The alchemasters apprent.., p.3
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       The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.3

           Walter Moers
 

  Ghoolion was also a fanatical advocate of Ugglian incineration, the barbaric but long-eradicated medieval custom that had cost the lives of many innocent Ugglies. Although Zamonian legislation precluded Ghoolion from practising it, much to his indignation, he addressed an incessant stream of requests for its reintroduction to the Zamonian Ministry of Justice in Atlantis, organised petitions signed by Uggliophobes and had even founded a political party whose only member was himself. One of its main objectives was the installation in every town of a cast-iron grill especially designed to reduce Ugglies to ashes. This he proudly christened the Ghoolio-Ugglian Barbecue.

  Succubius Ghoolion had written one book on the correct construction of such a grill and its incineration techniques (he was particularly proud of the riddling device that enabled the Ugglies’ charred remains to be sieved into an ashpan) and another on methods of interrogating Ugglies, which far surpassed medieval inquisitors’ techniques in cruelty and ingenuity. This contained exhaustive descriptions of Ghoolion’s numerous instruments of torture, which ranged from the Uggliopress and the Electric Interrogator (powered by an alchemical battery) to the aforementioned Ghoolionic Confessionator, an airtight sack of otterskin filled with thistles and nettles in which Ugglies were sewn up together with a pregnant viper, a rabid fox and a gamecock, and left there until they pleaded guilty. Quite a few of Malaisea’s more enlightened citizens found it outrageous that an avowed Uggliophobe like Ghoolion should hold the post of municipal alchemist in charge of Ugglian affairs, but they were outnumbered by those who advocated that the itinerant fortune tellers be ruled with a rod of iron.

  And Ghoolion made sure they were. In no other Zamonian town was it so difficult for Ugglies to live and practise their profession. Only in Malaisea were they subject to the Ugglian Code, a list of eight hundred regulations bristling with insidious bureaucratic and juridical pitfalls devised by Ghoolion himself. Among other things, they specified the hours of the day during which Ugglies could ply their trade and the penalties they could expect to incur in the event of an infringement. They could not, for example, prophesy at night, nor at midday, nor late in the afternoon, nor in fog, nor when the moon was full, nor on public holidays, nor in sub-zero temperatures, nor in buildings other than the houses in Uggly Lane, which possessed no cellars. They were further required to submit a quarterly tax return of such intricacy and complexity that it would have driven a qualified Zamonian tax consultant to distraction. Finally, they were not only forbidden to go shopping except at certain times, all of which fell within their prescribed working hours, but prohibited from entering a shop at those same times.

  Penalties ranged from drastic fines to months of solitary confinement in the dark, exile to the Graveyard Marshes, or forced labour in the sulphur mines at Demon’s Gulch. All the Ugglies in Malaisea were skating on the thin ice of illegality, for Ghoolion’s regulations were so sophisticated that he could prove them to have been broken by any one of the female soothsayers at any hour of the day or night, even if she was asleep in bed. The result was that, having begun by containing fewer Ugglies than any other town in Zamonia, Malaisea eventually became almost Uggly-free, because most Ugglies preferred to live in other towns or even in the dangerous wilderness. And that, in turn, relieved Ghoolion of nearly all his municipal duties and enabled him to concentrate even more wholeheartedly on his sinister research projects - as he had always intended from the first.

  Invisible Caviar and Sewer Dragon’s Knilch

  ‘Cooking is alchemy and alchemy is cooking,’ said Ghoolion as he proceeded to serve up Echo’s first meal. ‘Blending familiar things together and creating something entirely novel - that’s the essence of the culinary art, just as it is in alchemy. Heat plays a vital role in both disciplines. They both necessitate harmonising carefully gauged ingredients, reducing substances and combining the long familiar with the epoch-makingly new. Minute quantities of ingredients and a second or two more or less on the stove can make all the difference between success and failure. To me, cooking a good meal is as important as concocting a new poison. Every meal is an antidote to death, after all, and isn’t a nice bowl of chicken soup the best remedy for many an illness?’

  Ghoolion had moved to his kitchen for the rest of the evening. This was on a lower floor and looked to Echo like the diametrical opposite of his weird, chaotic laboratory. Everything here was scrupulously neat and clean, bright and unintimidating. There were no sinister taxidermal specimens, no mysterious contraptions, no mildewed old books or Anguish Candles. In the middle stood a big black cast-iron stove with gleaming copper kettles, frying pans and saucepans on it. The huge kitchen table, which was surrounded by numerous chairs and draped in an appetisingly spotless linen tablecloth laden with plates, silverware and wine and water glasses, looked as if a big dinner party was planned.

