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The Girl Who Dared Be King


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Here is a rough version of a story I invented for my kids at bedtime. I am still building an outline for it. So more to come.

The Girl Who Dared Be King

Chapter 1

There is magic in this world. Not the kind of parlor tricks or guessing games played by actors who think they are clever with their sleight of hand. No, I mean real magic.


I don’t blame you for doubting. I didn't really believe it at first, either. But when it happened to me, well, I couldn't deny it.


I seem to have a knack for making magic work the way it should. In a way, you might say that I’m special. The ability to manipulate the world is not a common skill. In fact, it rarely manifests itself in even one in a hundred nobles, and never in the general population, at least officially. And of all of the Alchemists in the world, I seem to be the strongest: the most powerful, you might say. But I am not special. I'm just smarter than the rest of them.



It all began at school. At least, the magic started there. All noble born children in the Nostrian Empire are required to take the Exam of Alchemy by the age of fourteen. The commoners don’t need to go through such rigorous trials. As preached religiously by the Ascendant Church, only the children of the lords and ladies of our fair islands can change the world through alchemy. At least, that is what they have taught for the past five hundred years. It is a divine blessing that is supposed to indicate that the Nostrian nobles have the right to lord it over the commoners, quite literally, of course.


I think that is a bunch of rubbish. My own research into the phenomena indicates a stark difference in the material makeup of the nobility versus the common man or woman. Nothing overt, just some chemical characteristics that seem to exist… But I am getting ahead of myself. I apologize. Let’s get to the meat of it, then.


Testing day at the Grand Imperial Academy of Nostria is supposed to be a celebration; a holy selection of the next defenders of the realm. Those few who pass the test are swept away in a grand ceremony that culminates in a ball and festivities for a whole week following the Exam. Of course, the students who pass do not have the opportunity to share in the festivities. You see, once the students pass the Exam, and their induction ceremony is complete, they are whisked away to parts unknown by the church, never to be seen again until public service at the age of eighteen. This isolation is primarily for safety reasons; their own safety, as well as the general population. They only return to public life after they have been trained to avoid killing themselves and others. And even then, the Alchemists are only seen sparingly until they die, usually by the age of twenty-five… it is rare indeed to see an Alchemist advance to middle age, let alone old age.


Their early deaths are their own fault. I will not be so deceived. I will not be taken in by the King’s promises or manipulations. My eyes have been opened to the world and the sin of my own blood upon it. Never again…


I digress. I should tell you about my own Exam Day… It was bound to be horrible. I just couldn’t anticipate how bad it would be…




My parents are the Baroness and Baron of Feld’s Deep, a small two-thousand acre ranch on the East Isle of Nostria, close to the capital city of Silvia; don’t ask me how the city was named after the lady who once destroyed it, but there you have it.


Our humble house sat at the center of our fields, with a long winding dirt road that was lined with tall maple tree that turned bright red in the Autumn as though lighting the path with a temporary fire and the promise of a return to glory come Spring-time. Only two stories tall, and less than six thousand square feet, our plantation home served as the primary residence for the county seat. My family had held that position as Baron-lords for Feld’s County ever since the Ascension, some five hundred years ago. Not much had changed in the home, save for the recent addition of some electric lines to service the house lights and the woodshop beside the barn.


Shaped like a giant square, with a whole in the middle for a classical courtyard, our home was warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and full of little nooks and crannies where I could hide my favorite books when mother, or nanny, wasn’t watching. I often needed those hiding places. I am not the most attentive girl in the world and I do let my mind wander to whatever interests me in the moment. Mother says that I need to be more focused on school, but she doesn’t understand. It isn’t that I dislike school, but it is nothing if not the most boring kind of tripe. And I hate having un-interesting things to think about. I get bored if I am not mentally engaged all of the time. So I am constantly trying to sneak books into the house about life in the city, new technologies that are being discovered almost on a weekly basis it seems, and, of course, on the Alchemists. I mean they are the most interesting mystery out there.


Mother doesn’t approve, of course. But I can’t help that I was born on a ranch and not in the city.  Honestly, there is nothing for me to do all day in the country but read and think. At some point studying the history of the Nostrian Empire, or the Articles of Formation, or the mathematical equations for measure the volume of my morning pastry just gets boring. I could recite whole volumes to you and spin off the formula for making gunpowder by rote memory. For some reason, it never seems to go well when I tell mother that. She always chastises me. “It is perfectly appropriate to read and to think, Amelia. It is your lack of discipline in the process that frustrates me. You need to focus on your studies, not this trash that you read.”


My room was on the second floor overlooking the inner courtyard. It was my favorite room in the barony, next to the courtyard itself, if that can be called a room. It contained my plush bed with down comforter, my writing desk, my changing station and wardrobe, and, of course, my own library. It’s near wall was filled floor to ceiling with various books, as well as my personal collection of mathematical and scientific journals. I own every issue ever printed of Ladies’ Engineering. Not many nobles can boast of such a complete collection as me.


Of course, most aren’t as interested in the sciences. Take my older sister, Larissa, for instance. My room used to be hers. Four years ago when she graduated from the Academy at sixteen, I had to clear out the book shelves of her scandalous collection of murder mystery novels. Needless to say, mother didn’t approve of those either. That’s why I never told mother that I had read all of them before I threw them into storage. They were as badly written as they were bad for the soul. I confess to a few nightmares soon after reading a few.


Larissa moved to the West Isle to attend university in Thaples. She is studying to be a lawyer. Most women in the Empire hold one or two professional degrees. Larissa plans to be the best prosecutor in the kingdom. From the way she used to terrorize me, you better believe she will be a veritable menace to the criminal population of Nostria.


[Add transition from her room to the breakfast table where the conversation picks up]


“Beautiful! You are stunningly radiant. You are sure to make your family proud.” Flattery was an art form to father. A stunningly plain man in many ways, including his looks, he always praised my appearance. It was one of those cultural differences between his birth country of Brothia and here.


