He hoped this might be one such crumb.
At the heart of alchemy was the belief in azoth, the secret essence inherent in all matter. Alchemists believed that if they could distill it, it would enable them to master the underlying structures of the physical world. To transmute lead into gold, derive a universal solvent, and even an elixir of immortality.
It had long been accepted that this would be accomplished by means of some elaborate process involving the elemental trinity: salt, mercury, and sulfur. An absurd number of books and treatises had been written on the subject, considering the utter absence of empirical evidence. They were full of diagrams of dragons swallowing suns and men suckling at the breasts of goddesses, and Lazlo thought them as wild as any fairy tales, although they were shelved more respectably, in the alchemy room of the library, which, tellingly, had once been the palace treasury.
Meanwhile, banished belowstairs where no alchemist would ever look for it, in a book of tales from the Unseen City whimsically titled Miracles for Breakfast, there was mention of another theory: that the alchemist was himself the secret ingredient—that only the conjunction of human soul with elemental soul could give birth to azoth.
And there it was, a crumb on a wizard’s beard.
Miracles for Breakfast
He ought to have waited, at least for a few days. Really, he ought never to have gone at all. He understood that later. Lazlo understood a lot of things later.
The sun was rising by the time he emerged from the stacks clutching the book, and he might have been tired from staying up all night, but energy thrummed through him. Excitement. Nerves. He felt as though he were part of something, and forgot that only he knew it. He didn’t return to his room, but made his way out of the main palace and across the grounds to the old church that was now the Chrysopoesium.
All the city was spread out below. A radiance lit the Eder where it met the horizon. As the sun climbed, its gleam raced upriver like a lit fuse, seeming to carry daylight with it. The cathedral bells rang out, and all the other church bells followed—light and sweet, like children answering a parent’s call.
Lazlo thought Thyon might not have slept, either, not with the terrible burden laid on him. He approached the doors. They were huge, cast-bronze church doors, and weren’t exactly built for knocking. He knocked anyway, but he could hardly hear the rap of his own knuckles. He might have given up then, retreated, and given himself time to think better of what he was about to do. If the initial thrill of discovery had been allowed to wear off, surely he would have seen his folly, even naïve as he was. But, instead, he checked around the side of the church, found a door with a bell, and rang it.
And so things fell out as they did.
Thyon answered the door. He looked blank. Lifeless. “Well?” he asked.
“I’m sorry to disturb you,” Lazlo said, or something to that effect. This part was a blur to him after. His pulse was pounding in his ears. It wasn’t like him to put himself forward. If his upbringing at the abbey had specialized in anything, it was instilling a profound sense of unworthiness. But he was riding the momentum of his outrage on Thyon’s behalf, and the flush of solidarity from one beaten boy for another, and above all, the thrill of discovery. Maybe he blurted “I found something for you,” and held up the book.
Whatever his words, Thyon stood back so that he might enter. The space was high and hushed, like any church, but the air stank of sulfur, like a pit of hell. Wan shafts of dawn light diffused through stained glass, throwing color onto shelves of gleaming glass and copper. The nave was occupied by a long worktable cluttered with equipment. The whole of the apse had been taken over by a monumental furnace, and a brick chimney cut right up through the center of the frescoed dome, obliterating the heads of angels.
“Well, what is it?” Thyon asked. He was moving stiffly, and Lazlo didn’t doubt that his back was covered with welts and bruises. “I suppose you’ve found me another treatise,” he said. “They’re all worthless, you know.”
“It’s not exactly a treatise.” Lazlo set the book down on the pocked surface of the worktable, noticing only now the engraving on the cover. It showed a spoon brimming with stars and mythical beasts. Miracles for Breakfast. It looked like a children’s book, and he had his first pang of misgiving. He hurried to open it, to hide the cover and title. “It is to do with gold, though,” he said, and launched into an explanation. To his dismay, it sounded as out of place in this somber laboratory as the book looked out of place, and he found himself rushing to keep ahead of his growing mortification, which only made it sound wilder and more foolish the faster he went.
“You know the lost city of Weep,” he said. He made himself use the impostor name and immediately tasted tears. “And its alchemists who were said to have made gold in ancient times.”
“Legends,” said Thyon, dismissive.
“Maybe,” said Lazlo. “But isn’t it possible the stories are true? That they made gold?”
He registered the look of incredulity on Thyon’s face, but misinterpreted it. Thinking it was his premise that the alchemist found unbelievable, he hurried along.
