II. A Head Full of Stories
If thunder was Sascha’s favourite smell, his least favourite was ink. The regular black ink was okay, but his tutors often made him use much worse kinds. Each was made from bitter metals and pungent herbs that grew in the surrounding forests, which often made them blue, purple or even green. They stank so badly it made Sascha retch each time he dipped his quill into the inkpot. The worst ink by far was the red ink.
The red ink was made from pine gall and iron salts, making it run thick and dark and smelt like blood. Fortunately, he wasn’t allowed to use it. It was his father’s personal ink, used for signing contracts and other legal documents. He only knew about it because he had helped Mr Rothschild to make it once, during one of his alchemy lessons. He hadn’t enjoyed that one.
Apart from the ink, Mr Rothschild was Sascha’s favourite tutor by far. He had short, greying hair and wore a tiny pair of bronze spectacles that didn’t so much cover his eyes as lodge just beneath them, flashing whenever they caught the sunlight. His clothes were the same as the other tutors’ – almost as expensive as his father’s but older and shabbier.
He was currently standing by the window, watching the storm clouds gather on the horizon. Sascha had felt it brewing hours ago, although he knew that this one wouldn’t pass over the castle. Still, it would come close, and it was more than enough to make him restless and inattentive, to necessitate the throwing of a heavy sheet over the storm-chaser’s glass case to muffle its whistling. Sascha sighed, and then looked up.
He jumped slightly. Without making any noise, Mr Rothschild had turned and was fixing Sascha with a curious look and a raised eyebrow.
‘Hmm?’ The tutor enquired, wordlessly.
‘Geography is dull,’ offered Sascha by way of explanation. Mr Rothschild taught him geography, biology and alchemy. Geography was by far the least interesting. Still, the tutor’s eyes had started gleaming.
‘Dull, you say?’ He swept over to the huge map of that covered half of the wall on one side of the schoolroom, picking up the long, thin pointer from beneath it. ‘That sounds like a challenge. Name any place in the Empire and I will tell you why it is absolutely fascinating.’ Sascha didn’t hesitate.
‘Very well,’ began Mr Rothschild, pointing to a dot close to the centre of the map and assuming the manner of a circus ringmaster. ‘Glorious Wittenberg, city of progress, crucible of innovation, home to the greatest university in all the Empire! There the many wonders of alchemy can be seen on every street corner, airships fill the sky and everyone is happy.’ Sascha smiled, admiring the performance. There were times when he wondered if his tutor hadn’t once been an actor. Mr Rothschild grinned. ‘Another.’ Sascha thought for a moment.
‘Ah, Himmelstadt, the birthplace of romance,’ Mr Rothschild placed his hands over his chest and sighed like a starstruck lover. ‘There the third Empress set eyes on her beloved consort for the very first time. From then onwards they were always together, walking the beautiful streets and dancing to the music of the great dance halls. That is, until he was killed by mandrake poison in his soup. The whole Empire wore black for a year. Another!’
‘Schwarzwald,’ laughed Sascha. Mr Rothschild breathed in sharply through his teeth, and then lowered his spectacles, fixing his pupil with an ominous gaze.
‘Never go to Schwarzwald. Schwarzwald is a bad place, a thick black forest bristling with monsters, where demons prowl even in the day and the people are strange and backward. I’ve heard it’s inhabited by ghosts, giant worms and water creatures even more fearful than the Rhinemaidens. I’ve even heard it said that in the deepest, darkest part of the forest, there is a town where the people are cursed with clockwork flesh, and instead of beating their hearts go tick tock, tick tock.’
Sascha’s eyes widened. He loved hearing about monsters, curses and all the other things that had no place in his other tutors’ lessons. Mr Rothschild told him about homunculi, little wax men brought to life through magic; doppelgangers, omens of death which took on the appearance of living people; and nosferatu, bat-like monsters which drained their victims of blood. Sometimes these stories led to impatient questions, most often ‘how does alchemy work?’ or ‘when can I learn proper alchemy, at Wittenburg?’ But Mr Rothschild would always gently dismiss them, with answers such as ‘I’m afraid you’re not ready for that yet,’ or, more rarely, ‘When your father thinks it is time.’
Mr Rothschild didn’t just tell wonderful tales, however, as much as Sascha wished he would; he taught him mundane things too.
‘This is the River Elbe,’ began Mr Rothschild, sadly getting back to business now. ‘We covered it a little last week. What are the biggest towns along the Elbe, Sascha?’
‘Wittenberg, Hamburg and Dresden,’ he intoned.
‘Exactly. And how long is the Elbe?’ Sascha answered again, doing his best to conceal his boredom. It wasn’t Mr Rothschild’s fault. It was just that geography could never compare to biology, and neither could compare to alchemy.
In alchemy, Mr Rothschild would teach him the mixing of salves, the making of candle-wax, and the interpreting of dreams. None of these things were ‘proper alchemy’ in Sascha’s estimation. None of them helped him understand where the power of alchemy came from. But he still enjoyed them and always did his best in the hope of pleasing Mr Rothschild and his father.
He succeeded often in the first, for Mr Rothschild’s reports of him were always glowing. His other tutors would scold him; ‘disappointing,’ or ‘poor,’ or perhaps even ‘a step backwards, I’m afraid’. They said he had a head full of stories and was always asking pointless, irrelevant questions. But when he turned to Mr Rothschild, the tutor would always exclaim, ‘excellent! I couldn’t ask for a better pupil,’ and then his father would nod, although he did not smile.
It was only occasionally that Sascha’s father would take a lesson, like when Sascha had been shown the storm-chaser. Normally he remained locked in his study, or in the tower, and they would see nothing of each other, apart from the occasional review of his lessons. But even that was only when his father wasn’t away, and he was away often. So Sascha ate alone, read alone, spent most of his time alone. That was why he always looked forward to Mr Rothschild’s lessons, even geography, and why he would creep down into the village at every chance he got.