The alchemasters apprent.., p.32
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       The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.32

           Walter Moers
 

  ‘“Just wait,” he said to himself. “I shall be able to make her delicacies far superior to that sugary muck in there. I shall become the best pastry cook, the most famous confectioner, the greatest exponent of seduction by sugar in the whole of Zamonia! I shall produce the most delicious puddings and elaborate gâteaux ever devised. I shall create pralines to break a person’s heart. Fondants to fight over. Meringues to kill for. A bitter chocolate velouté that will make her love me to the point of idolatry.”’

  Ghoolion broke off because he was removing something from the oven and dishing it out on the plates. It smelt of baked pears and marzipan.

  ‘I must say,’ Izanuela whispered to Echo, ‘I think he’s doing terribly well. Did you know he was such an expert storyteller?’

  ‘Yes,’ Echo whispered back.

  ‘He’s a man of many talents,’ she said under her breath.

  Ghoolion served the next course. Baked to a pale golden brown, it was a pear-and-marzipan strudel afloat in a warm sea of melted white chocolate.

  ‘Enjoy,’ Ghoolion said with a bow.

  What impressed Echo most was not the sophistication of the food they were being offered - he was only too accustomed to that - but the fact that Ghoolion was so unpardonably neglecting his real work in the laboratory. Indeed, he seemed to have forgotten about it altogether. Tomorrow was full moon, the night he had been working towards for so long, and here he was, telling stories and cooing at Izanuela. To Echo, this was the surest proof of the love potion’s potency.

  ‘Aah! Mmyummm …’ said Izanuela as she took her first mouthful of the strudel. ‘This is simply in-cred-ible! It tastes like … like …’

  ‘Like love itself?’ Ghoolion amplified with a seductive wink. ‘That brings me back to my story. It was love that had wrought such a complete change in our young man. His gloom gave way to good cheer, his sourness to sweetness, and Ingotville to Florinth. He realised that he must become an utterly different person if he was to win his beloved’s affections. Ingotville being a place where a man might learn how to cast a cannon but not how to make a perfect crème caramel, he left there and went to Florinth, where culinary decadence was then at its height. The reigning Zaan of Florinth had proclaimed cake-making to be an art form in its own right and nine of his cabinet ministers were former pastry cooks. If anyone wished to achieve success in that field, Florinth was the ideal spot to choose. The cherry on the trifle, so to speak.’

  Izanuela laughed rather too loudly at Ghoolion’s feeble joke for Echo’s taste. Meanwhile, the Alchemaster set to work on the next course. He squeezed some blood oranges and limes and chopped up a handful of almonds.

  ‘Our hero began by renouncing all things sour,’ he went on, ‘and devoted himself to all things sweet. He became a member of the Mielists, a secret society that worshipped honey and believed in a god named Gnorkx who was reputed to live on the sun and be immortal. They bathed in honey every time the moon was full.’

  Echo gave a little start at the mention of Gnorkx’s name. Ghoolion glanced at him conspiratorially as he brought a pudding to the boil.

  ‘He learnt his trade from the bottom up. At first he worked in a sugar beet factory, then in a dairy and finally in a cocoa mill. Having enrolled in the cake- and candy-making courses at the Culinary College in Florinth, he completed an apprenticeship at the biggest confectioner’s in the city. He also did a three-year course in Advanced Patisserie under Maître Gargantuel, the Zaan of Florinth’s pudding and pastry chef. Gargantuel, who recognised the young man’s exceptional talent, made him his star pupil and initiated him into the mysteries of the pastry cook’s art.’

  Ghoolion cleared away and served the next course at once: cold blood-orange soup with gingerbread blancmange and lime-infused butter. Izanuela fell on it as if she hadn’t eaten for days.

  ‘For the Zaan’s birthday party he produced the longest Swiss roll ever baked. Then he opened his own patisserie, with the result that most of the other patisseries in Florinth went bankrupt because people wanted to eat his pastries and no one else’s. The Zaan offered our young man the post of Minister for Desserts, but he declined because he thought the time had come for him to return to Ingotville and win his beloved’s heart with a trayful of his most daring creations. When he eventually set eyes on her she was five times fatter and married with three children. Our young man threw himself into the city’s most polluted river and died of mercury poisoning before he could drown.’

  Echo and Izanuela stared at the Alchemaster, dumbfounded.

