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Authors: Dave Duncan

The Alchemist's Code

BOOK: The Alchemist's Code
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“This book is fun…There's humor and adventure, mystery and magic, all rolled up in one package…
The Alchemist's Apprentice
can be enjoyed by both mystery lovers and fantasy fans.”


“Duncan mingles arch fantasy and a whodunit plot in this alternate version of old Venice…Nostradamus and Alfeo's adventures provide more amusement than chills in this charming farce, which comments lightly on class prejudice, political chicanery, and occult tomfoolery.”

Publishers Weekly

“Dave Duncan's wit shows a distinctive intelligence, a clear-eyed vision that's both irreverent and astute.”


“Duncan's latest novel launches a new series set in an alternate Venice and filled with the author's customary touches of humor, light satire, and fast-paced action. [Duncan] shows his mastery of both storytelling and character building.”

Library Journal


“Dave Duncan knows how to spin a ripping good yarn.”


“Duncan is an exceedingly finished stylist and a master of world building and characterizations.”


“Dave Duncan is one of the best writers in the fantasy world today. His writing is clear, vibrant, and full of energy. His action scenes are breathtaking, and his skill at characterization is excellent.”

Writers Write

“Duncan excels at old-fashioned swashbuckling fantasy, maintaining a delicate balance between breathtaking excitement, romance, and high camp in a genre that is easy to overdo.”

Romantic Times

“Duncan can swashbuckle with the best, but his characters feel more deeply and think more clearly than most, making his novels…suitable for a particularly wide readership.”

Publishers Weekly
(starred review)

Also by Dave Duncan

The Alchemist



The Dodec Books



Chronicles of the King's Blades




Tales of the King's Blades




A Man of His Word





A Handful of Men






Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA
Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) Penguin Books Ltd., 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England Penguin Group Ireland, 25 St. Stephen's Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd.) Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty. Ltd.) Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi—110 017, India Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd.) Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty.) Ltd., 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

This is an original publication of The Berkley Publishing Group.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

Copyright © 2008 by Dave Duncan.

All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author's rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
ACE and the “A” design are trademarks belonging to Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Duncan, Dave, 1933–
    The alchemist's code / Dave Duncan.—1st ed.
      p. cm.
    ISBN: 978-1-1012-0888-5
    1. Nostradamus, 1503–1566—Fiction. 2. Prophets—Fiction. I. Title.

    PR9199.3.D847A79 2008


For Jessica,
my favorite

Notice Neptune, though,

Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,

Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me.

—Robert Browning,
My Last Duchess


hate prologues. When I go to a theater I want action, dialogue, dancing, singing. I resent some long-winded actor coming out to lecture me at length on what the play is about or how great the performance is going to be. In real life, prologues are more interesting but rarely recognizable. This was like that—at the time I did not realize I was in a prologue, but it is relevant to the story and I promise to keep it brief.

“Saints preserve us! Alfeo Zeno!”

That was how it began.

The time: early on a September evening, sweltering hot. The place: a narrow
, packed solid with people emerging from a doorway to spill off in both directions. And me, squashed back against a wall. All that endless, baking summer I had been saving my tips so I could take Violetta to the theater when she returned from the mainland, and the afternoon had been a great success. I had every hope that the evening would be even more so.

As we were trying to leave the courtyard, though, she was hailed by a tall man whom I recognized as
Baiamonte Spadafora, one of her patrons, so I tactfully squirmed away. I could not love a courtesan if I did not have my jealousy under control, but Baiamonte would be shocked to see her being escorted by a mere apprentice, which was how I was dressed. In the Republic people's costumes define them exactly.

That works both ways, of course. While I waited for my lover to catch up with me, out in the
, I amused myself by watching the throng squeezing by, identifying clerks and artisans and shopkeepers, male nobles in their black gowns, doctors and lawyers in theirs, even a couple of senators in red. Venice finds nothing odd in its ruling class mingling with the common herd. They live cheek by jowl and share many of the same tastes; some nobles are wealthy beyond the dreams of Midas, others are paupers.

Of course I did not neglect the women, mentally sorting them into ladies, respectable housewives, and courtesans. Other cities are ashamed of prostitutes and try to hide them; Venice brags of its courtesans, flaunting them even in the highest levels of society. They are not confined to specific areas or required to wear some shameful badge; most of them dress better than senators' wives.