  More pots and pans and kitchen utensils of all kinds - egg whisks, ladles, cleavers, skimmers, sieves, rolling pins and the like - were hanging from hooks on the wall or suspended from the ceiling. Handsome oak dressers were stacked with crockery of every size, shape and colour, and the snow-white sink was full of freshly washed plates. Numerous jars of dried herbs shared a big kitchen cupboard with cookbooks and bottles of wine. Another cupboard contained little drawers with handwritten labels reading ‘Flour’, ‘Sugar’, ‘Cocoa’, ‘Vanilla’, ‘Cinnamon’ and so on.

  The furniture and objects in this room were devoid of evil or dangerous intent. They served only one purpose: the preparation of food.

  Food … What a nondescript, almost insultingly prosaic word for the meal with which Ghoolion regaled Echo that night! The little Crat hadn’t fared badly at his former mistress’s home, but his meals there were always the same: plenty of milk plus the occasional sardine or morsel of chicken. That was why Echo had until now believed that the grilled mouse bladders she’d once dished up were the acme of culinary delight. He’d had no idea that cooking could be promoted to the realm of high art, as Ghoolion was now demonstrating.

  The first course consisted of a tiny little dumpling afloat in a bowl of clear, orange-tinted broth. Echo, who had casually perched on the table, bent an inquisitive nose over the bowl as it was slid towards him.

  ‘Saffronised essence of tomato,’ Ghoolion said softly. ‘It’s obtained by skinning the finest sun-ripened tomatoes and placing them in a cloth suspended over a bowl. For the next three days, terrestrial gravity alone ensures that the tomato pulp deposits its liquor in the bowl, filtered through the clean linen drop by drop. That’s how one extracts the essential flavour - the very soul of the fruit. Then add some salt, a few grains of sugar and a dozen threads of saffron - precisely a dozen, mark you! - and simmer over a low flame for one whole day. The broth must never boil, or it will dissipate the soul of the tomato and taste of nothing at all. That’s the only way to obtain this orange shade.’

  Echo marvelled at Ghoolion’s patience and the trouble he had taken, just to produce a bowl of broth. It smelt wonderful.

  ‘Now for the dumpling. The meat it contains comes from salmon living in the most limpid rivers in Zamonia, the ones that flow into the Muchwater Marshes. Their waters are extremely dangerous - so clear that many people fail to see them until they’ve already fallen in and are drowning. As for the salmon, they’re reputed to be so happy, you can hear them laughing when the moon is full and they leap up the rapids in a vain attempt to reach it. They feed on nothing but little freshwater crayfish, which are considered a delicacy in themselves - they’re almost worth their weight in gold during the season. They taste fruity, almost sweet, and give off an aroma of apricots.’

  Ghoolion smacked his lips and shut his eyes as if savouring the crayfish in retrospect.

  ‘I mash up the salmon meat,’ he went on, ‘season it with a pinch of salt and some herbs, add some minuscule cubes of candied onion, mould the mixture into a dumpling, and roll it up in a sheet of rice paper no thicker than a puff of breath on a frosty windowpane. Then I suspend the dumpling on a strin
g above a gently simmering saucepanful of delicious Blue Tea. The salmon dumpling dangles in that pale-blue steam for the space of exactly seven thousand heartbeats, then it’s à point. I remove it from the rice paper, submerge it in the essence of tomato and it’s ready! Go on, try it.’

  When Echo bit into the fragrant dumpling, something truly astonishing happened: the world around him disappeared. Ghoolion and his laboratory had dissolved - no, not into thin air, into water! Echo could feel it all over his body, see bubbles rising in front of his eyes, glimpse pebbles on the river bed beneath him and big fat salmon swimming along beside him. The water was not only all round him, it was inside him - inside his mouth, his throat. He was actually breathing it. And then, all at once, he knew he was a salmon. The realisation was so vivid and startling, he emitted a miaow of surprise that expelled some bubbles from his mouth and obscured his vision. A moment later, just as suddenly as it had vanished, everything reappeared: the familiar world, the kitchen and the Alchemaster. Echo was so flabbergasted, he shrank away from the soup bowl and tried to shake the water from his fur. Except that there wasn’t any water; he was bone dry.