  ‘Is that it?’ Echo asked.

  ‘Well, yes,’ said Ghoolion. ‘All Zamonian stories end tragically, as you know. There are two lessons to be drawn from it: first, don’t wait too long before marrying your beloved, and secondly, too many sweet things make you fat.’

  ‘Yes, yes,’ said Echo, ‘and the more courses you eat, the thinner you get. What a stupid story.’

  ‘Well, I thought it was lovely,’ Izanuela said defiantly. ‘The ending was a bit abrupt, but it went perfectly with this pudding. The lime-flavoured butter is simply fantastic!’ She extended her outsize tongue and proceeded to lick her plate.

  ‘Oh, don’t mind him, my blossom,’ Ghoolion said. ‘Echo’s tired of my stories. I sympathise with him, but he’ll soon be spared them and left in peace. For evermore.’

  Echo’s blood ran cold. This might be Izanuela’s engagement party, but for him it was the equivalent of a condemned man’s last meal. He’d forgotten that for a moment.

  Izanuela was equally dismayed by Ghoolion’s tactless remark, Echo could tell that from the way her false eyelashes quivered. She stopped licking her plate and put it down.

  Ghoolion threw himself at her feet. ‘I, at least, intend to take my cue from the story and marry you as soon as possible. Let’s tie the knot before the week is out!’

  Izanuela turned crimson and struggled for words. ‘If you’re really sure …’ she said eventually.

  Ghoolion jumped up. ‘Then let’s go on celebrating! I shall make you all the heavenly things our unfortunate pastry cook was unable to create for his beloved.’

  He hurried back to the stove. Judging by the symphony of sweets he produced in the hours that followed, Ghoolion himself might have studied in Florinth under Maître Gargantuel: raspberry millefeuilles with champagne cream, rennet mousse with chocolate-flavoured zabaglione and cinnamon dumplings, coconut parfait with strawberry fritters, lemon sorbet tinged with saffron, doughnuts stuffed with cherries soaked in port, elderflower pastries topped with creamed pistachio nuts, hazelnut chocolate fingers on a bed of passion fruit and gilded Demonberries.

  Echo’s dark thoughts were soon dispelled by all these delicacies. He and Izanuela had never been so stuffed with food in their lives, yet they felt as light as air and extremely cheerful - probably because of the various liqueurs and brandies in the puddings they’d consumed. Izanuela had hiccups and Echo was just about to break into song when Ghoolion suddenly said, ‘Well, my blossom, it’s growing late and the journey from Ingotville must have been long and tiring. I shall now show you to your sleeping quarters.’

  ‘Ingotville?’ thought Echo, but he refrained from saying the word out loud. Izanuela was equally puzzled.

  Echo was on his guard. Whenever Ghoolion had conducted him to a remote part of the castle, a nasty surprise had been waiting there. Although the Alchemaster was now under the spell of the love potion, he was still dangerous and unpredictable.

  ‘I told you that story, my dearest,’ Ghoolion said suddenly, ‘because it bears a certain resemblance to our own.’

  ‘Really?’ Izanuela looked mystified.

  ‘Yes, in some respects. Our love, too, began in Ingotville. I also lived there as a young man, then went to another city and became a completely different person. But there the resemblance ends. Our own story has a happy ending.’

  The Uggly gave Echo a look of enquiry and shrugged her shoulders. She clearly had no idea what Ghoolion was talking about.


  He paused outside a massive door. The frame was of polished steel, the door itself of solid iron. It looked like the entrance to a strongroom. ‘Or a prison,’ thought Echo.

  Ghoolion produced a big key from his cloak and unlocked it.

  ‘Here it is, my blossom,’ he said solemnly. ‘Your bedchamber. I trust you’ll find everything to your satisfaction.’

  He pushed the door open and went in. Echo and Izanuela followed.

  Echo was flabbergasted. There wasn’t another room like it anywhere in the castle. The walls, floor and ceiling were of rusty iron, the furniture of polished steel trimmed with copper. The chamber was windowless but brightly lit by Anguish Candles. The pictures hanging on the walls in gold and silver frames had probably been painted by Ghoolion himself. They were gloomy views of Ingotville: factory chimneys wreathed in fog, rain beating down on rusty machinery, cogwheels the size of millstones. Even the roses in a vase were made of iron.

  ‘I want you to feel thoroughly at home,’ Ghoolion said with a smile. ‘Welcome to your new abode, Floria!’

