Black market courier Rowena Downshire is just trying to pay her mother’s freedom from debtor’s prison when an urgent and unexpected delivery leads her face to face with a creature out of nightmares. Rowena escapes with her life, but the strange book she was ordered to deliver is stolen. The Alchemist knows things few men have lived to tell about, and when Rowena shows up on his doorstep, frightened and empty-handed, he knows better than to turn her away. What he discovers leads him to ask for help from the last man he wants to see—the former mercenary, Anselm Meteron.
Across town, Reverend Phillip Chalmers awakes in a cell, bloodied and bruised, facing a creature twice his size. Translating the stolen book may be his only hope for survival; however, he soon realizes the book may be a fabled text written by the Creator Himself, tracking the nine human subjects of His Grand Experiment. In the wrong hands, it could mean the end of humanity.
Rowena and her companions become the target of conspirators who seek to use the book for their own ends. But how can this unlikely team be sure who the enemy is when they can barely trust each other? And what will happen when the book reveals a secret no human was meant to know?
Book 1 in the Thieves of Fate series, Tracy Townsend’s debut novel The Nine is available November 14th from Pyr.
Smallduke Abraham Regenzi’s clockwork carriage clamored down the cobblestone streets of Westgate Bridge, throwing up a racket like an ill-tuned piano tumbling downhill. The carriage crew had hammered relentlessly at its signal bells, as if the power of sound waves might part the sea of people through which it had just recently passed. Now, they seemed to keep on making the racket for sport. The smallduke tapped a hand restlessly on the head of his walking stick. He had to speak quite loudly to be heard over the ringing without, close to shouting words Bess was certain were meant in confidence.
“When we get to the shop, keep well away from the old man. I’ve business to transact of a most sensitive nature.” He fixed her with a stern look, his pursed lips nearly lost in a tawny bristle of moustache and side whiskers.
Bess nodded. Regenzi seemed satisfied.
Bess had always made a show of liking the style of a carriage and four winding men. Truthfully, she’d never actually ridden in one before. Now that she had, she longed for the familiar, quiet jouncing of an ordinary hackney. She sat looking to the quayside, watching barrow men lift their wobbly loads and make for the workhouses lining the riverbank.
None of this, she thought gloomily, is going to plan.
Three weeks ago, the idea seemed simplicity itself. After only a few subtle inquiries to the maids of her finer clients, Bess received a note by way of a mute girl working for the Smallduchess Avergnon. Her ladyship’s good friend, the Smallduke Abraham Regenzi, wished to employ a courtesan. Bess was no trained companion, but her mother had been the matron of a rather fine brothel. She fancied she knew a bit about how to look at a man and move her hips. Odds on, she could convince him of her aptitude without any formal papers. Smallduchess Avergnon agreed to meet Bess, interviewed her briefly—most of the conference conducted without the bothersome imposition of clothing—and recommended her to Regenzi with many compliments.
And until just now, things had been quite lovely. The smallduke asked very few bedroom favors, and rewarded Bess with jewels and little pets and sweets. That morning had been pleasant. Abraham had let her sleep late, then met her in the breakfast parlor with instructions to wear a good hat and bring along a parasol. There would be a ball at his city manor that evening; she would need to dress well for it—very well, in fact. He’d flourished the invitation roll before her, as if the cascade of long, layered titles running down the page should mean anything to Bess at all. Smalldukes and the Governor’s Cabinet and Bishop Professors, and even Reverends Pierce and Chalmers, the keynote speakers for the Decadal Conference, he’d boasted. Nothing less than the finest will do, poppet.
And so, they had journeyed to the shops and spent hours choosing, trying, returning, rejecting, tailoring, cinching, lacing, unlacing, and fitting over and again. Now, hours later, the carriage’s parcel platform was loaded down with tissue-lined boxes of petticoats and gowns, with high-lacing boots and teetering ivory heels: a freight worth two working men’s yearly salaries at one of the Regenzi family’s textile mills.
Yet, Smallduke Regenzi had grown stiff and commanding. They were traveling to the edge of the Old Town, toward Westgate Bridge. It was such an ancient quarter that this neighborhood, once furthest west in all of Corma, was now very nearly its easternmost appendage, the rest of the city swollen up against the seaside to the true west. The people of quality did not come to Westgate Bridge—a rumpled borough of fulleries and fisheries and pubs and common greengrocers—for any reason save one:
They came for the Alchemist at The Stone Scales.
