A Late Quintessence

Issue #228

From the Records of Dierponte Hast, former Agent-Censor of the Magisters Subtle, the 7th day of the Month of Mists, year of His Reign 572

Last night as I walked home from my retirement party at Malgo’s Behight along the cryptomeria-shrouded lane that meanders uphill away from the ferry landing, I heard a child speaking an impossibility: the closing lines to Bernhard Velasco Horn’s last play The Ashen Quintessence. The child was a thin reedy thing, more bones than flesh. A knowing-eyed chit, like one of those waifs you encounter on certain humid festival nights in the village square, reading cards and performing some puppet mummery while wearing a sailor’s jacket over her aged and dingy farm-girl drab.

“Destruction perfects that which is good–”

She broke off her recitation at the sight of me and made no reply when I called to her, nor did she stay to receive the coin I sought to gift her in exchange for answering the questions I hoped to ask, but too quick she slipped into a nearby alley that runs there off the lane beside the wig-maker’s place. I will say her words gave me a fright that sublimated the fumes straight from my lungs and sobered me quick.

For years now Horn’s words have been silent. Unheard since the summer he died and the Magisters Subtle burnt all his works. But Horn was never easy prey, and now as night stretches out beyond my walls towards the gray dawn, I sit in my manse’s closed study, vigilant and alone amid my slumbering parkland neighborhood, remembering those words the Lady Mermingosa said to me the day of Horn’s death. I remember her words and check the powder in my pistol, for I fear this night I may require it.

As was customary in such cases of sedition and treason among the literary classes, every loose end required investigation, and Horn’s case was no different. Lady Mermingosa had been Horn’s instructor briefly during those two years he spent in his hither-mithering career studying at the city’s Symposia Alchemystica.

Alchemists make for bad neighbors, and by the time of our acquaintance she had retired from her course work at the Symposia to a townhouse villa in the secluded cliff-side precincts above Hexmouth Bay. A lonely and remote place, from where the city’s towers dwindled down to distant silhouettes. Her specialty had been crafting homunculi for the Magisters Polisomancy, but at the time we met she had passed on the reins to one of her protégés. She claimed to have finished with “stewing the vats” for good and sought nothing more than to devote her remaining days to gardening.

She was there in her garden mulching her flowerbeds with broken crab shells and kitchen scraps when my assistant Bouillion and I arrived that late winter day. Refreshments were laid before us, and the Lady set down her trowel and spade to join us on a raised floor-heated porch overlooking the garden and providing a splendid view of the bay. Lady Mermingosa’s good eye narrowed as she nodded her greeting at us; the other eye she’d lost in some workshop mishap and long since replaced with a glazed disc of smoked obsidian. Paling mud and dried plant matter streaked her dark housecoat (I was later to learn it was the prized epitoga of the Alchemist’s Inner Council) being put to double-duty as a gardener’s frock. In her hands she carried a homunculus—a monstrous mewling porcelain-masked thing that wept ink and smelled of fermented tealeaves. (That house was a veritable sanctuary for the wretched vat-spawn, and they appeared to have free run of the place, trundling and slithering about with impunity.)

Bouillion and I exchanged pleasantries with the Lady. Blessedly, these were brief, as Lady Mermingosa had little desire to waste her day in conversation with members of the Magisters Subtle. Pleasantries finished, she cut off the speech I was warming to and went straight to the chase.

“It’s Horn, isn’t it? I read about his crimes in the broadsheets. He’s been captured at last?”

“Yes,” I said. “Two days ago. We in the Magisters Subtle have begun to reshape his oeuvre and would like to learn more about his final works, in particular anything to do with The Ashen Quintessence.”

Lady Mermingosa shook her head, an act that made the smoky gray of her obsidian eye swirl a bit. “I know but little about it. What I assume everyone else does, what the broadsheets proclaimed. That the majestic Bernhard Velasco Horn had finished a new play and was set to debut it to the public this season.” She sneered when she said ‘majestic’ with a disapproving school marm’s tone. “The broadsheets loved him too well. They overdid it, I say.”

“That matter has been rectified,” I said with a curt nod that Bouillion reciprocated with a menacing grunt.

Lady Mermingosa seemed to take the point. “I desire only to help you in any way I can.”

I set aside my teacup and crossed my legs, resting my hands upon my knee and toying with the blue stone set in my Magisters ring.

“I believe he studied with you,” I said.

She might as well have been struck. The homunculus twitched and mewled in her lap. The Lady Mermingosa shook her head and let out a breath, her brows rising in alarm.

“Hold now. My loyalty cannot be questioned. Besides, that was long ago, before Horn embarked on his career as a playwright. Our acquaintance lasted but two years at most, would be my guess.”

