I’m happy to present my interview with Arianna Archer. Her book The Alchemist.
(blurb and excerpt below)
* * *
Hi Arianna, Thanks for stopping by to talk a little about your writing! Let’s jump right in. When did you begin writing and why?
Ever since I can remember, I wrote stories. In second grade, a friend and I populated a series of stories with characters we borrowed from Richard Scarry. When I was 12, a local auto dealership ran a short story contest, and the prize was $25 and publication in the Sunday newspaper. In my head, I spent that money twenty times over, fantasizing about unlimited supplies of gum and earrings. I won that contest, but my mom made me put all of my winnings directly in the bank. Nevertheless, I was hooked by the potential to make up stories for a living.
Who are some of the writers that have most influenced you?
So many, especially writers of books I lived on as a kid, like L. Frank Baum, Tove Jansson, Jack London. Emile Zola, Charles Dickens, Tolstoy—their work is gritty and gut-wrenching, but also poetic and funny. Hemingway—his prose is perfectly spare, beautiful. Faulkner, for this ability to turn a phrase. Flannery O’Connor and John Steinbeck, for their grasp of the human condition. Modern authors like T.C. Boyle and Joyce Carol Oates, for their literary excellence.
What’s the best thing about being a writer?
It’s always different. It’s a job that enables—encourages—you to really experience life. Every single thing that happens, whether it’s mundane or awesome or tragic, can be redeemed in your work. Nothing experienced is wasted. Being a writer forces you to forge a fantastically complex relationship with yourself and the world. And that never gets old.
What’s the worst thing about being a writer?
At first I was going to say that the worst thing is either going to dark, painful, ugly places in your head or making yourself excruciatingly vulnerable to other people by sharing your work. But really, I think the worst part is marketing yourself. For someone used to living in one’s own head, it’s tough to sell oneself. The good part is interacting with readers and other writers; the bad part is the nuts-and-bolts work of getting a book seen, reviewed, and purchased.
Do you enjoy research? Or is research a necessary evil?
I enjoy research on an almost pathological level. I have to cut myself off in order to get writing done. I could live in the library, careering from one subject to the other all day. So much to learn about ALL THE THINGS…so little time. And, of course, no paycheck.
Writer’s block—real or hype?
Writer’s block is real, but it can’t be indulged. To me, the difference between being a professional writer and an amateur is showing up and getting to work. Inspiration is for amateurs, they say; the pros get words on the page, even if they’re not feeling it. You may have to scrap 90 percent of what you wrote when you were “blocked,” but if you can salvage even 10 percent, that’s a success. It’s a lot like working out when you’re tired or not feeling well. You just have to push through sometimes.
Any advice to writers just starting out?
Don’t get hung up on the details—any details—just write. Writing a story is like decorating a cake. You start out with the basic cake layers—your rough draft. The cake layers might come out of the oven uneven or cracked or otherwise deeply flawed, but they’re still the foundation of your project. If you fuss too much about the cake layers, you’ll stall out with nothing but plain, ugly cake. If you want to get to buttercream roses, you have to keep moving. You assess your cooled cake layers and see how you can make them work for you. You tort the cake with a knife to make it even, brush it with syrup to keep it moist, pipe a frosting dam and add filling, ease the layers together in a neat stack, then smooth a crumb coat of icing over the whole thing to neaten the layers up. Then you slather it with frosting and start decorating.
All these things, careful layers of revisions, need to take place so that the final product will be smooth, beautiful, and delicious. If you get hung up on how those cake layers look straight out of the oven, you’ll never get to the roses part.
Thanks again for stopping by, Arianna! Readers can discover more about Arianna Archer here:
Is it alchemy that transforms fear into love?
