The Mystic Marriage — Finalist, Lesbian Science Fiction/Fantasy.The Lesbian Review
Heather Rose Jones is a superior author. Any lovers of fantasy must give the Alpennia novels a chance. And if you are not a fan of fantasy but you like period dramas then this will work for you as well.Praise for Heather Rose Jone and her Alpennia Series!
Tor.com — Daughter of Mystery - Top Book of 2014 Reviewer's Pick!
Where do I sign up for MORE OF THIS SORT OF THING..? - Liz Bourke
...When Heather Rose Jones begins - nearly imperceptibly - to bend reality it took me a minute or two to realize that she now had led the reader into the realm of fantasy. Well done! Brava! - Curve Magazine
Jones has done a wonderful job in creating the world of Alpennia. - Lambda Literary Review
Well built world is populated with a wonderful cast of believable characters. - C Spot Reviews
Heather Rose Jones writes masterfully. Her style is at the same time beautiful and easy to read, delightful and commanding of attention... - The Lesbrary
Heidelberg (July, 1821)
Antuniet looked up from the ruined crucible on the workbench and swore softly. Dawn had come and gone while the delicate mixture cooled from a glowing slurry to a glassy, charred lump. Another failure. She checked the astronomical alignment on her zodiacal watch—rather, her mentor Vitali’s watch that he’d lent her in Prague. She felt guilty every time she looked at it. It was twelve hours since the firing began and the watch showed Virgo just rising. The instrument was still accurate; the process had begun according to the instructions. Altmann should have been here to tend to the furnace, but she was too honest to lay the blame on her absent assistant. The cause was impurities in the materials; it had to be. In Prague she’d had reliable sources for the best, but here in Heidelberg it was buyer beware. She’d need to start refining her own ingredients and that would add weeks to every step of the process.
She looked out at the gray sky and tried to judge the time—Vitali’s watch was no use for ordinary hours. She slipped it back in the pocket of her skirts, stilling the twinge of guilt. Someday she must return it to him. Someday when she dared return to Prague. The loan of it hadn’t been meant to last this long. Had the bells rung the hour yet? She couldn’t remember. No, there they were, echoing over the distant market calls and the clopping of the cart horses crossing the Old Bridge. Still another hour before there would be students expecting her. And since it was the tutoring that paid for the equipment and supplies, it was sleep that must wait. Antuniet closed her eyes just for a moment. The weariness swept through her and she felt herself sway dangerously. What would it be like to let it all go? To leave her past entirely in the hands of the dead? To change her name from Chazillen and never return to Rotenek? But then what would be left to live for? Everything else had been cut away by the executioner’s sword.
The memory of her brother Estefen’s betrayal could still leave her shaking with rage. Not his treason against the prince, but his betrayal of the family. His stupid, selfish, greedy, shortsighted… She slammed her fist against the tabletop to pull her mind back from that dark path. One thing remained: the oath she’d sworn after the night of his execution. Estefen would not be the Chazillens’ final legacy. She would find a way to restore their honor in spite of everything.
At first, the alchemical Great Work had been no more than a distraction from what she’d lost. A turn of fate had transformed it into her first true hope of redemption. No, she would start again because to let go of the work would be to let go of all reason to live.
She banked the coals and methodically put things in order, setting the crucible aside to finish cooling before it went into the rubbish heap. Just before leaving, she took out the stub of a candle—carefully hoarded since she’d obtained it from the altar at Saint Leonhard’s in Prague—and lit it from the remains of the fire. With the door closed behind her, she worked a brief mystery over the heavy iron lock. Saint Leonhard was the patron saint of prisoners, but the curious logic of patronage gave him responsibility for locks and locksmiths as well. The brief prayer, sealed with a drop of the consecrated wax, would keep out the ordinary run of lock picks. A faint, flickering light ran across the iron telling her that the saint had answered.
She glanced up and down the street to see if anyone had noticed. Heidelberg had worked free of the worst of the religious battles of the last centuries, but her Lutheran neighbors still looked askance if one worked the saints’ mysteries in public. She pinched the wick out. She had only one more of the candles when this one was used up. Experiments with remelting it into ordinary wax to extend the effectiveness had proven useless. For the thousandth time she wished she could master the more powerful version that would allow her to sense when the lock was being meddled with. The apparatus for that was harder to obtain, calling for a true relic of the saint and a text written in the presence of his altar. She hadn’t the time to experiment and see if substitutions could be made. But if she’d had just that much warning, she could have brought more possessions away with her from Prague. At every move she left more behind. She gave a mental shrug. She’d saved everything that mattered.
