A tense silence settled over the library with the departure of Master Ferdinand and the Captain. Guillaume turned from staring morosely at the equipment on the tables to peering fearfully down at his bag of silver as though he expected someone to try and whip it away from him at any moment. I gazed listlessly along the shelves of books and tried to figure out just how it was that we always seemed to get ourselves tangled up in these dramas. Michael paced thoughtfully back and forth. It was he who finally broke the silence when he paused by the window, looked out and casually remarked, “It’s a thirty foot drop straight down into the moat, just in case anyone was wondering.”
“I shouldn’t even think of trying to escape if I were you,” said Guillaume with a sigh. “Le Capitaine is likely to take any attempt as a personal affront and he is not a man you would wish to offend.”
“Then I suppose we’re going to have to clean this mess up if we’re ever to get out of here,” said Michael.
“But is this stuff actually safe to touch?” I asked no-one in particular, casting a glance at the silent corpse with a shudder. I turned to Guillaume. “You must have some sort of idea what’s contained in all these jars. Is it dangerous?”
Guillaume shrugged. “Don’t ask me. Who knows what the old fool cooked up.”
“But he was working to your instructions,” pointed out Michael, nodding towards the papers that Master Ferdinand had angrily waved at Guillaume. “That must give you some idea.”
“There is nothing in the instructions that I left that would do that to a man,” insisted Guillaume, nonetheless pushing the papers away down the table, out of Michael’s eye-line. “Whatever it was that struck him down, he didn’t get it from me.”
“So why not show us then?” I demanded, my curiosity piqued by his evasive attitude.
“These writings contain knowledge of the rarest and most profound nature and are consequently extremely valuable,” replied Guillaume pompously. “You can’t expect me to share my secrets with every passing acquaintance.”
“That’s hardly fair considering it was you who got us dragged into this whole affair in the first place,” I complained, noting with annoyance how quickly we had been down-graded from friends and business partners to passing acquaintances when it suited.
“The very least you could do is tell us just what Antonio was trying to achieve here,” suggested Michael reasonably.
Guillaume hesitated. “This work contains such deep and sacred learning that I fear it would be far beyond your comprehension,” he finally responded. “You said yourself you are barely schooled in such matters.”
Michael responded with a dubious harrumph. My attention though had been distracted by the sight of something small glinting at me from beneath a piece of cloth on the table by Antonio. “Of course, I’ve got it!” I said abruptly. I turned to Michael. “What’s the aim of any alchemist?”
He looked at me with a puzzled frown.
I reached forward and gingerly took hold of the edge of the cloth. “The transmutation of base metals into…”
“Gold!” exclaimed Michael as I pulled away the piece of cloth to reveal a small, gleaming nugget. He leaned forward and peered closer. “That is real gold, isn’t it?”
“The very purest,” conceded Guillaume.
“Did you make that?” I asked.
“Of course not,” replied Guillaume with a derisive snort. “Do you suppose that if I were capable of making real gold I would be wasting my time hawking my wares around this backwater? No, I’d be sitting pretty in my own Chateau by now.”
“So Master Ferdinand was right,” said Michael with just a hint of disappointment in his tone. “It was all just a swindle.”
“Not quite as original as the search for a magic room, I’ll admit,” retorted Guillaume loftily. “But we all have to start somewhere.”
“Hey, that’s not a swindle,” I protested. “We really are just looking for a room.”
“Of course you are,” replied Guillaume sarcastically. “I saw a Venetian do something similar once with a magic cabinet and I was always curious to see how the trick was worked. It takes imagination to scale the thing up to a whole room though, I’ll give you that.”
“It’s not a trick,” I insisted.
Guillaume responded with a dubious harrumph of his own.
“If the whole thing is just a scam then where did this gold come from?” asked Michael, drawing our attention back to the nugget on the table.
“I bought it from a merchant in Amsterdam if you must know,” replied Guillaume. “Well, you have to offer up something as proof of your credentials, haven’t you? A little smoke and mirrors, some sleight of hand and – voila! – you’re the man who can make gold. I consider it an investment.”
“One small piece of gold in exchange for a sizeable bag of silver?” said Michael with a raised eyebrow.
“Exactly,” said Guillaume. He paused and looked thoughtfully down at his leather bag and then across at the nugget on the table. “Though if Le Comte is thinking of reclaiming his payment then I might be needing that.” He reached out a hand towards the gold but then hesitated upon noticing Michael’s frown. “Well, you wouldn’t want me to be out of pocket on both fronts, would you?”
Michael said nothing but his general air of disapproval seemed to create some sort of conflict in Guillaume that displayed itself in an expression that veered from wounded innocence to nagging guilt and back again. Whilst this battle of conscience played out I took the opportunity to sidle over and investigate the papers that Guillaume had been so cagey about. “A True and Attested Recipe for the Manufacture of that Most Prized and Elusive of Elements, Volatile Gold,” I read aloud, picking up the top sheet. “What exactly is volatile gold then?”