“Father, I am sure you would say the same thing if I wore rags, which would be only slightly better than this pair of blue-jean pants that I am forced to wear. Why can’t the Exam be given in proper ladies’ attire,… like an evening gown with gloves and a corset?”


Father always thought I looked pretty, no matter what I wore. Honestly, I think the man was blinded by something, because I am not exactly the prettiest girl in school, with my ratty, brown, curly hair that tangles whenever it rains. It is more probable that I am in the bottom third in comparison to physical attractiveness, although I hope that I make up for my plainness through my intellectual contributions.


Mother, on the other hand,… she always told me exactly what was true:

“Amelia, your appearance is no better, and no worse than the long line of ladies of this house who have come before you. Stop filling her head with nonsense, Fredrico, she must be ready mentally for the rigors of the Exam. Her appearance is irrelevant.”


Mother never looked nervous or flustered or angry. She was the quintessential Nostrain noblewoman, filled with posture, eloquence, and formality. She also was an expert at Nostrian court etiquette and tradition. “What were traditions for if not to keep people in line,” she would say. My upbringing included several months of lessons on dining etiquette. Even our simple breakfast add two dozen rituals, including who could eat first (my mother as the lady of the house, of course), which fork was used for the eggs and which for the meat, and of course, what topics of discussion were appropriate and which were not. Mother often had to correct father on this point.


“Rose, my dear. I was simply expressing my encouragement.” Father sounded appropriately chastised. It was something he was used to.


Our noble blood doesn’t offer me the advantages you might think it does. Our multi-island empire is a constitutional monarchy. I think it is quite progressive that the common man has a voice in their government. Of course, it is a small voice, as the nobles can veto whatever laws the commoner parliament approves. My father, Frederico Vasquez, sits on the lower chamber of the Noble Parliament, as we rank well below the throne. There are many earls, lords, and ladies who far surpass our humble position. If that weren’t enough, being a native Brothian often illicits certain prejudices that my father was forced to deal with. Ever since their wedding, which was a political nightmare, my mother’s extended family has been forced to move three times, to three different counties. Our home and barony are never touched, but that doesn’t mean we don’t suffer economically from being social outcasts of the Nostrian elite. We only have about a dozen servants after all. I hear the Earl of Potterdam has a thousand farmers and two dozen footmen. Honestly, where does he keep all of his horseless carriages that he collects,… Sorry, I’ll try to stick to the story.


Mother just frowned at father and then turned towards me. “Amelia, you should finish your breakfast early. You don’t want to get stuck behind the farmers’ carts this morning. It is market day, after all.”


“Quite right, mother. Shall we go then? I want to be first in line. I prefer to get this over with as soon as possible.”


“’Melia, you must take care to do your very best. This isn’t a test in algebra that you can simply rush through. Today you are taking THE EXAM, for heaven’s sake!”


I could tell that father was nervous for me, and perhaps a bit anxious for my success. He always did carry his love for me on the tip of his tongue, so to speak. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that or the Exam I was about to face. I wasn’t nervous. I was more annoyed than anything. “Yes, father. You’ve reminded me at least a dozen times this week that Exam day is important.”


“Not just important, ‘Melia! It is the opportunity you need to move up in this world. They will never fully accept me here. You must be chosen so that you may have a chance at a better life.” He lifted his coffee cup to his lips and took a satisfying slurp, then set it back down. When his eyes touched mine, I looked down. I knew he wanted this for me. I just didn’t know if I could face him if I failed. And there had been no evidence that I would pass, that was for sure.


“I know father. You want this day to turn out a certain way. Just don’t be disappointed when it doesn’t.”



Father was going to start again about the curse of the second daughter and the few prospects I had in life outside of the Church. Thankfully, mother was the grounding force in the relationship. “Hush, Fredrico! She knows the stakes. Now don’t dally and make sure you don’t forget your manners in front of the Bishop. Garrett will drive you to the Academy today.”


That last remark made me raise my eyebrows and get somewhat excited. Garrett was father’s personal valet and chauffer. He only drove the Hudson steamer, as he couldn’t be bothered with the smell of the horse-drawn carriage if he was also going to serve as father’s valet. It was a rare treat to ride in the horseless.


[Describe the trip from Feld’s Deep, through the village and into Silvia, pointing out the vast differences between noble life and common life, including conveniences, privileges, and order of rank being important, including foreign blood counting less. Include transition to next chapter by describing the Academy as they drive up.]


Chapter 2


I would like to say that I enjoyed the drive from our estate home into the city. I recall that it took 19 minutes, as we live nearly ten miles from the Academy. But instead of enjoying the view, or the lack of pungent odors from the horses, all I could think about the entire time was the Exam.


What would it be like? Nobody knew. Each exam was different for each person. No two were ever alike. All I knew was that I was to enter into one of the ceremonial Exam rooms and wait for the signal to begin. There would be a book on a table in the middle of the room, and I was to follow the instructions precisely. Apparently, the instructions changed each time, although how that happened to pages written in permanent ink I wouldn’t have been able to tell you until later in life. Thankfully, I know now that the pages were manipulated by a Lt. Colonel, a senior-level Alchemist, who ran the Examination and published the results. Immediately following the announcement of the selected few who passed, the Lt. Colonel would ‘escort’ the poor souls into their life of service.


All of the students had to wait in separate rooms for their Exam. Once you entered your room, you didn’t leave until all of the Exams were performed. Then, only those who failed were allowed to leave. They’ve done it this way for hundreds of years. The history books say that in the early days of the republic, the church would hold the Exams in public, in a bowl shaped arena where each student would step forward and either perform magic or not. They stopped doing it that way and removed the Exams to this safer location after they had too many… accidents. After all, the test was really to see if you could ‘manipulate’ the particles… Let me skip that explanation for now as I don’t want to confuse you by getting ahead of myself.


