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Rated: E · Fiction · Fantasy · #2203089
Lance and Cecilia are working in their master's alchemy lab. They both learn lessons.
Lance coughed as the foul vapor struck his nostrils. He glared down at the flask suspended over the flame, the cloudy darkness swirling in the liquid taunting him with failure yet again. “I just can’t get it right,” the youth whimpered as he dumped the failed potion down the nearby sink.

“Would you like some help?” a confident voice offered from a few feet away. He turned to face Cecilia as he again suspended the flask and filled it with more base solution.

“Master Varis has yelled at us about that before,” Lance reminded the alchemist’s other apprentice. “He says I have to be able to do this on my own.”

“Master Varis says I can’t do it for you. But he has no problems with me observing and pointing out where you made a mistake.”

“Oh, so I made a mistake, then?” Lance balled his fists, his nails digging into his palms. Cecilia seemed to complete every assignment flawlessly, which often left him feeling stupid. Listening to her point out his mistakes made it even worse.

“Only one born out of inexperience, really,” she said, ignoring his defensive posturing. “Look at your flame. The tip of the blue portion is practically touching your flask. That’s much too close and it’s heating your base solution way too much. When you put your other ingredients in, it causes an instant and violent reaction, rather than the slow cascade you’re trying to achieve.”

Lance huffed. “So how high should the flame be, oh wise one?”

“Well, I’ve found that adjusting your flame so that the tip of the blue part is about three inches below the flask works best. Also, make sure the rest of the flame is no more than an inch above that.” Lance fiddled with the controls that adjusted the amount of each gas that was fed into his burner. After about thirty second, Cecilia commended, “That looks much better. Give the base solution about two minutes to reach the correct temperature, then try again.”

Lance sighed. “Thanks. But how did you figure that out? I now that Master Varis has regularly stated that keeping the base solution of a given potion at the right temperature is vital. But he’s never told us how to do it. Nor has he given us thermometers to check the temperature.”

“Well, I hope this doesn’t upset you, but controlling the temperature by adjusting the flame just seems obvious to me. After that, I just asked Master Varis if there was a way I could experiment until I figured out what the correct adjustments looked like. He gave me a flask of spring water and a thermometer and I spent a night experimenting.”

Lance’s jaw dropped. “Just like that? You asked for something and he gave it to you?”

Cecilia shuffled from foot to foot, not making eye contact. “Well, yeah. No offense, but it’s something you could stand to do more yourself. I’ve seen the way he looks at you, you know. I think he’s disappointed that you’re not very inquisitive or show any initiative.”

“Seriously? I mean, I’m just an apprentice and I’ve only been here for six months. I thought I was supposed to be subservient and do whatever I was told.”

Cecilia shook her head. “You’re only half right. Yes, you are supposed to do what he tells you to do. But that doesn’t mean you can’t ask for clarification on how to do it. And it’s definitely okay to ask why you’re doing something. At least if you’re asking about the alchemical principles behind it. Don’t get all philosophical or self-important about your assignments, obviously.”

“Wow. I never thought about that. My father tends to dislike any questions from his apprentices. He says they’ll understand how things work when they get to be as old as he is.”

“Out of curiosity, how many apprentice blacksmiths does your father take in?”

“He usually has at least five.”

“And over the last five years, how many of them have made it to journeyman blacksmith?”

“Two.”

“And how many have dropped out?”

“At least four of them a year. Some years, they all give up.”

“If Master Varis did that, he’d never successfully train anyone.”

“I see your point.”

“You can probably start adding your other ingredients now,” Cecilia prompted. Lance picked up a small bottle and slowly poured a purplish, inky liquid into the base solution. He held his breath as it hit the clear solution and slowly began to rotate and form a vortex inside the flask. “See? Much better.”

“Yeah, thanks. Now the instructions say to rotate the flask ninety degrees clockwise every thirty seconds, right?”

“I think so. To be honest, I’ve been working on something different. I already proved my proficiency with this potion. I mean, I’ve been here almost a year longer than you.”

“Right. Any idea what rotating the flask accomplishes? Or should I ask Master Varis?”