“Who knows?” shrugged Guillaume. “I copied that out from a scroll I found in the library of an old monastery near Rouen. You need the right props in our business and I figured that had just the right antiquated touch for my needs.” He gave us a confiding smile. “These titled amateur philosophers don’t really trust the new sciences but if you can dress up your party trick as some sort of mystical ancient knowledge that’s been lost in the depths of time, well, they lap it up. I’ve hawked that particular recipe to half the noble houses in Europe – it’s been a proper little goldmine.”
“Though not presumably to the people who bought it,” remarked Michael archly.
“What can I say? Life’s full of little disappointments,” retorted Guillaume sharply. “Those of us not born into wealth or privilege are obliged to earn our crust either by the sweat of our brow or the sharpness of our wits. And I prefer using my head to my hands.”
“It wasn’t really using your head though was it, hanging around the village inn the morning after you’ve completed your swindle,” I pointed out. “I mean, even if poor old Antonio hadn’t succumbed to whatever the hell it was he succumbed to he was bound to realise sooner or later that he’d been sold a dud.”
“But that should have been later, much later,” said Guillaume. “When I dug out that old recipe I found that the section listing the ingredients had been torn out so I was obliged to concoct one of my own. And I made sure to stock it with plenty of obscure, hard-to-find items that would take a while to track down. Plenty of time then for a leisurely getaway before a single potion is mixed.” Guillaume looked up, his expression now defiantly settled on wounded pride. “I’m not a complete fool, you know.”
“Well, whatever the ingredients, Antonio certainly mixed something up here last night,” said Michael, sniffing dubiously over a mortar and pestle that lay just by the dead man’s right hand. “I’d say someone was a bit impatient to get started.”
“Do you suppose he tried to substitute a few ingredients of his own?” I asked thoughtfully.
“And cooked up something that disagreed with him?” suggested Michael. “I think you might be onto something there.”
“You see, I told you it wasn’t my fault,” cried Guillaume jubilantly. “I can’t be held responsible if the damn fool can’t follow instructions properly.”
“I’m not sure Master Ferdinand is going to see it quite that way,” I pointed out.
Guillaume’s face fell. “No, I suppose he’ll still expect us to clear up the whole place,” he said sulkily.
“It’s going to be a bit tricky if we don’t know what Antonio was mixing,” said Michael.
“Hmmm,” murmured Guillaume, gazing unhappily over the array of tubes and jars cluttered around the corpse. “Hang on, it looks like he made some notes here.” He reached out his hand towards a few scraps of paper tucked beneath a glass jar but pulled up sharply when he noticed that the pages were stained with some kind of gloopy mess that had spilled over from the jar itself. “Those papers there – why don’t you just pick them up and see what they say,” he suggested instead to Michael, taking a nervous step backwards.
“Why don’t you pick them up?” protested Michael.
“You’re nearest,” said Guillaume, slinking further backwards to give the statement more veracity.
“You pick them up,” retorted Michael, performing a retreat of his own. “You created this mess with your phoney recipe.”
“If he’d followed the recipe as I gave it to him he’d still be alive and well,” insisted Guillaume. “You can’t blame me.”
“But you’re the alchemist,” I pointed out. “You must know something about all these potions and chemicals.”
“No more than you do, I’m sure,” retorted Guillaume. “I’ll bet you’ve both dabbled a bit in between working up this magic room trick of yours.”
“It’s not a trick!” I exclaimed. “Why can’t you get it into your head that we really were just looking for a room?”
I wouldn’t like to say just exactly how long we continued to bicker in this fashion but the argument was still going back and forth when the door to the library was suddenly flung open and Master Ferdinand marched into the room, followed by one of the Captain’s guards. The guard took up a watchful post by the door whilst Master Ferdinand slowly travelled a complete circuit around the tables, glaring disapprovingly at the undisturbed mess still lying across them. Finally coming to a halt alongside the goggle-eyed corpse still sitting patiently in the midst of all the debris, he snapped, “Well? You’d better have a very good explanation for the pitiful lack of progress.”
Guillaume cleared his throat. “Well, we haven’t quite worked out what we’re dealing with yet Master Ferdinand, so it’s a bit awkward,” he began diffidently.
“You’ve got the plans, you gave him the instructions,” retorted Master Ferdinand. “What more can you need to know?”
“I’m afraid your librarian seems to have gone a bit off-plan in his work,” Michael endeavoured to explain.
“So you see the blame for this really can’t be laid at my door,” Guillaume hurriedly interjected.
Master Ferdinand threw him a withering look. “I don’t particularly care what Antonio was working at. I just want this library restored to some sort of order before Le Comte returns.”
“But it may be harmful,” protested Guillaume.
“Not nearly as harmful, you’ll find, as doing nothing,” said Master Ferdinand in a particularly ominous tone.
“It’s not just us we’re thinking of,” I put in. “It’s hard to say who might be affected if we stir up something we shouldn’t.”
Master Ferdinand’s eyes widened ever so slightly. “A contagion?”
