The last (i.e. final) Friday of 2022 will see me post an epilogue to Charge of the Lyte Brigade. Last (i.e. previous) Friday saw me post a preview of The Alchemist of Middlesbrooke.
If you missed it, here it is again:
The Alchemist of Middlesbrooke:
A Tale of Realmgard
Copyright J.B. Norman
Uncle Chuck has always told Roland to follow his passions. Roland’s passion is alchemy. But it’s an expensive passion, and Roland and his sister are always in need of new supplies. It makes him feel bad, always spending so much of Uncle Chuck’s money. Uncle Chuck has never seemed to mind, supporting Roland and Alda’s studies and experiments, and never complaining about the bill. Of course, if anyone has the money to spare on alchemy supplies, it’s probably Uncle Chuck. He has the money to spare on just about anything.
As Roland makes his way home through the streets of Middlesbrooke, his muscular arms laden with bags of new alchemy supplies and ingredients, some people stop to smile and wave. Roland isn’t exactly famous, but everybody in town knows who Uncle Chuck is, so that means plenty of people know who he is by association.
Roland passes by that old, run-down house on the corner. He knows a little about the house. It’s some nobleman’s old vacation house, who hasn’t been by in years. In fact, no-one has, leaving the house empty and abandoned — and probably haunted, definitely haunted, in Roland’s opinion. It’s gotten so dilapidated it looks like it could collapse into dust at the slightest provocation, and yet the old, abandoned, definitely haunted house is still hanging in there. For as long as the house has looked ready to fall over, it’s kept refusing to fall over. It’s admirable and inspiring in a way, Roland supposes, to still be standing up against all the odds, stubbornly hanging in there.
Just like … something really stubborn.
He frowns to himself when he realises he can’t think of how to finish that thought. He’s never been very good at metaphors — there aren’t even four of them!
“Stubborn,” Roland mutters to himself as he continues on. “What things are stubborn?”
Roland is so engrossed trying to think of stubborn things that he barely realises he’s made his way back home until he sees Uncle Chuck’s valet, an immaculately-dressed middle-aged Elf named Agricola, standing by the door. He wears an eyepatch that no-one quite seems to know the story behind. His good eye is quizzically regarding Roland as he comes striding home muttering to himself.
“Are you quite alright, Sir?” Agricola asks.
“Oh, um, yeah. Fine, fine,” Roland says. “Just thinking.”
“Very good, Sir,” Agricola says. “I trust the shopping went well?”
“Sure did,” Roland answers.
“Very good, Sir,” Agricola says. “Would you care for some assistance carrying all that?”
“No. I got it,” Roland says, his massively muscular arms hardly bothered by everything he’s carrying.
“Very good, Sir.”
Agricola steps aside to let Roland through the door and holds it open as he passes through.
Roland looks over his shoulder as he goes by. “Hey, Agricola?”
“Yes, Sir?” Agricola asks, looking over his shoulder.
“What things are stubborn?” Roland asks.
“Yeah, I’ve been trying to think of, you know, a metaphor. But I can’t think of any other stubborn things something stubborn would be like,” Roland explains.
“Quite the quandary, Sir,” Agricola says. “Well, Sir, a lesser man might note that one’s wife may be quite stubborn.”
He frowns and fidgets with his tie.
“Particularly where the wallpaper in the sitting room is concerned. However, whereas one wishes to avoid any undue marital discord, one may disavow even entertaining such a claim in the first place, and instead note that stone is often called stubborn. Or the mountains of Hrimfax. Makelandic iron. Any number of animals may be noted for their stubbornness — camels, elephants, the Pelayan stubbornfish, for example. Is that suitably helpful, Sir?”
Roland grins. “Hey, thanks, Agricola. You’re good people.”
“Thank you, Sir,” the Elf replies, smiling and inclining his head.
“And I like the wallpaper in your sitting room,” Roland notes.
“Thank you, Sir,” Agricola mutters. “I shall pass that along to my dear Beatrix. She is rather quite fond of those confounding little sailboats.”
Roland’s sister — and fellow alchemy enthusiast — Alda is waiting for him in the subterranean room Uncle Chuck has allowed them to turn into their alchemy lab. She isn’t alone. She’s in the middle of a discussion with their former alchemy tutor, a Half-Elf woman just a few years older than Roland named Celeste. She is, in Roland’s opinion, a stunningly beautiful woman. She’s got long purple hair the colour of alproot flower extract brought to a boil for exactly three minutes.
“Oh. Hi, Miss Celeste,” Roland says sheepishly, setting down his bag of alchemy supplies. “I didn’t know you’d be coming by.”
“I haven’t been your tutor for years, Roland. You don’t have to still call me Miss,” she notes.
“Yeah, but Agricola is always saying that it’s unbecoming of a gentleman to be too familiar towards a lady,” Roland replies. “I don’t really understand it, but that think that means I’m supposed to still call you Miss Celeste, uh, Miss Celeste.”
“It’s also unbecoming of a gentleman to ignore a direct request from a lady,” Celeste insists.
Roland’s eyes widen as he hears this. His brain isn’t quite sure what to do with two contradictory pieces of information.
At times like this he wishes he paid better attention to his philosophy tutors.
“Uh…” he says.
“Anyway,” Celeste says. “I may need your help, Roland. I need to deliver a cartload of alchemy supplies to a friend of mine in Westfort. The annual alchemy contest is coming up and he’s ordered a bunch of special supplies. I’d do it myself, but Dad’s back is acting up, and Aunt Flavia’s about to have a baby, so Mom’s looking after her. They need me here to take care the shop.”
