Mother always said, "Nothing can be gained without loss." It was the first and most basic rule of alchemy, and it was also the first half of Mother's favorite phrase.
"So we raise ourselves up by taking from others." Viola murmured to herself, finishing the quote.
Three thousand meters in the air, the wind whipped past Viola's masked face with frigid fingers. Already her cheekbones were numb, the gravel-coated rooftop of the skypiercer digging into her elbows and stomach. The sounds of the city whirled far below, the raucous honking of air-cars, the muted rumble of a thousand different conversations. The shrill scream of a policeman's whistle made her twitch, but she settled back down again after a brief glance over her shoulder.
Before her, a simple brass tube was mounted in a crude bracket on the edge of the roof. Her breath puffed through the mask's fabric as she closed her eyes and tried to close out all the distractions. She shook the ruined working out of the brass tube she carried and poured the goopy mixture into an empty vial. The telescope was a deceptively complex working, as not only did it have to concentrate light to a point, but the concentration had to be perfectly even. Which meant the mix of elements had to be perfectly even as well. Viola had the four vials she needed set out before her. Zinc for finding. Magnesium chloride, to represent the amplification of light. A flask of water served as the working's suspension fluid.
The working only needed a few simple symbols, which Viola had drawn on the side of the tube in chalk. They gave the alchemical mixture the direction, while Viola herself would provide the catalyst. After pouring the grayish mixture into the tube, Viola closed her eyes and concentrated. The brass tube failed to exhibit any spectacular reaction to the tiny ritual, but that was fine.
She squinted into the tube, and this time the working had functioned more or less as intended. The window on the skypiercer opposite hers swam into view, albeit with a distinct blue tint, the working hinting at a less-than-stellar execution. Viola concluded grumpily that she could do no better, and turned her attention to the view within the alchemy-enhanced telescope.
It was an apartment, one of the fancier ones. Velvet drapes lined the windows, tasseled and tussled within an inch of their lives, dribbling with gold and gems and all manner of frippery. The furniture was the same, dark chocolate wood inlaid with still more gold, carved into elaborate beasts and plants and things that only existed in the imaginations of the very rich.
A man sat at a massive desk, his back to her. From the glimpses she caught of his face, he appeared to be about thirty, with broad shoulders and thick, knotted muscles beneath his stylish silk jacket. Despite his appearance, Viola had access to no less than fifty-seven different reports of his death over the last two hundred years. If her intelligence was correct (and Mother's was always correct), the man at the desk was Av Orsei, the patriarch of the House Shloshim. His House was much older than House Malkah, though its power had weakened in the last few decades, in no small part from gentle nudges by members of Malkah. Still, the remaining members had clung on with grim stubbornness, armed with a depth of arcane knowledge from before the Catastrophe, knowledge Viola's House could not match. Tonight, Viola would exchange— the word 'steal' was far too crude— some of that knowledge. As the heir to House Malkah, only she could be trusted with the intricate web of backstabbing and espionage that made up the fabric of Nemaran politics.
For the next four hours, Viola remained utterly motionless. Av Orsei, oblivious to her presence, sat at his massive oaken desk and continued his work. Dusk fell, and Orsei drew a few alchemical ingredients from within a drawer and conjured up a small sphere of golden light that glowed over his shoulder as he worked. At last, long after night had fallen, he rose, dumped the fuel out of his working, and shuffled off to an adjacent room, not visible from Viola's perch. Still she waited, watching the lights of his apartment as they flicked off one by one. Only when the last one had gone out did she rise from her position. Her joints popped and creaked, and she massaged her stiff muscles. Bits of gravel were embedded in her long black robes, and she brushed these away with a frown.
A few meters behind her, she had left the airbike. It was a sleek, lovely thing; painted jet black because that was the manner of long, sleek things. Aster had made the bike for her, and Viola had been hesitant to accept a gift from a disgraced member of the House. Yet Lane had pointed out its impeccable craftsmanship, the powerful Difference Engine that no legal model would have.
