The Rebel Branch Initiate's Guide to the Alchemists' Council by Cynthea Masson


The Alchemists' Council is a literary fantasy novel by Cynthea Masson (website | twitter), published by ECW Press of Canada in 2016. The first of a trilogy, this novel explores the power of words and free will, and also deals with the real-world issue of mass bee deaths due to pesticide abuse.

Cynthea Masson currently teaches medieval literature and composition at Vancouver Island University. She is the author of another novel, The Elijah Tree (Rebel Satori, 2009), and is more recently one of the editors of Reading Joss Whedon (Syracuse University Press, 2014).

As a new Initiate with the Alchemists' Council, Jaden is trained to maintain the elemental balance of the world while fending off interference by the malevolent Rebel Branch. Bees are disappearing both from the pages of the ancient manuscripts in Council dimension and the outside world, threatening its very existence. Jaden navigates alchemy’s complexities, but the more she learns, the more she begins to question Council practices. She realizes the Rebel Branch might not be the enemy she was taught to fight against. As the Council finds itself at the brink of war, Jaden must decide where her allegiance lies.

from the back of the 2016 paperback edition

Because The Alchemists' Council focuses on alchemical practice inspired by real-world traditions from medieval and classical Europe and Asia, readers unfamiliar with medieval alchemy may encounter difficulties while reading this novel.

Readers should be aware that Professor Masson uses intrigue and politics to drive the plot of The Alchemists' Council. As such, the novel is best suited to readers who also enjoyed Frank Herbert’s Dune. The heavy emphasis on organizational politics is a consequence of Jaden’s status as a Junior Initiate of the Alchemists' Council. As the newest initiate, Jaden is still learning the ropes. The reader must therefore learn the ropes with her.

Furthermore, the alchemical terminology may prove challenging to some readers. While the novel isn’t as reliant on scholarly prowess as certain works by the late Umberto Eco (e.g. Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose), having some background knowledge of alchemy that didn’t come from either Fullmetal Alchemist or Andrezj Sapkowski’s The Witcher may prove helpful.

Since I possess some of this knowledge, I’ve decided to compile a rough reader’s guide to The Alchemists' Council. I’ll be working from the 2016 ECW Press paperback, and will cite page numbers when quoting passages. This commentary will also appear on my website with additional commentary by Eric Higby.

It is my hope that the following commentaries will help illuminate aspects of the text that might otherwise remain occult. However, beyond this point lies spoilers.


Prima Materia

In the beginning, there was no Alchemists' Council. Such a thing was unnecessary, for the Lapis and its ruby Flaw coexisted in perfect harmony as the Calculus Macula (CM), sharing quintessence in a world where everything simply existed without intention. This state of affairs continued until somebody named Aralia became conscious of themselves as a being capable of acting intentionally.

This Aralia subsequently got the notion that they were superior to all others, and claimed the CM for their own. Another being, Osmanthus, followed Aralia’s lead. Naturally, the two opposed one another for two beings possessed of ego and sure of their own superior can’t possibly coexist or share.

Matters rapidly degenerated from that point as other people became conscious of themselves as individuals, chose sides, and went to war. Their combat affected the CM itself, as Aralian victories shifted the balance toward blue and Osmanthian successes pulled the balance toward red.

Eventually Aralia and Osmanthus put aside their arms and reconciled, becoming One again through the first alchemical Conjunction, but it was too late. Nobody else was willing to relinquish ego and intention. Worse, their chemical wedding fractured the world, the Prima Materia, into three dimensions. The Aralian faction took one faction. The Osmanthians claimed the other. They retained access to the CM and understanding of the world’s true nature. Everybody else in the third dimension became the province of whichever faction controlled the CM, while remaining ignorant of the true nature of the world.

Were you paying attention? This may be relevant later on.

On the immediate story level, this myth can be used to explain the origins of the Alchemists' Council (Aralians?), the Rebel Branch (Osmanthians?), and everybody else (muggles?). The third dimension is the real world, and those who live there are mainly ignorant of the alchemical machinations behind the scenes. A scholar might get a quick peek behind the curtain, only to dismiss their insight as one brought on by fatigue.

Digging deeper, a reader familiar with both the Judeo-Christian myth of the Garden of Eden and the tenets of Buddhism may notice that Masson used a synthesis of the two in the Prima Materia origin story. She makes no mention of sin or of disobedience, but it is plain that Aralia changed when they gained intention. Assuming this is a story that initiates of the Alchemists' Council learn as an explanation for the necessity of the Council’s Great Work, it implies that the Council frowns upon individual intention and free will.

Furthermore, the emphasis on conjunction, where the essence of one person merges with that of another to create a single being where two once existed, will recur throughout The Alchemists' Council, and the results of conjunctions between Council members can determine who lives, who dies, and who gets initiated into the Council later on.

Familiar names?

For some reason, the name Aralia reminds me of Aradia, a figure currently important in Wicca and some neo-Pagan traditions. However, Aradia originally appeared in the work of American folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland, who published Aradia, or The Gospel of the Witches in 1899.

According to Leland, this book was a religious text belonging to Tuscan covens who venerated Diana as the Queen of the Witches. No doubt Hecate had somewhat to say about Diana muscling in on her turf, but gods supplant each other all the time. Just ask Zeus about his dad Chronos.

However, googling the names Aralia and Osmanthus reveals that these are the names of two plant genera. Aralia is a genus consisting of 68 species of trees, shrubs, and perennial herbs native to Asia and North America. Osmanthus is a genus of 30 flowering plant species ranging in size from shrubs to small trees, all evergreen. I don’t know if Prof. Masson was aware of this connection, but I find it interesting.

So, you want to be an alchemist?

The Alchemists' Council must occasionally replenish its ranks by reaching out to an uninitiated individual whose presence their texts foretold, and initiating them. Once initiated, an alchemist leaves the mundane realm and takes up residence in Council dimension, where their lives are extended through access to quintessence, the fifth element, obtained by proximity to the Lapis. All members of the Council are endowed by the Lapis with the ability to speak with one another and be understood, and live in beauty and splendor.

However, they don’t spend their time turning lead into gold, or creating the Philosopher’s Stone. Rather, the initiates of the Alchemists' Council, who walk the line between science and magic, chemistry and mysticism, work to maintain the elemental balance of the world and ensure it remains hospitable to life.

A hundred and one initiated members constitute the Alchemists' Council, though the number of actual members can vary due to conjunctions and erasures. More on both later, but when either happens, the Council must recruit new initiates from the mundane world into Council dimension.

Like any esoteric order, the Alchemists' Council possesses varying degrees of initiation. In fact, the Council’s orders roughly correspond to the hierarchy of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which in turn borrowed the structure from the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, who derived it from the Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross.

Rose Cross Lamen of the Golden Dawn

One progresses through the ranks through study and accomplishment of the prescribed work for one’s rank, though an individual’s progress can be interrupted if an initiate conjoins with another, and their essence is consumed. Likewise, should one transgress against the council, they may be subject to erasure and permanent removal from Council dimension.


After the introduction to the setting and explanation of the ranks of the Alchemists' Council provided in Prima Materia, the Prologue touches on events occurring five years prior to be beginning of the novel:

The fact that Cynthea Masson chose to depict these events, one from Saule’s viewpoint and the other three from Cedar’s (whose essence consumed Saule’s during their conjunction) suggests that Cedar is an extremely important character, and possibly an antagonist of Jaden’s. The implication that Cedar somehow betrayed Saule during their conjunction and that somebody named Sadira might have suffered as a result further cements my impression.

The bee question is also important, and not simple. Cedar believes that if the Council’s bees are not released into mundane space to repair the world, the outside environment will suffer catastrophic failures within five years. However, Ruis insists that turning the bees loose would cause irreparable damage to Council dimension.

However, the question of whether to loose the bees isn’t for either of them to decide. Nor will it be decided here.

What is Conjunction?

Conjunction is an alchemical process in which the essence of two individuals become one. The process is reminiscent to the Sacred Marriage described in an allegorical romance entitled The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkruetz, the third manifesto of the original Rosicrucians, a German philosophical secret society active in the early seventeenth century.

When two initiates of the Alchemists' Council conjoin, their essences combine and only one person remains. The result is variable; one personality may dominate, or the person coming out of conjunction may be a synthesis of the original two.

The act of conjunction is also a process of eliminating possibilities. Consider a hypothetical conjunction between Alice and Barbara. Should Alice’s essence consume Barbara’s, then Claire would be initiated while Diane would die of natural causes, her potential unrealized. However, if Barbara’s essence dominates, it will be Diane who joins the council, while Claire dies. While Alice and Barbara remain unconjoined, all possibilities remain in play but unrealized.

Regardless of which personality dominates, or whether two equally strong personalities form a synthesis, conjunction is Thunderdome: Two alchemists enter; one alchemist leaves.

This is important because Junior Initiates in the Alchemists' Council aren’t ordinarily told the truth about conjunction. Learning the truth, as Jaden does later on, will shape her character and drive her actions in the novel.

What about Final Conjunction?

As I understand it, the Final Conjunction is different from other conjunctions. Rather than the essence of two alchemists combining into one (with the attendant clash of personalities), the Final Conjunction is one between the Azoth Magen (the eldest and highest-ranking member of the Alchemists' Council) and the Lapis itself. In the Final Conjunction, the Azoth Magen becomes part of the Lapis, surrendering their individuality and returning Quintessence to the Lapis.

Just as in regular conjunctions, the Final Conjunction results in an open position within the Alchemists' Council. A new Azoth Magen must be chosen, most likely from among the Azoths, and so on down the ranks until new Junior Initiates are recruited. The rise of a new Azoth Magen also presages the beginning of a new Council, as I understand it. At the moment, Ailanthus presides. Whether that remains the case is an open question.

Chapter One

The following matters are of particular interest in the first chapter of The Alchemists' Council. Covering them will take us from page 11 to 66 of the paperback.

The Missing Lapidarian Bees, Part 1

Novillian Scribe Cedar reports to Azoth Ruis that Junior Magistrate Linden observed the disappearance of bees from the alchemical manuscript Ruach 2103, folio 51 verso, which is located outside of Council dimension in a library in the Council’s Vienna protectorate. It is important to note that Cedar is not talking about bees from the Council’s apiaries, or bees in the outside world. Rather, the bees in question are part of illuminations within the manuscripts.

Furthermore, the illuminations are not mere artistic embellishments, as they were in medieval manuscripts, Bibles, and Books of Hours. The illuminations of alchemical manuscripts are part of the text. Altering them alters the manuscript, and the meaning thereof. Furthermore, Cedar seems to think the bees are leaving on their own, which implies that the manuscripts are changing themselves.

Considering that the Alchemists' Council bases its actions on the Readers' interpretation of the manuscripts, this change doesn’t bode well. Linden suspects the involvement of the Rebel Branch, a concern Ruis dismisses, thinking it beneath them. He instructs Cedar to seek further evidence, which she finds by comparing her notes on Sursum Deorsum 5055 folio 63 verso, which she compiled as a Senior Initiate, with the original manuscript. Compared to her notes, the original is likewise missing bees.

As a result of Cedar’s reports, the wider Council has taken up the matter of the bees again, which we learn from Amur as he blames Cedar for getting bees on the agenda. In addition, the Council returns to the question of whether to release the Lapidarian bees into the outside world to compensate for colony collapse disorder that the author first introduced in the Prologue.

