guys, the least shy of them, asked me to explain what was so funny. I did. It took me a couple of formulas and five minutes or so of back-of-the-envelope calculations on the blackboard. When I looked at the audience, their eyes were glazy. I think the math just flew completely over their heads. These guys could not understand any description of technology even if it was explicitly mentioned. They had no idea of alchemy. 

I would have to do the literature research myself; it seems like there are no alchemists studying history, so nobody with an actual understanding of what's possible, even with magic, was there.

Considering my Yllamese ancestry, it wouldn't be too surprising if I found their culture fascinating. And, as the islands where Captain Greggs said the remnants of that civilization were found were Yllamese, I may find something in ancient Yllamese books.

The library had a few books about ancient Yllam, but they all seemed too modern. And, considering how historians seemed to not understand how alchemy works, second-degree accounts of how things worked or what was available would be useless. Ask the average man on the street how the steam engine works — would they be able to explain it? And imagine somebody retells the account of the first person — this time, without ever having seen a steam engine. No, I needed first level accounts.

Archeological studies could work, but the Yllamese did not like excavating the past. The ancestor adoration thing, you know. That's why they didn't let Kalmari archeologists dig in their country either. So I had to find older sources, preferably ones that weren't too hard to access.

"Is there anything, maybe in the archives, about the older history of Yllam? It could even be in Yllamese; I can read it with a dictionary." We had a course in the third year, which I passed by learning mad skills with the dictionary.

The librarian, an elderly woman who wasn't used to energetic researchers who mess her whole organizing by taking all the books out, promised me she would find out whether there were other materials (she probably wanted to get rid of me). I told her I would come back tomorrow and search through the library more intensely if she found nothing. When she recoiled in horror, I knew she would be motivated to find me more sources. Since delegating hard work is all dark arall's schtick (we like to control things, not to do the hard work), I was quite happy to let her do it.

The next morning, when I came to the library at eight o'clock, its opening time, she was quite surprised to see me.

"Old habits. Up north, you have to wake up before sunrise, especially in winter, if you want to do anything productive during the day. Sleep a bit too much, and poof! Your whole day is gone."

She accepted my explanation.

"Well, I asked around."

"And?"

"While there are a few older books in the archives, the most interesting books are in the possession of the Interpersonal and Intercultural Relations Department."

Ugh. Them again. So it's not enough that they force us to take their classes, now they take the best books, as well.

"And who is in charge of those books?"

"Professor Derwen."

My relationship with Prof. Derwen wasn't very good. He seemed to have taken a particular interest in me since the first day I started studying alchemy. I attributed it to his dislike of dark arall. He usually tried to annoy all dark arall, the ones studying in the Applied Practical Magic Department (yes, APMD is completely unpronounceable; that's why they're commonly referred to as the black magic department). He seems to dislike me especially though, maybe because I am a kind of a freak. The only dark arall in the whole Alchemy Department - the first one in a decade!

 Professor Derwen was in charge of the Yllamese Cultural Relations Department. He always used his position to annoy people like me and got them in trouble whenever they showed disrespect or a lack of restraint when dealing with him. Dealing with him while remaining courteous was really hard even for ordinary people. He liked to stand too closely, lean too heavily, speak too informally, take too much time, although he never broke the rules, the bastard. He seemed content to only dish that kind of treatment to first-year dark arall, and that made it hard for me to complain about it. After all, dark arall usually find anything annoying and disrespectful. There's the prejudice issue too, and nobody considers us defenseless. Thankfully, he'd stopped after a year, and I had seen little of him since. And he had the books I needed? Maybe I should sign up for the government service after all. At least they'll pay me. And give me a badge. Do researchers get badges?

"He's probably very busy. Thank you for your effort, though. I will make sure to schedule a meeting with him." Like, never. But this lady was nice, and I may need her help again, why not show some appreciation.

"Oh, no, don't worry about that. When I inquired about the books, Prof. Derwen was so excited about it, he cleared his schedule for the morning. Few people are interested in those books, you see, and it took him a great effort to procure them."

Great. Now I had to go. Whether or not he knew my name now, he would make sure to learn who was interested in his books if I ignored him. And I couldn't have him restarting his hostilities towards me. It had been really hard to stop myself from strangling him during my first year as it was.