Bess supposed Corma had dozens of alchemists, being a city of better than a hundred thousand souls, and that excluding the aigamuxa in their shanty villages of fire escapes and rope ladders in the south river quays, and the lanyani in their traveling wains and secret hot-houses. The quality might secure a Reverend Doctor to act as chemist and physick, but for the everyday citizen, an alchemist was Rational enough. Most were immigrants from lands far south and east of Corma, where the Divine Unity had never quite taken hold—women and men the color of ochre or ebony, with exotic accents and an eye for good clink. A few were cast-offs from the many Amidonian seminaries, fourth- or fifth-year students who couldn’t afford the final examinations required for a Doctorate of Theosophical Sciences. Couldn’t afford—or, perhaps, couldn’t pass.
But there was only one man called the Alchemist. His shop sold a bit of everything. Rumor was he had never been asked a question he couldn’t answer with authority. His goods always worked, even when they promised unlikely results. Old men and women, recalling the superstitions of their ancestors, called him a sorcerer. Or a witch. The terms varied, but the implication was the same: what he was and what he sold were very real, and not to be trifled with.
Bess felt a sharp rap against her knee and flinched from the window. Smallduke Regenzi leaned toward her, all but bellowing over the sound of the drive-train chimes and scrambling feet.
“You don’t scare easily, I hope? Just hold your tongue and don’t dawdle about his things. He has a beastly temper. The folk around these parts think the devil of him. But he’ll give you no trouble while I’m around.”
Regenzi offered her a wink and a salute with his crystal-headed cane, the picture of gentlemanly confidence.
Bess smiled, all beatitude, and thought, I already know him, you silly bastard.
Of course she knew him. The common alchemist needed supplies that were damnably hard to find, and so import and a bit of smuggling was an assumed professional overhead. But the Alchemist? He needed all these things and more. Since she was a pretty, proper thing of twelve, Bess had made Ivor’s monthly deliveries to Westgate Bridge and the infamous Stone Scales. There might not be a soul who had seen the Alchemist more regularly than Bess or knew his shop better. She knew very well the local people didn’t think the devil of him. He was, if anything, something like a talisman—held at a careful, superstitious distance, a human ward against whatever bugbears they imagined still lurked in the world.
Still, Bess was terrified of him, and with good reason.
For two weeks, she’d been protected from Ivor by dissolving into thin air. She hoped fervently the old bastard believed her dead. But now, the Alchemist would see her. If she were unlucky, he would recognize her as the mannerly young woman who had passed him his tight-wrapped parcels so many times before. If she were as miserably unlucky as she feared, he would assume her a runaway and contact Ivor with the news, and that would make an end of it. And why shouldn’t the Alchemist turn her in? Out from under Ivor’s boot, she could do anything—turn to the Constabulary and testify about his operations, implicate the Alchemist in years of illegal trafficking. No. At large, she was a threat, and one didn’t become a fearsome legend by turning a blind eye to one’s own weaknesses.
A fortnight ago, Bess’ life began anew. The clench in her stomach warned it might soon be ending.
The carriage jangled to a halt in front of a familiar block of cross-framed buildings. Bess felt sick and dizzy.
“Abraham,” she said, smiling as sweetly as she could, “I feel a little under the weather. Might I just stay in the carriage? Please?”
Regenzi frowned. “What a pity, poppet. Still,” he reached toward her with a gloved hand, “if you’re feeling green, we’re sure to find a remedy here.”
Oh, Bess, you’re such a fool.
The color must have drained from Bess’ face, for Regenzi stepped toward her quickly, lifting her in a sweeping gesture about the waist. “Come, darling,” he said. “Be easy about the stairs.” His hand closed on her waist and squeezed, the grip sudden and fierce. “And remember what I said,” he hissed into her ear.
The road leading directly to The Stone Scales was too narrow to admit carriages, and so Smallduke Regenzi’s driver had parked one street below. Regenzi and Bess walked up a curving stone staircase, stubborn lichens making each step treacherous. The stairs led to the highstreets of Westgate Bridge, lanes so old they had no names and no need of them. The Stone Scales was a tall, slender building with a wide, leaded glass window, its deep sill displaying a menagerie of goods and décor. There was the dog, Bess saw, curled up on a battered old cushion just inside of the door. It was a shaggy hound, russet apart from its gray muzzle.