She swung one leg over the saddle now, pressing a finger against the heat-activated working that read her fingerprint and started up the other various alchemical arcanery within the bike. Hydrogen fuel flowed to the Difference Engine, the device which made alchemical space travel possible. By switching the masses of the exhaust with the starship, yet keeping the relative velocities the same, a Difference Engine allowed for tremendous acceleration from very little fuel. Light as a feather, powerful as a stallion, the bike hummed into the air.
Viola twisted the throttle wide open, and the airbike reared forward, leaping over the edge of the building. Viola clung to the steel airframe, muscles taut against the vicious acceleration. The bike banked in an artistic, lazy loop as it soared over the massive chasm between the two buildings. She hovered mere centimeters away from the outer edge of the building's windows, then cut the throttle off.
Without any alchemical forces to offset its mass, the bike transformed from a marvelous method of conveyance to a half-ton of inert metal. Obeying the laws of physics, the bike plunged downward at an alarming rate. Viola clung to the seat and tried her best to keep her flapping cloak out of her eyes. In her mind, she was counting down.
Three. Two. One. Viola slammed the throttle wide open, and with a roar, the alchemical engines were brought back to life, straining to slow the falling airbike. When the bike returned to its usual, purring hover, they were stopped —with needle-like precision— just outside the very window Viola had been observing.
Viola leaned over and inspected the window with a practiced eye. There were, no doubt, a wide assortment of alchemical tripwires and other traps for the unwary assassin or burglar. Viola, of course, was neither of these. Careful to never touch the surface of the window, she drew a small bottle of powdered graphite and flicked the dust at the window. Caught by the winds, some of the dust was simply blown away. The rest stuck to the windowpane, clumped into odd patterns across the glass.
Viola studied the patterns, adding up in her head what defenses would have to be present to form these patterns. A simple Finding contact working, of course. Workings of Finding heat and Finding movement. A few would be disguised, but Hide workings were energy-intensive under scrutiny. Unless they had just been topped off, she could run through them without much effort. All these would be no issue to deal with.
Every working needed a supply of fuel, and if that supply was cut off, the workings would die. Viola scanned the surface of the building's wall, looking for any inconsistencies that night indicate that a fuel line had been buried beneath. The brickwork of the building was old, covered in a thick layer of grit collected from the city's smoggy air. But a small section of bricks seemed cleaner than the rest, appearing a lighter color than the rest by the faint glow of the city's many lights.
Locking the throttle in place, Viola let go the handlebars and let the bike hover in place. She rummaged through the multitude of pockets in her cloak for the proper ingredients, keeping one eye peeled for nosy, insomniac neighbors. She first doused the bricks with water, then drew the necessary symbols with a thin layer of glue. Breaking meant iron, so on top of the glue Viola spread a generous layer of iron filings. Around the border of the working she had created, the brickwork began to blacken, then liquefied, running down the building in a thin stream. Viola produced a small empty vial and collected the steaming fluid. As the flow ceased, she stoppered it and tucked it back into the surrounding material now cut away, the bricks shifted.
Smudging out the working with her thumb, she slipped her fingernails around the new crack formed in the brick wall and pulled. The bricks resisted her efforts with impressive stoicism. Sighing in irritation, Viola created a new working, Subtracting mass from the center and Adding it to the wall around her. Rendered light as if they were made of foam, she pulled the bricks free with a grunt. The hole now revealed the interior wall of the building. Through thick wads of insulation and the various wires and pipes that made up the skypiercer's guts, Viola noted a single, long golden pipe weaving through the rest of the mess.
