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.
Marie gaped at the approaching horde glimpsed through a rising wall of dust. Thousands of carriages and horsemen rode pell-mell down the road, led by a single laughing rider. It was an astonishing sight; there must have been twenty thousand horses in the frantic endless train.
The horde swerved off the road and came to a crashing halt at the bottom of the hill. Horses reared and threw their riders. Carriages flipped and spilled luggage and howling men. A giant cloud of flour billowed upward. Women screamed from the vehicles in the rear. Flags and pennants waved and fell. The rest of the procession came to a weary stop. Men and horses panted and coughed in the dust. The wounded wailed in pain where they lay. Their leader galloped up the hill on his charger, beaming back at them while waving his feathered hat.
“Ha ha ha ha! We win the race!”
The man reached the top of the hill and flung himself from the saddle to strike a pose upon landing. Several heralds in blue and white livery dragged themselves broken and bleeding from the ground and toiled up after him.
“Bon jour!” the man called to Prospero and Marie. “We are most—”
He flinched as the heralds blared a ragged fanfare with their brass trumpets.
“Dio Mio,” Prospero said. “It is the King of France.”
“In the flesh!” cried Francis I. He swaggered up to one of the Indios, popped a bon bon in the man’s mouth, and patted his head. “Our savages are wonderful, are they not?”
Marie couldn’t believe her eyes. Another great king of Christendom! Young like his rivals Charles V and Henry VIII, slim and athletic from constant tennis and hunting, Francis I could be considered strikingly handsome but for his long, large nose, which led some people to say he resembled the Devil.
“They are Caribs,” Francis added. “An island people and most warlike. They eat their slain enemies! Ah, a purer life, for sure, free of the cares of State. We have often wondered what it would be like to live as a simple savage, maybe even a pirate.”
“Your Grace,” Prospero said in perfect French. “It is most—”
“Your Majesty,” Francis corrected him coldly, his good humor vanished.
“You use the honorific of the Holy Roman Emperor?”
“We are the rightful Emperor, not Samson!” the king exploded. “He only got to be emperor because he had a bigger bank than ours for bribing the Electors! It was our crown, and he took it from us!” His rage passed as quickly as it had come, and he grinned while splaying his hand in front of his face to make his chin seem bigger. “We call him Samson because he has the jawbone of an ass! Comprenez-vous?”
“Delightful, Your Majesty,” Prospero said.
“We defeated Henry VIII in a wrestling match, did you not know this? At our conference at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. What a party that was! We would have accepted Charles’s challenge to personal combat and defeated him too, but that would mean stealing all the glory from France.” He pointed to the horizon. “See, there! France is marching to glory!”
A long snaking column of men and horses, bristling with pikes and lances, choked the road heading east to Lombardy. An endless train of people, wagons, and baggage followed them—barber-surgeons, cooks, bakers, quartermasters, peddlers, pilgrims, and ladies-for-hire. After crossing the Alps, they would join the war against the Empire, which now hung in the balance. The Genoese admiral Andrea Doria had switched sides and pushed the French garrison out of Genoa. Imperial troops menaced Milan. In southern Italy, the French were close to capturing Naples despite an outbreak of plague and the treacherous Doria’s removal of his naval blockade.
This fresh army would put Genoa in its place and retain Milan. It would strike a decisive blow for France.
“Are they not magnificent?” the king said.
“A truly inspiring vision of national strength,” Prospero said, in full toadying mode.
Marie counted flags. She estimated the force to be about twenty-five thousand men. If she could escape, this would be valuable information for the Empire.
The French court, meanwhile, dusted itself off, licked its wounds, and began erecting a city of tents around the base of the hill. The din of shouting men, hammered pegs, and groaning carriages was deafening. Penants fluttered in the breeze. Surrounded by his fierce nobles, Chancellor Antoine Duprat, falconer, astrologer, treasurer, heralds, and other minions, Francis elbowed a retainer out of the way and strutted closer to Prospero and Marie.
“So you are the great spellbinder of which we have heard so much,” the king said as he gave Prospero a thorough once over. “The man who wins all of Charles’s battles for him.” He sounded puzzled, as if he had expected someone more august. “You are the one called the Magus, no?”
“So that’s why the Caribs were worshipping you,” Marie muttered.
Prospero scowled. “I beg your pardon, Your Majesty. But I am not Myrddin Wyllt. I am Prospero Buonarroti of Venice.” He added with a fluorish, “At your service!”
“Imbéciles!” roared Francis, reddening. His court took a careful step away from him. He glared at the Caribs. “You brought us the wrong man!” The Caribs shrugged.