Garrett was faithful to get me to the Academy before anyone else had arrived. First bell was still a half hour away. This gave me plenty of time to get into line for the first Exam room. Each room was a stone circle about fifteen feet in diameter. The dozens of rooms, more like stone prisons really, stood several hundred feet apart from the rest of the Academy for good reason. Any accidents during the exams would have little impact on the Academy buildings and, of course, the students, faculty and families who came to witness the Exams.  The rooms had no windows, and no decorations of any kind, except for the metal table in the center of each room with the book on it. The doors were made of fine steel, and the exterior locks were double checked after each student entered to make sure that they could not leave before the end of the Exams.


I stood on the threshold of the path that led from the school library’s Great Reading Room all the way down the hill to the Examination Rooms. I wasn’t too nervous, as I had a slight suspicion that it was going to be a dull day for me. After all, up until that point in my life, I had never performed any sort of Alchemy, so why would I expect today to be any different. This was just a momentary dull day in the middle of the term. The greatest pain I anticipated was the shear boredom from being locked in a cell-like room for six hours while the rest of the students attempted to manipulate their books, or whatever it was they would be asked to do.


“Why, if it isn’t Amelia Vasquez! I should have known you would be the first to arrive. It must be nice getting to wear the Exam uniform today so that nobody has to look at the awful rags you normally wear.”


Lady Maribel Lavinia was the daughter of the Earl of Westhyme, and the absolute run in my hose. Tall, dark hair, beautiful, Maribel held all of the qualities one would hope for in a noble lady, except perhaps any ounce of grace. She never had a nice thing to say to me, always teasing and pushing my buttons. I didn’t mind so much, except that she kept me from having any friends at the Academy. She was the heiress of a vast estate and sixth in line to the throne. Her family’s dairy farm in the South Isle was worth more than my parent’s entire estate twice over. Her mother also held the patent on several intriguing inventions, like an electrical device that could brew tea without having to boil a kettle of water on the stove. I had never seen such a thing before, as most new electrical devices were still too expensive for my family. Even though we were wealthy compared to the commoners, we were dirt poor compared to most other nobles. And compared to Maribel Lavinia’s family, my family lived in a dirt hut like those natives of Fridgia who have no running water or electrical lights.


Needless to say, having Maribel arrive right behind me in line was going to make for a nasty day. So I ignored her as best as I could, which is to say I made all of the polite responses to her comments.


“Good morning, my lady. Thank you for your kind words.”


“I was kind wasn’t I? You look just as horrible in those blue-jeans as my father’s farm hands. Are you sure you’re even a noble? Pathetic!”


“Thank you, your ladyship. I will strive to make a better appearance.”


“For all the good it will do. Now listen up. I want to go first, so step aside.”


That threw me for a slight loop. Technically, the order of Examination was decided by the order of appearance. First come, first served, you might say. At the Academy, noble rank wasn’t supposed to play into the educational process. All were equal here in the eyes of the schoolmasters. Of course, that rule never applied to someone like Maribel.


So her demand that I let her go first was just another way for her to push that rule to the side. The problem was, I didn’t want to go second, or third, or fourth. I was trying to get the examination over with so that I could somewhat enjoy the rest of the day without having to pace back and forth in worry about when my turn would come up.


But you see there was also another reason for Maribel to demand the first spot. There is some superstitious nonsense that surrounds the Exams, as you can quite guess after five hundred years of stories and rumors about the process. One such superstition is that the first person, more likely than not, will be ‘blessed’ to be an Alchemist. Most of the history books I had read adamantly denied that there was a causative relationship between the order of Examination and the result, but myth is more powerful than fact in the real world. And on such a weak mind as Maribel’s, I figured myth was the best she could ever hope to process.


“As you will, my lady. Shall I go second, then?”


“Absolutely not. I won’t have your stink hovering near me during the invocation. You can go last. Wait over in the Reading Room until the last chime of the bell, and then run into line. After all, it’s what you should have done in the first place. You need to learn to mind your betters, ‘Melia.”


She said the last in a mocking tone. She knew my father was foreign born and had an accent. Just another way to push my buttons.


I sighed, nodded, and replied, “Yes, your ladyship.”


I stepped away from the ceremonial path that had been decorated by the groundskeeper with lovely violets and lilacs to line the way to the forbidding Exam rooms. At the end of the path, directly in front of the row of cold, stone rooms, there was a circular dirt courtyard where the invocation would be given and broadcast over the wireless to the rest of the school. Remember, it was only the thirteen year olds who were participating in the Exam. All of the other noble children, including those who failed their Exams, were still in classes today, as on any other day. Most families would gather in the Reading Room of the Great Library to pass the day away listening to the wireless, playing card games, or reading a book. In that way the parents waited for the conclusion of the Exams to discover whether their child would be stripped forever from their family and be sent to the Abbey or Monastery, depending on whether they were a girl or boy. There, the student would no longer be a noble, but an Alchemist; adopted into the King’s family and given a separate status altogether powerful and frightening. They were killers, after all, and would eventually end themselves with their magic.


I left Maribel and walked towards the Reading Room, trying to contain my anger. Lately, I had been having a hard time controlling my emotions. I would get mad all of a sudden for no reason. Then, just as quickly, the feeling would pass leaving me bewildered as to the cause. I often cried about nothing at all. I wasn’t sad, necessarily, so I couldn’t honestly tell you for what purpose my tears fell. On this day, however, I imagine you can guess precisely why I was crying angry, wet tears as I tried to calm down.


“Oh, Maribel! One day I will tell you what I really think about you!” I thought.


Of course, that was just to make myself feel better. Freedom of speech may be a characteristic of the LaGrange people, but here in Nostria, there is no such thing as a free tongue. You’re liable to be hanged promptly and with much ado if you speak your mind outside of the social order of things. Everything is done properly and in elaborate order in Nostria, if it is done at all. If this day was to go well, I needed to contain my emotions and do things the Nostrian way, as my mother would say. So I set my mind to finding a distraction from the like of Maribel Lavinia, as I left her standing in my place at the beginning of the path to the Exam. Unfortunately, I never saw the disaster that lurked around the corner, literally. If only I had known then what I know now, I never would have gone into the Reading Room that day.

