The alchemasters apprent.., p.31
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       The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.31

           Walter Moers

  ‘There,’ she said brightly, ‘now comes the finishing touch. The icing on the cake, so to speak!’

  She took the flask of Cratmint perfume and dabbed a few drops on her cleavage.

  Echo was suddenly overcome by a feeling of boundless affection for her. He wound round her legs the way he’d always wound round the clump of Cratmint on the roof, purring and miaowing with delight.

  ‘Off we go, then!’ she cried. ‘Let’s storm Ghoolion’s castle!’

  The unusual spectacle presented by the strange pair created quite a stir in the streets of Malaisea. The crowds of gawping, uncomprehending pedestrians grew steadily thicker as they walked down Apothecary Avenue, but Izanuela refused to quicken her pace and strode on with head erect. Unlike Echo, she seemed to be enjoying the attention.

  ‘Take no notice of them, my friend,’ she said. ‘They’re nothing but ignorant boors.’

  No one ventured to follow them up the lane to the castle.

  ‘They’re gutless, too,’ she said contemptuously. ‘Heavens,’ she went on, clutching her bosom, ‘my heart’s in my mouth.’

  They didn’t stop till they reached the castle entrance. Izanuela gazed up at the building, which looked even more dilapidated at close range than from a distance.

  ‘Where do you think he is?’ she asked.

  ‘Ghoolion? In his laboratory, at a guess,’ Echo replied.

  ‘Then let’s get it over.’ Izanuela’s throat was so dry that she could only utter the words in a hoarse croak.

  The Proposal

  All the pride and self-assurance Izanuela had displayed in the streets of Malaisea swiftly evaporated in the atmosphere of the castle. She climbed the stairs on trembling legs and stared fearfully at the stuffed mummies like a little girl on her first ride in a ghost train. Sweat streamed down her cheeks, dissolving her make-up and washing it into her cleavage.

  Halfway up the stairs she stopped abruptly.

  ‘I can’t,’ she wailed. ‘I can’t go through with it.’

  ‘Come on,’ Echo said encouragingly, ‘we’ve got this far.’

  ‘But I’m scared.’

  Echo thought feverishly. How could he reassure her?

  ‘What score would you give your fear on a scale of one to ten?’ he asked.

  ‘A hundred. No, a thousand. No, a million. No, a hundred million.’ She was breathing heavily.

  He wouldn’t get anywhere like that this time, he could tell. ‘Come on,’ he said again. ‘We’ll make it. You look ravishing.’

  ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I can understand why you’re bound to believe that, it’s your only hope. But I don’t have to do this. I need only go back home and everything will be the way it was.’

  ‘But you’ve got Plan B in case things go wrong. You simply spin him that yarn about an old Ugglian custom and make yourself scarce.’

  ‘It’s nothing to do with that. You think I’m scared of Ghoolion or those gruesome figures there? Bah!’ She made a dismissive gesture.

  ‘What do you mean?’

  She gave him a long look of genuine despair. There were tears in her eyes.

  ‘It’s myself I’m afraid of,’ she said in a trembling voice.

  ‘You’re talking in riddles. This isn’t the time.’

  Echo was bewildered. She infuriated him, yet he felt sorry for her.

  ‘I’ve only just realised,’ she went on. ‘It’s like my acrophobia on the roof, don’t you understand? This isn’t just your last chance, it’s mine as well.’

  ‘I don’t follow.’

  ‘Do you know how old I am? No, you don’t, thank goodness, and I’m not going to tell you. Nor am I going to tell you how many chances of romance I’ve ruined in my lifetime. There’s only one certainty: this is the last.’

  She wiped away her tears.

  ‘This time I’m staking all I possess: the love potion, the perfume, this gown, myself. If I fail to conquer a man’s heart this time, I shall never pluck up the courage to try again.’

  Echo was beginning to understand.

  ‘If I go home now,’ Izanuela whispered, ‘at least I can always tell myself I might have succeeded. Surely that’s better than the bitter certainty of failure?’

  ‘I can’t judge,’ said Echo. ‘I don’t have the experience. I’ve never ruined a chance of romance because I’ve never had one.’

  A long, melancholy silence ensued.

  ‘All right,’ he said, ‘let me wear the perfume. Just tip it over my fur and push off. I’ll risk it.’