Italy, 1565—Niccolo is a philosopher, a nobleman, and an honorable man. He’s also an alchemist—considered a heretic and an enemy of the church. When his beloved fiancée dies of a mysterious ailment on the eve of their wedding day, Niccolo loses all direction. Maddened by grief, he attempts a desperate, unthinkable act, one from which there is no turning back: transformation of the dead into the living…
Italy, 2015—While excavating a Renaissance-era burial site, Julia discovers a beautiful but mysterious carving. Wreathed in classic period symbols—a cross, a family crest, an open book—the piece contains another symbol she can’t quite place—an alembic—a type of distillation apparatus used in alchemy. Then she finds something else—a burial plaque commemorating the deaths of two people, a man and a woman. Curious, Julia continues to excavate the site, but before she can complete her work, something gives way beneath her and she falls…or is pulled…through the darkness and emptiness of time…
But when Julia turns up in the body of Niccolo’s fiancée, confusion battles with danger. Inextricably drawn to one another, Julia and Niccolo find solace in each other’s arms. But to love again, they’ll have to defy the deadly prejudice of others and the terrifying power of the Spanish Inquisition. Between love, loss, and murderous betrayal, can the alchemy of love create enough magic to save them?
An Excerpt from The Alchemist
Niccolo – 1565, Italy
The muscles across Niccolo’s naked back flexed as he labored to stir the boiling contents of the mammoth cauldron. Carefully averting his face and holding his breath to avoid inhaling the noxious vapors, he peered at the contents. Satisfied with the cobalt-blue hue of the roiling liquid, he stepped away from the stone hearth and wiped the perspiration from his face with the back of his hand.
Next, Niccolo walked to a row of small glass vials and examined their contents, pausing now and then to gently agitate the multicolored substances within. He dumped a few grains of rust-colored powder into his palm for closer examination just as a knock sounded at the massive oak door.
“Come in,” he called without raising his eyes from his work.
“Sir, if you please, it is time to dress.” The servant approached the young alchemist with an air of ease that conveyed his familiarity. Standing next to Niccolo, he waited patiently, gasping in the superheated room.
Niccolo smiled at the old man’s labored breathing. “Not yet used to the climate Jacopo? What will it take, another thirty years?”
Jacopo smiled mildly and nodded. “Not even then. It’s an inferno in here. The devil himself would be proud to have you as his firekeep.”
Niccolo laid a hand on the servant’s shoulder. “Well then, you must tell him of my skill when you meet him.”
Accustomed to Niccolo’s teasing, Jacopo accepted the friendly barb with no hint of a smile and reminded Niccolo the banquet was drawing perilously near, and he was yet in need of a bath and a change of clothes.
Reluctantly, Niccolo brushed the powder from his hands and returned the vial to its place among the others. He stabbed at the fire beneath the smoke- grimed cauldron with a poker. When Jacopo began to extinguish the huge candelabra illuminating the room, Niccolo stopped him.
“Don’t bother, I’ll be returning after the banquet, and I’ll only have to relight them.”
Jacopo turned a speculative eye on his master. “You’re coming back to the laboratory tonight? You plan to work on the eve of your wedding?”
A wicked smiled spread across Niccolo’s face.
“Of course,” he answered, “I shall be far too busy to do so for the next few nights.” He clapped the old servant on the back, and they left the dungeon laboratory and ascended the stone steps to the chambers above.
* * *
When Niccolo had washed the sweat and soot from his body, he stood naked before the armoire in his room, his skin glowing from the vigorous scrubbing it took to get him clean.
He was lean and well-muscled, his athletic body and natural grace honed by years of training for knighthood. He dipped his hands in a basin of water spiced with sandalwood and ran them through his thick, dark hair, wincing as the unruly locks caught in his fingers.
“Jacopo,” he shouted in mock anger. “Bring my razor. I’m going to shave my head. I’ll be rid of this torturous nonsense once and for all.”
“Sir, it would not be so torturous if you applied a comb to it now and again.” The servant appeared sans razor and holding out an ivory comb.