“Your Majesty,” Prospero said. “Beg pardon, but these noble savages did not err. Their unfettered instinct discovered a true treasure for you, for I am a great scientist.”
“A scientist, eh? So? Feh! The universities are full of such men.”
Prospero grit his teeth. “I am the younger brother of the great Michelangelo.”
“Why did you not say this at the outset?” cried Francis. “You have deceived us! And how fares the Divine One?”
“He is in Florence, building lavish tombs for aristocrats.”
“A most excellent commission! Prospero, we would welcome you. We are a collector of great men, you see. All are welcome in the shining tent of my patronage. Musicians, dancers, singers, poets, painters, architects, and philosophers.”
“I am all those things and more,” Prospero said. “A real bargain.”
“We are a bit of all these things as well.” The king now gazed upon Prospero as a kindred spirit. Which they are, Marie thought. Two overgrown children. “We know your name from somewhere. Ah! The inventor of the clear glass mirror, no?”
“Your Majesty is well informed,” Prospero grated. “But I have invented many—”
“We use ours all the time! Surely, the most glorious invention of the age!”
Prospero opened his mouth but, expending great effort, wisely closed it.
“All learned men are welcome into the favor of the Crown,” the king said. “We nourish as well as extinguish. So tell us what a Florentine from Venice is doing in Samson’s service, since both these states are treasured allies of France in this holiest of wars.”
“Alchemy, I am afraid, and very much against my will. I said to him, ‘I am very sorry for you, but it cannot be done.’ But he insisted. I am a great man, but he is greater. I was pining for freedom in my workshop when your men rescued me from that droll, unhappy existence. I was like a plant yearning for the sun and found it in your august—”
“Oui, oui. And what is the Magus doing for him?”
“The same, Your Majesty.” Prospero added smugly, “But he made no progress either. Alchemy is a fool’s dream, like the Kingdom of Prester John. It cannot be done.”
“Alchemy! What a joke! Ha, ha, ha! That can only mean one thing. Samson is running out of money.” The king appeared to notice Marie for the first time. “God in Heaven. And who is this ravishing creature who transforms my leaden spirit to golden joy?”
“May I present the gentildonna Marie Dubois,” Prospero announced.
Marie bent her knee. “Your Majesty. I am most—”
“Ah, you are French! Rise, girl, so we may recognize you. Mmmm,” he crowed, eyeing her heel to head. “Enchanté. We have decided that you please us.” He took her hands in his and kissed her fingertips, his eyes going moony. “We hope you will forgive us for the rude manner in which we invited you here.”
Marie blinked. “Um. It’s okay—”
“Okay. Okay. It is okay!” He laughed and clapped his hands. His courtiers stiffened to attention. “We will go hunting with our new friends! Then, tonight, we wish a ball. We wish a ball to be held right down there in that field, under the stars. Make it so!”
“We are in luck,” Prospero hissed at Marie while hundreds of retainers dropped what they were doing and scrambled to the preparations.
Marie walked over to one of the Caribs and held out her hand. “I want my sword back.”
The Indio scowled and glanced at Francis, who motioned for him to give it to her.
“A woman who fights like a man,” laughed the king. “Such is the Renaissance! Modern times, eh? You are like our Joan d’Arc, the Maid of Orléans.” He eyed her with open lust and said gravely, “Similarly, you will inspire a king and a nation.”
Marie put Artemis back in its rightful scabbard. “Thank you, Your Majesty.” She felt better already with its familiar weight on her hip.
The hunters gathered, hardy peasant folk clad in leather and carrying bows and heavy boar spears. Dozens of hounds flowed around their knees and bayed for blood. Pages dressed in bright livery carried cudgels with which to kill rabbits and other small game. Some held horns, which they would blow during the hunt to signal the other parties in the thick forest. The French lords and knights, looking fierce with their taciturn Gallic faces and ornate armor, had already mounted under colorful pennants. Grooms fussed over the mounts. The royal falconer appeared with his gerfaucon balanced on his leather-clad arm. A train of servants brought bracing cups of spiced wine for the nobles. Francis gallantly called out for the servants to tap a keg of beer for the hunters, who responded with a ragged cheer for the King.
Several grizzled senior huntsmen disappeared into the woods with specially bred scenting dogs. They returned to describe the lay of the land and tracks, droppings, broken branches, and other deer sign they’d found. The assembly divided into hunting parties. The King, of course, chose the most promising ground for himself. Marie kept pace with Francis and his nobles while Prospero lagged in the rear on his lurching mount.
Francis’s senior hunter halted once they reached a deer trail. He showed the king signs of a herd passing through and in what direction they were going. The party again waited while his dog raced about, its nose buried in the forest floor, and picked up the scent.