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Here is the next three chapters of the story where it starts to get interesting.

Chapter 3


In order to calm myself, and to escape the boredom that I knew would come with waiting during the Exam, I entered the Reading Room and immediately perused the bookshelf in the east end. It contained the history books and story books relating to Alchemy. Many of them I had read already. There was the story of the first nobles who formed the Church to train those blessed with alchemical powers to keep them from destroying the world. Before that time, some five hundred years ago, Alchemists were rare and often very dangerous. There was no formal training on how to control the power and no understanding of how it worked. The wild Alchemists were without guide, moral or otherwise, and caused nearly as much destruction as they did constructive manipulation. In time, the Abbey’s and Monasteries became saviors to the common man by locking away the Alchemists so that they couldn’t ruin towns and villages.


I imagine you are wondering how that could be. How can someone who is so revered today have been such a threat so long ago? Well, it has to do with Alchemy. The very act of changing the world can cause the destruction of living things. You see, the material world is not simply what you see, smell, touch, taste, and feel. Those are material particles that engage your senses. There are also invisible particles; those that cannot be seen or felt or heard. They come and go in our universe in a flash; so fast that normal people do not even know that they are there. Only someone with the ability to sense their existence can detect invisible particles. This explanation is not known to the Nostrian public. Not even all nobles are privy to the secrets of Alchemy. It is the grand secret of the universe that is guarded by the Church in its infinite wisdom, granted that blessing by the almighty himself.


Not all nobles refrain from questioning the Church, however. Throughout history there have been several notable “free-thinkers” who have dared to challenge the Church’s monopoly on alchemical knowledge.  There was a young teacher, Julius Branthos, who lived at the Academy a hundred years ago, right around the time we discovered electricity, who hypothesized that the invisible particles were made up of highly charged material particles and their polar opposite. When they would come into being, the particles would destroy each other almost instantaneously. After all, it is a proven theory of physics that energy can neither be created nor destroyed in the universe.  So these opposites contained energy properties that cancelled each other out, so most people would never be able to tell that they were there at all. When one material particle appears out of the ether with a strong electrical charge, its polar opposite, or negative charge, would have to appear to cancel it out. Branthos claimed to have run successful experiments that showed that the existence of these particles seemed to last for mere fractions of a second. He also theorized that the greater the energy in the particles, the faster they annihilated each other. According to Branthos, it was the manipulation of these invisible energy particles that the Alchemists were being trained to perform by transferring the energy of these particles into everyday objects around them.


Naturally, the Academy expelled Branthos as a heretic and a loon, claiming in proper Nostrian propriety that everyone already knew that God’s blessed touch on the nobles was the reason that they could perform Alchemy and not some mysterious particles floating all around us. What a horrible thought, they said, that some invisible energy force was randomly being created and destroyed all the time. What I would have given to read Branthos’ complete works on the subject. The church burned them all, right before they hanged him.


As I strolled along the back wall of the Reading Room, my eyes fell on a volume titled “The History of the Fridgian War,” a terrible time in the early days of the Nostrian Empire. The Alchemists had saved the nation from invasion by the nomadic tribes of Fridgia only through great sacrifice. The Fridgians had discovered how to make gun powder, and in turn, guns. You see, there is a lot of saltpeter in the desert… never mind. Needless to say, the Nostrian’s lack of firearms proved to be a severe tactical disadvantage against the well-armed Fridgian infantry. According to the Academy’s history books, the early Empire would have been overrun had it not been for the Shattering.


The Shattering was the day that the Alchemists created the Four Isles of Nostria. Faced with certain defeat, the Nostrian King sent forth sixteen Alchemists to surround the four corners of the four great Nostrian cities. They prayed and summoned the blessing of God… and they, and the ground beneath them that encircled all four cities, fell away into the sea. Nostria no longer was connected to the mainland. The Alchemists had created four islands with four capital cities. As the Fridgians could not swim and knew nothing of boat-craft, the Shattering ended the war. Eventually, the Nostrians crossed the sea to the mainland and subjugated the Fridgians, eventually having stolen the secret of gunpowder from them and inventing their own firearms. The Nostrian King sought revenge for the Shattering and ravaged Fridgia, destroying their civilization and sending their people back into the stone-age.


I had a natural curiosity about things and something always bothered me about the Shattering story. I guess that it was that natural curiosity that caused my downfall that day. It was the reason that I bent down and tried to pull out the copy of the “The History of the Fridgian War.” It wasn’t an original, which were stored in the archives. This was just a printed copy. It was maybe a hundred years old or so. But it was stuck between two older novels featuring the heroes of the early church, including Margaret the Brave, and Allen the Hopeful. Both had performed various feats of magic that defeated the enemies of the realm, whether barbarian raiders on the coasts, or mysterious monsters of the sea.


The two novels made a solid wedge, the friction of which prevented me from gaining any ground on retrieving the history volume. I squatted in my dreadfully plain blue-jeans to get a closer look at how I might budge the book out of the vise, when I noticed that there was something snagging it in the back of the shelf. A small sliver of the iron bookshelf had come loose, clasping the top back of the leather-bound volume. It would not have been noticeable if I hadn’t squatted down to eye level with the shelf to see why the book was stuck.