“Vanity!” Niccolo grunted but took the proffered comb. Jacopo was right, he often neglected the mundane trivialities of his daily grooming ritual in favor of spending more time in the laboratory. What harm was there if he didn’t comb his hair every day? It still looked like the same wild tumble of loose curls. He pulled on his leggings and was just drawing a brocaded tunic over his broad shoulders when he was interrupted, for the second time that day, by a knock at the door. Jacopo opened it and frowned. Maria, a serving maid who had been charged with attending to Niccolo’s fiancée, stood on the threshold.
She rudely ignored Jacopo and stepped forward to curtsy before Niccolo.
“Please forgive me, sir, the matter regards
Lady Carolina. May I speak with you in private?” She pointedly cast her eyes in Jacopo’s direction.
Puzzled, Niccolo dismissed his manservant. As soon as they were alone, her demeanor changed abruptly. She pressed forward to stand within an arm’s length of Niccolo. She put a hand on his chest, bare beneath the open tunic. He grasped her wrist but did not deflect her touch.
“Nico.” She kept her voice low, her gaze meeting his with a smoldering intensity that disturbed him.
“What is it, Maria? You said it was about
Carolina.” What was she really doing here?
“Oh it is, Nico dear, it is about Carolina.” Her voice was low and seductive, honeyed poison. “I wanted to warn you.”
“Warn me about what?”
“Carolina can’t please you the way I can. I would hate to see you suffer an unhappy union.” Maria touched a fingertip to his full bottom lip. “Remember?”
Niccolo waved her hand away from his face. “I
remember two children playing at mischief while
their parents were looking elsewhere.” His voice was cold, unyielding. “I advise you to put it out of your mind, as I have. It was a child’s game, nothing more than a kiss or two, and it was a long time ago.”
Maria was undaunted. “Nico, please… I love you more now than I did then. You are right, we were only children. But I am a woman now, and my love
for you has become a woman’s love.”
Taking his wrist, she placed his hand on her breast. “I have learned many new games since then,” she purred, “let me teach them to you, my playmate.”
He pulled his hand away and glared at her,
trying to master his temper. The only thing her wanton advances aroused in him was irritation.
“Yes, Maria, I can see you are quite skilled at playing games. Leave off this one and go attend to your duties before I lose my good humor. I am sure there is much Lady Carolina would have you assist her with. There is a wedding to prepare for.”
Maria’s blue eyes glittered like shards of ice. Her inviting smile disappeared, giving way to a sneer. Drawing away from him, she did not drop her gaze. “You’ll be sorry, Niccolo. You have used me poorly. You’ll live to regret your loss.”
He grabbed her arm as she headed for the
door. “Be careful, Maria. Remember who you are and who I am. I tolerate your insubordination because we have known each other since infancy, but be warned my patience wears thin. I have never used you,
poorly or otherwise. Go and attend to your duties.” The door slammed behind her, and Niccolo
stood alone, shaking his head. Had the girl grown mad? They had shared a few furtive kisses in the cloister, awkward caresses. A harmless foray into adolescent desire—nothing more. She had been so fresh and coy, sneaking out with him to the garden after dark. She was a beauty then, as now. He hadn’t loved her—hadn’t even liked her overmuch—but the lust she inspired in him was a heady drug to his adolescent self. She was the daughter of his mother’s favorite maidservant. The women had a long history together, had even attended each other through the births of their children.
After the death of Niccolo’s mother, Elaina Buonoserra, he and Maria drifted apart. Over the years they saw each other occasionally—Maria was given work as a maid in the castle—but their lives diverged completely as they grew older and their social roles more defined. If he had thought of her at all, it was only on the rare occasion and always with a sense of nostalgic fondness and detached amusement. She, apparently, felt differently.
“Jacopo, am I to do everything myself, or do you intend to assist me anytime this evening?”
Jacopo materialized in the inner doorway, his wrinkled face eloquently expressing his disgust.
“That is a brazen, shameless girl.”
“So you were waxing the door with your ear, were you?” Niccolo chided him.