“Look here,” he said, and pointed to the passage in the book, about the alchemist himself being the secret ingredient of azoth. “It says the conjunction of human soul and elemental soul, which sounds, I don’t know, unhelpful, because how do you join your soul with metal? But I think it’s a mistranslation. I’ve come across it before. In Unseen . . . I mean, in the language of Weep, the word for ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ is the same. It’s amarin for both. So I think this is a mistake.” He tapped his finger on the word soul and paused. Here it was, his big idea. “I think it means that the key to azoth is spirit. Spirit of the body.” He held out his wrists, pale side up, exposing the traceries of veins so that Thyon would be sure to take his meaning. And, with that, he found he’d run out of words. A conclusion was needed, something to shine a light on his idea and make it gleam, but he had none, so it just hung there in the air, sounding, frankly, ridiculous.
Thyon stared at him several beats too long. “What is the meaning of this?” he asked at last, and his voice was ice and danger. “A dare? Did you lose a bet? Is it a joke?”
“What?” Startled, Lazlo shook his head. His face went hot and his hands went cold. “No,” he said, seeing Thyon’s incredulity now for what it was. It wasn’t Lazlo’s premise he was reacting to. It was his presence. In an instant, Lazlo’s perception shifted and he understood what he’d just done. He—Strange the dreamer, junior librarian—had marched into the Chrysopoesium, brandishing a book of fairy tales, and presumed to share his insights on the deepest mystery of alchemy. As though he might solve the problem that had eluded centuries of alchemists—including Nero himself.
His own audacity, now that he saw it, took his breath away. How could he have thought this was a good idea?
“Tell me the truth,” commanded Thyon. “Who was it? Master Luzinay? He sent you here to mock me, didn’t he?”
Lazlo shook his head to deny the accusation, but he could tell that Thyon wasn’t even seeing him. He was too lost in his own fury and misery. If he was seeing anything, it was the mocking faces of the other alchemists, or the cool calculations of the queen herself, ordering up miracles like breakfast. Or maybe—probably—he was seeing the scorn on his father’s face last night, and feeling it in the rawness of his flesh and the ache of his every movement. There was, in him, such a simmer of emotions, like chemicals thrown together in an alembic: fear like a sulfur fog, bitterness as sharp as salt, and damned fickle mercury for failure and desperation.
“I would never mock you,” Lazlo insisted.
Thyon grabbed up the book, flipping it closed to study the title and cover. “Miracles for Breakfast,” he intoned, leafing through it. There were pictures of mermaids, witches. “This isn’t mockery?”
“I swear it isn’t. I may be wrong, my lord. I . . . I probably am.” Lazlo saw how it looked, and he wanted to tell what he knew to be true, how folklore was sprinkled with truths, but even that sounded absurd to him now—crumbs on wizards’ beards and all that nonsense. “I’m sorry. It was presumptuous to come here and I beg your pardon, but I swear to you I meant no disrespect. I only wanted to help you.”
Thyon snapped the book shut. “To help me. You, help me.” He actually laughed. It was a cold, hard sound, like ice shattering. It went on too long, and with every new bite of laughter, Lazlo felt himself grow smaller. “Enlighten me, Strange,” said Thyon. “In what version of the world could you possibly help me?”
In what version of the world? Was there more than one? Was there a version where Lazlo grew up with a name and a family, and Thyon was put on the cart for the abbey? Lazlo couldn’t see it. For all his grand imagination, he couldn’t conjure an image of a monk shaving that golden head. “Of course you’re right,” he stammered. “I only thought . . . you shouldn’t have to bear it all alone.”
It was . . . the wrong thing to say.
“Bear what all alone?” asked Thyon, query sharp in his eyes.
Lazlo saw his mistake. He froze, much as he had in the tombwalk, hiding uselessly in the shadows. There was no hiding here, though, and because there was no guile in him, everything he felt showed on his face. Shock. Outrage.
And finally Thyon understood what had brought this junior librarian to his door in the earliest hours of dawn. If Lazlo had waited—weeks or even days—Thyon might not have made the connection so instantly. But his back was on fire with pain, and Lazlo’s glance strayed there as though he knew it. Poor Thyon, whose father beat him. In an instant he knew that Lazlo had seen him at his weakest, and the simmer of emotions were joined by one more.
It was shame. And it ignited all the others.
“I’m sorry,” Lazlo said, hardly knowing what he was sorry for—that Thyon had been beaten, or that he had chanced to see it.