I reached into the back of the shelf and ran my fingers over the iron sliver to see if I could move it without damaging the book. As soon as I touched it, I felt a tingle up my fingers and then my arm. I jerked my hand back and stifled a yelp. It felt almost like touching an open light socket… not that I have done that very often, but I did have an idea one time when I was younger to determine the physical effects of sustained electrical charges on humans…


By this time, there were other families and visitors who had started filling the Reading Room. Some had made note of my appearance, identifying me as a student who would be participating in the Exams. They stayed far away from me, for who knew whether I was an Alchemist or not, until after the Exam was through. So it was the social fear of my situation that saved me from being labelled a thief. You see, having only touched the metal sliver, it began to move of its own will, closing back into the top of the shelf above the volume. I heard a distinct click, and then “The History of the Fridgian War” pushed out from the shelf ever so slightly of its own volition.


Having never had anything remotely similar to this experience in my whole life, I can proudly say that I kept from peeing myself. You see, this was clearly the work of an Alchemist. And a powerful one, I might add, although at the time I did not know it. The ability to store the mechanical force in an object is not known to many,… well, let’s just say only a handful of Alchemists have managed to advance to the level where they could feel the latent energy in objects to store a command to move. So the sheer ingenuity and power within this simple mechanism scared me to death. I didn’t know if I was going to rot right there in front of the other families or not; definitely a terrifying experience.


You may be thinking at this point that I made the book move when I touched the sliver. And you are correct, although at the time, I had yet to put two and two together. For those of you unfamiliar with how alchemical manipulation works, let me say that only another Alchemist could have triggered the command to move the sliver, releasing the book. If a normal person had touched the iron sliver, nothing would have happened. But we will discuss those ramifications in a minute.


It was with some fear, I confess, that I pulled the volume all the way off the shelf and set it aside. I fully expected it to disintegrate in my hands from the ambient exposure. For that matter, I didn’t know if my own hand might rot right before my eyes. I wasn’t terribly educated in the specifics of Alchemy at that point, but my mind quickly supplied my frontal lobes with a cadre of stories about commoners melting, objects exploding, and meals rotting when exposed to the workings of an Alchemist. But none of that happened, which was some comfort. So I decided to continue to satisfy my now weakened curiosity.


Behind the book, a shallow groove had been carved into the bottom corner of the shelf. It had etched markings on it that I could not discern without the aid of a lamp, which I did not possess. So I did the next best thing. With a trembling hand I reached into the bookcase to feel the writing to see if I could read it with my fingers, instead of my eyes. The moment I touched the groove, however, another click sounded and the back of the shelf vanished, leaving another book in its place, as though perched on the back lip of the bookcase.


Why I decided to pick up that small, leather bound troublemaker, I will never know. I can think of a dozen school rules that would have required me to seek out the Head Librarian immediately and report the incident. But my mind had been on the Exam and I was searching for a distraction. I confess I have always enjoyed unraveling a good mystery. What better mystery than the discovery of a secret storage for a long forgotten Alchemist right in the heart of the Academy’s records on alchemy? Who had ever heard of such a thing?


I turned the small book over in my hands to examine it. It was maybe four inches long and two and a half inches wide, bound in a tough leather cover without writing or name on it. There was a metal clasp that locked the book tight. Despite my best efforts, there did not appear to be a way to open the book, as the clasp held no keyhole or latch mechanism. Needless to say, I had a challenge on my hands that needed to be solved: how to open this mysterious book and learn its secrets.


So I did what only a rational person in my situation would do: I stuffed the book down my pants when my back was turned to the room. The Librarians never would have allowed me to remove the book from the Reading Room. Besides, I was about to have six hours locked in the Exam chamber with nothing to do. I had lots of time to discover how to open the book. After the Exam, I could make some excuse to visit the Reading Room and then return the book to the shelf behind the volume of “The History of the Fridgian War.” After all, if I simply turned it into the Librarians at that point, I would have been in serious trouble. You don’t break school rules without sever consequences. I wasn’t exactly sure what the penalty for attempted theft of a library book might be, as it had never been done at the Academy before, but it would probably have been between 40 lashes and expulsion. Considering how my mother might react if I were expelled from the Academy, I am not sure which would have been worse.


As the First Bell rang out across the school grounds, I hustled out of the Reading Room and down the sidewalk that led to the sacred path to the testing grounds. True enough, it appeared that I would be last in line, right behind Paul Graftus, a skinny boy who didn’t talk much. He smiled at me as I scampered in behind him, just as the Schoolmaster started leading Maribel and the rest of the students down to the invocation ceremony. As I slowed to a quick step behind the line of sixteen students, I couldn’t help but smile back at Paul, not for his warmth and encouragement, but for the thought of knowing that this day wouldn’t be wasted after all.




Chapter 4


The invocation was boring. The only thing I remember about it was when Bishop Cornelius had us all kneel in a semi-circle and he proceeded to anoint each of us with oil by drawing a circle on our foreheads. The Bishop carried a gold sphere on a gold chain around his neck wherever he went. The sphere contained a small amount of holy oil; basically olive oil with some smelling spices mixed in so it could be distinguished. Rumor had it that the oil was produced by the Alchemists from the leaves of the olive trees in the monastery, rather than from squeezing the olives themselves. I still don’t know if that rumor is true or not.


Having been properly ‘blessed’ each student was led into the individual testing chambers and locked inside. As I was the last student to be tested, I was also the last one locked away for the day. The smirk on Lavinia’s face when she glanced back at all of us is a memory I will never forget. She clearly thought that she was destined to be a powerful Alchemist; one who could change the world.


As for the rest of my schoolmates, boys and girls alike looked more terrified than anything else. We all knew how dangerous the test was. Nobody had died in nearly a decade, but it happened often enough that all of us had been alive when the last student had been dragged out of his testing chamber. Matthew Galvinus was the son of a local wheat baron. He was friends with my sister, and some even thought that the two might have made a good match, given our family friendship. But it wasn’t meant to be.  He died of brain cancer, officially. Of course, the autopsy revealed that the cancer had consumed most of his vital organs, including his skin, liver, and lungs. If it wasn’t the Exam that did it to him, then it was a miracle he was breathing at all when he walked to school that day. And don’t ask me how I get the autopsy report.


