The Alchemist’s Maples

In a quiet land, a great distance from the Lands of the Moon where she had grown up, an alchemist lived in a workshop that she shared with her friend the artificer and a single raven that occasionally condescended to be fed raw eggs and overstrong coffee. (It had yet, however, to produce any theorems.) The alchemist had long ago mastered the inner disciplines that extended her life, although she kept that to herself and her friend on the grounds that being pestered about immortality by importunate princes before breakfast was a nuisance no matter what your age, and in the meantime kept herself well-supplied by trading simpler potions to the local townspeople: glamours to tint your hair the color of peacock feathers, remedies for teething children, the occasional brew-of-inspiration for those who needed to make stirring speeches on short notice.

The alchemist was not precisely discontent with her existence. Her housemate was an excellent cook, and the automata were cheerful companions, whose number included wind-up birds that were always in tune and precise doll-figures that danced elaborate quadrilles. Even the raven was known to offer a word of consolation if bribed with sufficient coffee. (They didn’t do this very often because a caffeinated raven will keep the household up all night with its excitable cawing.)

Nevertheless, the alchemist kept a garden so that she could grow the more subtle of the ingredients required for her research. While the weather was frequently chancy where they lived, necessitating careful attention to weather signs and the yearly almanac, she enjoyed the quiet hours working with spade and trowel, the honest calluses on her hands. The one regret her garden brought her, other than the time with the infestation of jewel-aphids, was that she had no success growing silver maples.

Near the Lands of the Moon, all plants have a silvery tint, bestowed upon them by the moonsorcery that is to be found in the frost, and the shivering air, and the fracturing light. The alchemist’s favorites were the silver maples that grew by her parents’ house. Whenever she woolgathered during her studies—like all children, she had her moments—she liked to gaze out the window and watch the wind stir the maples’ leaves, stroking the trees silver-white and green and back again, like a living torch of moonlight.

The alchemist had attempted to grow silver maples in her own garden, but despite the trees’ usual vigor she had had no success. The artificer attempted to cheer her by fashioning trees of elemental silver with glimmering jade leaves. The alchemist thanked her friend, but it was clear that such an unliving tree could not take the place of a living one.

One day, after keeping them up all night (again) with muttered poetry recitals, the raven flew off. The alchemist was surprised at how much she missed the raven’s presence, for all its cantankerousness. As the days passed, however, she concluded that the raven must have had business of its own, and she put the matter out of her mind.

In the meantime, the alchemist’s continued experiments resulted in maples with glorious sun-colored leaves, if she had any interest in gold. The gold maples also became blinding during the day, but she couldn’t bear to chop down the young trees.

The raven returned one fine spring morning, looking insufferably smug. There was a chart bound to its leg. The alchemist woke to find it perched on the coffee pot. “I went to consult an astromancer,” the raven said.

“Astrologer?” the alchemist said. She knew a little of the celestial disciplines where they intersected her own.

“Astromancer,” the raven said, a little impatiently. “More science than an astrologer, less than an astronomer. I’ll tell you about it later if you care about such distinctions. Did you know that moonlight is the same thing as sunlight, only reflected off the moon?” It held its leg out, indicating that she was to take the chart. “If you can make gold maples, you can make silver maples, because they’re the same thing. From a strictly astromantic point of view, of course.”

The alchemist reckoned that this was not any more absurd than the other tricks of her discipline, so she unbound the chart and studied the formulae. She found that it was, indeed, as the raven said.

The preparations for the alchemical ritual were long and arduous, and involved denuding the workshop of quartzite, mermaid’s tears, platinum ore, and dragon pearl tea. (The tea wasn’t actually part of the ritual; it just happened to be the alchemist’s favorite drink. For once the raven kept its opinion of those who preferred tea to coffee to itself.) And at the end of it, the sunlit gold maples were transmuted into silver maples.

The artificer, who had kept out of the way, ambled out after the ritual was complete and raised an eyebrow at her friends. “Some would say that you just devalued your own creation,” she remarked.

The alchemist had no eyes for anything but the silver-tinged foliage of her young trees. “Gold is not the only way to measure value,” she said, and ran her hand up and down a tree’s trunk, smiling.

For Nancy Sauer. Prompt: silver maple.