Immortal Muse - sample Perenelle section

NOTE: The sample offered below is from the manuscript, not the book, and thus may vary slightly from the book text...

Perenelle Flamel: 1352

Perenelle had expected to be happy with her second marriage. She’d hoped for a wonderful new start to her life.

Life, it seemed, intended to disappoint her.

Rue des Saints Innocents was a noisy chaos as Perenelle approached the market square. The shop ledges were down in all the windows along the avenue as curious passers-by examined the proffered wares; the banners above the market stalls fluttered in the desultory (and sadly fragrant) breeze off the Seine. Ahead of Perenelle, a crowd gathered around a young man with a dancing bear. The man looked handsome enough in his scarlet tights and broadcloth tunic, a battered viol propped up in a case at his feet. The bear appeared to be ancient and arthritic, its muzzle silvered with gray. The creature snarled as its owner struck it on the snout with the viol’s bow, and Perenelle saw that the beast was missing most of its teeth. The poor creature’s coat was scabrous; islands of scaly patches created a painful map on its flanks and the creature’s fur was gone entirely under the spiked and thick leather collar. Flies seethed around the open sores. The bear’s claws were brown and cracked, dulled from scrabbling on the cobbled streets. Still, children screamed and ran when the man struck the animal with the bow again—across the front paws this time. The bear roared in irritation but reared up. On two unsteady legs, the beast took several mincing steps as the owner scratched out a poor tune on the viol and sang in a warbling baritone:

“Je puis trop bien, Madame

Comparer a l’image que fait Pygmalion”

Perenelle shook her head at the poor bear and the poorer performance, but tossed a denier into the viol case—maybe the coin would mean the bear would be fed that night. She walked on, listening to the calls of the merchants. It had rained the night before, and she skirted the pools of water and the piles of offal in the street’s central gutter, lifting up the hem of her dress. The two maidservants with her followed, chattering to each other and giggling as they cast their gazes back to the dancing bear—or more precisely, to the young man. “He has a lovely bum, don’t you think?” she heard the older of them, Marianne, say to the other; Marianne was fourteen, and (Perenelle suspected) rather too much interested in what men and woman did in their beds. Perenelle tsked and frowned at the girls; they ducked their heads with a last glance, hiding their faces under the brim of their wimples, and hurried after her.

The market was crowded with throngs of Parisians, which was a delightful change from three years before, when the terrible pestilence afflicted the city. That appalling spring and summer, it was whispered, over 700 people within the city walls had died each and every day. In those horrible times, the stench of death stretched black tentacles through the streets of the city and those who could fled from the terror.

Perenelle remembered those days too well; they still haunted her dreams. She had been married to Marlon then, but her husband had been taken by the pestilence like so many others, his body wracked with fever while horrid, dark mushrooms of stinking pustules sprouted from his armpits, neck, and groin. Perenelle’s father, Cosme Poisson, had been an apothecary and alchemist; she’d learned some of the craft from him in her childhood—her mother had died birthing her; her father had never remarried, and Perenelle had taken on the role of helpmate for Cosme until he’d died, five years before. By the time Marlon became sick, most of the physicians had either died or fled the city with the others, and there’d been no one to help. She’d mixed potions to take the fever from Marlon’s body, to ease his breathing, to reduce the swellings.

She might ease his symptoms, but she could not cure him.

Marlon’s eventual death had been a blessing given his suffering, but she hadn’t witnessed his passing. The fever had taken her too, though her symptoms had been less severe and she’d eventually recovered, but long after Marlon’s body had been taken from the house. She didn’t even know in which of the several mass graves outside the city walls he’d been buried.

For months afterward, she’d lived with the guilt that she’d survived while he’d died. It wasn’t that Perenelle grieved horribly for Marlon; she’d married him, a mere musician, in the heat of a youthful infatuation and against her father’s wishes. After the initial fire had faded, she found that while she liked Marlon, she also didn’t truly love him, but there was no good escape from the iron bonds of marriage. Still, she’d been with him for eight years before he was snatched away by the plague, and she liked to believe that it was her presence and her support that had helped Marlon rise within the court before his untimely death, an entertainer whose ballads were often requested, even by the king.

But in a Paris seemingly half-emptied by the horrors of the pestilence, she found herself lonely and lost. She’d thought that she was essentially already dead: twenty-eight, widowed and childless, her parents gone, her red hair already beginning to turn brittle—though her body stubbornly insisted on breathing.

Then she’d met Nicolas Flamel. He’d courted her hard, used every advantage he had with her. He’d gained first her trust, then given her what she’d thought—again—was love.

And maybe it was love. Maybe that’s all love ever was and ever could be, despite the grand tales and stories. Maybe love was something that bloomed like a bright flower in Spring, only to inevitably wither away and eventually pale into a withered, brown husk: a mocking reminder of what it had once been.

But now, with love a barely-remembered and colorless stem, she carried another gift for Nicolas…

“Madame, here, you must smell these!” A peppercorn seller thrust his wares under her nose, bringing Perenelle back to the present. The astringent smell wrinkled her nose and nearly brought back the nausea that struck her every morning recently. “Fresh, and ready to spice your supper. Only six deniers for the lot, just half a sol. You won’t find a better bargain anywhere in the city.”

Perenelle hefted the bunch. “Two deniers,” she said. “They’re small and so old that they barely have any smell at all, but I might be able to make some use of them.”

The man’s eyebrows sought to reach the eroding shore of his greasy black hair. “Two deniers!” he nearly shouted. One of the dogs wandering around the stalls glanced up at them, then continued sniffing the ground as it searched for dropped food. “Why, the madame must wish my children to starve and be cast out in the streets. The very least I could accept is five deniers, and even then I’m barely paying for my own costs.”

They eventually settled on four deniers, and Perenelle tossed the peppercorns to Marianne, who placed them in her basket. They continued walking the stalls, buying fish, vegetables, and wine, and stopping in the nearby boulangerie for bread. With the servants sufficiently burdened, they walked back down the street toward home.

#

The houses of the Rue des Saints Innocents leaned against each other like gossiping washerwomen or old men crowded around an ale-spattered tavern table. Nicolas’ house—Perenelle no longer really had any belief that it was at all her house—nestled among the others, three stories high, with Nicolas’ store taking up most of the ground floor. The sign, Nicolas Flamel: Scrivener & Manuscripts, was nailed above an open stall window stuffed with scrolls and fly-specked parchments bound in frayed leather. Rust stains from the nail heads flowed in static red rivulets over the gilded scrollwork. Perenelle saw Telo, Nicolas’ apprentice, a thin boy of eleven, sitting on a stool in the open doorway.

“Where’s your master?” she asked him as the maidservants slid past him, taking their baskets into the kitchen at the rear of the house’s ground floor.

He lifted his chin. “In his laboratory, Madame,” he said. His voice was high, still that of a child. “I’m to call him if we have any serious customers. Otherwise, he said not to disturb him until dinner, as he’s working.” He ran a finger under his nose, smearing snot across his upper lip and cheek. “There’s been naught but idlers, though even that’s terribly hot work today.” He sighed dramatically.

“Go on to the kitchen,” she told the boy. “Tell Marianne to give you some wine, cheese, and bread, and you may bring it back here. I’ll watch the store while you’re gone. Hurry back!”

Telo jumped down from the stool, bowing his head. “Merci beaucoup, Madame,” he said, and ran off. Perenelle watched him go and leaned against the doorway of the house, her hands rubbing her stomach. She imagined she could feel a swelling there, though it was far too early for that. Still, it was enough to cause her to smile; maybe this news would help with Nicolas. Maybe the flower of love could bloom again.

Nicolas... She’d met him in the winter of 1349 after the death-scythe of the pestilence had passed, at this very shop. Without any source of income except for the rent that came to her from her father’s house, Perenelle had come here looking to sell her father’s old alchemical manuscripts. She was surprised to see how young the owner of the shop was—younger than she was by several years, yet he had the sophistication and the knowledge of a much older man; in that, he reminded her of her father. His fingers were stained with ink, he smelled of old paper, and there was a severity in his thin face. Yet his dark eyes were alight, and the way he swept his hand through the unruly mass of his hair as he leaned over the parchments she’d brought was disarming. It was apparent that he also knew alchemy, claiming to be a student of the art, and that also softened her toward him.

“This is a copy of the papyrus Graecus Holmiensis,” she told him. He only nodded, his lips pressed together. “And this is one of Jābir ibn Hayyān’s manuscripts—an original.”

“You’re familiar with these?” She could sense doubt in his voice, but he tempered it with a faint smile.

“A little,” she told him. “Like you, I’m a student of the art, though a poor one. I helped my father with his work. I made a copy of his experimental notes also, if you’d be interested in that. He was working on chrysopoeia.”

“Weren’t they all? You are the copyist?” The smile broadened. She liked the way his eyes crinkled as he grinned; that, too, was like her father. The somber air about him vanished with the expression. “So you can write, as well.”

“Oui, Monsieur; my father schooled me. I’m keeping the original for myself.”

“To conduct your own experiments?”

“Perhaps.” She shrugged. “I haven’t yet decided.”

That was how it began. Nicolas asked for time to look over the manuscripts, and that evening he escorted Perenelle to a tavern, where they ate and talked. She found it wonderful to converse with him: he was full of energy and ambition, doing well enough with his business, and had aspirations of doing more. He was fascinated with alchemy, yes, but he claimed to be even more interested in spells and incantations held within the ancient manuscripts. That first evening, he showed her how he could, with a single word, cause a small flame to appear on a wick. But he didn’t, as so many other men did, try to dominate the conversation. She noticed even then how Nicolas listened intently as she talked about her father and his work, coaxing her with gentle questions to say more. She thought it flattering then.

This attraction was so very different than what she’d felt with Marlon, whose face and easy manner had managed to capture her, but who didn’t have a serious or ambitious bone in his body. She thought this was the way it was supposed to be between man and woman. She was quickly infatuated with Nicolas for his mind and for his passion.

Six months later, he asked Perenelle for her hand in marriage. He gave her a golden ring as a token. “One day,” he told her, turning the ring in his fingers and placing it in her palm, “you and I will make these by the hundreds from nothing but base metal...”

That was Nicolas’ alchemical quest—the search for transmutation of elements; beyond that, he had little interest in what chemicals and potions could do.

“You helped me become what I am,” her father had told her, not long before he had died. Cosme touched her hair as he had when she’d been a child, lifting the red-orange tresses that seemed to flame in the sun. He’d always told her that the brilliant color of her hair showed up in their family for one person a generation, to mark someone who would have a special life. “And after you helped me, you took that handsome but mediocre musician as a husband—against my wishes, as you know—and I must grudgingly admit that you have made him a passable example of his craft, if still nothing exceptional. Maybe that’s your gift, daughter. Maybe you are a muse, a new Calliope or Clio. My very own daemon.”

She could do the same with Nicolas, she thought. He was already talented and successful; perhaps with her at his side he could become famous. She thought she’d discovered a kindred spirit in Nicolas, and so she took his ring and his name.

Now, she was no longer quite so certain.

She was somehow held in a gilded prison with open doors, and now a new shackle had been added…

#

When Telo returned, Perenelle left him to his task. She first went to the kitchen to make certain that the trout she’d purchased at the market was being properly cleaned, and that Marianne wasn't stinting on the salt while curing the portions that were not for the night’s supper. After seeing that the kitchen work was satisfactorily underway, she walked up the stairs to the third floor, which was Nicolas’ laboratory. The smells became stronger as she climbed the final flight: bitter, metallic scents tickled her nose and coated the back of her throat; sulfur lent its distinctive stench to the mix. She could hear the clinking of a glass vial and the faint, almost cheerful bubbling of retorts over their fires. Nicolas had his back to the door as she entered, bent over a manuscript with his forefinger tracing the line of words.

He didn’t seem to notice her arrival. She watched him without saying anything for a few minutes, her hands unconsciously cradling her stomach. She had agonized over when to tell him that she was pregnant—certainly not before she was absolutely sure herself. But she had missed her second monthly bleeding now, and her stomach was unsettled every morning. Two days ago, she’d gone to the sage-femme three streets over; the woman had nodded and congratulated Perenelle after her examination. Already, she could imagine that she felt a faint stirring in her womb., the quickening of the child.

With Marlon, even after eight years, there had been no children. She’d prayed for a child, often, to both God and the Blessed Virgin, but neither deity had ever answered. She’d thought that she would never hold her own baby in her arms or suckle her at her breast. Now, after less than a year with Nicolas, the miracle had happened, but now she wondered whether he’d share her joy.

The somberness that she had sensed in Nicolas from the beginning enveloped him now. During their courtship, he had talked about them working together, but he rarely let her do so. He’d ignored her pleas for a workshop of her own, a place to do her own experiments, seeming to find that concept amusing. When he came to her bed of late, there was little affection in him; he topped her as if he were performing a duty: his face serious, his release quick. Now that he had the entire library of her father’s old manuscripts to work with, all his attention was either on his efforts in the laboratory, or on his attempts to make the magical spells he’d found in the ancient manuscripts actually work—even his scrivening and manuscript-selling was ignored unless a customer insisted on attention.

Perenelle wouldn’t have minded any of it had she felt that Nicolas wished her to be his partner in this enterprise. Her father Cosme had been single-minded in the same way, but Cosme had shared his passion with her. Nicolas did not; over these several months, he had made it increasingly clear that he found any suggestion she might make to be both intrusive and irritating. There had been arguments, each more angry than the last, and a few times, she’d been afraid that he might strike her, though he never had. During their disagreements, he had become increasingly vulgar and abusive toward her, and while he hadn’t touched her, he had destroyed nearby objects in his fits, or thrown things about.

But she was married, and left her with little choice. Some of the neighboring wives gossiped about far worse abuse that they or others they knew endured, each day. They told her that it was the way things were between men and women, and that she should pray to God and thank Him that Nicolas provided for her well enough. She talked to the parish priest, who told her that marriage was a bond that could not be broken, and only fervent prayer would help her. Her situation could be far worse, he said.

Despite what the society and the priest said, she could have left him—she should have left him. Her father would have told her to do that, she knew, though a woman on her own had few resources. She had nearly made up her mind to leave Nicolas and accept whatever consequences followed when she missed her first bleeding. She stayed, thinking that perhaps the cold she’d had the week before had caused it, but then the morning illness had come and the second bleeding had been missed, and she knew.

That changed things, especially if a child could repair the rift between them. Perenelle hoped that the announcement would ease the increasing tension between them.

Her cordwain slippers hushed across the wooden floor. Nicolas glanced at her as she approached him and grunted. He turned back to the manuscript, which she saw was one of her father’s. In her worst thoughts, she wondered whether those manuscripts were the only reason he’d married her: so that the property she’d inherited from her father would become legally his without his needing to buy them; so that her work in translating them would also be his. In front of him, the retorts chortled over the blue flames from small charcoal braziers. She glanced at the jars in front on the table and suddenly frowned. “Nicolas,” she said, “you’re not doing this correctly. The powdered iron shouldn’t be in this mix at all, and sulfur is a component of vitreous earth, not the fluid, and so you shouldn’t be using it in the retorts.”

Nicolas craned his head back to glare at her. “You should be silent, wife, rather than demonstrate how little you understand.”

Perenelle shook her head. “I’m sorry, but I happen to know this experiment very well. I helped Father with it several-”

She stopped. Nicolas slapped the table so hard that the retorts chimed in their iron holders. “Be silent, wife,” he roared. “I don’t need to have your nonsense filling up my ears while I’m working.”

“It’s not nonsense-” she began, but even as she started to speak, Nicolas’ hand drew back and slapped her hard across the cheek. Perenelle gasped and staggered back, her hand to the burning redness on her face.

Now she took a step away from him as he scowled and lifted his hand again. “Nicolas, please! I only wanted to tell you-” she began but he slapped her again, harder this time, and she stumbled, nearly falling. She sobbed. “Have you gone mad?”

“Be quiet, woman!” Nicolas roared. “I want no more nattering about that idiot Cosme Poisson. Your father was a dabbler and a fool, and you’ve inherited his stupid, stupid foolishness.” Spittle flew from his mouth as he raged. He advanced on her, pushing her, and she fell to the floor. Trying to break her fall, she felt her left wrist collapse under her and she cried out in pain, sobbing. “Stop that wailing!” Nicolas shouted at her, and he kicked her. She tried to shield her stomach; his boot struck her in the side just at the ribs. She doubled over, and his next kick caught her in the face. White fire exploded in her vision as she heard her nose crack. Blood was dribbling down her face and smeared her hand when she put it to her face. He drew his foot back again as she stared at red-stained hands.

“Nicolas! Stop! I carry...” She tried to draw a breath, but that sent fire stabbing through her side and nose. She shrieked, forcing out the words. “I carry our child.”

His foot stopped in mid-strike. He looked down at her through slitted eyes. “Liar!” he hissed, but his eyes held sudden doubt.

She shook her head desperately. Droplets of blood spattered the floor in front of her. She cradled her left wrist to herself; it was already swelling. “I swear,” she managed to gasp, her voice nasal. “I swear to God and the Virgin.”

He stared at her, his breath coming fast through his nose. She thought, perhaps, that she glimpsed pity or maybe even remorse in his gaze. His hands clenched and unclenched at his side. A retort hissed suddenly on the table, and he glanced that way. “Go and clean yourself up,” he said to her. “I have work to do here.”

He extended his hand to her. She ignored the gesture, getting slowly to her feet on her own, forcing herself not to cry out again at the stabbing in her side and the throbbing of her wrist and nose.

She turned without a word and limped from the laboratory. It was only after the door closed behind her that she collapsed at the top of the stairs and began to weep.