I knew perfectly well where Prof. Derwen's office was. Not because I ever wanted to visit it, but because I avoided it, sometimes making elaborate circles just to avoid getting close to him (that didn't help much, but a girl can try). It took me no time to get there, as his office was right next to the stairs. It usually took a lot of skill to avoid it. I never hesitate, but I had to do some breathing exercises before I knocked. My arall nature was demanding I fight, pumping my system with aggression. This was going to be hard. I knocked, firmly but not too strongly.

"Come in, come in." Professor Derwen had quite a nice voice. Which didn't make him any less annoying.

I entered. The door was solid oak. That's the reason it took me that long to open it, not that I was stalling, obviously.

"Good morning, Professor. May I sit?"

He seemed slightly surprised to see me, so he didn't know who the student interested in his books was.

"Ah, Miss Bedwen. So nice to see you in my office. Would you like some coffee or tea?"

"Tea, please." The last thing I needed was the excitement coffee gave me. Tea helped me relax.

"I just boiled some water and have some fine Yllamese powder green. Feel free to pour it yourself." He pointed at the teakettle burning on an alcohol burner.

Making tea was something ingrained in me since childhood. My father always made me make it following all the customs of his homeland, as he liked to insist I was Yllamese. I poured the just-boiled water into the bowl. It was too hot for making tea. No matter, the first pouring wasn't for making tea, anyway. I poured the hot water into one bowl. 

"Would you like a cup too, Professor Derwen?"

"Yes, please."

I poured the hot water into a second bowl while warming the whisk in the first. When it was sufficiently warm, I poured the water out of both bowls and dried them. By the time I measured the right amount of tea with a thin spatula-like spoon, the water had cooled to the right temperature. I then used the measuring cups to pour the tea. I then put the bowls on a tray and took the tray to the desk. Prof. Derwen was looking at me, seemingly surprised.

"Here you have it," I said.

"Thank you, Miss Bedwen." He accepted the bowl I gave him. 

I sat down and took a sip. It tasted just right, like the tea I made for my father. It had been years since I'd drank it, since green powder tea of good quality is quite expensive, and I didn't have much money. Why did Prof. Derwen offer me this really expensive tea? Was it because he didn't realize it would be me, and he prepared it in advance?

I slowly drank the tea from the bowl. As was the Yllamese tradition, I didn't talk. This had been a time for my father and me to sit down and just be, without my brothers, or other demands on his time. I'm not sure why Prof. Derwen didn't speak. Being quiet while drinking tea certainly wasn't a tradition of Kalmar; nobody would stop talking in the cafes and teahouses that had become all the rage.

This had been the most friendly interaction I've ever had with Prof. Derwen, maybe because he was the host here. But I didn't come here for the tea, so when I finished savoring the tea, I turned the bowl, showing I had enjoyed the tea and it was time for business. At least, if you knew Yllamese traditions. To Kalmari, it was just a way of drying a cup.

"I've heard you have some books on ancient Yllam. I am trying to make a presentation on the ancient history of Yllam for the history club, and I would like to get some original materials. Could you please show the books to me, Professor?" Business means business. Wasting time on pleasantries is not for me; I'm not Yllamese enough for that. Besides, it's not like Prof. Derwen was the polite kind of guy. Not to me, at least.

"Ah, the history club! I remember being a founding member," no wonder it was full of idiots, considering the founder, "so glad to see this great university tradition continued. So you want to check the books out of my department's collection?" For some reason, Prof. Derwen seemed less prickly than usual, distracted, as if he was trying to find the answer to some puzzle. He stood up and took a key from his drawer, opening a locked bookcase. He put on some gloves, and carefully took out a very old, worn book. He placed it on a big table that was covered with a cloth. "I must tell you, though, Miss Bedwen. You won't find it very useful. They're all written in old Yllamese pictograms, not the Yllamese you learn in your courses."

I approached the table. After putting on the gloves that Prof. Derwen handed me, I carefully examined the book cover. It was a traditional binding, with the pages bound but no spine or protective cover. I turned it around and placed it properly; Yllamese books are read from right to left, with sentences written from the top to the bottom in each page.

