Below is an excerpt from The Alchemists, now available for Amazon Kindle for $1.99–50% off the standard price until March 31. Get it here.
They found out he was the eldest son of Gregorio Cellini of Venice and offered him endless credit, selling him new powder and shot for his matchlock gun at a grossly inflated price. Taddeo bought himself a leather jerkin to wear over his doublet and Prospero a new feathered hat. It was a tradition, they said, for a newcomer to issue a challenge to shoot at targets, and the loser had to buy drinks all around for the platoon. Taddeo, considering himself a good shot and eager to please his new friends, agreed. The men laughed, rushed into a tent, and dragged out a skinny boy named Félix, who arrived sporting a lazy eye and a bucktoothed grin.
“We can always wager a little more than a few drinks,” a Spaniard suggested.
Being a city boy, Taddeo knew a con when he saw one. The goofy-looking kid was no doubt a dead-eye shot. He counted the men and figured he could stand them all a drink on his father’s credit, assuming he lost. When he refused to increase the wager, they sagged a little.
“Científico,” one muttered to his comrade, tapping his head.
Taddeo found he wanted very much to win, however. It wasn’t often one got the chance to put his skills as an arquebusier against the finest marksmen in the world.
“Gentlemen, you may load your arms,” one of the Spaniards said.
Félix gave Taddeo his bucktoothed grin and loaded his arquebus by feel alone. Taddeo tried to match his speed, but his hands kept shaking. He almost forgot to blow the loose powder off the gun, which left unattended could have caused it to blow up in his hands.
The boy snickered, his head bobbing, and gestured for Taddeo to take the first shot. The men gave him a monopod, a forked stand on which to rest the muzzle of the heavy gun. As he was used to shooting without it, he hoped it would give him a nice boost in accuracy.
The man-sized target had been placed a hundred yards across a field. At this distance, he knew, the average marksman hit the target only half the time. The arquebus was considered accurate up to three hundred yards, but only if one were shooting at a barn.
Blowing air out his cheeks, he aimed down the barrel. Continuing to exhale until his body had perfectly stilled, he pulled the trigger. The match dropped into the priming pan, which ignited the powder with a crash. A massive cloud of gunsmoke erupted from the muzzle.
A hundred yards distant, a soldier got up from a ditch, dusted himself off, and approached the target. He gave a thumbs-up.
Taddeo turned wide-eyed and nodded to Félix.
The boy laughed, placed his gun, and fired. Moments later, he hooted as he was given a thumbs-up. The Spaniards cheered, placing new bets among themselves. Taddeo caught enough of what they were saying to understand his already long odds were being lengthened.
He reloaded as the target was moved to one hundred twenty-five yards. At this range, a man might hit four out of ten times.
He sighted down the barrel and waited until his trembling body achieved a moment of stillness. He fired. He squinted through the haze.
Félix frowned, placed his gun, and fired.
The bullet snapped through the target with a puff of dust.
“Let’s spice this up,” a Spaniard said. “Make them take a drink!”
The arquebusiers laughed, pushed cups of strong red wine into their hands, and shouted at them to down it fast. Hoping it might still his nerves, Taddeo tossed it back and swallowed it with a gasp. The alcohol rang his head like a bell.
It produced another strange effect. He felt perfect certainty he would hit the target while at the same time hardly caring if he missed. He casually placed his gun, sighted, and fired.
He pumped his fist. “Per la vittoria!”
The bucktoothed kid reloaded his piece, his face flushed now, and fired again. Hit.
The Spaniards forced another cup on them. Taddeo drank it down greedily. He’d never known wine had such a powerful effect on bolstering courage. No wonder Prospero so often sought its medicinal qualities. It was amazing.
He laughed at the thought of Prospero, though he wasn’t sure why. The Spaniards laughed with him and shouted their bets, their eyes gleaming with excitement.
Once again, the boy matched him.
After another cup of wine, he tried to calculate his odds. The target was approaching two hundred yards, at which range a skilled arquebusier might hit a man-sized target perhaps one out of four times, one out of three if he had luck on his side.
He’d crossed some sort of threshold as far as the wine’s effects, which he continued to catalog in his mind. His head felt thick and heavy. He knew it would be impossible for him to hit the target at this point but no longer cared in the slightest if he didn’t. He was having too much fun to mind losing a silly bet. The gun was practically firing itself at this point anyway.