I suspect Cedar will prove an antagonist, but further evidence is required. She strikes me as the manipulative sort, since she notes Amur’s attraction to her, but regards him as a sacrifical lamb and means to use him. The question is, against whom will Cedar use Amur? Azoth Ruis seems a likely target, given this line on page 18:

As for Ruis, she had loved him once, had welcomed his power, but had more recently observed his abuses.

More on Cedar later and the bees later.

The Next Conjunction, Part 1

The next alchemical conjunction will be between Novillian Scribe Amur and Senior Magistrate Sadira. More on this after we discuss Jaden.

Jaden’s Resentment

We learn about the participants in the upcoming alchemical conjunction through Jaden, the protagonist who had thus far remained off-stage. She has a small personal stake in the conjunction’s outcome; she would prefer that Sadira be the one to survive, and not Amur, because Sadira is one of the few Senior Magistrates whose lessons Jaden finds tolerable.

Nor is Jaden particularly interested in the bee issue; she recalls that the last time the subject came up the Council debated for over two hours with no result. Furthermore, she notes that the bees could all just disappear while the Council deliberates.

It bears mentioning that Jaden isn’t her real name. Before Cedar approached her she was a university student in Vancouver. She had lived and studied there for two years, had no immediate family, and wasn’t especially close to her extended family. Aside from the friends she made at university, she was alone in the world.

As Jaden herself noted when Cedar first sat down at her table in the Vancouver Art Gallery’s café, she was an ideal target for recruitment into a cult. Furthermore, now that the thrill of knowing her existence was foretold by the Nahzin Prophecies has faded, the Alchemists' Council closely resembles a cult.

While Council dimension is beautiful and Jaden lives in comfort with privileges beyond her reach in the outside world, she is also subjected to alchemically induced vapors meant to ease her transition away from her old life. Nor is she permitted to leave Council dimension or communicate with her old friends. Instead, as described in the Orders of the Alchemists Council, she is expected to purge herself of outside influences so she may better engage with the Great Work.

In all honesty, this would remind me of a cult even if Jaden had not been savvy enough to note the similarities herself. As it is, it calls to mind “A Touch of Blessing” by Swedish melodic metal act Evergrey’s 2004 album, The Inner Circle.

Misled by beauty, one you rarely find…

All the dreams I had, all my future wishes
Put aside for a greater journey
All the things I planned, left my friends so coldly
Put aside for a higher…

In addition to the restrictions on movement imposed on Jaden and other Junior Initiates, her status is currently that of a mushroom. The Elder members of the council keep her in the dark and feed her bullshit, rather than giving her honest answers to her questions – especially about the Council’s recruitment methods.

Instead, Jaden is encouraged to view the alchemical manuscripts as the Word Eternal. “From the Lapis to the Scribe; from the Scribe to the Reader,” is the formula quoted to her on page 23. However, an observant reader may notice that this very aphorism shows that the Lapis' relevations are not directly shared with all members of the Alchemists' Council, but are potentially filtered by at least two human minds.

Because the Council is so tightly bound by their interpretation of alchemical manuscripts as revelations from the Lapis, Jaden is determined to become a Scribe herself so that she can interpret Lapidarian visions in a manner that suits her, so that she might regain control of her destiny. She is determined to do so despite Cedar’s warnings that the Law Codes governing the Council’s actions do not permit self-interested interpretations of either Lapidarian visions or the manuscripts, and that those permitted to rise beyond Initiate status are permitted because they are sufficiently indoctrinated to refrain from trangression.

The Next Conjunction, Part 2

After our introduction to Jaden, who I personally suspect to be a Rebel alchemist in the making, we meet the other two Junior Initiates, Laurel and Cercis. Jaden dislikes them both, finding them “obnoxious and intelligent” (page 23). Even worse, they’re lovers and not at all discreet about it, since they flirt and clown around in class. Rather than deal with them most of the time, Jaden would either plot her escape or (if Sadira was teaching) actually engage the alchemical text under discussion.

Even worse, to Jaden’s view, Cercis (and most likely Laurel) are eager to climb the ranks. Cercis regards the upcoming conjunction between Amur and Sadira with interest, because regardless of who prevails people will get promoted to fill open positions. Cersis is a good little corporate climber, and wants to make Senior Initiate as soon as possible.

Jaden, being more cynical, observes that it’s possible for the conjunction to fail, citing the failed conjunction between Cedar and Ruis as precedent. Cercis counters by mentioning Ilex and Melia, lovers who conjoined during the 17th Council, and expresses a hope that he will similarly conjoin with Laurel, and subsequently rise to Azoth with her essence part of his.

Poor Laurel. I wonder if she knows what sort of plans Cercis has concocted. Would she willingly sacrifice herself to his ambition?

Sadira herself is concerned about the upcoming conjunction, as we learn in the next scene on page 28. While she’s waiting to meet Arjan outside the Blue Mosque of Tabriz in Iran, Sadira considered the possible results of her joining with the Novillian Scribe, Amur.

Though Sadira has taken certain precautions at Cedar’s behest, her understanding of Council history suggests that when a senior member of the Council is paired with a junior member, it is the senior member’s essence that dominates and subsumes the other. This contradicts official Council doctrine, but Sadira has thus far kept her doubts to herself. However, she suspects that she might not survive the Conjunction.

The Recruitment of Arjan

I can’t prove it yet for lack of textual evidence, but I think Cynthea Masson wrote Arjan’s character as a foil for Jaden. While Jaden was ignorant of the Council’s existence and of alchemy prior to her conscription by Cedar, Arjan not only possesses some experience with mundane alchemy, but has seen his name mentioned in an alchemical manuscript while “reading of the elemental qualities of Terminalia arjuna” (page 30).

Terminalia arjuna, incidentally, is a tree native to the Indian subcontinent. Its leaves are used in silk production and in Ayurvedic medicine, and plays a symbolic role in Theravada Buddhism as a tree representing achieved enlightenment. Furthermore, Arjuna is the protagonist of the Mahabharata, one of ancient India’s major epics (along with the Ramayana).

So, Arjan knows who he is. He’s familiar with mundane alchemy. He knows he is to be an initiate of the Alchemists' council, and is eager to depart with Sadira.

Sephrim: the Alchemist’s Little Helper

Upon her return to Council dimension, the first person Sadira seeks out after reporting in and getting Arjan settled is Cedar, who is currently in the lower archives hunting for more evidence of bees disappearing from manuscripts to convince Azoth Ruis that Scribe Linden identified a legitimate phenomenon. It soon becomes obvious that the two are lovers, but both have more pressing concerns at the moment.

Sadira, for her part, is suspicious of how well Arjan took the recruitment, but has no evidence to suggest that either one of the Azoths made first contact, or that the Rebel Branch got to Arjan first. It would make sense for them to do so, though, and Cedar is obligated to ask because of the missing bees – which may also be Rebel shenanigans.

However, Sadira has no evidence of either Rebel or Azothian involvement because it is possible for mundanes to obtain basic alchemical knowledge by studying the right manuscripts. It just isn’t probable, especially in a Western society where scientism (belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method) is one of the dominant ideologies.

The scene ends with Cedar slipping Sadira a brown packet of Sephrim, a drug for alchemists. It appears that Sadira is a long-time user, and has gotten the stuff from Cedar many times before, but she isn’t sure where Cedar gets it or from whom. Cedar herself offers no information about her source.

While I have no textual evidence to back this hypothesis, I suspect that Cedar’s getting her Sephrim from a Rebel alchemist either in an out-of-the-way part of Council dimension, or some neutral location. Regardless, it’s probable that Sadira’s jones will prove plot-relevant later on. It certainly gives Cedar a handle she could use, were she of a mind to do so.

The Care and Feeding of Alchemists in Council Dimension

Next is a brief interlude which begins with Jaden messing around in class drawing naughtier versions of the Rebis, the alchemical hermaphrodite, than the one shown below. That makes her something of a student after my own heart.

Kuthuma of Erks: the Rebis

Arjan joins the class, making a splash with a joke about the mystical nature of conjunction that goes over Linden’s head and straight to plaid. (Sorry. I couldn’t resist. Anybody who knows me knows I’ll eventually work in a Spaceballs allusion.)

With the Junior Initiates filled out, it’s chow time. Instead of taking her usual table, Jaden joins her fellow JIs; her interest in Arjan currently outweighs her dislike of Cercis and Laurel.

As the new FNG succeeding Jaden (who has now been in Council dimension over a year), Arjan is full of questions inspired by the surprisingly excellent food. He doesn’t know that the Alchemists' Council is served by a large support staff of non-alchemists.

These outside contractors get paid in Lapidarian honey, created by the bees living in the Council’s apiaries. The Council recruits them from the outside world, but does not necessarily conscript them as Jaden feels Cedar did to her. Instead, the Council looks for experienced, skilled people who are tired of life in the outside world and looking for a way out. At least, that’s what Laurel tells Arjan on pages 39-40. There’s no textual evidence to contradict that yet.

Lapidarian honey is a wondrous substance: it heals, fosters good health, and extends the lives of non-alchemists who eat it. It thus works similarly to the Elixir granted to Council alchemists once they turn thirty. Combined with the the alchemical vapors of Council dimension, which act as a sovereign antidepressant, Council support staff supposedly live long, purposeful lives free of despair.

Instead of living on Lapidarian honey, Alchemists are granted Elixir once they turn thirty. The Elixir dramatically slows aging, and becomes more effective as an alchemist rises through the ranks and develops their essence. It also heals injury and cures diseases, but alchemists with life-threatening illnesses or diseases that the Elixir cannot heal within a few days are placed inside special alembics within the catacombs.

bacta tank used in *Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back*

These alembics work similarly to devices like the bacta tank used in Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back, but might not necessarily look the same. Thanks to the Elixir and the catacombs, it is highly unlikely that an alchemist will actually die. Instead, there are only three ways to permanently leave Council dimension: conjunction, Final Ascension, and erasure.

Playing Telephone with the Lapis

I had previously mentioned that messages from the Lapis pass through at least two human filters before the Alchemists' Council acts on them. It’s actually much more complicated than that, as I’ll show below.

First, consider Cersis' explanation of how Lapidarian ink is made on page 47. Novillian Scribes are endowed with the ability to “bleed the Lapis”, scraping fine dust from it with a jewel blade, after undergoing a ritual conducted by the Azoth Magen called the Blood of the Green Lion. The dust is then mixed with channel water in a crystal bottle, and stirred with a rod of pure gold. This creates Lapidarian ink of a random color.

Attentive readers may recall page 5, where Cedar performs this process and creates azure ink instead of the indigo requested by Lapidarian Scribe Katsura. However, the creation of Lapidarian ink could be considered a secondary function of the Novillian Scribes, since the ability to bleed the Lapis must be granted by the Azoth Magen. Their primary function is sapientia; by placing one hand on the Lapis and another on a blank slate, a Novillian Scribe’s mind and body becomes a conduit through which the Lapis transmits messages to a temporary medium.

The freshly inscribed slates are given to the Lapidarian Scribes, who use them to draft new manuscripts using Lapidarian ink made using the process above. Once the alchemical manuscript has been drafted, a Novillian Scribe reviews and revises the text. The manuscript is then brought to the Readers, who interpret the finalized text.