The book was written in the same characters as the Road of the Black Lily, the book my father made me study as a kid. He insisted, despite my refusals, tantrums, and outright sabotage, that I study the characters, and read that damn book. It was the one thing he was immutable on. I could usually bend his will, as he adored me and called me his little princess. "Little princess," he used to say, "princesses have many privileges, but they come with duties. And it is your duty to know your people's history and preserve it. You should be able to read The Road of the Black Lily, and The Mandate of Flowers. How would you be able to rule if you don't know anything?" Pointing out that I wasn't actually a princess, that I was an ordinary girl in Kalmar, that I'd probably never go to Yllam, ever, ever, since I hated Yllam, the country with the most horrible writing system, more than anything, never helped. My father was unmovable. Even mother wasn't able to reason with him on that. I was small enough when he started teaching me that my magic hadn't manifested yet, but by the time I hit puberty, with magic flowing through my blood, changing me, making me stronger, tougher, and bullheaded beyond reason, I knew how to resist. So I never got to learn Yllamese etiquette, with all those stupid bows, manners of address, etc. Except for making proper tea, as I thought of it more as alchemy than etiquette.

I had thought the knowledge of pictograms would be useful in our Yllamese course in the first year of Alchemy. To my disappointment, ancient and modern written Yllamese had so little to do with each other that I had to study that course like everybody else, memorizing the stupid new characters and promptly forgetting them when the course was over.

This book I could read, even without a dictionary. I leafed through; it had no index, nor chapters, nor anything. I would have to read it cover to cover.

"Oh, no problem, Professor. I will just start reading then, if that's not a problem?"

"Wait, so you can read ancient Yllamese?"

I didn't answer that rhetorical question. Of course I could, what would I be doing otherwise? 

When Craig Derwen left his office, with the Bedwen girl reading a book he hadn't been able to read (and she was a dark arall, at that! Could it get more humiliating?), he wasn't feeling very well, not to put too fine a point on it. He went to his old friend, who always had some beer and snacks.

He crossed the corridor and entered without knocking. Whatever Dave was doing, he would understand. Dave had been sitting in his armchair, writing. Preparing lectures for a new course was never that easy. He had recently moved to Ashford, to get away from the busy life in Ecton. He didn't share many details of why he moved from the capital city to this small university town, but he seemed much more relaxed here. He even let go of his usual compulsion for order: the office still contained some unpacked boxes from his recent move.

 He looked up with worry in his eyes.

"Craig, old friend, you seem a bit shaken. What's the matter?" 

He sat down, trying to collect his thoughts. 

"You know how we have an unofficial duty — to weed out some of the most… disagreeable people from the Applied Practical Magic Department?"

Dave nodded. Dark arall tended to be impulsive and aggressive, so one of the — unofficial — duties of the school of the Interpersonal and Intercultural Relations Department, or white magic department, was to detect the most aggressive ones and find a reason to kick them out of school. Some skills were too dangerous to leave in the hands of aggressive maniacs. So they teased, and even slightly bullied the students, trying to get a reaction. The ones who resorted to the use of magic or physical force were forced out, whereas those who shouted got a scolding. This task was usually done by Craig Derwen, who (to his shame) actually enjoyed teasing dark mages. Besides, with the number of protective artifacts he was wearing, the highest risk involved was getting punched. Reconciliation or no, there was still enmity between light and dark mages, and Craig Derwen was old enough to remember when dark arall were enemies.

"Well… we also decided to do it with the Dark student in Alchemy." Having magical people in non-magical departments was a rare occasion; magic was usually too tempting, too powerful and easy. "It was hard to convince the Dean of Alchemy to allow us to do that. He is quite protective of his students." Whether the Dean of Alchemy was happy about a dark arall student in his school, letting other departments butt in into his schools' management was not something he would do. If schools go around messing each others' students, what's the point of having separate schools at all? "He gave us a year to do it and told us to stop messing with his school after that."

"And what happened?"

"Nothing. Not even shouting. She learnt to avoid me, and even wrote a very polite complaint to the Dean, but never lost control."

Dave chuckled. 

"That must be a first for you. Not managing to make a young uninitiated dark arall lose control at all? When was that? Will I have the chance to meet this student?"

"Oh, yes. It was three years ago, so she's a fourth-year student now."

"Fourth-year, you say?" Dave started rhythmically hitting the table with his pen. It was a habit he had when he was trying to remember something. "I think I remember a dark female fourth year… A certain Miss Bedwen."

"Yes, that's the one. Wait a minute — did you know her before? Is she your family member?”

"I met her in class. She was a bit distracted but came to me at the end of the class to ask whether I'll supervise her minor thesis. And no, just because we share a surname, even a rare one, doesn't mean we're related."

"A thesis, eh? This early in the year?"