  ‘FLORIA,’ thought Echo.

  FLORIA OF INGOTVILLE …

  He had a sudden vision of his late mistress’s grave in the Toadwoods.

  ‘Floria?’ Izanuela asked in a puzzled tone of voice. Echo gently prodded her foot with a forepaw.

  He understood it all now. The love potion’s sweet poison, coupled with the potency of the Cratmint perfume, had deluded Ghoolion into believing that his long-lost love, Echo’s late mistress, had found her way to him at last. Floria of Ingotville … His ideal of feminine beauty, which he’d cherished within him since his youth, had become identified with Izanuela, whom he now regarded as the love of his life.

  The Uggly interpreted Echo’s nudge correctly and asked no more questions. ‘This is, er … incredible …’ she said haltingly. Ghoolion smiled.

  ‘It’s all falling into place now,’ thought Echo. They said love blinded a person, but in this instance it had driven someone mad. Maybe it had all started when he told Ghoolion the story of his mistress’s life, maybe long before that. The Alchemaster had finally flipped. He had told his story in Echo’s words because he believed they were his own. He thought he was face to face with his beloved because he mistook Izanuela for Floria. When he looked in a mirror, perhaps he saw the young man he used to be. Ghoolion’s sick brain had turned time and space, emotion and reason upside down.

  ‘Up is down and right is wrong,’ thought Echo. Was it the effect of the potion? If so, the potion was probably just the last straw. The Alchemaster had doubtless begun to lose his wits a long time ago.

  ‘Come now, Echo,’ he said. ‘Floria needs her beauty sleep and we’ve got a big day tomorrow.’

  The Last Breakfast

  Something was restricting Echo’s breathing when he awoke the next morning. He felt his throat with his forepaws and was horrified to find a chain encircling it. Ghoolion, standing beside his basket, was smiling benevolently down at him.

  ‘Good morning,’ he said. ‘Our great day has dawned! The moon is full at last! I hope you’ll understand why I can’t let you roam around at liberty any more, not on such an important occasion. I don’t want to have to go looking for you in the castle’s ventilation system just when I need you most.’

  The collar that had been slipped over Echo’s head while he was asleep was composed of links of solid steel, and it was attached by another chain to the Alchemaster’s wrist. Now he was physically as well as hypnotically debarred from trying to escape.

  ‘If you refrain from tugging so hard at that necklace of yours,’ said Ghoolion, ‘it won’t restrict your breathing. I took great care to make it a perfect fit.’

  He led Echo to the Uggly’s metallic bedchamber, where some breakfast was waiting for him. Izanuela was sitting up in bed in her floral gown with a huge tray on her knees. Discounting a few crumbs, the plates on it were empty. So was the cup in her hand.

  ‘Oh,’ Ghoolion exclaimed delightedly, ‘you obviously enjoyed your breakfast, my blossom. May I fetch you some more coffee?’

  Izanuela nodded demurely.

  ‘It was excellent,’ she whispered.

  Having secured Echo’s chain to the brass bedstead with a small steel padlock, Ghoolion put a bowl of milk down for him, together with a plateful of seared tuna cut up into bite-size portions. Then he left the room.

  ‘What, eating again?’ said Echo when the Alchemaster was out of earshot. ‘I simply couldn’t. All that sweet stuff is lying on my stomach.’

  Izanuela brushed some crumbs from the corner of her mouth.

  ‘My,’ she said, ‘do ham omelettes taste good! Not to mention croissants with melted chocolate. Have you ever tried strawberry jam and peanut butter on white bread? It tastes divine! As for smoked salmon with dill remoulade and beef tartare on pumpernickel…I had no idea! I could become addicted to all this stuff. If it weren’t for Ghoolion, I’d never have eaten anything but cheese all my life, can you imagine?’

  ‘Beef tartare?’ said Echo. ‘You mean you’ve been eating raw meat already? At this hour of the day? Has it really come to this?’

  ‘Don’t tell me you wouldn’t eat all those things,’ she retorted, pouting.

  ‘Yes, but I wasn’t a devout cheese eater until yesterday, like you. What next? Will you be renouncing your Ugglian beliefs?’

  Izanuela bowed her head. ‘I can’t help it if he cooks so well. He’s a man -’

  ‘- of many talents,’ Echo broke in. ‘Yes, yes, I know, but he’s still the confounded Alchemaster. He’s your arch-enemy, or had you forgotten?’

