The Alchemist’s Ingredients by Nicole DragonBeck

For Forrest Conner, I hope you like.

The color yellow.

Jenny blinked at the final ingredient of the potion, then looked around surreptitiously. None of the other students were fazed. Either she was smarter than they were and had reached the end of the potion before everyone else, or they all thought that made sense. She seriously doubted the former.

“What does that mean?” she mumbled to herself, glancing at her Potions book, then down at her ingredient case. “Does it mean something that is yellow? A sunflower? I have a small piece of yellow rainbow, perhaps that’s it.”

She glanced again at the case. Her father had crafted it for her before she went off to study at the Academy, filling it with an extensive array of magical ingredients. She still found it slightly ironic that the gift he had chosen to send her away to school with would fall into her worst subject. Although maybe that was a good thing. If she had to buy the things herself she might actually end up blowing something up. The case still smelled of his workshop and made her feel safe. But today, it was no help at all. Near the front of the classroom, a bell began to chime.

“Time’s up,” Professor Yards said, looking up from the large tome he was writing in with an impressive phoenix feather pen. “Leave your potions on the desk. You shall have your semi-final mark tomorrow.”

Jenny winced and made a guess. Grabbing the vial of the yellowest substance she could find in the case, she threw in a pinch and prayed it was the right thing to do. Her potion responded with a wet burp and a hiss. Jenny winced. She wasn’t totally sure it was supposed to do that. She grabbed her books and other materials and hurried away before anyone saw her standing next to the obvious failure. No one needed any more fuel to make fun of her.

As she walked through the door, a svelte foot housed in expensive boots that Jenny didn’t have to read magazines to know were at the height of fashion stuck out. Jenny went flying, the things in her arms going everywhere. Laughter and snickers rang out as she scrambled to collect her things.

“Oh sorry. I didn’t realize someone was coming out of the door,” a pretty voice trilled.

“S’alright,” Jenny said. “If I had feet that smelled as bad as yours, I’d try to get them as far from me as I could too.”

The smiled dropped from Karla’s face. “Well, aren’t we feeling sassy today. What is that?”

Jenny wanted to say something, but anything she could have said would only worsen the situation, so she watched silently as Karla kicked at the shiny case. Broomhilde, Karla’s muscle, picked it up. It took her a few minutes to figure out how to work the latch, then the case fell open, showing the neat rows of herbs, powders, essences, and magical ingredients.

“How on earth did the pauper afford something like this?” Karla asked, honest surprise in her eyes.

Jenny’s ears burned at the taunt. It was no secret she was here at the Academy on a scholarship. All the rich, privileged kids of society wouldn’t let her forget it. Jenny wasn’t about to tell them the case was a present from her father back in Austraisa. Any personal information could be used as ammunition.

“She probably stole it.” Lizabet was an Unhcian princess with a pile of string for brains and no redeeming quality to make up for that. But her father was the richest man in the world, so she was guaranteed a place at the Academy. What the Fates were thinking when they set those motions into play, Jenny didn’t know. She was just about to give a clever retort when a shadow fell over the girls.

“Excuse me, what is happening here?” Professor Yards inquired in a mild voice.

“Jenny tripped,” Karla said sweetly. “She’s such a klutz but we just adore her. We’re helping her gather her things.”

Broomhilde hauled Jenny up by the arm, and Lizabet tossed her a second-hand book with a look of extreme disgust, tactlessly wiping her fingers on a silk kerchief she pulled out of her pearl-studded purse.

Jenny caught the book with the tips of her fingers, then straightened her tousled robe. “That’s my potions case.”

“Now, it’s not good to lie,” Karla clucked her tongue. “How could you possibly afford something like this?”

“Actually it was a gift from my father,” Jenny said, feeling more puckish now that she had a professor standing at her elbow. “My name is engraved on the latch. J-E-N-N-Y. Oh, sorry, that’s probably too many letters for you to read at one time.”

Karla smiled stiffly. “Oh, my mistake. I have one just like it.”

“Really? That’s funny because my dad made it and he made only one.”

Karla flushed and her eyes glittered like chips of death. “Anyway, I don’t need it. I’m not the one flunking potions. Here you…oops!”

Jenny’s heart leapt to her throat as she watched the case plummet from Karla’s hands towards the ground. The silver and glass shattered. Powders and liquids puffed everywhere. Sparkles, bangs, and clouds of smoke lit up the hall. Jenny knew that just a fall would do that much damage to the sturdy case. She glanced up, too slowly and saw Karla’s mouth moving with the incantation. Though it was too late and the damage was done, Jenny whispered the counterspell through gritted teeth, a binding ward. It did no good, and the powders continued to react in a loud, colorful show.

“Looks like it wasn’t that well made,” Karla said. “Shame. I’d always heard that Austrasish craftsmen were the best.”

“He’s not a craftsman; he’s an artesian,” Jenny said, gritting her teeth to force back tears.

The girls giggled and sashayed away, leaving Jenny to pick up the remains of her potions case. Professor Yards helped silently, a sympathetic expression on his face.

“I wouldn’t worry too much about it, Ms. Burke,” he said. “No one can be a virtuoso at everything, and I’ve heard that your performance in enchantment and divination far surpasses anything this school has ever seen. You’ll be fine.”

