Dragon Queen Excerpt: The Alchemist

Bellepheros wiped his brow. It took him a few seconds to realise that Queen Shezira’s knight-marshal hadn’t followed her mistress away. She leaned in to speak quietly in his ear.

‘Grand Master Alchemist. A private word, if you please?’

They had their quiet word and she gave him a spherical glass bottle, stoppered and sealed with wax. It fitted nicely into the palm of his hand and, from the way its weight shifted, it was filled with a liquid of exceptional weight. The knight-marshal had no idea what it was, but Bellepheros did. There was nothing curious about what was inside, but what was intriguing was where it had come from and how several such bottles had found their way into the knight-marshal’s hands. It was a long journey home, though, and there would be plenty of time to ponder and plenty of comfortable inns and fine wine to help him think. Not that the knight-marshal’s bottle would be top of his thoughts. Queen Aliphera’s death – that was the mystery that needed thinking about. Fallen from the back of her dragon? A tragic accident? Absurd, but he’d been through the whole of Prince Jehal’s eyrie with his truth-smoke and questioned everyone he could think of and what had he found? Nothing.

Who profited from the queen’s death, then? Her first daughter Zafir would take the crown. Was there something between her and Jehal? Maybe so. The other daughter, Kiam? Her brother Kazalain? But then you didn’t have to try too hard to find half a dozen kings and queens and princes who might be quietly joyful at Aliphera’s passing.

He left the Veid Palace the next morning. He borrowed a carriage from Prince Jehal – the least the Viper could do for wasting so much of his time – and took a handful of soldiers for an escort while he was at it because apparently there were bandits on the road to Farakkan. From there, the Pinnacles and the Silver City – Aliphera’s palace and home – were straight on his way back to the Adamantine Palace. It wouldn’t seem odd for him to pass through and stay for a day or two. Maybe there he might find a clue.

He tucked the knight-marshal’s bottle under his seat, carefully packed in straw. The alchemists at Clifftop could find their own way back. They had better things to do than smoke out a murderer. Alchemists had their business with dragons, not with men.

Two days out of Furymouth, in the middle of nowhere, the carriage stopped. He had no idea why; but he was trying to read and it was hard work at the best of times squinting to make out the tiny words – he’d have to have some scribes make copies of books with bigger letters – and so it was a relief to have a pause in the jolting up and down. Going by river would have been so much easier and more pleasant. He’d been ruing his decision to visit the Pinnacles almost ever since he’d left, but it needed to be done.

He heard a shout from outside. Alarm. Then several screams and cries of terror. Then silence. He sat very still, exactly as he’d been a moment before with the same words right before him but now they blurred as his eyes glazed. He listened, hardly daring to breath. Not a sound.

The carriage swayed slightly in a gentle gust of wind and then the door burst open. An odd-looking man stood outside. He was small and his skin was dark from the sun. His hair was black and slick and he was panting and sweating. Strangest of all, though, was the black robe edged in woven strands of red and blue and white. It struck Bellepheros as more suited to a palace or a temple than to robbery on the road.

‘Out, you!’ he snapped. He had an odd lilt to his voice.

Bellepheros snapped his book shut. ‘Who in the name of the Flame are you?’ Indignation scoured a frown across his face. Then he saw past the man to the body on the ground outside. His heart skipped a beat and started to race. ‘What do you want?’

The man reached in and grabbed him by the wrist and pulled. He was strong and Bellepheros almost fell out of the door on top of him, but the man moved nimbly aside and Bellepheros sprawled out into the road instead. Dry autumn leaves covered the ground, yellows and reds and browns rustling gently in the breeze. Birds sounded in the trees to either side. The carriage stood still, the horses standing in their harnesses as if nothing had happened. One of them snorted and stamped a hoof. There was no sign of anyone else. Every bit a tranquil autumn morning if it hadn’t been for the blood and the dead man at his feet.

‘People call me the Picker.’ The odd-looking man climbed into the carriage. He rummaged around and came out holding Lady Nastria’s bottle and Bellepheros’s book. ‘That all you got in there?’

Bellepheros sat up. Around the carriage Prince Jehal’s soldiers were lying in the leaves, every one of them. They weren’t moving. Bellepheros stared at them. ‘Are they dead?’ he whispered, his mouth suddenly dry.

