The master alchemist's voice rang clearly from the stone walls. Anyone hearing it knew immediately that he was Important.
"The vials are identical," he explained, as if lecturing particularly favored students. "Each contains two oils, yellow and blue, separated by a wax shield. You, sir: Choose one and throw it at the target."
The potential customer did so, and the glass tube flew through the air to smash harmlessly against the wall.
The master spoke on: "As you can see, nothing happened. Already the volatile blue oil has evaporated. The yellow remains completely inert."
At his gesture, an assistant waved a lit torch over the puddle, finally dipping the fiery end directly in. The torch sizzled, but that was all.
The alchemist removed a second vial, then replaced the case within his finely embroidered robe.
"Now, watch: I shall shake this once, vigorously, dislodging the wax. The liquids mix and begin to bubble; we have fifteen seconds before it becomes unstable. I toss the vial gently at the target, so!"
The vial struck the metal circle squarely and detonated. The observers, here to witness precisely this, were nevertheless stunned by the noise and flash — one reason the stone chamber had been selected for the demonstration. As the dust cleared, they could see in the torchlight that the steel target had vanished. Possibly its pulverized remains were the glowing sparks now embedded within the smoking wall of cut stone.
"A perfect weapon, useful both for siege and field battle, and a bargain at the price: one hundred crowns apiece, with the usual quantity discounts. Yes, a question?"
A richly dressed official spoke. "They're powerful, I'll grant — but how ever could we get them home, much less to a battlefield? I saw your vigorous shake, and I'll tell you: My carriage jolts me far worse." His fellows chuckled ruefully; the kingdom's bad roads were infamous.
"An excellent question, my dear Justicar! Each comes inside its own bespelled case to prevent exactly that. No matter how hard they are struck—but wait, I shall show you. See, I carry my vials here, in a pocket next to my heart." He thumped himself on the chest; the crowd gasped. "Not to worry; I'm in no danger. They cannot detonate, not even if I should fall half a mile into a blazing bonfire."
A drab little man in dusty black had, at some point, entered unseen and stood against the wall. Next to the rich brocades of the gathered nobles, he looked quite harmless—no more than a servant, perhaps—had any of them bothered to noticed him. Unmoving, he blended perfectly into the background. If the alchemist saw, he made no sign.
He did end the demonstration abruptly, however, waving over an assistant in occultly embroidered robes. "My time is up, I fear. Please follow Journeywoman Elcott to the crossbow range, where she will show you something truly astonishing for night-fighting. I will meet up with you later at the banquet. Thank you for coming."
When the room had emptied, the drab man observed, "They'd have been less impressed if they'd known your robe is enchanted against blows."
"My dear Fergus! Against far more than that. In these robes, I'm perfectly invulnerable. I can stand inside a blast furnace; nothing can penetrate. But I forget: you've seen me do it." The alchemist strode over, smiled affably, and shook the little man's hand. "Have you considered my offer?"
"I have. I decline," Fergus replied. "I've kept my end of the bargain. You have the vials, the process, and now the sales. Pay me my ten thousand and I'll go."
"Well." The alchemist went silent, collecting his thoughts. He turned back to Fergus, his face a mask of sadness. "I won't pretend I'm not disappointed. You've seen our capacity here, our extensive glassworks, our manufacturing plant, our beautiful laboratories. We provide the purest ingredients, full-time assistants, luxury lodgings. You must surely realize that your work would be a thousand times more successful with us than on your own."
The alchemist eyed him a moment, then removed the case from within his robe. He pulled out a single vial, setting the case on a nearby table. "This could never have come to fruition outside these walls. Only here in all the world are there facilities—" He paused, seized by powerful emotion. Working visibly to suppress his frustration, he tried to continue. "We could achieve so very much together, and I can't understand; I can't imagine why— how you could ever—!"
Fergus took the vial and held it up to the light; the alchemist was startled but did not resist. The drab man scrutinized it closely, then tried to explain.
"You and me, we're a lot like this," he said quietly. "I'm the yellow part and you're the blue. I have an unusual creative gift, yet I detest violence with all my heart. You, on the other hand, have a talent for catalyzing work in others, but you lack genius. I'd still be home inventing herbal cures if I didn't need the money. But I am desperate, and together we made this . . . this horror."
His mouth twisted, and he shuddered. "Now our devil's bargain is complete. I'll lose sleep over it, but I knew that going in. I'll take my pay and go, and I pray I never have to return."
The elder alchemist had half turned away; his hands, now fists, shook with rage. He spoke tightly. "You're right, damn you. You have the gift of genius the world needs—that I need!— so desperately, and yet you refuse to share it." He turned back and bared his teeth, his face terrible in the flickering torchlight. "You withhold what I need from me, and I shall do the same. You will have no money—no, not one coin!"
The little man's eyes blazed. "You can't do this!" he said, gripping the vial tightly. "We have a contract! The Regents—"
"Will do as I say! Oh, you'll be paid: enough to cover your debts as long as you continue to produce! You need the coin; I know who you owe and why. I took the precaution of coming to my own arrangement with them. So long as you remain here, you're under my protection. Without money, you've no choice but to stay! Ah, but you haven't heard the rest of my offer . . ."
The alchemist spoke passionately, hands waving. He painted word pictures of the wonderful things they could achieve together, careful to avoid the subject of weapons. He described ending plagues, drought-resistant crops, new techniques in construction and road repair. The small man stood still, head bowed, vial clutched in white-knuckled fingers, and waited for a pause. When it came, he spoke.
"I still have a choice, and it's to go. Here." He held out the vial. The alchemist flinched; then, realizing it wasn't a threat, snatched it and thrust it within his robe.
"Very well. Go — and go penniless! You'll come back; you know you will!" The alchemist turned his back on Fergus and fumed, his face dark with rage. Had his customers seen him then, they'd have been appalled at the change in the urbane lecturer.
Fergus walked to the door, then stopped, counting softly. Then he turned back. "You neglected to warn them about body heat," he said casually. "Wax melts so easily. Even in a man's hand."
The alchemist's face paled as realization struck. Panicked, he scrabbled at his garments, desperate to find the vial within. Fergus stepped through the door and closed it quietly. There was a sharp sound, as though someone had dropped a heavy book, then silence.
He allowed himself a chuckle. "Invulnerable! Ha!"
Then he ambled away as silently as he'd come, a small, quiet, harmless little man. Nobody noticed him go.