A man barged past me, then spoke my name: “Saints preserve us! Alfeo Zeno!”

I knew the voice even before I turned, the most memorable male voice I had ever heard, rich and resonant as a pipe organ. I could even recall the summer it had appeared, basso profundo hatching from boyish treble in a matter of weeks. I had turned bright malachite with jealousy.

“Danese Dolfin, as I hope for salvation!”

“How long has it been?”


Danese and I had been children together in San Barnaba parish, but never close. He was a little older than me and would disappear for a year or so at a time, whenever his father was elected to some minor office on the mainland, helping to rule some fragment of the Venetian empire. His father cannot have been very impressive in his work and obviously had no influential patron to back him, because he suffered long gaps between the postings, when he and his brood sank back in among the
, the impoverished nobility. Danese had still been a lot better off than those of us who did not have fathers.

Squashed together almost nose to nose—more specifically my nose, his chin—we inspected each other.

“You are doing well,” I said.

He had always been tall and good-looking, with blue eyes, almost-blond hair, and a fair complexion. When a nobleman reaches twenty-five or so, he lets his beard grow in and switches to floor-length robes, unless he is a soldier or follows some unusual profession, but
Danese was clearly not there yet. Nay, he was a strutting peacock in bright silk doublet and knee britches, all embroidered and padded. His ruff was crisply starched, his puffed bonnet bigger than any pumpkin. He wore a sword, too, and clearly did not belong among the

“Moderately well,” he said smugly. “And how is the world treating you?”

“I have no complaints.”

His expression implied that I should have. His outfit had cost more than I would earn in several years. How had he done it? A nobleman can join a profession or engage in trade, but if he sinks to manual labor, his name will be struck from the Golden Book. Whatever Danese was up to was certainly not carpentry or canal dredging, but there are few honest ways for a man to shoot from poverty to wealth so quickly. The most obvious was marriage, because a nobleman's children are noble even if his wife is not. If Danese had found a rich merchant of the citizen class with a daughter and a craving for noble grandchildren, then his sudden prosperity had sprung from her dowry.

He had also had four sisters. Possibly one of them had married into money and towed him in on her bridal train.

“And your family?” I asked. “Your parents, sisters? Married yet?”

“My mother is still alive. My sisters all married
, alas. No, I'm not married.” He smirked, knowing exactly what I was wondering. “And you?”

“No.” I would not discuss careers if he wouldn't. I glanced around to make sure Violetta was not looking for me. “We must get together one day. Where are you living now?”

“Over in Cannaregio,” he said vaguely. That told me nothing except that he did not want to get together. Palaces stand alongside tenements in Cannaregio, just as they do in the other five wards of the city. “And you?”

I laughed. “Not in San Barnaba, anyway.”

“Lord, no!” He smiled as if he had reached a decision. “You know what's best about the sweet life, Alfeo? It's not silk sheets or fancy clothes. It's not fine wines or parties or roaring fires in winter. It's not even escaping to the mainland in summer. No, it's the food! Remember living on polenta and watermelon? My most sincere prayers are grace at table.”

Suddenly I remembered why Danese and I had never been close—he had always been an insufferable pustule. Now red-hot pincers would not force me to mention that I lived in a palazzo, slept on silk sheets, and ate the finest cooking in all Venice.

“You are making my mouth water. I am still waiting to taste
.” Mama Angeli's cooking is unsurpassed, but
requires boatloads of snow from the Dolomite Mountains, an extravagance the Maestro would not tolerate.

“You haven't lived, Alfeo.”

“Ah, there you are!” Violetta appeared at my side in a blaze of silver brocade, auburn hair, a carapace of diamonds, and a scent of roses. With her breasts fully visible through a net bodice, the most prized courtesan in Venice has a body to drive any man mad. I puckered, so she kissed. Yes, right there in public.

“Wonderful talking to you again, Danese,” I said.

His face was an open book. The first page said,
Good God, he's a pimp!
The second page said,
Then why doesn't she dress him better?

There were no other pages.

Violetta is a people expert and read the situation at a glance. She fanned me with her lashes, breathed, “Come along, lover,” so he would hear, and pulled me close as we eased into the throng. “A friend of yours?”

“One of the horrors of childhood. Meet anyone interesting?”