The dog jerked its head and barked. Prospero adjusted the binocular vision on his glasses and said, “I see deer. Red deer, to be precise. A whole herd of them.”
Francis didn’t wait for the dogs to be staged in relays along the path of the herd, which allowed fresh hounds to join the chase until the deer were exhausted and turned at bay. He spurred his mount and took the lead. “After them!”
The hunting party fanned out and plunged into the brush with manly shouts while the hounds clamored ahead. One of the hunters paused to give a deep, booming blast with his horn. The horsemen flew past the hunters. Marie notched an arrow in her bow. Prospero pocketed his glasses and raced after the party, riding through a cluster of branches and coming out spitting leaves.
The horse panted and trembled between Marie’s legs as it galloped across the forest floor. The herd of red deer came into sight. She began to steer with her knees. The other riders were behind her now. Her horse snorted. The endless green flashed past. Then they left the trees and entered a meadow washed in bright sunlight. Snarling dogs held a stag at bay against a pile of rocks.
Marie and her horse bore down on it at the gallop. As she prepared to release, she felt struck by the majesty of the animal. The beast had a natural nobility and regal bearing greater than Charles V and Francis I put together. No wonder it was popularly believed the stag had a bone in its heart that didn’t allow it to suffer fear. Then she remembered Myrddin’s words: We need to eat.
Still she didn’t release. Instead, she reined in. The kill belonged to Francis as the leader of the hunt.
The king arrived with his train and dismounted. He whistled in admiration at the number of tines in the stag’s antlers. A page offered him a lance, but he shoved the boy aside, drew his sword and approached the animal at a crouch. The stag, advancing and retreating to avoid the snapping jaws of the hounds, regarded this new threat with flaring nostrils and wide black eyes.
The stag charged. Francis sidestepped and thrust his blade into its heart as it passed. The antlers caught his side and threw him to the ground with a burst of breath. The animal continued to bound away, the sword dangling from its ribs, until it collapsed with a final gasp.
The hunters hauled Francis to his feet. The nobles offered their congratulations for such a fine kill. Prospero rode up and joined Marie.
“Very good,” he sighed. “He killed something. Now we can get out of this horrid wood.”
“That was really fun,” she told him with a grin.
“Chasing animals around trees is fun?”
“It was one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done.”
He snorted. “Says the virgin.”
“You’re an arse, Prospero. I felt truly free. It was like fighting Don Jorge all over again.”
“And you almost died doing that, no? How freeing that would have been, I wonder. Similarly, the King almost freed himself from his earthly existence fighting that stag. He risked political turmoil, civil war, losing the war against the Empire—not to mention his life—for a cheap thrill.”
Francis called to her, “You should not ride so reckless. You could have gotten hurt!”
“Is he serious?” she muttered before calling back, “Oui, Your Majesty!”
The king cleaned his bloodied sword on a page’s tunic. “You should not be riding in the forest at all. It does not become you. We should like to see you in a gown tonight.”
“I haven’t worn a dress since I was nine. May I ask why it’s important I do so now?”
“Of course!” Francis said. “Ha, ha! The answer is because it is our good pleasure.”
“I don’t even have a—”
“The gentle lady shall be radiant so attired, Your Majesty,” Prospero cut in. “She will be the moon to your sun.”
“Moon to my sun,” Francis said. “Hm. We like that. May we steal it for a poem?”
“It is I who stole it, Your Majesty,” Prospero toadied. “Great minds often have the same thoughts.” He turned his head and muttered to Marie, “You should not have ridden in front of him. Kings are a lot like stags themselves. Very twitchy. In any case, you were not planning on attending the ball looking like that, were you?”
A ball, Marie thought with a smile. I’m going to a ball.
The hunters arrived panting and began the unmaking, the meticulous slaughter of the deer followed by rewarding the dogs with a share of the meat. Grooms watered the horses at a nearby stream. Servants poured wine and unwrapped loaves of bread and wedges of strong cheese. After eating her fill, Marie found Prospero sitting with his back against the trunk of a tall oak, whittling pieces of wood to make odd tiny sculptures. The carving reminded her of the Magus’s staff with its little slumbering faces.
“Myrddin was once imprisoned in an oak tree just like this one,” she said, running her hand along the rough bark. “He slept in its trunk for hundreds of years.”
Prospero paused in his work with a frustrated sigh and glared up at her. “Seriously? Please. How is this even possible?”
Marie shrugged. “The man does magic. I guess that makes anything possible.”
“Science makes everything possible. Observe.”
He assembled the tiny wood pieces together into a whistle and blew into it. The whistle produced a loud fart. He took it apart and tuned the wood with his knife. After several tries, it sounded: Aaaaank, aaaaank, aaaaank!