This process brings to mind a kindergarten game called telephone. A child would whisper a message to their neighbor, who would pass it on until it came to the last child in the group. The last child in the group would then announce the message as they understood it. The fun was in comparing the final message to the original, but the game also possesses instructive value in that it shows how easily errors can creep into a message passed between people.

To reiterate, a Reader gets information from the Lapis through one of two channels:

  1. Alice touches the Lapis. Barbara transcribes Alice’s slate. Claire reviews and revises Barbara’s draft.
  2. Alice touches the Lapis. Barbara transcribes Alice’s slate. Alice reviews and revises Barbara’s draft.

In the first case, the Readers get messages from the Lapis three steps removed from the source (Alice, Barbara, Claire). In the second, the messages come two steps removed (Alice, Barbara, Alice), but the original Novillian Scribe has the opportunity to alter the message they originally sent to the Lapidarian Scribes. Either way, I think it’s probable that the Alchemists' Council has been acting on faulty information at least part of the time.

Erasure and its Consequences

Everything we previously discussed sets the stage for the climax of this chapter, a confrontation between Jaden and Cedar. As part of a lesson in recognizing Lapidarian ink, Sadira tasked the Junior Initiates with attempting to distinguish between Lapidarian ink and the ordinary variety. Unable to do so by sight, Jaden attempted to do so by scent – and spilled it all over a manuscript.

As a result, Jaden got summoned to Cedar’s office for having rendered illegible nine square centimeters of Elementa Chemicae 5663 folio 26 recto. Nine square centimeters isn’t much; it’s only 1.4 square inches for readers unfamiliar with metric units. You can see for yourself if you’ve got a ruler handy. Just draw a square 3cm wide on all sides.

Furthermore, the Council possesses backups of Elementa Chemicae 5663 and other alchemical manuscripts used to teach initiates just in case one of them has a case of the butterfingers. However, restoring a manuscript from the backups is a painstaking process that distracts the Novillian Scribes from other duties, so naturally Cedar would prefer that Jaden be much more careful in the future.

To that end, Cedar explains to Jaden that she destroyed a Lapidarian section of an original alchemical manuscript that dates back to the 17th Council. Considering that The Alchemists' Council is set during the 18th Council, this implies that Elementa Chemicae 5663 is not a new manuscript.

The manuscript is valuable because of its age alone, but Lapidarian portions of alchemical manuscripts are puissant. Changing such texts or the illuminations can alter Council history, obscure the identities of future Initiates so the Council cannot find and recruit them, or delete references to existing members of the Council – which could change who they are or erase them.

Cedar doesn’t want to be erased, not after having served the Council for centuries and rising to the position of Novillian Scribe, though full erasure is a complicated procedure that involves rooting out every reference to a person in the manuscripts. Furthermore, erasing Cedar would harm alchemists below Cedar’s position.

Cedar drives home the consequences of erasing her on pages 57-58. If Jaden were to take out Cedar, she would go down with her. So would everybody else Cedar ever initiated into the Council. All would suffer. Worse, the Flaw in the Lapis would grow for lack of Quintessence.

This makes deliberate erasure of any alchemist granted a pendant containing Elixir a “nuclear option” for dealing with recalcitrant members of the Council, one the Council would not use unless a member caused sufficient trouble to convince the rest that matters had passed the Godzilla Threshold.

It also makes accidental or malicious erasure of the kind Jaden could have caused an excellent way to make enemies within the Council, and most likely a good way to get a one-way ticket back to muggledom – though as Cedar points out, Jaden need only ask if she wants out that badly.

Giving Schrödinger’s Cat a Belly Rub

After Jaden learns on page 60 that she could return to her mundane life, and thus still has a choice, she does not make an immediate decision. Instead, she goes off on a tangent and asks Cedar why the Alchemists' Council hasn’t initiated every human being on Earth. Cedar’s answer on page 61 is thus:

“We are the elite, Jaden. We are the Alchemists' Council. And our responsibility to the world is unfathomable to the uninitiated.”

I don’t know about you, but this raises my hackles. I could easily imagine Charles Manson saying something similar to his Family, insisting that they’re the only ones who can bring Helter Skelter down on the world.

Jaden, however, persists and says, “Expand the Tree. Save the World.”

Unfortunately, it isn’t so simple. Apparently the Lapis can only sustain a Council of a hundred and one members (similar to the United States Senate, when the Vice President acts as President of that once-august body). When a pendant-carrying member of the Council is erased, that person’s essence is lost and can never return to the Lapis. While the erased member is eventually replaced, this is not the preferred method to create open slots for Junior Initiates.

The ideal method is renew the Tree through Azothian Final Conjunction, where the Azoth Magen conjoins with the Lapis and contributes their refined essence, or through alchemical conjunction. However, the consequences of conjunction go beyond the participants despite my earlier joke about conjunction being alchemical Thunderdome.

It isn’t just a matter of two alchemists enter, and only one leaving. I explained earlier that who gets initiated depends on who survives conjunction, and my explanation prompted Ms. Masson to “wonder if one of the #CouncilCats is named Schrödinger”.

It’s no joke, as Jaden learns on pages 62-66 after she asked Cedar whether she had been through conjunction. Upon learning that Cedar had conjoined with Saule, consuming the other alchemist’s essence while remaining herself, Jaden is outraged. She views the process of conjunction as one of murder, and finally decides that she wants out. She wants no part of a Council whose Readers suggest conjuctive pairings that the Elders then approve, so that one continues to live through the centuries while the other dies.

However, Cedar has one final revelation to offer on page 65:

“Saule conjoined with me so you could live and renew the Council. Her death gave you the potential for eternal life as the new Initiate. If Saule had been victorious, you would have died on the day Saule and I conjoined.”

Instead, it was a potential initiate named Taimi who died, her possibilities consumed along with Saule’s essence. It’s a hell of a guilt trip for Jaden, but that’s the way the waveform collapses.

Chapter Two

The climax of Chapter One left Jaden bearing a heavy burden of guilt over the two deaths that opened the way for her induction into the Alchemists' Council. Her determination to find out who opened the way for Arjan will lead her to a revelation more shocking than those she’s already weathered. Buckle up for spoilers; I’m covering the following topics in pages 67-119 of the paperback.

Erasure: Making an Unperson

Kliment Voroshilov, Vyacheslav Molotov, Joseph Stalin, and Nikolai Yezhov, going out for cocktails

As I mentioned before, learning that Saule died during alchemical conjunction with Cedar and the potential initiate Taimi followed her rocked Jaden, and left her guilt-ridden. Since Cercis and Laurel are senior to Jaden, and she dislikes them anyway, the only Junior Initiate with whom she can share the truth about conjunction and how new Initiates gain admission to the Council is Arjan. She believes that Arjan would share her outrage.

However, Jaden doesn’t know who conjoined to open up Arjan’s slot. She attempts to gain access to the current century’s Council minutes for research, and explains to Scribe Obeche that she needs the information for a history assignment.

Rather than tell her, Obeche asks Jaden what exactly she’s looking for, pointing out with no little pride his repute as an “archival mastermind”. His pause after Jaden asked about the most recent conjunction should be an attentive reader’s first clue that he’s hiding something. The next clue is that he cites the most recent conjunction as that of Cedar and Saule, but that was the conjunction that led to Jaden’s initiation – which Jaden already knows.

Jaden presses him, demanding to know who conjoined before Arjan’s initiation, and Obeche claims to have forgotten about Arjan as if new Initiates – especially those who found themselves mentioned in Lapidarian manuscripts prior to recruitment – were so common as to be beneath notice. However, there’s no dancing around the truth now. Obeche admits that Arjan’s place was opened by erasure, not conjunction.

Obeche justifies the necessity of erasure as necessary for the survival of the Council, which is continually threatened by the actions of the Rebel Branch, but that is cold comfort to Jaden. I’ll explain why in a moment.

As I explained in “Chapter One: Erasure and its Consequences”, alchemical erasure is the Council’s preferred method for handling recalcitrant members. The scribes root out every reference to the erased person from the Lapidarian manuscripts, and the former Alchemist gets booted out of Council dimension.

Alchemical erasure is not a new concept. The Soviet Union under Stalin regularly made unpersons of members of the Communist Party who fell from favor. The word “unperson” comes from George Orwell’s 1984, the warning against totalitarian socialism that became the unofficial playbook for Anglo-American police and intelligence agencies. The Romans reserved erasure for traitors, and gave us the Latin term damnatio memoriae: the “condemnation of memory”. Even the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt regularly made unpersons of their predecessors, especially Ramses II, striking their names from monuments and replacing them with their own.

However, the Alchemists' Council can do what real-world tyrannies cannot: it can erase memories of its outcasts from the minds of individuals within Lapidarian proximity. Even the identity of an erased person is on a need-to-know basis, and those not trusted with this information do not remember the names of erased friends within Council dimension. If they carry pendants, then they cannot even remember the erased when they return to the outside world.

Thus, Jaden now knows that somebody had been erased to open the way for Arjan’s recruitment. She doesn’t know who, and is naturally distressed. Imagine somebody you cared about was made to disappear, and you weren’t even allowed to remember their names.

"Nikolai Yezhov? What's that, comrade? Kliment, Vyacheslav, do you know who this Yezhov fellow is?" "Nyet!"

The Missing Lapidarian Bees, Part 2: Grunt Work for the Junior Initiates

After meeting with Jaden at the end of Chapter One, Cedar got the word that Azoth Ravenea wanted to meet with all of the Novillian Scribes, two Lapidarian Scribes, and to Readers in the North Library. This is another talky scene, but along with Obeche’s revelation to Jaden about the full effects of erasure, it will drive the action of the rest of this chapter.

Ravenea’s concerned about the bees disappearing from Lapidarian manuscripts in the Vienna protectorate, even though Ruis doesn’t seem to care. She means to do something about the situation herself since it barely got a mention at the last Council meeting.

Lapidarian Scribe Katsura suggests that all Scribes and Readers focus on investigation to find a definitive cause, but Obeche dissents. He thinks the work is too difficult, too mundane, and would distract from the concerned orders' normal duties to the detriment of the Council and Council dimension. Finding new bees where they didn’t exist before would be enough of a pain in the ass, but disappearing bees? I suspect Obeche is as interested in finding missing manuscript bees as I would be in reverse-engineering a legacy system implemented in ten million lines of COBOL code.

Cedar, true to what I still suspect is her form, pounces on the opportunity to win points with Obeche by suggesting that even devoting half of the Scribes and Readers to the job is problematic, since the work would require that the alchemists assigned make extended visits to the protectorate libraries located in the outside world. Instead, she suggests that two groups composed of two Novillian Scribes, two Lapidarian Scribes, two Readers, two Senior Magistrates, two Junior Magistrates, and two Senior Initiates work in rotating shifts to investigate the missing bees.

When Obeche questions Cedar on her suggestion, Cedar points out that she herself found a missing bee in Sursum Deorsum 5055, in Council dimension. (Incidentally, “sursum deorsum” literally means “Up Down” or “Upside Down” in Latin.) This blows the hypothesis that it’s just the protectorate libraries under attack out of the water.

