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“Surprised?” Remus said. “Cyrus never changes, not even in the most dangerous of times. But then of course, knowledge is power—all the more reason for him to hoard the truth about its history and nature.”

That, Nicholas could not dispute. “And you know of it how?”

“Before Ironwood did away with the position, I was a record-keeper for the families for longer than you’ve been alive,” Remus explained. “I know things that would slow the blood in your veins. It’s one of the reasons he was so irate that we left, you see. He did not want anyone else to have that knowledge, least of all Henry Hemlock. But he cannot execute me, either, for the old records were burned and I might have one last detail or piece of knowledge he needs. I know that, to create a passage, legend holds that you must have the astrolabe, but you must also have something from the time and year you wish to go. I know the songs all others have forgotten.”

Sophia gave Nicholas a nod, confirming all of these things.

“What do you know of alchemy?” Remus began. “Of its principles?”

“I know it’s a load of garbage,” Sophia said. “Outdated hogwash that has spurred on countless pitiful idiots to waste their time trying to turn lead to gold, look for a cure for all ailments, and find a way toward immortality.”

“Sophia,” Nicholas said, his tone warning. He didn’t want to scold her, but he wanted to get what information they could and leave this place as quickly as possible.

“You’ve covered some of it, yes, but the principles of alchemy extend far beyond the tangible. You might say that it is the search for understanding about the true nature of life, and how energy can be manipulated: a careful study of the beautiful mysteries of life, death, and perhaps resurrection. ‘As above, so below, as within, so without, as the universe, so the soul.’”

That might explain some of the odd symbols he had seen in the Belladonna’s store and workshop, then. It was as much a belief system as a craft or profession.

“There once lived a man who achieved this perfect knowledge by broadening his understanding of how immortality might be accomplished—what better way to conquer life than to destroy that which limits it?”

“Time,” Nicholas finished. “You mean to say…”

“This man, the originator of our line,” Remus continued, “harnessed these energies, transmuted them into something new, something tied to the earthly influence of his own blood. It was contained within a device, a key that allowed him to control it. Three copies of this master key were made for his three children, but each copy was weaker than the next. His children fought viciously for control of the original version, each with what they thought was the true path for it, until one day, two of the children turned on the youngest, who they felt was the alchemist’s favorite. When the alchemist attempted to intervene, both he and the youngest child were killed in the fray.”

“There’s the Ironwood in them,” Sophia muttered.

“In the chaos, the master key was stolen by a fourth child, an illegitimate bastard, a by-blow of some poor wench.”

Sophia straightened at that, her top lip peeling back in a snarl at the word bastard. And, for the first time in a long while, Nicholas realized he had never quite considered her own parentage in this context—the same context as his own.

“Having lived and worked in the shadows of his legitimate brothers and sister, having been the alchemist’s apprentice, he knew how to harness the power of the master key—the master astrolabe—and he knew well that the others would never let him possess it. And so the apprentice ran for centuries, weaving in and out of time until his trail became too muddied for the others to follow with the lesser astrolabes,” Remus said. “Years passed, and he began to release his fears, fathering families across the continents. But the continued use of the astrolabe had altered the composition of his body, with curious results. His life was extended a century beyond what was natural, and the children he sired inherited the ability to travel through the passages he had created without needing to be in possession of the astrolabe. Almost as if, by using it, he had absorbed some of its essence into himself, and had become an extension of it. The same proved true of his remaining half siblings, and the eldest finally succeeded in finding his bastard brother, by then old and decrepit, and killing him.”

“How, if their lives were prolonged?” Sophia asked.

“Their lives were prolonged and they aged and aged and aged, but only so long as they were not unnaturally interrupted by, say, foul murder,” Remus said. “Though our bloodlines have been diluted, and we no longer live beyond the normal years of men, some small spark of the astrolabe remains, allowing us to travel.”

Nicholas shook his head. The talk of alchemy, this kind of immortality outside of heaven, was almost too heathen to believe.

And yet…he thought again grimly.

There was a kernel of pure, primal truth in Remus’s tale—fear, even more so than greed, was a powerful motivator, especially when coupled with the determination to survive. However the story may have been embellished, there was some validity to it.

“The daughter fell to history’s mercy, and no record of her remains, other than that her elder brother stole her astrolabe and used it in some unnatural way. The record is unclear, only that the copies disappeared. There is only one left now—the master astrolabe—and, if Cyrus’s wild beliefs are true, the eldest son still hunts for it.”

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