At the sound, the hunting party stiffened and grew quiet. The hunters scanned the trees and readied their bows. Even the dogs froze and sniffed the air. It struck Marie as a funny prank; she cupped her hand over her mouth to hold back her laughter.
Then a distant brace of ducks answered the hail call. Marie gasped. She’d witnessed her share of miracles in the company of the Magus, but she’d never seen a man speak to animals in their language.
“I said hello. Now I shall tell them I am a poor, lonely girl looking for some company.” He blew a nasal Quoooooooooonk. “And, ‘Look, I have found food for us to eat!’” Diddiduddadiddit! “Now I shall plead with them to come.” Conk, conk, conk, conk, conk!
A brace of ducks rose above the trees, swerved at the call, and flew straight toward the meadow. Marie loosed as the others did and struck a bird from the sky. The rest of the ducks flew away fast with angry quacks. The hunters laughed at their luck.
“This was not luck!” cried Francis. He shoved his fussing physicians aside and strode to where Prospero was sitting. “See? It was the work of my magician!”
“Scientist,” Prospero corrected and handed him the whistle. “Now here is how you make—”
Francis put it to his lips and wailed on it. It sounded like a duck being murdered in its sleep.
“Subtle works best, Your Majesty.”
“We shall be the greatest hunter of the age! Even Henry VIII cannot compete with us now. And that stiff prig, Charles! Ha, ha, ha, ha!” Then he winced at the pain in his ribs.
And with that, he declared the hunt at an end. The hunters cheered. Five lads began a caccia, a hunting song, adding in sounds similar to barking dogs, shouting men, and the horn blasts. Francis repeatedly regaled them all with the tale of how he felled the stag, though they’d seen it firsthand. The nobles smiled at the appropriate places in the story and frowned the rest of the time.
“At least we shall eat well tonight, eh?” Prospero remarked.
Marie nodded in silence, deep in thought. Like Francis wincing over his aching ribs after a joyous kill, she felt sad now after the elation of the hunt. She missed Taddeo. She missed him much as the lonely wife in her song missed her Crusader husband. Part of the pain she felt was due to the physical distance between them and the uncertainty whether she’d ever see him again. The rest was because of the impossibility of them ever having a future together even if they were to be reunited. They were separated by distance, but more importantly, by class.
Prospero was right about one thing; she’d already accomplished much in her short life. Today, she went hunting with a king! But no matter how closely she flirted with the sun, she could never truly join its orbit. God had seen fit for Marie to be born among people of lowly status. Women like her had been put on the earth to work to enrich their betters, including people like Taddeo’s family. Even if she joined Gattinara’s guard, she’d never be considered anything other than lowborn. What hope could she have that a rich boy like Taddeo would ever consider her as anything other than a servant, perhaps a roll in the hay?
Maybe Prospero was right about something else. Maybe he’d been right to say to hell with all of it. Kings and serfs, rich and poor, highborn and lowborn. What others called a vagrant, he called a citizen of the world. Maybe society was just another illusion, and the only important thing was for individuals to try to be happy as best they could according to their own rules. The big question was whether Taddeo felt the same way. Was he the type of man who’d buck the rules for love? Prospero said he was ruled by his father. Even if he loved her, did he have the strength to say to hell with his family? Did Marie even have a right to ask such a selfish thing?
She felt she’d never sleep well again, tormented by such ideas.
Tonight, the King of France would host a ball in a field under the stars, and she’d eat and drink her fill with lords and ladies. Thinking of Taddeo’s absence, it all soured in her mind.
“They’ll rescue us,” Marie told Prospero. “I know it. They’ll come.”
“Oh, Lord,” the scientist said. “Let us hope not, okay?”
As they neared the city of tents on the hill overlooking Narbonne, riders shouted the news that a fleet of foreign vessels had been spotted. Royal Guard troops marshaled in neat formations under their flags on the beach; the nearby town shut its gates in panic.
Marie watched the ships plow the sea with their oars. “Who is it? Have the Spanish come?”
Prospero put on his glasses, adjusted the binocular vision, and grunted in surprise. “Some things must be seen to be believed.”
He handed her the glasses. The sudden leap in vision gave her vertigo, but the scientist steadied her until she recovered. She focused on a large sleek galley streaming across the smooth waters with a rhythmic clack of oars, its deck swarming with dark-skinned sailors and blue-coated soldiers. A shirtless brute pounded a drum to pace the rowers.
She looked up and sucked in her breath.
The mast flew a red flag with a crescent symbol. The flag of the Ottoman Empire.
For the first time in history, the fierce Turk, who’d conquered most of Hungary in just the past few years and now menaced central Europe, was coming to France.