She slid her hands through the mess of tubes and ductwork, feeling the thin, flexible pipe beneath her fingers. Drawing a knife from a wrist sheath, she sliced the thin tube apart. An oily gray substance dripped out. Viola withdrew her hands and slid the chunk of brickwork back into place. Retrieving the small container of fluid she had collected earlier, she re-drew the working, this time replacing iron with carbon—Making. She used the fluid to coat the work, then once again activated the working. The process was reversed, and the wall re-solidified itself as the blackish fluid seeped back into the brickwork. When the process was complete, there was still a small series of hairline cracks left in the wall, invisible to all but the closest inspection. Viola nodded to herself in satisfaction. That had gone much better than her earlier attempts.
Now Viola slipped back down onto her bike, and performed a much simpler bit of alchemy to open the window's lock from the outside. The panes clicked open, easing back on well-oiled hinges. In a blur of flapping black fabric, Viola landed noiselessly on the rich carpet inside. With a quick glance to make sure the hoverbike stayed put, hovering outside the window, Viola pushed the window closed once more and took a glance around the room inside.
As she had seen through the telescope, it was the apartment of a wealthy man indeed. The floor was covered by thick red carpeting, without so much as a speck of dust to mar its smoothness. All the furniture was constructed of dark, polished wood, thin veins of gold accents filling out the small crevices. The shelves all around were covered in books and priceless artifacts: a hovering orrery, alchemically suspended and synchronized to show the latest orbital patterns of Phoba's unpredictable six moons. A thick-barred golden cage containing a small book, whose beady eyes stared at her as if it knew she did not belong.
Viola paid no attention to the varied and incredible artifacts on display. She did not need such things. Instead, she looked at the books. As was the rest of the apartment, the books were of the highest quality, with rich red and brown leather covers, titles inlaid in gold leaf on their covers. The pages were gilt-edged, of spotless creamy white paper. The words were printed in jet-black ink, without a single mistype to be seen. A single one could have paid the rent of an average Nemaran family's rent for a year. They were, of course, useless to her. No alchemist worth his weight in potassium perchlorate would leave anything valuable out in the left the shelves behind, prowling about the room for a switch or secret mechanism.
There were none to be found in plain sight. Viola drew out a pinky-sized vial of zinc filings and uncorked it. Pouring a small portion out into her hand, she returned the vial and found a small lump of coal as well— this Finding work would need to be a bit more powerful. Using the lump of coal as a crude pencil, she sketched out a simple triangle, a line running through the center. The coal lines smoked and evaporated, and the grayish powder shifted, forming a small arrow. It pointed towards an unremarkable book— at least, unremarkable among all the other priceless artifacts.
Viola tugged it free, and a small silver button gleamed on the shelf behind it. She pressed, and with a near-silent click, the shelf nearby slid upwards, revealing a room slightly larger than a closet beyond. Within, a single book rested atop a stone lectern, illuminated by a dim alchemical light. A humming sound behind her head made her turn. Av Orsei stood behind her, an elaborate bronze pistol in his fist, green clouds of energy coiling through its core.
"Pardon me for interrupting this lovely robbery." He said, his sunken gray eyes gleaming like a dead winter sky.
Viola raised her hands above her head and gritted her teeth.
"Stand up." Av ordered her.
"Walk over to the chair by the window and sit in it."
Viola hesitated. Av pulled the trigger, and a chunk of green light licked out into the left hand. Viola screamed as the pistol's Breaking energy burned through her nerves like an electric shock. The sensation lingered, and her fingers spasmed, turning an unhealthy grey color. Clutching the wounded hand to her chest, Viola staggered over to the chair and sat.
With a click, iron restraints leapt from the woodwork and bound her there, the cold metal digging into her skin. From a trapdoor in the ceiling, a long, stinger-like device unfurled itself, the sharp steel point aimed dead center of her forehead. Av Orsei set the gun down and fetched a small vial of yellow-green fluid.
"I'm going to need you to hold very still." He instructed. "Now, then, let's see who—"
The wall exploded.
A middle-aged man burst out of the sudden cloud of rubble, driving his shoulder into Av Orsei's side. The old alchemist staggered back, jabbing his pistol at the new threat. A blast of green slammed into the newcomer, who absorbed the blow with a grunt.