‘Yes. Shame for them. Wrong place to be.’ The Picker climbed onto the carriage and hauled Bellepheros’s chest off the roof. ‘You really need all this? Can you do without it?’ He went over to the horses and set about freeing them from their harnesses. Bellepheros rose shakily. He looked up and down the road. He had no idea where they were. No idea how far it was to the next town or village or what chance there was of someone else coming along.

‘Are you a bandit?’ One man? Bellepheros crouched beside the closest of the bodies. Expertly killed. One slash across the neck. Blood everywhere, pooling about. The leaves were sticking to it. This one hadn’t even drawn his sword before he’d died. Bellepheros peered into the sun-dappled shadows between the trees. Jehal’s soldiers were spread around the carriage, six of them. They hadn’t had time to close up. It had happened with murderous speed. There had to be more than just the one man. ‘Where are the rest of you?’ He had a knife of his own, as every alchemist did. A little thing. He slipped it out of his belt and cut a little slash into his palm.

The Picker nodded at the bodies. ‘I done that. Indeed. Just me.’ He finished with the horses and led them alongside the carriage. Then he picked up the bottle and tossed it at Bellepheros.

Bellepheros caught it and backed away. ‘That? That’s what this is about?’

‘That?’ The Picker frowned and shook his head. ‘Stupid, is you? Can’t be leaving it lying about is all.’

‘Do you know who I am?’

The Picker started trying to lift Bellepheros’s chest onto the back of one of the horses, but it was too heavy. He set it down again and put his hands on his hips and frowned. ‘Friends I got about the place, they sell what’s in that bottle to who wants it. You and I knows what for but they just sells to whoever asks. I has a question, though. What’s wrong with boats?’

‘What?’ His wits were coming back to him. ‘Listen, whoever you are. I see you know how to kill men, but I am an alchemist. I don’t want to hurt you but I will if I have to. Harness those horses back to my carriage, please, and then I suggest you go away before anyone else comes along this road.’ He squeezed his fist. His blood oozed over his wrist.

The Picker snorted. ‘I knows exactly who you is. Bellepheros. Grand master alchemist of all the nine realms. Important fellow, right enough.’ He glanced around at the bodies lying in the leaves. ‘Didn’t expect I’d get to you quite so simply, mind. You coming with me easy or shall we make it hard?’

One man and he’d killed half a dozen armoured soldiers of Furymouth without so much as a scratch. Bellepheros peered at the Picker. He had pale skin, but if you looked past that, if you closed your eyes and listened to the way he put his words together, he clearly came from across the sea. ‘You’re a Taiytakei.’

The Picker laughed. ‘Does I look like one?’ Then he frowned and kicked Bellepheros’s chest in frustration. ‘Going to have to come back for that. You really need it all?’

‘Your skin makes you one of us. But you speak like one of them.’

The silence after that was an awkward one. The Picker didn’t move. He looked Bellepheros up and down. ‘Asked you,’ he said, after the silence had become as brittle as glass, ‘what’s wrong with boats? Don’t like them, is that it? Make you sick-like? Seems a right- and proper-thinking fellow like yourself, heading home from Furymouth to the City of Dragons, he’d get a boat. Plenty enough of them, after all. That’s if he’s not going on dragonback. All sorts of difficult that would have been. Could have done a boat without this mess though.’ He gestured at the dead soldiers. ‘Man has a talent for something, doesn’t mean he always wants to use it.’

Taiytakei. They knew who he was. Not some bandit, then. Bellepheros looked at his hands. They were shaking. He walked slowly to the chest, to where the Picker stood.

The Picker scratched his head. ‘Where’s a good place to put this, nice and out of the way?’

Bellepheros wanted to say he was sorry for what he was about to do but that felt ridiculous. He drew back his fist and then flicked his hand sharply, flinging droplets of blood straight at the Picker’s face.

The Picker vanished. Disappeared with a small pop of air. The drops of blood spattered over the side of the carriage. The painted wood fizzed and pitted and burst into flames that slowly sputtered and died.

‘Waste of time, that.’ The Picker was a dozen paces behind him, breathing hard as though he’d just run up the entire stair of the Tower of Air. A sheen of fresh sweat began to bloom across his skin. ‘Waste of time to run too.’

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