“I assure you, I need not listen at keyholes to know the girl’s reputation. And I have personally experienced her horrendous lack of manners. You would do well to discharge her.”
Niccolo considered this for a moment. “I cannot, really. My mother swore to Maria’s mother she would always have a place in this household. I am bound to honor that oath.”
Jacopo scowled. “A shame,” he said and handed Niccolo a garnet-colored sash, embroidered with gold. “Perhaps Lady Carolina won’t be so influenced by outdated and ridiculous obligations.”
Niccolo grinned and took the sash, winding it low around his tapered waist, just at his hips. “You are like a fine wine, old man.”
“How so, my lord?”
“You both turn to vinegar when you get old.” Jacopo turned an appropriately sour expression on Niccolo and went to retrieve his boots.
Lady Carolina tried not to fidget as her maid applied rouge from a small porcelain pot to her lips. Surveying her handiwork, Helena stepped back and indicated the Venetian looking glass to her young mistress. Carolina studied her reflection with a serious expression on her pretty face. Her complexion was near-perfect—her skin smooth and tawny, her cheeks blooming with a healthy blush. She did not regularly use cosmetics, as most of her friends did,
but Helena had so harangued her about using at least the lip rouge, she had at last consented.
“Helena, you’ve done a fine job. Still, I can’t
stand this minstrel’s paint.” She poked her tongue out at the mirror.
“Carolina, all the young women of your class paint their faces, even the ones who don’t need it. Like you.” She aimed an indulgent, maternal smile at the young bride-to-be. “Would that your mother could be here to see you.”
Carolina’s eyes misted, and the smile on her lips faded slightly.
“Yes, my father has made an excellent match for me. I am most fortunate. Most of my friends have been wed to senile old monsters they can barely stand to look upon. Not only is Niccolo highborn, he is young and handsome as well. I thank God for him, Helena, and for my father’s good taste!”
They laughed, and Helena smoothed the girl’s cheek. “Your mother would have been well pleased, were she here to see your wedding.” Helena brushed the lustrous spill of Carolina’s waist-length chestnut hair until it gleamed. She plaited the thick hair into glossy braids, which she coiled and pinned in place to form a graceful corona around Carolina’s head. “Your father has done well by you, my dear.”
Carolina smiled but didn’t answer. She was holding as still as she could as Helena was about to pin a gold and pearl tiara, a gift from Niccolo, in place upon her elaborate coiffure.
There was a quick knock, and Maria opened the door. “Excuse me, Helena, madame, you are wanted to supervise the arrangement of Lady Carolina’s place at the banquet table.”
Helena nodded. “I’ll be through in a moment, and then I’ll see to the table.”
“No,” Maria said curtly, and at Helena’s piercing gaze, her tone changed. “You are wanted right away. Please allow me to finish for you. I assure you, I’ll take extra pains to match your careful work. It would be my privilege,” she said sweetly.
“Nonsense,” Helena began, but this time it was
Carolina who interrupted.
“Go, Helena,” she urged. “I’m sure Maria is quite capable.” Carolina kissed Helena on her powdered cheek and smiled warmly at her before turning again to the enormous looking glass.
Helena clucked her misgivings but obeyed, shutting the chamber door as she exited.
Maria took a set of hairpins from her apron and began to pin the gold circlet to the shining crest of hair.
“Have you worked in Niccolo’s household for a very long time?” Carolina asked companionably, meeting Maria’s eyes in the mirror.
“Yes.” Maria leveled her gaze. “We were babies together. My mother was in his mother’s employ.”
“How fortunate you are then, to have spent so much of your life in his company! I will be glad to do the same.”
Maria’s lips formed a smile, but her eyes remained empty. “Yes…I, we all, wish you much happiness together.”
With a swift motion, Carolina twisted in her
seat and clasped the girl’s free hand in her own two. “You’ll stay on as my personal maid, won’t you? You’ll be my confidant. Since you have known Niccolo for so long, you must know well his likes and dislikes. You can give me advice on how to please my new husband!”