Jenny mustered the shadow of a smile and accepted his help with as little bitterness as she could. There was nothing he could do either. Karla and her gang came from families of wealth and power; they didn’t just think they ruled the world, they really did rule the world. That didn’t mean that she was going to let them see how they got to her.

But in the cover of night, Jenny let the tears come. Now she was really, truly going to flunk potions. And despite what Professor Yards said, that could endanger her scholarship and her chance for a position at the Institute. She had worked so hard, studying into the night until her vision blurred and she fell asleep in her books to get the scholarship. Her father had slaved to save enough to cover the portion of the tuition that wasn’t covered by the scholarship. This was her chance to escape the life she was chained to, and it was going up in smoke, thanks to Karla and the trolls.

Jenny took some extra time to get ready the next morning, using the expensive face colors to hide her blotchy eyes. When she was finished, she looked quite lovely, and only a searching look revealed the effects of her sobbing. She spent the whole next day dreading potions. Professor Yards looked up at her sharply when she tried to sneak into the class without anyone noticing.

“Ms. Burke. A word, if you please.”

“Yes sir?” Jenny whispered, hunching in front of his desk, cradling her books as if they could protect her. Her arms felt strangely empty without the case.

“Is this the potion you conconcted yesterday?”

Jenny looked at the cauldron in the middle of the desk. It was the standard school issue, cast iron with no distinguishing features. The mess on the inside, however, had Jenny’s signature all over it. It was lumpy, and weeping a noxious brown liquid. Every now and again, it gave a little shudder as though it were alive.

Jenny gave half a second’s thought to denying any connection with it, but dismissed it. The professor wouldn’t be fooled. She nodded miserably instead. The professor tipped the cauldron towards him, being careful not to touch the contents. The potion hissed and went a little darker.

“I take it you did not follow the directions for the examinations potions you were supposed to be making yesterday?”

“Not to the letter, sir,” Jenny said, wanting to sink into the floor.

“And pray tell, Miss Burke, what did you do?”

“It was just so confusing,” Jenny cried out. “We hadn’t studied that in the class. What is the color yellow anyway?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“The last ingredient,” Jenny said. “I didn’t know what it meant, so I guessed.”

“I see,” Professor Yards said with a bemused expression. “Well, potions has little to do with guesswork. It is a highly precise art.”

“Yes, sir,” Jenny whispered miserably. She imagined the word flunk being written with a flourish over her head.

“May I see your textbook?”

Jenny handed over the worn copy she had salvaged from the library. She could feel the piercing stares of the rest of her classmates. The professor leafed through the book until he came to the page with yesterday’s potion. He frowned as he read down the page, then his eyebrows disappeared into his hairline.

“Miss Burke, you are aware the final ingredient was written in after the book was printed?”

“What?”

The color yellow…” Professor Yards said dryly. “…is written in sparkly purple ink. Hardly standard printing format.”

Jenny gaped, then her ears turned red as she realized now what had happened. She had been so frazzled by the test that the fact the writing was different had completely escaped her notice. Karla and her cronies were snickering behind their hands in the back row.

“I’m so sorry, professor…” Jenny began.

“Miss Burke,” the professor cut her off. “I would be most interested to know what it is that you added so gratuitously to the potion.”

“I’m not sure,” Jenny said. “I didn’t look, just grabbed the yellowest thing in my case…”

“This would be the case that was smashed to pieces yesterday?”

“Yes,” Jenny said.

“That is a great shame.”

Jenny did a double-take. “Why?”

“I’d very much like to find out what you did to my cat.”

“Your…cat, sir?

“I found him eating this last night. This was left at the foot of my bed this morning.”

The professor reached into his bag and pulled out a dead rat. He dropped it on the desk with a loud thunk. It was bright gold. Jenny gulped.

“Is that…”

“Yes it is, Ms. Burke.” Professor Yards tapped his chin. “You may have just solved the mystery that has plagued alchemists since the beginning of time.”

Jenny blinked. This wasn’t possible. “Sir? Your cat…did that. Not me.”

“I assure you, Ms. Burke, Sherlock was never in the habit of bringing me expensive presents before tonight. Besides, he is, well, different.”

“Dif…different…” It was hard to get the words out. “…how?”

“Why don’t you see for yourself?” Professor Yards gestured under his desk with a pleasant expression.

Jenny steeled herself and knelt down. Under the desk was the largest ginger tabby she had ever seen. It was carefully washing its face. When its tongue flicked out, instead of pink, it was bright gold. Then Jenny noticed the golden sparkle to the coat. The cat wasn’t orange. It was pure gold.

“Can you explain that, Ms. Burke?”

Jenny looked up, brushing a stray wisp of blonde hair out of her eyes. “No sir, I’m afraid I can’t. My father put over five hundred different vials in that cache. They were labeled meticulously, but I doubt my father recalls everything, and as you know, this is not my best subject. I never had the inclination to look at all of them.”

“Very well,” the professor sighed. “See me after class, Ms. Burke. I will administer another test, and that shall be your final marks. But only this once.”

Jenny fought to keep from beaming as she stood and walked backwards, away from the desk and to her seat. “Yes, of course, sir. After class. Absolutely. Thank you.”

“And Ms. Burke, if by chance you happen to recall what it was that you added, you come see me at once.”

“Yes, sir. At once, sir.”

The cat stopped washing its face and stared at her. She swore it winked before it turned and vanished into the dark corners of the classroom.

“What is the color yellow?” Jenny whispered to herself as she sat down.

 

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