Corbin spent most of the night working on his replacement for the wards. By the time he finished the sun was peeking over the horizon, and the rain had stopped. He walked into the taproom with the expression of a man who was absolutely exhausted, and quite satisfied with himself.
He stopped short when he saw me waiting for him.
I’d tried to sleep, earlier. I knew that I should. But sleep had disagreed with me on that point, and after a few hours of lying awake and waiting for it I’d accepted that it wasn’t going to happen. There was no point in pretending otherwise.
Corbin stared at me. I sipped tea. I didn’t drink it often; I didn’t care for the side effects it produced in me. But when sleep was impossible tea was a decent substitute, and the energy it lent me was worth the jitters and the racing heart and the difficulty breathing.
“Silf?” he asked, after a few seconds. “What are you doing up?”
“You know alchemy,” I said, not answering the question. “Deep alchemy, not a lamp or an icebox.”
He nodded. “I studied when I was young,” he said. “Some things you don’t forget.”
“And the supplies?”
He hesitated at that, seeming unsure of how to answer. “Sometimes travelers don’t know what things are worth,” he said. “And I’ve had years to collect them.” His tone was feeble at best.
I stared at him, and he flinched away slightly. “You fought with the legions,” I said slowly. “You know alchemy.”
He nodded. It didn’t look like he could make himself look me in the eye.
“Why did you take me in?” I asked. My voice was a rough, low whisper. “Where were you when the Whitewood burned?”
He still couldn’t look at me. “There are some questions that are better left unanswered, Silf,” he said. “And sometimes the past should stay safely buried.”
“Do I deserve to know?”
He flinched away again, and then nodded. “I suppose you do,” he said. “Spirits have mercy on me, you do. But are you sure you want to?”
Now it was my turn to hesitate. I knew only too well that there were some things I was happier being ignorant of. If Corbin said that I didn’t want to know the answers to these questions, I wasn’t going to lightly assume that he was wrong.
But that wasn’t how it worked. That was never how it worked. I’d already seen too much, seen things that made me question. I couldn’t go back to living in blithe ignorance when I’d already seen enough of the puzzle to suspect the worst. It was better to know than to live with that quiet dread of uncertainty.
So, before I could convince myself otherwise, I nodded. One time, sharp and quick and scared.
Corbin sighed heavily. “All right, then,” he said. “But I’ll tell you now, it’s a long story.”
He walked behind the bar, and dug around in the bottles on the shelves until he eventually came up with the one he wanted. It was a small bottle, steel and silver, and very firmly sealed.
I’d asked him why that bottle was so different from its neighbors, most of which were made of glass and far more visually interesting than it was. He’d explained that it was imperial blackwine. It was made from carefully Changed grapes, and every step involved alchemical treatment and extremely precise techniques. It was one of the most complicated and delicate brewing processes in the world, he’d said.
In the high households of Akitsuro, a toast made with blackwine was customary at certain special events–the closing of a contract, births and funerals, a very few holidays. At any other time, and for anyone other than nobility and very wealthy merchants, it was impractically expensive. Corbin had certainly never had cause to open this particular bottle; no one in this part of the world was going to pay for it.
He brought it to the table I was sitting at, and opened it with a quiet hiss of escaping air. He poured a small cup of it. Then, to my surprise, he poured another cup and set it in front of me.
“You’ll want it by the end,” he said. “Trust me.”
I nodded, and looked at the liquid which commanded such high respect among the rich and powerful of the empire. It was…odd. A thick, viscous liquid, it was indeed black–not just dark, but black, with an odd shimmer to it. Its odor was sweet and subtle, vaguely reminiscent of lavender and cacao.
Corbin took a sip, his eyes closed, and then set the cup down and put the cap on the bottle again. “I’m going to explain some things, then,” he said. “But I’ll tell you now, it’s a long story. And please don’t interrupt. If I get interrupted, I don’t know that I’ll be able to start again.”
I nodded, staring raptly. He took one more sip of the wine, and then set it aside.
“I was born not so long after the warding posts were developed,” he said. He had that faraway look in his eyes again, like he wasn’t really seeing the room we were in. “Just a few years afterwards. This was in a small town a good ways north of Aseoto, a farming community not too different from this one. I was four years old when a legion engineer installed wards around our village.”