As soon as Bishop Cornelius closed the door behind me and turned the lock, I pulled out the secret book from inside the front of my jeans. It made me feel tingly all over just thinking about what it might say. Not to be rushed, however, I stepped into the middle of the room and used the secret book to shove the Exam book to the side of the table. Then, carefully, I set down my mystery book, as I had come to think of it, so that I could study it better.


Judging from the condition of its cover, it was used frequently before it was stored. The leather binding was cracked and worn in the middle, indicating that it was opened often, as you might expect from a book of everyday use. Due to the deterioration of the leather cover, I suspected that the book was well over a hundred years old.


Maybe it was a travel guide or journal. Those were popular over a hundred years ago, when travel by train made the world a smaller place. Many people paid for travelling salesmen to jot down their observations about different towns and harbors so that those coming behind them wouldn’t have to spend time familiarizing themselves with the basic necessities offered for the adventurous traveler. The popularity of those books died down about a dozen years ago after the proliferation of the steamers and horseless carriages.


The clasp was solid gold in the shape of a U-hook. It was not obvious how it connected to the front and back cover. I could only surmise that the leather had been sewn into a connecting loop underneath the flat ends of the clasp. If it had been glued, I would have been able to rip it off, as the leather was old and dry, leaving it brittle. Despite all of my effort, however, the clasp never moved.


Flipping the book over, I tried to see if the clasp was different on the bottom than the top of the book. It was not; both sides were identical. There were no hinges, and no pivot points that I could see. It didn’t seem to operate by swiveling or unlatching. My best guess at how it unlocked was that the clip slid off of the leather after the force binding it was released. How that worked, I had no idea.


After a good fifteen minutes of trying to open the book, I decided to set it aside for the time being, and give my mind a chance to work on the problem sub-consciously. In the meantime, I turned my attention to my surroundings to get comfortable with the Exam room. As I mentioned earlier, it was a round, stone room, with concrete floors, no windows, and a single electric light dangling from the lofted ceiling. The electric bulb illuminated the entire room with a steady, soft, white glow. In the old days, I am sure the room was much more frightening, as the shadows cast by torch light could feed the imaginations of the exam students. In my case, I needed no such stimulus to feed my natural curiosity.


With nothing else in the room to occupy my attention, I pulled out the lone metal chair and sat down in front of the Exam book. It looked strikingly like the journal; leather-bound, old, cracked, with yellow pages peaking underneath. It had no clasp, however. So I could open the book if I wanted to. All of the students were told to leave the book alone until the Exam began. We were warned that bad things happened to students who opened the book early, before the watchful eye of the Examiner was present to protect them. Had I any desire for the Exam, I might have been tempted to peak at the pages early, warning or not. But I had no expectation that I could perform any sort of magic or manipulation, so I figured the Exam was a waste of time.


So it was not my curiosity about the Exam that made me touch the Exam book, but rather my observation that it looked like it was over a hundred years old. One of the first things we learned at the beginning of the school year was about our Exam day. We learned the rituals and processes required of us, and what to expect in the event we were “blessed.” Because the school really had no idea what the church would do with us afterwards, these lessons always seemed to me to be speculation on the part of the teachers. But one piece of information that bubbled to the surface as I stared at the Exam book was how the church had to use brand new Exam books every four or five years. That didn’t seem to fit with the Exam book in front of me.


It was almost instinctual how I reached out to touch the Exam book as I thought about the incongruity in its appearance; I remember thinking that if the book was less than five years old, than my uncle sells nylons. My fingers brushed the tough leather cover and I felt a familiar tingle up my arm. Jerking my hand back, I quickly looked around to see if anything happened. Nothing obvious stuck out, but I noticed that the book’s edge had a new crack in it. My fingers had only touched the top of the book, not the edge. And I never had time to move the book or open it before reacting to the energy that I felt. So where did the new crack come from?


As if jarred into action by the tingle up my arm, I had an epiphany. Maybe the mystery book was much newer than I thought, because it was just like the Exam book. You see, the Exam book also looked older than it actually was. The reason for that was obvious: it was manipulated every year to carry out the Exam. The materials that make up the leather and paper “aged” each time the Exam book was used. This was the most commonly known side effect of manipulation: “aging.” The church taught that in order for life to be manipulated into providing god’s “blessings” it required the sacrifice of other life around it. While the church called this effect a sacrifice, most people referred to it as “aging.”


The mystery book looked aged as well, so it could have been manipulated. Maybe the clasp was held together by manipulation? Of course, that answer didn’t get me any closer to unlocking it. How would I know how to manipulate the clasp so that it slid off of the leather cover?


Determined to find a solution, I picked up the mystery book again to see if I could figure out how the manipulation worked. No sooner had I touched the clasp again, than it started to slide off of the leather binding. Startled by the sudden slipperiness of the once thoroughly locked clasp, I upended the book over the table and the clasp fell off the book and onto the tabletop with a resounding clang.


What in the world?! I tried to release the clasp a couple of times before and it hadn’t budged a millimeter. How did I manage to get it to slip off so easily? The answer was right before my eyes, but I didn’t know it at the time.


While I genuinely wanted to know how and whether I made the clasp release, my curiosity about the contents of the book won the battle for my immediate attention. With trembling fingers I breached the gap in the binding with the first yellow page of the mystery book. Drawing it away from the cover, I opened the book slowly, as if expecting a Jack-in-the-box to pop out at me. There on the title page was a signature and a handwritten note:


If you have found this journal, then I am dead, and the research with me. It is now up to you to expose the truth about the Alchemists. The church would have you believe they are god’s blessed ones. But that is a lie. We are cursed, for we hold the power to re-create the world… or to destroy it. The secrets of the world are closer than they appear, and brighter than the stars. Weak minds should be warned: failure to calculate the risk of error will lead to destruction. Use your power wisely, fellow magician. The fate of the world may rest in your fingertips. J.A. Branthos


My heart was racing faster than Lord Potterdam’s twelve cylinder speedster. Magician! Alchemists! Lies! What on earth was this book?!