  She stared down at the crumb-strewn counterpane. ‘A person must also be capable of forgiveness,’ she said softly.

  Echo rolled his eyes. The situation was taking a turn he hadn’t expected. Izanuela was becoming more and more infatuated with Ghoolion, and time was running out. He had only minutes and hours left, not days and weeks.

  ‘Doesn’t it worry you that he calls you Floria and thinks you come from Ingotville?’ he demanded.

  ‘I couldn’t care less where he thinks I come from,’ she said pertly. ‘And, heavens alive, he can call me whatever he likes as long as he waits on me hand and foot like this. Anyway, Floria is a nice name! Floria, his blossom. It suits me better than Izanuela. I always thought Izanuela sounded silly. I’m starting a new life today. Why shouldn’t I do so under a new name?’

  Echo didn’t have the heart to point out that Ghoolion wasn’t really in love with her, he’d simply lost his wits. She wouldn’t have believed it anyway, she was so besotted, and he might even have driven a wedge between them. This was a tricky situation. Ghoolion was insane, Izanuela infatuated, and he himself had one paw in the grave. It was impossible to carry on a normal conversation with the Uggly. He would have to weigh every word with the utmost care.

  ‘We must work out the best way of putting your request to Ghoolion,’ he said cautiously.

  ‘Eh? What request? Oh, you mean the lilac curtains. Never mind about them, there’s no real hurry, I -’

  ‘No, I don’t mean the lilac curtains! I mean your request that he should spare my life and let me go! That’s the request I mean!’ Echo’s voice broke.

  ‘Oh, that request. I’d almost forgotten, but there’s no reason to get so heated.’

  ‘He’s chained me up!’ Echo hissed. ‘Tonight he intends to cut my throat and boil off my fat! Forgive me for being a bit on edge!’

  Dismayed that he’d blown his top after all, he did his best to calm down.

  ‘It’s all right,’ Izanuela said awkwardly. ‘I’m rather flustered, that’s all. This has never happened to me before. Emotional turmoil …’ She gave an embarrassed little laugh.

  ‘All right,’ said Echo, ‘but we must keep a clear head. Time is running out.’

  ‘I know,’ she said. ‘Should I ask him as soon as he comes back?’

  ‘No, we mustn’t jump the gun. Listen, I’ve got a plan …’

  ‘Really?’


  ‘Yes. I think we should lure him out on to the roof.’

  ‘The roof? Must we?’ Izanuela shuddered.

  ‘I’m sure it would have a beneficial effect on him. Ghoolion is completely off his…I mean, he’s under considerable pressure at the moment. We must get him away from this unhealthy environment. All those acrid fumes and intoxicating gases. All that hard work and stress he subjects himself to.’

  ‘Good idea. He is looking rather pale.’

  ‘The roof has always had a liberating, soothing effect on me. The fresh air. The light. The view. It’s another world up there. You develop a new outlook on things. It helps you to see what really matters. In short, it’s therapeutic. That’s where we should present him with your request.’

  ‘You think I should ask him to show me the roof?’ asked Izanuela.

  ‘Better not. It might sound odd - he’d smell a rat. No, I’ll do it. I’ll ask him to take me up to the mother of all roofs one last time. Before he … well, you know what I mean. He’s already gathered how much I like it up there. It’ll sound more convincing, coming from me.’

  ‘All right. What then?’

  ‘You must come too, that’s all. Once we’re up there, you douse yourself in some more of that perfume.’

  ‘What, more? I must be economical with the precious stuff if I want a long-term relationship with -’

  ‘Izanuela!’ Echo hissed the name so loudly that she flinched. ‘My life is at stake! Kindly spare a thought for something apart from your flirtation with the Alchemaster!’

  ‘I’m sorry.’ She blushed. ‘So I put on the perfume -’

  ‘- and then you ask him. As casually as you can. You don’t beg or implore, you simply ask him the way you’d ask for a kiss.’

  The Uggly giggled like a teenager, then froze. Ghoolion’s metallic footsteps were approaching: he was hurrying back with her coffee. He appeared in the doorway a moment later.

  ‘What a glorious day!’ he exclaimed. ‘The wind is getting up and it’s growing steadily warmer. There could well be a thunderstorm tonight.’

 
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