He paused. “It’s hard, now, to remember what things were like before the wards. We’re accustomed to them. They’re simply an accepted part of life, a part of how things are. But back then, it was…it’s hard to overstate how much it meant to have them.” He chuckled wryly. “Not that I understood that at the time, of course. I was just a small child, after all. But I remember the way my mother explained it to me. She said that we were safe now.”
Corbin looked at me seriously. “Imagine that moment, Silf,” he said. “Imagine living your whole life in fear. Imagine being afraid to leave your house without a weapon, afraid that you’d be turned into a monster even if you did everything right. My mother had already lost a son to ghouls, and a daughter to a drowner. She’d spent thirty years living in fear of the magic. And then she learned that we were safe, that this threat had been removed.”
I imagined it. It was…hard to picture just how profound her relief must have been.
“That was my first experience with alchemy,” he continued. “And of course I didn’t understand what it meant or how it worked. I didn’t understand the broader context that the wards existed in, the social and political implications. All I knew was that these people had made us safe. They’d made our lives better. That was the moment I knew I wanted to be an alchemist. I wanted to help people.”
In spite of myself, I snorted.
Corbin smiled sadly. “Yes, well, being an alchemist isn’t quite that simple. But that all came later. At the time, all I knew was that alchemists worked miracles and made the world a better place.” He sighed. “Of course, the wards didn’t protect us from everything. When I was sixteen the pox came through, a particularly virulent strain of it. I survived it, but I was in the minority; most folk who took ill died, including my whole family.”
I made an appropriately sympathetic noise, which Corbin ignored.
“Well, after that there was nothing keeping me there, and I still wanted to be an alchemist. So I packed my bags and went to the capital. It took some doing, but eventually I got into the Imperial Academy. I studied everything they taught there, history and linguistics and mathematics and medicine. Most especially, though, I studied alchemy. I wanted to work wonders.”
He smiled now, a distant and beatific expression. “And the wonders we built there, Silf,” he said. “Bones and ashes, the things we made were…magnificent. Beautiful. Not just the alchemy you’ve seen, lamps and iceboxes and heat-stones. We built clocks that could run for a week and not lose a second. Glass as hard as steel. Sculptures of light, caged and bent by lenses and mirrors. Pulleys that would let a child haul a wagon into the air. It seemed there was a new wonder being turned out every week.”
I could almost see the picture as he described it. Vast workshops manufacturing wonders and miracles en masse. Things that would be astonishing, genius works of art anywhere else becoming so casual and everyday that they were hardly even worth noticing.
“But to rise in the ranks as an alchemist, it wasn’t enough to repeat the designs of someone else,” Corbin continued. “You had to make something new, something original. You had to improve on the state of the art. And that’s where it all went wrong.” He took a drink of the wine. “I wasn’t the first to think of making alchemical fire, not by a long shot. It makes sense, after all. There are plenty of substances that burn–oil, coal, tallow, plant products, the list goes on. It made sense that alchemical reagents could produce something more effective. But every time someone had tried, it went badly.”
“Too volatile,” he said. “The magic would surge and set the mixture off. By the time I was born alchemists had given up on it as too dangerous. But with the warding posts, the magic was dampened enough to make experiments safe. Or, at least, not more dangerous than any number of other things we worked with. So I started working on developing an alchemical fuel. That’s where I met Black; she was working as a supplier, providing alchemical reagents, and I needed more than just the usual for my experiments?”
“What happened?” I whispered. There was a part of me that was starting to seriously doubt whether I wanted to know, but it was too late to quit. It was like watching a building burn; I didn’t want to stare, but couldn’t look away.
“It worked,” Corbin said simply. “Eventually, I got the mixture right. Fire-oil, I called it. It was…perfect. Simple to manufacture, and it didn’t require any particularly expensive or rare reagents. It burned very hot, and very long; a small bottle and a properly designed lamp could burn for days. It was almost impossible to put out, too. It would burn in a high wind, or underwater. It was everything that I wanted it to be.”