“It’s a possibility,” nodded Guillaume.
“What kind of contagion?” Master Ferdinand asked.
“It’s hard to say without…” Michael waved a hand to indicate the array of bottles and jars.
“And that might…” I finished with a pointed look at the dead librarian.
“So, we cannot discover what threatens us without running the risk of unleashing it once again,” mused Master Ferdinand thoughtfully.
“That’s about the size of it,” conceded Michael.
“Then what is to be done?” demanded Master Ferdinand.
There was an awkward pause.
“Burn it!” Guillaume abruptly exclaimed.
Master Ferdinand turned to him with a dubious look. “Burn what exactly?”
“All of it,” suggested Guillaume. “Everything in the room. Better to be safe than sorry.”
Master Ferdinand glared at him. “You expect me to inform Le Comte on his return from hunting that we have completely torched one of the finest rooms in his Chateau, the one containing all his precious manuscripts along with some of the most magnificent tapestries in all France?”
“Well, perhaps some of the tapestries could be saved,” offered Guillaume hopefully.
“Actually, I wouldn’t recommend burning any of it,” I piped up. “I’m not entirely sure that setting light to a room full of potentially hazardous chemicals is ever a good idea.”
“Then what do you recommend?” challenged Master Ferdinand.
“Well,” I said slowly, trying desperately to dredge from my mind anything I could recall from distant school chemistry lessons or half-forgotten episodes of CSI, “I’m pretty sure most of these toxins have a sort of shelf life. Maybe it’s best just to seal the room off for a while to let it decompose naturally.”
“Seal off the library?” repeated Master Ferdinand dubiously. “For how long?”
“A few months maybe,” I suggested with a shrug. “Perhaps a year or two just to be on the safe side.”
Master Ferdinand fixed me with one of his most withering glares, apparently ready to offer up a particularly damning indictment of my scientific knowledge, but before he could open his mouth he suddenly stopped and sniffed the air with a curious expression. In a second I caught the smell that had distracted his attention. It was a sharp, sour odour that drifted across the room, swiftly cutting through the general fug of musty books and unwashed bodies. For a moment we were all caught up in a bout of puzzled sniffing, trying to determine just where this unexpected olfactory intrusion had arisen. Then the guard standing by the door suddenly took a couple of steps forward, raised an arm towards the wall and uttered the fateful words, “What’s that?”
Following the direction of his outstretched finger we came to a tapestry depicting a delightful scene of rural idyll. The reason it had attracted the notice of the guard was that the tapestry was billowing gently against the wall even though no breeze had been felt in the room. Soon wisps of a curious yellow-green smoke could be seen emerging from around the edges. The smoke continued to flow until it had formed itself into a small cloud hovering patiently in front of the tapestry. Then suddenly it plunged down into the room, stretching out into a long, thick trail of lightly coloured mist.
Apparently possessed by some sort of animating spirit, the smoke swooped down first around the body of the dead librarian. It lingered there for just a moment before swirling on through the jars and bottles scattered across the table. Following the line of the table it swept towards Master Ferdinand and hovered before him, twisting and writhing momentarily around the stunned steward before whooshing away again. I was still frozen in astonishment when the smoke then came upon me and I found my vision clouded by a whirl of mist and my senses swamped by the heady odour. I reeled slightly but before the unpleasant sensation entirely overwhelmed me the smoke had already swooped away again down the table. It passed over and around a tangle of pipes and bellows before it reached the guard still standing agape at the foot of the table.
At first he appeared every bit as dazed by the unexpected phenomenon as the rest of us but on finding himself suddenly engulfed by a strange cloud of jaundiced smoke the guard summoned up a reaction. It was probably an instinctive reaction, provoked by years of conditioning as his automatic response to any external threat. He reached down, drew out his sword and slashed at the yellow mist swirling around him.
I’m sure if he’d given himself time to think about it he would have recognised it was likely to prove a fairly futile gesture at best. After all, even the sharpest of swords is unlikely to prove particularly effective against such an insubstantial opponent as a cloud of smoke. But I don’t suppose that even in his wildest imaginings the guard could have predicted just how unwise his reaction was to prove.
The smoke responded to the attack by issuing a noise something like a high, piercing shriek and then to my astonished eyes it appeared to rise up in front of the guard like an angry cobra getting ready to strike. It hovered above its attacker, mesmerizingly, for just a moment before swiftly coiling itself around the startled guard where it began to swell and grow denser until he was entirely obscured from view.
There came a solitary anguished scream from within the thick cloud of mist and then, after just a few seconds, the smoke abruptly subsided and swirled away. I found my eyes were drawn automatically to the trail of vapour as it swooped straight across the room towards the tapestry from where it had first appeared. It was only when the last wisps of smoke had disappeared behind the delicately stitched rural scene that I thought to turn my attention back to the foot of the table. There I found myself confronted by all that was left of the guard; another blotched and bloated corpse frozen in an agonised pose with his sword still raised in a last fruitless effort to defend himself against a sea of mist.
To be continued…