"Lane!" Viola exclaimed.
He gave her an annoyed look. "And now he knows, child. Did I not specifically—" a second blast of green energy speared into his head, knocking him backwards. Lane recovered, the Subtraction workings embroidered into his jacket glowing a brilliant purple for a moment before dimming. Bolts of the same green energy shot from the hem of the jacket and sizzled against the floor.
"I must say, I've been expecting you Malkans for a while now." Av Orsei commented. He nodded to viola. "Thanks for confirming my suspicions, by the way."
Viola glowered. Av adjusted a dial on his elaborate pistol, and the swirling energy within its glass chambers shifted from green to an ominous red.
Lane drew a weapon of his own— a silver-topped walking stick of deep, glistening black. In minuscule lettering, all manner of complex and powerful workings were carved into its length. The pistol spoke, and he swatted the red energy beam, redirecting its path into the stinger-like device that hung from the ceiling. Viola flinched as fragments of scrap cascaded onto her head as the device was vaporized. "I think you've got more more pressing matter right now." Lane replied, sending a wave of undiluted force back at his opponent.
Orsei shrugged off the impact and scoffed. "If this is all you can do, I'm not worried."
"Hardly." Lane lunged. Orsei fired the gun, but each time the shimmering black cane bent and swallowed the scarlet beams, scattering them to the side. Lane crossed the distance between himself and Orsei, and the cane cracked down on the old man's forehead. Orsei dropped like a stone.
Lane set the cane down, breathing hard. He stooped to lift Orsei's head and uncapped a small vial. Green vapor bubbled over from its lip, and Lane ensured that Orsei had breathed in a goodly portion.
"I thought we were supposed to kill him." Viola noticed. With a bit of awkward twisting, she had managed to scratch out a working that would undo the shackles. Adding a bit of fuel, the shackles turned cherry-red and shattered. The burning hot pieces fell back onto her wrists, and Viola hissed in pain as she snatched her hands away from the pain.
"Viola!" Lane exclaimed. "Why didn't you just let me do that?"
"I'm fine." Viola insisted. "Why didn't you kill him?"
"No need." Lane answered. "I gave him a sleeping mixture and a draught of Hide for his memory. He'll have no idea who took his grimoires now."
"But it would have been so much easier—"
"Easier but wrong." Lane bit out.
"But Mother says it's always safer not to leave witnesses!"
"Your mother tends to be a little…extreme… about such things." Lane suggested. "Now why don't you tell me about why you snuck off to go on this little adventure without me?"
"Mother already says I'm not fit to be her heir." Viola replied, sullen. "If I don't prove her wrong, she'll write me off for good."
Lane sighed. "I understand. We'll say that we took him together. Have you at least found the grimoire?"
"Of course." Viola showed him how to access the secret room. Lane picked the book up off its stone lectern and handed it with sarcastic deference to Viola. She huffed at him and took the book, jamming it into yet another pocket.
"None of that attitude, young lady." Lane warned. "Let's clean this place up."
Viola sighed and set about creating a Making/mending working, which needed lots of carbon, with a bit of sodium as well. She set a vial bubbling at the center of a new diagram, and the wall flowed back together— sideways. Viola groaned in frustration as she saw that the bricks were now sideways from their undamaged fellows, an oddity anyone would notice.
"You didn't focus." Lane chided her.
"I know! I know!" Viola snapped back. "Give me a minute."
Several minutes later, the crime scene was cleaned up to Lane's satisfaction, and Viola hopped out onto the airbike, as Lane dropped a splash of water into an interior pocket of his coat. Floating alongside the airbike, he set out alongside her. Grinning, Viola twisted the throttle wide open, enjoying the icy rush of cool, clean night air past her face.
Lane chuckled as she roared past him, his cloak fluttering around his body in the tailwind. "Fly safe now," he called after her. "I'll be home presently!"
Viola waggled the bike's stubby wings in reply, then shot off into the city's chaotic airspace.