The only objection to Cedar’s proposal comes from Obeche, who insists that Lapidarian Scribe Amur not be sent on this mission because his impending conjunction makes him a valuable target. He offers to go in Amur’s stead, which would settle the matter if not for an additional proposal from Cedar.

Cedar’s suggestion that all four Junior Initiates also be brought on board results in several council members having kittens. (If you adopted one, please post a pic on Twitter with the hashtag #CouncilCats and tag @cyntheamasson.) Obeche is concerned that the Junior Initiates aren’t ready to handle such work due to their limited grasp of basic concepts.

Cedar counters Obeche’s objection by framing her proposal as an opportunity to not only train the Juniors and continue their indoctrination to prevent a repeat of the “most recent debacle” (p. 78), but give them practical anti-Rebel experience. The Juniors could work in pairs, with each pair assigned to a different protectorate library with a Scribe to escort them in and out of Council dimension.

While precedent for putting the newbies to work exists, there’s still one little problem. Without pendants, the Junior Initiates sent outside will leave Lapidarian proximity. That means they may start to remember the erasure Obeche mentioned to Jaden earlier, as well as the events leading to it.

However, Cedar has an answer for this as well: interim pendants made of turquoise infused with Lapidarian essence, which were last given to Junior Initiates during the Second Rebellion. The essence-infused pendants grant Lapidarian proximity for a limited time, and must be recharged, so the Junior Initiates remain leashed to the Council. Though this doesn’t satisfy Obeche, Cedar manages to persuade everybody else.

Arjan’s Reaction and Promise

Jaden finally gets the chance to tell Arjan about how conjunction really works, but he does not react as she hoped/expected he would. Instead of being as outraged as Jaden, Arjan remains sanguine about the necessity of conjunction.

However, he suggests another possibility. Cedar (and Jaden) might be wrong about Saule being gone. Something of Saule might still exist within Cedar, so that the post-conjunction Cedar’s personality is subtly different from that of pre-conjunction Cedar.

This is something Jaden hadn’t considered, and it doesn’t match the impression she got from Cedar. When she points this out to Arjan, he suggests that the result of each conjunction differs, depending on the participants.

With no counterargument, Jaden instead changes the subject and tells Arjan that his initiation was made possible through erasure. Again, he is much more sanguine about the revelation than Jaden had been. However, it helps the Sadira had already told him. It also helps that Arjan didn’t know any of the people involved.

However, once Jaden makes Arjan face the possibility that the next person to be erased may be somebody important to him, he agrees to help Jaden. He counsels Jaden to be patient, and wait for an opportunity to escape Council dimension.

Sadira’s Concerns About Arjan

Poor Sadira’s got a lot on her mind lately. Arjan’s foreknowledge of his initiation thanks to his prior alchemical learning isn’t the only quality that makes him a person of interest to the Council; various Readers have compiled “extensive evidence” (p. 88) of his significance.

However, Arjan isn’t unprecedented. The annals of the 7th Council preserve a tale of “a prophet who had forseen her alchemical destiny”. Years later, this person singlehandedly undermined a Rebel push threatening Council control of the outside world called the Breach of the Yggdrasil.

"The Ash Yggdrasil" (1886) by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine

Yggdrasil, by the way, is the World Tree that holds in its boughs the nine worlds of Norse mythology (Asgard, Midgard, Vanaheim, Muspelheim, Nifelheim, Alfheim, Svartalfheim, Jotunheim, and Helheim). It is also the tree from which Odin hanged himself for nine days, sacrificing himself to himself to learn the secret of the runes in the poem Hávamál, from the Poetic Edda. Stanza 137 tells the tale:

I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.

For those with a musical bent, the Swedish symphonic metal band Therion also dedicated a concept album to Yggdrasil and the Nine World called Secret of the Runes. Readers with Spotify accounts can listen using the widget below.

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Whoever singlehandedly defeated the Rebel Branch during the Breach of the Yggdrasil left a hell of a pair of shoes for Arjan to fill. Whether he’ll do so remains to be seen. In the meantime, Obeche is happy to remind Sadira that since Arjan is still only an initiate, he can always be erased. While he’s correct, I doubt Sadira finds this reminder helpful; no doubt it would reflect poorly on Sadira if one of her initiates were to become an unperson, just as any misconduct on her part would reflect badly on Cedar.

Speaking of Cedar: apparently Sadira had turned to Cedar for comfort after Cedar’s conjunction with Saule. Prior to this conjunction, Sadira had apparently been close enough to Saule to desperately fear losing her (p. 89). Afterward, Sadira had latched on to Cedar, who forged such a strong and comforting emotional bond with Sadira that the younger alchemist had been the one to make the relationship a more intimate one.

So, she has no doubts about Cedar. Instead, she continues to harbor doubts about her future with the Council. Like Jaden, Sadira also resisted the Council’s indoctrination at first, and researched dimensional space in hope of find a way to escape Council dimension. She had hoped the tunnels beneath the Council grounds would offer a way out, but they never did.

That old restlessness returned along with the memory, and Sadira deals with it by finding her Sephrim stash (which she stores using the classic device of a hollowed out book) and does a hit. As shown on page 91, the drug doesn’t just affect Sadira; it also appears to affect her pendant. I think this implies that Sephrim isn’t just a drug, but somehow boosts or amplifies the essence held within its user and their pendant.

Either way, it leaves Sadira nice and purry while she waits for Cedar.

The Missing Lapidarian Bees, Part 3: As Below, So Above

It’s bee time again as Cedar hunts down Amur to ensure she can count on his support. She found him in the lower archives, poring over a manuscript. Next to him sat Obeche, flipping through magazines from the outside world and doing research on colony collapse disorder.

Though Cedar thinks Obeche is just wasting time, no doubt due to their frequent disagreements, there’s a method to his apparent madness. Thus far, the relationship between Council dimension and the real world could be described by the formula “as above, so below”: because the microcosm affects the macrocosm, actions performed in Council dimension could affect the outside world. Were this not the case, then the Council’s efforts to maintain elemental balance would do nothing to preserve the outside world.

However, Obeche has come to suspect that the cause of the missing bees in Lapidarian manuscripts is far more ominous than mere Rebel shenanigans. He thinks that the real culprit is colony collapse disorder in the outside world. If he’s correct, the disappearance of bees in the real world is reflected by the disappearance of bees in the manuscripts.

Obeche blames this phenomenon on a second flaw in the Calculus Macula, a dimensional fissure that allows the outside world, or somebody there, to affect Council dimension and its protectorates. He hasn’t mentioned his hypothesis to the Azoths yet, nor has he found evidence of the “as below, so above” phenomenon.

Thus Cedar comes to Sadira without accomplishing her original objective, talking to Amur about the conjunction. Not that Sadira minds. She has other uses for Cedar.

A Field Trip to Santa Fe

The next day, Jaden gets sidetracked on her way to the North Library by the sight of Laurel and Sadira chatting by a fountain. Cercis is there, as well as Arjan and Cedar. They’re about to make a jaunt outside, and were waiting for Jaden to find them.

I’m surprised the Council doesn’t keep pages on staff (paid in Lapidarian honey, naturally) to find members of the Council and tell them when and where they’re wanted, but that might be one of the hats a Junior Initiate gets stuck wearing for everybody else’s benefit. Rank hath its privileges, even in Council dimension.

In any case, the jaunt isn’t just a bit of fun. Cedar will escort the Initiates to Santa Fe, New Mexico for a test; those who pass will “progress to the next stage of the venture”, according to Sadira (p. 97). She doesn’t provide any further detail than that, save that they’ll be using the Salix portal instead of Quercus because they’re heading to North America – and that they’ll need to bring layers to accommodate temperature changes.

This is the very opportunity Jaden had been hoping to get, time outside of Lapidarian proximity to recover her memories. However, the fact that the order came from Cedar makes Jaden nervous. Unlike Sadira, the younger woman doesn’t trust the Novillian Scribe.

the San Miguel Chapel in Santa Fe, NM

Searching for Pendants

Jaden was first to return outside with Cedar’s help, but Cedar left her standing on a street corner in Santa Fe with instructions to wait. Wait Jaden did for over thirty minutes, pacing outside the Loretto Chapel and worrying that she had been abandoned in a foreign city without money or documentation, until Cedar showed up again with Arjan in tow.

Cedar’s explanation? An “impromptu meeting with Obeche” (p. 100). That’s all she told Jaden, and Jaden has little choice but to take the older woman’s explanation at face value, but I smell a Lapidarian rat. Given the antagonistic relationship between Cedar and Obeche, I’m surprised Obeche would want an impromptu meeting with her.

In any case, after Jaden tells Cedar she’s tired of waiting on the street, Cedar suggests that she and Arjan wait at the cafe in La Fonda. She then returned to Council dimension, prompting Jaden to wonder if muggles notice members of the Alchemists council appearing and disappearing in normal space. “Apparently they don’t”, according to Arjan (p. 101).

Since they’re alone together, Jaden and Arjan start talking erasure again. Arjan approached Sadira on the subject, but all he learned was that the Council doesn’t simply dump its outcasts back in the real world. Instead, they are provided the basics they need to make new lives for themselves: a place to live, an identity, and some cash. The more Elixir an erased alchemist has ingested prior to being stripped of their Pendant, the longer they’ll survive outside. Meanwhile, the Scribes manually and alchemically remove references to them from all known manuscripts.

This raises the possibility that a reference to an outcast can survive in manuscripts unknown to the Alchemists' Council, though it strikes Jaden and Arjan as somewhat unlikely. However, I doubt it would have come up if it wasn’t somehow relevant. Keep an eye out in subsequent chapters.

In the meantime, Jaden grows frustrated that the memories haven’t started to come back yet, but Arjan reminds her that it takes time away from Council dimension. Furthermore, the restoration is temporary; she’ll lose them again when she returns, and different memories might resurface the next time she leaves Lapidarian proximity long enough to recall the erased. However, it’s possible that Jaden had already written about the erased person since she has an old journal in which she hasn’t written for some time.

Once everybody’s gathered, Jaden pays for her coffee and Arjan’s. Arjan, in turn, buys her a pen and some paper while chiding her about not taking advantage of her alchemical skills to create wealth for herself. They follow Cedar to the restaurant in La Plazuela, where it finally occurs to Jaden that Cedar has a history, and that Santa Fe might be part of this history. The city might have meant as much to her as Vancouver means to Jaden.

Once the orders are placed and the drinks served, Cedar makes a toast with a special meaning to Jaden: “May you find here all that you seek” (p. 107). She then explains the Initiates' mission in Santa Fe: they are to find stones suitable for use as interim pendants, so that they can help the senior alchemists research the missing bee effect in the protectorate libraries. These stones must be capable of withstanding Lapidarian infusion, and apparently turquoise works best.

an Anasazi freeform turquoise pendant

Why Turquoise?

Cedar didn’t explain why the Initiates should look specifically for turquoise, but a bit of research reveals some possibilities.

Turquoise posesses some interesting chemical properties as a hydrated phosphate of copper and aluminum. It never forms single crystals, but instead has a triclinic crystalline structure. The vectors are never the same length, and never intersect at right angles. Furthermore, turquoise can only be dissolved in heated hydrochloric acid, and despite being fairly soft compared to other gemstones (6 on the Mohs scale, slightly harder than window glass), turquoise takes on a good polish.