He noticed, but didn’t comment. “Everyone was thrilled, of course,” he said. “It was praised as one of the greatest alchemical inventions in years. Within weeks it was being produced in enormous quantities. There were plans to use it as an energy source for alchemical engines…someone started experimenting with using fire-oil instead of coal to heat forges. Cheaper, more compact, cleaner air. The emperor personally congratulated me, and offered me a position as a legion engineer. I was thrilled.
“And then I went north, and things…changed.”
Corbin was silent for a long, long moment. I took a sip of the blackwine, and was startled at the complexity of the taste. It was a rich, layered flavor, sweet and tart and bitter and sharp, with hints of lavender and chocolate and sweet peppers and things I had no name for. The sharp bite of alcohol was almost an afterthought, a counterpoint to the intricate flavors of the wine.
“You have to understand,” he said at last. “It was supposed to be something good. The fire-oil, I mean. It was supposed to help people. And at first, even as I was marching north with the legions, it was. It was lighter than the fuels they usually carried, which made it easier to haul. Even the camp followers hunted me down to thank me, told me they’d never been on a march with so few people freezing.”
“The legionnaires started using the fire-oil in other ways,” Corbin said softly. “At first, it was…benign, I suppose. When they burned out a section of forest to clear ground for the camp, I was…concerned, but it seemed harmless. Then they started using it for sabotage. Fire-oil burns quickly when it’s uncontrolled, and it’s very difficult to extinguish. So they would sneak into enemy encampments and use it to destroy their siege weapons, or their fortifications, or their supplies. And that was troubling, but I told myself it was a bloodless way to win, and that was better than the alternative.” He sighed. “And then we reached the Whitewood.”
He fell silent at that, and we both took a drink. We both had some memories that could use the dulling influence of alcohol, I was guessing. I was starting to feel pleasantly floaty by now. I didn’t have much of a head for liquor.
“It couldn’t be taken,” Corbin said. “Everyone said so. It was one of the great marvels of the world; a city that was grown instead of built, most everything made of living wood. It had never been taken by an enemy. It was likely the best-defended city in the world, after Aseoto. Even if the legions made it past the outer defenses, the city was a maze, and the defenders were extremely well-trained. Any battle on that ground would be a bloodbath. Everyone agreed that a siege was the only way, that any direct attack would end badly.”
“I remember that,” I said softly. The siege had gone on for…a few weeks, I thought. Not long.
He smiled. It was a crooked, warped expression with no joy in it. “I suppose you would,” he said. “Anyway. The smart thing to do would have been to wait. But the legate was a young nobleman who needed a dramatic victory to present to the emperor. A slow, drawn-out siege wasn’t what he had in mind. So he came up with a different plan.”
Corbin went to take another drink, and found that his cup was empty. He shrugged, opened the bottle again, and filled it before drinking it half away.
“The Whitewood was protected against fire,” he said softly. “Of course it was. They weren’t so foolish that they would overlook that, not in a city made of wood. The trees were Changed, and alchemically treated. But they hadn’t planned on fire-oil. How could they? It had only existed for a year. So the legate ordered them to load casks of fire-oil into the catapults and launch them over the walls. He ordered them to use it on people.”
I shuddered again. I remembered that. The fires that wouldn’t die, flame that clung and burned and would not stop. There was no way to put the fire out once it got on you. Water just spread it around, and trying to smother it usually just meant that whatever you were using to smother it caught on fire as well. There wasn’t much that fire-oil wouldn’t burn.
“I tried to stop it,” Corbin said. He was staring at the table now, unable to look at me. “Fire-oil was…it was supposed to help people. It was never meant to be a weapon. But I was just one man. The legate had me seized and put in irons, and the attack went forward.”
He closed his eyes, and his voice faded to a thin, rough whisper that sounded almost like mine. “They burned one of the greatest cities in the world,” he whispered. “Burned it to the ground, and sowed the ashes with salt. Tens of thousands of people burned to death, or killed trying to run from the fire. Hundreds of years of history wiped out. And it’s all because of me. Gods help me, I’m the man who made it all possible.”
I stared, and then pushed my chair away from the table. I stumbled for the door, almost running. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see, couldn’t think. The world was so distant and so blurred that I wasn’t even sure if it was me running, or I was just watching as my body ran without me.
Corbin did not try to stop me.