  ‘You know that won’t work, he’ll be twice as anxious to keep you at his side. And when the effect of the perfume wears off, tsssk!’ She drew a long fingernail across her throat.

  Another awkward silence.

  ‘Very well,’ she sighed at last. Her bulky frame came to life with a jerk that made her leafy gown rustle. ‘I’ll do it, but don’t imagine I’ll lift a finger to help you if it all goes pear-shaped.’ She went stomping up the stairs with Echo at her heels.

  When they got to the laboratory he cautiously peered inside. The cauldron of fat was bubbling away. No sign of Ghoolion, though.

  Izanuela peeped round the corner.

  ‘Oh, he isn’t here!’ she exclaimed in relief. ‘Too bad. Come on, let’s go.’

  ‘Not on your life, we’ll wait. He’s bound to be fetching some more balls of fat from the cellar. He’ll be back any minute.’

  Echo went into the laboratory and Izanuela reluctantly followed him.

  ‘Where do you think I should stand?’ she asked. ‘Where would I look my best?’

  ‘Stand beside the window. The smells aren’t as bad over there, so they won’t overwhelm the perfume.’

  Izanuela went over to the window and carried out some running repairs. She mopped her sweaty face and applied some more rouge. Then she took out the flask of Cratmint perfume and sprinkled herself liberally with it.

  ‘Just to be on the safe side,’ she said with a nervous laugh.

  ‘You’re being very extravagant with that stuff,’ said Echo. ‘What’ll you do when it’s all used up?’

  ‘It’ll last for a while yet. Meantime, I’m hoping to obtain some more Cratmint. I’ve already asked my colleagues to keep their eyes open.’

  Echo pricked his ears. ‘I can hear him coming. He’s halfway up the stairs.’

  Izanuela tweaked her gown straight.

  ‘Tell me something,’ she said. ‘When should I ask him to let you go?’

  ‘I don’t know yet,’ Echo replied. ‘Let’s wait and see what he does. We don’t want to rush things before we’re absolutely sure you can twist him round your little finger.’

  Ghoolion’s metallic tread could be heard in the passage.

  ‘There he is!’ Echo whispered. ‘Now for the moment of truth.’

  The Alchemaster appeared in the doorway. And froze.

  ‘Er, good evening, Sir Alchemaster,’ Izanuela blurted out. ‘Please forgive me for barging in here uninvited, but it’s an ancient Ugglian custom which has fallen into disuse, and I’d very much like to revive it. That’s to say, it’s not an ancient Ugglian custom to barge in uninvited, but to call at the castle on the eve of the full moon and pay our respects to the Alchemaster in ceremonial attire. Hence this floral gown of mine.’

  It looked for one moment as if she were about to faint. The Alchemaster stood there transfixed, staring at her like a snake mesmerising a rabbit. He didn’t spare so much as a glance for Echo. As if towed across the laboratory on a string, he walked slowly, very slowly, over to Izanuela, who was swaying unsteadily beside the window. To Echo, those few seconds seemed longer than all the hours he’d endured in the bookcase. Ghoolion came to a halt just short of the Uggly, gazing at her with an expression Echo dared not interpret. Then he fell to his knees, bowed his head and whispered: ‘Will you marry me?’

  ‘Yes,’ Izanuela whispered back. So saying, she lost consciousness and subsided into the Alchemaster’s outstretched arms.

  The Engagem
ent Party

  ‘You can always tell a good chef by his puddings,’ said Ghoolion.

  ‘Isn’t that what people say? All the time they’re ploughing their way through a menu, isn’t it the sweet they’re really waiting for?’

  Echo and Izanuela nodded eagerly. This had been their invariable response to everything he’d said in the last few minutes. No sooner had the Uggly regained consciousness than he plied them both with flattering compliments and conducted them to the castle kitchen, where he laid the table and proceeded to heat the oven.

  ‘That’, he went on, ‘is why I should like to celebrate this day by creating a menu composed entirely of puddings. A symphony of rousing finales. One sweet sin of self-indulgence after another. Nothing but the best from first to last. Do you agree, my blossom? Do you agree, Echo, my honoured guest?’

  Izanuela was sitting stiffly at the end of the table while Echo occupied his usual place on top of it. They both watched, fascinated, as the Alchemaster busied himself at the stove.