While our name for the stone comes from turque, the French word for Turk, because turquoise entered the modern European trade via the Silk Road, humans have used turquoise to decorate objects and make amulets since the First Dynasty thousands of years ago.

King Tutankhamun’s burial mask is inlaid with turquoise. The stone is also associated with the goddess Hathor, who was the patroness of Serabit el-Khadim, where ancient Egyptians once mined the stone. In Chapter 28 of the Book of Exodus, turquoise is one of the stones inlaying the breastplate worn by the High Priest of the Jews. The Persians used it to decorate just about everything, and the stone also saw use in Mesopotamia and in China during the Shang dynasty.

The iconic gold burial mask of Tutankhamun, inlaid with turquoise, lapis lazuli, carnelian and coloured glass.

In the west, pre-Columbian Native Americans used turquoise to make amulets and for decorative purposes. Though the silver and turquoise jewelry made by the Navajo and other tribes in the American Southwest is of a more modern design, and made primarily for trade with outsiders, it was once as sacred to them as it was to the Aztec and the Maya.

Turquoise mosaic mask of Xiuhtecuhtli, the aztec god of fire.

No doubt the author considered many of these factors when choosing the recommended material for the interim pendants.

Broken Memories of Kalina

Cedar leaves them after lunch with instructions to meet at the San Miguel Mission at five, but the Initiates talk amongst themselves first. While discussing the historical precedent for their being granted interim pendants, Laurel remarks that she hasn’t had this much fun since visiting a spa in Vienna with somebody named Kalina.

There’s just one problem: nobody knows who Kalina is, and Laurel has to explain that she’s a Senior initiate. Or, rather, she was. Not even Laurel actually remembers Kalina. She just has a scene from a memory: her and Kalina at the spa in Vienna.

Jaden writes this intelligence down, noting that the one erased may be Kalina, and reluctantly begins her search for a pendant. However, when she returns to Council dimension and cracks open her notebook to review it, all of the pages are blank. This suggests two possibilities:

I think the latter is more likely, simply because that’s how I would write it, but we don’t have enough textual evidence to rule out either possibility. We will have to see if Jaden sees what she wrote the next time she leaves Council dimension without a pendant, or if Cedar gets her hands on the notebook and sees Kalina’s name mentioned.

The Missing Lapidarian Bees, Part 4: A Ritual Interrupted

Several days after the Junior Initiates' visit to Santa Fe, Cedar participates in a partial Ritual of Restoration led by the Azoth Magen himself, Ailanthus. This partial ritual is aimed directly at protecting and restoring the Lapidarian manuscripts.

Like many rituals, the Ritual of Restoration is structured so that the Azoth Magen leads the invocations, and those gathered with him offer the prescribed response when appropriate. Christian readers – especially Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans – may note similiarties between the Ritual and traditional celebrations of the Eucharist in this regard.

The Azoth Magen invokes the elements (Earth, Wind, Sea (water), and Ember (fire)), and the arboreal essence of plants and trees. He then invokes the “Lapidarian promise of Ruach 2103 folio 51 verso – the manuscript leaf from which Linden first witnessed the bees disappearing” (p. 117). In addition to calling upon the apiarian memory of this text, Ailanthus summoned that of all other Lapidarian manuscripts.

The Elder Council spent over an hour on this ritual intended to restore the Lapidarian bees to the manuscripts, but something has gone wrong. The alchemical blue light generated by their work is fading. However, Cedar is so deep in the flow of the ritual that she doesn’t notice she’s the last person still chanting until Ailanthus commands silence.

As the blue light fade, a scarlet light replaced it. With it came strident laughter in a voice everybody believed had been banished from Council dimension through erasure. Thoroughly panicked by this voice, the Elder council scrambles to find evidence in the Lapidarian manuscripts of an imminent rebellion, or for evidence that the erasure itself had failed on an elemental level.

They found nothing. Kalina shouldn’t have been able to reach back into Council dimension to laugh at them. All the same, she succeeded in doing so and offered the Elders a token of her contempt.

Return of the Erased Commissar

Chapter Three

Hot on the heels of the explosive ending of Chapter Two comes an extended flashback. The entire chapter takes place one year before the present, and introduces some elements from the Rebel Branch. I’ll also be going heavy on comparisons to real-world esotericism (Kaballah, the Left-Hand Path, Discordianism, etc.), so buckle up.

Before we can explain why the Council expelled Kalina and subjected her to erasure, we must first introduce Kalina and the Rebel Branch. We’ll also be meeting the younger Jaden. Finally, if you skipped the Prima Materia (p. vii), now would be a good time to review it. Doing so will provide valuable context for the topics covered in this chapter (pages 120-174):

Lead Into Gold: The “Hello World” of Alchemy

We don’t get the meet Kalina right away; that would be too easy. Instead, to drive home the fact that we’ve gone back to a year ago in the story, Cynthea Masson opens Chapter 3 with a lab experiment for the Junior Initiates: the transmutation of lead into gold. This transmutation was one of the classic goals of Western alchemy, along with the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone, the alkahest (universal solvent), and an Elixir of immortality.

For Junior Initiates like Jaden, the transmutation of lead into gold is merely a first step, a trivial task intended to introduce and apply basic alchemical concepts that will continue to serve Jaden as she progresses through the ranks of the Alchemists' Council. In that regard, it’s similar to the “hello world” program many first-year computer science and software development students are taught to write. Here’s one such program, implemented in C.

int main(int argc, char *argv)
            puts("Hello world.");

            return 0;

By itself, “hello world” is a trivial program, but it is also the smallest complete program a programmer can write. If you can’t write a working “hello world”, you won’t be able to write more complex code. Likewise, transmuting lead into gold is child’s play for the Alchemists' Council, and thus a suitable learning exercise for Junior Initiates.

However, Jaden builds up this first practical exercise in alchemical principles in her mind, investing it with additional meaning. To begin, she hopes to impress Sadira, who she has already marked as her favorite instructor. Furthermore, Jaden hopes that by actually doing alchemy she’ll finally be able to get over her desire to escape Council dimension and return to her old life – if only for a little while.

For these reasons, Jaden got to class early and hopes that she would at least impress Sadira as somebody who has their act together, since as the current newbie Jaden lacks sufficient knowledge of alchemical practice to distinguish herself in that regard, and certainly can’t outdo Cercis. Nor can she compete with Laurel on the basis of appearance, though I suspect this is mainly the negative self-talk common to many young women. Finally, Ritha has them all beat on experience as the eldest of the Junior Initiates.

As the eldest, Ritha is eager to progress, but cannot do so until two alchemists further up undergo conjunction. Fortunately, as she confides to Jaden in class, the next conjunction should happen soon. According to her, one of the candidates is Tesu.

The Conjunction of Senior Magistrate Tesu

The scuttlebutt Ritha shares with Jaden concerning Tesu proves true later on. Azoth Ravenea confirms it at the next Council meeting by her announcement, though Jaden is too busy trying to work out the meaning of conjunction by listening to the section of the Law Codes pertaining to conjunction the other alchemists recite to pay full attention.

It is Rowan Esche who introduces Tesu’s partner on conjunction. She’s a young blonde in garnet robes who Jaden had not previously noticed before, but Cercis, Laurel, and Ritha all recognize her: this is Kalina.

Apparently the pairing of Kalina and Tesu is a shock to many of the council’s members, despite it being approved by the Elder Council, but Cercis and Ritha share a different reaction: “that could have been me” (p. 128). Ritha in particular seems to feel like she dodged a bullet, since she would have been up for consideration if she had become a Senior Initiate instead of Zelkova.

Unintended Consequences of Stalking

Though Jaden had not previously noticed Kalina before, the Baader Meinhof Phenomenon strikes with a vengeance, and now she sees the garnet-robed blonde everywhere. Though in Jaden’s case, it’s less a frequency illusion and more a matter of Jaden constantly looking for Kalina – and looking for reasons to talk with her. Jaden even compliments Kalina on her pendant, a dark green stone set in silver repoussé (metal hammered from the reverse side to create a low relief), but can’t get more than a smile out of her.

Not that Kalina’s cordial aloofness stops Jaden. Instead, it only fuels her determination to get through to the older woman. After a fight between two birds outside her window wakes Jaden, she sees Kalina leaving the residence hall and taking a stone path into the backwoods of Council dimension.

Naturally, Jaden follows, but soon loses Kalina. Instead, she happens upon a man and a woman arguing. She can only see one of them, a figure in blue robes, without revealing her presence. However, she manages to get close enough to hear their conversation.

It’s about Tesu. They’re concerned he saw them, but the woman is confident that they had not yet been made. This confidence is misplaced thanks to Jaden’s presence, though she has no idea what the hell is going on.

The conversation soon ends, and the blue-robed man withdraws a red stone from within his robes. After chanting an incantation, the man soon disappears into mist, and the woman leaves on foot – or so Jaden thinks.

Jaden’s too interested in how the blue-robed man left to worry about her own OPSEC. This lack of tradecraft is how Kalina manages to find her studying the cliff face and speculating about the possibility of escaping Council dimension.

Note, however, that Cynthea Masson doesn’t clearly state that it was Kalina talking to the blue-robed man. We see Kalina heading toward the woods, and we see her when she confronts Jaden, but the only evidence we have of Kalina talking with the blue-robed man are based on inference:

However, I’m getting ahead of myself. It isn’t until page 135 that we learn it was Kalina who caught Jaden. Instead, we cut to Sadira.

Sadira’s Rebellious Impulses

We find Sadira in an interesting position in this chapter. She’s still raw over the loss of Saule because of her conjunction with Cedar, but she’s taken Cedar as her lover despite the Novillian Scribe being the person who “for all intents and purposes, had murdered the love of her Sadira’s life” (p. 133).

She’s stuck on a guilt trip, despising herself because she obeyed the Council and its dictates instead of rebelling against them. No doubt that’s why we see her voice such sentiments as “chaos is underrated” (p. 134) when Zelkova asks for help with her scribing.

Zelkova’s problem is easily solved; her pen just needs a new nib because the old one was cracked, but if she were working on a real Lapidarian manuscript, a broken nib could apparently disrupt elemental balance.

Never mind losing the kingdom for want of a nail; try losing the world for want of a pen.

Zelkova, suffering an acute attack of sanity, says that she doesn’t want such power or responsibility, but Sadira insists that she’s duty-bound, and must accept it. Explaining that Zelkova has years, if not centuries, of training ahead of her before she becomes a Lapidarian scribe, Sadira tells the Initiate that all she has to do is heed the Council’s lessons and learn from them.

I wonder if Sadira believes that herself. Regardless, I suspect that if Jaden were to go Rebel at least Sadira would sympathize.

Kalina’s Disappearing Act

I had mentioned earlier that we didn’t have direct evidence for Kalina being the one to talk with the man in the blue robes. We still don’t, but Kalina confronting Jaden at the cliff-face is the first chance Jaden has gotten to actually talk to the other woman.

Of course, Kalina’s a bit more interested in grilling Jaden and finding out what she saw than in conversation. Likewise, Jaden lacks evidence that would let her think Kalina had been talking to the blue-robed man, and this lack of evidence shapes her answers to Kalina accordingly – at least until Jaden remembers her backbone and demands an explanation.

Rather than provide one, Kalina begins the following exchange (on page 137):

“Do you trust me?” she asked.