Fear arises in many delightful vintages, and the Magisters Subtle make it a point to be connoisseurs of all its varieties. The hint of it that rose now from Lady Mermingosa nearly made the edges of my mouth curl in the approximation of a smile. “This is just a formality,” I said. “We’re just tying off all avenues of inquiry. Making sure no spark threatens to remain and ignite the rest. Do not be alarmed, please.”

“What do you want to know?”

“How was Horn as a student?”

“Barely present.” Again the obsidian swirled. “No. That’s not right. What I mean is he was there and attentive, but elsewhere too. Peculiar. As if he already knew the material and believed it but a tangent to his true work and labor. He appeared to sift every word I said, eager to find the missing puzzle pieces to some other work projected in his head.”

“Were there any words he showed a particular interest in?”

Lady Mermingosa let out her breath. “I don’t dare to say.”

“It’d do well for you to remember,” Bouillion said, with that unsettling head-tilted glare he had.

To Lady Mermingosa’s credit, she matched it with an obsidian glare of her own. “Alchemy, sirs, is a jargon-laden craft, ripe with abstruse words for even the simplest copper pan. I can’t know which one might have caught Horn’s interest.”

I made the fluttering motion of my hand, the signal to Bouillion to ease off a bit. “What of quintessence?” I said. “I believe that’s an alchemical concept. It must have caught his interest, for he named a work of several months after it.”

“Quintessence is nothing but the purest expression of a thing. That quality which exists but can’t be measured. It is the ineffable spark that gives life to homunculi and fuels all of an alchemist’s various endeavors.” She spoke as if reciting from a text, then made a barking laugh. “A lot of rubbish if you ask me. Quintessence is many things, but simply put it’s what an idea is made of before you’ve thought it in your head.”

A clock sounded from deep in the house. A sound echoed by a series of musical trills, whoops, and bassy laughs, from what I shuddered to assume was a roomful of clockwatching homunculi. Suddenly a stream of them tumbled from the nearby doorway, and the mewling construct on the Lady’s lap hopped down to join in the boisterous parade. Lady Mermingosa hardly noticed my discomfort, and I could barely manage to speak for the tension my revulsion had generated within me.

I composed myself with an effort I hoped did not show. “You said all his study seemed but a search to complete some project already there gestating within his head. What then do you believe Horn considered his true labor?”

“The destruction of matter,” she replied, in simple and direct fashion.

Bouillion gave me a knowing nod as if to say, what did you expect? I ignored him for now.

“Could you elaborate?”

The Lady Mermingosa nodded but shook her fingers at us. “Not simply mere physical destruction. It was not so easy as that. Horn sought rebirth too. He claimed that destruction released quintessence, and from it he might follow a path to immortality.”

“Now that sounds more like alchemical business,” Bouillion said.

“It may,” Lady Mermingosa conceded, “but Horn claimed not to want immortality for himself. He sought immortality for ideas. For the conjuring of thoughts and from them the creation of nonphysical homunculi.”

I peered about at the withered brambles in the garden where the mismatched vat-spawn cavorted and japed. “Nonphysical homunculi? Such things are impossible. Aren’t they?” The thought made me pale.

A wry smile skirted the Lady’s lips for an instant, as her broad shoulders rose and fell in a shrug. “Maybe. Possibly. At least that’s the common belief.”

“And what’s the uncommon belief?” I managed to ask.

She had turned her head to watch a particularly noxious homunculus perform cartwheels across the brown turf. At my question she returned her attention to Bouillion and I , peering from one of us to the other.

“Not so complicated really, at least theoretically. We all suffer from phantasms, vulgar thoughts that creep about unbidden within our heads. Horn was fascinated with the creation of phantasms. He believed these to be nonphysical homunculi spontaneously manifesting quintessence and that it was possible to control them—that there was no difference between these nonphysical homunculi and a phantasm. But he claimed that to achieve their proper creation, some supreme sacrifice or act of destruction was required.”

Lady Mermingosa smiled and shook her head, a wistful expression on her sagged cheeks. “But such things are impossible. I told him his theories were too delicate and abstract, impossible to perform—at least with any notion approaching the controlled certainty required of an alchemist. The house of the mind is as prone to collapse as any house of brick and mortar. To toy with such forces simply flirted with disaster. I fear he left my classes dissatisfied, and I was not surprised later on to learn he left the Symposia.”

A low growl escaped from the back of Bouillion’s throat. “Yet his seditious nature and treasonous opinions found root in your seminars.” He sneered with that disagreeable expression on his face that seemed to illuminate every scar of the pox he must have suffered as a youth.