As she worked her way up from the riverside and along the Hauptstrasse toward the heart of the students’ quarter, the streets were beginning to fill and Antuniet elbowed her way through the tide, heading for a narrow alley off the Heumarkt.
If she had at least three students today she could purchase a new crucible. If she could hold off the landlady until next week. And if she didn’t eat. It was tempting to accept Gustav’s persistent offer to take her for dinner at the Golden Falcon. Most of the students who came to her for tutoring were there to be drilled in Greek and Latin. Gustav von Lindenbeck also used it as an opportunity to lay siege to her virtue. She’d known so many young men like him back in Rotenek: rich, privileged, accustomed to being granted whatever their whim of the moment might be. When she’d been Mesnera Antuniet, niece and then sister to a baron, she’d found his sort merely tedious. Now it was a delicate balancing act. Not so rude as to drive him away, but not the slightest hint that she would bend to his will. For him it was a game to greet her with ever escalating offers of gifts and luxuries. It was clear he doubted her claims to virtue—virtuous young noblewomen did not traipse about Europe on their own, earning their bread by tutoring—but her refusals were no game. If just once she stepped across the line that lay between her and Gustav, it would be impossible to redraw it. No, she could put off the new crucible until next week and spend the time trying the alternate method of calcination.
She could recall when tight budgeting meant cutting your guest list from eighty to fifty, and when utter poverty was remaking last season’s gown rather than buying new. Now, last season’s gown could pay for two months’ rent and outfit her workshop from scratch. That’s what they had gone for, one by one, in Prague. The last of her finery had set her up here in Heidelberg. The letter of introduction from Vitali had been meant to do the rest. Since then, it had been hand to mouth. Alchemy couldn’t pay the rent or put food on the table. Even if she’d been willing to waste her time transmuting metals, that drew exactly the sort of attention she needed to avoid. Without the protection of a powerful patron it was too dangerous to be known for practicing the esoteric arts. In Alpennia, name and rank had protected her; that and the license that Rotenek society allowed to known eccentrics. But she was a stranger here. Invisibility was her only ally.
The rooming house stood hunched between two taller and more modern buildings, and the plaster was peeling in places to show the brickwork underneath, but the rent was cheap. More importantly, it stood not a hundred paces from the heart of the university and her tutoring there enabled her to scrape together the coins to pay that rent. And, if she were lucky, to pay for new equipment sometime soon.
Her students would be waiting in the coffee room below, but she headed around to climb the rickety back stairs for a chance to wash up and collect her books. Frau Schongau saw her pass by and leaned out the window to rail at her incomprehensibly. Antuniet’s German could manage Goethe and Kant but fell short of Frau Schongau’s Swabian when she was in an agitated mood. All she could decipher was Out! Out! That meant it was the usual empty threats over the lateness of the rent. She shrugged and answered back in Alpennian just to annoy the woman.
The door from the stairs to the narrow hallway stood ajar, but that wasn’t unusual. The first sign of disaster came farther in when she saw the splintered joist where the extra iron hasp had been installed. She pushed it open with no thought for what might lie within. The sight that met her held no immediate meaning. Every stick of furniture had been upended and torn apart. The bedding—or was that clothing?—lay in heaps of rags. Her books…oh, her books! They were drifts of scattered pages. She closed the door behind her and leaned against it, overtaken by dizziness. Slowly she sank down to the floor, staring blankly at the ruin.
Who…? Had he followed her all the way here? The man she’d fled Prague to escape? Eight months and she figured she was safe. If he’d tracked her down anew then she was dealing with more powerful opponents than she’d thought. Or was it ordinary thieves? Or fanatics who’d learned of her work…but then why here and not the workshop? No, this wasn’t merely a search; this was fury at not finding what they sought. If she’d been here… Her heart began racing. They’d expected her to be here. She would have been, except that her assistant hadn’t turned up and the working couldn’t wait. Was Altmann in league—? Had they—? No, it was too complex to untangle at the moment. She scrambled back to her feet, leaning against the wall at another wave of dizziness. There was only one possession of hers that could inspire this zeal. She knew he wanted it, but not that he had the connections to reach this far or the desperation to move this ruthlessly. Each attempt to wrest it from her only confirmed its value.
She rushed to kneel in front of the hearth. The andirons had been tossed aside—one had been thrown into the wall hard enough to dent the plaster. But the stones themselves were still in place. She traced a complex figure across the mortar lines and the charm that held the largest stone in place gave way. The satchel was still there behind it, and the book within.