“Trust you? I barely know you!” Jaden replied. She pulled away from Kalina.

“Not yet,” she Kalina said.

“I don’t trust you yet?”

“You don’t know me yet. And there may come a time when you don’t know me again.”


“I can’t explain right now. I have to go. You will understand soon.”

While Jaden doesn’t know it at the time, careful readers who have gotten this far will no doubt realize that Kalina is talking about erasure. Even if we don’t know for sure that Kalina was the one speaking with the man in the blue robes, this dialogue is suggestive.

The line, “And there may come a time when you don’t know me again,” implies that Kalina knows she’s up to something dangerous, something that could make her an unperson. She doesn’t explain herself to Jaden yet, and I think that’s because her initial question, “Do you trust me?” implies an unspoken question: “Can I trust you?”

Kalina probably isn’t sure she can trust Jaden yet. However, her use of the same portal as the blue-robed man has some interesting implications.

Jaden’s Distrust and the SNAFU Principle

Jaden certainly doesn’t know what to do about Kalina, or about the arguing pair she saw while following the Senior Initiate. And there’s only one person in the Council she trusts enough to ask for advice. Getting to talk to Sadira alone, however, proves impossible.

In addition to her pedagogical duties as one of the eight Magistrates assigned to teaching the Junior and Senior Initiates, Sadira (along with Linden) is currently busy supervising the other tutors. No doubt Cynthea Masson’s drawing on experience from her day job as a VIU English professor as she describes Sadira’s supervisory duties:

The last one is probably the hardest. Though class sizes are quite small compared to a typical US classroom (remember, there are only four Junior Initiates and twelve Senior Initiates for eight Magistrates to teach) it probably isn’t easy to adapt official Council training materials to engage an experienced Senior Initiate stuck in the same class with a fresh Junior Initiate possessed of no knowledge of alchemy not distorted by popular culture.

It’s hard work, and Sadira finds it tiring. Linden, her fellow faculty supervisor, insists he finds the bureaucratic work accompanying the start of a new course rotation “invigorating” (p. 139), which only leads Sadira to wonder why men on the Council – where conjunction often blurs gender to the point of making it all but irrelevant – still insist on displaying machismo by claiming an inexhaustible capacity for work.

It’s a timely question, given that our inability to say no both to more work and more stuff seems to be killing the planet’s biosphere, but that rant is beyond the scope of this commentary.

Getting back to the story, if Sadira had any thought of upbraiding Linden for being too perky and eager, Jaden precluded the possibility of acting on them by throwing open the double doors to the library and rushing to her. Once she catches her breath, Jaden asks to speak to Sadira privately.

Sadira, reasonably enough, asks if Jaden wants to talk about a personal matter or Council business. Since Jaden says it might be of importance to the council, Linden insists on getting involved.

There’s just one little problem where Jaden is concerned: she doesn’t know if she can trust Linden. When she asks Linden, “Can I trust you?” (p. 140), Linden immediately dismisses her concerns by countering, “Are you suggesting that certain members of the Alchemists' Council are not to be trusted?”

I think that will prove to be a mistake on Linden’s part. While Jaden didn’t come to them intending to edit the truth to avoid implicating Kalina, his brusque insistence that every member of the Council is beyond reproach leads her to realize that she has no particular reason to trust any member of the Alchemists' Council, whether it was Linden or Kalina. After all, the Council had virtually abducted her, and the alchemical vapors kept her drugged.

Add to this Jaden’s status as the Alchemists' Council’s newest initiate, placing her at the bottom of the hierarchy, and you have the perfect set of conditions for the SNAFU Principle to come into play. This principle comes from Robert Anton Wilson, who explains it in The Illuminatus! Trilogy with Robert Shea:

It’s what I call the “SNAFU principle.” Communication only occurs between equals – real communication, that is – because when you are dealing with people above you in a hierarchy, you learn not to tell them anything they don’t want to hear. If you tell them anything they don’t want to hear, the response is, “One more word Bumstead and I’ll fire you!” Or in the military, “One more word and you’re court-martialed.” It’s throughout the whole system.

So the higher up in the hierarchy you go, the more lies are being told to flatter those above them. So those at the top have no idea what is going on at all. Those at the bottom have to adjust to the rules made by those at the top who don’t know what’s going on. Those at the top can write rules about this, that and the other, while those at the bottom have got to adjust reality to fit the rules as much as they can.

In any organization where those at the bottom of the hierarchy can be punished for speaking too freely by those further up the chain, “all fucked up” becomes “situation normal” because the people in charge have no idea what the hell’s going on. Fortunately the effect of the SNAFU Principle on the Alchemists' Council is limited because there are only ten levels of hierarchy and only 101 members, but Jaden still has incentive to hold back information – and this reticence buys time for Kalina.

It won’t save her, however. Despite sticking firmly to what she understands as her minimum duty to the Council, Jaden told Sadira and Linden enough for them to conclude that Jaden’s report needs to go straight to the Elders, and for Linden to suggest that she had witnessed Rebel Branch activity, complete with an incursion into Council dimension.

The Rebel Branch: Walking the Left-Hand Path

Though Jaden may have foiled a Rebel Branch plot despite being only a Junior Initiate, she has no idea what the Rebel Branch is. Linden explains them to her in the following passage on page 143:

“Vigilantes,” said Linden. “A self-sustaining branch of the Alchemical Tree as old as the Council itself. For thousands of years, legions of generations, the Council has maintained control over the Tree, its Rebel Branch, and the outside world, but not without losses and irreparable damage.”

This explanation may be suitable for a Junior Initiate, but I think the truth is more complicated than that when we consider Cynthea Masson’s response to my commentary on Chapter II:

For me the main conflict of the novel revolves around opposing philosophies regarding free will and power. Since the era of the “primordial myth” with which the book opens, the Alchemists' Council and the Rebel Branch have been at war. Thus the conflict is as ancient as the dimensions themselves rather than based in particular memories that any living alchemist or rebel may have. The goal of the Alchemists' Council is to remove the Flaw in the Stone, whereas the goal of the Rebel Branch is to increase it. The Flaw in the Stone is what permits free will. If the Flaw were to be removed completely, the Council believes everyone would be saved in the dimensional equivalent of a unified afterlife. The Rebel Branch, on the other hand, wants to maintain their current existence as individuals with choice (rather than being forced into a collective “One” by the alchemists). This main conflict is explored through a variety of lenses throughout the book. Since I teach medieval literature, much of my inspiration for these conflicts came from philosophical debates on free will found in works such as Book IV of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde.

Considering this response by Masson to Jana Nyman’s review at Fantasy Literature, we can view the Rebel Branch through several lenses.

For readers familiar with the fantasy works of Michael Moorcock, we can view the world of The Alchemists' Council as one where Law is dominant and Chaos fights tooth and nail to maintain a foothold. If the Council succeeded in extirpating the Rebel Branch, it would mean that Law would reign unchecked, a state as inimical to humanity and free will as that of absolute Chaos.

While Linden describes the Rebel Branch as a part of the Alchemical Tree ultimately under the Alchemists' Council’s control, I think the Rebel Branch is a conceit on the Council’s part. Readers who reviewed the Prima Materia may recall that the original conflict was between Aralia, the first being to attain ego and intention, and Osmanthus, the second to do so. Both combatants gathered followers, who continued the conflict after Aralia and Osmanthus reconciled with each other and the Calculus Macula through alchemical conjunction.

If the Alchemists' Council descended from the Aralians, then the Rebel Branch probably descended from the Osmanthians, and constitutes a separate and adverse Alchemical Tree. The notion of an “adverse tree” brings to mind some concepts from Kabbalah, Jewish esotericism. In Kabbalah, the light of God descends to the material world via the tree of life, the Sephiroth.

However, there’s also an “impure” counterpart to the Sephiroth that distorts divinity, the Qliphoth or Sitra Ahra (“the other side”). While most Jewish Kabbalistic practice steered clear of the Qliphoth, viewing them as shells or remnants of the pure Sephiroth, Gentile Hermetic systems often treat the other side as a necessary balance. Consider this illustration from Newaeon Tarot on Tumblr:

Illustration of the Qliphoth as the roots of the Sephiroth

Have you noticed that Malkuth and Lilith, the light and dark corresponding with the mundane/material world, intersect in the illustration above? I think this is how the Rebel Branch actually works. Both trees arise out of the Calculus Macula, but in opposing directions.

Both, I think, share a common goal, but their methods and attitudes are such that I’ve come to view the Alchemists' Council as a white-light right-hand path practice, whereas the Rebel Branch uses the left-hand path. Neither side wants the world’s elemental balance to fall apart, or for the outside world to suffer irreparable damage. However, we’ll see later on that the Rebel Branch attempts to persuade people, and seems to honor individuality and volition.

Sadira’s Doubts

Though Sadira shares Linden’s opinion that Jaden’s report needs to be passed up the chain, she isn’t sure it’s wise to go straight to the Azoths. After all, Jaden might not have seen Rebels. She might have seen Council members she didn’t recognize on legitimate council business. The cliff face can also be used by Council members to transfer to the eastern hemisphere of the outside world.

Instead, Sadira wants to consult one of the Novillian Scribes, like Amur or Cedar. However, she’ll have to make do with Obeche. This is a mixed blessing. While Obeche is willing to listen, and agrees to convene the Elder Council, in this chapter he seems to pursue Rebel Branch alchemists as zealously as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover used to hunt Communists and other subversives.

With Obeche on the job, Sadira has cause for fear. If the Elders launch a sufficiently wide investigation, it might uncover Cedar’s little sideline as a Sephrim pusher.

Jaden Tastes the Dragon’s Blood

Getting back to Jaden, we find that Kalina appears to be missing. Jaden didn’t see her at lunch. Linden made no mention of her absence in his afternoon class, and skipped over her name when checking attendance. Even Zelkova, from Kalina’s quarto of Senior Initiates, didn’t realize she was missing.

Jaden’s smart enough to smell a rat. She’s also smart enough to stop asking questions, since she would eventually have to explain her curiosity.

However, after dinner she notices a flashing red light coming from the woods of the Council grounds. The light repeats, and settles into a rhythmic pattern that Jaden likens to a code. So, what does she do? She sneaks out of the residence hall and follows the light.

Once she gets to the woods, she finds Kalina, who asks Jaden to follow her and quickly, since they “don’t have much time” (p. 150). Jaden initially resists, and asks Kalina how she knows that:

  1. Jaden would have been the one to respond to her signal.
  2. Others wouldn’t have seen it and come to investigate.

According to Kalina, the light frequencies were alchemically keyed to Jaden’s elemental essence so that only she could see them. This allays Jaden’s concerns enough for curiosity to take over, and Jaden returns with Kalina to the cliff face where a man in blue robes awaits.

Is it the same man in blue Jaden saw earlier this chapter? I think so, because it doesn’t make sense for there to be two men in blue robes appearing at the cliff face unless The Alchemists' Council suddenly became Middle-Earth fanfic and Jaden just met the two lost Blue Wizards who went east of Mordor and were never heard from again.

I think what’s really going on is Chekhov’s Gun, named for Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov, who expressed it as follows:

Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there’s a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

Given the extremely low probability of Cynthea Masson being ignorant of this principle, I think it makes sense to assume despite the continuing lack of explicit textual evidence that the man in blue robes we’re seeing in this scene is the same as in Jaden’s last scene. Likewise, I think Kalina was the one arguing with Blue Robes earlier. But I could be wrong, and we’ll just have to see how things turn out later on. Just keep in mind that there might be two alchemists in blue.