Bess tried not to flinch as the little silver bell over the door sang out. She peeled free of the smallduke’s arm to imitate a careful examination of some well-dusted books. She kept as close to the door as she might and put her back to the shop counter far down the center aisle. The dog raised its head and thumped its tail, a little nasal trill begging attention. Bess glared at it, shooing. The beast tucked its nose back under its tail and sighed.
Regenzi turned over a price tag dangling from some chemical apparatus with the head of his stick. He snorted and looked around again. “Hullo? I say, anyone here?”
“There in a moment,” Bess heard the familiar voice reply. The dog uncurled itself and trotted toward its master’s voice.
It sounded close by—off to her right. That way lay more and taller bookshelves. Bess could see the Alchemist’s left shoulder and part of his backside around the edge of a display case. He was up on one of the rolling ladders, nudging a sheaf of papers back into place before climbing down. The dog got no warmer a reception from the Alchemist than his customers and slunk under the front counter with its tail low.
Bess cut up the center aisle between a chemicals rack and a shelf of folded canvas smocks. They might hide her and still leave gap enough to watch Regenzi’s “private transaction.”
Knowing what she did of the Alchemist, Bess supposed Smallduke Regenzi could not have done a worse job of introductions had he been given lessons.
A handsome, dandyish young man in a robin’s-egg tail coat and high, black boots, Abraham Regenzi regarded the Alchemist and his rolled shirtsleeves and bracers—his canvas apron tied off around the front and his spectacles hanging from the button hole of his shirt—as one beholds a shoe-shiner in a half-kept hotel. Regenzi did not offer his hand or his name. The Alchemist was a tradesman, and a gentleman gives a tradesman nothing more than his card. That was the proper order of things.
Abraham Regenzi believed quite strongly in the proper order of things.
The Alchemist took the card wordlessly, slipped on his spectacles to read it, then studied the smallduke over their rims. He was at least a hand taller than Regenzi and might have been twice his age. Bess found it very hard to guess ages, particularly men’s, who were so often much fussier about concealing them than any women she knew. Then again, Bess supposed the Alchemist probably was not the sort to care what anyone thought of his age—or anything else about him.
“What may I do for you, my lord?” he said at last. His voice was deep, perfectly unaccented. Practiced. He folded his glasses and returned the card.
Regenzi held the slip of pasteboard, dumbfounded at having his imprint spurned. “I’ve come for something quite . . . specific.”
He looked around furtively. Bess realized it must have been for her. Regenzi reached for the Alchemist’s arm, meaning to turn him toward the back of the shop.
The older man saw the approaching hand and turned before it reached him, walking back to the counter. Regenzi spoke quietly, hurriedly, stalking beside the Alchemist.
Bess chewed her lip and watched. The sales counter was at the back of the shop on a raised step. The Alchemist lifted its hinged flap and walked to the other side. He stooped behind the counter, only half-listening to his murmuring customer. Bess heard a muffled response. Regenzi scoffed. The Alchemist stood and shrugged. He shouldered past the smallduke, carrying a wooden crate well-packed with straw and glass beakers, which he began arranging on a shelf so near Bess she could have plucked at his sleeve.
Regenzi stood stubbornly by. “If you can make it, say your price. There’s no figure you could name I can’t answer.”
“One thousand sovereigns.”
“For a dram?”
“Be happy you don’t require more.”
Regenzi tugged at his whiskers. He paced a tight path up and down the aisle, cutting in between Bess’ hiding place and the Alchemist’s perfectly disinterested backside. Finally, he cursed.
“And it will work?”
The Alchemist turned a gaze on Abraham Regenzi that made Bess’ heart stall. There was a tightening in his jaw, as if he had a response he’d closed his teeth on and needed to savage till he could be quite sure of its being dead.
“Yes, my lord,” he said quietly. “It will work.”
“Fine,” Regenzi spat, marching back to the counter. He reached for his bank book and counted paper notes in curt, snapping motions. “One thousand. Can it be made now, or shall it be sent along?”
The Alchemist set the last of the glassware in its place and returned behind the counter. He dropped the raised leaf with an absent gesture and began drawing items from the decades of potions and ethers and powders filling his work room.