Panic could only be conquered by action. Her thoughts turned to practicalities. The jar that collected her earnings was smashed with no sign of the contents. That was to be expected. So all she had was the handful of coins sewn into the hem of her jacket. The ones she successfully pretended did not exist every time Frau Schongau came knocking or the coal bin was low again. And that was all she had to get her away from Heidelberg to somewhere safe. It wasn’t enough. It could buy a seat on the common stage but that would be too public. If he were here and watching for her at all she’d never make it out of the city. A private carriage would be safer but she might as well wish for the moon. Perhaps she could slip out into the countryside on foot and then…
She flinched, thinking she heard a step on the stairs. He’d be coming back. Soon. They might be ransacking her workshop even now. She needed to leave and—
A knock sounded like the crack of doom. Her heart stopped, but then a familiar voice called out, “Madame Kätzlein? Are you there? We waited for you but you never came.”
Gustav! She’d forgotten about the waiting students. She cracked open the door and peered through, preventing him from seeing the chaos within. His long, cheerful face was an incongruous invasion of the present disaster. He lifted his beaver hat briefly in salute and returned it to those perfectly coifed yellow locks. Antuniet blinked and returned to the present. “I was just about to come down.”
“Bah! Don’t bother,” he said. “The others are gone. We could be so much more cozy up here.”
“No,” she said.
“I could take you to a private room at the Falke and we could practice our amo, amas.” He assumed her refusal but played the game out. “Or I could sweep you away to my cousin’s hunting lodge at Uhlenbad and make wild love to you under the gaze of every stag the Lindenbecks have ever killed.”
The moment seemed frozen in time. Antuniet thought over all her options one more time but nothing else offered. “Yes,” she said.
He gaped at her as if she had answered in Chinese. “Pardon?”
Antuniet imbued her shrug with every scrap of world-weary boredom she could pretend to. “My experiments have all gone sour and I’m sick to death of this place. I want to go somewhere else—anywhere. Now. This minute.”
She could see the hope leap in his eyes and hated what she was doing.
“But, my Kätzlein, I would need to send word ahead, and you need to pack your things. Perhaps a pleasant dinner and then we set out tomorrow…”
Antuniet shook her head. “Now. This very minute or not at all.” She ducked back inside just long enough to throw on her cloak and grab the book satchel. “Well?” she demanded on finding him still frozen in place.
A slow grin spread over his face. “If you would, Madame,” he said, offering her his arm.
He led her down the inner stairs and through the coffee room. His company took her past Frau Schongau unscathed but the landlady had shrunk to a very minor demon in her hell.
It took all her self-control not to start at each strange face between the rooming house and the livery stable where Gustav hired a phaeton for their excursion. A phaeton…well, at least it wasn’t an open curricle and he didn’t quibble when she insisted on raising the hood to give some protection from curious glances.
Even if he had provided a closed coach with the crest of the von Lindenbecks standing between her and her unknown enemy, she would not have felt entirely safe. But they came out at last on the Rohrbach Road still with no sign of pursuit, and the tension began to drain out of her as he urged the horses to a trot. Gustav saw her relax and leaned toward her, beginning, “Liebling—”
Antuniet stifled a well-timed yawn. “I was up all night working and if I’m to be good for anything, I need some rest.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” he replied in a disappointed tone as she turned away and curled into the corner of the hood. “You sleep now.”
And much to her surprise, she did.
* * *
Antuniet woke to dusk filtered through trees and the absence of motion. Without conscious thought, her hand went to the hard outlines of the book within its bag, tucked inside her cloak. Reassured, she looked around. The horses had been unharnessed and the glow of lights drew her eyes to a stone and timber building lying in the shadow of the tall pines. She considered and discarded the thought that this had all been a grave mistake. The panic of the moment had sped her decision, but longer consideration would have brought her to the same place. No way out but forward. She stepped down, shifting the book satchel to her shoulder and holding her cloak close against the chill.
She had only a general idea of where she was: south of Heidelberg by half a day on indifferent roads. She had woken briefly when they stopped to change horses and enjoy a bite to eat before taking a narrow, unpaved track into what passed for wilderness. Closer by half a day to Alpennia. This wasn’t how she’d meant to return: fleeing, near penniless, with no more progress on her Great Work than the promise that it would one day succeed.
Gustav came out and took her by the hand to lead her inside. “I thought to let you sleep while they made things ready. Come, come, there’s a fire built up and the wine is poured and soon there will be dinner.” He led her through an echoing foyer lit only by a few flickering candles. It stretched up into a darkness relieved by rows of pale, antlered skulls mounted on every surface of the walls. That part about all the stags the Lindenbecks had ever killed had been no joke.