But let’s call this blue-robed alchemist by his true name, since Kalina is kind enough to finally introduce him. His name is Dracaen. Jaden isn’t sure if Dracaen is the same blue-robed man she had seen disappear last time, but I think it’s likely for the reasons I explained above.

Naturally, Dracaen immediately requests Jaden’s trust. When Jaden protests, Dracaen insists because, “Otherwise, we will repeat this perpetually.”

And he isn’t talking about eternal recurrence. Rather, he’s referring to a prior meeting that Jaden doesn’t remember. Likewise, without intervention, Jaden won’t remember this meeting later on:

“We have met in the past and we will meet in the future, but you will know me only in the present. I exist here. Elsewhere, I am erased.” (p. 151)

Seems like Dracaen has been a very naughty alchemist, at least as far as the Council’s concerned. Speaking of the Council, Kalina asks Jaden to come with her and Dracaen, because it “isn’t safe here”.

Jaden complies, and finds herself in a cave hung with wooden wind chimes. Dracaen and Kalina invite her to sit at their table, and Dracaen serves her a draft of “Dragon’s Blood”, an alchemical cocktail of spiced wine infused with essence of the Dragonblood Stone.

And what is the Dragonblood Stone? It is what the Alchemists' Council calls the “Flaw in the Stone”. In Council dimension, the Flaw is almost impossible to see, but in Dracaen’s cave it outshines the Lapis. Though the Council would love to eradicate the Flaw, it is what allows free will within Council dimension, the negative space Dracaen and the Rebel Branch inhabit, and the outside world.

Getting back to the Dragon’s Blood: drinking it will allow Jaden to remember things she had previously forgotten, but the effect will only last a few hours once she returns to Lapidarian proximity because the Stone and the Flaw vie for supremacy just as the Council and the Rebel Branch do. As above, so below.

When Jaden drinks the Dragon’s Blood, she does indeed recall having met Dracaen before, though she doesn’t remember him by name. Instead at the time he was just a man who shared his umbrella with her as she stood in the rain waiting for a bus. He gave her a small red gemstone as a good luck charm, warning her to keep it with her at all times.

If you guessed that the stone was a fragment of the Dragonblood Stone, have yourself a cookie. Dracaen and the other Rebels knew Jaden was to be the next Initiate. By giving her that fragment, they hoped she would keep it and thus bring it with her into Council dimension, since keeping even a splinter of the Dragonblood stone there can counter Lapidarian memory loss after consuming the Dragon’s Blood tonic.

Not that Jaden knew any of this at the time, or that it would have done her much good if she did. The time wasn’t right until now. Now, however, Dracaen insists that Jaden keep the stone on her at all times lest she forget about him again, because she must willingly choose alchemical proximity to the Dragonblood Stone. Unlike the Lapis, Dragonblood proximity cannot be forced on people.

Kalina, however, offers a different warning. If Jaden is caught with the stone, she’ll be branded a Rebel. And that’s how the cat got out of the bag: at Jaden’s demand, Dracaen reveals himself as High Azoth of the Rebel Branch of the Alchemists' Council, a carrier of the Dragonblood pendant for four hundred and forty-three years, and the restorer of the Flaw during the Third Rebellion.

His current misson? “The recruitment of Jaden.” That’s what I call leading from the front.

Cedar and Obeche at Cross Purposes

We don’t get to see Dracaen make his case to Jaden just yet. Instead, because Kalina is taking advantage of the Elder Council being in a meeting, we’re going to cut to the meeting and look over Cedar’s shoulder. Here’s what we learn:

  1. Obeche is paranoid, as I mentioned before, and has the same bee in his bonnet about the Rebel Branch that Joe McCarthy had about Communism, and a similar track record of seeing Rebels where none actually existed.
  2. The Elder Council meeting was mostly a waste of time, with the Elders only unanimously agreeing to one proposal: members of the Senior Magistrate would be charged with monitoring the cliff face 24/7. Normally the Readers would get stuck with this detail, but they’re currently busy identifying the next Initiate to fill the opening that will result from the conjunction of Kalina and Tesu.
  3. Obeche isn’t keen on this conjunction, either, but Azoth Ravenea has no time for his objections. Not that this stops Obeche. He insists that the timing is fishy, and that both Tesu and Kalina should be monitors. Ailanthus orders Obeche to do it himself, which ought to fix his little red wagon.

Cedar, surprisingly enough given what we’ve seen of her relationship with Obeche, offers to help. I doubt she offered for his sake, though; Cedar herself says that, “Conjunction is too great a sacrament to place at risk,” (p. 158).

Afterward, Cedar asks Sadira who she suspects Jaden saw at the cliff face. Instead, Sadira demands that Cedar tell her the truth about the strangers Jaden saw. Sadira thinks they’re Cedar’s source for the Sephrim. However, as Cedar herself points out, it would be extraordinarily stupid of Cedar to jeopardize their supply and reputations by inviting her source for an illicit drug into Council dimension.

Sadira seems to calm down, but a careful reader will notice on page 160 that Cynthea Masson appears to change viewpoint from third person close with Cedar as the viewpoint character to third person omniscient in order to get into Sadira’s head and show that while Cedar thinks the matter of where she gets the Sephrim is closed, Sadira still harbors doubts.

Then again, I might have been misreading the book the whole time, and Masson’s always been using third person omniscient.

Dracaen’s Pitch

Getting back to Jaden, Dracaen, and Kalina: Jaden is surprised that the Rebel Branch wants to recruit her, but the Rebel Branch has their own Elders, and their own Scribes and Readers. The Dragonian interpretation of the Lapidarian manuscripts – with the aid of some masterful palimpsest revision and a well-placed lacuna or two – suggests that Jaden belongs with the Rebel Branch, rather than the Alchemists' Council.

No doubt Jaden feels a bit like Neo did in The Matrix when Morpheus explained that not only was he right to suspect that something was terribly wrong with the world, but that the truth was worse than he dared imagine.

However, like Morpheus and his crew, the Rebel Branch are adepts at manipulating Lapidarian manuscripts and the alchemical aspects of the world to their own ends, such as the preservation of volition ensuring that the Elder Council didn’t find cause to block Jaden’s initiation.

However, as Kalina explains on page 161, “the people of the outside world are currently at risk because of archaic Council protocols and abuse of Azothian power.”

Unfortunately, Jaden doesn’t know who to believe. She has no reason to trust the Alchemists' Council when they conscripted her, but she doesn’t know enough yet to decide whether the Rebel Branch is any better. All she knows for sure is that if destiny can be written or rewritten, then her own destiny might be similarly malleable.

Dracaen, to his credit, states that the Rebel Branch won’t force Jaden to choose immediately. Instead, he promises that as long as the Rebel Branch exists, Jaden will always have a choice. He is similarly forthcoming when Jaden asks what exactly the Council is doing to endanger the outside world:

“Human beings, with their pervasive pollution and obsession with technological advancements, are destroying the balance of the Earth beyond basic alchemical repair. To repair the world, the Council may opt to eradicate the free will of the people of the outside world.” (p. 162)

How will the Council do this? The Lapidarian bees are the key. Released en masse, their wings vibrate at a frequency capable of interfering with people’s ability to think for themselves. (If you’re thinking that people don’t seem to think for themselves now, just imagine how much worse it can get.) For the Neon Genesis Evangelion fans reading this, the Alchemists' Council’s endgame is similar to SEELE’s: a Human Instrumentality Project created not through Third Impact, but by erasing the Flaw in the Stone.

Dracaen isn’t giving Jaden the hard sell now because the Rebel Branch plays the long game. They hope to gain her sympathy, even if she doesn’t join them outright, so that they’ve got somebody on the inside as Jaden rises through the ranks of the Alchemists' Council. Their primary aim isn’t to swell their ranks, but to maintain the Flaw in the Stone and prevent the Council from gaining absolute control over both Council dimension and the outside world.

As I pointed out earlier, they’re advocates for chaos in a world dominated by order.

However, Jaden and Kalina can’t stay any longer. The Elder Council meeting they used as cover will have ended, and that means the members of the Elder Council are free to notice that a Senior Initiate and a Junior Initiate have disappeared from Council dimension.

However, Dracaen has a parting warning for Jaden: she must find her Dragonblood fragment and keep it on her at all times, otherwise Lapidarian proximity will blank out her memories again. Dracaen can’t give Jaden a new fragment, because she won’t be able to carry it directly from negative space (Rebel Branch territory) into the positive space of the Alchemists' Council. Nor can she detour safely through the outside world without drawing notice.

The situation would be different if Jaden had her pendant, which can be inlaid with a fragment of the Dragonblood stone that would safely cross directly into Council dimension, but Jaden hasn’t been part of the Council long enough to get one.

Before I continue to the next scene, however, it would be a good time to remark on Cynthea Masson’s use of draconic imagery for the Rebel Branch. The dragon is an interesting symbol for the Rebel Branch because of the different meanings attributed to it by different cultures.

In Judeo-Christian tradition, the dragon is associated with Satan (or more properly, ha-Satan, the Adversary) who in the Old Testament was God’s enforcer but in the New is God’s enemy. In China and Japan, however, dragons are emblems of the forces of nature: powerful, wise, and fundamentally benevolent.

Furthermore, there exists in modern occult practice a “draconian tradition” associated with the Left-Hand Path and the Qliphoth that uses “dark”/“evil” powers like Leviathan, Lucifer, and Lilith as archetypes. One such order is the Dragon Rouge, founded by Swedish occultist Thomas Karlsson in 1989 (who also served as lyricist for the band Therion from 1996, and sings for a band called Shadowseeds).

Was Cynthea Masson aware of these associations? Perhaps not, but the Ouroboros, the dragon swallowing its own tail, is a major symbol in alchemy (and probably a distant cousin of Jormungandr, the Midgard serpent).

Obeche’s Zeal

While Kalina has tried to be mindful of the time, and is careful to return to Council dimension with Jaden before their absence is noticed, she wasn’t prepared for Obeche. Switching to Cedar’s viewpoint for this scene (starting on page 164), we find her heading back from her visit with Sadira to her rooms in the Novillian Scribes' wing.

Obeche is in her way. Knowing what we know of his character, particularly his adversarial relationship with Cedar and his obsession with rooting out Rebel subversion, I imagine him saying, “I would have expected you to be in your chambers at this hour,” is not an observation. Rather, it seems like he wants to demand an explanation of her, but doesn’t dare.

Were he a Rowan, an Azoth, or Azoth Magen himself he might pull rank, but he’s Cedar’s equal at most and must choose his words with care. Considering Obeche’s officious behavior, Cedar’s reply, “Yet once again I defy expectations,” is positively restrained.

Despite Cynthea Masson’s economy of words, I think unpacking Cedar’s line reveals additional shades of meaning. I think Cedar is also saying to Obeche, “I will continue to run roughshod over your expectations, because there is nothing you can do to enforce them upon me.”

If there’s an unspoken contest of wills in progress here, Obeche loses and acknowledges his loss by changing the subject. Kalina is gone. After the meeting, Obeche came to the Initiates' wing, knocked several times on Kalina’s door, and got no response. So what did he do?