“It doesn’t take long,” the Alchemist said, never looking up from his work. Bess saw several old catalogues and references shelved nearby. He never reached for them. Whatever had been ordered, he seemed to have its recipe committed to memory.
“Excellent. Good. Fine. Yes,” It was the smallduke’s peculiar habit to revise his assessments downward in quick succession. He turned and, as if he’d forgotten her entirely, startled to see Bess half-hidden among the shelves. “Beatrice, darling!” He reached out both hands and smiled. “Look at you, trembling like a leaf! You’re feverish. There’s something here to see to that, isn’t there, my good man?”
No, no, no, no, no, no, no—
The Alchemist had been massing something grainy on a set of balances. He looked up over the rims of his spectacles as Regenzi produced Bess like a conjuror drawing a scarf from his sleeve. Bess felt the flash of recognition in the old man’s eyes like a physical blow. Her knees buckled. She leaned into Regenzi, shuddering.
The room swam. She felt herself bundled up in the smallduke’s arms, carried to a little wooden chair beside the front counter. She shivered with cold and sweated with heat, the morning’s toast and clotted cream threatening to find its way back up again. Regenzi fanned her with a folded gazette.
“She’s sick. Fainting.”
“Give her air,” Bess heard the Alchemist say, his voice very close. “Your fussing all over the girl won’t help.”
Bess stared at the floor, trying to fix her gaze to something steady. Regenzi’s polished shoes retreated and she saw the Alchemist’s scuffed boots take their place. He crouched before her, lifting her chin with a bent finger.
The Alchemist was dark—of skin, and eye, and expression. Bess has always imagined his eyes to be as black as the rest of him, but this close, she could see a shadow of color, like the green gloss on an opal. They were watchful eyes, deeply creased at the corners. The spectacles hung at his shirt front again.
“If I’m to diagnose something,” the Alchemist said rather loudly, glancing back at the smallduke, “I’ll need to ask some questions for which the lady might wish her privacy.”
Regenzi nodded and backed away, sketching a little bow to his courtesan. He retreated near the shop’s front door and examined a collection of microscopes and crucibles with exaggerated interest.
The Alchemist held Bess’ wrist, two fingers over the pulse. He drew out his chronometer, glanced at it long enough to suggest he might be working figures, and returned it to a fold behind his apron. Bess made a study of breathing—slowly in, slowly out, striving to master the art of her lungs filling and emptying. She could not pull her eyes from the old man.
When he spoke at last, it was in an undertone Regenzi would not have heard had he been packed into her corset.
“Beatrice. Well. I never knew your name.”
Stupidly, Bess realized she didn’t know his, either—apparently no one did, or no one ever troubled themselves to use it. She tried to interpret his tone. He might have said “Raining today” or “Time to close shop” in the same voice. Factual. Disinterested.
“I expected you a week ago,” he continued. “Ivor sent some boy a day late. He dropped the package taking the stairs up from the lowstreet and broke half my goods.” He pinched the pad of her thumb and watched the nail turn colors. “I’m sure your master has been wondering what became of you.”
“Please,” Bess whispered. Without thinking, she closed her hands around his, squeezing as hard as she could through her shaking. “Please. You can’t.”
Two weeks before, Bess would never have dreamed of grabbing the Alchemist’s hands. There was some kind of wall around him, deflecting the foolishness of other men, their little courtesies and intimacies. Now, she clung to those hands and felt her arms quaking. He studied her a long, inscrutable time.
“Well?” Smallduke Regenzi’s impatient voice cut the air. “What’s the story, eh?”
The Alchemist’s hands returned Bess’ grasp for an instant so brief, she thought she’d imagined it. And then he pulled away as easily as if she’d no grip on them at all.
“A minor hysteria,” the old man answered. He turned and stepped behind the counter again. “There are half a dozen tonics to treat it. I’ll have one prepared in a moment.”
Bess stared at the Alchemist as he resumed working, hands moving automatically among his instruments, measuring and combining. If it were not for the slow steadying of her heartbeat to prove otherwise, she might have sworn their conversation had never taken place. It was as if he had forgotten her entirely.
Soon, the Alchemist had a tiny aluminum flask sealed with a gasket-lined screw-top and a dainty glass philter bottle wrapped up together in a paper parcel. He laid the order beside the stack of untouched sovereign bills and began tidying up his workspace.
