31. Introduction to Alchemy

Jaz pulled Bracken out of bed the next morning at sunrise. “You need to come see this.”

Bracken sat up slowly. His limbs felt like they’d been replaced with wood. For a moment he couldn’t remember where he was. “Don’t wanna…tired…”

He vaguely recalled falling asleep with Saturday’s binder in his lap. It was now facedown on the floor.

Jaz, who didn’t seem to share his exhaustion, gathered the binder and the loose pictures that had fallen from it, took him by the arm and towed him out of the room and up the stairs. Her Friday melancholy had vanished: now she was all upbeat. “Sleep when you get home. You’ll only see this once.” She deposited him on a stool, splashed some coffee into a mug and set it in front of him.

Bracken sipped between sluggish blinks. The windows showed only a gray-yellow pallor with hazy smudges visible in the distance. Nearly all the mess from the previous day was gone, reverted back to where it had begun. The rest, Jaz had apparently thrown back on the basement junk pile. “What day is it now?”

“Saturday.” She filled a plate with muffins and set it in front of Bracken.

Bracken gave the plate a tired look and sipped again. His head felt light, threatening to detach and float away. “Why are we up so early?”

“Watch.” Jaz pointed at the windows.

Bracken turned reluctantly, rubbing his eyes and blinking until they remembered how to focus.

It was just growing light outside. Now Bracken could see The Defiant was perched on a terraced hill, in line with a curved row of quaint shops, all attached to each other. The street out front was a smooth flow of red brickwork. Directly in front of the windows, a solid circle of white bricks marked a circular patio bulging outward, over the terrace.

Bracken squinted. “Nice patio. Do you put chairs out?”

“I can’t go outside,” Jaz reminded him, “And it’s not a patio.”

“What is it?”

“That is an airship landing pad.”

Beyond and below the landing pad, a city of brick and stone spread out like the top of a footprint, surrounded by mountains on three sides. Streets and alleyways lit by naked golden flames traced a bright maze around the buildings. Many buildings had flat rooftops, with narrow stone walkways arching from roof to roof. Yellow vapor trails grew from a forest of narrow chimneys, and larger clouds billowed from smokestacks of the larger fortresses. All the smoke joined into a dull yellow supercloud coating the sky.

A cluster of buildings stood tall in the center of the city, all white granite, their square rooftops connected by walkways converging like a spiderweb above a sprawling courtyard.

“That’s the Academy of Alchemy,” said Jaz, pointing at these buildings.

Bracken bit into a muffin and said through the mouthful, “Alchemy? Like magic?” He had been wondering about this while he studied the pictures from Saturday’s binder.

“In Vasencea it’s what they call manipulating the elements. Some people here are born with the ability, and they spend years in training, learning to master it.” She pointed to the south. “That building is the robotics factory. They make giant, mechanical suits of armor, basically. And that castle with the pointy towers is the Capitol building. Vasencea is the capitol of the Northern Province.”

“Okay.” Bracken sipped away at the coffee, as if drinking faster might weigh him down while lightening his eyelids.

Then suddenly they felt much lighter. A large group of people in light blue tunics had just emerged from stairwells set in the rooftops. These people were followed by a second group dressed in amber robes. The Tunics lined up on the walkways between the roofs, while the Robes formed circles on the roofs and began some kind of choreography, waving their arms gracefully like orchestra conductors.

It was mesmerizing.

“What are they doing?” Bracken asked, not taking his eyes from the performance.

“Just watch.”

The tiny oval flames lining the streets flashed from gold to bright blue, and began to rise above the rooftops, guided by the robed conductors. When the flames reached the level of the walkways, they suddenly extinguished. The Tunics spread their arms and fell forward. For a moment they plummeted toward the streets, stroking their arms like swimmers, and then they soared upward, carving graceful curves with their bodies. They shot up past the rooftops, toward the thick yellow cloud. They swirled against the yellow backdrop for a moment, turning arbitrarily, lazily, and then suddenly formed two lines facing each other high over the middle of the city. The lines swept toward each other and crossed, picking up speed. The clouds split behind the lines like parting curtains, revealing a widening stripe of ice blue sky. White bars of sunlight struck into the city, evaporating the last curls of fog: the sun was already shining above the mountains.