She smiled understandingly. “Not a soul.” She meant that I was more interesting than men with money, nice of her. “There's an interesting couple, though.”

I looked as directed. The man wore the floor-length gown and round, flat-topped bonnet of the nobility, with the strip of cloth called a tippet draped over his left shoulder, but in his case these were all colored violet, to show that he was a member of the
, the steering committee of the Senate. I do not know all of the twelve hundred or so noblemen of Venice, those eligible to sit in the Great Council, but I try to keep up with the inner circle, the sixty or seventy who actually run the Republic. He was new to me.

The woman wore a full-length gown of sky-blue silk brocade with a square-cut neck and slightly puffed shoulders. It was expensively embroidered with seed pearls, but the oyster cemetery around her neck would have bought a small galleon. She carried a fan of white osprey plumes.

When they had gone by, I shook my head.

Violetta is a whole constellation of different women as circumstances require, and then she was in her political persona, the one I call Aspasia. Aspasia knows everyone who matters, meaning any man with money or power. “
Girolamo Sanudo. Recently elected to navy. A surprise.”

There are five ministers for navy in the
. The post is regarded as training for youngsters on the way up, but Girolamo had looked unusually young for a senior post, probably not yet forty.

“Son of
Zuanbattista Sanudo?” I said. “Ambassador to somewhere.”

Aspasia's blue-gray eyes twinkled. “Well done! Except his daddy is back home now and was elected a ducal counselor last week.”

August and September are the peak of the political season in Venice, when the Great Council elects the Senators and the Council of Ten and other senior magistrates. That is why the nobility had all returned from their country estates on the mainland. In October they would go back again for the bird hunting.

“And the lady?” Aspasia asked.

“Respectable, not a courtesan. About thirty, natural blonde, blue eyes, comfortably rounded, real pearls, richly but discreetly dressed, good teeth, developing pout lines around her mouth. I didn't notice her at all. His wife?”

“His mother, madonna Eva Morosini.”

“Truly? I know they say Venetian nobles are born old, but
Girolamo must have taken that to extremes. Stepmother, I assume?”

Aspasia laughed. “A big step—he's older than she is. She was Nicolò Morosini's sister—came with a fat dowry and lots of political pull.”

“Dimples, too, back then. What is so special about the Sanudos, apart from the extreme age difference?” And the obvious fact that father and son together wielded much political heft.

She smiled with the innocence of a well-fed tiger. “Zuanbattista distinguished himself when he was in Constantinople; he won major concessions from the Sultan. He has climbed very fast up the political bell tower.”

As a ducal counselor, he was close to the top already. The doge is head of state, but we Venetians have always lived in fear of tyranny, so we keep him shackled with six counselors, one from each ward of the city. He cannot open his mail or meet with a foreigner except in their presence; he can do nothing without the approval of four of them. That meant that Counselor Zuanbattista Sanudo could block any government action he did not like with the support of only two others; for the next eight months he would be one of the most powerful men in the Republic.

“So when our present doge is called to a higher realm, the glamorous madonna Eva Morosini will become our

Violetta-Aspasia chuckled, “She dreams of it every night.”

“She would certainly brighten up the stodgy old palace. Exactly how do you know what she dreams of?”

Even my darling's laugh is beautiful. “A friend told me.”

I saw that I had missed something subtle, but I did not press her on the matter, as I had other ideas more pressing. We had reached the watersteps where my gondola waited—not truly mine, of course, but a public boat rowed by my friend, Vettor Angeli, Giorgio's eldest. He had agreed to transport me and my love to and from the theater that afternoon so I could play out my fantasy of being a rich noble. In return I had cast the horoscope of a girl he was thinking of marrying. It showed that she would be submissive, obedient, and faithful—not all qualities I would look for, but the news had pleased him, so we were both happy.

Violetta and I went back to her apartment and the rest of the day is irrelevant to my story.

Now you see why I did not notice the prologue. Think of it as the start of rehearsals for a play, or a bunch of friends planning a masque for Carnival, or even one of the
scuole grande
organizing a tableau for some great civic celebration. All of these begin with confusion as people mill around and someone hands out the scripts and assigns the roles.
You over there—you can play the traitor; you'll be the inquisitor. And for the murderer…

That was Sunday.

BOOK: The Alchemist's Code
12.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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