Smallduke Regenzi took the package and donned his four-cornered hat once more. “A pleasure doing business. Good day to you.”
The Alchemist was busy stuffing a beech pipe. He nodded, as much to it as to his customer.
Bess stood and slipped her arm into Regenzi’s.
They were passing through the door when the old man called.
“Madam, a word.”
The Alchemist set his pipe beside the till.
“There are some instructions for your medicine.” He began scratching on a pad of paper.
Regenzi nudged Bess with a reassuring smile and stayed outside on the stoop, searching about the pockets of his tail coat for his cigarette case. The bell rang as the door closed between them.
Bess stepped up to the high counter. The Alchemist pushed the pad and pen aside. The pipe smoldering by his elbow smelled sweetly of marjoram and fennel.
“The philter is nothing more than distilled water and some ginger tonic,” he said. “And you’re not an hysteric, in any case.”
Bess tried to look at him squarely. “I know.”
He snorted and looked to the front window. Regenzi stood under the awning, wreathed by fog and cigarette smoke.
“Stay with that one and we’ll see how long your nerves last.” The old man folded the note and offered it between two fingers. “I have a customer in Oldtemple Down who keeps a ladies’ garment shop. She complains sometimes how hard it is to find a good clerk.”
Bess frowned and took the note. Through the ecru-colored fiber, she could see the digits of an address written in a precise hand.
“Thank you.” Somehow, the words sounded more like a question than a statement. She slipped the note into her bodice.
The Alchemist had taken up his pipe again, speaking around its stem. “Your lover has need of rather dangerous things. Be mindful what that might mean for you.”
And then he turned, shrugging past the heavy curtain separating the counter room and the storerooms beyond, as if she were already gone.
“Thank you,” Bess repeated, louder.
There was no response. As she turned, Bess heard a trilling sound, something like a whine, near her ankles.
The dog. It thrust its head out from a perch on the cash counter step, tail beating a trench in the floor. Bess smoothed one ragged ear, and for a moment, the creature was the soul of joy.
Outside, the air smelled cool and damp, promising rain. Regenzi dropped his cigarette on the stoop. Bess blinked at him. He seemed suddenly strange—a man half again her age, whiskered and groomed and full of self-assurance. He looked at her solicitously and something in the look—so sincere and yet so false—struck her like a blow. She felt herself inch away. Regenzi raised an eyebrow and frowned.
Bess straightened. She gave him her most perfect, painted smile.
A few minutes later, he was helping her climb the stairs back into his carriage.
“Not so bad, was it, my dear?” the smallduke asked. “I told you: he may be shyster enough to frighten the locals, but put a man of means and spine in his way and it’s plain he’s just a common shop-keep.”
Bess nodded absently. She tried to recall just what Abraham had said about the Alchemist earlier. It didn’t seem to have quite been that. But things were disordered in the attic of her thoughts; she did not think much on his boasts or anything else he said the rest of the ride. She did look down at the paper parcel on the seat beside them, though.
As they entered the foyer of Smallduke Regenzi’s manor house, Bess excused herself for a headache’s sake, claimed her philter, and retreated to her rooms.
She kept the blinds drawn. She unsealed the bottle, smelled it, considered. It did smell of ginger. She couldn’t tell anything more than that, but still—there was prudence, and then there was caution. She set the bottle aside and reached into her bodice, withdrawing the note.
Gooddame Audrea Carringer, 108th on Lower Hillside, Street 19.
It seemed a credible sort of name. Perhaps Audrea Carringer was even a real person.
Bess returned to her sitting chamber and searched its smoking box for a packet of lucifers. In the lavatory, she dropped the note into the copper basin and pressed a lucifer onto its face, watching the paper curl and cinder. Once there was just a ghost of ash left, she poured the tonic over it and pumped the tap handle to flush the basin clean.
Slowly, she undressed, shrugging and unlacing and unbracing down to her underthings. Bess curled up to sleep, knowing she would turn the kitchen maid away when she came with an afternoon cordial. Her stomach would be unsettled a long while yet. She tried to fill herself with thoughts of the ball—the gentry and peerage and even the Decadal keynotes smiling and taking her daintily proffered hand. But there was no room left inside for their silks and frippery, only a brown parcel dug deep in her guts and words of warning still sounding in her ears.
Excerpted from The Nine, copyright © 2017 by Tracy Townsend.