He felt something nudge his leg and looked down to see Leo gazing up at him with a worried expression, whining and thumping his tail against the ground. “It’s okay, boy,” Taddeo told him. “Go back to the wagon and wait for me there.”
Seeing him sway on his feet while talking to a dog, the Spanish cried fresh bets, clubbing each other with fistfuls of money. Scores of soldiers from other units had gathered to watch the show. They slapped down their coins and squabbled over the odds in a dozen languages. Taddeo laughed at them, making them all dive for cover as he swept the crowd with his muzzle.
“You want to see something? You want to see a true marksman in action? Watch this!”
He threw away the monopod and presented. He’d show them how to shoot without the use of a crutch! The image of an outsmarted Myrddin pinching his nose and saying, “Damn it,” crossed his mind and made him laugh out loud. He fired at the same time.
Crap. The ball had sailed off into the blue.
The bucktoothed kid snickered. “What a pity.”
A moment later, a goose fell out of the sky and smacked into the target board, which toppled over.
Taddeo gasped, unable to believe the blind luck of the shot. Then he laughed and declared, “Gentlemen, dinner is served!”
“El Diablo!” howled Félix. He threw down his matchlock and stomped into his tent as half the soldiers swept Taddeo off his feet and hoisted him onto their shoulders. They jogged him around the camp, chanting, “Santiago! Santiago!” while the rest stood glumly until he shouted at them to tap a barrel and put it on his credit. Their faces brightening at the news, they huzzaed and joined the parade, waving swords and pikes and firing guns into the air. Stradioti waded into the press on prancing chargers, clashing their scimitars against their shields. A military band led the procession, playing a ragged parody of a marching tune.
The mob passed Marie standing at the center of a large crowd of Landsknechte. Taddeo blew her a kiss with both hands. “I love you, Marie Dubois!”
She stared back at him, dumbfounded, as they swept past en route to the wine sellers. The Germans cheered and raised their tankards.
Prospero found him still deep in his cups early that afternoon, pontificating to a group of drowsy arquebusiers roasting the goose on a spit while Leo lay on his back, sunning his belly.
“So I was like, ‘All celestial objects are in constant motion, and that motion can be expressed mathematically,’” Taddeo told the Spaniards. “And then Giovanni was like, ‘Well, we tried that, but our model doesn’t work, so God must be intervening to keep the heavens stable.’ And I was like, ‘That’s ridiculous! If the model doesn’t work, it’s wrong and must be revised—using mathematics!’ And then he was all like”—he switched to a mocking falsetto voice—“‘I’m going to report your heresy to the Bishop!’ And I was like, ‘Go ahead! Do it!’”
Prospero whistled and shook his head. “Taddeo, Taddeo. While I am happy to find you at last exploring the joys of the grape, it deeply saddens me you have wasted your virginity on this camp swill. Fortunately for you, I have distilled a pure analgesic for your use.”
“Doctor!” cried Taddeo, jumping to his feet. “I bought you a new hat! Pablo, Ambrosio, Diego, Cristóbal, everyone—this is Prospero Buonarroti, my mentor! He taught me everything I know!” He gave Prospero a bear hug. “I love you, man. You are just incredible. I mean it.”
Prospero patted his protégé’s back. “My poor Taddeo. Now I know your wits are gone. Can you walk? I need you to come with me.”
“That,” answered Taddeo, “is a great idea.”
But walking turned out to be much harder than he’d expected even with Prospero holding him up. His vision swam. Groups of soldiers hailed him and raised their cups in salute.
“How much wine did I actually buy, Prospero?”
“You do not want to know,” the scientist answered. “And I am not entirely sure. But I might point out half the army is lying in the grass stinking drunk.”
“I’m going to be in so much trouble with my father.”
“You may take solace in the fact that eventually the sellers ran out of wine.”
“Where are we going? I want to see Marie. My dearest, my shining star, my wondrous delight—”
“I do not believe you would make a favorable impression on the young lady at this moment. I am taking you instead to see the Prince of Orange.”
“But he’s a monster! He’s going to kill us all!”
“Ah, he is not so bad.”