  Ghoolion seemed a different person. He was behaving for all the world like a husband of many years’ standing, but one who was still as enamoured of his wife as he had been on their wedding day. He missed no opportunity to pay Izanuela compliments and fire off ardent glances in her direction.

  ‘I thought you ate nothing but cheese,’ Echo whispered to her when Ghoolion had hurried out of the kitchen to fetch some additional ingredients from his storeroom.

  ‘For his sake I’d eat a plate complete with cutlery,’ she whispered back. ‘And the tablecloth into the bargain. Stop needling me!’

  ‘There’s no need to abandon your principles just because he’s besotted with you. Keep him on a tight rein. We want him eating out of your hands, not the other way round.’

  ‘Isn’t it fantastic, though?’ she demanded, clapping her hands. ‘The potion is working far better than I thought it would.’

  ‘But please remember our ultimate objective,’ Echo reminded her. ‘We haven’t got there yet.’

  Ghoolion returned carrying two baskets filled with flour, sugar, butter, eggs, chocolate, dried fruit and vanilla pods.

  ‘I want to prepare everything freshly, my dearest,’ he called, ‘that’s why I must ask you to be patient. Permit me to pass the time by telling you a charming story while I toil away at the stove. It’s about the finest pastry cook in Zamonia.’

  Echo and Izanuela nodded eagerly again.

  ‘Hm,’ thought Echo. ‘A charming story about a pastry cook, eh? The old boy really has changed his spots.’ All Ghoolion’s stories in the past had been about vampires and demented mass murderers, Snow-White Widows and lethal wines that choked those who drank them.

  The Alchemaster proceeded to beat up some white of egg in a large bowl.

  ‘Very well,’ he said. ‘At first this pastry cook was a rather crabbed individual. He despised sweet things of all kinds, detested cakes and puddings, abhorred meringues and biscuits. Puddings were an abomination to him and whipped cream he found loathsome. What he liked best were pickled gherkins and rollmops, smelly cheeses and salt cod, hard roe and sauerkraut from the Sourwoods swimming in sour cream.’

  ‘Ah,’ thought Echo, ‘that’s more like the old Ghoolion. At least his story’s beginning on a sour note.’

  ‘Best of all, however,’ Ghoolion went on, ‘he preferred to eat nothing at all. He was as tall and thin as a beanpole.’

  ‘Sounds familiar,’ thought Echo.

  ‘By the way,’ said Ghoolion, using a cut-throat razor to dissect an apricot into slices so thin one could have read a book through them, ‘I forgot to mention that my story takes place in Ingotville.’

  ‘Ingotville?’ Echo exclaimed in surprise.

  ‘Yes,’ said Ghoolion. ‘Anything wrong with that?’

  ‘Yes,’ Izanuela chimed in, ‘what’s wrong with Ingotville?’

  ‘Absolutely nothing,’ Echo said hastily. ‘Please go on.’

  ‘Well, Ingotville, as everyone knows, is the ugliest, dirtiest, most dangerous and unpopular city in the whole of Zamonia. It consists entirely of metal, of rusty iron and poisonous lead, tarnished copper and brass, nuts and bolts, machines and factories.’

  ‘Strange,’ thought Echo. ‘Those are precisely the words I used in my own description of Ingotville.’

  The Alchemaster was now stewing some green tomatoes in a cast-iron saucepan, together with raisins, orange peel, brown sugar and sherry vinegar.

  ‘Yes,’ he went on, ‘the city itself is even said to be a gigantic machine that’s very, very slowly propelling itself towards an unknown destination. Most of the Zamonian continent’s metalworking industry is based there, and even the products it manufactures are ugly: weapons and barbed wire, garrottes and Iron Maidens, cages and handcuffs, suits of armour and executioners’ axes. Most of the inhabitants dwell in corrugated-iron huts black with coal dust and corroded by the acid rain that falls there almost incessantly. Those who can afford to - the gold barons and lead tycoons, arms dealers and arms manufacturers - live in steel fortresses, in constant fear of their starving and discontented underlings and workers. Ingotville is a city traversed by streams of acid and oil, and perpetually overhung by a pall of soot and storm clouds in which shafts of lightning flash and thunder rumbles. The grimy air is forever filled with the pounding and hissing of machinery, the squeak of rusty hinges and the rattle of chains. Many of its inhabitants are machines themselves. It’s a vile city, perhaps the vilest in all Zamonia.’