Lady Mermingosa shot to her feet. The homunculi quit their irksome gamboling and scattered, disappearing throughout the garden.

“Lady,” I said, “please return to your seat. My assistant is a gifted mnemotechnician, but he is too rash by far. He shall suffer to remain quiet for the rest of the interview, I promise.”

Bouillion wouldn’t meet my stare but nodded his ponderous head.

Somewhat mollified, Lady Mermingosa sat down, although the homunculi remained in their hidden places.

Somewhat more pleased, I continued on. “While it’s true Horn turned to sedition and treason against our immortal Mayor, everyone on the tribunal knows this occurred well after your connection to him.”

“I should say so. I have not seen the man’s face since it glowered at me from behind the desks in my lecture hall well over two decades ago.”

“Nor shall you or anyone else ever more,” I said peering at the sun reflected on the bay beyond. “Bernhard Velasco Horn died this morning before the third cock’s crow, by Mayoral decree. His body shall be dispersed without burial and nothing shall remain. Nor shall anything remain of his works, for as we sit here now other agents are collecting every folio and book and scrap touched by Horn’s pen. They shall all be burnt.” I gave her a true smile here, displaying the points of my teeth. “For all our subtlety, the Magisters office does get cold of nights.”

We then did bid her good day, Bouillion offering the simple advice in his less-than-estimable fashion that she should stick to gardening from that point on.

She must have, for never again did I hear of the Lady Mermingosa until I read of her death seven or eight years later. Nor did I think much about our interview.

Until last night that is, when I heard Horn’s words from that bootless song-girl’s lips.

Moreso, this day I have been startled by a look I have glimpsed in flashes among the market square’s passing throng. It was on a lone construction worker’s face as he went away from the site of his labors, and it was there later on a dour Magnamungian mother tugging her squalling child up the lane. Each bore that keen spark behind the eye that betokens a kindling idea. The same look I saw on Bouillion’s face when we left the Lady Mermingosa’s villa.

This very night while I sat in Malgo’s Behight savoring my memories among the cryptomeria’s pungent shade, a livery-jill found me. She’d been charged with delivering a sealed file from the office of the Magisters Subtle to my hands for private appraisal. I have done so, reading the file’s account of three recent murders. Adler Sendovogus killed by a drunkard in a midday brawl in the Curio Market Square. Maria-Trace Oxenstierna, her savaged body found by indigenes in the marsh two nights last. And Tangermunde Vere dead in her closed carriage, her personal plum brandy bottle poisoned by unknown hands. I am certain Seonjo Bouillion’s name would have been there too, if he had not hanged himself under suspicion of plotting against our Immortal Mayor during the Winter of the Funeral-Wrights Revolt.

Poor abrasive Bouillion. Mnemotechnics are the arts of memory, and Bouillion was an adept at their craft, needing but a moment’s glace at a page to be able to recite it with his eyes closed. He had sat beside me when Horn gave a private showing of The Ashen Quintessence to our Immortal Mayor—the very day the Mayor granted the office of the Magisters Subtle extreme authority in cultivating the realm’s continued healthy countenance free from derangement and dreriment.

(Every act was for the greater good, no matter what the public may now believe on account of the recreant scribes and their foul broadsheets.)

But these three murders. Each and every one of them a former member of the Magisters Subtle. In fact together we composed the entire tribunal that presided over Horn’s case.

And of that esteemed panel only I remain.

The night is long and stretches away into darkness towards dawn. Not but three hours ago, beyond my study’s shuttered window I heard the song-girl recite those closing words from Horn’s Ashen Quintessence. “Destruction perfects that which is good.” She sang them for a paltry crowd seated beneath the bowers in the park opposite my villa—at least until I sent my servant Caligo out to disperse them.

Yet so, I sit here to meet my fate, pistol primed, wearing the thin chain habergeon beneath my tunic and coat, the same armor I once wore in my service to the Mayor. But what difference can they make? Bernhard Velasco Horn’s vile quintessence brandishes no weapon and needs none. It finds fertile ground among all those that listen, where it may root itself and sprout its malignance.

Those selfsame words bespeaking destruction and perfection I heard uttered just this very moment outside my study’s door.


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Justin Howe is the product of late 20th century New England. He lives in South Korea, tweets as @justinhowe, and blogs about books at 10badhabits.com. He has appeared multiple times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Check out his other stories in the archives.

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2 Comments on “A Late Quintessence”

2 Responses to “A Late Quintessence”

  1. Ahimsa Kerp says:

    Great story. I very much like the idea of nonphysical homonuclei.

  2. Richard Brewer says:

    Fantastic. Well written and a most enjoyable read. Really leaves me wanting more.

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