“If you say he’s a ‘friend of the arts,’ I’m not going.”
“Even better than a friend,” Prospero declared. “This one is a true lover of the arts.”
The commanding general of the Legion of Italy was a young handsome man dressed in gilded plate armor and helmet topped with a generous bouquet of plumage. They found him sitting astride a tall horse, glaring imperiously into some private horizon, prepared to strike whomever displeased him with the gleaming sword he held in his hand.
“Ah, heer dokter, I see you have returned with your prodigy,” said Philibert of Châlon, the Prince of Orange.
Taddeo felt himself visibly wilting under the man’s martial gaze. This was the brutal general who’d sacked Rome. Then he realized the Prince’s horse was built of wood, and the Prince himself was posing for a painter laboring over a portrait.
“Your Imperial Highness,” Prospero said with a slight bow. “May I present Taddeo Cellini.”
Taddeo executed his own awkward bow and almost fell over. He felt sick.
Whatever you do, don’t bring up Rome. Don’t even say the word. Don’t even think it—
The general jumped down from his wood horse, provoking a frustrated sigh from the painter. “Your master tells me a French army passed through this way. About twenty-five thousand fighting men, isn’t that right, heer dokter?”
Prospero clicked his heels. “That is correct, Your Imperial Highness.”
“Our men are ragged, but their swords are sharp. We also have the advantage in firearms.” Philibert removed his gloves and waved them at a fly buzzing around his face. “But there are more of them than there are of us, and numbers usually win battles. That is true, is it not?”
“It is so true it should be a Commandment,” Prospero assured him.
“Quite. Three days ago, we broke the siege of Genoa and pursued General Odet until we caught up to him just a league south of here. That’s where you’ll find his dead army rotting on some nameless hillside. We outnumbered them. Half the poor sods were so weakened by plague they could barely put up a fight.”
“In which case, the slaughter was an act of loving mercy, Your Imperial Highness.”
“As you say. The war is at a critical juncture. We have recovered Milan and Genoa. The French have an army somewhere in Lombardy, another on the verge of taking Naples. If we can defeat the army here in Lombardy, I believe the Emperor can end the war on favorable terms.” He set his mouth in a hard line. “But this time, we will be outnumbered. And every day, more of our men fall victim to this deadly fever.”
“The mago is curing the sick,” Taddeo said. “I believe he’ll do a lot of good. If he can cure them, many of your men will be back on their feet soon.”
“Magus, you say? A wizard is here?”
“No one special,” Prospero said with a dismissive wave of his hand.
“He’s healing the sick even as we speak,” Taddeo said.
“If you don’t mind me saying, you don’t look so well yourself, lad. You look a tad green.”
“I’m drunk, Your Greatness.”
The Prince of Orange sighed. “Of course you are. Intoxication appears to be a soldier’s entire entertainment. When he’s not gambling and whoring.”
“As a trained physician, I was going to heal the sick myself,” Prospero cut in with a frown, but added magnanimously, “Nonetheless, I am grateful for the Magus’s assistance. He is my helper, you see. Every hero needs a sidekick.”
“Very good. So tell me about your invention that will help us find this French army.”
“Invention?” Taddeo belched.
“We need a practical demonstration of the principle of using heated air to raise reconnaissance airships,” Prospero told him. “Can you do this for the general?”
“Absolutely.” Then he bent and vomited on the Prince of Orange’s boots.
“Ah,” said Philibert as a dozen toadies cried out in horror and rushed from all sides to clean up the mess. “Well.”
“I’m really sorry about that.”
“You are ill. Perhaps another time—”
“I can do it,” Taddeo said, waving. “I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay. Your Imperial Highness.”
Feeling a little better, he staggered off toward The Prometheus and returned with an armful of materials, which he dropped on the grass. Within minutes, he constructed a boxlike frame of thin sticks covered in silk on all sides except one, which he placed over a small fire.
The box slowly levitated. It hovered over the ground.
One of the Prince’s guardsmen crossed himself. “Magic,” he muttered.
“Not magic.” Taddeo pumped his fist. “Science.”
“Heated air rises,” Prospero explained. “On this principle, we could build airships.”
The box wobbled and fell on the fire, bursting into flame.
“It’s like Rome,” Taddeo blurted before he blacked out.