  ‘Those are my own words, syllable for syllable,’ thought Echo. It was amazing how well the old man had memorised them. Where was this leading?

  ‘Well, one day, in the midst of this hideous city, our ill-natured hero encountered the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen.’

  ‘Ah,’ Izanuela exclaimed, clapping her hands, ‘a love story!’

  ‘This sounds familiar too,’ thought Echo, but he said nothing.

  ‘Picture to yourself the most beautiful girl imaginable!’ said Ghoolion. ‘She was so beautiful that there would be no point, in view of my meagre talent for storytelling, in even trying to put her beauty into words. That would far exceed my capabilities, so I’ll refrain from mentioning whether she was a blonde or a brunette or a redhead …’

  ‘He’s telling another story but in my words,’ mused Echo. ‘What’s he up to?’

  ‘… or whether her hair was long or short or curly or smooth as silk,’ Ghoolion pursued. ‘I shall also refrain from the usual comparisons where her complexion was concerned, for instance milk, velvet, satin, peaches and cream, honey or ivory. Instead, I shall leave it entirely up to your imagination to fill in this blank with your own ideal of feminine beauty.’

  Echo inferred from Izanuela’s downcast eyes and stupid smirk that she had substituted her own likeness for that of the beautiful girl.

  ‘If he’s memorised it to this extent,’ he reflected, ‘my story must have left a far deeper impression on him than I thought.’

  Ghoolion was now, with the deft and graceful movements of a head waiter, serving the first course. A warm salad of gossamer-thin slices of apricot on a bed of puréed green tomatoes, it was topped with a remarkably firm dollop of whipped egg white flavoured with vanilla. He gave Izanuela a fiery glance that would have melted the ice in the Cold Caverns of Netherworld, then went on with his story.

  ‘Well, it was widely known that, besides being the loveliest creature in Ingotville, this beautiful girl had an absolute mania for sweet things. She adored bonbons and pralines, chocolate and marzipan, nougat and Turkish delight. She was crazy about pastries and whipped cream, millefeuilles and lemon cheesecake.

  ‘The ill-natured young man cursed his lot. “I work in a vinegar factory,” he grumbled, “where I skim the scum off the gherkin tubs. How can someone like me win the affections of so sweet a girl?”’

  Echo felt relieved. ‘He’s getting around to it at last,’ he thought. ‘In his own words, too.’

  The Alchemaster peeled a pe
ar while some crystallised chestnuts were simmering in cream in the saucepan in front of him.

  ‘I must say,’ trilled Izanuela, ‘this tomato compote is a dream. As for the vanilla foam, you could positively chew the stuff! How do you get it like that?’

  ‘Many thanks, my blossom,’ Ghoolion replied with a smile. ‘One simply has to beat it hard enough. But that’s just an appetiser designed to loosen your delightful tongue. I’m producing the other courses as fast as I can.’

  He removed the chestnuts from the stove and proceeded to mash them with a fork.

  ‘One day,’ he went on, ‘when the young man was strolling along, sodden with acid rain and lost in his own gloomy thoughts, he passed a patisserie. It was a rare sight amid the ubiquitous rust and soot and metallic greyness of Ingotville: a shop window filled with colourful, cream-topped pastries, chocolate gâteaux, cinnamon rolls, crystallised fruit and glazed tartlets. To anyone else that shop window would have seemed like an oasis in the desert, a starving man’s hallucination, but its effect on our young man was diametrically different. The sight of all those sweet things revolted him.’

  Ghoolion tossed some flakes of white chocolate into a saucepan to melt, then added some cream and spiced the result with cinnamon.

  ‘The young man was about to walk on quickly when he caught sight of his beloved inside the shop, her eyes shining with anticipation as she pointed to the various items she wished to purchase. He was quite convinced he had never seen her look as beautiful as she did at that moment.’

  Ghoolion removed the white chocolate sauce from the stove. It smelt tempting.

  ‘A strange kind of rage welled up in the young man’s breast. He was disconcerted to note that he was jealous of a slice of gâteau. Envious of a strawberry tartlet. Infuriated by a chocolate wafer.

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