  ‘You were a fish for a few moments, am I right?’ Ghoolion didn’t wait for an answer. ‘Not just any old fish, either: you were a salmon! You could feel the water in your non-existent gills, couldn’t you?’

  ‘Yes indeed,’ said Echo, still bewildered. ‘I was as much of a fish as a fish can be. I was breathing water.’ He tried to extract a drop of water from his right ear with his forepaw, but it was as dry as the rest of him.

  ‘In that case, I followed the recipe correctly. It was devised by the greatest salmon chef in Muchwater. He refused to cook anything but salmon throughout his career, and this was his favourite recipe. Go on, help yourself!’

  Echo hesitated for a moment, then finished off the rest of the dumpling. Instantly, he was back underwater - not the pleasantest place for a Crat to be. This time, however, he knew it was only an illusion, so he even managed to enjoy Ghoolion’s culinary conjuring trick. He shot some rapids, was sucked down into a raging whirlpool of river water and air bubbles, surfaced for long enough to see a sunny blue sky - and found himself back on Ghoolion’s kitchen table once more.

  ‘That was terrific!’ he exclaimed delightedly, giving himself another shake. ‘To think a dumpling can do all that!’ He proceeded to lap up the delicious tomato consommé straight from the bowl.

  ‘It’s what is known as a metamorphotic meal,’ Ghoolion explained, ‘an alchemical offshoot of the culinary art. It used to be practised in the dawn of alchemy but is now prohibited by the Zamonian Ministry of Health - I hope you won’t report me to the authorities!’ Ghoolion grinned. ‘The hallucinogenic effect stems partly from a very rare variety of Blue Tea found only on the outskirts of the Demerara Desert, and partly from the herbs in the salmon filling, which only alchemists can grow these days - Sleepwort, Hypnothyme and Phantasage, among others. If I increased the dosage of tea and herbs you could feel like a fish for hours on end.’

  ‘Really?’

  ‘No problem, but it would defeat the object of the exercise if you wriggled around on the table for hours, under the impression that you were a fish. The dosage is what matters. After all, you can over-season anything.’

  ‘I see.’ Echo nodded. ‘Does it only work with salmon?’

  ‘Oh no, all kinds of fish, all kinds of animals. Chickens, rabbits, wild boar - anything edible. It even works with plant life. I could turn you into a mushroom if I wanted.’

  ‘I’m impressed,’ said Echo. ‘You promised a great deal, but this surpasses all my expectations.’

  ‘You’ve seen nothing yet.’ Ghoolion made a dismissive gesture. ‘This was just a modest prelude. Just a starter - one of many.’

  He cleared away the bowl, which the little Crat had licked clean, and replaced it with another. It was empty. Echo couldn’t understand why an empty bowl should give off such an irresistible aroma.

  ‘Invisible caviar,’ Ghoolion explained, ‘from the Cloak-of-Invisibility Sturgeon, the rarest and most expensive source of caviar in the world. Try catching an invisible fish with your bare hands, the only method permitted by the Zamonian Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. I managed to obtain only one tiny egg, and even then I had to make use of my most disreputable contacts in the Florinthian underworld. There’s blood adhering to it.’

  Echo shrank away from the bowl.

  ‘No, not to the egg itself,’ said Ghoolion. ‘I’m speaking metaphorically. This egg was really destined for the Zaan of Florinth. I was informed that Florinthian glass daggers were wielded and several assistant chefs had to be drowned in soup before the Zaan’s head chef could be prevailed on to defraud his lord and master of the egg. He bamboozled him by serving him an ordinary sturgeon’s egg with his eyes blindfolded, claiming that it enhanced the flavour. The Zaan of Florinth has been susceptible to such tricks ever since the ceiling of his throne-room fell on his head.’

  Echo’s curiosity revived at this account of the caviar’s adventurous provenance. He explored the bowl with his tongue, searching for the invisible egg. All at once, his palate was rocked by a minor gustatory explosion. A frisson of pleasure ran down his spine.

  ‘Mm,’ he said. ‘So that’s what invisible caviar tastes like. Heavenly!’

