The Emperor of All Things - By Paul Witcover

PART ONE

Prologue

CLOCKS. CLOCKS EVERYWHERE, on the wooden shelves and tables, even upon the sawdust-covered floor of the attic room: clocks of all shapes and sizes limned in the light of a gibbous moon that did not so much pierce the skylight as sift through its sooty glass – tall clocks in finely carved and polished casings of exotic woods with brass pendulums winking back and forth; ornate mantel clocks of ormolu and mahogany, marble and tortoiseshell; clocks of gold and silver set into or alongside precious metal and porcelain renderings of human figures in varied states of dress and undress as well as representations of beasts real and fabulous: lions consorting with unicorns, eagles and gryphons roosting side by side; cuckoo clocks and carriage clocks and tambour clocks and skeleton clocks; even pocket watches with their chains and ribbons neatly coiled or dangling free and loose as slipped lanyards. The ticking of so many timepieces, no two synchronized, filled the space with a facsimile of whispered conversation, as if some ghostly parliament were meeting in the dead of night.

Scattered among the clocks were glass flasks and vials of assorted shapes and sizes, some containing clear or opaque liquids, others quite empty, along with mortars and pestles, iron tongs, funnels, crucibles, and other such instruments bespeaking the practice of alchemy. Set in a row along one wall were three brick furnaces, one in the shape of a tower and as tall as a man, the other two smaller and squat in shape, like ornamental toads.

A mouse was making its way across the surface of one table, nosing amid a clutter of clock parts and tools: pins, clicks, rivets, coiled springs, tweezers, clamps, winders, files, and like essentials of the horologist’s trade. Every so often it rose off its tiny front paws to sniff the air, whiskers twitching, eyes aglitter like apple seeds in a bed of ash.

From a shelf overhead, a black cat followed its progress with glowing tourmaline eyes. The noise in the back of its throat, somewhere between a growl and a purr, was cloaked by the gossipy muttering of the clocks. The tip of its tail lashed from side to side like a metronome.

When the meanderings of the mouse brought it conveniently near, the cat moved with the grace of a gliding shadow, seeming as insubstantial … until it struck. In leaping to the table top, it did not disturb a single item yet knocked the rodent onto its side, pressing the half-stunned creature down with one paw and slashing with its teeth at the grey fur.

The cat tensed and flattened at a sound from overhead: a faint click followed by a drawn-out creaking, as if the old house were settling on its foundations. Hissing, the cat darted a glance upwards as a thin rope dropped through the now-open skylight to dangle above the floor a few feet away. The rope had not reached the end of its length before the cat bolted, with less stealth or silence than just moments before; small gears and other items scattered under its paws as it fled into the shadows. An empty vial slipped to the floor and shattered. The mouse was long gone. Drops of its blood glistened on the table, dark as oil.

A svelte figure slid down the rope and dropped soundlessly to the floor. The intruder was dressed in grey: soft grey boots, grey breeches, a grey shirt beneath a grey cloak. Strapped to its back was a small crossbow, and a blade as slender as a rapier yet no longer than a short sword hung in a grey scabbard from its belt, as did six leather pouches, also grey. A grey kerchief pulled across the nose hid the bottom half of the face; a grey hood cloaked the upper; in between, eyes as dark as the mouse’s glittered as they probed the shadowy corners of the room. The intruder strode to one of the tables.

The timepieces on this particular table were clearly the work of master craftsmen. Many were made with precious metals; not a few were inset with jewels. A single one of these clocks, selected at random, would have made a rich prize for a thief. Yet the grey-clad figure reached without hesitation for a mantel clock that appeared as out of place as an ordinary goblet set alongside the Holy Grail.

At a whisper of displaced air, the intruder turned, clock in one hand, the rapier-like blade in the other.

The casing of a tall clock some

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