Roland’s face lights up and he reaches for his shopping bag. “I think I can help with that,” he declares, reaching into the bag and laying out a couple of pouches of charcoal and sand from the Wandering Coast, four scoops of Skremmler’s Combustible Powder, and a Valico cheesesteak sandwich.
“It’s in here somewhere,” he mutters.
“Those are all alchemy supplies,” Celeste notes. “But what’s that for?” She points to the sandwich.
“Lunch,” Roland answers, continuing to rummage through the bag.
“Oh!” Alda says happily, snatching up half the sandwich.
“There it is,” Roland finally declares, picking up the rolled-up paper and spreading it out on the counter. “I saw this posted on a wall in the market. Turns out there’s a new group of adventurers looking for work.”
“What are those things?” Alda asks, pointing to the three strange, vaguely people-shaped things at the bottom of the poster.
Roland shrugs. “Dunno. Monsters, maybe? If they’re adventurers, they must have all sorts of experience fighting monsters, right?” He turns to Celeste. “Maybe I could try to find them and hire them to help.”
“Thank you, Roland,” Celeste says.
“This sounds fun!” Alda exclaims. “I’ve always wanted to be an adventurer!”
“When you were little, you wanted to be a Turboshark,” Roland notes.
“I did not,” Alda mutters indignantly.
Meanwhile, across the Duchy in the town of Westport, Alveric von Strom is feeling rather vexed, thanks to the debacle that was the latest meeting of the Ducal Alchemical Society of Middlesbrooke — Westfort Chapter. There is no force on the Powers’ green earth greater than a proud man driven to vexation. And so, Alveric von Strom has no choice but to act.
It’s that time of year again. The Duchy’s annual regional alchemy contest is a few short weeks away. The winner of the regional contest will go on to compete at the Ducal grand finals, and the winner of that contest will be awarded a rather handsome winner’s purse in addition to a trophy and a commemorative plaque and an image of himself enshrined in the halls of Middlesbrooke’s Alchemical Guildhall.
Alveric is the reigning, repeated, and quite thoroughly undisputed champion. For the past four years, he has proven himself to be the Duchy’s supreme alchemist. However, Alveric finds himself facing a possible future where the winner is someone other than himself. Hence, his recent vexation.
And, hence, his recent decision to address the cause of that vexation.
At the Alchemical Society’s last meeting, Alveric’s long-time rival — the venerable Constantine von Braidford — let slip that he ordered a cartload of supplies from Middlesbrooke he intended to use for his entry in the competition. The old man was, of course, quite pleased with himself.
The sheer, unmitigated gall of him, to refuse to accept his inevitable defeat with grace, and resort to such a bald-faced cheap trick. Putting in a special order on such short notice like that, giving his competitors virtually no time to respond at all! Why, it’s practically cheating!
So, as far as Alveric is concerned, he has no choice but to turn to drastic measures and quash the old man’s scheme with the extremest of severity. If Constantine von Braidford is going to cheat the competition, Alveric von Strom has no recourse but to cheat him back. And he’ll do it with more style and grace than the old man ever could.
Alveric looks into the mirror as he tries on each of the two masks.
“Which one do you think, Chauncey?” he asks his trusted second. “The red or the black?”
Alveric originally hired Chauncey during some prior unpleasantness with the Goldharbour Bankers’ Guild. Since then, he has proven reliable. At least where acts of wanton criminality, violence, intimidation, unscrupulous tactics, or other unsorted villainy are concerned.
“The red, Boss,” Chauncey says. “It adds a much-need splash of colour to your ensemble.”
“It does make me look rather dashing, doesn’t it?” Alveric says, tying the mask in place.
“Just like a proper highwayman.”
“Or like some kind of land pirate, Boss!” Chauncey offers.
“Yes, Chauncey. Like a land pirate,” Alveric mutters. He turns back to the mirror and relishes the sight of himself. He grins. “Alveric von Strom. Alchemist by day, highwayman by night. Oh, I do like the sound of that.”
“Do you still want me to hire those guys, Boss?” Chauncey asks.
Alveric nods. “Tell them half now, half when we’ve made sure this cart never reaches Westfort, and they’ll be welcome to the wallets and valuables of whatever poor souls are accompanying the cart,” he says.
“I’m on my way, Boss! I’ve got a good feeling about this!” Chauncey declares.
He strides out the door, followed not long after by the shriek of a particularly unhappy cat.
“Stupid cat! You can’t just nap right in the middle of the road!”
Alveric heaves a heavy sigh.
The things he does for alchemy.
A gentleman of his talent and station, forced to rely on the aid of common thugs and brigands, himself driven to common thuggery and brigandage. And yet, Constantine von Braidford has proven himself a cheat and an utter pest. Cheaters must not be allowed to prosper, and pests must be dealt with, lest they tarnish the honour of the thing he most loves. Truly, alchemy is the harshest and most demanding of mistresses. But it will all be worth it to prove once again, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that there is none in all Middlesbrooke who loves her as passionately as he does.
And, also, some timely reminders:
- Here’s a quick overview of all my published books so far:
2. Here’s where you can read all my published books so far:
3. Here’s where you can catch up Charge of the Lyte Brigade from the beginning (minus the epilogue that’s coming tomorrow):
4. And here’s my annual attempt at that Art vs. Artist thing — though I’m not entirely clear on why I’m supposed to be fighting my art…
And, finally, follow me here: