"Away with you, old beggar! This is private--!"
"Claudat," Naevius interrupted sharply.
The doorman turned pale. He was a young laicar man with a body-builder's physique poorly contained in his formal suit. "Master Squalidus! I didn't recognize… we weren't expecting you!"
The enlil merely raised an eyebrow and then gestured impatiently toward the wrought-iron gateway. His lab-coat, even if it bore scorch marks, was nowhere near shabby enough to justify Claudat's harsh and judging tone. Naevius filed that away to deal with later while the younger man unlocked and opened the gate without another word. Claudat closed and locked the gate behind Naevius and then rushed on ahead.
The Squalidus estate in Terminus was a smaller one, located far from the base of the mountains where the more elite of the Grand Metropolis gathered. Instead, it was in Lapidus Silvarum, a little taste of home: the hardiest trees from Boreas, silver-barked evergreens, reached into the sky, each one a rival for the tallest buildings of the city. Only the Specula Sorcere reached peaks the trees would never attain. Naevius' family had claimed a spot nestled among the roots of one of the earliest trees, a small home with many terraces and potted plants, round towers three stories high. A stone wall separated the building from the rest of the Silvarum, with the wrought iron gate attended day and night by a doorman.
In spite of the limited clout the property held, Naevius favored it: higher families might have enjoyed a traditional Borean home high in the tree boughs or the pseudo-aristocracy of a mountain-side villa, but there among the roots, Naevius could claim something more important: a cellar.
"Then it's true, you are alive."
"Primrose, my dear, it's so lovely to see you!" Naevius couldn't even muster a fake smile to go with the sarcastic words. Primrose was a svelte woman, with snow-white feathers and wavy brown patches. Her eyes were pale blue, cold as ice. She was perpetually frowning whenever Naevius was in her sight. She wore a gorgeous, form-fitting black dress, the back of it plunging downward. The feathers at her throat, and only at her throat, were a rose color; the edges of the colored patch pointed downward, as if drawing attention to her large breasts.
Before he married her, Naevius was drawn to her, inspired by the spitfire and her assertive nature. Her form stirred him, and his eyes had traced over her sweet curves so many times that he could still see them sometimes when he closed his eyes. But now?
"How nice of you to grace us with your presence, milord," Primrose responded, lifting her nose up high.
Oh, how he hated her.
"For what reason should I be so unwelcome in my own home?" Naevius asked sharply. His eyes went to Claudat, who stood behind Primrose as if hoping for her protection. "The staff seem to have forgotten their manners. Indeed, if our doorman was to treat anyone, even a transient, so poorly in public, it would be a disgrace on my family name."
"Humph! To suggest you have the slightest concerns about your family image! Have you a notion what sort of people come knocking on these doors when you're away?" Primrose folded her arms. "I should not deign to share a room with the dregs of society come seeking their chemicals and their tonics!"
Naevius laughed sharply. "Why? Too gluttonous to share?"
Primrose slapped him full across the face, seething, but Naevius only laughed once more and turned away, heading toward the dining room. His face throbbed, but it was worth it to get a rise out of the unpleasant witch. "I'm feeling a mite peckish, so why don't you have Geneva fix up a charcuterie and bring a bottle of red wine?"
"Um, Geneva has been released from service, my lord," Claudat explained, still sheepishly hiding behind Primrose.
For her part, Primrose let a satisfied smile spread as she saw the confusion on her husband's face. "The little trollop was stealing, don't you know? Emptying the larder and whisking off with bottles of ale from the cellar, without even the decency to be ashamed of herself!"
Naevius bristled. "I gave her permission to do so, and you're well aware of that!" He had, in fact, told Geneva that he expected her to take food home with her, with the excuse that he did not want produce and meats going bad in his cellar. In truth, he did it because he knew the woman was barely getting by, and could not in good conscience increase her salary further with his parents' eyes on the finances. Where meals were concerned, she had the touch of an angel, finding flavor in even the humblest of ingredients.
"Did you now? I must have forgotten. But why so upset? There are ever so many young men and women who could take her place! Maybe you could invite in one of your whores from the slums!" Primrose still had the self-satisfied smirk on her face, sure that her last jab would get to him. "Yes, I know all about the girl in the blue district! Oh, and let us not forget the young lady in the Ruby Jewel -- how old is she, I wonder?"
Naevius was now the one seething. Geneva had been hired specifically for her particular culinary skills, and Primrose had clearly gotten rid of her just to get at him. "I'm sure I have no idea what you're speaking of, my love. Claudat, you're dismissed; resume your post at the gate and if I see you again inside this building, consider the dismissal permanent." Her bold accusations of infidelity fell flat, given what he knew of her and the young stud. Besides, she was only half-right: the girl in the Ruby Jewel was a supplier of an unpleasant but rare and necessary reagent.
Claudat looked to Primrose but she was merely glaring silently back at Naevius. The young buck obsequiously bowed out of the room, nearly breaking into a run on his way out of the domestic situation that was brewing. Once he had gone, Naevius dropped into a seat at the head of the dining room table. Glancing after the retreating servant, Naevius wagered, "He probably thinks he's the only one, doesn't he?" Naevius pulled the dark glasses off his face and tossed them to the table. "Must we do this song and dance every time, my dear?"
"I deserve better," Primrose insisted. "I didn't marry you to spend my life cooped up in this house alone!"
"Well, I guess neither of us got what we wanted. The whole thing was based on a lie," Naevius said, bristling.
Primrose huffed. "I never deceived you! You made your own assumptions! I thought you loved me for more than that!"
"Perhaps I should have married your mother, instead," Naevius mused, thinking of all the lovely meals Primrose had passed off as her own. It had not been the only reason he married her, but once the courtship was over, his dear Primrose revealed herself to have few redeeming features in his eyes.
Primrose slapped him again, leaving a hot, red welt against his cheek, but again Naevius savored the fact that he'd gotten a rise out of her. "You disgust me!"
"I'll be in the cellar, so you won't have to suffer my presence for long. I would appreciate if my dear, loving wife would be so kind as to hire Geneva back." He nodded toward the front gate. "Although if you're dead-set on us changing staff, I find I'm very dissatisfied with how Claudat reflects on my household. We can probably replace him, maybe even with an older man, one with a good sense of propriety."
Primrose folded her arms under her heaving breasts, glowering, but finally she acquiesced. "I'll send someone." He knew she wasn't ready to give up the comfortable life she had here, and he wouldn't end the marriage himself. It would cause a public scandal, and he wasn't eager to have his parents breathing down his neck again. Neither he nor Primrose was entirely satisfied with the situation, but they were stuck with one another. A stalemate where neither of them could win over the other.
"Very well. I also need to send some orders to the nearest herbalists and grocers. I have something quite special in mind, something even you might appreciate." He flashed a toothy grin.
"Keep your poisons away from me," Primrose replied with another huff before storming off, heels clacking loudly against the tiled floor. For the briefest moment, Naevius found himself watching her, eyes roaming down her curves, enjoying the sway of her hips as she moved. He quietly sighed, yearning for the days when he thought he knew her.
Naevius went into the pantry, gathering an armful of different foods, and made his way down into the cellar. It was an immense space, with squared columns at regular intervals and sanded wooden floors. The outer walls were intentionally unfinished, exposing the firmly packed soil, with occasionally visible roots peeking in. The dirt was rich in nutrients, useful for some of the potted plants he kept in the darkened room. One wall was lined in kegs, large and small, while another was lined in wine racks. The center of the room was full of alchemical equipment like his alembicants, a still, and even a centrifuge. Bottles, vials, and beakers of all shapes and sizes covered a table, and there was a deep sink tapping directly into an underwater spring of crisp, clear water. Naevius laid notes on one of the worktables and skimmed the ingredient list on one. Biting into a whole loaf of sourdough bread, Naevius moved over to the larger pantry in one corner of the cellar. Inside, he took stock of the ingredients he already had on hand, figuring out what he would need to order. He murmured aloud as he tapped a talon on some of the ingredients. "Cinnamon, mace, lemon balm, dried hyssop flower tops, peppermint, thyme, costmary, arnica flowers, genepi, angelica roots…"
He had maybe half of the ingredients he would need.