Before I could collect my nerves or gather my thoughts, a knock sounded at the door, and I heard a muffled voice yelling, “Are you alright in there, Miss Vasquez?!”


The Bishop’s voice roused me from my momentary revelry, and I quickly closed the book and stuffed it back down my jeans. No sooner did I glance back up than I saw the stone wall opposite me open up in an almost perfect circle. The stone was no longer there and I could see outside as clearly as if the wall never existed.


Standing on the precipice was a tall man wearing a bright red shirt, black pants, and dark leather riding boots. He had long blond hair and moustaches that flowed over his chiseled cheeks. He was lean and fit; the very appearance of a trained soldier. On his left hand was a metal glove, but his right hand was empty and stretched forth as if touching the outside of the stone wall that vanished mere moments earlier.


If ever I had feared a man, this gentleman was it. But despite his awesome and sudden appearance, my mind kept reminding me that Branthos’ clip was still on the table… right next to the Exam book that I wasn’t supposed to touch.



Chapter 5


“Step away from the table and put your hands where I can see them.”


The Alchemist, the Bishop had introduced him during the invocation ceremony as Lt. Colonel Pearce who was administrating today’s Exam, spoke with authority, but he didn’t raise his voice. He just expected me to comply with whatever he said. Of course, if I complied with his instructions, it would leave the clip exposed to discovery, and that would lead to questions I didn’t want to answer. So like all great magicians, theatrical ones at least, I had to stoop to a little sleight of hand. In other words, I pretended to feint.


As I fell forward, rolling my eyes up into my head, I fell onto the table and snatched the clip with my left hand. Then I rolled onto my back and stuffed the clip into my pocket as the table obscured the Alchemist’s view. It wasn’t a very good performance, but it appeared to work.


The Alchemist scrambled into the room and shouted for assistance from the Bishop, who rounded the Exam room and entered moments later through the new gaping hole in the wall. Col. Pearce had already entered the Exam room and bent down to cup my head in his right hand. He checked my breathing with his ear and then, setting my head in his lap, started to feel for my pulse using the fingers from his bare hand.


Up until that moment, I thought my plan had been well-conceived. As soon as he reached for my throat and my pulse, I knew that I was in trouble. My heart was beating a mile a minute. Col. Pearce would have no problem seeing through my trickery. So I improvised by coughing.


Using loud phlegm inviting hacks, I was able to roll off of Col. Pearce and onto the ground again. My sudden gyrations saved me from scrutiny, but only for a moment. The Bishop arrived just then and immediately demanded to know what was happening.


“Ms. Vasquez, are you alright?! Col. Pearce what happened?”


“It seems that the young lady feinted, your grace. She doesn’t appear to be in any danger.” Although his words appeared to be neutral, I could here in his voice a tone of doubt and distrust. He was still assessing me and the situation.


“Good, good. Well, what was it that got you hopping over here in the first place, Colonel? Did you sense something?”


The Bishop had started to walk around Col. Pearce in order to assist me to my feet. I had risen to my knees and was making a pretense to wipe my mouth with a kerchief. I needed to carry on the act that I had feinted. “What happened? I saw the wall disappear and then… nothing.”


Bending down to take my hands in his, the Bishop answered, “My dear, Col. Pearce rushed out of Exam room 2 and I followed him to your Exam room. When I knocked on your door there was no answer. We had to be sure you were safe.” He patted my hand in a condescending manner that let me know it was his own reputation that he cared for more than my health. If I had killed myself while unsupervised during the Exam, even if it was my own fault or stupidity, the Bishop would be held liable by the noble families. The last Bishop had been sacked right after Matthew’s death. Nobody knew where the old Bishop was serving out his life sentence for dereliction of duty, but rumor was that he was mining coal deep in the mountains of the Northern Isle. I’m sure Bishop Cornelius had no desire to join his priestly brother in that endeavor.


“I… I think I feinted.”


“Indeed. But we must assess why you feinted, young miss.” Col. Pearce stood over me like a hawk, his eyes matching the affinity of his name. I felt like if he stared at me any longer, his gaze would slice me in two. Thankfully, the Bishop helped me to my feet and then had me sit down in the chair to get my wits.


Despite the charade, it felt good to be sitting down. I didn’t realize that I had been standing for over three hours, given the delay from the lineup to the invocation to waiting in my Exam room. I didn’t need to fake the relief that I felt in my feet and legs. I rubbed my feet to ease the stiffness, but also to shift Branthos’ journal slightly. It was rubbing the wrong way now that I was sitting. Thankfully it was small enough, and the gaudy blue jeans were baggy enough, that the men hadn’t noticed it.


After a moment, I looked up to see Cornelius and Pearce staring at each other. They said nothing to one another, but there must have been an unspoken understanding that passed between them. Suddenly, they both turned their gaze on me.


“Ms. Vasquez, do you remember my instructions about the Exam?”


The Bishop’s tone had changed. If before he oozed concern, even if for his own reputation and prospects, now he spoke with authoritative diction. He was not happy about the situation; that much was obvious.


“Yes, of course, your grace.”


“And did those instructions say what to do while you waited patiently in your room?”




The Bishop frowned, clearly getting frustrated. “And what were those instructions?!”


“You told us to sit patiently meditating on the significance of the day and the desire to do well.” To be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure what he had said during the invocation. I was still too caught up in my discovery of Branthos’ journal to listen.


“And what about the Exam book? What were you to do with that?”

My gut started to knot up. I knew where this conversation was going; nowhere good for me, that’s for sure. “Leave it alone, untouched.”


“Untouched! Yes! Why, then, is your Exam book pushed to the side of the table, away from where Col. Pearce left it?”