“You have Helena to attend you, milady.”
“Yes, but she is getting on in years and I would like to repay her for a lifetime of kindness and faithfulness. I would like to give her a better life, now that I am able. Besides,” she said with genuine warmth, “I think Niccolo would be so pleased his
new wife and old friend have begun an acquaintance.”
Maria’s smile faded. She withdrew her hand from Carolina’s and turned away from her, busying herself with a dish of hairpins.
“Yes, it would please him greatly.” Maria’s tone was suddenly strangely flat.
As Lady Carolina turned her head to look at Maria, she was startled by a sharp, stinging prick just behind her right ear.
“Oh!” she gasped, raising a hand to the injury.
“Please forgive me, my lady, an accident…you moved…the p-pin,” Maria stammered.
Carolina looked curiously at the drop of blood on her finger and stood.
“It’s all right, Maria. It was my fault. You’ve done a lovely job, thank you.” She placed a small kiss on Maria’s cheek.
Maria looked down at the offending hairpin.
“I’m truly sorry, my lady, my hands must have trembled. So sorry…” She returned the pin to her apron, carefully. She curtsied and left Lady Carolina to herself, drawing the door shut behind her.
Carolina was surprised at the pain, which increased in intensity rather than diminishing as such a small injury should. In moments, a burning tingle spread from the pinprick to her neck, scalp, and cheek. Gingerly she raised a hand to her jaw, which had begun to ache.
Carolina watched her reflection in the mirror pass in and out of focus, and a wave of dizziness prompted her to sit heavily, as she nearly lost her balance. “It is the excitement,” she murmured to herself, “that’s all.” She would feel better once she ate, once she was seated next to her beloved.
Still studying her reflection, Carolina noticed her skin had taken on an odd, sallow cast. Angry with herself for choosing this day to manifest a heretofore nonexistent “delicate constitution,” she smeared a thin layer of color onto her cheeks.
When Helena returned to fetch her for dinner, Carolina could barely stand. She tried to keep this from Helena; she didn’t want her to worry and fuss. Carolina pressed her hands on the edge of the dressing table to help her rise. She paused, waiting for the spinning to subside, before she followed Helena. The throbbing pain in her neck and shoulders was now so intense she could barely turn her head.
Helena paused at the doorway to allow Carolina to precede her. “Are you quite already, my lady?” Her brow wrinkled with concern.
“Oh, yes… I mean, I will be. I believe I just need to eat something. I feel… I have a headache.”
Helena nodded briskly. “Aye. Nerves, no doubt. A bite of something filling will right things. Come.”
Carolina took her maid’s proffered hand and the two made slow progress toward the excited noise emanating from the great hall.
Niccolo struggled to keep his mind on the banquet and off the fantasies threatening to destroy his self-control. Only twenty-four hours until he and Carolina could at long last give vent to the desires raging through and between them. He glanced at his bride-to-be and another wave of longing broke over him. She was beautiful beside him tonight, in her amethyst-colored gown and gold ornaments. He leaned in toward her, so close his breath brushed her neck. “You are lovely, my bride.”
Carolina gave him a small smile. She was pale beneath her cosmetics. He hoped this wasn’t too taxing for her. Grasping her hand, he brought it to his lips, and then held it against his thigh, a secret connection between them. There was much revelry in the hall, and the entertainment included acrobats, jugglers, minstrels, and even a man with a troupe of dancing dogs.
As the first course was cleared away, there was a sharp gasp to Niccolo’s left. Lady Carolina slumped suddenly against the lady-in-waiting next to her. Her face was gray, her rouged lips bloodred against her pallor. Niccolo dove for her, gathering her in his arms.
Holding her limp form tightly against his body, Niccolo made fast for the lady’s chamber, the guests clearing the path ahead. A rumble of concerned murmurs followed the couple out of the hall. A phalanx of concerned wedding guests followed in their wake.