The two flying lines swept the halves of the yellow cloud north and south, pushing them along until they gained their own momentum and sailed away, out of sight.

Bracken saluted the spectacle with his coffee cup, sloshing some over the rim. “They do that every morning?”

“Yeah. It’s a ritual. They have to clear away the vapors made by the smokestacks. The sky will stay mostly clear until evening.”

“Why don’t they just shut off the chimneys?”

“Can’t. Those vapors power the city.” Jaz began clearing away the remains of their breakfast, dumping cobbler into the garbage and dropping the plates carelessly in the dishwasher.

Bracken finished his coffee and slid the empty mug toward her. “Why don’t they find a way to power the city without choking up the sky?”

“It’s not easy to change that. Their whole infrastructure relies on steam power. They use alchemy to convert water instantly to steam. The steam heats their homes, powers their airships, all machinery… They use it for everything. Except drinking, ironically. Water is strictly rationed now. I have a permit to prove I’ve got a water ration, even though the shop doesn’t use water from Vasencea.”

The idea of The Defiant being self-supplied was intresting, but now was not the time to get sidetracked. They were only in Vasencea for a day. “Are they running out of water?”

“Yes. They can turn water into vapors but the vapors don’t turn back into water.” Jaz went to the back counter and scanned the bags of coffee beans sitting in a long line, three rows deep, along the back of it.

“Whoever invented steam power must be kicking themselves by now,” Bracken observed.

“You would think so.” Jaz shrugged, looking at dates written sloppily in marker on the bags of beans. She selected four bags and stowed them beneath a shelf near the espresso machine. “They use alchemy to grow plants composed of mostly water. They harvest the water from the plants and ship it to the cities to power them.”

“They manufacture water so they can keep turning it into yellow fog.”

Jaz picked up the chalkboard by the register and began writing down the coffee of the day. “Hey, you celebrate Cabbage Week. Every world has its quirks.”

Bracken’s reply was cut off by a deep yawn. “…next time I’m going to be sure to sleep every night. This is brutal,” he said, when he could talk again.

Jaz stopped writing, her face suddenly still. “Bracken…there can’t be a next time. On Monday you’re going home with your sister.”

Bracken blinked. “Come on, Jaz. You don’t expect me to go home after all this.” He swung an open hand toward the city beyond the windows.

“You have to. You have a family out there, and a life to live. You need to go back to them.”

“I could have a life here. Like Sadie did.”

Jaz shook her head. “This isn’t living. This is perpetual existence.”

He leaned forward on his stool. “What about the doorway generator, and getting you out of here?”

“It was never going to happen. And I’m not going to let you waste your life here. She wouldn’t want you to, either.”

“I think she would. And I don’t think she’d appreciate you calling her life a waste.”

Jaz’s eyes snapped up to his. “Hey. I didn’t mean it like that.”

“I know you didn’t. But even so. You could use some help here, anyway…” Bracken trailed off as he noticed a large shape descending on the landing pad outside. He stared for a moment, then said slowly, “A…giant barrel just landed outside.”

Jaz set the chalkboard beside the register. “It’s an airship. If you go closer to the windows you can see the rest of it.”

Bracken stood, chin raised, and walked into the workspace, stopping behind the register. “I can’t right now. I’m on register.”

Jaz raised an eyebrow. “Now you’re willing to work.”

“Unless you want me to make the coffee.”

Jaz moved quickly to take her spot by the espresso machine. “This conversation isn’t over,” she muttered as the doors opened and customers approached the counter.

“I’m just getting started,” he muttered back, then grinned and raised his voice to the customers. “Hello! Welcome to The Defiant. What can we make you?”

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