The Alchemist was not asleep.
Emilián froze in the doorway. There was a chill to the air that fought against the dry heat of the sun beating down on the dusty road outside. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end as he leaned down, setting a bottle of goat’s milk on the ground in favor of drawing the baton from his belt.
The Alchemist was often asleep when he came by her home. She slept in her study, slumped over her work, arms crossed and head lain on some important markings on her slate. He woke her when he found her like that, and he brushed the black chalk from her hair and forehead sticky with sweat, and he helped her from her wheelchair onto the long, low sofa in her welcoming room.
This time, though, it was not quiet that greeted him but silence. He tilted his head to the side as if that could help him listen sharper. There was no whisper of hands across slate, no breath on hair on skin, no soft cough as she cleared her throat and returned to sleep.
He could taste the dread in the air. It was something solid and sweet as lead on his tongue.
The table near the sofa had been moved. There were scuff marks on the floor where the wood scraped through desert dust. Past that, her small pot of flowers had been knocked to the side, loose dry soil scattered over tile, the carved enchantment broken and spirits set free. Candles, fallen from their shelf, rolled through the doorway into her study.
“Hello?” His own voice echoed back at him from the thick, cool walls of the Alchemist’s house. He sounded so small and alone. “Alchemist?”
Emilián pushed through the beaded curtain into her study. There was little else to the home; a woman who did not cook needed no stove, and a woman who slept only over her work needed no bed. A single tall bookcase dominated the small study, pressed against the wall.
On the other end, she slept at her desk. As always.
A small sigh escaped Emilián’s chest. He had been foolish to worry.
But why would the Alchemist let her candles fall to the floor? Why would her table move, her flowers be pulled from their pot, the soil dashed across the floor in patternless clumps? There were days she could not stand from her wheelchair. He couldn’t imagine her pulling her furniture out of place.
He knelt by the side of her desk and asked, “Alchemist?”
From a distance, her dark hair plastered to her cheek and neck with sweat. Closer, he could see the streaks of dark reddish pink that colored it. He brushed her hair back from her face, and his hand came away shaking, stained with still-wet blood. She wasn’t pale but ashen, her arms tilted a little too askew so she did not look comfortable, her head lolled to one side, her eyes barely flickering open when he approached. The slouch to her spine was too loose for her to be simply napping.
He held two fingers to the underside of her jaw. Blood pulsed sluggish through the thick vein that wound down her throat. His other hand he held in front of her mouth and nose, holding his own breath until he felt air move over his skin.
Thank the gods that were and would be. Emilián didn’t know what he would have done if she wasn’t breathing. He drew up to his feet and hooked his baton back at his belt.
If her attackers were still here, they would have charged him already. Still, he kept a wary eye on the doors of her home as he paced out to the front, his mind buzzing: Who would hurt the Alchemist?
Fear shivered from his heart to his stomach, turning all of him cold at the thought. He shook his head and tried to think of other things—like how he was going to help her.
He didn’t dare move her in case she was hurt worse than he could see. His mother’s lessons were carved deep in him. There was no way of knowing if a bone in her neck or back was broken, if moving her could kill her, especially if she was struck upside the head.
Emilián stepped out the front door of her home. The sun beat down hard on the road, turning every grain of sand into a small fire of its own. There was no one to be seen but the wild, dust-covered children who played in the brush outside town.
He waved down a small band, the oldest no more than eight. They sobered up quickly as he approached, their eyes glued to the leather patch on his shoulder that marked him as a guard. A couple of them closed their hands into fists or reached for sticks and other makeshift weapons, as if preparing to wage war on him.
He stopped some feet from them and raised his empty hands. “Can I ask a favor?”
“Mamí says not to talk to strangers,” the oldest spat. They wiped their hand under their eye and smeared mud, dust mixed with spittle, over their cheek.
“I’m Guardsman Ámbaroz,” he answered in turn, “not a stranger. Do you know where Madina lives?”
A sneer tugged at thin lips, painted purple with the juice of stolen berries. “Witch Madina?”
Emilián nodded. He drew his purse from his side and poured a handful of copper réais into his palm. “If you bring her here,” he said, “I’ll pay you. One each.”
One of the children dashed forward, as if to take the money from his hand. He took a step back and settled his left hand on the grip of his baton as a quiet warning. The child backed off and hid behind the shoulder of an older sibling, glaring at him with sharp black eyes.
“Promise?” the oldest asked.
He tossed one réal into the dust between them. “I swear by it.”
The oldest snatched up the coin and ran for the gallows-tree hill.
« • ☼ • »
“She will live.” Madina’s long gray hair brushed the floor as she leaned over the Alchemist’s body. She had taken one step into the study and ordered Emilián to move the unconscious woman to the sofa. Now she finished up sinewy stitches that held together a long gash in the Alchemist’s scalp; thankfully, it seemed that was the extent of her external injuries. “Though she might be weak for loss of blood. She’s lucky that you came by when you did.”
Emilián knelt on the dusty tile next to the sofa. He folded his hands in front of him in a semblance of prayer, though he didn’t know to which god he should pray for the Alchemist’s safety. He searched her sleeping face for any sign of life. No matter what Madina said, he couldn’t help the thick, cold fear that fell like a blanket of snow on his shoulders.
He bowed his head, pressing his forehead hard into his hands. “I should have been here earlier.”
The witch snipped the end of her sutures with an old, sharp pair of gilt scissors. Then she rapped the back of Emilián’s head with the flat of the blades. He flinched and cried out in protest, but the witch cared not. She twisted bony fingers in his long hair and yanked his head up to meet his eye.
“So you could both die instead?” she snapped. “I didn’t raise you to be stupid, Emi. Then I would not be here, and you both would be bleeding out on this floor.”
He grimaced and tried to pull himself free. Her grip was stronger than any old woman’s should have been. “Yes, Mother.”
Madina met his eye for a long moment. She had a long, foreboding face that made her look something like an omen herself in her age. She searched him inside and out for any sort of disobedience before letting him go. “I will bring a poultice and a dry tea for her healing. You will prepare it when she wakes.”
“Are you certain?”
“She might not like that you invited me here,” Madina warned him. Her laugh was sharp, more of a scoff than anything. She undid the length of twine that tied her hair back from her face, and it fell around her, thick as a cat’s scruffy mane. “I would rather be gone before she wakes.”
Emilián stood and helped his mother up from her seat. She wavered some with the strength it took to work magic. He had always been there to steady her, after.
He glanced at the empty walls of the Alchemist’s home. Only white clay brick stared back at him. “Should I not...”
“Remain here,” his mother ordered, “until you’re certain she is safe. I would hate if whoever did this were to return and find her breathing.”
Emilián shook his head. He couldn’t make sense of it. “Why would they attack an alchemist in the first place?”
Madina tucked her scissors back into her medicine bag, where they rested alongside loose bones, clay fetishes, and charms that glowed with the soft light of enchantment. Everything in her bag hummed with the energy of a bound spirit.
“Old rumors. Perhaps they think she’s spirit-possessed, or she knows the way to ancient treasures. Does it matter?” She leaned over and pressed a kiss to the top of her youngest son’s head, where she had struck him just moments before. The smell of dry, crushed mint filled the air around her. “Whatever they believe, they will not be happy she lives. Guard her well. I will return within the hour.”