The monks' recipe for La Lluvia was surprisingly deep and involved, but it helped to explain why no one could recreate it without the secret instructions. One thing he hadn't expected was how long it would take. La Lluvia required over five years of aging before it was considered complete. In order for Naevius to reproduce the liqueur, he couldn't cut corners or skimp on time. He had the means, but he needed the patience. Naevius ate more of his loaf of bread and some dried persimmons while he read over the instructions once again, an idea forming in his head. These were monks, after all, and he was a chemist. He knew the processes involved in each step.
Naevius decided: he would do both an authentic reproduction, aged to perfection at five years and five months; but he would also create his own spin on the legendary recipe.
Over the next week, ingredients arrived and were stored down in the cellar. True to his word to Primrose, Naevius barely left the underground, surfacing only for brief naps. After getting on the bad side of the Nefastus, laying low was one of the best things he could do. Thankfully, Geneva agreed to return, a relief to both Naevius and Primrose. With the young woman taking care of Naevius' ravenous appetite, Primrose was free to pursue her own vices.
"I must find a way to reduce the time needed, but some of these processes cannot be rushed," Naevius complained aloud to Geneva. He could not tell her what he was reproducing, of course, but talking aloud was helping him think. "See here, the recipe calls for a portion of the spirits to be aged in an oak cask. Like any good whiskey, the esterification is a process of time and pressure."
"Well, what is esteri…?" Geneva started to ask, humoring him more than taking an interest. She was busy fixing a platter of meats, cheeses, and cakes.
"Fermentation of the base produces a nasty acid, like bile left on your tongue," the chemist explained in a rush. "Over time, ethanol combines with the acid to create a new compound with an aromatic, fruity flavor. Over time this process occurs as long as the correct ingredients and elements are present for the reaction to take place. Over time, all of these happen around the same time. I don't want things over time, though, I want them now. I might be able to induce a reflux reaction and draw the esters out by condensation. Heat is key, possibly ultraviolet light. Even if I do that, the spirits won't take on the body of the oak cask in such a short time."
Geneva smiled and nodded, pouring a cup of tea for the eccentric enlil. Geneva was also an enlil, a young adult with none of the shapely charm of Primrose but all of the domestic qualities his wife lacked. Their relationship was purely professional and impersonal, but twenty years ago? Things might have been different. The blue-feathered woman gave a thoughtful hum, and drummed her talons on the tea pot to draw the chemist's attention. "Would you get the same effect by adding more oak into the spirits? Slivers or chips, contained in a bag?" She lifted the teabag from the pot to demonstrate the inspiration.
Naevius stared at the teabag silently for a long moment, thoughts whirling. "No? Maybe… yes maybe. Increase the contact area between the spirits and the wood, allow the reactions to occur more rapidly than normal. A smaller cask, too, maybe a pressurized tank." Naevius gulped down his tea and crunched down one of the small honey cakes Geneva had arranged. The two items paired perfectly and the small wave of satisfaction brought with it sudden inspiration. "Yes! Perfect, Geneva, I think you're onto something!" He scribbled wildly on the papers in front of him.
There were devices to build, mixtures to prepare, and easily weeks of preparation to complete, but Naevius felt motivated like he hadn't been in a long while. Some days he was even so giddy with excitement that he would spend time with Primrose without tossing barbs at the woman. Over a month into the process, he held a glass beaker out to Primrose without prior warning. "Have a taste!" he insisted.
Surprised, Primrose eyed her husband suspiciously but seemingly caught up in his excitement, she accepted the beaker and took a dainty sip. Almost immediately she dropped the beaker -- which Naevius caught -- and clutched at her throat. "Agh! What is that? It's like a burning herb garden!" She grumbled and shoved Naevius away as she rushed to the kitchen for something to wash the taste from her tongue.
"That's not far from the truth!" Naevius replied cheerfully, taking an appreciable sip of the burning spirit. It was getting closer!
When he was once again down in the cellar, Naevius laughed to himself. The recipe predated the Cataclysm, so all of the ingredients and processes were natural, classic. How would it react with post-calamity reagents? Naevius brought down his collected pulveris and volantis, debating the merits of mixing in the volatile substances. Indeed, the recipe called for five silver coins to be placed in the five different barrels, so there was some precedent for it. Naevius needed to find a way to add the dangerous substances without literally poisoning the drinker.