  ‘Now look at your tongue,’ said Ghoolion, holding out a silver spoon for him to see himself in it. Echo leant forwards, smiled at his distorted reflection in the convex metal, opened his mouth - and recoiled in horror. His tongue had vanished.

  ‘No, you haven’t lost it.’ Ghoolion smirked. ‘It’s temporarily invisible, that’s all. It’ll reappear as soon as the taste of the caviar has faded.’

  Echo stared at the spoon open-mouthed, frozen with fear. What if Ghoolion were wrong? It was as unthinkable for a Crat to live without a tongue as without a tail. But, sure enough, the more the taste faded the more clearly he could see his tongue once more. He breathed a sigh of relief.

  ‘True aesthetic pleasure should sometimes be accompanied by a touch of nervous titillation,’ said Ghoolion, who was already preparing some new concoction in a cast-iron frying pan. ‘Bee-bread wouldn’t be worth eating but for the risk of biting on a Demonic Bee that hadn’t had its sting removed, nor would a steamed Porcufish if one didn’t have to take care not to puncture oneself on its lethally poisonous quills. Are you feeling relieved at having your tongue back? That, too, is an aesthetic pleasure beyond price.’

  He put a plate in front of Echo.

  ‘Don’t worry, your hair won’t fall out and you won’t grow horns either. This is fried Sewer Dragon’s knilch.’

  Echo eyed the next course mistrustfully. ‘What’s a Sewer Dragon, if you wouldn’t mind telling me? And what is its knilch?’

  ‘A Sewer Dragon is a creature that lives exclusively in sewers. As for its diet and physical appearance, I’d sooner not go into them at dinner time. Because of its unusual habitat, the Sewer Dragon has developed an organ that digests like a stomach, detoxifies like a liver and filters like a kidney: the knilch. What is more, it actually thinks with its knilch as well! The knilch is a superorgan unique in the annals of Zamonian biology. Fresh Sewer Dragon’s knilch is such a delicacy, head chefs fight duels over it with filleting knives.’

  Echo emitted an involuntary belch, feeling faintly nauseous. He tried to imagine a Sewer Dragon but thought better of it when his inner eye pictured a creature with matted fur and several fleshy pink probosces.

  ‘Why are things that naturally arouse disgust considered by gourmets to be supreme delicacies?’ Ghoolion asked. ‘Live oysters? The diseased livers of force-fed geese? The brains of baby calves? The aborted offspring of the Cloak-of-Invisibility Sturgeon? Sewer Dragon’s knilch?’ He answered his own question. ‘The thrill of overcoming an aversion, that’s what appeals to them, just as transcending the norm is the alchemist’s supreme motivation. Not only cooking is related to alchemy; eating is too. Eat this Sewer Dragon’s knil
ch, analyse its constituent flavours with your tongue and taste buds, and you’ll be halfway to becoming an apprentice alchemist! Shut your eyes!’

  Echo complied. He sank his teeth in the peculiar organ and chewed with deliberation. There was no taste he could identify, nothing that reminded him of any particular food. It was like eating something cooked on another planet.

  ‘I can’t taste anything familiar. It smells strange. It tastes strange too - unusual but interesting.’

  Echo swallowed the last morsel.

  Ghoolion levelled a triumphant finger at the little Crat. ‘Then you’re a gourmet! A born gourmet and a budding alchemist!’

  ‘Am I?’

  ‘Beyond a doubt! A culinary ignoramus would have spat out a Sewer Dragon’s knilch at once. It tastes extraordinary - like nothing else. Ordinary folk prefer familiar tastes - they’d sooner eat the same things all the time - but a gourmet would sample a fried park bench just to know how it tastes. It’s the same with the alchemist: nothing strange, novel or surprising can deter him. On the contrary, he goes looking for such things. Are you ready for the next course?’

  And so it went on, hour after hour: noodles baked in gold leaf, catfish and buttered shrimps, gurnard with twelve sauces, spider crab in paprika and brown sugar, brill encased in zucchini scales, sautéed lobster in aubergine boats, grouse livers with essence of morel, pigeons in aspic, Midgard rabbits’ tongues in lavender sauce, stuffed marsh-hogs’ tails on a bed of blue cabbage, wishbone meat in lemon-balm jelly, chilled sea-slug soup with shaved crayfish tails. The portions were minute, often no more than a mouthful, to ensure that every course left Echo wanting more. And as for the puddings!

 
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