Niccolo reached her chamber and kicked open the door impatiently. He settled her on her bed and drew the coverlet up around her shivering form. “Jacopo, go. Fetch the physician. Go!”
He turned to Helena for explanation. “What’s wrong with her, woman? Has she been ill?”
Helena’s kind face was creased with worry. “No, milord, indeed she has been in good spirits all day. I left her only moments ago, just before the banquet was to begin.”
“It is her nerves then,” he said, trying to convince himself there was no need for the panic beginning to gnaw at his gut. It was understandable, if uncharacteristic, that she might be overcome by anxiety and anticipation on the eve of the wedding.
He stroked Carolina’s forehead, his strong fingers exceedingly gentle on her pale brow. Her skin was glazed with icy perspiration, and he smoothed the stray tendrils of damp hair away from her face.
He had never experienced worry or fear like this before. Was this love, then? The hollow ache inside
his chest was worse than a physical wound. Love had brought him to such happy heights; how terrible that it could plunge him into the depths of misery with equal dexterity.
Carolina looked so small and still, a beautiful doll nestled against the pale green silk of the bedclothes. He continued to caress her face, stopping only once to place his warm lips against her distressingly cool ones, as if he might revive her by doing so.
Jacopo arrived with the physician and a priest, all three panting from the tempo of their pace.
Niccolo welcomed the priest with fond familiarity, glad for the comforting presence of the elder clergyman.
The doctor was old, wiry as a terrier. He bent beside Carolina and examined her, lifting her eyelids and parting her lips to see into her throat. He prodded her, probed her with gnarled fingers, and
pinched a fold of her skin between his yellowed nails. After he completed his examination, he stood. His expression was grave. “I’m very sorry.” He shook his head, his eyes everywhere but on Niccolo’s.
“Sorry, man? Sorry for what?” Niccolo barked. “There is nothing I can do for her.” “Impossible!” Niccolo pressed, his
apprehension mounting. “She is fit and hale. This is only a spell. Surely there is something you can do to revive her! Why don’t you bleed her?”
His face grim, the doctor took hold of Niccolo’s arm. “Her heartbeat is too weak. Bleeding would not help her; it would kill her more quickly.”
“More quickly? More quickly than what?” “She is dying, Niccolo.”
“Impossible!” Niccolo roared. “Don’t be absurd. It’s only her nerves—the wedding preparations have exhausted her. Give her some salts.” He clung desperately to this fragment of hope.
Niccolo saw something dreadful come into the old man’s eyes. Pity. It struck black terror into his heart. “No. No, it cannot be. You are mistaken, old man.”
“Carolina has fallen into a death sleep, my
lord. She does not respond to light, to noise, nor even to pain. Her heartbeat and breathing are growing slower each moment. She cannot live much longer. I know not the cause, yet I am certain of the progress. She fails.”
Bewildered, Niccolo rubbed his forehead, trying to comprehend the impossible truth that the woman he loved was truly dying. “What happened?” was all he could utter, the words tumbling quietly from numb lips.
The doctor shrugged his thin shoulders. “I don’t know. A fit perhaps, a seizure of the brain. It is sometimes impossible to know for certain, especially with one as young as she.”
Niccolo caught the man’s upper arms in a painfully tight grip.
“Something else, there must be. Tell me what
to do! At least tell me what I can try… I can’t just watch her die!”
The doctor eyed him in silence a tense moment. Then, he dipped his head and shrugged a shoulder. “You might place her in a warm bath.” The doctor opened his satchel and rooted around in it for a few seconds before withdrawing a paper packet of herbs. He handed the small parcel to Niccolo. “Sprinkle this into the water. And mind you, support her head; she’ll drown quickly on her own.” He searched Niccolo’s eyes and lowered his voice. “I don’t believe we can save her, my son.”
Niccolo turned away. He gave the orders for the bath to be prepared.