Cecilia wrung her hands and avoided eye contact. “I can answer your question, but maybe you should ask Master Varis.”

“It’s okay, girl.You can tell him. In fact, I insist,” came a voice from the doorway. Both apprentices turned, staring at the ancient elf standing there, his eyes sparkling with amusement.

Cecilia blushed as she bowed her head. “Rotating the flask accomplishes nothing and you don’t actually need to do it.”

Lance gasps. “So why include it in the instructions?”

Varis smirked as he approached them, his robes swishing along the stone floor of the laboratory. “Because it’s a test, dear boy. To see how long it takes my apprentices to either figure out the truth on their own or ask me about it. To see if they are curious enough to make it as an alchemist.”

Lance rubbed his forehead. “I asked. But why do I still feel like I failed?”

“Because if I was as harsh and unforgiving as your father, I’d boot you out because you only asked after Cecilia just encouraged you to start asking questions.”

“I’m not a very good apprentice, am I?”

“Let’s just say you have plenty of room for improvement and leave it at that. But take comfort, young Lance. I haven’t given up hope on you.”

“I’m sorry if I overstepped, Master Varis,” Cecilia said.

The elf cackled. “Not at all, young Cecelia. In fact, I am pleased that you passed your test as well. Oh! Did I surprise you? You’re often too clever for that. Give me a moment to enjoy this victory.” He glided to a stool and sat, looking at his apprentices for several seconds.

Finally, he continued, “Neither of you have stopped to consider why I took two apprentices. Each of you has a quality within you that suggests you will be amazing alchemists one day. For you, Cecilia, it’s your inquisitive nature and drive to understand everything. Lance, your dedication to learning what is taught and following instructions meticulously will enable you to undertake some of the most amazing alchemical processes that many are too impatient or sloppy to succeed at. Myself included.

“The thing is, each of your strengths is a weakness I see in the other. Something that could hold you back.”

Cecilia mused, “So it was your intent for us to work together all along.”

“Exactly. Because contrary to popular belief, alchemy is a collaborative effort. Even alchemists who work alone in their laboratories rely on the knowledge and experience of others out there. Either through books or correspondence. The more you two work together, the better you both will become. By the way, boy, I believe it’s time for the next step in your assignment. The nekari sap is a gorgeous shade of gold, by the way.”

“Oh!” Lance exclaimed, realizing he had completely forgotten the potion he was working on. He picked up the small bit of metal lying on the workbench with a pair of tongs. He paused. “Should I lower it in slowly or drop it in? The instructions just say to add it.”

“By Thiala’s light, I think he’s catching on!” the elf chuckled. “If you were using a glass tool to handle the kiridium, it wouldn’t matter. But if your metal tongs touch the potion at this point, it would taint the reaction. So you best drop it in. Cecilia beamed at Lance as he dropped the last ingredient into the flask.

After just a second, the whole potion began to bubble and a dark cloud escaped from the opening of the flask. “Oh no!” Lance wailed.

“Relax,” the master reassured him. “This is exactly what is supposed to happen. Give it just a few more seconds.” The trio watched as the cloud and bubbles both dissipated. The flask now contained silvery fluid. Lance picked up the flask and after glancing at Varis for approval, swished the liquid inside around. It appeared to be slow moving, suggesting a denser liquid.

“You know, this almost looks like the base solution that Cecilia started with this morning,” Lance said.

“That’s because it is,” Cecilia explained. “A lot of alchemical processes build on each other like this.”

“Yes, and it’s good that you succeeded, young man. I’m fresh out of this solution and needed more. Especially since it looks like young Cecilia got distracted and let her own potion cook for too long. She will need to start over.”

“Oh no!” Cecilia cried.

“I feel bad because it’s kinda my fault,” Lance said. “Is there anything I can do to help you? If that’s okay, Master Varis.”

“I think that’s a fine idea and a noble gesture. Why don’t you go to the supply cupboard and get her what she needs. Cecilia, hand him your instructions. Plus I’ll show you both a shortcut for this particular reaction.”

With that, the trio went to work.
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