Naevius put away the liquid and powdered material, instead opting to start small. He sent Geneva out to purchase a few bars of bigatium lateris, and then to a friend to have those bars converted into spoons, whisks, and sieves. La Lluvia called for five silver coins, one in the bottom of each barrel of the five different spirits which would eventually be combined. There was some scientific truth to the purifying property of true silver, even though the coins would eventually be removed from the final product and the mixture was far, far from acidic enough to dissolve the metal. With this as a basis, Naevius decided to see what property changes he could induce with the unique metal of bigatium, without actually having it ingested with the final product.
Here, Naevius divided up his testing batches. The cellar was filled with sharp smells now, with ten different batches all being concocted simultaneously. Primrose avoided the cellar entirely, the pale skin of her face turning green with the mere thought of opening the door. Geneva still dutifully brought meals to Naevius, but even she would quickly retreat from the overpowering smells as quickly as possible.
One day, a faint glow began to reach through the cracks in the cellar door. Fearing fire, Primrose sent Claudat down to check. Instead of fire, the man was faced with vials and bottles of liquid, each glowing as if lit from within. Most were shades of orange, red, and yellow, with one blue and one green. "It's a reaction from adding auritium volantis!" Naevius called out excitedly as soon as he saw the man at the bottom of the stairs. "Just one part per million, but it's reacting with the bigatium and pumping up the intensity of the flavors!" The crazed chemist, unclothed above the waist, rushed over to Claudat with a beaker. The liquid inside wasn't lit from within, but it was still a bright orange, slightly viscous. "Try it!"
"Sir, no, please!" In spite of his protests, Naevius tipped the drink onto the man's tongue. Claudat gasped and slapped Naevius' arm away, eyes widening. He gagged and clutched his throat, dropping to a seat on the stairway. After a brief moment, though, he calmed. Still panting, he looked up at Naevius questioningly. "Is that… ghost fruit?"
"No!" Naevius exclaimed, flashing his sharp teeth in a wild grin. "Nothing like it has even come close to the mixture! Isn't that incredible?"
Claudat smacked his lips, savoring the strong but sweet flavor, feeling a burn rolling down his throat. "That's… very good, sir." It reminded him of ghost fruit wine, which he had only gotten to taste once before.
So things went, day by day. Naevius was in a drunken haze from testing, but his spirits were never brighter. One by one he weeded out his test batches, sharing the better ones with the staff. "Just imagine the one I keep!" he would promise. Soon, he was down to just one testing batch. He was sure of this one, and had already begun starting new batches. "Five weeks," Naevius mused aloud. "Maybe there's something to the law of fives, after all." Five weeks was better than five years, at least. The final remaining batch, which he had dubbed Ardiente, was a warm shade of orange, closer to his eye color than to the original La Lluvia. Naevius poured a tumbler full, letting the bubbly liquid settle. The fizziness didn't come from carbonation, and thus far it had never gone flat; a curious byproduct of adding pulveris to the mix.
The scent was deceptively faint, a clear alcoholic bite but softened with smooth, fruity overtones. Naevius lifted the drink to his lips and sipped, letting the liquid roll over his tongue and swish around inside his mouth. There was still sweetness, but it had matured, adopting some of the rugged and smoky taste of the oak, still with clear notes of the many herbs, and the gentle esters holding it all together. It was like a whiskey and a sparkling wine in one. Humming appreciatively, the chemist tipped his head back and swallowed, savoring the warmth of the alcohol as it coated his throat and rushed up to his head. His lungs began to warm, as well, and Naevius pumped his feathered chest out.
Then he belched. A roaring pillar of orange-red flames spewed forth into the air. The fires licked at his tables and the stacked barrels, a dozen smaller fires starting up and rapidly spreading.
Naevius frantically covered his mouth with a wet rag, yelling into it in shock as he rushed for a bigger cloth and a bucket of water. He rushed about, putting out the fires before they spread to something more explosive!
At last, though, the fires were out. Naevius stood there, surrounded by smoke, laughing. He grabbed the bottle of Ardiente and grinned, dropping back into a chair. He looked around at the cellar, checking the damage from the flames.
Then he tipped the bottle back for another taste.