Helena removed Carolina’s heavy gown and placed her in a filmy cotton dressing gown. Niccolo stripped off his tunic and boots and took her limp form in his arms. He climbed into the steaming water and lowered himself into its fragrant depths. Helena knelt beside the tub as Niccolo bathed Carolina’s face and arms. His bride might have been a newborn baby in his arms, so gentle and tender were his ministrations.
“Cara mia,” he murmured into her ear. “Don’t leave me. Stay, my bride, my angel.”
Her breathing continued to slow, growing so soft only faint whispers of inhalation and exhalation could be heard. She drew two more breaths, and then the air passed from her lips in one long, low sigh.
Her chest did not rise again. For a moment Niccolo remained absolutely motionless as he offered up a fervent prayer for the next breath. It was no use, Carolina was gone. He grabbed her shoulders and shook her lifeless body furiously.
Helena, weeping, pulled at his arm. “Niccolo, please… You must stop. Stop!”
Clutching the body of his bride to his chest, he rose awkwardly, stumbling out of the bath and sliding on the tiled floor before regaining his balance and lurching on. He entered her bedchamber and sank to the floor. A great cry tore from his throat as he cradled his dead beloved in his arms.
The room had filled with concerned friends, guests, and servants.
Niccolo was maddened by their watching eyes. “Get out!” he bellowed at them, his voice raw with anger. Antonio and Pietro, Niccolo’s closest friends, ignored his demand and came forward. Antonio took the dead girl from her lover’s arms and placed her gently on the bed, leaving the somber physician and the sad-eyed priest to attend to her.
Unshed, burning tears stung Niccolo’s eyes like acid as he climbed slowly to his feet.
“Niccolo,” Antonio soothed, “it is God’s will.”
His dark eyes were livid with concern for his friend. Never had Nico loved a woman as much as he’d loved this one.
Pietro placed his arm around Niccolo’s shoulders. “It is as Antonio says, Nico.”
Niccolo stiffened. A savage anger rose in him, and he longed to lash out. A small part of his brain warned him, reminded him these men were his boon companions, not his enemy. But he couldn’t rein it in, so consuming was his rage and pain. “No! Hold your tongue, faithless friend!” he burst.
The men recoiled as if his outburst was physical. Antonio reached out to his friend, but Niccolo broke away from Pietro, lurched forward, and shoved his way to the door.
They would passively accept this, would they? Well not him! Niccolo would fight for his love. He would fight with God for her life, if necessary. He would not fall passively beside her, accepting and meek. He would wage war against this dark, robbing enemy, if it cost him all he had.
Niccolo ran through the halls of his estate like a man pursued by demons. Blinded by a hot red mist, he flew down the spiraling stone staircases, falling twice over the small, rough-hewn steps, bouncing his head off the stone and bruising his knees. Heedless of the gash on his forehead sending a thick scarlet veil of blood over his face, he cleared his eyes and ran on. When he reached the door to his laboratory, he groped furiously for the keys at his waist and instinctively found and inserted the correct one. He forced the key into the lock, almost snapping the slender iron haft, and kicked open the door.
Niccolo did not trouble to step around objects in his path, but pushed aside shelves and tables and proceeded in a destructive whirlwind of shattered glass, spilled liquids, and toppled apparatus. Striding with single-minded determination toward his goal, he grabbed a delicate glass alembic from a shelf and hurled it against the wall. It exploded in a spray of sparkling fragments, its liquid contents radiating
from the place of impact in a viscous chartreuse spatter. Continuing on, he crushed countless vials beneath his feet, deliberately grinding some to dust and kicking others violently out of his way.
He stopped in front of an ornately carved cabinet mounted on the farthest wall. Tearing open the cabinet, his fingers felt for the concealed catch.
The mechanism sprung, the rear surface of the cabinet slid away to reveal a depression in the stone wall behind it. Reaching into the shadow-obscured depths of the cavity, he withdrew a small ebony box. Tucked into its black satin interior was a tiny vial cut from a single tremendous sapphire. He withdrew this with scrupulous caution, his measured movements in stark contrast to the wanton carelessness and destruction he’d wreaked moments earlier. He enclosed the delicate vial in his palm, replaced the box in the secret space in the wall, and closed the cabinet.