Bishop Cornelius’ voice and eyes hardened to a glare that I had never heard or seen before. There was ice in his eyes and venom on his tongue. He was the epitome of injured Nostrian pride. Even standing next to a Alchemist, the Bishop’s anger scared me more than anything else I had ever encountered. Here was a man who could ruin me with a word.


“I,… I…”


“Yes, Ms. Vasquez? Be honest or the consequences will be dire.”


I decided to do precisely that. After all, what other options did I have? Besides, I am a terrible liar.


“I touched it because I was intrigued by its appearance. It looks so worn, but I know that it can’t be more than four years old. I only moved it a little.”


Bishop Cornelius turned to stare at Col. Pearce, who smoothly picked up the line of questioning from the Bishop. “Tell me exactly what happened when you moved the Exam book.” His tone left no doubt that the warning about lying applied to him as well.


“Nothing happened.” Despite the look from the Bishop, it was the truth. The first time I moved the Exam book, nothing had happened. It was only after the second time when I touched the book with my hand… I was in a pickle. If I admitted to moving the book with the other book, I would be in bigger trouble, so I needed to avoid that fact. I quickly added the rest of the explanation, while omitting the details about Branthos’ book. “What I mean is,… nothing happened to the book.”


Pearce walked around the table and picked up the Exam book. He opened it to the first page, held it for a moment while reading it, and then set it down. When he looked back at me, his eyes were softer. “Go on. Continue your explanation.”


“What do you mean? That’s what happened.”


“Not entirely. What happened to you when you touched the Exam book?”


“I,… I felt a tingle in my hand,…”


Bishop Cornelius’ eyes grew wide and he looked at Pearce, who was starting to grin.


“… and then the tingle went up my arm, so I dropped the book quickly before the tingling spread. Once I put the Exam book back on the desk, my arm stopped tingling.”


Pearce was now openly smiling and the Bishop was openly gaping. What did I say? Well, let me tell you I had just confessed to being a very powerful Alchemist without knowing it. What I had done was instinctual. I drew the energy from the Exam book and used it for another purpose: manipulation. I was in serious trouble, but I just didn’t know it yet.


“You see, your grace? I told you this Exam day would yield a bountiful harvest. Not one, but two powerful new soldiers for his lordship’s holy army.” Col. Pearce spoke with distinct pride and enthusiasm. All manner of his previously threatening appearance dissolved due to his newfound jocularity. He was downright giddy, for sure.


Bishop Cornelius, on the other hand, looked white as a ghost. It almost made me look around for a pail, just in case he lost his breakfast right there in front of us. He certainly looked like he could vomit at any moment. “But,… But Colonel! Where did the energy go? If she absorbed it, then… then…” He was backing away from me with short stuttered steps as he glanced around the room as though the walls would collapse on him at any moment.


Col. Pearce eased his fears immediately, however, without me having to explain what I had done. “Why, it’s obvious, Cornelius. When she set the book back down she drained the energy into the table. There is no other conductor in the room.” His smile slipped a bit, as he returned his gaze from the Bishop back to me. I must have had a look of utter amazement on my face, because Col. Pearce took my expression to mean that I was overwhelmed with the discovery that I was, indeed, a Alchemist.  “My sweet girl, don’t be afraid. What you did was dangerous, but somehow you avoided catastrophe and diluted all of the harmful energy. You are safe, now.”


I looked at him and then at the book and the table. I reach my hand over the table to re-enforce his version of events by seeming to ponder what I had done.


“You won’t be able to feel the energy in the table. It is probably best you not try, though.” Col. Pearce then turned back to the Bishop. “This table will need to be marked, Cornelius. Don’t move it until I send one of my men to diffuse it.”


Bishop Cornelius seemed to have recovered a bit. But he still looked uncomfortable. He probably had good reason to be. After all, he was in a room with not one, but two Alchemists.


Two Alchemists! I am an Alchemist… or will be. But that meant that I wouldn’t be going home today, or ever…


Understanding blossomed at that moment and I honestly can’t say what happened next. I must have feinted for real, because I went from sitting on the chair to lying on my side on the ground, Col. Pearce hovering over me again. “What…”


Col. Pearce tried to comfort me. “Don’t talk, young lady. I think you need to rest. I have asked the Bishop to send a servant with some provisions. You will stay here while I complete the rest of the Exams. Try to get some rest. I can see that this has been a shock to your system. Best to take it easy for now. More will be expected of you later, but for now, your orders are to rest.”


After Col. Pearce helped me back into my chair, a young boy, maybe eight or nine years old, arrived at the open door of the Exam room. When had the door been unlocked? The boy carried blankets, a glass of water, and a small basket of bread. He set the provisions on the table and then quickly left. It was evident by the look on his face that he had no desire at all to be anywhere near them.


Col. Pearce stood up, surveyed the provisions and nodded. His jovial attitude had faded to a businesslike expression. “It will be a few more hours of testing. If you need anything, just knock on the door. I will have a servant standing by to attend you.”


I nodded absentmindedly, glancing over the provisions and then staring at my hands, which I laid in my lap, touching Branthos’ journal. I had a brief moment of panic, before I realized if it had been discovered, I wouldn’t have still been sitting in the chair, and Col. Pearce wouldn’t still be trying to help me.


True enough, Pearce turned to leave, but paused at the door. He glanced back and caught my eye. He looked younger than before. His sudden appearance had made me think of him as an older man. But he was maybe in his early twenties. His youthful face came out as he smiled at me and said, “You wouldn’t know this, of course, but you will find out eventually. What you did today was amazing. Truly.”


I didn’t know what to say, so I just stared back at him.


“I am sure we can expect great things from you.” With that, he left me alone again in my Exam room. I heard the lock click back into place. For the second time today, I was locked in the room. This time, however, I had more than one mystery to unravel.


I was an Alchemist. I was chosen. I was blessed. But what had I done beyond that which was so amazing? I would find out later that evening, and the discovery would not be a pleasant one.

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