He opened the door anyway. Cedar remonstrates, insisting Obeche had no right, but Obeche is unrepentant. Azoth Ruis requested he monitor both Kalina and Tesu, and he suspects Kalina may be in danger (p. 165), so he has all the justification he needs.

He’s just following orders, just as if he were the subject of a Milgram experiment.

Not even Cedar’s accusation concerning his true motives, that he suspects Kalina of endangering the council, can deter him. As a member of the Elder Council, he considers himself justified in intruding upon an initiate whether she appears to present a danger to herself or the Council.

Worse, he insists that Cedar join him in searching for Kalina. Or, at least, he demands she wait there in the hallway with him for Kalina to return to her rooms whereupon he’ll grill her over her nocturnal adventures. Not even Cedar’s rational explanation, that Kalina is in one of the libraries catching up, is enough to allay Obeche’s suspicions.

Yet, that is just the explanation Kalina offers when she finally does return on page 166. Though Obeche tries to catch her in a lie by asking specific questions concerning her studies, Kalina is evidently prepared, and answers all of Obeche’s questions with ease.

No doubt Obeche wants to accuse her at this point, but Kalina’s given him no cause. Instead, she asks him what’s wrong, putting him on the defensive. Cedar realizes the extent of Obeche’s miscalculation, noting after Kalina slips into her chambers that Obeche just tipped his hand, warning Kalina to do her rebel work more discreetly.

Obeche’s unrepentant, and insists he may have prevented the Fourth Rebellion. Cedar, perhaps a more astute student of history, or perhaps less biased by zeal, notes that the Fourth Rebellion cannot be prevented. It can only be delayed.

I suspect, however, that it’s also possible to precipitate the Fourth Rebellion. If so, Obeche’s zeal may prove one of the major causes. As we’ve seen in preceding scenes and in this one, he expresses his sense of duty to the Alchemists' Council through constant vigilance. He’s on a constant lookout for any hint of Rebel Branch activity, regardless of evidence. As a member of the Elder Council, Obeche’s self-appointed mission to root out the Rebel Branch may be one of the abuses Dracaen spoke of when explaining the Rebel cause to Jaden.

How many alchemists has Obeche driven to rebel? It’s hard to tell, but I find Obeche’s example applicable to real-world politics. If you’re looking for rebels, you’ll find them though they might be rebels of your own making.

Passing Notes

The next scene is a short one (pp 167-169) from Jaden’s viewpoint. However, it covers some plot points that will prove important very soon.

First, Jaden found her piece of the Dragonblood stone. It was right where she left it, in her old jacket. She transfers it to a deep pocket in her robes, where she believes it will be safe. We’ll come back to this soon.

Next, while Jaden is careful not to approach Kalina, she still wants the Senior Initiate to know that she found her piece of the stone and therefore remembers their meeting in Rebel dimension.

However, the class they share together isn’t the time or the place. Not when Obeche interrupts and announces the winners of the winter quarter award for academic achievement. Laurel and Kalina get the prize: three days at a spa in Vienna.

Remember how in Chapter II Laurel had a vague memory of spending a few days at a Viennese spa with Kalina? It happened. I suspect, however, that it’s a ruse to get Kalina out of Council dimension for a few days. More on that later, too.

Jaden never got to talk to Kalina about finding her piece of the stone, but Kalina managed to pass her a note in the courtyard later that afternoon. It’s nothing explicit, just a reference to Sapientiae Aeternae 1818. No doubt Jaden would find more explicit information somewhere in that codex.

Kalina’s technique is similar to dead drops used by real-world spies, but suffers from a couple of flaws. Kalina should have told Jaden about Sapientiae Aeternae 1818 while in Rebel dimension if she had to tell the younger woman herself. Dropping a scrap of paper is not only obvious, but what if an errant breeze had blown it away from Jaden and into unfriendly hands (like Obeche’s)?

Unfortunately for Kalina, she’s no spy. We’ll find in the next scene just how badly Kalina’s lack of tradecraft betrays her.

How Kalina Got Made

While it would have been interesting to see the action of pages 169-172 from Kalina’s viewpoint, we instead witness Kalina’s return from her holiday with Laurel through Cedar’s eyes.Cedar awaits the young Initiates in the Hotel Sacher in Vienna, so she can escort them back to Council dimension.

While Kalina possesses the power to make the return trip on her own, the Council’s trust only extends so far. Give Senior Initiate pendants to keep them within Lapidarian proximity at all times? No problem. Letting them travel between Council dimension and the outside world is another proposition altogether.

Besides, there’s another reason for Cedar’s presence. The holiday in Vienna wasn’t all chocolate massages and other indulgences. The real objective, implied by Cedar’s observation that Kalina might be disoriented from getting dosed with Lapidarian Amrita, was to give Kalina rope and see if she’d hang herself.

Laurel has no idea what’s going on, and happily takes the trip at face value. She talks Cedar’s ear off about the fun she had at the spa as Cedar escorts her and the quiet Kalina back to the Council protectorate, and from there back to Council dimension through the Quercus gate.

Upon their arrival at the protectorate, a twenty minute walk from the Hotel Sacher, we learn that Cedar consulted with Linden before she begins escorting the initiates back to Council dimension. We aren’t privy to the details, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Cedar warned Linden that Kalina might attempt to escape while Cedar’s busy escorting Laurel back to Council dimension.

If so, it’s reasonable to wonder why Cedar didn’t just escort Kalina back first. I think there are a couple of reasons:

  1. Escorting Laurel back first returns her to the safety of Council dimension faster.
  2. The setup in Vienna is probably more delicate than it appears. Laurel had to go with Kalina, and she had to be ignorant of the real reason for the holiday, otherwise Kalina might have smelled a rat. She might have taken the opportunity to escape Council control before they could strip her of whatever power she had accrued thus far.

In any case, once Laurel is back in Council dimension she thanks Cedar and then runs off to find Cercis. Cedar then brings Kalina back to Council dimension, where she finds a most unwelcome welcoming party awaiting her. Obeche is there, along with both Rowans, Kai and Esche.

And what does Obeche do? Only what he’s probably wanted to do for a few days now: he grabs Kalina by the arm and intones, “By order of the Alchemists' Council, you are hereby accused of high treason.”

Now, one might think Obeche’s use of “high treason” instead of “treason” is just a rhetorical flourish, or for dramatic effect. I don’t think that’s the case. English common law once distinguished between high treason and petty treason.

High treason was treason against the state, the sort of treason explicitly defined in Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution of the United States to ensure it was never used as a catch-all charge. Petty treason, a crime now abolished, denoted treason against one’s lawful superior – such as a servant murdering their master.

So, if petty treason doesn’t exist any longer in countries that inherited English common law, what does that make high treason? Well, Canada still distinguishes between treason and high treason. One of the major differences between treason and high treason in Canada is whether the crime was allegedly committed while the country was at war.

Of course, I could be reading too much into the fact that Cynthea Masson is a Canadian author and might be aware of the difference between treason and high treason under her country’s laws. It’s also possible that Obeche is being pompous, or that because the Alchemists' Council is so old and steeped in tradition that it tends toward archaic usage in its proceedings.

Once Obeche has accused Kalina he, the Rowans, and Cedar forcibly escort her through the Council’s back corridors to the Azothian chambers where the rest of the Elder Council had assembled. Once everybody was seated, Obeche makes his case. (p 171)

As Cedar suspected, Obeche managed to slip Kalina some Lapidarian Amrita. A pastry Kalina ordered in Vienna had been infused with the stuff. It probably wasn’t hard to bribe the hotel cooks, if necessary, though I have to wonder why Kalina didn’t notice her treat had been tampered with. Is Lapidarian Amrita tasteless and odorless? Did Kalina lack any alchemical means of detection?

Regardless, the Amrita allowed Obeche to track Kalina’s movements and photograph her as she met with Dracaen. It also let him follow and photograph her as she snuck into the Vienna protectorate, slipped past security, and got her hands on Lapidarian ink and some of the manuscripts in the southeast sector.

Looks like the Readers and Scribes are going to be working overtime.

Most damning of all is the evidence Azoth Ravenea finds in Kalina’s pendant: its memory had been wiped, which she describes as the work of an alchemist skilled with Dragon’s Blood tonic. Ravenea’s recommendation? Complete erasure.

It isn’t until Azoth Magen Ailanthus gives the order to gather up all manuscripts pertaining to Kalina to begin the erasure process that Kalina speaks. She accuses Cedar of betraying her, an Initiate Cedar herself had brought over.

Cedar knows better than to show any sympathy, and tells Kalina she betrayed herself. Obeche, secure in his triumph, can’t resist observing that all Rebels eventually betray themselves.

Another aside before we cover the last scene in the chapter. In previous chapters we’ve seen Lapidarian ink and Lapidarian honey, each possessing alchemical properties granted by the Lapis, but what is Lapidarian Amrita? All we know is that whoever ingests it can easily be tracked.

However, the original Sanskrit word from which “amrita” is derived shares etymological origins with the Greek word “ambrosia” because Sanskrit and Greek are Indo-European languages. Both words share the same meaning. Both amrita and ambrosia are food for the gods. It first occurred in the Rigveda, whose author used “amrita” as a synonym for soma, the drink that confers immortality upon the gods.

I doubt that Lapidarian Amrita is so potent, but it served its purpose. It helped Obeche gather the evidence he needed to brand Kalina a rebel and a traitor.

Jaden’s Loss

We close the chapter with Jaden’s viewpoint. She’s on her way back to the North Library via a shortcut, where she intends to examine “for the third time in as many days” (p. 173) folio 16 of Sapientiae Aeternae 1818. Whatever message Kalina intended for Jaden to find there remains hidden, and it will soon be too late.

On her way, she ran into Kalina, Obeche, and Cedar outside the portal chamber. Obeche demands of Jaden an explanation, and Jaden tells him part of the truth; she’s on her way to the library.She hasn’t read the situation before her, as we see from the following passage:

…She then turned to Kalina, “How was your time in Vienna?”

“Delightful,” replied Kalina flatly.

“Will you be busy later?” Jaden asked Kalina. “I could use some help with my lesson review.”

“Yes, she is busy,” answered Obeche. “She is headed to the outside world.”


At this point, Jaden has no idea that Kalina has been judged a traitor. Kalina, for her part, remains calmly defiant.

“No worries, Jaden. I will return.”

Obeche slapped Kalina across the face. “You will not return!”

At this point, Jaden reaches out to defend Kalina, and why wouldn’t she? All Jaden knows is that a man just turned and hit a woman she considered a friend. Obeche, however, is too angry to think straight and turns his fury on Jaden, whom he grabs by the collar and wrenches away from Kalina.

Jaden falls beside one of the corridor benches, her robes snagging on the bench’s wrought iron embellishment. Though Cedar and Kalina help her up, the damage is done. Jaden has lost her pouch containing the Dragonblood Stone.

She flees under threat of an official reprimand from Obeche, intending neither to go far nor to stay away long, but it’s too late. Lapidarian proximity had already begun the work of altering her memories. First, she forgot her desire to return for the stone. Next, she forgot about Sapientiae Aeternae 1818. Finally, she forgot about Kalina.

But has Kalina forgotten about Jaden? Has Dracaen? We’ll see…