Niccolo pulled several deep breaths into his lungs. At last the crimson haze began to dissipate, though his hands still trembled with the aftereffects of the adrenaline surge. He was calmer now, as if it had been a narcotic he’d taken from the box. He stepped over the debris on the floor and collapsed into his chair. The air was acrid with the combined scents of elements spilled, scattered, shattered. He had destroyed years’ worth of work in his rampage, and he was mildly surprised to find it didn’t matter to him now. A strange numbness overtook him, muffling his senses, as if he were viewing a scene played out on a stage. Overcome suddenly by weariness, it was only with great difficulty that he managed to keep his eyelids from closing and shutting out the destruction before him.
He opened his hand, his gaze fixed on the object in his palm. His inheritance. The most valuable thing he’d ever possessed, before this moment. He had, as others before him, guarded the contents of the vial with his life. Without the liquid held in the tiny cut-gem bottle, his life might be meaningless. But wasn’t it meaningless now? Without Carolina,
nothing mattered. The tiny, distant voice of reason urged him to consider the implications of what he planned to do. That elixir, the distillate of the
priceless philosopher’s stone, was not replaceable. He was painfully, personally aware of this. It had come across the world, protected and hidden, passed down through generation after generation to rest with him.
It was an icon, a symbol of what consumed and drove him and all alchemists like him. He worked, like his father, ceaselessly, tirelessly, to recreate the shimmering liquid. This was the alchemist’s dream, his and his ancestors’. The few precious drops of the liquid he had in his possession were his sustaining hope. Without them, how could he carry on with his work?
Work. Work was now irrelevant. How could he carry on with his life without Carolina? The answer was plain. He saw with renewed clarity what course of action he must take.
Niccolo did not know what the consequences of using the elixir would be, but he did know he had no choice. He placed his arms before him on the desk and dropped his head onto them, allowing sleep to bear him away in its embrace.
* * *
Niccolo insisted upon overseeing the preparations for the burial himself. Though Helena washed and dressed Carolina’s body, Niccolo laid her out and lit the scores of candles surrounding her bier. He arranged great garlands of fresh flowers around the room—the same flowers that were intended to decorate the banquet hall for their wedding. At dusk he entered the fragrant room and locked the door securely behind him. His gaze fell upon Carolina. So beautiful. His breath stuck painfully in his throat.
This was to have been their wedding night, and this chamber, theirs. He lifted her body from the bier and carried her to the bed—the bed that should have witnessed the celebration of their love, the rich treasure they had possessed in each other.
Niccolo was a study in hope and dread as he sat beside Carolina’s body on the great bed.
Niccolo’s heart raced, pounding the walls of his chest. He willed it to calm. He needed to clear the raging blood from his head so he could think. In a soft leather pouch hanging from a thong around his neck and buried beneath his cloth, a small sapphire vial
was concealed. Niccolo withdrew it now, never taking his eyes from his lover’s face.
Her perfect cheekbones, the nobility of her nose, and the fine twin arches of her brows combined with the chilly pallor of her skin and stillness of form to suggest she was not a creature of flesh, deserted by spirit, but a goddess sculpted in marble, serene in her eternal sleep.
His fingers trembled as he unstopped the bottle. He parted her lips and held the jewel to her mouth.
“God forgive me,” he whispered and tilted the bottle. The elixir had the color and luster of liquid gold with the capricious consistency of quicksilver. It ran out over her tongue and disappeared into her throat, leaving no trace except for one fine golden bead clinging like a gilded dewdrop to her lower lip. The vial was empty, the hollow sapphire glittered in
the candlelight. Niccolo scrutinized the delicate fringe of Carolina’s sable lashes against her pale cheeks. He was close enough to feel her breath, had she any.
“Come back to me, my angel,” he murmured and placed his lips upon hers.