Antuniet found to her dismay that the fire and the small dining table beside it had been prepared in a room dominated by a large canopied bed. Well, what had she expected? She let Gustav remove her cloak but then took it from him to wrap casually around the book satchel. She laid it on a chair in a corner beside the hearth, where it had a hope of being overlooked by any housekeeping impulses the staff might have. Judging from the dust on the mantel, those impulses were few. The fire drew her, but when Gustav approached to hand her a wineglass, she cast about for an excuse to keep moving.
“It’s such a delightfully gothic building! Do show me around. Where did you find the wainscoting? It must be two hundred years old at least.” Architectural details bored her but she knew enough to put on a good show.
Evidently they bored Gustav even more, for he shrugged, saying, “It’s my cousin’s place. I really have no idea.” But he gamely set about showing her through the rooms, providing stories that centered primarily on the details of how the featured hunting trophies had been taken.
When they came around again to the room with the fire, supper had been laid and a sour-faced man stood in attendance to serve them. That provided one more hour of respite, but at last the servant cleared away the covers, poked up the fire one more time and disappeared. Gustav lifted Antuniet’s fingers to his lips and asked, “Tell me why, after so many times of no, this time it was yes?”
She gave him a small piece of the truth. “I’m leaving Heidelberg—I’ve left Heidelberg. I’m not going back.”
“Ah,” he said. “And you no longer care what the gossips say.”
She shrugged. He could believe whatever story pleased him. “Tomorrow I would like you to take me to the nearest public coaching inn.”
“But Kätzlein…” he protested.
She fixed him with a gaze that belonged to the old Antuniet—the one who was accustomed to having her way. Would he refuse? She’d gambled much in coming here.
He rose and came to stand behind her. “Tomorrow,” he echoed.
She felt him take the pins from her hair to let it tumble down her back. Her stomach clenched at his touch. There was still time to tell him it had all been a mistake—a ruse. Surely he wouldn’t insist…Don’t be a fool, she told herself. What does it matter? Her future held no virginal wedding bed. What was she saving herself for? For honor? Well, honor demanded that one paid one’s debts and she had taken this one on with eyes open. With mechanical precision she unbuttoned her jacket and shrugged it off. He took her by the shoulders and turned her toward him. She stared over his shoulder at the flickering fire in the grate and allowed his embraces and practiced attentions.
* * *
When the pale dawn had grown enough that she could cross the room without stumbling, Antuniet gave up on the pretense of sleep and slipped from the bed. Gustav stirred sleepily and she froze until he quieted again, then gathered her clothes. There was a dressing room behind a door almost hidden in the oak paneling. She washed as thoroughly as she could in the basin and dressed. It would likely be hours yet before the sour-faced caretaker would be up. She found a seat by an east-facing window in the entry chamber where the light was sufficient to read and wrapped her traveling cloak closely around her.
The object of her obsession, the hope of her salvation, the bone the dogs were hunting, lay open in her lap, its worn red binding soft in her hands like the touch of skin. Concerning the Mystic Marriage of the Earth and Sun to Beget Works of Great Virtue and Power…The title went on for another half page.
Two centuries it had waited to come into her hands, hidden away from the ravages of war and neglect, superstition and greed. Surely that was a sign? She turned to the passage that had first caught at her heart that day in the little bookshop behind the castle in Prague. The crude cipher used in the introductory chapters had become as familiar to her as Greek. And with these secrets the sharpened mind can work such wonders as will earn the acclaim and gratitude of even the highest Earthly Princes, and the virtuous heart will purify the spirit to receive the Prince of Heaven. Purity of spirit was long since out of reach, but the other…that she could aspire to. The acclaim and gratitude of princes. The words had reawakened the vow she’d sworn standing over the graves of mother and brother, the one a suicide and the other a traitor. This will not be the final judgment on our line. I will redeem it.
* * *
Gustav had come looking for her hours later with a tinge of concern coloring his satisfaction. Well, if he had regrets they were his own burden to carry. And he was as good as his word, delivering her to an inn where a southbound coach would pass. Two coins from the hem of her jacket would see her as far as Basel. Two more, to Rotenek. That left three to live on until she could make arrangements. No, not the homecoming she had planned. He even offered to stay with her until the coach arrived but she refused. At the last, he leaned down from the phaeton and took her hand for one final kiss. “Farewell, dear Madame Kätzlein.”
Annoyance finally overcame forbearance. She pulled her hand back saying, “The name is Chazillen. It was once a noble and honorable name and God willing I’ll make it so again. I’ll thank you to use it!”
He nodded stiffly. “Then God keep you, Madame Chazillen.”
That had been unkind but she had no room in her heart for kindness. She had no room for anything except the path that lay ahead. She turned away so that she wouldn’t see the carriage disappearing behind her.
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